My tía sat in her Lazy-Boy crocheting another scarf for me as telenovelas bleated in the background. She narrowed her eyes as she appraised the condition of my beat up pink clutch. An ink pen had exploded inside the pocketbook and tiny blue ghosts of fingerprints ran up and down the cracked vinyl strap. I own about thirty handbags but they’ve been locked inside my garage since my partner and I split up last year.
I’ve been too depressed to change purses, unwilling to perform the excavation that would unearth boxes of lost purses, clothing, feelings and other artifacts from the life I had before.
“I have something for you.” she whispered quietly.
“Oh, yeah?” I said, raising my eyebrows. I’d already been gifted three crocheted scarves and approximately twenty-three pounds of groceries; about four pounds of groceries for every year we’ve been estranged.
I have accepted all the gifts, even the packages of dried prunes which I hate. It has been a long time since I’ve been home and it is best to accept every kindness.
“It’s a purse.” said my tía .
“Oh, how nice!” I smiled. “This one is so ratty!”
“It’s a Chanel.” Only she pronounces it “Chah-Nell.”
My tía Chela hopped up and motioned me to follow her into the storage room where I’d been sleeping on a mattress with dusty blankets. “It was Angelica’s.” she said raising her eyebrows. “Somebody gave it to her. But she never wanted to use it. She was too… shy.”
Chela stood on her tip toes to reach the top shelf of the closet from which she removed a plain white shopping bag. The purse had been wrapped carefully in tissue paper. She freed it from the crinkling paper and presented it to me with reverence. The Chah-Nell was made from pristine pearly white material made to look like quilted leather, there was a silver double C pressed into the fine silver stitching and an oversized frosted silver clasp at the top.
I accept her gift even though I am notoriously messy and can never manage to keep anything white clean for more than a week. It is so different from all the purses I’ve rescued from free piles or liberated from army surplus stores. I imagine that my friends think I probably stole it but the truth is my days of petty theft are over; I am just not that kind of anarchist any more.
I tell my sister about the Chah-Nell and she roars with laughter.
“It can’t be real. Where would Tía Chela get a Chanel?” said my sister as she wrinkled her nose. For a moment I wondered if she was jealous.
When I carry the purse I imagine that people treat me differently. I imagine people think I’m rich, rich, rich. I imagine that I look like the women I use to sell makeup to when I worked at the bougie department store. They’d saunter in, hair disheveled, fingernails dirty, and throw a well worn Am-Ex card down on the glass counter and charge hundreds of dollars worth lipstick like they were rolling through the Burger King drive through. Still they always seemed dissatisfied, frustrated, desperate to find something we did not sell at Nordstrom.
Straight women smile at me and tell me that the purse is beautiful, only they call it a “handbag.” Suddenly I understand why my little cousins spend half their paychecks buying Coach bags from the commissary. In some ways the purse reminds me of the way I felt when I told people I was getting married to a man; it is a new kind of passing privilege, it is a costume, a sparkling entitlement I am not yet accustomed to.
I’ve had the purse two weeks now and the paint has begun to wear off the leather where the strap meets my shoulder. The metal Chanel logo is starting to bend and peel up from the side of the bag. I hope I’ll retire the purse before it becomes too dirty and beat up, before the sweatshop truth has been revealed, before I mark it up with grit and pen marks and living but somehow I doubt that. I’ve always had trouble letting go.