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More short stories and a novelette by Brian Staff are available in No man is an island. Click here to go to Amazon to get it.
I look around at the floor. After just five minutes it’s in the same state as at the last three stores after 30 minutes, 20 minutes, and 10 minutes respectively. She’s getting into her stride.
Scattered around are eight pairs of shoes, which she’s in various stages of trying on, rejecting, short-listing, or just plain mulling over. And not just shoes. Shoes come out of boxes, and they’re packed in other stuff, and yet more stuff is packed in them to make them look good when there are no feet in them. The floor is starting to look like a disorganized taxidermist’s workshop. If I wasn’t here I could be out cycling, or at the beach, or watching a movie, or drinking beer with friends as we incinerate dead cow. I could be with other men, talking about women, lying about past conquests and swapping dirty jokes. At this precise moment, talking about women would be infinitely preferable to actually being with one.
“What do you think of this,” she says, holding up one shoe, “compared to this,” she says, holding up another.
I gaze at the two. One then the other. The other then the one. To and fro. The two allegedly different shoes are thrust at me, as if in challenge to my faculties of differentiation. For the life of me I can’t see any difference between them. They’re both shiny black. They’re the same shape, have the same strap, the same buckle. They even look the same underneath for God’s sake!
“They’re identical,” I say, flatly, hoping that the tone of my voice will convey my feelings. I’ve been working on maintaining an exasperated facial expression and body language (humped shoulders, dragged feet) for the past hour, but it hasn’t worked. Perhaps I can get the message across in my tone of voice before I have to take the last resort and tell her outright that I’m bored out of my skull and she’s being pernickety beyond belief.
They have robots to vacuum floors these days. We should have robots to accompany women shopping, robots that would say all the right things – “no, you’re bottom doesn’t look big in that dress” - without even the tiniest hint of a frown or a sigh, robots that could trail after their female mistresses to hundreds of shops in a day, so that even when the woman has collapsed on the sidewalk from exhaustion, the robot would cheerfully say “Oooh look, there’s shop over there we could try!”. With robots like this – dressed in pants and with a permanent inane grin painted on their metallic faces – we men could stay at home doing something infinitely more enjoyable, such as scouring the oven or cleaning window blinds.
“Of course they’re not identical,” she says, rolling her eyes to show some of the same frustration that I feel. “Look, the strap is different. Can’t you see?”
I inspect the two shoes again. There is a very slight difference between the thin straps, but it’s almost undetectable. Sherlock Holmes would have been proud to notice the difference without prompting. I look at her, expecting to see some sign of amusement, as if she’s joking, playing with me. There is none. From her perspective we’re having a serious debate about a nuance of patterning on a few millimeters of leather.
“Look,“ I say, “you’re a reasonably attractive woman. I shouldn’t have said “reasonably,” and I know it as soon as the word is uttered, but I continue unabashed - backtracking would weaken my position. “Anyone looking at you is going to look at other things before they look at your shoes, and they’re never, ever, going to look at the fine detail of the straps before they make a judgment.”
“What makes you think I’m buying these shoes to affect what people think of me?” Her eyes brighten as she sees one of her favorite discussion subjects – ‘I wear what I like because I like it, screw everyone else’ – looms on the horizon. For her the vista associated with this subject is bright invigorating sunshine, for me it is dark, threatening clouds. I try to use logic, which in this situation is as sensible as using a hand grenade to solve world hunger.
“You told me earlier that you were looking for a pair of practical, comfortable shoes. If you’re buying shoes for functional reasons we wouldn’t be here,” here being a shop with a famous and expensive brand, “we’d be in The Goodwill Store, or The Shoe Discount Mega-Pavilion, or Wall*Mart, or Birkenstocks.”
She breaths out of her mouth sharply in a derisive gesture that says “What the hell do you know?” and continues trying on more pairs.
I get the feeling that my life is disappearing down a drain. Wasted. Minutes have become hours and we have nothing to show for it, no purchase, no entertainment, and no education, unless one considers her implying that I’m an idiotic man has educational value for either of us.
“Look at them!” she says, turning her attention to a rack in the distance. I don’t look at them, but she’s not looking at me, she’s looking at them. I’ve disappeared. She goes and gets “them.” To me they’re completely unexceptional. To her, they’re currently the Holy Grail, but I know that in two minutes they’ll be just another heap of leather and packaging strewn across the floor.
