Kelsie Harriman: Tales from a Forgotten Closet

The father had to stop the daughter from tugging at the shirt too aggressively, so as not to disturb the fragile fabric. “I am glad you’ve enjoyed it so much,” he told her gently, “But it’s so old, I don’t think we should use it anymore. It is going to fall apart.”

The T-Shirt had once been a stiff, opaque white, he’d told her, before time and sweat had made it translucent. It had been issued to him in the Honduran refugee camp where he had been working in 1986. The “World Relief” insignia occupied the front panel: four identical, black caricatures of a hand, arranged in circle, fingers pointed inward. The back panel said “Go For It” in blocky letters of a deep sage green. The daughter always asked the father what the words meant. He was never sure. By 2006, they were the only part of the shirt that remained starchy and stiff, like a dish rag that dries in the shape of the soap that remains in its folds. The rest of the fabric had grown so soft that the daughter scarcely knew it was there. It hung limply and without protest, happy to conform to whatever shape her round, child’s body demanded.

The daughter had acquired the T-Shirt three years previously when her father gave it to her as a distraction from the conquest she had declared on his closet. Only six years old at the time, the daughter found nothing more pleasurable than wearing her parent’s clothing. That first night, she had slept in the T-Shirt because she was too tired from the day’s exploits to change into pajamas, and she wore it purposely every night thereafter. It was nothing like the other T-Shirts she had: the fabric felt like silk, or maybe air, or maybe like nothing at all. It had been washed perhaps hundreds of times, first by the hands of Honduran women, and then by the machinery of her parents’ old Maytag. On some nights, though, she thought she could still detect her father’s distinctive smell: ivory soap, and just a dab of Pamida’s $3.99 aftershave. Careful, not too much.

The daughter continued to resist. “But Daddy, I need it,” she pleaded, the edge of whine in her voice rendering trivial a legitimate disquiet. “My other shirts are too stiff. I can’t sleep in a stiff shirt. I won’t be able to sleep. I know I won’t be able to sleep….”

“Really, honey, its best,” consoled the mother, earnestly attempting to normalize. “We’ll save it so that someday you can give it to your children just like Daddy gave it to you.” The daughter didn’t respond. Her future children had nothing to do with this.

The father finally coaxed the fragile fabric from the daughter’s sausage fingers, slowly, with the kind of care one uses to ease a sick person into bed. The father placed the T-Shirt solemnly inside the plastic tub that resided on the closet’s top shelf. He closed the lid. The daughter walked away.

I haven’t seen the shirt since.

~

“I can’t take it,” I tell her. “It’s your favorite dress. I can’t your favorite dress.”

She looks at me. Silence. “Why?”

I am grappling for words now. She often has that effect on me. English is her third language, so she isn’t going to waste energy on words that aren’t necessary. The candidness is unnerving.

“I can’t take it,” I say slowly, the care with which she forms words causing me lend more attention to my own, “The dress is special. I can’t just take something like that from you.”

Her face is flat. “It isn’t a gift if it is not the very best you have.”

Now is not the appropriate time to cry. She is talking to me. No matter that I have spent the last several weeks prowling local shops searching for souvenirs cheap enough not maintain the cushion on my savings account, and nice enough to fool people into believing I had gotten them something expensive. No matter that I am leaving my friend in only a matter of hours, and I have no idea when I will ever see her–or anyone else here–again.

The dress deep blue and made of a thick, warm cotton. I had worn it once several months earlier, when she suggested I borrow it so we could go out to celebrate her birthday. I remember that it had fit me very well: it made my otherwise flat hips slightly more round, and its high cowl neck perfectly covered the protruding sternum bone I’d spent the last 21 years trying to hide. I don’t deserve this dress.

My eyes move to her meet hers, ready to gently decline the offer.

“He would love it,” she tells me. “He would love it if you wore this dress in Chicago.”

He would love it. I swallow once, and I take the gift, realizing I have never really given one in my life.

~

I am downstairs, in the padlocked storage area beneath the daughter’s new apartment building. You wouldn’t know it; it looks exactly like every other building on this block. I am zipped inside a blue, second-hand suitcase that the daughter acquired from somewhere she can’t remember. The apartment is small, but the closet is even smaller, so the daughter had to pare down her wardrobe. She’s bad at getting rid of things, though. Much better at storing them. Better at hiding them beneath blue plastic lids, or inside tightly-sealed suitcases. She consoles herself into thinking she might use them someday, or maybe give them to her children. I suppose she finds it comforting.

