When Chelsea is sixteen her best friend Julie’s mom has a dress burning party. Chelsea isn’t formally invited but she happens to be hanging out there that night. It’s a big party, a lot of middle-aged people drinking beer and vodka tonics, smoking American Spirits, talking about Tom Petty concerts and car payments. Chelsea and Julie steal Miller Lites and drink them in Julie's bedroom. Everyone at the party is piss drunk by midnight, when the actual burning occurs. Julie's mom comes out of the house with the dress raised over her head, looking triumphant. She tosses it into the can and lights a match.
"I'm free!" she says as the fire catches.
Everyone claps. Some holler things like "burn baby burn!" and "fuck him!" Chelsea looks at Julie, who shrugs and opens another Miller Lite.
Later that night after the party’s over, Chelsea goes downstairs to get water. Julie's mom sits at the kitchen counter smoking a cigarette. Her hands are covered in ash, she’s crying. She says, "it was such a beautiful dress."
Chelsea feels sorry for her. She says, “it’s just a dress.”
"Never get married."
Chelsea already heard this from some of the other women at the party, even the ones who came with their husbands.
The next morning she makes a promise to herself.
She walks beside him, unassuming, her tall neck wrapped in a beige circle scarf like a cozy noose, her red lipstick fading towards the part of her lips. He loves her so much he wants to eat her, romantic cannibalism. For so many years he was indifferent to companionship, in the same way you can be hungry but not feel like eating anything. When he met Chelsea he was suddenly starving.
He drops to his knees and asks, his hands so clammy the box nearly slips from his grasp.
Chelsea has known Dan for a long time. They were friends in high school. They went to the movies together. They drank blue slushies and compared the changing colors of their Smurf tongues. They danced at Junior Prom. They didn't go together but both of them had been abandoned by their dates by the last slow song. "Don't Dream It's Over" by Crowded House. Chelsea rested her cheek on his shoulder and got makeup on his suit jacket.
He used to pick her up and they'd go sit behind the deserted boathouse and wait for strange things to surface out of the lake. They'd take guesses about how many cars were rusting underwater. They'd go to the diner and share a plate of disco fries.
They reconnected after college at the funeral of a mutual friend who’d died of a drug overdose. Dan walked Chelsea to her car afterwards and held her as she cried. She got snot on his suit jacket.
"I ruin all of your suits," she said.
"I’ll invoice you," he said, kissing the top of her head.
When Chelsea is twenty-six she tries on wedding dresses. None of them look like the one she saw burn a decade ago but all of them remind her of it.
Chelsea loves Dan.
The kind of love where a trip to Wal-Mart is a European vacation and every conversation is a scene from a movie you watch and wish was your life. The kind of love where the other person's presence hangs around your head all day like a halo. A state of euphoria that causes you to confuse your colors with prettier colors and smells with better smells.
Love that's so fierce it binds to your bones and before you know it your weight isn't just your weight. You're more than yourself. You're also the love. The love you said you'd crawl to the moon for but halfway there your knees are raw and bleeding. The love you said you'd sacrifice everything for but when you see the sacrifices there scattered like shipwrecks along your shores you wonder.
She wonders if she loved him straight through, all the way to the other side.
The air is dense with the threat of early April rain. Grey clouds curdle an ominous sky. Dan's lawyer calls to let him know that it's done. He thanks him, though he’s not at all thankful for what's transpired. He's bitter now, but in three months he’ll meet a model/photographer and after a few dates she'll move in. He'll get married again and have two daughters with big blue eyes and iridescent blonde hair.
In ten years someone at a cocktail party will ask him about his first marriage. He'll say, "my divorce was the best thing that's ever happened to me."
Chelsea finds the dress in the back of her closet, hidden in a garment bag. She unzips the bag. It's more off-white than white now, the years having had their way with it.
"I'm more off now, too," she tells it.
It's just a dress.
She zips the bag back up and buries it in the dark depths. While she's there she finds one of Dan's forgotten shirts. She thinks about reaching out, asking him if he plans on invoicing her for the clothes he left behind.
She’s seeing someone new. Clark. He's tall and handsome but doesn't have Dan's sense of humor.
That's all appreciation is, measuring what we once had against its absence.
She gets annual emails from Dan. He asks how she is. He attaches photos of his beautiful, cherubic babies in matching pink and yellow outfits.
Chelsea gets this year's email while sitting at a bar waiting for a friend. There are young women beside her, checking their phones, talking about men.
A chorus of ghosts appears, the ghosts of the women at the party who whispered warnings to her when she was sixteen.
She thinks of the words said as the fire started,
So long as there’s love, you can never be free.
About the Author: Rachel Harrison lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. She tweets @rachfacelogic.
Story Song: "Don't Dream It's Over" by Crowded House
Photo Credit: Nora Walker