While my 13-year-old son and his friend shared iPod bonding moments at the nearby Apple store, I suffered alone in a Nordstrom dressing room. It was late January, and I was finally spending the gift card my husband had tucked into my Christmas stocking. I tried on pants. I tried on shirts. I even tried on denim jackets in perky shades of blue and yellow.
I was a high school sophomore when I first looked in a dressing-room mirror and saw the reflection of a stranger. Back then I grinned at a pretty girl I quickly recognized as the former string-bean me, and she returned a confident smile.
Several decades and three babies later?
No grins, no smiles, not even a smirk. I vowed never to wear pedal pushers again. No horizontal stripes, either. And nothing in powder blue. Ever.
I handed the saleswoman an armful of no-fits, called my son's cellphone, and told the boys to meet me in the third-floor shoe department. It was time to go.
While waiting, I scanned a table of Topsider-style deck shoes in an array of colors, from brown to shades of spring. The deep pink leather ones with lighter-pink laces popped into focus. Never mind that my closet is a sea of red, black, and khaki, peppered only with blue denim and a recent influx of browns.
So far, everything cute on the mannequins and hangers had morphed into, well, not cute on my body. But the pink shoes looked just as cute on my feet as they had on the table.
Minutes later, the boys met a smiling me in the shoe zone and noticed the box in my bag. Pointing to the rainbow of deck shoes, I asked: "Which one did I buy?"
My son's friend picked brown, and my son quickly agreed.
"Wrong," I smirked.
"Wow," the boys said when I held up pink.
I was suddenly a not-so-chubby mother with a mysterious alter-pink ego. And it felt good.
In the days that followed, "Cute shoes" became the new "Hi."
Random women offered cute-shoe greetings even when they didn't otherwise stop to chat. I knew some of these women well, others hardly at all. Some were complete strangers. Even my middle son's band teacher, scurrying to the school office after the final bell, slowed her gait long enough to smile and say, "Cute shoes."
I stretched my budget for clothes to match: a pink T-shirt, a pink-and-white striped cotton blouse, and a deeply discounted pink sweatshirt. At my regular hair appointment, I asked for a cuter cut and redder highlights. The look worked, except for something I noticed in the salon mirror: pretty in pink with a black, diaper-bag-size purse? I don't think so.
Seventy-five minutes before the school pick-up, I left the hairdresser to go on a quick quest for ... a pink purse?
The 20-something size-2 salesgirl at the hip boutique greeted me with, "Cute shoes." Her store, though, carried a limited handbag stock, and there was nothing in the right shade of pink.
So I was off to Macy's, where I picked purses off hooks like apples from Safeway bins. I stood next to a mound of pink purse possibilities and tested each one with the day's ensemble: pink T-shirt, khaki skirt, and pink shoes. Ugh. It was too much. I chose a pink wallet instead.
At the counter, I stood behind another chunky woman who was dressed like a black crayon, circa 1987 (black leggings, black sweater, and black flats with jet-black hair cut barbershop short). She was buying three purses: two pink ones and one covered with hearts.
"Cute purses," I said.
"All the girls are carrying pink," Crayola said.
"I know," I said, pointing to my shoes and expecting to share a woman-to-woman transforming moment.
The woman looked down, then stared back at me. No "cute shoes." No smile. Nothing.
I was suddenly a miscast Dorothy in questionable magic slippers, and I immediately missed the cute-shoe me. But the spiral lasted only a moment.
"Who are the purses for?" I asked with watered-down pep.
It was nearly Valentine's Day. The mother of only boys, Crayola said she was buying the purses for her college-age sons to give as Valentine gifts to their girlfriends.
I'm a woman married to a man with only brothers, and I'm a mother of only sons. I wanted to suggest that she just accent the black crayon with a splash of pink and move on. Instead, I sifted for my Visa.
A week later, I found a purse in shades of soft brown with an upbeat geometric design accented by bits of pink, purple, blue, and green. The pink wallet fit perfectly.
This time when I smiled at the mirror, two people smiled back.
"Cute purse," said a nearby customer, a petite woman with a stylish bob haircut. She pointed to the purse-jammed wall display. "Where did you find it?" she asked.
She practically took notes as I shared the real secret. And she's not the least bit chubby.