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Mom and I are side by side in front of the mirror. There's a hat rack to the left of us and she's placing vintage hat after vintage hat on my head, laughing and smiling as she does it. I see myself in broad-brimmed blue hats with feathers, red ones with ribbons, cream-colored cloches, and pink pillboxes. This hat thing is an old ritual for us. When I was little, Mom would take me to the big department stores and we'd always stop in the hat section. She'd pick out my hats and I'd pick out hers. Then we'd look at each other and at ourselves in the mirror and we would laugh and laugh. I loved it then. Right now, I'm not so sure, but she's so happy and I want her to be happy. She's my mom.
We're in Boom Babies, a funky little vintage boutique in Syracuse. Mom is nearing sixty — a proud baby boomer — and I'm thirty years younger than that. I watch in the mirror as she reaches up and plucks a small black hat with a veil from the rack and puts it on my head. She claps her hands when she sees it on me.
"Oh, honey! You look just like Grace Kelly!" she exclaims.
And, she means it. I look to my reflection, see the hat askew on my head and a slightly puzzled expression on my face. Grace Kelly was beautiful, and I'm flattered by the comparison, but I just don't see what Mom sees. She wants to convince me, wants me to believe, and I keep looking at her like I am not quite buying it.
Finally she finds the words she wants,
"What I mean is you're classic. You have a classic beauty like she does." I smile because the truth is I want to be a classic beauty.
"Thanks, Mom," I say, removing the hat and carefully placing it back where it came from.
As I do, I look around. I peek between the hanging clothes to see if anyone has heard her, because if they have, then they might look at me, study me, and decide if I do indeed resemble Grace Kelly at all. I don't want that kind of scrutiny, but I can't stop myself from looking around for a reaction just the same. No one appears to have heard. I take a breath. We move on.
I'm shopping by feel now, running my hands over everything that catches my eye, only looking closer when something feels good to me. Mom goes strictly by sight.
"I'm a very visual person," she reminds me.
As we make our way through the store, I find myself wondering why it means so much to me to look like Grace Kelly or any other celebrity. Why is that the ultimate compliment? Maybe I'm classic. Maybe I'm not, but more importantly, why isn't it good enough to just look like me? I'm stroking a gently worn blue cashmere sweater, thinking about how celebrities seem to have become more than just people, how it's like they're the brand names. I wonder what that makes us — the generics?
At that moment, I realize that I've been watching far too much Sex and the City — I'm thinking in a voice that is not my own, channeling Carrie Bradshaw. She's there in my head. She's part of what drove me to come to Boom Babies in the first place. Here I am with this deep desire to wear high fashion, fancy accessories, sophisticated updos, and fabulous shoes. And I think maybe this desire isn't even mine. Even though I have this revelation, I still want something. I want something that makes me feel pretty. Something chic. Something unique. I go through rack after rack, separating dresses from other dresses, looking for the one that will span the distance from who I am to who I'd like to be — or at least appear to be.
And Mom is still smiling at me, still looking at me and thinking about how I look. I can tell. I know that gaze. It is the same admiring way I used to look at her when she was getting ready to go out. Now the roles have reversed. I am the one out in the world; she stays at home. Friday nights I used to sit on the edge of the bathtub and watch my mom become more and more beautiful before my eyes. I watched her and I fantasized about the woman I would become and the life I would have. Perhaps she looks at me now and remembers. I remember, too.
I remember that at the end of the hall at Mom's house, there is a black and white picture of her. She's maybe twenty-one and her auburn hair is brushed smooth and flipped out at the ends. She is smiling with her lips together. Her skin is glowing. She's in love for the first time. You can see it in her eyes — big, hazel, cat-like eyes — and this picture was taken for him. She says people used to tell her all the time how much she looked like Audrey Hepburn. This I can see. Mom and Audrey Hepburn — yes.
But now Mom just looks like Mom to me. I see ghosts of the woman she was flicker across her face as she strokes a peach silk nightgown that reminds her of one she had thirty years ago. It must be somewhat strange for her to be here, to see these clothes now called vintage. What does that make her? She seems to be okay with it. She seems to be happy, surrounded by the kinds of clothes she wore when she was young and full of hope — mini skirts and maxi coats, bell-bottoms and peasant shirts and, of course, big poufy prom dresses.
Mom looks young for her age. She knows it and she says it makes her feel good, makes her feel like she's still attractive, but attractive in comparison to her peers is not the same as being attractive in her prime — attractive compared to all women. The beauty contest continues. She still puts on her makeup every morning in front of a mirror that magnifies her pores, a mirror with several different light settings so that she can see what she will look like by day, night, and under fluorescent lights in an office. She still dyes her hair red or blonde and buys lots of shoes and clothes. She still reads Cosmo and Glamour and watches shows like What Not to Wear, but I get the feeling that something has shifted in the last few years. She still laughs and talks about how vain she is. She still enjoys her beauty ritual, but it seems like some of the spark has gone out of it for her. As for me, I think I look the best I ever have in my life, but I can't help but question why it matters so much to me.
