None whatsoever. But I was 17 and wearing a statement necklace from Old Navy that I liked to tell people was vintage.
“I like your necklace,” said the manager, or whoever she was.
“Thanks, it’s vintage.”
I was hired on the spot. She didn’t look at my resume.
“It’s minimum wage, OK? You start tomorrow, 12 to 5.”
I was so excited. I went home and immediately updated the job section of my MySpace: “Boutique Retail Assistant,” I typed. No one offered me this title, I just assigned it to myself. The store was called Jacqueline Robertson or Joanna Rogers or Josephine Russell, who could be sure. It’s gone now. My parents weren’t happy with me for driving to the fancy outdoor suburban mall and getting a job there without their knowledge.
“How will you be paid? Will you get a break? Who will be training you? What are your responsibilities going to be? How many hours a week is the job?”
UGH. I didn’t know the answers to ANY of that and didn’t care, either.
I showed up to my first day of work dressed for success in a white eyelet lace dress from Gap. “What’s the dress code?” My mom had asked. Fuck if I know, I answered (in my head). The manager lady was there, sitting at a lucite desk that was maybe there just for show. There was no cash register. She gave me a 30-second tour of the store, as though she was being timed. “You’ll clock in back here. If anyone has questions, write down their name and number. Oh, and lock the door at 5 and drop the key off at the gourmet candy shop next door. Okay, I’m leaving now.”
She had a really long braid. I wanted to touch it or pull it because I was 17 and a child and an idiot.
“Wait… you’re just… leaving me here?? Alone?”
She smiled like you would smile at a baby if you don’t really like babies.
“Yes,” she said, suddenly DEEPLY impatient. “I have to go to the other store.” (Of which I had no knowledge and am unsure if it ever existed). “Call me if you have any questions.” She either gave me a business card or I programmed her cell number into my phone. It was 2006 so either is possible. I think my phone VERY newly had texting abilities.
I sat at the desk. I was alone. I wandered around the store, touching everything. There was a long piece of fabric embroidered with silk roses and I wanted to steal it.
I had a shoplifting habit at this time but I didn’t steal anything from Jessica Ruben because I took my job as a Boutique Retail Assistant very seriously.
Someone came in. A mom and daughter. They looked rich. Rich suburban ladies always have hair that seems to have been coaxed against all gravitational odds into a silver-blonde pompadour. The daughter looked sullen. Sullen, but still rich.
“Hi, welcome to Justine Robbins. Feel free to look around and let me know if you have any questions.”
I LOVED customer service. I had only worked in customer service for 15 minutes but I knew I was a natural. I had a really good voice for it. I was great at lying and pretending like I knew what I was talking about.
“Does this caftan come in other colors? Or materials?” She held up something shiny and burgundy to her bosom. She had a bosom. Her daughter slinked against the wall, looking at her nails. It was hard to be sullen without social media or smart phones. Pity the mid-aughts teens.
“Yes, I think so.” The rich lady looked at me with concern, as though my hesitation was a sign of stroke, or poverty. “Sorry, it’s my first day,” I explained, with what I hoped was shop girl charm. The rich lady looked at my shoes. I was self-conscious about them. I had no idea what kind of shoes a Boutique Retail Assistant should wear. I wore tan sandals with a small wedge heel. I suddenly felt terribly underdressed and beachy, like LC from Laguna Beach, or more realistically one of her brunette friends (Morgan…?) who never lasted past one season.
“Let me take down your contact information,” I said in a voice that I hoped conveyed both shop girl charm and shop girl authority.
After rich lady and sullen teen left, I frantically called my absent boss.
To my surprise, she answered immediately.
“What’s wrong?” she said. I heard the sounds of a TV in the background. WTF?
“Um, someone came in asking if caftans can be made in different colors and fabrics.”
“Ok? Did you write down her contact information?”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“Well… can they? I mean, it would maybe help me to know a little more about the store so that I can answer people’s questions.”
