The women that came out of my Deb class, like all the generations of Debs before us, are truly impressive. There’s Sarah, who has two children and a house in Briarcrest, and Delilah, who moved to Georgia for law school, dropped out after one semester and got married. Then Addy, who married a pilot and has houses in three time zones and a poodle that she dresses up in Burberry coats. Lauren, meanwhile, teaches Spanish at our old high school and dates the math teacher. I’m twenty-six, single, live in a one-bedroom apartment, and throw parties for a living.
Together, the five of us were invited to be in the Debutante class. We took Cotillion classes every Saturday for four years. Four years of well-meaning, old-money, aristocratic women trying to teach us important lessons to ensure our social standing after graduation. It worked for some, I guess. My mother was sure that Cotillion and etiquette classes would help me become a Sarah, a Delilah, maybe even an Addy, if I was lucky. Instead, I just learned the importance of minute details like fork placement and the intricacies of napkin folding, seating arrangements and the St. James Bow.
—-The tradition of the Debutante Ball began in France but is alive and well in the South because of the righteous way that discrimination among social classes has been a rich thread throughout our history. To become a debutante one must be sponsored or selected by a committee or member of the elite upper class. My mother was a debutante, and her mother was before that, and her mother and so on, so I was a shoo in. The culture insists that at eighteen years old, girls put on a white dress and satin gloves, curtsy to the community, and announce their eligibility for marriage.
—-I never harbored any real resentment toward the Debutante practice, but that’s because I find humor in the futility of most Southern traditions. Plus, I’ve always appreciated formal attire.
—-After our presentation, the other Debs and I posed for a picture and went our separate ways. Even though we didn’t follow the same paths, the lives we’ve all found ourselves in have one thing in common on the outside: beautiful and socially appropriate. We are the children of the ‘fake it till you make it’ generation. Let me be clear: I’m no better than this, I too have become obsessed with appearance, to the point that it’s embarrassing. And here is where we begin our story.
—-I’ve hosted many baby showers before. Never for a man, though. And more specifically, never for a man that’s been inside of me before. Hosting a baby shower for a man you have had sex with is different. It was a very twenty-first century woman thing for me to do, I think. Obviously when I met him I didn’t know he would be the final proverbial straw in my foray into the party planning business. I met him during my first day at the restaurant.
—-“Hey, hey, what’s your name?”
—-I kept my head down but raised my eyes long enough to gather that he was in fact motioning toward me. “Alicia.” I said, smiling because your voice sounds nicer when you smile while speaking.
—-“You’re the fancy new party planner?”
—-“Yeah, that’s me.”
—-After I graduated with my degree in Hospitality, my Debutante ties had helped me secure this position in the finest restaurant in the city. I wasn’t ashamed of the nepotism; that’s how it works, my mother had assured me, plus I was confident I could do what I was hired for. The kitchen, along with the restaurant, was proving to be less elegant than I had hoped, however. It continues to surprise me how life is never as pretty or exciting as you imagine it to be. At this point I still hadn’t realized that my inherently high expectations are always a surefire way to be disappointed.
—-There was a huge coffee maker on top of the stainless steel counter top, hundreds of clear, heavy mismatched glasses set above the station that mixed carbonation with sugary liquid to produce a coke, red paint thrown on the wall in a way that someone had deemed “artistic”, a humming ice machine the size of a large calf that I would learn only sometimes makes ice, and unorganized wine bottles everywhere. There was wine all over the otherwise clean kitchen. Boxes and wooden crates of bottles hidden throughout the restaurant. The sous chef walked around the open window that relayed the food to the servers, and squeezed my shoulders. I went rigid and stared up at him. This was my first day and I had intended to blend in, but Chef had already yelled at me for being in the way, and now this 6’5” kitchen guy clearly felt sorry for me. Pity is never an emotion a Southern woman wants to elicit from a man, especially not an attractive man.
—-“Chef is an asshole. But talented. A talented asshole, so we put up with it. Just don’t cry,” he said. “You’ll be fine. And yeah, the wine doesn’t belong here. We know. But there’s just too much to find a home for.”
—–His eyes were so green that they looked photoshopped and his skin was a shade that looked like he spent more time on the lake than in the kitchen. He exuded a sense of confidence that comes from being attractive since birth. But here he was, talking to me, in the kitchen of the new restaurant I was working at.
—-“Do you smoke?”
—-“Cigarettes?” I asked.
—-He laughed and nodded.
—-“Would now be one of those times?”
—-I smiled and followed him out the back door.
—-After my second drag, I asked his name.
—-“Robert. I’m just the sous chef, I won’t be the one to make you cry.”
