Looking the Part

By Kevin Finnerty

            Nick never paid much attention to the clothes people wore until he met Dana. He cared a little about his own attire, but just a little.   

            Dana managed a boutique clothing shop in the North Loop in Minneapolis. A hip store in a hipster neighborhood. The sort of place where patrons only checked the price after they’d already made the decision to purchase the item. 

            Nick lived in the neighborhood that had been called the Warehouse District for a long time after the warehouses along the Mississippi River had disappeared, only to be quickly re-branded once urban living came back in vogue and the neighborhood offered upscale opportunities to those who worked downtown, less than a mile away.

            Nick and Dana spoke for the first time after he walked into the boutique without any intention of buying, or even pretending to buy, clothes. He’d lived in the city for two years without entering a serious romantic relationship, as he’d discovered Minnesota Nice did not mean warm or inviting. He’d met Dana’s eyes on at least a dozen occasions when passing Fine Threads on his way home from work before he decided to find out if she viewed him as anything more than a potential customer.  

            “How can I help you?” 

            Dana’s question took him aback. He’d planned his approach in advance, but it had not included her initiating the conversation.

            “Do you always wear a suit?”

            Nick thought he could handle the second question at least. “Four days a week.  Five if I have to go to court or meet with a client on Fridays.”

            “What do you otherwise wear on Fridays?”

            “Business casual. Emphasis on the business part.”

            “Most people aren’t so constrained.”

            “What about the military?” 

            “The military, sure.” Dana showed her full teeth as she smiled this time, revealing to Nick the difference between the pleasing smile she’d previously offered and the natural one she now displayed. “What about weekends? Holidays? Vacations?”

            Nick looked down at his clothes — suit, tie, dress shoes — as if they would provide him the answer. “Whatever I want, I guess.”

            Nick left Fine Threads ten minutes later without making a purchase, but he had Dana’s phone number and a thought he’d never previously considered: Most people aren’t so constrained.

            As he walked about his city in the days that followed, Nick paid more attention to the attire of those around him and discovered that even in its corporate center most people took advantage of their freedom.  People wore jeans, both of the designer and second-hand variety, and everything in-between; shirts, collared and pressed, as well as those torn that exposed the wearer’s flesh; sneakers, loafers, boots, sandals, sometimes no shoes at all.  He saw Ts that gave him information about the individual’s favorite band, school, or sports team.  He even saw one guy in his early twenties, hair a little long, but otherwise clean-cut, clean shaven, whose shirt said I’m that guy.

            Nick imagined the slogan would have been profound had the wearer been a philosophy major making an existential statement. The sort of person whose voice mail would have said: “I was going to say ‘I’m not here’ but that may have started a debate that would have been impossible to end. So please just leave a message and I’ll try to get back to you.”

            Nick thought the dude on the street looked too happy to have been a philosophy major, but he was sure the guy wanted to convey some message.    

            “Most people do,” Dana told him on their first date. “You buy top brands at full price, you’re telling the world you want the best, can afford it, and want others to know it. You purchase knock-offs, you want to pretend you’re a member of the first group and hope people can’t tell the difference.”  

            The couple sat at an outdoor patio at a restaurant just across the river in the neighborhood named Northeast but pronounced “Nordeast” by its residents.  

            “What do mine say?”

            “You buy functional clothes and shop middle-of-the-road department stores for items you can afford that you hope won’t offend anyone.” She used air quotes around “shop.” “Nothing wrong with that. I’m with you, right? I wouldn’t have given you my number if you’d worn sweats or sandals when you came into the shop, no matter how good looking you might have been.  That would have told me you valued your own comfort above everything else. Like women who wear yoga pants 90% of the time.”

            Nick wasn’t sure what to make of Dana’s attire and was afraid to ask. He’d noticed at work she wore lots of black or white or black and white. Sharp, professional clothes that would have been beyond her price point but for her employee discount and her employer’s expectations.

            On their first date, Dana wore a striped blouse, solid short skirt, and a red fedora. Nick soon understood she liked to mix-and-match and frequently combined one item that was fairly expensive, another that was dirt cheap, and a third somewhere in-between, but it would be some time before he’d be able to consistently tell which was which.

            Nick better grasped the message she wanted to send on their second date. She wore a Zach Parisee jersey when she greeted him in the doorway to her apartment. They’d made plans to attend a Wild game after he learned, like most in the State of Hockey, Dana was an avid fan on the sport.   

            “No jersey for you?” 

            “I didn’t want to risk it.” Nick had elected to take her to the game when the Wild were facing off against his hometown team, the Flyers.

