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R U M I N A T I O N S
A Cinderfella Goes to the Ball

By Jeff Labrecque '95
Illustration by Charles Beyl

 
Jeff, do you know Petra?"

I took another gulp of liquid courage, tried to remember how to breathe, and forced an awkward grin. She returned a perfect smile that was more eyes than teeth and extended a dainty right hand. Her grip was delicate, yet stronger than my own since the muscles in my hand had decided not to work. I was amazed that my arm moved at all.

"Nice to meet you, Jeff."

She said my name. Jeff. It sounded so much better when she said it in her staccato Czech accent.

"Jeff works on the calendar," BJ added.

Her eyes lit up. "Really?"

I nodded to confirm the gross exaggeration and promised myself I would remember BJ in my will.

"Are you a photographer?"

"Um, no. Not really--I help decide which pictures make the calendar," I said, carefully choosing my words to stretch the truth without actually breaking it.

"Will you put me on the cover next year?" she asked playfully, batting her eyelashes and sticking out her lower lip in a flirtatious pout. If she had asked for my wallet, I would have readily given it to her.

"Who wants to go to the swimsuit banquet?" My boss couldn't help but laugh as three heads simultaneously popped up from our drab office cubicles. Swimsuit? She waved two golden envelopes in her hand. "Only have two left."

Now, I have never been known as a fast man. In third grade, I outran Chris Starke to win field day, but quickness and I parted ways soon thereafter. If Federal Express is fast, I'm a carrier pigeon. But it is clear to me now that I was not really slow all this time; I was just conserving every molecule of speed-producing energy for this particular opportunity. In a flash, I raced past my two coffee-less co-workers and ripped one of the golden envelopes out of my boss's hand. Victorious, I marveled at the shining envelope like a proud Charlie Bucket before his trip to Wonka's chocolate factory, while my one defeated co-worker--who was more Augustus Gloop than Tom Teavee-- slinked dejectedly back to his cube. I gave a high-five to my other joyous co-worker (to preserve his teetering marriage, we'll call him Wally) who had already ripped open his invitation: Journey to an Enchanted Place Where Mysterious Goddesses Rule, the 2001 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Party. These two Cinderfellas were going to the ball.

Wally and I are editors for a small New York publisher, and one of our projects is the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar. So when BJ--or as I call him: the greatest friend on the face of the earth--introduced me to 21-year-old čber-babe Petra Nemcova and I said I helped select the pictures for the calendar, I wasn't lying. Each January, an elite panel of judges- -me, Wally, and three balding, middle-aged men with guts--meets to determine which 12 Perfect 10s will make the jump from the pages of the magazine into the calendar. And of course, we also decide which model will have the honor of appearing on the cover. It's a highly scientific process: We pass around the women's pictures, grunt accordingly, make notes or draw pictures, and finally vote. In a way, I feel as if I'd been training for this job my entire life. Although our technique seems to work, it's far from perfect. Any system that allows a man who sleeps on Snoopy bed sheets to reject Heidi Klum has its flaws.

I was honestly excited to go to the swimsuit party. The invite sounded so exclusive: Guest List Only. But as Wally and I turned onto West 34th Street, we were disheartened by the long line of men with gold envelopes in front of the Hammerstein Ballroom. I felt so betrayed that I considered leaving, but Wally would have none of that. He dragged me into line and before I could change my mind again, we reached the entrance.

"Name please," said the scantily clad hostess.

"Labrecque," I answered.

She flipped through several pages, ran her forefinger down a column of names.

"How do you spell that?" she asked.

Oh God, I thought. I'm not even in yet and I'm already turning into a pumpkin.

"L-A-B-R-E-C-Q-U-E," I replied, trying to hide the panic in my voice.

She looked again, but shook her head.

"I don't see it," she said apologetically. "Who are you with?"

This wasn't funny. I looked nervously at Wally, who was impatiently waiting for me inside. Finally, after the hostess and I looked for every possible misspelling of Labrecque, she found a "Jeff Lebrige" and I was allowed to enter.

