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"Will you look at the engraving? It is just sublime," Nancy Olson cooed to her friends, sitting around their table in the Eastland cafeteria. She pulled out the stiff ivory colored invitation and read aloud. "Mr. David Warner and Mrs. Monica Hochwood request the honor of your presence at the debut of their daughter, Blair, at the Hudson Valley Country Club on April 15, 1981 at 8:00 p.m, Dinner and Dancing. Black Tie, Not Optional. Repondez s'il vous plait."
"Can you bring a date? Are you going to take Roger?" Molly asked eagerly.
"Of course. The invitation was addressed to Nancy Olson and Guest. Naturellement, Roger and I will be attending. Oh wait a minute, waitress, I'm done here. You can take my plate."
Jo Polniaczek grimaced as she came back to clear away the dishes. She hated it when she had to cover Nancy's table. Attitude aside, Nancy's food issues were such a pain. Half the time, Nancy would simply push around her portion until it was a disgusting mess and then cover it with a napkin. Other days, she would scarf up everything in sight. That was actually worse because Jo usually got stuck with bathroom clean-up duty where she then saw evidence of the meal, reprised.
"Hey watch out, barbarian, you are getting sauce on Blair's invitation," Nancy said snippily. Molly gave Jo a sympathetic look.
Jo cursed herself for asking but she couldn't help it. "Blair's invitation? What is that?"
"It is the invitation to her debutante party. Her coming out, if you will," Nancy explained. "But of course you must have received one, you and Blair being so intime and all." Catching Jo's expression, Nancy laughed. "No? Well it's good to know that Blair has maintained at least some standards."
Resisting the impulse to dump the remains of the Chicken Fiesta all over Nancy, Jo simply narrowed her eyes and turned away.
After the shift was over, Jo returned to their shared room over the cafeteria. Tootie and Nat were sitting on the lower bunk, playing cards. Blair wasn't there. She had gone to class.
"Hey Jo," they said in greeting.
"Hey guys." Again, Jo cursed herself for asking. "Uh listen, do you know anything about this wingding of Blair's on April 15th?"
"Jo, where have you been?" Natalie asked. "You haven't heard Blair babble on about the importance of the proper 'debut' in every young girl's life. Every Warner woman's first important rite of passage. Where, under Society's benevolent gaze, the delicate butterfly first opens her beautiful wings."
"Blair always did remind me of a larva worm," Jo conceded. "So are you guys invited?" She inquired cautiously.
"Yeah, a black and a Jew at a Hudson Valley Country Club party, that's likely," Natalie replied.
Jo was appalled. "Blair told you that? That's outrageous, even for her."
"Natalie's kidding, Jo," Tootie assured her. "We weren't invited because Blair is only asking upperclassmen. Race and religion have nothing to do with it. Her guest list is very diverse."
"A regular rainbow coalition of snobbery," Natalie interjected. "So Jo, call me crazy, but I'm gathering from your questions that you didn't get an invitation?"
"Nope. Not that I care," Jo added hastily.
"Maybe it got lost in the mail," Tootie offered.
"Yeah, in the complicated postal route between Blair's bed and Jo's," Natalie snorted.
"Well, whatever," Jo declared. "Anyway, I would rather have my hands dipped in battery acid than spend an evening with a bunch of stuffed shirts watching Blair mutate."
Tootie winced. "Nice image, Jo. I'm sorry if you are disappointed though."
"Tootie, it doesn't matter in the slightest." Unfortunately and annoyingly, Jo admitted to herself, it kinda did.
"Which one do you prefer, Mrs. Garrett?" Blair asked, holding the two dresses up for inspection. "Of course, I have the white gown for the presentation, but I have to choose one of these for the dancing and post-dance breakfast. What do you think?"
"Blair, they are both lovely, but the red is very striking with your coloring."
"That's exactly what I felt, Mrs. Garrett; you are so simpatico. Now, if I could just consult you on hosiery shades."
