What to Wear
You attended a thousand parties in New York, at art museums and armouries, at a very good funeral home and a world famous theatre. There were pale men in fine suits and duskier-skinned cater-waiters in tuxes. Preserved old ladies wore invasive French scents that reminded you of your grandmother’s Seattle clubs, the Sunset Club and the Rainier Club, the Ladies’ Auxiliary this or the Women’s University that. If you exchanged pleasantries with such ladies your dress would carry some of that fussy old glamour with you when you said goodbye. The girls your age who weren’t there, like you, on the arm of a corporate foundation’s temp, wore lighter scents, all fruit and white flowers. When you told yourself the young girls’ perfumes were just the old lady perfumes of the future, you coveted them less.
You were reminded of seventh grade, bar mitzvahs. How at thirteen you learned that the right party dress had iridescent green ruffles below a black stretch bodice. That mascara was important; so was rouge. Curling your bangs was right, half up, half down, ratted and shellacked into one brittle hair-like object.
In New York you were twice that age and learning all over again. Business or business casual. Black or white tie. The perplexing attire known as garden. H&M had options in a pinch, but you quickly learned not to wear those flat blue rubber-soled shoes you thought looked dressy, in a sporty sort of way. Only a Seattleite would think such a thing, and even in Seattle, you would have been wrong. You studied eye creams. You yearned for forty-dollar eyeliners and gloss that made your lips resemble some sort of inedible fruit.
Sometimes there was art to view, but mostly you saw buffets and passed hors d’oeuvres, a million ways to eat endive. White and red wine on trays, a cocktail designed for the evening. You ate steak while watching videos about domestic violence, tucked into shrimp to help the homeless, left via parquet floors transformed into fields of goody bags brimming with swag. Your makeup collection expanded with freebies from events; you would go to see and celebrate art, or to laud a summer camp for inner city kids, and return home with a bag full of Calvin Klein and Burberry and, hopefully, a story about a Dr. Ruth or Björk sighting. Downtown you invited your friends to crash a party at a gorgeous old bank as clad in porphyry marble as any church in Europe, and you walked home through a blizzard with all the unclaimed goody bags, heavy with champagne and truffles, crammed up your frozen arms. The next day you watched six hours of Pride and Prejudice while drinking champagne through a straw.
You had always liked a pretty thing; a lovely scarf or handbag or picture on the wall, but you had never given a thought to cashmere. Or heels. Or jeans that made your ass look like an accomplishment. You spent real money on those jeans, and they brought you real happiness on the forty-minute train to work, at your secretarial desk where denim was technically verboten. You put them on in the morning while the Postal Service played, and you felt like some kind of gorgeous motherfucker, like some kind of real person.
Their hems tattered. You wearied.
There was a young girl’s perfume you wanted, composed of sugar and sun. You walked past its purveyor en route to Café Gitane, feeling like your Seattle self in combat boots and rolled-up jeans, a moss-green sweater looming over your long legs. You stopped to steal a mist of that perfume, and now when you catch that scent in the air, you remember being young and tired and on the verge of something, some sort of leap backwards and forwards, into the known and unknown. You remember the trip to Shakespeare & Co. later that day, in search of a Christopher Isherwood memoir you thought might save your life. It didn’t, but the next Isherwood you read did, two years later, at home in Seattle. That afternoon in New York you paid for your book, noticing how your clothes had frayed; New York is cruel to softer cottons and even synthetics can’t live there long without wear. You thought of a bookmark you had cherished as a young, unfashionable girl. Wear the old coat, it had said, Buy the new book.
Having thus remembered yourself, you were ready, you thought, to leave.