XXIII. Taking Tea With Violet

I fell in love in June of 2001. It was a hot, humid afternoon, the kind where a blanket of haze obscures the tree line and gives the city the appearance of having a fine film of grime settling from above; a typical late afternoon in Richmond, Virginia. I was still on the fringes of the embroidery business, in sales to be precise, and had some time to kill between appointments. I was on the side of town that didn’t have a Starbucks, heaven forbid, the side of town that didn’t have much of anything. These were the dark ages before texting and tweeting by phone became my source of wait-time amusement. I was bored, so I pulled into a CVS drug store and went inside in search of something to read.

I am not a big fan of television. Through the years certain series have held my attention for a season or two but usually lose me to a good read instead. Notable exceptions: I adored Ally McBeal, especially with the arrival of Robert Downey Jr., and was captivated by Grey’s Anatomy for a short while but eventually lost interest as characters died off and plots became implausible. My source of entertainment has always been books. I had a good education and read the classics through my formative years. During college I was particularly enamored of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Irving. As the pattern of my life settled into working mother and wife, I escaped into the world of historical romance, partly for ease of reading, partly for a glimpse into another reality. A world of ball gowns, gloves that button to the elbow and handsome gentlemen on horseback.

With the tendency in this country of branding, where Kleenex means any tissue and Tupperware means any plastic container, I was often branded a reader of Harlequins. In fact, I had not read Harlequins in over twenty years. If I were to brand myself, I would have to say I was an Avon reader: All of my favorite authors were published by Avon. I noticed that one day when I was arranging a new book shelf in my office. The authors were alphabetical (sorry) and with the spines all lined up the Avon symbol was quite an obvious occurrence. I do, however, have one shelf particularly set aside that does not pay homage to Avon, it is the final resting spot for the works of Jasmine Cresswell, published by Harlequin and Mira. Jasmine is my brother-in-law’s mother, and I would read her no matter who published her. Her historical time travel romance Timeless is one of my favorites; escapism at its best.

In case you are wondering, I did not meet the Boy at CVS that day. I stood in front of a meager paperback book section perusing the titles and spotted one with a bit of wit: An Offer From A Gentleman by Julia Quinn. Nice title but I wasn’t familiar with the author. I picked it up, read the back, read the first page, and then looked at the spine: Avon. I bought the book and never made it to my appointment. Instead, I sat in my car in the parking lot for two hours reading then drove to Barnes and Noble where I purchased everything they had by Julia Quinn. I didn’t leave the house much for the next week or so. I had fallen head over heels in love with Julia Quinn and the Bridgerton Family.

In the event that you are among the ignorant, the Bridgerton family, headed by matriarch Violet, consists of eight children in need of spouses. Each year Quinn spins a tale of one the children’s quest for matrimonial bliss. I cherished her characters and her delicious dialogue and freely admit to being addicted to her writing.

What does any of this have to do with falling in love last summer? Every June Avon releases another Julia Quinn novel, and for eight of the last nine years I have awaited the publication with the fervor of a zealot. I have gone so far as to make Barnes and Noble employees go into the stockroom and find the case of books that should have hit the shelves that morning. Again, the retail manager in me knows no mercy. Last June the publication date came and went. I was so busy falling in love myself I had forgotten about Quinn. It was the middle of July when I was packing for the trip to New York and looking for reading material that I remembered.

I had a conversation with my eldest sister about this some time ago. She is much like me in her love of the garden, a beautiful home and an elegantly laid table and manages to have those things despite a very stressful job. More so than anyone else in our family, she and I would have loved to grace the parlors of Mayfair for a currant scone and a cup of Darjeeling tea with the Bridgertons. For years she and I had swapped books to read. I can remember occasions when we would both exclaim we had found a good read and each pull the same book out of a bag! She got a Kindle for her birthday year before last and book swapping came to an end. My sister had had two unhappy marriages, and like me, had encased herself in steel and just dealt with it; until she started living her happily-ever-after and stopped reading about someone else’s.

It was through her job that she met her Prince. You may have noticed we use few names in our story, most of the titles are obvious but as much as this one seems to be, I chose it for another reason. My Grandmother never met him but without a doubt, if she had, she would have raised her veined Italian hands in the air and exclaimed: “He’s a Prince among men!” And she would be right.

My sister tells me the day she fell in love with the Prince she had to board a plane for home and had brought the requisite reading material: a romance novel. When she arrived home the binding had been cracked but she had only read the first page over and over. She couldn’t concentrate. She had found that elusive love she had read about for years. The books had become superfluous. She kept that copy of It’s In His Kiss, unread, as a reminder of a life changing day.

I owe Julia Quinn an apology. For years she kept my heart primed and ready, just waiting for that little bit of magic that might save me. Much to my chagrin I cast her shamelessly aside when the thunderbolt struck last June. That beautiful blue eyed Boy had come along and made her superfluous.

