I found the sweater at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet, high up in the Himalayas. We’d arrived in the Indian village of Leh after three months in the southern subcontinent. My father had always described Delhi to me as hot enough to cook an egg on the street, but the temperature had plummeted nearly one hundred degrees as we’d flown north.
I don’t even remember first picking it up, or the nominal amount of rupees I likely paid, but the shift was instant; I wore it everyday. I imagined the sweater arriving at this secondhand market as the cast-off of some Italian on a trekking holiday. The lines of the crewneck offered a comforting silhouette, a “boyfriend fit” that surrounded me in a way I hadn’t been held in a long time, now more familiar with the shalwar and kurta that pillowed over my growing body.
In India, I seldom encountered mirrors, and met them with an uncomfortable foreignness, instead of the usual tweezer-in-hand fascination. My appearance drew relentless attention and at the same time, had been entirely released from my control. A weekly hair wash –in a plastic bucket—replaced my once-daily blow-dry and straighten. My normal athletic regimen fell away in a city where I didn’t feel safe walking alone. Indian food was rich, bold, and incredible, surpassing all memory of the pale imitations my father had cooked us growing up. My body felt as unfamiliar to me as my new morning routine of coating it in a mysterious powder that promised to fight an allergic reaction to my own sweat.
I pulled the sweater over all of this during my final month in the country, finally comfortable in this small and chilled mountainous settlement. Moth-eaten holes peppered the shoulder seams and a gaping hole tore through the very center. The sweater came with a perfect tear for my right thumb. The left, I’d rip soon enough.
On the way home, I wore it through London over my loose Indian cottons, as my body acclimated to the damp fog and western standards. I horrified my parents by hiding under this sweater as we ventured to the likes of the Royal Opera House and St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
Back at school, I paired the sweater with long, unkempt curls and colorful wooden beads that I hoped alluded to my semester abroad. I passed the late hours of each night hidden away in my studio. Uniformed with black leggings and old sneakers, I’d use the soft cuffs to blend charcoal and wipe away stray paint. I’d leave the studio only to burrow my chin in the collar as I aimlessly circled the campus in a state of resigned insomnia, waiting for the sun to rise.
The sweater stayed home after college, when I moved on. This past Christmas, I finally packed it off to my apartment in New York. I’m still seeing the boy, now a man, who used to accompany me on those late night loops of campus. He teases the neckline and me for bringing it back, but soon his fingers wind through the middle hole, grazing the familiar topography of my sternum. He tells me I remind him of a koala bear, the way I cling to his chest in sleep, nestling us in my grey sweater.
I’ve searched for an intact replacement, all the while wearing it like a second skin, snuck under coats and scarves that cover the holes—a secret that makes neighborhood errands feel daring. I picture the loose fit, the perfect scoop of the collar. I picture becoming the kind of woman who lives with the abandon necessary to punch thumbholes through a pristine cashmere crewneck.
Maia works for a boutique architecture firm in Manhattan.