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Southern Discomfort

People often suggest that it is not possible to return to the home of our past since these places alter with us as we grow older. The emotions associated with our childhood can never be re-experienced.

It’s plausible that those living in a San Francisco suburb now populated by tech businesses, or city dwellers dealing with gentrification, or Midwesterners who no longer sport cargo shorts with the same zest as before, may feel this way.

The adolescent lounging in parking lots look so youthful, the old restaurant that sold great pies got taken down long ago, and the shops in the mall are no longer where they used to be.

In Mississippi, one can hardly find those who subscribe to the belief that one cannot return home. The other states of the South have cities like Nashville, Atlanta, and New Orleans which bring in new people and different cultures; however, in this area of the Deep South, what remains is an unyielding sameness. (As William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”)

This is not a place where I feel love; however, I do care for some of the people here in Mississippi. The kudzu, ponds, and live oaks have a certain appeal, and even possums are okay in my book.

Juleps and biscuits are tasty, but I do not feel a general fondness for the region. The oppressive past, held up by unfair political and social structures, is still a part of the current reality, and that I cannot stand.

When I was in first grade, I wrote a story about a girl who purchased a car and drove away – there was no resolution, as the act of leaving Mississippi was the happiest thing I could think of at such a young age.

Returning to my birthplace, I am met with the same fear and trepidation due to its resistance to transformation. Couth-looking violence, a certain brand of femininity that some accept and others struggle against, and the moneyed white people who remain atop the social ladder all remain unchanged.

Scattered throughout the region, there are acres of land that contain the graves of mules that passed away long ago. Having been here for 33 years, I know all too well the intensity of the heat in Mississippi, which also remains the same.

I have the option to return home, yet I have chosen not to; however, I have discovered that I can be temporarily sent there.

My agent contacted me in the fall of 2016, informing me that someone from Ole Miss had requested my phone number–if it was okay to send it? I reacted by slowly sinking backwards in my chair until I collapsed onto the floor, where I stayed for a significant amount of time.

I was aware of what was going on. Around fifty miles away from the place I was raised is a city called Oxford, a university municipality with a real bookshop and luxurious restaurants. It is home to the University of Mississippi, fondly and officially known as Ole Miss.

It is a very white, football-loving, blond-haired, bow-tie-sporting kind of town. William Faulkner resided in Oxford for most of his life, and there is a fully-funded creative writing MFA program provided by John Grisham (the city’s most renowned former inhabitant and favorite son) which includes a nine-month, low-load, salaried job in which the writer resides in a mansion donated by the Grisham family.

This residency is usually offered to an “emerging” writer–somebody who does not have a steady income or health insurance or anything else to do–so since the university tends to pick writers from Mississippi, I was aware that I might be offered this intricate gift.

I blurted out from the ground: “Oh, uh, okay!”

Though Oxford is a college town, the students of Ole Miss are not typically thought of as being particularly studious. Rather, the most significant cultural events tend to revolve around the elaborate tailgates that occur before football games.

Recent research has identified Mississippi as the least educated, least literate, and least book-reading state in the nation. Being an avid reader in this state is seen as odd, and to be a writer here is even stranger.

Despite this, Mississippi is the home of a number of writers and artists–those who are just starting out, those who are established, and those who are somewhere in between.

When I was a kid, I had a feeling that Oxford was unlike my hometown, which was located fifty miles away.

Now, after having resided here as an adult for nine months, I can see that a portion of this discrepancy is due to the steadfast group of readers who reside in an atmosphere that is blatantly apathetic to the presence of literature, a fellowship that is formed through being out of the ordinary. Cliques form most naturally when they are not the norm.

When people inquired about my opinion of my new home, a range of reactions crossed my face. I responded with a combination of enthusiasm and gloom; I told them that it was nice to be close to my family; that my city-raised dog had gone wild in the country; that I was getting a lot done; and that I had some particularly talented students. My response: “It’s been alright.”

I had a constant feeling that my answer to why I was so angry in Mississippi was not enough. No matter if I was in the state or not, its problems persisted. I was from Mississippi, whether I wanted to be or not, and I could not quite figure out why I was so upset when I was there.

I tried to write about it, but I could not find the words to express my emotions. I was given a mansion to stay in, and although I had the space and time to write, I still could not find the right words to express what I felt. Stepping outside of the mansion, I was overwhelmed by something other than the heat and found myself back in Mississippi.