            She patted him on the shoulder. “That doesn’t happen here. I was at a game last year where we all got serenaded by a bunch of Canadiens fans when Montreal ran us out of the building. Five solid minutes of Ole, ole, ole. Most Minnesotans politely left the arena.”

            “That wouldn’t happen in Philly. Not without a fight.”

            Nick sat quietly through the first period even though the Flyers were the only team to score. After the second goal, Dana leaned into him. “Go ahead and cheer. You know you want to.”

            Nick told himself he would the next time Philly lit the lamp, but as soon as he did so, a Flyer defenseman caught an edge giving a Wild forward an unimpeded path to the goalie. One deke and it was 2-1.

            Dana jumped to her feet. Seconds later she looked down at Nick as if she knew what had happened. Had it been her plan all along?

            Nick wondered if not getting to his feet when the home team scored was just as telling as applauding when good things happened to the visitors. The Flyers scored next, but the Wild scored last during the shootout. Dana left the arena twice as happy as Nick because her team garnered two points and his only one.

            “You look good in those jeans,” Dana said as they reached his car after the game.

            Nick smiled at the compliment but wondered what it was about the jeans she liked during the ride to her apartment. All his pairs were different. Also, did the sole compliment about his jeans imply she didn’t like the shirt or shoes he wore?

            Nick paused when he parked the car outside her apartment, waiting to see if she would abruptly exit or invite him inside. She did neither.

            He turned and stared. She smiled. He leaned across believing it was time for their first kiss.

            Dana moved a third of the way towards him but slipped the kiss and embraced him instead. Nick felt both of her hands on his back, rubbing against his new flannel shirt.

            “You smell good.” She had her chin resting against his shoulder.

            “So do you.”

            Nick couldn’t smell anything. He believed his spinning thoughts must have impaired his senses.

            “I hope we’ll do this again.”

            “We’ll have to go to Philly. They play there later this year.”

            She pulled away. “Slow down, Bud.”

            He prepared to apologize, or tell her that wasn’t what he’d meant, but before he could say the words, she said goodnight and left. He turned around and looked through the rear windshield hoping she’d glance back. She didn’t.

            On their third date, Nick entered Fine Threads while Dana was in the process of closing the shop just after seven on a Friday night. He’d come directly from work wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and maroon tie after spending the day in a deposition until it ended shortly before five.

            Mentally drained from paying attention to every word being said for almost seven hours, Nick considered coming home to change and relax or, alternatively, going out with some colleagues for a drink or two during happy hour. Instead, he stayed at work until 6:45.

            “You should have gone.  Or were you scared of showing Drunk Nick to me too early in the relationship?”

            Nick happily pocketed the last word she said. “I didn’t think about that. I just didn’t want to break with tradition. If staying later on a Friday keeps me out of the office on the weekend, it’s worth it. If I have to come in no matter how late I stay, I might as well take off early on Friday.”

            “So your weekend’s free?”

            “Didn’t say that. Just don’t have to go in the next couple of days.”

            Nick and Dana left the boutique and walked west along Washington towards a popular pasta restaurant that had recently opened in the neighborhood. The place had an industrial feel with its dark brick and wood and exposed ventilation tubes running overhead. Tables were situated close to one another, so guests often had to lean across theirs to be heard. When their server arrived, he bent at the knees and squatted to communicate better with them.

            They ordered one item to be shared from each of the categories on the menu, which included antipasto, bruschetta, dry pasta, fresh pasta, and a meat from the “Secondi” listing. The dishes began to arrive in no particular order from a seemingly endless supply of waitstaff dressed in white shirts and aprons, all of whom (women included) sported a tie. The constant motion ensured guests never waited long.

            Like Dana and Nick, most patrons were in their twenties or thirties. Urban dwellers whose form of relaxation consisted of additional activity, not rest.

            Nick considered the night a huge success until he lost control of the last piece of veal pappardelle and it skated from the plate onto his lap and left him with a stain on his pants.

            “Guess I’ll add visiting dry cleaners to my To Do list for tomorrow.”

            “Give ‘em to me as soon as we get back to your place.”  

            Nick and Dana stopped going on dates. They were dating. She took him clothes shopping, meaning they went to a store together, and she pulled items off the rack, handed them to Nick and told him to try them on.

            “You need more color. And tighter fitting clothes. At least for your free time.”

            Who was he to disagree with the expert in this area? Especially when more than once a person in the street, at a restaurant, or in a store had approached them and said they made a lovely couple.  

            “Tall and blonde, tall and dark,” one middle-aged woman said as she passed their table in the cafe in which Nickand Dana were breakfasting.

