This is a story I wrote several years back that I always had a special fondness for.
All This Useless Beauty
"What shall we do, what shall we do, with all this useless beauty?" – Elvis Costello
Grace stared at the dress. It was black, a clean black unshaded by blues or violets, almost an homage to a classic black dress out of a black and white film noir classic from the forties. It lay on the white comforter of their queen-size bed like a black hole. A small exaggeration only; perhaps light was managing to escape its pull, but her attention was unable to evade its grasp. The hem of the dress, she could tell just from looking at it, would barely descend to the level of mid-thigh; sitting in it would be next to impossible. She could already see how it would cling to her shoulders with a greedy firmness, gripping her flesh with squared black straps the width of a piece of Juicy Fruit gum, straps that connected to a perilously low neckline. Hesitantly, as if it were infected, she picked up the dress and held it to her body, observing in the mirror. Just as she had predicted, the neckline would reveal a more-than ample swath of her not inconsiderable bosom. Sighing, she dropped the dress to the bed, sat down beside it and tried to keep from crying.
At twenty-eight, Grace was still a young woman. And, while perhaps not down to her fighting weight, she hadn’t gained that much during the six years of her marriage. She had a round face, reminiscent not of an apple, but a pumpkin. Her blonde, still-full hair hung down to her soft white shoulders, shoulders that mirrored the face with their roundness. While she didn’t know it (and, if she were being honest with herself, she would have thought herself over the edge), Grace, at twenty-eight at least, hovered pretty much exactly on that thin line that separates the mildly attractive from the extremely attractive. In other words, as she walked down the street on a summer day in a tank top and shorts, she turned most of the men’s heads she passed, but not all of them. Her figure was similarly precariously posed. She was round in the right places, and generous in her curves, and stopped just short of what, to the peculiar standards held by the majority of men in the twenty-first century, would be considered heavy. And yet, even taking into consideration her slight (and only slight, mind you) overestimation of her own visual appeal, Grace did not enjoy showing herself off.
Dimly, through the closed door, she could hear the shower running. She and Jim didn’t fight often; they’d done it enough, however, for her to know that he’d be in there for a considerable length of time. Especially after this one; it had been quite a row. She had been laying out her clothes for the Christmas party when he came home. She was quite impressed with the dress she had found only hours before; it was a floor length red number, elegant, refined and demure. In her mind’s eye it was of a similar class to the dresses the stars wore, the ones that made the best-dressed lists anyway, to the Oscars each year – a throwback to the days of glamour and class. It had called out to her on the rack, just at that moment when she had been about to admit defeat, and she had gladly answered. When he entered their bedroom, she had just emerged from the shower, a pink towel lazily encasing her in a three-foot tall tube. Having been sure to leave enough time for Jim to get ready after he arrived home, his early arrival surprised her. As she emerged, Jim was standing in the bedroom, still in his white shirt and blue tie. In his hands was a garment bag, and she had been simultaneously charmed and repulsed by the strange grin he had on his face as he, with an awkward wink, motioned to her with it. In the bag, of course, was the little black dress; he had, so it would seem, taken it upon himself to pick out her clothes for the Christmas party that night. The fight had started before he had even opened the bag; he couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t even look at it, especially since all she was able to find was, as he so dismissingly put it, “that old maid’s thing sitting on the bed.” And with that, they were off. She had been upset enough before he took the dress out of the bag, even as she asked him, and asked him, and asked him, not to. But once she got a look at what he expected, no, what he was in fact demanding that, she wear, all hell broke loose. And so it was that she sat on the bed, listening to the shower and contemplating the, to be frank, whore’s dress she was supposed to impress his associates with that night.
It wasn’t always like this, Grace knew. Once upon a time, a time long ago, a time when legends and history had collided, she had been a princess. She had been wed to a handsome, noble and wonderful prince. And, during the first year of their marriage, in order to celebrate their union, a ball had been scheduled. And her prince had been determined that she be, not the most beautiful maiden at the ball, for, as he assured her, that would undoubtedly be the case, but also the most beautifully attired.
And so it was that, months before the ball, her prince made it his duty to seek out the most talented dressmaker in all the kingdom. This was no easy task because, at the time of his father’s reign, the kingdom comprised a vast and far-reaching territory, overrun with craggy mountains, vast lakes and even, in the far Northwest corner, an arid and scorching desert. Yet, undaunted, he had struck out, searching the land for the most talented dressmaker he could find. She had kept track of his progress through the messages he had sent via hawk; each morning bore a new message from the prince, and each message a new disappointment. As for the disappointments, she couldn’t quite understand what her love was disappointed with, as the sketches he passed along as proof of the various dressmakers’ incompetence seemed stunning to her. And yet, she was content, for she knew that when he finally found an artist he was satisfied with it would be an artist to rival all artists, and she nearly shuddered in anticipation of the gown that she would wear to the ball.
Sure as the sun rises in the sky, the time finally came when her prince returned to the castle, a wizened old man in tow. The wizened old man, upon meeting her, had gasped and proclaimed it an honor to be given the privilege of designing a gown for one as beautiful as she. The days passed, and she was nearly overcome with curiosity at what the man would produce. She was allowed no hints, no peeks; now that the artist had been chosen, she was presented with no sketches of the man’s work, future or present. The night of the ball eventually, as it had to, came and it was with a wonderfully tingling and heightened sense of nervous anticipation that she awaited the masterpiece in her dressing room.
With a knock on the door, her prince came in, bearing in his arms the most delicate piece of gossamer ever spun by mortal hands; the merest sight of it took her breath away and, when it returned, it brought with it tears of joy. What the gown was made of she had no idea; if she didn’t know any better she would have been convinced that the golden clouds of heaven itself had provided the raw material the dress had been spun from. When she slid into it, slid into a fit so perfect that the gown might as well have been peeled directly from her body, the feel of the fabric on her soft and scented skin gave her pause, and led her to think that perhaps those golden, heavenly clouds had been involved after all.
After it was in place, she turned and looked at the mirror. This time, her breath was not so quick to return. She fairly glowed in the beauty of the gown; it truly was a part of her, and she instinctively knew that it would have nowhere near the same radiance and transcendent quality on another. Tears still in her eyes, she turned and kissed her prince, and thanked him for such a wondrous gift.
Still on the bed, Grace shook herself from memories of memories past and contemplated the twin dresses, the elegant red and the revealing black. She thought of the people who would be at the party, her husband’s boss and coworkers, strangers from other departments and spouses and girlfriends and boyfriends, dates and companions as lost as she would be. And she thought of the stares, the looks, lascivious, offended and intrigued, she would garner, with her smooth but not whippet-thin thighs pushing and slightly straining against the thin tight mesh of the fabric and her cleavage all but pouring out of the bodice, tightly pressed and taut, the nipples hanging on to the dark edge of that neckline for dear life. She thought of Jim, his two-beers-a-night potbelly tucked cleanly away by the double-breasted jacket of his tuxedo, telling her that she must wear the dress he had bought, that he didn’t want her hiding her body behind that “red thing.” And she thought of the golden gown that she had worn in antiquity, the barest molecule of a memory of the way it had felt on her skin floating through her consciousness.
The shower stopped, and she looked at the clock. Slowly, Grace reached out , picked up the red dress and started to put it on.