Aurora and I live in a world without fathers. Hers is dead and mine was gone before I was born. Her house in the hills is full of his absence: his guitars in every room, his picture on all the walls, his flannel shirts and worn-through jeans still hanging in the closets, his platinum records on the mantel of the marble fireplace that is so big we both used to crawl inside it when we were little. He is everywhere, and so we never think about him. Aurora’s mother is a junkie and mine is a witch. When I say it like that, it sounds funny, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
* * *
This is a story about love, but not the kind of love you think. You’ll see.
* * *
Aurora and I grew up like sisters, and this is how we match: same bony, long-toed feet; same sharp elbows; same single crooked tooth (Aurora’s left canine, my right front). Same way of looking at you out of the corners of our eyes until you blush. Same taste in music: faster, harder, more. Same appetite. Same heart.
Aurora and I live like sisters, but we are not alike. I am tidy, and Aurora has never cleaned a mess she made in her life. Aurora sleeps until four if you let her, loves Aliens, smiles often, is the kind of girl who will break into your car to leave you a present you don’t know you want until you find it. Aurora’s mom is richer than anything you can imagine, and mine is poor. Aurora is sunlight, and I’m a walking scowl. Aurora’s skin is dark, and mine is watery cream. She bleaches her black hair white and smokes unfiltered Lucky Strikes and drinks too much. She wears dresses made out of white lace and gloves with the fingers cut off, Converse with holes at the toes and old-lady satin pumps, and if you think right now of the most beautiful girl you know, Aurora next to that girl is a galaxy dwarfing an ordinary sun.
I am not beautiful at all, but I am mean. Every day I wear black jeans and the worn-out Misfits shirt that used to be Aurora’s dad’s and combat boots with steel in the toes. People keep away from my fists in the pit at shows. I cut my dark hair short and my eyes are grey like smoke when I am happy and like concrete when I am not. Every morning I get up at six and run seven miles, into the hills and back, and where Aurora’s body is model-skinny, mine is solid muscle sheathed in a soft layer that all the miles in the world can’t skim away. Aurora breaks hearts, and I paint pictures. We are both pretty good at what we do.
Before we were born our moms lived like sisters, too. They drove up and down the coast in Maia’s diesel Mercedes, following punk bands and sleeping on the beach, dyeing each other’s hair pink and blue and orange and green. Maia met Aurora’s dad backstage at a show in Los Angeles, before anyone knew how famous he would be. Back then he was just a sad-eyed boy from a shitty town in the Northwest with a guitar and dirty clothes. Maia chased him out into the parking lot and they fell in love as the moon rose over the Pacific. Cass drove them around while they kissed in the backseat. “It was so much fun we drove to Mexico,” Cass said, the only time she told me the story. The three of them spent a week living on the beach and swimming naked in the ocean every day, sleeping on striped blankets they bought in a market. They had no money, but that was a time when you didn’t need money, when it was enough to be young and beautiful and in love. Cass drove them back to LA and they got married in a twenty-four-hour chapel next to the freeway, with Cass as their witness and a hungover Elvis impersonator officiating. Neither Cass nor Maia owned a dress. Maia wore a white slip she’d bought that afternoon in a thrift store and a headdress Cass made her out of roses and silk ribbons. Cass wore cutoffs, a dog collar, and the Misfits shirt she stole from Aurora’s dad and later gave to me. Before the year was over Aurora’s dad would make one of the bestselling albums of all time, and then Maia and Cass would have Aurora and me, and then everything would fall apart. Now Maia sleeps away the years like a friendless fairy-tale princess behind a wall of thorns, and Aurora’s dad is dead, and Cass and I are stuck in the real world of never having enough money for bills despite all of Cass’s spells.
“But that week,” Cass said. “That week was the most perfect week of my life.” Maybe it was perfect for Maia, too. I’ve never thought to ask.
* * *
Aurora’s room is like an antique store and a record store exploded while mating. Posters hang all over the walls: Arthur Rackham prints, the Pixies, a wet cat hanging from a tree branch with the motto HANG IN THERE. Aurora’s embellished the cat with a markered-on mustache and fedora. Piles of magazines, Vogue and Ben is Dead and Spin, Sassy with all the quizzes dog-eared and filled out in different-colored inks (red for Aurora’s answers, blue for mine). Every inch of wall that isn’t covered in posters is covered in pictures: Aurora in her dad’s arms as a baby, his face already haunted; Aurora and me at every stage of development, from infants with the same fat, formless faces to our first junior-high dance (Aurora in sunglasses to hide how stoned she is, me looking serious and faintly alarmed); Aurora and Maia; Cass and Maia. The famous picture from Rolling Stone: Aurora as a wide-eyed toddler, clutching her father’s guitar, surrounded by the members of his band. It was taken right after he died. The guitar dwarfs her. It’s an original print, unframed, tacked carelessly next to a sheaf of dried roses tied together with a dirty ribbon and hanging from a nail. Empty Dr Pepper cans and sticks of incense, rhinestone-covered dresses, Christmas lights and piles of silk scarves, an empty bottle of Chanel No. 5 in a dish full of quarters. Her dad’s record collection—crate after crate of old punk and new wave, obscure soul music, seven-inches his band recorded before they were famous. Books on witchcraft, travel guides, old anatomical textbooks, Flowers in the Attic. Her battered copy of Tam Lin that we traded back and forth as kids until the covers fell off. Winterlong and Weetzie Bat.
I used to borrow Aurora’s clothes, but as I got older, as it became apparent I’d be the draft ox to her dragonfly, I quit shimmer for death-metal gloom. But sometimes when we’re bored we stay up all night eating ice cream and listening to her dad’s records. We raid Aurora’s makeup drawer for mascara wands and compacts of pressed powder; iridescent eyeshadows; rich, dark-red lipsticks by the handful. I let her paint my eyelids with the intense concentration of an old master, color my lips a Jazz Age maroon. We take Polaroids of ourselves and tape them to her walls, steal Maia’s video camera and film ourselves gyrating to the Clash. When we’re finally exhausted we fall asleep in her giant bed, curled around each other in a pile of silk and feathers. We don’t wake up until long after the morning sun gives way to afternoon.
Tonight, we’re catnapping in Aurora’s bed, watching Heathers for the fortieth time and eating Cheetos. Cass would die a thousand agonized deaths if she saw the color of the chemicals going into my mouth. Aurora’s in love with Christian Slater, but I think he is too cheesy, even as JD. It’s a longstanding bone of contention between us. “Look at him.” I lick fluorescent orange powder off my fingertips. “He’s, like, engineered in a factory. A factory for teenage girls.”
“You comprehend nothing,” Aurora says, wounded. “I would totally have gone the distance. Winona Ryder isn’t worthy.”
“He tries to kill her,” I point out.
“Only because she wouldn’t follow through with her own vision. You have to commit. That’s the lesson. God, look at those cheekbones.” But nothing she says can convince me. There’s no real torment behind those eyes. JD is a sham.
“How very.” I smirk. Aurora hits me with a pillow.
When the movie is over it’s time to go out. Aurora puts on Joy Division and turns it all the way up, knots her bleach-white hair, paints her mouth vampire-purple, puts on dresses and takes them off again, dancing around the room in her underwear. I pretend to be bored. It’s our ritual. When she’s ready we drive downtown in the old Mercedes that used to be Maia’s, windows down, the Jesus and Mary Chain cranked so loud we can’t hear ourselves talk. We have fake IDs, but we rarely need them. I’ve never seen anyone say no to Aurora. We’re barely inside the club before someone’s buying her one drink, and then another, boys and girls getting in line to cajole her into a smile. Every other drink she hands to me, but I give them back most of the time. Somebody has to keep us safe on the way home. Aurora never thinks about what comes after; she’s all now, all the time. This moment, this kiss, this second holds everything. People like Aurora don’t have to live with consequences. The stage lights go down and we push our way to the front, ready for magic, for wild rumpus, for anything. Ready to go ecstatic.
Tonight, we aren’t disappointed. This band is on fire. The singer’s tiny, her shaggy red-dyed hair sticking up like a ragged halo. She’s wearing a long-sleeved thermal, its fraying sleeves hanging to her knuckles, her bony fingers barely visible against the guitar strings. The music is heavy, a sludgy mass of guitar that makes the room seem even darker. When she opens her mouth to sing the voice that rips out of her is a banshee howl climbing to an operatic shriek. She paces the stage in smaller and smaller circles, pivoting around the axis of the mic stand, energy crackling off her in waves, never once looking at the audience. The drummer is moving so fast her arms are blurs. The bassist plays the way I love best, cigarette dangling, eyes closed, completely still except for his fingers. Like he’s asleep standing up, too cool even to acknowledge how good he is.
Here’s me and Aurora in the pit: hot press of bodies, humid smoke-thick air, the two of us up against the stage, elbows planted on the dirty wood. When the music starts with a roar we throw ourselves backward into the crush of people behind us. All the way inside our bodies and all the way outside them at the same time. A wall of noise crashes through us, washing us clean. Like when we are on the edge of coming and the whole world blows wide open for a second and we can see all the way to the center where everything is still. Guitar so loud we can feel it in our chests. Someone else’s hair in our faces and someone else’s knuckles in our teeth and sometimes, when it’s really good, a current charges from body to body and everyone around us is part of it, part of us, part of the drumbeat thundering through us so hard our breathing shifts to follow its pulse. Music turns us inside out with hunger, the need to hurt ourselves, get drunk, fuck, punch strangers, the need to take off all our clothes and run around in the grass screaming, the need get in a car and drive off in the middle of the night with a pack of strangers. We let the music shake us loose from the moorings of our bodies and hearts and brains, until we are nothing but sex and sweat and fists and hot hot light.
Up front we are often the only girls, and we learned early to make a space for ourselves, to punch if anyone gets too close in the wrong way, kick out like boys, throw ourselves at everyone around us like our bodies are stones. People know who we are now, know Aurora’s face and my fists, smile at us, leave room. Sometimes a boy will kneel down, weave both hands into a step for one of us, let us put one booted foot into the cradle of his fingers and then catapult us over the crowd, hands rising to keep us aloft, carrying us to the edge of the stage and then back again. Our bodies are rafts moving across a sea of brothers, fathers, lovers. The air is charged and reckless. Up front is when I feel all the way alive, deep in my animal body, a live wire humming electric. Me and Aurora together, like sisters, like twins. Do you know what it’s like to be a girl pieced together out of appetite and impulse? We do. In that place of heat and noise I forget everything, forget being poor and being scared, forget the looming misery of school and the adult world, forget walls and masks and pretense. Up front I forget everything except drum and guitar and heat, the anchor of Aurora’s hand in mine as we’re tossed across an ocean made out of bodies, breathless and alive and blooming with sound.
When the show is over we are soaked and panting, holding each other tight. Aurora’s eyes are huge. “Oh my god. That was, like, the best.” The boy standing next to us is already trying to ask her name, but she ignores him. “Come backstage,” she says to me. “I know that girl.”
This is the part I hate. I like to keep the magic close, not ruin it with people. “I kind of want to go home.”
“Are you kidding? You’re no fun.”
I sigh. “Okay.” She takes my hand and tows me after the band. Backstage, she hops in place while they drag their amps offstage, take apart the drum kit and cart it to their van. I stand, awkward, digging the toe of my boot into the concrete floor. The singer comes over to us and gives Aurora a hug. Up close she’s even more beautiful than she was on stage. I’m so shy I don’t know where to look. She and Aurora jump straight into gossip. The bass player, still cool, lurks nearby, pretending not to pay attention.
“You got a light?” It’s the drummer.
“Yeah, sure.” I follow her outside. Behind the club the alleyway is dark. I light her cigarette for her, and then mine. “You guys were great.”
“Thanks.” She smokes like she wants to chew on the filter, taps her fingers against her thighs. She’s wearing a white men’s undershirt. The muscles in her arms ripple as she brings the cigarette to her mouth, patters out a rhythm with her free hand. “You know Aurora?”
“Yeah. She’s like my sister.”
“Same mom? You don’t look alike.”
“No, grew up together.”
“We lived in the same house for a long time. Our moms are old friends.” This is not exactly the truth. Our moms were old friends. Our moms haven’t spoken since I was a kid.
“You knew her dad?”
“I mean, kind of. I don’t remember him. We were really young when he died.”
“Yeah.” I wait for her to pry. I’m used to deflecting questions about Aurora, about her dad, about her life, about her money. But she drops it.
“Sorry. That’s messed up to ask. I can never think of the right thing to say to people.”
I laugh. “Me, either. Aurora’s the one who’s good at that stuff. I stand around.”
“She doesn’t either, right?”
“I guess that’s some pretty heavy stuff to carry around. Shit,” she says, exhaling. “There I go again. Sorry.”
“No, it’s okay.”
We smoke the rest of our cigarettes in silence. Back inside, the bass player’s made his move, slinking up to Aurora as she chirps away. The euphoria of the show has worn off. My ears are ringing and I’m tired. I can tell by the way Aurora is leaning into the bass player that it’s going to be a long night.
The band invites us over. I make Aurora let me drive, follow their beat-up van to an old industrial neighborhood down by the water. Their apartment is the whole third floor of an abandoned factory. It’s obviously supposed to be a practice space, but they have a hot plate plugged into a wall and a curtained-off toilet that I guess passes as a bathroom. Every surface is covered with overflowing ashtrays, coffee mugs stuffed with cigarette butts, empty beer cans, half-empty bottles of whisky. There are nests of blankets and clothes in three corners of the enormous room. Somebody, more ambitious than the rest of the band, has gone so far as to hang a moldy shower curtain from the ceiling for privacy. I walk over to the huge windows that overlook the bay and try to ignore the smell. This place must be freezing in the winter, but underneath the filth it’s pretty amazing. I can see the streaming lights of cars on the viaduct, and past that the wine-dark water. Far away, the firefly glow of a ferry moves toward the far horizon.
“Pretty great view, huh?” It’s the drummer again. Behind me the bassist is pouring Aurora a drink. I can hear him apologize for the lack of ice, and she giggles.
“Yeah. I want a place like this someday.”
“What would you do with all this space?”
“I paint.” I try to say it naturally, but it sounds funny. I’m a painter. Maybe in my dreams. Lah-dee-dah.
“Yeah? That’s cool. I can’t even draw stick figures. All I’m good at is drumming and washing dishes.”
“People were really into you.”
“There’s a million bands in this city, and at least ten of them are good. Not enough to go around. I might still be washing dishes when I’m thirty.”
“At least you tried.”
“Not many other options.” I nod. We’re quiet again. She takes out another cigarette, smokes it, taps. I wonder if she twitches in her sleep. She’s waiting for me. We are entering the realm of adult transactions. But I don’t want to sleep here, and so I don’t say anything. I bring my shoulders up to my ears and make the silence hard and without invitation. I hear Aurora’s laugh again, and the noise of more people coming into the loft. Someone puts on an old punk record, something loud and fast that I don’t recognize. A shot of nervousness runs through me and I chew on my lip, curl my toes in my boots. The drummer leaves me at the window. I don’t want to turn around, deal with strangers. I want to grab Aurora and get out of here. I turn enough to see what she’s up to. Kissing the bass player on the couch while people sit on the other end, ignoring them, drinking beer and handing around records. Oh, Aurora. For a young dog, her tricks are pretty old.
I wait until Aurora comes up for air and then I sidle over. “I’m out.” The bassist’s a skeeze, but he’s pretty tame compared to some of the dudes Aurora ends up with. These people seem nice. They’ll take care of her if anything goes wrong. Hold her hair out of her face while she throws up their shitty whisky. I’m far from home, but not too far to walk. She looks up at me.
“Take my car.”
“No, it’s fine. I’ll walk.”
“I don’t want you to walk.”
“I like walking.”
