Guest List Girls
Surely she would be invited this time. Surely, thought Elaine. Elaine had heard that her sorority sister Molly Cho would be marrying. Even though they hadn't spoken in a little while, and it had been some time since holiday cards had been exchanged, Elaine was certain -- no, positive -- that she would be invited to the wedding. She was so sure, in fact, that she picked out the wedding gift. It would be a silver platter from Tiffany's. She knew that Molly would be registered at Tiffany's. And she knew that Molly would love that platter, a two-foot monstrosity with grape leaves emblazoned in the center.
She had received a newsletter, started by alumni from her sorority, that Molly Cho, a junior partner at Home Securities Bank, class of 1994, would marry investment banker Allan Chan in San Francisco. At least she won't have to change her initials, Elaine thought.
Since her graduation from the University of Southern California, Elaine had not kept in contact with some of her girlfriends like Addy Nealson and Rebecca Mar. Both of whom had gotten married and did not invite Elaine.
Elaine shrugged it off. Weddings were expensive. Not everyone could be invited. She was made of stronger stuff; she wasn't going to fall apart just because she wasn't invited to a few of her insipid sorority sisters' weddings. It was no big deal. At least that's what she convinced herself.
Yet something loomed deep within her when she discovered she wasn't invited. It wasn't anything debilitating. She didn't take time off work to mourn the fact that she wasn't invited. She didn't shed a tear over not receiving an invitation. Oh, no, it wasn't anything like that. As a matter of fact, most times she didn't even think about it.
What she felt was simply an ache, a slight ache. It lasted 30 seconds -- a minute at most -- and it came upon her at times when she was allowed to have a thought that was purely her own. When she was on the freeway, for example, and couldn't find a music station she liked, she turned off her radio, and thought. It would flood her: the idea that girls she went to school with, girls she had felt some kinship toward, girls she had roomed with, did not want her at their nuptials.
But we were friends! Elaine thought to herself. We did things together! Like when they were in college and went to The Window, a trendy downtown club -- trendy because a European princess had vomited on the dance floor while dancing with her drug dealing boyfriend, trendy because there was a roped off entrance, trendy because there was a balcony that looked over the front door where you could see all of the losers who didn't have what it took get into the club: people who lacked the panache, that special something to separate you from the others in the crowd.
She made a point of only going to The Window with one of her girlfriends, justifying to herself that a girl alone would be too vulnerable. Her sorority sisters agreed. They would never go alone. Addy, a lovely half-Asian, half-white girl, agreed with that decision. Rebecca, a runner-up in the Miss Chinatown pageant, who had the presence of, well, a beauty contestant, nodded her head vigorously. Molly, a petite woman, doll-like, with exquisite skin said, "Without a doubt."
After they had all graduated, Elaine went straight into her graduate program at Occidental College. The other girls had gotten jobs, doing lord knows what, or had taken off to Europe to "bum around." It was in her second year at Occidental when she'd heard via Molly that Addy had gotten married.
"It was a lovely wedding," Molly said over a lunch. "It was in Waikiki. By the beach. Seagulls flew above while they said their vows."
Seagulls? Elaine thought. They're scavengers, the rodents of the sky, no better than pigeons. Elaine wanted to say this. She was put off. It was also at that lunch that Molly let Elaine know that she would be moving back to San Francisco, a move that distanced their friendship.
There was no explanation as to why she wasn't invited to Addy's wedding. Elaine was slightly hurt, but didn't really mind all that much. Addy and Elaine never really meshed. Addy, a laid-back girl from Hawaii, simply didn't click in with Elaine's urban, quickly-paced mentality.
"I'd be happy with a B, maybe even a C, as long as I pass," Addy once said of a class. Elaine envied Addy for saying that. Elaine would have loved the luxury of being able to settle for a "C." She couldn't possibly do that. More importantly, the Hunter Scholastic Society, which provided tuition for inner city youth, wouldn't settle for that. Elaine's education was paid for by HSS. They would pay her collegiate ride (with the exception of room and board), as long as she maintained a minimum of a 3.2 grade point average. She had left college with the overall GPA of 3.8.
Elaine had an idea of why she wasn't invited to Addy's wedding: maybe Addy believed Elaine couldn't afford the trip to Hawaii. So many times in college, her girlfriends suggested a sojourn during spring break. Miami? Jamaica? Acapulco? Elaine declined, claiming work. Which was true. She had to earn room and board somehow. All the girls understood, except Addy.
