By Lee-Alison Sibley
"I won't spend more than $30.00 for it, I promise, " I told my husband, George.
"Sweetie, the saleslady is right behind you and just heard every word you said," he replied in a frustrated tone.
"Yes, but she doesn't understand English! She won't know what I told you," I added with confidence.
"You wanna bet?" said my husband.
The discussion was about a dress. It was December 2001. We were in Coyoacan market, in the southern part of Mexico City, where we visited with George's family. My mother-in-law brought me to the market for holiday shopping. In addition to the many beautiful Mexican handicrafts on display, there was an mélange of foreign clothing hanging from the market's ceiling. This was a shopper's paradise with bargains galore. I was thinking glamour, cocktails, chic attire for evenings. George had recently received the news that he was appointed Consul General to Calcutta, India, and we would be moving there in the summer of 2002. There would be a number of events, I believed, that would require this kind of dress: black chiffon, accented with deep rose-colored flowers and green and gold tones. I thought it was lovely with its two parts, under slip and overdress, mid-calf length. Though fairly transparent, I wasn't concerned, as I would wear it at night and with something underneath, like black panty hose. The other aspect I really liked about the dress was its lightweight, perfect for Calcutta's oppressive heat. Besides, it would be easy to pack into my suitcase and probably wouldn't even wrinkle. But first things first -I had to buy the dress.
I turned to the saleslady and with a big smile on my face asked, "Señora, ¿cuánto cuesta este vestido? How much is this dress? Dame un buen precio, un precio especial, por favor." Give me a good deal, please.
Smiling in return, she answered, "Para Ud., señora, el precio es doscientos setenta (270) pesos."
Quickly calculating, I realized that she had just old me the dress was the equivalent of, yes…thirty dollar! To add insult to injury, she then said, in English, "nice dress and nice price. Final price."
"See, I told you so!" George couldn't resist commenting.
"O.K., O.K., I was wrong. But I still want the dress!"
So, I bought it, for the equivalent in Mexican pesos of thirty U.S. dollars. And six months later, I packed that same black chiffon dress in my suitcase and moved from our home in Princeton, New Jersey, to Washington, D.C., and then on to Calcutta, India, arriving on August 10, 2002. I was right-the dress didn't wrinkle.
Exactly two weeks after landing in Calcutta, before our sea freight arrived from the United States, the International Women's Club hosted a Monsoon Ball. The ball was THE social event of the summer monsoon season and we were excited, like many others in the city, to have an opportunity to dress up and to meet lots of people while dining and dancing. It was, as most events in this city resembling Miss Havisham's old and decaying wedding cake in Great Expectations, for charity. A "black tie" event. George would have to wear a tuxedo. This presented more than one problem. Not only was his tuxedo NOT in his suitcase, he could no longer fit into it as it was made for him in Saipan, in 1988, when his waistline was the envy of many. Now he had joined the rest of us whose girth had grown somewhat over the years, but with some help, we found a wonderful tailor shop and selected some fine wool material and a fairly traditional design. They would work quickly, too, so George was set and would look veery handsome at the ball. As for me…
…I had not a single ball gown with me. When I packed, I thought in terms of presentable summer wear, not fancy ball dresses. I doubt I could have fit one in my suitcase anyway. I was relying on the hope that our air shipment would arrive and with it, some long, silk dresses. I should have realized that this was not to be and gone to a dressmaker, but I was being frugal, knowing that I had a number of appropriate gowns enroute. Ready-made dresses are not available in Calcutta, though one could find a beautiful sari to purchase easily. But I didn't want to take a chance in a sari to come unwrapped the first time George stepped on my hem while dancing, nor did I try to get accustomed to this lovely, traditional Indian attire so soon after arriving. That came later.
