The first dress I ever wore that made me feel beautiful was yellow. It was dyed rich lemon, cut from a magic blend of textiles that clung to my developing hips in such a way that I smiled shyly at myself in the dressing-room mirror. I was old enough to have curves but young enough to not understand them yet. The sundress nipped in at my waist, folds of soft fabric dropping down to a few inches above my knees. Adjustable straps the width of my little finger held the garment up over my growing breasts. I felt a blush rise to my cheeks as I spun myself dizzy, drunk on my own reflection.
My mother bought me the dress, which bore the name of an expensive designer on its tag but was on sale at the local outlet mall. I think it cost fifty dollars, which seemed at the time to be a lot of money and also nothing at all, considering how it made me feel. In retrospect, both are true.
Several weeks passed before I was brave enough to wear the yellow dress to school. When I finally did, I wore my mom’s faded jean jacket from the seventies over it. The timeworn blue concealed my shoulders, my chest, the mole between my tanned shoulder blades that I always hid from doctors in fear that they would make me remove it.
The baggy jacket didn’t protect me from being noticed. I tended to fly under the social radar in my teenage years, though I did get sent to detention once for telling a girl, in a rather innocent response to her vicious locker-room teasing, to bite me. I liked my clothes, but they were more functional than anything else. The yellow dress was an obvious departure from my normal wardrobe. One that put a target on my back.
The girls I didn’t like made fun of me for trying to look pretty. Some of the boys did, too, but I also noticed the way their eyes lingered appreciatively on my chest, hips, and waist even as their mouths twisted around ugly, smirking comments. I remember feeling confused. The same garment that made me feel so good, prompting me to admire my own reflection for what felt like the first time, suddenly seemed like a public property sign. I still wore the dress until it became threadbare. That was around the same age that I began to detect a faint ticking.
Since I started filling out my prepubescent curves, I have felt as though there was a clock buried deep inside of me. When I was young, before I heard the stories, the minutes pulsed by in ways I didn’t fully comprehend but that I was certain would someday be important. I gradually learned the contours of the diminishing time. The statistics. The clock started ticking when I was born a girl and finally wound down to zero after I turned twenty-six. Bright red digits like a bomb: my days were numbered. How many friends had already met their last seconds of safety?
But the truth is that we were never safe. You can’t be safe with a countdown in your gut. What does it mean that I wasn’t even surprised when it happened? I was broken but there was no shock. I was reading Roxane Gay’s new anthology, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, the day that it happened. The morning after I got in the bath and kept reading. If there is anything that rape culture has taught me it is to lose my sense of wonder. Nothing surprises me anymore. Nothing had surprised me for a long time.
When we arrived in town earlier in the day it was hot already. We stopped by a market on our way to the house, the kind with row after row of tarps heaped high with clothes baking under the sun. It was too warm for my jeans and they were all I had. I walked the rows looking for something to wear, something that would make me feel worthy of Spain’s Coast of the Sun. I saw yellow fabric fluttering from under the eaves of a tent; drawn like a moth, I walked straight to the dress, let its hem float between my fingers. I held the garment up in the age-flecked mirror balanced against a plastic table. It was synthetic, cheap, but it reminded me of my younger self. I dug ten euros out of my backpack and handed them to the woman running the booth. Her lips were painted too pink against the leathered skin of her face, but they lifted into the conspiratorial smile women share when one witnesses the other indulge her desire for beauty.
Back at the house I wriggled out of my jeans, slipped the dress over my head. Barefoot, no bra, I was liquid light. Thin strings of faux suede criss-crossed over my shoulder blades. I stepped onto the grass, still believing I was capable of surprise.
We needed food and booze. I rode to the supermarket on the back of a motorcycle. I’d never been on a motorcycle before. My parents had banned them in my childhood, worrying for my safety, and I jumped at the offer to try it. I loved every second and understood immediately why people ride them. The sensation of freedom was intoxicating. Truthfully, I also relished the danger, the possibility that I was doing something bad. I’d sought that feeling more than a few times since moving back to Spain. So far, nothing bad had happened to me.
We bought a jar of olives and three bottles of white wine and two bags of potato chips and at the last minute, while we were waiting in line, he darted away and returned with a bottle of rum. He asked me if I like rum and I said that I do, even though, as with beer, I don’t usually drink it.
We put the plastic bags in the compartment under the seat and I hitched the dress up my thighs to swing my right leg over the bike. We flew. Turning the tight, whitewashed corners of the neighborhood streets, I looked to my left and saw the ocean. I felt the same way I did when I wore my first yellow dress: expansive, desirous, beautiful. This time, I rolled my shoulders lazily and flexed my bare back, instead of covering it.
The next morning, I woke up mostly naked in bed. I’d left my pajamas on the hardwood floor next to the nightstand; by the time I went to sleep I was sober enough to realize I’d need them. Pulled them on, found the bathroom, ran a bath. I ran the water so hot it hurt.
Read. Washed. Toweled off. Got dressed. Not that bad.
Put on my dress, since it was still too hot for jeans. I wanted to believe that there was some redeeming quality in those polyester threads and that maybe if I wore them I would be able to return to the version of myself who purchased them, the one who less than twenty-four hours earlier felt like sunlight.
I bent over the sink to scrub the vestiges of the previous day’s makeup off my face. When I rose and looked at myself in the mirror, face dripping, I saw that one of the straps was broken. I didn’t remember it breaking. I didn’t remember much of anything.
I tied the broken strings together but that just looked grotesque. The clumsy knot and fraying fibers confirmed a terrible certainty in the pit of my stomach.
I couldn’t stand to look at the dress so I pulled on my jeans instead. The denim felt suffocating. I shoved the yellow fabric to the bottom of my backpack. When I got back home to Córdoba, I wrapped the dress in a plastic bag and shoved it to the bottom of a public trash can in the corner of a plaza. I never wanted to see that broken strap again.
When I moved back to the United States from Spain, I became addicted to the color yellow. Blue has always been my favorite, but I rejected my usual turquoise, cerulean, cobalt preferences in favor of marigold, flax, and ochre. I painted my room a sunny shade that the hardware store clerk told me was called “Afternoon Siesta.” I bought sunflowers for my nightstand. I have golden roses in a jar on my desk right now. I keep adding yellow, more yellow to my life, and yet somehow today was the first time I remembered that the dress I was wearing when I was raped was yellow.