It is now evident to me that the same thing which tempts many individuals is also the cause of my unease.

The ones who have the pallor complexion are the ones that stand out.

I had recently attended a reading at Square Books, and afterwards I found myself at a reception for the author in the home where William Faulkner had lived before Rowan Oak. As I stood alone in the room, believed to have been the birthplace of Absalom, Absalom!, I ate a deviled egg and for a moment felt that I belonged.

The house had a distinct smell of an older generation; much older than any of my own relatives. After a short while, the room was filled with the writers, musicians, and locals that characterize Oxford.

My courage bolstered by the deviled egg, I struck up a conversation with an affable elderly man who I had seen wearing peculiar hats around town. Since he spoke without an accent, I inquired as to his hometown (the Midwest), how long he had been living in Oxford (for many years), and what it was exactly that had attracted him to Mississippi and kept him there.

He was instantly certain: “The women!” Their appearance was always impressive. In his hometown, it was common to see females with rollers in their hair. But Mississippi was different–there wasn’t a single curler in sight. The women of the state had a neat and polished look.

I had no intention of conforming to the other females around me; my hair was left natural, I wore only practical garments, and the only makeup I applied was a faint line of eyeliner. I wished to communicate to him the difficulties of growing up amongst these perfectly presented women, but his hearing was somewhat impaired.

An unspoken understanding developed between us. Yes. Why must anyone be obligated to contemplate how a female accomplishes her hair to look so exquisite?

Playboy magazine once opined that the female student population of Ole Miss was something the entire editorial board would find desirable to “pin down and inseminate en masse” (this is a paraphrase). The university is well-known for its ranking as a top party school, and its reputation for Hefner-approved coeds is perpetuated by the looks of many of the women at Ole Miss.

At the gym in full make up or at the football game with high heels, Ole Miss girls often take the time to compliment each other on their looks and ask where they got their dress. Their hair is freshly blown out, nails are polished, lips are glossy, and they have a lot of monogrammed accessories.

They spray-tan, wax, drink pressed juice, and do yoga. They usually nod when listening, and when not talking, they have a vacant expression like a model. Ole Miss girls are loyal to their sororities and are skilled at posing for group photos. They are always on the lookout for husbands and speak with a Southern vocal fry.

This particular type of Southern femininity carries a great deal of influence and has a long-standing presence. Looking through old Ole Miss annuals, the “Ole Miss girl” is constantly visible with her familiar smile. But what is the story behind the face and why is she smiling?

At Ole Miss, the female and male students have an air of authority and confidence while they move around the campus. They are seen walking in groups, talking to each other, relaxing on benches, stairs and lawns.

One afternoon I had to stop my graduate workshop as the students could not hear each other due to a lot of noise coming from a nearby lecture hall–it was a sorority recruitment event and the university had given the girls permission to assemble in the academic building and chant loudly in support of their sorority.

On another occasion, I saw two Ole Miss girls laughing at a female student wearing a dress that was not traditionally feminine and indicated her queerness. This was a reminder that these women were of voting age.

The Ole Miss girl is at the top, though this didn’t just happen. I view this as a uniform of sorts that most white Southern women are expected to abide by and follow.

At the beginning of the football season, the University of Mississippi’s fans typically dress in all white for the first game; my acquaintance Kiese Laymon, not being aware of the custom, had on a Run DMC T-shirt and camouflage shorts. He commented, “I’m asking myself who, and what, takes the hit for ritualized Southern contentment and conformity.” This is an inquiry that I have been considering from a different angle.

One element of the Southern tradition and conformity I will focus on is the Authorized Southern Female Uniform.

The culture of the white woman in the US South is markedly different to that of the Northern or urban females. The Authorized Southern Female Uniform (ASFU) is often seen as her costume, although it is merely a stereotype that is taken to the extreme.

It is a code of behavior, a set of beliefs, and it has several rites of passage associated with it. Not all aspects of the ASFU are necessarily adopted by Southern women.

The ASFU wardrobe is almost solely composed of apparel that accentuates the female body.

