Veronica descended from the shopping gods, a sprightly figure who donned trendy clothes as comfortably as most people wore pajamas. She loved trying things on with the dressing room curtain half open and had a talent for plucking the sexiest items from the rack. Shopping was for her an act of rebellion against years of Catholic school uniforms and religious convocation. Her mother thought she was in Rome to study with the nuns.
We met in that ancient city. At a tiny boutique with rows of fake snakeskin pants and sweaters that looked like trench coats. She stepped out of the dressing room in a tight denim skirt and baby T with sparkles and crescents between her breasts, and I imagined tracing the waves with my pinkie. The thin angular salesgirl yanked down the skirt so it hung low on her hips. Veronica eyed herself in the mirror, palming the vulcanized fabric as if it were a sheath. As if she were on a photo shoot. I wondered what the denim felt, sandwiched like that between her hand and thigh.
She pivoted to look at herself from behind. I was mesmerized.
I like that word.
Franz Mesmer was an Austrian physician who believed all ailments stemmed from a misalignment of internal magnetic energy. Patients seeking realignment attached magnets to their limbs and drank iron or held ropes tied to a magnetized tree. Mesmer would swing his hands close to their bodies in a series of furious passes, conductor of his own symphony. In his care, people were said to faint, convulse, speak in tongues. He called this animal magnetism.
Veronica, head twisted over her shoulder, caught sight of me in the mirror. She turned around, and in an American accent, as if we'd known each other for years, asked me if the skirt was too revealing. I felt a rumbling in my chest, was afraid my face might betray the heat beneath my skin. A vestige of pediatric trauma. As a child, I was constantly pink-skinned and sweaty-palmed. Boiling from the inside out. It grew worse whenever anyone looked at me.
Veronica's stare was magnetic, mnemonic. I found it soothing. Like a nursery rhyme. My words came involuntarily. I'd been hypnotized . . . Mesmerized.
I said: You should buy that outfit and never take it off.
My father is a shopper. He can spend hours sifting through aisles of suits, coats, ties, and slacks. He loves the feel of virgin tweed between his fingers. The starchy smell of fresh cotton shirts.
When I was thirteen he bought me a red dress. It was short-sleeved, silky, and to the knee. A sash of white satin belted above my pubescent hips. They were round and embarrassing, normally buried beneath layers of corduroy and flannel, but in that red dress there was no hiding the peaks and curves. Trying it on, I saw myself in the mirror: cold and goose fleshed. My face was no longer pink. Three years earlier, I'd had an operation that left my skin as transparent as cigarette paper. But my forearms and shins bore the purplish scars of one who'd started shaving too young. I was on the swim team. They said without hair you swam faster. The other girls in my dormitory at boarding school shaved, too. For boys.
My father watched me throw back my shoulders and suck in my stomach as if seeing me for the first time. My body was a surprise to him. It was surprising for me to surprise him. An uncomfortable tingling crept into my neck and cheeks. I wanted to cry: I'm turning pink again. But I'd barely cried. Not from the burning of my soggy, red face, nor the wet palm prints I left on the surface of everything I touched. Of the estimated five million sweat glands in the human body, two-thirds are located in the hands. As a child, I couldn't understand what made my millions of glands different from everyone else's. I was afraid to touch anything that didn't belong to me. Afraid to write on the chalkboard or return a rubber ball that had been kicked out of bounds. I thought I would never hold another person's hand.
Doctor after doctor said the condition was benign. My father -- himself a doctor -- didn't give up. He carted me to specialists throughout the world, daring anyone to fix my skin. At ten years old, I had experimental surgery in Germany.
My mother returned to the States a week after they'd sliced into my back and severed the sympathetic chain; my father stayed the whole four weeks. Afterwards, we visited Berlin. Before the wall came down. My father explained about borders that pitted brother against brother. He cursed the war that had taken his father. He promised he would never let anything like that happen to me.
Remembering his words, I relaxed into the red dress and saw in my father's eyes my transformation from tomboy to young woman. At that moment I knew what I'd felt for a while. Something other than a child, I was ripe. Blistering in hormones and curves. My father told me this without words. He knelt down next to me and lifted the hem above my knees. His thumbs grazed my skin. He smiled up at the woman who owned the store. A short hem is the style these days, they agreed. How he knew so much about style my mother and I never asked. He spent most of his time in surgical scrubs.
