I travel a lot, but not because I love it. I don’t have some great passion for exotic cuisine or penchant for historical sites. I do it mainly because it’s something to do. Moving around a lot as a kid instilled a certain level of wanderlust in me, and working a remote job now means that if I see something cool on Instagram, I can usually figure out a way to go there. So I do. And with each trip I add to my stack of interesting anecdotes, but I won’t list “travel” as a hobby. My hobby is people.
Since I move around a lot and don’t work in an office, I don’t have many deep friendships, and no real connection to a community. My main pipeline for fast interpersonal intimacy dried up when I quit drinking. I spend a lot of time alone.
Luckily, I am excellent company.
Eventually though, my inspiration reserves get low and I need to be among civilization for a while. So I travel because nothing refuels the tank better than wandering around some new town like Jerome or Lisbon and just soaking in the newness. (I won’t get into the obvious added benefit of expanding the geographical limits of your comfort zone. There’s whole sections of the library dedicated to that.) I like to walk the streets until some place like a bakery or a hat shop catches my eye and I wander in and, if I catch the right vibe, start asking questions. How long have you worked here? What shouldn’t I miss while I’m in town? Is the town changing? Is that a good thing? Are these cupcakes gluten free?
Shopping provides a natural conversation starter, giving me the perfect “in” to develop micro connections with the world. I’ve spent hours chatting with locals in bead emporiums and coffee shops and gemstone museums. I leave with renewed faith, reminded that interesting weirdos and their dogs abound, and all I have to do is let myself go say hi. Being an outsider gives me the courage to engage. So I hear about an event called “Divine Consign” which is a huge consignment sale, and I think, what the hell? I’ll take the opportunity to be out in the world.
Hot pink signs that say Women’s Sale Today! Gently Used Clothing for Women and Teens are wobbling on skinny metal posts in a frigid October wind. I follow them down a country road to a large modern church. I’ve shopped this event before. Sometimes you find decent brands with the tags still on. Other times you get a headache from dusty stacks of fast fashion. In that way, it’s kind of an adventure.
Inside, racks of secondhand denim and knits extend in every direction of what must be the parish multipurpose room. The air smells sickly sweet like those candles that make your house smell like you just made cinnamon rolls. A woman with a name tag rushes past me carrying a stack of clothes and starts shoving hangers onto one of the racks. Looking back over her shoulder, she recites her line, “just so you know, the pink stickers are half off.”
Women paw through the curated collection of pilling sweaters and once-worn dresses with furrowed brows. I start perusing a “Staff Picks” section that displays higher end items like Diane Von Furstenberg and Eileen Fisher and start my own stack – pieces that might fit into the inky black void of my winter wardrobe. The woman next to me wrestles a hanger out of a rack to get a closer look at a blouse and holds it up in the air, “Sharon! Look at this! It’s LOFT!”
Sharon places a gently used Ugg boot back on a table and squints, “Oh I just love that neckline. Try it on!”
At one edge of the space, black fabric hangs from metal piping that someone’s handy husband fashioned into cubes for fitting rooms. A pre-teen is ushering a line of waiting women into stalls as they open up. Her ponytail swings wildly as she patrols the stalls and expertly parrots customer service phrases, “Unfortunately we’re all full right now. If you want to wait here, it’ll just be a moment. Ma’am? Are you waiting to try on? This one’s open. Follow me, please.”
I follow the ponytail and enter a gauzy black box to try on my stack of someone’s unloved cashmere. Through the fabric walls I can clearly see people shopping out on the floor, and the women in the cube next to me who have doubled up for efficiency. They giggle and whoop when they find something they like, “I need a sweater like this for the office! It gets so cold in there. And it’s only seven bucks!”
My sweaters don’t work out, but I find a like-new leather jacket with a half-off sticker. Score. I wear it out of the box to where women in secondhand tunics and yoga pants walk a makeshift runway. They strike poses, tug at the fabric and glare at themselves in a large mirror leaning against the cinderblock wall. I walk past a dozen more women waiting their turn, and head for the raised stage which serves as the jewelry and name-brand bag showroom. I’m looking for turquoise.
“Let me know if you want to see anything!” a volunteer across the table holds up a small key and glances with kohl-rimmed eyes at the glass-top boxes that keep semi-precious pieces separate from the costume jewels. She is around 60 with icy silver bangs resting on the edge of black cat-eye glasses that magnify intense lilac eyes. A name tag pinned to her chest reads “Shari.”
“I’d love to check out this silver cuff,” I point to one of the boxes, which she opens up so I can start digging around.
I’m not looking long before something even sparklier and more dynamic catches my eye. Behind Shari, a nymph of a woman paces and straightens jewelry in quick, catlike movements. Her name tag is covered in a layer of glitter and pink half-off stickers. Underneath, it says “Roxy.”
Roxy disappears from behind the table and appears suddenly at my elbow, looking up at me with icy blue contact lenses. “That’s Kendra Scott, you know.” pointing at the gold chain I’m holding.