“Serious.” She rummages through her purse, looking for her keys. I dig them out of my pocket and try to give them to her, but she closes my fingers around them. “Serious,” she says again. “I’ll get a ride home with—” She stops, turns to the bass player. “What’s your name again?” For a second, he looks hurt, and then his face is cool again. She’ll eat him for breakfast, I think, and I can’t help grinning. She knows why I’m smiling, and she throws her head back and laughs. “I’ll be fine, Mom.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
* * *
To my surprise, Cass is waiting up for me. She takes a bowl of stir-fry out of the refrigerator. “I can heat it up,” she offers. I shake my head, sit at the table, and shove forkfuls of vegetables and tofu into my mouth. Cass has been a health freak for about as long as I’ve been sentient. She quit doing drugs when I was a kid. Unfortunately for me, she also quit sugar, television, and fun. She insists the human body is meant to live on raw food, but I told her I’d run away from home if she got rid of the stove, so we compromise. She makes me stir-fry and herbal tea, and I don’t tell her when I go to Chinatown with Aurora and eat sixteen different kinds of meat swimming in grease. That way, everybody’s happy. Mostly. I would give anything to have a secret stash of, say, pork rinds, but Cass can sniff out Yellow #5 the way some moms suss pot and dirty thoughts. She was nineteen when she had me, and most of the time she feels like an annoying friend you can’t shake and not like a mom at all. But when it comes to restricting my toxin intake, she’s a holy terror.
“You out with Aurora?”
“Yeah, they were awesome. We hung out with them for a while. She’s still there. Not really my scene, though.” Cass snags a red pepper out of my bowl.
“You worried about her?”
“Like, all the time. But not tonight.”
“Okay.” Her face goes distant and I know she’s thinking of Maia. Aurora would be better off in the custody of a potato. At least she could eat it if things got dire. “You let me know, though, if—” She trails off. If what? I want to ask. If Aurora gets loaded every weekend and goes home with boys who are basically strangers? Kind of late in the game for team D.A.R.E.
“It’s cool. She’s cool. I keep an eye on her.”
“That’s my girl.” Cass reaches over to ruffle my hair, and I duck. I hate it when she tries to be a parent. It doesn’t suit her.
* * *
Lately I have been dreaming about a river and a dark forest. In the dream I am standing on a path that winds through trees that are white as bone and without leaves. I am barefoot, and my feet are covered in blood. The only light comes from the trees themselves, an opaline glow like that of a luminescent fungus. The path stops at a river that is too broad for me to see the far bank, and the water moves swift and smooth and has an oily sheen to it. I know there is someone waiting for me on the other side, someone I must find, but I do not know who it is. In the distance I can hear howling. Wolves, I think, or dogs. The bare branches of the trees clatter against one another although there is no wind. I take a step forward, but before my foot breaks the surface of the water I wake up. It is always a long time before I remember where I am.
* * *
After Aurora’s father died, when I was still very small, Cass and I lived with Aurora and Maia for a while. The house was always full of people and music then. Maia was a silent shadow, worn wraithlike with grief. She moved further and further away from us, into her own twilit limbo outside space and time. Sometimes a skeleton-thin man in a long black coat would come to the house and sit in her room with her for hours. Cass told us he was her doctor, but we didn’t know then the kind of medicine he was working with his suitcase full of needles and glassine bags. Aurora and I weren’t allowed in Maia’s part of the house, but we stole into it once. I remember candles everywhere, and dark walls without decoration, and a great canopied bed draped with silk and satin and scattered with velvet pillows. Maia slept tangled in the sheets, her arms akimbo, her mouth slack, her nut-brown skin ashen. “Is she dead?” I whispered.
“She’s fine,” Aurora said. “She sleeps a lot.”
Slowly Aurora’s father’s bandmates and their friends drifted away, escaping their orbit around the black hole Maia had become. There were no more parties, where Aurora and I darted in between the legs of grown-ups, stole bites off plates and sips out of glasses and fell asleep, giddy and a little drunk, on Aurora’s lawn. No more circles of musicians playing guitars together in the garden until the sky glowed white with dawn. No more lanky-limbed, long-haired men and women twirling us around while we squealed with glee, lifting us to their shoulders and parading us up and down the sweeping marble staircase, or teaching us to slide down the banisters when Cass wasn’t paying attention. The house went still and dead as a tomb.
After that, Cass took me away from Aurora’s palace in the hills. Aurora and I stayed twin-blooded, wearing each other’s clothes and finishing each other’s sentences, but Cass and Maia never talked again. I don’t know what happened in that vast house, or if anything happened at all. Maybe Cass gave up trying to pull Maia out of darkness and settled for bringing me to a brighter world instead. Sometimes I wish Cass had fought harder, had taken Aurora and Maia with us. I know it was hard for Cass to get clean, and maybe that’s why she left Maia there; she wasn’t strong enough for them both. I’m not like that. I will never let go of anything I love.
* * *
Aurora and I have lived in this city all our lives. If you came here you would know that it is a young city, out on the edge of the world, just a few hours away from where the earth drops off into the grey ocean that reaches all the way to the far edge of the sky. It is a city of hills and water, ringed in mountains that are capped with white even in the dead of July. The summers are sweet and golden, bookended with long rainy seasons where the sky brushes the earth with a blanket of cloud.
Aurora and I used to spend our days roaming, picking out books at the huge old bookstore downtown with its creaking wooden floors and innumerable rooms, trying on Doc Martens and buying Manic Panic at the punk store under the viaduct, stuffing ourselves with fish and chips on the pier and drinking coffee until our speedy hands shook. We haunted the curio store down on the waterfront, visiting Sylvia and Sylvester, its glass-cased mummies (Aurora insists they are real; I say no way). Even now we still love putting quarters in the fortune-telling machine and watching the turban-swathed mannequin inside move its jerky mechanical hand and spit out fortunes printed on cardboard squares. Aurora always gets the good ones. On the curiosity-laden shelves a fetal pig bobs in a bath of formaldehyde next to a stuffed two-headed lamb. The store manager once let me take Aurora’s picture with the lamb.
We love best the coffee shop up on the hill, a veritable stable of goths and artists. Tall, many-paned windows let in the light, and the red-painted walls are lined with bookshelves. When we were kids Aurora and I would bum cigarettes off cute boys playing guitar at the outdoor tables. She’d pen tortured poetics in her journal while I surreptitiously tried to draw everyone around us. The baristas with their multicolored hair and deliberately ragged clothes, most of them stained with paint or some other indicator of artistic temperament. The strung-out rockers, blinking into their coffee. The street kids hitting us up for quarters and trying to get Aurora’s phone number.
It was easy to pretend I was an adult in those moments: the rain-dampened streets outside the window, the air hazy with cigarette smoke, the whir of the espresso machine, the low murmur of people talking around us. An adult with a bookstore job, maybe, and a musician boyfriend who would write songs about me. We would stay up all night smoking pot and having sex, and we would only allow our apartment to be illuminated by candlelight. Every room would be hung with glittering beaded curtains. Cass had no tolerance for my preadolescent passions; when I brought home a stack of Jane’s Addiction records she scoffed. “Smacked-out posers,” she said disdainfully. I couldn’t explain to her that there was something in that wash of noise that felt like home to me. Cass and Maia had lived for punk shows when they were our age, but Cass never even went out anymore. Never went with us to the dirty all-ages clubs we spent our weekends in, or the bars we started frequenting as soon as Aurora was old and charming enough to get us past the door. Cass still had all her old records, but I never heard her play them. Finally, one day a few years ago, I dragged them all into my room and kept them there.
When Aurora and I were kids Cass would take us hiking in the woods outside the city. We’d pick our way across the loamy forest floor, our noses flooded with the green dark smell of moss, of mushrooms coming up out of the damp earth, of fallen trees crumbling into soil and new trees springing up out of the old, their roots snaking through the dead, rain-slick trunks. We’d climb narrow rocky paths up out of the woods, clinging to the sides of mountains, picking our way through alpine meadows awash in monkshood, lupine, and scarlet paintbrush. I loved the immense, vivid silence up there, the way a single marmot cry would echo and echo through the far hills. Up there you felt like you were all alone on the roof of the world, nothing but razor-edged ridges and high peaks as far as you could see in all directions.
These days Aurora isn’t interested in wild places, and Cass rarely has time anymore. As soon as I learned how to drive I started borrowing Cass’s car and going out on my own. I spend the morning panting my way up switchbacks so steep I think sometimes I’ll tip over backward. Later, I’ll drive home through broken-down logging towns with trailer parks full of moldering doublewides, where men lean against the bar in the one restaurant in town even though it’s only three or four in the afternoon. I’ll order hamburgers, or milkshakes, fried eggs and sausage, the kinds of foods Cass never allows across the threshold of our house, and pick at the greasy mess on my plate, wondering how my life would be different if one of those men was my father. Sometimes I see kids my own age. They stare me down, mean-eyed, and I always look away first.
You learn a lot about yourself when you spend most of your time alone. If I’m not with Aurora, I’m never with anyone. Aurora is happiest as the sun at the center of a solar system, and I’m at peace as a quiet moon, no light coming from me but the light that was hers first.
It’s hard if you are a girl like Aurora, easier if you are a girl like me. I’m not the one old gods hanker after, not the one likely to be invited to immortals’ parties. The Fates don’t bother with small fry like me. I was never jealous of Aurora, not of her beauty or her money or her sad fairy-tale life. I loved her with every corner of my dark and crooked heart. People said our names together in a single breath, like we were two halves of the same body, like they could not imagine either one of us on our own.
I was never jealous, I should say, until him.
* * *
I’m smoking a cigarette and trying to draw the ocean when Aurora calls. “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable all the uses of the world are seeming. Right? Are you with me?” I make a noncommittal noise. “Exactly. I’m going to have a party. Come over.” I know better than to argue, promise I’ll be there in an hour. I grab my bag and unlock my bike from where it’s chained to a pipe in the alley behind our apartment building. The night feels dangerous and too warm. It’s the kind of dark that makes you reckless, sends an itch creeping under your skin. This summer is the hottest I can remember. The air smells like jasmine and, underneath, the sea. The moon is low and huge in the sky.
I’m tired by the time I’ve bicycled the long miles to Aurora’s house, and I stand for a while in the shadows of her garden, catching my breath. When Aurora was younger there was an assortment of gardeners and assistants to keep up the grounds and take care of the house, but one by one they’ve straggled away over the years. These days, the house is lurching into a kind of derelict glamour. The once velvet-soft green lawn has been overtaken by wildflowers and straggling vines. Thorny hedges of blackberry have swallowed the wrought-iron fence that marks the edge of their property. The house itself is overrun with jasmine and St. John’s wort; yellow and purple flowers wind up the columns of the front porch, obscuring most of the house, and battle for supremacy with the ivy that shrouds the chimneys and hangs in green tendrils across the windows. Aurora seems unconcerned about her house’s slide into disrepair. “I like it,” she says. “Maybe one day my mother will wake up and notice her entire life is falling apart around her, and then she can clean it up.”
The first floor of her house is open and angular, and I can see through the plate-glass windows to the vaulted ceilings and vast white expanses, the huge abstract canvases that hang here and there: a savage red square on a yellow background, a field of blue, another field of white. Behind a slab of marble, a tattooed bartender in an old-fashioned suit pours drinks. In the yard, Aurora has hung paper lanterns in the trees. The roses are blooming. Her house is full of people. Industry people, ostentatiously uncool, making sure you know how much they don’t care about anything except music. Stubble-cheeked boys in cutoff shorts over thermals, hair hanging to their shoulders, talking in big voices about their bands, their tours, their perennially breaking-down vans, telling the same old musician stories. Some of the women are in vacuumed-tight dresses, their mouths painted on in glossy red slashes. I have no idea who they’re trying to impress. Any of these dudes will sleep with you for clean sheets and a free breakfast. No reason to even bother with brushing your hair.
I look for Maia. When she’s more or less sober she likes to prance around, play the queen. She still has all her old party dresses, sequins and leather and lace, though too much speed and too many long nights have stripped the flesh off her bones until she’s skeleton-gaunt, like those scary yoga ladies you see lurking in the aisles of health-food stores whispering about master cleanses and organ detox. Maia still has a faint echo of the glory of her youth, and when she’s on she’s like champagne: a bubbly thing that buoys you along, makes you feel special. I know Maia too well to be charmed by anything she does, but seeing her gussied up at parties is the green flash that shows up on your lids when you close your eyes after staring at the sun. Aurora’s the real deal, but Maia can dazzle you if you’re not used to the light.
I see her at last, leaning against a tree with a tumbler in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. Her straight black hair looks dirty and there are circles under her eyes that accentuate the sharp line of her cheekbones. Not sober, then. “Hi, Maia,” I say.
“Hi, sweetheart. Thanks for coming.” She sucks on the cigarette like it’s her last meal. When was her last meal? I wonder, eyeing the stark lines of her clavicle. “Aurora’s having a good time,” she says, pointing. Aurora’s across the yard. Her bleached hair is piled on top of her head and she’s wearing a sequined dress that grazes the tops of her long thighs. She hasn’t seen me yet. Maia and I watch her flit from person to person, dipping in like a hummingbird taking sips. “She never talks to me anymore. All grown up now, you girls.” This is not exactly fair; it is hard to talk to Maia, since half the time she is too high to know who either of us are.
“Mmm,” I say. “She’s busy.”
“She have a boyfriend?”
“I don’t think she’s very interested in settling down.”
“You girls.” Her face is wistful. Junkies getting nostalgic. Cute. “You grow up so fast.” She’s repeating herself. We’ve had this conversation before. If I let her, we’ll have it again before the night is out. You think I’m being unkind, and maybe I am, but I’m the one who’s had to get Aurora out of strangers’ houses, track her down when she disappears, sober her up enough to make it home, cover for her when she’s too fucked up for school. Maia loves her, loves us both, but if she were running the show we’d probably both be dead.
“I should see if Aurora needs any help.” I move my arm in a vague gesture that I hope conveys helpfulness.
“Of course, sweetie. Come back and talk to me later.”
When Aurora sees me, she hugs me tight, and I smell her skin: vanilla and patchouli and cigarettes. She is already drunk. From the edge of her garden I can see the still-lit windows of the office buildings far below us, and past that the bay. The moon’s reflection glimmers on the sound, a silver road on dark water. When we were little Aurora and I thought that path of light would take us to some distant, marvelous country. I assume this party will be like every other one of Aurora’s parties, but that’s where I’m wrong. This is the party where we meet Jack, and nothing will be the same again.
* * *
In the telling, I want to make up some sign, but the first time I see him is only ordinary. I know right away that he’s beautiful, but there’s no violin swelling, no chorus of stage-left witches spelling out our future when our eyes first meet. He’s leaning on a crumbling stone wall. Long legs, torn jeans, a shirt worn thin enough that I can see the outline of his body through the fabric. His skin is darker than Aurora’s and seems to catch and hold the light that drifts down from the lanterns. His hair snakes in coils to his shoulders. Dreadlocked, I think, but when I get closer I can see it’s hundreds of braids. There’s a guitar next to him. A cool breeze comes up behind me and hisses in my ear. A loose half-circle of people has formed around him, holding their drinks and gossiping idly. “Come on,” Aurora says.
“We’re going to find out.”
We sidle between a couple of dudes in high tops and flannel, identical manes of long brown hair. The boy with the guitar touches the strings, and a hush falls across the garden. And then he begins to play.
A single note, faint and sweet, travels all the way from the stars to fall lightly to earth, and then another, scattering soft as rain. His music is like nothing I have ever heard. It is like the ocean surging, the wind that blows across the open water, the far call of gulls. It catches at my hair, moves across my skin and into my mouth and under my tongue. I can feel it running all through me. It is open space and mountains, the still-dark places of the woods where no human beings have walked for hundreds of years, loamy earth and curtains of green moss hanging from the ancient trees. Salmon swimming against the current, dying as they leave their eggs, birthing another generation to follow the river back to the sea. Red-gold blur of a deer bounding through the woods. Snowmelt in spring, bears lumbering awake as the rivers swell, my own body stirring as though all my life has been a long winter slumbered away and I’m only now coming into the day-lit world. As he plays the party stills. Birds flutter out of the trees to land at his feet and he is haloed in dragonflies and even the moonlight gathers around him as though the sky itself is listening. The music fills every place in my body, surges hot and bright in my chest. At last he stops. Aurora’s mouth is open, her cheeks flushed. One of the flannel shirts is weeping openly. I can’t catch my breath.
