The journey from one near-bankrupt department store to the other takes eighteen minutes, at least while pushing a stroller. Under snow-fogged skylights, I trudge past a succession of dark storefronts, still locked behind their chain-mail fences, as my boots leave gray puddles on the just-buffed terrazzo. Tags dangle from rows of stacked merchandise, fluttering in the stale breeze of recycled air. From the shadows, hooded mannequins threaten, while the kiddie car ride in the nearby play area chirps its tinny theme song on endless repeat.
It’s close to opening time. The nail salon’s florescent lights flicker on, the astringent air already burning my nostrils. A five-gallon metal bowl of thawed frosting sits on a food court counter, waiting to be gooped onto hot dough and laid to rest under a warming light. The guy who runs the emoji pillow kiosk pulls off the bedsheet that covers his stand with a dramatic flourish. The silver-haired couple with the matching fanny packs laps me again.
The dawn of the shopping day is irrelevant. I’m not in the market for a bandage dress, vaping accessories, or a quinceañera outfit—just a warm place to walk around. It’s the third straight day of single-digit weather in this godawful month that feels the longest because its days are the shortest. I’ve exhausted all other options, and it’s only Wednesday. There are so few places to stroll indoors when it’s this cold out, and today I’m not in the mood to chat with the nannies at library story time who have genuine enthusiasm for each sing-a-long.
This play area isn’t as posh as the one in the mall a few suburbs over, but that one’s too far away to make it there and back before nap time. Here, yesterday’s crumbs linger on the floor near five decaying animal figures that look like forlorn remainders from a Rainforest Café. There’s something dripping, too, a sticky reddish-brown splash, down the side of a vinyl bench where caregivers will soon rest with kids occupied to pull out their phones and tap Like on headlines without clicking through to the articles. If there were other kids here, I’d rationalize that the benefits of socialization for Theo would outweigh the prospect of germs, but no one’s here, so I decide to keep walking.
. . .
In a desolate alley off the main concourse, I pass a familiar office with a flickering neon sign that reads Consumer Opinions, Ltd. It reminds me of the unremarkable rooms in which I, in a past life, used to conduct focus groups. It’s a corporate shade of gray and windowless, except for the one-way mirror that participants are encouraged to ignore. Usually these places are in office buildings, but thanks to the internet, real estate in this kind of mall is plentiful. As I do every time we walk at this mall, I peek through the glass doors as we stroll past to see if I can glimpse what they’re working on—a project code name, a brand, today’s targeted demographic. Anything I’m not supposed to see.
A woman with chunky blond highlights and a half-tucked polo appears in the doorway and calls out to me. “Ma’am?” She holds the top of her clipboard with both hands, pressing the bottom edge against her abdomen. “I saw you walk by before. Do you have ten minutes to take a survey about vitamins?”
Of course I have ten minutes to take a survey about vitamins.
She smiles, grateful to me for helping to meet her quota. “It’s so hard to find Caucasians here.” She winks conspiratorially, like we’re dishing, white lady to white lady. “Oh, look at the baby! How old is this big boy?”
Maybe this was a bad idea. Something in her voice makes me assume we didn’t vote the same way; the collar counties are purpler than you’d expect. “He’s 14 months,” I respond, wondering when I’ll start answering in years. With the stroller stopped, Theo begins to kick his feet, and I remove his muslin blanket. I sigh. “How long did you say this was going to take?”
“Does he want a cracker? We always have crackers around for taste-testing sessions. Let me see if I can find a box.” She strides into the other room before I can decline.
In her absence, I glance around the empty conference room she’s set us up in, no one-way mirror in sight. The table holds a pyramid of vitamins. It’s the brand I use, but not the postnatal kind. The bottles don’t look like what’s in stores. They must be testing new packaging. It’s lovely; some underpaid art director managed to make them look like artisanal gum drops from the Victorian era, sweetened only with organic fruit juice, ostensibly by the man on the package with the steampunk mustache. I’d buy it. I’m a sucker for all-natural nostalgia.
