Clothes the Door
Rebecca J. Lacko
I’d get a drink but I hate what I’m wearing.
Stroking the length of my clutch, a sparkly envelope number I received free with the purchase of a perfume and lotion set, I cast a low glance toward the bar. An intimate setup, Jak’s positioned a carved Indonesian sideboard, an unusual piece commissioned by a Turkish effendi who’d gifted it to his father, his father to him. There are several bottles chilling in silver tubs and a handful of half-filled glasses sweating coaster-less on the bare surface of the sideboard’s mahogany.
Our host, unassuming enough to look at, is wildly successful art dealer Jak Schiel. I use the word “wild” because he rakes in crazy cash, but primarily to denote the miscreant voyeur he’s proven to be behind closed doors. I’m uncertain whether his success as a businessman begets the entitlement of sexual deviance or if his depravity yields his intuition for exceptional art.
The bar area is plotted by a plush Persian rug dented in several places by finely spiked heels with price tags negated by my meager student loan. Plotting my path across the Persian, the heels boast each an influential personality reflecting the artistic point of view of her owner. Style, class, in some cases humor—but all chic. I won’t even look at my feet. I can’t. It would be too depressing.
It’s not that I look bad. Do I?
Were this a gathering of my own, I’d put aside my misgivings. But this so-called “party,” more a polite soiree of the high-minded and higher income, is populated by prosperous artists and their patrons.
That’s right, I’m placing the adjective “prosperous” before the noun “artist.” It’s an important delineation among our kind. It is a rare and covert trick separating us into castes; the writers, philosophers and painters here are sleek and well turned out, thin but well fed. Profiting at the very work jettisoning the majority of us to starvation. And I can’t begin to fathom the breadth of income necessary to earn the audacity of designating oneself a philosopher in this century, but I’m pretty sure we aren’t shopping in the same stores.
I might be considered an “art appreciator” myself—doesn’t the very act of painting award me that manteau? Jak hoped I’d make some “important connections” tonight. Perhaps that’s the trick: the line cleaving the famine from the feast can be crossed by association. Rubbing shoulders, greasing palms, I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine—all those metaphors require close proximity and communal exchange.
I’ll admit, the snippets of conversations I’m overhearing have me salivating to interject. These people speak my language: books, art history, the peephole of possibility for impossibly abstract possibilities. My favorite subjects, and my educational raison d’être. If I just had the nerve to get myself a drink, maybe I could relax into the crowd.
I glimpse at Jordan, my wing-woman. When did she get a glass of wine? She’s exchanging glances with a bespectacled gentleman in a sweater and button-down, someone I wouldn’t have taken for her type. Jordan looks fantastic. Doesn’t hurt that she’s studying fashion design. “I love your jacket,” I throw a nervous smile her way. “Where’d you get it?” I ask, anticipating the explanation of rich parents, a generous allowance.
“Thanks, Callista. I made it myself,” she smiles with a shy pride. “Sewed it yesterday in Textile Assembly.” The stitching reveals a careful hand, and it fits her like it was made for her. Because, well, it was. Note to self: learn to sew.
But even if I could sew, look at her. Tall, sinewy, a dancer’s neck, slim waist. Jordan’s frame lends elegance to her ensemble. How have I failed to notice how lovely she is before tonight?
I’m beginning to regret I came. Jak and I are not exactly friends. He directs the (bedroom) play, and I am his (remunerated) actor. I wouldn’t say we’re lovers; he can’t produce an erection. But his imagination can get hard. We’re well suited to one another, really. As a student, I need the income. And I get him, the cerebral aspect of his desires, be it an offshoot, instigation, or consequence of my majoring in otherwise jobless Philosophy. It would likely ennoble our relationship were I to sell a piece, or at least show in a gallery. I suppose that’s why I was invited. But I paint for pleasure, a hobby; I’m not a professional artist. How would I even bring it up without looking foolish?
My clothes are a failure. Mass-produced, ill-fitting; matching but without a distinct style. I’m clothed, that is all. And while I’m quite certain I am not my clothing but a whole and complete person, the truth is I’m afraid these people perceive my ill-fitting appearance for what it represents: I don’t fit in here.
The fact is, had I the money to buy whatever I want, cull the most upmarket markets for late-breaking designer offerings, I would still fall short. This is the betrayal of fashion: to portray our complete beings with the clothes we wear requires veracious faith in oneself.
And if I were outfitted in a color complementing my skin tone, favorably cut to enhance my emphatically hourglass form? An eye-catching ensemble lending thoughtful reserve, unapologetic flair and perhaps a wink of humor? The sublime effect would be fleeting.
Sure, I would look my very best and feel far more confident than I do at this moment. But what about tomorrow, or the next party? I’d have to chase down another outfit, and then another. And should I find—and afford—all these traits and pull them together, there is no guarantee some gorgeous creature would not then join our gathering replete in something grander, or more delicate, or better shaped, or sexier. It is an endless pursuit. If we are lucky enough to own complex ideas and ever-changing moods and preferences, it becomes yet more irrational to consider finding thoughtful ensembles with which to suitably adorn oneself. It is a lost cause.
I’m a lost cause. Because people pull it off—or rather, on—every day.
I excuse myself to Jak’s room, to use the facilities in his lavish en suite. As I walk through his bedroom, shadows from our past evenings together play scenes out around me. He’s growing predictable. Perhaps I’ll need to nudge him out of his comfort zone, draw an addition on the blueprint.
