A cool stream of air hits my skin as I tug off fire-extinguisher jeans, folding them neatly to pile on top of the strawberry shirt I just had on, regarding the combination with a sigh. I had to buy them both earlier this morning after painstakingly rummaging through every last piece of clothing I own and not finding a single red item. Only for it to be in vain.
I slouch in front of a full-length mirror in a bra and mismatched panties, having reluctantly shed the brand new, comfortable outfit I purchased for this event. And, instead, I look over to the rack next to me, eyeing the floor-length, crimson dress meant to replace it for the next hour or two, still processing how crazy it is that I’ve somehow ended up a branded participant in the date auction when I only came as a last-minute supporter—and had completely forgotten about it until last night.
I reach for the evening gown, observing its cinched silhouette as I slide my hand over the smooth, satin-like fabric before plucking it off the hanger. Despite its silky texture, I slide into it with a tad bit of difficulty, realizing it’s a size too small—and, consequently, much more figure-hugging than I’d like—with really no room for give. One rushed motion in the wrong direction or a bend or turn made too quickly could potentially rip it. I’m going to have to proceed with caution. Cynically fitting—in more ways than one.
It doesn’t help that it’s a rental; the top pick of the flu-stricken no-show I’m substituting for. But Louisa couldn’t secure a different dress so last-minute, and so I’m forced to make do even though I’m more than a little wary of its physical confinements.
I would have also much preferred if the top wasn’t strapless.
With another sigh, I unhook my bra and discard it, as well, wishing its bands were removable so I could keep it on, acutely sensing the cool, satin mesh against my bare nipples—suddenly aware that I’ve never gone without one in public before. The realization only compounds my anxiety about the dress’ proportion discrepancy.
I pull the top up over my chest as far as it will go before fidgeting with the zipper at the back, requiring a few seconds of fussing to drag it all the way up.
I regard its reflection in the mirror with a grimace, unamused by its display of my upper body, the cups revealing a bit too much cleavage for my liking without providing any actual support. This is not a practical dress, whatsoever. Its selling point is entirely aesthetic.
I guess that’s why Flu-Girl picked it.
Even though it’s obviously not her fault for getting sick, I can’t help being annoyed with her unfortunate predicament for putting me in mine.
As well as her sense of fashion.
It’s only for two hours, I tell myself.
I can change the second the auction is over. Besides, it’s not like I can do anything about it now.
At least, it’s wearable.
I run my palms down the dress as it clings to my body, loving the color and finish in spite of my apprehension over its plunging neckline. I resign myself to assuming the virtuous role of a statue while I’m in this thing. Because the last thing I need is an impromptu nip-slip in front of hundreds of people at a charity event.
We’re trying to save people from heart attacks, not give them any.
I pull my hair away from my face, smoothing the crazy flyaways sticking out in every which direction with my hands in the absence of a brush, imploring the collective body of ginger locks to stay in place without being beaten into submission by hair-spray.
Of course, it doesn’t work.
I continue to muddle in my hair, alternating between putting it up and just leaving it be, sneering with each failed attempt. I’m still fiddling with the uncooperative mane when someone knocks on the door. I turn to see Louisa poking her head through.
“We’ll be starting the auction in ten,” she announces, seeming quite tempered and composed for someone who should be out of breath from constantly running around and driving half-way across town to procure the dress currently clinging to my body from its originally-intended wearer.
I nod. “I’ll be right there.”
I scuttle about the room, leaving my hair to its own devices in search of my shoes.
I shove my feet into deep, ruby heels that have no business housing them, huffing when they pinch at my toes. Their tiny buckles prove even more vexing and I soon give up, forfeiting any additional efforts to fasten them.
Not only do I have to worry about starring in an unintentional ‘Girls Gone Wild: Charity Edition’ episode, but now I have to make sure I don’t end up turbulently tripping over my bared tits, as well. And the fact that the dress’ train is happily pooling at my feet makes the probability of that happening go way up.
I practically waddle out of the changing room, the combination of the gown’s mermaid shape and my bootleg—no pun intended—securement of the shoe straps restricting my steps so much that it feels like I have to take a million of them just to get out the door.
The rest of the auction participants are already queued to go on stage. A rush of nerves hits me as I watch them ascend the small staircase and disappear behind a thick, red velvet curtain, one after another, in line with their rehearsed pace.
Louisa hands me a card; one I have to hold up for the entire duration of the auction, like she’d demonstrated earlier, alongside Hannah’s detailed briefing. I take the large, laminated square from her, glancing at the single number on it.
Reflective of the organization’s slogan, ‘Healthy Hearts Seven Days of the Week’—and my position in line. I don’t feel particularly good about being last. Though, it certainly beats going first. I suppose having attended previous Sweet Heart fundraisers helps a little since I have a general idea of how it goes, but I’ve only ever been present as a guest. And I know from experience that front row perception and backstage reality are two completely different things.
“You’re up,” Louisa whispers.
I breathe out long and heavy, inhaling just as deeply again.
I blink against metastasizing stage fright, present only because my involvement is so spontaneous and last minute.
That seems to be the story of my life lately.
One of the support volunteers secures an earpiece to my right ear as Louisa gives me an encouraging smile and thumbs up before I ascend the stairs. The gesture chips away at my anxiety ever so slightly, especially when I think about how stressed out she and Hannah must be, dealing with unforeseen bumps and flops of their own in the midst of putting this all together.
Steeling my nerves, I make my way on to the stage, trying my damnedest to move naturally in this less-than-ideal get-up, thankful I don’t have to walk too far.
Bright lights douse my eyes as soon as I get past the curtain, largely obscuring my view of the audience. I stand at the far end of the platform, evenly spaced from my counterparts, facing our viewers with a bogus smile as my pupils adjust to receive them, upholding the plastered grin even though I feel like a caterpillar among ladybugs.
“I want to thank everyone again for being here,” Hannah’s says into the mic, her amplified speech carrying across the ballroom. I can’t see her that well from this angle, but hearing a familiar voice eases my nerves some. “And, now, for the part you all actually showed up for…” she quips, the congregation joining her in a communal bout of laughter, “it’s both my pleasure and honor to host the fifth, annual Sweet Heart Charity Date Auction! Please give a huge round of applause for our lovely participants: this year’s Seven Sweethearts!”
The audience bursts into a chorus of claps, the hall coming alive…and then the applause dies, almost as abruptly as it starts.
There’s a swift, sudden shift in the atmosphere; the entire room quickly replaced with hushed murmurs as everyone turns toward the back in unison.
Squinting against the stage lights, my eyes flit ahead to the whispered commotion, following in the shared direction of the crowd…
And my heart literally drops.