Archive for the ‘Creative Writing’ Category

Sloganeering: An American Critique of Identity and Place in the Neoliberal University

November 23, 2017

The University of North Florida boldly boasts its twelve-year-old slogan throughout campus: “No one like you, no place like this.” This slogan rings like an apology, vehemently denying an accusation that no one has made. The slogan promises to retain “that small college feel,” according to President John Delaney, without yielding to the fact that “we’re growing larger” (Kormanik). But, like all slogans, the vacuity and imprecision of these words – promising individuality and appealing to the neoliberal banking model of education – betrays Delaney’s intentions. The antecedent premise, “No one like you,” appeals to archaic notions of selfhood that are inscribed in the pronoun “you,” a signifier that the UNF slogan takes for granted. More accurately, the UNF slogan uncritically appeals to the shifter pronoun “I” implied in “you.” The UNF slogan appeals to what traditional American literature has revealed as the now-vacant status of the “I” pronoun, a vacancy to which the UNF slogan is now anachronistically performing. The UNF slogan’s consequent premise, “no place like this,” appeals to an outdated and mistaken metaphysics (of subjecting reference to essence). This mistake is effortlessly revealed by the self-examining writings of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. These two writers warrant the call for a new slogan.

“No one like you.”

The interpellative and thereby obfuscating function of the pronoun “you” is one indication that the first premise of the UNF slogan (“No one like you”) rests on a faulty foundation. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s timeless essay, “Self-Reliance,” harshly accuses society of manipulating its citizens such that they thoughtlessly defer to authority: even one’s pronouns are not one’s own. Emerson’s description of thoughtless deference to authority that “you” provokes could just as easily apply to the UNF slogan’s invocation (though not explicit use) of the “I” pronoun, which signifies the same thing: “the hieroglyphic by which they obscurely signified their consciousness” of rights and responsibilities within the University (149). Emerson does not (explicitly) define the pronoun “I” in this precise manner, but psychoanalytic and deconstructive thought have, for the past decades, mutually vacated the pronoun “I” in ways that might recast Emerson’s writings on authority such that it decays into a “hieroglyphic” that “obscurely [signifies (or, outdatedly, signified) one’s own] consciousness.” The hieroglyphic pronoun in the UNF slogan might be fairly described, then, as obscurely signifying one’s conscious relation to the University itself. That is, if the first premise (“No one like you”) obscures one’s relation to oneself, then the University of North Florida is implicated in a shell game of promising individuality, and attending to it, all while subordinating it to the incoherently assembled collective of “you.”

Walt Whitman modifies Emerson’s “hieroglyph” to explicate the interpellative effect of each utterance of “I” (or “you,” in the UNF slogan’s terms): each hieroglyph is uniform. Walt Whitman’s epic lyrical ballad, “Song of Myself,” openly interrogates the relationship of “I” with the rest of the world (not-I) through an anecdote of a child offering the narrator a blade of grass: “Or I guess the grass is itself a child…the produced babe of the vegetation. // Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic” (29). This “uniform hieroglyphic,” a simple blade of grass, is, according to Whitman, referentially identical to a child: an individual with potential. In other words, the grass is a yet-to-be (perhaps already) “I” pronoun. Indeed, a blade of grass even (uniformly) looks like an “I” pronoun. The uniformity might be the primary reason that UNF chose their current slogan; it masquerades as a caring, individualistic, hieroglyphic appeal to each student, while actually applying to everyone in a uniform way that applies to no one. One might even say that the UNF slogan appeals to no one (like you).

Whitman further distinguishes a “Me myself” pronoun which problematizes the lazy, uncapitalized pronoun “you” that the UNF slogan appeals to. Whitman crafts the curious phrase “the Me myself” first in place of the “I” pronoun, which is another reason to suspect the truth-claim to which the pronoun “I” (and, for the purposes of this argument, “you”) adheres. The opening stanza of the fourth section of “Song of Myself” loquaciously lists off gobs of gossip and nugatory news, concluding: “but [these externals] are not the Me myself” (28). The capitalization involved in Whitman’s diction of “Me” evokes the proper noun status of the pronoun “I,” but somewhat redundantly continues to modify “Me” with the common noun “myself.” This hierarchical redundancy serves to distinguish not only between “I” and “not-I,” but to distinguish the thoughts and cares of others with the narrator’s (Whitman’s?) own. It also breaks down the interpellative effect of “you” that the UNF slogan employs. But even further, the “Me myself” evokes a kind of spirituality: an inner life which isn’t immediately accessible in the presence of others. Whitman’s spiritual idea of the “Me myself” is precisely what’s missing in the UNF slogan.

