The oppressive fireball of Delta sun hammered upon me and a select group of southern private school young ladies lying covered in mayonnaise, stale French fries, flour, and an amalgam of food items hardening to stone under the oven of Mississippi high noon. The cracking armor of condiments was rank, but we lay docile on the harsh levee gravel and allowed our “sisters” to gleefully shower us with more. This gesture of solidarity to prove our dedication to the group, to seal our bond as sisters, was the grand finale at the end of a week-long initiation into Sub-Deb, a high school club full of pre-debutants who reveled in finding ways of distinguishing themselves as the most elite amongst the elite.
The summer after eighth and ninth grades, select girls received invitations to join the pseudo-sorority. Directed by a helpful Big Sister, Little Sisters received daily gifts of candy and trinkets with accompanying lists of humiliating tasks to complete to prove our loyalty and desire to become part of the privileged Sub-Deb. I was merely second-string elite, so my invitation didn’t come until year two. My raggedy 1985 Jeep Cherokee Chief and frequent refusal to follow clothing trends held me back the year before. While normally I bucked what everyone else was doing, I couldn’t help but feel relief when my bid came year two, as most of my close friends had been accepted after eighth grade and I had not. There was no real reward to being a member, only the reassurance that one had been received by the masses, and no matter how much of an individual I was as a high school freshman, I still didn’t mind the idea of being accepted.
We were somehow pressured into thinking that clipping our cute neighbor’s toenails, wearing old dance costumes around town, running through the aisles at the local Delchamp’s grocery, and quacking like a duck in front of the mall entrance would set us apart from lesser girls: those who were not privileged enough to be included.
We were just so lucky.
Sub-Deb was a bully’s ultimate playground. The year before I received my bid, the majority of my friends went through initiation. My disappointment in not getting a bid didn’t last long when I learned what they went through during their week. Reigning nightmare and Sub-Deb president Tammy Clark led the events that week with more evil and aggression than any other leader in the club’s history. The Friday night of the week that had come to be known secretly as “Hell Week,” Tammy and her senate of bitches recruited their boyfriends with pickup trucks to drunkenly haul pledges out to the graveled isolation of our local Friday night hangout: Haunted House Road. Instructed to lie in the mud, inductees were urinated on, verbally abused, soaked with beer and violently threatened if they didn’t cooperate. No girls balked. Everyone knew her place. When the time came for Sub-Deb dances, everyone would clean up nicely and smile, the epitome of southern charm and grace, glittering with sequins, hair cascading gently and tamed with delicate bobby pins and hair spray, delicate wrists weighted by flowering corsages. Debutantes.
Lying there under the blazing sun, I realized that even after Tammy no longer had control, my initiation year was only a bit less harsh. I thought back over the days before, angrily. One terrifying task of my Hell Week was having my Big Sister drive me to the house of my current boyfriend’s crazy ex-girlfriend, Nickie, knock on her door, and sing the rap song “Boom! I got your boyfriend.” Never one to be confrontational, I was petrified. First, I’ve never been one to rub my happiness in anyone’s face. Second, Nickie was nuts; she was beat-your-ass-steal-your-car-keys-and-throw-them-in-a-ditch crazy. Hot streaks of panic and foreboding had shot through me as I walked slowly up her sidewalk, my life flashing before my eyes. The cooling flood of relief had come when her little brother answered the door and said she wasn’t home, and although I wasn’t going to lose any eyeballs or chunks of hair, the adrenaline crash gave me a migraine for the rest of the day. Escaping safely back to the car where my Big Sister waited, I still couldn’t believe she had put me in such a precarious situation; she just kept repeating the mantra, “This is nothing compared to last year!” She had lost her mother’s class ring while lying face down in the mud, covered in urine. I told her maybe she was right and did not argue further.
We were sent to popular boys’ houses wearing bikinis to ask if we could wash their vehicles. They had to sign our bare stomachs. We wore plaques around our necks so the entire town knew we were simultaneously special yet peons.
It was the indignity of lying there on the gritty levee road under the stench of a slowly baking paste of old food on my skin that the last of my desire to blend in with the crowd left me. I looked up at the sky, illuminated by the unyielding sun, finally thinking how asinine we all were. I was a floating phantasm of my future adult self, hovering above and peering into the lives of mean girls, disgusted at the foolishness of such a time honored tradition. All this nonsense was for acceptance that these rich girls would never really give me anyway and for acceptance that I realized I really did not care to receive after all. My real friends wouldn’t give a shit if I quit. I wouldn’t be kicked out of school. I could even still attend the dances as long as I paid for a ticket and had a friend who was member sign for me.
My face burned with sun and shame. Yet, I continued to lie there. I made no outward impassioned vow of rebellion. I did not valiantly stand up and fling mustard and relish to the wind and denounce the proceedings. I was just there, silent and subordinate, my dignity blazing hotter than my skin, my pride stinking more foully than the hot ketchup and egg yolks.
After the Big Sisters tired of the fun of berating and throwing old food on us one final time, it was finally all over; they allowed us to race down to the lake water to try and wash off some of our newly hardened shells. On an ordinary day the water at the landing would be considered foul; we only swam off sandbars or in the middle of the lake off of boats, yet the foamy levee water where a dead fish or two always floated was a welcome bath that day. The mayonnaise one of the big sisters had smeared in my hair had started to sour, and she laughed from the bank when I pulled my hair to my nose to sniff it. She yelled that it was “good conditioner!” and had another grand laugh.
When I finally arrived home, my mother made me stand in the driveway and douse myself with the water hose until most of the disgusting mess was washed away and I could get into a real shower. As she watched me, she didn‘t say much. She knew how the week had been for me. She had been a debutante before girls humiliated one another; she still had her gold “All American Debutante” necklace. She had remained silent for most of the week, waiting to see if my rebellious side – inherited from my father – or my non-confrontational, go with the crowd side – inherited from her – would win.
She finally turned off the hose and handed me a towel. As I dried off, and the relief of dusk from the quieting sun settled over me and the day, I waited for her to finally say what she’d been dying to say all week.
“Now don’t you just feel silly after all that?” she said with a smirk, knowing me well enough to know that I had learned a hard lesson and was probably inwardly pissed about it. For me, being different was sometimes hard, but fitting in really wasn’t any fun after all.
I never was, nor ever will be, no fucking debutante.
Ginger Beck is a writer and high school English teacher in Arkansas. She recently earned her MFA at the University of Akransas Monticello. She is obsessed with space, dinosaurs (especially T.rex) and Mt. Everest. She lives in Little Rock with her boyfriend Mike and their 12-year-old poodle, Scout, since her 18-year-old daughter has now flown the nest for college. Her most recent work appears in Foliate Oak, The Molotov Cocktail, Red Savina Review, and Blue Lyra Review.