The pencil-drawn woman on the front of the pattern packet had no face but she looked good anyway, legs apart, hip thrust forward. Her heels were extremely high. Make it Tonight, Wear it Tomorrow! exclaimed the envelope. Why Silvia wanted to sew a dress when she could go to a store and buy one much more easily, even much more cheaply, she didn’t know. Her old sewing machine, dusted, sat on the kitchen table. The ironing board stood next to the sink, and on it waited the iron, filled with water for steam. She still needed to find her good scissors; she hoped they would be sharp enough.
Her triplets were finally asleep and her husband, John, was next door, playing poker with her friend Annie’s husband Saul and the other neighborhood dads. Annie probably wasn’t even watching them play; she was probably perched on a stool in the second floor bathroom, smoking out the window and picking at her cuticles. The dress was a halter that tied around the neck. At this moment it looked a little like the dresses Wilma and Betty wore on the Flintstones.
The phone rang. “Tell me when your anniversary is again?” Annie’s voice. Half shaky, half sly.
“And you’re making a dress tonight?”
“I haven’t even started!”
“What are you going to wear to dinner if you don’t finish it in time?”
“If I don’t finish it I won’t go out.” Silvia felt a need to make something that didn’t get eaten, felt like doing something that didn’t get undone almost immediately: cooking, dishes, laundry, vacuuming.
“I guess I’ll watch the guys play poker.” On poker night Silvia and Annie always held party night. They toyed with inviting other women, but never followed through. Other women would complicate the routine. Silvia drank white wine. Annie liked hard lemonade. The radio DJ played songs from the eighties and they danced in the living room without turning on the lights.
“Send John some good vibes so we can pay the babysitter tomorrow!” Silvia tried to end the conversation on a note of gaiety, but Annie hung up before she could get to the exclamation point. Annie was pissed. She loved party night, loved getting out her hoop earrings, red lipstick, and an old Echo and the Bunnymen T-shirt, the neck cut wide so it slid off her shoulder.
It was time for a drink. The back of Silvia’s shirt grew damp while she leaned against the sink and opened the wine. Intense mothering. These two words jumped in her head, the first sips of wine slowing the bounce just a little. In fact, this period of intense mothering was drawing to a close. The girls were growing up. Like a flood or tornado, it was easier to conceptualize early childhood as it wound down. In the midst of it there had been too many diapers, tantrums, breast infections, jars of baby food, rashes, bloody lips, chest colds, financial crises, bumped heads, swollen gums, months without sex, nights without sleep, and days off from preschool to reflect with any depth. This year the triplets finally started full day kindergarten. John’s vasectomy was long healed. Time to figure out what next.
Silvia poured another glass of wine. In a minute she would definitely begin to sew, but first she pictured herself sauntering into the restaurant in her new black dress.
“I’ll have the steak au poivre,” she’d say, confident of both her pronunciation and that poivre meant pepper.
“You’re amazing,” John would say.
In real life John was much more suspicious. In real life he’d hiss what’s with the French?
In a moment, if she could find the good scissors, she would spread the black linen out across the kitchen table so she could trace the pattern with chalk and cut it.
The phone rang again.
“John just won a hand,” reported Annie. “Saul’s won two. Have you seen Marty, Barbara’s husband, lately? I swear he weighs fifty pounds more than last month.”
“Where are you?” Annie sounded strange.
“In the hall closet. How’s the dress?”
“Don’t ask. Why are you in the closet?”
“Have you ever felt like you were being swallowed?”
“What do you mean?” Silvia asked, but she knew what Annie meant. Annie’s twins were three years old and never slept at the same time. On party/poker night Annie gave them each a spoonful of Robitussin P.M.
“I mean suffocated. Or choked. Or trapped. I can’t tell.” Annie was crying, her voice raspy and loud.
“Did you take your meds today?” Silvia finished the rest of her wine and poured another glass. After two glasses of wine she could feel her body, gravity, the kitchen tiles under her bare feet. Usually her head was in charge.
