I start my temp job at the Mall of America the same day Chloe kicks me out of our house. Shit, she says, it's just too hard, I mean I love you, but I need some space. We get together, you move in, it's like we're married and I'm twenty-two. My mother got married at twenty-two, not me.
Chloe goes to art school full-time. The attic is her studio and she paints huge sweeping watercolors that we hang in the living room. The edges curl in the heat. We tape them down but they curl up again, in between the pieces of tape. I suggest that she invest in some heavy duty paper and she says Nina, you don't understand. I need this paper.
My artist needs this paper, I say, and I kiss her neck. She smears paint on my nose.
That was last week. This week I have to move out. This week I have to go to work at the Mall of America to do God knows what and then come home and have tension and start packing up my belongings, even though I know Chloe still desperately loves me as much as I love her.
I have memorized her. I think it's important to do when you take a lover, know the person back and forth and record him or her for posterity. Chloe's eyes: muddy passionate brown. Her hair: blond and spiky. Her soul, her aura: it's green with hints of purple. Her body: very strong. She's tough but soft, especially her divine breasts. Her nipples are brown and spread farther out than mine. I touch her chest and feel her ribs underneath.
Three days ago I touched her ribs and she said, Maybe we're too close.
I stared at her eyes and tried to read her mind. What do you mean, too close? Would you like me to move to the other side of the bed? This is what I said, and I took my hands off her.
No, Nina, you know I don't mean it that way.
Oh, the other way. I see, the other way. I stared up at our glow-in-the-dark stars. We made them swirl.
Can't we even talk about this? Chloe picked at her thumbnail while she talked, like she always does. I mean let's look at the situation: we're living together, we are very together. Don't you ever feel shocked about it? Just like, how did it happen so fast? We're so young. Then Chloe touched my shoulder. Her hands are always warm. Maybe some space will be good, she said.
What was I supposed to say? I have some pride. Sure, Chloe, I said. And she slid her hand along the side of my face, always wanting it both ways.
I immediately sense the sexist division of labor. We are back in the "Employees Only" area of the Mall of America, this labyrinth of storage rooms and dusty halls, getting a pep talk from Rob Fine, Celebration Coordinator. Marty and Jon, you're stars, Rob says. Nina, Monique, you're escorts. Welcome to the team guys! He leans against the concrete wall.
Think like a team, he says, act like a team. His docksiders slide on the floor. I blink; there's some dust that's getting into my contacts. Everything starts to look blurry, like all I can see of Monique's face is her lipstick. I blink hard.
Without each other what'd you do? Rob says. Then he punches his left hand with his right fist. Stars, he says, and here he points at Marty and Jon, you need those escorts. Listen to 'em. They'll tell you if you're about to bump into a light fixture. Somebody put one of those out last week and it was ugly. Escorts, without the stars you wouldn't, and here he pauses to think, you wouldn't have jobs.
The hallway is silent. Monique says, What are we celebrating?
Rob looks at her like he can't believe what she's asking. Then he wrinkles his forehead so his eyebrows meet. It's the mall's fifth birthday, he says. It's a month-long birthday celebration. Then he pulls some boxes of inflatable saxophones and guitars out of the storage room. You can blow these up until the first show, he says. The kids love 'em. Then he leaves.
We settle down on the floor with piles of blow-up instruments. Monique is wearing a lime green pantsuit and spreads out a plastic bag before sitting on the floor. I smile and she smiles, wide like an actress.
We're not getting paid enough for this crap, she says. She pauses to blow into a pink saxophone. You get to a certain point in your life. She glances at Marty and Jon, who are quietly blowing up guitars a few feet away. You get to a point, she says, where you just can't do this seven dollar an hour thing any more.
Monique finishes up with the sax and pokes in the stop with a long gold nail. I'm moving to Nashville next Saturday and I got a real gig lined up out there, she says. I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna sing. And then she does, right there in the hall, something bluesy, really loud. Marty and Jon stop blowing up guitars and stare. The blond one, I think it's Marty, closes his eyes.
