Coming of Age Asian American Contemporary

Bindu checks her watch again; it had only been four mins since she last looked. She readjusts the strap so the watch would fit more snugly on her wrist and the studded C would gleam for a momentary adrenaline jolt. Didn’t work. Her topor-soaked eyes trace the glimmering aisles, everything a blur of textures and colors like in a psychedelic-induced dream. Staring out the front of the store, she sees a woman and a girl admiring the cerulean-colored dress on the busty silver manequin. The woman’s eyes travel down the length of the dress and then into the store where she locks eyes with Bindu. Awkward eye-contact established, Bindu flashes her the most welcoming smile she could muster twelve minutes before the end of the shift. She hopes they don’t come into the store; mothers and daughters shopping for prom dresses are the worst kind of shoppers to have at the end of the day. They seem to have no care in the world about when the mall closes or the mess they left in their wake. She had once spent forty minutes at the end of her shift just picking up and restacking thirty-four dresses, all a sequined pile on the ground. That episode was courtesy of three teens and their mothers on their way back after a day at their country club.

What was it about American mothers and daughters getting ready for prom? The girls were of course their most, well, American-teenager-self, spritzed in an aura of narcissism that announced its presence well before they entered the room. They often looked past her at a shimmering dress behind her, each one sure she had the most discerning eye although she was just picking out the latest silhouette Taylor Swift had worn on the red carpet. These girls mostly used her as a clothes and photo stand. Bindu would take turns holding up gowns for trial or phones so the self-adoring photos with puckered lips, cocked hips and pointed toes could be sent to their girlfriends or perhaps a prom date. But it  was the mothers that incensed Bindu. The mothers who validated this behavior and fed the tigresses more meat in the form of compliments and adoration. Moms and daughters took turns saying the word “cute” to each other as if it was a ball that needed to be kept in the air and the first one to drop it was out of the game.

Bindu snaps back to the day before her senior prom night holding up the pale pink abomination of cheap fabric in her hands. Her mother, the eternal salvagist and conservationist, had upcycled an old saree into this eyesore. Upcycled was what hindsight would call it, as well as the teens who came into her store who also likely professed their love for the planet on TikTok. Back then, it was just cheap. Bindu buying a new dress for prom was never an option. It was always going to be a hand-me-down or one of her mother’s creations. That’s what she had worn most of her life. At ten, when her family first landed in a suburb in Ohio from a small town in Nepal, and moved in with her uncle, she’d wear her cousins’ discards. Never mind that her cousins were boys. Her first day in American school was in an ill-fitted polo shirt and faded cargo pants that she kept tied to her waist using the white string that held up her mom’s petticoat under her saree. Her family had no money to get themselves a place to live for the next four years, much less something superfluous like clothes. Bindu’s brother got a job washing cars for change that went into buying himself video games, which interested him way more than what he wore. But Bindu could see the way girls at school looked at themselves in the mirror in the latest lace camisole from Abercrombie & Fitch, or the bootcut, low rise jeans from American Eagle. Meanwhile, her mother had taken a special interest in dressing Bindu, as if she was her own rag doll. Her mother was a stalwart salvager; old clothes became new clothes, pillow cases and grocery bags. What she couldn’t make, she foraged unabashedly from her surroundings. When Bindu had complained that she needed shoes for gym class, her mother had brightly held up a pair she had gotten from her colleague at the factory the next day. Never mind they were two sized too small for Bindu and her toes bled every time she used them. Bindu’s mother hosed them down and pronounced them as good as new and Bindu burned with the knowledge there was a woman out there who knew they couldn’t afford new shoes.

Whether her mother’s penchant for castoffs and DIYing her entire family’s wardrobe came before or after their family stopped having money, Bindu would never know. All she knew was that her prom dress could never be one that graced the latest issue of Teen Vogue she stole from her neighbor’s mailbox. Instead it looked like a Bridgerton-spoof costume which would have likely made a good Halloween ensemble in present-day. But that night before prom, Bindu had sobbed in her room for hours and then ripped the dress in rage; it was easy to undo her mother’s stitching that held what seemed like their entire life together. “Why me?”, she screamed, “why can’t I have nice things?” Her mother’s eyes burned with hurt watching her labor come undone while she tried to sell the virtues of the lack of choices. “Come on Binni, look this dress you will wear once only. See then afterwards, I can remove the skirt and it came become a top also and you can wear it with pants.” It was this rationalization that Bindu hated the most. Her mother making the fact that they couldn’t afford a new dress for prom a rectitude more than a failing. Bindu never went to prom, and she never forgave her mother for that dress that became a tablecloth soon after.

The mother and daughter are still standing outside the store admiring the mannequin and in deep conversation with each other. It is now seven minutes to close. Bindu makes her way to the front of the store, keeping a fake if diluted smile on her face. She found her brown skin had to always be accompanied by a white smile to make American mothers feel more at-ease walking into the store. She adjusts the belt on her svelte sweater dress she had bought from the same store just that morning. Sales associates are required to wear the clothes from the store to be “on-brand”. Never mind that the clothes are obscenely overpriced and even with the employee discount, most of her paycheck goes toward dressing herself for her job. Spending her days and most of her money on luxurious fabrics and trendy designs felt like the sweetest revenge. Although there were some trends she couldn’t quite get herself to buy into: mom jeans and utility jackets as fashion statements felt like a cruel joke.

“Hi ladies, can I help you with anything?” Bindu says in the most congenial tone she can muster.

“Oh, hi, well this is just such a beautiful dress,” the mother says, her eyes not leaving the mannequin for a second.

“It really is, and it looks lovely on. Are we shopping for prom night?” Bindu enquires flashing a knowing smile over at the daughter, who turns to her mother in bright anger.

“Mom! I told you, I don’t care what I wear to prom; can we just go? I want to get a Jamba Juice.”

“But honey, this is your big night. Don’t you want to look and feel like a movie star?”

“Mom,” the girl’s voice reduces to a loud whisper, “we can’t afford this. I don’t want to spend this much on a dress.” The girl then turns to Bindu with hot eyes that seem to be instructing her, “Come on, can you tell my mom this is way overpriced and not worth it for one night?”

Bindu swallows, looking between mother and daughter. The mother’s eyes sparkle with the reflection of the dress she hopes would give her daughter the life she wants her to have for even just a day. The daughter’s eyes hold the acceptance of a life she lives everyday, knowing her choices come at the expense of something else. Old or new, expensive or cheap; what is it that mothers’ want to say to their daughters through dresses?

December 28, 2023 15:06

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03:44 Jan 07, 2024

Great story! I liked how this stuck to one scene and had a lot of detail. "Upcycled" haha. A lot of relevant modern observations about American society and commercialism. For the critique circle, my only advice would be to focus more on one story or the other, it seems to be equally split between the present and the past. If you have shorter flashbacks to the past, that might keep the tension higher in the present.


Arch R
13:07 Jan 10, 2024

Thank you so much for your feedback and critique Scott. Very helpful in thinking about the evolution of this story!


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