Dress Down

She had placed the dress on a hanger, a notable deed in light of the clean and dirty clothing recklessly commingling on the floor of her closet, inches from the hamper.  Hangar clothes were for special occasions, when the dining room was dusted, the good dishes set out, and delectable and otherwise forbidden bakery treats set out on anscestral china.  Hangar clothes were for tedious dinners with aunts and uncles – the titles honorific – who barely looked at Bridget, devoting their time instead to guffawing over glasses of wine while sloppily praising Bridget’s mother. The Beauty, the Brains, the Hostess, we toasteth.  They toasteth mostly the Beauty, as the chicken was usually dry and Mother’s eyes went dead when conversation drifted away from her.

On the few occasions the aunts and uncles engaged Bridget in conversation, she spoke passionately, like Mother, but with a conviction that is the blessing of sixteen-years-old, sheltered by immobility and routine stirred by books and classroom discussions.  Bridget spoke in paragraphs littered with exclamation points and a solid understanding of politics, or religion, or current events. When she stopped, the aunts and uncles would smile and exhale. “Well said,” they’d wink and then let Mother change the topic. Bridget’s comments were left fallow.

The dress was a surprise.  Mother had insisted that Bridget accompany her to the mall, as Bridget was “showing through” her old clothes. Bridget assumed this meant once again trailing Mother through the Ralph Lauren section of Macy’s, fingering the boxy cabled sweaters and dark slacks and their promise of shapelessness.  She hadn’t expected her mother to take her to the intimate’s section of Macy’s and select some shapeware “for smoothing.”  When Bridget balked, Mother took her to hosiery and purchased several pairs of control top pantyhose. Her mother stared at the size chart on the package of DKNY Opaques for long minutes while Bridget stared at the disembodied plastic leg modeling tastefully naughty herringbone sheers.  “Size Small,” Mother decided, giving Bridget a studied once-over.  “You’re short.”

Bridget’s burn was equal parts anger and embarrassment. Already mid-way through her teen years, Bridget had already s-curved her way past her mother’s trim, lithe figure.  Her belly and rear were ballast for her wide shoulders and ample chest.  Bridget would never be approached in the mall and asked to model at a department store runway show as Mother had. She’d never be mistaken for a ballerina, either.  Her body clung to calories, putting them to rest in places that attracted gazes and stares.  Mother kept Bridget on a strict diet to keep the gazes from turning to guffaws, and the stares to leers.

Sensing Bridget’s flush, Mother said, “These’ll smooth you out,” as she grabbed the purchased bag of pantyhose off the counter, flinging her credit card into the depths of her purse, only to be panicked over later.  No matter how many times Bridget’s father suggested Mother take a moment to put the card back in her wallet, she never did.  This inevitably led to long, impatient minutes of Mother digging under receipts and lipsticks and notepads in her giant bag, hoping to uncover the missing card long after the salesclerks asked.  The clerks, for their part, never found this amusing, nor did they find Mother’s self-deprecating commentary and wordless tongue clucking a good use of their time. At these moments, Bridget wandered off to another part of the store under the guise of touching a particularly beguiling fabric.

Bridget shuffled behind Mother into the fluorescent mall-sprawl, only looking up from her feet when Mother stopped in front of a display in a window of one of the teen clothing stores Mother usually dismissed with a hissed “Trashy.”

There was the dress.

Just on the respectable side of bright pink, it was a hybrid of acid-washed and tye-dyed, splotches and streaks. The broad ribbed straps gave the illusion of a tank top under the off-the-shoulder, easy-swinging bodice. The waist gathered to an elastic band, beneath which the skirt hung loose and uncaring.

Wordlessly, Bridget followed Mother into the store. Mother selected three sizes, one correct, two larger  — much larger — and told Bridget to try them on.

The changing rooms were little more than utility closets with slatted doors, and anyone with motivation could have stood just so and seen anything and everything.  Bridget was fairly sure that no one was interested in her bits and pieces, but she dressed herself in as much of a bent-double pose as she could. For extra measure, she turned her back to the door.  If anyone did want to see her stark white bra with the pink flower at the breastbone, she didn’t want to know.

Bridget studied her reflection.  This dress wasn’t something that could be worn to family functions where she would dutifully again answer the questions she’d gotten over the years. Yes, I like school, English class most of all. I’m also involved in choir, softball, and Key Club. Yes, I’ve taken the SATs already. I’m happy with the score. No, I don’t know where I want to go to college.

Not this dress. This was not the dress to wear around nanas and aunties and cousins. This wasn’t a silk blend. This didn’t have a lace Peter Pan collar. This didn’t have a delicate print or a muted color.  Bridget would never wear a slip with this dress.

Bridget turned and looked at her semi-exposed shoulders and bare calves and tiny waist. She wanted this dress — not because it made her feel like a woman, but because it made her feel like a fifteen-year-old.

Her quickly-launched daydream of walking confidently into parties, smiling broadly, waving at friends, and other acts mirroring her favorite shampoo commercial was interrupted as Mother simultaneously knocked and opened the door to the dressing room.

Bridget kept her eyes on her reflection. Mother fingered the material once more, then quickly checked to see which size Bridget had selected to try on. She looked questioningly at Bridget, who shrugged.

“Ok, take it off. I’ll get it while you get dressed.”

Mother closed the the dressing room door behind her and immediately put her hand over the top, waiting for Bridget to hand her the dress.  Bridget carefully and quickly removed the dress, not wanting to rip the dress, but wanting to get it into her mother’s hands and onto the checkout counter before Mother changed her mind.

