The Skirt

Dear N_____,

This letter is a little late in coming—close to fifty years is a sizable chunk of time—but I wanted to tell you that you can stop searching for that lovely brown linen skirt you left behind after a week’s visit with me when we were young girls on the brink of life. I hope that you have not spent too many of the decades between that summer and this one riffling through closets, calling various hotels, reaching out to friends to whom you might have lent it.  If you have, then stop.  No good will come of it, certainly no skirt.  I have never told anyone, but I kept that skirt of yours. 

The reasons are as complicated as our relationship was, though that seemed simple enough to us as kids.  We clicked immediately that first afternoon we spent together working on our elementary geography project (we were, somewhat inexplicably, assigned Guatemala). I loved everything about you and, since we spent every minute of our free time together, you must have loved a lot about me as well.

Our friendship would not have happened had we not been thrown together in a classroom with other “smart” kids collected from around the city for a new program intended to stimulate and inspire us with innovative approaches.  How could we have met otherwise?  You, the daughter of two writers, one an already near-famous academic (you proudly showed me his name in Who’s Who), at Harvard on a year’s leave from Stanford.  Me, the daughter of never-to-be famous parents who struggled hard each day to make ends meet, living in a corner of Cambridge you would not have known about if you had not known me.

And even being in the same classroom would not have been enough to bring us together since you flourished in that competitive environment while I floundered from the first. Memorization, rote repetition, careful following of rules—none of these stood me in good stead for a curriculum that celebrated originality and rewarded critical thinking.  You, a happily confident, eager learner were in your element in that classroom.  Indeed, there was no element, on land or sea, in public or private, in which you were not at home.  

That first afternoon in your family’s tall, narrow townhouse on a tree-darkened street a  block from Harvard Square, I recognized that you were a girl who did exactly as she pleased at all times and who would boldly break any rule that interfered with your having as much fun as possible.  Even at the age of ten or eleven, you had strong preferences—passions even: horses, books, sweets.  And you refused not to indulge them.

We could not have been more different.  I was a shy, tense little Catholic girl who had not enough of a sense of self to recognize a passion, never mind claim the right to pursue it; who never dreamed that seeking my own pleasure was anything more than something to be ashamed of, never mind something to be insisted upon.  That afternoon, when you led me up two staircases to your private domain, an attic space high enough to catch the sun that slipped through the thinning crests of light-hungry trees, I was stunned almost to the point of terror by your fearlessness. Later, I was stunned and thrilled.  Later still, just thrilled.  That bright aerie at the top of your house became for me a heavenly bower.

When we tumbled in after school each day, your mother (I only had rare glimpses of your father) would kiss you, greet me kindly, and then repeat instructions she gave basically every afternoon: we were to do our homework and tidy your room; we were forbidden to go into either of your parents’ studies; forbidden to traipse through Harvard Square; forbidden to spend money adding to your collection of small porcelain horses; forbidden absolutely to buy any sweets at all.  You would smile your “okay,” and neither you nor your mother, I soon realized, expected that you would observe even one of her stipulations. 

She would go off, leaving us to your wayward ways.  Ostensibly, the housekeeper would keep an eye on us, but nobody really bought that.  You were such a bad girl, N____!  And it didn’t trouble you in the least.  It troubled me a lot at first; I would nervously repeat your mother’s orders as you checked out your parents’ desks, led me to the never-disappointing Harvard Square, bought the porcelain horses, gorged on candy.  Soon it bothered me less.  Then not at all.   We never harmed ourselves or others; we just did exactly what we wanted to during those idyllic afternoons in those idyllic months I shared with you.

And then summer came and it was time for you to swap Harvard for Stanford, east coast for west, a handsome townhouse for a house with land enough for you to gallop across atop a horse you actually owned.  So much light drained out of my world after you, my golden girl, returned to your golden California life.

We kept in touch in the clumsy ways of decades ago, exchanging those tissue-thin blue airmail letters (they had to be opened gingerly, precious words folded into an envelope) and stumbling through occasional stilted phone conversations. And then a few years after you had moved away, a letter arrived announcing that you were returning to the states from your European boarding school and could spend a week with me before joining a friend at her family’s vacation home in Vermont.  I was ecstatic.

When you came, I was so enthralled  by your descriptions of exotic travels, your expert advice on French kissing (with French boys, no less!), your splendid wardrobe, your still so engaging and free manner that I was oblivious to how bored you must have been by the quiet activities I offered you.  How disappointed you must have been in me, a rather solitary adolescent, happy to spend hours alone reading and tapping out stilted stories of my own on my mother’s bulky typewriter.  Or daydreaming about the heroines in books who led lives like yours.  And here you were in my bedroom, a flesh-and-blood heroine. 

At the end of your visit, I accompanied you to the train station in Boston where you were to rendezvous with your friend’s father for the journey to the family’s lakeside home.  A kind man, he said how sorry he was that I wouldn’t be joining in the fun. He had no idea of the depth of my own sorrow.

So when I found your skirt some time later in the corner of my closet, I could not let it go.  When you eventually wrote to ask if it was there, I could not say “yes.” I don’t know if the lie was premeditated or simply arose out of my desperate urge to hold onto a bit of you and your lush, generous life, my desperate urge to be you.  It was weeks before I dared wear it.  And even then I could only manage it two or three times. Others would not have known my dark secret, but the skirt was my scarlet letter, announcing my sins, my flagrant flaunting of conventional morality, my theft, my lie.

Shame, I think, attaches itself to our often ineffectual, occasionally dishonest attempts to bridge the gap between who and where we are and who and where we want to be.  Your skirt was my attempt.  Happily, in the decades since we knew each other, I managed to achieve—honestly—much of the life and the self I yearned for as a young girl.  I even live in California!   So there is far less room for shame and far fewer occasions that might prompt me to say, “I have never told anyone but….”  Shame, when it does come, is more of a dull ache, a periodic twinge from a phantom limb.  Like a skirt, abandoned years ago.  I feel it now.

And so, dear N____, I kept that brown linen skirt you wore that summer when we were girls and a long golden row of summers lay before us still.  We’re old now.  Forgive me.     

-Maureen O’Leary

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Maureen Ellen O'Leary is a writer in Oakland, California. Before retiring in 2018, she was a tenured professor at Diablo Valley College. Her essays have appeared in numerous local, national, and international publications ,including Hemispheres Magazine, Financial Times, Chronicle Review, and San Francisco Chronicle. Her work has appeared in anthologies as well. Additional personal and publication details can be found on her website: www.maureenellenoleary.com