Two first dates, at least, and almost always with boots: the Pendleton plaid reversible pleated “Turnabout” skirt. I bought it in a long-gone shop on Thayer Street in Providence in 1989 or 1990 with money I earned working in the inter-library loan department at the Brown Science Library, the ugliest building on College Hill, until the apartments went in on Brook Street across from the Wheeler School. It would not have been cheap; that is, it probably cost enough to make me think twice, but it was a Pendleton, it was warm, heavy wool, and it fit. The knife pleats opened slightly when I walked, revealing a contrasting color. How could I resist? Practical and pretty, in a fabric more durable than the soles of my shoes, this skirt was made for walking.
The heavy wool was useful in the chilly frame triple-decker flats where I lived and kept the heat low for money’s sake. This would prove useful again, when I moved back west to Saint Louis, and had even less money as a graduate student than an entry-level library employee. Saint Louis had been home before, and the source of much of my vintage wardrobe, though I lost many pieces in a very bad breakup before I had the Green Eyed Lady dress. By the time I started my second round of graduate school, my wardrobe was a melange of slightly professional pieces, vintage clothing, well-worn jeans, and sweaters stolen from my father’s closet. Sometimes I think I must have looked like a walking laundry pile from a disgruntled teenager’s floor, but there I was, 24, and ready to take on anything in my eclectic armor.
I wasn’t wearing the Turnabout the night I met the man who really broke my heart, but I wore it on our first date the following Saturday when we went for a walk in Tower Grove Park. He was a photographer, living in a second-floor flat on a street named for a river on the near South Side of Saint Louis. I’d known him in college, or known who he was, as he had known who I was. Photography and sculpture were in the same studio building, and even among a group known for being obnoxious, I stood out.
When I met him again late on a November Wednesday, in a partially-converted brewery, I was bored with an art opening, trying to decide whether to get a drink or go home. He stopped in the doorway to survey the gallery, a hazy golden light behind him like a Renaissance painting, so unlike the bruise-blue sky above the bony trees that waved outside my windows. A neon blue line, like the colored lines in a Thiebaud painting, wavered around him.
He talked me into a date that Saturday afternoon, picking me up at the studio so we could take his sandy-haired dog, Cooper, to the park. Cooper, distinguished as the only dog to survive eating both a Hasselblad and a Harris tweed jacket sleeve, kicked up brown leaves as he ran ahead of us. The late autumn light in Saint Louis made anything red more red, highlighting what leaves remained on trees, the painted pavilions, and the folds of my skirt.
Over the months we dated and eventually lived together, Cooper went on many walks with us, and with me and my dog. I took in strays; my cat had kittens, adding half a dozen more to the three cats we already had. It was lively, and sad, and I proved too much for the photographer, who asked me leave just a few days after giving me a red Trek mountain bike for my birthday. I sold the bike, kept the cats and kittens and the skirt, and moved into my own pre-war flat on a street named for the river I now live near.
We kept being together and not together, so hard to quit seeing each other, like a bad cover of a Gun Club song. But we moved on, encountering each other in the grocery stores of the South Side for years, until I moved back to Providence. Two years later, I read his obituary in the alumni newsletter. I kept the skirt–it still fits, though more snugly than before I had a child. Twenty five years after my date with the photographer, I wore the skirt again on a rainy afternoon date with Drunk Tailor, walking the shore of Narragansett Bay in Colt State Park.
Note: The images of us are poor because they are taken from 35mm color negatives made in 1991, some of which were double exposed when the camera malfunctioned, and not printed until 2008. In the intervening decades, they acquired the dust which appears in the prints and subsequent scans.