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Buying the Wedding Dress
By Harilyn Rousso
  It was a traditional Jewish family ritual — the married women in the family going shopping with the bride-to-be to buy her wedding dress. I had been sheltered from knowing about this ritual, perhaps because no one ever expected me to get married. I was born with a disability, cerebral palsy, so that my body moved in ways far removed from traditional standards of feminine beauty. I consistently got the message that no man would ever want me. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy until at age 37, I met Daniel, who convinced me I was the most beautiful, desirable, sexy woman in the world, and that my strange movements were exotic, not weird.

So there I was, one early July Saturday, surrounded by my mother and married sister, going from bridal shop to bridal shop in one of those wedding malls in Long Island, seeking the dress that would transform me into a "real" woman, Daniel’s wife, on September 8th. There were only two months to go, so I couldn’t afford to be too choosy. I had to pick something off the rack that maybe needed minor alterations. I didn’t realize that I had a picture of the ideal wedding dress lying dormant in my brain, but the image emerged full blown as soon as I started trying on dresses. As a woman who favored jeans and simple styles, I was shocked to discover my own preferences for lace and frills, tight waists and wide skirts. The five-year-old who had played with bride dolls before she discovered there would be no groom was at last in charge, unhampered by the restrained tastes of her grown up self. My mother, sister and I let the little girl rule, and she decided upon an off-white satin gown with lace covered with pearls throughout the broad skirt, and deliciously smooth-to-the-touch satin at the waist and sleeves. My reflection in the mirror did not exactly match the one in that five-year-old’s head — my body was still less than perfectly coordinated — but I felt more beautiful and womanly than I ever had. I had my first dress fitting, and tried on different crowns of flowers that helped complete that image of myself as a princess.

We went out for a bite after my mother gave the sizable down payment. I felt totally satiated despite the slim pickings at the dingy coffee shop around the corner from the bridal store, so delicious was that image of myself in that long white dress.

I called my groom-to-be from the restaurant, and although he tried to show happiness about my purchase, I couldn’t help note some distance in his voice. I attributed this to pre-nuptial anxiety, but I had a visceral feeling of loss, as though the Polaroid picture of myself in the wedding dress was starting to fade.

When I saw Daniel that night, he suggested that we not go anywhere special for dinner, an odd request given the events of the day. I found myself in yet another bleak coffee shop. I don’t recall how the conversation started, but fairly soon after we got to the restaurant and had ordered our cheeseburgers, he came out with a litany of complaints. "You don’t read The New Yorker. That magazine is such an important part of my life. It makes me feel lonely to think of marrying someone who doesn’t like The New Yorker." And "You don’t understand poetry. My mother and I have always read poetry to each other. I am afraid that when she dies, I won’t have anyone to read poetry to." Unprepared, I was unable to defend myself or to question the legitimacy of his complaints. In my state of disorientation, I was falling back on old truths about myself. Perhaps they were myths but they felt like truths. In my mind, what he was saying was that there was something deeply and basically wrong with me, a defect in myself, my character, my humanity. This was the feeling I had developed as a little girl, the result of people repeatedly pointing, staring, asking what was wrong, expecting the least, praising the most mundane acts in a patronizing way. It had always been hard to feel all right about myself, disability and all, when the world treated me as though something was gravely wrong. It was the world’s reflection of me as defective that made me assume I would never marry. And it was Daniel’s supposed love for me that made me question that image for perhaps the first time.

In hindsight, it is absurd to think that my not reading The New Yorker could transform me back into a freak, but it had that effect, at least temporarily.

"Are you sure he really asked you to marry him?" my dad inquired when I told him the wedding was off. "That bastard!" was the immediate response of my mother, always my supporter. "Thank God!" is what the three of us might have said had we known then what I learned later about Daniel’s history of near-marriages before and after his encounter with me. Many wedding dresses had been bought and abandoned after early fittings at bridal shops, even by some women who read The New Yorker, I suspect.

That image of myself in the wedding gown has lived on, although it has lost some of its sharpness after fifteen years. I did see a reflection of a real woman, not a freak, when I gazed into the mirror that day, and that woman was in me, not in the looking glass. She goes in and out of my awareness now, but I know she is there. She has a disability and she is whole.


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DUCTS summer issue 2001
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