Red Is the Magic Number

I’m doing Suleika Jaouad’s 30-Day Journaling Challenge and so liked the results of today’s assignment that I’m copying it here. The instructions: randomly open up a book, write down the quote your finger lands upon, and write 20 minutes using that prompt. (If you know any of the people in this piece, I duly apologize.)

“The red she pointed to was this sort of proper maroon. I didn’t want proper maroon. I wanted bloodcurdling scarlet.”—Eve Babitz, I Used to Be Charming

I used to be a conscientious red objector. In the 90s I was certain it was a color I couldn’t pull off but I think that’s because I only knew ugly reds. Ones with too much blue and brown in them—dead colors, dried blood colors. New England colors. Then a friend who was destined to only be a friend while I was at my vainest and most superficial (age 29, peak Saturn return) asked me to be her token bridesmaid. She didn’t say “token” but the implication was clear. I was to be the one wacky bridesmaid whose presence proved she’d been doing something interesting in her NYC years. (She hailed from Virginia, was practicing law in NYC, but was destined to raise four blond children back in Virginia, where’d she pretend her law degree and non-Ann Taylor wardrobe had been a folly of her misspent youth.)

So by token I mean the only Northerner. The only Jew. The only girl who hadn’t been a high school bestie or a sorority sister or something equally perfunctory and tribal. I was the only oddball yoga teacher travel writer flaneuzy. Like I said: token.

In retrospect it is shocking she asked me to be a bridesmaid and if I’m being honest we barely hung out after what for me was the debacle of her wedding. I got humiliated there and fucked the wrong guy and therefore broke up the most important relationship of my life and also did I mention it was held at a slave plantation?! (Did I know it was to be held at a plantation beforehand? I do not think so, because back in the 90s you kinda just showed up at the addresses people put in front of you and only investigated the environs upon arrival, but my memory also may be trying to save my hide.)

Anyway the minute when I knew our wacky 90s West Village adventuressing days together had an expiration date is when she informed me our bridesmaid dresses were going to cost 700 dollars. And o yeah they were going to be red.

When she’d asked me to be a bridesmaid, shortly after telling me she was planning on going ahead and marrying the most boring man in the world—he’s dependable, she’d offered, before rushing in with a number of other details that she insisted made him special but in fact only made him seem like any number of other insecure controlling men who disguise their insecurities behind highly specific predilections. (There’s nothing’s worse nor more common than a weak man in America.)

So I’d said yes because I dug her company and because I was curious. I’d never been in a Southern wedding and in those days not doing something before was enough of a reason to do it.

But don’t make me wear red, I said at the time. It was my only caveat. I guess I thought the color washed me out.

Looking back I can’t even imagine what color I thought I did look good in. I think I wore a lot of camel and white and black. The occasional shot of orange, though mostly in my footwear. Way too much navy.

Now of course red is my signature, so much so that the other day a friend said to me: Red is your neutral. And I laughed because as sadsack as I’ve been lately, it still applied. There’s never a time when red—red dress, red shades, red motherfucking lips—doesn’t feel like the way to go. I can’t believe I don’t have red shoes, come to think of it.

Put it on the list. Buy red shoes.

Anyway, I said to the bridey—no red! Sure sure, she said. She might have even said it a little fondly—I was kind of a darling of her circle, mostly comprised of the types of young women regularly featured in the NY Times’ Metropolitan Diary. Somehow I’d become someone invited to charity balls and tony dinners and swanky launches and premieres. I was the only one with no money and no obvious career trajectory (I didn’t start reviewing film until my 30s) but kept getting invited out because I came through with D. Parker presence and a rough-hewn beauty that added clout to her crowd. My demands were part of my appeal; they made me seem certain I belonged. Like I was doing them a favor by hanging around.

That’s always been one of my tricks.

But the other bridesmaid in the wedding party who wielded some clout was a woman I thought of as my nemesis. We were the same height with the same bony broad shoulders and clean strong jaw and teeth but she not only had money but was obsessed with glamorous things to do with her money (aka the woman had actual style, she even started a groundbreaking boutique in Soho) and her teeth were white and even (as in, her folks could afford orthodontia) and also she had big gorgeous tits. (I didn’t get my tits til I was 40 and started putting milk in my coffee.) She was duller than me—few of these girls were curious about anything outside of their rarified worlds– but her look was undeniable, and she was happy to throw her cash around while I simply ingratiated myself through an ability to throw pointed quips while others footed the bill. And of course my own style, a lot of improbably structured see-through sheaths fashioned from stiff nylon and gauze (old-fashioned underwear material I found in garment distract warehouses).

