We Were Here
Slumped in the backseat, I can see the light of the streetlamps streak across the cool glass where I am pressing my fingers because I need to feel something cool against my skin. Leah is up front because she’s carsick again. We only let her sit there when she complains. So I’m behind Tasha, instead of next to her where I belong, when the car picks up speed for the bridge. I feel a crack of air from the open window rush over me as she flicks her cigarette out. It’s muggy inside and there are haloes around every light. The dashboard glows between the front seats, loud with little neon signs and buttons. They’ve all got something to say, but I’m not listening, I’m not listening at all. I’m not the one driving tonight. I watch the orange ember of Tasha’s cigarette bounce away in the rearview mirror. The body next to mine presses closer as Tasha leans on the gas pedal. I can feel the pressure of her foot pull on us and the hollow space in the back of my head where something tightly curled unfurls like a flag in the moment of weightlessness when we fly, five girls, over the rise.
In the air, my stomach flip-flops. Even Leah laughs out loud.
“You don’t seem that carsick,” Tasha says.
“Well, that’s because I’m sitting in FRONT now.”
“Whatever,” somebody next to me says—Sara or her sister Julie.
It’s always the beginning or the end of the night when we’re in the car; it’s that infinite time in between other times. We’re half-drunk, half-tired, half-sick of each other already. Sometimes I’m the one driving and Tasha’s next to me, squeezing my knee where my skirt slides up, saying do it again, and I do. I do it over and over if she wants, back and forth across the bridge. The seams of the asphalt bump under the tires and the light flickers through the suspension cables in two different rhythms, and I wish her hand was on my thigh right now. There’d be so much less to explain later.
Sometimes we go back and forth across the bridge squealing and laughing until someone threatens to piss their pants or barf, or we remember important things could be happening without us.
This is what it’s like to be young. It’s the feeling of moving. It’s the feeling of someplace else to be. Our city is full of empty spaces to speed through, empty parking lots and all-night diners and overpasses and bridges to nowhere and a big wide-open sky that never gets any closer no matter how fast you’re going.
When the tape deck crackles with the first familiar notes of a song we all know, Leah reaches forward to turn it up at the same time that Sara says, “I’m like so sick of this song. The Sisters are good,” she goes on, “but not once you listen to the same fucking song a hundred-million times.”
Leah is singing along like a karaoke queen and pretends not to hear. She’s in drama club, so her affinity to Sisters of Mercy is inevitable, in my opinion.
“Come on.” Sara is not discouraged by our lack of response. It’s all the easier to disagree with everything we haven’t said. “We’re going to listen to enough of this whiny crap at the house. I mean, seriously, do we have to be all goth all the time?”
Julie is only older by a year, but likes to remind Sara as often as possible. “It’s not like you have to come with us. You know, we could drop you off someplace to hang out with your friends who are cooler than us—oh wait.”
I do not like sitting in the back seat with them, but at least I’m not in between them.
“Shut up, Julie. Why do you have to be such a raging bitch? I’m just saying I’m tired of this song—”
“Shut the fuck up, both of you,” Tasha says, hitting the eject button. “God! Nobody’s cooler than us and we’re going to listen to Madonna and that’s it.” She pops the tape out, inserts one of her infinite collection of Madonna mix-tapes, and turns it way up. All with one hand on the wheel and her eyes on the road. I don’t have to sit next to her to see this. I know it by heart—how the night outside reflects on her clear blue eyes in flashes and moving arcs.
Then there’s nothing else to say, and we begin the ritual of passing one item after the other from hand to hand to hand: lipgloss, cigarettes, eye-liner, perfume, paper coffee cups, crumpled dollar bills, packs of gum, the glowing red disc of the car lighter. In the shifting light and weaving traffic, we perform a ballet of careful hand-eye coordination. We spray each other’s hair, check each other’s teeth, pour liquids from bottle to bottle. Then, just after the train tracks, there is the final flurry of powdering and patting and smoothing and scrunching.
The glory of arrival is what makes up for the lack of places to go.
We park in the shadow of the Benjamin Moore Paint Factory sign: a black rectangle in the night sky. The side facing Broadway is lit up all night long, like someone might have a Friday night paint crisis and find salvation here.