            “I wouldn’t think that behavior to be very Minnesotan. Too outspoken.”

            “It’s about you, not me. I’m just like everybody else here.”

            Nick knew Minnesotan women were taller and fairer of skin than the average woman on the east coast, but Dana was far from the norm. She stood eye-to-eye with him when she wore heels, and was far prettier and more lithe than most of those of Scandinavian extraction.

            He looked forward to the opportunity to present her to his world. To show them what she thought of him.

            He soon had his chance when Nick’s firm held its annual meeting in Minneapolis. Lawyers from around the world gathered to attend to company business, to place faces to names they only knew electronically, and to socialize.

            The closing dinner, officially coined The Gala but universally called The Prom by those of Nick’s stature, was a black-tie affair to which lawyers were allowed to invite a guest. Nick invited Dana so he would not have to go stag for the third consecutive year.  

            “Do you own a tuxedo?”

            “I’ll rent one.”

            “You should think about buying.”

            “If I become partner, I will.”

            “Owning one might help you make partner.”

            Nick did not heed Dana’s advice. He thought owning a tuxedo would constitute a commitment he was not ready to make.  

            He entered the converted railway station where The Gala was held wearing a rental once more. For the first time, he paid attention to what others wore.  

            He thought he looked okay. Maybe his tux wasn’t the nicest, but it fit him better than many of the men who were overweight or otherwise out of shape. Formal clothes did them no favors.

            “Except showing they care.” Dana whispered in Nick’s ear after most of the other members of their table — Nick’s coworkers and their guests — had risen to get a drink or head for the dance floor. Mainly the former.  

            “Maybe that’s the opposite of what I want to say.” He saw Dana frown. “At work at least, not with you.”

            “You’re with me here. And you should care, even if you weren’t.”

            “You’re right,” he said, uncertain if he believed himself, “next year I’ll get my own.”

            Nick stood and held out his hand to escort Dana to the dance floor. As she got to her feet, he felt for the first time — not just that evening but the first time in his life — perhaps she was out of his league. At least he believed those who watched him lead Dana, dressed in an off-the-shoulder, black silk dress, would think that. Or that she was banking on him making partner someday.

            Nick wondered that himself, at least until she conceded something to him, or to herself, after the first dance, when she removed her shoes and became slightly shorter than him once more.

            She dropped her shoes just beyond the dance floor’s boundary. “It’s easier this way.”

            They danced for a half hour in a rather unlawyerly way, which is not to say they danced provocatively or even eccentrically. Just that danced. Period. Which meant they made themselves and their appearances open to observation and comment.

            For once, Nick didn’t care.

            When they tired, Nick took her hand and escorted her to one of the bars that had been established in each of the corners of the room for the evening. He left Dana to get in line for free booze. A few minutes later, he found her in a conversation with a partner at his firm. Or the guest of a partner anyway.   

            “We went to high school together.”

            “You guys were really kicking it.” To the extent her sun-soaked skin hadn’t sufficiently aged the woman, her formal white gown did the trick. Nick thought there was no way she could have been a classmate of Dana’s, especially as she was accompanied by a man two decades older than him.

            “You guys having fun?” The partner wore a big smile as he grabbed his date’s shoulders. 

            “Yes, Sir.” Nick took a large sip from his glass.

            “I hope I’m not overdressed.” Dana’s former classmate tilted her head back after closely studying Dana’s appearance.

            “Nonsense.  No such thing. So what do you do, Dana?”

            “I manage a boutique in the North Loop.”

            “See,” the partner said as if Dean and Nick wouldn’t hear, “she’s all about clothes.  You’re with me.”

            Nick wasn’t sure whether he or Dana was the primary intended target of the partner’s jab. In either case, it bothered him.

            Nick pretended it didn’t when he smiled and told the partner he wanted to mingle. He pretended it didn’t when he got another drink and he and Dana found his friends near another makeshift bar. He pretended it didn’t when he and Dana took a taxi to his place an hour later. He pretended it didn’t when they went to bed that night.

            In the morning while they sat at the small round table in his condo drinking coffee, Nick could no longer pretend.  He introduced a non-sequitur into their otherwise banal conversation.

            “Are clothes really that important?”

            Dana offered him a smile he hadn’t previously seen. It wasn’t the smile of the store manager staring at a potential customer. Nor was it the smile of a woman attracted to a potential mate. It was the smile that a person smiles to herself when she expects someone to act in a certain way — a way she wishes the person wouldn’t act — and then sees the person conform to the expected behavior.

