~ Last summer ~
Wardrobe reform. That's what my weekend was dedicated to. My workout leggings and running shoes were nowhere near appropriate attire for the series of lectures on trending legal topics at Fulton University's law school. For three days straight I would be attempting to schmooze my way into a paid post-grad position. I needed A-line skirts and form-fitting blouses. I needed classy pumps to put these calves on display. I needed, "I'm a professional lawyer-to-be. Pleased to make your mother-fucking acquaintance." But so far, the items in the few bags I was carrying consisted of a graphic tee, two pairs of biker shorts, a midi dress and five g-strings. I was dropping the ball and my outfit budget was dwindling.
I spotted an empty bench in the center of the malls corridor and moved to it while untangling my bags from my fingers to set them down before taking a seat beside them. I soon retrieved my phone from the bottom of my purse after rummaging for so long that I almost believed I'd lost it. The notifications I'd received since I'd entered the mall were less than thrilling; my classmates from the spring semester were active in the group chat and embroiled in a lengthy meme war, a few emails from the school about upcoming events, and the games on my phone were offering rewards for my attention. I bypassed all of that to dial my mother's number.
"You finished shopping?" Was her greeting after a couple rings.
"No, I'm still here and I can't find anything."
"This is that last-minute shit that I tried to warn you about, Key." Lola Wright was about to start, but it was honestly what I needed— a little lecture on preparedness to get my head back on; I was so close to cancelling my lecture reservations. "A couple of years ago when you said you wanted to go into law, what did I tell you?"
"You told me-,"
"I told you to start shopping and building your wardrobe. Now look at you, at the mall on a Sunday." She chided, "What can't you find?"
"Anything, mom. It's like proper clothes for work went out of style. Which is crazy because I swear that I've seen some nice, business clothes in here before."
"No, you're just shopping in those little trendy shops. Let me guess, you still bought some shit, didn't you?"
I laughed, "That's classified."
"Hmph," Was her initial response, "There's no Rachel West store in the mall? They sell women's and more business-professional-type clothing. You keep going to stores for teeny-bopper pieces and you're never going to find anything. Try to find a Trussell's. You can't tell me the mall only has clothes for kids these days."
She was right. I was wasting my time thinking that I could find adult outfits in the stores I'd been faithful to since I was 16. I'd seen some pretty nice items, but nothing I could build solid outfits from. "I think they do have those shops in here actually." The problem was that they were across the mall and I was already feeling a little exhausted, "Thanks, mom. How's your weekend going so far?"
"You're welcome and try not to lock yourself into a look. If you're listening to me, get a few different things." She advised before shifting the conversation, "Your nephews are on their way over so I'm about to prepare some dinner and straighten up the guest room."
"Aw," I cooed into the receiver while standing up from the bench and leaning over to retrieve my bags, "They're spending the night?"
"Mhm, Kayla and Andrew are going on a date tonight. I offered to keep the kids so they can have the whole night to themselves."
"Must be nice." I mumbled more to myself as I started walking towards a mall kiosk.
My sister Kayla was a happily married woman of almost seven years. She was one of the lucky ones whose high school crush ended up being the love of her life… If being with the same man since your teenage years was luck… I personally was glad that I'd had a hoe phase. Still, I was glad she was happy, and I would never wish my dating failures and cyclical heartbreaks on anyone else.
"You better focus on your education and goals. Take your time."
I approached the kiosk and scanned the map and legend. "You're absolutely right. I'm only 23." I spotted Trussell's and moved from the kiosk to head in its direction, "I'm just saying it would be nice to have a date night and then a little something extra." I laughed.
My mom tsked, "But imagine why your sister needs this. Those boys have been driving her batshit. You don't want to have to juggle kids and school. I can promise you that. I did that and it was worth it, but it was so hard."
"I can imagine it wasn't easy. You're always putting things into perspective, mom."
"That's what I'm supposed to do. Now get your ass over to Rachel West or Trussell's. I'm going to finish what I was doing. Let me know how it goes."
"For sure. I love you."
"Love you more."
Once the line was dead, I powered off my screen and slipped my phone into my purse. I was happy to get off the phone for my journey across the mall. Honestly, I was out of shape and even in that short moment of walking I was losing my breath trying to hold that conversation. When the semester was underway I had so many responsibilities and making time to go to the gym was not at the top of my list of priorities. Thankfully summer break would be a nice little reprieve—a good time to fit the gym into my routine. My summer load was lighter anyway; a job to pay the rent while I waited for my student loan refund, a 12-week internship, and as much of the dreaded networking as possible.
