“Oh no, we’re fine.” I assure her, standing in the narrow hall between dressing rooms, while Alice cries loudly within the stall.
The woman looks unconvinced.
“Teenage girls and jeans.” I explain, rolling my eyes. Then I lean against the door and whisper. “Al, put your pants back on and bring everything out. We can do this another day.”
“B …bu …but I need jeans.” she wails.
“Ok, then we can do it at another store.”
The weeping downgrades to sniffles and I hear her moving around behind the door. I smile at the attendant, pacing nervously while I wait.
It was brave of us to try this in the first place, just march into the dressing room, daring anyone to try and stop us. What we hadn’t counted on when picking out the items to try on, was that Alice has shot up another couple of inches, and thinned out in the last few months, so every pair of jeans she took into the dressing room is too big, too short or doesn’t fit in the crotch. We don’t talk about Alice’s crotch much. Mostly we talk around it, a thing which must be managed for the time being, but too intimate to be discussed freely.
I am convinced that the dressing room attendant is preparing to call security when Alice finally emerges with the offending jeans balled up in her fist. I take them, fold them clumsily and set them on the table as we exit.
“Good luck” the attendant calls after us, making me instantly feel silly for my visions of being dragged kicking and screaming out of the store. As we get into the car, I realize that while I’m feeling better, Alice is not.
“I broke another nail in there.” she says, holding up her hand with three of five French-Tips missing. “I think I should tear ’em all of and just use the ones with you put on yourself with glue.”
“You want drugstore fingernails?”
“Yeah. Then I can fix them myself and if they’re bugging me I can just pop ’em off and use them again later.”
“You realize this information would have been helpful six weeks and sixty dollars ago, right?”
“Sorry” she says, with a grimace, “I didn’t know.”
“Well why don’t we go get your fingernails sorted out and then, if you’re up for it, we’ll head over to Gottschalks to take another stab at the jeans?”
“And bras,” she says, “I need another bra and you could use some perk.”
“Just sayin’,” she holds her hands up and looks me over with a raised eyebrow.
I can’t remember the last time I paid any attention to my own appearance, or anyone else did, for that matter.
“We’ll see about that.” I tell her.
She turns the stereo on and picks at her broken nail while I drive. A few blocks later, we pull into the parking lot of the drugstore nearest our house. We’ve spent an inordinate amount of time here in the last few months, wearing a path in the carpet along the makeup aisle.
Today, we grab some Press-On French Tips, a sparkly Bubble Gum lip-gloss and these cute bobby pins with little jeweled flowers. Alice chooses the longest of the checkout lines so she can chat with Shiloh, a twenty-something checkout girl who always makes that extra effort to engage Alice on all things cosmetic.
Once, when I came in alone, the girl asked after Alice and then leaned over and whispered “It’s such a treat to watch her bloom.” I love her for this unabashedly.
We leave the drugstore and head over to the nearest department store. There is a sign in the window advertising a giant Senior Day sale which goes a long way to explain the crush of elderly women scavenging the racks. We join them without as much as a sideways glance.
For Alice passing isn’t something that happens all at once, but in certain places, with certain groups of people, she blends easily enough. The most likely people to clock her these days seem to be girls her own age. Perhaps that’s not surprising. After all, teenage girls save their harshest criticisms for one another, bolstering their own fragile self-esteem by tearing down those around them. Even in these last few weeks, I’ve caught Alice making snide comments in passing about chubby girls the same size and shape as her beloved Mina.
For the most part, strangers have stopped staring except on the occasions where she’s loud, speaking in an unmodulated voice and even then, it’s impossible to guess if they’r staring because they see the remnants of her boy suit or because she’s making a scene in public. I’ve come to realize that unless they’re paying particular attention, people usually see what they expect to see. This is particularly true of the crowd of older ladies we’ve joined on the hunt for the best sale in the store today.
Alice makes it clear that our first order of business is undergarments. I grumble my way through housewares and linens, letting her lead the charge. The whole place smells of rose water and lilac powder. I have always hated shopping for bras. The women in my family have nice perky breasts and can wear all those cute little bras with their bright colors and skinny little straps. I however was “blessed” with what my mother referred to as “Aunt Dee’s bosom”, which relegates me to the wide-strapped, under-wire architecture that is more known for it’s function than it’s flirtatiousness.
Alice, clearly on the perky side of the family, has forsaken the falsies and is looking for the perfect padded A-cup. She actually manages to turn the whole event into something laughable.
“Look Mom, these come with Magic Petals over the nipples.”
