Published on November 2nd, 2023 | by Brittany Ackerman0
The mall still plays the same voiceless, ambient music. It’s perfect for putting a baby to sleep. It’s perfect for calming my endless nerves. I’m afraid she won’t sleep. I’m afraid she will freak out. I’m afraid of what to do with the rest of my day. My days. Every afternoon is a triumph. Putting her to sleep at night is sailing away from the shore after battle—victorious, yet battered.
There are such calming sounds in the mall: the rolling ascent and descent of the escalator belt, the collective hum of conversations, carts full of boxes gliding across the floor, how the wheels of her stroller mimic a heartbeat.
I pass the department store that I’ve been writing about for a year. I take a picture of its entryway. I want to make sure I get it all right. The music picks up as I pass by, a chorus of clapping hands and a tinny bell, upbeat.
There are families in matching colored outfits. I pass the combination Auntie Anne’s Jamba Juice and smell the cinnamon sugar and salt and strawberry. I think about walking the mall until she wakes up, rounding each corner until the end of time. I pass images of women in bathing suits advertising gold earrings and holding up expensive bags to their chins. Men’s underwear on sale. Extra 20% off. A summer favorites sale. A Burberry bag draped across a bare belly. Watches lined up on a surfboard as they ride the crest of a wave. Iced coffees, pacifiers, lollipops. Cheerios, a mop across the grey and white tile, a cleaning spray that mists over a glass ledge, the sound of a saw cutting through wood, a video of a woman diving into a pool on loop, the water turquoise and clear and perfect.
People talk into their phones. People talk to each other. People wear earbuds and listen to something else. A furniture store boasts a living room set in its front window. Inside, I see a painting of bulls rushing toward the viewer.
How many laps have I done? How many more can I do?
I look down from the mall’s upper level. I look up at the ceiling. It looks up toward heaven. An ex-boyfriend used to say there’s no God in the mall. But I feel God in the light that shines on us.
Mallsoft (also known as mallwave) is a vaporwave subgenre of music themed after retro shopping malls. I got into mallsoft late last year when I was finishing up a first draft of a new manuscript, a mother-daughter story set against the backdrop of a department store in South Florida. The idea for the book came to me during a depressive episode. I was sitting outside of a Coldstone Creamery eating a Birthday Cake Remix with my husband when I started talking about my mom’s former job as a sales associate at the mall. I told him how when I was in college, my mom would regale me with stories, both hilarious and horrifying, of things that happened to her while she was on the clock. I told him how one summer I interned for DKNY at the same department store and got to travel to Orlando for a merchandizing convention. And then I told him how another summer I worked in the stockroom unboxing handbags and readying items for the shelves.
When I started writing, I only knew that the protagonist would be an amalgamation of my brother and me and that the mom and dad in the story would be caricatures of my own mom and dad. I wanted Florida to be a big part of this book, to have a bigger role than in anything else I’d ever written. And I wanted the mall to be a place of virtue, an otherworldly elsewhere for all the characters to take the stage.
The mall, in a way, is my temple. I never went to Hebrew school. I never went to services unless it was for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. But I spent my Saturdays at the Town Center Mall in Boca Raton. I used my allowance to buy lacey tank tops at Hollister and pre-distressed jeans at Abercrombie & Fitch. I ate bourbon chicken and fried rice and scoops of vanilla Häagen-Dazs ice cream. I drank fountain sodas and carried a designer purse that I was definitely too young to have as part of my wardrobe. I had a flip-phone with a curated ringtone that I downloaded illegally from the Internet. I walked arms linked with my best friend as we shopped for push-up bras and fresh sneakers and graphic t-shirts sporting cringe-worthy phrases. I met friends for group dinners at Stir Crazy or Grand Lux Café. The portions felt endless and I always brought home Styrofoam to-go boxes with my name etched via my acrylic nails.
Mornings turned into afternoons turned into evenings at the mall. Storms passed overhead, the rain coming down in sheets on the roof, the thunder pounding loud. A favorite quote by the writer Charles Baxter reads, “There is no weather in malls.” Thus, there was no season unfit to go to the mall. The mall was built for year-round enjoyment, immune to the happenings of the outside world.
When I listen to my mallsoft playlist, early memories flood in. Some of my first memories are of going to the mall with my mom, watching her try on clothes from Ann Taylor and Bloomingdale’s, sitting on the bench inside the dressing room and helping her with the buttons and zippers. I remember circular racks of clothing, the sound of hangers grazing the metal track, the whoosh of fabric, and the feeling of each material as I caught it in my tiny hand. I remember lace and chiffon and cotton and velvet and corduroy. I remember the colorful patterns of blouses and the sheen of an evening gown. I remember wanting to fit into everything, waiting for the day when it would be possible for me to wear the clothes my mom wore.
