Mail-Order Bridling

In theory I've always liked the idea of catalogs. No crazed trips to the mall, no traffic, no parking problems, no time crunch. You curl up at home and shop at your leisure.

But I never tried ordering anything until recently. One particular catalog arrived in the mail featuring people who were so slender and tall, so chic, and leading such obviously charmed lives that it made you believe this lifestyle could be catching. If you ordered the cool, crisp clothes these people were wearing, you would look thinner, taller, and happier.

I decide to order a jacket from this catalog. It's made out of melton - a material I'm not familiar with - but the warm, friendly voice at the other end of the 800 number assures me there's nothing weird about it. I choose a shade called "oatmeal." (In this catalog there's no black and white, no primary colors, and nothing called "beige." Instead, all the colors sound edible: Besides oatmeal there's nutmeg, mint, vanilla, espresso.)

A week later, UPS delivers my new jacket, and I open the package as excited as if it were a birthday present. I take out my oatmeal melton jacket. I try it on and look in the mirror. I look nothing like those tall, slender, chic people. If anything, I look shorter and less chic than I have ever looked in my entire life. I look like a beige box.

I tell myself that I'll get used to this jacket. I'll wear it to the supermarket with jeans. Not wanting to spend any more time obsessing on a piece of clothing, I hang it in my closet and try to forget about it. But it looks peculiar and ugly even on the hanger. And besides, I have plenty of old jackets to wear to the supermarket.

It finally dawns on me that I hate this jacket and I don't want it. I must return it.

It takes me more than an hour to sort through my desk to locate the instructions for returns. I put check marks in every box for "Reason for Returning": Wrong color? Bad Cut? Doesn't fit? Yes, yes, yes.

I PUT the jacket back in the box and realize that I have no tape to seal it. I reconsider for a moment. By now I'm seriously invested in this oatmeal melton jacket - both in money (the return directions tell me I must insure it; there's postage, of course, and then my original $7.50 for postage and handling that won't be refunded) and certainly in time, what with all the hours I spent making the original decision to order the jacket, then searching for the return instructions, and now a trip to Target for packing tape.

But my hesitation lasts only a moment. The jacket must go.

While I'm at Target (a store that always has a strange effect on me), I buy a bargain bag of white socks, two pairs of black stockings, new mascara, two moth bars for my closet, a small wooden picture frame, four stick-on hooks, and of course the packing tape. The total comes to $26.32. I've brought the jacket and its box with me so I can go directly to the post office to save time.

In the parking lot I attempt to seal the package. The directions for the tape are clear: "Feed tape under tabs. Apply to Surface. Twist dispenser to Cut Tape."

As I'm trying to get the tape under the tabs, it suddenly disappears onto itself. There is absolutely no evidence that this roll of tape was ever anything other than a self-contained, slick plastic doughnut. I run my fingers and then my nails around it, looking for that thin ridge to loosen to get into the tape again. I pull, but the tape splits down the center. Part of it wraps around my fingers, attaches itself to the cuffs of my sweater. The rest of it disappears back into the roll.

I give up. I'll take the box home and seal it calmly. Tomorrow I'll take time off from work to go to the post office. I'll pay the return postage and insure the jacket. I will not add up the hours and money spent. And I swear to myself (on a stack of catalogs - L.L. Bean, J. Crew, Victoria's Secret, Lands' End, et al.) I will never order from a catalog again.

Not clothes, anyway.

The latest Williams-Sonoma catalog just showed up, however. I'm not a very inspired cook, but who knows what I might be able to accomplish with the Professional Nonstick Calphalon 10- Piece Cookware Set on Page 30?

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