Mom wants to buy me a strapless dress for the dance. I feel like a chicken. It’s always this way when I go shopping with her at Bonwit Teller. She chases the fattest saleslady in the pre-teen department; I want to stay with the Negro elevator man. He wears a uniform and presses buttons all day. “Growing Up,” he says, then “Growing Down.”
Mom heads straight for the white organzas and yellow chiffons. All I see is spaghetti sauce. She hands the dresses to the saleslady with black glasses, who leads me into a dressing room bigger than the Roman Forum. (There’s a picture of the Forum on the bulletin board at school.) I strip to my underpants that say “Jeudi midi.” The saleslady approaches like a lion waving a cake over her head. I smell blood. She drops the dress over my head. I am buried in icing.
“Inhale hard and hold your breadth,” she says as she zips the back. With her polished hands she smoothes down my stomach. She looks at my chest. “Dear,” she says, “did you leave something at home?” Is that my reflection I see in her glasses?
She escorts me to Mom, sitting on a queen’s throne, awaiting her daughter, the princess in socks.
The saleslady looks at me from twelve angles in the three mirrors in front of which she has stood me upright. “Isn’t this one magnificent!” she says, hands placed on her hips, facing Mom.
Mom surveys the mirrors, then turns to the real me. She fastens her beautiful green-gray eyes onto my new blackhead on my forehead.
“Take your hair off your face,” she says.
“How do you like this one, Mrs. Sternberg?”
Mrs. Sternberg? That’s not our name. Why does this fat smelly lady think we’re someone we’re not? Why doesn’t Mom tell her the truth? I’m surrounded by fluff and all I want to do is break through the window beyond the mirrors, fly down Euclid Avenue, turn right at 9th Street and head for the Lake. I want to soar over Lake Erie and never look back. If I fall, I will live with the mermaids. If I don’t, I will fly to the Upper Peninsula. (There’s a map at school.) I want to work in a cabin in the woods, wear jeans and a work shirt from the Salvation Army. I want to dance with Paul Bunyan and Daniel Boone.
“Elizabeth, Elizabeth.” Mom is standing in front of me moving her hand with the garnet ring in front of my eyes the way Desi Arnaz does on TV when Lucy faints standing up. “Come back, Elizabeth.”
“Where? . . . Nothing. . . . Can we go home?”
“Of course we can’t go home, dear. We have to buy you a strapless dress for the dance.”
I return to the coop with rows of dresses and mirrors. In the mirror to the left I look down and see me sucking my thumb. In the one to the right I look up. That’s me sweeping away the dirt over the Mona Lisa of the Galilee. It’s the mirror opposite me behind Mom below the window that I look into for a long time. It’s blurred by layers of jewelry, feathers and fins. There’s this girl standing there with clipped wings wearing a birthday cake. She’s stuck. For the life of me, I have no idea who she is.
Judy Labensohn mentors and teaches creative writing in Jerusalem. Her writing has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, Southwest Review and Michigan Quarterly Review, among others. She blogs at www.writeinisrael.com.