Monday, June 27, 2016

My First Alternative Boyfriend

This is a picture of my first alternative boyfriend. I will call him Jay, because that was his name. I was 15 when I met him on August 15, 1986. It was a Friday.

I know precisely when I started dating him because I stopped dating him exactly one week later. We broke up forever right before Henry Rollins took the stage at Einstein-A-Go-Go, a legendary club in Jacksonville Beach.

Even though we’d not gone out anywhere or even spoken to each other during the 7 days of our courtship, the breakup still stung. I was so excited to finally have a boyfriend who understood me – the real me that most guys my age thought was weird, and ugly.

But not Jay. He also loved that Nemesis song by Shriekback, and not only could but actually would cut quite a step when the DJ put on Love and Rockets’ Ball of Confusion. At last, I had an actual boy to dance with instead of the cloud of shuffling girls I was usually a part of. And that was what we did the first night we met; the first and last time we saw each other before our relationship shattered. We danced.

But that wasn’t all. Jay wore eyeliner, and skirts, and shirts buttoned all the way up to the top button. I was absolutely sure that this indicated an artistic, creative bent, and probably also familiarity with or at least sympathy for the fringe dwellers of the world. This was someone who would not ask “why?” when I announced I wanted to break into an abandoned building, see if I could find some homeless people who would agree to be photographed, or fall asleep listening to Psychocandy. He’d be right next to me, holding the crowbar, lens cap, and record player. This was perfect. I was 15, and I was so excited about my first alternative boyfriend.

There was only one problem.

“Robin,” said my friend Christine when I told her the news the next week, “Jay cannot be your boyfriend. Jay is gay.”

“That’s so racist, Christine.” I said. “You think just because he’s wearing a skirt, and make-up, that makes him gay? Way to stereotype, there.”

It was true; I was right. This was 1986, when the most desirable guys around looked like this:

and this:

and this:

See? Wearing a skirt.
And then there was our very own beloved DJ and notorious local hottie, Jay Totty, who looked so great in a skirt in 1986 that he even made the front page of our newspaper’s lifestyle section. 

 Everyone agreed, Christine. Even the Florida Times Union. Wearing a skirt or eyeliner definitely did not mean you were gay.

“No but,” said Christine, “I know Jay. He’s gay. He’s definitely gay. I know because he told me. And I’ve only ever seen him date guys. Look, I know he’s gay, he knows he’s gay; you are the only person who doesn’t know he’s gay.”

I looked at our mutual friend Billy, who was standing there in the heat with his Salvation Army suit coat and amethyst brooch. “Could this be true?”

“Oh yes, it’s true. It’s not a secret. He’s very open about it.”

“Well, huh,” I said.

A few days later, on Friday, it was time to meet up with Jay again for our second date. This was going to be an absolutely fantastic night, I told myself, not only because I was going to see Jay, my love, but also because Henry Rollins was going to read his poetry. I’d never heard him read anything before – he had just started doing it. But I’d seen him leading Black Flag the year before, and if that show was any indication, this would be something to see. This would be a night to remember.

Black Flag. Jeez, mom, what were you thinking? 

Christine’s news about Jay bothered me not at all as I Aqua-Netted my bangs and pulled on my silk pajama pants.

“Hey,” I told myself, “I am a tolerant, accepting, worldly person. So what if my boyfriend only likes boys? This was a problem, certainly, but one that could still be overcome. It’s not like Christine revealed that she’d caught him listening to Huey Lewis and the News, or something. Now that would have been it. But this?”

This is what I told myself as I pinned my beanie to my hair and waited for Jackie to pick me up in her shiny red Hyundai. But deep down, I knew this was not true.

The fact is, Jay could have been a desk caddy, a serial killer, or an avocado, and that would have been just fine with me. Because what mattered was that, whatever else he was, he was someone who liked me. Me, you see. Like many other unfortunate people, I was years out of my adolescence before I understood that “well, he likes me,” is not actually the most important attribute on the list when it comes to potential partners. Back then, with my braces and my funny way of dancing and the awful memories of being fat in middle school still defining who I was, just liking me was enough. And Jay did like me.

