I only had twenty-four hours in New York to buy my grandmother a gift for her 90th birthday before my flight out to Portland for the big party. I’d just gotten back from Germany where I unsuccessfully tried to woo a woman I’d been in love with, or thought I’d been in love with, for three years. A tall, thin, delicious strawberry blonde woman she was in Germany on a Fulbright and was not in the least interested in making a long distance relationship work. Not that I blame her, but still.
I went to Freiburg, a small-yet-cosmopolitan southern university town where Martin Heidegger was first hired as a lecturer, to secure from her some kind of commitment or sign or gesture that would convince me that I was as important to her as she was to me, an expectation that in hindsight already seems impossible in its lack of specificity. I wanted her to ask me to move to Freiburg, to be near her, to be a part of her life. Instead, we had a good time, enjoyed each other’s company and then said goodbye without any plans to see each other again, a relationship dynamic that seemed, and still seems, too provisional to be worth the emotional effort, all those moments of wondering: Where’s Emily? What’s Emily doing? When am I going to hear from Emily? Not a good place to be, I assure you: Out of reach, a step behind, chasing the sun from the shadows of the world.
It was a late summer New York afternoon. The warm air was cut through with a hint of autumn’s oncoming chill. I was in that rare position of having just gotten off an intercontinental flight with only a handful of hours to spare before a cross-country flight in the opposite direction and the city seemed pleasantly unreal to me, the buildings, the cars, the people, merely pretty, transitional props in my mind as if God’s giant hand might descend at any minute to turn the page on the entire landscape, as if the city were a children’s book, bright and glossy, revealing beneath it a completely different locale, different people, different names for the things we love.
When you’re in that privileged globetrotting space of timelessness does anything really matter? It is a space of invincibility, however temporary, and it makes “normal” life seem bland by comparison, undesirable, merely satisfactory which, in my deepest fears, was how I imagined Emily thought of me and was the reason why she chose not to hold onto me, chose not to decide I was special, treating me instead as the replaceable person I am, like we all, finally, are.
I decided to go to Tiffany’s for my grandmother’s birthday present. I’d only ever been there once with an ex-girlfriend, Leila, a college girlfriend, with whom I was quite serious, who with her dark middle-eastern complexion and brown, almond-shaped eyes looked as if she could have been a Pharaoh’s handmaiden in a previous life, if not the Queen of Egypt herself. We walked through the store with all the brimming confidence of a young couple who cannot yet possibly imagine anything ever going seriously wrong between them. Our life, at the time, was like a jaunty, elegant musical and Tiffany’s served as the perfect backdrop to our lives as if all the glittery jewels were ours by right as young lovers, to be had for merely a song, and the pursed-lipped attendees perched solemnly behind the counters were simply awaiting our sublime melodies before releasing their treasures into our rightful custody.
But neither Leila or I had fourteen thousand dollars on us that day and we left empty-handed save for visions of the future and what life might be like when we were older, better situated to walk through the famed jewelry store selecting the most beautiful items for purchase as if they were nothing more than fruits and vegetables found at a Saturday market.
After we broke up I tended to avoid Tiffany’s whenever I was in mid-town as if it were the site of some terrible crash, of young love’s miscarriage, and if I were to go near it the memories of ruined hope would come flooding out the windows, a train of dark clouds beat into little upside down hearts hanging over the city.
But my grandmother, Velva, turning 90 offered up an entirely new opportunity, a new door through which to reenter that old building. How often does one’s grandmother turn 90? How often, for that matter, does anyone turn 90? A doctor friend once told me that the human body, our organs, are designed to last at least a hundred and ten, a hundred and fifteen years and yet no one makes it that far. Few people even come close. The average lifespan in America today is about 79 for women, 72 for men. That my grandmother was turning 90 in relatively strong physical and mental health was, undoubtedly, a special occasion for a variety of reasons.
She and I have always been close. This was, after all, the woman who would throw games of Go Fish and Checkers if she was on the verge of winning just so her young grandson wouldn’t yet have to experience that awful twinge of defeat so common to adult life. This was the woman who said, whenever I asked to go to the toy store, “Well, I don’t see why not.” This was the woman who carried around, in her purse, a poem I wrote as a freshman in college for so long that the 8.5 x 11” printer paper had become yellowed with holes and looked as if it were parchment like an ancient pirate map or a document of our founding fathers. She showed it to as many people as possible telling anyone who would listen: “My grandson wrote this.” This was the woman with the ever-ready smile and easy demeanor who was for me the greatest model of poise and grace in the face of life’s ever-changing and unpredictable landscape that I have ever known. She is, undoubtedly, as irreplaceable to me as I am to her.