So of course this rich broad convinced my bridey friend that we had to get those fancy expensive dresses and only these dresses. They were by some designer she claimed was up-and-coming though of course nobody ever heard of her again after 2002. (Literally I can no longer remember her name.) And of course this nemesis said they HAD to be red (a color that undeniably looked gorgeous with her rosy brown complexion and dark pixie do), that the color would stand out fantastically among all the pink and magenta flowers. (I could see her point, as annoying as it was.) And of course the dress came to $775 after alterations. Fuck her.

I still fume when I think about it 23 years later. FUCK her. It was more than my rent. Of course I was the only member of the bridal party whose rent wasn’t paid by trust fund. It’s possible I was the only one paying rent as opposed to a mortgage. (Ugh, I still am.)

The dress arrived and it looked as bad with my mousy brown hair as I’d feared. Yes, back then I had mousy brown hair. I relied on lipstick and very pronounced bone structure (I was thinner then) to bring the fireworks but the truth is that my hair was invariably a disaster.

A week before the wedding I decided I wasn’t going to be the resident plain Jane so I ducked into a downtown salon and paid more big bucks to blonde up my hair for the first time since my mother and I had broken up when I was 19. She had been the one dyeing my hair since I was 12, when it had been peroxided for a television gig. After she and I parted ways I decided blond hair was retrogressive so let it fade into its natural color, which, let’s face it, never did look especially natural on me.

And by “natural” I mean “flattering.”

The minute I looked at my platinum self in the salon mirror, I thought—o, I know you.

After that, the red dress looked smashing on me. It was a lovely orange tomato red, the kind I wear all the time now. It picked up on my red lips and shone light on my gorgeous shoulders and pronounced clavicle and long long arms and legs and undeniable curvy hips. (No matter how anorexic I ever hit I anatomically always had sizable hips; no matter how despondent I’ve ever been I’ve always found an auto-compliment for my appearance.)

In fact I looked so hot that I couldn’t resist some hot hot sex so fucked my ex though I’d promised my gorgeous British boyfriend who could not attend that I would do no such thing. And then the bride got furious at me for causing drama and I didn’t care because I already hated her by then for the whole plantation thing and for passive-aggressively not asking me to shave my pits but then being so performatively grateful when I did.

You see: I’ve never shaved my pits, not as an act of rebellion but because I really think shaving your armpit hair is just unnecessary and sort of pedo-creepy (ditty for shaving my bush). Also because I’m convinced armpit hair lends extrasensory perception (only sort of joking here). But for her wedding I’d decided I would shave them so my appearance wouldn’t detract from her alleged big day since the attendees were bound to be a conservative bunch scandalized by a few stray dark hairs in the alleged wrong place. Allegedly.


And then when I arrived at the rehearsal dinner with shaven pits, everyone burst into laughter and a number of attendees exchanged money right there at the table. And she said o thank god and her soon-to-be-husband said, o thank GOD! and I felt the terrible rage and humiliation you feel when you realize it’s not just your imagination. People really have been talking behind your back.

I thought—if it was this important to her, why didn’t she talk to me about it directly? Why invite me to be a bridesmaid at all?

Then I thought—why the fuck am I even here with these awful people? What have I been doing with my 20s?

Now that I think about it, that humiliation, that feeling that I was drowning in the wrong (super-racist) pond, is probably the real reason why I fucked the Artist Formerly Known as My Boyfriend despite the fact that I was desperately in love with the Brit. The Artist was the only person who was actually nice to me that weekend, and he was the person I’d known the longest. It was through him that I’d met the bride. I was never exactly in love with him the way he deserved, but we shared a sensibility and sense of humor and a real sense of kinship that continues today. His was a funny combination of tiger desires and housecat ways that briefly rubbed off on me, I guess.

Anyway, when I got back to NYC the first thing I did when I had any cashish again was bring the dress to a tailor who cut it into a long skirt and a camisole, and after that I went dancing everywhere in the outfit, though sometimes I’d pair that red red skirt with a crop top that said FED UP in the lettering of FED EX.

2K me

And every time I wore it out I’d say—this getup cost 775 dollars for some white supremacist wedding on a plantation and jesus fuck my rent is only 625 and I am a commie jew!!! And people would roar with laughter. People who, like me, were self-proclaimed outcasts paying practically nothing to share crappy apartments with other dingalings while they pursued Holly GoLightly on Acid Trips.

The bride and I didn’t talk much after that. Smoke poured from her ears when word of my red-skirt antics got back her, and whenever I’d run into any of those socialistas they’d talk behind my back right in front of my face. Then my gorgeous British boyfriend got wind of my antics so I really got saddled with a scarlet letter.

In retrospect I don’t blame any of us for our bad behavior. We were young and extremely poorly matched. And honestly I have bridey and her terrible friend to thank. Because from then on red became my neutral.

Extrapolate away.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy