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The Tribal Knot

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Considering the Lilies


If God had wanted us to be nudists, we would have been born that way.  That’s what a woman’s voice was saying, right there on the Joe Pyne show. Thirty years later I remember her flustered reply. She had called in to register her indignation at a nudist--clothed for the camera--who had been stating his case.

***

In the long stretch between wives, my brother dated women who, in his words, could wear clothes.  Doesn’t everyone wear clothes, I wondered, failing to see that the emphasis was on wear--an active verb, something a woman’s body did to the clothes. He came dangerously close to falling in love with a secretary with whom he spent lunch hours, marveling as she modeled before the three-way mirrors of posh shops. She always left with a shopping bag full.
          How can you afford it? he asked one day. 
          She smiled wryly, as if amused at the question. He recalls that her reply struck him like a sexual betrayal: I shoplift, of course. Don’t tell me, after all this time, you haven’t known.

***

If you’re a woman who doesn’t wear clothes, you know it. There is always something amiss--off-toned stockings, a lining that grabs. You check yourself in the mirror, once, twice. Turn to the side, girdle your abdomen, rehearse a subtle smile. You think this moment will hold. Fifteen minutes into the party, the moment-before-the mirror unravels. Something is amiss, you’re not sure what.  Something is not holding.

***

In an early Woody Allen film, a poor and lovely girl sits opposite him at a table, her skin flawless as a petal. It’s their first date, and she wears a hat with a small feather. 
          Nice hat, he says. I’ve seen them around, in those big bins. 
          She shakes her head, confused. She had hoped to please him.
          Yes, I’m sure, he insists. Whole bins of them. All over the city.

***

Somewhere in this city is a woman with my body and my taste in clothes. She can afford the taste. I shadow her, snatching up her discards a season after she steps out of them. Gently worn, the proprietor calls the clothes in her shop. She tells me there is a celebrity consignment store in Beverly Hills where women pay thousands of dollars for a dress that belonged to Liz or Barbra. The woman I am shadowing is client number 68. I don’t know her name and don’t wish to, but I would know her clothes anywhere. The proprietor watches as I enter. She says she can predict which jacket I will approach, which pair of slacks. I like to imagine the phantom woman. Does she shop in my grocery store? Has she passed me in the aisles and recognized herself in this stranger wearing her clothes?

***

My friend, a stylish gay man in his late seventies, has beautiful hands and always wears a bandana at his neck. Twice a month we go to dinner. His eyes are shutters clicking on the most elegant man or woman in the restaurant. In his youth he was a fashion photographer.
          They were exquisite, he recalls of the models from the ‘forties. Simply exquisite.
          He’s arriving within the hour to pick me up. I search my closet.  Once, years ago, he complimented me: it was a plain black dress with large lapels, and I’d paid too much for it. I wore it with my favorite necklace, a loop of pearls my father had given me when I turned eighteen.
          My friend said, You should see yourself in this light, with your head turned just so.

***

We wear what we wore when we were happiest, the fashion consultant says. The boardwalk at Atlantic City is littered with the past--cigarette-leg capris on aging tanned women, lacquered bouffants under pastel nets. In upscale malls, young wives shop for pinafore-bibbed dresses that tie in the back. From birth to death, and all stations between, we are swaddled and bound. Even the Bible has a dress code. Ashes and sackcloth for mourning, white linen for angels and the newly resurrected. Rich men wear soft clothing. Job wears worms on his flesh. You can spot a virtuous woman by the purple silk, your enemy by his sheepish clothing. Promises and threats abound: I will clothe you in riches and honor. Then, in lamentation, rend and tear what covers you.

***

Here, my father would say, handing my mother some bills. Buy yourself something. You’re worth it. Splurge. My father loved beautiful clothes, and wanted a wife who loved them too. While he was stationed in Japan, he commissioned a tailor to fashion two suits for my mother.  One was blue silk, the other boiled wool the color of milk chocolate. Both were lined in maroon taffeta on which her initials were stitched in gold thread.
           My mother always took the money he offered. Hours later, she returned with skirts for her daughters, trousers for her sons, sometimes a bolt of stiff fabric from which she would sew curtains, tablecloths, house dresses.

