We are to meet up at the 6 stop on 86th and Lex, focal point of my adolescence. Spence, my snobfest all-girls elementary thru high school, located just a few blocks away off Museum Mile. Every time I come back, I get all sorts of feels. Memories. Hormones. Emotions. A momentary relapse into being pimple-faced and metal-mouthed, perhaps, or maybe it’s the sensation of my instincts welling up behind my internalized surveillance. Pressure. Suppression. The entire act of being among them is one of self-monitoring, sucking in one’s stomach, literally, figuratively. I never belonged there, arrived via ERB scores, no blue blood coursing through my veins. My parents, impervious to the power of connections and influence, harbored a haughty disdain for those with social aspirations, never ventured to meet the Right People; ergo, like Odysseus, I was Nobody. Stood no chance at a social standing. Sink swim or ride, it’s a forced choice proposition if you don’t have a Hamptons or Connecticut house; if you summer in the city and live East of Park Avenue year-round; if your parents haven’t hired personal shoppers to dress you, tutors to do your homework, and drivers to usher you from appointment to appointment; if they haven’t started a lifestyle company in your name to pad your college apps. What are you to make of yourself, if you haven’t come packaged?
Nodding, manners, smiles, silence, sliding in where an opening clears: survival skills I assimilated early on. My existence in their social sphere so tenuous, I misspent my youth quaking in fear of being reprimanded for a petty faux pas, nevermind channeling the precocious sophistication to know what “faux pas” meant. Two years ago, emerging from illness, I staggered into a Spence Young Almuni Event reflexively. Reminding myself of who I was, once, and never wanted to be. Planted firmly on my traction biker boots, I assumed the defensive mental posture of subway stance, one foot in front of the other, knees slightly bent for instant transition. Staring steely-eyed from the rim of my basin-bellied wine glass, insulating myself against trips and spills. This time, instead of fading into a wallflower corner, paralyzed at the sidelines of popularity, simultaneously hoping and not hoping that someone would ask me to dance at Goddard Gaieties, I found myself in the whirlwind of a receiving line with nary a firm handshake rehearsed. Gracefully greeting young women in tidy yuppie costumes, the grown-up iteration of pleated uniforms and pennied pleather loafers. Once record-breaking rebellious, jeering the authorities with their back talking bravado and brash refusal to comply with the school dress code, The OG Preppy Handbook, now they were muted. Understated black silhouettes flanked by men’s last names. From holding convictions, to part of the system.
Medically quarantined, I had become a source of intrigue. Chronic disease disaffect beckoning with understated mystery. You look great, they said and meant it. They, who worked in marketing and fashion merchandising, repping lifestyle brands by way of Harvard Business School—the PR-pitch friendly, modern-day Mrs. Degree. They wanted to know how I had lost the weight. About the curly hair. The clean skin. Pesky bacteria be damned, eradicated with every last trace of my homely existence. Except for my impetus to appear before the High Court for the brutalist of judgment. The girl who would not fail to show up, the girl who would not shut the fuck up.
That conquest impulse zipped me into my Betsey Johnson dress and paraded me down to the elite underground. Whether they lacked the taste or social acuity eludes me. Either way, they lavished me with praise for my inexplicable weight loss, knowing full well about the glamorous eating disorder I had struggled with as a shy, skittish adolescent. Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels, nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. Swallowing a bite of food, an act of political defiance more powerful than exercising one’s right to vote, in our closed circles. “Chemo drugs,” I deadpanned. “Saying goodbye to my colon,” more specific. My panacea punchline. My dirty little secret. My swath of lucky bitchdom. Mine.
Sincere enough, were their condolences and well wishes. Once they realized the faux pas they had committed—judging a bookish girl by her cover, caught without the right platitudes, no ad copy to cover nuance. Perhaps I would have reveled in the influx of attention, perhaps I should have, except for being plagued with wonder: Would they have been equally apologetic if I had emerged before my time? Dared to look disheveled in public? Only a year before I had dropped out of our ten-year high school reunion, pregnant with steroids, tethered to a toilet, unrecognizable in face and demeanor even to myself. It wasn’t the fat, per se. I wasn’t cute chubby like a tween anticipating a growth spurt, unbuttoning my low-rise jeans for burger and milkshake breathing room. The weight had distributed unevenly and cruelly: depositing in my cheeks, chin, and stomach; skipping my chicken limbs entirely. Triple chin, unsightly folds, I was packed to the brim like Mama June in Here Comes Honey Boo. A slouchy kangaroo pouch strapped to my middle portion where a minimalist belly used to reside. Its defiant squatter rights foreshadowing the installation of my sloppy ileostomy bag, swinging pendulous, uniboobed down with tube top spandex.
If I hadn’t felt bad enough about the utter defilement of my form and function, I was doubly guilty for caring, having internalized the toxic social norms for which I derided the compulsory perfectionists of the UES. The double bind of being a woman: valueless if you’re fat or ugly; frivolous, even unfeminist, if you take pains to attend to your appearance. It wasn’t vanity, exactly, that kept me indoors, under covers, solitary; it was the visible manifestation of a body slipping away from itself, it’s impertinent refusal to cooperate. The conventionally attractive privilege I had been born into no match for the capricious sac of skin, bones, and flesh I was becoming.
