I just wanted to get some fresh air. I had been indoors, attending training and conference sessions, for almost five days straight. It was early December, in Atlanta, and dark after 5 pm. I just wanted some fresh air, but it was too dark to stroll around the hotel grounds, so I decided to risk the rush hour traffic and walk to the mall. Malls are supposed to be good walking places, or so I’ve been told, since I usually avoid malls. I’m a bit agoraphobic. I don’t like crowds, especially, the unorganized, almost zombie-like crowds of malls. But I wanted some fresh air, and to get out of my hotel room, and maybe, just maybe, buy myself a treat since I was feeling homesick and probably suffering from SADS.
I smiled easily at the shoppers I passed as I went through the glass entrance doors. I didn’t know anyone here. I could browse and stroll with a great cloak of anonymity. I turned a corner, looking straight ahead, wondering if the mall had a Barnes and Noble or a Borders, and was prepared to bulldoze myself through the opposing traffic of shopping zombies, when she caught my eye. A diminutive young woman dressed in a black long-sleeve sweater and tight black pants, slinked around a kiosk, calling out to me, “Have you heard of the Dead Sea salts?” She had a thick accent, almost a caricature of the Jewish accent heard on sitcoms. I thought, “Seinfeld?,” and stopped as she cautiously touched my arm.
She was smiling and holding a bottle of lotion. She went on about the Dead Sea, and its salts, and how this line of skin care was Oprah’s favorite. Did I know about the Dead Sea? I said yes, and felt myself pulled toward her kiosk, although she did not touch me. It was if the kiosk had caught me in its tractor beam, and I floated toward it, the young woman still talking about the miracle properties of the dead sea minerals.
She buffed the nail on my index finger, making it shine as if it had just been lacquered. I admit I was delighted. My nails are usually so dull, I said, and nail polish doesn’t stay on. She rubbed oil into my cuticles and admonished me to never use nail polish or to cut my cuticles, not even to push them back. “That’s very unhealthy,” she said in a tone so serious that I wanted to laugh.
We bantered about the cost of the nail care kit that she wanted to sell me. “How much is it,” I asked, with a smirk suggesting that I knew it would be too much. “A million dollars,” she said, “but, for you, forty dollars. It’s such a deal.” I grimaced. Fourteen dollars was more like it, I thought but didn’t say.
“Lemme show you something else. You will love this. All my clients love this.” She grabbed my hands, positioned them over a basin, and then spritzed them with water. “This is so wonderful. You will thank me for this.” She seemed genuinely excited and I wanted to be excited, too, but I could feel myself flag. It had been a long day, a long week, and I had only wanted to get some fresh air.
She put a small scoop of oil and salts in my hands and told me to rub. A lemony scent drifted up to my nose, and the rubbing, the gritty, oily sensation, made me pine for my hotel room and the bath I could take if I could only get away from this tiny woman who had thrown a spell over me. She was very close to me, her straight dark brown hair often brushing against my shoulders. Her movements were quick and sure, and I began to feel like a solid lump of dough next to her.
She never stopped talking. She never stopped her spiel. She rinsed the oily salts off my hands and then applied a thick cream that made my skin feel smooth and plump and soft. “And how much does this cost,” I asked in a monotone voice. She responded with her usual “A million dollars, but, for you …” She explained how she could give me her discount and that she would give me her phone number so I could always call her when I needed to order more. “Don’t buy from online,” she said, shaking her finger at me. “It’s much more expensive online.”
She turned her back to me, and I looked quickly around, wishing there were more people in the mall, wishing I could step back and disappear into a sea of people. She swung around, her large dark eyes filled with delight as she asked, “Do you use eye cream?” Before I could answer, she was dabbing at the skin just around my right eye, telling me how thin the skin is there, how it needs to be pampered, how you should never rub that area, and how this miracle gel will make my wrinkles disappear. Then she grabbed a mirror, wanting me to see the difference between the skin of my right eye and my left eye. What I saw made me want to weep. The wrinkles around my eyes were nothing compared to the pallor of my skin and the deep criss-cross of lines across my neck. I was 52 but I suddenly felt and looked much older. The woman prattled on, seemingly obliviously to the horror I felt at my reflection. She put the mirror down and began to stack little boxes next to the cash register, again saying what a good deal she would give me, how I will bless her for this in six weeks time.
I was rooted to the spot and felt my only means of escape was to pay the woman. Pay her whatever she wanted, pay her anything if she would just let me go. She handed me a receipt. Four hundred dollars. My price of freedom was four hundred dollars.
I managed to get back to my hotel room without being seen by any of my fellow conference goers. The bag handles were leaving deep grooves in my pampered palms, and I felt so humiliated, so ashamed at spending so much on so little. In my room, I laid out my goods on the bed, opened up my laptop, and waited for it to boot. When my browser was up and running, I typed “Dead Sea Secrets” into the Google search bar and began my quest. I hadn’t wanted any of this stuff. I had only wanted fresh air. But I needed to know if at least I had gotten a deal.