This is what Joan bought at Rite Aid: a plastic poncho, gardening gloves, batteries, several bottles of nail polish, a cheap wind chime, two tubes of anti-itch cream, some candy, a blow-dryer (her hair is half an inch long all over her head), an expensive face scrubber, a rubber ball to knead when one is stressed (she already has at least thirty at home), a box of plastic bags (ditto), a case of bottled water, plastic-backed pads (she lets her dogs crap and piss on them instead of taking them outside), Band-Aids, lipstick, and, God, I can’t remember what else, though I swore I would yesterday. Lots more. She filled the cart I was pushing.
I am her handmaiden. I used to be a nurse, but my addictions to alcohol and prescription pills brought me low, and I now do whatever I can to earn money, including working as an attendant for the elderly.
Various diseases have brought Joan low, literally. She is only seventy but has the most extreme kyphosis — a curvature of the spine — I’ve ever seen, and I was a nurse for twenty-eight years. Her back is so bent that her head is not far from her waist, and she must rotate and peer up at people when she looks at them. As a result her spine is beginning to turn to the right, so that she is both hunched and twisted. I won’t go into her other ailments. Suffice it to say they are legion, and she has a large days-of-the-week pill container stuffed with medications to be taken morning, noon, supper time, and night.
We left Rite Aid with six bags for Joan and two for me. Yes, I shopped too. Watching her wheel her walker with such determination up and down each aisle, I began to feel there must be something I needed. I’ve never had a shopping habit — I much preferred straight vodka, the occasional joint, and the odd opiate — but now that I’m clean and sober, I am casting about for a new obsession or compulsion. Gardening has been working well and has no ill side effects (except dirty fingernails), but it’s wearing thin and is seasonal. Shopping is year-round. I don’t have the money to take it up full time, however — and, anyway, I think I was cured forever from being a compulsive shopper by something that happened when I was about six years old:
My mother, who was nothing if not careworn, stopped by a new ranch house one day as she ran errands. The house was right by Route 91, almost in the shadow of an overpass. My younger sister and I were with her in the old Dodge that she always had to park on a hill so she could start it by letting it roll first. If the car wasn’t on a hill, someone had to push it, and since my sister and I were not yet pushing age, she parked on the rise that led up to the overpass. (I have a spotty memory, so I think it significant that I remember those details so well.) My mother must have been invited to an in-home sales party of the Tupperware ilk. Just before she went in, she looked in the rearview mirror and applied the blood red lipstick she favored. She never wore any other makeup, and her hair was ivory white — already, at thirty-seven.
My mother bought nothing at the party but two dolls, one for my sister and one for me. I remember the new-plastic smell of that doll and how perfect its blond hair was. All the way home I smelled the doll’s head and sensed misgiving from the front seat.
I have the image of my mother counting her remaining money with pursed lips, but that is a Hollywood-type detail and probably not true. I do know she was worried. I suspect she’d spent money meant for food or the electric bill on those dolls, the only new dolls my sister and I ever had. That moment left me ever after with a slight unease whenever I purchased anything unnecessary. It might have gone the other way, I suppose: I might have become a shopping addict, endlessly trying to erase my mother’s spending anxiety. But I did not.
As I watched Joan, though, I got swept up in her spending, and I began to look for items to buy with the money I would be getting from her later that day, which I was already counting in my head. I bought a face ointment that was advertised to be as good as a chemical peel, a round brush, hair ties, teeth whitener, and a Vanity Fair. Strictly speaking, I didn’t need any of it.
Joan lives in a New England town that was bought up by developers and transformed into a resort. To some this might seem tacky, but Joan is thrilled by the concept. Whoever bought a house from the developer is permitted to use the resort facilities, which include a golf course, a pool, a ski run, tennis courts, and a country club. She once told me that whoever had the idea must have been a “genius.” I wasn’t sure how buying land from poor Vermonters and building fancy houses on it qualified one as a genius, but I didn’t say anything. Joan likes being able to go to the post office, the store, and the farmer’s market without ever leaving the resort. It’s like the walled-off hotels in Mexico that contain everything an American vacationer might need. I went to such a resort once with my boyfriend’s family. My boyfriend’s father said he liked it because he didn’t have to get too close to the Mexicans.
