The hangover should've been an omen. Or, perhaps it was the fact that the couple in the neighboring room was rehearsing a play at 9 a.m.—both seemed to be shouting their lines in a Mr. DNA-from- Jurassic Park dialect right into the wall next to my head. Or, maybe it was just that I had woken up next to my friend Justin Hudnall in our shared, king-size bed one too many times. Not that I don't think Justin is a decent bedfellow, but his ability to sleep through the dramatic agony going on next door was illogically rage-inducing. Whatever the case, it was probably not the ideal morning to decide to visit the Mall of America.
I was in Minneapolis for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference. We'd been there since Wednesday. The previous four days had been spent navigating panels on pedagogy alongside a sea of indiscernible beards and glasses, and the past three nights were spent forgetting what we learned.
The night before my visit to the MoA, our group found our way to a warehouse reading that offered free bourbon, which always sounds good in theory but usually ends with you apologizing to someone. It also seemed like a decent time to try Adderall for the first time, which would probably explain why I ended up eating nearly 60 percent of a pizza meant for the readers while telling someone I was absolutely certain I could get him a teaching job in San Diego.
Outside, the remaining guests huddled around a fire pit. Justin and my other friend, Jennifer, had befriended two young, butch lesbians who had wandered into the reading randomly, and I heard the tail end of a story in which one of them had been punched in the face earlier in the evening (I never found out the circumstances). One of these girls suggested we come with them to Gay 90s, a club not far from our hotel, and at the moment, nothing could have made more sense.
Walking through Gay 90s felt similar to navigating a fun house or spook alley. Each garishly lit room held a different surprise: a red hip-hop room, an icy-blue techno room, and upstairs, a drag show. Through some deus ex machina or consolidation of plot (did anyone call for a writer?), the authors from the earlier event were also at Gay 90s. Lindsay Hunter (whose book Ugly Girls is an absolute must-read) told me to give a dollar to a performer who had a strong resemblance to Ursula from The Little Mermaid , and it seemed like a ridiculous moment in my night to start saying "no."
I will never forget the look that drag queen gave me when she accepted my dollar, judging the stupid little shoulder dance I made in an effort to appear cool. It was the look of unmistakable pity.
The last memory of the night was of Justin, Jennifer and me straddling a massive, bronzed, grotesquely veiny statue of a penis. There's photographic evidence, too: In the picture, my arms are outstretched high above my head in a victorious V. Nobody has ever been so happy to have their picture taken on a giant dick.
So you can see why I was a tad hungover the next morning.
I'm certain no one goes to the Mall of America on purpose. Rather, people are sucked into it, pulled in by some insidious force or amorphous desire that lines your dreams at the moment before turning into nightmares.
The train ride from downtown Minneapolis to the smelliest corporate orifice in America is an hour long, and on that Sunday, all the passengers had the forlorn look of cattle. Only the lucky few en route to the airport—two stops before the mall—seemed to possess any hope. A children's dance conference had quickly pushed the writers out of the conference center area, so even the option of hanging around downtown posed the risk of dealing with red-faced, Midwestern fathers and their sparkle-magic daughters.
The train stopped. "End of the line," the automated voice said. The literal and figurative implications were not lost on me.
An escalator dumped me face-to-face with a bronzed, 10-foot statue of SpongeBob SquarePants—the guardian of the amusement park located within the mall. Between that and the giant genitalia I had ridden 12 hours prior, the SpongeBob was, by far, more terrifying.
I knew that there would be rollercoasters, but an entire goddamn amusement park? The sounds of children reverberated through the oversized terrarium. I wondered at what age children learned to differentiate their screams of terror and joy. I stood next to a wife berating a husband for drinking their child's water.
A Peeps store stood amidst it all, offering a pastel-colored refuge. A woman offered me jellybeans, which I accepted like a desert-island survivor who's been offered water. I dropped one, but still ate it after she turned around.
I visited the Hot Topic, which was, disappointingly, nothing special. Just a regular Hot Topic.
I searched for a Sbarro, and settled for a Villa Italian Kitchen (at the moment, the name of the restaurant seemed so important to remember that it was the only note I took during the entire weekend).
I called it at 45 minutes. I'd had enough. On my way out, I passed by an aquarium and stood above a pool. I stared at rays circling endlessly in the soothing, blue water. It made me sad to know they'd never be able to leave.