My own eyes tear up, I always cry, which helps get the dust out of my contacts. Because here's Monique singing sadness in my ear, sounding like Aretha Franklin meets Barbra Streisand. I think of Chloe's face this morning. I want to live alone, she said. Then she got this look in her eyes like she was staring at Mount Everest in the living room behind me, and it was calling out to be climbed. Monique ends on a high note and fades out like I thought they could only do on CDs.
Wow, you're good, I say, and I mean it too.
I have often been confused by the way that people are capable of so much love and so much cruelty, and I think about these things as I wander around the mall during break time. I mean, my God! You love someone, whether that means having sex with them, or being their best friend, or giving life to them, and then you can become completely separated, torn apart at the hip. You can leave them; they can leave you; they can kick you out of the house.
I watch parents with children on leashes and pale suburban couples holding hands. I get some free coffee from the "Folgers Challenge" people in the main atrium. I stand and watch the display where they are showing how to make cappucino cake in fifteen minutes, these women on a stage behind glass, Martha Stewart hairdos, speakers all around them.
Chloe would love this. In the old days, like last week, I would've told her all about it and watched her laugh so hard that the silver fillings in her molars showed.
I met Chloe three weeks after I got to Minneapolis, when I was working at Pandora's Coffeeshop. I was fresh off the bus from Salt Lake City, all groggy from sleeping on my great-aunt's sofa, and there was the love of my life, ordering a raspberry mocha and leaving a two-dollar tip. I saw right away how she glowed.
Okay guys, Rob says and rubs his hands together. Monique and I lay out the star puppets, twelve feet tall. Marty and Jon put on their multi-colored velcro jumpers. I can help you out, I say to Marty. He has long hair and skinny legs and wears hiking boots with his shorts. Sounds good, he says.
I pick up Marty's puppet. It's a metal backpack frame attached to a long silver pole, and a few feet up the pole the puppet's fastened on. It's got legs six feet high, and these long long arms, all this stuff made out of plastic tubing covered with silk in bright fabric-dyed colors. Then there's the head, a giant cardboard star.
Marty puts his arms through the shoulder straps and I pull them tight, then do the buckle around his waist. I hook the star feet onto his hiking boots. I stand back and Marty looks pretty funny, his real face sticking out between these pastel star legs, and his star face twelve feet in the air, big and smiley. We laugh.
I'm a superstar, he says, and starts jiggling around. Be careful, I say. Wouldn't want to fall.
Stars don't fall, Marty says, they collapse.
I don't believe him. How? I say.
Gravity, he tells me. Their own.
Monique and I lead the way through the double doors and into the mall, and right away a crowd forms. Marty and Jon look kind of stiff - it's our first time out - and their star arms and legs jolt around. The shoppers just stand there staring. Rob says to me and Monique, Get 'em to dance! Come on! He steps back and forth and he thinks he's dancing. Get out there, Rob says. Then he claps and smiles like he's thinking he's out there. Give out those guitars and the saxophones, he shouts while doing the hand movements to YMCA.
We have a big bag of plastic instruments full of our own air and we give them out to kids. Monique dances with the kids; she's good. But it's hard to get them to move. Even with the guitars they won't dance. Give me one to take home to my daughter, one lady says and pulls on my arm. Some other mom wants a saxophone for her four-month-old baby. It makes him cry so she holds it herself.
Soon the music is over and we can go back. We help the stars take their costumes off. I fold the star bodies into canvas bags. Body bags, Jon says and laughs.
Marty is a Buddhist and an engineer. He tells me about himself while we blow up the instruments for our second show. This is a crazy job, huh, he says. I want to touch his leg hair and put my fingers in the place behind his kneecap. I bet it's warm in that space there, just a little sweaty.
