The trouble didn’t start when my boyfriend and I broke up eight weeks before prom. The trouble started when I decided to go anyway and my dads offered to dress me.
“You’ll look so hot. He’ll die,” said Charlie.
“He’ll already have been dead for weeks; he’s gonna kill himself out of guilt,” said Frank. They had a fight over who got to be called “Dad” when they adopted me and ended up going with the “Well, then nobody gets it!” theory.
“It won’t be out of guilt,” I said. “This time I broke up with him, remember?”
“Oh,” said Charlie. “It’s happened so many times…”
“…and in so many different ways…” said Frank.
I hadn’t forgotten. I remember every time. Freshman year he broke up with me. The summer after freshman year I broke up with him. Thanksgiving junior year, I broke up with him again. The summer after junior year, he broke up with me. The beginning of senior year, we’d done a sort of mutual “you know what, this is our last year of high school, we’re going to graduate and go off to college and break up anyway and we might as well do it now,” which lasted literally forty-five minutes until he texted me a picture of his dog looking sad and I almost died of cuteness. But this latest time, I’d been serious. I wanted it to stick. Because it was only eight weeks until prom, and all of our friends were planning various pre-parties and post-shenanigans, and every time I mentioned it he sort of wishy-washed his way out of the conversation, and I finally point-blank asked him whether we were going or not, and he had that look. That look of vague terror on top of mostly blasé, that look that I’d seen a million times before, and if there’s one thing my dads have taught me, it’s that you want a boyfriend who cares. About stuff. About prom.
So I broke up with him.
It was fine. It would be fine. I decided to go with a big group of my friends, most of whom were also single. Which would certainly be more fun than dragging around a guy who didn’t want to be there. Tons of fun! So much fun. Until my dads offered to dress me.
They’re stylists. They’re also other things: interior decorators, photographers, painters, bloggers—they dabble. They have since they met in design school. But mostly, they style. They put together looks for runway shows. They work with photographers and models on magazine shoots. They make sure actresses look cute as hell when they do interviews or walk a red carpet or show up in Cannes to have their photo taken five thousand times even though they’re only playing a teeny-tiny supporting role in a movie that most of the press is going to walk out of fifteen minutes in because it’s not only terrible to look at thanks to a cinematographer who was on molly the whole time, it’s boring as hell thanks to only existing because the writer/director happened to be sleeping with a venture capitalist from Silicon Valley who was bored with their day job and wanted to throw money at Hollywood instead.
Anyway, my dads offered to put me in a designer dress, which obviously seemed like a huge score. They can get their hands on anything—Prada, D&G, Elie Saab, Chanel. And they’ve never offered to style me before; at junior prom, at every homecoming, it was just a trip to the mall, like everyone else. But senior prom was special. I could tell they were even considering Versace. And while I’m sure as hell no model—I’m average weight, not skinny—thanks to being fairly small-boned and only five-foot-two, I can fit into sample size dresses.
Eight weeks before prom, when Matty and I broke up, I was sample size. I know because Charlie had brought home this cute little Erin Fetherston cocktail number—they usually keep all the clothes at the studio but this one got to come home, because Frank was working on a sponsored blog post and wanted a photo of a white dress against a polka-dot tablecloth with a vase of daisies and a cake made out of some new type of coconut sugar that some company was trying to promote. So anybody—literally any body—in the dress worked. My body worked. My body was sample size. I threw the dress on, made a funny face that cracked Charlie up while Frank snapped a photo that went from my collarbone on down, and the whole article was pinterest-ready and on the internet the next day.
Six weeks before prom, I saw Matty in the hallway, laughing with Hannah Wheaton. That sort of laughing where yeah, you’re laughing, but also you’re so delighted with the person who said the funny thing that you sort of end up leaning into them and touching them and playfully pushing them away just so you can laugh some more. I told myself I didn’t care—I didn’t. I’d broken up with him for about a million good reasons—we weren’t going to work out long-term, we were going to college three thousand miles away from each other, we didn’t like most of each other’s friends, he and I hadn’t laughed like that together in a long time—but of course I did care. Every time he and I had broken up before, I’d never seen him anywhere near another girl. Every time, we made the super mature decision to stay friends, and so we would just instantly go back to that, spending huge amounts of time together, just without all the romantic stuff. This time, though, was different. Maybe because I had the (sick…awful…painful…overwhelming) feeling that we were close enough to the end of high school that it was really going to stick. I mean, I wanted it to stick! So did he! He’d made a big show of erasing my number from his phone, right in front of me, and I was like yeah, that’s a good idea, and I’d done the same. It was fine. We’d still be friends. Friends who couldn’t text anymore because our phones didn’t know how to find each other, but friends.
