DRESS

The woman was at a sink, washing under her arms and behind her neck. She combed through tangles in her long, dark hair, yanking and smoothing, then looked at me and said, “That’s a great dress.” Her eyes were wide and bright. I was wearing a dress with horizontal stripes and a little zipper up the side, and I felt good she liked it. It changed my mood, and I thought life was odd and unexpected. I thought, It takes nothing for me to flip. Then I thought, Maybe this isn’t nothing. The woman’s belongings were spread around her in a circle like artifacts at a dig. A khaki rucksack, a bra, a book, fishnet tights, sunglasses. She was in her thirties, I guessed. I was reminded of a crime show I watched and the roughened faces of the meth addicts. Thank god for television for my sense of reality.

I was in San Francisco helping a friend empty her mother’s apartment. Her mother had died in her sleep in her 90’s. Not a tragedy, but your mother is gone, and you feel you might be swept away in a wave or a gust of wind like leaves in a doorway. My friend had waited so long for her mother to die, she was looking for something to be other than a person who is waiting. We had spent three days stuffing garbage bags with old clothes and recycling magazines and financial statements. When we sprinkled ashes around a tree in Golden Gate Park, my friend had bent at the waist and let out a sob as if a body was leaving her body. I cried, too, looking down at bits of bone I knew were not strictly speaking her mother’s. I wasn’t a first-rung friend all the time. I had volunteered to help, and she had said yes, a little wary, maybe. I could stay in love with a person when love wasn’t returned. I wasn’t sure if this was harmful and felt no impulse to change. My friend and I had each kept our side of the unspoken promise not to make more of the occasion than it was.

“Where did you get it?” the woman in the bathroom asked, meaning my dress. I was applying lip gloss at the next sink. I said, “Well, you know, Banana Republic. There was a sale.” I had gone for a walk and spotted the dress on a manikin in the window. I had passed the library afterward and stepped inside. The library bordered the tenderloin, where homeless people camped, selling objects they scrounged on grimy blankets, chatting in clumps with hippy abandon, hard-bitten and free. If you are going to be homeless, you want a temperate climate. This I could appreciate. I was happiest living without regular meals and regular sleep, having sex on the run. The woman said, “I’ll check it out,” meaning the Banana Republic. She was younger than me with her life ahead. I felt no desire to leave the bathroom that was cold and anonymous and where neither of us had to get someplace.

She zipped up a skinny, vinyl skirt and changed her bra. Her breasts were round and firm. She didn’t turn away nor mind me looking. The skin on her midriff was taut, but it looked dry. I fished in my bag for a tube of lotion and offered it to her. She smiled. One of her teeth was gray. Not in the front, but the way she smiled, with her mouth open and her top lip rolling back like an awning, you had to see it. Manic energy rose off her. Manic energy can drain you. It can recharge you. It can remind you everyone is afraid.

She hoisted herself onto the counter and squeezed lotion onto her hand, then rubbed it on her arms and neck and said, “What’s the smell. I said, “Freesia.” She said, “What’s that?” I said, “A small flower with intense perfume.” She said, “You talk funny. Where are you from?” I said, “New York.” She said, “Originally.” I said, “I was born there.” She said, “I’m nosey. You don’t have to answer my questions.” I said, “I like your questions.” She said, “I wonder why I ask them?” My attention gathered to a thin, hard point.

She said, “What did you do today?” I said, “I went to see an old boyfriend.” She said, “What’s his name?” I said, “H.” She said, “Short for what?” I said, “Just H.” I hoisted myself up beside her. She said, “Did you get it on?” I said, “No.” She said, “Am I being rude?” I said, “I’d rather be with you than him.” She said, “Why?” I said, “We have no history.” I pulled fingers through my hair and said, “I waited a long time to ring his bell, and then he took a long time to answer it, as if he had forgotten I was coming.” I liked having someone to tell this story that was brimming inside and about to spill. I would not have told it to my friend. In the stories we exchanged, people were not in states of longing. The woman looked around and said, “I wish I could smoke.” She shook her hair. “They would kick me out.” I said, “The veins in his arms looked the same as always, like a little highway. I loved them.” She said, “What are you?” I said, “A cook.” She said, “How do you stay thin?” I said, “I’m not that interested in food.”

A tall man in a blond, Marilyn wig and a short skirt entered the bathroom. He was wearing ballet slippers and the same red lipstick as the woman. His legs were shapely, his thighs strong beneath his pantyhose. He went into a stall to relieve himself, and when he came out spoke to the woman in a language I didn’t recognize. It had soft sounds like Portuguese and hard sounds like German, although it was neither. I found I could understand it, though. He asked the woman when they could leave and said he was hungry. It was like being in a dream where you are able to speak French or Japanese, although you do not know French or Japanese. You feel you can walk between buildings on a wire.

