By Alice Martin
It’s hot outside. Too hot. Flip-flops-melting-into-asphalt hot. Smells-like-gum-and-gasoline hot. So, we go to the mall.
We start with Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. The air there tastes like sugar-butter, and it’s right by the entrance, so we can stroll by nonchalantly, as if we hadn’t planned anything at all. If we’re lucky, they’ll be giving out free samples in little paper cups. We choose the cups with the biggest pieces of pretzel and suck the bread until it’s nothing but the memory of salt. Then, we say, we’re full now; we don’t need anything else.
Next is Cache. Cache, we all whisper to ourselves. Like “cash,” but fancy. The store has a wall of floor-to-ceiling display windows. Faceless white mannequins wear elaborate dresses, their hands held out for nothing, their petite wrists cocked just so. None of us have ever bought anything from Cache. Our moms, with their mascara-caked eyes and sweat-stained, two-sizes-too-small T-shirts, don’t shop there. We imagine movie stars, if our small suburban town had any, would shop there. Later, we will realize it’s the Buena Vista neighborhood moms who buy those clothes, and that knowledge will make the shop villainous, their merchandise an evil stepmother’s wardrobe full of false promises and betrayal.
But for now, we assign outfits numbers and vote on the best ones. Most days, we don’t actually like anything in the windows. But there’s something about the way the dresses fall heavy, like drapery, around those shiny, thin bodies. There, behind the glass.
We have to walk through the Macy’s to get to the other side of the mall. We sweat as we make our way across the desert of white tile, past Clinique counters and moody perfume ads. Perfect white teeth the size of our hands biting into plump red lips. Nonexistent breasts, studded with bones, veiled in glitter. White-coated women behind the counters dab and spritz and cap. The room smells like highlighter and is filled with mirrors. We grab at free samples and run.
The other side of the mall feels like a secret, like we’ve traveled through a looking glass. We each have a favorite place here: Claire’s for the one of us who likes shiny, nonthreatening earrings and clean, fur-lined pillows; Hot Topic for the one of us who collects pre-ripped T-shirts and easily broken studded belts; Charlotte Russe for the one of us who feels like she could punch a hole in someone’s face with the heel of a stiletto. We claim them like they are outcomes of the personality tests in the backs of magazines.
This is me, we proclaim, tugging the others toward our storefronts. We may be us, but this one is me.
Me, our arms strain.
Me, our eyes burn.
Me, our voices crack.
We look to each other, wild-eyed and tense-limbed, our hands turned to claws.
Doesn’t this look like me? We beg each other. Doesn’t it?
Delirious, we stop at the Food Court to hydrate. It’s a cavernous space where people’s voices echo in a cacophony of fake sound. We forget our earlier promises that we don’t need food and buy tray after sticky tray of the stuff: greasy lo mein noodles, crusty tater tots, cold pizza with sheets of cheese, a dry-looking apple turnover origami-ed into a cardboard sheath.
We eat it all, even after we are no longer hungry. Nearby, a woman at a kiosk stops ill-fated prepubescents, like us, to ask if they’ve tried Proactiv Solution. We pick at the spots on our faces, poke the pooches in our bellies. Then, we gather what we bought with money we saved from skipping school lunches, or stole from our mothers’ purses, or got for touching a boy’s penis in the school bathroom. (We don’t tell each other these things.) We drag our purchases down a level, to the atrium.
There’s no reason to go to the atrium, but we do it every time. We are pulled here, to the airy heart of the mall, like moths to a fluorescent light or fingernails to a scab. In the atrium, the mall opens up to us. Escalators and elevators and walkways with glass railings careen and cross above us. We can see everything, but nothing sees us. In the center of the atrium, a carousel spins. Our cycling eyes trace its route, and our heads tumble into what feels like forever. The tinny, old-fashioned music makes our hearts ache for a time not so long ago when we would have ridden the carousel, let all the stores and the people blur together before our eyes. Now, instead, we look upward, to the heat pouring through the skylight. We squint up at the light from down in our pit.
When we leave, we will return home, to our mothers and sisters and grandmothers, to televisions that play reruns and sports highlights and George W. Bush’s face. We will try on the things we bought here and look in the mirror and feel disappointed. Too fat, too short, too tall, too thin, too pale, too shallow-chested, thick-lipped, scar-skinned, bug-eyed, hunch-backed. We will bury that disappointment away with our purchases beneath our beds. We will not forget them, but imagine them dusted and molding, waiting for us like the monsters we once believed lived there.
Years later, when we have left this town and bought houses and yoga mats and cars and stainless-steel cookware and blouses that cost more than our mothers’ whole wardrobes, we will tell ourselves that we barely remember this place, each other, this feeling. But then it will come back to us, as deep as a breath, as hot as the sun burning invisible crowns onto our heads. And we will still be there, peering up through the escalators, our stomachs lined with grease, our muscles twitching with an ache we can’t name. We will be drawn back here, searching for the bittersweet comfort of nostalgia, only to find a disappointment that had just begun.