July 01, 2013
Allie was in a fitting room with a thirty-three-year-old man named Jonas, pulling pinches of cocaine out of a Wonder Bread bag that was more than three-quarters full. It was the first time she had tried coke. Her heart was rat-a-tat-tatting and her limbs were trembling like a small poodle’s. Clearly, this had been a poor decision.
Her best friend, Beth, had been doing coke all year, particularly at the end of each semester as she and Allie studied for exams. Beth was a French major, too. She was fun, she was happy, and she didn’t seem to mind that Allie stayed straight while Beth did any kind of drug that was handed to her. It was an ideal college friendship: the two girls balanced each other like a perfectly poised seesaw—and they laughed together at everything, no matter what their mental state.
Worse than the jitteriness from the coke was the fact that Jonas (who was perched on a little copper-footed stool exactly like the one on which Allie sat) was now holding out his bare dick, which was black as espresso, blacker than his face, and as thick as a pair of tube socks rolled up. “Ever see one like this?” Jonas asked. He seductively rolled his voice as if Allie should have been happy to view his offering.
“No,” Allie said. This was true. Jonas’s was only the second penis Allie had ever seen in her life (she’d never even seen her father with his shirt off). And although the general form was similar to the one penis she knew, Allie was shocked by it—as shocked as if Jonas had pulled out his small intestine and laid that on his palm.
Jonas owned Miss Shirley’s Dress Shop on a shabby corner of Oakland that bordered Berkeley. Allie and Beth had met him three months earlier, after he approached them in Carlos Murphy’s Eatery. Sitting up at the bar with her fake ID and her dark red curls blown out into a sheet of silk, Allie had thought that for the first time in her life she might be bordering on cool. Jonas sat down beside her, dressed like someone from the pages of GQ, with a slick black beeper attached to his belt, and said, “You’re Allie, aren’t you?” And then he offered her and Beth jobs right then and there, without even asking if they were qualified. Of course Allie said yes. She had been looking for a job for months and hadn’t been able to find anything that was less than a forty-minute bus ride from her apartment.
At that moment, with a hot, flirty bartender calling her name and a summer job she could show up at the very next day, Allie thought her good luck was ramping up. But now, looking at Jonas’s dick waggling out of his fly—half-up, as if it were being held by an invisible wire—Allie wondered if what little luck she had was starting to run out.
“I’ve gotta get outta here.” Allie could hear the quaver in her voice.
“No, you don’t,” Jonas said, and he waved his dick from side to side, then pulled his balls out from his underpants—conjoined black kumquats.
“Yes, I do.” Allie reminded herself to breathe. She wiped her nose with the base of her palm, then stood and pushed the fitting-room curtain aside.
“What the fuck?!” Jonas reached out from the stool and pulled the curtain closed again. “Someone could see us back here.” It was a straight shot from the fitting room to the display window and glass door.
“So maybe we shouldn’t be back here.” Allie wished she could worm her fingers up her nose, down her sinuses, through the ventricles of her heart, and rub out all the coke she had done, like erasing chalk from a blackboard. She wished she could swirl her hands in the air and erase Jonas, too. “What if a customer comes in?” Her voice teetered on a precipice. It seemed like crying would make things worse, so she swallowed away her instinct to do just that.
“I locked the door.” Jonas picked up the slouching bread bag from the floor, spun it shut, then fastened it with a wire twisty that he had pulled from his shirt pocket. “Now sit down. I won’t touch you, I swear. I just want to look at you.”
Allie sat, because she had yet to figure out how not to do what she’d been told. In fact, Allie assumed that it was her obedient nature that had kept her focused throughout high school, never going out or dating (not that her father would have allowed it), and doing more than what was expected in her classes so that she earned straight A’s, and then a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley.
“Why don’t you take off your clothes and let me really see you?” Jonas’s right hand was now lifting his dick up and down like a handshake.
“I can’t.” Allie looked toward the curtain so she wouldn’t have to look at Jonas.
“Beth took off her clothes for me,” Jonas said.
“No way.” Allie tried to imagine Beth sitting naked on the delicate stool with the floral padded cushion. Beth’s hair was long and shiny, as dark as Jonas’s skin. Everyone said she looked like a young Elizabeth Taylor, or like Nastassja Kinski in the movie Tess. There were times when Allie found it hard to be out with Beth, because she was so pretty that no matter how good Allie felt she looked, she always concluded that her red hair and big butt, which men loved but women rarely envied, couldn’t compare to Beth’s sleek, polished beauty.
