“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she says in disgust. Against her better judgment, she turns to face the mirror and sees it, magnified from all three sides. Her torso, a busted can of biscuits, her midsection gone awry. The overpriced black pleather pant legs are stuck, curled over just below her waist, her thighs blocking any attempt at an exit. She curses lightly and laughs at the absurdity, then shakes her head at the inevitability. Sweat pools inside her navel and starts to slide down her back into her underwear. She hopes it’ll act as some kind of lubricant, but in fact, it just crazy-glues the fabric to her skin.
She props her body up against the makeshift wall of the fitting room stall, taking care not to impale herself through the forehead with the stainless-steel rod, absent any clothing except the cheetah print cashmere cardigan. It hangs there on its fancy padded wire, judging her, taunting. She rips it from its frame, throws it around her shoulders, and jabs her arms inside, buttoning it up haphazardly. Gaps in the fabric stretched too tight reveal little bits of her mottled skin underneath.
She sighs and plops down on the tiny bench. She lets herself have a little cry, feeling sorry for herself. She grabs her purse and rummages around in it for a tissue, but only finds a bunch of old receipts. She scratches one below her nose and tosses it into the trash bin. Closing her eyes, she braces for the forthcoming embarrassment.
“Um, hello? Is anyone out there?” she squeaks. “Ah, I think I might need some assistance in here.” She crosses her arms over her middle, squinting, and tries again. “Excuse me?” she says and then someone is lightly knocking on the door.
“Ma’am? Are you ok?” the voice says. “Well, I think so, but…I’m stuck,” she says. “May I come in?” “Ah, hold on, let me get the lock,” she says. She penguin walks over to the door and releases the bolt. “I’m stuck in my pants,” she says, looking down at said pants. She stands there, not knowing what to do with her hands, in the end choosing to loop two fingers awkwardly into the rolled down waistband, then settling on just letting her arms hang awkwardly at her sides. She looks up and gets knocked off kilter for a moment. Of course, the salesgirl looks young enough to be her daughter. Of course, she’s beautiful. And of course, she’s the size of a thimble.
She may be young, but she’s already a seasoned problem-solver. “Ok, you go back and sit down on the bench and hold your legs up,” she says, gentle, but firm. She does as she’s told. The associate grabs onto the cuffs dangling below each ankle and grips them tightly. She has nothing firm to hold on to, so as soon as the girl pulls, her sweaty palms slide swiftly from the wood, and the back of her head meets the front of the bench with a thud. “Oh my God! I am so sorry,” the salesgirl says and rushes over to put a hand under her head. Too late, she thinks. She moves the girl’s hand away in frustration, replaces it with her own, and feels a stickiness near the site of the pain.
The associate’s face melts into an awkward grimace and she holds up one finger. “Ok, just hold on real quick. Let me just run and get the first aid kit. Oh ma’am, I am so sorry!” She shakes her head once as if to reassure herself and disappears back into the belly of the store.
She leans over again to her purse, pulling a second receipt from its depths, folds it over three times (thank God it’s from CVS, so much real estate to work with) and uses it as a tourniquet.
The young lady returns with a white plastic case made official with a faded red cross painted on it. She flings it open and searches through bandages of all sizes, finally settling on a gigantic brown square. She holds it up and says “yep, this’ll do the trick.”
“You know what, I think it stopped bleeding, I think it’s fine now,” she says just as she realizes the damn pants have only moved an inch or so in the skirmish. The girl crawls over to her and tries again at the cuffs, more gently this time, with the focus of a surgeon. The woman shimmies herself away in time with the pulling and then, all at once, she sits unashamed on the cold floor in her beige granny panties, the salesgirl crouched in front of her holding the pants in a crumpled pile like an offering.
The awkward encounter ends with the girl handing over the offending legwear and the woman bowing to the girl in thanks.
She takes the receipt off her minor head wound and throws it away, resigns herself to just calling it a day and making her way back to her couch. Once she’s back in her sweats though, she feels a little better. Maybe she’ll go through the drive-thru on her way home, a little treat for all her trouble.
Now that her legs are free to swing as they were designed to, she powerwalks to the parking lot, her purse securely on her shoulder, some hot salty French fries on her mind. For a split second, she gets turned around, immediately frustrated at the idea of forgetting where she parked, but then she spots Section A, of course, the easiest letter, and heads that way.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” she says to no one in particular when she sees an enormous green utility truck parked directly behind her station wagon. A man in a matching green workshirt and pants emerges from behind it. “Joe” heads her way, holding his hands up in an apology. “Ah ma’am, I’m sorry. Is this your car?” She purses her lips and looks upward, signaling to him she is over it already without using any words. “So, you will not believe this, but the ole girl just ran outta gas, right here! Crazy, I know. But help is on the way. Another driver is bringing more fuel as we speak,” he says. She continues to stare at his mouth as it’s moving. “Again, I’m real sorry about this.”
“Nope,” she says to herself and turns around, heading back toward the mall entrance. I’m gonna need a cinnamon roll the size of my face, she thinks and heads directly toward the food court. She passes through Macy’s, enduring the cloud of pricey perfumes blasted up her nose, past the human dolls behind the makeup counters, all of them sizing her up, eyes silently delivering their judgment.
