It was only November but holiday decorations were already starting to creep into the store displays: cutouts of Santa wearing sunglasses, windows poxed with fake snow, as if cold was just another joke. It hadn’t even rained since Alice moved here, the good weather holding. Back in her hometown, it was already grim and snowy, the sun behind her mother’s house setting by 5 p.m. This new city seemed like a fine alternative, the ceaseless blue sky and bare arms, the days passing frictionless and lovely. Of course, in a few years, when the reservoirs were empty and the lawns turned brown, she’d realize that there was no such thing as unending sunshine.
The employee entrance was around the back of the store, in an alley. This was before the lawsuits, when the brand was still popular and opening new stores. They sold cheap, slutty clothes in primary colors, clothes invoking a low-level athleticism – tube socks, track shorts – as if sex was an alternative sport. Alice worked at a flagship store, which meant it was bigger and busier, on a high-visibility corner near the ocean. People tracked in sand and sometimes beach tar that the cleaners had to scrub off the floors at the end of the night.
Employees were only allowed to wear the brand’s clothes, so Alice had gotten some for free when she started. Emptying the bag on her bed, she had been stirred by the pure abundance, but there was an awful caveat: her manager had picked them out, and everything was a little too tight, a size too small. The pants cut into her crotch and left red marks on her stomach in the exact outline of the zipper, the shirts creasing tight in her underarms. She left her pants undone on the drive to work, waiting until the last minute to suck in her stomach and button them up.
Inside, the store was bright white and shiny, a low-level hum in the background from the neon signs. It was like being inside a computer. She got there at 10 a.m. but already the lights and the music conjured a perpetual afternoon. On every wall were blown-up photographs in grainy black and white of women in the famous underpants, girls with knobby knees making eye contact with the camera, covering their small breasts with their hands. All the models’ hair looked a little greasy, their faces a little shiny. Alice supposed that was to make sex with them seem more likely.
Only young women worked the floor – the guys stayed in the back room, folding, unpacking and tagging shipments from the warehouse, managing stock. They had nothing to offer beyond their plain labor. It was the girls that management wanted out in front, girls who acted as shorthand to the entire brand. They roamed the floor in quadrants, wedging fingers between hangers to make sure items were hung at an equal distance, kicking dropped shirts out from under the partitions, hiding a leotard smeared with lipstick.
Before they put the clothes on the racks, they had to steam them, trying to reanimate the sheen of value. The first time Alice had opened a box of T-shirts from the warehouse, seeing the clothes there, all stuffed and flattened together in a cube without tags or prices, made their real worth suddenly clear – this was junk, all of it.
At her interview, Alice had brought a résumé, which she’d made some effort to print out at a copy store. She had also purchased a folder to transport the résumé intact but no one ever asked to see it. John, the manager, had barely asked about her employment history. At the end of their five-minute conversation, he instructed her to stand against a blank wall and took her picture with a digital camera.
‘If you could just smile a little,’ John said, and she did.
They sent the pictures to corporate for approval, Alice later discovered. If you made the cut, whoever did your interview got a $200 bonus.
Alice fell into an easy rhythm at her post. Feeding hanger after hanger onto the racks. Taking clothes from the hands of strangers, directing them to a fitting room that she had to open with a key on a lanyard around her wrist, the mildest of authorities. Her mind was glazing over, not unpleasantly, thoughts swimmy and hushed. She’d get paid tomorrow, which was good – rent was due in a week, plus a payment on her loans. Her room was cheap, at least, though the apartment, shared with four housemates, was disgusting. Alice’s room wasn’t so bad only because there was nothing in it – her mattress still on the floor, though she’d lived there for three months.
The store was empty for a while, one of the strange lulls that followed no logical pattern, until a father came in, pulled by his teenage daughter. He hovered at a wary distance while his daughter snatched up garment after garment. She handed him a sweatshirt, and the man read the price aloud, looking to Alice like it was her fault.
‘It’s just a plain sweatshirt,’ he said.
