What We Talk About When We Talk About Dave’s Shirt

"If one wasn’t careful, the entire revolution of one’s days could be ticked away like this, one tinder-dry, trussed-up Thanksgiving turkey after another."

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“What do you mean, you threw it out?”

Dave, leaning forward abruptly on the sofa, sounded like he was trying to swallow a robin’s egg, whole.

“What do you mean, what do I mean? I threw it out. In the garbage.” Jenna snorted and scooted past his knees. “I didn’t recycle it if that’s what you’re asking.”

She skated her wineglass across the coffee table towards Simon for a refill.

“Threw what out?” Vanessa was in the archway between the kitchen and the den, a cherry-red oven mitt on each hand.

“What the hell.” Dave threw himself backwards into the couch, eyes on the ceiling.

“Why?” Simon asked. He filled Jenna’s glass and moved to Dave’s. “Why throw it out?”

Jenna folded herself onto the carpet opposite the couch, hunching her shoulders. She shrugged. “He looked ridiculous.”

“Ridiculous how?” Vanessa moved into the room.

“Who caaaaares.” Dave moaned. “I only wore it in the house. I love that shirt. That was my writing shirt.”

“We’re talking about a shirt?” Vanessa asked, her mascara-blue lashes blinking at Dave, then Jenna. “You threw out his shirt?” Vanessa was wearing a lace-trimmed apron, brand new, tied over a satin blouse, skinny jeans with a high waist.

“It wasn’t just a shirt,” Jenna said. “It was the shirt his ex gave him. His college sweetheart. Like, a million years ago.”

“Suzie?” Simon asked, plunking himself on the couch beside Dave, eyebrows arched. “Suzie Lewis. Ahh, that takes me back.”

“What the hell,” Dave said again. “When? When, exactly, did you throw it out?”

“Ha.” Jenna said. She was swirling the wine in her glass, the red rushing up to the rim. She addressed Vanessa wondering, not for the first time in the last two hours, whether Vanessa’s teeth were veneers. “Last time I put that shirt out with a bag for those guys, you know, who pick up stuff from your door for charity. Dave took it out of the bag!”

“What was so special about this shirt?” Simon asked Dave.

Vanessa hovered, watching Jenna on the white carpet, twirling her glass of cabernet.

Dave was studying Vanessa. She so closely resembled Simon’s last girlfriend, there was a real danger of addressing her by the wrong name.

He turned back to Jenna. “What the hell, Jenna. That’s my writing shirt.”

Simon smiled up at Vanessa in her apron.  “How’s the turkey coming, hon? Smells incredible.”

“I’m not sure.” Vanessa plumped out her lower lip. She and Simon had only been together a few months. This was the first time she’d ever tried to cook him anything special. With guests too.  And Dave was one of Simon’s oldest friends. “I really hope it’s not underdone.”

Dave bayonetted the dip with a carrot.

“Turkey’s tense.” Jenna lifted her glass to Vanessa. “Cheers to you for trying.”

“How would you know?” Dave said, glaring at the carrot. He and Jenna almost always ate out or ordered in.

“My roommate and I cooked a turkey in grad school,” Jenna said. “Thanksgiving for 16 people.”

Jenna was now a VP at a mid-sized software company, overseeing a team of managers and developers. She met Dave shortly after being hired at SharkTec, when he was head of innovation acquisitions at GameTech. Back then the soaring arcs of their careers, their lives, were so clearly spurting from the same kind of fountain.

“Of course you did,” Dave said. He notched his thumbs into his eye sockets and rubbed.

“Thanks for these lovely appies,” Vanessa chirped at Jenna. “They look amazing.”

“The Lazy Gourmet.” Jenna said. “Not me, the shop—that’s what it’s called. They have amazing stuff. Fresh and not super fatty, you know?”

“That hummus is weird.” Dave was gesturing with his chin. “Tastes off.”

His glass, again, was almost empty.

So was Jenna’s.

“Truffle oil, Dave. That’s truffle.” Jenna wouldn’t look at him.

“So what did you have against that shirt?” Simon persisted. Vanessa shot Simon a look, but missed. “Because his ex gave it to him, or because of the shirt itself?”

“It was purple.” Jenna scowled. “Purple plaid. He looked like a gay lumberjack.”

“Hey!” Simon said. “I remember that shirt.” He was employing a contraption the size and heft of a power drill to uncork another bottle of wine. “Those shirts are back in style.”

“It was cozy,” Dave mumbled, his voice like rocks rumbling in a creek-bed. He tilted the dregs of the empty bottle into his glass. “You know when your ideas just feel kind of blocked, kind of below the surface?” He addressed this question at Vanessa, who widened her peacock-feather eyes encouragingly. He grunted. “That’s when I’d put on that shirt. It helped.”

“Your muse?” Simon chuckled. Simon had played rugby in college. Now he had some high-up job at HSBC and was easing into the look of a banker. “Shit, man, you better get out and buy a new shirt. Your novel will never see the light of day.”

Dave and Simon had been in the same MBA class at McGill, both hired straight out of school. Dave, after floating steadily upwards through a string of high-tech companies, had quit his job that past summer to work full-time on an idea he’d had for a new social networking site. He and Jenna had a mortgage together, but Jenna made good money. He was also writing a novel, or trying to write a novel. He’d always wanted to be a writer.

