I can’t quite bring myself to pull back from the steam that kisses my neck and face aggressively every time I lift my hand. It’s getting more and more suffocating the longer the iron has a chance to heat up, but it’s slow going this afternoon. Something about the faded green party dress hissing in front of me is taking me back. It whispers something to me beneath the iron, and when I lift it again another voice rings out clearly.
“I just want it off, I can’t stand this a second longer!” Through a foggy mirror above a hot sink left on too long I see my childhood best friend Trilby, scrubbing furiously at the black lines drawn around her eyes. I pleat my spring green dress nervously in my hands, watching her reflection move. “We still have a few songs left in the recital, can’t you wait another half hour?”
“Why the hell should I? I told you, this just isn’t me.”
I flinch at the bad word. We are eleven. “You’re going to have to get used to it at some point, you know. It’s what women do.”
We were eleven. I focus the iron on a stubborn wrinkle near the hem, although it might not be worth it. I’m almost certain the whole dress shrank in the last wash, but I’m clinging onto some last hope that if I just press down hard enough, it might return to at least thigh-length.
In the performance hall bathroom, Trilby is tearing her skirt from her knee to just below the hem of her underwear with her hands. She has black smudges all over her face. I run forward to stop her, but it’s too late. “Trilby, your mom is gonna kill me!” It has been my job to look after Trilby since kindergarten. The other kids call her a cry baby. The adults whisper another word for it to each other, always just quiet enough to keep us from hearing. I just think she’s sensitive. I’ve always kind of liked it. She’s good at finding things to love and hate. Right now it’s a definite hatred.
“Don’t you think this is stupid, though? What does it matter if I’m wearing pants or a skirt if I can play my piece?”
I am slow to answer. “It’s against the rules for us, remember? Only the boys can wear pants. Plus… we look pretty.”
The iron is growing hotter in my hand as I pull and push on the hem, still stretching. The fabric resists, holding tight. The sun outside my window grows red and cool on my back as it sneaks towards the horizon.
Trilby and I stand underneath the same sun ten years before, enduring. “How could you have let her do this?” her mother snaps at me. I will myself not to cry and ruin the work I did so carefully earlier that day. “I didn’t,” I whisper, my eyes on my clean white sandals. “Well you must have,” she says, “or else she wouldn’t have half a dress on!” Her mother has a way of talking that makes my face go red.
I grip the iron tighter as I feel something like smoke or steam grasping at my chin. The dress still won’t give.
I can’t face Trilby or her mother now. I focus on the way the sun feels on my bare shoulders. I think of taking my sandals off and just running towards the waning sun. But I’m supposed to know better. Everyone says so.
I think some of my mascara has just melted with sweat into my eye. It stings. I drop the iron to rub at it. I smell something like the old autumns, playing in the tree fort with Trilby while the neighbors burnt the falling branches in their yards.
Dresses are not common in the tree fort because it’s hard to climb up to it in one. Shoes are only to protect from splinters. Makeup is unheard of. But dresses are required for young ladies at the piano recital. Shoes, naturally, are to go with the dresses. Makeup makes you look more professional.
Dresses are required for young ladies playing at the piano recital. Dresses are required for young ladies’ friends wishing to avoid a scolding. Dresses are required for young ladies who sit nicely in their chairs and wait their turn to play. Dresses are required-
My dress is burning. I see it when I take my hands from my eyes. The smoke curls up around the edges of the iron and towards the ceiling. I watch it for a second. My dress is burning. If I lift the iron, I’ll see the hole. I’ll never be able to wear it out again.
Slowly, I walk around the table and to the wall, where I unplug the iron. I hang there a moment, looking out my window towards the tree line. I suppose I have to throw the thing away now. I don’t think I really mind. It was never very comfortable anyways. It had no give.
Jennifer Jussel is a third-year English major and creative writing minor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. She has been published most recently in The Awakenings Foundation, The Tipton, and The Trinity Review with creative nonfiction essays, poetry, and prose. She is an associate editor for The 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction. She spent the past summer interning at Foundry Literary and Media Agency in Manhattan, and is very eager to return to the city, although she finds it to be seriously deficient in authentic queso. Connect with her on Twitter: @jennifer_jussel