Fiction Winner: “Dressed For What’s Next” by Gabrielle Magnanii

Posted on: September 4, 2011
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Dressed For What’s Next

By Gabrielle Magnani

You got off the subway on 33rd and Park. This was not a neighborhood you were familiar with. Park Avenue has such a ritzy ring to it. You never figured to find yourself actually on it. But there you were, seeking the cross street on 31st. It was fall, and there was an icy feel to the air. You really wished you had a warm coat, but first things first. The urge to run back into the subway was overwhelming. A few deep breathes and a glance at the tattered hole in the seam of your jean jacket gave you courage. You fingered the tattered edge of the hole as if it were a worry stone and started walking.

Finding the building was pretty easy after all. It was clearly marked and there was a friendly security guard at the door. The lobby was sparse but warm. After signing in, you went to the 6th floor as directed by the security guard. He had a nice smile; big white teeth shining out from his onyx face, the smile reaching his eyes with a sparkle. The

guards at the shelter didn’t smile, let alone sparkle. The elevator door opened onto a hall with two doors. It reminded you of Let’s Make a Deal where you needed to choose the correct door to win a prize. Not having made many good choices in life so far you were relieved to see that the door was clearly marked. The prize was assured.

You rang the bell under the Dress For Success sign and heard women’s voices from behind the door. The words were not clear, but the happy rhythm reminded you of being a kid and having Saturday morning breakfast with your sisters. That was when you had sisters. One was in rehab last you heard, the other just packed up and moved away. You stayed around and attracted the kind of attention that never ended well, although it always ended. It was the kind of attention your mothers’ boyfriends had offered years ago. It started with dolls and candy, and ended with shame and regret and bruises that looked like handprints on a clean window. Windex could not clear away those marks. The pattern continued, but you figured it was time to stop it. You remembered your mother trying to knit a blanket with some old wool skeins someone had thrown away. The pattern was jagged and ugly and you begged your mother to tear it out, to just stop or maybe start again. “Too late for me” she said, over and over.

The door marked Dress For Success opened and you were greeted by a young, stylish brunette. She smiled at you and said “Come in. I’m Amy and these are my friends Cathy and Gail. We are your personal shoppers today.” You were struck by how white they all seemed. Not just in skin, but in clothes and confidence. You started to sweat.

“Hi, I have an appointment. I am, umm, I am Sheila, Shelia Brown. Here, I have a piece of paper to show you…”

“Hi Sheila. C’mon in. Can I get you some water?” the one called Cathy said.

“No thanks, well maybe. Is it alright?” you stammered.

“Of course. Come in and sit down. Just a little paperwork for you and then we’ll help you get ready to land that job.”

While filling out the paperwork, you peeked up to check out the ladies. Amy was young and hip and reminded you of the cheerleaders in high school, so shiny and bouncy. You finished high school, but you were never a cheerleader. It was all you could do to sneak out and escape the attentions of Mom’s latest boyfriend. Shiny and bouncy were not options. You did well in school though; you used to bring home tests with gold stars on top. “My little shining star” your mother said.

Gail was a little older and had a calm air about her, kind of like your favorite aunt. The one that moved to Philadelphia and was a teacher. Cathy was older still, maybe your Grams age, and her eyes twinkled with good intentions. You liked these ladies and exhaled. You didn’t even realize you were holding your breath. The room looked tired and worn out, but these ladies brightened things up.

Amy lead you to the dressing room in the area they called the shop. The clothes racks were organized by size and then by color. Suits were a new concept for you and you felt like a child in her mothers’ closet. Not your mothers’ closet of course, that was full of scrubs and black and white waitress wear. It was a tumult of black and blue and white, just like your life. But you escaped. Ran away while your boyfriend was out whoring. He would come home later smelling stale and used up, the smell of anger and surrender and it was the preamble to your next black and blue, and sometimes red. The landlord’s wife had given you a number to call and you met with a mysterious person who took you to a secret location. All of your belongings fit into one Food Emporium bag, with room to spare. You knew your boyfriend would look for you to bring you back. But you had to try to get away, just try.

“So, tell me what kind of job are you interviewing for?” Amy asked, pulling you from your thoughts as she led you to the dressing rooms. They weren’t really rooms but a line of curtained areas. The long burgundy drapes were all neatly tied off to the side so you could walk in and place your things on the chair inside.

“Receptionist. In an office.” You replied.

“Good for you. Something conservative then Shelia?”

“Umm, Ok. Conservative?”

“Yes. Something classic, traditional” Amy offered

“Old ladyish?” you said, starting to feel claustrophobic in the small dressing room.

“Oh no” Cathy said as she walked over. “You are so young and beautiful. We just want something that will show your potential company that you are a serious professional”

“Oh, Ok.”

Then Cathy asked your size and you panicked. You had no idea, having worn hand me downs, hand outs and second hand clothes all your life. You never paid much attention to size. “I really don’t know” you said, feeling as stupid as you had always been told you were. Tears started to work their way from behind your eyes, no matter how hard you tried to force them back.

