Girls On Fire By Robin Wasserman: Book Review
Female friendship, adolescent or otherwise, has always been fertile ground for fiction.
The intensity. The jealousy. The passion. The mirroring. The neediness.
All these and more are present in YA author Robin Wasserman's "adult" (Old Adult?) debut, Girls on Fire.
Hannah Dexter is the uncool girl at school, mocked and isolated by queen bee Nikki Drummond.
Until life takes a bleakly unexpected turn for Nikki, and Hannah finds herself befriended by new girl Lacey Champlain.
On the surface they have nothing in common - except a burning urge for revenge.
Set in a 1990s besotted with Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix and Doc Martens, Girls on Fire puts Wasserman on course to join Megan Abbott and Louise O'Neill in proving the distinction between YA and OA is utterly spurious.
Girls On Fire By Robin Wasserman: Book Extract
See them in their golden hour, a flood of girls high on the ecstasy of the final bell, tumbling onto the city bus, all gawky limbs and Wonderbra’d cleavage, chewed nails picking at eruptive zits, lips nibbling and eyes scrunching in a doomed attempt not to cry. Girls with plaid skirts tugged unfathomably high above the knee, girls seizing the motion of the bus to throw themselves bodily into their objects of affection, Oops, sorry, guy, didn’t mean to shove my boob in your face, was that a phone in your pocket or are you just happy to see me.
Try not to see them, I dare you. Girls, everywhere. Leaning against storefronts, trying so hard to look effortless as they dangle cigarettes and exhale clouds of smoke; tapping phones while shrieking about how Mom is a such a bitch. Girls hitching up skirts by the liquor store, hoping for a handle of vodka if they show enough leg; girls in the makeup aisle, gazing helplessly at the nail polish display like they can hear you silently cheering them on, willing them to scoop those cherry reds into a bag, to succumb to temptation and expectation, to give in.
Give in: Pick a pair of them, lost in each other, a matched set like a vision out of the past. Nobody special, two nobodies. Except that together, they’re radioactive; together, they glow. Nestled into a seat in the back of the bus, arms tangled, foreheads kissing.
Long for the way they drown in each other.
Follow them off the bus and onto the beach, as the one in charge—there’s always one in charge—shakes her curls free. Her makeup is expertly applied, her beet lips excessively large, kissable. The other girl wears no makeup at all, and her hair, bone straight and dyed platinum, flaps in the ocean breeze. Watch them lick soft-serve, pink tongues flicking spiraled cream. Watch them turn cartwheels in the surf, watch them slurp Dorito dust from sticky fingers, watch them split a pair of earbuds and stare up at the clouds, their secret soundtrack carving shapes in the sky.
Try to hold yourself back from rising over them, casting them in aging shadow, warning of millennial futures, the end of days, days like this, warning them to taste each sugary minute, to hold on tight.
Hold back, because you know girls; girls don’t listen. Better, maybe, to knock them out, drag them into the sea. Let this perfect moment be the last, say, Go out on a high note, girls, and push them into the tide. Let them drift off the edge of the earth.
Impossible not to see them, not to remember what it was like, when it was like that. To sit there, shivering, as the sun dips toward the horizon and the wind blows cold over the waves, as the sky blazes red and darkness gathers around the girls, neither of them knowing how little time they have left before the fire goes out.
Remember how good it felt to burn.
November 1991–March 1992
They finally found the body on a Sunday night, sometime between 60 Minutes and Married with Children. Probably closer to Andy Rooney than Al Bundy, because it would have taken some time for the news, even news like this, to travel. There would have been business to attend to in the woods, staking out the scene with yellow caution tape, photographing the pools of blood, sliding the body into a useless ambulance and bagging the gun—there was a universal logic to such things, if TV had it right, a script to follow that would get even our sorry Keystone Kops past the hurdle of touching a corpse, seeing and smelling whatever happened to a body after three days and nights in the woods. From there, who knew how it worked, officially: where they took the body, who was tasked with calling the parents, how they extracted the bullet, what they did with the gun, the note. Unofficially, it did what bad news did best: spread. My father always liked to say you couldn’t shit your own bed in Battle Creek without your neighbor showing up to wipe your ass, and though he said it largely to get a rise out of my mother, it had the whiff of truth.
It was always my mother who answered the phone. “They found him, that boy from your school,” she said, once the show had gone to commercial. We were all facing carefully away from one another, toward the giant Coke bottles dancing across the screen.
She said they’d found him in the woods, found him dead. That he’d done it to himself. She asked if he’d been my friend, and my father said that I’d answered that already when the boy went missing, and that I barely knew him, and that I was fine, and my mother said, Let her speak for herself, and my father said, Who’s stopping her, and my mother said, Do you want to talk about it, and my father said, Does she look like she wants to talk about it.
I did not want to talk about it. I told them I might later, which was a lie, and that I wanted to be alone, which was the truth, and that they shouldn’t worry about me, because I was fine. Which was less true or false than it was necessary.
“We’re sorry about this, kid,” my father said as I made my escape, and these were the last words spoken in my house on the subject of Craig Ellison and the thing he did to himself in the woods.
He wasn’t my friend. He was nothing to me, or less than. Alive, Craig was Big Johnson shirts and stupidly baggy jeans that showed off boxers and a hint of crack. He was basketball in the winter and lacrosse in the spring and a dumb blond with a cruel streak all year round, technically a classmate of mine since kindergarten but, in every way that counted, the occupant of some alternate dimension where people cheered at high school sporting events and spent their Saturday nights drinking and jerking off to Color Me Badd instead of sitting at home, watching The Golden Girls. Alive, Craig was arguably just a little less than the sum of his meathead parts, and on the few times our paths crossed and he deigned to notice my existence, he could usually be counted on to drop a polite witticism along the lines of Move it, bee-yotch as he muscled past.
Dead, though, he was transformed: martyr, wonder, victim, cautionary tale. By Monday morning, his locker was a clutter of paper hearts, teddy bears, and basketball pennants, at least until the janitorial staff were instructed to clear it all away amid fears that making too much of a fuss might inspire the trend chasers among us to follow. A school-wide memorial was scheduled; then, under the same paranoid logic, canceled; then scheduled again, until compromise finally took the form of an hour of weepy testaments and a slideshow scored to Bette Midler instrumentals and the flutter of informational pamphlets from a national suicide hotline.
I didn’t cry; it didn’t seem like my place.
All of us in the junior class were required to meet at least once with the school counselor. My appointment came a few weeks after his death, in one of the slots reserved for nonentities, and was perfunctory: Was I having nightmares. Was I unable to stop crying. Was I in need of intervention. Was I happy.
No, no, no, I said, and because there was no upshot to being honest, yes.
The counselor sponged off his pits and asked what disturbed me most about Craig Ellison’s death. No one used the word suicide that year unless absolutely necessary.
“He was out there in the woods for three days,” I said, “just waiting for someone to find him.” I imagined it like a time-lapse video of blooming flowers, the body wheezing out its final gaseous waste, flesh rotting, deer pawing, ants marching. The tree line was only a couple blocks from my house, and I wondered, if the wind had been right, what it might have carried.
