Shopping malls and parking lots and all the places I knew I liked girls

The first time I was misgendered was at a Taco Bell in Crossgates Mall in upstate New York. Or rather, this is the first time I specifically remember being misgendered.

Shopping malls and parking lots and all the places I knew I liked girls
Photo by mostafa meraji / Unsplash

by Brittany Thomas

Selected by Elia Karra

The first time I was misgendered was at a Taco Bell in Crossgates Mall in upstate New York. Or rather, this is the first time I specifically remember being misgendered. I finished my usual order (a Number 4: Mexican Pizza & Two Tacos Supreme) and was pulling a crumpled wad of cash out of my pocket when the cashier said, “Will that be all, sir?”

My (incredibly bushy, arguably singular) eyebrow(s) jumped up into my bangs (yes), under the brim of my DuPont Motorsports snapback. I lifted my hat off my head, just a little bit, thinking this may have been the source of confusion: obviously it was covering my very long hair so he couldn’t see that I was clearly a little girl (simply dressed exactly like a little boy).

In retrospect, I’m sure this was some teenage kid on his Saturday afternoon shift trying to be nice, but little ten-year-old me felt the sucker punch of that “Sir” in the center of my chest. He immediately apologized and back-peddled into a confused “Ma’am”.

Three minutes later when my order came up, he’d already forgotten because he deposited the tray with my food in front of me and said with a smile, “Here you go, Sir! SORRY, sorry, I meant, ma’am,” and walked away shaking his head in disbelief, either at his inability to remember I was not a “Sir” or skepticism that I was indeed a “ma’am” I’ll never know.

What kind of a 10-year-old is a “Sir” anyway?

I never liked wearing a bathing suit. Actually, I still don’t. I’ve yet to figure out what version of a bathing suit doesn’t make me feel so exposed and on display, doesn’t call attention to some part of my body I can only think of abstractly, from a distance. So when I went swimming in the lake, I dove in fully clothed in my little league baseball outfit: hideously blue shorts and a Kelly green t-shirt with the team logo on it. A true vision. I was wearing my hat too, backward with the brim covering my hair.

The other kids were wearing normal bathing suits. I was standing in the shallow part of the lake up to my knees, my shorts and shirt already soaked through, water dripping from the brim of my hat. I’d been kicking water playfully in the direction of a girl who eventually tired of my attention and turned around and pointed my way yelling “He’s SO annoying!”

There was a round of laughter and I had to do my usual “no, the hair is under the hat, I am a GIRL, see?” routine with some annoyance.

But I was also amused.

Somehow I really confused that girl, was the hat was some kind of social magic trick, a hide-and-seek-gender-bending-extravaganza?

I wasn’t allowed to go swimming in the lake again without bringing a “real” bathing suit.

Crossgates was the “big mall”, the one we had to drive out of our way to get to that had all the expensive anchor stores and the good food court. We had a “mall” in my hometown but really it was just a Movieplex and a Dollar Store stuck together with a Radioshack and a pharmacy. But for a few of my tween/teen years, I spent every Friday night at this mall. Like a church is built to perform the liturgy, a mall was a temple to capitalism where I often performed confused adolescence against a backdrop of Orange Juliuses and Claire’s Accessories.

Sometimes we would tell our parents we were going to see a movie, but instead we would spend $10 at the arcade and with the leftover change be able to get a pack of fries to share at the McDonalds across the parking lot. My best friend worried that her mom would find out we didn’t watch the movie, there was a write-up in our local paper recently about how teenagers were scaring people away from the mall. We weren’t supposed to just loiter around in packs outside of the Movieplex like it was a nightclub for wayward tweens.

We weren’t exactly spoiled for choice when it came to Friday night activities for 13-year-olds in upstate New York, so there we were hanging around outside the Movieplex fueled entirely by sugar and caffeine. We exchanged AOL screennames with boys from other towns: boys with long chains attached to their wallets, boys with eyeliner, boys with spikey black hair and leather wrist bands. We shared packs of Twizzlers – the pull ‘n’ peel kind.

I followed around a pretty girl from another school like a sad puppy, she said she liked my hat. She held my hand. She gave me one of her jelly bracelets - I only wore black ones, but she had all colors. She twisted a blue one together with one of my black ones and put it back on my wrist. She asked if I’d call my mom so I could stay out a little later, we could go for a walk before she has to go. While I call, she wraps her arms around my waist from behind and leans her ear against the other side of the phone to hear whether I have permission and does a little whoop when I do.

Her boyfriend was coming to get her later.

I can’t put my finger on what bothered me so much about being “sir’d” or “he’d”, when I so obviously didn’t look like a “ma’am” or “she”. Did I even have a right to be upset? My conviction that “long hair” was the de facto social signifier of “girl” was the best I could come up with on the spot.

Maybe it was the social mortification of it all, maybe it was being an awkward teenager and not having a strong concept of self, maybe it was the sheer terror that someone might see something about me that I didn’t know was true. The idea that I’d ever have to stop wearing oversized hand-me-downs and snapbacks never crossed my mind.

I grew up in the 90s! What was I supposed to do with the trend toward tiny vests and skinny jeans? Fuck all that’s what. Anyone who knows me now knows that my gender is a notch closer to “Eddie Vedder” than it is to “girl”.

Maybe it always was.

Apparently, malls are dead. I did not know this. I did not know this because I moved away when I was 22. I moved to the UK where they don’t have malls. They have “shopping centres”, which approximate a kind of sad version of what you might call a mall. In my head all the malls are still there, in America. They all have an arcade in their food court, a fountain full of pennies, a KB Toys, and a Discovery Channel store.

And yet, I’m wrong.

Malls were terrible for local economies. They’re the result of urban sprawl and the exportation of commerce from high street mom and pop shops to specialty mega structures off I-90. Their death is reviving main streets and “shop local” initiatives all over the country, but a dedicated contingent of Gen Xers and Millennials are just so fucking sad about the end of malls. There’s a whole website dedicated to the chronicle of dead malls. People leave heartbroken comments on pages for their old haunts. Here we are, like New Romantics, composing odes to the ruins of capitalism:

“Abandoned from humanity, left to rot for good. The only things that may remain are the shoe store, Entertainment center, and Aquarium. It's sad that a place that brought you so much joy now brings you so much sadness.”

Too right, John. Where do baby queers go now to be confused in public?

Mid-week, I leave my London office with my face turned down against the wind and rain while nostalgia blasts in my ears as I run for a train. Same song /different continent, a world away, a lifetime away. Eddie Vedder hair still bouncing around my shoulders.

I kissed some girls who kissed me back, the secret to the spring in my step.

When I look up, I catch the strangest sight: the late-90s and early aughts are… “back”? Teenagers flock down the street wearing wide-legged ripped jeans and tiny tank tops while their over-sized hoodies fall off their shoulders on their way to wherever one goes to be young and confused and a little bit cold because jackets are not now and for some reason have never been cool. Godspeed.

Brittany Thomas was born and raised in upstate New York and currently lives in London. Her writing appears in Scrawl Place, Contingent Magazine, The Daily Drunk Magazine, and Queerlings. You can find her on Twitter @britomatic.