by Kelsey Savage Hays
Christine started the shoplifting. Until Saturday night they’d stuck with make-up: fancy lip gloss in flavors like blueberry cheesecake and mint chocolate chip embedded with fine pieces of glitter that left their lips sparkling like a disco ball. They swiped sample blushes from the Clinique counter, tossed perfume test bottles into their purses, snatched grape purple eye shadow from the bins at Claire’s. Christine can pinch a tube of mascara in between her middle finger and thumb and walk out of a store without even slipping it into her pocket.
Christine stashes her spoils in the downstairs bathroom across the sink from her mother’s drawer. They used to get ready in the mornings together to the sound of her father preparing coffee in the kitchen: Molly in scrubs, Christine preparing for school. Christine watched mesmerized while her mother put on her face—foundation first, then a light blush over her cheekbones, brown liquid eyeliner shaping her hazel eyes, and finally two layers of mascara. Molly’s features became more distinct with each layer. When they emerged from the bathroom, Christine’s father would nearly always whistle, just to tease his two girls.
But over the summer, her mother stopped wearing make-up, stopped blow-drying her hair, and stopped showering more than every other day. Her hair stayed tied in a severe ponytail. To Christine’s eye, her mother has aged ten years in the past four months. She hates that her mother makes no effort to hide her grief from the outside world. Now she just brushes her teeth and leaves Christine to beautify alone.
One day last week her mother finally noticed the ever-increasing jumble of little tubes and pots and compacts and brushes in a range of sizes, some of which Christine hasn’t even got around to using. She asked, “Where are you getting all that stuff anyway?”
Christine shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said, as if some cosmetic fairy flew in overnight, waved her wand around and filled Christine’s life with color and concealer.
On Saturday afternoon, Christine clears the table from their heavy, mid-day meal — a Saturday tradition that Christine has kept demanding even though her mother barely eats. Christine nudges her mother away from the sink and takes over, rinsing each plate before putting them already spotless into the dishwasher.
This mania with cleaning the already clean makes Molly stand with her back against the stove, arms crossed, shaking her head. “Don’t you think that’s a little obsessive compulsive?”
Christine doesn’t answer. Her mother would have stuck the plates with clinging food directly into the machine and hit the heavy-duty cycle. That type of disregard to the limits of plate-cleaning technology used to drive both Christine and her father crazy. Housekeeping was never her mother’s strength and now Christine has to stay on top of it. Everything must remain exactly as it used to be. Christine grabs the dishrag draped across the faucet, and wipes down the two placemats on the table. Finally, once the kitchen is spic and span, she jumps to sit on the counter, swinging her socked feet so that they make a thud against the cabinetry her father put in a few summers ago.
“What are you doing tonight, sweetheart?” Molly asks.
It is Saturday; naturally, Christine will be going to the mall. “You know, the usual,” Christine says casually.
“So, the mall with Sarah?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“I must be giving you too much allowance for you to be doing all that shopping.”
“Yeah, Mom, that’s it.”
Christine knows sarcasm can get her into trouble but sometimes she can’t help it. Her mother doesn’t get the mall’s appeal. Christine struggles to explain even to herself the draw of the fluorescent lights, the call of fresh merchandise, and the lure of the food court. Inside the air-controlled environment, she doesn’t worry about her Georgia state tennis ranking, or studying for her next calculus test. Most of all, she doesn’t worry about having another conversation with her mother about her father.
Her mother sneaks those in when Christine least expects it, bringing up old memories about his cereal of choice over breakfast, or slipping in, “Your father would be so proud of you,” when Christine announces an A on an exam. Christine can’t stand how her mother’s mouth pulls down at the corners and the way she sniffles whenever she starts talking about Dad, and then acts betrayed when Christine tries to change the subject to something that isn’t painful. Painful as having bamboo stalks wedged under her finger nails with a few swift taps of a hammer.
“Why don’t you hang out with one of the girls from your team instead?” Her mother tries to sound nonchalant but Christine hears the disapproval that swims underneath.
“I want just once to be able to go out with Sarah without you hating on her.”
