I moved to Nashville in 1981. I was 31 years old. Not old by New England standards, but superannuated by southern ones. I was not married, nor was I interested in getting married. I was already the New England old maid I was born to be.
A contrast to the many young women five to ten years younger than I, who I worked with in the Intensive Care unit of a large Nashville hospital. To some of these girls life beyond 22 without a wedding ring was unthinkable. Pitiable. These girls had already failed to find men at college, or at church, and their hunting ground now was the hospital with its abundant supply of medical residents from Vanderbilt University.
It was a fad at the time for the nurses I worked with to call each other "Belle". "Belle", they would shout across the unit "Your patient is trying to fall out of bed!". "Belle! Your patient is coming out of the OR in twenty minutes". "Belle! "We're ordering from The Cooker!"
They even called me Belle, though no woman over 25 is ever a Belle. Even if I had been 21 ,I would not have been one, for I did not have the aptitude, the looks, the provenance, or the skill with eye makeup. I had never put makeup on my face. These women had put it on since birth. No Belle would ever walk in from the freezing parking garage in January wearing a coat. These were women who would ,in future years, be fully made up in photos taken two minutes after having a baby. These girls might wear a hat to the Iroquois Steeplechase, but since they knew that a woman was her hair, they refused to cover it any other time.
One of the young woman I worked with had been a genuine Belle, but her Belle-hood ended , as it must, when she landed an orthopedic surgeon. Her family was prominent, her father was a top doctor in the city. She was lovely, pale, and diminuitive. I never knew where she was educated, but I expect it was at a place such as Harpeth Hall. She was a gracious person, even to a short, minimally groomed Yankee such as myself. "You sound like Mork from Ork," she said to me one night after I came back from the hospital cafeteria with a Pattie Melt and a side order of fried okra. I never had eaten either before, and I went on at length about how exotic they were. I imagine her nursing life was a short one, for she would have had trouble fitting in the Junior League and the social mandates of her post-Belle years.
The other girls I worked with came from more working class and middle class families. I remember another young blond lovely, so desperate to marry that she aligned herself with a young doctor she hardly knew. Success is not always success. Her dream was Belle Meade, or at least Brentwood. His was a nuclear-weapon free world and third world medicine. A split was pre-ordained.
There were three other young women who hunted as a pack. Two had the same name, which I shall not reveal here, and one was model beautiful. I remember that one night she most conspicuously picked some lint and dog hair from my scrub jacket. Poor me. I was everything she was far too fortunate to be. She married of course, but not until after dating a local politician. Perhaps her fate was happier than that of one of her friend, who married a surgeon without looks but with a handsome future income. Age and gravity come to us all but her defects, when they came, went public in the operating room where her husband shared them with the scrub nurses and anesthesiologists.
Despite my being the very worst sort of Yankee- Brooklyn born and New England raised- most of these girls accepted me. We would drive out to the Loveless Motel and Restaurant after work for breakfast. Even there I was ever the hapless northerner. Bottles of ketchup did not explode all over their white uniforms, as one did over mine. We ate at the Pancake Pantry in Hillsboro Village. We went to The Cooker on West End and to Moon Drug for bacon and eggs. Sallie H., one particular friend, drove me to Chattanooga just to eat the mile-high coconut pie at the Chow-Time Barbecue. Sallie insisted we visit the black velvet Elvis paintings and the Goo-Goo clusters at the Tennessee-Alabama Fireworks Store. "Wait until you see this place. It's like a schizophrenic's mind!", Sallie said as we coasted over Monteagle Mountain past the runaway truck ramps. Sallie could have been a Belle. She had the looks. She graduated from Emory. But she liked being free. When her husband turned out to be a loser who never could pass his bar exam, she ditched him. Where she is now I cannot say, but knowing her, it will be where she wants to be.
I have not mentioned that I was not the only non-Belle working in that ICU. There were three other northerners, all of them unlucky. A Belle might chase a man, but she would never be desperate enough to follow him across 1000 miles of state lines. The doctor who would not marry you in Boston, or Pittsburg, or West Virginia, is not going give you an engagement ring when you arrive in Nashville. He may break up with you the minute you arrive to join him. Perhaps you will stay on here in Nashville by yourself. Perhaps you will go back to Boston and marry a restauranteur. Perhaps, one night, after a bad fight and too much to drink, you will miss a curve out in Fairview on Highway 100. Your parents will take your body back to West Virginia.