That Mall Feeling

Pin it


That Mall Feeling by Karen Bowes

We are taking a bath. My little sister is three years younger than me. I am eleven but look older. We are playing with our mermaids. Mine has green hair that goes down to her fin. Sidney’s has pink hair. Underwater the mermaids look like a shampoo commercial. I stick my head under and Sidney says, “You look like a car wash.”

We get out of the tub, wrap scrappy towels around our bodies in different ways. We pretend that we are fashion designers. Sidney ties the ends of two towels together.

“It’s a mink wrap, ” she says. We sit on the bath mat facing each other. We rock back and forth because it’s cold.

I say, “Once upon a time there were two little girls.”

“What were their names?” she wants to know.

“Larissa and Tinkerbell,” I tell her.

“And they have a flock of baby parakeets that follow them everywhere they go,” says Sidney.

“Larissa and Tinkerbell get a job at the M&M factory giving guided tours,” I say.

“And the baby parakeets fly into the chocolate pools and get covered in chocolate and then they get sold at the store,” says Sidney.

“Sure, I guess,” I say. But what I really want to say is that Larissa and Tinkerbell give a tour to some old people. They catch an old lady stuffing her giant pocketbook with M&Ms. They tell her to stop but the old lady pulls out a gun and shoots Larissa in the head.

“I like my story better,” says Sidney and, I have to admit, so do I.

We got to the mall with our mother. “I want a flock of baby parakeets,” says Sidney on the car ride there.

“We’ll see,” says my mother.

When we get to the mall I’m supposed to meet my friend Carmen Penelope at the pizza place. Carmen Penelope is super cool but she doesn’t like hanging out with little sisters. I ditch Sidney with Mom. We plan to meet back up at the entrance to JC Penney’s in two hours.

I go to Frank’s Pizza Paradise, but I’m early and Carmen Penelope isn’t there yet. I decide to use the bathroom to pass the time. I only have one dollar and I want to spend it later at the arcade and not on pizza. The bathroom is bright, and my head feels light. I could die right now, I think, and Sidney would be the only one who would really notice. I know this is a bad thing to think, and God would not like it if He happened to be listening to my thoughts. I have a trick that I fall back on whenever I start to feel this way: I recite in my head whatever I’m physically doing. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself so I start the mind game.

I am in a public bathroom stall. I am sitting on toilet paper arranged in a “V” to protect me from germs. I am pee-shy. The woman in the next stall smells like a mom. Her shoes are beat-up, burgundy high heels. I saw a TV commercial about this thing women use in the bathroom to absorb little cups of dark blue water. Carmen Penelope says it’s for when women get older they make a mess in their pants. It starts when you’re a teenager, she says, and goes on until you die. But I imagine you can learn how to control it. Like toilet training. But I don’t want to have to train myself. Carmen Penelope says all women get it. Or at least most of them. It sounds like the lady’s unwrapping a candy bar. I bet she has the peeing disorder. I have to know what she does with that thing from TV. I’ve seen some at home in the linen closet, but I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with them. I know it’s rude but I can’t help but want to stick my head under the divider and watch her. I know I can get away with it too.

I stand up and push the toilet paper into the bowl. I can’t pee. I pull up my pants and just as I’m zipping I fold my body in half to touch my toes. I look to the right. Nothing. I bend my knees and twist my head up, a clear shot of her left hand sticking a pad onto her underwear. A clearer shot of her spread-open thighs and brown hair encrusted with blood, a thick pink smile. Gross. It shocks me and I make some miniscule weird sound because she notices me and she screams, “You fucking kid, what the hell are you doing?” I run out. She doesn’t bother chasing me.

Carmen Penelope is waiting for me outside. She is fourteen and beautiful. Her skin is perfect, like Snow White. She has blond curly hair that she always wears in a banana clip. She’s in the eighth grade, so she goes to school in a different building than me. I only ever see her at the mall. She wants to lose her virginity. Bad. I am eleven but she hangs out with me because “you’re so much more maturer than that.” I’m embarrassed because I’m not sure what losing your virginity means. I don’t know and I don’t want to ask her. I figure, I’ll find out anyway — eventually. She is filing her nails and leaning against a wall when I see her.

