I enter the used clothing store, my expectations healthily repressed; it is better to approach the vintage-shopping experience from a position of openness to possibility, devoid of excessive hope and need. If one starts in this way then one has nowhere to go but to the land of pleasant surprises and amazing finds for under a dollar.
I browse through the racks, taking in the moth-balled musty scent of used clothes. Perusing the garments is like visiting a library or a bookstore. The fabrics contain the memories of the people who bought them, wore them, loved and hated them (secretly) but remembered to always have it on when Grandma came to dinner. I wonder which blouse was tossed to the floor in anticipation of passionate lovemaking and which pieces of clothing have borne witness to arguments, death and divorce. Which sleeves contain the traces of desperate tears? If the clothing could talk, I can only imagine the stories they would tell about desire, disgust, revenge, passion, despair, loneliness, bitter disappointment and the tragedy of lives of promise that fade away unnoticed.
Clothing can either be something so benign, a mere background player in the overall acts of daily life, or a central focus, such as in the lives of sweat shop workers, fashion designers and retail clothing store owners. Even a new piece of clothing touches many hands before it hangs proudly on a rack at the GAP, but used clothes are part of stories, featured in family photo albums (“I remember that bright blue blazer!”), love stories (“He waited for me leaning against his red corvette in those torn Levis he always used to wear”) and personal narratives (“My mother bought that dress for my graduation. She was so proud.”). They were worn, loved, hated, remembered and often forgotten.
I come across a men’s sweater by a popular Canadian clothing company. The sweater is brand new, maybe worn twice. It doesn’t seem to belong amongst the dishevelled debris. I wonder what story it contains. Warm, thick and brown, it brings to mind hot cocoa and snow falling outside the window and children shrieking joyfully as they unwrap Christmas presents on the floor. It calls to mind family dinners and people huddling around the fire inside a chalet. I imagine the face of the type of rugged young man who might wear it: an outdoorsy type, practical, with a preference for understated fashion whose subtle awareness of itself mostly goes unnoticed. The man who wore it is not a materialist. He doesn’t shave every day. He prefers woody paths to shopping malls and night clubs. He might be caught in flip-flops in the summer on a dock. In the fall you might find him scribbling a novel in a hipster café. He probably enjoys art. He most likely plays the guitar. He loves animals. He is concerned about his health. I wonder who bought him the sweater – an old girlfriend perhaps.
The sweater looks as if it’s been washed only once. There is no good reason I can think of for getting rid of it. After all, there is nothing particularly offensive about its colour, its style or its practicality. There are no holes or manufacturing defects. It can’t have been cheap. It’s well-made. I decide that the sweater must have been given to him by someone who loved him. I bring it to my nose and can almost smell their mingled scents, see them relaxing in a front of a fire, the warm glow of the light on their faces. They lie without talking, open books on their laps. She is lying on his chest, her face breathing in the smell of the soft wool and his strong body underneath. Maybe their love was as young as the sweater, existing for just a blip in time. It might have been the girl who got rid of it. In a fit of rage perhaps? Maybe he was far away and she couldn’t return it to him. He left in a hurry, or she thought he’d be back, never thought the last time they embraced would be the last time she’d see him. We never do, do we?
He probably lives somewhere warm now, with no use for a thick wool sweater. Maybe he never fit the image the sweater brings at all, but works in an office, prefers to look crisp and cold in suits. She might have bought him the sweater to make him over in her mind, to turn him into the type of soft, warm person she could love more easily. He can’t play the guitar. He doesn’t write either. She can barely get him to read a book a year. She sometimes looked at him with the sadness of someone witnessing wasted potential. She’d waited for him to fulfill it, but he never would. They grew apart until their co-dependence snapped like chewing gum being stretched. And that’s when she woke up.
And then months later, when going through old winter clothes, she caught sight of the sweater, folded in a garment bag, hoping to be worn and loved again, to begin its future of being caught in the middle of tender embraces. The sweater brought back memories; as she looked back on the relationship, without the necessary codependence that keeps us so attached and clouds the vision at times, she must have sighed, even shed a tear. She probably considered keeping it: surely someone she knew could wear it. She chastised herself for falling prey to material attachments and tossed it into a donation bag. And now here it hangs, amid the 1990’s polyester and grandfather trousers. The possessions of the once-loved, on sale for $1 a pound.
I pick it up again. I consider buying it, of owning the yarn of tragic romance I knitted in my head. Having it around might remind me that love exists. Then I think, wouldn’t it be funny if another man were to find the sweater – the kind of man who buys used clothing as a protest against the capitalist machine and the unfairness of the global economy – and the same girl who donated it were to see this new man, wearing her old love’s sweater. He would be casually walking the street, coffee in hand. She would be outside a fruit store, deciding between organic or conventional produce – she still questions whether the extra $2 per pack of blueberries is actually worth it. And something stirs in the corner of her eye, and she turns and sees her sweater. They might fall in love. Years later she’d tell him the truth about their first meeting, and how she’d loved two people in one sweater. They’d laugh about it, marveling at the mysteries of the universe. It could happen; life can be funny like that. And just in case, to increase the odds, I leave it hanging there, awaiting its new owner, a new owner who will love it and wear it out and lose it again. Like old love.