To Find a Dress

by Sue Burke

(Originally published in the Mota 3: Courage anthology, 2003.)

Elliot needed a red dress, a perfect dress — for himself — but he knew nothing about women’s dresses, and he needed the dress by Saturday.

On Tuesday, Carl had ambled into his office, dropped into the soft leather chair facing his desk, and urged him to join the Columbia Running Club’s next outing. Carl wore a perfect suit and a perfect haircut. Elliot had already patronized the same tailor and the same barber to less effect, perplexingly. He set down his work and listened to Carl attentively — but not too deferentially, he hoped. He was still overawed by the building’s magnificent cherrywood wainscoting.

“The club’s been running for decades,” Carl said. He never acted as serious as it seemed to Elliot he ought to, but he was established and Elliot was new and foundering, so somehow it had to be the right attitude. “Plenty of important people belong. It’s a great club. All we do is run a few miles and then go out for drinks. The face time would be good for you.”

Of course it would. For three months, Carl had been performing his duty as Elliot’s official mentor with due diligence. Although Elliot had possessed youthful potential as a Ohio attorney, this was Washington, D.C., unforgivingly competitive. Careers required far more than quality output: Elliot needed connections. He needed to fit in, fast, and wasn’t sure he had been doing well despite Carl’s assistance. He needed to meet people. “Of course I’ll be there.”

Then Carl casually dropped a bomb. “A lot of times we wear costumes. This time we’re wearing dresses.”

“Women’s dresses?” Elliot stayed cool. Collected, composed, and confident, as always. It was the professional thing to do.

“It’ll be fun. It breaks the ice,” Carl said.

Controlled, calm, nonchalant, resolute, decisive, and focused, like a proper attorney. “Dresses?”

“Actually, red dresses.”

Even-keeled, level-headed, and self-assured. Never let them see you sweat. Movers-and-shakers in dresses? Elliot in a dress? This had to be a joke. “Sure.”

“See you there.”

Elliot spent the rest of the day haunted by vague visions of dresses — very vague. Women had always just dressed themselves, and he stayed out of it, and he couldn’t have asked appropriate questions if he had wanted to. Anyway, real men don’t ask stupid questions, or back out on their word.

But as much as he could without seeming to violate the firm’s strict and admirable sexual harassment rules, Elliot studied the clothing of women at the firm. He had previously classed women’s clothing into two indefinable types: attractive or ugly. Three types, actually, but the third was never worn at law firms and was nothing he wanted even to consider. He needed a perfect dress, one that would show to any movers and shakers at the run that he was a serious person, capable of handling critical legal matters, a prudent person who did not wait until the last minute, a man of action.

That evening, he stood before a rack of dresses in a Georgetown second-hand store he had found in a fashionable neighborhood where he thought he ought to find fashionable dresses. He paged through the dresses searching for red. He found one that was obviously too small, then one that was too old-fashioned, then one all of lace — how would women wear that? Third type. He resolutely faced another rack. After twenty minutes, with despair solidifying, he finally found a dress of some soft fabric decorated with thin ruffles at the neck and sleeves — glamorous, he hoped, and dignified. He’d seen someone wearing something like it somewhere recently. Not lacy and probably big enough. The store had try-on rooms, but someone might see. He’d take his chances and buy it.

But to buy just a dress — too obvious. In the men’s section he found a sweater good enough for weekends or running or something, and a shirt just as good. He approached the clerk. What did clerks think of customers? Elliot evaluated clients carefully, but clerks saw customers only for a minute or two. They’d have to make snap judgements based on what they bought. Here he was buying a red ruffled dress.

She looked about forty or so, chatting with a customer as she rang up her sale. “My daughter headed off to college and already I miss her, but I do what they say, I don’t call, I wait for her, and you know, she calls every Sunday night, bless her.” She didn’t say a word about the clothes the woman was buying, a fluffy sweater and two pairs of blue jeans.

To Elliot, she said, “When you went to college, did your mother call? Besides emergencies, I mean.” She seemed friendly.

“Every other day like clockwork. I got used to it.” Not really, but he wasn’t a complainer.

“How about cookies? Should I send cookies?”

“Yes, send cookies.” If he talked a lot, she might pay less attention to the dress. “Be sure to send enough so she can share. That way she can make friends. My mother sent them by the crate.” It had made up for the phone calls.