“Suzie-Loo,” Simon cooed. “Suzie Loo. I wonder what she’s up to these days.”

Vanessa looked to be thrumming with uncertainty. Should she wait for Simon to top up her glass? Dinner ready god-knows-when and they were already onto their third bottle.  Simon reached up and hooked his fingers under the knot of Vanessa’s apron, pulling her down onto his lap. Jenna watched the black rain drumming the windows.

“My boyfriend in high school gave me a shirt too,” Vanessa said, pretending to wriggle away from Simon. “I mean, we’d graduated and we knew it was over. Eddie was going tree planting for the summer and I was going to au pair in Australia. When he came to say goodbye, he said, ‘I give you the shirt off my back!’ And he did. Pulled it over his head right there on the front stoop.” She risked a glance at Jenna. “Eddie was the first guy I ever loved.”

“How ROMANTIC,” Simon said, worming a hairy hand underneath her blouse. “I’d rather the shirt off your back.” She giggled, swatting him with her oven mitt.

“Do you still have it?” Jenna asked, quietly promising herself — with a twinge of loss — that she would never in a million years wear high-waisted jeans ever again. Not if you paid her.

“The shirt?” Vanessa stood, tucking her top back under her apron strings. “No, it was just a scuzzy old T-shirt.”

They were silent. Vanessa took the empty bottle back to the kitchen. Simon and Dave — even Jenna — watched her back-pockets shimmy across the dining room, the bottle nuzzling against the sway of her denim thighs.

Jenna was thinking: witness the wheel of life, rolling placidly along. Time cinching itself tighter and tighter on its axis. If one wasn’t careful, the entire revolution of one’s days could be ticked away like this, one tinder-dry, trussed-up Thanksgiving turkey after another.

“You guys have been together, what, ten years? Twelve?” Simon asked, peeling his gaze from Vanessa back to Jenna, then Dave. “I’ve never dated anyone for half that long. I don’t think you need to worry about Suzie any more, Jenna. Ancient history. Just buy him a new shirt.”

No one spoke. Simon hacked himself a wedge of apple-smoked cheddar.

“I’ve written stuff for you in that shirt,” Dave said softly, looking finally at Jenna. “That short story about the old couple and the accident. You know I wrote that for you.”

“So you say,” Jenna said. She had meant it to sound breezy.

For a moment they sat listening to Vanessa in the kitchen. The oven door yawning. The protests of pots. “We need some music,” Simon murmured. But he didn’t get up.

“How’s the website,” Simon asked Dave after a pause. “Coming along?”

“It’s okay, you know, a couple hiccups. Facebook launched a new content-sharing tool that’s kinda similar to what I’d been working on, but not really.” Dave sighed. “My idea: it’s a good one. Something new. But you just have these things in your head, then something else comes out and you lose track of what was yours and what wasn’t, you know? You’re too close to it.”

Dave was picking at something on his sweater with his thumbnail.

“It’s okay, Simon,” Jenna said. “If the site doesn’t work out, Dave is going to be a famous author. Right Dave? Shirt or no shirt. The next Hemingway. Or who’s that writer you are always going on about? The next Dana Carvey.”

Vanessa was swaying in the archway again. “Are we still talking about your shirt?” she asked. “What are we talking about?”

A moment passed, and another. Then she said: “Simon, sweetie, come and help me poke this thermometer in the bird. I think it’s done, but I don’t know. I’m worried the squash will be overcooked if this takes much longer.”

Jenna exhaled, wanting to feel something. Anything. Love, anger, joy, disgust. One of those old and plunging feelings that way-back-when seemed to simply well up in her, unbidden, a clench to the heart. Nothing came.

“Carver,” Dave said, almost a whisper. “Raymond Carver.” He fixed a stony gaze on Jenna, eyebrows crunching as if trying to remember a face.

Simon hoisted himself out of the couch and padded after Vanessa.

“How exactly do you overcook squash?” Jenna asked the black windows, not expecting an answer.

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Comments

  1. Ms. Wood, I just wanted you to know I ordered your recent book’The Quintland Sisters’ (about the famous Dionne quintuplets) that has gotten wonderful reviews! Really looking forward to receiving it.

    If my first comment seemed strange, it’s because it is. I didn’t care for ‘Dave’s Shirt’ at all, but didn’t want to be the first to say it, hoping instead other people’s insights might help me see something I missed. No one did. On the 2nd read, my initial thoughts became even more entrenched on it:

    Except for the modern references (like Facebook) this slice-of-life story frankly reeks of the old-fashioned, unloved “Thirtysomething” show of 30+ years ago; complete with spoiled, neurotic, shallow, unlikable people having a trivial, awkwardly uncomfortable conversation (in this case) centering around a man’s shirt!!

    I do like your writing style in and of itself, and these comments are meant as constructive criticism only.

  2. I’m curious to see if any other people will put comments on this story or not, Ms. Wood, and what THEY have to say first if they do! This is the first ‘non-comment’ comment I’ve ever put on a Post online feature. Let’s see what happens.

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