Get the Scis­sors

A dis­as­trous fit­ting-room episode leaves a skirt—and my pride—in tat­ters

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Scaachi Koul

A dis­as­trous fit­ting-room episode leaves a skirt—and my pride— in tat­ters

Around the age of ten, I gained a significant amount of weight, the kind that fam­ily mem­bers stop call­ing “cute” and start re­fer­ring to with a heavy sigh. There was, in re­al­ity, noth­ing wrong with me, but I was too young and too in­se­cure to know that. Noth­ing I owned fit any­more, and I didn’t trust that buy­ing the right clothes could make me feel bet­ter about the way my hips had widened or my arms had soft­ened or my neck now had ridges run­ning across it as if I were an old tree and th­ese were my rings. Shop­ping was my mother’s game, and soon I was wear­ing B.U.M. Equip­ment sweat­pants and long-sleeved heat-lock­ing tops — both items were per­haps util­i­tar­ian in win­ter, but tended to turn my per­son into a walk­ing, sweat­ing ra­di­a­tor by June. I was just happy to hide my pu­berty-stricken body.

At the time, I claimed my style was some kind of fem­i­nist protest: “I don’t need to look like ev­ery other girl. Why should I have to dress up when guys can wear what­ever they want?” But in truth, I just didn’t know if I was al­lowed to look “cute” if my body was big­ger than the other girls I knew. I hid in muted drap­ery hop­ing that no one would no­tice or, bet­ter yet, that they would as­sume I was a very tough, gen­der­less sphere.

This fa­cade crum­bled by the time I was eleven: a well-mean­ing woman at my mother’s Jenny Craig meet­ing told her what a pre­cious son she had. I was wear­ing a base­ball cap with the Coca-cola logo em­bla­zoned on the front, a red puffy vest, and grey sweat­pants. It was July. I was mor­ti­fied to be mis­taken for a boy. Not a girl with mas­cu­line ten­den­cies, not a girl re­ject­ing tra­di­tional gen­der roles, but a boy. I was be­ing de­fined by my cloth­ing in­stead of trans­formed by it.

This was the same year I dis­cov­ered Lord of the Rings wee­nie Or­lando Bloom and de­vel­oped a crush that would last twenty-four months and spawn more than one fan club. (My brother was the only other mem­ber, and only by force.) I sud­denly re­al­ized that boys don’t like girls in pro­mo­tional hats, and I wanted boys to like me. I started grow­ing my hair out and asked my mom to take me shop­ping. I wanted to dress like a girl, and not just a pretty girl but a hot girl — what­ever makes a woman worth look­ing at, worth touch­ing (at least from a teenage boy’s per­spec­tive). Clothes, the right clothes, could make me — even me! — sexy.

Un­for­tu­nately, my tastes dif­fered dras­ti­cally from my mother’s. I tended to­ward T-shirts with hi­lar­i­ous and racy say­ings. I wanted to try on belly tops and white belts with big sil­ver bolts! My mom sug­gested stretchy pants paired with a long-sleeved shirt fea­tur­ing wa­ter­colour wolves stand­ing near the re­flec­tion of the moon in a calm river. Then there were the flow­ing In­dian tu­nics that I could tell were clearly not “English” clothes, as we called them — ones in jewel tones and gold stitch­ing that screamed “MY MOTHER IS AN IM­MI­GRANT — WE ONLY EAT OFF METAL PLATES.” She’d hold them up and say, “They look so nice!” and I’d say, “They’re itchy!” and she’d say, “How?” and I’d fu­ri­ously rub the se­quins against my skin un­til I flashed red bumps and then say, “SEE?”

