Where Nothing Bad Can Happen

By

There was a winter when I was obsessed with a certain green sweater. Love is too big a word, but I was deeply interested from a distance, the way it’s easy to be intrigued by a stranger. The sweater was in a catalogue. I carried the catalogue in an old leather bag, along with paintbrushes, rags, oil paints, and a hardback copy of The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir, which I’d found at the Goodwill for fifty cents.

That’s how I shopped: used, cheap. Books.

It was 1985. The Mandarins was forty years old. If you don’t know it, it’s a novel with a Marxist view, filled with serious, dramatic sentences, like this: “Eating to live, living to eat—that had been the nightmare of my adolescence. If it meant going back to that, it would be just as well to turn on the gas at once.”

Reagan was president, the rich/poor split creaked open; my home state, Oregon, was deep in a recession, and I didn’t believe in conspicuous consumption. To not shop was political: buying new petroleum-based clothes was about buying into the whole Military Industrial Complex. Selling the hours of your life to a job to pay for the trinkets of your life was a consumer trap. So I was broke, but I had conceptual, theoretical, sociopolitical reasons for opting out of a financial world I had never really entered. I was into painting, and friends. I wanted time to hang out and paint. My master plan: if you don’t earn much, don’t spend much.

But the catalogue migrated around my apartment, with the pages turned open to one thing: a photo of a woman walking beside a man down a country road in what I guessed was a New England fall. A New England fall was essentially as foreign to me as de Beauvoir’s post-war Paris. In Oregon, leaves turn brown and soggy as raisin bran with the first fall rain. In the catalogue, the woman frolicked in red and yellow leaves, wearing the green sweater. A stack of five other colors, charcoal to cherry, were displayed fanned out in an insert.

How much time did I give over to looking at that damn sweater? I studied it until I came to feel the generous thickness and weight of that wool in my hands. The sweater would be only scratchy enough to show its natural fiber integrity. Mostly, it would be soft. It could be called moderately priced by somebody else. For me, it was a fortune. Bottom line: I was twenty years old and broke, with oil-paint-stained cuticles, crawling my way through a dark Northwestern winter. Mostly, I was freezing.

I had one sweater from St. Vincent DePaul, a men’s V-neck, with three buttons down low and two shallow pockets, grandpa-style. The rest of my clothes came out of free boxes that showed up in apartment basements: rhinestone necklaces, old silk dresses, perfectly broken-in 501s. People leave things when their lives change—when they move, gain weight, break up. I was rail thin and didn’t mind baggy clothes, so I made a perfect candidate for cast-offs. And I liked a fashion risk, a good joke, an ironic, moth-chewed dead mink coat so tattered it had turned itself into an anti-fur commentary. I wasn’t invested in getting dressed.

The catalogue had shown up curled in the dark of my little aluminum mailbox down the hall. The sweater looked practical, thick, warm, and plain. It was a straightforward, conservative sweater! To buy that sweater, in the politically informed, punk-rock heyday of Portland, would be as out of step as dating a conservative Christian, a young Republican. It wasn’t my thing. So why did I keep looking at it, assessing the value, the price, the possibility?

I was involved with a man, a philosopher, fifteen years older than I was, but other than a gray hair in his insane pile of dark curls, the age difference didn’t register in the slightest. We rode bikes, everywhere. We wore black coats, black turtlenecks, old jeans. I had more going on in the way of work than he did—there were places around town where gallery owners liked me and let me step in. Sometimes my shift in an art gallery lasted only as long as the owner’s lunch. Other times, it might run all day.

He and I were both enrolled at Portland State University. He hovered between undergraduate status (one course short of graduating?), a master’s degree (enrolled), and a PhD (also enrolled). He took classes out of state, registered for two schools at once. He’d forged himself a liminal academic no-man’s land, free of linear progression. Who needs a graduation date? Why should learning end?

With my random paychecks, I rented the first apartment I ever had with a bathroom actually in the apartment. I didn’t have to keep shampoo and soap in a basket, to carry down the hall. I could step out of a shower without wrapping myself in a robe, didn’t need to dress to cut through communal spaces lined with junkies, runaways, poker players, anorexics, pizza chefs, and punks.

See the kind of rented rooms I’d come from? I was proud of my apartment. These were the things I wanted: a good sweater, and a bathroom of my own.

My rooms were on the ground floor, where windows opened over an empty lot I called a yard. In that lot, whole parties would spring up—early morning poets, crews out counting their cans, homeless loners sleeping off a binge.

One night, in a heavy rain, an older a woman I worked for gave me and my six-dollar coaster bike a ride home. It was a good bike, with only one bent crank, and the truth is I got it for free. My brother paid the six dollars, because it was his bike for a while first. As I got out of my employer’s car, she leaned to peer through her window and up the front steps of the building. The bare bulb of the entry afforded a welcoming glare. It illuminated raindrops, granting each drop a halo, a downpour of cheap jewels.