“Yeah, way.” Jonas’s handshake with his dick became a stroke. “And she sat right there where you are while I played with myself.”
“I don’t believe you,” Allie whispered. She could barely speak—there was an apple in her throat.
“Believe it. I saw that mole just inside her thigh. I saw her dark brown nipples.”
Allie tried not to gasp. Beth loved that mole. She called it her third eye and claimed it watched everything that went on between her legs.
“We’ve done it every time you’ve left work early,” Jonas said. Often, if no one came into the shop all morning, Jonas sent one of the two girls home at lunch. Today, Allie worked alone, because Beth hadn’t felt like going in and had told Jonas she was sick.
“That’s crazy.” Allie shut her eyes. The Earth felt like it was spinning in the wrong direction. She grasped the sides of the stool as if that would help her regain balance.
“Her nips are big. And they pop out like pencil erasers.”
Allie forced herself to look at Jonas, to see what Beth had seen. She watched his hand, watched his dick, and tried to imagine that she was Beth.
Beth was rich. Really rich. She worked for fun. She worked because she didn’t want to be left behind while Allie was at the dress shop, blasting the soundtrack from Flashdance and dancing in front of the mirrors. Beth could have bought the shop from underneath Jonas, so why would she have chosen instead to sit naked in it while he masturbated?
“Exactly how many times has she done it?” Allie turned her head away from Jonas, but her eyes kept flicking back to him. Was doing this normal, she wondered? Was every college girl sitting around and letting strange, grown men look at her while jacking off? Often Allie felt like she was five steps behind other people—as if the protocol for being twenty (and all other ages, too) had been whispered down from mothers to their daughters. And Allie, who hadn’t seen her mother in two years, and hadn’t lived with her since she was eight, was always at a disadvantage.
It was like the coffee thing. Most of her friends had coffee pots in their rooms, or French presses. Allie would watch them make a pot, casually dumping in the damp-looking grounds as if they knew by instinct exactly how much to use. While Allie sipped the brewed cup that had been handed her, she’d wonder how they came to know how to make this so perfectly right.
“I guess Beth’s done it, like, three times.” Jonas made a little grunting sound in his throat.
“Oh,” Allie said, because there were no other words that would come to her.
“But I’d rather look at you,” Jonas said. “Beth’s too white for me.”
“You don’t think I’m white?” When she was a little girl, Allie’s grandmother, Wai Po, told her that if she pretended she was white, the whole world could be hers. Faking it took no effort on Allie’s part, as most people proved to have little imagination. Until they met her black father (whose own father was white) or her Chinese mother (whose father was Jewish), everyone assumed Allie, with her loopy-curled hair, raindrop-splattered freckles, and light brown eyes that weren’t slanted much more than some of the Mexican kids’ eyes, was white.
Of course, Wai Po’s fake that you’re white advice had a little coda whispered in her granddaughter’s ear: “But no matter what, marry Chinese.” Only once (the year Wai Po died, when Allie was eight), was Allie brave enough to point out that Wai Po herself did not marry Chinese.
“This is true,” Wai Po had whispered. “And look at your mother. She all trouble.”
“I can tell you’ve got black in you.” Jonas laughed. “And some Chinese, too!” His hand picked up the pace.
“Someone must have told you I’m black and Chinese,” Allie said, although since neither of her parents had ever shown up at Berkeley, even to drop her off when she started school two years ago, no one in town knew her true racial identity. Maybe because he was black, Allie thought, Jonas could see it in her.
“Nobody told me nothin’,” Jonas said, and he craned his neck out as if to look at Allie more closely.
Allie was wearing tight stone-washed jeans, pink Candie’s mules, and a Flashdance-style off-the-shoulder pink shirt (it was Beth’s) over a black tank-top. But she felt completely naked, or like she might as well have been naked. The feeling was revolting, terrifying, and yet there was a sense that something thrilling was happening. The fact that Jonas was doing what he was doing while looking at her gave Allie a small frisson of excitement. She was utterly ashamed, and yet compelled. There was a chance that if she moved too quickly, she might throw up.
