There were only two white dresses that ever would matter, her mother said. The first of these was the Debutante Dress that Jerilyn would wear when she would take her father’s arm and march across the stage in Raleigh, into the single spotlight, radiant, along with all the other debs in North Carolina.
As of last week, the suspense concerning that dress had been extinguished,when Jerilyn and her pals from Mecklenburg Country Day, Bethany and Mallory, besieged uptown formal shops to hunt down their quarry, capturing and releasing, debating, embracing, denouncing many white gowns before claiming the perfectly flattering one as their own. Jerilyn suffered an hour of agony as she prayed that her more assertive friends would not fall in love with the beautiful number on the mannequin near the cashier’s station as she had. The crinkled taffeta, treated with some French- termed process, so smooth, like petting a puppy, had an internal corset, mermaid tail, subtle beading that sparkled opalescent around the slimming bodice, all blooming out upon layer upon layer of tulle, soft and dreamy. Wearing it would defy gravity; to walk into the light would be like floating in on a tulle cloud, something right out of an antebellum cotillion, which would please her father. He did his best to remain in that world before 1860: Duke Johnston, descendant of Civil War General Joseph E. Johnston.
Even though the debut was a year off , she had an impulse to take thegown with her to university, let it hang in her Chapel Hill closet so she might look in on it, stroke and adore it, have it as a beacon before her. But the gown was so wide at the bottom, and surely dorm room closets were Jerilyn tiny and who knows what could happen to it there, when it would be safe and sound right here at home.
The second white gown, the Bridal Gown, was thought of solemnly; itwould involve years of decision- making. It was, really, a life’s work. Jerilyn and her female contemporaries, having just graduated high school, had already put in reverent hours with scores of bridal magazines, begun the opinionated window- shopping, attended the society weddings like dress rehearsals for one’s own event, notes mentally taken, good things memorized so they might be borrowed or varied, atrocities eschewed. The decision about that gown, mercifully, could wait some years hence.
When she’d brought up the issue of a showstopper wedding dress withher mother, she was cautioned to whoa the horses. “You’ll do something, I would hope, with your future Carolina degree,” her mother reasoned. “Enjoy your in dependence. Work for a few years before you see which of the young men you met at Carolina seems destined for something besides his parents’ basement. Or, given the atmosphere at Carolina, rehab.”
Even though Jerilyn’s mother was her hero—Jerene Jarvis Johnston,director of the Jarvis Trust for American Art at the Mint Museum, respected matriarch of one of Charlotte’s first families— and her mother was almost, almost her best friend . . . her mother did not understand everything. Jerilyn would be very happy to find a husband quickly at Carolina and begin fomenting wedding plans no later than her senior year. She did not yearn to be part of a workplace, never failing to be somewhere for a set time in the morning, nor did she care to learn what it was to balance checkbooks and be frugal; she felt her life would be quite fine without those improving, self- revealing years of sacrifice starting at the bottom rung of something. She wanted (1) to be married in four years, (2) move soon into a beautiful home, (3) babies soon after. She longed to decorate her own new house, having her father and mother— who was an accomplished hostess without compare— over to their new home to see what she, Jerilyn, could offer as hospitality, how she could arrange a centerpiece and the Provençal floral tablecloth with the majolica place settings from Umbria she coveted at Nordstrom. See, Mom, how the tiger lily is picked up in the fleur-de-lys along the golden trim of the dinner plate and the scarlet mandala pattern on the Kashmiri linen napkins (on sale last week at Saks)?
And this desire led to Jerilyn’s one upcoming act of proposed rebellion.She was going to rush a sorority. She had visited older friends at Carolina, girls content with life in the dormitory, study breaks at ten p.m., girls in sweatshirts gossiping and squealing in the hallways with bowls of micro-waved popcorn, pop music blasting. Seemed nice. But it wouldn’t get her where she wanted to go: before the eligible men of North Carolina, the next generation of doctors and lawyers and tycoons. Mother had forbidden sororities, because of expense and distraction, and provided lectures on how very different they had become “since her day.” On some mornings, Jerilyn hoped that she might persuade her mother otherwise.
