The strangest thing was not that there were two naked men in the store, but that they didn’t know each other. Their paths had started miles apart (in Arizona and Massachusetts—but even that morning, in Pasadena and Westwood) and had climbed hills and sped down freeways to land them at Galco’s Old World Grocery.
First a word about the store. This much we can be sure of: It was a low-slung building with too-short shelves and too-wide aisles. The stock of the store did not fill the structure of the store. The lights were fluorescent. The tile was designed not to show stains, but did.
But there was some confusion about the name. The wooden sign swinging from the awning said Galco’s and promised a full deli. But the neon paint on the windows said, “The Soda Pop Stop: Every Beverage You Ever Wanted!” Despite the greater permanence of the wooden sign, evidence inside pointed toward the store being a soft drink depot: Coke and Pepsi in novelty glass bottles, cases of IBC and Jarritos, prune soda from Thailand.
This was good news—or at least it was relatively good news in a day full of bad news—for one of the men. Ordinarily Jeff Lindy, from Massachusetts originally, might have stood out slightly, just being white in a neighborhood that still mostly wasn’t. But today he was all skin: white in parts, freckled peach in others, dusky pink in a few. His stomach—not notable when contained in jeans, but significant when un-tethered—wobbled, and so did his lower lip. Although he must have had some memory of becoming naked, or at the very least of discovering that he was naked, he radiated complete surprise, as if with each excruciating second he realized his plight anew.
But a careful observer (which everyone in the store both was and wasn’t, not wanting to seem rude, not able to look away, not able to avoid focusing on certain things) would have noticed a flicker of relief cross his worried face when he saw the towers of bottles filled with high fructose corn syrup.
Arthur Miranda hadn’t given it a lot of thought, but he’d been hoping that Galco’s was still Galco’s. After leaving Tucson, he’d grown up less than a mile from here, and he had nearly forgotten memories of after-school salami, of a smiling man with an oily apron and an Italian accent.
Today, though, he just wanted to go somewhere he could be naked without getting arrested. Trader Joe’s and Food 4 Less seemed like places that had policies. In the Old World, he imagined, people worked things out.
Art was missing Jeff’s girth and panic. He wore a calculated expression of nonchalance, a silver chain bracelet and nothing else. Clothed, girls thought he must play guitar or write poetry. Naked, they would have thought of him as a boy. He had the small round butt of someone who flung himself off tire swings suspended over swimming holes. Parts of him were cinnamon, parts were creamy beige, parts were accent-wall brown.
Even before Art saw Jeff, when he saw the rows of cans and bottles—shiny, not an egg or fish or ear of corn in sight—he thought he should have brought his camera.
Jeff’s best friend in the dorms, a shy but opinionated sophomore named Keri Chang, had told him sororities were snobby. Frats were different, he told her. They’re dependent on each other, Keri had said, they can’t be that different. Lots of things that are different are dependent on each other, Jeff had argued, look at us.
The men of Delta Sig hadn’t seemed snobby, exactly, but they spoke of partying and of Their Parties (it was a verb, it was a proper noun) with such pride that it seemed a close—but fun-loving—cousin to snobbery. They gave him a bid and he pledged because, doubts or not, you couldn’t turn down the Best Parties In L.A., Especially Better Than Those Fuckheads At ’SC.
But after four nights of hazing that left him feeling like his brothers were grooming his liver for pâté, he’d been more than willing to accept the surprising advances of a senior named Zania Li who reminded him of a sexier, more outgoing Keri Chang; who lived in her own apartment all the way across town in Highland Park; who was not above sex on the first date if she thought a guy was really cute and they totally had a connection.
Although Art did not play the guitar or write poetry, he had, in the two months since school started, filled three sketchbooks, carved six linoleum blocks, developed 106 photos and set 117 lines of type. He was exhausted. This was not what he’d signed up for when he’d signed up for art school. He’d imagined late nights in the studio, yes, but punctuated with lazy hillside days smoking out and talking about Basquiat. Maybe an occasional bout of artist’s block, in reaction to which his professors and friends would be quietly awed.
He wanted depth and spontaneity, not bleary-eyed busywork. His friend Koon suggested transferring to CalArts, where, according to legend, there was a Human Sexuality class in which everyone was invited to masturbate together. That made Art think that maybe you didn’t need to pay $30,000 a year, or even $18,000, to be a Real Artist. You just needed to have an idea, and to be brave.
