Issue Thirty-Six - Summer 2020

In the Dressing Room

By Penny Kohn

“She’ll never catch a man talking like that. She’s just too loud,” said one woman to another as they entered the dressing room at Frugal Fannie’s.

They were frumpy old ladies with gray hair and clothes that had gone out of style years ago. The other woman didn’t comment. She had an armload of polyester pants–pull-on, the kind you’d find in JC Penneys.

What old-fashioned rot, I shouted to myself. No one thinks that way anymore.

My mother once told me I would never catch a man.

“You’ll never find a husband walking like that,” she tssked when she saw me power walking down Beacon Street, swinging my arms, free and alive.

She was right. I never did catch a man.

I began to picture this loud woman the frumpy old ladies were talking about—the one who, like me, would never catch a man. She would wear low-cut, tight sweaters that did the opposite of making her look sexy. Boy, she could flirt, though, even with her saggy cleavage. She worked in Applebee’s or Friendly’s, someplace like that, where she prided herself on knowing which businessman ordered grilled cheese with bacon for lunch and which one preferred the steak special with French fries. Her flirting made them smile and look up from their smart phones, but still, she went home alone each night and ate popcorn in front of the television. Or maybe she wasn’t interested in men. Or maybe she had a secret lover, a gorgeous married man who was quiet and gentle and appreciated her extroversion. After all, some men do like loud women.

Sometimes I wish I was louder. Men don’t seem to notice me.

If that loud woman who couldn’t catch a man had my job as an administrative assistant in the Inorganic Chemistry Department at the local college, she’d chat with the faculty about cations and anions, oxides and halides, too. She’d have at least one date with each of the single men, dating even the nerdy ones, although I’m not sure any of them would really like her. She’d try, though. She’d make herself be part of that department.

I didn’t know how to do that. I sat at my desk and typed all morning, ate lunch by myself, and then returned to my desk and typed some more. But I always looked nice. Fashionable clothes made me feel better somehow.

My mother thought I must be lonely living by myself, so I stopped telling her when I spent a Saturday night reading in my rocking chair. She thought I was supposed to go to parties or singles dances. I don’t like loud music, and I’m not good at making small talk, but she thought I should at least try to circulate, whatever that means.

You’re an old maid if you’re not married by the time you’re thirty, my grandmother used to say. Thank goodness, she died long before I turned thirty.

Men like slim women.

You have to show interest if you want to catch a man.

Laugh at his jokes.

You can learn to love him even if you don’t like him at first.

I pulled the door to my stall shut and tried on Calvin Klein jeans. When I came out to look at myself in the three-way mirror, one of those frumpy women was assessing the way she looked in a pair of gaudy green stretch pants. She wasn’t the woman who made that awful comment about not catching a man. She was the one who just nodded in an understanding way. I was surprised to see her in front of the mirror. She seemed like the type who would buy some cheap thing off the rack and not even try it on. Her rouge was plopped onto her soft, flabby face in two pink circles, not blended in. She wore no lipstick on her wrinkly lips, but her dark eyes were penetrating and kind.

She smiled at me. I smiled back.

“Those pants look nice on you,” she said.

Ah, someone noticed me. Ok, it was only an old woman who didn’t know anything about fashion, but of course, the place to find a gorgeous single man was not in the dressing room at Frugal Fannie’s Fashion Warehouse.

She would have at least five children, maybe more, and a loving husband, a businessman or lawyer, someone who never washed a dish or changed a diaper in his life. She probably baked cookies every afternoon and insisted that her children sit properly at the table. Her house was always immaculate and never smelled of stale food. Now, her life revolved around buying toys and clothes for her many grandchildren, babysitting and cooking their favorite dishes. The Norman Rockwell mother and grandmother.

“Do you think I look ok?” I primped in front of the mirror, although I already knew I did.

“I do. You have such a nice figure. You should be proud to show it off.”

What a nice woman she was! How could I not like someone so complimentary?

