The Secret Lives of Dresses
I wish I hadn’t hated her so much. There, I’ve said it, and I can’t unsay it, or make it not true. I wish I could.
Sometimes I’m not sure if it was really hate I felt. I’m not sure if I can actually have any feelings, or if I just soaked up what she felt, or what the people around her felt, whichever was stronger. Like a blotter put over an ink stain. Sometimes she seemed to me compelling and frightening, powerful and dangerous, like a snake or a shark or a mink; something you watch with suspense even though you know what’s going to happen. Other times she seemed lifeless, like a robot or some mannequin, hollow and empty, nothing inside at all. A puppet, but with nothing holding the strings, nothing that I could see.
It was worse when she was wearing me. I can’t describe it, really. The closest I can come is to think of what it must be like to be the face of a clock, a clock that’s really a bomb, and to feel all that tick-tick-ticking behind you. To feel it, but not be able to stop it. Whenever we walked into a party I felt her ticking. I felt her sussing out which men she was going to flirt with, and which flirtations would happen in sight of their wives, and which not. I could feel the gears move as she touched one on the arm and one on the cheek and let another light her cigarette; I could feel her eyes swivel to the next target even as her head was tilted towards the current one. She knew just how to laugh in a way that grates on a wife’s nerves, but was completely unexceptionable to anyone else.
I don’t know why she did it, except that she could. She never made an assignation, or even a date; she just liked the commotion, the whispers, the glares in the powder room. That made it worse; somehow it would be better if she had had some desire for human touch, even illicit, instead of just an appetite for turmoil. Every couple of months she found a new place to overturn. A resort here, a small town there. There was some excuse, always; she was “hunting up old family papers.” She was “looking for a little place to buy and settle down.” The lawyer or the real estate agent had to invite her to dinner, invite her out to the club, and after that it was easy. But there never was any old family, or any little place. There was only her, humming to herself, as she drove home alone in her fast little car.
Sometimes, if I concentrated just so, I could thwart her. Probably thwart is too strong a word. Sometimes I could discompose her. I could be stiff where I ought to flow; I could catch where there was nothing to catch on. I could pull, or wrinkle, or shift. I could make her hesitate just for a second. It’s not like I could ruin the effect she had; I could just make it less than perfection.
It wore me out, though, just to do that much. It was against my nature. When you’re on a body you want that body and you to be one thing. You emphasize the way the wearer moves, subtly, hanging around her like an aura. Sometimes I got distracted just by her grace and I found myself cooperating as if what she was doing wasn’t pure concentrated unpleasantness. That was the worst part, when I found myself suddenly aware of being becoming to her, when I felt her prey looking at her approvingly, because of me. But I *was* becoming to her, of course! That’s why she bought me. She never had an unbecoming dress in her life.
Of course I know it was all my fault, although we don’t talk about it, in the closet. We used to talk about her, but we don’t anymore. There used to be a lot of rustling about her — especially when a dress came back carelessly stained, or with the hooks and eyes bent or all torn out, or with a popped zipper. Anyone else would have taken a hurt dress to the cleaners, or the seamstress, but not her. Sometimes she just laughed, putting one back on the hanger, or just dropping it, bruised, on the floor. “Looks like I won’t be wearing this old thing again!”
She won’t be wearing any old thing again. Last Saturday she bought a new dress, to wear that very night. All red like me (she liked red), but long, cut low, with a ruffled train. Gorgeous. We were all envious — to be so new, and so beautiful! That poor dress. She was so excited, looking forward to be being worn, pleased to have such a beautiful wearer. Then we all started talking. Maybe it was meant as a warning, or maybe it was just a little envy. Maybe we laid it on a little too thick. I think maybe I exaggerated just how much I could move, just what I could do against her. Maybe the red dress didn’t know how much more it could move, with all those ruffles? I’ve never had ruffles; I don’t know.
The red dress went out that night, the ruffles a-quiver, but more from apprehension than the excitement it had expected. But it didn’t come home that night, and neither did she.
The next day it did finally come back, but without her. Some other women hung it up in the closet, wrapped in a bag. The bottom ruffle was all ripped, and it wouldn’t talk. We heard the women, walking around the bedroom, opening drawers, looking at her nightgowns and her bed jackets.
“Which one do you think she’d want?”
“Helen, she’s never going to know. The doctor said she’d probably never wake up again. It’s going to be a miracle if she lives until Tuesday — a fall like that! I don’t think I’ll ever walk down those stairs again!”
“If it were me, I think I’d know. Or I’d want people to hope I’d know. Did Joe Rossiter have any luck reaching her people?”
“I don’t think she had any people! At least, none living. Or none she’d admit to.”
“Don’t speak ill …”
“She’s not dead yet. But I guess you’re right. Let’s get back to the hospital and drop these off; I want to get home to have supper ready before Jim comes back from the game.”
Nobody’s come back since then. The red dress hasn’t said anything, but I can feel it, in the closet. I can feel it blaming me. We don’t really talk. We just hang, and wait. We’re not sure what for.
I’m pretty sure it’s been Tuesday already.