The Dress

Perhaps she is walking home, from work or from school, and she spies a ripped box filled with old rolls of plaster cloth, half buried in a pile of garbage in a back alley. Maybe she picks it up and takes it home to her family’s apartment. Maybe she is forced to work sewing cheap tracksuits after school and on weekends, or maybe she has quit school to do this because her family needs the money. Maybe she has moved from her village to the big city, signed a contract to work, and hates the work, yet she is unable to escape it. Maybe she is living in near-slave conditions, or maybe she is just the daughter or granddaughter of a seamstress who has learned how to sew because that’s what the women in her family have always done. Maybe she likes it.

My first daughter was born with a drive to achieve. If you forget the part where she exhausted me from the moment she was conceived because my body took to a tenant about as well as I would take to a tenant in my home now, she was an interesting challenge. Precocious, they said. She spoke her first word in the bathtub at four and a half months—“tu-tu,” after I poked the floating plastic tub toy and said “turtle” sixteen times. She walked at eight months and two weeks, and though people might see this as a positive, it wasn’t necessarily. Children who skip the crawling and move straight to walking miss critically important cross-lateral movement that engages both sides of the brain. Plus, they are wild and unsteady, flinging themselves through space and time like little drunkards without the muscular development in the upper body to save themselves when they fall. If memory serves, she sported a split lip for a good three months until she got the hang of staying upright.

She demanded books as a baby. Many of them per day. Since we didn’t let her watch television until she was older, we read a lot. If I tried to get creative with the language in a book she knew by heart, she would correct me until I got it right. She spoke in full, complex sentences at around age one. By the time preschool started when she was two and a half, I was relieved to drop her off somewhere, even if it was only three days a week for three hours a pop. I was grateful for the silence, and when twelve o’clock rolled around, I wasn’t always ready to pick her up.

By third grade she was in the “gifted program,” which in Florida just meant extra homework, slightly more engaged teachers, and a better-behaved group of peers. She came home one day, dropped her Powerpuff Girls lunch box on the kitchen counter, and hissed through her teeth that she was going to get into a “top college.” I was amused.

“What’s a top college?” I asked her.

“A top college is one of the best colleges, which is exactly where I will be going. The best. Not like this stupid public school that doesn’t even recognize that when someone has a different idea for doing something, it doesn’t mean she should get in trouble for it. Sometimes different ideas are better. They don’t understand me. I want to punch my teacher.” She faced me with fists, her tongue pressing through the holes her missing teeth left behind.

“I’ve had that feeling before,” I said, backing off slowly. “Can I help you?”

“No. I’m going to do all my homework now. All of it. And it’s going to be perfect. I’ll show them.” She sat down at the kitchen table and slammed the cover of her math book open. “And you know what else? When I grow up, I’m going to leave this place. I’m going to move to Europe or Russia. I’m going to claim my rightful place as Russian royalty. I have Russian royal blood in me, I can feel it.”

“Not one molecule of you is Russian,” I said.

“Then forget Europe. Forget Russia. I’m going to move to France.”

“France is in Europe, honey.”

“Forget that, then. Paris.”

“Paris is in France.”

“See what I mean? They don’t teach you anything at this stupid public school!”

This daughter seemed to learn best by debate, and by debate, I mean “fighting people with words until she made them cry.” During mock trial in middle school, she made a boy, who knew he was acting a role, weep on the witness stand. I cried three times a week just dealing with her at home. This was a child on fire.

By high school, she had blood in her eye. She took as many AP classes as she could, lettered in two sports, joined clubs I hadn’t even heard of, clubs you couldn’t have paid me to join if I had ever had the misfortune to relive high school. She ran for class president and crushed it. When it came time to apply to colleges, she did what she said she was going to do when she was still missing teeth and wearing her hair in Afro puffs—applied to eleven top schools, and got into ten of them. She chose the one that gave her the most funding—an alarmingly selective private liberal arts college in the Northeast. The kind of school whose brochure made me break out in hives of incompetence. The kind of school where people wore ascots and didn’t need safe spaces because they had drivers and summer houses. When she went away to school, everyone in the house was exhausted. We were a little bit relieved that she was gone. Our plain Florida town wasn’t meant to hold her. Her future looked the kind of bright none of us had ever achieved: undergrad at a top school, then a top-ten law school, then perhaps a think tank or some policymaking down the road.

The only bump in the road, one we hadn’t planned on, was the boy.

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