Michael’s bar mitzvah was the event of summer 1992. His parents rented out the banquet hall at La Paloma and people flew in to Tucson to be there. It was going to be a ritzy event. A morning ceremony and an evening party. To a girl from Nogales, that meant two party dresses from Bracker’s.
Bracker’s was the fancy Jewish department store in Nogales that had served generations of northern Mexicans. Mrs. Ellis ran the women’s department. She was a dignified older woman. She kept the other women who worked at the store in check. She knew all of her clients’ sizes. When you showed up to try on dresses, they were waiting for you at your appointed time in the dressing room. She knew what would look good on your body. She curated the options. And she also knew who else would be attending the event from Nogales so as to make sure you didn’t wear the same dress. It’s all part of a bygone era now. I caught the tail end of it. Think Thr Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
I got my two dresses, a white off the shoulder number with a nautical theme for the ceremony and a peach off-the-shoulder number for the party. My family booked a room at La Paloma in Tucson for the weekend. They weren’t invited. I was the only one, but we spent many a summer by the pools and slide. And I came from Mexican society, where events were events and entire families showed support.
I remember sitting in the synagogue off of Broadway and watching Michael up there, reciting the Torah. I was so jealous that he had a captive audience that I forgot myself. Every cool kid from Wade Carpenter was there, sitting butt check to butt cheek with these cool, sophisticated kids from L.A. Cute Jewish boys. You can imagine the heaven I was in. Not that I would talk to any of them.
That night I walked from my room to the main hotel, in satin heels from La Cinderella, dyed peach to match my dress. With a white satin handbag holding a lipgloss and $20. Someone would steal the $20 while I was dancing. I don’t know who it was, but given the options, I’d probably blame Nick, Netz or one of the other cool boys.
I didn’t sit at the cool table. I was at the uncool table with Holly Johnston and a bunch of strangers. But I enjoyed myself. The theme was Hollywood and the centerpieces were elaborate. Back then, Michael fancied himself a Steven Spielberg type before he became Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The next day, my parents wouldn’t stop talking about all the compliments they’d received about me from the other parents. Apparently, I’d grown up over the summer and had started to emerge from my pudgy awkward adolescence. Tory’s dad, Gary, had asked my father if he’d taken me to Canyon Ranch for a makeover. Canyon Ranch is a glitzy spa/luxury getaway in Tucson that Oprah loves.
I should have felt good about myself with all that unexpected adulation but, honestly, it hurt. I hadn’t changed on the inside, so why all the fuss? The attention only made me self-conscious about who I’d been before and how my exterior was going to be my determining factor for fitness in society. I rejected it so very hard in the coming years.
Around that time, men started hitting on me. I was 13 going on 20 on the outside, but a scared child on the inside. When I did flirt, I was bold and a little careless and then when these grown men started calling me at home, I was terrified.
It took me a long time to come into my own and feel possession over the exterior as well as the interior.
There’s a store on the UES that I like to visit: Zitomer. Much like Bracker’s, it is an old-fashioned department store with a scary mid-century elevator. It’s where women buy mink earmuffs and Judith Leiber Swarofski-encrusted clutches to show off at Lincoln Center. I love that store. It reminds me of the anticipation of a big event: a quinceañera, a fashion show, the prom. I get to be twelve again, steeped in the gentility of a bygone era.