In my sophomore year of college, I worked at six different stores, all in the same mall. I started at the Deb store, which was a mirrored square of a room with a purple rug and unflattering bluish light. I was told that a strobe light had once hung from the wall, until a customer had seized right there on the floor, taking down a rack of plastic jewelry with her. Deb sold animal-print stretch pants in synthetic materials, halter tops, and acid wash denim miniskirts. Despite the mirrors and the fact that no single item cost more than $12.99, we had a shoplifting problem, something that a succession of thirty-something female managers with claw-like bangs and cheap gray suits had tried unsuccessfully to control.
When every surface around you is mirrored, you are confronted daily with angles of your body that you are not supposed to see, so it was not long before I left for a clerk position at a stationery shop, then a boutique that sold bright, Benetton-knockoff scarf and sweater sets. I quit that job on a whim one day for a gig at a kitchen store, and then moved on to a jewelry and accessory chain, where I pierced ears and worked under a manager named Crystal who had just turned eighteen. Our drawer was short of cash every night, and I was never sure whether Crystal was stealing or our calculations were just way off. It was probably a little of both.
The one place I stayed for more than a few months was the Hallmark shop, where they let me decorate the windows for the holidays with wrapping paper and ribbon, and they only had to remind me once not to tie curly ribbons around the necks of the Lladro nativity figures.
“Some might find it sacrilegious,” the manager said as I adorned Joseph with a festive bow tie. “Sometimes we get nuns in here.” I nodded. Those nuns lived in my dorm; my college, a Catholic women’s school with many more commuters than residents, had more in common with a community college than a four-year institution—it was inexpensive and SATs were not required—but the divide between the residents and commuters was clear, from the way we clustered together in classes to the stares we gave commuters should they attempt to study in our dorm lounge. Our experience, like that of many college students, was shaped by the shared spaces we inhabited: the gym, the flight school across town where we spent our weekends, the common area of our dorm, and the mall.
I had never considered working anywhere other than the mall. It was 1987, and my school was on the tax-free side of the New Hampshire/Massachusetts border. Everything worthwhile was in a mall, as far as my friends and I were concerned: food courts with Orange Julius stands, the Limited, record shops, Spencer gifts, carousels, photo booths, and places where you could buy big, chocolaty coffee-like drinks that resembled actual coffee only in color. I needed to work because I had no source of spending money, but I ended up blowing each paycheck on clothes or other items from the mall—I am pretty sure this is why they hired college girls right away, barely looking at the applications before asking “When can you start?” I never felt any loyalty toward any particular mall job; I was in college, and no one expected any kind of commitment. Jobs at the mall were like the boys at the flight school nearby—all the same, pretty much, but the one you didn’t yet have was always better.
One day I was walking back to the Hallmark store after my lunch break, holding a cardboard container of Gloria Jean’s mocha mint coffee drinks. Hovering near the entryway of the storefront was a young woman with a microphone who asked me if I wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. I must have given her a confused look.
“I can wait,” She said. “I really need a young woman’s perspective, and it’s noon on a school day…” I looked around. Everyone in my line of vision was over fifty.
After I had brought the coffee to my manager, who looked vaguely put out by the reporter standing in our doorway, the young woman posed her question:
“Do you think girls under 18 should get parental permission before getting an abortion?”
I didn’t know what to say.
The reporter waited patiently for my answer.
“Yes,” I told the reporter.” I think their parents should help them make the decision. It’s not something they can decide lightly…they don’t have the maturity.”
It was a few minutes after I answered the reporter’s question about my opinion on parental notification when I realized what I had done. She had already started down the escalator when I caught up with her.
“Can I add to my answer?” I asked. “I mean, what I want to say is that there might be some situations where it might be better to, I mean, if the parents say no…”
“No, you did great!” The reporter smiled, giving me a reassuring pat on the hand. “Really! Thank you!” And she moved toward a group congregated around the calendar store. There was nothing I could do but go back to work.
