“You come from a family of addicts,” her mother warns her. Amy’s been slipping away to the alley behind their Chicago apartment for many more purposes than her mother knows. But her mother has just washed Amy’s favorite jacket, and behold! (oy!) found a soggy remnant of a cigarette stub in the pocket.
Amy the adult will hate cigarette smoking, although she will not be averse to inhaling a little weed now and again. As an 8-year-old, however, her main concern is simply for the safety of her secret stash of Camels hidden under a pile of abandoned Barbie dolls in her closet, cigarettes stolen from E.J. Korvettes, a mere three-block walk from most points of her limited universe.
Despite the confines of her narrow existence, Amy manages to do as she wishes; the secretness of it all, a thing she loves. She is an impetuous, strong-minded child who steals candy, cigarettes, pen knives, small toys — whatever she can easily slip inside her pockets and later stash in the several hiding places she’s discovered around their apartment and in the alley. She also loves to toss basketballs in the alley with some very adult butch women, a thing she will always love to do.
Now watching her mother’s face gradually go from bright red to pink, she understands her mother’s anger is already fading. Her mother is an intelligent woman with the long, slender fingers of a musician and a razor-sharp tongue, though her anger tends to flicker out nearly as fast as it flares; a woman who is as easily distracted by a bug on the wall as a cool fall breeze, or a memory that floats behind her eyes and lands squarely on the forefront of her mind.
Amy calls her parents Mitzi and Morris. Jewel, her sister, she calls Butt Face or sometimes just Butt.
At 13, Jewel weighs more than her mother, Mitzi. More than her father, Morris. She was named Jewel after Morris’ mother, a fact she will never forgive. In the dark shadows of their bedroom, Jewel has confided to Amy she would give up anything, anything at all except maybe food, to have a name like Susan or Linda, or even Babs.
Their father Morris’ addictions are Peppermint Schnapps, baseball, and sleeping on the couch in daylight hours. He works nights driving a cab and these are the only hours on the couch he has. Amy ignores him, ignores everything that doesn’t concern her, which of course is everyone and everything — perhaps the ‘things’ most of all. All the heavy furniture, doilies, old gray-and-white family pictures, silver candle sticks, hand-dipped Shabbat candles, buffet overflowing with Passover dishes, silver platters, stupid ceramic figurines — far too many to count — things which seem to Amy to be overtaking the house, crowding her out.
She will grow from a skinny, 8-year-old tomboy into a small-framed, femme woman, which to a 20-something Amy will mean she fusses with her hair and cares what she wears. Later, her femme identity will acquire more nuances — a certain fluid walk, talk, at times a stance with hands in pockets, as if fearful of what her hands might do if free. She will be attracted to women but there will also be two or three men in her life. She will consider herself a primarily woman-identified woman and (although not strictly) a monogamous person. When she is with women, she won’t think of men at all; then again, there will be a few men she sometimes thinks about, mainly Richard Gere types, i.e., handsome, sexy, and emotionally distant. This might apply to anyone to whom she will be attracted.
Amy the adult will be much like Amy the child, who is attracted to those things not easily within her reach. At eight, she has been shoplifting for over a year and is now quite skillful at it. And there are many stores within walking distance from her school in which to apply her natural aptitude. Amy goes to a public school close to a candy store, drug store, the A&P, and of course E.J. Korvettes.
Amy has always loved that store, maybe even more than Mitzi, and while Mitzi shops for Playtex bras on sale and discount shirts for the family, Amy lifts a set of press-on nails and a Swiss army knife look-alike and slips them into the pockets of her favorite jacket. With elastic around the bottom that hugs her slim hips, it sports a zipper instead of buttons and has two deep pockets both inside and outside. It is 100 percent a boy’s jacket, all the more reason it’s Amy’s favorite, an unconscious but wise choice of Mitzi’s, pulled from a Korvettes sale bin.
Heading home from their shopping trip, the air is brisk and the streets are filled with the woody smell of burnt leaves. Autumn is Amy’s favorite season. She is happy to be skipping through the fallen leaves alongside Mitzi, who swings her arms filled with bags of discounts; she is lighthearted and even cheerful, and then Mitzi announces Amy needs to start Hebrew school so when she reaches 13 she can be bas mitzvahed.
