Some Kind of Dress

03/12/2015 02:37 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015
Jenny Ebert via Getty Images

As the guests began to arrive, I slipped into the bathroom down the hall from where the ceremony was going to take place. At the time, I didn't know what was sending me down the corridor, or why. It just seemed, somehow, that I was supposed to be there. I was supposed to be in a bathroom, alone, 10 minutes before changing my life forever, changing my perfect life forever.

The restroom was located off the foyer of the Victorian mansion that we rented for the wedding. Square and gracious, the entry was wrapped in a multi-tiered staircase with landings upon landings and painted white bannisters, each punctuated with a sprawling bouquet. When my mother wasn't looking, I whisked under the steps and into the ladies' lounge, fully dressed and crowned, a tulle rosette the size of a water taxi stuck to the top of my head. I pulled seven hundred layers of organza up from the floor and backed my rear end onto a sofa in the center of the room. The fabric shot up around me like a Venus Flytrap.

My concern at that moment, or, I should say, my superficial concern at that moment, was keeping the yardage as far from my painted lips as possible, since I had selected a '50s-style pink, a hot cerise, for the affair. Fearing blotches on the hem that was now encircling my cranium, I stuck out my chin, sucked in my cheeks, and fended off the barrage of silk with my forearms, attempting to remain calm, and more important, sane.

After a few minutes, or years, the door opened. A little girl walked inside, stopped just past the threshold and stared at me. She stood still, squinted and tilted her head. What are you doing, she seemed to ask. Do you know that you are doing it? Do you think that you should be doing it? Now? Here? Tangled up in a taffeta haze? I hadn't seen her before. I hadn't invited a little girl to the wedding. She didn't smile, or ask to touch the dress, or breathe in deep and open her mouth, the way little girls do when they see a princess. She didn't say anything, and I didn't either. We just looked at each other, and then she turned on one foot and left.

How I got from the sofa to the back of the aisle in the mansion's library is unclear. The trip from back to front is even grainier, now, 26 years hence, given the singular recollection of the trek. While walking toward my groom, I felt a throbbing in my neck so robust that I thought an artery would burst, spewing shoots of blood onto the diagonal lines of pearls that wrapped my torso. The pounding crescendoed as I reached the end of the aisle, where I envisioned myself lying on the floor in a fluff of organza, now crimson, with six hundred cocktail napkins pressed to the hole in my neck. My father lifted the veil to kiss my cheek and I wondered if he, a thoracic surgeon, could sense the arterial unrest beneath my skin.

Of course, I wouldn't die in the rented mansion on the Hudson River, I assured myself as I made my way, but would be treated on the very sofa in the ladies room, revived by the eighty-nine physicians in the family who had ripped tourniquets from the hems of the bridesmaid gowns. My dress, though, would remain a casualty, drenched and limp from the geyser spraying from under my chin.

Somehow, I stood upright during the ceremony and heard nothing of what anyone said, my mind settling instead on which hospital would be chosen for me, the closer one in Tarrytown or the major medical center a greater distance away in Valhalla. I felt certain that my Dad et al would stabilize me well enough to make the longer trip to the teaching facility, academia so revered in our family, particularly during such crises. Mom would carry the suitcase full of bathing suits and mini-skirts that we had packed for the Caribbean. I would be released a few days later in a wheel chair, sporting a violet bikini with triangle clasps.

These are not normal matrimonial musings, I know now. I have wondered, more than a few times, why the extreme nature of my feelings didn't derail the plans that day, why I didn't throw off my pumps and bolt for the exit. Sure, brides get nervous, maybe a little fluttery. They question their decisions. They run through check lists, evaluate former suitors, one last time. I do not think that many women hallucinate about aortic ruptures, or stare at strange children while hiding from waiting guests, and mates, and futures. Did I not realize the peculiarity of this, then? Did I not see the extraordinary response to something that other people do daily, happily, ardently? What was it that kept me on the path when rocket flares were launching in my brain?

The only explanation that I can think of is that I must have truly believed, or allowed myself to believe, that when you get married, you are supposed to experience these sorts of pre-event traumas. You are supposed to be disconcerted; you are supposed to feel weird. That is love. No one told me it wasn't.

