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If It's Sewing, She Sews

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1957

Even in mourning, Maria has to work. When you dress brides, you don’t have permission to wear black. Mourning invites conversation, and no bride comes to the dress shop wanting to hear the seamstress’s story. There are no dead husbands here. Maria and Anita alter hope and hem futures.

So they wear shawls, even in the heat of summer. It’s Anita’s idea, and soon she’s storing her pins in the fringe, knotting her measuring tape around her wrist. Maria takes it up too, pretends the shawl is a mantilla, and then when the ends get in the way she knots it up on her head like she’s setting her hair in rollers. It makes her look older, Anita says, as if it’s the garment, not the loss. They both look older. Anita looks better. Anita stretches out her black lace like wings, flared as thick as her skirts. Maria piles hers higher, like a nun trying to push her wimple closer to God.

Three months after Tony, a customer, loud and more fashionable on a budget than anyone should be this far north on the island, bursts into the back room complaining about her veil. The customers aren’t supposed to see Maria and Anita, making alterations for half-imagined white women, so Maria bows her head and puts her needle down.

“--oh my gosh,” the bride says, “that’s so hip. Where did you get it?”

Maria looks up, then to Anita, who makes it clear that yes, the customer means her.

She points at her headscarf, barely remembers to say, “This, ma’am?”

“Yeah, that! It’s so pretty.”

From the scraps, Maria won’t say. From my murderer of an ex-boyfriend, whose parents gave me all that would be his, now that he’s in jail. And I only wear it because I can’t shout at the world and blame it for a lesson I shouldn’t have had to learn.

“I made it,” she says instead, because it’s also true. And easier to say, in English.

The bride balls up her long cathedral veil and drops it on the nearest machine. “I think you’ve just solved my problem!”

Two weeks later, the bride comes in for another fitting and Maria wraps her curly brown hair in a beaded scarf, like the women in Paris and Spain and Havana, and yes, San Juan, but she doesn’t mention that. It suits the backless dress well, and the avuncular bride, and Maria seals the scarf with a rhinestone brooch, just small enough that she could believe they’re diamonds.

Maria still remembers her wedding, her long tulle veil, kneeling to the dress forms in the corner like statues of Christ. But that was another life, another place, another world ago, and half in a dream. This is real. And when the bride smiles down at her, Maria gets a return on the happiness and hope she’s supposed to sell.

*

1958

The shop on 37th street, in the garment district, has better hours, better pay, richer brides. It’s a fairly quick subway ride, and safe as long as she doesn’t dawdle, but Maria still has trouble convincing Anita to pack up and switch. In the end, Anita stays where she is in Harlem, but she still checks in with Maria every morning and waits up every night. And she only complains sometimes, when they run out of things to talk about.

Maria has a sewing table of her own there, and French pinboard full of hats and swatches and flowers, and while everyone shares the dress forms the heads are all hers. She whirls them into veils and fascinators and scarves (even if more mothers-of-the-bride seem to like the head scarves), takes a few hours every day to sculpt one into a potential bride. This one is on her third marriage but only twenty-seven, too experienced for a veil but too young for a hat. This one is new, young, demure, a blonde from the country raised on stories with princes and castles and happy endings. This one is a flashy Rockette, leaving the stage to marry the only man she loves more than dancing. They all wear lace and organza, spun and fluffed to highlight their imaginary smiles. The designer loves them, gives Maria a shelf in the storefront to display four at a time. Whenever a bride buys one, Maria gets the commission and makes another.

She gets most of her lace from another store, like this one but street level, two blocks away. The owner is Polish, like Tony, but Jewish, and doesn’t speak English well enough to haggle, so Maria learns to haggle in Polish. She learns to judge lace by its knit and beads by their shine, to spot a rare find. Of course not all of her purchases sit well with the designer, but she makes them work, and the lace that doesn’t sell still finds a place in fingerless gloves and fringed shawls, which haven’t gone out of style, not yet.

A bride comes into the shop around Christmas for a wedding in February, and the seamstresses laugh at her. Maria doesn’t. She saw plenty of brides back in Harlem who needed extra inches in the waist, couldn’t give strict measurements until they knew how much would show or couldn’t show it at all. The designer knows how to hide anything, of course, but Maria knows how to distract, how to highlight a glowing face with pearls and flashes of color. She throws together a bubble veil with ruby-red beads and a red silk rose, like a woman might wear in a box at a bullfight to throw down to her brave matador, a hundred years ago.

Even the bride barely notices the dress.

Maria tells all of this to the Polish man who sold her the lace. He tells her to call him Tomasz and sells her the rest of the bolt for pennies on the dollar, if she’ll promise to buy from him exclusively when she has a shop of her own.

