Graduation – A Short Story

It’s been ages since I shared anything here and since BlueHost is still collecting my coins for hosting and whatnot, I figured I should stop wasting the real estate. So here goes. This is Graduation, a piece loosely inspired by true events. It’s the first story I wrote that I let anyone see since my epic teen novel instalments in 2nd form and I wrote it in 2009, more than a decade after I’d stopped writing for fun. I was rusty and being the self-judgey writer that I am, I’m sure it showed, but it still copped a silver medal in the JCDC Creative Writing Competition, so we thank God! Anyhoodle, I felt like sharing, so I hope you enjoy!

I hate to shop. I consider it one of life’s necessary
evils, like Brussels sprouts and high-heeled shoes.
Laurell K. Hamilton,
Guilty Pleasures
(Although I must point out that I love Brussels
sprouts! – Tracey)

It all started with the dress. Which fashion sadist had dictated that girls must graduate in white dresses, anyway? Finding a decent white dress was like looking for a needle in a haystack. You know it’s there somewhere, but you don’t have the time or strength to carry out the search.

This was the seventh store on the third plaza in Half Way Tree that Tina Stewart had visited, to no avail. Granted, she had seen white dresses⁠—many white dresses, just rarely in a size above eight and, on the few occasions those rare gems had been unearthed, the pathetic creations hovered between sizes 10 and 14. How dare she be a size 18! Could designers even count that high?

Of course, there had also been the requisite few that were bigger than her size, but the last thing Tina wanted to do was graduate from college in a muumuu! It seemed nobody catered to the fat girl.

A brief respite in a bookshop had yielded two magazines and a romance novel, so Tina left her lone shopping bag with the teenaged boy lounging behind the baggage counter and wearily pushed the door of the last shop on the second floor. It didn’t open. Impatiently hissing her teeth, she gave it another shove, only to look down and see that the sign read “Pull.”

Slightly embarrassed, Tina chuckled, turning sheepishly in the direction of the harried-looking woman who was standing behind her. The woman didn’t even crack a smile.

“Sorry,” she muttered under her breath, yanking the door open and stepping inside.

She had been in the store for about five minutes browsing through the racks before a bored-looking attendant bearing a name tag marked ‘Shamika’ dragged herself over. “Ah can help yu wid someting?”

Obviously. “Yes,” Tina answered politely. Maybe if I’m nice, she thought, fate will stop trying to sheg up my graduation. “I’m looking for a white dress for graduation⁠—nothing too formal or dressy; just nice and simple.”

Shamika looked her up and down skeptically. “Ahm, mi no tink wi have anyting wa can fit you ina white,” she drawled, a barely concealed smirk threatening to override the expression of ennui on her face.

Heaving a bone-deep sigh, Tina ventured again. “Yuh sure? Not even a skirt suit? A skirt? I could look for a different top. I really just need something white.”

The doubtful up-and-down perusal again. “Not ina white.”

Shamika stepped away briefly, returning with a mid-length cream skirt. Lovely fabric, hideous style. And seemingly designed for a morbidly obese pregnant woman! “Dis a di only ting wi have dat can fit you,” she pronounced. “Maybe,” she added, with a roll of her eyes.

Tina rocked back on her heels and looked at Shamika stiffly. Biting back the angry response she had been about to let fly at this hapless representative of Jamaican customer service, she also fought back tears of frustration. “Don’t worry. Thanks anyway.”

Shamika rolled her eyes again and turned away.

Tina was almost at the door when a high-pitched voice shouted behind her: “You looking white dress? Come man, we have white dress. Roun back.”

Turning hopefully, Tina followed the small Chinese proprietor towards the back of the store, concluding that Shamika was an idiot and totally undeserving of her minimum wage job.

“We have plenty white dress. Can fit you, too,” the woman added, reading Tina’s doubtful expression.

Eagerly, Tina rifled through the rack in front of her and pulled out a lacy white bundle marked ‘2X.’ She scampered off to the changing area and closed the door. While she pulled her t-shirt over her head and shimmied out of her jeans skirt, she heard the Chinese lady call Shamika. Their conversation was muffled, but from the tone of the proprietor’s voice, she was none too pleased at almost losing a sale. A slow smile of satisfaction spread across Tina’s face.

