She wriggled, squirmed, just a little, but a little was too much. It started as a shimmy at her hips and twisted up through her shoulders, reminding her of the rippling way a wet dog shakes itself dry. Her eyes were closed but she could see herself all the same: her feet in white cotton socks, her solid, good-looking legs, and the dark blue dress stretched lewdly tight across her hips.
She opened her eyes. What she saw in the dressing room mirror confirmed her expectations except for one thing, the slack, drawn look on her face, jarring because it did not match the view of her face that she carried around inside her, which was freckly and kindly and had always been that way.
The next thing she knew she was reaching for the zipper, the too-tight dress pulling upward in a way that was quite appalling in the mirror, and she yanked on the zipper and it went up though she quit a few inches from the top. Why did I even do that? she wondered.
It looked like a shrunken, perverse Sunday school outfit, complete with sailor-suit trim around the collar. On the hanger it had been a conservative, navy blue linen dress, but every woman knows: the dress when it’s on the hanger is not the dress when you put it on. The tag scratched her; she scraped it free of her neck and looked at it—the price was obscenely high. Something obscene about how her hips looked, too, in that dress, and she thought how her hips, at that moment, looked the way her cousin Roberta’s hips used to look, but this was a silly, strange idea so she thought of the price of the dress again, and then the oddest memory came to her, of the rehearsal dinner for her wedding twenty years before and something Roberta had said there: he must have more money than you think, because why else would you marry a man twenty-five years older than you?
She hadn’t thought of her unkind cousin Roberta in years—unkind, always, perhaps because she had an ugly name and resented this—this is what she had thought when she was a child and Roberta was a child too, a very unkind child.
No, Roberta, you were wrong—but had she said this at the time? She couldn’t remember. The rehearsal dinner had been held at a restaurant overlooking the ocean in Maine, in a big dark stone house on an old estate. She remembered the dinner better than the wedding, not the food, but the setting (just as she remembered the site for the wedding better than the wedding itself, which was, in memory, just a blur of bodies in tuxedos and bright dresses, like a photograph taken of the scene, where the people were out of focus because they were moving, while the clean white hotel and the too-pretty village of Boothbay Harbor were frozen sharp and colorful).
She wondered what it was about the big stone house on the cliff that moved her so much more than the picture- postcard charm of Boothbay Harbor. She thought of the stone of the inn as the same stone rising out of the ocean beneath it, that dark rock with the waves crashing on it, looking so wet and black as each wave receded, but she wasn’t sure at all it was the same stone, and she couldn’t actually visualize the building, though she could sense it around her and feel the power of the waves crashing below and the mystery of the gray sea extending mistily forever. Her parents had given her this, this wildness, this roughness, the evening before her wedding, then spirited her to the protected waters of Boothbay Harbor, to that page from a picture calendar of the quaint hamlets of Maine, to be married.
Even though she was twenty-five years old at the time, her parents had insisted on paying for everything, keeping her childlike in those final moments before her marriage began to the fifty-year-old man she’d chosen.
And now she was forty-eight, and he seventy-three, and they had two kids in college, and here she was all alone in this white, high-ceilinged dressing room, down a long corridor of dressing rooms in a city department store once fashionable but now in a long decline. It was too brightly fluorescent-lit, with pins and lint across its bare tile floor and a door that banged like the door of a toilet stall.
She knew people had assumed she was marrying a father-figure. She reminded herself that she had never thought of him that way.
She thought, I did think of him as handsome and older. Who’s to say what was working in the deeper layers of my psyche and so what who cares?
She started to reach to unzip the dress, but hesitated. She’d always figured they were simply jealous—jealous of her handsome groom, jealous, even, of the chance to marry someone taboo in that way—and she shared a coy smile with herself in the mirror.
Then her face was back to business: and I always put it down to a quirk of fate, she told herself, that the man I was destined to marry was older than I was. Destined, as in absolutely destined, as in the first time she saw him she said to herself here is the man I will marry, though he was her fiancé’s uncle. She had known even as she thought it (here is the man I will marry) that the situation would cause a lot of fuss, though she had been as surprised as anybody when the ex-fiancé cut his uncle’s bicycle in half with a hacksaw. It couldn’t be helped, theirs was a fairy tale love, and in her girlish way she’d assumed that everyone would have to see this. Their love had seemed grand but it had also seemed simple, the love of a girl and a boy, though he was much more a man than a boy, and she was more a young girl than she could know at twenty-five.
