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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Madame Tingley's Organ
by Teresa Bergen
(Continued from Cyber Corpse # 8)
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Summary thus far:

The even numbered chapters take place in the present, the odd chapters are flashbacks to the narrator's teen years. Lex tells her story of growing up in San Diego, and how events turned her younger sister, Sandi, into a cult leader whose group all die in what appears to be suicide.
     In the even numbered chapters, Dale Ross, a writer of tawdry quickie biographies, tries to get Lex to sell him her story as sister of the notorious cult leader. Lex is now living in San Francisco. He takes her to lunch repeatedly, offering her more money each time.
     In the flashbacks, Lex and Sandi live with their mother in San Diego. The girls help out after school in their grandmother Annabelle's nursery. Annabelle is a Theosophist, born and raised in a turn-of-the-last century San Diego commune called Lomaland. Their hippie father, Fuzzy, lives in Oregon.
     In the previous chapter, Lex becomes involved with brooding bad boy Chance. But it turns out Chance is partly using Lex to get to know her mystic grandmother, whom he hopes can help him explore his spiritual side. This leads Chance into an alliance with Sandi, the spiritual sister, but that doesn't work out well either. Still, the three work together at the nursery and spend a summer exploring such esoteric activities as a psychic fair and a vegetarian festival hosted by Hare Krishnas.

Chapter Six

At lunch the next day, Dale Ross said he could get me twenty grand if I collaborated.
     "Could you leave my name off the book?"
     "Your name's the point." Dale Ross had spent three days wooing me now. Time slipped away, his deadline rushing to meet him.
     The spring rolls were way too greasy. I'd been to Bhan Thai dozens of times before, but today the waiter didn't meet my eyes. "Look, I don't know. No amount of money is any good if my mom never talks to me again."
     He lit a cigarette between giving up on the spring rolls and waiting for the entree. He wore a black turtleneck, jeans, and Converse high-tops. I wondered if even his outfit was geared toward making me talk, but how could he know of my fondness for Converse? I wished he could just stick around and take me to lunch every day and shut up about the biography.
     I showed him the notes I'd written about Sandi.
     I thought I saw the shadow of a smile when he discovered I'd been writing. I watched him read my notes, and I definitely saw his lips curl upwards, just a twitch, as his eyes moved down the page. I smoked one of his Tarreyton cigarettes and watched him. "You need to work on your poker face."
     "What?" he looked up, his face perfectly neutral.
     "You know what I mean." The part about me hiring out the Elk's Hall for Sandi's channeling probably made him smile. Believe me, I knew how that looked, especially in light of his current proposition.
     "This is the seed of an excellent biography." His phad thai arrived, along with my red curry, but the waitress saw how intent we were so she set our food on the side of the table and didn't even try to serve us rice. "You're more interesting than your sister."
     Obviously that was the one thing I'd wanted to hear my entire life, but it came too late, and from the wrong source. "Just lay off your tricks."
     He smoked, looking over my head. "You could be a celebrity in your own right. First follower of Pure Universe. First promoter."
     "Some celebrity!" I lowered my voice. "I can go on TV and say 'I launched Pure Universe.' Then reap the death threats."
     He shrugged. "People are so impressed by celebrity. They'll forget they should want to kill you. These notes are intriguing. I'd love to have some amplification, especially where you write 'vulnerable time, heartbreak and death, I adopt three precepts.' Sandi's precepts?" I nodded. His green eyes bore into me. "Whose heartbreak? Whose death?"
     "It's a long story. Hey, are you really British?" I took the pointy lid off the silver rice container, that crazy vessel that lends all Thai restaurants elegance, aloof on its pedestal, made of a strange lightweight metal that probably has toxic effects on the food. I served Dale Ross some rice.
     "I want to hear the long story."
     "No you don't. There's not time." I worried, more nervous about his deadline than he was. The longer he stayed in San Francisco, the more lunches we ate together, and one of these meals I'd sign something.
     "I'm British. I'm from London."
     "But you've been in the US for a while."
     "Since I finished school. I worked for the Weekly World News in Florida for three years. Then got recruited to write these bios."
     This was the most I'd learned about him in three lunches. "My heartbreak. But the death is definitely too complicated to get into."
     I ate some of his phad thai and gave him some of my curry.
     "If that person hadn't died, would you have adopted Sandi's precepts, and promoted her?"
     I thought back to being fifteen, a period of life so heightened I wouldn't survive a reprise. "No way."
     "Then it's part of the story."
     I dropped my fork on my plate. "Look, this is ridiculous. Why would I tell you about it?"
     "What's wrong?"
     "This death is off the record."
     "Deaths are recorded."
     I looked into the green eyes of this untrustworthy person and suddenly wanted to scare him, although only Pablo knew this story, and even he hadn't heard the details. "But murder isn't always recorded." As soon as I said it, I knew I'd never get rid of Dale Ross, at least not until his two weeks passed. How sad and stupid to betray myself!
     This time he maintained his poker face, but there was no barring that gleam from his eye. His silence made me itch.
     "Well, somewhere between murder and accidental death. Like an aggravated accident, maybe?"
     He kept still. Not eating, not drinking his Thai iced tea, not smoking a cigarette, forcing me to say more.
     "Murder's too dramatic a word. It was just an accident. Really."
     His face stayed neutral, his eyes shiny.
     "Let's just forget it. I got to go. We're playing tonight. I have to get ready." As usual, I left Dale Ross in a hurry.
     I couldn't stand the city anymore, the buildings closing in on me, people living on top of each other. I drove my broken-down Rabbit through the clogged streets, out to the Sunset District with its dismal gray sky, and parked at San Francisco's Ocean Beach. It bore the same name as the neighborhood of my youth, but here the sand felt more like dirt and the cold waves, the ugly sky, even the open expanse of it, were cruel. It felt like the cramped city had trudged all the way to the Pacific Ocean, where it rolled over onto its back, exhausted, exposing its vulnerable belly of sand and seaweed, revealing that the flip side of the city was negative space, eternity with nothing to do.
     Then I remembered that nothing depressed me more than San Francisco's beaches, a fact I already knew. I'd only come here to torture myself.
     No, I'd come to let myself miss San Diego, for the first time in years. And to miss Sandi, whom I'd lost long ago.
     Eight hours later, I plugged in cords and tested microphones at Mick's Lounge on Van Ness. "Shit! You just lost me fifty bucks!" said Rodney, the guitarist, when I walked into the bar.
     "Shut up, man," the drummer hissed.
     They'd placed bets on if I'd show up. We just played for money, and weren't close friends. But one of them could have called in the five days since Sandi died.
     I drank a couple more shots than usual before performing, but we sounded fine. After playing "Honky Tonk Woman" about 500 times in my life, I'd have to concentrate to screw up. Mick's Lounge attracted its usual Friday night crowd of twenty-something consultants from the Midwest out for extra-light slumming, a sprinkling of college boys and their skinny half-dressed dates. We were playing "Bad to the Bone" when I saw Dale Ross standing at the bar, watching me. My hands moved automatically, but the rest of me froze. I saw myself from outside: playing in a hack band, approaching thirty, packaged for the evening in a short, tight black dress, performing songs I'd played hundreds of times for people who'd heard them hundreds of times. I thought about all the kids I hated in high school, where no one had challenged Pablo and me for school freak status, and imagined them reading Dale Ross' bio. All those bastards were probably lawyers and doctors and TV news personalities who'd snicker when they read about my boring cover band. I wished Sexchain could have held out at least until after the biography came out.
     I hoped Dale would leave without saying anything, but he stayed until closing time. "You're a good bass player," he said as I zipped up my case.
     "Thanks." I didn't look at him. He tried to carry my heavy amp to my car, but I gave him the bass. When I came back outside from collecting my sorely needed seventy-five bucks, Dale Ross stood on the curb. "You need a ride somewhere?" I asked.
     "If you don't mind."
     "Where you staying?"
      "The Abigail. You know where that is?"
     "Yeah. Nice hotel. Bad neighborhood." The thought of my empty apartment depressed me. I considered inviting Dale Ross over for a drink or a game of Scrabble or to watch a video or some other stupid late-night excuse for company. I couldn't think of how to phrase the invitation, so I decided to just drive him to my apartment without asking.