In the empty street, Madonna falls silent. Tasha climbs out of the car and says, “Alright, bitches. Let’s go.” On the corner ahead there’s an old church with boarded-up windows that we keep talking about breaking into, but tonight is not the night. (Tonight is never the night—we’ve worked too hard to look this way.) So we turn and walk down the sidewalk to a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, and open the gate. The small white house inside has metal-grated windows, and its resemblance to a crack-house is not just coincidental. It almost definitely was one, before our friend Conrad rented it for band practice slash recording studio purposes. He told Tasha they found needles and pipes everywhere when they were cleaning up the basement. But we don’t care what it was before. Now Christmas lights shine all over the Astroturf-and-cement backyard. Deep bass notes swell out of the house and rise to meet us as we line up to stuff our two dollars in the glass jar sitting on the porch. Tasha always puts in a five. I can feel it still, from crossing the bridge, the flip-flopping in my stomach, and it’s mixing with the vibrations of the music. Tasha’s ahead of me, but when she reaches back to grab my hand and pull me close to her, it’s like the world’s as it should be again, because we’re together and we’re here.
“Conrad,” she says, and he opens his arms to us both at once. He’s built like a superhero and dresses like one too. Broad shoulders and bulging muscles, tight black t-shirt and leather pants, etcetera. I think I can feel his abs rippling as he presses us against his chest. Even in our platform shoes, he towers over us, which is why he can wear makeup and still emasculate the hell out of every boy we know. He sings like David Bowie crossed with Peter Murphy and we worship him and fear him and never ask him to buy liquor or cigarettes for us. He knows exactly how old we are. He knows a lot of things he shouldn’t. Like that his best friend Andy fucks Tasha in the backseat of his car sometimes before going home to his girlfriend of a hundred-million years.
Where am I while this happens? Sometimes waiting for Tasha in the car, finishing my cigarettes, then hers. Sometimes I’m still inside, dancing like I don’t care I’m alone. Sometimes I’m in the back room rolling around on one of the dirty couches where so many have rolled before.
I don’t mind too much when I have to wait for her. Andy’s the DJ, and he’ll play any song we want if Tasha just bats her eyelashes at him. And he’s not the one she goes home with at the end of the night. After the two a.m. Taco Bell stop and dropping everyone else off one by one, at the end of the night it’s just me and Tasha. We fall asleep with smoky hair in my big bed, where we smear mascara all over the pillow cases and wake up with the sweat of vodka tangled in the sheets. In the morning, it’s me and Tasha: drawing each other’s eyebrows, putting ourselves back together again with the help of CoverGirl and Almay and copious quantities of one-hundred-percent cotton Q-tips. We do it over and over again, the next night, the next weekend, and everything else in between—high school and parents and boyfriends—is just that, just in between.
When she says “Conrad” he says “Babygirls” and before there is too much of that, Leah and Julie and Sara are pushing us from behind to go on, get inside.
The backyard smells like clove cigarettes and Rave extra-super-hold hairspray. We are people who like to look at each other and not say anything, like gazelles and lions eyeing each other across the savannah. Our scene is not a loud scene.
I notice him by the fence and neither of us speaks and then Sara says, “Who’s got the vodka?”
We adjourn to the bathroom to swig from a plastic Coke bottle, Leah, Sara and I. Tonight, Julie thinks it’s embarrassing and cliché for us to go to the bathroom together. Next week it will be Sara who says so, or something just like it. The sisters’ worst fear is that they are exactly the same, so they take turns with personality traits and opinions to maintain a constant level of disagreement. You could shuffle them like a deck of cards, deal two hands, and watch them go at it all night. It’s always a fair fight, and whoever loses this one will win the next time.
Leah’s parents are lawyers and she goes to a different high school and she doesn’t really give a shit about any of us, sitting on the edge of the bathtub, one knee crossed over the other. Doesn’t even pretend to. Her point is to be somewhere other than where she should be. Plus, she doesn’t know how to drive—says she never has time for driver’s ed with all her AP classes. She takes the bottle wordlessly. Sara’s talking about how annoying Julie is and someone’s been pounding on the door for too long to ignore but we do, drinking fast till we get dizzy. At a lull in the music, I hear Tasha’s voice yelling, “You fucking cocksuckers, let me in!” She almost falls through the door when I open it and Sara spits up some Coke because she’s laughing too hard. Leah acts grossed out, which we ignore as usual.