My boss pushed her glasses back on her nose and cleared her throat. “Dear,” she said, “do you feel safe here?”

It was a brick building, freestanding and solid.

She was hesitant to leave.

My apartment door had a lock that was more secure than the front door of the house I grew up in. The building’s main entry had a buzzer system. My key was already in my hand. Inside, the manager would be wandering our grease-scented halls, smoking, adjusting her wig, always rubbing lotion over the terrible eczema that bothered her arms. Her two little dogs would grunt and scoot their bottoms on the worn carpet runner. In the empty lot, the shadows and silhouettes of people in thick coats, and what looked like a few doubled-up stocking caps, shuffled through the bushes. Not all neighbors have houses.

“Of course,” I said. I was fine. I thanked her, wiped rain off my forehead, then closed the door of the warm car and moved to hoist my dear old bent bike out from her spacious trunk.

On a Sunday morning just after that, waking up, I pulled back the curtain in my tiny kitchen, and there was a man with a compound bow outside. It was a complicated sort of power bow. The sky was grey and heavy. He wore a camouflage-print rain slicker. It was like he’d crawled out of the woods, or been dropped from another planet, or maybe he’d just come from a shopping spree at Andy and Bax, Portland’s military surplus store. He drew back an arm, released, let an arrow fly. Thunk. There was a solid sound when the arrow hit a hay bale he’d clearly carted in for that purpose.

I don’t know if he was trying to threaten somebody, in particular. The important detail is, he shot parallel to the windows that lined my rooms, not toward the building. That’s a huge distinction, one I was willing to give him credit for; on my part, it was the difference between witnessing a spectacle and sure death. He hit a hay bale! That was all. People have hobbies. In a city, it takes tolerance to live side by side.

I dropped the curtain and ran water in an old pan I’d found in the basement, then put in on the tiny gas stove, to boil for coffee. Beside me, on a narrow tile counter, the woman in the green wool sweater laughed, kicked her way through leaves, and lightly held her boyfriend’s arm. Her boyfriend had fabulous teeth. Actually, they had matching teeth! Sun dappled her hair. She was happy. It didn’t look like the sweater was scratchy. Looking at that catalogue was like looking out a window, maybe my own window, only into a tidier sort of world. I reached for a chipped china coffee cup, a Goodwill special, and put a stained drip cone on top.

Thunk. A second arrow hit, I spilled the hot water, scalded my wrist, and swore that whatever came next, today or any day, I wouldn’t jump again.

***

The man I was seeing had two sisters, identical twins. They were gorgeous, dark-haired and busty, and moved in a cloud of Nordstrom: perfume, leather, new clothes, lip gloss, hair spray, formaldehyde, nylon, urea, petrochemicals, arsenic, lead, and cadmium, if cadmium has a smell.

Their brother and me? We weren’t smokers, but we hung out with people who were; we ate cheap gyros and drank dollar pitchers of beers. I’m sure we smelled all too often like a tavern.

One of the twins married the kind of man whose name you’d see high over the city, on the side of major construction projects. The other married into possibly more suspect sources of money, though I didn’t ask and so don’t know. Don’t take my word on any of that.

One was straight-up Nordstrom, the other a little more Nordstrom Rack. Both looked stunning, all the time. When I think of them now, I see them with their Nordstrom’s bags. Always, with those bags.

Breakfast at Tiffany'sAlong with The Mandarins, I had a battered paperback of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, another book from the mid-1950s that I’d rescued at a garage sale. While de Beauvoir, in France, was busy being a serious and sometimes gloomy theoretical Marxist, Truman Capote, in that very American way, mainlined the as-of-yet-unnamed existential angst of retail therapy.

The character Holly Golightly begins her story resisting ownership of anything, even a stray cat. She says, “I don’t want to own anything until I know I’ve found the place where me and things belong together. I’m not quite sure where that is just yet.” I understood. I wasn’t sure, either. I was making my way.

But she describes her love of Tiffany’s as fending off despair:

The blues are because you’re getting fat or maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re sad, that’s all. But the mean reds are horrible. You’re afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don’t know what it is….What I’ve found does the most good is to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind of men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets.

Some say the psychological source of compulsive shopping is rooted in a lack of love. Maybe it’s true. Holly Golightly, a young woman on her own, is a portrait of a compulsive shopper ready to launch.

As I saw the two twin sisters, with their Nordstrom bags, I wondered if they felt the mean reds, the soothing sense of commerce, Nordies as a place where nothing very bad can happen. I wondered if they felt a lack of love.

