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I was at war with the brands, but I was working for the brands. In those days, you couldn’t not. They were start-up denims and neoprene wearables and click caps and cloud spaces. Their offerings had leaked out into the air, as if through a sleek diffuser.
I was deeply involved with the brands at the same time as I was punishing myself for being involved with the brands. I was trying to spit them out but instead I was breathing them in. On any given day you could find me in front of my screen, selling myself as I sold things for the brands. What I did was tell stories for the brands, about the brands. Urban best practice new dream girl retinol direct to consumer love stories that would sit in designated squares of the Shopify site. And then the nylon zip flap bungee rig was born. And that’s how the unstoppable shoelace monitor came to be. And that’s how we knew there was an opening in the marketplace — we spotted it from a million miles away like a mirage in a desert — which we had originally believed to be devoid of openings but which we only had to look at harder to see what we saw: the squiggly rainbows of opportunity signaling to us from a distance, drawing us ever-nearer.
I walked toward the rainbow and I cringed. I was at war with the brands in the way that I could be at war with my own body or face, how I saw it in the mirror and could so easily identify the flaws, the bad sag, the largeness that was also smallness, the dents the world had made, the transparent skin. But I couldn’t do anything about it, I couldn’t advance any troops for it would be useless and I knew it. The human body, like the social body, had a mind of its own, and so it was a quiet war, a cold war, a war of threats never acted upon, of almost uprooting it all but never uprooting it all, eventually finding my way back into the original predicament.
It was hard work, the work I did for the brands. I had trouble with it because it wasn’t how I naturally told stories. I naturally told stories in my own voice to my own friends, and I could back up or just stop entirely whenever I wanted, just make a joke and abort the whole mission altogether. But the stories I told for the brands had to be in the brand’s voice — we liked to think of the brands as breathing, speaking things, because it made them less threatening — and for the brand’s customers. I had never met the brand’s actual customers. They were 35–40-year-old males with disposable incomes or 55–65-year-old females with disposable incomes. They had time enough to scroll and scroll and add to cart but not time enough to embody their personal desires without the help of the brands, who promised to help them do so. The brands were always making promises, which meant, of course, that I was making promises, as I was the one speaking for the brands in their voices. It was so worrisome, making promises you didn’t know whether or not you could keep. Sometimes the worry ate me alive.
The worry almost did kill me once, eight or so months after I gave birth to my daughter. My daughter was a solid and funny baby, which was wonderful to witness, but motherhood had me on shaky ground. My mission statement had to change entirely from what it had once been. The “About” section was very different, too. I had to add “Mother” to my résumé, but no one accepted it as a legitimate position as it was not validated by an influential institution, which meant, of course, that my body was not an influential institution. One of the pillars for my personal brand voice had once been confidence, but that pillar started to crumble in front of my very eyes as I began to regard my resume and my body with a new skepticism. I became paralyzed for long stretches, sitting on the rug with my child. I was in love with her, and often brought her cheeks up to my mouth and kissed and kissed and kissed. The new pillars of my personal brand had become sag, paralysis, and bedraggled feminine affection.
At first, my immobilization felt like part of the deal: everyone gave you leeway when you were new at something. New Mother, as a brand, was strong and radiant while somehow maintaining a delicate sensuousness that people were attracted to and wanted to be part of. But when too much time passed, when the brand identity became dated, but the brand couldn’t afford a site redesign, when New Mother slid into Should Have It Together By Now Mother, people weren’t so quick to sign on. People stopped clicking on your home page, stopped coming to your home. Your child was messy and loud now, no longer a benign, sleeping lump. Yours alone to deal with, to discipline, to put to sleep, to decide to coddle or not. The loneliness of being a mother to a child that was too old to fall asleep on your body but too young to go to school was some of the strongest of all the brands of loneliness I had bought into. Stronger, even, than Pregnant Loneliness or Adolescent Loneliness or what I assumed Empty Nest loneliness would be like. Many times a week, I cried.
It was during this period when I began my war with the brands. Most things had become more confusing and muddled in motherhood — When was the best time to take a shower? At what intervals would I pump the milk from my body? Who should I give the largest parts of my love to? What were souls made of? — but a few select things became clearer. I began to understand the pointlessness of certain values and ways of being, and this unveiled itself first in relationship to the brands. Having a baby made me understand what creating life felt like, which in turn revealed to me its opposite: creating death. Which was what working for the brands was, if you thought about it in a certain way.