Wiggling around in the tiny room, unable to dodge her reflection in the 360-degree mirror, Tina managed to stick her hand halfway down her back and catch the end of the zipper. She gave it a gentle tug. Then another. Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Not again!

Swearing under her breath, she carefully peeled the dress from her body and stepped out of it. Hastily putting her clothes back on, she stepped outside. Her expression must have been telling because the proprietor’s smile wobbled.

“It no fit?”

“Nope,” Tina sighed.

“But is big-size dress. How it no fit? Mek mi see.”

Few things set Tina’s teeth on edge like the words ‘big-size.’ “It. Is. Too. Small,” she enunciated, thrusting the dress at the advancing store owner, who sensed Tina’s growing irritation, but also felt a sale slipping through her fingers.

“Ok,” the woman said gamely. She again rifled through the rack, then turned to the left and began to search the clothes hanging there.

“We only have 2X. You sure di skirt no fit? Shamika, go fa di skirt,” she said, sizing Tina up. “It will fit you nice. We have plenty nice white blouse, too. Shamika, bring one a di new white blouse.”

“Yes, Miss Lee.” Shamika, looking as bored as ever, lumbered away again.

Tina watched their movements with a mixture of bubbling anger and wry humour. What did they think they were going to do with that blasted tent of a skirt? And why the hell was she still standing in that store?

“No, thanks. I’m going to try somewhere else,” she said, sidestepping Shamika. “Thanks for your time.”

Outside, once again in possession of her book and magazines, Tina stood forlornly, looking but not really seeing the myriad of colourful shops around her. This always happened to her. A big, important event to attend and no clothes to wear. No clothes for the fat girl.

***

Unbidden, the barely suppressed memory of her basic school graduation floated up from her subconscious like flotsam. Tina had been five, a precocious troublemaker with the face of an angel. She had been such a happy little girl, but her world was turned on its head the Saturday afternoon she had gone shopping with her grandmother for the requisite white graduation dress. She didn’t remember much about that fateful day besides the fact that they had walked for a very long time, going from plaza to plaza and store to store until they got to a children’s shop named ‘Princess.’ Tina had spotted red and white candy in the window display and had cajoled her grandmother to go in.

Icilda Stewart was a miserable old woman whose one soft spot was for her grandchild, the only daughter of her only son. Tina had been brought to live with her grandmother when her parents had gone abroad to work the previous year. They sent money quite regularly and Miss Ici enjoyed spoiling her baby with whatever her little heart desired. She bought Tina a small box of the candy and headed towards the back of the room with the owner, who kept casting furtive glances back at the pleased-as-Punch Tina.

The women returned a short while later, Miss Ici holding up two frothy concoctions of sateen, lace and crinoline. Tina’s skin immediately began to itch at the thought of the crinoline against her legs. She hated crinoline, but so far, all her attempts to tear the offensive material from her Sunday-best dresses were met with stern reprimands and stinging slaps.

Miss Ici led Tina towards a little room hidden behind a long blue curtain and proceeded to undress her. Then began the quite familiar fight to get the dress unto her chubby little body.

“Draw in yu belly nuh chile!” Miss Ici snapped, attempting once again to yank the dress over Tina’s round tummy. Suddenly there was a loud rip.

“Mi rass!” Miss Ici gasped, looking around despite the fact that they were the only two people in the room. “Come Tina. Hurry up an tek it off. Lawd a massy. Hurry up no chile!”

Tina reached for the hem of the dress to help pull it up. “Everyting alright in dere? Someting tear? If yu spoil di zip yu have to buy it innuh miss,” the store owner informed Miss Ici. “Mi tell yu from yu come in seh mi no have nutn fi fit di likkle girl an yu still force an try dem on pon her. Yu no see how she big an fat?”

This is where Tina’s memory faded, only picking up snatches of angry conversation as her grandmother had taken on the store owner, giving her pound for pound every piece of ‘cloth’ in her vast dictionary of profane language. No one insulted Santina Ingrid Stewart in her presence. In fact, no one even dared to say anything bad about Tina behind her back, either.

Miss Ici’s acid tongue was the stuff of legend in the small district of Clearmount Street. Not since the girl’s basic school teacher had mentioned, clearly concerned, that she was worried about Tina’s health and could Miss Ici please cut down on the amount of food she gave her? Judging by the contents of her lunch box (which could have also fed another of her classmates, had Tina ever felt inclined to share), she was clearly eating too much. No, definitely not since the teacher had run from the classroom in tears had anybody dared to say anything to Miss Ici about her grand-daughter’s weight.

