2012 Copyright Barbara Celeste McCloskey
It was the sequins that caught my eye. When I pulled the dress off the rack, I held my breath. It was beaded black silk with a splash of gold, silver and aqua sequins draped across the shoulders and down each long sleeve. It had a peek-a-boo opening on the bodice that would hint at cleavage. Its short skirt would flaunt great legs. I walked over to the mirror and held the dress in front of my tattered red wool coat. I imagined entering a great ballroom and everything would stop. Men’s heads would turn and gaze at me. Ah, but my Cinderella days were long gone.
“Miss Practical” spoiled my daydream, as she spoke in my head. “Don’t be stupid. This dress is not even your size—you’d have to drop 50 pounds to close that zipper. Get real! You’ve been carrying around that ‘baby fat’ since the girls were born. Aren’t they in high school now? And even if you did lose the weight, did you get a look at the price tag? It says $350. Put the dress back on the rack and walk away.”
She was right. Where would I wear a dress like this? I didn’t belong to any fancy country club. No family wedding was coming up. And the annual fireman’s dance would hardly be appropriate for this dress. But as my hand ran over the beads and sequins, I wanted it. I needed it.
Like an obedient child, I listened to “Miss Practical” and walked back to where the dress had been displayed. I hung the hanger over the rod and ran my hand down the silk bodice one last time. I walked in the direction of the junior department to buy the underwear my daughters needed and took one last glance at the dress.
Before I left the department, though, I glanced back. I told myself that dress was meant to be mine, and I rushed back to the dress and yanked it off the rack. I held it to my heart and told “Miss Practical” to shut up. I was tired of always being sensible and giving up things I wanted/ Before I had a chance to reconsider, I walked over to a woman who stood behind a cash register and handed her the dress.
“Cash or charge?” The clerk said without looking at me.
“Charge.” I handed her my credit card.
She scanned in the price tag and finally looked at me. “Are you sure you have the right size, ma’am?”
“Yes,” I growled and glared at her, daring her to make another crack.
“Of course.” She put her head down and finished the transaction. She handed me the charge slip and said with a saccharine smile, “It’s a sweet little number, isn’t it? I hope you enjoy it.”
I snatched the dress from her and headed to the exit before she could tell me to have a nice day.
The dress hung in my closet for months. When I was sure I was alone, I’d sneak it out of its white plastic bag and dream of the day when I would finally put it on. Until that day came, I sweated to the oldies with Richard Simmons and felt the burn with Jane Fonda. I parked at the end of the parking lots and lifted weights until every muscle woke up screaming. The exercise was going well, but the weight wasn’t coming off fast enough. I needed to diet, too.
One day on a whim, I walked into Jenny Craig and told a skinny girl behind the counter I wanted to learn about their program.
Her eyes grew wide and she smiled like she just caught “the big one.” In a high voice she said, “Jenny’s program is so easy and fun—you’ll wonder why you didn’t sign up sooner! And you’re so lucky! We just started a promotion where the first 20 pounds are free!” Her giddiness made me want to puke.
“Wonder if I have more than 20 pounds to lose?” I said.
“Oh, don’t worry about that right now. It usually takes people about ten weeks to shed the first twenty.” She pushed a blue paper toward me which read “contract” across the top.
I slid the paper back toward her. “But I have to know what it will cost. I’ve already got $350 stuck into this dream.”
“The pounds you lose over 20 will cost you a dollar per pound, plus the cost of Jenny’s Cuisine.” She nudged the contract toward me again.
I contemplated carefully. I assured myself my husband wouldn’t object because he told me I was too fat.
Miss perky came around the counter. “We haven’t been formally introduced. I’m Tiffany.” She extended her boney hand toward me with a weak handshake.
I shook her hand firmly, so she knew I meant business, while I mirrored her false smile. “Hi, I’m Jane.”
After Tiffany recovered from my strength, she said, “If you decide to sign up, I’ll be your counselor.” She giggled.
I groaned without a sound. I gave her a cheesy smile and said, “Great!”
“First thing we have to weigh and measure you so we have a benchmark. Follow me.”
As I followed behind her I noticed this girl didn’t even have hips yet.
I noticed the long, gray hallways was covered with plastic-framed motivational posters that had captions like “SUCCESS—It’s the journey, not the destination.” I thought. Right! I never knew anyone who enjoyed their journey to the ideal weight.
Tiffany walked over to a scale big enough to weigh a steer. She waved her hand gesturing for me to get aboard. I closed my eyes and took that giant step. I was horrified when 195 appeared in big red LED characters. That was 30 pounds more than when I delivered my babies! I wanted to cry. I swallowed my tears and remained silent.