A stranger is standing beside me now, very still. He is tall and so thin he’s just a rattle of bones wired together. He’s dressed in elegant, close-cut black clothes and a long black coat despite the summer heat. He is staring at the guitar player with a fixed intensity; not the awe or sorrow marking the faces of everyone around us, but something that looks more like hunger.
“That was beautiful,” I say to him, wanting to acknowledge somehow what we’ve witnessed even though the words feel worse than inadequate. He looks down at me and nods. For a moment I think there is red fire where his eyes should be, burning in the sockets of his cadaver’s face, and I bring my hand to my mouth in shock; but he blinks, and then he is human again. I back away from him, into Aurora, and he smiles a smile with too many teeth. He looks past me, sees Aurora, and his eyes widen. That same hunger, but even more focused. He nods at me again, and then he turns away from me and walks back across the garden.
“Whoa,” Aurora says. “Do you know that guy?”
“No,” I say, shaken. Around me the party slowly comes to life again, people shaking themselves and blinking, dazed and forlorn. Aurora takes my hand and leads me closer to the guitar player. He puts the guitar away in a battered case, stands up, stretches, sees us.
“Hi,” he says.
“Hi,” Aurora says. “We’re your future. I think you should tell us everything.”
His name is Jack. He’s come here from somewhere in the South, he won’t say where, and he thinks the summers are nice here but the winters are too cold, and he’s lived all over, and he plays for money wherever he goes. Sometimes the money is good. Most of the time it isn’t. He’s here to take his chances with the big leagues, like everyone else who got off a bus downtown in the last few years. He lives in a little house in town, washes dishes all day to pay the rent, plays every night until the stars begin their long fall into sunrise, does the whole thing again. Aurora is standing like a colt, one foot turned inward. She looks at him through the white curtain of her hair, which has come loose from its knot and hangs around her like a cloud. “Come away with us.”
“Right now?” he asks. She nods. “Isn’t this your party?”
“These people,” she says, contemptuous. “They’ll be fine.”
* * *
Aurora’s too drunk. “I’ll drive,” I say. She pouts, but she gives me the keys. We roll down all the windows in her car and let the night in. He sits in the back, leans his elbows on the headrests of our seats. His mouth is inches from my ear. I take us to the park Aurora and I loved best when we were children, rolling grassy hills at the very edge of the water, next to an abandoned factory surrounded by a chain-link fence. The buildings loom alien and strange in the moonlight. We walk to the place where the grass ends in a thin strip of sand at the edge of the water. Aurora collapses gracefully. I follow, less so. He lies between us in the grass. My skin hums electric, so close to his. Some key connection shorts out in my head and my brain goes dark, neatly wiped of reason. I want to roll over and take a bite out of his shoulder. Pummel him with my fists. I can hear the beat of his heart, I swear. The fabric of his shirt whispers as he breathes. All the cells in my body rearrange, compass needles pointing to his north. I could do anything, anything, anything, wonderful things, terrible things, all the things. Hit him, grab him, kiss him. Smell him. Eat him. Seize his hands and drag him off into the night. Put my head on his shoulder and sleep there until the sun rises and makes the world real again. Does he want to touch me? Is he trying to touch me? If he were trying to touch me he would touch me. If I moved my arm a hair’s breadth it would be touching his arm. Should I move my arm? If I moved my arm would he know it was on purpose or would he think it was an accident? You should definitely, definitely touch me. I send this message with so much force my eyes cross.
“We could live here,” Aurora says sleepily, “and never go home. We could sleep inside a velvet tent and have midnight picnics.” Jack strokes the inside of my wrist with his thumb and I nearly startle out of my skin.
“A velvet tent wouldn’t be much good against the rain,” he says. My fingers rest in his broad palm, and I feel the charge running between us.
“Wherever I go,” she says, “it’s always summer.” After that we are quiet. For the first time in my life I wish Aurora weren’t here. I wish I could straddle him, tear off his clothes. Chew away the flesh to the muscle beneath. Rip him open, take him inside. Nothing I have ever felt in my life has readied me for hunger like this. I can smell him: wood, earth, smoke. The stars wheel overhead in their quiet, orderly way. Here they’re veiled by the nightglow of the city, but you don’t have to go very far out of town before they blaze white and thick across the sky. I want to do everything, everything, everything, but I leave my hand in his and tamp all that desire into a hot coal at the center of my chest. If I never see him again I will definitely go Juliet. Knife to the chest, fade to black. What is happening to me? I am not this girl. I am half monster, with spite and bile where normal girls nurture kittens and kind feelings. I do not fall for strangers, do not come unmoored in the dark at a single touch. Already I am cataloguing all the things I would be willing to give up for him if he asked. The night cools and a chill creeps in across the water. It’s only when I sit up at last, ready to go back to the car, that I see he’s holding Aurora’s hand, too.
* * *
When I was smaller, sometimes I wanted my life to be normal. Mom, dad, puppy, two cars. Goldfish in a bowl. Home videos of my first steps. A baby book with my first words written down. School pictures on the fridge, brothers and sisters, curfews. Grandparents. Thanksgiving with a turkey and everyone getting too drunk and fighting, like a family. That’s the thing you have to understand: None of this seemed that weird to me, because Cass and Maia had already set the bar high.
After we left Maia’s, Cass and I lived a lot of places. I don’t remember most of them, or they blur together in my mind, one long series of big kitchens full of people, dirty bathrooms, broken instruments. Wooden floorboards with gaps in between them full of dust, and windows that never kept out the cold. Walls painted haphazardly in weird, clashing colors. The smell of incense. Communal houses, punk houses, hippie houses. Sometimes there were other kids around, but usually I was the only one. We lived in one house for a while with ten other people. A desiccated cat that someone had found in the basement hung on the wall over the fireplace. It used to give me nightmares. Dinner was always a giant pot of Dumpstered vegetables cooked on the stove all day into a tasteless mash. Too many guests. Travelers, punks, maybe sometimes homeless people who’d wandered in off the street. On the weekends, there would be shows in the basement, so loud the house shook. Cass and I had the attic, low-ceilinged but big, and there was a triangle-shaped window at one end that went all the way from the floor to the pitch of the roof. I’d lie next to it for hours, looking out at the street below. Sometimes in the night I’d wake up, shaken out of sleep by the sound of Cass crying in her bed across from mine.
That time didn’t last too long. Cass was working two or three jobs at a time, and it was easiest for us to live in a place where other people could take care of me. She’d taught herself to read people’s cards and make spells years ago, even before she met Maia. She’d turned out to be good at it, good enough to see other people’s lives unwinding in front of them, good enough to untangle the delicate threads of sex and death and money and hope. Our housemates would come to her with their questions, their love problems, their private mysteries and sorrows. I got used to it, dozing late at night in my little bed while Cass held someone’s hand, her fingers moving across their palm. Got used to the shirring sound of her tarot cards as she shuffled them, the low raspy murmur of her voice as she spelled out the future. She never asked for money, but people gave it to her, or other gifts if money was something they didn’t have. A velvet coat, an antique rosary, muffins, a patchwork bag. Presents for me: colored pencils, drawing paper, my first set of oil paints, the tubes half-spent but still good. I remember squeezing out dabs of color for the first time, the sharp tangy smell that is like no other smell in the world. Touching the vibrant paint and bringing my finger to my mouth for the barest taste.
Cass’s name got around and she started reading cards for people with real money, people who lived in new houses all by themselves. Houses with dishwashers and microwaves and carpet. Refrigerators shone white and clean; inside them were cartons of milk and eggs, neatly ordered condiments, the orange juice I wasn’t allowed to have because it was too expensive. When Cass took me with her I’d sit and draw quietly in a corner while women with shining hair and perfectly lipsticked mouths asked Cass if their husbands were cheating on them, if their kids would get into good colleges, if they’d find love and, if so, where it would be waiting for them. The most boring questions I could imagine. “So well behaved,” they’d say, looking over at me, like I was in a zoo. I didn’t understand how people who lived in houses like that could worry about anything at all.
As soon as Cass got enough money together we moved into an apartment of our own, the apartment we live in now. I had my own room, my own window. Our own kitchen—“Dear god,” Cass said, when we first moved in, “I thought I’d never see a clean kitchen again”—and our own living room with our own couch. Shabby and small, but it was clean, and it was ours. No guests unless we invited them. No guests really but Aurora, and sometimes men Cass dated for a while, always the same quiet, gentle types who stared moonily at her over the breakfast table and disappeared after a month or two, banished from her orderly macrobiotic world as soon as they got too close. Never, ever Maia. Cass has a guillotine heart, severing ties as neatly as a whistle-sharp blade cutting the head from the body. Like any good revolutionary, she pretends that the casualties mean nothing.
We were still poor. For a while when things were really bad, Cass and I would stand in line at the food bank once a week, where white-haired church ladies handed out yellow bricks of government cheese and big plastic bags of instant oatmeal. There was always a pile of bread, one or two days stale, from a bakery near our apartment, and meat that came in a can with a silhouette of a chicken. I thought they had somehow put a real chicken in there, that you could open the can to find a pet. I cried when Cass said we didn’t eat that kind of stuff and handed it back. She’d send me over to Aurora’s for dinner, but there was never any food at her house, either. Trips to the grocery store and wholesome meals didn’t make it on Maia’s to-do list between shooting up and sleeping it off. Half the time, Aurora didn’t eat unless she ate with us. All that money might as well have been dust. Sometimes, Maia would get it together enough to hire people to help, but she’d forget to pay them, or they’d end up holing up in her room with her and doing drugs, or one day they’d wander off, and Aurora would be left to run feral again, with only me and Cass to make sure she showed up for school and ate a meal every now and then. When I took Cass’s food stamps to the grocery store around the corner, piled up bulk brown rice and oatmeal and sixteen different kinds of vegetables, the lady who always worked the register would sometimes put a bag of Doritos on top of my groceries, hold her finger to her lips, and wink at me.
Aurora and I ran wild young. Cass tried to keep us locked down but gave up quick, settling for exhaustive lectures on the functions and maintenance of the human reproductive system; a crash course in what to do when people got too wasted; and firm exhortations to me to keep myself and Aurora not pregnant, free of disease, and more or less sober. “And no junk food,” she’d add. Girls at school wanted in on me and Aurora’s twinhood, our late nights and freedom, our recklessness and our crazy stories. But those girls didn’t understand how good they had it with someone in charge, someone who called the shots, stayed up until they came home, left the porch light on.
I was at a party with Aurora last year. The hosts were friends of friends of people she knew. People who were a lot older than us, and weren’t too interested in hiding how much money they had. “Tacky,” Aurora hissed, fingering sequin-crusted throw pillows and cashmere blankets tossed over the overstuffed couches. Velvet drapes. Scented candles in gold sconces. Cold cuts on cut-crystal plates. A painting on the wall that turned out, on closer examination, to be a Monet. “Of course, it’s one of the lesser-known pieces,” said the hostess with false modesty, coming up behind me.
Aurora and I were giggling in a corner when a shrink-wrapped babe stalked over to us. Up close, she was total construct, younger woman stapled on top of old bones. Fake boobs straining her satin dress, chemical-plump mouth. Her eyebrows had that surprised look women get after one too many plastic surgeries. “I know who you are,” she said to Aurora, jabbing her with one red-taloned finger. She was very, very drunk. She wobbled there for a moment, glaring at us.
“I don’t know you,” Aurora said. “Thankfully.”
“You know my husband,” the woman said. Aurora’s eyes got big. “You think your pert little ass will get you anything you want. You think you’re really something. But you know why men want to fuck little whores like you? Because you’re stupid.” She teetered on her perilous heels and stabbed her finger at us one last time. “Stay away from him,” she snarled. She pivoted, nearly overshooting her spin and coming around to face us again, and stalked away.
“Oh my god,” Aurora said. We looked at each other and then we both began to laugh. “That was so weird,” she gasped. “Let’s get out of here.”
I never asked who the husband was. It didn’t really matter.
* * *
After the night in the park I send out a psychic call. I’m so hooked I hijack a pile of Cass’s crystals and leave them under my pillow, willing them to bring him to me, but all they do is give me a stiff neck. Aurora says she has no idea who he is or where he came from. He wouldn’t let us give him a ride home from the park, strode off into the darkness before we came to our senses and asked how to find him again. Rockers are a dime a dozen in this town, but he’s something else again. I’ve never heard anyone play music like that.
“You’re in love,” Aurora says. She thinks it’s cute. If she’s staking her own claim on him, she’s not saying. She’s sitting in my kitchen, drinking Dr Pepper that she brought over herself. If Cass is home Aurora puts the soda in a mug. She can’t bear, she says, to watch Cass’s face when she sees the can. But we’re home alone and so an unlit cigarette dangles in her fingers and she runs a thumb around the can’s edge between sips.
“I am not in love,” I snap. “You can’t fall in love with someone you just met.”
Aurora rolls her eyes. “Someone’s never read a fairy tale.”
“We’ve read all the same fairy tales. This is the real world.”
“This is the real world. Sure.” Her skin glows gold-brown against her white tank top and her clotted tangle of necklaces. She’s wearing cutoffs that are barely more than underwear, and under the shirt a tiny crocheted bikini that’s so bright I can see it through the fabric like a beacon. “Let’s go swimming,” she says. “Get your suit.”
The beach is crowded with little kids and their parents, basking in the hot afternoon sun, drunk on the glorious summer. We spread our towels, stretch out at the lake’s edge. Aurora leaps up, bellowing, runs pell-mell into the water with a crash, and then runs back out again and flings herself on her towel. Dads sit up, shading their eyes with one hand, staring after her long legs and white hair. She rolls around on the towel like a puppy and lies there, panting. “The water’s great. We could drive around until we find him.”
“I’m sure that would work.”
“Probably better than spirit messengers.”
“Shut up.” I roll over on my stomach, make a show of ignoring her. If you mapped the inside of my brain, it would go like this: his hands, his mouth, his skin, his face, his palm against mine. But I had no idea it was that obvious. Aurora kicks her feet and laughs at her own joke. “Sorry,” she says. “I never see you being, like, irresponsible. Less than focused. He’s your first boyfriend. It’s adorable.”
“He’s not my fucking boyfriend. I don’t even know him.”
“You wish he was your boyfriend.”
“I don’t need a goddamn boyfriend! Jesus. You’re such a bitch.”
“You love me.”
“I do love you.”
She stretches her hand across our towels and takes mine, tugs it toward her. I roll over on my side, facing her, and she stares at me with her inscrutable eyes. Like she’s going to tell me a secret. Something crucial she found out about love, or sex, or what happens to you when you feel like this and it makes no sense, when someone you’ve only talked to once takes over your entire brain until you’re twitchy with it, until you drop things in the kitchen and turn the stereo up way too loud and think about shaving your head or kicking through a wall or running out into the street and screaming because you can’t even stand yourself anymore. She widens her eyes at me and I wait for her to give me the answer.
“I’m starving,” she says. “Let’s go eat hamburgers.”
* * *
I work at a fruit stand in the open-air market downtown. It’s built on a hill, and underneath the open-air part there are layers of shops clinging to the steep hillside. The street level’s made up of long intersecting covered arcades full of stalls: fruit and fish and bread, flowers, ugly tie-dyed hippie clothes. Silver jewelry and amber pendants, bundles of lavender, fuzzy wool pullovers imported from Ecuador next to sandals made out of leather straps and tire rubber. Crafts for rich people, like handmade wooden children’s toys, or flavored jams you buy for relatives you don’t know very well that stay unopened in a cupboard for years until someone throws them out. Pierogi and humbow, gyros and hot dogs.
