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 didnt 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 couldnt figure what
wed done to get so lucky. I was eleven when I figured out that
it cost, like everything else, and wed pay for it dearly.
We didnt win the lottery, my mother didnt get a raise at the
hospital where she worked double shifts as a nurse, and my father
didnt 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 wed get at stores we couldnt 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.
Id have my own room downstairs, which Id 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 didnt 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 hed relish taunting you over
your budding breasts or widening hips or generous backside or
the tears youd 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 Alexanders 5 & 10¢ on Central Street. I often
sat with one foot over the repaired tear, hoping to hide what
Id done to sully something so perfect that I felt I didnt 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. Id
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. Id 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, itd be passed
down to my sister, like everything else, after wooing us and winning
us over was long past, and wed 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, Id have old, white scars from those shiny
brass safety pins. Id 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.
Id have fought like hell to get into that apartment, back into
the relative safety of poverty, because I couldnt afford to be
middle class. Now and then, at the start of the school year, Id
get something new and wear it into the ground. But mostly, wed
shop at the Salvation Army, the Goodwill, and the Amvets on Lincoln
Avenue, and Id walk the streets in my hand-me-down treasures,
and savor their cut hems or rolled up legs, the scent of someone
elses history in the sleeves, glad it wasnt mine.
And in 1986, Id 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 didnt have to look at the tag: I knew it
cost too much.
© 2003, 2004 Heather Corinna. All rights reserved.