“I’m on the fence about this one,” my husband says. He looks at me and tugs at the neckline of a navy and turquoise striped sweater. I shake my head and wrinkle my nose. Two piles sit on the bed next to me, keepers folded and donations haphazard.
The heater comes on with a whoosh. The ceiling ductwork pings. I feel a rush of air from the industrial system. The downstairs gallery we own is sleek and fashionable, one of the best in the city. It occupies a warehouse converted from barren to chic with our bare hands the year we met. It made sense to build out a loft and move in.
“You can make a skirt out of it.” I’m matter-of-fact about the sweater’s repurposing. You, I think, meaning a person who is not my husband. I, I reconsider. I can make a skirt from a sweater. I hadn’t thought about that in nearly three decades. I watch as he removes the sweater and tosses it onto the donations pile. He reaches for another to try on. I stand and hold the striped sweater upside down against myself, waistband at my waist. The cuffs hang near the floor.
A white, leatherette photo album comes to mind, looking at the sweater dangling from my waist. The first photo I conjure is an image of myself as a high school senior in a gate-side airport lounge. A vast window with airplanes on the tarmac is visible behind me. It was almost a decade before 9/11. You could walk to the gate in airports without a ticket back then.
In the photo, I’m leaning against a chair, looking up and to the left. My hair is henna red, bobbed to chin length. My hat is a cast-off brown plaid fedora. I’m wearing a men’s gray vest with a silver satin lining, a few sizes too large. My white, men’s dress shirt is buttoned to the neck. My jeans are baggy and pegged at the cuffs. I’m wearing white socks and stolen bowling shoes.
My cheeks are rounded. It could be attributed to baby fat if it were not the result of an extra ten pounds from the cheap Medicaid-approved birth control pills all the girls in the group home were on.
Remembering this brings a twinge, a pang, but of what? It isn’t nostalgia or homesickness. It’s akin to sadness and a nameless pity for my teenaged self. There must be a word for this in another language. Maybe it is the same language that has a word to make drinking alone okay if you light a candle and call it self care. I think the language is Dutch.
There are other photos of me in the lounge. In one, my miniskirt is cut from a fuschia T-shirt. My shirt is sherbet-orange. I’m wearing Doc Martens and a beret. In another, my skirt is made from a plastic picnic tablecloth. My sister appears in one photo. Her blouse has a floral print with sheer sleeves. Her hair is crimped and her bangs climb high into the air.
These were my favorite outfits, thrift shop alterations that didn’t fit well, sewn with insistence on a donated sewing machine in a group home basement. My mother called my style retro-mod. I longed for her approval. A made-up name was enough. It was her idea to drive to Dulles airport with a suitcase of my clothing and her Kodak Disc camera during my Sunday pass. There are only so many ways to use five hours every weekend in the suburbs if you don’t think creatively. I feel another prick. It’s different, empty like a day pass when your sister goes home with your mother but you don’t.
I think of myself a year later at eighteen, now wearing scuffed Army surplus combat boots. My boyfriend had a mohawk and a switchblade hidden inside a comb. I recall my mother and sister arriving at our place, thrown out of her long-time boyfriend’s house. I hadn’t lived with her since I was thirteen and the county said it was either him or me. My mother chose him. If she reached a limit to his drinking and rage in the years I was away, I didn’t know about it.
The album hasn’t come to mind in years. However, I’m not surprised how easy it is to recall the images with clarity. It’s difficult to forget Sunday passes and the term “retro-mod.” I had little else to cling to back then.
“This one’s a keeper, right?” My husband is wearing a sturdy gray sweater with a zipper at the neck and a burgundy stripe across the chest. I try to recall whether I bought it for him in a vintage shop on South Street in Philly or one in Fishtown on another trip.
“I love those stripey ones on you,” I respond. I glance at the folded keeper pile. The sweaters are mostly dark in color and many have a similar stripe. I make a mental note not to purchase any more like this. He removes the sweater and folds it. It is a keeper.
I could still pull it off, I muse. If not for the outdated immaturity of those outfits, I could wear them today. The gallery and our clients do not have a dress code.
“I could still pull it off,” I say aloud to my husband, looking down at the sweater I’m still holding against my waist. I’m considering the roll it’s hem will take on when it is cut, and how to prevent it from unraveling with the least amount of effort. I don’t want to endure the tedium of hemming by hand.
I recall the group home’s meager clothing allowance and the desperation the worn, garage sale sweater-skirts held. I no longer need to be called retro-mod. I eschew the idea of cutting the sweater into a skirt. I fold it and place it atop the discards.
T.J. Butler lives on a sailboat with her husband and dog. She writes fiction and essays that are not all fun and games. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Pembroke, Levee, New Plains Review, Flash Fiction Online, Tahoma Literary Review, New South, and others. Her collection of short stories, “A Flame on the Ocean,” is forthcoming from Adelaide Books. Find her at @aGalWithNoName and TJButlerAuthor.com.