The drama of the ex-fiancé and the sawed-apart bicycle had passed from personal memory into family mythology— her boys had heard the story, and that’s what it was to them, a story, an old one from another time, an unremarkable part of who they were, and she decided now that something had been lost in translation. She used to think, when they were little, how wonderful it was that they were the accident of their parents’ accidental love. She wondered whether they ever thought about that, now that they were so grown. She imagined not. They might think of it, if they ever had children of their own. She couldn’t picture herself as a grandmother—she felt much younger on the inside than that. And their father . . . That was another thing they took for granted—the age difference between their parents, it was as if it were something that simply was, that had always been, and there had never existed the possibility that things could have gone differently.
The ex-fiancé did not come to the wedding. It hadn’t bothered her at the time, but it seemed a little sad now. All that craziness was in the past—he had married, had kids of his own. She was always relieved to think of this.
She tried to remember her husband’s face, how he had looked on their wedding day, and she couldn’t, it was a blank—she could see his tux, the crispness of it, the way he held himself—he’d always had a way of looking completely
relaxed standing completely straight—and she could see his beautiful hands, although maybe this was because his hands were one part of him that had not changed. They were perhaps less firm, a little less there between the skin and the bone.
She had a better picture of herself at their wedding, but that’s what it was, a picture, because that long-ago day had become a photograph. In it, she was running down the hotel steps, her magical one-day-only dress lifting like a snowy butterfly’s wings behind her, and she was floating on the arm of her new husband, whose face was turned to her in laughter, while she faced the camera, eyes dark and wild, her mouth open, excited, wondering.
The photographer’s work had made it last forever even as it turned it into a confection, with the same sugar-white, impossible, inedible look about it that wedding cakes have. It sat on her dressing table, behind other pictures from the years since. She wondered, what did her husband remember of her? Was it, for him, the way it was for her—a grasping for memory, but coming up, only, with the things that hadn’t changed—for her, the tall and easy way he held himself, and his beautiful hands.
If she forced herself, she could picture the way he was now, as clearly as any objective observer. But it required effort—the reality did not match the idea of him she carried around inside her, just as her own face, caught by surprise in the mirror, had not matched. She thought, isn’t that strange? And she wondered if it was that way for other people, for other women when they looked at their husbands.
This was the exact opposite of how it had been with her children, who instead of persisting in outdated images were in the business of constantly replacing old ideas of themselves with new ones, so effectively that she could never remember quite how they had been before. She had realized this just a couple of years ago, when her elder son’s then girlfriend asked her what he’d been like as a baby. She had resented the question at the time, partly because she suspected the girl was not so much interested as trying to impress, and partly because she couldn’t really say. And also because she never really liked that girl. She offered that as a boy he was always outside, always so busy with his friends, never wanted to come in except for dinner, but this obviously did not satisfy the girlfriend who leaned forward waiting for more. How could she explain that as he grew, each phase obliterated the one before it?
This, she suspected, was why parents kept all those framed pictures of their children at different ages—to remind them, to help them keep from losing those certainties completely.
But wasn’t it strange that a grown mother like herself, with two grown kids, would be standing here in this overpriced ugly dress that didn’t fit, thinking about her wedding? Thinking about things like her cousin’s fat hips from twenty years ago, and the way the sea crashed on the rocks at her rehearsal dinner?
She stared at herself, steady in the mirror—the fact is he is still healthy, he is still handsome, he is still in damn good shape, and the fact is he is getting old the way everybody knew he would, he is at last getting old, and I don’t know how these two things can be true at once and yet they are.
She reached for the zipper, to get out of that dress and get out of that place, and she took a breath in, anticipating the relief of it as her fingertips grasped the little tongue of metal, and then she tugged on it, gently, but the zipper was stuck.
She paused, just a second, and tugged down again, harder, and it was still stuck.
And then, without a thought, she did the logical thing: she pulled upward on the zipper just a bit, to see if this would free it. It slid upward with liquid ease; she was careful to take it up only an inch. She relaxed her fingers, preparing to reverse direction, and in that moment before she tried again she felt a small, apprehensive tingle. She tugged. It stayed stuck.
