3rd place - 2016 ESME Showcase Writing Essay Awards
My daughter and I go to buy her first business suit, a good luck gift from me to her. She’s 25 now and she has a career, for a corporation, in a big glass office building. She leans over to look at the speedometer and I realize I am only going 45 on the freeway. A long line of angry cars whips past me, blaring horns. The world moves too fast for me now, but I have to keep up or I will be trampled. I can’t remember which exit to take on this trip I have made hundreds of times. I miss it and we must circle around. I am in the wrong lane for the turn and a boy yells at me out of his car window. A sudden rage explodes in me and I clutch the wheel tightly, wanting to smash into him.
“I’ll drive home if you want,” my daughter says, too casually, as she gazes out her window.
I know I am incompetent much of the time now. I find myself at the grocery store wandering the aisles unable to remember what I came for. I start on errands only to return home without being able to accomplish them. When I try to collect the clothes at the dry cleaners I realize I have left my purse at home. A fog surrounds me that only I can see.
We enter ladies wear. My daughter begins exploring tentatively. The store has soft music, thick cream carpet and the rarefied atmosphere of money. An immaculately dressed saleswoman approaches and asks if she can be of assistance. My daughter, clicking through the rack, says “No, thank you.” As she fingers the fabrics, I see her look of amazement at their silkiness. She picks a jacket, gray with a black pin stripe. The saleswoman glides over and relieves her of its weight saying, “Let me put this in a room for you.” Pants follow, and skirts, my daughter is collecting now, like a child in a flower garden., picking the choicest blossoms. The saleswoman floats from my daughter to the dressing room. She doesn’t seem to touch the floor.
“I’ve put you in 5,” she says over her shoulder as we follow. Everything seems muted, as if we are so delicate that harshness of any kind might shatter us. Opening the door to the large room she asks, “Is this all right?” My daughter smiles as the woman settles the clothes onto the hooks and exits, closing the door with a soft click.
“They don’t even give you a plastic number,” my daughter whispers, hugging herself. She sheds jeans and toes out of her sneakers without unlacing them. The slacks slide on, settling perfectly at her waist and hips as if they have been waiting for her.
I sit on the pink upholstered bench. Opposite I can see my reflection in the three way mirror. My face is dry parchment, the watermark of my life shows around my eyes and mouth. I lean back against the wall to hide from myself.
“I love this one,” she breathes. “It feels like I’m not wearing anything.” I often have that feeling now too. She shoulders into the jacket and is transformed. She has become sophisticated, competent, self assured. Magic clothes. The woman returns and she and my child murmur together.
“We need to nip it in at the waist,” says the saleswoman. I say it would look nice with a red tie. They turn and stare at me silently for a beat then go back to their conversation, as if I hadn’t spoken. I know I am wrong and feel shamed. I wonder if they could nip me in as well. I feel loose, unraveled. The woman returns again and again, fetching and carrying, as she and my daughter consider and discard each garment.
“What do you think, Mom?” my beautiful daughter asks as she turns from side to side scrutinizing herself.
I think you are a rare orchid in a field of daisies. You look so grown, so gone. At night I often wander the house, sleepless, and find myself standing over your bed to watch you sleep, just as I did when you were a baby. I want to call you at work to see if you have remembered to take your vitamins, your purse, your keys. But I say “You look sophisticated. That jacket would look good with a skirt and boots too.” I can see her considering my opinion. I am absurdly grateful that she still wants it.
My daughter is intense as she studies her reflection, critically analyzing, looking for flaws. I notice there is an electrical socket in the dressing room. I wonder what for. I try to remember if I turned off the burner under the frying pan I used to make French toast this morning.
“Never stick a knife into a toaster to get the bread out. You could get electrocuted,” I say now and before it is half said I know it is wrong, ludicrous.
Her hands freeze at the collar she is straightening. “We don’t have a toaster,” she says. Her eyes in the mirror hold my gaze, waiting to see if I can pull back or will bolt headlong into crazy.
“Well, just so you’ll know,” I say looking down at my age-spotted hands. I know that I scare her sometimes now, although I try not to, as I flail around in this new life.
“If you are getting too tired we can come back another day,” she says looking at me with concern in her eyes. It is the same way people look at lost dogs. I know that there won’t be any better days. I’m on a roller coaster now that never stops.
A hot flash bursts from my core and explodes on my surface like a sunspot. The room is suddenly airless as I dab perspiration from my forehead.
