It’s official. I’m old.
Although 50 is around the corner; although I wince each time I hear ‘80s music on an oldies-but-goodies radio station; and although the sunlight reflecting off of the grays and silvers in my hair causes a halo effect — I never considered myself old.
Until I went to the mall to shop for some Christmas gifts for my 12-year-old niece.
She’s at an age when it’s difficult to buy anything for her. In fact, she actually likes going to the mall — it’s the place to be and be seen for any young teenager (always has been, always will). So my idea was to get a few small items and then a gift card from one of the stores she likes.
I consulted with my sister, and this was the list: Hollister (body spray); Claire’s (earrings); Victoria’s Secret (body spray). My jaw dropped. Since when did my 12-year-old niece discover Victoria’s Secret — and have I mentioned that she’s 12?
I knew a long time ago that I had aged out of the mall — but it’s always nice to be reminded that you just don’t belong there.
That was my exact thought as I entered Hollister. It’s one of those hip stores for hip youngsters (and by youngsters, I mean anyone under 28 years of age). Allow me to introduce you to my inner monologue:
“Why does it have to be so dark in here? I can’t even see where I’m going. And what’s with all the twists and turns and random tables of clothes blocking my way just to get to the cashier. Where is the cashier, anyway? I don’t think I passed the cashier. If I did, it’s probably because it’s so dark in here. Did I just get sprayed with Hollister cologne? I think I did. Hey, my eye is burning. Did I just get sprayed in the eye? Maybe that’s why they keep it dark in here, so you never know when you’re passing a vent that’s spraying out a steady stream of cologne.”
At last, I made it to the register to purchase a plastic bottle of body spray. The male cashier, who looked like he stepped off the side of one of the Hollister shopping bags, said in his deepest dude tone, “Someone’s gonna smell nice tonight.”
“It’s for my 12-year-old niece,” I said. My tone, though, was more like, “It’s for my 12-year-old niece, who will have nothing to do with the likes of you and your boy band haircut and your chiseled features with the one-day-old stubble. And, for the record, flannel shirts should never be that tight.”
One purchase, done. This was going rather smoothly, I thought. Next stop, Claire’s.
I was familiar with Claire’s, because it’s usually a store I avoid. From the outside, it looks like rack after rack of shiny jewelry and girly things. From the inside, it looks the same.
To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. I’ve never seen that much jewelry in one place in my life and all of it was on sale: buy one, get the second 1/2 off — and $10 seemed to be the magic price. Lady bugs, peace signs, butterflies — I didn’t have a clue what my niece would put in her lobes, and I didn’t want to make the wrong choice and have my gift go down as the worst Christmas gift ever.
Blindly (probably a lasting effect of the Hollister spray), I found myself outside of Victoria’s Secret. I wondered, how difficult could this be? After all, I was buying body spray, not lingerie. I stepped over the threshold and into a world of pink. In front of me, a poster of a 15-year-old girl, blouse unbuttoned, playfully smiling and — I ran. I ran as fast as I could, gasping for air, my eyes searching for any store that offered a scented spray for my niece.
How could I be looking at ladybugs and butterflies one second, and then at all of Victoria’s secrets the next? Is this what it’s like to be a 12-year-old girl these days? Cute, yet sexy? Innocent, yet seductive? What exactly are we selling our youth? What message are we sending young girls? Am I being too much of an uptight social worker? An uptight uncle, perhaps?
I found my way to another scented-up store, and when the salesperson asked if she could help me with anything, I blurted out one very long word:
The salesperson stared at me for a moment and said, curling up the end of her sentence like a question, “Um . . . We have some nice items at the front of the store . . .”
In all honesty, I stopped listening. My nostrils were burning from so many aromas and there was a debate raging in my head — and I really wanted to get this shopping done. I really wanted to get my niece something that she would like. I really wanted her to be happy. And so, against all of my principles, I caved and returned to Victoria’s Secret for the body spray.
I phoned my sister as soon as I left the store, pink bag in hand, to say, “I just wanted to let you know that I have purchased my very first item, ever, from Victoria’s Secret.” We both laughed. “I feel . . . I feel that tonight . . . Tonight, I became a woman.”
In reality, I became an old man. Anxious. Crabby. Panicky. An oddity in a world devoted to youth — and I was very, very glad for it. No, make that relieved — that I grew up when I did and that I no longer have to be 12, with all of its questions and confusion, conflicts and drama, choices and doubts, pressures from outside and in.
Yup, I’m perfectly okay with being a right not-so-jolly old elf, as happily out of place as a bright pink bag in a winter garden.