“I don’t know what that means,” I lie, hoping this elf woman will keep talking.
“She’s a designer. She has a store over at the Corners. She does a lot with drusies.” She takes the chain out of my hand and flips it over to reveal a sparkly stone pendant.
“Ah, cool. Drusies.” I repeat, placing the heavy necklace back in the glass-top box that Shari is still holding open.
“If you like anything we just have to put it in a bag with your name on it and take it to the front for you.” I examine the collection of bangles and sterling earrings while Roxy and Shari chatter like birds on a wire. In unfinished bursts, they cover several topics at once. It’s been busy today. I can’t believe it’s so cold already! Kathy took a longer than usual break that morning and you know what that means. (I didn’t, but it was fun to speculate. Was Kathy a recovering addict sneaking hits in the church bathroom? Did she run off to meet her badboy ex-lover at lunch? God, Kathy is such a POS.)
They catch me listening and hold me in a jewel-toned double gaze. A beaded bracelet slips from my hands, which have started to sweat. I come clean, “I’m sorry, but you two are just so chic!”
It was true. They are wrapped in head-to-toe black, with crescent moon patterns and layers of tulle. Each dons an equally eye-catching headband, different enough to convey their individual spooky persuasions – one with velvety cat ears, the other a black veil that makes her look like a witchy bride. Shari wears lipstick so deep blood red it’s almost black. Roxy’s nails are leopard print decals.
“We are ready for Halloween!” the say, stating the obvious in perfect unison. “Plus both our birthdays are coming up. We get real into it.”
“I dunno,” I poke, “You ladies seem a little too nice to be Scorpios.” One thing I’ve learned on my travels is that a lighthearted astrology joke is a great way to find out if the people you’re talking to are fun weirdos. If they’re not, the joke shuts down the conversation and you move on with your life. But sometimes you open a portal to deep personal revelations on the repurposed stage of a megachurch.
Roxy smiles and flits away again while Shari shakes her head. “No, no, no. I’ve got a tough side.” Clearly a fun weirdo, she understood the joke. (Scorpio types, like their arachnid namesake, are known to have a hard exoskeleton and a mean sting to protect their squishy underbelly.) “I had a tough life, so I had to get a tough side. I’ve got some fight in me.”
“Mm-hmm,” I narrow my eyes and nod in feigned disbelief.
“I don’t let people push me. What do you do when people try to push you?”
“They wouldn’t dare!” I joke.
I was putting on a show for these women. I felt a kinship with them; we share a love for spooky fashion and consignment shopping, and now our conversation was going from zero to the-meaning-of-life thanks to one dumb joke. But I wasn’t altogether lying. In fact, I felt like I was writing a character sketch for the woman I am trying to be. And she is so sure of herself and her worth that manipulative, shitty behavior doesn’t even register on her radar. She is so bulletproof in her confidence that people who try her just wither and die.
I try to channel her and convey a touch of menace in a wide smile, and continue, “People know better than to push me. They want me on their side.”
Shari stares, blinks her violet eyes, and inhales. She sees right through me. “Now. See. You’re going to walk away and I’m going to remember everything about you – your teeth, your hair, your nose ring. I spent my life having to see everything. I experienced a lot of trauma and now I can see and heal trauma with other people.” She is literally calling me out for fronting. On a stage, in front of God and the gently used Coach bags.
I open my eyes wide like a fawn and redirect, “Wait. Constantly noticing everything is a trauma thing?”
She stares at me, nods.
She leans forward in her chair, hovering over what is left of the sterling.
“Huh. I might have some work to do!” This is another stupid joke coming from a person who has been in as much therapy as I have. My character sketch failed to recognize the deep inner work my character has already done to get here. I keep smiling, signaling my receptivity to Shari, who wants to say something.
“I had a tough time. I had to get strong. My father just tried to kill me again when he got Alzheimer’s.” She holds her hands to her throat in a theatrical strangle while that word again echoes in my head. “But I’m learning how to not take it on anymore. Now I can just put up my boundaries.” She zips up an invisible sweatshirt. “And oh boy, they don’t like that.” She said, gesturing toward the invisible antagonists somewhere by the fitting rooms.
“Now I’m a practitioner in a program that helps people heal their trauma.” Unprompted, she writes the name of the group on a slip of paper and slides it into the bag with the turquoise and silver earrings I picked out. Seemingly out of nowhere, the authoritative tween from the fitting rooms bounds up to the table, looking pure and out of context in the midst of this conversation. With the posture of a royal envoy, she addresses Shari and Roxy, “Is there anything I can take to the front for you?” Shari hands her the ziploc with my jewels and the name of the trauma group. She scampers to the cash register. I’ll pick it up when I check out.
That’s the thing with people and these interactions we have. Sometimes it’s dusty fast fashion and gluten free cupcakes. Sometimes it’s intense micro-intimacy. But it’s always people, so it’s always interesting. Both the leather and the wisdom were someone else’s first, but they’re mine now. ✨