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Little Brown Dress

When I free my body from its clothes, from all their buttons, belts, and laces, it seems to me that my soul takes a deeper, freer breath. — August Strindberg

My arms were trapped above my head by the unforgiving garment I was attempting to shimmy into. After pulling a muscle in my right arm in an effort to escape the silk prison I’d created, I paused and tried to picture my awkward reflection in the mirror I couldn’t see. Howling in frustration and misery, I leaned against the bathroom wall and considered my predicament, a task that would have been much less melodramatic had I not been intoxicated.

It had been around three months since I’d acquired the “iridescent espresso” gown that now held me captive — “iridescent espresso” being Ann Taylor’s words for “brown.” My pants were snug from two months of serial wining and dining at my preferred San Diego eateries sans exercise, a regimen that would leave even the fittest women with a bit of bloat. I knew I’d gained some weight, but I’d refused to contemplate the exact amount.

I took a deep breath and wormed my way free of the chocolate-colored evidence of my denial. I tried again, this time unzipping the wretched thing before throwing it over my head. Once I’d squeezed the bridesmaid’s dress (the one I was supposed to wear at my sister’s wedding just seven no-carb days away) around my abundant hips, I tugged the two zipper halves on the left side of my torso together. “Not even close,” I spat at the mirror. Despite my exertion, the two muddy shores yawned around a four-inch river of flesh.

Once my sobs had tapered to sniffles, I texted David, who was a few states away at a photography workshop. His first response, as always, was born of logic — he thought I probably just needed help with the zipper, and that if the dress was still too tight, I’d simply need to have it altered. As if it wouldn’t be a horrific experience to stand in front of a complete stranger and say, “Is there enough fabric for you to extend this thing to cover where I’ve porked up?” Just as I was imagining my humiliation, David texted, “Don’t panic, don’t cry.” I typed, “Too late, bawling like a baby.” We communicated this way for a few minutes, me writing that I was a big fat failure, David assuring me that I don’t fail at anything, me apologizing for being a freak, David agreeing that, yes, I’m a freak, but a beautiful, wonderful freak whom he loves very, very much.

When my thumbs grew tired, I toggled to the phone and called David. He’d had an easier time understanding my texts, as my voice was obscured by sniffles and snorts. I gave him a run-down of my evening thus far, beginning with the moment our friend Jen arrived with the 1932 horror flick Freaks, and ending ten minutes after Jen went home, when I — filled to the brim with a bottle of wine, a pound of cheese, and images of freaks dancing in my head — supposed it was good time to try on the dress.

When I’d finished blubbering, David spoke soothing words in a soft tone; he asked me not to stay up all night fretting and suggested I visit a seamstress first thing in the morning to get the matter settled. I kept him on the line until I sensed I was exhausted enough to be able to fall asleep.

The following morning, within 30 seconds of waking, my plight consumed my brain, at which point I groaned and pulled the comforter over my throbbing head. I decided that instead of running around to find a seamstress, my time would be better spent in bed, wallowing in self-pity. My plan was perfect but for one small, overlooked detail — I hadn’t silenced my phone.

“Barb? I’m so happy you picked up,” said Jenny. “I need to ask a favor of you. It’s kind of urgent.” I murmured a greeting to my sister, the one for whom I was suffering. “One of the groomsmen dropped out, and now the bridal party is uneven.”

In the fraction of a second during which she paused to take a breath, I spotted my solution and, tears renewed, I gushed forth: “It’s okay, because I gained a bunch of weight and the dress doesn’t fit, so how ’bout I back out? I really don’t mind if I’m not in the wedding. I mean, I’ll still go, of course, but it’s totally fine if I’m not up there standing next to you. I mean, with only one week to go, it’s not like I have much of a choice, and this works out for the better.”

“No, that’s not what I meant,” Jenny said. “I was going to ask if you thought David might be interested in being a groomsman.” She paused to adjust to the conversation’s new direction. “You know what? It doesn’t matter if the number is uneven. Don’t worry. We’ll figure this out. You’re going to be in the wedding, and it’s all going to work out just fine.”

While Jenny was apparently rallying the troops (within the next minute, I ignored calls of support from Jane, Heather, and Mom), I received and accepted a call from my friend Jen. Jen and I had tentative plans to go for a walk, plans that, in the midst of my crisis, I’d entirely forgotten. With hot tears streaming down my cheeks, I told my friend what had happened after she’d left, and how miserable I was at the prospect of trying to find a nonjudgmental tailor on short notice.

It was a Friday, and Jen had the day off. After she’d been briefed, she said, “Do you want me to come and try to zip you up?” I could think of nothing I wanted more. Less than 30 minutes later, Jen stood in my bedroom while I struggled to get as much of myself as I could into the dress. I hobbled over to her. Jen, upon witnessing the sausage effect first-hand, smiled and stifled a giggle.

“Shit, that bad, huh?” I said.

“No, it’s not that,” Jen said. “Barb, you never fit into this dress. There’s no way.”

“No, it used to fit, I just got fatter,” I argued.

“If you gained any weight, I can’t tell. But even so, say you did. Then wouldn’t the rest of your clothes not fit?”

“They don’t,” I whined. “Two weeks ago, I was fastening my bra on the tightest hook. And now, I’m using the middle hook.”

“That’s like half an inch,” said Jen. “This,” she pointed to the dress, “is, like, five inches. If you grew five inches wider, none of your other clothes would fit.”

“Oh my God,” I gasped. “You’re right. You know, when I first tried it on, they said they were having a sale in a week, so I left it at the store. When I went back to pick it up, I didn’t try it on again, I just bought it! I must have had the wrong size in my closet all this time. But now what?”

When Jen suggested I exchange it, my face fell. This dress was from last season. There was no way any stores would still have it. Still, Jen insisted I check, and sure enough, just one iridescent espresso strapless number remained in California, and as fortune would have it, that one dress was in the size I needed, which was two sizes larger than the one I’d been trying to cram myself into. “It’s at the store in Costa Mesa. That’s, like, an hour and a half away,” I said.

Jen, my dear friend, and my handler in David’s absence, smiled at me, shook her head, and said, “Well then, let’s hit the road.” I grabbed the dress and followed Jen to the door. As we belted ourselves in to the Mini, Jen flaunted a mischievous smile.

“What?” I asked her.

“Now that you don’t have to lose 30 pounds this week, I was just thinking after we pick up the right-sized dress, we can go grab a burger and a beer.”

“Rockin’,” I said. As I zoomed onto the freeway, I turned to Jen and flashed the smile of a woman who’d just been liberated.

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