When you grow up in middle class suburbia in a tiny town that’s best known for harrowing winters and a closet heroin problem, the mall shapes your adolescence more than you like to admit. Shiny, labyrinthine hallways flanked with stores that begged to steal my allowance and all the money I made working at the local ice arena paved my way to embracing awkwardness, graphic tees, and a prolonged grip on virginity.
That mall doesn’t exactly hold the same pristine magic it used to – when I go home and decide to wander those overly air-conditioned stores, everything seems kind of old and stale and sad. Standing outside Hot Topic held such nervous excitement for me at 15 – now I look at knock-off band shirts, shitty glitter nail polish, and anime stuffed animals. I swear it used to be so much edgier… those soft pretzels in the food court still totally hold up, though. There are a few vivid mall memories that stick out to me, most of them involving boys. Obviously.
All my friends had AIM boyfriends they met at the arcade except me. Kara, Tara, Cassie, and I would troll the mall every Saturday, lingering mostly around the arcade because its manager was hot and sometimes gave us free stuffed bullshit prizes or rubber jelly bracelets. I had cystic acne and felt like a disgusting fat blob (despite weighing like, 115 pounds), and so never flirted and thus never got any screen names. Kara was tall and thin with huge boobs, Tara was shorter and blonde with huge boobs, Cassie was tall and thin with not huge boobs but was really pretty anyway. I was freaking adorable now looking back on it, but I thought I was putrid.
I remember one specific time when these three boys followed us around the mall, a pre-teen version of flirting. They walked behind us probably for hours at a five-foot distance, staring at us silently. If that happened now, I would pepper spray them, but we giggled and slurped Diet Cokes until finally after almost the entire day they approached us. Why were boys from other schools always so much cooler?
Anyway, they all paired off except for me, probably because I never spoke or alluded to having a personality or a tongue. I’m sure I went home and wrote a really dramatic poem about it. Kara, Tara, and Cassie would go on to IM with them for months, which gave them instant cool cred in my eyes. I never did get an online boyfriend. I doubt I was missing out on much.
I had been dating this boy whose entire wardrobe came from the anything-flame-printed corner of Hot Topic, and by "dating" I mean we made out a lot before swim class and I cried in the shower if he didn’t call me. Black jelly bracelets, fake tattoo chokers, those metal ball necklaces, sometimes woven with hemp, all accessories I may still own and love. The employees were always slightly older than they should have been, with facial piercings and stringy hair. Terrifying, but awesome at the same time. Like how are you so tattooed at 17?
I never felt like I belonged in there but I had the music taste and knowledge to back up my purchase choices, and I usually went a little heavy-handed on the black eyeliner on Hot Topic days. Tara and I would carefully pick out items that would label us as edgy but not too edgy – I remember one specific black fitted tee with dark blue glitter stars splattered across the front. I paired it with JNCO knockoffs, Bonne Bell lipstick in Cappuccino, as many chokers as I could pile on, and the glitter got everywhere in homeroom. Said Hot Topic boyfriend would push me against my locker after nomming down a Dunkin Donuts bagel with strawberry cream cheese, and stick his tongue down my throat.
To this day, I cannot eat strawberry cream cheese without slightly gagging. I still love glitter, though.
FYE - The Music Store
FYE had two purposes – staring at boys and buying parental advisory albums my mother didn’t want me to own. Ever since she had confiscated my copy of TLC’s “CrazySexyCool,” because there was a song about prostitution (fair enough), I would listen to entire albums in FYE while leaning against a wall snapping my gum and looking at boys.
Thanks to The WB, I always thought the way to meet guys was to not make eye contact, adopt a facial expression that was kind of sad and thoughtful – I would make my eyes all big and doe-eyed while sifting through Hoobastank CDs. All my teen fantasies involved meeting some cute floppy-haired boy at the mall, we would bond over our love of KROQ and Slurpies, and we would make out in the back near all the posters.
The only time anything remotely close to this happened was when I was a skate guard at the aforementioned ice arena, while wearing bad bangs and a huge yellow windbreaker, and this really cute punk kid followed me around the rink trying to get my number. I freaked out and just kept skating away from him. I spent most of my adolescence wishing someone would ask me out – when they did, I would yell “NO THANKS,” go home, and pout more. I think I had this very, very specific idea of who I wanted to fall in love with, but he was too busy snowboarding and letting more confident girls seduce him in refinished basements to notice me.
I filled out an application for FYE every week for a year – they just didn’t want to hire me. FYE was also where I learned the entire Marshall Mathers LP, word for word. In 2016, that translates to a lot of offensive fun at karaoke.
The Movie Theater
It was almost the end of my senior year and the farthest I had ever gotten was having someone touch my left boob ONLY, in someone’s attic while we watched MTV. I was too shy to make any move on anyone I actually liked because I thought I wasn’t cool enough, and so I just silently waited for someone to confess their undying love for me. I blame you, Molly Ringwald.
I was hanging out with a bunch of photo kids at the time, despite the fact that I had zero visual talent. I honestly would have dated any of them – they were all skinny and sarcastic with a love for emo music and obscure cartoons. But only one of them started IMing me really late at night – mostly mildly flirtatious, although there is one image of an erect penis covered in a gym sock that is unfortunately burned into my skull forever.
After weeks of this, passive-aggressive looks in photo class, his back to me in health, he asked if I wanted to see a movie. I think it was Sideways, that movie about wine with Paul Giamatti, but that might have been someone else. I could feel him breathing next to me. When the movie ended and we walked outside, it was late and freezing, and it had begun to snow big wet snowflakes everywhere. The parking lot was empty and speckled with snow banks higher than my expectations. We climbed to the top, no jackets, and laughed and stared at each other under the stars and cold and snow.
It was probably the most romantic moment that had happened to me up until that point, except it didn’t end in the kiss I wanted it to. We stared at each other for a stupidly long time, then climbed off the snow pile and he drove me home, our clothes soaking wet. An “I should have kissed you” IM afterwards was appreciated, but too little, too late. That kiss was left in the mall parking lot.
Six years later, I would adopt a cat from him, so all was not completely lost.
Marc from the kitchen just proposed to me in front of everyone, sending his actual girlfriend Jenna into the women’s restroom hysterically crying. I was four years younger than them, and “cute jailbait,” according to Jenna.
“Don’t you know I’m dating James?” I rolled my eyes and looked at my French tipped nails. “He works at PacSun.” It was true – we had met at a random band practice, then reconnected on Myspace. Hostess at the mall’s Friendly’s Restaurant was my summer vacation job after my freshman year at a Catholic college. James and I would take lunches together, a dumb mall couple, me in an oversized blue polo and him in a Burton beanie in the middle of August. We would leave together, holding hands, and make out in my mom’s aboveground pool. It was a good summer.
When I left Friendly’s to go back to college, Marc gave me a dumb plastic ring from the arcade across the food court. “In case I don’t actually marry Jenna,” he said, as I snuck a spoonful of Vienna Mocha Chunk ice cream. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, escape the constant sexual harassment, the feel of grease in my hair, and that mall smell that follows you around. I kept the dumb ring for a while, though.
Last year, I walked into a dive bar in my hometown and Marc was bartending. I told him that he once proposed to me when we worked together at Friendly’s. “I don’t fucking know,” he growled. “That was a weird fucking time for me.”
Do you have any adolescent mall memories? Where did you spend your allowance?