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  • ENA

    The Suit

    Excerpted from
    Kiss Tomorrow Hello; Notes From the Midlife Underground: by Twenty-Five Women Over Forty
    By Kim Barnes, Claire Davis

    I've never been good at fashion. Some people have the knack; even a scarf flung casually about the neck looks somehow silken and august. I, on the other hand, am a rumpled person, both literally and philosophically. I see the universe as messy, black cloth crumpled with pins and rips. My view is fundamentally pessimistic. I have never understood the expression "freak accident." Given the existence of black holes and burst blood vessels, it astounds me that anyone really has the courage to get dressed up in the morning. Accidents are not the exception. They are the rule. Therefore, one should outfit oneself accordingly. The truly paranoid should wear yellow hard hats and carry candles. The others, like me, who live on the perpetual edge of an overprocessed ironic worry, should just be frumpy. And that is what I am.

    One of my earliest memories involves clothes. I was six years old. I had a great future in front of me. I wanted to be a zoologist, a chemist, a teacher, and a tailor. Mrs. Pichonio, the old widow who lived down the street from us and had a magnificent high hump in her bent back, owned a sewing machine. It was stored in a golden-wood cabinet with iron scrollwork legs and many miniature drawers. The machine itself had SINGER written on it, each letter red and formed from tiny painted flowers. The needle nosed in, nosed out, with a chattering sound. Once she let me try it, and it amazed me, that cloth could come together, that the open-ended could be so easily seamed, that you could cuff and button and hem.

    Back at home, I set to work with a plain old needle and thread, the only supplies I could find, plus a large swatch of pink fabric from my mother's rag basket. Within a few days, I had fashioned for myself a skirt, a lopsided article of clothing, sticky with glue and snarled with knots. I proudly wore it to school. Having become frustrated with the process of fastening silver snaps, I simply clasped it at my back with masking tape. I was not the kind of kid one laughed at; people simply stared.

    Thus began my clothing career, or what I should more accurately term my anticlothing career. I looked like a frowzer and I loved it. After awhile, the love went away and it became my habit, a manifestation of who I essentially was, something snarled. I lost my interest in sewing, no surprise, but the tendency toward clothes that did not fit, ugly clothes, sloppy clothes-that became ingrained. For the past twenty or thirty years, almost every day, I have rolled out of bed, grabbed for the raveled sweater, the paint-splattered pants. I never understood why people bothered to change their outfit every day. I have always worn the same outfit, minus the underwear, for one week at a time. It cuts down on laundry and so simplifies things. During the darkest parts of my life, I have even slept in my clothes, thereby avoiding the tiring task of getting dressed in the morning.

    That I am a writer, a freelancer, with no office to go to, has, of course, only more deeply ingrained my tendency. But, as occasionally happens to writers, a few weeks ago, someone read my work and liked it and asked me to go on TV for two minutes. That didn't excite me. I have been on TV for two minutes before, and I've long lost the illusion it will make me famous. And it probably doesn't help that I have almost always refused the makeup, with the exception of Oprah, who insisted.

    The publishing company, however, the one that has consented to print my work continuously despite obvious profit loss, that company did not share my attitude. For the publicist, this was a great opportunity-it was CNN-and she instructed me to dress accordingly. She knew me. She knew that without firm direction and tutelage, I would probably not look good. She told me to go to Ann Taylor and buy a suit. A suit! "Expense it to us," she said, sounding a little desperate. Ann Taylor! I only shop at Target, and before Target came to the East Coast, I shopped at Bradlees, whose bankruptcy I am still in the process of mourning.

    The publicist was so insistent upon the suit, and so worried I wouldn't obey, that in the end she traveled from New York to Boston, where I live and where the filming was, in order to supervise my shopping. She wanted to go with me to Ann Taylor to pick out my clothes. This I knew I could not do. One does not show one's publicist the unpublic places, the bulges and lumps. I said I would go on my own.

