I can do this. I can do this.
I chanted these words as I sat in my PT Cruiser outside of the store where he would be waiting.
I can do this. It’s not a big deal. I’ll just get in and get out. It’s easy.
I took a deep breath and let go of the wheel. I hadn’t realized that I was gripping it so hard that my knuckles were staring to turn white.
I glanced at my purse that occupied the passenger seat. I could see my cell phone poking out and I was tempted to pull it out and dial home.
“Tom,” I’d say. “I’m having second thoughts.”
Tom would probably roll his eyes. After all, he’s used to my antics.
“Remember what you told me,” he’d answer.
I took another sharp inhale and opened the car door. For a brief second, I debated leaving my purse in the car. If I didn’t have money with me, then I couldn’t spend. But then I was worried that a carjacker was hunched behind other vehicles, waiting for someone to do this. And then he’d leap out and jam that long stick thing that they use to unlock doors and swipe my purse. Then I’d have to spend half the day on the phone canceling credit cards, which, let me tell you, would not be easy when you have an impatient two-year-old who suddenly decides that it’s a fine time to scream the second you put a phone to your ear.
So I grabbed my purse and headed for the store entrance.
I walked through the automatic doors and spotted him right away. He was setting up his station and looked perfectly innocent from a distance.
But I know better.
I know what people like him are like.
I watched as he glanced up briefly and noticed me coming towards him.
Ahhh, I imagine him thinking, Fresh meat.
I half expected him to rub his palms together expectantly and was almost surprised when instead, he offered me a wide grin and gestured to a chair that he had set up.
Of course he’d look jovial. Mothers, especially, bring him a lot of money. I wondered briefly if he vacations from his earnings and if he’s ever been to Hawaii.
“Hello,” I said brightly. But in a tone that I hoped conveyed that he would not take advantage of me. I even tried to look a little stern. Perhaps he wouldn’t try to tempt me if I looked pissed off. I tried to re-arrange my mouth in a scary manner but figured that I came across as looking constipated instead. So I relaxed my lips and handed him the piece of paper he was looking for.
“Great,” he said cheerfully. He beamed at me as he took the paper and then pulled out a large white envelope from the stack that sat beside him. “Here they are.”
I chewed my lower lip as he started to pull out its contents.
Okay. Here we go. You can DO this.
A few seconds later, my daughter was staring back up at me.
I was in a photography studio. Well, a makeshift one. This photography company travels from military base to military base and preys on mothers such as myself. They know it pains mothers to not purchase pictures of their precious gem which is why they take so many. They claim it’s because they want to give you a better choice. But really, they just want your hard earned cash.
I had vowed that I was simply going to walk in and take my free 10 by 13 photo. Actually, it wasn’t free when you think about it. I had to pay a $9.95 sitting fee.
I hadn’t even planned to get Natalie’s photos done. I had walked into the BX (which is a military store) because I was craving Subway. But then this man called out, “Hey! You with the pretty little girl!” and I paused in front of the Subway entrance.
Aww. They called Natalie pretty. Well, of course I know she’s pretty. But isn’t it flattering to know that other people think so too?
Right away this company knew exactly what to do to get my attention. I had Natalie by the hand and I led her over to the room that the studio had set up in. The guy that had shouted at me smiled and explained that they were taking vintage photographs and did I want my little girl to take some?
“She’s going through a shy phase,” I explained. “She’d probably scream.”
The guy waved his hand like this was nothing. Probably because he wasn’t the photographer. His job was to just get people to come in.
“No problem. We deal with children a lot,” he said boldly. To emphasize his point he squatted down and held his hand out to Natalie. “High five!”
Natalie backed up and latched herself onto my leg. She buried her face into my knee.
The guy looked momentarily shocked (“What? Kids always go for high fives!”) but then made a motion to a woman standing in the back.
Because I knew what was happening, a hat was plucked on Natalie’s confused head and we were being whisked into the back.
“Here’s a size two dress. Let me know if it’s too big,” the lady said, shoving green fabric into my hands.
“Well, see, I don’t know if—” I started. But then I noticed Natalie was laughing at the hat they had given her and decided that I’d just see how she did. So I put her in the dress and led her out to where the photographer was waiting. He looked to be in his late twenties and he had a shock of red hair on his head. He had a camera draped around his neck and he gave Natalie a wide grin.
“Hi there!” he boomed. “I’m Steve and I’ll be taking your pictures!” He held his hand out. “High five!”
