Shirt Tails of Christmas Past

One year my boyfriend told me he had to get his cousin a Christmas present and asked me to help him pick something out. I was truly so naive I never copped to his ploy, that the gift he was asking me to pick out was actually for me and not some ephemeral cousin. It backfired spectacularly.

I should have been onto him right away, there were so many holes in the story, holes I detected immediately, but did not ascribe enough importance to. Had I been a little sharper at connecting the dots, I would have spent that holiday season in a beautiful red sweater dress I coveted every time I passed Lerner’s on my way to lunch at ‘Sbarro’s before I headed back to my Christmas-time job at Things Remembered. Instead, I spent the holidays in a sweater set so uncomfortable and ugly that setting it on fire while wearing it would have improved both its comfort and beauty.

The first hole was the mystery cousin, a detail that should have registered as a non-starter. I spent tons of time with my boyfriend’s extended family, there was no cousin he had that I had not met or heard of. He wouldn’t even given a name, just mumbled it was someone from his mom’s side, and he’d drawn her name and thus had to buy her a gift.

Then there was the gift itself. My boyfriend was, well, poor. I was too, so I knew from poor, and poor people do not buy unknown cousins Christmas presents and especially don’t act unconcerned about the price. There was no familial pressure, not any, none, nada, to buy a nice gift for an unknown cousin. His parents didn’t even buy gifts for their kids – once, for Christmas, they gave him COAL – no way would they ever place an expectation for their son to somehow come up with money for a gift for a virtual stranger, blood kin or not. The mere idea made me indignant. I was like “no fucking way am I picking out something nice that *I* would like for myself and see that bitch get it,” so I pointed to the first ugly thing I saw and said “that’s nice”. The red dress was just a half dozen feet away calling me with its red siren color but I studiously looked away. Suggest the boyfriend by the bitch cousin the dress I coveted? No way.

“You think so?” he asked of the ugly sweater set and I saw the price was something I could never afford for myself and my resentment grew at this unknown person getting the generosity of my boyfriend. “Oh sure, she’ll love it,” I said, and he bought it, after going through some nonsense about guessing the size the cousin would wear (“I think she’s about your size” – another stupid error, because I was extremely tiny at 5’1″ and 90 lbs but also was varsity in three sports, so I was like who the fuck is this bitch who is about my size?)

When I opened the rectangular box that telegraphed “clothing inside” I was surprised because my boyfriend was not the type of guy to buy clothing. When I saw the hideous sweater set staring up at me, mocking me, I actually almost said “oh look, you gave me the box for your cousin instead of mine, ha ha” and then the penny dropped and I understood the ruse. The disgusting sweater set was mine, and I had no one to blame but myself. I felt bile rise in my throat. It was a harbinger of things to come, because that fucking sweater became my nemesis.

Oh surely it wasn’t that bad, you’re thinking. And it wasn’t that bad, it was worse. It was two separate pieces of hideousness that combined to create an atrocity. The real draw of a sweater set for a girl who didn’t have much money to spend on clothes was, the pieces could be worn separately, expanding one’s wardrobe through optimization of its individual pieces. But I would never wear the shirt or the sweater as separates, they were if anything uglier apart than they were together.

The sweater was yellow – a kind of Easter-y yellow that was especially jarring in winter, though it was designed for winter weather. It was crocheted, so that anything worn underneath it had a billion holes to peek through. It looked like a giant doily, which if you look up the definition says “an ornamental napkin” and that is pretty accurate, actually, in that sweater I looked like a giant ornamental easter napkin.

The shirt that came with the sweater set, the shirt that went underneath the giant yellow doily, was striped – pencil thin stripes of every shade that contains yellow in it – stripes of dark and light brown and orange and tan, with gold threads running through it which itched terribly and left long thin red welts that mimicked the pattern of the shirt on my sensitive skin.

It looked terrible on me, the collar too high and stiff, constantly chucking me under the chin, the metallic thread welting the skin of my jaw and neck. The shirt was somehow too loose in the chest and too long in the arms, while the crocheted sweater was somehow too tight across the chest and loose in the waist and short in the arms. There was no minute I wore it that was not uncomfortable, I was always pulling down on the shirt which tended to bunch up under the chest, or pulling the mysteriously tightly banded sleeves of the doily down over the oversized cuffs of the shirt.

Even my mom couldn’t hide her hatred of it. She actually liked it when she saw it in the box – yellow is her favorite color, and all folded up the sweater’s weird doily effect was less in evidence. But when she saw me wearing it, sitting in the living room waiting for my boyfriend to show up, all she said was “Huh.”

There are literally no pictures of me in this sweater set – I wouldn’t allow it, the color made my skin a weird sickly shade of green. There was no shade of eye shadow or lip gloss or blush that ‘went’ with the sweater set – in proximity to that Easter egg yellow shade, everything looked clownish. I wore that sweater set from hell once per winter, usually to church, because 1) saving a certain item of clothing for church implied you were saving it ‘for good’, a valid reason to wear something only occasionally but still profess your love for it and 2) it was totally acceptable to wear one’s coat throughout the service, which I did, squirming uncomfortably as the metallic threads did their work so that I looked like a martyr when I took it off, my back covered in long red welts like lash marks.

When I went to college I left the sweater set behind, where on return visits it would greet me in the closet with a smirk. After I moved into my first apartment, my mom handed me a box of things she thought I’d want, the yellow sweater coiled among my high school yearbooks and varsity letters. When I unpacked my wardrobe boxes into the closet of my first house, there it was, an ugly yellow footprint from the past. I tried it on, thinking it couldn’t be as bad as I remembered, but it was: it itched, it bunched, the collar and cuffs burst scratchily from the doily. It made my bustline look both huge and sagging, though at 32B it was neither. The French’s yellow mustard shade made the circles under my eyes more pronounced. I tried leaving the shirt untucked, hanging from beneath the hem of the doily and it looked so bad I lack the power of description. It was a prettiness killer, a beauty subtraction agent, its sickly yellow smile reminding me of that story, The Valley of the Blind, where a one-eyed man had hoped to be King. I guess that’s the lesson learned here – I was the one-eyed man, willingly inflicting the ugliness of the sweater set on my boyfriend’s nonexistent cousin who was ‘about my size’.

In the one-eyed man’s story, he is forced flee for his life and acknowledge ruefully to himself that the only ‘disabled’ person in the Valley of the blind had been himself, defeated by his one-eyed sneakiness in pretending to befriend a people he hoped to subjugate for his own ends. In my story, I hoped to uglify a cousin ‘about my size’ who was getting a gift I felt she didn’t deserve, defeated by my need to subjugate her attractiveness, her specialness, hoping to inflict the the yellow doily like a scarlet A – except a scarlet A is kind of cool whereas a yellow doily is never cool, not even when it is draped over a LaZBoy recliner, or on a breakfront in the dining room, two places grandmas love to put doilies. (My grandma loved the sweater, by the way – she pronounced it “just darling”).

Moral of the story: when your boyfriend asks you to pick out a gift for a woman about your size, pass right by the ugly doilies. Pick out the sexiest most beautiful item he can afford, with a big attractive smile for his generosity. The doily you try to doom someone else to wear could be your own.

Note: the sweater illustrating this post is much more attractive than the gifted sweater set


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