Matrix at the Mall

by cheri block

Myrtle is the loose woman who eyes rich Tom Buchanan on the commuter train from Long Island to New York City. He oozes money. She, wife of a garage mechanic with grease under his fingernails, sees the moneyed Tom after noticing his shiny patent leather shoes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, mastered the use of precise detail.

Years after reading Gatsby, one can still remember the crisp images of patent leather shoes or Gatsby’s fake library full of leather-bound and gold gilded classic books with no words.

Great writing must include detail, the type that stays with a reader like me, long after I rest my book on the little table beside my bed, remove my glasses, and switch off the light for the night.

How does one find those choice details, Mrs. Sabraw?

By becoming a keen observer of all around you, I answer. By noticing!

Let’s take a look at a short piece I wrote last fall. You can go to the mall this week, looking for details and a story.

On Halloween last, I observed a Muslim woman with a dark wool head scarf enter the cosmetic store Sephora. She was pushing a stroller, tucked inside of which was a newborn baby whose little head was crowned in dark hair. I followed her into the store.

I was not without judgment.

Postpartum depression will move even a Muslim into a store like Sephora, I thought. With its marketing focus on feminine charm, seductive aroma, and alluring make-up, this store seemed to me to be the last place a modest woman would shop.

Sephora is all about cosmetics, perfume, and skin care. Salespeople, edgy-overly made up girls and women, and spiky feminine guys, dress like characters from the film The Matrix: Black pants with black tunics.

This woman, whom I will call Naheeb, and I entered the store.  They greet us  as we enter the space, stomp over to see if we need assistance, and blink their big lashed eyes and pout their lavender puffed lips.

Can we help you? the stick-figure, whom I will call Valerian, asks Naheeb, whose over sized  brown eyes cry for attention from under her chador.

Black, white, pink—these colors dominate Sephora’s walls, along with enlarged photos of eyeliner, brushes and semi-naked hard bodies in repose.

Music pulsates and undulates. It’s hard not to think of sex here.

Perfume aromas commingle.

The Muslim woman heads for the eye make-up, selects a brand familiar to her, pauses to pick up some lotion, and pushes her pram into the line.

I move in behind her, with my small steel basket full of facial lotions, guaranteed to make a middle-aged woman look twenty years younger. My judgmental eyes scan Naheeb’s garb. I wonder about her in all ways.

Behind the counter, four clerks dressed for Halloween, robotically operate the registers.

Naheeb comes face to face with a buoyant busty blondie thing, whose black open tunic reveals a line of cleavage four inches long. A rhinestone crucifix nestles comfortably there. Is she a Visigoth? A Vandal? A medieval prostitute?

Did you find everything you were looking for? She spouts the prescribed script.

Naheeb answers, Yes, with her head down, rocking her buggy a bit.

And there I stood, evaluating freedom in a store suffocating from it.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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46 Responses to Matrix at the Mall

  1. andreaskluth says:

    What makes this suspenseful is the contrast.

    And that we must imagine the conflict inside everybody’s head.

    The veiled woman: Desire, yearning, but probably also repulsion from decadence. Simultaneous.

    You: Distrust, judgment, but also intrigue and empathy. Simultaneous.

    Bimbo with four-inch cleavage: … Ok, maybe no conflict. But two out of three ain’t bad.

  2. Peter G says:

    Interesting to hear a woman refer to another woman as a “thing.”

    One of my former roomates worked at Sephora. The description sort of fits, cleavage inchage and all, albeit I had a brunette version. I sort of liked that thing, because it always paid its rent on time.

    Speaking of attention to detail, did you mean the thing spouted the proscribed (forbidden) script, or the prescribed script?

  3. Douglas says:

    Cheri, Would it interest you that I thought immediately that Naheeb was looking for eye makeup? I saw no cultural contradiction in her shopping there. A Muslim woman might wish to make herself attractive to her husband.

    I think we make cultural assumptions, as you noted, that someone else’s public appearance reflect their private lives.

    • Cheri says:

      Douglas, I am always interested in what you say.

      Apparently, you have not shopped for eye make-up recently. 🙂

      She was shopping for eye make-up, definitely.

      I found a contrast because she chose to buy the product at Sephora, as opposed to say, Macy’s or Nordstrom. Totally different environs…

      An analogy might be shopping for lingerie at Frederick’s of Hollywood (by the way, my grandmother knew Frederick…) or Victoria’s Secrets instead of Sears.

      • Phil says:

        ……..she chose to buy the product at Sephora, as opposed to say, Macy’s or Nordstrom……..

        You chose, too, to buy your stuff at Sephora when, I assume, you could have bought it at Macy’s or Nordstrom.


      • Douglas says:

        Yes, I rarely shop for eye makeup… or lingerie 🙂
        I think my point was that you saw a contrast between the image of her in your mind and the image of the shop. But is the image of her in your mind accurate or culturally biased?

        I thought of eye makeup immediately because that is the accentuated feature when a woman is clothed in the modest way an orthodox or devout Muslim woman would dress (except in those regions where even the face is fully covered in a veil).

