My sister was the needy one (asthma and an OCD that led her out of the house at night into the complete darkness—our house backed on to a lemon orchard—where she had to tap the playhouse fifteen times before going to bed), my brother was the smart one (skipping a grade, speaking multiple languages), and I, as the middle child, was the soft, smiley, easy one. I knew it was my role to not make demands, not cause trouble, and never say no. My place in my family carried on as my place in the world and by the time I had turned 20 I was such a people pleaser that I couldn’t even turn down a date for fear I’d hurt the feelings of the guy who had asked me out.
The summer after my sophomore year at The University of California, Berkeley, I was standing at the bar of Carlos Murphy’s, drinking with my fake ID, when the 33-year old owner of a little clothing boutique—let’s call him Mac, not his real name—offered me a job. I needed a job, didn’t know how to say no, and so said yes without even asking how much I’d be paid. The boutique was at a shady, beat-up intersection in Oakland. There was a rib joint a few doors down, a liquor store on one corner, and some boarded up arts and crafts style houses across the street. Mac was always dressed straight from the pages of GQ and, like many people in the 80’s, wore a black beeper on his belt. He spoke with a smile and a wink, and teased me familiarly, as if he were an uncle or a good friend’s father.
The work wasn’t hard. I’d blast music from the stereo, try on clothes, talk to friends on the phone, and chat with Mac when he wasn’t in the back stockroom receiving one of his frequent visitors. It was exciting and fun to take care of the rare customer who happened to wander in. I’d dote on them like the personal shoppers at I.Magnin’s—standing outside the little fitting room and waiting for them to pull open the curtain so I could assess what they were wearing.
At the end of each week, Mac reached into his slacks’ pocket, pulled out a wad of rolled bills and peeled off a few until he hit what he believed was the amount owed. Twice he instructed me to go into the cash drawer and pay myself. Once, he offered to give me cocaine instead of money. An offer like that wasn’t unusual at the time, but I’d had enough bad drug experiences to have no interest. Besides, my parents weren’t supporting me that summer; I needed money for food, bus fare, rent.
Everything rolled along smoothly enough for a few weeks until Mac started flashing his tongue at me. It was a big tongue and he was proud of this fact. The first time it happened, I was trying on a dress, standing in front of the wall mirror and turning from side to side. My ass was big, my hair was dyed from brown to red, I was freckled and tan—not particularly beautiful, but ripe in the way of all 20-year-olds.
“Looking fine,” Mac said, watching me in the mirror. He adjusted his tie and stood up straighter.
“I look fat,” I said. There wasn’t a girl I knew who didn’t feel fat in everything, and I was fairly normal in this regard, if not a little, fat, too.
“Check this out,” Mac said, and he unfurled his tongue and let it lay, flattened against his chin like a sea slug.
“Huh,” I said, staring at him in the mirror.
“It’s a big-ass tongue, isn’t it?” Mac asked, and he winked.
“Yup, looks pretty big.” I turned my gaze from him in the mirror to me in the mirror. The dress trisected me into an insect: head, abdomen, thorax.
“Tongue like that feels really good when it’s licking you down there,” Mac said, and he pointed toward my crotch.
“I’ve got to change,” I said, and I ran off to the fitting room, my heart beating a little too fast. Mac stood outside the curtain and this unnerved me. My hands were shaking as I tried to pull on my jeans.
“Why don’t you stay in there, let me come in, and I’ll let you try out my tongue.”
“Uh, oh, no thanks!” It was impossible for me not be polite.
I slid open the fitting room curtain, and slipped past Mac to the counter where the cash register sat. Mac sidled up to me, hovering so close I could feel his heat, and pointed down toward his crotch. His penis was out, standing up against his classic dress slacks like a slab of fish on a wingtip chair.
“Mac!” I said. “Someone could see!” Of course I feigned worry over the customers, or Mac’s safety over any discomfort I had with my bosses penis splayed before me.
“No one ever comes in,” Mac said. “Now take a good look!” He pointed downward and I, obedient as ever, looked down and then away as quickly as possible.
“People can see in the window,” I pleaded.
“What people?” Mac asked, and he nodded toward the plate glass window that looked out to an empty McDonald’s bag blown against a scraggly Charlie Brown-looking tree.
“I’ve go to home early today,” I said, as if the displayed penis were no longer an issue.
“That’s fine,” Mac said. “Why don’t you lock up the shop, come in the back and do some blow before you go?”
“But what if a customer shows up?” I asked, and I busied myself by getting my purse out of the drawer, turning off the cash register, straightening the stack of hold tags that I’d never once used.
“I don’t give a shit about the customers,” Mac said, and that was the moment when I understood where I was working. At a cocaine boutique, not a clothing boutique. I, as naïve and hopeful as any five-year-old, was as much a part of the false front as the dresses I sold.
Over the next week, Mac showed me his tongue and penis many more times. All my physical and emotional energy at work went toward keeping my job (which meant keeping Mac happy) and keeping Mac away from me. It was a nearly-impossible balance and one that exhausted me. I wish I could say I worked up the courage to tell Mac off, but I didn’t. Instead I called him Friday night, after I’d been paid for the week, and politely told him I had found another job (I hadn’t, but I was certainly looking). Mac accepted my resignation but later called back and tried to cajole me into returning. He even got mean and scary, making opaque threats about working for him or working for no one. But I stuck to it. Mac called a few more times the following week and eventually I stopped answering.
By the time I turned 21 that fall, I had started to figure out that my own needs were often of greater importance than the needs of others. It was okay for me to say no. In fact, I realized, no was a word that could save my education, save my life and save my soul. The surprising thing about no, it turned out, is that once I gave myself the power to say it, I rarely had to use it.
The Wonder Bread Summer, Jessica Anya Blau's third novel, was just released to great acclaim. Nick Hornby said it was, "The book that made me happiest this month . . . picaresque, properly funny, unpredictable, and altogether irrepressible." Jessica also wrote the best-selling The Summer of naked Swim Parties, and the critically acclaimed Drinking Closer to Home. She grew up in California and now lives in Baltimore.
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