It began with the Andora.
The stylist at the bridal boutique had selected the Fleur, the Reagan, and the Andora gowns to try on, but in the end, it was just the Andora. Maya knew this. It was too perfect. She hadn’t been prepared to spend the money that day, but the best things in life are often surprises, or at least that’s what she liked to tell herself. She liked to repeat this adage from time to time, as though she needed permission for happiness. When the stylist first showed her the gowns, Maya’s breath caught in her chest and the ends of her lips crept upward to form a demented bizarro-smile she didn’t know she had in her. So, she swiped her card, drank the complimentary champagne, then took one last look at the wedding gown on the mannequin before going home to await its arrival.
After the Andora, she bought ten more.
She collected them the way one collects postcards or coins or Fiestaware. She collected the dresses because they were beautiful and clean, and they made her feel safe. She had never been engaged and did not see an engagement happening in the near future. She dated regularly, had sex semi-regularly, had been in love before but always broke it off in a fairly amicable way. As far as she knew, her hobby had nothing to do with marriage itself. She had managed to detach the event from the dress. Simply, Maya didn’t think it strange to own so many wedding dresses.
She had come to love the ritual of it, the seemingly scripted moments that somehow still added up to a curated-just-for-you experience. A cute-as-a-button wedding stylist, wearing cat- eye glasses or a patterned scarf or some other trademark accessory, would tell Maya that she had just made the single most important decision of her life.
“It’s yours now,” they all said to Maya. “Can you believe that this is your wedding dress?” And then their eyes would glisten as they handed Maya a tissue in anticipation of her bride-to-be tears. Maya always dabbed at the corners of her dry eyes and then thanked the stylist, letting her know that she had played an integral part in her story.
“This is exactly how I pictured it as a little girl,” Maya would add. She meant it.
For years, Maya had tempered her anxiety with cookware stores, craft stores, office supply stores, even hardware stores. Bins of organized stuff made her feel better: a whole display of red kitchen utensils, then another of orange, another of green; packages of Post-It notes stacked by size, shape, and color; beads in sectioned off cells, divided by partitions, shimmering like crop circles from above. She liked walls of paint swatches, the symmetry of the lines, the perfectly balanced colors talking to one another. She liked doorknobs and drawer knobs and shower curtain rings and anything else she could run her hands through and know that everything was in its right place. Most of all, she liked hiding in plain sight, soothing her nerves with structure while others simply shopped. Her sister, Kristen, stopped going into stores with her altogether.
“Stop touching everything,” she said. “You never buy anything, it’s weird.” And then Kristen would take a photo of the glass beads, the copper pots, the crisply folded towels, and post it to one of her accounts.
But a bridal shop was something entirely new for Maya. There was the whisper of chaos between each layer of tulle, a danger not offered by the other stores. There were stakes, and they weren’t hers. To be a bride was to be the only woman in the world, even for just a few hours. A bride is encouraged to misbehave—to demand that all other women blend together so that she may stand out. Standing in a bridal shop made Maya see that she was surrounded by people who didn’t know what to say to each other: jealous sisters, lukewarm mothers-in-law-to-be, and strangers who would never see each other again after they cooed in unison over a dress that wouldn’t be bought after all. Maya enjoyed the shared discomfort of being so intimately tied to someone else’s life. It reminded her of a funeral.
Maya told herself that she entered the first shop completely on accident. She thought it was a bakery—a beaded skirt can look like a big white cake, and the doilies and paper lanterns like royal frosting. She had liked the monochrome. But instead of cupcakes and macarons, the shop was filled with wedding dresses, and when the stylist asked her if she was interested in trying something on, an enthusiastic “Yes!” exploded from Maya’s mouth.
“I just had a cancellation!” the stylist sang, shimmying her shoulders.
“Lucky me!” said Maya, shimmying hers back.
“And when’s the big day?”
Without hesitating, Maya said—
Maya didn’t know where this date came from. She hoped it was a Saturday.
