The Dress Up Box

“I’ve never told anyone this before,” Wren’s father was saying, “maybe because it’s childish or silly.” They were driving down country roads at night, a place without interruptions, unless you caused them. “But when I was in grade school, I told the teacher I wanted to be a philosopher. And she said, ‘you can’t do that. Philosophers don’t exist anymore.’” Wren considered remarking that was a rather philosopher-like statement for someone claiming they didn’t exist anymore, but instead he was quiet. “I was young, and in school, and you just,” father paused. “Close the door.”

They were driving to a Christmas display in a suburb of Milwaukee: model trains, Santas, reindeer, trees. Thankfully the nativity scene was in a separate building from all of that. Thankfully, too, PJ recognized them as celebrities: “Mama Mary!” “Daddy Joseph!” he would announce whenever they came into view, his voice inflecting as if this was both obvious and a surprise. It was the benefit to childhood: the surprise of the obvious.

This vacation – a word particularly appropriate here, since they were regularly vacating the house – was ordered by Lily’s three-year-old son PJ, or as Wren called him, Napoleon. The child had a need to explore new territories and claim them. On one such adventure, Wren and Lily took PJ to some strip mall retail space that had been converted to an indoor complex for kids. It was overflowing with them, like oatmeal that had been microwaved too long. A large area in the middle featured a playground of tunnels, and each side was lined with themed rooms: a science lab, laser tag, a castle. To Wren, it felt like the setting for one of those first person shooter games from the mid-late ‘90s. You never knew what would come at you from behind, from a doorway, from across the openness.

Eventually, PJ found the theater-themed room with the dress up box, which was inevitable, as Lily was the director and drama teacher at a small high school in Oregon. A girl was already in there, performing for her mother, drowning in a princess gown. PJ reached for her, for it, for her right to have it. Then he turned to the box, tossing every item to the side, until another gown appeared. He carried it to Lily, tried to put it on, expecting her to help. “Oh, no, honey,” Lily said, “why don’t we find something else for you?” But PJ’s expression was pained, her response, incomprehensible. He had found a costume and no substitute would be accepted. “Alright,” Lily resigned. “Your dad’s not here. Don’t tell him, okay?”

Wren watched this, as if his body was a robot, and he was inside it, staring out, frozen at the controls. He was remembering times before, with a preschool teacher, his mother, Lily, friends, people who wanted him to play and wanted to protect him and didn’t understand how it had become an either/or. Wren was about to speak, but could not; it was some sort of phantom stroke. Meanwhile Lily blocked PJ, ensuring that his dad was not approaching, that he couldn’t exit the room. Somehow, though, another boy bypassed her and entered. Wren tracked him with narrowed eyes and a hardening heart, readying words that could dig below ground level and cut the boy down, if he said a word about PJ’s wardrobe. He didn’t.

When they got home, Lily put in the recording of her recent production of The Sound of Music. Wren hated the musical with a hatred that is only possible in someone who played a Von Trapp child. If you asked him – although I would suggest asking about another subject – if you asked him, The Sound of Music was not a comforting institution; it was a huge bright awning that had hung around too long. But he loved Lily. They all watched it.

Mother Superior sang with astonishing age and authority, the backdrop of the hills was quite lovely, the Baroness gave good face throughout and there were some perfectly darling vintage shoes, which only fit high school girls anyway. The student playing what had been Wren’s part, Friedrich, was a gangly creature without much presence or instinct, yet his voice was pure: “I leave and heave a sigh and say goodbye goodBYE!” He popped the high note like champagne, surprising, delightful. PJ, however, had very limited patience for anytime the stage was not occupied by Maria and/or the nuns, to whom he was completely devoted. Of course, thought Wren.

“I should have known not to trust a three-year-old with a secret,” Lily rolled her eyes to Wren later, when they were alone. “The first person he told about the princess dress was his dad. But he was mostly incoherent so I don’t think Shane understood.” Did Lily not remember? No, no, it was not her responsibility to remember, they were his memories, why couldn’t Wren simply reach back and pull them forward? Those years of confusion, of feeling like a gift that had been put in a box from a different store and disappointed everyone upon opening. But it had gotten better, hadn’t it? Just as they said it would? Yes. But not because of them. Because of who had given the gift of himself.

Wren was allowing the memories now. At around – 11 years old? – he was playing dress up with a friend and his father came in. He paused, looked for a long moment, shook his head, went out. Wren was wearing women’s shoes. They weren’t heels, just sparkly flats that made a fantastic sound when you walked. His father stared at his son, unable to reason, the man who should have been a philosopher.

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