My mother and I lived on Roosevelt Island.
This is 1979-1983, fifth grade through eighth, between Husband Three and Husband Four, "just me and her," plus the neglected Persian cat, and her lazy Susan of boyfriends. Roosevelt Island was a spit in the East River, its newish condos and rentals flanked on both sides by old broken buildings, including several hospitals, which afforded the island an above-average population of people affected by paraplegia and/or amputated limbs. The only way to get to Roosevelt Island from Manhattan, where everyone else lived, was by catching the aerial tramway at 59th Street and 2nd Avenue.
On 59th Street and 3rd Avenue was Bloomingdale's, is there still -- when I go for hand therapy or to meet Bruce for lunch, I take the 4 train uptown and get out at the store exit and walk through it, from Lex to 3rd. They've remodeled many times in thirty years, made it trickier to get upstairs from the lower level, but I recognize the old bones, the old smell. The dazzling black and white and silver Versailles that greeted you -- ten, eleven years old -- greets you still (or greets me, anyway; who are we kidding with this you); the deeply chemical effect of the perfume, like poppers, and the slim, composed women who bent down to you, nurse-like, and daubed your blue veins with alcohol.
I was too young to wear makeup, but the ponytailed women behind the makeup counters would be happy to sell me soap, Clinique, in its own avocado-colored sliding plastic cover that seemed so perfect an object as to render all other objects frumpy. The women didn't discourage me from swiping my fingers along the mossy eyeshadows, or striping lipsticks in the hollow of my treasured thumb. Basically, I figured out quickly that I could kill a lot of time in the makeup department of Bloomingdales without attracting too much attention; that I could pee in the bathroom on the second floor if I needed to, instead of being caught needing to on the tram; that people behind the counters would sometimes shoot me condescending smiles, which are better than no smiles at all.
Then, stepping through towards 3rd, you ("you") were past makeup and perfume and you were suddenly in the men's department, a cozy marigold-and-dark-wood study for the headless, sweatered torsos between the racks; neckties, handkerchiefs, everything very reasonable and sane. It's like you sat down like Eloise on mommy's posh dressing tuffet in front of her magic mirror, and then wandered into daddy's tobacco scented walk-in closet; like you were lost in a rich, comfortable forest of propriety and goodwill.
Then out onto the street, onto the tram, onto the Roosevelt Island bus, and home. And as soon as I could, out the door again. I started getting to school an hour early, sitting and waiting on the steps for my classmate Chris Lewis, who sometimes came early, especially as he found me there early more often; then for everyone else to arrive. Sometimes I walked down 3rd Avenue to school to kill time, walked around Irving Square Park, through pigeons and indigent men, pretending things. After school I could walk up to B. Altman's on Fifth Avenue and get sprayed by perfume and play with makeup and ride the escalators up and down. Play grown-up. I had an idea about a movie about a plucky outcast genius girl who walked around New York City a lot; she cut through department stores when it rained and kind of smiled to herself about it, and that showed you both her resourcefulness and her bemused take on life's painful exigencies.
On the fourth floor of Bloomingdales was where my mother had bought me the Snoopy suitcase, which I used to commute to my father's for three weekends out of four, though mostly my mother preferred to browse at Bloomie's, then steer me across the street to Alexander's, which was "every bit as good." By eleven, twelve, I was getting a little old for the Snoopy suitcase. I'd started borrowing my mother's high heeled boots, on days when I could get her to leave the house before me; she had two pair, one eggplant and one pumpkin, and whichever one she didn't wear, with her kicky plaid wrap-around skirt with the braided and wood-beaded belt, I would appropriate, to wear over my dungarees. These I would wear to department stores around town, fancying that everyone who saw me on the elevators was well impressed by my woeful, wise look, my preternatural maturity.
Someone asked me recently if I was worried about becoming schizophrenic. No, I said, but I could definitely become a shopaholic. I'm already a browseaholic, always ducking through, just passing by, doing errands in the neighborhood, happening to be early for a meeting and such; no thanks, just looking, carrying an item around and around, trying things on that don't fit. A few weeks ago a young saleswoman at Barney's Co-Op squinted at me in recognition and asked, You live here, right?, and I didn't know if she meant the neighborhood of Chelsea or Barney's Co-Op.
It was the antechamber between the twin terrors of school and home, a place I took for granted and still do, and now, when the women want to catch me by the wrist and tell me about anti-aging, I wish they could tell me about anti-regressing instead.