One par­tic­u­lar fight be­tween my mother and me broke out in the girls’ aisle at Walmart the sum­mer be­fore I started mid­dle school, when I found a royal-blue shirt with “IF IT WEREN’T FOR BOYS, I WOULDN’T EVEN GO TO SCHOOL” scrawled across the front in harsh yel­low. This was an outof-char­ac­ter state­ment for me: I was the type of per­son who wrote ex­tra-credit English es­says, joined the school pa­per, and wept for days when my yearbook failed to print my “Fu­ture Goals” next to my photo, wor­ried that ev­ery­one would think I was a pur­pose­less hack. I was also afraid of the boys who went to my school, none of whom liked me and all of whom were prone to call­ing me a fag­got. But I felt that if I got the Walmart item, I could trans­form my­self in my new en­vi­ron­ment.

I had the whole scene planned out: I would walk into school wear­ing that shirt, along with a set of ear­rings from Claire’s, the ones shaped like light­ning bolts, to re­ally bring out the yel­low in the top. I’d pair it with my floor-length patch­work denim skirt with a lit­tle Union Jack on the pocket. I would en­cir­cle my eyes with thick black liner, all the way around, el­e­vat­ing my­self from mousy girl to sex-rac­coon. Gra­ham*, the boy I had the hots for, would re­ally see me for the first time. Not as the girl he once tack­led in flag foot­ball, but as the woman he once tack­led in flag foot­ball. I would pull my glasses off and the trans­for­ma­tion would be com­plete. “Who is that?” ev­ery­one would ask. “It’s me,” I’d say. The crowd would gasp in amaze­ment and I would have a mil­lion friends and be very thin and rich and filled with an em­bar­rass­ment of sex­ual en­ergy for a thir­teen-year-old.

While I was con­coct­ing this elab­o­rate fan­tasy in Walmart, my mom was ex­plain­ing why she wouldn’t be buy­ing the shirt. “That’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate,” she whis­pered, as if even the words were sin­ful. My mother had a ten­dency to slip into out­rage and shock as a first re­ac­tion to any­thing, and the lower her voice dropped, the more dis­ap­pointed she was. I could barely hear her. “It’s not even long enough to cover your tummy!” she said, pulling me to­ward a row of long-sleeved T-shirts that said “Glam!” in dif­fer­ent colours.

We set­tled on a short-sleeved num­ber with glit­tery navy vinyl let­ter­ing that pro­claimed “I’m not per­fect, but I’m so close it scares me!” Even though I loved the shirt (so clever, so smart, so, dare I say, el­e­gantly sub­ver­sive), I raged at my mom for weeks. She claimed that shirts like the royal-blue one were in­tended for women like my twenty-year-old cousin and not for pudgy mid­dle-school­ers. But what twenty-year-old is shop­ping in the girls’ sec­tion at Walmart, Mother? It got worse a few days af­ter classes started, when my arch-neme­sis, Stephanie, wore the shirt I’d wanted and got an ob­scene amount of neg­a­tive male at­ten­tion. I stomped all the way home that af­ter­noon. That was sup­posed to be my neg­a­tive male at­ten­tion.

This think­ing — that an item of cloth­ing will rev­o­lu­tion­ize my very ex­is­tence — has re­peated through­out my life. Even now at twenty-six. There was the pair of fauxleather red peep-toe pumps in 2006, the black-se­quined bolero of 2009, and the skin-tight cerise knock-off Hervé Léger “this New Year’s Eve is go­ing to be amaz­ing” bandage dress of 2011 that I still own and pull out from my closet now and then to re­mind my­self of what I can­not be.

I still remember my favourite out­fit from the tenth grade, one of many “per­fect out­fits” that never lived up to their po­ten­tial: a mint-green V-neck lace top, dark-wash boot- cut jeans, and black-and- teal­but­ter­fly Mary Jane kit­ten heels. I wore it for ev­ery ma­jor oc­ca­sion: when I wanted Drew to ask me out (he did not), when I wanted to ace a math exam (I did not), when I wanted to be no­ticed by an at­trac­tive guest speaker (I was not). De­spite this piss-poor bat­ting av­er­age, I felt a re­newed sense of po­ten­tial ev­ery time I put it on. “To­day, some­thing good has to hap­pen.”

