“Her godmother merely touched her with her wand, and her garments were instantly changed into garments of gold and silver covered with jewels.” – Charles Perrault, Cinderella
Mi Querido Fausto,
I write this hoping you can listen. There is so much I need to say because of the so much I never understood. You thought I was very hurt, didn’t you? I suppose you were right but you still lingered in my thoughts even after you disappeared. I was too intimidated to show my concern over your whereabouts back then. I just wish you had known how very important you were to me. It’s nothing new for a teenage girl to revere someone she finds alluring. If anything, it is a rite of passage fueled by the desire to be fully engulfed in the pulsating madness that is romantic love. El corazon no mande, we love who we love as the saying goes whether it is a taken man, a man who is cursed or just a plain troublemaker in the eyes of the sanctimonious, it’s all the same.
Over and over I relive the moment we first met. It was so very pure and any attempt at replication became a lifetime of forever impossible. Age always manages to cannibalize innocence. It was that time of year when the desert summer evaporated all the parties, forcing the pretty capital socialites to climb out of their soup pools and migrate to the coast of the Baja Peninsula.
Mariana, your first muse, was a spoiled child, wasn’t she? It’s not everyday you receive a phone call from someone who has a line of toilet paper named after them. You must have seen it as your golden opportunity. My father had gotten lost again so my grandmother insisted I spend the summer with my cousin. She so desperately wanted my fate to be less like my mother’s and more like my aunt’s. I remember most of those nights I was in front of a television while Mariana was on a date with an ambitious suitor who hoped to capture her affection and her father’s elusive approval.
It was during the synchronized swimming portion of the Olympiad, Esther Williams was praising her Vaseline haired descendants and I was admiring their wet grace. As they threaded the needle your debonair voice speaking Spanish with the Italian accent your mother gave you lifted me off the sofa. I never expected a man like you to be so handsome. Those chiseled features enhanced the permanent tan we desert dwellers are stained with. You were all slacks, sporting a kingfisher print silk shirt that made me want to peek inside. I could simultaneously feel the rise of my body temperature and the shame my upbringing disciplined me with.
You had the presence of an artist setting your canvas bag of tools atop the French dresser drawer. The spare bedroom became your makeshift atelier. Under your arm where an ordinary man’s newspaper would go, you had something unique. Carefully you laid a roll of peau de soie onto the bed, unwrapping and smoothing its skin with the side of your worn but perfectly manicured hands. You were in your prime. You didn’t need to follow a pattern or use vinyl-sewing tape on a woman’s waist, did you? You understood her body once you studied it. Eyeing Mariana up and down, without pause you sheared the fabric in full confidence taking into account the ten pounds she had just shed.
No one doubted your ability to alter one of Mariana’s discarded dresses at the last minute so I could attend my very first dance but it was those finishing touches that resonated with me. I can still feel the way my hair bounced when you curled it or how I shut my eyes to the warmth of your breath as you shadowed them blue. I kept so very still as you squatted down to hot glue kaleidoscopic gemstones onto a pair of pumps Mariana no longer wanted. The kisses you gave me on both cheeks as I was about to walk out the door, your cologne that smelled like an exotic cocktail and that kind smile so subtle in it leer, I was uninhibited dancing with so many faceless young boys that night. The next day my grandmother wanted to know all about them but it was too late, you enraptured me.
You couldn’t be a costurera as that is a seamstress and I always thought of a costurero as a sewing box. Calling you a tailor, a sastre, wouldn’t have done you any justice. Tailors were the bespectacled men Mariana’s father went to who measured inseams and reeked of sweaty worn fabric in a thrift shop of pants that needed to be let out because bellies expanded after a tamale Christmas. No my dear Fausto, you were the architect of so many designs, of countless exquisite dresses in a dazzling array of shapes and sizes. I truly cherished modeling your talent. You always gave prospective new customers that same sharp salutation, “Fausto Monti a tus servicios.” And after a design or two they’d call you Monti like the glittered silver cursive woven into your signature dress labels, a badge of honor for so many girls. But you never did correct those you held affection for, the ones that always labeled you Fausto.
That first formal dress was only because I wanted to see you again. I never had much of an opinion of what I wore before I met you. My grandmother was surprised I even wanted one but she didn’t turn me down, if anything she was elated, maybe I’d meet a nice boy from a good family. I remember being so nervous as I walked up that long flight of rickety wooden stairs. My heart was beating so loud, I worried my grandmother could hear me. The cafeteria and its rotting dumpster below didn’t dissuade me from feeling distinguished as I entered your real atelier. I became the center of your world standing on the fitting platform surrounded by walled mirrors of what was once a dance studio. Every inch of taffeta and tulle reflected back at me. You and my grandmother with a nod and a wink indulged my opinions. You both appreciated my naiveté.
