When I was fifteen I existed inside the mall. A flat, sprawling one-story, Westfield was the first shopping center to open near my suburb, pulling people from as far as an hour away to its gleaming front doors. That summer the parking lot was always full. Crumpled fountain cups and oily burger wrappers gummed up the pavement. The rubbery throb of pop music from cars drifted on the breeze. Crowds swarmed in and out of Westfield’s heavy glass revolving doors, smiles stuck to their faces like price tags.
It was a warm Saturday in June. After we’d stepped inside Westfield for the first time, my mother turned to Paula and me, her eyes flashing. “You girls can have anything you want,” she said breathlessly. “Pick anything.” She grinned and swept her arm, revealing rows and rows of well-lit stores with mannequins bent into unnatural positions, jewelry and purses draped across their thin, plastic frames.
Paula and I swapped glances, surprised. Our father only allowed us to buy new clothes once a year, insisting we wear our jeans until holes split the knees, until our feet swelled and chafed inside our sneakers. “We don’t need to spend money on clothes they’ll only grow out of,” I’d heard him argue with my mother, his jaw clenched as he sat at our kitchen table, sifting through receipts. So she did her best to hide her new hobby: Avon catalogues piled up beneath her bed, their pages starting to yellow. Makeup samples from the drugstore crowded the bathroom drawers. Sunday ads were stuffed inside the glove compartment of my mother’s car, the pages dog-eared and starred in pen.
But that afternoon, at the mall, desire was all around us, illuminated by neon signs and reflected in dressing room mirrors. Like a compass, Westfield was connected by four major department stores on each end, and you had to squint in order to see from one long, bright side to the other. Crowds lined the walls on both sides, the mall offering an escape from the wet summer heat; everywhere shoppers were sprawled out on benches, dull-eyed and shivering in the icy air conditioning. The fried-dough stink from an Annie’s Pretzel stand saturated the air, settling into our clothes and hair.
All day the three of us wandered from store to store, pausing only to finger price tags and surround clothing racks, our hands reddened by the weight of our shopping bags. In Wet Seal, a store selling nightclub apparel, my mother bought me a black spandex top that said Scorpio in sparkly rhinestone letters. For twelve-year-old Paula she chose a pair of hot pink leggings with a silver grenade stitched on the front pocket, Veteran Hottie scrawled across the butt in glitter. Leaving the store, I tried not to look at Paula as she walked ahead of me, the leggings’ thin material making me cringe.
In JC Penney’s, Paula and I sipped large Cokes while we waited for our mother to try on outfits. “Girls?” she said, and stepped out of the fitting room in a deep red cocktail dress that skimmed her knees, the shimmery material clinging to her waist and chest. Thin straps crossed her bare shoulders like an X and exposed a taut, tan lower back. “What about this one?”
Cheeks burning, I stole a peek at the tall blonde fitting room attendant, then dropped my eyes to the carpeted floor. This was the first time I’d really noticed my mother’s body, which was usually hidden by loose green nurse’s scrubs. As I watched her in the mirror, I tried not to remember that afternoon only a few weeks ago, when I’d opened her dresser drawer and found the diary. In ecstatic cursive, my mother narrated the fumbling lunch breaks and rushed weekend afternoons she’d been spending with men who worked with her at the hospital, the words coming faster and sloppier as they careened in blue ink across the page. After reading, I sat and studied the ceiling for a while, thinking about how a person could change as easily as their clothes. Finally I stood and went into the bathroom across the hall. My mother kept an electric razor in the medicine cabinet. I took it out and ran the blade back and forth over my eyebrows until all the hair was gone.
“What in God’s name did you do?” my mother said when she saw me later that night, my skin pink and bumpy like a rash. She crossed the room and took my face in her hands, a small, secret joy blooming in my chest to have her attention, to be close to her.
But as I watched my mother in the JC Penney’s mirrors, I felt a hot burn of jealousy. She swiveled her eyes past Paula and me to look at the fitting room attendant in the doorway. “Any chance this is on sale?” she asked, her face falling when the woman shook her head no.
