A Certain Vintage by Sarah-Jane Stratford
The skirt was a dull pink-and-purple paisley that flattered nobody. It was pleated, and hit just below the knees. A garment worn as an only resort by some unfortunate young woman in the early 1960s. She would have paired it with a fitted blouse, to show she was slim – something the pleats gleefully belied. It was a skirt worn with the hope that, someday, she would only have clothes she liked. On that day, the skirt went straight to the charity shop – or was handed down to another victim. A disliked younger relative, perhaps.
Ten years later, it acquired the honorific of “vintage,” bought by girls who wanted to be retro, who thought its odd pattern and metal zipper made it chic, or at least ironic. From girl to shop, from shop to girl, it traveled on. It was never kept long.
Pauline had bought it on eBay, so she couldn’t see how yellow it made her legs look, nor how wide her hips. She ignored both defects, deeming the skirt good enough for now, until she could afford something better.
Which she still couldn’t.
“I remember this!” Annabel exclaimed, shaking out the skirt and giving it the same warm, empty smile she gave everyone. A faint twitch of her nose marred her otherwise immobile features. Liberal use of white vinegar hadn’t obliterated the skirt’s vintage shop smell.
Pauline hadn’t wanted to help with the building clothing sale this year, but couldn’t invent a good enough excuse to avoid it. The neighbors all banded together to sell clothes as part of a street fair, supporting a non-denominational church none of them attended. They could donate the clothes to charities, but they did this because it had always done been done. The activity was a relic, like a paper drive, like the building itself, like Pauline.
This swath of Greenwich Village was once a curiosity, avoided by the wealthy. Dubbed “bohemian,” it was a place where art was created. Then the city changed, and the rich now coveted the beautiful red-brick buildings, so lovingly maintained by the artists. Landlords, who for years had happily collected rent while ignoring broken appliances and crumbling facades, now avowed to prospective tenants that it was they who had upheld the neighborhood’s leafy charm. So the artists were dismissed to abandoned lofts, braving crack dealers, rats, and roaches; while the wealthy luxuriated in the original tiles, moldings, and marble that must be rightfully theirs.
Pauline was a holdover, a token artist, only remaining because her great-uncle – an artist of minor renown – had lived there sixty years. She’d moved in to take care of him, fitting her own work around his increasing needs. He spoke well of her vague successes, thus was she deemed legitimate. The old man clung on for years, earning Pauline high commendation for prioritizing him when she could have been becoming someone. She had allowed herself to grow a bit too old to be a hot young artist, a bit too old to be smiled at by men she might wish would give her a smile. A bit too old to keep wearing clothes which were only for now.
“You made it work,” Annabel said, still studying the skirt. “Why give it up?”
I was wearing it the day Liam broke up with me the second time, Pauline wanted to answer, but couldn’t. Annabel wasn’t the sort of person you troubled with such nonsense.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she shrugged. “It doesn’t really work in my life anymore.”
“I know what you mean,” Annabel agreed. “It’s like this,” she plucked a beaded minidress from her pile. “I could get away with something this short before I had Inez, but now it would just be silly. It still fits, though.”
She held it against herself for Pauline to admire, giving the dress a little shake so that the beads shimmied merrily, taking pleasure in their own percussion.
“If you like it, you should keep it,” Pauline urged, wondering why she always had to be generous. But agreeing would mean telling Annabel that her thighs were those of a woman who had become matronly. A woman whose husband still slept with her because he felt he should, because there wasn’t anyone else, or maybe even because he liked her, but whom no one else would ever again think of as sexy. She had three children. She got regular Botox. She was no longer in the game.
Except that Annabel was still sexy. Pauline knew it, and so did Annabel. Her thighs were the envy of the street. Her breasts defied gravity. Her glorious gilt hair, though a masterful chemical confection, still attracted the eye of students trolling the streets, searching for cheap beer, cheap food, and perhaps a whiff of bohemia.