“Just show me your tits,” Jonas said. “Nothing more.”
“No, I can’t,” Allie said, but she didn’t get up from the stool.
“Be a good employee,” Jonas said. “It’s payday today.”
A shimmering tremble ran through Allie’s body. Jonas had been claiming he was in the middle of financial restructuring and could pay Allie and Beth in cocaine each week, or with a lump sum once things had settled. Beth took the coke but Allie had been holding out and waiting for the cash. After two months of not having collected a paycheck, Allie saw her debts growing into a stone wall that was about to topple and squash her flat. She was behind in rent (she had been using the hundred dollars her father sent each month for food and bus fare, rather than putting it toward her $250 rent), but that was the least of it. More important, she was behind in her tuition payment. If Allie didn’t pay last spring’s tuition and this coming fall’s tuition by August 16, five days from now, the University of California would drop her from their roster. All her hard work would add up to nothing. She knew she should blame herself for her troubles, but really, Allie wanted to blame her ex-boyfriend, Marc.
“Just take off your shirt and sit there in your bra,” Jonas said. “No big deal. It’s like wearing a bathing suit.”
“I really need you to pay me today,” Allie said. “If I don’t give school at least half of what I owe, I’ll be kicked out.” Allie had thought about asking Beth for the money, but just couldn’t bring herself to do it. All she could hear was Wai Po—who, when she wasn’t whispering, only spoke in a shout—say, NO MATTER WHAT, NEVER BORROW MONEY FROM FRIEND OR FAMILY. Allie had first been told this at the age of six, when she had asked Wai Po if she could borrow eight dollars to buy a wooden croquet set at the garage sale next door to her grandmother’s house.
“Why don’t you get the money from your dad?” Jonas asked.
“He’s not that kind of dad,” Allie said. When she had told her father, Frank, that her boyfriend, Marc, had borrowed both her scholarship and her student loan money, then had broken up with her before paying her back, Frank had said, “If you’re ignorant enough to give a man money then you better teach yourself real quick how to get it back.” Frank was a firm believer in self-reliance, a skill he had pushed onto Allie over and over again as she spent her childhood navigating the impossibly slow and unreliable bus system in Los Angeles, getting herself to dentist’s appointments, checkups, school, Camp Fire Girls meetings, and the Boys and Girls Club, where eventually she worked as a volunteer. He also, Allie knew, probably didn’t have the cash.
“Take off your shirt, sit there for thirty seconds, and then, I swear, I’ll pay you everything I owe you and you can even go home early.”
Allie hesitated. “How early?”
“One o’clock, how’s that?”
Allie glanced toward Jonas and saw that he was pumping his hand now, squeezing and releasing his dick as if it were attached to an air mattress that needed to be blown up.
“Okay, I’ll count to thirty,” Allie said, and she felt tears streaming down her cheeks. The initial, tiny, clandestine thrill that she had felt knowing that she could turn a man on like this had dissipated with each sleazy, coke-hyped moment. How did Beth do this?
“You can’t start counting until your shirt is off,” Jonas said.
“One,” Allie said, and she flipped up both of her tops so they were over her face, revealing the last thing her mother had bought her: a delicate, sheer bra, with embroidered pansies over the nipples.
“Two.” Allie pretended she was alone in her bathroom and continued the count in her head.
“You can put your shirt down now,” Jonas said, when Allie was only up to twenty-five.
Allie flipped down her shirts. What she saw then was so foreign she didn’t have the wherewithal to look away. Jonas was holding a linen handkerchief near his dick and spasming into it. In all the time she’d been with Marc, Allie had never seen his penis in orgasm. It was always inside her, hidden, mysterious.
“I’ve gotta go.” Allie felt breathless, like she had just witnessed a car crash, or a beating, or some other act of violence. She was nauseous with regret. She ran out of the fitting room to the glass front door. A woman stood outside waiting, a soft, patchwork leather purse hanging from her forearm. The key was dangling in the lock and Allie turned it, opened the door, and kicked down the doorstop. The woman silently passed Allie as she entered the store. Three more women were right behind her.
“How are you today?” Allie said, to the last one through the door.
