There was no greater form of torture I could think of worse than dress shopping, yet there I was, sitting in a dress shop surrounded by women who immediately reverted to teenage girls the moment they were surrounded by lace and heels.
The dress shop, Millie’s Formals, had been a staple in Adelaide since the sixties. Before the highways were constructed that made travel to bigger cities easier and safer than traversing the rural, curvy, two-lane roads, Millie’s was the go-to for all things formal ranging from high school dances to weddings. While I had passed the window that always had headless mannequins showing off that season’s styles, I’d never been inside.
When we’d walked in—a clique of women excited to just be spending the day together sans children and me straggling behind, completely out of place—the aged woman behind the counter grinned. While she had to be pushing eighty, if not already past it, Mildred “Millie” Wallace still had a sophisticated air about her. When I was younger, I’d catch glimpses of her around town because you couldn’t miss her. I think the saying is “sticks out like a sore thumb” and that she did. She was always dressed in the latest style one might see a movie star or model wearing in a magazine shoot. Definitely not the fashion seen daily on Main Street which could be best described as rural, outdated, chic complete with jeans, boots, and the occasional flannel.
I can’t remember ever seeing her without her blond hair perfectly coifed, the cut also the latest style, and flawlessly applied make-up that accentuated her bright blue eyes. In one of my mother’s rare sober moments, she’d taken me clothes shopping at the thrift store just a few doors up from the Millie’s. As we passed, Millie had stepped out to place a sign and gave my mother a friendly wave, which my mother returned. Mom commented that Millie had always been nice. She’d been a model in New York City for a time before returning to Adelaide where she reconnected with her high school boyfriend, settled down, married, and had two daughters. When mom mentioned the two daughters, her nose wrinkled in disgust. But Millie had always been kind, she repeated.
Now Millie’s hair was styled, but so thin I could see her scalp underneath and the make-up did little to cover the deep crevices of age lining her face. Her tall, thin physique was now stooped. But that kindness still shone through as she said, “Hello, dears,” once the door closed behind us.
Lyndsay walked up to the counter while we all milled around the doorway.
“Hi, Millie. Are you all ready for us?”
Millie grinned. “Of course, I am. I have about ten dresses for you to try on,” she said, then lowered her voice to a loud whisper and gave a wink. “One I had flown in especially for you. I think you’ll love it.”
Millie stepped from behind the counter and waved for us all to follow. As we did, I glanced at the racks and mannequins scattered throughout and cringed at the length of the dresses. They were all the super short styles that were all the rage with the kids these days. I really hoped Lyndsay wasn’t considering one of these dresses for us. I’d take pink taffeta over a mini-skirt any day.
Then we were past the dresses and heading down a small hallway that opened into a fitting room. In the center was a raised stage that had three mirrors next to each other and angled so that the person trying on the dress could see the angles.
A rack of white dresses was next to a single dressing room in the corner, and there were chairs in a semi-circle around the stage for us to sit. In the corner, a serving cart held small sandwiches and a filled punch bowl.
Millie ushered us to our seats, then pointed Lyndsay toward the rack of dresses. “I’ll leave you to it. Just ring the bell when you’re done,” Millie said, pointing at a small bell bellhop bell on a shelf near the door, then slipped out.
While Lyndsay disappeared into the dressing room with one of the dresses, the discussion next to me began as we all took our seats. In just a few minutes, they’d covered a few gossip topics, weight issues, and updates on their kids and husbands.
“Can someone come zip me up?”
I’d barely flinched when one of the women—Marcy or Macey, I couldn’t remember which—jumped up and nearly sprinted to the dressing room. I relaxed against the chair again and waited until Lyndsay appeared in a fitted wedding gown, with a lace bodice, and a poofed out skirt. The other women “oohed” and “aahed” as she took the stage and did a turn. I just worked to control the wrinkle of my nose. Yes, it was a pretty dress, but I already knew it wasn’t Lyndsay’s style.
“I think it’s perfect!” Marcy/Macey nearly shouted.
“I don’t know,” Lyndsay countered, turning back and forth to look herself in the mirror. “I think I’ll try the other ones on, and we’ll see.”
They both returned to the dressing room, then Marcy/Macey reappeared and took her seat. “She’ll call when she’s ready.”
She glanced over at me, and I could feel it coming before she even opened her mouth. “I guess I should have let you take care of that,” she said with a fake giggle. “I mean, you’re the Maid of Honor.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“I was surprised you didn’t bring your wedding bible with you.”
