by S.L. Viehl
I was facing my first crisis as a professional writer. It wasn't a plot problem. It wasn't writer's block (I never get writer's block. There are many moments, usually around 2 am, that I fervently wish I did). I liked my editor, loved my agent, and was busily whizzing through the revisions on my manuscript. Problems with them I could handle.
I had been invited by a local writer's group to attend their monthly meeting. At the Airport Hilton. To meet 65 published or aspiring writers. I wasn't nervous about attending. Sixteen years of public school conferences had enabled me to be pleasant and sit and listen to almost anyone politely insult me. Then there was all the hand-to-hand combat training I'd gotten in the military. I figured meeting a bunch of writers would be a breeze.
No, the problem was my closet. Or more specifically, what was not in my closet.
"What does everyone wear to these meetings?" I casually inquired when I was invited. Eager to hear the words, "oh, any old thing, you know, be comfortable."
"Everyone dresses up," the lady President of the local writer's chapter stated firmly. "You know, suits, dresses, that kind of thing."
"I guess jeans and an X-Files t-shirt is definitely out, then," I said in my most forlorn tone, hoping to be corrected.
"Jeans? Oh, no, no one wears those." The woman sounded as though I'd said I planned to attend naked. She went on to assure me that if I simply wore "a nice pair of slacks and a decent blouse" that would be fine.
A nice pair of slacks. A decent blouse. Dresses. Suits. She didn't know who she was talking to. My idea of high fashion was making sure both of my shoes matched before I left the house. Despite this depressing requirement, I agreed to come to the meeting and hung up the phone. Went immediately to my closet. Turned on the light. Peered in.
None of my jeans or t-shirts had magically turned into suits. Not a single dress, except the sober-looking black thing I wore to weddings and funerals (events so similar to each other). If I wore that, I'd have to resist the continual urge to cry.
I spied some ancient slacks I used to wear to work ten years, four sizes and two kids ago. Blouses I'd worn with those slacks. Said blouses all appeared to be in fluorescent colors (very big ten years ago) and were missing at least two buttons, generally in the chest area. I'd never match the buttons up. Safety pins would be noticeable.
It wasn't my fault, of course. I had no reason to maintain a wardrobe when I'd quit work and stayed home to increase my tax deductions. My children didn't get up in the morning and demand, "Mom, can't you change into a nice pair of slacks and a blouse?" No, my kids generally grunted at me in the morning. They got verbal only if the waffles and orange juice didn't reach the table within five minutes of their waking. They felt that as long as I could cook and drive, I served my purpose. Who cared what I wore?
My husband wasn't much help, either. He thought I looked pretty in whatever I wore, even if it was my rattiest pair of shorts with the hem falling down on one leg under one of his paint-spattered t-shirts. Of course, my husband is in dire need of an eye examination, which I keep convincing him to put off. One day he will get glasses, look at me and yell, "Who the heck are you?"
He was, however, very sympathetic when I explained my dilemma. "You never buy yourself anything, honey. Go get yourself a nice suit."
It was that word "nice" everyone kept using. It should have warned me, the same way it had when my Mother used to say, "Can't you write something nice?"
I went to the mall the next day and hit the first major department store I came to. Confidently I cruised down the women's wear aisles. So I hadn't been serious clothes shopping since Elton John starting wearing a rug. It was like riding a bike, right?
I immediately discovered another set of problems. I was too poor for the clothes in the Designers Department. Too old for the stuff in the Youth Section. Too fat for the Petite racks. Not fat enough for the Woman's Sizes.
In desperation, I went up to a sales clerk. Naturally she was on the phone, arguing with her boyfriend. "Excuse me."
She gave me a pained glance. I didn't leave. A few seconds later, she sighed heavily. That didn't drive me off. Like any determined female consumer, I know you can usually out-wait the sales clerk. Even one who thought her boyfriend was "really being a complete jerk".
Finally she tucked the phone on the top of her shoulder. "Yes?" she snapped.
This was it. I only had one chance to get all the information. If I came back, she'd go off to the stock room or take a coffee break. That was how it worked when dealing with department store sales clerks. I took a deep breath, and rushed it all out in a single sentence:
"Where can I find a suit that doesn't cost $500, is made in sizes higher than 12, and is cut to fit someone who wears bras that prevent center-of-gravity shifting?"
She didn't even blink. "Center aisle, over there." A jerk of her head in the general direction, then she was back on the phone with her boyfriend. She was put out by the fact he apparently didn't appreciate how much she did for him on a daily basis. Based on my short acquaintance, I was already on his side, poor guy.
I went to the center aisle over there. It was a small, bleak square in the store, filled with sober racks of black, grey, navy and screaming yellow suits. (Yellow being the current trend in fashion). I picked up a tag at random and nearly had an asthma attack. And I don't even have asthma. For a size 6 rayon jacket that looked about as substantial as woven facial tissue, I would have to fork over $229.00. Just for the jacket, nothing else.
White-faced but determined, I continued my search. I found some suits I liked on the 50% off rack, but they were all in sizes like "2" and "38XXX". I found screaming yellow suits in size 14 that paired with my skin tone might get me rushed to the hospital as a victim of sudden, acute liver failure. I found black suits with big brass buttons, lapels wider than men wore them in the 70's, with enigmatic tags that read "Sma. A-B" "Med. B-C". I figured the last was sort of like pantyhose sizes, and tried to find a "Chunk. P-Q". No luck.
At last, I found a navy blue suit in a size fourteen, not on sale, with a tiny pin stripe. It wasn't $229.00 for the jacket. It was $244.00 for the jacket and a quarter-yard tube of matching fabric someone on Prozac had tagged as a skirt.
Grimly I marched into the fitting room, and tried it on. I wasn't crazy about the pin stripes, but at least they were vertical. I could tell people it was "slimming" and probably get away with it. There was no way I could lose thirty pounds to get into one of those "Med. B-C" black nightmares, even with comprehensive surgery. I only had six days left before the meeting. I'd enter therapy before I voluntarily wore yellow.
It would have to do.
The blouse worn underneath the jacket - something euphemistically tagged as a "shell" - was priced at $39.00. I scoffed at that. For the same money I could get ten new t-shirts that would pass as "shells" if I didn't take off the jacket. And why buy new t-shirts? I could wear what I already had at home. The jacket would cover up David Duchovny's face, if I kept it buttoned.
It was painful to hand over the equivalent of two FP&L payments, but I bought the suit and went home. When he heard how much it cost, my husband swallowed hard, but only once. He didn't trust himself to speak for a few hours. That was okay. I was busy trying on t-shirts with the suit to see which one I'd wear to the meeting.
"Honey?" I asked, coming out of the bedroom to model my latest experimental combo. "Can you see the hair on the top of Mulder's head when I button the jacket like this?" He was staring at the floor. I looked down, too. "What?"
"Uh - what are you going to wear with that?" he asked. When I glanced blankly back at him, he added, "On your feet?"
I swallowed hard. Several times. Trudged back into the bedroom. Glanced into the closet.
Nope. None of my sneakers had magically turned into high heels, either.
Copright 1998 by S.L. Viehl
All Rights Reserved