Mick Jagger famously sang, “you can’t always get what you want,” and then consoled us by adding that, sometimes, “you get what you need.” But in a long-distant summer of my life, I found, with some surprise, that I was able to do both. It was 1973, and I was 16. My parent’s 24-year marriage was lurching and stumbling toward its bitter end, although I did not know that then. What I did know was that when I phoned my father’s office — he had been the PR Director at Women’s American ORT for many years — one Friday morning in late July, I was told he had gone on vacation. His secretary did not know when he would be back and no, she did not have a number where he could be reached.
I was stunned. True, he had mentioned that he would be going on a trip, though he had been evasive about where and when. Yet nothing quite prepared me for the shame — it was shame, and I can feel it still — of hearing this information from a woman who had only recently started working for him and whom I barely knew. How was it that a virtual stranger was privy to something so vital that I was not? Quietly, I hung up the phone.
My mother’s reaction to his departure was to flee herself. She must have been reeling from the shock of it, and the cruelty too; she sought the solace of old and dear friends who lived on the Jersey shore. She left me alone with my 21-year-old brother. Unlike my father, she let me know where and how to reach her, as well as when she would be coming back. And she also left me cash — several hundred dollars. I remember that they were crisp, new, fresh-from-the-mint bills. She must have gone to the bank to withdraw them.
Once both parents had decamped, my brother’s admittedly idiosyncratic coping mechanism was to rearrange our Brooklyn apartment completely, moving furniture and embarking on a vast campaign of de-cluttering and winnowing. Furniture was yanked away from walls and given a new home in another room or ruthlessly tossed; pictures were re-hung or taken down. He was gleeful, even manic in his task. He had been struggling for some time now; dropping out of the School of Visual Arts after a single semester and spending his time on the couch reading, listening to music and trying — with a deceptively low-key kind of urgency — to conjure up a plan about what on earth to do next. I was torn: I was relieved to see his by-now-customary torpor replaced by activity, and I welcomed the chance to connect with him in any way at all. But I also suspected that when our mother returned, she might not be so keen on his little home improvement project.
So I put into action an escape plan of my own. With my parents gone and my brother utterly absorbed by the question of whether or not to paint the apartment, I hurried off to Bloomingdale’s on 59th Street in Manhattan. There, on the ground floor, was a handbag I had been lusting after. It was slouchy, bucket shape, in a buttery shade of leather and made by Coach, well before the company had begun to churn out the logo-driven, frou-frou chazerai it currently peddles. No, this was the real Coach, the essential Coach — simple yet clever, austere yet elegant — designed by Bonnie Cashin and sporting a thick zipper and the kind of utilitarian but classy brass hardware for which she had become known.
The bag cost $52, a price that was light years beyond anything I had ever paid for a handbag before. But I wanted it so badly, and had dreamed of it, coveted it, and schemed to buy it — babysitting money, allowance — all summer long. Now, amazingly, both the means and the opportunity were mine. I had with me one of the fresh green bills my mother had given me, and I used it to pay for the bag. I had a strong hunch that she was not going to object to any purchase I made in her absence.
The bag came home with me on the subway. I did not feel quite worthy of it, so I left it shrouded in its nest of tissue for several days, allowing myself only occasional, reverent peeks. My mother came home and was predictably horrified by what my brother had done. I felt guilty that I had not tried to stop him, and he and I both meekly accompanied her to the incinerator room to see what we could salvage. This episode was followed by several mournful, tense weeks in which we all kind of spun off our orbits, away from one another; there was little communication or even contact between us.
Then my father returned as suddenly and mysteriously as he had left. “Is that all?” I railed. “Aren’t you going to tell us where you were? What you were doing? You owe us an explanation.” But he refused to explain, justify or apologize. We did not speak of it again, and by February of the following year he and my mother had decided to separate. By April, he was gone for good, and by August he had remarried. My relationship to him had changed course, and never found its former footing — of love, of trust — again. But that is another story.
And the bag? I finally took it out of its paper and began to use it. Every single day. Immediately, I noticed how comfortable it was to carry. Cashin had revolutionized the handbag industry by doing away with the fussy, structured bags of yore, those tiny, fit-for-a-Barbie-doll accessories with their stiff handles and rigid, unyielding openings. Instead, she worked to create fluid, streamlined shapes that women could carry to work or to school, day or night. She made sure the bag was easy to open, and could be carried on a shoulder, not just gripped with the hand. My own Coach had all these features, plus an ineffable, this-old-thing kind of chic that never ceased to thrill me.
Slung over my shoulder, the bucket bag accompanied me all over the city. It had ample room for my wallet, keys, hairbrush, as well as a paperback book (no Nook, no iPad, no cell phone in those days), an apple or box of raisins, and my Clinique lip gloss in Berry. The bag came with me to college, and then graduate school too, and when it was lifted — silently, stealthily — from the back of my chair at a restaurant, I mourned its loss far more than the scant few bills in my wallet. But the Fates were kind, and the bag — sans money, of course — was returned. I was so happy to have it back that I kissed it. Over the years my bag had changed and evolved. The strap had stretched with use, and the pale, buttery color I loved had darkened to something closer to chestnut. It had acquired a certain sheen by then; it glowed with its own special patina. I still wore it, though not as exclusively any longer. But although I owned many other bags by then, none had been so tied up in my past and so integral to my identity.
I don’t remember exactly when the bag and I parted company; maybe I was in my late twenties, maybe I had even hit 30. When I finally let it go, it was nearly mahogany in color and the strap almost black. It was time. I packed it off to Goodwill and replaced it with another Coach, this one black, with a less slouchy and more structured silhouette as befitting (or so I thought) my age and my young-woman-in-the-working-world status. But however stylish and sleek this new Coach was, it never achieved that talismanic power of that other, the first, and in some ways, the only. All those years later, Mick’s plaintive words still thrummed true: if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need. And I did. I did.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is Lilith’s fiction editor