This was when I was younger but not young. Looking back, I’m not sure just exactly when I was young. It seemed I was in school one day and in Maternity the next. I remember the pleated dress. And that it was white. And that it was spring. The kind of evening they write songs about.
My friend Dodo and I went, on an invitation she’d somehow wrangled, to a fancy club neither of us belonged to. I remember it was on the water, and the evening was pink all around us. Boats sluicing by on the narrow cut below, the Montlake bridge looking like it had been lifted from Paris.
Now for the dress. Because I think my subconscious went out and bought itself a dress. White. With a pleated skirt and a modest, plain top. But in it, I was no longer invisible. It was romantic in a way my life was not. I remember coming upon it in my closet later, as if some stranger had left it there.
So we went. I don’t remember what Dodo wore. She said she’d find us a drink, and she disappeared. I wasn’t uncomfortable. I didn’t know anybody, so it didn’t matter what happened. And then in that dress, I was a mystery even to myself.
A combo had set up and it began knocking out old, romantic songs. I was thinking how music sounds across water as I watched groups of two and three come together, break up, when I felt someone’s attention. Just that: attention.
Another solitary figure, a man, holding a napkin around his glass. Perhaps a little older and at ease in that setting. I knew it wasn’t a matter of him thinking he knew me. It was simply that he wondered about me.
He nodded, I did not, but I didn’t turn away, either. And then Dodo came up, talking as she came. I remember that about her, how she always entered talking.
She was a sharp little girl, not five feet tall, and she saw the man, who’d come to a stop about three feet away. She had my vodka tonic in one hand and her drink in the other.
So the spell, or whatever it was, dissolved, and when I looked back, the stranger was gone. I thought I glimpsed him with some people, up near the band.
Dodo stayed and we talked and then she disappeared again, leaving me standing with my drink.
A woman came over, mistaking me for someone she knew. She lingered, just being polite, talking. And while she was talking, the stranger materialized, closer now. He raised his glass and pressed it to his forehead, which seemed odd but interesting.
The woman followed my glance, and then murmured something polite and left. But before she went, she did a strange thing. She reached out a hand and squeezed my wrist. “Such a pretty dress,” she said.
Now the man was gone again. I don’t know what I was feeling, but I remember what happened to my thoughts then.
Suppose he comes over and we talk. He says he has a new car and wants to take me for a ride. He says my friend can come, too. Forgetting my life, I find Dodo in the crowd and we go with him—Don is his name—in his cherry red sports car—across town and over the Aurora Bridge.
Where we run into a funeral cortege. Now we’re crawling at five miles per hour and Don is saying, What the hell. Funerals at night now. Dodo, squeezed in the back, suggests he make a U turn.
He looks at her in the rearview mirror, and then he makes the U.
One of the motorcycle cops herding the funeral peels off, turns around and pulls Don over. It is then I notice that two pleats are caught in the car door and all I can think about is will the dress ever look the same.
Don fails his breathalyzer, which is nothing compared to how badly he does on his walking sobriety test. We all three are at the nearest precinct, blaming each other.
But. Suppose instead I go up to him and I say, It seems we’ve stood and talked like this before. And he says . . . but I can’t remember where or when. Straight from those old songs the combo is playing, whose useless lyrics stick to the brain.
He looks sharp, a word my friends and I used at the time. Slender as opposed to thin, with an elongated trunk, wearing a fine linen suit with little flecks in it like baby cereal.
But suppose he says, Pardon? He doesn’t recognize the song. I wilt in my white dress, or it wilts. Then the stranger and I blink away from each other, confused and oddly sad. We manage to part seconds later.
Suppose though he comes to me just as Dodo and I are about to leave. The band’s packed up, people drifting toward their cars, night on the water now, and the lights shining on it.
It doesn’t matter what he says, what matters is that I look at Dodo and she, sharp as always, says, Go. Go. How we solve the problem of my having driven us here, I don’t remember. Dodo is resourceful. She’ll make her way home.
He says to me, The evening’s not done with us, or we’re not done with it, and I find that poetic. Which makes sense, because he’s a poet.
I leave my life yet again and join him in his tenement. Seattle doesn’t have many tenements, but he’s managed to snag one. It has oilcloth on the kitchen table, which I didn’t know you could buy anymore. And a space heater that smells like burnt shoes.
