The red polka-dot dress by Michael Palisano









In Memory
Sean Pettibone



The red polka-dot dress

I looked in the mirror and saw someone both familiar and strange.

She looked beautiful and radiant, yet also haunted and lost. I had seen her many times in the past, in dreams, visions and glimpses. Yet up to this point, she had never seemed real to me. I must have stared in the mirror for quite some time. I was stunned, that after all this searching, there she was right in front of me. I barely noticed the strangeness of the situation, yet as I thought about it, her appearance made more sense to me. In her eyes, I saw my own experiences reflected back to me. In an instant, she transformed from phantom, a dream made real from ethereal. She had been wandering around aimlessly. It was as if she was also lost inside my memories and dreams, accompanying me through the many lonely hours. It was a strange feeling, and for a moment I thought I had been experiencing it all alone. I came to my senses and when I looked away from the mirror, I saw my friend looking at me with a strange look on his face. He had a devious smile on his face. “You were trying too hard!” he said. I had often shared my quest to find her with him and when I finally gave up, he seemed to have vanished in tandem. When he left, he seemed to have taken many of my dreams with him as well. One of these was this quest.  It wasn’t as simple as that, but I knew that he knew what it meant for me to finally see her again. Years had passed, and probably many more than I realized at the time. I looked at my friend surrounded by his plants and vegetables. It was a strange sight. He was still very much the same as I remembered and this was reassuring. I had wandered around in this dark place for many years feeling all alone, and when I finally found him again, it was a relief. I looked in the mirror again and she was there still gazing back at me. It didn’t bother me to see someone else, but it was confusing to see a different reflection. 

One of the strangest things I didn’t expect to feel was happiness. For many years, there was a distinct shadow pursuing me at all times, something I couldn’t escape. When I saw her, it seemed to have lifted for the moment. Even in the darkest, coldest nights of the endless winter, it remained. Until now it was an unceasing reminder of the many things I could not explain to anyone else or escape from completely. I had finally come to the realization about what the shadow meant, what it actually represented. Occasionally, I’d feel someone or something walking alongside me and I felt slightly less alone. It would quickly pass and I would resume the long steps, dismissing the thoughts as delusions. Now, seeing her up close once again, reflected inside of me. Instantaneously, I knew that she had always been there, waiting for me to discover her. I often heard her voice trying to tell me these things, but I had dismissed her thinking it was merely a false direction. I walked for hours through the darkness, exploring everywhere I could think of. I remained adrift from the waking reality, systematically distancing myself from its pressures and stresses. I found myself wrapped inside this tempting vision, unwilling to release its icy grip. This proved detrimental as there were many moments when I found myself unable to articulate its pull on me, reducing me to what seemed like strange circular reasoning. Still, through what others saw as cold, distant eyes I saw the one I had long sought. Obstinate in my quest, I persisted through derision, mockery and misunderstanding, driven to walk through its drifts, struggle against its winds, and fought its icy wrath until the last barriers had fallen. For a long time, I thought I was facing those battles alone, but I was wrong.  

She had accompanied me throughout those many lonely days, when I felt I didn’t have an ally in this battle. It was a frigid journey, all-consuming. It nearly broke me and I had nearly given up. However, she was always there beside me, a presence I couldn’t know, a face I couldn’t find. Until that moment, I had never realized where she really was. There had been other voices carried on the brutal winds, trying their best to obscure this truth but, they never had the persistence or strength that she maintained. Consequently, hers was the voice I always knew by instinct; none of the others had the endurance or warmth. Under the winter moon, her shadow remained to guide me through every step. I walked then ran when she told me to, then stopped and rested where she felt I would be safe. Musing through dark forests, over dark passages, through the icy fields and endless walls of snow-covered buildings, she was always there. When she revealed herself to me, it was like finding the solution to a problem I couldn’t even begin to unravel on my own. Her eyes saw right through my frozen defenses, making me feel at once vulnerable and powerful. Contradictory emotions swirled around in blizzards of chaotic fury, disjointed memories clashed in fierce battles for prominence. Formerly distant thoughts became clear and distinct in moments, while what had seemed important faded into shards then gradually dissolved. As we stared at each other, we became aware that we were and had always been a part of each other. This realization seemed to grow with each moment, becoming stronger and undeniable. Its difficult to convey, where and when it happened and the precise mechanics remain indescribable. We had been apart for so long, yet finding her was a revelation that seemed instantaneous, it was as if nothing had changed during all those countless years. We connected on a different level than I expected, it wasn’t dark, sad or bitter, the feeling was of completion and vindication.

It had been many years and the search had become a destructive force in many ways, driving others away from me considering my quest a symptom of possible insanity. I did have one who stood by me all those years, who listened to what probably seemed, even to him, like deranged mania, but his patience was very much appreciated, There was definitely a connection there as well, and I as finally met her for the first time, he stood by waiting for me to finish. I looked into the mirror once again and saw in her eyes the explanations I had sought. After a time, our threshold would breach and we’d have to stop for awhile. I’d sit there and state into space. I was driven to continue, however long it took. Each time we’d begin anew, I’d have a strange sensation come over me, it was a rush of energy directly into my consciousness, illuminating one aspect or another of our long attachment. She kept some mysteries to herself, and so did I, but we shared so much, these small secrets didn’t really matter. There was enough that it was a struggle not to become overwhelmed.  After a time, she began to fade once again. I slowly saw my reflection emerge from the mirror. It wasn’t a sad time, for now that I knew this wouldn’t be the last time I would see her. It was reassuring to finally understand that she wasn’t a symptom of something evil, dark or, sick as I had feared for so long.  All the fears, the chatter and doubt I felt seemed to have dissolved. At long last, I knew I would never be alone, and that she was always going to be with me. In time, I stopped looking in the mirror, letting the dream fade away gracefully. It was strange to let go of something so quickly that I had spent so much time looking for. I decided it would be best not to be locked into this for too long, since the time we shared had meant so much and I didn’t want to smother it. There was also another who wanted to see me again, I wasn’t about to neglect this necessity, either. So I decided to turn around. The robust garden in this greenhouse stood against the unceasing winds, bitter cold and relentless buffer outside. It was a defiant statement, turning back the darkness with its unyielding strength.

