Because she is one of the few people still speaking to me after all these years, I spend a lot of time with my wife, Melissa. And my desperate need for her constant attention means I tag along on routine excursions I might usually avoid, and that would surely have gone more smoothly without me. In essence, I am a clingy, needy pain in the ass, inviting myself along to food and clothes-shopping trips to quell separation anxiety – trips that my presence invariably complicates. Fortunately for Melissa, she has become adept at ignoring me.
Take the grocery store. Like most men, I can pull off a solo trip for groceries in about three minutes. I grab some burger buns, a few cans of Spaghetti-O’s, and I still have a couple of minutes left to flirt pathetically with an underage checkout girl. Knowing that I could make, or perhaps even beat that time on my own makes it all the more painful to shop with the wife. While she, the health-conscious vegetarian, carefully scrutinizes nutrition labels on grass-fed humus and so forth, I’m left loitering with my hands in my pockets. So I have to entertain myself as best as I can. Usually this means vocalizing a constant stream of utterly hilarious observations about the products on the shelves. Somehow, miraculously, Melissa is able to completely tune out these gut-busting monologues on Aunt Jemima’s sex life and the like and continue with her comparisons of net weight and calorie content.
So I have to find some other pastime, like a kid in the backseat on an infinite road trip with mom and dad. One game I developed is called Count the Shreks, in which I keep a mental tally of every item on the grocery store shelves featuring the hideous cartoon film star (during the release of Shrek 2, I counted 48 food products in Publix alone). If Shrek is out of season, I play Count the Spongebobs, Count the Elmos or Count the Biebers.
“Twenty-six Biebers,” I will dutifully report to Mel.
No response. She’s deeply engrossed in the ingredients list of a Paul Newman salad dressing. This gal is focused.
And this is something I’ve noticed among the other couples shopping at Bi-Los, craft fairs and Pottery Barn outlets. The woman all have this alert, caffeinated, driven look in their eyes – a feline readiness to pounce on any available item and scrutinize it in detail. Women’s brains become supercharged in this environment. They can mentally calculate the sale percentage of a discount shower curtain liner instantly, and can pinpoint the exact shade of green on a table lamp to determine whether or not it will match the drapes. They will smell everything.
By contrast, the men on these outings all look like they’ve been hit on the head with a socket wrench. They have a dazed expression, their jaws slack with confusion and fatigue. If asked their opinion, they are forced to confess they didn’t know they had drapes at all, much less what color they might be. They are most certainly NOT in their element – particularly if there is no electronic or automotive department in sight. Pushing a cart through aisles of housewares or produce seems to deprive the male brain of oxygen, and they invariably appear lost and somewhat frightened. If there are kids in tow, the man will be assigned disciplinary duties while the female huffs each individual candle or underarm deodorant. God help the male shopper if anyone has a birthday coming up or has landed in the hospital. Choosing the right greeting card could take hours.
It can all feel pretty emasculating to the domesticated male, to be sure. But the worst indignity of all, the place where the Luckiest Guy in the World is made to feel like a complete eunuch, is the little chair outside the women’s dressing room. This is the throne of shame, worse than a “time out” corner with a dunce cap, worse than a night in the box. The Guy Chair, where the husbands and boyfriends are left to contemplate the total evaporation of their youthful masculinity while their beloved tries on closeout fashions. Sitting there with no manly preoccupations is bad enough, but he must also endure the hostile glare of the other female shoppers, who see not a dutiful husband awaiting his soul mate, but a lonely perv hanging out among racks of bras and panties, surrounded by strange women who are about to get undressed. To complete the humiliation, the store will surround the Guy Chair with pornographic display materials – advertisements featuring well-toned, perfectly-lit women lounging in their underwear. The other shoppers will wonder, rightfully, which unthinking wife invited this leering creep into their sacred realm of discount pantyhose in the first place. Couldn’t she find a sitter?
I can’t speak for the rest of the neutered men in the mall, but I was prepared for this kind of department store debasement in childhood. My mother took me with her everywhere on her shopping trips, from grocery stores to hair salons, nearly every day of my preschool life. I was reared under the fluorescent lights and acoustical tile of retail, and I knew boredom and embarrassment like no other child. I accompanied my mother as she thumped melons for freshness and sampled perfume – exactly the sort of upbringing that turns little boys into flower-arranging, interior decorating sissy boys like me.
The challenge for a youngster suckered into a full day of shopping is to find something – anything- that seems designed to appeal to children in stores that specialize in house paint and shoe repair. This was no problem in a store with an actual toy department – I could spend hours coveting Tarzan model kits and GI Joe accessories. But a fabric store? You were lucky to find an iron-on patch with Cookie Monster on it, and staring at that didn’t have long-lasting entertainment value. In fact, my mother’s preferred fabric outlet had one feature designed specifically to insult desperately bored kids like me: a comic book spinner rack that only contained Archie comics. Worse, they were the Spire/Archie comics, the ones where Archie and the gang were spouting bible scripture and preaching against drugs and premarital sex. Fuck you, fabric store.
I finally rebelled when it came to trying on clothes. Killing time in the lingerie department by feeling up the mannequins was my accepted lot in life, but asking me to come into a dressing room to change pants was too much. I went from passive to sass mouth instantaneously, reminding my mother that I was not above throwing a tantrum if she persisted with the Sears active wear. It was this act of resistance, I’m convinced, that salvaged a tiny sliver of my manhood – enough to change a flat tire, if not to know when the Super Bowl is on.
But my plight as an adult male shopper hasn’t really changed, and I imagine this is true for most men. While “mommy” is dedicatedly rummaging through half-off hair dye, we are desperately searching for anything toy-like to distract us from our pain – a DVD, a staple gun, a Chewbacca t-shirt, some Pittsburg Steelers band-aids. Anything that requires batteries. It’s sad. But I like to think that the hopeless, brain dead men being herded down the aisle by their better halves might still retain some of their prehistoric macho instincts. They might spring to life if, say, the lawn and garden department were to explode and six or seven rabid rhinos came charging out of the flames. It’s comforting to believe the males would then shake off their stupor, utilize some Maybelline as war paint, McGuyver up some Lysol and Bics into flame throwers and capture the rampaging beasts with some matching Martha Stewart table cloths (only $29.95 this Saturday only).
I hope they can take care of it, because I’m too busy counting Biebers.