She says, “Ready to rock?” and I nod.

We walk from the pizza place to the arcade. The arcade is a long dark hallway filled with cigarette smoke and neon green lights that flash off the machines. Buzzes, bleeps and choppy machine gun sounds distract us from one another and we don’t talk. We scope out the room for an open game. Even though no one’s looking at us, I try to walk as cool as possible. We get to Ms. Pac-Man and wait for the kids in front of us to give up or move on. It’s two boys and they are taller than us. One is wearing a black Slayer shirt with tour dates listed on the back. The taller one is wearing an Old Bridge Wings hockey jersey; he’s number 47 — La Rock.

“What’s the probability of me getting laid here?” Carmen Penelope wants to know. I try to imagine every possible scenario. She could ask them if they wanted to play us in Ms. Pac-Man and then work her way into a meaningful conversation that might lead to a phone number exchange or meeting up some place tomorrow. Or we could just stand here giggling for a while until they notice us. But they might laugh at us because obviously they’re way older. Way older than me, anyway.

I say, “You have a sixty-five percent chance of getting their phone numbers. At least one anyway. That is all I can predict.”

She coughs. The Slayer shirt turns around. He says, “Oh. There’s, like, chicks waiting for this game, dude.”

The hockey jersey tilts his head back. “Oh.”

We wait for a bigger reaction. We are disappointed. Carmen Penelope lights up a cigarette.

“This is a faggot game anyway. Let’s just die already,” says the Slayer kid.

The game ends soon after. Slayer lets out a little “whatever” under his breath and they both turn around. Slayer is covered in red, pussy acne — completely, from neck to scalp. La Rock is kind of cute, but not really. Carmen Penelope giggles, chokes out smoke and snorts. She turns bright red and then I start to giggle. I’m confused. I think she might just have embarrassed herself. Slayer guy crinkles his nose and lets out a walloping “Oink! Oink!” La Rock stands there, also confused and it looks like Carmen Penelope might cry. We turn around and start to walk out. They follow us. “Oink! Oink!” Slayer calls after us. Carmen Penelope is making big strides in her red Capezios, her head down with the cigarette stiffly sticking out of her right hand. Kids are looking up from their games to watch us leave and I hear a few scattered snickers. I turn around real quick and see La Rock say something to Slayer, pleading with him to stop. We walk out of the arcade, then through Bamburger’s, out of the mall and into the parking lot where we’ll be safe. We sit on the edge of the curb and look out at Route 18.

Carmen Penelope snuffs out her cigarette and says, “Stupid, stupid me! Why’d I have to snort like that? Why’d I have to do that?”

I say that I saw the guy in the hockey jersey defending her to the other guy.

“Really? Do you think he likes me?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “You wanna go back and find out?”

“No. I think maybe we should walk around until we find them and then accidentally bump into them. Make it seem natural, you know?”





We walk around for the rest of the two hours trying to find La Rock and Slayer but we never do. I tell Carmen Penelope that they seemed like assholes anyway, and she agrees. I never say words like “asshole” unless I’m hanging out with Carmen Penelope. I feel bad cursing out loud. God can hear that, for sure. I leave her leaning against the wall in front of Pretzel Hut smoking another cigarette.

“I’m meeting someone here in twenty minutes,” she explains, and I don’t feel so bad leaving her there.

