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Lawler I am well girded in a tight velvet skirt, shimmery light support stockings and a vest of black beads. My chignon pulls like a temporary facelift and I am at ease. I feel like I can talk to anyone. The scene is cinematic, a sweeping view of the East River from inside the penthouse of a well-known plastic surgeon. In the corner, a celebrated right-wing radio talk show host fingers a bowl of cashews. I'm an early arrival, and there is plenty of space to move about. I haven't had a thing to drink. And yet it happens. A sturdy woman holding a silver tray of drinks stops in front of me. "Would you care for a beverage?" she asks, barely above a whisper. As I reach for a bottle of sparkling water, I sense the woman drooping and tilting, like a propjet out of gas, trying to steady the accident about to unfold. With a sudden surge of horror, I realize, I have managed to knock every glass off the tray. They crash and break on the hardwood floor like a loose sack of diamonds. And the decanter of Merlot I hadn't even noticed runs onto a kilim. A river of red floods the intricate weave. Did I turn too fast, not look, become distracted, not care? The tanned host pretends not to notice. But I know he sees me. The Clumsy One. The woman serving the drinks says, "I'm sorry," and starts to sop the rug, but we both know it was my fault. It's her job to take the heat. I apologize, but it hardly matters. Dropping things, tripping over curbs, walking into walls. A lady Keystone cop. Awkward, ungainly, bungling, maladroit, butterfingers. Some of us float, while others flounder. On the one hand, there’s Audrey Hepburn,
Grace Kelly, and post-Cruise Katie Holmes. On the other wobbly hand, there are the dames like Carole Burnett, Drew Barrymore, and Lucille Ball who understood the charm (dare I say sex appeal?) of a well-timed pratfall. After all, who can forget the episode of “Sex and The City” when Carrie’s Manolo made a misstep while she tried to glide down a runway, and her body collapsed like a rag doll in an oil slick? I related to her mix of humiliation and resignation. Suffice to say that falling while in an altered state of chemical consciousness does not apply to these categories. I pride myself on being a natural klutz. But does being graceful matter really these days? How important is it to stand tall, sit like a lady, never stumble, knock over a pitcher, or pulverize a piece of Waterford? For some women, being graceful means being assured and in control. Whether they’re totally soused or sober as Judge Judy, rolling on the high seas or passing out canapés, some ladies never lose their footing. It’s that essential. For others, like me, it's a pseudo-virtue, a throwback, another quality that females must develop lest they feel inadequate. I can't quite make up my mind about the importance of gracefulness—it ranks, for me, somewhere between hygiene and courage. It's subtler than good manners and, in my opinion, not teachable like rules of etiquette. My parents, both well intentioned, but oblivious, never seemed to notice or care that their youngest daughter lacked an essential social grace. I should have gone to “charm school” and learned the secrets that those other girls appeared to possess in their book-balancing heads. We had one institution in our neighborhood, "The Main Line School of Grace and Charm," an orange stuccoed building in the middle of Moyamensing Avenue in South Philadelphia. Its name, appropriated from the blue blood suburb to
the west, belied an irony difficult to overlook since this particular establishment abutted a tire store and a vegetable stand. I often wondered what went on inside there, but pretended not to care as I sped by the place on my sparkly banana-seat bike. Instead of charm school, my interests leaned toward reading Kurt Vonnegut, playing pinochle, and leading séances. In those days a girl either worried about the way she walked or worked on her brain. As I recall, most of the Main Line School graduates, looked great at the prom, married the tire rotator, but never moved out of the neighborhood. Despite this, part of me wishes I had gone for at least one session. (Omitted sentence.) It began right on the cusp of puberty. A protracted camping trip with my Aunt Annamarie and her Marine husband, Bill. Far from civilization and inappropriately shod with P.F. Flyers for the rough terrain of The Blue Mountains of West Virginia, I tripped over every rock and mound of dirt on every hike we took that long weekend. "Goddamn it," my grizzly uncle declared in his drill sergeant voice, "That girl can’t walk and swallow her spit at the same time." Flash forward to the late Seventies. I'm ready for action in a navy polyester zipper jumpsuit. I sashay past the man that I met the week before in this noisy disco, hoping he’ll notice me and my pyramid perm. His collar is long and pointy and his eyes on are on me. But the challenge of my platforms defeats the required elegance of this mating ritual. I miss a step, then another, and I'm down for the count. Desperate for a quick recovery, I maintain a brave smile, but the moment is gone. He's looking for a girl who can hustle, spin, swirl, and still land on her feet. That's not me. I'm all grown up by 1985, and another man notices. He proposes an intimate Italian dinner for our first date. We discuss current events on the
way to the restaurant while he drives. I'm thrilled to get the chance to enchant him without having to move. He likes what I'm saying. I'm shining here. My brain is the most graceful part of my anatomy. The words and turns of phrases ebb and flow seamlessly. We sit at the table. I'm in a pink silk suit and white blouse. Bread is served, then spaghetti. I'm taking him in, giving up a few secrets, boasting, provoking, and flattering. I can strut my stuff as long as I don't have to walk. As I wrap the spaghetti around my fork, the sauce breaks free from the pasta and lands on my blouse like a bullet wound. He points with a tentative smile and offers a wet napkin. The water soaks through and the fabric sticks to my skin. For a moment, I wonder whether the damp rayon might remind him of Jacqueline Bisset, dripping and sultry in "The Deep." No. Not really. He smiles, follows up with a dry napkin and asks me to finish my thought. Never mind the stubborn stain. A few dates after that, at a quiet sushi bar, the glass of water I just knocked over dribbles toward his side of the table and darkens the leg of his pressed khakis. Still, again, he’s unperturbed and more interested in what I'm saying than the faux pas. In that moment, I knew we were going to work. On my wedding day, I reluctantly opt for sensible satin shoes and manage to walk down the aisle without incident. Nineteen years and two children later, with dozens of lacy cuffs drenched in salad dressing, heels caught in subway grates, a cooked chicken careening across the kitchen floor, vases and china smashed, and mirrors threatening twenty-one years of bad luck, he hovers closer as I approach the six-foot drop of an open cellar door on a Manhattan sidewalk. He’s been anointed the graceful one in the family, light as a deer on his feet, nary a scuff on his two-year-old shoes, the better dancer—hands down. To my utter relief and slight astonishment, our twelve-year-old
daughter is possessed of his delicate, steady nature. Still, as she rounds the bend into her teenage years when centers of gravity shift, and distractions electronic and hormonal conspire to compromise her balance, I stand by, hoping to catch her if she slips. More important than breaking her fall, I want her to learn from me that there are more ways than one to show the world you’re a stand-up gal. I want her to know that if she ever finds herself in a Shiraz-drenched cocktail dress or with a run in her Wolford’s from an unintended tumble, her wit will prop her up. And, if she’s lucky, like me, she’ll find a man like her father who thinks she walks on water.
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