The stylist was young with lovely skin, no makeup to speak of except for a thick swathe of silver glitter over each eyelid. She wore her dark hair pulled back in a tight bun and a well-tailored black blazer, like wedding dresses were her business. She said her name was Leni, and to let her know if she needed anything. Maya went back to a fitting room and wordlessly undressed while Leni pointed to the three dresses already hanging there. They were the Fleur, the Reagan, and the Andora.
“This one is a classic A-line, very flattering on most body types.”
Maya nodded. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, the fluorescent lights accentuating the bags under her eyes. She squinted at herself, at her oily forehead, at the few dark hairs above her upper lip. She stopped listening to the stylist.
Maya’s mother, Minerva, had once delivered an impassioned manifesto about the many ways she didn’t understand her daughters. She talked while a cigarette dangled precariously from her fingers, the ash threatening to drop into her coffee cup. Maya had gotten a manicure and her mother had scoffed. Minerva thought that vanity was stupid. Furthermore, she thought that nail polish—and then paying someone to apply it!—made Maya a fool. She was confused by Maya’s choice to wear makeup not bought at the drugstore, to have her hair colored at a salon, to indulge in “all that girly stuff.”
“You are such a girl,” Minerva would say, sucking down a cigarette. “Don’t know where you got it from.” She would then roll her eyes and tap the cigarette into an old Altoids tin. “You girls now all see yourselves as princesses. What was I fighting for then if you’re all a bunch of girly girls now?”
Maya knew her mother offered these kinds of comments to be constructive, to be a critic of gender norms and male-dominated beauty standards. Minerva took down beauty regimens, skirts, shopping. She took down “chick lit” and “sappy movies” and “all that dumb stuff.” Foo- foo, that’s what she called it. Minerva encouraged her daughters to have guy friends, to watch guy movies, to do guy stuff. And though she never actually said it, Maya suspected that Minerva would have been happier with sons. There were often cogent points within Minerva’s comments, or at least Maya thought so—little bursts of radical insight that just needed some wordsmithing. Even so, Maya couldn’t help but find the delivery a little mean. Minerva was a little mean, the more she thought about it. Feeling beautiful shouldn’t have to be such a defiant act, but for Maya it always was.
Leni’s voice snapped Maya back into the changing room.
“Well? What do you think?” She blinked her disco-ball eyelids. “You want me to grab something with more lace? Are you a lace girl or are you a pearl girl? You can be both!”
Maya looked at herself in the mirror again. She noted her stretched-out bra, her period-stained underwear, the small strip of black hair leading from bellybutton to elastic.
“Both,” she said. “I want both.”
Maya bought the Andora that day. She also told Leni that she had a fiancé named Michael and a dog named Honey and sometimes she really confused Honey when she called Michael “honey.”
“And vice versa!” said Leni.
“Exactly!” laughed Maya.
Maya didn’t know what had come over her. She never acted like this at the craft store or the hardware store, but maybe it was because no one there asked any questions. She wanted to tell herself this was a one-time thing—because it was!—but she also found herself at home that night, surfing the internet, mapping out wedding boutiques nearby.
At the front counter of the first boutique, Leni flipped a rose-gold tablet around and showed Maya the total price. It hadn’t occurred to Maya, until that exact moment, that she didn’t really know what a wedding dress should cost. But without hesitating, she pulled her mother’s old leather billfold from her purse and grabbed the first piece of plastic that hit her fingers.
“Do you work on commission?” asked Maya. She was genuinely curious.
Leni smiled broadly, nodding her head like she’d heard that question before.
“I do,” she said, “but I would have this job no matter what.” Her smooth, elegant hand tapped the screen again, confirming the paperless receipt. Her nails were painted with glitter, too, and she didn’t wear a wedding ring. She paused and looked right at Maya. “There’s something magical about being a part of other people’s stories. That reminds me—”
Leni produced two cans of champagne from under the counter.
