THE PLAID DRESS
(This short story appeared in The Griffin, 2006, and CWC Pen Review, an online anthology, 2006.)
After a four-year rift, Tillie had had her daughter for one brief hour, and now she was gone. The sound of the door slamming reverberated in her body and jangled her nerves. Trembling, she leaned against the doorjamb of the open coat closet for support.
No, Tillie had decided. Well, she didn’t even need to decide. She was not going to go into a nursing home, even one that had a large Jewish population. That was ridiculous. She was only sixty-three. She loved her cozy, little Upper East Side apartment, where she had lived the last five years of her horrendous marriage to Phillip and all the twenty-five since. She wasn’t a dodo. She’d seen it on TV, people left to drool, people wandering around with their backsides exposed, the whole indignity of it, as if having Alzheimer’s wasn’t bad enough. And, besides, who did Laurel think she was, marching in after four years of silence, not a phone call, not a peep, and suggesting such a thing?
Not to mention that she cleaned and cooked. She did the shopping. She was doing just fine.
Tillie had been banking on an agreeable reunion with her daughter and only child. She could count on one hand the number of occasions she had seen her daughter since the day she had left home for college. After this last, long period of estrangement and all they had missed out on over the years—the birthdays, the High Holidays, Thanksgivings, and Chanukahs—well, maybe, at this stage of things, she had hoped, the two of them together could let bygones be bygones. She’d even taken out her “Elizabeth Rose” Queen’s English fine bone china and gone clear across the park to Zabar’s for Erica’s apricot and raspberry rugelach. Not that she minded. She had been delighted to do for her daughter.
But the way she had stormed out. That was some temper Laurel had cultivated. Certainly she wasn’t trained that way. What was it about? It wasn’t about the nursing home. Laurel had more or less accepted her refusal.
Maybe her art? Laurel had been sensitive all out of proportion about that one. Way back when she was choosing a college. She certainly had the brains to have gone to Vassar or Wellesley and would have, except for the fact that all through high school she spent too much time painting and didn’t make the academic grades. Maybe Laurel still held it against her that she refused to pay for the one place to which she had secretly applied and gotten admitted, an art school of some sort. Well, a girl needs a regular, solid, liberal arts education. Even though she herself had never had one, she knew at least that much. What boy was going to want her daughter in overalls all spattered with paint? And, anyway, that was ages ago.
Laurel had looked so ugly when she left. Her eyes glowered and her face tightened up until it looked shriveled, as though she had absolutely reached her limit. And she wasn’t an ugly girl. She was quite striking, with her mass of black curls rising above a widow’s peak and her creamy olive complexion. The one, bold, white stripe, though—that she should dye to blend in. There was no excuse in middle age. What was she now? Going on forty-two? Forty-three?
Otherwise, she was still quite lovely in a way that was hard to put a finger on. She had that something—a composed defiance, an attractive nobility, and a complete lack of self-consciousness about her exotic looks. A true example of beauty coming from within, because, God knows, the clothes—that baggy black look—were beyond hideous. Even a little mannish.
Which reminded her. Maybe the big hullabaloo was about…oh, she didn’t like the word gay, because what was so gay about being that way? And lesbian gave her the willies. Now, all girls do have a little leaning, she knew, and some even give it a bit of a whirl, true. But, honestly, wasn’t it time to give up and settle down with a nice Jewish boy? There were still some lonely ones around. She saw them at Saul’s. They ate Reuben sandwiches.
Tillie stood straighter, though she still leaned against the doorjamb. Once a tremble started up, it could take a long time to calm down.
Anyway, she didn’t think they’d talked about either of those topics. But, then again, she couldn’t be sure. And not being sure scared her. The thought that her uncertainty was not due to normal forgetfulness but to her disease, which was going in one direction and one direction only, started her heart beating hard enough that for a moment she became aware of it, her heart, as a real organ she carried around inside her. And when she realized she was aware of being alive, right then and there, that scared her even more. Why had she been singled out for this disease? A regular, lonely old woman, who could keep her problems within the confines of her apartment, was one thing. She was ready for that. Or as ready as anyone could be. But a woman without her marbles?
What would happen when the day came that she would truly need her daughter? Even though they had been so distant, Laurel would be there for her when the chips were down, wouldn’t she?
Maybe Laurel had had a shock reaction to the news. After all, the last time they’d seen each other four years ago was long before the diagnosis. It was a shame—and it made her piping mad—that Laurel had to hear it from Marion, who had absolutely no business, even if she were her best friend.
At her feet lay a scarf. Tillie picked it up. Tan, African, geometric stick figures on a black background. A kind of ethnic that was passé. A rough cotton, inferior quality. Laurel really should have better. She hung it on a hook just inside the coat closet and caressed it down its length, where there was a spot of red. Lipstick? She held it up to the light.