In the bathroom mirror, I play with my clothes, unbuttoning my jacket, untucking my shirt, turning for a side view, correcting my posture. I take the jacket off, and knot my shirt at the waist. I remove the shirt and put the jacket back on. I kick off my shoes, rising to tippy-toes in invisible heeled pumps, much higher than I own. Lost cause.
I take everything off, tossing my clothes into the spacious four-person spa bath, discarding my shoes onto the heap with a sigh.
Falling into a chaise lounge positioned before a ceiling-height mirror, I give up. There isn’t much that can be done with me. Round, soft, over-endowed, stretched where I grew too fast, bumpy where I gained the freshman fifteen.
Clothes demand perfection because they inherently require a choice. Bodies, by contrast, are forgivable. I could have chosen to avoid the extra fifteen, sure. But I couldn’t decide when or how to grow, or choose my DNA. The girth of my hips is as much my mother’s and foremothers’ as mine. I would forgive my hips, but they require no absolution.
To be adorned, attired, appareled—the admiration is short-lived, and so is any confidence gained. It’s just an outfit: disposable, finite.
Being naked relieves me from having to make my own choices in fashion. I’m not being lazy, irreverent, or cheap. What we wear makes its own, often false or misleading, statement about us. Clothes by their very nature are opaque, therefore leaving nothing transparent. And worse, they provoke assumptions about a given ensemble-wearer. Garments are duplicitous and worse, unlovable.
I’m not about to wage war in a battle I know I can’t win.
Reentering the party, my eyes find Jak’s immediately. His widen, but only momentarily. A broad grin of approval cracks across the hygienic sheen of his impassive face, triumphant with the revelation he’s officially throwing the party of the year.
I left it all upstairs. Everything, my clutch included. Strolling toward the bar, I maintain a straight back, level shoulders; I will not cower. I aim a polite smile at Jordan as I pass her, adding the kind of self-assured nod spared to the underdog when upstaging a favored contender. Other eyes are on me too, of course. Hell, they all are.
I remember the advice of a girlfriend of mine, a stagehand inclined to work boots and plaid fleece shirts. If I show up for a wrap party, she said, only to realize I’m the only one in jeans, I behave as though everyone else is overdressed.
I can either take her advice or slink back to Jak’s bedroom under the shock of the party’s conjoined gaze.
A compromise is necessary. I make it halfway to the bar, stopping in the center of a tight group discussing the merits of pastiche in postmodern literature. I offer my viewpoint on the subject rather than an explanation for my nudity. Before I’ve completed my first sentence, a scotch, neat, is presented to me, accompanied by a captivated smile.
There are five of us chatting, mostly men toppling one another with questions about how I feel about this author or that artistic movement. I maintain eye contact with the one other female in the pack, Simone DeBassi, editor for an upscale art magazine. I give my opinion freely, but ask hers. I include her, make her feel welcome. Before long, our circle’s size doubles, then triples. She leans in, filling a tight gap between the men surrounding us and those rushing to refresh our drinks, to whisper, “Your name is Callista, right? Jak told me about your work. You look so beautiful.”
“So do you,” I reply, tapping the rim of my glass against hers. As I lift my drink to my lips, I indulge in a quick glance around the room. I have the attention of most everyone, male and female. There are murmurs of kind words regarding my appearance. Jak purports to the gathering how my attributes suggest Venus, the Roman goddess whose functions encompassed beauty, sex, love, and prosperity.
Jordan, however, is engaged in close conversation with the man in whom she’d shown interest, her jacket lying next to her on the sofa’s armrest, the uppermost buttons of her blouse undone.
I excuse myself and approach her. “I need to use the powder room,” I announce, standing by her feet, her eyes level with my belly button. Jordan rises and follows me to the bathroom without a word. When the door closes behind us, I ask if she has any lip gloss, feeling naked without it. “I can’t believe you,” she breathes, with a low whistle of admiration. “I wish I had half your confidence.”
“I don’t care what I look like. I feel so much more comfortable than I did fully clothed.” The instant I say I don’t care, I’m wracked with fear. I do care. What the hell am I doing?
“Be naked with me,” I plead with her.
“No way. Never.”
I nod my understanding, I’m not going to push her. Jordan refreshes her own lips then passes by me, squeezing my arm before slipping out the door. Prolonging my return to the party, I lather my hands with Jak’s rose-scented soap and take my time drying them in a towel.
Better that all these people keep their clothes on; otherwise we’d have ourselves a real democracy.
The Persian rug’s deep pile is soft, forgiving to my bare soles when I cross the divide to the sideboard. Ms. DeBassi falls into step next to me. “Why don’t you come by my office tomorrow and show me your work?” she asks.
“It isn’t so much ‘work,’” I admit, “as a search for who I am.”
“I could tell you what I see,” she replies, “but I wouldn’t want you to lose your way.”
“What if you don’t like my paintings?” I dare to ask, glancing toward Jak’s bedroom where my clothes lay, a refuge from the threat of her appraisal of what I hold closest to me.
“I may or I may not,” she is straightforward. “Will it change what you learn about yourself?”
I stare at a grayish ring left by a wet cup on the sideboard, marking it indelibly. “Hopefully,” I reply at last.
About the author:
Columnist, editor, and fiction writer, Rebecca J. Lacko blogs about writing and publishing at The Written Word . She recently completed her first novel, RADIO HEAD. Her award-winning culinary column has appeared in several channels including a celebrity cookbook, and she's contributed a regularly featured first-person vignette on fostering meaningful family life. A Liberal Arts grad from Canada, Rebecca lived in Southern California for nearly twenty years before moving with her husband, two young sons, dog, and cat to a lush, forested island off the coast of Seattle.