Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Trip to the Discount Store

This girl isn’t afraid of discounts.

I grew up in hand-me-downs, spent my college work-study checks at thrift stores and still make a monthly trip to Wal-Mart for “the necessities.” (I go before six a.m. – there’s less chance of being accosted by toothless panhandlers my own age in the parking lot or by the swarms of unattended, sticky-faced children who roam the aisles.)

On Saturday, I went to another discount store, one I’d only been to once before, a few years ago. I remembered the experience wasn’t exactly pleasant, but I was fuzzy on the particulars. In any case, I was now in search of the same item I’d bought then – a new pillow. The store was basically the same as I remembered – racks upon racks of flimsy clothes made from stretchy synthetic fabric, rows of shoes that looked cute but wouldn’t survive more than a single wear. I made a beeline for the back of the store – home d├ęcor.

I’m sort of particular about pillows. My neck needs support – not too firm, not too soft. I love a down pillow, although not necessarily the accompanying sneezes. It’s an awkward thing to try out a pillow in a store – especially when there’s no bed, and thus no way to exactly replicate the experience. I was left to lean my head into the shelves – which was not, I reflected, entirely unlike sticking one’s head in an oven.

Well. I found a pillow I liked, and so immediately grabbed a second one, entirely voiding the purpose of seeking a discount. But Will would like this, too, and even if Baxter had only thrown up on one of our pillows, at some point we would need another.

On the way up to the register – the line, I recognized with a sick feeling, had wound its way halfway through the store – I passed a display of area rugs. Hmm. We do need a new rug at our entryway. The braided rattan rug I loved at the time has sadly proved impossible to clean. This rug, a plush shag that the cats would love to dig their claws into, was only $14.99 and the sort of beige that would hide human and dog footprints. Why not?

And then, I faced the line. Clutching two pillows under one arm and sort of inching the rug forward with my free hand, I waited with a few dozen other Modestans who love a good bargain. Each transaction at the register (only two were open… why? WHY??) took a mini-eternity. I realized that half the population of my line was already clutching a bag; apparently, they were previous dissatisfied customers. I eyed the pillows carefully, considering. But they had felt so good on my neck, at least for the twenty seconds I stood with my head angled into the shelf.

At this point the women in front of me caught my attention. They were a family of four very large people, and they were arguing volubly about the cost of their potential purchases.

“I need these pants,” one of the women said, and – I couldn’t make this up if I tried – held up a stretchy pair of navy blue leggings printed with pink heart-shaped peace signs. There were approximately 600 peace signs on this pair of pants. If she had scratched at one of them with her two-inch acrylic fingernail, I bet the decal would have flaked right off. We’re talking quality product here.

“You’re already getting the balloon pants,” another woman pointed out. Balloon pants? I leaned forward, curious. There was indeed a pair of leggings emblazoned with rainbow-colored balloons nesting in the shopping cart.

“I need those, too!”

I was trying to figure out why in the world anyone would need either the peace-sign or the balloon leggings, let alone both (Tryouts for the circus?), when suddenly the experience I’d been blocking out for the last twenty minutes came rushing back into my head.

I remembered my previous trip to this discount store.

It was three years ago, summer,one of those hellishly hot days when you escape the heat of the parking lot for the chill of air conditioning and feel momentarily sick and disoriented. The store had just opened; curious, I decided to give it a walk-through. I was wearing a pair of flip-flops, my warm-weather uniform, and I had only taken a step inside the store when I slipped. Talk about a slip. It was kind of like being on a Slip-and-Slide (that dangerous, lawn-killing piece of plastic that rarely made an appearance in my childhood), only I was sliding past a row of shopping carts, a laughing security guard and a dozen people waiting in line for the register, all while toting a massive shoulder bag. I eventually caught myself on a display case, which because this is real life and not a movie, did not topple dramatically. It seemed like the whole store was holding its breath during my performance, and when I finally righted myself, straightening my shoulders, they let out a collective sigh. A long, wet, flip-flop shaped streak stretched across the floor behind me.

“Are you hurt?” the security guard said. He tried to cover his smile with a look of concern.

“Only my pride,” I said, laughing it off. I’m sure I was all shades of red, and would have loved to turn and walk right back out (this time avoiding the puddle of mystery moisture), but that felt like admitting defeat. Instead, I wandered the store, and found in the back a very lovely pillow for only $5.99.

On Saturday, I lugged my purchases inside and displayed them for Will.

He admired the pillows, but looked curiously at the rug. “Uh-oh.”

“Oh. Whoops,” I said. The dimensions were entirely wrong. Somehow I had vastly underestimated the size of my own entryway.

