Joe wrote lively, creative emails, and he had a very sexy voice. The first time we met in person, we went to a diner and then to an indie art show, where he swept me into an empty closet and we kissed and pawed at each other. Then we had red wine and chocolate back at his place.
We ended up dating for thirteen months, during part of which we lived together in a cramped bedroom in his friend’s house in a planned community that I’ll call, to protect the identity of all involved, Greentown. Joe was obsessed with Greentown. He joined its kickball league, volunteered at its historical museum, strummed his mandolin and displayed his art at the local café, and listened to the life stories of the workers at the grocery co-op. He had even been known to sing Greentown’s praises, quite literally, as he bounded down its neatly manicured streets. Greentown smelled like incense and encouraged its residents (perhaps by way of marijuana piped through the ventilation system in its town center?) to take off their shoes and to make art out of twigs. Joe embraced the place with a zeal that was puzzling, considering he was a transplant. He had grown up in a suburb where the houses are huge and wealth breeds children who can’t wait to grow up to throw off the yoke of privilege and run around barefoot in front of twig art, toking up and decrying Walmart.
Joe bought his entire wardrobe from thrift stores—shoes, socks, hats, scarves, feety pajamas. I thought it was charming, at first. Thrift shopping, however, wasn’t for me. Growing up, Goodwill was a place we mocked. We might go there for Halloween or theater costumes, but we’d sooner die than buy a real piece of clothing there. That was for really poor people. Getting called “The K-Mart Kid” for a week (as I was in 7th grade) was nothing compared to what I would have endured had I worn something from Goodwill to school.
I hated going to thrift stores with Joe, waiting while he picked through the rows of clothing. I was utterly bored for the first thirty minutes and then became angry enough to fantasize about torching the whole place and watching each morsel of useless crap shrivel into oblivion. To humor him, I’d flip halfheartedly through the women’s clothing, but I never bought anything.
Well, I can’t say “never.” Once, when we were traveling in L.A., he talked me into trying some things on. The first piece he picked was a long navy blue plaid coat that looked like it had been lounging on its hanger since I was in elementary school. Joe insisted I looked “great” and that it was a “definite.” If by “great,” he meant “exactly like my grandmother when she showed up at our door one rainy day in 1983 wearing a plastic bonnet on her head,” then yes, I guess I looked great. We left there with two garbage bags full of clothes for me, including tight polyester bellbottoms whose nightmarish pattern of triangles appeared to have been inspired by the lighting fixtures from a 1970s Burger Chef.
One morning, I came downstairs in my comfy pink hoodie, and Joe stared and shook his head.
“What?” I asked.
“What you’re wearing,” he replied.
I was still puzzled. “What’s wrong with it?”
He shrugged. “It’s so boring. Pink is just such a boring color on you, and that thing has no shape. I hate it.”
Pink brings out the natural blush in my cheeks and brightens up my pale skin and blond hair. I always felt pretty and sexy in it. I argued that we were just going to run some errands, so what was wrong with my hoodie and jeans?
“Fashion is a way to express yourself,” he lectured me for the millionth time. “If you don’t make choices, you’re giving up your right to express yourself.”
“Why can’t I express myself in my writing?” I countered.
“Do you want to look like everyone else? And support sweatshops? That’s what you’re doing when you buy clothes from The Gap.”
Joe wasn’t big on my writing, either. When I shared my essays, fellow Greentowners responded enthusiastically, but he remained silent.
He later told me that I was a good writer, but to be great, I needed “to have more experiences.”
More about those “experiences” on the next Memoir Monday!