If you suspect that I am stalling, that I have promised a story about falling in love and have not delivered, you are correct. I so fear getting it wrong, that words will fail me and you will not fall in love with him as readily as I did. I so want you to.


XXII. T'was All So Pretty A Sight It Seemed

It had been hours since I’d polished off the last of my venti triple shot caramel macchiato. I was crashing. I was crashing hard.

I had worked a fifteen hour stretch the previous day, and several long days leading up to it, all in preparation for a “visit.” In the world of retail a “visit” is when those above you on the corporate food chain come by your store to see if they can eat you for their lunch. Your goal is to make them get their lunch across town at one of your sister stores. I had no intention of feeding anyone, so I worked like a dog to get my store perfect.

What perfect looked like to me went beyond the corporate visual merchandising manual. They gave me the tools and rules, I brought the jewels; I made the store shine. There are so many little details a customer doesn’t notice: blouses arranged by size, collar type and sleeve length making clean lines that are positively delectable; displays that show a perfect balance of color, print, and texture; walls that draw the eye through the store in a well thought out flow of seasonal color; crisply folded and level stacks of knit shirts arranged by size; and accessories complementing every outfit and helping create a look you’ll take home with you. A beautiful store shows a customer how to dress beautifully for the body they have, not the body they want. My store was as close to perfect as it was ever going to be. I was ready and waiting.

I spent the majority of my wait walking figure eights around the store, greeting every customer, and straightening every crooked hanger. I could spot a tin soldier out of line seconds after it had broken ranks. With each circle I made I would glance out the front windows, looking for my guests. When they finally arrived they stood outside analyzing my window dressing while I stood inside fighting the fatigue and anxiety, just waiting for it all to be over. Ten minutes later it was. One quick loop around the store, the territorial manager and regional vice president spat out a “Store looks beautiful, well done girls” and they were gone. They didn’t even nibble on me. I had survived unscathed.

Unfortunately, I was terribly understaffed at the time so I had to stay till closing, another eight hours away. I was so exhausted I feared that if I paused to lean on a four way or lingered to engage in conversation with a customer that I’d slip into a coma right then and there in the Misses’ casual department; cocooned in a nest of denim and plaid. Thankfully, the flow of traffic began to die down, as shoppers started turning in for the night. The front window displays glimmered in a red-orange haze as the sun began its descent. Slowly, it crept out of view and slipped behind the tree line across the busy turnpike. Night was fast approaching and my bed was beckoning. Twenty miles away the covers were already turned back on my four poster and I was fantasizing about slipping between those smooth sheets, I wasn’t going to need any lullabies from Her to get to sleep tonight.

Just a couple more hours to go but I was finished! I gave up straightening for the night. I stopped refolding table tees that careless customers had opened, examined, balled up and tossed back, destroying my beautiful crisp board folded little stacks, all sized and level. I waited until I thought the store was free of shoppers and I meandered to the back of the cash wrap, where my favorite sales associate stood at the register beaming her bright smile at me. She was the daughter of one of Her favorite employees so naturally when I hired her, she became my favorite! We chatted for a moment when suddenly, I interrupted her and said, “I’m sorry…I just have …to…” and plopped my body down on the carpet behind the cash desk. She roared in laughter, as I sprawled out on the floor dressed in my best black suit and kicked off my Coach loafers. “Dee, you run the sales floor. I’m gonna stay here.”

I had never been so tired in my entire life. I closed my eyes and began to relive the events and conversations of the day while images of my comfy bed and plush body pillows floated in the periphery.

Moments later, my thoughts were interrupted by a familiar voice, "Baby, what are you doing on the floor?"

I knew the voice and didn’t even open my eyes. "I've worked over 80 hours this week; we had a visit.”

I started to push my tired twenty-two year old body off the floor but that compassionate regular customer of mine that shopped with me every week and must have known exactly what a visit was, she stopped me. "No honey, you stay right there! It's almost over."

I could have kissed her.

I started a new job a couple weeks ago and had a visit from the visual merchandising director. I so much enjoyed getting ready for that visit and for the positive feedback it earned me that it reinforced how much I had missed that kind of work since I left my store in Cincinnati. The characteristics of film editing mirror visual merchandising in beauty, order and detail and I suppose that is why I am drawn to both. I could possibly find happiness in either world; unfortunately the mistakes of my youth have hampered my progress. I hope to right that situation.

She and I have both been retail store managers, both passionate about the visual part of our jobs. If you saw our closets, you would know precisely why: color coded, arranged by sleeve length, everything buttoned, zipped, and snapped. Just don’t open any drawers in our house, for some reason our sense of order stops there; for now anyway.  There seems to be an air of change about us and I am hoping for everything to fall in to it's rightful place. ~Braticas