So, I guess I’ll have to return it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Humiliations Galore

Will and I like to play a certain game when we’re out in public – restaurants, bookstores, theatres. It has no official title, but here’s the gist of it: we get points whenever someone recognizes us. At the end of the night, the person with the fewest points wins.

This game was my brainchild, forged during an anniversary dinner where no less than four people (coaches, parents, athletes) stood at the side of our table and chatted up Will, for an average of five minutes each. At the end of the night, I commented bitterly, “Will: 4, Paula: 0.” Then I put in a formal request for eating meals out of his jurisdiction.

My husband, for seventeen years, was a journalist at a daily paper with a circulation of around 90,000, give or take. For the last dozen years or so, he was on the high school sports beat, which put him in regular contact with the coaches, parents and athletes at about fifty-five high schools, not to mention potentially thousands of other readers who read his daily articles and weekly columns. In 2000, we decided to escape California for a European vacation. With Dad D. and Heather as my witnesses, we were in a hotel lobby in San Francisco when I said, “The best thing about this vacation is that for a month we’re not going to see anyone we know.” And then the elevator door opened and a husky guy (wrestling coach, I later learned) stepped out and said, “Will!”

Fast forward a decade.

Will and I were at P. Wexford’s Tuesday night, well into our second pints of Guinness and a punishing trivia loss, when I leaned across the booth. “Do those people at the next table look familiar?” I’d been watching them out of the corner of my eye for a half pint now; I was sure I knew the man from somewhere, and the woman had a friendly, could-be-familiar face.

Will squinted in their direction. “Yeah, but I don’t know from where.”

We continued to answer trivia questions wrong. Apparently we should have brushed up on our Puxatony Phil knowledge, and one of these days I need to memorize birthstones by month.

And then suddenly, the man leaned over. “Will! I don’t know if you remember me… Steve Garfield*.” (*Name has been changed to protect my fragile ego.)

Ahhh, shit. Suddenly, it all came back to me.

A while back, I interviewed for a part-time English teaching job at a local high school. This man was the vice principal; he led the interview. To tell the truth, it was the salary I craved, not the job. Right now I’m substitute teaching and finishing my thesis… I can’t imagine what life would be like were I to bring home a few hundred essays a week to boot. But at the time, I was completely committed. I wore a suit, sharp heels, carried my most expensive purse. I fielded questions like a pro. I rattled off my accomplishments as if they were nothing – six years of yearbook, four years as department chair. I have a cleared credential. I am CLAD certified. And then… I didn’t get the job. Actually, I didn’t even get a phone call saying I didn’t get the job, I had to call them.

“Look, I probably didn’t get the job,” I said by phone after four days. Steve had mentioned that a decision would be made within two or three days. “And that’s fine. I just figured if I did get the job, I needed to start planning right away. That’s just how I work.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “We can’t divulge the status of employment applications. That’s an issue for the HR department.”

“I’m not going to come down there with a gun or anything,” I said. “I just want to know.” After all, I’d waited for an hour for my appointment (English teachers do love the sounds of their own voices), then interviewed for another forty-five minutes. An hour and forty-five minutes of my life, and I wasn’t entitled to a quick “yes” or “no” by phone?

Tonight, at Wexford’s, I suddenly prayed hard for invisibility. I was wearing jeans, flats, sparkly lip gloss. Maybe I wouldn’t be recognized?

“Oh, and I remember you,” Steve Garfield said, nodding at me. “Paula interviewed for an English position,” he announced to his companion, to Will, to the world at large.

I smiled back, took a drink. “Yes – hello.”

He made small talk with Will. I checked my cell phone, pretending I had a busy social life.

And then, inexplicably, the conversation came back to me. “You were really good in that interview,” Steve Garfield said. “You know, I think we interviewed” – don’t say it, please – “about a dozen people that day. Very competitive.”

I smiled. Will paid the bill.

“Nice to see you again,” Will and I said in chorus, standing. We shook hands all around.

“Keep us in mind, Paula, if you’re ever looking for a job,” he said.

I smiled again, held in my words until we were outside, out of earshot. And then I let them fly. Keep us in mind???

But on the way home, we laughed. Will pointed out that there could be one person on earth that you just don’t want to see, and sure enough, when you turn a corner, there he is. Why is that, exactly? Why doesn’t the universe serve up a dose of a long-lost childhood friend or a college roommate now living half a country away, someone who could cheer me up or remind me that I’m not such a bad person after all?

We left with a tied score tonight. The me from a few months back would still be burning with humiliation as I type these words. But the me from today shucks it off her back. I’m a writer now, after all.