     "Is this the right way?" he asked as we drove into the Mission.
     "I don't think this is right. The Abigail is by the Civic Center."
     I ignored him and kept driving. We drove around my neighborhood for fifteen minutes, then found a parking space two blocks away, which was pretty good for San Francisco. "Grab my bass, will you?"
     He followed me inside, carrying my bass. I turned on the lights, and tried to see my studio apartment like it belonged to someone else. Pale blue walls stretched up from blond hardwood floors, white curlicues trimmed the edges where walls meets ceiling. I had only one room with minimal furniture -- just a futon for sitting by day and sleeping by night, a dresser, table and two wooden chairs. A half dozen amps in various states of repair dominated the room. I usually kept the place neater, but most people would think it looked OK.
     I watched Dale Ross examine the three huge paintings, abstract landscapes of the ocean, a desert, and some black woods, that nearly covered my walls. Something wasn't quite right with each landscape, they frightened people and were too big for my studio. A poster for a fashion show to raise money for AIDS research hung on the fourth wall, by my miniature kitchen. The organizers had coerced Pablo into modelling for it, and there he stood, his blond afro untamed, wearing tight, low-slung pants, a striped shirt, and sunglasses. The poster was only two years old, but Pablo looked the same as he had in high school.
     "That's my friend," I said, pointing to the framed poster.
     "Yeah. Pablo."
     "How'd you know that?"
     "We met."
     "No! He didn't tell me." I tried to cover my surprise by hunting for alcohol in the kitchen. "He didn't talk." I made sure it didn't sound like a question.
     I poured Dale Ross a glass of vermouth that someone once left at my house, although I suspected he didn't drink much. He probably didn't want to miss a word he could use against you. I sipped my vermouth, but it tasted horrible. I wondered if it could spoil.
     We sat on the futon when the awkwardness of standing, silent, grew too great. He probably thought I had something in mind, a confession or a seduction. I just didn't want to be alone, which might amount to the same thing.
     I thought of all the kiss-and-tell biographies I'd never read, imagined how mad the tattlers must be to talk in the first place. I thought about Sandi, who'd left me and Mom lonely and staggering under the debris of seventeen suicides. Why was her memory sacred?
     Why shouldn't I have twenty grand?
     "I'm tired," I said.
     Dale Ross nodded, completely flexible, biding his time. He could probably stay awake a week, without speed or even caffeine, it it meant a story and enough money.
     "I'm going to bed. Stand up so I can pull out the futon." He shouldn't let me tell him what to do, I thought. He should demand a ride to his hotel. But he moved to one of the chairs and sat there while I brushed my teeth and changed in the bathroom into the black slip I slept in. I got two pillows and some blankets out of the closet and lay down on the futon. I never bothered with sheets. "Could you get the light?" He obeyed, still not saying anything, then returned to the chair. I waited about ten minutes, to see if he'd leave or say something or what. "You can sleep on the futon, too."
     He went in the bathroom for a few minutes, took off his shoes, then laid down beside me. I handed him a pillow. "Good night," I said, my back to him.
     "Good night."
     In the morning, I signed something.

Chapter Seven

High school began dull and lonely. Sandi still went to Dana Junior High, so I had no one to talk to except Chance. Point Loma High brimmed with cliques, none of which liked me. I wished for exciting classes, like botany, or maybe science of natural disasters -- tidal waves, earthquakes, volcanoes. But standard high school fare filled my schedule: English, Biology, Math, Speech and PE.
     Pablo joined my speech class the second week of school, and riveted attention from the start. First, I noticed that hair. Platinum, kinky, and dense. Then I admired that clear skin, his lush mouth, and his nose, just crooked enough to be interesting. No one in Point Loma wore clothes like his. He came to school in tight narrow pants and pointy boots, and shirts that were either exceptionally snug or extra-flouncy, and little dark sunglasses. He usually wore headphones and carried a walkman and pretty much ignored everybody. Pablo didn't have friends either, but he didn't care.
     Our first assignment in speech class was to talk about someone we admired who influenced our lives. The first kid told us how an astronaut had inspired him to set his goals high. The second kid talked about her grandmother who sewed whole wardrobes out of old curtains during the Depression. The class yawned freely.
     Then Pablo sauntered up to the podium. He wore white hip huggers, white boots, a slinky pink, orange and white paisley shirt, and sunglasses. He carried a magazine. Instead of rushing through his notes, head down, like the other kids, he sneered at us and waited until everybody stopped whispering. "Adam Ant prevented me from spending my life as a celibate religious nut," Pablo announced. His voice sounded low and sexy, but carried to the back of the room. "I was living in a commune in Oregon, bowing before a crazy Indian with 97 Rolls Royces. And then one day a couple from New York moved out there with a suitcase full of magazines. And I discovered Adam Ant. I realized as long as Adam Ant trod the dark earth, I could never pledge myself to celibacy." He smirked, then ran his tongue over his lips. The kid to my right snickered, the boy to my left pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes. Miss Davis, the teacher, bit her lip like she was trying not to laugh. "You see," Pablo said, leaning forward on the podium confidentially, "the pickings weren't so good at Rajneeshpuram." My jaw dropped open, and I leaned forward, too. "Most of the men were over forty. Their energy," he emphasized the word, pausing a second to savor it, "wasn't as high as a younger guy's. And they squandered it on rising at dawn, doing dynamic meditation, then a day of farm work. Lots of facial hair, no fashion." He opened a magazine on the podium, and unfolded the centerfold -- a three page photo of Adam Ant. "We didn't get men like this at Rajneeshpuram." He draped the photo over the podium. Adam Ant wore one of his flouncy eighteenth century outfits, all ruffled shirt and velvet waistcoat, tight leather breeches and buckles. Wide stripes of war paint decorated his face. "I'm just going to pause so you can all feast on this gorgeous man."
     The boy next to me sprang to his feet. "Miss Davis, aren't you going to stop him? My Dad's going to send me to private school when he hears about this!"
     Everyone looked at Miss Davis, who laughed so hard tears rolled down her face. "A plus!" she cried when she could compose herself. "No one else held one person's attention! That was marvelous, Pablo!" The class dissolved into chaos. Pablo closed his magazine and slipped out the door, although the bell hadn't rung yet. I followed him, my heart pounding.
     He moved fast, but I caught up with him in the racquetball court, where he leaned against the wall, headphones in place. He didn't hear me behind him, or pretended he didn't. I tapped him on the shoulder but he didn't jump, just turned slowly and slid the earphones down a bit so he could still hear Adam Ant while listening to me. "My boyfriend lives in Rajneeshpuram," I said. "My ex-boyfriend, I guess."
     "Mine too."
     "Do you know Moonchild?"
     "No, Moonchild."
     "That's Moonchild's Indian name. Swami Prem Chandra. We all had to use Indian names. He was your boyfriend?"
     "Then you must be Solstice." He seemed so unsurprised, I suspected he knew who I was already.
     "He called you Solstice behind your back. More impressive. Freakier."
     "So you know him? Are you friends?"
     He looked straight at me and spoke in a mocking tone. "Chandra's my boyfriend now. Sorry, Solstice."
     "No! Moonchild's not gay!"
     "Fine with me. As long as Chandra is." I had an awful vision of them entwined together. The two of them would have so much hair! "You looked different than what he told me." He looked me up and down. I squirmed. "He said you wore heels and makeup and were pretty square."
     "He said that?"
     "Don't get upset. You don't look so square."
     "He said I was square?"
     "Yes. Now forget about it. You look OK."
     I leaned against a wall of the racquetball court. "When did he turn gay?"
     "People don't just 'turn gay!' It's more deep-seated than that."
     "Oh. Well, were you the first guy he was with?"
     Pablo half-smiled. "Didn't seem like it."
     "He never said anything about guys." I slid down the wall and sat on the cement.
     "Did he ever say anything about other girls?"
     I thought back. "Not really."
     "OK. So he's bi. I can live with that. Why are you sitting down there? Don't like gays? Can't take the news?"
     "I don't have anything against gay people."
     "Then I'm not blond."
     "I just miss my old boyfriend, OK?" I snapped. "Can I just sit here for one minute and miss him without you insulting me?"
