The Fucking Dress

The team came back from the HR Retreat in the mountains with no more or less motivation than they had started with before the trip. It was an expensive one, but something that the department was entitled to, Barbara thought. She decided that instead of small bonuses, that the team would appreciate, well, some team-building. Barbara doesn’t spend much time or energy outside the office, so she doesn’t realize that no one gives a shit about the team-building and spirit-pumping that a corporate department retreat would provide. She thinks everyone should be putting in as many hours in the office as she, because what else could possibly be more interesting than human resources for a mid-sized insurance company in Pittsburgh? Her team really hates her, but no one comes to work with anything but apathy so the hate really doesn’t translate well. There’s no office drama like in the movies. There’s no office humor, like on TV. Just an office, with an especially despised HR department and Barbara, the director, at the helm, promoting really boring, unimportant, waste of time paper pushing stuff.

Barbara knew better. She wasn’t kidding herself; she was just playing a role she felt she needed to play. It gave her meaning and definition. The identity that she couldn’t develop on her own was constructed for her by the job, and nothing else.

The role she really liked was the one I made her play. I feel a little bad about it now, but it makes a good story and I think I did change her life a little. It started when her employees—her team—bought her some language lessons as a Christmas gift. She didn’t get around to making an appointment until June. I’m a graduate student getting my PhD in Economics and I teach Spanish on the side until my fellowship kicks in next year.

I came to her apartment a few minutes early. She melted a little bit when she saw me but she disguised it by acting surprised to see me. But my first impression of her was sterling: 50-ish and hefty, football-helmet haircut that aged her by 10 years at least, overly made up probably hiding a nasty complexion, support hose, and hadn’t been fucked in years—probably ever.

She couldn’t make eye contact. She was blushing and started to perspire when we sat down at her glass dinette table. It’s filthy when someone heavy with a half-inch of bad makeup starts to sweat. I could smell her perfume mixed with her nervous sweat. In there somewhere were some pheromones—that I could sense easily, it’s the first place I stop. Oh, Barbara, you are going to be in for a good one. But I’ll make you beg, first.

She was totally incompetent at learning languages, which was all the better so I could weaken her artificially constructed patina of superlady HR director. Hers was harder to penetrate than others’. She was totally alone and her employees couldn’t stand her—but she just didn’t care. We talked more about her job than we did about learning Spanish, because I like when people trust me so I listen to them.

I acted interested in human resources, though I really couldn’t understand even after hours and hours of discussion what the hell the purpose was. Seems to me like a black hole in corporations, but I’ve never worked in one so I can’t judge. All I knew now was that HR was her life, and she had nothing else.

But she liked me. She really liked me. After that first afternoon, she signed up for weekly classes for the rest of the year. Each Tuesday night at 7pm I would ring the buzzer outside her apartment. I could hear her footsteps even on the heavy carpeting inside, and she would wait a moment or two before opening the door. It was funny that she didn’t realize I could hear her breathing on the other side of the door—she was catching her breath. I could almost feel her heart beating through the door.

She would swat the cat away and welcome me in. By the second lesson I leaned in to greet her with a traditional Spanish double cheek kiss, which caught her off guard completely. She had a silly smile when she was flirting. She had absolutely no control over herself at some points. She would giggle uncontrollably to the point where tears would start streaming and her pudgy fingers would rush to contain the black eye makeup gushing down her face. I would lean back and smile, wink occasionally.

One night I brought some wine. I told her it was authentic Rioja from Spain. I bought it at the market down the street, but she didn’t seem to know any better. I let her drink most of it while I nursed a glass. After a glass or two she was exactly who I thought she would be.

After a few weeks I noticed things in the apartment changing. The shades weren’t drawn, there were fresh flowers on the table, the catbox wasn’t in the middle of the living room. She was also losing some weight. In the corner of the room I could see a stack of exercise videos and a rolled up yoga mat.

By the middle of the summer we started taking our “lessons” on the patio of her apartment, leaning our chairs back and looking at the darkening sky, clutching our wine glasses. I noted to her that she was looking thinner. She blushed and said she was on a heavy duty diet for health reasons. I said she looked beautiful, why change.

I thought this was a completely over-the-top and contrived comment that she wouldn’t buy, but she didn’t call me out on it. Instead, she started to cry. She said no one had ever called her beautiful. This is where I wanted to jump off the fucking deck and never come back. But I started this, I’m going to finish it with a bang.

I took a two week break to get my thesis together and get back to see my family in Spain. I vowed to keep the lessons going with Barbara until I absolutely couldn’t take any more. I returned to her apartment and when she answered the door I waited for the delay but she opened the door immediately. She must have starved herself because it looked like she dropped 20 pounds. She went to the tanning booth, her hair was looser and not all poofed out. She looked relaxed, but I saw she had already opened a bottle of wine. This was going to be a different kind of lesson, I thought to myself, wanting to laugh at the stupid irony. I should be writing pulp instead of studying Economics, I thought.