The pronoun “I” thus ontologically collapses into the vagaries of UNF’s “no one like you” slogan; “I” becomes “you,” for Whitman. Emerson, for instance, condemns the timidity of the times, the unwillingness to declare “I think,” or “I am.” These declarations are antithetical to Whitman’s project throughout “Song of Myself.” That is, Whitman answers Emerson’s criticism to the extent that Whitman vacates the “I/you” pronoun of all distinction: “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (25). Hence, Whitman’s need to articulate the “Me myself” in contradistinction to Emerson’s charge. “I” and “you” are thus a self-reference, hyper-linking access points to sources of meaning in other parts (places) of the world. Whitman further develops this idea that the thoughts within his poem are, in fact, “the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands” (41). His ideas are, in other words, “not original” (41). And, in some sense, the opening lines of Whitman’s poem are not original: either they, the words, belong to you, or “I,” the narrator, belong to “you.” Yet, if these words belong to “you,” that is to say, everyone, then one can’t help but be timid and apologetic in a world where neoliberal institutions like UNF shamelessly rely on empty promises without nuanced distinctions regarding identity: “No one like you, no place like this.”

 

“No place like this.”

The second premise of the UNF slogan, “no place like this,” is similarly defeated by a cursory glance at the tradition of American literature. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” perplexingly evolves from an examination of the self, the “I,” into an examination of the self in a place. Or, more accurately, Whitman’s poem declares that “I resist any thing better than my own diversity, / Breathe the air but leave plenty after me, / And am not stuck up, and am in my place” (41). An overtly literal reading of these three lines might interrogate (in a similar fashion to the discussion above) the “I” in relationship to “my own diversity.” Furthermore, the buried double-negative in Whitman’s formulation “resist anything better than” could simply be rewritten as “can’t (or don’t) resist.” In other words, I can’t resist my own diversity. The diversity of the self, or the “I,” becomes present in the following lines, in which the the narrator describes the breath. Breathing entails an ebb-and-flow routine of inhalation and exhalation. In breathing, one takes a part of the world into oneself and then releases it back to itself. This reciprocal relationship of the body and external world (“I” and “not-I”) leads Whitman’s narrator to conclude that he is “in [his] place.” This feeling of being in one’s place might be a way to frame the following discussion of the UNF slogan’s second premise, “No place like this.” That is, if one is always in one’s place, then one is always in places “like this.”

This universal well-placedness of oneself, if Whitman is to be believed, fundamentally undermines UNF’s presupposition that there is, in fact, “no place like this.” And, to be charitable to the UNF slogan, Whitman isn’t as categorical about “always” being in one’s place. But the poem’s following (parenthetical) stanza warrants such a reading: “(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place, / The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place, / The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)” (41). At the risk of being obvious, moths and fish-eggs live and breed in vastly different ecological conditions: ocean vs. air, hot vs. cold, etc. Yet, the disparity between such diverse creatures is insignificant for Whitman’s narrator. Furthermore, bright suns and dark suns that the narrator can’t even see are “in their place” as well. Epistemological ambiguity, in other words – something to which the narrator has no epistemic access – is still confidently “in its place.” Finally, both the palpable and impalpable are “in their place,” suggesting a metaphysical certitude on behalf of Whitman’s narrator. Both what seems tangible and what seems intangible, or real and fake, etc., are to be confidently believed in as “in their place” as well. At each instance, Whitman’s narrator walks the reader down the path of understanding the universal well-placedness of things. Again, to the UNF slogan, there are many places like this.

Here, one might object to Whitman, defending the UNF slogan to the extent that there will never be a place like this again: one’s experience at UNF in 2017 will be different than one’s experience at UNF in 2018, and so on. Even if this objection holds, and Whitman’s discussion of the universal well-placedness of things is an eccentric oversimplification of the world, Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” palliates this objection with a definitive discussion of temporal “place.” That is, Emerson writes of time in a fourth-dimension-evoking sense of place. Emerson argues further in “Self-Reliance” that, by civilizational disposition, “man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future” (151). By postponing or remembering something other than the present, one is, in effect, not where one is. And, in Emerson’s terms, one “does not live in the present.” One must thus avoid the “reverted eye” and “tiptoe,” for one will be “heedless” of that which surrounds oneself. Furthermore, if one rejects Whitman’s notion of the universal well-placedness of things, as Emerson does, then one is, in fact, never where one is (in time). Either instance – of spatial or temporal “place” – reveals the empty promise behind the UNF slogan that there is “no place like this.” Both defenses, spatial and temporal, fail. The situation is thus twofold: one is either always in a place like this, as Whitman would have it, or one is never in a place like this, as Emerson warns. Categorically, there can be no “no place like this.”