Maybe Laurel would come back. Never say never.
No, not lipstick. Too much to hope for. It was paint, for heaven’s sake.
Then Tillie forgot why she was there. Sometimes she stood in front of the sink like this and struggled, until she could say into the mirror, “You are here because you want a glass of water.” But this time, she had no unease about her forgetfulness. She stood before the coats in a timeless moment, as though it was utterly right to do so.
Tillie scanned the closet. Her eye stopped at each coat, as if each were a float in a parade. The black, brushed wool, double-breasted with black buttons, was her everyday winter coat. Next to it was a tan London Fog, a trench coat with epaulets and a wide belt. The one after that was her white shearling, for the coldest weather. Then, a knee-length, hot pink, springtime, light wool. For the country or knocking about on errands, a khaki poplin, flannel-lined. Further down the pole hung a dark brown suede with faux fur cuffs and lined hood, belted at the waist and flared below, cute, she thought, over tight slacks or leggings. After that, a navy pea coat.
She recalled the little flurry each one had set in motion because, after all, a coat was not a minor purchase, to be used up and discarded like a worn slip, pilled sweater, or permanently stained silk blouse. A coat would last, a durable possession, part of what defined her outer image in the world, which would be evaluated everywhere—by storekeepers, taxi-drivers, pedestrians, policemen, street vendors, elevator operators, waiters, and ushers.
The closet pole extended away from the light into a dark realm, where a canvas storage bag hung. Light aluminum poles inside the bag provided structure so that the bag had the shape of a smaller closet within the larger one. Inside were the stitched together pelts of forty minks, “the queen” of her coats. It had been the most important wardrobe purchase of her life, both exhilarating, for she had wanted a fur forever, and disappointing, because it had been one of the rare occasions when she had not prevailed.
Phillip had flatly refused the floor-length sable, amber in color and almost liquid to the touch. It was a fur for which the phrase “to die for” had been invented. “Don’t make me laugh,” he said when he saw the price tag. “Hey, I own a construction company, not Fort Knox.” She tried everything to persuade him: one week a knock-down-drag-out contest of wills, the next a simulated love affair, staged with a small fortune’s worth of luxurious lingerie. But he wouldn’t budge.
She unzipped the bag, mentally cursing Phillip and wondering what kind of shape the mink was in because she had stopped paying for a cold storage vault when she retired from Barney’s. She lifted it out from inside its canvas cover and hung it on a hook towards the front of the closet under the light, where she usually examined her coats for spots, dandruff, or a button that might be hanging by a thread. The natural mahogany hairs (Finnish, according to Jacques at Rappiere’s) glittered under the light. The uncommon design featured a swing cut, with the pelts blocked out on the horizontal. Oh, she had loved how it flared out when she took a turn. Maybe she should wear it again. Why not? There were few pleasures to equal its snug splendor and too few pleasures altogether remaining. She could not help remembering the first day she had worn it.
For the whole week before Rosh Hashanah, she had tried on the mink inside the house at least once a day. On each outing she mentally calibrated the degree of nippiness in the air. Thankfully, there had been enough of a drop in temperature so wearing it would not look forced.
She had figured the optimum time of arrival at the synagogue. If they got to the evening service too late, there would not be time to mill around and be seen. If they got there too early, she would be obliged to take it off, and no one would see the mink at all. So she delayed a little, closing herself in her dressing room with Laurel, blotting her lipstick and adding a layer, calling through the door that she would be right there, until Phillip got fed up badgering her and went downstairs.
Laurel was fourteen. It was her first evening adult service. Why on earth Laurel had wanted a plaid dress, she never knew. She had to steer her away from it, because she had a mental vision of her first night out in her mink. And the plaid, with it’s red and yellow stripes, was simply too bright. It might distract. She was not going to risk greetings that were filled with “Oh, Laurel, don’t you look so pretty?” So she chose a brown velveteen dress for her daughter, and buying that dress was not an easy feat. When Laurel had her heart set…well, yes, she had always been stubborn, impossible. Even when presented with matching, brown, patent leather shoes, which were a real find, she remained unmoved.
When the High Holiday eve arrived, Laurel was predictably despondent. They looked in the dressing room mirror together.
“You look like a doll.”
Tillie hoped to cheer her. She knew her voice was a little flat. That was because she could not help noticing that her daughter’s nose was getting too long and broad. It was the beginning of her worry about her daughter’s marriage potential.
“I liked the plaid better, the red and yellow stripes.”
Laurel pushed out her lower lip, maddeningly, like a little child.
“Oh, no you didn’t, dear. It was all too ordinary. This is much classier.”
She pulled out the collar where it had gotten tucked in, while Laurel struggled against her.