The thought of the corpse wasn’t what disturbed me most, not even close. What disturbed me most was the revelation that someone like Craig Ellison had secrets—that he had actual, human emotions not altogether dissimilar from mine. Deeper, apparently, because when I had a bad day, I watched cartoons and hoovered up a bag of Doritos, whereas Craig took his father’s gun into the woods and blew a hole through the back of his head. I’d had a guinea pig once that did nothing but eat and sleep and poop, and if I’d found out the guinea pig’s inner turmoil was stormier than mine, that would have disturbed me, too.
Weirdly, then, the counselor shifted gears and asked whether I knew anything about the three churches that had been vandalized on Halloween, blood-red upside-down crosses painted across their wooden doors. “Of course not,” I said, though what I knew was what everybody knew, which was that a trio of stoners had taken to wearing black nail polish and five-pointed stars, and had spent the week before Halloween bragging how they would put the devil back into the devil’s night.
“Do you think Craig knew anything about it?” he asked.
“Wasn’t that the same night he . . . you know?”
The counselor nodded.
“Then I’m guessing, not so much.”
He looked less disappointed than personally affronted, like I’d just ruined his Murder, She Wrote moment: Insightful bystander unveils dark truth behind hideous crime.
Even to people who gave Craig more credit than I did—maybe especially to them—the suicide was a puzzle to be solved. He’d been a good boy, and everyone knew good boys didn’t do bad things like that. He’d been a high school point guard with a winning record and a blow-job-amenable girlfriend: Logic dictated joy. There must have been extenuating circumstances, people said. Drugs, maybe, the kind that made you run for a plate glass window, imagining you could fly. A game of Russian roulette gone wrong; a romantic suicide pact reneged; the summons of darkness, some blood magic that seduced its victims on the devil’s night. Even the ones who accepted it as a straightforward suicide acted like it was less personal decision than communicative disease, something Craig had accidentally caught and might now pass on to the rest of us, like chlamydia.
All my life, Battle Creek had reliably been a place where nothing happened. The strange thing that year wasn’t that something finally did. It was that, as if the town shared some primordial lizard brain capable of divining the future, we all held our breath waiting for something to happen next. Next chapter
Thanks to some ambiguous causal link the school administration drew between depression and godlessness, a new postmortem policy dictated that we spend three minutes of every homeroom in silent prayer. Craig had been in my homeroom, seated diagonally to my right, at a desk we all now knew better than to look at directly. Years before, during a solar eclipse, we’d all made little cardboard viewing boxes to stare up into the dark, having been warned that an unobscured view would burn our retinas. The physics of it never made sense to me, but the poetry did, the need to trick yourself into looking at something without really seeing it. That’s what I did now, letting myself look at the desk only during those three minutes of silent prayer, when the rest of the class had their eyes closed and their heads bowed, as if secret looking somehow didn’t count.
This had been going on for a couple months when something— nothing so bold as a noise, more like an invisible tap on the shoulder, an unspoken whisper promising this way lies fate—pulled my eyes away from the lacquered surface scuffed by Craig’s many etchings of cocks and balls, and toward the girl in the very opposite corner of the room, the girl I still thought of as new even though she’d been with us since September. Her eyes were wide open and fixed on Craig’s desk, until they weren’t anymore. They were on me. She watched me like she was waiting for a performance to begin, and it wasn’t until she rolled her eyes skyward and opportunity slipped away that I realized it was opportunity I’d been waiting for. Then her middle finger ratcheted up, pointing to the ceiling, to the clouds—unmistakably, to the Lord Our God in Heaven—and when her eyes dropped to meet mine again, my finger rose of its own accord in identical salute. She smiled. By the time our teacher called, Time’s up, her hands were folded politely together on the desk again . . . until she raised one to propose that school prayer, even the silent kind, was illegal.
Lacey Champlain had a stripper’s name and a trucker’s wardrobe, all flannel shirts and clomping boots that—stranded as we were in what Lacey later called the butt crack of western Pennsylvania—we didn’t yet recognize as a pledge of allegiance to grunge. The new kid in a school that hadn’t had a new kid in four years, she defied categorization. There was a fierceness about her that also defied attack, and so she’d become the two-legged version of Craig’s desk, best glimpsed only from the corner of your eye. I looked at her head-on now, curious how she managed to weather Mr. Callahan’s infamously fearsome glare.
“You have some problem with God?” he said. Callahan was also our history teacher, and had been known to skip over entire decades and wars in favor of explaining how carbon dating was nonsense and all the coincidental mutations in history couldn’t account for the evolution of the human eye.
“I have a problem with you asking me that question in a building funded by public taxes.” Lacey Champlain had dark hair, almost true black, that curled over her face and bobbed at her chin flapper-style. Pale skin and blood-red lips, like she didn’t have to bother dressing goth because she came by it naturally, vampire by birthright. Her nails were the same color as her lips, as were her boots, which laced up her calves and looked made for stomping. Where I had a misshapen assemblage of lumps and craters, she had what could reasonably be called a figure, peaks and valleys all of appropriate size and direction.
“Any other objections from the peanut gallery?” Callahan said, fixing us all with his look one by one, defying us to raise a hand. Callahan’s glare wasn’t as intimidating as it had been before the morning he officially informed us Craig wasn’t coming back, when his face crumbled in on itself and never quite came back together, but it was still grim enough to shut everyone up. Smiling like he’d won a round, he told Lacey that if praying made her uncomfortable, she was welcome to leave.
She did. And, rumor had it, stopped in the library, then headed straight for the principal’s office, constitutional law book in one hand, the ACLU’s phone number in the other. So ended Battle Creek High’s brief flirtation with silent prayer.
I thought something might come of it, that silent second we’d shared. For days afterward, I kept a stalker’s eye on her, waiting for some acknowledgment of whatever had passed between us. If she noticed, she showed no sign of it, and when I turned to look, she was never looking back. Eventually I felt stupid about the whole thing, and rather than be the feeble friendless loser who fuses a few bread crumbs of chance encounter into an elaborate fantasy of intimacy, I officially forgot that Lacey Champlain existed.
Not that I was feeble or friendless, certainly not by the Hollywood standards that pegged us all as either busty cheerleaders or lonely geeks. I was always able to find a spot at one table or another at lunch, could rely on a handful of interchangeable girls to swap homework or partner on the occasional group project. Still, I’d filed the dream of a best friend away with my Barbies and the rest of my childish things, and given up expecting Battle Creek to supply me with anything resembling a soul mate. Which is to say, I’d been lonely for so long, I’d forgotten that I was.
That feeling of disconnection, of grief for something I’d never had, of screaming into a void and knowing no one would hear me—I’d forgotten that was anything other than the basic condition of life.
Outside of elementary school earth science illustrations, plateaus aren’t unremittingly flat. Even my carefully curated existence of school, homework, TV, and nonintrospection had its peaks and troughs. Gym class was a twice-a-week valley, and that winter, shivering on a softball field in our stupid white skirts every time the temperature rose above fifty degrees, it was more like the valley of the shadow of death, where Craig’s girlfriend and her obsequious posse stood manning the bases while I lingered in left field, fearing much evil.
