"Will you give me a hand?" I say as I peer over a mountain of outfits piled in my arms. My older sister Gabrielle is sorting through velvets, chiffons, and beaded fabrics, searching for the perfect outfit. "Gabrielle," I call. "I'm going to sprain my arm right here in Lord & Taylor's Better Dresses."
"I'm sorry," she says, and takes an armload of hangers from me. This is our third store. Gabrielle has traveled from her home in New Hampshire to New York City to find a wedding outfit to wear later that month to marry a man she first loved 35 years ago at college. Marriages to other people, children, and 3,000 miles separated them for decades. The Internet reconnected them.
I was always in awe of Gabrielle. I admired her drawings and paintings as well as her beauty. Her long black hair, ivory skin, and huge brown eyes perfectly frame her turned-up nose and heart-shaped mouth. I still remember her high school prom dresses. I used to sneak into her room before she came home from school to admire them, dreaming of the day I'd be old enough to go to a prom.
I also met her suitors, those who brought corsages or came to dinner. I developed several schoolgirl crushes on them, not knowing that in a few years, feminism would turn courtship upside down. By the time I entered college, my big sister had attended Woodstock and the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. She was living in a warehouse with a group of artists outside San Francisco. My dates were Dutch treats, and a man bringing a corsage or holding a door had gone the way of pearls and sweater sets.
During Gabrielle's "hippie phase" (my mother's words), I was home with my parents witnessing its impact. "I always worry about her," my mother would say of Gabrielle. My father would nod in agreement, unable to fathom his daughter's transformation from high school sweetheart to rebel artist. When she visited, Dad and Gabrielle would clash during dinner as they debated current issues. "You just support Establishment politics," she'd say
"What's happened to her?" my dad would wonder out loud after she'd left.
Years passed. My parents, resigned to their failure to influence Gabrielle, gave her a wedding in California where she wore a white lace dress and flowers in her hair. Five years later, at my wedding, she stood at the altar with me, her beautiful face masking the turmoil beneath. She and her husband divorced soon afterward.
I hoped Gabrielle would start a new life on the East Coast. "I can't come back," she said. "What would I do?" We exchanged occasional phone calls and saw each other on yearly visits home, but she had become a Californian. A huge expanse of the country separated us.
Then one day, a few years ago, Gabrielle's college sweetheart, Don, searched for our family name on the Internet. He found my e-mail address on a work-related website. "I don't know if you remember me," his e-mail to me began, "but I dated your sister Gabrielle when we were both in college." I recognized his name immediately. He was the soft-spoken young man with shoulder-length hair and a mustache who'd adored Gabrielle.
I e-mailed Don with news of her, now the single mother of a high school student. "She's been through a lot," I wrote, recalling Gabrielle's unpleasant divorce and the two jobs she worked to pay bills and raise a son on her own.
"My intentions are completely legitimate," Don wrote back. "Since she and I first met, a day hasn't gone by without my thinking of her." Any caution I had felt on Gabrielle's behalf melted. I put him in touch with her.
Don flew to California, then she traveled east. They met in New York, then Boston. Their love affair blossomed. Soon they were engaged.
Months later, I found myself in Lord & Taylor, watching Gabrielle try on a rust-toned taffeta suit. "I don't know," she says as she pulls a jacket over her hips. "Does it make me look really fat?"
"You can do better," I say. She knows she'll get a straight answer from me.
At Macy's I spy a black and white jacket with a ruffled placket. "I love this," I say and try it on.
I turn around in it to show Gabrielle.
"It's definitely your look," she says.
My lips part in a smile. It is my look.
Gabrielle slips on a cranberry silk jacket with a shawl collar. "Do you think the neckline's too low?" she asks.
"Do you think anyone will care if they see a shadow of cleavage?" I ask. "If you've got it, flaunt it!"
"I really like this," she says staring at her reflection.
"It's gorgeous." I smooth the fabric down on her shoulders. The jacket is beautiful, just like her.
We take our clothes to the cashier. "I haven't had this much fun in a long time," I say. We scramble down the subway stairs. "It's sisters," she says. "It's just something about sisters."
But it's more than just being sisters. It's as if, after being away for 30 years, Gabrielle is home again. A piece left dangling for decades has finally fallen into place.