“Here they are!” She runs back into the room, waving the box of saltines above her head like a trophy. “Hey, big guy—do you want a cracker?”
With Theo occupied, she begins the survey, in which I am to assess the new packaging on a variety of attributes on a scale from one to ten. Halfway through, I want to stop and help her redesign the study. Ten-point scales are meaningless. As my former boss used to say, they give you too many shades of undecided. On a scale of one to ten where ten is extremely satisfied and one is extremely dissatisfied, there’s very little measurable difference between, say, a three and a four. My boss preferred simple scales, from one to five, so that’s what I always used. Better to have fewer options.
My boss. It sounds strange now. We were the same age, but she wore pearls and had an MBA. When I told her I was pregnant, she congratulated me; two weeks later, she revealed she was pregnant, too. During my annual review, I asked her about maybe scaling back on travel, possibly returning part time, four days a week with pay reduced accordingly, for the first three months after my leave. Her eyebrows made it clear it was not an option. I mentioned a coworker, a mother of two with a similar arrangement. She smiled and started speaking very slowly. “That’s the problem with part time. Once you let one person do it, everyone else wants it, too.” She segued into what she believed was good news: I’d earned another promotion. More responsibility, more people to manage, more last-minute travel. “Terrific,” I said, as though the previous ten minutes of our conversation had never happened.
The moderator with the chunky highlights seems to know her survey is terrible. Either that, or I’m not giving her the results she’s looking for. When I rate the bottle a six on my intent to recommend to a friend, she goads me. “Are you sure it’s not, like, an eight or a nine?”
“Fine. An eight.” We both know she’s not supposed to be helping me fudge my answers, reaching for that top three box response, but I’m not supposed to let on. Technically, it wasn’t a lie. She never asked if I had ever worked in market research, only what best described my current occupation. From her closed-ended list of possible options, I had selected Homemaker.
After our last weekly check-in, my boss and I had turned our bumps to the side to give each other one-armed hugs. “Keep in touch!” she said. We haven’t. I saw online that she’s a vice president now, a title bestowed upon her by three men her father’s age after a decade of striving. And here I am—steering my own ship into the uncharted waters of mid-morning vitamin research.
The moderator thanks me for my participation, handing me seven singles and holding the glass door open for me to push the stroller through. “Come back anytime!” she says. “We’re doing some surveys for a cruise company in a few weeks. Those pay out real good!”
I’ve never taken a cruise. But in a pinch, I can pretend.
. . .
Walking back into the mall with cash in hand, even seven dollars, feels empowering, alien. I could blow it all at once, right now, and no one would know. I sense I won’t be able to make it out of the mall with these bills in my wallet.
As I push Theo, I open the mail app on my phone and swipe down to refresh. I figure it doesn’t count as distracted parenting if he can’t see me. The bottom of the screen reports Updated Just Now, though no new messages appear. I text my husband: Just made seven bucks #breadwinner. I know he won’t respond for hours. He’s on site with a client in Toronto this week.
I haven’t told him I’m applying for jobs. When I gave notice two weeks before my due date, he’d been as relieved as I was to free at least one of us from the burden of weekly travel. We couldn’t envision keeping schedules like that with our closest family members living a thousand miles away—something we hadn’t quite thought through before I went off the Pill. But I mean, it’s not like it’s an actual search, through people, the way you’re supposed to. It’s lazier than that—every afternoon, if I’m not too tired, I put Theo down for his nap and open my laptop to submit my resume to any research job that seems not completely terrible. After a wave of auto-rejection emails, I feel a rush when I get a nibble back, thankful that a recruiter has overlooked my employment gap. I’m polite during the phone interview, but the whole time, I find myself writing down red flags, like 50% travel required or relocation over the long term or work hard, play hard culture. Even when they’re interested, I know I’m not ready to pursue a second interview, but it feels good to be wanted.
