Shelly sits behind the wheel of her pick-up truck, listening to Waylon, re-counting the cash in her wallet. The total has been the same all three times that she’s counted it today. She’s got enough to pay the last installment on her dress. Another hour in the parking lot won’t change anything.
The upper level of the shopping mall parking lot is two inches deep in gray sludge that was clean snow yesterday. As the walks through the lot, the coldness seeps into Shelly’s hiking boots and settles next to her thick wool socks. The trail hems of her jeans are soaked in water the moment she steps out of her Chevy truck. Her walk from the far edge of the lot to the main entrance of the mall takes less time than she realizes, her feet feeling more numb with every step.
The inside of the mall is the bi-polar opposite of the weather outside. Every store has light streaming out of it, chased by synthesized Christmas carols. Piped in from hidden speakers, the fake sleigh bell sounds clash with the voices of shoppers dashing from cash register to cash register, arms loaded with last-minute gifts. The fronts of the shops, the balcony banisters, sale signs, and escalators are all covered in garland, holly, and tinsel, carefully placed to attract attention and lure in open checkbooks.
Shelly pushes her way past the crowds wrapped in their fleece coats and makes her way to the food court. The bright lights and music melt together in her head. She can see the long line of parents holding children waiting for Saint Nick, but can’t find the joy she should share with them. A dreadlocked teenager shoves by with a steaming Philly steak sandwich in his hand, and her stomach almost forces her hands to snatch it from him. Then it hits her. Today is Thursday, a thousand calorie day. After six months of this crazy diet, she’s still got ten more pounds to lose. A left turn at the ATM and she’s heading to the other end of the food court.
Diet raspberry smoothie in hand, she begins to trek down the mall. The bridal shop is at the farthest end of the mall nestled between one of the large department stores and the gourmet chocolate bakery. It’s the only store in the mall that won’t have garish Christmas decorations or fake snow in the windows. Maybe, that’s the reason it stands out so much. Or maybe it’s because her dress is on the mannequin in the window.
Not her dress really, but one just like it, only two sizes smaller. The hemline might be six inches longer, too, although not much more than that. The veil on the plastic woman is shorter than hers and has too much lace on it. The scoop neck shows her that the mannequin has more cleavage than Shelly ever did. Other than that, it’s her dress that lures future brides into the store.
She ignores the sign that announces that food and drinks aren’t allowed in the store -- after all, a smoothie isn’t really a drink, and it certainly can’t be called food. She walks past the white pillowed couches and glass table tops covered in bridal magazines to the discreetly hidden register in the back of the shop. The matron eyes with disdain the half empty plastic cup Shelly’s clutching.
“Miss, you can’t have that in here.”
“Sorry.” Shelly grips the straw with her lips and sucks hard, pulling the pinkish fluid out of the cup until the sides are ready to collapse. When the slurping is louder than the carols, she plops the empty cup down on the Formica counter.
“How can we be of service today?” The older woman is looking past Shelly to the front of the store where two young women are pawing over the chiffon-lined racks. Casually, the matron bumps the empty smoothie cup from the counter into a trashcan at Shelly’s feet.
The two girls at the front of the store dash from rack to rack, pulling out dresses and holding them up for the other’s approval. All giggles and smacking gum behind big white teeth and blaring red lips, they chirp about the technicality of wearing white. No need for them to endure thousand calorie days to get into the perfect dress.
“I'm here for my dress.” Shelly hands her ticket to the clerk.
“Oh, your final fitting is today? I’ve got a room that just opened up.” The old lady doesn’t even look at Shelly as she heads to the back of the store. “Follow me, and we’ll get you right in.”
“I don’t need the fitting. Just the dress, please.”
“Nonsense. Our policy is that every girl gets a final fitting. How else do you know it’s going to be perfect on you?”
Shelly freezes at the counter for a moment, then follows the older woman. She walks past the pale pink louvered doors on the fitting rooms that remind her of cotton candy and baby girls. At the end of the short hall, the clerk is holding her dress, jabbering to a seamstress.
“Excuse me, I really just need to finish paying for my dress and go home.”
The seamstress holds the dress up to Shelly, mumbles something about letting out the waistline. Then she shoves the dress into Shelly’s chest and pleasantly demands she put it on.
It’s pointless to argue with these women, so Shelly steps into the open room on the right. Closing the door, she sees the easiest way out of this mess is simply to try the dress on, let the lady make some nips and tucks, and then settle the account. The whole process won’t take that long, and she’ll be out of here.
Shelly’s heavy jacket and dingy sweatshirt hit the ground in unison. Staring at herself in the mirror, she wonders why Dave ever looked at her in the first place. Her stomach still pooches over her jeans enough to make the waist curl down. The push-up bra she has on does an okay job of keeping her breasts from sagging, but they fall the moment she unhooks it. Small boobs and they still sag, so much like her mother. Dave has told her that he loves her, but never once has she heard him say she’s beautiful.
Two years together and never a word about her looks. She sheds her jeans and wet boots, kicking the boots under the pink bench seat. Shelly steps into the dress, snagging her engagement ring in the lace on its shoulder. Without looking back to the mirror, she steps out of the room.