The written word, I had understood but not fully, could have an immense amount of power when wielded properly. This is why the brands wanted people like me: for our power. The power of the artists was different from the power of the non-artists because the power of the artists was emotional, by design. Emotion was our bread and butter. By using us, the brands could elicit emotional responses from their customers, which we all know are the responses that make us want to buy things or change things about ourselves (which leads, of course, to buying things). And so I used my ability and power to inhabit the minds and hearts of other people, or perhaps more accurately my ability to imagine the minds and hearts of other people, to deliver words that would stun or focus or please or prompt them, so that, presumably, they would purchase the object or service the brand was providing.
The object the brand was providing in this specific instance, the instance which spurred the war between myself and the brands, was made in Italy, a point which I touted in the Brand Story as one of its selling points. When something was made in Italy it was thought to be not only elegant but authentic, as if by purchasing it you could access a part of the Old World, a world in which people cared about quality in a way that they didn’t in the New World. But the object the brand was providing, which was a purse, was made not by an Italian person but by a Chinese person, a young woman named Lin who had built, in Prato, Italy, from the ground up, a small factory out of which she sold textiles and leather goods manufactured by other Chinese people, one of whom was her daughter Ling. The fact that the purse was made by a Chinese person did not, of course, mean that it was a product of lesser quality than if it had been made by an Italian person, at least not necessarily, and yet I knew, as the brand knew, that it would not have been a selling point to say “Made by a Chinese Person in Italy” on the product’s label or website. And so I did not write this.
Lin had immigrated to Italy from Wenzhou when her daughter Ling was just four years old. She had come with an uncle who had a friend in Prato who’d already set up shop; he had rented a large warehouse which he’d turned into a factory, where Lin could work, making more money in a day than she’d make in Wenzhou in a week. This friend of Lin’s uncle had tapped into a thriving business; he was importing very cheap fabrics from China and using the immigrant labor in Prato to churn out quickly and cheaply made garments. The European retail stores were eating it up, and though the local merchants were on his case for stealing their customer base — he’d had a fire extinguisher bashed through his car window once — he was proud of the business he was doing; it was proving to fill a niche that people wanted filled.
Lin worked in her uncle’s friend’s factory until Ling was 12, at which point she had saved up enough money and gained enough industrious conviction to cut herself loose and begin her own business. She wanted to work with leather — it was tough and soft at the same time, and she loved the smell, and she knew leather goods sold for much more than cheap textiles — and so she and Ling worked for a year at an Italian shoe factory, where they both learned the ins and outs of dealing with leather. On the evening they quit, they each ate a large bowl of noodles and Lin drank a large glass of wine and they grinned at each other over the dim table. Ling ordered her first shipment of leather the next morning, and it arrived at their apartment two weeks later. They began to make the purses I was supposed to write about now, which were now being sold at department stores in America.
The purses were beautiful in the way of many Italian things — they felt durable yet sensual, with appealingly impractical details. They were not difficult to write about. You could tell the story from a craftsmanship angle or from a fashion angle and both would improve the purse’s chances of being sold. The purse was handmade with the most careful stitching, and you could wear it with the season’s 1960s-inspired trench coats. The American woman who bought the purse that Ling and Lin created wanted only to be reassured that she was doing the right thing, nothing more. She was like a mother who, when letting her child out of the house in the evening, only wanted to be assured by the child that they would not ingest alcohol or drugs. As if the child’s word meant anything when held up against her gargantuan fears of not being enough, of losing everything she loved most, of destruction, of withering, and perhaps most importantly, of her own obsolescence.