 

Symptoms of Sloganeering

For a place that claims to be unique, UNF spends an inordinate amount on advertising and facilitating international study abroad programs, a trend that Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” (predictably) warns about. To travel, or to study abroad, for Emerson, is to pursue a “fool’s paradise” (160). This paradise is that of a fool because one who travels for amusement, or seeks some external fulfillment or insight into the self, “travels away from [oneself]” (159). That is, as was the case above, one who travels is never where one is. The question then becomes whether the promise of UNF’s uniqueness as a place conflicts with its honored commitment to multicultural globalism, sending its students to novel places: places not “like this.”

The UNF slogan promotes the “superstition” that Emerson condemns and attributes to the archaic urge, specifically amongst University students, to travel (159). Emerson associates this superstitious urge to travel with “all educated Americans” whose “fascination” still permeates educational spheres (159). One might suppose that students, as intellectuals or “all educated Americans,” would be immunized to superstition; obviously this is not the case. Rather, according to Emerson, “it is for want of self-culture” that students feel compulsion to study abroad (159). The compulsion to study abroad, seen as incompatible with UNF’s vain slogan, is the pathway towards growing old “even in youth,” according to Emerson (159). Surely, growing old is not the aim of students seeking fulfillment abroad or in travel. Rather, returning to Emerson’s earlier evocation of the temporal aspect of “place,” one travels to escape the present. Or, in this case, one travels to escape the present place: “this,” as UNF would articulately prefer.

The urge to travel manifests itself within the University’s culture and structure due to a deeper problem: intellectual morass. For Emerson, “the intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness” (160). Obviously, Emerson wrote “Self-Reliance” in 1841, nearly two centuries ago, far before publicly funded high schools were mandatory, much less Universities. Emerson’s prescient problematizations for pedagogy thus presage this historical worry which, to this day, fails to undercut the persistent “restlessness” of studenthood and the isolating  “vagabond” feeling that attends one’s completion of a college degree. One graduates restlessly insofar as one’s education misleadingly “trains” oneself for an incongruent, unforgiving world. One is restless when confronted with the prospect of what one does not already know; as one is educated (or, as one might worry, indoctrinated), one becomes increasingly aware of one’s uncertain relation to the world. And, to Emerson’s second point, one seeks to study abroad because one’s intellect is already vagabond. One might say that the University structurally disassembles people, that the role of a classical education was to train students for the project of becoming who one is, living out the heroic archetype underneath the foundations of Western culture. Only vainly does the UNF slogan project the heroic archetype onto its students; there is, after all, “no one like you.” If UNF sincerely squared itself against Emerson’s mordant critique of what the UNF slogan’s second premise promises, then perhaps the dissonance between the UNF slogan and the experience of individual students subsides. Perhaps there can be a harmonious relation between the UNF slogan and its students, if the University were to critically examine and recast its own slogan.

 

Giving the Devil his Due

Emerson warns that, in polemically addressing the UNF slogan and thereby its contradictory relationship with travel, the “rejection of popular standards” will be seen as a “rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism” (155). This critique is not “mere antinomianism,” a cynical rendering of bureaucracy as such, or travel as such. Rather, the UNF slogan in particular reeks of detached corporate sterilization that seeks to please everyone, a task which no one need ever embark. Rather, UNF should rally around something else: laying out a path of coherent orientation for students who, ultimately, attend University in pursuit of direction and meaning in their lives.

Young people enter University with the primary intention of contributing meaning to the world. This seems to have been the purpose of the classical University structure, as Whitman’s “Song” suggests: to teach people how to meaningfully contribute to the world, to equip people with the vocabulary for generating significance in otherwise insignificant things like a blade of grass. But the University no longer participates in such activity; rather, the dominant narrative throughout the humanities departments is that the world is a corrupt and terrible place, that one’s sense of self (“you”) is conferred constitutive worth by one’s ability to undermine it. The problem with the impetus to undermine society is that it undermines the constitutive identities of the student. Then, undermined, students haphazardly search for that which is worthwhile, something which is easy to seek refuge in: the socially pressured escape in travel, partying, and the online advertising of identity. Hence the phrase that sounds equally lost: “No one like you, no place like this.” The attractiveness of these refuges, according to Emerson, arises from the University’s general cynicism towards cohesive, traditional meaning, the meaning that the classical University structure – as opposed to the banking model of contemporary Universities – once promised to produce.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph W. The Portable Emerson. Penguin Classics, 1981. Print.

Kormanik, Beth. “New logos, new slogan and a new angle for UNF.” The Florida Times Union, 19 August 2005, http://jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/081905/met_19541575.shtml#.WhRMz7Q-eRs. Accessed 10 November 2017.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition. Penguin Classics, 1961. Print.

 

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Instances of Irritatingly Terse Poetry (from “Wilpower”)

September 22, 2017

I’m happy to share that some of my experimental poetry has been accepted by a Floridian literary magazine. Thanks to Emily Wilson for the opportunity to interrupt the normal flow of literature. Click through to Wilpower’s website for my poems; stay for some adjacently pleasurable authorial content.