I look around to see if anyone is watching us, seeing us vandalizing a store that was reasonably neat and organized when we entered it, but is now wilting under her unremitting attention. I feel my Saturday flowing away from me. A quarter of my weekend is already gone. My hard-earned weekend is seeping away like sand slipping through my fingers. Why did I come? Because we were going shopping for a pair of pants for me, and, “well, nothing in particular,” for her but she would “have a look around, maybe.” My pants were bought in two minutes max. The first pair she selected, the only pair I tried on were “great, perfect, really suit you, yes, wonderful,” she said. I came shopping knowing what I wanted, I found it, I bought it. That’s how men shop. Women go shopping on the basis that “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it (which is pretty similar to how a Supreme Court Justice defined pornography). As such, asking such questions as “What are you looking for?” is as useful as asking them to relate their purchase to the Special Theory of Relativity.
“Do you mind if we look in this shoe shop?” she asked, as we emerged from the store where I bought my pants, the first and only store that we went into that day that contained anything of interest to a heterosexual male.
“Of course not,” I said, assuming I was returning the favor by accompanying her on a mundane shopping mission. I was duped, perhaps not intentionally, but I was duped nonetheless. During the course of the morning I came to hate the pants I’d bought, the bait. The bag containing them became glued to my hand over the next three hours, and I would look at it now and again, thinking “Traitors!”
We go to leave the latest shop, the fifteenth, the twentieth? As we walk past a huddle of shop assistants I sense that they’re watching us, and I see one of them glance at the pile of mess we’ve left behind, and groan. As the expedition has worn on, my attempts to correct the damage before we leave a store have become less conscientious, and her own attempts to tidy up have been cursory at best. In the first couple of shops I would ram shoes back into boxes as she discarded them, stuffing paper in randomly, but more or less putting the right shoes in the right boxes and returning them to a close approximation of where they should be on the shelves. By the third shop I was less careful, and as her pace increased in shops four and five I could so barely keep up with her that I was ramming discarded shoes and paper into whatever box I could lay my hands on, then throwing them onto the shelves in any space available. In shop six the two of us must have resembled a factory production line, with shoes being selected, unpacked, tried on, discarded, repacked and re-shelved at an astounding rate. In shop eight I fell so far behind her that I gave up, and have kept my hands dug deeply and moodily in my pockets ever since, wandering along behind her and scuffing the ground with my shoes like a sulking adolescent.
I feel a tension between us, and when I feel it, I know from experience that she’s feeling it too, and also from experience, I know that by the time I get to feel it, she’s feeling angrier towards me than I am to her. She makes towards where the car is parked, away from the shops.
“Where are you going?” I ask. I don’t need to ask, it’s obvious from the silent, purposeful march away from the shops that she’s saying “I’m in a huff!” But I hope my fatuous question will start a discussion and avoid the path that we’re currently heading down, the path to the inevitable silent, fuming resentment that will otherwise be fizzing between us for the rest of the day. I know I can calm things down and rescue the weekend if I say and do the right things for the next ten minutes. I’m just not sure that I want to.
“I could try one last shop, but you’re obviously in some sort of a hurry,” she says.
“Okay,” I say. I don’t add that not wanting to spend three hours looking for a pair of shoes doesn’t necessarily equate to being in a hurry. Nor do I mention that for a person with over fifty pairs of shoes, one additional pair can hardly be seen as an urgent priority. Nor do I mention that…… but I stop myself as I start feeling my anger build again, and meekly follow her into the next shop.
My heart sinks. The place is enormous, and noisy with music. When did shops start taking background music out of the background and thrust it into the foreground? The old stuff was banal, but at least you could ignore it. Now they supply music as part of the character of the store, so it’s unignorable, it’s loud, conversations must be shouted, and shouted conversations drown out the music, so the volume is cranked up, making the conversations become louder, and on and on, until you feel like going to a heavy metal concert for some peace and quiet. A piece of rap music starts up. I don’t listen to the lyrics, but my ear catches an obscenity, then a stream of invective. “Did he say what I thought he said?” I ask, but nobody can hear me, I can’t hear myself. Fortunately, the area we descend upon is quieter, so the ear damage will probably be moderate.
Before my girlfriend has the chance to grab a pair of shoes, an assistant is with us. This is going to be a problem. My girlfriend is a solo shopper. She goes about her selection process with extreme precision, and she doesn’t need anyone to help her, not until it’s practical matters such missing price tags or boxes too high to reach. She’s a lone hit-woman, practiced in her art and dismissive of the support of others.
The assistant is a young girl. Attractive. Short skirt. Nice figure, a bit slimmer than girlfriend (worrying), bigger breasts (danger sign), and firmer butt (Red Alert!) – if the girl is any less sweet or more sexy than a ninety year old nun there’s going to be bad chemistry between them.
