In this new short story by Jenny Xie, a young woman grapples with her relationship with her mother, during an uncomfortable search for the perfect bridesmaid dress.
— Karissa Chen, Senior Literature Editor
Shortly after my college graduation, I moved back home to a new iteration of my mother. This woman was happier than the one I had grown up with, and somewhat kinder. This woman was empowered and had means—or at least, she would be marrying her means atop a seaside bluff in Big Sur come August. Sometimes, when we were speaking, I would slacken my gaze and let the two women separate in overlapping fields of vision. Then I could spot her, the intruder with uncanny features. It wasn’t so much that the nose had grown, or that the lips had migrated, but that I saw them from the perspective of a stranger, for the first time.
There were, of course, real surface changes: at forty-six, Marissa Cheng was trim and petite, her hair smartly angled towards her jaw. The weight loss had revealed a delicately planed face with a high, pinched nose. She had traded her Mom capris for athletic gear. In her spandex pants and fleece half-zips, she looked sporty and self-possessed, the type of woman who might race up a switchback and think, IF IT DOESN’T CHALLENGE YOU, IT DOESN’T CHANGE YOU.
What was more disarming was the way she played at motherhood. On the third day of my being home, we were due at the bridal shop. As we entered, she wrapped a hand around the inside of my bicep and squeaked as if we were co-conspirators sneaking backstage. Not so many years ago, she might have clung to me just so, her breath a lank cloud of vomit and liquor.
It embarrassed me, her affection. I extracted my arm and walked a few paces ahead.
The shop was bigger than it had looked from the outside, an open floor supported by white columns and decorated with Victorian-style settees. Its illuminated alcoves displayed a mad froth of white dresses. A few women browsed the fabrics, and a boy in a basketball jersey slumped on an ottoman, frowning at the handheld Nintendo between his knees. A bridal consultant who had been dressing a mannequin click-clacked toward us. Her black pencil skirt bound her thighs. “Good morning, ladies!” she chirped. “Welcome to Francesca’s.”
My mother fitted her sunglasses to the crown of her head. She spoke with slippery, half-formed vowels. “Hi, I’m Marissa—we have the ten o’ clock one.”
“So nice to meet you, Marissa.” The consultant extended a perfect mitt of goodwill. “My name is Greta, and I’ll be helping you today.”
“This my daughter, Kathleen. Today she find her dress for wedding.”
Greta pivoted and pumped my hand. “So exciting! Congratulations on the engagement, Kathleen.”
“I’m her maid of honor.”
Her smile froze. “Oh, that’s wonderful! Why don’t you girls come back with me?”
As we followed, my mother whispered in Mandarin, “Let’s have fun. Don’t worry about how much it is.”
This excursion, and the wedding at large, was sponsored by her fiancé. Brian Lin worked in upper management at a software company that, as far as I could understand, used maps and real-time location to make people buy Frappucinos or visit the zoo. When they started dating a little over a year ago, my mother had said “I’m going to love him” in the tone of “I’m going to re-do the kitchen.”
Frugality had always been a rule for us. After my parents’ divorce, I was discouraged from birthday parties, movie theaters, middle and high school dances. Window-shopping extended from the mall to restaurant menus and book fairs. I accompanied my mother on drawn out grocery trips, hunching over the cart as she sifted through a wallet she kept specifically for coupons. Occasionally, by a trick of sales and double coupons, the store owed her money at the checkout. I had always marveled at how disciplined she could be regarding money even while the rest of her life unraveled.
We entered a room of dresses arranged according to Roy G. Biv. The fabrics hung suggestively, limpid gemstones dripping down one sleeve, the hem on a yellow gown unraveling in spools of sheer silk. I had never been, to my mother’s frustration, a frilly dresser. Embarrassment crept up my back; I felt as though I were selecting lingerie in front of an audience.
“What are we looking for today?” prompted Greta.
“Mm, my bridemaid all wear like pink, purple,” said my mother. She tapped her phone, enlarged the Pinterest image, and held the screen aloft. “I want the long dress. My daughter like a size eight.”
“Ten,” I amended.
“So pretty,” said Greta, nodding at the screen. “I love it. Any preference in neckline?”
“Not strapless,” I said, words colliding with my mother’s “No straps.”
Greta laughed, exposing a long incisor. “Opinionated women! I love it! Okay, let me just grab a couple dresses that I think you’ll adore, and I’ll meet you in the dressing room.”
