Valerie texted me as soon as she read my last blog post. “A shout out to me?!” she said, “Challenge accepted!” Valerie has impeccable taste and both Emily and I like her sense of style. We did a high five when I got Val’s response. The air of hope and possibility pervaded. I was actually feeling somewhat chipper at the prospect of working on a new look and forcing myself to actually explore clothing options that put me in my body in a good way.
Thanksgiving was fast approaching and I wanted to have something decent to wear. Also, this year holds higher stakes and bigger plans than usual. We go to Emily’s family for Thanksgiving every year in St. Louis. But in addition to that, it will be the 50th year that her folks have been hosting this event. And on top of that, one of Emily’s cousins scheduled her son’s bar mitzvah (and festivities) to coincide with this weekend so that the maximum number of us could attend. Which added assorted and sundry dress-up-necessities and pressures to the mix. Instead of needing one nice outfit for the 4 or 5 days I’m there (basically just for Thanksgiving dinner), I suddenly needed one dressy, two stylish, one fairly formal outfit (and a partridge in a pear tree basically). In any event, my Docker’s black chinos two sizes too big were just not going to cut it.
Last night I sent Valerie a text asking if she could text me through the shopping experience. She was game. I’d been thinking of the best way to garner Valerie’s guidance since she agreed to help me. I didn’t want her to simply pick things out on line for me to purchase, try on and return if need be. I didn’t necessarily want anyone WITH me as I hyperventilated in the dressing room and made my way queasily around the store in a zombie-like daze. I thought I might be able to handle a Mission Impossible type of walkie-talkie communication though. I got several rapid-fire texts from Val preparing me with reconnaissance details: Check Macy’s on line. Check these specific shoes. Look at this style. These pants. She told me where there was a Macy’s and what time it opened. She would be expecting my first text shortly after 10am.
I got to Macy’s about 10 minutes after they opened this morning. I had my choice of parking spots in the lot and the atmosphere at the mall was calm and quiet. I realized I haven’t actually been to a mall in years. And I mean YEARS. I think the last time I was in a mall was when I worked for Wrangler Wranch (I shit you not) as a teenager. Once inside Macy’s I was effectively disoriented pretty quickly. I didn’t see any men’s clothing and there were no signs. I walked around the giant display in the middle of the store a few times before spotting an escalator, where I noted a department directory perched at the top of the conveyor and tried to take deep breaths as I moved my way upwards. I followed the map to the men’s department and maneuvered my way through the tightly packed close-set racks bursting with clothing. I was beginning to sweat and my stomach was clenching. I texted Val, “I’m going to need a bathroom”. She texted back immediately, it was something she hadn’t considered, knowing the whole gender slash bathroom thing is problematic for me. But, she happily encouraged me, “No worries, focus, you’ve got this.” I saw a few people who looked like they might be salespeople and approached one hesitantly. But she was only a vendor, setting up for the big crowds on Black Friday and couldn’t actually help me. There was an elderly gentleman in a stiff mismatched suit wearing large glasses and an expression that said, “I can’t believe my life has come to this.” behind one register who I didn’t want to help me. There was a smarmy-looking little man wearing my basic work outfit, his stick-straight hair slicked back with some kind of pomade that quit working 6 seconds after he’d stopped looking in his mirror, leaving him with a peacock cowlick atop his head. He did at least ask if he could help me. I tried to be cheerful and jokey about needing fashion advice and he looked blankly at me. He looked at me while his eyes darted beyond me taking in me and the men’s department. Before he could send me downstairs to “ladies”, I said, “Yes, I’m looking for an outfit, or maybe two, for me. In this department. What have you got in my size?” He folded his lips inward into an *I’m thinking here* line and shook his head, “Yeah,” he sighed, “I don’t really know what to tell you. I’m not sure what we have for you.” And basically turned and walked away.
I texted Val. I wanted to abort the mission. She said no. Told me to “muscle through”. I wandered aimlessly like a drunkard through the crowded department. It was so packed with clothing jammed seemingly helter-skelter on racks and tables it was hard to find anything. There were also progressively more and more people coming into the store. I finally found a few pairs of pants in a size that had potential. And then I realized that there was only one dressing room on the second floor. The men’s dressing room. Val! She told me to ignore people and go in. “You’re just buying clothes!” her text shouted. I tried on the pants and texted Val to keep myself from falling apart or disassociating. My texts were technical about fit, style and length until at last: Kenneth Cole super slim = fair fit.
