Claudia stuffed her black and white vinyl Adidas flight bag under a bar stool and made her way to the corner of the Wetlands main stage. Of course she wasn’t going to wave, she wasn’t even going to nod. But she wanted the residue of her hallway sex with Ruben to be their inside thing. Yet Ruben was fully ignoring her, really putting an effortless effort, it seemed, into confirming what she already knew: that she shouldn’t mistake Ruben for anything resembling a boyfriend. And yet, watching him tweak his set-up, laugh hard with his band mate, tear out a thrilling solo during which he jutted his hips, sneered, tossed his head and earned applause from the growing crowd as the veins in his neck popped, Claudia felt proud. Unable to hold back, she let herself picture them as a couple. Striding up Avenue A in tandem, passing a cigarette back and forth. Attending an opening at the Studio Museum of Harlem. At the baggage claim after a long return flight from Paris, a stunningly gorgeous baby on her hip, possibly named Djuna. Never ever lolling around on a Sunday reading the New York Review of Books and eating toasted bagels because fuck it – that shit was played. Claudia had seen the handful of ancient Kodachromes of her mother and father as newlyweds, a tan pair in tennis sweaters gunning for the Jewish Intellectual Good Life. She’d been raised in the mysterious aftermath of their joint swan dive, and knew that she would never marry well. Marrying well was a strategy instilled in eager daughters by their driven, practical mothers, and Claudia was a confirmed scrapper, not a desirable bride. At best, she would be a charity case for whatever summer associate or MBA candidate she could try for, scrambling for borrowed cocktail dresses.
A posse of gorgeous young women with big gold hoops and kohl-rimmed eyes threw daggers at Claudia. They’d probably been Tri-Delts at Spellman, but were lately emboldened by their kente-cloth head-wraps, motorcycle jackets, and the sustained, empowered rush that comes from getting ones law school applications in early. Still, Claudia shrank herself from the fray, moving further away from the bright stage until it became the size of a shoe-box, then a Hershey bar, and finally, a Pink Pearl eraser. She returned to the bar and took her place among the three other anonymous white girls, assuming a casual pose with good posture that would telegraph a kind of bad-ass dignity, as opposed to loneliness.
Claudia glanced at the door and considered her options. Past the mountainous bouncer who loomed in the vestibule of the club, she caught a glimpse of the dark, windswept Tribeca street. Ruben had her address and phone number, and Claudia wanted more than anything in the world to expect him. At the same time, she wanted to leave, to feel the rush of cold air off the Hudson, to stalk to the subway and make eye contact with the first hot guy with a knit beanie and headphones who landed across the aisle. But she didn’t want Ruben to go home with somebody else, and if he did, Claudia wasn’t sure which would be worse, Anonymous White Girl Number Two or Kente-Cloth Bitchrag, Esquire, so she had better stay lest he forget she existed.

No, fuck it, she decided, reaching under the bar for her flight bag, hung on the purse hook. I’m out. But her hand felt only hook. Ducking her head to examine the dark space where her bag should have been, she continued to grope around at nothing. Her bag was gone. Snatched. Jacked. Fuck me dead, she reflected, dropping her head into her hands to mourn her wallet, her keys, her Filofax, her makeup, and, as long as her head was bowed in misery, the possibility of ever actually having anybody. When she glanced up, she spotted the bag, darting in a flash of white through the dim club towards the door, in the grip of a fast-moving, skinny black girl with scrawny braids bouncing out from under a striped, pom-pommed acrylic ski hat.

“Here we go,” Claudia muttered as she slid from her barstool and hurried to the little thief’s side. “Excuse you, Miss Thing,” she declared, grabbing the strap of the stolen bag before the girl had reached the illuminated exit. “I think you have something of mine.”

The girl, who had drawn both peace and anarchy signs on her green army pants in Sharpie marker, and wore pink cat’s eye glasses and white shell-toes with fat laces, turned, eyes flashing. “Excuse you,” she replied, snatching the bag closer to her side. Then: “Claudia?”

Startled, Claudia scanned the girl’s face, and was shocked by its familiarity. “Ramona Parker?” she asked, incredulous, relaxing her grip on the bag strap long enough to allow the girl to yank it back. “What are you doing here?”

The Parkers had been Claudia and Phoebe’s neighbors, in the days when they’d lived together, with their mother, Edith. Mrs. Parker had earned her masters at Yale Drama, but in the absence of any game-changing roles had accepted an extended run as temp, with the occasional non-union commercial and off-off-off-Broadway play. Like Edith, Mrs. Parker had two kids from two dads, but rather than add yet another sticker to her doorbell, she’d given them all her maiden name. Darleen, a tough former girls’ varsity basketball player, was a grade ahead of Claudia, but the girls had never hung out in school. Instead, they’d acknowledged one another in the halls with a taciturn mutual respect born on the block, knowing better than to jeopardize their official social positions. Claudia felt a clutch of homesickness for the intimate universe of the Parker’s front stoop, Darleen shooting hoops with the boys in the lot across the street, Ramona letting Phoebe brush the turquoise hair of her My Little Pony.

“I’m writing an article for the school paper on the Ministry of JustUs,” Ramona explained, unsnapping the magnetic closure of her bag and displaying its contents to Claudia: a stapled, yellow paper bag from Tower Records, a thick key chain strung with squeezy-armed koala bears, a rolled up Seventeen magazine, a Nature’s Valley honey oats granola bar with one bar eaten, and a pair of Guatemalan fingerless gloves. “And this,” she added, plainly, “is my bag.” Ramona nodded at Claudia’s abandoned bar stool.

Claudia’s own Adidas bag was right where she left it, not on the purse hook under the bar, but wedged behind the metal legs of her stool. It might have been an unfamiliar sensation, the jolt of dismay, on the heels of an emphatic reaction, fueled by a low thrum of suggested violence, to something that hadn’t actually happened. But it wasn’t. As a result, Claudia was adept at shifting gears and saving face. “Great bag, isn’t it?” she remarked lightly, turning back to Ramona with a miserable smile and a mortified shrug. “Durable vinyl. Dirt wipes clean like that.”

“I guess,” Ramona said, edging towards the door.

“Did you get yours on Canal Street, too?” Claudia inquired gamely, as the younger girl fled.