Involuntary Osmosis

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August 12, 1972.

Two figures make their way through the shopping mall parking lot, a young mother holding the hand of her five-year old daughter, mid-Summer heat rising off the blacktop in stultifying waves as they walk past endless rows of Pontiacs and Buicks and Oldsmobiles.

The mother’s fingers are dry and cool despite the oppressive humidity.  The girl’s hand is sticky with sweat.  She has been promised an ice cream cone as a reward for coming along without complaining. She is not sure whether it’s worth it.

The pair steps through the glass doors of the department store vestibule. 

A whoosh of artificially chilled air brushes the girl’s face as they enter, along with something else; something less tangible. An icy trickle of dread creeps down the child’s spine.

Does the mother feel it? The girl cannot tell. Her mother’s face is composed, inscrutable. 

It’s crowded today, a busy Saturday, stores filled with people trying to escape the scorching heat.  Their shopping bags bump up against the girl as her mother steers her around clothing racks and between displays stacked with scarves and sunglasses.  

Head swimming, the girl’s skin tingles with galvanic prickles.  The child’s narrow shoulders tighten, curving inward, trying to make herself smaller.  Trying to protect herself from an invisible onslaught in the form of the consciously and unconsciously projected feelings of everyone around her.  

Annoyance, anxiety, neediness.  Rage, disappointment, despair.  Thick and noxious, mixed with the scent of other less identifiable sensations.  All hanging heavy in the atmosphere like metaphysical swamp gas, a liminal miasma penetrating her borders, entangling with her nervous system. 

The girl whispers “Ice cream cone ice cream cone ice cream cone” under her breath, repeating the words like a mantra to avoid being engulfed by the dark rainbow of other people’s emotions. 

No one else appears to notice. 

But the girl sees them clear as day, swarming around her like stringy clouds.  She senses their temperature and the shape and texture of their energy. 

Some of the shoppers are happy, relieved to be out of the scorching August heat and enjoying their afternoon without incident. They move past the girl without leaving residue.  

But others send off nauseating waves of something sour and curdled as they tensely hurry by.  The foreign feelings enter forcibly through her eyes and skin…stinging, scalding, smothering.  Attaching themselves to the girl like thistles; clinging and burning like oily napalm.

The mother and the girl step onto the escalator. Just below them a woman in a blue sundress is scolding her son; her irritation reaches out and claws the girl’s bare arms.  The heat of the boy’s humiliation seeps in through her pores, merging with her psyche.  His feelings become her own…I am being scolded…I am humiliated…I want to disappear.

A saleslady with coral lipstick wearing a pale yellow suit smiles as the girl and her mother approach the checkout stand.  The mother places a bag on the counter and pulls out a pair of shoes she would like to return.  The smile leaves the saleslady’s face, she is irritated.  The mother is embarrassed as she rifles through her handbag for the receipt.  The tension hits the daughter in jagged energetic shards. The girl’s face burns as if slapped. What did I do?  She looks down, shamed, stomach churning.  

The awkward transaction finally completed, the mother takes the girl’s hand again, gripping her small fingers tightly, pulsing electric corkscrews of stiff displeasure painfully into her small palm. 

The mother walks quickly, heels clicking against the terrazzo, pulling on the girl’s arm, navigating through the busy courtyard to a kiosk decorated like a circus tent. Pink and orange striped awnings, white counter spread with glass jars of jellybeans and licorice whips.  Holding up her end of the bargain, the mother hands the girl a peaked spiral of chocolate and vanilla soft-serve in a cake cone, her favorite.

Before the girl can take the cone she throws up all over the front of her brown plaid jumper.

She is crying now, mortified and miserable, and this time the feelings are her own.  The mother dabs at her child’s tear-stained face with a wet napkin.  

The girl is surprised to discover that her mother is not angry.  Instead she feels a comforting wave of compassion enfolding her like heavy quilt. 

“I think that’s enough for today,” says the mother as she turns towards the exit.

The daughter sends her mother a burst of gratitude in the form of dancing velvet streamers that reach out and caress her cheek. The mother nods.

On the ride home they don’t talk.  They don’t need to.

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