Cheryl Strayed will be speaking with Diana Nyad at Wordstock on November 7th. For now, enjoy her mini-essay from our Memory Issue.
There’s a pair of pants I wore almost every day for the first five years I knew my husband. They were what I like to call sport pants, which differ from all-out sweatpants (or yoga pants, as fancy people now like to call them) in that they were made of a sturdy cotton twill rather than jersey material. Cut comfortably loose, the elastic waistband was the only place where the pants made any contact with my body. Anything could happen inside those pants without detection. I could be fat or less fat or kind of slender. They were extraordinarily utilitarian and patently unsexy. Nuns might opt to wear them. Or park rangers. Or seventy-year-old piano teachers. Or butch lesbians who captained coed Ultimate Frisbee teams. Or me. I wore them so often my husband took to referring to them as my uniform.
I wasn’t always so blasé when it came to my husband and clothes. The first time I slept with him—back when he was essentially a stranger to me, on the second night I knew him—I wore a black lace getup that’s called a baby doll nightie. It was a little handful of a thing I’d purchased at a Goodwill just before I met him, when I was twenty-seven and constantly roaming thrift stores on the hunt for something that would help me project the sexy image of myself I was hoping for. I bought it even though I’ve always been profoundly confused by lingerie. Isn’t sex about something that clothes are the opposite of? I could never quite discern when, in the order of things, I was meant to put lingerie on when the whole point was ripping things off.
These were the questions in my mind on the second night that I knew the man who was not yet my husband, after I excused myself from the bedroom where we’d been ferociously making out and ducked into the bathroom across the hall. As I went, I grabbed the just-purchased nightie from the top drawer of my dresser, a gob of cheap black lace in my hand. Alone, before the mirror, I removed my regular clothes and put on the nightie and studied myself. The nightie had thin shoulder straps, a form-fitting see-through bodice that gently mashed my breasts upward, and a flouncy short-skirted bottom. If the outfit had a title it would be either Slutty Cowgirl or Pretty Pirate. I looked awesome but felt ridiculous. Was I really going to return to the bedroom dressed like this? It seemed desperate and dumb and yet I couldn’t help myself. I wanted him to see me like this, to seem to him to be the kind of woman who nonchalantly ranged around her place in a black lace thingamajig that scarcely covered her rear, so I walked into the bedroom and stood ever so briefly before him as he gazed at me, reclining on my futon on the floor, and then I got into bed with him and he pulled the damn thing off.
I never wore that baby doll nightie or any other piece of lingerie again. My future husband and I became lovers and then we got married and the idea of putting that nightie on became just about the last thing on this earth I would do. I’d bought it for the sole purpose of finding and fostering intimacy but in fact I wore it on the night when we were the least intimate, when I was projecting a slightly fraudulent image of myself to him instead of the actual me. Which, for better or worse, is a woman who wears pants a nun would find appealing.
The cool thing is, my husband finds them appealing too. We fell in love while I wore and wore and wore those pants. The pants inside of which undetectable things can happen.
The black lace nightie disappeared soon after I wore it that one time. I handed it over to the Goodwill, tossing it back into the endless thrift-store stream from which it came, into the hands of another woman with fantastical dreams about herself. The pants lasted and lasted, for five years or more, until one day I understood it was the end of them. They’d served their time. I’d worn them so long and so often they’d become threadbare. The elastic of the waist had given way; the hemline had frayed. Instead of putting them on, I put them in the garbage can.
My husband was out of town at the time, working on a project that kept him away from home for a couple of months. It didn’t seem right that he wasn’t there to witness the end of the pants. My uniform. Our history. So I fished them out of the garbage can and cut out the crotch with a pair of scissors. It was a neat black rectangle of fabric that only two people on the planet would recognize for what it was.
I folded it into an envelope addressed to him. I didn’t include a note. I put it in the mail and sat for a long time thinking about it, imagining him. How he’d laugh when he opened the envelope and realized what he was holding. How he’d press it to his nose and inhale.
Cheryl Strayed is the author of the memoir Wild, the novel Torch, and the advice essay collection Tiny Beautiful Things. She lives in Portland, OR.