The Little Dress with the Long Ruffled Sleeves

Submitted into Contest #145 in response to: Write a story where a particular piece of clothing appears three times.... view prompt

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Sad Romance Drama

This story contains sensitive content

Note: This story contains sensitive content relating to mental health and pregnancy loss.

She sets a black box with a big ribbon on the dinner table. It’s the kind of box that fancy stores put expensive clothes in, but I’m engrossed enough in my phone that I don’t really look up. She wants me to look up. Probably wants me to guess how much she spent on the box’s contents, but I don't do it.

She clears her throat and I keep chewing my dinner, concentrating on what’s happening on my phone screen. I place my final fork-full of food into my mouth and she seizes the opportunity.

“I got you something.”

Now, I didn’t expect that.

I look up, swallow, smile. “You did?” She nods and I realize there’s excitement swimming behind her eyes as she snatches the box, pushes my plate aside, and sets the box in its place. I freeze, my smile dropping. Look at the box, look at her. “Why?” I ask, suspicious. “What is today?” I turn to my phone, swiping down to see the date.

It’s not our anniversary. Not a holiday. Not date night. I look at her, my eyes already pleading forgiveness for the sin I’m unaware I committed.

She laughs. It’s the laugh I fell in love with, and I warm to it, relaxing.

“Don’t worry, you didn’t forget anything,” she says, pushing the box closer to me. “Open it. It’s a special surprise.”

I wipe fake sweat from my forehead and wick it away with a dramatic flick of my wrist. She giggles, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

I pick up the box, shake it vigorously, and hear something flopping around inside. I look at her knowingly. It’s a hat, I think, or socks. I rip off the bow, flinging it over my shoulder, then I look her in the eye, lift the lid, and without looking, I snap it across the room like a Frisbee. I hear it crash against the wall. She laughs, grabs my hand, squeezes.

She’s so beautiful. She’s biting her lower lip like she does when she’s excited, looking eagerly from the open box to my face.

“Open it,” she says, dropping my hand. Hers fall to her lap, fingers clenching and unclenching.

I reach in and uncurl tissue paper, ready to squeal in delight at some sort of limited edition football apparel I’ve probably been talking about for the last six years of our marriage. Instead, I scowl. It’s girl clothes inside the box. Reaching in, I pinch the shoulders of what turns into an impossibly little dress as I lift it, long ruffled sleeves falling at its sides, and a layered skirt filling out the bottom. It’s covered in orange, red, and black butterflies.

“I think it’s too small for me,” I joke. Still holding it up, only my eyes turn to look at her, confused and unsure how to react to a gift I don’t need.

Her eyes are glassy with tears but she’s smiling wide, biting her thumb nail, staring at me. My hands fall into the box, the baby girl dress crumpling into a pile under them, still pinched in my fingers. I feel my mouth open, close, and open again like a fish, my throat clenching any words so they can’t come out.

I’m afraid to ask her.

I want to ask her.

I can’t ask her.

I ask her: “Am I a daddy?”

She’s glowing, her smile bigger than I’ve seen it in years, tears rolling down her cheeks. I shove the box aside and am kneeling at the foot of her chair, wrapping my arms around her, clutching tight.

“I just know it’s a girl,” she says.

“I love her already,” I say.

“She’s going to look so beautiful in that dress.”

She cries into my shoulder and I cry into hers. I’ve never felt this type of happiness.

But this isn’t the last time we cry over this pregnancy.

Eleven weeks later, we both cry in a cold doctor’s office while a woman with dark skin and a light coat tells us we are still relatively young and it’s possible for us to conceive again. So we conceive again. Actually, four more times, each time landing us in similar doctor’s offices but always involving more invasive tests and procedures than the previous visit.

I think she ran out of tears with the last one, because today when I shut the car door after her, she only stares ahead, expressionless. I turn on music she likes but doesn’t sing to and hold her hand while I drive us home, but her fingers don’t curl around mine anymore.

Weeks go by and she is too tired to get out of bed. I bring her breakfast in the mornings that goes mostly untouched until I get home from work to trade it out with dinner she won’t eat. She only showers with me, never unless I prompt her, and I can never tell if they’re tears on her cheeks or water droplets before she dips her head entirely under the shower stream.

One morning, just as I’m about to bring in her breakfast tray, she’s there, standing in the kitchen doorway looking breathtaking and sad.

“Hi,” I say, so happy to see her, almost overcome with it, but I don’t want my happiness to drown her.

