I shook the can of red spray paint as hard as I could, loving the rattle of the thing inside, whatever it was. There was no chance at all anyone would hear it, after all. Not at two a.m. in Gregory’s Creek, Iowa.
Baby teeth. That was what they said, my friends at the Educational Facility in Saint Louis. They put baby teeth inside cans of spray paint, to make them rattle and stir the pigment into the medium.
There was a unit in art class, sophomore year at EF 865A, when we’d gotten to use spray paint to create tags on the gym wall. Something about self-expression and reclaiming urban art.
Most of the girls had chosen pinks and purples. My friend Jen had managed to make her chosen ‘street’ name, Jbabe, look like a unicorn.
I had picked black and red, and for some reason when my friends giggled about the baby teeth it had made me shudder, though nothing at all usually can get to me that way. I had chosen a street name that played on my real first name and invoked the goddess of victory, as well as a more famous legacy: Dominike.
We had called each other by our street names for a few days. ‘Jbabe’ had admitted my tag was hands-down the best in the class. The teacher, Mrs. Baskin, tried not to play favorites, but I’d been able to tell she agreed with Jen.
I flexed my arm as I shook the paint can, looking around and pretending to myself that I didn’t feel the slightest nervousness, here behind town hall. I had the red in my hand. The black sat on the ground next to my foot.
I had practiced my tag on paper many times over the intervening three years. Just that morning, in the waiting room at the New Modesty office, as I’d sat forever while the town’s one NM counselor met with young woman after young woman, I’d made three of them in my journal.
Thinking of it, still shaking the can, I felt the same heat come into my face that I’d felt that morning. When I had at last sat before Mrs. Coleman, the New Modesty counselor, she’d taken the journal from me and opened it.
Stupid. I’d somehow forgotten, in the waiting area, the reason I had the journal at all.
The heat in my face brought more heat, burning in my chest. I’d come here, sneaking out of my dorm down the backstairs and out the fire exit whose alarm I had disabled, because I didn’t want to think about that shit.
I raised the can and started to paint my signature flaming D. The night was so dark I could barely make out where I sprayed. I had to trust my hand to know how to make the confident strokes I remembered from art class.
Self-expression. I had to admit Mrs. Baskin had a point. This felt more like an expression of who Nikki Alvarez was than anything she had actually written in that journal, or said to the New Modesty counselor. Dominike, the girl who planned to win.
I lost myself in the work. I intended it as an act of defiance, a ‘fuck you’ to Gregory’s Creek and the New Modesty and the guys who made me feel like I hadn’t gotten the memo about how I should be so grateful they’d chosen me for a date.
I gritted my teeth a little as I finished the red curve of the D and moved to the O, succumbing to the memory of what had happened a few hours ago, after a ‘romantic’ dinner at Gregory’s Creek’s only real restaurant.
“I like you a lot, Nikki,” Chris Johnson said, after kissing me goodnight at the dormitory door. “If it’s alright, I’d like you to think about letting me register us as a couple, after our next date.”
I felt my face get hot, cursing the fate that had given me a Latin name, and Latin blood, but not the real Latin complexion, dark enough to hide a blush. Chris had a well-muscled body from his construction job. He treated me nicely on our dates, but…
No—not with Chris Johnson. Not just because he had decided he ‘liked’ me.
“No, thanks,” I said, even though Mrs. Coleman had made it very clear that the New Modesty authority would have to reconsider my status unless I found a guy to register with in the next thirty days. “I’ll… I’ll see you around.”
I thrust the memory away, let the flow of the paint take over. I moved to the M, concentrating on getting just the arc that would suggest the fire I felt inside. For a moment, I felt like I’d managed to fly away from the New Modesty bullshit on a cloud of aerosol color.
That was when I heard the siren, behind me in the parking lot.
“You’ve got a choice to make,” Mrs. Coleman said when they got me out of the holding cell where I had spent what remained of the night, and marched me into the interview room. “After you clean the paint off town hall, which you’re going to do today…”
My face didn’t need any urging from my brain to transform itself into a sullen scowl. I felt the resentment all over my body.
“I encouraged Mr. Johnson to pursue his relationship with you,” she said, her voice dripping with disappointment. “Now I hear you turned him down when he offered to register as a couple. And then you decided to vandalize town property.”
“But… I don’t have to have…” I couldn’t say it: I couldn’t say sex. Not to Mrs. Coleman. I had made a decision back in wellness class at the EF that I would wait to think about all that until I really felt ready. I’d accepted the offer from New Modesty thinking that all the stuff about courtship in the contract—all the safeguards about consent—meant that I would get to take my time and find the right guy.
But after going on ten first dates I hadn’t found the right guy. Then Chris Johnson had seemed, on our first date, worth kissing, mostly because I’d wanted to feel his ropy arms around me. He’d taken that the wrong way, though—my letting him kiss me, and maybe the way I’d let myself yield to that kiss, cling to those broad shoulders.