I walked through Tiffany’s massive revolving doors on 5th avenue with all the sober intent of a real buyer, not just some fantasy seeker or tourist come to walk through the isles of cinematic make-believe. I circled the counters on the first floor trying to pinpoint those smaller, less spectacular items on show that I might be able to afford.
I asked a saleswoman if I could see a lovely, slight pendant that I, for some reason, determined might be in my price range. She opened the sliding door at the rear of the counter, reached her hand into the display case and moved the pendant onto a black velvet swath on top of the glass.
“Very nice,” I said, fingering it. I didn’t want to give her the impression that I was afraid to touch it.
“It’s a 14-carrot emerald,” she said with all the excitement of a dead nun, “surrounded on either side by a 10-carrot diamond.”
“How much is it?” I asked as if I were just happening by and was thinking about picking up a half a dozen or so emerald and diamond pendants on the way home from work.
“Nine thousand dollars,” she said.
“Mm-hmm,” I hummed, in a tone suggesting that the pendant wasn’t quite what I was looking for.
“And those? How much are those earrings?”
“Those ruby and diamond earrings are twelve thousand dollars,” she said.
How many men come in every day to Tiffany’s asking the same questions I was asking? Fifty? A hundred? A thousand?
“Is there something in particular you’re looking for?” she asked.
I could see an older, bald salesman who looked like the prototypical Jeeves butler taking an interest in our interaction as he slowly inched his way towards us.
“I’m looking for something for my grandmother,” I said slowly amplifying my voice, “It’s her 90th birthday.”
Ah, grandma’s 90th birthday, I imagined the man saying, Well, we have this platinum scepter for free!
“How much were you looking to spend?” the older salesman asked.
“Less than these earrings,” I said slowly nodding my head.
“You might try the fifth floor,” he said pointing to the elevator at the rear of the store, “we have a very nice collection that you might be interested in.”
I thanked him. He nodded with his eyes closed. The woman stood off to the side with her head bent towards the ground.
I shared the elevator with an over-weight, middle-aged man with thinning hair wearing Dockers and a crumpled yellow polo shirt. He looked like the kind of meat and potatoes guy depicted on any number of sit-coms meant to represent America’s Average Man. He smiled warmly at me and said hello.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Just fine,” he said, “doin’ fine.” His big, broad smile caused his eyes to scrunch up into slits. His cheeks were rose-colored and shiny.
“Great,” I said, “great.”
He pressed three: Houseware, kitchenware. I pressed five.
We stood in silence both nodding our heads to the same non-existent beat. He was carrying several bags and was clearly in the thick of an active shopping trip. The elevator bell rang and the doors opened.
“You take care,” he said and walked off into a showroom filled with linens, silverware and china.
“You too,” I called out at his back suddenly wishing I could spend more time with him. I wondered what he was doing there, what he was going to buy or what he was looking for. Was he the older man who could go to Tiffany’s and buy anything he wanted, anything at all?
A young black couple got on in his place. The young man pressed the already lit number five. If the man who’d just gotten off the elevator was the ghost of my Tiffany’s future then this couple was surely the ghost of my Tiffany’s past, bleeding grief and confusion, clearly in over their heads like I once was with my college girlfriend, their dead eyes numb to the vertiginous prices. We didn’t look at one another. No one spoke. The bell rang and the elevator doors opened on the fifth floor to an enormous room drenched in sunlight. I followed the young couple out of the elevator into the showroom, slowly, piously, like worshippers into a cathedral.
To my right a fit and tan woman with long, curly blonde hair who may have been fifty but who looked like she was twenty-five, tried on a black onyx bracelet. Without thinking I moved towards her. She clearly knew what she was doing, clearly had an elongated lifespan ahead of her. I looked in the display case and saw an array of black, white and multi-colored onyx bracelets and necklaces. I liked all of them, any of which would have been an excellent gift for my grandmother.
“Can I see this necklace?” I asked the saleswoman, much younger and happier than her senior counterpart downstairs.
“Sure,” she smiled.
I imagined she spends her days helping wealthy people buy phenomenal gifts for themselves and is new enough that she probably still has a really good time doing it.
I held the onyx necklace in my hand. The beads contained all the colors in the ROYGBIV spectrum in an elegant, almost subdued way. I loved it.
