He was born overdressed. As a fat newborn the fabric was bunchy with room to stretch and grow like skin. His tie, twisted with his umbilical cord, had to be untangled before it was snipped. The doctor told the mother and father that unfortunately their baby had a congenital condition: he was doomed to wear a navy three-piece polyester suit all his life, replete with stripy tie. The mother groaned, the father wept.
As a child, his cheeks were stained red from constant pinching by old ladies who thought he was adorable. Old ladies especially enjoy the sight of small man-boys, boys with the clasped-handed politeness and slicked hair and unfortunate wardrobe of successful grown men. His teachers favored him. However, his classmates pitched rocks at his back on walks home, taunted him with insults like “Suit Dork” and “Tie Boy.” The boy in the suit concentrated hard on his studies, hunched over his miniature rolltop desk at home with stacks of textbooks and papers and calculators.
“Son,” the father said, clapping his polyester back. “Right now it may feel like hell. But I promise you, with your tenacity, and the sharpness of that suit, you can be anything you want. I’m talking POTUS. ‘Shoot for the stars,’ as they say.”
“I want to be an actor,” said the boy.
“Well, that’s not going to happen.” His father shook his head. “The suit isn’t versatile. A businessman. A stockbroker, a salesman at the Men’s Wearhouse – ”
“An Olympic swimmer?”
His father sighed. “I don’t think so, son.”
The boy in the suit put down his pencil and stared out the window. It was a hot day and children were running around their yards in bathing suits. The boy thought it must feel so free, so light, to wear nothing but a thin piece of nylon on your most private parts, to feel the beads of sprinkler-rain on sun-kissed skin.
The boy showered in the suit and his mother blow-dried him each morning. She thought he was shaping up to be very handsome.
“Lucky you that suit matches your eyes,” she said. “The girls are going to be lining up at the door.”
No girls ever rang the doorbell, except Girl Scouts selling cookies. The boy in the suit had a special proclivity for them, Brownies they were called, with peculiar chocolate skirts and patched vests, button-up shirts and long high socks.
The boy grew taller. His voice went wild, then settled into a new startling depth. The boy in the suit did well in school, although he was never cast as anything but ensemble parts in school plays due to the fact he had to put costumes on over his suit, and thus appeared rather lumpy. He fit right in at Prom, wardrobewise. Otherwise he didn’t. He sat in the corner, sipping KoolAid punch, reading a Stanislavsky book. His date, Aimee MacAbee, who only asked him because she lost a bet to the cheerleading team, got very drunk off a flask and made a pass at the Principal as he escorted her outside to the police car. The boy in the suit watched her get dragged toward the flashing lights and noticed his suit was the same color as the officer’s who cuffed her. Maybe the law was the right career for him.
“Son, you just don’t get it,” his father said, shaking his head. They sat at the breakfast table munching strawberries that turned their teeth bloody. “How are you going to wear a uniform? You were born in a uniform. I mean, accountant, human resources, consultant. These are your options.”
The boy hung his head over his bowl of strawberries.
Graduation day, the boy in the suit was thrilled that the gown was designed to fit over formalwear. It snapped over his jacket no problem. The mortarboard felt deliciously heavy on his head, tassel wagging in the air behind him like a proud tail. His mother snapped pictures. It wasn’t just an act. That truly was the happiest day of the boy in the suit’s life.
The boy in the suit became a man in a suit. Despite what his father said, the man in the suit went to audition for plays and commercials. His rejection rate was 100%, although one director wanted to pitch a reality about the man in the suit to NBC. The man in the suit did not oblige. He wanted to be taken seriously, like Brando. He found a picture of Brando in a suit from the Godfather days and kept it in his pocket as a reminder of his potential success.
The man in the suit got a job opening a door. That was his job, really, no lie: he stood in front of a four-star hotel and said hello and good-bye to comers and goers and opened and closed the front door. To change it up, he often threw in accents, or imagined himself as different characters with different “moment-befores.”