Walking back through the mall by myself, I think about stupid things in life that I have to stop doing. I know I’m not supposed to play with Barbie anymore, but sometimes I do anyway. And my little sister still likes to play so I play with her, too. It’s a habit I have to break. Also I have to start dressing better if I’m going to hang out with Carmen Penelope at the mall trying to pick up boys. I’m walking slow because I know my mother is always at least fifteen minutes late, when I see Slayer and La Rock in front of Musicland talking to a girl with huge boobs. I am staring at her boobs because I can’t believe how big they are and then I get this strange, wet, squirting feeling in my underpants. My own much smaller boobs seem to harden. I am staring at this girl’s chest and it occurs to me that my mouth is open and then Slayer recognizes me.

He says, “Hey, where’s your pet pig?” and then slaps his knee and laughs like he’s Gargemel making Smurf stew.

La Rock says, “Shut up asshole. You’re scaring her. She’s still a kid.”

But I don’t feel like a kid. I feel like I’ve just discovered something very, very evil and it’s dripping out of my private parts.

When I meet up with my sister and Mom in front of JC Penney’s, Sidney is holding a bag of Swedish fish and smiling. Mom is holding a shopping bag and she hands it to me. I look inside and it’s a bra.

“I don’t want this,” I say.

“I know that. Don’t you think I know that? But it’s time. You need to start wearing one. I got you some deodorant too.” I want to die.

“I’m not wearing this,” I say.

My mother looks at me like she’s very tired and I don’t say anything else. I want to go home and forget about this day. I want to play with Barbie. Sidney sees I’m upset. She holds up the bag of Swedish fish.

“Do you want a red one?” she asks, and I realize this is why I love my sister. She didn’t skimp out and ask if I wanted a yellow or a green. I take a red one and let it dissolve into jelly on my tongue for as long as it will.

We pull into the driveway and Mom pops open the trunk. I hear chirping and realize that Sidney got her way after all. Two baby parakeets, sky blue, one a little fatter and shorter than the other.

“It was going to be a surprise,” says Sidney. “I was gonna put on a magic show with them but now the surprise is ruined.”

“You can still do it,” I say.

She shrugs.

In the kitchen Sidney sets the birds up in a brand new fluorescent orange cage. She attaches a water bottle, a feeder, a mirror, a swing, a pink plastic cord with bells on it and a flat white rock that, she explains, “will keep their beaks sharp for as long as they both shall live.” Also that “their names will be Fido and Rover and they’re going to get married as soon as they’re old enough.”

“Duh,” I say. “Those are both boy names. You can’t have two boy names and let them get married.”

“Why not?” She wants to know.

I say, “Because boys marry girls and that’s the way it is.”

She screams, “Mooooooom! Boys can marry other boys if they want to, right?” My mother is only three feet away, breading chicken cutlets.

She shakes her head no and says, “That’s not how God intended it.”

I am looking at my mother in a way I know I shouldn’t be. I am staring at her boobs and I am waiting for that feeling I had in the mall to come back. But it isn’t coming back and I think, maybe if I can just relax it might happen again. So I close my eyes and I concentrate on nothing, but of course, nothing’s exactly what happens.

The show takes place in the living room. A formal occasion. I’m the only one in the audience. My mother is asleep in her bed. Sidney comes out of her room wearing a brown towel for a cape and an Indian headdress. She is carrying the birdcage with both hands like a grocery bag. The cage is covered with her baby blanket but I can still hear the tweeting underneath.

“Just pretend you don’t hear that, ” she says. She puts the cage down and runs back to her room. She returns with her old Easter basket filled with raw, white, grade-A eggs.

“Behold. I am about to turn these ordinary household chicken eggs into actual living alive birds! But first a few jokes. Why did the chicken cross the road?”


“To be with all his friends!”

I laugh anyway, like it’s the funniest thing in the world.

“How many chicken eggs does it take to turn them into birdies?”

“How many?”

“A million trillion!” Sidney laughs for a long time.

When it comes time for the eggs to finally turn into actual living alive birds the trick falls flat. Sidney thrashes off the baby blanket only to reveal the birds engaged in some sort of pecking war with one another. Sidney forgets she’s performing.

“Why are they doing that?” she asks.

“I don’t know. It looks like they’re trying to kill each other. They just need to get used to their cage,” I say.