     "OK. Go ahead and miss him." He shoved the headphones back over his ears and stomped off, leaving me in the cement, writing letters to Moonchild in my head. Dear Moonchild, I just started high school and met a guy here who says he's your boyfriend. No, too detached. Dear Moonchild, Why didn't you tell me you were gay? I thought I was your girlfriend! No, too accusing.
     Was I such a bad girlfriend that I'd turned Moonchild gay?
     Learning about Moonchild and Pablo disturbed me, but many worse things happened those first months at Point Loma High. Everything I did in high school was wrong, and I couldn't seem to care. No matter how I tried to solve problems in the math book, I wound up flipping the pages, forgetting to calculate, depressed that even if I solved the problem correctly, I'd have the same answer as twenty other kids that I didn't even like. I'd always loved to read, but nothing less than Odysseus getting torn apart by the harpies could have made me pay attention. High school had bigger stakes than junior high. Kids in junior high had boyfriends, but in high school they had sex with them. In junior high kids walked or rode their bikes, but suddenly half my classmates owned cars. The same social groups swelled, enormous, from cliques at two junior high schools. I didn't know what to do, so I did what the only kid as alone as me did: I went to the record store and bought an Adam and the Ants record.
     I listened to "Kings of the Wild Frontier" over and over, driving Sandi out of our shared bedroom holding her ears. I thought Pablo's secret hid in the groove of that record. How to rise above cliques, how to be unpopular and not care.
     After two weeks, Mom ruled that I could only listen to "Dirk Wears White Socks" once each day. "Look!" she said, thrusting a bleeding finger at me. "Those awful drums made me jump! The pizza cutter slipped!" I couldn't play my record while she was in the kitchen. "Why don't you buy a few more records, Lex? Just for variety." She smiled sweetly, as if the variety factor were for my sake, and gave me ten dollars.
     So I bought more Adam Ant, then a Bow Wow Wow record. The pounding, complex drums were similar, but Bow Wow Wow had something Adam Ant lacked: fifteen year-old Annabella Lwin, singing of sex in airplanes, sex with animals, sex on the Eiffel Tower. She posed nude on her album covers. Surely she had the coolest friends, and boyfriends that wouldn't chicken out and go holy on her like Chance did to me. I bought a black eyeliner and applied it thickly around my eyes like she did. I contemplated getting a mohawk. She was part Burmese, her hair and skin way darker than mine. I could never look so cool.
     While I forgot my dull troubles in music, Sandi developed a full-on chanting habit. Every night after finishing her homework, she spent an hour chanting Hare Krishna on some japa beads Latika sent her. She often fled our small room and my record player, to chant and sleep in our grandmother's quieter house.
     Mom made useless suggestions. "If you have to be religious, Sandi, why don't you study Theosophy? I never cared for it, but at least it didn't damage anyone in the family."
     "The Krishna religion is not damaging!" Sandi sniffed. "It's beautiful. You should give it a chance, Mom. Why won't you try chanting with me?"
     Nor did Mom's advice succeed with me. "If you have to listen to loud rock music, why not something meaningful, like the Beatles?"
     "Mom, that was ages ago."
     "It's still meaningful!"
     "Not to me."
     That stung her. They probably conceived me to the strains of "I Am the Walrus" or something silly like that.
     I tried to send psychic communications to Annabella Lwin, hoping she could somehow guide me. I pictured her amidst kids who competed for the weirdest hair, the fastest drumbeats, most spastic singing. They occupied abandoned buildings together with their drugs, tattoos, and torn clothes. London wasn't Point Loma, where the insipid sun shone daily, where school rooms half-emptied when the surf looked especially promising. My boring classmates wore polo shirts and Topsiders, organized mother/daughter fashion shows at the yacht club, took sailing lessons and attended pep rallies. Annabella had probably dropped out of high school ages ago.
     I started shopping at Saratoga Thrift Store, a used clothing store in a bungalow in Ocean Beach. Its three rooms overflowed with musty-smelling clothes. Old ladies in the neighborhood ran it, probably hitting up their friends for donations. I imagined these ancient women shuffling around their bedrooms, removing old treasures from the closet. They'd hold up that fifties sundress or party gown in front of their wrinkly bodies, eyeing the sad effect in the mirror. These immaculate old clothes would pile up on the unused guest bed, to be sent down the street, where I'd snatch them up for two dollars.
     One day as I tried on hats at Saratoga Thrift Store, I saw Pablo behind me in the mirror. "Not that one," he said, wrinkling his crooked nose. "Try the green one." I did as told, watching him in the mirror. "Perfect! I can always tell what kind of hat someone should wear just by looking at their head."
     "How about that red one over there?"
     "No. Don't even try it on."
     I didn't. "Shopping for anything special?" I asked.
     "I specialize in special. I only buy special." I looked him over in the mirror, at his orange and green flowered shirt, the tight black pants, the blond afro. "What do you think of that blue dress?"
     "Saggy baggy! What do you want with shapeless clothes?"
     "I don't know. They're comfortable."
     "Comfortable!" He threw up his hands. "Who ever got anywhere in life being comfortable!" Pablo helped me pick out a purple minidress, a tighter, shorter garment than anything in my closet, made from a weird, nappy material. "Wear that with the green hat. To school tomorrow. You'll look smashing."
     "I can't wear this to school."
     "You sorely need to take more fashion risks, Lex." He'd never called me by name before. He bought a purple shirt and said he'd wear it to school the next day and we'd match.
     I wore the tight purple dress and the green hat the next day. Usually no one paid attention to me in high school, but that outfit provoked stares. As I walked past a line of kids waiting to buy snacks from the outdoor window of the cafeteria, they began chanting together like they had a group mind. "Take off the hat, take off the hat!"
     "Mind your own business!" I growled.
     They snickered. "Take off the hat! Take off the hat!"
     Just then Pablo approached from the other direction, clutching his walkman, headphones buried in his afro, black sunglasses hiding his eyes. He kissed me on the lips in front of the whole line, slipped his arm through mine and whirled me back in the direction I'd come from. He turned the volume down on his walkman.
     "You look phenomenal, Lex."
     "Those kids were yelling at me."
     "People have absolutely no idea how entirely stupid they are. That, my friend, is what's wrong with this world."
     I still reeled from the kiss. "Where are we going?"
     "Away from this land of imbeciles. Don't tell me you usually spend the lunch hour on campus?" His lip curled with scorn.
     I didn't answer. Usually I hid in the library, or wandered by the music room to listen to the kids devoted enough to practice rather than eat. "There's nowhere interesting to go around here. Is there?"
     "I'll show you interesting." We walked through the shop buildings, past the tennis courts and faculty parking lot. Then we hit the sidewalk -- the free world. We turned right, walked two blocks, crossed busy Chatsworth Street, then entered a neighborhood of tightly packed trees, flowers spilling down slanted front yards. The tall houses stretched way back from the street, the giant dollhouses where I imagined our rich classmates living. But we turned down a dirt alley and Pablo pointed at a terra cotta colored, detached garage. "That's it."
     "That's what?"
     "That's where we're going."
     Pablo pulled a key ring out of his tight pants, and slipped around to the side of the garage facing the overgrown dollhouse. The backyard was as big as my apartment complex, so the house seemed far away, unrelated. Maybe far enough that the occupants had forgotten they had a garage, allowing Pablo to bring a locksmith, get a key made, and redecorate. He eased the door open and turned on a light. I hesitated. "Come on."
     The garage had no windows, so once we were inside with the door shut we could have been anywhere, confined in a box. Posters and fliers covered the walls, mostly of bands, I guessed, though I hadn't heard of many of them: X, Adam Ant, Black Flag, Minutemen, Bow Wow Wow, DOA, Flesheaters. A green couch heaped with blankets lay along one wall. A typewriter and unruly masses of papers sat on a table, and file cabinets, stereo, boxes of cassette tapes and records rested on the floor. It looked like it would smell bad inside, but instead it smelled vaguely like the Hare Krishna festival. Incense, I guessed.
     "Does someone live here?"
     "Yeah. My friend Cutter."
     "Do the people in the house know he lives here?"
     "Pablo laughed and took off his sunglasses. "I think they've noticed by now. Cutter's grandmother and aunt live in the house."
     "Why does Cutter live out here?"