The daughter was embarrassed, Alice could tell, and she smiled at the father, bland but also forgiving, trying to communicate the sense that some things in this world were intractable. It was true that the clothes were overpriced. Alice could never have bought them herself. And the daughter’s expression was recognizable from her own adolescence, her mother’s constant commentary on the price of everything. The time they went to a restaurant for her brother’s eighth-grade graduation, a restaurant with a menu illuminated with some kind of LED lights, and her mother couldn’t help murmuring the prices aloud, trying to guess what the bill might be. Nothing could pass without being parsed and commented upon.
When the father relented and bought two pairs of leggings, the sweatshirt, and a metallic dress, Alice understood he had only been pretending to be put off by the prices. The daughter had never considered the possibility that she might not get what she wanted, and whatever solidarity Alice felt with the father dissipated as she watched the numbers add up on the register, the man handing her his credit card without even waiting to hear the total.
Oona worked Saturdays, too. She was seventeen, only a little younger than Alice’s brother, but Henry seemed like he was from a different species. He was ruddy-cheeked, his beard trimmed to a skinny strap along his chin. A strange mix of perversity – the background on his phone a big-titted porn star – alongside a real boyishness. He made popcorn on the stove most nights, adored and replayed a song whose lyrics he happily chanted, ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’, his face young and sweet.
Oona would eat Henry alive, Oona with her black chokers and lawyer parents, her private school where she played lacrosse and took a class in Islamic art. She was easy and confident, already well versed in her own beauty. It was strange how good-looking teenagers were these days, so much more attractive than the teenagers Alice and her friends had been. Somehow these new teenagers all knew how to groom their eyebrows. The pervs loved Oona – the men who came in alone, lured by the advertisements, the young women who worked the floor dressed in the promised leotards and skirts. The men lingered too long, performing a dramatic contemplation of a white T-shirt, carrying on loud phone calls. They wanted to be noticed.
The first time it seemed like one of those men had cornered Oona, Alice pulled her away for an imaginary task in the back. But Oona just laughed at Alice – she didn’t mind the men, and they often bought armfuls of the clothes, Oona marching them to the cash register like a cheerful candy-striper. They got commission on everything.
Oona had been asked by corporate to shoot some ads, for which she would receive no money, only more free clothes. She really wanted to do it, she told Alice, but her mom wouldn’t sign the release form. Oona wanted to be an actress. The sad fact of this city: the thousands of actresses with their thousands of efficiency apartments and teeth-whitening strips, the energy generated by thousands of treadmill hours and beach runs, energy dissipating into nothingness. Maybe Oona wanted to be an actress for the same reason Alice did: because other people told them they should be. It was one of the traditional possibilities for a pretty girl, everyone urging the pretty girl not to waste her prettiness, to put it to good use. As if prettiness was a natural resource, a responsibility you had to see all the way through.
Acting classes were the only thing Alice’s mother had agreed to help pay for. Maybe it was important to her mother to feel Alice was achieving, moving forward, and completing classes had the sheen of building blocks, tokens being collected, no matter if they had no visible use. Her mother sent a check every month, and sometimes there was a cartoon from the Sunday paper she’d torn out and enclosed, though never any note.
Alice’s teacher was a former actor now in his well-preserved fifties. Tony was blond and tan and required a brand of personal devotion Alice found aggressive. The class was held in a big room with hardwood floors, folding chairs stacked against the wall. The students padded around in their socks, their feet giving off a humid, private smell. Tony set out different kinds of tea and the students studied the boxes, choosing one with great ceremony. Get Calm, Nighty Night, Power Aid, teas whose very names implied effort and virtue. They held their mugs with both hands, inhaling in an obvious way; everyone wanted to enjoy their tea more than anyone else enjoyed theirs. While they took turns acting out various scenes and engaging in various exercises, repeating nonsense back and forth, Tony watched from a folding chair and ate his lunch: stabbing at wet lettuce leaves in a plastic bowl, chasing an edamame with his fork.
Every morning in Alice’s email, an inspirational quote from Tony popped up:
do or do not. there is no try.
friends are gifts we give ourselves.
