I Wear The Pants
by Christine Gosnay
I bought my favorite pants in 1999 at the Macy’s department store in Owings Mills Mall in Owings Mills Maryland. That Macy’s, which is the only store that remains open in the mall, will close next month. The pants were for sale in the sleepwear area of the lingerie department, presumably because they’re “yoga lounge pants,” i.e. “pants to pass out in.” Size S/M, Cotton; that’s what the label said. They bear no resemblance to the yoga pants that have glorified the legs and butts of university women across America in the intervening years. No more does my physique resemble the one I had in university, where I went in 1999 soon after I bought the pants. If anyone saw me wearing my favorite pants today, they would not think of campuses, yoga, or sex. No one except my husband will have this opportunity; I no longer wear them out of the house—except on vacation as pajamas. I now wear them the way the INC (International Concepts) brand designers intended they be worn.
The pants, which are a color I can best describe as either Mucky Morning Sea Foam or Pale Pea, cost me a rich $14 when I bought them with my Macy’s card. I was an employee there in the lingerie department, and if I hadn’t had the store charge, I wouldn’t have been able to afford them. Other than the occasional impulsive handful of 3-for-$10 bikini underwear and a bra that my co-worker Edie—who had worked in the Lingerie department for almost twenty years, longer in fact than I had been alive—promised me would comfortably fit my relatively large but uneven breasts and wide scoop shoulders (it did), I didn’t shop much. I’m sure I was dreaming of “lounging” in a dorm in New York City, where I would soon live, when I bought the pants. And since I was headed to a famously liberal women’s college, I was also dreaming of not needing to wear a bra or do yoga.
These two naïve fantasies were sadly never not-fulfilled. It turned out I couldn’t comfortably go without a bra, not even when surrounded by curious and encouraging young feminists and radical pamphlet literature; I can’t even go without a bra comfortably while I sleep. And my undergraduate advisor was a tai chi enthusiast who exhorted those of us under his wing to strike deliberate geometric poses I could not distinguish from yoga if I studied them for a hundred years, as my mind does not naturally lend itself to the diverse coordination of limbs. Those of us assigned to this particular advisor all seemed to be majoring in the gormless arts of either philosophy or translation, and we willingly joined him many times for stress-reducing exercise on the lawn in front of The Runner. The Runner is a statue that commemorates Barnard College’s Greek Games. She’s a fit green woman in a blousy toga dress wielding a torch that reminded me of an ice cream cone, since I was always hungry when I walked past her. I hated tai chi but loved The Runner—all Barnard students do, because she is the only woman on campus who doesn’t get on your nerves or ask you to join a cause or have a period—so I joined the advisor many more times than I would normally join anyone outside in the early morning. The fog, the ivy, The Runner, the still-exciting sound of traffic on Broadway, and my pants made it possible for me to enjoy these mornings. If the material of my pants had stayed in the factory dye bath much longer, they would be the color of The Runner.
Eventually our shy group of idealists disbanded (though I often spotted, from the window of a warm classroom, my solitary advisor extending his arms and legs every which way in the frosty grass); cold weather set in, and we all retreated to our rooms to read the Stoics and copy the simplest English phrases into the several Romance languages, reaching class chiefly through the elaborate system of underground tunnels that joins all of Barnard’s buildings and some of Columbia’s, which are a short way across Broadway. Over there, the buildings and the genitalia are different in length and girth. By the time it was cold enough to use the tunnels, I was through with just lounging and stretching in my pants. I wore them everywhere, and my new feminism enabled me to do with pants what I couldn’t do with my breasts: subvert authority. Knowing that I was “outside in my pajamas” or “at a discussion group in my pajamas” or “sitting next to a boy in my pajamas” or “playing music written by a man in my pajamas” made me feel the way pamphlets and fake IDs and internships were making other girls feel. Clutching a pile of books and pencils to my well-supported chest, I went for two months to class and lunch and dinner and the library and even to orchestra practices in my pants and a pair of shower flip flops that, alongside a set of ragged tennis shoes and cheap faux-leather boots, comprised the comfortable third of my footwear collection that year. (For the concerts toward which orchestra practices were disastrously limping on, I borrowed a friend’s pair of low-heeled black patent Mary Janes. I later returned them when we broke up as friends over my very failure to return those shoes on time by chucking them at her head. “If your shoes are all you care about, then here!” I yelled. But I of all people should have known what it was like to love a thing you wear.)
