Interesting, the arc of this topic. Initially is was going to be more tightly focused on clothing, if I’m recalling correctly. And, though I’m usually pretty malleable on topics, I immediately said, “I don’t write about that. That won’t work for me.” Then it turned into a broader topic of appearance. The month is nearly gone, I presume I’m the last to step up (this being a 30-day month), and I’m writing a post about...clothing.
In my novel Becoming Chloe, a prominent “character” is a leather coat. It’s stolen by Jordy, a 17-year-old gay young man living on the New York City streets with his friend Chloe, and hustling to keep them in food.
In a rare (for me) act of blatant foreshadowing, the moment he sees the coat I let the reader know how important it will turn out to be:
It’s a leather store she’s [Chloe’s] standing in front of. “Wow, Jordy, look at that coat.”
I don’t know yet that my life will turn out differently if I don’t.
When I look at it, Jordy narrates, I make that sound that Raymond always wishes I could make with him. I remember what it feels like to want something. If I had that coat, I’d be magic. Men would cross the city to fall down at my feet. I’d turn the collar up, roll the sleeves back two turns, push them up a little toward my elbows. Everybody who saw me would want me, and I’d understand why. It would seem natural to be all that to someone. To everyone.
When they have to walk away without it. Jordy doesn’t even want Chloe to mention it:
It hurts to talk about it. Like sitting around talking about what a great guy that was who just dumped you, how good-looking he was, and how great he was in bed. I’ve lost something I couldn’t afford to lose.
And then, when he sees it again:
I try to think of a way to get to Rene’s without going by the leather store. There are lots of ways, but they all have me walking a little farther. And that’s stupid, I decide. What am I, a little kid? I can stand to see something it hurts to want. I can see it and then just keep walking. It happens to lots of people every day. We all survive.
But when I pass the store, I don’t just keep walking. It stops me dead, like seeing an old flame step out of a cab on a busy street. And once I’m stopped, I stay stopped a minute, and I look at the duster coat. And I make the mistake of thinking about going to Rene’s wearing that coat. It would be so different. It would be even better than it is now. He would look at me and see things he never saw before. I would be just as big as Rene and have just as much power, and we would have to find new games to play, ones that reigned in both of our powers so we didn’t both get burned to a crisp by all that self-satisfied cool.
Granted, that’s a lot for a coat to do. And, of course, it ultimately doesn’t. In fact, he sacrifices so much to get it that it becomes something he can’t even keep. But this is the way, I find, with characters who go through lives with big holes in their hearts. They keep thinking they see something, some outside person or object, that will fill the hole and make them feel complete. It never works, but it’s a compelling emotion to chase.
And, if it’s not funny enough that I would forget Jordy’s coat experience until it came time to write this post, I now realize that my novel Diary of aWitness revolves in great part around a jacket. One Ernie’s mom gave him for Christmas. With leather sleeves, and NFL stickers, autographed by a football player. One he knows she couldn’t really afford. And because Ernie is more than a hundred pounds overweight, the jocks seemed determined to get it away from him as part of their bullying routine. Because, as Ernie says, I had made the fatal mistake of letting them know how much it meant to me.
I felt like I’d be cool if I just wore that jacket all the time, Ernie narrates. Like I wouldn’t even be the fat boy anymore. Or, anyway, like it wouldn’t even matter that I was.
The significance of the jacket takes a strong shift in light of the turns of plot, but I can’t think of any spoiler-free way to make that point.
So let me go ahead and make my point. We talk a lot about accepting others no matter how they look. Some of us are better at it than others. Almost all of us could use some work. But just about everybody I’ve ever met has more trouble with their own self-image than they do with the image of the person they want/are attracted to/love. We are the ones we can never seem to please with our appearance.
Something as simple as a coveted article of clothing that seems to have the power to fix everything can be a strong character clue. It can point to the emptiness and confusion inside, trying to get out into the light to be healed.