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I Can’t Shake the Guilt of Buying Expensive Things

Racked logo Racked 8/2/2018 Claire Foster

a store filled with lots of counter space © Provided by Racked

No matter how much money I have (or don’t).

The day I bought the sunglasses was a payday. That afternoon, after the market closed, I decided it was time to splurge. Why not? I deserved it. I was flush. I was wearing my $1,000 suit and my $200 shoes and my $300 earrings. I looked expensive.

To work at the hedge fund, I had to dress the part. I showed up to work every day looking like what I was: an object that could be bought, sold, and traded, just like any other commodity. I was afraid that my value would depreciate. I was always trying to find new ways to make myself worth keeping around. I was not a person; I was a pretty calculator, a data aggregator. Even my shoes sounded robotic, ticking on the polished floors.

That day, though, when I went into the Louis Vuitton store, I felt my professional shell come apart. Just being inside the store was enough to make me feel human again. The rose gold hardware on the display cases emanated a soft, luxurious glow I could practically warm my hands against. Soon I was sweating into my suit’s lining, sweating so hard that I was afraid someone would see me and think, “She is a thief.”

I cruised the branded handbags, each arranged in its own pool of light. The other shoppers drifted past me, taking selfies. They didn’t seem to be interested in buying anything. I fingered the zipper pulls and hand-stitched leather handle straps. The one I wanted was $7,000. A final sign that I was out of my depth: I couldn’t afford the status symbol that I coveted.

Aside from the luggage tags and novelty cell phone jewelry, the only thing in my price range was a $500 pair of thick Lucite-style sunglasses with the LV logo branded on the temple. They didn’t fit, but I bought them anyway — because I could, because I thought I ought to, because that’s what people with money did, because I would pay whatever I could to feel that I belonged in their world. The case was thick and lined with soft, fine felt, the kind of box that might hold a small tube of human ashes.

I walked back to my car feeling empty. That $500 was half my rent. It was a month of groceries, almost a month of daycare for my son. It was a payment on my life insurance, three pairs of shoes, a Christmas. I did the mental conversions, a habit I’d learned from, until very recently, being broke all the time. Another thing that marked me as an outsider: Wealthy people, I was pretty sure, didn’t have to think that way.

When you have spent enough time poor and scared about it, you will do anything for money. That is how I ended up working at the hedge fund: not because I knew anything about finance, but because I had been below the poverty line for too long, and it gave me a terrible, self-preserving drive for wealth. I met my boss at the Starbucks where I brewed coffee and steamed milk four days a week. He liked something I said about the newspaper he was reading, gave me his card, and offered me a job when I followed up. The pay raise alone was enough to win me over.

My boss reminded me of my origins whenever I made a mistake at work. “You want to go back to making lattes?” he asked at the end of a particularly weak day.

Other times he bragged about me, as though he’d found a diamond in a discount bin. “I found her working at a Starbucks,” I overheard him say. “Perfect memory. She called a million-dollar short this week.”

On an average day, I wore $2,000 worth of apparel to the office: tailored sheath dresses, blouses light as a banknote. I was instructed to wear something tight if we had a dinner with a company CFO who needed to be combed for information. I got used to being looked at by men who were away from their families.

I quickly learned to leave my sense of self at home.

I learned that there was quiet power in being the only female-bodied person in a room full of self-important men, and that sitting quietly, they would forget about me. They said things in front of me that they would never have said if I had been identifiably dressed as an equal. My boss didn’t mind this; he encouraged it, shrugging as though to say, “At least the bimbo can type, I don’t pay her to think.” But I was thinking. My audio-perfect memory and ability to retain data without needing to take notes made me the best office appliance. My boss and I both acted like I was eye candy when we were in meetings, and then, as soon as it was over, he’d turn to me and say, “What did you think?”

I quickly learned to leave my sense of self at home. When I felt embarrassed by what I was doing, I replaced it with greed. I became a shopper, one of those people who goes into department stores just to see what’s on the rack. I’d never been able to afford to do that before this job. But that changed. I turned into a person who could spend more than an hour in a fitting room, then walk out with two big bags of new, never-worn-by-anyone-else clothes. I bought perfume, makeup, hair irons. I was always painfully conscious of my materialism, but I still stepped into my heels every day, assuming the ridiculous drag of the fancy office girl. Underneath, I was still just a barista.

Weekdays, I walked from my parking spot to work every morning, stepping over the bodies of sleeping homeless people. I passed the new low-income housing building, noting how many orange needle caps piled up in the doorway. A couple of years ago, struggling with addiction, debt, and trauma, I could have been one of the people who stood in line at the homeless shelter across the street from my firm, waiting for a hot meal and a warm place to hang out for a few hours. The more money I made, and the more money I wore, the more I felt like an imposter. Not that I didn’t deserve it. I did. But I didn’t deserve it more than any other person. I’d ended up in this position by sheer chance. Inside, I knew it was luck, not merit. Because I was bright, and because I looked the part.

The clothes I bought got more and more expensive. I was constantly aware of a world just out of my reach, where wealth was discerned by codes and patterns that only the rich could see. They didn’t use labels and brands to identify one another. In fact, when I mentioned to my boss that I coveted a Louis Vuitton handbag, he snickered.

”So does every Japanese hooker.”

It made sense, my desire for this purse. After all, wasn’t I selling myself? Wasn’t I one of the millions of people in service to money, to helping the rich get richer? Didn’t I secretly wish to be one of them?

I wore the Vuitton sunglasses to work the next morning, but slipped them off once I got into the office. I put them back in their felt-lined coffin. I couldn’t bring myself to put them back on when it was time to get my boss his sandwich from the Italian place around the corner.

No matter how much money I made, I couldn’t stop thinking of myself as a coffee maker. I knew that poverty was right behind me; I could feel its cold breath on my neck. I knew it was a short drop back into my old life, and that luxury was for people who had many, many safety nets between themselves and the ground. I didn’t have that security. I was only a little bit removed from where I’d been nine months before. I returned the sunglasses and refunded the money to my bank account.

No matter how much money I made, I couldn’t stop thinking of myself as a coffee maker.

It was a good decision. Right before Christmas, my boss took my keys from me and told me to clear out my desk. He was letting me go for tax reasons, he said, and wouldn’t answer any questions.

Over the next year, I sold the beautiful clothes I’d owned, one piece at a time. I shed shoes, tailored suits, and blouses. I consigned my wardrobe, the uniform of a classy, successful person. I turned those clothes into rent money. We went back on food stamps, and I became another one of the gray, tired people who rode the bus to the unemployment office, to the clinic, to interviews for jobs that didn’t pan out. I looked like what I was: someone who was struggling. I couldn’t even find another coffee job. I landed at a temp agency, taking odd jobs all over Portland. I had saved one piece of my wardrobe, a simple black blazer with thin lapels and a striped lining that showed when I cuffed the sleeves.

“You look nice,” one of my temporary bosses told me when I wore it to my temporary office. She was wearing a holiday sweater with sequined felt Santas on it. “Like a professional.”

I took the blazer off and hung it on the back of my temporary chair. My button-down came from a thrift store. I was about to wear through the soles of my shoes.

She said, “Get comfortable. You’re going to be here for a while, right?”

She took me over to the filing cabinet. I knelt in front of it for hours. I regretted my desire to be somewhere better than exactly where I’d ended up. Now I was on my knees again, fixing someone else’s problem. I rarely think of those sunglasses now. One look through them was all it took to see myself clearly.

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