Laura McCullough: Grace & Good Will

Excerpt, The Belt of Venus, a memoir

On the way home, I stop in the Good Will store in New Brunswick which I have passed going and coming for a couple of weeks while my father has been in the hospital. He is doing better and will soon be released to subacute care; things are looking up; the tension is easing. I can take a few minutes and browse the racks, look for a deal, something wonderful even. I have been thinking about yellow lately, a color I rarely wear. Yellow and black would be great.

Inside, I orient myself as every thrift store is different. In fact, I have come to be fairly discriminating in my off-the-grid shopping. I don’t favor high end consignment shops where the owners and patrons alike tend to be snooty, even snotty. Recently, one of my favorite hospital-related thrifts put a sign up announcing they were “going couture!”

Just as the word “champagne” is specific to sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France, Haute Coutere has a specific meaning, referring to less than a score of French fashion design houses, members or affiliates of the Chambre Syndicate de la Haute Couture, yet just as champagne has been co-opted to mean all bubbly, and just as xeroxing became synonymous with copying, couture has come to mean all high end clothing. Couture refers to the really expensive clothing, not off the rack, but custom fit for the kinds of customers for whom clothing is a real and serious budget line.

I like my thrift stores a bit grungy, though not dirty, but I want a sense of the hunt, a sense of humanity, and I want it cheap, and I want to know I am reusing something, giving something a second (or third or fourth) life. On the one hand, I want the basic items I need for the family, the jeans and sneakers, t-shirts and coats without the cost, and, on the other hand, I want a sense of costume and uniqueness, and I want to pair things together that don’t seem to go, creating dissonance and tension in an outfit. A terrific designer who epitomizes this aesthetic, though I can’t afford anything he makes, is Dries Van Noten who can put together several patterns in the same outfit, even the same article of clothing, the golden thread of the ensemble – sometimes color, sometimes a texture or a reprising fabric or motif – making it work. Stores that are only about labels or high end clothes make me anxious, and stores run by women who act as if they’re doing you some kind of favor piss me off. Here is what I want, and my local ARC is a great example: clean and with a sense of organization, but with no posing. It’s a store that knows it’s taking things people have cast off and funneling it to people who need these items or want them, but don’t have (much) disposable cash. The people who work there are people who actually need jobs, and if I come in regularly, I can get to know them and them me. There will be a half price day. There will be a sense of reasonableness.

Today in the Good Will, however, blowing off steam, I stand there getting a sense of the set up, the vibe. I look at some prices. $7.99 for most of the shirts! It makes me want to walk out, but this is an addiction, too, something in my brain smoothing out as I walk among the racks, taking in the colors and textures, mingling with the people.

I go to the shoe section. Not a good one, but I look. I’ve been on the look out for a small sized rockabilly men’s loafer. No go here today. But a woman in front of me is closing a box and putting it back on the shelf. She eyes me up and down.

I note the tension in her gaze, a product of shopping. Imagine women eying each other like competitors, walking down the aisles, running hands through the hangers, barely holding back their disdain for a women they run in to who has had the audacity to interrupt her flow, her right to the merchandise first, not only not exchanging pleasantries, but being aggressive and territorial. Until you have stood within 36 inches of a woman who has her eye on a particular clothing item and felt the heat, the primordial need and expectation of conquest rolling off her in waves like pheromones, you simply won’t understand. Think the front line of a football team, the offense. Think the stink that comes off those male bodies after they’ve been competing in the heat and muck for a ball. Then color that whole picture pink. It can get like that. Only quiet.

Except sometimes there are sweet moments. Like today. I am eyeing the shoes, considering if anything is worth closer inspection, and this woman is eyeing me. She is black, but her hair is chin length, curly, and red. She says, “You like gold boots?”

Not certain what exactly she has asked, I don’t say excuse me, as I instinctively know this phrase can be misinterpreted, I just say, what?

She nods her chin toward the box she had returned. “Gold boots. Size 8 and a half.” She grins. “I’m betting that’s your size. Me, too, but,” she lets go of her grip on her cart and touches her hips, “my knees can’t handle my weight no more.” She takes hold of her cart again and begins moving past me. She knows etiquette, boundaries. Can’t talk too long, or it indicates a breach. As she goes by, I kneel to gather the box in my arms. “Huh, huh,” she says, “I thought maybe you’d like gold boots.” She reaches one hand to fluff her curls. “We have the hair.”

How can I resist this? I open the box, and yes, these are a find, a fabulous and muted pair of gold ankle boots. “Yes,” I affirm, “These are great.” They are six dollars. I tell the woman I will buy them, and I can feel the delight transferring between us. She’s done me a good turn and feels happy about it. I will pay six bucks for a great pair of ankle boots, and is that too much to pay for a bit of shared humanity?

She heads off and joins a friend.

There, on my knees though, I am rethinking things. Six bucks isn’t a lot, but will I ever wear gold ankle boots? Yes, they are terrific and in perfect shape and my knees can take my weight just fine these days. And she was being a thrift store sister, and we both have red hair. Isn’t this fate? Except what I really need today is the pair of good winter boots just a few feet away in my daughter’s size. And, well, I’m not poor, but I am in a thrift store precisely (but not only) to be thrifty, so I put the gold boots back in the box and on the shelf, and figure what I really get to take home is the warm and fuzzies the woman and I exchanged, and I take the boots for my daughter, place them in my cart, and then go looking for a Halloween costume for my son, and maybe a shirt for my husband, except then I am stuck.

The woman has not finished her shopping, and in fact is still roaming the store, and when she sees me, our eyes meeting across the top of a rack, she smiles as if we have a secret. Now I must be conscious of where she is at all times and try not to make eye contact again because I don’t want to get into another conversation or meet her in the same aisle as she will look down into my cart and notice I have not taken the boots after all, and she will think I was playing her, and what we shared will be ruined.

