My sister Leslie and I go to Segerstrom Hall to see a matinee of “42nd Street.” We leave the theater singing the title song, wishing we could tap dance, and not wanting the fun to end. My sister says, “Let’s walk over to South Coast Plaza to see the Christmas decorations.”
“Sure,” I say. “I’m a sucker for twinkle lights.”
The walk is slow because my sister suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, but her step seems to quicken when we enter the mall. I soon discover she has something other than Christmas decorations in mind.
“I want to go to a jewelry store,” she announces.
“OK,” I say. “But you know the jewelry stores here are pretty high-end.”
She smiles. “Oh, I don’t want to buy anything. I just like to look.”
That’s how two retired women on fixed incomes end up at the renowned jeweler Harry Winston. On my solo excursions to South Coast Plaza, I always walk past Harry Winston; it’s so out of my price range that I’ve never had the nerve to actually walk through the door. I content myself with window-shopping, or what the French call faire du lèche-vitrines, which literally translates as licking the glass.
The first person we see in the store is a stone-faced, hulking guard in a black uniform. Though I feel intimidated and out of my element, as though my every move is being watched, which it is, none of this bothers my sister. She walks in confidently, smiles at the guard, who smiles back—my sister has a disarming smile—and walks right up to a saleswoman and says, “I’d like to see the most expensive diamond in the store.”
I cringe with embarrassment, but the smartly dressed saleswoman, without blinking, replies in an exotic accent, “Certainly. That would be our yellow diamond ring. If you would follow me.” The woman leads us to a display case, unlocks the glass security door, and brings out the ring. Every facet of the stone glistens under the bright store lights. “This stone is a cushion-cut fancy intense yellow diamond that weighs 10.28 carats,” she says. “It is surrounded by white diamonds and is priced at $900,000.”
I think that’s what she said. I am so dazzled by the size of the stone that my brain goes a little mushy.
The entire scene feels surreal, like I’ve been dropped into a Fellini film, because we are adults, yet we all know we are playing make-believe. My sister and I are pretending she has the net worth to afford a nearly-million-dollar diamond, and the saleswoman is pretending my sister is her most important client. She gives her wholehearted permission to indulge in this fiction and seems to be enjoying herself.
This is the good kind of pretend, the fun kind that doesn’t involve teeth-gnashing, tight-lipped smiles, or antacid—like at Thanksgiving when you pretend to like all of your relatives. This is more like when we were little girls and dressed up in glittery dresses and plastic tiaras.
Some try to recapture this feeling by going to Fantasy Baseball Camp or test-driving Lambor-ghinis. I’d feel like a fraud taking an expensive ride for a spin, only to park it in front of Target.
My sister, though, has no problem with this. She’d just rather test-drive diamonds.
“May I try on the ring?” she asks.
“Of course,” the saleswoman says in a velvety voice, directing us to sit.
From the moment my sister slips on that 10-plus-carat diamond, a satisfied smile spreads across her face. And maybe I’m imagining it, but wearing that ring makes her look different. She sits taller, holds her chin higher, and her eyes sparkle like a red-carpet actress at Cannes.
“This ring was made for your hand,” the saleswoman says.
“Oh, no,” my sister replies. “Not with my arthritis. It belongs on someone young and beautiful like you.”
“No, I do not have the style to carry off such a stone, but you do.”
The word nice gets thrown around a lot, but this woman is truly nice. She must know she’ll get no commission, yet she devotes her time and experi-
ence to indulging my sister’s fantasy, to making her happy. I could have kissed her for it. Then the two of them begin speaking a language foreign to me, discussing the Four Cs: cut, color, clarity, and carat. They talk of FL clarity, color grade, flawless versus inclusions. I had no idea my sister knew so much about diamonds. (She later confesses to many late nights watching the jewelry channel.)
Tilting her hand from side to side, admiring the ring, Leslie says, “If I win the lottery, this will be the first thing I buy.”
The woman hands my sister her gold-embossed card. “Well, in case you do win, keep me in mind.”
My sister reads the card and says, “Thank you, Suzanne. You’ve made my day.”
Giving the ring back doesn’t make my sister feel deprived because she can’t take it home; she feels privileged to have worn and admired it.
As we leave Harry Winston, Leslie says to me, “That was fun. Which store should we go to next?”
This same scenario repeats at De Beers, Cartier, David Yurman, and at Chopard, where a million-dollar diamond necklace once worn by Rihanna is displayed. At each stop the staff (who I learn are called sales executives) treats us like the only customers in the store, though admittedly, in some cases we are the only customers.
On our drive home, the pain of her disease retreats into the background, and my sister floats on an endorphin cloud of make-believe happiness. It’s exactly what she needed. And this makes me wonder, how is make-believe happiness different from the real thing? Either way, you’re happy. You’re not delusional because you know the difference, so does that difference matter when it makes you feel so good?
I later remember the words of John Barrymore: “Happiness sneaks in through a door you didn’t know you’d left open,” and I feel grateful my sister dragged me through that jewelry store door. She taught me that I’m not too old to pretend, that pretending is just a celebration of dreams that might someday come true. And we all need our dreams to keep us going, whether they are of fast cars, big commissions, or expensive diamonds.
To me those fantasy-like names—Cartier, Harry Winston, De Beers, David Yurman, Chopard, and also Tiffany, which we somehow missed—are reminders that Orange County is home to some very wealthy people. But those names also remind me that Orange County is home to some wonderful, generous people who enjoy granting wishes and making others happy, who love nothing more than to make the dreams of a retired schoolteacher come true.
If only for a few minutes.