Alice had tried, multiple times, to get off the email list. Emailing the studio manager, and finally Tony himself, but still the quotes came. That morning’s quote:
reach for the moon. if you fall short, you may just land on a star!
It seemed shameful that Alice recognized celebrities, but she did. A stutter in her glance, a second look – she could identify them almost right away as famous, even if she didn’t know their names. There was some familiarity in the way their features were put together, a gravitational pull. Alice could identify even the C-list actors, their faces taking up space in her brain without any effort on her part.
A woman came into the store that afternoon who wasn’t an actor, but was married to one: an actor who was very famous, beloved even though he was milk-faced and not attractive. The wife was plain, too. A jewelry designer. This fact came to Alice in the same sourceless way as the woman’s name. She wore rings on most fingers, a silver chain with a slip of metal dangling between her breasts. Alice figured the jewelry was of her own design, and imagined this woman, this jewelry designer, driving in the afternoon sunshine, deciding to come into the store, the day just another asset available to her.
Alice moved towards the woman, even though she was technically in Oona’s quadrant.
‘Let me know if I can help you find anything,’ Alice said.
The woman looked up, her plain face searching Alice’s. She seemed to understand that Alice recognized her, and that Alice’s offer of help, already false, was doubly false. The woman said nothing. She just went back to idly flipping through the swimsuit separates. And Alice, still smiling, made a swift and unkind catalog of every unattractive thing about the woman – the dry skin around her nostrils, her weak chin, her sturdy legs in their expensive jeans.
Alice ate an apple for lunch, tilting her face up to feel the thin sun on her forehead and cheeks. She couldn’t see the ocean, but she could see where the buildings started to dissipate along the coast, the spindly tops of the palms that lined the boardwalk. The apple was okay, bright and clean-fleshed, slightly sour. She threw the core into the hydrangea bushes below the deck. It was her whole lunch: there was something nice about the way her stomach would tighten around its own emptiness afterwards, how it made the day slightly sharper.
Oona came out on the back porch for her break, smoking one of John’s cigarettes. She had cadged one for Alice, too. Alice knew she was a little old to take this much pleasure in Oona, but she didn’t care. There was an easy, mild rapport between them, a sense of resigned camaraderie, the shared limits of the job alleviating any larger concerns about where Alice’s life was going. High school was probably the last time Alice had smoked cigarettes with any regularity. She didn’t talk to any of those people anymore, beyond tracking the engagement photos that surfaced online, photos taken on the railroad tracks during the golden hour. Worse: the ones taken on the shores of a lake or in front of sunsets, photos name-dropping the natural world, the plain, dull beauty of the shore. Children followed soon after, babies curled like shrimp on fur rugs.
‘It was the guy,’ Oona was telling her. ‘With the black hair.’
Alice tried to remember if she’d noticed any particular man. None stood out.
He’d come in that afternoon, Oona said. Had tried to buy her underwear. Oona laughed when she saw Alice’s face.
‘It’s hilarious,’ Oona said, dreamily combing her long bangs out of her eyes with her fingers. ‘You should look online, it’s a whole thing.’
‘He asked you to email him or something?’
‘Uh, no,’ Oona said. ‘More like, he said, “I’ll give you fifty bucks to go into the bathroom right now and take off your underwear and give them to me.” ’
The upset that Alice expected to find in Oona’s face wasn’t there – not even a trace. If anything, she was giddy, and that’s when Alice understood.
‘You didn’t do it?’
Oona smiled, darting a look at Alice, and Alice’s stomach dropped with an odd mix of worry and jealousy, an uncertainty about who exactly had been tricked. Alice started to say something, then stopped. She moved a silver ring around her finger, the cigarette burning itself out.
‘Why?’ Alice said.
Oona laughed. ‘Come on, you’ve done these things. You know.’
Alice settled back against the railing. ‘Aren’t you worried he might do something weird? Follow you home or something?’
Oona seemed disappointed. ‘Oh, please,’ she said, and started doing a leg exercise, going briskly up on her toes. ‘I wish someone would stalk me.’
Alice’s mother didn’t want to pay for acting classes anymore.