I showed up at Einstein’s that Friday, August 22, 1986, insides a-flutter. Jay was there already, wearing a different skirt this time. And guess what? He’d brought me flowers. A big bouquet of gladiolus and lilies. No one had ever waited just for me to arrive anywhere before. No one had ever bought me flowers and hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. And in 15 minutes, I’d be sitting with my gay boyfriend and my flowers and we’d be listening to Henry Rollins together. This wasn’t absolutely perfect, sure, but it was still pretty good. The only thing was, where was Jay?

I walked outside with my flowers, outside the clove-scented air of Einstein’s and into the syrupy heat of Florida in August. The low-slung buildings around me were closed for the night; the streets, deserted. I walked a few blocks, aimlessly, looking for Jay, I guess, but also trying to think now that I was away from the lights and the music. I believed that what Christine had said was true, but that wasn’t what was bothering me. What was bothering me was what this obviously meant about Jay. He’s going to talk to me for a whole night about music and movies and concerts and art-type things and all the things he likes, but he’s going to leave out that piece of information? What else is he not telling me, then? What kind of boyfriend is my first alternative boyfriend, exactly, I belatedly began to wonder.

My thoughts were interrupted by a snuffling sound coming from a recessed doorway up ahead. I got even with the entryway and there, in the alcove, leaning up against the locked glass shop doors, was Jay. He was deeply involved in kissing someone, I noticed. He was facing me but his eyes were closed, his head turned to the side. I stood there for a minute, and then I guess Jay sensed something, because he opened his eyes and saw me. This broke the kiss, and the person he was sharing it with turned around and saw me, too. It was a boy, of course, a boy wearing eyeliner and hairspray, just like Jay, just like me.

“Aw, man,” I said, setting down the flowers and turning back in the direction of Einstein’s. I was snuffling, pitiful, not so much because of what I had seen, but because of what I feared it meant about me. I wasn’t mad at Jay; he was obviously gay, and so he should just go be gay and try to be happy doing it. But jeez, why did he have to pick me? Why me?

You know that Smiths’ song that goes “how can you stay with a fat girl who says ‘Ahhh, would you like to marry me, and if you like you can buy the ring?’” As I took my seat on the floor at the front of Einstein’s stage, I realized that even though I thought I had lost all the weight, I was still the fat girl. I was the girl who was so – what? Weird? Stupid? Needy? – that I’d never have a straightforward, healthy relationship with anyone. Didn’t this pretty much prove it?

I sat at the very front of the stage as Henry Rollins launched into Family Man, and cried into my hands. I cried through Art to Choke Hearts and Pissing in the Gene Pool. I cried through it all, I tell you, his whole first set. (These are actual pictures from that very night, by the amazing Jim Leatherman.)  

Cried through Family Man.
Credit: Jim Leatherman
Cried through Art to Choke Hearts.
Credit: Jim Leatherman
Cried through all of it.
Credit: Jim Leatherman

When the set was over, I was still crying. I felt a hand on my shoulder and, sure that it was Jay, looked up, ready to tell him off. But it wasn’t. It was Henry Rollins.

He was squatting down next to me, right at eye-level, and he held a slip of paper in the hand that was not on my shoulder. He shoved the slip of paper at me and shook his head sympathetically.

“Hey,” he said, patting me. “I don’t know what he did to you, but here’s my phone number. If he does it again call me and I will come cut his penis off.” He patted me one more time for good measure, stood up, and strolled off to the bar. I was confused. My gay boyfriend and I had just broken up, and that was bad, but then Henry Rollins had just given me his phone number. And that was good. I stared at the slip of paper, my week-long relationship with Jay forgotten. “Maybe I’m not the fat girl who says ‘Ahhh,’” I thought. “Maybe there will be other alternative boyfriends sometime in my future. I’m only 15, who can really say?”

I shrugged and shoved the note in my pocket, then stood up and danced.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Red Ticket: Moving Day

“If I jumped from this height, I’d definitely hurt myself.” It was the third time in an hour I’d had this thought, and I looked up at the vapid Orlando sky to dispel it as I rubbed my palms on the thighs of my jeans.

