Hanna the anarchist punk stood in front of the smoked salmon, crossing and uncrossing her Doc Martens, making scuff marks on the floor, kicking herself in the ankle occasionally enough that it was no longer surprising or painful. How can there be so many different kinds of smoked salmon? she wondered. What about smoked salmon that costs 7.90 per 100g package is worth almost twice as much as smoked salmon that costs 3.65 per 100g package? With the 7.90 smoked salmon, there was sea salt, sure, but sea salt could not possibly account for such a radical difference in value.
She had begun scolding herself for thinking within the parameters of capitalism—it was all made up! The fact of the radical difference in value created the radical difference in value!—when an elderly man walked up beside her, the distance between them measurable in raised arm hairs. Immediately, she felt uncanny: people usually kept their distances, looping into centripetal avoidance when they saw her coming down the sidewalk, preferring to stand on the subway despite the free seat; more than once, she’d heard a concerned parent’s breathy whisper: ‘Let’s play “stay away from the scary lady”!’
The elderly man surveyed the salmon in solemnity. Finding herself holding her breath, clenching her jaw, incapable of movement, Hanna focused on the adjacent diversity of cream cheeses, arranged for ease of finding a lox pairing to suit seemingly any preference for taste, texture, and depth of denial about whether what one is eating is nutritious: plain cream cheese, reduced-fat cream cheese, fat-free cream cheese, whipped cream cheese, cream cheese with chive and onion, cream cheese with ‘garden vegetables,’ strawberry, pineapple. It was like she had gotten off the bus in a foreign country and forgotten everyone there would be speaking Portuguese.
The man tutted.
Oh, alright, she thought, a surge of bitter resentment bringing her faculties back with it. Her neck tattoo felt like it was on fire. Of course. What’ll it be? Innocently: Awful hot for so much black? Audaciously: Didn’t that hurt, right on your face? Wistfully: Such pretty skin?
‘No one in his right mind would pay 7.90 for a tiny bit of fish that isn’t even cooked,’ he said.
Hanna laughed. ‘You’re absolutely right,’ she said. A relief: you should know why you do things, she thought, and while she probably knew why she looked that way, it sounded kind of pathetic when she said it out loud. She never knew how to reply to those people; she usually either gaped in embarrassment or shouted obscenities at them.
In any case, the spell of the smoked salmon was broken. She saw Bon-Bon turn down the powdered soup aisle.
‘Jesus!’ he hissed, jumping when she touched one of the remaining spikes on the shoulder of his leather jacket. He finished slipping a king-size Kit-Kat down the front of his pants and jerked the jacket shut over his chest.
‘That’s going to melt,’ Hanna said. They were now walking to the beer aisle; she put two of the cheapest bottles in the pocket of her sweatshirt and hooked her fingers into a formation around four more, pinkies out, the bottle caps poking futilely into her calluses.
‘Goes to the same place,’ Bon-Bon replied. Trips to the supermarket were utilitarian; they were not about preserving treat-like states of sustenance or fantasizing a luxurious pescetarianism. The justification for the chocolate bar was that ease-of-theft and type-1 diabetes trumped ideological veganism. She would open the beer with a lighter and drink it warm.
The night before, Hanna had slept at 783, and not well. On top of her symbolically heavy-handed recurring dream, from which she would awake breathless and unable to go back to sleep, see: following paragraphs, the airy former piano factory was not so at nighttime. She and the other squatters slept on a series of mezzanine platforms constructed with varying degrees of stability; they got stuffy, and sometimes she would share with two or three people, all of whom having the same access to bathing facilities and rejection of chemical soaps as she did. She’d also had her boots stolen too many times to take them off, so foot sweat was compounded by a kick in the ankle not occasional enough to be unsurprising or unpainful.
Anyway, quickly, the dream: she was naked in a department store dressing room and surrounded by apparently pre-determined outfits; she knew she had to choose one to wear, but she felt that putting anything on would be too much of a commitment. All day in a skirt suit? Men’s shorts and a t-shirt? A bikini? It all seemed unfathomable, but so did the ripped, black clothes she had apparently taken off, faded and dirty in a pile under the bench.
She had begun to feel anxious, but when she tried she was unable, as you are, to move. That is, until she realized—and this realization was, despite the recurrences of the dream, very much shocking—that she was clean, not only in terms of her hygiene but also in terms of her body modification, i.e., she was dreaming she no longer had any. In the mirror she saw a nose free of rings, an ear lacking hardware, barbless nipples; her armpits smelled like, if not spring cotton, nothing. While sickly fluorescence highlighted her knee-surgery scar, cellulite, and crinkling around the eyes, all the skulls, slight misquotations, and jagged A’s encircled—they were gone. Also, everything was shaved.
