Whenever we went shopping, Sandra liked to make a game of spotting single men in the crowd. She identified them by their sheepish expressions and would describe to me with a dogmatic glint in her eye the conditions of these men’s singleness. There was the bespectacled, perspiring teenager with the apprehensive shifting of the eyes: he merely lacked the confidence to latch on to a social circle or ask a girl on a date. The ungainly, middle-aged man with the severe face who would dart glances into stores rather than enter them and browse: this was a recent divorcee who had always depended on his wife to carry out such mundane chores. The pale, young professional, perhaps a doctor or a broker, who moved with a brisk, cloistered pace, completely incongruous to the rest of the casually strolling throng: he had sacrificed love and friendships for his career. The shivering senior with the protruding lower lip and the frequent scratching of his head and concurrent retracing of steps: he was a dour widower not old enough to be living in a retirement home, yet not young enough to be included in the family outings of his adult children. Each of these specimens was always magnified by some type of pathos projected by Sandra herself, which I thought wasn’t very fair, but perhaps that was how she comprehended men, as full of hidden tragedy and confusion.
But now I am a single man myself, abandoned by Sandra after six years. I thought I’d never be one of those men who look so dispossessed around a storefront. I could always count on the company of a woman. Before Sandra there was breezy, impulsive Ellen, and before Ellen there was extravagant, showy Bess. But Ellen and Bess were really only year-long stopgaps between my poker-faced, retail-savvy mother (who could talk ten per cent plus the sales tax off any merchandise) and the disciplined but fashionable Sandra, who had a mercenary aptitude for tracking down bargains. That’s how highly evolved my relationship with Sandra was. Even before we moved in together three years ago, I could just call and she would accompany me to the corner store for a pack of gum.
“Does little Derrick Lee need an escort?” she would jibe me each time, but she never once refused to come along. Only my mother could equal that kind of track record.
But now I was on my own and I found myself in dire need of some pants. So I gathered up my resolve and went shopping. I arrived at this mall, which shall remain nameless, in suburban Toronto just after dinnertime. There was a disruptive pang in my heart, and I realized how much I missed Sandra right then, with her quizzical smile and her quiet perseverance that became accentuated when shopping.
I came across this little boutique with some silvery mannequins in the window. The mannequins were naked—perhaps a kooky avant-garde effect—so I wasn’t quite sure what was being sold; but two of them were vaguely male, and this opened up the possibility that I was in the right place. I went in. The interior was poorly lit, and in the dainty blue shadows I imagined for a moment that Sandra was standing there, holding out black velveteens for me to try on. But it was only another mannequin, arms outstretched in a defensive posture.
Once, four years ago, Sandra and I had a terrible fight and we found ourselves immersed in a liquid state of semi-separation. I had gone to a boutique very similar to this one to find a peace offering. I brought along Connie, Sandra’s best friend, to help pick out the gift. She chose a red silk teddy with spaghetti straps and black lace trim. It was sublime, but also one hundred and twenty dollars. Connie, with that look of automatic consolation she always uses to mask a deeply embedded ignorance, whispered to me that she knew where to get the same teddy for a third of the price.
“I’ll take care of it,” she said warmly in my ear. “I want to see you two lovebirds back together.”
Connie brought me the teddy the next night, and I immediately took it over to Sandra, who adored it. She modelled it for me, we made up, then made love with alacrity. And because the gesture itself was sufficient enough to redeem me, Sandra returned the teddy, as a complementary gesture, to the boutique I originally visited with Connie. Apparently, Sandra had noticed, even coveted, the teddy there weeks ago, and assumed I had, by some act of omniscience, merely followed up on the impulse for her.
Well, as it turns out, Connie was a kleptomaniac and had stolen the teddy from the store only hours after she and I had left it. The teddy was tagged merchandise, and Sandra was swiftly taken into custody as soon as she handed it to the clerk for the refund. I received a hysterical call from the police station and had to go down and rescue Sandra from a jail term and utter ignominy. Since I had no money for bail, I had no choice but to turn Connie in—it was, for me, a simple, reasonable trade-off. Yet Sandra did not see it that way, and decided (in the way women have of catering to men’s self-importance while at the same time using it against them) that blame for this entire sordid matter should lie squarely on my shoulders.
“You should never have gotten Connie involved,” Sandra had said when we arrived at her doorstep after an interminably silent drive from the police station. “You know when it comes to my friendship she has tunnel vision.”
“Oh, sure. I spit on the sidewalk the other day and you call me a criminal, but Connie is running some sort of underground lingerie racket and she has tunnel vision?”
“You’re a Benedict Arnold. How can I ever trust you again with my friends’ well-being?”
“But, honey pie, your friends don’t have to trust me,” I said. “They only have to tolerate me.”
“But you’re intolerable.”
“Well, maybe, but that’s my only fault.”
There was an electric silence then, and, to undo the stalemate, I kissed her. And she was, in return, thrilled by my insolence, and thus kissed me back. And then we rushed back to the boutique and bought back the teddy.