“—let’s toast! If your girls can’t celebrate with you today, then I will. Cheers.” She popped the two cans simultaneously with bartender-like efficiency.
“Right. To my girls,” said Maya, taking the first too-sweet sip. She felt a headache forming between her eyes. “Thanks for making this so special.”
“It’s why I do what I do.” Leni shimmied her shoulders again then took a small sip of her champagne. She suddenly flashed her shimmery eyes at Maya’s hand. “Where’s your engagement ring?”
Maya glanced down at her naked finger. “It’s being re-sized,” she said evenly. How easy it was to invent a new life.
“I had a feeling.” Leni nodded her head knowingly.
The two women smiled lovingly at each other, Maya’s unmanicured nails catching the sun as she lifted the can to her lips.
A small part of Maya believed she might buy wedding dresses forever. And why not? She could be a collector, a hobbyist, an expert. Maybe she could exhibit them someday, give people something to look at. Besides, old men collect cars, fill up entire warehouses with them, and they can only drive one of those at a time. This was no different. This was a secret, sure, but no different than any other collection. But in spite of all these things—the pride, the growing collection, the delicious secret she got to keep with herself—Maya decided that the next dress would be her last. She would stop at an even dozen. Though it pained her to come to this decision, she knew it was time.
And she had been caught.
Maya swore she was covering all her tracks, driving to boutiques all over the city to work with different stylists, packing the dresses away in her basement when it was night and the doors were locked. But it turned out she had no real defenses against her sister, especially when she was on a mission for content.
Kristen had stopped over unannounced on a Saturday morning, probably after a farmers’ market or yoga class. Maya could never keep track of her sister’s schedule because of its dependence upon the elusive task of “content gathering.” On the day of the discovery, though, Kristen stopped over to get a large Pyrex bowl that used to belong to their mother. They called it the Cake Batter Bowl. It was hunter green and covered in little beige flowers, a real relic of the ‘70s. Their mother only ever made box mixes, nothing from scratch, and she only baked after the girls had spent hours pleading with her, begging her to let them do something fun. Minerva would squish out a cigarette and roll her eyes before digging through the pantry for a box of expired cake mix. Maya and Kristen fought for that bowl—real throw-down-punch-out fights— all to decide who got to lick out the last sugary drops of batter. Neither ever wanted the spoon; they only wanted the bowl. Kristen had taken to posting photos of their mother’s possessions online in recent months. Each photo had a caption that explained the many ways in which she missed and cherished her mother, what the object reminded her of, how the artifact brought her closer to a person who was no longer there. She had developed quite a following, in fact, garnering write-ups from both grief and lifestyle blogs.
The Cake Batter Bowl now lived somewhere in Maya’s basement amongst the boxes marked “From Mom’s.” Maya had hastily packed everything into old printing-paper boxes after cleaning out their mother’s duplex. This task was performed hastily and completed mere hours after the hospice service had taken the bed away. Loose forks rattled around with Christmas ornaments; framed photos were shoved in with mismatched socks and old TV Guides and spare bars of soap; porcelain critter statuettes cozied up to rosaries and board games. All of it smelled like stale smoke. The boxes were literally just From Mom’s, no rhyme or reason beyond that.
“My? Are you home?” Kristen let herself in with her spare key. She did this often, purposefully only coming when Maya wasn’t there. Maya could be protective of their mother’s things. Though the boxes were haphazardly packed, Maya insisted she had a system.
Kristen crept down the basement steps. The From Mom’s boxes were everywhere—she could never believe just how much stuff had been packed into that duplex. She started opening them in search of the Cake Batter Bowl, bracing herself for the blast of tobacco that always breathed out like heat from an oven. That’s when she noticed the sliding door of the built-in hutch. It was partially ajar, and bits of ivory and cream caught her eye. For a moment Kristen forgot that anything could actually belong to Maya; surely the hutch contained more of her mother’s life. Kristen slid the door open the rest of the way and there they were: 11 wedding dresses with the tags cut off, all hung in a row. She reached out to touch them.