Joan’s house is one of the fancier models, with turrets and balconies. There are five bathrooms, including one in the maid’s quarters. I assist Joan only on the maid’s much-needed night off. I say, “much-needed,” because Joan is not easy to care for. Some of my clients require little more than assistance when they use the toilet, modest meals, an occasional shower, and desultory conversation. Joan, on the other hand, has an excess of need with a prodigious amount of want on top. She is all appetite.
“Lois!” Joan calls.
I bustle up to her room from downstairs, where I’ve been cleaning up dog crap.
“I need a bowl.”
Sweating like a marathon runner (we’re having a record heat wave in Vermont), I zoom downstairs and bring a bowl back up to Joan.
“It has to be plastic, not china. Anything up here should be plastic.”
I go downstairs and get a plastic bowl and return with it. As I leave, Joan says, “I need you to put some Tiger Balm on my legs.”
I grab a towel and put her legs on it and rub them thoroughly with the balm, an ancient Chinese remedy that she swears takes the aches out. (She buys a seventy-five-dollar tub of it every week when she gets her massage.) After I’m done, I go downstairs to unload the dishwasher.
I pound back upstairs, flicking sweat out of my eyes.
“Open this cereal container for me.”
Joan eats a lot of cereal and likes to buy the individual servings in little cardboard boxes. They come in flavors like “Pirate’s Booty,” which actually contains pieces of candy in the cereal, and some list sugar as their first ingredient. Joan seems able to keep them down, however, whereas many other foods cause her to produce large quantities of mucus and saliva that come up, with much gurgling and choking, into the plastic bowl she keeps with her at all times. This also happens when we go out to eat, and I have to sit calmly and watch her make choking noises, hoping no do-gooder dances over to perform the Heimlich maneuver.
I open the cereal for her.
“Now turn on my TV.”
Joan has a flat-screen TV the size of a picture window at the foot of her bed, with a selection of at least two hundred movies. I crouch down and push the button, and she tells me to put in the movie Evita. Corny orchestral music fills the room, and I leave humming “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” When I’m halfway downstairs, I hear my name again.
“I think I’d rather have ice cream,” Joan says this time. “There are little containers of Ben & Jerry’s down in the refrigerator near the dogs’ room.”
To get to the fridge — an auxiliary to the main one in the kitchen — I pass through the laundry room, where Joan’s two ancient toy dogs rise blearily to their feet and stare at me, hoping for a crumb of human affection. One is a dachshund, and the other is a Shih Tzu. Joan totally ignores them. I usually say, “Hey, little doggie dogs,” and give them each a Beggin’ Strip, but the chemical-laden treats are so far from food that I feel guilty. The dogs are penned in the laundry room by two gates, each of which I must hop over to get to the refrigerator on the other side. In the freezer I find a large selection of single-serving Ben & Jerry’s ice creams, and I bring one to Joan, knocking over a dog gate in the process.
“You need to open it,” she says when I offer the ice cream.
I lift the lid and peel off the plastic seal.
“Now could you empty my trash, please, and put new plastic liners in all the baskets.”
I could balk and tell Joan I’m a caregiver, not a house-cleaner, but I need this job. When I work from 5 P.M. to 9 A.M., I get $250 — nowhere near what I made as a nurse. Back then I had money to spend on mini bottles of vodka, which I doled out to myself whenever life’s vicissitudes required it. But now one night with Joan is a significant part of my income, and I can’t afford, nor do I have the inclination, to flush it down my throat. So on I go deadheading flowers, cleaning up feces, giving insulin shots to her decrepit dogs, washing dishes, preparing light lunches, and, when I work a day shift, driving Joan in her tricked-out Lincoln SUV to various locations to eat or shop.
