Early in the summer of 1987, my next-door neighbors had a garage sale, and among the goods was a square-dance-style turquoise dress with silver rickrack. Those of you who have ever doubted me when I insist I don’t have a natural eye for style will surely become believers when I tell you that I thought it was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen, and that it looked something like the dress on the left—
—except it was double-breasted, and with more silver, more rickrack, buttons, pockets, and a clasp belt, and was worn not by a sylphlike blonde from a vintage pattern illustration but by a pudgy 12-year-old in Aberdeen, South Dakota, whose most adult fashion choice until that point had been to remove the star sticker from her Sally Jessy Raphael glasses. It was a wonderful dress for a hootenanny, and thoroughly inappropriate for any other occasion whatsoever.
My attitude toward my wardrobe was more advanced than my style, and I knew that I might be able to cadge the $10 from my parents to buy it—but that doing so would weaken my hand when it came to buying the Guess sweatshirt I’d been pining for, so I stayed silent. But as with the Alamo, I remembered. I remembered.
Later that summer, I enrolled in a weeklong camp. Going to camp was one of my biggest dreams ever since reading about it in any one of the YA novels that were set on the east coast, where, in YA we-need-a-setting-that-allows-for-personal-growth-and-minimal-adult-oversight-without-parents-appearing-neglectful world, everyone goes to camp. Nobody in South Dakota went to camp (unless it was 4-H camp), but there was a lot of attention being given to the perilous position of “gifted kids” at that time, so they rounded up all the Stanford-Binet changelings in the state whose parents could afford a couple hundred bucks for tuition and threw us onto a college campus for a week. “Camp,” in fact, might be a misnomer, implying that at some point we’d go fly-fishing and make God’s-eyes with yarn and popsicle sticks. Let’s instead call this a conference of seventh-graders who enjoyed logic puzzles, shall we?
I received the agenda for the conference, and somewhere among seminars on Future Problem Solving and South Dakota Literature, I saw the magic words: FRIDAY NIGHT: DANCE. I’d never been to a dance before—this was the summer before I started junior high, so definitively boy-girl entertainment hadn’t yet entered my social calendar. But of course I knew all about them. Pretty in Pink! Sixteen Candles! Footloose! Carrie! More important, I knew what a dance meant. A dance was redemption for the dorky girl; a dance was where she would step foot into the gymnasium and all eyes would be on her. At the dance, the popular boys would realize she’s the one they should be courting, not the rich girls who have as many Guess sweatshirts as they want; the rich girls, of course, would recognize the dorky girl as someone they should be inviting into their select clique (but will the dorky girl have them? the dramatic tension!). Forget that nobody was really dating yet, and forget that while I wasn’t the most popular girl in school, neither was I picked on; forget that there wasn’t yet anything in my life that needed me to redeem it by setting foot into the gymnasium and taking everyone’s breath away. I wanted the dance, I wanted the moment, I wanted the validation. The makeover was an essential part of the dance plot in teen movies—but just as important was the dress. And you’d better believe I knew exactly which dress it would be. Fate had even sealed the deal: The theme of the dance was “Western,” and what could possibly be more western and simultaneously becoming than a double-breasted turquoise square dance dress with silver rickrack? Exactly.
The garage sale had taken place weeks earlier, but I went over to my neighbor’s house to inquire as to the whereabouts of the dress. I was briefly crushed when she told me that the dress was actually her sister’s contribution to the garage sale, and that when it didn’t sell her sister took it back with her, to her home a four-hour drive away in Vermillion, South Dakota. But wait! Vermillion, South Dakota, was the exact site of the conference of seventh-grade logicians! With the inimitable pluck of a 12-year-old girl whose experience with sexual metamorphosis extended no further than a bevy of 1980s prom movies, I asked her if her sister would be so kind as to hand-deliver the dress to the camp so that I could then be suited up for my grand record-scratch of an entrance. And with the bemused affability of a thirtysomething woman being asked to urge her sister to drive across town into a horde of prepubescent Odysseians of the Mind just so a girl could make an entrance, she agreed.
I wasn’t exactly sure how the handoff was going to happen—this was before cell phones and e-mail, so I just had to hope that all communication was a-go and that somehow my neighbor’s sister in Vermillion, South Dakota, would be able to find me on the university campus. On the third day of camp, the camp director was doing “mail call” during breakfast (who sends mail during a weeklong camp?), and then he held up the dress—my dress—and said, “And who does this pretty little number belong to?” Someone—I now presume one of the other teachers—let out a loud wolf whistle, and the entire camp burst into laughter.
This isn’t where I became embarrassed. No, I loved it. It was mildly embarrassing in the same way you’re embarrassed when someone gives you a lavish compliment: I loved the attention but felt a tad gaudy (never mind that I was picking up a double-breasted turquoise square dancing dress with silver rickrack). The wolf whistle sealed it for me: This dress was smokin’, and I knew it, and now thanks to the loudspeaker delivery, everyone knew it, and as I walked to the small stage where the camp director was to claim the dress, I knew that come FRIDAY NIGHT: DANCE I would own the University of South Dakota campus.
