Alice in Neonland
There was little way to tell whether the young woman was actually listening to the customer, or simply placating her with smiles and nods. The retail shop was full of gaudy neon trinkets, picture frames, junk jewelry, oversized T’s with vaguely sexual innuendos, cheap plastic sunglasses. It was an aggressive explosion of color; an assault on good taste. The young woman pointed the customer to the back of the store with a frustratingly vague gesture and resumed staring vacantly at her phone. She stood in stark contrast to her surroundings, clad in dark, muted tones. She didn’t look like the type of person who’d set foot into a shop like this willingly.
Tracy bounced in, full of energy and charisma, looking to buy erotic straws for her bestie’s bachelorette party. They were going to Get. So. Wasted. Going to a drag show was such a clever idea, Tracy congratulated herself. So edgy, so risqué! She took a lap around the shop, but didn’t see what she was looking for immediately, so approached the shop girl.
“Hiii, there!” Tracy began, pushing her neon pink sunglasses on top of her head. She flashed her award winning smile and tucked an errant highlighted blonde lock behind her ear. The shop girl nodded her head almost imperceptibly without raising her eyes from her phone.
Tracy was annoyed, but she wasn’t going to allow this gloomy shop girl to dampen her spirits. She had a bachelorette party to plan. “Um, yeah. Hiii! I was looking for some…novelty straws…?”
The shop girl finally looked up from her phone. She had a strong jawline and an angular nose. Her hair was brown, but Tracy could tell that it was thick and wavy. If she let it down and blew it out, she could rock a super cute beachy moment, Tracy thought. Her eyes were small, but a splash of color on her lids could really make them pop. A little gloss on her lips, maybe a stronger brow to counterbalance the jawline, a little contouring on the nose - ”
“Lemme guess. Bachelorette party?” She asked, shocking Tracy out of her makeover reverie.
“Yeah! OMG how did you know?
“Wild guess,” She rolled her eyes.
The shop girl met her gaze so unironically and without malice that Tracy concluded she must be joking. Deciding she wanted to be in on the joke rather than the brunt of it, Tracy started laughing robustly, slapping the shop girl on the shoulder while quipping, “Oh aren’t you funny! I love the cynical, droll vibe you’ve got going on.”
The shop girl looked at her arm where she’d been slapped, then up at Tracy. For a split second, Tracy was sure the girl was going to end her. Unexpectedly, she put down her phone, stood from her stool, and walked from behind the counter.
“Go on,” She put a hand on the small of Tracy’s back, pushing her forward, “The crap you’re looking for is back there,” she finished, pointing to the back corner of the shop.
She proceeded to walk behind Tracy, touching the small of her back occasionally. The act struck Tracy as familiar, intimate; like they’d been girlfriends for years. Or maybe she was going to end her after all. Tracy nervously stopped mid-gait and turned, causing the shop girl to bump into her. Instead of taking a step back, she merely stood there, looking down at Tracy. Tracy noticed then how tall and svelte she was. Honestly, she had great bones. With some fashion and makeup help, she could be a real knockout.
“Back there,” the shop girl pointed, “In the corner. Behind that red curtain.”
“You’re uh, not going to murder me and harvest my organs, are you?” Tracy ventured, not entirely sure if she was joking.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, putting her hands on Tracy’s waist and spinning her toward the curtain. She gave her another little push, “I need to know your blood type first,” she couldn’t help smiling as she replied.
Tracy stepped through the red curtain and held it for the girl, who followed her in, pulling the curtain shut behind them. “Ha.Ha. You’re a laugh riot. You know - ” Tracy stopped short as she looked around. She was surrounded by a sundry of items: lingerie, erotic movies, blow up dolls, fur lined handcuffs, plastic toys, vibrating toys. Against the back wall there was a row of leather straps and devices, the purposes of which she couldn’t engender in her wildest fantasies. Her gaze inadvertently lingered there as the shop girl moved in closely behind her. She was so close that Tracy could feel her breath, warm on the back of her neck.
“Ah, so you’re interested in the bondage gear. Innnnteresting, indeed.”
Tracy spun around, “What? No! I don’t even know what that stuff is!”
The girl smiled blithely, “Anyway, If you have questions, feel free to ask.”
With that, she turned and left Tracy alone in the sex room behind the curtain. Tracy grabbed a handful of novelty straws and exited quickly. She made her way back to the counter, but the girl was with another customer. Tracy waited at a respectful distance while she rang the woman up. The woman was doing her best to make small talk while the shop girl smiled and nodded in her inoffensively disinterested manner.
Once the woman was gone, Tracy approached the counter and handed her the straws without making eye contact. She could feel her checks growing red, and she wasn’t exactly sure what was causing her to blush.
“So, that gonna do it for ya?”
Tracy nodded, pretending to be interested in the stack of books behind the counter.
The girl pressed her, “You’re sure you don’t have. Any questions? Nothing else I can. Assist you with?”
