Betty Duffy

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"It is heavenly when I have mastered my earthly desires; but even when I have not succeeded, I have also had right good pleasure."

(--Oblonsky, Anna Karenina)

Pentimento’s post on the Blogger’s Ball has me thinking about ball gowns, their significance, the doors they can open, and the eras, signified by the gown, that are now closed. There is one such gown hanging in my closet right now, an emblem in pink silk shantung of a time in my life when I had . . . a lot of fun.

I was living in England, doing a couple of terms at Oxford U. on Renaissance Art, Shakespeare, Dante, and Wisdom Lit of the Old Testament. I had left a fiancé in the States, a law student, but I hadn’t been in Oxford long before I realized the marriage would never take place. We’d been together three years, but I broke up with him over the phone, because I knew that if I put it off and tried to do it in person, I wouldn’t have had the guts.

On the tail of my break-up, I went up to St Andrews, Scotland, where my cousin was doing a Masters degree, and had also just broken up with an unsuitable boyfriend. We spent an ungodly amount of money that weekend, apparently nursing our fragile hearts. We dined out on a plate of mussels and bottomless glasses of Chardonnay, then went shopping. It was one of the most dangerous things I’ve done in my life. In a small second-hand boutique, I spotted my dress. It was the fairytale dress of my little girl dreams, and when I tried it on, my cousin said, “Buy it! Now! You won’t be sorry.”

“I don’t have any place to wear it,” I said.

“Then you will find a place to wear it,” she answered. And so it was.

Back in Oxford, I got tickets to the St. Hilda’s Ball. I went with a Nigel who lived in Oxford purely for the social life, and earned his keep selling off his prescription Ritalin. He was a loon, but my flatmates were all teatotalers, and I didn’t know anyone else. Before the Ball we went to have drinks with the Whiskey Society in a wood paneled room of Merton College. I was one of maybe five women in the company, so it wasn’t hard to impress, but Nigel told me as we left, “It was agreed that I have the most stunning date.”

Moi? No, it was the dress. Someone at the Whiskey Party spilled their amber potion on the skirt, near the floor-length hem, and the stain is still there today.

At the Ball that year, everyone was wearing short, black and strapless. I ran into a gal who dated one of my flatmates. She stood in a huddle of similarly noir-clad females twittering amongst themselves. I went over to say hello to her, and she said, “Wow, pink ball gown. You have nuts.”

And I didn’t have nuts, but I might have been nuts. I don’t remember a time in my life when I cared so little what people thought of me. I was American. I was free from what felt like an oppressive relationship. I was rootless and dreamy and wanted to be someone else. That night I succeeded.

As the hours passed certain events grew a bit blurry, but I remember a moment in the hallway with a tall, dark, and handsome someone. He put an arm behind my back and whispered in my ear, “Every woman in this room tonight wants to be you.” Then he lifted my chin and kissed me. It was a 1940s Hollywood kiss, the kind that makes the symphony crescendo, and the camera zoom in while two black and white figures freeze in time with lips chastely touching, but not moving. It matched my dress, so I allowed it, then said thank you to the stranger and went back to find my date.

Our party, now consisting of a group of wealthy Londoners from Queens College, was outside doing somersaults in their tuxedos on the grass. I turned a couple of cartwheels, and the dress, with its stiff crinolines, opened up like a fan, but did not fall over my face, thank heavens.

Wealthy Londoner, A, offered me a ride home in his convertible Austin Healy, since Nigel had lost his head somewhere in the course of the night. When he pulled the car up to the gate for me, drunk hooligans jumped on the hood and over the doors into the front seat. Not wanting to be left behind, I jumped into the back.

“Get out!” yelled the owner of the car to the hooligans.

“But we’re wearing tuxedos!” They yelled back.

“PINK DRESS!” he replied, turning around to point to me and my bubble of a dress ballooning out of the back seat. When the hooligans failed to comply, he drove us all to the police station and threatened to leave them there. The hooligans jumped out, while the car was still in motion, and I was free to climb over the seat, into the front for the rest of the ride home.

Londoner, A, became one of my best friends for the remainder of my time in Oxford. He was the kind of eccentric, who collects fellow eccentrics on purely frivolous bases, like how they dress. I would never have made the cut were it not for the pink dress. We spent hours punting on the Thames River clad in white linen, dancing at the Salsa Club upstairs at Ronnie Scotts in suits and scoop-neck dresses, taking convertible drives through Hampstead Heath in sunglasses and scarves.

It was one of the most memorable, and possibly also the most meaningless, times of my life. Nights like my night in the pink ball gown can ruin a woman for a lifetime, like the high school athlete who thinks he’s hot stuff long after the arthritis has set in and the pot belly obscures his toes. I might not look like much these days, but I was once the bitch of St. Hilda’s Ball.



Otepoti said...

I wish I'd seen the crinoline cartwheel.

But, come, come, Betty, where is the mandatory line "I don't regret the loss of my old life of whirlwind pleasure one iota"?

You're a sad reproach to those who hope, having never been to one, that balls are not all that they're cracked up to be.


Darwin said...

I'm trying to decide which of us it says more about that I kept expecting there to be a disclosure that this was fiction -- until the wistful final sentences convinced me of its reality.

Pentimento said...

Sounds like St. Hilda's Ball was really *your* bitch that night.

"Every woman in this room tonight wants to be you" . . . Swoon city!

Sally Thomas said...

Oh, I knew that wasn't fiction. That was the kind of drama I used to watch all the time from my windows in Cambridge, when I was already married, in my 30s, a mother, and telling myself -- truthfully, most of the time -- that I'd much rather be watching whatever was going on down there on the sidewalk than doing it.

"Swoon city!" What she said.

Jus said...

Oh what - everyones life is not like this?

Guess it is just you and I ;)

Word Queen said...

I want to see the dress! And I agree about Mr. Swoon, but I have a weird feeling that I've heard that line in a movie... but can't think of which one...

TS said...

I'm always secretly relieved when other unpublished (presumably) authors write better than me. It means you're up first! :-)

TheSeeker said...

You lovely adventurer ^_^