“We do custom pieces. Everything in the store is just a sample. Nothing is for sale. If a customer wants to order something, we work with them on the design.”
“Ok. Can I help with that, or no?”
“No! You’re just there to write down their information. Be polite. Smile. Tell them I’ll get back to them within two days.”
I closed my eyes. Without a smartphone, I couldn’t log onto MySpace and change my job title from Boutique Retail Assistant to Sad Secretary Without A Computer. So I did so mentally.
I wandered to the back room, which I had only briefly glanced at earlier while clocking in. I saw a rack of clothes and nonchalantly sifted through it. Within the rack was a yellow satin dress, floor length, sleeveless. It was stunning. It looked like it was made of gold. It was my size.
I wanted desperately to try it on, wear it for the rest of my shift. Then I panicked, wondering if the manager had any cameras around the Julie Rothwell premises. Was she watching me right now? Was her TV actually a series of security videos? I quickly dashed back to the front of the store, where nothing and no one waited for me.
I sat down at the desk, closing my eyes. I thought about the yellow dress. I thought about a different version of me, a different version of today.
I would be wearing the dress, selling similar dresses to rich twenty- and thirty-somethings.
“It’s really chic now to dress up during the daytime,” I would say to my customers. In my vision there would be a group of beautiful customers following me around the store as I selected equally beautiful garments for each of them. My manager would not be absent – she would be standing a few feet behind them, head cocked to the side. “I think she really has a knack for this,” she’d think to herself, as I helped the women into rose- and violet-colored confections. There we would stand by the full length mirror, arms hooked, a silky rainbow. Our teeth would be blindingly white, our hair smooth and freshly blown-out. There would be an actual cash register and I would know how to use it. They would all wear their dresses out of the store. In the vision, my LC’s-sad-sidekick-Morgan sandals have been replaced by gold peep-toe flats.
My eyes fluttered open from my reverie. That’s what I should’ve worn: metallic flats.
After awhile, I started making an inventory of everything in the store. I felt like a real shop girl again! I mentally changed the MySpace job title back to its rightful position as Boutique Retail Assistant.
Customers trickled in and out. Some more rich women came in, as one big throng, and I thought longingly of my daydream. These older women weren’t nice and all had hair that looked like homemade cotton candy and were not interested in me dressing them, talking to them, or even existing in their general space.
I was hungry and bored and wished my job was more important. I thought about this time next summer. I would be in college. I wanted to study fashion merchandising. I had just learned this major existed about two months ago, from a senior in my philosophy class. Her sister studied fashion merchandising. I could do that, I thought to myself. I am meant to work in fashion. Despite my complete lack of retail experience.
Until now! I did a slow lap around the store, calmly, a little smug. I touched all the fabrics again. I know everything in this store, I thought to myself. I created this store’s inventory. How many other 17-year-old’s can say they’ve done that?!
It was after 4 now. Just a little while longer until I could clock out, return the key to the gourmet candy store, hop in my mom’s 2002 Camry, and drive home. I hadn’t yet thought about processing my day, and this job, and the reality of it. Maybe the manager would become my mentor after all. Maybe next weekend we’d be laughing like old pals, her sitting at the desk, showing me an order form, while I leaned over, taking detailed notes and wearing metallic flats.
I wandered back into the back room. The gold dress of my daydreams stared at me. It seemed to be glowing. I imagined what it would feel like to wear it. I imagined how easy it would be to put it in my Aeropostale tote bag and take it home with me.
But no. I respected my job. I respected Juniper Rollins. Most importantly, I respected the dress, and all the future promises it seemed to hold.
At 5 on the dot, I clocked out. I realized I had no idea what lights to leave on, or where the light switches were… or where the key was! Ha ha! Don’t panic!
I tore the back room apart and put it back together, furiously. I walked back to the front of the store and saw it, glimmering on a hook by the front door. The glimmering was like a wink that said “Right in front of you this whole time for the past 5 hours, dumbass.”