Now, I’m not fast-forwarding past the rest of the camp in order to keep focus on the story. I’m fast-forwarding past it because I have no recollection of it whatsoever, other than a handful of memories involving the single friend I managed to make there (who now lives in Sioux Falls and is evangelical about the gluten-free lifestyle, or so Facebook tells me). I was there for a week, and I do not recall a single class, seminar, or activity we did the entire time, except for a timed writing exercise based on that year’s theme, “South Dakota Pride,” which I scribbled fervently even as I felt vaguely embarrassed that I was supposed to be proud of this state that had exactly zero glamour to it. (We were all from South Dakota, of course, but to remind us of this fact and to make us write about our pride on the matter seemed an act of aggression.) I think I had a good time? I don’t know, honestly.
But I remember the dance. The dress actually fit me reasonably well, and my neighbor’s sister had even thought to include a pair of matching silver sandals so I wasn’t stuck wearing my sneakers. They were too small for me (I wore a size 8 by sixth grade) but I wore them anyway. My now-gluten-free friend had brought eyeshadow, and I’d brought a curling iron and hairspray, so I went over to her dorm room after putting on my dress so we could get ready together. (My own roommate, who was possibly even dorkier than I was and professed to have no interest in boys or dances whatsoever, chose not to attend. This was fine by me because I’d already run out of excuses to not walk with her to the cafeteria and therefore have to eat meals with her, not wanting her dorkiness latch onto my own and create a Velcro-like dork hold. It’s not like Gluten-Free or I were cool, but at least we both knew about boys.) I knew we weren’t supposed to show up exactly on time, because that would be Uncool, so we waited until the dance was barely underway and then made our way to the gymnasium.
The adult counselors had decorated the gym with crepe paper, and they’d turned down the lights, but not too low, because we were 12. None of this mattered, however, because nobody was there. Nearly everybody—boys and girls alike—was in the hallways and rooms surrounding the gymnasium, doing the various planned, adult-supervised activities that each of those spaces held. I couldn’t tell you what any of those activities were (rebus throwdowns?) because I was too busy being horrified. This was a dance! This is where it—it!—was supposed to happen! It’s not like I’d met any boys over the course of the camp I took any particular interest in, but I was at a dance, and there were boys in the vicinity, and I was bewildered that they weren’t suddenly lining up to give all the girls punch from a punch bowl as a prelude to extending their hands as “Is This Love” by Whitesnake played in the background. No—they were doing, I don’t know, word games, and so were the girls, and I’d just had enough. I liked word games just fine. I’d spent my whole life doing word games, and rebuses, and logic puzzles, and making crosswords, and writing scripts—I liked doing those things so much that I’d gone to gifted camp. But this was the night that all those word games and rebuses and logic puzzles were to be transcended. This was the FRIDAY NIGHT: DANCE, and I was in my turquoise dress and borrowed silver sandals. I was ready. And nobody cared.
So I cried. I didn’t cry at the dance; I held it in with as much dignity as I could muster and made a beeline to the bathroom, where I entered a stall, sat on the toilet, and cried. I wasn’t crying because I didn’t feel pretty, not exactly; I was crying because I felt foolish for having thought that a turquoise dress and a curling iron would be enough to make me pretty, and for having such a specific result in mind, one I’d learned in a flash wasn’t going to happen. I cried because I knew I was smart—every girl in that gymnasium knew she was smart, that’s why we were there—but I didn’t know if I would ever be pretty. I cried because I saw that what I’d heard all along—girls mature faster than boys—was true, and that I was going to have to wait before any of them wanted any of us. I cried because someone had whistled when everyone saw my dress, and nobody was going to whistle at me in it. I cried because this was my chance and I didn’t even have the opportunity to blow it. I cried for not having been more kind to my roommate, and I cried for crying about not having been more kind to her because I knew I didn’t deserve my own pity. I cried because I’d believed with all my being that once I put on eyeshadow and a turquoise dress, I’d turn into a heroine of any of the slumber-party movies I’d watched; I cried because that was the night I began to understand that the success of those movies depended upon girls like me thinking maybe that would happen to them. I cried because at that moment, in a gymnasium decorated with crepe paper so that the gifted kids could feel not just smart but glamorous, I began to understand that not everything would come easy to me, and that some forms of failure could be intangible, inexpressible, and nonetheless undeniable. I cried because I wanted to be seen, and because nobody was ready or willing to see me.
Eventually two other campers came into the bathroom and heard my sobs. After I insisted I was f-i-i-i-i-i-ne, they called in one of the adult counselors. I don’t remember what she told me; I just remember that she was blonde and pretty, and that seemed comforting somehow. She walked outside with me while I decided whether I wanted to go back to the dance. I did, so she led me there, but once inside I lost all enthusiasm for it. My friend the gluten-free enthusiast found me and said she wanted to leave. Together, we did. The next day, we all went home.
I’d go to camp again the next year. Not gifted camp, but 4-H camp, where I had a certain amount of social cache because I was secretary of a rather important 4-H club (our “den mother” had been named Dairy Woman of the Year). By then I had contact lenses, reasonable proficiency with eyeliner, and a knack for detecting whether a boy liked me. I got my first kiss at that camp. It was where I got my first inkling that with a bit of skill, a few omissions, and an artfully placed laugh, the girl in the turquoise dress wouldn’t be the first thing everyone saw when they looked at me. It was where I learned that getting what you want—a boy telling you he likes you—could bring worries of its own. It was where I found that the magic happens not at the dance, but outside of it, as you hear people chanting to "Mony Mony" while you look into the eyes of someone who, at that moment, can see only you.
I returned to my room, aloft, and told my roommate in great detail exactly what had happened. And I understood when, in the middle of the night, I heard her muffled tears.