Character sketch: The Debutante

It felt like yesterday despite being almost 15 years ago when Billie Jean Carusoe walked down the country club’s grand staircase — left standing just for this purpose — in a white satin gown with matching gloves. Head-to-toe in status symbols, from a great-grandmother’s add-a-pearl necklace to her very own diamond tennis bracelet, Billie Jean floated along with ten other girls her age, all competing to outdo each other with the perfect blend of Mommy and Daddy’s dream and teenage rebellion.

Thanks to the full white skirt, no one could see Wendy Jackson’s black lace thong, shoplifted not because she couldn’t afford it but because she couldn’t risk her mother finding the receipt. The white satin bodice hid the diamond stud in Trina Sawyer’s navel (though her mother didn’t mind that, as she had been the one to take her to Spencers for that little 16th birthday gift). Sniff close enough and you might detect the weed Loretta Debs had smoked the night before, if you didn’t suffocate from the smell of Ed Hardy perfume she had bathed in before slipping on her bespoke gown.

And as for Billie Jean? The white gloves hid her knuckles, bruised and swollen from the week’s boxing matches at Arturo’s. Her slight black eye had healed in time, and with an extra coat of makeup expertly applied by her sister, no one was the wiser as to what the tallest of Poppleton Fields Country Club’s debutantes did after school every day.

Now Billie Jean silently guarded an event filled with the same kind of tycoons, socialites and ladder-climbers who politely applauded her ability to be 17 and walk in a glorified Disney princess costume. Her gloves were no longer white satin, but indestructible teflon-coated fibers that firmed up when she made a fist so that every punch landed twice the blow. While the gown decayed in her mother’s closet, her cowled coat fluttered in the night air. But despite leaving that traditional Southern lifestyle behind, Billie Jean refused to forget the feeling of satisfaction she had when her parents beamed all summer after her debut.

Her enemies knew her by the beatings she delivered in dark alleys and on slum rooftops, but she prefered another monicker: The Debutante.

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Writespiration: “bury a friend” by Billie Eilish

My friend Hannah describes Billie Eilish as “if Tumblr was a person.” She’s artistically angsty with a dramatic edge that can almost induce an eye-roll if you’re not paying enough attention.

The first song I heard from her, her new album’s first single, “bury a friend,” was exactly that. God, she’s like the girl from The Ring meets Wednesday Addams meets a record deal. But then I payed better attention. The song is clearly about mental struggles — burying a friend isn’t literal, as it is in My Chemical Romance’s “Kill All Your Friends” (in that one, the singer laments that “We all wanna party when a funeral ends; and we all get together when we bury our friends; it’s been eight bitter years since I’ve been seeing your face,” hence the reason for the murder spree). For Eilish, it’s dealing with the emotional demons that haunt us. 

So perfect for half the character I write, as the greatest enemies they face are themselves.  

Vignette: At the Symphony

By the way…

I’ve never fallen so hard for someone as I did for you as I watched you fall hard for the symphony. How your hand squeezed mine as the conductor walked on stage. How I could feel your heartbeat drumming along with the tympani. How you drew breath as the first-chair violinist drew her bow.  

You said you couldn’t imagine ever feeling this way over music. I thought I couldn’t imagine ever feeling this way over a person. 

A story of me

This week my day job has sent me to California to work with a team from all over the country in establishing a learning program for employees. I’ll be in charge of communicating to more than 140,000 people globally that this program is now available — come July, anyway.

But this meeting is about spending three days face-to-face with the people behind the project so that I can tell the story accurately. After all, people like stories. At least, that’s the theory that’s behind pretty much everything I do as a professional and as a moonlighting novelist. 

Part of my pre-work for this meeting is to prepare a story that will explain to the group who I am and how I got here to a Fortune 25 company’s communications function. So I’m taking advantage of this four-hour flight to Orange County and writing it here. 

My life has been a series of fortunate events. I was born into a middle class family in middle class Chicagoland, attended a good school district, went to the best journalism college in the country, and graduated with a near-perfect GPA due to a zealous obsession with acing each class, a film minor I practically snoozed through (ever watch L’Avventura on less than four hours of sleep?), and a complete disinterest in the more destructive social scenes. 