Amy couldn’t care less about being bas mitzvahed. She could care less about religion and even less about being Jewish, which in her 8-year-old opinion has some pretty stupid traditions. She’s been grounded more than once for putting meat silverware into the dairy drawer. She’s never tasted bacon or been allowed inside a McDonald’s, nor has she ever awoken to Hanukkah presents lying in sparkling splendor under a Christmas tree. Why does she need to be bas mitzvahed if she never intends to be Jewish? “Why can’t we be Catholic?” she asks Mitzi.
“You think that’s better? You think you can throw away your ancestry so easily? Well guess what? Guess where E.J. Korvettes gets its name? Take a guess.” Mitzi doesn’t wait for an answer. “Eleven Jewish Korean Vets,” she says, and smiles smugly.
“So?” Amy refuses to show it, but she is surprised. Surprised all the way down to the toes wiggling inside her scuffed-white Keds.
“So you love Korvettes,” says Mitzi. “And it’s Jewish.”
She will never go there again, she sulks, but her fingers are crossed. She has loved that store for as long as she can remember. Longer it seems to her than she’s loved Mitzi.
She would also rather eat bugs, eat dirt, do almost anything than go to Hebrew school. She bounces on the sidewalk, stamping the crisp leaves underfoot as she deftly skips over the cracks, and makes her plans. She’ll make jokes in class and not do her homework. She’ll go behind the temple and smoke Camels and get expelled.
By the time she has thought of all the plans she is able, they are home. Amy heads for the bedroom and plops down on her bed. She is thankfully alone, her sister somewhere else, likely stuffing her face. Her eyes close and behind her lids, she silently greets her friends, Sheri and Diane. She greets them silently because of course they have no need to speak — each knows what the other is thinking — and moments later the three do what they always do, which is to hold their thin arms straight out in front of them and take off out of Amy’s window and over her house with its rules about this and its rules about that. They easily navigate themselves above the tallest buildings, houses, parks and within minutes traverse the great expanse of Lake Michigan to the opposite shore where their hideout lies — a cool, craggy, magical cave, filled with Amy’s stolen loot: three Swiss Army knives; a small screwdriver set; a handheld, battery-run tape player; a collection of the Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Soldier Boy,” and of course, “Tonight’s the Night”); two packs of unfiltered Camels; a bag of richly colored glass and quartz marbles; and a cache of Hershey bars. A fine haul, they agree. They listen to the Shirelles while they smoke their Camels and fly in circles around the cave, joyful and buzzed, their gangly bodies free, replete with delicious grace.
Her imaginary adventures with Sheri and Diane will fade with time, almost certainly by the time she reaches the seventh grade, the beginning of her social anxieties. Looking back, Amy the adult will long to recapture the exhilaration of her youthful imagination. She will remember how her flying friends helped her endure a year of Hebrew school, and how she got out of going back for another year of Hebrew school by purposely flunking out, her (and their) best idea yet. She will also remember the lifting of items and hiding them in the alley behind their apartment building, events that will seem to be linked together in her mind as if they have melded into one. Other details, like the now defunct Korvettes department store she so adored and yet wished to disavow, will fade away, a fuzzy memory floating underneath the surface of her mind nearly full with the urgency of everyday things.
Her adult mind will work in a diffused, sometimes incoherent manner, leaving her to wonder exactly what those daily urgencies are. Other times, memories of the past will push up to the edges of her mind and present themselves with great clarity. Memories of being a wild little kid with a flat chest and long, stick-like legs, her childhood mind on the simplest things: not getting caught doing the things she loved, not getting lectured on the family’s addictions, and not having to be bas mitzvahed. Big deals to a kid, her adult self will suppose.
Her sister, Jewel, will go through the whole bas mitzvah thing, and in her 20s become a fearsome coke head. In her 30s, she will voluntarily enter rehab, and marry for the first time at age 40 to a divorced man who pays most of his commissions to child support for his three semi-grown kids.