By the time Tillie and Laurel got downstairs, Phillip was already in his topcoat and hat. He helped Laurel into her coat and Tillie into the mink, puffing up with pride as he did so. He planted a reserved and proper kiss on her cheek, not entirely lacking in affection. A rare moment of family accord fluttered about them.
Somewhat later than she had wished, which she attributed to Laurel’s acting up, Tillie stopped just inside the back doors of the magnificent sanctuary, giving the scene a once-over. Six-foot high flower arrangements, every blossom another shade of white, dressed up the richly carpeted bimah. The sweeping, semi-circular rows of navy-blue velvet seats were almost full. Beside herself with excitement, Tillie hoisted the collar on one side of her coat. It was important to walk casually. She pulled herself erect, smiled her biggest smile, tilted up her chin, and started down the aisle, as if it were a fashion show runway and she the model of the day.
“It’s gor-geous!” Beth Cohen exclaimed.
Beth was one of her mah-jongg partners, who would have given her eyeteeth for a mink. The response was exactly the one Tillie had hoped to elicit, but she did not like being quite so close to it. The air kiss she blew to Beth skidded in the oil of her red lips.
She moved toward Madeline Weissman, who was standing midway down the aisle, Maddie with her elegant apartment, five children in private schools, and the last word on all matters of taste. Tillie had been on her cardiac intensive care fundraising committee, but then, after the group picture got published in the society column, the work was never at a convenient time, conflicting with her mah-jongg or regular beauty parlor appointments, slots which she simply could not risk losing.
Maddie, sporting a sable, was talking to Judith Light, who was draped in a full-length lynx. There was a time when the only thing Tillie would have been able to say was that the women were wearing fur coats. But now she knew the type, the quality, and the value of each.
When she was close enough to become a part of their circle, Tillie greeted them.
“L’ Shana Tova, Maddie, Judith.”
She waited for a sign to join. Judith only fluttered her fingers in her direction and remarked in passing, “cute coat.” And Maddie nodded coolly.
By the time she was seated, and the rabbi, in his white robes and blue-fringed tallis, was opening the service, the elation of arrival had given way to the anxiety of comparison. While she was now definitely in the category of the women who wore fur instead of cloth, she was, without doubt, at the very bottom of that category. Most of the other women, whose husbands were doctors, lawyers, or financiers, wore furs of such splendor as to make hers barely qualify as a fur at all. The worst part was that none of them took any more note of her than they had before. No one had been impolite, but the coat had barely registered. With the cantor’s tenor riding the waves of the first prayers, her moment of arrival, which was to have been gloriously attended, was over.
She unbuttoned the coat. She felt alternately a little shabby, a little ostentatious, according to whom she referenced herself. Laurel had scooted close to her father and was bent over the prayer book the two were sharing. Tillie could only see the back of her daughter’s head. She fumbled to get on the right page.
The rabbi read some words about celebrating the New Year, reminding the congregation of the joy of the season. Hers had fizzled too quickly. Try as she might, only the scent of “Joy,” too much and too cloying, clung, masking, inside the coat, inside her heart, a stone cold emptiness, still there when the closing prayers were uttered—still there as she now stood in her closet before the hanging mink, immersed in memory.
How could she remember this event so vividly, when she couldn’t recall what had happened in the hour before? She touched the lustrous fur, glinting with rich chocolate brown lights, squeezed it for the promise of plump warmth and lost glamour. The image of her daughter turned emphatically away from her held fast. A twinge of shame pinched through her fingers. She was not so sure that she wanted to wear it again.
The fur felt cool, un-giving. It was strange that Phillip was long gone, but the coat still hung. Where was the feeling of safety it used to give her? And safe from what? Phillip had done rather well. And after he left her, did she not get a good job at Barney’s? She could be in the Madison Avenue location right now if she hadn’t decided to retire, though she had to admit serious doubts about her ability to learn her way around the new emporium. But the point was, that in all her years, contrary to how she felt living through them, she had never actually been in dire financial straits or remotely in danger of falling into them.
Well, in her years with Phillip anyway. Before that it was different, in the early days when her father would return with nothing to show for his effort to sell his wares in the remote upstate town, where he had been the first Jew people there had ever seen; and for the fourth night in a row her mother would serve cabbage soup, push back the damp curls clinging to her forehead, shake her spoon in the air, at no one in particular, maybe at her God, and then say, “It’s only a stone’s throw out that door to the street.” What could Tillie do but sit at the table with her feet swinging above the floor? So some terror had always stalked her, as though the way things were could suddenly reverse at any moment.