“It’s gross. It’s like they hate each other,” she says. I get a chill and shake it off.

“Let’s leave them alone for a while,” I say. We watch TV until nine and then we go to bed. We leave the parakeets in the living room by themselves — still pecking.






Alone in my room, I open the bag with the bra inside and try it on. It doesn’t quite hurt but it’s very uncomfortable. It’s too tight. I look in the mirror and my boobs are much bigger than before. The feeling from the mall starts up again. I decide to investigate. I pull down my underwear and sit on the bed. There’s white crusty stuff in my underwear and I wonder if this has to do with the peeing disorder. I remember what the lady in the stall’s crotch looked like — all red and bloody — and it hits me. Not pee but blood. I wonder if it hurts. I compare my own crotch to the lady’s and decide mine is much nicer. Hers had too much hair on it. Right now mine is wet and squishy and the mall feeling is rising in my breasts again. My whole body is stiffening up and I wonder what I can do to prolong this experience. I lie down on my stomach, under the covers, naked. Perfectly still. I play a game with myself. How long can I lie here without wiggling? I start to time myself, but then I forget that I’m timing myself, and instead I’m thinking about the girl in the mall. Then I start to think about Carmen Penelope and what kind of bra her mom might have bought her and then I realize how weird I’m acting and I have to pee. There is so much pressure pushing out from inside my crotch that I think about touching it to push the energy back in. I don’t though. I put on my robe and pee.

Fido and Rover wake me up with their squawking at six thirty the next morning. Time to get up for school soon anyway, I think, and make my way towards the bathroom. Sidney is already awake and standing in her nightgown in the living room. She is staring into the cage. Mom’s still in bed.

“Do you want them? I don’t think I want them anymore.” She sees by my face that I won’t say yes and starts talking again before I can answer. “If you don’t, I’m taking them back. They’re not what I wanted. I wanted a boy and a girl so they could get married and they’re not.”

“They’re probably brothers,” I say. “Brothers always fight.” I don’t know why I’m defending them. They’re evil. It’s obvious. But it doesn’t seem right just to bring them back to the store. If they’re moving around then they have a soul and that’ s just like a person in Heaven. Sidney is looking at me impatient. I say okay.

“They’re your problem now,” she says. My sister doesn’t normally snap at me. We go into the kitchen nook next to the living room and pour ourselves some Cheerios. Sidney opens the refrigerator but we’re out of milk. No bother, we eat them dry, one by one. Fido and Rover are trying to bump each other off the swing by pecking one another on the foot. Or wing. Or whatever they can peck.

“I wonder what would happen if they accidentally ate people food instead of birdie food,” Sidney says. “Do you think they might get sick or something?”

“Probably,” I say.

“That would be a real shame,” she says. She shovels a handful of Cheerios into her mouth. She crunches for a long time.

We don’t feed them that morning. Or the morning after that. On the third morning they look tired. I open a can of tuna fish and make sandwiches for lunch. The birds are staring at me, following my movements with their necks-slash-heads. I know they must be hungry by now. I take the leftover tuna slime and dump it in the cage through the bars. As I’m doing it my stomach stabs me. Maybe I feel guilty. There’s just something not right about these parakeets. They’re making me think messed up things. I want to hurt these birds. I want things to be normal again.







Me and Sidney are playing that our Barbies are on a game show. The name of the game show is “The Winner’s Circle” and the object of the game is to finish the host’s — Ken’s — sentence with a rhyme we both agree doesn’t suck. For example, Ken might say, “Bananarama is my favorite band . . . ” and then my Barbie responds, ” . . . they sing faster than an airplane can land.” Then Sidney’s Barbie makes up a rhyme — say, “‘Venus on a Mountain Top’ is really neat. When I hear that song, I eat raw meat.” We judge which one is better and that Barbie gets the prize. So far I’ve won a trip to Bermuda, a new car and a fabulous matching living room set. Sidney is deciding what the next prize will be (a toss-up between a free makeover and a water bed) when the phone rings. It’s Carmen Penelope. She wants me to meet her at the mall. She’s already there, calling from a pay phone.