In 1999, my pants still had a drawstring that made it possible for me to cinch them low around my 24-inch collegiate waist. They were also free of stains and holes, and the ends were not frayed. Though they are capri-length pants, and very thin, they may have given the people around me, whose imagined authority I was silently and smugly subverting, no indication that they had been born and sold in the sleepwear section of a department store, and to this and the saving grace of my natural reticence I attribute my professors’ ability to stand being in the same room with me. Nonetheless, my attitude was affected. I passed a midterm on Aristotle, smoked pot for the first time, walked through the snow to the corner stand, shopped for books at The Strand, got drunk for the first time, threw up in a subway station, got lost in Queens, slept with my boyfriend, and slept in the grass, all while feeling like myself in my sea-green pants.
By the time the year 2000 and a second semester of college came around, I was totally “over” wearing my pants in public and my flip-flops in the snow. I graduated to a tight pair of high-waisted jeans, put on my boots, and adopted the pastel fleet of soft, dopey secondhand sweaters and starchy t-shirts that would largely define the limits of my fashion decisions for the next several years. I even started to wear eyeliner and lipstick. The admiration of a tall French student with dark hair and glasses who had to be told “I have a boyfriend” did more toward manipulating my style than anything except childbirth has since. But this new coterie of garments only made me long for my pants more! Every night I ran from the dining hall to my room tearing at the buttons and zippers on my jeans, desperate to revert to the comfort of my pants and the embrace of a warm blanket and a packet of sour candy and a bottle of Coke, which, come to think of it, may have had something to do with why my jeans were getting so tight.
When college was over, I went back to wearing my pants all day and night. No longer did I do this to subvert authority, but because I was clinically depressed and had not yet taken the medication that would turn my life back into an affair worthy of riveted denim and combed polyester. Photographs of me from this era depict a thin, forlorn person wearing—always—a camisole with a built-in shelf bra (this choice alone speaks volumes) and my pants and a high ponytail. (There are a few shots from a good day of me smiling in cutoff shorts and an Aqua Teen Hunger Force t-shirt that’s two sizes too small.) When I went to work, if I went to work, I put on a pair of loose jeans and a flannel shirt, then took them back off and threw them on the floor and paced over them until the next horrible morning arrived. I worked at a violin shop. I occasionally played the instruments while I thought idly about killing myself. At home, in my pants, I wrote blog posts and then deleted them. I ate nothing but “brown vegetarian” food, in other words potatoes, cheddar cheese, soy burgers, bread, and other foods that, while they contain no meat, also contain none of the healthful substances or textures that make vegetables and legumes and grains delicious. Healthful substances were not on my mind.
But I wasn’t only unhappy. At night, in my pants, doing whatever I was doing, I felt okay, because I was pretty comfortable. It was then that my pants lost their drawstring and gained a large hole on the left seam of the thigh, thanks to me splaying cross-legged in my desk chair at all times (hole) and the cheap dryer we had that twisted its payload into a magnificent ball against the door and pulled the clothing like candy floss (drawstring).
The meager and temporary comfort my pants afforded didn’t save my life. It was the large dosage of nortriptyline I took for six months that did it. The new job I got at a call center may have had a hand in my continued existence as well. This was the one time when I scarcely wore my pants. I made some new friends and stayed out late all the time; usually, we partied in the call center, which was fifty miles from my apartment, but sometimes we retreated to downtown Baltimore, where there were gay bars, straight bars, video bars, pool halls, and my bohemian friend’s brick-walled loft full of candles, throw pillows, cult movies, and exotic soaps. By the time I got home at night or in the morning, I either fell asleep in my jeans or slept in almost nothing because I was too tired to change my clothes or had been too tired to do my laundry. Besides, I was married by then, and too cool for pajamas. I owned a negligée.
