Things She Carried


First she was born, but when she was older, sixteen and a chameleon, she sprung from her father’s crown into a woman made to embody beauty yet feel monstrous for this gift. She carried her purse as though it were a child she needed to protect from its self-destructive tendencies crystallized by paternal negligence. She became a woman ready to die, not a subservient vessel, slicing through social circles a little proud and a little rattled.


The purse was a hand-me-down from her mother, a forty-something divorcée who liked the smell of Tom Ford lipstick (it smelled like the wealth she would never have) and preferred cooing over the multiple pictures of her friends’ heavy-headed babies and sullen teenagers sporting thousands dollar metal mouths over the actual presence of children. They were whiny and needy, barging into the house like dust storms, sticky-fingered gremlins that didn’t understand the value of perfect silence after swallowing the Holy Eucharist of Vicodin promptly followed by a glass of white wine.


The purse was from Kate Spade’s summer resort line and it reminded her of something Audrey Hepburn would tote around while falling in and out of love in France. Her fingers hovered over the strap as though the caramel-colored leather would grow teeth and tear a chunk of skin from her cheek. No matter the choice of footwear for that particular day, she never forgot the purse, always pausing before the front door of her lemon-scented apartment to double-check its contents. The inside was marked with black pen lines and could hold two paperback novels (The Lover & Some Of Us Are Brave: All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men). There were small, functional pockets on the outside and bigger pockets on the inside. She rarely saw anyone with this same purse, as it was one of the worst-selling bags of that collection. Not too many shoppers liked the clash of space-inspired metallics, polka-dots and chevron.


In her purse, she carried a black wallet bought from eBay. The zipper had the habit of getting stuck but she could never gather the energy to buy a new one. It seemed like a waste of time, a waste of money. She carried a tin of Altoids that were several years old, the white residue staining the top of the tin like ultra-fine baking soda. She needed to throw out the Altoids but she kept purposefully forgetting. What if she met someone important, what if she booked an interview that actually seemed promising, what if she ran into her ex-friend/ex-boyfriend/ex-nuclear reactor in the middle of Union Square and he was still slick with his dictator’s smile? Life was not a screenplay but she was always looking for ways to change the odds, to tweak debilitating events in her favor. Her mother told her that she should set herself on fire before she bent to the will of some man, for all men couldn’t refuse the seduction of predatory love.


She also carried an iPhone with a cracked screen, the result of a drunken evening packed into some bar in Chelsea where she’d snorted lines in the unisex bathroom because she wanted to look cool and jaded and charm the friend of a friend, a towering Wall Street Drone with two mismatched eyes like David Bowie. She was intimidated by him and she wanted to give off the illusion that she fully knew the world and the world knew her. They exchanged numbers without slurring. She saved his name with the red dancing lady emoji to remember that they’d sloppily danced to UB40’s “Red Red Wine.” She texted him, rewrote the greeting five times before she was satisfied. He said hello! and told her that he had to go visit his parents in Greenwich that weekend. He never contacted her again.


She carried her bottle of Xanax because she never knew when her anxiety would be triggered by some seemingly mundane yet unexpected inconvenience, like the time half the staff at her job got laid off and she was certain they’d overlooked her name. She carried a bottle of allergy pills (pollen made her sleepy and sneezy, chest infected with a never-ending supply of thick mucus), tampons, pads, a condom, and the business card of her therapist.


She carried an assortment of hair ties and rusted bobby pins, a crumpled scrunchie, a broken barrette, a mini Hello Kitty brush she’d bought as a gag present for a friend who had fled for graduate school only to settle down with the owner of a pot dispensary in California. She carried five different types of lip gloss, lip glass and lip balm, a tube of Chapstick that had gotten wet, a bottle of OPI nail polish named I’m Not Really a Waitress, a cheap compact mirror, a James Dean Zippo, bronzer, blotting papers, black mascara that promised ANIME EYES!, and a stainless-steel eyelash curler. She carried a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer and lotion. She couldn’t stand the feel of dirty hands and she couldn’t stand dry, cracked hands. Her mother’s hands were always soft, always lighter than her face. She carried a little Vera Bradley address book that was empty except for the numbers of take-out places. Another tool inherited from her mother. Her mother believed that giving was enough, the act itself affirming her maternal affections. It could be a coffee-stained tote bag or a half-full can of discount-store hairspray. They were tokens not to be dismissed.


She carried an Exacto knife and pink pepper spray made with the highest concentration. She wanted to carry a cruel-looking switchblade but the company she ordered it from had ripped her off and Paypal wouldn’t refund her money. She wanted the comfort of a hidden arsenal, thoroughly inspected. She wanted to capture the power she felt when wearing her steel-toed, knee-high Doc Martens to punk shows where she was one of the few black women, like she could stomp on someone’s head like a cluster of daffodils or a collection of wobbling eggs.


She never carried her keys in her purse; she always had them in her fist, the pointed ends of the keys eager to pierce an assailant, maybe straight into his pupil. She did not hate men, actually found them a little too enchanting, but was certain that most men hated women in their own way, until they could claim them, make them useful. Even then, the hatred was still there, jealous of the bind of lust. In college, her mother had told her to never leave her drink unattended and that rape whistles were silly. She said that the only thing she needed to remember was to go for the groin, or take off a high heel and use it as a weapon. Her mother had resorted to a high heel when a man mugged her near the hospital where she worked, but he’d easily yanked the shoe out of her hand and punched her in the face as though he were a cocky boxer bloodthirsty for Ali’s defeat.


The purse was becoming heavier each year. One day the strap would break but for now, she needed her magic potions and healing symbols and scraps of paper and the false security of researched forms of control.


Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Toast, The Hairpin, Bitch, Bookslut, and Thought Catalog.


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