One of the department stores is near the parking garage. A few months ago, I tried to find an unadorned white onesie there to dress Theo as a ghost for Halloween, but the store only offered pink and blue, with sayings like Future Heartbreaker, Mommy’s Little Stud, and Yes Ladies, I’m Single. This time, I walk through the children’s section without stopping. Stacks of licensed character toys for older children bleat their branded tunes as we walk by, drowning out the Kelly Clarkson single from the other decade on the store’s loudspeaker. I don’t know the name, but I know all the words. Its forced cheer reminds me of mandatory fun, maybe because the DJ played it at the last work event I attended, the week before I left. I had to wear Birkenstocks with my maternity pencil skirt because they were the only shoes in my closet that still fit. My boss wore stilettos. Those days feel like a distant memory of a story told by someone else.
In the luggage section, neat rows of suitcases stand at attention, arranged by some clerk who’s nowhere to be found. Vaping in the loading dock, probably. What a boring, easy job for some kid who must think it’s a lot of responsibility. I push the stroller past the first line of Samsonites, my unmanicured nails grazing the zippers, and think about how wonderful a business trip sounds on a day like today. How freeing it would be to get on a plane and fly somewhere alone. Honolulu, Los Angeles, Cleveland—anywhere. Give me two quiet hours with something to read and a night in a hotel room, no baby monitor in sight. God, what bliss.
A stand of luggage tags leans to one side, which makes me recall my mom’s last visit. We spent half an hour waiting at Midway’s baggage claim, jumping at the sight of every black bag on the carousel. Despite having flown from Dallas to see her first grandchild every two months since he was born, she hadn’t yet bothered to differentiate her bag from every other black suitcase flying Southwest. “Grammy, you need to get a new bag,” I’d teased her. “Polka dot, stripes, leopard print. Even pink. Anything but black.”
“Well, maybe if you lived closer, it wouldn’t matter what kind of suitcase I have. Linda’s oldest lives in Sugar Land, and she can be there in three hours if she goes 80 the whole way. She doesn’t even pack a suitcase, she hangs up clothes in the backseat. He keeps a set of toiletries and a curling iron in his guest bathroom for her. Isn’t that nice?”
Perhaps a luggage tag would signal that the ongoing discussion about where we choose to live was hereby closed. She doesn’t need to know how often I change my mind. Amid the rows of travel-grade black and navy, one tag catches my eye. It’s mint green with skinny gold letters in that same scripty font I’ve seen on dozens of motivational Pinterest boards, its message punctuated with a period at the end of each word. It proclaims: BE. AWESOME. TODAY.
I flip the tag over: $5.95. I drop it in the pocket of the stroller to keep my hands free to push and set off in search of someone who’ll relieve me of my survey cash in exchange for this passive-aggressive trinket. Down the aisle, I spot two saleswomen standing in front of a display of teal stand mixers. The one in the tan pantsuit with crossed arms has a hairstyle reminiscent of the research moderator. The other wears a thin strand of pearls with a crisp white button-up, her brown bangs flecked with gray strands, like Ina Garten if she fired her colorist.
They wave at the baby. The one in the pantsuit says, “Hello, big boy! Aren’t you the cutest thing!” She motions at him like any adult waving at a baby, wrist immobile, fingers flapping up and down against her open palm.
“Look at that hair!” Ina exclaims.
I smile at them. It doesn’t register. They’re looking downward. I’m the cute one’s caddy, hovering invisibly behind him, in front of a towering wall of paisley beds-in-a-bag.
“Having a good time riding in your stroller, mister man? What a happy little guy,” Pantsuit says to Ina. “So smiley.”
He plays along, holding out his hands, which had been tucked under his legs while the stroller was moving. I see a smear of refried beans on one of his dimpled, fleshy wrists.
I freeze. That’s not refried beans. Fucking hell.
