I didn’t want to take the dress off. I put my hands on my waist, felt how tiny it was – the sample size being a barely-zippable 10 helped with that, but the cut of the dress was also magical. It hit me exactly where it should, at my slightly lower than average natural waist, where so many off the rack dresses missed the mark just a bit, and from there the skirt billowed out just far enough to create a bell shape, without layers of fussy tulle or too much shine in the fabric, ending at three different-width bands of detail at the hemline. In the borrowed heels, I was just tall enough to keep the hem from skimming the wood floors as I leaned forward and back, swooshing the skirt; this dress was different from all the others, so simple except for the detailing at the hem and a whimsical tuxedo-style pleat across the bust. I put my hands in the pockets and grinned as my friends looked on. I could tell by their faces that they loved it, and that they could tell I loved it. I still had so many dresses to try on, not to mention a fiancé who couldn’t tell me whether or not he still wanted to marry me, hadn’t even called me to say “happy seventh anniversary – I know I’m a worthless asshole but I promise you that no matter what, I love you and we’ll get through this.” I had no idea whether I should buy a dress that day, or whether I should even be trying them on, but I’d made the appointments and I didn’t want to let anyone down, or find myself in the lurch when/if he made up his mind that he did in fact want to get married in six months, so I had downed some liquid courage, gathered my bridesmaids, and gone downtown. All I could bear to focus on was the dress. I swung my hips and looked at my tiny waist in the mirror again. Could the first dress of the day really be it?
I thought maybe it could, but then I tried on the second one. The slinky, glamorpuss gown that hugged all those curves I’d spent so many years loathing and only recently come to a mild truce with. It had an off-the-shoulder sweetheart neckline and a slight mermaid flare below the knee, and the ruched satin from top to bottom made me look like a 1940’s starlet. Despite their initial affection for the first dress, my friends were floored by this one. So was I. I felt sexy, something I’d only learned was possible when I’d met my fiancé, and never really internalized until I saw myself in the mirror in that second dress. I wanted to cry, because I loved the way I looked and because I was confused and in pain about the uncertainty of my relationship and because now I was in love with two dresses and what if I loved others just as much? I felt a sudden panicked need to get back into my own drab clothes and run far away from impossible choices.
I needn’t have worried about the other dresses: I tried on at least twenty others, in three stores, hoping to find one that would make both of my favorites look like distant seconds – ‘The One’, which the wedding industry keeps telling women they’ll find if they just keep hunting, just like we’re told we’ll find ‘The One’ in a man if we just keep eliminating flawed contenders until we uncover perfection. But I kept coming back to those first two. Over wine and cheese with my bridesmaids I wavered and explained, justified and reneged. “He’ll die if I walk out in that slinky one,” I said, and my throat and face flushed; “he just really loves my hips.” I said it almost apologetically, as if that were a fetish of which we should both be ashamed, but internally I reveled in the newish certainty that my body could be a killer in a good way for at least one man. “But the pockets! And that adorable pleating!” I had always been a sucker for quirky details; in high school I had tempered my position as a bodily outsider on the edges of cute by choosing unusual patterns and bright colors from which most ‘fat girls’ shied away. I may have prided myself on my curves within my relationship, but I’d prided myself on detailing all my life.
I went back to the store and tried on those dresses two more times that week: once with a close family friend who cried when she saw me in the slinky gown, and then, on the last day before the deadline to buy, with my mother, who remained dry-eyed and slightly stiff as she told me she preferred the more modern style. Finally, on the last day before I flew back to London, I managed to articulate my conundrum. I turned from the mirror and said to my mother, “I want to get married in the sexy one, but I want to wear the fun one.” I was caught not between dresses but between whom I wanted to be seen as on my wedding day and who I actually was, every day. As the words landed I knew which dress I was going to choose: the fact that I could buy the sample for half price was just the pleating on the bodice.
The wedding never happened. Instead, my fiancé imploded emotionally and took my entire life down with him; when he finally admitted to having an affair I was at once relieved to have a reason for his behavior and furious that the reason was so cliché. I gave away or threw out all the wedding favors and cancelled everything I could, recouping little money and a little more dignity, but the dress remained hanging in my closet at my parents’ house. Every time I opened the door I burst into tears. When I finally handed the dress over to a close friend to sell I felt a desperate sense of loss, despite the pain I’d felt every time I’d seen it for the past month; I sobbed for half an hour after she left, twisting on the bed as if I could turn myself inside out and find a cheerier print on the other side of my skin.
My friend tried to sell the dress, posting ads and inviting women over to try it on, but to no avail. It remained hanging in her bedroom for a year, and I constantly had to resist looking at it; even harder to resist was the desire to try it on, especially given my new depression-chic svelteness. I resisted, and the dress remained on the fringes of my social life – never fully gone, but not really mine anymore either.
The desire to torture myself by trying it on began to fade, slowly. Soon I was asking myself why the dress hadn’t simply been given to charity. After all, I wasn’t desperate for money, and by the time I was able to regain the hope of a potential future wedding I knew it wasn’t likely I would ever want to wear that dress to marry a new partner. I was generous in other areas of my life, so why the resistance to giving this one thing away, making someone else’s wedding day that much more fun and unusual? I toyed with the idea of thinking the dress was somehow cursed, that wearing it would bring a bride bad luck and her life would be destroyed as epically as mine had been, but I couldn’t really commit to superstition. In the end I had to admit to myself that I really just didn’t want to give it up; it was mine, and I couldn’t think of it any other way.
The first few times I mentioned shortening and dyeing the dress, my friends and family balked. It wouldn’t work, they said, and anyway I’d think about my ex every time I wore it. I accepted this opinion, but returned to the idea periodically throughout the year. I met a wonderful man, on Tinder, of all places, and we began to get serious, and as I told him more of my story I mentioned the dress to him, mentioned my idea of repurposing it. He said the same thing as the others: “you’ll always know what it was, no matter what length or color it is.” I was still struggling to let go of my ex, even as I became closer to my new partner, so I accepted his opinion too. They were all probably right, I figured. They probably knew better; if I had proven one thing in the past two years, it was that I didn’t have the necessary perspective to take proper care of my heart.
Next month I’ll celebrate the end of my second year with my new partner. I’m happy with him, in a way I once thought I could never be again. We talk about marriage, and children, and we’re even getting close to being ready for them. I’m finally able to picture a future with his face in it instead of my ex’s or, more recently, a black hole of nothing. Last winter, I began to revisit the idea of shortening and dyeing the dress. Maybe a nice blue-gray, I’d think, or navy. Something I could wear to a formal event. And as I talked through the idea with my boyfriend, I realized something: everyone who loved me told me it was a mistake, that I’d always know what it used to be, but that could be said about almost everything in my life: my world was torn apart and I clung to the scraps with all my might, and eventually I found ways to make them worth something again.
I found a way to wear my life after all the damage my ex caused, so why couldn’t I do the same with the dress? After all, I’d at least chosen the dress that was mine, rather than opting for the one that would have made his jaw drop. Why couldn’t it be mine still, in a different form? That was, if it even still fit me.