“Good idea. She rang up the shirt, the sweater, so far so good, then picked up the dress and began searching for the price tag. She couldn’t find it, and held up the dress to look for carefully. Everyone could see he was buying a dress. He didn’t dare turn to see who was watching.

“Oh, here it is.” She found the tag on a sleeve. “Such a nice dress, too, hardly worn at all.”

She talked as if men bought dresses all the time. What kind of store was this? Or was she just being professionally pleasant? She folded the dress up neatly to put in the bag, smoothing out the skirt to avoid wrinkles as if it were all perfectly normal, perfectly friendly, like college and cookies. Elliot prepared to take a calculated risk. He’d never see her again, and she probably knew all about dresses, so if he missed this chance, he missed a lot, but if he made a mistake, he’d never be coming back anyway. He swallowed, thought a second time, and asked, “What kind of dress is that?”

“A cocktail dress,” she said as blandly if he had asked about the store’s hours.

A cocktail dress. There would be cocktails after the run. Perfect. And hardly worn at all — if it fit.

“Have a nice night, now,” she said.

Elliot stammered goodbye.

At home, he pulled out the dress, pulled off his clothes, slipped the dress over his head, struggled with the zipper up the back, and stood in front of the bedroom mirror. He looked like an idiot — but the dress seemed to fit. The sleeves reached his wrists, the shoulders matched his shoulders, and the dress fell straight to just above his knees with no funny lumps or tightness. He studied himself gravely. The ruffles tickled the backs of his hands. The neckline exposed chest hair. He looked like a man wearing a dress. Well, maybe when surrounded by other men in other red dresses, it might not be so bad if his dress was good enough — no, if it was better. He wanted to be noticed for the right reasons.

He sat on the bed, looked at the mirror again, and realized he needed to wear running shorts under the dress. How did women remember to sit with their knees together all the time? He put on shorts, and then his shoes and socks, stood up, and looked again.

He looked suddenly awful, and even he knew why. White socks around his calves, white shoes — he looked like a bag lady. Would a client want a bag lady for an attorney? Women never wore shoes like that with dresses. He realized abruptly why women had so many shoes. He’d have to get new shoes tomorrow after work. He put on regular clothes and hung his dress up carefully — in the back of the closet.

He got up early Wednesday, ran early, worked hard, nodded pleasantly at Carl in the hall — and noticed Carl’s perfectly knotted tie. Elliot studied his own tie in the washroom mirror. It fell crooked, and he could not make it straight. Damn Carl.

After work, at a mall, he hunted through the athletic goods stores for red running shoes. No luck, no luck at all, no red shoes for men, not at any store, not all the stores, and probably not at any other mall, either. None. What would a woman do? He sighed and sat in the food court with a cup of coffee, furtively studying women shoppers. Some of them wore white athletic-type shoes with their business clothes, probably for comfort. Yet those no-nonsense athletic shoes didn’t look terribly stupid with dresses and suits. What did they do?

The socks! They wore little socks, plain, discrete, just up to their ankles. One woman in a blue skirted suit even wore matching blue socks. That was it! He gulped the coffee, still too hot for gulping, but an urgent mission awaited him. He visited three stores before he found red crew socks for men, but he did, and at the last moment he noticed red shoelaces and bought them, too. At home, breathlessly, he re-laced his running shoes, took off his suit and shirt, and pulled on his dress, new socks, and newly-laced shoes. He looked in the mirror.

Better. Definitely better. An outfit — wasn’t that the word women used? Better, but not perfect. Something wasn’t there. He wished he had a wife: wives would answer embarrassing questions. Even girlfriends. Carl had said the running club included women. There might be women at the run, and they’d know how to create an outfit. They’d know if he didn’t have one, and he’d blow a chance to find a girlfriend because he knew nothing about dresses. Whatever he was missing, he had to find it.

At work Thursday, he studied his female co-workers. They did something that made an outfit complete, something mysterious. Around three in the afternoon, a client arrived, a poised and polished woman whom he appraised carefully, and with sudden intuition, he saw it. A necklace, earrings, a ring — jewelry. Women wore jewelry.

After work, he was back at the mall in a jewelry store. A middle-aged, friendly woman wearing gold and diamonds waited on him. Diamonds might be too expensive. “I need something for a girlfriend,” Elliot said. “It’s a special occasion, and, well, I want her to look special. Perfect — I mean, well, a good outfit, you know, something just right for the occasion.”