        I think Phil expressed the point about choice of where to shop quite well with his question.

        You might have had the same reaction, seen the same contrast, had you seen a primly dressed older woman enter the store, would you not?

        Are we only what we wear or present to the public?

        But I was remiss in not complimenting your descriptive abilities, they illustrated the emotions and contrasts.

  4. Cheri says:


    Why would I buy my lipstick at Nordstrom when so much more is happening at a place like Sephora? 😉

    Yes, here in California, I would be interested in seeing a primly dressed older woman since sweat pants seem to be the norm.

    What we wear says a great deal about us. That topic was a subject my classes and I discussed every year.

    Yes! When one has chosen to cover everything but the face, certainly accentuating eyes is a way to decorate it. I remember all the Catholic kids who went to parochial school and wore uniforms. They went crazy with socks/shoes…

  5. Man of Roma says:

    Something I didn’t get of your discussion.

    In any case the Muslim woman in my view (Lebanese? Tunisian? Egyptian? Indonesian? working class? upper class? – they are all different) is on the whole requested to show propriety only in public, while at home she can (and mostly does) wear jeans, walk about showing off weird bras, or lap-dance for her husband while he’s smoking Shisha, before a session of WILD SEX begins.

    I mean, these are hot climate / hot blooded people, the men and the women alike, not to be forgotten, unless their sensuality is blinkered by faith.

    I have knowledge – not in the biblical sense – of Tunisian and Lebanese city women: very open-minded indeed.

    • Cheri says:

      Buona Sera, Signor!

      I have just arrived home late from my graduate class, so you will forgive my late response to your hilarious comment.

      I have no experience with Muslim women in the ways you so colorfully describe (with experience, I might add), but after reading this comment, I can see that I should not have been surprised–int the least– to see a Muslim woman in Sephora.

      What I really wanted to show was the contrast between modesty and vulgarity…
      I see that I have failed.

  6. Man of Roma says:

    Did my tone seem angry Cheri? Nothing related to your views, no, no, no. I’m just angry because I had lots of things to do today and did so little.

    Scusami tanto
    donna simpatica
    quasi una Diana,
    della Toscana

  7. Mr. Crotchety says:

    I tried to watch the Matrix once. Do they have anything for boils at Sephora? An ointment or something? I got a boil the size of a ping pong ball right next to my… Oh, sorry mam. I see you’re a Christian.

  8. Tyler says:

    The term “accurate” is a loaded one. Consider fully veiled women in the Middle East: they certainly display a different “image of modern Muslim woman” than most American Muslim woman. I supposed you could argue they don’t fall into the category of “modern.”

    Our present experience is affected by our own knowledge, which is acquired through past experiences, books, media, etc. Any judgment that we pass, on anything, is at least supported – and not necessarily validated – by that acquired knowledge/experience.

    I think the differing interpretations of the contrast above are reflective of the vast cultural differences between different groups of Muslims worldwide. What if the woman above walked into the Sephora fully veiled?

    • Cheri says:

      Would it have been any different than partly veiled?

      This comment reminds me of Hawthorne’s short story, The Minister’s Black Veil

      Have you read that one?

      • Tyler says:

        That’s a good question. It is always going to depend on the observer.

        I have not read that. I will check it out.

  9. Peter G says:

    If I were a dermatologist, I’d be handing out little Qur’ans all day long. The melanoma rate among Muslim women must be really low.

  10. Beautifully and sensitively observed and recorded, Cheri. But I’ve been waiting for some capitalist to wax rhapsodic about how this vignette is a wonderful little cameo of globalization!

  11. Cheri says:

    Well, we still have time, Thomas.
    Anything is possible in Northern California, believe me.

  12. Man of Roma says:

    Anything?? I was in fact wondering if ‘Bacco, il mio signore etc’ was somewhat related to the guy writing this now.

    Oh, the sweet gentle Dianas,
    they shouldn’t play with fire
    despite they being so mmerricana.

    Ehm, back to where we were, for a ‘visual experience’ of those Muslim ladies (another Diana, btw, plus women and men) and, as for my ‘knowledge’ of them, you can read *here*.

    o my Diana
    non ti sentir sicura
    perché lontana



    Sentiti pure sicura:
    i vecchi cani
    di denti son privi
    qui tra gli ulivi.

    😦 🙂

  13. Cheri says:

    Well, I was trying to make an Italian joke. That will teach me to mess around with a language I really don’t know well.

    Anything was in reference to Thomas’ comment.

    When I finish my teaching/paper correction, I shall read your post. Thanks for the link.

    And finally, all I can get from your last 4 lines is something about an olive, a dog, and teeth ( I come from a long line of dentists…)

  14. Man of Roma says:

    That will teach me to mess around with a language I really don’t know well …’anything’ was in reference to…

    I knew it, I’m not that dumb, but felt like fooling around [hope it’s the right phrase], I have a flippant mind despite my stuuuuuffy posts.