“Just looking,” the woman said, and she rushed toward the sale rack in the back where Jonas had hung a few poorly stitched madras frocks he had bought by the pound from a South American merchant who couldn’t speak English. Although she always knew there was cocaine in the back, had seen people walk in then out after “visiting” Jonas, and knew Beth and Jonas did coke together, Allie hadn’t understood that was the real business until the day that she’d witnessed Jonas buying dresses without regard to what they looked like.
Allie watched the customers for a moment, although she wasn’t sure why. She placed herself behind the glass-top counter in her customary position, elbows down, butt waggling behind, in an effort to force her body to feel comfortable. Jonas sauntered out of the dressing room and stood before Allie on the other side of the counter. Allie’s stomach bumped and recoiled.
“That was reaaaaally fun,” Jonas said, and he winked as if they’d shared a tender secret. “Ain’t nothin’ sweeter than a yummy little Jewish-Asian-black girl.”
“How do you know I’m part Jewish?” Allie asked. It seemed impossible that Jonas could perceive this tiny bit of her. “I can see it!” Jonas laughed. “Just like I saw the black and Asian.”
Allie couldn’t even fake a smile. “Okay, so you said you’d pay me and I could leave at one, remember?” Was the barbed-wire feeling in her veins from the coke or remorse? How long would it take for all this to wear off?
“Yeah, yeah,” Jonas said, just as his beeper went off. He flipped the beeper up from his belt so he could see the number, then said, “I’ll write you a check as soon as I finish some business in the back.”
Jonas went to the stockroom, where his desk was. Two more women came in. It was unusual to have so many customers. Miss Shirley’s was on a shady intersection with a liquor store across the street and a rib joint two doors over. No one would have driven there to buy a dress—the customers were mostly people who lived in the neighborhood, wandering in because they were curious, or bored, or because they didn’t have the energy to go elsewhere. But that afternoon, Thursday, one followed the other in and out the door, keeping Allie busy while she tried to ignore her shaking hands, her heart beating in her stomach, and the stone of regret in her throat.
At one thirty, Allie was ringing up what would be the last sale of the day. Jonas still hadn’t come out of the stockroom and Allie didn’t want to go back there, where she might once again be alone with him. She made conversation with her final customer, a middle-aged, dreadlocked woman with the soft, pillowy body of TV grandmothers, in the hope she would stay until Allie had her paycheck in hand.
“So where do you plan on wearing the dress?” Allie asked.
“I don’t know.” Middle-aged-TV-grandmother smiled. “I hadn’t really thought of that.”
“What shoes do you have at home to wear with it?” Allie glanced toward the back. She worried about what Jonas might ask of her before handing over the check. Allie stared down at the register, opened it, and counted out, in twenties and one ten, the amount owed her for the past eight weeks: $1,530.00.
“I suppose I could wear sandals.” The woman hesitated. She seemed startled by the sudden friendship. Or maybe she was surprised by the large sum of cash Allie had just removed from the till.
“Jonas!” Allie yelled to the back, “I’m leaving now, I paid myself from the register.” How could he say no? The money was there now and he had promised to pay her.
Jonas rushed out and stood in front of Allie and middle-aged-TV-grandmother. He looked from one to the other.
“We’re going,” Allie said, pointing at middle-aged-TV-grandmother with her thumb. “I paid myself.” Allie held up the thick wad of bills for Jonas to see. She was quivering so hard it looked like she was using the money for a fan.
Jonas snatched the cash, divided it in two, and shoved it down the front pockets of his gray slacks. “I said I’d write you a check,” he said.
“Can you write it now?” Allie asked. “I have to pay at least part of my tuition or I’m going to be kicked out of school.”
Middle-aged-TV-grandmother watched the conversation, wary.
“Come in the back with me and I’ll give you a check.” Jonas put his hand on Allie’s upper arm and pulled her toward him.
“Will you wait for me?” Allie smiled at the woman.
“You want me to wait for you?” Middle-aged-TV-grandmother’s brow furrowed in anxiety.
“You don’t have to wait for her,” Jonas said. “We’re closing up early—I’ll give her a ride home.” He released Allie, walked to the other side of the counter, and stood by the door.
“But it should only take you a second to write the check,” Allie said.
“Allie!” Jonas smiled real big. “Let the woman go!”