When we arrived at the hotel room, I change into a Brown University tee, rather than the lingerie my friends gave me at the bridal shower. I lie in bed next to my new mate, the boy I have chosen to be with forever. All brides must feel numb and muddled with the transition; it will be better when I adjust, I think. I have enjoyed the condition of girlfriendness, adored the balloons sent to me at work and better still, the scene on the bus when I tried to pull them up the steps. He will be as competent a mate as anyone, I tell myself, even though I have absolutely no urge to touch him or be with him. I will want to touch him and be with him tomorrow, probably. I fall asleep to the intro music from Saturday Night Live. Bruce Willis is hosting. I love Bruce Willis.

The next morning, we get on a plane and go on a honeymoon. I have the window seat, and when my new husband is sleeping, I turn my head toward the clouds and cry. Okay, change. Change is unsettling. Growth is melancholy, nostalgic. Nostalgia makes people cry on planes and drape their hair over their faces so their spouses don't see.

I remained married for 14 years, cheerleading to the crowd but coming to understand, privately, that emotion can be more reliable than rationale, sometimes. This time. Despite my scientific upbringing, the training that taught complete devotion to data and logic, that minimized any consideration of sentiment, I felt deeply that something was wrong. Yet, I ignored the signs, the visceral twinges that may have steered me to a better judgment, that may have preserved a friendship and avoided upset. "Did you ever love me?" the question came. He hardly needed to ask, but I needed to answer. I needed to hear it said, in my voice, and it sounded good. It sounded like me. Finally.

Since that day, I have given instinct as much a place in decision-making as I have reason. If it doesn't feel right, or safe, or smart, I trust the emotion, now. If it feels unwise, I tell my kids, then it probably is. Cross the street. Leave the party. I should have left the party, my older daughter told me not long ago.

When we moved into our house 11 years ago, I brought my wedding dress with us. It was a large souvenir, not something to trickle to the bottom of a jewelry box or evade packing. I put it in the attic, where it has laid sealed up in plastic on a retired dog crate -- alas, dear Barney. It's not often that I yank down the ladder from the ceiling and climb up the steps, but a few months ago, I wanted to stash a music stand out of the way. Before descending, I grabbed the dress. It swooped off the crate, and onto the step, flattened and yellow in its casing. I dropped it 12 feet to the floor, where it flopped and folded and came to a rest. I grasped the railing and walked down to the hallway below, returning the ladder to the rafters with a clap.

It was probably time to do something with the dress. Consign it, cut it into a mini and dye it. Save it for a show. I couldn't imagine that my daughters would embrace its past. I stretched the package out on my bed, unzipped the plastic and pulled out the gown, expecting something dingy, worn. In the light of the window, the silk was the white I remembered. The diagonal pearls, and sequins -- I forgot -- were tightly sewn and iridescent, still. I fluffed the gathers of fabric that ringed the hips and bust, like whipped cream, and filled the skirt with waves of air. I saw no blood, no lipstick stains. A petticoat was stepped upon underneath, and knotted up, out of sight. The bustles were let down, as the evening had come to an end.

Tempted, I was, in my shorts and tee, to slip it on, I don't know why. I held the hanger up high with one hand and turned to the mirror, instead, holding the dress against my body where it would fall, a paper doll. I did not love it then. It was quite dramatic, and a lot to carry, particularly for someone my size, and temperament. It was a costume then, wardrobing for the leading lady.

But in front of my mirror, 26 years later, the dress startled me. It was stunning. Glorious, really. Deserving of a better time, a prettier history. I backed myself up onto the settee by the bed, forearm securing the waist, layers of tulle and organza floating up and out over my lap. I see the dress whisking to the ladies' lounge, the scalloped hem quivering behind me. I see the sofa, feel my lips purse. And, to this day, I see the little girl's face, her blunt bangs, her sullen gaze. To this day, I don't know if a little girl walked into the ladies' room in the Victorian mansion where I was married. Or if the little girl was me.

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