*

1959

Anita wants to get married before she gets any more grey hairs. Maria can’t blame her, even if she thinks it’s too soon, too awful, and of course, Bernardo isn’t here. But Anita’s new beau, Jorge, proposes on Easter Sunday, at the church, on his knees in front of her like she’s the Madonna herself, and who could say no to that?

Jorge worked as a doctor back in Puerto Rico, and has a clinic of his own here all the way up in Washington Heights, and he promises Anita that he’ll spare no expense for the wedding, so Anita comes to the shop on 37th street with a folder of magazine clippings instead of making her own gown. Too stressful, she says, and as long as she has the money someone else can have the stress.

The designer has a hell of a time with Anita, but Maria knows exactly what to do for the veil. Anita’s too sophisticated for eyelet and too practical for any of the enormous confections that are so popular right now since dresses are getting simpler. But she’ll still need to hide her face, because she’ll be crying, and Anita hates when her mascara runs.

So Maria builds a hip-length lace mantilla, like the ones Anita wears on her shoulders but without the fringe. But the straightforward shape is a cage for dozens of silk flowers and seed pearls, a cascade of bright summery blossoms and stray petals falling like tears, and she can cry too if she needs to.

Of course Maria is at the wedding, holding Anita’s train. And the dress is beautiful, and the veil is perfect, and Bernardo is probably jealous up in Heaven. But Anita doesn’t cry. Jorge does.

*

1960

The brides don’t usually bring their grooms into the shop, but when they do, it’s chaos in the back room. But this bride cares what her groom thinks, and this groom thinks very highly of the dresses. He even tries on a veil, and makes it look like a joke, but the bride doesn’t find it funny at all.

She cries in the dressing room, and Maria holds her, runs through five handkerchiefs and two shots of brandy while the bride explains, yes, he loves her, but she’s suspected for years that it’s not enough. Not for her, and not for him, and the closer they get to the wedding the more she fears a sham.

Maria remembers the girl who ran around with Tony’s gang, though perhaps it wouldn’t be fair to call her a girl. She can’t remember her name, but hopes that, somewhere, she has a place. So Maria tells the bride to wait, not to rush. That “a wedding isn’t a trial to prove your love, it’s a choice. To consummate it.”

The bride asks her, “Are you married?”

“I was,” Maria says. “He’s no longer with us. But I think we would still be married, if he was here.”

That bride places an order, and makes a down payment, but never comes to collect, and her dress winds up on the mannequin long after her scheduled wedding day. Her veil--a cathedral train glittering with crystal stars--is so expensive that it will take three years to sell, no matter how many people pass it by.

*

1961

Tomasz dies and leaves the lace shop to his son, who went to college on the East Side and speaks much better English. He thinks he’s very dashing indeed, always leering at Maria like she owes him something for all his father’s discounts.

So what? There are a dozen lace shops in the garment district. Maria owes nobody.

*

1962

Anita’s first daughter faces her christening in a dress that weighs more than she does. Once again, Anita decides to buy off stress with money, and once again, Maria can’t blame her, but this time she takes it on as a project all her own, since the baby conveniently decides to come out during the off-season.

She sorts the ends of her two favorite types of lace, a thick floral for the pillow and headband and a more delicate trim for the dress, enough to edge every layer of the hem and ruffle down the front. All christening dresses are wedding dresses, marrying the child to the world, to the parents. Life is a commitment, Maria thinks.

Little Beatriz cries through most of the ceremony, but Maria is waiting with handkerchiefs that match the dress, and a bib, the same, made out of a synthetic lace that matches the richer cloth of the dress almost exactly, so Anita can preserve it forever or save it for the next child.

“Hell no,” Anita says, “by the time I go through this again, it’ll be out of style.”

She’s wrong, and she’s pregnant again only two months later. Maria makes another christening dress anyway.

*

1963

The designer at the shop on 37th street takes on a protégé, a young man, completely out of the blue. One day, it’s business as usual, and the next there is an assistant designer in a smart suit who talks about things like couture and runways and film deals instead of brides. He never says these things when the designer is around, but loiters in the back room with the seamstresses, going on and on about his fancy school and how there’s more to fashion than dressmaking.

He’s an ass. But he has a point.

By now Maria has saved up enough to negotiate, and asks the designer to recommend her to the fashion school ten blocks south, in Chelsea. He gives her a choice: work half-time and pay her own way for two years, or take fewer classes at night and stretch it out over four, but on his dime. The choice is easy. Neither.

She gets in without his recommendation, since her clients will speak for her, most of them rich enough to get a word in edgewise. And she can make her veils and hats at home. People will always fall in love, and people will always marry, and brides will always want the ritual of covering their heads, drawing all attention to their faces the moment they give their lives to their lovers.

