Coming of Age

This story contains themes or mentions of substance abuse.

      Let me tell you what it means to be fashionable. Everybody who is anybody is doing something fun and exciting at this precise second, and whatever you are doing is not nearly as hip, provocative or sexy. They're out there living the high life, getting greased, lighting up, making with each other. People who know what to say at exactly the right moment, not any pearls of wisdom, just whatever flips the previous statement on its ear to keep the enjoyment moving. It might be a joke about those who stand still, or an admission that their mother did beat them. They even know what to say to outcasts like you and me, taking interest as if you were a stray dog, inviting you to join in their activities (although you're not really doing it), complimenting you in front of their friends, who say "oh neat" and then dead silence follows. Don't begrudge them, they're only trying to share the one thing everybody wants.

           They know what to wear before anyone else does and take it off again before someone can see it twice. Being hip means showing up at a red carpet scene the world is watching, which an hour before was just lifeless real estate and an hour later is being mopped by nameless people talking about reruns. There isn't any one thing that is said or done at these occasions, because anything can go out of style. Sojourns up to the bedroom may be good for one generation and cliche the next.

           They're happy. I don't mean they're "complete" or well-adjusted, I mean they've got the bird right in their hand. People can be contented with anything, it's a way of dealing with dull situations that don't change, but there is a high that comes the instant you've had a taste of something you will never truly possess. That's what it means to be cool, in the groove, on the spot, a word we won't know until tomorrow, a word that comes after that. But if you try to be like them it will be too late. If you repeat what they say it will be at an awkward place and time, like a child saying something they heard on TV, and people won't understand. And if you try to dress like they do it will seem tasteless, or too over-the-top, or too something. It's not that you're shorter or fatter or dumber than they are, it's just that you don't get it. You're watching old movies memorizing only what people used to do.

           So how do you get to this place? You have to find the Blitz. The Blitz is a portal between our world and the fashion world. In my mind it’s a supercomputer that decides what is trendy and what is passe from nanosecond to nanosecond, directing this pursuit of attraction while at the same time always leaving something more to be desired, as people are sidetracked by another attraction. It is shaped like a nubile woman with her legs apart, one hand pointing to the sky and the other to the ground like an erotic timepiece. She beckons millions, but I am not among them.

           In reality this gateway is the back entrance to a fashion mall, a small waiting area on the corner of Vine and Wanamacher which has no sign or address identifying it. There is an expanse of octagonal brick paving between the curb and the door which is neither ordinary sidewalk nor a tile mosaic; a couple of round concrete cafe tables sit abandoned on it, one of them on its side. Inside there isn't even a restaurant, just three square tables and a booth in the narrow space between the restrooms and the outer glass. 

           As one passes through the entrance to the mall itself is on the right. I am not the owner of the mall, just this one egress, which is guarded by a huge silver bust of my head, wearing a top hat and sunglasses. My likeness observes all who enter.

           Despite this homage however, I am a nobody. A clothed shadow who sits in my vestibule and has never entered. Instead I wait for people to come back out again. Sometimes they stop and sit down at the table next to me, where I wait for them to be distracted so I can examine their recent purchases while their backs are turned, looking for the latest. This is the reason the Blitz exists. Sometimes I get my hands on something useful, like a little snort of heaven.

           After dark is when the crowds come, and this is when a young fashion junkie named Liz appeared out of the night, passed through the Blitz and entered the mall. Like a silk nightingale she wore a black miniskirt and fishnet hose, and a pile of makeup. A lot of people come and go from their vehicles this way, but she came on foot. She sauntered past the silver bust, oblivious to whether anyone in the recesses of the waiting area had noticed her or not.

           The Blitz accesses the mall through the back of a nostalgic clothing store called Retroland. Liz passed people entranced by outerwear, underwear, possibly dinnerwear, and accessories of every description hanging like fruit. Her black heels had a spring in their step from the happiness I have described, not fulfillment. No, not fulfillment. Anticipation.

           Like someone who had already sampled everything on the racks, she went straight to the counter as she had done many times before to ask if they had the latest. She summoned an employee with the beaming smile uninterested women offer in exchange for the thing they want. He said everything they had was on the shelves.

           "You're new aren't you?" she batted her eyes. "I don't want what's out there, I want what you've got for me. Could you look again?"

