– Nonfiction by Brandyce Ingram –
I often take pride in the testimony that I never wore dresses as a kid. But that’s a lie. At age 5 I wore one dress – a single dress and that dress only. It was purple with red and black horizontal stripes. Hit mid-calf, non-suffocating oval collar, no pinchy armpit sleeves, and loose enough that I could eat a pound of cheese and still have slack to breathe. Perfect. Where did it come from? Probably modeling-gig loot. The Children’s Place? Dillards? Nordstrom? No one in my family can recall where it was purchased (or semi-stolen) but all relatives remember it as “Ahhh The Purple Dress.”
I never took it off. I recall several occasions of picking crusted bits of oatmeal off of it and Dorisene, one of two nannies at the time (and my first surrogate mother – a cocoa-black woman with 2 gold teeth, a buzz cut, plush lap, a booming laugh, and dark almond eyes), wiping it down with a wet rag while I stood in complacent victory that I didn’t have to de-dress to have it “washed.”
“ ’s that ketchup?” Yup.
“This here, honey, ranch dressing?” Damn straight.
We made a game out of guessing just what in holy-hell was on my dress. Those stains marked the history of my days. I could depend on those crusted food bits and dirt skids to validate my reality. Because looking back, my reality didn’t matter to anybody else.
Our house was set up like a compound. From the center pool-courtyard and grill area there lay the main house to the right and pool house to the left which we called the cabaña (only I pronounced it correctly with the tilde “~” since a lot of our prior maids were Spanish-speakers and a 5 year old speaking before spoken to was a no no for my parents – those transient maids probably saw this and felt sorry for me).
A summer night, periwinkle dinner-time sky, a stand-alone grill. Slabs of cow and chicken sizzled in their coal-fired grave, naked cobs of corn over which butter draped like a melting maze. I, barefoot in my purple dress, hid behind this grill, felt the warmth, breathed smoke, and stood frozen in a dead-stare with the stranger at the gate on the other side of the pool. Blue-purple-red-yellow tie-dye shirt, tall socks and jesus sandals, skinny legs, long blond hippie hair and a reddish mustache. A rolled newspaper in one hand, a casual beady pistol in the other. Daddy, Mom, and Uncle Steve had previously collected Stef from her poolside foot-bath and rushed inside while this creepy man and I studied each other’s existence. But he couldn’t possibly see me, for I was invisible.
Invisibility – my special power to combat fear. The Purple Dress allowed me this faculty. He eventually walked away after a few waves and shouts of “Anybody home?!” to which I did not respond because invisible people can’t wave or speak.
I later inquired about this event. “There was no man.” Yes, there was.
“Ok, so if I was just imagining this man why did the police come shortly after – when you were taking the steaks off the grill, remember?” I felt sorry for them, having to distort their realities to uphold the facade of being good parents who would godforbid never forget their youngest child in the face of danger.
“Just – a check in, neighborhood security.” Security.
There’s a word.
The Purple Dress, my wearable safety blanket, my source of consistency and identity. And a primary source of embarrassment for my parents, who’d come home from whatever overseas vacation and find me in The Purple Dress standing pat, waiting for my inevitable gifts from Prague, Barcelona, Paris (or some other ritzy city I couldn’t pronounce with my R’s and W’s mixed up).
The gifts would be random street-vendor trinkets like Russian dolls, cheap reprints of Van Gogh, and hand-made Spanish-tiled mirrors. And crunched into the corner of my Mom’s Louis Vuitton luggage would almost always be an uncomfortable, overpriced dress that I’d grow out of in two weeks. Opening presents I knew I’d hate was an exercise in false gratitude, manipulating my reality to suit another. Now I’m an expert at receiving horrendous Christmas presents – my Dad got me a maroon sorority-slut dress this year – with a believable grin and kind acceptance.
Their weekly ritzy dinner parties for bribing state senators and other wealthy Dallas-parasites involved sending Dorisene up to lay out my options for attire.
- The poofy-sleeved, scratch-master getup that was an evil hue of white. Hand-sewn by Milo, the designer who lived across the street and drank tequila with my Mom on weekdays at noon and had a weird (possibly fake) Eastern-European accent.
- The lime-green child size pencil-skirt power-suit complete with pearled buttons, shoulder pads, and tight hems.
