Drawing by Julia Pastreich
Julia Pastreich; Washington, DC—
The final blue button poked its head through the hole in the front of my shirt. I pinched my fingers together and pushed it all the way through. I tugged on the hem, running the stiff fabric through my fingers. I looked my reflection in the eye. When I shifted my gaze down my vision filled with small green dots on dark blue cloth. I was almost floating in the ocean. Finally. Seaweed surrounded me. I could swim without them. Without her. I let go of the breath I had trapped in my lungs. My smile grew. My hands ran over the collar and sleeves and buttons. Look at it. Look at the blue and green. Look at the creases and folds.
When I was smaller I got hand-me-downs from my big sister. For a while they were dark and baggy. They were just like the boys’ clothes. I floated inside them. She moved on to sandals with heels, but I kept her things until I got too big. Then I got my own. I stuck with dark and baggy.
I ripped open the paper package and pulled out the cloth inside. My expectations were low — birthday presents from my great-aunt could lead to heartbreaking disappointment. Especially clothes.
I held it up above my head to see what it was. Black and gray lines intersected in an uneven pattern over the shirt. The fabric folded into a collar and buttons lined the front. My mouth formed a smile. I loved it.
I shoved my arms through the patterned shirt and shrugged to pull it over my shoulders. My feet carried me to the mirror beneath the stairs. I grinned even wider. I imagined myself in a suit and tie and my new patterned shirt.
When we went to eat, I barely even thought about the food in front of me. I could only think about how everyone could see me in my beautiful new shirt. I had begged and begged to go to this restaurant, but I had a new shirt. And it had buttons and a collar and stripes that criss crossed all over my chest and back and stomach. I didn’t need food. I could sustain myself on that feeling alone.
I ran my hands across the row of jeans hanging up in the store. I felt nervous and out of place. I was 14 and I had never even bought a pair of jeans in a store without my parents. I grabbed a few pairs of women’s jeans that looked like they might fit and dragged my feet to the dressing room with my head hanging low to hide my burning face. I hated this. The only reason I was here was because some girl in my grade had made a comment about a pair of sweatpants I wore once. I had thought they were nice, but I guess she didn’t. I slid into a dressing room and quickly tried on the pants.
I walked into the school the first day after winter break wearing my new jeans. I felt self conscious. Like I was back in the store.
“Hey, nice jeans.” It was her.
“Thanks,” I mumbled and ducked my head.
“Better than your cargo pants. Or those sweatpants,” her laughter filled my head.
She wasn’t the only one.
“Those pants are new! I like them!”
“I’ve never seen you wear something like that before.”
Then high school began. Then there were shirts that pulled on my shoulders. Then high school continued. Then there were jeans that squeezed even tighter. Never quite fitting in but close enough. Never quite feeling right but close enough.
I am not her. I am not any of them. So I bought a new shirt. With green spots on dark blue cloth. With a collar and buttons. I buttoned it up. Blue and green engulfed me. I put on my pants. My pants. Black and loose and perfect. I laced up my boots. Dark and strong and blue. Like my shirt. I leaned back into the ocean, my tears drifting away into the cool water. I had forgotten how it felt to float. I was out of the shirts that made me tense my shoulders, anticipating her words. All of their words. Out of the shoes that weighed me down until I was stuck at the bottom of the ocean with her laughter. All of their laughter. Out of the jeans that itched so I’d always long for the comfort of the sweatpants she hated. They all hated.
She lied to me. They all did. My jeans were not so nice. And she and they and everyone knew all along. Every single one of them knew that those jeans squeezed me until I was barely visible. But I walked past the mirror beneath the stairs one day and saw a whole person somewhere in the sliver of me the jeans left room for. She was floating in a baggy shirt with uneven black and gray stripes criss-crossing across her chest. And she caught my eye.
So I filled my dresser. The old things shoved away in a dusty shelf in the closet. Too far away for me to reach, but always there just in case. In case I started to hear their lies again. But for now, they sank to the bottom of the ocean. I only heard slivers of their words and laughs as I swam in my shirt. I was complete. With my shirt and my pants and my boots. Nice, at last.