Their names were Alexander and Lillian Budd, but no one ever called them by their names. They weren’t “Alexander and Lillian,” they were simply “the twins.”
The two had their own individual faults and imperfections, but together they were a single, almost indestructible, unit. A shortcoming in one was compensated by an exceptional talent in the other. Certain children excel from a young age at complicated mathematics or classical violin or competitive eating, but the Budd twins were prodigies with an inherent ability for life itself.
As they grew up, it was clear that when the two of them were together—which was almost always—nothing could stand in their way, nothing would be too difficult or devious, nothing couldn’t be conquered by the simple force of their indomitable will. Not even high school.
Beaumonde Academy is the most elite private high school in New Orleans: it was probably founded more than a hundred years ago, and it surely has a minuscule teacher-student ratio, and those teachers are probably wise and attentive and better paid than most university professors, and Beaumonde students almost certainly go on to become well-rounded success stories who thank their beloved Latin teachers when they win Nobel Prizes and National Book Awards and Daytime Emmys.
But none of this mattered to the twins. To them, Beaumonde Academy was simply another challenge to conquer, another ingenious puzzle to solve.
In their first semester at Beaumonde, if the twins were known at all, they were known only as “that overdressed snob with the hot-ass sister.” By the end of the year, however, the two of them commanded the underclassmen; soon, being overdressed and snobby was not only okay, it something that all the boys wanted to be and all the girls wanted to be with.
The Budds knew that you didn’t win by playing the game…you won by controlling the game itself.
Alexander Budd had a seductive charm, a quick wit, and a stunning wardrobe. Before long, he was the pride of the school, the pinnacle of the student body, and the absolute beating heart of Beaumonde Academy. He knew everyone, he was aware of anything that happened within the school and was often the catalyst behind most of it. He had no official title at the school, he participated in no extracurricular activities, but he was responsible for almost everything that transpired there. He made introductions, he granted favors, he played matchmaker.
His stunning sister Lillian was quiet and fierce and intelligent and chaste and looked like a particularly fine specimen of a long-thought-extinct race of ancient beings. Because she looked so different from anyone else at the school—and, it was suspected, anyone else in the entire world—she almost never caused the sort of resentment and jealousy that other women have towards the gorgeous in commercials for low-fat yogurt and diet soda. Alexander could charm hundreds for an afternoon; Lillian could inspire life-long loyalty, one person at a time.
The twins were, to use the vulgar and simplistic term, “the most popular kids in school,” but mere popularity was never their aim. It wasn’t enough for them to run Beaumonde Academy…they had to recreate it from the ground up. They had to make it Proper.
At the beginning of sophomore year, Alexander described for his classmates a nightmare in which every teenager bought identical outfits at the same three or four stores at the mall. The clothes were poorly made with low-quality material; they were ill-fitting because an XL of twenty years was now labeled an M. The uniform of the American Teenager was jeans that didn’t fit, paired with a cheap cotton T-shirt adorned with the logo of the store where they’d bought it on clearance.
There was a time, he said, when the young, educated, and reasonably attractive actually dressed and acted as though they were these things. But no more…today the gravest sin was to stand out from the crowd. Now, in the Age Of Comfort, equality had been achieved at last, not by lifting up but by stooping down: sweatpants and baseball caps for all, and let anyone who refuse them be labeled arrogant, pretentious, elite.
Adults were no longer interested in looking like adults, Alexander told them. When you’re forty and you dress like a toddler, you begin to act like a toddler. And so the social fabric was beginning to unravel..etiquette was forgotten, email replaced stationery, grown men bragged about how long it had been since they’d worn their one suit.
But there was hope. In an world where every day a tailor went out of business, where every wannabe rebel wore the same t-shirt bought at the same store, where advertisers insisted you could only be a true original by buying their mass-market products…in a world like this, to dress and act like adults from a forgotten age was actually a victory of subversive non-conformity.
If a small and dedicated group of teenagers became passionate about how they looked, how they dressed, and how they acted, then they would begin to change their school and, eventually, the world. This was the only rebellion left in this ruined age, and—if done right—it would be revolutionary.
