Childhood, as we are very well aware, is the make or break period in our lives, there is no dancing around it. Our battle training begins in first grade and concludes freshman year of high school where we then generally enter the adolescence arena. Those formative years which are riddled with fluctuation, have a gargantuan role in shaping your academic and especially social position among your peers. I learned this from experience many years ago from an event which was scarring at the time but is rather hilarious to me now to reflect upon all these years later. This unique experience from third grade was integral in shaping my social status among my peers and effectively ensured that for a time, I was considered a weirdo or something along those lines. This experience, the time my Mother persuaded me to attend my first sleepover party in a three-piece white suit, has been deemed the White Suit Incident.
My Mother ALWAYS had the best of intentions and consistently put the interests of me and my sisters at the forefront of everything she did. In fact, it can be said that my Mother sacrificed SO MUCH to have us and lived her life FOR us. At eighteen she was diagnosed with Lupus, a terribly debilitating autoimmune disease that ravaged her body for almost forty years. Her doctors warned that having children would severely aggravate her condition, but she did not care and could not fathom the prospect of not having children with my father. So, in other words, my sisters and I felt the weight of what our Mother went through to bring us into the world. It is very poignant for me to reflect on all the educational and dramatic experiences my family shared over the years and the funny scenarios that have also helped shape the life I have lived. My parent’s guided us from our childhood through adolescence and into adulthood; their actions serving as beacons towards the right path…usually.
One piece of advice from my Mother (and its resulting event) was remarkably fateful and would prove to be more influential on my life than just about any other. Until that point – in Third Grade, I had never been invited to sleep over a friend’s house before, so understandably I was excited by the invitation. This wonderful invitation came from John, a newer friend, who was very good friends with (my good friend) Chris. Starting in first grade, Chris and I had become very friendly. I was kind of shy in the early days of first grade and Chris was notoriously loquacious from the moment I met him. Suffice to say we quickly became thick as thieves, as they say (and remain close today, more than thirty years later and counting). But back then, as I stated above, Chris was also good friends with two other guys in our class: John (whom you know) and Mike, whom I really did not begin to get to know too well until a couple years later in grade three, where this story takes place. So given my close friendship with Chris and our growing camaraderie as a group, I was invited to join the guys for a sleepover party at John’s house to celebrate his birthday one Friday night.
Elated and counting the hours until party time that spring evening, my Mom and I were packing my overnight bag with the usual roster of essentials: toothbrush and accompanying paste, pajamas, pillow & sleeping bag and the ever important clean underwear! I can only assume that in my Mother’s head this was some kind of grand occasion that called for only the best clothing, because I see no other explanation for why she said I should wear my white suit to this party. If I had previously attended a sleep over I would have been able to explain that these events are very casual, but being an overnight virgin, I did not know any better. Oh, the ignorance of youth…
My Mom was raised in Brazil in a very proper upper-class manner, attended boarding school along with her siblings and was always well dressed. So I gather it was this experience that shaped her views on her children’s appearance upon leaving the house every day, with no lack of influence from my Grandmother, who was even more dedicated to proper etiquette than my Mother was. I recall my Grandmother telling me upon my first trip on a plane that we should always dress nice for air travel. So it is not surprising looking back on it now, that my Mother always ensured that I wear proper dress clothing on the daily basis to school (slacks, nice shirt and loafers or some variation of dress shoes on my feet), with the firm caveat that I would be allowed to dress down and wear sneakers to school ONLY on the two days a week I had gym class. I bet you can imagine where this is going from here.
So given this upbringing, it was not even an issue when I was instructed to wear a three-piece white suit to the fateful sleepover party at John’s house. Not only was I used to formal attire and therefore did not think anything of it, but I was also a novice entering the world of childhood overnight escapades. In other words, I did not know what to expect. I just knew I was excited to have been invited to the party.
On the ride over to John’s house I felt the butterflies in my stomach jumping around as if they were bound to pogo sticks. The five-minute drive from my house to John’s across town felt like an eternity, with the anticipation of a night filled with misbehavior and the overeating of junk food corrupting my brain like an enveloping storm cloud. Although I had never been to a sleepover before, I had heard the roster of insanity that usually ensued once the parental units were out of sight, so now that the night was upon us, I was itching to get the evening started.
I finally arrived at the front door, dressed in my angelically-white ensemble that Hervé Villechaize (Tattoo from Fantasy Island) would have supported. Standing there with my bag, pillow and sleeping bag in toe, I excitedly rang the doorbell. My Mom was at the door behind me, ready to have the obligatory conversation with John’s mom that would ensure that her child was in good hands for the night. I can imagine parents must be nervous when their children become old enough to stay over other people’s homes, and unsure of how watchful these stranger’s eyes will be on their beloved child. To my Mother’s delight, John’s mom ensured her everything would be fine. A few moments passed as I said my goodbye to my Mom, walked through the door that was opened by John’s mom, who welcomed me in kindly and proceeded to point me in the direction of John’s bedroom where the guys were hanging out. I headed through the tidy living room, down the hall towards the bedroom, with a smile on my face and a skip in my step.