There are oohs and aahhs coming from the wall of mirrors next to the seamstress. For a second, she thinks they’re for her, then she sees who they’re really for. A perfect bride stands glistening on the fitting pedestal, tears flowing from her eyes. Her mother, with matching tears and eye liner streaks, is babbling about how long she’s waited to see her daughter look like this. The store matron and seamstress stand back, admiring the mother and daughter, giving them a moment to themselves. Shelly stands in the door to her dressing room waiting, remembering four months ago when the same scene played out with her own mother.
“You’re going to be the most gorgeous thing that young man has ever seen.” The matron is so practiced with the compliment she can coo it and never bat a caked-up eyelash. “All we need to do is make a few slight adjustments, and it will be a perfect fit.”
The seamstress moves in and begins to stick pins in the dress while the matron keeps talking to the mother. Embarrassed that she’s eavesdropping, Shelly steps back into her room and plops down on the cushioned bench. Her perfect day is so long ago now.
“Excuse me, Miss. Come on out so we can see how elegant you are.” The matron is tapping lightly on the door.
“I forgot to bring my slippers. You sure I can’t just take it home and let my Mom finish it?” Shelly’s slippers are still behind the seat of her truck.
“Nonsense! We have girls forget them all the time. We know how to take care of something small like that. Now get out here, and let’s get a look at you.” The tone behind the words is a command, so Shelly comes out of the dressing room and steps onto the riser in front of the mirrors.
The matron does her cooing routine again, only this time she’s right. Shelly does look radiant up on her pedestal. This is exactly the way she imagines a soon-to-be-bride is supposed to look. The train flows, the hidden bodice lifts, the bow covers her butt, and she feels majestic.
She thinks about Dave waiting, the only time he’ll ever be in a tux, at the altar with his father and brother beside him. The church half full of friends and family waiting to see them married. Her stomach begins to churn, and she feels the smoothie climbing up the back of her throat. The world goes a little light around her, and she staggers down from the pedestal.
Shelly’s mind falls back to the day last week when the two of them made love on a mattress in the floor of their new apartment. Afterwards, lying next to a sleeping Dave, Shelly could see his chest swell and fall with each breath. She had shut her eyes, trying to see his face, the way it looked before they made love.
She couldn’t see him. She remembers not being able to see his face or picture what color shirt he had taken off to make love to her. His wristwatch stands out in her mind clearly. So does his St. Christopher’s. Everywhere he had been this week she can recite without a stammer.
The nausea she has now feels so much like the knot in her stomach as she lay there, recalling all she could about how their relationship started. She realized Dave really never asked her out. They met at a party and talked most of the night away. A few days later, they bumped into each other at Wal-Mart, and he followed her home. He showed up the next night, she went to his place a day later. Pretty soon they were doing everything together. Then, with no fanfare or discussion, he brought her a ring, and she started making the arrangements. The relationship was just there, no real emotions behind it, like a billboard on the way to work -- just there.
Dave is Shelly’s habit. A good habit in a lot of ways -- even in some of the ways that matter. She knows he cares about her and is a decent enough guy. Definitely not a serial killer, probably even good with old people and babies. Her family all seems to like him. Still, the best thing about Dave is that he’s like the couch at her mother’s house -- comfortable.
The raspberry smoothie climbs up her throat, and she admits to herself for the first time that she isn’t really in love with him. He doesn’t give her goose bumps in her stomach like he should. The phone doesn’t ring differently when it’s him on the other end of the line. None of the things that love does to you happen for her with Dave.
Shelly wants – no, she has to have -- someone who is going to come in and sweep her off her feet. She wants the room to light up when he walks in. The man she wants to be in love with won’t have to be Prince Charming to the rest of the world. Just to her. He’s going to be someone who makes her feel special, makes her think that his whole world is built around her. Dave is a great guy, but he isn’t that guy. At least not for her.
“Honey, are you alright?” The seamstress is talking and putting pins in the hem at the same time.
“Yeah, kinda overwhelmed all of a sudden, ya know? Didn’t think it would really look this good on me.” Shelly’s voice floats on the air in front of her, smoothie clinging to the back of her mouth.
“Can I change back now?” Her voice still sounding like it’s coming from somewhere else.
“Sure. We’ve got what we need.” The matron holds a drop of concern in her voice as she eases Shelly back to the dressing room.
In the room, she falls out of the dress and hands it out the door to the waiting seamstress. She can hear the voices of another bride and mother. From the giggles, it’s probably the first time picking out a dress. For a full minute, she sits on the bench, soaking in the joy they share.
The smoothie is sliding back down as her stomach turns over on itself, almost cramping closed. Shelly has to do this before she walks out of the changing room. Leaning over, she pulls her mobile phone from the pocket in her jacket, punches the re-dial button, and waits on his typical answer.
“Hey babe, whatcha wearing?” Predicable Dave. She’s going to miss him so much.
“My panties and nothing else, big boy.” She tries to add some perk to a voice that now is her own. “Meet me for lunch? My treat.”
“Sure thing. Where at?” Dave would drive to Savannah if she told him to. Maybe he’ll develop some backbone for his next girlfriend.
“The food court at the mall. I'm dying for a Philly Cheese Steak.”