I feel guilty for my disloyalty to Chloe until it hits me: she's kicking me out. What am I worried about loyalty for?
I know it's unconventional, she said this morning while pouring her coffee, very steadily I might add. I still love you. I still want to see you.
No, Chloe, you can't have it both ways. This morning I said nothing, though, except this: Chloe, I have to catch my bus.
I get home and she's washing the dishes. We let them pile up in the sink until you can't pile any more. Usually I'm the one to give in first and do the dishes; this time it's her. She just says hi when I come in, doesn't even ask how was my day. So I ask her: How was your day?
Nothing too exciting.
I am standing behind Chloe. The light from outside is all mellow and I can see the fuzz on her neck, below her hairline. She got her hair cut short last February and I like to tell her I love it and then muss it up, say you're my chickabird. But not now.
Lots of times when she's doing dishes I'll come up from behind, hey, girl, and start touching her while she's got her hands all in the soapy water. She does it to me, too. Today, though, she doesn't want my fingers on her waist. I don't want them there either.
I go up to the attic and look into her studio. She is working on a four by six painting of a single popped kernel of popcorn. I stand in the doorway and imagine a possible conversation. Like I say to Chloe, you obviously don't know how to make a commitment, and she says, you obviously don't know how to give me space. Yeah, a little space, I say, you're kicking me out.
That's what I say when the real Chloe appears behind me. I hear her coming up the steps; her right foot hits down harder than her left.
You're kicking me out, I say.
It's not like that, she says. It's just that my name's the one on the lease. Take however much time you need to find a place.
I don't even blink, just stare right at her. Chloe, you don't deserve me. There is silence.
I still love you, she says. Why does everything have to be traditional?
I squint at her really hard, what she calls my "fuck you" look. I say, is this how you were to Michelle? Michelle was Chloe's first girlfriend. We were seventeen and crazy, she always tells me, manipulative and fucked up and crazy.
Chloe squints right back. You too, her look says, fuck you too.
The next morning I tell her I might be out late. She stands across the room with a hand on her hip, her lips in a straight line, hair almost white in the sun. We get good light in our house. We don't kiss goodbye. I go out the front door and walk to the bus stop, two blocks west and one south.
I get to work at 9:15 and Monique and Marty are already there. Rob comes in swearing, Jon called in sick, we're all sitting in the dusty hall looking up at him. He goes into the storage room to call up the temp agency for a substitute star. Jennifer's coming in twenty minutes! he yells, like he's campaign manager for the guy who just got elected president.
This tiny woman comes running in right before we're about to go on. She can't be more than five foot and she's skinny. Oh sure I can do it, she says. I've been Snoopy before, and Oscar the Grouch, and the Easter Bunny. I fainted as the Easter Bunny, she says as she strips down to a black bodysuit. The fan in my costume broke.
Monique gives me a look. We help hoist the costume onto her back. It wobbles and slides. Jennifer pulls the straps but they won't go tight enough. She makes it through the double doors and out into the mall. Rob turns on the disco music and her shoulder harness starts to slide. Monique and me, we watch her wobble back and forth and we stand on either side of her. Are you okay? I ask.
Hang in there, says Monique.
Oh, fine, Jennifer says, this is easier than Big Bird. Then her legs fold and she crumples to the ground.
So Jennifer is on the ground in a heap of star and Marty just keeps dancing, pumping his star hands up and down harder than ever. Everyone's watching us though, not Marty. Look how tiny she is, says somebody's grandmother.
Monique and I help her up and back her through the double doors. We get her out of the costume. I'm fine, she says, you guys go ahead. She leans against the wall and starts stretching her calves. So we have just one star for the rest of the round, and Monique and me trying to look busy spotting Marty, giving out guitars to greedy kids and moms.
Jennifer is sitting on the floor drinking a huge lemonade. I sit down next to her with some uninflated pink saxophones. So it sounds like you do a lot of this kind of thing, I say. I figure if you're going to work with someone you might as well get to know them.