Camera Violentia (from “Undistributed”)

March 15, 2017

spencerphotocreativewriting

1951: Beckett reminds us that the role of objects is to restore silence.

So we continue to build the loudest tools we can. Our objects must deafen us

with bravado, with mystery, with intrigue. We must be able to hear it and

proclaim that we could produce such heroic notes if the gods rattled our dense

bonecage.

 

1962: Malcolm argues that death is the price of liberty.

But do we keep our hands clean of the carnage when we can pull the trigger

ourselves? The fingerprints of history do not easily conceal the tribalistic vitriol

of violent human impulses. Resettling, negotiating, contesting the numbers. A

revolver is one thing, but nuclear holocaust would be like no other.

 

1970: Blue on blue disguised as black and white.

Ouroboros of Schopenhauerian tragedy. Kent turns the gun to his own temple

without realizing it. My Lai drowns its legacy; Ohio waterboards its memories.

We all bury our children. Nixon’s eventual eviction.

 

1985: No Explanation Offered.

Suicide [CLASSIFIED] season.

 

1992: The White Glove Debate.

Gloves don’t kill people; people kill people. Delicate raw rays of Rawls. Do I

have the right to conceal my hands with a license. Pull the trigger, pull the

trigger, pull the trigger. Don’t be diligent, be disciplined. Do it legally.

 

2001: Birds flying into the window.

Clear the desk, pay the scapegoat, burn the last match. Unforgettable physics.

Boxcutters. Vexatious, uncanny familiarity with the unknown weapon in your

hand: On the one hand, if you can take the whole barrel down your throat,

you’ll realize you have a future career in adult film. On the other hand, if you

gag halfway down, you’ll go beyond magic out the back of your throat.

 

2008: Hope & Change.

Columbia & Heller. No one is going to riddle holes into our future. Women in

menopause gravitate towards my garden. It’s where I provide for pollinators,

where I grow gunpowder, where I harvest my young and

Donation

October 21, 2016

donation

Standing in line at the corner store, I overhear the customer ahead of me. “That thing is totally misleading, you know,” she says to the cashier. Her finger is pointing at a donation jar for a child stricken with a terminal illness. Taped to the front is a picture of an employee holding her bald child, both of them beaming. I’ve known the woman, but never met the child. (She tells me he’s doing better.)

The cashier doesn’t know what to say. She sputters out something about how the child in the photo is recovering, yes, but the family’s finances are far from polished. The customer responds, almost as if she didn’t care to hear the explanation, “Well I just think it’s false advertising, saying a kid is dying when he’s not.” She has my attention.

I take a good look at this customer. Between the love handles drooping over her overly tight shorts, and the skin that could have upholstered the most luxurious of leather interiors, there were simply too many details of her personal appearance that would be easily exploitable–especially for a petty, vindictive joke. And let’s just say she didn’t seem the type to entertain nuanced discussion. Rather than say something, I simply raise my eyebrows, intimating to the cashier that I, too, think this lady is ridiculous.

The lady gets her receipt, collects her change, and then adds, almost offhandedly, “His mom is just a greedy bitch. I regret donating.”

She slips out the door, and the cashier, understandably flustered, takes a moment to collect herself before inviting me forward. “Don’t worry,” I say, softly, “when she is dying of skin cancer, you don’t have to donate.” I tipped my change into the jar.

Wrinkles

September 12, 2016

wrinkles

A dear friend of mine once remarked how I have a “resting dick face,” a clever, gender-correct incarnation of the infamous “resting bitch face.” Well-intended though she undoubtedly was in pointing this out, I have never been able to shrug off her shrewdness. Not infrequently do I notice the latent tension in my face, the expression I’m making, and it’s overall effect on my mood.

I’d like to say that I’m not a “dick,” though some may rightly dispute it, but the expression I commonly wear is somewhere between seriousness, intensity, concern, frustration. I’ve been working on noticing my face, and trying to bring a smile to it more often. Once I notice my “resting dick face,” I relax my face, smile a bit, and feel the world widen.

I spend a lot of time studying the faces and expressions of the elderly. The more I age, the more human they become. I notice their posture, their gesticulations, their demeanor, but above all–and this is not intended as derogatory–I notice their wrinkles.

Wrinkles are an inevitable part of ageing, a source of consternation for many. And I’m starting to notice a few wrinkles carving themselves out on my own face. Certain wrinkles pronounce themselves more readily than others. Raising my eyebrows, for instance, reveals about fifteen distinct stripes across my forehead–a dermatoid reminder of what people have called my “Jim Halpert face.” I’m also developing slight crows feet around my eyes, a welcoming mnemonic of uncontrolled mirth.

