I went to a ball. I did, you know! And I was a beautiful bird wearing someone else’s feathers.
The ball was a fundraiser for the Irish Arts Center, a sweet and important little cultural centre in Manhattan, with a black-box theatre space full of seats rescued from a movie theatre in the 1980s. It looks like a narrow three-story house and has a makeshift charm about it. I often perform in the theatre downstairs while upstairs people speak Irish and play the fiddle. I adore it, but also look forward to the fancy new building they are raising funds for.
As I totted up my expenses in preparation for the ball, I realised I should probably be fundraising for my own renovation, because my funds were the lowest they’d been since I worked in a skateboard shop and gotten paid in T-shirts. I’m bad with money, but money is worse with me. Some days it pours in on top of me and I have to fling it away to be able to breathe. Other days I look for it everywhere and there is none to be found. Money feels like a tide that comes in and out, controlled by a moon I can’t reach.
I would wear the dress with a nonchalance that suggested to onlookers I was a little bit tired of going to balls all the time
The ball rolled around during a month when the tide was very far out, and I could not afford to buy a dress. If I gathered all the cockles and mussels left clinging to the shoreline, I could just about afford to rent a dress. There is this wonderful place called Rent the Runway, where, Cinderella-like, I could borrow a dress for a fee, and unlike poor Cinderella, I didn’t have to give it back at midnight. I had the whole next day to lounge around in it too.
I felt totally fine about renting a dress, although I promised myself I wouldn’t tell anyone. I resolved to just say thank you if anybody complimented me. In the past, I’ve ruined many a generous utterance by breaking it down and explaining where the lie is. “Oh, this old sweater? Please. I got it from a thrift store and I’m quite sure this here is a bullet hole, it smelled like blood and sulphur when I bought it, believe me, but it was only seven dollars!” Not this time.
This time, I would be a successful adult who happened to choose this dress from a selection of many that hung in her walk-in wardrobe in a separate room from her bedroom that definitely wasn’t a 50-minute subway ride to Manhattan and definitely didn’t have a salmon-coloured sink in it that was left over from when her apartment was a dentist’s office. I would wear the dress with a nonchalance that suggested to onlookers I was a little bit tired of going to balls all the time, but compassionate enough to support the cause.
I paid a visit to the brick-and-mortar Rent the Runway store, located in the middle of the Meatpacking District. From the outside, the store looks like an upscale boutique, with designer gowns in the window and elegant employees in black wafting around inside. It’s only when you’re inside the store and wandering among those dresses, lifting them up and pulling them out, that you notice that they are all a little big or slightly too worn or just a tiny bit used-looking, and that’s when the entire place suddenly feels like the dress-up box at a theatre workshop.
I hurriedly pulled out a few cocktail dresses to try on. They were mostly black, mostly shaped like the dresses a doll would wear in the 1950s, the type of dress that’s absolutely perfect to wear to your grandson’s bar mitzvah. I’m not used to dressing up; my professional life doesn’t allow it. Writers wear grubby, misshapen outfits that eventually mould to their hunched-over bodies, and stand-up comedians are the same, except with an added parka jacket, because they are forced to leave their house for shows.
I timidly chose the plainest dresses, the ones least likely to trip me up, until a swan of a girl with blond hair extensions on her little head and a measuring tape around her slender neck came gliding across the floor to my hapless self, offering assistance. I nodded at the creature, in wonder and agreement.
Ten minutes later, I found myself in front of a trio of mirrors, spinning around and clapping, actually clapping my hands together, as half a dozen women in various states of undress collectively cooed at how stunning I was. The swan had zipped me into a strapless fishtail dress, oyster-coloured; a dress that sounds like hell, but looked like heaven. Was it really me? I was light-headed at the prospect of entering the world in this powerful form. Or perhaps I was just dizzy from all the twirling.
I floated on up to the cash register to secure my future happiness. A different swan, older and sophisticated, smiled at me as she secured the dress in its special case. I blushed in anticipation of it all, the way my butt looked in the dress, the snipped-in waist highlighting my abstention from carbohydrates for the past six weeks, and the thrill of stepping into an actual ball looking like a sexy goddamn Cinderella.
Then the magic stopped. The dress cost $320. Not to buy, you understand. Three hundred and twenty dollars to rent for a couple of days, after which these swan fairy godmothers would disappear, forsaking me as I turned back into a scullery maid.
The rental cost was determined by the retail price and this dress was a Vera Wang number, expensive and unforgettable. I'd heard the name before, but until that moment of unrequited longing, until that impossible dream of a dress had her exquisite fingers around my throat, I'd failed to understand its meaning. I'd been Wanged.