"Blair, I would love to but I do have to start dinner soon. By the way, when are your parents coming in?"
"Actually they won't be here. My Uncle Simon is presenting me," Blair said, with a smile that was slightly strained.
"Oh that's too bad, Blair," Mrs. Garrett replied sympathetically. I sometimes want to strangle those two, she thought to herself, having witnessed dozens of similar disappointments over the years.
"Well, it's alright. Daddy has arranged for a fabulous 41 piece orchestra and Uncle Simon is a much better dancer anyway. Of course, Mother and Daddy will be at my fall debut in New York City," Blair replied.
"Exactly how many 'debuts' are you having?" Mrs. Garrett asked, curious.
"Three and a half. This one here in Peekskill, one in Manhattan, and one in Texas, where Daddy has the ranch."
"And what's the half?"
"Oh, that's in Paris, next New Years. It doesn't really count because I have to share it with some of the riff-raff from Monaco's royal family," Blair explained.
"The nerve," Mrs. Garrett chuckled. "Well, it certainly sounds like you will be thoroughly debuted, by the time this process is over."
"Some plebeians might consider it a trifle excessive, but my theory is why not give more people the opportunity to participate in this marvelous event. It's like bringing civilization to the masses. It is really an act of charity," Blair declared happily.
"You are the Mother Teresa of the social elite, Blair," Mrs. Garrett smiled. "Anyway, your party certainly has caused a buzz around school. Everyone is very excited."
"As well they should be," Blair replied.
Mrs. Garrett decided to bite the bullet. "You know, the only friend of yours who hasn't mentioned it is Jo; you did invite her, didn't you?"
Blair didn't answer and looked decidedly uncomfortable.
"Oh, Blair. You really excluded her?" Mrs. Garrett chided. "I thought you girls were becoming closer. After all you have been through a lot together this year."
"Yes, aiding and abetting felonies is such a bonding experience," Blair muttered. "Really, Mrs. Garrett, I didn't think Jo would have any interest. After all, her last experience at the country club with Harrison was so unpleasant. And you know that all she would do would make nasty remarks about me all night. Of course she has nothing to wear; they really won't admit her in mechanic's overalls and if I offered to buy her something, I would get my head bitten off. Not to mention the whole problem of her date. I mean I really don't want to have to deal with one of Don Corelone's henchmen crashing the buffet line." Blair's voice became a little agitated.
Not wanting to cause Blair undue distress, Mrs. Garrett interrupted. "Blair, it is your party. Of course you should invite whomever you want. I'm sure Jo will understand." Actually, the matron thought, she wasn't sure about that at all. An insightful woman, Mrs. Garrett knew that the feelings, and thus the capacity for hurt, ran deep between her two eldest charges.
The Saturday night of Blair's party turned out to be beautiful. It had rained some during the day, which made the roads a little slippery and caused Blair to call her father in New York to see if the Warners could either threaten or purchase the National Weather Service, but things had cleared up. Blair had left in the middle of the afternoon with Nancy and some others to dress and otherwise prepare at the rooms her family had reserved at the Hudson Valley Country Club. This left Mrs. Garrett, Natalie, Tootie and Jo sharing some pizza in the lounge as an early dinner and discussing their plans for the rest of the evening.
"Jo, are you sure you don't want to come to the movies with us?" Natalie asked. "'Arthur' is supposed to be good. They say Dudley Moore is hysterical."
"Nah, Nat, I just want to hang. I have some studying to do and I may tinker with my bike a little," Jo replied.
"If you are sure, Jo. I don't like to think of you here spending the evening alone," Mrs. Garrett said.
"Jeez, Mrs. G., I'm fine," Jo replied emphatically. "Will you stop fussing over me. I'm perfectly happy just goofing around tonight. If it makes you feel better, maybe I will go to the arcade for a while."
"All right, but be careful. The roads are still a little slick. I'd rather you take the bus. And, I'm sorry Jo, but weekend curfew for those not at Blair's dance is still 11:00."
