Finding the Magic in Macy’s
by Jessica Machado
For my thirtieth birthday, my boyfriend offered to take me to Macy’s. “You can pick out whatever” were his instructions. Lee’s sweet-yet-strange proposal was a culmination of our urban, chosen destitution (we were living off my graduate school loans and his fourth-career sales job in Portland, Oregon), my vocalized disappointment (he had shown up to my birthday party empty-handed), and a quick fix (he was trying to shut me up and had a Macy’s card).
Still, it was a nice gesture considering the mixed signals I was giving about turning thirty. “Bring it, 3-0!” I told all my friends. “I can’t wait to put my twenties behind me!” I said to people younger than me who reflected my fear that I was suddenly on a different plane than them. And most of the time, I did believe my own sentiments—a good part of my twenties sucked, and I was, in many ways, on the road to a better place. However, I wasn’t necessarily in that place yet. Not to mention thirty was such a round, bold age, with all its curves and buoyancy, that it was hard to look past the “it’s just a number” thing. Thirty was there, puffed up, bloated, signifying something.
Over the next few days, I thought a lot about what I could buy at Macy’s to mark my shift into thirtydom. I came up short. “What do you think I should get?” I asked Lee as he drove us to the mall.
“I dunno,” he said. “Oooh, wait, I got it.” He flashed his boyish grin that, after six years together, could be as endearing as much it was infuriating. “Lingerie. You should get lingerie.”
“Yes, red lacy thongs. That’s what I want,” I told him, rolling my eyes. “Why not?” he kept on. “Go ahead, throw in some pink ones, too.”
I turned to face the window. I could feel him looking at me, smirking, waiting for a reaction. This is thirty, I thought. Annoyed by sex, making predictable banter, creating an event out of a Saturday at the mall.
I’m not sure I ever imagined what thirty would look like on me. I know at age twelve I didn’t think I’d live past twenty-four, as I feared being immersed in a young lady’s cosmopolitan life and then suddenly getting killed in my apartment like My Sister Sam actress Rebecca Schaeffer (what can I say, twelve was a dramatic, susceptible age). At nineteen, I envisioned my ten-years-older self as an edgy Lois Lane journalist type, perhaps married to a handsomely rugged paycheck-earning musician—if I decided to marry at all. At twenty-four, I evaded the whole notion of thirty—I was running around with my co-worker-boyfriend Lee, getting drunk after our bartending shifts, sick of writing unpaid concert reviews, and hoping I’d eventually have my shit better together.
As Lee and I pulled into the dismal basement of the Lloyd Center mall, I did have some semblance of direction—I told him to park at the Macy’s end, so we could get down to business. Upon entering Macy’s, what you first notice is how average it is. It is not the Macy’s of New York’s Herald Square, with its eleven floors and thousands of brands and two million square feet. Lloyd Center Macy’s is simply a department store. Tables of packaged button-up shirts to the left, polos to the right. An instrumental version of a Backstreet Boys song punctuating the machine-chilled air, a handful of elders shuffling to find the restroom. “Um, I think I’m gonna go smoke a cigarette,” Lee said as soon as we walked through the doors.
I took the escalator to the second, all-encompassing women’s floor: shoes, cosmetics, juniors, casual and formal wear. The possibilities of what I should get were overwhelming, especially since I hadn’t had the opportunity to buy much for myself after giving up full-time work for small-time freelance jobs and fretting over school essays. Should I get a good pair of running shoes? Nope, too practical. A smart adult dress? No, too impractical (in Portland, a slim-fitting plaid shirt was about as fancy as the dress code got). A slutty top? Again, impractical and too obvious. That’s when I saw it: perfume.
Every woman should have a scent of her own, I could hear my mom saying. My mom was Southern, and some of her weird feminine-isms couldn’t help but seep into my being. As a kid, I loved watching her stand in front of her bathroom mirror and put on Dior every morning—a spray on her wrist, rubbed together with her other wrist, then gently below her earlobes. It seemed womanly and glamorous, a ritual that made me want to be a grownup. Now that I’m thirty-seven, I don’t know a single woman my own age who wears perfume. But at thirty, figuring out what I should smell like seemed, at the very least, purposeful.