Their mother plucked her eyebrows like a 1940s starlet into high, thin arches. She curled her lashes, put mascara on, and painted her lips coral. She set her hair in pin curls, and kept her blinds closed. In all the years I knew her, I saw her leave the house exactly once. I never saw her put a foot into the tended yard.

Their father, her husband, the patriarch, owned buildings downtown. He’d buy, sell, and trade over breakfast with the guys. Shopping—dealing—on a big scale, was his business. His motto: Get a Brooks Brothers. Put on a good suit, go out with the guys, and the money would come.

Once, he moved the family into the most expensive house in Portland’s real-estate market, at the foot of the West Hills. The family showed me a fragile, yellowed newspaper clipping, their names, the address, the price. By the time I saw it, the girls had moved out, with families of their own. The father had moved in with his mistress. The big house had long been sold. He stayed married to his first wife, though, and bought her a modest ranch home tucked further back in the quiet, empty, curving streets in the hills.

In my apartment, my old, curved refrigerator quit working. I asked the manager for help. She offered a new one, though it’d be a while. A very long while. Months. After that, my guy and I rode our bikes across town, from one side of the river to the other, every evening. We rode miles, through the city, just to eat cheap Vietnamese food. And we got thinner, and thinner, and we were happy.

The only time I knew his mother to leave her house, the ranch house, was after the new fridge was finally in. She came to my apartment for dinner. I cleaned the apartment. I moved an easel and put a few freaky paintings out of the way. I roasted a fat chicken that barely fit in my tiny, enameled oven. I made a salad. If I’d bought the green sweater, I would’ve worn it. I looked at the catalogue, touched the image, chided myself for not having something reasonable to wear in a drafty apartment on a cold, dark night. I put on a little stained silk dress, and turned up the heat.

When she came over, her grown son, her rock-and-roller, her long-haired anarchist, her anti-corporate man-boy, came in at her side, and went for a beer. She clutched her clutch purse in both hands, as though somebody had threatened to take it away. She lifted the stiff material of a sallow rolling-blind to look out one window over the dark side yard, turning her head one way then the other, and asked, “Do you feel safe here?”

“Completely!” I said, and put a little quiet jazz station on the old stereo, hoping she’d relax. “Wine?”

Her body language gave me all cues that she was terrified, but of what? Germs? Maybe. Neighbors, crime. I could only guess. She was an aging Holly Golightly: “You’re afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don’t know what it is…”

Nothing bad would happen! I’ve always been a good cook. My guest sat uneasily on one salvaged wooden chair. I put dinner dishes on a rickety table, then brought out the roasted chicken. My catalogue was on the couch. The New England woman and boyfriend, in their sweaters, with their matching teeth, were practically having dinner with us, laughing and having a good time. It was a party. “I’m so glad you could be here—” I started to say.

And then we heard a sound: pop, pop, pop. Three rounds, in quick succession. It was almost a party sound, like champagne corks popping, and almost blended in with the jazz playing, except almost isn’t close enough, and we all knew what it was—a gun—and ducked. I moved fast, looked out over the edge of the window in time to see a bottle fly, glass break, a car drive away.

There, in two spotlights angled to light up the welcome sign for a retirement facility, was a man on the ground. He moaned, then hollered, swearing. I recognized his voice. I knew him through the local bar scene. I called 911. When I went out, two friends were with him. He was bleeding from his calf. We were only a handful of blocks from a major hospital, there in the heart of the city. An ambulance, squad car, and fire truck all showed up at once, crowding our narrow street.

I gave the police my version of events, and used the man’s name. Let’s say his name was Craig Schmeg. Let’s say it was Joey Poey. Looney Balloony. I won’t use his real—or real-ish—name here, but the name I gave the cops? It was a simple, silly rhyme.

The man I was involved with, at my side, out in the street, said, skeptically, “Really? That’s his name?”

I nodded yes, it was true. The police wrote the name down.

We stepped away together, aside from the cops, and my man asked, quietly, “What did his parents speak, Pig Latin?” More seriously, he whispered, “That’s not a real name.” Maybe it wasn’t. I’d never given it thought. It was a street name.

We went back to my apartment, where the woman who would never actually be my mother-in-law raised her fine eyebrows. Together the two of us told her the story—that we knew the man, that he’d be fine, that nobody got the license plate, but it was some kind of drive-by. It was random. The victim threw a bottle after he was shot. We finished each other’s sentences, told the story, in unison. We’d been helpful, we’d called the police, we’d done things right.

She held on to her clutch. I saw, in the way her eyes met mine, all disappointment, judgment, and fear. What I saw mostly was blame: I was somehow responsible for all of this.

I shouldn’t have said I knew the victim. That didn’t go over. I shouldn’t have told her the neighborhood was safe. But it was! With the blinds up now, as the flickering light of emergency vehicles played over our faces, she said, “I think I should go.”