That day, both of us staring at my lustrous red reflection, my father told me red was the color of revolutionaries and romantics. The two together made love, he said. To wear red was valiant, risky, and seductive.
I had only the vaguest ideas about life then. Could barely make sense of my father's words. His gray-green eyes sparkling at the sight of me all dressed up and no place yet to go. The red dress. I knew only that when I peered into the mirror at the dress shop I saw someone different from the girl who slouched across the hills of the academy in old corduroys and bit her fingernails until they bled.
Down the street, we bought a pair of white patent leather pumps that matched the belt and stitching. The heels were too high. Back at school, I practiced walking in my dorm room. Thirteen is not a good age for anything. My roommate told the other girls I was training to become a prostitute.
Every day, I practiced my walk and talked to phantom dates in the mirror. They wore tuxedo jackets with jeans and smelled like my father. I quit the swim team to devote myself to them, ripped the pages from my text books and replaced them with lyrics from gloomy love songs. At the end of the year, I was shipped home after a phone call proclaiming I was not to return unless I attended summer school, and even then I would probably have to repeat the seventh grade.
I wore the red dress and white shoes on the bus ride home. My father met me at the train station. He said I looked smashing and took me home. Told me to splash some water on my face but keep on the dress. My mother was away on business and we were going out to dinner. I was elated. I loved being with my father.
At one of the fancier restaurants in town, my father ordered expensive meats, shrimp cocktail, sparkling water with slices of lime. He let me sip from his wine glass. He was handsome in his trimmed beard and tan. I'd brushed my lashes with mascara and dabbed my cheeks with the rosy blush my mother had given me the first time I wore the dress, to a family wedding.
All the men in the restaurant gawked, the women looked askance. Were they staring because my dress was wrinkled from sitting two hours on the bus and there were sweat stains under my armpits, or was it something different?
I didn't finish my steak. My father helped me after he'd eaten his venison. Between bites he told me I wouldn't be going to summer school. The academy could kiss his public-school behind. He said he would explain everything to my mother who'd had the idea to send me away, though she could be quite single-minded when she had an idea. Shopping with her was like an archeological dig -- hours spent sifting through racks at discount department stores searching for the one item she had to have. My mother was brilliant and tenacious. She always found what she needed. Sometimes without even trying it on.
What if communal dressing rooms were more like bathhouses? With jasmine incense burning and smoky lighting, shadows that would make anyone desirable. Walking in, a clerk takes the items you've selected, and gives you a steaming cloth for your hands as flight attendants do after a long journey. The clerk hangs your clothes in front of the mirror. Your fingers bathe in the warmth of the towel. A deep breath and the sweet spices flow down your spine. In the mirror you see you are beautiful. So is everyone around you. You are not afraid of watching them. Of being watched. Everyone is steeped in the erotic ritual.
Several years ago, I found myself alone one night on a dark industrial street by the river. I'd just ended a brief affair with a boy who was barely legal, almost a decade younger than me, and had gone out looking for excitement. I went to a women's bar. Everyone there spoke of a back room. I made my way inside. A few women stood fully clothed against the walls, others breezed back and forth, haute urbane, and I remembered I'd once fallen in love at first sight. Many years before. With an older woman who fed me equal doses of madness and literature. She took me shopping for second-hand cardigans and made me memorize "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
I imagined spray-painting the words on the walls of the club.
Finally, a minor celebrity decided she'd had enough talking. She peeled off her dress and lay down on the floor. Another woman removed her clothes and slid on top of her. They kissed. A third woman joined in, a hand on one's breast as her mouth found the neck of the other. Three became six, then seven, then eight . . .
I lost count as their bodies slithered into a sac of limbs and liquid, one living, breathing organism. A few of us stood off to the side, watching. I held an internal debate. Nobody knew me. Nobody would know I'd done it. But I couldn't bring myself to remove my clothes. Nearby, a voice led the chorus of hollers and moans, this heaving, pulsating thing so close I felt it on my skin. I could have stepped down and grabbed it, but my feet were bolted to the floor. The air was heavy and asthmatic, like summer in the South. I couldn't breathe, caught in the middle of a steam room in my street clothes. Beneath the outer layers, my body began to evaporate. I lost my neck, my arms, my stomach, my thighs.
