The Crossroads Trading Co. in Flatiron, NYC opened early last year. The selection of used clothes was meager, eclectic and disappointing at first, but in just a matter of months, they’ve made strides to be more competitive. Now, they stock a wide range of clean basics colors, chevron and polka dot patterns, and 60s and 70s trends. Sadly, the prices have gone up, too. Beacon’s Closet and Buffalo Exchange, which dominate the market in Manhattan and Brooklyn, rarely take my used clothes and accessories, so I figured I’d try to sell here before they figured out what they were doing.
My mother would hate that I purchase most of my clothes secondhand. She’s worked alongside my stepfather at the garment factory for as long as I can remember, coming up with designs and hand picking styles she thinks will sell. The profit margins have diminished in the last few years; now they mass import finished material from Guangzhou, China, where fabric and labor are cheap and the laws protect the businessmen instead of the factory workers.
I tug at the rigid purse sitting on top of the pile of clothing I’m carrying, but it barely moves. It’s still in great shape and has a stiff, black leather bottom, a thin solid handle and their iconic logo stitched into the still shiny silver fabric. Dina, my half sister, was barely 9 years old when my mother’s business associate gave her the Coach handbag. “It’s a present for the boss’ daughter,” my mother said. Since most of my parent’s business associates and their friends didn’t know my mother had been previously married, I didn’t get presents or, in this case, a purse.
My mother made a big deal. Brand name bags, scarves, shoes and jewelry are status symbols. When a child carried a brand name purse, it meant the family was so well off an expensive purse could be used as a toy.
It came in a fine, rectangular box, and on Dina’s lap, it looked enormous. The jacquard fabric specially treated to repel water and stains made the purse rigid and resilient. With black leather trim, a nickel handle and fabric lining, it was handmade with care. “You can smell real leather when you hold it up to your nose,” our mother told her. She closed her eyes and took a long inhale, held it under her lips so Dina could learn how to check for genuine leather. Then she tucked the purse under her thin arm and modeled it, walking up and down the polish wood floors in the living room. Even after bearing three children, she was a pencil thin, striking woman in the prime of her 30s. Dina’s eyes danced, following my mother’s catwalk image.
Secretly, I thought there was no business associate and that my mother bought the bag. I was a teenager at that point, and acutely suspicious of my mother’s narrative. I had been living with her and her new family long enough to figure out certain things, for example, that my half siblings often got toys, clothing, and food I didn’t. She may have felt guilty favoring my half-siblings, or maybe she didn’t want to deal with my zhang lian, long face, as she called it. Either way, as it was in this case, she would sometimes lie.
Later the pretending became too heavy a burden to carry alone. My mother would tell my half-siblings the truth and feed me the lie—it became a bond they shared—and then my mother would triangulate the situation so it was them versus me. It started trivially, with almond cookies, melon gummy bears, Hello Pandas, and soft marshmallows filled with strawberry jelly. The trouble was that James and Dina, like all children, were not good at keeping secrets, especially when it came to things they could gloat about. To them, it was just a game my mother had invented that was always rigged in their favor.
In my mid-teens, they packed an overnight bag and told me there were leftovers in the fridge. I learned what it felt like to sleep alone in a large house; I learned the house was not inherently scary, but it was my mother who made me afraid; and I learned that I dreaded their return. They didn’t come home for three days, but there were only enough leftovers in the fridge for two. I learned that eggs could burn and turned inedible. The bitter, ashy smell lingered in the kitchen even long after I tossed it and tried again. They returned noisily, and the house was suddenly theirs again. The warm tan on their bodies was as much evidence as the Carnival monograms photos of the four of them wrapped in a cheesy hug that appeared on my parents’ nightstand. They didn’t bother to hide or explain the plastic Carnival logo cups or bright lime-green party sunglasses that must have been part of the swag bag.
Along the length of the pink carpet in our shared bedroom, Dina liked to play house with her Coach bag. She set up a grocery store, toyshop, and a nail salon. Her Barbies manned the shops while she used a chair as a car, driving from the grocery to the toyshop, and from the toyshop to the nail salon. At each place, she would take her time, look through the imaginary inventory, talk to the plastic sales clerk, and make a careful selection. Eventually, she’d pull the elegant purse from under her thin arm, unzip the top and pay with invisible money from the cup of her small hand.
