All posts in Non-fiction

  • The Dress

    With pure eyes I celebrate your beauty
    Holding the leash of blood
    So that it might leap out and trace your outline

    — Pablo Neruda, “Ode to a Naked Beauty”


    I stare into my closet. Various articles of clothing hang there waiting for me to push them around, to select a garment. The closet is full, stuffed with clothing from all seasons, as I don’t rotate them out when the weather changes.

    “What should I wear?” I turn to Jason who is lying on my bed—sprawling really—staring at the TV. My hair and makeup are carefully done. I even have jewelry picked out. But the dress is the real challenge.

    “Wear whatever you want.” His response is practically a recording, as if I pushed a button on any given day I would get the same answer.

    I shove the hangers to one side and bring the dresses to the front. I place my hand on my round hip and run it down the side of my body, as if taking my measurements before trying anything on. I don’t add up the numbers. I don’t want to know.

    My body is tired, and that fatigue is starting to show. I’ve abused it. I’ve starved it, stretched it, scarred it, stuffed it, immobilized it, run it ragged, burned it, and overloaded it with alcohol and cigarettes, diet pills, anti-anxiety meds, junk food. I’ve targeted foods I think are dangerous and boycotted them. I’ve relapsed and eaten fast food four times in a day for a week straight. I’ve given up carbohydrates, sugar, high-fat foods, processed foods, meat, all animal products and by-products, and then taken it all back.

    I think of the criteria that I have adopted as I dig through dresses hanging in my closet  trying to find the right one to wear to my sister’s wedding. I need a dress that fits, that conceals my tattoos, and is dressy enough for the occasion. Even then, the right dress needs to negotiate with my thick legs, my protruding belly, variations of lumps and bumps and rounded flesh of the body where no roundness should be.

    I pull on an A-line dress I wore to a convention to watch my organization win an award for the first time in fourteen years. It’s black with a speckled print. It slides on until I put my arms through the sleeve holes and bring it down over my chest. I can’t breathe. I can’t button it, either. Even with a short jacket it looks like I’m trying to squeeze into my little sister’s clothes. I take it off and add it to the growing pile on the floor.

    My mother believed that she was the best version of herself when she was skinny. There was no other measure of her personal success. It wasn’t a problem that the best job she could ever secure was waiting tables or bartending, that the men in her life were addicts, alcoholics, abusers of all kinds. The places she called home smelled of aged cigarette smoke with a lingering layer of bleach. She subsisted on coffee and nicotine and never stopped moving, cleaning and scrubbing and mowing and pruning. Each morning she would sit at the dining table with a cup of coffee and a cigarette. When she finally showered and dressed for the day, she smelled of what I thought was fake leather and hairspray. I never knew that was really the smell of cigarettes. I just thought that was the smell of mom.

    The next dress is fuchsia with a belted waist and a full skirt. I wore it the night I won Volunteer of the Year, climbing a stage in front of 450 fraternity men, confident and smiling, the shape of my body the last thing on my mind.

    In front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, the waist of the dress falls just below my chest, bringing the hemline up four inches higher than the last time I wore it. I look like a grown woman wearing a baby doll-style dress, except it isn’t.

    I turn to Jason. “Can I pull this off?”

    He looks up from the television and cocks his head to one side. “Yes?”

    Not the answer I’m looking for, but definitely the answer I’m expecting. I yank the dress over my head and toss it onto the floor.

    The comments about our bodies started with puberty, but if I think hard enough, I may remember remarks going back to when I was five, the same age my niece is now. My mother would comment on my “bubble butt” and she nicknamed me “chesty,” a moniker she used around her male friends, drawing all eyes in the room to the growing mounds on the front of my torso. I surpassed her in clothing size around the sixth grade, and with each year I grew taller and curvier, my waifish mother remained so thin she could stand behind me and no one would know she was there. My sister, on the other hand, had a more sinewy physique for which she was praised and complimented. As she grew older and her lean figure developed curves, my mother would compare her body to my sister’s, pulling skin and pinching around her stomach and thighs to show my sister how easily her body could betray her, how every consumed calorie mattered.

    Consequently, as I am convinced they are linked, I teeter between overweight and obese, and my sister is a self-admitted anorexic. Six years apart, and we landed on opposite ends of the healthy body spectrum.

    My sister advocates on her daughter’s behalf to shield her from the impact of our polarized eating disorders. While driving to my niece’s soccer game, I point out, “I’m on this new medication that has made me gain weight. So I’m a little more round than usual.” I pat my stomach for emphasis.

    My sister waves her hand before she settles it back on the wheel to make a left-hand turn. “I just see you as my sister,” she says, her eyes darting to the rearview mirror to make sure Madison didn’t hear my remark.

    You will never hear my sister make any comment about body size—hers or anyone else’s—in my niece’s presence in hopes of protecting the child’s perception of herself before social influence is no longer ignorable. She has even stopped dyeing her hair, has stopped obsessing about appearances in general, because she wants my niece to recognize and embrace her own natural beauty.

    I think of the brief year of my adulthood when I ate nothing and ran long distances, when my body whittled down to the smallest size I have ever been. I think how easy it was to get dressed every morning, when everything in my closet looked good on me, when I looked good on me, when I could cross my legs without my top leg slipping off my bottom knee, when my left hip and my right knee didn’t throb, ache, and tighten every time I stand up after being seated for a long time.