“Yes I took my meds.” Annie sounded sullen, adolescent.
“You have to quit smoking.”
“Come over.” Silvia hung up the phone. She knew Annie would soon be opening the gate between their backyards, but she tilted the pattern and material out of its paper bag and slid it onto the table. Tomorrow morning Annie’s twins would traipse over to watch cartoons with Silvia’s girls. Ideally there would be time to sew, but realistically? The girls would all be hungry. Her husband would want to talk. One of the girls would forget to use the bathroom and pee on the floor. There would be arguments about which shows to watch. Annie was waving at the kitchen door. Silvia let her in.
“How’s the dress. Are you almost finished?” Annie put her bottles of lemonade in the refrigerator and tossed a package of salami onto the counter.
“You’ve got to stop asking me that! I’ve barely started.”
“OK!” Annie turned the radio up and started poking through the cabinets. She wasn’t crying anymore.
“Top shelf,” Silvia reminded her, but Annie had already found the ashtray. She perched on the counter top, slid the window above the sink open, and lit her cigarette.
“Much better.” Annie exhaled through the screen and shut her eyes.
Silvia unfolded the black linen, smoothing it flat with her hand and placing the thin brown paper pattern on top of the fabric. Perhaps all Annie needed was a moment of repose, a few bottles of hard lemonade, and a cigarette. The other mothers Silvia knew might go out and have a glass of wine, but it was one, or maybe two glasses, period. They definitely didn’t smoke. Their opinions about fluoride in the water and college funds and when their daughters could get their ears pierced were all firmly in place. On the one hand, this certainty was enviable. On the other hand, it was incredibly boring.
“I’ve been thinking about going back to work.” Silvia pulled a pin from the tomato pin cushion.
“That’s interesting.” This was Annie’s standard initial response. It wasn’t irritating. It was good. Annie was a thinker. She didn’t act like she knew it all already. She didn’t run home and Google answers. She liked to really talk things through. The problem was, there wasn’t always enough time to talk, and when she was really depressed she didn’t want to. (When she was really depressed, Annie’s voice rose in a plaintive whine. “Why do we have to worry about everything so much? These details about other people’s lives are rotting my brain.” Silvia found that thinking about her children as “other people” actually helped relieve the pressure a bit.)
Before she pinned the pattern to the fabric there was another step, but she couldn’t remember what it was.
“Maybe our girls would be happier without mothers.” The ash on Annie’s cigarette was long. Her eyes were wide and bright with anxiety. “If you go back to work who will I hang out with?” Annie set her cigarette in the ashtray and began rolling a slice of salami.
“You have other friends. Plus the kids.”
“I’m not even going to comment on your first sentence.” Annie took a bite of salami. “And I like the kids best these days when they’re both asleep.”
“I like the girls best when they’re eating without complaining.” Silvia remembered that she couldn’t just pin the pattern to the fabric; she had to cut the pattern out. She had to find the scissors. “I like watching them chewing and getting full.”
“I like that too.” Annie pushed the rest of the tube of salami into her mouth.
“I haven’t sewn a dress since high school,” said Silvia. “I need to concentrate.” She was feeling a bit panicked and that was unnecessary. She needed to find the scissors and read the instructions. It would all come back: bias, seam allowance, basting, darts. She had chosen an easy pattern, a dress without a zipper, on purpose.
“You’ll figure it out. I’m going to lie down on the kitchen floor just because I want to, OK?” Annie hopped off the counter and stretched out on her back next to the ironing board.
Silvia made sure not to step on her. She had to watch what she said to Annie. A while back she made the mistake of wondering about the “spirit world” during a conversation and it had launched a chain reaction: candles, chanting, crystals, chakras, and channeling. Annie found them a shaman. For five hundred dollars in a dim room over a pizza parlor the shaman cleansed their souls with a small drum and some incense. Silvia felt good for a few weeks, really good, as if the litany of her life’s imperfections monotonous mothering, clueless husband, ten extra pounds was now merely humorous. The problem was that this advanced wisdom did not stick, but drained away like a battery. No, not like a battery; it felt hacked into like a stick of butter until she was as sloppy and unformed as the melting mess on the dish next to the toaster.