The woman smiled sympathetically. “You don’t happen to know what her dress will be like?”

Of course Elliot did. The woman fiddled with the rings on her fingers and thought a moment. Did the girlfriend already own pearls? “Pearls are always correct for any occasion,” she said. So Elliot left with a necklace, clip-on earrings, and a bracelet. Not cheap, but necessary.

As he left, he passed a women’s clothing store and noticed Carl and another man inside. He froze. They didn’t see him; their attention was fixed on a rack of dresses. Carl picked out a red sparkling thing and held it up. Carl was buying new!

Elliot stared. Carl’s dress seemed slinky, one of those third types of women’s clothing. Carl would look like a floozy.

Elliot’s dress had dignity. More than that, the pearls he carried were new; he had the sales slip to prove it. He hurried home to try on his outfit once again. He couldn’t tell that the dress was second-hand at all. He added the jewelry. Definitely better. The earrings pinched, but, well, women put up with it, so he would, too. But something was wrong — not the hairy knees and calves, not the broad shoulders. It was the total, complete outfit. Something women did that he wasn’t doing.

On Friday, again, he studied women. At lunch, he studied women. He learned nothing. He could plan legal depositions that made a trial perfunctory, so why couldn’t he dress himself? By the next morning, he would need to stand out in the crowd as someone capable of meeting competitive pressures. Maybe he couldn’t do it, he thought on the handsomely paneled elevator. Maybe he was second-rate, an also-ran, a non-starter, a no-go, a loser. He’d never make it in this town. The receptionist handed him his messages, her fingers decorated by manicured, painted nails. He stared dumbstruck. The pale pink nails matched her lipstick.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“Oh, no, nothing. Thanks.” He took the messages from those decorated fingers. “A big help. Thanks, really.”

After work, he headed for a drug store. Red lipstick, red fingernail polish — and nail polish remover luckily stocked right next to the nail polish or he would have forgotten it, and that, he realized, would have been bad. He took his items to the checkout, just those three things in his haste — no magazine or toothbrush or aspirin. The clerk would realize he was buying makeup for himself. He considered dashing back to get something, but he didn’t care anymore. He needed these things, he wanted them, and he felt no more embarrassed than if he had bought jock itch medicine. To his disappointment, the clerk didn’t notice a thing.

At home, with the tiny brush under the bottle cap, clumsily, he painted his nails. How long did it take to dry? He waited, hands up, fingers spread. He had begun to understand this contest: it involved untangling the intricacies of female apparel and demonstrating the self-confidence to obtain a complete outfit. He had to prove both his intellect and character.

Finally, he touched his thumbnail. Dry, but still so shiny. He wiggled his fingers under a lamp, watching the light dance on his nails.

He put on lipstick, which smeared all over his teeth, blotted it too much, put it on again, blotted it lightly, and he was ready. He took off his suit and shirt and began to pull his dress over his head, when he realized he’d smear his lipstick. Women must put on their clothes first, then their makeup. It was so complicated. He had to admire them. He wiped off the lipstick, put on the dress, and reapplied it. Then socks, shoes, and jewelry. Only hours away from the run, with his outfit ready or it was too late, he hesitated, took a deep breath, and looked in the mirror.

It was perfect. Just perfect. Genuinely perfect. Complete. For once since he came to D.C., Elliot would look perfect. He turned and admired the outfit. He adjusted the earrings. He straightened his socks. He looked again and felt proud. With regret, he undressed and hung up everything carefully for the next day.

He arrived in the sunny morning at the reflecting pond in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where a more than four hundred red-dressed runners had already gathered on the grass and pavement. Tourists approaching the solemn monument to the martyred president stopped and gaped. Some teenage boys fell over themselves laughing. Elliot walked past them with dignity: polished, pearled, and properly put together, the tube of lipstick ready for touch-ups in a pocket of his running shorts.

He spotted Carl, a floozy without jewelry or makeup, with ugly white socks almost up to his knees. His dress was too tight, straining at the waist. He looked like a clown. Elliot caught his eye and waved cheerfully. He had outdone his mentor, and maybe he didn’t need one anymore.

He approached the starting line. Around him were men and a few women dressed as movie stars, bridesmaids, and African royalty. Most had clearly worked hard to dress well. Elliot fit in, a man who could master complicated procedures, who could execute difficult projects, who could meet important people with confidence. Washington was a competitive town, and he was ready to run.