"Sure," replied Jo a little shortly. After the others had left, she restlessly wandered around the empty lounge. Flipping through a Popular Mechanics; watching a few minutes of 'The Love Boat', listening to a little Springsteen on the record player. Finally Jo made a decision. What harm would it do just to take the bike out for a spin? If she happened to be driving by the Hudson Valley Country Club and if the windows happened to be open, they couldn't stop her from looking in could they? After all it was a free country, wasn't it?
Jo went upstairs to get her jacket and bike helmet. As a precaution, she rearranged her bed, using the pillows and her bowling ball to create the illusion of a sleeping body. It was a skill at which she was quite adept.
A little while later, Jo slowly brought her motorcycle to a stop. She had turned off the main driveway of the club to avoid the eyes of the valet parking attendants and had parked behind the maintenance shed where the golf carts were kept. Why am I doing this? She glowered to herself. The risk of wanna-curl up-and-die humiliation versus the reward of seeing Blair dance in that red dress, which Jo had snuck a look at earlier in the week. Jo couldn't believe she had chosen the dress option. What was wrong with her?
Jo carefully approached the terrace outside the ballroom where the event was being held. There was a good vantage point behind the potted geraniums where Jo could see into the room but wouldn't be visible to those inside. Jo looked in and recognized Nancy and Roger, examining the dessert table, where sponge cake was being served. She grimaced a little. Jo had issues with Roger. Then Jo saw Nancy pile up four pieces of cake on her plate and had to laugh. You'll be seeing those again later, Rog, she thought. Where was Blair, though, she couldn't see Blair.
Suddenly the 41 piece orchestra started to play. Jo pressed her face closer to the glass. A dapper man in his forties gestured towards the stairs and there was Blair, resplendent in a red satin dress, hair and make-up immaculate. The man, Uncle Simon, Jo presumed, took Blair's hand and they started to dance. Jo was transfixed. The couple started in a traditional waltz, smoothly gliding around the floor, heads perfectly still, moving in perfect unison. An equally impressive fox trot and cha cha followed. Then the music switched to a Forties swing number. Blair performed intricate dance steps, while Uncle Simon guided her lightly. They dipped, twirled and swirled and, at the end, Uncle Simon exuberantly lifted Blair into the air, as the red satin flowed. The room erupted in applause. It was all Jo could do to stop herself from joining in. Uncle Simon gallantly kissed Blair's hand as she stood there, beaming, and then other couples joined them on the floor.
I'm gonna learn to do that someday, Jo vowed to herself. Suddenly she heard a noise as two Bates boys came out on the terrace to grab a smoke. She crouched behind the geranium pot.
"Pretty good party," one of the prepsters said.
"Yeah," his friend agreed. "Warner sure is hot."
"I know. Too bad she doesn't put out," Prepster One replied. Jo clenched her teeth in anger. She didn't recognize the jerk, but she made a note to remember him.
"It is a waste. Now Home Run Helen on the other hand ." The boys laughed.
"Hey, it's almost midnight. Do you want to see if we can get a flask at the liquor store before it closes?" Prepster One suggested. "We can come back for the rest of the dancing and the breakfast."
"Sure," the friend agreed.
Midnight? Jo winced. She had better get back. The bowling ball ruse would only last so long. Jo jogged back to her motorcycle, started it and then drove down the winding drive to the entrance of the club. As she turned onto the main road, she heard a car behind her. Damn, it was probably the Bates boys on their way to the liquor store. Jo sped up. She didn't want them to see her; there was a chance they would recognize the bike. In attempt to put some distance between her and the boys' car, Jo took a curve too fast. She felt a surge of panic as the motorcycle started to slip out from under her. In an attempt to correct the balance, she over-compensated and drove straight into the guard rail. There was a crash as the bike hit the fencing and Jo was hurled from her seat. As Jo flew through the air, in what felt like slow motion, she saw images of her mother serving pizza, Natalie and Tootie laughing, Mrs. Garrett offering cocoa, and Blair, dancing in a red dress. Then everything went black.
