Obituary For a Shirt — By Madeline Zappala

I never thought I’d be so broken up about a shirt.

Single hot tears streaked reluctantly down my cheek as I shed my heavy bed sheets and found a more comfortable spot positioned with my neck propped on a towel on the white tiled bathroom floor. I’m almost certain I woke my dad as the incorrectly hung door scrapped against the floor, but the bed just wasn’t the place for me. The tile was cool against my lower back and arms, as I arched, staring up into the light, my legs up on the toilet. I wondered why this was somehow a more adequate mourning place.

I missed people most of all.

After five weeks into the seven-week road trip I was taking alone with my dad, of course I craved human contact with someone besides him.  Not to say we didn’t get along.  Obviously to be taking this trip, from Boston, straight across to Oregon, down the Californian coast to Los Angeles, back east until we hit the other coast, heading north to make a big rectangle, my dad and I had to have a pretty well-functioning relationship. But driving 9,000 miles alone together in an antique 1930 Ford Model A Woody Station Wagon began to wear on me.

As we approached Santa Fe, we sat in traffic just outside the city, where I watched people my age, or probably younger, boys and girls, engage in a game of soccer together. The delicate dribbling back and forth between one boy in silky red and one girl in silk white, her triumphant, teasing smile as she faked passed him and the way they laughed about the moment together…I yearned for this casual interaction with my peers.

In the absence of some familiarities, people tend to cling to others. For me, routine was a major part of this, as routine can normalize any unknown environment. I would yank my duffel bag from its cramped spot in the car, perfectly fitting in between the library (a milk crate filled with books, covered with a towel upholstered seat) and my dad’s guitar case, atop my dad’s wider, heavier bag.

Every day certain things would come right out of the bag. First, the phone charger from my backpack.  My phone would most always be dead from feverish texting or incessant roaming, searching for service in those niches of the country that just don’t seem to have it.  One of my two chargers would come out, then my computer second. My duffle bag didn’t usually get opened unless I needed to immediately change out of a sweat-soaked shirt or shorts, and if not, I waited until comfort called and it was time to get on some pajamas.  Those consisted of one pair of shorts or one of two pairs of yoga pants if the hotel was blasting the A/C too much, but not so much that it bothered my father (which would be reason enough to shut it off).

Any shirt would do.

The last time I remember seeing my shirt is clinging inside out to my sweatshirt, a perfect mold of my inside out body, sitting at the foot of the bed I was sharing begrudgingly with my brother when he visited us in the Grand Canyon. It was tangled up with bed sheets, just as I had taken it off.

Somehow, every single piece of clothing in my bag seems to make it out to meet the hotel room floor, every place we stopped. There is something impossible about finding one specific thing in a packed bag (which is exactly why I have emptied my bag twice since realizing the loss of my shirt, hoping that by some chance I missed it and was really still there, with me). So out everything goes, and in the morning it gets carefully (varying degrees of carefully) packed away again.  Never leave my gallon zip lock of shower products, those go in the side pocket, and my two pairs of shoes that I’m not currently wearing in a secret bottom pocket of the bag.  It’s easier to pack my shoes when the clothes aren’t in the bag, perhaps another reason why all of my clothes would end up inevitably on the floor.

Every piece of clothing had to be carefully picked out.  I could bring one pair of jeans, so I brought my favorite, most comfortable pair. Shirts had to be made for sitting in the hot, hot heat, (imagine eight hours a day on dark leather seats with no air-conditioning in the Southwest in July) so the chosen few were flowing, oversized shirts, including this grey-green worn-in soft Splendid brand shirt that is now gone.

I bought it back in December, and I can honestly say I think that I’ve worn it everyday.  Although I would wear it during the day, or even out at night on certain occasions, I slept in it almost every night.  It was easy to pull off and on. I could wear it with out a bra and walk down the hall to the bathroom before bed without feeling self-conscious. It was so soft, so thin that even tucked under my black down comforter, I would stay cool in it. It was perfect.

The feel of the fabric is so familiar to me now that nothing could possibly replace it, even a new shirt of the exact same brand would feel imposter. The feeling is so familiar that as I groped through my half-unpacked bag in the dark I was certain it was not there because I could not feel it. I knew any lamp-illuminated searches would be in vain, but for my sorry, broken heart I searched.

What a silly thing. I told myself, it’s just an object, a garment, this is nothing to be upset about. But, like I said, without the normalcy of waking up in your own bed, or the sounds of your roommate watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer through your closet wall, without these people in your life that you have come to think of as your own in someway, the objects, the piles of fabric hastily folded into my bag each morning became my comforts.

Taking these things out, and then putting them carefully back in place again became a very important part of my days.  These things and this routine were the part of that hotel room, and every hotel room, that was my life and it was my responsibility to carry them carefully with me.

As I lay awake in bed, I pictured myself talking about this situation with someone else. I am embarrassed for my tears, think they are stupid and superficial, but also know that they come from some place real.  Or maybe they are just a product of my heightened hormones, perpetually imbalanced by my birth control pills, another important and engrained part of my routine that I perform, always first thing upon waking up, half asleep as I stumble to the bathroom for some water to wash them down with.

I still feel sad upon remembering that the shirt is no longer mine.  I can vaguely remember the sensation of it lying on my skin, hanging across my shoulders. I feel like I let it down, feel incredible guilt for having failed my routine and I know that the loss is entirely in my hands.

But, it was just a shirt.

Madeline Zappala is a recent graduate of Vassar College, where she took away a degree in American Culture, a thesis on deconstructing road trip narratives, a slew of friends and shining memories, and a job. She grew up in the suburbs of Boston, a city which she plans to return to in pursuit of art school in the upcoming months. For more of her photography, writing and other creative endeavors check out

About Kiese

Kiese Laymon is a fiction writer and essayist who writes frequently on pop culture, hip hop and politics. He is currently teaches English, Africana Studies and Creative Writing at Vassar College.
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2 Responses to Obituary For a Shirt — By Madeline Zappala

  1. vassar 13 says:

    road trip with your father. you make it seem beautiful here. i could never do it.

  2. Kiese says:

    thats what i thought when i read. amazed that they made the trip in that car, but more amazed that madeline made the trip with her father.

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