The Big Squeeze

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    I remember my boss, Paul, coming into the store to see how I was coming along, removing an accessory I’d put on a mannequin and saying, “At Giorgio Armani, a zipper is like a necklace.” Then fashion changed, and everything felt stodgy. Paul wanted to see crazy layering, pants under skirts, t-shirts over button downs, suit jackets with cargo pants. “Mix it up, mix it up,” Paul would say. He was like an annoying bald parrot.

    Sometimes I wore a fluorescent yellow skull t-shirt and flame-covered shoes with my Italian suit thinking I was hot stuff, strutting back and forth in front of the huge widows on Madison Avenue, the store’s banners fluttering and the music thumping, making me feel like I was about to conquer the world.

    My fancy job didn’t come with a fancy salary. For lunch every day I’d buy a quart of milk and a pumpernickel roll. “Oh,” my colleague Jamie sneered, “I see you’re having your crust of bread again.” He thought I was trying to stay skinny.

    Many nights I walked home to save the subway fare. The crowd changed as I walked downtown, everyone getting more colorful, the suits thinning. Next door to my apartment building the waiter would be setting up chairs and tables outside the restaurant. Every day he’d wink and say hello. I was terrified of my attraction to men and would simply wave, then run up the five flights to my room, heart-pounding.

    At work, I could feel Jamie’s attraction. Since Jamie had a boyfriend it was easy to cite this as my reason for ignoring him. My coldness was like a frosty mirror that both reflected and distorted his feelings. But our attraction was strong—like something with long nails scratching on the other side of a thin wall. I think my little Miss-Priss act was also a way to punish him for havinga boyfriend.

    We changed the window displays late at night and had to take pictures after, dodging buses in the middle of the street. You never knew how the pictures would turn out. In one shot two people appeared, a man on one side of the frame, a woman on the other. Their faces bore a strong resemblance to one other, like different versions of the same thing. Like ghosts. I was sure at the moment I’d taken the picture there’d been no one there.

    Jamie and I often squabbled about color stories—what color clothing should hang together, really dumb stuff. But there was a kind of chemistry in our arguing. One time I had my heart set on seeing brown and silver together, and one morning I walked onto the men’s floor and Jamie had made it happen. A little thing, but it really touched me.

    Every season we were given a clothing allowance. I’d stand on a box in a pair of “try on” shoes and one tailor would pin the pants and another would gather the fabric in the back of the jacket. A new shape would gradually emerge and it was stunning, no matter what your body looked like. I prided myself on the originality of my choices, but Jamie would always look to see what I picked, then get the same things.

    Jamie would often find some excuse to come to me with a pleading look in his eye and some mundane piece of business to report. “The new shipment’s come in.” Or, “The elevator’s broken.” Since the store had six floors, we all wore pagers. In the event of a “visual emergency” you’d get a “911” page and call the sales desk on the floor that contacted you. “It’s Jamie. I just wanted to say hi,” he would say.

    Jamie invited the visual team over to his house for a Christmas party. I knew he was a country boy at heart. His apartment looked like Colonial Williamsburg. He sat on the floor with his long legs crossed and his big feet in front of me in rag wool socks and gave me two little presents: glass spider ornaments, one silver, one black. Not very him—they were me. I walked home with the ornaments wrapped in tissue in the pockets of my thin raincoat. It had started to snow, very gently. The night was beautiful, and I had no one to share it with. All my roommates had already left town. How I wish, even now, I could’ve reached over and squeezed those big rag wool feet.

 

Michael Quinn is a fashion stylist and writer who  puts together looks and sentences on his website mastermichaelquinn.com.

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