All of the women turned to look at me, as I tried desperately to figure out what the hell she was talking about without giving it away that I didn’t know what she was talking about. As usual, my facial expressions betrayed me.
“You don’t know what a wedding bible is, do you?”
From the far end, one of the women whispered, “Macey,” like a warning.
At least now I knew her name.
“Not really, no. But I’m sure if Lyndsay wanted me to have a wedding bible, she would have told me.
Macey started to speak, but Lyndsay called for help from the dressing room, and she jumped up.
I took a deep breath to calm myself. The day was going to be more painful than I thought. I sat quietly as Lyndsay tried on dress after dress and knew, the moment she stepped out of the dressing room, the last one was the perfect one. I could tell from the look on Macey’s face, she wouldn’t agree, but Lyndsay was glowing as she stepped up onto the platform and gave a little twirl. It was so simple, it was elegant. No frills or poofiness, just a simple white dress that fit her upper body snuggly, then fell down off her hips to cover her legs.
She looked at me and I gave subtle nod. Then her face clouded. My eyes widened. Her head tilted, then she shook it off and looked at the other women. “This is the one.”
All of the women applauded. “Go ring the bell!” the one from the end said. Jessica, maybe? I am horrible with names, and for the first time in my life, had wished for name tags.
Lyndsay crossed the room, rang the bell, the returned to the stage. Millie swooped in and grinned proudly when she saw Lyndsay. “I knew you’d love that one!”
“I do, Millie,” Lyndsay said. “Thank you.”
“I’ll go get everything ready. Just bring it up front when you’re done.”
Again, Millie left, and Lyndsay lowered her voice. “I didn’t see any dresses when we walked through that I’d want for bridesmaids’ dresses. Everyone okay with going to another shop?
“Sure!” they all said, nearly in unison.
While I wasn’t overjoyed about more dress shopping, I was at least happy I wouldn’t be wearing a mini-skirt dress. Once the decision was made, Lyndsay changed quickly, paid, and we all headed to our vehicles. Thankfully different vehicles, which meant I might get to breathe some.
Until Lindsay got in with a scowl. “You could have tried to be nice.” Lyndsay started the SUV and pulled out of the parking lot.
She was mad or hurt, I really couldn't tell the difference. “I was nice.”
“No, you were tolerating them. Big difference—and it was noticeable.”
There was no point in denying it. She was spot on and probably had noticed, those pesky facial expressions and all.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to come off that way. I was just out of place there.”
“They all have crazy busy lives. When we get together, they just want to let loose and have fun. That’s hard to do with someone scowling and looking down her nose at them from the corner.”
“I was not scowling or looking down my nose at them.” She shot me a scathing look. “Okay. Maybe I was scowling a little bit. I definitely was not looking down my nose at them. Look! I’m sorry. Put me in a room with that many women, and my defenses go up. I can’t help it.”
“You know there is something seriously wrong with that, right? I swear, Grace. I love you, but you are your own worst enemy,” she growled, yanking the wheel to turn a corner so hard, I had to grab the handle to keep from falling into her lap.
So, angry it was.
“I said I was sorry. Can you not kill me please?!” I yelled as she cut around another corner. With a roll of her eyes, she let off the gas. “I promise, at the next shop, I will try harder.”
Except with Macey. Her, I’d like to throat punch, but I thought it wise to keep that to myself.
And between you and me, I rocked the trying. Swallowing my pride, I joined right in with them. I laughed when they laughed, even though I had no clue who the people were they were laughing about.
I listened intently and with fake concern when they talked about the drama going on with their children at school. I even tried on dresses and took the compliments when received. I did such a good job, they gave me a nickname. Grace-grace. Not the most unique of nicknames, but a nickname all the same. Instead of me scowling in the corner, it was Macey who had taken up the mantle, obviously annoyed by my mere presence. As much as I hate to admit it, it was a good day, and I even liked a couple of the dresses at least enough to tolerate them for a few hours.
Finally, the dresses were all chosen: simple floral dresses for all of us. We all said goodbye just outside the door, our dresses safely secured inside bags. A couple of the women even gave me a hug, which caught me by surprise. I waved at them as they walked away.
When we were all loaded in the car and pulling out, Lindsay playfully slapped my arm. “I am so proud of you.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I need a shower.”
She laughed loudly. “Please! You can’t fool me. You had fun, and you know it.”