In the winter I love my work. All the out-of-towners flee the eternal damp. We have to wear sweaters and wool hats to keep out the cold, and we drink coffee until we’re cracked-out and speedy. The cobblestoned streets are wet and foggy, the low mournful sound of the ferry horn carries across the water, and all the afternoons are dreamy and quiet. I work after school and on weekends, and it’s always a relief to come here after the crowded halls and bells marking every hour, pop quizzes on nothing, lunch in the white-tiled cafeteria that reeks of old meatballs. I’d rather be at the market, where the salt smells from the fish stand mingle with the salt smell of the air, and seagulls squawk overhead, and the goth girls at the pierogi stand trade us steaming dumplings for apples and pears.
The lower levels are a maze of high-ceilinged hallways and big windows that look out over the bay. Creaking wooden floorboards, smells of incense and baking and cedar. Tiny shops tucked away around blind corners and in odd nooks. The Egyptian import store, where Aurora and I used to buy silver ankhs and wadjet eyes as Tutankhamun-obsessed girls. The bead store, where we spent hours sifting through wooden trays of colored glass, late-afternoon sun glinting red and blue and green among the beads. And our favorite then, our favorite still: the witch store. Walls of bookshelves to the left of the door, with titles like Goddess Divination and Magickal Herbcraft and Following the Moon. On the right, shelves and shelves of vitamins and tinctures and incenses and mysterious potions. The light in that shop has a quality to it that is thicker and richer than ordinary light, oozing across the glass bottles and casting shadows among the incense boxes. Cass took me there to buy my first tarot deck, from the long counter with a glass case that runs half the length of the store, full of cards: the Rider Waite and the Crowley Thoth deck, the Osho Zen Tarot, the Russian tarot and the Medieval tarot, goddess tarots, moon tarots, all laid out on swatches of velvet. The counter is cluttered with china bowls filled with beaded bracelets and more incense, pentacle charms, stones with special powers. Jars of rose petals and salts, ceramic Buddhas garlanded with jade, bundles of sage.
I used to be in love with the girl who worked at the witch store when I was a kid. She was elfin but not at all frail, and piled her crow-colored hair on top of her head in complicated knots. Her arms were inky with tattoos, sigils and runes and old woodcut illustrations running from her shoulders to her wrists. She always wore black: black lace dresses cut short and ragged, faded black concert shirts peppered with holes and tight black jeans, black boots or black canvas sneakers. Silver rings on every finger and silver pendants on silver chains.
When Aurora and I were young it was our greatest ambition to someday be the witch-store girl. We spent whole afternoons poking among the boxes of incenses, sneaking glances at her and imagining her life: her apartment filled with altars and candles and tapestries, her bed strewn with crushed-velvet pillows and bits of herbs, her collection of Dead Can Dance and Siouxsie and Clan of Xymox and This Mortal Coil on vinyl. Probably her boyfriend was one of the other people who worked in the market, one of the fruit-stand boys, equally cool-eyed and mysterious and beautiful. When we bought our vanilla oil and Nag Champa the witch-store girl would ignore us until the last possible minute, ignore even radiant, otherworldly Aurora; she would look out the window with one finger holding her place in her book, which was always a book of spells. I’d stand there twisting one foot behind the other, wanting to ask her if it was possible to move into her life, or even what that life looked like, what she did after work, what she thought about, who she loved, could she tell our fortunes from the pack of tarot cards she kept in her bag with her pot and her clove cigarettes.
These days the witch-store girl is a different girl. I do work in the market, and that life has lost some of its luster now that I’m the one hauling compost after the fruit stand closes, or bantering with the fish-stall boys who love to flirt with everyone, or half freezing to death on the long winter afternoons. Aurora still meets me after work sometimes, though, and we go to the witch store and rummage through books about Wicca and handfasting, or uncap the brown bottles of essential oil and hold them up to each other’s noses. The witch-store girl still ignores us.
Summer in the market is hell. Summer is so many tourists you have to kick at them to get anywhere; they gape at everything, take pictures of themselves wearing stupid hats or holding up cups of coffee, like coffee is something they can’t get where they are from. They ask you directions to places you’ve never heard of, or where they should eat dinner, or where they should stay, or if their car will be okay where they left it, while their sticky-faced children knock apples off the displays and wail in hellish chorus. In the summers I work full-time, and sometimes by the end of the day I never want to see another human being again.
Today has been a long day full of tourists palming peaches in their meaty hands, and I’m tired. I’m working with Raoul, who is my favorite. He’s a poet and he’s even meaner than me. He makes fun of the tourists to their faces and they love it, not realizing he’s serious. He lives in a studio apartment down the street from the market, and after work he lets me come over and smoke pot out of his hookah and fall asleep on his couch with his cat. His cat is named Oscar Wilde and its fur is the color and softness of dandelions gone to seed. Behind me I can hear the fish-stall boys yelling and chanting. The tourists cheer as they hurl fish back and forth.
“The peaches here come highly recommended,” someone says. I look up, ready to make a smart-aleck remark, and it’s Jack. I want to reach across the fruit and touch him, see if he’s real.
“You,” I say, and he smiles.
“I’ve been looking for you.”
I open my mouth. Nothing comes out. I close it again.
“Are you doing anything after work?”
“I get off in half an hour.”
“Can I come and get you?”
“Yeah,” I say. Trying not to squeak. He grins at me, tips an imaginary cap. Vanishes back into the crowd.
“Who was that,” Raoul says.
“Some boy I met at one of Aurora’s parties.”
“My goodness,” Raoul says. “Next time, invite me.”
I drop an entire flat of plums before I leave, and Raoul laughs at me. When I pick up my backpack at the end of my shift my hands are shaking. Jack’s waiting for me down the street, leaning against a wall, one booted foot tucked behind the other. I hold up a bag of peaches and he smiles. People turn their heads to look at him as they walk past. He leads me to a motorcycle parked down the block and hands me a helmet. “Do you have to be anywhere?” he says.
“Good. Have you ever ridden on one of these?” I shake my head. “Just hold on.” He throws one long leg over the back of the bike. I put the helmet on. My body fits neatly behind his. He takes both my wrists and pulls my arms tight around his waist. I can feel the muscles of his back moving against my chest. The bike roars to life, and for a moment I can see the possibility of my entire life, the story waiting to be written.
We drive for a long time, through the city and through miles of suburbs with their identical streets cluttered with identical houses and identical stores selling identical objects, out onto the long country roads that wind through farmland and sun-dappled woods. Overhead the green-leaved branches meet to make a latticework ceiling as we hurtle westward. I can feel every movement of his body. The wind tears merrily at my clothes, fluttering my shirt against my ribcage. At last the trees thin and ahead I can see a line of blue-grey. He’s taken us all the way to the Pacific.
He parks the bike and we walk through the trees to a stony beach littered with driftwood. It’s late in the day, but the sun-bleached trunks hold the sun’s heat. I sit next to him, our backs against a log, our legs stretching out toward the water. Great green waves crash against the tideline and I can hear pebbles clattering as the water sucks back out to sea. Underneath the pebbles is another, different sound, like music, but nothing I could recognize or name.
I know how to draw, and I know how to kiss, and I know how to put fabrics next to each other in a way that makes their richness clearer, or arrange a line of glass jars on a windowsill so that they catch the light in a way you would not expect. I know how to run for a long time, head down, knees pumping. I know how to see beauty in other things, but I have never taken much time to see any beauty in myself. I am to Aurora what a gift-store postcard print is to a Klimt hanging on the museum wall. I do not love her any less for it; I think it is best to know what you are and make peace with it. I like myself, but I do not have any illusions about what I am. Why me? I want to say to him, but if I ask he might start to wonder himself, and out of all the beautiful things in my life he is already the most extraordinary. He takes a knife out of his pocket and cuts a piece of peach and puts it in my mouth, licks the rivulets of juice from his wrist cat-quick, cuts me another piece. The soft felt of the peach skin is hot, the flesh cool and sweet beneath. I bite his thumb and hold it there in my mouth and he sets aside the peach and the knife and puts his other hand in my hair and kisses me.
Kissing him is like falling into a river, some great fierce current carrying me outside of my body, and all around us the music of the water rises and rises, and I can hear the wind moving over the sand, the distant singing of the stars veiled behind their curtain of blue sky, the slow, resonant chords of the earth turning on its axis. And then the music is gone again and he is only another human, kissing me on a warm beach. His mouth tastes of peaches and his skin smells like the sea. Everything feels real and more than real: the softness of his mouth, the hard pebbles beneath me, the warm wood against my back, the heat of his skin. The sandpapery stubble on his cheeks rubs my chin pink. We kiss until my mouth feels bee-stung and full and all the muscles in my body go liquid, until my knees shake and I know I won’t be able to stand up again without help. He kisses my cheeks, my eyelids, my earlobe, the place where my neck curves into my shoulder. I touch the hollow of his throat and he takes my hand in his, moves his mouth away from mine, kisses my knuckles, opens my fingers and presses his mouth into my palm. The wind coming off the water is colder now. I put my head on his chest and close my eyes and let the thunder of his heartbeat echo through me until it erases my thoughts one by one and there is nothing left but the sound of him.
* * *
It wasn’t like we didn’t know there were rules. Or, I mean, I knew that, at least. Maybe Aurora didn’t. It was more like rules were a thing for other people. Like you could be a girl, and it meant dressing in a way that made you pretty and soft. It meant not saying things you weren’t supposed to say, and knowing what those things were. It meant being quiet if you were smart, humble if you were pretty. It meant when boys asked you to touch your elbows behind your back you’d giggle and do it as if you didn’t know what they were trying to see.
Aurora always said everything, anything, from the very beginning. Aurora knew she was beautiful, knew she was smarter than everyone around her except me. Knew she was rich, knew she could do whatever the fuck she wanted and no one, nothing, would ever be able to stop her. Aurora was fierce, funny, mean. Aurora and I learned to smoke together, stole our first sips of whisky out of Maia’s prodigious stash, cussed in class, sealed ourselves in. Aurora and I made a world for two, a secret club that wasn’t a secret because everyone outside us saw the two of us together and knew we lived in a country whose borders they couldn’t cross. We didn’t care that people hated us, didn’t care that no one ever called us after school or invited us to slumber parties. We had no interest in dipping our classmates’ hands into bowls of water while they slept to see if we could make them pee, or playing Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board with girls whose faces closed up tight when they looked at us. We partied with adults, not little girls.
I had friends who weren’t Aurora, early on. I remember this girl I knew in grade school, this girl Tracy, the most normal name and the most normal girl. Her house had a room we weren’t allowed to go in and all the furniture was covered in plastic sheeting. Her mom made us snacks and we played games in her front yard. Hopscotch and running through a sprinkler in the afternoons when it was warm enough. She had a shelf of dolls in her pink room and all the dolls had dresses. She had a child-sized wooden kitchen, a fake wood stove with burners painted on, an oven with a door that opened. We would make cookies you couldn’t see in a metal bowl that used to be in her real kitchen. It took me a while to catch on. The cookies were pretend. The whole thing was a game. Tracy’s house had cabinets filled with real cookies in packages. Tracy’s house had white walls and clean blue carpet and a walkway to the front door made out of round pebbles set in cement. Brown beds on either side were planted with petunias at precisely measured one-foot intervals.
My house never smelled like Tracy’s house. My house smelled like incense and patchouli and sage and candles burning and soup on the stove in a big pot, and sometimes like weed when Cass had a boyfriend. My house had crooked windows and mismatched curtains Cass pieced together out of scraps. Creaky wooden floors, a bathroom full of chipped tiles, baseboards Cass had to continually tack back to the walls. My house had crumbling terracotta pots bursting over with herbs and tendrilly, disordered houseplants. Piles of records in the corners and books spilling from their shelves onto the floor, the couch, the kitchen table. Set lists and fliers from old punk and hardcore shows that Cass and Maia used to steal every time they went out to a club. Old medical posters and anatomy books, a plastic model of a human torso with transparent skin and multicolored organs. Tracy wasn’t allowed to come over to my house.
Tracy’s house. I liked it, but I didn’t like it. Tracy’s house was a different planet, a planet with order and strict scheduling. Tracy always had the newest Barbies, which she handed down to her younger sister as more current models were released. We ate dinner at the same time every night there, and we had cereal from a box in the mornings unless I slept over on the weekend, and then her mom would make us toast with holes cut out of the center and an egg where the bread had been. Once her mom asked if I wanted to go to church with them and I said okay, and so they took me in their van that smelled like old fast food with her brothers and her sister strapped in the back. Tracy gave me one of her dresses to wear, and I remember it had ruffles and the collar left a red mark on my neck. At church her family sang a lot of different songs they already knew the words to. Tracy liked a boy a grade ahead of us who left her a chocolate bar in her desk. They were going out. “Where do you go?” I asked, and she looked at me funny. Right away I knew that was the wrong question, but I didn’t know why. Cass let me go anywhere I wanted. I kissed Tracy’s boyfriend inside a tractor tire on the elementary-school playground. Three times. On the third time, I let him put his hand up my shirt. I never told Tracy. Afterward when he passed me in the hall he would look at his friends on either side and they would cover their mouths with their hands and laugh.
Cass never cut my hair and it grew in brown tangles down my back until the year I started seventh grade, when I cut it myself with Cass’s sewing scissors in our kitchen. That was the year Tracy and I decided not to be friends anymore. We never talked about it; it just happened. We had only been friends in the first place because Cass needed somewhere for me to go after school. That was when she was still washing dishes in a restaurant. She’d come home late, smelling like fryer grease and cigarette smoke, and I’d rub her back and tell her about Tracy’s cookies that weren’t real, and she’d laugh. I didn’t know why it was funny, but I always laughed, too.
I knew we were poor, but it wasn’t a thing I could explain. Other people explained it for me. They’d pull my hair and tell me it was dirty, or they’d tell me my clothes were wrong. Tracy’s mom gave me a bag of Tracy’s old clothes with a sanctimonious smile, but everything Tracy wore was ugly and didn’t fit. Looking at that sad pile of pink frillery filled me with a sick, unnameable shame. I took the bag home and stuffed it in the back of my closet. Cass found it months later and asked me what it was, and when I told her, she cried, and I didn’t have to go over to Tracy’s anymore. After that, it was me and Aurora, sisters and twins, the way it always should have been. After Tracy, Cass didn’t try to stop me from spending all my time at Maia’s, running around past bedtime with Aurora, who’d figured out a million ways to get into trouble before she figured out anything else.
I know the first time I see him that Jack isn’t who I’m supposed to love. Too old, trouble. Musician. We’re wary of musicians, in my family. My family being Cass and Aurora and me. Musicians get famous and cry about it. They knock you up and bail. Musicians are on heroin. They mope around. Musicians: seriously not worth the investment of your time and energy. You always have to pay their rent—this is what Cass has told me—until they make it, and then they leave you for a swimsuit model. Or else they die. “What about girl musicians?” Aurora asked once.
“Girl musicians, too,” Cass said, and got that face she gets when she is done talking. “You want to date, baby girls, go for accountants.”
But that’s not how it happens when your heart gets in the middle. Jack is like a light turned on in a room I didn’t even know was dark. It’s always been Aurora who’s loved boys with danger written under their skin. Until now, I’ve never loved anyone except Aurora. It’s more than his music, more even than the smell of his skin. More than the way his body is like a magnet calling all the iron in my blood. He’s a drug that’s hooked me on the very first trip. I knew it, the first time he kissed me, knew I was caught. Who am I, to fight the hand of fate? I already know what happens to people who tell the gods how to do their job.
* * *
When I get home from the ocean Aurora is asleep in my bed and Cass is gone. The apartment is quiet and cool. Aurora is curled tightly in on herself, her arms crossed on her chest. I tuck the blanket around her shoulders. She makes a soft anguished noise in her sleep and then opens her eyes, staring at me without seeing. “He’s here,” she says. I walk to the window and look out. The street is empty.