The cuffs pulled at my heavy wool pants. It was all I wore then, when I'd shaved my head and was experimenting with androgyny. Never in my life had I been so consistently approached by both men and women. The streets and stores and bars and busses had become a back room on the go. Looking down, I saw a hand wrapped around my ankle. My pulse quickened. I felt another hand between my thighs and with the grip tightening around my leg rocked into a deafening orgasm.
I bolted from the source.
At the bar, I caught my breath and ordered a club soda. It was dark enough to hide my dilated pupils and rubbery knees, cool enough to nurse the hole in my heart. I wanted to be back in my apartment, where isolation wasn't so conspicuous. I am not a good candidate for anonymous sex. When I come I fall in love.
Before l left I looked for the hand. Through one of the holes someone had drilled in the wall. Attrition had befallen the organism. But it was no less dogged in its pursuit of pleasure. Its noises were more dire, the keening of banshees.
Another group of women -- the deconstructionists -- had gathered to observe through the holes.
"This isn't erotic," one said. "Do you think this is erotic?"
"No," said another.
Then another: "Not at all."
All night they kept their eyes plastered to the holes talking about how unerotic it was.
We set out for Milan in a car Veronica borrowed from her Italian cousins, stopping one night in Florence to buy leather gloves for her mother. Veronica loved to imitate her mother -- she was a caricature or cliché. The Italian-American with her scoured face and fingers scrunched together, her thick accent and unbalanced stride. All she'd wanted from Italy was a pair of gloves and a rosary blessed by the Pope. She wore the same housedress every day. It drove Veronica mad.
Florence was congested. Veronica had difficulty navigating the pools of summer tourists. We parked the car and stepped from its air-conditioned cocoon into the smothering maw of the season. I needed water; Veronica wanted a gelato. We walked a few blocks to a café and eyed the fantastically colored ice cream behind the glass, convinced only the Italians could make a museum-worthy exhibit out of milk and sugar. Outside a young man in a tank top rubbed soapy water against the window, sweat dripping from his temples. Even in the heat, life went on. I ordered a large bottle of water and a yellow pineapple cone. Veronica was already licking the deepest brown chocolate I'd ever seen. We sat down next to the window, the two of us tonguing our cones as the young man made rainbows out of soap and water on the windowpane.
The seventeenth-century scientist Isaac Newton studied rainbows in soap bubbles to prove his theory of white light. Before him every scientist believed white light simply was what it looked like: white light. But by passing a beam of sunlight through a glass prism, Newton discovered a spectrum of colors. He concluded white light concealed a rainbow of refracted streams, each comprised of tiny corpuscles. Like blood.
We spent the night in a cramped room with white stucco walls and two double beds. Veronica opened her suitcase and removed a silky red nightgown. She undressed in the bathroom. I stripped down to my underwear and put on a T-shirt. It was hot in the room. I opened a window, which made it even more stifling. Veronica snored all night. Her nose in the moonlight looked almost phallic. I studied her face, wondering what sort of streams and corpuscles lurked beneath her skin.
The next morning, we woke with the sun and hit the market before the heat set in. Veronica honed in on a pair of mauve gloves, while I modeled cashmere sweaters over my clothes. After making her purchase, she found me perspiring in a snug V-neck sweater with three-quarter sleeves. "You look lovely," she said, and somehow I stayed calm, pretending I knew it, too. She grabbed me by the elbow to look at my figure in the dingy mirror. The sweater over my long tubular skirt reminded me of a mermaid. I was blushing. She thought I was lovely.
I bought the sweater, and we set off to see David. By the time we arrived at the museum, the line was already massive. Veronica said we should wait, but I was afraid I might pass out from the heat. She wanted me to see David's hands; the biggest, sweetest hands she'd ever seen. I said of course he had big hands, he's fourteen feet tall, but I felt dizzy. Veronica said his nose was also big, and my heart jumped. Had I spoken aloud about her nose the night before? She said David looked Jewish or Italian. I said he was Jewish, in the hands of an Italian, and like that we left Florence, two American women talking of Michelangelo.