The wrinkles that inspire existential dread, for me, is when I narrow my brow. The two vertical lines between my eyebrows have been carved out by thousands of hours reading, trying to push myself harder at the gym, trying to take another person’s position seriously. In short, my resting dick face is the result of habit.

I ask myself what kind of wrinkles I’d like to pursue, what kind of habits are necessary to sculpt the kind of old-person face I’d like to end up with.  The obvious answer is to smile more. Build the crows feet and the dimples! I do my best to notice when I’m taking myself or others too seriously, and laugh at those moments of conceit.

And so I vacillate between these two extremes: wanting to engage the world seriously and critically, changing it for the better, and at the same time enjoying little moments, deliberately trying to curate gaiety more often. I’m not sure either path is entirely without fault, but I do want my wrinkles to be well-chosen.

Throwing Darts at the Map

September 12, 2016

The secret to escaping strait-jackets: blindfold yourself and determinedly not know where you are, really. They say the brain begins to hallucinate from lack of stimuli; this is precisely what you are trying to accomplish. (Or, if you’re a bit claustrophobic by nature, then simply travel. That’s what I did.)

If you think you need a break from life, take one. Maybe that break is two months down the road, but you can’t hide from feelings of despair forever. Repression is a hydra. Home starts to feel oppressive, your guerilla mind plots against itself, and destructive habits soon plant their flags of victory.

Alcoholism is my reason, why I so desperately needed to flee from the inviting clutches of the comfort zone. I stopped drinking two weeks prior to the greatest week of my life, what I have endearingly titled, the #AlkaSeltzerGreatAmericanRoadTrip.

throwingdarts1

Itinerary: find a place to sleep, drive there, park, begin to wander until fatigue sets in. Repeat.


Instructions: do no research, do not google suggestions, and especially do not get comfortable. (I would even recommend taking my approach of not estimating travel time in advance. Get in the car before you plug in the address of your destination. Let the duration shock you.)

The world isn’t that big of a place. I won’t tell you specifically where I travelled, but let it suffice to say that my time was well spent.

Goals: see some nature, try some local cuisine, steep myself in culture, and feel so uncomfortable by my lack of security that I have no choice but to neurotically journal out my experiences before bed each night.

A road trip is supposed to suck a little bit. Endless hours looking at a hundred thousand incarnations of the same shit. Tree after tree after tree after tree. Hopefully some good music to break the monotony. The information your brain is imbibing starts to condense. The memory of what is  concretizing births nostalgic satisfaction, the feeling that bubbles out your ears, whispering, “Let’s go again, let’s go again!”

Am I stupid? Yes. But less stupid after deepthroating a week of different cities and cultures. I didn’t even give myself time to chew. Museums, microbreweries, marketplaces. Nature, nature, nature.

throwingdarts2

Day two of my trip, somebody on the street asked me what the time was. What a stupid question, I remember thinking. Time’s oppressive weight had been lifted from my back and I hadn’t even realized it.

Each morning I’d exchange goodbyes with the roof over my head, return to my car-prison, and endure the endless hours with no one more interesting than myself. Each day, right as the penultimate half-hour of my travels approached, the mental geyser of epiphany would belch its way into gaseous existence. And just before language could bottle up the airiform ideas–There! My parking spot awaits! The moment of relief so strong as to be legitimately mistaken as an orgasm. Everything is forgotten.

The car is parked, my bed is secured, thus the timeless adventure resumed. Tick, tick, tick, remember, tick, tick, tick. But I wasn’t even dimly aware of clocks. The most striking feature of the #AlkaSeltzerGreatAmericanRoadTrip was that everything was new, everything in motion.

[We’ve been taking road trips long before cars plagued our world. I distinctly remember, back in 1789, riding a horse along the East Coast…]

Errant. Errant. Errant.
Flâneur and Anti-Flâneur.

Get lost, I wanted to tell the guy without the time. I stood on this street corner, having been violated from my incognito. I stressed to this time-ignorant blessed soul: it’s not that I’m mean, I mean it! Go, get lost, wander, intentionally lose your way, that’s the only way.

clocktower

Clocktime is the most oppressive force in the western world. Smash the patriarchy all you’d like, but the most despotic social construction from which all the oppressive manifestations of human repugnance arise is our cultist belief in the 24 hour day. Some useless sociologist once taught me something extremely useful: Thomas’ Theorem, the idea that, if an idea is real in its consequence, then it is real in the world. I hate clocks.

Clocks have actually convinced people that there’s a fourth dimension living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day.

Rewind a few rotations around the sun, and we arrive in my bedroom. I had just met god, who was presented to me in the form of myself. The psilocybin was in full effect. The ceiling was melting into the wall at an alarming rate. But pure ecstasy resulting. And I proceed into a world that makes me scoff at Dante’s: I couldn’t read clocks.

