A Dressing Room in Saks


Honorable Mention Writing to the Right-Hand Margin Prize in Fiction
Published: April 22, 2010

The dress was $2,395.

There was nothing wrong with that. It was beautiful: it was twilight, dusty grapes, and soft plums crushed into velvet. The dress hung—no—draped itself over Lucy’s mother like silk, flowing down to her knees in soft ripples. Lucy thought it looked shapeless on the hanger, like a limp purple sack, but on her mother the velvet seemed to absorb light and exude it from within its folds.

Her mother faced the mirror, examining the way the fabric seemed to gather in just the right places: in a gentle curve under her neck and ripples down the sides, ending in a wavy hem around her knees. The price tag fluttered as she moved, its edge pointed against the smooth underside of her arm. She turned and looked at Lucy, her eyes bright and searching.


Lucy shifted on the little dressing room stool, re-crossing her stockinged legs underneath a rough wool pencil skirt. She reached out and felt the dress with her thumb and forefinger, wondering why anyone would buy a fur coat when velvet like this existed. What could she say?

She sighed. “Ma, it’s beautiful. It’s so gorgeous on you.” As she finished speaking, Lucy felt an odd sense of déjà vu and remembered countless evenings spent sitting on her mother’s bed as a teenager, swinging her lanky legs while watching her mother try on outfits for family parties.

Her mother turned back to the mirror, running her hands from her thighs to her waist, feeling the alluring fabric underneath her fingers. “Can you imagine me showing up to the party in this?” Her eyes sparkled as she looked over her shoulder at Lucy. Then, as if reading Lucy’s mind, she said, “Remember that time Aunt Michelle wore that sequined thing to Paul’s wedding? I think velvet is much more sophisticated.” Lucy agreed.

Out of Lucy’s four aunts, Michelle was the only one who married a man from old money. Although Michelle managed to find the funds for trips to the spa every weekend, whenever Lucy’s mom came to visit she never offered to pay for even a single pedicure. For a moment Lucy toyed with the image of her mom walking into a party in the dress. She could almost hear the subdued sounds of conversation, interrupted by the opening of a door with her mother framed in the entrance while Aunt Michelle gazed openmouthed, her cigarette dropping butt-first into a plate of wilting salad.

Now that Lucy was thinking of it, the party was actually for her parents’ twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, not some family member’s birthday or wedding. Did her mother really need to spend so much money, just to be able to wear something spectacular? For once at a party her mother would probably be the center of attention anyway. Over the past month Lucy used her lunch breaks at the office to meet up with her mother in the city in search of something amazing for the party. The perfect dress had yet to be found, but her mother seemed to be falling for this one… Lucy was jerked out of her reverie as she realized her mother was saying something.

“… don’t think those would work either,” her mom mused, tapping her finger on her cheek lightly.

“Hm? What’d you say, ma?”

“Oh,” her mom said, “I was just saying, what kind of shoes would go with this dress? I have those old black heels but they wouldn’t really match… you know, we should probably look for matching jewelry too.”

“Wait, it sound like you’ve already decided!” Lucy raised her eyebrows. “You’re not serious, are you?” What started as a fun jaunt into Saks for what her mom called ‘wishful shopping’ was becoming serious fast. Usually Lucy and her mom kept to the more inexpensives stores, occasionally daring to look around the upscale places, content to only play at being like Aunt Michelle and the other kinds of people who shopped there.

Her mother continued, “And I really love this color. Oh, Luce, it’s so perfect.”

Lucy frowned slightly at the reflection. She said carefully, “You know… there are lots of other purple dresses in other stores. Maybe we should, you know, keep looking. Keep an open mind. We could even find one that matches your heels, so we wouldn’t have to spend extra.” She saw her mother’s face fall a little bit at this so she stared at her shoes, wondering if she was really so wrong. There were tiny dimples in her mother’s cheeks.

She said softly, “I could save for it, I know I could. I’ll find a way.” She stood up a little straighter and smoothed back her hair, which shone as if transformed into creamy silver.

Lucy shook her head. “Ma, listen to yourself. Think of what you could buy with that much money. That’s weeks of clothes for work, or the DJ for the party, or … it’s more than twice as much as my wedding dress was!” She was standing up now, fiddling with the empty hangers so she wouldn’t have to see her mother’s face.

“Yes… I know…” Diane looked down at her bare feet, veined and wrinkled against the plush carpet of the dressing room. She gave a little laugh and reached for the zipper. “Oh, you know me. I was just dreaming a little. I mean, I could save up enough money for it, it’s not like they pay me a pittance at the office… but you know, it’s just a nice thought. Hm, can you give me a little help with the zipper?”

Lucy reached over and started tugging it down. She said, “I don’t mean to… well, I mean… if you can save the money, that’s great. You should go for it, if you really want it. It’s a lot of money, but…” Her voice trailed off.

“It’s just a dress.” Her mom carefully slid the dress off and handed it to Lucy to hang up so she could put her clothes on. Somehow, the dressing room light had gotten harsher, sharper. Lucy looked at the worn polyester bra and the tiny hole in her mother’s stockings. There were new creases on her mother’s back and stomach, but her freckly arms looked smooth as they stretched into a simple cotton turtleneck. Diane slid back into her usual corduroy pants and faux-leather loafers, and Lucy thought she suddenly looked breakable and small. For a moment, she wanted to buy her mother everything, to push the dress in her hands and say, Here, I give this to you.

Her mother pointed at simple dark green dress, previously ignored, in the corner. “Now, that looked fabulous on you, Lucy. It would be great for the party! How about we just get that for now?”

Lucy stood up and said, “You don’t have to get it for me. Green’s not really my color anyway. Let’s just get lunch, ok Diane? I need to be back for a meeting soon.”

Her mother had turned to open the door but quickly jerked back around. “Diane?” she asked with raised eyebrows, “since when did you decide to call me that?”

Lucy felt her face flush. “Oh… I was just trying something new, that’s all. You don’t like it?”

“Well, I think I’ll always feel like ‘Ma’,” Diane laughed.

As they walked out of the dressing room Lucy reached over and took Diane’s arm in hers. She tried to give her a reassuring smile, but she was too busy wondering whether she should be glad that her mother hadn’t bought the dress or ashamed that she had talked her out of buying it.

“At least we know what I’m looking for now,” Diane said, “I’m sure I can find a similar dress for a lot less. Let’s just try Macy’s next time.”

Lucy nodded in agreement, watching her mother slowly put the dress back where they’d found it, watching her feel the velvet one last time. She squeezed her mother’s arm as they walked out of Saks.

* *

Two days later the dress was still there, hanging innocuously on a plastic model. Lucy closed her eyes a moment and tried to remember how her mother had looked in the dress, how the dress had flowed on her.

A young salesgirl approached her. “Do you need anything, miss?”

Lucy opened her eyes. “Yes. That dress over there, in a size four.”

As she stood at the cash register watching the girl swipe her credit card she thought of what her husband would say when he saw the money missing from their joint account, how she would have to move some of her savings around, maybe stop eating out every week or cancel her yoga classes. She thought of the lines on her mother’s back.

“It’s a wonderful dress,” the salesgirl said. “You’ll look absolutely stunning in it.”

Lucy signed the receipt with even, looping letters. “No, my mother will.”