A few weeks after I arrived in Ghana, I got word that the Marine Ball was coming up. When my family heard that I was moving to Ghana, my aunt, who is married to a Marine and has lived with him and their family all over the world, told me that if, while I was there, I ever had a shot at attending at Marine Ball, I should go. Never needing an excuse to attend a party, I’d happily listened to her advice and had intended to pack a dress.
Except I’d forgotten to pack said dress. I’d told myself to remember to bring the glittery green ball gown I’d bought for a wedding a few years back. The one that I had worn to that and to a Mardi Gras ball and nothing else. The one that was too expensive — and too damn good-looking — for only two usages and truly deserved a third.
But I hadn’t remembered it, in the end, and so I was left with an invitation and no dress.
No matter. A dress could be easily procured, of that I was certain. I purchased my ticket to the ball, and, even though my sister-in-law was out of town, my brother bought a ticket, too. He was going to chivalrously escort me to this event. And he was also a bit unprepared.
Eric and Karla’s shipment, the one with all of their things from their last post in Kenya, had been scheduled to arrive the month before, and was late. In that shipment was his tux. Theoretically, it could arrive any day. And we had two weeks before the ball. So rather than rent something last-minute, he decided that if his tux didn’t arrive in time he’d just go in a suit, which he said would be nearly the same thing. (It wouldn’t be, but I wasn’t about to lose my escort over an argument about what constituted as proper formal attire, and so I exercised what my father calls “the power of the well-bitten tongue,” and kept my big mouth shut.)
The weekend before the ball, the tux had not yet arrived, and so we ran errands. He dropped off his suit for dry-cleaning, and then took me to the Accra Mall to buy a dress. While he waited at the food court’s coffee shop, I scoured every single store in that mall that sold women’s clothing. Initially, I was shopping with the fantasy of finding the perfect dress. After the first two stores came up with naught, that objective changed, and I began in earnest to desperately look for something that might pass as a ball gown.
Let me pause at this moment to say that the Marine Ball is kind of a big deal. I’ve heard it described as the embassy’s prom. People have dresses shipped in, they have them custom-tailored, or custom-made. They do not, under any circumstances, find them days before the big night at a mall ten minutes from embassy housing.
I can’t speak for other posts, but in Ghana, this is for good reason. There are no friggin’ ball gowns to be found. There’s nary a Dillards nor a Nordstrom to browse, where the dresses languish in abundance to be hemmed and hawed over — carefully considered with thoughts like, “Well, this might do but it’s not what I’d dreamed. Let’s look at something else.” No! Ball gowns are not a thing at the Accra Mall in Ghana.
And I began to realize that, and to realize what it meant about me to assume that would be the case. In that moment (and, to be completely honest, in many moments in Ghana), I was an ugly American. I wanted things my way, the easy way — and to have a lot of choices about what that way might be, because I wasn’t really sure of what I wanted and I desired the ability to change my mind about that choice for something capricious, like a hemline that wasn’t me or a swatch of lace that wasn’t to my liking.
But I had to kill that impulse dead. Because in the entire mall, I found two dressed that might barely be passable as formal ball gowns. And one of those absolutely HAD to do.
My choices were:
- A basic black, strapless dress with a horrendous tulle tutu that was floor-length and would at least look semi-fancy just because it was black and long and what one thinks of as a gown.
- A muted gold metallic, simple yet stylish, nearly floor-length dress with modest slits on either side.
When I got into the dressing room, as I tried to put the first dress on, an ill-fated decorative flower on the front fell off in my hands. I could have easily sewed it back, sure. But its disintegration did not bode well for this dress’s ability to hold up throughout the night. Also, upon closer inspection, the tulle tutu was truly hideous, so the dress would not have done anyway.
The second dress was OK, but the straps were too long. I stood in front of the mirror in it for probably five full minutes, pulling at them, imagining how I’d feel in it if I fixed the straps, wishing to God for more options and knowing there weren’t any, and also knowing how petty it was for me to want for such a thing and hating myself a little for it, for being that ugly American in West Africa who wanted things her way.
I eventually bought the dress. It was on sale for $40 GHS, which equates to less than $10. And I confessed to my brother, laughingly, that I was going to the Marine Ball in a 10-dollar dress.
But when I got home, the bravado was gone and the worries took over. The ones that told me other women would see me in this dress and know just how cheap it was — that it looked cheap to begin with but I just couldn’t see it through my desperation to find something that worked, and that I would suffer their stares all night, and not only that, that I would suffer through knowing that they were right.
And so I texted a handful of trusted people. My mom. My sister-in-law. My friends. “Does this look OK?” I asked, and sent preliminary pictures. Makeup and shoes weren’t pictured but the dress was. They all assured me it was fine. A good thing, too, because I was out of options.
The ball came and I arrived with Eric, him in his suit and me in my $10 dress. (If I were a gambling woman, I would bet you there were a hell of a lot more men there in suits than women in $10 dresses! But that wouldn’t be fair, because you could see the suits in the sea of tuxes, but the prices of each dress were, of course, undisclosed.)
When we got through security, I was handed a glass of wine. With our ball tickets, Eric and I had each received two drink tickets. Because Eric doesn’t drink, that meant I had four drink tickets coming my way. And because they hadn’t asked for one with my initial glass of wine, I reveled in that, assuming that cocktail hour must be free drinks, and the tickets would come into play later.
I was doing Africa wrong, yet again. Assuming things that should not be assumed.
They kept pouring the wine. As Eric and I mingled, I was glad I’d ordered that, because those of us who had never saw the bottom of our glasses, while those with beer never seemed to get a refill. I slurped up my wine happily and greedily, knowing I had more free drinks coming my way after we sat down for dinner.
But then it was time for dinner and an odd thing happened. Our table waitress asked us what we would like to drink, and I told her “Red wine.” She replied, “we’re all out.”