I looked at my phone, saw the numbers, but couldn’t read them. I looked up at my wall–which thankfully had stopped melting–and that clock was unreadable too! I looked out at the sun, who wasn’t giving any answers. Time paused.

snapchat-347842208057379753

God fearing folk warned me not to look god in the face, that god’s image will blind you, etc. That might be true. Maybe this time-resistant world wasn’t going to let me go, forever. Maybe hell isn’t an “after” life, maybe it’s a tax on your “now.” The privilege of seeing god incurs an existential tariff. Thus, I sat on the mountain of shame for the next 10,000 years, alone, sweating. Time resumed.

And so, with all of this in mind, we return to the street corner. I still haven’t answered the guy’s question. Unlike you, I chose not to burden him with my web of temporal associations. So I lied. I don’t have the time, I said.

Winter Windows

October 14, 2014

Two fingers pulled away from my chapped lips in a mockery of the four lit cigarettes in the car. I exhaled a plume of white fog out the window and into the frigid humidity. Zed was the only one with a car or a license, so naturally Sab, John and I had all piled into the backseat. And Christie—Zed’s “girlfriend”, our Darth Vader of stupidity—just had to come. We edged into the mall’s parking lot, bony hips grinding into one another and against the doors.

We circled the infinite rows of occupied spaces until another round of cigarettes had almost passed. I didn’t understand why we always waited until the last week of holiday shopping to make this pilgrimage. The mall now overflowed with both the empty-handed and the over-laden.

Zed’s predatory turn signal flickered on in delight and yanked us out of our daydreams.  The reverse lights of an old Bonneville conduced a universal cheer from our car. We edged up to the vacated space and noticed a police vehicle parked like a crooked painting. One wheel dangled awkwardly over the white line halfway into our treasured spot.

Zed must have circumvented the laws of physics or something, because we made it in with a few centimeters to spare. I hugged my belly through that narrow, fatal gap between car and car door.  Christie, on the other hand, had to perform fat roll gymnastics to traverse the center console and evade the steering wheel. A few accidental honks and she was free out the driver’s side, carrot fingers grasping after Zed’s hairy, thin digits.

The two of them just made no sense. One moment, she was throwing things at him. The next, Zed was pushing the door closed behind us, masking moans and giggles of apology.

I looked to Sab and John. The flurry of finger tapping had begun, signaling the beginning of a Pokemon battle on their handhelds.

“Guys, let’s go,” I urged, annoyed. No response; more button mashing. A tempting wave provoked me to unplug the cable facilitating their distraction. But I let the urge crash past; I was always the diplomat. I walked up to them and tapped on their screens sharply.

“Dude, we’ll catch up to you,” Sab mumbled, “Christie wants to go to that organic soap and lotion place anyway.” Clearly this wasn’t a good prospect for any of us, though Sab’s greasy, straightened hair could have used a rinse. They had every right to go off on their own, but I couldn’t help but feel as if it were rude for us to abandon Zed when he was paying for the gas. I looked the two of them over and surrendered my attempt to make peace.

I paced towards the glass façade of the mall entrance, alone. The winter windows were obscured with condensation and grimy finger prints. I held the door open for a figure that was more shopping bag than woman, and slipped in the narrow gap after her. I was greeted instantly with the welcoming smell of bleach masking vomit on the old, cheap tile floors.

The few shops I passed featured the occasional gate barring off what used to be an ice cream vendor or a jewelry merchant. I seemed to be the only one without a group here. There were couples, yoga moms, church groups, a few homeless men coveting the real estate surrounding the fountain. I disappeared into the herd and bulldozed my way towards the store Christie had dragged Zed.

I had not expected to be so overwhelmed by the array of scents in here. Surely it was better than what I had just walked through but I couldn’t help but feeling critical of the mixture of almond butter, watermelon, and cocoa battling for my attention. I spent a few minutes wading around in the unoccupied corners, in between tables and employees, picking up a select few scents and humoring the organic craze that had swept my high school recently.

There were a few interesting combinations of hibiscus and banana, rosemary and orange. I couldn’t imagine that something like this would smell very good, let alone really clean you. Then, to my astonishment, I encountered a hand soap of Eucalyptus and Spearmint that might as well have been on a pedestal in the spotlight; this was undeniably it. “Stress Free,” it read, and I was brought back to memories of Australia and the chewing gum mom always carried around in her purse. I never liked that gum, how it burned my nose. But when there was no other option, I’d swallow my pride and ask for a piece.