“I’m not saying anything against Sarah,” says her mother. “But sometimes you need a mother to see what you don’t. You have a naturally good character; I can’t say the same about Sarah.” Her mother tilts her head and smiles, broadcasting love and affection. But Christine’s anger is like a geyser, hiding in little pockets that erupt at the smallest irritation.
“Are you forbidding me from going out with her?”
Christine almost wants to hear her put her foot down and really go for it for once, instead of backing off. Her mother’s gotten too wish-washy. It inspires ferocity in Christine. Tennis has honed Christine’s ability to slam a full throttle forehand at an opponent’s weak side. She has to hold herself back from seeing her mother as an adversary. Yet she loves her, loves her more than anyone and anything else in the world. When Sarah once called Molly mopey, Christine wouldn’t talk to her for the rest of the school day. Christine can complain about her mother but no one else is allowed to.
“No, of course not. I’m just looking out for you, sweetie.” Molly reaches past Christine to fish her wedding ring out of the green ceramic soap dish next to the sink, slipping it back on her finger.
The little wiggle her mother does to push the band of gold over her knuckle causes a sharp, corresponding tug under Christine’s ribs. It sharpens the voice she uses to ask, “When are you going to stop wearing that? Doesn’t it just make things worse?” Finally, she gets something other than a loving reaction.
Her mother’s lips tighten, pinching together as if she just took a swig of soured milk. She snaps the towel off the oven handle and dries her fingers. She brushes past Christine to pick up the ketchup and mustard from the table, returning them to the fridge and slamming the door closed. Finally, she responds, “That’s a lovely thing to say Christine. Would you like me to just forget altogether? Would you like me to just go on the way you do, pretending nothing happened?”
“Jesus, Mom. It’s just a question.”
“When are you going to stop acting so angry?”
If her mother’s voice remained stern and full, Christine might be willing to stay and apologize, but she can already hear the waver in it, the sound of tears thickening in her mother’s throat. Instead she grabs her purse and heads towards the door.
“I’m going to go. I was supposed to pick up Sarah fifteen minutes ago.”
She’s tired of feeling sorry for herself and her mother. She’s tired of being the strong one who carries on with life. Tears no longer inspire the instinct to comfort.
Christine knew little of Sarah when she sat down in front of her in their shared World History class, only some rumor about two boys coming to blows over her in the parking lot last year. Both girls were shopping for new friends, Sarah because her best friend had moved away over the summer; Christine because she needed distance from her trusty group, who had started to resemble stock characters from old 80s movies. Christine had never had a friend so exciting, so demanding. It had become an encompassing friendship, one that takes up all of Christine’s spare time and prevents her from lazing around at home.
Sarah cleared up when she knew about Christine at their first shared lunch—“You’re the girl whose father…”
“Yep,” Christine answered. Sarah never brought it up again, and that made Christine so grateful that when Sarah turned around during the first pop quiz of the semester and asked for the answer to number four, Christine mouthed “B.”
“You two seem to be very intense,” is how Christine’s mother describes the friendship.
Christine’s gunmetal gray Buick, a hand-me-down from her grandfather, doesn’t have a cd player so Sarah, as copilot, has charge of the radio. To change stations she has to spin the knob around and around, making a distracting clicking noise. The game: Sarah must find a song before Christine’s tolerance runs out or be satisfied with silence. Sarah used to drive them around in her mother’s minivan, which had a coveted cd player, but she got her license taken away a month ago for going thirty miles above the speed limit on her way to study for her history test with Christine. 75 in a 45. The history test hadn’t made her rush; she was on a high, having just lost her virginity to Jeff. “I don’t care about the license. I couldn’t care less. You know how everyone complains about the first time? Not me. That was fucking amazing. You have to try it.” Christine feels a prick of jealousy splitting Sarah with all those boys, but at least none of them, even the delectable Jeff, have lasted longer than a week.
Sarah settles on hot 95.5, which cranks out Usher, and she bounces along to the melody. They ride side-by-side on the Buick’s red plush bench. When Sarah bounces, Christine bounces in the aftershock.
Christine presses the gas and wills the LeSabre up the long hill that marks the point when the flowing traffic becomes mall traffic and everybody slows to a crawl, trying to shift into the right lane to get to the store or restaurant they aim for. From the crest of the hill she sees the swarm of red brake lights, angry as wasps, fighting their way into the hive of consumerism.