The perfume selection at Lloyd Center Macy’s was vast—as opposed to the attractive-jeans section, which was the size of a cubicle—so I was not short on choice. And in 2007 there was definitely a trend happening in fragrance and that trend was celebrity pop princess. Hilary Duff had two scents; Paris Hilton had three. J-Lo had Glow, Miami Glow, Love at First Glow, and Glow After Dark. All of them smelled like bubblegum sweat. I headed for the more traditional section—Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, and my mom’s favorite, Dior. But they smelt too mature, too faux bourgeois. That’s when I stumbled upon Betsey Johnson’s namesake fragrance. Here was a successful adult woman, spunky and weird, sporting dreads, doll makeup, and tattered floral layers, smelling neither too saccharine nor too stuffy. After a twenty-minute search, I believed I had found my scent.
I wandered around the corner and stumbled into Lee sitting on a lone chair in the work–casual apparel corner, legs spread, back hunched over, twiddling with his phone. I stood in front him for a few seconds. Although we had been sleeping next to each other for most of our twenties, it still took him a while to acknowledge my presence.
“Oh,” he said, looking up. “Found something?”
“I think so,” I told him. He stood, ready to wrap this whole thing up. “Don’t you wanna know what it is?” I asked.
“What is it?” he asked, humoring me.
I shoved it at his nose. “Here, smell it.”
“What is that? Horse musk?” he said, swatting it away. I loved eliciting his jokes, even if they annoyed me. They showed me he still cared.
“You ready then?” he asked.
No, I wasn’t. A sudden panic came over me. It was like not wanting to leave the bar before I got a buzz on—except here, I wasn’t even sure what kind of high I was looking for.
I scanned the room. It was a blur of khaki pants and billowy polyester blouses, the uniform of the traditional, boring workingwoman; I’d held but one single office job in my entire life. My eyes wandered past all the blazers and trousers, to whatever else could be out there. My feet followed. “Give me a minute,” I called out to Lee.
I zeroed in on a display holding $75 flatirons. I’d only ever owned the cheap drugstore kind; my post-college hair life had been spent half-frizzy, half-dented with crimped waves. This was a better tool to become a refined woman. Never mind that this tool would be bought not with my own independent-woman money, but with dollars neither of us had yet earned. Lee and I were supposed to be—in the vaguest way that I’d explained to my parents—working toward a future together, a future that had ostensibly started when we moved from L.A. to Portland the summer prior so I could go to grad school. Only we’d never really discussed any next steps. “Dude, do you wanna, maybe, you know, head forward toward the Big M?” I’d asked him, referring to marriage in a middle school manner, a few months before my birthday. We were outside a friend’s party and the weather had just eased into warm after our first long winter in Portland. Everything seemed hopeful and possible. “Yeah, maybe? Yeah?” he answered. He looked eager and excited, which made me look eager and excited; granted, we were both a little drunk. That was the last we ever spoke of it, neither of us thinking too hard about why we never did.
I brought the flatiron back to Lee. “Here, can I get this too?” I asked. He shrugged and told me sure. This was too easy. “So, uh, how much credit do you have left on your card?” I knew I was pushing his limits, but I also knew his limit wasn’t more than $500 and was probably already close to maxed out.
“I dunno,” he said. “Maybe a couple hundred bucks?”
I gave him my pretty-please eyes. He gave me his yeah-what face. Pretty fucking please, my eyes pleaded. Yeah, what, his shouted.
“Dude, can I maybe have one more thing?” I finally blurted.
He exhaled. “Hurry.”
I walked over to the shoe section and picked up the first two items I saw: a black riding boot and a burgundy lace-up bootie. “Do you have these in a size seven and a half?” I asked the saleslady, waving them in her face. I continued to grab and put down shoes while she was away retrieving my goods. Lee slouched in a chair. “Tick-tock,” he muttered. “Tick. Tock.” I ignored him, touching everything I could, as if it would trick my brain into satiation. The saleswoman came back out and placed the giant boxes in front of me. I frantically shoved my left foot into one style and my right into the other and, because of the heel-height difference, limped back and forth in front of every full-length mirror within the department’s parameters. Did the riding boot devour my leg? Did the bootie make my hips look wide? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know what I’d wear with either pair, but both were massive, dominating, weighted. If I could’ve swallowed them to make me feel full, I would have.