After the boutique with the silvery mannequins proved fruitless for men’s pants, I next came across one of those youth stores, but instinctively passed it. I am only twenty-four, but that already seems conspicuously antiquated in one of those places, with their heavy atonal background music thumping against your chest, and their armies of florid adolescent clerks all trussed up in baroque body piercings and pastel-coloured hair. When I first started dating Sandra six years ago, she bought much of her clothing at these places, and, as our relationship progressed, she got me wearing all those preppy cotton twill slacks and striped rugby jerseys. For a time, we used to drive once a month across the U.S. border to the outlet malls in Buffalo, where this style of clothing is harvested in discounted abundance. In order to avoid paying the border tax, we would wear the new clothes over our old clothes, sometimes in several claustrophobic layers, like those Russian matreshka dolls that stack one inside the other. But, fortunately, she soon outgrew that fashion—fortunately because I feared we were becoming one of those stuffy couples who, from their shared habits, start to look like brother and sister.
Sandra and I were in many ways similar, but two people in close emotional proximity can become too crowded by their similarities. We were both tight with money, but this came as no surprise. Frugality was in my blood, inherited through my father’s erratic employment (a plumber by trade, he was physically limited by two mild strokes and the early onset of osteoarthritis) and my mother’s compulsive micromanagement of money (coupon books, penny jars, non-negotiable weekly allowances). Sandra, on the other hand, learned to be careful with money on her own. She scraped her way through college and nursing school with government loans and odd jobs, and still carried her student debt around like a basket of stones. And so perhaps it was natural for Sandra and me, as we grew closer to one another, to become protective of each other’s finances. We even planned to co-sign for a joint bank account.
But my mother always warned me that when it came to money management, there is a fine line between caution and neuroses. And somewhere straddling that line is blind pettiness. One month after we moved in together, Sandra and I once spent three quarters of an hour in a hardware store bickering over the appropriate price of a stepladder. We started to keep records, down to the penny, of how much was spent on the other, on the other’s family and friends, and how much was received in return, and we pinned these statements to the refrigerator. We were like two petulant children on a see-saw, each attempting to be lifted by the other’s downward pressure. At some point, I no longer felt any gravity or lift, only the fulcrum snapping.
There was a haberdashery tucked away in the corner of the mall. The moment I entered, a gnomish, elderly gentleman with a tape measure around his neck approached me and immediately started to measure my inseam while all the time criticizing my posture. Although a sign in the store claimed alterations were gratis, the shopkeeper’s own single-breasted suit seemed three sizes too large, slumping off his frame in bountiful folds. After sizing me up over eyeglasses perched low on his nacreous nose, he suggested “a buff gabardine fabric, half-worsted, half-cotton, in a houndstooth check with a high cuff.”
“Is that available in the team colours of the Green Bay Packers?” I asked, but was rebuffed by his flinty glare.
When I was fourteen, my mother took me to a haberdashery for my first suit. It was actually a narrow tailor’s shop on Yonge Street, pinched uneasily between a used record store and a Caribbean restaurant. The tailor’s shop, which was constantly fighting off angry rock music through one wall and the piquant aromas of jerk chicken and roti through the other, was owned by my father’s distant cousin, a fastidious, middle-aged bachelor whom the elder generations of my family believed to be of dubious sexuality. He bought suits and blazers that were badly stitched and cast off from other stores, then altered and resold them. Because he had become, through family whisperings, “the odd one,” my mother refused to let him come into the change room with me as I was trying on suits, and, as a measure of retaliation, he reneged on his promise of a substantial discount. I watched with steep despondency as my mother’s haggling prowess failed her for the first time.
“What was the point of me coming here if I have to pay full price?” she had argued. “The boy’s still growing. He’ll be going through suits like a baby goes through teeth. We won’t be able to afford it.” It was the only time I had ever heard my mother use my family’s lack of money as a bargaining chip. It was a hurtful and undignified tactic made more hurtful by the insinuation that I was sapping our already tight finances with my bourgeois demand for a suit.
My father’s cousin remained unmoved by my mother’s appeal, and, in fact, he seemed to grow more indignant and defensive with every word. By the way he kept looking out the window while my mother spoke, I thought my mother and I might be defenestrated. But instead, he stood there with the elbow of one arm cupped softly in the hand of the other arm, which formed a shelf across his slender, vase-shaped chest, and, with his nose high in the air, he asked us to leave.
On our way home, my mother, hunched over with contrition, asked me not to tell my father what had happened. She confided in me that my father’s health was deteriorating rapidly and, as a result, our family’s financial situation was a little shaky. We, in fact, could not afford to pay the full price on a suit, she said. The outer corners of her eyes were cracked with little lines of reluctance.
“I’m sorry,” she sputtered, and the lines around her eyes deepened. Those were difficult words for her.
“For what, Mom?”
“For not being honest enough with you about your family. This sort of thing stays with you.”
“No, of course it won’t.” I slipped my confirmation beneath the spread of her apology like a key under a mat. It would be held there for security, so that in years to come I could always extract it during a conversation and show her that her revelation this day—that we were indeed poor—had actually pulled me out of the hole of resentment she assumed I would never escape.
