Shopping at bookstores is something I can do for a long time. I’m not gloating about my superior concentration abilities. I can do it for a long time because I like to do it. When I have to do something I don’t like to do, I’m not going to do it for a long time and I am going to fake an ankle injury to get out of doing whatever the non-like thing is. But bookstores are my creampuff-filled universe, and I prefer going alone. (It’s not that I don’t like you. I really do – in fact, I think you are amazing.) But the thing about being at the bookstore with you is this: When you are ready to go, I am not. When you give me another twenty minutes, thinking I am wrapping things up, I am still not ready to go. When you are REALLY ready to go, I am very much not ready to go. When I don’t invite you to the bookstore with me, I’m not snubbing you. I’m sparing you an afternoon of watching someone giggle and cry while picking out books to purchase. To understand the real craft of social snubbing, go no further than Edith Wharton.
You: I’m ready to go
Me: I can’t, I hurt my ankle
You: I need to take you to the ER
Me: I can’t, I hurt my ankle
You: you can’t fake an injury to get out of having a fake injury
Edith Wharton was born in 1862 with the bluest of blood into one of the oldest of the Old New York families. As a young lady of gentle birth and privilege, all that was expected of her was to marry well. Instead, she became an accomplished author, publishing novels, poetry, short stories, and non-fiction and was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her work chronicles America’s Gilded Age. If F. Scott Fitzgerald defined what it was like as an outsider to long for acceptance by America’s wealthy elite, Edith Wharton was the ultimate insider, telling the stories of proper people doing things properly and not so properly. She knew all about trying to sit at the cool kids table, when the cool kids table was in a formal dining room, seated thirty-two people, and had 20-piece place settings that included finger bowls.
Society: so just get married and do lady stuff ok
Edith Wharton: I can’t, I have this ankle injury
Society: then be an old maid
Edith Wharton: oh I would but this dang ankle
The Age of Innocence is the best known of Wharton’s novels, but I have a soft spot for The Buccaneers. It tells the story of trying to crack social codes in that most stressful of situations: when you and your sister have to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to find husbands in the English aristocracy because your family money is too new to entice anyone of quality in New York. That is hard-core snubbing-when your whole home state of dudes won’t look at you twice because you’re not American long enough, and none of the women in England will give you the time of day because you are so very American. Wharton perfectly captures all the cringe-worthy interactions that result from perpetual social rejection. The rules are, you don’t know the rules because no one is going to tell you the rules but no matter what don’t be yourself, ever, but it’s really irrelevant how you act because nobody will like you. It’s hard not to imagine myself trying and miserably failing to win friends and influence people while talking about my interests with turn-of-the-century British peerage. There are endless opportunities for embarrassment. Choosing the wrong fork at dinner. Accidentally using profanity. And then, there’s trying to explain why I take tap dancing lessons.
Me: I take tap!
Lord British: uh-huh
Me: This finger bowl soup is delicious
Lord British: Please excuse me, I have this nagging ankle injury
I swear, taking tap was not my idea, but not not taking it was my idea. It’s not like I studied dance for years as a child and then took it back up just to keep my skills fresh. It’s not that I wanted to be able to utter that most mature of phrases “Hey, you want to come to my dance recital”? It’s not like I wanted to wear sequined dresses and false eyelashes while desperately trying to remember if I’m supposed to be doing a cramp roll or a drawback. (I am 100% lying about the false eyelashes.) (Okay and the sequins.)
You know what’s adorable? Little kids dancing. Little butterball toddlers in tutus turning around on their tiptoes. 8-year-olds, defying gravity as they jeté from corner to corner. Long-limbed, long-necked adolescents, executing ever more complex choreography with grace and speed. Ok, now take all that adorableness, set it on fire, throw it in a gas station dumpster, and you get the idea of what it’s like to watch a fully formed adult person with zero dance experience learn how to tap dance. It. Is. Painful. I know exactly how you feel, because I have had to see my reflection in the studio mirror shuffle-ball-changing for the past four years. Honestly, I have no excuse. I just keep showing up in the hopes that Glinda the Good Witch will be there at dance class one day, granting Magic Feet wishes.
Glinda: I’ll grant you your heart’s desire
Me: Please make me good at tap dancing
Glinda: GAH my ankle
There is no place in Edith Wharton’s tasteful universe for my brand of awkward. Maybe I’m just fooling myself, but I don’t want to hang out with those snobby drags anyway. The cool kids might have an oyster fork, but I’ve learned most of the Maxie Ford (a tap step so mean it will pinch you just to make you cry). I know I am definitely not invited to dinner, but you know what? They are not invited to my recital.
The Buccaneers was in progress at the time of Edith Wharton’s death in 1937. It was completed by Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring and published in 1993.