“Well, thanks so much,” middle-aged-TV-grandmother said hastily, and she bundled her plastic shopping bag with her macramé purse, held them both against her chest, and went out the door, which Jonas shut behind her. As he was turning the bolt, she looked back through the glass and caught Allie’s eye. Save me, Allie thought, but middle-aged-TV-grandmother didn’t seem to understand; she turned and walked down the sidewalk.
“Who was that?” Jonas asked. “Your boyfriend’s mother?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Allie said.
“Marc,” Jonas said.
“Who told you about Marc? Did Beth tell you about Marc?” Allie asked. Each time she said his name, Allie felt a finger jabbing the bruises on her heart—it was still tender, throbbing.
Marc and Allie had first seen each other in the outdoor courtyard of Café Roma during the first week of the fall semester. Allie was alone at a table, reading Le Grand Meaulnes in French.
“You can read that?” Marc had asked, peering in to look at the book from the table beside her. Something like a tidal wave had washed through Allie’s head. She hadn’t been able to hear, could barely see, felt numbness in her legs, and had to deliberately search inside her mouth for her tongue. First love at first sight.
Marc had a BA from Berkeley and an MBA from Stanford. He was tall, with broad shoulders and wide white teeth that lined up perfectly, like train cars. His eyes were brown, his hair was brown, his skin was like suede. He looked like someone out of a tuxedo catalog.
Impossibly, he seemed to like Allie. And he was impressed by her—her good grades, her fluency in French, the fact that she had never had alcohol or smoked pot, or cut a class, or had sex even. And so, Allie went on the second date of her life, the first having been senior prom with Blake Freid, who was a pimply genius. Unlike Blake after their evening, Marc asked Allie out again. And again. And again. At first Allie felt like she was in a dream where all she had to do was float, but eventually she relaxed and became her authentic self around Marc—she did goofy robot dances; she pulled up her pants to underneath her breasts, stuck her belly out, and pretended she was a middle-aged woman; she teased her hair out into a giant ball of frizzy red and laughed at herself in the mirror. And Marc seemed to like her even more.
In the beginning of October, in spite of his busy schedule (he was never able to see her two weekend nights in a row and could usually only get away one night during the week), Marc was officially Allie’s boyfriend. That’s when Allie’s trying period began. She tried alcohol, got slightly drunk and discovered she liked the liquid feeling it gave her, the soupiness that ran through her veins and swirled in her head. Twice she tried pot, but smoking pot made her feel like she was shouting when she was whispering, so Allie decided that was the end of trying pot.
Eventually, and in spite of the fear that she would be irrevocably changed for the worse (slummier, less youthful and optimistic), she tried sex. The girls at school had told Allie that the first few times would be awkward and painful. It takes some time to figure out what you’re doing, they said, and don’t even think that you’ll have an orgasm! Not so for Allie. It was great sex. Her body seemed to know just what went where. And Allie only felt changed for the better—like she moved better, danced better, walked taller. It was like discovering a country you never knew existed and finding that you already were familiar with the customs and could even speak the language. Sex was the highlight of Allie’s year. If getting into Berkeley hadn’t been so important to her, she might have said that sex was the highlight of her life.
When Christmas came, Allie went home to her father, Frank, in Los Angeles. She decorated a potted fig tree with tinsel and made a tinfoil star to put on the top. Frank made cocoa on Christmas morning and gave Allie a gift certificate to Berman’s Office Supply so she could buy typing paper, typewriter ribbons, notebooks, and pens for school.
When Allie returned to Berkeley, Marc took her out to dinner, gave her two tickets for an Eddie Money concert, and asked to borrow $7,000 for the best business opportunity he’d seen since getting his MBA.
“It’s a bar in San Leandro,” Marc had explained. “A cash machine. The owner’s in some trouble with his family—had an affair with his brother’s wife or something—and has to leave town now.”
“He slept with his brother’s wife?!” Allie asked.
“No big deal,” Marc said, and Allie should have known then that there were ways in which Marc would not be good for her.
“Kind of a big deal,” Allie said.
“I’ll pay you back in time for you to pay your spring tuition and I’ll even give you five hundred dollars interest,” Marc said.
It would be the quickest and easiest five hundred dollars Allie had ever made. It would be gourmet coffee money, snack money, or maybe she’d even take Beth out to a fancy dinner to repay her for all the food Allie ate from Beth’s refrigerator. Beth’s apartment was stocked like a real home. Not Allie’s home in L.A., but like her high school friend Kathy Kruger’s: Life cereal, milk, Oreos, Laughing Cow cheese, Triscuit crackers, oatmeal in packets, bags of oranges, bananas that went brown before you could eat them all.