I missed the old communal dressing room they used to have at Frugal Fannie’s. The player piano made it seem like a lounge, a soothing spot where ladies gathered to try on clothes and chat with each other. It was a wide-open space with lots of mirrors and just a few private stalls. Fat women squished into clothes two sizes too small and thin women flaunted their fit bodies for everyone to see. How pleased I’d been when a heavy-set woman leaned over and commented on my size 4 clothing, calling me dear. Taking off your clothes in a room full of strangers built community; it was a bonding experience, a chance to look around, to connect.

Now the open space was filled with individual stalls and two large three-way mirrors. I guess people preferred their privacy to community building. The player piano was gone, too. Maybe it was better this way. I certainly wouldn’t want to see those frumps take off their clothes.

“Lillian,” I heard a shrill voice call from another stall. “Lillian, do you think this skirt is too tight?”

“Come out, Shirley, let me see,” answered the woman I’d been talking to.

Shirley came over to us. Her clownish red lipstick was crooked, and she had a bald spot on the top of her head. She wore a flowery, polyester skirt that showed all her bulges.

“Don’t these pants look nice on this lovely woman?” Lillian asked Shirley.

Shirley glanced in my direction without really looking at me. “But what about my skirt. Do you think it’s too tight, Lillian?”

“Maybe a little. See if you can find the next size.”

But Shirley still stood in front of the mirror, blocking everyone’s view.

Lillian didn’t seem to mind, though. She turned and looked at me in that gentle way my mother sometimes did. It was as if she was looking right into my soul and seeing me for what I was–a lonely old maid who didn’t want to be one.

I wanted to run away and go back into my stall. Thank God, Lillian looked away for a moment to fix her hair, giving me time to compose myself.

“I used to wear fashionable clothes like that when I was young. I was thin, too,” she told me. “But I had four children, 1-2-3-4, one right after the other. My youngest was only five when my husband was blinded in an accident. Who had time to shop for nice clothes anymore? Besides, I didn’t really care what I looked like. It’s what’s inside that counts, don’t you think, dear?”

Bored, Shirley twisted her flowery skirt.

“Don’t tell her your life story, Lillian.”

Suddenly, Shirley stopped twisting her skirt and stood right in front of me, looking me up and down, frowning a little but not unkindly. Solemnly, she made her assessment.

“You’ll catch a good man someday.”

My stomach knotted, and I couldn’t meet her eyes. Why did everything have to be about catching a man? What old fashioned rubbish! What did an old lady with ugly clothes know about catching a man!

“No one talks that way anymore, Shirley,” Lillian told her.

Shirley cackled in response.

“Maybe she won’t find the most handsome man in the world, but a girl like her, she’ll find a good man.”

“And why shouldn’t she marry the most handsome man in the world?”

“Because I married him. My husband is the most handsome man in the world.”

“No, mine.”

Shirley and Lillian laughed the way good friends do. Soon, all three of us were laughing together until the tears ran down our cheeks. We laughed for friendship, for love, and for strangers getting to know strangers. We laughed for feminism, for loneliness, for the dictates of fashion, for loud women, and for quiet women. We laughed for polyester clothing, for Calvin Klein jeans, and for dressing rooms. We laughed for laughter itself.

“Wear tighter pants and you’ll find him,” Shirley gulped.

“No, just be yourself, and he’ll find you,” Lillian retorted.

They glared at each other and then started to laugh again.

Shirley wiped her eyes with a bunched-up Kleenex. Lillian pulled out a stained lace handkerchief, and I used the back of my hand.

Then, we turned our backs to each other without saying anything and returned to our own private stalls. I put my clothes back on, separating the things I was buying from the things I was not, and left the dressing room, smiling at the indifferent attendant who didn’t smile back.

On my way to the checkout line, I was so busy thinking about where I might go that night to show off my new pants that I bumped smack into the one and only man at Frugal Fannie’s Fashion Warehouse. “Excuse me,” we both mumbled, trying not to look at each other. “I’m so sorry.”

But then, I looked right into his blue eyes and giggled, startling him into meeting my eyes.

I caught a man. Lillian, Shirley, I caught a man!

Copyright Kohn 2020