“Can you empty out the nursery?” she asks.

I blink, then swallow hard. “Yes,” I say, feeling a leaden door we haven’t fully talked through closing on our future. It’s suffocating, but I agree anyway. Anything to help her. “This weekend?”

She nods.

“I made you breakfast,” I say.

“Thank you.”

We eat at the kitchen table in silence.

On the weekend, I open the nursery door that’s been closed for over a month and that’s felt empty since always. I start taking apart the crib and packing it up in the box we never threw away. I pile all the toys in plastic bins and clear out the closet full of bouncy seats, playmats, and bottles. I drag it all out to the car, but when I come back for the next trip, she’s kneeling on the floor at the base of the clothing dresser with the dress in her lap. Seeing her here amidst the nest she built sparks a feeling in my chest and stomach as though all my organs swallowed themselves.

“It’s a stupid thing for an infant to wear,” she says. She strokes the tiny dress, skimming the ruffles on the sleeves and the fluffy skirt. Her fingertips trace the butterflies, outlining them like they’re precious and alive.

I can’t help it. I imagine her delicate fingertips brushing a tender newborn cheek, loving a fictitious child she deserves to hold in real life. She’d make a remarkable mother, I’ve always known it. A painful lump forms in my throat, grieving for who she will never be.

“They throw up a thousand times a day,” she adds bitterly. “A baby wouldn’t last five minutes in this dress. What was I thinking?”

She starts folding it up, shoving it back in the same black box she used to gift it to me so long ago. I walk up behind her, sinking onto my heels, wrapping her shoulders in a hug. I kiss her head, I kiss her cheek, I kiss her neck.

“I think you were thinking that our baby would look so beautiful in this dress,” I whisper.

I feel her body shaking. I find a seat on the floor behind her, sprawling my legs on either side of her, and she lays back on my chest and sobs. When she’s done, she neatens the baby’s dress in the box, gently folds the paper overtop, replaces the lid, and sets it on the highest shelf inside the nursery closet. Then she leaves. I empty all the memories from that room but close the closet on the only one we keep, sitting safely on the shelf inside.

She doesn’t stay in bed all day anymore once the nursery is empty. It starts slow and I don’t rush her—I give her the space she needs to exist again on her terms—but soon she’s doing her own laundry and making plans with friends outside the house. Not long after that, she tells me she has a new job. Months pass and she’s enjoying it, more so than she’s enjoyed any other, and she gets more promotions than I ever have the following year, enough that we invest in a new home and move to a new neighborhood to assemble our fresh start.

I dance her around the boxes stacked in our new kitchen, playing our wedding song and singing gently in her ear. I don’t want to get too hopeful, but I feel her fingers clasp my hand tightly and I think I hear her singing softly under her breath, remembering all the words.

The next morning, she gets up before me to make breakfast. I see her cooking in bare feet, humming our song, and swaying to the beat in her head. She hears me and turns, says good morning, and I catch a glimpse of the most beautiful smile wrinkles creasing the corners of her eyes.

Days after we’ve unpacked everything and mostly settled in, I walk into the kitchen and see the black box on the counter. I stare, then glance at the brand new kitchen table where I see her sitting, putting on her shoes. She avoids my eye as she stands, walks up to the box, opens it, and pulls out the little dress with the long ruffled sleeves and fluffy skirt. She rubs the fabric between her thumb and forefinger, kindly grazing over butterflies. It hasn't aged a day, the tags still dangling from the neckline.

I stare at her but don’t ask.

I won’t ask.

I can’t.

“I met our neighbor today and she’s pregnant,” she says, saving me from asking. She looks up at me. “She’s having a girl.”

I smile at her sadly and she smiles back bravely, her shoulders pressed back like a soldier on their way to battle. She’s so beautiful. So strong. She looks me right in the eye and takes a big breath.

“Don’t you think their baby girl will look beautiful in this dress?” she asks me.

I nod. “I think she will.”

May 12, 2022 04:45

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2 comments

Amber Versailles
21:38 May 20, 2022

This is so beautifully written! I love your writing style and this story is beautifully structured. It's paced really well and each appearance of the dress introduces something meaningful and impactful.

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Ginger Scharpe
03:42 May 20, 2022

Wow. Nicely written. You were able to capture feelings of a delicate subject from the father's side as he went through it with his wife. It was inspirational. I felt that you gave inspiration that you can get through it. It was touching and sweet.

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