At what point in fame-dom is it no longer acceptable to go to the Cheesecake Factory for a fancy dinner? This is not a reference to kink culture. By fame-dom (second syllable pro-nounced like dumb), I mean how famous can you be and still deem a chain restaurant upscale. And by famous, I don’t just mean actresses and musicians. I mean CEO’s of local nonprofits, cat whisperers, professors, and public servants, from street sweeper to Justice Antonin Scalia. In a utopian society, all celebrities and erudite peoples could chow down at Chili’s without judgment. If the world were just a little bit different, we’d get to see Kim Kardashian dine at the Cheesecake Factory all the time. (If you’re reading this, Kim, I mean that as a sincere compliment.)
I’d never been so proud of myself as when I was the first girl on my cheerleading team to execute a round-off back tuck at halftime. For those not familiar, it’s a cartwheel landed with two feet followed by a no-handed backflip. As a reward, the coach told me she’d take me wherever I wanted for dinner. I made her drive forty-five minutes to Friendly’s.
There was a rationale behind this choice. As a kid, my grandparents routinely took me to Friendly’s in Toms River, New Jersey. We always dressed up, ready for a good time. If Grandma Evennou’s french fries were cold, she’d send them back. Not because we were particularly high maintenance people, but because we always expect french fries to be hot. In general, the Evennou family likes food to be at least ten degrees hotter than the average person would deem appropriate. When handed pizza fresh from the delivery boy’s bag, invariably someone in my family will say, “Better stick that in the oven for five minutes, so it’s hot.”
They say this like the possession of extremely hot food, which will burn your mouth, is a privilege they will not miss out on. In the dark days before having a Cheesecake Factory within thirty minutes of my family’s house, there was the Rainforest Cafe. It was located at the fancy mall on Central New Jersey’s Route 1, which eventually earned its own Cheesecake Factory. Unlike Ruby Tuesday, the Rainforest Cafe was alluring, special. I couldn't go there with just anybody. And, most of the people I knew wouldn’t want to go with me.
In response to such an invitation, any reasonable person in my town would ask, “Why would you drive twenty-five minutes in Route 1 traffic to go to the Rainforest Cafe when the Olive Garden’s just up the street?” To which I would say, “Good point.”
Despite having an okay public school, I desperately wanted to attend private school. (I also wanted to live in the former Soviet Union where I would be groomed to be an Olympic gymnast.) My parents said that the local Catholic School, which my mother attended as a child, wasn’t so great. They were right, but I didn’t believe them until the kids from the Catholic elementary school joined us in public middle school. To me, they seemed behind academically, but it could have just been that they had missed out on all of the shared public school experiences during the years prior, like unnecessarily long rehearsals for The Princess and the Pea.
As a compromise, I remained in public school, but spent years in exorbitantly expensive gymnastics training. I’m still not sure how I got away with it and am certain that any amateur financial planner would’ve advised against it. At least I had nice arms (because most of the other cheerleaders on my team did not attend auxiliary gymnastics classes to bolster their skill level) and an entourage of petite, muscley girls to accompany me to the Rainforest Cafe.
On those special Saturday excursions my entourage and I took to the Rainforest Cafe, our respective mothers would drop us off at the fancy mall around 1:00 PM. This gave me just enough time to go home after practice, shower, and put on a cute shopping outfit. Shopping outfits are key. They set the stage for what you might potentially try on, and, therefore, purchase. You wouldn’t want to shop in jeans that were too tight because every time you put them back on you’d feel defeated. A loosely fitted, salmon colored tunic from the Gap meant you were the boho girl of the bunch. A fitted mini skirt meant that you were the uptight one and most likely to wear pearls. A micro-mini skirt sent an entirely different message. For my mom these shopping journeys meant picking me up at the gym, a twenty minute drive home, followed by another forty minute drive to the fancy mall. What my mother did after that I will never know. But, I suppose it's possible she had a glass of white wine at the Olive Garden.