When I was pregnant for the first time two years later, my pants came back out of the drawer; after I miscarried and underwent surgery, I didn’t take them off for days. By this time, I worked in a real office—the call center was just a drafty converted warehouse—and wore real clothes. I owned slacks, blouses, oxfords, blazers, cardigans, A-line skirts, dresses, flats, pumps, and wedges, all of which were uncomfortable and very pretty. I drove a reliable car. (The one I drove to the call center had broken windshield wipers that I had to move back and forth with a stick and a string and a radiator that stranded me in northern Baltimore County three times.) I had a 401(k) equipped with matching and vesting options that I vaguely understood. I lived in a townhouse and ate whole cooked vegetables in every color of the rainbow. Now what a joy it was to wear my pants again! Many things about myself had become foreign to me, from the way I behaved to the sudden measure of gray in my hair to the number of bills I had to pay and the perversely-focused intensity of my desire to bear children. My inability to do so on the first try didn’t keep me down for long; I ate candy bars in my pants while I sat in bed watching daytime TV and soon felt as right as I had ever done.
When I tried again, I succeeded. I carried a child to term with my pants and a glass of tea as constant articles of comfort. Sitting in the slightly nauseating glow of the television, my husband and I watched hundreds of episodes of Battlestar Galactica and Red Dwarf. And for my third pregnancy, we watched hundreds of episodes of House; my food and drink of choice during that pregnancy was ice cream and lukewarm water.
The two children and the C-sections they apparently medically required taught me the true value of my pants. For weeks after each of my C-sections they were one of two pairs of pants I could wear without suffering the excruciating pain of a pricked stitch or a squeezed nerve. Around this time, my pants came by both of their stains. The first was from my daughter spitting up milk; this stain has faded, now, to mostly nothing but a discolored patch shaped like Brazil. The second was from a spot of bleach that splashed out of the sink while I was trying to wash a spot of chocolate out of a white hat I unwisely knitted for my friend’s baby while eating a Hershey’s With Almonds. The chocolate came clean from the hat, but the bleach spot is there on my pants forever.
My husband, whose company I enjoy and whose decisions I generally trust completely, once tried to give away my pants when he went on one of his wardrobe rampages. These cleaning-and-purging sprees have punctuated our fifteen-year relationship and are nothing surprising to me by now, but alone among all the articles of clothing he has ever tried to discard or donate—ugly hats; too-short sweaters; commemorative t-shirts from concerts, grand openings, thrift stores, or 5ks (such t-shirts being my ultimate weakness and constituting between forty and fifty percent of my total volume of clothes); scratched leather pants; faded suede pants; shapeless boleros; torn stockings; shoes that give me blisters but make my calves look nice—my pants crossed the line. I have not really forgiven him, but I have decided to continue raising children and co-habitating with him even after such a brazen and uninformed betrayal of my trust, comfort, and identity.
When he almost threw out my pants, our children were toddlers, and he was “making room” for something in their play area when his efforts spilled uncontrollably into our own bedroom. I caught him at the last moment with my pants halfway in a plastic bag. “But these have a hole,” he said, “and they’re all junky.”
I wore my pants to sleep camping last weekend while I was wrapped in a sleeping bag and staring at the stars through a tent flap, and that didn’t strike me as junky. I wore them while I fed both of my infant children and wondered where they would go to college, or if they would be the kind of exciting women who take a year off to tour Europe wearing oversized strappy backpacks and Teva sandals, then go to work on a vast and colorful patchwork farm. I wore them over the last bikini I owned on the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, while I stared out into the water and decided that I liked being around after all. I have worn them in hospitals, hotels, bars, an aquarium, a zoo, a public garden, the World Trade Center, a plant nursery, a regular nursery, restaurants, used bookstores, swimming pools, on cruise ships, and on airplanes. I’m pretty sure they’re not junky. When I take them out of my drawer and fold them over one arm, the old cotton drapes like silk, and in the dark, they could be any color: jade, mauve, or an earthy brown. I’ve had lots of pants. But these are my favorite ones.
Christine Gosnay lives in California and is the founding editor of The Cossack Review. Her poetry and essays appear in POETRY, Juked, Sugar House Review, DIAGRAM, PANK, Linebreak, The Morning News, and elsewhere. She is on twitter @dagny.