The day after stuffing oneself on turkey and all of the fixings is not the ideal time to go shopping for new clothes.
But timing is nothing. We had just gotten an invitation to a black-tie wedding in Washington, D.C. For Mark, all that meant was digging out his tux and making sure his shoes would be shined. For me, after immediately going through my closet mentally and coming up empty-handed, I knew what that meant. Black Friday was going to be come Ack! Friday.
“Ack!” was the favorite expletive uttered by Cathy, the food-obsessed, lovelorn comic strip character whose exploits at home and on the job mirrored much of my life throughout my 20s. In the strip, hovering alongside Cathy’s head would be those comic strip puffy bubble balloons sharing her innermost thoughts. Prominently featured in Cathy’s thought bubbles would be the word “Ack,” invariably punctuated with multiple exclamation points strung along like so many jabs of a poking finger. Her mother asking her about her love life? Ack!!! Being tempted by chocolate? Ack!!! Tripping over her feet and spilling coffee on her way to a business meeting? Ack!!!
I could relate to it all.
All these years later, I could tell that Friday’s shopping foray was going to result in a lot of Ack-ing.
It has been years — lots of years — since I’ve had to buy anything remotely dressy. And in those years things have happened. Like I seem to have lost my waist. I’m not sure where it’s gone, but it’s not where and what it used to be. And once you lose your waist, it all goes downhill from there. Literally.
It probably didn’t help that we followed Thursday’s Thanksgiving feast by starting Friday morning with a breakfast of leftover butterflake dinner rolls (“butterflake” basically says it all). My mother — who in her own right is a world-class, Olympic gold medalist champion shopper — and I agreed we’d work it off while shopping and set out.
First stop, I walked out with a blousy top, flowing sleeves that dipped gracefully at the wrists, a band of shiny black sequins at the neck.
“Welllll,” I said, the “l’s” trailing off reluctantly. “Maybe I could wear black pants.”
I didn’t sound very convincing even to myself.
We popped into another clothing store. Rifling through the sale rack, I came across a frothy wisp of a dress, sleeveless, skimming the knee.
I squeezed into it. “Like sausage in a casing,” I muttered before I realized I needed to conserve every molecule of oxygen because I could only take small, tiny breaths in this self-imposed bondage.
My mother took one look and sighed with a small shake of her head.
I took it off only to realize I had had it on backward.
So, while it was highly unlikely that by putting it on correctly the dress would miraculously expand up a size (or two), I pulled myself back into it just in case.
We agreed: We liked it better backward.
Next step, a shop in my hometown that has catered to women there for more than 70 years. It seems my time had come.
I grabbed a short sleeveless black-and-tan dress that vaguely reminded me of a costume from a ballet. I could have used more black, less tan.
But that’s when things started to get fun.
Between my mom and one of the clerks, a dozen dresses appeared on the rack outside of the dressing room.
“Don’t worry about the size. Ignore the size. It’s just a number,” the clerk said with a dismissive wave of her hand.
But it’s become such a big number, I thought.
So it began. I slipped a dress over my head and stepped out for review. Over and over and over again.
I rejected the sleeveless short red dress with the two ruffles dancing right at the knee. I felt like a bloomin’ hot house poinsettia.
Also out, the fitted turquoise satin. Between the diagonal bands of fabric cascading from my waist and hips, the sparkle around the waist and neckline, and the halter-top plunge, I resembled a not-so-Little Mermaid when she first got her legs.
The sleek black satin sheath and jacket with the bling on the cuffs and waist? I looked like I was in a power suit on steroids.
The filmy purple drape with the handkerchief hem? Flower child gone bad.
The sapphire blue with the silver beadwork circling my neck? No.
The ice blue lace? Uh-huh.
By the final round, the mirrors back by the dressing room had attracted a crowd. I had drawn an audience of clerks and other shoppers who were more than willing to weigh in.
“The black,” one said.
“The brown with the jacket,” said another.
“The turquoise,” said my husband (my response to that — Ack!!!).
In the end, I chose a lovely, elegant dress that makes me feel like … me.
I sprung for glittery, dazzling shoes with open toes that seem foolish for a December night. But they are perfect.
I don’t know how and when it happened, but I have grown up and grown older and, thankfully, gratefully, with what little grace I have, I have come into my own.
Now if I could just figure out how to get my waist back.
Chris Arbutina writes a monthly column for the CDT.