Although our technique seems to work, it's far from perfect. Any system that allows a man who sleeps on Snoopy bed sheets to reject Heidi Klum has its flaws. It turns out that supermodel parties are just like your parties. By that, I mean there are no supermodels. Or so it seemed. Wally and I sipped our drinks with the rest of the herd. Rhythmic dance music blasted throughout the hall but the dance floor was empty, while images of bathing beauties teased us on the giant video screens. Even the hors d'oeuvres were bad. The supermodels finally appeared, but only for a minute. The magazine's producer quickly introduced them on stage, the audience cheered, and just like that, it was over.

I was willing to chalk the disappointing evening up as a learning experience, but Wally had other ideas. He had noticed the magazine's producer speaking into a cell phone in the upper balcony of the ballroom.

"Follow me," Wally whispered.

We reached her balcony just as she got off the phone and headed toward a doorway bookended by two security guards. Beyond them awaited paradise. We quickly positioned ourselves behind the producer and simply followed her in. It was as easy as that; the guards just assumed we were with her.

Inside was the real party. No one clutched golden envelopes in this room. Supermodels, dressed in jeans and tank tops, slouched on sofas, balancing cigarettes and glasses of champagne. Musicians and art-house types brooded in the corners, nodding a lot but saying little. I could have sworn I heard harps being played. The girls were tall and beautiful--more so than I had imagined. Every American male knows their faces by heart, but in person, they are simply breathtaking: the eyes, the cheekbones, the teeth, the lips. I reached for Wally to confirm that this was really happening, but he was already gone. I spun around to find him chatting with Rony Seikaly--the former Syracuse basketball almost-great and husband to covergirl Elsa Benitez--as if they were old pals, although I knew they were not.

I suddenly realized that I was standing in the center of the room very much alone and, judging by the man dressed in a furry raccoon-skin suit who asked me for a light, looking quite out of place. I retreated to the buffet table, but the trays of carrots and celery sticks didn't seem to help. Instead of interacting, I found myself watching: Two of the models held hands; three elderly women kept tabs on the models and if they talked too long with a particular man, they politely interrupted; a tipsy businessman dragged his young son around the room and posed the blushing boy with the models as he snapped pictures. Talk about living vicariously through your son!

"Jeff!"

BJ's voice ended my voyeuristic voyage. Finally, a friendly face. BJ plays on my softball team, and as a writer at SI, escorts one of the models to the party. I'd trade that perk for my 401K any day. Before I knew it, he was introducing me to his date, Petra. When my knees stopped trembling and the feeling came back to my arms, I realized that I could actually talk to this girl: I had been to the Czech Republic in 1992 with the Johns Hopkins baseball team and remembered having a wonderful time. As Petra and I shared stories about Prague and the Charles Bridge, I made a mental note to write a check to Blue Jays Unlimited for 10 gazillion dollars in the morning. Just as I was feeling comfortable, however, one of those evil elderly women stepped between me and Petra and ushered her away. I felt like the little boy at the end of "Shane." Petra! Petra! Come back, Petra! BJ just grinned and sympathetically slapped my shoulder as he left to follow his date.

Wally and I didn't say much on the great glass subway. Although he had met several of the models, too, I think his encounter with Rony Seikaly was his evening's highlight. I debated whether that was an endorsement or an indictment of the institution of marriage.

I also found myself taking stock of my own life. Many Hopkins graduates go on to do great things. Some run for mayor of New York City; others become East Coast movie moguls. I select which woman your 15-year-old son will lust after this year. It's not even near the fringe of greatness, but all things considered, I'm not complaining.

Next January, the panel of experts will convene again to decide which models will adorn the Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar. Somehow, I think it will be more difficult than before because I'll be judging them as people, not just objects. Molly Sims? Sure, great face, but she's rude. Elsa Benitez? Too much of a princess. Petra Nemcova? What the heck, let's put her on the cover.

Jeff Labrecque '95 is an editor with Bishop Books in New York City.

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