“You know, we used to have to wear Band-Aids over our nipples in church choir when I was in high school.” I tell her, inspecting the Magic Petals bra, “One of the staff members would pass them out before concerts.”
And here are D-cups with extra air pockets.” She twirls the monstrosity on her finger, “Do you need extra air pockets?”
“No, but a pocket for change or a chapstick wouldn’t be so bad.”
A laugh comes from behind me and I turn to see a salesclerk folding satin panties on a display table behind me.
“My mother, she buy brassiere extra size to keep lipstick, money and identification inside.” she says, in a thick Eastern European accent, “That way no one steal her things without her notice.”
“Smart woman, your mother.”
“What can I help you find today?”
“Oh nothing, we’re just …” I begin, but Alice jumps in, ticking off the shopping list on her fingers.
“Bras, jeans and something nice for my mother who never buys herself anything nice anymore.”
“That we can do.” The sales clerk nods and smiles widely. Within minutes, she’s sorted our our undergarment issues and plucked the perfect jeans off the rack for Alice.
“Your daughter, she built like model.” she tells me and then to Alice, “All great fashion made to fit girl like you.”
I cannot tell if she is oblivious or accepting of Alice’s difference from other girls, but immediately I add her to the growing list of strangers whose kindness I can not repay.
Alice returns from a third trip to the dressing room having made her final selections, two bras, a pairs of jeans, a new sweater and a little red skirt that is halfway between her preferred hemline and mine. Alice hands the items to saleslady and then leans in towards her and whispers something I can’t hear.
“Ah yes, it’s mother’s turn.”
“No no, I’m fine.” I say, immediately self-conscious as they eyeball me conspiratorially. Despite my resistance, they’re both off in a flash, plucking garments from racks and sweeping me towards the dressing room. Alice is first, with a little black dress, a bright pink blouse with a plunging neckline and a pair of distressed, hup-hugging jeans.
“You won’t know until you try them.” she insists.
“Look kiddo, I’ve got a long waist, short legs and there is no way my tits are going to stay inside that top.”
“Just try them.” she pleads, as the shopgirl approaches a more appropriate selection.
“You built like runway model, dear. Enjoy this. But your mother shaped like woman. She need woman’s clothes.”
She holds out a green tunic and black wide-legged slacks.
“These, you try. They’re on sale and they suit you.”
I take the little black dress from Alice along with the tunic and slacks into the dressing room. I avoid my reflection while I change, only finally examining myself once I step out into the hall where Alice greets me in front of the large mirror.
“Oh you must must must buy those.” she says, “Now the dress! Try the dress.”
“When the hell am I going to need a little black dress?”
“EVERYONE needs a little black dress.” she says, “You told me so yourself.”
It’s true. I did. But I am so far from the person who used to worry about little black dresses and good haircolor and any of those things. I remember this thing my friend Kivrin said ages ago about her daughter blooming into a young woman, and how there’s this feeling akin to jealousy that surprised her, how it hit her that her own bloom was fading. And it’s a feeling I understand maybe for the first time today.
Somewhere along the way I seem to have lost my own identity, any sense I ever had of being self-possessed or attractive. And in trying to make up for fifteen years of a boy’s life, I’ve poured every bit of feminine energy I have into Alice.
I slip back into the dressing room and put on the black dress. It’s not terrible. I don’t think I look terrible in it, but I’m not so sure. I step back out into the hall with the mirror and Alice squeals. Our shopgirl pops around the corner, looks me over and nods.
“Happy mother raises happy daughter. You look happy in that dress.”
“Oh you’re good.” I laugh.
Of course, I buy the dress along with the other items, but for the rest of the evening those words haunt me. There is so much happiness that my children have missed out on because I’ve been sad, scarred by the past, drinking myself nightly into a state of numbness because being “ok” seemed like enough and being happy seemed unattainable.
As I crawl into bed beside my husband Jay, I’m still mulling this over.
“I think we need to do more happy things.” I tell him.
“You figure out what happy things are and let me know, ok?” Jay says sleepily.
He rolls towards me, molding his body to mine until we are like a pair if spoons in a drawer. Unsettled by this rearrangement, Iggy Dog gets up and digs at the blankets until we relent and let him shove down the middle between us.
I always thought that if I’d had daughters instead of sons, I would have made an effort to raise extraordinary girls – strong, self-possessed feminists, cutting their teeth on Ruth Rosen, Bell Hooks and Vandana Shiva. If I’d known then what I knew now, I could have done just that. Instead, I am struggling to raise a girl who wants more than anything to be ordinary and I am losing pieces of myself in the process.
I roll over, back to back with the greyhound and my last thoughts, of the little black dress now hanging in the closet, make me smile.