On a particularly hot July afternoon he opened a door for a well-dressed strawberry blond with an accent who had overpacked and could barely wield her own hard luggage. The bellboys having run off again to hotbox the linen closet, man in the suit helped her carry her suitcase upstairs to her room. She, a fashion designer from a city they make movies about, complimented his suit and asked if she could draw it on her sketchpad. The man in the suit was very flattered and he stretched in a model-like pose on her chaise lounge as she drew him with a charcoal nib. She asked what brand it was. He told her it was an original. She looked at the tag and when she saw the collar was stuck to his neck skin as if glued, she dropped her charcoal nib on the busy carpet and turned slack and starch-white, and the man in the suit had to run to fetch ice chips from the machine in order to revive her. He noticed, as she lay on the ground moaning, a glimpse of white skin between her hair and head, and he realized she was bald under the beautiful strawberry wig. When she was properly revived, she stood up and shook his hand, all professionalism, and gave him her card.
He stared at the small lavender card, on and off, for days. He sniffed it: coconut. She had written her hotel room number on the back, along with the three-digit code to reach her by phone. Her card lived in his breast pocket with Brando. He fantasized about her, peeling off her clothing one piece at a time, wig first. It startled his body in a good way, these fantasies. Over the next few days he opened and closed the door for her several times, but she wore large sunglasses and didn’t return his greetings. The more he saw her come and go without acknowledgement, the more he thought of her, and wondered if she thought he was a freak, if she had crumpled the sketch of him and thrown it into the small wastebasket, emptied each day around noon by hotel staff.
After work one day, he went up to her room and knocked. She opened the door and stared at him. Then she opened it wider. He said nothing, stepped inside. She had easels with sketches of suits and hats everywhere, fabric samples spread out on the floor. There was charcoal dust on her fingertips. She closed the door. He approached her. He touched a strawberry ringlet, reached down and kissed her. Their mouths stayed together like that. She drew him to her king-sized bed and pulled at his tie, rubbed her hands up and down his polyester. He fumbled with her blouse’s buttons and she swatted his hand away.
“No,” she said. “I like to leave my clothes on. If you’re going to get to know me, you have promise to never push. I only undress myself.”
She unzipped his zipper, she peeled down her pantyhose, she hoisted her skirt.
There are people like this in life, who live a drab day to day, who punch in and out of work, eat breakfast, get the car’s oil changed, ride an airplane, read magazines, open doors, and then suddenly, they meet another human being who, for one reason or another, out of all the creatures they encounter, completes them best. For a little moment in time, the world seems to pause for their meeting. This other human being becomes a magician of emotions, an elevator, a socket-plugger, a hole-filler. Their presence, even in a quiet room, provides a rush that makes the other want to merrily yell, zings and reminds them of their own existence like a mirror you can hear touch taste smell as well as see. She was this to him.
They moved to her bustling city and lived in her posh flat, with high-ceilings, tall windows, walls splashed with fashion art. They bought furniture together, they called each other on lunch breaks, they met each other’s parents. The man in the suit got a job opening doors at a theater, which seemed one practical step closer to his dream of acting. He loved the buzz of intermissions, well-dressed people clutching programs in gloved hands, critical conversations, the second-hand clouds of cigarette smoke, the hush as they emptied back into the theater for the third act. He stood in the back sometimes and watched the plays end, and every time they did, even if he knew the words and blocking by heart by now, it was sharp, new.
He did ask the fashion designer why she so disliked nakedness. Why did she bathe with the door double-locked, why did she wear high collars and nightgowns to bed, why was their sex always hiked skirts or dropped drawers? He never even let on he knew her hair was really a wig. He did wonder about all that, although as a man in a permanent suit he felt he had no right to bring it up. Despite their wonderful arrangement, which he called love and she called a relationship, sometimes he ached for a nakedness he’d never known. The jiggle of skin, the expanse of pale epidermis, the unabashed pink of a nipple. Sometimes he looked at websites for a second and his mouth dropped, all that skin, the limbs twisted together, the close-up shots of hairy orifices and blood-proud monoliths. It piqued his adrenaline, yes, but mostly it frightened him. He would erase his history, he would shut his computer.
The fashion designer tried to include the man in the suit in her work as much as she could. She used him as a model for all the hats, scarves, men’s accessories she designed. She pushed him to audition for voice-acting work and other “less visible” fields of acting. But the man in the suit wanted the rush of the theater, hushed audiences, shiny gazes. He didn’t want to be a disembodied voice. He continued to open and close theater doors for years, quite happy, although sometimes in the men’s room he would take out the picture of Brando, worn soft over time, and sigh before returning it to his front breast pocket.
