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The best T-shirt I ever slept in was a men’s white Hanes undershirt, size medium, rendered soft and smaller around the torso by so many washings. The neck was loose from having been yanked thoughtlessly over the head, the way I’d never do with a shirt of my own. I only got to sleep in it once — my junior year of college, spring break, borrowed from one of the boys’ tennis team members because I slept in his room instead of mine. The setting was less sexy than it sounds: There were four players per room, and my doubles’ partner was there too, sleeping between me and the boy I had a crush on.
But when I sprinted back to my room at dawn wearing his T-shirt, you’d have known it wasn’t mine. That’s what made it look — and feel — so good on me. That’s what made it so sad to have to return it, on the sly, after the boys’ team match later that day. No T-shirt I’ve ever bought to sleep in has come close, and I think I know why: The best pajamas are somebody else’s.
Please note that “somebody else’s pajamas” are not the same thing as “pajamas from somebody else.” Pajamas as a gift are lovely (thank you, Mom), but that’s not what I’m referring to. Nothing brand-new can compete with something old, and nothing that belongs to you can compare to something borrowed. When I was a senior in high school and very tentatively exploring the concept of rule-breaking, I would sleep over at my best friend Emily’s house when I drank even one drop of alcohol. I would clear a sleepover with my parents ahead of time, just in case, but I wouldn’t pack for one, because most of the time, I ended up sober and driving myself home.
When I did drink — three-quarters of a Bartles & Jaymes; a half-shot of rum sunk to the bottom of a bottle of Sprite — I’d go home with Emily, waiting in the hallway while she tiptoed to her bedroom to grab pajamas for both of us. It was always dark, and her room was always a mess, so it was a crapshoot: leftover bright blue gym shorts from our middle school, free T-shirts from marathons other people ran. In my own throwaway PJ rags I felt disheveled and sloppy, but in my best friend’s, I felt glamorous, spontaneous. I have never been someone who is easily convinced to abandon her plans or her principles; finding myself in someone else’s clothing in a bed (or on a couch) that isn’t mine is the surest proof I’ve had that even I am capable of surprising myself.
Other people’s pajamas are soft in a way yours will never be. They have been washed in laundry detergent you’ll never be able to find at the store. They have absorbed all the better parts of their owner’s natural scent. Their stains and holes seem artistically placed. They are dug from the bottoms of dresser drawers, making them slightly cool to the touch, as if they were brought in from a balcony overlooking the ocean in early November. Wearing someone else’s pajamas signifies an unexpected turn of events; they’re your reward for choosing chance over comfort. They probably mean more to you than they do to their owners, but you should never take them home with you. That would ruin the magic.