“There’s no one,” I say, but then I see a shadow that is darker than all the other shadows and at its center a spark of red. Like the skeleton man’s eyes, the man from Aurora’s party. I close the curtains. “He can’t get in.”
“Who can’t get in?” Aurora asks behind me. She sits up, blinking. “Who are you talking to?”
“No one. Never mind.” I climb into the bed and put my head in her lap and she tangles her fingers in my hair, smoothing it away from my face.
“You smell like boy.” She squirrels down next to me and I tuck my chin against her shoulder. “Tell me everything,” she says, and I tell her.
“You like him.”
“I like him.”
“Don’t go away from me,” she whispers. “Everybody goes away from me.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” The curtains move although there is no wind. Everything else has gone still. I close my eyes and all I can see is him: his face, his eyes, his hands with the knife, cutting into the peach. His hands on my skin. “I’m not going anywhere,” I say again, this time less certain. I put my arm around Aurora, curl up against the curve of her back, and wait for dawn.
In the morning the world seems ordinary again. I leave Aurora asleep and pad into the kitchen, where Cass is at our scarred wooden table with a tarot spread in front of her and her hands around her favorite chipped blue mug. The kitchen is so familiar, so shabby and un-mysterious. This is our apartment, the ancient green stove whose left burners only work when they have a mind to, the tangle of houseplants in their net hammocks dangling from the ceiling, trailing leafy streamers down the cheery yellow walls. There are the wooden shelves lined with mason jars full of Cass’s herbs and roots and flowers. If I opened the cupboards I would find plates that don’t match, jam jars doing double duty as water glasses, mugs from the Salvation Army that say things like WORLD’S #1 TEACHER and FORTY AND LOVING IT! I can smell bread baking. Nothing sinister could possibly happen in this kitchen. I pour myself a cup of coffee, the one vice Cass allows, and sit at the table, tucking my feet up underneath me. Cass looks tired, the lines around her grey eyes more pronounced. She stares at the cards, chewing on her lip.
“You look like Fate is not on your side this morning,” I say.
“I was asking about Maia. It never changes much.” She sweeps the cards into a pile, shuffles them, puts them away in their carved wooden box, and shakes herself. “Let’s talk about happier things.” I can’t stop the smile that spreads across my face.
“I met a boy.” Boy is the wrong word. She laces her long fingers together.
“A boy,” she echoes.
“At Aurora’s party. He was playing music in the garden. It was—I’d never—” I falter. I can’t describe what happened that night when Jack played. “It was better than anything I have ever heard. And then he talked to me, and yesterday we went to the ocean after I got off work, and we had a picnic.” Describing it in our homely kitchen makes it seem as though what’s happening to me is ordinary, too. I am a girl, it is summer. I like a boy. In the fall I will start school again. There is no room for skeleton men in this kitchen, no place for songs that are like spells. For a moment I can stop thinking about Jack’s mouth. But Cass’s eyes are serious now.
“Be careful,” she says.
“You don’t know him.”
“It feels like I do.” Is that true? I don’t know. Something in me recognizes something in him. His body brings my body home. If that’s not a kind of knowing, I don’t need to know what knowing is.
She sighs and runs her hands through her hair. There is grey in it now, which still surprises me. Cass has always seemed barely older than I am. She refuses to dye her hair dark again, which I think is funny, considering how many unnatural colors it was when she was younger. “That’s a different kind of vanity,” she’d said when I pointed that out. “I’m not afraid of growing up.”
Now she scowls at me. “That’s always how it feels.”
“This is different.”
“You’re seventeen. You think everything is different when you’re seventeen. How old is he? What does he do?”
“He’s a musician.” I ignore the first question.
“Stay away from musicians.”
“Of course I worry. I let you do whatever you want, I let you grow up without—” She stops. She had been about to say without a father. “I let you run around with Aurora,” she says instead. “Be careful.” Her face is impossible to read.
“Is someone baking bread?” Aurora asks from the doorway. She’s sleepy-eyed and tousled, her shirt slipping off one shoulder, her white hair disordered.
“It should be about done,” Cass says, and gets up to check the oven. Aurora takes a mug out of a cabinet, pours the last of the coffee. She has never commented on the fact that my house has four rooms and hers has forty, or that you can see the floorboards through our fraying rugs, or that nearly all the beautiful things we own are things Aurora bought for us. She gave me a Kiki Smith print for my birthday last year that’s worth more than everything else in our house put together.
“God, I had the weirdest dream,” she says, sitting down.
“What did you dream?” Cass asks.
“I was being chased by this man, and his eyes were made out of fire, and he wanted something from me but I didn’t know what it was. I was running through this weird apartment with all these windows and on the walls were these terrible paintings of people being tortured, and everywhere there was this music and it was getting louder and louder. And all I wanted was to stop and go to sleep there and forget everything, but I knew if I stopped the man would never let me leave again.” As she talks a cloud moves across the sun and the light in the kitchen dulls. Cass closes her eyes, reaches forward, touches Aurora’s forehead with two fingers. She whispers something, opens her eyes, takes her hand away.
“I’ll make you some tea.” She takes away Aurora’s coffee mug. Aurora makes a noise of protest as Cass pours the coffee down the drain and sets the kettle on the stove.
“Humor her,” I say.
Cass takes jars down from her shelves, measures out herbs. “Will you tell me if you have that dream again?” Like me, she’s trying to keep her words light, but I know she is as unnerved as I am.
“Sure,” Aurora says, yawning. “Can I have a little coffee?”
“Later,” Cass says.
“It was like I wanted the man to catch me, though,” Aurora says. “In the dream. Like I knew he could give me something in return, for whatever it was he was going to take, and I wanted to know what it was. There was something beautiful about him, too. The whole thing felt so real.”
“It’s a mask,” Cass says quietly with her back to us. “Beauty like that is always a mask.”
“It was a dream,” Aurora says. “Can I have some bread, at least?”
* * *
Later, after Aurora goes home, and Cass takes her cards and her crystals and her charts and goes to meet a client, I try to draw Jack. I rifle through my records and put on the Gits, smooth the blank sheet of paper with my palms, get out my pencils, arrange and rearrange them, pick them up and put them down again. Whenever I close my eyes all I see is him. I draw a line and it’s wrong, another line and it’s worse, turn the paper over, try again. I can see him in my mind but not with my hands. Everyone at the party had moved toward him when he played, unseeing, their mouths open, their eyes blank. My work does not have that kind of power, or anything close. There is no magic in anything I ever draw; only labor, and love, and sometimes a grace that becomes larger than the paper or the canvas, so that you can see for a moment the person inside as though they are about to speak to you or come alive. But that does not happen very often, and most of the time my pictures are only pictures, and a lot of the time they are not very good at all. I put the pencil down. I don’t want to draw him. I want him here, in my room, his hands across my skin again, his mouth. I want him to play me songs. I want to tangle my fingers in his hair. I want things that make me blush. It is unseemly, I think, to want someone this much. I can’t draw what I’m seeing. I would have an easier time trying to draw the shape of a cloud moving across the sky.
I draw a line instead, a line of trees that becomes a dark wood with eyes peering out of it, shadows moving through the trees, dark shapes flitting from one branch to another. The afternoon shades into evening, and my room dims. The figures in the trees seem to move without my drawing them, as though they have taken on a life of their own, reaching out to me, whispering my name. I can see into a world without sunlight, a darkness so dense I can shape it with my hands. My bare feet are on a rough dirt path through the trees and the air has gone cold. Thick vines bristling with thorns wrap around the trunks, a viscous sap dark as blood running down the bark where the thorns have pierced it. The darkness around me is alive, creaking and rustling. The branches of the trees are bare and dry as bones. I hug myself, shivering. I am at the river again, the river in my dream. It gleams with a dull sheen as though it were made out of oil. I am looking for someone. Someone I must find, before it is too late. I can hear the dogs howling. A figure steps onto the path between me and the river, a darkness blacker even than the darkness around it, and it speaks my name aloud in the dark and reaches its arms toward me. I scream and jerk backward, and my room floods with light from the hallway, and I hear my name again, over and over, Cass running through the open door. The darkness is an ordinary darkness again, my own small room with the lights off, my unmade bed, my stereo, my windowsill lined with candles and dried flowers, the disintegrating rag rug underneath my feet. “I didn’t hear you come home.”
“I thought you were asleep, and then I heard you scream.”
“I was drawing.” I turn to my desk to show her the forest but the paper is blank.
She lets go of me and walks into the kitchen. I wonder how long I was in that forest. Where that forest was. Cass brings me a steaming mug of something bitter and sharp-smelling. I climb into my bed without taking off my clothes and she sits with me while I drink the tea, stroking my forehead, and when I fall asleep at last I do not dream again.
* * *
“You have got it bad,” Raoul says. I’m so dopey with lust I’ve been tripping over fruit crates all day. We’re sitting in the street behind the stand now, on a smoke break, watching the fish-stall boys chuck salmon. They look good and they know it. They’re like a tribe of Norsemen, all bulging muscles and piercing blue eyes. Tourist ladies are always trying to get their pictures taken with the handsomest ones. Not so much my speed, but I like to watch Raoul flirt with them. Across the street, the pierogi girls are reading each other’s palms. Occasionally the summer breeze brings me a whiff of their patchouli.
Raoul is wearing tight black leather pants, despite the summer sun, and a black tank top that hangs soft and loose and shows off his tattoos and the wooden rosary I’ve never seen him without. Me, threadbare black T-shirt, black jeans, black boots. The fish-stall boys call us the vampire twins. “Vampires be happy!” the one with the green hat likes to shout at us. “Cheer up, vampires!”
“You don’t even know,” I say now. I want to fling myself across something but I settle for flailing my arms. “He’s, like, I don’t even know. Oh my god.”
“Like so good he takes away your capacity for intelligent speech,” Raoul suggests.
“Shut up.” I pretend to chuck a peach at him.
“He’s pretty hot.”
“Right? But it’s more than that. He has this, like, power. Like a magnet. I wish you could have seen him play.”
“A magnet. Wow. That must be so compelling.”
“What do you talk about?”
I blush. “Um. Not a whole lot, so far.”
“Ah, yes. The magnet.”
“You are such a dick.”
“I would never malign the power of the magnet.” He stubs out his cigarette on the bottom of his boot and tucks the butt in the compost pile.
“What?” he says, a portrait of innocence. “Just doing my part for the earth.”
After work I follow Raoul home like a puppy. He heats up tamales, and I eat mine with my fingers. Raoul eats his tamales with a pair of chopsticks and turns on MTV.
“When I was little I thought everyone’s best friend’s aunts and uncles were in music videos,” I tell him.
“Yeah? That’s kind of weird.”
“You want weird, try being Aurora.”
Raoul’s apartment is much smaller than mine, one room with a tiny bathroom and a tinier kitchen. He’s covered the walls with velvet and dried roses and white Christmas lights, crucifixes and paintings of saints. On a table sits a big wooden Virgen de Guadalupe surrounded by candles and flowers and ceramic skulls and rosaries, crystals and cones of incense and miniature bottles of liquor. He has a Pendleton blanket folded on his bed, triangles of color that repeat themselves mosaiclike, and an old acoustic guitar his father gave him. I am not allowed to touch the blanket. When Raoul looks at it his face glows.
I often wonder what it is like for Raoul here, in this city where white people spring everywhere from the damp earth like fungi, but I never ask. I love Raoul because he does not treat me like a teenager, and because he is funny and kind and wise, and because he makes me weird techno mixtapes, stuff like Autechre and Orbital and Plaid, the Chemical Brothers, Carl Craig. I know his family lives in Arizona, and he grew up in the desert, and he spoke Spanish before he spoke English, and he is teaching himself Navajo, which his dad never spoke at home because he got beaten at the boarding school for using it when he was a kid. But that’s about all Raoul’s told me about his life before he came here. I know he misses living somewhere the sky is so big it makes you feel like a speck of dust, and I know his mom sends him mole sometimes, because when she does he makes chicken in mole and it is so good it almost makes me cry. Oscar Wilde jumps in my lap, angling for tamale. “Uh-uh,” I say, pushing him away, and he flicks his tail at me in disdain. Raoul smiles.
MTV is playing hair metal, and we laugh at the outfits. “I need me some of that,” Raoul says, when the singer prances across the screen in a leopard vest. I imagine Raoul shirtless in a fur vest, deliberately overcharging tourists for their plums. It’s a glorious picture. When I get up to go home Raoul stops me. “You be careful with those older boys,” he says. His voice is teasing but his eyes are serious. I think of Cass in our kitchen with those same eyes. When all the adults in your life are telling you the same thing, I know you’re supposed to pay attention. But you know what Aurora says? The hard way is my favorite way to learn.
* * *
When Aurora and I were little girls we slit open our palms in the room where her father died, pressed our hands together. Palm to palm is holy palmer’s kiss. We were clumsy with the knife and cut too deep, and the blood ran down our arms and fell in fat red droplets to the floor. We both still have the scars, matching white slashes, and if you push aside the rug in that room you can see where the blood left a stain.
When we were fourteen, Aurora almost died, too. We were drinking Maia’s bourbon and watching a movie. I fell asleep, woke with a start when the credits began. Aurora wasn’t there. I wandered the whole house looking for her before I thought to go outside. She was lying facedown in the grass, her skin cold, her face in a puddle of her own vomit. When the paramedics came, they said if I had found her any later there would have been nothing they could have done. “What were you thinking?” I asked her, when she woke up in the hospital with tubes coming out of her nose. Even like that she was beautiful.
“I thought I could see him if I got far enough toward the other side,” she said. I didn’t have to ask who she meant.
“Aurora,” I said, and then I didn’t know what to say after that. She looked at me and her eyes were very old.
“I guess it runs in the family,” she said. Only much later did it occur to me I hadn’t even thought to call either of our mothers. It was the hospital that called Maia. She’d shown up disheveled and confused, and she held my hand in the hospital room while Aurora slept. “I’m so sorry, baby,” she’d whispered, over and over again, until finally I asked her to stop. I’d told the paramedics I was Aurora’s sister. I never told Cass about it at all.
After that I tried not to get drunk around Aurora. One of us would always have to know when to stop, and I understood after that night that it was never going to be her. One of us had to learn how to say no, figure a way out, count the exits. It was up to me to keep her safe. There was no one else who could.
* * *
“Come over,” Aurora says. “Jack’s here.” I’m trying to draw him again and it’s not working. When the phone rang I thought I would jump straight out of my skin.
“Jack’s at your house?”
“Uh-huh. Want me to pick you up?”
“Why is Jack at your house?”
“You’re right. We should go somewhere. You want pho?”
I give up. “Yeah, sure.”
I could change my clothes but that would be weird, because he has only ever seen me in the same clothes. So if I changed them it would be obvious I changed them for him. But maybe he wouldn’t know, since he’s only seen me twice. But even if he doesn’t know, Aurora will, and if she knows I changed my clothes she will know it is more than liking him. She’ll know how much I like him, that I really, really like him, and if he is already hers and not mine I don’t want her to know. I take off my shirt and stare at myself in the mirror over the dresser. I look like myself with no shirt. Pale soft belly, pale soft breasts in the worn-thin sports bra I wear to hide them, broad shoulders heavy with muscle. I put the shirt back on. Maybe I need a different shirt. But all my shirts look the same. From the back I look like a boy. From the front, too, if I am being honest with myself. Oh my god, I think, stricken. What if my entire life I have looked like a hideously ugly boy and everyone loves me too much to tell me. My face in the mirror is filled with panic. Maybe Jack prefers girls who look like girls. Maybe Jack was confused when he came and got me at the market, was hoping I would lead him to Aurora, with her sylph’s body and veil of white hair. Maybe kissing me was a pit stop on the way to the finish line. Maybe they are having sex, like, right now. Maybe even if they are he will still have sex with me. But what if I need a different shirt. If there were something in my room I could hit myself over the head with, I would do that. Before this week I had only two worries: Don’t let Aurora kill herself, and don’t let Cass find out how messed up Aurora is. Now the spectrum of things to be anxious about has exploded into a full-scale rainbow.