The dressing room was a long rectangle with a three-way mirror at one end and a velvet bench at the other. Framed stock photos grew in clusters on the wall like patches of mold: a bride smiled coyly through her veil, a flower girl flung petals at the lens, and a Dalmatian posed in a blue sequin bow tie. My mother set down her tote bag. She began walking heel-toe, heel-toe towards the mirror, body contoured by performance wear. On top of her regular workouts, she’d begun rock climbing with Brian. Performance: I pictured my mother onstage, scaling a rock face with a spotlight on her back and invisible wires bearing her to the top.
“I hope I can keep the weight off,” she said in Mandarin. “I sized down intentionally for my wedding dress, and it’d be so expensive to get it let out.”
I fought an eye roll. Then again, it didn’t surprise me that vanity followed happiness, especially after the wreckage of her first marriage. My father’s infidelity, financial stress, homesickness—she’d tried to erase them with drink, but the opposite had happened. Her habit had eroded her until she was as faceless as a river rock. I watched her body turning in the mirror now; somehow, her reflection seemed more familiar than the flesh.
Greta dragged the limp bodies of pinkish gowns through the curtain. She hooked them on the wall, saying breathlessly, “Okay ladies, here comes the fun part! I grabbed a couple in both eight and ten so you can get a feel for what you’re most comfortable in, and keep in mind that we can always get them custom fitted.”
“Beautiful,” sighed my mother. She plucked one out by its plastic covering and cocked her head at me. “You want try on?”
It had a sweetheart neckline, which I had expressly opposed, but I shrugged okay. Both women stood witness as I stripped. Discarding my raglan tee and denim shorts, exposing a globular stomach and the extra sludge under my bra band, I found it possible to transcend physical lumpiness—to be emotionally, spiritually lumpy. Under normal circumstances, I liked my body. Found it sexy, even. I had come a long way since the first time I had undressed in front of a stranger in college, but now I remembered his lukewarm hands on my waist, the pinched feeling that we were both fulfilling an obligation. It was the same now: I was playing a role, the devoted daughter, resplendent in her costume gown.
I stepped into a ring of chiffon and stood stiffly as Greta wrestled the bodice past my hips. Layers of translucent silk floated around my legs. My mother fussed at my front, jerking the dress over my cleavage, patting me down as if it would make me smaller. Her armpits smelled like spoiled milk and lemons.
“High class,” she said, fingering the thin beaded band at the waistline. She stepped away, freeing my view of the mirror. The ruched chiffon strained against my chest as Greta struggled with the zipper. It stuck halfway, then closed abruptly, cinching the breath out of me. My mother clapped her hands.
“I don’t know about this,” I said.
“Try put hair down.”
I tugged it out of its ponytail, but it retained an unflattering wave where the hairband had been. I stared into my three reflections, swiveling to see the back. “This is an eight, right?”
“Yes, it is,” said Greta.
“Well, that’s the wrong size.”
My mother toggled into Chinese. “We’ll do something about that before August,” she said, then switched back. “So pretty. Look like princess.”
I gritted my teeth. “Why don’t we try on another one?”
As I tugged on the remaining dresses and shucked them off again, I began to sweat, causing my mother and Greta’s prodding hands to cling to my skin as they maneuvered flesh in and out of columns of chiffon and tulle, satin and silk. My mind wandered into an inner closet. In it hung the navy slip I had borrowed for last week’s graduation ceremony, which had been more fart and whistle than pomp and circumstance. There was my prom dress, an atrocity from the eighties that I had bought as a joke, but that I had grown fond of over the weeks it lived in my room as a headless and sequined presence. The first time I understood a leer for what it was, I was wearing a linen shift. And of the day my father’s lover chose to show up at our apartment, screeching with pain and self-righteous fury, what remained most clear to me was her cloud print dress.
As Greta leaned into me, disentangling my bra from the hanger strap of another dress, I saw where dark foundation ended on her jawline. She looked at me; our eyes snagged.
This one had a lace yoke that cut into my armpits. My mother hummed a note of distaste.
“I don’t think this is the one, either,” said Greta, wrinkling her nose. “Why don’t we take a break? I’ll head back and grab some final selections, and you’ll have a chance to think through your options.”
“Thank you very much, Greta,” said my mother. As the consultant left, my mother shifted her commercial smile—the one she used with waiters and HR representatives and lost tourists—onto me. Then it faded into a slack line of disappointment. “You’re making her uncomfortable.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re standing there like a si ren, stone-faced at this, stone-faced at that. These are designer pieces, Kathleen.”