I know what you eco-friendly, progressives are thinking. It would’ve been much more efficient to go to “our mall.” That's what I call the nearby single story mall anchored by Macy's and JCPenney, which shared a parking lot with my mother and her theoretical glass of wine at the Olive Garden. The truth is, for my gymnastics friends, the fancy mall was the most efficient, given that their homes were located in neighboring North Brunswick, South Brunswick, and East Brunswick. Most notably, they did not live in the City of New Brunswick, where I eventually attended college. Had I been at least a half decent debater, I may have swayed my classy gymnast friends to my side of the shopping mall universe.
Just hearing the words Rainforest Cafe brings to mind an audio track of tropical bird calls and howling monkeys. Back then, lunch at the Rainforest Cafe consisted of a hearty combination of healthy foods, non-Diet sodas, and a couple of chocolate volcano sundaes to share. I usually got the “Asian Salad” because it came with tiny crispy noodles on top like classier versions of the ones you got for free from Chopstick King. I should mention that the volcano sundae was usually in honor of someone's birthday. This helped make certain we made a trip to the Rainforest Cafe at least once a season.
While this wasn't time for shopping for cotillion or your own bat mitzvah, it was acceptable to shop for attending the wedding of your second cousin. Those other activities required strict maternal supervision, at least for the other girls. I'm pretty sure my mother would’ve loved to have been let off the hook for prom dress shopping, at least after the third mall trip, or to have escaped my absurd hunt for a size double zero satin dress with a conservative neckline for my Catholic confirmation.
These were the days before every girl I knew made flat ironing their hair a part of their daily routine. Frizz as a result of a faux rainstorm was completely acceptable. While I felt refined, there was a rawness to the experience. Maybe it was our hyper-toned bodies or the fashion of the late nineties and early two thousands, but we tried on a lot of tube tops and midriffs. In a dressing room at Bebe, I was almost convinced that I’d have way more outfit options if I acquired a bejeweled navel ring. Unfortunately, navel rings were controversial in the gymnastics world, the idea being it’d some how affix itself to one of the uneven bars while your body swirled around it. Luckily, I wasn’t willing to risk bodily harm or disqualification.
There was something comforting about shopping with a pack of teenage gymnasts, our body issues all virtually the same. We were unified by our thick thighs, big butts, tiny waists, flat-to-medium chests, and substantial upper arms. Pants that fit your legs and hips would have a big heaping gap at the small of your back. Perfect for showing off a trendy lower back tattoo, if only we were that badass. V-necks were problematic, so we experimented with the cap sleeve tee. Often a nice fit in the torso meant cutting slits to widen the arms, which leads us back to the tube top.
I came to believe all upper middle class moms love entertaining. After lunch at the Rainforest Cafe and shopping, it was expected we’d go back to someone’s house for popcorn and movie watching. This is where I was first exposed to the 1998 artsy flop Playing by Heart, starring Angelina Jolie, Jon Stewart (pre-Daily Show fame), and Sean Connery, among others. Jon Stewart would later do a TV interview in which he joked about making a sequel if anyone saw the original movie in the first place. Hearing him say this made me feel special for having watched the movie in the den of a colonial style home that belonged to a family whose father commuted into New York City every day for work.
In addition to its parade of hot people, this film introduced me to non-linear plot. It was before Memento, which I later learned about by overhearing a lively discussion among high school science teachers. While watching Playing by Heart, my entourage and I decided to put on the matching zodiac sign bikini panties we’d just purchased from dELIA*S. My size small Aries were a little snug, but I wore them anyway. I don’t regret it, but to this day I don’t trust bikini style underwear. Bikini style underwear attempts to be sexy by reducing itself to an elastic string on the hip, while giving you full coverage in the front and back. Theoretically, they’re perfect for sexy-gymnast-butt. Anyway, these Aries underwear are digging into my hips when I realize, I want to be Angelina Jolie. When my mom picks me up, I feel refreshed, sophisticated, and possibly turned on.
