SHOP THERAPY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I am still reeling from my breakthrough this afternoon. Rita took me to C-Mart, that outlet in Dundalk, which seemed completely off track (but that is why I needed professional help, because I never would have gone there on my own). It was there I saw these sporty spectator pumps with a little something extra in the heel area.

I knew they were me, which again, I have Rita to thank, because two years ago, I never would have known. You can imagine how nervous I was turning the shoe over to see the price. But it was just right. They were affordable without being cheap, and I knew anywhere else they would have been outrageous.

That's when it all fit. The store, the shoe, me. The shoes were businesslike -- and here I can't help but see my Roland Park father -- and they were well-built, like the Hampden side of my mother's family. But these pumps had a sporty playfulness, my sporty playfulness, which made me grin the instant I spied them.

Rita saw what was happening before I was registering consciously. Here I was in this outlet, thinking it was the kind of store my mother would have taken me to and trying not to feel insulted. (Secretly, don't we all wish for a breakthrough in Saks Fifth Avenue or at least Octavia? I know some of my friends have never been able to get past this scale of self worth.)

In revenge, I'm pretending to consider some ultra-impractical plastic heels, when Rita gently suggests, "Do you need a pair like those?" Need? Who needs a pair of bright red vinyl shoes? I almost snapped at her, but of course, after two years, I could see what she was getting at. They didn't even have a sling in back; they would have slapped my heel with each step. I put the shoes down and walked over to the leathers.

I am not exaggerating when I say those shoes were alone on that table. Everything Rita had been saying started rushing back to me. That I just had to be patient and wait out the styles. That if I could sort through the past honestly, I would come up with a new understanding of my being that would fit no matter what friends or the media said.

Frankly, I was overwhelmed when I saw how affordable the shoes were. I remember being excited and calm, hoping they would fit but also knowing, or maybe I should say trusting, that they would. On the one hand, I was anxious to try them on, but an equally strong feeling made me want to go through the scene in slow motion and enjoy asking for my size, unbuckling my sandals, taking the peds out of my purse, pulling the wadded up paper out of the toe of the pumps.

Rita had this beautiful, gentle smile on her face. We were both very happy and relieved-- under all this had been the fear that I might invest five years in shop with nothing like a unified vision emerging -- but we were a little sad, too. I've never been close to someone the way I have been with Rita. I have trusted her to be almost entirely nonjudgmental, and together we have canvassed lot of aisles. Sometimes, mostly at the beginning, she would even try on a pants suit or sort through the purses, and I knew she was doing it just to show me that my choice had not been worthless.

My happiness was also tempered with a surprising envy for my successor, probably that petite woman on Thursdays who always wore the same gold hoops. I imagined her in the waiting room preparing herself to be the center of attention for fifty full minutes, not including travel time. Granted, they were paid minutes, but in some ways it was like having both a personal masseuse and a brain surgeon in attendance two afternoons a week.

So we were both sad, and we were embarrassed that our sadness was obvious. It's not like this was my last session (I already imagined going back to that luggage store near Ikea to see how far I had come), but we knew that I was on my way.

Last spring during a night of light sleep, when my recurring dream resolved itself, I was not this relieved. I was afraid to tell Rita that in my dream I finally stepped on the black pad with the arrow pointing out and the doors opened into a beautiful, wooded parking lot that my dream state recognized as (but which looked nothing like) the parking lot of the Rotunda, quite near my house. I was scared Rita would release me, but now I was ready for the idea. Soon, I would carry her number on a piece of paper in my wallet, and every month I would be one of her stable expatients to whom she sent a listing of the better bargains in Baltimore.

I recognize now I ought to take some credit, but I'm sure I was just radiating respect for Rita as I sat waiting for the shopgirl to get an 8 M from the back room. I remembered my summer in group (Rita knew I had to get over my isolation fears), when Rita would take the six of us to Cross Keys Mall each Thursday. When it was your turn, you would pick a store (and you didn't have to justify your choice to anyone) and the group would follow. It seemed so humane that when someone who had just gone through a divorce would look at lingerie and apologize that just because they were left for an older or younger woman or no woman at all they felt they had to look at pretty nightgowns, you could assure them that it was all right.

And you would not just be saying that. That was the power of group. One of the women would pick out a seersucker robe with blue piping and a silk frog closure, and you would think, "My god, that's exactly what I bought (or wished I had bought) after Keith went to computer camp, or after I realized I was never going to be a ballerina."

Maybe now I'm overcompensating for the tiny letdown I felt after the shoes did not fit, but I don't think so. When the woman brought me the box (and she was very patient and kind) and I tried to fit my foot into those blue and white pumps, I remember thinking, "Don't force it." That was the tip of the iceberg. They did not fit. They were too small. See? I had this image of how this was it, all the elements of my self, and yet in the end, it was too constricting.

I finally knew what Rita meant when she said I had to give myself some credit. I came into this shoe outlet -- Rita says I led her there, not the other way around -- and I finally got that double layer of understanding I thought was only possible at great sacrifice.

My behavior began to subtly change right away. I told the woman that the shoes were too tight, and when she started the good leather giving and reshaping speech, she could tell I was not interested. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "Beauty knows no pain?" I am ashamed to say that six months ago I might have relented, but today I smiled and told her that this beauty knew pain.

"I'd like a pair of white textured stockings," I said. "The kind you use with a garter belt," I said.

Rita raised the right side of her face, and I was startled by my new control. Even Rita did not know the side of me that could boldly ask for patterned stockings. The woman informed me that those would be found in a specialty shop and this being a shoe outlet I could buy a dozen pairs of cotton socks or a gross of pantyhose.

"A gross of pantyhose," I said aloud and chuckled at the grossness of the phrase. I did this partly out of bravado, for I could feel shame setting in. Where did I think I was going to find a garter belt in this town, and how could I possibly bring myself to try one on?

Rita smiled and placed her tapestry shoulder bag with leather and brass accents squarely on her broad shoulder. "We're finished here," she said gently to the saleswoman. "Thank you for your help."

In the car, Rita unwrapped a breath mint and offered it to me. My wise counselor sat tall in the bucket seat of her dented Ford Probe. I took the sugarless wafer and let it dissolve completely on my tongue. A month ago, I would have chewed it up and asked for another one.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

MARY KAY ZURAVLEFF, A 31-YEAR-OLD WASHINGTONIAN, IS EDITOR OF CATALOGS AND EXHIBITION COPY FOR THE ARTHUR M. SACKLER AND FREER GALLERIES OF THE

SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION. SHE STUDIED WRITING AT RICE UNIVERSITY AND JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY, WHERE SHE RECEIVED A MASTER'S DEGREE IN CREATIVE WRITING. SHE HAS WON ANOTHER FICTION CONTEST AND HAS HAD HER WORK PUBLISHED IN SEVERAL LITERARY MAGAZINES.

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