I wrote the story about the bag that this woman wanted to read. I told her everything was going to be okay, and that this bag would contribute to that okayness. By owning this bag, I promised her, she would feel worldly and worth it, plugged into her own womanhood, desirable, and more complete than she did currently. I wrote this story while my daughter was taking her naps — either the longer one in the morning or the sometimes nonexistent one in the evening, through which I tried to close my ears while she cried her way into her dreams. I had much anxiety while I wrote, but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from exactly. I thought about my daughter in her crib and about the diaper subscription I had to renew, which cost me $76 every month, and how I needed to finish the story about the brand in order to afford the diaper subscription. I thought about Ling and Lin, and I wondered if Ling looked in at Lin while she slept sometimes, like I did often with my daughter, with a mixture of wonder and fear. I thought about Ling going out on the balcony of her apartment above the factory she’d built from scratch and smoking an Italian cigarette and looking down on the street, which was quiet except for a few teenage boys, riding their bikes into oblivion. And I thought about the old Italian woman who lived across the street from Ling’s factory, who closed her shutters when she saw the glow of Ling’s cigarette, though she had come to her own balcony to have a cigarette of her own.
The old woman, whose name was Giulia, had grown up on that street, her father had grown up on that street, and now it was Chinatown, everything was red and gold and very dirty. Gone were the people and things she knew, gone was her father, gone was her daughter who had moved to Rome and forgotten her, gone was her husband who had died before her, gone was her small dog Bruno who she’d let eat fish from her plate, and now she was all alone in the middle of a sea of foreigners; when she looked outside she found nothing she recognized. Where there had once been Italian leather workers there were now Chinese leather workers, and where there had once been an outdoor market there were now terrible clothes made of terrible materials blowing like slutty flags in the wind.
The old woman had thought, once, that she might befriend a Chinese person, either out of a kind of pity for the person or need to make her day to day existence less lonely, but when she had tried smiling at the woman who ran the factory in the garage across the street, the woman had scowled at her and rolled the grate of the garage down. Before the grate had closed she saw the woman’s young daughter look at her pleadingly, and she thought of herself as a young girl, how her mother kept her inside to work in the kitchen when it was so beautiful outside, how she had watched her brothers bound through the fields and come back dirty and sunburned and flushed, waiting to be fed. She hated that woman across the street, for keeping her girl inside to work like that. She hated the Chinese people who had made her life so hellish and different. Who had made her life like a prison. Yet when her daughter had told her to come to Rome, she had declined. As she closed her shutters she felt angrier than ever before: her daughter had no idea what her life was, no respect for the past, no clue what it would mean to leave this street and pack up her things and go to Rome, where she would know no one at all, where she couldn’t count on anything, not even her own distaste for the smell of steaming pork buns and leather that leaked into her living room every afternoon, which was when she knew she could open a bottle of wine and lift her first cigarette out of its silver case, the case that was once her grandmother's and now was hers.
My daughter woke up from her nap and I had to stop writing about the purses. I took the creaky stairs up to her bedroom, stood outside the door for a moment to hear if she was really awake or fake awake; sometimes she made noises in her sleep, which was always a relief, for then I could stay working longer. I was at war with myself about this feeling: wanting her, so desperately, to stay sleeping, to sleep as long and as much as possible, so that I could exist for longer periods of time inside of my own freedom. And yet I filled this freedom with brands, with work for the brands, every moment I was not with my daughter I was writing stories for the brands, which did not feel like freedom at all when I thought about it, and I would become angry with myself for the way I spent my time, the kind of woman I’d become, the woman who was angry with herself for how she spent her time and for the kind of woman she’d become.
I do not wish to be lazy, or to avoid work. That is not it. I do not wish that, as a human species, we could carry on without responsibility or task, lounging in the cloudy worlds of intellectualism or
Buddhism or depression or dreams. I do not wish to sit on the floor with my daughter forever, trying in vain to entertain her while I drift away into my own mental universe. I am older now, not by much, but by some. My daughter is now three. I look at her and wonder what I can do. I fear the future with every bone in my body. I wait for her to become something abstract. She will develop her own voice, whose pillars I will only have control of in the same way I have control of a brand’s; I can tell a story that people will believe, but it has a slim chance of being the correct one. I imagine her in Rome with sunglasses on. I imagine her swimming. I imagine her sitting in front of a computer, working alongside me, fighting my same silent war. I hear her again. She is awake. Here I come. Here I come, sweet girl. I am ready to plant myself in the earth so you can climb up me like a tree.
Molly Prentiss is the author of the novel Tuesday Nights in 1980. She lives in Brooklyn.