The Big Brick Review 2016 Essay Contest: 2nd Place ($200)

Building on the narrative of our brick at a time.


Your Goddam Life and How To Sew A Dress

by Susan Starbird

  1. YOUR LITTLE SISTER slams the bathroom door and clatters down the stairs. Clock says 10 a.m. So hard, so hard to wake up on a Saturday. But you have a plan for the day. So crawl out of bed, shuffle into the shower.

  2. In the steamy bathroom, splash yourself with Jean Naté après le bain. Roll up your hair in empty orange juice cans. Descend the staircase in bathrobe and scuffs. In kitchen, Mother announces she left breakfast for you. Refuse. At 122 pounds you’re too fat, and if you’re this fat at 20, imagine how fat you’ll be at 21.

  3. No, Mother, you have no plans to get out of your bathrobe until your date tonight. Listen to her complain again about how you never do anything but hide in your room. What you do not say: And the alternative?

  4. While mother lectures, pour Coca Cola over ice and stare at the cover of 5/8/65 Saturday Evening Post: Brigitte Bardot.

  5. Resolve to update your eye makeup. Not that you could look like Bardot. With her perfect nose. When you look in the mirror all you see is your nose. It makes you crazy when your older brother talks to you like Jimmy Durante. Shouldn’t you be studying for finals next week, Mother asks. You forgot she was still talking.

  6. It’s only Home Ec. Oh, and typing you say. Two skills you will never, ever need. But you’ve been out of high school three years, so you have to look like you’re doing something. They told you were destined for something big. Only they didn’t tell you what. You’re waiting.

  7. Meanwhile, the revolution is passing you by. Meanwhile, you’re sewing.

  8. Meanwhile, if you had money, that is, if you had a job, you could get your nose fixed. Phyllis did. Her face was black and blue for a week. You would die, anyone seeing you with black eyes. You couldn’t leave the house. Even after it healed, everyone would know it was fake. And a phony’s one thing you can’t stand. The nice girls, the goody-two-shoes, the ambitious social climbers. Phyllis: all of that. If you were a phony like her you’d just die.

  9. Imagine you are Bardot in Home Ec, making baked potatoes for your husband, ha. Standing with a platter of steaming potatoes for a Prince Charming you can’t picture, in your new pink dress, the dress you’ll make today to wear on your date tonight.

  10. Mother says for you to watch your sister while she goes to the store. Uh-huh. She leaves. What did you just agree to?  You already forgot. Light cigarette, giving little sister a look meaning don’t tell. Someday you will get a job, take an apartment with some girlfriends, get your nose fixed. Cannot wait.

  11. On top of mattress pad on kitchen table, lay out 2½ yards of pink Irish linen, 2½ yards of pink voile lining, and ¾ yard of pink satin. Spray and press with hot steam iron, taking care not to burn table incurring mother’s wrath. It happened before.

  12. Remove all evidence of having ironed on the table. Carry materials to your room, where the sewing machine and the stereo are. Your father calls your room the costume shop.

  13. Gather pink thread, hem tape, zipper, interfacing, hook and eye, and other materials near sewing machine. On the stereo’s automatic changer stack Getz & Gilberto (Verve, 1964), Ann-Margret And Here She Is . . . (RCA 1961), and Frank Sinatra Nice ‘n’ Easy (Capitol, 1960). Ponder album cover portraying relaxed singer in a cardigan sweater. Compare boyfriend to Frank Sinatra, to boyfriend’s disadvantage.

  14. Sinatra will never find you here in this town 50 miles from anything. Anyway, he’d never look twice at a girl with ankles as thick as yours. Vow to stand only in poses that make your ankles appear slender. That’s what life is: moving from one phony pose to the next. Roll your eyes: god. Check dryness of hair. Locate bag of pretzels hidden under bed.

  15. Lay voile on top of linen, tissue paper pattern on top of that. Allow space for 1” side seams (in case your butt — pardon, derriere — fills out even more) and 2” hem (you might grow). Pin. Cut with pinking shears. Unpin. Reinforce linen’s raw edges with stitching. Become suddenly aware that sewing machine’s drone harmonizes with bossa nova. Soothing. Hypnotic.