“How much is it?” I asked.
“Nine hundred dollars.”
Well, at least the prices are coming down, I thought.
“How about that one? How much is that?” I pointed towards the smaller, black bracelet the blonde woman had been trying on a minute ago.
That one’s five fifty.”
I thanked her and moved to a large glass counter in the center of the room where I saw a collection of silver earrings, necklaces, rings and bracelets. I could see the small handwritten price tag on a beaded, silver necklace; not only was it in my price range but it was elegant, very beautiful, a piece I would have liked regardless of its price. I asked to see it and another similar silver beaded necklace next to it which happened to be slightly less expensive and just as lovely, if not more so.
“Excuse me,” I caught a saleswoman’s eyes.
“I’d like to look at these two.”
She placed them side-by-side on a black velvet swath atop the counter.
My heart thumped in my chest. I looked back and forth between the two necklaces and imagined my grandmother wearing each. She would like either, no doubt, and, in reality, would probably be thrilled if I gave her a pine cone for her birthday, just as long as I picked it out.
“These are lovely,” I said.
“They are,” she said, “I love silver.”
The first beaded necklace had grooves carved into each ball. The second necklace had plain, smooth balls beginning with smaller beads in the back, growing larger out into the front.
“I’ll take this one,” I said pointing to the latter.
“Great choice,” she said.
I gave her my credit card and drank in the moment. I love salesperson banter. So smooth, efficient, upbeat, like a good commercial or pop song. I felt as if I’d slain a personal demon or two, eradicated some gross shit that’d built up over time, the kind of stuff, I imagine, that prevents so many of us from living the kind of full and healthy lives that we’re capable of.
I could see the young black couple I shared the elevator with moving quickly from counter to counter. Neither of them appeared to be enjoying themselves, burdened as I’m sure they were by the unreasonable expectations a place like Tiffany’s can create in the minds of young, impressionable consumers. I saw the older woman with curly blonde hair chatting ferociously on her cell phone, chewing the air in front of her mouth. She’ll probably never die.
The saleswoman walked back towards me from the computer and I imagined her saying something like, “I’m sorry, Mr. Vandor, but your credit card has been denied.”
Instead, she said, “If you could just sign here.”
As I took the receipt she leaned over behind the counter and pulled out a small, blue Tiffany’s shopping bag and placed the boxed necklace inside.
Oh my god, I thought, the Tiffany’s light blue shopping bag! I completely forgot about that. Almost more prestigious than the jewelry itself.
Would you believe me if I told you that when I exited Tiffany’s and headed north on 5th Ave. towards and through Central Park on my way to a friend’s apartment on W. 62nd street that nearly every woman I passed between the ages of 18 and 55 looked me up and down, backwards and forwards, smiling, giving me the eye, a seemingly endless train of nameless beautiful twinkling ghosts? And why? Why do you think? I was carrying that little blue bag apparently so popular with women of all ages. Sure, maybe I just looked really good that day, free as I was in that globetrotting space of meaninglessness. And maybe there was just something in the air.
It would be cliché to say that the Tiffany’s bag is like catnip for women and it might even be cliché to suggest that clichés are clichés for a reason but…that bag! Is it possible that women, women’s desires are that transparent, that predictable? Is it that easy to attract a woman’s attention? Say it isn’t so! I could have had a baloney sandwich in my bag, a small pile of dirt, used Kleenex. Gentlemen of the world: Have I got a ploy for you!
That multigenerational, multiethnic, demographic-rich caravan of women mostly reacted the same way. They looked at my bag, then up at me, then back at the bag, then back up at me finally timing a smile and strong eye contact just as we passed, an introduction, perhaps, into their lives, a door left slightly ajar.
Now, I am not an ugly man. I know what it’s like to be flirted with on the street, smiled at, etc., but I have never in my life experienced anything like what I experienced that day. What was it that those unknown women, those apparitional, future grandmothers-to-be saw in me? A good man? A wealthy man? A man of taste? All because of my little blue bag did I conform to their image of an ideal mate? I admit to feeling disappointed with the entire Female Gender that afternoon.
Tramps, whores, bitches, sluts! What the fuck?
This is not for you, you or you, I thought, fending off each inquiring glance. This is for my grandma. This is for my grandma!
Shawn Vandor’s first book Fire At the End of the Rainbow, a collection of short essays and autobiographical writings, is due out in the Fall of 2008 from Sand Paper Press.