“Maybe a little,” I admitted. “So do people who sell their souls to the devil.”
She rolled her eyes, but her easy driving didn’t change. “It’s only for a week, then you can go back to being your not so charming, self-loathing, sarcastic self that we know and love.”
Lindsay reached over and clicked on the radio. Scanning through the channels, one finally landed on a familiar song from our college days.
“Ahh!” Lindsay yelled. “Turn it up!”
I did as instructed, and we proceeded to scream-sing the lyrics all the way to the small downtown bakery.
As we entered the shop, I realized we were alone. “No one else is coming?”
Lindsay shook her head as she opened the door. “No. It would be chaos. I don’t need any advice ordering my cake. I know exactly what I want.” As they walked toward the counter, she pulled out her phone, scrolled through pictures, and showed me the picture of a simple yet somehow elegant three-tiered wedding cake. It had what appeared to be white fondant with multi-colored carnations strategically placed around it.
“That’s pretty,” I said truthfully. There was something beautiful in simplicity sometimes.
“Hi. Can I help you?” a woman asked as she stepped from the backroom to behind the counter. She looked older than us, but not by much. I wondered if she was from here. If we’d attended school at the same time. Not enough to actually ask, though.
“Hi, yes. I called last week about doing a simple wedding cake? Lindsay Bryant.”
The woman smiled. “Oh, yes. I saw the picture you sent. That’s no problem. When will you pick it up?”
“Friday afternoon, if that’s okay?”
“That’s perfect. Just to let you know, we’ll be closing early Friday. At 3. Will that be okay?”
I could see Lindsay running through her schedule in her head, then she nodded. “I can be here before you close.”
“Great!” She stepped up to the cash register. “How would you like to pay the deposit?”
Lindsay dug around in her purse for her wallet while I wandered over to the display case. There was an assortment of cookies on display, as well as cupcakes. I waited for Lindsay to finish paying the deposit, then asked, “Could I get six of these cupcakes and a dozen mixed cookies?”
“Sure thing,” the woman said.
Lindsay peered over my shoulder. “And who is all of that for?”
“Mind your business.”
Lindsay laughed. “Okay, but don’t come whining to me when the regret sets in.”
I waved Lindsay off. It was a treat from me to the boys. Sure, a little bit of overkill, but I didn’t get to see them often. Sometimes one just needed to make up for it.
After the shop, we stopped by to finalize renting chairs and tables. I watched out the window as Lindsay turned down side streets. After the third turn, I couldn’t help myself anymore. “Wouldn’t it have been faster to go up Main Street?”
She side-eyed me and made another turn. “You have been out of here for a while, haven’t you? Floral Days is this week.”
The groan that came out was completely involuntary. “I didn’t even think.” Floral Days was the annual street fair in Adelaide, during which Main Street was closed off.
Lindsay took another turn, and I saw the garage where I now knew Lionel worked. My heart sank, and I felt the air freeze in my lungs. I didn’t want to look for fear Lionel would somehow see me, but I couldn’t stop myself.
“Grace.” Lindsay’s hand covered mine and squeezed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even think.”
As we passed the garage, my eyes—against my will—scanned the building for any sign of my brother. It wasn’t until we passed, and the building had disappeared from my side-view mirror, that I finally responded to Lindsay. “It’s okay.” I wanted to say more. To let her know how completely devastated I felt in that moment. That all of those old insecurities had risen up and grabbed me by the throat, seeping into my brain to tell me how worthless I was.
I felt paralyzed as we pulled up to another business where Lindsay planned to rent the tables and chairs. “I’ll be right back,” Lindsay said quietly, then slammed the door behind her and disappeared. Still, my brain didn’t seem to want to work just right, torn between two worlds, the one I’d been born into and the one I’d created for myself.
It had been so much easier to live fully in my created reality when Lionel was out of the picture. But that didn’t mean I didn’t miss having that connection. That I didn’t miss my big brother. My protector. I’d thought I had healed that wound. As it turned out, I’d just successfully bandaged it, but seeing that building and knowing Lionel was probably inside had ripped the bandage off completely and let the wound gape wide open again.
So lost in thought, I’d stopped paying attention to the world outside of the window, I jumped when Lindsay opened the car door and climbed back inside. “Do you just want to go home?”
I nodded. “Please.” Because I didn’t like how badly my brain was trying to tell me to go back to that garage and see my brother.