I’m at a Bloomingdales, and I don’t want any of their crap.
Might be beautiful to some people, but I’m not buying it.
Might be beautiful to me, even. But I’m not able to buy it. Because I don’t have enough money.
It could be that I am now touching the softest sweater my hands have ever held, and the only thing I hate about it is how I can’t have it. Might be I’ve never felt better than I do right now, holding this, and maybe I know I never will. What if what’s actually ‘crap’ here, is the ‘shit’ hand I was dealt, where I can’t even afford one beautiful sweater so soft, and I’m afraid I need it. Because it comes with a price. And if I don’t have the money for that price? I’ll have to kill or die to make it mine.
Maybe this sweater is not that great. Maybe I am broke by God’s design, and He has given me the gift of no money. To guide me. Away from the beautiful Bloomingdales sweater. Into a corner of even Higher Taste. One that I would have walked toward if I were not forcibly backed into it first.
It’s hard to tell what’s happening to me. But one thing is for sure–
The sweater is too soft (almost crap-like) and thankfully, it’s not what I came here for.
I am at Bloomingdales to see if it’s possible to change. Not in the buying-clothes and then changing-into-them sense. In the sense that I could change nothing about me superficially, and yet be rendered unrecognizable due to a recent, but total, psychic shift. It started right here, in this Bloomingdales. If these old walls could talk, I think they would talk about how people change. Out of their clothes, into themselves.
It happened on a Sunday, back when I was just a kid.
Nine months ago, I was just a kid on a Sunday morning, decorating her highschool auditorium for the Annual Father Daughter Dance. It was too early for a kid to be awake, and far too Sunday to be at school. But the kid did it anyway, all for her mom.
See, the other students considered the kid to be somewhat of a “creepy loner,” and her mom also thought that. Her mom thought participating in school functions would resolve the issue, rather than making it much, much worse– which the kid was pretty sure would be the case, and the kid ended up being right. What the mom didn’t realize was that when you send your kid to the best private school Los Angeles money can buy, and you don’t have Los Angeles money, there is no display of school spirit great enough to close the gap between your kid and the rich kids, who make up everyone else.
This is especially true if your child’s scholarship is contingent on her spending summers performing janitorial duties on campus– scraping gum off the desks, bleaching lockers– at a school that prides itself on its direct pipeline to a career in professional athletics. Because the summer is when those students train. And your kid’ll have to stand outside the bathroom stall with a mop, waiting to hear her classmate flush. Exchanging no hellos. Getting no eye contact. Wishing to be reassigned to gum chiseling duty, even though that means having to carry every desk outside to avoid chemical fume poisoning. To the center of the hot summer blacktop. Where there’s basketball practice. Which is the sport the kid’s decade-long and only-ever crush plays. And he’ll ask your kid what she’s doing there during the summer, working like that. And the kid lies and says she’s being paid $25,000 a year to do it– which is sort of true, though it’s more of a gift card– and her crush pretends to believe her, so he can end the conversation. And mom thinks the answer is to get more involved, but kid knows the only way to resolve this is to disappear completely.
That mom was my mom, and I was that kid. And even though I’ve changed, I’d like to switch to the first person now, to demonstrate how I’m being brought right back, due to how vividly I’m remembering it, because of ‘these old walls.’
There I was, hanging up some aluminum stars to help my mom help me make my life harder, when I clocked the time.
It was 11:30 am. I’d have to head out if I wanted to catch the good priest run homily on the noon mass.
The only thing more important to my mom than me not being a creepy loner was church on a Sunday. But she couldn’t go this week. There was too much left to do before the dance. And she couldn’t drop me off because we didn’t have a car, because of the being-poor thing. If I went to church, I’d have to walk. And my mom would have to finish setting up all by herself. None of the other mothers showed up to help her– and that was due to the poor-thing, as well.
