They were Sarajevans, actually. And they had a knotty, terrible problem. In order to get to where they needed to go each day they had to traverse Sniper Alley.
If you were paying attention to the news in the 90s, you will already know where Sniper Alley was. Downtown Sarajevo. The city was besieged, the longest siege in recent times, (yes, the Ottoman sieges often bored on for decades, but we don’t care about them). The siege of Sarajevo outlasted that gold standard of modern sieges—Leningrad.
The city was a mess. Serbs circled the city and were killing Muslims by every means at their disposal. Sniper Alley was lined with office buildings. Specially ordered for those who think its cool to kill innocent people from a place of hiding. Snipers took full advantage. Sniper Alley was one treacherous stretch of asphalt.
They Bosnians were women, and they couldn’t do much about the pounding that their city took day after day, year after year while the West faffed about and … oh, sorry. Got off track.
But they could do one thing.
They had to go through Sniper Alley. That was not negotiable. What was negotiable was how they did it.
They arrived at an elegant solution, in every sense of the word. They dressed.
They wore skirts and blouses and pretty dresses and stockings and high heeled shoes. They did their hair. They applied make up and carried snappy handbags as they stepped out onto what was indisputably one of the most dangerous streets on earth.
They looked the best that they possibly could. And in doing so, said a quiet but emphatic “fuck you and the tank you rode in on,” to the bastards who were slamming their ancient city back to dust, and murdering their friends and neighbors.
I read the story a long time ago, while the war was still going on, in the British Independent newspaper. I don’t remember which year. And I don’t remember much more detail than what I’ve just told you. But it stuck in my mind. “Holy cow,” I thought at the time. (I didn’t really say cow.) Is that practical? What if they had to run in heels? But then I realized it’s unlikely any person, no matter how fleet, could outrun a bullet, so it probably doesn’t matter what’s on your feet.
It was an astounding feat of courage, wit and audacity.
With those brave women in mind, I have mounted my own more humble, and far less dangerous protest against the vicissitudes of fate.
I think carefully about what I’m going to wear every day, every time I step outside of the house. Even if it’s just to go to the gym. The principle is simple, nobody needs to know from the way I look what’s going on inside. On the inside I’m crumbled, deadened and perplexed. On outside I most definitely am not.
I’ve overhauled my wardrobe, thrown out everything that I don’t absolutely love and doesn’t make me feel good. I bought a few new things. It was necessary because at last count I’ve dropped three jeans sizes. (Insert happy dance here.)
I’ve lost so much weight that unless it can be belted it doesn’t fit.
Even my bras had to be replaced. “You used to have a decent rack,” the Minnesotan observed a trifle unsympathetically the other day. But then she loves to say the word rack.
I’ve done a thorough inventory of my very expensive scarves, collected carefully over more than 20 years, and have started to wear them regularly instead of letting them sit in the back of the wardrobe awaiting a ‘special’ occasion. I’ve finally learned how to tie them properly. Hermes has a video. It’s right there on their web site.
I splashed out on a new handbag and shoes because my mother always told me they’re the only things people really notice.
I don’t care to wear any of the jewelry my husband gave me, so it’s sitting in a bag in the basement, but I have a few things I got for myself and they’re in heavy rotation. Lovely cheerful stuff bought in Dakar and Nairobi and Jerusalem. I have a couple of Murano glass necklaces, dragged back by generous friends from Venetian vacations, and I wear those too.
I get my hair cut every six weeks instead of leaving it till I look like I sleep under a bridge clutching a bottle in a paper bag.
I bought new sunglasses. I wear foundation. I wear eyeliner. I wear eyeshadow. Lipgloss. Mascara. I put hilariously expensive sticky stuff in my hair. It’s more than $30 for a pot the size of a tuna can, really. My hair looks exactly the same as it does without it. I put it in anyway.
Every thing I can do to bolster my ego, I do.
I even caved and bought Lululemon pilates pants. Lululemon is an achingly trendy and tartly expensive brand of gym wear that’s supposed to make your ass look good. I can clearly remember the time when I vowed I would never buy Lululemon. I bought Lululemon.
Whoever says appearances don’t count needs to go to their room and think long and hard about that.
Sometimes appearances are all you have.
So on the most superficial level, I fight the good fight. And yet, and yet, there are days when the universe hates me and doesn’t care if it puts too fine a point on it. Sometimes all I do is laughably inadequate.
On this particular day I was riding my bicycle to work, secure in the knowledge that the local weather forecast promised only light showers, and even then that they’d arrive much later in the morning than when I would be on the road.
And I got caught in a rainstorm that Noah would have felt at home in.
I really must stop believing the local weather forecast. More often than not it’s a Lucy-Charlie-Brown-football situation. Believing the weather forecast leaves you feeling pathetically foolish.
To say that the heavens opened up would be a silly understatement. Water was being chucked carelessly, extravagantly around from all points. It was coming up out of the ground. It was pounding at me from the sides, like one of those posh showers that are too expensive for most people.
It lasted perhaps five minutes.
I arrived at work sodden. Puddles formed as I waited for the elevator.
Colleagues immediately introduced me to the dangers of sitting in freezing air conditioning with wet clothes. I would catch cold! And die! And then I’d be sorry.
They foraged around and produced stuff. A white tee shirt was excavated from somebody’s drawer, a souvenir from a forgotten do-gooder conference. It was an itchy, uncomfortable size too small and tight pretty much everywhere. Of course, I was wearing a black bra, because why wouldn’t I be the day I had to wear a too small white tee shirt? In the office.
A male colleague lent me a cardigan which no doubt looks great on him. But he clocks in at well north of six feet. At inches less than six feet, I could have belted it and called it a dress. Instead, it hung in a shapeless and don’t-care manner about my half-wet, half-dry person.
I had no choice but to keep wearing my dripping wet jeans and shoes.
As style statements go it wasn’t even in the neighborhood of satisfactory. But at least I wasn’t going to catch cold and die. Besides, all I had to do was sit in my cube and wait until my regular clothes got caught up with the whole dry agenda.
Naturally I didn’t do that. I decided instead that I absolutely, positively had to run an errand. I needed something completely unnecessary and I needed it right away.
Although we work in the same building exactly one floor apart, I don’t see my ex much these days. Every couple of months or so we run into each other, exchange fake, gritty smiles and slope off quickly with the mutual intent of putting solid distance between us. Usually I’m prepared, sartorially speaking. I can scrub up. My mother is a tailor and I am my mother’s daughter; I can meet any challenge that requires dressing smartly, I’ve been doing it since I was old enough to stand. It’s not manned space flight.
Naturally if the universe were just, I would have encountered him on the day when I was smugly armored in Agnes B, English Eccentrics, and Adriano Goldschmied, and lurking cool and mysterious behind RayBan aviators.
But no. The only time I’ve seen him in the last two months–the only single time–I’m dressed in stuff people keep hanging around the office for whatever reason. My clothes don’t fit and even if they did, would not impress anybody with an average aesthetic sense. My sodden jeans are clinging to me. I have no makeup on. My hair looks like its been dragged through a rainstorm for the excellent reason that it has.
I look every day, every minute, every millisecond of my 51 years and 11 months, and quite possibly more. I look like something the cat would decline to drag in.
And that’s the day the universe chose to shove me into his orbit.