Julia woke with her head pounding, the smell of garbage stinging her nostrils The sun was so bright, and her normally soft featherbed felt rock hard, like pavement. She could hear people yelling, and many other other bustling sounds close by. This didn’t seem like her bedroom. She lifted a hand to shield her eyes, and discovered that she was, indeed, outside, apparently in some kind of alleyway. Sitting up, she felt a wave of nausea, but forced it back down. Julia had no idea where she was, nor how she got there. A moment flickered through her subconscious of a man promising to take her places, and was quickly washed away. She needed food, and a proper cup of tea. But where was she? Who could help her?
Voices sounded down the alley, echoing down to Julia, who heard their laughter and strange accents. What seemed like one second later they were standing in front of where she sat, dazed and confused. “Oh, girl,” one of them said. “I’ve had those nights. You okay, honey? That corset is to die for.”
Julia could hardly speak for a moment. These people were in clothing like she’d never seen: tight slacks with holes all over; strange metal bits protruding from shoes, shirts, and around their necks; and the hair! She didn’t know it was possible to have pink, purple, or green hair, let alone all those colors at once! One of them had on a shirt that said, “God Save the Queen,” but it didn’t look at all like the queen she knew personally. Not that she liked that queen, necessarily, but that’s beside the point.
She managed to stammer out, “Where am I? Wh-what year is it?”
They all burst into fits of laughter. “Ooooh, an accent; we’ve got ourselves a lady. But, yes, been there before,” said the one who first spoke; perhaps their leader? She was a mighty tall woman. “You’re in New York City, baby, and it’s 1980. Need some help?” She extends a hand down to Julia, who stands up and brushes off her skirt.
Another one of the group members whistles in appreciation. “That outfit is AMAZING. Fits you perfectly. Where’d you mop that from?”
Julia looked confused. “I’ve never mopped a floor in my life!”
The whole group laughs again. “Oh, this is gonna be fun,” says the leader, and takes Julia’s arm in hers. “Come on honey, let’s get out of this place.”
They traipse down the alley, Julia still totally out of it. “Who are you all? Why are you helping me?”
The leader laughed. “I’m Ari, and we’re a gang of misfits. Or miscreants. Or drag queens and punk kids. Whatever. We’re weirdos and outcasts and you clearly don’t fit in here either. Let’s get you some food and some new clothes. If you wanna hang out with us, you’ve gotta look the part.” Julia nodded in agreement, taking in these strange surroundings. The buildings were so high! The stagecoaches were small, and colorful, and releasing horrible gas into the air. The air itself was smokey and dense and full of so many strange smells. And the people! She’d never seen such a wide variety of people in her life. Everyone was wearing such interesting clothing. Her gang wasn’t alone in their odd dress, but she also saw men in newfangled suits, and women in oversized slacks. Their makeup was garish, so bright and generally unflattering. Who painted their lips neon orange? Why was their hair so big?
What was even more preposterous to her was the amount of people staring back at her. Clearly, she was dressed appropriately; what was everyone else’s problem?
Her head was a blur of color, sound, and noise when the gang dragged her into a dingy storefront. For a minute, she thought she’d passed out, as everything was now black. Then she realized it was just her surroundings: the entire store, and all the clothes in it, seemed to be black. And sharp. Every piece seemed to have something sharp sticking out of it. What was this place?
She sank down onto a velvet cushioned-chair, feeling sick, as the gang walked around, picking through piles of clothing, somehow not impaling themselves in the process. Someone, probably a worker, brought her a white, flexible cup full of a steaming hot, very black beverage. Julia sniffed it. It smelled like coffee, but stronger than any she’d ever had. “What is this?” she asked the worker. “It’s called a black eye. You look like you need a good punch.” Julia sipped, and nearly spit it out. The bitterness was overwhelming. And yet, she found herself taking another sip. Her mind was starting to feel less cloudy. The pounding in her head was receding, allowing the pounding of the music blasting in the store to take over. What a strange place she was in! How did she even get here? She took another sip. She remembered taking something, after following a man she barely knew, who’d offered her clues to a case she was working. She took another sip and tried to focus, and then Ari was in front of her, pulling her up and into a small room packed with clothing. The music was even louder in here, somehow. “Went to a party / I danced all night / I drank 16 beers and I started up a fight.” Ari’s voice boomed over the music. “Okay, listen. I love your corset. I love your style. But honey, it’s 1980, and we gotta get you looking better. I’ll undo this corset, and I’m gonna keep it for my troubles, because it is too GOOD and I’ll make it fierce. But let’s get you out of it and into the future.”
Ari began the intricate work of unlacing Julia’s corset. Julia attempted to grab her cup of coffee, but Ari slapped her wrist. “Keep standing straight, girl, or we’ll do some serious damage to yourself AND this boning, and that would be a damn tragedy.” A minute or so later, Julia was able to take the first deep, full breath she’d taken in what seemed like years.
