“Your problem is you haven’t defined yourself,” Nova told me.
We were sitting on the balcony of somebody else’s apartment, drinking from a bottle of wine we pulled out of one of the cupboards. As hard as it was for me to admit this to myself, I had been desperate enough to search for Nova, until I found her here, slumming with some friend, as usual. At this time, she was the only one left I could complain to.
“You’re a leftie, but you’re not one of the liberals,” she continued. “You don’t agree with the power structure, but you’re not a conservative. You have to pick one. You can’t be neither here nor there like this.”
“What’s the point of defining myself?” I said. “It’s all turned out to be a bunch of hypocrisy anyway. I might as well stay the way I am.”
“The way you are, you can’t get ahead in society, and you also don’t get the perks of being a rebel,” Nova pointed out. “You’re getting screwed twice over.”
“So how do I define myself?”
Nova scratched her chin. “Well, the people in this town signal which group they belong to by how they dress.”
“Okay, so which group do I belong to?” I was wearing a flowing skirt and a ruffled top. “Am I a hippie or something?”
“You don’t belong to anything, you’re just a relic. Nobody dresses like this anymore. We’ll have to fix that.” She took another sip of wine. “What’s your favorite color?”
“Hmmmm, that’s not an easy one… But I think it places you more on the Republican side. I’m picturing a countryside picnic…”
“What? No, I don’t like the countryside. I’m an intellectual…”
“You can’t be an intellectual who wears yellow. If you’re going to be an intellectual, you have to wear black or gray, maybe dark brown.”
“What about a rebellious, screaming yellow?”
“You keep trying to go down these dead-end roads that don’t work. Make it easier on yourself, please.”
I stepped out of the bedroom, fighting the urge to spin around.
“Ta da!” I said to Nova, who was waiting for me out in the hallway. “I found my blackest of black dresses. Do I look like a more intelligent person now?”
Nova cocked her head. “No. It’s the wrong cut of dress, plus it’s got all that lace. This one makes you look emo. If you keep wearing this, you will need to do interpretive dancing and cry a lot.”
“I’ve worn it before and I haven’t cried.”
“Yeah, because you don’t understand the purpose of getting dressed.” She thought about it. “This may be a stretch, but if you really want to be turned back into a Socialist, we could do it with one of those little gray jacket and cap combos, kinda Lenin style.”
“What’s that gonna do, make me angrier?”
“No, it’ll make you acceptable. You’ll fit in.”
Julian, however, seemed repelled by my new getup. “You look like a boy… a boy who’s about to hawk newspapers on the street.”
“According to Nova, this is very current.”
“Well, Nova does know about this sort of thing. Huh. I guess that should be fine, then.”
“That’s the worst fashion advice I’ve ever heard.” RedGirl was aghast. “Dressing up isn’t about politics, it’s about picking colors that go together. What was this Nova person thinking?”
“I’m not sure. I had no idea people cared this much about clothes.”
My sister had called for me to come over, as soon as Julian told her what I was wearing. I was more than happy to accept her advice. I wasn’t all that worried about Julian’s chilly reaction to the new me—I was used to that. I was much more freaked out by the warm reception I got at work. The minute she saw me in my newsboy cap, Leah gave me a friendly rowr, and that scared me much more than having her for a frienemy.
RedGirl rooted through her closet. “You like yellow, right? Perfect. I have something here for you…” She pulled out a pale yellow dress, so fluffy it resembled a custard. “Wear a lilac or light pink jacket over this and you’ll be all set. Always a classy combination.”
I watched myself in the mirror and wasn’t convinced, but I was willing to give it a try. I couldn’t imagine Leah being attracted to the Mormon missionary look.
As I left the house, I waved at the next door neighbor, the one RedGirl liked because he was a right-winger and owned a collection of strange weapons. He was dragging his giant lawnmower out of the garage, but he stopped to wave back. Then, he squinted at me.
“Rowr!” he said.
After that, I would have preferred to just go naked. Not only would it have offended everybody, but I would have defined myself, in the end, exactly as I was: the clichéd human being, defenseless and insecure.
But that wasn’t realistic, of course. It would never happen. I had gone way past the age for that kind of honesty.
“What’s the message you’re trying to send?” Nova asked me the next time she saw me. I was wearing a shapeless gown made of something that looked like sackcloth, although without the ashes.
“None. I gave up on sending messages years ago,” I replied. I was perched on the edge of her friend’s balcony.
“For the time being, I will remain undefined,” I said.