She compressed the fur in her palm. The thick layers of hide and hair seemed to release questions. But why had the coat become some kind of hedge against the worst disaster? Why had she been afraid of becoming someone? She could have, couldn’t she? Who would she have been if she had it to do all over again? Nothing came to the surface. She had no idea, only that she had wound her heart and soul around getting a fur coat, becoming perfect in a way that would end in world travel, glamorous yacht parties with the people who matter, a bevy of curly-haired grandchildren, and furs, more furs. An airless odor exuded from the bag.
Well, here it was, the mink, her cloak of hope and vanity. And when she was gone, it would still hang. She could not imagine how she could be less enduring than a coat. An un-nameable dread took shape deep in the pit of her belly and threatened to suffocate her from within. She felt dizzy and reached out again for the support of the doorjamb. She held there until the nauseous feeling passed. The sight of Laurel’s scarf, hanging on the hook, brought her back to the present day with its own turbulence. What had happened?
Laurel had visited. She had raised her voice, worked herself into a state, and marched out. That was all she remembered. What had it been about? Why was Laurel always so…?
Old explanations fizzled as they formed. The urge to blame or dismiss her daughter drained out of her body, like sludge flushed to the sewer. There was only Laurel’s fury, and now something new. Her own hurt.
She stared at the scarf. What if Laurel never returned? After all, she herself had eloped, abandoning her mother to a man whose fists seemed to have a life of their own, especially after the war when the radio broadcast news from Europe of unspeakable horrors and he turned to drinking. Fifty years now since she had walked out and never looked back. So how could she assume that Laurel would return? No, not with their history. Never-say-never rang hollow in her mind.
Clear as a cowbell, as her own mother used to say, Tillie understood one thing she would have done differently. The dress. She could see it, in her mind’s eye, as it might have been—Laurel, a little awkward, too unformed to yet be striking, but growing distinctive and lovely with her glossy, dark curls and gleaming, brown eyes, decked out in the plaid, a Carnegie with bright red and yellow cross-stripes, twirling and smiling, popping up and down, possibly even squealing, tickled to death and thoroughly thrilled in only the way a teenage girl could be.
Why? The questioned stabbed her. Why had she deprived herself of her daughter, her only child, that way? She winced and contracted against the answer, which was coming of its own accord—it was because she had sought a kind of belonging in the world. Tears broke and the streaming from her eyes was a sure knowing—the life she had had was counterfeit and in making it she had sacrificed ever really belonging to her daughter.
Yes, if she had it to do over, she would have bought that plaid dress for Laurel. She was sure of it, and her certainty caused her heart to ache so badly that she actually prayed, for the first time since the diagnosis, for forgetfulness to come and take hold of her, obliterate the pain of what could not be re-done.
Her daughter. Her Laurel. There was something about her this time that was so…so final.
It made her afraid about being not just alone, though that was terrifying enough, but also left alone, deserted, by a daughter who must have some powerful reason to hang onto her grudges. It was no longer sufficient only to lay her eyes on her, after waiting forever for her daughter to make a brief appearance. Now she wanted to know, why, really, was Laurel so angry? What was it she had done? Whatever it was, she hadn’t meant to. Maybe she could apologize.
She was, after all, willing.
Was she, really? she asked herself.
Tillie let out a huge sigh.
Yes, she was, and it struck her how many years it had taken her to become so, to acknowledge that there might be anything for which she needed to ask forgiveness. And, too, she had to admit; she was simply exhausted from a lifetime of thinking there couldn’t possibly be.
She smoothed the scarf, the way she used to do her daughter’s hair before braiding it. The spot of red felt brittle between her fingers. What kind of pictures did her daughter paint, anyway?
An idea popped up. She would go visit Laurel. And listen. She needed to know what she already knew, but in a different way, the bald facts of who she had been to her daughter and how exactly she had eroded her trust. She knew she could not do any of it all over again, but at least she might find where and when she had let go precious bits of herself and maybe retrieve a brief glimpse of who she might have been, even though, at best, that would only become another piece of her mind to lose.
It would mean going to the Lower East Side, which was second only to Harlem as a section of town into which she had never before considered setting foot. And even now, she shuddered to think how she would fare in a part of town where the streets were not numbered. But if she didn’t go, it could be another string of years. And who knew if her brain would hold tight that long?
She would have the stain removed though it was a long shot it would come out. With the scarf in hand, on Laurel’s doorstep, she would have a ready reason for showing up.
She lifted the scarf from the hook, closed the closet, then folded the scarf and laid it on the credenza right there in the vestibule, so she would remember. With the pen and notepad next to the phone, she wrote: Important—Laurel’s scarf. Then, although she knew she was not anywhere near so far gone, but as a hedge against a precipitous decline, she added, your daughter. She placed it next to the scarf, which she smoothed with both hands, while toying with the possibility that her mother might still be alive and wondering whether it wasn’t true, or she was just being a Pollyanna, that a mother and daughter could always make up.