2024 Melinda Wyers
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Straight As

Caelyn Cobb

Aeropostale, American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch: I got good grades, but these were the only As that mattered. Melissa was just being nice when she leaned over during sixth grade study hall to explain the curriculum I was missing. My favorite outfit in those days was a pair of light-blue low-rise flared Mudd jeans from JC Penny and a fitted cream-colored shirt my mom used to wear in the 90s. I wore that outfit with BonneBell glitter lipgloss every Friday when Melissa and I went to the skating rink, gliding around and around hoping some boy would notice us, even though we sat and complained over styrofoam cup cappuccinos that the seventh graders all thought they were some hot shit. Over time, the bottom of my jeans became frayed and dirty from dragging underfoot, and no boys paid any more attention to me than before.

During August back-to-school shopping I could have sworn that the mall turned the air conditioning way up to make stocking up on sweaters more appealing. I had done my summer homework. At Aeropostale I filled my arms with Easter-egg polo shirts and any graphic tee that my mom didn't veto for having too sexual an innuendo on it. I picked out jeans with progressively lower rises at American Eagle; my mom would make me test each one by sitting down before we could buy them. At Abercrombie, we caught wind of the blaring pop music and cologne spilling out of the front door and decided to get a coffee at Gloria Jean's instead.

I thought I'd enter into seventh grade with the right clothes and finally get top marks. I didn't fail spectacularly but I didn't ace the game either. Maybe it was my hair, alternately clipped messily to the side with a translucent pastel butterfly or concealed under a star-patterned sky-blue bandana. (Traditional red or navy paisleys were banned by our white suburban principal, under suspicion of being gang signs.) Or maybe it was my makeup: blue eyeshadow and dark liner, all around the perimeter of my eyes. Maybe it was my personality. My real report card, of course, looked great.

I could have wallowed in my failures but I stayed strong. I went to a school dance with Melissa and left with a new crop of best friends. We met hanging out on the side of the gym while Melissa and the other girls at the top of the class flirted with boys in the middle. By the time I entered high school I was enrolled in a different system entirely, the social equivalent of one of those alternative schools where no one gets grades so as to encourage learning. We starred in the school musical and spent our lunches in the choir room. We wandered the mall together, FYE and Waldenbooks and the peasant blouse offerings of Wet Seal and Charlotte Russe. We bought twee shirts from the Delia's catalog and a rainbow of Vans and earrings so long they stretched out our earlobes. I was one of the few who knew how to put on makeup.

Suddenly we became the age when we were the ones working at the mall instead of running around it. My stepsister got a job at Abercrombie, where they tasked her with walking around the store spraying fragrance every fifteen minutes. Two friends spent a summer folding shirts at American Eagle, tormented by a store soundtrack featuring an indie hit with a refrain of the words 'again and again' again and again. On my way to meet up with them, I crashed my car into the rear end of a customer's Lexus while trying to park. I left the driver a note and wandered around vibrating from anxiety while waiting for their call. I bought my favorite tank top that day, gray with cream-colored lace on both the top and bottom, perfect for layering.

I'd like to say I became cooler when I moved away to college, a thrift store queen, an indie sleaze maven, but I just bought the same shit, the cheaper the better. I had mastered the craft: fit in, but not too much. Stand out, but not too much. In school and in life my motto became 'aim for a B.' I wasn't trying to be the best; I was just trying not to fail. Being the best was so exhausting. Other girls were wearing J. Crew and Coach and getting internships at consulting firms. I didn't want to compete. I went to my first job interview in H&M, concealing a run in my tights at the bottom of my shoe.

Today, I tell myself: it's hard to care about sustainable fashion when your rent is $2700/month. Of course I know better. My friend Amanda sews her own clothes and calls for justice in Palestine, and she has the same job as me. Last month, I bought a knockoff of something I saw on the subway from SHEIN.

The mall is just the internet today. I pay off my credit card and then I fill it up again. A credit monitoring service  I signed up for sends me periodic emails about debt management. Is this adulting? How am I doing? Relax. I have a perfectly respectable credit score. The only way it's going to get any higher is if I get a bunch of new loans to pay for things like a house or a car. And I'm a Millennial, so. It's times like these I remember my mantra: just don't fail.

On my couch, scrolling social media as the sun sets, instead of doing things like dishes or laundry or dusting my bookshelves, I learn that Abercrombie is the subject of an expose doc about how they were founded by coked-up sexual harassers. American Eagle is trying to rebrand as a quality option for Millennials who shopped there as teens, and good luck to them. (They do have some coats that look cute, except for the part where they cost $250.) Aeropostale? They filed for bankruptcy in 2016. The teens have their own grading system these days and I don't get it—glazed donut, VSCO girl, cloud skin. But I don't need to understand. I'm grown up and I've stopped caring about grades.

Caelyn Cobb is a writer and university press editor living in Queens, NY. Her work has appeared in The Smart Set, HAD, Longleaf Review, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere, and her novelette chapbook Boomerang was published in the ELJ Editions Afternoon Shorts series in 2023. She is currently writing a personal history of growing up on the girl wide web of the early 2000s. You can read more of her work at

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