We continue to dig through the racks of clothes without finding anything. Mom shows me this and that, but picks up nothing for herself. She appears to be interested only in things that trigger memories for her, that remind her of things she used to own, or that she thinks would be good for me now as I am living my life, making my own memories of moments like these. Sometimes it feels like Mom lives through me in some of the same ways I lived through her when I was little. She's slipped into a semi-invisible state. She says that she's a little overweight, that she's tired, that her house is too messy to have anyone other than family over. The walls she puts up to keep other people from getting too close cause me to feel crowded and claustrophobic. I don't want to live my life for two. I don't want her to live through me. I don't say this. I say, "I want you to be happy," and I squirm out of hugs and handholding when she holds on too long, and then I feel awful about being that way. I struggle with it even now as we shop.
In Boom Babies, clothes are sectioned off by style and color. We're standing in the poufy pink prom dress section and I cannot believe it, but I see something I want. I actually get an adrenaline rush. There it is: a lacy cotton candy pink flip party dress with a long pink satin ribbon. It is very vintage, very fabulous a la Sex and the City (you know, the episode where Carrie goes to the prom with Stanford and his boyfriend shows up and they make up and the moment sends chills down my left arm only), and it is my size. I look at Mom. She looks at me, grabs the dress off the rack, and, just like that, I am on the way to the fitting room. Mom and I giggle all the way to the door, because this dress is crazy, because it is not my style, because neither of us has seen me in anything like this since I was a kid, playing dress-up in her old formal dresses. We laugh because the very gay, very blond salesman in charge of the dressing rooms suggests that I dress it down by wearing it with a jean jacket. You know, to give it more versatility. But, after slipping it on, I stop laughing. This dress fits like it was made for me. It fits so perfectly that it is actually mildly exhilarating. There is something about that just-right fit.
But does it fit? Perhaps I'm still playing dress up, thinking maybe I will be happy if I stand here in this dress, looking like someone in a life I think I should want, maybe just a little bit. There, in the dressing room, I see myself in the mirror. I turn this way and that. And from every angle, I look very pure and very pink, teetering somewhere on the edge of classy and kitschy. The dress falls just above the ankles and is secretly scratchy underneath, with tutu-like petticoats to make it puff out all the more. And I can't believe how badly I want such a frivolous thing. I realize that I may never wear it, but I ache for it just the same. I open the door and Mom rushes toward me.
"Oh, honey! You have to have it! I'll buy it for you," she says. I almost squeal.
After I change, we stand in line waiting to be rung up. I am cradling the dress in my arms, smiling at it, admiring it. I give it to the cashier and she puts it on a hanger in a big, clear plastic bag and hands it to me. I hold it up like a prized catch. A woman and her daughter behind us start to admire the dress. The woman is sweet, maybe a little older than Mom, maybe not. The daughter is maybe eight years older than me, maybe not. She looks about mid-thirties.
"What a beautiful dress," the mom says to me in an "aren't you an adorable child" sort of way.
"Thanks," I say, "I'm really excited about it."
"You can definitely pull that off. Not just anyone could wear that," she says to me.
"Thank you," I say again.
There is a pause and she looks at me intently and then she asks, all sweetness and sincerity,
"Is it for your junior prom?"
"No," I say. I am used to this kind of thing, used to people looking at me like I'm some remarkably mature teenager before they know how old I am and like I'm a fraud after they find out. It's always awkward and I don't want to make this woman feel awkward, so I go for a vague answer.
"I've been out of high school for a while now."
Still, she is embarrassed and bumbles over the rest of her words and rushes off into the prom dress area before finishing a complete sentence. Her daughter makes smoothing motions in the air with her hands and encourages me to buy a pair of pink polka dot sunglasses to go with the dress before disappearing after her mother.
Mom turns to me laughing.
"Your junior prom! Not even your senior prom!" She's all sass now.
"I know," I say, mock offended. "What's that about?"
We smile and laugh. For the first time that day, things feel normal between us. And then I realize, the woman's mistake somehow empowered my mother and made me feel more like her daughter, less responsible for her. In this moment, I'm sixteen again, getting ready for my junior prom, and Mom's in her mid-forties, and she's feeling good. We stand in this place where I am still young and she is too, in a store where the clothes grow older and older and the girls stay the same age.
Katie Marks is Assistant Professor of Writing at Ithaca College. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Massage Magazine, 13th Moon, The Ithaca Times, and Women to Girls, Girls to Women: An Anthology. In her spare time, she likes watching classic movies, taking long train rides, and daydreaming about the future. She is still waiting for an occasion to wear her pink poufy prom dress.