I took the subway and spent the day wandering around the city, having a slice of pizza here, a coffee there. Buying a new pair of shoes here, a new mascara and a bar of chocolate there. I rode on the bus and took in the buildings we passed, taking note of windows and doorways, and watched the people passing by. I looked at the cars and the buses, the taxis and the trucks. I was aware of being in a great metropolis, and took it in, though in an impersonal way. A non-committal sort of way, as if I hadn’t spent most of my life in the city. If I had to say what I was feeling, I would call it a kind of detached amusement.
Late in the afternoon I found myself walking along Upper Broadway, passing a small shop window filled with Indian-type jewelry. I stopped for a moment to look. There was a large assortment of rings and bracelets and intricate silver necklaces, but I was only interested in the earrings. I saw a pair of dangly silver ones with a turquoise stone that I liked, so I went inside to ask the price. A bell tinkled when I opened the door. It was a tiny shop. There was no one there but a woman in a sari standing behind the glass counter. She smiled at me as I came in. Or rather, her face lit up, causing me to wonder if I had been the only customer that day. I smiled back. She wasn’t young, somewhere in her forties I would have thought. Her long sleek black hair fell in a thick braid down her back. I pointed to the earrings in the window and asked if she could bring them in for me to see.
“Yes, yes, of course,” she said, nodding. She lay the earrings down on the counter. “Please, why don’t you try them on?” she said. “I’m sure they will look very pretty on you.”
I picked them up and held them to my ears as I looked in the mirror and turned my face from side to side. She said, “If you don’t like these I’ve got plenty more for you to chose from!”
“Oh, no, that’s okay,” I said. They were only seven-fifty. A bargain. But did I really need a new pair of earrings? I put them back down on the glass counter. I was thinking of buying them, or at least I think I was thinking of buying them, because new earrings always gave me a lift, but she kept going on about their merits as if they were unusual, one of a kind. Which they were not. I had seen similar ones being sold on the street, those sidewalk displays you always seemed to run into. Yet on and on she went, extolling their merits, saying how they suited me, and what a good price. If only she would have stopped talking and left me alone with them for a moment. I think I would have bought them then. They were simple, just my style. But she wouldn’t stop talking. And suddenly I had to get away from her voice. I told myself it was her voice, her lilting accent, but it was really her neediness. I couldn’t stand her neediness.
“Perhaps some other time,” I said. “I’ll have to think about it.”
The warm open smile vanished and the light went out of her eyes. She looked crestfallen. Her skin became taught as her face seemed to close in on itself. Her naked disappointment was almost too much to bear. I felt ashamed. I almost said, never mind—I’ll take the earrings. But it was too late. She was resigned to her failure and I had to get out of there. I picked up my shopping bag and mumbled a thank you. The tinkle of the bell sounded when I opened the door and hurried out to the street.
I tried to talk myself out of feeling guilty as I walked to the subway, telling myself it was ridiculous for me to think I had to buy the earrings just to make the shop owner happy. But of course she wasn’t just a shop owner. She was somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife. No, that wasn’t it. Well it was, in the sense she was a person. But she wasn’t just any person. She was someone whose face lit up when I came into the shop. As if my presence made a difference. Who else had been happy to see me that day? No one. If only she hadn’t been so desperate. I could easily have bought the earrings for seven-fifty and made her happy. If only she hadn’t been so eager for me to buy! Been so obvious about it!
I was still justifying myself and trying to put her face out of my mind when I went down into the subway. I was dying to get home. Home was where I could close the door and get out my paints. I would do a watercolor when I got home. But by the time I got home I was still feeling guilty, saying to myself, for what? A pair of earrings I didn’t buy? I couldn’t stop seeing the change in her expression. How her face literally seemed to fall because of me. She shouldn’t have given me so much power. I shouldn’t have gone in there in the first place. The whole thing had been a mistake. But since I had gone in, did I have to buy something? Yet it would have made her happy.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized it wasn’t just her neediness, it was mine too. The look I saw on her face, so blatant with no effort to hide it, reminded me how I felt when I wanted someone to buy my work or give me a commission. And before that, when I was an actress and I wanted them to give me the part. To say yes, you’re the one we want. You. The desperate need to be wanted. Hating my own neediness. Despising my dependency. So I had learned to hide it. I had developed an air of detachment. I pretended to find the whole thing amusing. Comme ci, comme ça. Take it or leave it. Either way was fine with me. Why couldn’t that woman do it too? She should. She really should. Someone should tell her.
(Excerpt from my new memoir-in-progress)