The Dress I’ll Never Wear But Will Never Get Rid Of

published Mar 6, 2018
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Time can obscure memories as surely as fog can cloak a mountain, so when you posses an item — a totem, almost — that takes you back to a magical place you can never let it go. This romantic notion is how I come to own a dress that doesn’t really fit me and isn’t especially my style, but will never leave my hands.

Despite the exceedingly ruthless process of sorting my closet under the guidance of stylist Laurel Kinney, I refused to budge on an item that no one else in the world would give a passing thought to. It’s a simple gray cotton dress, sleeveless, somehow both nearly shapeless yet too snug for comfort. It only fit well when I was violently sick for several days after eating some bad fish in Cambodia. Why not just throw it on the mammoth pile of clothes I happily discarded?

Because it’s my Bali dress.

A few years ago my husband Brian and I made the haul to Bali, Indonesia, which I’m pretty sure is as far away as you can get without starting to come back around the other side of the globe. It took days, quite literally, from door to door, but the moment we arrived at the plush hotel where we were staying for this, our sort of second honeymoon, the woes of travel fell away.

We’re talking full-on Bali magic. The sea would glow pink as the sun set, then close your eyes for a moment and indigo night had fallen. Bird melodies weaved through the soundtrack of Indonesian gamelan music, running water always in the background. Incense wafted through the frangipani trees. In the distance the promise of lush, green mountains awaited under their swathes of fog. Open the dictionary to tropical paradise, and basically you’ll see Bali.

Know what comes with a tropical climate and all those Willy Wonka flowers and fruits? Yup. Rain. We set out for Ubud after a night of motionless slumber, restored by a ridiculous spread at breakfast and a dip in the South Pacific.

We wandered the little Eat Pray Love-famed town looking for a restaurant that a friend who literally wrote the guidebook to Bali had suggested. Then. The skies simply opened. You know when you turn on the faucet in a tub full blast and the water comes rushing out of about a, what… couple inch opening? So take that, except it’s the entire sky that has absolutely unleashed.

“I couldn’t walk around in the sopping top and shorts I was wearing. What else is there to be done but buy a new dress?”

Our clothes were instantly soaked through, plastered to us as vigorously as our hair clung to our skulls. There’s no “let’s dash over here and get out of it” in this kind of rain. No. You’re just wet through and can’t get any wetter so you slosh down the street, squinting against the onslaught, still trying to find your restaurant.

After our exceedingly soggy (albeit delicious!) lunch, the rains departed much as they had arrived — in a flash. I couldn’t walk around in the sopping top and shorts I was wearing. What else is there to be done but buy a new dress?

(Image credit: Courtesy of Dana McMahan)

I popped into a little shop down the street and chatted with the lovely shopkeeper while my husband talked with a fellow outside who wanted to know if we needed a taxi. In short order I had on a simple little dress that met my primary criteria: it was dry. I carried my shoes, opting for bare feet over squelchy soles as we continued our exploration of the town. A melting massage – our daily must-have when in southeast Asia – helped sort out any last kinks from the longhaul coach flight, and we just enjoyed strolling the town the rest of the afternoon.

That nice guy who’d offered his taxi service back at the shop was still around when we walked past again, so we enlisted his service for the trip back to the hotel. Nyoman, who’d never left this beautiful place, was full of thought-provoking questions for us about life back home. Do you go to the market every day? Is it just the two of you in your house? And it’s empty all day when you’re at work?

We called him the next day to arrange for a driving tour of the island and nothing I say can capture the utterly fantastical place this was. Impossibly green rice terrace, mystical temples, durian (oh durian!) for sale by the side of the road (which Nyoman made me eat outside his car, not that I blame him). And when he took us to the most outlandish tourist trap you can imagine because he insisted we have the mountain view — only to watch fog rapidly shroud the distant peaks – we could only laugh.

“Memories – real, vivid, reach-out-and touch-them memories — are elusive, retreating under wisps of time just as surely as that fog hid the mountains of Bali.”

It was all a beautiful dream, and it became just one facet of the bigger dream – we were on to Bangkok, then overland to Siem Reap, downriver to Phnom Penh, and in the back of a jolting bus to Ho Chi Minh City. My husband and I have a perhaps unreasonable and certainly unquenchable love for traveling in southeast Asia after a few trips there, and something as fleeting as the scent of steaming rice or a whiff of lemongrass will spark a painful longing to book tickets back, stat. We don’t, alas, not with the responsibilities of our house now, and the homesickness grows all the time. We haven’t been back since that magical trip that began in Bali.

I can’t get rid of that dress because it’s a tangible piece of that dream. Yes, I have digital photos, I have the scrawled notes in my travel journal. But memories — real, vivid, reach-out-and touch-them memories — are elusive, retreating under wisps of time just as surely as that fog hid the mountains of Bali. But as long as I can see and feel the dress, I can still grasp threads of that dream.