“What are you doing?” Maya was on the stairs now, bending at the waist to see below the ceiling. “Just take what you want from the boxes, have your photoshoot.”
Kristen flipped through the dresses like they were posters on display at the mall. She touched the Andora, inspecting it as though she were shopping for herself. She pulled out the skirt, turned it over to examine the train. She ran her fingers over the fabric-covered buttons.
“Don’t tell me these are from mom’s, too,” she said finally.
Maya sighed. “You need to call first. I don’t even know why you have a spare key.”
“You’re ignoring me,” said Kristen. “What is all this?”
“It’s my stuff. I have stuff too, you know.”
Kristen stared wide-eyed. “But this stuff is…weird.”
Maya stomped down the remaining stairs, lunging at the hutch and sliding the door shut. “Get out,” she said. “Get out of my house.”
Kristen backed away toward the stairs, forgetting about the Cake Batter Bowl completely, grappling for the rail as she goose-stepped between boxes.
“You need to deal with your shit, Maya,” she said. “This isn’t normal.”
“I’m fine,” said Maya. “This is completely normal.”
Maya decided her final dress would be bought at the annual Bridal Expo downtown. She was risking her anonymity, going to an event so big, but she had to see it for herself. This was her Comic Con, her classic car show, her last big bender before she got on the wagon for good. She arrived early, hoping to avoid the crowd, but foot traffic was already dense at 8 am. Before she knew it, though, she was taking cake samples from bakeries, getting her makeup done at a salon kiosk, and stuffing her free tote bag with anything a vendor handed her. Anything can double as a bottle opener! she mused, dropping a pewter Fleur-de-lis into her bag. She swore she blinked, and it was already noon, but she found that being the only woman in the world was a lot of fun. She liked being taken care of, being asked questions, being loved. But once all the free stuff and well wishes were tucked tidily into her tote, she resigned herself to returning her attention to the dress.
Maya crept lightly into the area designated for wedding dress boutiques, ducking behind circular racks of silk then out again. She already owned any kind of wedding dress one could think of: the strapless mermaid, the slouchy backless number, long sleeves, short sleeves, the practical A-line, the impractical jumpsuit, the super sexy sheath, the shockingly unsexy crop-top and slit-skirt separates, the mini-dress, the blush-tinted, the covered-in-sequins. Each dress different, each with a different fiancé, a different dog, a different life.
It occurred to her then how very much Minerva would hate all of this. Her mother liked to remind her often that she had been married at the courthouse wearing nothing more than jeans and an old band t-shirt, not one of those foo-foo dresses like all the other girls in her family.
“Yuck,” Minerva said once, probably watching coverage of a celebrity wedding, or a television show where a character gets married. “I can’t think of anything stupider than a wedding dress.”
The wedding dress area was far less chaotic than Maya had anticipated. Rather, the brides-to-be paced nervously, patiently, all too aware of possible judgment for their dress selections. There was also the risk of duplication—imagine, finding the perfect dress only to see it look better on someone else. Maya followed suit and mimicked their behavior. She steadied her hand, listened to her own heartbeat, focused on only what was happening in the moment, what was real. Then she saw it.
The dress was on the display mannequin at the very center of the entire exhibit. It was so obvious, so unsubtle, so positively too much, that Maya knew it was the one. It was called the Princess. It was made of organza and had a sweeping train, the kind that needs an extra set of hands for walking or using the bathroom. It was white like sugar, covered in beads on the bodice and buttons up the back, delicate flowers and birds sewn throughout the enormous, dome-shape skirt. It was so unexpected, a luscious pastry of a dress, but Maya smiled and reminded herself that the best things in life are often surprises. She deserved this. Maya felt pulled to it, a deep and immediate love powering her forward. She approached it with an outstretched hand, no intention at all to locate a price tag. She wrapped her arms around the skirt and pressed her now tear- streaked cheek as hard as she could into the mannequin’s plastic body.
