I’ve written a piece of fiction this time, a small story about the importance of fathers and the resilience of children. It’s set in a dress shop on the afternoon of prom – won’t you come with me and see what happens?
We’re watching a girl choose a prom dress. She must do so alone and her father must not know she’s even been asked. Her mother might have helped had she still been alive, but she might not have, knowing Jane’s date is not on the approved list – no country club membership. And it’s late – her friends are all having their hair done, laughing together at Magnolia’s.
Jane lifts out a small, black dress, holding it at arm’s length and then up against her body. She looks down on it and sighs. Too plain-Jane, her father would say if he were with her. She pulls down a red one, strapless and mermaid-shaped, “Cheap,” he’d say -- she can hear the derision in his voice. Glancing up and down the picked-over rack, she sees turquoise tulle, lime green satin, plaid taffeta – nothing quite right. The mannequin behind her is wearing white chiffon, long and voluminous, ruffles like butterfly wings around the shoulders – very beauty- pageant. Her father would like that. She wonders if the gown comes with a purple satin sash embroidered in gold -- Miss Kansas. She wonders if he’d grumble about the $500 or if he’d just be proud that she picked out something expensive. With him, she never knew.
Jane wants more than anything to please her father, even though he cannot be pleased. Her father expects beauty – Miss America beauty --- perfect bone structure, straight teeth, huge eyes, a confident bust line. Jane can be pretty, and she is thin and tall, but if the wind blows her fine hair away from her high forehead, or fatigue lies heavy on her lids, the prettiness fades and so does the light in her father’s eyes.
Jane pulls down a cream satin strapless and, holding it to her waist, performs a graceful pirouette. Her father wants talent, the kind he has – musical. Her painting will never be Michelangeloid, so it isn’t important; her dance, in spite of years of lessons and pairs and pairs of pointe shoes, will not take her to the New York Ballet; it’s just a frothy girl thing. She flunked piano when she was six, and a song never comes out of her mouth in good condition – he winces when he hears her sing. Her writing he doesn’t even know about, and if he did, he’d say that you can’t make money writing poetry. Not even her grades please him, even though they are mostly A’s – it’s the mostly part he hates.
She sees her father as handsome, brilliant, witty. He too can dance, on a ballroom floor, and she had loved watching him and her mother waltz across the living room. She’d loved it when he taught her how, his arm across the middle of her back, his feet weightlessly propelled by the swoop-tap-tap of the music. She and the dress waltzed a few steps together.
She is vaguely aware that her father is tired. She knows that he rarely sleeps and that when he does it’s martini-induced. He dreams of being rich – he had enough poverty as a child, enough want, enough humiliation. He wants his daughter to have wealth; he wants her to marry well; he wants her to excel at anything profitable; he wants her to go to the best schools, though on his salary that will require scholarships. He daydreams about how he’ll brag about her – maybe she’ll win a beauty pageant, maybe she’ll get into Radcliff, maybe she’ll marry someone important. He pictures her in a little black dress, sipping a martini at a sophisticated cocktail party.
She hates it that he rarely looks straight at the fact that he’s merely an accountant for a small chemical firm in a medium-sized town in Kansas, or that he knows nothing of beauty contests.
And she knows that he rarely looks at her. She is more imagined than real. He has no idea what longings play across her soul. He is disgusted that she seems to have no desire to please him; she seems preoccupied, distant, uninspired. She is to him an extension of himself and should want what he wants. Instead, she has stubbornly refused to love math or pursue music or make herself beautiful. She is a disappointment just as was her mother.
Jane is walking out of the store, disappointed, when she notices a sale rack in the corner. Her father never lets her buy things on sale – that’s for poor people, he says. She rummages through the leftovers: purple satin with pink embroidery, yellow silk with a wide red belt, split-pea green cut down to show navel-length cleavage. Nothing.
Then, at the end of the 4’s, hiding in the forest of rejects, hangs the dress. She pulls it to her and heads for the dressing room. In the mirror it looks even better --navy blue silk, Egyptian-looking gold and blue beading around the boat-neck and the hem -- a hem that ends high on her thigh.
She stands there remembering the look on James’s face when he called out to her in the hall yesterday. “Hey, Legs,” he’d said loudly enough for everyone to hear, “How ‘bout goin’ to prom with me.” He had grinned that tilted grin of his. His eyes had looked both apologetic and scared, and then they traveled down her body to her ankles.
She laughs at her reflection remembering the way his eyebrows asked the question again as his eyes finally met hers. “He wants legs,” she thinks, “I’ll give him legs.” She spins around on tiptoe to get the full effect.
She passes the Miss Kansas dress on her way out. She stops and runs her hand down the soft chiffon. We can see her imagining herself carrying roses, the sash across her shoulder, her father applauding wildly. Then the corners of her mouth dip down as she realizes that he’d only say, “You didn’t stand straight enough.”
We watch her hug the blue dress to her as she walks toward Magnolia’s to get her long legs waxed.