This story is by Amanda Garzia and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I could swear I was coming undone with every step.
I needed to get myself sorted out fast. Preferably with somebody’s help. Either that or I’d have to brace myself for public humiliation.
The stylist, grey-haired, squinting a lot and smelling of cigarettes, had been of little use, if any, when I hailed her back to plead my case.
“You look fine. It’s just jitters. Stop fidgeting,” she had said, putting a hand on my shoulder and bending down to check the back of my dress. She gave the zipper an upward tug. “There’s nothing to worry about. You’re all set to take your place in line. We’re up next.” With that she elbowed me out of her way and was gone.
Our modelling instructor, on the other hand, had ditched us to launch a new line of perfumes to the audience. I could hear her flirting through a microphone with the host.
So I now scoured the backstage dressing room for a friendly face. Even a curt nod of acknowledgement would do. Any sign of encouragement, in fact, for me to boldly cut in and interrupt any one of the fourteen girls’ last-minute prepping. All I needed was somebody to have a quick look and see if there was a clasp or a hook-and-eye closure that needed doing up, something that would make this dress comfortingly snug.
I came up with nothing.
The girls still in their underwear were heavily engaged, slipping into their outfits and buttoning or zipping each other up. The girls who were already dressed were preening themselves in front of the wall-to-wall mirror, blotting their lips, brushing an eyebrow into shape, or just smoothing down their clothes self-assuredly.
What was I going to do? It occurred to me that I could make a run for it through the backdoor. Everyone seemed too busy to notice but once they did, they would be furious. I would go down as the girl who created a backstage commotion and ruined the show.
The alternative, however, was to walk onstage in an alarmingly loose dress. How was I going to walk like a model if I also had to tug my dress up repeatedly?
None of the others had been lumped with a revealing frock. The boutique sponsoring our graduation show had supplied us with cocktail wear but I was ticked off that all the other models were rushing about the dressing room in silk wrap dresses or embellished frocks with matching long-sleeved bolero jackets. One of the taller girls was lucky enough to be wearing a glitzy trouser suit.
We had been seventeen in all when the course began three months ago. Two of my closest friends had egged me on to join them and enroll for the modelling course advertised all over campus. “Be there or be square,” one flyer announced. “Step out of your comfort zone,” cried another. Then my friends quit half-way through. I couldn’t. My parents had coughed up the money on condition that I did not drop out before the three-month course was up. I was not going to admit that I shouldn’t have signed up in the first place. That I was not cut out for this kind of thing.
The dress was the final straw.
It was the only dress that was low-cut and off-the-shoulder and the only one with short sleeves. Not that I was shivering. I was feeling surprisingly warm. But that was beside the point. Nobody, it seems, had seen fit to warn me that I would be required to go strapless. I would have brought the right kind of bra instead of now being forced to go without to model a dress that had no support. The bodice was, mercifully, an opaque shade of black.
What the dress’s sleeves were missing in length, they made up for in width. They were ruched puff sleeves that made me look like I was decked out in paper lanterns, one on each arm. The three-tiered skirt, like the sleeves, was a glossy shade of green.
While I had been given a dainty pair of threader earrings, my pasty décolleté was bare. I’d have thought that a stylist aiming for Look Ostentatious with all that big hair and pillarbox-red lips would have seen fit to provide me with a necklace as well.
One false move and my daring sweetheart neckline would slip further down.
But could I risk the fallout of cutting loose? Not to mention the fact that I’d have to go barefoot. Tiptoeing in heels would be impossible. There was also the scarier issue of breaking the law. The dress was not mine. What if the boutique owner reported me? She had already told me off for calling the dress green instead of chartreuse. What if I were picked up and cautioned for theft? I was scared stiff of having my clean police record ruined.
I took my place in line. The stylist had given me the all-clear. But she was wrong about the dress. Jitters, according to her. Of course I was on edge. I had been on edge ever since I learnt that the show was obligatory. As our instructor had pointed out, many things could go wrong on the catwalk. Walking in tandem to others in a series of synchronized moves is tricky. A model could take a tumble or lose a shoe or go blank. But mishaps usually took models by surprise. At least I had an inkling of what I was up against. I started making “O” shapes with my mouth, a little trick our instructor had taught us to relax.
I had spent this afternoon practicing my walk and wearing myself out ruminating about potential slip-ups. The jitters got worse when my sister appeared. She’s the kind of little squirt that talks too much, blurting things out left, right, and center, and with about as much tact as a two-year old.
My sister came in to sabotage me. Psychological warfare. She shuffled in wearing mum’s black stilettos and a shocking pink feather boa she had fished out of the dress-up box.
She was sniffling and snot was running down her nose. Her arms were stacked with a ridiculous number of slip-on bracelets several millimeters too large. They clanked and jingled each time she lifted a balled-up hand to wipe her swollen nose.
“Get out. What are you doing? You can’t walk in those and you’re spreading your awful germs all over. You’re going to give me your blasted cold,” I shouted as I grabbed one end of the scarf I had on and covered half my face.
She pursed her lips, crossed her arms, and glared. But instead of rushing out in rage, she gave herself a few seconds to think.
“I’m not the one who’s going to be goofing up in front of a huge audience.”
“Ugh,” I had screamed, shoving her out and banging the door shut.
It was time to go onstage. I just had to make this dress work until “The Look” by Roxette came to an end and we would return to the dressing room. I couldn’t let an eight-year-old get away with thinking that she could get to me so easily. I wouldn’t hear the end of it if I chickened out. If my sister could make it all the way to my room in that getup of hers, I’d have to walk down this runway in mine.
Chin up, left shoulder out, right leg forward. I tried not to shuffle in the awkward way my sister had but I kept all my moves very low-key. Like that I could hold the bodice within reasonable distance of its proper place.
I improvised, not giving a toss about our modelling instructor’s commandments about how to walk on a runway. I could not maintain a poker straight posture or take long strides, swing my arms smoothly or keep my hands elegantly flat. So I went for stiffer steps and shorter strides and swings. I held my hands curved a touch inwards and held my chin pointed down to keep an eye on the neckline. I had done the right thing. My walk was modestly satisfactory and the end was in sight.
That was when I realized that my nose was itching and that it felt a bit runny. Feeling giddy and very cold, I sniffled and drew the mucous in. I took a deep breath, steering myself not to fall apart. I couldn’t let anybody catch me with a runny nose on camera.
That was when I sneezed. Not once but four times in a row, each ruinously thunderous sneeze rocking my petite frame and making my eyelids snap shut. As I raised my hand to cover my nose, my dress fell apart from behind and my shoulder blades felt alarmingly bare.
Horrified, I looked down, arms rushing up to cover my unclad chest.
To think that I had been so close to the finish line.