A lot of my best work came from lucky breaks. As a reporter for the Columbia, Missouri, city paper, my best story — a profile of a family who participated Viking re-enactments — came from walking past a house in the Benton-Stephens neighborhood without a raincoat as a storm started to rumble overhead. They happened to be sitting on the porch and invited me up to stay out of the downpour, and I walked away with a story that would define my time at the university. I became “Viking Finder,” or at least “that girl who found the weird-ass family that fights with battle axes in their front yard.”  

After college, I happened to apply for a corporate communications gig that on the surface I had no business filling. I didn’t get it, but 18 months later — and a career at an HR magazine publisher that gave me no upward mobility — they called me back when the woman who did get it moved on to a different role. Now, three and a half years later, I’m still there, clawing my way up and over into another role that I still feel like I have no business filling. (I’ll probably leave that part out when presenting to the group this week.) 

Outside of work, it’s the same thing. My greatest breaks have been a matter of luck. A vice president likes my last-minute idea of writing a retrospective on the Vomit Comet and sends me on a zero-gravity test flight, where I meet Joey Fatone of *Nsync, the band that defined my fourth grade experience. A literary agent in Italy likes my tweet about my novel-in-progress and six months later I’m a represented author waiting for a publishing deal. The Man with Time on His Arm happens to think I’m as cute as I think he is and goes from being the bartender at my favorite Chicago watering hole to being one of the most important people in my life who often says “I’m proud of you,” which always brings me to elation.

Now that I’ve written this, it looks a lot like humble-bragging. Maybe it is. But know that a hell of a lot of work followed those lucky breaks — a lot of stress-dreams, late writing nights, chewed-up lips looking for the right word or working on a deadline. I’m still in the middle of an intellectual battle between imposter syndrome and a Wonder Woman complex of wanting to fix everything, regardless if it’s in my job description or emotional capability.  

So that’s my story, at least so far. In the spirit of last weekend’s holiday, maybe it’s the luck of the 40-percent Irish. Maybe my parents forgot to mention the fairy that blessed me with good fortune as a way of apologizing to my mother for the twelve hours of labor she had to endure. Or maybe fate is a real thing, and I’m just embracing the plot twists as they come.  

Scene of the write: Colectivo Coffee

I envy how little kids can fall and get back up without blinking an eye.

An almost sickeningly cute child in glasses just took a nosedive off the bench outside the window, tucked, rolled, and resumed eating his perfectly in-tact, cartoonish pink-frosted donut like nothing had happened. Meanwhile, little sister in white tights and black vinyl Mary Janes looked on, absentmindedly patting the head of her minature beagle mut mix of whatever.

Last time I took a spill like that, I bled through the knee of my jeans during an entire Colts-Dolphins game at Lucas Oil Stadium. A blend of blood and leaking ego turned the denim black.

There are two women down the row from us. One just announced she couldn’t decide whether to buy something in a size two or four. Then she continued picking at her avocado toast.

What I thought might be a coffee first-date next to me turned out to be a few friends meeting up. That’s why I like coffee shops on Sunday afternoons: A lot of times you get first dates between people who met at the bar on Friday and knew they’d be too hungover the next day to be first-date worthy. But no, these are just a couple mix-matched grad students from DePaul trading stories of where they studied abroad: Peru, Sweden, Texas.

Of course, I don’t even know how many people have eavesdropped on my conversations in these places before. I’m sure it made someone’s nght when The Man With Time on His Arm and I discussed Taco Bell Cantina’s presumable house wine as a fermented version of their taco sauce. Or just now, with Frannie and I talking about starting a Tindr-like app for people who want to spend just an hour with a dog on their lap while watching Judge Judy.

Oh, the conversation snipets we leave behind, like skin cells and donut sprinkles smeared across the pavement outside this window. 