I feel an urgent need to flee. I have to leave before the women realize I’ve been strolling around the mall killing time while my son sits in his own shit, without complaining, for who knows how long. “Bye-bye!” I sing-song in a high-pitched voice, as though I’m speaking for him, and start walking. “Bye-bye!” I repeat. They turn and watch him glide by, smiling. Ina has red lipstick on her teeth.
I don’t think they noticed. I walk him over to the store’s restroom, praying there’s a changing table in there. Stupid antibiotics. Why can’t his pediatrician prescribe drops for an ear infection? The pink stuff is so hard on his gut. Poor little dude.
I take care of it. With nothing but the diaper bag to bring them home in, I toss his yellow shirt and navy sweatpants into a nearby trash can. I dust crumbs from the spare outfit I keep in the bag’s front pocket, black pants dotted with orange spiders and a long-sleeve jack-o-lantern shirt. Already out of season, but I don’t think he’ll mind. I feel a bead of sweat weave its way down my scalp. Damn, it’s hot in here. Almost done.
A Hispanic woman changing a baby with ginger curls on the adjacent table reaches out, extending a pack of travel wipes. She points to my sleeve. “For your coat.” I inhale sharply and repeat the handy mental script with which my therapist has armed me for such moments: It’s okay to be disgusted. It’s a natural reaction when encountering another person’s bodily fluids. Being grossed out does not mean you love your child any less. Allow yourself to accept these moments of repulsion, and to let them go. Exhale. Inhale, exhale. Okay.
After scrubbing my coat, I give the stroller a wipe-down. Disinfecting it in public is impossible, but maybe I can scrub it with bleach when we get home. That’ll be a fun way to spend his nap. I pick him up and carry him in my left arm while pushing the empty stroller with my right, past the store’s security shrouds, back into the mall, up the wheelchair ramp, through the accessibility door to the parking garage, which is eternally out of order.
I open the rear passenger door and place him in his car seat, guiding his arms through the straps and snapping the harness across his chest. He blinks heavy eyelids. He’ll take a good nap today, unless he falls asleep on the way home. I’ll have to crack a window and blast some Raffi to make sure that doesn’t happen. Mommy needs a nap today, too.
As I walk back around to figure out how to collapse the stroller without getting shit all over the car, my mind checks in with itself. The luggage tag is still in the stroller pocket. I stop. From the car seat, Theo shrieks, and it echoes through the garage’s frigid air. I try to envision a scenario in which I unbuckle him and carry all 22 pounds of him back to the store to pay for a six-dollar luggage tag that I accidentally stole.
Not today. It’s time to go.
So this is what it takes to have a multi-dimensional identity again—mother and thief. I turn the key in the ignition and toss the luggage tag onto the empty passenger seat with a flick of my wrist. The vents resume blasting air, now unhelpfully cold. It’s not my fault, I tell myself. They made it too easy. I wonder what I’d have to shoplift to get someone to notice me again.
. . .
The tag falls onto the salt-stained floor mat as I make a hard turn into the drive-thru line for a corporate coffee chain—a former client. “Tall decaf Americano,” I tell the speaker box. “And a cranberry scone.” A second breakfast is about as Awesome as my Today is going to get.
“Six forty-one,” the box warbles back. I roll up the window and look in my rearview mirror at the forward-facing one mounted on the headrest behind Theo’s seat. He seems content to survey the half-empty parking lot through the backseat window, oblivious to the faint whiff of shit wafting from the cargo area of our hatchback.
I consider my next move. I’ll tell the barista she can keep the change, and my wallet will be empty once again. I’ll drive home, we’ll eat whatever lunch I can throw together, and then it’s naptime. I’ll turn off my phone, close my eyes, and wake up to a delayed haha from my husband. Beyond that, I have no idea.
Colleen Rothman’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Mutha Magazine, Okay Donkey, Chicago Literati, and elsewhere. After more than a decade living in the Midwest, she is once again proud to call New Orleans home. She can be found online at colleenrothman.com or on Twitter @colleenrothman.