I wasn't going to this lecture series because I wanted to. I was going because according to everybody: networking and knowing the right people were the keys to success. The problem is that I'm not much of a talker, so I've been in the mirror every morning practicing on my charm by doing anything to get over my awkwardness; holding intellectual conversations with myself, perfecting my smile, how my voice sounds when I introduce myself, constructing speeches while trying to look confident and avoiding "um" and "like". Taking myself seriously had been hard as hell at first, but I couldn't lie my confidence was peaking. Now, with a fresh install and the right outfits my main goal would be to show out and hopefully land some shit.
The journey to Trussell's was filled with distractions. As usual, the food court was the destination for shoppers who had exhausted themselves—shopping bags and restaurant trays decorated the tabletops. Kids were cheerfully shouting just to hear their own voices echo throughout the corridor. Many of the shops that I passed by were too inviting; the perfume store emanating bliss as I passed by the entrance, the store with the lovely lingerie filling my head with images of a seductive evening in a five-star hotel, a high-end boutique with "shit-too-expensive-for-my-student-budget", and the shoe store with the pumps that I might have to double back for.
The mall experience was unreal to me as a child. Mom used to bring me and Kayla to the mall, but we never ventured outside of Trussell's. My sister and I used to yearn for an adventure as mom would drag us past the entrance of the mall between the different departments. The sights and sounds coming from the corridor were always so fascinating, but never explored until we were allowed to hit the mall by ourselves or with friends. So, stepping across the threshold felt like a deviation into my past. Even though I wanted to explore what was outside of Trussell's as a kid, I was always enthralled by its vastness; and now as I reassessed the store from an adult perspective I was still impressed. The transition from spring to summer fashions was seen through the mannequin's outfits and the sizable sales posters hanging from the ceiling. I strolled through the children's department, my eyes flitting across outfits that made my baby fever spike… Until I made it to the stylish, affordable handbags and lavish perfumes that reminded me that I wasn't ready to share my precious coins just yet.
As soon as I stepped into the women's section dedicated to workplace apparel my attention had been drawn to a tan houndstooth pantsuit. Without much delay my fingers crawled through the hangers looking for my size. I peeked up at the mannequin's exposed ankles and slim-fitting pants paired with a single-button blazer enclosing a solid white shirt. I envisioned chestnut-toned accessories as I hooked the outfit over my left arm while thanking God for my mother's life-saving recommendation. I stepped away from the racks and let my eyes scan across the other mannequin displays quickly realizing that I was about to have a field day inside of Trussell's.
The cramp in my arm from holding up too many articles of clothing was the only indication I had that it was time to hit the dressing room. I had gone way over the maximum number of pieces that could be taken in at once, so I had start subtracting my least favorite outfits before I even got to see them on me. It was a hard decision, but finally I had narrowed down my top choices and was allowed access into the fitting room. Right behind the attendant's counter there was a round, beige-leather ottoman occupying an ample amount of space in front of a well-lit wall lined with ceiling to floor mirrors.
Inside of a private stall I took my time organizing the space. I paired up the pieces I planned to try on together, hung everything on the provided hangers, and tucked my purse and other shopping bags into a corner on the bench. The size of the dressing room was less than desirable, and I could already tell the lighting wasn't going to do me any favors.
My oversized white tee came off first and the bone straight ends of a twenty-two-inch lace front dusted my lower back gently. I placed the shirt on-top of the shopping bags before unsnapping and wiggling out of my light-wash cutoffs while making sure they never touched the floor. Luckily, I'd had the foresight not to wear shoes with laces and my white slip-ons weren't hindering my flexibility. The shorts landed on top of the t-shirt and then I turned to the hanging clothing.
It was only right that I try the houndstooth set on first. I slid my feet out of my slip-ons and performed a balancing act by using the top of my shoes to save my feet from the dressing room floor as I stepped into the pants. Once the button secured the fabric around my waist, I immediately looked at my reflection to make sure my senses weren't teasing me.
