This spring, my sweetheart and I are going to a concert at the Toledo Museum of Art's Peristyle, and I'm looking forward to wearing my best dress...and some stellar high heels. As a yoga instructor and writer who prefers to be barefoot, it's not often that I have the opportunity to dress to the nines. But when I do, I'm infinitely thankful that the evening will end on a much sweeter note that my first (and last) formal dance.
With prom season waiting in the wings, I've often been reminded of this chapter from my memoir -- a time in my late teens and early twenties when learning what I'm worth was never easy.
My First (and Last) Formal Dance
I’m standing in front of a hotel mirror, styling my hair with a curling iron. It’s the night of our annual sorority formal and I'm both excited and nervous. I didn’t go last year because I was too afraid to ask anyone. This past fall, right after I turned nineteen, I took a guy to our Canoe Date Party. Grant and I actually went out a couple of times afterwards and he even cooked dinner for me at my apartment.
Unfortunately, Grant was an honors scholar who turned out to be a coke dealer as well.
That ended that.
This past November I went to semi-formal with Troy, a frat boy I had met at a party the week before. After the dance, we came back to my apartment and the other couples disappeared upstairs into private bedrooms. Troy soon discovered I wouldn't do anything more than make out...much to his disappointment. But I'm scared to do anything but kiss a guy. I don't know how to take that next step. And besides, I don't know Troy that well...and we aren't in a real relationship.
The next morning over chocolate chip pancakes, he seemed polite enough. But he never called me again until months later when he wanted me to ply one of the fraternity pledges with alcohol after the poor kid had walked three miles from campus to my place. It was all part of the pledge's "hunt" for his Big Brother. By the time he arrived, the guy was so drunk, I just drove him back to the frat house with Troy's bottle of vodka in tow.
Naturally, I never heard from Troy again.
Now three of my sorority sisters and I are sharing the bathroom, eagerly getting ready to head downstairs for dinner and dancing. We’ve reserved the hotel room, but it only has two double beds, so two couples will have to sleep on the floor. Since I don’t mind, my date, Brent, and I volunteered first. We met in my running class and while I don’t know him too well, I’d like to try.
Brent's quiet and nice. Tall with brown hair and brown eyes, he looks like a surfer with his matching auburn skin. We’ve compared our running logs and have even met outside of class to jog around campus. Brent doesn’t say much. What he does reveal is only sparse details about his business classes, his brother, and his roommate. Right now he’s sitting on the bed watching television with the rest of our dates while my sorority sisters and I finish our make-up.
Last weekend Mom drove down from Toledo and we went shopping for a dress in Cincinnati. I’ve never been to a prom or a formal dance, so she’s as excited as I am. There's a part of me that thinks this one doesn't count as I had to do the asking, but I don't want to get into that with her. Mom's delighted I'm even going on a shopping expedition. After trying on half of the formal gowns at Marshall Fields, Mom bought me a pink dress with a ruffled neckline that accentuates my skin and slimmed down waistline.
Last year I gained more than my share of the freshman ten. It was more like twenty. Over the past six years, I’ve put on all the weight I lost in eighth grade…and then some. I had started running last summer and have slowly peeled some of it off, but I’ve still got a long way to go. I hope Brent doesn’t mind. He doesn’t seem to.
Once we’re all tressed and dressed and perfumed, we make our way down to the reception hall. A tiny blob of chicken cordon bleu sits on my plate and I’m not sure if I even want it. I paid the fifty bucks for our dinner, but now it seems like a daunting obstacle. I don’t want to eat in front of Brent...or anyone for that matter. Eating in front of men has always bothered me, and more so when I’m faced with sitting next to one at a formal meal. So I pick at my dinner and ask for an extra glass of iced tea.
Brent seems to enjoy talking to my sorority sisters’ dates more than me. That’s fine. I sit and listen and chat with Veronica who’s on my left. I pretend I don't notice that Brent has said nothing about my dress or the way I look. When a professional photographer stops by our table to shoot pictures, we don’t have one taken. I'll have to make do with the group shot my friend snapped before we left the hotel room.
One of my sorority sisters buys us a drink from the bar, as Brent and I are only nineteen, legal to drink beer, but not liquor. I hate beer. Long Island Ice Tea is my drink of choice. It relaxes me, and since I've had little to eat, immediately goes straight to my head. As we sit at our table, chatting with our hotel roommates, I wonder about Brent. Do I like him enough to do anything more than dance? Yet, he's aloof and I don't know what to make of that. Men like the thrill of the chase...or so everyone tells me. So I say nothing. Do nothing and hope that's enough to let him know I'm interested.
