On June 21, 1981 I was home from my first year at The New England Conservatory of Music, and my parents were having a party to celebrate The Royal Wedding. It was, because they were fabulous throwers of parties, quite a “do.” My father wore his kilt, my mother dressed in a Queen Mum outfit with a floral dress and a picture hat. Two friends, theatrical types, wore morning coats and a couple from the neighborhood appeared in tweed and cashmere. There were scones, clotted Devonshire cream, pots of strawberry jam, a standing roast and Yorkshire pudding. The guests of honor, absent due to the pressing demands of a honeymoon in Hampshire, were toasted with admirably good champagne.
Upstairs in my childhood room, suffering from the agony that comes with the return home after a year of living in a dormitory among soul mates, I sulked. I would go downstairs and be pleasant, but it was not my party. I lay on my bed staring at the whorls of white paint as familiar as the feeling of a breath filling my lungs. It was not my first time at the rodeo; I had spent more hours sulking in that bed than I had ever committed to any productive activity. I was prototypical Emo, a creature of thin skin, my heart beating bloody on my sleeve.
The phone rang, and from the thick tangle of laughter, chatter and ice in glasses downstairs came my father’s voice. “Annie?” I rose and went to the top of the stairs. It couldn’t be the phone for me; my local friends were all gone, and my Conservatory friends were more likely to write letters in those days of landlines and long distance charges.
“Yes?” I hollered back. I knew he hated it when I did that, shouted instead of taking the time to go where an actual conversation was possible. I knew he would hate it even more in front of a house filled with guests. He came to the foot of the stairs, a vision in his Graham plaid kilt, a bonnet on his silvering hair.
“You have a phone call,” he said, loud enough for me to hear him over the madding crowd. “A boy. Ruben something-or-other.” I was suddenly hot and then cold, and required the solidity of the wall. “Can you take it up there?” My father asked, oblivious to the fact that my internal organs were melting and I was thrumming with anxiety.
“Can you tell him I’m not here?”
“I already told him you were here.” Oh. I was going to have to talk to Ruben Rosenberg unless I chose, at that precise moment, to throw myself down the stairs, or run into the bathroom, break a glass and eat all of the pieces.
“Hang up when I pick up?” I asked weakly. I might get sick, I thought, in fact, I felt sick, like I might throw up, or fall over, or have one of those atypical heart attacks 19-year-olds occasionally had. I walked into my parents’ bedroom and looked at the ivory plastic phone, wondering why, if someone was really mad at you, really hated you, they would call you from New Jersey on the day of the Royal Wedding. Or at all. Why would there be any need for further connection, more cuts and abrasions to the psyche, further entanglement? I picked up the phone, heard the noise of the party downstairs. “I’m on, Dad,” I said. There was a click, and the noise stopped. I heard only breathing.
“I just wanted to tell you that you’re a bitch.” He said. “I spent a lot of money on that dance, and you could have told me you didn’t want to go with me. I spent a lot of money on that necklace, too.” I breathed, raggedly. There are girls who, at 19, know things about boys. They know how to attract them, how to please them, and the art of the gentle rebuff. They are comfortable in their roles as vixens, charmers, and holders of power. I was not among them.
“I’m sorry,” I said on an exhale. I was sorry. I had met Ruben when I was invited to New Jersey for Thanksgiving. I had gone to New Jersey with Pat, an oboe player from Oregon who I was in love with in ways juvenile and excessive. He and I were too far from home to justify plane tickets for a four-day trip, and his roommate’s parents had invited us to eat turkey with them in Cherry Hill. Later I would know that Pat was gay, he would tell me in the eighth floor laundry room one night, and I would slap him, and cry for weeks.