In your studio, I left behind my androgynous lank and gradually developed into a woman. My body physically changed and you were the expert witness. All the formal dresses you designed captured a moment in time where my silhouette was but a temporal mold. A series of photographs couldn’t have captured how meticulously you framed my physique. Sometimes I lay one dress on top of the other to commemorate the evolution you recorded in so many colors and textures.
You always did say the best treasures are found in La Chinesca. It wasn’t just the ornate beads you mulled over or the ivory fabric flowers you protected in tissue paper, it was that you discovered Soraya, your angel of mercy. I can still see her hunched over her stitching pearls, sequins and gems onto swirling tapestries of lace, her fingers dry and scaly. You saved her from a dreary fate of sewing old worker clothes back together at a Laundromat but you should have never let her go, Fausto. She ruthlessly kept your atelier efficient, covering for you when a dress wasn’t finished and a rabid mother was harassing on the other end of the telephone as her debutante daughter blubbered like Baby Huey in the background. Despite this misstep, you always did have an eye for those who could make your work shine, didn’t you? You were a lot like my grandmother, God rest her soul, both of you had an obsessive need to be part of a circle of nobility even as you grew older and supposedly wiser. I understood so very little in those days, I just wanted to look and feel pretty.
You once said my body was perfect to design a dress for. It was that friend of my mother’s you had to scold who told me. Do you remember when I ran for Queen of Roses and she was selling those raffle tickets to help me satisfy that donation? Those nuns at my High School were certainly shrewd. With her cigarette dangling she confessed that she tried to guilt you. “Her father left them without a dime, it all went up his nose.” She didn’t know of our relationship. I was mortified. I must have looked it because she quickly added that you bought five tickets and bummed two cigarettes off of her, praising my body type, telling her I was the sweetest person you ever designed for, lovely in every way and she should be focusing on that instead. Goodness Fausto, I could touch those days with my hand! I can still feel my youthful skin turning candied apple red. Could you have felt something for me, at least at that moment?
Our relationship evolved in ways I never thought imaginable even as I always yearned for more. I was lucky, my grandmother kept writing you checks.
You were no fool Fausto but you were damaged like me. I was in such a miserable state. That’s probably why you did it, right? You understood. An antiquated tradition that no one remembers where it originated, it just repeats like a game of Simon Says. I dreaded having to endure my father’s return to escort me across a long dance floor during the princess procession. I felt terrible you had to take in that expensive silk at every fitting. Tranquila, you’d assure me but I was convinced my heart was glass.
It took my mother half an hour to fasten the long formation of cloth buttons you were famous for, beginning from the nape of my neck down to the small of my back. It made me so happy that you accepted my invite to sit at my family’s table. Waiting by my side and refusing to sit down until my father showed was deeply pacifying. When it was time and he was nowhere to be found, I remember thinking that making my entrance alone was a fear I hadn’t had time to process and before I really could, I felt you grasp my fingers with confidence, lifting them up as we strutted down our very own catwalk. Everyone could see that I was your favorite, the Wallis Franken to your Claude Montana, the designer who we forged for my gown and the designer who married his muse to show everyone he could. I could hear gasps beneath the surface of the soft music playing and I loved it. Every princess would have gladly swapped their stodgy father for you in your perfectly fitted dark navy double-breasted suit with pinstripes, your dark blonde hair slicked back and that impeccable crimson tie that matched the winning red rose I picked at the end of the night that made me queen.
It was past midnight, your tie was off, your shirt unbuttoned and your lips were mouthing for another whiskey to the waiters as you stared at the bouncers that walked the floor. Smoke ascended into the air, strobe lights flickered and music blared and vibrated as I danced on one of the multiple standing loudspeakers. You were far away Fausto even though we were celebrating at a club that night with Mariana and her fiancé. Were you in Paris as you smoked those Gauloises you had friends bring back when they were taking your lace orders? I woke up the next morning with eye makeup down to my cheeks and foundation all over my pillow. The spell had expired.
There was someone else, wasn’t there? There’s always someone else. I thought it was Graciela, that snob in my class who drove to school each day in her Alfa Romeo spider convertible. She had a perpetual paralyzed look of disgust on her face and a handy note from her mother excusing her from P.E due to menstrual cramps. I’d see you in the society section of the newspaper, champagne in hand at a fundraiser, a fashion show where Graciela modeled something you created especially for her, or a formal where you posed in between her gaudy mother and her all-powerful father.