After all, I asked him to this stupid formal dance.
I don't know how to feel later in the evening when Brent disappears. One of my friends says she saw him get into an elevator with another sorority sister. They were going up to Amy's room. Should I feel humiliated? Should I cry? Should I make a scene or act indignant and bitchy?
I'm a nice girl, so I do none of these things.
My mother has raised me to be a lady in public. So, when the rest of my friends and I go back to our room for the night, I change clothes and slip an extra key into the pocket of my jeans. As I walk toward the elevator that will take me to the floor where Brent is doing God knows what with Amy, I feel my heart hammering inside my chest. It hurts, but I'm not sure if that's from the shame I desperately want to hide or from the adrenaline frantically pumping through my body.
When I arrive at the door, I knock timidly and Amy opens it, revealing nothing behind her but a darkened room.
"Here's a key in case Brent wants to get his stuff," I tell her matter-of-factly.
She takes it and gives me a weak smile. "Thanks...that's nice of you, Katie."
I press my lips together, biting one of them to keep me from crying.
Everyone is asleep or nearly so by the time I get back to the room. I quietly make a little nest on the floor between the two beds, then curl up by myself.
"Are you okay?" Derrick whispers from the bed above me.
"Yep," I reply directly, almost defiantly.
"Well, that's a shitty thing he did to you."
"We're not really dating," I say. "We just take a class together."
"Still...you don't shit on a girl who brought you to a formal only so you can make it with another one," he replies bitterly.
Derrick's choice of words makes me flinch. I don't want to imagine Brent having sex with my sorority sister, that he thinks nothing of ditching me in order to get what he wants. Lying there in the dark, I can see the outline of Derrick's shadow, his arm partially hanging over the edge of the bed. I want to thank him for being the only man in the room to acknowledge how I might be feeling. For some reason, I want to reach out and touch him. But I don't.
Derrick doesn't know this is my first formal, my first big dance, my first big deal date. He has no idea that it feels incredibly unnatural for me to live in the Sadie Hawkins world of sorority life that ties me to the pressure and obligation of having to do the asking. I don't want to do the asking. I want to feel wanted enough for the other person to ask me. I want to feel wanted by a real man, and that is obviously not happening tonight.
The next morning, Brent arrives at the hotel room, freshly showered and sheepish...the shit. I have to endure a long drive as we return to Oxford with my friends, sitting next to him in the back seat, biting back the words that are lodged in my jaw and won't come out. I imagine them to be like my impacted wisdom teeth, so stubborn that the orthodontist had to kneel on my chest and shoulders in order to pry them out by their intractable roots.
But I'm in no mood to be a bloody mess, metaphorically or otherwise, and I won't let Brent know how much he's hurt me. So I sit next to him, enduring the odor of his anxiety-riddled sweat mixed with an aftershave I cannot identify by name. But for the rest of my life, whenever I smell it, I will be reminded of this awful moment.
I wish the urge to strangle Brent would go away. I can tell that he knows what he's done is incredibly cruel and undeniably selfish. Still, he remains silent until he gives me a curt, "Thanks, Katie" when we drop him off at his dorm.
When I see him in class the following Tuesday, I lace up my shoes, and run like hell in the opposite direction.
The first formal I attended dropped many seeds into the tenuous soil of my life. While I had no real expectations of what would happen between Brent and me, I certainly didn't expect him to leave in the middle of the evening...and with another woman no less. It was a blatant slap in my face, but I never said anything. Instead, I chose to curse him under my breath while simultaneously assuming that I didn't deserve any better. Brent taught me that men will leave at the beginning, or even during the prologue, so it's better to stick with the table of contents, wondering how the story will unfold, but never actually turn the pages.
Genesis says, "In the beginning was the Word," and in my life, that word was “marriage," the main goal toward which I aspired. The holy state in which I was groomed to enter by my mother and her mother and every other mother in my neighborhood.
I was a naïve high school Freshman when my English teacher asked the class one wintry afternoon, “What are the two certainties in life that everyone must experience?”
I eagerly raised my hand, “Marriage and death?”
Mr. Peck gave me a nod. “You got that half right.”
I wrinkled my brow in confusion.
“Death and taxes, Katie,” he replied.
