Thursday, July 7, 2011

The New Dress (my first attempt at a short story)

Disclaimer, dear friends: I've never really written a short story before. But Preston, who blogs over at See Preston Blog inspired me with his Monday short stories to give it a try. Enjoy going on this writing adventure with me... (and we can see where the road takes us). Love, Hilary

The clock ticked its way towards 8:45, and Emma finished getting dressed quickly, grabbing earrings and splattering perfume on her wrists. She swept her hair off her neck, secured it with a rubber band and began to close the door, standing on her tiptoes as she peered back at the small apartment. The sun speckled the walls with the blue from her dress, and for a moment, she exhaled. The day wouldn’t be too long. There wouldn’t be too many files to pull together for the judge, who would be going on vacation on Friday. She walked out the door and listened until she heard the lock click.

It had been the first fight since the one at the funeral home three months ago, and worse. It had begun on the phone, and Noelle had promised she wanted to talk, not argue. “I don’t want an argument, Emma,” were the words, repeated at regular intervals, as if she was a metronome keeping time to the dip and soar of the conversation. I don’t want an argument, Emma. Now, let’s not get worked up over this. You don’t need to get emotional. Just think this through. As if Emma could get worked up anymore. For Emma, the world drizzled and shuddered. The pieces of her life had collapsed gently, almost apologetically, this last year.

The job had been a transfer, they told her last year, to the office where they might be able to benefit from her New York experience. And it would have benefits – lots of them, frequent trips back to the city if she needed, moving expenses paid, all of it. When they gave her the news in the break room, someone clapped, a heavy, thudding clap that died almost instantly. Everyone else looked up at Emma, and back at their mugs of swirling coffee, and rushed off to the next timed phone call. A legal assistant is a legal assistant, you know Emma, Michael had said as his thick knuckles grazed her shoulder jovially, whether they were outside Raleigh or inside Manhattan.

The breakup had really been a parting of ways, a mutual decision between friends over tears and wine and uneaten goodbye cheesecake in a battered box. Three weeks before she drove away from New York, and Peter made it quick and clean. He swept the mess of her heart into neat phrases: I just don’t see it working long distance, and you are lovely, Emma, and you’ll do amazing things, I promise. I don't deserve you, he said, with his triumphant smile (the one he wore when playing tennis) blazing briefly across his otherwise calm face. She had nodded then, sealing her mouth shut. A kiss on the cheek and the clatter of the fork back onto the mosaic table, and he was ghost. He left his books behind, and sent for them by bike messenger the next morning.

And the funeral had been an expectation, a passing of life to death, her father finally peaceful after eighty-eight years. They had gathered at the family home upstate, and held the service at the local funeral parlor. Emma and her brother, their mother, a few friendly and sympathetic neighbors, women from the church with their customary casseroles had called on them, and after a few days of wandering the caverns of her former home, smelling the books and not eating, she had driven back to her new home, some of her father’s clothes in the backseat. They had filled the car with the smell of wood chips and fertilizer, and she had cried silently for the hours of mile markers and truck exhaust.

That was three months ago, and she and Noelle hadn’t fought since, until this weekend. The fight had insisted on happening that weekend, when Emma called her brother. He worried, she knew, that she was lonely, or into trouble. She never quite knew what he worried she was doing outside Raleigh, but she never asked him. She just called, every Saturday, for the last three months. They leaned on each other’s habits like two old trees whose branches melt together after many years. After their father had died, they leaned a bit harder, and when Emma had moved to the South her brother insisted she call every weekend.

But he hadn’t been home, and Noelle had picked up the phone. Noelle and Brian had been married almost seven years now, and the fight began as every fight ever had with Emma. About dating. Noelle always knew a guy – from the grocery store, from the church Sunday School picnic, from the friend of a friend at Brian’s office downtown. “Move up here, Emma” it always began. “Don’t you want to be settled? Don’t you WANT a family?”

And Emma hardly ever responded. She shut off her voice, turned on a tape recorder of murmurs, and waited for the inevitable trailing off… “Emma, I only say this because I care about you.” At the cue, she would thank Noelle, and tell her that she’d think about, really, she would, and could she tell Brian Emma had called?