“That’s right, girl, take some breaths. Damn you have a tiny waist! Gorgeous. Amazing figure. But I’m still gonna squeeze myself into this bitch; c’mon, help me out.” Ari turned around, spread eagle, hands on the wall. Julia picked up her corset and wrapped it around Ari. For such a large-framed person, Ari’s body was surprisingly adaptable. Julia’s strong, fully boned corset cinched Ari’s waist in at least 6”, giving her a divine hourglass figure, even though Ari was obviously struggling to breath. “Are you sure this isn’t too tight?” Julia asked repeatedly. “Bitch, keep going; lace me IN!” was Ari’s response. When Julia had tightened it as much as she dared, Ari stood up, wobbling slightly. She looked at herself in the small, grimy mirror, and squealed with delight. She ran out and slammed the door behind her, where Julia heard a cacophony of screams, laughter, squeals, and cries of “YES BITCH WORK!” as Ari showed off her fabulous new figure.
Finally alone, Julia took in the clothing around her. Most of it seemed much too large for her, but maybe “too big” was the style? She’d certainly seen women walking around in incorrectly sized clothing on the walk over here. She’d always been secretly thrilled by the idea of wearing slacks. She picked up a pair that looked to be made of leather and, contrary to a lot of her other options, guaranteed to be super tight. She pulled them up, inch by inch, marvelling that they were still more comfortable than a damn corset. She’d had to remove her bloomers and other layers of underclothes, and it was so amazing to look and see her legs. Just her legs, wrapped tightly in leather. She felt powerful. She looked amazing.
She threw on an oversized tunic and a shirt on top, imitating the layers she’d seen on the other gang members. The shirt was covered in pins. She took out the pins keeping her long curls in place on her head, shaking her curls loose. Half of them hung in her face. Perfect. She quietly stepped outside the dressing room, back to what appeared to be an accessories wall. Ari and the gang were having some kind of makeshift fashion exposition at the front of the store and didn’t glance back at her. She found a tube of lipstick, and started flipping through the accessories. She found a pair of studded gloves, a tight choker necklace with dangerously long spikes, and studded shoulder epaulets. Julia let out a squeal, and immediately strapped on the epaulets, pulled on the gloves, and secured the necklace. She opened the tube of lipstick, walked back into the dressing room, and put the inky black all over her lips. She was ready. Whatever this New York place was, it wasn’t ready for her.
She remembered her coffee, picked it up, and chugged the rest. She looked at her reflection and smiled. Yes, this was perfect. She’d fit right in now. The past is gone; let it be gone. She was going to live a new life, in a new time, with this new fun group of people who’d adopted her with no hesitations.
She heard Ari yell, “Girl are you DONE IN THERE YET?!” And Julia took that as her cue to walk out. She’d never been the most feminine person, and she certainly didn’t look feminine right now (to her own standards), yet she pounded her feet down in a powerful, confident strut she didn’t recognize as her own.
The whole gang gasped and started screaming. There were mixed cries of, “You look AMAZING!” “Holy shit, girl, IN.SAN.I.TY.” “How does her waist still look cinched in oversized clothing?!” But it all blurred together with the music in Julia’s mind as the memories came rushing back.
She’d been wanting an escape; desperate, yearning for an escape. She’d needed a new case; her chase of Carmen had been fruitless and depressing, and she’d needed something else. She’d never done well with boredom of any sort. She’d been drinking too much, pacing too much, smoking too many cigars and yelling profanities out her windows. She’d placed an ad in the paper for cases, any cases. She solved small crimes and mysteries; all petty, none interesting, most within two hours of receiving the case information. It was interminable. Until he showed up on her doorstep and promised to take her somewhere new; somewhere mysterious and strange. She’d followed him, because she was a little drunk. The alleyway was long and dark. The doorway was hidden, protected inside by guards who only let you in if you knew the password and slipped them money. They went down a series of labyrinthine hallways, and found themselves in a large room filled with all manner of soft furnishings; chairs, pillows, chaise lounges, mattresses, and they were all covered with people. She’d never done this before; didn’t know what she was doing until it was happening. “Relax,” he’d said. “New beginnings. I promise.”
Julia snapped back to the present, where the whole gang was fawning over her still. Except for Ari. Ari stood dangerously close to Julia’s face, and that’s when Julia recognized Ari’s eyes, grinning maliciously. Her head spun; she was going to vomit or faint. Ari leaned in closer, the glint growing stronger. “I promised, didn’t I?”
Julia threw her head back, and out of the corner of her eye, saw a woman in all red come into the shop. No. Not here, not now, not like this, she thought, as she felt herself falling backward into the darkness.
She awoke with a scream, half the den stirring, the other half too far gone to move. The man was gone. She felt horribly nauseous, and crawled to a nearby oversized vase to let it out. As she moved away, she heard a soft clink from her neck against the edge of the vase. She could already feel that she was back in her corset and dress (the lack of breathing room and the shuffling of skirts while crawling had been good indicators), so what the hell was this? She reached up and felt her neck, and pricked her finger. Spikes. She wiped off her mouth and a smear of black came with it. The lipstick. She still had the epaulets on, too. She couldn’t believe her eyes. Her head pounded. If she took more, would she travel back? Should she just go home and try to figure out who that man was? Should she ask around and try to talk to some of the more alert people in the room? What happens now?
Scent notes: The metallic, exciting swirl of a downtown city, with wisps of exhaust and hot concrete. Hot black tea and white amber bring a touch of old world class, and copal resin deepens