The payback dinner with Beth never happened. Marc called Allie at Beth’s (Allie herself didn’t have a phone and so made and took calls at friends’ houses) the day before she was to pay her tuition and explained that the bar had been broken into, the big-screen TV had been stolen, and without a TV there were no customers and no way for him to borrow against the equity. Three days after that, he broke up with her.
“Come back to the fitting room,” Jonas said. “I’ll tell you who told me about Marc, and then I’ll write you a check.”
“I’m not interested in the fitting room and I don’t really care who told you about Marc.” Allie hoped that at the end of her life, lifting up her shirt for Jonas would be the worst thing she’d ever done. If that were the case, she could take some joy in knowing it was behind her.
“Then forget about Marc and just come back to the fitting room.” Jonas raised his eyebrows, then winked.
“I don’t want to do what we did in there again,” Allie said. And then, because it was almost impossible for her not to be polite, she added, “I’m sorry.”
“Takes me less than thirty seconds—you know that!” Jonas slinked toward Allie in a slow shoulder-churning serpentine move.
“I’m really tired, Jonas,” Allie said. Her voice was starting to quaver again. “I just want to get paid and go home.” She pulled her pink satin purse out from under the register and dropped it on the counter. It was a sad-looking purse. The pink was turning gray with dirt.
“No reason to be tired with all the pick-me-up I’ve got in the stockroom,” Jonas coaxed.
“I don’t need any more pick-me- up.” Allie tried to stand up straight, as she had read once that if you place your body in a position of control the feeling of control will come to you. Take control, take control, take control, she thought. “Jonas, you need to pay me right now.”
“Stop worrying about your paycheck!” Jonas said.
“I quit. Pay me NOW.” Allie splayed her hands on the counter, as if to exert some force.
“What do you mean you quit?” Jonas’s face changed from rubber to stone.
“I was offered a job at that bagel place on Telegraph Avenue,” Allie lied. She usually tried to be honest (HALF LIE WILL RUIN WHOLE REPUTATION, Wai Po had often said), but it seemed that a white lie was a necessary evil in this case.
“Why would you waste your time at some dumb-ass bagel place on Telegraph Avenue when you could be here, get paid, and get free blow whenever you want it!” Jonas thumped his hand on the counter as if to emphasize his last point.
“I can walk to the bagel place,” Allie improvised, “and I’m sick of taking the bus—” She reached for her purse, but Jonas snatched it up first.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Jonas held the purse behind his back.
Allie stood still as a cat. She tried to tally up everything that was in her purse. Maybe she didn’t even need it. There were her IDs (school and driver’s license); a dried, black Cover Girl mascara (she’d been meaning to throw it out); a tube of Lancôme lipstick (Beth gave it to her because she, Beth, didn’t like the color); a pink comb (her only one); some Bic pens (accidentally stolen from the library at school, where she always borrowed a pen from one of the librarians); her quilted fabric wallet (empty save a few pennies and a dime); tampons (covers shredded, white cotton mice popping out of their cardboard inserters); rolling papers (Beth’s); a miniature water pipe (Marc’s, a souvenir, really); a Eurythmics cassette (useless, as she had no way to play it since her Walkman had died); a year-old index card with a phone number where she could allegedly reach her mother, Penny, in case of emergency (and in case Allie had enough money to make a long-distance call to area code 316, wherever that was); and the one-white, empty rabbit foot key chain Wai Po had given Allie on her sixth birthday.
Allie wanted the key chain. She had been carrying that rabbit foot, almost black and slightly bald now, for fourteen years. It brought her good luck, she believed, just like Wai Po had said, ensuring Allie’s place in Berkeley, among other things. And, though she was loath to admit it to anyone, Allie hadn’t spent a night without the rabbit foot nearby since the day her grandmother had handed it to her. Also, she wanted her mother’s number. Penny may not have taken care of her in years, but Allie still held on to the thought that if she ever really were in trouble, her mother would bail her out. And without her student loan money, without her scholarship money, and now that it looked like she’d be without her paycheck, Allie was feeling like this might be the time.