Craig’s girlfriend: Referring to Nikki Drummond that way was like referring to Madonna as Sean Penn’s ex-wife. Despite his MVP trophies, before his memorable closing act, Craig was inconsequential; Nikki Drummond, at least within the limited cosmology of the Battle Creek High School student body, was God. A spit-shined princess with who, me? eyes and a cherry-red pout, Nikki floated the halls on a cloud of adoration and dessert-themed perfumes—vanilla or cinnamon or gingerbread—though she gave no indication that she did anything so vulgar as eat. Like the girls who worshipped at her altar, Nikki streaked her bangs with Sun-In and flowered her LA Gear sneakers with felt-tipped markers, red and yellow daisies dancing across immaculate white. The girls she favored, and a number that she didn’t, made themselves over in her image, but the chain of command was never in doubt. Nikki commanded; her subjects obeyed.
I was not among them, and most days that still felt like a point of pride.
After Craig’s death, Nikki had briefly acquired an aura of sainthood. It must change a person, I’d thought, to be touched by tragedy, and I watched her carefully—in gym class, in homeroom, in the hall by the disappearing, reappearing shrine—wondering what she would become. But Nikki only became more fully Nikki. Not purified but distilled: essence of bitch. I overheard her in the girls’ locker room, two weeks after it happened, talking to two of her ladies-in-waiting in a voice designed for overhearing. “Let them think whatever they want,” she said, and, impossibly, laughed.
“But they’re saying you were cheating on him,” Allie Cantor said, theatrically scandalized. “Or that you were . . .” Here her voice went subsonic, but I could fill in the gap because I’d heard the rumors, too. In the wake of inexplicable suicide, sainthood didn’t last long. “ . . . pregnant.”
“So, they’re saying he maybe did it because of you.” Kaitlyn Dyer’s voice caught on every other word. Nikki’s girls had been competing over who could put on the biggest show of pain, though I wondered why they assumed this would earn them favor from a queen who had endured so many days of memorials and so much vile gossip, without a flinch.
“It’s kind of flattering, right?” Nikki paused, and something in her voice implied a bubblegum smile. “I mean, I’m not arrogant enough to think anyone would kill himself for me. But I’ve got to admit it’s possible.”
Word—especially that word, flattering—spread; the whispers stopped. Months later, I still watched Nikki sometimes, especially when she was alone, trying to catch her in a moment of humanity. Maybe I wanted proof that I should feel sorry for her, because it seemed barbaric not to; maybe it was only animal instinct. Even the dumbest prey knows better than to turn its back on a predator.
Most of us, by that point in our educational careers, had mastered changing into our gym uniforms without revealing an inch more of bare skin than was necessary. Nikki never bothered. Her bra always matched her panties, and when she tired of showing off the flat stomach and perfect curves she tucked into one pastel set of satins after another, she somehow managed to make even the mandated tennis skirt look good. Me, on the other hand, all saggy granny panties and flabby C-cups bulging from stretched-out lace, dingy white uniform that gave my skin a tubercular pallor—the mirror was my enemy. So that day, the first February afternoon warm enough to play outside, I didn’t inspect myself on the way out of the locker room, didn’t notice until I was on the field and halfway through the first softball inning that all those people laughing were laughing at me, didn’t understand until Nikki Drummond sidled over in the dugout and whispered, giggling, that I might want to stick a tampon up my cunt.
This was the nightmare with no and then I woke up. This was blood. This was stain. I was sticky and leaking, and if Nikki had slipped me a knife I would happily have slit a vein, but instead she just gave me the one word that girls like Nikki weren’t supposed to say, the word that guaranteed from now on, whenever anyone looked my way, they would see Hannah Dexter and think cunt. My cunt. My dripping, bloody, foul cunt.
I was supposed to shrug, maybe. The kind of girl who could laugh things off was the kind of girl who lived things down. Instead I burned, hot and teary, hands pressed against my splotchy ass as if I could make them all unsee what they’d seen, and Nikki’s teeth glowed white as her skirt when she laughed, and then somehow I was in the nurse’s office, still crying and still bleeding, while the gym teacher explained to the nurse that there had been an incident, that I had soiled myself, that I perhaps should be wiped and cleaned and collected by a parent or guardian and taken home.
I locked myself into the handicapped bathroom at the back of the office and stuck a tampon up my cunt, then changed into unstained jeans, tied a jacket around my waist, scrubbed the tears off my face, and dry-heaved into the toilet. When I finally came out, Lacey Champlain was there, waiting for the nurse to decide her so-called headache was bullshit and send her back to class, but—at least this was how we told ourselves the story later, when we needed the story of us to be inevitable—at some deeper, subsonic level, waiting for me.
The room smelled like rubbing alcohol. Lacey smelled like Christmas, ginger and cloves. I could hear the nurse on the phone in her inner office, complaining about overtime and how someone somewhere was a total bitch.
Then Lacey was looking at me. “Who was it?”
It was no one; it was me; it was bad timing and heavy flow and the cruel dictates of white cotton, but because it was the laughter as much as the stain, the cunt as much as its leak, it was also Nikki Drummond—and when I said her name Lacey’s lip curled up on one side, her finger playing at her face like it was twirling an invisible mustache, and somehow I knew this was as close as I’d get to a smile.
“You ever think about just doing it? Like he did?” she said.
That got me a look I’d see a lot of, later on. It said you’d disappointed her; it said Lacey had expected better, but she would give you one more chance. “Offing yourself.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Sometimes.”
I’d never said it out loud. It was like carrying around a secret disease, and not wanting to let anyone think you were contagious. I half expected Lacey to scrape her chair away.
Instead she held out her left wrist and flipped it over, exposing the veins. “See that?”
I saw milky flesh, spiderwebbed with blue. “What?”
She tapped her finger against the spot, a pale white line, cutting diagonal, the length of a thumbnail. “Hesitation cut,” she said. “That’s what happens when you lose your nerve.”
I wanted to touch it. To feel the raised edges of the scar, and the pulse beating beneath. “Really?”
A sudden spurt of laughter. “Of course not really. It’s a paper cut. Come on.”
She was making fun of me, or she wasn’t. She was like me, or she wasn’t.
“That’s not how I’d do it, anyway, if I were going to do it,” she said. “Not with a knife.”
She shook her head and made an uh-uh noise, like I was a kid reaching for a cigarette. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
“Your plan, for how you’d do it.”
“But I wouldn’t—”
“Whether you’d actually do it is beside the point,” she said, and I could tell I was running out of chances. “How you would kill yourself is the most personal decision a person can make. It says everything about you. Don’t you think?”
Why I said what I said next: because I could see her getting tired of me, and I needed her not to; because I was desperate and tired and could still feel the wet seeping into my jeans; because I was too tired of not saying all the things I thought were true.
“So shooting yourself in the head is Craig-speak for My girlfriend is a cunt and this is the only way to break up with her for good?” I said, and then I said, “Might have been the only smart thing he ever did.”
She didn’t have to tell me, later, that this was the moment I won her heart.
“I’m Lacey,” she said, and gave me her wrist again, sideways this time, and we shook hands.
“No. I hate that name. What’s your last name?” She was still holding on.
She nodded. “Dex. Better. I can work with that.” Next chapter
We cut school. “This is a day that calls for large quantities of sugar and alcohol,” she said. “Possibly fries. You in?”
