To hell with it, Belle thought, and made up a new rule for her Southern Girls’ Guide. Life is uncertain. A girl has to grab hold while she still has a firm grip.
—Loraine Despres, The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell
I was a hold-out, a latecomer, to the Facebook universe. I wanted, I told myself, to connect directly and not through the third person medium of a social networking platform. I wanted the time and thoughtfulness crafting a handwritten letter provides, and the wonderful ‘ping!’ of happiness receiving one in turn triggers. I wanted NOT to be committed–maybe addicted–to one more electronic obligation.
But finally, I got tired of Mark saying, “Hey, did you see the pictures of Kaelyn and Alyssa?” or, “I see your niece ran a marathon!” He always had the scoop; I was always in the dark and begging for details.
Finally, I said, “Okay, okay: I give!” and signed up for FaceBook.
I have heard that FaceBook is now your grandmother’s social networking tool, and because I am old enough to be your grandmother, I have to concur. I love being able to log in and find out what is going on with my stepson and his lovely wife, my grandchildren, and all the far-flung members of my family. And I also love the re-connective qualities of it.
I am still not very good about wandering around the Facebook universe looking for people I know, but, fortunately, friends and family members are savvier and more proactive. So it’s been a lot of fun, in the year and a half since I first logged on, to get friend requests from such a wide variety of people. The “Whatever happened to ____?” type questions have been, in large part, answered; if they are not my Facebook friend, they are friends with someone else, who shares.
Now, I see what people are doing with their lives–the families they’ve guided, the careers they’ve created, the homes they have lovingly put together. I see the impact they’ve had on the world, launching talented children, struggling successfully with personal issues, turning illness, tragedy, and horribly bad luck into some kind of gold that can enrich another person.
Some of these folks–former classmates, former students, kids for whom I babysat–dabbled in trouble as young people. They ran, as my mother would have said, with a ‘fast crowd.’ Teachers and parents predicted darkly, as these flashing young people flung themselves down that slippery slope, that things would not end well for them.
Oh, how I wanted once to be one of those dangerously cool young people. Oh, how I never, ever could.
How do some people become rebels, bent on exploring and encountering risky situations, navigating weighted decisions in a way that leans toward danger? What is it about small towns that spawns these folks? Why are the rest of us immune?
No amount of eyeliner could shake my good girl aura. I remember once, when I was fourteen or so, we were playing kind of a backward version of hide and seek called Sardines. The person who was ‘It’ hid; the others had to, individually, find the hider and squeeze into the hiding place with her. The last person to discover the clutch of giggling friends became ‘It’ in turn.
The neighborhood enclosed a little park, a commons, bounded on four sides by nice residential streets. In the middle was a fountain, with a statue of Neptune spouting water, and in a circle around the fountain were benches. It was dark that night, and on the benches were the tough kids, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. When it was my turn to hide, I looked around for an unused, clever hiding place, and couldn’t think of any, so I headed to the benches.
I explained my situation to the cool ones, and they laughed and made room for me on the bench. One of them offered me a beer, shooshed open a can and handed it to me. Oh, the bliss; I grabbed the can, slunk down, and lifted it to my lips.
“Here, now,” said a senior boy, “that’s enough now. You’re not used to that. Just slouch down there and talk to us,” and he took the beer away. And we did talk–about school and movies and teachers and books–it was great talk, really. But when someone shook their cigarette pack at me, offeringly, the same cool leader laughed again and intervened.
Clearly, such treats were not meant for the likes of me.
My friends eventually found me, some giving me a queerly cocked eye for my choice of hiding place. The cool kids virtually patted me on the head and told me I was cute. I thanked them for letting me visit, as my mother had taught. We ran off to finish the game, eat the refreshments some nice mom had ready for us
Later on, I would try even harder to be dangerously cool, developing a hard to kick nicotine habit and gifting myself with horrible hangovers and hazy but embarrassing memories a plenty, before I finally gave it up and admitted I am what I am, and that’s fine and lovely.
But I still love to read about girls who were successfully bad and came out fine. That’s why I picked up The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell, by Loraine Despres, when I saw it on the clearance shelf.
This is the first book by Despres I’ve read; the jacket, though, tells me she’s written The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc and a spin-off book, The Southern Belle’s Handbook. That handbook is something Belle refers to over and over in Bad Behavior. Belle, however, is not talking it up–she’s running it down. In her head, she’s writing her own little book of rules for southern women…and it includes things like, “There’s no lust like unrequited lust,” and other hasty thoughts.
She’s a bad girl, our Belle.
Belle is also a beautiful southern matron in the early 1900’s, mother of Cady, widow of Claude. Claude: poor World War One hero, coming home to meet with loving wife–coming home with a perfumed letter from a Frenchwoman named Lisette in his pocket. Claude goes out to play cards with his buddies, and someone shows him a photo of Belle getting arrested for indecent exposure–she was wearing one of those newfangled bathing suits. Claude, that southern gent, dies defending Belle’s honor. She is convinced, thereafter, that she’s murdered her husband.
Light and frothy, a good palette cleanser of a book, The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell nevertheless deals with some weighty issues. Belle, when she’s not noticing the way one man fills his suit or imagining another’s slender fingers playing her like he plays the piano keys, is a suffragist. She’s also a friend to the Black people in her town; they took care of her when her father lay dying and her mother vacated mentally. She tries to return the care. In many ways, Belle is closer to her Black friends than to her own family.
The dust jacket tells me this book is a prequel to that one about Scandalous Sissy; it’s a good book to bridge the gap between Street Gang and the interesting book I’ll start this weekend: The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
And it reminds me that the ‘bad’ girls, the ‘fast’ girls, the girls like Belle, aren’t usually really all that ‘bad.’ They’re passionate, lusty, and too impatient for life to come and fetch them. They go find it, instead. But when push comes to shove–when Life rears up and asks them what they’re going to do–they most often make the right, hard choices.
But still–there’s a lingering scent of glamor, a whiff of fascinating past. Sigh. I’ll never be a dangerous sort,–but it’s still fun, once in a while, to read about one.