By ROWAN BEAIRD
In all the early photos of my life, you are wearing a long skirt. It is pleated, with an elastic waistband, patterned with purple and red Japanese flowers. I imagine you purchased it from one of the consignment stores in Lincoln Square, their window displays nothing more than dresses and shirts hung on latticed wood wound with fake ivy. I imagine you kept wearing it because the polyester didn’t need to be dry-cleaned and you preferred not to shave your legs.
Outside, on my grandparents’ back lawn, which rolled off into an alleyway, I would crawl between your ankles. I did not want to be near the dog, or my cousins with their large chins and black eyes. My father would tell me to run through the sprinkler, or to play with the peeling block puzzle that had been scattered across the grass, the same one he had played with as a child. But I wanted to be inside, on the quiet, humming floor of our kitchen, so I tried instead to hide beneath your skirt.
Every time I did this, pulling at the hem so that it hid my bottom and feet, you would step around me, pulling the fabric from my fingers. “You’re going to stain it if you don’t wash your hands,” you’d say, crouched beside me, wiping them with a dry paper napkin. You would look to see if my aunts and uncles were watching and then, leaning close, spit into my hands, your breath warm against my small, oily palms. You’d then pat them clean and stand up, re-tucking your T-shirt before crossing the lawn to watch my father play badminton. I’d be left alone on the grass, the sunlight tipping over the house’s roof so that everyone looked bleached and golden, already a memory.
Here is where I first learned you cared about clothing.
The year you began working at the chiropractor’s office, you came home one Sunday with a beaver skin coat. You came in from the snow wearing it, stomping your shoes on the matted rug by the back door, hanging it up as if you had never worn another thing. I was sitting at the kitchen table, eating dry pasta and drawing centaurs and minotaurs as my father made dinner.
“What trading post did you buy that from?” he asked, crushing tomatoes against the sides of a pot. You looked at him sideways, stripping the wool socks from your feet.
You sat next to me at the table, stealing a colored pencil and shading my minotaur’s horns in a perfect, even blue. You explained that the coat had been deeply discounted at the local department store, and that when you put it on, you felt a warmth envelop your stomach like honey. You liked how the fur bristled against your neck, how the hairs changed color in different light. I watched how you moved the pencil against the paper, matching the quick jerks of your fingers.
My father didn’t argue—he never had the stamina—but I felt a prickling embarrassment whenever you wore the coat. It went slightly too far past your ankles and wrists, and was so dense its shoulders touched your earlobes. I began to walk behind you at the grocery store, the distance of one or two carts, enough so that no one would immediately identify me as yours.
When the cold was particularly bitter, you’d tie a scarf around your head, knotting it below your left ear. You’d pull strands of your hair loose, the blond peeking out from the dark wool. When I protested, believing the scarf made you look even more ridiculous, you’d say, “It’s in our blood. If we were back in Russia, everyone would look like this.” You’d claim heritages based on what country sounded most appealing at the moment: France when attempting to roast a chicken, Turkey when passing the rosy pink mosque on Adams. My father would mutter that we were nothing more than mutts, so interbred with other countries that we were from nowhere but the dirt under our home.
You are from Nevada, from a town we visited once when I was very young, before your parents passed. My only memories of it are placing my hand in a basket of hot, shimmering tortilla chips, and watching several cats sleep at the lip of a driveway. Some days, I wonder if you’ve gone back there, if that’s where you’re really calling from.
Then there was the orange dress, all chiffon, with a low, draped neckline that showed the freckling on your chest. You found it on one of the trips you’d taken alone to the department store, never liking to shop with others, even though I often asked you to take me. It cost more than our television, more than three months’ electricity, totals I heard my father tally in an exhausted voice as I lay in my bed. “I’ll wear it for so long, it’ll save us money,” you said.
You wore it to weddings and graduation ceremonies, christenings and holiday parties. I remember thinking it looked expensive, with its gold zipper as thin as a thread, but in photos it is not particularly remarkable. You don’t look much different from the other women you would critique as they passed, whispering that they looked sloppy or cheap, picking apart bulky jewelry and fluorescent rayon. I would nod studiously, as if being taught theorems, the cold addition of negatives and negatives, not wishing to embarrass you by making the same mistakes.
