Hysterical and breathless, I’m running down the beach in ragged pajamas and flip flops, an Alpine hat on my head bearing the stripes of the Jamaican flag. Less than 24-hours post-op, Mia the husky, stoned on pain meds, decided to ignore her doctor’s advise, jump the fence and take a jog down to Seal Rock, three lines of staples lining her left side and belly. This was months ago, but it’s frozen in my mind as the moment when I decided it was time to give a rat’s ass about my clothes. The kindly citizen who finally grabbed her collar and hauled her up the path to my furious and grateful self, hands on my knees, sweat streaming from under my rasta hat, she smiled a half-lit smile, glanced at my snowflake pajama bottoms and said, “Go home, take a shower, pour yourself a drink.” It was 9:00 in the morning. Apparently, I dress like an A.M. boozer.
When I was a girl, while my best friend, Annelisa, was slipping into her mother’s high heels and twirling gossamer scarves, I was playing in my father’s closet, running my hand along a row of suits and custom made shirts with French cuffs, sending up the faintest whiff of Old Spice. He was mixing prints decades before Vogue said it was okay. I’d slide the silk neckties around my neck and softly creak open the velvet-lined case that held his tie pins and cuff links. It was like looking into a box of magic, or treasure chest, keys to another life, far from my small, dusty town. Watch a man tie a perfect Windsor knot without looking in a mirror, then effortlessly slip on cuff links and you’ll see how gentlemen are built, how diplomacy is made, where table manners come from, why your wedding day needs a prince.
To his credit, my father didn’t baulk when I went through my “Annie Hall” phase in high school and started stripping his hangers of starched shirts and button down tweed vests, snagging his widest, most deeply striped neckties. While my girlfriends were flipping up the collars of their pink Izod shirts, leaving off the socks from their boat shoes and scouring the Preppy Handbook for new ways to wear plaid, I was rolling up my dad’s shirtsleeves, perfecting the Half Windsor and donning a Fedora.
Heading off to school one morning, looking like a gangly, Private-I from the moneyed side of Chicago, I overheard Aunt Marie, who solemnly made the sign of the cross, whisper to my mom, their dark heads tilted together in concern. I couldn’t make out the whole conversation, but the words, “God forbid,” and “lesbian” came ringing through. What they didn’t understand is that I wasn’t dressing for the life I had then, I was dressing for the life I wanted: a majestic skyline, glass-lined board rooms, firm handshakes and a table at the Four Seasons. My dad, a business owner and politician, always dressed for the Governor’s mansion. He didn’t quite make it there. Not for lack of a constituency, but because life intrudes in ways we can never imagine. And there were a lot of mouths to feed.
After my first marriage ended, my dad, still wearing a Fedora, pulled up in front of the For Sale sign and I immediately started yanking armfuls of clothes off the rack and throwing them in the back of his pick-up truck, helter-skelter. The pile, grew and slid as the blackening sky overhead threatened to break open with much needed rain. My dad, his brow furrowed with worry, fingered the silks, linens and sequins, “Mijita, I had no idea you spent so much money on clothes. These are really nice. You should be more careful with them.” Broken-hearted and sleepless, I kept tossing knots of clothing over the tailgate, “I just don’t care anymore.” Leaving my dad to tarp the whole mess, I gathered a handful of my soon-to-be ex-husband’s cuff links and tossed them out the bathroom window. Then I cried for a year. Of course, in retrospect, I realize how childish I acted. Had I been a more mature adult, I would have taken just one from every pair of cuff links…and then tossed.
It’s true. Back then I spent an embarrassing amount of money on clothes. In fact, the most expensive boutique in Albuquerque back then, Elsa Ross, used to wait for me to get off work every Friday, the girls lined up like itchy soldiers, a bottle of champagne chilling in the frig. While I’m sure there was much talk about the reckless abandon of a certain “doctor’s wife,” the real reason I loved beautiful clothes is how they touched me. How they slid down my arms and legs and rump. How they draped across my breasts and caressed my neck. I didn’t have that in my marriage, so I bought and paid for it with a designer wardrobe.
Almost all those clothes in the back of the truck were never resurrected. Sometimes, I cringe at the beauty I threw away, at the heedless waste (especially when I’m picking up a sports bra at Fred Meyers), but mostly I admit that they served their purpose in that life: they made me feel loved and cared for.
Besides dressing for the life you want, my dad had a few other fashion rules: 1) Always dress up when going out to dinner. Folks went to a lot of effort to create your meal, mix a perfect martini, and serve you with dignity so have the wherewithal to honor that effort with a nice outfit. Same goes for election day. Dress for the polls like you give a shit. You get a vote. Be grateful for that and make wise choices. Or else someone will make them for you. Take note, Great Britain! 2) Always wear a hat. Do fine bottles of wine sit around without corks? No, they do not. 3) Always complete your outfit with scent. My father bought me my first bottle of perfume. It smelled like flowers and the paisley sofa cushions of a spinster, but I wore it for years anyway. And while I did go through a phase of wearing men’s cologne (try not to get all Freudian and judgy about this, dear reader) I now wear a scent that vaguely reminds me of a vase of roses in a sitting room with paisley sofa cushions.
In the last several years, however, my fashion barometer has been slowly sliding downward and the needle got firmly stuck on Warm and Dry because for the first several years here on the coast, it seems I was NEVER warm and dry. A job punctuated by yoga pants and wicking fabrics certainly doesn’t help.
And then a few happenings woke me up: New Year’s Eve, I wore a fitted, sequined top (and a real bra, not a uni-boob sports bra!) over my requisite pants (ala Greta Garbo) and as soon as I entered the restaurant, my friend, Zachary, threw up his hands and said, “My God, you have boobs.” And then the owner of the restaurant, handed out menus and added, “You really do have nice boobs!” And then the whole table of eight raised glasses of bubbly and toasted my cleavage. Who knew!
A month later, the Ranger and I get an invite to a fundraiser and I realize I have no dress, at least not a nice dress. In fact, the only dress I own has pink polka dots, which I wore to wedding on the beach where a drunken fight erupted amongst the wedding party, and broken bottles of Chardonnay were wielded. It shocked me that I owned nothing elegant and serious. So my friend, Julie, without me having to bow my head and ask, showed up at the yoga studio with two beautiful dresses from her closet. And one of them fit perfect. I looked like a slightly naughty French girl with a good education, and possibly a trust fund.
Then last week, a dear friend gave me a shawl spun of silk and velvet and beads and ancient grandeur. It was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in a long time and my eyes filled with tears for all that I’d lost and all that I’d gained. Standing barefoot in yoga clothes, I wrapped myself in it and nodded at the distance. Because now I am loved and well cared for by a Ranger with rough and callused hands and this simple puddle of loveliness that floats around my shoulders is something my dad would appreciate the way I can now. Not as a symbol. Or a statement. But as a toast to a life fully lived.