“I have to meet the manager of the bagel place at two.” Allie reached her hand around Jonas. He jerked to one side, laughing.
“What’s the name of that bagel place?” Jonas was smiling so big, Allie could see the silver fillings on his molars.
“Sam’s.” Allie was glad the name came out easily. When she was nervous, she often forgot names.
“Sam’s?” Jonas was grinning, walking backward toward the fitting rooms with Allie’s purse in his hands.
“Yeah. Sam’s.” Allie marched toward him.
“Come back here.” Jonas tore open the floral curtain. “Sit down, do a little toot, and let me look at you again. Then you can have your purse, I’ll write you a check, and you can go meet the manager at Sam’s.”
“I’m really late,” Allie said.
“I’ll pay you a little extra for the time.” Jonas winked. Allie imagined Wai Po watching this scene. She would have called Allie a prossy-tute, a word Allie had first heard when Wai Po caught Allie looking out the window of the car at a long-legged, skinny blond girl wearing a sequined bikini and white go-go boots on the corner of Sunset and Londonderry. DON’T LOOK AT GIRL, Wai Po had said. A CHILD MIND IS LIKE PIECE OF PAPER WHERE EVERYONE LEAVE MARK. YOU DON’T WANT PROSSY-TUTE LEAVING MARK ON YOU.
“Can I just have the purse and my paycheck? Please?” Allie stuck out her hand, then quickly hid it in her pocket before Jonas could see the tremor.
“Sit down. Do a toot and we’ll talk about it.” Jonas pointed with his palm at the gold-legged stools.
Allie sat. What else could she do? Jonas went to the stockroom and returned almost instantly with a Gerber baby-food jar full of coke. He sat on the other stool and handed Allie a plastic pointed pen cap. Allie knew what she was supposed to do with it; she had watched Beth use the slim, indented prong from a Bic cap to scoop out little piles of coke from origami envelopes. Jonas unscrewed the lid and held out the jar.
“I did enough today,” Allie said. “It’s not my thing.”
“Do two capfuls and I promise I’ll give you your paycheck,” Jonas said.
“Please just give me my paycheck.” Allie was afraid she’d start crying. In all her life, she had never felt such overwhelming powerlessness and frustration.
“Look how small the scoop is!” Jonas pointed at the pen cap in Allie’s hand. Allie silently conceded (she wouldn’t give Jonas the satisfaction of saying it) that it was tiny. “Two hits are like what a mouse would snort.”
“Mice don’t do coke except in laboratories where it’s fed to them. Please, Jonas. I don’t want to do drugs. Seriously. I’m not that type of person.” Allie’s entire back lifted and fell as she tried to breathe.
“Two mouse capfuls and then I swear on my godmother’s life I’ll give you your check and you never have to do drugs again in your life. Ever. I’ll even swear on my dead mother.” Jonas crossed himself with the baby-food jar.
Allie took the jar. She could see no other way out. And two capfuls would be a lot less than she had already done earlier—maybe she wouldn’t even feel it.
With the tiny piece of plastic pinched between her first finger and her thumb, Allie dipped into the jar and pulled out the smallest anthill she thought she could get away with. She lifted it to one nostril and sniffed. She dipped again and did the other nostril.
“Good girl,” Jonas said, and he leaned back on the stool and smiled at her.
Allie noticed that her purse was no longer in his hands. “Where’s my purse?” she asked.
“In the stockroom. Don’t worry about it.” Jonas pulled the curtain shut then unlatched his gold belt buckle.
“Don’t!” Allie said. “Keep your pants on. Please.”
“Keep my pants on?” Jonas laughed. “Keep my pants on?!”
Allie felt the coke come alive in her head. It was like two loose wires had suddenly been connected in her brain and she was now pulsing enough electricity to light up the TransAmerica pyramid. “There’s no time for that. I really need to get paid and go.” The current jumped from Allie’s head to her chest, then out the tips of her fingers and toes. She felt glowing, white-hot.
“Just show me your tits,” Jonas said. “Come on!” He started to unbutton his slacks.
“No!” Allie said. “Don’t do it yet.”
“Yet?” Jonas smiled. He drummed his thick fingers on his fly. His fingernails looked like shiny nacreous seashells.
