As much as the house I grew up in, the cars my parents drove, the cold classrooms and school hallways I roamed for years – as much and more as these touchstones, when I think of my childhood, I think of the mall.
I can see myself there now, standing at the end of the low brown, brick building, under a dull flickering fluorescent.
I have just walked through the glass doors near the entrance to Eaton’s, the Canadian department store where we bought our boots and underwear and where, in its heyday as an upper class destination, my grandparents had taken me to lunch at the cafeteria. I still feel the cheese lasagna steaming my eager little face, my Mary Janes knocking the post underneath the laminate table.
But now I am 14. It is snowing outside, the big new flakes of another winter. My hair is puffy, my coat is wide open, a plain gray school uniform rumpled underneath. I am walking with a couple of girlfriends, gossiping about boys or the bitchy geography teacher. But even as I nod and swear perfunctorily, I am fielding my own private thoughts.
We walk past the windows of the stores, Jacob, Roots, Mexx. I study the mannequins, who are wearing the kind of clothes that I don’t own. They pose in their short black skirts, leather boots, bomber jackets. I cannot have these things, because they cost money my mother doesn’t have.
I marvel at the mannequins’ smoothness, their creamy unblemished robot skin. I am the opposite of them, me with my frumpy sweater from Reitman’s, where the mothers and cleaning ladies shop, where my own mother drags me when I desperately need something new and berates me. “What is wrong with this?” she asks, urges, waving a polyester thing in my face. “You are so spoiled. Money doesn’t grow on trees. And I don’t see your father offering to buy you kids anything.”
When the mannequins become too much, I turn my focus to the other groups of girls and boys my age roaming the grubby mall floor in little cliques. I pass right by some of them but they do not look, as though I am the air itself.
These girls seem to defy their very DNA – they almost all attend the private Jewish day schools nearby. But they are crowned with shiny gold hair, glossy and straight down their backs or gathered in sexy/messy ponytails jutting out the back of their small well-shaped heads. They wear uniforms too, but their skirts have sharp, black pleats, their tights patterned, their boots laced high. They have diamonds in their ears and gold nameplates hanging down their neck.
These girls, who sometimes knock into me as they brush by, walk with boys. Beautiful, unreal boys with longish hair and letter jackets and white teeth. Boys who put their arms around the girls and grip their small waists. Boys to whom I am invisible.
I stand in my puffy, gaping coat and study the mall floor tiles as they move by, as though I have important business down there and my ears aren’t red. This is how it is for me, how it always has been. I am fine – I look ok, not beautiful but not horrifically ugly, a little pimply but not covered from chin to forehead in fat blackheads like Andrea Betamun in homeroom. I know the requirements for fitting into the world around me – stylish clothes like the mannequins, glossy hair, manicured nails. But I don’t have the key to get in. I can’t get through those windows. I need to be perfect, I know that, but I can’t.
So I walk with my other invisible friends through the mall, past the colored cement indoor playground my grandparents took me to as a child, past the deli where the bubbies in their fur coats order challah and eggplant spread, past the Cattleman’s where the glossy girls and sometimes me stop for wide golden steak fries stacked like thick pencils in their oily paper cups.
The voices of the mall travel and echo like a train station, muffled, a sort of engine revving to take off. I am here, but not a part of anything. The thrum of the mall, as with life outside its walls, moves past me. I stand in place and watch it go, feeling slightly drugged, unable to keep up with the action, the requirements. I think about the walk to my bus stop, the icy wait, trudging through the slush piled up on the sidewalk, the cracked steps leading up to our sagging duplex.
I think about the other girls, ponytails, gliding up their pillared walkways into golden lit hallways and sitting rooms painted red. In my loose-fitting coat, in the middle of the brown mall, I am cold. Cold and unperfect. And, as usual, alone.