Gray slush on the dirty brown carpet melts into puddles as I wait in the checkout line at the Bibles for Missions thrift store. I wonder why it’s so busy, but then I remember it’s the 30th, check day. I should have come yesterday.
“Morning,” says Hedwig when it’s my turn. Her name is printed in neat block letters on the name tag pinned to her off-white sweater. You could bounce a dime off her tightly permed blue-gray hair. I’ve been to the store so often lately I feel like I know her. She rings my purchases through and with each pair of panties — powder-blue nylon grannies, black lace boy-cuts, hot-pink bikinis, industrial-strength taupe control-panel jobs, no-nonsense white cotton briefs, red satin thongs — her lips purse a little harder, fine lines around them deepen. Finally she says, “These are all different sizes, you know.”
I shrug. “I have a big family.”
Her lips almost disappear. She rings the rest of my order through in silence, the cash register display reflecting in her glasses. She doesn’t believe me, but it’s none of her business. I leave the store with two plastic grocery bags full of panties, 44 pairs at 50 cents each. Twenty-two bucks, and I’ve cleaned out their ladies’ underwear bin for the second time in a month.
Next week, I’ll hit Value Village for a change. Their prices are higher, but the kids who work there couldn’t care less what you buy, or why you buy it. Really, I just want to make a living. That’s all any of us want, isn’t it?
Snow whirls outside as Sunniva and Dana and I sit in front of my computer and nibble thick golden slices of Sunniva’s sockerkaka, sponge cake. Dark-haired Dana pushes her glasses further up her nose, reads aloud what she’s typed so far. “Nurse Ingrid is lonely. She is Swedish, blonde, 5’ 4”, age 26. She sounds a lot like you, Sunniva. ”
“Well. I’m a long way from 26. And let’s make her 22.”
“That seems kind of young, don’t you think?” I ask.
“Beth,” says Sunniva. “What the hell difference does it make?”
“You’re right. It doesn’t matter.” I sip my wine. “Thanks for bringing the cake, by the way. It’s awesome.”
“Tack. I’m glad you like it. How about this: She’s lonely, 22, and she loves to sell off her used panties in her own eBay store.”
“Gently used?” I suggest.
“Lovingly used?” Dana muses.
“Let’s just go with ‘used’ for now. We can always change it later,” says Sunniva.
Dana raises her glass. “I’ll drink to that.”
“We should wrap this up for now,” I say. “Almost time to pick up the kids.”
Things have been better for me since Sunniva and Dana and I started hanging out together. But many days I still feel lost. When Evan and Henry are at school, instead of doing some of the millions of other things I should do, I find myself once again wandering Westbrook Mall. It’s not that I want to shop for anything, particularly. I just don’t want to be alone with my thoughts. I distract myself by fingering trinkets in the dollar store, by trying on clothes I have no intention of buying. Sometimes I don’t recognize the woman looking back at me in the change rooms — she looks old and tired; her straggly red hair I suddenly realize hasn’t been cut in months. In the food fair I sit with a cup of coffee and watch people come and go. Women with strollers and diaper bags and toddlers; sullen, dark-clad teenagers who should be at school; elderly couples who sit together, each lost to their own silences. Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of a tall man, and before I can stop myself, I’ll think it’s Ian for a second, and in the next instant when I realize, of course, that it’s not, I feel like my insides have been hollowed out.
Then it’s time to go pick the boys up again. This new life as a widow is exhausting, bewildering. I wonder how I’ll ever get used to it. The six weeks I’ve been off work are already almost up, and the college probably expects me to come back, or to tell them whether I am coming back or not. My supervisor, Charlotte, has been really good. But I don’t feel ready to go back, I don’t feel ready to do anything except sleep, and heat up frozen food, and wander Westbrook Mall. I don’t feel ready to make a decision. Everything seems to be out of my control. And it terrifies me.
But then there’s Evan and Henry. They’re my lifeline, all that keeps me from drowning. If I have no other reason to get it together, I have them. Only I have no idea how to even start.
We came up with the concept of Nurse Ingrid on one of our special Fridays. Dana’s 3-year-old, Peter, Sunniva’s son John, and my Evan were all in the same preschool class, and Sunniva’s Michael and my Henry were in kindergarten together. All boys, they all got along so well. First we started getting them together for play dates outside of school. Then the three of us started having coffee in the afternoons when they were all in school, which we found a lot more relaxing than play dates. Then the coffee became wine, on special Fridays, once or twice a month. After all, we could walk over to the school from my place. And those Fridays were indeed special. We needed them.
That day the boys all wanted to go to the playground after school, even though it was freezing out, and the three of us huddled near the school doors, tipsy and leaning against the brick wall, while they chased each other up and over and around the dizzyingly red, yellow, and blue playground equipment.
