I went to the mall to buy a T-shirt. I hadn’t been to the mall in a long time — it’s shocking how quickly you forget about them when you live in the city, how suburban they are.
I took a depressing bus to get there, and then there I was, inside the Neshaminy Mall in rural Pennsylvania. …There’s a sadness to malls, I guess. But then, there’s a sadness to all things if you think about them for too long. And anyway, what a whiny modern sentence to write: There’s a sadness to malls, I guess. Imagine if you were a medieval peasant, what a miracle a mall would seem. A mall would be like a New Jerusalem to you. It would be a crossroads, a magical bazaar — machines, clothing, furniture, food; items gathered from all the corners of the earth!
I was there to buy a T-shirt. I wanted to buy a gray T-shirt. Assuming that a gray T-shirt was still called a gray T-shirt. Clothing colors these days have fancy descriptive names — Vivid Cranberry or Deep Forest or Midnight Turquoise. I happen to have an anxiety disorder about my appearance; because of this, I don’t like to be noticed, and so I only buy clothes in muted colors. If my clothing colors had names, they would be things like I Just Want to Blend In Blue, or Nothing to See Here Gray. …Low Self-Esteem Oatmeal. Apologetic Brown.
I entered an Urban Outfitters, which marks the precise moment that I realized that I am old. Old, old; I am old. I was looking at the clothes in Urban Outfitters, and I was like, “You’re f–king with me.” A weird thing is going to happen with this story in about two paragraphs. Urban Outfitters was trying to sell me the same outfit that I wore in middle school in 1987, which was not a good outfit to begin with. …I was tempted to write an entire article about this, about how awful the Urban Outfitters clothing was, but doing that would make me an old person. Doing that would make me the Andy Rooney of Thought Catalog, and we can’t be having that. “But I used to be fashionable once,” I thought, as I sorted through the racks. It’s true. I used to be ahead of the curve. I used to say things like “Hey, you know what they should bring back? Duffel coats,” and then duffel coats would be on the racks six months later. Duffel coats, motocross jackets, vintage watches — I predicted all these trends. It gave me a sense of shiny confirmation, being ahead of the curve like that. But not anymore. Now, I’m just old. Too old for Urban Outfitters, at least.
What an American thing a mall is! It was a nexus of all possibilities, the mall was. I roamed and roamed. I bought a surprisingly delicious pretzel from an Auntie Anne’s. …The mall offered so many possibilities, and I rejected them all. I saw items of clothing that I liked that were still somehow insufficient. I rejected these items quickly, pushing them back onto the rack with a sneer. This gave me a feeling of strength. Who was I? Was I a Gap type of person or an American Eagle type of person? I would find out soon. Rejecting things helped define my sense of self. I was like an Arabian prince examining a row of potential brides, snubbing them one by one. Doing this gave me a stronger sense of myself. No, not that shirt; and not that one either. Who was I? The mall would tell me by what I bought.
The problem, I started to realize, was that I was poor. Gradually I realized this. Because I was poor, I was subconsciously searching for a shirt that would serve all of my different shirt needs — dress shirt, casual shirt, going-out-on-the-town shirt. But there was no such shirt. This is why the concept of different shirts was invented, after all.
I panicked and bought a shirt that I didn’t like, simply to end it all. Now I should mention the weird thing that I alluded to before. I’ve been in rehab for alcoholism for the past sixty days; I live in a house with a bunch of recovering alcoholics now. Going to the mall marked the first time that I had done something sober by myself; the first time that I had gone outside. If I were Ernest Hemingway or some minimalist writer like that, I would have never mentioned this at all. If I was Hemingway, I would have not mentioned the horrible thing going on in the background — the fact that I was doing something sober for the first time in twenty years. I would have deliberately excluded this fact, and just let it seep into the story; let the reader figure it out on his own. But I am not Hemingway.
