NEWSWEEK: I Loved My Dress. My Fiancé’s Ominous Reaction Was a Warning Sign

When I was newly engaged in 1986, my grandfather sent a Christmas gift of cash. I knew just what to do with it. There was a strapless, red sequined dress with a chiffon ruffled skirt in the window of a Santa Monica boutique that I’d been eyeing for weeks.

After working my way up from receptionist after film school, I became the west coast production manager for a commercial and music video company on the legendary Sunset Boulevard. For a girl from Ohio, I was living the dream. This dress was my destiny. It was sexy and sparkly and sophisticated–everything I always wanted to be.

Unfortunately, my salary barely covered my rent-controlled apartment by the beach and the big-shouldered suits that camouflaged my figure at work. No way could I afford such Madonna-inspired splendor. But thanks to my grandfather, I could swing it for Christmas.

My grandfather, A. L. Levine, was a big art collector. The Picasso and Botero in his Palm Beach cottage were destined for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for the Atrium that now bears his name. And this dress was art!

I decided to splurge on it and surprise my fiancé before a big New Year’s Eve party. I curled my long hair and layered on lipstick. I was so excited that my hands shook as I zipped up my dress. I felt like a balloon filled to bursting. “Ready?” I called.

When I tiptoed into the living room and twirled around, my fiancé shook his head. “I hate sequins,” he said. I blinked in confusion. I loved sequins. I planned to wear them to get an Oscar one day. How could he not understand this was the real me?

I kept the dress on, but the bubble had burst. We’d met at work in Hollywood, so he saw plenty of sequins. He thought they were tacky. But I didn’t feel tacky; I just didn’t feel as beautiful as before.

At the party, when my fiancé went off to chat with some friends, other men approached. They disagreed with my fiancé; my dress was a hit. I tried to enjoy their compliments, but they didn’t count. I had pledged my heart.

If only I’d paid more attention. When I left to work freelance and started getting screen credits, my husband was proud. He still had more money, though, and that mattered more. When my first novel won an award, he took a job out of the country and couldn’t join me to collect it. He liked me best in my bathroom. He took photos of me baking Christmas cookies with our daughters. Or, rather, decorating them; I used Slice N Bake dough. For another book, I was interviewed on the CNN morning news. He didn’t wake the girls to watch. And somehow, he forgot to record it. I buried the dress deeper and deeper in the closet.

A decade later, my sister asked me to wear the dress to take pictures for her photography class at USC. My husband was happy to help. I dug out the dress and my sister got an A. We sent a copy to my grandfather, who loved it. By now, it was a period piece from the 1980’s. But I never wore that dress again in public. I hung the picture in the hallway and admired it through the glass.

Later, I turned a bedroom into my office. I stored my red dress in the closet with extra supplies. One night, when my husband was home between freelance film jobs, I was on a roll. I kept writing past six, which was when he usually expected dinner.

Then I heard him shouting for me from the kitchen. I turned off the computer and ran in, ready to take over. He turned around from the sink and punched me. “It was an accident,” he said. He didn’t see me standing there. He was an ex-Marine. Had he meant to hit me, I’d be “out cold.”

That was true, I thought, as I lay on the floor where I fell. That’s where the girls found me.

I hid in my office for a few days until the bruising went down, where I came across my dress again in the storage closet. My swollen lip matched the dress for a week. My husband never hit me again, but the party was over.

Five years after that incident, we finally divorced. I should have seen it coming –seen this bright color like a stop sign. I still love the shiny sequins and the fluffy skirt, and I can still zip it up.

But its exuberant appearance is not the only reason why I love the dress. Instead, I keep the dress close as inspiration; every once in a while, I try it on and twirl. The very sight of it makes me smile.

When I look at it now, this dress is more than a red flag. It reminds me of that girl who wanted so much out of life – and now she’s got it. It reminds me of who I wanted to be, and who I am.