“Like, I just saw those guys at the arcade, and I think the cute one really likes me.”

I could take the bus and be there in half an hour but my mom’s still at work and I can’t leave Sidney home by her self.

“Just bring her with you,” she says.

“I can’t do that,” I say. “My mom will freak out if she comes home and we’re not here.”

“I know! Why don’t I bring them over there, to your house? I’d bring them to my house but it’s like, a total mess. You wanna?”

I really don’t wanna but this is Carmen Penelope’s big chance to lose her virginity. I say okay and hang up. Sidney is already packing up the Barbie stuff when I tell her I can’t play anymore.

“I heard, ” she says. I open the refrigerator and search for something decent to make. I end up making celery sticks covered in chunky peanut butter and arrange them neatly on a platter. I go to my room and put the bra on. Just in case. I spend at least fifteen minutes trying to get my hair to look like Daisy Duke’s but it comes out looking more like I used too much conditioner. Flat. Sidney comes in with a plastic pink headband she never uses and I gratefully put it on. I bring the celery platter into the living room and place it on the coffee table.

Tweet-tweet. Flutter-flutter. Fido and Rover are wrestling over the big white sharpening rock on the side of their cage. Little bits of feathers are flying out and landing on the carpet. Fido seems to be winning the wrestling match because Rover is actually under him when I enter the room. Rover’s tail feather is being pinned down by Fido’s orange feet, freezing Rover, and causing high-pitched squeaking.

“I’m really starting to hate them,” says Sidney.

The doorbell rings soon after and I see La Rock, the Slayer guy and Carmen Penelope standing on my front stoop.

“Hi,” I say. Carmen Penelope looks sick, paler than usual.

“Like, this isn’t going to take that long,” she says before she can even get inside. The boys grunt and we all walk into the living room where Sidney is picking up the birdcage to hide in her room.

“Hey, where you going with those birds?” asks La Rock.

Sidney looks at me, terrified: a boy is talking to her. She stands frozen for a second and then plants the cage back down on the floor and runs into her room.

“Those are pretty cool birds,” says La Rock. “Do you ever let them out of the cage?”

“God no, I mean, we just got them. We haven’t had a chance yet.”

Carmen Penelope gives me a look that says, Do what ever he says. She has her feet up on the coffee table and she lights a cigarette. The Slayer guy is standing in the doorway, not getting too close.

“Whatever,” I say. And I think, maybe that is why they’ve been acting so crazy. La Rock opens the cage and grabs Fido in his fist, letting him go outside the cage. He doesn’t have to grab Rover because Rover darts out of the cage as soon as La Rock lets go of Fido. The two of them head straight for the window and bang their heads into the glass. They flutter backwards a few feet and then they do it again. And again. And again, until I’m afraid they’re going to get brain damage if they don’t stop. I’m getting really freaked out and the four of us are just standing around, not saying a word, just watching these birds kill themselves. Finally, Slayer guy says, “Those are some fucked-up birds you got there, man.”

“Maybe you should put them back in their cage,” says La Rock.

“You took them out,” I say.

“They’re your fucked-up birds,” he says.

I try. I really do. Sidney comes out of her room and watches me chase them both back and forth as they crash over and over. They hit their little heads about twelve times each before Rover starts spinning around in circles like a cartoon. He does a belly flop and lands right smack on top of the peanut butter celery sticks. Sidney screams. But it sounds like a happy scream. A cry of relief. One down and one to go. With Rover out cold it’s much easier to catch Fido as he deflects off the glass. I catch him by standing still in the middle of the room with my hands extended, guessing where he’ll rebound. Fido is much lighter than I thought he would be and La Rock holds the cage door open so I can shove him back in. Once he’s back inside the cage I still have a chance to check out Rover. If he isn’t dead, he’s definitely in a coma. Sidney says she’s going to start digging a hole in the backyard and she leaves to go outside.