The summer I crashed the car into the fence post, we went to the wedding of my second cousin. You had slept on the couch the night before, and my father hadn’t eaten breakfast. You wore no makeup, the orange of the dress making you look particularly ashen.
The reception was in the backyard of the groom’s parents, a half acre with yellow bows tied around its elm trees, aluminum trays of baked pasta and chicken cutlets laid out on picnic tables. I watched you from behind the screen door to the kitchen, sweat darkening the chiffon above your stomach. You were speaking to my uncle, gesturing wildly towards my father with your plastic wine glass. You had each taken a bottle from one of the coolers on the deck, and were quickly filling and refilling each other’s glasses. When you finished your last drink, my uncle set it down on the grass and led you to the dance floor, tiles of fake wood that had been placed on the lawn.
An old soul song played from speakers mounted on a folding chair, one of my baby cousins crawling by its legs. You shuffled back and forth wildly, crashing into other couples and laughing, always several seconds off beat. You spun and your dress flew up like a flame, exposing your thighs and black, high-waisted underwear. Most pretended to enjoy the spectacle, my great aunts clapping from their table near the dance floor, but my father didn’t acknowledge it, continuing his conversation with the priest. I watched until the song ended, until you took off your shoes and sat in the wet summer grass.
“You don’t look the way you think you look,” my father said on the car ride home. You were curled up in the passenger seat, still drunk, the seat belt tight across your upper arm. You told him to be quiet, and laid your forehead against the car window. When we got home, I asked if you wanted me to cook you an egg, but you waved me off and went to bed without brushing your teeth.
I don’t remember you wearing the dress again, though yesterday I found it tucked in the back of your closet, covered in plastic from our old neighborhood dry cleaners, now hundreds of miles away. Once, when I was looking for a pair of scissors, I found a folded piece of frail magazine paper in one of your desk drawers. It was a woman in your dress getting out of a taxi, the cobblestones beneath her feet shining as if it just rained. She is smiling up at someone you can’t see, giving him her small, gloved hand.
I saw you wear jeans for the first time when you were alone, or at least when I thought you were alone. I had taken the bus from my quiet college town where I was studying to be a teacher, twelve hours to your apartment in Pittsburgh. I slept across two seats, my coat’s arms tied around my neck, and ate salted peanuts from vending machines. When I arrived, you had nothing to eat in the house, saying you wanted to go shopping with me to be sure you had everything I liked, as if I was a person you didn’t know. You wore a T-shirt with a shredded neck, puckering at its ends like peeling skin. From the back, with your hair cut to your chin, you looked like a boy.
“Remember how you would pretend you didn’t know me at the grocer’s?” you asked as we walked down the narrow aisles of a nearby convenience store, several of its fluorescent lights burnt black. I murmured that I didn’t remember, but you kept elaborating on the memory as you plucked dry pasta and a jar of olives from the shelf. You were wearing a man’s flannel jacket, your wallet and keys in its large, flat pockets. When you described how I’d pretend to be absorbed in the magazines at the front of the checkout line, I conceded, admitting that your beaver coat embarrassed me. “Ah-ha! I knew it!” you said, pointing a finger at me, then laughing and kissing me on the side of the mouth.
As we made dinner, you let me drink wine with you for the first time. I drank too much and told you about the two different boys I was seeing, how one of them cried once in his sleep. We told stories about my father’s sister, who always gifted old bottles of nail polish as presents and never let anyone inside her house. You made popcorn on the stove, coating it with browned butter and sugar, and I licked my fingers like I did when I was a child. You asked about my father, and I admitted that we spoke on the phone every week, but that he never talked about himself.
We slept on your bed, because your apartment had only one bedroom and the couch was a love seat. You wore a loose nightshirt that was a soft huckleberry blue, and I kneaded the hemline between my fingertips without you noticing.
