Any given morning I wake with the question, can I slip into the bathroom for my toothbrush before the rush? How quickly can I get the coffee brewing? Did the kids choose clothes last night? Is there some sort of acceptable protein for the lunchboxes? Five hundred and ninety-seven questions later, after the children and my husband loudly puzzle every clothing combination and every food option and what sort of coat to wear and if a hat is necessary, they exit as my hair stands on end like a tribe of exclamation points. I try not to physically shove them out the door, try to remember to wave them goodbye instead of fiendishly locking the door behind them and collapsing into a pile on the floor. If any tolerance for noise and information remains, I turn on “grown up radio” to catch the news, but usually One More Word and I Will Explode, eardrums begging for the sounds of wind and seagulls in the distance.
Only after my own breakfast, my own muttering through the days chores do I wonder what I should wear for the day. It’s inconsequential. I try not to grab the exact same thing I wore yesterday, unless there is a good reason. But it’s tempting—Not Deciding, for another day.
On Friday, though, I left for an interview five hours south of here, and goodness knows the first thought about interviews is my least consideration on a normal day: What On Earth Shall I Wear?!! It’s been four or five years since I interviewed with complete strangers. I’m at the end of my long pale season, the end of a run of antibiotics, too. It’s the end of a stretch without exercise and there is not one compelling piece of clothing in my wardrobe that is warm enough for cool spring weather and inviting enough to make me want to wear dress clothes. I eye the gorgeous autumn red batik dress, light as a feather but so sophisticated—short sleeves, though. I’d just end up covering it with a sweater. So goes each item in my wardrobe as I pack, not this, I’d be too hot. Not that, I’d be too pale. That sweater looks better when I weigh ten pounds less. A turtleneck might not give me necessary options in a stuffy room. The groovy army pants (a throwback to my college days) are too hip-hugger-y. (Um, bare midriff even for a momentary raise of the arm is A Bad Idea in an interview, especially for a forty-four year old not in svelte condition.) Because the weather might be snowy or rainy or really warm, I pack four different interview outfits into a giant duffle, with shoes for hiking, for rain, too. Nothing in my bag is remotely spring-y— my few pink belongings are too light and summery, so I’m stuck with the comfortable blacks and burgundies. And I drove south to my friend Dianna’s house, four hours away. Not before obsessing, though: did I remember the makeup bag? That would be a disaster to forget. The directions? Snacks so I don’t get jittery? A water bottle? Gas?
The Jetta needs spring cleaning, filled with road sand and kid accoutrements and my husband’s gym bag, his change collection, an assortment of napkins. I throw it all in the seat behind me where I can’t see it, fill the tank at Flannagan’s corner and speed away before traffic gets too bad. I didn’t pack music—so much to think about this trip. I packed knitting and reading in case traffic stopped entirely on the busy corridor from Boston toward New York on a Friday afternoon.
Saturday, the morning of the interview, I chose the most comfortable of the dress clothes in my duffle, plain black slacks and a trim burgundy cardigan, the black Dansko shoes so comfortable for making my way around a strange college town, and an additional airy red turtleneck. A green-gold organdy hair ribbon, just because it doesn’t match anything but my eyes, and because it was tucked into my tapestry handbag. I remind myself to remove the purple watchband and do-it-yourself Episcopal rosary bracelet before the interview—they don’t match anything either. One roots me to the world deep within, the prayerful world where stories ferment and spring up from the rich compost of a long life. The watch ties me, theoretically, to the world other people inhabit, where “on time” matters, where parking meters need the correct number of quarters, where the driver ought not forget to check the gas guage. The watch keeps time, but I look right past all of its practical reminders, more often than not.
When I emerged from the bathroom in the morning, Dianna said she would hire me on my looks alone—I hired Dianna seventeen years ago to be an RA in my dorm, across the continent from here, so she is required to say that. I remind her that most of my interview competition will be recent college graduates, so I hope fashion isn’t the primary consideration. I look like a hippie mom in dress clothes. I look like I’ll find a place to change as soon as my interview is over. But it is a nice thing to be able to match lipstick, mascara and clothes. It just needs to “pass,” that’s all, not to impress. I just need to avoid being glaringly overdressed or underdressed. And I need to avoid anything fidgety-making—no scarves or necklaces or dangly anything. No midriffs!
I followed Dianna’s driving directions, pulled into a parking space two blocks away from my destination, and found the Yale School of Graduate Studies with enough time to drop by a fruit stand for marvels like fresh pineapple slices, snow peas, ripe strawberries, peeled kiwi and a spicy ginger beer. I found a warm corner of a courtyard and dressed myself in an additional layer of bright sunlight and the heat from the stone wall behind me. I dressed myself again with my journal and inkpen and the wash of words produced by the first truly warm sunlight of spring. I remembered visiting “the tanning roof” of my own college dorm, as the only person not in a bathing suit, on March afternoons, with my journal and pen, just like this. I dressed myself in my past and my hopeful future, in the writing program I hope to join this summer. I dressed myself as a writer preparing for a public reading, snacking on fresh pineapple slices and other decadences. The decadence of quiet, the decadence of being unnecessary for a day, to anyone but myself and these interviewers. They need a worthy student to gift with thousands of dollars—I don’t mind being needed, in this instance. Need me, please.
When I entered the building ten minutes before my interview, my eyes would not adjust to the dim lighting in the stairwell. I heard voices coming toward me in the dark. Are you Denise, they asked, the sweetest thing to hear in an unknown building, in an unknown city, in a hallway too dark to see. I said yes and they explained they’d talked right through lunch and needed a break. By all means, I said, take a break, it’s so beautiful outside, and the fruit market is just down the street. I found a sunny gothic nook with stained glass windows, and an old-fashioned wooden student desk propped in the alcove. I opened the window for the breeze and the sound of students playing in the small quad. The ginger beer I saved for the very last five minutes, hoping to clear my throat of all traces of cough and congestion.
Then my three interviewers returned and we sat around a table, each of us talking and taking notes and finding one another’s enthusiasm. The clothes were fine—I forgot to remove the watch and the rosary popped out of its place, so my wrist was dangling a tiny silver cross covered with grapevines. I don’t wear crosses as jewelry so I felt a bit self-conscious—I wear the rosary-bracelet to pray, when I drive, to remind myself of gratitude and life’s blessings. I fidgeted with it—no one cared. I hope they paid as little attention to my clothes as I did to theirs. We could’ve talked for hours, but our forty-five minutes ended with more to consider, and with great encouragement. They like my writing. They think grad school sounds phenomenal. So we agree.
I returned to the fruit market and this time piled up food from the international food buffet—curried chicken, buffalo wings, spare ribs, asparagus, avocado, and more fruit. Another ginger beer for the road, and a little piece of dark chocolate. Two hours to the turnpike station, to change into the comfy army pants and a warm turtleneck, with warm socks and leather rain boots—the snow began in the next stretch, but the warm was already fading away. I untied the green hair ribbon, kissed the little rosary-bracelet, peeled open the chocolate and took my giant bag of interview clothes home, up the entire coast of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts in the mix of snow and rain.
I’ll find out about the interview in late April. Meanwhile there seems to be much bright sunlight and I’d better pack my journal and find me some. Another day finds me in my army pants and a new black shirt, with the same green ribbon, and a few pleasant chores before my children finish school.
I hope it’s spring where you are. I hope there’s hope where you are. I hope your clothes don’t matter where you are, and if they do, I hope you are comfortable and at home in them, and in yourself. And near a sunny window, near some fresh fruit, near some newness and joy.