No, she quickly told herself on this particular morning—Jerilyn, getreal. She would not change her mother’s mind. Mrs. Johnston had never, since birth, changed her mind about anything. It had to be presented to her mother as a fait accompli. Even then, Jerilyn reflected in these last minutes in her childhood bedroom, her mother could scotch the whole enterprise, such were her powers’ vast and immeasurable sweep. She’d probably call the chancellor or something, get the sorority disbanded nationally . . .Jerilyn stood looking at the Debutante Dress hanging in her bedroom closet, along with the unwanted clothes not making the journey to Chapel Hill. She had packed three suitcases of clothes and another three boxes of accessories, the heaviest being her curling irons and blow- dryers and expensive hair care products. “You can open your own salon, sweetheart,” her father said, as he packed the car. There was another suitcase—well, a small trunk— just for shoes, then her computer and stacks of school supplies . . .the BMW was full to the brim. No, the dress would not be going. She touched it a final time and respectfully shut the closet door.
She should feel more wistful and sad, shouldn’t she? Here it was at longlast, farewell to her childhood room, bye- bye to the stuffed animals (well, the pink panda Skip Baylor gave her for her birthday was headed to Chapel Hill, after all), bye- bye to the Justin Timberlake poster inside the closet door, her faded valentine and birthday cards taped to the vanity mirror, remnants of proms and parties, all of it girly and vaguely embarrassing. Nope, no sadness at all. She had waited and waited for this day—couldn’t wait to get to Carolina and begin her life. She was the last of the four children, the “accident,” no matter how they euphemized about it, a full ten years out from the other three, Bo, Annie, and Joshua. Her siblings doted on her, patted her head, thought she was a little pest or brat or doll, some entity at whom love could be directed but not quite fully human. She used to hate being the outlier youngest, but she reconciled to it. It meant being the baby, being spoiled a little.
She checked the vanity mirror one more time. Her stylist had convincedJerilyn to cut her hair short in a nice rounded bob. Everyone loved it; they loved it so openly and insistently that she realized she must have looked quite dreadful beforehand with dull brown hair to her shoulders that never kept a shape, that fanned out and frizzed. She could grow it long but it was never shampoo- commercial long, gleaming silken tresses that coiled and released, forming waves of sheen. If she lolled her head like a model in a L’Oréal commercial, the hair moved in a piece—it was never silken tresses, it was shrubbery. So Jerilyn had given up that fond fantasy of luxurious hair, as well as a notion that she was a certain kind of beautiful. With the bob she was cute, not beautiful. Mind you, she could work with cute. Big eyes looking out from under bangs, very winning with a subtle suggestive smile, a natural shyness she intended to kill off as soon as she got to Chapel Hill, starting later this very day when her father would charmingly stall for time making small talk with her new roommate, launching into perfectly interesting but wholly irrelevant ruminations on North Carolina history, before kissing his little princess good bye and driving back to Charlotte.
“Alma?” Jerilyn left her bedroom and called out from the upper-floor staircase. Their house keeper was nowhere to be found. It would have beena special goodbye had Alma been there to receive it.
“Dad?” she called out. He wasn’t back yet. He said he would take theBMW out to fill the gas tank for the two- hour journey ahead.
Mom wasn’t fooling anybody. After breakfast she invented some smallcrisis at the museum, the site of her upcoming fund- raiser. She hugged Jerilyn briefly and said they would talk this evening. Mom didn’t do mush. Jerilyn knew that her mother was privately distressed to be losing the last of the four children; the nest was looking a little too empty that morning, so off she went to yell at the caterers. Jerilyn didn’t mind. She admired her mother’s complete lack of public sentimentality— she hoped to emulate it, one of these days.
So, she had the house to herself.
Jerilyn walked down the foyer steps of the two- story entrance hall, thegrandest room in the house which, given her imminent departure, suddenly struck her as a feature she might well miss. The Johnston house dated from 1890, built by her great- grandfather (also Joseph Beauregard Johnston, like her father). It sat regally high on its hill on Providence Road for all to see, at the very entrance to the Myers Park neighborhood, the most monied enclave of Charlotte, North Carolina. Jerilyn had been told that the house used to be surrounded by acres of land that they had once owned but, through the de cades, the property had been divided and sold for infusions of cash.
