Southwest Plaza has, like, fifteen entrances, and that's not counting the downstairs at Sears where you go in next to the Die-Hard batteries and radial tires.
As if you would ever go to the mall to buy a tire. The fourteen-year-old girls who live in my neighborhood will never be old enough to need auto parts. They don't even seem to need money.
Sometimes I drive them to the mall--Southwest Plaza is the closest, and so it is their favorite--from the foothills where we live, a redneck dirt-road place where you can't even skateboard. The girls are broke, but absolutely prepared to spend as many hours at the mall--without buying anything, much--as their mothers will allow.
The beautiful, civilized mall.
Gia, a fourteen-year-old mall rat, says, "When they make me run? At gym? Which I hate? I just pretend I'm running toward a clearance sale at Southwest Plaza."
I let her off at the movie entrance. The entrance.
The entrance is graced by a three-sided phone kiosk. Upon entering the mall, the first thing you must do is call someone or page someone. Even if you have arranged with five or six of your friends to absolutely be here at 11 a.m.--and you probably also went to the trouble of arranging what everyone was going to wear, outfits that restrict all normal adolescent movement--your odds of an easy rendezvous are dismal. People's mothers are not reliable. They may say they'll drop off Stacy and Tracy, with a swing into Littleton to pick up Tacy, but then something stupid will come up, like somebody's little brother's swimming lesson. Or work, or something. Anyway, you have to stake out the phone for at least a half hour.
Except that now some grandma wants to use the phone to call someone. You're expecting a call, you tell her. She looks annoyed. You point her to one of the other two phones. Crisis averted.
Frankly, it is a rotten time of year to be fourteen at the mall. With one day left until most Jeffco schools start, there is a frenzy of back-to-school shopping going on. The good part is you may get to buy stuff. The bad part is that means your mom might come along, with her stroller's worth of younger siblings and embarrassing packages. If your mother wasn't so totally paranoid, she would drop the kids off in that scary-looking video arcade on the upper level with the sickening smell of popcorn and the sticky coin-operated horses and the blaring pinball machines. Otherwise, the kids will whine the whole time to go to the Disney Store. Or your mother would let you do your shopping by yourself. But she won't. So now it is going to be so hard to obtain the things you have to have. You will have to make snap decisions about things like big jeans and tiny shirts and belts and knitted wool watch caps. Luckily, you have spent much of the summer practice-shopping with your friends.
Up and down the aisles the mothers and teenagers go. The boys trying desperately to sag their pants so low that their underwear is visible to everyone but their mothers--or their sisters, who will tell. The girls trying to stifle the sudden spurts of glee that keep you from looking sophisticatedly unconcerned.
I meet Gia at the entrance, hanging by the phone with her best friend and shopping buddy of five years, Nicole. Both are Mom-less, and dressed in alternate mall style B. The one that says: Oh, I just threw this on. They arrived wearing the same light green Dishwalla T-shirt, so Nicole went to the bathroom to put hers on inside out. Now they look casual without matching too much. Nicole is wearing baggy plaid flannel shorts, Birkenstocks, braces, ankle socks and mascara. Gia is wearing black cords two sizes too big, those Mary Janes with lug soles, that shirt and more luxuriant black mascara.
On their first pass through the mall--before I got inside--they sacrificed babysitting money to buy the eight-piece Chik-Fil-A chicken bag, plus iced teas. Nicole took thirty straws, which she plans to use at home. She also gets a vanilla Dairy Queen with a hard chocolate crust. Thus fortified, they are ready to count down the last five minutes of phone-kiosk waiting. As usual, no one returns their calls, so forget it. It is time to roll.
Once past the headlands of the pretzel place--a concession to the low-fat craze, and it's not working--Gia and Nicole are out in the open water of the mall proper. Foley's on their starboard. The Limited dead ahead. Three high-school boys in the see-through elevator! The two in baseball hats are cute. The other one has the wrong haircut and the shocking bad manners to display it capless. Not cute. But anyway, sidle over to the elevator as if you were planning to go there in the first place. As it goes up, jump, to catch some air. De-plane in front of Mr. Rags, the best store in the entire mall.
Imagine working here, your high-heel sneakers at home on the bare concrete floor, showing suburban dweebs through stacks of huge jeans, huge cords and Leave-It-to-Beaver-esque Dad shirts with zippers, huge, and hugely overpriced.
"Forty-eight dollars?" Gia says. "Nicole? But wait. Look." She displays a white T-shirt with a surfer and the word "Billabong" across its chest. "If the surfer were coming, kind of, more out at you. Like he was looking at you, instead of turned. Twenty-two dollars. Not bad for here."
Can anyone afford to shop at Mr. Rags?
