DRESSING THE PART
by Deirdre Fagan
The dress was boxed in 1990. The box still had the dry cleaner’s receipt attached to its slightly yellowed side. Behind the cellophane window, Eva could just glimpse the beaded back of the dress; its accompanying veil kept the dress partly veiled. The veil itself had ivory flowers decorated with pearls adorning the headband and trailing tulle sprinkled with more pearls and edged with ribbon. Eva recalled its cascade down her back. Her auburn hair had at the time been shoulder-length, though she had worn it twisted up into ribbons and bound with matching pearl-adorned ivory flowers. While her hair had been up, she remembered fondly how the cascade of the veil had felt like she had had hair reaching to the small of her back. As she danced in the arms of Nick so many years ago, swaying back and forth, back and forth, it had swung and swung, lightly teasing her back, largely bare, due to the plunging lines of the dress. Eva leaned her back against the headboard and closed her eyes. Swinging her head quietly and intently from side to side, she imagined the veil’s delicate touch glancing off her back once more.
Eva’s hair was now a short bob of grey. The slate green of her eyes just as bright, if only the white around them hadn’t become a bit more yellowed and blood shot with age. Eva stroked the outside of the similarly aged box she had hauled out of the closet while sorting some of Nick’s things. Several black trash bags were lumps on the floor beside the bed. Eva sat up, leaned over a bit, and peered through the window, considering whether she should upset the archival sanctity of the gown. She heard the creak of the king-sized bed as she leaned. Their marriage bed. Eva slid down on her back and looked up.
She and Nick had shared this bed so many nights. Sometimes they slept curled toward, sometimes away from each other. Sometimes they would lie on their backs staring up at the speckled ceiling chatting away into the night about work, the children, their future, then collapse into giggling fits as something funny occurred to them or their signature word play was introduced. Other nights they read in bed side by side, occasionally pausing to read a passage to one another or ask a question about some word, place, or idea evoked. As Eva looked up now, she noticed how the lace curtains draped over the canopy, and despite their constant presence, she took the lace curtains as a sudden indication of what she must do.
Eva’s waist had broadened with each child. They had had three, two years apart. The third was still at home, the second had just left, and the first had been away two years at college. Eva remembered a woman of about her current age, 56, commenting on Eva’s own “lovely waist” on her wedding night — Eva had nearly rushed the woman and her friend as she had entered the bed and breakfast with Nick. The woman had turned to her female companion and exclaimed, “Look at that lovely waist! I remember having a waist like that!” Eva hadn’t at the time realized the full import of the comment. She now knew that woman had clearly known what she was talking about. Waists are not something that improve with age. “With each child the waist expands,” Eva thought disappointedly, “at least two inches.”
The dress was a size eight. She was now a size eight again, but she couldn’t imagine her waist at all resembled the waist she had once had. Even after losing thirty pounds in the last six months, her waist had hardly budged, or so it seemed. “Budged or pudged?” It had pudged gradually over her marriage to Nick.
Eva stood abruptly and walked to the full-length mirror. She turned sideways. Her stomach was practically concave. She turned toward the front. She had always had something of an hourglass figure, but with a widened waist, she now appeared to be more boy shaped. More up and down. There was hardly a distinction between waist and hip. She’d stopped eating meals, snacking instead when she became so weak she had to have food, and she’d lost some of her hips, but less of her belly. She stood staring at herself. She lifted her shirt over her head. She stood in her bra. She removed her sweat pants and stood in her underwear and bra. She brushed some grey hair behind her right ear. She tilted her head to the side. Then she turned and leapt onto the bed with a sudden feeling of hope.
She flipped the box over. Of course it was taped shut. She lay on her belly across the bed and opened the end table drawer. There had to be something in there…a pen. That would do. She ran the pen through the tape on the four sides of the rectangular box and then quickly flipped the box back over. She took a deep breath. She closed her eyes for a moment. She opened them. She paused again. And then Eva began shaking the top of that box. After about five shakes, the bottom fell to the bed. There was the veil and the dress, arranged so perfectly the way the past still appeared vividly in her mind. Untouched. Archived. She leaned over and breathed deeply. The dress didn’t smell like Nick. It didn’t smell like the fall day they had wed. It didn’t smell like anything, except maybe an old piece of dry cleaning. First her heart sunk, but then her glee returned, “Nothing more to preserve then!” Eva hollered.
