Motionless she looks asleep. Jimmy whispers her name, her name, her name, her name from the closet, hot breath pulsing over her alarm. Forehead pressed against her wardrobe and voice still locked in her chest, she mouths the last words of her morning prayer under his gaze. Lord may nothing separate me from You today. Jimmy and the ringer silence.
Is it better to be late to Church or to skip it? She lifts herself up from the floor, eye-level now with the closet rod. Her hair may be disheveled, or eyes still heavy with last night's shift, but she refuses to leave the house frumpy. I'll handle their bullshit. She grabs Jimmy by the skirt and recites the phrase that distinguishes a dressing woman from a girl playing dress up: Fashion hurts.
She lets go of Jimmy and her hand hits the other garments like notes in a glissando. She cannot choose. All pastel and ruffles, Jimmy is her Sunday best. She wears him only to Church, and even then only to please her parents. He is itchy, and while inside him she frequently dreams of his neighbor, Stewart. Stu, though older, knows how to party. He is white leather, and sequins, and dimebag pockets. Sitting in the pew, being held by Jimmy, being held by her parents, and all four of them saying "Amen," she longs for Stu's musk after a long night out. She loves Stewart, which means she can't keep up with him. In the words of every woman who has worn him: all Stu, all the time would kill her.
So when her day is empty, devoid of the long hours she spends nursing at the nearby hospital, devoid of blue scrubs with no names, she never reaches for Jimmy or Stu. Her arm extends past them, hunting for Patrick in the other side of the wardrobe. He is long and delicate. The slightest draft in her apartment twirls his thin limbs. She slips him onto her body and they talk about her feelings. Stu can't handle that. At the first sign of emotional vulnerability, there is no sign of Stu. But even when Stu vanishes, her silhouette sheared to a matchstick without his bulk, she still loves him. She loves all her men. Standing at her closet, choosing who to wear, the row of them beckons her. She smirks. Not bad, she thinks, 29 and still have my harem.
They huddle together in response, still shuddering from her touch. Patrick eyes her with a nervous ebullience. When she is running this late to service, she is usually running to him. A quick tithe on her congregation's mobile app and she's pressed against him, consumed in almost psychological self-analysis.
Today, she is distant. Looking.
The wardrobe rises like an oak from the carpet. She recalls inheriting it with the rest of the one-bedroom from an unfamiliar relative, someone who owed her parents a favor. How it loomed over its backdrop of IKEA furniture. Exquisite and out-of-place.
As they grew older together, her opinion of the wardrobe changed. There were moments, seconds preserved under glass, when she remembered or dreamed her closet's past. Earlier this morning, still groggy from the graveyard shift, she was stunned by the sight of sun rays licking the surface of the closet's doors, warming her men while they slept. Like a wooden Saint Teresa, except a wardrobe cannot moan.
This is prelapsarian furniture. Naked but sinless, vacant even if something slithers in. It isn't out of place in her apartment — her apartment is out of place around it. Her wardrobe has stood in this spot before history, rooted in cakes of moss, doors open like a bird falling to the ground where an earlier woman stood, choosing a man for—
Her phone vibrates with a snoozed reminder to attend service, interrupting a ritual as old as human sacrifice. The buzz echoes in a tall compartment of her closet, aggressive and annoying, as if she wasn't the person who had set the alarm.
She quiets the alert. In its place, new notifications slide onto the screen. Everything is great, they say. Celebrities are doing things. The Kardashians are like God to her. She never expressed a genuine interest in either, and yet she can't escape them. Cosmo wants to know who Kourtney is wearing.
Indulging in her own masochism, she allows her eyes to wander from the screen. Her gaze slinks along the droop of her breasts, her crumpled belly, the caverns of her cellulite. What does she call this outfit? She settles on what everybody else refers to it as: Sarah.
