From the Windswept Plains of Oklahoma
I was down in the parking lot waiting for her when Annie, my freshman roommate, stepped out of her parent’s Lincoln Town Car, fresh from the windswept plains of Oklahoma. She wore a lavender and dusty blue floral Laura Ashley short set and her thick blond hair fell well past her shoulders. It was the hair that got to me. It was just like the hair of Samantha, my Christian Scientist friend back home in Alabama.
Annie and Samantha were the only two people I had ever met with really long hair, hair that quantified who you were. Hair that long was not an accident. Annie and Samantha didn’t forget to make appointments at beauty salons. This hair was sanctioned by their parents and displayed the unspoken differences between our upbringings.
I don’t know what Annie thought when she first saw me. Though I can’t recall what I wore, I no doubt would have attempted to look fashionable with the clothes my mother worked so hard to find for the unique combination of fitting challenges I presented her with: wide shoulders, overly long, muscular legs and arms, and long, skinny feet shaped like skis. Putting me in a puffed sleeve floral dress often made me look like I was cross dressing, and wearing one on the day I helped Annie move in would have made unpacking in an unairconditioned dorm room difficult to say the least. I most likely would have been wearing silver snakeskin print Guess shorts, a Frankie Goes to Hollywood t-shirt and a pair of size 11 AA New Balance running shoes my mother had ordered for me from a catalogue full of shoes for old people. Thankfully, she had ordered me the version with laces and not Velcro straps.
When Annie met me, my own hair barely reached the bottom of my earlobes. Before high school, my mother kept me in a pageboy, something I always attributed to the fact that we were Presbyterians. She might have said it was because my hair tangled, or because I refused hair accessories – from plastic animal-shaped barrettes to polka-dot ribbon hair bows in our school colors of blue and green. She might have mentioned the fact that she had to force me to bathe until I reached middle school. But I don’t think those were the real reasons. As Presbyterians, our family did not steer toward excess. Utilitarianism, modest decorum and vacations that included high levels of educational value and outdoorsmanship were more our style. Looking nice mattered, but looking too nice was a sin.
When Annie stepped out of her parent’s Lincoln Town Car, she became my first close-up, long-term encounter with excess. Annie went through more outfits and emotions in her first few hours awake than I would go through during an entire year. She teetered on the edge of cliffs and dared the wind to throw her off. She lay in bed skipping class, lamenting how everything was wrong, or she went to class anyway, lamenting the class’s difficulty, because the classes at our small woman’s college were, in fact, mind-numbing at times. Yet when it came time to party on Thursday nights, Annie was in her element, relaxed and ready to set the world on fire, while I had to be urged into the car like an animal being led to slaughter.
Annie stepped out of her parents’ Lincoln Town Car like a woman from a Pantene commercial, from a commercial for Nice ’N Easy, her nails painted Easter Bunny pink, her posture erect, her smile patient, her all cotton short set freshly pressed. I wondered about Annie’s religion, but her hair turned out not to be related to her Episcopal upbringing. It was related to Neiman Marcus, to her short, often overstated stint modeling for the store as a fourth grader, and to the emphasis her mother put on appearance, rules of etiquette and knowing how to trick the right man into marrying you. Annie’s stout German mother moved like a tornado through the freshman dorm, up to room 203, then swiftly over to Dillard’s to purchase matching dusty blue comforters for our twin beds, coordinating pillows, shams, a pastel cotton geometric patterned rug. After she returned home to Oklahoma, Annie’s mother phoned each and every morning. She implored Annie to get out of bed and go to class. She urged us both to socialize. Go meet those darling men at Hampden-Sydney, or Virginia Military Institute, or Washington and Lee! Packages of Laura Ashley outfits arrived at the student mail room, sometimes for both of us. It took Annie’s mother a matter of minutes to employ me as Annie’s unpaid college caretaker, a task which I took to with alarming ease. Since I woke early to run before my eight a.m. physics class and Annie often slept past breakfast, I delivered her morning muffin to her in bed. I answered her mother’s wake-up calls. I confirmed that Annie was already in class, despite evidence to the contrary. I edited Annie’s writing assignments, touched up the shading on her drawings for art class. In return, she took me with her to parties on the weekends, hooked me up with dismal dates, from leaders of the college Young Republican Club to men who checked off the states on the state maps taped to their dorm walls as they scored. Somehow, Annie was invited everywhere, and always had a tall, handsome boyfriend beside her, one from a good family with roots going back to the Mayflower, one without a state map taped to the wall, one sober enough to remember his own name. Somehow Annie knew no matter how many classes she missed or assignments she forgot to turn in, that she would have time to cram before exams and pass. She wasn’t overly anxious about doing much more. And in the end, her lack of worry didn’t hurt her. Annie buckled down a few years after college, went on to law school and became an attorney. She made it anyway, while I spent most of my college frantic that my GPA might fall below a 3.7 (it never did), and that I might lose my scholarship. I studied and studied and studied some more, but ran into a brick wall on most social outings, always wearing or saying or thinking the wrong thing. I couldn’t get past the bow ties and blazers on the white, rich, well-bred men at the Hampden-Sydney tailgates, or the fact that most of these men expected me to be someone I wasn’t, to hold different opinions that might coincide more with the dress Annie had lent me for the afternoon.
My mother spent years pushing the benefits of a respectable use of subtle make-up, church dresses and curling irons. She came up with the idea that at some point in high school it might be a good idea for me to date. I was required to go on at least one date with the few boys who made the mistake of asking me out. To a small extent, she succeeded in halfway taming me by the time she dropped me off in Virginia for college, but to this day I still can’t seem to dress like a proper lady from the South. I play piano now, so my nails stay short. I don’t have time for manicures. I dig up weeds and garden, ride horses and cook casseroles for dinner, meaning most days it’s all I can do to get the dirt and horse hair out from under the tips of my nails and the smell of onion and garlic off my hands before I go to bed that night. I wear board shorts and rash guards at the beach because wearing anything else gets in the way of running around and having fun. The practical part of growing up Presbyterian may have stayed with me, but the curling iron has found a home in the storage bins deep in the recesses of the basement. I can, when the occasion calls for it, look presentable, and I know how to handle myself at parties, though my idea of getting wild and drinking all night usually ends by 11:00, having reached my limit at one beer. I am still wary of men in bow ties and blazers, men who look like they jumped straight out of a J. Crew catalogue.
It’s funny that I’ve kept up with Annie after all these years, and that we are still good friends, she in her Mizrahi cardigan and Chanel flats, her matching handbag and talent for socializing; me in a pair of jean shorts, my hair pulled back in a pony tail and SPF 30 sunscreen on my face even on cloudy days. I still wake up early to run and spend my spare time reading, lead a den of cub scouts while Annie attends or plans elaborate parties, sits on the board of numerous charitable and civic organizations. To see us, you’d never think we had anything in common or that we could turn out to be such good friends for such a long time, and I think it must have required a lot of open-mindedness on both of our parts. Seeing what a disaster I was at parties, Annie still continue to drag me along. She never gave up on teaching me how to socialize and helping me trick the right man into marrying me, something her mother often lectured about at length on her visits to the college. Do not, whatever you do, be yourself, she told us, but in the end, being ourselves was exactly what we did, and things worked out just fine. From Laura Ashley to Mizrahi, from Guess to Eddie Bauer, we have moved on from those college days of yore, but the beauty of who we are as individuals remains.