It’s a hard two years, and she relies on Anita and Jorge far more than she’s comfortable with. But she meets more people, learns more skills and the proper French names for the ones she’s used for years, perfects her drawing and sculpting and millinery. Women from McCall’s and Vogue come by to give lectures on the cycle of trends, and Maria takes pages of notes and sketches. Dresses, yes, but still mostly veils.

They tell her not to worry. There’s money in specialization, and now is a beautiful time to be a bride.

Some ask if she’s married. Others only check her hand. But every girl at the school is Miss until corrected.

*

1964

Tomasz’s lace shop is under new ownership again. A Chinese family, this time. When Maria peeks in, making her rounds, the man behind the counter waves and smiles. His name turns out to be John Yu, he’s the owner’s son, and he lets the family’s enormous black cat run freely through the store. He reminds her of Doc at the drugstore uptown.

He doesn’t haggle, but Maria buys anyway.

*

1965

Maria kept the dress simple, short, on-trend, and the model doesn’t mind at all. It’s a plain white sheath, too short for Maria to ever wear to church but editorials always exaggerate, and the contrast between the high hemline and the enormous star-studded veil is intentional. They’re doing this in Italy and Paris now, and even if Maria is still in New York, the model is reaching out across the ocean, waiting to be discovered.

The photoshoot goes well for everyone concerned, on the cobblestones of Battery Park with the Statue of Liberty in view. The model stands on a bench, looking over the crowd as if her groom’s gone missing, with bright hope in her eyes. A timely wind sends the veil cascading behind her into the white summer clouds, each pailette and bead glinting with sunlight.

The veil goes for almost five hundred dollars at the post-finals auction, five times as much as the dress.

The photo sells to Vogue, for far more than that.

*

1966

She tells John about Tony on their third date. He listens, as patient as she could ever hope. The waiter comes by twice, then takes the hint and steers clear long after their drinks need refilling, while John holds Maria’s hand between both of his and asks what he needs to, helps her keep the story on track. But she doesn’t have to mince words or keep it close anymore, and that’s worth annoying any waiter.

It’s distant and close now, all at the same time, reliving nine years ago. Even if she only gives John the sketch of the situation, the drama, the gang involvement, the fights and the murder and the pain--even if she only scratches the surface, it’s more than she’s told anyone in years. She cries, and he holds her, and when they finally let the waiter see to them they order cordials and desserts to make up for taking so much time.

His family lives all the way south near Wall Street, but he escorts her uptown anyway, and he doesn’t let go of her hand. They don’t kiss goodnight, not this time, but they do hold each other for long enough that she starts to wonder if they might, if they should.

When she walks upstairs to the apartment, Anita is waiting with a hot cup of tea, cleaning the children’s toys off the kitchen floor. “You’re not getting any younger, you know.”

“I wouldn’t want to,” Maria says.

And it’s true. She wouldn’t. Not with all she’s done, not with all she’s learned. Her younger self lost what felt like everything, yes, but would her younger self have built so much from what remained?

When she goes to bed that night, she thanks God for letting her live on and learn, and wishes that Tony could have done the same. But he’d be happy, she thinks. He’d listen to every story of her brides and their foibles and he’d laugh, tell the same kind of stories from his shop. They could come home together, have a life together, a place together that would grow from just them to encompass the world around them. They could have, but they can’t.

But she can. She has. She will.

*

1967

Dear Anita, Jorge, Beatriz, Dolores, and Alejandro, she writes on a postcard from Milan, I miss you all! It’s so beautiful here, even though the hills are steeper. I promise I’m taking lots of pictures, even though everyone else is too. And that last part is especially true: the cameras never stop snapping. Maria’s been seeing haloes for days, and she already has to squint to sew since lights go out here so much faster than in New York.

The models in Milan wear their veils like haloes and crowns, towering on hair so high that you could hide the can of Aquanet inside it, like Priscilla Presley. Others are more like nuns in veils that match the dress exactly, editorial and chic. Maria’s made five of them, and they seem to go over well with the reporters. Italian and Spanish aren’t that dissimilar, and she’s read as many of the reviews as she can. The construction is perfect. The designs are on point. Women will want these. Women do want these: the women writing the articles, behind the cameras, dressing the models, modeling the gowns. When they find out that Maria is the wizard behind the veils, they gush over them, all these delicate, personal confections that pull the bride together.

They decide to snap a photo of Maria in one of her own creations, testing it out in the mirror. It’s not the veil she would have chosen for herself, not when she married Tony, but it’s beautiful all the same. Layers of translucent silk organza, hemmed in strips of pale blue satin, cascade down her back like a waterfall and frame her face in the mirror. She’s not wearing much makeup, hasn't done anything with her hair, and is still dressed for backstage, but her face is a bride’s, testing, waiting, hoping. A bride always looks to the future, walks to the future.

She sends the photo to Anita, and a copy to John, in case he gets any ideas. And maybe he will, maybe he won’t, but she’ll be ready if he does.

***