Shirts

Two T's, One Buttondown, and a Plaid Flannel

The second man I ever loved was reckless and pudgy. He could be cruel with purpose. His contempt was notorious. He drank too much and flirted with my friends. Once he threatened to break both my legs if I left him. But his sweetness was a revelation. He brought my mother wildflowers on Valentine's Day and stayed up nights with me when I had insomnia. His shirt is orange, striped with gaudy blues and reds. It's made by J. Crew and smells sour around the collar, like unwashed hair and sweat. I pull it on whenever I forget I deserved better than him.

Another shirt belonged to my first lover, the man I expected to marry. It's from his senior year in high school and has the ironed-on words "Milwaukee: Only the Beast for the Class of '89" on the front pocket, faded black and peeling. The shirt is worn so thin it's gauzy. It's comfortable; I recently slept in it when I had the flu. Once he gave me his old laptop. When we quit speaking, after six years of sporadic couplehood, I tucked it inside a stained Oriental rug someone had rolled up and dumped on the sidewalk outside my apartment. Yet I hang onto the shirt because it reminds me that he read my horoscope before he read his own, every day in the newspaper, and taught me why John Elway is a god and how to drive a stick shift. In June he's marrying another woman; he invited me, but I'm not going. He used to be my guy. Before him, I'd never wanted to slip inside a man's skin just to steep in his blood. This kind of osmosis is more complicated than sex.

There have been other men; there have been other shirts. A pinstriped Brooks Brothers button-down hangs on a rack in my closet. It is "dry-clean only" and unremarkable; the man who wore it was cynical and funny and improbably sentimental. He liked to microwave ice cream.

I collected the nubby plaid flannel from a fling, a younger man both earnest and tall. The hem flares two inches above my knees, and I fold the sleeves into three thick cuffs that circle my elbows. None of these shirts fit exactly right. None of the men ever did, either.


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