In this extract from Susan Shapiro’s novel Overexposed, Rachel Solomon, is a New York photographer who escapes her Midwestern Jewish family and the twisted machinations of her kooky best friend, Elizabeth. All is well until Elizabeth marries her brother, moves to her hometown, and becomes the daughter Rachel’s mother always wanted. In between, Rachel unfolds meaning in her mother’s gifts of sweaters and furs.
I was broke and broken hearted that my ex-boyfriend Matthew had left me three weeks before, when the doorman buzzed to say a package had arrived. I envisioned long-stemmed roses for him with the card: “I changed my mind. Let’s elope.” Instead it was a box from my mother in the Midwest.
Inside were two sweaters: a purple cardigan and turquoise pullover. Knowing my dark mood, Mom was overcompensating with gifts of suburban rainbow gear. Since I was an all-black clad urban working girl who would rather pay my bills this month than own two more Mom-picked neon tops I didn’t need, I called Marlene’s Designs, to see if they could be exchanged for cash. Marlene put me on hold for seven minutes (long-distance) then said, “Sorry, hon. Return policy is five days.”
I went to my closet to examine all the clothes my mother had sent since I’d moved to the big city. Each had its own bad memory. I took out the red striped satin blouse I’d worn for my interview at Interview, with the beige skirt outfit she’d mailed. I thought I’d looked sophisticated. The editor-in-chief – in camouflage pants and army boots – thought I was a salesperson and sent me to advertising.
I held up the gray potato sack dress I’d donned for my brother Ben and my former best friend Elizabeth’s rehearsal dinner. Bad enough being newly dumped as Elizabeth the bride won the ring, the wedding, and my brother the doctor – whom I’d introduced her to. But I had to do it looking like the Goodyear blimp on stilts.
I removed two Donna Karan dresses, a purple Betsey Johnson zipped blazer, a cotton sundress with bolero jacket, a hot pink angora sweater that shed, a fox coat and the full-length seal fur she’d given me for my last birthday.
“Haven’t you heard of PETA?” I would ask her. “People who wear dead animals are emotionally depraved.”
“Fur’s back in,” she’d retort. “Didn’t you see the picture of Catherine Zeta-Jones looking gorgeous in her long mink?”
“I’m more comfortable in jeans and black sweaters,” I’d confess. “Face it already, I’m schlumpy.”
I laid them all out – this colorful wardrobe of another woman, the daughter my mother always wanted. It was time to get rid of her. I Googled consignment shops –apparently a big trend in this lousy economy – and found the address for an Upper East Side resale shop Second Chance.
“Goodbye, fox and seal,” I bid the pelts adieu.
“Your sister-in-law Elizabeth would die for these,” I could just hear my mother taunting.
“So give them to her,” I’d tell her. “She has nothing better to do than shop anyway.”
“She was smart enough to get herself a good husband,” Mom would say. “While you’re the one who’s freelance everything.”
“Like a striped blouse and four-inch heels will help me get a guy? I can’t walk in these shoes. How do you expect me to get to work on the subway?”
I continued the imaginary screaming match with myself as I put on my ebony jeans, Gap sweater and cowboy boots. I placed the expensive clothes in a hanging suitcase I had to sit on to zip. I kicked it downstairs and out the door, trying to hail a cab. No dice. I schlepped the bag to Seventh Avenue, feeling as desperate as an immigrant pawning family heirlooms. Finally, a taxi. At the shop, I lugged my baggage up the stairs. The saleswoman had short red hair like my Aunt Ida.
I spread my clothes on the counter, as instructed. Ida II inspected the stash, checked hems, turning sleeves inside out, making two piles. She held up the beige Armani.
“The top is size six, the bottom eight,” she said.
“The pieces were sold separately.”
“How many women do you know who wear size-eight bottom and size-six top?”
“Thousands,” I said.
She put the two Karan dresses to the side. “These are fine.”
She went through the sweaters, stopping at the ones my mother just sent. “These two are lovely; we’ll definitely take them.” She folded them neatly as if to take them home with her. Then she stared at the seal and said, “This really isn’t our favorite fur.” She checked the label. “Well, maybe.”
I was sure I’d earn thousands. Yet she wrote $240 on a card she slipped me. My heart sank, but at least that would cover this month’s phone and electric bill. Then she said, “It’s on consignment. When it sells, we send you a check. If it doesn’t sell in six months, you have two days to retrieve it or we throw it out.”
I tried to focus on the upside: My mother’s bright colors would never threaten my closet again. I’d finally taken control of my own space. Mission accomplished.
“And these items we won’t be needing.” Ida pointed to the second pile, two thirds of the stuff.
“Bargain basement price?” I asked. She shook her head.
I repacked my rejected garments and lugged the still-heavy luggage down the creaky stairs, taking the train home. In my apartment, I spread the hanging suitcase on the floor so the clothes I would never wear wouldn’t wrinkle. It looked like a dead body. I turned off the light and sank into the couch, shutting my eyes. In my dream I wasn’t wearing anything and Matthew said “You look beautiful.”
When the phone rang, I was sure it was him. Rushing to grab it, I tripped over the suitcase and fell. The answering machine clicked.
“Honey, it’s me,” Mom’s voice said. “Marlene didn’t realize you were my daughter; I explained it. She’ll extend the return policy for a week and send you cash. Sorry the sweaters weren’t your style. They were $250 each, so mail them back right away. I bought the same ones for Elizabeth, they looked great on her.”
Susan Shapiro has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and more. She is the author of five books of nonfiction whose rights have been sold in seven countries and optioned for film. Her first novel, Overexposed, will be published August 3, 2010.