I don’t know where sophomores hangout nowadays, for but us, it was the mall. We would wander aimlessly for hours on end until our Converse sneakers rubbed our heels raw, making disparaging comments in stage whispers, purchasing all the over-priced clothing our fast food minimum wage money could buy, and otherwise fritter away the days with nothing worth doing to do but feeling oh-so bohemian not doing it. When our coffee-induced adrenaline waned, we would collapse unto a bench reeking of mingled perfume, marijuana, and bleach and begin to bestow nicknames upon passersby we knew by face but not by name. There was “Boy With Glasses and Braces Boy,” “Girl Who Looks Like A Boy Girl,” “Boy Who Would Scare My Grandmother Boy,” and a whole slew of vaguely familiar strangers we used to watch and make up lives for. In retrospect it all seems depressing that this was our entertainment, but that was how I first met the mall rat we referred to simply as “Girl.” “Girl” she remains even now, when have long since forgotten the nicknames of the other frequent customers or why we watched them in the first place.
The “Mall Girl,” as we called her at first, had one of those vaguely androgynous names like Dakota or Taylor no one bothered to remember. Sometimes she would be with a scrawny, knobby Boy who always wore the same black t-shirt sporting the logo of a Wall Mart smiley face with a bullet hole in the forehead. When the Boy was with her, Girl would give me a stranger’s smile from where she lingered at his elbow, but otherwise, she would stroll over to me and discuss high school, boys, the economy collapsing, and other mildly annoying things.
Girl and I were fascinating to one another. We were both very sheltered people in very different ways. She a tapestry of tattoos spread across her delicate shoulder blades, branching out over her shoulder blades like ink stains, converging in the nape of her neck. Though Girl never said anything anyone could quote, she had a dry, hard sense of humor and a knack of turning a mundane conversation into a legendary inside joke we could recite like lines from a cult classic movie. Sometimes we would sit and discuss feminism over over-priced frappucinos, but otherwise we would just howl with laughter at things only we found funny. When speculating the sorrows of passerbys grew too depressing, we would walk outside to watch the sunset, deriving some strange comfort in knowing the world was the same under the dying twilight as it was beneath a brilliant sky. That was when we were first possessed by a feeling that has never truly left me, a feeling of independence that comes from identity and respect, that inner security that you absorb watching the sunset without saying a word.
As our spring semester drew to a close, Girl spoke less of her plans to attend an out-of-state liberal arts school and stopped reading me her abstract poetry about unrequited love and birds flying into mirrors. All Girl ever talked about was Boy. She told me about how he was the first guy to open doors for her, how he called her parents “sir” and “ma’am”, and how everyone who met him remarked on what a gentleman he was. Apparently they were so close that they had to talk on the phone every single night, or Boy would dissolve into a fit of paranoia and besiege her with voicemails, demanding hysterically to know where she was and who she was with. Girl suggested several times that I meet Boy, but I said nothing, and her suggestions always fizzled away into the awkward silence between subjects of conversation.
One day she said to me
“He could hit me, you know. That’s why I don’t like to see him angry, I really think he could beat me.”
I wanted to ask, “Then why are you still with him?”
But I knew what she would say.
Just the week before she had told me about how she had lived her whole life invisible until she knew that he saw her. She told me, “I feel now like I can love my own body. Like my skin belongs to me and I am home inside it, all because he came around.”
One time I unthinkingly repeated what she had told me to a mutual friend of ours. His eyebrows flew up into his bangs in alarm. “Dude, so she knows he could hit her, even though he hasn’t?” he asked sharply.
“Yeah, so she says.”
“Doesn’t she understand that if he’s like that now, when they’re dating, that he’s going to be a million gazillion times worse if they actually end up married?
“You know I don’t know why she’s with him. Do I ever understand anything?” I shrugged.
My friend was silent for a moment, his mouth thinning into a hard, resentful line as he unconsciously ripped his napkin into feathery little pieces, letting them stream like confetti through his hands.
“You know, we Americans blow a lot of crap about how liberated and independent women are in this country,” he sighed bitterly. “But not really. Not from themselves.”
That night I dreamed that Girl and I were watching the sunset. We were the sunset. We were spread out between horizon lines in a landscape of entwined nerves and veins, beating a tattoo like a heartbeat through the haze of my subconscious mind. We saw ourselves for all we were, saw we could be seen for miles. Her face was suspended in my mind, fierce and vulnerable, with that wry, half-crooked smirk that was so indescribably and iconically Girl. In that moment, she knew she was herself and that was enough. She did not need anyone else to define her.
The best dreams are the ones that stay inside you to help you survive your ordinary days. Maybe my friend is right and we are loved like we believe we deserve or Girl is right and we take whatever love we can, I don’t know. All I know is that even after the bruise blossomed on her lower jaw, Girl used to talk for hours about the kids she and Boy were going to have after they got out of high school and were married. She talked with so much warmth and affection, and gave her kids such beautiful names, that sometimes I could pretend she could fix Boy, pretend she was going to be alright.