Only now, he was laughing in the hallway with Hannah Wheaton. Laughing and touching and laughing some more. But I was fine with it. I was so totally fine, and I cared so very little, that on the way home from school I stopped at the bakery, bought two slices of red velvet cake (one for me, one for Charlie—Frank doesn’t eat refined sugar), and then ate both slices in my car before I even started driving home. Sorry, Charlie.
It was okay. Two slices of cake never killed anyone. Even if the slices were technically huge wedges. With three layers. My parents, if they knew, would probably raise an eyebrow each, but whatever. We all had other things to worry about. Charlie was beginning to ask me what hair and makeup I wanted—he was going to get their friend Tomas to do my hair, and probably their friend Luce to do my makeup, or maybe Tomas would do both the hair and the makeup since his style was usually pretty low-key and so was mine, unless for prom I wanted to go all in and do a super dramatic movie star look like Luce tended to go for: red lips, cat eye, smoky lids, the works? I shook my head and said probably Tomas. I didn’t want anything insane. I didn’t want to look like I was going to the Met Ball during a punk-rock-superhero-goth-ninja theme year. I just wanted to look pretty. Pretty enough so that if Matty happened to go to prom, which he wasn’t going to because he thought it was stupid, but if he happened to go, which he wasn’t, but if he did, he would be bummed we weren’t there together. I thought about all that as I ate a whole jar of almond butter at midnight while writing my history paper. I mean, it wasn’t the whole jar, technically. There’d already been three spoonfuls taken out. By me. Earlier.
Four weeks before prom, my favorite skinny jeans were beginning to feel pretty tight, and I took to wearing minidresses over them, which Charlie and Frank applauded as being edgy and probably street-style-photography worthy, if there were ever any street style photographers lurking outside my school, which there never are (paparazzi, sometimes, but that’s only if some B-lister actually shows up to get their kid instead of sending a nanny or an assistant) (we don’t have any A-listers). At this point I feel like Frank suspected something was going on, because he started making even healthier dinners than usual, which Charlie would happily eat but then promptly turn to me and ask, “Wanna go get ice cream?” And who was I to turn down such an invitation? We’d go, and we’d pretend like we were going to share a banana split but then exchange a conspiratorial glance and then each get our own. Charlie can eat whatever he wants and not gain weight; he’s got the metabolism of a teenager. I, apparently, no longer did, despite being an actual teenager.
Who was going to prom in a designer dress. A sample size designer dress.
Three weeks before prom, I found out Hannah had asked Matty to go with her, and he had agreed. I bought two packages of peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough on my way home from school, baked one, kept the other raw, and ate both packages. Forty-eight cookies’ worth. Three glasses of milk to go with. My skinny jeans didn’t zip anymore, but that’s what A-line skirts and flowy dresses are for. I told myself that I had three weeks to lose the weight, which would be no problem; I had technically only gained eight pounds, which is noticeable on a short girl, yes, but was hardly a tragedy. Frank would help me. Frank had noticed that my face was looking rounder, and offered to hook me up with his nutritionist. “You know, for prom! I just want you to feel your best!” I took him up on the offer, but the thing about a nutritionist is, they just tell you what to do. They aren’t following you around all day making sure you do it. They aren’t in your brain, batting down all your thoughts about your ex-boyfriend, and whether breaking up with him was a mistake, and suggesting that maybe eating a whole box of coconut granola is only going to take twenty minutes, after which the thoughts about the ex-boyfriend will be running around in your brain again. Granola is sort of healthy though. Is what I told myself.
Two weeks before prom I saw Matty and Hannah making out in the hallway, and I left school during lunch and ate a pizza at a restaurant instead, and my friends didn’t know where I’d gone and they were worried about me because they’d heard about Matty and Hannah, and so after school they surprised me with a gift basket from a fancy chocolate store, and when I cried, knowing I would probably end up eating it all that night, they hugged me and said Matty was a loser and could go suck a thousand dicks, which made me laugh and feel way better, but then we all started talking about how prom was going to be the last time we would really all get to party together, because I was the only one going to school on the east coast, and Ava would be leaving for dance camp literally the day after graduation, and Isabelle was spending most of the summer with her dad and stepmom up in Vancouver, and then we all started crying a little, and that night I wound up eating all of the chocolate they had given me and also half a leftover roasted chicken, which Charlie definitely noticed the next morning because he’d been planning on making sandwiches with it, even though he didn’t say anything to me. I saw him exchange a glance with Frank, who for lunch that day packed me cucumbers, hummus, and a cube of grilled salmon the size of an iphone charger. I added four packs of vending machine Oreos once I got to school.