Eva reached in and grabbed the dress forcefully by its puffy shoulders. Crunch. They had filled those capped sleeves with tissue paper to make it hold the shape of her young shoulders. It was as though she had been folded and put into a box, stuffed and on display behind a cellophane window, only at the back of a darkened closet.
Eva quickly pulled the full length of the dress out of the box, jumped off the bed, and took two quick steps toward the mirror. She held the dress in front of her. The dress was so much younger than she was. It was so perfect. Un-aged. Not yellowed like the box or her eyes. As she considered putting the dress back in the box, she stared at her reflection in the mirror, still holding it before her underweared nudity. She then went and sat on the bed, held the dress to her breast, and began sobbing. She had been thinking about the dress for days before she had gathered the energy to shove past what remained of Nick’s things and remove it from the back of the closet.
Moments later, Eva stood and unzipped the dress. It was so soft. Stepping into it, she felt the satin fabric against her thighs and her sex momentarily awakened. It had been nearly dormant. Before sliding the dress up and over her shoulders, she unsnapped her bra and her 56-year-old breasts dropped from it. “They aren’t 30 year-old breasts,” she said to herself. She raised her arms above her head as she kept the dress from sliding down her now nearly absent hips by cocking her left leg up. Her breasts rose ever so slightly with the raising of her arms. “There, that’s closer,” she chuckled at her reflection as she contemplated whether plastic surgeons asked women to raise their arms above their heads to get an idea of where their breasts once were. She repeatedly lifted her arms over her head to test her theory, giggling aloud.
As Eva lifted the dress up and on to her forearms and then flabbier upper arms, she worried the dress wouldn’t zip. The capped sleeves slid up and over. She turned her back to the mirror and began zipping. The zipper made it part way up, perhaps farther than she had expected, though it took some effort bending her arm to reach, but it was never going to make it past the breasts that had become fuller with children, too. That beautiful scoop back. It was going to have to be covered. With a sudden impish grin she recalled the ivory wool cape. She hadn’t had to wear it that October day after all. It was still on its original hanger in a zipper bag in the downstairs closet.
Nearly tripping over the dress, then hoisting a handful with each fist, Eva practically hopped down the stairs to the hall closet and eagerly unzipped the garment bag. All she had to do was fasten the hook and eye at the throat and the cape would cover her bare age spotted back but leave the wedding dress visible. She tore the cape off the hanger and tossed it over her shoulders. A quick hooking of the clasp and voila! Eva felt reborn, well almost.
Still standing inside the closet, Eva recalled how she had so adored that veil trailing down her back. She closed her eyes for just a moment to picture it and leaned her head on the wall. The dress suddenly felt heavier.
Pulling on the light string and closing the closet door, Eva thought about how few brides veiled their faces. Eva hadn’t on her own wedding day, even though it was still the trend then. She wondered what mysterious quality was lost by being able to see the bride as she approached; she wanted to be mysterious.
Eva’s cape was beginning to feel warm as she hobbled up the stairs clumsily to look at the veil. The dress wasn’t sleeved, but it was many layered, and that cape was wool. She caught a glimpse of her flushed reflection in her bedroom mirror. She twirled. Smiled. Then grimaced. There were so many lines on her face. She didn’t look at all like she once had. As she approached the mirror for further inspection, she noticed her chest was turning red. It was becoming splotchy, as was her face, from the heat. It was hot in here. After another awkward descent, she turned the thermostat to 60 degrees before climbing the stairs once again to consider the veil, huffing a bit as she continued to gather fists of gown in her hands, tiring with yet another sixteen steps to the second floor. She muttered under her breath, “Cinderella. Hrmph!”
The veil was so delicate. The comb only plastic and Eva wondered how it could secure itself enough in the grey hair she now had. Her hair was smoother, perhaps, or thinner than it had been. Pinching the comb of the veil between her thumb and forefinger she made it dance back and forth. While her grey bob typically was parted slightly to the left, she swung her head forward then shook her head back to stare at the ceiling again while she smoothed the crown of her head with her left hand, and then gently placed the veil in a gathering of hair with her right before re-positioning her head and gazing forward.