John’s bedroom was on the left-hand side of the hallway and I could see that the door was open. I announced my arrival and entered the room, where I saw John, Chris and Mike hanging out on the bed and floor, talking and laughing. To my surprise and to theirs, I was OVERDRESSED. It was as if a record skipped at the moment of my entrance, in classic movie fashion, where here instead of saying the wrong thing, I was WEARING it. I stood there in my formal wear observing the guys who were dressed in shorts; tie-dye t-shirts, no socks, looking totally comfortable and content. In sharp contrast, I walk in dressed for front row seats at an exclusive one-night only symphony at the New York Philharmonic. If the word awkward had never before had a definition, this moment would have been an inspired narrative to explain not only the word’s meaning but its definitive origin.
I felt like the eyes of the world were upon me as I put down my things and greeted the guys, who were snickering innocently with their mouths agape; undoubtedly shocked at the prospect of having a young butler crash their party.
“Hey guys,” I said, still happy to be part of John’s birthday.
“Why are you so dressed up?” Chris said, his tie-dye shirt burning a hole into my retina. “My Mom thought it was appropriate,” I said to him, deferring the blame. “She’s Brazilian, they dress nice there.”
“It’s a bit much for tonight, don’t you think?” Chris added. “We’re dressed like slobs,” he concluded in the most clearly evident self-awareness I had ever witnessed up until that point. I remember envying their pure comfort, wishing I could be in similar rags while simultaneously hating that neither my Mother nor I had thought to bring a change of clothes with me in case of a situation like the one I was presently experiencing occurred. “Sit down and get comfortable,” John implored. “We’re gonna have pizza soon.” And just like that, the moment passed. I sat down and we began to hang out, goof off and eventually devour several pizzas.
Looking back it must have been like that scene in Goodfellas where Maury was at the card game with De Niro, Liotta and Pesci during the sequence where he was close to being whacked and had no idea. Maybe that is why I always felt bad for him – the illusion of security among your peers is immensely intoxicating. We can never be too sure how genuine our acceptance really is at that young age.
As the evening progressed, I recall a trip to the local arcade for several rounds of video games, followed by pretzel-making back at the house afterwards or possibly before (I may have the food timeline mixed up), but regardless of order, it was a richly pleasing feast of fat and carbohydrates no doubt and the first time I ever made my own pretzel. The anticipation we felt waiting for them to be ready was intolerable and the increasing aroma of those fat, salty twists of dough teased our noses for what felt like hours. That first bite of warm dough and salty contrast was truly a marvel and one I will never forget.
The junk-food marathon of Roman Vomitorium proportions did not stop there, no sir. It continued with chips, cheese puffs, popcorn, ice cream and cake into the wee early hours of the morning as we watched back-to-back science fiction and horror movies in John’s basement. It was also the first time I had ever seen either of the first two Alien movies, which are classics to me now, but to a bunch of kids about 9 years old, were films that were too slow-starting to draw our attention at that age. We definitely turned both of them off after a few minutes, feeling bored with the exposition and impatient for some bloody action. Kids…
Next, I believe we perused scenes from various Freddy movies, as they were called by us (the Nightmare on Elm Street series, to the uninformed), and eventually settled on Creepshow as our feature presentation, a Stephen King anthology horror film, put together like stories from a comic book. This blood-fest was definitely more our speed and we watched it from beginning to end with great delight. To this day, I have vivid memories of this film, with The Crate, being the most terrifying and entertaining segment of the film. That horrifying creature is still one of the scariest monsters I have ever seen in a movie (bravo to Tom Savini for his wonderful creature effects). I was at a horror convention a few years ago and was told by the man himself, that that terrifying hairy beast with razor teeth and evil eyes was named Fluffy on the film’s set, which kind of takes away from the trepidation it is meant to evoke in the viewer.
Eventually we fell asleep, sometime in the early AM hours and awoke mid-morning that Saturday to a grand breakfast. Thanks again (if she is reading this) to John’s mom for preparing a memorable plethora of culinary delights for John and his ravenous guests. After breakfast we went for a walk in the woods near John’s house, eventually entering into a large area of undeveloped land called “the sandpits,” an apropos name for an area composed mostly of sand dunes and adjoining wooded areas hidden behind the local industrial park and residential neighborhoods.