The day before the ball, I gave up hope that the shipment would arrive and went to search my closet for something, anything I could wear that would blend with a tuxedo. My eyes traveled the width of the closet, from east to west, and finally came to rest on…the black chiffon dress! Yes, with nice shoes I could probably get away with it. It was really all I had. The only problem now was that in my haste to pack in my non-airconditioned bedroom in New Jersey, in the summer, I had forgotten to put in any pantyhose, much less black pantyhose. Could I wear the dress with my body showing through the side panels? Did I have another choice? I decided to pray for a dark ballroom and to only dance when the floor was filled with people, to avoid any embarrassment.
On Saturday, August 24, 2002, off to the ball we went, George splendid in his new tuxedo, and I, properly coifed with lots of hairspray (the humidity is a hairdo killer), made up with glittery accents, and hoping that my face and hair would divert attention from my possibly scandalous dress. After all, I was the wife of the new U.S. Consul General and everyone would be inspecting me from top to bottom.
Keeping my hands by my sides, I entered the cocktail reception room at the Taj Bengal Hotel, holding George close by the arm. Meeting and greeting, accepting wine, turning down hors d'oevres, I made sure we were not in the middle of any group, but rather near to the wall, to be less conspicuous. Lots of 'schmoozing' was in order and we stayed there for a good half hour before we entered the ballroom.
Finally, at 8:30 P.M., we were led in and greeted with a beautiful scene of round tables, glorious flower arrangements, china, shining silverware and crystal glassware. And, thankfully, low lighting! Making our way to our table, I was eager to sit and enjoy watching others sashay in wearing a variety of fine attire.
From that point the evening progressed with the dinner, the dancing, the attempts to speak over the sounds from the band, and the drawing of the prizes. There were ten prizes in all, donated by companies, or individuals, ranging from gifts of wine and saki, to a weekend at a resort, to the grand prize, a British Airways, round-trip ticket on business class to London. A corner of our entrance tickets was put into a large bowl and from that bowl, the winners were chosen. The first set of prizes was given early on in the dinner, with the major prizes reserved for the end of the ball, at midnight.
I was definitely NOT focused on the prizes. I'm a 'morning person', not a night owl to begin with and by 11:30 P.M. I was tired, still getting over our trip from the United States to India, still trying to get adjusted to the heat and humidity of our new life, and more concerned about my dress and what others could see through the sides. George and I danced when the floor was crowded and when I walked to and from our table, I kept my arms plastered to my sides. No peeking!
"Sweetie, can we go home now?" I asked George. "I'm really bushed."
"Can you hold out for another half-hour? The big prizes are going to be announced at midnight."
"We won't win anything. Why bother?" I was ready to leave.
"It's just another half hour. Then we'll go home," George assured me.
"All right, but I'm not going up to where they're giving out the prizes because of my dress, so if anything happens, you go."
"Okay, I'll go if we win."
When the clock struck midnight, the master of ceremonies and the president of the Women's Club started announcing the last five prizes and pulling the winning tickets from the bowl. Dinners out, bottles of booze, time at a resort. For the eighth prize the announcer asked the new U.S. Consul General to come up and pick a ticket, and so George went to the stage and pulled out a stub, making someone very happy to win something. I was sitting at the table, looking at my watch, and waiting out the remaining minutes. George came back to the table and sat down.
"It's a good thing I didn't pick OUR number," he said, laughing.
"Oh, I don't know," I answered, "what's good about THAT?" I wanted to know.
Someone else went up to pick the next to last prize and it too was given. I don't even remember what it was, because by that time I wasn't paying too much attention. "Almost time to go home," I thought to myself.
Finally, Mr. Joseph Homen, from British Airways, was invited to the stage to pick the winning airline ticket. I perked up because you could feel the anticipation in the air. People were "shushing" each other so that they could hear the number chosen, in case they won. All eyes were on the stage. Mr. Homen reached into the bowl, stirred the small tags around a bit, and withdrew his hand.
"And the winning number is…112!" I looked down. It was MY ticket! I couldn't believe it! I started shouting, "I won! I won!" and without thinking one tiny bit, I rushed to the stage, dress be damned, to receive my prize. Life is like that, isn't it?