Once you live in a place long enough, you don’t just walk down the street anymore. You walk down the street accompanied by the memories of every other time you walked down that same street. You live in a place long enough and you start to walk down the street trailed by the past versions of yourself and imagining all the future versions. Sometimes I imagine us as a graceful promenade, behind me the people I once was, and before me the ghosts of the people I might become. Other times I imagine those selves as so many tin cans, tied to my ankle by twine and rattling along with every step.
Every once in a while, a person or a place or an object will cut so suddenly through the layers that you wind of confused about which part of your life you are actually in after all. One of these such experiences happened because of a red dress.
The fall after I finished High School I spent one semester at the small private school Bard College in the Hudson Valley of New York state. The reasons I chose not to stay warrant another story, but while I was there I became very close with my dorm-mate Diane, and so the year after I left I planned a visit.
While I was back in New York, we went to a thrift store in the rural small town nearest the college, and that was where I found the dress. It was red, with white flowers all over it and big mother-of-pearl buttons down the front. It falls in to a particular genre of vintage dress that I loved then as now, short-sleeved rayon with long skirts and laces in the back to draw it in at the waist. In Diane’s dorm room, I cut the skirt off unevenly and put it on.
We went to a party in someone else’s dorm room that night, a mutual friend’s birthday. There was pyramid of green glass beer bottles stacked on the ground against the wall – 100 bottles of beer, they told us proudly. Our friend had painted a David Bowie lightning bolt on her face.
I wore the dress for the rest of that visit, and most of the next few years. When I departed on a bike tour from Knoxville to Savannah, Georgia, I packed the red dress along with a similar dark green one. Worn over bike shorts it was the perfect uniform – lightweight and comfortable. I believed that I was more visible to cars wearing red, and in the evenings I would change into the green dress to be less noticeable as we set up illegal camp spots in the woods at the side of the road.
We rode for two and a half weeks, all day in the sun. The dress became stiff with dried sweat and road filth. We washed our clothes only once during the trip, when a couple put us up in their camper and the wife offered her washer & drier. By the time we returned from that trip, I was tanned dark gold and newly muscled, the dress was ragged at the edges with seams beginning to pull thin and the roughly cut hem fraying wildly.
Clothing becomes a part of our identity, and for years after it stopped feeling quite right to wear that dress, it hung in my closet. It had become more than a piece of clothing, it had become a relic of an era. It connected me to a part of my life and a person I once was that had faded away to make space for the new version of myself. I couldn’t just get rid of it.
It wasn’t until I was moving out of my house on E. 5th Avenue, the house I had lived in for the last three years – most of the time I was working on my degree in painting – and purging my belongings down to what would fit in my VW Jetta for the trip cross-country to Idaho, that I held the dress in my hands for a moment and then tossed it into the garbage bag of clothes to bring back to Goodwill.
A lot of things didn’t survive that purge: clothing, old sketchbooks, journals, photographs, furniture, books. I brought only enough clothes to get a new job in Idaho, a pile of blankets, a crate with a skillet and a few dishes.
That move took place just over two years ago, at the beginning of October. A few weeks ago I was digging through the dresses on the rack at an AmVets in West Knoxville, and I almost jumped out of my skin when I saw a corner of a very familiar red and white flowered fabric sticking out of the racks. Seeing that pattern was like hearing your favorite song from eighth grade on the radio at the grocery store, it cuts right through where you are and transports you completely and instantly to another time, without asking your permission.
I pulled the dress off the rack. It can’t be. Oh my god it is. It was the exact same dress. Short sleeves, mother of pearl buttons, laces in the back. I tried it on in the dressing room, laughing at myself and at the same time knowing I’d have to buy it, if only to recover the lost link to that past self.
In the last few years my identity has been broken down to nothing and built back up again, stone by stone, twice: Once at the hands of an abusive partner and the second time through the process of giving birth to my son. The separation between the selves I have been seems complete, and yet when I turn around I see that I am holding yet on to the same threads that have tied me to them all along: graceful promenade or rattling trail of tin cans.
Staying in your hometown is like this: parts of you, your community, and the fabric of the city march irrevocably forward, and other parts remain obstinately exactly how they have been all along. I write these words from a table at Old City Java, in the very same room where I danced in my first ever mosh pit, in the very same room I have been writing for the last decade.
But this time I didn’t cut the hem of the dress, it just seems more right to wear it long.