There is an intimacy to car travel. For me, it is the perfect merging of public and private space, at once enclosed and exposed. A veteran of marketing and sales, I have spent much of my time alone on the road. I often pick up hitchhikers -- women only -- and am amazed what people reveal once the rhythm of wind and wheels takes hold.
We told each other things in Veronica's car. We talked about how we'd been hurt. Exchanged stories. There was an immediacy to our conversation, as if in a few hours of driving we could condense the decades. We arrived exhausted in Milan, and checked into an elegant hotel with air-conditioning. Again, the bellhop led us to a room with two double beds. Again, Veronica changed in the bathroom.
I remember that bathroom as much as anything else in the city. So clean and bright, with a bidet and no standing shower, it seemed like the city itself, an icon of modernization and tradition.
I remember the beds with their ornate coverings and rubbery foam pillows. The construction men in bright orange hard hats working outside our window. Veronica insisted we keep the curtains open. They couldn't see us through the fog, she said.
I remember the stores we strolled in and out of. Along the avenues, hidden in cul-de-sacs, Veronica found them all. She'd been living in Italy more than two years, but it was her first time in Milan. She hated shopping alone.
We went one afternoon to a little shop with tinseled windows. Inside were short, short dresses; iridescent halter tops; shiny synthetic jackets; and rows of black trousers that caught Veronica's eye. The first pair flared above her ankles like a couple of clarinets in repose. They were all the rage that season. The shop was packed with prowling young women modeling clingy garments for one another, their hair and skin and clothes multiplying in the mirrors like a Cubist painting. A city of women.
Veronica and I took turns using one of the two dressing rooms. Once, we met in the stall. She giggled, and turned her back to me before wriggling out of a shirt. I watched her shoulder blades spread, mesmerized. They formed wings beneath the tattoo on the back of her neck. The Hebrew word Shalom. Peace.
I asked what I'd been wondering since we met. "Why the Hebrew?"
She laughed, and told me Hebrew was the language of the Bible. Even Jesus spoke Hebrew. By the way, did I know she was named after the saint Veronica? The woman who met Jesus on his way to the crucifixion and handed him her veil. When he returned it, his face was etched on the cloth. Veronica had seen the cloth at St. Peters, she said, slithering into a hot-pink halter top with strings that crisscrossed down her back. She asked me to tie the ends. I stepped closer, heart pounding, a feeling less instilled by her bare back than by her reconfiguring five thousand years of history to suit her own purposes. This was very sexy. I wiped my sweaty fingertips on my pants and took up the strings.
As I tied, Veronica told me the holy cloth was also called a Veronica, a name Biblical scholars said was derived from both Latin and Greek. Vera meaning true, and ekon or icon, as we know it, being an image. True image.
I looped the strings beneath her ribs, giving the bow a final tug. She turned around, raised an eyebrow, and pulled back the dressing room curtain. Once again, I stood captivated by her figure in the mirror. This woman, this image. Vera Icon.
She moved her hips from side to side, pivoting to check out her back as was her habit. She knew I was watching.
"So?" she said, and I knew what was coming next. "Is it --"
"Too revealing? Never."
"But do I --"
"Look fat? Absolutely."
Ignoring me, which she could do because she knew she wasn't fat, knew she had the kind of body designers envisioned when their ideas were nothing more than charcoal sketches and swatches of material draped over a mannequin, Veronica slipped her hands beneath her breasts. A slight pout to her lips, she wondered whether a push-up bra might help.
I nodded my head no. The color was all wrong.
She smiled, and asked me to untie her.
To this day I crave the rush of shoplifting. Those last strung-out seconds before the door when nothing registers but the stereophonic thump of your pulse. Then, a couple of small steps, and you're lost in the weekend crowd, sprinting through the streets with your best friend as if you'd just crossed the border during wartime -- any war, any time. Sammie and I knew nothing of politics; our parents had money.
Afterwards, we bought onion rings and chocolate milk shakes and finished them on the walk to the bus stop. On the ride home, as dusk cradled up against the frosted windows, we giggled uncontrollably and copped furtive drags from a cigarette, our bodies tingling with life.