I’d never cut before. Hannah Dexter did not break the rules. Dex, on the other hand, followed Lacey straight out of the school, thinking not about consequences but about stick a tampon up your cunt and how, if Lacey had suggested we burn the place down, Dex might just have gone for it.
Her crap Buick got only AM frequencies, but Lacey had stuck an old Barbie tape recorder to the dash. She turned it up as loud as it would go, some screaming maniac trapped in a hell chamber of jackhammers and electroshock, but when I asked what it was, there was a sacred hush in her voice that suggested she’d mistaken it for music.
“Dex, meet Kurt.”
She flicked her eyes away from the road, long enough to read my face.
“You’ve really never heard Nirvana?” It was a brand of fake incredulity I knew too well: You really didn’t get invited to Nikki’s pool party? You really don’t have a Swatch? You really haven’t kissed/jerked off/blown/fucked anyone? It wasn’t the veiled snobbery I minded but the implied pity, that I could fall so unthinkably short. But with Lacey, I didn’t mind. I accepted the pity as my due, because I saw now that it was unthinkable that I’d never heard Nirvana. I could tell it was making her happy to solidify our roles, she the sculptor and me the clay. In that car, miles opening between us and the school, between Hannah and Dex, between before and after, I wanted nothing more than to make her happy.
“Never,” I said, and then, because it was called for, “but it’s amazing.”
We drove; we listened. Lacey, when the spirit seized her, rolled down a window and screamed lyrics into the sky.
That Buick: ancient and wheezing and spotted with bird shit and, even on that first day, like home. Love at first sight, like I knew already it would be our getaway car. Its glove compartment, with its heap of maps, crusty nail polish bottles, mixtapes, old Burger King wrappers, emergency condoms, dusty pack of candy cigarettes. Its leather seats exhaling cigarette fumes, though Lacey, her grandma dead of lung cancer, refused to smoke. “It belonged to some dead lady,” Lacey explained, that first day. “Three full-body details, and the damn thing still stinks of cigarettes and adult diapers.” It felt haunted, and I liked it.
Lacey was a driver—I would come to understand that. She was always inventing field trips for us: We drove to a UFO landing site, a Democratic rally where we pretended to be Ross Perot groupies and a Republican rally where we pretended to be Communists, a sixties-style drive-in with roller-skating ushers, and the Big Mac Museum, which was lame. They were, more than anything, excuses to drive. That first day, she invented no destination; we drove in circles. Motion was enough.
There was something deliciously numbing about it, the sameness of the clapboard houses and seamed concrete, the day unspooling behind us as we circled the town. I tried to imagine how it looked to her, determinedly idyllic Battle Creek with its antique stores and its ice cream shoppe, its empty storefronts and rusting foreclosure signs, its chest-thumping pride, every forced smile and flapping flag insisting this was the real America, that we were salt of the earth and blood of the heartland, that our flat green corner of Pennsylvania was a walled-off Eden, untouched by the violence and sin endemic to the modern age, that the town mothers worried only over their pie crusts and garden weeds, the town fathers limited themselves to one after-dinner beer and never prowled beneath their secretaries’ skirts, the sons and daughters had only sitcom troubles and, despite their hormones and halter tops, knew enough to wait. When something went awry, when a golden child slipped a gun in his mouth and bled brains on damp earth, it could only be evidence of attack or contagion, an incursion of them, never a fault line through the heart of us. When night came, it was easy to ignore the things the children did in the dark.
It was impossible, seeing home through her eyes, like seeing your own face as a stranger would. This was my greatest fear, that Battle Creek was my mirror. That Lacey would look at one, see the other, and dismiss us both.
“I can’t believe you have a car,” I said. I didn’t even have a license. “If I had one, I’d drive away and never come back.”
“Want to?” Lacey said. Like it would be that easy to Thelma-and-Louise ourselves out of Battle Creek for good. Like I could be a different girl, my own opposite, and all it took was saying yes.
Maybe it wasn’t exactly like that, all revealed to me in a single burst of glaringly obviously light. Maybe it took longer than one car ride to slough off a lifetime of Hannah Dexter—a careful study of the right bands, the slow but steady creep of delinquency, flannel and combat boots, hair dye and shrooms and the nerve to violate at least a handful of commandments—but that’s not how I remember it now. That’s not how it felt then. It felt, right there in that car, like I could choose to be Dex. Everything after was paperwork.
“We drive straight through, we could make it to Ohio by midnight,” Lacey said. “We’d be at the Rockies in a day or two.”
“We’re going west?”
“Of course we’re going west.”
West, Lacey said, was the frontier. West was the edge of the world, the place you fled in search of gold or God or freedom; it was cowboys and movie stars, surfboards and earthquakes and pitiless desert sun.
“So, you want to?”
Three times that year, like some fairy-tale temptress, Lacey asked me to leave with her, and every time I refused, imagining I was being prudent, refusing to give into the temptation of running wild. Not understanding that the wild was waiting for me in Battle Creek—the danger was in staying.
That time, I didn’t say yes or no. I only laughed, and so instead of the promised land, she drove us to a lake. Twenty miles out of town, it had a swimming beach for families, a dock for fishermen, reeds and shadows for lovers, a muddy bed of empty beer cans for the rest. That day it was all silence and space, leafless branches overhanging a gray shore, abandoned docks where ghosts of children past bounced on invisible rafts and dove into sparkling blue. Winter had come, and the lake belonged to us. I’d been there before, though not often, because my mother hated the beach and my father the water. Building mounds in the sand beside a beach full of kids living in an L.L.Bean ad, shaded by beach umbrellas, tossed from fathers’ shoulders into the water, I always felt like the defective half of a Goofus and Gallant comic: Gallant builds a castle with a moat; Gallant buries her mother in the sand; Gallant practices her dead man’s float and does handstands on the muddy lake bottom. Goofus lies on a towel with a book while her mother pencils through work files and her father opens another beer; Goofus teaches herself to tread water and wonders who would rescue her from drowning, since neither parent knows how to swim.
Lacey shut off the engine and the music, dousing us in awkward silence.
She breathed deep. “I love it here in the winter. Everything dead. It feels like being inside a poem, you know?”
I said I did.
“Do you write?” she asked. “I can tell you’re the type. The word type.”
I said I did, again, though it had only the most tenuous connection to truth. Somewhere in my room was a pile of abandoned diaries, each filled with a few stilted entries and several hundred blank pages, each a reminder of how little I had to say. I preferred other people’s stories. For Lacey, though, I could be a girl who made her own.
“See that!” She was triumphant. “You’re a total stranger, but it’s like we already know each other. You feel that, too?”
Although almost everything I’d told her since we got into the car had been a favor-currying lie, it all felt true. It did seem like she knew me, or was conjuring a new me into existence, one question at a time, and it made perfect sense for her to know that girl inside and out. Knowledge is a creator’s prerogative.
“What number am I thinking of?” I said.
She squinted her eyes, pressed her fingers to her temples. “You’re not thinking of any number. You’re thinking about what happened at school.”