Items such as A-line and shift dresses, tailored white shirts, Lilly Pulitzer dresses, off-the-shoulder blouses, white peasant tops, black trousers, heels of varying heights, skinny white pants and seersucker pieces are all present. Additionally, Ole Miss (an ASFU university) students are known to don the over 1,000 oversized T-shirts that commemorate their sorority-sponsored events.

The bagginess of the shirts both preserves modesty and creates a sense of ambiguity, causing people to question whether the wearer is wearing just a T-shirt.

A female following the ASFU should contemplate coloring her hair blond. Even if it is not suitable for her complexion, she may still attempt it at least once. If she remains adamant, she may experiment with several deep hues of brown.

Her locks should remain long (or extensions can be used) unless she is facing a unique situation (slow-growing, fragile, or thin hair) or has purposefully chosen a short hairstyle to stand out from other young women, although she knows this will reduce her potential suitors.

She should either straighten her hair every day or learn how to style it with curls. To withstand the humidity of the South, a good amount of hairspray should be applied.

Additionally, she should wear foundation and powder; a generous amount of black mascara, black eyeliner, and eye shadow that has been contoured; pink or tawny lipstick (since red is deemed too bold) and a blush that matches.

Her sexiness will be muted, yet still perceptible; it will be present in just the right amount that it draws the intended sort of attention. Whenever someone sees her, she will always be well-groomed and put together, and she will apologize if anyone catches her before she has had time to prepare.

The ASFU features a unique calligraphy where sweeping flourishes and curves abound, usually made with a paint pen in bright, metallic, or sports-themed shades.

This font, transforming any word into a peculiar visual joke, is often used to decorate plastic cups, picture frames, throw pillows, canvas totes, and many other items with initials, sorority letters, or nicknames.

Women in the ASFU have certain behaviors that they must refrain from in order to remain in good standing. These behaviors are outlined in the bylaws of sororities and debutante societies. Should a woman be caught violating these laws, she could be expelled.

Notable behaviors to avoid include chewing gum, smoking cigarettes, drinking directly from a beer bottle, cursing, talking about their health issues, criticizing the Church, and discussing politics. Despite the strict regulations, women should be careful not to appear to be excessively intoxicated at social functions, even if they are drinking heavily.

An image of a mirror is presented in this illustration. It is a final version and appears to be of a pristine condition.

The ASFU does not recognize intellectual achievements; it is largely indifferent to any kind of professional accomplishments. Having a family is held in higher regard than having a steady source of income or pursuing individual goals. Even if a female member of the ASFU isn’t fond of football, she is still expected to take part in it.

Having the honor of wearing the ASFU is quite similar to being a synchronized swimmer or a bridesmaid–always elegant, always displaying a cheerful demeanor, and always appearing nearly indistinguishable from the women beside you.

As a white female, I was denied the privilege of wearing the ASFU and consequently, my childhood was spent in Mississippi in defiance of my gender. In the absence of the ASFU, I was more a white entity than a white girl.

I cannot take any credit for my lack of following the ASFU; it was mostly out of circumstance. I remember on the first day of elementary school, I stood in the girls’ bathroom with my friend C, looking in the mirror. She had beautiful blond curls, dimples, a doll-like face, an elegant dress, and bobby socks.

I noticed that I was not as attractive, and verbalized my thought. C disagreed and said we were the same. I was aware that we were not equal, but I couldn’t alter my looks. Consequently, I gave up the expected attire of a female and opted for the ability to move around freely, because I knew I could not fully act the part.

When I was seven, I didn’t need an explanation to comprehend the power of the ASFU. Every female I saw was wearing it and the more garments that made up the outfit, the more power the woman had. Kids recognize the power dynamics between adults and wherever they come from, power is the first thing they learn.

Before reaching puberty, I used to wear hand-me-downs of my brother during the week and was required to wear a dress or pantsuit for church.

As I entered middle school, I was drawn towards the idea of being part of the group and saw that clothing and makeup were highly valued among the girls around me.

During weekend slumber parties, I became the focus of makeovers and the before-and-after Polaroids are seared into my memory; I have never witnessed a more sorrowful sight than a twelve-year-old wearing lipstick.

It was expected for girls in Mississippi to adopt a certain demeanor. I occasionally attempted to conform to this standard, however it either didn’t suit me or I simply didn’t desire to comply. Regardless of how wearing dresses, footwear, and makeup felt to me, I still attempted to abide by the ASFU.

