A pandemic is a good time to clean out your closet, especially if you baked and drank your way through it and are five (ten?) pounds farther away from ever wearing that black skirt again. Closets are also good places to hide from your husband and children under the guise of being productive and busy. And while you’re in there, look into the secret passage to your past that is The Bin of Clothes You’ll Never Wear Again.
My Bin is extra large and airtight, which ensures that the clothes I’ll never wear again stay wearable. If anything is going to make holes in my memories, I want it to be me and not carpet beetles. The Bin is filled with the finery from my past selves: favorites that I wore constantly for a few years as well as clothes I wore only once—a bridesmaid gown, my New Year’s outfit for the turn of the millennium. I’ve lugged those clothes across thousands of miles as I’ve moved around the country in the last two decades. I mostly didn’t feel apologetic about it. Each piece of clothing makes me smile. Each piece except one.
The satin wrap.
The wrap is eighteen by ninety-two inches of champagne-colored polyester satin. I purchased it twenty years ago at a now-defunct department store in New York City for $160, on discount. At the time, I was certain it would be a wardrobe staple.
I have never worn the wrap.
The older I get, the less probable it is that I’ll ever wear it. I don’t lead a wrap-wearing life, satin or otherwise. And the rush of friends’ weddings, the likeliest place I would need formal wear, is long over. Yet move after move, the satin wrap has continued to hold its place in that bin of keepsake clothes. Why? Was it a case of FONI—the Fear of Needing It the moment I got rid of it? Or was it deeper, darker? Was it a symbol of the person that my past self envisioned I would become that I hadn’t become?
These were questions only fiction could answer.
I started with Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Hemingway had the right idea. Take out an ad. Sell the wrap. Move on with my life and let go of the person that I might have been (i.e., a satin wrap wearer). But the problem was I wasn’t exactly sure who that person was. And what if there was still time for me to bloom into said person? Maybe I’d win an award for something. Maybe I’d start volunteering at glamorous fundraisers. How could I fully let go of someone I hadn’t identified?
The answer was in fiction again. Take out a fictional ad and see what kind of character responded.
“Satin wrap for sale. Vintage. Never worn.”
The first character to answer was Mrs. Mallard, the late-seventeenth-century wife from Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” Mrs. Mallard has just been informed that her husband died in a train accident. She is surprisingly chipper about it. Though her husband was a kind man, and Mrs. Mallard even loved him “sometimes,” she realizes that she is free. For the rest of her life she will answer to no one but herself.
Louise Mallard, I was sure, would want my satin wrap. She would go to plays and concerts. She might travel. Or maybe she would simply wear the wrap around her shoulders at night as she sat and watched dusk fall. Blissfully alone.
Was this the person, someone who was both king and queen of her domain? Did the wrap represent free will and my ability, or rather inability, to assert it?
On the days I’m playing the martyr, the answer is yes. My husband and children have stolen my free will. But on a more rational day, I have to admit that I do successfully carve out time for my own needs (albeit, mostly at 5:00 a.m.). The lesson to be learned from Mrs. Mallard was a harder one—about complacency, squandering life. Because just as Louise Mallard is envisioning her new life, Mr. Mallard comes home, very much alive. And Mrs. Mallard, shocked, horrified, drops dead of a heart attack.
Why didn’t Mrs. Mallard fight harder for her happiness while she was alive? And if my wrap represented my own kind of future ideal life, why hadn’t I fought harder to make that life happen? There’s no reason I couldn’t put the wrap on that instant, wear it around the house for the afternoon. Never mind that it would be a fire hazard when I cooked dinner on my gas stove. I could order takeout instead and have everyone wear fancy clothes.
I had to seriously consider that I’d kept the wrap purely out of my own complacency.
The second character to answer the ad was Ántonia Shimerda, from My Ántonia by Willa Cather. When the dance tent comes to her Nebraska town, the young housekeeper Ántonia discovers her freedom in dancing. Unlike Mrs. Mallard, though, Ántonia seizes her freedom and, in turn, happiness. She sews herself stylish dresses, homemade versions of the ones she sees the wealthy women wear. And when her employer forbids her from going to the dances again, Ántonia quits and finds a new job in town.
I was certain Ántonia would need a satin wrap to go with her chic dresses. And when she tired of town life, I imagined her bringing the wrap back with her to the country. But she wouldn’t enshrine it in a clear, airtight storage bin bought from The Container Store. Ántonia consumed life completely, and she would repurpose it into something for the next phase, her next adventure.
On first thought, I was positive this was my person. I was even more certain when Ántonia was able to persuade her husband, against his better judgment, to move to a farm and be farmers. In my marriage it’s the opposite. I’ve moved for my husband’s career (my career is transportable). And though I’ve loved the cities we ended up in, sometimes I’ve wondered what it would feel like to be the one who initiated the move.
