Patricia Walton

On the Merits of Champagne

Published in: 28. The Reefs of Conflict

Patricia Walton takes pride in her deep American roots – her family came over to the continent in the 17th century, and the signature of one of her ancestors stands below the Declaration of Independence.
She graduated Dartmouth College as valedictorian.
At Leningrad State University, she studied 19th century Russian history.
Her later education focused on international relations (Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy).
She has worked extensively in translation and interpretation for a major American company partnering with Russia.

It began when I was quite young. The Sears Catalog, otherwise known as the “Dream Book,” would arrive in the mail, and my Mom and I would eagerly peruse it. Invariably, the items we liked would turn out to be the most expensive. Mom would sigh and say that we had champagne taste but a beer budget. That continued for a long time, leaving me with a deep feeling that I should surround myself with champagne outfits, that they would make up for what I lacked, that they would give me taste and make me pretty and graceful. And when I grew up and got stuck in a beer budget, I borrowed to keep buying them.

In high school, I felt like such an ugly duckling — never among the popular girls, all those petite blondes with blue eyes, but the opposite, taller and smarter than most of the boys. I didn’t permit myself jealousy. If I were like them, I told myself, I wouldn’t be smart, I wouldn’t be able to read what I did, and that would be a real cause for regret. The few friends I had told me college would be better. And it was, in fact.

I discovered wearing green made my eyes look even greener, and I thought that was cool. Once I had seen a movie with a witch who had bright green eyes. I wanted to be mysterious and not like everyone else. Let all those little toy blondes have their blue eyes! I would embrace green. And green was my college’s color, so that was perfect. Once when I was walking across the campus green with the man who became the unreciprocated love of my life, he said, as we had a light argument, “Don’t bat your Dartmouth green eyes at me.” I was pleased as punch. I felt dazzlingly beautiful in the reflection of his eyes, special and powerful like the movie witch who destroyed everyone (not that I had especially liked that part).

To understand clothing could make me attractive came as a revelation. I began paying attention to how I looked, developed a “flowing” style — flowing hair, flowing skirts — and started buying clothes to increase my confidence, my feeling of control, of power, choosing what would serve as a shield or weapon, what created the necessary image and under no circumstance revealed the cowardly mouse inside. Sales ladies would flutter around, telling me how beautiful I was in the outfits. I would tremble a bit, with a rush in my stomach like from gambling. I would dare to use my credit card even if the charge was too great. I didn’t realize (or refused to think about this) that in trying to take control into my hands, I was letting another kind of control slip away. The air around me sparkled like the champagne my mother and I used to laugh about, and my budget now was better than beer, though never quite enough.

Yet it was a happy time. I lived on the edge but never fell off. I always kept up with the payments. I moved on to exhilarating work and, free from daily drudgery, dressed up in my marvelous outfits, which gave me the nerve to attend concerts and receptions.

When I started my new job I was cautious at first, but grew comfortable, and ultimately my work provided settings where I could believe in myself. I still feared cultural and social events, though. I never learned quite how to “mix,” but I held my head high and knew I looked good. During symphony intermissions, I might buy a glass of champagne, stand and drink it, and then, with my best posture, return to my seat.  Sometimes I would even chat with someone. Once a man asked me out on a date, but he was not strong enough — or bad enough — for me to feel dazzling in his eyes.

A work acquaintance suggested a man I might like to meet. We turned out to have all our interests in common, he thought I was beautiful and brilliant, and we got married. Strangely though, I seemed to need my protective barrier of clothing more than ever, and began to shop more and more. Which I could do, because my husband had a lot of money. I graduated to the kind of shopping where they bring you a glass of champagne to sip while you consider the outfits. It was wonderful. I created so many “me”s.

One of my luckiest buys was a pair of green jeans I used to wear on rotation in the field. They fit perfectly, and I liked how, if someone didn’t know my name, they would say, “the girl in the green jeans,” and of course I was the only one. I liked being the only one, the only American female doing that job. I liked that almost everyone in the oil patch knew me. Finally, I could feel unique!

My husband and I couldn’t have a child the normal way; to try artificially, I had to quit work. The next sacrifice, since I was told to gain weight, was the pair of green jeans, which no longer fit. Those were bitter losses for my hard-won confidence. I felt worthless. Having a child didn’t work out, either. Meanwhile, the window closed for going back to my work — someone had taken my place. I started hating my husband, although I knew this wasn’t fair. He continued to tell me I was beautiful and brilliant, but looking in his eyes I did not feel it. He made all the decisions, never letting me have a say. My sister told me I’d become a so-called “trophy wife.” I just shopped more, hid myself in clothes, never let him see me.

We divorced, not surprisingly. I don’t buy clothes any more, yet like pulling outfits out of my closet, shutting my eyes and recalling the pleasure of buying them. When I try them them on, I feel strong and special again. And last summer, one of my dear friends, who knew nothing of all this and hadn’t seen me in many years, gave me a perfect-fitting pair of green jeans, which I wear all the time now. I still love nice clothes, but don’t feel the need for them that I used to. I’m learning to look for confidence in what I myself can do. And if I want champagne, I can save up for it by not drinking beer.

Speak Your Mind