Traveling Clothes

by Thaisa Frank

I decided to see my second husband when I went to visit New York after living in California for fifteen years. He had been a drug dealer and became so rich he retired at forty-one. It pissed me off. Aaron had retired while I was busting my butt to make a life. The situation upset me. What if he had turned square and played golf? Or what if I, who had stuck with making pottery, looked hapless? There were other things I didn't think about either -- like the fact that Aaron and I had gotten married and I had forgotten about it until one night it floated up in a dream. "Forgotten? How could you have forgotten?" This from my current husband. "I don't know. I just forgot, and then one day I remembered. Marriage is like that. It seems interchangeable. Except for you."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I could never forget."

I called Aaron to tell him I was coming to New York and didn't mention the fact that I was married or had a child. What my mother would call a stable life.

Aaron didn't sound retired at all. He sounded charming. "I'll be happy to see you," he said. "So very very happy."

I went to a local bookstore and bought him all three volumes of The Genesis of Fire. Nothing was too good for him, I thought, as I hid the books from my husband.

Aaron met me in the lobby of my Greenwich Village hotel wearing a fedora, just like he'd worn when he was a drug dealer. He still reminded me of Dashiel Hammett. We smiled, crackling blue electricity between us, and as we walked towards Soho, the night rose about us -- festive, redolent with air of countries we'd always wanted to visit, where dust was red as blood and buildings faded rose. Were we ever married? I wanted to ask him. Tell me, Aaron. Were we? I held his arm, and we walked through the reckless night until we found a bar that served tapas. I ordered a glass of red wine and Aaron ordered Italian sparkling water. Aaron was in AA.

"Are you happy?" he asked, raising his glass.

Yes," I said. And then I said, "Aaron: Guess what? I'm married." "Really?" he said, as though I had told him the tapas bar was growing flowers.

"Yes," I said, waiting for him to tell me I was a bigamist.

He didn't. He drank some water. His eyes looked sad in a blank and hooded way.

"Are you married?" I asked him. "Oh no," he said. "Women are too nice for that."

I showed him pictures of my son, who was eight, studied karate and had been photographed wearing a headband. In one photo my son was wearing a mask. I could almost see his piercing eyes watching me in the tapas bar with Aaron.

"I've worked hard," I said, putting the picture away, "I've worked hard to make a life."

"I'm proud of you," said Aaron. "And I'm sorry we never went to India."

"Did we go anywhere else?"

"No. We always stayed here. Except for Block Island."

"We went to Block Island?"

"Yes. Don't you remember? We brought a suitcase of frozen steaks on the train. They'd thawed by the time we got there."

It was only time Aaron ever acknowledged that we had a past. I gave him Genesis of Fire. He seemed sad that he hadn't brought me anything.

I'd forgotten what happened to the air when we were together. It could blow us to Babylon on a flying carpet. It could blow us into a bedroom. But Aaron didn't ask me to his apartment -- no longer a walk-up we'd shared in the Village, but a loft that had been owned by a painter.

"It's in a constant state of disrepair," he said, when he dropped me off at the hotel. "Otherwise I'd love to have you to dinner." I wondered if it had a false floor, concealing bundles of marijuana, the way our other apartment did. And I wondered who, besides Aaron, was living there.

"You really don't work anymore?" I asked

"Yes. I made a bundle. So I quit."

I was going to an artists' colony in Vermont, and would come back to New York to visit gallery owners in New York. I'd brought clothes for my trips to these galleries, clothes my son called "lady clothes," even though I'd tried to make them hip -- a crimson skirt, a dark jacket, a black velvet dress. They felt alien and cumbersome.

"Would you mind keeping some of these for me?" I asked Aaron, not ever sure if he had a closet.

He said of course, that it would be a pleasure, that it would be like living with me all over again.. We took a cab to the Port Authority Bus terminal.

I handed him a suitcase, and had a tugging, melancholy sense of his apartment. It was so nice to see you, I wrote from Vermont, and so nice of you to keep my clothes. As I wrote, I remembered Aaron at the Port Authority bus terminal. Quick kisses. Promises to visit. Dust that could blow him to Vermont.

Aaron brought the suitcase as soon as I got back. Thank God, I thought, not knowing why. "I would ask you over," he said again, "but my apartment is in a state of disrepair. Constant disrepair," he added. A feeling of being unruly."

"Really, it's okay," I said kissing him. And then I stashed the suitcase in my hotel closet where it looked innocent until I opened it and it yielded just one blouse.

"I didn't see a jacket or a dress," said Aaron, when I called him. "In fact, I have a distinct memory of only one hanger."

"A hanger? There wasn't any hanger. I gave you everything in the black suitcase."

"But I saw a hanger. It was outside the suitcase."

"What was on it?"

"The blouse," said Aaron.

"But that was inside."

"But there were hangars."

"How many?"

"I don't know."

"Well I couldn't put a dress and a jacket on the same hanger. Anyway -- I have to have that dress. Like today."

