Short Story: “Laurie Dressing,” by Harold Brodkey
A short story on dressing for the life you want.
The way we dress says a lot about us. Choosing what we put on our bodies—be it a wrinkled tee or a tough leather jacket—is a form of communication. And it’s one that speak volumes.
In this short story by literary master Harold Brodkey, we meet 19-year-old Laurie, a Wellesley junior who’s getting ready for a date. But deciding on a dress is proving to be more than just “getting dressed”—she’s making a statement and choosing a future.
Read on to learn which dress and which future Laurie chooses below in “Laurie Dressing,” from the short story collection First Love and Other Sorrows by Harold Brodkey (available on Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble).
Laurie leaned toward the mirror on her dressing table and carefully drew the outline of her lips on her mouth. Her tiny pearl-handled brush moved without wavering. She studied the outline for a moment and then decided it was too passionate. Laurie was nineteen, a junior at Wellesley. She was wearing a virulent-purple bathrobe her favorite cousin, a would-be actor named Vergil, had given her when she was sixteen. It was, as Laurie said, a woman of the world’s bathrobe, even though by now it was a little faded and stained. In the cleft of the bathrobe was the lacy top of a black slip. Laurie’s brush hovered over the points of her lips. Innocence, she thought—a sort of ripe innocence, for a Chestnut Hill White. But, how the hell do you design ripe innocence? Laurie’s more familiar mouths wouldn’t do at all—the one she called “sullen juvenilia,” for instance, or “it’s springtime and time to laugh.” Henry White was taking her home to meet his mother, and even though Laurie had no intention of becoming engaged, still Henry was rich enough that she might change her mind. It would make her mother very happy. Her mother would say gravely, “Laurie, I hope you’ll be very happy.” But if she became engaged to Martin, whose father was not rich, her mother would cry softly and say, “Laurie, how could you?” It wasn’t that her mother was a conscious snob; as far as Laurie knew, her mother wasn’t conscious of anything much. It was just a matter of playing by pitch; some things sounded right to Mama, and some things didn’t. Laurie had a tendency toward the somethings that didn’t and so she was forced to think of herself as a rather racy young girl.
She raised her upper lip and painted a faint lurking smile at the corners. There, she thought, I’m good-natured. With her eyebrow pencil she drew a line on the rim of her eyelids, to darken her eyelashes. Her blondish hair was cut short and fluffy around her head. She pushed at her hair and moved it around. The face in the mirror smiled at her wanly. Laurie’s nose was large, her lips full, her eyes kind and shining. When she looked in the mirror, she invariably dilated her eyes and pulled in her lips, and so she thought she had a blank, polite face. But she was wrong. She had an asymmetrical face, a strangely dignified, knowing girl’s face, bright with a peculiar dazzle, perhaps of health, perhaps of carelessness.
The trouble was, she thought, that if you married someone poor, it was obviously lechery. But if you married someone rich, everyone congratulated you as if you had performed some act of unusually intricate virtue. Even liberals. Laurie rose from the mirror, and the minute she did so, her face flowed back to its normal expression, brighter and more wary. Of course, if you were enclosed in the sort of physical envelope she was, people thought of you as lecherous anyway, no matter what you did, Laurie thought hopefully. Men fell in love with you, older men, younger men, little boys.
She took off her bathrobe and backed up to the mirror on her closet door. Her back was straight, her rear ample (too ample; with sudden savagery, she swatted it), her legs acceptable. She slid into a daydream where she was a musical-comedy star who made lots of money and didn’t have to marry. Laurie gave an exploratory bump and grind, and then burst out laughing at herself. It had been such a very dignified bump and grind. With one hand on her stomach and the other gyrating in space, she closed her eyes and tried to do better.
Her roommate, Carey, came in. “Laurie, what the hell you doing?”
“Shaking my tail. It’s good for the waistline. You ought to try it. You’re a little thick in the middle.”
Carey was a tall, flat-chested, athletic girl with protruding teeth, who loved horses. She frowned. “You’re not very witty,” she said. “You’re not even funny.”
Laurie opened her closet door and looked at her dresses. Carey opened a drawer, made a few angry noises, and then left the room. Laurie relaxed. She began to lift dresses out of the closet and hold them in front of her. Then, suddenly, she felt like crying. After all, tonight might be the night when she became engaged, when she pledged her honor to marry a man, and in her family the women stayed married. She would be obliged to spend an entire lifetime with this one man . . . She quickly grabbed another dress and held it up. It was brown silk, with tiny black figures on it, and it had sleeves that went only to the middle of her forearm. It was her sophisticated dress (Laurie, defenseless and alone, puckered her lower lip and pressed the dress against her body); her mind swam with memories. In that dress she had sipped her first Martini . . . At the Plaza, too. It was with Roy Delbert and his father and his father’s third wife. The men had leaned across the table and lit her cigarettes, and Mrs. Delbert had persistently, gallantly, asked her questions about her college courses. But nothing could have turned Laurie back into a mere college girl that day, nothing could touch her. She remembered clearly only the beating of her heart . . . and slipping her shoes off under the table, her new high heels, green I. Millers with pointed, uncomfortable toes. Roy’s face was a blur. Though he’d been the one who cried . . . Laurie flung her dress on her bed and fell down beside it. How could he expect her to promise to marry him? She had been seventeen at the time. He had called her a cruel bitch. Laurie ran her hands wonderingly over her face. Was she a bitch? Was she coarse and cruel? It was terribly important to know. But Laurie’s mind refused to enter into a discussion. She felt sick and unhappy, but her mind did nothing. She would be late; she would make Henry White wait and wait and wait. She lit a cigarette.
