My favorite spot to stand is between the racks of furs and the window, so I can see the pristine gardens in front of the store. From there I can catch a glimpse of a marble fountain almost beyond my view, a sloping Venus with water cascading down her cold stone body. Outside, there are delicate paths lined with green mossy grass and a tiny Shangri La for the clients that come to shop here. While I wait patiently for the next client, I listen to the birds singing above me. Of course, the song is only a recording, because there is nothing as messy as a real bird here. A real bird would bring fleas, stray feathers, and leave its filth behind. We don’t have that sort of dirtiness here. Everything is spotless, pristine, glistening.
I’ve never heard a real birdsong, even though they fly over the high walls and land on the ground outside. I see the birds cluck and peck their way around the lawn, looking for bits of food that a client may have dropped. Sometimes a songbird will land in the topiary just outside the door, and— if I strain my neck— I see it open its beak to chirp at the shoppers below. I imagine that its song sounds like the recording played inside the store each morning.
The maintenance men don’t like the birds because they cannot be controlled. Wings give them the ability to come and go as they please. They can swoop down and fly through the open air corridors of the mall, moving quickly and dodging the clientele. Their feathers fall and mar the perfect green stretches of uniformly trimmed grass, and the maintenance men fear an incident if a bird should relieve itself on a client’s particularly expensive suit.
I have talked to the other girls, and through each of our shop windows we can see a piece of this paradise outside. I know that beyond the Venus is a garden full of exotic blooms, and in the other direction, towards the stores specializing in elaborately woven rugs, is a tiny teahouse and surrounded by twisting little trees that need constant care and attention.
I’ve never walked through our mall. The Shopgirls are never seen outside the stores. We’re supposed to look like a tableau from the outside, a room full of mannequins that spring to life when a client steps into the store. The first one enters, and we whirl into action. Jasmine whisks off his coat and playfully brushes a smudge of dirt off his collar. She teases him gently as she clucks around him, taking him in, deciding who he is. She is the lead because she reads the men well. She always reads them right, and knows when to tease, when to act aloof, and when to be eager to please.
Her initial read sets me to into motion as well. I pick up the pot of tea and pour him a glass, playfully asking him if he wishes it was something more. We coo over his watch, his impeccable taste, and of course, make lots of jokes about the wedding band on his finger.
“I’m only here for my wife, ladies, only the best for her.” We sigh, as if he is the most romantic man we have ever met, the sort of man who would come here to find the finest coat for his lady. We offer to model the furs, and I slip behind the screen to change into the first one.
“If only a man like you might take me,” Jasmine flirts, and the man reaches up to touch her peach fuzz face, she blushes and flashes her big brown eyes at him. You can see when you are getting somewhere, the moment his desire overwhelms him. The men all get this sleepy, faraway look in their eyes, and that’s when you can pull out the expensive furs. That’s when you can touch his arm, and he’ll forget about everything else.
“Your wife must be such a fine lady,” I say, glancing coquettishly back over my shoulder at him modeling an ebony ermine floor length coat. As I giggle and step behind the screen where I will change into the next coat, I let a bit of my thigh show through the slit in the coat, so that he knows I’m only wearing the fur. Jasmine plays it more scandalously than me, dropping one coat halfway down her back. Her smoky eyes let him know that she cares little about what a fine lady his wife might be.
Jasmine has been scolded in the past for being too bold, but so many of the men love her playfulness. This one is so enamored he buys the coat that Jasmine had on when she glanced over her shoulder, lips glistening, and showed him her shoulder blade. Jasmine rings him up, and I lean up against him and stroke his arm so that he doesn’t even think about how much money we are charging him.
He leaves the store. Jasmine and I quickly survey the racks and each other to make sure nothing is out of place before we return to our spots and freeze. Jasmine smooths the hem of my dress, which flipped over when I put it back on. Every day before my shift, after my stylist perfects my hair and makeup, I return to my room where a dress is waiting for me. Jet black, never faded from the wash, neatly pressed and measured precisely for my body. I always have to check the barcode sewn into the hem to make sure it is mine. The maids sometimes leave the wrong one, and it is important to be in a well-fitting dress.
It is a privilege to be assigned to a store on the top floor, where the clientele is carefully vetted. I am glad that I am not like the Shopgirls who work on the first level where anyone can shop. I hear the stories from them at the dinner table, how the leering men come into their stores and act like they already own the place and everything in it.
The clientele at the fur shop is more refined, but working there can be taxing too. All day it is like this: I stand in my heels and don’t slouch. I place my manicured hand upon the white marble counter deliberately. Every move I make is watched on the videos, and commented on in the hour debrief after each shift.
You placed your hand here, you looked sloppy, they say. You leaned against the counter, they say. Look at that man, they say, jabbing at a brief encounter you had on the screen. You didn’t smile at him. He might have bought more. He might have bought everything.
They don’t care how much your feet hurt. They only care how you present yourself and their brand to the clientele.
Do it again and you will be moved to a store that better suits that sort of behavior.
They make sure that is always looming over your head.
There are rules. Rules that have to be followed. The clients must never see you coming in or out. You must appear to always be there, a fixture just like the counters, the mirrors and the racks on which the furs hang. Even if your shift is finished, you must stay until the store is empty of clients before slipping out and exchanging places with the next Shopgirl.
You cannot leave while a client is in the store. There are no exceptions. There’s this story the girls whisper to each other at night, about one Shopgirl who left. She had to use the bathroom, and she couldn’t hold it anymore. The story goes that she was bursting and barely made it through the door. They didn’t care. They threw her out. The doors of the mall were closed to her.