She dropped her arms to her sides. She breathed more quickly. A flurry of thoughts ran through her head, confusing, too fast to figure: how if her husband were there he would fix it, how absurd this was since he would never be there, in a women’s dressing room, how when he was gone someday, she would have to fix stuck zippers herself, how the world was full of widows with the same problem, how, when you reach a certain age, being a widow is the norm.
Something came back she hadn’t realized she had forgotten, a small, terrible episode—their trip to the home improvement store the weekend before. It was an enormous store with endless aisles where it was impossible to find anything, and as they had stood waiting to talk to an employee who was busy talking to someone else, she’d wondered where had all the regular-sized, ordinary hardware stores gone? But looking at her husband, she saw that he was feeling good there, happy in hardware-land; he had an I-can-wait-all-day look on his face as he gazed down the long aisle of light bulbs and electrical outlets and switches and wire. She turned her attention to the salesperson, to his bright orange apron, his bright young face, his head-full of dark chaotic hair—that was the fashion now, hair that was short but looked as if it had tumbled straight from bed—and she noted the genial way he talked to the man he was helping, the way he called him “buddy” and, a moment later, “bud,” a big wide open grin on his face the whole time. Done at last, the sales clerk turned to her husband (not to her, she noticed; she was just tagging along, standing by, not a participant but a wife). The young man’s body transformed—it came over him, she thought, like some lightning-quick costume change in a play—he lost his brash, straight posture and his big grin, and his face fell serious, all patience, a bit dubious, and he made his voice too loud and nodded a lot and bent forward as if speaking to a child. Her husband just kept talking, gesturing with his hands, asking, agreeing, qualifying. And she was glad then to be standing by, to be allowed to be invisible, because she could not bear to be more a part of what she saw.
Tears were starting to her eyes—she had to concentrate on the zipper. She grasped it, prepared to ease it up a quarter of an inch—she would have to move it just a little at a time. It started to slide; it went up, slippery, easy, more and more, all in one slick movement, all the way to the top where it locked, settled, stopped cold.
Oh dear, she thought. Oh no.
It had happened so suddenly. Too fast for her to stop herself.
She pulled at the zipper, down and up and sideways, every angle she could, pulling so hard that her fingers slid off it again and again and stung where the bump on the little metal blade dug into her fingertip. In the mirror her hips spread in battle-stance over her stocking feet planted wide on the floor. No! she thought, please! Her face hardened as she watched her own struggle reflected back to her. No! she thought, no!
She caught her eye in the mirror and her face was fierce and exhausted and ugly. She stopped, blinked at her reflection. She did not try to make her face look nice. All of a sudden she needed to sit down, but there was nothing around her but four bare walls and if she sat on the floor she would split that dress. She wanted out of there, but she couldn’t go out, not dressed like that, but how could she stay? Her eyes, in the mirror, gave her back her only option, and it was horrifying—to walk out, in that dress, look for a sales girl, look and hunt and wander around, in front of all those other women milling about the store, watching her while they pretended to be interested in pawing at blouses on racks.
Look at me, she thought. I look just awful. She stared at herself, but was addressing her husband: you used to tease me how marriage to me would keep you young, and I used to tease you back, how maybe it would make me old instead. And now look. Look at me.
She reached again for the zipper, because there was nothing else to do, and it was still stuck, which did not surprise her. She indulged an image of her husband’s hands—his beautiful, strong hands at her neck, grasping the errant zipper, working it free. She could see the gentle way they moved, see the thin skin, the blue veins, the bony knuckles she could picture kissing.
Oh, sweetheart, she thought, look at us, look at the two of us.
Her eyes stung again but she stopped herself, stopped any tears before they came. She thought, I must do it, I must ask him, what does he remember of me from long, long ago? Only the unchanging things? Yes, I’ll ask him, what do you remember?
She would tell him what she remembered. She would tell him how it was, how if she closed her eyes—like this— she could be back at the inn above the sea, the horizon lost in mist as she stared into it, into her future. The waves rolled in on the black rocks, crashing there into white froth and into spray that drifted upward, reaching her lips with its salt.
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Piranhas & Quicksand & Love by Sally Shivnan
Photo: Bruce Christianson on Unsplash
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