The first time she’d ever been called a bitch was at practically her very first dance. It was her first big dance. In Philadelphia. She’d gone down from New York on the train to her cousin Phyllis’s. Phyllis had an expensive formal of white tulle; it was someone’s coming-out party. Laurie had a rather bargain-type dress, calico and proper, from Best’s. What her mother called reasonable and what Laurie called cheap. Fourteen ninety-five and with plenty of material at the seams. She’d been pudgy then, but her skin had the healthy glaze that comes from sunshine and ten hours of sleep a night. She had always hoped she would be attractive, and it was very likely she would find out that night. Phyllis had been hateful from the moment they started dressing for the party. She said Laurie’s humming got on her nerves. She said Laurie hogged the mirror. And when the boys had arrived and Phyllis and Laurie were about to start downstairs, Laurie took one last hopeful look at herself in the mirror and then she threw her head back and laughed with delight. Phyllis grabbed her by the arm and yanked her toward the head of the stairs. Phyllis was seventeen then, two years older than Laurie, and thin; she looked well in suits. “You fat little bitch!” she muttered as they went down.
Laurie sat up. She had been pretty bad at that party. She’d tucked her bodice a little lower than it had been at Best’s. And the boys. Laurie, on her bed, in her college room, shivered with delight. She’s been stared at and pleaded with and cut in on and kissed . . . “Oh, goodness me!” Laurie said aloud. “I certainly liked that,” she whispered to herself. “And the flowers. So many boys sent me flowers that weekend, and I promised to write them all, and I never wrote a single one.”
The buzzer sounded in the hall: three long and a short. Laurie went to the doorway of her room, frowned, and then slowly, graciously, sauntered down the hall to the telephone. It was Henry. Laurie told him she wasn’t nearly dressed. Maybe he’d better go have coffee and come back in twenty minutes.
“But Mother’s waiting for us!” Henry said.
Laurie stared coldly into the telephone. “This speaks ill for the future,” she said; she felt herself becoming more and more of a great lady. She said soothingly, “Now, Henry . . . Well, if you must know, the showers were crowded.”
She wandered back to her room, her eyes blank. Martin, who was tall and serious and in the third year of law school, would never have put up with that. He would have slammed the phone in her ear. Laurie had never known anyone who studied with the ferocity Martin did. He could even cross his legs ferociously when he was reading. Martin counted so much on the future that when Laurie was with him, she could feel it, those hours of getting ahead, those days, and years, glittering like gold.
“What kind of boy is he?” her mother had asked. Sweetly. “Is he of good family?” That meant that Martin had little value. He was no catch, no treasure. And truthfully, Laurie had to admit, his manners were poor; he was sulky at the drop of a hat; he was easily hurt. He could be very, very foolish. And what was worse, any girl could get him: she had only to be nice, to be a little tender, and a little curious about the law.
Laurie surrendered. She decided to wear her pale-blue dress for Henry; it was innocent, to go with her lips. She took the dress out of her closet and began to slip it over her head. The strange thing was how few men had cut in on her at the law-school dance. Perhaps Martin had been fierce-looking and scared the other men off. Or perhaps, with Martin, she hadn’t been so eager to attract all the men; maybe it was something you turned off and on, being a bitch . . .
Laurie threw her head back, her blue dress still unfastened. What in hell were you supposed to do with your looks? Collect just one man, very rich, with a number of houses, and have everyone look up to you? Be a good girl, date nice boys, not say mean things to the Careys and Phyllises, not make the Roy Delberts cry?
She zipped up her dress savagely. No: she’d rather be mean and bad and have a foul character. She’d sleep with Martin. Her mother could go to hell.
She savagely unzipped her dress and pulled it over her head. She threw it on the floor, where it would irritate Carey, who didn’t have a date. She reached into the closet and pulled out her new black dress. Her mother had said she was too young for black. Laurie laughed, showing her teeth. She wasn’t going to wear a girdle, either. Her behind was going to shake its heart out. The dress fit very well. Laurie sighed and patted her hair, pushing one strand over her forehead. Then with a Kleenex she wiped the curve off the corner of her lips. Sullen juvenilia, that was her. Bad world. Bad Laurie.