Shit Just Got Real: A 21st-Century Fairy Tale

Shit Just Got Real by Author Ellen J. Perry

“I did not feel half bad walking the red-dog road down the mountain that next morning, in fact I felt like running and whooping it up, yelling and swinging on grapevines like we used to do up on Pilgrim Knob. Because it is a fact that if you are ruint, like I am, it frees you up somehow.”   Lee Smith, Fair and Tender Ladies (1988) 

Once upon a time in downtown Asheville, North Carolina – this past Friday at 4:30pm, to be exact – two professional women were leaving work in business-casual dress, trying to decide whether or not to check out the Magic Mike Male Revue show later that night. Well, Eliana was trying to decide; Ivy had already made up her mind that she was definitely going and bringing three friends along for the wild ride.

“Come on, it’ll be fun,” Ivy said. “Girls’ night out. How long has it been since we’ve done that?”

“I don’t know. I’m tired,” Eliana said with a sigh, rubbing her temples. “This week has just about done me in. Plus I worry about what if we see people from our office, or my church singles group I quit going to a while back. They’ll think I’m ruined for sure.”

“Ruined!” Ivy laughed, grabbing her friend playfully by the arm. “What is this, the 1800s? Anyway, you’ll get your second wind once you see those guys. I bet there’ll be some in military and fireman outfits. Maybe a stripper-policeman will put us under arrest! Throw on that dress you used to wear to your dance class and meet us at the door.” Right in the middle of Pack Square, Ivy bumped her hips a bit then moved into a full-blown shimmy. A man’s voice shouted out from a passing car, “Hey, African Queen!” The friends giggled and kept on walking.

“Have the VIP tickets sold out?” Eliana asked. “I don’t want to rub elbows down there by the stage with the bouncers and, well, the drunken riff-raff.”

“Yeah, the private booths are long gone, so we’ll have to get our tickets at the door. But the riff-raff is the best part.” Ivy leaned in, “No telling what could happen when you’ve got tipsy women stumbling around in stilettos or cowboy boots, slinging their purses and hooting at half-naked men. It’ll be an adventure.”

“I’ll think about it,” Eliana said, ignoring Ivy’s eye roll. “Hey, remember when I was in that book club at work? We read a novel by Lee Smith called Fair and Tender Ladies. There’s this one part where the main character says being ruined is liberating. What do you think of that?”

Ivy laughed. “I think we’re just going to be doing what men have done for years. They aren’t too worried about ruination or damnation or whatever. See you tonight!”

“I’ll think about it,” Eliana said again.

Eliana drove home, fed her cat, watered the plants, put on her pajamas, and nestled into her plush ivory couch. She thought about it. Option 1: eat popcorn for dinner and watch a scary movie on TV since it was getting close to Halloween; that would leave plenty of time for her to finalize some reports for work and then go to bed. Option 2: peel herself off the couch, get dressed (again), go by the ATM, walk some distance in uncomfortable shoes to a loud nightclub, and throw away her hard-earned money one dollar bill at a time.

The choice was easy.

Eliana picked up her phone to text Ivy that she was going to skip out on Option 2 when something stopped her. What’s happening to me? I’m only 35 years old and acting like an old lady. She looked down at her cat Muffin who was playing with a tattered piece of string on the floor and enjoying herself immensely. Even my cat has more fun on a Friday night than I do.

Muffin’s pitying blink finally made Eliana trudge upstairs to her bedroom, fish out that short black dancing dress in the corner of her closet, dust off her glittery heels, fluff up her hair a little bit, and head out. Cars were backed up on the interstate from every direction. Were all the women of Asheville out chasing these “male entertainers” tonight? Maybe it’s something else they’re chasing, Eliana thought as she sat in traffic clutching the steering wheel: escape from the drudgery of their real lives, relief from the weight of responsibility they carried every day, the gift of laughter and friendship, and maybe most of all the experience of being treated like valuable human beings and not machines.

Eliana had told Ivy more times than she could count that women functioned as the backbone of society – bottom line, they made life work. She could hear Ivy asking in her sassy way, “Yeah, so what’s your point?” Now, Eliana thought, it’s our turn to cash in on some of the fun we’ve earned while keeping everything and everyone else afloat. “That’s my point,” she said out loud as if her friend were there, and laughed with abandon, surprising herself by feeling a hint of excitement about the night ahead.

“Just got parked,” Eliana texted Ivy as she followed the crowds of women trundling toward the club on a pilgrimage. Good thing they knew where the venue was; she wouldn’t have to bother with her GPS. As soon as she reached the door and peered in, though, she panicked.

“Hey, E!” Ivy called out, lovely in her light green jacket and black leggings. Her flawless brown skin was smooth like caramel. “Are you ok? You look a little freaked out.”

“You didn’t tell me this was the First Date Place!”

“What?”

“This club is what used to be that arcade where Wilson and I had our first date.”

Ivy looked at the building as ladies swarmed by them to get their hands stamped. “Oh no… it is! I’m so sorry, I didn’t think.”