Hanna went from feeling anxious to feeling disoriented, sad, and, partially, relieved. On the one hand, it felt like she had failed—like her strongly held convictions had been a big, cocky fish in the small pond of youth, and it had gotten so fat that it was now stuck there, the only thing keeping it alive some pathetic woman with a lot of tattoos pouring buckets of water on its gills. She’d suspected for a while that this would happen, but she’d hoped she’d end up being wrong—the kind of wrong only she would have to know about.
On the other, the life she had chosen, consciously and with both literal and metaphorical middle fingers to those who had warned her against it, didn’t feel as important as it once had. She had liked the tattoos, the piercings, but she had also started, if not to think they looked bad, then at least to try and imagine what she would look like without them. It was nice, after so much agency, to have things taken out of her hands, even if only in her subconscious; that’s why she’d gotten it all in the first place—tattoos were decisions you couldn’t change your mind about. Everyone had said the same things: no one would hire her, people wouldn’t take her seriously, when she was old it would all get muzzy and droop. The gravity of this reality hadn’t hit her until many years later, when no one would hire her, people didn’t take her seriously, and things had started to get muzzy and droop. This, she sometimes felt, was punishment for her faltering resolve: she didn’t believe in jobs; she didn’t believe in seriousness; she didn’t believe in looks. She shouldn’t be making secret trips to the job center or taking the barbell out from between her eyes. If she could truly stop caring, none of it would matter. The fact of the radical difference in value created the radical difference in value.
Thus confused, dream-Hanna noticed that the shaky lines on the knuckles of her left hand remained, and she smiled. This kind of tattoo she definitely believed in: a reminder, small but undeniable in its placement and permanence, of the way she had been once. Without it, the temptation to forget where you came from would be too great; it would be possible to deny her former convictions—and the truths they still held, the truths they definitely still held—altogether. Dream-Hanna was having her cake and rejecting the capitalist system that baked it, too: she could move to a quiet suburb, get a job, and dress only in skirt suits while still maintaining a vestige of what she felt was her integrity. She had done the lines herself, with a safety pin dipped in ink.
But then she felt a sharp, sudden stinging, and one by one they, too, began to slide into a pile-up above her little finger. They slipped down her pinkie, glided over its fingernail, and dripped into a puddle onto the ground. Just before waking, she peeled her bottom lip away from her teeth and found it no longer read, in uneven, angular letters: ‘CUNT’.
‘It seems you’ve made the better choice here,’ the elderly man said, nodding towards the beer waiting on the conveyor belt behind his single package of smoked salmon, 3.65. The sound of zippers and buckles clicking together approached, and Bon-Bon placed a tin of unsalted peanuts next to alcohol before continuing past Hanna and the man. ‘I’m going to wait outside,’ he said, miming a cigarette between two fingers.
Hanna, happy to not be asked if she was having a big party tonight?, feigned a brief absent-minded interest in the celebrity gossip magazines as the elderly man carefully searched his wallet for exact change. ‘Nope, not it, not it,’ he said, several times, until the cashier finally offered to find it for him. Across the store, the front door began to open and close, open and close, open and close.
The cashier rang up Hanna’s beer and peanuts and then looked up at her expectantly. When Hanna looked confused and then raised her eyebrows in a sort of what’re you looking at way, he nodded at her sweatshirt: the pocket was still weighted below her crotch. The cashier’s smile was tinged with a wary generosity; it knew, deep down, that prejudice is bad and could reason, besides, that people don’t steal like that.
‘Oh! Ha!’ Hanna said. She pulled out the two remaining bottles and set them on the conveyor belt. ‘I guess my alcoholism is turning me into a thief! Ha!’ The cashier smiled again, with feeling.
‘Cash or credit?’
She removed a damp clump of bills from her pocket and sent two coins falling to the floor. ‘Cash,’ she said, squatting, and she noticed the doors again: they continued to open and close, open and close.
She was putting the beer in her backpack, careful to keep the rag at the bottom covering the hole, when she realized. This was not unfamiliar, but still there was a small gasp, a dizzying surge of adrenaline. As she strode to the front of the store, customers who had been mostly preoccupied with selecting the best shopping cart or assessing an assemblage of on-sale potted plants paused and turned their attention towards the angry man with a lime Mohawk waving his arms around a stolidly immobile security guard.
‘Hey!’ Hanna said. ‘Hey! Hey!’ The doors opened and stayed that way.
‘Is he with you?’ the security guard asked, glancing around the hairstyle to look at her.
‘No,’ she said, scowling, with a bitterly sarcastic hand gesture towards her shaved head. ‘I’ve never seen this man before in my goddamned life.’