He lives on stipends and small grants and unemployment. I put the dress in its own special garment bag, and then I get a job at the nearby Fisheries Department. The place is interesting, not the job, which is filing and greeting. My children visit on alternate weekends, but they have other lives now.
The poet is jealous. He says he can’t trust me because he always heard that if a woman cheats on one man, she’ll cheat on another. At the Fisheries Christmas party one year, he gets very drunk and introduces himself as Mr. I.M. Next.
We split up. Meanwhile my children have grown, and my husband has remarried and made a new life, from which I am excluded. Except for holidays. After all, I’m the one who left.
Suppose it’s not a sad story, why does it have to end badly, aren’t there happy couples, good marriages, don’t you see them everywhere?
Supposing. Supposing my husband leaves, and I bump into the stranger from the party somewhere years later. After the divorce. In a grocery store, rolling our carts toward each other. Some of that same romantic music is playing on Muzak. I wouldn’t notice it, but he’s whistling. He’s a whistler. And a musician.
He was actually a bass player with the combo, but they’d hired the piano player’s brother-in-law at the last minute, and he decided to stay for the party anyway.
We begin to go out. The dress is still in my closet because the thought of someone else wearing it makes me ill. We’re older now, so decide not to call it dating. Mostly we go to dinner. The romance deflates with the velocity in which it had arrived, but we agree we like what we’re left with, which we call companionship.
My children live with us part-time, and they think his music is not cool. I keep my old job, but finally get the editor position I’d been vying for. Years pass. It no longer matters how we met.
I think about it, though. A lot. With this terrible sense of loss and yearning. I think, What’s that about? You have the guy, it’s all good.
He gets a bad back just as he’s turning sixty. Where has the time gone? He’s very unhappy because of the back and I resent it, just a little. Finally he gets it checked out and the news is not good. Not good is not the right phrase. It is terrible. Cancer. Not the kind that has a good cure rate, or any cure rate.
And I think, that’s why I was sad, looking back, remembering that night.
But suppose none of this is true, because what really happens is he finds me in the crowd and takes me by the wrist—like the strange woman had—and leads me away from here.
Down streets lined with trees. The old houses, the chestnut husks on the ground. Or no—it’s spring. Blossoms from the Japanese plum trees on the ground, and he says, Look, they could be snow, and I’m thinking, what a great guy.
He leads me toward the Museum of Science and Industry, which has since moved, but at that time was perched there, modernist and white. Beyond it, my favorite willow trees, dripping their boughs into the water.
Pretty, but isolated. Because now I’m wondering what it is I’m doing, going off with a stranger. And something has changed. He is looking all around. And, as they say in stories, before I knew it, he’d herded me up a path, and we were in something like a shed that smelled of mold and moss and sawdust, and he’s thrusting one hand up, mussing the pleats of the dress, and the other down, like a kid stealing candy, I think, slapping his hands as if he were a child—my child—but he won’t stop, until a light comes on, so bright the word I think of is loud, and a voice calls, Who’s out there? Who is it?
And we look at each other in that harsh light and we wonder, Who are you?
Why does it have to be vicious or sad or boring? Why can’t it just be? Supposing it’s all very simple. He comes over now, we exchange vitals, my marriage falls apart, I call the stranger and we have a real love affair. But then, like my cousin’s husband up in Canada, he gets killed in a motorcycle accident right in front of our new apartment and all I have of him is my sad little dress and the skid marks, which I have to drive over every day if I want to leave the house. My cousin in Canada never left her house again.
Is there no sane way to love a stranger? Who even now, as I run through my supposes, has found me in the crowd again and is coming my way with an expectant look.
Supposing it’s all about tonight. We have a romantic evening and that’s the whole of it. It becomes one of those reference points in your life you never lose because it’s a memory. A nice, unspoiled-by-life memory. What about that?
He’s heading straight for me when someone steps between us and I know by his face, know as if I’d been at the ceremony–a bridesmaid, perhaps–that this woman is either his wife or his lover, and does it matter which?
It’s all in his fleeting expression. Guilt, relief, annoyance, loss, memory, regret. I know them because I’ve got them, too.
Dodo comes up then. She says I’m right where she left me, she wants to know why I didn’t mix, I should’ve gotten myself another drink, that one’s all water, it’s chilly here by the water, am I bored? Well she is.
Are you ready? says Dodo, finally. Yes, I say. Yes.