“We haven’t had dinner,” I said.

She asked her son to see her out. That was fine, he’d be back. He’d be around a good long time.

I poured myself more wine, and watched through the window. She climbed back in her car, drove up the hill, off to a place where she could lock her own door, where nothing very bad would ever happen. Maybe it wouldn’t, didn’t. What did I know? I was twenty. Then it was just me and the catalogue, alone with a big dinner. There was the smell of roast chicken along with a whiff of turpentine in the air, from the paintings put aside.

I tore the page out of the catalogue. What did I see in that sweater? It was a basic cable knit. Looking back now, I can imagine I saw an easier life in the pretty photo, but I don’t think that’s quite it. If I really ever thought that sweater could improve my existence, I would’ve ordered it. It was the plainest, most sensible sweater in the world. It was practically dull! It was a thing beyond judgment. Who could be judged, draped in such a practical sweater? It was a justifying sweater, the reasonable thing. It would work as a costume, to say that I, the owner of such a sweater, made solid choices.

The truth is, everything I did, all the choices I made, invited easy criticism: I wore the same clothes days in a row. I wore free clothes. I dated an older man, an unemployed man, and I didn’t let that bother me. I could make my own money. I wasn’t looking for marriage. I went out to the bars too often, knew the drinkers, the hoodlums, the locals. I accepted whatever people told me in the way of their own name. I lived in a funky old building and liked it. I was so skinny that once even a homeless drunk with unsavory stains on his pants, lying at the curb, felt entitled to shout out, “Gain some weight!” as I cruised past on that same six-dollar bike. There was always somebody encouraging me to get in deeper with food, cars, clothes—with corporate America.

Fifteen years after Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the Chicago Tribune reported, “We’ve become a nation measuring out our lives in shopping bags and nursing our psychic ills through retail therapy.” Of course, retail therapy isn’t therapeutic any more than drinking is medicinal—maybe less so. Some call it “promiscuous spending,” a term designed to link shopping and sex, a carelessness to it, and a feminization. Capote saw that coming. There’s a reason he made Holly a call girl, an escort, a powder-room whore. We’re all supposed to buy into the system, but buy in too much, and you’re judged there, too.

At the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly shops:

…she acquired a stag-at-bay hunting tapestry and, from the William Randolph Hearst estate, a gloomy pair of Gothic “easy” chairs; she bought the complete Modern Library, shelves of classical records, innumerable Metropolitan Museum reproductions (including a statue of a Chinese cat that her own cat hated and hissed at and ultimately broke), a Waring mixer and a pressure cooker and a library of cook books. She spent whole hausfrau afternoons slopping about in the sweatbox of her midget kitchen…

I had that midget kitchen.

Holly says she doesn’t get the mean reds very often anymore, “except sometimes, and even then they’re not so hideola that I gulp Seconal or have to haul myself to Tiffany’s: I take his suit to the cleaner or stuff some mushrooms, and I feel fine, just great.”

She’s given in.

It turns out that even Simone deBeauvoir, that Marxist, was a serious shopper. It’s in her memoirs. She spent her book advances on nylons and furs, chocolate, oranges, and everything or anything else she wanted. Sartre was having affairs, she was having affairs, and she was shopping. Was that a lack of love, too?

Shopping is strange terrain. The act of desire is both soothing and agitating, what looks distant can be brought close, and money rides shotgun to consumer lust. The nation’s “consumer confidence index”—the confidence, and willingness, to spend instead of save—is so psychologically misguided: we’ve all learned by now that overspending is an indicator of consumer despair, not confidence. It’s the “consumptive” aspect of the economy. Consumptive—could that sound any more like an illness?

I’m still not an easy shopper. I avoid big-box stores like mad—the despair of the hot, sprawling parking lots alone makes me want to stop for a drink halfway across. But I have a house and a family, and even with the brakes on, somehow our house grows crowded with things.

My old apartment stands across town. Once in a while, I drive past it and nod. That place and I, we went through a lot together. I think about how spare it was, and how many people came through. I’m not in touch with that man, or his family. It’s a part of my life that’s gone in a freebox, somewhere.

I never ordered the sweater. Owning that sweater wouldn’t have made my ragged, lovely life any more explicable to people who made other choices—people who prioritized jobs, real yards, dry cleaning, savvy career moves, and chasing big bucks. Owning that sweater wouldn’t have gentrified the neighborhood. It wouldn’t have changed anything. In my heart, I didn’t really want it to.


Monica Drake is the author of two novels, Clown Girl and The Stud Book. She designed and launched the BFA in Writing at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, where she currently teaches and serves as Lead Faculty. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, Paris Review Daily, Oregon Humanities Review and other publications in print and online, as well as anthologies. More from this author →