Moving to Moscow had seemed like a fantastic idea when I’d been stuck dusting Gator souvenirs back at the Florida Bookstore. But now that it was here, I was scared. I’d never even seen snow before, and now I was moving to Russia? In January? Also, I’d been to Russia, and knew that unexpected things happened there all the time. That was part of the allure when I thought about it in Gainesville. But I wasn’t in Gainesville any more. I was in Orlando, waiting to go to the airport. It looked like I was really going to do this thing.

I leaned on the railing of the hotel balcony, peering at the reedy man-made pond 15 stories below. The sun glinted off the giant swans on the resort across the way, extruded plastic winking.

Unable to bear the pastel hotel room, our family fled to a nearby Shoney’s. We stared at each other grimly, inserting French fries into our cottony mouths. I looked around the restaurant at the dusty hanging baskets, the steaming breakfast bar, the sunburned tourists sticking to their booths as they shoveled in biscuits and gravy. I became maudlin; sentimental, the way people in books do before setting off on epic journeys. What was I doing? How could I leave all this behind?

One of my best friends, Jeff Totty,
visiting me the day before I left.
I'm on my way to get The Perm. 
The day before, I’d been so antsy and nervous that my mother gave me $50 and sent me to the hair salon. “Go get a perm!” she commanded, “It’ll take three hours.”

“Great idea!” I thought, forgetting in my agitated state that I’d always considered permanents a Very Bad Idea. I went as if sleepwalking to Shear Pleasure, a salon sandwiched in between a shoe repair store and a desultory Orange Julius in the deserted local mall. Flopped down in the chair and asked for $50 worth of permanent – I didn’t much care what kind. The stylist lifted pieces of my nearly waist-length hair and asked sympathetically, “Time for a change?”

“Well, I’m moving tomorrow,” I said, and instantly regretted it. People reacted in all kinds of ways when I told them I was moving to the lair of our former enemy by myself in the middle of winter, but few of them were very affirming.

“Oh, how exciting!” she crowed, plucking at her appliqued sweatshirt. “Where to?” Conversation underway, she began wrapping my hair around tiny pink rollers.

“To Russia.” I said.

“Aw honey, it must seem like a long way away. But wherever you’re going it can’t be that bad!” She dowsed me with chemicals and exiled me to a hairdryer. When I emerged one hour later, the stylist reflexively touched her own frosted bangs.

"Oh my," said the stylist. 
“Oh my,” she said. I looked in the mirror. My hair was enormous. Ten thousand frizzy spirals competed for space on my small head, blowing and shifting in the non-existent breeze. I paid the frightened stylist and silently thanked my mother. Suddenly, leaving the country seemed like a pretty good option.

Fourteen hours and a plane change later, we bumped through the snow to rest on a Moscow runway. I shuffled through customs and met Sergei, my pre-arranged ride from the airport.

“Your bag, it is missing,” he said by way of greeting. Relieved not to have to stand in another line, I followed him to his car. It was 4:30 p.m., and already fully dark. We drove in silence with the windows rolled up, globs of snow flashing in the headlights.

He looked at me suddenly, arching his eyebrow. “There is bad smell,” he declared.

“Oh.” I rolled my eyes, embarrassed. He was right. The smell of chemicals coming from my hair was still pretty strong. “Permanent,” I said, pointing to my head.

“Maybe you see doctor,” advised Sergei. “Who knows? It might go away.”

The dorm.
Sergei dropped me off at my new home, a gray concrete dormitory located on the howling outskirts of the city. I collected my key from a woman in the lobby, and went up to my room. Unpacked my carry-on luggage and spent some time arranging the contents: 3 small cans of tuna fish, a change of clothing, a giant bag of condoms, a toothbrush. My Katzner’s Russian-English dictionary, a spiral notebook, and a bouquet of ball-point pens. I fished out a picture of my mother posing with my grandparents and another of Henry, the Boy I Left Behind, and propped them against the Kruschev-era desk lamp. Then I sat on the narrow bed and stared at the violently red astroturf covering the floor until it was time to go to sleep.

