Splurge

When she had lost her job due to downsizing because of the pandemic, Michi imagined it was the end for her. Her mom had questioned, when Michi had declared her major all those years ago, what kind of job could she expect to get with an English degree.

Finding a job after coming back to Hawai‘i after college had indeed proved challenging. There were lots of possibilities for anyone who’d not majored in the humanities. Eventually, however, Michi had stumbled into an entry-level human resources position with Five Star Hotels. It had nothing to do with Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson, but it paid the rent then, and the mortgage that Michi would eventually assume with the purchase of a condominium in Kaimukī.

As the years went by, Michi moved up the chain of command, and when the pandemic hit, she’d reached the position of second in command of personnel. It took only a month after the tourists stopped coming for Five Star to downsize drastically, and in that bloody cut, they kept on only the first people in command in most departments.

Michi would lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering how long it might be after her savings ran out before she’d default on her mortgage. She’d not yet found it in herself to talk about this with her parents, and they’d not yet bought up the subject either. She was sure they’d offer to help her out, but Michi feared it might not be monetarily. What she worried about most was that they’d tell her she could move home, back into her old room. This she believed she’d not be able to do.

At night she’d hunt for jobs on the internet, but the ones she could find had nothing to do with the hospitality industry, and nothing that paid well enough or for which she could possibly qualify.

Then one night, reading on a Hawai‘i chat forum where people shared available job postings and thoughts about dealing with the financial aspects of the pandemic, Michi ran across an interesting post. It wasn’t really a formal position announcement of any kind. Just a few sentences:

I need some help. My wife is turning 50, and I want to get her something special for her birthday. I have no idea what, and I need someone who might. I’ll make it worth your time.

It was 3:00 in the morning. Michi typed a quick email and sent it to the listed address. To her surprise, a response came back almost immediately. There was just a first name, Craig, a phone number, and a request to call him as soon as possible.

Suspicious, but also very curious, Michi dialed the number. Craig answered.

“Is this Michi?” he asked, his voice pleasant.

“Yes, yes it is. I wanted to call back right away.”

“Hey, Michi, thanks for doing this. I was wondering if anyone would email me. I thought maybe folks would think I was weird or something.”

Michi still thought this might be weird or something. “Oh, hey, no. Not weird. Interesting, but definitely not weird. So what is it you need?”

“Well, my wife is turning fifty, as I said, and I want to get her something really nice. If I had the time, I’d go window shopping or something, but with how crazy store hours are right now, and with how crazy my job has become, I’m worried I won’t be able to find anything. Her birthday’s in only a week. I kept hoping I’d free up some time, but now I think I need someone to go shopping for me.”

Michi said nothing for a few seconds. If she’d been in the same situation, wouldn’t she shop online? Did Craig not even have time to do this?

“Well,” she said finally, “you could try Amazon or something else online.”

“Yes, true,” said Craig, “but I really don’t have time to spend doing that. I’m not up right now because I’m drinking beer and watching TV.” He laughed. “That would be great, you know, but sadly I’m working. I have so much to do, and so little time.”

Michi thought about this. Craig sounded genuine. “Ah, what kind of things does your wife like?”

Craig laughed. “She’s not picky. I’m sure she’ll like anything I get her. It’s me, Michi. I’m the one who’s being choosey. I want to get her something that’ll be special, you know? For this birthday, and with the whole pandemic thing. I need for it to be something extra special.”

“Do you have some kind of a budget in mind?”

“Money’s really not a big issue. If it’s a great gift, I’ll get it for her.”

“I’d need to know at least a range,” said Michi. “You’ll have to set some kind of limit.”

“Hmmm, okay,” said Craig, “Then how about four thousand max. And I’ll pay you a twenty-five percent commission whatever you buy for her.”

Michi gulped. This was sounding a bit too hard to believe. “Ah, okay, sure. How do you want to handle the money?”

“Can you stop by later this morning? I can give you a blank check. Or I can give you my credit card details. Whatever works best for you.”

Michi agreed to come to his office in the Honolulu Towers building. Craig was a lawyer with Kurida, Claremont, Chang, and Kakesako, he being Chang. When she entered the office, Michi felt a great sense of relief just seeing the quality of the furnishings and the bustle of employees. This guy did seem to be genuine, not some kind of creepy serial killer.

