I never would have met her except that I stood behind her in line, waiting to pay for shoes. She was a good half foot taller than I and the hat the she wore gave her inches more in height.
Since I noticed the hat and not the woman from the back, I longed to see how well it appeared from the front, so I asked her.
“Ma’am, I love your hat,” I said. Since we stood in line waiting to pay for shoes, she didn’t know I was addressing her. So I tapped her shoulder, reaching up to tentatively to get her attention.
She turned around and looked down at me with confusion. She was even more beautiful than the hat, from the front as well as from behind.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said and added, “I just wanted to know where you got your hat. I love it.”
Her confusion turned to pleasant surprise and she touched the brim of the wide and tall hat that was woven with khaki and black straw, with a wide black grosgrain ribbon that surrounded the interior diameter. With the hat that provided a shadow over her eyes, she didn’t seem to need sunglasses.
Yet she continued to look quizzically at me before she answered. I was somewhat confused by the fact that she didn’t respond immediately, but I guess she was still startled by my question. Then I thought to myself, since nobody ever asks me where I get my clothing or accessories, I probably would have been just as surprised.
“I got it in Italy,” she said without affect. Well, clearly, I wasn’t going there in the immediate future, so I didn’t ask her in what town she found her treasure.
What was I to say next? All I could think of was, “It’s truly distinctive and I think it looks lovely on you.”
So what did this tall woman do in return? She took her hat off and placed it on my head. That’s when I really got confused. What was I supposed to do now? Look for a mirror? Ask her how it looked on me? Be uncomfortable about the fact that someone else’s hat was on my head?
She made the decision for me and gently pushed me in the direction of a full length mirror, yards away. I stepped in front of it as the others around us watched with bored detachment. Did they wonder if I would have the nerve to take my old place in line when I was done gazing at myself while I was adorned in a stranger’s hat?
How odd, I thought. I started this scenario because I loved that hat on her, but on my shorter, less elegant body the hat did not improve my style. And I went to tell her so, but by that time, she was at the counter paying for her shoes.
Because it was a Saturday and the line had filled up, getting directly through to the counter without appearing to “cut in” was tough. But just as I made it to where she stood, the lady had completed her purchase and walked out of the store.
Then the trek to reach her became more difficult. I had to give my “ready to purchase” shoes to someone at the counter to hold for me so I could run out of the store to catch up the lady who owned the hat. But the other patrons assumed I was trying to barge ahead to pay for my shoes and they started to argue and push me.
It took many minutes of unnecessary prattle back and forth to ensure these folks that I was just placing my shoes on the counter so I could catch up with the woman who owned the hat.
By the time I ran out of the store to find her, she was long gone. Gamely, I walked back inside, grabbed the shoes I intended to buy and went to the end of the line. I thought perhaps she’d come back while I stood there; her hat still rested on my head. Those who had aggressively belittled me for my apparent intrusion were happy to see me behind them as they made their purchases. But by the time I reached the cashier, the lady who owned the hat had not reappeared.
The only thing I could think of was to ask for a manager to give me advice regarding the return of the woman’s hat. People behind me in line were seething like the ones before because I now held them up as I waited to speak to the person in charge.
When the manager appeared some minutes later, she suggested that we could identify her by her credit card if we could remember what shoes she bought.
That became impossible since I never looked at the shoes, only her hat. Even if she had paid in credit, we wouldn’t have been able to identify her since the clerks at the counter never saw her in the hat. The only thing the manager could suggest was that I leave the hat with her to be placed in the store’s lost and found.
So I took the hat off my head, knowing it did not flatter me, even though it was just beautiful—especially on the woman who owned it—and reluctantly gave it to the manager. Then, with more and more people behind me becoming more and more agitated because I had held them up, I paid for my shoes and left.
I walked out of the store, head down with a mixture of discouragement and sadness. Somehow I felt as though I had held the woman’s hat hostage and I knew that she would not expect to see it again on her head, where it belonged.
Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see the woman who owned that hat by my side. She said, “I know you loved my hat, but I came back to claim it.”
Without a thought, I hugged her and with garbled glee, I told her that I had tried to return her hat before she left the store. She stood there, in all her beauty, even without the hat and I could see her relax with the knowledge that I had made all the effort to ensure she’d see her hat again.
We walked back to the store with her arm around my shoulder and as we approached the counter, she asked to see the manager. This time, no one seemed to object. In fact, people stared at us in shock. When the manager spotted us, she paled and immediately ran to the back of the store to retrieve the hat.
When she returned, she told us both how happy she was that the she could restore the hat to its rightful owner. “I’m sorry Ms. Owens for the problem,” she said beseechingly.
How did she know the woman’s name now if she didn’t know it, beforehand? The woman said that it was quite alright because everything had worked out well and that we had met again in the parking lot and sorted out the whole episode.
As Ms. Owens and I walked out together, she asked me, “How did you like my hat on your head?” And I told her the truth. “Some hats are made for some people’s heads and some aren’t. Your hat was not made for mine.” But then I asked her, “How did she know your name, Ms. Owens?”
The woman laughed, and as she put her hat back on her head she said, “My real name is Dana Owens and my credit card is in that name, but most people know me as Queen Latifah.”
Linda Spear is an author and a journalist with 30 years of communications experience. She is a veteran journalist for The New York Times where she reported primarily on evolving health and human interest issues that affect our culture.
She is also the co-author of “Kids and Sports,” written with Eric Small, M.D., and several other ghosted books with doctors.
Her first novel, I Know You by Heart, can be purchased on Amazon.com.