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The mall smells like efficiency and consumerism. It makes me feel a little strange, a little dizzy, a little used, like the best thing I can do is mindlessly spend all my money here. It almost makes me feel productive, as though I'm contributing to society by pumping my meager cash into the economy. My senior economics class has messed with my head.
But what really gets me about the mall is the promises it makes. I walk past makeup counters where young women with long eyelashes can show me how to correct the freckles that pepper my face. There's a nail salon to take care of my ragged nails, a hair salon to give me a haircut that will make me look less like a twelve-year-old boy and more like an eighteen-year-old woman. It's manufactured self-improvement. They're selling happiness, and I can't afford it.
And of course, there are endless clothing stores that will sell me clothes promising to accentuate my curves, lengthen my legs, make my eyes “pop.” Racks and rows of dresses that would look ridiculous on me, shelves of high heels I don't know how to walk in, tank tops and blouses that would showcase the cleavage I prefer to hide. Not to mention the endless stream of men and boys who look at me with everything from confusion to amusement as I rummage through the men's section looking for an XXS.
My mom has long since stopped dragging me to Macy's to try on A-line skirts and cream-colored blouses, and has resigned herself to the fact that her daughter is a “big dyke in a small town.” She still calls me Charlotte instead of Charlie, but I'm willing to compromise with her on that one.
Hannah says I'm too cute to be a dyke, that my features are too delicate, that I'm too petite. To prove her point, she likes to make a show of leaning down to kiss my nose when she tells me this. I grin just thinking about it. I'm here to get her birthday present.
Normally we get each other small gifts. But this is going to be the last birthday we get to spend together, what with graduation right around the corner. So I've been planning to do something special. I started saving as soon as I saw the necklace on display a few months ago. It's a teardrop-shaped glass pendant with a silver heart suspended in the middle, and in the middle of the heart is a tiny piece of rose quartz polished to an unbelievable shine.
Hannah has been talking a lot about “growth and change” lately, as if I don't know what that means for us. I understand that with her moving to the West Coast for school and me staying in town for community college, it would be difficult for us to stay together. We talked about it a lot, but decided that some time apart might be good. She needs room to “grow and change,” while I will stay in the same small town with the same small-minded people. But I know how shy she is, how terrified she is of making new friends. I imagine her standing in her unfamiliar dorm room, looking in an unfamiliar mirror and seeing the necklace on her neck.
I want to get her something tangible. A reminder that she was happy at home, that she was happy with me. She says if we're meant to be together, fate will bring us back to each other when the time is right. I don't believe in fate, but I believe her when she says that.
I weave through the department store to the jewelry counter. I pass purses, bathing suits, bras, jeans, and finally the glass jewelry cases appear around the corner. A woman with her back to me is wiping off one of the cases. She is tall and thin, with her hair twisted into a butterfly clip on the back of her head. Her hair is a funny orange color, and for a moment I am reminded of Nurse Ratched, but then I remember that it was the Big Nurse's lips, not her hair that were a “funny orange.” The woman turns around, and she is older than I expected, probably pushing sixty. Her nametag reads Amanda. Her face is caked in makeup, but she looks strangely clean. She raises her eyebrows and says, “Hello,” without smiling.
“Hi,” I say, my voice going up in pitch as it does when I talk to adults. I hesitate and wait for her to say something else. She doesn't, and I shift uncomfortably, unsure of what to do. Finally, she finishes wiping the counter and asks, “Can I help you with something?”
“Yes, please,” I say. “I'm looking for a necklace. I mean, I know which one. One I've seen here before. A specific one.” Great job, I think, groaning inwardly as I take in Amanda's stony expression.
“Okay,” she says. She looks me up and down, as if she's trying to picture any kind of jewelry on me. “Which one?”
Stammering, I describe the necklace. “I don't know if it has a name,” I finish lamely.
“It does. You're talking about the Sally Collection. That's a very expensive necklace,” she says, without moving toward the case.
“I know. I have the money,” I say. The statement sounds odd coming from me. I don't know why.
She nods. “Is it a gift for your mother?”
I start to feel hot under her scrutiny. “No.”
She inclines her head and twists her lips into something that might be a smile if it were directed at someone else. There is a question in her face. I think of the squeal that Hannah will make when she opens the box.
“It's for my girlfriend. Her birthday's coming up.” I try to smile.
She purses her lips and sighs quietly through her nose. “It's right over here.” She unlocks the jewelry case and takes the necklace out. She is wearing acrylic nails. “Is this the one you want?”
“Yes, ma'am,” I say, taking out my wallet.
We walk to the register where I pay for the necklace. “Would you like it gift-wrapped?” She asks.
“No, thank you. I want to wrap it myself.” She nods and gives me the white jewelry box. I take the receipt and shove it into my pocket. “Thank you.”
“Have a nice day,” she says stiffly.
As I walk toward the exit, I begin to unclench. Amanda's face fades from my mind and is replaced with Hannah's smile. I can picture the necklace on her, and I know she'll wrap the chain around her fingers when she's wearing it.
As soon as I'm out of Amanda's sight, I stop and peek into the jewelry box. Without warning, I feel as fragile as the necklace. I hope it doesn't get broken on some midnight adventure of Hannah's at college. I hope she won't take it off and throw it in the bottom of a drawer where the glass will crack. I hope she'll come home and remember she was happy.