She asks, “Who are we meeting today?” Christine’s mom thinks Sarah “puts out the wrong vibe.” But this unnameable something that makes Sarah so desirable fascinates Christine. Is it a scent? A pheromone? Do boys have some sort of radar for easy girls? It’s not as if Sarah dresses in outfits traditionally defined as slutty. Tonight she wears jeans and a gray Guess t-shirt, her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. If you’re comparing clothing, Christine’s outfit is probably more risqué—whenever she raises her arms her turquoise tank top reveals her belly button, and her Spandex laced jeans cling to her hips. But the boys gravitate to Sarah.
“That’s impossible for you.”
Sarah bites her lip, “It’s been an off week for me. Maybe I’ll meet someone there.”
Christine parks so that she can pull forward when they leave—she hasn’t mastered steering her great gray boat in reverse. Except the week before Christmas, she never struggles to find an open spot as this particular mall draws mainly teenagers, and not many of them. The decidedly downscale stores—Bealls, JCPenney, Hot Topic—fit restricted allowances perfectly. Unlike the mall on the other side of town, North Center has no carousels or seasonal skating rink. Santa Claus’s beard is a stick-on and the two floors contain only a single Starbuck’s. This is not her mother’s mall—where a palm tree-circled fountain greets shoppers in the foyer.
As Christine cuts the engine, Sarah rummages through her purse and pulls out a black eye crayon. “Here, let me fix your eyes,” she says, turning Christine’s face to her and angling it under the car’s interior light. When Christine looks into the rearview mirror her blue eyes have a thick band of kohl all the way around them. Refreshing her own, Sarah adds a layer of mascara to her already thickly coated lashes. The effect reminds Christine of pencil shavings.
“You look cute,” Sarah says.
Christine bites her lip to keep from smiling. Sarah’s compliments don’t come often.
“If we do meet boys, don’t be so sullen.”
This advice Christine listens to gravely. She doesn’t have Sarah’s natural ability to flirt, her easy way of drawing out even the most reticent hottie. Christine’s belief is that they discern her inability to keep things light and frothy, but what they more probably sense is her reluctance to invest in an emotion that will inevitably, eventually leave one heartbroken.
Christine nods at a few girls standing outside the mall. Their lips are outlined garishly with a dark lip liner that leaves kisses on the ends of their cigarettes, puffed between shouts of encouragement to the greasy skate boarders practicing their craft on the mall’s ramp. At once her guilt at fighting with her mother lightens—despite the occasional nasty words, Christine still qualifies as a good girl as compared to these nasty skanks. Your mother is lucky, Sarah is always telling her.
They circle the upper level in counter-clock wise fashion passing Gap, Abercrombie, Hollister, Hot Topic, and Claire’s, the entrances gaping with mannequins like two incisors on each side. At the food court, they enter the line at Chik-Fil-A for a side of waffle fries and a large peach milkshake. Christine grabs napkins and moves off to find a free table while Sarah waits for their order. She focuses on wiping down the table, sweeping away the little grains of salt and sugar that accrue in the ridges of the plastic.
Christine is startled to see Deanna, a girl from her tennis team. They all have known each other since fifth grade. They all had crushes on the same tennis instructors, knew the lines to Dirty Dancing by heart, studied hard for straight A’s, and dreamt of tennis scholarships. Christine knows they love her, but also that they don’t know how to talk to her or help her or be anything but stupefyingly nice to her. Over the summer, she’d stopped going to get pizza after Friday night practices. She could tell they worried, but also that they found her presence a burden—a reminder of sadness and grief.
Deanna has on a baggy sweatshirt broadcasting Wooded Hills, the name of their club team, and her hair is flipped up into a claw clip. She has no make-up on, not even a dot of lip balm. Did she just roll out of bed and decide to go shopping? Christine realizes it’s exactly how she would have approached the mall B.S.
“What are you doing here, Deanna?” Christine asks, regretting immediately how obviously territorial she sounds. Instinctively, she tracks Sarah, watching her leaning on the condiment counter, still waiting on their food.
