In the spring of my eighteenth year, my mother’s most ardent desire “before I die,” as she put it (she wasn’t ill, just persuasive) was that I debut … to the Cardinal of the Catholic Church. I would have rather broken both my legs with a sledgehammer than walk the Cardinal’s red carpet, but I hadn’t joined a sorority like she’d wanted me to, even though she pointed out that not doing so would thwart my social opportunities. This was a puzzle to me, since the enormous campus housed ten thousand perfectly eligible bachelors who weren’t in fraternities gargling with Kamikazes at party after party.
If I “came out,” she said, my future might be salvaged. I’d much rather stay in. That, and she’d been saving her pennies since she was three in something called her “sinking fund” for emergencies such as this one, so that her daughter could make the scene at this hearty party. How could I deny the woman who bore me?
“Remember, attention is a blessing,” she told me when I mocked having to promenade the runway like a spiritual super model. “It’s the way to be noticed.” Fine advice from the woman who at my age had only to unlatch the screen door on Berendo Street to make every adorable boy in Los Angeles come running.
I made sure no one at school knew I was involved in this fluff that in 1970 was considered by radical college students unconscionable. If you partook of such frivolous opulence you were a member of the enemy establishment. When my fellow dorky confidante Carol thought it would be supportive to tack on my dorm door a picture she’d drawn of me wearing a gown, and underneath it the caption “Congratulations Cardinal Queen,” I ripped it off and considered chewing and ingesting it before any love-child flower-girl walked by.
A debutante ball was bad enough, but add to that the location of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and you’ve got the perfect formula for pariah. There was no explaining to my mother that the exact opposite of what she was trying to achieve would, in fact, occur. No one my age would speak to me until I was eighty-five.
My escort was my cousin, Jack. A fellow Catholic, he tacitly accepted the pomp and circumstance as if it were old familiar High Mass mumbo jumbo, although even the most devout mackerel snapper would have a hard time swallowing a social event that resembled a sacrament. There is no reference in the Baltimore Catechism to strutting your stuff for the man in the red cape with the billboard hat and clerical bling on his finger. Jack was the trusty safety-date who would neither kiss nor tell. No one would discover that I’d betrayed my placard carrying, sit-in protesting, bra-burning generation, in which I actually only pretended membership to avoid confrontation.
Mama was in her glory! We shopped in the bridal department at I. Magnin and Bullock’s Wilshire for a floor-length virginal gown unlike any I would wear to my wedding. She hired a professional photographer to come to our house, a daylong shoot that culminated in a navy blue leather 8×10 coffee-table photo album trimmed and embossed in gold.
There I stand strapped into snow-white gloves to the shoulder. My satin heels are plugged in the damp ground beneath the spreading branches of the front-yard oak tree. A single diamond dangles to my décolletage and a scapular medal is tucked discreetly inside my lace neckline. The papal tiara adorns my fiercely curled and Super-Hold Aqua-Netted long blonde hair.
I look like Saint Barbie lowered by helicopter into the Garden of Eden.
My chin is raised so that I am gazing heavenward in awe of my ending innocence, while God is no doubt thinking, “You are so obedient I just might give the human race another crack at the apple!” And I was. If He’d planted a tree of forbidden fruit for me, I never would have tempted Adam. Not even had that slimy serpent substituted chocolate pudding.
On the night of horrors, the band played “Younger than Springtime” while my father and I paraded the interminable length of an elevated ramp that crossed the grand ballroom and dead-ended at the stage and a line-up of vestmented priests, caped super-hero Cardinal straight ahead and central. It helped that daddy dreaded the exposure almost as much as I did.
I chanted to myself, Be graceful. But when I knelt to kiss the Cardinal’s ring, his hidden microphone conveyed to the audience of 500 that my lips were virginal. Nerves had robbed me of all saliva, and when I puckered, a sucking, screeching that sounded like microphone feedback filled the ballroom. As I rose from bended knee I was sure he would whisper in my ear, “You’d best become a nun.”
After I joined ranks with those who had performed impeccably, all I could see through the blinding stage lights was my mother’s head, face down on the tablecloth. Her lips moved against her napkin and knew she was praying, “Saints preserve us.”
Mama had informed me that all the parents in attendance were “very well connected.” Now that they’d been privy to my musical interlude and I’d blown this noteworthy rite of passage, who of them would want their son to be Mr. Me?
To add further horror to humiliation, after devouring everything at dinner as if it were my last meal (mama might refuse to feed me after this), when I escaped to my car in the swanky hotel-parking garage every single item had been stolen out of it. Since it was semester break, I’d ferried home every single article of clothing to launder along with all my spiral notebooks so I could study for exams.
It seemed that while I was coming out, someone else had been breaking in. Someone who saw a good reason for a Debutante ball.