“Bullshit. You’re thinking about it, but trying not to think about it with everything you’ve got, because if you let yourself do it, really marinate in it, you’ll start crying and screaming and polishing up the brass knuckles, and that would be messy. You hate messy.”
It wasn’t wholly appealing, being known.
“What are you afraid of, Dex? You get angry, really angry, what’s the worst that happens? You think you’ll make Nikki Drummond’s brain leak out of her ears, just by wanting it?”
“I should probably get home,” I said.
“God, look at you, all pale and squirmy. It’s not a mortal sin, getting fucking mad. I swear.”
But anger like that, it wasn’t smart. There was no upshot to letting myself feel it.
Feeling it hurt.
“Stick a tampon up your cunt,” I said, because maybe that was the way to exorcise it. Get it out of my head and into the world.
“That’s what she said. Nikki. Today.”
Lacey whistled. “That’s fucked.” She started to laugh then, but not at me. I was sure of that. “Little Miss Perfect Pottymouth. Fucking ridiculous.” And then, miraculously, we were both laughing.
“You know why I brought you here?” she said, finally, as we sobered up.
“To psychoanalyze me to death?”
She lowered her voice to a serial killer pitch. “Because here, no one can hear you scream.”
As I was wondering whether I’d just entered act three of a Lifetime movie, the kind where the heroine accepts a ride with a stranger and ends up floating facedown in the lake, Lacey stepped to the edge of the water, threw her head back, and screamed. It was a beautiful thing, a tide of righteous fury, and I wanted it for my own.
Then it stopped, and she turned to me. “Your turn.”
I stood where Lacey had stood, my Keds ghosting her boot prints. I looked out at the water, skimmed with patches of ice, something primordial in their shimmer. I watched my breath fog the air and fisted my fingers inside my gloves, for warmth, for power.
I stood at the edge of the water and wanted, so much, to scream for her. To prove her right, that we were the same. What she felt, I felt. What she said, I would do.
Nothing came out.
Lacey took my hand. She leaned against me, touched her head to mine. “We’ll work on it.”
The next morning, Nikki Drummond found a bloody tampon stuffed through the vent of her locker. She cornered me in the girls’ bathroom that afternoon, hissing what the fuck is wrong with you as we washed our hands and tried not to look at each other in the mirror.
“Today, Nikki?” And then I did look at her, the Gorgon of Battle Creek, and I didn’t turn to stone. “Not a single fucking thing.” Next chapter
Me Before You
If you really want to know everything, Dex—and for what it’s worth, I’m pretty fucking sure your eyes are bigger than your stomach on that one—you should know that, before it all started, I was like you. Maybe not exactly like, not so willfully oblivious that I’d forgotten what I was trying to ignore, but close enough.
We lived by the beach.
No, that’s another of those pretty lies, the kind I tell you, the kind real estate developers and sleazy travel agents shill to gullible cheapskates, the kind the local founding fathers sold themselves on when they named their shit sprawl of gas stations and strip malls Shore Village, even though it was a twenty-minute drive from Jersey’s least attractive beach. We lived by a Blockbuster and an off-brand burger joint and a vacant lot that drunks used on Sunday mornings to puke up their Saturday nights. We lived alone, just the two of us, except it was mostly just the one of us. Between waitressing and groupie-ing, boozing and fucking, Loretta didn’t have much time left for mothering, and once I was old enough to fry my own eggs, she started leaving me home with the cat. Then the cat ran away; she didn’t notice.
Poor Lacey, you’re thinking. Poor, unloved Lacey, with her trash mother and deadbeat dad, and this is why I don’t tell you these things, because for you everything is a fairy tale or a Lifetime movie, Technicolor or black-and-white, and I don’t need you imagining me in some sulfurous pit of trailer-trash hell. I don’t need your Oh, Lacey, that must have been so hard for you or Oh, Lacey, what do food stamps look like and how does neglect smell or, worst of all, Oh, Lacey, don’t worry, I understand, I have my pretty little house and my father knows best and my picture-perfect fucking sitcom life, but deep down we’re totally the same.
I made do with what I had, and what I had was the smell of the ocean when the wind was right, and the beach itself, when I could thumb a ride. I think you grow up different, by the water. You grow up knowing there’s a way out.
Mine was a nineteen-year-old dropout with greaser hair and a James Dean jacket, squatting in the empty apartment beneath ours, because his mother was the super and had given him the key. He read Kerouac, of course. Or maybe he didn’t actually read it; maybe he just strategically spread it across his lap while he napped in one of the crappy metal chairs he’d set up in the vacant lot, his own personal tanning zone. He definitely didn’t read Rilke or Nietzsche or Goethe or any of the other moldy paperbacks we passed back and forth while I coughed down his cherry vodka and he taught me how to smoke. He was too lazy to make it past the first chapters of most of them, but I can believe he made it through the Kerouac, because Jack spoke his language, his druggy, pretentious, wastrel nympho native tongue.
His name was Henry Schafer, but he had me call him Shay, and don’t get me wrong, Dex, even then, fifteen and swoony, I didn’t think it was love. Love was the stack of books piling up in my room, maybe, and the bootlegs he brought me; it was sailing down the Schuylkill in his beat-up Chevy, Philly on the horizon; it was South Street and head shops and smoky nights in a shitty back room listening to slam poetry; it was the heat of flesh the first time I dropped acid, salty skin when I licked my own palm. Love was not what Shay had me do to him in my mother’s bedroom while she was off trying to fuck Metallica; it wasn’t a sticky glob of him in my mouth or the pain of a finger up my ass; it certainly wasn’t finding him with his tongue in his girlfriend’s ear and then pretending, the next night, that I’d assumed a girlfriend all along, that of course I’d understood what this was and wasn’t, that there was no harm and no foul and no reason he couldn’t keep using me to kill time while she was busy, and yes, I should be grateful that he’d always used a condom, what other proof did I need that he was thinking of me.
This isn’t what you want to hear. You don’t want to hear that I studied those books, at least at first, to impress him. That I listened to Jane’s Addiction and the Stone Roses because he told me that’s what people like us should do, and when he asked me whether the baby’s breath of hair on his upper lip looked cool, I told him it did, even though I thought his girlfriend was right, that it made his mouth look like a peripubescent pussy. He spent that night with me and not her, and that’s what mattered, and still, Dex, that doesn’t mean I thought it was love.
I liked him best when he was sleeping. When the lights were out and he was curled into me, kissing my neck in his dreams. Bodies can be anyone, in the dark.
That was before I turned sixteen, before my mother’s season of rebirth, born again into the loving arms of AA and then again into the Bastard and his Lord. That was the year I discovered no one gave a shit about how many classes I skipped as long as I still scraped through tests with a C-plus and, when I did bother to show, did so in tank tops that erred on the side of boobalicious, a tactic that also proved effective when my mother would put on a Bon Jovi album, spin the dial up to ear-shattering, sing and twirl and drink along until our landlord showed up to whine about volume and rent. That was also the year he started slapping my ass instead of hers, and she stopped noticing me, except for the nights she would sneak home late, sticky with someone else’s sweat, crawl into my bed and whisper that I was all she had and she was all I needed, and I would pretend to be asleep.
