|Fran and Chloe
By Peggy Duffy
Fran and her daughter Chloe have been arguing the entire way from the house to the mall. Not great, Fran thinks, considering Chloe is doing the driving. Which is one of the things theyve been arguing about. Chloe, although she has read the drivers manual, passed the written test, and received her driving permit, seems to have forgotten the rules of the road. She forgets to yield, assumes she has the right-of-way when making left turns.
Fran and Chloe calls her Fran, which is something else they have argued over, but not today sits beside her only daughter. They are off to find Chloe a dress to wear to Homecoming next week. Fran reminisces about her first high school dance, the pale yellow dress with its lattice of roses across the bodice. She emerges from her reverie as Chloe turns right without signaling.
I know. I just forgot, Chloe says, her voice impatient and primed for argument, then she proceeds to commit another driving infraction. She doesnt come to a full stop at the next stop sign.
That guys riding my bumper. Hes making me nervous,
Midway to the mall, a loud screech sounds through the speakers.
I love this song, Chloe says and reaches for the knob on the radio. She turns the volume way up.
Fran reminds her to keep both hands on the wheel at all times and they argue over that too.
At the mall, parkings a problem. Chloe cruises row after row.
Theres one, Fran says, pointing.
How am I supposed to see with your hand in front of my face, Chloe says, zipping clear of the spot.
Theres another, Fran says, her hands on her lap.
Chloe slows, turns the wheel.
Wrong angle, she says and pulls away.
Halfway into the next space, Chloe slams her fist onto the steering wheel.
Just take your time, Fran coaxes.
Chloe puts the car in reverse, backs up without looking. A horn wails behind them. She brings the car to a shuddering stop. Fran feels the anti-lock brakes kick in, the rumbling vibration beneath her feet. She anticipates the sound of squealing brakes giving way to crunching metal, mentally braces herself for collision. A pick-up, raised atop enormous wheels, swerves around them and whizzes past.
Didnt you see him? Fran says.
He was speeding, Chloe says.
Fran takes a deep breath, her heart pounding, the blood hammering through her veins in aftershock. There are impatient drivers out there, she knows, drivers who will take advantage of Chloes inexperience, cut her off, ride her bumper. Just last week she heard of another teenager involved in a traffic incident.
Ill walk you through it, Fran says. She tells Chloe how to align the car to the empty space, how far to pull forward before turning the wheel. She is reminded of Chloe learning to walk, how she held tight to her hand while leading the way. Chloe has that same look on her face now, her top teeth scraping her lower lip. She backs the car up, jerks forward into the space, then slams on the emergency brake, flipping the hair off her face with her free hand. Another thing theyve argued over. The redor is it magenta or pink?Frans not sure what to call the ribbon of color running the length of Chloes hair.
Chloe forgets to lock the car. She marches on ahead, the borders of her body undefined beneath the wide angle of denim, the large boxy sweater. Her sneakers catch the bottom of her jeans, the ripped, frayed line of hem below her heels. Fran notices the tires on the right side of the car are over the line which designates the parking space, but says nothing. Chloe is too far away to hear anyhow.
Their first stop is a large department store with a huge inventory of dressy junior attire. Fran eyes the countless racks of clothes, spots a long, black dress hanging from onesleeveless, simple, elegant. She holds it up.
What do you think?
Chloe pushes a strand of pink behind her ear.
This is a great color for you.
Chloe makes a face and turns away.
More stores, more dresses, more differences of opinion, until Fran is completely exasperated, her patience draining. She has a cesspool of a headache.
Just what is it youre looking for?
Ill know when I see it.
At the far end of the mall, Frans feet sore, they discover a new shop, Chinese-style dresses displayed on skinny mannequins out front, transparent chiffons and shiny vinyls exhibited behind glass. Chloe stops short.
In here, she says.
Frans words land on air. Chloes already inside fingering satin and velvet, pulling nylon and lace off the circular rack.
DRESSING AND UNDRESSING
Hold these, Chloe says in urgent, excited whispers. Dresses seem to fall of their own accord into Frans waiting arms.
She follows Chloe into the dressing room, a large cube of space with a floor-length mirror in the corner. Gauzy tie-dyed sheets section off portions for privacy. Fran feels the weight of the clothes lifted all at once from her arms. A young woman in black, a silver ring in her left eyebrow, counts the dresses. Chloe disappears behind a curtain of sunburst yellow. Beneath the veil of saffron and lemon, jeans drop, bunch at Chloes ankles. Fran makes out fingertips above the line of the curtain, a sweater lifted up, bare legs visible below, the curve of Chloes calves stepping out of the baggy jeans. The sweater is heaped on the floor atop the pile of blue denim. Fingertips raise again and a glimmer of red glides past.
Can I see? Fran asks.While Fran waits, young women, like Chloe, blanketed in jeans and shapeless sweaters or sweatshirts, disappear behind brightly patterned curtains, some with mothers who stand expectantly in this open space, others with boyfriends who linger outside, faces washed of _expression, peeking now and then through the dressing room door. The young woman in black counts the clothes, hands out numbered colored tags. Music rushes from the massive speakers on the floor, not music really, more a rhythmic incantation which rises above a melodic background. Its loud, but not too loud. Fran overhears the giggling and chatter of two friends behind one of the curtains, the shuffle of arms and legs dressing and undressing.
Howre you doing? she asks Chloe.
Chloe parts the curtain, draped in something sparkly and gold, bare back reflected in the mirror behind her. She steps toward Fran on long pale legs, her green vinyl sneakers still on her feet.
What do you think? Chloe says.
Not bad. A little short, Fran says slowly.
You dont like it.
Its not that I dont like it . . . Im not sure
the hem hangs right. Turn around. Let me get a better look.
Chloe jerks the curtain shut.
Another waiting mother gives Fran an encouraging, yet hopeless smile. The young woman in black glances up from arranging clothes on their hangers and gives her one of contempt. A few minutes later, Chloe reemerges, legs covered in a length of glossy maroon, sneaker tops barely showing, the streaks in her hair all the pinker for the dress.
Looks great, Fran says before Chloe can ask.
Think so? Chloe inspects herself in the mirror, grimaces, then disappears behind the curtain again.
Fran outside, Chloe inside, separated by a screen of sunshine, a bright splashy curtain of color.
How many more? Fran asks, trying to remain patient.
This is the last one, Chloe says and slides open the curtain. Fran braces herself. The dress is short and clingy, full of static electricity, the color of nutmeg sprinkled with cinnamon. Twisted spaghetti straps rest against the pale skin of her shoulder. Chloe steps to the mirror and studies her reflection, twirls back around.
Well? Chloe stands near-naked, dressed in a slip, no more than a scrap of undergarment. It summons in Fran the image of Chloe clad only in a diaper letting go of her hand and tottering across the room. Chloe, near-naked, stepping forth into the world. For a moment she is overwhelmed by the same mixture of apprehension and pride as when she watched her take those first solo steps. She wants to kneel down, like she did then, coaxing her back. How can she let her go like that? How can she not?
Well? Chloe repeats, sucking on her bottom lip. There are goosebumps
running up and down her arms.