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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
The human body is not a static instrument, molded at the moment of genetic creation, unchanged aside from natural growth from the moment it emerges from the womb. If the body -- and the mind -- were fixed entities, life would merely be the playing out of chance encounters within pre-existing personal limits, a reverse Calvinism where it is not God's Will that rules but the boundaries of our own wills. We would be no different at the age of three than at the age of eighty-three, except that we would be taller, creakier, with a lot more boring stories to tell. The same self-definition that fitted the toddler would still fit the codger. The bildungsroman would never have been invented because no one would ever bild. Baby fat would simply change its name to permafat. Bill Clinton would never turn away from his sinful, adulterous tendencies (well, all right, the Billster never will turn away from his sinful, adulterous tendencies, but Senator Hillary can dream, can't she?).
But life is not like that. People change. For the better, for the worse, and sometimes in horizontal positions neither better nor worse but at least different. The measure of the mastery of one's life is the ability to master change of self, to grow and adapt and learn where it is appropriate to do so, and to remain hard and fast in those areas where hardness and fastness is appropriate. It does not behoove a person of stout moral behavior to change into a drooling lech, whereas said lech wouldn't be worse off if a self-administered kick in the butt were to result in a little moral stoutness.
One of the greatest areas reflecting change in the self is one's relationships with others, beginning with the fundamental choice of which others one wishes to have relationships with in the first place. As we travel along the proverbial road of life -- which should constantly be in a state of repair, although that does mean we have to metaphorically put up with those bored laborers who flag us to a stop and then stare at us through their cigarette smoke for half an hour while talking into their radios with no traffic coming the other way and the smell of burning tar beginning to make us nauseous -- we take on new relationships and cast off the old, and it is ourselves that are seen best in the people we are seen with.
At three o'clock on Sunday afternoon, Gloria Fudless is still in bed. She has been awake for a few hours, but not only has she not emerged from her room, she is still under the covers, staring at the ceiling. She is thinking. About herself. About her relationships.
She is hopelessly confused.
But, she realizes, it is not all that terrible to be confused. Everyone she knows seems to be confused about themselves one way or the other; the key thing is trying not to act too confused, or at least not too confused too often.
She sits up in the bed and looks at herself in the mirror on the wall above her dresser. She has no makeup on, and her hair is pure random bed-head. She is wearing a white tee shirt, unlike her usual daughter-of-the-night black when she is out of the house.
"First of all," she says aloud, "I am not an idiot."
This is true. She has always been among the top students in her grade.
"I think I would like to be a blonde."
This is not far from the unaltered reality. Before Gloria subscribed to the Vampirella hair club, the blonde hair of her early childhood had just begun turning a dull brown.
"I've gotta buy some new clothes. No more black. Something bright and cheerful." She pauses. "Something gray!"
Gray. Or as the fashion mavens call it, the new black. Gloria is in the process of redefining herself, but there is a limit to everything.
"Buglaroni." She closes her eyes. "Bark Santorelli." She opens them again. The girl looking back at her in the mirror is resolute. Determined. Confident.
She barely recognizes herself.
"I gotta get to the mall."
Sunday at the Veblen Mall is mostly families. The old folks stay away for fear of the crowds, and the teenagers stay away for fear of the families, at least until after six p.m., when the strollers (human and wheeled) have all but disappeared and it is safe for an adolescent to reappear in the aisles. The movie lines are long, large groups already eating popcorn and arguing cartoon versus live action, G versus PG. They don't release many R-rated movies in the fall; this is dead season until Thanksgiving, mostly leftover summer films on their last legs, or films you wouldn't want to be caught dead glancing at the poster, much less paying for and sitting through. Even in the middle of the afternoon the food court is packed, mixing the odors of pizza and egg rolls and Whopper Juniors with Cheese. But the stores are lightly populated, relatively speaking, even though the parking lot seemed packed. Gloria Fudless has the Gap practically to herself.
Gloria Fudless at the Gap.
She's probably just looking for the exit to the funeral parlor.
Gloria Fudless trying on non-black clothes.
Call in the Believe-It-Or-Not film crew!
Blue jeans for a start. Not even gray. Blue. But faded, at least, and therefore marginally beginning to look gray.
Tee shirts. Three of them. Two gray. (Thank goodness.) One... she fingers it, moves away, comes back, fingers it again. It is her size. She holds it up under her neck, turns and faces herself in the mirror. Her eyes widen.
I'll take it, she thinks mischievously.
Not black. Not gray.
Eat your heart out, Liberace.
Finally Gloria shuffles through the sale rack, which the Gap hides in the back of the store behind the men's department, behind the changing rooms, behind the portable abattoir. For $12.99 she discovers the perfect light green flannel shirt.
She has not owned a flannel shirt for the last decade.
It fits perfectly.
She buys everything, and decides to wear the flannel shirt over the clothes she wore into the mall, black pants, black shirt, black sweater.
Kurt Cobain is smiling down on her from heaven.
The Macy's in the Veblen Mall is the only true department store, but it serves the function that most women expect in a mall anchor. Crews of heavily made-up and preternaturally bored-looking women in white smocks are stationed at every entrance, blasting perfume into every face that passes by like World War I bombers scattering mustard gas into the trenches. "Obsession for Men," they say. "Passion for Women." They are referring to the names of their products. "Estrus for Rutting Monkeys."
(All right, maybe that last one was an exaggeration.)
