Each day I reach into our wardrobe to get dressed, all my shirts jostle. Some of them move forward; jealous of my favorites, they try to jump in line. They argue that if only I’d actually see them, they could finally unrumple and be touched by sunlight. They could pick up the scent of my body, soften (even if only slightly), be complimented by everyone who sees me. They crave flattery, the complete stranger saying, “Is that new?” or “Where did you get that?” or “That’s so gorgeous!” I’m drawn to paisleys, pearl buttons, designer labels on the sleeve so anyone shaking my hand would know someone’s spent money (even if it wasn’t me), rich colors, headache inducing patterns. “Change your life, wear a different shirt for once!” the frustrated shirts all cry.
Other shirts hide. They’re ashamed: they think I’ll notice their missing buttons, the memory I no longer wish to remember, the little hole where the decal meets my breastbone, the way they strain a little since I’ve gained weight. Maybe I’ll put one on and my wife Mary will laugh, and that will be that, straight to Goodwill. Or else they’re just as beautiful as the ones I always wear, but they’re afraid of this world, the marks and stains that come from living in it.
The wardrobe rocks back and forth; neither of us can sleep. So Mary says, very loudly, “Your friend Bob, he only wears black button down shirts, right?”
“That’s right,” I say, “and he only needs five of them.”
“I bet he sleeps like a baby because he never has to wonder what he will wear,” Mary says.
“Perhaps we would be happier if we followed his example?” I say.
The wardrobe settles down immediately. But when I reach inside the next morning to get dressed, all my shirts are damp with tears.
It takes three loads to wash the salt out of them and get them dry, and they squirm as we try to fold them. Eventually we put them all back in the wardrobe, more or less neatly folded.
I make promises to treat my clothes more fairly, to rotate my outfits and not wear the same favorites all the time. We’ll repair the shirts with missing buttons; the shirts with holes will be saved until we have use for them in art projects.
I feel terrible because I never keep those sorts of promises. I am lazy: I grab the shirt on top; I play favorites, I’m always on the lookout for the next beautiful shirt whenever we go shopping, and who has time to sew? We initiate cycles of sin, guilt and forgiveness; we think we’re enlightened people, but we’re always doing laundry. Rinse, lather, and repeat.
I think of the cruelty Bob Ciano practiced when he chose to only have five black buttoned down shirts, and got rid of everything else; I wonder if it’s better to just do one terrible thing, or to perform the same awful little actions over and over again.
Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in Gravel, Sand, Grimoire, Joyland, Jellyfish Review, Atticus Review, and Pank. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast. A collection of prose poems and microfiction, Animal Children, is forthcoming from Nomadic Press in 2019. He is the chief steward of the adjunct faculty union at California College of the Arts, SEIU 1021.