But it all came to a head on that fateful shopping day. The store owner, who went by the name Patrice, did not know Miss Ici, nor would that knowledge have made a difference. This woman had come into the store with her heavy-duty granddaughter and would not listen as she politely informed her that no, Princess did not have any white dresses that could fit the little girl, who had inhaled the contents of the candy box so fast it was almost finished by the time she had found the two biggest dresses tucked away at the back of the store. No, she had to go and spoil a perfectly good dress, not only by practically tearing out the zipper, but the child had smeared it with her sticky candy fingers!

Tina listened as the two women cursed, their voices steadily rising. She heard plenty of bad words, but none of them registered; she didn’t giggle behind her hands as she usually did when Miss Ici went into one of her legendary tirades. All she heard were the words ‘fat’ and ‘heavy-duty,’ sometimes exchanged with the less benign-sounding ‘big and sour.’ Those words had been used against her before, by cruel classmates who hadn’t been asked to partake of her overflowing lunch box. But something about the woman’s tone sounded like an indictment and, for the first time, Tina got the impression that something was wrong⁠—with her.

***

Licking the last of the cherry cheesecake from the white plastic fork, Tina sighed ruefully. Here we go again, she thought, shaking her head as though trying to dislodge the memory. She hastened out of the food court and out of Pavilion Mall altogether, deciding that her little shopping jaunt was done for the day. Catching the number 72 bus to Mona, she got a window seat for the drive home and tried not to think about her impending graduation or the memory of Patrice’s angry epithets.

It had been almost seventeen years since that painful day and, truthfully, she had lost some of the ‘baby fat.’ However, on days like this, when she was again forced to measure herself by the clothes that did not fit, Tina still felt like that confused little girl who had cried all the way home, refused to eat dinner that night and gave away all of her lunch for a week, until she had been rushed to the doctor after complaining of stomach cramps from gas. Miss Ici had been forced to monitor her diet after that and wake up to the fact that yes, her granddaughter’s health was at risk. Tina had been forced to undergo the dreaded white dress ritual again in primary school, but had mercifully escaped it in high school, where the students wore their uniforms under their graduation gowns.

Her relationship with food had been somewhat ambivalent over the years. She ate for comfort and even as she ate, she cursed herself for it. God knows, she had needed comfort over the course of this last year at the University of the West Indies. She had watched as her painstakingly maintained 4.0 grade point average had dropped to 3.65, barely hanging on to the first class honours degree she had set out to get. The work hadn’t necessarily got any harder; she just hadn’t coped well with her new living situation. An unsuccessful run for block representative had led to her being unceremoniously booted from her dorm after two years of dedicated service due to hall politics. Her roommate in the off-campus apartment she rented had been a snide shrew who blatantly used Tina’s things and brought her sleazy boyfriends over whenever she liked, never mind that Tina was there.

So, she had eaten.

In the last year alone, Tina had gained almost 20 pounds so that at 5’4”, she found herself weighing over 200 pounds. But on the bright side, she had landed a job as a public relations associate and copywriter at a small marketing and advertising company right there in Kingston, almost immediately after her last exam in May. The hours were long and merciless, which meant she had no weekends, no social life and definitely no time to shop. Now here she was in November, two weeks away from graduation with nothing to wear. To make matters worse, she had just landed her first solo campaign for a small business client and could foresee being married to her work until the Christmas excitement was over.

Wearily, Tina pulled out the novel she had purchased and momentarily gave herself over to the familiar trope of the dashing hero and the damsel in distress. She would just have to figure something out.

***

It was Saturday again, exactly six days away from her big moment and Tina was desperate. She had to attend a work function that afternoon, so she left home early in the morning to make the most of her free hours, venturing first to Crossroads before heading Downtown, the biggest shopping Mecca in Jamaica. There you could buy just about anything in the world—apparently only if you were shopping for size 14 or smaller. In one store, the attendant had—again—looked her up and down with a smirk. In another, she had searched through the racks hopefully until she had come to a dress even bigger than she required. It was the wrong size but it was actually nice, so she had latched on to it gleefully. Unfortunately, it was so shop-soiled that it wasn’t worth the exorbitant asking price, not to mention the cost to get it cleaned and altered. The store owner had refused to give her a discount.