     "Well, for years they told him if he didn't get a job, they'd kick him out of the house and make him live in the garage. If he dyed his hair again, they'd kick him out of the house and make him live in the garage. Etcetera. Well, they never made good on their threats, but Cutter got sick of hearing it. So one day he moved into the garage and now they have nothing left to threaten him with. In fact, the grandmother begs him to move back inside, but he won't. I think she's afraid someone will break into the house and try to murder her while she sleeps, and there will be no strapping young grandson to protect her."
     I perched on the edge of the couch -- Cutter's bed, apparently. It couldn't see clearly, even with the few lights on. I expected mice and spiders and roaches to slip out from beneath the couch to nip my ankles. "Does he go to our school?"
     "Cutter? No! He's older."
     "How old?"
     Pablo shrugged. "Twenty-one or twenty-two, I guess."
     "How do you know him?"
     "One of the rare times I got to go to Portland, which isn't very civilized, mind you, even less than San Diego. But I went to a record store there and they had Cutter's fanzine for sale. Fifty cents, I think it was, that changed my life. It's called 'Eat Me, Eat Me. Do I Have To? Do I Have To?' So, I bought it and he seemed like a bad cat so I wrote him and then we became penpals. I wrote an article for him about why people in communes listen to the worst music. And I wrote about my fantasy meeting with Adam Ant and he printed that, too. And then I moved here and it turns out he lives right by school. He knows how appalling Point Loma High is, so he gave me a key for whenever I need to escape. He went to Point Loma High for two years himself, before he dropped out."
     I'd never heard Pablo talk so much except in speech class. I wondered if we were becoming friends, but I still didn't trust him. "Where is he now?"
     My legs itched. Was it the purple dress or the couch? I stood up and looked at the posters. The Black Flag guys had lots of tattoos. The woman in X had the coolest hair, about ten different shades of blond, red, brown and black. "I like her hair."
     "I could fix yours like that."
     "I don't know."
     "Of course I could! I'm excellent with hair. I used to cut people's hair at Rajneeshpuram. Of course, they knew nothing about style and confined themselves to the dullest looks. But I could make you look fantastic, Lex."
     "Maybe sometime."
     "Hey, I don't offer my services to everyone."
     "I know," I said softly. "Thanks, Pablo." He looked appeased.
     He reached into a mini refrigerator beneath Cutter's desk and pulled out two cans of Coke. He handed one to me. "Cutter always keeps Coke in here for me. It wasn't allowed in Rajneeshpuram, and my mother still won't let it in the house. I can't drink enough these days. I think I've developed some kind of Coke deficiency after two years there." I didn't much like Coke, but drank half the can out of respect for Pablo.
     "Why'd you leave Rajneeshpuram?"
     He rolled his eyes. "My mother . . . " he began, "does some dumb things. The best I can figure is she slept with that Indian guy. The Bhagwan. Our guru," he said sarcastically. "And lots of other women there did, too. And they all loved him and wanted him so bad even though he was about a hundred years old, all wrinkles and hairy white beard. I guess Mom couldn't take the cat fights anymore. I mean, it was supposed to be a commune -- equality, free love, groovy vibrations. But Mom and these other cows fucked it up. All fighting for power. And power pretty much equalled who was fucking the Bhagwan. It got sick enough even she noticed. So we split."
     "Why did you come here?"
     "Oh, some sort of job that didn't pan out. I don't even remember." He fished a gold pocket watch out of his shirt pocket. "Time for speech class." He reached for my Coke. "I'll recycle this. Hey, aren't you going to finish it?" I shook my head and he gulped down the rest. "Come on," he bolted up from the couch. "Let's go."
     After that, Pablo and I spent our lunch hours together -- at Cutter's garage, walking the streets of Point Loma, eating rolled tacos from Cotija. I worried our friendship would end suddenly, that I couldn't keep Pablo entertained.
     Kids who'd never even looked at me had plenty to say about my new friend. "There's the faggot's girlfriend," they'd whisper as I passed in the hall. One rich girl asked, "Isn't Pablo gay? I mean, my friend saw him kiss you on the lips. Is he bi?" Once I got used to the attention, I preferred it to my former life of obscurity.
     Pablo attracted stares wherever he went. On the 35 bus downtown to the major thrift stores, sailors insulted him and his retorts made them wish they'd kept their mouths shut. Older women who looked like prostitutes loved him and always wanted to touch his hair.
     We liked the Disabled American Veterans thrift store best, but Amvets, St. Vincent Depaul and the Salvation Army were also worth visiting. Pablo decided I looked best in deep purple, all shades of green, yellow, and what he called cinnamon. It looked more like rust to me. He prescribed short skirts, tight tops, and funny old pointed toe shoes. He became outraged when I refused his suggestions, so I only argued in extreme cases. "No, no, no. No jumpsuits," I'd say, my eyes wide in fear as he held up a tight cinnamon suit with unsightly yellow flowers.
     "Lex, you must trust your fashion consultant."
     "Not the jumpsuit. Please just put it back on the rack."
     He beckoned with a long pale finger for me to come closer. I trudged toward him as though bewitched. "Now look in this mirror," he'd say, holding the jumpsuit in front of me. "Just look. Stunning." I'd start to see what Pablo saw in the mirror -- the foxy, audacious me just below the surface, dying to burst through and claim her glory. So I'd buy the jumpsuit, but when I got it home the magic evaporated. I'd hide it in the far corner of our closet. Sandi would glimpse a huge yellow flower and shriek. "Oh my God, Lex! What did that boy talk you into buying?"
     "Never mind."
     She'd ease it out of the closet. "A flowered jumpsuit! Oh my God! You're not really going to wear this, are you?"
     "Just put it away."
     "This is the funniest thing you've brought home yet!"
     "I think your friends look pretty funny in their orange robes and shaved heads!"
     She gave me a pitying look. "That's religion, Lex. This is a cry for help!" And she'd shriek and laugh and I'd have to wrestle the jumpsuit or other unfortunate purchase from her hands before she ran out and showed it to Mom.
     Chance brooded over my alliance with Pablo. I'd see him at school, eating lunch alone on one of the dented, salmon-colored benches that always seemed too small for high school students. I felt sorry for him, trying to balance an apple in one hand while holding Blavatsky's huge Isis Unveiled open with the other.
     But when he talked to me he usually said mean things. One day I showed up at the nursery in a mustard miniskirt and a purple halter top. "You always look like a whore out of some old James Bond movie," he growled while I watered plants. "Is that faggot pimping you out?"
     I turned the hose on him. He lunged at me, but Annabelle started toward us so I aimed the hose at some poinsettias we'd just got in for the holidays.
     Annabelle called me aside. "Lex, I'm happy to see you wearing so much purple these days. It was Madame Tingley's favorite color, you know. Very spiritual."
     "Yeah," I muttered. "I like it, too."
     She looked at me in a concerned way. "But I wonder about this need of yours to show off so much skin. I know you're fifteen now, and that's a difficult year. But, my dear," her voice dropped to a confidential whisper, "sometimes it's better to leave things to the imagination." She touched her white old head and nodded.
     "The imagination," I repeated. I hoped to hell that Chance hadn't heard what Annabelle said.
     "Yes, dear. The imagination." She patted my bare shoulder and hobbled off toward the pansies.
     So I saved the skimpier outfits for special occasions and avoided any more fashion tete a tetes with Annabelle.
     While Pablo made lots of innuendoes and jokes, he seldom talked directly about his sex life. I gathered he wasn't saving himself for Moonchild. When we'd go to Cutter's garage at lunch, some of Pablo's clothes usually lay about the floor. And sometimes Pablo borrowed my math book because he'd left his at Cutter's the night before. The clothes and the math book seemed too intimate to equal just friends.
     I was right about Pablo's relationship with Cutter, whom I still hadn't met. But I hadn't guessed about all the straight-appearing boys who'd dallied with Pablo.
     One day a piece of paper fell out of Pablo's notebook while we walked toward Cutter's garage at lunch. I picked up the note, which was written in big letters, like a child's hand. My curiosity wrestled my manners to the ground. I read it. "Meet me behind the racketball courts and you can suck me good. Burn this note or I'll kick you're ass fagot. BD."
     Pablo froze as I read his note, but then he tossed his afro and said, "Yeah. So?"