‘But I’m getting better,’ Alice said to her mother over the phone.
Was she? She didn’t know. Tony made them throw a ball back and forth as they said their lines. He made them walk around the room leading from their sternum, then from their pelvis. Alice had finished Level One, and Level Two was more expensive but it met twice a week plus a once-monthly private session with Tony.
‘I don’t see how this class is different than the one you just took.’
‘It’s more advanced,’ Alice said. ‘It’s more intensive.’
‘Maybe it’s okay to take a break for a while,’ her mother said. ‘See how much you really want this.’
How to explain – if Alice wasn’t taking a class, if she wasn’t otherwise engaged, that meant her terrible job, her terrible apartment, suddenly carried more weight, maybe started to matter. The thought was too much to consider squarely.
‘I’m pulling into the driveway,’ her mother said. ‘Miss you.’
There was only a moment when all the confused, thwarted love locked up her throat. And then the moment passed, and Alice was alone again on her bed. Better to hurtle along, to quickly occupy her brain with something else. She went to the kitchen, opening a bag of frozen berries that she ate with steady effort until her fingers were numb, until a chill had penetrated deeply into her stomach and she had to get up and put on her winter coat. She moved to catch the sunshine where it warmed the kitchen chair.
There were countless ads online, Oona had been right, and that night Alice lost an hour clicking through them, thinking how ludicrous people were. You pressed slightly on the world and it showed its odd corners, revealed its dim and helpless desires. It seemed insane at first. And then, like other jokes, it became curiously possible the more she referred to it in her own mind, the uncomfortable edges softening into something innocuous.
The underwear was cotton and black and poorly made. Alice took them from work – easy enough to secrete away a stack from the warehouse shipment before it got entered into inventory or had any tags on. John was supposed to check everyone’s bags on the way out, the whole line of employees shuffling past him with their purses gaping, but he usually just waved them through. Like most things, it was frightening the first time and then became rote.
It didn’t happen all that often, maybe twice a week. The meetings were always in public places: a chain coffee shop, the parking lot of a gym. There was a young guy who bragged about having some kind of security clearance and wrote to her from multiple email accounts. A fat hippie with tinted glasses who brought her a copy of his self-published novel. A man in his sixties who shorted Alice ten bucks. She didn’t have any interaction beyond handing them the underwear, sealed in a Ziploc and then stuffed in a paper bag, like someone’s forgotten lunch. A few of the men lingered, but no one ever pushed. It wasn’t so bad. It was that time of life when anytime something bad or strange or sordid happened, she could soothe herself with that forgiving promise: it’s just that time of life. When you thought of it that way, whatever mess she was in seemed already sanctioned.
Oona invited her to the beach on their free Sunday. One of her friends had a house on the water and was having a barbecue. When Alice pushed open the door, the party was already going – music on the speakers and liquor bottles on the table, a girl feeding orange after orange into a whirring juicer. The house was sunny and big, the ocean below segmented by the windows into squares of mute glitter.
She was uncomfortable until she caught sight of Oona, in a one-piece swimsuit and cutoffs. Oona grabbed her by the hand. ‘Come meet everyone,’ she said, and Alice felt a wave of goodwill for Oona, the sweet girl.
Porter lived in the house, the son of some producer, and was older than everyone else – maybe even older than Alice. It seemed like he and Oona were together, his arm slung around her, Oona burrowing happily into his side. He had lank hair and a pitbull with a pink collar. He bent down to let the dog lick him on the mouth; Alice saw their tongues touch briefly.
When Oona held up her phone to take a picture, the girl who was manning the juicer lifted her shirt to flash one small breast. Alice blanched, and Oona laughed.
‘You’re embarrassing Alice,’ she said to the girl. ‘Stop being such a slut.’
‘I’m fine,’ Alice said, and willed it so.
When Oona handed her a glass of the orange-juice drink, she drained it fast, the acid brightening her mouth and her throat.