    Btw [and this is no Machiavellian trick to increase my hits], that writing is somewhat related to your Joe and his ‘culture’, no matter if he is born in SF.


    • Cheri says:

      Oh yes. I have another post in the pipe line about Joe. So much of what I write is related to him/ his philosophy.

      I knew what you meant by “anything…”

      Just joking around myself.

    • Cheri says:

      Reread your comment. Yes. Your writing is definitely related to all things Joe. Waiting for your post on Sicily. I will print it out for Joe ( who doesn’t own a computer).

  15. Man of Roma says:

    What I really wanted to show was the contrast between modesty and vulgarity…
    I see that I have failed.

    No, you have not failed at all. ‘I’ have. As I said at the beginning, there were things I hadn’t grasped… the various cosmetic stores, or example, the Sephora thing etc., they are Greek to me, and get into one ear and exit at the other end, as we say: entrare da un orecchio e uscire dall’altro.

  16. Man of Roma says:

    Glad you didn’t understand my last little poem. Good for my reputation.

  17. Man of Roma says:

    Here is a conv that concerns also you, sweet lady. It is over at Paul Costopoulos, a wonderful Canadian of 76 who’s of both French and Greek origin, a potent mix as for my taste, oh yes indeed.
    Conv at times political but mostly personal and funny. There’s some French spoken but not that much, it’s mainly in English. I adore him (I’m not gay) also because he’s so patient with me. He has his special and great way of being a sage. He really is.

    • Cheri says:

      I have visited and read his blog. My husband is 1/2 French Canadian, so I have bookmarked the blog. Maybe I will learn something that will explain my husband’s personality, at times…

      • Man of Roma says:

        Wow, French Canadian? I love those Canucks (just learned the word over at Paul’s). I really love the French language so much. My blog is full of posts about the French and the Germans.

      • Man of Roma says:

        Cannot tell you from a woman’s point of view. I have hard time already trying to figure out how my wife’s mind works, but it is worthwhile after all.

  18. andreaskluth says:

    Man of Roma raised a point I had also wanted to make:

    Yes, Cheri, you DID establish the contrast between vulgarity and modesty. But good anecdotes work at different levels.

    And here there is an erotic level. I’ve often heard that the veiled women of the Orient wear the most expensive and sexy lingerie. To reveal, you first have to veal. 😉 I wouldn’t be surprise if their sex lives out there were wilder than ours….

    • Man of Roma says:

      You’ve said it Andreas. They surely are. And vealing is one good secret, I agree.

      I mean, all those orientalist painters, all those depictions of the Orient in art and literature we always had in the West, where the hell did they get their inspiration from? From their purely abstract (and onanistic) minds? The eternal Orient, its deepest soul, oh it rocks, I’m sure of that, and it will continue so, despite the horrible fanatics.

      • lichanos says:

        … all those orientalist painters, all those depictions of the Orient in art and literature we always had in the West, where the hell did they get their inspiration from? From their purely abstract (and onanistic) minds?

        Yep, that’s a good start, anyway. Certainly not from careful fieldwork in the various cultures. They were catering to their market, mostly.

        I recently read the first half of a very detailed biography of Flaubert (whom I revere as a novelist) and I couldn’t stay with it. Too Much Information!! His attitudes, especially towards women, were so stuffy, childish, chauvinistic, parochial, blah, blah, blah…that I found it depressing. His sojourn in the East was a case in point of a westerner traveling to the land of the exotic and finding…his own face reflected everywhere. Really, what makes such a jerk be such a fabulous artist at the same time?

        BTW, I don’t think of modesty and vulgarity as necessarily opposed. I don’t know what I think of places like Sephora, as it is described here. Sex is the biggest commodity in the world today – it’s just business, is how I see it.

    • Cheri says:

      I would love to jump in here and make an outrageous comment, but because my real name is on this blog, well….I will not.

      Nice try, A.

  19. Man of Roma says:

    Ah, all this business mania. If the Spanish or the French ruled the world today – au lieu of the Anglo-Saxons – we would have less business and more ‘savoir vivre’ 😉

    • lichanos says:

      I just had a chat at lunch with a co-worker who is from the UK, but she’s half Danish, I think. Her attitude is similar to yours, but she sees it as an American problem, this work-obsession.

      Aside from a week in Rome and a week in Greece with my family over the last few years, I don’t feel I have enough time in Europe to answer the question: “Is it really different there?” Do you think it really is? I’d like to think so!

      • Man of Roma says:

        Hard to say. It is different in some areas, no doubt, albeit we have globalization too. Yes, it can be definitely different in some parts. I cannot speak for Denmark – I’d love to live in Northern Europe in another life – but the Mediterranean, Lichanos, so wonderful, despite its problems – cultural isolation, wars, organized crime. We both have roots out there, after all. If I were you, I’d travel there more often. This movie might appeal to you, or this book. The latter is well known. Both are ‘manuals’ of the Mediterranean in some way, as far as I see it.

    • Jim Hagen says:

      Would the Mayas, Incans and Vietnamese agree?

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