I waited while my mother chewed her bottom lip. “It doesn’t matter,” she finally said under her breath, still gazing at her reflection in the mirror. She changed and carried the dress to the front of the store, smiling nervously as she handed her credit card to the young, gum-chewing cashier. “Receipt with you or in the bag?”
“I’ll take it.” My mother extended her hand, quickly balling up the paper at the bottom of her purse. She strode back into the mall gripping her new JC Penney’s bag, Paula and I walking fast behind her, struggling to keep up. All afternoon we followed her in and out of stores, making time pass by playing an old game we’d invented when we were four and seven, called Who Will Claim Us? Dropping to our knees, we hid ourselves within circular racks of business pants and dresses, pretending we were made of cotton. We bristled when we heard the metallic clink of hangers, tried to keep our bodies still as strange hands rifled through dresses and imagined they were reaching for us instead, folding us into their lives like the clothes draped over their arms. Hidden in shadow, we listened to people’s conversations as they shopped.
“This is lovely. Did you see this?”
“Do I look like an old woman? I like this one more.”
“That’s too short for a job interview.”
“Remember when Aunt Rose’s dress ripped at church last Christmas?”
“I swear that priest was giving her the eye.”
“I like this one.”
“It’s too short, honey.”
We played Who Will Claim Us? all day—in Old Navy, Kay Jewelers, and even the bustling food court, twisting our limbs into greasy pretzels and stiffening our fingers to look like drinking straws. Our favorite store was Bed, Bath, and Beyond. We basked in the wide, white aisles and bright fluorescent lights, the fresh pillowcases and bath towels stacked in neat piles, luring us to reach out and mess them up. Our mother hung around the carpeting aisle and chatted with men, leaving Paula and me to play our game. We crawled onto metal shelves and craned our necks toward the ceiling where the light fixtures swayed, and we blinked in time with the lamps, turning ourselves on and off.
That summer, every day was the same: I woke in the morning to a tightness in my chest, my limbs pinned to the mattress like a fallen wrestler’s, gripped by some dread I couldn’t shake. I stayed in bed until lunch. Paula came into my room and said, “You should eat,” and I did. Then I got back into bed and tried to nap. At some point a friend would call and we’d head to Westfield, killing time and looking for other kids from our suburb. Some days a group of us met at T.G.I. Friday’s in the mall. From our booth in the back I kept an eye on Christy at the host stand, her blonde hair pulled into a high, thin ponytail, red and white suspenders stretched tight over her breasts.
Christy was seventeen and a junior at my high school. Nobody knew her—she was always alone, walking apart from the rest of us on the track during gym class or leaning against her car in the parking lot, smoking cigarettes. But with her dramatic makeup and dark clothes, it was as if some part of her wanted to stand out.
My pulse sped up as Christy sauntered over to our table, tossing down menus with an air of cool indifference. “Chicken fingers on special,” she called over her shoulder, and I leaned in closer to the aisle, trying to brush her sleeve as she walked by. Behind my menu I watched her while she worked, purple fingernails clacking against the phone, oily syllables rolling off her pierced tongue: “Thaaanks for calling Fridaaay’s, this is Chrisssty, how may I help yooou?”
One afternoon I was waiting alone for my friends at our table, wishing I could go home to bed, when a finger poked me.
“Cool eyebrows,” said Christy. She was wearing her work uniform, grease stains dotting her tight black pants.
“Are you mature?”
I didn’t know what she meant, but I nodded yes.
“Then come with me.”
Heart thudding, I followed her across the mall to Claire’s. “Let me know if I can help you find something,” the cashier, a middle-aged woman wearing lots of rings, greeted us. I trailed Christy through the aisles, her purple fingernails fanning over cheap bracelets and necklaces, and stopping on a pair of dangly turquoise earrings. When the cashier turned her back, Christy slipped them into her purse. She looked over her shoulder at me, eyebrows arched in challenge.