I left the dressing room, propelled by my meager success. Hope emboldened, on I went. I found smaller men’s sizes in Kenneth Cole across the store and pressed on. I gathered a half dozen pairs of pants and with them spilling out of my arms, I went back to the dressing room. At the entrance to the dressing room stood a woman waiting for someone inside. I believe I received the dirtiest look I have received in quite some time from her. But I heard the distinctive *ping* of a text from Val and realized I didn’t have time for the grumpy lady. “You’re quiet. Going well or setback?” I sent more descriptions and she sent more encouragement. I found two pairs of nice pants that actually fit and looked good on me!
On to shoes. The man staffing the men’s shoe department was only slightly more pleasant than the oleaginous little man had been. Before I could even finish my question he was telling me that they had nothing in my size. But I didn’t care. Well, at least not so much. I had two pairs of pants that fit me and looked good! So I headed to the register with my plunder. Alfalfa was there, but quickly busied himself with tissue paper (what the fuck), and called for someone who could only be named Madge. She was 80 if she was a day, with exceedingly thinning hair that was teased to beyond its capacity, creating a see-through wall of what looked like auburn cotton candy. When she passed by me I noted that she clearly sleeps on her back because the back of her head was completely flat, giving her an odd 2-dimensional appearance. She greeted me nicely and asked if I was buying the pants for my son. I took a breath and told her they were for me and she sighed disapprovingly.
I took a photo of Madge unobtrusively, as she folded my pants and texted it to Val and whined about the looks people were giving me. An immediate Val response, “FUCK them! You’ll never see them again. Don’t let them shame you out of your mission.”
Val was already searching the internet for men’s shoes in my size. I was leaving the mall. “Go to Clarks!” Valerie texted. “I’m in the car” I replied, “I think I’ve reached my limit.” Immediate response,
“NO! Get a coffee or smoke a butt and get back in there!”
“Jesus, you’re a slave driver!”
“That’s my role today, friend. Pretend I’m your coach. Hyperventilate, puke, and head back into the game. Now get back in the mall bitch!”
At least she added a smiley emoticon to that last one. I told her I was going back in and I got reluctantly out of the car. My mother used to live for shopping. How the hell did she do it?! An hour in there and I was ready to confess to anything, give away anything. I needed a nap. But Valerie was with me, heartening me, strengthening me, galvanizing me. “Knock me dead” she wrote. And before I could respond she texted, ” ‘em, not me. flicking auto correct.”
Clarks was a definitively better experience. The young men in the store were kind and conversational and welcoming. They didn’t even offer me women’s shoes. I was kind of blown away, however, by the illusion men’s shoes seem to create. I wear an 8 or 8.5 in women’s shoes. I measure a 6.5 to 7 in men’s. When I tried on the men’s shoes though I was shocked by how enormous they looked on my feet. Even though they were the correct size. Even though they fit me, felt comfortable, were, in essence, the same size as the women’s shoes I’ve worn. But somehow the men’s shoes, chunkier, thicker, longer, created a kind of facade, mirage, fallacy (or would that be phallusy) of size and strength, taking up space, etc etc. Now, clearly I’m putting a lot onto mere shoes. But it really did feel that way as I looked at the shoes that seemed to stretch on for days.
I really couldn’t take it anymore. I was done. Even Valerie gave me permission to go home. What a long day. And it was only 12:30. Hanging up my new fancy pants at home, I realized I still have 3 pairs of men’s pants from Banana Republic (2 sizes too big for me) with the tags still on from when I went shopping for Joita’s bat mitzvah. Valerie suggested I exchange them. When I reminded her that they were 3 years old, she recommended I simply have them altered. And while there are no fewer than 3 tailors within a mile radius of my home, I’m not sure if any of them is LGBT friendly. And I’m not sure I’m ready to venture back out into that experience again just yet. In the meantime, I have two pairs of killer pants! Happy Thanksgiving!