hand me down (2003)

In 1986, in the Amvets on Lincoln Avenue, hung from the ceiling amid tattered vintage dresses, antique overcoats and decorated military jackets, was a hot pink snowsuit. It had stitching across both knees: one meticulously repaired, one haphazardly done. It had one mismatched strap, and a burn hole on the right front placket, soiling the row of thick rainbow stripes of purple, green and blue. It was without its matching jacket, also hot pink, also with rainbow stripes, and also with a nametag on the inside of the collar that announced its first owner.

With my name on it. I knew, gladly if not bitterly, that its next owner would pay a lot less for it than I had.

That snowsuit was the first piece of brand new clothing I remember having. It came to me without a history, without rips and tears that were the doing of this aunt, that cousin, or someone only identified by the numbers on the rubbish bin in an alley. I was ten when I got that snowsuit, the same age I was when breakfasts and dinners were no longer scavenged from picked-through cafeteria leftovers in the hospital where my mother worked. The same age I was when we rented a house -- a whole house, with a basement and bedrooms and its own yard, front and back -- on a block where people lived who had cars, new cars, tended gardens, clean-smelling baby puppies and block parties each year. I was ten when a day of shopping didn’t mean the usual whirlwind tour of the Salvation Army, the Goodwill, and that Amvets on Lincoln Avenue. When I was ten, we all looked clean and shiny and brand new in our family photos, with cherry blossoms behind our heads and perfect green grass under our feet; with our hair brushed until it shined, our teeth toothpaste-commercial bright.

When I was ten, I wore that hot pink snowsuit like a badge of honor over my wet pink heart, sticking my nose into its sleeves from time to time to savor scents that I knew were only mine. I walked along the streets in it with long steps, unencumbered by arms or legs that were rolled up because they were too long, and unrolled themselves in minutes out of spite to remind me that nothing would ever fit just right. I walked in that snowsuit in new duck boots without bread bags inside them to keep the snow and slush from coming through the holes.

I was ten when not being poor anymore, out of nowhere, seemed like the sweetest gift in the world, and I couldn’t figure what we’d done to get so lucky. I was eleven when I figured out that it cost, like everything else, and we’d pay for it dearly.

We didn’t win the lottery, my mother didn’t get a raise at the hospital where she worked double shifts as a nurse, and my father didn’t start shelling out his child support payments on schedule. My mother married us into the middle class, out of our apartment building, out of hand me downs, out of peanut butter sandwiches made on crusty, pilfered hot dog buns and into the suburbs. She married us into vacations to Florida, schools full of girls with spotless white sneakers, feathered hair and gleaming, glossy lips that tasted like strawberries. We were wedded into clothes with two sets of tags, attached with care with tiny brass safety pins, clothes we’d get at stores we couldn’t go into unless our shoes were spotless and tied, our faces fresh-scrubbed; stores with their own bathrooms which smelled of heady perfume, floor wax and new leather.

Soon, my mother and stepfather would have a “master” bedroom in a house bought and paid for, on the same floor where my sister had her own room. The sheets would never be rumpled in their bedroom; the bed was always made. Nothing was ever out of place, and that room was cooled by heavy, icy silences instead of central air. I’d have my own room downstairs, which I’d paint blue with fluffy white clouds, with its own closet I could hide in and lock from the inside and cry where no one could hear me or taunt me for it. My bedroom had a window which opened out into the neighbors yard; a window I could crawl out of early in the morning before anyone woke to steer clear of our benefactor and take my time taking the long walk to school. There was a bathroom, with its very own tub, which I could use in privacy, so long as I wedged a chair under the door handle and put my ears underneath the water so I didn’t hear the pounding fists wanting to come in and remind me that all of these things came with a price.

When I got that snowsuit, the very first time I scraped through one knee playing too hard, I rushed away and hid the tear -- hid it like you hide the white pants you stained with your first period, knowing the man who paid for them would relish in taunting you about your bleeding, the same way he’d relish taunting you over your budding breasts or widening hips or generous backside or the tears you’d cry only late at night when no one else could hear. I sewed that tear, furtively, with the tiniest of fastidious stitches; with perfectly matched hot pink thread I pilfered nickels to buy on my own at Alexander’s 5 & 10¢ on Central Street. I often sat with one foot over the repaired tear, hoping to hide what I’d done to sully something so perfect that I felt I didn’t deserve to begin with; hiding my own unworthiness.

It tore a second time almost a year later. By then the arms and legs were too short, the thighs were too narrow, a missing strap had been replaced with a plastic bracket from another suit. I’d manage three or four careless stitches for the barest sake of posterity, and rip it a little more each time I wore it when no one was watching. I’d hold one of the matches I ritualistically held to my fingertips to its front, savoring the acrid smell of burning polyester as it burnt. A year after that, it’d be passed down to my sister, like everything else, after wooing us and winning us over was long past, and we’d all learned the hard way that brand new snowsuits, fully stocked cabinets and having our own bedrooms cost far more than the numbers on their price tags.

A few years after that, I’d have old, white scars from those shiny brass safety pins. I’d be living with my father, after spending months on and off park benches and in the basements of friends, in a basement apartment which flooded every single year with waste from the sewage drain behind it until the floors warped, where one room had to be closed off completely to keep the rats out. I’d have fought like hell to get into that apartment, back into the relative safety of poverty, because I couldn’t afford to be middle class. Now and then, at the start of the school year, I’d get something new and wear it into the ground. But mostly, we’d shop at the Salvation Army, the Goodwill, and the Amvets on Lincoln Avenue, and I’d walk the streets in my hand-me-down treasures, and savor their cut hems or rolled up legs, the scent of someone else’s history in the sleeves, glad it wasn’t mine.

And in 1986, I’d see there, hung from the ceiling amid tattered vintage dresses, antique overcoats and decorated military jackets, that hot pink snowsuit with its stitched knees, its faded stripes and my name on it. I didn’t have to look at the tag: I knew it cost too much.

 

© 2003, 2004 Heather Corinna. All rights reserved.