            “Happiness is. If I do my job right, I’m helping make other people happy.”

            “For how long?”

            “For a while. That’s something, right? Do you make people happy doing whatever you do?”

            “Not often. Sometimes with a big win perhaps, but most of the time my client is still upset getting a huge bill. And forget about the other side.” Nick stared into his almost empty mug. “Plaintiffs’ attorneys make their clients happy with large verdicts or settlements. Even corporate attorneys do when they make deals.”

            “Why don’t you become one of them?”

            “Not in my nature, I guess.”

            Dana asked Nick to take her home shortly thereafter. He wondered if she’d ever return. They hadn’t ever had a fight before, and he wasn’t even sure if they’d just had one, but there was something about her request. As if she were implying there wasn’t any point if he was going to completely devalue her. 

            On his way home, Nick wondered why he’d sabotaged the relationship. He didn’t agree with the partner and certainly didn’t like him. How was it that other people could influence his behavior in a negative way, even when he knew (or should have known) the person who was influencing him could care less about him while the person against whom he was going to act did?

            Nick knew he needed to apologize but didn’t know what to say, so he avoided saying anything. He thought about what he should do, what he could do, a lot the next day, but didn’t actually do anything.

            Dana knocked on his door Sunday evening. She held a rectangular box in both arms in front of her.

            “I was going to give this to you for Christmas.”

            He stared at the box but didn’t take it. He thought doing so might amount to conceding he was no longer eligible for the grand prize and was merely accepting his parting consolation gift.  

            “So why don’t you?”

            She shrugged.

            “I was hoping you would consider going with me to see my family around the holidays.”

            Nick hadn’t actually ever considered that. Not yet. It seemed too soon. But at that moment he thought he might as well launch a Hail Mary.

            Dana’s somber mood disappeared. Her voice assumed a lighter tone. “Do you think we’re ready?”

            “I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t.”

            “I don’t know.”

            Dana looked behind her as if she wanted to leave. Or perhaps to see if she were being observed. Nick occupied one of only three units on the third floor of his building, so there never was any traffic.

            “I’m sorry, I’m an idiot sometimes.”

            Dana thrust her hands into the pockets of her peacoat. “Everybody is.”

            Nick’s parents lived, by choice, in a tiny town in Oregon, far from all major airports, so he and Dana had to rent a car at PDX and then spend more time driving than flying. After six hours on the road, they puled into a grass driveway off a dirt road.  

            From the outside, the placed looked more like a cabin than a house. Wooden construction home hidden by trees.  

            Dana grabbed Nick’s hand when he got out of the car. “So is this going to be like going back in time?”

            “Not at all. Going to Philly is going back in time. This place, these people, it’s like being transported to an alternate universe.”

            Nick’s sister greeted them at the door. She wore old, stained jeans and a frayed sweater, the sort of clothes Nick’s family called “comfortable,” but which he knew Dana thought were not even good enough to be donated to goodwill.

            “Keily, your uncle Nick is here.”

            Ellyn’s daughter raised her hand with a smartphone in it but didn’t move until ordered to do so by her mother.

            “Just eleven and already at the stage where she just does her own thing.”

            The tween wore a flare dress with horizontal blue and white stripes, but she was not the same girl Nick had last seen a year ago. The formerly ever-engaging child now studied her smart phone as if it, and it alone, contained all the answers to the universe.

            “So how you like Tacoma?”

            “Boring.”

            “Did you recently move there?” Dana directed her question to Keily, but Ellyn answered.

            “Six months. The same time the divorce became final. We used to live in Redmond.”

            “Wish we still did.” Keily spoke to her device.

            “No, you don’t, Little One.”

            Keily retrieved her earphones from her pocket and returned to the couch.    

            “Everybody always used to tell me I married well. Corporate executive. Fine home, car, family. I now see Mom and Dad got it right when they left that world and Philly behind and moved to the middle of nowhere.”

            “What made them leave Philly?”

            “They found a tumor near my brain.” Nick’s mother did not hide her scar. The way she wore her hair intentionally pulled away from that side of her head emphasized it. “Hi, I’m Gloria, this is Joe.”

            Dana shook their hands and Nick briefly hugged his parents before pushing past them. “Let’s go inside.”

            The quintet joined Keily in the living room. Ellyn tapped her daughter’s legs so she would remove her earphones.  

            “I’ve heard this story a million times.” The youth answered with more volume than necessary but complied with her mother’s request.

            “How you know what we’re going to talk about?”

            “Because she knows Mom and Dad always share it first,” Nick said.