Having lived away from Mississippi for a longer period of time than I’ve lived there, the ASFU doesn’t have as much of an impact on my life as it does a powerful presence in the background.

To whom does this attire really offer benefit, and who is maintaining its current state? From what source did it originate, and who is covering the expenses associated with it? Also, how could it potentially change in the future?

The ASFU has the purpose of amplifying a female’s female traits and acceptability, which is likely the outcome of the customs the Southern culture has employed to organize and motivate unions among the wealthy.

As I declined an invitation to be a debutante at the boarding school where I used to study, I have been musing about what I was missing out on. Was it only a succession of parties, as I heard? Or was there some type of covert ritual I forfeited learning?

In the mid-’90s, Annie Leibovitz captured the portrait of some debutantes from the Delta Debutante Club, located in Greenville, Mississippi. Dressed in gowns, pearls, and gloves, their bored and solemn expressions revealed that their lives were about to begin–their debut was followed by courtship, marriage, motherhood, and eventually the debutante balls of their own daughters.

When I saw this photograph in a book from the Ole Miss library, I was reminded of how close these debutantes could be to me, and that their daughters could be getting ready for a ball of their own.

Around the globe, debutante balls and related ceremonies take place to formally introduce a young lady of a marriageable age into her community. This Southern tradition started in the pre-Civil War period as a means of arranging classy marriages between young heirs and heiresses of plantations.

The clothing worn by the debutante is a white formal gown that could be easily mistaken for a wedding dress, and it is paired with long white satin gloves.

No contact information was provided for the Delta Debutante Club, so I sought out a hotel that had recently held one of its balls. The hotel manager declined to confirm an association with the Delta Debutante Club, but she offered to share my contact information in case someone wanted to reach out.

After a month, I received a voicemail from a perplexed female. Someone had given her my contact details but she was uncertain of the purpose. I returned her call, attempting to use the Southern dialect I had as a kid.

I stressed to her that I was from Tupelo, then provided the names of my parents and grandparents, before I explained that the University of Mississippi had asked me to stay for a year because of my writing.

“Right,” she replied, her tolerance waning. She inquired, in the manner of a well-mannered Southerner, as to what I desired.

I made it clear that I was interested in learning more about debutantes; I fully understood their desire for privacy and would never wish to intrude upon that. I promised that the piece I would write would be a human-interest story, not a scandalous exposé.

As an inhabitant of Mississippi, I mentioned that I had some relatives who had lived in Greenville; however, the lady I was speaking to did not know them.

She made it clear that those unfamiliar with the concept could not comprehend it. They mistakenly assumed that debutante balls were outmoded and superfluous. They believed they were merely a way of marrying off young women.

She explained this was not the case. I responded in agreement, then asked her to explain what a debutante ball was in the present day.

She claimed that it was a tradition and not many are left these days. According to her, it was a way to link to the past as well as to unite the community. She added that it was much more than what people from the outside perceived it to be.

I told her that I wanted to write about her thoughts, that the debutante ball had a significance much bigger than what it appeared to be. For a moment, I forgot that I was an outsider, knocking on a closed door.

She had definitely seen the Annie Leibovitz portrait of the debutantes before. She recalled it vividly. After that, an awkward pause filled the room.

Finally, she admitted that speaking to the press had never been beneficial to the club. She promised to mention my inquiry at the next gathering and contact me again, yet I knew I wouldn’t hear from her any longer.

In the 1940s and 1950s, newspapers were filled with the names, pictures, and sometimes even the addresses of Southern debutantes as they went through the rite of passage.

In 1984, the New York Times Magazine reported that while debutante balls were less common in the 1960s and 70s, they received a revival during the Reagan administration due to the president’s insistence that wealth was acceptable to flaunt.

However, the organizations that hosted the balls became less forthcoming regarding their selection process, traditions, and guests. As opposed to the days of old, the debutantes were no longer publicly announced.

A 2012 essay published in the journal Southern Cultures detailed the most exclusive Southern debutante balls and the writer, Cynthia Lewis, found it difficult to find any willing participants who were willing to go on the record. One woman who agreed to speak, but did so anonymously, claimed the debutante culture was not “loaded” at all.

Years ago, my hometown rebranded its debutante tradition to be known as Charity Ball. It allowed young women to wear any colored gown and satin gloves were neither required nor discouraged.