“Don’t worry. Sizes are different by style anyway. Let’s pull a few things and see what fits” Amy said.

“Really?” you said, suddenly feeling better. Amy smiled at you and it was more comforting than any words she might have said.

Amy consulted with Gail and headed towards the rack of suits while Gail started looking through the rack of blouses. There were so many colors it made you think of a bag of skittles. Cathy headed into a back room for who knew what. They reminded you of the dancing mops and brooms from Fantasia. You loved that movie mostly because you watched the bootleg video with your mom between shifts. Mom would wake you and your sisters after midnight when she got home. You would all watch 15-minutes of the movie together before Mom had to go to her next job. You savored that movie, in 15 minute bites.

You were nervous about the “suiting” as your case worker referred to it. You did not know what to expect and thought they might judge you. But they were acting like you were one of them. No one asked why you were here or what you did to end up like this. There was no past here, just future. Your Mom would have liked it here. She always told you people were mostly good, although neither of you had experienced that side of things. Maybe, if she had come here, she could have gotten a better job instead of getting locked up. She wasn’t a good criminal; she always got caught when she shoplifted toothpaste and underwear from CVS. You would make different choices.

As you sighed and gathered your resolve, Amy swept into your dressing room with two suit options and said “Let’s start with these and see how we like the fit.” You liked how she said “we”. It made you feel less alone. As you started to change you were relieved that most of the bruises had healed by now. The ladies could surely see the scars, the burns, but their eyes did not linger. They just continued to dance in and out of the tiny space.

“Amy? Umm, can I see a long sleeved blouse? I think…I have…it would look better on me.”

Amy rolled her eyes and said “We’ll see, this isn’t a department store, we only have what we have.”

You were confused. Her tone was light but her words sounded like a reprimand. “I know that!” you barked. Then you started to cry, gulping in air to keep the tears inside. You heard Amy call for Gail.

“Are you Ok” Gail asked.

“No, shh-shh-she should be nicer. I know where I am! Do you think I want to be here?”

“She didn’t mean anything Sheila.” Gail said

“I’m sorry, I was just saying we do not have that much of a selection and-“Amy started

“And we always find the perfect outfit, so don’t you worry” Gail finished.

“I’m leaving” you said as you gathered up your things.

“Ok Sheila. Come out to the waiting room and have some water. Just take a moment to calm down before you go.” Gail said as she gently rested her hand on your arm.

“You’re not going to stop me” you said.

“No. You can go, but I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Why? What am I to you” you snapped back, lashing out at the very person who wanted to help you, at the only person to call you beautiful without wanting something in return for the kind words. It was all too much and you wanted to run.

“You are a Client and I want you to have a good experience here.” Gail continued.

“Well, forget that.” You said, already starting to feel foolish and ashamed at your behavior.

“Can we start over” Gail asked. “We want you to be prepared for your interview. I want you to be prepared for your interview.”

“Well, you’ve been pretty nice. Just keep her away from me” you said, gesturing rudely in Amy’s direction.

Gail sighed and said “We all want you to be comfortable.”

Gail led you back to the dressing room, the glass of water forgotten on the waiting room end table, and Amy nowhere to be seen.

The first suit was navy with narrow stripes. You tried it on with the cream blouse Gail handed you through the red curtain. The blouse was so soft and clean and the label said 100% silk. And it had long sleeves. Cathy asked your shoe size and then relayed it to someone in the back room. You saw hands passing shoes to Cathy and she brought over several pairs to try on. You eyed the burgundy heels and Cathy said “Good choice, Manolo’s”. You had heard about Manolo’s from your friends who had snuck into the theater to see Sex and the City. You didn’t go to the movie, but you got the shoes.

Stepping out in the suit, you fidgeted. Cathy handed you the Manolo’s and you slipped them on. They felt nice.

“These are awesome. I mean, these feel nice” you said.

“Amy dug around in the back room to find them for you” Cathy said. When you looked up, you saw Amy standing by the back room door, but could not meet her eyes.

“Thank you Amy. Umm, sorry I got mad-“you said

“No problem. It happens” she said. And just like that all the dancing mops and brooms were back in formation.

As you were absently stroking the soft material of the suit, Gail was looking into your eyes and said “You don’t look comfortable, what are you thinking?”

The suit seemed too big, too blue, and too nice. The shoes however were perfect. You decided to go with “The suit is too big”. Gail smiled and said, “I am sure it feels that way. Come look at yourself in the mirror”.

You followed her to the full length mirror and did not recognize the woman looking back at you. You looked like one of those girls in the Jones of NY ads you saw in the subway on your way to be suited. They were so put together and confident. It still felt too big, but you thought it looked right. You were used to jeans and t-shirts from the Salvation Army. You and your friends called it Sal’s Boutique. As Gail stood next to you in front of the mirror she explained that suits were not as close fitting as jeans so it might feel big, but really it fit perfectly “It was made for you” Gail said. You liked how she spoke to you, with respect.