“Can I help you?” the girl says, then curiously in a louder voice adds “Or not?” She’s staring at us in that manner that flight attendants have perfected over the years, the gaze that says “I’ll do everything correctly on the surface, but behind this vacant look is a person you cannot fathom”. This girl’s visage says even more. Her scowl and her pout project arrogance and complete disinterest in her customers. The music collaborates with the scene, providing a thumping base that resembles thunder rumbling in the distance.
“No thank you,” says my girlfriend. She doesn’t look at the girl, and certainly doesn’t add the perfunctory “we’re just looking”, which she considers to be a sign of weakness in the never-ending shopper-shopkeeper battle for psychological supremacy.
“What are you looking for?” the girl persists. Her tone of voice is a pretty good match for the flat drone that I used earlier to show how bored I was, and her body language – she’s leaning against a rack inspecting her nails – is consummate in its expression of contrived unconcern. At this point I should take her aside and give her some advice, some on-the-job training as it were, but I decide to stand back, knowing that the more pissed my girlfriend becomes with the assistant, the less anger she’ll harbor towards me.
My girlfriend starts pulling out boxes. She looks around, I follow suit. There doesn’t appear to be anywhere to sit whilst trying on the shoes.
“The fitting area is at the back of the store,” says the girl.
“The what?” says my girlfriend.
“The fitting area. You can try on the shoes there. It’s equipped with mirrors at various angles so that you can see the shoes from all perspectives.” She sounds as if she’s reading a script. “And there are consultants who can discuss styles with you.” She’s gone from inspecting her nails to inspecting the face of her cell phone.
“Bloody hell,” says my girlfriend. She hands me a couple of boxes and grabs a couple more for herself. “Come on, “ she says to me, “let’s find this fabulous fitting area!”
“We have a policy,” says the girl, scrolling through messages on her phone.
“Yes, I’m sure you do, everyone does, I have a policy that I only deal with polite shop assistants,” says my girlfriend.
The girl seems to be focused on text messages on her phone, not on us. “Oh, I get it,” she says to herself eventually, then she looks at us and says, “You are asked to take only three pairs at a time to the fitting area.”
“To limit clutter.”
“Then I’ll try them on here,” says my girlfriend, and plunks herself down on the floor, emphatically, but not very graciously. She starts trying on shoes. I’d like to intervene, to tell her that this really is a bit silly. But I keep quiet. There’s a war brewing here, and I have the option of playing the role of cool and charming Switzerland.
The girl seems to be taking this in her stride and continues to show more interest in her nails, phone, hair, and a few small flecks of white fluff on her tight black blouse than in the scene that’s playing out on the floor at her feet. But despite her nonchalance, she continues her narration of the shop policy, and there’s a slight hardening of tone as the litany proceeds.
“We discourage customers from trying on shoes in the aisles, as it creates congestion and hinders the access of other customers to the displays,” she intones.
“Look around,” says my girlfriend, turning her head from side to side whilst pulling off one shoe and pulling on another. “Do you see anyone being obstructed?” She’s wearing a skirt, and as she contorts herself on the floor I catch glimpses of the top of her thigh, which is fine by me because she’s got fine thighs, but I can’t say that it conveys a great sense of decorum.
“If you don’t take your three pairs of shoes to the fitting area, I’ll have to call the manager.”
“Then call the damn manager so that he, she, or it can explain your weird policies to me!”
“Most people behave reasonably,” the girl says.
I wince. That isn’t the language I would have chosen under the circumstances. I would bet money on the fact that an eruption is imminent. I picture the two of them rolling around the floor of the store in a desperate bundle of scratching and clawing, of punching and slapping, of kicking and head-butting. I’m embarrassed, but comfortable in the fact that my role is now purely peripheral. Compared to the rancor between the two of them, the irritability that existed between my girlfriend and I ten minutes ago has the relative magnitude of a minor squabble between infants at the height of a global nuclear war.
But, as always, women never cease to surprise me.
“Those look good on you,” says the girl.
All three of us look at my girlfriend’s feet.
“They do,” I say, not altogether lying.
“And they’re comfortable,” says my girlfriend.
“And they’re on sale, 25% off, today only,” says the girl.
There’s a long pause, whilst all three of us stare at her feet again.
“Okay", says my girlfriend. “I’ll take them.” I feel as if the Cuban Missile Crisis has been defused. We can all sleep safe in our beds again.
We pay. We go.
“That bitch,” says my girlfriend as we’re driving home.
“Yes,” I say. Not agreeing with her, but just relieved.
“But they’re beautiful shoes.”
“Yes,” I say, feeling as if I’ve got off lightly..
When we get home I angrily throw my trousers into a closet. It’s at least a month before I feel like wearing them, and when I do the zipper breaks – I’ll have to take them back to the shop.