But Saturday night she had listened, really listened, for the first time, to what Noelle said. There were the usual questions, and she had begun to repeat her small syllables of “yes,” and “maybe” when she heard it. The same stinging words from the funeral home, the ones that scorched and twisted her insides like pipe cleaners, had surfaced twenty minutes in. Noelle, who was always worked up by Emma's silence, suddenly blazed. “Emma, why do you think Peter left?!” The longest pause. Noelle heard it, but she couldn’t stop herself. “You just won’t SAY anything! You’re so quiet! Don't you EVER say ANYTHING? Are you too GOOD for this? ALL we want for you is to be HAPPY! ALL we want for you is to find SOMEONE! WHY is that SO hard?!”

And Emma had erupted, brief and wild, like a sudden thunderstorm across the Carolina sky. One moment, there would be quiet blue, and the next, a roar that ripped the clouds and rain that pounded the windows until you couldn’t see through the sheets and sheets of rain. She screamed from her lungs, her hair, the gaping pit in the bottom of her stomach, the only sentence she could piece together. “HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT TO ME? HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT TO ME?"

The storm faded as quickly as it had come. Emma's hands shook as she cradled the phone to her ear, sitting on the edge of her white quilt. The flare was enough for Noelle, who surged ahead, reminding Emma to be rational and pull herself together, and that Brian and she wanted nothing but the best, the best, and shouldn’t she just come back up north? Wasn’t it time to stop thinking there was a life for her in North Carolina, and stop wasting her time with no prospects? Another twenty minutes, they hushed into the same routine. Emma asked Noelle to tell Brian she had called, and Noelle reminded her that they cared about her. And the phones had clicked off, and Emma had watched lightning bugs blink outside her window until she couldn’t stay awake.

So that Monday, she wandered through the routine of her dusty, collapsed life. She browsed the same section of the same Macy’s, the one off of the boulevard, and Jenny, the head salesperson in Dresses had been working the register. “Hi, Emma,” were the only words ever spoken and then Emma was left in peace. She only ever came to Dresses after a fight, and she never bought anything. She hadn’t bought a dress since moving, except the heavy black of the funeral, when she had gone wandering from store to store in New York, trying everything on twice or three times, just to be sure it looked right, asking opinions, sending blurry pictures to her sister-in-law and her friends.

After the funeral, she hadn’t bought a dress. She just went to run her hands through the stacks of silk and hold hangers up against her collarbone. Occasionally, when no one was looking, she put the hanger around her neck, and swung the dress from side to side in the long, slimming mirror, watching her calf muscles twitch from their years of ballet, and her smile widen as she forgot where she was and who she was.

So Jenny was surprised when Emma approached the register that Monday afternoon. Surprised, Jenny smiled when Emma brought it cradled in her arms to the register, and the shy voice (how many times had Jenny imagined what it sounded like?) echoing, “Can I try this one, do you think?” had surprised Emma herself.

Jenny took her back to the dressing room. It was all lines and corners, the carpet stiff from the twice daily vacuuming, sharp looking edges between stalls and a row of uncomfortable looking chairs outside each small curtained cubicle. Emma looked around, suddenly anxious. The dress felt heavy in her arms, and as she looked at it, it seemed too beautiful for her to wear. She tried to give it back to Jenny.

“I’ve changed my mind,” she almost whispered. “I… can’t try it on. I should really get back to work. My lunch hour is almost over.” But Jenny was firm.

“Emma, you have to try it on. It’s a perfect color for you. It’ll bring out those eyes of yours!” Jenny’s hand pushed her towards the closest dressing room. The red curtain swished back and Emma found herself looking into her own face.

It was a stranger.

“I really can’t. I really, really can’t. I can’t try it on.” She pushed against Jenny’s arms and, dropping the dress to the ground, backed out of the cubicle and sat down in one of the strangely shaped dressing room chairs. She sighed, staring at her feet as she moved them closer together and then farther apart, a small dance isolated in a corner of her body. Jenny waited. Emma reached down and picked the dress up off the ground.