She told me she’d ‘rather do it alone.’ And it was creepy. How could I possibly choose between my mother and Our Father Lord of all creation? I couldn’t. So I walked to Bloomingdales instead. And I robbed it.
Nine months ago, I came to this Bloomingdales in search of a stealing experience, particularly one that was consequence-free. I did not find what I was looking for that day. But I’ve changed. I don’t even remember the kid who was banned from Westfield Shopping Center and all Bloomingdales-ez in perpetuity. And I’m hoping they don’t either.
“Everything going okay over here?” One of the salespeople materializes beside me. Her shiny metal name plate is engraved: S T E L L A.
“Yeah, everything’s great!” I say, “Very soft!” as I put the sweater back by size, wanting no trouble.
“Looking for anything in particularrrrrr? Orrrrr...?????” Stella draws out the end, as if my need should have cut off her question several question marks ago.
I am looking for the endpoint of my penance, Stella, I think. And I say “Just browsin’round!” I say this in a cadence vicinial to the delivery of a lie. Because I am certain of how she’s about to react to this news.
“Okay,” she says. “I’ll be over here if you need anything.”
–Exactly. Like that. She thinks I’m going to steal.
Stella thinks I’m a liar. Not only am I looking for something, I need it so badly that I am about to risk arrest. That’s what she sees in my eyes, the eyes I’d just claimed were not looking for anything. And I understand. Eyes that are not looking for anything look very similar to eyes they are looking for trouble. Neither knows what they’re going to get, both are open to chaos.
Either that, or Stella is supposed to say she will be here if I need anything, given that her job as floor sales person is quite literally to be here, if I need anything. Hard to tell.
Regardless, Stella is watching me.
I hold a going-out top to my chest and give a contrived performance of a serious customer. I keep my head down as Stella pulls behind me. I smell her leaving. I watch her move with the skin of my back. The temperature change would indicate that she is somewhere near the big-wall-o’-bras-n-panties, to the left. I feel her patent leather heels poke across the carpet. The carpet is a matted pink gone tan, and lined with some kind of great big mall-sized mattress underneath it. A worn relic from the gone days of department stores. Days when places like this made business of leisure, sport of looking for looking’s sake. Stella stumbles as the floor sucks her pumps down into itself– I taste it where my tongue meets my ears. And I taste her where she stops.
Her heels pinned between me and the exit. The Shoplifters Barricade.
But I’m not stealing today, and I remind myself of this as now I am beginning to sweat. I am no longer a criminal. And I have come to this place that I am legally prohibited from entering, to prove it. Trespassing technically, but– wait. Stella. Please.
Stella, allow me to explain–
But she’s moved before I could and now I’ve lost her. I look at a price tag, because that is what someone who is not stealing does. It teaches me a number I have never used before. I’m learning a lot at the Bloomingdales. Like, for example– why people steal from it. Some people don’t have a choice.
I used to be like some people.
There was no way to know how long I’d been at church nine months ago, because I was in jail, and my room didn’t come with a view of the clock. What I did know was that with every hour that passed, my parents were distilling their certainty that something bad had happened to me– every minute defining the meaning of that word in more profane and punishing detail. By hour eight(ish), it was likely I’d been mutilated, dismembered, and dispersed. My heart already fashioned into a purse and filled to the brim with black tar heroin. My vagina lips laid across the sandwich of some ‘Nice guy. Quiet guy.’ My elbow purchased by a pedophile because unfortunately they were all sold out of child vagina. Horrific. But I’m not making this up. This was how my parents’ brains worked, in my mind. And I had one phone call to put a stop to it.
I plotted my delivery carefully. I’d tell them the search for the bad guy who got me was over— because I was the bad guy, and I’m right here, in jail. There was no good way to break it to them. But I was a minor, and minors have to call their parents. So I did what I had to do, and I told the police that my mom and dad were dead.