The ocean was too cold for swimming but the sun felt nice. Alice had eaten one greasy hamburger from the grill, some kind of fancy cheese on top that she scraped off and threw into an aloe plant. She stretched out on one of the towels from the house. Oona’s towel was vacant – she was down by the water, kicking in the frigid waves. Music drifted from the patio. Alice didn’t see Porter until he flopped down on Oona’s towel. He was balancing a pack of cigarettes on a plastic container of green olives, a beer in his other hand.
‘Can I have a cigarette?’ she said.
The pack he handed to her had a cartoon character on it, some writing in Spanish.
‘Is it even legal to have cartoon characters on cigarettes?’ she said, but Porter was already on his stomach, his face pressed into the towel. She palmed the pack back and forth, eyeing Porter’s pale back. He wasn’t even a little handsome.
Alice adjusted her bikini straps. They were digging into her shoulders, leaving marks. She surveyed the indifferent group back on the patio, Porter’s prone body, and decided to take her top off. She chickened her arms behind herself and unhooked her bikini, hunching over so that it fell off her breasts into her lap. She was having fun, wasn’t she? She folded the top into her bag as calmly as she could, sinking back onto the towel. The air and heat on her breasts were even and constant, and she let herself feel pleased and languid, happy with the picture she made.
Alice woke with Porter grinning at her.
‘European-style, huh?’ he said.
How long had he been watching her?
Porter offered her his beer. ‘I barely had any, if you want it. I can get another.’
She shook her head.
He shrugged and took a long drink. Oona was walking down by the shoreline, the ocean foaming thin around her ankles. ‘I hate those one-pieces she wears,’ Porter said.
‘She looks great.’
‘She’s embarrassed about her tits,’ Porter said.
Alice gave him a sickly smile, and pushed her sunglasses back up her nose, crossing her arms over her chest in the least obvious way she could manage. They both turned at a commotion further down the sand – some stranger had made his way to this private beach. The man seemed a little crazy, gray-haired, wearing a suit jacket. Probably homeless. She squinted: there was an iguana on his shoulder.
‘What the fuck?’ Porter said, laughing.
The man stopped one of Oona’s friends and then moved on to another one.
Porter brushed sand from his palms. ‘I’m going inside.’
The man was now approaching Oona.
Alice looked toward Porter but he was already heading back, unconcerned.
The man was saying something to Oona, something detailed. Alice didn’t know if she was supposed to do something. But soon enough the man moved away from Oona and was now heading toward Alice. She hurried her bikini top back on.
‘Want to take a picture?’ the man asked. ‘One dollar.’ The iguana was ridged and ancient-looking and when the man shook his shoulder in a practiced way, the iguana bobbed up and down, its jowls beating like a heart.
The last time she ever did it, the man wanted to meet at 4 p.m. in the parking lot of the big grocery store in Alice’s neighborhood. It was a peculiar time of day, that sad hour when the dark seems to rise up from the ground but the sky is still bright and blue. The shadows of the bushes against the houses were getting deeper and starting to merge with the shadows of the trees. She wore cotton shorts and a plain sweatshirt from work, not even bothering to look nice. Her eyes were a little pink from her contacts, a rosy wash on the whites that made it look like she’d been crying.
She walked the ten blocks to the parking lot, the light hovering in the tangle of blackberry vines that crawled up the alleyways. Even the cheapo apartment buildings were lovely at that hour, their faded colors subtle and European. She passed the nicer homes, catching slivers of their lush backyards through the slats of the high fences, the koi ponds swishy with fish. Some nights she walked around the neighborhood, near the humid rim of the reservoir. It was a pleasure to see inside those nighttime houses. Each one like a primer on being human, on what choices you might make. As if life might follow the course of your wishes. A piano lesson she had once watched, the repeated scales, a girl with a meaty braid down her back. The houses where TVs spooked the windows.
Alice checked her phone – she was a few minutes early. Other shoppers were pushing carts back into jangled place, the automatic doors sliding open and open. She lingered on an island in the lot, watching the cars. She checked her phone again. Her little brother had texted: a smiley face. He had never left their home state, which made her obliquely sad.
When a tan sedan pulled into the lot, she could tell by the way the car slowed and bypassed an open space that it was the man looking for her.