“Jesus Christ,” Tasha says. “I just went to request a song. I guess I have to catch up with you guys.” She throws her head back finishes the bottle in one long gulp. The light in the bathroom is red, like a darkroom, so she’s dyed cherry-popsicle from head to toe, skin and hair all equally pale in the regular light of night. They call us Snow White and Rose Red out there, the ones who recognize us from parties but don’t know our names. She’s got a snag in her fishnet tights. She tosses the empty in the corner—near but not in the trash can. Leah’s eyes get huge, and I wait for her to say something while Tasha bends over with the lighter. She props one foot on the edge of the tub next to Leah, first the right, then the left, Leah squirming beside her. She pinches the lace between her fingers to hold it away from her skin and fixes the hole in her tights, then continues with a series of perfectly spaced smoldering holes. She says, “Don’t worry, ladies. I’ve got some more for later.” Leah fans the smell of melting nylon away with a hand in front of her nose while Tasha pulls another Coke bottle half-way out of her purse, gives us a wink.
The dance floor is where we rule. Not the front room but the second room, where it’s a little darker and the sound’s a little deeper. We use our eyes when we dance; even if our bodies never touch, something invisible between us keeps other people out. Tasha leans against the wall with parted lips, half-smiling. She crosses her arms in front, then unfolds them as she turns to the side with one hand fluttering. She acts like she’s unaware of the eyes watching her orbit, which is something I have never been good at. There is an open window behind her that looks onto the backyard. I close my eyes and open them and he is watching me there. What he looks like through the frame of the window is very far away, like something in a museum.
If he were a painting, he would be a portrait of someone unspeakably sad trying to pretend like they’re not. Looking at him does something to me that makes Tasha say, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I say. “Johnny’s here.”
When he walks in, Julie and Sara stop to talk to him. He keeps his hands in his pockets and it’s a long time before he makes his way over to me.
I watch the way his hands stay in his pockets as he leans over, whispers “Hello” in my ear, then kisses me there, on the cheek. I tell myself this means something. We had sex twice before he even kissed me on the lips, so in public on the cheek must be something.
“Hello, sir,” I say, and I put my arms around his neck because I don’t have any pockets.
“How are you tonight?” he says.
“I’m fine,” I say. “And you?”
“Very well, thank you.”
In a minute he says, “You look lovely.”
And I say, “So do you,” which makes him smile.
What Johnny looks like actually is nothing I’ve ever seen before. He is the strangest person I have ever brought to my house and my parents, who think of themselves as understanding people, don’t understand at all.
His hair is one thing: long in some places, shaved in other places, blacker than anything because there is no sheen to it, no visible surface, something more like a void, like your hand might reach for it and fall right through. Then there’s his face, which is chalk-white and soft, except for the eyes. The eyes even gravity cannot escape from. Altogether, it is too much. I can’t resist. I want to erase the years of scars that climb his arms like coils of rope.
I tried to count them once while he was sleeping, but I lost track when I realized they didn’t stop at his arms.
When he sleeps sometimes I listen to him breathe and it is completely without rhythm. I wish someone could explain to me how that’s possible. It doesn’t sound like the breathing of something alive, and sometimes I think he’s going to die right there next to me.
These are the usual things I think about when I see Johnny, when we touch each other and I see people watching the way we touch each other. But tonight I’m thinking more. I’m thinking about the cut on my thigh and how it got there. I wonder what it means and I keep looking at his face like it might tell me something. But he says things in the usual way, and his eyes look down in the usual way.
I haven’t told Tasha yet, about what happened when I went to his store after hours, and I am dying for that part of the night to come.
He works in a costume shop, which is the only thing that makes sense for the way he looks, and there were mannequins all around us in the dark, dressed up in corsets and wigs. Every time a car turned onto the street the headlights lit up everything, torsos and limbs and weird moving shadows. Then there was darkness again. In the middle of all this, I was up on the glass countertop with a razorblade pressed against my thigh. His hand held the blade there waiting. Like it was a question and I knew the answer. I flexed my fingers in the secret cave under my thighs, hiding by my bitten fingernails.