Life with Shay was better, if only marginally. I thought maybe we would run away together. Fuck his girlfriend. We would be Kerouac and Cassady, dance wild across the heartland, sip the Pacific, drive for the sake of driving. I believed we both understood that there, any there, would always be better than here, just like I believed that he’d dropped out of high school because true intelligence can’t be contained, that he let his parents support him because he was writing a novel and true art demanded sacrifice. I showed him some crap poetry, and I believed him when he said it was good.
Shay doesn’t matter. Shay was a gateway drug, a cheap glue-sniffing high on the pathway to transcendence. Shay was like something ordered out of a catalog: Of course he quoted Allen Ginsberg, of course he got stoned to the Smiths, of course he smoked cloves and wore black eyeliner and had a glass-blowing girlfriend named Willow who’d made him a Valentine’s Day bong. Shay only matters because of the day we camped out in his friend’s attic studio a block from the Schuylkill, and after we got good and stoned, someone turned off the Phillies game and turned on 91.7 and there he was.
Kurt screaming, Kurt raging, Kurt in agony, Kurt in bliss. “Fucking pseudo-punk poseurs,” Shay said, and reached over to turn it off, and when I said, “Don’t, please,” he only laughed. It took me another week to find the song again and then steal a copy of Bleach and another few weeks after that to fumigate Shay out of my life, but that was the moment he went from mattering a little to not at all.
After that, it was like they say about love: Falling. A gravitational inevitability. Even Shitbag Village had one decent record store, with a giant bin of discounts and bootlegs, and it only took thirty bucks and some tongue wrestling with the walking zit behind the counter to get what I needed. Then I closed myself into my room and, except for periodic forays back to the record store and one very inconvenient move to the middle of nowhere, spent that year and the next one catching up: the Melvins, because that was Kurt’s favorite band, and Sonic Youth, because they’re the ones who got Kurt his big deal; the Pixies, because once you knew anything about grunge, you knew that was where it all came from; Daniel Johnston, because of Kurt’s T-shirt and because the guy was in a mental hospital so I figured he could use the royalties; and of course bootleg Bikini Kill, for some righteous riot grrrl rage, and Hole, because you got the feeling that if you didn’t, Courtney would come to your house and fuck you up.
Then, like Kurt knew exactly what I’d need when I needed it, there was Nevermind. I barricaded myself in until I knew every note, beat, and silence—cut school for the purposes of a higher education.
I loved it. Loved it like Shakespearean sonnets and Hallmark cards and all that shit, like I wanted to buy it flowers and light it candles and fuck it gently with a chainsaw.
I’m not saying I go around doodling Mrs. Kurt Cobain on my notebooks or that I, like, ohmygod, imagine myself showing up on his doorstep in black lace panties and a trench coat. For one thing, Courtney would gouge my eyes out with barbed wire. For another, I know what’s real and what’s not, and real is not me fucking Kurt Cobain.
But: Kurt. Kurt with his watery blue eyes and his angel hair, the halo of stubble and the way the rub of it would burn. Kurt, who sleeps in striped pajamas with a teddy bear to keep him company, who frenched Krist on national TV to fuck with the rednecks back home and wore a dress on Headbangers Ball just because he could, who has enough money to buy and smash a hundred top-line guitars but likes a Fender Mustang because it’s a cheap piece of crap you have to abuse as much as you love if you want it to play nice. Rock god, sex god, angel, saint: Kurt, who always looks at you from the side, from beneath that golden curtain of hair, looks at you like he knows all the bad things scuttling around inside. Kurt’s voice, and how it hurts. I could live and die inside that voice, Dex. I wanted to crawl inside it, soft and razor raw at the same time, his voice cutting me bloody, warm and slippery and alive. I don’t need Kurt—the real living, breathing Courtney-screwing Kurt—to throw me down on the bed and brush his hair out of his eyes and lay his naked body on mine, miles of translucent skin glowing white. I don’t need that Kurt, because I have his voice. I have the part of him that matters. That Kurt, I own. Like he owns me.
I know you don’t like him, Dex. It’s cute how you try to fake it, but I see you glaring at his poster, like some jealous boyfriend. Which is ironic. And unnecessary. Because the way I felt when I found Kurt? That’s how it felt when I found you. Next chapter
Story of Us
The boots were sturdy black leather, rubber heel, yellow-threaded sole, eight eyelets with ragged laces, classic Docs exactly like Lacey’s, except these were mine.
“Really?” I was afraid to touch them. “Not really.”
“Really.” She looked like she’d shot me a bear, slinging it over her shoulder and carrying it single-handedly back to our cave to roast and feed on, and that was how it felt. Like sustenance. “Try them on.”
After two weeks, I knew Lacey well enough not to ask where they’d come from. She was prone to liberation, as she called it, a redistribution of goods to wherever they most wanted to belong. These boots, she said, wanted to belong to me. To Dex.
Here, then, was Dex: frizzy hair chopped short and sprung free, beige streaked with blue, neck ringed by black leather choker, thrift store glasses with Buddy Holly frames, flannel shirts preowned and a size too big layered over checkered babydoll dresses and scarlet tights and now, perfectly, black combat stomping boots. Dex knew about grunge and Seattle and Kurt and Courtney, and what she didn’t know, she could fake. Dex cut class, drank wine coolers, ignored homework in favor of Lacey- work—studying guitar riffs, deciphering philosophy and poetry; waiting, always waiting, for Lacey to realize her mistake. Hannah Dexter wanted to follow the rules. Never lied to her parents because she had no need. Was afraid of what people thought of her; didn’t want people to think of her, lest they register her big nose, her weak chin, her gut her hips her brows her thighs her chewed nails her flat ass her alternately oozing and flaking and ever-erupting skin. Hannah wanted to be invisible. Dex wanted to be seen. Dex was a rule breaker, a liar, a secret keeper; Dex was wild, or wanted to be. Hannah Dexter had believed in right and wrong, an ordered world of justice. Dex would make her own justice. Lacey would show her how.
It wasn’t transformation, Lacey told me. It was revelation. I was no good at masks, Lacey told me. I wasn’t built for a world that insisted I hide who I really was. I’d been hiding so long I’d forgotten where to look for myself. Lacey would find me, she promised. Ready or not, here I come.
“I know, you’re thinking I’m the most magnanimous person you’ve ever met,” Lacey said as I laced up the boots. “You’re thinking how lucky you are that I deign to share my impeccable taste with you.”
“It’s like I won the friendship sweepstakes,” I said, sarcasm being the safest route to truth. “I fall asleep every night whispering my thanks to the universe.”
This was the first time she’d been to my house. I would happily have postponed it indefinitely, not because there was anything so revealing but because there wasn’t. Our house was lush and half-assed, stuffed with all the leftovers my father’d grown tired of: an unfinished jungle gym, stacks of unframed photos and unread books, unused appliances bought on midnight infomercial whims, unhung “native masks” from an ill-advised sojourn in anthropological sculpting. My mother’s detritus was devoted to self-discipline and improvement, calendars and double-underlined Post-it notes, forgotten to-do lists, meditation and relaxation pamphlets, aerobics videos. Home was two homes in one, bridged by a sea of unclaimed clutter, ashtrays no one had used since my grandfather died, needlepoint throw pillows, tacky souvenirs from trips we barely remembered taking, all of it enclosed by a moat of browning weeds and an eyesore of an overgrown vegetable garden whose inception each of my parents blamed on the other. Beige-and-tan-striped wallpaper, my grandparents’ hand-me-down coffee table layered with Time-Life books, posters of exotic landscapes we’d never seen. Through Lacey’s eyes, I could see the house for what it was: a generic split-level of quiet desperation, ground zero for a family with no particular passion for anything but living as much as possible like the people they saw on TV.