I saved the clipping from the Nashua Telegraph, which shows me looking shyly away from the camera, like Princess Diana during her plump years, not like the kind of girl who changed jobs every few weeks on a whim, certainly not the type of girl who would bully a classmate. The column is one of many relics from that year: a note written on a beer label from a boy at the flight school, telling me I was the greatest. A report card: a C in philosophy, an A in English, a B in something called “On Being Human.” A parody I had drawn of the Jane Fonda workout, starring Sr. Doris, who taught U.S. History. And a disciplinary report from the college judicial board which states as its final verdict:
The members of the judicial board found that you did throw a defaced doll
At the home of Patty Delislei and her grandmother and that the doll was defaced
In such a manner to be reasonably perceived as a threat and/or harassment.
Patty did not start out as a target, but neither was she truly our friend, as the judicial board documents would later indicate. She was peripheral, a hanger-on, and Stacy was the one who had brought her into our circle. In the way that groups of college girls orbit around a leader, we followed Stacy, who was from Southie and had a loud voice and a smile that made you suspect she was making fun of you, just a little bit. Even genuine concern came across as slightly mocking. Patty had met Stacy in a class. She was unforgettable, with bigger hair and more makeup than anyone else we knew: blue and white eye shadow up to the brow, black liquid liner, frosty pink lipstick, and pancake foundation. It was rumored that she never took it off—that she slept in her makeup each night after spraying her entire face with Aqua Net—and then, upon waking, layered on even more. I imagined her pillowcase as a shroud, leaving an exact imprint of her face when she got up in the morning. Patty started spending time in Stacy’s room to avoid having to take the city bus back to her grandmother’s house between classes, and then she started joining us on our weekend visits to the flight school.
Weekend nights were always the same: as the only girl with a car, I would drive as they piled onto each others’ laps, smelling of Anaïs Anaïs or Obsession, hair so high it would block the back windshield. We’d put on INXS’ Kick or Crowded House and drive through downtown Nashua even though it was quicker to take the highway. We craved the light of the city because the boys’ dorms and townhouses were dimly lit and cigar-smoky, and when we stepped out of the car I felt like part of a work crew, ready to wash the boys of their roughness and make them ours. Once there, we descended into the darkness, each girl on her own. Behind our backs, they called us “cockroaches.”
I wonder now at how easy we made if for them, showing up showered and ready to please. They did no work, these boys, apart from stocking kegs of beer and making sure no one touched their stereos while we sat on bunk beds listening to heavy metal, eye-level to the gaping labia or breasts as big as our heads on the blown-up Hustler pictures tacked onto the walls. It wasn’t until my junior year I met someone I liked—he was from Manhattan and really wanted to go to art school, but his father wanted him to be a pilot. He left after one semester. His college, like ours, was small, so the six passable young men were valuable commodities and the subject of many rifts and arguments among my group of friends. It was hard to keep up sometimes.
One day after class I walked by Stacy’s room and heard someone moaning. Normally I would have walked right by, but the door was open, and there were clearly people inside. Patty was sitting on the bed with a pillow over her stomach, bent over. Stacy, her roommate, and a few other friends stood around watching her, and it was clear that no one knew what to do.
“Take her to the hospital, Stacy,” said Stacy’s roommate, Ann. “Are you going to frickin’ let her pass out and bleed to death in our room?”
It might have been rude to say this in front of the ailing Patty, but I had to admit that Ann was right. Patty had turned white, and all the makeup gave her a clownish look. Something was off, and I sensed the disapproval, the disgust of some of the girls in the room, as no one moved to help or comfort her. I wondered if drugs were involved.
“Can we use your car?” Stacy asked me. It wasn’t until we sat in the waiting room that I was able to force the story out of someone: Patty had had an abortion.
“Not a real abortion, like at the clinic,” I was told. “The kind you do yourself.”