Dana sighed. “Days like this I wish I could work from home. You see all these ads. You know, Internet jobs. Work from home. Beth, didn’t you make money selling stuff on eBay for a while?”
“Yeah, I did. It was kind of fun.”
“You sold vintage clothes, right?”
“Yeah. And other stuff. Collectibles. I got a lot of it when I worked in a thrift store when I was in university. When the kids were little I had to make some room, so I started selling off some of it.”
“So why did you stop?”
“Partly because I ran out of things to sell, and I didn’t have much time to pick up new stock in thrift stores. Partly because it’s still a customer service job — you’re always going to come across cranks and whiners who try to get something for nothing out of you. But mainly I quit because after a while the market got flooded with vintage stuff. I didn’t make enough on each item to make it worthwhile.
“Maybe you just weren’t selling the right clothes,” Sunniva suggested. “A friend of mine told me her sister-in-law sells her used underwear on eBay. For a lot of money.”
Dana’s round gray eyes grew even rounder. “Really? How much?”
“Fifty, a hundred bucks a pair. She lists her auctions as ‘sexy college co-ed used panties,’ sells them to men all over the world.”
I breathed out a low whistle.
“Come on, Beth. Are you shocked?”
“No. I’m figuring out the profit margin. Panties at the Bibles for Missions store are 50 cents a pair.”
“Holy,” said Sunniva in a little cloud of breath.
One special Friday we decide to get together in the evening. We order pizzas and Sunniva and Dana bring their kids over. After the kids eat we plug them into Finding Nemo in the family room downstairs, their blond and red and brown heads lined up in a row in front of the TV. The three of us take care of a few Nurse Ingrid auctions that are about to end, then we relax with a drink.
“Cheers,” I say. “Here’s to Nurse Ingrid.”
“She’s bringing in a lot of money, isn’t she?” asks Sunniva.
“She is. I never would have believed it. This is more money than I made working at the drugstore,” Dana says.
“We’ll see, but it looks like Sunniva and I may not have to go back to work, either,” I say.
“Sunniva, why did you quit nursing?” Dana asks. “I mean, it’s a good job.”
Sunniva smiles. “It’s hard work. And crazy hours.”
“It must be stressful,” I say.
“Stressful. Yes, well. That doesn’t even start to describe some of it. You see a lot of things you hoped you’d never see, things you never imagined you’d see, when you work in emerg. And I did it for a lot of years.
“The thing, though, that pushed me over the edge … a man brought his little girl in late one night. Six years old, pretty little thing. She was bleeding very heavily. The father was white as a sheet, wouldn’t tell us what happened. She just sat still, with her legs clamped together, wouldn’t let us examine her, wouldn’t answer any questions. We called the police, of course.”
Sunniva’s voice trails off. I can’t think what to say. Then she continues. “She died later that night and he was charged. I think in the end he was in jail for less than two years.”
“Oh, Sunniva. That is so horrible.”
“It is horrible. And I tried to forget about it. But I just couldn’t. I felt sick every time I went in to work for a long time after that. It really frightened me, it still frightens me, to think that no matter how good our intentions are, no matter how hard we try to help people, there’s so much that’s out of our control.”
Dana gets up. She is pale. “You know, I just realized the time. Mel is going to be back any minute. I should get home.”
“Can’t he get his own dinner?” asks Sunniva.
“I need to get home. I’m sorry,” she mumbles, and goes downstairs to get Peter. He stomps up the stairs, whining that the movie isn’t over.
“Peter. Control yourself,” Dana says through her teeth. She’s bent over, helping him jam his snow boots onto his feet, and I notice that one arm of her glasses is held on with duct tape. I am just about to ask her what happened to them when I think better of it.
I think Sunniva’s story hit close to home for Dana, somehow. I’m sure Sunniva saw it, too, though we let it go, say nothing about it to each other.
Hedwig sees me come into the thrift store one morning and whips out from behind the counter with surprising agility, follows me down the housewares aisle, up the ladies’ wear aisle. She dips into the bin of men’s socks, fires rolled up pairs at my head with the precision of a marksman. I try to scream but no sound comes out of my mouth, and I duck into the change room. As soon as I lock the door, she bangs her fists on it, yanks on the handle.
“You think you can hide in there, you panty-hoarding harlot. But you can’t. You’ll have to come out sooner or later.”
Let go, let go of that door handle, I want to scream, and she rams into it with her shoulder.
I wake up covered in sweat. Clearly, there’s a problem here.