I hear Aurora’s honk in the street below my window and I grab my bag and run downstairs. I forgot to leave a note for Cass, but I can call her if we’re out late. Jack turns around in the passenger seat of the car as I climb into the backseat and gives me a long, greedy kiss. “Gross,” Aurora says peaceably as she drives. When Jack lets me go I’m breathless and flustered.
“Hi,” I say, running my hands down my jeans. “What were you guys up to?” Aurora meets my eyes in the rearview mirror and winks. Jack winds one long arm behind his seat, brushes his fingers against my knee. I am mortified by the effect this gesture has on me, stare resolutely out the window, try to gather some semblance of dignity as a rich glow spreads between my legs. Maybe Aurora will pull the car over right now and go for a walk. A really long walk. Maybe Jack will take off all his clothes.
“I want pho,” Aurora says, her raspy voice reeling me back to a world where everyone is wearing clothes and having an ordinary conversation about dinner. If Raoul could see inside my head right now he would die laughing. I send him a psychic message. Raoul. Help. Is. This. Normal.
“What’s pho?” Jack asks.
“Oh my god,” Aurora says. “How do you not know this glory? Noodles in broth with cow parts. And they bring you a cream puff with your order.”
“What kind of cow parts,” Jack says.
“Like all the parts. You can get tofu and vegetable if you’re going to be a baby.”
“I just like to know what parts, before I make a commitment.”
I’m quiet as they banter. Aurora’s playing Aphex Twin, the ambient stuff, pulsing and spooky. The streetlights flash by. There is this sense of expectation that fills the car, like before everything was one way, and now everything is going to be another. We’re driving into the night where everything begins. Jack touches my knee again and I take his hand. He rubs one thumb across my knuckles, and if I weren’t sitting down already I’d fall over. “Let’s go to California,” I say.
“Now?” Aurora’s excited. I can see her perk up. “We should get coffee first.”
“I’m supposed to work tomorrow night,” Jack says.
“Quit.” Aurora bounces in her seat. “I’ll drive. It’s only eight hours to the border. We can wake up on the beach.”
“They have a beach in this state, too,” Jack points out.
“It’s not the same beach.”
“It’s the same ocean.”
“In California you can sleep on the beach without freezing to death,” I say.
“Even in the winter,” Aurora adds. “In Southern California.”
“We could call your work and say we kidnapped you,” I offer. “We’re holding you for ransom.”
“I think they might just fire me.”
“That works fine,” Aurora says. “Because then you wouldn’t have to worry about your job.” We’re at the pho place now. She circles the block a few times, finds a parking spot down the street. Jack unfolds himself from the car. I get out, and he pulls me to him again. “Hey, you,” he says into my ear.
“Get a room!” Aurora yells. “Or I’ll eat your fucking noodles!”
Inside, we order soup. The waiter is even younger than we are. He brings us cream puffs in paper wrappers. Aurora tears hers in half, licks out the cream at the center. “You got some on your nose,” Jack says, and leans forward to wipe it away with his thumb. Aurora beams at him. I tear apart basil and cilantro and heap them on my noodles, stir in plum sauce, don’t look up until he leans back in his seat again. Aurora dumps in half the bottle of chili sauce, gets to work with her chopsticks. She always eats like it’s her last meal. I try to be dainty for Jack’s benefit, but I am not graceful under the best of circumstances, and I give up quickly. Aurora sings under her breath, a line about driving down the coast at night. It’s from one of her dad’s songs.
Without warning I’m seized by happiness so huge I want to jump up and hug them both. This is my life, I think, these are my friends. Jack is a mystery, but he’s my mystery, smiling at me now like we both know a secret that’s too good to keep to ourselves. There’s Aurora, shoveling noodles into her mouth, licking chili sauce off her fingers: the most beautiful girl in the world, but also the funniest and the most generous and the easiest to love. The air is that kind of warm where you feel like you’re floating, and I’m full and my Vietnamese iced coffee is thick and sweet but not too sweet, and Jack is holding my hand under the table. Everyone in the restaurant keeps turning to look at us. Summer is happening, and our whole lives are in front of us, and here we are, making a circle out of love.
Later, Aurora drives us back to her house. I call Cass and tell her I’m sleeping over. “Okay,” she says, yawning into the phone. “See you in the morning. Tell Aurora I’ll do her chart this week if she wants.” Aurora is privately dubious when it comes to Cass’s magical powers, but she takes Cass’s astrological advice like it’s straight gospel. I’m more skeptical. Getting life advice from your mom is always a bad call anyway, even if technically it’s coming from space rocks.
Aurora wants to watch The Abyss. We pile into her bed like puppies. I stretch out between the two of them and they curl into me, Jack’s arm around my shoulders, Aurora’s head on my chest. I run my fingers through her hair and she dozes until the alien tongue of water makes its way through the cabin to say hello. That’s her favorite part. When Coffey shuts the hatch on it and it collapses in a giant wave, she turns her face up to Jack. “I like you,” she says sleepily. “You can stay. But if you fuck with my sister, I’ll slit your throat in your sleep.”
“Stay frosty,” he says, and she opens her eyes wide.
“Wow,” she says to me. “This one, you must keep.” I hug them closer. We fall asleep like that in her big soft bed, tangled up in one another, and when the white light of morning wakes me I can’t tell where my body ends and their bodies begin.
When Jack leaves in the afternoon Aurora makes us Cup O’ Noodles and milkshakes—about all she can manage in the kitchen—and we go back to bed. She flips through channels until she finds an X-Files marathon. “Wicked,” she says.
“Oh my god,” I say, “this one is so scary.” It’s the episode where Mulder and Scully are in the woods. They hike in to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a timber crew and end up trapped in a cabin with a dying generator and an ecoterrorist. At night, clouds of minuscule bugs come down out of the sky and mummify anyone who strays outside the circle of the cabin’s light. I’ve never seen alien bugs when I’m hiking, but it’s not an entirely inaccurate portrayal of the peninsula. I love it out there, but those woods aren’t what I would call friendly.
“This one rules so hard,” Aurora says, slurping noodles.
“My baby girls.” Maia’s standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame.
“Hi, Maia,” Aurora says, without looking away from the TV.
“Who spent the night?”
“Oh,” I say, “sorry, we should have asked.” It makes me feel better to pretend sometimes that Maia is a normal parent, a functional human with concerns like those of other humans with offspring. Is my daughter home safe, is my daughter fed, is my daughter opening the door of our house to strange men. Et cetera.
“You know I don’t care,” Maia says, coming over to sit on the edge of Aurora’s bed. “I like to meet your friends.”
“Ssssssh,” Aurora says. It’s a tense scene. Mulder and Scully and the ecoterrorist stare at the sole remaining light bulb flickering dimly in the cabin. The edges of the dark teem with bugs. The generator coughs.
“When was the last time you ate real food?” Maia asks.
“The last time you bought some,” Aurora snaps.
Maia presses a hand to her chest, pretending to have been shot, and rolls her eyes. She’s looking pretty good today. Black hair washed and glossy, eyes bright. More or less dressed: ragged flannel shirt that’s way too big for her and must have been Aurora’s dad’s, leggings, Converse. You can mistake her for a teenager until you look in her eyes.
The episode cuts to a commercial. Aurora sucks noodles into her mouth, chugs the last of the salty broth. Cass once made me read the list of ingredients on a Cup O’ Noodles aloud. “I want you to picture that inside your body,” she’d said. I chew contentedly on a salty cube of rehydrated carrot. Mmmmmm.
“So who was that?”
“This boy I’m kind of seeing,” I say. “I think.” Blushing. Like a teenager. Which I am. But still.
“Her boyfriend,” Aurora amends.
“He is not my boyfriend.”
“He is definitely your boyfriend.”
“I don’t have a goddamn boyfriend!”
“Is he dreamy?” Maia asks.
“He’s a musician.”
Maia laughs. “Does Cass know?”
“Yeah. She’s kind of not stoked.”
“I’m sure. Where’d you meet him? A show?”
“Here, actually. At Aurora’s party. He played in the yard.”
“You had a party?” Aurora’s watching a commercial for tampons as if it’s the most fascinating thing she’s ever seen. “Why didn’t you tell me you had a party?”
“You were at the party, Maia,” I say cautiously. “We talked. Remember?”
“Was I?” She doesn’t seem surprised. “Aurora, which party was it?”
Aurora doesn’t answer. She chews on the edge of her Styrofoam cup, pats around next to her for her cigarettes without moving her eyes from the screen. “You know you’re not supposed to smoke in here,” Maia adds. Aurora rolls her eyes, an unconscious echo of Maia, but doesn’t answer. I never tell Aurora, because she goes from placid to enraged in the space of a single sentence, but they’re so alike it’s comical sometimes.
“It was just a few people,” I say, although this isn’t at all true. “You probably weren’t downstairs for very long.” I fight the urge to reach over and push up one sleeve of Maia’s flannel shirt, check for red lines tracking down her brown skin. It’s not like there’s anything I can do. Aurora finds her cigarettes, sticks one in her mouth, lights it without looking away from the television.
“Baby,” Maia says, and takes it out of her mouth. “Come on.”
“Jesus,” Aurora mutters, throwing herself back into the pillows with an exaggerated sigh. Maia stretches like a cat. You can still see it in her, the magic Aurora’s inherited, that tangible haze of sex and glamour. Even the drugs and sadness haven’t ravaged it out of her. She clambers over me and burrows between us. Aurora makes an annoyed noise but relents, puts an arm around Maia’s shoulders. The commercials end and we’re back to the forest. Mulder and Scully are going to make a run for it. Rain pours down. The road out of the woods is a mess of mud and water. The bugs gather. I know how it ends, but I still hold my breath.
“Do they make it?” Maia asks.
“Oh my god,” Aurora says. “Seriously. Shut up.”
* * *
Jack invites us to come see him play at the OK Hotel. The club is already packed when we get there. Crow-haired goth girls in rosaries and lace dresses lean against the bar, surrounded by boys in leather and spikes and big boots, tattoos snaking up their arms. Aurora is wearing white, as always, a silk slip from the forties edged in fraying lace, rhinestone clips holding her hair away from her face, dusty old brown cowboy boots. In the gloomy club, she shines like a firefly among all these dark moths. She tried to get me into one of her dresses, but I didn’t like the feel of the night, wanted to know I could run away if I had to, or fight. So I’m wearing the same clothes as always, dark jeans and my favorite disintegrating Siouxsie shirt, boots for kicking. I did let Aurora outline my eyes, mess up my hair. I check myself out in the filthy bathroom mirror. I look mean, which doesn’t surprise me, and sexy, which does. Aurora leaves me to go get a drink and I watch her dance through the crowd, touching someone’s arm, kissing someone else’s cheek.
The air is hot and thick with cigarette smoke and the resinous tang of pot. Red lights are trained on the empty stage and they refract through the haze across a tangle of faces and bodies. I shift from one foot to the other, my skin itchy. Someone elbows me in the back, someone else steps on my foot, and panic surges in my chest—they’re going to crush me, I think. I can’t breathe, and the bodies around me are pressing closer and closer, and I fight the urge to punch into the crowd. “What’s the matter?” Aurora asks, coming up behind me and putting one cool hand on my cheek. “You look awful, what happened?” She hands me a drink, something clear and cold, and I gulp it down without asking what it is. Then I see who she’s with. It’s the skeleton man from her party. He’s wearing the same clothes, or some version of the same clothes. His eyes are so dark I can’t see where the pupil ends and the iris begins.
“This is Minos,” Aurora says. “You remember him? He was at my party? He owns a club in LA, and he works for a record producer.” She babbles on. Her voice has the plastic lilt it takes on when she’s being charming. The skeleton man watches me with his flat black eyes, as though he can see right through me to that afternoon on the beach with Jack, as though he knows everything I have done and every thought I have ever had. Under that ruthless stare all my feelings seem adolescent and cheap. The stage lights dim and come up again, saving me from having to say anything. Jack comes onstage and the crowd hushes instantly. I can feel the whole club go anxious and expectant around me. Aurora puts her head on my shoulder. “They love him already. Look at that.” She pokes me in the ribs. “Love him just like you.” I grimace but refuse to rise to her bait.
I thought I had been moved by Jack’s music before; that was nothing compared to what happens now. The music washes through the packed room like a flood tide. It’s the sound of spring rising out of a cracked and barren earth, gilding branches with new buds and loading vines with heavy blossoms, dusting bees with pollen. It’s spring giving way to summer, balmy air smelling of roses, hot skin meeting the cold shock of the ocean, starry nights as warm as kisses. It’s the soft touch of lips brushing the hollow of your throat, slow hands on your naked skin. It’s as elemental and necessary as the breath in my lungs, but far more beautiful than anything that is real. I open my eyes and look around me and see mouths open, cheeks wet with tears. But the hunger in their eyes terrifies me, their hands reaching for him as though they would tear him to pieces if he were among them. Devour him whole. No, I think, it’s too much. It’s too much. But I can’t stop it, can’t even stem my own desire, how much I want him, how much I want that music in me, too.
When he stops playing he stands for a moment, stilling the quivering strings with the flat of his hand, and then he walks off the stage. The room is as still as a cathedral for long seconds, and then everyone around me lets out their breath at the same time, and the madness leaves their eyes and they shake their heads as though to clear away a spell. Someone begins to clap, slow and uncertain, and then someone else joins in, and then the whole room roars, throats open wide, cheering and stomping their feet. I look over at Aurora. Minos is standing behind her, his arms around her waist, and she is leaning into him with her mouth open. He catches my look and smiles at me, a death’s-head grin with no joy in it.
It is a long time before the cheering dies down, and a long time after that before the next band begins carrying their drum kit and amps onto the stage, shoulders hunched as though they are embarrassed. The band launches into its first song and the chords jangle harsh and wrong. They falter and stop, start over again. I’ve seen them before and they were good, better than good, but there’s no way anyone mortal can follow Jack. The singer, a girl with long dark hair and a baby face, seems near tears. Aurora is drinking one clear drink after another. “Let’s go,” I say to her, and she shakes her head.
“I’m having fun.”
“This stopped being fun.”
“You don’t even try to have fun.” She pouts at me. I know Aurora drunk by heart. I don’t even need to see the flush in her cheeks or hear the challenge in her voice. Minos lurks behind her, bone-thin but somehow taking up too much space. I don’t like him, don’t want to talk to him, don’t want to watch Aurora flirt with him, giggling, like a rabbit teasing a wolf. He could eat her whole. He looks at me over her shoulder and smiles again. It’s not friendly.
“I’m going to find Jack.” I push past them before she can say anything else. I cut my way through the crowd to the door that leads backstage, wait until no one is looking and duck through it into the dingy and badly lit corridor.
Jack is in the green room, alone, sitting on a decrepit velour couch that looks like it’s been abused by musicians for longer than I’ve been alive. His guitar is next to him and his head is in his hands. I feel suddenly foolish, duck my head in embarrassment. But he looks up at me with such naked joy that I have to look away. I cross the room and before I even reach the couch he’s on his feet, leaning toward me, his mouth meeting mine.
“They want so much,” he says into my hair. “Every time I play for more people, they want more of me, and I feel so empty when I’m done. But it’s the only thing I know how to do. It’s the only thing I’m good at.”
“You can learn other things.”
“It’s the only thing that makes me feel alive.” He is holding my wrists now, so tightly it hurts. “Do you want to get out of here?”
* * *
He lives in a one-story cottage caught between two larger buildings. A jungle of front garden hides it from the street: huge, glorious dahlias luminous in the moonlight; heady-scented wild roses; broad-leaved and tall green plants I do not recognize. Cass would know their names. The ground is carpeted with mint, and a riot of jasmine obscures the front porch. I stop to look at the flowers. “I’ve never seen dahlias this big.”