Hours later, unable to sleep from jet lag, I got up and opened the room’s massive double-paned window. I sat on the sill with my legs dangling out, smoking and watching Moscow appear and disappear behind blowing sheets of snow. Twenty-three stories below, an official-looking van crept through the empty streets, a nest of gray megaphones bristling from its roof. In the white night silence a cloud of noise traveled with the van, a scratchy male voice repeating a message as it progressed from street to street. When it finally passed by my building, the message floated up to me.

“Emergency!” said the man in the van, “There is a gas leak! Everyone must extinguish their cigarettes now!”

The van continued its slow tour through the streets, the man’s voice bouncing off the sleeping buildings. I smoked my cigarette and wondered what kind of country I’d come to.


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Monday, June 13, 2016

Red Ticket: Moscow Remont

Flaming Penguins, Compromised Condoms, and Other Broken Promises

There are a variety of ways cities tell people that something is broken. An “out of service” sign, for example, or “closed for repair.” Depending on where you live, the sign might even apologize for the bad news that something you need doesn’t work. “Sorry for the inconvenience,” it might bleat. “Please pardon our dust!”

But not in Moscow in 1993. In Moscow there was only one sign: "remont." And as the collapse of the government, industry, and economy deepened, that terse little word could be found on everything. A million doors, lifts, metro cars, pay telephones, streetlights, sidewalks, water mains and sewers; all of them bore signs alerting residents that the things around them that they once took for granted could no longer be counted on at all.

As winter turned slowly to spring and the melting snow revealed the extent of the city's problems, I saw that sign everywhere. It got to where I expected Yeltsin to be wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word when he appeared on television, and I was certain that if I opened my atlas I'd see it stamped in crude black letters across the whole country.

Remont was so ubiquitous that I started to think of it as kind of a civic motto. Just as Floridians have to put up with "The Sunshine State" being plastered on everything, I anticipated that soon some kind of tourism campaign would be launched to capitalize on the one thing my adopted city was becoming famous for. "Moscow: It's Broken!"

Worse, I was starting to take the sign personally. I started to be offended by it every time I saw it (which was all the time), started wanting to argue with it, or tell it to knock that nonsense off. If remont had meant "out of order," it wouldn't have caused me such existential angst every time I saw it. But it didn't. Remont meant "repair." As in "under (or in the process of) repair."

It’s bad enough that the whole city is broken, I thought. Does it have to also go around making promises it knows it’s never going to keep? "That gas main? Oh, yeah, we're working on it!" "That listing water tower? No problem! Repairs are occurring as we speak!"

Liar, liar, pants on fire. That gaping pothole you are claiming is "in the process of repair" has been there so long that the bones of tiny dinosaurs litter the bottom of it. And look, your civic works committee is so non-existent that the remont signs themselves are broken! It was immediately obvious that no repairs of any kind were occurring, and that none would ever, ever, be forthcoming. Repair? By whom? With what? What for?

I was not the only one who was bothered by the situation. The other Americans at the Moscow Guardian were tired of seeing the broken, fading signs attached to nearly every immobile object in the city. And so, with typical American can-do naiveté, they resolved to fix things themselves.

At our next weekly staff meeting Jason announced the birth of a new section of the magazine. "MG Remont" would be our effort to pitch in and assist the city we both loved and hated. Each week, we’d locate something under remont, and would remont it ourselves. We'd change the light bulbs in the underground subway crossing, unstick the door to the public library, patch up the sidewalk in front of the Kremlin. We'd publish before and after pictures of our work, and exact directions to it, so that readers could go view the repairs and pretend, just for a moment, that they lived in a city that was not falling totally and utterly apart.

This sounded like a fine idea to me, and I was moved by the fact that, under all the snark, Jason had hopes that the column would inspire others to take the care of the place they called home into their own hands. But I knew this plan would never work, for about a million reasons.

First, consider the cookie vendor. I'd stood in line number one at the grocery store and gotten a ticket from the assistant to the woman weighing up the cookies. The ticket said that I’d asked for something (it didn’t specify what), and I took it to line number two, where I stood for a while, repeating “a half-kilo of cookies” to myself over and over so I wouldn’t forget what to say to the cashier when I finally reached her. Twenty minutes later, I got back at the end of line number one, this time holding another ticket certifying that I had paid for my cookies.