Pauline did not dislike Annabel. She didn’t have the energy, being too preoccupied with disliking herself. Nor did Annabel dislike her. Rather, Annabel viewed Pauline as sympathetic, borderline tragic – still unwillingly single and childless, still poor and unsuccessful. Careening toward a place where none of these might be changed. Meriting pity.
Other women in the building saw Pauline as a cautionary tale…and a threat. Her availability pulsed from behind her door, glowing more than the polished brass knocker. But Annabel, secure in her security, could afford to be kind. Pauline wondered if it meant anything.
When her great-uncle died, the assumption was Pauline would go too; boxed up and sent on to charity with all his unsaleable things. But to general astonishment, he had finagled Pauline into the lease, keeping the apartment rent-stabilized and hers. The neighbors were thrilled. Artists remained amongst them. This was a talking point, and defense. Proof the bourgeoisie had not wholly displaced bohemia. Pauline’s presence meant they brushed up against a world that excited their most imaginative nostalgia. Pauline, with her vintage clothes, blue-streaked hair, gay friends, and art, was distinctly not them, with their children and dogs, and dinners with other couples who had children and dogs. They didn’t know Pauline wanted to join their ranks, and would have lost all interest in her if she succeeded.
They assumed her rent remained low, but it didn’t. The landlord understood the perceived value of Pauline, but also knew that a couple with children and dogs could pay twice what she paid and consider it a bargain. He bided his time, watching her. Watching as she slid down her rope. She had just been downsized out of another job. It was only a matter of time.
“I can’t believe the things you’re getting rid of,” Annabel fretted, picking through Pauline’s neat pile. “Did you leave yourself anything at all?”
“Sure,” Pauline answered, in a tone she hoped sounded casual. “I just think it’s time to pare down. Live more simply.”
Annabel’s face puckered in bewilderment. The neighbors all subscribed to ‘Real Simple’ magazine, but actual simple living was not part of the building ethos.
Pauline was planning to pocket the money her former treasures yielded, but she’d also decided to give up clothes personifying a youth that no longer existed. She had stopped dyeing her hair. She had stopped trying to be the person who had dragged her down somewhere along the line. It was time to try being someone else.
“Oh, good, you’re both here! This is going to be fun.”
Claire from 2B sauntered up to them, flicking back her Brazilian blowout in a manner she’d copied from Annabel. She tossed an overflowing Lululemon bag into the mix – a pair of skinny jeans bounced out in a bid for freedom. Her smile could have passed for friendly.
Pauline braced herself for the polite gossip about each other’s husbands and children. She told herself she would not cry, that the sooner it started, the sooner it would be over.
But Annabel and Claire only discussed the clothes.
Pauline wondered if she would be here had Liam stayed, had he opened himself to the possibility of yes. Liam. The impossible man she had tried to make possible. The man worth waiting for. She had waited, through 1920s frocks that were so light and romantic on a sweltering August afternoon, through bold 1960s houndstooth capes that turned heads in autumn, through tailored 1940s suits with Russian coats in winter, and at last, spring. When she wore fitted 1950s dresses with rustling silk crinolines. And sometimes Liam was there and sometimes he wasn’t and Pauline dyed her hair different colors and turned down jobs in other cities and waited for the day he would make the wait worthwhile.
“Everyone knows it’s not you,” Claire hissed across her thoughts.
“What?” Pauline glanced at the bright green shirt she was holding, which would have made her look jaundiced.
“His affair, of course!”
Claire’s dancing eyes rolled towards Annabel, who was across the lobby, wrestling open a carton of hangers.
“You’re right to stay single,” Claire congratulated her with a conspiratorial wink. Pauline noticed she’d gotten eyelash extensions. “I mean, if even Annabel can’t keep her husband from straying, what chance do us wee ordinary folk have?” Claire giggled and gave Pauline a poke. Her nail left a mark.
Pauline imagined smacking her. She crumpled a crop-top in her fist, feeling Claire’s exfoliated skin under her palm, the noise of the blow magnified by the lobby’s Art Deco marble.
