CL 2018 Fiction Contest: Finalist - ‘The Dress’

“The Dress” by Sarah Brooks

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Photo credit: Illustration by Jeremy Fuerst

There were 2,000 cookies on the table  I know because I counted them all that afternoon.  I walked through the cast iron gate of the venue with fresh makeup (not too overly done), false eyelashes (natural looking, not fake), and a pinned up bun wrapped with a braid on top of my head.  I surveyed the Pittsburgh wedding cookie table that was arranged by my future mother-in-law, a short woman with a raspy voice and kind eyes.  She made the majority of the cookies – dozens of pizzelles, buckeyes, finikias, lady locks, rum balls, cake pops, and cookies that featured the mascot of the Pittsburgh hockey team.  I contributed my vegan cookies to the assortment. 
I did this all for him.  I chose Pittsburgh traditions for our Atlanta wedding.  I also picked black and gold as our colors — Pittsburgh sports colors.  I mean, they did make good fall colors for our October wedding.  He made all the table decorations himself.  Wood stained trays were filled with black and gold painted books that held a single purple flower.  Each book had a different number on it to dictate to guests which table they were to be seated at.  Mason jars with tiny candles accompanied the books on the trays and were wrapped with pieces of lace and music liner notes from our wedding march.  With each cookie I counted I felt more and more like shoving it in my mouth and then heaving it up.  He designed the labels for the cookie boxes, too — a gift for our guests to fill up as they please. 

Please fill your life with cookies. 

I was surprised when he proposed to me two years ago because I didn’t think he would do it so soon.  We had only been dating for a year.  We went to Nashville for a weekend because the Pittsburgh hockey team was playing there.  They won the game and we visited a local park the next day to have a picnic.  It was there by the lake that he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him.  I was surprised when he proposed to me and I was surprised that I said “yes” so quickly.

“Are you serious?”

I kept asking over and over again.  It was so early in our relationship, but I knew by his big, bearded smile and kind, watery eyes that he was serious about this.  He was actually serious about this and about me.  I said “yes” because I love him and he fills a hole inside of me.  A hole that had been created by mock-father figures and deceitful boys with empty promises and mediocre intentions.  A calloused hole that perhaps masks itself sometimes as feminism. For months after that, we kept going back and forth about the wedding plans.  I told him that I would marry him in a courtroom or even at a cheesy altar in Vegas.  As long as I was marrying him, I didn’t care where I did it.  Large weddings take too much time and money and I wanted our focus to be on each other instead of worrying about who was going to be in our wedding parties and what foods do we have to serve to fit everyone’s dietary restrictions. In the end, he talked me into a big wedding because he said he wanted to share the moment with his family and friends.

He also talked me into splurging on a dress. I thought I would find something in the back of a vintage store for less than $100.  Something I could afford on my single-person salary. After months of rifling through rows of dresses on aluminum clothing rods, he talked me into going to bridal stores with him.  He wasn’t concerned about seeing me in the dress before the wedding; he just wanted me to have “the dress of my dreams.” After trying on a few selections (modest in appearance and in an ivory hue that won’t make my pale skin washed out) he chose a more extravagant ball gown that required a corset to tuck in my curves and crinoline under the dress to exaggerate the bell of the gown.  The beading looked like tiny pieces of glass interwoven into intricate shapes and designs.  When it moved, it reflected light in the room and made me look like a snow queen.  The whole lot cost $3,000. He paid.  I liked the dress, but I didn’t love it.

I shivered and made my way from the cookie table over to the farm-style wooden doors of the kitchen area.  It was cold in the venue.  Our coordinator, Eileen, told us that she would lower the temperature so the cookies wouldn’t melt and it would warm up as soon as the bodies filled the room.  Along the silvery kitchen work tables, I found our stash of Mason jars and candles that were going to be placed down the aisle for the ceremony and on each table for the reception.

No, I won’t be afraid, no, I won’t be afraid.

I had our first wedding dance stuck in my head as I was rifling through the box of decorations for some type of lighter.  It was the song that we first danced to at his brother’s wedding in Pittsburgh two years ago.  It’s his favorite song.  I asked for it to be played at the wedding then and it never did.  So he led me onto the roof, played the song on his iPhone, and we danced to it.


I found a book of matches in one of the kitchen drawers and quickly made my way toward the front entrance again.


Eileen and my mom were blocking my cigarette escape.  They were standing by the only exit in the whole damn place.  My mom was holding up my wedding dress she brought over from the house, and Eileen, in her thick Southern drawl, said she “had never seen anything so shiny.” 

