A hipster salesgirl in Warby Parker glasses and red lipstick unzipped me out of the millionth wedding gown I’d tried on that weekend. Emerging from the dressing room in my jeans and flip-flops, I scrutinized my curly up-do in the faraway mirror -- the one meant for teary-eyed brides squealing that they’ve found The Dress.
Instead, I saw a scared little girl -- forever that 20-year-old who lost her mom -- masquerading as some sophisticated, almost-30 bride-to-be. Yeah, right. I wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all Laura, my maid-of-honor and best friend since 13, who studied my face expectantly. She liked so many dresses -- how could I feel so meh about them all?
The store’s door closed behind us with an annoyingly cheerful jingle. Outside in the summer sun, I inhaled New York City’s Sunday brunch scent of smoky bacon and exhaled out the entire experience. I was free -- for a moment.
Insert the montage of me in various white wedding gowns as Laura and I trudged through Manhattan and Brooklyn over the next several weeks. We tried Lord & Taylor and David’s Bridal. A seamstress who spun custom gowns, and a shop that sold former brides’ used dresses. A boutique with a traditional ball gown in the display window, and one featuring lesbians outfitted in a dress and tux.
At night, I prayed to the Google gods, hoping the perfect search terms (“cap sleeves,” “vintage”) would reveal the perfect gown. “Goodnight, doll,” Mark would say, ruffling my hair on his way to the bedroom. By the time I joined him in a few hours, drunk on dresses, he’d be snoring peacefully.
After another failed dress store attempt a few weeks later, Laura drove me home and parked in front of my apartment. A pro bridesmaid, she started spouting stores where friends of friends had luck and brainstorming an itinerary for the next weekend. Tuning out the details, instead I admired her fierce determination, all scrunched eyebrows and blue eyes blazing. Gently she asked, “Do you think you’re having trouble deciding without your mom here?”
Feeling exposed and embarrassed (it had been nearly 10 years, how could I still be mourning my mother?), I covered up by making excuses. I’m petite, so they don’t fit right. I’m used to shopping alone. I don’t want to break my $1,000 budget.
“I don’t know, maybe,” I finally said. “I know I’m driving myself crazy. I’m driving everyone crazy, right?”
“You have to be happy, Marisa,” she said kindly. “We’ll try again next weekend.”
It wouldn’t have been this way with Mom, I thought as I walked into my Brooklyn apartment, thankful that Mark wasn’t home so I could be alone. Mother-daughter shopping exists in an ether outside space and time. No one knows where you’ve been all day, what stores you visited, the embarrassing things your mom said that made you two giggle like teenagers.
Dropping my purse on the floor and sitting cross-legged on the couch, I remembered our many shopping trips to The Gap, where we’d often buy matching clothes in different sizes. On our last outing, I was home from college on summer break and helping her find "comfy pants,” as we called them. I knew things were bad because the pants weren’t on sale, and she wanted to try them on anyway.
“Missy, why do I look this way?” she asked once we were in the dressing room. “It’s not normal.”
She looked hazily in the mirror at her naked distended belly, a result of the cancer, the chemo, the side effects, who knew what. I imagined her pancreas and liver swollen and wanting out.
“You look great, Mom,” I protested lightly. “You notice it more than anyone else.”
“Said like a daughter,” she sighed, stepping into a powder blue cotton pant leg, holding my shoulders for balance. And then suddenly she was falling, passing out, 90 pounds of dead weight leaning on me.
“Mom!” I hissed, looking around helplessly at the dressing room cubicle’s white walls and slatted door. I sent mixed prayers to the saleswomen: Please help me; please don’t come in. I’d spent the last two years keeping Mom’s illness a secret from our gossipy Long Island town. If she left The Gap on a gurney I was screwed.
A quick jerky movement, like a hiccup, erupted from the heap slumped on top of me. She’d woken up, thank god. Mom placed her other leg into the pants, and then tied the drawstring in a big loopy bow, unaware that she’d been gone. I tried to keep my voice light but it shook anyway: “Those look good, Mom -- let’s try on the rest at home.” In slow motion, she dressed and put back on her dusty blue baseball cap. On the way to the register, she reached for a few pairs of socks, too.
Two weeks later, Dad made me return everything. I fingered the price tags neatly attached to each item. “She never even got to wear them,” I lamented. Somehow that felt even crueler than Mom being gone.
My cell phone vibrated on the coffee table, startling me out of the memory. It was Laura, urging me to go dress shopping the following weekend, this time in Long Island. Although it’s our hometown, it hadn’t felt like home since Mom died. But I finally agreed. Perhaps I wasn’t the hip Brooklyn girl I’d tried so hard, too hard, to become.
Before Laura picked me up, I went for a run in my neighborhood, focusing on the familiar brownstones with their ceramic urns filled with flowers. White, fuchsia, and violet impatiens mocked my own impatience. Why don’t you just pick a damned dress already, Marisa? The answer came to me: No dress meant no wedding. And no wedding meant no peering into my entire adult life without her.
Finally, I did what Laura had been telling me to do. I’d been too stubborn to do it before, because I didn’t want to talk to ghosts, I wanted the real thing. But this time I was desperate, so I tried it, and with each pace I silently chanted, “Come with me today, Mom. Come with me today, Mom.” By the end I couldn’t tell what was sweat and what was tears.
The store was small and the dresses were gaudy. But we noticed a contender while flipping through the racks. It was simple and beautiful, with an elegant rose-patterned lace from strapless top to cathedral train.
“I like it,” I said slowly, studying myself in the mirror. “It’s simple, and… I can see my face.”
So many of the other dresses had too much going on -- sequins, ruffles, ruching -- that I’d gotten lost in the details. Here I saw the me that my mom loved.
We tried on others, with Laura adhering to our new strategy: “Do you like it as much as the lace one?” If it was a no, she’d bark, “Take it off!” We giggled at her drill sergeant routine each time.
Eventually I tried on the lace one again, and we oohed and ahhed and asked about timing and alterations and reshaping it to a sweetheart neckline and debated whether to belt or not to belt. And then the saleslady, Laura, and I were all just staring, and I was smiling.
"Do you want someone to see it…?" Laura asked.
She meant my dad and stepmom, who we’d planned to call if we found a winner. But of course, all I could think of was the one person in the world I wanted to come see it.
"Are you crying?" Laura asked, astounded.
I nodded through my tears.
"Ohmygod you're not supposed to cry,” she exclaimed. “They only cry on TV!”
We laughed at the reference to "Say Yes to the Dress," which we’d been glued to over the past year since my engagement. Now we were both laughing and crying. The saleswoman came over, confused, until Laura said, “Her mom died…”
“I’ll get the tissues,” the saleswoman said, scurrying away.
Across the store, a grandmother with white hair and piercing blue eyes looked away from her own granddaughter to admire me. “You look beautiful,” she mouthed. I gazed at her, wondering if my mother was nestled in this woman, using her to catch a view. I smiled back. I should have known Mom would find a way to get the best seat in the house.