Bridget wore the dress a few days later to a school dance. No spotlight shone on her as she entered, but her friends hooted kindly, as they had the previous year when she showed up to school in jeans for the first time.  Her best friend Courtney grabbed Bridget’s hand and pulled her into a group of shared friends that functioned as a dance circle/gossip station.  Bridget swayed to bass lines that proved the school’s sound system was not up to the task.  She looked around casually, hopefully, trying to toss her hair, laugh, and throw back her shoulders as she’d seen Courtney do.  The fourth time she did so (she’d allowed herself to play coquette once every song, but only if it was a fast one), she saw him approaching.

Mark was president of the Key Club and was in her photography class.  They’d shared some quips and comments, but their conversations never ventured beyond asides. Bridget had noted that they often laughed at the same things during class. She’d always thought his beard a bit ridiculous for high school but an honest part of his admiration of all things late-60s. She respected his cannonball into that culture, his comfort arguing the ideals with his 80’s entrenched friends, his love of ironic army jackets. More than once she’d noticed his eyes twinkling as he sat on a bench outside the school, playing guitar, greeting everyone with a warm smile. He was kind, he was friendly, and he was coming over, determined to break into the circle.

She turned to Courtney and whisper-shouted “Mark’s coming over. I think he wants to talk with you.”  Courtney smiled widely at Bridget right as Bridget felt a warm hand on her bare shoulder.

“Wanna dance, Brig?”

She turned to face bright twinkly eyes. Mark was close enough so as not to have to shout over the music. She could see the striations of brown and blond in his impressively thick beard. He had no trace of insecurity or arrogance about him. She hoped her shoulder wasn’t sweating under his hand.

“Yeah, sure,” she squeaked.

He brought her to the exact center of the dance floor. All eyes may have been on Bridget and Mark, but all she felt were his. His eyes pierced without squinting. They welcomed. They invited her to join him in an improvised tribute to the frug. She accepted, laughing.  As the first dance turned into a second, then a third, she grew emboldened by his free movements, the grace behind the humor, and his seeming enjoyment of her growing silliness.  They monkeyed and tangoed. They challenged each other to be bolder, braver, larger.   He punctuated all this with amused and approving cries of “Yes!” when she moved at odds with and in sync to the Temptations or Devo, the pink dress swirling around her knees.

As it always does, the music slowed and the lights dimmed somewhat. As one, they drew together. Her right hand clasped his left, and his right hand was warm on her back.  She hastily yanked on the tank-strap of her dress, then slid her left hand onto his shoulder. He smiled at her, then leaned back to consider her face.  “I had no idea you were so….”

“Brilliant? Worldly? Sophisticated? Talented? Uncoordinated?” she offered.

He threw his head back and roared. “I was going to say ‘great,’ but I now change that to ‘modest.'”

“Modest works.”

He pulled her close. She noted, with an odd sense of triumph, that his breathing was calm, slow, regular. He began singing along to the song, a current Top 10 hit. Bridget, surprised he knew the tune, joined in. She let him sing the harmonies.

The song ended, the dance ended, and he offered to wait with her until her father came to pick her up. They sat and talked easily, his words ebbing flowing like the ocean, hers tumbling like a pebbled river. He knew where he wanted to go to college. He wanted to study engineering and minor in music.  He laughed at her wickedly accurate impersonation of the orchestra teacher. She confessed she was nervous about her upcoming solo at their next concert. He grabbed her hand and gazed deeply into her eyes,  “I mean this with all sincerity…I’m sure you’ll fuck it up.  That shit will follow you. Forever.”

This time she was the one to throw her head back and laugh. She felt her hair brush against her shoulders, but didn’t pull up the sleeve that had fallen down her arm.

She felt like a fifteen-year-old.

She spotted her father’s Buick. “That’s me.”

Mark helped her stand up from the bench, then bowed deeply and kissed her hand.

“‘night” was all she could sputter.  He watched her get in the car, making sure she looked one last time at him so he could wave good night before he strolled to his own car in the student lot.

Bridget’s dad looked up from whatever invisible thing on the dashboard had captured his attention during Mark’s goodbye and put the car in gear. After a few moments of silence, he turned on the news station, and the entire ride was spent listening to sports scores and traffic and weather updates.

At home, Bridget put the pink dress on a padded hanger after inhaling back of the dress where his hand had rested. She lay in bed replaying the perfection of the evening. His perfection.

hers, she thought in teeny tiny lowercase letters.

The morning was for homework at the kitchen table under the watchful eyes of her parents. The tile inlay of the farmhouse table caused grooves in her paper as she lazily traced over them, snapping to when Mother or Father would approach, ever-ready to look over her work.  Mother’s migratory patterns from living room to kitchen to upstairs and back increased in frequency and volume. As Mother found more and more items that needed to be put in its rightful place, she began muttering, stopping short of slamming items down on tables. Bridget could only make out a few words —  dance, must-be-nice, homework, cleaning, time, focusing, what’s-important — but the tone was unmistakable.  After a few hours, she spoke directly to Bridget, asking for help setting the table. Bridget quickly cleared off the homework she had no recollection of doing.

Bridget brought the books to her room, and dumped them on the like-new desk.  She went to her closet, wanting one more inhale that would cement the realness of the evening.

The dress was missing.

The padded hangar hung empty on the rod. Bridget checked the floor to see if it had fallen off.  It hadn’t. She looked, knowing it was folly, under her bed, in her drawers, in the hamper. She ran down to the laundry to see if it had migrated there, suddenly and magically.

It was gone. Bridget didn’t ask about it.  She didn’t need to.

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