We stole everything: gold-filled bracelets, plastic rings, thick lip glosses, toe socks, sunglasses, halter tops, hats, gloves, paperback novels, cassette tapes, candy bars, and whatever else we could fit into the pockets of our oversized coats or slip beneath our baggy pants. Soon our heads grew larger than our clothes. We thought ourselves invincible. We left the house in old sneakers and came home with new ones. Walked out of stores in jackets with the price tags clipped. Our parents hardly noticed. We told them we traded clothes since we didn't have sisters; they told us how lucky we were to be teenagers in America.
The year we were thieves summer came too quickly. Early in the season we went shopping for bathing suits and found the store so crowded the saleslady let us share a dressing room. We jammed inside the white cubicle with its silly shutters. Down the row, we could see the heads and feet of other women, most of them my mother's age, one to a dressing room like something out of another era, backstage in a dance hall or at summer camp in the fifties, without boys -- the kind of places I'd only seen in black and white on television or in my mother's photo albums. Adulthood had always seemed monochromatic to me.
They peeked at us over the tops of their stalls. We were too loud for the dressing room. How dare we disturb the lackluster chore of trying on clothes?
We were fourteen and finishing each other's sentences. We sang dirty words in limericks and rhymes, words we'd looked up in the dictionary. We shoved each other back and forth like boys on the football team, as we surveyed the rainbow of suits -- one-pieces with flowers, tropical fruits, and zebra stripes; bikinis crafted in macramé or clipped from sheets of psychedelic nylon. Even the boring Speedos in our hands radiated with possibility.
Our clothes dropped like petals from a dying flower, our bare elbows and shins bumping against each other as we tested one suit after the next, determining how many we might be able to fit beneath our clothes. Some we knew wouldn't fit. Others we held up for each other's inspection. We were determined. Methodical. If my mother had taught me systematic shopping, then this was systematic shoplifting, the layering of bikinis under one-pieces under our clothes. Only the black suit with the big hole in the center presented difficulty. It was one of a kind, unclassifiable, and we both loved it. Sammie said we should shoot for it. Odds or evens.
I picked odds. I won. But the suit made my stomach look like a swollen dart board. Sammie said it wasn't my look. A million times she'd said I would know my look by the feel of it. I knew it was more complicated. A look was who you were and who you might want to be. A look was about possibility.
Sammie tried on the black suit, and if the sweat between my legs had seeped from my underwear into the crotch, she didn't say anything. I watched her step into the leg holes and squeeze the clingy fabric over her thighs and chest and shoulders. The suit seemed to have been designed for her flat stomach and conical breasts. Her look.
But, for the first time, I saw something else. Something knowing. Something I wanted to know. In those few seconds it took her to try on the suit and confirm its perfection in the mirror, she had transitioned into the black-and-white world of adulthood. A world she would enter on her own.
When I think of Sammie, I forget she's married with three kids and remember that day in the dressing room. The day she wore the bathing suit that framed her belly button and made her look like a pinup girl. A suit so great we couldn't risk stealing it. I put it on my father's credit card as a decoy.
She wiggled out of the nylon tube and stood in front of me, naked except for a pair of white cotton panties with little pink hearts that said LOVE. Like Valentine's candies. She was so close I could see the tiny holes in her nose, smell the sweet scent of bubble gum on her lips, and I knew then -- although I had no words for it -- that I loved her completely and unconditionally. A love that hijacked every muscle in my body. A love like shoplifting.
It was Sammie, as much as my father, who fused love and shopping for me. That day in the dressing room when she pinched my thigh and told me I would outgrow my baby fat. At her touch, I felt myself drowning in colors. Like a canvas with Sammie squirting paint at me.
I lost my balance and prayed for gravity.
Einstein spoke back to me: Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love.
Our friendship shifted that day. The day she wore the bathing suit that changed the way we looked at each other. We'd sipped from the forbidden goblet and were finally caught, not for any of the bathing suits beneath our clothes, they were never even discovered, but for a gold bracelet Sammie had slipped into her bag at the cash register, breaking the cardinal rule of shoplifting in department stores: Never lift anything once you've left the fitting room. There were too many guards and cameras and mirrors. Someone had seen her. They shoved us into the back office and emptied our bags. There was the bracelet with the price tag intact.
She did it on purpose. I knew; she knew I knew; but we never spoke about it. We drifted apart without ceremony. Without resolution. Most of my lovers have gone that way.
