5 p.m. Rush hour.

I’m standing at the corner of Yonge and King in downtown Toronto, a banana from lunch in one hand, and my water bottle in the other. I’ve had a feeling of free-floating anxiety all day. I watch women walk by, swinging their arms, unencumbered because all of their things fit oh-so perfectly in their bags. I feel a surge of jealousy and know where all my tension is coming from: I hate my purse.

It’s a glamorous designer purse, one I spent too much money on. It’s made of supple black leather and closes with a large silver buckle. I’ve had many compliments on it. The only problem is it has no pockets or pouches; everything I put in it accumulates in a mess at the bottom. The lining is dark, so finding something is like descending into the pit of purse hell, and I’m constantly fumbling for my keys, my subway tokens, and my ringing cell phone.

I loathe my purse. Can your purse actually drive you crazy? I wonder. I walk towards the boutiques on King—it’s time to get a new purse, one with plenty of compartments, big enough to hold all my things, and a bright, preferably neon, lining. I walk faster, a woman on a mission.

“It’s time for a trial separation. You’re one hot purse, but it’s no longer working between us.”

In the first boutique, I immediately spot a purse that’s as gorgeous as mine. I caress its buttery brown leather and admire the stitching. I look at the price tag. Not only is the purse expensive, it’s small and the lining is dark and it has no pockets or pouches. Buying it would bring a brief thrill. I need more than a pretty face now—I need a bag I can count on.

I browse in one store after another, without any luck. The purses in this area of Toronto are too fashionable and far from functional. I’m about to give up when I see one more boutique on the corner. I go in and scan the merchandise. They seem to have two types of purses: evening clutches with barely enough room for lipstick, money, and keys, and bigger bags that intrigue me. The one that catches my eye is made of black vinyl and has fake patent leather trim. An incongruous black bobble hangs down the front—a pathetic attempt to make the bag look stylish. It isn’t. But, by God, it looks functional. I open the industrial-strength steel zipper and peer inside to find three spacious compartments, pockets, and light blue lining.

I head to the cash.

“There’s a 30-day return policy,” the sales lady says.

“Oh, I won’t be returning it,” I reply.

I leave with my past over one shoulder and my future over the other. I look forward to the next day’s routine, knowing I’m going to be more organized than ever before. As soon as I get home, I empty my old bag. Its contents form a chaotic mound on the table: old transit transfers, loose breath mints, change, an old hair brush, appointment cards, tissue, a broken pen—a reflection of my cluttered life. My old life.

I fill my new purse: cell phone; Pilate’s tights and t-shirt, student papers, reading material and writing journal. Wallet, glasses, keys, lipstick, money, tokens—I continue to fill the purse up. I empty it again and refill it, adjusting the position of a few items to make sure the contents of the bag have been organized with every contingency in mind.

I add a toothbrush, floss, toothpaste. I will use this change of handbag to begin practicing excellent oral hygiene.

That evening, I parade around with the purse on my shoulder. I look at myself in the hall mirror. My life may be coming together as never before. The next morning, I grab my bag and leave early. Life feels better. I climb on the streetcar and greet the driver with an unprecedented “Good morning.” At lunch, I remove my food. There is nothing crushed, bruised, or leaking. What joy! In the afternoon, I begin to feel chilly. With a feeling of triumph, I unzip the compartment of my bag that houses my cardigan. On the way home, my cell phone rings. I answer before the second ring. Before, I would have answered on the fifth ring, if ever.

In front of my condo, I open the purse. There is no shivering in the cold searching for keys. Once inside, I clean the bag with a cloth and prepare it for the next day. I’ve never been more satisfied with a handbag—except for one thing: I’m not getting any compliments. I start to feel as if my purse is being shunned.

“What a nice purse!” one of my colleagues says. She is complimenting the owner of a burgundy faux alligator bag.

“I love yours, too,” faux alligator lady replies. “Look at that creamy brown leather.”

I look at our three purses placed one beside the other on the seat of the lunch booth. It’s a purse love-in with mine excluded. I look again at the three purses stacked up beside each other. I feel defensive.

“Look at mine!” I say. “This vinyl wipes off like a dream and look at the sturdy zippers.”

I reach over, opening and closing them, to demonstrate.

“Oh,” soft, buttery brown leather lady answers and changes the topic to curriculum development. I feel as if I’ve brought my new boyfriend to a party and no one tells me how cute, smart, nice, or even, in a pinch, how sane he is.

That night, while packing the purse for the following day, I ask my husband what he thinks of it.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m not qualified to comment on your purse.”

“Just give me your opinion.”

“I guess it looks functional.”

Functional. I could use that word to describe it, but coming from him I think “functional” means A1. From a woman’s point of view, though, this usually means unstylish. The honeymoon, as they say, was definitely over.

After a few weeks, the purse and I settled into the dull, duty-bound routine of an old, disgruntled married couple. Not long after that conversation, I wonder if I should take a trip down boutique lane to see if that sexy buttery leather number is still there. Just then, I spot my sturdy compartment purse perched on a chair in a café window. I look up at the owner, fully expecting to see a nun or a librarian sitting there. Instead, I see that my purse sister is young, no older than twenty. She’s stylish, with dark cropped hair and funky glasses. She takes a journal out of the middle compartment of her purse and sips her latté. She looks up and sees I am holding the same handbag. We smile at each other, a knowing smile that confirms what we knew all along: functional can be fabulous.

Published by The Montreal Gazette
July 3, 2010