I came across one of my husband’s old T-shirts while folding laundry last week. It was there in the basket with underwear and worn jeans and socks that somehow never match up right, the gray shirt with the blue collar I bought him when we were just kids.
That blue collar is frayed now, and there’s a rust stain under the word “Nike.” A little hole is forming at the seam of one arm and it won’t be long before I can hold it up and see right through it. Twenty-some years of wear on a man in work and play will do that. Ten thousand trips through the washing machine will do that.
Funny how an everyday chore can suddenly transport a person. I lifted it up and smoothed the wrinkles out on my lap and suddenly I was that 16-year-old girl again, in the mall in the big town, looking up at a wall full of men’s shirts, summoning all that I knew about the boy I liked so that I could make the right decision.
I chose the one on the very top row of course, and so I had to ask a clerk to get it down so I could bring it to the register to pay for it. I spent $25 of my hometown department store earnings on a boy for his 17th birthday.
I didn’t know at the time the long-term relationships men come to develop with their favorite T-shirts. If I dug through my husband’s drawers right now, I would find at least 15 to 20 relics of past wrestling tournaments, FFA and football championships, little pieces of his history telling the story on faded lettering and logos on the back of a T-shirt.
I recently bought my husband a new shirt at the local Western store. We were going to take family pictures and I wanted the color to be right. And there I was again, looking at the wall of options, long-sleeved and short-sleeved, plaid and patterned and plain, snap buttons and embroidery.
This time I knew at a glance which ones he would wear, which ones look like him, and which ones to pass up. And it occurred to me then, when I brought that shirt home and hung it in his closet, next to his worn-out work shirt and jeans folded at the knee, that the act of successfully picking out someone’s clothes couldn’t be more personal.
To know a man well is to know the belt he wears for work with the vintage buckle and the one he pulls out for a wedding or a night on the town. It’s to know the inseam of his pants and the size of his foot in his boots, and how the man can wear out a pair every six months in this rugged place, the same way the wind and the sun wears on his cheeks and that spot on his neck his hat won’t cover.
To know a man well is to know how his shirt tucks, and that the sleeves are never long enough, his shoulders too wide and broad — just like, I thought while folding that old shirt and putting it in his drawer, my love for him.