On a Wednesday morning, I’m in the long line at the Starbucks at Westbrook Mall, telling myself this is it, this is the last time I will wander around here for no reason. I wish they had an express line for people who just want coffee. Just give me a damn medium coffee, I want to say. Instead I wait in line behind people ordering grande half-sweet sugar-free cinnamon dolce nonfat chai-tea misto or tall Americano with a nonfat steamed topper. Listening to them gives me a headache. And the couple in front of me, a beefy tattooed man in a hoodie and a slight dark-haired woman who wears a cropped T-shirt and tight pink pants — tight enough that she can’t be wearing underwear — make out while they wait. They keep jostling me, no matter how far I move away. I’m about to say something when they get up to the counter and order venti nonfat no-whip classic hot chocolates, extra foam or something.
Alas, when I take my damn medium coffee over to get a lid, the lovebirds are there. He has her up against the cream-and-lid station; her hands are down his pants. Just get out of the way, I think. I try to reach around them for a lid, but I can’t. My head throbs.
“Hey, take it somewhere else, would you?” I suggest.
The man spins around, roars, “Who are you telling people what to do?” He grabs the woman, starts kissing her again, but this time he stares at me.
“Charming,” I mutter, and take my lid and leave. Should have sold her some panties while I was at it.
I meant to wander around the mall, but after that I take my damn medium coffee and go home. The experience leaves me a little shaken, feeling fragile. The guy was a total asshole. He could have slugged me, could have whipped out a gun, tough Starbucks gangsta that he obviously was. Then the whole thing could have spun out of control. I could have taken a bullet to the brain. And where would Evan and Henry be then? I would have to be extra careful from now on, that was all. As the only parent, caution was my only choice.
At home I sit down at the computer, decide checking in on a few of our auctions will improve my mood. But there is an email from eBay. I read it a couple of times, then punch in Sunniva’s number, stare at my computer screen in shock as she picks up.
“Busted! Dammit, Sunniva, we’re busted.”
“Yes! The panties. We’re busted.”
“What do you mean, busted?” she huffs. “There’s no law against selling used clothes, is there?”
“No, there isn’t. But eBay will no longer allow us to sell used panties. Health regulations or some bullshit. They sent out an email. All our auctions are shut down.”
Sometimes things happen and you realize maybe it’s a blessing somehow. We all knew the Nurse Ingrid thing wouldn’t last forever. But I think we wanted to be the ones to say it was time, we wanted to be in control of the ending. But there it was, pulled out from under us.
Now what the hell would I do with all those bags of panties? Re-donation seemed like the only answer.
After we receive the last payments from our happy customers before Nurse Ingrid suddenly disappears from eBay, we get together to split up the proceeds. It looks like it may be the last time the three of us will gather for a while; Dana’s decided to leave Mel, and she and Peter have moved in with her sister, on the other side of the city. She comes in my front door, stomps her snowy boots on the mat, has a huge red plastic Zeller’s bag in her arms.
“What’s all this? Stuff you’re getting rid of for the move?”
“No.” She nods at the bag. “Take a look.”
I peer inside. The bag is full of panties. New cotton briefs, three to a package, sensible colors: white, ecru, black.
“Oh, my God.”
“They had them on clearance. I just — I’m not really sure what got into me. Can you donate them to the thrift store for me? I won’t have time to swing by there.”
I try to imagine the look on Hedwig’s face when I come in with this donation. “Yeah, no problem. How are you and Peter doing?”
“Good. You know. Pretty good. For now, I think living with Catherine’s going to be the best thing for us. She works nights, so she can get him to and from school once I get a new job.”
“Sounds like you’re getting things under control.”
“Yeah. It’s going to be okay.”
“Dana, we’re not letting you go without having a drink and some sockerkaka with us,” Sunniva says, pouring her a glass of wine. “Sit down. Besides, I have some news, too: I’m going back to work.”
“Really? Where?” I ask.
“The general hospital. It’s a desk job, though, three days a week. Giving advice over the phone. I think I’ll like it.”
“Congratulations,” Dana and I tell her. I’m happy for Sunniva, but surprised. I didn’t see that coming at all.
After Sunniva and Dana leave, I rinse golden cake crumbs from our plates, rinse our wine glasses, and put them in the dishwasher. There’s still some time before I need to go pick up Evan and Henry, so I check my email. There’s an email there from Charlotte at the college. I don’t want to open it. I know what she wants. She wants me to tell her whether or not I’m coming back to work.
While I try to decide whether to open the message, I notice the Nurse Ingrid email file and decide it’s time to delete it, time to let it go. And then that’s it. The last trace of Nurse Ingrid is gone.
I get up, get my boots and coat, go out to pick up the boys. The sun has come out, the warmth feels good on my face. I decide I’ll answer Charlotte’s message after we get back. It’s time now, I can do it. Besides, I tell myself, if I’m having a problem when I’m back at work, if things are getting out of control, I can always phone Sunniva for some advice. Somehow, knowing that makes me feel better.