STAGE IIB: ANGER • by Shelley Berg

She wanted those shirts back. Except the pink one. She loathed pink now. She would never wear pink again. The others, though — made from that beautiful Italian cotton with the sateen finish, the mother-of-pearl buttons, impeccable tailoring — were like heaven against your skin.

They were the find of the decade, the stuff from which fashion legends were made. Someone had tried to hide the shirts on a circular rack in the men’s department at the Anniversary Sale. But she had sniffed them out. She had a nose for bargains. No matter that they were size 4 and she was size 8… on a good day. That was the year she was going to lose ten pounds, maybe even twenty, thirty. She had thoughts of fitting into her wedding dress again. Successful dieting was all about motivation.

It was the drugstores that worked against her. They cranked out one holiday on top of another. The day after they put the peanut butter pumpkins on clearance, they displayed the Christmas candy. Before she started her New Year’s resolutions, they filled the shelves with heart-shaped Whitman Samplers. A full two months before Easter, there were buckets of Cadbury Creme Eggs in front of the cash registers. (Only a fool missed out on those. And she was no fool.)

When she opened her closet door each successive morning, the brand-new, never-worn shirts began to look less like thrilling success and more like failure. In a moment of dejection, she wanted them gone. Out of her house. It seemed sacrilegious to give them to Goodwill, so she packed them up and brought them to thin-as-a-rail Mim. Mim, short for Miriam (such an old-fashioned name), wore clothes like a clothes hanger but drove a twelve-year-old Civic with pine sap stains on the hood. Poor thing.

A real friend would have refused. “Keep trying,” Mim should have said. “Don’t give up.” Instead Mim afforded thin veils of consideration: “Are you sure? You don’t want them?” She’d seen the glint in Mim’s eyes. Those button-ups were probably the nicest things Mim had ever owned.

Those button-ups would certainly fit her now, five months after she’d given them away. Rotten luck. Between the surgery and the chemo, she’d lost twenty-four pounds. The girls alone had weighed sixteen. It was too late to ask Mim to return the shirts, though. Hindsight was twenty-twenty. Life was full of regrets. It simply wasn’t convention. When the man called off the engagement three weeks before the wedding, for example, he sure as hell couldn’t expect the woman to just hand over the 1.6-carat diamond ring she’d been wearing for two years.

But she needed those shirts. She deserved those shirts. Besides, it was really Mim’s fault for accepting them in the first place.

So when she got the e-mail for the Anniversary Sale, she forwarded it to Mim with the hint, “Remember those shirts I gave you? This is where I bought them.”

Instead of shirts, pencil-thin Mim brought her flowers and saltless chicken soup.

When the text came for the Anniversary Sale, she forwarded it to Mim. “Don’t know if you loved the colors of those shirts I gave you. You might find different ones at the sale.”

Wearing one of the shirts, size-four Mim brought her a humorless card and chocolate pudding that tasted like metal.

When the day of the Anniversary Sale arrived, she stopped beating around the bush: “Mim. If you don’t want those shirts I gave you, I’d like them back. I’m sure I could wear them now.”

Mim, skinny bitch, returned the shirts pressed, wrapped, and tied with a bubblegum pink ribbon. In October. As if she needed reminding. As if it wasn’t enough that they’d painted the Goddamn heating-oil truck pink.

They wanted her to be aware? She was aware, all right. She had awareness up the fucking wazoo. The shirts, filled with scar tissue, fit like feed sacks. They wouldn’t even make good dust rags.

Shelley Berg’s stories have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Passages North, and Phoebe. She lives with her husband and two children in Dedham, Massachusetts, where she is working on her first novel.

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