Lacey had told me of quantum incompatibilities, qualities so opposed to each other that the very existence of one eliminated all possibility of the other. I didn’t understand it any better than the other brain-knotting theories she liked to regurgitate, convinced that knowing the universe in all its weird particularity was key to rising above what she called our middlebrow zombie hell, but I could recognize Lacey’s presence in my bedroom as its ultimate illustration, Lacey’s combat boots crushing my turquoise shag carpeting, her eyes alighting briefly on the stuffed turtle I still kept tucked between my pillows, Hannah Dexter’s past and future in a doomed collision, matter and antimatter collapsing into a black hole that would consume us both. Translation: I was pretty sure that once Lacey saw me in my natural habitat, she would disappear.
“Your parents have a liquor cabinet, right?” she said. “Let’s check it out.”
There was no lock on it, of course. There was no question that I could be trusted around my parents’ dusty quantities of brandy, scotch, and cheap wine. Maybe it was the boots that gave me the courage to clomp downstairs and show Lacey the dark crevice behind the abandoned board games and unread Time-Life books where the bottles lived.
“Scotch or rum?” I asked, and hoped it sounded like I knew the difference.
“Little from column A, little from column B.” She showed me how to pour out an inch or two from each bottle, replacing the liquid with water. We mixed a little of everything together in a single glass, then, one at a time, took a foul swig.
“Juice of the gods,” Lacey managed when she’d finished choking.
I swallowed again. It was the good kind of burn.
The carpet in the family room was a harsh orange-and-brown-striped shag that, until Lacey settled onto it, stretching into a snow angel and pronouncing it not bad, I’d found repulsive. Now, with her approval and a boozy, warm buzz, it seemed almost luxurious. I lay beside her, arms stretched till our fingertips touched, and marinated in the juice of the gods and the hot air gushing from the heating vent. The dissonant chords of Lacey’s latest bootleg washed over us, and I tried to hear in it what she did, the foghorn promise of a ship that would carry us both away.
“We should start a club,” Lacey said.
“But clubs are lame.” I said it like a question.
“So . . .”
“I’m not talking about a chess club, Dex. Or, like, some kind of Let’s read to old people so we can get into college thing. I’m talking a club club. You know, like in books. Tree houses and secret codes and shit.”
“Like in Bridge to Terabithia!”
“Let’s pretend I know what that is and say . . . yes.”
“But without someone dying.”
“Yes, Dex, without someone dying. Well . . . at least not someone in the club.”
“Joke! Think blood oath, not blood sacrifice.”
“So what would we do? A club has to do something.”
“Other than sacrifice virgins, you mean.”
“Clubs are stupid because they’re not about anything that matters. But ours would be. We’d be . . . the ontology club.”
“A club to study the nature of existence?”
“See, Dex, this is why I love you. Think there’s a single other person in this crap town who knows what ontology means?”
“Come on, Dex, you can say it. It’s not going to hurt.”
“That’s why you love me, too.”
“That’s why I . . .”
“Love me, too.”
“Love you, too.”
“Clearly I’ll be club president. You can be vice, and secretary, and treasurer.”
“And no other members.”
“Obviously. Think about it, Dex. We could read Nietzsche together, and Kant, and Kerouac, and figure out why people do what they do and why the universe has something instead of nothing and whether there’s a god, and sneak into the woods and blast Kurt as loud as we can and close our eyes and try to, I don’t know, connect with the life force or whatever. Bonus points if it pisses people off.”
“So basically, keep doing what we’re doing?”
“No regular meetings or anything.”
“And no tree house.”
“Do you know how to build a tree house?”
“And the blood-oath thing?”
“I don’t think you can actually—”
“The blood oath is a metaphor, Dex. Keep up.”
“So not an actual club, then.”
“No, Dex, not an actual club. That would be lame.”
If we had started a club for real, ontology would have taken a backseat to Lacey’s preferred activity: dissecting the evil exploits of our shared enemy, Nikki Drummond. For years I’d hated her on principle, but after the incident—which was how we spoke of it, the better to forget words like stain and blood and cunt—I hated her in concrete particulars that Lacey was eager to help me parse. “What kind of person needs a reason to hate the devil?” she liked to say, when I asked what had put Nikki in her sights in the first place, and I was left to conclude that Lacey hated Nikki because Nikki so plainly hated me.
“She’s a sociopath,” Lacey said now, bicycling her feet in the air. “No emotions. Probably kills small animals, just for fun.”
“You think she’s got her own little pet cemetery in the backyard? Rabbits with their tails pulled out, that kind of thing?”
“Imagine the possibilities,” Lacey said. “We could exhume the bodies. Give little Thumper some justice. Show the world what she really is.”
This was our recurring theme: If only we could expose Nikki’s rotting heart. If only the world knew the truth. If only we had the ammunition for a frontal assault.
The day before, we’d slouched behind her in the auditorium’s ratty seats, enduring an assembly about Satanic cults, the third so far that year. No one in Battle Creek had been foolish enough to invoke the Antichrist since Craig’s death—that is, at least not since the November morning when a gang of grieving jocks jumped Jesse Gorin, Mark Troslop, and Dylan Asp and strung them up by their ankles in a tree. I’d seen them up there, dangling over the school parking lot, we all had, three scrawny stoners stripped to socks and boxers, shivering in the snow. Punishment for Satanizing half the churches in town on the same night Craig Ellison died; punishment for trying so hard to scare people, or for succeeding. A sacrificial offering to Nikki, their grieving goddess, and—even if the rumors were wrong, even if she hadn’t commanded it—she’d accepted it in kind. A thing like that in a place like this, people kept saying after they found Craig’s body in the woods, like it was impossible that anything so ugly could happen in our pretty backyard. But ugly things happened all the time in Battle Creek: Boys beat other boys bloody and tied them to branches while girls like Nikki pointed and laughed.
After that, Jesse, Mark, and Dylan stopped chalking pentagrams on their shirts. They stopped bragging about how dangerous they were, stopped breaking into the bio lab to steal fetal pigs. A couple towns west of us, though, a few cows were found slaughtered under “ritualistic” circumstances; in another town to the east, a girl our age washed up on a riverbank, naked and blue and, in some way no one was willing to specify, defiled; here at home, Craig was still dead. Something was wrong with the children, the latest guest speaker said from the stage, and by the children he meant us. Something was wrong with the children, and so here we were, and here Nikki Drummond was, perched directly in front of us, shiny, pink-scrunchied ponytail defying anyone to suggest the something wrong might be her.
“Did you hear she fucked Micah Cross in the teachers’ lounge?” Lacey whispered, just loud enough. Then looked at me, expectant.