Gloria put on no makeup this morning, and she heads to one of the counters where a non-mobile member of the atomizer crew greets her over a vast palette of lipsticks and eye shadows. Gloria is used to picking up a vial of Night Eye Trauma with matching lip gloss over at the drug store, so this is the first time she has been ministered to by a professional, although in this case the professional is a senior at Bisonette with a weekend job. She recognizes Gloria.
"You usually do black," she says. "Black is cool."
"I'm tired of black," Gloria tells her.
"Black is out, to tell you the truth. Autumn is in."
"Gold tones. Earthy. Full of Harvest Promise." She reaches under the counter and pulls up an advertisement card showing various autumnal shades, all under the trade name of Harvest Promise.
"What exactly does Harvest Promise mean?" Gloria asks, studying the card.
The girl behind the counter shrugs. "Who knows? But when I say it to some of the old ladies who come in here, they nod and agree with it."
"Must be an old-person thing."
"Must be. One of our biggest sellers used to be something called September Song."
"I like this one." Gloria points to a light maroon shade.
"Let's try it."
For twenty minutes Gloria and the counter girl play with different shades, applying them occasionally to the inside of Gloria's wrists, and if they are satisfied, to her lips or eyelids. Eventually, they reach a satisfactory arrangement, a darker maroon from where they started. It is called Copper Beech; Gloria buys the full complement.
As she leaves Macy's she sees her reflection in the glass doors, not a recognizable mirror reflection but a thin, shimmering image of someone only partly Gloria Fudless, and very much someone else. Someone confident. Someone colorful.
The girl she is becoming.
She takes a deep breath. There is one area of the mall she has been avoiding.
The time has come.
He is sitting beside his kiosk, reading a comic book. He looks up at the sound of her voice, but the smile that was beginning to form stops and disappears.
"We've gotta talk, Bark."
He tosses aside the comic. "Talk, babe. I've been meaning to give you a call."
"I said, don't bother. We're through. Finished. Finito."
"We've been through this before," he says, shaking his head.
"We haven't been through anything!" It doesn't matter to her that her voice is too loud and that passers-by stop to stare at her. "What did you do to Buglaroni?"
"I didn't do anything to him."
"Don't lie to me."
Bark's eyes dart around, as if he does not want anyone to overhear him. "I just talked to him," he says softly.
"With your fists. Did you think that I'd come running to you if you beat the crap out of him? Was that it? That I'd think, big, strong Bark is such a man, and Hamlet is just a wimp that can't take care of himself?"
"He is a wimp."
"So? A wimp is a wimp."
"And if I want to go out with a wimp, I'll go out with a wimp. You don't own me. You have no just claim on me whatsoever." She smiles at that, the phrase just claim. LD has been going to her head.
Bark misinterprets the smile. "Look, babe--"
"Don't babe me, and don't look me. You understand?"
"And don't but me."
She turns and stalks away. "And don't but-Gloria me either," she says, not bothering to look back.
She hears no reply from Bark.
So much for phase one.
"Hello Hamlet? It's Gloria."
"I've gotta talk to you. It's important."
"I gotta talk to you too."
"I'd like to say something first. There's--"
"You gotta, like, hear this. You know those Hollywood people? They called me back."
"They, like, called me back. They want to audition me again this week. When the swelling goes down. They say that might have been the problem."
"That's good news."
"It's, like, great news, you know. I think I'm really going to be in that movie."
"That is great news, Hamlet. But look, I've got something I've got to say to you."
"So say it."
"I hate to do it over the phone, but I don't know when I'll see you again, and it just can't wait." She hesitates.
"I mean, can't you, like, see me in Hollywood?"
"Hamlet, we've got to break up."
There is quiet on the line. "Break up?" he finally repeats.
"Yeah. Break up. It's not about you," she says. "It's about me."
"That's what they always say. Not," he adds parenthetically, "that they've ever said it to me. They've never said anything to me."
"It really isn't about you, Hamlet. Not even about us. I've been thinking a lot about me, and I've come to the conclusion that I'm screwing up my life."
"How am I screwing up your life?"
"You're not screwing it up personally. It's just screwed up in general."
"I could help you, like, unscrew it."
"No you couldn't, Hamlet. You see, part of the problem is, I've always gone out with somebody. I mean, I can't remember when I wasn't like somebody's girlfriend. You know what I mean?"
She sighs. "At least you're honest. Look, Hamlet. I've had boyfriends since like sixth grade. I've always been in someone else's shadow. Hell, I even started looking like a shadow."
"You looked good to me."
"Thanks. That's really nice of you to say it. But the thing is, I didn't look nice to me."
"I don't know..."
"It's not like I won't see you anymore. We can still be friends. You'll be at Algren, right?"
"I don't know yet."
"But you'll definitely be at Venerable Bede the week after that?"
"I'm supposed to go, but if I, like, go to Hollywood... You know how that is, the work and the publicity and everything. We might never see each other again."
"You really think that could happen?"
"Why else would they be re-auditioning me?"
"Good luck, Hamlet."
"Thanks. Do you think--"
"I gotta go."
"But I want--"
"See you, Hamlet."
She hangs up the phone. The image of herself that catches her eye in her bedroom mirror is now completely different from the one she faced in the morning.
The New Gloria has arrived.
Will Gloria appear in public in a red shirt?
Will Bark and Buglaroni stay dumped?
Does Bark have a just claim on Gloria?
Has Mariah Carey been sitting too long at the baked potato bar?
Is anyone in the known universe upset that Celine Dion is retiring?
Wear your sunshade while reading our next episode: "Don't Eat the Borscht in Moscow, or, How to Avoid the Trotskys."
Go to the next episode due Mar 31, 1999.