A woman I know once told me that when she was young, lonely, and broke, she would venture out to the nearest box store—a K-Mart, perhaps, in those days—take a cart from the dispenser by the front door, and wander each aisle after aisle, filling the metal basket with anything and everything that caught her fancy. Dishes, housewares, games, toys, art supplies, dresses, jewelry bedding, candy, whatever. Sometimes by the time she reached the far edge of the store she would have filled more than one, and as such, would have to navigate the narrow passages and customers with these towering, wheeled monuments to appetite. And just before she would have been expected to check-out, the woman wheeled the carts to the edge of a display, took her pocketbook, and rushed out of the store, sometimes feigning an emergency, sometimes simply averting her eyes and just sklunking toward the exit, where she’d flee to the car, both disappointed and impossibly relieved to jot have spent all that money and come home with all that stuff.
I don’t know if she ever got busted, per se, but at some point it dawned on her that every one of these transgressive shopping trips ended with some hapless store employee having to spend God knows how long having to reshelve her non-shopping, shopping spree. She felt bad about it. She wriggled out of her lonely funk. She found other ways to spend her time. She found other ways to spend her money, once she had it (it is, in my experience, much easier to not hunger so desperately for a thing once you have plenty of money to buy it).
I relate though. I get the impulse. I always feel like I have to apologize when I tell people that I genuinely like shopping. It relaxes me. I find it thrilling, I’m a product of several generations of antique dealers, artists, epicures, and bargain hunters, though I’m less in it for the spree than the treasure hunt. I like to collect. I take enormous pleasure trying to dig out the holy grail from a rack of clearance fancy dresses, an overstuffed, dusty shelf at the thrift shop, whatever might pop up on a random end cap at Target or, like, between broken appliances on the card table at your next garage sale. I try to set parameters even if they’re artificial. “I have to find a perfect gilded mirror for the hall, but it has to cost less than ten dollars.” I maintain lists of mostly unfindable books and records, so when I find them it feels miraculous. I literally have, like, six or seven cups that look like a Holy Grail of some sort of another. All of them cost less than $5. And yes, I will absolutely tell you exactly where I bought/what I paid for them that if you mention them. That’s part of them fun.
So I’ve reached the part of this pandemic–Day Seventy-Six of Quarantine, Day Five of Partial Re-Open in NC, But Let’s Be Serious, No Reasonable Humans Are Actually Going Out Unless They Have To–where I’m trying to soothe my soul by filling online carts with things I’m not going to buy. I set my typical kinds of parameters (say, an A-line midi/maxi dresses, sleeveless but wide strapped, waisted, not too many gathers, with a geometric/Bauhaus-y sort of print, maybe sort of Mondrian, a bit late 60s/early 70s throwback, but more Anne Bancroft than Katharine Ross, in my size, under $150, ideally washable, and for real, I’m still looking for variations of this dress to wear on the deck this summer, so hit me up if you find it). I wander the digital corridors. It’s not the same as doing it in person I run my virtual fingers over the hems of hundreds of dresses and think This One? though I can’t feel the quality of the chiffon I do it because I’ve probably bought enough sparkly sneakers and I don’t actually like how I look in athleisure (like a convalescent slug waiting for sleep or death, though I suppose that’s perfectly reasonable for exercise) or how I feel in athleisure (like I’m sweaty and lazy, even when I’m objectively neither). A new dress suggests that one day I may have something to look forward to greater than a new series on Netflix or the fleeting thrill of the COVID death count only going up by a hair in my state (where COVID cases are actively on the rise, fyi). A new dress portends some possibility other than illness, failure, and whatever other apocalyptic rough beasts are slouching toward Carrboro even I refill this delightful G&T.
Shopping depresses a lot of people I know, and for plenty of good philosophical/political reasons. A friend of mine who didn’t actually like me very much once told me I would never make a good Marxist because I loved fancy department stores too much. I told her that was only because fancy department stores were the only places that usually kept ballgowns* in stock and my dream has always been to be invited to more events requiring ballgowns. This, she said, proved her point.
But there is something to the fact that I’m filling carts again, just as there is something to the fact that I have, after two and a half months of trying and failing, started reading books again. I’ve finished, like, five, in the last week and started on the stack** I collected at the beginning of Quarantine, back when I thought I would read the whole time. I still wake up and feel my pulse quicken as read the headlines, but the weight on my chest doesn’t feel like it might crush me.
I don’t know if I’ve simply grown more accustomed to living in upside-down world or if I just smacked so hard against the metaphorical concrete floor at the bottom of this, that it just knocked everything left out of me. I still try to give a shit. I really do. I wear my mask. I stay at home. I support my local businesses through takeout and curbside. I give money to the people that need it. I try to figure out what, if anything, I can do on the political end. I keep going. But guys, past that? I can’t do a goddamn thing, except float on the tides of this endless bad dream and hope when/if I get pulled under, the world as I know it, the people I care about, will still be breathing on the other side.
So until then? Dresses. Virtual shopping cart full of hypothetical dresses to be bought with imaginary money for events that may not ever happen. This, I believe, is maybe best I can do for now.
Picture today is of the interior of one of my favorite vintage stores in Edinburgh, which I last visited a couple millennia ago, back in October of 2019.
As of this writing, 2,430, 543 people have recovered from coronavirus
*Again, it’s worth pointing out that when I’m stressed out and trying to lower my heart rate and achieve solid “Happy Place” vibes, I like to imagine myself sitting on a velvet chaise, surrounded by fluffy kittens and corgis and piles of multi-colored, ruffled, tulle crinolines, drinking tea and a smidge of whisky with Billy Porter and I just listen while he tells me about all the gowns in his closet. Feel free to join me there the next time you freak out.
** I included a lot of popular/genre books I’d never gotten around to, because I thought, “These will be fun.” Controversial opinion: some of them are not that fun. Like, I’m forty-four years old and I’m finally trying to read “Dune” and for the love of all that is holy, I can’t figure out what you guys like so much about it. On the other hand, where do you go when you run out of Richard Price and/or John LeCarre novels? This is also a serious question.