I had been waiting to hear these words practically since the moment he walked into my studio apartment in his retro Levis and pressed navy button-down shirt five months earlier.
Jeff was not the typical guy I dated. First of all, he didn’t live in the city. New Jersey was like a continent away, but I felt like I’d exhausted the online dating world in New York City, so I relented and expanded my geographic parameters. Second, he had three kids. I had briefly dated a guy with one kid, and it was a bust. I longed for my own family and wasn’t too keen on stepping into a ready-made one. Basically, I had a firm idea about the guy I would marry and Jeff didn’t really fit that bill.
“I love you too,” I told him. “You are my brown pocketbook.”
As I took in his puzzled face, I flashed back to eight years earlier on one of those hot city summer days where steam seemed to rise from the sidewalk. I had just decided to move in with my boyfriend Mike, who I’d been dating on and off for about two years, and my mom was driving in from my childhood home in Connecticut so we could discuss it in person. But first, shopping. My mom preferred the wide avenues on the Upper East Side to the narrower side streets of the East Village, where I usually found all sorts of cheap treasures.
As we ambled down Madison Avenue, I was searching for a little black knapsack, the trending accessory for young city women in the late 90’s. I knew exactly what I was looking for because each of my girlfriends already had one: a small, black, nylon pouch worn like a mini-backpack. They actually resembled deflated basketballs.
Of course, living on a teacher’s salary, I was looking for something drastically discounted from the pricey boutiques that peppered Madison Avenue. The first fancy store we walked into, I spotted one. But it was $60, which, at the time, seemed ludicrous to me. I needed to watch my pennies carefully, and I could buy three weeks of pizza slices for $60! I brought it to the register, knowing that if I wanted this “it” item, I was going to have to pay up.
Suddenly, I was beset with ambiguity: would my belongings be safe in a bag held together with tie strings? Would the nylon annoy me when something rubbed against it? Looking beyond the trendiness, was the bag even cute? Was I willing to give up lunch for three weeks for something I wasn’t even sure I liked? The cashier, bless her heart, saw my indecision and gave me this advice:
“If you have to think too hard about whether or not you want it, you probably don’t.”
I walked away from that bag, and my mom and I continued our stroll down the street.
We chatted about my impending move into my boyfriend’s apartment. I felt torn. I was 24 and Mike was my first real boyfriend. I loved having someone to drag to fundraisers and movie previews. He introduced me to the Hamptons and he liked taking me to trendy restaurants downtown and to art shows in Tribeca lofts where naked people covered in paint were the art. He worked as a trader in one of those big New York banks and seemed to have a promising future.
But we didn’t have much in common: he was obsessed with Philadelphia sports teams and smoking pot, and I enjoyed Broadways shows and browsing the weekend flea markets. We fought a lot. We had broken up three times, each time getting back together with promises of less pot, better behavior, and undying love. Plus, he had a really nice mom. She bought us luxurious Egyptian cotton Ralph Lauren bedding for the new apartment, which meant that I really had to move in. When I thought about it, my stomach hurt.
As we continued our walk, I was drawn to a store with expensive perfume wafting out the front door. The shop was filled with beautiful jewelry and luxurious bags, the kind of store I only go to when I’m with my mom, who was not trying to survive on a teacher’s salary in New York City. Then, I saw it: a rectangular shoulder bag, with silver buckles on the front and stitched holes along the strap so that it could be adjusted to my height. It was a chocolate brown, and it looked nothing like what I thought I’d been looking for. I loved it on sight. The price tag was a hefty $90, which was at least two weeks of takeout Chinese.
“I’ll take it,” I told the saleslady.
I never gave the black pocketbook another thought, and Mike and I broke up for good. I missed his mom way more than I missed him.
I realize how valuable the advice of the saleslady on Madison Avenue was. My indecision about Mike–my black pocketbook– was actually the decision, as hard as it was to admit. But her advice has crept into other realms of my life: buying a house, taking a job, choosing a daycare for my son. I’ve learned to trust myself. When something is right, I’ll know it right away.
Ten years ago, I married the “brown pocketbook.” Jeff and I live in the suburbs and have our own modern family, with our 9-year old son and his three older siblings who he loves intensely and who never complain about babysitting him on the weekends they are with us.