My mother was meticulous about her appearance, and she dressed Dina in brightly colored sundresses with lace and tutus, ruffled sleeved blouses and pleated skirts, Marie Jane’s, and matching pastel hairclips or glittery hairbands. She took her to run errands, for various appointments in Flushing, and to meet friends and family. She glowed whenever Dina received compliments.
When they were out of the house, I took the bag and stuck it under my nose. I inhaled and exhaled. It smelled different from the black leather couch in the living room and the leather in my stepfather’s Cadillac car. It was more faint and smoky.
Our mother grew up in the aftermath of the Great Famine in China, when meat and fruit were considered luxuries her family could not afford. Her generation understood hunger in ways that are inaccessible to our generation, and to most of America. Even a decade after the famine, in the 1960s, people were stripping the bark off trees to cook into porridge or eating homeless animals and hardened themselves against neighbors and friends who leaned on them. She had learned a long time ago to harden against compassion for others, and in many ways, for herself. Necessity was different then, and for her, whose austere childhood meant few opportunities, an arranged marriage was as good as it was going to get. Or at least that’s what my grandfather insisted. She was seventeen years old when he consented to marrying her to my father. He was ten years her senior and came from a well-respected upper-middle class family. It was supposed to be an honor, but unfortunately, my father passed away just a year after I was born.
In our mother’s second marriage, there is an abundance of meat, fruit, and vegetables. Here, shopping is an immediate gratification. Here, the way she dresses herself and Dina is all there is to the story. The privilege of Here and Now represents how far she has come from China—from her mean, stark upbringing and Mao Zedong’s deluded reign. It fills the hunger of the past and compensates for any residual damage from her first marriage. With all she had now, she could pretend she never experienced any hardships at all, though the deep scars are visible enough if anyone ever pressed. She wears diamonds and sapphires around her neck, fingers, and earlobes and carries expensive bags on her shoulder. She tends to her collections like pets, setting aside time to arrange and clean, before wrapping them back in their original packages when not in use. They were evidence of a better life, and she wore them in defense, as armor.
One Saturday when I was 17, on my way to see my then-boyfriend, I could tell from the way silence fell in the house that I was alone. I had long stopped asking questions of where they were going, why I couldn’t be included, and when they would be back. I had become as invisible as the past my mother wanted to forget. The Coach bag was sitting on top of a pile of toys Dina had been playing with. It was empty and abandoned, like many of the gifts she and James had been given. She was too young to carry a purse wherever she went and rarely used it except to play house. I wrapped my fingers around the thin leather handle—it was as if I was tugging it from someone’s grip—and walked out the door with it.
Buyers in consignments stores are always in trendy, fashion forward outfits. They get first dibs on pieces when they come in. When it is finally my turn at the counter, the buyer tells me to come back in 15 minutes. I admire her retro yet sleek outfit and nod.
I wander into the back racks where there’s a selection of sweaters. Every couple of minutes, I turn back to see if they are picking through my items. I am anxious, as if their decision on whether or not the clothes are worth reselling is a reflection on my person and my worth. As if by rejecting the old clothes, they were rejecting me.
I tell myself I am being silly. There is nothing about this that is a reflection on my person. To distract myself, I grab two oversized sweaters in similar shades of olive off the rack and head to the fitting room.
The thrill of stealing the handbag wore off too quickly. Both my mother and Dina noticed it was missing the following week. My mother said if I brought it back, they would pretend the whole affair never happened. “We can go back to the way things were,” she said.
“You can look through my stuff,” I said, swallowing everything I felt. The thing was, I wanted everything to be different. “I don’t have it.”
“A bag doesn’t have legs to walk away,” she sneered. “Who steals from their sister?”
Somehow I was caught in the same situation again: them versus me. Except this time, I had created the dynamic with my actions. We all knew I was guilty, and it was my turn to pretend to be innocent. I had inadvertently turned the table and I sensed that if I gave in, I would lose something much greater than the expensive bag.
I grew paranoid. I kept the Coach bag tucked deep inside my boyfriend’s dresser. He didn’t understand why I rarely used the bag, why I hid it. What was the point of having something if I wasn’t going to use it? Even though I had coveted it for years and imagined wearing the purse with different outfits, I found I had this uncontrollable fear that I would bump into Dina or my mother out in public. They rarely left Queens, and I knew it was highly unlikely, but I couldn’t rein in the unease. I needed to maintain my innocence at all times. It was my word against theirs. If they caught me, then my mother would be justified in how she treated me all along. There is no freedom in stolen items.
