007 Shops at REI
When I was twelve I wanted to be a secret agent. I obsessively read Harriet the Spy and observed my neighbors walking their dogs, recording these suspicious walks in a notebook. My first instant message handle was “Cammii007.” I’ve since come to terms with the fact that no one’s ever going to give me a license to kill – it’s really for the best – and if I analyze my adolescent desire to spy, it had more to do with wanting to understand and control the adult world, than a desire to kill or be a government agent. Besides in junior high, it was explained to me by my friend, who also wanted to be a spy, that I could never be a secret agent because of my red hair. I would stand out too much. I truly hope there are red heads who, with the help of dye and wigs, overcome this tremendous obstacle. While my friend may not have been right about my hair, she was right that I am not suited for espionage. I have no chill, no street smart ability to hide how I’m feeling. As soon as I tell my anxiety that now is not a good time, it loves to come out and play. If I tell myself to be cool, I immediately panic.
Luckily, I don’t live a life where lying is frequently necessary. If I lived in Nazi occupied France, for instance, and I had to pass a Nazi checkpoint, I would shrivel up into a tiny ball and be eaten by Nazi German Shepherds. How do I know this? I recently had a hard time returning clothes at REI.
I costumed a short movie my boyfriend and our friends made. It is a comedy, so I naturally wanted to put the villain in full bike gear, down to clip on shoes and padded spandex shorts. Immediately I knew this costume would cost more than all of the other costumes combined. Spandex designed for aerodynamics and maximum fashion humiliation is extremely expensive. I could have spent several days scouring used clothing stores, but did I really want to ask our actor to wear used bike shorts? I didn’t, but I felt prepared to make a nebulous REI customer in the future make that choice. REI, you see, has an extremely generous return policy – they will let you return anything and then sell it at their yard sale.
When I made the pilgrimage to the REI in Burbank to find the most obnoxiously neon, yuppie villain costume possible, several sales associates rushed to help me. Part of this was because it was a slow Thursday afternoon, but it also felt like it might be a rare opportunity for these outdoorsmen to talk to a woman. I don’t know why I didn’t tell them I was just shopping for a costume. I must have thought they would then know that I was planning on returning everything, forcing Steve, their future customer, to wear shorts marinated in an actor’s ball sweat. So I went 007 and began an elaborate playact – all because I was uncomfortable with the truth, and not surprisingly, the lie quickly became far more complicated and uncomfortable than the truth. This, I thought, must be what con artists experience.
Eventually it was determined that Seth, with his long hair and green vest, would be helping me, and when I asked for men’s bike shorts in a size small, he nodded like I had just described his favorite beer, as if to say, right on. You’re one of us. I was not one of them, and I was sure that was abundantly clear. After guiding me to the shorts and welcoming me to REI, he tried to get me to sign up for their membership card, which made me feel like I’d walked into a medical supply store, and they’d asked me if I’d like to perform surgery along with the rest of the surgeons. I didn’t tell Seth that I was buying a gift for my boyfriend’s birthday, but I didn’t correct him when that’s what he assumed, and when he asked me where my boyfriend liked to ride – so we could figure out how much padding his bike short might require – I blanched. I couldn’t say I didn’t know because then what kind of girlfriend would I be? And you don’t buy $300 worth of bike gear for someone you’ve just started dating. So I answered that he was a “beginner,” immediately turning my imaginary boyfriend, let’s call him Jared, into a poser. This was the right thing to say because Seth immediately switched gears (pun intended) to looking for more affordable shorts options.
This was greatly appreciated because I wasn’t certain, even with their we’ll-take-your-armpit-stains-return-policy, that I would get away with returning the costume. Overwhelmed by the deception of it all, I might break out into hives and yell at the cashier that I was a liar and a thief, holding my hands out in front of me for handcuffs. As Seth rifled through the shorts, I started to compare the women’s shorts to the men’s. They were cheaper, and I was looking for a small after all, and since Jared’s birthday was tomorrow (the shoot was the next day) – could I buy Jared women’s bike shorts and get away with it? Seth was with me every step of the way, earnestly entertaining this ludicrous question. It turns out, bike shorts are the male equivalent of bras, meaning it’s a complicated and very personal shopping experience that should only be endeavored by the short wearer himself.