A few months later you told me a man was living with you. He was a teacher at a nearby high school, and you’d actually first written to him a year before, when you found a poem of his in one of the journals they stocked at our library. He had a three-year-old son I would never meet, and ate mussels with his hands, digging them out from their sharp black shells with his thumb and pointer finger. That year you and he went to Sanibel together over Christmas, mailing me a photo of you on the shore, the tide rushing past your feet. In it, you have one hand looped through his waist and the other shields your eyes from the sun, wearing a smocked white sundress I had never seen.
In your third year in Pittsburgh, you began to shed your clothes. You complained that there were too many books in your home, so every few months you sent me chapbooks you didn’t think he’d miss, even though I never read poetry. With every package, you’d include an item from your wardrobe—a butter-yellow cardigan, a pleated skirt you may have worn in high school, several silk scarves, folded around books like Japanese wrapping paper.
I laid each item out on the pine slats of our small bedroom, as if, when I placed them just so, you would be conjured, emerging through the floorboards like a ghost. My school was a ten-minute drive from our house, so I always got home before Mark, spending that precious hour rifling through our mail, eating olives from jars I hid in the back of the fridge. After laying out the clothing, I would try each item on, bunching up sweater sleeves and tying scarves in my hair, at my throat, around my waist. Though we were the same size, nothing ever truly fit.
We went two years without seeing one another. I didn’t want to stay in your apartment, and you always had some reason the flight to Georgia would be difficult, delaying your visit from June to August to November to the new year. My father came every six months, cleaning our gutters and asking me to take him to the corner restaurant we went to the first time he visited, an unremarkable diner with vinyl checkered tablecloths and stringy barbecue.
On the phone, you would tell me not to have children. One evening, when Mark was back home in Indiana, you told me a story about the poet, how his son had bitten a little girl in his class. They were peacefully painting on plastic easels when he ran over and clamped his teeth around her small eggshell of a shoulder. The girl screamed, the teacher phoned, but when the poet brought the boy home, he didn’t reprimand him. He said, “Sometimes a feeling comes over you, a great big feeling, and the only thing you can do to let it out is bite.”
You laughed about this in the way you’d laugh when my father would forget to water the roses, when they would blacken and pucker in their beds. A tired laugh, a stage laugh. You told me not to throw away your clothes.
After you came to Georgia, you began to wear hospital scrubs. You befriended an older Vietnamese woman named Cindy who worked at a dialysis clinic, and took to her floral smocks and drawstring waists. At first I thought it was a joke, because you wore them for the first time when you were coming to look after Alice, then no more than six months old, with a constant sheen of spit on her chin. But then you wore them to the plant nursery and to the art museum, a place you always dressed up for, lingering at paintings of women in heavy silks and hats large as serving platters.
“I’ve come to a time in my life when I want a uniform,” you said when I asked about them, “but they don’t really give office managers uniforms.” You had left your jeans and wool with the poet in Pittsburgh, telling him he could drop them off at the Salvation Army or give them to his ex-wife. You didn’t want to talk about him, only occasionally bringing him to life through stories that showed his forgetfulness, his inattention—how he ran out of gas on a cold winter’s drive to Philadelphia, or mistook sugar for salt once when making spaghetti puttanesca. I gave you the clothes from your packages, claiming they’d never fit me post-child, and you found fault with how I stored them, demonstrating how to fold a silk scarf as Alice wailed at my hip.
When you moved here after Alice was born, I hoped that we would draw closer. I asked if you wanted to live with us until you got settled, but you had already found an apartment out by the airfield. Though you would stop in every week to make me a cup of tea or hold Alice while I stole an hour of sleep, you quietly built a separate life. You went to the movies with women from the office, volunteered to teach English to immigrants at the library. You cut your hair shorter, blond with threads of white, and stopped wearing earrings, claiming they gave you headaches. You began to wear your old wedding ring.