So there she was, once again hiding out in a book store, leafing through a magazine. From the corner of her eye, Tina spotted a clerk heading towards her, pointing towards the ‘No reading allowed’ sign. She hastily stuffed the magazine back on the rack and headed out of the store. Damn it, I’m going to just wear a blasted sheet, she thought angrily as she stalked down King Street. She was so engrossed in her gloomy thoughts that she almost mowed down the girl setting up an outside display.

“Oh, sorry,” she apologised, stopping to assist the young woman who was trying to rebalance an emaciated-looking mannequin with multiple pieces of duct tape keeping her waxen form together.

“Dat alright man,” she said, impatiently brushing Tina’s hands away and once again reassembling the material she had been wrapping around the mannequin.

Tina looked on, transfixed at the swiftness of her movements. In less than two minutes, the mannequin was fully clothed. She almost wanted to cry.

“Excuse me,” she called out as the girl turned to head back into the store. She turned around.

“Ahm, Nakiesha,” she said, peering at the crisp, new nametag. “That look good! Are you a dressmaker? I need a white dress for graduation today or mi salt!”

Nakiesha laughed. “No, but we have dressmakers here. Is a new store we just open since month. We sell material an make clothes.”

Tina’s knees almost buckled in relief. She excitedly followed Nakiesha inside, silently thanking God for this change of fortune. After deliberating for about 30 minutes, she finally settled on classic white tweed for her dress, deciding that she liked the formality of the fabric. Her measurements were taken and the style quickly selected. Tina didn’t even care that she had to pay $2,000 extra for such a quick turnaround. She paid in full and left the store with the promise that her dress would be ready for delivery on Wednesday—one day before graduation. She almost had to fight the urge to kiss the seamstress’ feet out of gratitude. Tina fairly floated through the rest of the day.

***

“Tina, hurry up no man!” Shanae Parkes yelled from her bedroom on the dorm. “Yu tink di people dem ago hold up graduation fi you one?”

“You an dem lucky,” Tina called back, preening in front of the full-length mirror at the end of the hall. “This is my big day. I will not be rushed.”

“Well, hurry up. Yuh hair nuh do yet!”

“I was going to wear it out like this,” Tina said, fingering her medium-sized Afro. “It’s a nice contrast with the dress, nuh true?”

Shanae walked up behind her. “Hmm… For real,” she said. “Go deh, Empress!”

Tina laughed, watching in the mirror as Shanae began to shape her Afro. Yes, she did feel like royalty. The simple sheath dress had a sweetheart neckline, cut slightly lower in the back and a wide waistband that nipped in her middle. She wore a pair of gold stud earrings and a thin gold chain given to her by Miss Ici just before she died four years ago. Her look was finished off with black platform pumps with gold detailing.

As Tina examined her figure, she reflected on her shopping mis-adventures and was actually thankful that she hadn’t been able to find anything ready-made in the stores. This was the perfect dress.

As if reading Tina’s mind, Shanae broke into her thoughts. “You look good, girl. I hope you know that,” she said, sweeping Tina’s hair slightly to the left and securing it with a large gold clip in the shape of a flower. “Finished,” she announced, patting the hair into place.

Tina did a little twirl, then gave her best friend and former roommate a hug. “This is one reason I missed you last year,” she said, fighting back tears.

Shanae smiled and grabbed Tina’s hand, pulling her away from the mirror. “Now come, Miss Jamaica, before yuh don’t get fi graduate.”

Tina took one last look at herself, committing her happiness to memory. Staring back at her was no longer the stunned five-year-old who had just found out that people thought something was wrong with her body, nor the girl who had palpitations every time she had to go shopping. The mirror reflected a beautiful young woman who had finally managed to exorcise the ghosts of graduations past. It had all started with a dress and things now seemed to have come full circle. It had taken her seventeen years to realise that clothes do not make the woman, but it does help when she knows she looks good!

Her reverie was interrupted by Shanae’s bellow from down the hallway. “Santina Ingrid Stewart, move from in front a di mirror no man! Yu late already!”

Tina turned and headed toward the exasperated Shanae and her moment in the sun. “Mi a come!” she yelled back, her voice radiating joy.

❃ ❃ ❃

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