There were several such calls. We talked about dishonest cab drivers, our precipitous rush to the Port Authority, what a nuisance it was to have clothes, and why I might have hung them up, after all, even if I didn't remember their being on hangars. The existence of the clothes receded, became metaphysically problematical. The heady air blew around us. Our speculations grew baroque. I remembered similar discussions we'd had years ago: the merits of covering the false floor with pine board or oak; whether black bean soup was better than white, or tiny stitches for hemming marijuana bundles were preferable to big ones. Was it proper to say the Rowan tree, or would it be better to call it by its common name which neither of us could remember?

It was the cocaine that did him in, I thought. It was the cocaine and his trip to India . And all at once, I said to him: "Hey, Aaron were we ever married?"

He laughed. "You know the answer to that one."

"No," I said. "I don't."

"Well who knows the answer to anything?" he said.

"Whatever. Just go look in your closet."

"Believe me, I've looked. I've turned everything upside-down."

"Please do it again. They're my only grown-up clothes." Aaron put down the phone and went to his closet. I heard the clattering of metal. Were the clothes themselves in bondage? Was he into chains?

"I found nothing," he said when he came back.

"Can I come over and look?"

"I'm embarrassed to tell you my house is a mess."

At seven the next morning Aaron called. "The jacket fell out of the closet," he said. "Literally. I opened the door and it just fell out. It was like it leapt."

"My God! Was there a belt?"


"And the dress?"

"Not yet."

"I'll come over and get them right away."

"No. Let me come to you."

I did. Aaron arrived four hours later, an hour before I had to go to the first gallery. The jacket was crumpled but passable. I raced out and bought a pair of black leggings. But the gallery owner was an owlish man in a dark blue suit. I'm all wrong, I thought. I'm all wrong. I wish I were wearing my dress. He took me to lunch and I rolled up my sleeves trying to look casual. I wanted my dress more than an exhibit. And as we talked, I could see the dress, buried under another false floor, perfumed with marijuana. The gallery owner shook my hand. He said he might like to show my work and I thanked him, still thinking about my dress.

Three hours later, mysteriously, in another part of the city, I entered a store thick with incense and found a dress almost like the one Aaron had lost. This dress was longer. The muted pattern was the same. "Do you have it in a shorter version?" I asked. "I gave it to a friend and he lost it. The one he lost was short." "Not shorter," he said. "But if you buy longer and he finds shorter, you do not repeat. Anyway, I'll take off fifteen dollars."

I wore the dress out of the store. A dress of redemption. A dress of velvet dust.

"How in the world could he have lost your dress?" asked my husband, when I came home. "Things don't disappear in closets." He was holding one of my scarves. He twirled it and looked at me. "Do you suppose Aaron wore it?" he asked.

"Never," I said.

"Are you sure?" He dangled the scarf and made it float. And then I remembered a day and an evening when I wore one of Aaron's fedoras and Aaron wore my purple dress with thin straps and embroidered umbrellas. Was it possibly the day we'd gotten married? Later we had gone to a party where Aaron did an Isadora Duncan dance using one of the hostesses' scarves, which fell into a punch bowl. I had also worn a necktie.

"Well?" said my husband, catching me short.

"It might have happened," I said. "Sometimes we swapped clothes."

Like several things between Aaron and me, the swap wasn't even. When Aaron wore my clothes they became creased and stretched and like wrinkled skin. But his clothes were big on me, so when I took them off it was like I'd never worn them.

"What happened to this dress?" said Marvin Linski, when I brought it in to his shop to be re-sized.

"A friend of mine wore it."

"You call this a friend?" said Marvin. He was a thin, intelligent man, with blue numbers tattooed on his arm. In order to survive the camps he'd learned X-ray vision: I was sure he knew who'd been wearing the dress. I was sure he saw the scarf fall in the punch bowl.

"Promise me you'll never let this friend wear your clothes again. I won't clean it unless you do."

"I loved that dress," said my husband. "I'm sorry you don't have it anymore."

"What about the longer one? Don't you like it?"

"That other dress was short. When you wore it with red tights it was a knock-out."

After he said this, he sat the living room couch drinking wine. Because he wasn't an alcoholic, like Aaron, he was able to drink half a bottle without blinking. It was very old red wine, and left sediment at the bottom of the glass. He swirled his fingers in the sediment and said, "Now some creepy drug dealer is wearing your velvet dress."

I almost told my husband what had happened the last day I saw Aaron. We were at an espresso shop for pastries and Aaron told me he hennaed his hair. "I look younger than anyone I know. So why not keep it that way?"

Then he'd stuck his tongue out at me, which had an extraordinary number of cracks in it, and suddenly began to began to fall apart like a piece of old parchment. He no longer looked like Dashiel Hammett. I was sure he had the dress. And I was sure we were married and bound in a love-knot forever.

"What are you thinking?" my husband asked.

"I don't really know," I said. "Maybe about the air that blew me to this living room."

©2002 by Thaisa Frank

The fiction of Thaisa Frank, according to the New York Times, works "by a tantalizing sense of indirection." She is a two-time PEN Award winner. Sleeping In Velvet (1998) and A Brief History of Camouflage (1992) have both been BABRA nominees. She has served as a judge for the Djerassi Colony and the Oregon Council for the Arts. For more information see her Web site.

  Home Contributors Past Issues Favorites   Links  Guidelines About Us

Subscribe to the Slow Trains newsletter


Slow Trains in Print