After fleeing the haberdashery, I meandered a while through the huge department store; it was stratified into several floors through which an indecipherable landscape of merchandise was spread. On the main floor, jewellery, colognes, and cameras were displayed in glass vaults like museum relics. As I walked by each of these display cases, my face was reflected in the glass. Under the topaz lighting of the store, my image looked wary and withdrawn. I paused at a display of watches. Before we separated last month, I was intending to buy Sandra a Swiss watch—a Swatch—for her twenty-fifth birthday next week. My mother had offered to help me pick it out. She liked Sandra, but kept a restrained acceptance of our relationship, as all mothers are apt to do with their son’s first extended relationships. The first time the three of us had gone shopping together, my mother got separated from us in this mall in Mississauga; it took over an hour for Sandra and I to find her. She was sitting on this walnut bench beside the lottery booth, her hands and purse all resting compactly like a little origami arrangement on her lap; it was as if there had been a plan from the beginning to meet at this spot. From her blank demeanour, I was not certain whether I should chastise her or apologize to her.
“What happened?” I restricted myself to something blatantly neutral.
“You had us in a panic,” added Sandra, and my mother looked up at her, trying to read a reproach into it. I suppose she didn’t find any, because she started complaining about the swelling in her ankles, and I got the feeling that she was leaving blame up in the air for me to levy. She acted as if this was a mother’s prerogative, as when she finishes reading a bedtime story and asks the child for the moral to see if he or she has been paying attention. But it was asking too much of me, and I left it in the air. And though these two women in my life remained on sufficiently pleasant terms, I don’t remember the three of us ever shopping together again.<
I was gazing at the arrangement of Swatches when beside my reflection in the glass appeared a wan, ghostly cameo of Sandra. I jumped, and for a moment I thought the apparition was rising out of its glass enclosure, but really it was just Sandra approaching from behind me.
“Hey, you,” she said.
“Hey.” We had not seen each other, and had spoken on the phone only once, since she moved out twenty-six days ago. So, in the momentary awkwardness of the encounter, we had reverted back to a punchy, noncommittal, adolescent dialect.
“What are you doing here?”
“Shopping for pants.”
“Well, you’re not going to find any in there,” she said, pointing to the watches. Her face was bright, but seemed smaller and tenser, as if it had been condensed by the same muscular process that produces a fist. As a result, her brown, almond-shaped eyes appeared to be focused intensely inward on some portentous, trapped thought, even as she conversed blithely with me. It was almost as if she were going through some effort to reacquaint herself with my sudden presence, as one adjusts vision to the dark.
“Yeah, I seem to be a little lost,” I responded.
“What a surprise,” Sandra said, and the flippancy was surprisingly nostalgic to me.
“It’s these damn monster department stores,” I said. “Men’s clothing is dispersed everywhere. There’s sportswear, activewear, casual wear, outerwear, formal wear, designer wear. It’s so confusing.”
“And you’d rather there be some sort of all-inclusive trousers section. Did you ask around?”
“Yes, I think there used to be one a while back. Remember the last time we were here? But it no longer exists,” I answered. “The salespeople here whisper about it with some kind of mythological reverence, as if it were that ancient super-continent, Pangaea, before it separated into smaller land masses.”
A smile loosened the confined quality of her face for a moment. “How’s your father?” she asked.
“Not so good. Mom’s really worried that if things don’t improve we might soon have to put him in chronic care.”
“I’m sorry.” I thought she might put her hand on my arm, but she instead crossed her arms over her chest.
“We’ll be fine,” I said. “I’ve been moved up to floor manager at the warehouse.” I was working at a company that manufactured plastic computer casings.
“You mentioned a while back that it might happen.”
“It’s more pay, anyway.”
She uncrossed her arms, and it seemed to signal a saturation point in the conversation, or perhaps it announced her desire to depart, as when pigeons fan out their tails just before taking flight. When she left me a month ago, her parting words had been “Let’s not linger on this, O.K.?” and there was some sort of accompanying physical gesture as well, a palm held out to me or a nervous rubbing of her elbow, something I can’t quite recall, though I try every day. And so, with indelible irony, her request not to linger has itself lingered on.
There was a cough behind us. We were in the way of a family that wanted to peruse the watches, and as we cleared ourselves from the aisle, our combined forward momentum dragged from me the suggestion (well, plea actually): “How about helping me find some damn pants?”
“Does little Derrick Lee need an escort?”
I put my palms together like a supplicant. “Has there been a time when I didn’t?”
Sandra contemplated the faded denims I had on. “Do you remember what I said were the three requirements for buying clothes?” she asked.
“Reasonable fit, agreeable style, acceptable cost.”
“Very good. And what three things do you need to find those three things?”
“Diligence, forbearance, luck.”
She was pleased that I could still recite her mantra correctly. And as she took my hand and led me once more through the chinos and corduroys and tweeds, perhaps for the very last time, I knew I could never fully satisfy her prodigious requirements for us.