Seth looked concerned and examined the crotch of the women’s shorts. He explained that a pair of bike shorts is an exact science, every measurement between panels is important. And what with the differences in genitalia, it would not be advisable. I felt like saying something that confirmed that Jared did indeed have male genitalia. Before I could, Seth pressed his earpiece, responding to a co-worker with, “I’m engaged with a customer right now.” I found myself saying, “We’re in engaged? That was quick.” He laughed, and I turned bright red at my own joke. What was happening to me? Was I enjoying being this other person? Maybe I was good at this? While I was entertaining a life of crime, Seth solved my shorts situation. Jared could wear just the liners for the shorts (bikers wear liners apparently). That way, when he was biking to the ocean to go boogie boarding, he could just throw clothes over them. Seth had a much clearer version of Jared than I did. I hadn’t even known that he boogie boarded. Seth went on to explain that the liners are more casual, and I nodded appreciatively. In this strange parallel world, one where people went boogie boarding, I was certain my boyfriend would agree with Seth. Plus, the liners were a quarter the cost of the shorts. Afterwards, I called my real boyfriend to tell him how badly I felt about lying to the REI employees. He laughed, and I was surprised that my new much sportier lover did not threaten him.
When it was time to return the bike outfit, I made sure to place it lovingly back into the REI bag I’d saved for the occasion, so I would look like a genuine shopper. I prepared for returning them like many people prepare to testify. On set, I told anyone who would listen that I had to return the costume, so they would know not to sully it. If I failed, we would triple our costume budget. One of the other costumers sensed that I was struggling with “the return,” so she advised me to just believe whatever I told them, and as long as I believed it, so would REI. I felt silly – I’d asked Seth and the woman who rang me up to explain the return policy, and they both had made it very clear that you could be malled by bears, and they’d take the bloody tent back. REI didn’t have a problem with this arrangement, but I did. My mother says this is her fault. She is not good at returns either.
In high school I needed sheet music for a Patsy Cline song, so I could sing it at performing arts summer camp (nerd alert!). My mom balked at the price of the sheet music, which I would never use again – five years of failed piano lessons proved I was not musically inclined. When we tried to return the sheet music, the portly guy behind the counter said, “You guys didn’t just photocopy this, did you?” This is exactly what we’d done. My mom yelled “NO!” silencing the whole store. He took a step backwards, now knowing this is exactly what we’d done. My mom mumbled something about how my music teacher had already had the sheet music. We walked away with our money back, but we both would have paid triple that amount to avoid such mortification.
Perhaps it was the memory of that ill-fated Patsy Cline return that made me expect to be questioned. In line at REI, the woman ahead of me was returning sleeping bags that she’d had for a year. What kind of story was she using? Were they even asking her to explain herself? They weren’t. This should have relaxed me, but it was no use. See, I was nervous about being nervous. If they saw me as nervous, then they would know I had lied! When it was finally my turn, I tried to remain friendly and calm. My REI sales associate looked like she wished she was far away on some mountain top or like she was mentally planning that night’s quinoa creation. Still I prepared my answers to any questions she might ask. My plan was to act annoyed with my imaginary boyfriend. “It just wasn’t his style. Last time I buy anything for him again!”
She didn’t ask me anything other than if the items had been worn. I said confusedly, as if I wasn’t sure, “I think he tried them on?” He tried them on, took off all the tags, smudged the jersey with dust, added some light sweat stains and then decided it wasn’t quite right. She nodded, perhaps knowingly, but she processed the return. And after a tense moment waiting for the machine to read my card, we were done. I walked away a free woman, fully aware that like a crazy person, I had just treated a mundane exchange like an interrogation. Maybe, I thought, this meant that if I was ever actually interrogated, I would treat it like a mundane exchange. This seems only fair, but just in case, I won’t return that CIA recruiter’s phone call.