When I tell people the story of Royal and me, they are usually a little dumbfounded.
“But you’re a smart girl,” they say, incredulous, “How could you put up with that?”
And because this troubles their understanding of how a woman who reads an excess of feminist books conducts herself, they really do want an answer. To put them at ease I say this or that about how I needed a heartbreak in order to grow, about how his aggression appealed to me because I am a “strong woman” and therefore presumably a masochist, or just (hello?) daddy issues. And when I tell them these things they nod appreciatively because it all checks out with their picture of why women like me exhibit poor judgment.
And, of course, it’s all bullshit. What they could never understand and therefore wouldn’t want to hear is that, despite my intelligence and gender/sex reading list, I dated Royal because I love style and he had it more than any person I’d met.
In short, my ex-boyfriend was my style icon.
This statement makes people uncomfortable. It speaks to a kind of sickness; a capacity for high shallowness and hero worship. Perhaps some essential comfort is lost when forced to acknowledge a person who would accept a world of heartache simply because the dealer of it had mastered an effortless eclecticism in their dress?
The first time Royal and I slept together, I felt the loneliness of sex with a selfish man that would become very familiar. This memory was, however, almost totally eclipsed by the sheer joy I experienced in watching him get dressed the next morning. He pulled wide the doors on his closet and moved almost acrobatically through its racks. He talked as he did this, about raw Japanese denim, about rough African cloth, about how every pair of pants involves a collaboration between Royal and his long-time tailor (together they’ve mastered the perfect taper), about pieces that came from family, and pieces that came from some church thrift store in some nowhere town. It seemed to me that everything in his closet was alive; each item reverberating with memories and people and care.
Royal’s style was effective synthesis; all classic pieces and proportions made his own with others from his travels and diverse family history. Often he’d build his outfits from his references; usually from cinema. I loved coming out of my house and spotting him across the street, leaning on the chain link fence, and guessing as I walked towards him, which great film was providing the inspiration for today’s outfit. I had never known someone to play unabashed adult dress-up and pull it off so completely. He was always proud of how he looked; always willing to share a story about how it came together, and I found myself embarrassed by how interested I was in this. I would actually be disappointed when the talk moved on from what he was wearing or had recently acquired to other more substantial subjects.
There remain certain unsoured, almost incandescent moments from my time with Royal, each with a corresponding mental snapshot of an outfit. I have difficulty distinguishing whether these memories are significant because of the clothes they feature or if it’s the other way around. There’s the custom suit he was wearing when we drank all the Hennessy left over from a funeral, my disbelief when he wore a porkpie hat inside a restaurant coupled with my disbelief that it actually looked good, the blue cashmere sweater that made him difficult to argue with because it looked so damn reasonable, every day a different, neatly ironed pocket square. And then there’s the one I return to most:
Facing Lake Ontario, I hear him call my name. When I turn, I see that he’s dressed simply, not unlike anybody else. But close up I catch a glimpse of a small American flag that he’s tied tightly around his wrist and almost completely concealed with the sleeve of his denim jacket. He doesn’t need anybody else to see it.
When I think of this particular memory, I remember that coming to meet me was the first time he’d left his house that day. I was the only person he’d see at all. And we were just going for a walk on an empty beach. He could never dress simply; just like anyone else. I like to imagine he’d almost left the house but went back for the flag, tied it around his wrist and felt assured by it.
You see, I wanted to dress like Royal. But what quickly became clear is that he wanted me to dress like something else.
The first time Royal and I sat across from one another and had drinks, I was wearing a pair of mens boxer shorts, pink with hounds on them, with an oversized grey jersey tank top and a black blazer, the sleeves rolled to the elbows. The outfit had been conceived in a flash because it was hot and I didn’t expect to be having romantic drinks that night. Having said that, it was also probably my favourite of any outfit I wore that summer. But of course, I apologized for it all through drinks and never wore it again because he had accepted my apology like it had been necessary.
His ideas about how women should look and dress were as specific as those he had for himself. He favoured—insisted on, actually—a visual display of perfect femininity. In his mind, women belonged in form-fitting dresses and high heeled shoes. Their hair should be smooth, fall long and they should smell like flowers. That’s it. That’s all. He wasn’t interested in a woman’s style exhibiting as much thought or complexity as his own. The outfits I was celebrated for were few and far between and always, to my mind, boring.
Still, like many women, I possess a kind of genius for anticipating and accommodating the desires of particular men. I dressed, in those first months, with Royal in mind. Running things by an imaginary him and silently apologizing for my missteps even before I was standing in front of him. At that time my “missteps” could all be blamed on the fact that I was poor. I wore the wrong shoes because I didn’t have the right ones. Dressing for Royal became a bit like Tetris: what could I put together that he would like me in, that I would like me in, that I had, that was clean, that he hadn’t already seen or banished.
One night in a restaurant, close to the end of us, he told me that the way I looked that night deserved to be smooched. I looked down at myself in a tight black dress. That night I had straightened my wild hair into something far easier to digest. I thought for the first time that I didn’t want to earn my smooches and certainly not this way. Boring was too high a price. I sighed and thought of the time he’d yelled at me in a Chinese restaurant to throw away a vintage wool bolero that I was mad about. That he’d stopped speaking to me once when his eyes had landed on my filthy white Chucks, worn sockless. That he’d taken to saying, “Get your life together, baby,” nearly every time I was satisfied with what I was doing, style-wise.
I glanced down at his hands folded on the table. I had always particularly liked his hands, or rather, the way he decorated them. To me they seemed a pleasing Royal’s style vignette. Surrounding an antique gold watch with a brown leather strap (his mother’s) were several very different bracelets and on his left hand, he wore two rings. The simple silver ring on his pinkie had been mine. He’d taken it and was so insistent that he should be allowed to keep it. I’d co-opted a green pashmina he’d bought in Africa and pronounced us square. Later, he revealed that every last piece of jewelry he wore was from a woman he’d loved and I suddenly felt trophy-like. My silver ring, the style equivalent to a head stuffed and mounted on a wall. Though still, some sick part of me was pleased to have contributed to his impressive eclecticism.
I looked up from his hands to the face that had just pronounced me deserving of smooches, and decided I was very tired. I could finally do without the mornings of watching him get dressed. I had added quite enough to my memory bank of Royal looks. That with his green scarf and the months of his example, we were in fact utterly square.
I have now passed more months out of that relationship than I’d spent in it. I have found new style icons. The world vibrates with them and the variety makes it all so democratic. I saw Royal for the first time in months a week ago on Queen Street. It had been brief because one of my friends wanted to hit him or one of his friends for one of the usual reasons. I had jumped in without a thought about what I was wearing (tight polyester black slip, madras wrap shirt, oversized trench coat, brown leather sandals and backpack), put an end to the stand off and pushed my friend on his way. As I followed, I glanced back at Royal and he smiled, saying, “You look good, baby.”
I laugh when I think about this. I am laughing for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that I was then (and god, maybe always will be) a little flattered.
photography // Martina Bellisario