I was wearing a short red dress that day. It was a polyester, short-sleeved, shirt-like, dress that hung straight down from my shoulders to just above my tomboy-ed knees. I always admired its multi-colored Swiss-embroidered multi-colored trim around the edges of the collar, sleeves, and the center zipper; but the most enjoyable part of this dress was the function of the zipper. It was just too irresistible not to play with. It had a circular pull, along its short race track, from my sternum to throat: zip up; zip down. zip up; zip down. The simplicity of this dress, and the black nylon knee socks and shoes that I chose to accompany it that morning was not only to fulfill its service as proper Sunday morning church attire, but also to celebrate its form. The non-binding design would provide me with all the freedom I needed to move through the day, or so I thought. By the end of that afternoon this dress would restrict me in more ways than I ever thought possible. It would disappoint me, and embed itself so deeply within my memory, because, after it was over, I just needed something, to be angry at.
I was nine and it was 1974, a time when kids like me were left to primarily heal themselves after enduring certain life events. There were none of the kid-help social groups I now see in many elementary schools or online Facebook groups to transcribe experiences, we were just expected to ride out the unpredictable current of our parent’s voyage, and, like good little buoys, were expected to absorb any wave that bobbled us. As good journeymen, adults know that even the best of buoys need to be checked and maintained once in awhile or else they will lose their tether and suffer great damage, but some still maintained a belief we had this built-to-last construction. We were destined to become the collateral damage of our parents wants and needs and stay resilient holding on to whatever we could. Which leads me back to the dress. I knew it was best to redirect the anger at it--at the intangible--as it was my best chance to stay afloat.
That dress first disappointed me in a place I once regarded as safe-- my backyard. It was once filled with neighborhood kickball games, tree forts, and wonder-year crushes, but today it was quiet. It was only weeks earlier that I played until dusk with my friends and whined when my mom called me in for dinner. It was a birthplace of some of my greatest childhood memories, but now, as I fervently climbed one of it's tall evergreen trees, trying to get away, it became the arena where the contempt began. As the stiff polyester red fabric slid up my thighs, exposing them while I climbed, it allowed branches to scratch and penetrate my skin. It was on me, but it was certainly not protecting me. The tree, I forgave, because I traveled it’s height often in the days before this day, and I understood which limbs could contain me and those that could not, I knew how to watch for the growing light as I approached it’s top, and I always, always, was ready to hear fear telling me when it was time to go back down. But today I only heard my own voice saying, “Please, God Please don’t let her die.”
My mother was not near dead. She had just collapsed from the stress of trying to talk with my father, as it was only weeks after we moved out, and, most likely, from the effects of the scotch I saw him spiking her coffee with just minutes before she dropped. But how was I supposed to understand that? All I know is that when she fell to the floor I was terrified. She looked like my giant sized Raggedy Ann doll, face down, limp and lifeless, but, unlike my doll, I had no power to retrieve her, so I just ran. When I came down from the tree, and realized that she was indeed still alive, I looked back into the scene and saw both of my parents sitting together in the living room. A room that was once was filled with all of our adornments of living, our colonial wooden coffee table, the iconic print of toddler John F Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s grave, the chair with the prickly patchwork-patterned upholstery, was now all gone and scattered-- just like my family. Be a good girl, take a breath, and take it in. My eyes dropped down to see the scratches on my legs, red and stinging from the tree branches, and realized that this stupid red dress was too short to cover the hurt. My hands reached up to find the familiar zipper: Zip it up, zip it down; zip it up, zip it down
What happens next is a collision of love and confusion, a kind of deep-seeded regret that compels everyone to just keep asking for one more moment of forgiveness. None of us knew what we did to each other, no one knew where the compass was pointing to, no one knew that we were losing faith in what was meant to be good. He was asking, she was resisting, and I was left floating in between the literal push-and-pull of their demanding currents of want. She was now on the street, I was in the car, and he was, as always, in the driver’s seat. My mother’s hand pulled me to get out of the car while, on other side, my father clung to my other appendage begging me not to leave him. My nine year old head head hung low, my arms stretched out like Jesus’ gesture surrendered upon the cross, and all I remember saying was, “Please, God. Please tell them to stop.” All the while, taking in my stupid red dress, on my stupid red lap, with its stupid dark zipper leaning against my lower lip, choking me with its stupid metallic taste. This dress was slipping up my thighs, exposing me and the scratches from the tree climb, and it was then I truly realized that it was not what I needed to protect me. It was revealing so much more of me than I ever wanted to be seen. It let me down, it held me back, it exposed me, and it ultimately failed me from letting go of things I didn’t need.