Last night I went to a Clothing Exchange. It was an annual event: a group of women, most of whom I was meeting for the first time, a table load of snacks, most of which I couldn't eat (I'll explain why next time I write), lots of laughter, and many many plastic bags full of clothes, which we presented in turn, one person and one item at a time, sometimes with stories, sometimes with caveats, everyone grabbing whatever appealed to them from the growing "chum pile."
"This is a very boob-y shirt," K~ warned, holding up a slinky ice-blue top, "I couldn't pull it off." She chucked it into the pile.
"I had a big day-at-the-beach fantasy with these, but it never happened. I was supposed to be all tan and glowing..." C~ said, waving her hand in dismissal and tossing a pair of white drawstring pants into the ring.
N~ held up an orange and white palm-frond-print smock. "My mother thought I would like this," she declared, cocking her head at the bead-encrusted neckline, her expression somewhere between curiosity and alarm.
"This dress is very hard for me to part with," another woman said, "but I never wear it anymore. It belonged to R~." The room filled with reverent sighing. R~ was a beloved member of this little community. She died of breast cancer several years ago. It felt too sad to throw her dress in with the unclaimed clothing. We all slowed down a moment, taking care that this item found a loving home.
When my turn came around, I gave away two grocery bags full of clothes, including a few things I'd held onto as potential maternity clothes, and several items I bought in the boggle-minded days of abrupt divorce and sudden weight loss. "I almost got arrested in this shirt," I said, holding up a blue striped tank top. Of course, everyone wanted the story, so I told them an extremely condensed version of what I'm about to tell you.
Two summers ago, well into the many torturous infertile months after my first miscarriage, the thing I dreaded more than anything happened: I was invited to a baby shower. It was for my cousin, it was nearby, and I was determined to show up, wearing a brave face. If I hadn't miscarried, my baby would be due any minute. But life does, in its sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh wisdom, go on.
The brave face proved to be a challenge.
I went to Babies-R-us, picked a gift from the registry, and burst into tears. At home, wrapping my gift in my most meticulous quirky-artsy way, I burst into tears again. And on the appointed Saturday, an hour before the shower, I locked my keys, wallet, and cell phone in the car in the grocery store parking lot. My then-husband was at work, thirty miles away. So I ran half of the five miles home (in sandals) and took a bus the rest of the way (luckily I had some change in my pocket). I figured I could wash up, dress, hop on my bike, and arrive a little sweaty, a little late, but none the wiser.
My landlord, it turned out, was headed in the same direction, so she offered a ride to the little American Legion Hall where the event was taking place. I really did not know my way around that town, and Mapquest, it turned out, didn't either, so my landlord was a godsend. I thanked her at the curb, she sped off, and I walked into a baby shower in progress, carrying my gift, and wearing my bravest smile.
The first thing I saw was a cake that said "Welcome Baby," then the plates of half-eaten food (I was hungry), and then the faces of the women chatting noisily at tables, none of whom I recognized. My smile began to fade.
As it turned out, the baby shower I had stumbled into was not my cousin's. No one had heard of my cousin. The shower guests regarded me and my quirky-artsy gift wrap with suspicion. I asked to use a phone. I was asked to leave.
That did it.
My brave face was gone. I begged to use a phone, explaining that I was miles from home without a car or dime or even a sense of direction. Someone offered a cell phone, but hovered over me in the open vestibule of the bathroom, where I went in search of privacy and quiet. Someone in the background said, "get her out of here," and a man with his chest puffed out bouncer-style came to set things right.
This is when I really started to worry. I was stranded, a crowd was forming and everyone was looking at me like I was a psychopath. A tearful, distraught psychopath, blowing her nose into a paper towel and trying desperately to reach someone, anyone, on the phone. I had finally gotten through to my husband, but the bouncer-guy was bearing down, and several nervous angry women were behind him. I could see through the tears enough to know that if I didn't get out of there soon, the police would be called. So I handed the phone off and fled.
Luckily, the one and only apparently sane woman of the bunch followed me out and asked what she could do to help. I explained my circumstances and she gave me directions to a bus stop and some money (I insisted she give me her address so I could repay her, which I did, and promptly).
Cutting to the chase: As it turned out, I had the date wrong. My cousin's shower was the following day.
"And this is the shirt I wore to the baby shower, take 2," I told my Clothing Exchange audience. And then I moved on to the next item in my bag.
And that was it. I sat down and the next woman got up. The chum pile was huge. It's amazing how much we accumulate, how much we outgrow. Life does, really and truly, in all its harsh and gentle wisdom, go on.
Looking around the room, I saw a range of body types, ages, personalities, everyone talking and laughing and enjoying themselves. Most had children; some had two or even three. Two were pregnant. I can't say for sure, but I assume some of the older women did not have kids, would never have kids. One woman, about my age, held a bright-eyed newborn. Maybe that will be me, next year. I thought.
Or maybe not.
I regarded the older, probably childless women, imagined myself among their ranks. It seemed okay; a little sad, on one hand; a bit decadent, on the other, to never have to go through all the sacrifice child-rearing demands. Mostly, it seemed a relief to have the question finally answered and put to rest.
In the meantime, I'll hold my place in the circle, as step-mother and ambivalent wannabe. It's a surprisingly comfortable outfit, now that I've broken it in. And for now, anyway, it still fits.