Remember that feeling I had in John’s bedroom where the fog was lifted and I did not feel conspicuous in the white suit? Well, that feeling went away and the uncomfortable awkwardness had returned with a vengeance once we commenced our hike through the dunes of the sandpits. As I trudged through dense, cascading sand in my polished white dress shoes, ensconced in that cursed virginal white suit on an unseasonably-hot spring afternoon all I could think of was how ridiculous I felt in this getup. The entire ordeal was not exactly conducive to enjoyment or to cardiovascular activity for that matter. The only positive aspect to all this absurdity was that the sheer whiteness of my suit deflected the sun away from me a little bit, while assuredly blinding any birds that were unfortunate enough to fly overhead that afternoon.
I recall that we eventually split up into groups of two, Chris and John pairing up and Mike and I partners in expedition. Mike was very kind to me as he played down the white suit, insisting that I should not worry about it. I always remembered that in the years that followed, as it was a kind and thoughtful gesture. If memory serves, I think Chris and John had made some comments about my attire that morning, in a tag-team sort of fashion in an effort to bust my balls. I rolled with it the best I could, even if their remarks made me feel embarrassed. I did not feel like I fit in that afternoon as we hiked through the mountainous sand, which I am sure Mike picked up on as we navigated the mirage of dunes together. The more we trekked, the more uncomfortable I felt in my skin and especially in that fucking suit. I felt my body sweat like a leaking faucet and I was breathing heavily and cursing the manufacturer of the white equivalent of the Scarlett Letter I was trapped in. There is a reason athletes do not dress up for these occasions. My Mother apparently did not get that memo.
Do Brazilians hike in suits? Is that why their sexuality and raw animalistic attraction is renown around the world, because they dress to the nines for every aspect of their luscious tan lives? I should have consulted my Grandmother before she passed, for the dressing guidelines of South American sportsman. I have a sneaking suspicion there is a Portuguese expression for guys like me in this situation that would probably translate to “poor kid never had a chance.”
Thankfully, a little while later our hike ended and we reached the end of the sandpits, where Chris and John were already waiting. The four us headed out of the woods together headed back to civilization and by the time we got back to John’s house all our parents were already on their way to pick us up to go home. I remember being excited to strip off that suit and change into something, ANYTHING more comfortable and make sure my Mother explicitly understood what she had unknowingly put me through. I think I wore that suit MAYBE one more time after that day and it was for a holiday or some other special occasion.
Alas, in the end, I did survive the white suit incident and graduated from that to many other social and wardrobe faux-pas in my years from grammar school to early college; learning as I evolved, that white suits, red sweat pants & sweatshirt together, silk shirts or a jean Snapple jacket (although admired by me), were not fashions easily found among the pages of GQ magazine or likely to give you positive word of mouth among the female constituency. If I took anything useful away from that humiliating experience, it was that sleepover parties are a fairly casual occasion and the expectation of attire is on the lower end.
It is a testament to my perseverance and character that as embarrassing as that event was for me in the moment, I really don’t remember carrying it with me in the days, weeks, months and years that followed. It happened and I moved on from it. It was not until many years later that I learned of the profound impact that outfit had on me socially-speaking. I was informed probably around the time I was in college, that after the sleepover party, I was secretly looked at with an askew eye by Chris and the guys in the wake of the legendary white suit fiasco. It was completely unbeknownst to me, that from their perspective, I was “working off” that image for several years until I was officially accepted within their ranks. I guess it was cool of them to at least not make that fact obviously clear to me at the time. Or was it? Is it worse to not know? Who cares at this point?
You have to make your mark early and etch your name on the social totem pole as soon as possible or risk being the subject of ridicule and banishment forever from the graces of coolness. If only I had been given that memo in the third grade and allowed my Mother to read it, perhaps then the formative years of my life would have been drastically different. If I could go back in time now and change aspects of my life’s journey, I would probably decline because I am the person I am today because of whom I was back then.
We all make mistakes, have missteps and endure challenges as we evolve from children to adults, but hopefully we will learn from them and grow into stable, confident adults who can fulfill lifelong dreams and contribute to society. In a way I am now thankful that my Mom made me wear that monkey suit that night, not only because it gave me another unique story to tell years later (one that could only happen to me), but more importantly, because it allowed me to understand the value of making a good first impression; whether it is in school, socially, romantically or professionally. The first thoughts people have the moment they meet you are usually the ones that stick, so do what you can to make that first impression as great and as embarrassment-free as possible.
This landmark event also taught me to suck it up and make the best of any situation, because you don’t often get many do-overs in life. So even when you are shuffling through shin-deep sand in formal-wear, try your damnedest to shuffle exceptionally. My Mother had a saying that has stayed with me ever since I was a kid that is “always put your signature on everything you do.” I hear those wise words in my head all the time and consult them whenever I have a challenge on my plate. Maybe they guided me in the sand dunes that morning following the sleepover party and motivated me to just tough it out the best that I could.
In the end, whether we like it or not, our parents are with us forever – their voices, teachings and wisdom inevitably influencing us throughout our entire life, and no matter how painful or embarrassing certain events may be for us, they usually carry with them the most useful lessons. For me, it was a white suit. What was it for you?