- A red (also abominably itchy) dotted skirt that looked like an exploding ladybug with a matching (and equally itchy) button-down and suffocating santa-belt.
Of course I was already wearing my first choice during this vetting process (The one, The only choice as far as I was concerned) so this whole rigmarole was useless and just the opening credits for a temper tantrum. And when that tantrum came, even pantry-ants excavating the Cheerios had to stop and take note before taking cover behind the oatmeal tins for their own safety. While my Mother stormed in and out of the room huffing over a tequila-lemonade, Dorisene understood and reassured me via a cradle-session in her pillowy lap. “Baby, I’ll tell ‘em your jus’ feelin’ sleepy n’ get some dinner up here.”
Since I refused to be presentable or a quiet accessory in a poofy dress, I’d eat dinner in my room quite often, either with Stef, Dorisene, or alone. That time Stef had agreed to suck up to my parents by being poofy and itchy.
“It’s just a dress,” she remarked with her ten-year-old sass before trodding down the stairs to gain the high-handed suck-up card. So there I sat with Dorisene, cozily slopping mashed potato bits all over the front of my unashamed purple-striped attire and overhearing drunken chuckles from the bedazzled dining room downstairs.
Then there was Key West, down on the fingernail of the Florida keys. It was a deep sea fishing trip and opportunity for my Dad to get drunk with his business buddy, Fred, who also had two daughters and a reliably drunk wife. Dorisene tagged along as per usual on family trips where my parents would be drinking and snorting illegal substances in exotic locations. Thank jeebus spinning-christ for Dorisene.
The first day on the chartered yacht I hooked a shark on the line and one of the Puerto Rican hired boat hands opted to reel it in. Dorisene hauled ass to the bow at the first sight of the fins clearing the water and I followed her. She couldn’t swim but she was about ready to try her luck and I would have followed her because she was my only hope.
“That thing’s comin’ on here, I’m goin’ down there! Right between that wave and that wave, baby!”
“I can swim some, Dorisene! I’ll show you!”
“Yes baby, you’re a good swimmer, little fishy child.”
“Dah-seen!” My Dad purposely pronounced it like an old-timey slave-driver, “Sammy the shark wants somma that cahn-bread you make!” This last part wasn’t meant to be totally racist (besides the overdrawn pronunciation of “corn”), she really made damn good cornbread that my Dad, now 82, still raves about every time corn or bread is mentioned.
“Dah-seen’s…” he pronounces with less racism and more nostalgia, “So good you’d write your mother about it – shit, I would, still, and she’s deader th’n dead!”
Some say kids don’t see color, but I did. I saw the lines my Dad drew between him and her. The jealousy he must have felt seeing how much she meant to me.
I saw the black and white while she cradled me in her arms. I’d put a few strands of my ashy brown hair between my pale arm and her black arm to try to make a spectrum, like a muddy sunset. It was pretty.
The next day my parents decided to do some blow and go spearfishing with Fred, his wife Susan, their eldest daughter Mae, and her Ken-doll boyfriend Keith. Stef, Caroline (Fred’s youngest), and I floated in the waves near the yacht while Dorisene perched on the stern watching us and the vast ocean with coast-guard precision. She was always aware (decades later I’d run into her at the post office and thank her for that while we hugged for a long 8-count that still felt far too short). I wore those scratchy arm-floaties and a tube while Stef and Caroline tangled themselves on pool-noodles and kickboards showing off their variations of the front-crawl. I decided to do some front-crawling of my own, hydro-crawling about 30-plus feet from the stern before Dorisene’s horrified shriek of caring queued the chartered captain to reverse so I was within leaping range. It was a test–how far can I get until somebody notices? Before Dorisene, nobody did. I felt safe.
I was around the 30-foot-mark from the boat when I noticed my parents, Fred, Susan, Mae, and Keith emerge from the water and scramble onto the boat with urgency. Daddy was laughing with amused-relief and I liked to see him laugh, even from afar, because I rarely got to see it close up. They held up their arms like goal-posts in what was likely a description of the length of a fish. And it was. A barracuda. Stef and Caroline climbed up the rickety ladder to safety and Dorisene wrapped them in towels. Some bubbles emerged from just behind the platform on the stern. The boat got smaller and smaller. I looked down.
