For this week’s #SampleSunday, here’s an excerpt from Swallow‘s chapter eight, titled “Father Christian.” For a synopsis of the whole book, go here.
I made it to the boutique only ten minutes late. Speed walking toward the glass-doored entrance, I saw Francie inside looking out, peering up and down the street, pacing back and forth, perfectly steady on her six-inch, stiletto-heeled, candy red pumps, her flawlessly coiffed strawberry mane bouncing girlishly with each pirouette. Oh, I pray I’m Francie at fifty, I thought. New York women never get old, I swear. When our eyes met, she tapped her French-manicured fingernail on the face of her watch, then shook her finger at me in mock reprobation.
“Sorry sorry,” I mouthed, pushing open the door.
“It’s all right, it’s not like there’s anyone else here.” She stood in fifth ballet position and extended her left arm gracefully toward the middle of the store, her frown at odds with her delicate pose. “What is it about getting married here? No one in this city seems to do it.”
“That’s because New York women are all so independent and sophisticated, like a certain fashion maven I know,” I gushed.
“Yeah yeah yeah. Perpetual singlehood has been a real friggin’ joy.” She fluttered her hand about dismissively. “Come on, let’s find you the Audrey dress of your dreams, skinny girl,” she said, pinching my arm. “Geez Soph, you really are losing weight. Look at these little twigs.”
“I’ve lost twenty pounds,” I said. I knew it was getting to be a lot; another ten pounds and I’d weigh 100. But truth be told, I felt like I was really beginning to fit in in New York. It looked rather elegant, if not downright trendy, to be thin here. Still, I knew I couldn’t lose a whole lot more. It had to stop at some point.
“Shit, Soph. What’s your secret? How come you’re keepin’ it from the old lady?”
“Hey, I did tell you; you just weren’t listening.”
“The throat ball. The ‘ball’ — remember?”
She had the loopiest smile I think I’d ever seen.
“Okay, after we’re done here, we’ll go out to eat,” I said. “Then you just imagine a big ole ball in your throat and you choking to death whenever you try to swallow. Beats the hell out of a diet any day.” I couldn’t believe what I just heard myself say.
“Shit, Soph, you’re starting to sound, you know, a little fucked up,” she said, echoing my thought.
“Hello, ladies.” Marlena, with whom I had my appointment, appeared as if out of thin air. She was sixtyish, immaculately groomed, with snowy whitish-blonde hair, and a full face of makeup that — unlike on me — made her look polished rather than fake. Already I felt like a street urchin with my shiny nose, flyaway hair, and now oversized, dowdy suit.
“You must be Ms. Hegel,” she smiled, cupping my hand between her palms. I always felt so uneasy in places like Saks and Bergdorf, like it was so obvious to all the salespeople that I didn’t belong anywhere near the place. Funny, I wasn’t feeling that so much with Marlena though.
“Um, yes.” I tried to return her smile, not anywhere near as elegantly.
“And you’ve brought your big sister with you. Excellent idea,” she said, extending a hand and smile to Francie.
“Basically,” Francie said, giving her a cursory New York handshake.
“Now you tell me what kind of dress it is you’re looking for, dear,” Marlena began, eyes now focused solidly on me. “Would you like to look at the catalog, or do you have something in mind?” Something about her was so familiar, like she was an old dear nanny or governess or something. Except of course I never had such a person in my life.
“Mmm…” I looked at the four huge tomes on the counter. They looked far too intimidating; we’d have been there all day if I started with them. “I think I’ll start with the actual gowns.”
“That’s perfectly fine,” she sang, with the sweetest of smiles. “Let me just tell you a little about my job here at Bettina’s Bridal. I’m not here to dictate what you should wear. You brides today are more sophisticated, more mature, far more educated than you were in my day,” she chimed in a fantastical voice that sounded like she’d been around for centuries. “You have your careers, you know who you are and what you want out of life, not to mention out of a dress,” she laughed. “You’re not to be bossed around by your mothers, your sisters…” she gave a nod and wink to Francie at this, “certainly not your future husband. This is obviously your most important day. This is the statement that you’re making to all your friends and family, to the world, of who you are.” She positively glowed.
Francie rolled her eyes. Argh, can you say, ‘jaded New Yorker,’ I thought.
When I looked back at Marlena she radiated a fairy godmother smile, and I felt a tear starting down my face. I was so embarrassed I could’ve just fallen to the floor and rolled myself up into a little fetal ball. What was with my total lack of control over my tear glands?
“Oh dear. Would you like a glass of water?” she asked, grabbing a tissue.
“No, no.” I felt like the consummate ass.
“It’s normal, you know, this is quite an emotional time.” She stood smiling down at me, her hands folded in front of her, her long eyelashes glistening, her cheeks glowing.
“Okay.” I took a deep breath, pulling it together. “I have an idea of what I want. Something basic, not really frilly, just simple, but you know, a fabric with a nice sheen.” I had no idea what the hell I was saying. ‘Nice sheen’ – what was that? Such the couture dyslexic was I.
