Monday, November 21, 2005

Giller Dress

I’d had an idea I wanted a green dress for the Giller and I had an idea I wanted satin. For a couple of weeks my mother went around with a scrap of material in her purse. We had gone for coffee and my mother said, Oh. She opened her purse and took the scrap and it flickered in her fingers under the lights. It was gauzy green and covered with sequins. We looked hard at it but it was difficult to picture the whole dress. It wasn’t satin.

So when I got to Toronto Laura took me to Cabaret Nostalgia on Queen Street West and there was the dress in the window. It was exactly the dress I wanted. It only had to fit. It was pretty unlikely that it would fit, but it was also likely that it might.

When I came out of the dressing room one of the men who owns the store offered me a pair of shoes to try. They had very high heels. I put on the shoes and stood and then my arms flew around like windmills and I was tipping and then they flew around in the other direction and I was tipping backwards and he caught my hand and there I was in the full length mirror and there was no sense pretending I didn’t want that dress. I wanted it.

But I pretended for a week. I did some interviews and went to a party for Alma Lee and met everybody and read at Harbour Front went to readings and when the week was up I went back to the store with a posse of women and I bought the dress. The man who owned the store gave me a complimentary rhinestone necklace for good luck. It had been agreed either rhinestones or pearls and rhinestones won out.

The day of the Giller, after rehearsal, I got in a taxi to get my hair done. It was pretty late but my friend since grade one, Sandra Dower, had agreed to fit me in. She had me describe the dress over the phone. I thought about how it was an antique and how the woman who had altered the straps said they don’t make dresses like it any more and that it was the sort of dress her grandmother might have made and she showed me how the seams were hidden and the craftsmanship. I told Sandra how I couldn’t really draw breath in the dress, not really. When I finished describing the dress she said, I’m not doing an upsweep. I said that was fine with me. I said I hadn’t pictured an upsweep at all. So she said, Well come on then.

There was hardly any time left but there’s nothing Sandra can’t do with a curling iron. And we talked about everything that had ever happened to us and our sisters and our parents and then we went downstairs and a young woman at the Shopper’s Drugmart Cosmetic counter named Lauren did my make-up. She said she could do the whole thing with samples except for the mascara. I’d have to buy the mascara, she said.

There was another woman with a basket on her arm full of chocolates that she was giving away to customers. The woman with the chocolates said, I saw all those ringlets from behind and I said to myself there must be an occasion.

I had my eyes closed and Lauren was putting lipstick on me. Sandra was watching over Lauren’s shoulder and she said, This woman has been nominated for the Giller and everybody said Congratulations and the woman gave me a chocolate but I said if I ate it I wouldn’t fit in the dress. She said keep it for later. Her husband had been in publishing in New York and Lauren was studying literature and it was getting dark outside and Sandra and Lauren agreed on the shade of eye shadow and Lauren didn’t want anything with shimmer. The last touch was the mascara and Sandra said, Doesn’t that just finish the whole thing off nicely. And Lauren held a mirror for me.

Then I went out and hailed a cab and flew down Yonge Street in the early evening traffic.

Now the dress is tucked away in my closet. What do you do with a dress like that? A closet in an old rickety house in downtown St. John’s with rain and dark skies and frost on the front steps in the morning and the pigeons flying up. All the folds and gleaming shininess.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Macy’s in the Mall

I am remembering when the bookstore Macy’s was in the Avalon Mall. My father had a rule that if I wanted a book I could have it. It didn’t matter if we had money when I wanted the book or if we didn’t have money. I got the book. It was a rule. I was spoiled.
Spoiled rotten.

I went through a whole period when I read nothing but the Coffee, Tea or Me series – big fat paperbacks whose pages turned yellow fast. About stewardesses. They were called stewardesses then and they had big hips and big breasts on the cartoon covers and their hats were slightly askew and they were always flirting and terrible things happened like they lost their luggage and it meant some stranger would open their suitcases and see their dirty underwear. They would be aghast. They would blush, aghast. But they flew all over the world and drank martinis poolside and handsome pilots were always looking at them wistfully. I was absorbed. The bookstore fell away, the mall fell away, the parking lot, my father’s yellow Datsun, the whole city.

I think I was eleven during the Coffee, Tea or Me phase. I was also allowed any book I wanted at Macy’s. That was another rule. My father rarely commented on my choices. He would go off and buy himself a shirt in a cellophane package full of cardboard and pins. We shopped together all the time. He would leave me at Macy’s for a while and then I would feel his presence behind me, and then the fluorescent mall and the noise and rattling shopping carts and Christmas carols - all of it too bright and loud - would come back into existence.

Every night I read Harry Potter to Theo. Every night I say, Move over. Every night he says, Can I’ve a glass of water. I read and read and read. At a certain point he rolls over and faces the wall, but he’s still listening. I say, Are you awake? And he says, Yes. I say, Theo? And he says, Yes. I don’t really need to ask. I can feel when he’s fallen asleep. It’s not just the deepening of his breathing. It’s the absence of concentrated listening.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


I am scanning Tess of the d’Urbervilles looking for a reference to red lips. I am writing an erotic piece about lipstick. My horoscope yesterday said if I wanted to have money I would have to make some. It said the full moon would not be a hindrance.

Hardy describes Tess’s mouth this way: “The pouted-up deep red mouth… it had hardly as yet settled into its definite shape, and her lower lip had a way of thrusting the middle of her top one tipward, when they closed together after a word.”

He goes on to say: “Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. As she walked along today, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then.”

What excites me the most about this is the question of point of view. Who is the narrator? How does he know what Tess looked like in her fifth year, in her ninth – where is he now, to see these years flit over her features. How does he know that her lips have not yet settled “definitively,” which suggests they soon will. It suggests the point of view can fly forwards and backwards in time can be outside Tess and part of her. I think point of view is the most exciting thing about writing a novel. It allows the writer such freedom. Unthinkable freedom.

Everything is contained – the whole novel – in these few lines describing Tess’s mouth, how innocent she is and how inevitable the loss of that innocence, how it’s all tangled up with beauty. How beauty is momentary and about change, the face changing; how scary it is when we look that truth in the eye.