I saw the jeans hanging in the shop window on Main Street, and I knew I needed them. In fact, I’d never needed anything so badly. I stopped dead in my tracks on the sidewalk and stared in at them, and felt desire tickle the back of my throat like an impending sneeze. They were perfect.
I’d never felt this way before—not about a piece of clothing. Clothes had never meant anything to me. Back in Strathfield, the Australian suburb where we’d moved from a month earlier, I’d spent most of every day buttoned into my school uniform—the same white, round-collared short-sleeved shirt and navy-blue jumper that all my friends wore. On weekends and after school, I lived in my swimsuit and terrycloth pull-on shorts, or whatever woolies my mother insisted I bundle up in when the temperature plunged to 55 degrees. The only denim trousers I’d ever owned had an elastic waist.
I didn’t even know what brand the jeans in the window were. They weren’t identifiably nicer than any other pants, and I had no idea what made them better than the gray, pleated ones I’d worn on the first day of eighth grade at my new Connecticut school. But after Wendy Pierce and Laura Mickler had circled me in the schoolyard at lunch that day, jeering at my “loser” clothes, I had spent the next few days studying theirs very closely. The jeans in the shop window had the same narrow legs, the same tiny white label across the front zipper, as Wendy’s and Laura’s did. I knew that owning them, and striding through the school cafeteria in them where everyone could see, would lift me out of the outcast niche my schoolmates had already slipped me into. The jeans had the power to change everything.
Now I just had to convince my mother to buy them.
She was at the town library just around the corner from Main Street, taking forever to choose and check out books. (This, I learned much later, was how she coped with the strangeness of being in a new country: she curled up with novels and anthologies, and lost herself in the stories they told.) Once she emerged, I’d only have a few seconds—the time it would take to walk past the shop on the way to the parked car—to plead my case.
But there was no time to strategize. My mother was already walking toward me, carrying a stack of books against her hip with one hand and dangling her car keys with the other. A flat-out ambush was the only choice.
“Mom!” I blurted out, as she came near. She wore a removed, slightly bemused expression, as though her mind were already drifting into the story of her newest protagonist. “Mom,” I repeated, “Can I show you something? It’s important.”
“What is it?” she asked, as I grabbed her key-holding hand and dragged her toward the store window. Slowly, reverently, I extended my finger and pointed through the glass at the jeans, then turned to her with wide, beseeching eyes.
“Mom,” I said, with grave urgency, “I need those.”
She chuckled, not unpleasantly but dismissively.
“What? Those dungarees?” she said. “You don’t ‘need’ those. You have plenty of clothes.” She turned back toward the parking lot.
“Mom, please,” I begged. I sounded panicky. Without the jeans, I was doomed to loserdom forever; I might as well die. “Please. Can we just go in and look at them?”
The desperation in my voice made her tilt her head at me, quizzically.
“Sarah,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “What’s this about?”
It was a question I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know, in truth, why I believed my social standing, my identity, my very destiny hung on the purchase of the jeans in the window. I really had no idea why the new school clothes Mom had ordered me from the J.C. Penney catalog—matching blouse-and-slacks outfits that, on the glossy pages, had seemed as safe and innocuous as my school uniform—were so terribly wrong. And even if I had understood these things, I knew I wouldn’t be able to explain them to my mother. She, after all, had grown up wearing a uniform, too. She didn’t know how to dress me any better than I did.
So I simply looked at her, wordlessly, and when I took her by the hand again and pulled her toward the door of the shop, she let me.
Inside, there was a brief scuffle over the price tag—whatever the jeans cost, it was more than she’d imagined spending on the fashion whims of a 13-year-old. But luckily, a smiling, bossy saleswoman swooped in and hurried me toward a dressing room before my mother could protest.
And when I emerged from behind the curtain, there was really no way she could say no. My denim-clad reflection flashed in the three-way mirror as I spun around and around for my mother, my face nearly split in two by an enormous smile. When I tottered to a stop, I saw her smiling, too, and a bubble of gratefulness rose and nearly burst inside me.
On the way home, I hugged the shopping bag to my chest and hummed happily along with the radio. For the first time, I felt something other than dread about my new home and my new school. It didn’t register right then that Wendy and Laura had already consigned me to the “loser” bin, where I’d be irredeemably stuck for the rest of the year. Nor did it occur to me that they, and the other cool kids at school, would find my fashion attempts just as ludicrous as they’d found my failures. At that moment, I was sure it was a sort of magic key that I held cradled in my arms. All I had to do was turn it, open the door, and I would belong.