The Dress as Bright as Her Smile
by Jo Wu
I never knew my grandmother. If she had lived, I would have called her Nainai, which you would call your paternal grandma in Chinese. Yehyeh misses her every day. He didn’t have to say he did. Whenever I visited Yehyeh in his tall glass tower, I’d see Nainai’s sewing machine sitting in a living room corner, covered with a drape that she sewed out of a fabric printed with black cats and red bows. Yehyeh had set up an altar with offerings of incense sticks and oranges set before a photo of how young and beautiful Nainai looked when she passed at age forty-seven. On the walls, pictures of her joined the photos of my dad and aunt as kids, and me and my siblings. Above a sofa, in a shadowbox, hung what I always saw as the most beautiful dress in the world: Nainai’s wedding gown. The glass gleamed, with not a speck of dust. The spotless glass let the dress glow by sunlight during the day and by moonlight at night.
“When she was a little girl,” regaled Yehyeh whenever I would help him pleat dumplings, “she knew she always wanted to sew her own wedding gown. Her grandmothers in Taiwan were seamstresses. She hated the idea of buying a dress so she made her own.”
Nainai was like a fairy tale princess, someone I heard stories about throughout childhood. Every year on their wedding anniversary Yehyeh would stream recordings of their wedding on the sunbeam projector. I watched my smiling grandmother in rapture, drinking in her mellifluous voice as she spoke her vows.
At family gatherings, Lunar New Years, Moon Festivals, Thanksgivings, Kwanzaas, and Christmases, my dad, aunt, and the rest of my relatives would stare at photos of Nainai. They exclaimed, “Roxana, you look like her!”
Hearing those words always made me flush rose-gold with pride. With a normal passing glance, you wouldn’t have guessed she was my Nainai. She was pale as the moon, with stick-straight black hair. My smooth skin gleamed golden-brown. I grew lush black curls that Mom would spend hours braiding and beading into intricate cornrows. Yet, once you saw me side-by-side with a photo of Nainai, you could tell we had the same phoenix dark eyes, the same button nose, and the same genuine grin.
“I always loved to see her smile,” Yehyeh said, patting my hand. “I always wanted to see her smile again. When you were born, and I saw you smile the same way she does, I got my wish.”
July 23, 2077
UV Index: 4: Wear SPF 15+
Here in the mall, lush green trees and flowers stretched to the sky. The leaves and blooms reached up to the glass dome that let warm sunlight smile down on us. Even through my aloe-infused sunscreen, I could feel the sun’s rays prickle along my skin. Despite the harsh rays, the warmth made me feel happy to be out and about. My cousin, Juliette, who was going to officiate my wedding, clutched a black parasol. She and I chose to come to this mall because our favorite Taiwanese snack shop was close to the bridal boutique. As much as I craved bubble tea and popcorn chicken, I had to exercise patience with trying on digitally-projected gowns first.
“Do you think Yehyeh would ever lend Nainai’s gown to me?” I asked.
Juliette shrugged. “Lots of brides don’t wear actual wedding gowns any more since the production of them is so bad for the environment. Lots of vintage gowns are super outdated anyway.”
We made it to the bridal boutique, Evanescent Iridescence. Even with Juliette’s sleek black hair and fair skin, we both shared Nainai’s heart-shaped face and phoenix eyes in the reflection of the glass windows. When the glass door slid open with the tinkling of bells, an auburn-haired clerk smiled at us. “Welcome! My name’s Sam. Name and appointment time?”
“Roxana Wang, eleven o’clock.”
With a few swipes on a glowing screen that floated above an ivy-laced metal front desk, Sam smiled and led us deeper into the store. Gold-edged mirrors stood against every wall. Holographic gowns glowed upon mannequins of all colors, flooding the boutique with iridescent rainbow-flecked light. “Tell me! How did you meet the lucky man?”
Thinking of Nolan, I smiled and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “We met in an Asian-American race relations class in college. I was double-majoring in Chinese and African-American studies. He was majoring in chemistry and minoring in Korean literature.”
“That’s wonderful! College sweethearts are so rare these days. Used to be a thing of the past! Just like mass-produced gowns. Did you know the last mass-produced bridal gown was created in 2037? That’s like forty years ago!”
I shook my head. No wonder bridezillas with cash to spare will hunt and throw money for good-quality vintage dresses.
“Now it’s all digitally-projected gowns.” Sam beckoned a floating screen depicting a collage of white gowns to rise before me. Almost like book pages, I swiped on the screen, browsing through the catalog. “We scan your body and take your measurements. You can even try on samples of the dress when you go to select your wedding venue. After finalizing your choice, you’ll receive a wristband that stores your data. On the big day, just activate the wristband and poof! Your holographic wedding gown will last twenty-four hours! It’s like Cinderella’s dress that will disappear at midnight!”