     "So nothing."
     We started walking down Chatsworth Street, cars roaring by. "He's on the football team. Can't spell but has a good ass."
     "The football team! But those people don't even talk to you."
     He smirked. "They talk in private. Oh, they talk."
     "How did you and this BD . . . find each other?"
     "In case you haven't noticed, I don't hide my preferences." I didn't say anything. "You wouldn't believe how popular I am in private." I couldn't think of a thing to say. "I've had half the football team in my mouth."
     "They're all gay?"
     "I don't care what they are. I'm not complaining." I felt sick. I'd spent every lunch break with Pablo for two months, and never seen an indication that any of these people even knew him. I hoped he was lying. "Don't look at me like that, Lex! Don't you dare feel sorry for me!" He looked so furious I thought he might slap me.
     "I'm not," I lied. "I'm not sorry for you. Why should I be? You have half the football team and I'm not seeing anyone at all."
     "The football team's not the half of it, baby. You wouldn't believe how many guys around here like dick. People you'd never dream." I didn't really want to know.
     The rest of that lunch period passed uncomfortably. But the next day Pablo didn't mention his conquests. Instead, he had a new subject: finding a guy for me. "Now you want a guy, right? Not a girl?" he asked as we sat on Cutter's bed
     "I don't think I want a girl. Why, do you think maybe I'm gay?" I asked in surprise. Was it possible I unconsciously preferred girls? Was that why I hung around with Pablo?
     "I don't believe in just assuming people are straight unless proven otherwise. But we'll look for a guy for you. OK?"
     "OK," I agreed, not sure I really liked this plan.
     "OK. So what do you like in a guy?"
     "I don't know."
     "Come on, Lex. I may be a lot of things, but I'm not a mind reader. This is your life. Your future. You've got to give me some input. Now what kind of guys have you liked in the past?"
     "Not many, I guess." Maybe I was gay! But I couldn't think of any girls I liked like that, either.
     "You are so difficult! We'll start with Moonchild then. What did you like about Moonchild?"
     "You were with him, too! You know his good points."
     "Yeah. He always swallowed like he enjoyed it. He kept himself very clean for a hippie boy."
     "Those weren't the reasons I was thinking of!"
     "My point exactly."
     "OK, OK. I liked his hair And his green eyes. And he was nice to me in that weird commune when Arrowroot was being a bitch."
     "I'm hearing good looks and kindness. That's kind of boring, Lex. Let's hear something juicier about you and Moonchild." He leaned forward, his blue eyes cold. I suddenly grasped that for all Pablo's loose talk, Moonchild had been special to him and he missed him sorely. Perhaps Pablo was even in love.
     "There's nothing that juicy," I admitted. "We kissed a lot. Touched each other."
     "God, Lex, you're blushing. I can feel it in the dark. Don't tell me. You're a virgin!" I looked at the dim floor. "I should have known!"
     "Why should you have known?"
     "Never mind. We have to do something about this."
     Pablo kept my virginal condition in mind everywhere we went. Downtown at the Disabled American Veterans thrift store, he pointed to a forty year-old Mexican guy who probably didn't even speak English. "You could get him," he whispered. "No one would ever know. In the parking lot, hmm?"
     I swatted Pablo with my purse, but that didn't stop him. He assessed every man as a candidate -- the stoned blond surfers sprawled on the beach in the late afternoon, two Arab guys who owned a convenience store, even a twelve year-old boy who lived in my apartment complex. He insisted it shouldn't be anyone at our school, anyone I knew, and no one circumstances would force me to see again. "It's not fun for girls the first time," Pablo explained. "It hurts. You'll bleed. It will probably be messy and embarrassing. You won't want someone you'll have to see around to remember you like that." I didn't need Pablo to point out sexual possibilities; I did that instinctively. But now with him egging me on, the possibility of physical contact seemed more real. "Cutter knows some people I can introduce you to. You might like them. But not till after you overcome your affliction."
     I missed Sandi, who mostly chanted in our room and corresponded with her Krishna penpals in Los Angeles. They'd sent me a couple of letters, too, but I hadn't answered. The Krishnas only believed in sex for procreation, so I couldn't discuss it with Sandi.
     "We could pay someone, and just be done with it."
     "Pay someone! I don't have to pay someone!"
     "But then it would be over. We wouldn't have to worry about it. It's exhausting." Pablo looked drained, but perhaps not on my account. "Don't be offended. I didn't mean to injure your little pride. If you'd feel better about it, we could probably get someone to pay you. Either way would provide anonymity." He shrugged like he didn't care about the subject.
     One day, after Pablo had been obsessed with my deflowering for almost a month, a cute dark guy walked into the nursery while I priced African violets. He stood just four or five inches taller than me, and when he leaned forward to touch the velvet leaves of the violets, his long hair almost brushed my shoulder. He looked sort of preppy in a blue button-down shirt, jeans and Topsiders. "What are these?"
     "African violets." A sign hung from the table the plants rested on: African violets -- $1.59.
     "The leaves are so soft and delicate. Like a woman's skin."
     I stifled a giggle. I'd have to remember that corny line for Pablo. "Uh huh." I kept pricing. Annabelle liked a price on every item, even with the sign hanging right there. Fewer disputes, she said, more harmony in the world.
     "I'm buying a gift for my sister. Aren't sisters the most wonderful people?" He looked at me with his big dark eyes.
     "Of course they are. You have sisters, don't you?"
     His eyes wandered down to the skin above my sleeveless pink paisley shirt, then back to my eyes. "What's a young girl like you doing working?"
     "I'm not that young." I'd only been working there about ten years!
     "How old are you?"
     "None of your business." If he hadn't been so good looking, his attention would have been creepy. But I liked those brown eyes looking me over as if I were special.
     "I forgot my manners," he said lightly. "Never ask a lady her age." I giggled like an idiot. "You have a lovely smile." He reached out and brushed my bare shoulder. "There's a ladybug on you." My whole arm tingled.
     "I don't see any ladybug."
     "It flew away." We stood looking at each other. "What do you do besides work? You're probably in school?" I nodded. "Hey, I know this is awful sudden, and I don't usually ask a woman out so fast, but would you go to dinner with me?"
     "I . . . I don't know. I guess so."
     "Oh, I'm doing this backwards. What's your name?"
     "I'm Eddie." He took my hand and held it for about thirty seconds, then reached in his pocket and took out a business card. "I don't want to pressure you, Lex. Why don't you call me?" I gulped. That sounded really scary.
     "OK." He smiled. "I have to run now." He started to turn away.
     "What about your sister?"
     "The violet for your sister?"
     "Oh yeah. Pick me out a good one. No, two good ones." He pulled a hundred dollar bill out of his wallet. "How much do I owe you?"
     I tried to swallow my bias against people who didn't like to choose their own plants. There's an intimacy between living things that share space, including between humans and African violets. Most people wouldn't tell the person at a pet shop or the humane society to just pick out a dog for them. But they constantly asked me to choose their plants, as if plants were nothing more than decorations.
     "You pay at the cashier." I handed him two plants, not the prettiest. Those I'd save for someone who cared.
     "Call me, Lex. Please." His voice sounded sincere. His eyes roved from my breasts to my knees.
     "OK. Bye."
     After he left, I examined his business card. It said Eddie Martinelli, and it had a PO Box and phone number. No street address. No mention of profession.
     I called Pablo that night and told him Eddie Martinelli wanted to take me to dinner. "No job title on the card? A hundred dollar bill? Probably a drug dealer."
     "You think so?"
     "It's probably OK. Just don't tell him where you live. And try not to go to his place, if you can avoid it. Probably people knocking on the door all night. You'll never take care of that problem of yours."
     "I'm not going to call him."
     "What if he's some weirdo murderer? He was kind of creepy."
     "What was so creepy about him?"
     "He kept looking in my eyes. He held my hand too long."
     "Those are signs, baby. Signs he wants you. And you're lucky to get them! Too often people's signs are unreadable. Nothing's better than a clearcut gesture that says 'I want you.'"
     "Well, he certainly gave me those," I admitted.
     "So call him."
     I didn't call him that night, or the next, though I thought about him all day in school. I tried to picture his hands inside my shirt, my pants, but that was as far as I could get in my mind.