And sure-enough I was poking back there. I couldn't help the squeal of excitement that the sight of my ass elicited. The way it was sitting in the tan pants made me want to get back in the gym so it would look this great in everything. I moved my hands to my knees and bent over to get the angles, a small "aye" slipping from between my lips while I twerked for myself in the mirror. As my little celebration filtered through the dressing room so did footsteps as someone occupied an empty stall. A little embarrassed by my antics, I moved to the thin white cotton shirt and pulled it off the hanger, slipping into it and the matching jacket in quick succession. The outfit wasn't stuffy and uncomfortable to stand in, but I wanted to practice moving in it, so I bent over to wiggle my feet back into my shoes before leaving out of the dressing room.
The walk to the lobby further proved that I had picked the right sized garments. The motion in my arms and legs wasn't stiff and the crotch wasn't snatching, so I began deducting the outfits cost from my budget and thinking about the shoes in my closet.
There I was emoting out loud again. The embarrassment almost crippled me, but in my defense, I couldn't have known that I would round the corner to the previously empty lobby to see the man of my dreams sitting on the ottoman. He was leaning over with his elbows on the knees of his faded jeans, tattooed arms exposed in a white tee, looking dead at me under a perfect set of dark eyebrows. We were locked in. Taking each other in for longer than was really appropriate for two strangers in a dressing room. Everything about him had my temperature rising. The outfit that I was just noting as comfortable was suddenly too many pieces of clothing. I couldn't watch his eyes dart all around my figure, because I was too busy taking him in for myself. Supple beard, solid frame, relaxed yet confident posture, strong hands…
My perusal halted on a colorful array of feminine shopping bags peeking out from the other side of his body; I thought about the woman who had entered the dressing room just moments ago, and then his whole presence… And then I looked away.
I continued my trip to the center of the room, distracting myself by threading the single button on the blazer through its hole. It was difficult pretending not to be affected by all that fineness, but I was supposed to be checking myself out, not someone else's man. So, standing in front of the mirror I did that, but not without thinking that whoever he was waiting on was one lucky bitch.
Once I was locked inside of my fitting room, I let out a deep sigh while stripping from my first choice. The lecture series was a three-day event, and I was satisfied with what I just had on. My next choice was much simpler, a solid pair of black slacks, a matching blazer, and a classy salmon-colored blouse to break up the blacks. Like the last suit that I'd picked, the fit was almost perfect. I was gearing up to take my walk to the big mirrors in the lobby when a nervous energy passed over me.
Now, I could be a pussy and stay in the dressing room since I was mostly pleased with what I had on…
That was my first mind.
Homeboy in the waiting room was a little too fine. His gaze was a little too appreciative. His presence was a bit too overpowering. But it wouldn't go unnoticed if I never came out of the dressing room again. He'd definitely know I was ducking him and that cowardly-shit was not what these outfits were supposed to be giving. I was supposed to be confident, assured of myself… A whole grown ass woman.
I stepped from behind my fitting room door, pleased to see I was following his lady friend to the waiting area.
So, his attention would be where it's supposed to be, and I could go about my business in peace. There was, of course, a tinge of disappointment however as we emerged from the woman's fitting rooms and his eyes lit up at the sight of the girl in front of me.
"What do you think?" She asked him, pausing in her stride which almost led to me crashing into her.
My hands rose to my chest in shock, "Oh, excuse me."
She startled and turned around, locking eyes with me. She had a soft chocolate gaze, that matched an even softer voice as she responded to me, "Shit, my bad. I didn't know anyone was behind me."
"No, girl. That's my bad," I said laughing a little to ease the awkwardness, "I'm all in your business." Checking out your man and shit.
She laughed and moved to the side so that I could walk past her. My face was burning with nerves, but I tried to be cool as I moved to the other side of the room. My gaze skipping towards Mr. Fine on the couch, who was now looking at me again with amusement before I averted my gaze to the floor as I finished my journey across the room. I was trying to take subtle deep breaths, as I adjusted my outfit, all the while being nosey and eavesdropping on their conversation.
She was wearing the same black suit as me and had the audacity to say, "I think this looks so boring. I wanna stand out."
"You wanna go to an interview lookin' like Barney."
"What's wrong with wanting to leave a lasting impression, Travis?" She asked, also standing in the mirror admiring herself. The suit was really flattering on her. Not knocking how it fit me, but she was taller than me and long-legged individuals had a way of wearing anything like it was made just for them.