“I’ll go look for blouses,” I say, opening the door just wide enough to squeeze out. I stand in the corner with the expensive leather coats till it passes. I feel shaky and exhausted, frustrated at my lack of control. My reflection jumps out at me like a mugger from a full length mirror. I pull in my stomach and straighten my shoulders, but my reflection doesn’t change. I pull my coat tighter around me.
I find myself in the children’s department stroking a pink velvet baby dress with white eyelet lace at the collar and hem. My eyes sting. A salesgirl approaches and asks if she can help me. Can you direct me to the words department? I seem to have lost mine. Can you tell me where to find my past? I have some things I would like to exchange. I look at her and shake my head no. My daughter’s voice startles me.
“What are you doing here?” she asks. She sees my face and sighs. “Come on,” she says kindly, steering me by the elbow.
Back in the room I look at her and say, “They all look so severe.”
“This is how everyone there dresses.”
“No, they’re beautiful. I didn’t mean that. It’s just different to see you like this. Which one are you going to get? I like the gray pinstripe.”
But she chooses the black silk jacket and pants, four hundred dollars. I have to look through my purse three times before I find the card. The saleswoman waits for me, losing patience. My hands begin to shake. I can’t meet her eyes as I hand her the card.
We move to the escalator. My daughter carries her chin higher, her back is straighter. A man smiles at her as she trips lightly onto the rolling stairs. He steps in front of me to stand behind her. I push around him to stand next to her, barely touching her sleeve with my arm.
We go onto shoes. I handle low-heeled pumps. She asks to see three inch heels, black patent leather. I see the salesman’s hand, with its hairy knuckles, as he cups her heel, sliding her elegant ballerina foot into the shoe. I think he holds it longer than necessary. I look away from them to a pyramid of red high heels. I don’t trust my perceptions anymore. They are wild things trying to break free. I want to say something that I know will be inappropriate. I will regret it later, I know from experience. But I am barely able to curb these rages. I grit my teeth and swallow back the words, trying desperately, wanting not to ruin this day.
I remember the first day she came home from the office. I had rubbed her swollen feet. “You need shoes with lower heels,” I had said in the mother voice, as I put Band-Aids and ointment on the blisters. She had looked away from me and said “A guy named John from accounting asked me out today.”
She takes small steps to the mirror, walking up and down, testing the high heels. She takes them and two pairs of silk stockings.
Now we are in intimate apparel. As we sort through the soft panties I pick up a pair of white ones with pink roses embroidered at the waistband. “You know, you need to be careful about men. You need to pick and choose. Be choosy, I mean.”
“Uh-huh.” She holds up leopard print ones with black feathers at the band.
At cosmetics I look at the creams. They promise to make me look like the salesgirl, who is 30 years my junior. I almost believe them. The girl paints my daughter’s face. She gives her the same pout she had when she was two, only now it is sexy and luscious. She paints her eyes, then spins the chair around so my daughter can look at me. The salesgirl has transformed her like Svengali. Now her eyes look smoky and dangerous. It startles me. I lean close to her face, almost nose to nose, to see if she is still in there. I am relived to see that she is, like a forest imp peeking out from behind the ferns. She rubs my nose with hers, her eyes squinting into a grin. “I’ll take the eye shadow and the lipstick,” she says to the salesgirl.
We stop for a latte at the store where they charge $12 for half a sandwich. When I sit down I feel the exhaustion melt my bones, leaking them into a puddle at my feet. I know I will not be able to get up without leaning heavily on the table, like an old woman. My daughter has a bit of milk foam on her lip. I don’t tell her. As she talks excitedly about our purchases I compare her with the other women around us. They wear a detached boredom, as if life no longer holds surprises for them. She looks different from them and I relax, feeling suddenly hopeful.
In the parking lot she takes the keys from my hand and opens the passenger door for me.
She plants a kiss on my cheek before she shuts the door. On the trip home she glides competently along, finding the right lanes, flowing naturally into the spaces. Her hands are firm but light on the wheel, as she talks animatedly about her new job. I lean my head back on the headrest and see my face in the side mirror. I don’t mind the wrinkles and lines so much anymore. I roll my head to watch her profile, cameoed against the window, without listening to her words. Noticing my silence she looks over at me and covers my hand with her own.
“Are you going to be all right?” I ask her.
“Of course I am, Mom. Everything is going to be all right,” she says patting my hand.
I think she is probably right. I squeeze her hand and release it. On the floor at my feet the leopard print panties have escaped from their bag. Their feathers wave at me gaily, as the air from the heater moves them to and fro.
Nancy Ryan is a writer, living in a small Washington state town, who usually concentrates on plays and screenplays. Ryan’s won numerous writing awards and competitions.