All the Wrong Things

We’re almost thirty strong, there in that windowless classroom. Next to me stands our leader, his yellow polo shirt unbuttoned at the neck, the hem tucked neatly into his slacks. He knows students, has lived this undergraduate circle of come, learn, grow, repeat, for years. We’re there, in a wide, oblong circle with twenty-five freshman, and he’s talking about a new school and ethnic diversity and healthy friendships and suddenly I’m thinking about April’s chill spring weekends, and a blue dress hanging in my closet, two buildings away.

He’s talking, still, pointing to a pictograph of a friendship, a relationship, built upon Jesus Christ, and he says grace, truth, humility, and influence, and I might be sitting there in that stuffy classroom, but I’m thinking about April; I’m living April once more. 

The school formal dinner in ten days, I’ve two dozen red roses on my dresser courtesy of my date, and a freshly-purchased dress and shoes next to my desk. Di bursts into the room one afternoon, asking styles and shopping, planning and details, and I nod toward the bag; Wanna see it? 

I look good in the dress. It fits me well, brilliant blue fabric ruffling over my shoulders, down to my knees. Taking small steps in heels three inches taller than my normal footwear, I turn in front of the mirror affixed above my sink, leaning first one way, then the other, watching my reflection intently. Behind me, perched on my bed, Di exclaims as only she can, hands clasped before her, pale pink polish just beginning to chip off her rounded nails. 

It’s a good dress, and my trepidation over participation in such a grand, unknown event seems to melt in the warm face of an outfit I’m excited to wear, along with Di’s rapturous support. 

But then, movement, words in the hall, and I peer out, stepping towards the RA’s room on legs made longer, fawn-like, by the shoes. The RA raises her head from her reading when I appear in the doorway, as if drawn by some irresistible force into her warmly-lit space. She smiles at me, nods toward the outfit I’m still wearing. Suddenly uncomfortable, I look down, step towards the door again. But it’s too late, and what I feared, dreaded, unfolds before my eyes. 

Is that for the banquet? She asks, and I nod, my stomach sinking. It’s so cute- you look great- she begins. Then, my excitement comes crashing down: It’s a little too short, she says.

My disappointment melts into anger in seconds. I nod my understanding, move quickly out of the room, down the hall, feeling the blue fabric inch higher, become shorter, with every step. My hopes of looking good, of enjoying the events, of stepping down Michigan Avenue to the venue, confident in my apparel, dissolved before my eyes. In my room once more, I let the door shut behind me, kicking off my shoes while relating my quickly-forming list of complaints to Di. 

I don’t have time to buy a new dress. 

I bought this dress for this event. 

And the shoes! They match so well! 

Why is she always making it about rules? 

What am I supposed to do? 

I rail and fume, my eyes burning with hot tears of anger. In the hours, days, that follow, I repeat myself for emphasis a dozen times, gladly picking up my fury again and again as my prohibited dress comes up with school friends, work friends, my mother. 

She’s always all about rules, I huff, over and again. It’s never about relationship, I emphasize, allowing my frustration to center upon the one whose main offense was communicating to me rules which she neither invented nor initiated. 

In the days, hours, before the dinner, I flounder, still fuming, through locating a back-up outfit. I’ll change, if required to do so, but I cling to my anger still, protesting the prohibition of my new dress until 45 minutes before I must leave my room, before I’m to meet my party in the Plaza.

The floor abuzz with formal preparation, I weave through girls in heels balancing before miniature hallway mirrors, lips puckered, eyebrows raised as they stroke mascara onto their upturned lashes. Is there any way I can wear that blue dress? I ask when I’ve found her, waiting silently for her reply, not daring to hope, too prideful to beg. She gazes up at me, her red lips bright, contrasting against her beautiful face. Wordless, I watch uncertainty flutter across her face. Then, looking down at her hands for the slightest moment, she sighs; Put it on and show me again. 

I do. I trot back up the hall in seconds, pushing into her room once more, yanking the dress as far down my legs as it will go. I stand before her, arms at my sides, the dress tight, form-fitting, and just as she said, just as I know to be true, too short. 

She sighs again, her hands still in her lap. Go ahead and wear it, she says, and maybe the shrug of defeat is just in her voice, but maybe I see her shoulders sink infinitesimally, relinquishing concern over a rule that I had determined I could not, would not, follow. 

Sitting in that orientation room, elbow resting on my crossed knees, I think about that luxurious banquet night. We walked down Michigan Avenue, a mass of students with high heels clicking, dress shoes treading over gum-stained sidewalks. We ate, took pictures, sipped fake cocktails out of miniature plastic glasses. And I wore that blue dress, its hem sneaking higher up my legs every time I sat, stood, walked. 

I’d felt guilty, convicted, as soon as she consented; my anger settled on the only one who bore the responsibility: me. It felt hollow, unfulfilling, petty to have won the right of the dress. My insides burned at the thought of the many people who had heard my story of injustice and persecution, and I slunk into the hallway once more before leaving, knocking on her door, head bowed. I apologized then. For stubbornness. And pride. And anger. Then I walked downstairs, platform heels echoing in the stairwell, with tears in my eyes from forgiveness, and from wrongs that don’t disappear with words of pardon. 

And there in that August orientation, the leader standing before me talks about relationships and grace and I know then that I was more wrong than I thought. Because when she sighed, looking at me in my too-short dress, and nodded her head in consent, she chose the value of our relationship over the guidelines of the event; laying down what she knew was right, in order to maintain our relationship. 

But the choice I made, decisions made on gut reactions and split-second anger, drove rules like a wedge into the relationship between me and her, threatening to divide us further with every time I repeated the story, citing a rule made in wisdom as the barrier between us, when really, it’s not about rules at all- it never is. 

It’s about choosing people over rules. It’s about people and words and grace and kindness. It’s about humility and understanding, flexibility and humor.

And that night in a blue dress, and the days leading up to it, I chose all the wrong things.



1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Grandma S.
    Aug 23, 2014 @ 10:13:45

    Very well written, Natalie.


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