Given the neighboring piles of tacky turrets and mansard roofs, faux-antebellum columns and sentry gates bearing coats of arms, the Johnstoncompound appeared modest. It was part of the architect’s genius—it advertised to the world an unassuming, comfortable two-story home from the outside, but it was spacious as any rambling mansion inside. Cushioned by ancient oak trees, the house sat back contentedly, hiding even its best feature, a large columned side porch, and its second best, a brick verandah and a perfectly enclosed backyard with its whisperings of a country estate: a small birdbath fountain that had not burbled since her childhood, a rose garden which needed much tending, and an arbor and trellis which needed none at all, dependably covered in wisteria or morning glories no matter the neglect. The upstairs of the house contained the six bedrooms. The downstairs had been featured once in Southern Living magazine: the long elegant dining room with the imitation Adam plasterwork on the ceiling, a kitchen large enough to provide hospitality to parties of a hundred or more, several beautifully realized sitting rooms— a classic American room, perfect for one of her mother’s high teas; a blue French sitting room for solitude on gray afternoons, for reading and not being disturbed, avoided inexplicably by every male in the family; an off - to- the- side warren of parquet floors and custom cherrywood cabinetry that picked up a Frank Lloyd Wright flavor for the TV room and entertainment center.
The main attraction, of course, was her father’s Civil War Study, whichmight have been directly swiped from the mid- nineteenth century. You had to take a small step down in order to enter it; Jerilyn imagined this small difference of elevation to be part of the magic spell that allowed you to leave the publicity and bustle of the rest of the house for the rarefied sense of the past. Like a carnival barker, Jerilyn had offered peeks to the neighborhood children, sometimes sneaking in illegally with her schoolmates— invariably boys— who would beg to take a closer look at the swords, dueling pistols, old maps of battle plans, engravings and parchments of the period, a cannonball. Every book on the Study’s shelves was a first edition from the Civil War era (Dad kept his more modern history books upstairs in the bedroom). Prohibitions against entering, let alone touching anything, haunted all secret reconnaissance missions— and Alma, if she saw any signs of trespass, would tattle on her or any of her siblings, so all forays had to be timed for when Alma was out in the laundry room attached to the garage. Jerilyn loved to have an excuse to visit her father there amid the smell of pipe smoke, burnished leather, book mold, and the aromatic hickory wood in the fireplace; it smelled of an ever- welcoming past, of lost causes and unvanquished honor.
She heard her father’s car in the driveway. So now it really was goodbyeto the house. What do you know, she sniffed: one tear, after all.
NOTHING COULD BE FINER
By Joshua Johnston
Your best introduction to Chapel Hill would be to make your way to the hill where the chapel used to be. Saunter into the Carolina Inn for a proper mint julep by the fireplace in the Crossroads Bar before going into the big overdone dining room. It looks like half a dozen plantation drawing rooms exploded in there. Chow down on an eight- course creole- Piedmont gastric blowout, before stumbling to the nearby corner of Franklin and Columbia Streets with all the bars. Try negotiating the balcony at Top of the Hill when Carolina beats Duke in basketball some Saturday night. The scene rivals something out of Ancient Rome, except with lots more vomiting.
This is, indeed, the top of the hill that had the chapel.Even before the university was established, in 1790, as the first state- funded university of the United States,1 locals had already given up on the local church. So it was knocked down so taverns and public houses could take their rightful place. We have our priorities here.
In 1980, Playboy magazine determined that the Universityof North Carolina at Chapel Hill led the nation in student alcoholism, followed by Ohio State and Alabama.2 This was based on the high freshman- year flunk- out rate for which drink was to blame
Jerilyn stopped reading there and nervously began twisting her hair. She reached for her cell phone to call her brother.
“Josh. Thanks for the essay, but—”
“But nothing you can use? I mean, I wrote it when I was a senior but I don’t think UNC has changed that much.”
Jerilyn didn’t want to sound ungrateful. “Who let you write a paper likethis? It’s so opinionated.”
In Jerilyn’s ENG 101 Rhet-Comp class all the students picked names of North Carolina towns out of a hat. She got Chapel Hill. “We’re supposed to write a factual historical paper. I don’t think Brandon would want us to write it like this.”
“You get to call your instructor by his first name? God, Chapel Hill. Whoa, a customer. Looking at the five- hundred- dollar silk ties, too.”