‘Alright,’ the security guard said, somewhat wearily. The three of them were taking up most of the space in the short passageway that connected the parking lot and grocery store; some customers had approached from the outside only to sense the aura of altercation and pivot right back towards their cars.
‘Let’s go to the back. Let’s let these people through,’ the security guard said. Two types of air rushed in through the doors as they opened and closed, opened and closed. Hanna’s scalp prickled. This was not unfamiliar, but still she was afraid.
‘Fuck you,’ Bon-Bon said. ‘You don’t—’
‘Actually, I’ll need to see ID,’ the security guard said, looking down at them as if they were children, though they were definitely older than he was. ‘If you don’t have it with you, I can call the police, and they’ll walk you home to get it.’
Hanna looked up at him; he was several inches taller and tens of pounds heavier. She spat on the ground between his boots and stomped on it.
‘I need to see ID,’ he said again, widening his stance. He rolled his eyes in a way that could be construed as just looking around. ‘If you don’t have it with you, I can call the police, and they will walk you home to get it.’
Hanna was about to run when an oppressive mock cheerfulness filled the entryway. ‘Well, if it isn’t ol’ Andy Wooten,’ the other security guard said. He crossed his arms and beamed at them. ‘That’s good work, Jeff, but you know, I don’t think we’ll need to see any ID this time. Me and Andy go way back, don’t we?’ He moved to put a sardonic hand on Bon-Bon’s shoulder before realizing it would probably not be wise to do so.
‘Ah, and the lovely Hanna,’ he continued. ‘Always a pleasure.’ He offered his elbow to her as if he were an escort; she scowled again and grunted, though her breath caught in her throat and it turned into a half-cough. The less experienced security guard turned to the more experienced one.
‘He won’t admit he’s got stuff,’ the less experienced security guard said. ‘I know he’s got it in the front of his pants, but he won’t get it out.’
The more experienced security guard looked at Bon-Bon with wide eyes. ‘Now, Andrew,’ he said, ‘is what the nice man’s saying true? Have you got something that doesn’t belong to you in the front of your pants? Or are you just happy to see me?’
Bon-Bon looked at Hanna; she remained still and frowning. He looked back at the security guards.
‘Fuck you,’ Bon-Bon said. ‘You can’t prove anything. Strip search me. Strip search me.’ He raised his arms in an impression of the Lord Jesus Christ, arching his back slightly, and a small manufactured edge appeared in a frayed hole at the top of his pants.
‘Uh huh,’ the more experienced security guard said. He walked forward and pulled at the package’s corner. ‘That’s awfully fishy.’ In the second before she regained her impudence, Hanna’s mouth opened in a small, surprised O.
‘You plannin’ a bagel brunch, Wooten? Gonna make some cros-teen-i?’
In the security guards’ small, beige office, it was revealed that Andrew Wooten had attempted to shoplift from this grocery store two additional times in the last nine months, making this, as was mentioned twice during the reading of the terms of his henceforth ban from Wonderfoods branch #1679, his ‘strike three’. As the less experienced security guard delineated the legal action that could result in Andrew Wooten’s failure to comply with these terms, the more experienced security guard broke off pieces of the Kit-Kat and sucked the chocolate off them. The smoked salmon, 7.90, sat on the desk and looked as if it were being interrogated. Hanna was also strongly encouraged to do her shopping elsewhere, though of course that did not mean she was not welcome to meet the more experienced security guard for a drink later. She avoided eye contact with Bon-Bon, picking at a hole in her jeans, fiddling with one of her earrings. She hadn’t eaten smoked salmon in years.
Outside, the sun was bright and the sky an incongruous blue. Bon-Bon and Hanna walked down the sidewalk away from the supermarket in silence, him smoking a cigarette, her taking periodic swigs from a beer.
‘Can you believe those ass-wipes?’ Bon-Bon asked, finally. He took a drag. ‘Fucking bullshit,’ he said, his voice deep and bloated with the inhale. Sweat was collecting under the straps of Hanna’s backpack. She nodded without looking at him.
After a few more minutes, they came upon several of their friends sitting in a circle at the edge of the park, and Bon-Bon started to relay what had happened to them. ‘Those ass-wipes!’ he said again. ‘Pigs in goddamned shit.’ Their friends shouted their agreement; several began talking over each other, loudly, telling their own stories of getting fucked by the system. Hanna wanted to say something, anything, that would add another injustice levied against them to the growing pile, but she could only think, over and over, ridiculously, that she hadn’t realized breaking the rules was allowed.
Lauren Oyler is a writer and editor from the United States and based in Berlin, Germany. Her work has been published on Gawker, Jezebel, Salon.com, and Dazed Digital, where she has a weekly literature column. For links and contact information, visit her website: http://laurenoyler.com
Banner image: ‘The Brouhers’ by Ric Bower