I walked back to the center of the greenhouse and saw my friend had set up a massive drum set while he waited for me, and had begun warming up on his kit. I entered the center of the greenhouse and once he saw me, he smiled, threw off his reticence and began to intensify the speed and ferocity of his patterns immediately. He was smashing the snare and pedals with intensity, puncturing the stillness of the plants with assured and heavy kits, pummeling the rhythms with each crushing blow. It was an incredible sound, simultaneously furious and joyous. In his arms and legs, he astutely controlled the noise, bending it to his will, molding and sculpting each bang with thunderous gestures and strength. I watched him bang away, punishing the drums with each hit, making the plants shake and move in tandem with his bashing momentum. This was a different kind of release, more focused and urgent. There was a huge difference in this music it was the process of creation than reaction. It had a sense of life and power that had seemed to have vanished for a long time before. As I watched him, I began to see his uncompromising creativity come to life in a way I hadn’t seen in a very long time.

The shadows that had menacingly lurked around the edges slipped away, their angry, cluttered, incoherent and, malicious voices subsumed underneath the pure noise and momentum we created. Drowned out by this furious battle, they slowly ceased their relentless attack, knowing that things had shifted. Silenced, they could not darken this moment. I slowly came closer to the center staging area and found a bass amongst the other instruments. I picked it up and started slapping away at its strings. It was odd, I hadn’t seen or played one in many years, but it felt like an old friend, securely back in my hands. It was a rejuvenating moment, where I rediscovered a part of me that I hadn’t felt in a long time. It took me a while to get back into things, and I could barely keep up with the intensity and speed. After several songs, my old reflexes began to surge from their dormancy and I began to feel the flow of things once again. I had felt frozen and cold, but as my numb fingers began to thaw, I could feel them running over the stings more and more naturally. It became intuitive and later it was almost as if they were dancing, flowing into one another, notes stringed together turned into chords and music. After all this time, we were finally collaborating and it was as if the endless curse had finally lifted from our shoulders. We were finally free and we decided to run as fast as we could sustain, until the shadows we were running from for so long could never catch us.

The strange thing was that we had never played any music together in all the time we knew each other. It was like we had reached out but had failed to connect despite out best efforts. For the past few years, this haunted me, it seemed like something impossible that could never happen. It was a sorrowful thing, one of the worst things to get through. It created a solid wall of ice I couldn’t break or even chip. This was made worse by what could only be described as a curse. We had tried and failed many times over the years to come together creatively, but something always seemed to come up that got in the way. Suddenly, all of those years of frustration didn’t matter. Any pain and sorrow dissolved as we created something together, both of us playing and screaming and shouting. We challenged each other, played games with the music, tried to match each other, darting up and down, left and right, as the plants witnessed our long session. We had shared so much sadness over the years, and now it was an even deeper joy to have something between us that wasn’t covered in the hardened accumulations of old, impenetrable ice. The cold ice melted away, revealing the truths that couldn’t be changed. As we played on, neither one of us seemed to tire or lose our concentration or focus. We drove each other forward, relying on our shared desire to keep exploring in this novel way. We had spent so much time talking to each other over the years, and this wordless communication was completely different yet familiar. If it came to an end, it wasn’t dramatic, more like the slow burning embers that gradually faded until we were left with the satisfaction of making something out of nothing. We blasted noisily against the endless still quiet of the winter moon. We couldn’t and wouldn’t let ourselves let it defeat us once again. We finally exhausted ourselves and relaxed on the ground. We began to talk a little about the many things we shared, and this made me remember something I had nearly forgotten.

After he died, my friend’s mother, Cindy sent me a large package with lots of books and other gifts he had intended to send me for Christmas, but never got the chance to. In the box, there was a beautiful ceramic tile that you’d hang on your wall. It was a hand-made item and one of the things he wanted to share with those who were left behind. It was mostly green with a touch of blue, like the kind you’d find in April before they’d mature. There were small lines in it that looked like stems. As I held it in my hand, I realized that it could have been a mute beacon, silently pointing me to the place where I would find him down the road. It was one of the few things I had held onto over the years of his, and I figured he’d be happy if I still had it. I looked inside my bag and I found it still wrapped in its original paper. I looked at it and it remained unbroken after all these years. It was strange that this had survived so many bleak years and close calls but I held onto it because it meant so much to me. It was a symbol of our durable friendship that had survived many peaks and valleys. I gave it to Sean and he beamed with happiness. I don’t think he expected me to have held onto it, maybe he thought he’d never see it, or me, again. He held it proudly in his hand, and smiled. It was a kind of redemption, a sign of how deeply we had connected over the years, of how much our friendship meant to us. He hung it on the wall behind his drumkit and made sure it was fastened onto it, and it brightened the room even further. Then, he went to a case on the other side of the room, and opened a drawer. He pulled out a brown paper envelope and handed it to me. He told me to open it up. I looked at for a second then realized what it was. Several years before he left, I had sent him a something as a lame joke and had almost forgotten what it was. It seemed like a stupid, silly gesture at the time, and I was a bit taken aback that this was something of mine he held onto. It was as if he knew we’d be together again all along, and saving this little joke we had just for this moment.  As I held up that old red polka-dot dress, I remembered how stupid it seemed at the time. I never would have realized how much it would mean.

- Michael Palisano