“Go make a commission,” she directed. Her brother with his two degrees from the University of North Carolina, for years now, working retail in an upscale men’s clothing store. Jerilyn was hoping for a better future, but for the moment she was hoping, with the aid of an online encyclopedia, and by semi- plagiarizing her brother’s old essay, to knock out her first comp assignment so she could be free and clear of any schoolwork by the weekend. She had to keep that totally open. You never know which of North Carolina’s storied sorority houses might summon her to appear.
Jerilyn did not want to spend much more time in stately lonely- makingMcIver Residence Hall. Of course, her randomly assigned roommate, Becca, was really really nice. Jerilyn wondered if she’d hurt Becca’s feelings when the subject of rushing sororities came up.
“Sounds sort of fun,” Becca said. “Lots of free cookies, I guess. We canlaugh at any of the houses that are too hoity-toity.”
“Oh Becca . . . They say it’s bad to go in pairs because they won’t rememberanything about you individually.”
Jerilyn then said nothing about rush registration to Becca, so the datedeadline for her to participate came and went. And what Jerilyn truly couldn’t explain was that Becca was a jeans- and- T-shirt, dykey- haircut kind of girl, and sure, those kinds of casual sororities existed, but among the top power house sororities, you showed up stylish and sharp . . . just not so sharp that it looked like you went to the store and bought the most expensive thing they had.
Jerilyn was recommitted as ever to Operation Sorority; her future husbandwas not to be found in McIver Residence Hall. But at this point in the secret plan, Jerilyn was losing sleep over her mother. Someone just saying the word “mother” caused her heart to race. The closer she got to her goal the more she feared the Wrath of Jerene (a well- established family concept). Maybe no sorority would take her, she thought darkly, and that would be that.
She liked the girls at Sigma Sigma Sigma; they had a Carrie UnderwoodCD playing the whole time in the background— Carrie was a TriSig made good. Jerilyn figured the social committee must have heard that CD repeat itself fifty times this week, which represented a seriousness of purpose. At Delta Delta Delta (on a repeat visit), Jerilyn politely enthused over the historical plates on display (God only knows how they famously partied without breaking the whole collection). If she got accepted there— which wasn’t going to happen— she contemplated the long sophomore exile to the lesser TriDelt houses, probably three or four to a bunkroom in some lightless basement, something like where hostages were held, until one day, as a junior, as a senior, she would be summoned to the mother ship and the glorious upper rooms of the big white mansion with the wraparound porch. Bethany and Mallory, from Mecklenburg Country Day, were rushing these same houses; they were crossing their fingers that they’d all get an invitation to the monied Pi Beta Phi . . . but would one sorority accept three girls who had been to the same high school? Wouldn’t some naysayer stand up at the meeting and say that they shouldn’t accept a ready- made clique?
Oh dear God, she was wasting her time! What delusion, what folly!Jerilyn, get real! These elite sororities could smell her desperation, they could tell she was a party- girl fraud . . .
No, no, her best bet was to run, crawl, abase herself before her mom’shouse, Theta Kappa Theta, and hope for a legacy bid. She had a paper due but this was now or never! Her mind was made up . . . and this new plan had the added tactic of possibly pleasing her mother. Mother would be officially furious, of course, but she’d be a little proud too, just a tiny bit, and would probably relent and pay her dues for her. Oh God, there she was, stressing out about her mother again.
Jerilyn grabbed her handbag. She wore a sleeveless Carolina Blue linen dress, formfitting and flattering, Stuart Weitzman sandals. She would wow them at Theta Kappa Theta; she resignedly marched out to West Cameron Avenue. Soon Theta House rose into view, a brown- brick box with narrow horizontal upper windows which made the structure look like it was squinting. She glanced across the street at the legendary Sigma Kappa Nu and thought how much more grand their old mansion was, despite their torn- up front yard, repair trucks and construction cones. She saw a laughing band of girls emerge, happy, thrilled to be there . . .
Nope, Theta it is.
θKθ was a hyper- preppy sorority, retro add- a-beads and sweaters, men’sdress shirts and khaki shorts for crazy casual wear, Italian wool huntergreen peacoats, pearls with little black dresses for evening events. Jerilyn breathed deeply and strode inside with false confidence for what was now the belated second visit. It looked like a furniture showroom, Jerilyn thought again, overstuffed with love seats and china cabinets full of plaques and trophies. Jerilyn was asked her name (and to spell it out) while a smiling older girl wrote it out in lovely penmanship on a peel- off name tag and gently affixed it between breast and shoulder. “Now we’ll all get to know you, Jerilyn,” she chirped.