    Of course, I didn't. I went straight to Target and found a red suit for thirty dollars. I thought it looked fine. It didn't entirely fit; the sleeves of the jacket were too long and the skirt was a little loose, but these were minor details, and besides, they usually film only from the neck up. I liked this suit. The red made me look happy , it underscored the flush in my face. It lit up my skin.

    I went home and tried it on for my husband. "You look," he said, "like you're about to go trick-or-treating."

    I returned the suit. I did not want to get the publicist mad. I knew she was not after a style with any witch in it. I thought my husband was wrong, but I wasn't going to risk it

    The next day, a Sunday, I conceded. I went to Ann Taylor. The store was in a mall, and I try to avoid malls as much as possible, due to potential terrorist attacks. I figured, however, it was Sunday, I was there first thing, the mall was relatively empty, and it was not prime time in terms of bombs or aerosolized chemicals. I thought as soon as I stepped foot in the mall I would get sweaty, but, in fact, that didn't happen. The mall was nice. It smelled of coffee and had booths selling wind chimes and wigs and glass cats. It was almost whimsical.

    Ann Taylor itself had a charmed hush to it. There were a few women there, and they drifted among the racks of clothes like wraiths-like angels or ghosts. I collided with cashmere. There was a white sweater and a matching white scarf and it was as soft as snow to touch, but warm. I studied some velvet. It was satisfyingly raspy. These clothes were gorgeous; anyone could see that. They called attention not so much to themselves as to the way the light fell around their forms, suggesting the body beneath, at once sheathed and open.

    A saleslady drifted up to me; I told her my situation, that I needed a suit and I needed it fast. She was so gracious. She flicked through the racks of soft things and stylish things and held them up to me with complete confidence. If I seemed strange to her in my big rubber boots with old overalls tucked in, she didn't show it, not a bit. I was another customer, her charge, her mission for the moment. She brought me back to a dressing room and handed me jackets and skirts and shirts. The clothing felt cool against my skin, and it all looked good. I am not accustomed to having clothes that truly fit. I have always been content with an approximate fit, tending toward the too large. These jackets enclosed my waist, and had whalebone buttons. The skirts were straight and slit. I was, she informed me, a petite. I thought of Hans Christian Andersen's wonderful tale "Thumbelina" and the big pink flower and the river and the bee. Petite! In fact, I was extra petite. Size six petite didn't fit me; size four, still too large; size two, close but not quite; size zero, perfect. On the one hand, I was truly proud. For what woman would size zero not be an actual accomplishment? On the other hand, was I zero, zilch, nothing? Was I really here? Was I basically a good soul? Zero. It was, for sure, a mixed message.

    But here's what really mattered. In the size zero suit, I looked great. I looked serious and sexy. I looked like a lawyer, like someone in a sky rise, a woman with extra influence. The transformation was total, in part because of the fit. The suit at once concealed and revealed my shape. I had a shape! I had a little waist. I had a collarbone that gave me an appropriately gaunt look. My throat was white and long.

    I bought the suit-several hundred bucks, and on sale, too. She gave it to me in a bag with velvet handles. She asked me if I'd like shoes to go with the outfit, but I was overcome, overwhelmed, and out of money. I told her no on the shoes. I said I already had some. Then, on my way out of the mall, I snuck into Pay less and got a fourteen-dollar pair of pumps.

    At home, I tried the suit on in front of my full-length mirror. I was wondering whether the mirrors at Anne Taylor were rigged in some way, and now, face-to-face with the glass on the back of my closet door, I would see the truth. And I did see the truth. The truth was I still looked good. My waist was still small. My collarbone flared. I had a charming freckle on my chest.

    The next morning, when I woke up, I didn't reach for the raveled sweater and paint-splattered leggings. I put on the suit. It was slightly itchy but immensely gratifying. I went to work, which for me amounts to traveling from my bedroom to my study, across the hall. Usually, I work in some version of my pajamas, but this day was different; I decided to get all dressed up, as though to meet my characters. My writing was sharper because of that suit. My characters all said witty things, and my overwrought lyricism gave way to a kind of muscular minimalism. I started to think the suit was magic.

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