“We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls.” – Bill Bryson
Back in my Catholic school days, we learned a lot about the lives of the saints, and we kids were fascinated by the holy martyrs and their grisly deaths. Sometimes our books even featured a picture, a little peek at Renaissance art. There was St. Stephen, stoned to death, St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows, and St. Polycarp, who, along with the misfortune of a silly name, was burned at the stake, but when the flames didn’t kill him, he was stoned to death.
In a Rembrandt of Stephen, his cheeks are sallow and his mouth turned down; after all, he’s being pummeled by rocks. But his eyes gaze heavenward, beseeching God to take him. Poor Sebastian is depicted in much the same way — longsuffering, pitiful, haunting eyes. I saw just such a face, melancholy and poignant, recently, when I was shopping at Chico’s at the outlet mall.
My friend MJ and I had no necessary purchases in mind, but that didn’t stop us from wandering around the shops. In Chico’s, MJ was having better luck than I. I’d already tried on a top – too frumpy– and had voiced my opinions on MJ’s selections. (The black dress needed a scarf.) After I unsuccessfully scoured the jewelry bar for any on-sale earrings calling my name, I waited up front while MJ made her final decisions on some must-haves. Near the door, I couldn’t help but notice a glassy-eyed husband slumped over on a chair, wearing the same wretched expression of poor old St. Sebastian. No arrows were flying, just an onslaught of prattle from his wife, lacking a female companion to share her enthusiasm and oblivious to her spouse’s misery.
“I really need some easy-to-pack things for our cruise,” she said, tossing some wrinkle-free pants and a skirt over her arm, a crisp lime linen shirt over the other. “This kind of top is exactly what I want, but I don’t like the print,” she said, fingering a gaudy floral knit.
The woman zipped around the racks. I imagined that she saw herself strolling on the starboard deck, her hair tousled by a Caribbean breeze, her new, flowy skirt billowing around her ankles, her new sweater thrown ever-so-casually over her shoulders. But it didn’t appear that her husband was imagining a glamorous cruise ship at the moment. His drooping shoulders and glazed eyes made me guess that he saw himself in hell. While the wife fingered the coral chiffon tunic, the gauzy pink poncho, the shrugs in jade and aqua, she nattered on to her husband, whose eyes hadn’t blinked.
“What a lovely color, but what would I wear with it?”
“Would this be too sheer? I’d need a tank.”
“What a pretty shade of green. It’s not exactly a mint green. Maybe seafoam?”
Her comments were met with a “huh” or two, nothing more. I almost chimed in, wanting to fill in the gaps with womanly advice: “You could wear that with white or navy” and “I’d call that shade celery.” But, I held my tongue and eyed her mate.
Just what was he thinking? I mentally climbed into his skull to hear his thoughts.
“For the love of all that is holy, when will she be finished?”
“Doesn’t she already have black pants?”
“God, that purply thing is ugly, but if she likes it, I’m keeping my mouth shut.”
“Is there anywhere in this godforsaken mall where a guy can get a drink?”
I spotted my friend at the tail end of the long check-out line just as the cruise-bound woman said, “I’m going to try these on. Here, hold my purse.”
I happily occupied myself with scrolling through Facebook on my phone, knowing that I’d soon be checking out summery sweaters at Talbot’s, but the mister had no such diversion. He simply sat, slack-jawed, his wife’s straw handbag on his lap. He glanced at his watch and heaved a sigh. After several minutes, my friend was headed my way, her purchases completed, just as the wife came out of the dressing room and approached her husband.
“As soon as I pay for these,” she said, holding up a pastel pile of frocks, “let’s pop over to Naturalizer. I can really use some black sandals, and maybe some linen espadrilles.” She didn’t see his eyes roll as she got in the check-out line… but I did.