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Home: The Toast

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Tangled hangers drive me crazy. I usually don’t have the patience to untangle them, but the whole purpose of this exercise is to untangle, tidy, clean, organize.

I flop on the bed next to the piles of clothes and work on the hangers for a few minutes until I can line them up, all of them facing the same way. I hang them back in my closet, at the far end, so that when I need a hanger I can just reach back there for a fresh one. How very grown-up—this supply of hangers.

It’s been over a year since I moved my clothes into this closet. It’s the biggest walk-in I have ever had, but I have to share it with my husband—his shirts hang there, in order by color and day of the week. Light baby blues, some yellow, grassy green ones, a few whites. All one-color, the same conservative Oxfords. A couple of khaki pants, suits. One hanger with ties. That’s all he has. That’s all he needs.

My clothes threaten to spill over onto his side. Shoes are piled on the floor and in two shoe racks. My feet have gotten bigger since my son was born and I can’t face the fact that I have to get rid of so many pairs. The shelf running on top of the bar with the hangers is packed almost to the ceiling—once these were tidy piles of sweaters and t-shirts and jeans, but now they are a jumble of fabric, most of it unreachable.

I haven’t been sleeping well. Stuff wakes me at 2:00 a.m. or 3:00 a.m. every morning, and some days I stare in the darkness into the closet with its military precision on one side and its bohemian confusion on the other. Maybe this is what’s not letting me sleep, I think, this mess, this disorganized void staring back at me.

I drink a glass of wine every night for a few nights and that helps.

But still, the closet has to be dealt with. It’s finally warm and sunny again, so it seems like a good time to put away all of my sweaters and cardigans and turtlenecks and see what’s left over from last summer. So I give myself this gift—a few hours of solitude while the boys are playing soccer right below our bedroom window. I shower and put my hair in a ponytail. I put on panties, a bra, and a tank top. I know I will have to try on things I haven’t worn in a while. I am feeling a bit bloated on this particular day—not ideal for trying on clothes, but maybe it won’t be too bad.

I flip on the dim light bulb in the closet and the paper lantern just outside its door. The lighting is optimal for the mirror on the closet door.

I dive in.

***

It is stupid of me to get so upset. I know that. I knew all along that we only had this one day together, that we were just two friends catching up after over a decade apart, that we were not here to rekindle…anything. But the anticipation, the excitement, the thrill, the stirred-up memories all burst to the surface without permission or warning after we say good-bye.

I hold it together while I wait for the elevator, while he waves back at me through the glass doors as he walks out onto the street. But once the elevator doors close, my breath gone, I can’t hold it any longer. I stumble to my room through tears and snot and there it hits me even harder—in the empty room, our wine glasses on the table, the afternoon sun painting the walls pink.

I know what I have to do. I have done it before and done it well. I have done it after breakups and stressful days at work, after fights with my husband, or during bouts of self-doubt, or right before I get my period. I know exactly what will soothe the ache, what will calm my mind, what will help me focus. I grab my wallet and purse and pick up a map of the small town’s downtown area at the front desk. I still have two hours until the shops close.

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Once I am amongst the fragrances, the eye shadows, the lipsticks, the nail polish, I can finally breathe and I think, “Thank god I am a girl.” Because I can distract myself, I can find solace in these aisles. Silvery-gold eye shadow, red lipstick, a pretty stone on a hairband. Blush—plummy and shimmery, with a big, soft brush. Black nail polish with just a hint of glitter.

I buy earrings—an owl with an opal for its belly—and a few silky scarves, a pair of shoes that are way too impractical for the long, cold winter months that are waiting for me at home. I buy a shirt—crisp, white—and a cardigan with thin silver threads running through it. I buy makeup and nail polish and a luxurious face lotion that under the neon lights of the store gives me the glow of someone in love. I carry the fancy shopping bags back to my hotel, their weight cutting into my fingers. I welcome any pain that is not coming from the general direction of my heart. I busy myself with cutting off tags, folding, putting toiletries and makeup in little Ziploc bags, making room in my suitcase.

One last Wiener Schnitzel from room service. A gin and tonic from the minibar. The TV is all in German and the few English channels are replaying images of the Ebola outbreak. I switch it off. I lock my suitcase and set my alarm.

Early flight home tomorrow.

***

I am maybe 14 or 15 when I buy my first outfit with my own money. I have worked all summer in my mom’s office and I want something pretty. The skirt has a handkerchief hem and bright orange, yellow, red squares. The shirt is bright yellow, short-sleeved. The skirt spins just as I like it and the shirt has a thin silk band along its armholes.

My mom helps me pick them out—“get an outfit, not just separate pieces,” she advises, and the skirt/shirt combo fits the bill. I can’t remember what the occasion is when I first wear it, but I do remember feeling girly. I think I spin a little when my dad sees me in it for the first time. “So, what do you think?” I ask.

“You look like a Gypsy girl,” he says. I know it’s a joke, but it stops my spin.

It doesn’t matter. Summer is almost over and during some freak growth spurt my breasts grow too large for the shirt and my belly too large for the skirt. Thus begins the period when I only wear black.


The secret to a good closet-cleaning is that you have to be ruthless. It helps to be slightly pissed off while you are doing it. Take it out on the clothes as you go. No sentiment here, no happy memories, no reminiscing. “Do you fit?” “No.” “In the trash bag you go.” “Have I worn you in the past year?” “Hell no.” “Trash bag, my dear.”