After changing into a white slip, I browsed the selections before pointing at a mermaid gown, sleek to show off my curves before flaring into tiers of white lace. A plunging neckline edged with rhinestones screamed extravagant trendiness. If I was going to try on different gowns, why not go all out?
When I stepped upon the white platform before a wall of mirrors, gentle rainbow light scanned my body. Then, the gown appeared upon me.
I couldn’t feel the projected gown at all. At least, not in the sense where I could feel the weight of fabric from real clothes. A warm tingling sensation from the scintillating light surrounded me. It felt light as air. I gazed into the mirror, turning this way and that, admiring how the dress flattered my curves. Even so, I tried to think about how I might view this dress as an old lady looking back upon my wedding pictures and videos. I didn’t want to think, “Praise the sun, what was I thinking?”
I tried on at least twenty dresses. But even as Juliette crooned over how pretty I looked, a sinking feeling in my stomach told me none of these were the right match for me. None were as perfect as Nainai’s wedding dress.
August 14, 2077
UV Index: 7: Wear SPF 30+, avoid sun if possible
Yehyeh’s glass tower, with vines, roses, and peonies growing up along it, always made me think of Rapunzel’s tower. Instead of entering through a window, a glass door scanned and sprayed us with lavender-scented disinfectant upon stepping into the foyer. Then, we would step into a glass elevator that took me and my parents straight up to Yehyeh.
The glass elevator presented a view of the city, overlooking the tall, gleaming buildings that had been built over the past fifty years to better utilize vertical space. Vegetable gardens and flowers grew upon rooftops. Solar panels powered homes. We were blessed with clean air and bright California sunshine year-round. Although people came a long way to utilize solar power for renewable energy and decrease pollution, the ozone layer had a lot of catching up to do. All windows were tinted and UV-protected. It was safer to stay inside. If we had to go out, we had to slather ourselves with sunscreen and carry parasols.
Yehyeh, as usual, hugged Dad, Mom, and me upon arrival. “Too bad the rest of the grandchildren couldn’t join,” he remarked, since my brother now lived in New York and my sister worked abroad in Ethiopia.
After finishing steamed chicken and cornbread baked with chopped chili-infused Chinese sausages and green scallions, I sat next to Yehyeh on the living room sofa.
“Yehyeh.” I met his eyes, which had greyed with old age. “I’m getting married and dresses aren’t made anymore these days. If brides want a gown, they either have to buy them for a ridiculous amount of money, or they have to wear holographic wedding dresses. With your permission, may I wear Nainai’s wedding dress?”
The air hung still. I saw Yehyeh’s reflection in the wedding gown’s shadowbox glass.
He took a deep breath. “No.”
My eyes widened. I wanted to ask, “Why not?” But I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t have to. We both stared at Nainai’s gown. In our reflection on the shadowbox glass, he could see the bewilderment on my face.
“I can’t bear to part with the gown,” he explained. “It was hers, made with her own two hands. It makes me feel as though she’s still here with me. I’m sorry, but I cannot part with her wedding gown.”
A lump bobbed in my throat. I understood though, and nodded. My secret dream of trying Nainai’s gown since I was a little girl evaporated.
September 7, 2077
UV Index: 3: Wear SPF 15+
Family accompanied Nolan and me when we visited the garden where the wedding would be held. Even Mom and Dad got Yehyeh to tag along, since he needed a walk. The garden was a perfect and scenic place to do so. Once there, we walked to the spot where Nolan and I would exchange vows before a roaring waterfall, surrounded by flowers that bloomed all around us in myriads of the rainbow under the sunlight. At night, for the dinner reception, the rose-shaped solar powered lamps would glow all around us. It was perfect.
As part of the consultation with Evanescent Iridescence, for an extra fee, I rented a wristband to project my shortlisted dress designs on me so that I could make sure my final choice would pair with the venue. I pressed a button on the wristband, trying the different designs I had warmed up to.
“Nolan!” I smiled at my fiance. I didn’t mind him seeing me in these shortlisted options before the wedding. Besides, once I had my hair and makeup done, the dress would look different. “Do you have one that you like?”
I swiped through the different options: a mermaid gown, a full ball gown, a sleek simple sheath, and a blinged rhinestone frock that looked like stars twinkling against my skin. I twirled around in each one. It didn’t feel the same as wearing an actual dress. I could barely feel them. Even though the skirts twirled all around my legs, I only felt air. None of the actual feeling of fabric swishing against my skin, of lace kissing my fingers and feet.
“That’s hard to say. They’re all beautiful on you.” Nolan tilted his head with a grin. “What can I say, you make anything look beautiful.”
I laughed, and planted a kiss on his cheek.
Yehyeh sighed. “All these dresses! None of them real. Not like back in my day, when brides wore wedding gowns.”