I couldn’t pay for it. I tried all of my credit cards and they were rejected one by one. The older swan motioned to the younger one to unpack the dress and she led me back to the fitting rooms. There, the light seemed different than before. Harsher, somehow, as were the faces of the other people in the changing room, now that I wasn’t wearing my oyster-coloured super-shell. With a heavy heart I hauled on some of my initial options, the black ones, and settled on a peplum affair with a thigh-high slit. Seeing myself in the mirror, stripped of my first choice, I felt a new sensation, a phantom pain, the sort of pain an amputee feels in a limb no longer there. It was just an aftershock of being Wanged, I told myself; it would fade. Eyes cast down, I paid up, and left.
The ball was held on the Upper West Side, in a fancy hotel of the old-school variety. Ideally I would have taken a car, one of those low, purring cars driven by a rapper who’s more on the business side now. There was no such opportunity – my carriage was the Q train to the C train, at rush hour, so I wore my hoody and rolled my dress up in its plastic shroud, slipping it into my backpack with my shoes.
Is there any greater compliment than someone thinking you are too gorgeous to be yourself?
I changed in a bathroom cubicle at the hotel. The mercifully solid oak doors hid my shuffling from foot to foot as I stood on the sneakers I’d worn on the trip, trying not to touch the floor. Even in fancy places you don’t want to stand barefoot in the bathroom, because rich people have worms, too. I wiggled into the dress, packed my old clothes up, and slipped out of the cubicle to inspect my put-together self in the mirror. I tried not to think about the Vera Wang dress. It was never mine to begin with. Neither was this one, but it was what I had on and I forced my brain to focus solely on what stood before me. Compare and despair, I chanted to myself, compare and despair. I looked perfectly okay. The dress was basic, up to the job, if the job was to have a nice time and to blend in well.
I ducked into the room where a drinks reception was well under way and flung my backpack under a tall table draped with a long white tablecloth. I took a glass of cava from a passing waiter’s tray and offered it to the Man upstairs, praying that nobody would spot the backpack. Not that there was anything valuable in there, but they might think it was some kind of explosive device. I stood, alone and worried for a moment, which is a great look for any party, but quickly realised that nobody would suspect a terrorist attack on a fundraising ball for a non-profit arts centre, and that my bag would be fine.
I spotted a woman from the arts centre and went up and pulled her elbow just as she was about to take a drink. She was kind of startled, until she stepped back and realised it was actually me. She said I looked gorgeous and she didn’t recognise me at first. Is there any greater compliment than someone thinking you are too gorgeous to be yourself? Not to me! I was thrilled. I couldn’t help picturing her reaction had I been in that oyster-coloured Wang number. She probably would have screamed.
We were called for dinner and sat in a dated, glitzy hall at huge round tables. When I sat and arranged the slit in the skirt, my dress looked fine, but these little rolls of underarm fat kept popping out at either side of the bodice. That would never have happened in my real dress, the one that held me just right, the one that felt like a second skin, a skin more comfortable than my own. That must be how rich people feel all the time, extra-comfortable. Now I was shifting position in my chair, trying to sit up straight. I held my shoulders back, but I couldn’t keep doing that and still reach for the butter to put on my little rolls while they were still warm. I mean on my actual bread rolls, not those underarm rolls.
My table was wonderful, giddy and friendly and full of young Irish immigrants. There were a couple of boxers’ wives whose husbands were training and couldn’t come out, and they were in bright, tight dresses and took regular cigarette breaks. There was a former child actor and a humanitarian aid worker, full of stories of their past lives that expanded as the drinks kept flowing. The speeches were tipsy and outrageous and the petits fours were tragically divine.
It was silly of me to pine for something so elusive as the fleeting feeling a slip of fabric had given me
It was an event I'd be delighted with at any other time, but I couldn't enjoy it because I kept wondering just how different it would all be if I'd shown up in the magical dress. Wouldn't I be the one holding court at the table, regaling everyone with my just-the-right-side-of-gossipy anecdotes? I was certain that the Javier Bardem lookalike at the next table would be drawn to this siren before him, and without any trouble I'd surely lure him into the deep blue sea with me. Not like this, though, no. Not when the tide was out.
It was silly of me to pine for something so elusive as the fleeting feeling a slip of fabric had given me. Why couldn’t I ignore whatever nerve it had pinched? I simply couldn’t. I said my goodbyes, wished one of the bright girls good luck for her husband’s upcoming fight, and crouched under the table to reclaim my backpack.
I went back to the bathroom to change into my subway clothes. I tugged at the side of the dress, glad, as always, to unzip. I put my leggings and hoodie back on and tied my hair in a ponytail. As I passed the reception desk and reached to push the brass-panelled door I heard my name yelled from the front bar. I looked in, and there was my table, fresh drinks in hand, smiling at and toasting me and each other. “We decided to have one more, come in and sit down.” “Even like this?” I mimed, gesturing to my outfit. “Even like that,” said the girl, moving over to make room on the deep green sofa. So I did go in and I did sit down, and it felt like we were just getting started.
This is an edited extract from Maeve in America by Maeve Higgins, published this week by New Island Books