The jean pool.
Jumping back in can take awhile.
I stare at a shelf of neatly stacked jeans, hoping the answer to my question will become obvious. A salesperson asks if I need help and I’m not sure how to answer. She’s about 24, with rose-gold, chin-length hair that’s parted in the middle and falls around her face in subtle, yet perfect waves. Her honey-colored skin’s smoothness is interrupted only by a tiny gold septum ring, and if she’s wearing makeup, it’s not obvious, although I find it hard to believe that anyone can be that stunning naturally. I smile nervously.
“I don’t know how the sizes work,” I say, so softly, it makes it seem more embarrassing than it is.
“Ah, I got you,” she answers and looks at me kindly. I hope she doesn’t say I remind her of her mom.
“Ok, our smallest size is 22, and it goes up to 40,” she explains. That much I’d gathered.
“So, if I’m like a 6 in dresses, I’d be….” I say, standing back so she can take me in. I can’t bear the beat of silence.
“Mabye like a 32?” I offer.
Her eyes travel from my shoulders to my thighs, and when they stay there, I squirm.
“Oh, god no!” she says. “You’re probably…”
“A 30?” I ask hopefully.
“More like a 28,” she says. “Maybe even a 26.”
I try not to smile but I’m giddy. Suddenly, I’m Kate Moss, pushing hangers back and forth, taking in descriptions like, “relaxed waist, tapered ankle” and “cropped skinny,” like an expert.
The saleswoman, who tells me her name is Kayla, reaches toward a high shelf, exposing part of a tattoo. “Try these,” she says, holding up a pair that are dark blue and slim. I gasp because they look junior-high-school-tiny. I tell her they’ll never fit.
She tugs at the fabric and smiles. “Stretch,” she says, in a half-whisper.
I take them into the fitting room and feel what I always do in these private, yet most exposing of spaces. Trepidation. I get undressed, avoiding my reflection in the cruel fluorescent lights, which I can’t imagine were invented by a woman - or at least not a woman with cellulite. I take a deep breath as I stick my feet into the leg openings. The fabric glides up my legs, and to my amazed delight, the jeans button closed without even a hint of a fight.
I lift my head to meet my new self in the mirror and I love her. I’m a jeans girl! Look at me! A badass! I stick a hand into a pocket, tilt my head to the side, and give myself a half-smile.
Instantly, I’m back in my sister’s bedroom. When I was 12 and she was 17, she had a summer job at a country club. She started work at noon, so each day at 11, I knocked at her door, using the ploy I’d devised to get her to let me into her teenage world.
“Your personal maid is here!” I’d sing-song.
“Come in, Personal Maid,” she’d answer, with varying levels of enthusiasm, and I’d burst in and set about my duties. I ran to the bathroom for a cup of water to pour into her hot rollers. While they heated, I made her bed and set her make up out. Yardley Pot-O-Gloss, Mary Quant Crayons, a palette of Cover Girl eye shadows in smoky lilacs and smudgy blues and a can of Pssst, in case she hadn’t had time to wash her hair.
She didn’t pay much attention to me, but I was willing to be ignored because of what followed. She left at 12:30, a trace of Love’s Fresh Lemon trailing behind her, leaving me to put everything away.
But first. I dabbed a pinky into a pot of deliciously soft peachy lipgloss, and smeared it on, folding my top lip into my bottom one to blot it, the way my sister did. I opened her white plastic record player and put the 45 of Mrs. Robinson onto the turntable.
From the first “dee da dee da dee dee ” I was transformed into the me I felt the world couldn’t see - part misunderstood juvenile delinquent, part wildly beautiful hippie, part Seventeen Magazine model. Anything but the principal’s daughter, who wore a back brace to correct the scoliosis she’d just been diagnosed with.
As I sang along and assured Mrs. Robinson that “she just loves you more than you will know” (I was years away from finding out it was Jesus) I opened my sister’s closet. Her perfectly-faded hiphugger jeans were always hung in front, as if they were expecting me. She’d embroidered daisies around the pockets which gave them just the right artsy-hippie vibe. If I’d been her, I would have worn them every day.
I wore a brand of clothing called Hang Ten, which my mother liked to remind me was “what the surfers wear.” The tops were boxy enough to camouflage my brace and the pants were loose, with an elastic waist band - the polar opposite of everything I wanted.
I pulled my Hang Tens off and reached behind my body to unbuckle the brace’s strap, and yanked it off of me. Leaning the brace against the dresser, I wriggled into the one Danskin top I owned, while singing the “hey hey hey’s.”
I snapped the jeans closed, over jutting hip bones I didn’t realize I’d someday pine for. Their bell bottoms were too long, which only made it better, since as any cool girl could tell you, jeans were made to be dragged on the ground. I pictured myself at an outdoor concert, wearing long silver earrings, clapping my hands way above my head, like they did at Woodstock. With my hands in the pockets, thumbs out, I lifted my chin to the mirror and said, “Hey, what’s up” - a statement, not a question - just like Debbie G., a willowy girl in my homeroom, who smoked and wore eyeliner.
I stood that way, nodding to the beat, until the song ended, then played it again as I hung the jeans up, returned the makeup to my sister’s drawer, and with a heavy sigh, got back into my brace and Hang Tens.
Later that day, I’d go to the mall with my friends where we’d flip through racks of posters at Spencer’s Gifts, and then into Macy’s, where they’d lay down on fitting room floors, grunting and laughing as they struggled with the zippers of the tightest and lowest jeans possible, while I watched. And wished I could lay on the floor too. And told myself I was having as much fun as they were.
By the time I was done wearing the brace, my sister’s embroidered jeans had been made into a skirt that she no longer cared about. I brought it to college and wore it at least three times a week. I wore jeans too; with tight black Danskins or flowy peasant tops, but I always felt like I was posing.
By the time I was in my 30’s, I fell in love with dresses. Unlike most women, I found them to be liberating and easy - no matching, no wondering if my thighs looked fat, it was basically like wearing a big shirt with tights and heels. In summer, a pair of strappy sandals and a shimmer of tan on my legs was all I needed. So simple. And so mine, in a way that jeans never really were, except during those 10 minutes in my sister’s room.
In the fitting room, I turn, to take myself in from behind, and once again, feel amazed at the power of stretch. Kayla taps on the door and asks if I’m ok. I open it and she looks me up and down with an objective seriousness that surprises me. She rotates her forefinger in the air and I obediently turn, wondering if I misjudged.
I meet her eyes. She smiles and nods her head.
“You sure?” I say. “Be honest.”
“I’m very sure,” she says. And then, more softly, adds, “You look hot.”
I tell her she’s a little crazy but I’ll take it, and we laugh.
She offers to grab me another pair that she thinks will look “insane” on me, and as I stand waiting, a pair of high school girls enter, their arms draped with jeans and tops.
“She’ll be right back,” I say, noticing that one of them is holding the pair I’m wearing.
They talk and laugh as they wait, and I smile with them. Not as an observer, but as a member. Of a club I had no idea I so desperately wanted to join.
Thanks for reading Debra’s Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.