High school is a trying time. I remember most of it well as one of discovery, individuation and staggering screw-ups; of parental power struggles, duplicity and hormonal triumphalism. It is a bubble where kids navigate life’s deepest paradox, to simultaneously conform and be unique, a tightrope walk that favors the stable. For those of us prone to emotional swells and sensitivities it is the same walk but on a moving cable.
My parents are in an anti-nesting phase right now, shedding all relics of their children by loading their reminders into bins and depositing them with their triggers. Last summer when they drove in for a visit, they left behind a carload of deposits, boxes and bins of random papers, photos, clothing, books. From one, I unfolded an entire closet’s worth of formal dresses. It was as though a giant reached in and pressed them together like an accordion and folded them neatly in half, hangers attached.
I unfolded the dresses onto a bar and flipped through them, one by one. Out flooded the memories they carried, a few in particular. The strapless black taffeta with the beads I wore to homecoming my junior year, and my new fake nails punched holes in my stockings shooting white runners down both my legs as I stepped out of the ladies room. That was super. The other black beaded one with the oversized bow on the hip reminded me of advice I had followed in a magazine about using masking tape in place of a bra, and left me with red stripes across my chest from the mild flaying I suffered when I removed it. The faint water mark on the red one with the sash reminded me of my allergy to silk which caused profuse perspiration under one arm, so my right appendage stayed unnaturally plastered to my side for an entire evening of socializing and dancing. The bright purple sequined stretchy one was beautiful. It was the same shade as the Hubba Bubba Grape Bubble Gum that twisted itself into my hair when I was a little girl and when they cut it all off suddenly everyone thought I was a boy. And then there was the rebellious one, my favorite, a ruffled, strapless, multicolored floral number that I wore to my last dance of high school.
The guidelines for senior prom attire have dramatically changed, but in 1988 your dress was expected to be white and to the floor. Having had a difficult time in the conformity department, I gravitated to colorful and short, and I found exactly what I was looking for in a women’s clothing store in the West End that serviced primarily old preppy white ladies. I don’t know what they were thinking when they ordered the one that I fell in love with, but I knew nobody else in our small world was going to buy it, but me. With black pointy-toed pumps, a black clutch, and wrapped tightly in an extravaganza of giant tropical flowers, I waded into the sea of white with my date/friend at my side.
Fondly, admiringly, I removed the dress from it’s hanger and held it against my body in remembrance. It doesn’t look so small, a voice said deceptively to the image in the mirror. Let’s give it a try, it encouraged, and moments later I was changing my breathing patterns to accommodate an uncooperative zipper. I hooked the clasp at the top and wriggled it around the back where it was supposed to be, and with great concentration I edged it further up with my arms twisted awkwardly behind me, and in a final exhalation I was in. Eureka! I spun around excitedly and in one quick breath the zipper popped open in the middle and released twenty-five years of gradual BMI accumulation. It was getting tighter by the moment, the hook not budging, my fingers not nimble enough to navigate it, my body uncooperatively cementing itself to the fabric, becoming one.
Belly-breathing in yoga is when you fill your lungs deeply and instead of your chest expanding, it’s your belly that rises and falls. It is also what to look for when your child has asthma and the stomach muscles engage in the quest for air. I would like to tap into some pubescent deception and claim to have been yoga-breathing in a Zen trance of relaxation, but the reality was more that of an asthma attack. I was trying not to panic as my obituary flashed in front of me: Loving wife and mother of two, long sufferer of body dysmorphia, asphyxiated by vengeful attire. I left messages and sent texts to family and friends to the tune of: Help me, I am stuck in a dress and I cannot breathe.
Sending out an SOS is one thing, and having nobody respond is another. I sat on the floor as a range of emotions flooded through me, from embarrassment and helplessness to fear and anger, from desperation to hope. The tightrope was flying. I closed my eyes and adjusted to the pace, looking for balance, frustration subsiding. As the adrenaline receded it became easier to inhale, and with the oxygen came sounder perspective: I was going to make the best of this imprisonment. With a book that had been waiting patiently in the queue on my bedside table, and sitting unnaturally erect, I began to read.
Two hours is not a long time to spend in a book, unless you have a million other things you would rather be doing, in which case it is an eternity. One hundred and twenty minutes hanging in the air. Seven thousand and two hundred seconds mercilessly dragging their feet. It’s what dogs feel when you walk to the end of the driveway to get the paper and they stare at the front door closed behind you wondering if you’re ever returning, and when you do, a moment later, they freak out. It’s what children feel fifteen minutes into a road trip prompting them to inquire ceaselessly, Are we there, yet? How much longer? Are we there? Are we there? Are we now? Are we close? I reread the same paragraph, every other word glancing over at my cell phone that sat silently beside me.
My sister-in-law, Marty, was the first responder to my predicament. When I answered the phone, it became clear that I had not appropriately communicated the gravity of my situation. She chuckled as I recounted my ordeal, how I cried and despaired, alone in my home, far from Whole Foods where I longed to be, combing produce aisles for organic purple potatoes and fennel bulbs. She gently questioned me in the way you approach small children and fragile people, the way that tells you that you may be an idiot. I had felt a lot of emotions up to that point, and I had approached ridiculous but in a wave of self-defense I batted it away and chose not to revisit it and settled on unfortunate, instead. But my sister-in-law was determined. After forcing me to declare several more times that, yes, I actually did need help, and that, no, I wasn’t joking, she agreed to stop by on her way home.
I waited for Marty, her two mile drive an endless road trip, Are you hear yet? Are you close? Are you now? Finally, a car pulled into the driveway. In slow motion, footsteps approached the front door behind which I was standing, peering, wagging my tail in insufferable anticipation. Marty’s smile was twisted on one side in skepticism until I whipped around to reveal the zipper that betrayed me and the tenacious hook that vexed me. Her head dropped. Quiet at first, she surveyed the situation and I thought she felt my suffering as I heard what sounded like soft crying. With a massive breath it found it’s voice and released into the air in a crescendo of contagious cackles. With the ease of an adult, she set me free and air flooded into my lungs, and in gratitude and relief, and a bit of disbelief, our laughter flew out and glided across the tightrope together.
I thought of Marty as I contemplated what to wear to an 80’s party the other night and stared fondly at the same dress, calling to me like a toxic crush. Before I could recall Einstein’s definition of insanity, I found myself squeezing back into it with gasps and jumps, my husband navigating the zipper to meet my nemesis, the bionic clasp. There was no panic this time as my ribs and organs rearranged themselves familiarly to accommodate what I was inexplicably determined to wear. But, I was not alone this time. I had someone to laugh at me, with me, strengthening my resolve and lending me the feeling of security that I had no business feeling. I stepped into my pointy-toed black heels, grabbed my black clutch, and threw a white jean jacket over my shoulders in case the zipper failed me and I needed cover, and because nothing says 80’s like a white jean jacket.
So much effort and hair spray, so many formerly-estranged hot rollers, only to discover it wasn’t an 80’s party after all. It was a retirement party for a band who had a few songs from the 80’s in their repertoire, which was primarily 60’s beach music. I’m not quite sure how I mixed up those details, but there I was, walking into a familiar sea in my brightly colored floral dress. And with a breath as deep as I could muster, and my date/friend/husband at my side, we worked our way to the dance floor and danced all night without incident. I wasn’t uncomfortable, not as much as I deserved to be, but having walked this line a very long time ago, I knew that it was something I could navigate and survive to tell the tale.