There are wolves, they teach us, wolves that wait outside the gates of the mall, hoping that one of us falls into their teeth. If we want to stay, if we do not want to feel their sharp fangs tear into our flesh, we must follow the rules. We must always remember that we are selling not only the products in the store, we are also selling ourselves and our image. There are stores on every street corner of every city in the world. Clients come to these particular stores for a particular reason: to see us.
We have been trained for years. They find us when we are young and bring us here. The moment you arrive, you are watched for signs. They watch for a pleasing personality and a pleasing face. You are sorted, and resorted, and you watch as much as you are watched. You watch the girls that are at the top of the sorting, and you mimic them. You learn how a girl that is pleasing stands, and how she moves, and how she speaks, as you practice over and over again in mock store settings.
And then your body starts to change, and the sorting has this new, uncontrollable aspect. They watch your waist, your hips, your breasts, monitoring you until you are sorted for good. You are first assigned a level of the mall and then a store.
The next customer that enters is harder to please and less charmed by Jasmine’s initial boldness. She catches immediately that he is not one for teasing and becomes submissive and eager to please. Her playful tone drops, and she curtseys formally and keeps her eyes downcast. I act timid and shy when serving him coffee while he reclines in our chair.
We try to ply him with the beautiful furs, but none of them are pleasing to him. With his feet kicked up on our ottoman, he orders us about. He hates each of the pieces we show him, and I worry he will complain.
“Your shoe,” I tell him, in a desperate attempt to make the connection with him, so that he will walk out satisfied, “there’s a spot. Please, let me?”
I drop to my knees and polish his shoes. I do it slowly, caressing his ankle as I do, glancing up at him shyly. His eyelids flutter downward. It’s the first time he’s been happy since he came into the shop. He relaxes as Jasmine shows him the stoles.
Our third customer catches us off guard, because we are still putting away the many coats we had to show the second one. He clears his throat in the doorway, and I turn around abruptly, an armful of furs away from a perfectly clean store. I curse myself, silently. I had my back to the door. I am carrying the evidence of another man in the store. There are going to be words about this. Unless he buys something big. I need him to buy something.
By default, I take the lead. There is something rough around the edges about this one, like he has money for the first time in his life. He isn’t dressed quite right. His watch is a little too big, his coat a little too short. It’s clear he hasn’t found a good tailor yet, and also that he doesn’t have a wife to point it out. I wonder if he had trouble on the way in, if he had to prove that he belonged.
He doesn’t belong, not yet. Oh, he has the money to get up here, no one gets past the guards without that, but money doesn’t buy refinement. Money doesn’t teach you the rules. This store isn’t on the first floor. There are way things are done up here. There is a ritual. The men here at least pretend they haven’t come to look at us. They at least pretend they are here for business.
There is no pretense from this one, who looks me up and down, evaluating me, sorting me. He raises his hand and crudely circles his finger in the air, motioning for me to turn around and cocks his head expectantly. He is all wrong. The questions he asks, the coats he likes. He isn’t even embarrassed to ask if anything on is on sale.
“We never have sales, sir,” I respond stiffly.
He thumbs through the racks.
“Oh let us,” we beg, but are rebuffed with a hand wave.
“Can we model them?” we ask, and he just stares at us.
I bring him the least expensive thing in the store, a pair of plain leather driving gloves. “Perhaps these?”
He looks at me darkly. “I’m not in the market for gloves,” he says, practically spitting the last word at me.
“Can I help you find something else then?”
He maintains his eye contact with me, and pulls the first thing his hand finds on the shelf.
“I’ll take this,” he says, without even looking at it.
“Of course, please step over to the cash register, and I can wrap it up for you.”
I can’t understand this man, but at least he is buying something. I’m sure there will still be words.
“I’m not finished shopping yet,” he says, taking a step towards me.
“What’s the return policy on this?”
He flips up the hem of my skirt to expose the barcode underneath.
A tightness shoots through my spine, and it takes every ounce of my training to not betray it on my face. Now I understand why we spend so much time on the breathing exercises at the beginning and end of morning calisthenics.
“Thirty days, the same as everything.”
The soft light of the room feels suddenly harsh on the exposed white surfaces, and I fight to maintain my breathing.
“And I can return for any reason?”
Keep the breath slow. Keep the breath calm, I tell myself, but even my strict training doesn’t stop me from dropping my head for a moment to regain my composure.
“Of course, if you’re unsatisfied.”
I meet his steely eyes again, which haze over, briefly, in the midst of his desire. Then he smirks at me with raised eyebrows.
“And I get my money back?”
“Of course sir.”
And I see in those eyes that he doesn’t care what might happen after such a return. He knows, but sees it as my burden to bear alone. That I would no longer be welcome here, or anywhere, would not concern him, and he would not think of me again after the 30 days.
I remember the stories we used to hear each night when I first arrived, the stories told by a woman who was taken as a wife by the emperor of Persia. Each night they read us one of her stories, but they always stopped, and left the ending for the next night. That is what she had to do, they tell us, so that she could avoid the fate of his earlier wives. I do not know how to make my words as mesmerizing as hers, or if I can find the way to keep him coming back for thirty-one days.
Standing at the cash register, I feel his eyes as I lean over to scan myself. I motion to Jasmine to finish the transaction. I step in front of the counter and cannot bring myself to look at her, because her understanding would ruin my composure. The bottom of my skirt hits the counter and my eyes lose their focus. I have no things to gather, no goodbyes to say. When we leave the shop, we leave everything behind and become a blank slate ready to be imprinted upon.
The man picks up his bags, one in each hand, and turns to leave. For the first time in my life I walk out through the front door of the store. Once outside, I am hit by a wall of humidity and my perfectly curled hair sticks to my neck. Stepping forward from under the overhang into the light, I glimpse the sky in its entirety, vaster than I had even imagined. I walk behind him slowly, stepping onto those beautiful stone lined paths, trying to keep my head raised.
By Sarah Fox