We sat around on folding chairs, pinning ostrich plumes into one another’s hair, sharing college gossip. Near the door that led into the bowels of the Municipal Auditorium, our chaperone was shouting about curtsies — demonstrating, in her tight satin skirt, how we were to bend at the knees without bowing our heads. Our bodies must not betray one trace of submission, she said; we were debutantes, not subjects, after all. Her breath — tuna-laced, necrotic — tossed our feathers. They bobbed as if they were in the bridles of carriage ponies. This felt apt.
My father was offered goats for me once at a dinner party Uptown. The host’s friend, just back from a stint for Shell, had a son as yet unmarried; he thought we’d be a good match. A camel and four goats was the right price, he said, for a basic model like me, but, given what my daddy had paid for my schooling, maybe an Arabian horse should be thrown in too.
He laughed, looking down my dress. I took my mother’s scarf from her chair. My father, bless him, barely chuckled before he started talking. My father has a talent for talking; he can go on for hours about things that interest no one but himself: circuit-court rulings, collegiate a capella, etymologically incorrect usages of common words. That night, huddled under the coral pashmina, I didn’t even try to interrupt so that, by the time dessert arrived, the rest of the table had forgotten about the goats.
My father chuckled again as he took my arm and lead me to the dance floor of the Municipal Auditorium, through a tunnel, into the spotlight. The carriage feather bobbing above my chignon, I felt a little bit like a linebacker, a little bit like I’d died. Patting my hand through two layers of kid gloves, he whispered: Just like a yearling sale.
He meant the subversion to be obvious. Meant the whole thing, I think, as a lesson. Meant for me to see the antique pistons that drive the debauch of Mardi Gras: classism, racism, patriarchy, the commodification of my sex.
I suppose he believed some things are best learned by doing.
One thing I learned: The “Greatest Free Party on Earth” is paid for by debs’ daddies. I shared this revelation with my college friends in Connecticut, trying to get them to stop making those faces at me. They were horrified by all this: the white dress, the pageant. They spoke to me in those tones that people use to speak to the brainwashed, lecturing me on the history of something of which they were not a part.
I tried to explain how funny it was. That all this had originated in a joke — Mardi Gras as a reprisal of Roman Saturnalia, a sort of class-based opposite day. I quoted Bakhtin — “All were considered equal during Carnival” — explaining that every socioeconomic stratum had a “krewe” that threw its own parade and ball. I got into the innate symbolism of rhinestones and the hermeneutics of the Zulu parade, whose African-American members wear whiteface under blackface, a send-up of minstrelsy that consternates still today. I told them about the hot-sauce heiress, who’d passed out, drunk, on her way to the throne. I made fun of Rex, the “King of Carnival,” who proclaimed his throwing of lead-tainted plastic pearls to be pro bono publico. It was cringeworthy, sure. But I figured it was my civic duty to be cringeworthy too.
It was early January, one ball down, two balls to go (some girls do as many as six during the weeks of Carnival between Epiphany and Mardi Gras Day), when Jonas called me on the common-room phone. Jonas, a friend of a friend, had New Orleans roots; he’d agreed to escort me to one of the balls over spring break.