This is my new dalliance. Sunday mornings, when the dorms shudder with snores of indolent students and the churches swarm with the promptness of the pious, I go to Target. The first time I went to the Target in Macon I was indirectly repelled, because at checkout I read on the cover of People magazine that Britney Spears loves to shop at Target. But they did have cheap m&ms, which always lulls me. I did not return, however, until it dawned on me that it stood a nice bike ride away. Just demanding enough to leave you short of breath on scorching summer mornings, when the hills of Edna Place swell up into ever viler monsters that must be defeated, always lower gears and aching knees and never resignation.
So the circle and dot is today part of my weekly program. I am already familiar with the museography and know where to find each thing. I conduct myself through the isles with the grace of mermaids, for I feel quite at home in there as if it were my private cave. I try on things, which normally bores me to death. But Sunday morning the fitting rooms are empty and lonely, so I put on ridiculous garments and waltz solo along the corridor between the rooms like a harlequin. Nobody’s there to see me.
In theory I don’t buy anything. But invariably I end up picking something off a shelf and paying for it, something insubstantial like tea or, yes, m&ms. Partly I find it unsatisfactory to leave a store empty-handed, and I’m well aware that I don’t need things, but given that I’d like things, a transaction has to occur, however small.
But this Sunday I ended up going home with a blue sweater. A baby blue boucle sweater (if you were a fabric-fetishist like I am you would know what boucle is and how fantastically warm it is) for which I will not justify myself, suffice to say that I wanted it. Arriving to my palace-dorm room with three closets, however, and opening one of them to be drowned by my overflowing collection of vestures, I had to recant. The blue sweater had to go back.
As I drove to Target in my blue car, the blue sweater slouched poignantly in the passenger seat, I thought titillating things. I have never returned anything before. The solicitousness in retail, peculiar to America only, makes me stand in awe. Diffidence has kept me from taking advantage of these unprecedented paths until now. So here I stand, before two women who are folding things without particular enthusiasm, declaring proudly that I want to return a blue sweater. One of them calls me with an outstretched arm. I remove the despondent creature from the plastic bag and hand it to her. “Way too blue for me,” I offer. She chuckles, and so does the other woman. She asks me how I want my refund processed. I answer. The other woman catches my accent and asks at once: “Where’ you from?” Always amusing, the reactions that “Romania” educes. “Wow...” Both remain dreamy for a full second, surveying me like I’m a brochure for exotic holiday destinations. “Do you like it here?” she asks me, and happy to know the right answer to this one I rejoin “Sure! What’s there not to like?” “Yay!” one of them says and the two of them rejoice, that I’ve validated their homeplace with my European sacred seal, that I’ve deemed their country more appealing than my own to live in.
And this reminded me, so painfully, of a scene in Belk some three months ago, mother and I at the register paying for the matryoshka set of suitcases that she got, making smalltalk with the two boys who worked there. They asked us where we were from, mother’s verbal presence making it so much more difficult to camouflage my foreignness, and we told them. It was exactly the same reaction, a dreamy “Wow...” and wanderlust wafting in their eyes. It made me think about Steinbeck’s conversations with people he meets along his Travels with Charley odyssey, locals who tell him that they’d like to “go” too. And the child who begs him to take him along, cozens that he’ll earn his ride cleaning and cooking and whatever need may be. Such were the two boys at Belk looking at us as if we were Martians, asking us with their eyes to take them along, wherever we’d go, promising they’d earn their fares. “I want to go to Romania,” one of them said seriously, and then mother said something that was silly and gratuitous and displeased me: “You will, someday.” Like one of those things they say at the end of mawkish movies. I wish she hadn’t said it. The boy will probably not travel anywhere farther than Mexico, and if his possibilities should expand he’d surely choose something more “occidental” than godforsaken Romania. Well, so much for dreamy youths.
We spoke at length, Maria and I last year, about poor students, mostly black, who don’t know to point Europe on a map, who don’t know what the capital of Iceland is, like we do. We – who can do math and speak in full sentences, we who every winter fly home on tickets bought by parents. The smart ones, the internationals. We scoff at them, they who remain in the ignorance in which they are born, such degage criticism we offer.
But really, when is one supposed to learn geography when working at Target, folding things all day to feed how many, perhaps, as many as our extended families in Romania. Ignorance not chosen but rather borne, like a cross, while in the background imagined journeys and remote dreams smolder away. Is this not what movies are for, simulated adventures for the poor, the busy, the overworked or the demure. For the people who work at Target or Belk, who sleepwalk home at night with one wish: to sit the hell down. Unreasonable? I don’t think I’d want to open a book either, or study a map. I think I’d like to space out for a while, maybe stare into a screen that tells me nothing intellectual, and hit the reset button on myself so I can live through another day. That’s what I’d like to do if I spent my life folding things. And the highlight of my day would be a girl with an outlandish accent who’d bring back all the chimeras I’ve worked to silence. She’d tell me how great it is to live in the States and I’d avow how I’ve warped things into gloomy, how it’s not so bad after all, especially since a European says so. And out of the blue, under grayscale October sky, the day’s a little brighter.