“A-duh,” says Carmen Penelope. “We can’t bury him unless we know for sure he’s dead.”

“Hey, do you have a hammer? I could clobber him over the head with a hammer. Then he’d be really dead,” offers Slayer guy.

“This is so cool,” says La Rock.

I can’t decide what to do. If Rover is in a coma there’s still a chance he might wake up. I don’t want to bury him alive.

“I think it’s best to wait at least an hour,” I say. “If he doesn’t wake up by ten minutes before my mom’s due home then we should clobber him and bury him in the backyard with a funeral service and everything. In the meantime, though, I don’t want to touch him.”

So we just leave him there, face down in the celery sticks, and go downstairs to play Spin the Bottle. We use an empty Pepsi bottle Slayer finds in the garbage. We sit Indian-style in a circle on the rug and Carmen Penelope lays down the rules. The first time the bottle lands on a person you haven’t kissed yet you get a peck. Then open mouth, then tongue and then five minutes in the bathroom. She spins first and the bottle points at me.

“No fair,” she says. “I get a re-spin.”

“Uh, that’s not what you said five minutes ago,” says Slayer. I don’t care either way. I’ve never kissed anybody before but this is only a peck. It doesn’t even count. She leans over and barely brushes my cheek with her lip gloss. The first round is all pecking so it moves pretty smoothly until everybody has pecked everybody else.

“Let’s just skip to the tongue,” says La Rock, looking at Carmen Penelope. “We don’t have that much time before her mom comes home.”

“Totally,” she says and whips the bottle with her palm. It lands on me again. “Oh Jesus.”

This time I want her to kiss me. I don’t care what she says. Rules are rules. I lean into the center of the circle. She does the same.

Slayer guy says, “Oh boy.”

She opens my mouth with her lips and lays her tongue down mine. She doesn’t move it at all and I start to want her to. La Rock pokes me in the stomach and I fall forward into Carmen Penelope. Just like in the movies only it’s two girls instead of a boy and a girl. I keep forgetting where I am and Carmen Penelope has her hands on my butt and La Rock and Slayer are making strange grunting sounds but I can’t tell what they’re doing because my eyes are closed. Plus, I don’t care. Then Carmen Penelope starts making grunting sounds and I realize that the mall feeling is back inside my crotch, only different now, more intense and bubbly. I start making noises too because that’s what everybody else is doing and then the door flies open. It’s my mother. She’s holding the celery platter with Rover on it and she screams when she sees what we’re doing and drops the whole thing on the floor, proving once and for all that Rover is, in fact, dead because he bounces when he hits the rug. I look around and La Rock and Slayer are both touching their things. They are trying to stuff them back into their jeans but their things won’t bend and their faces are pink.

And my mother. My poor tired mother wants to know since when do children have orgies? And she just can’t handle this pressure anymore. And could I please inform her when I’m going to have guests? And who the hell are these people anyway? And why am I not outside helping Sidney dig? And you just can’t decide to have a pet and then abandon it once you realize it’s not all fun and games and if you’re so bent on destroying your future then maybe you shouldn’t be having parakeets at all. And Jesus, Mary and Joseph, she says, am I not her daughter and what’s wrong with me and didn’t I understand that I could ruin everything she’s ever worked for? Didn’t I understand anything at all?

She turns to leave but Sydney comes barreling down the stairs with the shovel and a shoebox. “I’ve already written the eulogy,” she states proudly. “Now all have to do is get the body.”

I look at Carmen Penelope to see if this is cool with her but she’s too busy plucking fibers out of the carpet to notice. She pulls them out with her two most yellow fingers, dropping each one carefully into the empty Pepsi bottle. I know exactly what she’s thinking because I’m thinking the same thing too. It would be cool to have a funeral right now, even if we are too old.



Karen Bowes and