"Don't you ever want to go anywhere?" Addy said, almost whining.
"Of course," Elaine said. "It's just now is not the time."
Addy used her father's MasterCard to no end, buying groceries, paying for gas, running up a tab at The Window.
Elaine didn't consider Addy's wedding a big loss. Through her college years with Addy, they had some good times, but weren't close. Yes, they were roommates, but not the dearest of friends. Their interaction was cordial, usually friendly. They had gossiped, eaten each other's leftovers. Her fondest memory of Addy was when they dressed each other in togas -- sheets pulled from their beds -- to attend a party for the new pledges of their sorority. Elaine fixed her hair, swept it up into a French twist. In front of the mirror, Elaine looked at Addy, then at herself, and for a moment, she truly felt like Addy's sister.
That moment in front of the mirror was fleeting, perhaps a moment Addy wouldn't even recall. She really didn't mind all that much that she was left off the invitation list to Addy's wedding.
But Molly. Molly! She had had many moments with Molly that would never be described as fleeting. She helped Molly decide what she'd wear to the first exchange between her sorority and their brother fraternity, the Chis. She was the person Molly confided in when Molly had thoughts of leaving the sorority, because too many of the girls were stuck-up. Elaine convinced her that being in their sorority, one of the finest Asian-American sororities in the country, had its advantages, namely the prestigious alums who could help them out in the future. That was the sole reason that Elaine had joined. Past alums included influential businesswomen, a few senators, a best-selling author, and a famous news anchor.
Elaine was there (in the next room) when Molly lost her virginity to Peter Nguyen, president of the Chi's pledge class. She was there for Molly when she discovered she was not pregnant with Peter's child. Elaine witnessed that little strip of paper turn red herself.
"Thank God!" Molly screamed. And, of course, Molly got her period the following week.
Surely she would be invited to Molly's wedding.
Through her sorority newsletter, she'd discovered that Rebecca Mar had gotten married. Rebecca Mar, whom Elaine would later refer to as That Stupid Chinese Princess from Monterey Park! Of course she never said that to her face, never! She would never tell the most bubbly girl in their class and also a runner up in the Miss Chinatown pageant that she thought Rebecca Mar was just plain stupid. To have done that, particularly in college would have spelled social death! Everyone liked Rebecca, liked her enthusiasm, liked her rich black hair with streaks of honey brown. Honey brown bought from a bottle, though Rebecca said they were natural.
Elaine didn't dislike Rebecca. As a matter of fact, in college Elaine was an outwardly good friend, always supportive.
"Do you think I look fat?" Rebecca asked dressing for an exchange with another fraternity. Elaine will never forget that dress, blood red with shimmering sequins, a hemline that went up to here, a neckline that plunged down to there. She'd never seen a dress like that and hadn't since. That dress was handmade, as were all of Rebecca's dresses. Sometimes when she was alone in the apartment, Elaine would look into Rebecca's closet and marvel at the clothes. (Her other roomies had fine dresses, too. Elaine gasped at what they paid for a bra at Saks!)
"Really, do I look fat?" Rebecca said again.
"Don't be ridiculous," Elaine said. "You couldn't gain an ounce of weight if you tried." Elaine genuinely believed this. Elaine had witnessed Rebecca devour a whole bag of Doritos and a foot long burrito in one sitting, then eat a burger an hour later. Elaine saw Rebecca eat a whole tray of hors d'oeuvres at The Window, leaving to dance a bit, then coming back to eat half a tray of sushi.
Elaine, however, was conscious of her weight. She wasn't fat really. Maybe slightly plump. She had a thin -- very thin -- layer of fat that rode around her waist when she wore her favorite jeans. She had full thighs, but not fat. She wore mini-skirts a few times in school, confident of her legs.
There was one strong bond she had with Rebecca. They were exercise partners. They made aerobic class five times a week when they were in school, always standing next to each other in the gym. When aerobics wasn't available they went running. Elaine liked studying with Rebecca. Rebecca always worked hard, had dreams of owning her own accounting firm by the time she was thirty. Elaine liked that kind of ambition. Elaine and Rebecca checked each other's papers before turning them in.