Nearly a decade af­ter that out­fit stopped be­ing a sta­ple in my wardrobe, I yet again fell into the trap of be­liev­ing cloth could be rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Walk­ing through Toronto’s fi­nan­cial dis­trict, I passed a cloth­ing chain known for sim­ple skirts, blouses, blaz­ers, and a roll-on per­fume, which burned my neck. It was also the sec­ond (and last) re­tail job I ever had, when I was nine­teen and liv­ing in my cousin’s base­ment be­side her hus­band’s ta­ble saw, which he used to make her hand­carved wizard wands. I was at least twenty years younger than the clien­tele that came into the store, I hardly made enough money to buy the $90 cock­tail-ca­sual dresses on the racks, and I man­aged to be twenty min­utes late for ev­ery shift. I wasn’t fired, per se, but when I left my sec­tion to reap­ply my $4.50 lip­stick and a drunk man man­aged to swipe $800 of mer­chan­dise with­out be­ing de­tected, I nobly of­fered not to re­turn.

But that was years ago, and I felt a twinge of self-sat­is­fac­tion in go­ing back as a cus­tomer. So much of my life had changed

Clothes are just things you buy at the mall that you then ruin with pizza-sauce stains and later wear to bed or use to pol­ish jewellery.

since I had worked there: I wasn’t a teenager any­more, I had my own apart­ment, I had paid my taxes at least once, I bought shoes in­stead of wait­ing for my older cousins to tire of theirs. The store was lit­tle more than a re­minder of how far I had pro­gressed in a few short years. “Help me with th­ese but­tons, shop­girl,” I imag­ined say­ing, “for I am an im­por­tant woman. I own a mi­crowave.”

That said, the real rea­son I en­tered the store was far more prac­ti­cal than ego. It was the dead of sum­mer, some thirty-five de­grees Cel­sius, and I be­come soggy even in the most for­giv­ing con­di­tions. Stand­ing out­side, I was already sweat­ing from new and in­ter­est­ing parts of my body, and if I didn’t find a build­ing colder than the sur­face of the moon, my makeup would start bleed­ing and I’d look like a wax fig­urine in­side a clay oven.

I walked in, rel­ish­ing the blast of cool air, and im­me­di­ately saw Aaliyah. She had trained me when I worked there but was now the store man­ager. She was still as tall, stately, and glam­orous as I re­mem­bered her be­ing when I was nine­teen. Best of all: she didn’t seem to rec­og­nize me.

I rum­maged through sales rack af­ter sales rack, toss­ing aside shirts that I knew would cling in the wrong places, colours that brought out the sal­low tint of my com­plex­ion, and the one-piece jumpers that, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, droves of adult women were wear­ing, and I never fig­ured out how they man­aged to pee while wear­ing them. I was older, more ma­ture; I had learned some im­por­tant lessons.

But as hap­pened on most of my shop­ping trips, I grew frus­trated quickly. There was lit­tle in my size, and the few things that were listed as an 8 or a 10 were re­ally cut for some­one who was a 4 or a 6. Forc­ing my wide hips through the trousers or my boul­der shoul­ders through a T-shirt felt like it would be more pain than it was worth.

Then, on my way out, I found it: the thing. A black-and-white fall skirt that I knew would look per­fect on me. It was soft wool, but in a slim­ming cut, and hit just below the knee. It would be ideal for work, or for go­ing out af­ter­wards, or maybe I would wear it with a big floppy hat and a trench coat at Parisian cafés, wait­ing for a par­cel from a mys­te­ri­ous stranger. (I am Car­men Sandiego in this fan­tasy, as I am in most of my non­sex­ual, non-food-re­lated fan­tasies.) I held my breath, turn­ing it over to see the price and the size: it was on sale, and it was a size 8.