“No,” Mrs. Coleman said, “you don’t have to have sexual relations unless you choose to. Even after you register, you can accept your suitor’s discipline and then unregister, rather than have sex with him. But I’m going to be frank with you, Dominique. In my estimation you have the challenge many very attractive young women have. You place too much value on your good looks.”
My lips parted, but no sound came out. If I thought my face had gotten hot before, that blush couldn’t have held a candle to this one. I felt my neck go scarlet.
Mrs. Coleman continued, “I think you could have been happy here, but I don’t have much doubt as to which of the choices you’ll pick. Thankfully, I have a feeling you’re going to find it a different sort of experience than you might think—you might even come to consider it educational.”
My jaw dropped even further at the middle-aged woman’s mysterious words, and her icy, almost mocking tone made my pulse jump in my neck. “What? What… choice do you mean?”
Mrs. Coleman smiled, but the expression seemed so lacking in warmth that it made me chew my cheek in anxiety—the option she seemed to think I’d want to take suddenly seemed less attractive even before I had any idea what it might involve.
“You can accept a discipline session from me here at the police station—” she began, but I cut her off, my cheeks burning anew as my eyes strayed to the horrible wooden paddle that hung on the wall of the interview room.
Fucking New Modesty and its ‘traditional family values.’
“Hard pass,” I said, trying to sound like a woman in charge of her destiny though I knew I was anything but that.
The smile on Mrs. Coleman’s face didn’t waver. “Or you can leave town with a bus ticket anywhere you want, no questions asked…”
With a major effort of will, I kept my face from crumpling and my chest from sobbing at that thought. No money, no skills—and no jobs, now, outside of corporate-subsidized towns and corporate developments in the cities. I’d chosen the New Modesty as the best of the options available to an attractive eighteen-year-old just coming out of an urban EF. If I left Gregory’s Creek that way, with nothing but my bus fare, the best I could hope for was near-slavery in a very different kind of company town, with no prospect at all of a better life.
“Or you can join another Selecta program—an urban one,” Mrs. Coleman finished.
I knew that Selecta Corporation ran the New Modesty, and provided the subsidy I’d gotten since moving to Gregory’s Creek, but only in a vague way, since the point of NM seemed to involve communities living within its pattern having as much autonomy as possible. Selecta itself belonged to that other world, the world of the rich that I’d glimpsed sometimes through the windows of the school buses that took us on field trips to museums and concerts downtown.
“What’s the program?” I asked, now trying not to sound too eager.
The Selecta Arrangements representative met me at the bus station in downtown Chicago. “Dominique?” she asked, looking up from a tablet that apparently had a picture of me on it, then down again to double check.
I took a deep breath, searching for the strength to seem extroverted, which I most certainly am not, and thrust out my hand with as big a smile as I could manage. “Nikki,” I said.
“I’m Grace Newell,” she said, shaking my hand without enthusiasm. “You can call me Mrs. Newell.”
I did my best to keep the smile on my face. “Okay.”
Even the word okay seemed to make this woman judge-y; her eyes narrowed as if I’d already committed an offense against her dignity.
I swallowed hard. Mrs. Newell had started talking rapidly as she took charge of my roller suitcase and guided me toward her car, parked in a space marked Selecta, right in front of the bus terminal. I saw a couple of the other bus passengers looking at me as the middle-aged woman opened the car door for me: one of them, a woman about my age, looked envious, but the other, a man of about Mrs. Newell’s age, shook his head, his eyes narrow.
He knows, I thought with a burning flow of heat to my face. He knows why I came to the city, and what’s expected of me.
When Mrs. Coleman had registered me for the program, after my humiliating hour spent scouring the paint off Gregory’s Creek town hall, I’d gained access to the online forums for Selecta Arrangements girls. From what I’d read, glued to my phone on the journey from Gregory’s Creek to Chicago, the assumption was that you had sex with your sponsor. More, that sponsors—especially luxury sponsors—expected to have their every preference honored in the bedroom.
But despite the skepticism of many posters, a subset of Selecta Arrangements girls maintained with great ferocity that platonic arrangements were not just possible but attainable as long as a girl remained patient, and above all adjusted her expectations. Luxury platonic sponsors, some girls said, did exist.
I would find one, I told myself, half-listening to Mrs. Newell as she told me we would go to my apartment, and then my job at a bakery just down the block from it.
“You start work tomorrow,” she said, with a finality that suggested she knew well, and disapproved greatly, that New Modesty girls didn’t have to work.
What a fucking trap that was, I thought as I looked out at all the shininess of the downtown streets, the stores and the restaurants and the well-dressed people. No work, and lots of spending money—but absolutely nowhere to spend it, in any town with Creek or Corners in its name.
“Dominique, are you listening?” Mrs. Newell asked sharply.
I sat up, looking over at her, cheeks hot again as I struggled to put my best foot forward. “Yes!” I said. “I start work tomorrow.” With a supreme effort, I added, in my most chipper voice, “I’m looking forward to it!”
Mrs. Newell glanced at me as she turned a corner into an underground parking garage. I felt my eyes widen. This couldn’t be my building, could it?
