I am trapped in a store with a woman who touches everything she walks past. “Look how ugly these are!” She says. “Look at this! Who would wear this? It’s terrible!” “Feel how gross this fabric feels. Plus it’s ugly.” She also tells me how everything is a good deal because it’s on sale. “Look, 40% off! These towels are only $29.99! Originally $600.00! Wow, what a deal. I pretty much have to buy these. They’re on sale!” I want to tell her that it’s psychology, that nothing in this store is on sale even though every single thing is. There are hundreds of bright red SALE signs. She throws $2.00 shirts into her basket, glad to have the chance to pay 200% more. It’s not just her; she stops to talk about the great deals with other shoppers, and they agree. This is normal. People do this all the time. She can’t comprehend why I don’t want the name brand shoes. “You think about it,” she says. “Maybe you can come back next week with me and get them.” “You should see my closet,” she says. “I have way too much stuff.” She stands in the checkout line and scans the tiny shelf filled with more over-priced tiny gizmos and gadgets. “Only five dollars!” She says, snatching up a purple-colored pumice stone. “I love these!” She puts it into her basket, the innocent volcanic child. It came out of a volcano. It was free. It didn’t cost anyone five dollars. It was hot and beautiful and natural and now it’s purple and five dollars and in your basket.
Three months later the same guy was dancing with the same woman on the same dance floor to the same five country songs that were played in a repeating loop into what seemed like infinity. Their dance moves had improved but otherwise it was the same army boy from five months ago, using the same words to get girls to dance with him, moving in the same way to the same beat.
Sitting there watching it all happen, the five-song playlist repeating again for the third time, it all was exactly like my picture of hell: A small square wooden dance floor, a repeating, circling square dance, people drinking and laughing but not really happy at all.
And everyone else doesn’t have any dance partner or anything to talk about. And they go through the typical 4 question cycle: Where are you from; What do you do; Do you like it here; Yeah me neither, so why do you stay?
And there is nothing really to talk about, nothing that matters, as everything fades into more and more of the grayness. The people are gray and the city is gray. And it is not beautiful, though the architects seem to think so. It is not good to be miserable. It is not good to laugh joylessly. Loud and empty laughter. Everything is shallow and the same, day after week after month. And the people who might have been otherwise turn harsh and critical and brash. And there is nothing much beautiful left in them. It seeps out through their eyes and evaporates with the tears that wash away the cigarette smoke.
Months go by and years and the same cement city streets are stomped and spat on and brushed clean. Bristle brooms stand on street corners to sweep it all away come morning. There is no hope here, only living. Only another weekend and more hours spent. More turns on the dance floor or swings around the pole in the middle of the basement bar. More attempts at getting women to go home with you, more cycles, going from one girl to another and whispering in any ear that will listen. Expensive cheap shoes well-shined and a fancy flip of a dance move that you’ve been practicing for ages because what else is there to do? People that don’t meet your eye and don’t speak the same language as you even when they do. And after all that it’s nothing, a walk down a steep hill, a taxi cab ride home, a silence at the end of it all. And tomorrow in the bar on the top of the hill across from where the nice ladies flash their bodies at strangers, that boy with the cowboy boots will be practicing his dance moves, and some girls will be sucking down weak jello shots that almost taste like strawberry, and those five songs will play, and mouths will smile but eyes will not.
You wake up and you feel it almost immediately. You try to shake it off, brush your teeth, eat breakfast; it’s still there. Maybe it’s in your house, along with all the good and terrible memories. You get in your car, drive away toward somewhere. Where can you go? Shopping? Maybe that’s how people become shopaholics. Addicts. Maybe they’re all the same. Maybe we could all easily become like them; we were just born into different circumstances — found ourselves in a better place when we popped out into the world, and now we all struggle to stay upright where our mothers left us.
You pull into the mall parking lot. You turn off your car, but you know you’re not going in, so you roll down your window and sit still for a few minutes. It feels a little better. But running away doesn’t solve anything. What you’re looking for can’t be purchased at any store. Time is the only thing that helps. Time passes you by out the car window; people march in and out of the store, lugging out bags full of things they may or may not need. You put your seatbelt back on; you’ve sat there long enough, let enough time go by, and it’s still the same and it still will be the same for quite some time.
You could call someone. A friend. But it seems that these days all of your old friends are busy living their own completely different lives. It just doesn’t work anymore. Maybe you need to meet new people. Maybe you need to move. Anything to avoid staying here and falling slightly down, becoming something else. What were you born to be? This? Maybe new friends can’t help you. Maybe a new city can’t help you, either. Maybe nothing can. Maybe everything is just a cover-up, just a distraction. Just like sleep. That’s why you feel it the most in the early mornings, when you can still hear the birds chirping in the dying trees across the street, before the motors start and don’t stop until well after nightfall. That’s why some days, when you don’t have a calendar full of tasks to complete before you head back to bed, when you wake up and look at the clock and realize how many hours are going to stretch out in front of you, you feel it. Life. Just living. What the birds and the squirrels would feel if they had brains like we do. Emptiness. Or, rather, not emptiness. A lack of something that is full of something else. An empty fullness we try to cover up with the society we’ve created. With the laws, the stop signs, the uniforms of employees and school children. With religion. With purpose; an easy purpose, one-size-fits-all, that can be found in several different very old books. And, of course, with shopping.