“I play for them,” he says. “I think they like it.” He unlocks the door and I follow him inside.
The house is a single open room, with a small kitchen in one corner and big windows that look out on another, even junglier garden in back. There’s a mattress under one of the windows with a book-stuffed shelf beside it, a cheap card table and two chairs, a soft rich rug, a dresser, a single lamp in one corner. A record player sits beside a wooden crate full of records. There’s nothing on the walls except for a print of Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy tacked up over the bed. I’ve always loved that painting: the reclining figure stretched out on desert sand underneath a night-blued sky. Multicolored coat, striped blanket, lute. The moon is full, edging a range of mountains in silver. A lion stands over the sleeping figure, one yellow eye staring. Not at the sleeper, but at me. No one in the world knows where I am except Jack. I cross the room and squat next to the bookshelf. Mostly classics: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Odyssey, Keats, Shakespeare. A copy of The Inferno illustrated by Gustave Doré. Art books: Lucian Freud, Kiki Smith. “Schiele,” I say, “you like him?”
“I love him.”
“So do I. You like Rousseau, too?”
He touches the picture. “Did you know he never left France in his entire life? He was a tax collector who painted taxidermied animals and invented a jungle out of the exhibits at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. He painted people like me without ever having met a black person.” He stops and I wait for him to say something else. “It’s a reminder,” he says. “For me. Of what people see.”
“Oh. I never thought about it that way before.”
“Well,” he says. “You’re white.”
“Oh,” I say again.
He puts on a Nina Simone record, sits on the bed. “Come here,” he says gently, and I move up from the floor so that I’m sitting next to him on the mattress. My heart is beating so hard I think he must be able to hear it. Nina Simone’s low rich voice seals us in. “What do you paint?” he asks. “Surely not lions.” He puts a hand on my back, his thumb gently rubbing the knot of bone where my neck meets my spine.
“People, mostly. Sometimes places. Sometimes things that aren’t real.”
“Would you paint me?”
I hook my bag toward me with my foot, get out the jar of India ink and the soft brushes I carry with me everywhere. I get up, drag over one of his chairs, sit in it facing him, prop my sketchbook on my knees. I look at him for a long time, trying to see him as a series of lines, trying to see the shape underneath his skin, a language of his bones and his body that I can translate into marks on paper. The white page leers at me, mocking. I fidget, chew my brush. Then I have an idea.
“Take off your shirt,” I say, “and lie down.” He raises an eyebrow. “Not like that.” I can feel heat rising to my cheeks, and I turn my head away. “Just do it.” I hear the rustle of him moving around and don’t look again until he is still. The lamplight gilds the smooth muscles of his back and arms, his long and beautifully shaped hands. He’s turned his face away from me, and his hair coils across the pillow. I set down the sketchbook, put my brush between my teeth, and uncap the bottle of ink. “Keep still,” I say into his ear, and then I go to work.
I draw a flight of shorebirds winging their way up his spine and a cluster of sea urchins spiking across his shoulder. I draw an osprey, stalled in midair with its wings crooked, in that still moment before it begins its dive. I draw waves rising between his ribs. I draw fish winking silver through the depths, kelp winding around them in thick glossy coils. I thought I knew my own desire, until the wind changed and a storm blew in and remade the sky, dredged mystery from the deep. I put a spell on you, Nina Simone croons. His back rises and falls as he breathes, and it is all I can do to keep myself from dipping my head and licking his skin. When the record ends I get up and turn it over. Nina Simone sings about sorrow and love, and the gold of her voice fills the air around us. When I am done I set the brush aside and put one hand over what I’ve drawn, fingers spread, not touching. Rousseau’s lion watches over us, wide-eyed, solemn. The room is very still. I blow on his skin to dry the last of the ink and he shivers, catches my wrist. “Is it good?”
“It’s beautiful,” I say.
“Show me,” he says.
“Do you have a mirror?”
“Not like that,” he says. “With your hands.”
* * *
You think that the world we live in is ordinary. We make noise and static to fill the empty spaces where ghosts live. We let other people grow our food, bleach our clothes. We seal ourselves in, clean the dirt from our skins, eat of animals whose blood does not stain our hands. We long ago left the ways of our ancestors, oracles and blood sacrifice, traffic with the spirit world, listening for the voices out of stones and trees. But maybe sometimes you have felt the uncanny, alone at night in a dark wood, or waiting by the edge of the ocean for the tide to come in. We have paved over the ancient world, but that does not mean we have erased it.
Once upon a time, girls who were too beautiful or too skilled were changed into other things by angry gods and their wives. A cow, a flower, a spider, a fog. Maybe you boasted too loudly of sleeping with a goddess’s husband. Maybe you talked too much about your own talents. Maybe you were born dumb and pretty, and the wrong people fell in love with you, chased you across fields and mountains and oceans until you cried mercy and a god took pity on you, switched your body to a heaving sea of clouds. Maybe you stayed in one place for too long, pining for someone who wasn’t yours, and your toes grew roots into the earth and your skin toughened into bark. Maybe you told the world how beautiful your children were, and the gods cut them down in front of you to punish you for your loose tongue, and you were so overcome with grief your body turned to stone.
You know as well as I do that those things don’t happen anymore. Girls stay girls, no matter how pretty they are. No matter who lusts after them. But in this time, like in any time, love is a dangerous game.
Who among us has not wanted to be transformed? I had lived all my life surrounded by extraordinary people, and some nights I would fall asleep wishing to wake up worthy of them. Not a painter, but an artist, someone who could capture life in a single perfect line, render the movement of light on water with the stroke of a brush. But the lesson in stories is always that metamorphosis comes with a price. Think of Midas, who asked for the power to turn the world around him into gold, only to sit alone in his palace full of riches, meat and wine turning to metal in his mouth. Think of Icarus, builder of wings, who flew too close to the sun and plummeted in one last fall. Think of Aurora’s father, who woke up one morning with his songs playing on every radio in the world. He was never happy again after that, and now he’s dead. The old gods do not give kindly; what delights them most is taking away.
Both of them, Jack and Aurora, burned like stars, and light like that draws things that are better left alone in the dark.
* * *
When I let myself into the apartment the next morning I know right away that I am in trouble. Aurora is sitting next to Cass on the couch, her knees drawn up to her chin. Cass is holding a mug of coffee. “Where the hell were you,” she says, her voice tight.
“I thought you were dead!” Aurora cries. She’s still wearing her slip, her barrettes askew. There’s a blanket around her shoulders. They must have spent the night on the couch.
“You could have at least called,” Cass says.
“There wasn’t a phone,” I say.
“You were with him,” Aurora says. “You left me at the club and didn’t tell me where you went and I came here at three in the morning and told Cass I couldn’t find you. We almost called the cops, and all you can say is that there wasn’t a phone?” Cass puts her hand on Aurora’s shoulder.
“Aurora, sweetheart, why don’t you go sleep, and I’ll deal with this.” Without looking at me, Aurora runs into my room and slams the door behind her. “Come into the kitchen,” Cass says. I follow her, sit in my favorite chair as she gets down her jars, measures out herbs, puts water on the stove to boil. The silence is like a third person in the room.
“Don’t you ever do that to me again,” she says at last. “I don’t ask a lot of you, and I know you—” her voice breaks. “I know you grew up fast. But I’m still your mother, and you live in my house, and if anything happened to you I don’t know how I would keep going. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” She sets a mug in front of me. I drink my tea in chastened silence. Nettles and oat straw. She’s stopped being mad. If she were still mad she’d have given me burdock or something worse.
“Do I need to give you the safe-sex talk again?”
“Mom. He didn’t give me a lobotomy.”
She shakes her head. “Go to bed,” she says, “before I kill you myself.”
* * *
I think Aurora is fast asleep but when I slide under the covers she puts an arm around me. “I’m still mad at you,” she murmurs.
“You were with that horrible man.”
“He isn’t horrible. He’s nice.”
“How old is that guy?”
She yawns. “Don’t be bourgeois. And you’re not off the hook.” She closes her eyes and burrows closer to me. I hug her close and we fall into a dreamless sleep.
I wake up hours later. The long afternoon is slipping into twilight. I can hear Aurora in the kitchen, talking to Cass. I sit up, run my fingers through my choppy hair, look at my familiar walls covered in drawings and photo-booth strips of me and Aurora, me and Cass, an ancient one of Cass and Maia with their hair spiked and padlocked chains around their necks, flipping off the camera and kissing in the final frame.
When we first moved into the apartment, Cass let me paint one wall of my room a matte cream and draw on it. Over the years, Aurora and I mapped out our own kingdom, its outlines becoming more legible as my drawing skills improved. We’d started at the very center of the wall, a few feet off the floor. We’d been too small to reach any higher. We drew a village of lopsided houses with stick-figure people holding the leashes of stick-figure dogs. As the drawing spread outward, we added mountain ranges and forests, a sea dotted with tall ships, a solitary dragon undulating overhead. We’ve never outgrown it. We’ll get stoned on a sleepy, rainy afternoon and go to work. When Cass was teaching me to read tarot I drew the Queen of Wands with her cat, Strength and her lion, the Empress reclining on her throne. When Aurora first started sleeping with rockers, she added a slew of long-haired boys. Now, we draw people we know: Raoul and Oscar Wilde, Maia, Cass. We’ve never thought to add ourselves.
I root through my dresser for a clean pair of cutoffs and a T-shirt, carry them into the bathroom with me, and turn on the shower. Ink runs off my skin, pooling in the bottom of the shower, reminding me of the night before and turning my legs shaky with desire. I am not this kind of girl, I think, trying to be fierce with myself. I am not the kind of girl who ditches her best friend and runs out into the night with a stranger and kisses him until dawn. I am not some lovesick dupe. I am not at the mercy of my new, most favorite vice. I am not. I scrub until all traces of the ink are gone and the shower’s out of hot water.
Cass and Aurora are still in the kitchen, stir-frying vegetables. A pot of brown rice simmers on the stove. Hippie dinner. I sigh. Some days, like this one, I wish Cass was not a witch so that we could have steak. After we eat, Aurora follows me into my room and rummages through my records, and I know I’m forgiven. She sprawls across my bed with an old issue of Magnet and I take out my sketchbook to draw her. We’re quiet for a while, Aurora turning pages and humming, me laboring over each line, trying for fluid grace and failing miserably. “I have something for you both,” Cass says from the door.
“Presents!” Aurora says happily. “I love presents!” She rolls over, sits up.
“Hey,” I say. “Now I’ll never finish this.” Getting Aurora to hold still long enough for me to draw her is a futile endeavor, but that never stops me from trying. Cass hands us each a bundle wrapped in silk. I unfold the cloth to find a little leather bag on a leather string. She’s given Aurora the same thing.
“What’s in here?” Aurora says, tugging at the bag’s knotted drawstrings.
“Don’t,” Cass says sharply. “Don’t open them. They’re bound.”
“I know it’s bound,” Aurora says. “I want to see what’s inside.”
“Not bound like that,” I say. I take Cass’s witchiness more seriously than Aurora does, although nowhere near as seriously as Cass does herself. “They’re amulets. Thanks, Mom.”
“Amulets for what?” Aurora leaves off picking at the strings, but she’s still eyeing the bag like she thinks it’s full of secret treasures and wants to tear it apart.
“Protection,” Cass says. “Safe travels through dark places.” Her voice is even. A chill runs through me, and for a moment the room is very still. Aurora stares at Cass. I can see the challenge in the set of her chin. The leather bag is warm in my hand, warmer than the heat of my skin.
“I don’t need amulets,” Aurora says. They are watching each other like cats raising hackles, growls starting in the backs of their throats. I look from Cass to Aurora and back again. Whatever is happening here, it definitely bypassed go and went straight to really fucking weird without collecting two hundred dollars.
“Hey,” I say, but they ignore me. Cass blinks first and Aurora looks away, the corner of her mouth curving up in a malicious smile. “Hey,” I repeat. Cass shakes her head as if she’s walked into a spiderweb.
“I can only help you if you let me.”
“I don’t need anyone’s help.” Aurora hands her amulet back to Cass. “Thanks, though,” she says in a normal voice, and some of the tension seeps out of the room.
“You’ll wear it,” Cass says to me.
“Sure.” She looks at me. “Okay.” I loop the leather over my head. The bag settles between my breasts. It’s heavier than it felt in my hand.
“Don’t take that off,” she says. “Good night.”
“’Night,” Aurora says to her retreating back. “God,” she yawns when Cass closes the door behind her. “Your mom is such a fucking weirdo.”
“Tell me about it,” I agree, touching the leather bag.
“I should go.”
“Spend the night.”
“Nah.” She looks almost furtive. “I have to be somewhere.”
“No, really. Just this dumb thing.”
“You want me to come?”
“You would hate it,” she says.
“I’ll still come.”
“I know.” She smiles. “You’re the best. I’ll spare you.”
“Okay,” I say. “Have fun.” After she goes I sit on my bed, staring at nothing. We’ve always had secrets, me and her. But we’ve never had secrets we didn’t share.
* * *
Aurora calls me late the next morning, talking nonstop as soon as I pick up the receiver. “What are you doing? Go to the window. Go to the window right now.” Dutifully, I carry the phone across the room.
“And look outside. Look! Outside!” I peer down the street.
“Tell me that is not the most magnificent motherfucking morning you have ever seen in your natural life, sweet child of mine. We are going out into it, you and I. Call Jack.”
“Jack doesn’t have a phone.”
“Then send him a missive of the heart. We are coming to fetch him. He’s going to busk for us.”
“Perfect, I’ll be there in ten.”
I’m still laughing when she pulls up outside my window, honking furiously. I grab my backpack and take the stairs two at a time. “What are you wearing,” she says.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the disastrous fashion choices of my best friend in all the world, who elects to garb herself in rags even when being transported by her faithful chauffeur to the abode of her beloved, possibly the foxiest man in the entire—”
“He is not my beloved. Lord. What’s wrong with my clothes?”
Aurora snorts and takes a corner so fast I nearly go through the open window. “Seatbelts are recommended,” she says.
Aurora leaps up Jack’s steps and pounds briskly on his front door. He opens it, blinking sleepy-eyed at the morning sun. “Come on!” she yells. “Get your guitar! Come on!” She’s on the verge of jumping up and down. Jack looks at me over her shoulder.
“It’s like saying no to a tornado,” I tell him.
“I see,” Jack says. Obediently, he fetches his guitar from next to his bed, puts it in Aurora’s trunk, gets in the backseat.
“We’re going to the canal!” Aurora says, gleeful as a toddler. “You can busk and we’ll pass a hat around. And then we’ll make garlands out of flowers and put them on your head. And everyone will love us and you’ll be famous.”
“I think the steps to fame are typically more complex,” Jack says, but he’s grinning.
“Nope,” says Aurora. “Stick with me. I’ll make you a star.”
The grassy parkland along the canal is packed with people. It’s a farmers’ market day. Hippies tote babies and trail dogs on hemp ropes, and wholesome-looking types are weighed down with cloth bags overflowing with greens. Cass’s idea of heaven. If I had the power, I’d send the lot of them straight to hell. Aurora buys a still-warm loaf of bread and some goat cheese and shoves chunks of bread in her mouth as she directs us to a clear spot next to the water. Jack takes out his guitar, tunes it. No one pays much attention. “Play a happy song,” Aurora says through a mouthful of cheese.
“The happy songs are never the good ones,” Jack says.
“Fine then,” she says. “Play something that will devastate us all.”