Margaret, a homeroom acquaintance from Mecklenburg Country Day,spotted her from the stairs and sped down to hug her. “I’m so excited you’re here! I’ve talked you up to so many of our women . . . I didn’t see you for the first part of rush and I thought about calling you which is dirty rushing and wrong wrong wrong, but . . . oh I know I shouldn’t ask, but are you aiming for any other houses? Naughty me!”
“Well, of course, Theta’s my mom’s sorority, so this is my priority.”
Margaret squealed and squeezed her arm.
“Though I had a good time at Alpha Delta Phi.”
“Oh yeah, well, they’re nice girls over there,” said Margaret, powerless to berate them.
“I haven’t been in Sigma Kappa Nu yet— been scared off by the mud, I guess.”
“They’ve become the big drug- and- party sorority, you know,” Margaret said with real sorrow, not able congenitally to savage anyone, even if they needed savaging. “It’s sure not our style,” she added.
Yep. That was the settled, empirical truth about unexciting, underdated,good-girl Jerilyn Johnston: being wild was simply not her style, not her scene. Two- beer maximum. Politeness and manners and good breeding, associating with the right people who did the right things— that was her summary, Young Ladyhood’s Southern poster child, halfway to some law firm’s partners’ wives’ charity’s annual luncheon—non- alcoholic of course. She winced a bit as she sipped from her crystal punch cup; someone had put in way too much unsweetened citrus. Next thing she knew, there was a tink- tink- tink of a spoon against a teacup.
“If I could . . . Each even-numbered hour on the hour, we ladies at ThetaKappa Theta want to introduce ourselves to you and let you know what we’re all about. Each of us, with the red name tags— you, the visitors, have the blue name tags— will be happy to tell you about life here at Cozy House. In truth, the house is named for our chapter’s founder, Sarabeth Scarples Cosy, C-O- S-Y, but through the years we’ve just stopped fighting its being constantly misspelled and gone with Cozy House, C-O- Z-Y, because, you know . . . it IS cozy here.” Hums of assents from the red- nametagged girls. “Th is is a great house for you to pursue your dreams of being all that you can be. We have the highest grade point average at Carolina of any of the houses, male or female . . .” A slight pause for some of the redname tags to let out a mild whoop, some dry hand claps. “. . . and our sisters have gone on to so many impressive walks of life.”
Jerilyn subtly abandoned the punch cup on a windowsill, and sat on thearm of a sofa while the roll of the immortals was declaimed. The wife of the state attorney general, the assistant to the agricultural commissioner, the CEO of a Durham- based company that manufactures cruelty- free lipsticks. Plus, scads, just scads of prominent communications majors!
“But,” the young woman was saying, “who really can give y’all therundown is Mary Jean Krisp, who is our president, and oh so many more things.”
Jerilyn saw, presumably, Mary Jean, with her immobile blond hair-helmetand foundation- heavy makeup, smiling to each corner of the large living room like a light house beaming into every cranny of the coast. She wore a peach turtleneck whose collar nearly swallowed her chin— the old hide- the- double- chin trick, thought Jerilyn— and below that hung a small gold chain with a pendant with a gold Greek theta and a cross.
“. . . during Greek Idol 2002, Mary Jean was named Most Talented FemaleSinger, and that’s just . . . why, I’ll read my durn notecard. President of the Panhellenic Council, junior Panhel delegate. The 2001 Theta Kappa Theta State Convention Delegate; 2001 National Convention Delegate, Rush Chairman, co- Chairman of the All- Greek Council, Chairman of the 2002 Homecoming Activities Committee, Director of the Sorority Presidents’ Council— I mean, I don’t know how she does so much important work!— Assistant to the Student Representative on the Chancellor’s Task Force on Greek Issues, an Adopt- a-Grandparent volunteer, a Big Little Sister, a volunteer at the Chapel Hill Animal Shelter, and . . . phew . . .” She playacted being winded. “. . . most importantly, the 2003 Outstanding Greek Woman for her work in the community and on campus. Here she is, Mary Jean Krisp!”
Mary Jean had been beaming to all her subjects, winking to someoneshe knew, rolling her eyes at some of the honors, little waves to someone special she just noticed, but now it was time to speak. After the mild applause subsided, she began.