But then I realized Ántonia and I weren’t that different. Like Ántonia, I took full advantage of city life. I seized plenty of happiness. I got the career I wanted in book publishing. I wore fun clothes (or as many as I could afford) and experienced all the adventures big cities hold. The difference was that I didn’t tire of the city life, especially of New York. For Ántonia, her time in town was an experience, a person she tried and used up. For me it was a person I tried and then put on hold when I had children.
I wondered if I kept the wrap as a reminder of that person and of a kind of happiness other than the one raising a family brings.
The third character that answered my ad was Wendy Eisenberg from The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. Wendy is a wealthy, thirty-something widow without children. She attends fabulous parties and galas and generally has what most Americans would consider an ideal life. But she isn’t happy. Her money is her late husband’s, and the functions and fundraisers and spending only remind her of him. A vintage satin wrap would be perfect for Wendy. She wants to live in the past.
For most people, dressing expensively is a symbol of success. But not for Wendy. She even laughs at how dumb one of her gala outfits is. For her, a wrap would be purely functional, like a T-shirt or a stocking hat. And when she tired of it, she wouldn’t save it. She would dump it at Goodwill and never think about it again.
But would she have felt differently, I considered, if she’d earned the money herself? When I bought my wrap, I was the bread winner. My husband was in medical school and I supported us. My career trajectory was still rising. Maybe for me, the wrap represented a certain success. And after my husband became the primary earner, after I left my in-house job to freelance and raise our kids, maybe I didn’t wear the wrap because it felt false. Like Wendy’s money, it belonged to someone else’s achievements, a past self’s. Maybe I kept it because I hoped for that kind of success again. Or I was erroneously judging my present life against my past.
It was time for my past self to weigh in.
My love of fancy clothes began when I was seven and my mother sewed me a floor-length dress with velvet ribbons and a ruffled hem to wear to my uncle’s wedding. I felt transformed. That love of clothes grew as I entered my teenage years. Unfortunately my Minnesota hometown of forty thousand didn’t have much to support it. There was really only one opportunity to dress up: the local symphony orchestra concerts that occurred four times per year. I attended them all in my most fashionable Midwest teenage ensembles. Nothing I wore was outrageous (except maybe the black chiffon baby doll dress with the three-inch hem), but my outfits didn’t conform to Minnesota dress code, either. My satin wrap would have fit in nicely.
Wearing those outfits were small risks, but they built my confidence. They increased my comfort with being different. Being different is generally discouraged in the Midwest, but I got to where I enjoyed it. After high school, unlike many of my classmates, I went out of state for college. I got married after my sophomore year—widely disapproved of by friends and family. In my junior year I enrolled in a program that allowed me to complete a third of an MBA while still an undergrad. (Try being an undergraduate English major in a classroom of MBA candidates and you’ll understand what it’s like to stand out.) After college, when my husband and I moved to New York, I had a tolerance to risk. And a few years later, when I bought that satin wrap, I took it for granted that I would always take risks—in my career, in my interests, in my fashion. I didn’t expect to become a woman who wore satin wraps, exactly. The wrap simply represented fearlessness. And the woman who wore it was fearless, like Louise Mallard in the hour when she thinks her husband has died, like Ántonia going to those tent dances.
But after my husband’s career intensified and life with children intensified, my tolerance for risk atrophied. Every time we moved, I sorted through the contents of The Bin of Clothes You’ll Never Wear Again to see if I could get rid of anything. And every time I came upon the satin wrap, I convinced myself that after the next move I would wear it.
Sorting through the Bin during a pandemic, however, was different. We weren’t moving. I couldn’t pretend that things would be different in the next house, the next city. It was just me in my closet surrounded by old clothes and those three fictional characters. Could the satin wrap finally bring me joy? What had these three characters taught me? Louise Mallard frittered her life away with societal expectations. Her happiness existed all in the future. Ántonia’s happiness existed in the present. Life on a farm is hard and nostalgia is a waste of resources. Wendy Eisenberg had nothing except resources and nostalgia.
And that was the answer. Dream of my future while working to make it the present. Hold on to those things from the past that give me courage. Reevaluate how I measure success. When I bought that wrap two decades ago, I didn’t buy it with a vision of some future self. I bought it for the person I already was, the person I assumed I always would be. Initially I didn’t wear it for the most quotidian of reasons: I simply wasn’t in the mood to when the occasions arose. It didn’t occur to me then that the window for my wearing it would ever close, that a person, like a neglected instrument, can get rusty. But I can become that person again—by taking small risks, building up my endurance—because what a pandemic emphasizes, what those three characters reminded me of, is that life, like buying something on sale, is without guarantees. It’s of limited supply. It’s going fast. No returns.
In other words: Buy the wrap and wear it.
Shelley Berg has lived in five states and hasn’t worn a satin wrap in any of them. When she’s not writing, she is copyediting cookbooks. You can find her short stories in journals such as Pif, Confrontation, and The Carolina Quarterly. This is her first published essay. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children, but you can visit her at shelleybergbooks.com.