Jack winks at her. When he starts to sing his voice is a surprise: low and rough with the raspy longing of a much older man, weighted with decades of hard living and cruel twists of fate. A bourbon-thick smoker’s voice, a voice of old sorrows and older wants. “I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees,” he sings, the chords under his fingers sinuous and sorrowful. I tilt my head back, let the impossible yearning fill me with a hunger I never knew I had. “Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, risin’ sun goin’ down.” It’s as though the pain in his voice strips him naked in front of us, lets us see into the life he had led before we met him. Lonely nights and cold beds, hungry enough to eat your own shoes, sleeping in ditches and hitching rides to a place you know won’t be better. A despair so deep it’s like an animal living inside you, a thing you can call by name. Note after shimmering note, suffering spun into a net of music. All around us, people fall silent, turn toward him. Even the birds in the trees still their trilling calls, crickets hushing where they chirp in the grass. Barking dogs sink to their haunches, lay their heads across their paws, fetches forgotten. Aurora takes my hand. When he finishes there is no sound other than the movement of the wind in the trees all around us. Jack bows his head, his braids obscuring his face.
“Jesus,” Aurora says. I’ve never seen her so close to speechless. “You really are the real deal.”
He smiles at us from behind the tangle of his braids. “I know.”
Jack plays for us until the shadows are long in the grass. Nothing like that first song: lighter things, melodies that move hopping around us like bumblebees, lazy silly songs that make me think of cats in patches of sun, or pedaling downhill with the wind in my face and the world singing all around me. People come forward and drop dollar bills in his guitar case, sheepish, as though they know what they should be offering is something far more precious. A little boy brings him flowers, and Jack lets him put them in the frets of his guitar. Aurora smokes, stretches out in the sun, runs her fingers through her long hair.
At last Jack sets the guitar aside. His case is full of bills, not all of them singles. Other things, too: glass beads, a cheap ring, a packet of incense, a playing card. When I look over at Aurora she is watching me watch Jack, her face serious, her eyes far away.
“We should go get something to eat,” I say. Jack tugs idly at the fraying hem of my jeans.
“No,” Aurora says. “I mean, you go ahead. I’m not hungry.”
Aurora is never not hungry. Aurora would eat veal while watching calves go to slaughter, demanding more condiments. “I’ll drop you off somewhere,” she adds.
“Can I come over?” Jack asks. I can’t stop the stupid smile that spreads across my face.
“Okay,” I say. Aurora chews on her hair.
“Fine, then,” she says. “Come on.” Without waiting for us she hops to her feet, scampers toward her car. Jack puts his guitar back in its case, tucks away his booty.
“That was really fun,” I say in the car. Aurora is uncharacteristically quiet. Jack’s staring out the window, not paying attention. My words drop into the silence and hang there. When Aurora stops in front of my building, she clears her throat.
“I’m going to a show later,” she says. “If you want to come.”
“I’m okay,” Jack says. “Thanks.”
“I guess not,” I say.
“Sure,” she says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Cass is out, and the apartment is dark. Jack paces each room as I turn the lights on. I’m anxious, now that he’s in my house for the first time. Now that he can see our shabby rugs and derelict furniture. My room isn’t clean. I try to remember the last time I washed my sheets. He looks for a long time at Aurora’s and my kingdom. I stand in the middle of the floor, watching him, wanting to turn around in embarrassed circles. Something. Anything. I am way too young. He is realizing I am way too young. I am an idiot. Idiot idiot idiot. Id. I. Ot.
“This is really good,” he says.
“This.” He points to some of the more recent additions: Raoul in his vampire clothes, offering up a handful of apricots. A house I drew one sleepless night, with a neat garden and a hobbity round door. A mountain range.
“Oh. Aurora drew some of it, too.” I point out where we started. “When we were kids we thought if we got good enough we could climb in.”
“You wanted to?”
“It wasn’t always so great at home.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I know all about that one. Do you have anything else?”
“My sketchbook. But you can’t see that. Some other stuff that’s stupid. Do you want to see Aurora’s birthday present?”
Aurora’s birthday is next month, and for weeks I’ve been painting her a banner. I put her at the center, in one of her white dresses with her long hair streaming in elaborate curlicues that turn into twisting, sinuous vines. I surrounded her with jewel-feathered tropical birds that gleam through the foliage. The feathers are taking me forever. So many tiny lines. Roses explode at the corners, giving way to a border of orchids and lilies. Behind her, a sunset colors the sky pink. The whole thing is like Maxfield Parrish on ecstasy. I had to restrain myself from adding a unicorn.
“Wow,” Jack says, but I can’t tell if he’s impressed or horrified.
“It’s supposed to be campy,” I say quickly.
“It’s not at all. It’s beautiful. There’s so much love in every line.” He outlines the curl of a vine with one finger without touching the canvas.
“She’s my whole life.”
“That can be dangerous,” he says.
“Not if you really love someone.”
“Especially if you really love someone.” He turns back to the banner. I don’t know whether to touch him. Don’t even know what game we’re playing. Like when I was a kid on the playground, every day the other kids knowing by some secret code what clothes to wear, what things to say, me always getting it wrong, not even realizing there were rules.
“I don’t know how to talk to you,” I blurt. He looks at me in surprise. “You’re a lot cooler than I am,” I say. “You’re beautiful. You’re the most amazing musician I’ve ever seen. You’re like a—a—I don’t know, you’re like a real person. I’m—”
“You’re a very real person. You’re one of the realest people I’ve ever met.”
“I don’t know what that means. Are you telling me I’m stupid? Because I’m not stupid.”
He laughs so hard he has to put his hands on his knees. I have no idea what I just said that was so funny. “I haven’t known you that long, but I can definitely tell you aren’t stupid.”
“Does that mean I can kiss you?”
“Yes,” he says. “That is exactly what it means.”
* * *
Late that night, after Jack’s gone home, Aurora calls me from the club. “Babycakes,” she says, her voice slurring. “I’m too fucked up. Come get me.”
Cass is asleep and I take her keys without asking. Maybe I’ll get lucky and she won’t notice. The night is lovely and smells of salt, and I roll my window down all the way. If I weren’t driving I’d hang my head out like a dog. I want to enjoy the moment. I don’t know what I’ll find when I get there.
I’m expecting ambulances, sirens, cops, something. But from the outside the club is still. Inside it’s noisy and hot and dark. A metal band screeches from the stage. I peer around the room, check the bar, shove my way through the pit. I can’t see Aurora anywhere. If she was still walking she could have gone home with someone in the time it took me to drive here. I try not to think about that. There’s a line for the women’s bathroom, sullen girls with teased hair and too much eyeliner. “I’m looking for my friend,” I say to one of them. “Blond hair. Really pretty. Skinny.” I have to shout over the noise. She stares at me.
“Some crackhead bitch has been in the bathroom for a long-ass time,” she says. I cut past the line and pound on the door.
“Aurora. Aurora.” I hear something shatter. “Ah, shit,” I mutter, and throw my shoulder against the door.
I’m strong and the latch is cheap and I only have to hit the door twice before I’m through. The mirror over the sink is in splinters, the bathroom floor scattered with broken glass. Aurora’s sitting on the toilet, her white dress stained red. “I cut myself,” she says. “You came for me.”
The metal girls are trying to push past me into the bathroom. I haul Aurora to her feet and shove them out of the way. One of them cocks her fists at me but falters when she sees my face. I drape Aurora’s arm over my shoulders and half-drag, half-carry her outside. She’s as light as a bird.
In the empty street in front of the club she puts her bloody hands against the wall and vomits. I check for damage. Her knuckles are a mess, but the cuts look worse than they are. No one’s watching us. I take off my sweatshirt, yank my shirt over my head, put my sweatshirt back on. When she’s done throwing up I wrap the shirt around her hands to stop the bleeding. “I’ll get your shirt dirty,” she mumbles.
“Good thing I always wear black.” I steer her to the car. It’s better than it could have been. She can almost walk on her own. I roll down the window on her side. “Puke outside the car,” I tell her, getting into the driver’s seat.
“Outside the car,” she repeats. “I love you so much.”
“I love you, too.”
“I’m such a fuckup.”
“No more speed.”
“No more speed.”
“Okay,” I say.
“Are you mad?”
“I’m not mad.”
“Aurora. I’m not mad.”
“You think I’m going to take him.”
“I don’t think that.”
“You do. I would never do that.”
“It’s not always up to you.”
“You are the first thing to me. Always. You.”
“You love him more than you love me,” she says.
“I don’t love anyone more than I love you. I promise.”
“One more time.”
“I love you,” she says again. I reach over and put my hand over the wadded-up shirt.
“I’ll always come get you,” I say. “No matter what.”
* * *
Jack is teaching me how to play guitar, and it’s not going well. We’re sitting on his porch, his long legs folded around me, his hands over my hands, the guitar in my lap. The sun’s heavy and low in the sky. The smell of his skin is driving me to distraction. “Here,” he says, shaping my fingers over the strings. “That’s G major. No, no, you have to keep your middle two fingers—” I knock his hand away in a fit of temper. The whuff of his breath ruffles my hair.
“I don’t like it,” I tell him.
“How can you not like it? I showed you two chords.”
“I don’t like either of them.”
He rests his chin on the top of my head. “I should’ve known the guitar would be too hard for you. You need to pick a beginner’s instrument.”
“You fucker! It is not too hard!” Immediately I put my hands back on the strings, bite my bottom lip, try to remember where my fingers go. Behind me Jack chuckles.
“Let no one ever tell you that you are anything other than predictable,” he says.
“I am not predictable!” But he only laughs harder and kisses the place behind my ear that sends me straight into a desperate swoon. “I am not,” I mumble.
“Maybe a little.”
“You’re a dick.”
“Mmmm.” He takes the guitar away from me and I scoot over. He strums an aimless melody, a carefree traveler strolling by a river, water singing over stones. Leaves turning in the summer air. I can see the flash of a fish jumping, the mercury buzz of a dragonfly moving across the water. The river’s so real I can dip my feet in the cool clear water. The breeze he’s conjured plays across my skin. Jack’s arms are alight with butterflies, their wings moving softly. Caught, as I am, in his spell. He stops, and I can feel the loss of it like a sob rising in my throat. Wherever he took me, I want to go back. He smiles at me, gentle now, puts his arms around me. He takes the tip of my earlobe in his teeth, and I shiver.
“I can’t play like you,” I whisper. “No one can play like you.”
“Play like yourself, then. Want to learn another chord?”
“No. Maybe. Fine.”
“You can’t wear pants when you play this one,” he says, and undoes the top button of my jeans.
* * *
Later, he makes me beans and rice and we eat cross-legged on his floor. The sun’s set, but it’s still warm. Neither of us is wearing much. Jack peels a mango, and I lie back with my head in his lap as he feeds it to me piece by piece. I’m full in a way that’s unfathomable, alive in my animal skin. I want to tear off all my clothes and go running through the forest, catch something and rip it to pieces while it’s still warm, grow fur and climb trees and howl at the moon. My skin feels as translucent and bruisable as rose petals, my whole body brand new. “Tell me a story about your family,” he says.
“I never knew my dad. I don’t think my mom did, either. She’s a witch.” He raises an eyebrow. “Really.” I touch the amulet around my neck. I’d stopped Jack earlier when he tried to take it off. “She reads tarot cards for people and makes them amulets and spells. She can do star charts. Horoscopes.”
“Are you a witch, too?”
“Not a very good one.”
“Can you read tarot?”
“Will you read mine?” I sit up, steal the last piece of mango, and see that he’s serious.
“Okay,” I say. “Do you have a candle?”
He gets up from the bed and looks through drawers while I flip through his records, pick out a Jeff Buckley album, and put it on. I get my cards out of my bag. I still use the same deck Cass bought me all those years ago. It’s so well-used the card edges are bent and peeling, but the images have lost none of their color or sharpness. I keep the deck wrapped in a piece of silk, which I spread out on the floor in front of him. He sits, cross-legged, solemn, and hands me a candle. I light it and set it between us. “Now, shuffle,” I say, handing him the deck. “Think about your question.”
He closes his eyes and I watch as he shuffles, the dark coils of his hair framing his still features. He stops shuffling, opens his eyes. “Hallelujah,” Jeff Buckley sings, “hallelujah.” It’s so strong, this moment, his skin, his mouth, our breath mingling. It’s bigger than anything, but so precise. You think you know something about the world, and then everything changes and you are in this place, this time, and the song is so sad and so glorious and so perfect. It doesn’t seem possible that one person, one stranger, could take everything you have ever felt and make it into something so true and vivid. “I used to live alone before I knew you.” I know what is happening to me is naked in my eyes, and Jack smiles at me and reaches forward, puts his palms against my cheeks.
Here is my life, this life I never knew I could have, here is the whole world waiting for me, all the possible things. My future is as big as the wild night, the wine-dark sea. The smell of him, the heat of his palms on my skin, the curve of his mouth, the line of his throat, his dark hair falling around him. The last hallelujah and then it’s gone and we are two people in a room again, maybe falling in love. Jack takes his hands away and I breathe in deep, let it out.
“Cut the deck,” I say, “and lay out three cards.”
He moves slow, serious, turns over each card like it has instructions written on the other side. The Fool. The Lovers. Death.
“Death,” he says. “That’s heavy.”
“Not always. This is the past.” I point to the Fool. “This”—the Lovers—“is the present. And the third card is the future.”
“Death is the future?”
“It doesn’t mean literal death. Not usually. The Fool is someone who’s a dreamer, who wants big things. You’ve set out on a journey on a new road. You’re about to discover new things. But you can’t keep your head in the clouds forever. You have to make the right choice. You’re fearless, but also naive.”
“How will I know the right choice?”
“That’s up to you. The Lovers is—”
“—Kind of obvious?” He smirks at me, and I blush.
“Not like that. I mean, it can be. It’s another choice card. It means part of the choice is a temptation. You can pick the thing that is comfortable, or go somewhere that’s scary but can take you to what you really want. It can mean falling in love, too.” I can’t quite look him in the eye.
“Death is change. It’s a trial, but also renewal. It means transformation, new ideas. A new opportunity.”
“So I’m making a choice that will change my life.”
“That’s what the cards are saying.”
He’s quiet for a long time. “That sounds about right,” he says. Here’s my heart, beating out a tattoo rhythm. I could take it out and hand it over. But maybe I’m not what he’s thinking about at all.
“I didn’t know my father, either,” he says. I wait, but he doesn’t elaborate.
“Did it bother you?”
“I never knew anything else. Did it bother you?”
Aurora and I lived in a world without fathers, but full of men: musicians, our mothers’ lovers, our mothers’ friends. A father seems so much tamer and less interesting than the pack of wolves who raised us.
“No,” I say.
“Did you know Aurora’s dad?”
I think of the drummer, asking me the same question the night Aurora took me to that show. A million years ago. I was a different person then. A person without Jack. “Not really,” I say. “He wasn’t around long enough to count.” He’s silent, thoughtful.
“Do you think it makes a difference?”
“Having a dad? I don’t know. Do you?” Raoul has a dad, but he never talks about him. Tracy, the normal girl whose house I used to go to, had a dad. A dad like in a movie, who came home in the evenings in a suit he changed out of. Raoul seems happy. I don’t know if Tracy was. Jack tilts his head, thinking.
“It must. But then we would be different people.” I wait for him to say something else, but he’s done.
I know Jack’s voice, and his body. I know his music. I know the way he looks at me, and I know how to make him laugh. I know the books he likes and that he doesn’t drink and that he is old enough for me to be a lot younger. I know about the restaurant where he works and the crazy waitress who comes in every night shaking from too much speed and the cook who drops fifty-dollar steaks on the floor before he puts them on the plate when he doesn’t like the customers. But about Jack’s life before he came here, I barely know anything at all. It’s like he began when I met him and before that he didn’t exist. How much do you need to know to love someone? I used to think you had to know them inside and out, the way I know Aurora; that you had to know every story that went into them, every place they had been. But it turns out love is easier, and infinitely more complicated. It turns out I don’t know much.
Jack blows out the candle. The cards scatter beneath us like leaves. He runs his hands along my bare thighs, slides a thumb under the elastic of my underwear. Where he kisses me, my skin turns to fire. We do not talk about fathers after that.
Copyright © 2013 by Sarah McCarry