There was this girl. Let’s call her Bitsy.
Bitsy was the young woman my middle class self always wished she had been. Moneyed. Athletic. White-blonde, and very lightly freckled. East coast-educated, sorority-bred. Brilliant taste in clothes. Rarely wore more than one or two pieces of jewelry, and never carried a purse–only her wallet. She didn’t have a gorgeous figure, but she had killer green eyes, and more confidence in her pinky than I had in my head and heart, combined. She was a rung ahead of me on the corporate ladder and was secretly dating a guy in the office. Together, they looked like an advertisement for WASP Weekly. I wanted to hate her, but I was conflicted because I didn’t want to hate the thing I wanted to be.
Me: Just out of college on the 5-year, once-divorced plan. Sketchy taste in clothes, though I tried. (By way of a back-handed compliment, one jerk of a guy in the office said, “That’s a great-looking coat. You didn’t pick it out, did you?” I lied and said I had, but it was my mother who had suggested it.) Mostly I went for expensive, to be on the safe side. Fortunately it was the eighties, and back then expensive didn’t really include trashy the way it does now. I drove a Chevette that had the entire passenger door mashed in because some drunk had crashed into it in the middle of the night while I was sleeping, and drove away. When I went to work, I parked as far away as I could from the entrance to the building. But everyone teased me about the car, anyway. I smoked cigarettes like a fiend so I could stay thin, wore inappropriate shoes, and wrote really bad poetry and prose at night in my studio apartment.
At work, I would watch Bitsy in action. She was every guy’s buddy, could tell a dirty joke with a straight face, never cursed, and was competent at her job. She rarely had drama around her, and if she gossiped, I never knew about it. I envied her tan, too. (Now, though, I bet she looks like a spotted prune.) Sometimes I think, though, that Bitsy wasn’t all that smart. I once went to her apartment with her to pick up something for a project and was surprised to see a decaying goldfish floating in a giant glass bottle in her living room. She explained that she thought it would look cool to have a goldfish in a bottle, and so had filled the bottom with colored rocks, and added water and the fish. But the opening to the giant bottle was only about two inches in diameter, and so she couldn’t change the water without emptying out all the water and the rocks. The fish was traumatized the first time and got brieftly stuck in the bottle’s neck. So she hadn’t tried to change the water again and the fish soon died. I expect that was the first gray hole I noticed in Bitsy’s golden aura.
Secretly, I didn’t want to be on Bitsy’s radar at all. I knew I was very much NOCD (Not Our Class, Darling) and was desperately afraid of her. How sad is that? Our culture ostensibly has no class system, but of course it does and has forever. Money and/or fame are the class distinctions here. No one really knows what old money is anymore. It’s now just money. Period. But back when I knew Bitsy, the vestiges of old money habits and manners–even manners without a bank account–were still extant.
As I write this now, I truly feel ridiculous. Here are the words that came from Bitsy’s mouth that stung me the most during the five years I knew her:
“Are those sapphires or something in your earrings? No one wears precious stones before 6 p.m.” And then she walked away.
At that moment, I wished that a hole would have opened in the ugly beige office carpet so I could just crawl in it and die. My life was over. I was a hopeless, classless schmuck.
I held onto that useless bit of jewelry wisdom for more than twenty years, keeping it safe beside the match shoes to purse rule, the jewelry/clothing color rule of seven, and the no white shoes before Derby Day rule. (A day far more important than Memorial Day in Louisville, where I grew up.)
I firmly believe that cultural norms are important. A common language is useful. As is a common currency. I like that we all use the same kind of eating utensils, and feel a little thrill when I get to use chopsticks to eat Japanese food. It’s nice that pretty much everyone keeps their grass mowed so it doesn’t harbor snakes. There are a few practices that I don’t see much of anymore and kind of miss: people dressed up for any dinner out that doesn’t include a cafeteria tray or paper napkins; little girls wearing white gloves with their patent leather shoes, and boys in ties; slow dancing that isn’t actually just sex-to-music-while-wearing-clothes. Yes, I’m old and kind of nostalgic that way. I’m not trying to hark back to the good old days in general, because there’s never been a perfect time/place combination in the history of the world. I’m just thinking about a few little things that make me feel, well, absurdly happy. They aren’t rules–or at least I think they shouldn’t be. They’re choice details.
I wonder if adhering to the no-stones-before-six rule made Bitsy happy. I wonder what other rules she had stuck in her head that made her life seem more civilized to her. Or did she learn those rules from someone who thought that rules about earrings necessarily separated her from people she didn’t want to be close to, or associated with? How strange that we define ourselves through rules–even rules that may have long ago lost their meaning to the people living by them.
Today I’m wearing my cute little diamond solitaire earrings. It’s only 5:37 and I put them in my ears around 2:00. I feel like such a rebel, wearing diamond earrings with the cotton pants and cardigan I threw on to go and pick up my son at school. I’m also wearing beaded Beverly Feldman sandals. They’re not white, but it’s March. March! And they’re beaded–with flowers. There are voices in my head that screamed that I shouldn’t be wearing sandals in March unless I’m on vacation somewhere warm and sunny. I’m living on the edge, I tell you. And I’m loving it!
