Riding the escalator down eleven floors of faux leather, perfume clouds, and mirrored tiles, I hold my breath as though plunging into a pool or crossing a cemetery. This department store is a dead thing. Garlanded in exotic flowers, costumed in extravagant fabrics, anointed in precious oils. But dead, nonetheless. Not one object here could convincingly raise my spirits.
And yet, in this ecstasy of consumption, I know I could linger forever. A ring of marketers have conspired, artfully, calculatedly, to keep me here. They traffic in subtle adjustments to lighting, to the positioning of hallways and escalators, to the organization of aisles, to the shades, symbols and typographies of laminated banners. The final outcome of their many focus-grouped maneuvers is that though I have no desire to buy, I still manage to lose alarming amounts of time here. I spend ten minutes, for example, fully absorbed in the contemplation of several different plastic components of indeterminate purpose. The touch of packaging is velvety and pleasantly textured, like peach fuzz speckling a cheek, or like rabbit skin. My mind wanders as my fingers trace circles over the colorful branding, the ingredient list, and the edges where the plastic label is peeling away. The crown, gospel, and heresy of the Kingdom of Product. Artificial light casts its cool celestial glow onto my veiny hands. Chilly air envelops me like a shroud.
When I can finally tear my attention away from this polycoated Elysium and back into the fleshy folds of my body, I become aware of an intense strain building within me, composed, strangely, of opposed forces: the overwhelming urge to get out of here as quickly as possible, coupled with the irrepressible desire to remain, to live out life among nothing but a pantheon of dead things. But if this sensation confuses me, it is only for a moment because I soon realize I have felt this category of paralysis a million times before—on social media, that poisoned, lethargic Eden: the pressure to stay, though what I want most desperately is to leave.
I slot the product back onto its shelf; it topples backward, resting on its side awkwardly, exposing a fractured corner of the packaging. Have the jewels of modern life always had this cursed quality to them? Has progress always felt so psychologically damaging, at times even stupidly painful, in the way that wasting time on a futile task is painful? What does it mean to improve my quality of life? Am I here for any reason at all—besides buying and consuming a million dead things? I have a sense that I am feeding, but with no nourishment involved. I have a sense that relief is impossible, because I am addressing a need that does not exist. Just out of sight, a leviathan is roaming the tiled floors. Its trailing viscera smells like artificial peaches and cream.