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.)