But Amy the child has too many of her own devils to deal with to pay much attention to Jewel’s current addiction, which of course at 13 is food.
With no small amount of irony (which she will appreciate many years later), it is at Amy’s beloved, bedeviled Korvettes where she gets caught red-handed. In one deep pocket of her fall jacket is a twenty-dollar bill, stolen from her mother’s purse, and in another, a thimble and a pair of sewing shears lifted from Notions. Moving onto Records, she has just placed her hand on a tape by The Supremes, when a tall, prickly-faced boy suddenly grabs her by the jacket sleeve and drags her into the aisle.
“You’re dead meat. I gotta take you to the office now. You know what that means?”
Amy could guess. A picture of fat Butt Face Jewel laughing at her, of Morris and Mitzi yelling at her and maybe grounding her for life, flashes through her brain. She tries thinking of something to say, anything at all, only to discover her brain has stopped working and is trembling like the rest of her, making her tremble all the more.
The boy can see her skinny legs shaking in her pedal pushers. By God, she is one of the scrawniest human beings he’s ever seen. This is his first job, his first promotion from cashier to security one week ago today, and he takes it all very seriously. Serious enough to grab an 8-year-old by the britches and haul her skinny ass to the Security Room. If need be, he’ll carry her there.
Later in life, when her girlfriend stuns her with her sexual prowess, Amy will be shocked to realize she can still be surprised. She will have become a woman who considers herself a person no longer able to be surprised by much in life, who can count on one hand the times she was ever surprised. The day she got busted in the Record department, the day she found out she could hate something she also loved, the first time she made love to a woman and discovered there was no turning back. She will be able to add to her list this woman who gives her an orgasm so fierce her legs shake afterwards for hours. A little like her 8-year-old legs now dangling from a chair in the Security Room as she waits for Mitzi to arrive.
“There are two things I can’t stand: a sneak and a thief,” says Mitzi. Heading home, Amy stepping on the cracks (break your mother’s back), Mitzi so angry she is nearly running. She tosses out question after question. “Don’t we give you all you need? What am I going to do with you? What? How am I going to tell your father? Where did you get twenty dollars anyway? And why would you steal if you could buy it?” Amy doesn’t know, doesn’t know, doesn’t know. Perhaps she will never know.
Not even when she turns 30 and goes into a year of costly therapy will she receive an answer to these questions. Perhaps if the therapist were to tell her stealing was an act of self-love, a way of giving yourself something you want for the pure pleasure of taking it, she might believe it. But the therapist will be a pretty Jewish woman with intelligent brown eyes and big hoop earrings who will invite her out for a drink after their fifth session. A woman more interested in getting into her pants than her brain. Not that Amy won’t be aware.
Amy will be aware of many things during her short year of therapy. Among other painful memories, she will recall she had few real friends before college and ponder the reasons. She may have been a skinny teenager, but if her lovers were any judge, she was definitely not ugly. And she was sometimes entertaining, wasn’t she? Or adventurous at least. Why was it so hard to make friends?
Was she too eager? she will wonder, or too standoffish? Did she reek of desperation, or don’t-come-near-me? High school was the worst of all. She was a good student when she put her mind to it, which was not often. And there was that confusion about friendships and loyalties, and about boys, and girls who didn’t like her clothes, or her sense of humor, or her boastful stories of getting high smoking weed behind the gym during football games with her boyfriend, whomever that was, depending on the day, the month, the year. At least the boys liked her well enough.
In primary school, she will tell the therapist, she had yet to fall in love, although she certainly had her share of crushes — with a tough boy in the seventh grade who bragged he stole cars, with Sally Metzger, a girl in her third-grade class who already had budding, young breasts, and of course, with all of the butch women with whom she played basketball.