“I heard . . . it was Andy Smith.” This was the best I could come up with, and a clumsy lie—if Andy were any more obviously in the closet he’d be a pair of shoes—but Lacey nodded in approval.
“That was the girls’ locker room,” she whispered.
“Right. Hard to keep track.”
“Imagine how she feels.”
“Hard to imagine she feels at all.” It was easier with Lacey there, finding the right thing to say—and doing so in the moment, not days later in the shower, when there was no one to appreciate it but the mildewed tiles and the face in the mirror.
“Not that I think there’s anything wrong with a healthy sex life,” Lacey whispered.
“Of course not.”
“But personally, I think it’s kind of sad to try to fuck your way to popularity.” She was so good at it, acting cold-blooded. The secret of pretending to be someone else, she’d told me, was that you didn’t pretend. You transformed. To defeat a monster, you had to embody one.
“Tragic,” I said.
“What’s tragic is trying to fuck yourself into forgetting you’re a miserable bitch.”
The perfect head never moved. Nikki Drummond wasn’t the kind of girl who flinched. It only added to the fun of trying to make her.
That afternoon at my house, exactly drunk enough, we lay on the carpet and fantasized about using hidden cameras to make undercover recordings that would expose Nikki’s sins to her doting parents and adoring teachers and every drooling moron lined up to take Craig’s place in her pants. Between that and Kurt and the way the ceiling spun when I stared at it too hard, I didn’t notice the car pull into the driveway or the front door slam or my father’s loafers padding across the rug or much of anything until he leaned over us and spoke.
“Something wrong with the couch, kid?” He took off his sunglasses and squinted down at us. My father blamed allergies for his sensitive, red-rimmed eyes; my mother blamed hangovers. I thought he just liked how well the knockoff Ray-Bans paired with his goatee. “No, let me guess, you’ve fallen and you can’t get up.”
“You’re not supposed to be home.”
I sat up too fast and had to immediately lie down, and that was when the panic crept in, because my father was here and Lacey was here and we were drunk, or at least I was drunk, and he would certainly notice, and there would be a scene, the kind of ugly, uncool scene that would mark me as too much trouble and drive Lacey away for good.
But somewhere beneath that, secret and still, animal eyes glowing in the dark: I was drunk, and it was good, and if anyone didn’t like it, fuck them.
My father took Lacey’s hand and hauled her to her feet. “I’m guessing you’re the Pied Piper?”
“What?” I said.
Lacey repossessed her hand and blushed.
“That’s you, isn’t it? Leading my daughter astray in the musical wilds?”
“What?” I said, again.
“I’d like to think my purposes are less nefarious,” Lacey said, past me, to him. “And my taste in music significantly more impressive.”
My father grinned. “If you can call it music.” And just like that, they were off, Lacey leaping to the defense of her god, my father throwing out phrases like new wave, post-punk pop avant-garde, the two of them batting names back and forth I’d never heard, Ian Curtis and Debbie Harry and Robert Smith.
“Joey Ramone couldn’t lick Kurt Cobain’s shoes.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d seen him live.”
Her eyes popped. “You saw the Ramones live?”
“What?” I said again, and fought the sudden urge to climb onto my father’s lap, wheeze whiskey breath in his face, force him to see me.
“Saw them?” He gave Lacey a patented Jimmy Dexter smile. “I opened for them.”
“You were in a band?” I said. No one was listening. No one was offering me a gallant hand, either, so I pulled myself upright, and tried not to puke.
“You opened for the Ramones?” That was Lacey’s Kurt voice; that was awe.
“Well . . . not technically.” Another smile, an aw shucks shrug. “We played in the parking lot before the Ravers, and they opened for the Ramones. It got us into the after-party, though. Did a shot with Johnny.”
“Lacey was in a band,” I said. Lacey had told me all about it, the Pussycats, like the cartoon, all girls, guitar straps slung over their shoulders, Lacey tonguing the mic, sweaty hair matted to her face, crowd-surfing on a wave of love. Never again, she’d told me, never here in Battle Creek, never anywhere. “The fact that we’ve even heard of grunge all the way out here in the middle of nowhere?” Lacey had said. “It’s like those stars, the ones that explode so far away that by the time you get the news, they’ve been dead for a million years. We’re too late. We missed it. Only the truly pathetic pretend to be artists by making something that’s already made. And I do not intend to be pathetic.”
I was jealous of Lacey’s band, of those girls who’d been her Pussycats, but glad, too, because I couldn’t be in any band, obviously, and if she’d started a new one it would have carried her away from me.
“Tell him about your band, Lacey.”
But she didn’t want tell him, or didn’t hear me. “What was he like?” she said. Breathed the name. “Johnny Ramone.”
“Drunk. And he smelled like dog shit, but man, he gave me one of his guitar picks and I thought I’d build a shrine to that thing.”
“Can I see it?” Lacey asked.
My father reddened, slightly. “Lost it on the way home.”
I cleared my throat. “When were you in a band? And how did I not know this?”
He shrugged. “Long time ago, kid. Different life.”
My mother listened to music only in the car, and then only to Rod Stewart, Michael Bolton, and, if she was feeling frisky, the Eagles. My father, when he drove, alternated between sports radio and silence. We had a stereo no one ever used and a box of records in the basement so warped with damp they’d been deemed unfit for the previous year’s yard sale. For the Dexter family, music was a nonissue. Except that now my father was talking about it the way Lacey did, like music was his religion, and it turned him into a stranger.
“How did a guy like you spawn someone so musically illiterate?” she asked.
“I ask myself that every day,” he said.
“No, I don’t buy it. You see what this means, Dex? It’s in you somewhere. You just needed me to help you get it out.”
It was a generous assessment. Everyone knew I took after my mother: the beige and blotchy coloring, the stick up the ass. But if Lacey saw him in me, there must have been something to see.
“Dex? That supposed to be you, kid?” My father examined me, looking for evidence of her.
“No offense, Mr. Dexter, but Hannah’s a shit name,” Lacey said.
“Call me Jimmy. And no offense taken. It was her mother’s idea. I always thought it sounded like a little old lady.”
Lacey laughed. “Exactly.”
That my father never liked my name: This was another thing I hadn’t known. I’d thought he called me kid because he wanted to claim a piece of me no one else could.
“But Dex? Yeah, I like that,” he said.
Dex was supposed to be our secret, a code name for the thing that was growing between us and the person she was shaping me to be. But if Lacey was ready to introduce her to the world, I thought, she must have her reasons.
“That’s right,” I said. “Dex. Spread the word.”
“Your mother’s going to love this,” he murmured, and it was clear the thought of it pleased him as much as the name itself.
“So, Jimmy, maybe you’d like to hear some real music,” Lacey said. “Dex has a copy of Bleach around here somewhere. At least she’d better.”
He looked at me, clearly trying to read the stay or go in my face, but I couldn’t send a message I didn’t have.
“Another time,” he said finally, slipping his sunglasses back on. “The Ten Thousand Dollar Pyramid is calling my name.” He paused on his way up the stairs. “Oh, and Dex, you might want to wash out that glass before your mother comes home.”
So he had noticed, after all. And he was still on my side.
“You didn’t tell me your dad was cool,” Lacey said once he was gone. It was like a benediction, and most of me was proud.