     On Wednesday afternoon, Annabelle told me a man had come by the day before, looking for me. "Handsome man. Is he one of your teachers?"
     "No. Just a customer." I looked at my pricing gun. I felt my cheeks reddening.
     "He took quite an interest in your schedule and whereabouts, but I didn't tell him a thing. Isn't he a little old for you, Lex?"
     "I don't know. I don't know how old he is."
     "Does he know you're fifteen?" I shrugged and avoided her eyes. "You're at that difficult age, Lex. That hard-to-talk-to age. It's a shame. Because you know how I love my granddaughters." She'd become more sentimental in her old age. It made me feel guilty because I could never live up to her expectations. To start with, I had a sex drive. Madame Tingley tied children's hands at night so they couldn't masturbate. "He's twenty-five if he's a day," Annabelle said.
     "You think he's that old?"
     "Ask him. And tell him you're fifteen. Play fair."
     Eddie Martinelli came in that afternoon but we didn't talk about age. "You've forgotten me already," he sighed.
     "No. No I haven't."
     "You didn't call me." His voice dropped to a low, intimate tone. "Are you shy?" I nodded. "That's OK. I like shy girls." I felt my armpits dampening. "How about going to dinner with me Friday night?"
     Silence. "OK."
     He smiled. "Give me your address. I'll pick you up at eight."
     "Uh, I'd rather meet somewhere."
     "OK. Where?"
     "How about outside the Square Pan Pizza? On Newport?" Kids always hung around outside Square Pan, especially on Friday nights. I wouldn't look conspicuous.
     "You better give me your number. Just in case I'm delayed, which I'm sure won't happen, but just in case. I can't have a girl waiting for me on the street, and no way to reach her."
     This sounded sensible so I relented and gave him my number. After all, we were dating now.
     He left quickly and I realized Friday was just two days away. In fifty-two hours, I'd be standing outside Square Pan, waiting for my date. I couldn't keep my nerves to myself, so I approached Sandi where she leaned on the register. She held the Bhagavad Gita open in front of her, but stared into space. "Sandi, I just told that guy I'd go on a date with him." I could hardly say the words. "Friday!"
     She turned a beatific look on me. "Oh, Lex. You sound so anxious."
     "I'm scared to death!"
     She laughed a new laugh, pure like bells. It sounded affected. "You make life so hard on yourself."
     "Hey, I didn't make life!"
     She looked ageless -- a little blond kid and a wise old woman at the same time. A year ago she would have teased me and helped me figure out what to wear, but now her eyes shone serenely with phony answers. "You're out of balance, Lex. You need to step away from the physical plane, to experience the spiritual. Why don't you try chanting with me later?"
     Hearing about chanting at a time like this pissed me off. "God, Sandi, it's like they ate your brain along with the red stuff and the yellow stuff!"
     The angelic composure dissolved. "You just never want to give the world a chance to be a beautiful place, Lex. That's your problem." Her lips trembled. She dropped her eyes back to the Bhagavad Gita.
     "I'm ready for the world to be a beautiful place, believe me. I'm ready and waiting."
     "That's just it!" She slammed the book down on the counter as if it weren't holy. "You just wait. Well, the world will never be a beautiful place if we don't change our perception of it. That's why I'm reading these books and writing to Latika. I want to be happy in this world."
     The conversation had careened away from my date, and the knot in my stomach only grew tighter. "Couldn't you do this if you have to, but still be more like yourself?"
     "I'm becoming myself, Lex." Her eyes went clear and calm again. She picked up that book and began reading in earnest.
     After work, I called Pablo every half hour until he finally answered his phone around eight o'clock. "I'm going on a date with Eddie Martinelli Friday!"
     "Good, Lex. Where's he taking you?"
     "To dinner. I don't know where."
     "You should always find out."
     "I don't care! I'll be too nervous to eat."
     "No, silly. So you'll know what to wear."
     I moaned. "Oh, God, Pablo! What am I going to wear? I think I'll call it off."
     "Get a hold of yourself, Lex! We'll go shopping tomorrow. If you don't go out with Eddie Martinelli on Friday night, I'm never talking to you again!"
     "That's mean!"
     "After all I've done for you, Lex, you're not going to weasel out of sleeping with such a perfect candidate. Now, what to wear. The important thing is to look available enough that he'll try something, but not so available he knows for sure he has you."
     "Why not?" Maybe it would be a relief to just have sex as soon as he picked me up. Get through the anxiety and then, if I survived that, maybe I'd even get hungry and he could take me to dinner afterward.
     "Because then he has all the power in the world! You want him to be off balance, unsure. Then you can work him better."
     "I don't think I could work a drinking fountain right now."
     "Well, you better work his fountain Friday night or I'm never giving you advice again."
     "Never?" It didn't sound half bad.
     "Never. Now you just get a hold of yourself and don't do anything crazy like jumping out a window tonight, OK? I have to go. I have a date myself."
     I hung up the phone and wondered who Pablo's date was. Probably not Cutter, because they knew each other too well to call their escapades dates. Maybe he planned a clandestine rendezvous in a car or a bush with another football player. Pablo was sexually omnipotent, while I could only masturbate quietly in bed, holding my breath, when I thought Sandi slept.
     The next afternoon, Pablo and I rode the bus downtown to the Disabled American Veterans Store. We scoured the racks until Pablo found what he insisted was the perfect dress.
     "But it's white! I'll look like a virgin sacrifice!"
     "It's not white. It's antique."
     "Don't tell me white's not white!"
     Pablo sighed. "Girls are supposed to be good at fine distinctions in color. Girls' eyes are different than boys'. Now if even a boy like me can see this is antique, it's obviously not plain white. Use your eyes, Lex. Don't let your gender down."
     A boy like Pablo probably had girlier eyes than me. "You're making all that up!"
     "Hey, men are color blind ten times more often than women. I didn't make that up! I didn't make that happen!"
     The tight sheath dress ended right at my knee. I tried it on over my clothes. It felt a little too snug, but would fit perfectly without my skirt and shirt underneath. "Oh, what a pretty white dress!" the saleswoman said when I handed her three dollars.
     That night, disaster struck. I got my period.
     I wanted to cancel the date. Sex for the first time would be embarrassing enough without all this reject blood that had been building up in me for a month. No way would I drop my pants this weekend! But I couldn't summon the nerve to call Eddie Martinelli, and I had no convincing excuse.
     So Friday came, and the hours flew by, and at six o'clock I started getting ready. The white dress was impossible now. I'd run out of tampons and had to wear a pad, so that eliminated tight skirts. Sandi had gone to Annabelle's to chant and meditate, and even Mom had a dinner date. I missed their useless advice. It wouldn't have hurt to hear the world was actually a beautiful place. It was just in disguise, I guess.
     My nerves felt like they were screaming. I raided the refrigerator for relief and found two cans of Olympia. I knew it was a loser solution, but I turned on Bow Wow Wow and drank both beers and prayed I wouldn't keep having to pee all night.
     Beer loosened the knot considerably, and by seven o'clock I had the strength to look in my closet and try more outfits. I played the record again and felt OK for a few minutes. I finally settled on a pleated red skirt that ended just above my knees, and a fitted black blouse from the forties that buttoned down the back.
     I looked in the refrigerator, behind the baking soda and Cheese Whiz, but no more beer. I still had 45 minutes before the date. I went to the bathroom about five times, looked in the mirror, fluffed my hair. I picked up one of Sandi's books and chanted a few rounds of Hare Krishna, yelling so I could hear myself over Bow Wow Wow.
     Pablo said you should always arrive a few minutes late for a date so it looks like you had other things to do. He advised fifteen minutes, so your date is starting to wonder if maybe you won't show at all, and then when you do they're so incredibly relieved and grateful that you call the shots, baby. But I couldn't stand the suspense so I left at 7:45, walked too fast, and arrived outside Square Pan at five minutes before eight.
     I leaned against the front wall, trying to stay out of the street light. Salt air wafted up from the beach, only a block away. A few little boys skateboarded back and forth in front of the entrance. At the table just inside the window, a half dozen punk rockers slumped in their chairs over a half eaten pizza. I'd seen a couple of them at school, where we sometimes nodded at each other or said hi, just because so few freaks and outcasts attended Point Loma High. But I didn't really know them and I didn't want them to see me now.
