The red bullseye gleamed before me. The parking lot extended in all directions, shiny chrome and glass everywhere, unnecessary consumption at its best. Carts, looking barely used, were being herded into an orderly formation. Life was good. Life was clean, and shiny, and plastic. And good.
Something about suburban shopping malls makes me feel wonderful. Living in San Francisco, where every inch of the city seems specially zoned for grass-roots, dolphin-saving, organic food collectives, I miss Target. I miss TJ Maxx and CVS and Home Depot. Something about those big box stores feels like home to me. The safety bubble of driving your own car to its own parking spot not far from things that you will buy, and buying those things makes them your own things. The individualism of it is comforting to me. It makes me feel like if I run out of shit I need, I can just buy more shit. And that shit will be mine. And that will make me be okay. Which means that I am probably the product of years of marketing and advertising and television commercials. I am the target market. For everything.
I’m visiting my parents in suburban Philadelphia, fresh off a 10-day writers’ retreat. That writers’s retreat told me that everything I ever need is in my head. I was surrounded by people who had made way more sacrifices for their art than I ever had. I have the luxury of a stable job that allows me time for writing and a supportive, and gainfully employed, husband. I’m not raising any kids on food stamps because I love to write and teach. I just have myself and my selfishness and my loving husband and my writing. No problems here. But being surrounded by all of those people more artistically holy than I made me want to acquire things. I lured my mother into taking me to the nearest suburban Target and as we pulled into the parking lot, I felt a wash of happiness glide over me. There were things inside that big concrete box that would make me happy, even if just for a day or an hour or a week.
My parents have always bought me things as a way of providing for me. What they couldn’t provide in emotional support, they provided in material support. And it’s not that they didn’t try in the emotional support department. Sometimes I just responded better to material support. When going through a bad breakup or a horrible semester in college or not getting the job I wanted, they couldn’t always fix any of that. They could hug and kiss and listen, and they always did. I’m not saying I grew up like Richie Rich or anything. But sometimes a hug and a kiss and a “You’re the most beautiful girl in the world,” from your dad doesn’t make you feel any better when your boyfriend says “I just think you love me more than I love you.” But a new pair of $400 snakeskin heels? That will tide you over for a couple of days. That will make you feel like you could shove one of those expensive heels up said ex-boyfriend’s ass or go out and get yourself a new goddamn boyfriend, someone who loved you more.
“I want some skinny jeans,” says my near 70-year old mother.
“What? Why?” I’m pushing the perfect red, plastic cart through the juniors department. “Ooh, that’s cute.” I pick up a sundress that San Francisco weather will let me wear once a year. But it’s only 20 dollars, and I could wear it to dinner tonight in the humid Philadelphia August. Sold.
“You should see, when I go to book club, all of my lady friends are wearing skinny jeans.” She looks pleadingly at me.
“Yeah, and your book club reads The Hunger Games. But that plus skinny jeans doesn’t make you teenagers. Besides, I think I’m too old to wear skinny jeans, and I’m only thirty.”
My mom ignores me and starts flicking through the rack of dark blue, pencil-leg jeans. “These are cute. But I don’t like the orange stitching.”
I give in. “Well what about these?” I hold out a more generously cut pair. My mom is not fat, but she’s round. And she’s seventy. “I just want you to know that when you put these on, they are going to feel tighter than any pants you have ever had on your body. That’s just the way they fit.”
“Yeah, well I’m not trying them on.” My mom is, and always has been, practically allergic to dressing rooms, a condition that she has passed down to me. I would rather spend $500 and try everything on at home, then bring $400 worth of merchandise back, than spend a nanosecond in a claustrophobic, florescent-lighted dressing room.
“Alright. Well, I kind of like these two.” The pair of jeans are grey, slim-legged, and sport a nifty elastic waistband. I’m not sure what possesses me to think that this particular pant would be a good fit for either of us, but I grab one in each of our sizes and throw it in the cart. As long as no one every knew that I was sporting a pant with an elastic waistband, it might be okay. And I don’t think we’ve ever owned mother-daughter pants, so that’s kind of fun.
When we check out, she insists on paying for everything. Even though I earn a perfectly good living and I’m over thirty and we’re not buying anything expensive. It makes her happy.
“Oh, stop,” she says, when I try to pay, “I have more money than you do.” That is true. I can’t argue.
At home, we try on our jeans. Mine look fine. As long as I wear a long-enough shirt to cover the ridiculous elastic waistband, they’re actually really cute. But I watch my mother try to shimmy into the tightest pants that she has probably ever worn, and I can’t help but erupt into laughter. She pulls them up as far as she can, her had-two-kids and almost-seventy belly peeking out from the elastic waistband.
“I’m such a tub of lard!” she cries, and then starts laughing uncontrollably herself.
“Donald, come here and tell me how you like my new jeans!” She calls to my father, descending into a coughing fit, doubled over.
I hope when I’m seventy I can finally laugh at my body’s imperfections like that, not take myself too seriously. That I can afford to spend $24.99 just to make myself laugh at myself.