“I had to pick up a gift for Sandy’s birthday. Are you coming to her party tonight?”
Christine notices a stray smear of ketchup she missed on the plastic table. “I don’t think so,” she mumbles. For a second she feels badly for letting Deanna and Sandy and all the other girls down, but when she looks up at Deanna’s face the regret is wiped away by the expression of pity there.
“It’s ok, Christine, we understand.” Deanna half-smiles and puts her hand on Christine’s shoulder. “Just remember, we’re always there for you.” Deanna’s sympathetic voice grates on Christine’s soul. Those girls with their happy, easy lives should be receiving Christine’s pity, not the other way around. At least Christine knows that death is out there, encroaching on everyone, sneaking up at the least likely times.
“See you at practice then,” Christine tells her.
Sarah has a boy in tow. How did she meet him in the five seconds that Christine spoke to Deana? Christine recognizes him as the luscious kiosk cookie guy that Sarah has crushed on for the last few weeks. Already, Sarah has gone into boy mode—shoulders pushed back to punch out her boobs, head tilted to the side to look interested, fingers flipping her hair every ten seconds. Christine’s heart drops—Sarah is fun, always ready to go do something, she calls Christine every night, she saves Christine a seat at all school assemblies. But around a cute new boy Sarah has a one-track mind. The dynamic of the entire afternoon has changed.
“Christine, this is Jerome.” She gestures with her milkshake at the kiosk guy.
“Nice to meet you,” says Christine.
“Cool,” says kiosk guy.
Christine settles for hogging the waffle fries and listening to Sarah giggle and kiosk guy try to make conversation while staring openly at Sarah’s breasts. Sandy’s birthday party suddenly seems appealing.
Christine announces, “I’m going to go to the bathroom,” and excuses herself from the table.
“Wait, I’ll come too.”
Christine ignores Sarah’s chatter, finds an empty stall and takes her time, tearing off toilet paper sheet by sheet to make a barrier to the toilet seat before sitting down. When Christine finally comes out, Sarah’s waiting for her.
“Isn’t he adorable? And he drives a Mustang.”
“Yes, he’s a real treat, Sarah. Maybe he can drive you home? I forgot I had plans for tonight.”
“What are you talking about? Are you pissed at me? Don’t be mad. You know how long I’ve wanted him.”
“I just have other plans is all.”
“If I ditch him, what do we do instead?” Sarah pushes out her lower lip, pouting.
Christine ponders this. She must come up with something worthy, something more exciting than kiosk guy. There remains only one type of activity that would tempt Sarah into choosing her company over a boy’s, one thing that would keep Christine from having to be alone.
“When we walked by Sephora earlier I noticed they had a new display of mascaras. We could always use some new mascara.”
“Bo-ring.” Sarah chants. “I’m so over petty thievery.”
Christine nudges Sarah to the side and taps the faucet with her elbow, soaping her fingers and rubbing her hands together, back and forth, before rinsing. A thought occurs to her, a rumor of easy products just waiting to be plucked.
“You know what we’ve never tried?” She grabs a paper towel, dries, and then aims it for the trash. She makes the shot. “Let’s go bra-shopping.”
Christine leads Sarah through Macy’s, past the Formal section where prom dresses flaunt their sequins, past Casual Wear’s matching cardigan sets, and into Intimates. Christine stops to touch a satin nightgown, long and grey, rubbing the cool material that slips through her fingers like the ears of a puppy.
“That’s for my grandmother, not you.” Sarah pulls her over to the racks of bras, their pert cups posing.
“Grab a bunch,” Christine directs.
Christine pulls a dozen off their hangers, all without sensors, and carries them over her arm to the dressing room to keep her sweaty palms from staining the fabrics. The store is nearly empty, most of the cash registers shut down and the fitting rooms unattended, for the moment. They walk down to the handicapped space at the end of the row and shut the door. The door’s slats have enough dust to turn the door gray from white. Undesirable leftovers from the previous occupants hang lopsided from hooks on the wall and a piece of gum sticks to the edge of the room’s bench. It makes Christine itch and depresses her. Why did she suggest such a stunt?