After some time, I came to the front of the line again and held my ticket out to the assistant. I was nervous. What if all the cookies had been purchased in between my first visit to this line and my current one? What if the assistant or the cookie-weigher decided to go on their state-mandated “pererive” (break) right then? If either one of them did, we’d all be left standing there, helpless, for 30 minutes, because neither one of them would do the other’s job.

But all seemed well. The assistant took my ticket and said “half kilo” to the woman weighing the cookies. She put a scoop on the scale and stepped back to view the weight. The needle sat at .48th of a kilo. The weigher picked up a new ginger snap from the barrel and broke it in half. She put one half on the scale, and threw the other half away. When the half she'd put on the scale tipped the weight over to .51, she removed the half-cookie from the scale and threw it away, too. She picked up another cookie from the barrel and broke it in half. Threw one half away, and put the other half on the scale. Point 49. No good. Into the trash with the cookie half.

There were so many things, as she threw the ninth cookie away and the line stretched out endlessly, patiently, behind me, that I longed to say to this woman. But I knew that even if I could have figured out how to say "break that half a cookie in half and see what happens," it would have been pointless. Russian culture is not a culture that values efficiency, or an individual's time, or the conservation of ginger snaps.

In the end, body vibrating with impatience and eyes brimming with tears, I begged the lady, please, please, it's all right. Just give me my cookies. Please. But it was not to be. I had paid for .50, it said so right there on the ticket, and so .50 I would get.

And then there’s the young man I’d stood in line behind at a metro kiosk. These kiosks were little aluminum houses that had started to spring up everywhere in Moscow. They sold useful items like electric toothbrushes, soft-core porn videos, mohair-trimmed boots, cigarettes, and condoms. This is what the boy wanted, he told the Tadzhik woman behind the plexiglas window, “That one right there.” He pointed at one of the several different brands of condoms that were pinned, unwrapped, to a piece of cardboard in the window.

The woman removed the cardboard from the window, unpinned the specific condom the boy had asked for, and handed it -- still unwrapped -- to him. The boy handed the lady back some rubles and went away, satisfied that all appropriate precautions had been taken.

It took me a minute to process what I’d just seen. I had thought the display of condoms in the window was just that: a display, so that discerning customers could really get a good look at what kind of condom they were about to buy. But no. This was where the actual condoms for sale were kept. They were pinned, with a tack, you see, to the cardboard. And this was not one of those high-tech “smaller even than sperm” thumbtacks they’re making these days. Nope, it was just a regular old tack with a big old rusty “come-on-in-boys” hole-poker at the end of it.

Do you see where I am going with this? Do I have to tell you the problem with this scenario? Or do you, like this boy and the kiosk woman, think that there is no problem here at all? Perhaps you think that attempts to prevent unwanted anythings – births, deaths, dictators, floor shows in restaurants involving Queen songs and full-frontal nudity – are pointless. Perhaps you believe that every gesture is really merely a symbolic one meant to appease (if you’re lucky) forces you can’t control. And maybe you are right that our fates are already written, and so I, with my insistence on intact prophylactics and accurate signage, am the one with the problem.

And let’s not forget the gum. As the ruble continued to plummet and hard currency became more and more valuable, dollar stores (establishments that only allowed people to pay with Western money), began to give change for purchases not in coins, but in chewing gum.

I remember the first time this happened. I was buying my Old El Paso taco kit at the Irish House Bar and Supermarket, and instead of the 63 cents in change I was owed, the cashier handed me several sticks of Wriggley's spearmint gum.

"What's this?" I asked her, confused.

"No more change in money," she said. "Exact change only, or you get gum."

It seems that these dollar stores had wisely decided to hoard every bit of hard currency they collected, and thus had instituted the "gum only" change policy. This made a certain amount of sense, if you thought about it. For practical, survival-oriented reasons, these businesses weren't going to relinquish their hard currency, but they still had to give their customers change. There was no way they could give change in rubles, though. With one dollar now fetching 5000 rubles, the building was not large enough to store the amount of rubles they'd need to give out change to a day's worth of purchasers.