I wasn’t really sure what turned me on, but one of the teenage gymnasts had a slightly older sister, Mallory. She wore skater jeans, and once a week she took rock climbing classes at our gymnastics gym. Mallory never came with us to the fancy mall. We may have noticed each other, but we never spoke. Years later I spotted Mallory the gay pride parade in Washington, DC. Sometime after that, I found myself standing next to her in line to use the restroom at Phase 1 (DC’s, and arguably America’s, oldest lesbian bar). She was wearing an Erin Mckeown ringer tee. It was strange to witness the disappearance of the gulf that stood between us in our youth. Once having no rational reason to speak to one another, we stood in line wanting the same exact thing: the opportunity to pee in private at a dyke bar. We drank from the same plastic cups. The thing was, there was no way of reconnecting with her without sounding like a creepy stalker.
“Remember me from the gym? I used to go shopping with your sister. I always thought your skater jeans were cool.”
I knew this wouldn’t resonate. I felt like I knew everything about Mallory when really I knew nothing at all.
More than anything else, I wanted to share my fancy mall experience with my family and the people of Spotswood, New Jersey.
For a long time, my gymnastics team begged for competition warm-up suits. But, matching parachute pants and jackets were deemed too expensive for a part-time hobby. Most of the other girls also belonged to gymnastics. teams at their schools and had a second set of competition leotards, warm-up suits, etc. So, I came up with the genius idea to make our own t-shirts using a combination of puffy paint and iron-ons with a logo I had designed myself using my new greeting card software. Because it was my idea, I pleaded with my parents to hold the t-shirt making party in our finished basement. My parents refused this idea for several reasons:
1. “You’ll get glitter all over the house and it’ll never go away.” (True!)
2. “Your formerly permanently drunk, now 85 percent Coors Cutters-drinking grandmother with dementia, who lives on the main level of our house, will scare away your friends. (But they’ll get over it, right?)
3. “We don’t want that many kids over the house.” (As an adult with a nice-ish apartment I understand where they were coming from.)
4. And finally, “We don’t want you to be embarrassed. Our house isn’t like theirs.”
That last one felt worse than failing ten math quizzes. Worse, there was nothing I could do about it. In my head, I had the power to transcend class. The way sitting at the back of a rail car behind the tinted glass on DC’s Metro makes me feel special. But, it’s also where people discard their old newspapers and sunflower shells. I’m full of myself enough to be comfortable rubbing elbows with anyone from Chelsea Clinton to Chelsea Handler to Chelsea boys.
As an adolescent, I was delusional enough to believe lipgloss could be the great equalizer. Having just been driven home by my mother, I skipped excitedly across the lawn to the neighbor’s house. I was about to present a birthday gift to my childhood best friend. I had just purchased it from the fancy mall. I was having trouble containing my excitement. She would love this blue-green lip gloss from Urban Decay, I thought to myself. The color matched her eyes and complimented her yellow hair. Plus, it was Urban Decay—the new fancy brand I just learned about over volcano sundaes.
Lip glosses were hugely important at this moment in time, no matter much they made your hair stick to your lips in the wind. My friend graciously accepted the blue tinted liquid. Blue anything had potential to be controversial.
Once, my mother noticed me wearing royal blue nail polish during Saturday mass. Her look made me decide I wasn’t worthy of receiving communion. Naturally, my friend’s mother was put off by the idea of applying blue goo to your lips. I imagine she associated blue lips with dead bodies or a kid who ate too much candy.
“Urban Decay,” she said. “Never heard of it.”
My plan to manipulate the world using lip gloss had failed.
It’s possible I now live closer to the fancy mall than the regular people mall. But I’m too nervous to Google map it. Though I don’t go as often, I still love malls, even if they’re dinosaurs facing extinction. When I overhear my Washingtonian coworkers disavow shopping malls all together, it feels like I’ve been kicked in the teeth. I still have trouble jumping into conversation in defense of malls, both fancy and regular. Instead, I go on Yelp and search for the nearest Friendly’s. I put my sushi lunch in the office microwave to make burn.
About the Writer
Danielle Evennou is a writer and performer who lives in her own 90's sitcom: with a strong female lead, roaring laugh track, and the inevitable moral lesson. Danielle’s work has appeared in apt, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Words Dance. She resides in Washington, DC. Find more information about Danielle and her work at www.whatevennou.com.