At sixteen, this was the first year I had been able to earn my own money and I wanted to do something nice for the few people in my life. I flipped the bar of soap over in my palms and a price tag of eighteen dollars and ninety-nine cents slapped me across the cheek. Feeling the sting with one hand, I placed it back down on the shelf, defeated. Oh well, I thought, this stuff is way overpriced anyway. By this point, Zed and Christie would probably be finishing up in here, so I danced back around the displays, weaving between pyramids of merchandise, searching.

You could spot their out of proportion bodies even through this festival of people. Zed’s drooped head stuck out over the rest of the crowd, and sure enough, Christie would surface below when I reached them. But they were so close to the counter that I decided to continue loosely browsing until they checked out. Even though I had no merchandise in my hands, there would inevitably be that angry shopper yelling at me to not cut in line. People got so selfish around the holidays.

My feet carried me back around the perimeter of the store. I felt some facial scrubs and lotions which seemed to be popular. An old man was exclaiming over something for his “foot fungus” and I edged away uncomfortably, again meeting the Eukalyptus-Spearmint hybrid. The price tag had not changed. I sighed, spotting Zed finally bouncing his way to the exit, and returned it once more.

Before I had time to call out to them, they changed course sharply and I lost them in the stampede. A few collisions and apologies later, I reached an empty chair which I hopped on to scan the crowd. Two stores over I recognized my now reunited group making their way into a Hot Topic. Admittedly there was a bit of self-consciousness going into a store that sold studded leather and piercings, but I followed all the same.

Sab was reliving his brutal defeat of John’s Pokemon when finally I reunited with my group. I rolled my eyes at the absurdity of the story and noticed Zed’s empty hand that wasn’t being digested by Christie’s. He had resisted and not emptied his wallet for her. Woah, I thought, impressed. Then almost on-cue, her droning voice abruptly cut off Sab’s tale.

“We have to go back, Zed,” Christie pouted, ignoring us completely. The annoyance was written on everybody’s face as we met eyes. Zed began mumbling his reluctant reasons to deny her as we quickly dispersed. Things tended to get ugly if we got dragged into their arguments. I trailed behind Sab and John in the dim lighting as we browsed the wall of band tees.

**

We made our way through the labyrinth of shoppers and stores and displays, nothing really catching our attention. An occasional purchase here or there. We passed a set of tables outside the food court, empty, but for a rather violently skinny man dressed in too many layers. It seemed as if this man was having a conversation with the half-eaten lemon in his dirty palm. He quivered with emotion as he spoke. I felt a militia of goosebumps work their way up my back and quickly slipped myself in the middle of our group.

Perhaps two hours passed and we collected a great gamut of things. Sab and John spent a few bucks on some obscure albums from Europe that were marked down to less than two dollars. Zed had purchased more than I could pretend to remember for the famously unemployed Christie. I, with the limited money folded neatly in my pocket, had obtained a pack of Magic the Gathering cards and a candle for my mom. At this point in our venture it was rather clear that food was on all of our brains.

We headed back past the rows of stores running themselves out of business one free sample at a time. I took a handful of flavored popcorn, a pretzel bite, and a dime-sized club sandwich on a toothpick. We fell in line at separate “restaurants” in the food court and met up at an unwiped table. One by one, our cheap lunchroom trays obscured the varnished surface of an old map of the Floridian waterways. A cacophony of sneezes and coughs blended together amidst the jovial laughter of departing shoppers.

I had barely sat down before Sab and John had vacuumed their lunch and began a rematch on their handhelds. I found myself lost in their battle, not really paying attention to Christie’s endless spew of speech. Sab was down this time and John had a chance. They were perhaps seconds from conclusion when Christie ripped the cord out between them.

“Are you even listening to me?” came her demanding yell. We didn’t even make eye contact with each other. We just stared without a word at the cable between her fat fists. Our three glares slowly met hers. Zed buried his face in his phone, contacting nobody.

A few curse words were exchanged before we came down to a reasonable volume. I was acutely aware of several pairs of eyes lingering on our exchange. By now, a police officer had noticed our quarrel, scowling down a billowy moustache and deciding whether or not to intervene.

Christie continued dogmatically arguing that we shouldn’t leave yet. Zed had “promised her” that if she didn’t ask for much else he would get one or two things for her at the organics place. Christie was halfway through her ninety-five theses of why we had to go back when I cut her off.

“Christie, Christie, CHRISTIE!” I urged harshly in a subdued rage. She turned to me with a blazing gleam on her pale, fat face, ready to lop my head off. “Let’s go, and make this our last stop. We’re all ready to leave, but one more store isn’t going to kill us”. I was speaking more to Sab and John, who appeared mutinous. Christie slowly returned her overlarge backside to the seat underneath her, irritated, but placated. She looked triumphantly to first Sab and John and then to Zed, who had sank at least six inches in his chair.