“Since when did that matter to you? And I’d feel a lot better if you didn’t keep making me squeeze into things that didn’t fit.”
“They will fit,” she insisted. “You don’t plan on staying this big, do you?”
I saw it then, her old face, her eyes filled with arctic dark. We were picking up an old conversation. Part of me felt relieved that the woman I wanted to hold accountable, that I wanted to accuse, was still there.
“You know,” she continued, “it wouldn’t hurt to put a little effort into self-improvement. Your cousin Ingrid just lost ten pounds.”
“How is that possible? She weighed ten pounds to begin with.”
“And she just got into Harvard Business School.”
“Related, I’m sure.”
“Of course it’s related. She was a more attractive candidate.”
Now I rolled my eyes. “They don’t actually rate people on physical attractiveness, Mom.”
She tutted. “Don’t be naïve.”
“She’s brilliant! She would’ve gotten in if she were two hundred pounds with a third arm.” My mother was good at this—forcing me into awkward, exaggerated stances. I thought Ingrid was mulishly hardworking rather than bright, and of course I’d seen girls profit from beauty.
“I wouldn’t worry about you if you were a boy. Money, looks—you need them to survive.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Kan ba,” said my mother. We’ll see.
An iridescent bolt of anger shot through me. I wouldn’t let her attribute my future success or failure to her say. “You didn’t have either of those things before you met Brian,” I snapped, “so don’t act like you knew what you were doing.”
“At least I knew what I was missing. You’re too bigheaded to see your own faults. When I think about how hard I worked to raise you—”
“Yes, you, Mother of the Year! You must not remember the nights that I cleaned up your piss and put you to bed. I got as far as UCLA because I wanted to leave the bay, not because of any magic you did.” My words wove agitatedly in and out of Chinese.
“I was sick,” she said, sounding stricken. Her features deflated. I tried to hold onto my anger in the passing seconds. Finally, she said quietly, “When you have kids, be sure to have more than one, or she’ll grow up to be a selfish brat. That was my mistake.”
“I’m going to the bathroom,” I said.
I jerked my shorts on, turning away as I buttoned them, and slipped my shirt on overhead. I righted the hem while standing inches away from the curtain meant to separate my nakedness from the manicured elegance of the bridal shop. Sweeping it aside, I felt oddly menacing. Bull in a china shop, I thought, picturing a hoof impacting the encrusted throat of an elaborate gown, a spray of Swarovski crystals studding the air.
The restroom was down the hall, across from a door marked Employees Only. I paused at a water fountain. Leaning into the dribble, I heard Greta’s voice say in muffled tones, “That’s not even the end of it. This morning he tells me he can’t do dinner. So I’m supposed to entertain his freak sister alone. Like, what? I’m sorry, there isn’t enough wine in the world to make that worth my time.” The door swung open before she’d finished her sentence and the final words rang out in the hallway. The workroom tittered; the door closed again.
Greta and I stood facing each other. She touched the side of her blonde bun, then laughed airily and said, “Sorry. Water cooler talk.”
“It’s okay,” I said, indulging in the spirit of meanness. “We all have that one relative.”
“Gotta love family.” She swept an arm towards the end of the hallway, inviting me to walk. She said, “You and your mom are so cute. It’s sweet that you’re supporting her as her maid of honor.”
I tried to picture the dressing room scene as sweet. “Sorry we’re being so indecisive with the dress.”
“Not at all! We’re going to find you The One.” She said it that way, too, with a flourish of capital letters. “In fact, while I have you here, let me get your opinion.” Greta’s skirt made shushing noises as she led me to a corner of the main floor, where she paused before a rack of dresses. She slid a hand across the shades of cream as if gliding across piano keys. “These are technically bridal gowns, but they come in all sorts of fun colors. I had this one in mind as a maybe—what do you think?”
As she pulled it out of its plastic sheath, I felt a surprising prickle of interest. The dress had two elongated petals over the hips and braided V-shaped straps. She raised it in the air and rocked the hanger back and forth, undulating the skirt. “It really moves,” she said.
“I don’t hate it,” I said.
“Okay, okay, getting warmer. How about this?” Forgoing the unwrapping, Greta held another dress against her body and slow danced with one hand on its hip. The asymmetrical seams and draping reminded me of a candle melting—an effect I liked, immediately and mysteriously.
