Cut-rate Elegance

image.pngI’m not sure why a female with that much armpit hair thought a sleeveless dress was a good idea, but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

I love jewelry, pearls, diamonds, pearls, onyx, turquoise, pearls, rubies, emeralds, and I should add pearls. Yeah, I really like pearls. I suppose it’s lucky that Suzhou is one of the pearl trading centers of Asia. Now, before you look at that list and think me uppity, you should also know I’m the gal who scours thrift stores for the ugly but solidly built nightstand that can be sanded down and repainted—$1O vs. S250, works for me. So when I buy my pearls I don’t go to the jewelry store with the flattering lighting that subtracts ten years from everyone’s face and adds a thousand bucks in sparkle to each engagement ring. Rather I head for one of the pearl markets in Suzhou, Shanghai or Beijing where jewels are heaped in great pirate piles of lapis, aquamarine, onyx, coral, and jade, all strung raw, just waiting for a customer to strike a bargain and decide how they will be configured.

On Thursday night my daughter Abby spent an unfortunate evening reintroducing her dinner to the back of her teeth and awoke Friday morning with a lingering stomachache, though by midmorning her cheeks had pinked up considerably. Now, a good mother would have sent her straight to school, but we’ve already established that I give my kids scorpion for lunch, so I declared a field trip: Pearl Market or Bust. There is method in my madness. Abby has a flair for design that I’m keen to encourage, and the huge pearl markets provide labor and beautiful materials far more cheaply than a little bead boutique in the U.S. If you can dream it, they can make it, and it’s a wonder to watch. Abby had a bracelet made and a couple of matching necklaces for herself and a friend. She and I skimmed through the various venders as she filled a tote with little boxes and jewelry bags, $1 here, $3 there, once in a while a major purchase of $lO or $15, a serious decision. But I had saved up some mad money and had a hankering for pink champagne pearls, good quality, but not too expensive. At least half the vendors could have sold them to me, but I chose the tiny woman in the demure champagne dress because she talked and talked, interjecting English words here and there, back and forth until we understood each other.

l fingered a string of pink pearls. “Oh, good pearls, good price. l give you good price. How much you want to pay? Such good quality.” The pearls were small and I could see the spotty imperfections. “Do you have anything else? Anything better?”

It was like I’d flipped a switched “Oh, oh, I show you.” She winked into the safe and began pulling out ropes of pink pearls and piling them on the table next to her first offering “Look Look! These pearls good quality, you know good quality. Those pearls no good,” she said with a sniff at her first offering, then repeated herself for good measure. The new pearls were better, shimmery even in the fluorescent light, but not so fine and perfect that I couldn’t afford them. Once we’d reached a price and I had described what I wanted, she said, “Okay, I make.”

Immediately she emptied my three strings onto the table, deftly dividing them into two piles as she took her seat. She looked so sweet in her soft dress, fingers flashing as she fingered the pearls, piling them onto her needle, rejecting the match and piling them on again Then a woman came in, her boss or her mother, talking to her in rapid fire Mandarin before leaving the room. Frustrated at the interruption she set to work fast and concentrating, less aware of Abby and me. Within moments it seemed my demure young woman had vanished and in her place sat a tomboy with her knees pointing east and west, so far to either end of the map that I had to avert my eyes to avoid meeting her Friday panties. That was the first time I noticed her shoes, purple heels with her toes thrust a good inch beyond the end. And then of course, there was the armpit hair. That was some long thread requiring a great deal of wide arm movements and, uhm, let’s just look at the shoes, purple, very colorful. She leaned forward, intent on her work, herself, utterly herself. I liked her that way, even took her picture, her hand blurry with speed, the wall behind her piled with plastic bins of pearls, small and big, perfect and pitted, all of them beautiful.

People show their colors when they forget that others are looking. I learned that at the Silk Market in Beijing where I used my credit card for the only time in months because I didn’t have my ATM card and found something I just had to have. The young girl at the counter kept calling me “friend,” never breaking character. I bought several things, only losing sight of my card for a couple of minutes when she went to the next stall to run it through their machine. That night I took a sleeper train home and arrived to discover that while I slept across the rails, someone on the other side of the world was charging thousands of dollars in beauty products to me. Now my card is cancelled and I am without it until I get to the U.S. for a visit.

In Beijing the necklace that cost me my credit card is a circle of dark gray mabe pearls, only half emerged from the shell, and it reminds me of the girl who called me “friend,” and robbed me blind. In Suzhou I acquired a double strand of champagne pink, and if you ever see me wandering around in my cut-rate elegance, come up to me and smile, and we will share a secret.

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