  16. Cut floral shapes out of pink satin. Pin and stitch satin floral shapes to dress front and back. An hour passes. Set up ironing board, reheat iron. Press.  

  17. Hypnosis ends with sound of mother’s car driving up the driveway. Remember that you were supposed to be watching little sister. Can you hear little sister?  Yes, so she’s still alive. Dump ashtray in toilet, pausing as you walk by the mirror to adjust curlers and critique dark roots in otherwise blonde coiffure. Bleach-blonde: a boy’s shout out a passing car window last week still stings. How could he see your roots from the car. How hard you work to make the streaks look natural. All so some stranger on the street can yell bleach blonde.

  18. Sew lining to linen. Mother calls through the door do you want lunch. No.

  19. Sew princess seams in dress front. Contemplate the instruction to ease the curved seam, wondering why it isn’t squeeze instead. Seams for a princess, that’s you: a virgin, a prize for a prince you cannot picture. Sew seam up middle back. Cannot wait to lose your virginity, cannot wait to end the waiting for Life to begin.

  20. Press. Install zipper. What if this is life?  All of it, this?  Sew shoulder seams. Press. Is it enough to be a prize, a princess, pleasant always?  Never impatient. Never angry. Attach sleeves. You can’t be real, so you sew, madly. Press. Your mother sews too. So does your little sister. In this breathless beehive of activity, all of you waiting.

  21. Assemble neck facing and sew to neck hole. Invert and press.

  22. Sew side seams. Press. Sew on hem tape. Sew on hook and eye at neck.

  23. Pin hem and hand-finish using blind stitch your mother taught you.

  24. Press. Hang. Check curlers and pimples in mirror. Flip albums on stereo. Ponder album cover: why aren’t you shaped like Ann-Margret?  The expression sex kitten comes to mind. No chance anyone would say that about you, with your flat chest. Absent-mindedly finish bag of pretzels. Try out a few Ann-Margret poses in front of the mirror. Not the same effect in a bathrobe and curlers.

  25.  “AND HERE SHE IS . . .” album cover states. No one will ever say that about you: and here she is. Ann-Margret can sing. What’s your talent?  Just sit there and look pretty, says your father. Is he trying to be reassuring? So that’s the goal? To be decorative?  Talk about phony.

  26. Pour another Coke. Add ice. Comb out hair, style, and spray. Apply skin-tone foundation make-up, powder, and blusher. Apply false eyelashes, shadow, eyeliner, under-eye bag concealer, and mascara. Apply lip base coat, lipliner, lipstick, and lipstick fixative. Refuse dinner.

  27. Girdle, stockings, bra and falsies, petticoat, dress. Ease. Squeeze.

  28. Look in the mirror at this terrific dress you made in just one day. How sad no one important will see it.

  29. Is a dress seen by nobody still beautiful?  Can a dress redeem your whole existence?

  30. Hear boyfriend’s ‘64 Charger at the curb. Resolve to make him wait at least five minutes. Listen for doorbell, hear father open front door. Touch up nails, dry under hair dryer. Visualize boyfriend squirming under parents’ gaze, making dumb jokes with little sister. Insect. Slip feet into white lizard pumps.

  31. At last you’re ready. You think: well at least I have this dress, even if only I will see it. Review completed preparations in mirror. Not sex kitten, but . . . what’s that animal with the snout?  Elephant seal. Descend stairs slowly. And here she is!  The Schnoz . . .

  32. Father smiles and says, “Now don’t spill anything on that pretty dress”: secret code for a compliment. “I’ll make sure she uses a napkin,” boyfriend mumbles, then blushes. Everyone shuffles their feet. Vague despair fills the room. Boyfriend’s cardigan only accentuates lack of resemblance to Frank Sinatra.

  33. What if boyfriend is as disappointed in you as you are in him?  Perish the thought.

  34. Say goodbye to parents. Walk to car. Imagine parents watching through window as boyfriend opens passenger door. You climb in, think: imagine this is my life.

Susan Starbird is a Northern California essayist whose work can be found at  She has been surreptitiously capturing her mind’s wanderings on paper for 50 years.  Your Goddamn Life . . . is part of her exploration of what a woman does.

"Possibilities" photo © 2016 Gregory Gerard


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