So I have to walk around the edges of the store, trying to avoid her, and now I am counting the minutes until she leaves because I have accumulated my limit of purchases, twenty bucks, and don’t want to be tempted to buy more. Which I will if I don’t get to leave soon. I paw through a bin of tights. For a moment, I consider buying a fondue set (wouldn’t the kids just love it!). The telescope has Rudy’s name all over it. Oh my god, a complete and unopened box of Kinex, the Ferris wheel set, for only 4.99. In the cart it goes.

She is gone, and yes, I wheel my ass up to the front counter as quick as I can.

Behind the counter is a young woman, Asian, most likely Korean from her bone structure. There is one person ahead of me, and I watch as the girl folds the clothes for that customer with great precision. In a moment, I realize her precision is not exactly that.

She is wearing a jeans jacket over a t-shirt. It is close fitting, but the right arm is quite snug, and I notice the elbow is at a slightly odd angle and is very stiff, nearly unbending, and that the wrist is at an even stranger angle. Her cuff is drawn so low, neither her hand nor fingers are visible. Her left is, and it is clear this is the hand she uses most, picking up a shirt, whipping it out just so, then making it lay against her body, gently pushing and leaning, so the right arm is maneuvered in just a certain way that the right hand, with its not visible fingers, can grasp an edge, and so on. She does a terrific job, but it is clear that arm doesn’t work the same as the other, and it is also clear that the hand, because of the way she has covered it, must not be formed normally.

Only this week, my daughter, Asian and born in Taiwan, has asked about her own hand, the left one, and that arm, why the left is different from the right, why that hand doesn’t quite work as it should, how it bothers her. She is learning to compensate for what it can not do, but that has largely been unconscious; now it is becoming something she is aware of, and she knows it is different.

What she has is called hemihypertrophy and a partial syndactly meaning that her left arm and hand are about 25% bigger, though not longer, than those of the right side, and that the left hand has partial fusion and webbing. The palm of the left hand is quite large, with wrinkles on the sides and strange life lines across it. The index finger was bent nearly horizontally across the palm, and, even after surgery to cut the webbing and tighten the tendons of the index finger, it still hangs sideways, and she has trouble with pinching or using it at all.

I love this hand, and often will hold it with the fingers open and look into the meat of her palm which is substantial, and I cover its surface with kisses, which she locks into a fist and holds it to her heart. This will not last, of course, and I have always known she would become self-conscious about it, and that has now begun.

When my turn comes on line, I look around to see if anyone is behind me. There isn’t, and I want to connect with this girl, but afraid of being rude, of calling attention to something she clearly can not hide, yet has taken some pains to cover. I know what it is liked to be asked rude questions by strangers. My two adopted Asian children have drawn many comments from people. Some of the comments and conversations have been warm and wonderful; others have been silly; a fair number have been intrusive, needlessly unkind. This makes me very uncertain if I should speak to this girl. But isn’t ignoring someone’s reality, the wholeness of their being solely because it is different, wrong, somehow, as well?

“Hello,” I say, “I hope you will not think this rude, but I can’t help noticing how well you work with your physicality, the care you take, and how well you have compensated.” She looks at me, and I am ready for anything from a snorted duh! To a cold eye, but she, perhaps, has heard the care with which I am trying to choose my words, as inept as they are. “My daughter has an arm that is different, too, though she is much younger than you and just becoming aware of it, learning how to work with it.”

“Oh,” says the girl, “thanks for saying that. I appreciate it.” She asks how old my daughter is, and I tell her she is seven. “Was she born that way,” she asks. I tell her yes. “Me, too,” she says.

“Do you have any advice,” I ask.

She shrugs. “Naw. You just learn to deal with it.”

I love this answer, but it’s simplicity disarms me. Now I say something dumb, and the fact that it is true doesn’t make it any less so a stupid thing to say to this girl. “I tell my daughter it is beautiful.”

The girl looks at me quizzically, and I realize my mistake. Except for a certain type of young woman, most notably and stereotypically white, blue eyed, with blonde straight hair, most young women don’t feel very beautiful. In fact, this young Asian girl with a physical abnormality, black rimmed glasses, a bit of acne, and one buck tooth as I notice now, as it rests on her lower lip, probably has her fair share of self-loathing. I know what that feels like, and I am sorry to sound as if I am full of shit.

My mind goes to something that has mattered to me. Edmund Wilson’s “Wound and the Bow.” Since the girl is not quite done ringing me up, I risk this; what can it hurt? “There was a philosopher in the last century who believed that your fate, the trajectory of your life, your beauty even was the arrow shot from the great wound of your life, and that we all have one. Some of us just have wounds you can see.”

She has stopped now to listen to my little monologue.

“That’s really something,” she says, “that’s really something to think about.”

She is not mocking, and her sincerity makes my face hot. This is what is beautiful, I want to say, but don’t, that people can see something amazing in each other. This is grace.

When I leave the Good Will, I would like to say I am satisfied, but I am not. Shopping, like conversations with strangers, is a transient pleasure as is grace When I get home, my daughter is thrilled about the boots. Exactly what she has imagined, she says, just what she wanted, though she has not wanted them nor imagined them, I don’t think. As she pulls them on, tucking her jeans in, I look at her hand. I can’t help it, it looks beautiful to me somehow, its extra meat, the angle of the fingers. I can’t imagine her without this difference somehow, though I know her life might be a little easier if it were normal.

Maybe if we are lucky, every time we are wounded another arrow of possibility is shot into our futures.

And every time I claim, or reclaim if you will, a shirt or a dress that someone else wore before me, I feel as if I am drawing a little of some stranger onto my back, not as something to carry, but as something that helps me go on.

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