“Yeah.  Do you think that maybe you could turn up the heat in here?  I’m really freezing.”

I was wearing last night’s pajama pants and a button-down shirt that I could easily take off after getting my hair done.  Eileen handed me the bag that contained my corset and crinoline and told me it will get warmer as soon as people started to file in.

“It’s time for you to start gettin’ ready, darlin’.  He and his crew are going to be here in about an hour.”

Great.  I took the bag and headed toward the bridal suite.  Thoughts of taking a swig off a cigarette were still burning in my brain.  I walked past the DJ, who was assembling our play list on his Mac, or at least that was what I thought he was doing.  He and I are big music fans and gave the DJ a long list of music we wanted played throughout the reception.  A lot of Yo la Tengo, Avett Brothers, and Trampled by Turtles lined our playlist suggestions.  The DJ told us to whittle our selection down to a top ten assortment. At what point does a wedding stop being about you and your partner and start becoming this entity entirely of its own? 

Just as long as you stand, stand by me…

My mother met me in the bridal suite along with Eileen.  My three bridesmaids were busy putting up the the rest of the decorations, so I didn’t bother calling them over to help me put my gown on.

I unbuttoned my shirt and slipped off my pajama pants.  The shiny wooden floor was ice cold on my bare feet.  I made my mother and Eileen turn around as I fitted the corset to my breasts. My mother rolled her eyes and turned to Eileen to say something along the lines of, “what is there to see anyway?”  They could have been 5’4” twins.

My mother buttoned up the corset using the first set of buttons on the bottom and the second set on top.  I put my hand on my stomach and took a few deep breaths to make sure I could breathe comfortably.  I couldn’t.

“How’s it feelin’ darlin’?”

Why is she yelling at me?

“I can’t take deep breaths.  It hurts if I try.”

I tried to take another deep breath.

“Well, we can’t loosen up the top row of buttons.  If you bend over, you’ll show the world your lady pillows.”

I took the crinoline from my mother and started to put my feet through it.  The bodice part was made from stretchy satin and the skirt was made from a stiff material.  I had read once about English women in the 1800s who died when their crinoline garments caught fire. 

Corsets and crinoline.  Death by fashion. 

The satiny bodice of the crinoline stretched up over the bottom of the corset and the skirt made my legs itchy.  I immediately began rubbing my legs together.

“Now stop all that fidgeting or you’ll ruin your hair!”

Eileen and my mother were lifting the glass-like gown above my head and instructing me to lift my arms into it.  My legs felt like they were being abandoned by hundreds of full-bellied mosquitoes. 

I turned to look into the full-length mirror next to the Marie Antoinette-blue chaise lounge.  My face and chest made me look like I was embarrassed. 

“I need a glass of water.”

I didn’t look bad.  I liked the way the sequins caught the lights in the bridal suite.  My arm and shoulder tattoos did look ridiculous in this upscale gown but then again, I kind of knew that going into the whole thing. I kept clutching my chest to try to make it easier to draw in deep breaths, but I only really got there halfway.  My hand found skin underneath the bell of my dress and I started to scratch the spots left by the invisible mosquitos.  My legs felt burning hot.

“She might be having some allergic reaction to the material.  Did you do this at the bridal store?”

I’m pretty sure my mother was saying these things to me, but all I really wanted to do was to sit down.  The DJ started playing our Yo la Tengo songs, which meant that the guests were starting to pile in.  They would “ooo” and “ahh” over the cookie table and drop off their cards and gifts to “Mr. and Mrs.” on the wooden barn table decorated with his favorite photographs of the two of us.  He was OK with the fact that I wanted to keep my last name.

Eileen brought me a bottle of water from the kitchen downstairs, and my hand found its way from under my dress.  My fingernails had blood underneath them from scratching so hard.  I knew I should have gotten a manicure.  Eileen looked mortified.

“Honey you got to calm down or you’ll have nothing to stand on!”

She walked away to let the bridal party and groom’s party know that we were almost ready to begin.  My mother said she was going to go sit by my dad and she’ll check on me in a few minutes.

I took a (half) deep breath and looked around the bridal suite.  The black party dress that I purchased online for $100 hung on a plastic hanger by the door.  I was going to change into that dress for the reception so I could be comfortable while dancing and eating.  I loved that dress.  It was very 1950s-looking and didn’t require anything underneath it but a bra and underwear (if you wanted those things).  The fiery feeling on my legs had traveled up to the tops and backs of my thighs.  I noticed then that little beads of sweat were starting to form along my hairline.

(Half) deep breath.  (Half) deep breath.