Edna Garrett awoke with a start, her heart pounding. It must have been a nightmare, she decided. She checked the clock. It was 5:30 a.m. She heard someone coming into the cafeteria downstairs. Donning her bathrobe, she went down to see.
"Blair, you're back," Mrs. Garrett said as she recognized the figure in the red satin dress. "Did you have a good time?"
"Oh Mrs. Garrett, it was simply magical. The music was wonderful, the food superb, my escorts were handsome and attentive, and people told me I never looked lovelier. Uncle Simon said that I danced my way into everyone's hearts," Blair gushed.
Self esteem issues were never Blair's problem, Mrs. Garrett thought ruefully. "That's just marvelous dear," she said. "I am very happy for you."
"Oh Blair, tell us all about it. I bet you looked like a princess." Tootie, accompanied by a groggy looking Natalie, called down from the top of the stairs.
"An accurate, if inadequate, description, Tootie," Blair laughed, as the other girls came down to join them in the kitchen.
"Well girls, as long as we are all up," Mrs. Garrett declared, "I will make some cocoa."
"Uh, is Jo awake?" Blair asked cautiously. Oddly enough, Blair had suffered a few twinges of guilt during the evening whenever she thought about Jo's absence. She was sort of hoping for a few good insults from her roommate so that she could put that uncomfortable feeling behind her.
"No, she was out like a light when we came back from the movie. And she didn't even stir now, when we got up," Tootie reported. "She must be really tired."
Mrs. Garrett looked up. Something about Tootie's description concerned her. "Natalie, please go upstairs and check on Jo. I want to make sure that she isn't getting sick or something." Natalie obeyed.
"Oh please, Mrs. Garrett," Blair said. "Jo doesn't get sick; she gets irritated. No germ would dare hang around her when she is in one of her moods."
"Mrs. Garrett, Mrs. Garrett! Jo isn't there!" Natalie came rushing down the stairs, wide eyed and breathless.
"What!?" Mrs. Garrett said loudly.
"The only things in her bed are pillows and a bowling ball." Natalie explained.
"Oh, dear," Tootie uttered worriedly. "Maybe she decided to go home for the weekend."
"Jo would have left a note or told us," Natalie declared. "Anyway, she said her mother was out of town for a week visiting a cousin in Florida."
"Isn't this typical," Blair complained. "Jo pulling some juvenile delinquent run-away stunt on the night of my debut."
"Blair, please be quiet," Mrs. Garrett snapped. "Natalie's right. Jo would have left a note to say where she had gone. Frankly, girls I'm worried. So just let me think."
"Yes ma'am," said Blair, chastened.
A moment later, they heard a knock on the cafeteria door. Mrs. Garrett went to open it and recoiled as she recognized Officer Ziaukes of the Peekskill police. No, no, no, Mrs. Garrett declared silently to the Fates. You are not taking one of my girls. I won't have it.
"Hello, Mrs. Garrett, I saw your light on," Officer Ziaukes said. "I'm afraid I have some bad news. There was an accident involving one of your students, I think. Jo Polniaczek?"
"Yes. How is she?" For someone famous for her ear splitting shrieks, Mrs. Garrett was eerily quiet, a fact which frightened the three girls who had gathered behind her at the door even more.
"Miss Polniaczek was found unconscious on Melville Road about an hour ago." Officer Ziaukes looked at his notes. "Her motorcycle had hit a guardrail. She was taken to Peekskill Community Hospital. She was alive when she got there but her condition now is unknown."
"Oh no, Jo!" Tootie cried as she burst into tears and threw herself into Natalie's arms.
Blair, deathly pale, just stood, immobile.
"All right, girls. We have to stay focused. We can't help Jo if we panic. Tootie please," Mrs. Garrett urged, shaking the sobbing girl a little. "Natalie, you and Tootie stay here. Try to get a hold of Mrs. Polniaczek in Florida. Use Jo's address book."