Silvia looked on top of the refrigerator for the scissors. She looked in the junk drawer and under the dining room table where the girls held “arts and crafts.” In the living room, next to John’s staple gun and a small purple horse, jammed into a corner of the couch, were the good scissors.
Back in the kitchen, Silvia took a deep breath and began to cut the pieces of the pattern. How had she forgotten that in high school she had relied heavily on the Home Ec teacher’s expertise? Ms. Armstrong always had the radio on in Home Ec. The very same bands were on the radio tonight. In old MTV videos the musicians’ hair was sprayed into crests and waves. Now the styles seemed as ornate and foolish as powdered wigs. Though Silvia had long ago accepted that she would never be as tall or thin as the women in those videos, somewhere deep that hard sexy aesthetic lingered as ideal.
Now that the pattern was cut out, she had to pin it onto the fabric. She pulled pins out of her pincushion and began sticking them through the pattern and into the black linen. She used the chalk to outline the pattern then took out the pins. The tissue paper pattern drifted under the table. She cut out the pieces of fabric. There were only three: a front, a back, and a long rectangle that with some pressing and pinning and turning right-side in would become a belt. If Annie was a different woman, she could ask Annie to take charge of the belt, but Annie was not that woman. Right now Annie was smoking a cigarette while doing Pilates on the kitchen floor.
Silvia wanted another glass of wine, but it was getting late and her hands were feeling more like pieces of sculpture than functioning tools. She held the two big pieces of fabric together and pushed pins down the side where the seam would be. The dress looked more and more like a giant triangle. While Annie crunched herself into a V on the floor, Silvia wondered about the wisdom of wearing a triangle to her tenth anniversary dinner. She wanted to look as good, or better, than she did on her wedding day, which was impossible, but did she have to try and make herself look terrible? She knew John wasn’t even thinking about the dinner and wouldn’t until tomorrow night, when he would pull out his one good pair of pants, a decent shirt, and a sports coat ten minutes before the babysitter arrived.
Silvia bummed one of Annie’s cigarettes. “In high school I had a Home Ec teacher named Ms. Armstrong. I don’t know if I can sew without her.”
Annie stopped exercising to listen; this was the wonderful thing about Annie. She immediately looked so happy to hear a story, sitting cross legged on the kitchen floor with her bottle of lemonade in one hand and her cigarette in the other. “Remind me. When did you graduate?”
“1986. Ms. Armstrong was there to advise, take measurements, do the tricky pleats and tucks, reconfigure and re-conceive when the zipper wouldn’t lie flat.”
“Is she still alive?” Annie asked, and for a moment Silvia wondered if she could Google Ms. Armstrong and email for help.
“She wasn’t old, Annie. She must have only been in her thirties twenty years ago. I heard she retired, though, and moved to Florida with Brady.”
“Her common law husband. He was a Vietnam Vet.” In high school Silvia had been impressed by these facts about Brady, though back then she didn’t know much about Vietnam and didn’t know exactly what “common law” meant. “I thought Ms. Armstrong was so beautiful and independent. She wore stuff like white pumps and drop-waist mini skirts and taffeta shirts with metallic thread.”
“It sounds terrible!”
“I know! But back then it looked great. One day after school I saw a man picking her up in an old truck.”
“Yeah. He had long brown hair and a scraggly beard. His truck was splattered with dirt.”
“Was she wearing the pumps?”
“Yes, and a crazy geometric dress with shoulder pads. She clambered into the truck. Brady drove off without kissing her hello.”
“It seemed so pathetic.”
“How fascinating,” said Annie, blowing a tiny smoke ring that drifted toward the sink. “How come?”
“I think I thought her glamour protected her.”
“Ah,” said Annie knowingly, reaching up to the counter to retrieve the ashtray.
“How could you know?”