I swallowed hard. Blood pumped through my ears Christy motioned for me to hurry up. Shoulders trembling, I reached out and closed my fingers around a delicate silver necklace. The mannequins watched with frozen eyes as we exited, heads lowered, cheap metal clinking inside our otherwise empty purses.
Christy taught me how to hide small items like jewelry or nail polish with my palm and then slowly curl my hand into a fist, slipping the whole thing into my pockets. She taught me to save old shopping bags and carry them with me around Westfield, filling them with stolen items. She taught me to remove clothes from their hangers before bringing them into the fitting room, to tell the salesgirl, who would be young and bored, that I had four skirts instead of six. Sometimes we wore stolen shirts beneath our coats. Sometimes we balled them up into purses or shopping bags. But it wasn’t jewelry or clothes we really wanted—it was risk, that sweet, split second release from life in the suburbs, where everything was neat but with its own kind of anxiety, with the constant pressure to be happy, to be polite, to smile.
After a day at Westfield, Christy would drive us back to her house. Screeching rock music blared out of the open car windows, fuzzy pink dice swung from the rearview mirror. Christy beat her palms against the steering wheel as we sped down the highway, screaming out the lyrics. I didn’t know the band—I never did—but still I pretended to sing along, the music loud and pissed off and personal somehow, as if it were ours to own. Christy pressed her foot hard on the gas pedal, tossing back her head.
“Fuck this town,” she yelled, and I raised my voice to match hers: “Yeah.”
Ten minutes later Christy swung the car into her driveway, and we let ourselves into her empty house. Her mom waitressed most nights at the Steak ‘n Shake near Westfield, and Christy didn’t talk to her dad, who lived somewhere in Michigan with his new wife and kids. I sat at the kitchen table while she rummaged through the refrigerator, filled with ketchup packets and plastic bags of half-eaten hamburgers and fries. Behind her, dirty dishes piled up in the sink, a dark cloud of fruit flies hovering.
“Ready?” she said, and we carried our dinner upstairs to her bedroom, dumping out our bags, pressing cotton to our faces and breathing in the smell of new clothes. Christy shook a pack of cigarettes from her jeans.
I pretended to think about it. “Maybe later.”
“Suit yourself.” Christy snapped a lighter and crossed to her bedroom window, blowing smoke through the screen. Smoking made me nervous but I loved watching Christy do it, loved the confident way she balanced the cigarette between her long fingers, inhaling in slow, deep drags.
“It’s rad how you’re helping out your family,” she said.
I was sitting on the edge of Christy’s bed, crossing and uncrossing my legs. “What do you mean?” I was never sure what to do with my body in her presence, how to arrange my limbs in a way that announced ease and maturity. I faked a yawn, leaning back on my elbows in a pose of relaxation.
Christy looked at me, her cool gaze seeming to soften behind layers of metallic eye shadow. “You steal so they don’t have to take care of you.” Her eyes traveled slowly over my face, as if searching for something. “You’re a good person.”
All of a sudden I wished I could go home and get into bed. My eyes burned, the smoky air making me cough. I drew in a breath and felt my throat clench. I didn’t know what kind of person I was. I coughed again.
“Dude.” Christy turned from the window, wrinkling her mouth in disgust. “Chill out.”
“Does your mom like me?”
“Yeah,” I lied. “Why?”
Christy shrugged and pulled smoke into her lungs. “She looks at me weird.”
I stared down at my chewed nails, pretending to study them. I didn’t want Christy to know that I felt embarrassed when I ran into my mother at the mall, browsing the underwear in Victoria’s Secret or sifting through the sale rack outside of Wet Seal. If she happened to spot us I’d pretend not to notice her, grabbing Christy’s arm and steering us in another direction.
“Your mom’s not so bad.” Out of the corner of my eye I felt Christy watching me, felt her gaze tightening on my face.
Christy stubbed out her cigarette on the windowsill and bent down to reach under her bed. She came up with a pair of blue jelly sandals she’d seen me admiring in PacSun, the price tags still attached.
“These are for you,” she said. “For being a good friend.”