—-I almost told him that I never cry, but I laughed instead. I love new jobs for moments like this: the moment before everyone knows your deepest secrets and the worst parts of you. You can be anyone you want to be, and I wasn’t sure who I wanted to be to Robert yet. I decided maybe I wanted to be the timid, mysterious girl for a while. So I was.
—-By the third week of working there, I was making more money than I needed, and I had found my niche. In addition to planning the parties for socialites, I was in charge of finding places for the wine. I would come in early, pick up the boxes, categorize them, put two bottles of each into the appropriate temperature-controlled coolers and then unload the rest into the office that was basically a shanty with plywood shelves. I liked having a purpose, and Chef seemed to appreciate my initiative. I had been taught that being validated by a man’s opinion of you is an important characteristic of success. But in reality I was just using these tasks as an excuse to spend more time with Robert, as he was always there.
—-“We’re going to Stillhouse after work,” Robert said.
—-“Is that an invitation or just a statement of your whereabouts?” I smiled.
—-“I want you to come.”
—-We discussed the lyrics to “Sex and Candy”, the utility of steel versus every other type of cookware, the importance or lack of importance of organic produce, the recent epidemic of gluten allergies and gluten allergy imposters, my knowledge of the Southern traditions, his childhood up North and his mother’s Southern cooking. And other things that were equally inane, I’m sure. But in those conversations, I made myself seem exactly how I wanted to: confident, yet docile. Later, we would decide after messy shots and messier foreplay that we knew what sex and candy smelled like.
—-I woke up in his bed the next morning, slipped out while he was asleep and wondered how I would get home before I had to be at work. I called my best friend Alex for a ride. She wasn’t a Deb and she didn’t have a 9-5 job or a husband to wonder where she was 24/7; she was an artist. Since we were childhood neighbors even before cellphones, we had employed our two-call rule: if you call twice, you really need something. So on my second ring of my second call, she answered. When she pulled up I could tell that something was off; she was frowning at the house. I opened the car door, and, before I could sit down, she accosted me with questions. “Who were you with?”
—-“Just this guy from work.”
—-“Tall? Really nice eyes?”
—-“Fucking awesome,” she said, in a tone that let me know it was definitely not awesome.
—-I worried the worry that every small town woman worries: how Biblically do you know the man I know.
—-“He’s Dana’s baby daddy.”
—-“You know the girl we’ve known since Junior High that is five months
pregnant, Alicia,” she looked at me, clearly disgusted.
—-“How would I have known who Dana’s baby daddy was? I haven’t spoken to her in at least four years.”
—-“Did he not tell you?”
I stopped for a moment to process what she had said and began weighing my options for saying more. She was still looking at me expectantly. On the one hand, if he had told me, I would be seen as callous for not caring that he was having a baby with Dana, or any woman for that matter, and on the other hand, if he hadn’t told me, he comes across as an asshole for sleeping with other women when he’s having a child in four months. “No. He didn’t tell me.”
—-“Well, now you know. You can’t do it again. I’m going to pretend it didn’t happen.”
—-“I really didn’t know. I actually like him.”
—-“Stop. No you don’t. Seriously. He’s clearly an asshole. Poor Dana.”
Alex was right. He was an asshole. He definitely hadn’t told me. I should’ve stopped then. But I didn’t. The next time I spent the night I had to hide in his bedroom for two hours while Dana’s best friend sat in the living room with his roommate— of course they were dating.
—-“Look, I have to be at work in thirty minutes,” I said, “I’m just going to leave.”
He looked around the room, clearly uncomfortable, grabbing my hand as I stood up.
—-“I’m sure Kelly would tell Dana, and it would just concern her, you know. She’s got pregnancy brain and I don’t want to stress her out.”
—-“But you’re not together, right?”
—-“Right,” he said, intertwining his fingers with mine.
—-“So it’s just because it’s me then?”
—-“Yeah, I mean, you know how that would look.”
—-He was right, the way things look is the most important aspect, after all. And I wanted to believe him even though that’s when I realized the reason I felt a little bit like a hooker was because I should. He was ashamed of me. I would like to say that I told him to go to hell but instead, I tabled all of my anger and cuddled back up into bed with him. I quickly accepted the excitement of having a secret relationship. As if there was something especially seductive about not ever being seen in public together, or never being able to tell your best friend about your lover. I’m not sure why, but it really did excite me for a while.
—-A lot about the South has changed since the Debutante culture began teaching young women the proper way to be young women. The appropriate way to build a life. For instance, pregnancy out of wedlock is okay now. Living together before marriage is also semi-okay. Even not wanting children is okay, as long as you’re happily married! But even in such an open-minded Southern society, the one thing that will never be acceptable is ruining anything for a pregnant woman—relationship or otherwise—and of course, stealing someone’s husband. Both of which are considered the equivalent of kicking a dog while it’s down.