I wonder what Bitsy’s wearing. Teeny-tiny surgical bandages, I bet, from having her age spots zapped at the dermatologist’s office. (Did I say that out loud? Shame on me.)
11 thoughts on “Letting Go-A Rebel in Sparkly Sandals”
Aren’t you glad you didn’t go through junior high with Bitsy? But then girls like that never outgrow the meanness, do they?
Hurrah for your sparkly sandals and diamond studs. I’m sure you wear them well.
Hi, Carolyn. Ooooo–such a chilling thought. I don’t know about you, but I barely made it through as it was. So glad to be beyond caring! xo
When I was a kid, our Family Therapist told us kids about the “Give A S*#t Factor.” That we get to choose how much we “give a s*#t” about things, and that life would be much better if we chose wisely. For me, it stuck– there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t consider my GAS Factor. Though I actually say the words– it’s a richer “choosing experience” for me when I do. ; )
I was also born and raised in The South, with all sorts of rules about decorum and etiquette. Thankfully, it was somehow easy for me to reconcile the GAS Factor with those rules. The ones that matter to me, I use. Like writing thank-you notes, knowing what food to fix when somebody dies, and not showing up empty-handed. Those mean something to me because they communicate things I value, like gratitude, loving comfort, and thoughtfulness.
But jewelry rules? Rules about colors and the calendar? Not my thing. Those are about telling people, “I know my place, and I want you to know I know it. And I’m judging you as to what YOUR place is, just so you know.” Gross. My GAS Factor Meter doesn’t even blip for that kind of thing. If it does for others, that’s fine. But I’m gonna still be searching for My Place for as long as I’m around, and I just don’t reckon my shoes or the colors I wear or the preciousness of my jewelry will be able to define me on any given day. I’m much more than that!
So I say you WORK those diamonds and sparkly sandals, baby! And revel in it! Life’s too short AND too long to pay mind to rules that don’t mean diddly-squat.
As for Bitsy, well, ….
bless her heart.
Oh, Miss Kimmy this made me laugh and laugh! I am completely adopting the GAS Factor and will pass it along to my kids–though I’m proud to say they aren’t nearly as worried about things as their poor mama was.
Bless her heart, indeed. I like the way you think! xo
I totally LOVED this post! Bitsy’s comment about the earrings is really funny in that weird retrospect way that mean comments are. My Bitsy was named Kim and I always wanted to be here when I was in junior high — she always matched, was always clean, and had a way with other girls that I never mastered. She put me down every chance she got, but luckily I was a bit on the dim side so I only got about half the insults. I was unkempt, homely, and had about as much social cache as the boy who had nubs for arms because of Thaylmide. (Actually, he had more come to think of it.) As for class, old money still exists (at least in Grosse Pointe) and I ended up dating someone from a very WASPY old money family for a long time. Meeting his mother almost put me in a home but because he was so old at that point, she’d given up trying to find the perfect woman for him and was happy for any woman at that point. She had the same maid as Gore Vidal which gave me lots to talk about with the maif and both of them said I could make a very good gin and tonic. While I was serving them the drinks, I thought of Kim and laughed. If only she could see me now, I thought. But she was still in Mineral Wells with three kids, a deadbeat husband, and was rumored to be a regular at Weight Watchers. Also, her tan did not serve her well in subsequent years. Life is ever so strange.
P.S. LOVE the sandals! Sparkly sandals are always a good idea. xo
Hey, gorgeous girl! Gore Vidal’s maid? That it priceless. And of course you make a killer g & t. But I won’t believe for a moment that you were ever homely–sounds like mythology to me, missy!
Thanks for the awesome story. xoxo
I love KimmyDarling’s comment – the GAS factor is perfect.
I knew a few Bitsy’s growing up and never could figure out my place in that world, which is probably why I eventually ran screaming to California where the sandals are sparkly year-round and freak flags fly freely. There probably is some class thing I’m unaware of, but it doesn’t percolate through life like it did in the midwest.
And seriously. You ALWAYS have had impeccable taste in clothes!
Oh, you’re so sweet, M. You always know how to make me smile!
You were born for upper California. I think you must have lived all of your past lives there. There’s so much that’s wonderful there, who could possibly have time for the Bitsys of the world?! xoxo
I have a cousin who used to announce quite off handedly about how “yesterday” things were or “how boring”. I used to find myself leaning that way – because I thought she was so fabulously interesting, being bored with everything and all – until one day I thought: So what the hell do you actually like?
I haven’t seen her in many years but I wonder if she’s still bored 🙂
That’s perfect, Danielle. I’d be willing to bet that she’s still terminally bored. How sad to always be looking toward the next thing, never satisfied.
So glad to hear from you! xo