           At the same time this conversation was taking place, our protagonist Steven first noticed her. He was an innocent young man, one of many who enter the mall in innocence, thinking it is for them, but not going to any one particular store unless they are shopping for someone else, nor do they loiter with friends. It is just a place to be. But right now he was looking at her.

           She actually seemed a little too dressed up for these surroundings, like she had just come from a club which is what caught his eye. Clothes bought at the mall aren't necessarily shopping attire, but for places where there are no Steves or Joes. She was talking to an employee who was shaking his head, apparently not getting the picture. She turned away from the counter with a dazed look as if she were lost, and not looking where she was going, she and Steve collided with each other.

           He mumbled an apology as she looked him up and down, something girls didn't often do.

           "Oh you helpful darling!" she exclaimed with a smile. "Can you tell me where to get the stuff?"

           "The stuff?" Steve repeated, wondering if she was flirting with him.

           "You're supposed to go up to the counter," she asked in a monstrous whisper, "and ask for the latest.". "But that guy doesn't know his own stupid business."

           "Why are you looking for the latest in a retro store?" Steve asked curiously.

            "No no no..." she rolled her eyes. "The stuff. You know, the uh… the snort.”

           "Oh that stuff." he replied stupidly.

           “Silly boy.” she tousled his hair and strode into the mall itself with Steve on her heels.

           He had never met a girl like her before. It seemed like she thought the place was a skating rink (which wouldn’t be a bad use for it), gliding over to a shelf lined with silver top hats covered in glitter. She put one on her head and began performing a number from A Chorus Line...

           “One!” she kicked her fishnet leg in the air. “Singular sensation…!”

           As she sashayed to the right she slipped and fell backward into the coin fountain. Steve rushed to assist her. There was a stunned look on her heavily-massacred face, the look of a woman whose private business has just been liquidated. Steve helped her to her feet again, her skirt and fishnets were soaked so he took off his jacket and put it around her.

           “Gentleman.” she muttered as if pointing out a rabbit.

           They sat down on a bench together where Steve asked her if she was already inebriated.

           “Whatever it is, that’s what I want to be.” Liz gave a strange reply, wiping her face.

           Steve looked at her for a few moments and then suddenly said something intelligent.

           “And wherever it is that’s where you want to be too.” he surmised. She nodded in agreement.

           “Well then.” he waited for his mouth to catch up with his brain. “Why don’t you try to find ‘it’ instead of the stuff?”

           She smirked at him like a grandmother smiles at her cat, then got up again leaving a damp mark on the bench.

           As Steve accompanied her the next thing he noticed was that his jacket although uncool and drab when he took it off was now a fashion accessory. Combined with the top hat she looked like she had just stepped out of Times Square. Liz was mesmerized by something across the way, a store that sold copies of designer merchandise worn by the stars, and in the window a beautiful white gown worn by a mannequin.

           Liz approached the glass like a moth to a fluorescent bulb, lifting her hands and pressing her face against it, blinded by its appeal.

           “Why don’t you go inside?” Steve suggested.

           “No, no that girl doesn’t exist.” she shook her head. “I mean you can see for yourself she’s not real.”

           Liz turned and walked on. He followed her to the mall’s carousel which is a metaphor for many things, but it was the sight of the teddy bear mascot entertaining some kids that lifted her spirits. Liz reached out and gave him a hug. She had her picture taken with him, but after she received the snapshot the photographer asked her to pay for it.

           “Say what?” Liz objected hysterically. “You want me to pay for a goddamn photo you just took of me yourself with this goddamn bear?”

           Steve stepped in between them and tried to settle things, taking out his own camera and offered to take her picture instead, but the photographer said this was not allowed, explaining that something ceases to be a novelty if the press doesn't have exclusive rights to it. Steve led a depressed Liz away from him.

           Liz was beginning to realize her skirt was soaked, revealing the effects of whatever-it-was were wearing off. She discovered she was wearing a top hat as well as his jacket, and discarded them in a trash bin with revulsion.

           “Why are you hanging around me?” she demanded suddenly.

           They had come to a brass band performing which she found ear-splitting so she went over to a bench and put her head between her knees as if she had to puke. Steve sat down patiently beside her.

           “How the hell did I get here and what do you want from me?” she demanded.

