There was a long queue at the pawn shop, which was a sign of the times, she silently observed and shifted her weight from one “stilettoed” foot to the other. The air was stale and humid, her feet and back hurt, she felt sick to her stomach and was sick at heart, too, and yet she found some comfort in the length of the queue. Indeed, it actually gave her a sort of grim pleasure to think that she was certainly not the only one so desperately hard up.
And the people in the line were decidedly interesting; such a mixed bunch, with so much stress and sorrow peeking out from behind the clumsily assumed poker faces of some of them. It was a relief to find food for thought other than her own problems and she busied herself with weaving stories about her fellow “sellers” standing in front of her.
There was that wiry little fellow whose turn it was (and had been for a good ten minutes) now. There was growing resentment in the already stuffy air as he stubbornly stuck to the price he claimed would be only too fair for a choice item such as the tiny blackened ladies’ watch he was trying to sell. He was your classic piece of human furniture generally hanging about pawn shops; as seedy as they come, fidgety, arrogant and wheedling at the same time. He smelled of tobacco and garlic that mingled with the typical smell of sweat brought about by tight-fitting nylon shirts—and this one a shiny pin-striped shirt…olfactory and visual horror of horrors! His hair was oily (Unwashed? Or just slicked to death with gel?), and his neck was strangely thick and muscular like a boxer’s—quite incongruously thick compared to the rest of his body. She found herself strangely attracted to the sight of that powerful neck, a feeling that frightened her so much that she quickly shifted her gaze to the woman right in front of her.
This lady was a lady; impeccably dressed and coiffed, smelling of something very expensive—a scent just perfect, not too strong or sweet, just perfect—and obviously very much out of place. Ironically enough, the most out-of-place thing about her was exactly the kind of well-behaved and patient demeanor that nobody with less class would have been capable of.
Was this beautiful creature perhaps on the verge of ruin because of a man? Was he her son, or her lover, or “simply” her husband? Was it illness or passion or bad financial decisions that had forced her to end up in a line in a disgusting little hole, steeling herself to part with an object of beauty so obviously more precious than the price she would get for it? If it was passion, was it her passion for him or his passion for something—say cards or drugs or even other women?
But this line of thought was far too close to her own case; in fact, she found herself having veered back to the sickening sordid predicament she had landed herself in lately. She gave it up as a bad job to weave stories about the other customers and focused on her own situation, deciding to be objective and ruthless both to herself and to the men involved.
Her husband used to love her; or had, for a long time, been used to loving her. Perhaps both. He had loved her with that clinging sadistic love that eventually suffocates. To be the object of any such strong passion or interest for such a long time cannot fail to be flattering in a way. But if the aim of an emotion of this kind is, to a great extent, to provide a rich, bored individual with something to do, then it very soon becomes nothing short of unbearable.
And just as she had been getting ever closer to her decision to break free even if it meant breaking his heart and losing all her own bearings (sixteen years was a long time, especially as it happened to be the exact half of her life), she found out he had already transferred his interest onto another; someone younger, more naïve, easier to impress and manipulate. The old hat, the ridiculous cliché of being dumped for a younger woman, with the extra twist that she was so much younger than him to begin with that everybody had been expecting the reverse; that she would at last come to her senses and find a younger, physically and mentally healthier and happier individual than her husband.
Whoever had dumped whom was of no importance. Well, it was, of course, of great importance—pride issues? More humiliation? But even so, the rupture was regarded by most as a useful if painful event that would bring about happier lives for all involved.
And along came the apparently mentally and physically healthier and happier male individual. Handsome but not too handsome to make a girl suspect a calculating gigolo. He was a mixture of boy and man; with sensuous lips yet a boyish smile. With a frank open gaze, yet with something mysterious and exciting in the dark blue almond-shaped eyes. Tall and with the promise of a good masculine figure but still covered by a bit of baby fat, which was made even more bewilderingly ambiguous by its being covered with tattoos and male jewellery. She just couldn’t place him; one moment he was a simple young honest cute fellow, at another moment he was a shifty thug who was dangerous but all the more exciting.
Fast forward to the present moment: she is standing in line, eager to get some money for a very expensive set of pearls so as to be able to help him out (once again, and only for a few days).
She is suddenly suffused with a feeling of generosity and she loves her young man all the more for needing her this way, too. And he is so proud, he hates it when she offers to pay anywhere they go together—not that she has much money to throw around and this he knows very well. She tells herself he couldn’t stand it if she was better off; he is just that kind of guy who wants to take care of his woman, who would feel humiliated by a richer girlfriend. How he put up a fight when last month she lent him half her salary because he needed to pay a bill pronto! How could she have let him pawn his very phone? His phone is his life, all his business and their daily communication depends on that phone! She did the right thing. And he will pay it back as soon as he’ll have the cash.
And now it’s different because he doesn’t know she is selling the pearls. She keeps telling herself that she hates those pearls anyway; they remind her of her ex-husband; they are ridiculously fancy for her present lifestyle.
So she is doing the whole pawning on her own accord. She is happy to help (she still needs to find a way to give him the money without offending him, though! Some story she needs to cook up!) And she hates those pearls, she hates them—she keeps repeating it over and over again, arriving at the same question for the umpteenth time: Why is she so sad and stressed, then, standing there, staring at the pearls every few minutes? It’s all for the best, it is really not a big deal.
