“Where did you get that?!” My friend stared at me.
I smiled to myself secretly, basking silently in the communion I shared with my shirt and its previous owner. I pictured my answer, the large, white façade, the fading, outdated Unique! ThriftStore sign. I felt its florescent glow—my own global village, wedged between the Dollar Tree and New China Buffet, a strip mall of sparkling jewels behind bulletproof windows. “Just this thrift store…” I responded, aware that my answer would never be able to convey its magic—how this $2 rust-colored shirt brings me back to my three months living in Morocco; how I can almost taste the harira on my tongue when it hugs my shoulders. I start to share the weekly anticipation of ½ off Mondays, explain how the voice over the intercom reminds me of my abuelita herding my Ecuadorian cousins through the mercado. I consider describing my fashion consultant, the African-American woman in beat up Keds gushing over a gray sweater, assuring me that “It looks too good, girl.” Or tell what it’s like to enter this cache, transcend time and space, a melting pot of new and old, colors and styles, buyers and sellers. How it feels to travel the world in just twenty minutes, growing wiser with each stain, more experienced with each peel of paint.
I wasn’t always this appreciative. I spent my entire childhood circulating in and out of Unique Thrift items, hostile towards my father, “Frugal MacDougall,” who constantly reminded me, “I’d grow out of them in a week anyway.” Thus I was forced into a seemingly label-less nightmare, my adolescent mind convinced that everyone was always staring. But slowly I began to understand how Unique was unique, how it carries not just past memories but imagined lives. Leaving the house each morning, I am aware, even disturbingly comforted by the idea that I probably own my worn leather moccasins because an old woman reached her time. I am happy that my headband probably held the hair out of a mother’s eyes as she laughed with her child; or maybe it allowed a painter to complete her life’s masterpiece by holding her sweaty bangs in place as she poured paint and passion onto a canvas. Or maybe not. But maybe that is the point; maybe these invented lives I create allow them to teach me what I need at any given time, to show me another kind of life that I can’t see for myself.
I once came across my own first-day-of-third-grade khakis, exhausted on a hanger. I thought about how they were probably washed along with clothing donated by strangers, their stories and lessons mingling with mine, each spin of soapy water conjoining the lives we lived in those items. Looking at my friend, I could only respond, “I’ll take you there sometime,” ready to guide her, enlighten her, introduce her to my invisible friends, my distant family, my lives, my stories, to me.