Mary and I were at the mall on a Friday, so this story is already awesome. We were going to see a movie, but also grabbing something to eat, and also screwing around, like we always do when we’re together, and as I sat down in a booth with my gourmet taco in the food court – resplendent with teenagers and natural light – I wondered what my New York friends would say if they knew I was eating dinner 20 feet from a Glamour Shots.
But part of being a good suburban American is that I feel comfortable in malls, especially this one, which is much fancier than most, and part of being 37 is no long worrying (except for a flash) what other people think about what you’re doing. What my New York friends would think is: Man, that’s why I’m never moving to Texas. What my New York friends would think is: Hell yeah. What my New York friends would think is: Who cares? Where did you get that sweet Boston T-shirt?
What a good question. I was wearing an old 70s baseball T hot-ironed with the logo for the band Boston, which I bought at a vintage store during a month when the song “More Than a Feeling” became a kind of fever for me. Growing up, I never liked Boston – theirs was an edgeless guitar rock played on classic radio, impossible to dance to. But in the past year I had become besotted with a certain late 70s aesthetic – latchhook rugs and old beige corduroys handed down from my mother and Dr. Pepper flavored Lipsmacker and aviator glasses. Hair in pigtails. I listened to ELO and “Off the Wall”-era Michael Jackson and Queen and the Bee Gees. Anything you could play in a roller rink – that was my jam.
It was a curious nostalgia. A nostalgia for an age I had just missed. I wasn’t actually remembering these bands so much as I was still discovering them. I grew up wearing more makeup than a Real Housewife. I wanted to paint the world hot pink. I listened to Duran Duran, Lionel Richie, Madonna, all the pop stuff that came in reaction to earnest bands like Boston. Music videos featuring a tiger. Everyone in Wet N Wild eyeliner.
Back at the mall, Mary and I had to walk through Macy’s to get to the movie theater, and we were struck by the junior’s department, filled with leopard-print and chintzy Southwestern mesa design and torn neon shirts that really are the kind of crap I wore back in those days. I hated it. I would have happily dive-bombed that store.
“Why would anyone want the 80s to come back?” Mary asked, but of course, none of the girls shopping here would have been alive in the 80s. That is the funny thing about nostalgia – it’s not a direct line. It skips generations, the same ideas recycled for a new audience.
But then other pieces of my past I cling to with an irrational love. We passed by the low-rent spangle of Claire’s (one of the most successful mall ventures of all time, by the way. I have never seen a Claire’s outside of a mall, and I have never seen a mall without a Claire’s. One day, I’ll write about this for the New Yorker.) And I made Mary come with me into the store, because (gasp) she had never been. Never been to Claire’s! My God, there should be a nonprofit for these sorts of lost souls. Her ears aren’t pierced, and in some outrageous miscalculation, she understood that store to be mostly earrings, which it certainly is not.
Here are other items Claire’s sells: Tiaras, Lipsmacker in rainbow flavors, a ring watch, a purple glitter clamshell phone that opens up to reveal a palette of shimmering eye shadows. A Justin Bieber alarm clock. A Justin Bieber pillow. I took a picture of Mary holding that last item. She is a sport, that one.
Claire’s is a candy store for tweens, basically, and in my heart, I suppose I am still one, too. Every time I hang out with my friend’s daughter, who is 5, I am reminded that she and I share the same passion for wigs and bedazzlement. “Oh, I have that,” I think when I see some pink poofery in her room bought at Target. And then I think: Why the hell am I buying the same stuff as a 5-year-old girl?
This resistance to aging feels emblematic of my generation, who grew up marinating in the corporate hatred of Nirvana and the romantic arrested development of movies like “Slacker.” Nobody wanted to grow up. Nobody ever does, but we didn’t have to. “Grups,” Adam Sternbergh called us in a classic New York magazine cover story about a generation of parents who shun the signifiers of mature adulthood. Recently, while visiting Williamsburg, I saw a mid-40s mother wearing black sparkly leggings at 9am, and I thought: Wow, really? And then I thought: Wow, impressive. I mean, if you can do both things at once – be a mom and be a kid, be responsible and be hot — why wouldn’t you?
Recently, Mary heard someone take a swipe at a 40-year-old woman in pigtails. Not any specific woman, but this person used it in a casually derisive way, shorthand for trying too hard, the way I might take a swipe at a dad with an earring. You know: Give it up. And I am aware that my 70s Love’s Baby Soft pigtail aesthetic leaves me open to ridicule. I have the Facebook messages to prove it. But here is the thing: I don’t care. I am just as much a stupid cliché as the guy who is getting his self-esteem from tearing down a 40-year-old woman for the way she wears her hair. None of it matters. What matters, I swear to you, is not giving up. Why do people say things like, “Give it up”? I gave it up for a long time. It was not a trip I would recommend.
The movie Mary and I were seeing that night was “Bully,” a documentary that follows a handful of school-kids living in the vise grip of cruelty and ridicule. Those are brave kids. I had complicated feelings about the film, which I basically thought was good, but what I really felt was: I would not go back for a million dollars. I would not be that person again, the person who flinched all the time and was afraid to speak for fear that whatever came out of her mouth would be wrong. The person craving attention and fleeing from it at once.
People often say we’re a youth-worshiping culture, and it’s true. My friends talk about wrinkles and Botox now. Body parts sag in unfortunate ways. But I would not go back. Not to my 20s, when I was sad and lost and drunk, and certainly not to the age of 13, when relief came in the form of a store like Claire’s, or the fantasy of some soft boy with swooshy hair and Top 40 hits, or the promise of glitter makeup and a freaking ring watch. But I also thought: I am that person, still, in so many ways. 5 and 13 and 37 all at once.
Mary took a picture of me in Claire’s, wearing a “Sweet 16” crown, and I think the title for that picture should be “Count the levels of denial in this picture.” It is a ridiculous photo, an intended satire of sorts. But it’s also me, as I really am. That’s all I can be, I suppose. One day, when I’m 45 and wearing split-crotch panties to the grocery store, I’ll be nostalgic for this moment, too.