The Stranger

I found myself recently spending the afternoon with a virtual stranger. Scratch that – she was a literal stranger, but a virtual ‘friend’. Despite my tendency to not accept friend requests on social media from people I don’t actually know, somehow this woman and I had become ‘friends’ and, somehow, then found ourselves sharing a womanly bonding ritual that I rarely even share with my closest real-life friends.

Jennifer lives in New York, and recently announced that she was coming to Sonoma County to give a series of lectures at Sonoma State University. A few days later she posted a picture of herself and a friend at a nearby winery, which I commented on since the winery is near my shop. It was my way of saying ‘oh, hi, you made it! Welcome to our fair land!’ Then, she asked if I was free for lunch the next day.

I said I was even though in all honesty, I wasn’t. Also, I was intimidated by the dialogues I’d seen her start and engage in online – I wondered if I’d be able to keep up with the conversation intellectually; I rarely hang out with women one-on-one, let alone women I don’t know. My nearly all-male upbringing conditioned me to lack confidence in this activity.

Yet there I was on that sunny, early Autumn California warm afternoon, walking around the Healdsburg Plaza with a woman I’d met in human form only moments ago. And we were talking – easily – about friendship, travel, self-care.

I asked her about the lectures she was giving at the nearby college, in part because I was genuinely curious to learn more about what she does, in part because I wanted to be polite despite my fears of not being able to hold up my end of the dialogue when discussing media literacy and gender/racial justice.

Little did I know that I needn’t have feared, as this potential conversation would soon be usurped by…shopping.

It started with some poking around Mr. Moon’s, where she tried on a few necklaces and we talked about our own personal acceptable length-of-necklace to dipping-into-cleavage ratio. I found a couple of leather bangles which I tried on and spent the next few minutes talking myself into, and then out of, buying. Finally I said, “I’m going to get these,” which I quickly qualified with “as a treat to myself.”

“Great!” Jen was encouraging. “What’s the occasion? I mean, are you treating yourself for anything specific?”

I stumbled. There was nothing specific. Suddenly I’d talked myself out of buying them again. “No,” I told her. “I just…well, I just don’t buy myself things very often. I mean. I usually just talk myself out of buying things.” She nodded. “I buy almost everything used, and I just wear stuff until they fall apart, you know?”

“I totally do,” she assured me.

“So every once in a while I just want to go a little crazy and buy myself something that makes me feel good, you know?” I rolled my eyes up and said “Aaaand I’ll try not to feel guilty about it for too long afterward.” I chuckled, and shrugged. “It’s so weird, I know.”

But, she got it. After we left the store, my new bracelets resting lightly around my left wrist, we talked about trying to maintain a functional wardrobe while on a tight or, sometimes nonexistent, budget. She shared her shopping tricks with me as we wandered around from one side of the plaza to the other, sometimes stopping to look more closely at an item we spotted from the window, only to walk back out and wonder at the audacity of the price.

jenpoznerJen found a hat that she loved in the store Bella, and I watched her trying to decide whether or not to get it as if I were watching myself. “I just wish it were a different color,” she said. “I’m not sure I’ll really wear it in this shade of brown…enough to justify the price, oh…” she thought further, tried the hat on again, looked around more. She found another hat, a bit floppier, a different shade of brown, not nearly as flattering. “How do we feel about this one?” I told her it was cute but a completely different look, and not my favorite out of the two.

I remembered for a moment that an hour ago, I’d never met this woman before.

“You’re right,” she said. “The only reason I’m trying to talk myself into this hat is because it’s only ten dollars. I need to remember that just because something is within my budget doesn’t mean I have to buy it!”

“You can save that ten dollars and put it toward something you love more later….” It’s advice I give my kids all the time on Garage Sale Day, but it isn’t always easy to remember in the moment. Jen said “yes, exactly” and put the hat back.

As we walked and window shopped more, we talked about body shape and dressing for that, which is something I’ve never learned how to do, especially as my body changes over time. Then she suggested we go to the used women’s clothing store nearby. “I’d like to help you find out what works for you,” she told me.

I was taken aback. And flattered. And grateful. I also only had about 15 minutes left before I had to drop her off. And yet…I was curious. We went to Favorites and she, just as I would have, went through the sale rack first. I quickly established with her that I wore primarily black and grey. She began pulling colorful, fitted, brightly colored dresses from the rack and suggesting gently that I at least try them on, just to see how the fit felt on me. I could feel my anxiety rising – I am not one who lets other people nurture me without a fight, and this was starting to feel very…kind. Jen seemed to genuinely be interested in helping me learn how to dress in a way that I felt good about, at a price I could afford.

Just as my mental battleground was laying out its arguments for and against accepting my fate and heading into the dressing room with a handful of hangers holding royal blues and hottish pinks, my phone made a noise, and then another, and soon I was sucked into an issue at home that was mild enough not to panic, but important enough that I had to stop what I was doing, sit down, and deal with it. I thanked Jen, told her to go ahead and shop for herself, and proceeded to put out the fires my phone was reporting.

I was relieved at the time – not having to step out of my comfort zone always has that effect on me. But the more I look back, the more I wonder: what would’ve happened if I’d tried on those dresses?

Who else might I have met there that day?

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