At last it’s her turn. She didn’t even notice the elegant lady leave and she missed out on all the little crumbs of that human drama she would have loved to find out about. The greasy guy wearing a wife-beater looks just like Stanley Kowalski in that Tennessee Williams play they made her read in high school. She almost cracks a smile but then forces herself to assume her best poker face; Kowalski is not fooled and he smiles in his turn.
“So what can I do you for?” His gaze is impudent, he sizes up her breasts, practically talks down her blouse, and he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get an answer as he is currently too busy visualizing whatever goodies she might have under her skirt. Her poker face is gone in a second, it is as red as her toe-nails, and her voice is shaky.
“I have a pearl necklace I want to sell.” She places it on the counter and suddenly finds the pearls heartbreakingly beautiful; they are so round and shiny and elegant. Their milky whiteness, their soft luster—and this is the last time she sees them. She has a choking sensation in her throat; she fancies she hears “their” song and feels her husband’s fingers around her neck fastening the necklace. “They are too tight.” She recalls saying. “They are supposed to be, you little moron—their style is the ‘choker’ style after all!” He had answered in an amused but condescending tone. The sentimental feeling leaves her all of a sudden as she remembers that choking feeling; the sensation of being a dog wearing an elegant collar. Yes, it is best she sold the damn thing.
She is awakened from her reverie (which lasted only a few seconds) by a huffing sound and a thud. The lecherous pawnbroker had been fondling the pearls as if they were a pair of breasts or buttocks, but now he has thrown them back down on the counter.
“They are paste, not much I can give you for them.”
She thinks she’s heard wrong; there must have been a ringing in her ears. Or he is joking. Or testing her.
“Sir, what do you mean they are paste?!”
“Paste, lady, means fake. These pearls here are not the real deal. Costume jewellery. Accessorize. Bijoux Brigitte. You get my drift, hey?”
Her face becomes redder if that is humanly possible, but now she is angry.
“Are you joking? These pearls cost a fortune….”
“Got the certificate?” He interrupts her rudely.
“Well, no. It was a gift and I haven’t intended to part with them until now.” She’s gone from red to white, from angry to ashamed.
“Hard times, hey?” He is snickering. Having a great time, the greasy fool. But she knows he has the upper hand. Or maybe not; she can just go to another shop, try to sell it elsewhere. And that is what she is going to do, she decides.
“None of your business.” She is haughty now and she storms out of the store, but not fast enough to escape the fat laugh of the shopkeeper.
She walks along the street, with her feet now positively swollen to twice their size in those torturous sandals. They make her feel like the Little Mermaid on her first walk, with every step a dagger thrust. No matter. Must focus. She makes up her mind to go and get her pearls appraised. Of course the man is a fool, the pearls are as real as can be, but it still would be good to get a professional’s opinion as to their exact value. How didn’t she think of this before? It was just that she took it so much for granted that the pearl necklace somehow spoke for Itself. It had been very expensive and that was that.
But now that they have been pronounced fake by someone—even if it was in that someone’s best interest to lie to her and cheat her—doubt is creeping in. Is this going to be another version of the classic pearl stories? Maupassant, Henry James, Somerset Maugham? Real when thought paste or paste when thought real? Which one will it be in her case? Oh, it would be too cruel to find out that her husband had palmed her off with a set of fake pearls. And at the same time it would serve her right; a fitting punishment for trying to raise money on a gift.
She is walking very fast now, unaware of the pain in her feet. If any bodily discomfort besides the mental anguish, it is the queasiness in her stomach that is the most bothersome. She dreads thinking about the additional and maybe not unrelated fact that her period is almost two weeks late. It is just stress, she tells herself and quickens her already quick steps. Mermaid running.
She knows a fancy jewellery store only a few blocks away. She is forced to come to a sudden halt as she reaches a pedestrian crossing with a glaring red light. The traffic is moving slowly, like a slimy sluggish snake slithering forward on its stuffed belly. Morning rush hour, with everybody prevented from actually rushing. She passes the minute of waiting with idly gazing into the cars creeping by; an exasperated mother with a toddler in a baby seat, both screaming about something or other; a businessman shouting into a speakerphone and simultaneously checking his nose hair in the mirror; a kissing couple in a sleek silver sports-car, the guy’s hand high up on the girl’s thigh. She would normally look away when witnessing something so intimate, but her gaze is suddenly stuck on that hand. On the thick silver bracelet she knows so well. The pearly laughter coming from the girl in the car acts as if she had been slapped in the face and she darts forward, heedless of everything.
Just then the snake changes its pace from slithering and it positively strikes as at some little mouse or some such contemptible victim. The braceleted hand had quickly left the thigh of the girl and shifted gear, accelerating so as to impress that pretty owner of the car who is only too content to play passenger and let her new sweetheart drive. Impressing him by letting herself be impressed.
He is not fast enough when it comes to hitting the brakes and he is surprised by something hard and shiny and white hitting the windshield, and something soft obstructing the wheels. He curses and jumps out to check what on earth… Just the thing he needs; an accident with the new girl’s car.
The snake comes to a complete halt, people shouting and gesticulating. The road in front of the sports-car is filled with large round pearls. They keep bouncing here and there, some of them falling into the nearby gutter, some rolling under the neighboring cars.