She would have donated Sarah long ago if she had the choice, stripped off the withered layers of herself and tossed them in a pile with last season's trends and shirts with stains in the armpits. Even Jimmy feels closer to her than her own skin. He purrs as she rubs together the layers of his petticoat, until the sound is overpowered by insistent vibrations from her cell phone. Sarah answers. Its smooth screen against her cheek like she is touching nothing at all.
"I'm sorry," she says, "Overslept."
"Just because you don't mean to hurt me, doesn't mean you don't."
"I know about Stu. Of all the people on God's green fucking earth. Your parents are here. Today they asked me when I was finally going to marry you. They want grandchildren. They're going to love this."
"But this is my fault. All I ever wanted was to make you happy and you threw me away like an old rag. I thought you could love me."
"I do love you," she says.
"You love Stu."
"No, listen. Let me make you feel better."
"There is literally nothing you could do. Unless you can prick me with one of your syringes and cure me of my own idiocy."
Sarah lowers the phone from her mouth.
"I could wear you."
"That's a start," says Jimmy.
She lets the phone drop, the thud absorbed by LOBBÄK rug, and pulls Jimmy from the closet. His cheap polyester skin scrapes against her like fingernails and she moans. He squeezes her body into him, several sizes too small, barbed-wire around her ribcage. The stench of mothballs settles into the air.
Does anybody hear them? The walls are thin. She has listened to the neighbor boy grow for years, thumping feet louder and louder. Her fluctuating work hours push her out of sync with the other tenants. Though she sees him coming and going every once in a while, his rapid development so unlike the steady rhythm of her life or the tempo of Jimmy tightening and relaxing around her, she doesn't know the boy's name.
She said yes. She chose to wear Jimmy. So why is she longing for the little boy's mother to come knocking on the door, all indignant at the obscene sounds leaking from the walls?
She feels this way sometimes. Felt this way the first time, losing her virginity to Jimmy in high school. "Okay, let's do it," she said then. But she kept glancing at the door to her room thinking, Is Mom there? Can she hear me?
Sarah watches herself in the mirror. Sometimes, it hurts more to refuse than to do it. Sometimes you just have to. I'm not asking you Sarah, I'm telling you.
"You looked like you needed this," he says.
"I need you," she whispers, playing with his tulle, "who else will protect me from my family?"
"Wasting your time with a boy?" Stewart chuckles from the wardrobe, "It feels so much better in someone who knows what they're doing. Come on, I won't tell anyone."
"You could abandon me like that? When I was there for every mood swing? Every long winded saga about other guys you were fucking? You know what? You're not ready for a man who actually cares about you."
"Who's that?" howls Jimmy.
The whole closet crescendos with the buzz of their voices. Her men plead. Whoop. Yelp.
About a mile south, Sarah's parents mutter prayers for her. A vision flickers in her mind, a memory or a dream from her childhood. Her mom, laying out pastel and ruffles on the bed, Sarah's finest for Sunday morning. Her mom, whispering their foreign-sounding names, like When I Was Younger and You're So Lucky and Sometimes You Just Have To.
Sarah takes her lovers from their hangers one by one, sliding into one garment and out the other in fluid motions. She flings them into the air as she disrobes, so that the silk and linen and flannel float back down like multi-colored parachutes. Stripes and paisley, plaids and houndstooth rain down squiggles all around her, forming a soft heap on the ground as they descend. As the last article of clothing finds its way to the floor, so does Sarah. She plops atop all of them, feels them grab at her. Unzips them, and is never unzipped. They pant heavily together, until their breath slows and Sarah begins to weep because of how wonderful it feels to be in love. And because if you love someone enough they won't hurt you. And because Jimmy and Stu and Patrick — they all forgive her. And then, she laughs. Rolls around in them, pulling them over her wet face and launching the beautiful garments into the air again, waiting for them to fall back down on top of her.
She cannot choose. She just cannot choose.
Anna Tuchin is a student in her final year of Grinnell College. She edits and designs the Grinnell Underground Magazine.