Left to my own devices, I have the innate fashion sense of a 1972 elementary school librarian. You know, the one who wore beige spongy-soled shoes, a twill blue just-below-the-knee skirt, and a brown pilled sweater. She lived at school -- we all knew this to be true -- and the most eye-catching object ever to grace her person was the pearl and rhinestone brooch her mother left her.
This look was destined to be my fate, but thanks to Selena McCall's early intervention, I was saved. Selena was my best friend in college in the early '80s, those unenlightened days when I dressed to attract men but failed miserably. I couldn't have attracted an escaped convict who'd spent the last 15 years looking at nothing but a hairy, check-kiting, breaking & entering felon named Pork. Though it seems funny to me now, at the time it bothered me.
Having a best friend who was not only extraordinarily gorgeous but also smart and unabashedly friendly with everyone was a little frustrating. It was hard to find anything wrong with Selena. She was like the title character from There's Something About Mary. I couldn't possibly hate her. She was too gracious, warm, courteous, and fun to be around. Still, I never got over the feeling that if we'd both been born 200 years earlier, I'd be filling her coal scuttle and bringing her tea as she reclined in a copper tub full of hot water, reading a decadent French novel.
I loved going places with Selena. Waiters tripped over one another to serve this lovely, long-legged Southern blonde. I got free meals and desserts and the best seats in all kinds of establishments. I basked by association in her beauty and desirability. I used to get a kick out of walking into a new place with Selena and counting how many stares she got. She seemed oblivious to the attention, and I felt invisible. I could gawk right in the faces of men, but they stared at Selena like deer trapped in the headlights. I could have mooned them all, and no one would have noticed until the initial trance created by her beauty wore off.
If we had been in the Scooby-Doo gang, she would have been Daphne, and I would have been Velma. Selena was your favorite Hooters waitress and Malibu Barbie rolled into one kind of pretty. I looked at my Winona-Ryder-as-a-12-year-old/discount-Marjorie-doll/chicken-stand-drive-thru-girl face in the mirror and wondered, Why not me?
The whole thing was mostly a matter of self-perception. I wasn't ugly. I just had a completely different look. She was sexy, savvy, and elegant. I was goofy, quirky, and eccentric. (Try finding a man who scans the personal ads for those qualities.)
Selena and I both worked at Macy's, and she always showed up for work in little black things: V-backed sweaters, short skirts, elegant jackets, silk blouses. When we went shopping, she headed for the cropped and beaded cashmere tops while I sorted through the marked-down khaki shorts and striped cotton blouses that looked like what my mom wore to pull weeds in her garden.
After a while I learned to shop by holding up outfits and asking myself, "Would Selena buy this?" One of the beautiful things about Selena was that she never once made me feel like the Velma in our relationship. I did that on my own. She was Atlanta-big-city-sophisticated while I was six months off the farm in Alabama. She was patient with me as I navigated my way through simple things like how to go through a toll booth, open a checking account, purchase kitchen wares. When do people learn to do these things, I wondered. In high school I was feeding calves and helping my mom make jelly while Selena was parading down the football field as homecoming queen and getting free Cokes at the concession stand from awestruck boys.
We used to go to Highlands, North Carolina, a resort town where Selena's parents had a summer home, and pretend we were moneyed tourists. Selena and I would go downtown and peruse the boutiques and antique houses. She barely flinched when I let out a goll-ee or shee-it. Maybe it was because she was actually a descendent of mountain people. I felt right at home listening to her grandmother talk about growing okra, cleaning bathroom grout, and dressing dog wounds. I would sit there watching Grandma McCall drain bacon fat into a pan for the dogs and wonder what glitch in the McCall gene pool could have produced someone as refined as Selena.
I must point out that our friendship did not consist of me flailing my hands up over my face each time we went out in public to protect others from my hideousness. I kept my fear of inadequacy pretty much to myself. When you have a goddess for a best friend, you don't want to annoy her with adulation. How embarrassing for both of you. I honestly liked being with her.
I was about 30 years old before I can say I genuinely felt as pretty and as confident as I perceived her to have been. Nothing changed in me except how I viewed myself. If anything, I looked a lot better in those college years, but I was either too timid or too stupid to let myself feel good about it. Selena rarely pointed out anyone's shortcomings, something a person with little confidence like me could appreciate. It was one more point in her radiation of goodness that made her seem prettier than she probably was.
Reprinted from Western North Carolina Woman (June 2003), a monthly tabloid that celebrates the women of Asheville, North Carolina, through spirited and graceful essays. Subscriptions: $36/yr. (10 issues) from Box 1332, Mars Hill, NC 28754; www.wnc-woman.com