All that glitters, p.1
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       All That Glitters, p.1

           Elizabeth Stern-Wolfe
 
All That Glitters


  I was doing some cleanup to see if I could free up some storage space when I came across a box of my childhood arms. “Ooh, look! My old arms!”, I said to no one. It was like running into an old friend you were very fond of.

  The arms were so tiny! Some had very girly fingernail polishes. I held them up to my current arm, to see if the old ones were brighter, and to my delight found they looked about the same. I wasn’t worn out yet. They weren’t expensive arms but they were decently made. The discount stuff breaks down too fast, it’s no bargain. You get what you pay for.

 

  Seeing those arms brought back a torrent of childhood memories, particularly of shopping for parts. Me, Mom and Grandma went to the mall every Saturday night. The mall was new and shiny back then, and it brimmed with the abundance and availability of a booming economy. Christmas was particularly brilliant. Everything was tinted with an extra shimmer, but not gaudy greens and reds: the mall must have had hired a proper decorator for a cohesive visual theme, because I remember everything in shades of gold. Taupe-colored marble accents, faux sandstone floors, champagne shimmer strands like flapper skirts, strings of illuminated lights hanging elegantly from the glass balconies of the multi-level shopping centre. The shops were expertly lit inside to showcase their merchandise; each one more glamorous than the last.

  As a kid, I knew we definitely weren’t rich. Yet I had the understanding that you could afford almost anything you wanted, if you chose carefully. All of this abundance was available to us. Prosperity was everywhere. We were not excluded. Our home may have been in shambles, but in the mall, we were like gods: pick and choose whatever you’d like. If you can’t get it today, there’s always layaway.

  We would stroll through the aisles of beautiful faces, slender arms, and big hair. A certain display model caught my eye with the particular slant of her torso, so different from my childish build, so impossibly elegant. I had an artist’s eye and I could immediately tell when people had chosen an ill-fitting part. Hips too curvaceous that didn’t flatter their upper body, or hands that were too dainty, bordering on the ridiculous. Technically, they may have fit, and surely the salesperson told them they looked spectacular, buts it’s somewhat of an art, not simply a science, to put a person together in just the right way. And so while women strutted by, obviously very proud of their shiny new parts, I felt just a little smug that I could immediately see the flaws in their design. I was just a kid, and naive about why people put themselves together in the ways they did, but I knew instinctively what worked and what didn’t, and when men would turn their head at some perfectly proportioned beauty, and other women would wonder how did she manage to get it all just so, I knew that would be me one day. One day when I was big enough and old enough and had enough money, oh, the shopping spree I would have in that golden, glittering mall! It wasn’t just a shopping centre, it was a place you could transform, and it would be my cocoon out of which I would emerge beautiful and confident and then everything would fall into place and life would just go my way because I had a gift and it would acknowledge me for my talents and cleverness and inborn elegance.

  I decided I wouldn’t do it piecemeal like everyone else does, with their weekly shopping trips, picking up legs here and a neck there. Oh no. I would save my money for one big overhaul, say at 18, upon graduation. Who cares how you look in high school. I didnt care about impressing pimply faced children. No, I would focus on studies like a good girl so that I could suddenly transform into the perfect woman, with brains and beauty.

  I filled notebooks with plans and designs, just waiting for the day when I’d show them all. I had it all planned out. A complete change-out in fell swoop would ensure the best overall fit. Nothing out of date, or out of season, no old-fashioned connectors making you mess around with adapters, different dye lots or discontinued accessories like ears or fingernails. No, it would all be at once and it would be seamless, and I’d be a real work of art, ready to embark on an amazing life.

  But I had to wait, and make my selections from the drearily generic children’s stock. But every week without fail we made that pilgrimage to the sparkling towers and I shopped it out in my head. I can remember looking up at the sparkle of the eye-and-nose counters even from my scratchy stroller. When I was in middle school my mother bought me some leg warmers on sale so I could hide my hideous adjustable-height value ankles.

  My grandmother would touch a few of the visages from the rows and rows of faces, but she was so modest and frugal, she always said, “Next time.” I wished she would just buy a new one already. I liked her current face but there was one model that was clearly her favorite. It was a newer take on one of the classics. Not a cutting-edge design, no longer a best-seller, but timeless. It was the updated version of herself, and really so lovely, just slightly firmer skin but not age-inappropriate, with the same kind eyes and knowing smile. I tried to talk her into it. “You’ll need it sooner or later. This one you have is so old, you can see the seam line.” She would adjust her hair and say, “Yes, I know. Ok sweetie, I’ll get it next week, OK? I will.”

  But then a terrible thing happened. The face was discontinued. It was a disaster. She was so upset with herself for not getting it while she could. She made a salesgirl call all the other stores looking for it, but no one had that exact one. It was gone forever. Just the right one, her favorite face, the one she waited and waited for, and now she could never have it. She never forgot about it and always regretted it. For years, she would flip through catalogs, sighing and mumbling, “I should have bought my face when I had the chance”, and she never did purchase another. Her face got more and more yellow, began to warp from heating and cooling, even developed a hairline crack that extended from her jaw almost to her mouth, but every time we went shopping for a new one, nothing available was quite right. I always thought there were plenty that were nice, but she never liked any of them.

