Zygmunt Frankel

SHORT STORIES


THE SWEATER

Everyone liked my new sweater except me, and of course I also pretended to like it. It was a birthday present from my mother, chosen with the assistance of my wife. Assistance, because collusion may be too strong a word. Collusion was something England, France, and Israel did when they attacked Egypt in 1956. Years ago, when we were newly married, my wife bought me a shirt and I made a wry face when I saw it. I never did it again. Instead, I had set out on a long campaign of gentle hints and personal example. I never bought my wife anything she was expected to wear - clothes, perfume, or, on the rare occasions when I could afford it, jewellery - without her approval of the choice. She protested that it removed the element of surprise which was part of a present's charm, but I insisted that even in the most loving marriage the wife should be free to wear only what she really liked and not compromise to spare her husband's feelings. There was, of course, a hint that it worked both ways. When our children were big enough to have their own taste in clothes, I applied the principle to them as well, restraining my wife whenever she said "Oh, Alex - or Ruth - would look really great in this." Gradually our family, including parents and in-laws, accepted the system, at least where it concerned me, and there followed long happy years when I never had to wear anything I didn't really like, until, out of the blue, this sweater.
Never believe that men care less about their appearance and clothes than women do. It's simply that tradition requires them to do in private some of the things that women do in public. Crying is one example. Men do cry from time to time, usually for good reasons - I know I did, and I am sure that so did Johnny Weissmuller, Joe Louis, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, Einstein, and Picasso - but nobody saw us do it, because we always lock the door or bury our heads under the pillow before letting the tears flow. It's the same with clothes or appearance. The wisest of men may spend months finding the right hairdresser, and then an hour in front of the mirror before going out, but you would never guess it. The last thing they do before going out is to ruffle their hair just a bit, to make it look casual. The ones whose hair looks too carefully and lovingly sculpted are not always among the most intelligent of men. The same goes for a bald area under an extra long strand of hair grown specially for the purpose and carefully plastered across the top, not to mention wigs. An intelligent man crops his remaining hair short and pretends not to notice that anything is wrong or that it matters in comparison with his more important qualities, and it is comforting how many women pretend to share this opinion.
Still on the subject of hair, it is strange how much intelligence is needed to realize that the moustache one had grown at the age of seventeen to look older continues to fulfill this function thirty years on. And moving lower down, to the protruding belly, why can't one wear a slightly larger shirt instead of a tight one?
The colour of the eyes is more delicate, and brings us back to that sweater. You can either enhance or murder the colour of your eyes with a small change in the hue of your clothes, and the latter is what my mother and wife did with that sweater. Perhaps, without either of them being colour- blind, they haven't realized what they were doing. Or perhaps they did. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. In the natural world - lions, baboons, geese - there is something called the dominant male, and, as he grows older, he finds himself under constant test and threat by younger males. The passive females then accept the outcome. In human society, he is challenged by women as well as men. Is it possible that this sweater was such an attempt to whittle me down? That my old and established right to wear whatever I chose was so frustrating to the two women that they have decided to check whether I might have lowered my guard?
If it would have been only my mother, or only my wife, I might have taken it for a slip of mind or a momentary yielding to temptation; but the two of them together made it a united front. The official version was that my mother wanted to buy me something nice for my birthday, which, of course, becomes harder from year to year for someone who has everything, and she simply asked my wife to help her choose it. I didn't believe it for a moment. I am quite sure my wife has manipulated the frail older woman into the breach to test the resistance, in the hope that I wouldn't open fire when I saw who it was. In the first World War, the Germans were reputed to chain French women and children to their machineguns to make the French would hold their fire.
There might have been not much wrong with the new sweater if I didn't have a perfectly good old one. I sometimes wonder whether women can understand a man's loyalty to an old sweater, jacket, or a pair of slacks; they are not autumn leaves or yesteryear snows. If I were a poet, I would write an ode to an old sweater. I think Beranger did something of the sort with an old coat; how they were young together and are now grown old, and all the memories, and if the coat would wait a little longer they would go into the grave together. I would write how I once wore it under my battledress for a dawn attack, how its warmth remained after that of a certain woman faded, how hard it is to remove a smear of lipstick which does not match your wife's shade, or a whiff of strange perfume. Partir c'est mourir un peu; when you throw away an old sweater you also die a little.
There is an interesting question here. It is us men who are supposed to be the casual philanderers aroused by every skirt that passes or reveals a shapely knee in a bar. And yet, how faithful can you remain to a human being if you can't be faithful to an old sweater? What sort of people are those who will not be seen dead in last year's fashions? Dark thoughts, better not put into words in these complicated times.
They also say that it is us men who start wars, establish empires, colonies, and foreign markets, initiate arms races, attack innocent neighbours, and enjoy fighting in the wars so long as we come back alive and uncrippled with medals on our chest. Cherchez la femme. When an innocent woman puts a pressure on her husband to ask for a raise, to get a new vacuum cleaner or frigidaire or a washing machine or to move into a better apartment or to a better address, or buys him a new sweater when the old one will for many more years, this pressure, multiplied by the number of families in the nation, is passed onto the government who, wanting to be elected again, might hit on solving the problem by going to war.
It must be admitted that my mother and wife did their best to find me a new sweater which looked almost exactly like the old one except that it was new. It is of the same cut and almost the same colour - a very slightly deeper shade of blue than the old one. What they missed completely was that the old shade enhanced the blue of my eyes, while the new extinguished it completely. The texture of the sweater is also slightly more coarse than the old one; the difference is unnoticeable when you wear it over a shirt, but clearly felt on bare skin.
It is nice to be able to report a happy end to a problem, a solution satisfactory to all and leaving no one offended or under a cloud. It was assumed from the start that this sweater was here to stay because they bought it, and that I was bloody well going to wear it and like it until it got old, when I would like it even more because it was old, and then they would buy me a new one. It was equally clear to me from the start that I was neither going to like nor wear it; the question was how. Staging an accident was out; I am a safety officer by profession, with a published book on accident prevention to my name, and at home I sometimes drive them crazy with my precautions; nobody in this family would believe a burnt sleeve or an irremovable oil stain or a splash of acid from the car battery. But we do have a teenage son who has reached my height, and is soon going to exceed it. (The same height does not mean the same shape; his shoulders are broader than mine and his waist is slimmer.) There is a world of difference between teenage fashions and those of their fathers, but from time to time the line is crossed; he often appropriates something of mine, to lead a new existence undreamed of by the designer. For example the waistcoat of a sober three-piece business suit of mine is now worn over a pink shirt surmounting blue jeans, and a black homburg hat I have used only for a couple of funerals is now teamed up with sunglasses and a colourful T-shirt in outdoor cafs. It may be immodest for a father to say so, but the kid is absolutely handsome, and looks great in anything he wears. Just as he was trying my new sweater on and contemplating with some doubt his reflection in the mirror, the doorbell rang and three friends of his - a boy and two very beautiful girls - came in. The girls circled him and almost swooned with ecstasy, and that clinched it. (Maybe his eyes, also blue, have not faded and bleached with age and drink like mine.) The sweater now nests in his wardrobe, is often worn, and all of us think he looks very handsome in it.
Nothing is ever as simple as it looks.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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