One week before prom, I overheard my dads talking about me. “Do you think maybe Audrey’s gained a little weight?” Frank asked.
“She definitely has,” said Charlie. “But she’s going through a breakup, we shouldn’t be surprised.”
They were in their bedroom. I’d gotten up in the middle of the night to get a snack (a quarter-tray of leftover lasagna) (yes, I just grabbed the tray and a fork and was bringing it back to my room to eat cold). I knew I should have kept walking, but instead, I slowed down and hovered.
“She usually loses weight when they break up,” said Frank.
“I know. But it’s fine. She’s still tiny, it’s…it’s fine.” Charlie didn’t sound convinced.
“She might not fit into any of the things we’ve called in.”
“We have other options.”
“Not prom-worthy options.”
“Most kids just buy a dress off the rack. We’re already way ahead of the game.”
“She’s not most kids. She’s our kid!”
“She’s going without a date, she has to look extra hot!”
Silence. If I started walking back to my room, they would hear me and possibly realize I’d been hovering. Please start talking again. Please start talking again.
They started talking again. Unfortunately, it was in the form of Frank saying, “Not as hot as she looked a few months ago.”
My fingers gripped the lasagna tray so hard that if it had been a living creature with a throat, I would absolutely have been a murderer.
“You’re one to talk,” said Charlie. “Every time we broke up you gained like twenty pounds.”
“Yeah, and then you’d come crawling back to me, you chubby-chaser.” At this point, they both started laughing, and I took the opportunity to race down the hall and back into my room, where I immediately burst into (quiet) (didn’t want them coming in now, did I) tears. I mean, I wasn’t fat! I was still average! Anyone, any normal human being, looking at me, would think I looked fine. Not skinny, but totally fine. There were oodles of dresses I could fit into. Maybe not sample size ones that couldn’t be altered because they had to be returned to the designers, but who wanted to cram themselves into something made for spaghetti-limbed, twig-torsoed freaks of nature anyway? Right? Right! I was going to prom, dammit! I was going to prom whether they thought I was skinny enough or not!
I was so mad at my dads.
I was so mad at myself.
I stabbed my fork into the lasagna, ready to rage-eat, ready to disappear into the several minutes of frenzied think-about-anything-else-other-than-Matty that I’d been doing for weeks now…and couldn’t. My stomach, now in knots, couldn’t handle it. My brain, haunted by the specter of Matty and Hannah living happily ever after, but haunted even more by what I’d heard my parents say, was sending signals to my stomach. And this time, they were different ones. They didn’t say “Fill me till bursting!” They didn’t say, “Come on, this’ll be fun, this’ll be eight waffles worth of fun!” They said, “There’s no room. Even though there’s technically room, there’s no room.” So my stomach, for the rest of the week, couldn’t handle any more than two bites of cereal, once or twice a day. It wasn’t even hungry—I heard not one growl, felt not one pang, although I probably would have preferred them over the knots, the anxiety, the permanent twist of dread. (And the insomnia. Oh yeah, for the first time in my life, I now had terrible insomnia. Tomas would have to bring some major undereye concealer.) But it meant that I could let myself believe for a split second that maybe, just maybe, I would get back down to my original weight. Thank you, stress. Screw you, stress, for doing this to me in the first place. Thank you, stress, for possibly fixing it.
But it was too late. Friday night, I went to the studio. Charlie and Frank were there with a rack of dresses. Beautiful dresses. Sample size dresses. I could tell just by eyeballing some of them that I wasn’t going to fit.
“What do you want to try first?” Frank asked, a big grin on his face. “Vera? Oscar? A little bad girl McQueen?”
“Nothing too low-cut,” warned Charlie. “I mean, we got them for fun, you can try them on, but you’re not going out in them.”
“Unless you really, really want to,” said Frank, after a moment.
“We’ll talk about it,” said Charlie.
“Okay,” I said shakily. I’d lost four pounds, so now I was only up a total of nine, but I had a sneaking suspicion it might make all the difference.
I started going through the rack. Anything with cutouts around the waist, I skipped. Anything with a pencil skirt, I skipped. I didn’t even want to try. I didn’t want to see the looks on their faces.
“Oh my god, you don’t like that Narciso—” Frank started as I skipped past a silky, slip-like dress that was barely even a dress at all.
“Shhh, just let her choose,” said Charlie.