            Joe grabbed his wife’s hands. “It answers the question that’s on newcomers’ minds right away so we can all get past that. Am I right?”

            Dana nodded. “You moved out here because of your wife’s medical condition?”

            “Not exactly. We stayed in Philly for my surgeries, chemo, and radiation. It’s just the corporations for whom we’d worked for decades could have cared less.”

            “They did at the start,” Ellyn said.

            “Some of the people did,” Gloria corrected.

            Joe shook his head in disgust. “But with all the time off from work and the enormous medical expenses, they soon hated us.”

            “And I couldn’t do my job as I once could. Lost some processing ability.”

            “You … you seem fine.”

            “Thanks. I’m fine.  Used to be better than fine but that’s okay.”

            “Mom was brilliant,” Nick said.  He felt himself redden for having used the past tense.

            “So what happened, if I can ask?”

            “I got out of my suit and put on a nighty. We had some help for a while, then insurance stopped paying for that. We churned through our savings. Joe eventually left one set of work clothes for another because he had so much cleanup duty.”

            “We did what we had to do.” Joe took his wife’s hand. “We were told 5% chance she’d last more than a year. It’s been seven.”

            “So we told our kids maybe we’d given them bad advice. We’d placed such a high priority on achievement, but at the end of the day, that didn’t matter much.”

            Nick placed his leg atop his opposite knee. “Of course, if you didn’t have jobs that provided quality health care and allowed you to accumulate savings over the years, who knows what would have happened?”

            Joe reached out and smacked his son’s foot. “We probably would have moved in with you.”

            “You’ve got a point, Sweetie. We’re not saying stop doing what you do and live in the woods like us. We’re just saying keep your eyes open about the path you’re on at all times.”

            “The one you put us on?”

            “Touche.” Joe looked at his wife. “That’s the problem with raising smart kids. They can fire back every time.”

            “So how’d you end up out here?”  

            “We got in our car and drove west,” Joe said. “Once we hit Utah, we looked at each other and I asked, ‘north, south or straight ahead?’  Gloria said ‘how about northwest?’”

            “When we got here, we needed gas. While we were stretching our legs and filling up, we looked at each other and said ‘why not?’”

            “Just like that?”

            “Yep, best decision we ever made.” Gloria and Joe hugged, and their matching gray sweatshirts blended so much they almost appeared to be one person. “We never went back.”

            Later, it would seem as if it was all inevitable. It wasn’t quite like that when life proceeded forward.

            Nick pondered his possible professional and personal courses. He wondered what hats he should wear or whether he should wear one at all.

            Dana seemed more certain, save for the time she appeared in his doorway that Sunday evening, presumably to end it.

            One couldn’t have happened without the other, but just because Dana agreed to slip into a wedding dress didn’t require them to work together. Sure, she’d proposed the union not long after he did, but she hadn’t conditioned her acceptance. Even a non-transactional attorney like Nick noticed that.

            No, it was a second proposal during that period in which they’d told the world they would marry but before the actual ceremony. She raised the idea to him at brunch shortly after they’d finished making waffles or French toast, both of them wearing robes and slippers on a Sunday morning.

            “What would you say if I said I think we should buy a store?”

            “I’d ask what kind of store.”

            “You’d really have to ask?”

            “I suppose not.”          

            “But I’d have to know what you’d say.”

            “You don’t know?”

            “No.”

            “Neither do I.”

            He said yes on their honeymoon. While they held each other and kicked their legs in eight feet of water in the Atlantic. She wore a one-piece because he’d taught her while a bikini was fine for lounging at the pool, or even one of ‘Sota’s 10,000 lakes, it didn’t fare so well if one intended to spend the day body surfing.

            After they returned home, they kept their plans secret, or at least unknown to their employers, until they found the right location and arranged for financing. Then they gave notice and stepped off the curb into oncoming traffic.

            They ran Eclectic separately but together. Dana bought and sold. Nick hired and fired. She kept abreast of fashion trends, and he monitored governmental regulations.    

            She wore the sort of clothes that perfectly fit the theme of the store. He wore business casual clothes with a slighter greater emphasis on the casual part of the equation. On the first day, he wore the argyle sweater she’d given him as a present on their first Christmas together. As time passed, instead of her seeking his approval concerning his wardrobe, he made the initial selections and simply sought her confirmation. Sometime later, even this last step proved unnecessary.  

About the Author: Kevin Finnerty earned his MFA at Columbia College Chicago.  His stories have appeared in Eclectica Magazine, The Muleskinner Journal, Portage Magazine, Variety Pack, The Westchester Review, and other journals.