“Yes, no more wine.”
So I asked, “Do you have whiskey?”
“No,” she said, “only beer.”
“I’ll have a beer, then.”
She brought out the beer, but I couldn’t help but notice while she did that other waiters were bringing wine to their tables — full bottles, even. And so after awhile I had to ask about that.
“Oh, well those you pay for at the bar,” she told me.
At the bar! Of course. I had four drink tickets to pay toward whatever I might like at the bar. I thanked her and headed on over.
But when I got there and ordered a glass of wine and tried to pay for it with a drink ticket, something was amiss. The bartender poured the glass, and when I tried to give him my ticket he smiled at me and said, “Let me explain it to you. The tickets were for earlier. Now, it is $30 GHS a glass.”
Of course the drink tickets were for earlier, and were not counted. Based on the “go with the flow” mentality I’d experience in Ghana thus far, that shouldn’t have, and didn’t, surprise me. But then I was faced with a decision. $30GHS was nearly the price of my wildly inexpensive dress. I was more than willing to pay it, but I didn’t want to pass up a potential deal, and so I asked him, “How much for a bottle?” Because by that point, I’d made friends with the Filipino women at our table and knew I’d have help for whatever I brought back.
“$100 GHS,” was his response.
I hadn’t brought any cash with me, thinking the drink tickets would suffice. So I went back for my wallet.
But when I got to the bar with the money, the bartender told me, “We’re out of bottles of wine. But we’ll have some more soon.” And I had to laugh — it was the same line the waitress had given me, only her motivation was to avoid an uncomfortable conversation about paying for things, and his was simply to present the situation as it stood.
The glass of wine he’d poured for me earlier was still on the bar, staring at me. So theoretically, I could pay $30 GHS for that, or wait for more bottles.
But then, suddenly, I didn’t have to. Some people in line asked me what I was laughing about. I explained it, and by the time I was through, the bartender — probably to shut me up — had poured the rest of the remaining bottle into the glass he’d already poured. So he charged me $30 GHS for what was likely a double glass of wine. I paid and tipped him and was on my merry way.
Later, I decided I still wanted that bottle. The other women at my table looked thirsty to my eye, and we couldn’t have that. So I went back and bought it and shared it with them. Then the music started. Their mother took me by the hand and led me out with them onto the dance floor with this wild look in her eyes, and I instantly loved her. We all danced our hearts out, song after song, singing along, howling at the moon and having the best time…until…
At one point, I decided to incorporate an actual pointing gesture into my dance moves. I was moving across the room, pointing at the world, feeling alive (and, likely, feeling the wine), when a young man who saw me pointing mistakenly thought I was pointing at him. He practically sprinted to join us on the dance floor, and he was on me for nearly the rest of the night.
I looked at the pictures later, and I really do look like I’m having the best time with him. But that night was about me and the music and my new female friends and being out for one of the first times since I’d arrived, and I wasn’t interested.
I remember thinking in my head over and over, how do I shake him, how do I shake him, how do I shake him without being a bitch and ruining anyone’s night? Finally, I went back to our table under the pretense of taking a break.
He followed me back and asked for my number, “Because I want to hang out with you, you know what I’m saying?” I did know what he was saying, and I didn’t want to hang out with him, but instead of telling him that, much like our waitress trying to avoid an uncomfortable conversation, I went with the path of least resistance. I gave him my number.
And then, afterward, I did what I always told myself I’d never do: I ignored every time he called. I hate it when women do that, but now I’m a member of that guilty party.
I did it because I couldn’t face responsibility for my actions, and to be honest, because I felt resentment that the difficult task of verbally expressing my disinterest had fallen on me simply because I had pointed in a dance move, and that had been mistaken for flirtation, which had then escalated. And the whole time I was merely trying to be polite and to make sure everyone was having a great time! I’m an imperfect person. It’s true. But I’ve gotten over it, and I’m certain my admirer has by now, too.
Even with the unwanted flirtation and my ill handling of it, it was a fabulous night all around, made possible by the magic of finding this elusive dress.
By the end of the evening, I was certain that it was totally passable as a ball gown — and I have photographic evidence as proof of the pudding, though I very nearly lost it. Eric and I had our photo taken and, because they had no photo ordering system in place, (great sales tactic — establishes a sense of urgency!) I bought it then and there and brought it back to our table.
While I danced my heart out with my newly formed posse, the photo was cleared away by an overzealous cleaning crew getting rid of dinner plates. Lucky for you guys, Eric and I went back and bought it a second time. Here the hard-earned gem is:
That’s the start of the night. We look damn good, if I do say so myself! But, in the interest of full disclosure, I must share photographic evidence of myself in a different light.
Because the previous professional photography situation was one in which you had to make a quick decision on whether or not you were buying the merch, I’d assumed the other professional photographer taking candid shots all night was just going to submit the nicest of those somewhere for publication. That we wouldn’t have the opportunity to get copies of those, too.
And once again, an assumption came back to bite me in the ass.
About a week later, everyone in attendance at the Marine Ball was emailed a link to the photographs taken that night. The link didn’t include the selection that you might expect get in the States from an event like a wedding or a company party — one with a curated list of the best, most visibly pleasing specimens, no. Instead it included Every. Single. Photo. Taken.
Let me tell you, seeing the stark contrast between the way I think I look while dancing tipsy and the way I actually look was quite the sobering experience. Here’s a taste:
So. Those photos (and many, many even less flattering ones) are now out in the world, or at least out in the inboxes of my fellow Marine Ball partiers. Even still — however I may have looked in it later in the evening — I stand by the fact that this $10 dress fit the bill (ha!). It may have been cheap, but, in it, I felt like a million bucks. And that’s as good as gold in my book.
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