The Absence Shopper
Laura Geringer Bass
As Carla approached her sixtieth birthday, people took little notice of her unless it was to comment on her jewelry as if her still statuesque posture were just a means of displaying her discriminating taste. Even her own father had stopped reverently whispering “Beautiful!” when she made her entrance but then he could hardly see her at all. At ninety-four, he had cataracts in both eyes.
On vacation in Greece that summer, she had revisited Hydra, an island she remembered from her youth. On the day of her departure, she had examined a divinely crafted gold and jade necklace in one of the many shops close to the pier. “The jade matches your eyes,” said the owner in perfect English. “Beautiful!” Did he mean the jade or her eyes? she wondered. He bargained with her, lowering his price. She hesitated. He smiled—the smile of a victor who could afford to be generous. In the honey-colored light of late afternoon, the necklace glowed. Against her instinct, she told him it was still too expensive and walked away, a decision she regretted the moment she stepped empty handed aboard the boat back to Athens.
In the weeks after her return to New York, she mourned the missing piece and began to feel naked without it. She scoured the shops downtown for something to replace what had never been hers. It wasn’t window-shopping; it was absence shopping. She shopped without hope, as if she were a photographer compelled to take photographs without film. Her actual possessions began to have less reality than the coveted ornaments she decided not to buy: a delicate ivory charm in the shape of a mermaid, designed to be nestled just so between the breasts; a metallic vine in laurel green with precious purple teardrop grapes as clasps; red lava beads, pocked and porous like miniature planets; snail shaped links of heavy silver, coiled and glistening; a cascade of glass flowers, ochre, amber and blushing pink; a conical prayer amulet strung on strands of blue coral; a ceramic polar bear pendant of Eskimo origin as flat as a cookie. The details of each necklace she left behind congregated in her brain, leaving room for little else.
Her father summoned her to what he jokingly referred to as the ancestral mansion. While Carla was abroad, he had fallen in love with his new Brazilian night nurse who gave him midnight pedicures and entertained him with stories about her girlhood in Bahia when she had learned to balance buckets of well water on her head. The early training had given her a regal bearing. “Look at her walk! Just like a queen,” he said. “Beautiful!”
Her father’s new favorite sported a purple streak in her hair, a nose ring, a tongue stud and a spiked copper and leather dog collar. Carla couldn’t take her eyes off the woman’s neck. It didn’t look built to bear the weight of so heavy a decoration. Still staring, Carla imagined a time when that vulnerable stalk would sag.
“Beautiful!” she said, pointing at the necklace. She felt foolish to be falsely echoing the very word her father had spoken with genuine admiration a moment before, the one she had claimed as her birthright but had irretrievably lost.
To her dismay, the caregiver impulsively took off the necklace and pressed it into Carla’s hands. Carla shook her head. “No,” she said, backing away. “Thank you, no!”
“Take it! Take it!” the nurse insisted, her voice rising. Carla’s father had fallen asleep in his recliner. Not knowing how to say no again without making a scene, Carla thanked her. Blushing, she wrapped the present in a tissue. A faint funereal odor wafted up to her as she slipped it into her purse.
“The Carla is leaving now,” the woman announced, showing her to the door.
Laura Geringer Bass launched Laura Geringer Books in 1991, an award-winning literary imprint now partnering with Shannon Associates, an agency representing artists and writers around the world. Her first book, A Three Hat Day, an ALA Notable was re-released this year in its 25th Anniversary edition. Her most recent novel, Sign of the Qin, an ALA Best Book, was shortlisted for the Printz award. She is presently writing a new novel called The Girl with More than One Heart. “The Absence Shopper” is her first published short story, inspired by her work with Lore Segal at the 92nd St. Y. She serves on the national advisory board of First Book, a non-profit organization that has given away over l00 million books to children in need.