The Dance

(Object is an essay series exploring the meaning of clothes, jewelry, make-up, and accessories.)

W h e n  I was eighteen, three weeks before I was to leave for college, my mother succeeded in killing herself.  The afternoon after her burial, I explored her walk-in closet, with its shelves of neatly folded polyester nightgowns, the shoes she wore to protect her mangled foot, and piles of needlepoint.

The author's mother, at the age of 26. 

The author's mother, at the age of 26. 

The rods were occupied by rows of pantsuits like the one she had laid out to be buried in, pale blue with suede insets in various dusty colors.  I used to be ashamed of these outfits, the way they advertised the dullness of her life. Then there was the interloper  – a dress I had pressed her to buy when summer began. Striped and cotton and colorful, it had filled me with hope.  She even wore it to dinner at the Smiling Buddha the week before she poisoned herself.  I should have been suspicious; I’ve learned since that people often feel better before they kill themselves, maybe because they know they’re turning for home. 

Hanging at the very back of her closet was a long black sleeveless sheath I’d never seen her wear.  The glass beads that covered it were cylindrical and jet-black, sewn into flowers and vines that cascaded down its length.  You know how you give a puppy a t-shirt that you’ve exercised in so that it has a familiar smell to keep it company when sequestered in its crate?  I took the dress with me when I left her house for the last time.

Adrift in college, I turned away from history and sociology and English and began to learn to dance instead.  I buried my confusion and grief in daily ballet, modern, and improv classes.  I wasn’t going to become a great dancer, I had started too late.  But I could make things.  I experimented with text and visual images, working in a hybrid of movement, story, and setting.  A classroom study involved eating an entire sleeve of Oreos while watching the audience.  I met a beautiful dancer on the subway after a performance and asked him to be a naked statue that I seamlessly pushed around the stage over a layer of Vaseline.  What would happen if I tried to sweep up a dozen eggs with a broom?  What if a woman and I did an entire dance connected by a filament of dental floss? How to turn the stuff of life into something worth watching?

While I danced, the dress hung in the back of my closet. Was it friend or foe?  Was it Golem’s ring?  The monolith from 2001?  The Iron Curtain?  A keepsake?  Five years after my mother’s suicide, I was invited to audition for a showcase of new choreographers in Manhattan. I rented a rehearsal space and paced my apartment, wondering what to bring into the studio.  Something meaningful, something difficult to transform, something with gravity.  Then I remembered the dress, took it off its hanger, folded it into a square, found a durable Tower Records plastic bag, and put it in my knapsack for the morning. 

In the rehearsal studio, I pulled the dress along the wood floor, listening to the faint scratching sound.  I flung the dress into the air and watched it fall with an unexpected dead weight.  I twisted it into a thick rope.  I spread it out and stood on it, an island at night.  I lay on my back, suspending the dress with my hands and knees like a canopy of starry sky.  I stood in the mirror and held the dress in front of me, obscuring everything but my head and feet.  And then I had another thought. 

I stripped off my shirt and sweats.  The silk lining inside was cool and smooth as I held the opening over my head.  Pulling it on from inside, the wide neck settled on my shoulders as the rest of the heavy fabric cascaded downward until the hem nearly reached the floor, pinning my arms at my sides.  In the mirror I resembled an armless mannequin, an amputee. 

The author in the dress. Photo: Terry Beck

The author in the dress. Photo: Terry Beck

Cut to the stage. My body encased in a gown that glinted hundreds of times with each movement, I slowly walked across the space and talked about finding her body. “July 31st, 1980, 10:30 pm, I was driving.  10:30 pm, she was typing.  1:30 am, I stopped to eat at the Elmer Diner, in Elmer, New Jersey.  1:30 am, she was talking to a friend about renting a beach house that fall.  4:20 am, I arrive at her home.  4:20 am, she lay in bed, motionless.  I looked up and saw her light was on…”

By the end of the story I sat on the floor in the center of the stage, facing away from the audience, in a dim pool  of yellow light.  I began the hard work of forcing my right hand through the neck of the dress, followed by my right elbow and upper arm.  Then I threaded my left hand out of the neck, followed by my left arm, until both my shoulders were free.  Although peeled partially off, the dress still held fast, clinging to my damp skin.  Then I stood up and it crumpled heavily to the floor and finally, I was free to take a step, unencumbered.

Recently, one Friday afternoon when picking up my two eight-year-olds after school, I began to think of how I would handle their independence.  They used to cling to me, want me to admire their every hoist or hang, and now they dump their book bags at my feet and run off.  My son flashes across my field of vision.  I try to remember what color my daughter is wearing so I can find her.  It seems less and less important that they find me.  I despair and imagine how the crack that was widened to accommodate them into my life will eventually turn into a gaping wound.

Photo: Terry Beck

Photo: Terry Beck

I think of my mother then and how she finally succeeded in killing herself just as I, last of her four children, was about to leave. Everything must have felt finished. An upper middle class woman of the 50s with an ambitious, absent, and then ex husband, she’d had us and not much else. Perhaps she’d anticipated that gaping wound, and unlike all the other wounds she’d sustained during her life, this one would have been flooded by the despair she’d barely managed until then.

The dress is still in its Tower Records bag, now in a cupboard with other things I’ve collected over the years: dozens of spiral notebooks of writing, the last seven years of tax returns, a large clasp envelope stuffed with greeting cards that seemed important.  I will surely pull the dress out of its bag again, maybe to show it to my daughter, her namesake.  Maybe I’ll tell her about the time I left it on a city bus on the way to the opening night performance and didn’t realize until I was walking down Second Avenue to the theater.  How my heart began to pound as I turned and ran twelve blocks to find it still under the seat of the lumbering bus where I’d left it.

(Steve Gross worked as a choreographer for 20 years before returning to school and becoming a clinical psychologist.  He works in prison mental health and has an independent practice. Writing continues to be his first love.)