It’s hap­pen­ing, I thought. The item, the big item that changes the way I dress and thereby changes who I am as a per­son. It’s not just a skirt; it’s the en­try fee for a bet­ter ex­is­tence. It would smooth out the wrin­kles in my body; it would hide all the ways I have dis­ap­pointed and failed peo­ple in the past. When I wore it, women would ap­proach me and beg me to tell them where I’d got­ten it. I would act coy and wink to the cam­era (in this ver­sion of the fan­tasy, I am per­pet­u­ally in a com­mer­cial; don’t worry about it) and say some­thing like “I’ll never tell” or “Oh, just some­thing I picked up.” Peo­ple would see me on the street, shov­ing fist­fuls of Teddy Gra­hams into my mouth on the way to the po­di­a­trist, and they would think, “Boy, that lady sure does have her life to­gether.”

That’s a lot of pres­sure for some­thing on sale for $24.99.

Aaliyah led me to a changing room, com­pli­ment­ing me on my choice. I locked the door and looked at my­self in the mir­ror, tak­ing a deep breath. I peeled the shorts off my sweat­ing skin and stepped into the skirt. It slid up my body and rested on my waist, and I pulled the zip­per up to­ward the Lord. It didn’t just fit. No, it melded to my body, beau­ti­fully, as if it had been cut specif­i­cally for me, to mask and smooth and el­e­vate. The dream was hap­pen­ing! My re­flec­tion now showed an all-know­ing smile; my hair was sud­denly more lux­u­ri­ous. I felt thin­ner, more ac­cept­able. I was a bet­ter woman. Girls who had been mean to me in high school would see me in this skirt and think, “Is that Scaachi?” and I’d say, “YOU BET IT IS, YOU DUMB BITCH” and then punch all their boyfriends in the teeth. (I have not thought this fan­tasy through; just let me have this.)

In­flated imag­in­ings aside, I did look pretty good. I walked out of the changing room to vamp in front of peo­ple paid to tell me I looked great. The skirt was a lit­tle warm for the sum­mer, but who cares — I’d wear it when fall came. I did one more spin in front of Aaliyah and her co­work­ers be­fore feel­ing a thick droplet of sweat fall from my brow onto my eye­lash. I was over­heat­ing in my per­fect skirt, so I headed back into the changing room.

My hands were sweat­ing too much to grasp the zip­per in the back. I wrapped a T-shirt around my fin­gers to get a grip, but it wouldn’t budge. I sucked in, gath­er­ing the fab­ric, and tried to tug the zip­per down. No luck. I strug­gled like this for a good fif­teen min­utes, the changing room lights feel­ing more like an in­ter­ro­ga­tion lamp, sweat pool­ing in the dim­ples above my ass, my hair mat­ted to my face.

I was reaching peak anx­i­ety. I tried pulling the skirt over my head (alas, my waist is smaller than my shoul­ders, a prob­lem I did not con­sider un­til I al­most got my arms stuck as well), then con­sid­ered tear­ing the zip­per and telling Aaliyah that it had bro­ken while I was try­ing to dis­robe.

But I didn’t want to ruin such a good item. Maybe it was sal­vage­able. Maybe I could still be the woman I felt I could be. My only options were to ask Aaliyah for help or to wear it out of the store, mak­ing me the only id­iot sweat­ing in a wool skirt who wasn’t also hand­ing out pam­phlets that read “Have You Made Peace with Your God?” I re­mem­bered hear­ing that some­times zip­pers move when you rub a can­dle on them. I could run out­side and yell, “DOES ANY­ONE HAVE A CAN­DLE? IT’S AN EMER­GENCY.” That would be fine. I con­sid­ered a se­cret third op­tion, one where I would type out a quick sui­cide note on my phone and then use a fab­ric belt to fash­ion a trendy noose.

What­ever the de­ci­sion, I needed to make it fast, since soon my whole body would be cov­ered in my salty, sticky shame-sweat.