Style is substance.
• • •
The Beaumonde Academy prom was the crowning event of the Budds’ junior year. Traditionally held the night before graduation, the Beaumonde prom is actually more of a formal dinner with an hour or so of stiff dancing tacked on at the end. That year, however, the students attempted the waltz, the tango, and the foxtrot to varying degrees of success and dignity. The chief attraction of the dance floor, though, wasn’t the dancing but the chance to show off their Budd-approved evening attire and the air of effortless sophistication with which (they hoped) they were wearing it.
Three years into the Budds’ reign at the school, Beaumonde Academy had been transformed. The students had thoroughly embraced Alexander’s vision and had slowly reinvented themselves. Soon the halls of the school were filled with boys in neckties and fitted trousers talking to girls wearing tailored dresses and simple unadorned jewelry. There were pen knives and monogrammed handkerchiefs, perfumed letters and cigarette cases.
The students, though, knew what the twins had established wasn’t even about the clothes. It was about discovering a way to live with grace and poise, about always knowing what to say and do without agonizing over it like other teenagers. It was about believing in and being a part of something that was larger than yourself, and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from doing a small part to make it happen.
After the jazz combo brought the last dance of the prom to an end, the boys bowed to their partners and escorted them back to their seats. It was time for the final and most important event of the evening, the presentation of the McMillan Award. This award, the highest honor at the school, supposedly went to the grade that best exemplified the spirit of Beaumonde Academy, but it was only technically a contest: the winners were allegedly determined by a mysterious and arcane set of guidelines, but the fact is it just went to the graduating seniors every year.
Well, almost every year. That year, for only the fourth (or was it the fifth?) time in their school’s history, the junior class upset the seniors to win the McMillan. It really shouldn’t have shocked anyone, considering what an impact the Budds, their Gang, and the rest of the class had made on the Academy, but at the time it seemed unfathomable. The McMillan Award is completely meaningless, and therefore obsessed over by the students, teachers, and alumni of Beaumonde Academy. This made the juniors’ win a Very Big Deal, as it hadn’t been won by a class other than the seniors in over ten years.
This was the night that everything would change. As the juniors celebrated their win—tastefully and Proper, of course—they knew this was the turning point. Junior year was over…just ahead would be the triumph of senior year.
And after senior year the real work would begin. After graduation, Beaumonde students would spread out across the country, doing for their colleges and universities what the twins had done for their high school. Soon, what had begun as a rebellion would become a revolution, as tens of thousands of Proper college graduates spilled out into that vulgar world beyond, ready to rebuild it in their own more elegant image.
It was a ridiculous goal, a laughable one, and no one except the twins ever took it very seriously. But on prom night, as the rest of the juniors took pictures of the Budds holding the McMillan, it didn’t just seem plausible…it seemed inevitable.
They said it would be the night everything would change, and it was true, nothing would be the same again. That same night, just a few hours later, City Councilman Lucas Budd—the twins’ father—would be sprawled on a sidewalk on the edge of the French Quarter, handcuffed and raving, with clothes askew and legs akimbo, as police photographers carefully cataloged the powders and pills being gently lifted from his trunk. There were even reports that a young man fled from the scene, but they were never proven.
Overnight Lucas Budd would go from being one of the city’s only true crusaders to political poison, and within two weeks, Mrs. Budd would announce that she and the twins were spending the summer in her childhood home of Lafayette, shielding her family from the toxic media environment her husband's activities had created.
Back at the prom, though, this was all yet to come. No one there knew exactly how much things were going to change that summer…all they knew was that they were at the end of an extraordinary year and a triumphant night.
Everyone was happy, everyone was loved, everyone was Proper. But the student body knew that none of what they’d achieved—the clothes, the award, the elegance—would have been possible if it weren’t for the unsmiling siblings at the front of the reception hall, posing for pictures with the McMillan Award.
Their names were Alexander and Lillian Budd, but no one ever called them by their names. To everyone at Beaumonde Academy, they were better known—out of admiration, out of jealousy, out of fondness, out of envy—as simply The Darling Budds.
This is not their story.