*After Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song for Karen)”

Even now when I put it on, I think of my mother. I’ve had it for nearly two decades, purchased with a friend who complained about the store having nothing in her size—this was after the fashion for boxy oversized everything came back, the clothes of our youth. My eye landing on the sheer navy tunic underlaid with a black sleeveless buttoned shirt, while my friend’s complaints seemed to be directed at me, though I did not own this store. The garment cost seven hundred and sixty-five dollars. I hid the tag so that my friend wouldn’t see, and slipped into the dressing room. I disrobed, careful not to catch my reflection. Once on, I saw myself. I do not remember my initial impression, only that I quickly calculated my expenses, subtracting each thing I could think of, all my unnecessary wants. I found my friend by the jewelry case, and hurried to the register. We left. My friend did not ask what I purchased and I did not offer. It was a breach in our friendship that seemed to grow and grow, until we rarely spoke.

In those days my husband and I liked to try every place making a splash, my eyes roving roving roving, sipping my gin, trussed up in finery. I entered middle-age having accomplished nothing, but half-in-love with a co-worker named Rhett. We worked in the then-new division of Portland Process Improvement Program, lunched at the food carts near our offices at Metro. I was lead trainer for the Innovators’ Program; Rhett was a program specialist. He was younger than me by too many years I’m willing to admit here. Presidents, music, natural disasters, films, mass shootings, wars, lunar eclipses, all that had happened before he was born. Rhett would never know a world without the internet or with the erstwhile coastline. He would never know a world before Kepler-22d, before alien life. I pored over Rhett’s social media accounts, which were largely devoted to his cat—a Maine Coon that was a college graduation gift from his mother—and to his banjo. I forced myself to listen to the Appalachian music he loved while I rode my bike to work, but I could not appreciate its jingly-jangly sound.

Around this time my mother moved in with us after being diagnosed with a rare type of colon cancer. My husband and I joked that this singular strain needed an immaculate habitat, as her colon, due to a lifetime of anorexia, hadn’t gotten much use over the years. A former German translator, my mother came of age when women dressed up for the public, and for her that meant panty hose and pumps. She traded in her Working-girls attire for long, voluminous blouses and blue jeans upon retirement, and disliked anything restrictive or form-fitting. She often commented on the leggings and hoodie I wore to work, even though I told her I changed when I got there.

“But do they see you?”

I knew what she meant. She thought that they wouldn’t respect me if they saw me in my workout clothes (the unspoken assumption being I did not have the body to show off). I reminded her that most people rode their bikes to work, especially since the earthquake, but she argued I should wear my work clothes to ride. I didn’t tell her that I was one of the few who did change, not only because I liked to dress up (I was truly my mother’s daughter), but because of my ignominious crush.

My efforts were made more pathetic by the fact that Rhett was obviously attracted to his eighteen-year-old stepsister. He seemed quite unaware of his feelings, but I recognized the signs. He couldn’t stop talking about her (“Who’s this Rhett person again?” asked my confused husband), and I listened to him, miserable, as we stood in line for tacos or fried chicken, gently suggesting that we should try one of the sit-down places nearby, or get a drink after work? Rhett demurred. Before long he declined to join me for lunch altogether. I sent him notes and voice messages instead, trying to sound upbeat and interesting, but these were rightly ignored.

For our twenty-fifth anniversary, I wore my tunic paired with black bioMesh™ pants. “Wow,” my husband said, giving me a kiss. “Schon,” my mother concurred, gently extracting my hair from the collar. I smiled, happy to please her. “Have you eaten?” I asked. When I was young, my mother’s diet consisted of coffee and cigarettes for breakfast and lunch, and one half of a Stouffer’s Chicken Divan for dinner (the rest went to our terrier, Fritz). She first started losing weight in her late teens, the result of long hours cleaning houses and little money for food. One day she caught her reflection and saw the way her clothes hung off her. It was like a calling, she said. Given her body’s alimental privations, I’m surprised she lasted as long as she did, and thankful that it was not long enough to see the formal complaint Rhett eventually filed against me and my subsequent firing. Before we left my husband helped her upload her monoclonal antibody levels. “Have you eaten?” I asked on our way out to our anniversary, to my roving, to my hunger. Of course, she told me. She was full.

Marcelle Heath’s short story collection, IS THAT ALL THERE IS?, is forthcoming from Awst Press in 2022. She curates Apparel for Authors, an interview series on writers, fashion, and the public sphere. 

© 2020 Marcelle Heath. Published by LITTLE FICTION | BIG TRUTHS, May 2020.

Editors: Troy Palmer, Beth Gilstrap & Alvin Park. Images from The Noun Project (credit: Icon Fair).

The 2020 Flash Issue:



by Marcelle Heath
But Do They See You?