A moment after Michi was announced, the man who turned out to be Craig emerged from his office and ushered her in, then came right to the point. She said she preferred the check. It would probably be difficult to do any kind of charge without a physical card, and if she presented his card to pay, there would probably be even more difficulties. This way she could charge the purchase and then reimburse herself with his check.

“And don’t forget to add the twenty-five percent commission,” said Craig.

It was as if they were old friends. He seemed to have complete faith in her, and Michi could not quite fathom that.

As she stood to leave, Michi said, “Craig. How do you know I’m not the kind of person who would just cash your check for some huge amount and skip town?”

He smiled. “I don’t.”

Michi smiled. “Okay.”

At Ala Moana, many of the shops were open again, albeit with odd hours. The big problem for Michi, however, was that she had no idea what to buy. Miu Miu was open. As she stared through the window, Michi saw a black leather handbag that she wished she could buy for herself. And then it hit her.

She went in and asked about the cost. $3000. Well, it wasn’t at the top end of Craig’s budget, but what was important was that Michi wanted this herself. Why wouldn’t that be a good way to decide what to buy? She thought herself knowledgeable enough of fashion, and she’d always felt she had good taste.

As the clerk wrapped the bag, Michi thought about how happy Craig’s wife would be. This elevated her spirit. She realized after she’d deposited the check at her credit union, including the $750 commission, that she’d not thought about being unemployed all day long. How strange was that?

That evening Michi put her English major talent to work on writing an advertisement for her services. She wondered how well she might do as a professional personal shopper.

As it turned out, she did very well indeed. It amazed Michi how many people did not have the time to shop. She’d thought her job with Five Star had kept her pretty busy, and sometimes the hours were long. But she’d always had time to shop for presents for her parents or her friends.

Others did not. And Michi was happy because of it. She had no need now to worry about the mortgage or any other expenses. She was doing so well, in fact, that for the first time in her life she decided she needed an accountant to help with the ins and outs of self-employment tax preparation.

One day, when she was looking for a gift for someone’s mother, she happened to be at Ala Moana again. As she passed Jimmy Choo, a pair of shoes caught her eye. Stopping, she stared at the crystal-covered ruby-colored pumps.

Inquiring, she discovered they cost $4700. It was time for her to treat herself. After buying the shoes her mood was so euphoric that she nearly forgot to find something for Mr. Morgan’s mother. Once she had, and once she’d delivered it, she rushed home.

Michi poured herself a glass of pinot noir and slipped on her new shoes. Sitting sipping wine and staring at the way too expensive pumps, she waited for some hint of buyer’s remorse to set in. This was the most stunningly beautiful and the most outrageously self-indulgent shoe purchase she’d ever made.

In the morning, before she did anything else, she put on the shoes again. No, not even the slightest twinge of guilt over the purchase. What she needed now was an occasion to show off the shoes. What she needed was a party. She could afford at least some kind of small party now, so why not?

They were mostly high-school friends she’d grown up with. The others were Five Star employees, all of whom, like her, were now former Five Star employees. Most had found other jobs, some had not, and for those unemployed, maybe more than for any of the others, Michi knew a party would be a welcome occasion.

She’d decided on Hatsukoshi Tea House. It was a family favorite. She’d spent many a happy birthday and Christmas there.

When it came time to dress for dinner, Michi had first tried on a red dress with the red shoes, but she decided she wanted the shoes to absolutely pop when people looked at her. She settled on basic black. As she examined herself in the mirror, she smiled. Yes, these shoes would be seen from the moon.

Michi was not disappointed in her desire. As she welcomed her guests at the entrance to Hatsukoshi, almost the very first thing that came up were comments about her shoes. Not only were her female friends wowed by them, but even her male buddies were impressed. As she welcomed the last couple, she accompanied them upstairs to one of the private rooms.

Ahead of her, everyone was taking off their shoes. For a moment Michi stopped to think about this. She’d forgotten that everyone had to take off their shoes before entering the rooms, leaving them on shelves in a common area.

Michi was just behind her childhood friend Alfred.

“Hey,” said Alfred, “you aren’t going to leave those shoes outside here, are you? I’d be afraid someone would take them.”

Michi looked at him, said nothing. She felt a bit ill.