    In the closet, my hangers are emptied as more and more dresses end up on the floor, discarded. I am not without hope that someday I will wear them again. For tonight, though, they do me no good, and my options become fewer and fewer with each dress I dismiss. This experience, this process, of dressing for a special event—for any event—is frustrating, though not as bad as it will be thirty extra pounds from now, when the body is bigger and the clothes are tighter, the stakes greater. But this day I am the most self-doubting I have ever been. I will be one of twenty guests in attendance. My mother will be one as well. The minute we share a space, I will be instantly judged, and I know this. I shouldn’t care, but I can’t help but to care. My personal accomplishments mean nothing because my mother doesn’t measure accomplishment the same way that I do.

    I pull another dress from the closet, hold it at a distance and study it. It’s a black dress with white trim, the neckline cut the same as a T-shirt. The fabric is stretchy through the body and the sleeves. It’s the newest dress I own, though a more casual style than I would prefer for a wedding. I pull it over my head anyway and shimmy it down my body, pulling and straightening the fabric as I go.

    I stand in front of the mirror and breathe in deeply, sucking in my stomach before I exhale. The dress fits, and while it covers my body, it doesn’t hide it. I toy with my hair that has fallen out of place with each dress I pulled on and off again. I momentarily wish my hair were longer, then remember my mother’s long hair—red, like mine—falling in frizzy waves down her back. Even in the time that has passed since I saw her, I know she wouldn’t have cut it. Her hair was always the bow on top of the package, a sign of femininity that didn’t otherwise exist on her bony, shapeless body.

    Our differences in physique are just the beginning of our inconsistencies. Not only do I most resemble my dad (aside from my hair and eye color), I used his life as a model for my own, pursuing an education and a career. My mother followed a completely different path, one that I can only understand through its portrayal in film, television, and magazine articles. I’m numb to her stories, though I’ve heard them all. A white substance my sister discovers on her dresser, which my mother dismisses as baby powder, while wiping her nose. How about the year she volunteered as the treasurer for my step-sister’s Girl Scout troop? Only to embezzle the dues the young girls clutched in their little fists, skipping into the gym, and depositing it into the basket each week. There are warrants for her arrest in three counties. Drunk driving I know for sure, but the other two I don’t know the details. For that reason, she doesn’t travel and lives off the grid, cleaning houses whose owners pay under the table. That is until she gets fired for stealing, and she moves on to the next, her hands weathered and aged, burned from cleaning chemicals, dry and cracking, always in denial that she has done anything wrong.

    All of these stories are hearsay, though my source is reliable, so I believe them. It would be harder to believe that she was living a normal life doing normal, law-abiding things. It would be harder to believe that she had given up on lying, that her life was one of honesty, hard work, and redemption. No, I wouldn’t believe any stories of improvement or betterment, because she has no measure for success beyond body weight. She was entitled and deserving in her mind of the things the rest of us have to work for, as long as she worked for and succeeded in staying thin and tan.

    My body jiggles and the dress shimmers with each high-heeled step I take toward the chapel. I turn to Jason just before we reach the door. He’s calm and relaxed, even though he’s meeting my family for the first time. I’m the one who is nervous. I don’t want to be in the same place as my mother. I don’t want to share my sister’s wedding with her. More than anything, I don’t want her to see me at my heaviest,  and to judge me based on what she sees. But she will anyway. That, I can be sure.

    I walk in the door and in my peripheral vision see a thin figure in a periwinkle gown with a short train float out of the restroom and down a hallway. I open my mouth to say something, anything, a greeting maybe. In an instant she is gone, and I realize with all the thought I gave to how I would react to her, I never stopped to think how she would react to me. She didn’t speak to me. She didn’t even make eye contact. Nothing. Nothing after thirteen years.

    “That,” I say when I turn to Jason, “was my mother.” I tug at my hem, my dress just a little too tight to stay at my knees on its own.

    We gather in the small chapel, and I sit a few rows back from the altar, catching glimpses of my mother’s profile as she turns her head to watch my sister walk down the aisle. The gown is bright white and decorated with rhinestones across the front, the fabric falling smoothly over her thin body, no peaks and valleys to negotiate. She has a long veil pulled over her smiling face, her eyes focused on her groom who waits at the front.  My sister evolves from a Ms. to a Mrs., and this family is unrecognizable as a family.

    At the reception, I’m as far away from my mother as I can get while seated at the same table, so any time I turn my head to the right, I see her, and I can hear her raspy, cigarette-ruined voice as she shares stories with her new in-laws. I’m drinking large glasses of Blue Moon drawn from the tap and trying to pretend that she isn’t there. While I’m at it, I’m also trying to pretend that she doesn’t look like meth has eaten her face, the stains on her teeth so dark, they’re practically green.

    Turns out, I’m not very good at pretending.

    Madison is seated next to me at the end of the table, and I focus my attention on her, my niece who is celebrating a birthday in a month, and remind her that she’s adorable, that she’s beautiful, that she’s smart. She grins at me, the splash of freckles across her nose crinkling as her smile widens.

    I dish a spoonful of cheese ravioli onto her plate and scoot her chair in closer to the table so she can reach her meal. Her process is methodical. She pierces each piece, opens her mouth wide and pops it in, chewing and smiling at me when I offer to order her a refill on her Sprite. She doesn’t count calories. She eats until she’s full or until she doesn’t want to taste anymore. There is no consequence to her eating.

    When it’s time to leave, I sling Madison’s backpack onto my shoulder; she’s spending the night at my house. I twirl her around so her skirt floats out around her, momentarily forgetting that my already tight dress is just a little bit tighter, a little bit shorter, a little bit more uncomfortable since eating such a large meal. I zip up her coat and hold her hand as we walk across the icy parking lot to my car while she chatters a child’s story.