Hrm. I wonder if the people who worked for this studio were sent to a class on how to entertain children and that the instructor said, “Just go ‘high five!’ It works like a charm!”
“EEEEEEEEEEEE!” was Natalie’s response before she dived into my knee.
I managed to unlatch her and set her down in front of the photographer, who started pulling over props.
“What’s her name?” he asked me, kneeling in front of Natalie who had eyes as big as saucers.
Who is this man? Why is he here?
“Natalie,” I said. “Look, if you can’t get any pictures that’s okay—”
The pop of the flash went off.
Oh. Okay then.
I glanced at Natalie, who had this perplexed expression on his face. Then the photographer draped a boa around her shoulders and that seemed to relax her.
“Oooo,” Natalie, who appreciates things with feathers cooed. “Pretty!”
He managed to get a few shots and then brought out a pair of adult high heeled shoes and asked Natalie to step into them.
“I bet you wear your Mommy’s all the time,” he said in a saccharine-laced voice. “High five!”
Natalie, who was grateful for the pretty boa, actually gave him a high five. She may have felt sorry for the poor guy, who had been asking for high fives for at least three minutes straight. Natalie would either stare at him as though a breast had popped on his head or try to bury her face into my stomach.
Actually, I wanted to tell the photographer that Natalie barely ever wore my heels because I only own one pair. And that one pair is shoved into the back of my closet because I think of high heels as a sort of torture device. Seriously. They hurt my feet and I can’t walk in them without teetering back and forth. It’s like I’m walking on a freaking tight rope or something. I actually have walked with my arms stretched out so I’m able to keep my balance.
This really embarrasses Tom. “Um. Could you put your arms down? You look like you’re pretending to be an airplane or something.”
So Natalie seemed a bit baffled when I placed her feet in the red heels. She blinked up at me as if to say, “But these aren’t tennis shoes.” Because that’s all I wear. Oh, I do wear slippers too. But never out in public. Not even at Wal-Mart.
Natalie kept stepping out of the high heels. The photographer would put them back on. She’d take them off. He’d put them back on. Finally, Natalie had enough.
“OFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF!” she bellowed. I almost thought she’d fall back from the force of her screech.
The photographer got the point though. He retreated with a feeble, “High five?” which Natalie refused.
He took one last picture of Natalie with this ratty teddy bear that looked as though it had been through a storm. The fur was all matted and it looked as though one eye was going to pop off. It was on the tip of my tongue to say, “Ew! Germs! And what’s up with the eye?” but I swallowed it back. I didn’t want to be rude.
Finally, it was over.
“Cool. Thanks,” the photographer said. He lifted up his palm one last time. “High five?”
I swear, Natalie rolled her eyes at this. She gave him the high five but she did it was an expression that clearly showed that she felt sorry for the guy.
I changed her back into her other clothes and had to distract her with my cell phone in order to give the hat back.
Then I was told to come back in a few weeks and that I could review the pictures. I was given a piece of paper with Natalie’s sitting number and a list of how much the other pictures would cost.
I didn’t look at the paper until we returned home with Subway. I nearly choked on my Spicy Italian sandwich (on honey oat bread!) when I saw that the cheapest package started at ninety dollars.
Was this studio not aware that there is a recession going on?
You could get one sheet for forty bucks. FORTY BUCKS. I could buy a complete outfit at Gymboree for forty dollars. Or an entire bag of stuff from Target’s dollar spot. Or…or…I don’t know, pay a bill? Well, part of a bill at least.
So that was when I decided that I was going to walk in, pick up my free (but not really free) 10 by 13 photograph and leave.
But then I actually SAW the rest of the pictures. There was Natalie wrapped up in a boa and tossing an impish expression at the camera.
An impish expression! You can’t throw that out.
Then I start to think of Natalie’s photos being destroyed. Because that’s what photography studios do to the pictures you don’t buy. I asked when I brought Tommy to take pictures at Wal-Mart when he was a baby. The worker had spread out some pictures and told me cheerfully that they had printed out extras and that I could buy them for twenty dollars.
“Oh, no thanks,” I had said, holding up my envelope that was stuffed with pictures. I mean, I had already spent sixty bucks there.
The woman shrugged and started gathering the pictures.
“Uh,” I said, because curiosity had gotten the better of me. “What are you going to do with those?”
The woman paused. An evil expression seemed to pass across her face. “We have to throw them away.”
