When I was 26, I also went to the wedding of a college friend; I’ll call her Anne.
At that time, I was living in Los Angeles, where I was doing fieldwork for my master’s degree in cultural anthropology. I was interviewing television producers about their jobs; finding ways to get myself onto vast, cold sound stages; having lunch in West L.A. and fumbling with a tape recorder over the background noise of loud restaurants. Flying to Chicago for my friend’s wedding provided me with an oasis of familiarity in the middle of all that newness.
There was a group of seven of us back then; we all crowded into a couple of hotel rooms where we talked to each other so vigorously it might have sounded like we were arguing.
One of my friends — I’ll call her Heather — was one of Anne’s bridesmaids. The funnier part was that Heather was also Anne’s ex-girlfriend, and Anne was about to have a very traditional wedding to marry a man.
At that time, Heather performed in a drag king troupe, and she was a pinup girl in a locally produced dyke calendar. Seeing her in her ex-girlfriend’s straight, traditional wedding — in a formal gown, no less — was so incongruous we joked about it for years afterward.
I took a photo of Heather in her sky blue floor-length bridesmaid dress in the hotel, the bouquet of flowers she had carried limp in her hand due to the summer heat, a cigarette dangling out of her mouth. It was comical; I could imagine a cartoon text bubble floating above her head, asking, how did I get here in this dress?
When I left the wedding weekend and returned to my sublet in Westwood near UCLA, I felt completely lost. The sudden absence of my friends — in combination with my life in a strange new city — was just like losing a limb. I was off-balance without them. That was the first time I remember deeply missing my friends; I was homesick for a group of women who were my first home away from home.
These days, I look back at Wellesley with a romantic nostalgia, even though I did have some difficult experiences there. I remember sitting outside in the Quad at night, looking up at the lighted windows in the dorms around me and feeling utterly devastated by loneliness.
But if I were to go back to that very same patch of grass today, I know I would only feel the warm glow of fond memories. I would remember walking with friends to the dining hall; sipping mini bottles of awful, sweet liqueur in Anne’s dorm room; hanging out at the basement cafe where the cutest dykes on campus microwaved shredded cheese onto tortilla chips in a messy semblance of nachos.
Before I went to Wellesley, and even while I was an undergrad there, I never really understood why the alumnae were so dedicated to the college. Now I do.
It’s because despite all the drama that happened during our college years, we were surrounded by a protective cushion, as if the college were enveloped in bubble wrap. Even if things sometimes sucked — and they did — there was a feeling that everything would ultimately be all right. I think this was the result of the lived experience of privilege.
Not all Wellesley students come from wealthy backgrounds; a healthy number of my friends hailed from working class and ordinary middle-class families. Yet the campus and its buildings, in comparison to any of our parents’ homes, was palatial. Ming vases stood unguarded in Tower Court, a dorm that resembled a gothic castle, right down to its rumored ghosts.
Even the dorm I spent three years in, the comfortably worn-down Shafer Hall, boasted oriental rugs and a grand piano in its living room. They were scarred by countless footsteps and the press of generations of fingers, but that’s what marked them as upper-class. They were decaying remnants of greatness; they were like old money.
Every Wednesday, tea was served in our living room, generally accompanied by cake or cookies. The tea came in a large, stainless steel urn rather than in china teapots, but that tradition later carried on into our lives as alumnae.
Every holiday season, each local Wellesley alumnae club hosts a holiday tea at the grand home of one of our more successful alum. The houses are generally filled with gorgeous works of art and surrounded by manicured lawns or gardens. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder of the way we used to live, at college.
We didn’t have personal maids exactly, but the bathrooms and common areas were cleaned by housekeeping staff, and dry cleaning could be picked up and delivered at the bell desk. This was the reception desk at every dorm, where male visitors had to be announced over the intercom so that you knew to put on a bathrobe if you were on your way to the shower.
Interestingly, Wellesley required all of us students to work at the bell desk. I remember that during first-year orientation they told us it would teach us self-confidence. We were policing our own community, in a way, but it also taught us to possess authority in front of strangers. Working at the bell desk might have been one of the college’s most secretive tricks to turn us into Wellesley women: women who know they’re powerful.
All of these privileges — for that’s what they were — created an environment that padded our lives. Even when I was utterly depressed, for example, I always knew where my next meal would come from: the dining hall.
In a few days, my college friends are coming together for another wedding: mine.
It’s been nine years since that first wedding, and in those intervening years we’ve all changed to some degree. I think most of us are done trying on different identities for the time being, or we’re settling into the ones that have claimed us: writer, businesswoman, teacher, mother.
At my wedding, there will be no bridesmaids. There won’t be any wedding dresses, either, even though, technically, there are two brides. But just as they were nine years ago, my college friends will be there. I’ll tell them that if they need a book to read on the plane, they should pick up Commencement.
I want to know what they think of this fictional mirror of our lives. Do they believe Bree’s story? Do they find the women in the novel to be both wonderfully familiar and frustratingly different, as I did? Are we as hard on each other — and as supportive — as Celia, Sally, April, and Bree? I suspect that we are.
For more on Malinda Lo, visit her website.