“Do you think there are cameras?” Christine is nervous, more than she’s ever been walking out of the Limited Too with a handful of sticky lip gloss. This is far more deliberate and the bras much more expensive.
“Hurry up, take off your shirt.” Sarah removes her shirt and straps three over the bra she has on. Her breasts increase from a C to a strangely firm E, all the padding putting her breasts at attention.
Christine takes off her own shirt and starts detangling the bra she most covets, a black one with an insertion that resembles chicken cutlets to lift and separate. She starts to slip the straps over her shoulders, but stops.
Sarah hisses, “What’s wrong?”
“No, look, I’m wearing a tank top. The straps will be too obvious.”
She puts her top on to demonstrate. Sure enough the two straps lattice her shoulders suspiciously. It occurs to her that this might be a good excuse not to go any further.
“Just stick it in your purse instead.”
Christine opens her purse, but can’t make her hand move any further. Wearing them out could almost have been explained away, almost. When she comes home with a pocket of jacked cosmetics, she can convince herself that she didn’t know how it ended up in her pocket. But this feels deliberate, the bras obviously don’t belong in her purse, and the lingerie is expensive, more criminal. After this, she can no longer pretend to be a classic good girl.
She thinks ahead, to Monday at school when both she and Sarah will wear their new bras and giggle over their success. An extra seal will be added to their friendship, more certainty that Sarah will stick by her, no matter what guy entices her, even when Christine’s sadness bleeds into their friendship and Sarah has to put up with Christine’s melancholy. Mechanically, her hand begins to stuff, tucking straps and squishing padding. In her head, she’s so far into the future that Sarah has to poke her to bring back to the present. The present, which is now infiltrated with the crackling of a two-way radio.
They freeze, listening. Christine’s heart jackhammers the inside of her ribs; next to her Sarah’s breath picks up speed. They hear the attendant visit each fitting chamber, clearing them out, moving down the row toward the handicapped space. Christine yearns to forget the whole thing, but one look at the stubborn set of Sarah’s face dashes that hope. Sarah jerks her head to the door, “You ready?”
The attendant is one room away when they break out, speed walking past her. Christine meets her eyes as they leave—an older lady with grey streaks through her dark hair, Macy’s nametag pin lopsided over her bosom, her arms stacked with rejected clothing. Christine wonders if she’ll get in trouble when the inventory is counted. They dart out of the dressing room, taking big steps, but not running, definitely not running.
They are out of the store and Christine glances at Sarah, sublimely happy. They are free. Free! And she’s done it—proven her daring to Sarah. How much easier it is to care less and act more! They make their final right turn, towards the mall’s exit beckoning at the end of the straightway. They are so focused that they completely miss the female security guard stepping out from behind a bench.
The guard grabs Sarah by the arm as they rush past. “Young lady, open your purse.”
Christine adjusts the strap of her own bag so that it slides behind her back. A wave of nausea breaks over her stomach and she can feel the color trickling away from her face.
“What’s wrong, officer?” Sarah sweetly asks.
“Just open your purse.”
Sarah does so and the guard rifles through it. Nothing. Sarah is wearing all the merchandise. Is it possible the guard doesn’t think of that? It is. The guard waves Sarah away. A great tingle of relief spreads through her body, Christine turns to step away with Sarah, but now the hand is holding her arm, squeezing her bicep. Sarah keeps backing away, even as Christine tries to telepathically beg her to stay, please stay.
“Not so fast. Let’s see yours.”
Unable to be the unzipper of her own doom, Christine mutely hands it to the guard who jerks it open. Bra straps and padding spring out, suddenly released. Sarah has already crossed half the carpeted space to the door. She shakes her head at Christine, shrugging as if to say, what could I possibly do to help you? And then she’s doing what Christine realizes she’s been expecting to happen at any second throughout their whole friendship: Sarah walks out the mall doors.
“Sarah!” Christine shouts. Even the guard looks surprised by such cold-hearted and cruel desertion. But Sarah does not turn. Watching her step out into the twilight outside the mall, Christine feels gut-wrenching loneliness, but also a little tinge similar to the deliverance she feels when an opponent during an especially grueling match finally puts Christine out of her misery. It is evident that Christine’s struggle to keep up with Sarah is no longer necessary, and though she’s terribly let down, perhaps she’s also, secretly, inwardly not.
