I was shocked when my daughters both eagerly jumped in the back of the car so they could get a ride to Claire’s to get their ears pierced.
As we drove to St. Augustine, I kept looking up at their faces — 13-year-old Ellie and 8-year-old Kennedy — in the rearview mirror, to gauge their state of mind. Did they not realize their earlobes were about to be mutilated? Holes punched through their flesh — permanently?
Then again, I’m known in my family for getting queasy around blood and needles. My wife, Hailey, is aware of my wimpiness. Sometimes, a little too aware.
“You don’t have to come into the store, if you don’t want to,” Hailey said as we parked.
“No, it’s fine,” I said, swallowing hard, following my girls across the blacktop like Caesar crossing the Rubicon. “I can handle it.”
We entered Claire’s, which was, incongruously, adjacent to the food court. Such a brutal rite of passage should be done on a mountaintop, surrounded by the smells of incense, not in a shopping mall surrounded by the smells of Colossal Dogs and Burgers.
Somehow, inside a store that’s about the size of some people’s walk-in closets, they fit 5.27 million different pairs of earrings, not to mention false eyelashes, false nails, “skin gems” and hair brushes that fold up to look like boxes of Nerds.
“We have an appointment for ear piercing,” Hailey told the young lady behind the cash register.
Very friendly young lady. Probably a high school student, summer job. But how qualified do you have to be to sell plastic jewelry, right?
With a smile, she walked from the cash register over to the corner of the store (about 8 feet away), which was apparently the ear-piercing corner. She started showing Ellie and Kennedy the options for starter earrings and the bottles of cleaning solution, for aftercare.
Wait, I thought, this is who’s performing the procedure? Somehow, I was expecting someone older, maybe a doctor with white hair and a mustache. At least a lab coat?
And it was all happening here, where everyone could watch them — and me — squirm? A door, a curtain, even an umbrella would give us all a little dignity.
“It’s like an open wound, but it doesn’t feel like an open wound,” Hailey was saying.
It was all happening so fast.
“I pierced an 11-month-old, and she didn’t cry until the second ear,” the teen-like employee said. Then she said, holding up a tablet, presumably loaded with liability waivers, “One of you can fill this out.” She handed it to Hailey, not even pretending to consider me as an option.
“If you’re going to feel squeamish, you really don’t have to stay,” Hailey said to me again.
The Teen was snapping on rubber gloves, picking up The Device, which looked like a cross between a pistol and a staple remover. Ellie was on the chair, looking more and more nervous.
“It’s OK,” I mumbled, forcing a smile.
“Will it hurt?” Ellie asked one more time.
“By the time you go to bed at night, you won’t feel it,” The Teen said.
“Will my ears be red?” Ellie asked.
Hailey, the realist, said, “Well, she is stabbing something through your ear.”
Before anyone could ask any more questions, The Teen, with one eye on the line forming at the cash register, lined up The Device and pulled the trigger. A flash of silver plunged into Ellie’s ear and disappeared for a split second. When it was over, a tiny earring remained.
Her eyes welled up, but she held back the tears. There was redness, an expression of shock at the intensity.
I may or may not have seen the second ear pierced. I distracted myself by gazing around the store at the regular-size backpacks made entirely of pink fuzz. Next to those, there were smaller backpacks made entirely of sequins. And then, tiny backpacks on keychains. The orderliness of the descending sizes and utility was oddly calming. It was like a peace offering from the universe — or at least from Claire’s.
Kennedy was up next. “Owwwwwwwwwww,” she said, followed by a sincere but illogical prayer: “I wish the other one happened at the same time!”
Tears were in her eyes as the second ear was pierced.
Now it was time for post-op. Perhaps a hospital bed, a TV mounted high in the corner, perhaps a paper gown, mashed potatoes on a cafeteria tray?
Not at Claire’s. We were all expected to go on with our lives and shop for stuff.
Unfortunately, if you bought three pairs of earrings, you got another three for free. We were going to be here all day.
Trying to be helpful, I held up some attractive pairs. Each time, they were rejected. I was getting a little offended, so I decided to protest by not making any more suggestions. No one noticed.
Hailey finally prodded the girls along by saying, “These are not the last earrings you’re ever going to get.”
“Well,” I said quickly, “they might be.”
Hailey said, “No. Definitely not.”
The stress was getting to me. I continued to wander through the tiny aisles, careful not to sneeze for fear the merchandise would fly into someone’s Chinese food in the food court.
I was looking for something to soothe my nerves. I absent-mindedly picked up a keychain made of a plastic globe half full of yellow slime, and a Kirby character floating in the middle, wondering who on earth would ever invent this, let alone buy it. It was out of place, lonely in a crowd of mini fire extinguishers that promised to blast future owners with sour candy powder. I moved yellow-slime Kirby to another rack that contained several of its relatives, back where it belonged. Home.
As I followed my wife and daughters out of the store and across the parking lot, I felt I had made a significant contribution, at least in the life of that Kirby.