“Let’s do more coke first,” Allie said, stalling for time. She dipped, then lifted the pen cap and tried to fake a snort. Even though her hand was inches from her nostrils, she could feel freckles of powder sailing up her nose. The electricity tunneled into her bloodstream and was now jolting against the walls of her veins like a bolt of lightning trapped in a rabbit hole. The fitting room swelled upward and Jonas’s gold belt buckle charged back and forth like the train in the Soul Train opening credits. “Is this the same stuff we did earlier?” Allie asked, and she placed the baby-food jar and the pen cap on the ground beside the stool for fear she’d drop them or electrically shoot them off her hands.
“It’s cut with a little something special,” Jonas said. His smile seemed to spread into the walls. “Now give me the tits and I’ll take off my pants.”
“Wait a minute,” Allie said. “I’ve got an idea.”
“You’ve got an idea?” Jonas laughed and Allie thought she felt vibrations from the hahahaha pricking at her cheeks.
“Yeah. Listen to this.” Allie’s words were bumping into each other with a rush. “I’m going to get totally and completely naked in the other room.”
“Totally naked?” Jonas flicked his tongue around and shook his head. Allie saw trails of his ears as if they were each a deck of cards splayed out on a table.
“Uh-huh. Naked except for my shoes.” Allie lifted one spike-heeled Candie’s mule, to show it to Jonas. Then she put a hand on the wall and pushed herself up. She reached for the curtain but couldn’t move forward. She realized Jonas held her in place by the wrist.
“Just take your clothes off here,” Jonas said.
“But if I do it in the other room—” Allie focused on her voice, she wanted to sound like someone who was calm, interested, horny—“imagine how I’ll look when I open that curtain. It will be—”
“Fucking amazing,” Jonas said, and he let go of her arm. “But if you run out on me or something, I’ll send my man Vice Versa after you and Vice Versa will kill you.” Jonas smiled big and winked.
“Vice Versa?” Allie asked. She felt her body jerking into yin-yang circles, the physical manifestation of the word vice versa.
“Go take those clothes off!” Jonas slapped Allie on the ass. “I’ll tell you all about Vice Versa when we’re done. He’s a mean motherfucker. Scary as shit.” Jonas laughed hard and gave Allie a little push.
Allie yanked the curtain shut behind herself, then wobbled into the stockroom. Her purse was sitting on a cantilevered metal shelf with the Wonder Bread bag of coke and a stack of white blouses that were supposed to be marked down that day.
“Hurry!” Jonas shouted. “My pants are already off!”
Allie snatched up the purse, shoved it onto her shoulder, and shouted, “I’m coming!”
The Wonder Bread bag was ballooning and shrinking like a lung. It was alarming, but Allie knew it wasn’t real. She had heard enough stories about “bad trips” to know that she was experiencing one right now.
“Stop moving,” Allie said to the bread bag.
Take me! the bread bag mewed. Or didn’t, really.
It occurred to Allie that the coke in there was worth at least as much as the money Jonas owed her for her work. But there was no time to measure it out. Maybe she could take the bag home, remove the equivalent of her accrued pay, and then return the remainder somehow.
“You naked yet?!” Jonas shouted.
“Almost!” Allie called out. And then she leaned toward the bread bag and whispered, “I gotta go now.”
Don’t leave me here with him! the bread bag whispered back.
As if it were her desperate little companion, Allie reached out and grabbed the bag by the neck. And then she started running. Out of the stockroom. Past the fitting rooms. To the front door that she unlocked and opened in wobbly speed. Then down the street and around the corner. She didn’t once look back.
JESSICA ANYA BLAU’S third novel, THE WONDER BREAD SUMMER, was just released this week. DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, Jessica’s second novel, has been called “Unrelentingly, sidesplittingly funny.” DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME was featured in TARGET stores “Breakout Author” series. Jessica’s first novel, THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES, was chosen as a Best Summer Read by the Today Show, the New York Post and New York Magazine. The San Francisco Chronicle and other major newspapers chose it as one of the Best Books of the Year. She also co-wrote the movie FRANNY starring Frances Fisher and Steve Howey and currently in post-production. For more information go to www.jessicaanyablau.com.
Adapted from The Wonder Bread Summer, by Jessica Anya Blau. Copyright © 2013 by Jessica Anya Blau. With the permission of the publisher, Harper Perennial.