It wasn’t until college, almost 400 miles from where I grew up, that I openly wore the bag. It accompanied me to dinners with new friends, to frat parties and bar hopping around downtown. It was the only accessory I needed to finish a casual outfit. The black C monogram was currency.
I had a friend who had the same bag in dark brown. She came from a normal Chinese family—parents who drove her to college at the start of each year, sent her care packages with snacks and sweets during exam week, and called weekly to check in. When we went to the park to sunbathe, met up for lunch, or drove to class together, I could pretend we were the same, our identical bags swinging from our slim shoulders.
But in the back of my mind, the guilt always nagged me. I couldn’t make the stiff leather mine. I was playing house, just like my sister. I was acutely aware that I was a fraud and yet, I couldn’t give it up. After undergrad, the bag made it through five apartment moves and up to graduate school. The jacquard fabric never softened, never wore in, but the pull tab of the zipper, made of the same leather as the strap, cracked and snagged off slowly.
The fitting rooms are beige and plain, with thinning carpeting that smell of stale BO. I give up on the two oversized sweaters and drop them off with the girl at the entrance of the fitting room.
Most of the lunchtime crowd has left the store, and it’s just the employees and me. The buyer with the cute outfit says they are willing to take a dress, a skirt and a scarf.
“What about the Coach bag?” I ask.
“It’s not what we’re looking for this season,” she says.
“But it’s Coach,” I tell her, unable to stop myself from stating the obvious.
She shrugs her bony shoulders and nods her fuchsia dyed braids toward the business cards. She tells me I can visit the website for a better idea of what they are looking for this season. It’s a line she feeds to difficult customers.
As she hands it back, it dangles from her hand for a long second, swinging back and forth. She nudges the bag closer to me, her nail matches the fuchsia of her hair. I reach for the handle, and when it’s in my hand, it feels heavy for an empty purse. The weight tugs at the back of my throat.
The last time I saw Dina was on Chinese New Year. Plates of roasted duck, stewed pork thighs, whole fish with sweet and sour sauce, giant shrimp still in the shell, and dried scallop with mushrooms and preserved vegetables covered the long dining room table at my parent’s house in Whitestone, Queens. Chinese New Year dinner is always a time to feast, to show extravagance that will represent the colossal amount of luck for the upcoming year. It’s also one of the only times I see my family.
“Dina, how’s work?” I was seated at the table between my mother and my sister. My stepfather sat across from me, next to James.
“It’s good.” She shrugged her shoulder and glanced at our mother.
“How long are you back for?”
“I’m living at home now.”
My chopsticks stopped in midair. She graduated from New Haven a couple of years ago with an accounting degree. Last I heard, she was working at a Toyota dealership, managing their books. “Did anything happen to the job in New Haven?”
“I just thought it was time to come home,” she said, sounding slightly annoyed. She was not sure why I was making a big deal out of it. “I’m working for Mom now, at the factory.”
We were looking at each other—trying to find the sister we each knew. Her eyes are smaller and narrower than mine. I see my stepfather in them. I searched for the sister I helped dress until she was six years old, the girl I shared a bedroom with for years and the person who wanted to watch TV like James but instead had to practice the piano. When I couldn’t find her, I searched for the mark my mother has left in me that also must be in her.
“Wait, I don’t understan…”
“She’s happier at home. There’s nothing wrong with that,” our mother cut me off in Mandarin. She was standing at the head of the table ladling rice cakes into small porcelain bowls. One after the other, she carefully handed a bowl to my stepfather, James, Dina, and me. We each silently took and ate what she gave us.
We always have rice cake or sticky rice for new year’s. The word sticky is a homophone for year and it’s supposed to bring luck for the following year. There’s always a fish dish, too, because of the saying Nien nien you yu, may there be fish every year. The word fish has the identical sound as extra or surplus, an idiom that represents wealth and prosperity.
Dina and her father had always been a pair. It infuriated my mother when as a toddler my sister would play with her food at the dinner table. She didn’t seem to like Chinese food; it didn’t matter if it was scallion steamed tilapia, braised pork with sea cucumber, or mung bean that was my favorite, or fried chicken and ketchup that were James’s favorite. She didn’t like to eat. When the rest of us had finished, our mother’s domineering voice said she couldn’t leave the table until all her food was gone. “There are kids in China starving to death,” she said.