When the fashion designer got pregnant, their intertwined lives, their love, their relationship, it all suddenly changed. The fashion designer worried about everything she ate. She worried about the chemicals they used to clean their counters, mop their floors. She barely drew anything on her easels or in her sketchbooks for months. Her belly swelled and she never lifted up her skirt for him anymore. One day, unable to leave her bed, she confessed that she was terrified her baby was going to be deformed. That the baby too would be a freak. The man in the suit stood above her and said, I’m not a freak. I’m just a man in a suit. And then he left the house and slammed the door behind him. He drove up a dirt road to a secluded area with a tree-speckled view. He sat in his car and performed a monologue from Streetcar Named Desire and another from On the Waterfront, hitting his steering wheel.
“I coulda been a contender,” he said, pulling his tie until it choked him. “I coulda had class.”
When he got home later, he was calm, although covered in stickers and dirt. After his monologues and his long walk in the brambles, he had passed a strip club in the car. He had thought of going inside, letting some large-breasted woman who barely noticed her own nakedness rest on his knee, rub his suit with her chipped fingernails. But he knew that he was no better than the fashion designer in that department. He, too, was afraid of nakedness. How alien it was.
His little girl was born on Friday, so that’s what they named her. And when she came out into the world, helpless, naked, piping loud, he was most shocked by the sight of her slick unending skin with nothing covering it. Just pink fat, pink folds, pink limbs, pink fingers and toes. The fashion designer’s wig had fallen to the floor and she was sobbing. The man in the suit picked it up and put it on her head so gently she didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m so glad she’s normal,” she cried.
The man in the suit felt pinched by this, and looked at the wall. They rinsed off the baby, clipped the cord, wrapped her up and he held her. Her pink fist was the size of a button. As he touched it with a finger, something inside him spilled. He immediately fell for her and never wanted to look away.
The man in the suit couldn’t get the baby off his mind. He wanted to tell everyone he saw about her, show them photographs. He spent his off-time at home, reading her stories and tickling her toes, and attempted to document every moment of her life in large fabric-covered scrapbooks so it didn’t pass by unnoticed. The fashion designer went back to drawing. She wore long-sleeved muumuus now, said she was fat.
After a couple of months, Friday’s newborn-pinkness seemed to deepen. By six months, she had developed amoebic-shaped spots. The doctor ruled out measles and chicken pox. She was perfectly healthy otherwise, she was just … patterned. By a year, her pattern sharpened. The amoebic spots focused themselves into tiny flowers. They were all over her, like a baby covered in beautiful wallpaper. The fashion designer talked plastic surgery. The man in the suit was horrified. Friday was perfect. Friday was Friday. The man in the suit and the fashion designer fought about this in whispers, while the baby slept.
“This is your issue,” he said to her. “I’m perfectly happy being a man in a suit.”
“Look at how it’s limited you,” she said.
“You can’t be an actor, which is all you’ve ever wanted, for one. What if she wants to be an actress? Who’s going to hire a patterned woman to play Juliet?”
The man in the suit was quiet. He stared at the fashion designer’s muumuu and wondered, for the thousandth time probably, what was under there. He went downstairs and drove to the dirt road with the tree-speckled view again. He passed the strip club on the way home, the one that promised FUN! GIRLS! FUN! He parked in the parking lot and imagined jiggly breasts and skin and asses everywhere, wrapping around him, wallpapering around him. When he went inside, though, and he saw the one woman sliding down a pole, her skin seeming to stick and screech against the silver, he grew very sad and returned to his car and drove home. He held his patterned baby first thing, and his sadness disappeared.
“When she’s old enough, we can get her a chemical peel,” the fashion designer said. She had her glasses on and was drawing a cape in her sketchpad. “We can get her microdermal abrasions and see if that helps.”
“This is about me,” the man in the suit said. “You hate me.”
“This has nothing to do with you. If she were born in a dress, it would have been much better. But a girl with patterned skin? I just want her to have opportunities like any other kid.”