           Steve saw an opportunity to find out who she really was and tried to explain what happened, but she wanted nothing to do with him and immediately got up and walked away.

           To get her to stop he declared across the space "I have cocaine!”.

           The band stopped playing and several people turned and looked at him. Liz wheeled around with a look of disdain that said that’s how she got into this mess in the first place.

           “Listen to me you little perv.” she came over and grabbed him by the collar. “You do not use that word. It’s an oxymoron, just like you. If you have to say it then you don’t know what it is!”

           She realized she was making a scene and let go of him.

           “I know what it is.” Steve looked down at his feet.

           “There’s no way in hell a kid like you would have any.” she sighed in exasperation. “I mean you don’t, do you?”

           She left him behind as she had intended.

Steve bummed around for a while, keeping his distance but he saw her again at a cosmetics display trying some beauty products so he went no further. He watched her putting on lipstick. She had made her point but it seemed like she was looking at him in the mirror.

           When she had remade her face Liz turned and came back to him and said “Okay what do you want in return?”.

           “Well I’d like to know something about you.” Steve answered.

           “Well then let’s find someplace private where I can show you all you need to know.” she smirked, thinking she might get something for nothing.

           “I already know you’re a shoplifter and that you made a scene in front of some little kids.” Steve stupidly one-upped her, ruining the first adult moment he was ever likely to have. Liz’s jaw dropped and she left him in the dust.

           Steve blithely wandered through the mall like a child who doesn’t know what he just did, until he happened to see her again waiting for him. Clearly Liz’s embarrassment and dislike of her addiction (and her dislike of him) were unable to stop it. He followed her to the restrooms where she stood between the two doors like some kind of gatekeeper and asked him to choose between them. Then she drew an “out of order” sign with her lipstick and posted it on the door of the ladies' room, and they went inside.

           Liz sat on the edge of the changing table and started to undress. Then she beckoned him to join her, stripping off his shirt so they could have a “quickie”, her hands moving immediately to the usual places. While they were doing it Liz asked him how soon he could get her the stuff.

           “Is that what you really want?” Steve asked curiously.

           She stopped and looked at him.

           “I can’t believe you just asked me that.” she responded, putting her strap back over her shoulder. “Does it look like I want it? Look at what I’m doing right now, Sleeve. Some pusher handed it out to you kids at school and this is what reduces me? I hate it! Look at what it’s done to me!”

           “Well what’s the one thing in this mall you’d rather have than drugs?” he said carefully. “Name it and I’ll buy it for you instead.”

           She blinked, staring at him. Then she actually considered it.

           “I’m tired of wearing these wet clothes and dressing like a hooch.” she sighed. “I want to change into something normal.”

           She felt a little bit more classy as they left together and found a less-than-trendy discount store where she tried on some sweaters and blue jeans. He wasn’t quite as much an idiot as he seemed, she thought as she stepped out of the changing room. They left together through the Blitz at the back of the mall the way she came in, through the little waiting area to the outside curb with the giant silver bust. When they parted ways Steve looked back at her and Liz suddenly struck a pose, her feet apart with one hand pointing to the night sky and the other hand pointing to the ground like the hands of a clock. When Steve turned to go back inside he was stopped by my words written in graffiti on the glass door...

I see her when she moves,

turning her back on the city,

passing herself from Joe to Joe,

wondering what is pretty.

The blitz is not served if she stays home,

you know full well what I mean.

I see her now and she doesn’t know

for I cannot be seen!

September 09, 2023 19:36

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Audrey Knox
23:06 Sep 20, 2023

Wow, there is a lot going on here, and I really like the turns of phrase that you use. The part where you describe "But if you try to be like them it will be too late. If you repeat what they say it will be at an awkward place and time, like a child saying something they heard on TV, and people won't understand. And if you try to dress like they do it will seem tasteless, or too over-the-top, or too something." - That felt very real. There is a story here. The Cool Girl goes to her usual spot to get drugs and ends up needing the help of a l...


Len Rely
05:32 Sep 21, 2023

I'm honored and gratified by your readership. I suppose since people who are on drugs break rules and do stupid things, a writer can do the same. Someone who is miserable and foolish can seem sophisticated and trendy to a person of lower social standing. Thanks again.


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