I am in the opposite of a hurry, trying to match my soggy, flip-flopped pace to the slow drizzle that was falling when my passengers got dropped off, before I maneuvered the car in between two mammoth SUVs, slipped it into gear in the vast, mostly-empty parking lot.
A fraction of a second later, just after I close the car door behind me, the rain accelerates, litters my view with wet polka-dots, gives a quick push to usher me toward the automatic glass doors with the red bullseye, life’s great metaphor.
I was in 10th grade when our first Target store opened, back when our East Memphis neighborhood was the epicenter of everything, before there were mansions in Eads and Fisherville, around the time Ronald Reagan was elected. We thought we were clever calling it Tar-jhay, thought we were the only girls in the world clever enough to think of this, having all started French lessons at age six.
The display I remember most was of acrylic boxes, all different sizes and, I think, a few clear, bright colors. I sank a chunk of hard-earned babysitting money into a set of them, knowing with certainty they would provide instant tidiness and clarity. If I could just organize my pencils and oil pastels and hair bobs, I could become the master of my splintered, teenage universe.
My children know a sliver of this story, know of my early Target-shopping years. We were checking out one day during the 25th anniversary celebration of the new, improved store when I mentioned to them, an aside, that I had been there when the store first opened, mentioned it as if this were some mark of great achievement. The cashier smiled and said she’d been there, too, said that she had in fact been part of the original crew and had worked for Target these entire two-and-a-half decades, moving around from store to store, mostly in Texas, until they brought her back home for the grand re-opening. You’ve seen a lot of people in 25 years, I said to her; yes, she said, she had learned a great deal about people.
What my children do not know is the therapy part, the years when they were young and still napped when I would escape the chaos of my house for 30 minutes in this safe haven, ostensibly to buy diapers but really to re-center myself, to linger on borrowed time and find the me that existed in parallel, to rifle through bathing suits that wouldn’t fit, knock-off shoes, toddler-sized Halloween shirts, spacecraft-sticker activity books, to put all of these things in the basket, then retrace steps and replace them on their shelves. I need all of this; I need none of this. That was the exercise. That has always been the exercise.
Nor do they know about the slipcover years before they arrived, the years when armfuls of clearance goods attempted to add a layer of gloss, to make life appear as if it had gone more smoothly. These years I shopped at Tar-ghetto, that’s what the locals called it, the store in the inner part of Omaha, three blocks from my rented guesthouse, miles from the pods of growth covering the suburbs, the place where an enormous corporate career path lay before me, but where I never could feel quite at home.
What I’m afraid they do know, my children, is the rush through the one-quick-stop store, the errand between school and home where we can get Ortega taco kits and Flair pens and underwear and a birthday gift card in one fell swoop, a mad dash for the essentials, trying to avoid first the Pokemon cards and then the electric Razor scooter and now the iPhone accessories. We don’t have time. We aren’t getting that. No, we’re not re-doing your bedroom today. No, we need to get home before six, need to cook dinner, need to do homework. No. No. Hurry. No. All of their lives I have rushed them, rushed us, raced to the next destination, late and frazzled.
But tonight, momentarily without them, I find I am in the opposite of a hurry, rubbing my glasses dry with my shirt-tail, visiting with the young nursing school student who is working the Starbucks counter, opening a sachet of Earl Grey. Yes, she agrees, it is quiet at night. Yes, I say, I’m waiting for ten o’clock, too; my children are with friends at the haunted corn maze. Yes, please, steamed milk instead of cold would be lovely. Oh, how is nursing school, and did you go to the blood drive, and you should call me when you graduate, here’s my card; we are always looking for friendly people. Thank you.
Behind me, a squeak of rubber boots, a young-ish couple with two children, out for a Friday night grocery shop where they can get everything they need in one place, while the store is less crowded, that is what they say.
Tonight, I realize, I have not an escape but a gift, nothing but a stretch of empty time. Short, temporary. In between drop-off and pick-up. I’m here ostensibly to buy a package of black crew socks and some mouthwash, but really to take a quick inventory, catalog a flipagram of bathing suits that wouldn’t fit, knock-off shoes, toddler-sized Halloween shirts, spacecraft-sticker activity books. Thirty years on display, freeze-frames housed in imaginary acrylic capsules.
A quick pang of regret, for letting it all fly past. A stab of guilt over the gross obscenity, over being so goddamned lucky. A thread, a wavy current of absolution. I am all of this; I am none of this.