“I’m sorry,” she said, emitting wet, ugly sobs. “I’m so sorry.”
They were the first words that came to mind, and Maya struggled to understand why. It had been such a shitty couple of years; if anything, she thought the universe owed her an apology. But there she was, snotting into the Princess dress, baptizing it with her grief, making it hers.
The voice came from outside the orbit of fabric.
Maya pulled her face out of the wedding dress. It was Leni, the stylist with the silver eyelids, staring at her so wide that the strips of glitter were barely visible.
“Oh, hi Leni! I’m so happy to see you here.” There were tears in the folds of Maya’s neck. She felt her skin sticking to itself.
“Are you shopping for bridesmaids’ dresses? Because I think they’re over there.” Leni pointed away from the Princess.
Maya breathed deeply and clutched the dress as though it were trying to escape. “I’m actually just here for a wedding dress. I think I found the one.”
“Did you not like the Andora?” Leni looked concerned—perhaps even betrayed—to see that Maya’s life hadn’t been changed after all.
“No! I loved the Andora.” Maya smiled at the thought of it. “It’s my favorite.”
Leni looked up at the Princess then back at Maya, nodding her head in empathetic confusion. “Are you okay?” Leni’s voice was a little quieter.
“Yep, I’m actually great,” said Maya. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
Leni blinked her eyes twice like little levers uploading the information into her brain.
Maya noticed a security guard on the perimeter of the bridal display; his walkie-talkie crackled and chirped. That couldn’t be for her. Surely, she wasn’t going to be robbed of this moment that she didn’t know she’d needed so badly until she was in it. And yet, a muffled voice now came out of the walkie-talkie, and the security guard turned in her direction.
“Let’s explore some more,” said Leni. “We can always come back to the Princess.” And with the naïve confidence of a camp counselor, Leni linked her arm in Maya’s and led her out of the wedding dresses and toward the other stylists who were helming their respective booths. Maya must not have noticed them on her way into the maze of dresses, but they were all there, a lovely little collection in their own right. The cat-eye glasses. The floral-patterned scarf. The oversized hoop earrings. The beautiful tattoo-sleeve. The blunt bangs and the fashion sneakers and the pixie cut and the red lipstick. All the foo-foo girly girls were looking at Maya and whispering to one another. Maya wondered if they were angry. She saw some crossed arms, a few clenched jaws, looks of confusion that made their respective accouterment irrelevant. In a way, they all looked the same, blending in so she could stand out. Then the stylist with red lips raised a hand and waved, the bangles on her wrist clattering lightly.
“See? Everyone is so excited for you!” Leni whispered. Her slender fingers tapped Maya’s arm. The fluorescent overhead lights refracted diamonds off her glitter nails.
“Look at that bride-to-be smile!” chirped the stylist with blunt bangs. Maya watched as she grabbed a pink tote bag from a nearby rack and began to fill it with random bridal tchotchkes.
“What are we looking for today?” asked the stylist in chunky fashion sneakers. “Your big day doesn’t have to be traditional.” She handed Maya her business card.
“Your big day can be whatever you want it to be,” said the stylist in oversized hoop earrings, swooping in. She handed Maya her business card, too.
Maya stared back at them, waiting for recognition to set in. They had sold her the strapless mermaid, the blush-tinted, and the covered-in-sequins respectively. She waited for them to yell at her, to ask her who she thought she was, why she thought she deserved this experience in twelve different ways. She waited for security to appear and throw her out, for Kristen to have to come pick her up. But the stylists just smiled, their bodies poised and ready to fetch anything Maya asked for.
This must be what it’s like to be surrounded by your girls on your big day, thought Maya. To be the only woman in the world. Another fat teardrop hit her cheek.
“What will it be?” Leni asked finally. “Are you a lace girl or a pearl girl?” The stylists turned their heads in anticipation of her response.
Maya shrugged. “How about both?”
The stylists hardly waited to hear the response. They were already flitting back to their booths for sample dresses and cinch clips.