Eva practiced gliding around the room. She paused to look out the window, stopped and stared at some of the spines of the books on her shelf, then walked over to some of the portraits of the kids when they were babies. With the cape on she would be plenty warm if she went outside. She could hear the air blowing through the vents, but since she was on the second floor, she was still so hot, so she decided to return to the first and stand by the drafty front door.
While standing by the front door, she started to feel much more comfortable with the dress, with everything, so she opened the front door and walked out a few steps to stand by the porch railing.
The sun was starting to set and Julia would be home any minute from her part-time job at the mall. For just a moment while a car passed, Eva was self-consicous. She began to imagine Julia pulling into the drive while she was on the porch, but then she realized Julia, her girly-girl Julia, would love to see her mother in the dress. She would be so excited to see it out of the box that she might even want to try it on herself. Julia was slim, a perfect size six, with a perfect sixteen-year-old waist. Julia was also a romantic. She loved romantic comedies and Seventeen magazine and lip gloss, despite her mother’s desires to turn her more towards dramas and Flannery O’Connor and Chapstick.
Eva went inside and walked carefully into the kitchen, managing not to snag the dress on any of the furniture. She was in the kitchen carefully eating a banana under her veil when Julia came in. “Mom! What are you doing? Oh my God, is that your dress from when you married Dad?” was followed by “Jeezus, it’s cold in here. What do you have the air conditioning on?” Julia made her way to the thermostat before Eva could stop chewing the big chunk of banana she had shoved in her mouth. Eva lifted her dress and stretched her big toe far enough out from under it to hit the foot lever on the trash and toss her peel, and then she briskly walked after Julia. “Sixty degrees, Mom? What the heck?” “I was hot,” Eva said dismissively as she made a sideways glance and shrugged her capped shoulders. Julia mumbled something about hot flashes and turned the thermostat up to 70, then whipped around quickly to focus on her mother again. “So, let me look at you! Mom, you look gorgeous! What made you take the dress out? It’s so cool!” Julia fingered the tulle on the skirt, then reached for her mother’s slim hips and made her do a full turn. “I always wanted you to get this dress out and let me see it. What’s with the cape, though?” “I was cold,” Eva said.
Suddenly past the excitement of the dress, Julia began walking back towards the kitchen talking to her mother while Eva stared after her daughter’s perfect back. “So anyways, at work there was this annoying girl who wanted to try on, like, everything in the store,” Julia began. Eva followed after her. Julia opened the fridge and looked inside. “She just kept ordering me around to get her different sizes and colors of everything as she shoved things over the top of the dressing room door,” Julia said as she shut the fridge in favor of an apple on the counter. “I swear, Mom, what really sucked is the girl is in my homeroom. I hated having to wait on her like that,” she said before she took a bite.
Eva offered some advice, “Yeah, that sucks, but those girls are always the ones whose aspirations are limited to dressing rooms,” but Julia failed to see the humor and rolled her eyes as usual. She said, “See ya later Mom,” as she headed up to her room, and Eva was left to consider her limited capacity to connect.
As Eva sat at the kitchen table head down, feeling like a flop, she thought, “speaking of flop,” as she stared at her breasts. They were very visible to her, if only because she had a direct view of her own cleavage. She decided to retreat back to her bedroom, this time with a twist-off bottle of white wine.
Eva stared at herself in the mirror and unscrewed the top of the bottle. She lifted the veil and took a swig.
She could most certainly wear it. She could save time getting ready from now on. Didn’t Einstein do that? Wasn’t he the one with all the same shirts and pants so he wouldn’t have to think about clothes anymore? She wouldn’t be too cold outside if she wore the cape, and no place was running their heat enough inside. Now that her circulation was poorer, she was often cold, anyway. She took another long swig and decided she could even wear the dress to bed.
Her quilt wasn’t very thick, and with no warm body to keep her company, the bed had been feeling colder and colder. Nick had always generated so much heat.
After polishing off half of the bottle of wine while sitting on the edge of her bed in her dress, Eva got the munchies and went downstairs and popped some microwave popcorn. She finally settled into bed, removed the veil, and kicked her feet up with the bowl of popcorn and the rest of the wine. Julia texted away to her boyfriend in her next door bedroom as she often did at night. After taking so many flights of stairs, Eva knew she would be fine.
