You Can Get Anything at the Mall

Gasping toward the tiger lot

Can't breathe. Too much strife. Chest tightening. Walls closing in. Can't catch breath. Not alone. See it in faces of friends and strangers. Fear. Panic. Death. Read it between lines of Kim Ode columns. Despondence. Worry. Four more years. Feel like new modern-rock song that goes, "I'm one of the low millions/I'm disconnected to myself/There isn't anybody else/That I can point to who I know/Who isn't being torn by the undertow."

Yes. Yes. That is it. The undertow. Drowning. Underwater. Must come up for air. Must persevere. How? Must remember words of prophets: "Breathe in, breathe out" (Whiskeytown); "Baby, baby breathe, breathe in breathe out, slow, slow breathe" (Prince); "Just breathe" (Kenny Loggins); "Breathe like the Buddha" (Zen teaching); "Every breath is a birth and a death, and every new breath is a rebirth" (someone named Dr. Myrna West who I just Googled); "The purpose of living is to breathe" (sweaty instructor dude in my sweaty yoga class).

All true. Simple. Must stop gasping way through life. Must find place to breathe. Not here, in Minnesota, outside, in winter. Too cold, crisp, bracing, free. Must find pure purchased oxygen, like football players on sidelines sucking it down with dopey eyes. Where?

Here. Southdale, first mall ever built, where air is stale and people shoppy. Past Caribou Coffee stand, Victoria's Secret store, jewelry stores, Godiva chocolate store, and Ben & Jerry's kiosk. Past couples talking to cell phones and not each other, past big speakers playing hits of the '70s and '80s, past vacant Santa's castle and abandoned photo throne. Right here, at storefront where B. Dalton's Booksellers once was, now adorned with painted palm trees, bookended by Abercombie & Fitch and Apple stores. Past sign that says, "Ocean Waves Massage and 02 Bar."

Belly up to oasis. Sit on one of two stools and regard taped-up sign that reads, "Oxygen Bar." Immediately receive warm greetings from earth mama Renee. Listen to Renee talk about healing qualities of pure oxygen as she slips tube over head and inserts oxygen-tank-hooked-up tubes in nostrils. Ahh. Mmmm. Breathe in, breathe out. Synapses firing. Syntax returning.

For 20 minutes I sit there, getting stoned at the oxygen bar ($6 to $15). I inhale all the sweet aromas--"Ocean Mist" (lotus blossom, black currant, aquatic flower); "Chillin'" (eucalyptus); "Timber" (balsam fir needle); "Serenity" (lavender, balsam fir needle); "Strawberry Fields" (strawberry extract); "The Grove" (mandarin orange); "Piña Colada" (pineapple and coconut), and "Appletini" (green apple). I fiddle with the tiny switches that control the bubbling scents, and listen to Renee, who says,
"I think we've all been holding our breath since 9/11," and talks about the "virtual vacation" that Ocean Waves Massage offers.

It is below zero outside. The winter funk looms. I am at the bar, sipping something called "Virtual Buddha." My head is lolling and my skepticism has been blown out of the water by invisible trade winds. I have walked in off the street, no appointment necessary, and I am now smelling smells found only in the plush dreamlands of Jamaica and Hawaii. I am Harold to Renee's Maude and her magic scent machine. If she told me to jump off the Edina water tower, I would say, from how high?

There is an insta-spirituality about the joint, and I am an American, so I don't want to work too hard for my breakthrough. I want to buy it, cheap, and I want to keep my clothes on so I can get right back to shopping. The owner, Sandra, tells me she has been in this spot for 20 months. She has a steady stream of first-timers and regulars, and lots of knowing teens with blissed-out grins, but business isn't exactly brisk. Oxygen bars are a hit on the West Coast, but, as Sandra says, "Many Minnesotans are a little afraid of anything tropical. They think it's voodoo or something. They see the sign, walk in a few steps and walk out. But if they make it halfway in...."

What they get is Sandra or Renee saying, "Welcome to the jungle." The jungle is the piped-in sound of parrots, sun lamps, and two ocean beds ($7.50 to $30) that encase whirlpool jets from below, and the sound of waves on headphones above. Renee puts a cool wrap on my eyes. I focus on one wave that crashes metronomically in my left ear. I can see the rock it pummels. I stare at it. I am at Big Sur, or Molokai, considering the vastness of life, the infinity of spirit, the connectedness of all living things. I think if I had one of these things in my office, I would get rid of my keyboard and dictate columns into a tape recorder, so profound and plentiful are the ideas and insights (life is good, one day at a time, use fewer parentheses).

"We are very hearted here," says Sandra. "We are not robots. When you come in here, you will be cared for." And so I am. I try the Spinal Chi Bed ($10), a contraption that offers a figure-eight rocking motion. The effect is womblike, like I'm being rocked by Mother Earth herself--and it all seems very pointless. I try to remember what Renee told me, that it's my ego getting in the way of the experience ("ego stands for 'edging God out'"), and try to let go. The payoff comes when it stops. I lay there for a moment in perfect stillness, as my heart, pulse, and the headphone sound of chimes and waterfalls meld into one perfectly balanced throb.

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