THE Lane Bryant shop on West Eighth Street was right near one of our favorite bookstores, the Marlboro Books outlet that sometimes had marked-down copies of Pogo books. After we emerged victorious with our latest trophy, my father and I often lingered at the windows of the ladies’ shop, which seemed to have clothing that was made for no particular purpose or time of day that I could ever figure out. Except for the bathrobes. Those were no-brainers. They were meant for Sunday morning brunch, my mother’s favorite meal.
And one December I worked up the courage to ask my long-divorced father if he would buy one for my mother, his ex-wife, to replace the ratty pink chenille one that was like a reproach to me every time I saw it. I could not in good conscience hope for anything new in my own life while she continued to don that grayish garment that bore the evidence of many a late evening cigarette. He and I knew that the time was long past when they needed—or wanted—to exchange presents, but I desperately wanted her to have it. The garment of choice was navy blue quilted satin, with red piping on the tailored lapels, and a double-breasted set of buttons covered in red satin. It looked like something Ava Gardner would wear on the terrace of a Manhattan penthouse while sipping champagne, while Frankie crooned to her. And my dark-haired mother could carry it off.
Miracle of miracles, my father agreed to buy it. The saleswoman wrapped it in yards of white tissue paper, and I managed to get it undetected into the two-room apartment on Perry Street where I lived most of the week with my mother. Just like a kid on a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, I hid it under my bed and started counting the days until the twenty-fifth. It was almost like being a family again.
On my eighth Christmas Eve, I could hardly close my eyes. I tossed and turned all night, imagining a hundred different variations of delight on my mother’s astounded face when she opened our gift.
In the morning, my father came by, ostensibly to take me out for lunch. It was then that I brought the package out. As she glanced at the now glaringly enormous box, uneasily trying to unknot the bow without cutting the ribbon (so it could be saved for next year) I became really fearful. It was too big a present. She couldn’t match it. But it was too late.
She opened it, and gasped. The navy satin gleamed like a million bucks. Her right hand clutched instinctively at the opening of the old pinkish-gray robe. She looked up at us. A deep blush was spreading up from her neck, past her high cheekbones to the roots of her dark brown hair. She was as pretty as a movie star, and now she had the wardrobe. But she had an odd look on her face.
“Is this one really so awful? Why didn’t anybody tell me?” She seemed to be shivering, but it wasn’t cold at all in our apartment.
And I didn’t know if my father and I had done a bad thing or a good thing. Why wasn't life simple and kooky, like the mix-ups on I Love Lucy? Where everybody hugged at the end. Really, that's how it should be.