“That’s good to hear,” the beautifully coiffed woman said, skepticism audible in each syllable. “I hope for your sake it’s true.”
The gate of the garage opened as Mrs. Newell’s car approached. I couldn’t help myself.
“Is this my building?” I asked, letting my awe come out in my tone—and hoping she would soften at that sign of my real excitement.
If Mrs. Newell softened, however, it could only have been on the inside.
“It is,” she confirmed, pulling up almost immediately into another parking space with Selecta on it, this one with a stern warning posted on the wall above: Unauthorized Vehicles Towed.
She turned to me, and now I thought I saw at least a glimmer of sympathy in her blue eyes.
“You’re not wrong, Dominique,” she said, “about how attractive you are. But you’re going to find that succeeding in your new life here in our program depends on a great deal more than your looks. Selecta Arrangements is a much more difficult challenge than the New Modesty. You have a chance at something wonderful, and an even better one of something to live on, but neither of those is going to happen unless you have the right attitude.”
I felt my brow furrow, and I bit my lip as I nodded.
“Thank you, Mrs. Newell,” I said. “I’ll do my best.”
She actually smiled at that. I did my best to keep any triumph off my face at having fooled her, but as I got out of the car I let myself smile, too. If I could make Mrs. Newell smile, I could get a platonic luxury sponsor, couldn’t I?
The ride up in the elevator took a long time. I managed to keep my jaw from dropping when Mrs. Newell pressed the 35 button, but I gaped inwardly as the numbers began to rise, and my tummy got that funny elevator feeling.
While the floors went by on the display over the buttons, Mrs. Newell told me the details of the program. I’d read them eagerly on the app already, so I tuned her out a little, just nodding and saying, “Mm-hmm” as I tried to picture the apartment to which she was leading me.
“You have three months to find your first sponsor,” she said. “That’s probably the most important thing to remember—so you don’t waste any time. There’s lots of good advice on the forums, written from a perspective that will probably be more helpful than mine.”
We’d reached the hallway—my hallway, I thought with growing excitement. I almost missed the opportunity to get into Mrs. Newell’s good graces that she’d just dangled in front of me, and only the beginning of her sympathetic, self-deprecating expression’s turn toward sourness got me to blurt out:
“Oh, no, Mrs. Newell. Any advice you have would mean the world to me.”
I coated the words in so much sugar that I worried for a moment she would see right through them, but you really just can’t underestimate how deeply people need to feel they have all the power and all the wisdom. I’d found it just as true of Mrs. Coleman as I did now of Mrs. Newell: the middle-aged woman in the designer dress beamed at me as she opened the door.
She thinks I’m nervous, I realized, hiding my smile. Then I felt my mouth twitch in a different way as that thought made the real butterflies in my tummy go crazy. Okay, I am nervous, but I can still run circles around this lady.
Mrs. Newell’s expression as she revealed my new home told me she expected the sight of the small apartment to leave me speechless. For once, I didn’t have to hide my real emotions: it did.
Small, yes: I could see it all, including the little bedroom through the door and the bathroom just to the side, from the tiny entry. But beautifully furnished, with gleaming steel in the kitchen—the full kitchen, with a real stove and oven and microwave—and leather upholstery in the living room.
And, over the back of the big, sumptuous couch, the view.
The awe in my voice was real. “Is that Lake Michigan?”
Mrs. Newell let out a good-natured laugh. “It couldn’t be anything else, could it, Nikki?”
It stretched… forever, it looked to me. I hadn’t seen the ocean—these days, maybe I never would—but the sight of Lake Michigan thirty-five floors below me and stretching to the horizon seemed to me all the soothing water I’d ever need.
Mrs. Newell calling me Nikki brought a little warmth to my cheeks, but the sheer luxury of this apartment, small as it was, had humbled me a little, I guess. I turned to her.
“It’s amazing. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” Mrs. Newell replied, smiling, though she clearly didn’t mind my gratitude. “Thank the sponsors who subsidize the program with their membership fees.” Then Mrs. Newell’s expression grew more serious. “There is one piece of advice I like to give any girl who seems likely to appreciate it.”
I had gotten control of my face again, now, and as I nodded again I put as appreciative an expression on it as I could manage.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Nikki, but I know that like every new SA girl you think you can play the game and find a sponsor who won’t expect intimacy. You were on contraception already as a New Modesty girl, and you’ll continue it here for very good reason.”
My face flared hot as the sun. For a moment I lost control of my expression completely, and I scowled. The answering contemptuous smile from Mrs. Newell brought the heat, alternating with a cold dread, to my whole body. My lips parted without a sound as I realized that all her apparent sympathy had represented even more of a performance than my own attempt to appear sincerely grateful.
Intimacy. The word they always used on the forums for sex. Sex the way your sponsor wanted, when your sponsor wanted. Whenever and however your sponsor wanted.
“You won’t, Nikki. You’re a sullen little vandal. You’ll be lucky to find an economy sponsor who’s lenient enough not to take you over his knee more than once a week, and who uses your young body with a little gentleness afterward.”