I left the changing room and tapped Aaliyah on the shoul­der, hop­ing she wouldn’t no­tice that my en­tire face was glis­ten­ing.

“That re­ally does look great on you,” she said, giv­ing me that wide smile I had seen her give to so many cus­tomers be­fore. “I’m stuck,” I said.

I turned around, my rear fac­ing her, and she tried the zip­per her­self. She tried bunch­ing the fab­ric to get a bet­ter grip. “Suck in,” she said, pulling more and more of the skirt to­ward her. Aaliyah called her co­worker over to help. She couldn’t man­age

Get­ting stuck in a gar­ment at a store where the em­ploy­ees have to cut you out is the be­gin­ning of the end of your life.

ei­ther. “It’s so weird,” she said. “It’s like the skirt is caught on noth­ing.” No, noth­ing ex­cept my own ego and hu­mil­i­a­tion.

A third em­ployee came over and tried to use a pin to pull the zip­per’s teeth apart. She then spent a full minute just shak­ing my hips, as if she were try­ing to will me into a smaller size so the skirt would slide off. (Ad­mit­tedly, a minute may not sound like a long time, but ask a loved one to shake the lower half of your body and then pon­der how long those sixty sec­onds feel.)

The em­ploy­ees turned to one other and dis­cussed what to do next. “We could rip out the zip­per and then sew it back on?” “Do you think she can pull it over her head, or, no, no, her shoul­ders are too wide.” “What if we just cut her out?”

That last one was the ul­ti­mate night­mare. If you are a woman read­ing this, you know this to be true: get­ting stuck in a gar­ment at a store where the em­ploy­ees have to cut you out is the be­gin­ning of the end of your life — it’s the sad­dest ver­sion of a C-sec­tion, where the baby is just a half­naked lady with no dig­nity.

“Yeah,” Aaliyah said to her co­horts. “Grab the scis­sors. We have to cut her out.” It was like lis­ten­ing to three sur­geons de­cide you needed to be sliced in half, think­ing you’re un­con­scious and can’t hear them.

Two women held the skirt to my hips, press­ing me into the wall of the chang­in­groom hall­way. I could see my re­flec­tion in the mir­ror, and my face was now drenched with sweat. From the out­side, I looked as if I were be­ing hazed by a group of women far too old to be wel­com­ing new pledges. All I was fo­cused on, how­ever, was not ex­pos­ing my en­tire lower half to who­ever may have walked into the store dur­ing this or­deal. I said a silent good­bye to my beloved skirt, the gar­ment that was sup­posed to change me but had in­stead re­minded me that, no, you are what you are, even if you remember to iron your clothes.

“Okay, hold still,” Aaliyah said. This was an in­ti­mate mo­ment for us. Her face was closer to my butt than any­one’s had been in, oh, hours. We were like sis­ters now.

While the other two women flanked me and held the skirt up, Aaliyah pulled the fab­ric away from my body and started mak­ing small snips. “I don’t want to cut you,” she said, but at that point, I would have wel­comed any dis­trac­tion from the sweat gath­er­ing on my back — tiny, re­splen­dent pools of my great­est fear come to life.

The sound that’s made when one cuts a per­fectly use­ful item of cloth­ing is al­most painful, es­pe­cially when the item is one that you have fallen in love with. All those hems and seams and stitches de­stroyed so eas­ily. It’s the same feel­ing, I imag­ine, that would come if you baked and iced a cake, only to drop it on the way to a birth­day.

But the sound that’s made when some­one, say, cuts an item of cloth­ing they weren’t sup­posed to cut is crim­i­nal. It’s the dy­ing scream of some­one you love. It is the fi­nal whis­per of your pride. It is the qui­etest slap in the face you will ever feel.

Af­ter she had made her fi­nal cut, I turned to Aaliyah. All the colour had drained from her face. She had sliced right through my un­der­wear, leav­ing me ex­posed like ei­ther a con­fused surgery pa­tient or a very phys­i­cally con­fi­dent crazy per­son.