I remember the last time you touched me. It was when you laid an ivory satin swatch over my shoulder and told me how amazing it looked against my olive skin. My graduation dress experience was what I saw you do to the others. The phone calls you didn’t return with Soraya easing my nerves at the foot of the stairs when I came looking for you. She wouldn’t even let me in. She insisted you weren’t there. The night of the graduation dance, I really expected Graciela’s dress to be a nod to Lacroix or house of Ungaro, something stunning, cutting edge. I was surprised she arrived in a marshmallow fairy godmother dress. You should have made her wand as an accessory.
I watched you all that night sitting with her family. Her father had lost weight. He was dying his hair jet-black. He was no longer frumpy because of you. He was hyper tailored like an Armani style power suit. He shook hands and kissed cheeks throughout the night. You sat next to his wife whose sleeves were enormous violet ruffles you must have designed. They brushed against her face and as she kept swatting them but you kept staring at her husband, smoking cigarette after cigarette.
Your faint smile caught me by surprise as I was exiting the ladies room and you were entering the men’s. I was sad you were not my life anymore but I was resigned to it. I never protested or cried much about anything. There was no point, no one would listen I used to think. “ Isabella, bella, bella, ti voglio bene!” I remember you saying. I wanted to respond but I was startled by an authoritative voice that barked “Vamonos Fausto.” You looked like Graciela’s father’s shadow. His steps were yours.
I didn’t speak Italian. I didn’t understand until later. You said wanted good things for me. It was the last time we saw each other.
Those silly privileged girls who had tantrums and cried until they received an exclusively designed dress by Fausto Monti? It’s very easy for them to laugh at you in their recollections. They don’t need formals anymore. “Si, si me acuerdo de ese pinchi maricon, aye como se hacia el importante.” They don’t watch their weight anymore. They don’t even watch their kids. There’s a muchacha that does that. Someday their girls will go to all the important dances but couture is commodity you can find on a rack now. I float in and out of that group. I don’t like that they remember you that way. But unlike them who look at the past as a means to an end, a place that they started from in order to marry and take their mother’s places, I look at my time with you as what kept me from falling into oblivion. Yes, they cast you off but you really cast them off.
Fausto, I really wish you could tell me why you ran away. Everyone paid you so well. I wanted you to design my wedding dress. I eventually fell in love again and it was reciprocated. I managed to track down Soraya. She was working for an old spinster that loved to sew. She said you had moved to Tijuana. You had broken up with someone and you were very sick.
It bit you didn’t it? The mal as they used to call it, for it was too severe to call it by its real name. It had bitten many and no one was ever the same. She never said who broke you. She was loyal till the end. But I knew. Did those nights alone with Graciela’s father get you in trouble? You would have done anything for him. I know the feeling, I do. He tired of you didn’t he? I bet his wife became resentful and made him let you go. I bet you were humiliated and sad, that’s what led to it, right? Late nights, drinking alone, meeting different styles, colors and sizes of disposable people and letting them fill you temporarily. Secret bars far and away from the society page he used to join you at before you went it alone. His family used to turn in for the night and you would come alive for him. You were the imaginary friend he always wanted. Gossipy people like to proclaim that no one decent would cheat with a married man. But it was his cowardice that truly erased any decency in him when it was so obvious that all you wanted was his love.
I don’t want to believe you suffered like I hear people do when they get the full-blown effect of the mal. My hope is that you were not alone, Fausto. I wish I could have been there to tell you that you never were alone. We could have sat in your hospital bed and looked through magazines together, planning the dress to end all dresses. A Chanel bride, A Christian Dior bride, or Givenchy bride, the couture house would not have mattered, you would have created something incredible.
I’m a mother now and I buy everything on sale when I get invited to weddings or a rare dance. I don’t care if anyone notices me anymore. My husband stopped telling me I looked beautiful years ago. But you Fausto, you made me feel more valuable during a precarious time. My grandmother used to have a white wicker-sewing box she kept in her bedroom in case a hem came loose or a garment needed a quick repair. As a child, I liked to sneak into her bedroom when she was watching her novelas and look deep into it, letting my fingers run across the ice blue satin lining, admiring the bright hues of fine thread and the sharp needles that could pierce my skin. You, Fausto Monti were my sewing box. You were my Señor Costurero.
Ti voglio bene, Isa