“Sophisticated, elegant, you know, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn. Maybe matte satin or Duchess silk, possibly organza. I think she wants to go with a simple A-line silhouette, natural or dropped waist bodice, attached chapel train, very little if any embellishments.” Thank you, Francie, I thought. Whatever you just said.
“Let’s start here.” Marlena showed me a simple satin dress with beautiful beaded buttons trailing down the back. Only problem with that one was a monster bow right on the butt — made it look like her bottom was a big present to the groom.
“Kind of makes her look like a present,” I said to Francie.
“Well, you are a present, my darling,” she said.
“No, like an object, I mean. Like she has no personhood.”
“Ugh.” Francie rolled her eyes again. Francie didn’t have the most developed feminist consciousness, I kept forgetting. I mean she did, but she just wasn’t schooled in feminist theory, didn’t have the jargon down. Not that I wanted her to though; she was far, far more interesting the way she was!
“Then there’s this nice simple organza ball gown.” Marlena next showed me one with a lacy bodice, cinched at the waist by another bow that led to a poofy floor-length skirt. This one reminded me of the ballet dress I wore for a recital at Phoenix Symphony Hall right before Daddy left. And the cinching bow recalled a bit of the Barium Swallow ordeal. Uh-uh, I shook my head. Far too much baggage contained in one dress.
Then she led me to a plain, but soft and silky, form-fitting gown. But this one had underwire cups stitched on the outside of the fabric.
“Ooh la la, sexy,” Francie said.
“Yeah, for the slut bride,” I whispered to her.
Francie rolled her eyes again. “You have body issues,” she said to me under her breath, her voice trailing off at the end, indicating this was a continuing issue that she intended eventually to cure.
“I don’t have body issues, and I am not wearing a bra on the outside of my dress to my wedding,” I whispered back, smiling over at Marlena, who was looking a bit weary. I was being too picky. I decided I’d try on the next one — which happened to be very pretty, with pearl buttons tip-toeing down the back. It’s just that the buttons didn’t start practically till the waist-line; I had no idea how the thing stayed up and I knew I’d be worrying about it nonstop.
Before I knew it, we’d spent an hour and a half and I hadn’t tried on a single thing.
“Are you sure you don’t want to take a little peek at the catalog?” Marlena asked with a hint of hopelessness. Francie, ever the New Yorker, didn’t bother trying to hide her annoyance.
“Come on, come on, come on, Soph. We don’t have all day. Nothing is going to look right on the hanger. You gotta see it on to see how it hangs on your body.”
Okay, okay. I told Marlena I’d try the first two — the butt-present and the issue-laden ones. She looked ecstatic.
The dresses on display were all in size 10, so Marlena called her assistant, Ruiza, to accompany me into the dressing room. I felt weird undressing in front of her — especially when she motioned for me to remove my bra. She helped me into the butt one, then taped, tucked, tied, zipped and pinned me up. About twenty minutes later, I emerged.
“Wow, very very nice,” Marlena said, walking me toward the three-way mirror.
“Oooh, look at those gorgeous tiny arms,” Francie squealed, squeezing my shoulder. “Hon, really, another ten or fifteen pounds and you could be a petite model.”
Oh geez. I laughed. As I stood in front of the mirror, Francie walked around me gazing at the dress. Marlena patted at the skirt. It actually looked quite lovely. I was transformed. Imagine that, mousy me.
“You really do look beautiful, hon,” Francie said from behind, to my reflection in the mirror. Then Marlena turned me to my side, and I saw the blasted bow. It was pinker than it initially appeared, and strikingly different than the rest of the dress. I looked like a baboon in heat.
“I don’t know. I really don’t like the bow.”
“It can be altered,” Marlena and Francie said simultaneously. Yeah, but that would totally increase the price, I thought. But I didn’t dare say it, of course.
“I’ll try the other one.” I went back into the fitting room with Ruiza, underwent the process again with the cinch-waisted Giselle gown. Hmmm, could get used to someone dressing and primping me, I thought. Like Scarlet O’Hara. It was kind of nice, even if initially embarrassing.
After she finished, I headed to the three-way. Ooh, this one looked quite lovely. A little poofy and princessy, but also chic and sophisticated with a more grown-up elegance than had appeared from the hanger. The bow was sweet, much smaller than the other, the same color as the rest of the dress, and was a little off to the side, so not so obnoxious. It was beautiful; I could definitely do with this one. However, one ever so little necessity… had to figure out a way of finding out the price. Of course, there were no tags on anything. I hated it when stores did that. But I guess I should’ve expected it with a place like this. I hated having to ask.
“That one’s a great deal,” Marlena said right then, as if reading my mind. “Quite a steal at only $5995.”
Yikes. I was hoping to pay a third of that, at most.
“That’s great,” Francie said, nodding at me. I thought I detected a wink as well. “Okay, Soph, off to a good start. We got one possibility. But before you get hooked, hon, let’s look at a couple more.” She turned back to Marlena. “The organza and lace might make it just a bit too frilly. What about something with a little less embellishment.”