“It was almost two years ago. To the day.”

“Well, I always thought it was weird that he invited you to an arcade for your first date,” Ivy put her arms around Eliana’s small, slumping shoulders. “But this is perfect. You can get rid of that memory now. Come on, let’s go in.”

Eliana took a deep breath and greeted Ivy’s friends, happy that she wasn’t alone. Plus she knew that a Bahama Mama or two wouldn’t hurt in terms of nerve-calming, so she elbowed up to the bar and put her order in. The music was already so loud that she had to shout to be heard.

Waiting for her drink, she glanced around. The place was completely different than it had been when she’d first met Wilson there. Bright colors and cozy booths replaced drab tables and creaky barstools. Eliana herself was also different after nearly two years of trying to make things work with Wilson. She knew better now who she was, what she wanted, the quirks she could tolerate and the red flags she wouldn’t wave away.

Ivy’s friends claimed a table in the back just when the lights in the club went down and a loud, deep voice boomed out from the speakers:

“Ladies of Asheville, get ready…. we’ve brought some of the Southeast’s finest entertainers here just for your pleasure….”

The light show nearly blinded Eliana but the drum-beat wildness of the room’s energy was contagious.

“Put your hands up….”

Ivy and Eliana jostled toward the stage with the others as if drawn by a powerful magnet.

“…for some MAGIC TONIIIIIGHT!”

Ivy’s jaw dropped as the first dancers came out. At nearly six feet tall, she had easy access to the stage and got her camera phone ready.

Eliana yelled, “I can’t see a damn thing! What’s happening?”

“Oh my God, E! He just set that girl from the bachelorette party down on a chair and then picked her up, chair and all! Can you see her feet? She’s upside down!”

Eliana was only about 5’3 in her highest heels and felt like Zacchaeus from the New Testament. She chuckled to herself, recalling the image from her Vacation Bible School book: Zacchaeus was too short to see Jesus passing through one day, so he got the big idea that he’d climb a sycamore tree to get the best view. Eliana conjured an image of old Miss Florence, her VBS teacher, who would be in dire need of smelling salts if she could see Eliana on this night. Then again, maybe it would have done Miss Florence some good to get turned upside down in a chair by a hot fireman on occasion. Eliana grinned, left Ivy watching the act, and set off to make a story of her own. Hell, if a diminutive outcast tax collector could do it back in Bible times… Eliana thought, taking off her heels to climb up the makeshift sycamore tree, damned if in the day of women’s emancipation I won’t hop up on this table alongside this wall and see precisely what I can see.

What she saw amazed her. There were women of all ages, colors, shapes, and sizes diving into life, filling up the room with their energy, experiencing all the senses at full tilt. They laughed, hooted, cheered, celebrated. They celebrated impending marriages, finalized divorces, big birthdays; they celebrated life itself, and they did it together with the men playing right along. Eliana hadn’t felt so free and uninhibited since she’d gotten involved with Wilson two years before. She set her shoes down beside her and danced on that table without a trace of self-consciousness, danced like a gentle wave, regretted her thoughtless comment earlier about “riff-raff,” and let go of the fear of being seen and judged herself.

Mesmerized by the third performance and moving with its rhythms, Eliana was oblivious to the small commotion going on behind her at the front door. Nor did she see Ivy making her way through the crowd to check on her friend, so when she felt a hand gently touch her leg, she jumped; Ivy, fresh drink in hand, smiled up at her. “Now you’re in the spirit, girl,” Ivy said. “But you’re having way too much fun without me. Get down from there and let’s see if we can sneak into one of those VIP booths.”

Eliana took Ivy’s hand and jumped off the table, slipped back into her heels, and together she and Ivy turned around to take in a scene neither would have ever imagined.

An old woman, probably in her mid-80s, was pushing herself forward into the club on a walker – one of those contraptions with wheels on the front two feet and bright yellow tennis balls on the back. Here she came, pink tracksuit and all, helped along by her “younger” friends, whippersnappers probably in their early 70s. A 20-something bride-to-be spotted the senior group and placed her rhinestone tiara on the lady’s white curls. Both women, maiden and grande dame, were beaming.

Ivy summed it up: “Shit just got real, E.”

Eliana laughed, knowing what Ivy meant. This camaraderie among generations of women – those maybe on their first real adventure and at least a few known at some point in their lives as “fallen” or “ruined” or “slut-shamed” because of their unflinching expressions of self and sexuality – allowed for real freedom and progress in little corners of the world.

Everyone watched as one of the male entertainers gyrated and swayed his way back to the tiara-crowned woman and escorted her to the best seat in the house. There, at the premiere booth, sat the club’s VIP – the belle of the ball – the oldest woman in the room who knew better than anyone else what it means to embrace freedom, to show up for life.

That night Eliana and all of the belles, regardless of their mundane or even tragic circumstances beyond the walls of that pulsing club, believed they’d live happily ever after.

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