I lie on my stomach. Dread, as real as air, fills my body and I squeeze my eyes shut.On the floor, the heavy odor of our old carpet is dank, musty. I turn my mouth and nose away, ignoring the feel of the carpet’s rough bristles.
Beside me, my 14 year old brother kneels and I crane my neck around to see him, his face set with worry, perspiration forming at the forehead, dark bangs slicked back with gel against his head. He leans over my body, the silk cloth at my back gripped in his hands. His dark eyes meet mine but he looks away quickly, concentrating on the task before him.
He says, “Okay, suck it in.”
I inhale as hard as I can, body rigid—a plank on the floor. His hands work, quickly, they feel like small birds prancing upon my back, and I wonder if Brother can fix this and I wonder if she is gone, if she has left the house. Or is she somewhere still inside, still angry?
Brother’s hands push my ribs, touch my spine. From the hallway, our grandfather clock chimes loudly and I count—five chimes. The concert rehearsals begin at 5:30 but I am too worried about the dress to care if we will be late. Exhaling slowly, as slowly as possible, I mumble into the carpet, “Is it working?”
“I think I got it. Don’t move. Take a breath again.” I do. I feel Brother grip the fabric and tug, hear the slow, mechanical sound of the zipper as my dress is closed over my back. I sob, once. I sob again—so relieved. I open my eyes, light-headed with gratitude because the dress has been zipped, because it was possible.
Brother stands up, says, “Be careful, it’s really tight. Breathe shallow.” He reaches down and takes my hand to pull me up, my body awkward with tension—the dress is very tight, the fabric so tensely pulled against my ribs, I think, “this is what a corset feels like.” Pale blue silk falls around my body as the skirt reaches my ankles, and he hands me the sash, then takes it back to tie it around my waist himself. “It looks good,” he says.
“Thank you. Thank you so much for helping me.” I want to hug him, but he is very tall and I know reaching up will the tear open the dress he just zipped up. I want to tell him how he has saved me, how everything is okay now. But he is turned away and digging through a drawer, already moving on to the next task.
“Where’s mom?” I ask.
“I dunno. I got to get my concert stuff on.” He turns, walking out, and yells, “Mom! Where’s my jacket? Hey, Mary’s dress fit. She fits.”
I swallow my relief and push aside the dizziness caused by shallow breaths and the sweet reprieve from disaster. Mom had been so angry, clearly weary: “It’s not my fault you keep gaining weight and don’t fit. If you keep it up, you won’t fit into any of your clothes. I’ve been telling you.” It was true—she had been telling me. At 16, I am large. Not chubby, but solid somehow, heavy limbs, big thighs. Humiliating breasts.
I brush my hair, rub lip gloss over my mouth. Should I wear eyeshadow? It looks like I have been crying. My brother appears in the doorway, dressed in his concert clothes, silently mouths, “Let’s go.” I ask if mom is angry and he shrugs, saying, “Who cares?”
In the car, we are quiet. Mom does not ask how I got the dress on, she says nothing about the dress. We all three look out the windows. It is raining out, and the wheels of the car make a beautiful wooshing sound as we pull into the school lot. Pausing at the curb, mom says go inside, she will be in soon. Brother jumps out of the car, and the motion, the movement, breaks my reverie, my worry. I too prepare to get out. I open the car door and pause, but mom does not turn. I lean forward carefully, still afraid to move, and too-brightly say, “Thanks, mom!”
“Okay,” she says, putting the car into drive.