“How could I know what?” Silvia sat back down at the sewing machine, lowered the needle into the fabric, and began to give the pedal a small amount of pressure with her foot. At last she was sewing. The machine whirred, joining the two pieces of fabric together. When the iron was hot she would press open the seam.
“Do you think this was inevitable?” Annie waved her cigarette around the kitchen.
Silvia pushed the fabric under the needle. “I don’t know.”
“I’ve been thinking about doing it again.” Annie’s voice was sad.
“Doing what?” Silvia tried to keep the fabric straight. If it slipped off center, the seam wouldn’t lie flat.
“Oh no,” said Silvia. She took her foot off the pedal and looked at Annie. “I thought you were better.” Annie was still on her knees and smiled wryly. Behind her appeared Emily, the oldest of the triplets by fifteen minutes.
“I was better,” said Annie. “And now I’m not.”
Emily was wearing only her underwear. She walked past Annie into the kitchen. “Why was Annie better and now she’s not? Why is Annie here?”
“Hey Emily!” Annie sounded genuinely happy to see Emily and Silvia understood. Emily awake in the kitchen felt exciting, as if her arrival could give them something they needed.
“What are you doing up?” asked Silvia. Emily shrugged. Until this moment Silvia had not noticed that the room was filled with smoke.
Emily’s underwear was printed with small yellow flowers. Aside from her long brown hair, her underwear was the only obviously feminine thing about her. The rest of
her body was as flat and straight as a boy’s. Her pajamas were clenched in her fist. She lifted them up over her head and then began swirling them around in the air like a whip.
“Be careful!” said Silvia. She watched Annie’s face flip to another channel. Annie’s face was suddenly shining with excitement. What a dangerous room they were in. The iron was hot. Lodged in a wooden block on the countertop, eight steak knives gleamed. The razor blade Silvia used to remove the gummy residue of scotch tape sat on the windowsill.
“Where are the scissors?” asked Emily. “My feet are sweating.”
“Why do you need the scissors?” Silvia realized too late that she was handing the good scissors over. Jane and Charlotte stumbled into the kitchen, blinking in the light.
“What are we doing?” Jane asked. Charlotte looked like she was still sleeping.
Emily knelt down and spread out her pajamas. “We’re cutting off our feet.”
Charlotte looked miserable to hear the news, but Jane unzipped her pajamas and stepped out of them immediately. “Good,” she said. “Why is Annie smoking when it’s bad for you?”
“Think of it as a dream,” said Annie. “This isn’t really happening.”
Jane raised both her eyebrows.
Charlotte, apparently resigned to the plan, tugged at the zipper on her pajamas. It was stuck. She moved in front of Annie and pushed out her belly. Annie clenched the cigarette in her teeth and pulled the fleece free.
“Thanks,” said Charlotte and finished unzipping. Now that she was more awake, she looked cheery. She shrugged her pajamas to the floor and laughed. “Oops. I forgot my underwear.”
Jane stood behind Emily still bent over on the floor, cutting. Jane’s underwear was printed across the front with the sparkly word Sunday even though it was Friday. Naked, Charlotte stood in line behind Jane.
“Need help?” asked Annie, blowing a big smoke ring. Charlotte and Jane watched it float above the refrigerator. They looked at each other and grinned.
“Cool!” they said in unison.
“QUIT IT,” mouthed Silvia.
“RELAX,” mouthed Annie.
“No,” muttered Emily. “I don’t need any help.” She stood up, handed the scissors to Jane, and stepped back into her pajamas, ankle bones delicate beneath the ragged fleece. There were no calluses or plantar warts or varicose veins on her feet. Her heels were so close to her toes.
“May I please have some milk?” Emily’s voice was so grave; Silvia had to laugh.
“Very polite,” murmured Annie.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” Silvia couldn’t help asking.
“Almost too beautiful to believe,” said Annie. All three girls looked over at Annie and scowled.
“C-ut! C-ut!” Charlotte began to chant impatiently, giving the word two syllables. Jane finished her pajamas and handed the scissors over her shoulder to Charlotte, who knelt down gently on the floor, her naked body thicker than her sisters’ and as simple as a shell.
