Last week I stopped by a department store to exchange a pair of shorts my boyfriend had gotten for his birthday. He was studying, and I had nothing to do in the few short hours before bedtime, so I took my time and wandered about the store. Last time I was at that particular store I'd found a $60 pair of pants for him marked down to $6, a bargain even if he never wears them. I was hoping to find a duplicate of a short-sleeved sweater that I'd purchased at the beginning of the summer, back when I was still working and had treated myself to a new summer wardrobe. I've worn that sweater several times a week, and was hoping for a spectacular markdown that could help me justify spending a little money on myself.
The week before I'd found a pair of grey dress trousers for $3.50 and a $4.00 pair of black flats at the Goodwill, both good for any interviews I might get in the future. I hesitated slightly before trying on the shoes. I'd never bought shoes at a thrift store before. I rarely shopped at thrift stores since getting out of high school, back when it was an exciting excursion rather than a budget-conscious shopping choice. They were perfect on me though, and the bottoms of the soles, upon further examination, hardly looked new. Serviceable, comfortable, nearly new, and only $4.00. I got the shoes. I left the Goodwill store energized, pleased that I could find nice things and delight in a simple pleasure. These days, I've been trying to cultivate simple, low-cost pleasures. My new shoes were a triumph in fact, the best possible way I could have possibly spent that $4.00. Infinitely more satisfying and practical than blowing it on a frozen white mocha. I could get a quart of Edy's cookie dough ice cream on sale for less than $4.00 if I really wanted a treat, doling out that pleasure in a the evenings over a week or two.
I was not finding any spectacular bargins at the department store on this Sunday evening. I did find two pairs of adorable flats that were on sale, but still too expensive. My $4.00 flats seemed suddenly less satisfying; they were black and boring and obviously out-of-style compared to the cute, round-toed black and silver plaid flats I was trying on. Sighing, I left the shoe department, heading over to the women's clothing. The clearance racks were nearly empty, and no cute short-sleeved sweater was in sight. I tried on a few dresses that were 50% off -- still $24 each, but both so cute and work appropriate. Well, appropriate for whatever my new job would be. The job I was laid off from was a wardrobe disaster -- I frequently had to wear an electric blue tee shirt that matched nothing with our logo on the front. Most often, I wore it with a sweater or hoodie to downplay the bold color that only seemed to go with jeans. My new job would help me break out of the old uniform. I'd get fun flats and stylish dresses. I tried on pants, jackets, blouses, and skirts. I found the perfect black shrug that could be layered with anything -- over a dress or blouse or even dressing up a knit top. Glancing at the price tag, I put it back on the rack. $38 for a piece of stretchy cotton? I could feel my jaw tighten and my lips purse. God, I wanted it. I wanted it all. Everything I tried on today had miraculously fit. It looked good. Most of it was even on sale. I felt a keen ache deep inside my belly. I wanted to take it all and charge it on my store credit card, sliding the plastic and signing my name. I'd worry about it next month when the bill came. Hell, maybe I'd have a job before the statement even showed up in the mail. I should think positive. I should dress for success and put the crappy cotton tee shirts of my under-employed years behind me. I should at least get the perfect black shrug. I could use the credit slip from the shorts I'd returned and it would only cost me $17. I could call my mom and tell her about it; hope she'd stop by her branch and buy it for me. It was the last one in my size; I could hide it in a different department and come back next week. I could buy it now and return it later, keep it in the closet as an incentive to stay positive. A reward for a future good deed. A tonic against the anger that was swelling in my chest. I'd buy it now and return it when the anger fermented into guilt and worry. All of the sudden, the air in the dressing room seemed thick and stale. I felt sweat prickly at the back of my neck. My fingers clenched and my jaw trembled as I pulled off the the perfect black shrug and slipped my black flat on. I left it all there in the dressing room, unevenly drooping from the hangers.
As I drove home, I felt the flush of shame staining my cheeks. I turned up the air conditioning in the car, the car that my parents lent me. I have so much already, I have everything that I need. I will not go hungry, I will not become homeless. I have clothes, and shoes, and credit cards, and a family who supports me. I have so much. And still, I'm aware of the deep twisting ache inside me, the urge to take, to consume, to covet, to collect, to have, to exceed my needs, to swallow it all up.