Earlier, with H., I had looked at the top of his head as he bent over a croissant, his hair flying in different directions like the bends in my heart. In the past, when we had slept together, I would wake up every hour or so in case we needed to pack and move. He would look down at me in the dim, morning light and watch me sleep with my limbs wrapped around the thin pole of him. His place in San Francisco was furnished with beautiful, antique rugs and large, framed photographs. From his back terrace, you could see a wide expanse of the bay. He said in a tone of melancholy relief, “I’m not interested in the things I am doing.” He was an architect with a roster of commissions. He was famous. I would have preferred talking about something we both cared about, but I was not impatient. I had burned my knuckle on the door of his oven, heating the croissants. I had touched the hot metal for less than a second, and I was struck by the intensity of the pain.

The woman said in English to the man, “I need a few more minutes.” He left. To me she said, “I’m sad, and I think it means I might have an accident.” I said, “Why are you sad?” She said, “He has stage four prostate cancer and I love him.” When she said, “stage four,” I saw a blood colored throb. I saw an intruder enter a house in a black hood. The man in the blond wig would feel the intruder’s icy, quiet breath on his neck before feeling himself lifted in the arms of the intruder. He would see the house he was sleeping in recede in the moonlight. The woman said, “I didn’t know how good I was at begging. I said, “I am good at begging, too.”

She slid off the counter and in front of her mirror began applying my lip gloss to her beautiful, wide mouth with its curling, upper lip that now looked like a beckoning finger. She wore a sly expression, watching me watch her. She placed the tube of lotion I had given her with her pile of things. I didn’t say anything. I was unsure what tone to take.

In the days when I had hitchhiked I would talk myself out of turning back. I liked when I could not tell what a person would do as long as it was something I would turn out to want. Once in Ireland a man took out his penis while driving. For seconds, I didn’t see color. He wasn’t bad looking. He wore a thick, gold ring, and his hair curled over his forehead. I thought I was discovering an unkempt sadness in the world and that I was at risk of disappearing. I was a girl in tight jeans on a road. A girl with long hair that hung straight to her brows. A clean line of bangs and cherry colored lipstick. The man fumbled with his zipper, and the car slowed. I said, “Pull over,” in a voice I had not used before and wished, years later when I wanted to let go of myself, I could find again. It surprised us both. He didn’t look at me. I said, “Don’t ever do this again. Don’t do it to another person or yourself.”

I said to the woman, “You can have the lip gloss and the lotion.” She found a cotton jersey among her belongings and pulled it over her head. She fluffed her hair, assessing herself in the mirror. She thought she looked pretty, I could see from the tilt of her chin and the glint in her eye. She did look pretty. She said, “Thanks, I didn’t think you’d mind.” I said, “Why didn’t you ask?” I, too, liked to keep my hand in petty theft, but I didn’t take things from people I knew. She stood with her hands on her hips and said, “I thought we were friends. I listened to everything you said.” In the mirror, I saw the man come in. Blood was dripping from his hand onto the floor. When I turned around, there was no blood. He was holding a piece of sausage or a hot dog. He said, “Arnie and Hooter are getting beers. Can we go?” His English was unaccented.

In the apartment of my friend’s mother, I had discovered objects of beauty among the accumulated heaps: a silver perfume bottle, a cream and sugar set in the shape of seashells. During my relationship with H., I had liked best walking from my apartment to his, taking the longest route possible beside shadowy trees, postponing my arrival and the sometimes absent expression I would find on his face. I wondered if the cancer of the man in the bathroom was real. I wondered if what had happened there had all been staged. I wondered how I could change the way the story was going and making me feel. The woman said, “Can I have your dress?” She was smiling. I thought, “Why not? Why can’t you have my dress. Why not?”

LAURIE STONE is author of three books of fiction and nonfiction. A longtime writer for the Village Voice, she has been theater critic for The Nation and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. She has received numerous grants including two from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and she has been awarded the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle. She has published numerous memoir essays and stories in such publications as Open City, Anderbo, Nanofiction, The Los Angeles Review, New Letters, Ms., TriQuarterly, Threepenny Review, Memorious, Creative Nonfiction, St Petersburg Review, and Four Way Review. She has served as writer-in-residence at Pratt Institute, Old Dominion University, Thurber House, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and Muhlenberg College. She has taught at the Paris Writers Workshop and the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2005, she participated in “Novel: An Installation,” writing a book and living in a house designed by architects Salazar/Davis in Flux Factory’s gallery space. She is currently at work on My Life as an Animal, a Memoir in Stories and The Love of Strangers, Flash, and Short Fiction by Laurie Stone. Her website is: lstonehere.wordpress.com