We were going to Iceland for our honeymoon in just a few days.  That sounded nice.  He had always wanted to go there to see the Northern Lights.  We spent so much time planning for and talking about the wedding that we didn’t even make any plans for what we wanted to do there.  It was an expensive trip.  He paid for it because I couldn’t. 

“I don’t care how much it’s going to cost.  This is our honeymoon.  This is the only honeymoon we will ever have.  I love you.”

Scratch.  Scratch.

I could feel welts on my legs where my nails had found other places to scratch.  I thought about maybe putting on my pajama pants so that the crinoline wouldn’t rub against my legs but noticed my mother had taken my clothes bag with her.  As soon as I stood up, I thought I was going to faint. 

I couldn’t breathe.  Not even a (half) deep breath.  My hand lingered on my chest but no movement was made.

Screw this. 

I reached behind my back and under the bodice of the dress and unbuttoned the first few buttons of the corset.  A little better, but now I know what Eileen was saying about showing the world my lady pillows.

I took a peek outside of the door and saw that the guests were not yet seated.  I could go have a cigarette in the basement if I wanted to. I grabbed the cigarette and book of matches and took the metal staircase that leads from the bridal suite to the basement.  It looked like a 1920s speakeasy.  This was where guests were going to migrate after the ceremony to have a cocktail hour while the upstairs workers were getting ready for the reception.  I chose a gold couch with wood trim to sit on.  At this point, pounding my legs with my fist was partially alleviating the itching sensation. 

I put the menthol cigarette in my mouth and lit it with the last match in the book. My fingers smelled like blood. I took a long puff on the cigarette before I blew out the fire on the match.  There wasn’t an ash tray.


I thought that if I ashed on the floor next to me, I could just push it under the couch with my foot. 

So darlin’, darlin’, stand by me.

I let the ashes accumulate on the cigarette before I flicked them onto the floor the first time.  It reminded me of our first argument.  How after it was over I went outside and smoked a cigarette.  He didn’t know I smoked.  I needed to be alone.  I needed space. He was too into my business.  I looked around me in the basement and that was exactly what I had.  I was alone on my wedding day.  Isn’t this what I thought would always make me happy?  To go off somewhere and just figure things out on my own?  I take care of myself and I fend for myself and I always have.  Marrying him would either make me the happiest woman on Earth or it would make me the most miserable. 

If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall.

It was particularly warm in the basement.  It smelled like burning plastic.  I went to put out the cigarette on the floor next to me and saw smoke coming out from under my dress.  I rushed to my feet and started toward the vintage bar.  Something.  Anything.  Water.  Seltzer water.  Nothing. The smoke was growing thicker with every movement I made.  My thighs and legs felt like they were being invaded by hills of angry fire ants.  Every movement I made was like striking a match against my skin.

I unbuttoned the rest of my dress and stumbled out of it.  There were burn marks where the skirt touched the ground and leading up the back.  I undid the rest of the buttons on the back of my corset and looked toward the ceiling as inhaled a deep breath and let it out.  There was no more smoke to be seen under the crinoline but it was covered in black, smoldering patches.  With the way my legs were itching, I don’t know if I had gotten burned or not.  I ripped through the netting in the crinoline until I was standing there in the basement, naked except for my underwear.  I looked down at my legs.  I shaved them last night and they still glistened from the lotion I put on them this morning.  No redness.  No burn marks.  No bloody scratches. The air in the basement was as if there hadn’t been smoke down there at all.  I looked down at my dress, and that was definitely still burned.  I looked down at the crinoline.  That was definitely still torn.

I started to laugh.  It started as a nervous giggle and evolved into a full-on cackle.  I was laughing like a mad woman down there all by myself.  Maybe I was crazy.  Did I dream this or did it really happen?  What would have happened if I didn’t take the burning dress off?  The dress that he bought me six months ago with his money.  The one he bought for me because he loves me.

I laughed so hard that I started to cry.  The dress.  The dress that he bought me.  Because he loves me.  My love.  The one who fills a hole inside me.  My eyes and nose were both soaked at this point and I was still standing there naked.  And alone.

I love him.  He loves me. His kind eyes.

I picked up the corset, burned dress, and crinoline and hid them in the bathroom.  I went upstairs in my underwear.  Without putting on a bra, I slipped into the black dress that I had bought.

Sarah Brooks spent most of her life in upstate New York where she thought she was going to be a serious journalist until a series of events only described in a Taylor Swift song led her to Atlanta, where she is currently disguised as a digital marketer trying hard to maintain an ITP status with her supportive husband, two fur babies, and 50 house plants.