"Turn around," the frat boy grinned. Clearly, he was impressed by the ensemble I'd selected: matching print blouse and knee pants, featuring a vaguely airbrushy orange-and-black beach sunset pattern. I'd picked out the material myself with my mom, who's always been a whiz with a sewing machine.
"Commmere and look at this awesome outfit," he said, waving over a couple more baseball-capped guys. "Wow," they marveled. I spun proudly.
You'd think I'd have learned to detect mockery by freshman year of college. But at my small magnet high school, nobody sneered at the camouflage pants, combat boots and Alabama football paraphernalia I loved to wear, or at my big home-permed hair, or at the astonishing combo of aqua contact lenses, aqua mascara and aqua eyeliner I installed every morning. It was the '80s. We were nerdy working- and middle-class Southern kids, and we all dressed weird.
But my private university — along with the rest of the world — was clearly different.
My fashion sense didn't improve, but I eventually stopped trying to impress frat boys. Instead, through my 20s I gravitated toward like minds and wardrobes. I dated boys who liked girls in combat boots; and I befriended jock-nerds who, like me, owned no Manolos but knew which styles of cleat were suitable for stealing second, returning punts or covering ground fast on an Ultimate Frisbee field.
Girly-girls, I figured, just weren't my type. And then I met Colleen.
She wore her girly-girldom with bodacious verve. Her closet was piled high with boxes of eBay Manolos, which she routinely wore to mow the lawn, install cement flooring or build patio tables at Mirror, the restaurant she owned. A whiz with a sewing machine, she transformed thrift store castoffs into patchwork masterpieces of leather and cashmere; and when she wore them, she transformed any room into a Broadway stage.
I knew we'd never be friends. And then, one day, we were.
We may be initially drawn to people who dress, vote and worship like we do; but often, the most life-changing relationships are with people who don't. My favorite friendships in high school were the ones that opened worlds to me: From my classmate Dina, I learned (through trial and error) why a female shouldn't try to shake the rabbi's hand at an Orthodox wedding; and my friends Rupert and Jeff patiently explained more than I could ever fully comprehend about what it's like to be a young black man in America.
From Colleen, I learned by example. We cooked spectacular meals and ate at every hole-in-the-strip-mall restaurant in town. She'd order the craziest-sounding thing on the menu, and I'd try it, including tripe, offal and, once, something called "gastropods." She knew she'd converted me into a Food Person the night a raw quail egg slid off my sushi; I slurped it right off the table, and she laughed like mad.
She spent full days with me prepping magnificent spreads of tapas for a yearly holiday party I threw; and when a book I translated from Russian was published, she and her husband Mike opened Mirror on a Sunday and put on the best ever book-launch event, complete with Soviet army uniforms, vodka cocktails and tall stacks of made-to-order blini, caviar and all.
From Colleen, I learned that sometimes the best gift you can give someone is to throw them a fabulous party.
Through all this, I stubbornly hung onto my ever-devolving wardrobe standards — hippie one-size-fits-all housedresses and Birkenstocks, cutoff army pants and Tevas.
"Girl," she said quietly one night at the Mirror bar, eyeing my sack-like muumuu, "you don't have to wear that stuff anymore."
Such interventions take time. Under her tutelage, I learned the art of sifting through church rummage sales and eBay. Often, she'd turn up at my house with a gift, something she'd found at Goodwill that seemed just right for me. She gave me my favorite red sundress, and a magnificent pair of sparkly black pumps that always gets raves. For my birthday one year, she handed me a bag containing a stunning cashmere sweater dress she'd made, and she shushed away my awed gratitude.
My first solo shopping baby steps were to a nearby T.J. Maxx. One afternoon, I tried on a slinky yellow Marilyn Monroe dress there — a full-on girly-girl number. I was fairly sure the effect was pleasing; but just to be sure, I wore it to the Mirror bar that night, with brown-and-gold strappy platforms and a gold wrap.
"My work is done here," Colleen announced.
She moved away a few years ago, but I think of her every time I make a grand entrance in that yellow dress. Because Colleen didn't just teach me what to wear; she showed me how to wear it — with cocksure brass, like a carapace, all while operating power tools and laughing out loud.
Looking back, I realize that the airbrushed sunset outfit wasn't about a deficit of taste, but of bravado. If I had it to wear again, I'd rock it — with a pair of 3-inch gold wedges and a black boa. And then I'd blow those frat boys a big kiss with my middle finger as I headed to my favorite bar.