I started trying things on. Flowy things. Black and dark gray and navy blue things. They were fine. They were pretty, but they weren’t prom. Some I had to suck in my stomach to wiggle into. Some I had to weirdly throw on over my head, because when I stepped into them, they wouldn’t come up over my hips. All were chipping away at my heart…what if I didn’t find anything? I had all day tomorrow to hit the mall, but I didn’t want to hit the mall. My dads are stylists, for chrissakes.
And then I saw it. The dress. I was sure, instantly. “That one?” I said. My voice was a question but my face wasn’t; I could tell that my dads were happy, but worried.
“The Zuhair Murad,” said Charlie. “Of course. So cute.”
“You’ll look like a classy Tinkerbell!” said Frank. The dress was a pale, dusty blue, cocktail length, sleeveless, covered in sparkly embroidery. It would look great with silver heels. It would look fantastic with an updo that showcased my shoulders and back. It was a color I already wear a lot and would look awesome on me…if I fit into it.
Here went nothing.
I took the dress behind the privacy screen, stepped into it—I could step into it!—and brought the straps up over my shoulders. I took a deep breath, reached behind my back, and started yanking up the zipper.
It wouldn’t close.
I sucked in my stomach as hard as I could and yanked again.
It didn’t budge.
Frank asked, “How is it?” and I finally lost it. I burst into tears and my dads came running behind the screen.
“What? What?” Charlie asked.
“Are you okay?” Frank demanded.
“It doesn’t fit it won’t zip I gained weight I’m so sorry it doesn’t fit it doesn’t fit—”
Frank grabbed me by the shoulders, turned me around, and yanked the zipper. He couldn’t get it to move either. Charlie had a try. Nope.
“I’m so fat!” I said.
“You’re not fat!” Charlie said.
“You said I am! You said! I heard you last week, you said I gained weight, you both said—”
“We never said that, what are you talking about—”
“Yes you did, I heard you, I totally heard you—”
“Honey, sweetie, I don’t even know what you’re—” Charlie started.
“I was outside your door and I heard—”
“You shouldn’t listen at doors,” Frank said flatly.
I cried harder. Frank sighed and started petting my hair. “Sweetie. Honey. I didn’t mean it like that. I just mean—you know how people are. We say horrible things in private! We all do! Things that aren’t true! People are bitches! And if you don’t like any of these dresses, we will spend all day tomorrow shopping—”
“No we won’t,” said Charlie.
“You’re right,” said Frank seamlessly, doing this thing I’ve seen them do a million times before where they switch gears and suddenly agree without having discussed anything, “because we’re going to make this one fit.”
I was so surprised I abruptly stopped crying and looked up. “What?” The dress was going back to the designer as soon as I was done wearing it; it’s not like we owned the thing. What were they going to do?
“We’ll alter it,” said Frank. “We’ll make it fit you.”
“But…you can’t…it has to go back…”
“Of course we can,” said Charlie impatiently. “We’ll just alter it back. We went to school for this, remember?”
“I mean, we haven’t actually done it since we were in school, but…” Frank was bent towards me now, examining the seams of the dress.
“And the detailing is gonna make it kinda hard…” Charlie had joined him, his forehead crinkling with worry as he ran his finger over the embroidery. There was an intricate pattern that would be hard to match up.
“But we can do it. We’ll do it.”
“But—” I started.
“Shut up,” said Frank. “Take the dress off, get in the car, we’re going home, it’s all gonna be fine.”
I shut up. I took the dress off and got in the car. We went home and Frank made me a cup of tea and then forced me to do a mud mask so that my skin would be glowy the next day. Charlie made me cinnamon sugar peanut butter toast.
“We’re sorry,” he said. “We always think you’re beautiful, you know that, right?”
“Are you hungry?” Frank asked.
I shook my head. He took out a package of chocolate chips and sprinkled a generous handful on both toast pieces.
“How about now?” They were both grinning.
I couldn’t help but giggle, cracking the mud mask on my face. Charlie and I shared the toast. Frank and I shared the tea. And then I washed the mud mask off—my skin was indeed glowy—and brushed my teeth and went to bed.
I slept soundly.
In the morning, my dads were passed out. Charlie on his face, slumped over the dining room table, which was littered with scissors, fabric scraps, needles, thread. Frank was on the couch. Both were snoring.
The dress hung neatly on a hanger. It was still beautiful. It looked exactly the same as it had the night before. I couldn’t tell where they’d done whatever they’d done: the seams, the stitching, the sparkly details—everything looked perfect. You’d never know it was different. You’d never know that they’d changed it for me.
I picked it up. I tried it on.