She starts to jog toward the escalators, head down, trying to avoid the row of sales carts clogging up the middle. But of course, she can’t make it past all of them. No one is ever that lucky. “Well hello ma’am!” an overzealous kid says to her, putting a little extra something into his syrupy sweet drawl. “How are you doing this wonderful day?” He smiles a vacant smile her way and something makes her stop. She gives him a look like well, I haven’t got all day, even though her loungewear says she’s got all the time in the world.
He continues. “So this is a mall-wide daily raffle, you can just fill out one of these cards and put it in this box right here and if we draw your card, you can win any one of these wonderful prizes,” he says and points to a laminated card with the list, but she doesn’t follow his finger. She’s too busy motioning to him to hand her a card. At this point today, she thinks, it might be nice to have a little win. She takes a pen and fills in her full name, address, and cell phone number and stuffs the card down into the slot. “Thank you, have a blessed day!” he calls after her but she’s already half way up to the second floor.
She is so close to that sticky, gooey promised land, she can almost taste it. She starts to forget the pulsing in her scalp, a small smile even makes its way to her lips. “Oh hell no,” she says as she spots her a few feet away. The PTA president, the Instagram mom, her nemesis. She fakes left, then rolls right like a wide receiver, straight into a Build-a-Bear. Her ears are immediately assaulted with a blend of holiday music and the screams of children, and she tries unsuccessfully to swat it all away with her hand.
She makes a beeline to the gigantic stuffed teddy bear at the back and crouches behind him. What are you looking at, she mouths to the toddler pointing at her with a crusty finger. Craning her neck, she looks out the store window, watching people walk by in droves, oblivious. She finally sees her walk by, a fluffy blond poof of a woman. She lets out a slow, shaky breath. When she breathes in again, she feels the rush in her body, the urge to move.
After waiting in a line that tests every last ounce of her patience, she comes away with a cinnamon roll as heavy as a bowling ball. She holds the plate with one hand and guards it with the other, strolling along, humming to herself. She bustles past the Forever 21 pumping out obscenely loud techno beats, weaves in and out of the children lined up to see Santa, and finally makes it to the heart of the beast. She joins the rest of the men and plops down into a massaging recliner, turns it all the way up to high, leans back and digs into the comfort of all that fluffy dough and extravagant icing.
Her rhythmic chewing and swallowing put her into a sated trance, her mind muting the volume of the crowd. For the first time in ages, she’s enjoying humanity on display. She’d forgotten the simple joy of people watching. She scratches her fork against the plate, taking care to get every last bit of crusted sugar, and smiles.
She almost loses her sense of place and time until the sound of noodles being stirred jars her awake. “Ugh, come on!” she says to the teenage couple in the chair next to hers. They untangle their tongues and limbs and sheepishly look away from her. She unfolds herself from the chair, her body still vibrating, and starts walking toward Sears.
Right in front of Godiva, a woman with a tray of fudge steps out into traffic. She slows her pace before almost colliding with her. The woman offers her a piece and she gladly accepts, rolling it around in her mouth, feeling the sugar dissolve on her teeth. Instant karma shows up in the placement of Victoria’s Secret right next door. Half-naked beauties, tall as trees, look down upon her with plastic smiles.
She pays them no mind and moves purposefully toward her final destination, a dreamy vision in white. “Welcome to the Sleep Number store, how can I help you today?” the salesman says. She licks a forgotten smudge of chocolate off her lip and says, “I am very interested in your pillow-tops, preferably king-sized.” “Right this way,” he says. She follows him all the way to the back and swan dives onto the mattress. “I’m good now,” she says. “Thank you.” He looks a little bit surprised at her certainty, but responds, “yes, yes, try it out. See how you like it. I’ll be back around in a minute.” She flops onto her side and gently burrows her head into the pillow. She falls immediately into a dark black abyss of sleep.
“Ma’am? Uh, excuse me, ma’am?” comes a voice from above. She jolts awake and realizes her phone is vibrating with an incoming text. She laughs awkwardly and apologizes, adjusting her sweatshirt and wrangling her hair back into place. She looks down at her phone. “I won! Ha! Would you look at that!” she says and shows the man her screen. “Thank you!” she says and waves as she exits.
She is completely unbothered now. Everyone seems to be on their best behavior. She feels the sunlight streaming down from above and soaking her face with unbridled joy. She’s never won a single thing in her life.
“I’m here to collect my prize!” she says to the young man at the kiosk. “Oh yeah, I remember you!” he says. “Looks like today’s your lucky day! Here ya go!” he says and holds out the handle of a paper shopping bag. She takes it gingerly over to an iron bench nearby. She removes the clumps of tissue paper and peers down inside.
She lifts the contents out as the boy shouts, “Oh, I love those! They are perfect for a holiday party! Enjoy!” She holds the waistband up high and watches as the black legs unfurl. The synthetic smell seeps into her nose and she snorts.
“You have got to be kidding me.”