Alice waved, foolishly, and the man pulled up next to her. The passenger window was down so she could see his face, though she still had to stoop to make eye contact. The man was bland-looking, wearing a fleece half-zip pullover and khakis. Like someone’s husband, though Alice noticed no ring. He had signed his emails Mark but hadn’t realized or maybe didn’t care that his email address identified him as Brian.
The car looked immaculate until she caught sight of clothes in the backseat and a mail carton and a few soda bottles tipped on their side. It occurred to her that perhaps this man lived in his car. He seemed impatient, no matter that they had both gotten here early. He sighed, performing his own inconvenience. She had a paper bag with the underwear inside the Ziploc.
‘Should I just –’ she started to hand the bag to him.
‘Get in,’ he interrupted, reaching over to pop the passenger door. ‘Just for a second.’
Alice hesitated but not as long as she should have. She ducked in, shutting the door behind her. Who would try to kidnap someone at 4 p.m? In a busy parking lot? In the midst of all this unyielding sunshine?
‘There,’ the man said when Alice was sitting beside him, like now he was satisfied. His hands landed briefly on the steering wheel, then hovered at his chest. He seemed afraid to look at her.
She tried to imagine how she would spin this story to Oona on Saturday. It was easy to predict – she would describe the man as older and uglier than he was, adopting a tone of incredulous contempt. She and Oona were used to telling each other stories like this, to dramatizing incidents so that everything took on an ironic, comical tone, their lives a series of encounters that happened to them but never really affected them, at least in the retelling, their personas unflappable and all-seeing. When she’d had sex with John that one time after work, she heard her future self narrating the whole thing to Oona – how his penis was thin and jumpy and how he couldn’t come so he finally rolled out and worked his own dick with efficient, lonely habit. It had been bearable because it would become a story, something condensed and communicable. Even funny.
Alice put the bag on the console between herself and the man. He looked at the bag from the corner of his eye, a look that was maybe purposefully restrained, like he was proving he didn’t care too much about its contents. No matter that he had found himself in a parking lot in the unforgiving clarity of mid-afternoon to buy someone’s underwear.
The man took the bag but didn’t, as she feared, open it in front of her. He tucked it in the pocket of his side door. When he turned back to her, she sensed his disgust – not for himself, but for her. She no longer served a purpose, and every moment she stayed in the car was just another moment that reminded him of his own weakness. It occurred to her that he might do some harm to her. Even here. She looked out the windshield at the cars beyond, the trees. It would be dinner time at her mother’s house. Her mother steaming rice in a bag and putting out placemats that easily wiped clean. Asking Henry if he had a good movie in mind for after dinner. Henry loved documentaries about Hitler or particularly exotic animals. It suddenly seemed nice to load the dishwasher and wish for small things.
‘Can I have the money?’ she said, her voice going too high.
A look of pain fleeted across his face. He took out his wallet with great effort.
‘We said sixty?’
‘Seventy-five,’ she said, ‘that’s what you said in the email. Seventy-five.’
His hesitation allowed her to hate him, fully, to watch with cold eyes as he counted out the bills. Why hadn’t he done this ahead of time? He probably wanted her to witness this, Mark or Brian or whoever he was, believing that he was shaming or punishing her by prolonging the encounter, making sure she fully experienced the transaction, bill by bill. When he had seventy-five dollars, he held the money in her direction, just out of reach so Alice had to make an effort to grab for it. He smiled, like she had confirmed something.
When she told Oona the story on Saturday, Alice would leave this part out: how, when she tried to open the car door, the door was locked.
How the man said, ‘Whoops,’ his voice swerving high, ‘whoops-a-daisy.’ He went to press the unlock button, but Alice was still grabbing at the door handle, frantic, her heart clanging in her chest.
‘Relax,’ he said. ‘Stop pulling or it won’t unlock.’
Alice was certain, suddenly, that she was trapped, that great violence was coming to her. Who would feel bad for her? She had done this to herself.
‘Just stop,’ the man said. ‘You’re only making it worse.’
Photograph courtesy of the author