“I don’t like gossip,” Pauline muttered, wishing she could say something witty.
Claire’s lip curled. She ran a hand over a black Givenchy that was new last year. Pauline understood that the whisper, the giggle, the poke all presaged an invitation into Claire’s world, where benefits included such dresses being passed to her, accompanied by invitations to dinners. Dinners where single men might accidentally drop in amidst the children and dogs. An offer revoked before it was even made.
Pauline snatched up a fistful of designer T-shirts whose cost could have covered her rent for a month, and joined Annabel.
“Where are you working these days?” Annabel asked, courteous and curious. Pauline was surprised. She didn’t realize anyone in the building knew she had to take jobs to survive.
“I was an administrative assistant at a cancer research center,” Pauline said. “But they lost funding, so I had to go.”
“Research,” Annabel murmured. “I used to love research. All those little specimens, all those questions. I knew there was an answer somewhere, it was just a matter of looking.”
She smiled at Pauline’s blank stare.
“Everyone thinks I was a model. But I wanted to be a doctor. I was doing really well, too, until…well, anyway. Life’s funny, isn’t it?”
She shook her head at a plether jacket, making comments about it Pauline did not hear.
The professionally familied Annabel once had a dream she’d exchanged for marriage. A story better suited to Pauline’s erstwhile collection of 1950s housedresses. Pauline thought of men who tried to please women, who made efforts because they wanted to, because they cared, because it mattered. Because such things were remembered as a history together unspooled. She thought of crisp collared shirts, closed with silk ties. She thought of argyle socks, of wingtip shoes. A shaved cheek, a well-tended haircut. A wedding ring. Worn with pride. Worn to last. Worn with a love that didn’t fade, fray, stain, come loose at the seams.
“You still could,” Pauline burst out. “If you wanted to.”
She felt Claire staring at them, choosing the sentence with which she would interrupt their tête-à-tête.
“Still could,” Annabel echoed. “Who knows?”
And if Annabel could, so could Pauline. Then art would no longer be a game of pretending she hadn’t been carrying her life in a jar until she’d tripped. Tripped and fallen, spilling the contents, which slipped through cracks and disappeared.
Pieces of Annabel’s lost life stood out on her face, vibrant as mosaic. The dreams she’d abandoned to dream someone else’s dreams. It didn’t matter if he still dreamed beside her or not. She had a gap where something had been removed.
“You could. Absolutely.” Pauline insisted, with a surge of certainty.
Annabel chuckled and produced a pale gray sheath from her collection.
“You should try this,” she urged. “I think it would work on you.”
It was plain, almost featureless, but had a stubborn, dignified elegance. Pauline took it to be polite, but also in the hope that she might make the life in which it would fit.
The pleated paisley skirt, still so sturdy after so many years, was given a price tag: 25¢. Pauline looked forward to the quarter getting lost amongst her change.
This time next year, Pauline would live somewhere else. She would have slipped out of sight, become an anecdote, not having lived large enough to be a legend. Beautiful Annabel would still live a beautiful life, and Pauline, whether she remained on the knife’s edge, had fallen down the precipice, or pulled herself to safety, would be forgotten.
So there was no point in offering friendship. That was what Pauline told herself as she picked up the abandoned minidress. The smooth little beads hummed in her palm, eager to dance again.
“It’s lovely,” she told Annabel, holding it out to her. “You should keep it. Wear it.”
Annabel extended her hand. Their fingers brushed as she took the dress. Pauline reached out further to press Annabel’s thumb under her own, but Annabel’s hand moved too quickly, and Pauline touched only fabric.
© Sarah-Jane Stratford, 2012
Sarah-Jane Stratford is the author of the historical vampire novels The Midnight Guardian and The Moonlight Brigade. Her short stories and articles have appeared in The Guardian, Guernica, and Women and Hollywood. She is currently working on a novel about espionage in World War I and a play about censorship.
A Certain Vintage was read by Alexandra Gray on 2nd May 2012.