By Dr. Fernando A. Ojeda
It was cool coming to the mall when I was real little. Buckled to the car seat in back, I was an astronaut coming to a galactic station where we could buy provisions, and where we made contact with aliens from other planets or other galaxies. That’s what I imagined whenever a group of people walked by us speaking a foreign language. Our mall had many aliens. Some wore clothes that were very different from ours. And some were very colorful. I’d get real excited those Saturdays when my parents announced, through imaginary loudspeakers made up of their fists, put to their mouths like trumpets, something like this: “All aboard the Spaceship Saturn 1992 for departure. Destination: Oakridge Mall. Commence countdown.” Then, we started counting down from 20 while making our way to the garage. My father knew just how to time it so that the garage door would open completely as we were getting to our departure time of 0, and then the car lifted off to the driveway and we made a final ascent towards the mall.
My parents talked to each other a lot then, on our way to the mall. Sometimes the conversations were serious, you could tell by the long pauses and the low, yet comforting tone. Other times, they talked about the future and my mom’s eyes gleamed when dad assured her that they’d grow old together. Then, there were those days when they talked silly talk about silly things. Boy did they use to talk. They also laughed out loud and playfully slapped each other’s legs or punched each other’s shoulders whenever one got the better of the other. I also remember how the car radio was always on, and they seemed to know all the songs. They sang to each other, they sang to me, they sang to passing cars, and they sang especially to dogs sticking their heads out of other car’s windows. The dogs looked back confused, with sagging, and dazed faces that my mother often found to be sad. Yeah, there was excitement in the car, a little like electricity bouncing off the windshield, and the car windows, and the car walls. I think I bounced up and down on the car seat from the excitement. Those were really happy days.
The best part was when we got to the mall. The three of us: mom, dad, and I, used to walk, hand in hand across an endless parking lot. I was always in the middle, arms high, holding-on to my parent’s hands and looking like a ref calling a touchdown. They would count to three, and I knew that they would pull me high and swing me towards the sky… My face felt the breeze, and all I could hear was: thhrrrreeeeeeeee…. Those were the fun days… Once inside, we window shopped for a while as we scouted stores that might hold a treasure or two for us to examine on our second orbit of the mall. I liked the stores that my mom said were called specialty shops. That’s a good name, specialty shop. The stuff there was very different; my dad once said that it was ‘xotic’ stuff, or something like that. All I know is that it was different stuff. Stuff like shrunken heads, wooden masks, incense holders, mobiles, crystals, carved tusks, colorful kites and other neat stuff.
Back then, mom and dad went into the stores together and looked at clothes, furniture, and appliances that might be just perfect for our home. They usually didn’t buy anything at the mall, but almost everything they looked at seemed to be just right to them. Mom even mentioned with excitement the precise spot where everything would go and how it would match the color or pattern of some other appliance or piece of furniture. We always went into lots of stores. But, we saved the best for last: the food court. At the food court, aliens had mini-stations from where they served the special diet that was specific to the planet they had come from. I pretended that each cubicle served the food that gave the aliens just the right energy and protein to reach their destination safely. So, the aliens who came from the most distant galaxies, like from the planet Chinee (a word I made up), had to eat very healthy food with lots of minerals and vitamins to make it home ok. We tried food from every planet even though we lived about 20 minutes from the mall.
Dad said that time changes everything. Mom didn’t say much after a while. She cried a lot, in silence. Little by little, she had started changing. She wasn’t as happy as before, and they stopped talking about the future. Whenever they talked then, in the car, the pauses were real long. Sometimes they sighed, each looking out the window on their side of the car. I sometimes wondered if mom’s face was confused, dazed, and sad. I wanted to sing to her to make her happy.