Sammie left me with the intimacy of dressing rooms. How two girls together can get away with certain things. Why Veronica and I shopped in three different cities before I found the courage to kiss her in the room with the two double beds. We'd been shopping for days by then. I knew the Italian words for hips, stomach, and thighs. Knew how to say, "How much?" I could have made love to her in Italian. But she wanted it in English. American English. "Fuck me," she whispered. "Fuck me like you've been dying to."
After that dinner with my father, I wore the red dress only one more time. The summer after I'd been kicked out of school, before I started shoplifting. It was my father's birthday and we were having dinner with a few of my parents' friends. This memory, of course, is black and white except for my crimson dress and wine the color of juice from steak. They let me have my own glass, agreeing it was very European.
The friends said I looked older, was going to be trouble once the braces came off my teeth. My father nodded. He told them that the last time we'd gone out together everyone thought I was his lover. Coming from his lips, the word evoked mystery and romance. It also felt sordid. My cheeks flushed redder than the dress.
They all laughed. My mother was last and loudest before she settled into a long sip of wine. I wanted to hurl the bottle at her, at all of them with their teeth and gums stained ghoulish purple, their faces red with celebration.
When we blush, our capillaries dilate, trapping blood beneath the skin. Whether from arousal, exercise, too much wine, cold weather, or embarrassment the skin responds unwittingly. It gets hot and, depending upon your natural hue, changes color. On me it brushes bright pink.
The British naturalist Charles Darwin was the first scientist to connect blushing to our emotions. Blushing, he noted, was the most peculiar of human expressions because it was involuntary and ungovernable. Our nerves could not assess the stimuli and decide whether the context was appropriate. Only the heart stored that information.
I did not want to think about being my father's lover. Or anybody's lover. The word sounded too intimate. Too revealing. I started going out with older boys. Boys who carted kegs of beer for a living and drove souped-up automobiles. Boys who wore thermal shirts and would never be caught shopping for them. Boys who liked me in tight jeans and wouldn't know what to do with a red dress beyond getting their oily fingers underneath the hem. I never liked any of them.
What if I lined up my old lovers like shoes in a closet? Would they say anything about my style in love? Perhaps we shop for lovers as we shop for clothes. Sometimes determined, knowing exactly what we're looking for; other times wandering into stores half-oblivious and gravitating toward whatever we find attractive -- impulse buying.
My mother, as I've mentioned, does nothing on impulse. She has had one lover her entire life and never shops with friends. She doesn't have to. She married a man who likes shopping more than she does. But she's good with makeup. She was the one who'd started me on mascara and a little concealer at thirteen, when I was skittish about rubbing anything on my skin that didn't sound clinical, terrified the wrong chemical might rouse the disease the Germans had excised with a sympathectomy. The word is not as congenial as it sounds. There is nothing congenial about having a metal tube shoved inches from your heart.
Sounds as absurd as clipping magnets to your skin or holding ropes attached to an electrified tree. Being Mesmerized. But the surgery fixed my face, and I am now as normal as the next light-skinned mammal. Except when I fall in love. Then the sensations of my youthful condition return -- the hot, pink skin and sweaty temples -- refracting my body through a prism. Even with makeup, I cannot not shrink from my desire. It is written all over my face.
That was how I met Veronica, my face wide-eyed and flushed as she stood in front of that very first mirror modeling the shirt with the price tag hanging from her armpit. She cost fifty thousand lira.
I would have paid fifty billion lira just to sit across from her in the café with the colorful gelato, even knowing what I know now. That the cloth at St. Peter's -- the Vera Icon -- is probably a fake, although it still seems miraculous behind its Plexiglas screen, hermetically sealed like a love affair in Italy. That loneliness comes from opening up and not shutting down, and there is no easy way to squeeze the sweet revelations, once divulged, back inside. Instead, they lie in front of you, little mausoleums of who you were and who you might want to be. Love is about possibility.
I also know that the word lover is more sad than sordid, for no matter the circumstances most lovers end where they began: alone. And missing a lover is the meanest kind of longing. It's ungovernable and involuntary. Worse than blushing. You become a shadow figure, an etching on a cloth.
This, contrary to popular belief, is the worst time to go shopping.