I've been temping for eight years, she says. I have worked in insurance, in banking, in bankruptcy, in retail, in theater, in law, in medical administration.
Then she slurps the bottom of her lemonade. She takes off the lid and starts chewing on the ice. Right now I'm finishing up my degree in theater and social services. I've gone to practically every college in the Twin Cities, she says. How about you?
Oh, I say, I'm just working odd jobs. I didn't want to go straight into college, you know? This is what I say when I don't want to go into the whole thing.
Trust me honey, I know. We sit in silence for a minute. I'm going to track down some silver pumps, Jennifer says. For my high school reunion in Florida. She gets up swinging her purse.
She made me thirsty drinking that lemonade and I decide to get my own. I figure we've got enough plastic instruments for the next show. I walk out in the mall and it's so bright out there and so many people, I feel like I might fall over.
There's a house you can walk through and possibly win, right there in the atrium of the mall. A full-sized pale yellow linoleum-sided au naturel country home, sponsored by Better Homes & Gardens and the proceeds go to help kids with cancer. You can walk through it and see all the products, the artificially distressed wood cabinets and the overstuffed Laura Ashley couches; the girl's bedroom with the four-post canopy bed and attached bath with shiny gold faucets.
I stare at the faucets and think about those points in your life that you know are pivotal, like it could be a certain day or an entire summer. Ever had that happen? Like two years ago, hey, I'm queer. It's Battle of the Bands at Lake View High School and I have to make out with the drummer of The Fetal Passions, in a silk shirt and I could see her bra right through it.
Can you do it? Rob asks me. Sure, I say, I can do it. I put on the jumpsuit and Jennifer helps me with the puppet. It feels heavier than I thought it would. I'm doing the girl puppet so my star face is bright yellow and has purple lipstick on it, dangly diamond earrings, big black winking eyes. I paste a big smile on my real face to match the one on my star face, and I bend at the knees like a wrestler. I try not to look how I feel.
This time we go through the west wing. I look straight ahead while I walk and smile until my cheeks hurt. I have to work hard to keep my costume balanced. We have to be quiet going by the Jungle Cafe so the parrots don't freak out. Rob tells us they think the star heads are birds of prey.
We dance to the BeeGees, Abba, the Monkees. I can only do one move, like marching so the star knees jolt up and down. I move my arms up and down too so the star arms shoot out and look like they're waving. Marty can do other stuff with his star arms and legs and Jon could too; Marty's dancing around like he's done this all his life instead of just one day. He's got a look of joy on his face and he smiles at the kids.
His star hands clap in the air above our heads and mine just wobble. I try to loosen up so I can have fun, try to stop being afraid of falling over. I try not to think about how my world has just collapsed. I am losing my lover and my place to live, and here I am forced to dance around and make kids happy. I try to be calm, you know, a spiritual person, but I'm starting to think that the universe doesn't take care of you. At this particular juncture in my experience, I am finding the weight of gravity to be crushing.
They even have bars at the Mall of America. After work I go to a country western one. I make eye contact with a cute cowgirl but I figure she's probably straight. Everybody wears big hats, the men and the women, and the fringe on their shirts shakes when they stomp and turn. They do it all together. But there's this one guy messing it up. Laughing so loud you can hear him over the synthesized fiddle and stomping so he just misses people's feet, bouncing like a pinball through the linedance until a big guy in steel-toed cowboy boots tosses him out to the sidelines. He goes up to the bar to buy another beer.
Then he asks me to dance. I'm in the navy, he says. Ahoy! He calms down a little, stops acting so drunk, we're dancing kind of close. He has soft skin on his arms and strong biceps with round blue veins in the orangey light of the country line dancing bar. Wanna step outside for some air? he says.
Of course this means stepping out into the mall, leaning on the railing and staring at the chandelier like it's the moon. We are joking around and he picks me up and pretends he's going to drop me over the railing down to the first floor. I'll bite you if you don't put me down, I say.
