Watch out for shirts with horizontal stripes, Abuelita says, because you’re too fat and it looks bad. Best to choose shirts with more slimming patterns. Vertical lines. Solid blacks, nothing lighter than gray. This shirt is O.K., she says, draping it over her ironing board, because the vertical lines pop out. They’re brighter, so you should be fine. But how can you believe her? You’ve worn this shirt at least, what, forty-seven times now? You know how the fabric struggles to contain your body. You adjust and readjust yourself while wearing it, about eighty tugs and tucks an hour, but the vertical lines always wiggle and slant as they groove over your shoulders and slope down your back, the right and left-side patterns meeting at the base of a wide V. You’ve spotted this in tagged photos of yourself online, avoiding the comments every time just in case. Still, it’s one of the better shirts you own.
And these, Abuelita says, moving onto your pants, these are so cheap. Look. She stretches them out and tries to match up the legs, but they are uneven. The seam should go here, she says, now holding them by the seat. Look. You lean forward to identify the seam, but all you see are wrinkles. Then she folds back one pant leg like a purse flap, exposing the crotch; what should be tan is disintegrating into a papier-mâché white. She rubs the faded fabric between two fingers and scratches at it with a chipped nail. One false move and they will rip. This wouldn’t be the first time. Most of the pants you’ve owned have eventually split down the inseam, the gap widening to reveal the polka-dot print of your worn-out boxers.
You are frowning now, and when Abuelita raises her head to face you, her smile is limp. You feel ten again—short and stout and terrified. Back then, she dragged you into all the major department stores—J. C. Penney, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Sears—and would thrust shirts, pants, sweaters, bags of underwear, and bundles of socks into your arms. She forced you into fitting rooms and made you try on every item, sending you back in to triple check that the XXL graphic t-shirt didn’t fall past your knees, like a frock. She tugged on the waistband of your husky jeans, inserting two fingers into the opening between your pelvis and the fabric. You never told her how much you hated the clothes, because she paid for every item. When she swiped the store credit card, her eyes warmed, and for a moment, in between leaving the store and slipping into the backseat of her car, you felt O.K. with pretending.
Now, she continues ironing and shaking her head. When you buy this bad material, she says, the pants fit too loose, right? She’s pinching around her waist to demonstrate. I know, I know, she says, it’s hard. You have to pay rent and buy groceries, pero, Papito, you need nice clothes, too.
Yes, you pay for rent and groceries, a monthly MetroCard, the Internet service you rely on to keep sane, and you hand over at least sixty bucks a week to Seamless for meals that leave your stomach and heart empty. You wish money were the issue. But no matter if you spend ten or thirty or seventy-five dollars on a single pair of pants, nothing will change. At the end of any given day, you will stand in the corner of your bedroom, your knees buckling as you peel the material from your swollen, sweaty legs. You will turn them inside out, raise them to your nose, and sniff the seat. You will pray that your irritated hemorrhoids have not leaked, have not left behind the ripe, coppery smell of blood and stool.
Finished with her ironing, Abuelita takes your chin in her loose-skinned hand. You will look so nice tomorrow, she says. So handsome. You say, Thank you. You say, I love you. You wait for her to leave the room. Once you hear the final creak of her footsteps going down the stairs, you slide off the bed and begin dressing yourself. The collar is still warm. The creases down your pant legs are impeccable. And yet, maybe Abuelita has a point: it’s time for something new.
You drive to the nearest Walmart, alone. Once in the men’s section, you pull collared shirts from round garment racks and reach into denim-packed shelves. You double-check each tag for a correct size. But the clothes you like and could maybe imagine yourself wearing weren’t tailored for your build; your hands shake as you return every item. An hour of back-and-forth pacing passes. Your breathing thins. Eventually, you rush into an open fitting room with an assembled shirt-and-khakis combination. The process is tiring: buttoning and unbuttoning the shirt, stretching the pants over your legs, holding in your breath while fussing with the zipper. Finally, you stand fully dressed and sticky with sweat. Your eyes are shut. This is the part where you should face yourself in the mirror. You know this, it’s so routine. But your eyes remain clamped. If you catch sight of your body spilling out of clothes too small or drowning in large, excess fabric, you will scream. You will, you will. You can feel it, waiting to rupture at the back of your throat. So: you undress yourself, with your eyes still closed, because even if the clothes look nice on you, even if you don’t look half bad, how could you ever trust yourself to see the good?
Christopher Gonzalez is a Cleveland-raised, Brooklyn-based writer of fiction and essays. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, The Airgonaut, Hobart, Modern Loss, Chicago Literati, and elsewhere. He currently works in book publishing and serves as a fiction editor for Barrelhouse Magazine. You can follow him @livesinpages.