I told the saleswoman I’d take the riding boots.
About a step away from the register, I froze. “Um, let me just make sure this is what I want,” I said to no one in particular. And with that, I was off again.
I scurried over to the accessories. I did a breezy walk-by of the purses, spun around one turnstile of earrings, and then another, before moving on to the scarves scattered on a sale table. Against my original plan and better judgment, I walked over to the juniors section. Maybe I wanted a slutty top after all. Maybe it would make me feel good the first time I put it on and walked into a bar, spaghetti straps baring my shoulders, the deep V of a loose blouse showing a hint of cleavage when I bent over. I’d feel young and undamaged and like everyone else who had the night and the world in front of them. Maybe I’d dance with a strange guy, touch the newness of his skin and hair, maybe I’d wake up in the morning and write my best paragraph yet and not have a hint of a hangover. I rummaged through the racks. Sleeveless polyester see-thru tops. Little threads hanging from the seams. Everything felt cheap to the touch. I didn’t know what looked like me or the me I wished I appeared to be.
I came back to the register, defeated. “Okay, I guess this is it, then,” I declared. It was the first time I’d stood still in more than an hour. Before me, on the counter, were workman’s boots and what were essentially toiletries. “Do you think any of this stuff is weird?” I asked Lee.
He stared at me, cold in the face, exhausted. “Are you serious?” he asked. “Is this not really what you want?” He was gesturing at my prizes like a disgruntled game show host. I didn’t know. “Dude, I’m not wasting any more time in this place,” he told me. And with those words, I completely lost my shit.
“You waste time? You waste time?” I told him.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m wasting time. You’re the one who said you wanted to come here.”
“That’s because it was my only choice!” I screamed.
I could sense the woman behind the counter getting nervous. She started picking apart a stapler. I felt like yelling at her, “What? You’ve never been around a couple who’s sick of each other before?” But more urgently, I felt like yelling at Lee, “Why, after six years together, is this my only choice? Why do I have to tell you what I want? Why, most of the time, do I not even know what I want?”
But the problem was I did know what I wanted. And it wasn’t the same thing I did when I was twenty-four, when I was happy just to laugh, drink, and feel less alone in his company. But I couldn’t admit that right then. So I stood there.
Lee opened his wallet and pulled out his Macy’s card. “Are we doing this?” he asked. It was the most serious I’d ever seen him. I nodded.
“Your card is declined,” the cashier said, barely raising her head from the credit machine. Lee looked over at me. “What if you take away the boots?” I asked her. She hit a button and scanned the shoebox once again. Negative 79.99, the register read. She ran the card and this time it went through. She handed me my big, rectangular Macy’s bag. “Have a nice day,” she told me.
“Have a nice day,” Lee mimicked as we walked toward the escalator.
“Now what’s your problem?” I asked.
“What’s your problem?” he barked.
“You tell me.”
“What?” He was confused and flustered. “God, this sucks!”
“What sucks?” I was baiting him to say it, to just say anything, so I didn’t have to.
“Ugggghhh,” he grunted loudly. “I’m outta here.” He threw me the car keys.
I stood there, in the middle of the women’s department, staring at his back for a second, before suddenly feeling overwhelmed. I stormed off in the other direction, to an immediate way out of the building. The first door I saw led to an employees-only stairwell. I walked through it.
Outside, there wasn’t any soft rock buzzing or power-suited mannequins eyeing my outfit. Dusk was settling behind me. I sat down on the landing and put my head in my hands. And I felt the weight. I felt it there in my hands, and then I didn’t.
This was the end of all the things we could never say and never be. This was thirty.
Jessica Machado is an associate editor at Rolling Stone. Follow her on Twitter.
Excerpted from Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship with Shopping, edited by Kerry Cohen. With permission from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.