“I can’t. I just…” The words tangled in her throat. Why was she trying to buy the dress? She didn’t buy dresses. She didn’t wear blue. She had goosebumps running up and down her legs as she sat in the chair, passing the dress between her fingers. It was a heady light blue, a full skirt that would fall just above her knees. The blue skirt gathered in a fan of pleats just above her belly button, and the top half of the dress was lace – three quarter length sleeves, a boat neck with just the hint of a ruffle. She’d never seen anything so beautiful. She held it in her hands, hearing it crinkle, reading the lace like Braille, retracing the stitches. She closed her eyes, remembering all the lace she had boxed up after the funeral, the lace that had once spilled out of her closet in New York, the dress from the first date with Peter (had it been blue, too?). She remembered lace. She remembered dresses. Jenny shifted her weight to her other hip, peering at Emma from behind heavy emerald eyeshadow.

“Honey?” Jenny paused. There was a low murmur of a customer or two browsing in the section and she could make out the sounds of dropped hangers and a grunt as someone shoved a dress back onto the sales rack. Jenny reached down and put one hand on Emma’s shoulder. Emma jerked away, looking up at the saleswoman, disbelief etched on her face. “Honey, why don’t you just sit tight, and I’ll be back to check on you in a few minutes? Could you do that?” Emma barely nodded. Jenny walked out of the room, glancing back the huddled figure in the chair.

Emma closed her eyes. What was she doing? She stood up to leave, and the dress unfolded from her lap. She held it out with both hands. The blue flashed in the three-way mirror at the end of the room and she walked toward it, holding the dress against her body. She looked at the dress just above her knees, followed its curves up and then looked at her face again. Her brown hair swung slightly from the air conditioner’s breeze, and her eyes flashed the same color of the dress. She pressed her feet into the carpet. Her shoulders shrugged toward the ground. The hanger fell to the ground by her feet, and before she could change her mind she slid the dress over her head, closing her eyes tightly. It won’t fit, she thought. It can’t fit. She hadn’t looked at its size or make, and she hadn’t worn a new dress since March. It won’t fit, she whispered. The dress settled around her waist and she exhaled again.

Someone gasped behind her. Emma swung around, her eyes opening wide to see Jenny, her measuring tape dragging across the floor behind her as she bounded towards Emma. “Oh, Emma!” Her words clattered to the floor. Jenny looked at her, eyes wide. Emma blinked at her and took a step back. She felt the cool mirror on either side of her.

“Oh, Emma! You look beautiful!” Jenny smiled, and bent down to pick up her measuring tape. “Why don’t you take a look? It fits you perfectly.”

“It… fits me?” Emma released the question. “Really? Are you sure?”

“Yes, yes.” Jenny looked surprised. “Haven’t you looked?” Another small silence, and Emma looked at her bare feet. She shook her head.

Jenny smiled again, so gently, and took Emma’s hands in her large warm ones. “Emma,” she looked at Emma’s face. “Turn around. Take a look.” When Emma did not move, Jenny took her hands and guided her around, towards the mirror. Emma closed her eyes again. “Take a look at yourself.” Emma's mind whirled with what she would see: herself in a blue and lace dress, her own strange familiar face, and the remnants of the fights and its questions. She would see the boxes of lace dresses in her closet, the funeral home, Peter's retreating figure out of her door, the silence of the break room. She would see all the fervent casserole ladies praying that she would come up north and marry someone. She would see all their disappointment. 

Emma opened her eyes. 

"You look beautiful." Jenny smiled again and backed away from the mirror. Emma blinked. She twisted this way and that, checking for flaws, for a broken zipper or a ripped hem. She walked away from the mirror, then back towards it. 

"You look beautiful," she whispered. 


  1. This is gorgeous, Hilary. I loved it.

    (I've never commented before, but I read your blog often.)

  2. Thank you so much, Amanda. It means more than I can express to hear that. I was so nervous about putting this up at all, since I'd never tried a story before. But thank you. I'm so glad to meet you here!


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