     Apparently Eddie Martinelli knew the same dating tricks as Pablo, for I was starting to squirm when my date finally showed at 8:15. He had some kind of black sports car. It looked a bit flashy, but I knew nothing about cars and could only tell them apart by color. He parked right in front of Square Pan and ambled over to me. "You haven't been waiting long, have you, Lex?"
     "No. Just got here." He took my hand and kissed me on the cheek. I wanted to get in the car and drive away, not put on a show for the punks. I could feel them looking at my back.
     "You look beautiful."
     Eddie Martinelli wore a dark polo shirt and khaki pants. He looked pretty square, like he could use some fashion tips from Pablo. He hadn't scrimped on the aftershave, either. I'd have to roll down my car window or I might faint.
     He pulled me toward him again and kissed me lightly on the lips. "God, you really look beautiful." He guided me to the car, his hand on my back, and opened the passenger door. As I slid into the seat, I looked at Square Pan and saw six punks looking back.
     Eddie climbed into the driver's seat and slammed the door. When he turned on the ignition, Romeo Void's "Never Say Never" blasted through the speakers. He didn't wear a seatbelt.
     "I was thinking we could have a picnic," he said as we cruised up Voltaire Street in his smooth, quiet car.
     "A picnic?"
     "Yeah. Don't you like to be outside?"
     "Sure." I usually did, but even San Diego gets down to about fifty degrees on a January night.
     "Great." He smiled at me. "We'll stop and get some food, then we can go down to Shelter Island."
     We stopped at Trader Mort's, a place I'd always liked because the outside of the small store was carved like a Hawaiian tiki. Eddie bought slices of pepper beef and Swiss cheese from the deli, bread and potato chips and chocolate chip cookies, and peach wine coolers. He didn't consult me on the menu.
     The balding guy behind the register joked with Eddie about some girl they both knew. "And didn't I meet you before?" the salesguy asked, looking down at me for the first time. "You're Eddie's niece, right?" Eddie punched him in the arm and they laughed. He didn't introduce me.
     Back in the car, I asked Eddie how he knew that guy. "Just some clown from high school," he said. "He didn't get to you, did he?" His high school classmates were already balding! "You OK, Lex?"
     "Sure. I'm fine."
     Shelter Island wasn't really an island but a point of land where people launched boats and fished. It stretched against the bay for four miles, with grass, fire rings, a yacht club and some hotels. I always thought it boring with its narrow, dirty beach on the waveless bay. Eddie Martinelli had a blanket in the back seat. I wondered how many girls he'd asked out to dinner, only to set them up with a deli sandwich on a dark blanket.
     No one else sat on the grass. Eddie spread the blanket and unpacked dinner. "I come down here a lot," Eddie said as he peeled slices of pepper beef off the thick deli paper and spread them on the rye bread. "My family has three boats. I practically grew up on the water." He added Swiss cheese and a second slice of bread. "They have a huge house in La Playa." He handed me the sandwich.
     "Thanks." It weighed about a pound, and would never fit in my stomach between the knot and the butterflies. I took a little bite and tried to chew.
     "How's the sandwich?"
     "Good," I said as soon as I managed to swallow. I wondered if he'd put aftershave all over his body, if it would smell even stronger if he took his clothes off.
     "Do you like music?" He finished making his sandwich and bit off an enormous chunk.
     "What bands do you like?" he asked with his mouth full.
     "I like Bow Wow Wow. And Adam Ant."
     "Bow Wow Wow has that song . . . 'I Want Candy.' Good song."
     People always reduced them to that one catchy but banal song. "They have a lot more good songs than that! They just don't get played on the radio much."
     "Oh, how could I forget?" His hand crackled inside the paper bag, then he thrust a wine cooler at me. "Drink up."
     It tasted almost like Koolaid, and slid down my throat more easily than most alcohol. Eddie opened one for himself and gulped about half of it at once. "You know what I like about you?"
     "Most girls are so hung up on what a man does for a living. That's always the first thing they ask. All girls. Except you."
     "I hadn't really thought about it." I didn't think I should mention Pablo's drug dealer theory.
     "See what I mean? That's so beautiful. You can appreciate me for me." He finished off the other half of his sandwich with a second bite, talking while he chewed. "Another girl wanted to go out with me just because I play sax with the Plimsouls. Some kind of groupie fantasy, I guess."
     "Uh huh."
     "In high school, girls wanted to go out with me because my family is so rich. They always thought I'd take them out somewhere that cost lots of money, but I wouldn't. I wanted to know that they liked me." He opened a bag of potato chips and his crunching resounded across Shelter Island. "Want some chips?"
     "No thanks."
     "But see, Lex, this is me." He spread his hands. "I like to be outdoors. Just because I have a lot of money doesn't mean I have to be pretentious." He finished a wine cooler and opened a fresh one. "How you doing on that drink? You want another?"
     "In a couple of minutes." I'd put aside the sandwich after three bites and concentrated on the wine cooler, but its sweetness started to gag me.
     "So this was kind of a test, Lex. I'll admit it. I wanted to see if you'd still go out with me if we just had a picnic instead of going to an expensive restaurant. And you've passed the test really, really well."
     The darkness provided an intermediary zone between us and the rest of the world. It was easier to imagine being in his arms here than if we were looking at each other across a table in a restaurant. "Why did you think I'd think you had money? I mean, those African violets were on sale for $1.59 each. Two of those is not exactly a big purchase."
     He burst out laughing. "Lex, you're a funny little girl! Didn't you recognize my name?"
     "My family's famous in Point Loma. Everybody knows us. You know, Martinelli Shipyards. Martinelli Marine Supply. Our ties in Point Loma go back generations!"
     So did mine. "I've never been big on sailing. Could I have another of those wine coolers, please?"
     "Never big on sailing!" He twisted off the top of my drink. "You make me laugh, Lex. You know, humor is really an underrated quality in a girl. I mean, most guys think the top three traits a girl should have are good legs, long hair and big tits. Not necessarily in that order. But me, I think a sense of humor belongs right up there, too."
     I didn't like him testing me, and I had no idea what I'd tell Pablo, who would definitely not approve of giving up too much for a beach picnic. Still, I must be doing something right if I could keep this older guy entertained.
     "You want some cookies?"
     "No thanks."
     "You don't have much of an appetite."
     "These drinks are filling."
     He laughed again. "You're a regular comic!"
     He stuffed all our trash in the bag, then put the bag on the grass. "If you lie on your back, you can usually see lots of stars from here."
     That was flat out untrue. San Diego had way too many lights, so the sky never even looked fully dark. The darkest piece of sky I ever saw in San Diego stretched over the ocean. Lights filled the bay. An airplane roared overhead and I watched it dropping, dropping to the runway across the water. Eddie stretched out on his back. "Don't you want to lie down and look at the stars?"
     "I think I'll finish my drink. Anyway, I can see them fine if I just look up."
     "Let me have a sip of your drink."
     Reluctantly I handed it to him. I'd always thought people would choke to death if they drank laying flat on their backs, but he didn't even sputter. "Oops! I finished your drink! Now you'll have to lie down and look at the stars." I might as well get on with it. The alcohol made me dizzy anyway. I lay down on my back about two feet away from him. "Hey! What are you doing way over there? Come closer." Obediently I scooted closer to him, still leaving a foot between us. He slid closer so our shoulders touched. "You are a shy girl," he whispered just before turning and kissing me. "A beautiful, shy girl." His tongue tasted sweet and peppery. I wasn't sure if I liked it or not. At least I felt warmer with him pressed against me.
     He didn't wait long before his hands crept onto my breasts and down along my waist and hips. "You feel so good. I like you so much." He tried to slip a hand inside my blouse, but my top fitted too well and only his fingertips got in. "God, Lex, this shirt's like a chastity belt! It's driving me crazy!"
     "It buttons up the back," I breathed. He reached around me and fumbled with the buttons. "You did this on purpose, shy girl," he whispered. "I bet you love to drive men crazy." He kissed me harder and undid enough buttons so his hands could slide over my breasts and squeeze. He caught a nipple between a thumb and finger and I gasped. "You like that, huh?" He stuck his whole tongue in my mouth.