 

Writespiration: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama

Trust me, when I cracked open Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, the last thing I expected to get out of it was writing inspiration. An increased respect for one of my heroes, inside look into the Obama administration, and painful nostalgia at how far we’ve fallen since her time in the White House, sure. But who on earth would turn to the memoir of a former First Lady and forever champion of children, equal rights, health and fitness for a pep talk on writing?

But there it was, page 43. 

“Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result.”

Obama was writing about her elementary school in Chicago’s Southside. In seventh grade, the Chicago Defender ran an opinion piece that claimed Bryn Mawr was a “run-down slum” led with a “ghetto mentality.” Despite protests from the teachers, principal and community saying otherwise, that article contributed to a growing fear that her once diverse neighborhood was finally succumbing to the blight that struck communities affected by White Flight in the 1970s. 

The theme continues throughout the book, and she brings it up a couple other times when describing college and her husband’s 2008 campaign. But when I read that line, I immediately applied it to my writing.

Nobody’s Hero is a wreck right now. I’ve been her before with other projects, most of which are now collecting proverbial dust on a literal hard drive, not even close to being continued, let alone finished. They vary in style and genre, but they all have one thing in common: they were chucked aside as soon as I started feeling like I was failing them.

Reading Obama’s story — the major shifts in her career from lawyer to community advocate, the highs and lows of her husband’s presidency, the love she has for her country — you know she wouldn’t be in a place to tell us her story if she had surrendered to that feeling of failure instead of pushing through.  

All writers have those projects that they stuff away because they become too challenging, too messy. It’s not easy to declare something a failure and move on to the next project, but it can be a lot easier than continuing to work on a book or script or poem that’s complicated to untangle. I wonder how many pieces with great potential we’ve left languishing in forgotten drawers and cyber folders because we never got past the feeling that they were lost causes. 

Another surprise from the book: I have never before read a memoir that I couldn’t put down. I think I literally consumed the whole thing in four sittings (thanks, cross-country flights!) thanks to its candid and conversational writing style. It’s an absolute must-read for anyone contemplating writing a memoir — or writing in general, come to that.

Vignette: A promise

I promised you that the minute you needed to jet, I’d meet you outside in Coraline’s truck and we’d bolt down to Mexico — after all, I can speak Italian with a Spanish accent, so we would be just fine. The first time I said this, you laughed and replied, “God, you’re great.”

We were about two months into sleeping with each other at that point, five months into just knowing each other. 

The second time I reminded you I was willing to commit grand theft auto — though I’m not sure it’s truly GTA when it’s my own divorced sister-in-law’s truck I’m stealing, especially when she swindled my brother out of seeing the kids for 50 weeks out of the year — you kissed me on the forehead with a smile and said “But they don’t pay that much in Mexico.”

Canada, then, I said. They have Mounties and great healthcare. Or cheap pills, at least.

“And mountains!” you added. “I like mountains.” 

So it was settled, that we’d drive up to Canada in my ex-sister-in-law’s truck after I had swung by to pick up your dog and camping gear on my way to collect you from what I was sure would be a very bloody murder scene. You could hide in the back alley while the cops assessed the body count. Just one, as planned. Maybe more if there were annoying witnesses. Be sure to bash his head in with a block of ice so it would melt and none of your fingerprints would be found. 

“Feels….cold,” you said when I recommended this.

“Yeah, but the son-of-a-bitch deserves it.”

“No, the ice,” you said. “I lose feeling in my fingers really quickly when the temperature drops, so I’m not sure how long I can hold an ice block.”

“And you want to go to Canada?”

So now we’re back to Mexico as our escape destination, and I’m still waiting for the call telling me to hotwire that bitch Coraline’s truck, swing by to get Rufus the mutt and some camping gear, pick up you and your numb fingers, and high tail it to a beach south of the border. Just so happens I look great in a bikini.

Oh, you think I’m joking? Check out these abs. And this ass. I’m fucking Raquel Welch. Bette Page. Halle Berry walking up on the beach in Die Another Day.

Oh, you mean about driving to Mexico. Baby, just hand me the map and you can doze shotgun the whole way down.