After the humiliation of the weigh-in, Miss Perky led me into an office about as big as a telephone booth. From an overhead bookshelf, she pulled out a three inch binder and explained the weight loss program. There were charts for food intake, water intake and exercise minutes. A list of calories, carbohydrates and protein for different foods. There was even a diary to chronicle how I felt if I cheated and had the audacity to fall victim to a piece of chocolate cake. This wasn’t a weight loss program; this was a college class!
As if to seal the deal, Tiffany gave me a taste of Jenny’s chicken cordon blue, raspberry cobbler and a frozen fudge bar. It was hard to believe this food was the same stuff in the little blue and white boxes in the lobby freezer.
I went home with a sense of purpose and a trunk full of Jenny Cuisine. Strangely, I felt empowered. I knew I’d be wearing my dress in no time.
That night at dinner, I told my husband about my trip to Jenny’s. All he said from behind his “Playboy” magazine was, “It’s about time.”
Most every week I watched the numbers on the cattle scale go down. When the scale got stingy, I used a measuring tape to assure myself my bust, waist and hips were really getting smaller. I used the food diary and all the other charts in the “blue bible” to prove my goodness. My girls helped my effort by agreeing to go to Jazzercise class with me twice a week. And every time I weighed in, they’d come home and want to know how it went. But the best tool that kept me on track was the dress. All I had to do was take it out of its plastic shroud and dream of the day when we would be together.
After four months of work, I locked myself in my bedroom, while my husband slept in his Lazyboy and my daughters were safely tucked in their beds. I slipped out of my worn jeans and ratty sweatshirt and stood naked in front of the full-length mirror. For the first time in decades, I was happy with my reflection. Flat stomach, firm breasts and arms defined—not bad for an old babe of 40.
I slipped into a black bra, bikini panties and a pair of black sheer stockings. Then I took the dress from its hiding place, freed it from its garment bag and slipped it over my head. I put my right arm through the sleeve, then the left. The silk underskirt flowed over my new curves like rich cream pouring into hot coffee. I zipped the dress and faced the mirror again. The aqua, gold and silver sequins lit a warm glow in my cheeks and the bodice caressed me like a long-lost lover.
I slipped my feet into a pair of black patent leather pumps and started at the woman in the mirror. She smiled back at me. Was this really me? A housewife with teenagers? A Girl Scout leader? A softball coach? I was a friggin’ knockout!
I ran a brush through my short dark brown hair and swept it forward so its wispy ends framed my face. I put on a dab of red lipstick and for the first time in years, I felt sexy. And now it was time for my surprise.
As I crept down the wooden staircase, I imagined my husband jumping out of his chair, picking me up and kissing me like he hadn’t done since we were first married. But upon entering our living room, there he was laying in all his glory—mouth wide open, snoring, his belt undone around his potbelly and his slightly balding head tipped to one side. I laid my hand on his shoulder. He stirred and turned his head to the opposite side. I patted his shoulder again. This time he opened his eyes and rubbed them into focus. Like a three-year old, I waited for his admiration.
“What the hell?” He said. “Where do you think you’re going’ in that get-up?”
I stared at him not wanting to believe what he just said. Numbness crept over me like a doctor had just given me an anesthetic. Didn’t he see that I was thin and beautiful? Didn’t he realize how hard I worked to look like this for him? But then again, why was I surprised? For over 20 years he’d put me down whenever a spotlight dared to shine on me. Why did I think this time would be different?
Before the welling tears would show him that his opinion meant so much to me, I ran upstairs, locked the bedroom door and turned up the volume on the television. I told myself his stupid reaction didn’t matter. But it did matter! It mattered too much. He was my husband. He was supposed to love and encourage me. But I was wrong. I thought if I changed for him, he’d love me again. I was through. I had been jumping through his controlling hoops for far too long.
I stripped the dress off and let it fall to the floor in a pile of dead silk and sequins. The sobs trapped in my throat came roaring out like dry heaves. I threw myself on my bed defeated. My grief rolled over me like white water crashing on a rocky shore.
After a time, my sobs turned to sniffles, and I picked up my beloved dress from the floor. I held it tight and felt sorry I treated it so badly. I hung it on its silk-padded hanger and once again tucked it back into the safety of my closet. I knew that someday I would wear it, but not here and not for him.
Suddenly, I felt cold and my body shook. I slipped on my pink flannel pajamas and buried myself under the down comforter. When I was warm, I fell into a deep sleep.
When the sun peaked through the curtains a few hours later, I felt strangely calm. During the night, I had a dream where a big gate opened, and I ran into a field of wild flowers. I smelled their fragrance, even picking a few of them. There was no one there to scold me. No one was yelling. It was beautiful and quiet. I felt a sense of freedom.
As my feet touched the floor, my path was clear. I would tell my husband I was leaving. I felt strong enough. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe it was the dress. Maybe it was the power that had been growing in me since I started to “find myself” under all that fat. It didn’t matter. I liked the feeling. I wasn’t afraid. The future would be what it would be. And that was OK. I was ready.