September 20, 2010
1991, I am 13 years old.
My mom and I are on our way to the mall after school one day. We live in Destin, Florida and the only nearby mall is located in Ft. Walton Beach, where I am in the 8th grade at Max Bruner Jr. Middle School. So, on this particular day, instead of riding the school bus home like I usually do, my mother picks me up at the end of the day, waiting patiently in her black Volvo in the carpool line with the other parents.
Getting picked up, instead of having to ride the bus, is a rare treat, and I walk slowly to the car, savoring each minute of the experience. I throw my bookbag in the back and climb into the passenger seat next to my mother. I love going shopping with her and I buckle my seat belt carefully, relishing the momentum of what is to come.
We chat idly on our way to the mall. We could be on a mission to shop for anything. It’s always a mystery to me. My mother is glamorous and has a kind of effortless beauty that sluices envy from the women around her. She has a sheath of white-blond hair that falls to her shoulders, a face framed by a set of hazel-green eyes, and a perfect Connecticut suburbs nose. She has the kind of trim figure that could make a paper bag look good, and at age 13, in the throes of unfortunate puberty, I am in awe of her.
At the mall we circle the parking lot, looking for the perfect spot. My mother always wants to find THE spot, insisting on parking near the entrance, where there are never any spots. Around and around we go. Past the Ruby Tuesday’s and the Sears. There’s the entrance again with its bored teenagers loitering outside in a haze of cigarette smoke. I admire the stained glass windows of the Ruby Tuesday’s one more time and sigh as I wait for my mother to give up and steer the car towards the back of the parking lot.
Suddenly she gasps and jerks the wheel reflexively.
“Look, honey,” she says, pointing in the direction of a tiny half moon of parking spots set aside by themselves, just off the main entrance. There are NEVER any open spots in there.
“My spot,” she says, setting her jaw and snaking through the one-way entrance. A red truck has rumbled to life and its reverse lights glow in the afternoon sun. My mother flicks on her blinker and we watch as the truck begins to back up.
Suddenly, a tiny blue convertible zips in through the exit to the half-moon parking lot, and just as the truck completes its reversing, the convertible, not even waiting for the truck to pull forward, zooms into the vacant spot. The truck rumbles away and my mother throws the car into park.
“Are you [email protected] kidding me?!”
She is out of the car, before I can even blink and I watch through the open driver’s side door as she raps on the window of the convertible. A young woman steps out. Her top is DayGlo orange and her hair is frosted and sprayed into a crescent wave down one side of her face. My mother in her slacks and cowl neck blouse looks impossibly glamorous standing next to her.
“That was my spot,” my mother says coolly to the woman.
“Too bad, lady,” the girl says, pushing past her and heading for the entrance.
My mother stands there a moment longer, her hands balled up at her sides, her mouth moving, but nothing coming out. I am still in shock that this is happening at all. She gets back in the Volvo, slams the door, and heads for the back of the parking lot, for the first available space.
She is out of the car before I have even unbuckled my seat belt.
“Come on, sweetie. Let’s go.” She taps her foot impatiently, and gives me a forced smiled, while I clamber out of the car. She walks at a clip, her high heels clucking at the asphalt as we make our way to the entrance.
Inside the mall the air is cool, a welcome respite from the intense Florida heat outside, and canned music filters softly through the overhead speakers. My mother stands for a moment in the entryway, looking to the right and then to the left. Suddenly she banks left, reaching out for my hand, and dragging me along with her.
I follow behind, tripping over my feet in her haste, and am confused when we cross the threshold of a candy store. Again, my mother pauses, her head turning to the left and the right before veering left to a wall of candy. She grabs a plastic bag, like the ones at the grocery store, and presses the lever on one of the candy bins, releasing a dozen colorful balls of gum into the bag. She completes her purchase hurriedly and once outside the store she hands me three of the giant gum balls.
“Chew,” she instructs, filling her mouth with three of the same.
I’m still putting the second gum ball in my mouth when she takes my hand again, dragging me back towards the entrance.
“Mom,” I try to protest, but my speech is garbled, my cheeks smarting with saliva.
Outside we make our way to the blue convertible, which still sits in its stolen spot, little shimmering waves of heat evaporating from the hood.
“Chew,” my mother instructs, and I do.
We stand there next to the convertible for a beat longer, chewing. I’m still not sure what we’re doing. I look at our reflection in the driver’s side window. My beautiful mother and her lanky, awkward teen daughter in the hot, Florida sunshine.
“Okay,” she says, “now smear.”
With this instruction, she takes the wad of gum from her mouth and stretches it out like pizza dough between her hands. Then she carefully lays it on the sparkling windshield of the convertible, pressing at the edges as thought it were a freshly-licked stamp.
I follow suit, my heart beating rapidly in my chest at thought of what I am doing. We stand back and look at the gum, a perfect pink map spread across the windshield.
My mother lets out a sigh, shimmies her shoulders a bit.
“Let’s go shop,” she says with a smile. And we do.