I stared at her, shocked. Christy rolled her eyes. Whatever,” she said, making her face go blank again. “That store doesn’t even have metal detectors.”
Late in the evenings, Christy would drive me back to my house. The lights were all off when I slipped through the front door, my parents already in bed for the night. Separated from them by wall and stairs, I felt my body start to unclench in the silent dark of my bedroom, my muscles slowly loosening like a button from a sweater. I carried my shopping bags to my closet and slid open the door. New jeans and dresses sat on the shelves in rumpled piles, unworn. Assorted shoes grew in messy rows on the carpeted floor. T-shirts were cramped together along the length of a wooden pole, their creased sleeves waving at me like tiny flags.
I was unpacking the day’s loot when a knock sounded at my door. Heart throbbing, I hurried to stash the bags in my closet as my mother flung open the door and stepped into my room. She was wearing her violet cotton nightgown, curly hair flattened, bare face wrinkled from sleep.
“Aim?” she said, squinting at me in the light. “What are you still doing up?”
“I’m going to bed now,” I said quickly, maneuvering to block her view of the stolen clothes piled up behind me. It didn’t matter that my mother’s own closet was full of shopping bags from Westfield, spilling out sheer tops and little dresses. Above, wire hangers sagged beneath the weight of new pleather skirts and jeans, scraps of receipts littering the carpeted floor below. Some days, when she wasn’t home, I tried to see what I could piece together from the mess—a missing stiletto here, a lonely earring there—my eyes skipping over the shoebox full of unopened credit card bills on the top shelf, collecting dust.
Before leaving the room, my mother paused with her hand on the doorknob. “Were you with Christy tonight?”
When I didn’t answer, she turned to face me.
I sucked in my cheeks, trying to hide the small smile pinching the sides of my mouth. I wanted to ask her what was the worst possibility she pictured while she laid in the dark next to my snoring father, secretly thrilled by the acts she must have thought me capable of. I felt oddly smug as I imagined the scene: the mall police catching me stealing, and my mother having to drive out to the station to claim me.
“You know I think Christy’s a bad influence.” She looked at me, her arms folded over her chest. “What did you two do tonight?”
“We just drove around,” I said, rolling my eyes. “It’s not a big deal.”
“Then why can’t you tell me what you did?”
“Well, first we stopped at a stop sign, then we turned left.” I heaved a sigh, signaling I was ready for bed. “Anything else?”
My mother flinched as if she’d been stung, both of us surprised by my outburst. Maybe now I was the bad influence, the type of person other parents didn’t want hanging around their kids. Neither of us knew what to say. My mother folded her arms and narrowed her eyes at me.
“You have to get a job,” she finally said, her voice sharpening as it ground its way through clenched teeth. “You can’t just run around all summer doing whatever.” We watched each other in silence. “Did you hear me?”
I muttered, “Fine,” and waited for her to leave, then stashed the rest of my bags in my closet and crawled back into bed.
A week later, I started work. Stride Rite was anchored at the south end of Westfield, a small, dim store wedged between Sunglasses Hut and Macy’s. The company sold shoes for babies and children under seven. I showed up on my first day dressed in the standard uniform, loose-fitting khaki pants and a red polo t-shirt embroidered with the Stride Rite emblem, Life’s Waiting, Let’s Go.
Gayle, my new boss and the only other employee at Stride Rite, met me at the store’s entrance. In her mid-forties, she’d come to Stride Rite after eight years of dealing blackjack at the casino downtown. She was short and bony, with hair and eyes the color of dishwater. When she spoke, the smell of old smoke wafted from her breath, mixing with the red and white peppermints she kept fishing from her rumpled khaki pockets.
“Your job is basically to babysit,” she told me, unwrapping another mint. The candy clattered against her teeth like dice. “You have kids?”
I shook my head no.
“I always say if it can’t wipe its own ass, then it don’t belong in my house.” Gayle winked at me. “Am I right?” she asked, as a snickering laugh slid through her coffee-stained teeth. I said, “Sure,” and Gayle clamped her thin fingers around my shoulder, guiding me deeper into the store. I twisted my face into a mask of focus as she plucked a pair of toddler’s light-up sneakers from the wall display, tapping the red price sticker on the heel. She lowered her voice when a stroller creaked through the store’s entrance.