"Listen to me. There are things you wear to an interview and things you wear on your first day." He was shaking his head and I could tell he was exasperated with her. He'd probably been repeating that since they walked in.
As if he was looking for me to confirm that bit of common-sense, his eyes moved to mine in the mirror. Caught paying more attention to them than the way I was looking in the suit, I dropped my gaze, smoothing my hands over the blazer. When she replied to him and he responded I looked back up. Just as his eyes moved back to me.
No, for real?
I twisted and turned in the mirror, wanting to ignore this totally disrespectful shit, but also… enjoying it. We were playing tag with our eyes. Quick, heated glances at each other's reflection, then somewhere else, and then accidently catching each other again. Each time our gazes locked my heart would pound my rib cage; my stomach would do the wave. I felt alarm, lust, and… fear.
She was trying so hard to get him to agree that the black suit was trash, and he wasn't having it, telling her, "Yo, you look nice and professional."
"But I'm going to need my first day outfit too, so you might as well cop both now."
"No fucking way cuz you can't be trusted." He started to laugh, "We'll come back after you land the internship." He ignored her pouting face to peek at his phone, before stealing another quick peek at me as I passed them on my way back to the dressing room.
She was too young for him.
I wasn't claiming to be a sophisticated older woman just quite yet. Shit, I just called up my mom for shopping advice. But he definitely looked older than me. He was a grown man, and she was giving college freshman vibes. I couldn't lie I was turned off.
First, by the disrespect of looking at me while he was with his girl.
Trash ass niggas.
Second, the fact that she was a damn baby who didn't even know how to dress for an interview.
I was content with using those excuses to dissolve my small momentary crush, except as soon as the girl thought I was out of earshot she spoke again.
"I can't wait to tell mom you were more interested in looking at that girl than helping me pick out an interview outfit. I mean why even offer to bring me here if you're gonna be distracted the whole time?" It was her turn to be exasperated, "I deserve the magenta outfit for having to witness that horny shit."
The nerves were back. The game was different. They're siblings. I was hoping sis had one more outfit to put on, so that I could be in his presence one last time since I was on my final pick… And luckily, I'd saved the best for last. It was a navy plaid suit accented with chestnut details on the pockets and elbows. The jacket would cover my ass, but the outfit was stately and my favorite. I was in it in moments, fluffing a navy ruffled tie-neck blouse and opting to leave the buttons of the jacket undone.
Moments later I was in front of the floor-to-ceiling mirror expecting a fairytale.
Mr. Fine's tall-ass was casually pacing the waiting room area behind the couch; wireless earbuds plugged into his ears, eyes glued to his phone, paying me absolutely no mind.
In my imagination, after the discovery that he wasn't with a girlfriend, but his little sister… I was expecting a pick-up line… A casual comment about the weather or the cringey music filtering from the department store's speakers. Something… After the way we played footsie with our eyes I wasn't wrong in fantasizing about a first date. A meeting in my bedroom. Making a nigga breakfast.
It was difficult to care about how the outfit looked when really, I just wanted that man's attention, but I forced my thoughts to focus on myself. It was cute. It wasn't stuffy. I shrugged out of the jacket and folded it over my arm so I could make sure the pants were fitting appropriately—they were.
His sister emerged from the fitting room donning her regular clothes, "That looks really good on you." She complimented.
Since we were the only ones in the space, I turned to her, "Thanks so much," I said giving her a wholesome smile while wishing her brother had been half as forward.
"No problem, girl." She said while moving to her bags. He had removed his eyes from his phone long enough to detect her presence and was taking his earbuds out while moving to help with the bags.
Still smiling I gave myself one more onceover in the mirror, feeling confident with this pick and the other two. I was satisfied and ready to wrap up my trip.
"We all finished here?" He asked her, his smooth voice drawing my attention as I gave him one more glance through the mirror.
She was replying to him, but he wasn't hearing a thing she said because we were sharing a moment that felt deeper than a casual attraction. It was fleeting but seemed to last forever. Uncomfortably intense, but safe and strong. My gut feeling was already stirring up an opinion, just based on a look. We wanted each other, but the timing just wasn't right. Not in a dressing room, not in front of his little sister, and definitely not at the beginning of summer. Who wanted to fall in love before the season of pool parties and day clubs? So, I was satisfied leaving this moment here to reflect on later. Being attracted to someone who you'd likely never see again was always bittersweet.