—-I wonder sometimes if anything has truly changed or if women just got tired of hiding. Like did my great grandmother have an affair while her husband was away at war? Did the nosey neighbors find out and paint a big red A on her door or just shun her from the weekly Bunko games? Is this why the fear of being shamed by society is inherent in me and prominently taught in Deb culture? Or are we obsessed with the looks of things because it’s the only true way we can control our lives? I can control how everyone views me—or at least I can try.
—-So that’s how I found myself hosting a baby shower for the man I was (at the very least) in lust with, at the restaurant where we worked. Pretending to be excited that he had created a new human with an old friend of mine.
—-Throwing parties is easy. It’s what I was bred to do. I know how to host a baby shower, a wedding shower, an engagement party, a baptism celebration, any kind of life event worth celebrating. And I am a splendid host, of course. I’d been taught how to pick the right china, the right tablecloth colors, to match the napkins to the tablecloths, to measure the height of the floral arrangements, and most importantly, to craft an appropriate guest list before I was even old enough to see an R-rated movie.
—-Chef wanted me to throw a baby shower for Robert so that our restaurant
“family” could celebrate his big life change. No is not part of the vernacular in our world, so here I was—determined to figure out this social quandary. I had no problem keeping the incestuous nature of this “family” a secret. As trained, I simply smiled and went to work. As host, I decided on a brunch-shower, serving as many breakfast meats as I could find, mini quiches, homemade biscuits and gravy, a savory and a sweet scone, and my homemade strawberry jam.
—-We hadn’t stopped seeing each other and we hadn’t stopped keeping it a secret. I knew it wasn’t the decent thing to do. But he’s charming. And very good in bed. The trick became not to arouse any rumors, since it would not reflect well on either of us. We worked with each other but danced around barely acknowledging the other existed. I took note when he went to smoke and made myself busy elsewhere.
—-I’m an expert at crafting guest lists, so I know that Dana was most definitely not on the list. They weren’t together, after all. So when he walked into the restaurant with an eight-months-pregnant Dana on his arm, I was a bit stunned—only on the inside, of course. Appearance, appearance, appearance. I greeted her with a big smile and a hug, so glad to see her. As a good hostess, I was up and about making sure guests had plenty of champagne and sausage while I laughed and wondered how many other women in Deb history had found themselves doing this very same thing. It seemed too appropriately Southern not to laugh.
—-After the shower, after the twelve bottles of champagne, after the minikeg of beer, after the shots of whiskey, after the awkward exchanges of feigned excitement over baby clothes—after all of that, Robert asked me to go to the Stillhouse with him. My third glass of champagne convinced me to agree.
—-At Stillhouse I ordered a shot of Jager and a beer. Robert came in a few minutes after me, and said he just wanted to thank me, again. So he did. He thanked me and thanked me and thanked me. He paid the tab and I tried to tell him why I found him hilarious.—-“Just what are the odds? I mean really. She was a one-night stand. Now you’re having a baby with her. Since she showed up at the shower that she wasn’t even invited to, I’m guessing you’re together now. And she just happens to be someone I grew up with?”
—-“Trust me, Alicia, I know. It’s bizarre. We just recently decided to try to work
it out, for the baby, you know, it’ll just be simpler.”
—-As I inhaled my own cigarette, the smoke-filled air suddenly felt suffocating.
—-“I’m sorry…” He started to say more but I stopped him by laughing.
—-“No, no, no,” I smiled when I spoke again, “No, there’s no reason to be
sorry…it’s great. It’s so great.”
—-He stood up to leave, looked directly into my eyes, and started to reach for my shoulder, but I turned away. “Thanks again, I really do appreciate it.”
—-“Appreciate what specifically?” I raised my eyebrows. “My sleeping with you?
Hiding in your room so you could keep me a secret? Still fucking you when you were having a baby with someone else? Or maybe not telling my old pregnant friend that you’ve been sleeping with me all along? What are you thankful for, Robert? Please, tell me.”
—-I looked away because I didn’t want to see if there was emotion behind his green eyes. I already knew it didn’t matter how they looked anymore. I seethed and sipped my beer and let him leave.
—-I saw a flyer on the wall that Stillhouse was hiring new bartenders and servers. I thought about that beautiful moment when you start a new job, and you can be anyone you want to be. I wondered who I wanted to be this time. Whoever the hell she was, I knew she didn’t want to throw parties.
Cassandra Morrison received her MFA in creative non-fiction from Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois. She has just finished a book of hybrid fiction and non-fiction that discusses Southern culture, femininity and social neuroses. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Washington Post, Midwestern Gothic, Chicago Literati, Entropy, The Establishment, and others. She is from the South, gets lost frequently and is a little bit basic.