“I’ll try that on.” Then, with some relish: “My mom’s going to hate it.”
Greta waved her hand. “You can’t go wrong with this label. Veronika Kraus. She’s a hot new designer from Austria—Russia? Anyway, so fierce,” she said, and laughed in a way that made me wonder how much the dress cost. “I’ll meet you back in the room in five.”
My mother was sitting cross-legged on the velvet bench when I returned to the dressing room. She scrolled through her phone. I was just thinking how childish it was, the cold shoulder treatment, when she said, “Well, I didn’t get it.”
“This job I interviewed for. I made it through the final rounds, but.” She stared into the mirror with a foggy look, her eyes diminished as on those mornings I roused her from the couch on my way to school. “‘It was an extremely difficult decision,’” she parroted.
My mother worked at the Macy’s perfume counter. It wasn’t the ideal job, but she had finally settled after so many years pinballing between gigs. Again, she ticked towards strangeness. “Really? What was the job?”
“College administration.” She clicked her tongue. “At the last meeting they made it sound like they were looking for someone young and perky.”
“You’re plenty perky.” A silence lasted just long enough to make me regret my omission.
“Suan le,” she said finally. “My English gets in the way. But I’m not going to let this get me down. I am not a talentless woman! That’s one of my mantras.”
“That’s your mantra?”
“Brian says I should negate my inner critic. So I practice saying the opposite of what I think.”
I remembered the panic attacks that would grip and shake her. Taking me to school one morning, she had pulled over on a side street and rolled the windows down, panting for air. She’d been berating herself for something at work a moment before. I wondered if terror still overcame her—and worse, if she still felt tempted to disappear in wine. I groped for the right words to say. “Mom—”
“Okay ladies,” interrupted Greta, returning with more dresses slung over her arms, “ready for round two?” She gave me a conspiratorial look and said, “I found one I think you’ll fall head over heels for.”
Constructed from panels of gleaming silk and superfine jersey, the dress had a pleasant weight. It had a manic, cobbled-together look: gathered fabric created a cowl neck, and a slanted waistline fed into a skirt of irregular shapes and random pleating. The fabric felt cool and good on my skin, like a bed I could drowse in. I felt taller. It had a resonance, like the final inaudible vibration of a struck bell.
“I love it,” I said. I found my mother fiddling with her phone in the mirror. “What do you think?”
She looked up and seemed to see the dress for the first time. “Oh,” she said, features warping in an approximation of the dress’s wild seams. “No, too busy.”
Greta jumped in. “It’s so couture! She just shines in it.”
“Look like use the safety pin and bed sheet, wrap her body.”
“Do a little twirl,” Greta urged.
I did, then stood facing my mother, plucking at the material. She raised one hand to her cheek but didn’t say anything.
“You still like the first one.”
“I don’t know how say this. First dress very joyful, so young.”
Greta leapt to my defense, pointing out the dress’s attributes, guiding my body with her fingertips as she turned me and lifted my arms. But magic was already evaporating from the dress. I watched my mother not listening, her mind clearly batting away disappointment. A small, ghoulish part of me cheered the setback in her sparkling new life, but the rest of me worried. I worried that offices might reserve careers for people like Greta instead of people who had emerged from astonishing darkness, that this evolved version of my mother would never shed those vestigial mistakes. It was a worry that welled into anger, an anger that rose to the skin. It amplified Greta’s every touch.
“Never mind,” I said, unable to bear the seismic pressure of her fingers on my shoulder. “Let’s just go with the first one.”
Relief swept through my mother’s voice. “You sure?”
“Thank goodness. That thing would have gotten you laughed out of the wedding,” she informed me in Chinese.
“Get this off me?”
Greta gripped the skirt of the dress and shimmied it over my head. “I’m so glad we could find a dress that both of you love. Francesca’s prides itself on being the boutique for everyone,” she declared. The statement was so canned, so automated, that it seemed to close the appointment. We both waited in dutiful silence as Greta hung up the dress and beckoned, with her unrelenting smile, for us to follow her out of the room.
“You see?” said my mother, shouldering her purse. “I know what looks best on you. Are you feeling like lunch? There’s a new place I’ve been meaning to try.”
Already, she had tucked away the rejection. I didn’t know whether to be impressed or alarmed at how coolly she had recovered, but I did register with grim respect how coolly she had won.