Catherine Palmer


I was stuck. The more I struggled, the tighter the teeth clenched. I yanked on the red metal tongue only to have it come off in my hand. Twisted incisors bit into the fabric. Below the snarl, the zipper of my favorite jacket—the J.Crew barn coat I’d had for thirty years—dangled in two pieces like a jaw agape. I was determined to keep fighting, but the coat spoke of surrender.

I found the jacket on a hot July day after meeting with my divorce lawyer. My sister, mother, and I were at the Kittery, Maine outlet stores for some retail therapy. What better way to heal fresh wounds than to bandage them with pretty new things?

As soon as we entered the factory store, I spotted it—a single bright sleeve on a clearance rack of liver-colored barn coats. I dropped my purse and pushed aside the jaundiced versions to have a better look. I fingered the tags and squinted to read the description—squall jacket, weather-tight zip, machine-washable, color: chili pepper red, size: men’s medium. My thumb traced the gold stitching of the company’s name on the spruce green label inside the collar.

Back in the 80s, when I was in college, the barn coat was pivotal to the preppy girl’s wardrobe—equally suited for crisp autumn days in football stands or puking behind frat house dumpsters. I coveted the ones my friends had in their closets, next to stacks of Fair Isle sweaters, rainbow assortments of Izod polos, and Ralph Lauren oxford shirts. Embroidered green alligators and mallet-swinging equestrians broadcast their good families and good fortune. My closet was a cheaper imitation—a no-name ski jacket I got for Christmas, polyester blouses, and rayon sweaters from the mall.

I borrowed clothes from a friend when we visited her family for the weekend. I remember how the orange-red maple leaves collected on the tennis court next to their three-car garage. While the family mixed gin and tonics in their wall-papered den, I flipped through back issues of Town & Country magazine. I pictured myself owning one of the magazine’s fancy houses or sitting in the passenger seat of an advertised Volvo. I couldn’t count how many times I iterated on those scenes. In one, I see an antique desk bought at auction strapped to the car’s roof. In another, I am pulling into a long driveway, my fingertips caressing the driver’s well-groomed neck just above his Brooks Brothers starched collar. The red barn jacket would be perfect for such a life.

I pulled the coat from the rack and pushed my arms into the sleeves. It didn’t fit. The chest was too broad, the sleeves too long—my still-slim figure obscured from view. I pawed through the round display, thinking maybe a smaller size had fallen from a hanger and was waiting for me to find it.

“Excuse me, do you have these jackets in women’s sizes?” I asked a store clerk.

“Everything we have is right here,” she said, putting her fingertips to her heart in silent apology.

I slipped my hands inside the chest-high hand-warmer pockets. The soft grey fleece brushed against my skin as I traced my ribs to my solar plexus, that pulsing bundle of nerves and ganglia below my heart. My breath snagged when I saw myself in the mirror. This jacket was what I meant when I’d told my soon-to-be ex-husband I wanted more.

My sister said the jacket made me look fat, and my mother couldn’t imagine why I wanted it. It was ill-fitting, unflattering. I had to have it. The jacket meant walking a dog on the beach, surrounded by happy, good-looking people. It promised a slope-side condo, a country farmhouse. It was everything my dormmates’ closets and the J.Crew catalog had told me I should aspire to.

“It’s 70% off,” I squealed, looking over my shoulder to see if it looked any better from the back.

“Well, at that price, you can’t go wrong,” Mom shrugged.

I brought the coat to the cashier and handed over my Visa. While we listened to the squeal and hum of the dial-up credit card machine, I thumbed through the catalog on the counter. I willed my expression to say, “Ho-hum, today I’m just looking, and this jacket was such a bargain. Well, I really couldn’t go wrong, could I?”  I exhaled when the tiny printer coughed out an affirmative response. Even at $50, the purchase was a risk, the equivalent of a week’s groceries. I’d already charged new clothes for the kids, a tank of gas, and our lunch—I would use the cash my mother and sister chipped in for their shares