I had thirty minutes to kill.
It used to be a lot easier to kill half an hour in a giant shopping center. Once upon a time, back when I lived in a city whose mall was not so much a mall as a series of furniture outlets, the opportunity to visit a quarter mile of shiny capitalist temples would have thrilled me.
I decided to go to Barnes & Noble. Used to be, I would visit a B&N once a week at least, but in the last five years or so, I've made maybe three visits. I'm not sure how places like this can compete with the internet. I could sit outside the store on a bench and order a book from my cell phone and probably get a better price. There seem to be people here, though, so maybe there are those who like the experience of a brick and mortar store.
As soon as I walk in, I see the coffee shop. It's after 8 pm, and I haven't had supper yet. Never, ever shop when you're hungry. Just half an hour earlier, I had almost bought a bag of Twizzlers at Best Buy, which is sort of like buying a hammer at Food Lion; it's got impulse buy written all over it. Heaven help me if I went to a grocery store and accidentally wandered down the Dorito aisle. It's funny, I asked a coworker if you could still get Teddy Grahams, and he acted shocked that I didn't know. Don't you ever go down the cookie and snack cracker aisle? No, not really. That was a realization for me, that I so rarely walked down the Teddy Graham aisle that I had forgotten you could buy bear-shaped sweetened crackers. I felt a little smug, because the reason I don't visit those sections of grocery stores is because I just make my own cookies. But I don't know how to make Doritos. Maybe that's for the best.
The reason I used to visit B&N every week was because it was open until 11 pm, and I wasn't old enough to go anywhere that was open later, but I was old enough to have a 12:30 curfew. My boyfriend and I went out every Saturday night to Hickory, which had furniture outlets, but also an actual mall and a Best Buy and a used record store. These were our dates - dinner somewhere cheap, then hitting stores until they were closed. Then we went somewhere and made out until it was time to go home. I don't know what other kids did on their dates. The making out part was probably universal, but maybe they went to the movies or had nicer dinners than Cici's Pizza.
I hate Cici's Pizza. When they opened in Hickory, it was still only $3.99 for the buffet. The food was decent, the price was right, but we went so many times that I couldn't have told you if any other restaurants in town were even still open anymore. They'd all be relegated to the Teddy Graham aisle in my mind. My boyfriend liked restaurants in phases, so we went to the same place over and over for six months before he switched to somewhere else. It sounds like I'm complaining, but I didn't mind it so much then. Having grown up in a home where our eating out experience consisted of getting milkshakes every two years when we bought a new car, I was happy to go anywhere. Plus, I was young and in love and still had really good metabolism.
The mall closed at nine, and some of the other stores closed at ten, so that's when we went to B&N. Sometimes we would to go Wal-Mart, which was always a mistake. A bunch of other kids, who were also too young to go to bars but not interested in books, would go to the Wal-Mart parking lot and cruise. It was impossible to get in and out without spending twenty minutes in between two pimped-out Civics. Eventually, it got better, because the Wal-Mart manager finally called in the Hickory police to monitor the parking lot, direct traffic, and tell the kids to move along now, move along. I suppose if you were going to commit a crime in Hickory, Saturday night at 10 pm would be the best time to do it.
At B&N, we would get hot cocoas, because we were too young to drink coffee. Then we'd go through the bargain books. Once we finished with those, he would go look through the art books and then the magazines. I ran out of things to look at before he did, particularly since I had to look at things which were close to him because he didn't really like me to wander away from him in the store. So I would sit on a bench and page through bridal magazines, because I was too old for Seventeen, but too embarrassed to read Cosmo. I wasn't making wedding plans, but I liked to look at the dresses. I wonder if it weirded him out, seeing me pour over pictures of brides. Probably not then, though maybe it would have a few years later when we were both in our early twenties. Sometimes we sat in the coffee shop, flirting across the table. Once he tore up one of the to-go cocoa cups and made me a flower. I kept it in a shoebox in my closet, along with all the other random keepsakes, including a purple paper hat and an envelope full of rhododendron leaves.
Last night at B&N, I gave in to temptation and walked to the coffee shop. It wasn't a fight at all, but a quick surrender to hunger and nostalgia. I'm too old to drink coffee that late, so I ordered a medium hot cocoa. It was $2.94. Seems like it had been two bucks when I was sixteen. The lady handed me my drink and I meandered over to the bargain books, still kept right at the front of the store. My cocoa was too hot to drink yet.
The bargain books are always the same, even when they are different. They're remaindered from the publisher or collections of classics put out by Barnes & Noble. Some coffee table books heavy on pictures and light on content, with popular topics meant to draw you in and then hook you with the fact that they are half the price of the regular books in the store. A few of them were interesting, but years of buying books for a quarter at yard sales has pretty much ruined my ability to give B&N any of my money.
I still had ten minutes to kill. I guess I could go look at bridal magazines. I'm still too embarrassed to read Cosmo. I wandered around aimlessly instead. The cocoa was not good. Maybe they've switched to low fat milk instead of whole, but I'm inclined to think it's just bad cocoa mix. It used to be a lot better than this, at least I think it did. Seems like Teddy Grahams used to be good, too, and Cici's Pizza.
There was a table of paperbacks labelled for "summer reading," whatever that means. They were classics, and I greeted them like old friends, maybe like old lovers, except that I've never greeted an old lover, so I don't know what it's like. I counted the ones I had read and picked up the others to read the blurbs on the backs. I wished that I had a book with me so that I could kill time by immersing myself in it rather than taking a stroll through a place that looked just like I remembered, but wasn't the same at all. It was like walking around in your old elementary school and marvelling at how short the water fountains are. It's just a change in perspective.
I'm not sad that I've changed, and I have zero desire to be sixteen again (apart from that metabolism bit). Nor do I necessarily care that I no longer get any enjoyment out of a cup of Barnes & Noble cocoa. But the fact that it is so far from good now makes me wonder if it was ever good, or if I just didn't know any better. It's hard to not let this cup of bad cocoa sully memories of cups of good cocoa past. Because it was so good then, rich and creamy. I remember enjoying the cocoa, the books, and the magazines, though maybe it was just all about the boy the whole time. But even that has been tainted by all that happened later.
Sometimes it's best to assume that they're just not using whole milk anymore.