I wish I had a red dress. I've been wearing black for so long I feel like one of those ancient women in the foreign movies who are always sitting around, fingering their rosary beads and looking resigned while the hero rides to his death on behalf of the people, or for the sake of true love, which is really six of one, half dozen of the other, when you think about it.
I never cared much about clothes. My basic requirement is comfort, which automatically cuts out high-heeled shoes, pushup bras, panty hose and strapless evening gowns, but could theoretically still leave room for a range of colors, fabrics and even a stylish little something or other for special occasions.
The convenience of all black used to appeal to me. I loved the fact that I could reach into my closet and know everything I touched was going to match everything else I touched with absolutely no effort on my part, but it can be a little depressing sometimes. Even to me.
I didn't consciously start wearing black as a sign of mourning, even though at some subconscious level, I probably did. My husband, Mitch, died five years ago, which is when I really started noticing it, but he was just the last of a long line. My father passed when I was sixteen. My mother committed suicide on my wedding night a year later. My son got hit by a car walking home from school when he was six and my daughter didn't make it to her first birthday. I think she was the hardest one for me to deal with because I barely got to know her and she was gone.
It was just the opposite with Mitch. We'd been together since I was fifteen and we were so close I made the mistake of thinking we were the same person until he fell through that hole in the ice and drowned and I didn't die, even though for a long time I wished I had.
My baby sister, Ava, says it's hard to keep your body looking good when you know nobody's going to see you naked. She could have added that when you know your primary audience when clothed is preschoolers, some distracted teenage mothers, a few retirees and a government bureaucrat or two, it's equally difficult to get up much enthusiasm for earrings that dangle and skirts that swirl like you're standing in a little breeze even when you're not.
I'm a social worker. I used to be a teacher. Then one day I looked around and realized that what I was teaching and the way I was teaching it were completely irrelevant to my students' real lives. They were just ordinary kids from around here; young and wild and full of the most complicated human emotions and not nearly enough facility in any language to articulate those feelings to each other or to anyone else. But one day I saw them, really saw them, and everything changed.
It was a public high school and my classes were coed, but it was the girls who kept drawing my attention. There they'd be, balancing their squalling babies on their hips in the grocery store, slapping their toddlers at the Blockbuster, rolling their eyes and tossing their extensions, considering exotic dancing as a career option, falling in love with the wrong guys, being abused, getting AIDS and steadily having kids the whole time, and they were so absolutely confined and confused by their tiny little fearbased dreams that I looked out at them one day while I was trying to teach a poem by e. e. cummings, and they broke my heart. I started crying and had to dismiss the class so I could get myself together.
That's when I knew there had to be a better way to communicate with these girls than the one I was using. I decided that finding that better way was going to be my life's work because I don't think a group of people can survive if the women don't even have enough sense to raise their children.
That's why clothes are usually the last thing on my mind. Black pants and a black turtleneck without applesauce showing anywhere are about the best I can hope for at the moment, but somehow I can't get that red dress out of my mind.I Wish I Had a Red Dress. Copyright © by Pearl Cleage. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from I Wish I Had a Red Dress by Pearl Cleage
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