DRESS

The woman was at a sink, washing under her arms and behind her neck. She combed through tangles in her long, dark hair, yanking and smoothing, then looked at me and said, “That’s a great dress.” Her eyes were wide and bright. I was wearing a dress with horizontal stripes and a little zipper up the side, and I felt good she liked it. It changed my mood, and I thought life was odd and unexpected. I thought, It takes nothing for me to flip. Then I thought, Maybe this isn’t nothing. The woman’s belongings were spread around her in a circle like artifacts at a dig. A khaki rucksack, a bra, a book, fishnet tights, sunglasses. She was in her thirties, I guessed. I was reminded of a crime show I watched and the roughened faces of the meth addicts. Thank god for television for my sense of reality.

I was in San Francisco helping a friend empty her mother’s apartment. Her mother had died in her sleep in her 90’s. Not a tragedy, but your mother is gone, and you feel you might be swept away in a wave or a gust of wind like leaves in a doorway. My friend had waited so long for her mother to die, she was looking for something to be other than a person who is waiting. We had spent three days stuffing garbage bags with old clothes and recycling magazines and financial statements. When we sprinkled ashes around a tree in Golden Gate Park, my friend had bent at the waist and let out a sob as if a body was leaving her body. I cried, too, looking down at bits of bone I knew were not strictly speaking her mother’s. I wasn’t a first-rung friend all the time. I had volunteered to help, and she had said yes, a little wary, maybe. I could stay in love with a person when love wasn’t returned. I wasn’t sure if this was harmful and felt no impulse to change. My friend and I had each kept our side of the unspoken promise not to make more of the occasion than it was.

“Where did you get it?” the woman in the bathroom asked, meaning my dress. I was applying lip gloss at the next sink. I said, “Well, you know, Banana Republic. There was a sale.” I had gone for a walk and spotted the dress on a manikin in the window. I had passed the library afterward and stepped inside. The library bordered the tenderloin, where homeless people camped, selling objects they scrounged on grimy blankets, chatting in clumps with hippy abandon, hard-bitten and free. If you are going to be homeless, you want a temperate climate. This I could appreciate. I was happiest living without regular meals and regular sleep, having sex on the run. The woman said, “I’ll check it out,” meaning the Banana Republic. She was younger than me with her life ahead. I felt no desire to leave the bathroom that was cold and anonymous and where neither of us had to get someplace.

She zipped up a skinny, vinyl skirt and changed her bra. Her breasts were round and firm. She didn’t turn away nor mind me looking. The skin on her midriff was taut, but it looked dry. I fished in my bag for a tube of lotion and offered it to her. She smiled. One of her teeth was gray. Not in the front, but the way she smiled, with her mouth open and her top lip rolling back like an awning, you had to see it. Manic energy rose off her. Manic energy can drain you. It can recharge you. It can remind you everyone is afraid.

She hoisted herself onto the counter and squeezed lotion onto her hand, then rubbed it on her arms and neck and said, “What’s the smell. I said, “Freesia.” She said, “What’s that?” I said, “A small flower with intense perfume.” She said, “You talk funny. Where are you from?” I said, “New York.” She said, “Originally.” I said, “I was born there.” She said, “I’m nosey. You don’t have to answer my questions.” I said, “I like your questions.” She said, “I wonder why I ask them?” My attention gathered to a thin, hard point.

She said, “What did you do today?” I said, “I went to see an old boyfriend.” She said, “What’s his name?” I said, “H.” She said, “Short for what?” I said, “Just H.” I hoisted myself up beside her. She said, “Did you get it on?” I said, “No.” She said, “Am I being rude?” I said, “I’d rather be with you than him.” She said, “Why?” I said, “We have no history.” I pulled fingers through my hair and said, “I waited a long time to ring his bell, and then he took a long time to answer it, as if he had forgotten I was coming.” I liked having someone to tell this story that was brimming inside and about to spill. I would not have told it to my friend. In the stories we exchanged, people were not in states of longing. The woman looked around and said, “I wish I could smoke.” She shook her hair. “They would kick me out.” I said, “The veins in his arms looked the same as always, like a little highway. I loved them.” She said, “What are you?” I said, “A cook.” She said, “How do you stay thin?” I said, “I’m not that interested in food.”

A tall man in a blond, Marilyn wig and a short skirt entered the bathroom. He was wearing ballet slippers and the same red lipstick as the woman. His legs were shapely, his thighs strong beneath his pantyhose. He went into a stall to relieve himself, and when he came out spoke to the woman in a language I didn’t recognize. It had soft sounds like Portuguese and hard sounds like German, although it was neither. I found I could understand it, though. He asked the woman when they could leave and said he was hungry. It was like being in a dream where you are able to speak French or Japanese, although you do not know French or Japanese. You feel you can walk between buildings on a wire.