"All right, Mrs. Garrett," Natalie replied unsteadily.
"Come on Blair, you and I are going to the hospital," Mrs. Garrett said, as she ran upstairs to change.
"Yes ma'am," Blair repeated.
A few minutes later, as they were driving to the hospital in Mrs. Garrett's VW, Blair, still in her red dress, declared, "You know Mrs. Garrett. Jo and I are the same blood type. Can you believe it? I told her it must have been a mistake in the test. She always used to make fun, saying that I had a little Bronx hoodlum in me after all. It made me mad but I'm glad now because I can donate blood if she needs it. I can do that right, Mrs. Garrett?" There was an edge of desperation in Blair's voice.
"Of course you can, dear. I just hope it won't be necessary." Mrs. Garrett replied.
They arrived at the hospital and ran inside. Mrs. Garrett saw the head admitting nurse, fortunately someone she knew well. "Hello Louise, we are here for Jo Polniaczek, the girl who was brought in this morning. Do you know how she is?"
"Oh hello, Edna. I'm sorry about your student. Dr. Kitna treated her. I'll page him."
"Will they talk to us?" Blair whispered. "We aren't family."
"Oh posh," said Mrs. Garrett. "Of course we are. And anyway, I got health care proxies from your parents for all of you girls when you came to live with me, just for something like this."
Dr. Kitna approached, with a serious look on his face. Blair and Mrs. Garrett clasped each others hands and waited.
"Hello. I understand you are here for Ms. Polniaczek."
"Yes," Mrs. Garrett confirmed, sending up one last prayer.
"Well she survived a pretty serious crash. Had she landed any differently she would be dead or paralyzed." Dr. Kitna was not one to mince words. "But fortunately, she is pretty much intact. A broken wrist and some bruised ribs. She has a concussion and is still unconscious but we hope and expect that she will awaken soon."
Blair and Mrs. Garrett hugged in relief. Teary eyed, Mrs. Garrett said, "That's wonderful news doctor. When can we see her?"
"Actually, we wouldn't mind someone sitting with her for a while. I would rather have her wake through natural stimuli than by giving her any drugs."
Natural stimuli, eh? thought Mrs. Garrett. Well, we can certainly provide that. "Blair do you think you could stay here with Jo for a time?" she requested. "After I take a quick look, I should probably head back to check up on Natalie and Tootie and to try to track down Jo's parents. I'll be back soon."
"Of course, Mrs. Garrett," Blair replied.
It was like being stuck behind a city bus in a traffic jam on the Bronx River Parkway, Jo decided, trying to fight her way to consciousness. Trapped, choking in fumes, desperate to get somewhere but not quite knowing how. Finally, the fumes lifted a little, and Jo was able to muster enough energy to open her eyes.
Interesting, Jo thought, once she was able to focus. The first sight that greeted her was a disheveled and apparently napping Blair, slouched in a chair, still wearing that goddamn red dress. What did this mean? Jo wondered. Was she in Heaven or Hell? It would be nice if the Deity rewarded one with one's most secret and illicit desires in the afterlife, but somehow Jo didn't think that was likely. If that were true, Confession seemed sort of pointless. So Hell was the more probable option, Jo concluded. Blair would undoubtedly turn into some three-headed fire breathing devil in a minute.
"Uh, hello?" Jo whispered. Blair's eyes flew open.
"Jo, you're awake!" Blair cried. "What a relief!"
"Um, are you Satan?" Jo asked politely. She really wanted to know.
"Excuse me?" Blair replied coldly.
"I just wondered if you were the Devil and I was in Hell," Jo explained. "I mean I am assuming that I'm dead. I remember hitting that guard rail pretty hard."
"I see," Blair said in an annoyed tone. "And you just figured that the Incarnation of Evil would look and sound just like me. Nice, Jo, Nice. No, you are not dead, you moron, you are in the hospital. You actually are going to be OK. I guess that hard head was good for something."