I gasped. I literally gasped at the thought of my poor precious boy being DESTROYED! I pictured old food being casually tossed on top of his image and my heart gave a squeeze.
No! Not my first born son.
“I’ll take them. I’ll take the extra pictures,” I said in a rushed tone. Before I knew what was happening I was handing my debit card over.
Of course I’ve learned since then. I usually am able to turn extra photos down now though admittedly, it can be difficult. I almost want to add, “But please, I know you throw them out but can you make sure old food or other disgusting things don’t get tossed on them?”
“Aren’t these pictures adorable?” the photographer-seller dude who had introduced himself as David said. I half expected him to hold out his hand and add, “High five!”
I nearly cooed at a picture of Natalie squatting down by the diseased bear. But no. No, Amber, stop. You promised. You’re just here for your 10 by 13 picture. I peeled my eyes away and looked at David in what I hoped was a stern manner.
“You know,” I said firmly. “I think I’ll just take my 10 by 13 picture.” I couldn’t meet his eye. Instead I focused on the floor. Which, I’m sorry, needed vacuuming.
David seemed genuinely shocked. It even sounded like he gasped. But then he probably thought back to the class he had to take where the instructor had written, “HOW TO DEAL WITH HARDBALLED MOTHERS” in black marker on a dry erase board. Number one was most likely, “Remind the mother how precious their child looks in the photo.”
Which is exactly what David did. He pushed the picture of Natalie that I was admiring closer to me.
“Isn’t she precious though? Are you sure you just want the 10 by 13?”
The 10 by 13 picture, by the way, was also really cute. Natalie was gazing at the camera with the boa and the hat and her eyes were so wide with life. Or maybe confusion. But whatever, the picture was still cute.
“I only want the 10 by 13,” I squeaked out. I could feel myself relenting. It was on the tip of my tongue to say that I wanted the ninety dollar package.
NO! STAY STRONG!
“Hrm,” David said and stroked his chin. He was probably thinking back to his class again. HOW TO DEAL WITH HARDBALLED MOTHERS. Number 2: throw in a freebie. Mothers love freebies.
“I can give you a sheet for forty dollars. And I’ll throw in two free three by fives. How does that sound?” David flashed me a wide smile. “High five!”
I’m kidding. He didn’t say high five. But it looked like he was about to. His hand sort of raised but then he realized that he was in the presence of an adult and lowered it.
“I….I…” I stuttered.
Because David’s class was right: mothers DO love freebies. Already my mind was racing with excitement.
One sheet! For forty bucks. And TWO FREE PICTURES! FREEEE! FREEEE, I tell you!
Before I knew what was happening I was filling out my checkbook for forty dollars.
Yes. I cannot play hardball.
I cannot just walk in and leave with a free (but not free) 10 by 13.
When I returned home I pretended not to hear Tom when he asked how I did. I just calmly set the large white envelope on the counter and pretended that I had a new text message on my cell phone.
“How did you do?” Tom repeated, coming up behind me and causing me to nearly jump out of my skin.
“Oh,” I said casually. “Great.” I punched in a few buttons on my phone and I hoped that I was conveying that I was an extremely busy person.
But then Tom reached over and started TOUCHING the white envelope.
So I yelped and snatched it from his hand.
“Amber! What the hell?” Tom said, looking at me as though I were a complete loon.
“Okay fine!” I wailed. Because he was going to find out anyhow. I couldn’t exactly take the envelope and run could I? I mean, I could but then I’d eventually have to come back. And how embarrassing would that be to slink back in with an envelope tucked under my arm? “I failed! I spent forty dollars. But I swear, I didn’t mean to. David made me do it!”
Tom raised an eyebrow. “Who is David?”
“The GUY! Who sold me the pictures. He started going on about how adorable Natalie was and then I—”
“Let me guess. You pictured her photos being covered with trash,” Tom finished with a roll of his eyes.
You see? He knows me well.
“YES!” I boomed. “I had to at least save one.”
Tom sighed. “Well, I’m a little impressed. I thought for sure you were going to come home with the $290 package.”
I’m not kidding. There was a $290 package. I really thought I was going to pass out when I saw that and even started an e-mail to the company:
“Country is in recession. May want to re-think prices. Thank you.”
“No,” I said to Tom. “I’m not THAT bad.”
So see? I did pretty good! David wasn’t able to convince me to fork over $290.
So haha, David. Ha ha.