“Why are you like this,” he said.
She threw her sketchpad.
“I love you, don’t you know that,” he said.
She turned off the lamp. “Good-night,” she said.
He stared at her back. It was a red-lilied nylon muumuu. When he heard her snoring, he thought of lifting it up to see her torso. He’d seen her legs, her arms, but never her torso. What was she hiding? Why was she like she was? He’d always respected her too much to violate her by peeking at what he knew she hid from him. But tonight, he didn’t care. He thought of the woman sliding down the stripper pole, her small bounceless breasts and visible ribs. She’s the one who should be ashamed, not his lover in her muumuu, not his patterned baby in the crib. He studied the back of her muumuu again. He pulled it up as the fashion designer snored, gently, gently, so it wouldn’t snag and wake her.
There were pockets along her skin. Count them: five, six, seven zippered pockets. The silver smiles of zipper teeth, some closed, some not. He gently tugged one. He found a piece of paper inside, folded up. It crackled as he gently opened it. He sucked in a breath and his chest prickled: it was the sketch she had drawn of him, years ago, the day they met. A charcoal man in a suit posing on a chaise lounge. He put it back, but as he pulled the zipper closed, she woke and turned and sat up.
“I told you never to push,” she said. There were tears in her eyes. “I told you I only undress myself.”
“It’s only pockets,” he said. “Why would you hide them from me?”
“Everything you’ve ever said means nothing anymore,” she said. She got up and packed his suitcase. All it had inside was a towel, a toothbrush and a razor. “Go,” she said.
He had nowhere to stay, so he snuck into the costume room at the theater. It was an enormous basement fluffed to the brim with everything from petticoats to chicken costumes. Wigs and hats on every wall, buckets of shoes here, there. Cheap jewelry and fake spectacles clattered on duct-taped display cases, catching the light. The man in the suit lived in this strange jungle of outfits and accessories, walled by four racks of war uniforms and soldier outfits. People often came to rifle through the racks, but no one ever parted the sack coats and pistol belts enough to notice the man living on the other side of them. The costume room smelled musty and sweet, years of sweat and perfumed people, the invisible stink of dry cleaning.
He went and visited the baby each day, but the fashion designer hadn’t forgiven him for peeking in her pockets. He didn’t tell her what he found in there, that he only loved her more for it. During his visits, he held his patterned baby and touched her soft flowered cheeks. She waddled, she stumbled. He tried to kiss each flower on her face and she giggled. Her first word was byebye. He left money on the countertop on his way out the door.
One afternoon, hidden in the costume room, stretched out reading a Strasburg biography, the man in the suit overheard two men come in and rifle through the uniforms.
“You hear what they’re holding auditions for next week?” asked one. “Death of a Salesman.”
“Damn, I was hoping for Antony and Cleopatra. Sheath dresses and wigs, that would have been fun. But nooo, back to blah suits and ties.”
They left. The man in the suit sat up straight, the door to the costume room thudding closed, lights off. He straightened his tie and got up, brushed the dust off his pants, and headed for the library.
He skimmed the play, focused on Willy Loman’s monologues. He usually only studied monologues that he knew Brando to have been somehow affiliated with, but this time, he read and reread the lines until he felt like Willy Loman lived inside him, like he carried a small folded Willy Loman around in his breast pocket. He memorized it and found the audition in the paper, and he went.
The directors were in the front row of the dark sea of theater seats. The spotlight was lit, a lonely O onstage. The man in the suit stepped into it, closed his eyes and collected himself before he began. He thought of how proud the fashion designer would be when she learned he finally got a part in a play. She would forget all about her zippered pockets and her patterned baby.
“Business is definitely business,” he said, slouching his frame, stepping forward on the stage with slight carelessness. He pointed a finger in the air, lingering, kept his eyes scrunched and his jaw jutted forward. “But just listen for a minute. You don’t understand this.”
“What is this, a Don Corleone impression?” said the director with the newsboy hat on his head.
“Next,” yawned the blond.
The man in the suit walked offstage, amazed at the brevity of what they call showbusiness. It was his first audition in years, and he felt quite certain he had grown too soft for the rejection of impatient strangers.