***

We put an outfit on lay-away, my best friend wrote. It was 1963 and the news was important enough to warrant the 3000-mile mail route from the town our family had recently left. She enclosed intricate sketches of an olive-green three-piece ensemble, exclaiming over its versatility, how it would carry her through several seasons. Reading the letter, I remembered all the Saturdays I’d walked to the department store with her, visiting an item that would be released after the first or fifteenth of the month, when her widowed mother got paid. I was small then, so I didn’t notice--until many years later--how small their house was. Her mother was small, too, and worked long hours to buy the clothes her daughter coveted.

***

The day shift is ending. Three women shuffle from the mill’s gray exterior, wearing names and younger faces on plastic identification badges. Shoulder bags, weighted with the day’s needs, hang nearly to their knees. One woman has tucked stretch pants into high-heeled boots. One matches all over. The third wears a beaded belt cinched so tight that her stomach blooms beneath and above. Their efforts make me tired.  How many bins have I rummaged with these women? In dreams we tumble together in huge bargain barrels, smothered in ginghams, tweeds, tartan plaids. We dive deep, searching for logos. I have a butcher knife and I’m thinking when I find a label that matters I will slash it into shreds--This one’s for you, Pierre, and for you, Donna--but it’s too late, they've arrived ahead of us again, vandalizing their names as if ashamed to be linked with us: seconds, slightly irregular, imperfect. We crawl from the bin, grasping our prizes.

***

Laura Ashley, the comedian says.  For the woman whose goal in life is to look like wallpaper.

***

The magazine photographer lights upon some woman on the street, a school teacher this time.  She will appear in next month’s issue, beneath the heading Fashion Don’ts, her eyes x’ed out as if she’s been caught in a crime beyond belief.  The blindfold is a gift, the kindness of an executioner who cancels out the prisoner’s last view: She never knew what hit her.

***

Condemned girls, under SS guard, spent their last days ripping sleeves off coats and replacing them with sleeves of different colors. They painted the back of each coat with a red bull’s-eye for the marksman stationed above the electric fence. Some prisoners threw themselves against it. In the morning the girls tied belts around the ankles of the dead and dragged the bodies to the meadow. If a dress suited, if a pair of shoes fit, they took it.

***

If we were in the chemo ward, we would sadden or sympathize, but here in this uptown Bohemian restaurant, our young waitress is beautiful and admired, her white scalp visible, black hair bristling from each follicle. Fashion, I decide is mostly context.
         Stunning, says a middle-aged man seated with a forgettable woman at a nearby table. He can’t take his eyes off the waitress.
         Fashion also implies option, choice. The same runway frame a designer hangs dresses on, holds up the gown of the dying woman I visit each week. She sucks on ice chips, her cheekbones the kind that plump girls reading magazines would die for.

***

In the dream I am standing with my dead mother before her closet, arguing about what she should wear for eternity. I suggest the blue silk with maroon lining. She pulls out a pair of paint-speckled dungarees.
          Mother! I cry.
          I don’t see why it matters, she says. As long as it’s comfortable.

***

My friend, a middle-aged man recently divorced, tells me how simple it once seemed--how, as a young man, all he wanted was a woman who looked good in a suit. One afternoon thirty years into the marriage, his wife walked out of the dressing room wearing  a suit. He was stunned to realize he not only possessed his desire, but had possessed it all these years. In the same moment, he realized it was not enough.
          It was the saddest day of my life, he said.

***

It’s 1965, and I’m sharing a bed with my cousin the night before her wedding. She’s eight years older, petite and boyish, still a virgin.
          In the dark she says to the ceiling, I have the kind of body that only looks good naked. The tone is half lament, half expectation. For years she’s been hiding beneath her clothes a lovely secret that is about to be spoken.




• First published in Bellingham Review
• Reprinted in In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal ed. by Mary Paumier Jones and Judith Kitchen

Considering the Lilies
Other Brief and Lyric Essays