  “What about this one, Grandma?”

  “Oh no. It’s much too round. I never liked those very round ones.”

  “This one is pretty close.”

  She would squint and examine the face from all angles, turning it round and round in her hands. “I don’t like the nose.”

  “But you could swap that out!”

  She would shake her head at that. Too much trouble. She would get frustrated and give up, and say that we’ll come back next week and see if they have anything new then. She preferred to live with her old, yellow, cracked face rather than settle for one that wasn’t as good as the one she had really wanted. It was a constant theme of disappointment. I couldn’t help but wonder if Grandpa was still around, would he have been able to convince her that any face would do?

  It was so upsetting, losing Grandma’s face, that I developed a fear of delaying gratification. I was afraid someone else would get what I wanted, that this might be the only perfect part for me, that I had to act now, get it now. When my mother refused to buy me parts I fell in love with, I would try to hide them behind other stock, at the back of the rack or at the bottom of a stack, thinking perhaps no one would find it and it would be there next week.

  Graduation came and went but all the money I once thought I would have saved up by then had been eaten away by other necessities. I hate spending on money on necessities. It feels forced. Joint oil, replacement connectors, surface degreaser: it doesn’t seem like much, but it all adds up. And when I had to go to college and meet everyone new with my old, plain, practical parts, I was so ashamed, and disappointed in myself. I felt like I had blown my chance to transform into a new me.

  I still remember, clearly, the first day of class. Econ 101. “Economics is the study of sca
rcity.”

  No one paid me much attention in college. Just like they hadn’t paid me attention in high school. One day, when I found myself equipped with a little extra money and optimism, I went and blew it all on some stuff like add-on lips and some rather ridiculously long hair. I felt pretty fancy upon leaving the store, but I didn’t get the reception I was hoping for. I didn’t get more respect from anyone. No doors opened for me. No prince showed up. All I got were a few leering stares. It wasn’t what I was going for. What was I thinking? Some knockoff brand L.E.D. rouge inserts weren’t elegant. But I couldn’t afford elegant. I realized with some horror that I had become that vain, desperate woman I’d snickered at as child: the lady hoping to strut just because she slapped on a couple new parts here and there. I decided I would rather be generic than gaudy, so I ended up chucking the stuff and felt like a fool for wasting my money.

  I recall once saying to my mother when I was little, “I don’t really understand the concept of waste.”

  She replied, “Oh, you will.”

  When I looked down into that closet box and saw all my old arms and thought how much they all must have cost and how I was so sure that I needed them at the time and probably pleaded and pleaded with my mother until she caved and had to pinch somewhere else so her only daughter could have her precious new arms that were SO important, and here they were, all discarded, some of them truly only worn a few times, well… I surely did now understand the meaning of wastefulness, and how my memories of glamorous abundance were just a lie, that few people could really afford all the great stuff but they were made to believe that they could, and so they were just slaves to the layaway payments the way people are slaves to credit card debt today, except that at least the credit card gets you instant gratification. Sometimes people lost all their layaway money if they missed a payment.

  Suddenly, for the first time, it dawned on me why we were at the mall without fail every Saturday night. Layaway payments. The payments on all those dull necessities. The feet because mom’s were wearing out from her job, replacement eyes because I couldn’t see the board in the classroom anymore, Grandma’s ever-increasing need for oil for her creaky joints. That’s why we were there at the mall every week like clockwork, not to be dazzled and dreaming, but to make those neverending payments on the things you don’t want, but need.

  Even though I knew I had been just a kid and really couldn’t have truly understood these things, I felt incredibly guilty. What a selfish little materialistic parasite I was.

  Sometimes I still think about the makeover. I could still do it, if I really wanted to. I could max out my credit cards, become someone else, except now I know that I wouldn’t become someone else like I used to think. I’d still be me, just with an aftermarket exterior. People may be shallow but I think they’d somehow see right through me, even if I didn’t get the trendy new translucent limbs. They’d sniff out my stock undercarriage in a heartbeat.

  The box of arms in front of me weren’t even suitable to donate. They’d long ago changed all connectors to USB. They were obsolete. They were just garbage.

  I wanted to just shove the arms back into the closet and not think about them anymore. But that would just be putting off their inevitable, sad end. I took them into the tiny backyard space of my apartment, and burned them, two by two, in the tiny metal container that was my bathroom trash can.

  My little arms disfigured themselves easily against the heat. The acetates gave off a bright yellow with a brief show of sparks; the PVCs gave off a brilliant, fruity blue. At the end, the polystyrenes bellowed a black, sooty smoke as they burned off thick and golden. The intensity of the heat warped the sides of the little metal trash can. Nothing remained but a small melted pile of blackness at the bottom.

  The mall that was so gloriously golden in my memories is dark and dingy today. I’m not really sure if it’s actually any different, or if I’m just more adept at seeing

  dysfunction now.

  I take no pleasure in parts shopping anymore.

 
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