It was a stunning dress she had on, truly. I hadn’t seen her cleavage before, but someone dressed her up well in this. While she was still on the porky side and her upper arms dangled like mush, the dress suited her and she knew it. When she turned around to head to the patio, I noticed the dress still had a tag on the back, so my guess about her being dressed by the private shopper was correct. I complemented her. She noted that she just got it on the way home from work. I suggested that we go out for dinner, spend some time out of the apartment, and celebrate my fellowship. She was delighted. I don’t think she had ever been on a date. I wanted her to feel like this was a date.

Drinks and tapas, Latin music club, late dinner, more drinks and a long walk by the river holding large cups of sangria and she was putty. We returned to her apartment. She said I’ve tantalized her all summer and that she’d dressed up for me. This was the moment. It took her months to get the courage and self-confidence to say those words. It took her months to shed the HR director lady veneer and emerge as a person—a sexual, living, breathing, woman.

I couldn’t go through with it. I froze. I trembled. I led her to this point and I never had any intention of fucking her. It was mean and cruel at first, but then I realized that she was changing and improving herself, so I let it continue. I had nothing to lose.

But then I excused myself from the apartment, acting embarrassed and confused.

I heard a glass break as I jogged down the stairs. I turned to go back upstairs, but I knew I shouldn’t. I walked around the back of the apartment complex to see if I could catch a glimpse of her one last time. I had a clear view right into the apartment and the patio. She had one arm arched reaching to her back and the other arm reaching behind her. I couldn’t tell what she was doing—looked like yoga at first.

Then I realized: she was trying to unzip the dress. She fussed and turned and reversed arms. First both arms reaching to the back. Then just one arm. She tried pulling the dress up over her but she couldn’t get it over her waist. She stomped and wrangled. The image reminded me of a calf captured in a rodeo. The she started wriggling violently. Her hair came out of her clip and large, unruly wisps stuck to her face. She was getting entirely too worked up over this dress. But then again, I’ve never had to try to take off a dress with a tiny zipper between my shoulders.

Come to think of it, how is she going to get out of that dress? How does any single woman get a dress like that off? Her loneliness was underscored by this desperate scene. It made me sad.

I stood there in the shadow feeling very uncomfortable. I can’t leave—this is too engrossing to watch. I can’t go up there again or else she’ll know I was watching. There was no movement for a few minutes, and then the lights went out. Maybe she got the dress off. Maybe she just passed out.

~ by yearzerowriters on January 6, 2010.

15 Responses to “The Fucking Dress”

  1. This is so sad and so real. Not what I was expecting at all, somehow, but really moving. A stunning piece of writing.

  2. What an assassination! This was truly mesmerising and held me appallingly rapt throughout. I was with the tutor all the way though; HR who needs ’em?

    Jenn of everything of yours I’ve read, I loved this the most.

    marc

  3. Brilliant.

  4. thank you thank you!
    this character has been with me for a while now. it started because i actually have a couple of dresses that i can’t get out of without my husband’s help.
    i was a little afraid the tutor was just too cliche — hot latin guy and all, but i figured i’d go with it. i had alternatives here, too: that the tutor was a woman; that the male tutor would do a whole S&M thing with her (just not my style and i’m sure someone else could write that better than me); and a 3rd person narrative on the story without the tutor, just the HR lady’s lonliness. i still might do that last one because this story didn’t quite flush her from my system.
    thanks again for reading.

    ~jenn

  5. HR trip – I’m noticing a theme here after Basking in Conformity, Jenn – you don’t dig team bonding do you?
    Wonderful stuff🙂
    Dan

  6. What really struck me was how you caught that kind of predatory, macho interest that the tutor has – almost devoid of human heartedness? Not many women writers can capture that?

  7. You’re right about readers projecting, but I also think it has to do with reading online as against reading with print in front of you. Don’t think I would have made the same conclusions somehow.

    M

  8. This was a fascinating story. I didn’t know where it was going and was enthralled in the tension. I love that HR bit – I hate that stuff! And, what do they do, anyway.

    I agree with the comment about how well you captured the personality and motivation of the tutor!

    Well done!

  9. I agree with Larry – you perfectly captured the predator, the cruel seducer out to teach a lesson – who gets a little more than he expected.

    Larry points out too that few women writers carry this sort of thing – not sure how true that is – but it is rare enough that we often think of women’s writing or women writers as being somehow ‘softer’ (they haven’t read AM Holmes), and I appreciate that you push things quite a bit further and aren’t afraid to. Keep pushing!
    DJ

  10. thanks DJ and Anne!

  11. and larry, thanks for reading so critically. your insight into what i write is very helpful, always. thank you.

  12. great! Love the traditional Spanish 2 kisses on the cheeks…

  13. Very hard to read. Neither character is sympathetic. He’s a creep and she’s an office goon. But by the end of the story, I commiserated with both of them. That’s quite an achievement.

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