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The Price of My Little Black Dress

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I know it sounds silly, but the thing I wanted most that summer was to have a chance to wear my cliché little black dress. All summer, I waited for a chance to show off the dress; I attended graduations, parties, cookouts, and weddings, but it just never seemed to fit the occasion. Occasionally, when I got impatient and started to wonder if I’d ever have a chance to wear it, I took it out of the closet “to see if it still fit.” That’s the excuse I used with myself, anyway. I waited until the house was silent, the lights were dim, and the sweet summer breeze had replaced the heat outside. Then, I forced my squeaky closet door open, and my hand would go on a scavenger hunt of sorts for several moments. As I fished through my old homecoming dresses, the velvety ballet tutus from one year when I took dance, and the too-small skirts that I hadn’t worn in years, clothes hangers overloaded with colors and garments clinked against each other in complaint. Puffs of dust clouded my nose before I finally found the fabric I was looking for. When I felt the unwrinkled, gauzy material, my fingers fumbled around, attempting to untangle the dress from its place between the ballet tutus and the forgotten skirts. With great pride, I unzipped the gown and savored the luxurious feeling of the silky lining against my skin. I held my hair up, let it down, smeared on red lipstick and smiled at the mirror like I was on the red carpet. After my five minutes of fame, I unzipped the dress, smoothed it, hung it in the back of my closet, and pretended to forget about it. Then, I washed all my makeup off, curled up in bed, and imagined the entrance I would make when I finally wore that dress for real.

The summer days were long and humid, as summer days in Virginia are, and every week careened by on the heels of the one before it. With a flicker, June and July melted into stagnant, wistful August. I was sitting at the table, playing Solitaire, when my mom got the call.
“Hello, Carlton residence... Oh Mom, hi, I...” And then there was silence. My mom sank into the wall without a word. My grandma’s voice crackled on the other end, and I kept hearing the same words over and over.
“Are you still there, sweetheart?” My brain was numb, dead with worry, but the emotion hadn’t reached my legs yet, and I was able to cross the kitchen to my mom and grasp her free hand. She didn’t seem to notice; two puddles formed rapidly at the corners of her eyes, but she didn’t seem to notice that, either. I wondered if she realized she was still on the phone. When I took the receiver from her hand and pressed it to my ear, shock tingles made my shoulders twitch.

“Grandma? Grandma, are you there?” All I could hear on the other end was uncontrollable sniffling, but when Grandma heard my voice, she heaved a little sob. And I knew.

Three days later, I stood in front of my closet in my bathrobe. My hair was disheveled and dripping from the shower; my slick feet stuck to the wood floor. Finally, I picked up the blow dryer and found the on switch. For an hour and a half, I stood blow-drying my hair, staring into my closet with blurry eyes at a million colors and shapes and sizes, and I grew increasingly more confused. I barely recognized these clothes; were these truly the outfits, the shorts, the shirts, that I had worn a week earlier? What had life been like before all of this? I snapped the blow dryer off and felt tears snaking down my cheeks, little rivulets carrying the smell of my lavender soap. What are you supposed to wear to a funeral? The thought rewound and played over and over in my head. “Black. You’re supposed to wear black.” The words came out as a whisper, but suddenly I felt like I had shouted them. Do I have anything that is...? Those words never formed a complete thought. With shaking hands, I reached into the back of my closet for the little black dress.

After the burial, as my grandma stood shaking hands with people, I half expected to see my grandfather standing alongside her, guffawing and turning to wink at me when he caught my eye. I wished he was here to smooth my hair, pat me on the shoulder, and whisper jokes in my ear. Maybe he would quiz me on my Spanish, or just look me in the eye and say, “You look just like your mother, baby girl,” as he often did.

A gust of wind blew up my dress, and my fingers instinctively caught the hem and held it against my leg. That was when it struck me. There I was, in my little black dress, with my hair dolled up, wearing my red lipstick and black stilettos, and the thing I wanted most was to be back in my room, talking to Grandpa on the phone and wearing my blue jeans.



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