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The men were all worried about their hemlines. They stood in groups discussing the merits of length, while the women stood in line for the phone, waiting to call out, or sat in groups around the men, occasionally giving advice, like how to walk in a narrow cut or how to avoid a run in sheer stockings.
But everything was fine at the Red Dress party. It was only later that things began to unravel.
I hadn't planned to attend. I've never enjoyed parties much and didn't have the right clothes, didn't like the idea of having to buy a dress for the sake of a party, a red dress being mandatory attire for things like this. Besides, I'd always felt men didn't look good in dresses, and I hadn't been out of the house in a while, except to work. I'd been busy with a little crying jag for the past couple of weeks, but I wasn't too worried, because it felt kind of good.
It wasn't until I curled myself up on the closet floor to think things through that I noticed the red cloth bleeding through between suits of gray flannel. It wasn't Anne's style at all. Sort of a mother-of-the-bride kind of thing. A red mother-of-the-bride kind of thing. It didn't surprise me that she had left it behind when she left me, but I was surprised it fit me. I remembered Anne as being a much smaller person.
It was still light out when I drove up the winding hillside road to the Doctor's house. None of us really knew the Doctor except Dan, who was giving the party. He had met the Doctor through another friend when he realized the guests would never fit in his own house. It was one of those parties where people invited friends who invited other people, so by the time I got there, I couldn't remember who had told me to come.
I parked my car along the road and walked barefoot through the yard. Only a few guests had arrived, and they were gathered on one of the balconies overlooking Portland. I looked up at the men and women standing in red dresses, the dresses rustling in the wind, framed against an overcast sky like leaves about to fall.
I had some trouble negotiating the lawn in a dress. It narrowed at the knees. The women began to point and laugh.
"Oh, you look lovely," they called.
I looked up to see if I knew them. I held my hand above my eyes to shield them from the sun behind the clouds. In red dresses, it was hard to tell anyone apart. It was hard to see if they might be friends of Anne's, the friends who told me when she left, "I'll never speak to you again." The friends who, I realized, had never said anything more to me than that.
Inside the house, everything was cream walls and pale wood floors. The furniture had been removed to make room for people who couldn't be trusted. A girl in a red dress sat on the stairs talking on a cellular phone to someone who was far away. I thought I'd always wanted to go to a party where people talked on cell phones, instead of to each other. It was like something from a movie.
On the balcony people gathered still, talking of the weather. A woman in a red dress turned to her husband and said, "This is why I moved here."
He said, "The weatherman says it's going to clear up.
I said, "That's what they've been saying, but every day is the same."
"Exactly," the woman said, and smiled.
I took a seat and watched as the guests rolled in. Red gowns, red skirts, red polka-dot spandex on a bodybuilder. One man wore a dark suit with a tiny doll's red dress pinned to his lapel. No one argued with him. From across the room, two women watched their husbands in red dresses. One of the women, wearing a red pillbox hat, said, "He looks better in that dress than I do." By the end of the night, when she was fruitlessly searching the red mass for her husband, we were calling her Jackie 0.
People disappeared upstairs to stand in line at the bathrooms and return with new faces. Red lipstick, rouge, some with eyes rimmed in shadow.
It was in my bathroom, clearing out the makeup after Anne left, that I had planned how I would kill myself. I pictured myself standing before the mirror, a gun to my head, anxious to pull the trigger if only I had one. The idea excited me, not because I wanted to die, but because I was capable of doing it. It was something I could do to make one day unlike any other. The possibility of watching my head burst in a red cloud in the mirror kept me going. I woke up each day to see if it would happen. But it didn't, and every day seemed like every other.
At the party, Joyce stood alone before the mirror, trying to cover the gray circles under her eyes the signs that she wasn't really in remission. "I look like a raccoon," she said. She smiled at me and said, "I wasn't going to come. Ed was afraid people would think he'd beaten me."
"Why didn't he come with you?" I asked.
"He said any party where you have to wear a red dress is stupid." Joyce laughed. "Maybe he was just afraid."
"He probably should be," I said, and for an instant I thought I'd said we instead of he.
Joyce asked how I was doing.
''I'm fine,'' I said. ''I'm getting better.''
Joyce said we couldn't stay in the bathroom all night and maybe we should go back outside.
I said, "Only if we have to."
As we passed through the kitchen, I overheard two red-dressed women talking about Joyce.
''I'd never go out in her condition,'' one said, and the other, with a red feather boa wrapped around her neck, agreed. She said, "Looking for sympathy," and nodded. I wondered what they'd say about me when I was gone. Joyce seemed not to notice, and I wondered for a moment if they might actually be talking about me.
Joyce and I stepped out onto the balcony with drinks in our hands and looked down to the city below. The lights were masked by fog and drizzle. We could see the lights of neighboring windows shining through the narrow spaces between the trees.
I said, "It wouldn't be so bad if it would actually rain."
We stood quiet for a while, looking at nothing in particular. The lights from the warehouse district cast a pink hue in the sky.
I said, "It doesn't seem like anyone knows we're here."
We stood on the sidelines for the rest of the night, drinking and watching people talk about what a great idea the red dresses were
"A great equalizer," someone said. "I feel as if I can talk to anyone."
When I wasn't looking, someone used my drink as an ashtray. I didn't notice until I had swallowed a cup of ash. The Doctor whose house we were in began to clean up around us, collecting the debris others had left behind. We watched as he circled us.
"I never even met him," I told Joyce.
She said, "Neither did I."
I didn't trust myself to drive home safely, and no one offered a ride. I began to walk back down the hill in my bare feet, the mist collecting in my dress. Carloads of red-dressed people passed me by without stopping. I stretched my arms out and let the air blow through me. Light caught in the fog, an orange glowing haze formed over the city, the wind picked up the leaves around me, and I thought, this feels good somehow: to be alive. I didn't notice the hem of the dress tearing a little with each clumsy step, red thread trailing the ground behind me.
Along the side of the Hawthorne Bridge, a single shoe was resting on its side. I wondered, how can that happen that someone leaves a single shoe behind? I heard the crisp sound of tires slowing on wet pavement, the sound of a car door as it opened and closed, and tasted a leather glove as he reached around me to cover my mouth.
Of course, this is how it happens.
I'd been in the hospital for nearly a week before I understood the extent of my injuries. One of my ribs had punctured a lung. My jaw had been dislocated on the right side. My lips were cut in two places, and one eye swollen shut.
Other injuries were internal.
They sent a policewoman to ask me questions. Her first question was, "Had you been drinking?"
I shook my head. "Why?"
"Well, because . . . you were wearing a . . . a . "A red dress," I said.
"We're just trying to establish any motive."
"You're wearing pants," I said. "Have you been drinking?"
Friends came to visit, once it seemed clear I would make a full recovery. I was wearing one of those white hospital gowns that leave you exposed where you are most vulnerable.
I didn't rise to meet them.
They came in a group and wandered the room like manic tourists who had just arrived in a foreign country. They wore long beige coats kept buttoned from head to toe.
They pointed at familiar objects as if seeing them for the first time.
Look at the television!
You get cable?
How's the food?
Look at the view!
Have you met anyone interesting?
Finally someone asked how I was feeling.
I told them the only thing I thought they'd understand.
Fine, I said. Just fine.
No one pointed to the red dress that hung from the wardrobe in a plastic bag. Someone on staff had thought to have it dry-cleaned.