The black cotton dress with the black flower petals along the neckline—showing a bit too much flab through the thin, soft material. I don’t want to swear Spanx in the summer. I bought this a few years ago for a party, but now the dress is too loose in the chest and the black flowers strike me as morbid on summer dress. Funeral on a hot day? No thank you.

The turquoise silk blouse with the bright blue sleeves—I really love that shirt. The colors are striking in my mostly black closet. But alas, the shirt is now too big on my chest and a bit tight across my stomach. I briefly consider a trip to a tailor. But I know it won’t happen. Donation bag.
It’s hard to tell whether I am not wearing something because of my lifestyle right now—working from home full-time and chasing after a five-year-old—or because I wouldn’t wear that item at all, no matter the circumstances. Purple halter-back studded tank-top? Not appropriate for preschool drop-off, but definitely appropriate for a fancy office party under a jacket. Military jacket with large, silver buttons? Again—a bit too much for soccer practice, but not for cocktail hour in some hip bar.

Standing in my closet in my panties, I have to imagine a life that is not mine yet, but one that could be. One that is not all leggings and long tunics and comfy flats. One that is not wet pony tail and bare face. One that is…I don’t know. Every piece of clothing carries the possibility of someone new I might become.

How do I choose what to throw away?


My boyfriend picks me up in his little white car every Saturday morning. He speeds down my street and gets on the two-lane, winding highway to the nearby bigger college town. He nudges my skirt a bit higher so that he can smooth his right hand over my knee and thigh. I rest my hand on his neck. We stay like that for 45 minutes until he pulls into the mall’s parking lot.

There’s not much else to do around here. So we shop: for books, for cologne, for shirts, for shoes, for bags. I like him in blue and dark green and try to get him away from his drab wardrobe of khaki and brown and tan. We giggle in the dressing room and I help him button shirt collars and sleeves. He does look good in blue—his eyes bright and impish as he pulls me closer, his hand moving under my shirt.

We pick out a new cologne for him and some new underwear and I try to convince him that he does not have to wear clothes until they fall apart. He deserves nice things. “It’s about respecting yourself,” I tell him later as I watch him throw out raggedy t-shirts with yellow armpits and socks with holes.

After our shopping trips we go out to dinner and then closer to home for drinks. We carry our shopping bags up the steep staircase leading to my apartment and we leave them right there by the door as we kiss and stumble our way to my bedroom. We are tipsy on some imagined wealth, on some imagined life where this is what our weekends are like.

It is almost five years into our marriage by the time we pay off our dating bill: the shopping, the dinners, the movies, my engagement ring, my wedding gift—a pair of small diamond studs.

He cancels all of our credit cards, except for the one we use for emergencies. We are done dating. We are sober.


I do my best to hide the lacy white panties from my mom. I bought them in secret, on my way home from high school one day. I bought them for my boyfriend. Well, I bought them for me, of course, but I really wanted my boyfriend to see me in them. To take them off of me. All of my panties look like they belong to a little girl: cotton, with little hearts or stripes, a tiny bow on the front.

I don’t think my boyfriend minds—they never stay on for too long—but I mind. I want it to be okay to wear the underwear I want. So I buy this pair and wear it on special occasions, washing them by hand and drying them in my closet. One day they disappear. I don’t dare ask my mom what happened to them. I look for them in closets and drawers every now and then, on return trips home from college, but they seem to be gone forever.

And I have bigger things to worry about—my breasts. The humiliating, unsexy, soul-crushing search for a bra that fits, that lifts, that supports. That doesn’t leave grooves on my shoulders. That doesn’t leave my breasts spilling out from the top and the sides. That doesn’t look like it belongs to a grandmother. I don’t realize just how much time I spend worrying about my bra until after my breast-reduction surgery.

In a posh lingerie store in Manhattan a friend and I share a dressing room as we try on bras. We’ve only known each other for a few weeks, but we are both mothers and we are not shy. Boobs are boobs. And anyway, it’s more unnerving to have a complete stranger—the saleswoman—jiggle and adjust your breasts as you stand there, leaning over, in front of a huge mirror. I find out my new bra size and that the balconette styles look really good on me.

I spend close to $1,000 on matching bras and panties. My friend and I both get a complimentary bottle of detergent to hand-wash our new purchases. After about a week, they end up in the washing machine. I don’t have time for delicates.


By the time I am finished with my closet-cleaning project, my hair is frizzy from pulling shirts over my head so many times, and I am sneezing from the dust gathered on shoe boxes and bags. My husband helps me carry the donation bags downstairs and then comes back upstairs to inspect my work. “Wow,” he yells mockingly, “that’s one clean closet!” He’ll say that a few more times during the week—I know. I’ll laugh each time.

We have a dinner to go to that night and I wear a dress that I unearthed from one of the piles. I act like a grown-up and put on Spanx and make-up and wear cute heels and a matching bag.

The next morning I walk back and forth in my clean closet a few times in my underwear, thumbing the shirts and pants and skirts now hanging in seasonal order.

“Mama, hurry up! I’m hungry!” my little boy yells from downstairs. I grab my black leggings and a long, black t-shirt. I quickly pull my hair into a ponytail. I grab the owl earrings and put them in as I run down the stairs.

At night, I shut the door to the closet so it won’t stare back at me.

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Zsofia McMullin is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Full Grown People, and several other publications. A native of Budapest, Hungary, she now lives in Connecticut with her husband and son. She blogs here and tweets at @zsofimcmullin.

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