Any female that could find a local business to make a donation in her honor to the Junior Auxiliary, the exclusive women’s organization that organized the ball, would be included. The event was open to anyone who purchased a ticket and the dress code was formal, but the dinner was usually barbeque.

Even though I managed to avoid a full-on debutante ball in high school, I was still forced to attend Charity Ball, so I wore a dark burgundy dress to express my defiance. I was paraded across the stage while the emcee read my name and then I took off all my makeup and went home.

My family’s hardware store made the donation in my name and when we were asked to write thank-you notes to the sponsors, I wrote a critical one to my dad.

The Southern debutante ball carries a symbolic weight that cannot be escaped, as its beginning lies in the antebellum period.

Its initial goal was to revere the fragile bodies of white women, constraining them with corsets, petticoats, and myriad layers of fabric, in order to restrain them under white male authority. However, the ball is an enjoyable event, benefiting charity, and a part of a long-standing tradition.

The idea that came to me was that if I desired to find out about the ASFU, infiltrating one of the campus’s multiple sororities would be simpler than attempting to persuade my way into an invitation to a debutante ball.

I entertained the thought of pretending to be an alumna who wished to visit her sorority house nostalgically or a possible new sister who had taken a break to serve in the Peace Corps.

But when I imagined myself being out of place at a Panhellenic event, not understanding the social etiquette, I recalled that I am not the kind of reporter who goes on daring assignments. Furthermore, I am not a journalist, but rather the writer in residence.

In any case, I had already read some in-depth journalism from a former Ole Miss sorority member, Mary Marge Locker. She wrote a piece for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency regarding her initiation into and expulsion from the TriDelts.

Her crime: being overly intoxicated while wearing a golden sequined jumpsuit, and also divulging sorority secrets in her column. Her punishment was spelled out by a committee named Standards, whom all sisters must answer to if their behavior is found to be unsatisfactory. Her outfit, they stated, was “excessive for someone in your condition”.

As I was reading the article on the gathering with Standards, I could relate to the sentiment–as if I had been called on to explain my conduct to a group of impeccably groomed females. I had never been a part of anything similar to a sorority, not even Girl Scouts.

However, the feeling of being judged for my behavior was something that was ever-present in my childhood in Mississippi. It is one of the most significant characteristics of the ASFU. Any female wearing it can command the attention of an entire court.

Great dismay was caused when a relative of ours served my grandmother chicken salad in a tomato that had not been peeled. People started to worry about the mental state of this person. If she was not even taking the time to skin the tomatoes when having guests, what other habits had she given up?

Martha, my grandmother, was nearly 30 years old when she tied the knot. Her husband’s family was well-respected, and he ran a hardware store that his father created. After seven years and two children, my grandmother and grandfather divorced, a rather unexpected event for 1950s Mississippi. The deal stated that if either of them started a new relationship or remarried, they would lose their rights to the kids.

Though the cause of the divorce remained a mystery (I heard varying accounts, including Grandmother being “difficult” and Granddad possibly being physically abusive), I asked my grandmother a few years ago and even she couldn’t recall.

I attempted to dig up the truth: “What happened after you were married for seven years?” She smiled nostalgically and replied, “We were married for seven years, then he died.” It was preferable to remain a widow than to struggle through a failing marriage.

My grandfather was highly respected in the community as he was on the board of the local bank, and his name was well-known. My grandmother moved away and toiled in a library in a subdued (or dejected) manner.

Failure meant that she was forced to adhere to the ASFU even more rigorously. She went to the hairdresser regularly, maintained an extremely slim figure, always dressed smartly in nice tops and jewelry, and went to church on Sundays while exhibiting no emotions besides an even-tempered acknowledgement that this was her life.

She was fond of crime novels, with John Grisham being her favorite.

Before my father wed my mother, a divorcée, my grandmother gave him a stern warning in a handwritten letter stating that his kids will become miscreants and she will attempt to take his money.

Now in her nineties, Grandmother is experiencing a second youth.

The effects of Alzheimer’s have made her less intense, yet she still manages to take care of her nails and hair.5 Her commitment to the ASFU is also diminishing as she fades, however, if she was of a clear mind and knew of my friend Mary Frances, it would likely be a shock too much for her.