Tracy’s breath caught in her throat. She wasn’t gay. Sure, she didn’t have a boyfriend. Hadn’t had a boyfriend. In a while. She was busy with grad school and work and. She didn’t have to explain herself to anyone, she asserted. Was the shop girl hitting on her? No. That couldn’t be. She was messing with her. Tracy shook her head and averted her gaze, laughing nervously. Man, was she a dummy! Of course the unassuming shop girl who could secretly be a runway model was fucking with her. Tracy couldn’t make eye contact with her now. She felt hopelessly silly.
She continued to gaze at the pile of books behind the counter while fumbling for her wallet. Unexpectedly, her attention was arrested by what appeared to be a rather rare, hardbound edition of one of her favorite books, “Holly crap! What kind of edition of Alice in Wonderland is that? Is that yours?”
The girl smirked, “Yeah, that’s mine. She reached over and picked it up. I don’t know if it’s worth anything, but it’s the only one like it I've ever seen. Check this out!”
She held it so Tracy could admire the cover, “Alice in Wonderland. Right?” She then thumbed through the pages to about the midway point of the book and opened it to a red velour page. On the middle of the page, "The End " was written calligraphy. Tracy was perplexed. There was still half a book’s worth of pages remaining. On the following page, also red velour, something was written in the same fancy script, but Tracy couldn’t make it out.
“Watch this,” she said as she flipped the book upside down. As she did, Tracy could see that calligraphy on the second page, now right side up, also read, “The End.” Tracy gasped, to which the girl replied, “I know. Right?”
She flipped from the red velour page back to the first, then shut the book so that Tracy could admire the cover, “Through the Looking Glass!” Tracy exclaimed. “Wow. That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen! Where did you find it?”
The girl smiled and winked, “If I told ya, I’d have to kill ya.”
“Oh, so that’s how the organ harvesting comes into play!” Tracy quipped, and they both laughed.
“But, seriously, you’re into this kinda thing?” she raised an eyebrow, “I’m legit surprised.”
“Are you kidding me? It’s a literary classic. It’s like. It’s like Dracula.” Tracy ventured.
Intrigued, the girl encouraged, “Is that right? Explain.”
“Well, it’s like a story that has been retold, rewritten, and remade so many times in film and animation that everyone’s familiar with the tropes. So, if you ask someone if they’ve read Alice in Wonderland, they’ll usually say no, but I’ve seen this or that version of it. And then, if you ask them whether they know the story, they’re like, ‘ya, ya, the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat’, but that’s all they really know. The literary genius of it is completely lost on them. Same thing, only maybe worse, happens with Dracula. If you ask people if they’ve read it, they'll start rattling off tropes: vampires can’t go outside in daylight, hate garlic, can killed with wooden stakes. They sparkle.” She stopped to punctuate her point with an eye roll before continuing, “Very few people have actually read Dracula though. And, wow. It’s a shame because Bram Stoker was a massively gifted writer. His descriptive passages, the narrative. Just, so genius.”
Tracy stopped talking and realized the girl was gazing at her with an amused smile.
“Well, alright then. I’m impressed. It’s nice to meet you. Marianne,” she said while extending her hand.
Tracy smiled and welcomed the handshake, “It’s nice to meet you too, Marianne. I'm Tracy.”
The two young women stood there awkwardly holding hands, when suddenly the door opened. A tall, athletic woman with a commanding presence entered the room. She was swarthy and had a hip snappy walk. She sauntered over to Marianne and threw her arms around her neck, embracing her warmly before kissing her on the mouth. She glanced over at Tracy. Tracy panicked and started to walk off without the straws.
Much to her surprise, rather than mock or ignore her, Marianne smiled and introduced her, “Katherine, this is my new friend, Tracy. Tracy, Katherine.”
Tracy mumbled the world's most awkward greeting and forced a smile. She was dying of embarrassment and desperate to make her departure. She felt like an idiot. She wasn’t even sure why. She was just so. Uncomfortable.
Marianne nodded and said, “Right, well, like I said, the new shipment arrives later this afternoon. So, you could come back later today. Or tomorrow.”
Tracy felt her cheeks redden as she mumbled something about how that would be fine before turning and all but running from the shop.
Clearly perplexed, Katherine turned to Marianne and asked, “Ok, What. Was. That? Are you into basic blonde neon beaches now?” She poked Marianne in the stomach, causing her to giggle. “Huh? Should I be worried?” To which Marianne laughed and told her she was cray. Katherine persisted, “What did she want anyway? Oh wait - let me guess! She was shopping for a bachelorette party! Did she want straws shaped like male genitalia?” She made a grossed out face.
“Yuck. Right? You know I hate selling those. So dumb!” Marianne laughed.
The door opened and a family with a kid who wanted beach toys entered. Marianne sighed, rolled her eyes, donned her best customer service smile and escorted them to the family section.
Katherine winked and said, “I’ll be in the back. You know, getting inspiration.”
Marianne spent the rest of the day secretly hoping Tracy would return. She’d never met anyone as interested in classic literature as she was. Sure, Tracy was yet another neon wearing bleach blonde, but. Somehow, different. Compelling.
The day dragged on without Tracy’s return. Marianne sighed heavily and began closing up: she hated to admit that she was more than a little disappointed. As she was turning off the lights, she heard a tentative knock at the door.
She peaked through the door blinds and saw Tracy standing there, holding a stack of books. Marianne smiled and opened the door.