My face reddened and I kept my mouth shut for the rest of the period, ashamed to be so eager to spill forth my programmed platitudes in public. I knew all too well society's unspoken expectations for a girl growing up in the seventies. Attend college. Earn a B.S. as well as an M.R.S. degree. And have both a career and children by the age of thirty at the very latest.
My mother hounded me for years to “put on a little make-up and show some interest in the nice boys out there. ” Painfully introverted and shy around boys I liked, I never attended a Homecoming dance or prom. College wasn't much better, and I drew a line in the sand after that humiliating experience with Brent.
Two years later, I remained tenaciously single and graduated with a major in Elementary Education and a minor in Family Studies. I had spent four long years in preparation for a life where I could both teach and raise a healthy, happy family. One of the reasons I chose teaching rather than becoming a veterinarian was because I wanted to have a schedule that would allow me more time with my own children.
Still, when my parents and I were walking back to the car after the graduation ceremony, my mother said to me, “Well, Katie, you just blew it.”
“Blew what?” I asked.
“You had four years to spend time with men your own age,” she said curtly. “And you didn’t end up with a husband or even a boyfriend. This was your last chance to find someone in a large pool of men.”
How could I respond to that?
Five years later we were standing in her kitchen making dinner. Tearing up lettuce for a salad, I made a comment about how much I appreciated the fact that in the last year or so, she had stopped nagging me to “get out there and find someone.”
Without missing a beat, she replied acerbically, “Oh, we gave up on you years ago.”
By then most of my friends were married; many of them were having their first child. By then I had bought a house and earned a Master's Degree. I had proven that I could take care of myself and yet I still felt pressured by the unspoken code of my mother’s generation: I needed a man and a family of my own to make my life real and complete.
Tick, tock…tick, tock. My biological clock was clanging louder by the minute and for years I constantly fielded the questions single women often hear, “When are you planning to get married….have a child…get a real life?”
I also asked myself those questions and continually planned for a husband, a child, a life beyond my own. I made baby sweaters, wishing, “If I knit for them, they will come.” I fixed up my house, all the while hoping, “If I nest for a family, it will come.” I went on blind dates and spent time with my friends’ children, praying, “If I surround myself with the life I want, it will build itself.”
But it didn’t.
Somehow I always ended up attracted to men who showed an interest at first, then eventually dismissed me entirely. But I wouldn't give up on the kernel of their initial attention, thinking that if I supported them, gave them opportunities to see me as a generous, kind, and loving woman, they would eventually love me.
But they never did.
And now, seeing the bigger picture, I thank God for that.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that for everything we have missed, we have gained something else. I missed out on having a traditional life, so what did I gain instead?
Ah, there is the delight…and the drama.
Over the years, men have said I am "too independent," "too strong," "too intelligent," "too spiritual," "too intense," and the catch-all -- "too intimidating." Once while living at Esalen Institute, I was hounded by a man whose girlfriend lived a few hours away. He repeatedly approached me for sex in front of my co-workers and friends, making it clear that it would only be a casual thing. I rebuffed him by saying, "When the rotating cycle of women comes back to Esalen, I won't even exist to you."
Of course, that was true, but Nate had to get in one more dig by saying, "I don't want anything beyond sex...you've got an edge I don't want to deal with."
At the time, I was forty-one and had finally learned to speak my mind, so I told him, "The reason I have that edge is because you and a lot of men treat me like I'm an object to play with and then discard. You'll take just what you want and then move on to the next woman you can use. I've learned the hard way NOT to play that game."
Looking back, I can see why it has been so difficult for me to allow myself to soften, to let myself be vulnerable. Living alone and being solely responsible for everything in my adult life has forced me to be more masculine in a culture that often prizes pretty, shallow women. Strong, vocal women are not considered to be assertive like men are. They are seen as bitches...but that is slowly changing.
Some say we only attract people who are as healthy as we are. After more than two decades of being attracted to men who couldn't handle my honesty, strength, or integrity, what I really needed most was to learn how to honor and accept those qualities within my own self. In doing so, I also learned how to embody them without feeling the need to apologize for the incredibly dynamic awareness I've gained in the process.
Living a life of independence is often costly, and one of the highest tolls I have had to pay is the reality of walking through my darkest moments alone. But it's through this cracking open of the seed...this exertion of courage and determination so essential to growth...that the sprout ventures through the shadows of the unknown and ultimately finds its way above ground into the light.