I shouldn’t take it personally. I have five holes, right down my front. Five coin-size, grossly obvious holes, acquired from she doesn’t remember where, located too far from my seams to patch. The mother told her to throw me away when she saw them, and she was the one who originally purchased me to wear as a bridesmaid’s dress at her sister’s wedding! She was the one who shortened me with a thread and needle when the daughter decide she wanted me when I was still still floor length and “too formal.” She threaded me through with her own hands, but as soon as I had holes, she wanted to throw me away. The daughter declined and put me in a suitcase. She stored me alive so that I may fully experience a long, slow disintegration. No, I shouldn’t take it personally.

The daughter is upstairs now, doing her usual morning “stand and stare.” This is where she positions herself in front of her overcrowded closest to examine the scores of clothes she’s collected over the years, most of which she never wears. Before coming to Chicago to start her third year of college, she bought five new T-Shirts at Target. Six dollars each. I remember her thinking that perhaps she should have purchased a sixth. For some reason, this thought is still running through her mind as she thumbs through the deluge of anonymous items congesting her closet.

Funny how easily the daughter forgot the cold anonymity of college life while she was away. She forgot that she wasn’t supposed to greet people she sees on the street, unless she knows them well enough to be sure they are going to greet her back. They never greet her back. She forgot that she can’t lounge in my friend’s home for hours, with no purpose and no conversation, and still expect to feel unobtrusive. She forgot that she needed to come to the forty-five-minute lunch for which her friends managed to “scheduled her in” with a list of engaging questions, so as to continue to keep up the pretenses of deep connection. Yes, the daughter’s time away had made her forget a lot of things.

Good, the daughter finally found a shirt. She doesn’t want to wear it, but she will. Anonymous black. V-neck. 98% cotton. Stiff. Just like every other shirt on every other kid walking around this campus with their headphones in, wondering why they are feeling so lonely.

Curious. The daughter is pausing now. Has she changed her mind? She is removing the anonymous black that’s covering the recently expanded frame that the mother and father still think is too thin. She’s putting on a bathrobe and slippers. Opening the back door of her apartment. Coming down the stairs to the storage unit. 3079. It opens. She enters. She traverses the forgotten debris of the strangers who live here: wilted posters, broken lamps, dishes left over from past tenants that no one had the energy to take to the dump. She’s near me now. She’s unzipping the blue, second-hand suitcase she acquired from somewhere she can’t remember.  What is she looking for? She is looking for me, her mother’s old dress, the one with the five big holes located too far from the seams to patch.

It’s over now, but she ended up wearing me all day. I was expecting her to put me on and then change her mind, just like she changed her mind about the black  V-Neck that wasn’t covering her protruding sternum as well as she wanted it to. But she wore me all day, just like she used to do. When her friend complimented my floral pattern, the daughter even told her my life story. I had underestimated her.

Now, I am resting on a hanger in her congested closet. Am I coming back to life? She placed me next to a blue cotton dress with a rather attractive cowl neck. I struck up a conversation with her; I couldn’t wait in here alone.  She told me that used to belong to someone else, a friend of the daughter, a strikingly beautiful woman.  She said she had been worn only once by the daughter since her arrival in the United States. It was causal dinner at a friend’s apartment, which the daughter had attended with the man. He was touched by seeing her wear the blue cotton dress, just like the beautiful friend had predicted, but he didn’t like the occasion for which she had chosen to wear her. He thought that she ought to have saved it for something more special. She didn’t think the man understood how much the daughter needed her friend that night.

She told me that the daughter had buried her nose in the cowl neck, hoping to pull out the smell of the laundry soap the boy had used to wash her by hand in back of the compound, and a floral perfume that had been given to the beautiful friend as a gift. All I could smell was Downy.  I asked if the daughter was able to smell anything. She said she wasn’t sure.

I met the man who loved the blue cotton dress on my day out. I liked him. He’s good for the daughter. When she asked him what he’d do if she started crying, he told her that he would start laughing. Did she take it the wrong way? Too bad she can’t see she that she needs to stop taking life so seriously.

I wish she would count all of the people in her life who want to read the stories she writes. The people who don’t care about the occasional fits of anxiety, or the expanding frame, or the protruding sternum. I wish she would go count these people, and tell them that she loves them. Because they aren’t gone yet, and neither am I.

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