Mary Frances, the only companion of mine left in Mississippi from my childhood, has been doing her best to make the ASFU’s life difficult.

Despite joining a sorority at college, she felt deeply offended with the regulations that were imposed on her, such as not having the right to take a draft directly from a beer can, or even smoking in public and doing whatever “off-the-wall”.

According to her, “they anticipated us to be a group of Suzy house makers with our aprons and pearls, however, the frats were allowed to do whatever they desired”. The double standard made her feel ill and she quit out of principle.

In her 20s, Mary Frances traveled and worked as a performer on cruise ships while still singing in her hometown church choir when she returned home. On one such trip, a man she didn’t know proposed marriage to her and, being a fearless Democrat, she accepted his offer and soon had two daughters.

She has never followed the ASFU to the letter, instead choosing to adhere to some standards while disregarding others as she pleases. Nowadays, she teaches music and dance and, when her children are asleep, she “slips into some leather and sings in a bar.”

Mary Frances has always had short hair and not been blond, but she mostly adheres to the fashion and makeup of the ASFU; with her own unique style (leather, in this case). One afternoon, her mother-in-law, a pigmentologist, visited with a request.

She had been tattooing her eyebrows and needed help with an area she couldn’t reach. Mary Frances readily agreed, and tattooed her mother-in-law’s face, allowing her to do the same in return.

Mary Frances has always been an enigma to me; she is both challenging to our small Mississippi town yet comfortable living there.

Her acquaintances from the lounge are perplexed by her more traditional friend and customs, while those who know her from church or Junior Auxiliary are judgemental of her music career, expecting her to focus entirely on her offspring.

The ASFU has never been created for its own purpose, but rather to create a specific type of woman in the South: one who is docile, obedient, and kept away from the outside world. Mothers are the ones to pay the cost of such standards, as Sheila Heti portrays in Motherhood: “The greatest challenge of womanhood is not allowing oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed to have it.

Having children, however, is a way to eliminate this impulse and make it a virtue.” A period of youth in the ASFU is like the training bras of puberty; as soon as motherhood arrives, the ASFU should have finished shaping her into her new role. The end goal is to have a woman who will bring up the next round of debutantes, sorority members, and brides.

A few years back, my parents’ friends threw me a shindig to commemorate my engagement to a Very Nice Man, however, the marriage didn’t last more than a year.

One of the things that worried me about my residency and my temporary return to Mississippi was the distress and disapproval of a bunch of curious (gossipy) Southerners, thinly veiled in exclamations like “My gracious, don’t you look like you’re doing well?” But by the end of the year, the contempt had not appeared, and I realized that by canceling the marriage, I had also canceled my chance to be a mother.

Since I had passed the prime of childbearing, evidently preferring career over family, I had been absolved from the standards that women with children are subject to. I am, once more, a white thing.

On the phone, Mary Frances accepted the idea; where she was once judged for her brash behavior as “not what a young lady should do,” now her children are the justification for why she should adhere to the rules. She is able to manage this by having a hardened enough exterior to be nonchalant.

I have personally witnessed Mary Frances take a swig from a beer bottle, and she has told me about the impressive size of her child’s fecal matter, and she has never pretended that the costume of the ASFU is perfect.

Near the end of my time in Oxford, Mary Frances came by with her family in tow. She apologized for her face, as she had just gone through a week of microdermabrasion treatments which included needles and chemical peels.

Her face looked like she had taken a tumble on the pavement. She found humor in her reflection, not caring who saw her. She was assured that she would be glowing the next day or so.

It is significant to point out that while there are a few women of color at Ole Miss and some of them even become a part of a sorority, the concept of an “Ole Miss girl” in the context of this essay will refer to a white female.

  1. These blouses, and the various forms they come in, bear a great resemblance to the white baptismal gowns babies wear.

An exemplary ASFU behavior is to persist in believing in the beauty of another girl, even if it is not actually present.

In 1958, Her Majesty the Queen of England discarded the custom that existed in her courtrooms.

When my partner and I visited her, she questioned him on the church he attended. Wanting to avoid any disagreement or hurt, he told her he was a Buddhist, which was close to the truth. “Baptist?” she inquired. He corrected her, “Buddhist.” She repeated the same word, and kept asking it every thirty seconds until we left. He was well aware of the proper response.

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