"Only really rich trendy people," says Nicole.
But so what? There are plenty of activities available. That one guy Howie, who works here, who is--
"Not here," says Megan, who works here, too. "He was in earlier. He had to do community service. There was a party and his parents weren't home. And."
The tide pulls you toward the sale rack, which is festooned with shorts that are--
"Oh my gosh. So tiny."
"No, they're cute!"
"No, they would fit me so bad."
"No, but they're cute!
"No, you might as well be naked."
A school of much younger girls--twelve, maybe--drifts toward the sale rack. Gia and Nicole look up, sniffing, practically. What species is this? Who do they think they are? Although those big clown shoes that one girl is wearing are decent.
"Oh my God, where did you get those?" shrieks Brianna, the salesperson. "Yeah, I'm Brianna! I'm your salesperson! I'm gonna be a senior in high school and oh, fffffff, by far this is the coolest store in the mall, no question! Very alternative, free-spirited, relaxed, like hey, whassUP? We have the biggest jeans. And there's so many guys I get hit on constantly, but I have a boyfriend, but they're still, like, here's my number, call me."
Gia has taken this moment to let her hair down and put it back up again, inspecting the whole process with great concentration in the three-way mirror. Nicole joins her, and they leave Mr. Rags to continue with the instinctive itinerary that now dictates it is time to go to Contempo Casuals. Little knitted hats. Nicole tries one.
"You look okay," Gia observes. "Kind of like a homeless."
Onward to the sale rack, where they have actually tried on everything at least once already, but so?
"They totally treat us like customers and ask us if we need another size or whatever," Gia explains. "It's fun."
Back to the dressing room, with an armload of tiny jean shorts and halter tops.
"You're so skinny," Gia tells Nicole.
"No I'm not."
"You are. You totally are. Does this look good on me?"
"It looks okay."
It is so soothing in the dressing room today. No one else trying on anything. No salespeople cluttering up the place. Gia and Nicole have a lot of plans for the coming school year. Pretty soon they have forgotten all about trying on the tiny clothes and are leaning lazily, each in her own mirrored stall, chatting the afternoon away.
"Except when they figure out that all we're doing is talking, they ask us to leave," Gia admits. Why go through that? They leave.
On to the Denim Works. "This place is so new we're not really used to it," Nicole says.
"We kind of walk in, and walk out, because it's so new," Gia confirms.
They walk in. Stretch belts with seatbelt latches for buckles and bottlecaps all over them.
"Cool!" Gia says. "No. These ones are beer. Yuck. Wait. These ones are pop! Cool!"
They walk out.
They wanna see perfume. Heads up, Victoria's Secret saleswoman in the silk shirt and cleavage required by management. Here come teen girls who spray the tester bottles in the air and stand underneath the clouds of perfume waiting for the flowery scents to settle and will most likely never buy anything.
"Mmmmm, vanilla, yummmmm," Gia says.
An almost imperceptible eyebrow raise from Silk Shirt woman. Go, girls.
"Oh!" Nicole gasps, as she emerges from the vanilla cloud. "It's Sam walking by! Sam! Sam!" The boy walks by, oblivious. Oh. Actually, it's not Sam. Oh.
But hey! Brian, across the atrium, walking with a stroller mom, indentured for the afternoon. "Brian!" Gia yells.
"Hey," Brian says.
"That was Brian," Gia tells Nicole. Nicole knew that.
There are six headphone set-ups at Sam Goody. Gia and Nicole listen to them all while observing a boy with bleached blond hair that looks like patches of it have been chewed on by ferrets. They view the boy until he and his hair exit the store.
"That boy was okay," Gia decides. "Mostly it was his hair, not him."
The longest Gia and Nicole have ever spent in a mall together was seven or eight hours. It wasn't even hard. The time flew by.
"But a lot more was going on," Nicole says. "It's dead today."
When it isn't dead is that heady time in spring when school is almost but not quite out. "You just wanna get out, and so do all your friends, so everyone goes to the mall," Gia says.
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But today school is just a day away and the mall is dead. "Where do you wanna go?" Nicole asks.
"There's always the food court."
They start to walk. They do not end up at the food court, but instead at a pet store. The attractions: a whole lot of cute puppies. Really big snakes. Birds. Fish. Better, a bench right outside the store with no one on it, where, for as long as you want, you can sit, first with both your feet folded beneath you, then with one foot on the ground and one stretched way out, then you kind of kneel or laze backward. For the moment you are not practice-shopping and there are no guys to check out, but do you think that matters?
Are you kidding? Since you turned fourteen, everything that has happened has been so thick with possibility. Everything that has happened this afternoon, for that matter. It all needs to be analyzed.
Probably, you should start now. You could sit here forever.