Silvia got the milk from the refrigerator. The cool air felt good on her face. Maybe she should drink some milk. No. She got out three glasses and filled each half way.
“More,” said Emily. “We’re really thirsty.”
“Yes,” added Jane, nodding.
“Please,” remembered Charlotte, happily stepping back into her footless pajamas and zipping herself up.
Silvia watched Annie watch the girls drink their milk. Their six pink feet crowded the linoleum next to the refrigerator like a small flock of creatures that might transform at any moment into something entirely new.
The girls finished their milk and began exploring.
“What are you doing?” Jane ran her hand along the top of the sewing machine. Charlotte was feeling the fabric between her fingers. Emily was pulling pins from the tomato.
“Making a dress. It’s time to get back to bed,” said Silvia. She wanted them out of the kitchen before they started asking to use the sewing machine, please, just this once, just for a little while . . .
“Why are you making a dress?” asked Charlotte.
“I don’t know exactly,” Silvia answered. She couldn’t say to her daughters, I love you all, I wanted you all, but I didn’t think I’d have to go through it, I thought I could elude, I thought I could rise above, circumvent, not get snagged, not get lumpy, not get bumpy. I thought if I was smart enough, skinny enough, fast enough—
“You know,” said Annie, her voice wise and warm, “she’s just making it for fun.”
“Yeah,” said Jane.
“Tuck us in please,” Emily commanded over her shoulder as she led the other girls out of the kitchen.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” said Silvia. “Go on up.” She wanted to thank Annie. She wanted to try and explain.
“I’m tired too.” Annie yawned and put out her hand. Silvia pulled her off the kitchen floor and led her into the living room.
“Lie down on the couch and take a nap.”
Annie stretched out. “Thank you for letting me come over. I know you have sewing to do.”
“Shut up,” said Silvia. “I’ll bring you down a blanket from the girl’s room.” She was worried about leaving Annie alone, but it would just take a minute.
The stairs creaked as Silvia ascended. It was too quiet upstairs. The girls were probably hiding, and she would have to find them, and then chase them, and then yell at them to get back into bed. But no, in their room the girls were all, astonishingly, asleep. Charlotte and Jane were huddled under the covers in Charlotte’s bed. Emily was in her own bed, mouth open, eyes fluttering. Silvia resisted the urge to touch Emily’s bare feet. She pulled a blanket up to Emily’s chin, grabbed the comforter off Jane’s empty bed, and walked back downstairs to the living room.
Annie was sitting on the couch, hugging the pillow. Her face was wistful in the light spilling out of the kitchen.
“I thought you were tired,” said Silvia.
“I thought I was too.”
“You want more salami?”
Annie shook her head, stood up, and followed Silvia back into the kitchen.
“Remember what the shaman said?”
“What?” Silvia was trying not to worry about the dress; there it was, still in pieces.
“We already have everything we need.”
Silvia rolled her eyes. “It’s just that I had this idea of a dress,” she said, sitting back down at the sewing machine. The thread had come free from the needle and the fabric was hanging off the side of the table.
“An ideal, right?” Annie lowered herself back to the floor. She pulled her knees up to her chest and stuck her arms out straight along the sides of her body. “I’m going to do another boat pose. Work on my abs.”
Silvia rethreaded the needle and recentered fabric. “Maybe it’s hopeless.”
“Look,” said Annie. “All these little feet.” She gathered a few fleece footies from the triplets’ pajamas in each hand. “I’m your cheerleader, OK?” It looked like the muscles in Annie’s stomach were beginning to quiver, but still she kept the V. She shook the footies vigorously. “Go Silvia! Sew that dress!”
“OK, OK,” said Silvia. There were still hours until morning. She rethreaded the needle, repositioned the fabric, and finished sewing the seam. Now to iron it flat. When she looked up, Annie was curled on her side on the kitchen floor, sleeping, wearing the footies on her hands like mittens.