She is walking down Fifth Avenue on her way to work one morning when she sees it: the dress that will change her life.
She stops in the middle of the sidewalk and a man in a suit nearly collides into her. He mutters angrily under his breath as he passes, but she doesn’t hear him. She is transfixed.
It’s a simple dress, a sleeveless black design with a modest neckline, but there is something compelling about it nonetheless.
It ends just above the knees of the mannequin wearing it, hugging the broadest part of the mannequin’s hips and tapering in at the waist. There are no ruffles or sashes, no fancy beadwork to disguise or distract. It is blacker than black, the kind that draws all of the light in a room towards it, the kind with no end. The kind someone could fall right into, she thinks. It is elegant, but approachable, sophisticated but sensible. This is what they mean by timeless, she thinks.
She has an image of herself wearing the dress then, surrounded by warm light and soft music. She is seated at a bar, sipping cocktails, poised and mysterious. She is hailing a cab on a downtown street, hair loose and cheeks flushed after a night of drinking and dancing. She is walking through museum galleries, through Central Park, down crowded sidewalks, pensive and glamorous. In all of these scenarios she imagines the heads of strangers turning in her direction, the longing in their eyes as they gaze upon her.
Before she realizes what is happening, she is moving towards the shop door and trying to open it. It’s locked. She checks the time: nearly 9AM. She’s pulled out of her reveries and begins power walking in the direction of her office.
By the time she settles into her desk, she has come to the conclusion that she doesn’t need any new dresses. She already has a closet full of them and she can’t justify that kind of frivolous spending anymore, not at her age. It would be wasted on her in any case, because she hardly ever goes anywhere or meets anyone special these days. Most of the time she just goes to work and then comes home afterwards because she’s too tired to do much else. She vows to be more practical.
By lunch time she has almost forgotten about the dress entirely, until she is washing her hands at the restroom sink and catches sight of her own creased and faded dress reflected back at her. She had liked the dress when she bought it, but that was nearly two years ago. The cheerful, floral pattern seems gauche to her now, almost embarrassing. She pulls her cardigan tighter around her chest and returns to her desk.
She takes her usual route after work, turning onto Fifth Avenue and following it for several blocks. Instead of turning at 59th street like she normally does, though, she hesitates, then keeps walking straight in the direction of the shop. She decides she is just going to pass by the window and, if the dress is still there, she’ll go in and have a look at it.
A little bell chimes as she enters. An employee standing behind the counter starts towards her.
“Welcome. Just so you know, we will be closing in a few minutes, so if there is anything I can help you find–”
“Just looking, thank you.”
Her eyes scan the shop. There, on a rack right in front, is the dress. She approaches it shyly, as if about to come face to face with the person she has been harboring secret fantasies about.
It is even more stunning up close. She reaches out and brushes the hem of the dress with her hand. The fabric is like liquid under her fingers. She imagines how it will feel against the rest of her skin.
She flips over the tag and checks the price. She jerks her hand back as if she’d just touched a hot stove. The dress costs nearly as much as her monthly rent.
She glances around the shop then, afraid that someone is coming to shoo her away, or worse—that they are laughing at her—but the employee is over by the counter, sorting hangers. She checks the price tag again, hoping that she mixed up a decimal point or a zero somewhere, but she didn’t.
She's never owned anything quite as nice as this in her entire life. And really, it’s almost like the dress wanted her to find it. What is the point, after all, of working 40 plus hours a week if not so you can afford to buy yourself lovely things every once in a while, she reasons.
She does some quick math in her head. If she charges it, she won’t have to pay the balance until the end of the following month, and by then she should have enough in her checking account to cover it, so long as she doesn’t order takeout and skips the Friday night drinks with her co-workers. She had planned on saving up to take a little trip in the spring, booking a bed someplace warm with a view of the ocean. But that can always wait. Every day in the dress will feel like a mini vacation, she tells herself.
She finds her size, takes the hanger from the rack, and moves towards the mirror in the corner of the shop. She holds the dress up under her chin, twisting left and right to admire it from different angles.
“I’m afraid we’ve just closed our fitting rooms, but we open at 11 tomorrow morning, if you’d like to come back and try that on.”
She hadn’t even noticed that the same employee who greeted her at the door was now standing right beside her. If she allows herself even a minute more to deliberate, she thinks, she’ll find an excuse not to buy it.
“No need. I’ll take it, thank you.”
The next second she is following the employee to the checkout counter, opening her purse, and handing over her credit card. She walks briskly all the way home, the paper bag held tightly in her fist, as if she has just committed some crime and needs to hide the evidence right away.
When she arrives at her apartment that evening, she removes the dress from it’s bag and hangs it on the knob of her wardrobe door, where she has a direct view of it from her bed. She gazes at it as she’s drifting off to sleep that night, admiring the sleek lines and the way the fabric catches the light that filters in through her bedroom curtains.
She doesn’t wear the dress the next day or the following one. She doesn’t even try it on. Each time she considers it, she talks herself out of it. She tells herself she is waiting for the right occasion, the right weather, the right pair of earrings or shoes to come along.
Instead she behaves how she thinks someone deserving of the dress would. She takes long, hot baths with scented bubbles in the evenings. She drinks glasses of water with wedges of lemon in them. She portions out her meals with measuring cups, humming to herself as she places neat little mounds of food on her plate. The woman in the dress would never eat straight from the box or the bag or the jar, she tells herself. She spends a weekend deep cleaning her apartment, using an old toothbrush to scrub the grout between each bathroom tile and around the baseboards. When that doesn’t feel sufficient, she rearranges all of the furniture. She walks more leisurely to work each morning, taking long, graceful steps, with her head held high and her shoulders pushed back. The woman in the dress would never hunch or scrunch and she certainly wouldn’t run to catch the bus, she tells herself. She meets the eyes of strangers on the subway and smiles, feeling a newfound sense of generosity. She takes up more space in the office elevator, laughs a little louder at her co-workers’ jokes. She gets her hair and nails done–another expense, but she factors it in as a kind of tax to be added to the sum total of the dress. She sleeps more soundly at night and wakes up feeling refreshed. The world is suddenly full of possibilities. With the dress in her possession, anything might happen at any moment.
This feeling carries her through the next two weeks until one evening, when she is preparing for bed and happens to look over at the dress hanging on the wardrobe door, where she’d left it. This time, she doesn't hesitate. Feeling emboldened, she walks over to the wardrobe and removes the dress from its hanger. Positioning herself in front of her dresser mirror, she begins to undress.
She had imagined the dress slipping on easily, like a second skin, but as she pulls it over her head, the fabric doesn't give. She has to coax it down, inch by uncomfortable inch, past her shoulders.
When she finally manages to snake the rest of her body into the dress, she steps back to admire her reflection.
She doesn't recognize herself at first, so stark is the difference between the woman she had envisioned and the woman standing across from her. The dress is too snug around her bust and it bunches awkwardly at her waist. Her pale skin looks cadaver-like against the black, and the stubborn shadows under her eyes and cheeks are more pronounced.
It is all impossibly wrong.