by Alex Stein

Gina joined the Peace Corps.

It was more than 20 years after it stopped being fashionable to go into the Peace Corps. But in she went. Right after High School.

She was a dreamer, a hippie chick in the time of Reagan. A bleeding heart liberal in the best sense of the phrase. She was too young to tell people she was born at Woodstock, so instead she insisted she was conceived during a midnight showing of the movie Woodstock. This was a lie, but one repeated so often it developed a patina of truth around the edges as others echoed it, embellishing with details of the performances of Janis Joplin and the sticky floor. Still, Gina loved the protest music of the late 60s and wouldn’t listen to anything else (with the notable exception of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which she described as timeless and beautiful, and her admiration for that record was nearly as limitless as her scorn for The Hissing of Summer Lawns.)

She said owning anything was a crime against nature - and what’s more, she believed it. She wore sandals and clothing made of hemp, proudly telling everyone who’d listen that she would never wear a bra. This seemed like an invitation for people to stare at her breasts, and she had no problem with that.

And while it was admirable for her to join the Peace Corps, her smug, self- congratulatory fervor was hard to take. (Plus, attacking her high school classmates for going to college - which she called the “express train to bourgeoisie-ville”) didn’t score her any points either.

For some time, she sent back one letter per year. One missive about building water systems in Africa or working at children’s health clinics in India. She sent the letter to one of us, with instructions to pass it around to everyone else she knew. Inevitably, each letter devolved into rants and condemnations of her so-called friends who couldn’t be bothered to do more to save the world from the evils of America.

By my junior year in college, I told the others I didn’t want the letters passed to me anymore. I was tired of Gina’s attitude and floored that, while she had limitless compassion for her third-world pals, she had no patience or empathy for anyone she’d grown up with.

At this time, I was taking a survey course on 19th century Russian literature. And one common thread in many Russian plays and novels from the period is for one character to say that another character had “gone to America.”

This didn’t mean they’d actually gone to America. It was a polite way of saying “committed suicide,” perhaps because the journey from Russia to America was so perilous back then that only the insane would attempt it (and only a few who attempted it would survive).

Looking at the gilded insanity in the past 10 years, I started using a phrase inspired by Russian literature. Whenever someone I knew fell prey to irrational greed and the desire for wild, expensive things that made no sense, I’d say they were “going to Dubai.”

This didn’t mean they literally went to Dubai (although many of them did), but referred to their new type of thinking - the same type of thinking that believed building gigantic hotels that look like sailing ships, indoor ski slopes in the desert, and artificial palm-shaped islands that maximized beach-front property and can be seen from space were good ideas. For more than a few years, you could argue that most of the world had gone to Dubai (and we’re still paying for the trip).

It turned out, most of Gina’s high school friends also grew tired of her annual harangues. For all intents and purposes, Gina dropped out of sight the same time most of us finished college. As we went off to our first jobs (or to grad school, or ironically, in some cases to the Peace Corps), we wondered what had happened to her.

But we all got caught up in our lives, so the mystery of Gina went from a frequent topic of conversation to an occasional guessing game to “which one was she again?”

Until a few months ago.

This time, it wasn’t one hastily-scrawled handwritten letter meant to be passed around from friend to friend. This time, it was a crisp, carefully thought-out email blasted out to several hundred of her old friends. With photos. And captions. And a video.

The letter alluded to making millions in investment banking, partying backstage during one of the American Idol tour stops, and besting Donald Trump in a game of strip canasta. There was no mention of Woodstock - not the concert or the midnight movie.

Judging from the photos, she traded the sandals and hemp clothes for designer shoes and businesswoman chic. And I studied the video and I can report that she definitely now wears bras.

In one photo, she was smiling at the groundbreaking of a building on one of those artificial palm-shaped islands you can see from space. She was wearing a hardhat and holding a shovel. A shovel made of gold.

She closed the email (with no sense of irony) by saying “God bless America,” proving that, in the self-proclaimed “greatest country on earth,” hippie chicks who believe that owning anything is a sin against nature, can still come back from the Peace Corps, shed their poverty like a second skin, then (literally and figuratively) go off to Dubai.