I thought about the images I had seen of women who had aborted their own fetuses and could not understand why Patty would do that, especially since we had a Planned Parenthood in town. Stacy begged the nurse not to call Patty’s grandmother; she was strict, Stacy said. She would kick Patty out of the house. Stacy stayed with Patty while the girls in the waiting room speculated about how she had done it: knitting needle, bottle of vodka in a hot bathtub, Drano douche, coat hanger, sitting on spiky fence, turkey baster with air in it, pennyroyal tea, running up and down the stairs 100 times, paying someone to kick her in the stomach…there seemed to be so much speculation about the ways she could have done it, but not one word about why.
A week passed and we had not heard a word about Patty.
“Son of a BITCH,” said Stacy as she hung up the phone one afternoon, and because she was always talking like this, we didn’t take it too seriously. Someone had just told her the rumor that Patty’s aborted fetus was the child of a boy Stacy had been pursuing for the last two years. Bad feeling had been building about Patty for some time—it was a Catholic school, after all. She was wearing all of that makeup, stealing our boys, getting pregnant and then giving herself an abortion; she had betrayed us and what we stood for. Stacy was in a fury and we were worked up, too, at Patty, at the boys, at the rules we had to follow, at everyone and everything.
When someone asked if I would drive, I again said yes. And the next idea was all mine: “we should make a voodoo doll. And put it on her porch—it would be so funny.” Although we were completely sober that night, I remember only moments: tossing a 99 cent Barbie doll with the words “WHORE,” “BITCH,” “DIRTY SLUT” and “BABY KILLER” scrawled on the arms and legs over a fence; heaving eggs at boys’ dorm windows and finally, at the boys themselves when they came outside to find out what was going on; hearing broken glass as a beer bottle landed near our feet. It was a frenzy of yelling, throwing, kicking, running; getting slathered with egg whites and gunk, wanting to do damage. We had started out laughing and now rage had overtaken us: someone had to pay, but for what, I am still not entirely certain.
We didn’t see Patty again until we sat at the table at the judicial board in the Dean’s office. As we entered, she scribbled notes on a legal pad without looking up, still in hair and full makeup, wearing a suit and pumps. She would not speak once during the hearing.
“The nicer the room, the worse trouble we’re in,” Stacy had said, so the moment I saw the chandelier and the fireplace I figured we were in for it. We all took our places at the table while the judicial board, made up of students, faculty and staff, reviewed the evidence and asked us questions. The Voodoo doll was marked “Exhibit A” and passed around, and I will never forget the sight of my philosophy professor looking up its skirt to read the words. It should have been funny, but it was desperately sad: this man who had spent his life studying Kant and Nietzsche and trying to teach it to us had been reduced to looking up a Barbie’s skirt to read our childish taunts.
But no one seemed to want to punish us for what we had done. We were required to write an official apology to Patty and her grandmother, which I volunteered to draft, and attend mandatory group counseling with a woman we were asked to call Joan, who ended up trying to be our friend and sharing stories about her own college escapades.
“I remember one time when we would hide under the bed and reach up with one hand and totally scare our roommates!” Joan would tell us, smiling brightly, before we went around the circle and shared one thing that made us happy and one thing that made us sad. It seemed so important to Joan—and to everyone else—that we not let this minor infraction get us down. “Pranks can go so wrong,” she told us. We were reminded, over and over, that we were nice girls with promising futures. No one had said this about Patty, even during the hearing.
We at the judicial board believe there was neglect on your part to perceive the consequences of these activities or the feelings and sensitivities of others, the final report read. We are concerned about the deterioration of personal friendships/relationships and the impact all of this has on the quality of life on campus. Even then I knew that what we had done to Patty had nothing to do with friendship— no, her suffering had made visible what we did not want to see, so she had to go, and it was easy, easier than it ever should have been.
Kirsti Sandy is an Associate Professor of English at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. Her recent work has appeared in Freshly Hatched and in BioStoriesmagazine.