Joan particularly likes to shop for clothes. She has three closets full and still buys more. She has at least thirty sets of bras and matching “underwears,” as she calls them. This is amazing to me, since I have two bras and no underwear. (I gave up on it because the waistband always pinches, and the crotch always rides up.) When Joan shops for clothes at some upscale boutique, I have to go into the dressing room with her and help her try on items. Usually she has an immense pile of potential purchases. When I finally get the blouse over her head and arms, she rears up until her back is sort of straight and peers critically at her wizened and crooked image in the mirror. “That looks good,” she usually says, and we add the piece to the “keep” pile.
The truth is I don’t dislike Joan. In fact, I dislike far fewer people now that I’m sober. Acceptance is its own kind of opiate. Once, when I was driving Joan somewhere, she fell asleep with her head bobbing by my right arm. I looked down at the short hair on her small head and felt almost as if she were a child, a little girl who’d never had enough and was now trying to get it all — a different version of me.
Recently Joan’s husband (they live apart) canceled his visit from California, and Joan’s live-in help was on vacation, so I filled in for four days straight. During that time I learned a bit more about compulsive shopping.
I learned that what drives the shopper is the dream that if she finally makes the exact-right purchase, she will be happy. This is not unlike the drug addict’s search for a drug or combination of drugs that will finally make her feel the way she wants to feel. The worst thing that can happen to an addict is to have a lot of money, which Joan does. Then the choices are unlimited, and the party goes on far too long.
I learned that if you are a compulsive shopper, when you buy, you do it for a fleeting fantasy about the item. Take the cheap wind chime Joan bought at Rite Aid: It said “Hope” on it. Perhaps Joan bought it because for a second she imagined herself sitting on her deck and hearing the chime tinkle in a light breeze and feeling a glimmer of hope in her heart. On her dining-room table is a silver tea service she probably bought because it let her imagine that friends might come over for an elegant tea. But she has no real friends, only caretakers like me who have been less successful than she has in accumulating money and therefore must work. Joan pays these women to be with her because her husband and children don’t care to be.
I learned that if you are a compulsive shopper, you will soon lose track of what you have and keep buying the same items. (Joan has two and three of everything, much of it packed away in large plastic tubs.) Of course, our capitalist culture encourages endless buying by continually coming out with new fashions, new gadgets, and new versions of old gadgets. Compulsive shoppers believe that this latest gizmo is the last one they will need. What they don’t realize is that they’ve become addicted to the buzz of neurotransmitters that occurs as the object is put into the cart, as the credit card is slid through the machine, as the bags are piled in the car. But after they get home and tear open the packaging, the purchase becomes simply another object in the house, no longer offering any allure. And they must shop again.
During my four-day stay with Joan I went with her to an opera-recital dinner. I was expecting something like a dinner theater, but there were only fifteen people there, including the opera singers who did the entertaining. I hate to think what my plate must have cost. The dinner was held near where I live, at a mansion I’d never known existed because it’s at the end of a long dirt road that winds up into the mountains. The house had been designed by an English architect and looked vaguely like a gentrified farm manor. The hostess wore a dress that I’m sure cost more than I earn in a few months, and Manolo Blahnik shoes. (I recognized the shoes because I watch The Real Housewives of New York City, a reality show about bitchy, aging, pretty, rich women.) The caterers were bustling to and fro, and I was hiding my fingernails — which I had tried to paint a smooth, shiny red but had come out blotched and smeared — and wishing I’d worn something other than the black pants and red-patterned jacket I’ve had in my closet for five years and haul out whenever I need to dress up. The other women were wearing summer dresses, and Joan herself had on an expensive outfit purchased the day before. When we’d entered, the waiter had offered Joan wine and me nothing. Was it so obvious I was a servant? It was like a Jane Austen novel. Like a servant I went to the kitchen to ask for water.
As I came back and watched the pretty women laughing and the handsome men being suave, I realized that these people were only younger, richer, more sophisticated versions of Joan. I walked out onto the vast lawn and looked at the mountains. Swifts were darting past a pond below, and for no good reason I felt happy. Like a Jane Austen heroine I understood that character and motive did matter. There was comfort in simply trying to be good. When I’d been an active addict, I would have felt the sting of my less-ness more, but now I could simply be another actor in the scene, pleasantly present, waiting to see what else the world would show me.