On Dressing Well

She learns about the dinner party the day before they are to leave. Her father-in-law mentions it in passing, on a phone call with her husband, about logistics of course – what time does the flight land tomorrow, unusually cold this week so pack a jacket, maybe also a scarf. The phone is on speaker, so she hears it from the other room, from where she is packing. “I didn’t know there was going to be a dinner party.” she says, when he hangs up. “Oh, yes, sorry, forgot to mention – not a big deal, just some of my parents’ friends, coming over.”

She frowns, recalling the last few times that happened.

Just a dinner party, sure, but all the ladies, all the aunties, her mother-in-law’s friends, dressed to the nines in sarees with ornate borders and fine beadwork, gold jewelry sparkling on lobes, necks, cuffs, fingers, ankles. The first time, after the surprise announcement of a dinner with several guests and her mother-in-law’s offer of a saree, she had insisted, warmly to be sure, that it was ok, she was perfectly comfortable wearing what she was already wearing, or she could change into a dress, it was just a casual weeknight gathering of family friends, an ordinary night in an ordinary suburb of New York, was it not? She’d felt out of place that evening, amidst the rich colors, the swish of fabric, the clink of stacked bangles, especially when her sister-in-law, visiting from Chicago for the long weekend, had changed into a saree for the evening festivities. Then that other time, when her mother-in-law had again offered, insisted, once again warmly to be sure, that she wear – borrow — one of her sarees and she had complied, recalling the churning discomfort of the last time and faced with the unassailable logic that all sarees were the same width and length, just a long roll of fabric really, and after all, wasn’t it all about the drape?

Sure – and her hands hadn’t forgotten the dance, the way you tuck in one end at the waist, gather the yards together in one hand, barely able to hold it together, as you pleat, pleat, pleat, mastering the unruly unspooling of the fabric before once more, tucking, turning, turning again, laying over the left shoulder and then pleating, pleating, pleating and pinning until it falls in waves towards the floor– not too long, never long enough to drag underfoot but not too short, never short enough to reveal the ankle. No – it hadn’t been the saree itself that had chafed that time, despite its floral print, too busy, too fussy, too precious, never something she’d have chosen for herself, but the blouse, also her mother-in-law’s, ill-fitting, too large for her, sliding off her shoulders, wrong, wrong, wrong, her mother would have been so embarrassed to see it, her mother who had always worn her own sarees with such panache, such refinement, such well-tailored blouses, fitting like a second skin.

She frowns again, recalling asking her husband whether any dinner parties, any gatherings of family friends, had been planned during this visit and his assurance that there was not. She knows it wasn’t malicious, not ill-intentioned, his forgetting to mention it. He was not expected to change clothes, to dress up, for guests, for family friends, and for that matter, neither was she, not really, except that maybe she was. It was hard to tell. She frowns down at her open luggage, calculating how much extra space, extra weight, whether it will all fit in her carry-on. Maybe she can just take a dress, a nice one, or borrow one of her mother-in-law’s sarees and blouses again, or maybe just take one of her own blouses and borrow a saree that is a close enough match in color? She sighs, recalling how, back home so many thousands of miles and moons away, each Sunday morning, her mother would select her own sarees for the week, matching the correct blouse to each saree, choosing a palette for each week, a judicious rainbow of sister-shades, with a new coat of nail polish to match that particular palette. No – it will not do.

So she pulls the check-in suitcase out from under the bed, unzipping the compression bags stacked flat with silks and cottons, laying out the choices, so few compared to the bounty of her mother’s almirah but too many for the life she leads now, except for these moments, when a choice must be made. It is a code, a signaling of knowledge – the casual cotton saree for work-wear, the silk heavy with hand-work for a wedding, darker tones for an evening function, lighter shades for a morning one, the white saree for funerals – but also, for weddings. She sorts through her small stash, settles on one – not too elaborate, not peacocking to draw attention, but enough to show respect, to show that she’d tried, that she understood. She sighs when she sees the creases, she knows sarees are not meant to be packed tight like this, folded and stuffed beneath a bed for months, years, instead of being draped neatly over a wooden hanger, periodically aired out in the searing sunshine and then carefully rehung, refolded in the other direction so as not to permanently mark a crease. She goes searching for an iron, knocking on the door of her neighbors, an older couple who live across the hallway, whose plants she waters when they are away on vacation, visiting the grandkids in Texas. Her husband is bemused by the ironing: “my parents have an iron,” he tells her, “and in any case, you don’t need to take a saree, I don’t think you’re expected to wear one, I’m not taking any special clothes and also, why bother ironing now, it’s only going to get creased again when you pack it.” She ignores him, continues with her ironing, letting the fabric spill over the edge of the ironing board, pool around her bare feet, cool on her side of the board, still warm from the iron’s press as it tumbles over the edge.

It is close to midnight by the time she finishes, her husband long ago headed to bed in anticipation of their early cross-country flight and a long weekend with family. She finishes ironing the blouse, goes to try it on and realizes that the fit is wrong, wrong, wrong, too tight since the last time she wore it, she can’t recall when, the fabric pulling taut under her arms, the hook-and-eye closure straining over her breasts, making it hard for her to breathe. It is already midnight, but she hunts down her sewing kit, snips the stitches at the offending seams and settles in with a sigh— in-and-out, out-and-in, goes the needle and thread, letting out and reshaping.

K. Malwatte

K. Malwatte writes flash fiction, as well as longer-form historical fiction and fantasy inspired by the folklore of the Indian subcontinent. She is a member of Page Street Writers and has presented work at the Bay Area Book Festival and Litquake.

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