It was an hon­est mis­take on her part. I hope. I was wear­ing one of those 1999-es­que whale tails that were pop­u­lar among high-school girls try­ing to at­tract boys with the for­bid­den fruit of tiny un­der­wear. It wasn’t so much cloth­ing as it was thickly wo­ven black floss, hang­ing out in­side the crevices of my garbage body.

Aaliyah word­lessly ush­ered me back into the changing room, then gave me the scis­sors, say­ing I could cut my­self out fur­ther if I needed to. I tore the skirt right in half, look­ing in the mir­ror to see what was hang­ing off me. One hip was wrapped in an elastic band like a still-raw roulade, and the other was naked ex­cept for a thick thread swing­ing, pur­pose­lessly, by my side. I started to get dressed, try­ing to see if I could tie my un­der­wear back to­gether or maybe cinch it with the hair elastic I had around my wrist. In­stead, I opted to just stuff my­self back into my denim shorts.

I handed Aaliyah the scis­sors and the re­mains of the skirt, apol­o­giz­ing for de­stroy­ing a per­fectly good item of cloth­ing. “Oh, it’s okay,” she said. “It hap­pens.” Though she didn’t clar­ify who else it had ever hap­pened to. I bought that trendy noose belt to com­pen­sate. And then, of course, as I shuf­fled out of the store, I heard Aaliyah pro­claim with great zeal, “Oh my God, I just re­mem­bered where I know her from!”

THE NIGHT­MARE was over, but I still had to sulk home in a heat wave, my clothes soaked with sweat, my un­der­wear hang­ing on by a sin­gle thread. If you have never ex­pe­ri­enced the sen­sa­tion of your naked labia rub­bing up against freshly washed denim as you ma­noeu­vre through a sub­way car with bro­ken air con­di­tion­ing, you have had more than your fair share of luck in life.

I re­turned home the way I al­ways do, with­out a re­newed out­look on life and with­out a magic gar­ment to change the way I am. I hung my new belt (still never worn) in my closet among all the other clothes that I had, at one point, bought in or­der to im­prove my­self. All of them had failed be­cause clothes can’t make you feel bet­ter about your­self for more than a few min­utes, and they can’t make you a bet­ter per­son. Clothes are just things you buy at the mall that you then ruin with piz­za­sauce stains and later wear to bed or use to pol­ish jewellery.

I still shop to save my soul in­stead of just to cover my ass, and it typ­i­cally ends the same way. That maxi dress from nine months ago didn’t heal me of hat­ing the width of my hips. The ear­rings from two years ago don’t dis­tract me from how I feel about my un­even hair­line. And the skirt Aaliyah cut me out of would not have made me feel any bet­ter about how quickly sweat can pud­dle at the nape of my neck. I won­der, some­times, if I would have been saved all this nit­pick­ing I do to my own body had my mom just bought me that shirt from Walmart. Maybe I would be kin­der to my arms and my neck; maybe I wouldn’t worry about what peo­ple might be say­ing about my baby hair.

But prob­a­bly not. There will be some­thing else to make me feel bad, inch­ing up to­ward all the things I cur­rently feel bad about, and no crop top made by small, un­der­paid, for­eign hands can cure me — or you. Clothes are ephemeral: they fall apart in the wash, you lose them at a friend’s house, they rip and crum­ble and go out of style. You’ll for­get about them and buy new ones and then start the cy­cle again. But your in­se­cu­ri­ties — the ones that force you to go hunt­ing for some­thing that will give you a re­newed sense of self — don’t you even worry. Those will last you a life­time.

Ex­cerpted from One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Mat­ter by Scaachi Koul. Copy­right © 2017 Scaachi Koul. Pub­lished by Dou­ble­day Canada, a di­vi­sion of Pen­guin Ran­dom House Canada Lim­ited. Re­pro­duced by ar­range­ment with the pub­lisher. All rights re­served.

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