"Oh," Jo replied. "Well that's great. Uh, sorry about the Satan thing. So what are you doing here?"
"What do you mean? I am devotedly standing vigil by your bedside in your hour of need. What do you think I'm doing?" Blair asked.
"Well you had the dance and the post-dance breakfast and all. I am just surprised that you could get away," Jo said, a trifle resentfully.
"Now listen here, Jo," Blair declaimed angrily. "I don't care how shallow and self-centered you think I am, if you believe that I wouldn't support my roommate and friend in a crisis like this, you are even more of a Neanderthal than I imagined."
"Well excuse me, Florence Nightingale," Jo retorted. "I just "
"Pardon me ladies," Dr. Kitna interrupted, as he entered the room. "Could you keep it down? Your bickering disturbs the other patients. Nice to see you awake, Miss Polniaczek." He checked her pulse, examined her eyes, and made a few notes on the chart. "Uh Miss Warner, we normally discourage arguing with victims of life-threatening accidents the instant after they have regained consciousness."
"I'm sorry, Dr. Kitna. You are right. Maybe I should go," Blair said, slightly embarrassed.
"No!" Jo exclaimed. "Don't leave, Blair. I don't want to be here alone. It's OK, Doc, I started it. Please let her stay."
"All right, Miss Polniaczek. I must say, your color looks a lot better since Miss Warner arrived. Try to avoid degenerating into physical violence. I'll check up on you both again a little later." Dr. Kitna left, smiling to himself.
"I apologize, Blair. I do appreciate you coming. It means a lot to me, really," Jo said.
"That's OK. And to be perfectly honest, the dance was over by the time we found out about your accident, so I really didn't miss anything." Blair admitted with a grin.
"Oh that explains it," Jo said with a smile.
They were silent for a moment.
"Jo, can I ask you a question?" Blair said
"Uh, I guess."
"Why were you riding on Melville Road? There is nothing around there except the country club. Did you come to the club?"
Jo suddenly decided that death would have been the preferable alternative. Blushing, she replied, "Well it's not like I was stalking you or anything. I just wanted to hear the orchestra for a minute. I mean 41 pieces, that's a lot for Peekskill."
Blair took pity on her. "Yes. They were terrific. You should have come in. I would have given you some sponge cake. Not that there was much left, after Nancy got through."
Jo chuckled. "You know, Blair, with my wrist and everything, I won't be able to clear tables or clean the bathroom. You are going to have to deal with Betty Bulimia on your own."
"Great, just great," Blair muttered.
"Blair, I answered your question, so quid pro quo, you have to answer mine. How come you didn't invite me to your debut?" Jo asked seriously.
Blair looked a little stricken. "I'm sorry. I should have. I knew the minute I sent the invitations out that excluding you was a mistake. But I thought that you would give me a hard time, and I just wanted to have fun and dance and look pretty without any comments from the peanut gallery."
"I wouldn't have given you a hard time, Blair. I know I insult you a lot but I can be classy sometimes. Anyway," Jo swallowed. "You looked just beautiful."
Blair was touched. "Thank you Jo. Thank you very much."
"Well, don't get used to it," Jo growled. "It's the head injury talking."
"I know that, Polniaczek," Blair laughed, leaning over and gently brushing a strand of Jo's hair away from her face.
A week or so later, after Jo was home from the hospital, she went upstairs to the girls' room to find three ivory envelopes on her bed, each bearing her full name beautifully written out in elaborate calligraphy. She ripped them open. What? Jo wondered. Manhattan in the fall, Dallas at Christmas and Paris at New Years?
"Blair," Jo called downstairs. "You really expect me to spend the next nine months traipsing around the world, watching you come out?"
"I most certainly do, Jo, I most certainly do," a voice from the kitchen yelled back.
I'm surprisingly good with that, Jo thought to herself with a shrug, as she filed the invitations away.
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