     His hands slid down my waist, then over my hips to the hem of my skirt, dodging underneath and heading back up my inner thigh. I remembered my period.
     "No!" I cried, pulling my mouth away from his tongue and trying, too late, to squeeze my legs together and lose his hand. He hit the pad. His hand flew away as if electro-shocked.
     "Lex! Why are you wearing that thing!"
     "Why do you think?!" I couldn't believe he asked me. He was certainly old enough to know.
     "I mean, why aren't you wearing a tampon? It's kind of weird, a girl going on a date, wearing one of those things."
     "I didn't have any," I muttered.
     "You can wear them, can't you?"
     "Uh huh."
     "What size tampon do you wear? I mean, I don't want to hurt you. Next time . . ." Did he think they came in numerical sizes or did he mean regular or super? Either way, I didn't answer. "Lex," he whispered, sensitive yet excited, "are you a virgin?"
     I turned my head away because I felt tears in my eyes. I remembered Pablo saying that loss of virginity is embarrassing, so pick someone you won't have to see twice. I'd blown it. I should have postponed our date until after my period.
     "You are a virgin, aren't you? You don't have to answer me. I know you are. It's OK." He turned my face toward him and kissed me. "I just wish I'd known up front. I could go slower."
     Like I was supposed to alert him at the nursery? Or perhaps while we dined on pepper beef sandwiches?
     "You've really left me in a state," he whispered. "Here, give me your hand." He picked up my poor limp hand and guided it to his crotch. "Feel that!" He put my palm over his hard-on like it was the hottest club in Los Angeles. "See what I mean? You really left me in a state. That's not good for a guy."
     Now, one of the things the crafty old nurse in my eighth grade sex education class had emphasized: Don't fall for that line. While a man may be frustrated that he doesn't get to climax, it does him absolutely no harm. The fox of a nurse had even implied it might do some good.
     Besides, I'd told him no and he hadn't listened. But I didn't want to be a prude. I could touch his dick. I'd touched lots of things before - picked fat worms off plants, hosed maggots out of garbage cans, cleaned up after a vacationing neighbor's cats. So after he'd unzipped his pants and pulled his pride out of his boxers, I let him put my hand on it. Not knowing what he expected of me, I petted it like a cat. He groaned. "Harder!" So I pushed my finger tips in pretty hard and he yelped. "What are you doing?" He put his hand over mine and wrapped the fingers around it. He squeezed my fingers and yanked back and forth over the surprisingly stretchy skin. He panted and bucked his hips. I wanted to pull my hand away, but he had it tight. He didn't let go until his dick started to quiver. Then his hand flew off in time for gobs of sticky stuff to ooze onto mine. I was dying to wipe my hand, but I didn't know if I should let go of his dick yet. After another minute he shoved my wrist away like my hand irritated him.
     "Oh, Lex, I can hardly wait till your . . . uh, you know, . . . is over.
     At this point I kind of hoped it would last a while.
     "Talk to me, Lex."
     I tried to think of a suitable topic of conversation but there wasn't one. "I don't have anything to say."
     He wiped off his dick with an edge of the blanket, although most of the stuff was drying on my hand. He tucked himself back into his underwear. His zipper sounded harsh and efficient in the night, and he moved brusquely, as though annoyed. We lay there for a few more minutes and I swear I did not see a single star.
     "I guess I better take you home."
     "OK." We folded up the blanket and threw the trash away. He took my crusty hand, then dropped it fast.
     "Here." He thrust the towel at me to wipe my hand but now that it had dried the stuff didn't come off so easily. I gave up and handed the blanket back. He didn't try to take my hand again.
     We drove back over the hill toward Ocean Beach in silence. Finally he asked, "How old are you, Lex?"
     I knew if I told him the truth he might be scared and then I'd be stuck with my virginity longer. "Fifteen."
     "Fifteen! My God, Lex! Do you know the trouble you could get a man into?"
     Looked to me like he'd been getting himself into it. "How old are you?"
     "Twenty-seven." Twenty-seven! I wondered if any of the stuck-up girls at school had managed to interest guys so much older.
     Eddie Martinelli pulled up in front of Square Pan Pizza and left the engine running. "So, when's a good time to see you again? In about three days? Or maybe four?" I felt relieved he wanted to see me again because I worried our first date had kind of been a flop.
     "Sure. But I can't stay out too late on a school night."
     "That's OK. We don't have to take long. I mean, even seeing you for a short time would be nice, Lex. Monday or Tuesday night?"
     "Sure. That would be fine."
     "Which is better?" he asked pointedly, that tinge of annoyance creeping back into his voice. "Or is that too soon?"
     "Oh! Tuesday should be good. Tuesday should be fine."
     "OK. I'll pick you up same time and place."
     "Are we going to have a picnic again?"
     "Uh, I'm eating with my family that night. So we'll have an after dinner date."
     "OK." He leaned over and kissed me and I got out of the car. I glanced into the window at Square Pan, and the punk guys still sat there. One of them nodded at me, a cute black-haired boy, but I just turned and walked up the hill toward home as fast as I could.
     Mom and Sandi weren't home yet. I went to the phone before even setting my purse down in the dark, empty apartment. I called Pablo, though there was as much chance of him being home on a Friday night as high school giving me time off for good behavior. But he answered on the second ring
     "Lex! Where are you calling from?"
     "I just got home. What are you doing at home Friday night?"
     "I haven't gone out yet. How come you're home already? It's not even 9:30!"
     "It's not?"
     "No. It's . . . 9:28."
     I'd only been with him an hour! "I don't know. I guess we were both ready to go home."
     "Well what?" I knew perfectly well what. I could hear him tapping his fingers on the phone. "No, we didn't do it. Not quite."
     "Oh, Lex! Did you wear the antique sheath? I would have bet my life the antique sheath could not fail."
     "No," I admitted.
     "I couldn't wear white tonight."
     "It's antique! We've been over that a hundred times."
     "I got my period, OK?" I blurted.
     "Oh, no! How did that happen?"
     "It just happens! Every month! Duh!"
     "Oh, Lex! How terrible."
     "It's not that terrible. I mean, I don't like it, but it happens to everyone."
     "Not to me."
     "You know what I mean."
     "You should get on The Pill. That regulates it."
     "I've never even had sex!"
     "You never will at this rate."
     "Yes I will! We're going out again Tuesday." I wished I'd let the neighbor's cat in so I'd have something to touch that wouldn't tell me what to do.
     "So tell me about this date. It sure was short. Didn't you just meet him at eight?"
     "We were supposed to meet at eight, but we didn't till 8:15."
     "Good girl. You took my advice." I let him think that. "Where did he take you for dinner?"
     "Shelter Island."
     "The Bali Hai?"
     "The Kona Kai Club?"
     "No. We had a picnic on the grass."
     "A picnic."
     "A picnic. Sandwiches, watermelon, cakes?"
     "Sandwiches, potato chips, wine coolers."
     "Wine coolers! My God, Lex! I hate to be the one to tell you, but you just went out with a tacky cheap bastard. I'm glad you didn't fuck him."
     "We're going out again Tuesday."
     "Don't do it."
     "But you're the one who's been pushing me on this virginity thing for weeks! What do you mean don't do it?"
     "Don't blame me you went out with a cheap bastard! I can only make suggestions. I've never even seen the guy! You got to use your own brain, girl."
     "He's not that bad."
     "Lex, a picnic in the woods in springtime, maybe pate and croissants, OK. Potato chips at Shelter Island in January, no way. Potato chips and wine coolers, I say hang him. What flavor of wine cooler, anyway?"
     "Oh God, Lex."
     "His family's rich."
     "Obviously they intend to stay that way."
     "So you think I should call him up and just cancel Tuesday?"
     "Are you supposed to meet him somewhere again?"
     "Yeah. Square Pan."
     "Don't call him. Stand him up. He'll get the message better that way. Anyway, I know you, Lex. You'll get on the phone and try to give him an excuse and he'll convince you in about ten seconds to keep the date. You're too pliable, Lex. You never want to let anyone down, so you follow any advice at all."
     "Mostly yours."
     "Hey, don't blame your judgment on me. But this is advice you better take. The golden advice, Lex. Drop this guy fast. You deserve better than potato chips."
     If I'd realized he spoke metaphorically, maybe I would have listened.

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