I had no choice. If I told the truth, they’d think they’d failed me as parents, and the weight of that would break their hearts. Maybe I wouldn’t have lied, if I didn’t happen to be holding enough cocaine that day to be charged with intent to sell. But unfortunately, the circumstances were such. Because I was selling cocaine at the time, and I kept that mf bag on me. I wouldn’t have chosen to sell cocaine, if I had enough money to support my cocaine habit without having to sell it. But we were poor people, and personally I wouldn’t have picked that financial tier. I’d never have developed a cocaine habit if I hadn’t become numb to the rush that stealing used to provide. I certainly wouldn’t have sought a rush of any kind if I knew how to metabolize happiness in slow release, but I never learned that. Because my parents failed me.
I was a casualty of desperate measures. Sitting in a jail cell in Van Nuys. Waiting to explain all the ways in which my hands were tied on these matters to my oldest brother, and ‘legal guardian,’ Eugene.
“Is this Eugene O’Neill speaking?” I heard the officer say into the phone because they don’t let minors dial, followed by a pause filled with the confirmation that it was.
“The legal guardian of Moira O’Neill?” the officer asked. Followed by an even longer pause. And finally–
“Is this Moira O’Neill’s father?” the officer said. “Your daughter told me you were dead, sir.”
I wouldn’t have named my brother ‘Eugene.’ Because Eugene passed the phone to my father, who is also ‘Eugene.’And I forgot my dad’s name was not dad, because I was a kid.
At least it wasn’t my mom.
My mom worked the Parent-Student dances for all my siblings. Part of the agreement for our work-study scholarships was that she had to work too. And she put up with every job they gave her, but she loved the dances. She always wanted to pick the theme. My mom would pitch
the same idea every year, and every year they went in a different direction. It was never even close. The other mothers knew she wasn’t volunteering her time, that my mom was obligated to be there. And they were mean to her, because they all knew why. But she wouldn’t admit it. She’d come home and say she was outvoted. As if it were a democracy. As if her failure wasn’t rigged. She kept trying. She never got to pick anything. She didn’t want to move to Los Angeles, but my dad wanted to be in the movies. He was going to be Rooster Cogburn saying fill your hands, you son-of-a-bitch, and she was going to have five kids. And when the movies didn’t work out and the money didn’t come, she’d do whatever she had to do to give us what she didn’t get. Nine years of working football game concessions. Eighteen Mother-Son casino nights and Father-Daughter discos. Twenty-two years in Los Angeles building other people’s dreams. And this was the year she finally got her dance.
The theme was ‘Famous Moments In Cinema.’ So my dad could be John Wayne. And by the time I was released from my holding cell, it was almost over.
So I took my time walking down into the station lobby. I didn’t want to see my mom’s face. And I didn’t have to, because she didn’t come. I saw my dad waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. But he had a hat pulled down over his eyes, because he couldn’t bear to look at me in handcuffs. And I couldn’t look at him either, because he was wearing a cowboy costume.
When I got to him, they took off my handcuffs. And he took off his hat, because that’s what John Wayne would do. He was crying. He couldn’t help it.
Stella speaks into her walkie talkie- “South exit, I’ll keep eyes.”
I know what she means by this because I look at her after she says it. She’s ready to go full goalie on me– a physicality contained in one halfway splayed hand hanging by the hip. It occurs to me now that she doesn’t recognize my mugshot, because she’s waiting. I don’t look like someone who should be here. She’s waiting for me to do something she can stop.
And there’s nothing I can do to change her mind, so I walk toward her. Head held high. Fakey to the right– and then I run.
I make it through the mall far faster than necessary. I don’t push anyone, but no one was in my way, so maybe I would have. After a brief initial jog I could have walked out. Stella lunged for me, but her work heels wobbled into the high pile carpet, collapsing her into the floor. And instead of helping her up, I ran. Had to.
Sorry Stella, but my hands were full.
Moira O’Neill is a screenwriter and performer from Los Angeles, currently completing her first novel The Dog Sniper.