There was one afternoon in August when our air conditioning had shuddered to a halt. You stopped in with bags of ice, which we wrapped in towels and held against the back of our necks. Mark and Alice were asleep upstairs, all of us having been up half the night. The thought of cooking was impossible, so I began to cut a peach. As I sliced off thin half moons, I heard a train in the distance, the muffled whistle of it approaching a crossing. I began to imagine the passengers, books in hand, bags at their feet, light as clouds. Looking beyond the butcher’s block, I moved the knife and cut through a fingertip. I cried out, and you brought the wet towel you’d been holding to your neck, wrapping my hand. Even though the wound was shallow, I began to cry ceaselessly, though I barely made a sound, and you cradled me, my hand held close to your chest, and murmured, “I know, I know.”
When you told me you were going to California, you were wearing your Japanese skirt. Its pleats had lost their crispness, each fold sloping like a hill. You said you were going for a month, to see a friend who was sick, something rotten in her gut, but even then I knew you would be gone longer.
During the last dinner we had together, you brought the keys to your apartment and a ring for Alice, saying a woman’s first piece of jewelry should never come from a man. It was a thin band of gold with waves carved into its flattened front, spotted with sapphires so dark they looked like divots. “It came with our family from Ireland,” you said.
When I go to your apartment, I cannot tell what you have taken. I open the closet and push the clothes along the wooden rail, loosen drawers and unfold and refold scrubs, shorts, and the boatneck shirts you wore in the morning as you made your coffee and toast. Everything is accounted for. I even once opened the top drawer with your undergarments, finding high-waisted acrylic underwear in navies and deep reds, an ivory bra whose wire had pulled through the cotton, emerging from the top of the cup like the nose of an airplane. In the back, under a loose bundle of tights, there is a velvet jewelry box with a tooth. Not a child’s tooth, but the tooth of a woman or a man, wide as my fingernail.
I sometimes call the number you gave me, and a man with a thick accent picks up the phone. He is from Haiti, I have learned—a nurse with no family. You are never there when I ring, but you return my calls within a day or so. You talk about how happy you are to be living by the water again, though I can’t recall anywhere you lived having more than a river. You tell me you miss my father, how he would whistle at the mourning doves hiding in the bushes. You talk about how the women in California wear too much linen, how wrinkled clothes are a sin you can’t forgive.
When I first found your clothes, I asked what you were wearing out there. You laughed, low in your throat.
“No more uniforms,” you said.
“That’s not really an answer,” I responded, peeling off the tip of my thumbnail.
“I don’t know—shirts, pants, dresses, a pair of sandals I bought from a street vendor at the beach. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just, I have trouble imagining you there, what your life is like,” I said, my voice tight.
“Okay, okay,” you said, in the same tone you would try to quiet me with as a child, a rushed annoyance, almost as if you were close to putting your hand over my mouth. “You were just never one to care much about clothing.”
When I picture you, I see you in a room, lit by early morning light, opening the blinds. You are naked, though my image of you naked is when you’d tell me to come into your bedroom as a small child as you were getting dressed, when you’d be hooking your bra and I’d see your small, low breasts, curving upwards like gourds. You’d open your closet, and from my place by the door, you seemed to disappear into its darkness, first your hands reaching for a hanger, then your torso, then the backs of your feet.
It rained last night in Georgia, a wave of water that soaked the earth and ran through the streets in a heavy current. Everyone awoke to it, lying in bed, not saying a word. It thrummed against our roof and gave the air texture, making the night feel more alive. The next day, everything was cleansed and clear as glass, the sun sharp against my face. After rising, Alice ran out to the backyard in bare feet as Mark made coffee in the kitchen. I stood outside, watching her crouch over clovers and slap the skin of puddles, her face speckled as an egg with mud. When I called to her so we could go inside for breakfast, she ran back to me, her hands black with dirt. I thought of turning on the garden hose to clean her fingers, but at the sight of her hands reaching for me, I pulled her to my hip, letting her spoil my cotton shirt with earth, with oil, just to feel her skin against my skin.
Rowan Beaird’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, and Joyland, among others. She is the recipient of the 2017 Ploughshares Emerging Writer Award, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart. You can read more about her work at rowanbeaird.com.