They also stopped pretending that we were going on galactic missions whenever we went to the mall. They stopped pulling me up by the arms to swing me like before. I thought it was my fault, I thought I had grown too big for that. I knew things were changing for sure when they stopped holding my hands as we walked from the car to the mall. I don’t know why, but I realized that I had started walking with my hands in my pockets…I didn’t know what to do with them, and I missed holding their hands…
The last time we went to the mall we didn’t go. My parents had been arguing in the car and I had tuned them out. I learned to do this by humming the songs from the radio to myself to erase my parent’s voices; sometimes it helped to put my index fingers in my ears at the same time. I hummed a lot those days. And I looked out the window a lot without seeing anything specific. I hummed and looked at the blurs that flew by the window like ghosts in daylight. That day, we came close to the mall but my dad hit the brakes, turned the car abruptly and headed back home in a rush. Two or three cars beeped at dad and some men shouted and made faces at him from their cars. But dad ignored them; he also ignored mom who was staring at him with a tight jaw and a different gleam in her eyes. He held the steering wheel tightly with both hands, leaned his hunched shoulders close to it, and glared at the windshield. I looked back and caught a glimpse of the mall and noticed black birds circling around in lazy swoops, I had never noticed them before. That was the last time we were all together again in the car. Nobody said a word all the way home.
That was a while ago. Now, mom and dad meet at the mall to hand me over, from one to the other, whenever I have visitation with dad. Dad doesn’t want to drive all the way to our house to pick me up, or to drop me off, since he now lives on the other side of the mall from where we live, and he says that it doesn’t make sense to drive all that way when we can meet half way, especially when we can meet at the mall, where I always liked to go. Sometimes, my parents just go to the mall for that, they don’t shop there anymore, they don’t eat there anymore. They just meet at 5:00 sharp, in the afternoon, “and don’t be late”, to make the exchange. We meet at the food court on one of the tables closest to the main walkway of the mall and the whole thing takes about 2 minutes. Sometimes they don’t even talk to each other. We stand up, mom says: “come on honey, let’s go,” she turns in the direction from where she had appeared and we walk out of the mall. Dad pats me on the shoulder and nods with a half-smile. Sometimes he just nods.
That’s why I’m here now and thinking of all this. Dad’s sitting across from me with his legs crossed and looking away. From time to time, he looks in the direction where mom comes, even though we still have about 20 minutes left. He seems happy at the moment. He just hung up the cell phone. He was using the voice he used to use with mom whenever they talked about their future together. He also laughed heartily…when was the last time I heard him laugh like that? His head was moving slowly and he stopped momentarily when facing me. I let out an awkward smile and thought I might be looking goofy. Good thing he really wasn’t looking at me though he was facing me, because I didn’t want him to see me looking goofy. I turned my head and realized that I was still holding on to that goofy smile on my face. That’s when the top of my forehead started to sweat and itch a little. He just kept talking into the phone a bit longer. I decided to take a good look at dad. Boy had he changed. Now he wears cologne that you can smell from a mile away. I think it’s pungent. And he has an earring, which is strange because we used to laugh at guys with earrings, tattoos and piercings… I wonder what’s next for him. Then again, he also let his hair grow and puts it in a ponytail when he’s all dressed up. He also seems to have a phony smile plastered on his face and he stares at girls when they walk by, his head follows them even though he may be talking on the phone or talking to me. I don’t think he realizes it. I think he’s trying to be younger than he is. But it’s not working; all those changes make him look a little awkward, like someone wearing a shirt that is too big and too starchy and the guy who is wearing it seems to be swimming in it and lost…or something like that.
I see mom coming. It’s a relief because Dad and I were bored and time was passing so slowly. It isn’t cool to come to the mall anymore, especially the time I spend sitting here in the food court with dad; it’s endless. We stand up and wait for mom to reach us through the crowd of strangers. Mom walks with her eyes down, it’s a wonder she can get around without bumping into people. “Come on honey, let’s go.” She turns around and I begin to follow her. Dad pats me on the shoulder and we exchange little, fake, smiles. I catch up to mom and walk next to her. She suddenly looks at me and points with her chin up ahead of us. “Look, honey, aliens from another planet.” A family of four: a father, a mother, a daughter of about my age and a younger son of about 10. The father is holding his son’s hand. The mother is doing the same with the girl’s hand. Their father is speaking a foreign language to them, and the children answer him in English. “It looks like a hybrid species,” I say. “Commence countdown,” my mother offers. And we begin to countdown from 20, slowly, because we still have a long way to go before we exit the mall to get to our car. She reaches over and takes my hand. I look at our hands confused because it has been a long time since the last time…I look up at her and we both light up in a huge smile…”15, 14, 13, 12…”