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Clothing Ghosts

by Kate Garklavs

I don’t own a dog or a cat, let alone a human child. How could I, when I can scarcely maintain the few possessions to my name? In the five states I’ve occupied, I’ve shed hundreds of garments: flannels and nylons and wools, once a crepe de Chine gown belonging to my mother’s opera friend. Keep it, she’d slurred, unskinning like a snake in reverse.


When I see my former clothing I experience a low-grade panic, much as a mother unfamiliar with her grown child’s face might flinch at the police blotter. Today at the bus stop I walked past my old skirt. It was still cornflower, still above the knee, hemmed with attempted Moroccan embroidery in navy blue thread. The new wearer had impossible leg—long and dark, radiating as though internally lit. Her bomber matched her heeled boots; her eyes hid behind mirrored shades. First jealous, I became glad that my skirt had found its rightful body. The reasons I’d ditched it returned to me: It muddled my waist, made my knees resemble cauliflower. It lay wadded on my ex’s floor weeks before our fateful final argument.


Once I was at the thrift store in search of Mason jars. I’d picked up five spoons at a nickel each and a glass cutting board, and then I wandered languid to the clothing zone. As I flipped through the sweaters I found a familiar swatch. The teal-on-turquoise floral of that polyester tunic, hidden among duller synthetics, surfaced like a body. Hateful rag! I last wore it in a snowstorm in Western Mass, my roommate and I skipping seminar and getting drunk slowly on cheap drafts. Just that glimpse brought on tactile nightmares—the rough pull of my merino overlayer, the warm queasiness as my crush sidled up to a Smithie destroying a round of erotic photo hunt. I would never return to that bar. As it was, I nearly dropped the seminar. Each step piqued with trepidation, I approached it. The tunic waited. Embarrassed, I looked at the floor. The grief was so yawling, acute, it could not be palmed and discarded.


In the minutes between tasks, I think of my clothing ghosts, sudden orphans left to make their path through the world. Huddled with their mothy brethren, beyond the reach of Plexiglas daylight, they sleep and wait, sleep and wait. If only I hadn’t gotten it wrong. If only I could faithfully index my desires. If I could practice dormancy and draw the attention of the one best- suited to me, all smaller worries would be subsumed by the resolution of the largest.


Some ghosts invoke terror while others elicit a great fondness such that a parent feels at a child’s first recital. Go forth, gabardine, don’t shrink from the spotlight. This stage is just as much yours as anybody else’s.


A ghost seen from the corner of one’s eye is like nothing: the sum of a mirage and a wish and a lucky bit of timing. Like nothing, it is palliated only by time and distance, distance.

Author's Note

Clothing Ghosts began as an observation. Exiting the 24th Street BART station, I spied a woman wearing my skirt–my former skirt. I’d recently done a major closet evacuation and felt certain that the skirt I saw had to have been the one I’d just gotten rid of. I felt a strange possessiveness over this garment I’d just given away, which led to a larger exploration of my feelings toward cast-off articles of clothing—the strangeness of discovering them in thrift stores or (better/worse yet) on strangers’ bodies.


Encounters with strangers wearing my former clothes produces a specific and very satisfying kind of uncanniness—the sensation that I could be any one of these people I don’t know, and they I. Seeing how my old clothing behaves on other people’s bodies fascinates me; it’s almost like seeing an ex from across a crowded room and being able to just overhear their conversation with a new crush. It’s thrilling, and it’s so rare that we get the chance to see abandoned contrails of our behavior without being called out in the act of spectation.


Since writing this piece, I’ve begun printing my name on the tags of clothes I’m about to give away—a kind of catch and release. My plan is to document each instance of discovering my name in the Goodwill racks to see how these experiences shift (if they do) with time.

Kate Garklavs lives and writes in San Francisco. Her work has appeared or will appear in Thrush, Two Serious Ladies, Night Train, Tammy, and Segue, among other places. Kate's currently at work on a series of epistolary prose poems that explore deep feelings, consumerism, and the intersection of the two.

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