Gail then went over to a chest and dug into a drawer of tangled necklaces and bracelets. She magically drew out a pearl necklace. Then she dug deeper and with a wave of her hand, pearl earrings appeared.

“I noticed these this morning and I am dying to find the right Client for them.”

“Client, is that me?” you asked. She assured you that you were in fact her Client today. Imagine that you thought.

Gail helped you put on the jewelry and let you admire yourself for a few minutes more. Then she said “Now for a bag for your resume.” And you both walked over to a shelf full of bags. She guided you to a few selections that she said would complement the

Suit. You liked the word “complement” and made a mental note to use it later. You chose a deep burgundy leather bag. “Perfect!” Gail said. Then she rushed over to another drawer and pulled out a scarf with a pattern of navy, cream and burgundy. It looked expensive, maybe it was silk too. She walked over with a big smile and casually, artfully, tied the scarf to your new bag.

You looked in the mirror again. The suit wasn’t too big, you weren’t too small. You started to cry. Not just a few tears, but all out bawling. All three ladies came over.

“I-I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m crying…” you started to say.

“Are you ok?” Cathy asked.

“Hey, you look amazing. It’s Ok to know that.” Gail said

Amy joked “It wasn’t me this time!” and handed you a tissue and all three ladies hugged you.

“I-I don’t look like me.” You said

“Yes, you do. You look beautiful and professional with all sorts of opportunity ahead of you.” Gail said. She was so sure you figured she must be right.

“We got it on one!” Amy said “No need to try on the other option.”

You wanted to stay here, drag out the experience and toyed with the idea of trying on more things. But then you noticed another woman walk in, looking scared, unsure. It was only fair to release the ladies and let them share their magic with the newcomer.

“Oh no, I love this” you said. The newcomer peered around the curtain into the shop and said “Wow! You look great. I hope they can make me look that nice.” You smiled at her and for a moment you felt a kinship, even though your stories will never be told here. This was a place about what is next.

Cathy eyed the worn out jacket you had tossed on the chair and disappeared into the back room again. She came back and said. “We just got these in today. Would you like one?” You looked at the new coat, with tags still dangling from the sleeve and almost started crying again. Cathy helped you put the long black wool coat on. It felt soft and had pretty buttons all up the front. Gail opened yet another drawer and pulled out a long baby blue scarf. She looped it around your neck. It was so soft and comforting. It would always remind you of this day.

You changed back into your old clothes and watched the ladies pack up the new pieces of you. They gently folded the clothes and placed them into a brown bag, a well orchestrated dance of cooperation. Gail slipped your pearl necklace and earrings into a little red pouch and put it into your new leather bag. She winked at you and tossed in a lip gloss, mascara, hand cream and a little piece of paper folded in half. Then Gail left the shop area. You felt a tug, as if you lost your touchstone.

“Ok” Amy said “Gail is going to spend some time with you to help prepare for your interview.” And she walked you over to another section of the shop. Gail was ready with a red folder of information and you breathed a sigh of relief. You weren’t ready to give Gail up just yet. Meanwhile, Cathy was escorting the latest arrival into a dressing room. These ladies sure were efficient.

When you got back to the shelter, you laid your new suit and blouse on the bed. After admiring them for a moment you carefully put them on hangers with the silk scarf gently draped over the jacket shoulder and put them in your locker. Next, you placed the shoes front and center in the bottom of the locker. You took out the winter coat and blue scarf and hung them together. Then you took out the purse and jewelry and arranged them on the shelf in the now overflowing locker. As you were unpacking the make up you found the little piece of paper that Gail slipped into the bag. You placed it under your pillow. You were on kitchen duty tonight and had to get downstairs to help with dinner prep. Your roommate was already downstairs. You would read the note later. You closed your locker door and made sure it was secure.

That night after dinner you crawled into bed exhausted. Your interview was the next day and Gail gave you some homework to do so you would be prepared. She even gave you a checklist of stuff to do tonight. Really smart stuff like lay out your clothes to be sure nothing was wrinkled or torn, make sure you have the address and name of your contact for the interview in an easy to find place, and practice your interview answers in front of a mirror. No one had ever talked to you the way the ladies did. As if you mattered, as if you might actually get this job.

As you slid between the clean, course sheets you pulled the note out from under your pillow. “You are a star. Shine your brightest every day.” You felt like a star today, and you were remembering how to shine as you drifted off the sleep. You were ready for the interview tomorrow, and you would be dressed for what’s next.

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One Response to “Fiction Winner: “Dressed For What’s Next” by Gabrielle Magnanii”

  1. Shana Dubow Lehrmann Says:

    Gabrielle, such a touching story. Thank you for sharing it. Shalom, God’s love and blessings. Shana

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