I should be packing but I keep getting distracted. It’s my last night with my own room, my own bed. I’m trying to work out what to take and what to leave behind. The place Sam and I will be living in together is all shiny surfaces and Scandinavian design and it feels like a new start, a step into adulthood. Besides which, it’s an inner city studio, and space is at a premium. My books are stacked in boxes pilfered from the bottl-o. My clothes are pulled from their hangers, strewn over the bed and the floor, I’ve been trying them on and then stepping out of them, leaving them where they fall.
I pull on a skirt that belonged to my grandma: colourful diamonds of patchwork tie-dye, and there we are: dancing to the fuzzy radio in the dusty summer sunlight. The veranda looks over the slow, salty river and the air smells of mud. I’m still in my swimming costume and she’s wearing the patchwork skirt. Hand in hand we move to the songs, crazy and twirling and laughing. We are the same height, the same shape, so when I slip into her wardrobe to pull the clothes from their hangers and try them on in front of the shadowy, half-lit mirror they fit perfectly. Long patterned skirts and all the bright colours, the silk and cotton, sliding on like skin.
That’s where it started, this love of clothes, sneaking into my Grandmother’s wardrobe on summer holidays. And this is the sum of it: these piles on the floor, this indecision, standing in front of the mirror in my op-shop finds. Faded fifties floral tied at the waist, swirling wheat and flowers on floor length polyester that turn me into a hippie-harvest-goddess (the kind of person who swims naked and plays the guitar), a black sheath that stops high on the thigh (worn with black rimmed eyes and blood red nails, a cigarette and a cynicism, the short-lived version of vamp me).
The fashions of sixty years or more, each promising the same transformation it did when it was first pulled on, and carrying in its thread the places where it has been worn: dancing, on dates, on peoples’ laughing, crying, breathless bodies.
The outfit I wore on our first date. A sheer shift and a vintage fur coat. I’d thought I looked good at home, but waiting nervously for him at Circular Quay, in the bright light of daylight savings, I wasn’t so sure. Dressing up is often kind of better in your imagination. So far, I’ve discovered that this can also be the case for whiskey, sex and cigarettes. He was late, but when he arrived he complimented me on my clothes, his voice like fingernails on itchy skin.
That night we kissed on the ferry, and his skin felt like the edge of something vast, like the shore of a continent. Across the water the city shone like honeycomb, a glowing jumble of squares, the names of the corporations shining so hard we couldn’t see the stars.
That summer. I lived in raggedy dresses and Converse, and the beach left a patina of salt on our tans. We became feral, surviving on mangos and tins of tuna eaten over the sink. There was a sense of possibility that ricocheted through our ribs.
That summer my gran died, after years of dementia, years of her sitting, humming the same tune, not recognising us. Sam came to the funeral, he wore a suit.
Months afterwards Grandpa asked me to go through her clothes. We sat in a room filled with photos of her, the blinds closed to the river and the trees. We drank tea and he told me about their first outing. They went to the Botanic Gardens, lay in the shade of a fig tree and read the dictionary, testing each others vocabulary and discovering a new eloquence – the language of fingers on skin, of two sets of eyes looking at the sky together. Gran wore blue.
I chose some of her clothes to keep: the patchwork skirt, a striped cotton summer dress almost transparent with wear, a pair of gold lamé gloves, but most of the things I put in old suitcases for the Salvos. Grandpa fell asleep, snoring quietly in his chair, and I escaped to the dilapidated jetty, sat looking at the mangrove trees reflected in the sheen of high tide. My toes skimmed the silky water. I called Sam.
The big suitcase gapes open, like a mouth asking a question. I’m standing on the lip of something, of a future. Standing here surrounded by my clothes.