This month, the writers of Private Commission were prompted by the “normcore” trend (google it if ya haven’t heard). The discussion of normcore triggered one of our members to have an intense flashback to her 12-year-old self living in suburbia. And so we found our perfect writing prompt: the Shopping Mall. Something all suburbanites exist in relation to, and that even urbanites have at least a passing familiarity with. What follows is the first in a three-part series generated by the writing prompt.
Oxford Valley Mall, year: 2000, location: Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania.
I’ve never been able to figure out what “Fairless” means even though the name dominated my pre-teen life, always trying to get a ride to or be picked up from Fairless Hills. It sounds like “more or less fair”. Fairless starts off like a bard telling the story of a fair maiden with great enthusiasm but then halfway through realizing that the story is crap, the maiden not so hot after all. It’s like naming a town “Comeless Heights”, “Fetchless View”, or “Hunkless Hollow”. It’s the shoulder shrug at the end of Fairless that always gets me, a complementary adjective with an “eh” at the end, which, to be honest, is what the Oxford Valley was like. Not the shittiest of malls but certainly not the best. A stinky clean Bath n Body works place where kids in balloon pants with pink hair and Korn t-shirts milled among the richer Americrombie-ites.
I was an aspiring Americrombie-ite and my particular place of worship was American Eagle. The soft sweatshirts, the chunky leather boots, the pre-washed bootcut denim, all held the absolute intoxication of opiate normalcy in their material. As I sifted through the basic, semi-rugged goods that I could neither afford nor fit into, an image would appear to me with startling clarity: A granola cowgirl who is from California by way of Upstate New York but lives in Boston and hitchhikes to Portland on the weekends to visit her college boyfriend. She studies law and J. Crew with the same breezy, careless intent. She is no non-sense but not averse to florals or jewelry-making, she succombs to sex when pressed by love, but is mostly a second to third-baser. Or maybe not, it’s hard to know because the more you talk about sex with the AE Cowgirl, the more she slumps into her black cable turtleneck with a lynx-like smile.
This was my vision as I communed with the flannel among the tanned and toned tweens whose mothers fawned on them. The mothers, once shrewd masters of sweet ‘n’ feisty adolescence themselves, were now tarnished with age. They passed their beauty down to the daughters as they approved and even added to the mountainous pile of American image affirmations that were to be carried off to the dressing rooms, pulled up over smooth, wink-buttoned bellies and down over sore breast-buds cupped in cotton, fretted over, commented on, tugged and rolled, studied from this angle and that, each piece entering a lengthy consideration of what goes with what and what it will look like all together before being folded in tissue paper by a young Winona Ryder-type sales associate and handed over with a swipe of plastic. Then they would leave, one by one, carrying with them pieces of the AE Cowgirl in crisp white bags.
I hovered in that store for hours. My friends knew to leave me there, and come back just before a designated parent was scheduled for pick-up. I would wander around the store endlessly, plotting. I will get this $40 thermal shirt, and those $60 blue jeans and then I will somehow wriggle my pudgy little botty into them. If I babysit next door, and wheedle $20 from my dad for school supplies but don’t spend it… I calculated.
Despite my above average parental negotiating abilities, I rarely came to the mall equipped with cash enough for more than a soft pretzel and a Jock Jams CD. “You can’t squeeze blood from a stone” my mother would say as she glimpsed my crestfallen face upon handing me a $10 bill. “I would have been thrilled to get $10 from my mother when I was your age”.
“This isn’t 1962,” I would retort before stalking out angrily.
“Get a job then!” she’d call after me. Get a job? The AE Cowgirl would never have to deal with such an ungenerous mother. The AE Cowgirl came from plenty and had a pleasantly disinterested mother who handed over crisp fifties, no questions asked. She was not some aging hippie who refused to go to the mall with her own daughter because she claimed that the atmosphere of dead-eyed zombie teens, rampant consumerism and permanent musk of General Tso’s chicken samples made her want to commit homicide. “Whatever happened to beer and pot?” she’d say, as she donned a yellow bandana and her own mother’s vintage costume jewelry, “When I was your age, we didn’t go to malls. We couldn’t afford to buy into that little nightmare. We just listened to music and got a little stoned”.
“Ok, Mom,” I’d say, backing away and not entirely sure as to whether she was telling me that at 12 I should have been getting stoned rather than shopping with my friends, or if she was simply caught up and addled by her own rose-tinted memories.
Thus limited by dubiously noble parental intentions, I was stuck salivating. Cashless Girl in Fairless Hills. Trendless mother in realityless world. Peerless. Thoughtless. Potless. Topless. Crotchless. Oh my Cowgirl, you would never smoke pot, except maybe once: when the temptation of seeing what all the fuss was about overwhelmed your senses. But you would immediately regret it afterwards, and enjoy that regret. Now a little more weighted down and wise, you could look upon your peers with world-weariness, because you’d experienced drugs and come out the other side, able to say that it Truly Wasn’t Worth It. Help me to be more like you, send me a sign.
It was usually at this point in my silent prayers that I’d notice the jewelry sale at the front register. Sing Gloria! In excelsis deo, how did I always manage to forget the perpetually on-sale jewelry for the ever-hopeful-but-less flush-cowgirls? The joy of being able to take something to the register myself was unparalleled. To bask in the approving smiles of the Winonas as I forked over my $10. To see them place the merchandise into a little box, and to ask for a bag, yes a bag please, and I’d like a copy of the receipt. To walk out of the mall flanked by my friends into the waiting SUV of some Pennsbury parent–chariot of luxury!– clutching my cheap silver thumb ring greedily, this was enough to put stars in my eyes. For I had seen the future, and it was Dawson’s Creek.