"It's that you're simple."
We were standing in the back closet, at the base of the attic stairs in front of the timeclock. I fixed my eyes on the screen and slowly punched in my code without looking up, saying the numbers slowly in my head as I touched them.
"What does that mean?"
Brian scratched at the red stubble across his cheeks and sighed, shifting his weight and leaning more against the wall to my left. He pushed his glasses from sliding down his nose and stayed silent until I looked up at him.
"Easy, cheap, loose, simple – I don't know. That's just what they're saying. I didn't want to have to tell you."
"Do you think that's true?"
"I don't know, I don't talk to those guys...But they talk about you."
At this, I punched the red enter key and untied the royal blue apron from around my waist, glimpsing the crimson store logo stamped across the front panel as I brought the strings up & over my head.
I was barely 16 - and fully filled out, so the uniform I wore underneath clung tight against my skin – white button-up collared shirt barely closing at the front, tucked into khakis I negotiated around my hips that morning. These professional, respectable clothes threatened to make a contradiction out of me every single shift.
What might be surprising was that this was a grocery store – staffed evenly by the other kids from the surrounding schools and older men looking for an easy day. Unsupervised, the store became my second high school after my classes ended at 2 pm. Friendships, cliques, rumors and relationships mushroomed in every dark corner and at every spare moment, between 8 pm isles and lulls in the traffic of customers. We passed the time talking loudly to each other across the registers and leaning over the counters to exchange cheap gossip from all the celebrity magazines.
I was having fun.
And nobody had ever been this friendly to me – especially boys. My body type was unwelcomed both by my khakis and by the blonde boys in my private school. So when I went back to my neighborhood across town, I reveled in the disparity, picking up more shifts, and becoming more alive with each new friend I made.
I returned every favor of hello with a big smile and every attempted joke with a thick laugh and every brush up against my backside or hand on my waist with a polite look the other way. Men loomed in the booth beside me and boys ran to bag groceries for me. But then I started noticing a pattern with the customers too – the same faces, day-after-day, coming through the line and learning my name by staring at the tag pinned to my chest. And then they started to offer me things, like a warm ride home in a truck on a cold night, or a massage after a long day at work. Nightclub invitations passed across my counter, accompanied with a finger pointing to the naked girl as a voice over me said, She looks like you. I got mix tapes and candy bars and more hugs than I thought we both needed.
And then I got promoted, to the lottery ticket counter & concessions, removed from the main lines in its own little booth, which I lorded over.
I was the queen of high-priced goods stacked on the shelves behind me, doling out cigarettes and shiny silver scratch-offs to anyone looking to satisfy their vices. Surrounded by all things lock & key, I was always asking and presenting customers with a gesture and a Can I get you anything else? And cashing out the winners of the big tickets, drawing money from the stacks and counting it deftly with a polished nail for the lucky guy that day. I sat in the booth, sometimes eating gummy bears, sometimes skirting around whichever masculine force aimed to keep me company in there.
I shouldn't have been surprised by Brian's comment, except that I never actually did anything but watch them lick their lips at me, and be told when my red name tag turned yellow at 18, I was fair game in these streets.
I guess it didn't help that I let some of the boys date me, feeling rude if any sweet compliment turned sour in my mouth. Maybe it was 3 or 4 or 5 of them, but nothing more than sharing playlists by the digital light of their dashboard dials, or a dry hump against a car door. But it mattered less what I did and more what was said and then one day I was called over to the front desk by the two women supervising the shift. I made my way across the sunny store in between the throngs of people and stood at attention in front of them both. They laughed and so I did too, which made them stop. I navigated the illegal piece of Blue 5 bubblegum to the bottom of my cheek with my tongue, in case that's what I was getting written up for. I stood quiet, blinking.
"We got a customer complaint that your uniform is distracting and inappropriate - we ...just gotta...keep - this - closed..."
At which the Super reached over the counter and grabbed the sides of my shirt that had migrated away from the bulge of my breasts – and with a quick jerk of her hands, attempted to seal me tighter into the buttons and clasps she hiked up from my lungs.
She popped them instead.
They laughed and dismissed me back to my post, no more covered than I had been before, but closed off inside the deep recesses of the small space I breathed into inside of my shirt.
I always tried to be kind and respectable and diligent. I tried to do a good job.
Except I failed at that too, because only a month later, I was again called to the front desk and into the back room, where I was questioned about the count of my drawer. I swore that everything was there, but my gray-haired boss leaned forward and looked down her glasses at me instead, and kindly asked me to leave.
Sometimes I still go back – satisfied in the disguise I wear as an adult in a childhood trip, but unavoidably seeing some of the same faces as we pass. Unavoidably wondering if they remember me - Unavoidably still wanting them to.
I guess I carried these bad habits back with me to school. I still forfeited acknowledgment from the legacy kids, but caught the teachers' eyes instead, gaining detentions for the wrong color tights – tights both me and my small, flat friend were both wearing, and assigned paragraphs at the bell to promise to dress myself well.
My story lingered everywhere with me, and I wore a halo of boys' bad dreams, which culminated in a class trip to Italy, where a foreign boy from my native city walked up and kissed me in front of everybody. Applause filled my ears and cushioned out any of my own thoughts – so that I became silent and legendary at school, but no one ever asked me to speak my peace.
For her and because of her, I stopped holding doors for people who trip me on their way out.
With every cat call, I pull her close to my chest, and cover her ears. I whisper loud, full words into her mouth to drown out those thrown at my feet, and I stand among snakes, circling and parting my own green grass. We both still smell heavy, high gloss magazine paper sometimes, and I still sometimes remember the fruity gummy bears under the desk. I let her chew and chew and turn the pages, - mind and mouth filled in with color. I see her thoughts in big, sunny windows, when she feels the warmth of the glass casting early mornings and I remember that she's still a kid, trying to do big girl things in a world already scheduled and planned for. But there are always cracks in the concrete and the mind makes room to break and enter and she is 3 still able to close her eyes and go back. Those sunny window panes make stained glass mirages beneath her eyelids so much like the semi-clear glass gummy bears in her mouth, and she smiles - rainbow shards, all caught up in a place, like this.