“Sure,” Marlena smiled, a bit pityingly, I thought, as if she knew exactly what Francie was hinting at. She led us over to one of the first racks in the store — exactly where all of the silly, frilly, i.e., cheap, stuff was located.
I tried and tried. But nothing looked as good as the $5995. Just as I was about to leave to think over my too-expensive Giselle-before-Daddy-left dress, I remembered the catalog and, ever so stupidly, decided to take a peek.
And of course therein I saw it: the gown that simply stood so far above the rest it was pitiful. The satin-y fabric wrapped around the wearer’s body regally, like a protective sheath. And it had this really extraordinary lace framing device. There were two wide strands of intricately-patterned lace extending the length of the bodice. They originated at the waist, then rose up and above the top of the dress where they fanned out into two pleats flowering just over the top, highlighting the wearer’s chest, and framing her torso. At the waist, they met with several more lace lines that wound around from the back, and at the hip, all lace strands bunched up and overflowed into more pleats that formed sequins, which cascaded all the way down to the ballgown’s train.
The wearer of the gown was a true queen. And, bizarrely, here that wearer was the supermodel from the Vogue ad in the museum exhibit; the one Stephen had said looked like a “Holocaust victim.”
Only odd thing was the gown was rose-colored. I’d never thought of a wedding gown in any color other than white.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? That’s one of our Lacroixs,” Marlena said, over my shoulder.
“It’s gorgeous. But it’s red. It is a wedding dress, right?”
“Oh yes. The most popular color right now in Europe is red. Brides here are a little more conservative. But if you want to make a statement…”
“Do you have it?” I asked. I knew it was probably way too expensive but I really wanted to try it just for kicks.
“Yes…,” she said, her voice inflecting at the end. She looked hesitant.
“Can I try it?”
Marlena smiled weakly. “Sure. It’s just that, well, this one has a great deal more embellishments than… Of course you can, of course, dear.” She started to walk away; I followed. “It’s in the back. It’ll take some time to get,” she called over her shoulder.
“Hey ready yet, Soph? I’m getting hungry,” Francie called out, posing in front of a mirror with a pearl-white veil draped over her face.
“I’m just going to try one more.”
“One more! I’m really really getting hungry here, Soph.” I hated it when Francie got pissy.
“It’ll just be a sec. Please?” I whined like the child Marlena’d just spent all afternoon trying to make me feel I wasn’t. Francie scowled at me, returning the veil to its mannequin. Just then Marlena returned with Ruiza, the two of them together carrying a veritable body bag.
“What’s in there?” Francie asked, annoyance metamorphosing into intrigue.
“Here it is,” Marlena chirped, as she, Ruiza, and yet another assistant all maneuvered it out of the bag. Once I saw it, I understood why this required a group effort. It was simply huge. This time it took a full forty minutes to get into it, but not because there was a lot of taping and pinning on Ruiza’s part: believe it or not, unlike all the other floor models, this one was a size four. It took so long because there were so many pleats, sequins, ties, clasps, and buttons for poor Ruiza to figure out.
“Oh my god,” Francie shrieked when I walked out, “You look …”
“Yes, you do,” Marlena echoed, even though Francie hadn’t actually come up with an adjective. “It’s tight, but, wow, not all that much.”
“The color is gorgeous, Soph,” Francie said, brushing the train.
“You think it’s okay that it’s not white and all?” I asked.
“Shut up and look at yourself!” Francie whiplashed me toward the three-way.
When I looked in the mirror, I saw someone else. I was like royalty, someone very special, even beautiful. There’s no such thing as natural beauty, I thought. Designers are the makers of reality, and you just have to be skinny enough to squeeze into the alternate universe they’ve created for you. I had no idea what Christian Lacroix looked like, but I imagined him as this posh but avuncular man plucking at the lace, smoothing out the sides, telling me what a perfect fit it was, how beautiful and smart and charming I was; how I was the perfect wearer.
Suddenly I began hearing my mother’s voice. “Who do you think you are? Some movie star, some Arabian princess?” The same words she used when I’d received my letter from Yale and told her the cost of tuition, and my father went ballistic. A place for high-class people, deserving people, not me.
“Oh Sophier, you’re absolutely mesmerizing.” Thank goodness for Francie’s New York voice trumpeting over Mom’s. I was getting married now. I was a law school graduate. I was an adult. What was wrong with me? “So teeny tiny. Oh you’re so beautiful, darling. You look just like the model. It’s so so SO you!”
“Stephen says that model is a glorified Holocaust victim,” I couldn’t help but blurt out.
“UGH.” Francie screamed, throwing up her hands. “Fff…” she began, then saw my discomfort at her ‘free form expressions’ in Marlena’s presence and altered her tone, somewhat. “Then, my dear, you are a beautiful fucking glorified Holocaust victim,” Francie whispered to me, lips pursed tightly over teeth.
“I need to know the price of this one,” I found myself again blurting out, too needy now to care how poor I appeared. Marlena smiled, pityingly again. She had an answer that I really didn’t need to know.
Photo above of Christian Lacroix and model from Independent UK.