We all took turns feeding her. Dina had a habit of keeping food in her cheeks. Without chewing and swallowing, no one could give her another bite. She would sit in her chair and hold the same mouthful for hours, her pale cheeks puffed out and strained translucent like water balloons. It was from her father that she sought leniency. He gave her permission to leave the table at the expense of our mother’s wrath. Anytime she wanted anything, she kept her normally restless eyes on him, and he would relent.
It seemed somewhere along the way, Dina had abandoned him for my mother, just like her early and short-lived loyalty to me. That’s what my mother did. She needed people on her side, adoring and consoling her. Only after she caused conflict and tension would she then become the peacemaker and mediator.
As a kid, Dina was sweet in a way no one had a right to be in our family. It was the kind of softness that I didn’t have, and if I did, my mother would have eradicated it. But in her, the daughter from the husband who lived, with the life she’d built in America, it was a thing to be indulged and even nurtured. She was protected. She became my mother’s little helper and sidekick, the one she wanted to create in her image. That night, I saw that commitment is, in and of itself, a cost.
I looked away from her finally and stirred the sauce on my plate with the tips of my wooden chopsticks. I thought Dina had been the luckier one, the daughter who was fortunate enough to be born during our mother’s second marriage. The purse was just the beginning of sharing clothes, nail polish, jewelry, shoes, and everything else. It was that mother–daughter alliance that drew Dina to her side and kept her there. I would not come home without being strapped down in a straitjacket, but Dina had quit her job to live at home and to work for her family voluntarily.
Suddenly, I wondered how much of it was because of me. I rarely cared about anyone else or the repercussions of my actions; I only knew I had to fight back or get out, and that’s what I did. Growing up, I talked back, questioned my mother’s decisions, and demanded explanations. When she gave me chores, I made sure to do them mediocrely. When she treated James and Dina better than me, I made sure she knew I knew. The harder she was on me, the more difficult I became and the more she turned to and depended on Dina. She became everything I refused to be: docile, quiet, and obedient. Dina never gave her cause to raise her voice, never mind a hand.
A sister lost. A brother lost.
Dina played with the piece of fish on her plate. Her bangs caught her left eyebrow. I looked over at my mother gathering a spoon of broth-y rice cake into her lips. They had the same haircut: the bangs, the part, and even the length. As their hands moved, nail stickers crested on their index and middle nails flashed. My mother took another bite, and my sister mirrored her, finally lifting the piece of red snapper to her lips.
I thought about the pomegranate seeds Persephone ingested after Hades kidnapped her. At first, Persephone refused the grand feast laid out for her, turning away from the temptation. She was waiting to be rescued. She thought someone would come and get her, but eventually, hunger wore her down and—thinking it was a safe choice—she picked a pomegranate. It was a trick; eating anything from the underworld, regardless of what it was, would keep her there permanently. Soon Demeter bought the wrath of Zeus but even he couldn’t change Persephone’s fate. The tragedy of the story disturbed me even as a child. I didn’t know where the book came from, but it seemed terribly unfair.
From where I sat, I couldn’t help but feel that Dina was as naive, living a deceived life, conditioned to believe there was no better place for her than home. The pomegranate was the purse, the clothing, and her kinder childhood. I gently rested my wood chopsticks against the porcelain plate. We had turned out on two ends of an extreme, possibly as far as daughters could go.
When my mother left me to emigrate to America, she worked 14-hour days at the factory, watching months pass with little savings to show for it. An impossible and difficult distance stretched before her until she met my stepfather. As much as I judged the two women sitting at my elbows—and I did desperately want to separate myself—we were wrapped up in a shared fate. I broke away but only after my mother’s constant rejections. She rejected me to gain her own freedom and a chance at a better life. But no one had got away unscathed.
Consignment stores will donate anything they don’t buy and you don’t want to Goodwill. I leave the rest of the items the buyer rejects but take the purse.
The afternoon sun hits me when I walk outside, and I’m forced to squint. It takes me a moment to sense which direction I came from and in which direction to walk. I head east. On the corner of Madison Square Park, I resist the urge to turn and look around me. Then in one smooth, violent motion, I jam the purse into the nearest trashcan.