Rebecca wrote well thought-out essays. (As opposed to Addy's that seemed to be shoddily put together.) Rebecca's grammar was flawless, simply flawless! Elaine had nothing but respect for Rebecca, a smart, pretty girl with a glowing personality. It wasn't until the party held at Rebecca's family restaurant, the Jade Lantern, that Elaine's respect began to die, forever brandishing her with the nickname: That Stupid Chinese Princess from Monterey Park.
The Jade Lantern was a restaurant shaped liked a pagoda. Gold fish swam in a large aquarium by the double door entrance. The carpet was a festival red and paper lanterns hung from the ceiling. Although it was a Friday night, a big money maker for any restaurant, it was shut down for the exchange between The Sigmas and The Chis.
Elaine witnessed Rebecca yelling at an elderly Chinese man, "There was too much oil in the food." "I wanted red streamers to go with the lanterns, not orange." "Why wasn't there valet?" "I wanted the napkins to look like flowers, not triangles." "Couldn't the food be brought in any faster?" "Couldn't you hire people who speak better English?" "Fix your hair, you always look tired." The Chinese man simply nodded, looking up at Rebecca.
When the exchange ended, Elaine and Molly stayed to confirm that the party went well and congratulated Rebecca on her work. Molly did most of the talking, Elaine held a tight smile and mostly nodded.
"You think it was okay?" Rebecca asked, standing in the lobby, putting on her coat, her face pleading for recognition.
"It was greeeeeat!" Molly answered.
Rebecca sighed, "If you say so." The elderly Chinese man entered the lobby. "Dad!" she called to him, "I'm leaving." The Chinese man nodded.
Her Father! Elaine mentally gasped. Belittling an employee in front of everyone was bad enough, belittling your father was another story. On the ride home, Elaine silently fumed, grateful she was sitting in the backseat, hoping Molly (who was driving) and Rebecca (who fell asleep in the front passenger seat) couldn't see her face. Elaine didn't want them to see her contorted facade, eyes moist with tears, hiding a disgusted and disappointed interior. Her father! Elaine thought. Rebecca's dad worked so she could have parties and afford handmade dresses and go to that expensive college...and she treated him that way. Her father!
Elaine would, could never treat her father in such a manner. As a small child, she'd wait for her dad to return from work. She'd have a 7 Up ready for him as soon as she saw him approaching. She'd stand behind him, massaging his shoulder -- mainly the right shoulder, the one he carried the heavy bottles with, replenishing Segal's Mountain Fresh Water in the suburbs.
In a quiet whisper, Elaine focused on Rebecca's sleeping head, and uttered, "You stupid, stupid girl."
Elaine looked down at her lap, then up again, just in time to catch Molly looking away from her in the rearview mirror.
Elaine stood at her mailbox, almost sweating. Molly's wedding was five weeks away. Surely she would get an invitation. She fumbled for her keys, looking for the one that would open her mailbox.
When she was looking to buy a home, she pictured a little house somewhere in the hills. A little cottage perhaps with a mailbox on the lawn, the kind of mailbox with a little red flag the mailman pulled up when he delivered. She wanted a lawn with rose bushes, maybe lilies. She imagined a bay window she would look out of with a view of a serene little street. She wanted a charming little garage, an old fashioned garage that you had to get out of your car to open.
Her neighbors would be almost well-to-do, not garishly rich, but comfortable. They would be neighbors who showed promise in their careers, executive types perhaps. They would be well educated, at least college graduates. They would read books, mainly literary fiction, none of that new-age shit. They would be conservatively liberal, moderate Democrats maybe, and be a nice mix of Christians and Jews.
Unfortunately, she wasn't able to live in such a home or neighborhood. She lived in Hollywood, east Hollywood exactly, in a one bedroom house that she rented. Her neighbors spoke English with an accent and were college educated in countries like Russia, Turkey, Korea, or Thailand. She hoped to live in a neighborhood with more white people but the Armenians would have to do.
Elaine made good money, very good money in fact, and even though her undergraduate work was paid for, she took out loans for graduate school putting her thousands of dollars in debt, money she vowed to pay back in the next seven years.
Elaine stood by her mailbox, a black metal thing, attached to a gray metal fence surrounding her front yard. She lifted the black top of the mailbox, pulled out her letters, and went into her house, leafing through the mail, hoping to find that white envelope made of fine parchment inviting her to Molly's wedding.