One of the butch women in particular, she will remember, was maybe 15 or 16, a lot younger than the rest. She was a tall young woman who gelled her barber-trimmed jet-black hair up into short, sharp spikes. Amy will recall how she was unable to look away from her beautiful milky skin, intense, dark eyes, and those powerfully built arms of hers, so easily able to smack the ball out of Amy’s tiny child hands that were working so hard on mastering the fine points of a defensive slide. She often dreamt of those arms encircling her, pulling her up against the woman’s strong, lean body … Ah, Tara, she will think, her nipples suddenly standing at attention.
Then in her freshman year at college, she will admit to the therapist, she had fallen in love with her roommate’s boyfriend. She was able to set all thoughts of Tara aside, and in fact all thoughts of women were put into a box and locked in a drawer as the intensity of this boy’s emerald eyes sent chills down her spine.
How confusing life is, Amy will think at 8, and then 18, and then one day realize she had experienced herself throughout the decades without noting or observing them, until here she was, a woman in therapy, a woman who perhaps had yet to accept who she was — though even that wasn’t clear — but when it came right down to it, age didn’t seem to matter at all. You could be any age and still be confused.
Then other days, she will see things quite clearly. On these days she will see, for instance, the therapist’s ethics really do stink. But Amy’s attraction to her will be as powerful and mystifying to her as the itch to steal, an itch that thus far as an adult, she will have scratched only once or twice (when the mood and an irresistible occasion coincided), leaving her bewildered and frustrated that her principles aren’t stronger.
The therapist will want to dig into Amy’s past as a way to explain where she is today (which is where? Still anxious, still moody, not exactly happy with herself?). But Amy will spend most of her time in therapy avoiding the subject. Sick of the sound of her own whiny voice, she will be unable to think of anything about her family that could possibly be relevant.
“Let me decide what’s relevant,” the therapist will tell her.
Towards the end of her time in therapy, Amy will come to the conclusion something is sorely missing. Longing for something she can’t quite place, she will eventually find it in Neiman Marcus.
She will catch a young woman’s eye as the woman picks up a T-shirt and begins to walk towards the dressing room. The woman’s furtive glances, the way she holds herself, as if ready to run — Amy will know instinctively the woman has no intention of buying the shirt. She will wait until, sure enough, the woman slips the thin T-shirt easily into a deep pocket of her jacket and soon after exits the store, Amy a few steps behind her. It will become the beginning of their relationship, a story Amy will tell to the therapist, if for no other reason than to watch her discomfort, which Amy will feel the therapist richly deserves.
The therapist will take her to the opera and to plays — always tragedies — and afterwards, to some hip after-theater restaurant where the therapist will seem to always run into one of her self-important friends. But the sex is phenomenal, and Amy will be loath to give it up, perhaps because she and new girlfriend are not yet having sex — the new girlfriend’s idea. She’s old-fashioned, or so she says. Actually it will be because she prefers not to compete. The girlfriend will be a non-confrontational pacifist through and through, from her clumsy square-toed shoes to her flowing, ash-blonde ponytail. And anyway, the girlfriend will know, a little wanting can go a long way.
Amy will spend most of her time with the girlfriend in the mall shoplifting, an activity akin to the thrill of the hunt. The chase and kill will be what it’s all about for them both. For Amy, it will also call up her days dribbling a basketball across the alley, dodging Tara and the onslaught of her large butch friends ready and willing to steal it away from her small, nimble hands. To Amy and the girlfriend, the ‘chase and the kill’ will not be mere code words, but as exhilarating and satisfying as the most outstanding sex between them might be.
Then while in Lord & Taylor one afternoon, the girlfriend will be playing the chaser asking to see the earrings behind the locked case as Amy meanwhile expertly kills several pair of gold earrings from the counter and slips them into her pocket. It will be a neat little job, one they are quite satisfied with, but as they exit the store, an inner alarm will suddenly go off inside the girlfriend’s head.
“Toss ’em,” the girlfriend will whisper fiercely, and Amy will ditch the earrings as fast as she can as two security guards approach.
One of the security guards will be a hefty woman with small black hairs poking out of a mole on her cheek. “Up against the wall,” the guard will growl with her tough-as-gristle voice.
As the woman pats her down, Amy will shudder inside. This will be no small pocked-faced boy grabbing her by the scruff of her collar.