Shit, he says, you're no fun. So he puts me down and goes back into the bar and I don't. I look at a big inflatable Charlie Brown hung from the third floor and wish Chloe were here; I wish things were okay with me and Chloe. But I know they're not okay and so I don't even want to go home.
I find a place where the icy daiquiris swirl around behind glass set into the counter. A wall of glass overlooks Camp Snoopy, where lights sparkle in the fake trees all year round. The glass wall is next to the flume ride, where kids sit in plastic logs and rush through the streaming water, downhill, through a tunnel, curving and turning, their mouths open but from in here you can't hear a thing.
Chloe and I talked about rides once, our favorite rides as kids. Hers was the salt and pepper shaker, and mine was the flying swings. It was a night in May and we sat eating lo mein by the open window. Chloe scooted close to me and held my face in her hands. We have had some sweet times. I think about them while I sit alone and slurp my daiquiri.
I lie in bed that night, thank God Chloe and I have separate rooms, and feel that frame pack still resting on my back. The pole hits the back of my head. The foot clips dig into my sneakers, into the spaces between the bones in my feet. The velcro on my jumpsuit scratches my stomach. I can't brush the hair out of my eye.
The weight of the whole thing rests on my hips and shoulders and it starts pulling, tilting me back. Girl star wants to go somewhere. I don't know what to tell her.
I imagine falling like Jennifer. My arms flop, my shoulders fold, my chest goes in, my knees wobble, I cave forward, my star head resists. I see the feet of the laughing crowd as my palms bump hard against the shiny floor.
We're eating breakfast and I can't take it any more. Chloe, I say, what's going on? What are we going to do? Then I start to cry. I always cry.
God, Nina, I don't know. It's just where are we going? It's all happened so fast. It's too fast, you know?
We're just here, I say, we're just doing our thing. Just being alive, you know, just doing our best.
Oh please, says Chloe. But she touches my hand. And I know what I need to say next.
Chloe, I say, I would miss you.
She pushes away her Cheerios and her chair squeaks as she moves toward me. Her lips are small and warm. I love how her teeth feel against my tongue, slippery, neat. I touch her breast through her tank top. I love how she feels under my fingers. She has her hand on my ass, feeling up the side of my shorts. Her soft smooth bare arms, it's so warm when our skin touches, our cheeks touch. We just sit there leaning forward and holding each other for a minute.
I wait for the bus and the sky is lit up, completely blue, too blue for this time of morning. Chloe's kiss is still in my mouth. My God, could life be any better? Could anything be better? I am on my way. I am on my way to myself, to true and sustaining love, to an unextinguishable fire. I love my baby! I love you, I mouth to the sun.
I think of her body, of her hands. I think of her hands on my shoulders. I remember the bus ride from Salt Lake City, sinking into my seat, under my coat, making love to the moon which was this dynamite white stroke in a cobalt heaven. The stars that night were amazing; they let me know that I'd survive. Those stars are the same ones in my head at this very moment because of my beautiful goddess of sun and moon, my soft-skinned baby, my eighth wonder.
I get to work and through the power of Chloe I dance as well as anyone, I dance just as well as Marty with his long lanky legs and strong back, just as well as Jennifer who is the size of the kids and swirls them around with her skinny arms. My star hands wave in big long arcs; my girly star face winks and blinks to the folks on the second floor.
Monique looks at me and starts to laugh. Monique, you're a babe, I say. I wave at her with my star hand.
She arches an eyebrow. You know it, she says.
With my real face I grin at the toddlers strumming on plastic guitars around my feet. I suck in their goofy smiles while their mothers snap flash pictures. My costume sits square on my back, just right. I picture both my faces pressed into family photo albums all across America; children will preserve me in their memories and nightmares. I am Nina the twelve-foot dancing star, thank you, thank you very much.
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