“Welcome to Stride Rite!” Gayle called in a bright falsetto before turning back to me. Red stickers were for full price shoes, she explained. But—and here she leaned in close, her small gray eyes narrowing conspiratorially—there was also commission. These were defective shoes, labeled with a neon sticker. Employees who sold them received a modest bonus on their paychecks. “I was commission leader for the whole district last month,” Gayle told me, grinning. She followed me into the stockroom, her face lighting up as she pointed out the certificate taped to the wall above her desk with her name printed at the top, covered in stickers.
The job provided a welcome structure to my otherwise empty summer days. Mornings, I’d pull into the vacant parking lot at nine, one hour before Westfield opened to the public. This was my favorite time to be at the mall. No crowds, no music. Just the soft squeak of mops against tile, vacuums humming, the gentle glare of fluorescent lights.
Gayle would rush in shortly after Stride Rite opened, cupping a large coffee and arguing on the phone with her ex-husband. “Later,” I heard her hiss at him once, dropping her voice when she spotted me on a ladder in the stockroom, arranging boxes. “I said later.” Between the dusty shelves, I watched her fingers move in slow circles around her temples and felt the urge to hug her, to comfort her somehow. Over the last few weeks, I’d grown to enjoy the job; I liked feeling busy, liked creating order out of the mess of bills and shoeboxes cluttering the stockroom. I even liked Gayle, liked sitting near her on the wire bench in the middle of the store when business was slow, listening while she told me stories about her life. In these moments, I felt close to her, our knees touching in a way that felt like intimacy.
One afternoon, Christy came by the store while Gayle was at lunch and tried to convince me to steal for her. “You owe me gas money,” she said, tapping her purple fingernails against the cash register. She leaned over the counter and placed her face inches from mine. Teal eye shadow glittered like broken glass across her lids. “Ten bucks, she’ll never notice.”
Christy sighed. “Forget that bitch,” she said, and tugged on my wrist. I swallowed hard. Pulse throbbing, I flicked my eyes over her shoulder and scanned the mall beyond Stride Rite, looking for Gayle’s red shirt in the crowd.
“Don’t be such a baby.”
“I’m not,” I said, and felt my face grow hot. Christy smirked, arching her eyebrows in challenge.
Soon I was spending more time at Stride Rite than anywhere else. I felt useful helping Gayle with the kids, keeping their feet still while she took measurements, clutching their hands as they teetered across the nubby blue carpet in new shoes. But most days Stride Rite was quiet. I passed the time by sitting next to Gayle on the wire bench and watching people walk in the mall, everyone seeking shelter from the late July heat. Sometimes I thought I spotted my mother in the crowd, a flash of curly hair and glasses before I lost sight of her again.
Gayle gave me my own customers on the weekends, when Stride Rite was busiest. All day I knelt before babies in their strollers and tried to feel their flailing feet. There was supposed to be an inch of space between the toe and the top of the shoe, but Gayle told me to make an exception if I saw a chance at commission. “Just pop ‘em on,” she muttered to me once, wrestling a pair of ill-fitting sneakers onto a four-year old boy’s feet. When his mother frowned, Gayle flashed her a wide smile. “They’re made to fit a little snug,” she explained, and carried the neon-stickered box to the cash register before his mother could think to protest.
One day a short, heavyset woman in an ugly Hawaiian shirt came into Stride Rite to return commission shoes. She opened the box to point out the sneakers’ torn lining, handing Gayle the receipt.
“We don’t return sale items,” Gayle said.
The woman’s eyes narrowed. She tried reasoning with Gayle, and when that didn’t work, she raised her voice: “Who the hell do you think you are?” Her whole face was red now. Gayle closed the shoebox and pushed it back across the counter.
