It is a universally acknowledged truth that Kmart brings out the worst in people. And I am not immune to the powers of its convenience. After work I wander into Kmart’s fluorescent-lit bowels, mindlessly chewing on a sushi roll. Like the other aimless shoppers, I could not recall the purpose of my trip. I am in a temporary amnesia induced by beige linoleum flooring, the murmur of pop songs and the drone of air-conditioning.
A girl in uniform stands by a table, folding mounds of clothing that would inevitably be unfolded. I remember being her. I smile at her. Despite the upward twinge of her cheek muscles, I see in her gaze an admittance of truth: ‘I don’t want to be here, and neither do you.’
I got my first job in ninth grade, at Kmart. Around the same time I experienced an intellectual awakening. I had an inconsistent income stream and a sense of intellectual superiority. I recall learning the word ‘atavism’ in a social studies class. Thinking that it made me sound sophisticated, I began to use it in any context that could vaguely be considered appropriate. In retrospect, my clunky employment of the word had the opposite effect. I sounded like a time-travelling Neanderthal who had gotten her hands on a dictionary and was excitedly spitting out various words.
My misuse of the word ‘atavism’ had made me into an atavism. I remember being called out for my misuse of the term. My fourteen-year-old self, purporting as an evolved species, was exposed as a Neanderthal.
Years have passed, boy bands have come and gone, hairstyles have changed. Yet try as I may to be rid of her, she slips through. All foundation-caked acne and insecurities, my fourteen-year-old self creeps through the cracks of my quasi-adult persona, like some self-vindictive version of the Freudian slip. She is the balance between self-loathing and self-aggrandising. Like boldly mispronouncing the word ‘cessation’ as ‘sensation’ in front of academic peers. Or something more animalistic, like scratching the inside of my nose mid-conversation. Her pubescent shadow lingers like smoke from an ancient hair straightener. Nothing stands as a testament to her malicious presence as much as my recent trip to Kmart.
I must mention one awful habit I have. Gravity is partially to blame and the other factor is my unkempt hair.
Most people stop using bibs after their infancy because they develop enough hand-eye coordination to make the bib redundant. But given the amount of food that finds its way into my hair, perhaps I should still be using such a garment. I remember eating a chocolate ice cream in the back seat of my sister’s car. It was night time and I had been eating it for just a minute or so when suddenly it was finished. Half asleep, hands covered in its residue, I shrugged this off. When I arrived home, I brushed my unruly hair. Lo and behold, there it was: a sticky enmeshment of hair and ice cream.
By the time I reach Kmart’s gardening section, I had finished my sushi. As I walk down a glowing-white aisle, I glance down at my hair. There they were: a few grains of rice, lying abandoned in my locks. Without consideration for the guise of a sophisticated woman I had made for myself, I pick them from my hair and pop the granules directly into my mouth. A trickling sense of self-awareness comes over me. It comes too late. I look up, the taste of rice and shame fresh in my mouth. I make full eye-contact with a woman. She is in her mid-thirties, short hair, glasses. As she walks past with her partner she looks at me, eyebrows slightly raised. I hope against hope that she did not see me eat the rice from my hair. Yet sure enough, confirmation of my worst fear came. I hear her turn to her partner and mutter:
‘Did you see that woman?’
My immediate desire is to grab her by the shoulders and say: ‘I’m normal, okay? It was rice. You didn’t see me, but I was just eating sushi.’
My next impulse is to run, to flee from the scene of the crime. Run and add my local Kmart to the blacklist of places I can never return to. Like the inner city housewife boutique where I broke a vase two years ago.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to resort to that. Kmart is the sort of environment Elvis could enter wearing a hoodie and an ill-fitting tracksuit and maintain some form of anonymity.
I didn’t realise that I had stopped walking until a mother swung her pram around me. I look over my shoulder, the burn of my embarrassment lingering. What is the big deal? It’s not like I’d ever see her again. My mistake is washed away in the steady stream of hunched buyers and shopping trolleys.
Nevertheless, I feel it. The illogical mortification. Again, she slipped out. My Neanderthal. My foundation-caked adolescent persona. The moment of my faux pas is gone. I am left with myself. I may have achieved milestone after milestone in my adult life, yet I am never too evolved for one of her uncomfortable interruptions. A reminder that we’re all a bunch of animals dressed in Kmart office wear, pronouncing the word ‘cessation’ as ‘sensation’ and picking our noses. My very own self-deprecating Neanderthal cat-caller. I hope you have one too.
Chiara Stegert is a writer, poet and freelance copywriter. When her hands aren’t glued to a keyboard, she’s an avid people watcher and a compulsive eavesdropper, or as she refers to it ‘doing research’. Her writing engages with day-to-day microcosms of culture and their clashes with the individual. You can see her poetry in publications such as Concrescence, Glass Mag, or on her website.