My daughter mostly sleeps when we’re here at the mall now, but I dream about the day we can go shopping together, when she will be by my side in every store. I will watch her eat greasy slices of mall pizza, bourbon chicken, a cup of vanilla ice cream.
The songs of mallsoft are ethereal and slow. They carry the vibe of earlier times, before the advent of eCommerce that picked up speed in 2010, long before malls took a direct hit as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. People now say that malls are dying. In 2023, online shopping and fast fashion dominate. Influencers sell clothes and products on Instagram and TikTok. The mall is no longer the physical meeting place it once was, and I can’t help but wonder if malls will prevail with such odds against them.
I can only hope that malls survive.
The mall became an escape for me when I was in college. I was diagnosed with anxiety in high school, but I don’t think the extent of it fully developed until my sophomore year of college. I broke up with a long-term boyfriend that I’d been dating since high school, someone I thought I would marry someday. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing out on something by not being single since I was sixteen. I didn’t know who I was outside of him and our relationship. I had joined a sorority freshman year, but I felt so separate from all my friends. They went out and socialized; they seemed carefree and happy, excited about life and what was next. I sometimes joined them, but remained reserved and shy. I was always tired, always wanted to stay in bed and sleep, which I did, a lot. When I went to the school’s clinic for a persistent bout of headaches, I was advised to see a counselor. They must have seen it in me, the depression.
I got to talk to someone regularly, and I’ve been in therapy ever since, but something else I started doing was going to the mall every Saturday morning. My friends would get ready for whatever football game was happening that day where they’d pre-game for tailgate from early morning until late in the day. I’d watch them dress in red and white, apply spirited decals to their faces and add big bows in their hair. And then I’d watch them leave the house, joining the droves of students as they trekked to the stadium. I felt a tinge of missing out, but then I’d throw on leggings and a t-shirt and go to the mall.
There were no students at the mall on Saturday mornings, but I felt alone in a way that was comforting. The anxiety subsided and melted away as I walked the L-shaped floor plan. The College Mall (yes, that was its actual name) barely had any stores I liked, but they had a quaint nail salon and a Jamba Juice. I’d purchase a Strawberries Wild and head in for a manicure. Tucking my phone in my purse, I’d let time pass, listening to the trickling water in the tiny Zen meditation fountain as it fell against the smooth stones. I’d eat lunch in the food court out of a Styrofoam to-go container, another version of bourbon chicken and fried rice from a place that no longer exists, replaced by something new. And then I’d make my way back to the sorority house to nap before obliging my friends in going out later that night.
This practice became ritual. It was sacred to me. Sometimes my friends wanted to go to the mall with me, but when we went as a group, it wasn’t the same. I couldn’t indulge in my emotions the way I could when I was by myself. I couldn’t disappear and become just another face in the crowd of mall patrons. It made me realize that what I loved most about going to the mall was that the mall became my companion. It was a place for me to retreat, but also a friend.
That probably sounds insane, but it’s true. And it still remains true. I go to the mall here in Nashville about once a week. Lately, it’s been more to try and get my daughter to nap. She loves to nap on the go in her stroller. I used to love to nap in my stroller too, the way the world wrapped around me like a well-worn blanket. So I want to give her that treasure, the treat of going somewhere that feels safe and cozy and like home.
They say that postpartum depression usually lasts four to six weeks, the amount of time it typically takes for hormones to readjust. Sometimes it can last up to a year. I’ve been waking up in the morning with my chest pounding, the anxiety so high, it feels like I’m dying. I don’t want to leave bed and face the day.
But then my husband brings our daughter into bed with us and we snuggle her, kiss her, and I hold her to my chest. I sit her on the bed in front of me and look into her eyes.
“Do you want to go to the mall?” I ask her.
She smiles, and even though I know she doesn’t yet understand the words, she must hear in my voice the willingness to go on. There must be some understanding of hope that she feels, that her mother is here with her now.
I get out of bed and carry her to the window. I open the blinds and show her the daylight.
As I drive, I remember being pregnant, how the mall was the first place I went when the morning sickness was still prevalent. I sat down on a bench and ate a banana. I watched women pushing strollers and it seemed impossible that I would soon become one of them. As I got further along, I’d hold my stomach as I walked and waited anxiously to feel kicks. Sales associates complimented my bump, asked me “boy or girl?”
I realize my daughter’s already been to the mall so many times while she was still in my belly. I wonder if it already feels comfortable to her, if she can tell by the route that it’s where we’re headed.
I turn to look at her face in the back seat mirror. Her blue eyes look back at me. I put on a song and we drive to the mall.