There was a gas bill, a flyer announcing a missing child, an invitation to apply for a new credit card, a yellow envelope from Publisher's Clearinghouse suggesting that she could be the next winner, and a letter from Kaiser Hospital. She knew that letter was requesting payment for her father's physical therapy. Her father's insurance allowed 15 free visits; anything after that required a co-pay of thirty dollars. The fifteen free visits were used up some time ago. Elaine insisted that her father go every week at her expense until his shoulder healed. She also agreed to help her mother, a teacher's aide, pay for the mortgage until he got back on his feet.
But there was no invitation from Molly.
She threw the mail onto her plaid couch, kicked off her shoes then went into the kitchen for something to drink. She looked out her kitchen window with its view of the alley and sighed.
Elaine went back into her living room with its Ikea furniture and a throw rug from Crate and Barrel to cover the shag carpet. She got on her computer, logged on, and did an Internet search, finding a site for the San Francisco white pages. She logged off, picked up her cordless phone, punched in the 415 area code, specific to San Francisco, and dialed the remaining seven digits.
The phone rang and a male voice answered.
"Hi, is Molly home?"
"No, she's at a dress fitting," he said.
"Is this Allan? Her soon to be husband?" She wanted to sound cheerful, nonchalant.
"Um, yeah, who's this?"
"I'm just a friend. I went to school with Molly --"
"Cool. Are you coming to the wedding?"
"Well, actually, I just had one class with her. She wouldn't remember me. I heard from a friend of a friend that she was getting married. So I thought I'd call." She laughed, a high-pitched, nervous laugh that nauseated her.
"Okay, do you want me to have her call you? She'll be back in an hour."
"Uh, I'll call back then."
"All right. Who is this?"
Elaine hung up. There was a time when Elaine called Molly and they would talk on the phone for hours. When Elaine went up north for Christmas or Easter break in college, Elaine would call or Molly would call and they would talk, just about things, frivolous things like what classes they would like to take together or how some of the incoming pledges showed real promise.
She didn't even have to say her name. Molly could identify her by the sheer sound of her hello. There was a set familiarity. In her job, she kept business cards with her wherever she went, her identity summed up in a little 2 × 3 piece of paper stating her profession: Accounts Manager.
There was a time when her world was college and sorority sisters and she told them everything. Well, almost everything. She never told them that one night she went to The Window by herself (she had a night class and the girls had gone ahead; she said she would catch them at the club later). She approached the roped off entrance, the doorman said, "Are you on the guest list?"
"No, but my friends are inside."
"So, you're not on the guest list."
"My friends are waiting for me."
The doorman looked her up and down. He was sizing her up, she knew. She touched her hair, feeling the temperature of her body rise. She suddenly became aware of the fabric of her dress: a polyester/rayon mix that tried to pass for silk. She had never had a problem getting in before, but she was always with one of her sorority sisters. The doorman looked at them and simply assumed they were on the guest list. Addy, Rebecca, and Molly were girls who had the presence of being on a guest list.
She could see the doorman's face. He was deciding, deciding whether she was one of them: the type of girl who deserved to get into the hottest club in town, the type of girl who belonged in the hottest club in town, the type of girl that was Addy or Rebecca or Molly, the type of girl who had the time and money to socialize -- hell, girls like that are trained from day one to operate at places like The Window. Not Elaine. She learned skills like turning in the perfect essay and making a measly paycheck last a month, but she didn't learn how to get into a downtown hotspot.
Elaine thought of Addy and tried something that she saw her do. Elaine smiled and said, "Oh, sweetie, please let me in. I gotta sit down, these heels are killing me. Please, please, please?" Elaine even pursed her lips the way she'd seen Addy do when trying to get out of a difficult situation, say convincing a cop to let her go after speeding.
"If you're not on the list, miss," the doorman said.
Elaine thought of Rebecca, crossed her arms, and said, "Look, I know one of the owners, okay. He's a real close friend of mine. I'd hate to tell him how crummy I was treated." Elaine witnessed Rebecca say that to a bartender so she could get free drinks for the evening.
The doorman smiled and said, "You know one of the owners? What's his name?"
Elaine froze. She remembered that when Rebecca said she knew the owner, she actually knew the owner.
