Where does my style begin and his taste end? My suitcase is overflowing with meaning I can’t handle anymore.
In my new apartment, I read Joan Didion’s Blue Nights on recommendation from a close friend who lost her boyfriend to a suicide. In the memoir, Didion grieves the death of her daughter, Quintana.
“In theory, these mementos serve to bring back the moment,” Didion writes of her daughter’s clothes. “In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.” I devour the book in one afternoon and run straight to the bookstore for another. Like the Didion of The Year of Magical Thinking, I see my late partner’s clothes as an extension of his body, asking myself questions like, “How could he come back if they took away his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?” I understand what compelled Pablo Neruda to write an ode to socks. Every time I accidentally grab a pair of Anthony’s red or pink American Apparel briefs, both stained with bleach, I hear Andy Warhol’s voice: “I think buying underwear is the most personal thing you can do, and if you could watch a person buying underwear you would really get to know them. I mean, I would rather watch somebody buy their underwear than read a book they wrote.”
A year passes before wearing our clothes in the monotonously cool San Francisco climate becomes too much. I stammer into my closet one morning and burst into tears when the shirt he wore on our first date falls off a hanger. Sobbing, I toss the shirts I haven’t worn in years—patterned party shirts and faded jean jackets and button-downs from college—one after the other into a trash bag. Without pausing, I drag two trash bags stuffed with shirts to the donation box on the block, imagining young Black and Latinx teenagers in the neighborhood sporting our old clothes. While working the next day, I book a one-way ticket to Medellín, Colombia, and email the landlord my intent to move out. My work, content and growth strategy for start-ups, can be done from anywhere.
I start packing. I put sentimentals, including a whole box of warm vintage clothes that I won’t need this summer, into storage. I purge the pieces of furniture we shared, including the wooden coatrack on which our winter jackets hung. I pitch the junk one accumulates from living in the same area for a decade, like unusable medications and dirty paintbrushes, into my building’s trash can, which overflows each week until I’m gone.
I stuff what I can carry on the plane ride to Medellín into my hand luggage: a raincoat, three pairs of jeans, a few shirts, two workout tank tops, and two weeks’ worth of socks and underwear. The only Anthony pieces I pack are his Pokémon boxers and the Illesteva sunglasses, which I eventually gift to our friend, Rebecca, in Honolulu.
Watching season one of The Kardashians (Hulu) in my Medellín loft, I feel as if Kim Kardashian is speaking to me through the TV when she admits, in a confession-cam session, that she’s torn by Kanye’s influence on her style. She’s struggling to reconcile how much she loves her soon-to-be ex’s style suggestions with her desire to free herself from his overbearing influence: “I would ask him for advice, for everything, down to what I wear.” Vividly, I am reminded of what Anthony said about certain pieces, about shirts he loved to wear and how he wanted me to dress. Where does my style begin and his taste end? My suitcase is overflowing with meaning I can’t handle anymore. I abandon my few old shirts and jeans and buy new ones, frustrated that I am obsessed with a concern as trivial as what I should wear each day.
While living as a digital nomad between Bogotá and Rome, across the Americas and Europe, I shop for new climates, like the Mediterranean, and new occasions, like tropical beach trips. In Bogotá, I am mistaken for a store attendant in the Bershka at a posh mall in Chicó, where I buy short denim overalls and tank tops. In Miami, I toss my prepandemic jeans and purchase a cheap, flashy hooded tank top that reads Miami Beach. In Honolulu, I treat myself to a patterned, sweat-resistant blue button-down and khaki shorts for the upcoming beach days. I splurge on a pair of dreamy pinkish-red tinted sunglasses with circular lenses in a black-and-white patterned frame.
In Europe, I never have the chance to wear the shirt with the straight couple having sex. Trying to dress myself right in New York City, my first stop back in the States, is even harder. Practically impossible. The weather is so hot and humid. I never match anyone’s vibe, especially my dates’. My random assortment of outfits makes me seem unknowable, contradictory even, to strangers and friends alike. One evening I almost wear the shirt to a party in TriBeCa but run back inside to change because the fabric is too warm, even after sunset. The only time I dress appropriately is at a drag queen’s birthday party in Prospect Park, where I dance in short overalls and the mesh tank top I bought in Lisbon. The party feels like a hall of mirrors, a queer carnival in the woods.
Riding the subway the next day, I yearn for the feeling of a stranger’s eyeballs landing on me with curiosity. While reading on the Manhattan-bound C train, I study a man’s purple crocs and pink socks without realizing that we’re already exchanging glances before he disappears onto the subway platform. I pop into a few clothing shops in SoHo and Chelsea but am paralyzed: I want everything and don’t know where to start.
My random assortment of outfits makes me seem unknowable, contradictory even.
In Echo Park, Los Angeles, where I relocate after my trip, every day is an opportunity to join people who spend their days strutting on the runway of self-invention. “Fashion wasn’t what you wore anymore; it was the whole reason for going,” Warhol said. People look fabulous at urgent care, eccentric in the new-wave coffee shop, anachronistic at the pharmacy. At a thrift store in the heart of Echo Park, I drop two hundred dollars on thirty-five new pieces. Someone’s junk is my treasure: six-dollar black Hollister skinny jeans, a ten-dollar vintage pink windbreaker, a three-dollar Vans T-shirt that says “High and Dry” with a cartoon of people sunbathing at the beach.
Each piece in my closet is intentional. These aren’t just clothes, but what I’m wearing while living, writing, daydreaming, experimenting. The new clothes hang alongside my summer purchases, including the shirt of the woman and man fucking that I finally wear out in Mid City one October night, when the evening weather settles into a comfortable chill. In line to listen to Ibrahim Maalouf, the genre-bending French Lebanese trumpeter, I overhear people speaking French, Turkish, and Arabic and notice strangers glancing at the image that is partially obscured by my open button-down. A moment I never quite understood in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando rings true: “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
Some days I wear pieces that remind me of my life with Anthony, like the vintage blue coat we bought together in London or the cheugy avocado socks he refused to wear. What is left of our sartorial entanglement is mostly boxed up, in Illinois, practically museum pieces. As I hang seven dark shirts in my Echo Park closet, I realize my new wardrobe is less zany, darker. “What will I wear when Anthony’s been dead for longer than I’ve known him alive?” I ask a friend over black coffee.
One Saturday morning, while pulling the rainbow crew socks Anthony and I shared over my ankles, the all-too-familiar sensation of the fabric against my skin makes my heart skip a beat. For a moment, the neurons firing in my brain trick me into thinking he’s still alive.