Yellow fish, blue fish, coral of every shape and texture. These glowing gems seemed to hover and dart through the sheer lacey waves. I tried to touch the colors with the tip of my toe not realizing they were far below. Then bigger fish swam by, gray and confident. A crisp fin touched the air ten or so feet away.
“Baby chil’! Honey!!!” Dorisene’s howls from quite a distance now brought me out of my liquid meditation and I awakened to the fact that the boat had left without me. Me, alone with my floaties, the barracudas, and sharks likely brought on by the blood from the poor speared fishies. I didn’t really mind. It was peaceful out there and I would make friends with fish who would adopt me and morph me into a mermaid like that Barbie whose hair I cut (long hair made little sense in the ocean). But Dorisene and my dress were on that boat. I’m glad it made a U-turn.
Ten years later, upon recollection of this story, my parents would laugh. “Remember that time we left you out in the ocean with barracudas?!” Yes, I fucking do recall–vividly. I carry it with bitter thoughts while still considering it a lesson in independence. A lesson in safety (or lack thereof). A lesson that I was right to find other sources upon which I can depend.
Like Dorisene and The Purple Dress.
On that same trip, the night before we were to return to Dallas, the saga of The Purple Dress came to a dead stop.
Dorisene and Stef convinced me to take it off to shake out the sand and hang it up so I could wear it on the plane. I was looking forward to this because I knew we’d stop at Miami International, which contained a bombass Kid’s Zone. Nintendo, Twister, play sets, jungle gyms, and dinosaur action figures. A layover at the Miami airport was a five year old’s equivalent to prom. I needed that purple-striped confidence booster after the oceanic abandonment fiasco.
The next morning after a room-service breakfast of OJ and pancakes… my cheeks began to sweat, my fists clenched so hard my fingernails left marks on my palms, my tears made the whole world underwater – not even Dorisene could turn my boat around.
The Purple Dress was gone. I ran around the hotel suite screaming and flipping corners of bed-spreads, checking the empty safes, the unused laundry bags in the mirrored slidey-closets. Then I saw the purple-red-black: stashed like a mildewy rag on top of the TV console. I pointed. I stomped. I screamed.
“I just don’t see it, B!” Stef, always echoing Mom and Dad’s intentions as much as possible when she got the chance. I get it, that starvation for approval. That suck-up card.
“Housekeeping must have stolen it” Mom, always paranoid somebody was stealing something.
“We’ll get you a new dress!” Dad, always looking for a quick fix that beat to the drum of his own materialist ego.
Dorisene, kept mum with a fist over her mouth, just hugged me. She knew I could see it but she dared not disobey my Dad, her boss, as he’d already threatened to fire her in the past for catering to my needs, my tears, my precious emotions that only she could hold with compassion and understanding. She saw me struggle with the idea that my reality was not legitimate in the eyes of my parents. My senses untrustworthy, annoying, and deadass wrong.
“Time to let go, baby, let it go–let it go–big strong girl.” I could feel her telling my heart that I had all the strength I needed in there. I didn’t need the physical dress. My armor, my strength would always be in my heart – Dorisene told me so and I had to trust in that. She was my sage, my spirit guide. One of the first motherly lessons from one of my first surrogate mamas.
So I mourned the death of my Purple dress while others packed. Grief took me all over the place, from anger, to sadness, shock, even laughter (when Dorisene would “turn over my tickle-box” by loving on the back of my knees), and back around the swirling portal of loss. Letting go.
I gave it a final glance farewell as we followed the young bellboy out into the hallway. A purple light bloomed inside me that day.
That plane trip home I wore a pair of blue shorts and a T-shirt we got a year earlier from Green Flash, a seafood and burger joint in Captiva, Florida, a tiny sliver of earth west of Fort Myers. The green flash referenced the gleam of green that (for a millisecond) played peekaboo with stripes of rolling blues, yellows, magentas, and other colors that can’t be bound by earthly names.
“See that?” she’d say, “that’s the clouds huggin’ the sky, chil’.”
Dorisene held me as we watched the sky melt and I was safe.
Stripes in the sky, purple in my heart.
About the Author – Brandyce Ingram
Brandyce Ingram is a writer, tutor, and jazz-head in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in The Esthetic Apostle, The Austin Chronicle, Sand Hills Literary Magazine, OxMag, and elsewhere. She prefers questions over answers, dead televisions over propaganda, and cats over all else.
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