Later, in my grief and panic I would welcome the letters from Ruben, who was the roommate’s best friend from high school. He had had joined us on our post-turkey excursion into Philadelphia, and decided that he liked me. He was smart, and funny, he was male, he paid attention to me. He drew cartoons for me, and he sent me a gold “A” on a chain, the first real present I had ever received from a boy. I swelled with the attention, buckets of water for a plant that had, only recently, been near death from drought. I had no feelings for him at all; he was Not Pat, not the face I wanted to see, not the right fit, but breathing. It seemed, as it often does when one is swimming in the solipsistic sea of adolescence, that it was a fair trade offered by the cosmos: I had lost Pat, who returned to the dorm every morning with a toothbrush in his pocket, but I would get the devotion of Ruben, who made up in eagerness for what he lacked in desirability.
“You’re sorry?!” his voice rose. I hated his voice. He was, in my mind, vaguely reptilian. He had a kind of a beard, which I didn’t like, and I remembered him putting his hand on the small of my back to steer me through a doorway, and the meeting of lips that had made me recoil and sent everything racing downhill. Pat had told me that kissing a girl was “like kissing white bread;” he could do it, but he felt nothing. Kissing Ruben Rosenberg, all I could think of was that he was Not Pat, Not Pat, Not my Pat. “You’re sorry. Well, here’s the thing. I have a girlfriend now, and I’m really happy.” I waited. He said nothing; he had clearly expected some kind of reaction. Downstairs, there was a roar of laughter, a clinking of glasses.
“That’s good. Ruben, I have to-“
“She’s pretty. She’s really pretty. I didn’t want to tell you this before, but you look like Miss Piggy. Especially in that stupid dress. How does that make you feel?” I had invited him to The Strauss Ball, the end of the year formal at the Conservatory. My friends were going, I had never been on a real date, and if I couldn’t go with Pat, waltz with him, listen to him breathing as he pulled me close on the dance floor, it made no difference who took me. I made plans with Ruben, he took time from school, rented a tuxedo, and made reservations at the Top of the Hub, the revolving restaurant in the Prudential Tower. He appeared on a Friday, corsage in a box, looking to see that I was wearing the golden “A” along with my Gunne Saxe dress. I knew as soon as I met him in the lobby of the dorm that it was wrong, all wrong, terribly wrong. I became progressively quieter until, by the third revolution of the restaurant, I was mute. I cried while I put on my long dress and pinned up my hair. I met him at the end of my hall, we sat down on a bench before walking across the street to the Ball, and he tried to kiss me. I pulled my head away and told him, tears destroying my inexpert makeup, that I couldn’t go. I was sorry, I was so sorry, but it was a physical impossibility for me to go down in the elevator, walk across Huntington Avenue and dance to Strauss waltzes. “Well?” he demanded. “How does the truth feel? I did all that stuff because I felt sorry for you, Miss Piggy. I want that necklace back, by the way, it was expensive. My mom says you should send it back to me.”
“I don’t – I guess I-“
“How does it feel, Miss Piggy?!” He was getting louder, the party was escalating as more corks were popped, I had no words for anyone. “Miss Piiiii-geeeeee,” he made a sort of hog call, “I want that necklace back you bitch. I had to miss a final to go to Boston, I had to go ask my professor if I could take it on a different day because of you, Miss Piggy.” My father appeared in the doorway, looked at my blanched face and wet eyes, and looked at the receiver in my hand with a raised eyebrow. I nodded. I needed him, my dad the highland host, I needed him to save me. Ruben continued to speak as I put my hand over the mouthpiece.
“It’s a guy from school. He’s being really mean, I can’t get him off the phone.” My father extended a hand, took the receiver, and spoke in his most awesomely terrifying voice.
“No gentleman harasses a lady, young man. This conversation is over, and you had best not call here again.” He returned the phone to its plastic cradle and looked at me. “Get cleaned up and come down,” he said gently, “people are asking to see you.” I walked to my room, stuffing in trailing bits of guilt, humiliation and a swelling of love for my father. On my dresser was the “A” in its velvet box; I had liked it there, because it was the only present I ever got from a boy. I snapped the box shut with a resounding thwack, opened the top drawer and shoved it in, far behind the balled socks and “No Nonsense” packages. I looked in the mirror, saw more than I could yet understand, and got ready for the Royal Wedding party.