In a place where most money was worthless, where mint-green and taffy-pink rubles came to not just resemble but actually behave like play money, substituting candy for currency was utterly fitting. No one responded to the collapse of the monetary system by standing up on the counter and saying “Listen, people, we’re getting our change in gum now don’t you think that’s a sign of bad things to come?” Instead, they just shrugged, and adapted.

Things had changed before, and now they were changing again. What were you going to do about it? And, said my ever-practical Russian friends, at least gum is easy to carry, and tasty, and can be traded for other things. And unlike rubles, gum is popular, and can be used to fix things. Things could be worse. We could be getting no change at all, or change in beets. Quit complaining.

And finally, there’s the flaming Penguin. I’d seen it the week before, when Julia, the Guardian's translator, and I were walking on a downtown boulevard. We passed an ornate, 12-storey building, the top two floors of which were completely engulfed in flames. The residents on the lower floors stood on their balconies frantically hurling their possessions over the railings to the busy street below, where a crowd of onlookers had gathered. Julia and I stopped across the street and watched.

"Another one," said Julia, sadly. "What a shame."

"What are you talking about?" I asked her. Was this something that happened on a regular basis?

Julia explained that it was common, with desirable locations like this one, for the mafia to decide to buy and renovate the building as an investment. They'd approach the residents of the apartments in the building and make an offer. The residents would decline, aware that inflation and a housing shortage would make it difficult for them to find other places to live. The mafia would nod and go away, and then a week or so later would return and set the top floors of the building on fire, forcing the residents to flee. "Why the top floors?" I asked Julia.

"Well, they don't want to burn the whole building down," said Julia. "They simply want the residents to leave. They're going to refurbish the building anyway, and sell the apartments to foreigners. It's enough to just burn the top floors."

"OK, but, where's the fire department?" I asked.

Julia laughed. "This is a mafia fire, Robin. There will be no fire department."

Then, suddenly, Julia brightened. "Oh, look!" she said, grabbing my hand and pulling on it, "A Penguin!"

Julia was pointing across the street at the burning building, which had on its ground floor a "Penguin," a Western-owned ice-cream chain that was very popular in Moscow. Indeed, a steady stream of customers entered and exited the store, licking at cones of green pistachio while they dodged the blankets and clothing raining down on them from above.

"Julia," I said, shaking off her hand, "I'm not going in there! That building's on fire!"

"Yes it is!" called Julia over her shoulder as she abandoned me on the sidewalk and flitted across the street, "But the Penguin's still open!"

“Hey,” she seemed to say as she pulled open the door and disappeared inside, “No one can protect us from anything. That’s just a foolish notion harbored by people lucky or wealthy enough to insulate themselves from the way things really are. But we know that for us, there is no assurance we’ll be here tomorrow. Which makes ice cream today all the more important!”

So you can see why, as I watched the Guardian’s American writers prepare for their first foray out to remont something, all I could do was shake my head. Moscow was not going to be fixed – if indeed it was even really broken – with something as simple as a hammer and a nail. Maybe it was better to just hang up a sign and wait for things to right themselves somehow. And maybe that sign was not really a lie. Maybe it was actually an affirmation of hope in a future where everything made perfect sense, and nothing was irreparably broken.


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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Turning to Crime

From 1993

Every morning the cat comes in through the window and wakes me up licking my face. I greet the day with superstitious dread, remembering old wives' tales of breath-snatching cats and smothered sleepers. The smell of her breath as her pink tongue exfoliates my face unnerves me. Sour milk, Tender Vittles, mouse; her breath smells like none of these things because she eats like we do: badly and infrequently. She smells like ant bites and the heat of the middle of the day, and that's it. She is skinny and parched like the asphalt my car is parked on.

My roommate Susan and I are both recent recipients of Russian degrees, and in the small Florida town we're currently exiled in, jobs requiring Russian-language skills are scarce. We are forced to be resourceful for our income. And the closer it gets to rent day, the more resourceful we become. Susan starts talking again about Chris, that guy we know who has a Chinese automatic weapon disassembled in his closet. I try to convince myself that I really look like someone who would purchase a pink fishnet halter top and thus it won't be obvious that I'm trying to return shoplifted clothing. What I'm talking about here is turning to crime, and sometimes it is a comfort to make yourself believe that you have so very little to lose.