Eva awoke the next morning as if in a haze. She squinted and looked around the room. It was still very dark. The blinds were still closed and the sun wasn’t quite up. At first she forgot she had gone to sleep in the dress and thought the bunch on top of her was the quilt wrapped around and around. When she lifted the quilt and couldn’t see her toes because of the pouf of the dress, she was reminded what it was like to be pregnant. She was reminded of those babies on her ribcage, what it was like to lie on her back in the late months of pregnancy. Impossible. Sitting up in the dress now was a bit like that. Impossible. It took more effort to lift herself off of the bed and swivel her legs to the side than she had expected. The night came back to her as her head throbbed and she rubbed her eyes. “Maybe it was too much popcorn,” she playfully said aloud, feeling like the crunchy leftover kernels she loved had popped, ballooning her stomach like an air popper fills a bowl.
Eva had some difficulty getting into the mini-van. The dress was even bigger than she had realized in the house. With the length and billow of the cape and the dress, and her eyes straining behind her progressive lenses from under the veil, getting into the van became an ordeal. She had tried moving her body in a familiar manner to get behind the steering wheel, but she got caught on the door and the wheel and couldn’t wedge herself in. She tried pulling the dress tightly and coming in tautly to the side, the way she was used to squeezing out of the door when some idiot parked too close to the van, but that wasn’t enough either. Huffing and puffing in the 40 degree weather, and coming at the seatback by leaning in from the backseat, she finally put the back as low as it would go and went around to the driver’s seat and shoved herself and the dress in. The dress was about ten inches above her lap and held her elbows raised for her. She was going to drive with the tips of her fingers at ten and two. She was leaning far enough back that she was going to have to look left through a combination of the driver’s side window and the backseat’s side window. She looked in the rearview and then turned to look backwards as she backed out, but her veil caught and kept her head from turning completely. “Brides should not travel by minivan,” she thought. “No wonder they take limos and horse-drawn carriages.”
Barely reaching the pedals, Eva caught a glimpse of Julia out of the corner of her eye, who was now standing on the deck with her mouth agape, a cereal bowl in one hand, a spoon in the other. Eva gave her a queen’s wave and gunned it out of the driveway.
This was Wednesday.
By the end of the weekend, Eva was getting into the driver’s seat with greater ease, at least partly due to the wear and tear on the dress. By then, she also realized she had been doing it all partly wrong.
Sunday night she tapped small holes into the bottoms of several soup and fruit cans with a screwdriver and a hammer while Julia was at work. She lined the cans carefully with wax paper and then filled them each to the brim before covering them with aluminum foil and a rubber band.
Eva attached the soup cans to the trailer hitch of the mini-van with a rope in the early morning hours on Monday, while Julia still slept. She didn’t give the cape or gown a thought as she kneeled in the drive to secure the cans well to the hitch. After giving the rope a good tug, Eva poked a hole through the wax paper lining each can. The cans wouldn’t drag on the ground, but they would dangle very close to the road.
With each bump Eva hit on the way to the university over the next few weeks, the daily refilled cans slowly shook a little more of Nick’s ashes onto the pavement.
With each nightly refill, Eva began to feel a bit lighter, even as the frequent swings thru drive-thrus, two or more a day, caused her dress to become increasingly tight around the waist.
While there were whispers in the halls, and it became clear to the Dean that some were even enraged, mainly those who never liked Eva in the first place, the Dean never said anything about Eva’s attire. He assumed she was taking her time teaching Great Expectations, forgetting that Eva taught American literature, and he admired her ability to captivate the students so. He nodded approvingly in the halls. Julia also adjusted easily; she was used to giving her mother little thought.
While the gown seemed interminable to many, it really wasn’t more than three weeks before neither Eva nor Julia could zip the back of Eva’s dress at all. Eva was still wearing the cape every day, the warm temperatures had not yet arrived, and it helped to cover some of the stains and tears that had begun to appear on the dress, as well as the ever-widening zipper, but the gown simply wasn’t comfortable anymore. Eva began to feel sewn in.
Eva removed the dress and the cans one night while Julia was at work, and filled another black trash bag, adding another lump to the bedroom floor.
About the Author:
Deirdre Fagan is a widow, wife, and mother of two who has published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She is a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee. Fagan is also the author to Critical Companion to Robert Frost and has published a number of critical essays on poetry, memoir, and teaching pedagogy. She is an associate professor and coordinator of creative writing at Ferris State University. Meet her at deirdrefagan.com