The Laptop Bag
My college roommate Chantal is the most fashionable person I know. She is so fashionable that she attended Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding in an emerald green hat, but that’s another story. This story is about when she gave me a Louis Vuitton laptop bag.
The most exciting thing about Chantal’s wardrobe was that she and I wore the same size. Chantal’s clothes helped me out a lot, since I owned mostly thrift store items and needed to allot my work-study money for food, not going-out shirts. She gave me hand-me-downs at the rate she acquired new clothes, which was rapid. Once on her way to class she decided she didn’t like her outfit and stopped in the Gap to buy a new sweater.
A few years after college, I was in a freelancing stage, between teaching jobs with a couple of dead months to fill before the employable summer camp season and academic year. I was desperate for cash and started to go through everything I owned to see what I could sell. A thrill came over me when I found a silver men’s watch my friend Ryan had given me when he’d moved out of our apartment. “You could sell it,” he’d suggested, and I’d tucked it away in a box. I’d totally forgotten about it. Now I set aside the watch, along with an ipod nano an employer had given me.
Around the same time I was gathering these items, I saw Chantal. Before we parted ways she handed me a bag of stuff she was getting rid of, as per our tradition. I went through it. Some clothes I would wear, some I wouldn’t, and at the bottom -- a Louis Vuitton laptop bag.
I pulled it out. “Are you sure you don’t want this?” I asked, my heart starting to beat fast.
“Take it,” she said, waving her hand.
Make no mistake. I want nothing with a Louis Vuitton laptop bag. I hate labels; it’s not my style. Me carrying that bag would be like putting a groundhog in a cocktail dress: it just doesn’t look right.
But I could sell that shit.
The bag had to be worth hundreds of dollars. Maybe even a thousand! How could she just hand it over to me like that? I wanted to ask what it might be worth, but it felt like a delicate subject. Chantal was always getting rid of fancy items. This was no different. It was just a lucky break that it happened at a time when I needed it. I didn’t know anything about designer stuff, but I knew that Vogue magazine was full of ads for Louis Vuitton luggage and it was always carried by people on boats. People on boats have money. The logic was clear.
Maybe this could be my new thing. Maybe I could function fully as a resale queen, acquiring items and selling them, taking over the ebay economy and being my own boss. I would never have to unpack tupperware from an insulated floral print bag in a breakroom, or wear flats. I could live by scrapping and hustling and this bag sale would prove it.
I stuffed the ipod, watch, and Louis Vuitton bag into a duffel bag and headed into Center City. I know it’s not good to get ahead of yourself, but I was already planning what I would buy at Wawa when I had cash in my pocket.
A store on Market street had a sign out front saying it bought used electronics. I went in and proudly showed the guy my ipod. It was free of cracks. In great shape!
He wasn’t impressed. “I can give ya five dollars,” he said, unenthusiastic.
I tried not to show how disappointed I was. He leaned on his elbows over the counter and looked me up and down, a little amused. “Ya new in town?”
I hesitated. Were we supposed to pretend we were in a 1940s movie? Should I play like I was a hard-boiled dame in a wool suit and hat, and say out of the side of my mouth, “Who’s askin’?” so he could reply, “I got a fella who’ll rent ya a room for a dime a week,” and I would say as I lit up a long cigarette, “Thanks, but I’m a lady who can take care of herself”?
Instead, I pulled the ipod back and muttered, “Naw, thanks,” transformed now into a Depression-era boy in overalls tromping around town holding out for a deal on his red wagon so he can buy his ma some shoes.
It was a blow, but a minor blow. I had the watch, and of course the holy grail, the bag.
The watch had an etching on the back that said “Bulova”. I wasn’t sure if that was a top brand or not. But it looked like a nice watch. It looked like a watch worn in an ad by a man flying a single-propeller plane, neck scarf flapping behind him like the Red Baron. A watch worn by a man with oversized sunglasses and a strong jawline. It had the tiniest scratch on the face -- no doubt there was a story to go with that, from a brush with death while climbing Machu Picchu. It probably would add to its value.
I headed for Jeweler’s Row, a stretch of buy-and-sell stores along Chestnut Street. Maybe I was bringing in a watch that these store owners had been looking for for years. They would probably fawn over me, bring me some champagne and petit fours, and have me sit in a shaggy faux fur chair. Maybe I could go into one store, get their offer, then go next door and pit them against each other. Then there would be a Street Fighter situation to determine the winner. I would watch from my chair, smiling and nodding.
I walked confidently into the first store and presented the watch. A guy with slick backed hair who had too much time for the tanning bed and no time for the likes of me said, “We don’t buy those. Try across the street.” Okay, too high-end for him. Understood. Not everything is for everybody. I marched across the street, and a little bell announced my entry into the carpeted shop.
A tiny woman who looked like she’d been working there for a hundred years emerged from the back and took out a jeweler’s spyglass with a cobbler/pirate captain vibe. She looked the watch over.
The longer she examined it, the more hope swelled inside me. I would use a hundred to pay my car insurance. The next hundred for my student loan. The last hundred…cell phone bill and new jeans?
She removed her spyglass and looked at me sympathetically. “I hate to tell you this,” she said. “But if somebody offers you five dollars, you better take it.”