I smiled sheepishly. “Well, I could wear Nainai’s gown.”
Yehyeh stayed silent.
October 1, 2077
UV Index: 8: Wear SPF 30+, Avoid Sun if Possible
Even though today was the Mid-Autumn Festival, the California heat made the day feel like a scorching summer. My heart jumped when Dad called me.
“Your grandpa fainted! Please hurry and pick up some extra water at the market.”
Once I made it to Yehyeh’s tower, there he was, lying on a couch, surrounded by my parents, my aunt, uncle, and Juliette. Even though his voice was raspy, he could still smile and speak of the sunny side of his fainting scare. “Today would have been my wedding anniversary. She may not be here to celebrate it with me, but she would be so happy to see you all here with me.”
Someone streamed and projected Yehyeh and Nainai’s wedding from 2025 on a floating screen. As we watched, we sliced mooncakes, both with egg yolks and without. As much as I wanted to devour a whole mooncake for myself, savor the sweet lotus paste and the savory golden yolk in the center, I politely took a slice.
When no one was looking, Yehyeh tucked a whole mooncake into my palm. It still sat within its wrapper. He winked. “Take it. I know how much you love them.”
As I savored it, swallowing the egg yolk like a golden heart, Yehyeh patted my hand. “You know, your Nainai certainly thought ahead of her time. Many brides today waste so much money on a gown that was worn by a total stranger. I’ve had strangers approach me, wanting to buy her dress for millions. But I said no. You know why?”
“Family is more important than money. Remember that when you marry Nolan. Even after the wedding is over, and all the food has been eaten, all the dancing done, and the digital dress forgotten about, your love and commitment to your husband is what will remain with you for the rest of your life.” He put a hand on my shoulder. “I see a lot of her in you.”
May 13, 2078
UV Index: 11: Avoid Sun at All Costs
The tears slipping down my face cooled my skin. The weather forecast said that it was too dangerous to step outside today. Without sunscreen and any sort of protective clothing, someone like Juliette would burn to a crisp in three minutes. For me, I could burn in as little as ten minutes. Tomorrow, when my wedding was supposed to take place, would still be too dangerous. Everything had to be indefinitely postponed.
As upset as I was, Nolan, Mom, and Dad had their arms around me. As Dad dabbed my tears with a tissue like he did when I fell off a bike as a kid, he said, “Your Yehyeh said that since the wedding won’t happen as planned tomorrow, he’d be happy if we all went to his place tonight after sundown. We can spend the night celebrating what would have been. It may not be as grand as the garden, but we all still want to celebrate.”
“But we don’t have anything!” I sniffed. “Everything was canceled! The flowers, the food, the dress!”
Nolan squeezed my hand. “Roxana, we’ll get through this. We’re already legally married after all. Wedding or no wedding, our vows will be the most important thing. I’m sure that’s what your grandpa feels for your grandma, and wants for us.”
I looked into Nolan’s dark eyes, which shone like polished amber. With a kiss, I knew he was right. No matter what, I still had him. Like Yehyeh said, my love and commitment to him is what will remain for the rest of our lives.
At Yehyeh’s home, we were greeted by a medley of dim sum and soul food. Fried chicken, collard greens, sweet potato pie, roasted duck, and red bean soup filled my stomach and soul. After eating, with the moon shining down on us, Yehyeh smiled at me and asked, “Would you like to try on your Nainai’s wedding gown?”
My jaw dropped. “Are you really asking me?”
“What made you change your mind?”
“I know I couldn’t bear to part with the dress, to have it leave home. But now that you’re here with us all, together with family, I think Nainai would have loved to see you in her dress.” He squeezed my hands.
Dad and my uncle carefully lowered the shadowbox. In my hands, the years of love and legacy whispered to me, as if my grandmother’s blessing spoke through all the stitches coursing through the fabrics and ribbons. When I tried it on, the crisp satin and lace hugged me, as good as new as when my grandmother wore it. The ribbons that Mom laced on the back for me helped the dress hug my curves. The full skirt flared out from my hips. It was perfect, as if Nainai knew she would one day have a granddaughter who would wear her gown.
After Nolan told me how beautiful I looked and kissed me, Yehyeh said, “She lives on in you. You shine just like she did in this dress. Your smile is just like hers.”
My heart full of love and gratitude, I wrapped my arms around my grandfather. “Xiexie, Yehyeh.”
Jo Wu (she/her) was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she studied Biology and Creative Writing at UC Berkeley. Her works explore fairy tales, Chinese and Taiwanese mythology and identity, and uplifting narratives in dark worlds. Some of her notable works have been published in Uncanny Magazine, Insignia 2020: Best Asian Fantasy Stories, and People of Color Destroy Lovecraft. When she is not writing, she is likely sewing her next costume, deadlifting her next powerlifting goal, or auditioning for voiceover roles.