He went home, where he was only slightly welcome. He held his patterned baby. The fashion designer was on the phone with a concealer company, asking if their products were safe for infants. He bounced the patterned baby on his knee with sadness, sure her happy expression would change into one of self-doubt when she was old enough to realize she was different. He watched the fashion designer’s muumuued back and all he saw were zippered pockets he was not allowed to look inside. There was just no way to make lovers love themselves. When she hung up the phone, he sniffed, and she asked why he was upset. He explained about the audition. She sighed and said she was sorry for him.
“I don’t understand why we can’t be happy this way,” he told her.
She stared at him.
“Everything could be different,” he said. “My father tried to tell me I could do anything I wanted.”
“No, but I’m glad he told me that,” he said. “Otherwise, I would have felt hopeless.”
The fashion designer walked over to the flower-faced baby in the high chair. “You can do anything you want,” she said flatly.
The man in the suit took the fashion designer’s hand and they sat at the table.
“What’s so wrong with a woman with zippered pockets,” he said.
She looked away.
“What’s so shameful about it?” he asked.
She sighed. “When I was little, my cousins used to stuff dirt and broken glass in my pockets. My brothers used to hide drugs from my parents inside me. Airport security has always been an embarrassing nightmare. Men who sleep with me tell their friends, snap pictures of me naked and put them online.”
“I’ve never done that,” he said.
“That’s because you’re a man in a suit,” she said. “I knew I’d be safe with the man in the suit.” She put her chin in her hand. Her wig was slightly crooked. “I want Friday to feel like there is no such thing as ‘no.’”
“But there is,” he said.
“I want her to feel beautiful.”
“But she is,” he insisted. He reached out and adjusted the fashion designer’s wig.
She cleared her throat. “I’m going to have another,” she said. “So I guess you should move back in.”
The man in the suit was elated. His first night home, he lay in bed with her and held her tight.
“After I fall asleep,” she said. “You may lift up my gown. You may look at me, and you may unzip my zipper.” She turned off her lamp, fell onto her back, closed her eyes, and soon snored.
He lifted up her gown. He stared at the skin on her stomach, impossibly soft, linen-white, with the single zippered pocket in the middle. He stared at her large flat breasts, he touched her nipple barely with his finger and watched it harden and shrink. This here was beauty, her carved waist, the swell of hips, it was her flesh, it was a wonder. He unzipped the pocket and stuck his hand inside her warmth and felt the shock of something small, metallic. He drew out a cuff link.
I’m it said.
He dug his fingers in further. It was another cuff link.
Sorry it said.
He sat back, pulled her gown down, unscrewed and fastened the cuff links into his sleeves. They gleamed silver in his lamplight and reminded him of promises.
He kissed her neck, he pulled the wig back over her head, and slept happy.
The man in the suit, inspired by Willy Loman, got promoted to a job as a salesman in the ticket office of the theater where he previously opened doors. On stressful days, he still drove his car out to the hill, and screamed Stel-la! Stel-la! before driving home.
Sunday was born, and of course, the first thing everyone noticed was her large mirrored head. Her face was cheekbones, blinking eyes, a nose, a little mouth, all chiseled from what looked like reflective glass. The man in the suit touched her impossible face. His thumbprint clouded her cheek and he was surprised it felt like flesh. The fashion designer asked to hold her. She looked down at her thoughtfully, no emotion passing through her expression. She didn’t blink. She stared like a woman staring at a pool of water would stare, how a woman staring at the curling, unarguable waves of the ocean might stare.
“I like her,” she said finally. “She is what she is.”
After the hospital, the man in the suit asked a woman walking her dog to take a picture of the four of them, of his family, outside the apartment building, in front of a short plotted tree. The woman snapped the photo and the man in the suit printed the picture upstairs himself. In the picture, his eyes were closed, the fashion designer’s smile was lopsided, Friday was turning around, and the sun caught a blinding ray on Sunday’s face, but otherwise it was perfect. He printed two copies. One he folded and put in his front pocket, next to the fashion designer’s business card and his faded picture of Brando. The other he slipped into the fashion designer’s belly pocket as she slept. The next day he noticed it was unfolded and framed and sitting on the kitchen table. She held a steamy mug of coffee.
“Good morning,” she said.