The security guard shakes her arm. “Let’s go.” And suddenly Christine is being marched away through the food court to the inner belly of the mall kept hidden from the blithe consumers. Everyone in the food court stares as the security guard escorts her. The threat of being caught, something Christine could brush off, is now her shameful reality. The blood rushes to produce a blazing red on her cheeks and forehead and she keeps taking deep, diaphragm-moving breaths to prevent the sobs from breaking within her. Crying would make the situation so much worse. How many classmates are here at the mall watching? She prays that Deanna has left already, but no, they pass her. Christine wants to scream at Deanna’s shocked face, yes, this is who I am. She forces her head up and matches stride with the guard. At least now the scabbing wound of her grief is all out in the open, for the entire mall to see.
The security guard won’t let Christine speak to her mother. Or her mother refuses to speak to her; it’s hard to tell without being able to read lips. The guard took her to a dim office, where Christine was given a plastic chair to sit in while the guard makes the phone calls outside the door and decides what to do with her. The room is tiny and tinged green from the florescent lights above—it is an office designed to make the guards angry and inflexible. It has worked with this woman. Once they entered the room, Christine’s façade crumbled and she began to cry, but the tears did nothing to soften the guard. “I have no patience for girls like you,” the woman told her. Christine wanted to explain what a good kid she usually is, but she kept her mouth shut. She can’t even say, with honesty, that this is the first time she’s stolen before. Clearly she’s not such a good kid after all.
The guard reenters the room with the news. “You should thank your lucky stars, Macy’s is not pressing charges.”
“Did you,” her voice squeaks a little, “talk to my mom?” Christine imagines her mother, probably sitting with a copy of Reader’s Digest in front of the television, expecting Christine home at any moment, only to hear the phone ring and the strange voice asking if this is Molly Marshall, her relief at finding out Christine is safe quickly replaced by anger when the knowledge of what her daughter has done clicks into place. Christine aches knowing she made her mother face another phone call like that.
“Yeah, I spoke to her. She’s coming to pick you up, eventually.”
“What does eventually mean?”
The guard shrugs and sits down at her desk, picking up a copy of People magazine. Christine tries to find a comfortable position on the stiff plastic chair, but she decides she doesn’t deserve comfort and sits so that the back digs into her spine. It would be normal for her to fume at Sarah, but the swift disconnection is somewhat liberating. A distraction, that’s what Sarah was. And now there is nothing to distract her from the big looming thoughts that she, as punishment, lets rise to the surface.
She closes her eyes, and her father’s smile is illuminated against the dark red background. In his final, last moments on Earth did he know he was dying? Could he recognize how futilely his heart pumped the blood only to be stopped by that disgusting obstacle, that minute clot that measured exactly big enough to exterminate his life? They were fucked over because he was gone. There, that’s what she wants to say to him, if she could. She lets the anger roll over her, and then the sadness, and finally the shame for letting down her mother for a purse full of bras.
Her dad would have hated her for this.
But maybe he would have been unable to hide that little twitch of a smile that came through even in his most serious lectures.
Ten minutes before closing, after allowing Christine to stew for two and a half hours, her mother arrives. Her mother doesn’t speak to her, just thanks the security guard and takes Christine’s bra-free purse from the desk. They don’t speak in the parking lot, or at the first eight stop lights. At the four-way stop turning into the neighborhood, Christine’s mother, still staring out the windshield, says, “You’re grounded.”
“We’ll go get your car tomorrow and I never want you going back to that mall again.”
They continue through the subdivision and pull into the driveway. Before her mother can get out of the car, Christine speaks, “I’m sorry, Mom.”
Christine reaches across and grabs her mother’s left hand. She laces her fingers with her mother’s, and squeezes her mother’s wedding ring between her pinkie and ring finger. The metal is hard, and unbending. She could squeeze with all her might and not even dent it. Not even a nick.
Kelsey Savage Hays is a recent graduate of the New School MFA program, where she studied under Ann Hood, Helen Schulman and Darcey Steinke. She grew up just outside of Atlanta, and her family still lives there.