Everything is Betsey and Bette in the 1970’s. Betsey of the fabulous fashion and her colorful knits and patterns and Bette singing on one of your very first albums. On Saturdays you like to go to the fabric store don’t you? Designing clothes is something you and your best friend love to do. You can escape the adults downstairs by sewing in your bedroom. Your mother loves this, and so does your best friend’s mother. “Look at my daughter,” is what they say to their friends.
It’s as if the two of you are just another of their own accomplishments. You escape in your bedrooms, sewing. Up until fifteen your mother had chosen all your clothes. You never had a say until your grandfather got you that Singer. The Singer store was in the mall that had just opened near the fabric store, and the mall was where your mother worked as an executive running the whole top floor of Robinson’s Women’s Sportswear. You go in to visit her at work and the salesgirls come up to admire her little creation’s new designs.
“My daughter is an artist,” she says.
You listen to Bette and to Phoebe and to Carole croon out love songs while you sew the dress above. It’s the most complicated thing you will ever make in those years. The dress you were the proudest of. Everyone cuts classes to hang out on the lower field in the 1970’s. You cut biology unwilling to dissect frogs. It was just something you couldn’t do because it sickened you, didn’t it?
You concentrate on art and fashion and you run with the crowd that is all lower field. It’s cooler down there and the crowd is older and you’re learning to navigate crowds, and crowds at school and even girls who are bullies because they scared you. They’re taking art with you and it’s a time of social movements in America in the 70’s. Some girls have switchblades. Some girls just use fists.
You had lowrider friends in Art class. The girls were fierce on the playground. Mini-Chicanas. Mecha. They have the most make-up and the most style you think. They’re loud, defending their boyfriends and pushy sometimes like when Lupe showed you her switchblade under the big communal art table in Janice’s class.
“Toni better not mess with me.”
The playground is a gangland full of hidden mines you have to navigate. Toni is like Angela Davis, fiercely proud pantheresque proving something to everyone. She has a giant Afro. She’s walking around with raised fists, but so are you and so is everyone. Everybody has a different fist, or a different cause they are scrambling for. They fight on the playground, ganging up.
You were sitting in your dress, all peplumed and pretty in a dropped waist that you’d designed when you were late back to English class that day, because you’d been sitting with the rebels and hippies and outsiders down there where everything was available but you never partook of anything but a cigarette or one tiny puff of what they passed around. Evan had a flask of Southern Comfort in his motorcycle boot that afternoon trying to look all cool. His parents had plenty of everything, didn’t they?
Rich boys were no different than poor boys in those days when all they wanted was the girl to smile back.
White girls have to learn for themselves, just like all girls do about boys.
Girlgangs. They come in all colors don’t they? Just like Boygangs.
You’re late, alone in the hallway for class that day. Toni’s gang comes around the corner and sees you standing outside the English class door five minutes late and wondering whether you should open it or just skip when they surround you, outnumbered by six. Your teeth would chatter if they could. She looms over you with a ten inch Afro dressed in dashikiprint.
She’s staring at your dress. She’s staring at the bow. She’s looking you up and down and her eyes are glaring as if you have tresspassed on something that is her turf and you wish Lupe was there or somebody else but they aren’t.
“Your sash is untied,” she says, her eyes full of menace.
“Turn around and I’ll tie it for you.”
You reach back with one hand feeling for it. The bow is tied, just as you tied it that morning. It’s the dress that you made from your favorite pattern. The dropped waist dress of Betsey’s. Your favorite dress in all the world. An American girl’s dress made from American fabric.
“No it isn’t.”
“Yes it is.”
You don’t know what to do. You’re surrounded by six of the meanest girls in the school and you have to think on your feet.
You decide that maybe you better because you are outnumbered so you do and she unties and then reties the bow. You can feel her behind you like ten thousand lifetimes of menace enraged. She grabs the whole bow and yanks and the whole back of your dress rips in half, shredded, torn, gone. They dissipate as fast as they came, laughing around the corner, running. You’re standing there shuddering not even knowing what to do so you go inside the classroom trying to hold your dress together with one hand in back wondering how you are going to make it through the day. It’s a good thing you had a sweater in your locker, because you tied it around your waist that day as if it could hold what had happened together somehow.
Your fist was feminism.
Your fist was Ms. and poems. Your fist was petitions to be able to wear pants to school. You thought all the girls were thinking like that didn’t you?
Your uncle is up from Hollywood as you try and tell him about Bette and how much you love her voice. “Skylark” is your favorite song. You never mention what happened at school that day to anyone. He’s telling you that Bette’s no good and you should listen to the Jazz greats like Ella instead.
“Leave her alone,” your mother says loudly.
You’re playing Skylark, years later, opening containers of memory and realizing what your whole generation was about back in Junior High. You wouldn’t be wearing dresses much longer, would you?
“peplums in bullyland” — copyright 2011 — all rights reserved
* author note on music: