It’s 1998. I am living in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment with my friend Cassie, who would later become the most Toxic of friends. But in 1998 we were best friends , watching crap like “10 Things I Hate About You” on a regular basis. I am working at a Big Investment Bank, doing my best to show all the frat-boy financial analysts how fucking cool and QUIRKY I am, and maybe get laid in the process. Cassie is taking her fledgling comedy career out for a test drive, working days at the Fanciest of All Fancy Cosmetics Companies. She is an executive assistant to a Really Important Asshole, and her day often involves making personal appointments for a certain A-list spokesmodel whose A-list boyfriend finally reached said A-list after a hummer from a hooker in L.A. But that is beside the point.
Cassie and I are young and poor and really? Kinda lame. But she is enjoying her new day job because it comes with lots of free makeup samples and she has met some fun co-workers. One is Laura, who we think is a total cokehead. We don’t know what cocaine really even looks like, but we’re pretty sure Laura does. Laura is part of the Rich-n-Trashy Hamptons crowd, and gets invited to lots of parties, all with Lists. Laura tells Cassie about something called The Russian Ball, tells her that she has been and that it is fabulous and it’s at The Plaza in the Grand Ballroom, that “Fuck! We should all, totally, like, GO to the Russian Ball!”
Cassie tells me this over fried egg sandwiches one night. I laugh and say, Can you imagine us, at a ball? Cassie says, Honey, I was born to attend balls. You laugh, but also notice a little seed being planted in your mind, one that suggests perhaps Cassie is a bit too much the drama queen for your liking. In a few years, your suspicion will be confirmed, but for the time being, you are tossing around the idea of going to A BALL at a fancy hotel and wearing a BALL GOWN, because of course you need a ball gown when attending a ball, I mean, hello, it’s in the NAME of the dress after all.
You giggle some more imaging yourself at a ball. Cassie brings up the point that there will most likely be hot men at the ball (um, Prince Charming anyone?!), and that it stands to reason these hot men would be ALL OVER your hot young asses. Probably they would be rich, too. Maybe even royalty. Cassie is winning you over to this ball idea. Should we go? you ask her. I think we have to, she tells you.
Your name and Cassie’s name are somehow added to a List, probably through Cokehead Laura’s efforts. A week or so later, Cassie squeals when she brings the mail in. Our invitations are here! she tells you.
Let me see, let me see! you say, climbing off the couch where you have sat watching The Real World, Hawaii marathon for way, way too long. You look at the invitations and note that this ball is not free. A ticket (different from an invitation, you learn) is $75. Because you are young and poor and have been known to write Friday afternoon checks for cash to your company’s Petty Cash window in an effort to outsmart your negative account balance, $75 is a lot of money. But the ball! The ball beckons, and you and Cassie both decide that $75 is nothing, considering that attending the ball is clearly - clearly - entrance into New York Society, after which life will be forever changed, full of parties and complimentary cocktails and new, powerful friends. Clearly.
Besides, $75 is also nothing when compared to the damage you sense coming with an impending shopping trip. The ball needs a ball gown, after all. It’s practically a law.
You start to tell everyone about the ball you will be attending at The Plaza. You tell your friends. You tell your parents. You tell your co-workers, you even tell that one guy, the one you desperately want to snag, the one who in 2004 you will learn is an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler. You tell your hairdresser. You tell your neighbors, tucking a strand of your new shag haircut behind an ear with excitement. You tell everyone, and Cassie does the same.
A week before the ball, you and Cassie go to Bloomingdale’s. You each try on many, many dresses. Cassie decides to wear something she already owns, but you are stumped. You do not own anything even remotely resembling a ball gown. In fact, it’s possible you do not own a dress. You try one more gown. It is floor-length, brown matte jersey with black sequin detailing and a halter neck. It looks divine. You do not feel fat, you do not worry that your new shag haircut is too short, you do not question the appropriateness of the gown. You check the price tag and crumple. The dress is $500.
Cassie demands, Give me the dress. You look at her, defeated. Give me the dress, she repeats. You do, and she leaves the dressing room. You pull your hated Ann Taylor work clothes back on, noting that everything could stand to be dry cleaned, that you feel fat, that you hate your hair. As you are sliding your heels into the chunky-heeled loafers you wear nearly every day, Cassie returns. How much do you want to spend on this dress, she asks. You look at her. How much? she asks again, How much can you afford? You think about $150, maybe more, because really, what’s another $50 of debt.
This dress is $90, Cassie tells you. Eyes wide, you are silent. Yup, she confirms. The tag says $500, but by some retail miracle, the dress – no, The Dress – is over 80% off. The gods are indeed smiling on you. You are beaming, sure this is a sign. If a $500 dress was bought for $90, then a handsome prince waiting at the ball seems quite feasible.
You keep telling people about the ball. Now you tell them about your dress, too. On the following Saturday, you go into SoHo for a hair appointment, because really, what is another $100 of debt. Cassie is in Connecticut, visiting family, but will be home soon. You wish she was with you at the hair salon, because frankly, you are not really an Event Hair kind of girl. But an hour later, your Meg Ryan shag is smooth and shiny, and you take the F train home, eager to see Cassie. You hope she remembered to buy beer or wine or something to drink beforehand, thinking it best to get a buzz on prior to the ball. Balls are new to you, remember, and you are not certain if the bar will be complimentary or cash. Cassie is still not home, but you find a beer in the fridge and drink it while applying makeup. You go for Smokey Eyes. You contemplate glitter, then decide Not tonight. You slip into The Dress, and still love it. You slide your feet into the cheap Payless heels you bought for a sorority formal eons ago. You wait for Cassie.
Finally, she clomps up the stairs in your building noisily. She is late, something that will drive you crazy for many years to come. But she expertly twists her hair into a bun, throws on her own ball gown and wriggles into high heels. Let’s go! she says, excitedly. She grabs her makeup bag and says she will finish getting ready on the way.
You both take the steps to the subway carefully, not wanting to tear fabric or slip on precarious heels. You had wanted to take a cab, but are both broke. Instead, you take the F train to 14th Street, and Cassie applies her makeup in the fluorescent light of the subway car. You sit on the orange seats, trying not to wrinkle your ball gowns. At 14th, you emerge and hail a cab, thinking it won’t cost too much from here to 59th Street.
Finally. Finally the cab circles towards The Plaza Hotel, and a doorman comes to open the door for you. You and Cassie step from the car and squeal, just a little. Then you put on your game face and saunter into The Plaza. Heels clicking, you go straight for the conscierge. You approach him, and Cassie looks him in the eye and says – with a touch of a British accent, you think - Hello, we’re here for the Russian Ball. Could you tell us which direction to the Grand Ballroom.
The Russian Ball? he asks. You nod. Oh, he says. The Russian Ball was last night.
I’m sorry, what? you say.
The ball, he tells you. It was last night.
You stand there, in your heels and gowns and smooth, shiny hair.
Last night? you say, just to be certain.
The concierge says, Yes, last night. Did you perhaps have the date wrong?
You glare at him.
But, he adds, some of the guests may still be here. It’s possible someone might be interested in socializing. Perhaps. Maybe.
Thank you, we said, then scuttled out of The Plaza. We stopped at several bars on the way home, desperate for someone to notice just how FABULOUS we were, but sadly, no one gave a shit. Finally, we called it a night and dragged ourselves back onto the F train and rode home. Bought ice cream and frozen White Castle hamburgers at the corner deli. Changed into sweats. And laughed our asses off.
And in 1999? We went to The Russian Ball. AT The Plaza, ON the right night, IN the miracle dress. And it was truly, unforgivably, boring.