Elaine thought of Molly, pristine Molly. All Molly had to do was look sad and everyone came to comfort her. When Molly was at a bookstore looking for a book that the store didn't have, she looked down, almost in tears. The cashier, in an attempt to cheer up the poor sop of a girl, said, I can put a rush order in and your book will be here tomorrow.
Elaine sighed, looked down and said in a broken voice, "But my friends are inside."
"Look around. There are lots of people out here you can make friends with. You're not on the list."
In the minutes that passed, Elaine saw the fucking doorman let other girls in without checking his list, his goddamned, fucking guest list! Dressier girls, girls with big, expensive, salon styled hair, girls with gems on their fingers who carelessly laughed because they didn't have to worry about maintaining a fucking grade point average, girls who stepped out of limousines, girls of privilege who didn't know they were privileged and made fucking doormen unhook the fucking red rope at the mere sight of one of them approaching.
Elaine stood, arms crossed, waiting. She looked up and saw her girlfriends, Molly, Addy, Rebecca on the balcony. She hoped they could not see her. She slid into the shadows, watching them laugh with some attractive men.
The doorman knew, Elaine thought. He knew that she was not one of those girls, one of those guest list girls. There was a scent she gave off somehow, a way she walked, or titled her head -- something -- that let the doorman -- or everyone else for that matter -- know that she could not, would not get in. Elaine swore she would get a real silk dress next time, no matter how much it cost.
After waiting an hour, she went home. When her sorority sisters returned asking her why she didn't meet them at The Window, she feigned a yawn and said, "Wasn't up to it tonight."
The phone rang. Elaine picked it up, and wearily said, "Hello?"
"Hi," a voice said, "This is Molly, you called?"
Elaine gripped the phone, wanting to die, die of sheer embarrassment. Her eyes bulged and she repeatedly hit her forehead with the palm of her hand. She silently mouthed: shit, shit, SHIT!
"Hello?" Molly said.
Elaine clicked the "off" button on her phone and threw it across the room. She hid in a corner, covering her face with her hands, peaking through the crack of her fingers. The phone rang again. She could hear it ringing across the room. Elaine thought of it as a cancer ready to eat her insides away. Just let it ring, Elaine thought. Molly would eventually hang up. Go away, Elaine thought, go away! A frightful thought entered her head: The answering machine! Elaine had a mental seizure, knowing the machine would pick up with the message, "Hi, you've reached Elaine. Not in right now but listen for the beep."
She had to face this. Yes. She would face this. She ran to the phone, picked it up and said, "Hello, hello, hello."
"Hello," Molly said. "We were disconnected."
"Uh, yes, how did you get my number? I didn't leave one?"
"Oh, I have this little box that is attached to my phone. It records the numbers of people who called. It helps with telemarketers," she laughed.
"Molly," Elaine said and had a brilliant idea: she would identify herself as Jenny or Cathy or Hortense from Freshman Comp -- remember me? I heard you were getting married and wanted to say, Congrats. Okay, bye.
"Yes, this is Molly. Who is this?"
"This is...," Elaine was going to say Jenny, but thought otherwise. This wasn't Addy or Rebecca; it was Molly, a guest-list-girl she was once close to. "It's Elaine."
There was a brief pause.
"Elaine," Molly said, "How ARE you?"
"I'm fine. I'd read in the newsletter you were getting married. I wanted to congratulate you."
"Thank you, thank you. I wanted to send you an invitation but didn't know how to contact you."
You could have tried, Elaine thought. It took all of twenty minutes to find you on the Internet. "That's okay. Hey, Molly?"
"I wanna ask you something. It's kinda silly, but --"
"You can ask me anything you want, Elaine."
"Do you know why I wasn't invited to Addy and Rebecca's weddings?"
"Well, I don't know, honey. You'd have to ask them."
"I'm just curious."
"I was surprised not to see you there myself."
"Tell me the truth, Molly. Tell me as the girl who sat along with you when you discovered you were not pregnant. Did you purposely not invite me to your wedding?"
"Elaine, why are we talking about this? How are you? It's been--"
"Why didn't you invite me? Just curious?"
Molly sighed. "I was planning on inviting you. I really was, but I talked it over with my girlfriends."
I used be a girlfriend, too, Elaine thought. "What girlfriends?"