But I can't think about all this right now. I can't be late, I've got to wait. Rat and Dinghy's Sour Smell, Rave and Dammit's Sure-Fire Hell; no, Ray and Donna's Seafood Grille: that's where I work, and where, later tonight, I'll wait on a table that will leave me nine cents on a 33-dollar tab, because that's just the kind of place it is. But now, in the hot Florida morning, I'm still optimistic as I find and smoke Susan's emergency cigarette. Perhaps, I tell myself, this will be the day that our fortunes turn around.

Two shifts and twelve hours later, I'm driving us home. Susan's agreed to give John, the recently paroled cook, a lift to his duplex.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," sighs Susan, reaching into her apron and pulling out a wad of ones and fives. "My school loans are coming due. Creditors are calling me. I've already borrowed money from everyone who still talks to me."

"Hmm," replies John, "Do you have a tampon?"

"What?" says Susan.

"Cheaper than papers." John rolls up a joint in the powder-scented paper and passes it to Susan. "What about your insurance scam?"

"Oh," says Susan. "Well, Rich was all set. He kept leaving his windows open so I could break in and move out all his stuff. Man...he was insured for like $6000, and he lives in such a bad neighborhood that no one would ever have suspected it was someone he knew."

"So?" says John. "He's giving you half? Three thousand?"

"Yeah, well, the day before I was actually going to go do it, somebody broke in and stole all his stuff. Can you believe that?"

"Scumbags," says John, shaking his head. And then, after a silence: "I could, uh, maybe help you out if you wanted."

Turns out that John scored some stuff the other day, he says, some "really good shit."

"But I got to get it out of my house because the guy I took it from knows me. I could go to jail for this, definitely. Let me just put it at your place until I find my buyer, and then I'll give you half."

"Half?" says Susan, considering. "How much is it?"

"A hundred pounds," says John, "No, wait, man, I'm serious. It sounds like a lot, but I'm telling you, this is good quality stuff. I'm going to have zero problems unloading it. I can take it down to Cedar Key; there's this guy I know there. It's just going to be one day. Two, tops. No problem. Nobody even knows I know you. Come on, man. Help me out."

We ended up giving John the key to our apartment and staying over at Dave's on the night we picked for the drop-off. If John were caught, we decided he would just claim that he'd stolen our purse and found our key and stashed the stuff in a stranger's apartment. Susan and I vowed that if we were questioned we'd just consistently blame each other so there'd be no chance of conviction.

The night passed in sleepless anxiety, and all the next day at work I stared distractedly out the plate-glass window at the parking lot, waiting for the police cars to come screeching through the haze of August heat. At last, it was 11:30 and time to go home.

As Susan and I climbed the stifling stairwell to our second-floor apartment, trepidation over this dirty business mingled with a prickly kind of excitement over being involved with something verboten and also possibly dangerous. I fished for my key on the dark landing and Susan and I looked at each other. There it was, we both knew, right there behind door number four. Not contraband, if you just looked at it the right way, but food, and rent. Maybe even something left over for the cat. This could be the push we needed to propel us into a different kind -- a better kind -- of future. So open that red door, Robin and Susan, and don't be afraid. Turn to crime. Now is your chance.

I swung the door open and there, in the middle of the kitchen floor, wrapped up tightly in brown paper and sporting a cheery logo, was our fortune, our future, our salvation, our...shrimp.

We should have asked John what he meant when he said "stuff." We should have asked how he'd managed to steal 100 pounds of anything truly valuable. We should have known that no matter how much Tom Waits we listened to, we'd never really be criminals, but merely liberal arts majors.

We stood there in the doorway, Susan and I, and looked at the one hundred pounds of peel-and-eat shrimp stolen straight from Ray and Donna's walk-in freezer and melting straight through our un-airconditioned apartment's wooden floor. The ice it had come in had long since disappeared, and the smell of slightly off seafood was settling in for what promised to be a long, long stay.

The cat came in this morning and woke me up licking my face. I still worry that she means me some kind of harm, and am even more unnerved by the smell of her breath. Sour milk, Tender Vittles, mouse? No, it doesn't smell like any of those things. It smells like, what else? Shrimp.


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