“What about these?” Lucy said, holding up a pair of deep blue pants. We were surrounded by pants—there must’ve been hundreds of them, in all colors and sizes, all stacked in tidy piles on the tables around us, a true pants emporium. It had been over a year since the last time we were in a department store and I couldn’t stop myself from touching the fabric. I held the pants at my waist, and it appeared they might be the right size. My girlfriend had a knack for picking out clothes for me, so I took the pair to the dressing room.
Every part of the mall felt cooled and brightly lit, like a dream. The attendant checked how many items I had, gave me a plastic card with a black 1 on both sides, and showed me to my stall, near the back of the room by a triptych of mirrors.
I searched for a lock on the door, but evidently it was one that locked automatically. I was halfway through taking off my jeans when I heard a faint sound from the stall next to mine. It sounded like a woman’s voice, familiar but too distant for me to place. It was probably just interference coming from the speakers that piped in wordless pop hits. “Say you love me,” she said. There was a murmured response and then a rustling, like covers or bed sheets. This time it really sounded like it came from the stall next to mine. Maybe I’d somehow ended up in the women’s dressing room by accident. I tried to ignore it and finished taking off my pants.
“Say you love me,” she moaned, and this time I recognized the woman’s voice as belonging to my mother, which was, of course, impossible, and so I guided my foot down the right leg of the pants my girlfriend had picked out.
“I love you,” a soft voice said. “I love you for all time.” There was no mistaking it: the voice was my father’s, which was, of course, also impossible due to several obvious reasons but chiefly among them the fact that my parents divorced two years after I was born, although I’d never quite understood why. Never feeling close enough to either to ask why, I carried it with all the other unknowns of my life that I’d accepted, unknowns like what were my ancestors doing in 783 A.D.? Or how much do my memories weigh? Unfortunately, there was only one way to know what was happening over there. As quietly as I could, I stepped up onto the bench where I’d set my belt and keys and phone. On my tiptoes, I’d be tall enough to peer over, which I’d only need to do for a second. Then came the click of a lighter and a deep exhale. I took a deep breath and braced myself for whatever was on the other side. The most notable thing about the stall next to mine was how large it was, big enough to hold a bed, and indeed, there was a bed in there with two people rolling around in it. The man, who looked just like the man in the photos of my father holding me as a baby, was smoking a cigarette and looked directly at me with his green eyes. I ducked back onto my side.
Had I been spotted? Would they call security? What would Lucy think? Not good, I thought, not good and very dumb move on my part! I remained totally motionless, like some sad animal whose only remaining defense was to play dead. I listened. “I don’t feel so good,” the woman said. “Oh god not good I think I’m going to—” But then another person was there soothing her, telling her she’d be fine and that a doctor was on the way. “It’s been months of this,” she said. “I hate it.”
There was a knock on the door. I struggled to slide my other leg into the pants. My calf squeezed, thighs felt like sausages, butt cheeks pressed together. “Just a second!” I yelled. There’d been no new sounds from next door.
“You doing okay in there?” Lucy asked. “Taking forever. Let me see.”
I’d barely zippered up when I opened the door and stumbled out.
“Oh,” Lucy said, disappointed. “They’re…definitely too small.”
“What if they’re high-waisted,” I said and tried hiking them up, remembering an episode of The Twilight Zone where some fellas had their trousers up past their belly buttons.
“No,” Lucy said, with a concerned look. “Stop that. Do you want to try another pair?”
“Thanks, that’s alright,” I said. “I’m getting hungry.”
Lucy left, and I closed the door so I could squirt myself out of the pants like toothpaste, but as soon as the door closed I heard wailing. Back at my post on the bench, I knew I had to peer over one last time. Down below me, on a couch in a sparse apartment, sat a woman that looked just like my mother, trying to get a baby to latch on her breast. “Ow!” she said. “Fuck. Carl, he bit me. Carl? Where are you? Carl, I’m bleeding.” And while she fed the baby she started to cry, and then said, “No. Nope, no,” and brushed her cheeks with the back of her hand.
It could have been that I was standing on my toes for too long, or that the pants had cut off the blood to my feet, but I felt them sparkle and tingle. I got down and peeled off the pants as quickly as I could. On my way out of the dressing rooms I peeked under the stall next to mine. No one was there.
Back on the floor, Lucy had another pair of pants in her hand and sized them up on me.
“What about these?” she said.
They were very nice pants, there was no disputing that: a nice cut, not too baggy, nothing pre-distressed, demanding to be broken-in, glowing with potential. I told her they were great but not for me. Someone else would love them, I could already see it.