“I’m sorry,” she said firmly. The woman stormed out of the store, muttering under her breath. Gayle and I sat down again on the wire bench. Looking at her from the side, I noticed for the first time the dark circles beneath her eyes, aimed somewhere off in the middle distance. She turned to me and sighed, her entire body seeming to deflate with the effort.
“It’s like I always say, you gotta claim what’s yours,” Gayle told me, her voice authoritative as a teacher’s. “Why play the hand you’re dealt when you can be the dealer?” Winking, she launched into another of her casino stories, this time about an old man who’d dropped to his knees and begged her for his money back after gambling all of it in a game of blackjack.
“I thought the bastard was gonna croak right there,” Gayle said. She shook her head, laughing a little through her teeth. “Some people, am I right?”
I nodded, only half-listening to her. I was thinking of my closet at home, guilt twisting my insides as I considered all the things I’d taken without knowing what it was I really wanted.
On my lunch break that day I sat on a bench in the middle of Westfield, trying to ignore the familiar dread pressing on my spine. I scanned the mall, wondering if my mother was near, when I spotted Christy. She was walking with a girl I didn’t know, blonde and skinny and bright-eyed, floating behind Christy like the tail of a kite. I froze. I took out my cell phone and pretended to look at it, watching from the corner of my eye until the two of them disappeared into a store. Slowly I stood and walked back to Stride Rite.
“You look pale,” Gayle said. She rose from the bench and patted my shoulder, yawning. “Drink some water; I’m going to lunch.”
I waited until her red shirt faded from sight before unlocking the cash register. I let my fingers skim over the bills inside, my nerves leaping in that sudden, sharp way that I loved. Laying my palm flat over a twenty dollar bill, I curled my fingers into a fist like Christy had taught me, when I heard a stroller roll through the entrance.
“Welcome to Stride Rite!” I said quickly, using my hip to nudge the cash register closed. I plastered a shaky smile to my face and waited while a young, tired-looking mother pushed her stroller around the store, picking up display shoes and setting them back down again. “How can I help you?”
“Do you have any sales?” the woman asked. Up close, I noticed the worry lines splicing the corners of her eyes, a few streaks of silver already glinting from her thin brown hair.
I brought out some commission boxes from the back and watched her face fall. “What about those?” she said, and pointed to a pair of new sneakers on the display wall. I held them out to her, white leather with little pink hearts dotting the sides. She flipped one over and saw the red price sticker on the bottom, handing it back to me without a word.
Forcing a smile, I returned the shoe to its shelf, a slow ache building in my gut. I sat behind the cash register and pretended not to watch while the woman squatted on the floor and sorted through the commission boxes, feeling a mixture of embarrassment and jealousy that she could show her longing so openly, display it like the shoes on our shelves.
Slowly I inched open the cash register, sweat beading the inside of my palms. Somewhere a baby was crying but I could barely hear over the blood pounding in my ears, the woman’s voice muffled like a radio in the background. I waited until she’d turned her back to me. Then I reached in with shaking fingers and removed a twenty from the drawer, crushing the bill into my pocket.
I looked up at Gayle standing in the entrance, watching me. My breath left my lungs. I couldn’t move.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” the woman cried suddenly, and I tore my eyes from Gayle’s to see the baby sitting on the bench in a puddle of urine, her shrill wails piercing the air. A dark stain was slowly spreading across the carpet. “Do you have a towel? I’ll clean it up.”
“I’ll take care of it,” I said in a creaky voice, though I knew I wouldn’t, just like I knew Gayle wouldn’t report me to the police. We faced each other as if looking into a mirror, our eyes locked, neither of us blinking so that Gayle’s features began to blur and I wasn’t sure if I recognized her anymore, wasn’t sure where I was or how I’d gotten there. The woman hoisted her damp daughter in her arms and made an impatient noise in her throat.
“One second,” I lied to her, and looked into Gayle’s face for what I knew would be the last time, into her gray eyes that were slowly changing from hard to soft with hurt. I’m sorry, I wanted to say, but also knew I wouldn’t. Instead I slipped past her and out of the store, already wishing I could turn back.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.