“Really?” I said graciously, hoping she’d elaborate or say, “Just kidding! Here’s two hundred bucks.” She just sighed and pointed to the watch, saying again, “Yeah, you can’t get much for that.” She seemed so truly sad it felt alarming. Was this the worst watch she had ever seen? Was this the final straw, and after being in the game for so long, she was going to quit after today?
I pretended that I understood, that naturally it made sense, and thanked her. I didn’t understand. This watch had heavy links, for goodness sake. What was wrong with this economy?
Okay, well, it didn’t matter. I still had the crown jewel -- the Louis Vuitton bag.
I walked down the street to Buffalo Exchange, the resale shop full of racks of dresses, jackets and t-shirts. I took a number and went to sit and wait with other hopefuls in aluminum chairs, all listening for their number to be called so they could bring their items to the counter for the staff to decide if they wanted anything.
I pulled the Louis bag out of my duffel and looked at it. My designer bag was clean, sturdy, and straight out of Chantal’s closet. What did my colleagues have, some Old Navy jeans? I started to feel cocky. I looked around at the other sellers, hoping to meet someone’s eye so I could nod down at my bag and whisper meaningfully, “Louis Vuitton”. Like a beauty pageant mom psyching out the other moms before the show as she applied lipstick to her five-year-old backstage and looked at the other kids with a smug smile. “Three-time champion of Claiborne County, y’all might as well go home now.”
No one met my eye. They were all clutching stacks of club clothes and flannel shirts tight against their bodies and staring ahead. It was like waiting to go to Confession, with a palpable anxiety about dumping the results of our choices before a stranger and waiting for judgment.
I held Louis gently in front of me like the calm, professional, high-class salesperson I was. The counter guy called my number.
I walked up and put the bag down proudly, palms up: You’re welcome. I waited for a gasp of approval. Is that a real Louis Vuitton? Wow, it’s in such good shape.
The guy behind the counter assumed the air of Mr. Bean’s character in Love Actually when he packaged up the necklace for Alan Rickman’s character who was buying it for the woman who was not his wife, and Mr. Bean went all froufrou adding sprigs of lavender. My counter guy started to examine the bag like he was giving a full physical to a small dog. He ran his finger all over the edges, tested its response to pressure; pushed both hands down on the bottom with eyebrows scrunching into a frown. He opened up the flap, stuck his head inside and inhaled deeply. Then he flipped the whole thing over, hardened his mouth into a thin line, and pushed the bag toward me with two fingers.
He said, “This is fake. We don’t take fake bags.”
It couldn’t be. The bag said Louis Vuitton. It looked like a Louis Vuitton. Who was I to question it? Surely…surely Chantal wouldn’t have a fake bag?
He stared at me with pursed lips. I said, “No, my friend gave it to me. It’s real.”
He cleared his throat and took a deep breath. “It’s not a real Louis Vuitton, you can tell because of the stitching right here.”
“My friend got it and it’s real,” I repeated, as if I could convince him. My protest only drove him further. He started manhandling the imposter bag.
“The stitching isn’t symmetrical over here, and it’s too perfectly angled here -- that’s how you know it was machine made. This thread wouldn’t be this color. It’s not the right shade of yellow. See?” My mouth was open as if to argue, but he kept going. “Look at the stamp on the inside. The letters here are too far apart. And the copyright sign is shifted too far from the center line between letters V and U here.”
The counter guy had a new look in his eye now: the fire of conviction. He had been waiting his whole life for this moment. All the editions of Harper’s Bazaar he studied behind his algebra textbooks, all the long hours spent separating the wheat from the chaff at this godforsaken retail job for monsters like me who wouldn’t know a Marc Jacobs from a Coach from a goddamn Abercrombie and Fitch.
“Also, the stitching on the stamp here is uneven. That’s how you know it’s fake.” A lawyer giving his final summation, knowing he won his case against the blockhead who chose to self-represent. He pushed the bag toward me again and concluded, “We don’t take fake bags.”
Unable to accept it, I gripped the counter with stiff fingers. How could Chantal have had a fake bag? Did she know it was fake? My world was spinning. Could nothing be counted on in this life? Did my parents love me? Did God exist? “It’s real...it’s real,” I whispered, almost to convince myself. Wildly I thought back to a story we read in seventh grade called The Necklace where some poor woman borrows jewelry, loses it, and spends her whole life repaying for its replacement only to find out the original gemstones were nothing but paste. I’d been duped. Tears sprung to the corners of my eyes. I couldn’t walk out of here with no money.
Seeing that I wasn’t moving, the counter guy folded his arms and glared. He said, “Ma’am-” -- the final blow -- “Ma’am, we cannot take this.” He picked up a container of Purell next to the register and doused his hands. Then he called the next number.
The other beauty pageant moms watched as I lifted the bag off the counter and carried it out of the store into the bright light of day. Why can’t we just say it’s a real Louis Vuitton? I wanted to shout. What was the difference? Who would know? The fashion industry is so stupid!
I drove home with the duffel bag still carrying the ipod nano, the watch, and the Louis Vuitton bag. When I passed Wawa, I didn’t look.
A few months later, I casually mentioned it to Chantal. “Oh yeah,” she said, “of course it was fake.” She laughed. “Did you think I would have given it to you if it was real?”
I gave the bag away to a charity thrift store. They were happy to take it.