The ShirtErica Berry
I wore the linen Target shirt on every first date the summer after we broke up. I had read about a poet who put on a blue shawl every time she sat down to write. I liked the idea that fabric could spark something.
Those days—suddenly witnessed by no one but myself—had taken on an invertebrate quality. I craved scaffolding. Also, lately, I did not know how to dress myself. Who was I trying to be? I wanted to prove that a rut could become a ritual.
The first time, I wore the shirt by accident. I had put it on to teach. Leaned it against the whiteboard as I introduced our guest. B was a stranger to all of us. I watched the students watch him—the fervor of their gaze—and wondered if his beauty had inured him to it. After his talk, my colleague and I bought him lunch. The conversation was polite. He refused dessert. We all hugged goodbye. When, an hour later, B texted me to meet him by the Thames, it did not occur to me to change into anything else. I did not want him to know that I would have changed for him.
He was lying on the shore when I arrived, reading about socialism and wearing the sort of swimsuit I rarely saw on men in America. It was
because of the woman I had seen on his Instagram that I kept on my shirt on as I followed him into the water. Surely this could not be a date if the faded black collar weighed at my neck. B watched as I walked toward him, fully clothed. His gaze unreadable. The fabric tugged my breast as its edge caught the current.
It struck me as suddenly hilarious, that it looked as if I had been capsized or baptized. I pretended as if everything was normal. The river licked B’s golden throat.
After that it seemed the shirt might be good luck. When I wore it for fish with R, I laughed so hard its buttons shook. Later, when he took it off, the shirt found dog hair on his rug. I brushed it off. A few days later, I wore it to falafel with Z. We finished eating and were given a plate of baklava, for free.
A year earlier, to the day, I bought the shirt with you in Omaha. We had spent the previous month apart, and now, reunited, I was trying to figure out if I had missed you enough. I liked you best when you were happy, and you were always happy in Target, your hair glowing like a baby’s under
the fluorescent lights. We went in because we needed a cooler for our road trip. Got there and realized, okay, sure, other things too. What was it Annie Ernaux wrote? The shelves of dreams and desires, of hope—therapy shelves, in a sense…the best part comes before the item is placed in the cart.
I often acted as if I were immune to it, but not in Omaha. I grabbed your hand in the check-out line, then we walked into the heat. My shirt a neat bundle at your side.
Its luck faltered after I returned to Oregon. I wore it to the rum bar with G, then rooftop soda with N. Each time I tried to imagine a node of
possibility above their eyebrows and not how long I should stay to be polite before I could tip onto my bike, the hem of shirt rising as I slid into the night.
The thing I underestimated about this experiment, this sitting across from someone new, was that the shirt was not the real control—that was you. I didn’t regret our separation, but I could not escape it. Your absence was the shape other people would or would not fill. A narrative absence, too, because at some point during the pandemic I had asked—stoned on your fancy mints—how you would feel if I wrote about you. I don’t
remember what you said. Can you see that I am trying to honor each potential answer? You were and were not on my dates, just like you are and are not on this page.
A few weeks on the apps and I was texting two others with your same name.
When I met C, he had flecks of sunscreen on his lower lashes. I was curious about the power of knowing but not telling him. He told me a very funny story about shoplifting seltzer as a teenager, so he could practice with carbonation before his first high school party. He asked if I wanted another round. We shared a plate of brussels sprouts. Like an anthropologist, I clocked every time he touched my arm, my knee, the shirt. By the time it was dark, C had asked for my schedule and leaned into kiss me. I sang the whole bike ride home, in spite of myself, and hung the shirt as soon as I walked into my room. I texted my friends that it had been a superlative night.
Why had it never occurred to me? That I might never hear from him again?
One night I took off the shirt, crawled naked into bed, and read that while most fireflies glow because they are male and primed to allure, in the Photuris species, the females ignite to attract males. When they approach, the females grab and eat them. I read this twice, trying to see it for what it was—their life—and not for what it wasn’t: a metaphor for ours.
It wasn’t until the next day that I realized how much I wanted to outsource the labor of falling back in love to the shirt. As if the linen, like the firefly’s light, could do all the work. If the night soured, it wasn’t on me—it was the shirt.
Every week I washed it and hung it in the basement to dry. I suppose I should not be so skeptical of easy comfort, and yet: I liked that the linen was crisp and never soft. Before it dried, I smoothed the collar the way I had learned to do with my cowlick. That had been your job, once. You liked fixing things I had never thought needed fixing.
By the time I drank chilled red wine with P, the shirt's top button had gone loose with wear. Because P had suggested the wine bar with gold seats, I was disappointed when he did not offer to pay, then ashamed for thinking that he should. The shirt had cost as much as the glass of wine. The ledger was shameful on both sides.
On the last day of summer, I wore the shirt to walk the stone labyrinth with another man who had your name. The shrine that day was quiet. We staggered our entry. A tiny green frog jumped out of the path. On my second switchback, I glanced down and saw toothpaste on my collar. At that moment, M’s path turned toward mine. Haloed in wildfire smoke, the setting sun had become a persimmon. As M moved through the shadows, his body glowed with orange spots. Silently, he put out his hand for a high-five.
Suddenly, in the forest behind him, a flash of white. A nun was on the trail, her habit glowing as she jogged in and out of sun. Our eyes met briefly. Her black shirt disappeared into the trees.
Erica Berry is a writer and teacher based in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Orion, Catapult, and The Yale Review, among other publications. Her first book, Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear, was published by Flatiron/Macmillan in February 2023.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Eight.