Earlier, with H., I had looked at the top of his head as he bent over a croissant, his hair flying in different directions like the bends in my heart. In the past, when we had slept together, I would wake up every hour or so in case we needed to pack and move. He would look down at me in the dim, morning light and watch me sleep with my limbs wrapped around the thin pole of him. His place in San Francisco was furnished with beautiful, antique rugs and large, framed photographs. From his back terrace, you could see a wide expanse of the bay. He said in a tone of melancholy relief, “I’m not interested in the things I am doing.” He was an architect with a roster of commissions. He was famous. I would have preferred talking about something we both cared about, but I was not impatient. I had burned my knuckle on the door of his oven, heating the croissants. I had touched the hot metal for less than a second, and I was struck by the intensity of the pain.

The woman said in English to the man, “I need a few more minutes.” He left. To me she said, “I’m sad, and I think it means I might have an accident.” I said, “Why are you sad?” She said, “He has stage four prostate cancer and I love him.” When she said, “stage four,” I saw a blood colored throb. I saw an intruder enter a house in a black hood. The man in the blond wig would feel the intruder’s icy, quiet breath on his neck before feeling himself lifted in the arms of the intruder. He would see the house he was sleeping in recede in the moonlight. The woman said, “I didn’t know how good I was at begging. I said, “I am good at begging, too.”

She slid off the counter and in front of her mirror began applying my lip gloss to her beautiful, wide mouth with its curling, upper lip that now looked like a beckoning finger. She wore a sly expression, watching me watch her. She placed the tube of lotion I had given her with her pile of things. I didn’t say anything. I was unsure what tone to take.

In the days when I had hitchhiked I would talk myself out of turning back. I liked when I could not tell what a person would do as long as it was something I would turn out to want. Once in Ireland a man took out his penis while driving. For seconds, I didn’t see color. He wasn’t bad looking. He wore a thick, gold ring, and his hair curled over his forehead. I thought I was discovering an unkempt sadness in the world and that I was at risk of disappearing. I was a girl in tight jeans on a road. A girl with long hair that hung straight to her brows. A clean line of bangs and cherry colored lipstick. The man fumbled with his zipper, and the car slowed. I said, “Pull over,” in a voice I had not used before and wished, years later when I wanted to let go of myself, I could find again. It surprised us both. He didn’t look at me. I said, “Don’t ever do this again. Don’t do it to another person or yourself.”

I said to the woman, “You can have the lip gloss and the lotion.” She found a cotton jersey among her belongings and pulled it over her head. She fluffed her hair, assessing herself in the mirror. She thought she looked pretty, I could see from the tilt of her chin and the glint in her eye. She did look pretty. She said, “Thanks, I didn’t think you’d mind.” I said, “Why didn’t you ask?” I, too, liked to keep my hand in petty theft, but I didn’t take things from people I knew. She stood with her hands on her hips and said, “I thought we were friends. I listened to everything you said.” In the mirror, I saw the man come in. Blood was dripping from his hand onto the floor. When I turned around, there was no blood. He was holding a piece of sausage or a hot dog. He said, “Arnie and Hooter are getting beers. Can we go?” His English was unaccented.

In the apartment of my friend’s mother, I had discovered objects of beauty among the accumulated heaps: a silver perfume bottle, a cream and sugar set in the shape of seashells. During my relationship with H., I had liked best walking from my apartment to his, taking the longest route possible beside shadowy trees, postponing my arrival and the sometimes absent expression I would find on his face. I wondered if the cancer of the man in the bathroom was real. I wondered if what had happened there had all been staged. I wondered how I could change the way the story was going and making me feel. The woman said, “Can I have your dress?” She was smiling. I thought, “Why not? Why can’t you have my dress. Why not?”

LAURIE STONE is author of three books of fiction and nonfiction. A longtime writer for the Village Voice, she has been theater critic for The Nation and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. She has received numerous grants including two from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and she has been awarded the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle. She has published numerous memoir essays and stories in such publications as Open City, Anderbo, Nanofiction, The Los Angeles Review, New Letters, Ms., TriQuarterly, Threepenny Review, Memorious, Creative Nonfiction, St Petersburg Review, and Four Way Review. She has served as writer-in-residence at Pratt Institute, Old Dominion University, Thurber House, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and Muhlenberg College. She has taught at the Paris Writers Workshop and the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2005, she participated in “Novel: An Installation,” writing a book and living in a house designed by architects Salazar/Davis in Flux Factory’s gallery space. She is currently at work on My Life as an Animal, a Memoir in Stories and The Love of Strangers, Flash, and Short Fiction by Laurie Stone. Her website is: lstonehere.wordpress.com