Wish I Had A Red Dress
2001, Avon Books
I wish I had a red dress. I've been wearing black for so long
I feel like one of those ancient women in the foreign movies
who are always sitting around, fingering their rosary beads
and looking resigned while the hero rides to his death on behalf
of the people, or for the sake of true love, which is really
six of one, half dozen of the other, when you think about it.
I never cared much about clothes. My basic requirement
is comfort, which automatically cuts out high-heeled shoes,
pushup bras, panty hose and strapless evening gowns, but could
theoretically still leave room for a range of colors, fabrics
and even a stylish little something or other for special occasions.
The convenience of all black used to appeal to me. I loved the
fact that I could reach into my closet and know everything I
touched was going to match everything else I touched with absolutely
no effort on my part, but it can be a little depressing sometimes.
Even to me.
I didn't consciously start wearing black as a
sign of mourning, even though at some subconscious level, I
probably did. My husband, Mitch, died five years ago, which
is when I really started noticing it, but he was just the last
of a long line. My father passed when I was sixteen. My mother
committed suicide on my wedding night a year later. My son got
hit by a car walking home from school when he was six and my
daughter didn't make it to her first birthday. I think she was
the hardest one for me to deal with because I barely got to
know her and she was gone.
It was just the opposite with Mitch. We'd been
together since I was fifteen and we were so close I made the
mistake of thinking we were the same person until he fell through
that hole in the ice and drowned and I didn't die, even though
for a long time I wished I had.
My baby sister, Ava, says it's hard to keep your
body looking good when you know nobody's going to see you naked.
She could have added that when you know your primary audience
when clothed is preschoolers, some distracted teenage mothers,
a few retirees and a government bureaucrat or two, it's equally
difficult to get up much enthusiasm for earrings that dangle
and skirts that swirl like you're standing in a little breeze
even when you're not.
I'm a social worker. I used to be a teacher. Then
one day I looked around and realized that what I was teaching
and the way I was teaching it were completely irrelevant to
my students' real lives. They were just ordinary kids from around
here; young and wild and full of the most complicated human
emotions and not nearly enough facility in any language to articulate
those feelings to each other or to anyone else. But one day
I saw them, really saw them, and everything changed.
It was a public high school and my classes were
coed, but it was the girls who kept drawing my attention. There
they'd be, balancing their squalling babies on their hips in
the grocery store, slapping their toddlers at the Blockbuster,
rolling their eyes and tossing their extensions, considering
exotic dancing as a career option, falling in love with the
wrong guys, being abused, getting AIDS and steadily having kids
the whole time, and they were so absolutely confined and confused
by their tiny little fearbased dreams that I looked out at them
one day while I was trying to teach a poem by e. e. cummings,
and they broke my heart. I started crying and had to dismiss
the class so I could get myself together.
That's when I knew there had to be a better way
to communicate with these girls than the one I was using. I
decided that finding that better way was going to be my life's
work because I don't think a group of people can survive if
the women don't even have enough sense to raise their children.
That's why clothes are usually the last thing
on my mind. Black pants and a black turtleneck without applesauce
showing anywhere are about the best I can hope for at the moment,
but somehow I can't get that red dress out of my mind.
I Wish I Had a Red Dress. Copyright
© by Pearl Cleage. All rights reserved.