BY TABITHA BLANKENBILLER
I spotted Liza on the way to the Target bank of registers. She paused by the Papyrus greeting cards with their mixed media birthday and Hanukkah wishes. They traded on the charm of a scrap of burlap as a sweater, and real, miniature wooden chopsticks glued on puffy sticker sushi. You think, I’m going to bring it to my cousin’s wedding shower; I’m going to be the one dropping the showstopper card with a true lace gown on a mouse-sized wire hanger, until you flip the precious plastic-wrapped artwork to read the price tag and don’t want to add $9.95 to the $4.99 gift bag and $2.99 pack of tissue paper required for entombing a $29.99 14-pack of Pyrex pans.
Her name isn’t Liza. I mean, it could be. That would be one hell of a lucky guess, and shore up my theory that Liza and I were meant to meet, that between a splash of meteor showers and Mercury’s retrograde we were drawn here, to a Target twenty miles south of Portland’s city center. We were both odd-women-out from the stock issue Wilsonville lunch hour Target shopper, that mother in Lululemon leggings picking up GoGurts and clearance onesies. I was wearing jingle bell knee socks in Rudolph red and a mistletoe brooch. A purse shaped like a gingerbread house rested in the cart seat reserved for the child I’m unwilling to have. This outfit was me being subtle. It was a workday and there were meetings on the Outlook calendar and I was tired of my cubicle neighbor giving the “interesting” sneer to my festive sweaters and holiday dress prints. We were three weeks deep into the post-Thanksgiving season, and I was losing the will to be myself.
Liza, though. Liza was the first person in an epoch who made me feel like a minimalist. Liza went full-tilt. Liza came to Target in red-and-black Little Mermaid tights, leather boots, knit Christmas mittens, and a matching pom-pom hat and scarf. I could feel her there before I could absorb her fashion statement. We women who are five-foot-eight, with broad shoulders and kissing thighs and rib cages that battle the dainty pinup dresses we yearn to own, do not meet many of our ilk. There are certainly few of us willing to be seen, to flaunt patterns and colors, to catch your eye before you’d otherwise notice us. We are preemptive dapper strikes. It is what well-meaning people tell us we are “brave” to do, this audacity to lead lives that don’t second-guess whether we’re being flashy. Or bright. Or merely visible. It is an attribute we forget until someone reminds us that we are commendably special.
Liza’s shoulder-length hair draped in Khaleesi-white waves, as perfect and unnatural as my platinum asymmetrical bob. She blinked at the display behind black cat-eye glasses, the same kind I tried on over and over again at the optometrist’s office before over and over saying nah, I’ll just stick with contacts, thanks. She’d painted an identical swoop of kohl along her lash line as I had at 6 am that morning, beneath shadow that was maybe a little too dark for Wilsonville and the Lululemon and the Target and the people who rolled their eyes when “All I Want for Christmas is You” comes on our playlist, but that MAC palette of tan-brown-black makes our deep-set eyes pop like Sailor Moon’s and gives us a thrill any time the rear-view mirror, the computer monitor, the outside window catches a glint of our face because none of this, not one stitch or swoop, is done for you. This is ours.
I wanted to break into Liza’s gaze at the Papyrus cards, to say “HI” and have her see me and understand, yes. Hello Tabitha. We clearly have much to talk about. I wanted to tell her how strange it was that just five aisles back I had taken a picture of a New Year’s Eve box of crackers and tinsel hats advertised as a PARTY FOR 8! I Tweeted it with the caption I literally don’t like this many people. I have not met anyone in this truck stop suburb along I-5, despite living and working here for going on a decade, and I blame everyone else’s offspring, religion and politics, and their lack of being a marketing specialist by day/essay writer by night and select weekends as I am when the reality is that I am monumentally intolerant and judgmental, and I passive-aggressively hold grudges on hurts I haven’t mentioned, and when someone does manage not to irritate me my social anxiety flutters to life with aplomb—hurray, it’s my turn to ruin this! And I worry so much about what I am going to say, and whether there will be a lull in the conversation I can’t bridge, or that they’ll realize how boring, common and square I am up close, and I stop reaching because I should be gracious and save them the trouble.
Instead, I kept walking. I went and picked up a Fage 0% yogurt for the next morning and I refreshed Twitter—I was distracted by actual life for a few minutes and may have missed someone’s freshest take on how we’re doomed. When I came back to the front of the store, I arrived with every other visitor as we mutually decided to check out at the same time. I oscillated between the long line of skeptical self-checkers and weighed the piles of crap on belts against the urgency of the checker’s scan-hands. Amidst my survey, a pom pom beacon. From the secret back stack of registers, of course. The second row that we lemmings so rarely break into, zombie-tracing our fellow humans into the closest, easiest, busiest spot. Liza broke away.
I wedged my cart between two moms unloading a small nation’s GDP worth of character-licensed plastic and parked behind her.
“You are my Christmas fashion hero,” I said.
“Thanks!” she said with that smile you give people who love your loud shoes or furry coat and aren’t being assholes about it. I began emptying my cart, and Liza drew sharp breath.
“THOSE LEGGINGS,” she said. Tannenbaum leggings with ornaments and garland, twenty percent off for a limited time.
“Did you see the sweater?” I asked.
“Girl.” I lifted the white fleece by the hanger, and the sequin-embroidered fruitcake shimmered in the fluorescent light.
“Oh my god.”
“I am so jealous of your life that you are going to lead in that sweater,” she said, and the card machine screamed its I’m-done-eating-your-damn-chip song.
I wondered if Liza had seen Ghost World.
I wondered if Liza was determined to see Lady Bird before it left the theaters, but every night was so late and dark, and she was freaking tired.
I wondered if Liza had a Disney cosplayers board on Pinterest.
I wondered how many cats Liza had.
I wondered if Liza was super into authentic Munich dirndls.
Or dollhouse miniatures.
Or personal essays published on The Rumpus.
How many Funko POP!s did she own?
How many purses shaped like other things?
Did she know the local Charming Charlie was closing?
Did she want to live off of Fremont Street in Portland but could only afford a place out here in the Valley of the Strip Malls, where it wasn’t so bad, at least it didn’t used to be, before traffic got so snarled and we got so old and exhausted, and the world dimmed into a hellscape of hunted elephants and starving polar bears?
Was she excited that they opened a poke bar down the road, at least?
Liza took her plastic bag covered in bull’s-eyes.
Ask for her Instagram, my heart screeched. Admit that this is weird. Know that she’ll get it. Unlike the thousand other people you pass, sleepy and distracted every day, Liza computes.
“Hey,” Liza turned. “You enjoy those leggings.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Happy holidays.”
I walked slowly to my car, drawing our pace apart, my eyes on the pavement. In my car, I opened up a blank Facebook box to address the 600 people that remain too far to touch.
I think I just missed meeting my best-friend soul mate.
Like. Like. Heart.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a Pacific University MFA grad living outside of Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Catapult, Narratively, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hobart, and a number of other venues. Her debut essay collection EATS OF EDEN is forthcoming from Alternating Current Press in March 2018.