Just a year after my courageous comeback, I marched through TriBeCa clunking down with confidence, on my way to the annual Young Alumnae Party at a “seasonably inspired” restaurant featuring “hand-crafted” cocktails. Only to discover spring collection 2013 had been rotated out of style, washed up with last year’s news cycle, acid-washed jeans, ankle boots. Arriving at the unmarked entrance fashionably late, a pack of girls I hadn’t seen in over a decade, sprinkled with a few who fawned over me last year, passed me by with purpose, barely a whiff of acknowledgment. Like the pretty pony with blinders attitude you’re instructed to emulate in those Stranger Danger school-wide assemblies everyone sleeps through, backpacks as pillows, light as a feather stiff as a board. No longer a source of thinspiration for them, miraculous transformation debunked, once again, I had become inert. Will never be Tai from Clueless, not even some rich girl’s “project.”
Approaching various groups, angling to break in. My wine glass tipped toward their laughter and language, my noise muffled by the bad acoustics. The awkwardness of being ignored as an adult in a room full of people you know, on the outskirts of eye contact. I reverted three decades to an out-of-touch parent in a sitcom, tin can telephone pressed up against child’s door, shut off from communication. Pretending to loaf into an amorphous group, an emphatic gesture of impression management, I scrolled through my phone and checked my texts, repeatedly, as if to indicate I had someplace better to be, I knew people who enjoyed my company, even requested it. I knew people. Welp! Deflated, yet somehow still taking up too much space, I resigned to give up and move on. Turning toward the exit, tracing the flight of stairs up and out, I was met by a familiar and friendly pair of eyes: Lana nodded me over. After the wave of relief settled my shoulders, stature rising like a turtle’s head popping out of its shell, my first thought: What was her transgression? Being black, no doubt. No other explanation for her sitting alone, barstool balancing. Also searching. Or maybe she just hated those bitches as much as I did.
We commiserated about the glaring lack of food at all Spence events. Miniature cornbread with a dollop of cream cheese, the skimpy appetizer du jour circling ironclad cliques. “Artisanal” what rich people call food they appropriate, to justify its consumption, make it quaint, those adorable poors and their staples. Put a toothpick flag in it.
“Next time I come, Ima shove a sandwich in my purse,” she joked.
“Don’t even be discreet about it. Flaunt that shit. Something needs to be done.”
“Seriously, with all this free booze. They’re tryna get us drunk. So we donate.”
“As if I have anything to donate. Contribute to these people,” I chortle out of my noise, more respiratory depression than postnasal drip. “What. Tha. Fuck. Let’s bring a meat platter,” I up the ante. Raise you a baloney to their BS!
Meat platter, “charcuterie,” as the champagne and cocaine crowd designates it, dignifying grass-fed Oscar Meyer cold cuts apportioned into infinitesimal bits. For placement on gluten-free crackers enriched with flax. For those who are “sensitive.” Those who didn’t need to attend high school, because they had magazine internships that turned into real estate jobs, because they had buildings named after them before they were legally old enough to change their own name. Who needs sustenance, anyway, when everyone knows rich people harvest their energy from Soul Cycle. Shovel refined powders up their nostrils with Quinn Morgendorffer really cute pores, but hold the bread, eating paleo is like eating consciousness.
Forget about cornbread. That’s for savages. Coarse, unrefined.
“Might as well serve crumbs, and call it caviar,” we both laugh. Like we are old chums. Though we first connected at an event a few years ago. When we felt left out.
Cocaine. Crumbs. Cocaine. Crumbs. Let us have cake. (But not in public.)
The best part of being an outsider: some people make you feel like you belong. To a secret society of underdogs with our own outreach handshake, a strict admissions policy: Don’t be an asshole. Acknowledge others, as if they exist. As if they know what faux pas means. Even if they opted out of taking the language of educated young ladies, even though they don’t have any hired “help” to direct in Español.
“All that tuition money and they give us a side to Kraft mac ‘n cheese. Beg for our continued ‘support’ and frown upon panhandlers, obviously. I never even graduated from high school,” I paused. Punctuated with a hearty laugh. Raised my puppy eyes toward her for approval.
“Do they even know?” she asked, intuitive.
Just nod if you can hear me…
To be noticed for the wrong thing, not to be noticed, to stand out, to be invisible. Worse than being reprimanded or eliciting a glare is to be shunned. The codified behavior that Upper East Siders adopt to connote “not me.” Traveling in packs, standing in tight circles, backs blockading the masses of plebes, pretending those who fail to stay in the subtly suggested lines aren’t worth acknowledging. Always poised, always polite, always proper, they simply look right through you. Eyes fixed, nose up, hair flip. Dismiss.
To go back to the Upper East Side is to be under constant surveillance. Simultaneously invisible. The paradox of scrutiny. Pressure. Suppression.