"You know, Addy and Rebecca. Please don't tell them I told you this."
"I don't see them anyway. What does it matter?"
"Well, it's just that...well, Addy and Rebecca are uncomfortable around you, Elaine."
"They hate me."
"No, honey, nothing like that. It's just that, well, you know how you can be. I was never bothered by it, but they are."
"Well, Elaine, it's just that...well, you know...you think you're better than everybody."
Elaine gulped. I think I'm better than everybody? Me? They think I'm a snob? Elaine'd offered, "No, that's not true."
"You came from this bad neighborhood --"
"Lay off my neighborhood. Anyway, it wasn't bad." Well, not that bad, Elaine knew. Perhaps the homes in her neighborhood weren't well kept, maybe there was graffiti, and a patrolling gang or two, but neighbors liked each other, looked out for one another. The families, albeit working class, seemed happy -- at least outwardly so. For these reasons, Elaine thought she grew up in a good neighborhood, a fine environment.
"Well, you came from this place where you thought you were better. You worked harder, you were smarter, sacrificed more. Acted superior kind of."
"I never said anything like that."
"Well, people can feel that, you know. I didn't mind that. They're really admirable qualities. But you kind of exude an air of superiority. Like you went further than the other girls did."
"I did go further. Jumping from working to middle class is a higher leap than beginning in middle class and simply staying there."
"You see what I mean? It came to the point that Addy couldn't tell you what fun she had in Europe or the dress that Rebecca had made was something she loved because you thought those things were nothing. You had more important things to do like getting your graduate degree or finding a good job."
"But education and work are more important than trips to Europe or a dress."
"Sure it is, honey, but not to other people. I guess that's what I'm trying to say: you don't value other people's lives."
"I would value their lives if they were doing something with it."
Elaine heard Molly sigh. She could see Molly rubbing one of her temples.
"What I mean is," Elaine said, trying to start over, "that I never believed Addy or Rebecca valued me or what I was doing."
There was a pause that Elaine could feel, an anxious pause that Molly was waiting to be filled. "Did you stop to think about that, Molly? I had to work and all Addy asked me was why? I needed to maintain a certain grade point average so I could stay in school and Addy was satisfied with C's so she can leach off her family and go dancing at The Window. My parents worked hard and so did Rebecca's, but Rebecca never saw that. She couldn't see past her dresses or her parties."
"What did you think of me?" Molly asked.
Elaine looked up at her ceiling, her white stucco ceiling and said, "I thought you were my good friend." She looked down at her linoleum. "I know we're not good friends anymore. It's been awhile. I thought you understood me. And...and I thought you'd understand that I would want to go to your wedding, even though it's been some time since we've talked. Because little things like being invited just mean something."
It means, she wanted to say, but didn't articulate that there is a small separation from someone like me and someone like you. There were girls who got into clubs and those who had to wait outside, maybe not get in at all. Those girls who eyed the doorman, leaning forward when that rope, guarding the entrance to a club, made you okay, made you worthy. There were girls who got to go to weddings and others who wondered why they weren't invited.
"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, Elaine. Honey."
There were girls who were born more fortunate and girls born with less. And girls born with less looked at the fortunate girls and wondered why couldn't that have been me? Just before you think you're going to get what the other girls had, something happens like your dad gets hurt on the job, throwing out a shoulder and getting a bad back for lifting heavy things all day. Your mother is a teacher's aide who makes a shitty salary and is getting old. So part of the salary you work for goes to paying for doctor visits insurance won't cover or assisting with their mortgage payments or paying off school loans to get that extra degree to give you that extra edge over the competition. Then you end up in a neighborhood, similar to the one you grew up in, because that's all you can afford. You wonder if you'll ever become that girl you hoped to be, that kind of girl you envied in college. The one who gets in. The one on the list.
"Elaine, I'd like for you to come to my wedding."
There, she said it, Elaine thought. You got invited. You were invited to the goddamned wedding. Are you happy now? She wasn't.
"I'll put your name down on the guest list. Right now. I'll write it down."
She wasn't happy, wasn't happy at all.
"Will it just be you, Elaine? Or will you be bringing someone?"
Still. She'd gone on, created a life for herself, a life that she worked hard for, years away from college and stupid party days. Still.
"There, you're on the guest list. Will it just be you, Elaine? Elaine?"