**

Once we squeezed back into the shop, I found myself wrestling against the wall of customers and overdressed employees putting on a live display. This young lady with terrible acne was sitting, wide-eyed in a chair to an onlooking crowd of fifty or more. Once again, I found myself alone between friends and the crowd of onlookers.

A rush of guilt pierced me as I realized that despite my intentions I had not purchased much of anything for anyone. Half my money was eaten up on a t-shirt and my lunch. Another third of that had been eclipsed by the contents in my little shopping bag. But for the third time that day I found myself toe to toe with that ominously perfect Eukalyptus-Spearmint soap. I felt the weight of it in my hands, coveting it, turning over the ripples of color between my fingertips. I squeezed my eyelids shut before the price tag could stare back at me tauntingly again. One eye squinted open, hoping for a discount, or divine intervention, or something.

“What?!” I exclaimed. The price had risen by four dollars in the small time we had spent walking through the mall. Heat thundered through my face as I felt my fists clench perhaps too tightly around the hardened soap. Rationality left me for the briefest of moments and I looked around incredulously for a sales clerk to yell at. There was no one to be found. All faces were turned towards the live display.

I considered something then that had never crossed my mind before. I could take this, right now, and no one would know. I was so close.

I scanned along the cheap ceiling tiles, the people talking excitedly, the sales associates wearing fake smiles and leading unsuspecting victims to the most expensive products. The soap slipped itself into my bag just as advertised: “Stress Free”.

Without much delay, I eased my way through the tumult and caught back up with Zed and Christie. I was disappointed to realize that they were no closer to making a decision than when we were here before. Christie had already filled her arms with too many products, surely more than Zed could afford.

I always took my relationships for granted until I saw a clear example of a bad one. I thought of Sab and John, always cheerful, always open minded and excitable. I thought of mom, always spending too much on me every holiday. I knew what kind of money she brought in. She couldn’t afford for me to buy my own lunch at school, but somehow, each holiday I found myself unwrapping something even the wealthy kids could appreciate. I patted my bag, securely.

I grabbed Zed by the arm and half-yelled up to him, “I’m gonna just go wait at the fountains with Sab and John. You guys catch up when you figure it out, and please hurry. There’s a new episode of Doctor Who tonight.”

I slunk my way back across the shop and slipped towards the exit. My body barely crossed the threshold of the storefront when a hand soundlessly molested my shoulder. I whipped around in alarm, and stood face to face with a woman wearing a headset and a severe look, announcing words to me that I didn’t hear.

I knew. I knew before I turned around that she had seen my bag. My plunder. And she knew. She knew before I saw her that I thought I was getting away with their stuff. My thoughts shattered. My throat closed. But I checked! There was no one watching! No cameras! No staff! Nothing! I forgot how to blink for the better half of her sentences and eventually my helpless body was walked into the store room at the back. Eventually an officer banged the door open and I was handcuffed. My body started convulsing with terror, spluttering apologies and tears.

Globs of fluid poured out of my face in quantities I wouldn’t have guessed possible. I told my story and tried my every tactic. I begged to pay for the soap if only my mom didn’t have to know. The officer laughed and patted his beer belly. He said that kids like me needed to be taught a lesson. He’d kept an eye on my group since our disturbance at the food court. He said some things that caught my disbelieving mind: “momma’s boy”, “find some good friends”, “find Jesus”, “your daddy needs to show you what being a real man means”.

I sat there silently listening to his spew of insults. When he finished, my tears had evaporated. The growing boil of my rage had seen to that. My bloodshot eyes met his smug ones and I burned him. I seared him with every bit of my reddened glare. I had contempt in my heart so powerful and so hot that for a moment I was convinced these handcuffs would shatter and I would rip the moustache off his face..

**

We wheeled to the main entrance and the officer climbed out, leaving me alone, trapped in a metal cage. My face was swollen from the long, uninhibited cry. I noticed Sab and John in the distance, standing around awkwardly, talking to three officers. Zed and Christie stood perhaps twenty feet apart, each on their respective phones, cigarettes furiously in hand.

Then I saw Mom, striding up in a high-heeled fury. She broke a linear path through the families and the friends and the new acquaintances. She met the officers and within seconds they were marching my way. The crowd stared. I stared. She stared. And I knew in that moment I was done.

Through the crack in the window, her wet eyes leveled with mine.

“Ben”, she croaked, weakly, yet sternly. Her eyes shone with that of not anger, not accusation, but true disappointment. “Ben. I just don’t…” she trailed off. She blinked away her uncertainty. “Ben. I don’t even know what to say to you right now. You deserve to be arrested and sit in jail and think about what you have just decided”. She turned away, took a step, then turned back, expression altered somewhat. She leaned back in.

“I still love you, Ben. But I don’t know what to do with you sometimes. We’ll talk about this later.”

And after several minutes, my friends rode off with my bags. I rode off with police officers.