The girlfriend will admit to Amy she was plenty scared, but also excited. Amy will understand. It will be this sort of moment that she has dreaded and thrilled to most of her life.
“But mostly dread, you know?”
The girlfriend will know. It’s the reason, she will tell Amy, that she wears her hair in a ponytail: to affect a look of innocence. “But not foolproof, eh?” she will smile. Her smile is a bit sideways, Amy will notice. Very sexy.
Amy will soon stop dating her therapist and start dating the girlfriend exclusively. But for now, Amy will be happy with things as they are. And at the moment they are: the therapist, the girlfriend, and Amy sitting on Amy’s couch getting stoned, listening to Melissa Etheridge burn down the house.
The cannabis is prime, and Amy’s head will already have begun to feel like it’s underwater, when she will think maybe she should quit the therapist once and for all, an idea that will feel like a grand revelation. That, or perhaps there is potential here for a threesome.
The therapist will be under the impression it is simply Amy’s addictive nature which prevents her from leaving her. In fact, she will be counting on it.
Amy will think, it’s like that old joke about the woman who goes to her psychiatrist, who tells her, “My dear, you’ve got a chicken on your head.”
“Have you heard this one?” she will ask them both.
The therapist will shrug, affecting a look of mild boredom, for surely it will not have been her idea that the girlfriend join them.
The girlfriend, on the other hand, will smile her sexy sideways smile. “Hit me, babe,” she will say, the girlfriend’s uncharacteristic use of the word ‘babe’ sending a chill down Amy’s spine.
At that moment, Amy will see that in a rough sort of way, the girlfriend is quite attractive; feature for feature, maybe even more attractive than the therapist. The girlfriend is what the therapist calls ‘soft butch,’ a category in which the therapist lumps all the quiet or non-aggressive types who aren’t femmes. But Amy won’t care what the therapist calls her, she’s got two girlfriends now (if she counts the therapist), and a year ago she had none.
“So the woman says to the psychiatrist, ‘Yes, I know there’s a chicken on my head.’
‘My dear, why not simply remove it?’ the psychiatrist asks.
‘Well I would,’ says the woman,’” (and here, Amy will pause for affect) “‘but I need the eggs.’”
The therapist will arch one humorless, crescent-shaped brow, suggesting volumes — irony, smugness, disdain.
While the girlfriend smiles. “Love it!” she will say, and wink at Amy, a powerful suggestion to Amy’s roiling mind that will conjure the twinkling lights of Christmas.
The girlfriend will soon walk into a barbershop and watch as the barber cuts off her ponytail in two quick snips. “Ah, just as well,” the girlfriend will sigh, watching mounds of ash-blonde hair cascade to the floor. She’s pressed her luck long enough.
Amy will hate the girlfriend’s haircut, loathing the understanding their shoplifting days are over, days for which Amy will already be pining. If only she didn’t adore the girlfriend’s smile, her sense of humor, the simple, not-so-simple fact the girlfriend really gets her. Well, she will just have to get over her, Amy will brood. She will simply not call her, not even accept a date for coffee. Not even if begging is involved, not even if the girlfriend promises new thrills, or even a promise of the best sex ever. That’s that, Amy will think, no matter what eggs she offers.
But of course, her fingers will be crossed.
Now, her fingers are itching, itching to play ball. Leaning on the window sill (grounded for life), supported by her elbows, her face in her hands, she looks out on the alley where Tara and her butch women are dribbling a basketball up and back the long stretch of concrete.
Mitzi is in the kitchen, the smell of chicken fat drifting through the crowded apartment. Morris is sprawled on the couch, one arm slung over his tired gray-green eyes, a half-full glass of Schnapps within reach on the coffee table. He leaves the television on, blaring out the news of the day, Amy’s heart thumping as she is half expecting to hear about herself getting caught at Korvettes on news. Oh, but to forget all that and feel the leather of the ball between her hands, the shouts of the women, and the sweet smell of their sweat all around her. What she wouldn’t give to be down in the alley now, Tara’s gruff, eager voice calling her: Over here little Highflier, over here!