The “hiding from my frat brothers” thing had worked well. Zania had eyed him with sympathy: a man trapped by fate. He’d climbed into her car, which was sporty and low to the ground but beat-up, and they’d raced eastward, then northward and arrived at a heavily treed pocket of hillside. Even in the dark he could tell this part of the city was different. Breathtaking was a word that came to mind, in that he actually breathed deeper here, opened his eyes wider and let more colors come in. Night-black palm trees, neon orange graffiti.
He’d been alarmed when she started shooting up in front of him. Then she explained: diabetes. Type I, not the kind you got from being fat, she said. One might ask why she didn’t give herself insulin shots in the bathroom, but Jeff did not. Zania got naked in front of him, so it seemed only fair that he accept her other immodesties as part of the package.
She was all one color, a watery nonfat latte, a girl who sunbathed with her top off. In the morning, as he was lying beneath her patchwork quilt parsing the particularities and sub-clauses of “Bros before hoes,” she turned to him and said, I need orange juice. When he’d started to put his jeans on, she’d said, Now. Don’t call 911. Don’t put your fucking clothes on, just go or I will die and you’ll never get your dick sucked again.
It was one part performance art, one part social experiment. It was about How We Define What Is Natural In The Technological Age. It was about Tangible Versus Digital, and The Politeness Imperative, and Spontaneous Acts In Scripted Spaces.
Art was not sure what would come next. That was part of the point, he told himself, although it nagged at him a bit. Maybe he would go into another store wearing just one item of clothing and see how people reacted to that? To just a cowboy hat? Which he didn’t own. This project could get expensive.
Maybe he should get arrested, and document that. But his mother would never understand that going to jail for art was like going to jail for protesting apartheid—or at least it was different for going to jail for stealing a ’99 Honda Accord, which is what his brother had done.
But what came next was Jeff. A naked white guy holding a wallet and talking to the girl behind the counter. She looked like the kind of person who was not used to surprises and not looking for them, her jaw slammed into stunned horror.
Jeff was saying, Anything with sugar is fine. He was shaking too hard to do the most logical thing—as much as logic could still be said to apply—which would be to grab a six-pack of root beer, slam down a five and leave.
The girl was saying, Everything’s got sugar ‘cept the diet.
Eyes appeared along the cloudy strip of windows that circled the store. Jeff had almost made it out and was ready to streak back down the half block to Zania’s house when he saw them: three sets, two hazel and bushy-browed, one dark brown and almond-shaped.
It made perfect sense. In this day without sense, this clicked. What diabetic wouldn’t have juice or soda in her fridge? More to the point, maybe, what really hot senior would pick up a freshman pledge at a Delta Sig party and whisk him away for a very above-average blowjob for no good reason?
The only connection, he realized, was Delta Sig. Not the career-ish, networking kind of connections they promised during rush week, but a stifling invisible rope that meant you could not just leave without being properly humiliated. And Delta Sig must have connections to sororities too, to girls who didn’t pussy out of pranks. His bros had hoes at their disposal.
There was a rustle of noise with the faces. The trio pushed past the open door, a single unwieldy beast, and he heard one of the guys (he was pretty sure it was Alex Vitale) say, “Holy shit, there’s another naked dude in there!”
More than Art wanted to be an artist, more than he’d wanted anything in a long time, he wanted to help Jeff. This guy who was in Galco’s naked, not on purpose.
He had a flash of what Jeff might be like: kind, gullible. The sort of guy who would be perfectly content getting a decent job, marrying some nice girl and buying a house in he suburbs. All those things Art had learned to scorn. But instead of seeming clunky and pathetic, that life now seemed simple and more fulfilling than the edgiest video installation. At the very least, he thought he would like to have a beer with Jeff.
So he looked at the chuckling buffoons outside the window and he looked at Jeff (above the waist only) and said, I have a coat in my car.
The girl behind the counter was not going to help him, that much was clear to Jeff. Which left the other naked guy.
For the first few seconds, as the data of his nakedness registered, Jeff assumed he must be a victim of Delta Sig’s unrelenting nature as well. He didn’t remember Art from pledge class, but maybe he’d looked different with clothes on. Or maybe multiple frats were in on it.
But when he looked more closely (just at his face), he did not see a victim at all. Art looked a little nervous, maybe, but there was a daring confidence to him. Maybe people walked around naked in Highland Park. Maybe there was a contingent of nudists in these hills, people who said to hell with rules. Maybe he would follow Art there, to the one place you could be guaranteed not to be shamed for suddenly finding yourself without clothes.First, though, he would follow Art to his car. And so the two naked men who did not enter Galco’s and/or the Soda Pop Stop together left it together, bare skin and all ensuing flaws illuminated by the mid-morning sun. Each thinking about a somewhat different future. It was like they’d traded clothes. Sort of.