Next, I went into the mall bookstore, a Barnes and Noble, in order to buy a latte from the mini-Starbucks in the store. As I was walking through the store, a female sales attendant came up to me, chipper in her black and brown uniform. “…Do you need any help?” she said. I used to work in a bookstore, and so I know that bookstore salespeople have to say this hundreds of times a day. “Do you need any help? Do you need any help? Do you need any help?” For the customer, it’s an annoyance; something to be shrugged off. But for the employee, it takes on a special meaning. You say it hundreds of times, and everyone ignores you. Do you need any help? No one does. It can’t help but seem like a personal offense after a while. “…Do you need any help?” Please someone accept my kind offer. No one does. It becomes existential. You have all these weird thoughts. “Do you need any help?” People get mad at you for saying this. What a world that we live in. Because of this, because of my years of working in a bookstore, I swore that I would never shrug at a salesperson, or ignore them in a rude way.
“Do you need any help?” she said. I shrugged at her. I ignored her in a rude way.
In order to avoid the salesperson, I swerved into the fiction section.
Then a bad thing happened; a pre-expected thing. I saw my ex-lover’s novel for sale in the fiction aisle. It was part of a large display; I couldn’t avoid it. Rows and rows of her novel placed in a slanted wooden rack; set up for sale as something special, something different. I had known it might be there. On the cover of the novel was a famous movie star, because my ex-lover’s novel is being made into a movie — that’s how successful the novel is. The star was not Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts, but it was someone of that caliber, someone whose name you would recognize.
I experienced all the expected thoughts of failure and jealousy. My cheap new shirt was still in my backpack; suddenly it seemed very cheap and very new. I thought about my ex-lover, who now had a movie coming out. She did not have to live in a house with a bunch of alcoholics; she had met famous actors and did not have to buy cheap shirts.
I don’t like the word “lover,” but my ex-lover was never my girlfriend, so that’s the only way that I can refer to her. I met her in grad school, before she was famous enough to have a movie coming out. We were just both struggling writers then. She was really rich; her father was a Senator or something. She had never had a real job. She owned one of those Louis Vuitton purses; the kind that everyone buys imitations of on the street. But she had a real one, which cost over a thousand dollars. We got drunk and I pointed out the stupidity of this; why own a $1,600 bag when everyone assumes that it is a fake? She was drunk enough then to flirt with me. “You like me,” she said in a sing-songy voice. “You think I’m pretty.” I pointed out that she was quoting the Sandra Bullock movie Miss Congeniality, which was in poor taste.
I drove her home and we had sex in my car while drunk, while driving, which was very nihilistic. Sex while driving does not feel very good. She straddled me as I gripped the steering wheel, peering over and trying to see the freeway. Other cars passed us on the freeway – station wagons, mini-vans; innocent people heading to upstate New York or heading to other innocent locations.
The next time I saw her, we had sex in her apartment and she cried. She had a fiancee and I had a girlfriend. We agreed to stop. The time I saw her after that, she got very drunk and hit on my friend. I drove her home. She wanted me to come in. I reminded her that we had agreed not to have sex, which angered her. She started hitting me on the shoulder. Then she scooped up pebbles from the driveway and started throwing them at me. “You f–ker!” she said. Why did she care? She had never really liked me.
After that, when we saw each other, we were totally fine, just friends. Whatever had happened meant nothing. There was no hidden tension or awkwardness, even. Then she left school and got married to her fiancee. Now she has a book that is being made into a movie. I stood there in the bookstore. Her name was on the novel above the face of the film star; somehow she had become something that I could buy anonymously. …Somehow, she had become a product, while I was still a consumer. How had this happened? Had I ever really liked her? Had I even loved her? Here I was in a mall with forty dollars in my wallet and a cheap shirt in my backpack.
“Do you need any help?” A different salesgirl had sidled up to me without my noticing.
“Sir, do you need any help?” I shrugged no at her, which was rude. I wanted to say something to her, but I couldn’t. I wanted to say something that would sum up everything — the mall, my feelings, how much I wanted a drink right then and there. But I couldn’t speak. “Sir, do you need any help?” I couldn’t answer. It was the moment of no comment. It was the moment of no comment. It was the moment of no comment.