The lighting was confusing. There were no light switches? Did it just stay bright as fuck through the night, until the manager with the long braid presumably returned, opened up shop, and took a zillion custom orders? I called her, but this time she didn’t answer.
I left, leaving the store bright as fuck and looking open for business. I locked the door, and rushed next door to the gourmet candy shop.
For as bright as June Riggins was, the gourmet candy shop was completely pitch black. Not even the awning was lit. Fuck fuck fuck. I called the manager. No answer. With the key clasped tightly in my fist, I walked to my car and drove home.
“Hey Jul! How was your first day at the boutique?” Asked my sister as I walked in the front door. Nope, NEXT. She was useless to me in this moment. She was older than me but didn’t have her driver’s license which, to me, rendered her basically incompetent for serious matters such as this. I came very close to failing my driver’s test because I came to a rolling stop at a stop sign, but I still regarded her with resigned airs.
“Where’s Mom?!” I responded, pointedly ignoring her question. I dangled the store keys in my hand as though that immediately revealed all.
As though on cue, my mother came up from the basement, a basket of laundry on her hip. My recollection of my mother during my childhood through adolescence is that she was perpetually doing laundry.
“What’s the matter?!” She asked, dropping the basket. My dad swooped in to carry the basket to its rightful place – an endlessly helpful man, my dad – before returning to stand behind my mom, their faces wearing matching expressions of concern.
The whole story came out in one panicked blur: “The manager left me there alone all day and there isn’t even have a cash register and they literally only sell fabric and I didn’t have any answers to anyone’s questions and only old ladies who ignored me came in and anyway the manager told me to lock up and take the key next door to the gourmet candy shop but when I got there, the candy shop was pitch black and no one was there!” I exhaled. My eyes were teary, and I didn’t know why. I grabbed some pretzels from the pantry while I talked because I was starving and stressed. “And the manager isn’t answering her phone and I couldn’t find any light switches so literally all the lights are on in the store and it looks open.”
My parents looked at each other, crafting a silent parental plan, as parents do.
“What’s her number?” My mom asked, walking over to our landline authoritatively. I read it out to her, watching as she dialed each digit with growing Mom Rage as she walked into her bedroom, shutting the door with a definitive click. I sat at the kitchen table with the rest of my family, eating pretzels and waiting for what was next. Suddenly, in fully realized, glorious Mom Rage, we heard “YOU LEFT A 17-YEAR-OLD ALONE IN A STORE ALL DAY. YOU BETTER BELIEVE SHE WON’T BE COMING BACK TO WORK.”
A few moments later, my mom burst out of the bedroom, oddly calm. “Where are those keys? She’s meeting me at the store. I’m driving them over.”
I couldn’t believe it. My mother, with her Lee jeans and New Balance sneaks and sweater set, had not only gotten the blasé, unreachable manager on the phone, she had convinced her to meet her at the store. The store. The place where the manager couldn’t be bothered to be all day.
“How did you–” I didn’t finish my sentence. I was unsure what I wanted to say. My eyes were filled with tears.
My mom looked at me as she jingled the store keys in one hand, the Camry’s car keys in the other. She looked me in the eyes and saw 17 versions of me, one for each year. “Your very first job,” she said, her eyes filled with pride. “You handled yourself so well. I’m proud of you. Today was a good growing opportunity for you! It’s all uphill from here, I promise.”
But my mind wasn’t with her in the kitchen anymore. My mind was in the TV room, on the computer, clicking on that Internet Explorer button, navigating to MySpace.com, and removing my job as a Boutique Retail Assistant. I had more important things to worry about, anyway. Like college, and fashion merchandising, and a row of imaginary girls, me in the middle, wearing an imaginary rainbow of dresses, linking arms, smiling at our reflections.
JULIA PERCH is a Jewish queer femme, an essayist, an occasional poet, and an editor. Her work has previously appeared in Philadelphia Stories, Word Riot, bedfellows, Crab Fat Magazine, Shape.com, and others. On Twitter, she posts feminist musings on The Bachelor franchise & reimagines Lana del Rey as a queer Jew.