“One time I came here,” Alfred said, “I’d just bought a brand new pair of top-of-the-line New Balance shoes. When I came out at the end of the night, they were gone. I went home barefoot that time.”

Michi took off her shoes, but she carried them into the room with her. Taking the last seat available, she left her purse on the chair and put her shoes under it. Then she went to the bar, got a glass of wine, and proceeded to mingle with the rest of her friends.

Still, she glanced over at her spot from time to time. Which was ridiculous, right? No one in this room would take her shoes. These were all friends, right?

Each time she needed to refill her glass, Michi would stop by her seat and look under it just to make sure the shoes were still there. It seemed like the pre-dinner socializing went on and on interminably. The time moved so slowly, like St. Louis High School students crossing Wai‘alae Avenue, strolling in slow motion like they were underwater, holding up traffic as if they were part of the Kaimukī Christmas Parade.

Finally, dinner was served. Looking under her chair just to be sure again, Michi sat and ate. Between the wine and knowing that her shoes were going nowhere now, Michi loosened up. Everything became more enjoyable. At the end, when everyone had their last drink of the night in hand, Michi gave a toast.

“I want to thank all of you for coming. The last year and a half have been terrible for all of us, and I’m glad that we could get together to have some fun. When I lost my job, I thought it was the end of the world, but things turned around. I feel so blessed to have you all here, my oldest and dearest friends. Please, everyone drive safely, take good care of yourselves, and love your families.”

As people began to go, the manager came in and presented Michi with the bill. She reached in her purse and gave the woman her charge card.

A few friends still remained talking to each other. Michi got up to make a quick trip to the restroom.

When she returned, the last of her friends said good night. Michi returned to her seat, picked up the charge receipt, and put it in her purse. Then she reached under the chair for her shoes.

The shoes were not there. Michi stood up and pulled out the chair. Nothing. She lifted the table cloth and looked around underneath. She pulled out the chairs on either side of her. Nothing.

Michi’s heart rate skyrocketed. Running out the door, she headed down the stairs to where the owner sat at the register.

“Excuse me,” Michi stammered, “but I’ve lost something. My shoes. My shoes are missing?”

“Did you look on the racks?” the manager asked.

“Yes, I, no, I didn’t leave them on the racks. I had them with me, in the room, under my chair.”

“Oh,” said the manager, “let’s look.”

He led her upstairs, and they reentered the room. The manager peered under the table, moved the chairs around.

“No, I don’t see any shoes,” the manager said.

“Right, yes, I know,” said Michi. “They’re not here.”

“Are you sure they aren’t on the rack?” the manager asked.

“Yes, yes, I’m sure,” said Michi.

“What do they look like?” asked the manager.

Michi described them.

“Oh, they sound very fancy.”

“Well, yes, they are. I can’t imagine that anyone would take them, though. These are all my friends.”

The manager looked at her, saying nothing.

“Oh, no,” said Michi, “I’m not saying any of the employees took them either. I mean, I was sitting here all night. They were right here. I saw them here all night. And then I went to the restroom, and when I came back they were gone.”

The manager nodded. “Let’s look on the rack.”

Michi shook her head but followed the manager out into the common area. She went along, not saying anything, as he checked all the racks. Of course her shoes were not there.

“I’m so sorry,” said the manager. “I don’t know what to tell you. I do have your contact information, and if we find your shoes, I’ll call you.”

Michi, drained of all joy and awash on the sea of despair, thanked him, grabbed her purse, and headed back downstairs.

“Wait,” the manager called to her.

Michi whirled around, her heart leaping in hope.

“Can I offer you a pair of slippers?” the manager asked.

Michi shook her head, near tears. “No thank you, no. It’s okay. Good night.”

When she exited the teahouse, it was raining. Sloshing to her car, she collapsed, dripping wet, onto the seat. She began to sob. Even as she did, she was thinking how ridiculous it was to cry over a pair of shoes. True, it was an incredibly expensive pair of shoes, but they were just shoes after all.

Finally, she started up the car. When she turned on the wipers, she noticed that there was a piece of paper under one of the blades. She turned them off, opened the door, and retrieved the paper.

Turning on the interior lights, she looked at the soggy white sheet. “Sorry” was all it said.

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