We had been snorting lines off the counter. That’s what it was for, the razorblade. We were not alone. His friends were there, Christopher, and a girl I didn’t know. There was a whole wall of windows. I thought anyone could see us, but he didn’t care; he picked me up by the waist and put me there on the counter. My skirt was sliding up and the glass was cold and smooth. I needed that feeling then, of something cold and smooth like glass. He hiked my skirt higher and higher and stood between my knees. I looked behind his head to see the others. They were laughing. There was powder coating the back of my thighs and where my fingers were hiding and I could smell it in my nose. Metallic. He kissed me then, on the mouth, and he kissed me everywhere, and I leaned back, and he bent down, and I guess it was there on the counter. He held it to my leg and looked up at me. Behind his hand was his wrist and on his wrist were those scars and behind them there was him. I nodded my head, and it didn’t hurt so much. Maybe that was the drugs. He kissed me some more. He cleaned the blood he drew, erasing the long red line with his tongue.
The look in his eyes did not change, before or after.
Now he takes his hands out of his pockets, maybe to show me they’re empty. I dance away from him slowly, trying to stay afloat. I look for Julie and Leah and Sara and Tasha because they are the islands I swim toward. He follows me a little, grazing my hips with his fingertips. I can see that he wants me to say something, but I just smile at him. Finally he says, really quiet, “I hope I didn’t hurt you. Last night.”
“No,” I say. “It’s ok,” I tell him.
Tasha is gone. I try not to act like I’m looking for her. He grabs my hand as I leave the room, squeezes it while I walk away from him.
I wander the house and I can’t find her in the yard or the front room, or the porch or the back room, but I notice Andy is missing from the DJ booth. In a dark hallway between dark rooms there’s a black curtain hanging over the wall. Behind it, there’s a doorway and a flight of stairs leading to the attic. Most people don’t know it’s there. I push the fabric back and peer up the stairs where Andy has Tasha pressed against the wall. It’s loud and they don’t notice me. Tasha’s leg is lifted high, in the crook of Andy’s arm, and I have a view straight up her skirt, of the pale stripe of flesh above her thigh-highs, of the bubblegum-pink thing he is reaching for with his hand, while he groans and she giggles and I don’t want to see what happens next, but I do. And then I let the curtain fall, and think about it. What all of this is. This wanting to get inside of things.
Tasha is the reason I get discounts at the record store and free drinks at bars and she is the reason bouncers forget to check our IDs. Because of the way she cocks her head and looks up from under her blonde bangs, because of the little black star tattooed on her breast. I don’t have to do these things because she does them for me.
I wonder what makes me different from Andy or any of those boys. What makes me different from Johnny besides the mark he made on me. If we are always going to be one of us marking the other, or marking ourselves so everyone knows who we are, what side we’re on.
This is the night the police come and kick us all out of the house. We stand in the yard, impatient because we don’t understand what’s happening, while they walk up and down the porch pointing to things. The magic has gone with the music and the lights are too bright. Conrad nods his head and keeps his giant arms folded across his chest. They say something about a cabaret license and Tasha whispers to me, “Isn’t that a wine?” It hurts too much to see him like that—our hero! He’s bigger than them. In the comic book version, our hero would never go down without a fight. “I got your cabaret license right here,” he’d say. KA-POW.
We turn away so we don’t have to watch what is really happening. We hurry to the other side of town where we hear there’s a warehouse party. If we leave right now we might not miss things that could be happening without us. We don’t turn at the train tracks to go over the bridge again because we don’t want to squander the rest of the night.
We don’t know yet that we’re not coming back.
The bridge is still there, the little white house, the church. They are there where they were, I think, but we are not.
What I remember about that party is mostly from pictures Tasha shows me—later, spread across a table at a café where Conrad is our waiter and somehow the years haven’t changed him, only us.
He calls us Babygirls, but we are not.
I don’t remember the camera. Where did it come from?
Tasha shrugs. “I had a whole universe in that purse.” Her hair is longer but still smooth and white as the inside of a seashell, a pair of folded wings. It sways when she laughs. She’s still the prettiest thing in the room and I feel again what it’s like to be the one sitting with her. But now she’s not mine. I only have two hours before she has to be home to breastfeed. “Can you believe how huge my tits are?”
She has two kids, a husband, Madonna bumper stickers on her minivan. I have this scar on my thigh I can never explain.
She shows me we were there: skinny seventeen-year-olds in fishnet stockings, leaning against her Dodge Daytona with our arms wrapped around each other. The rest of them, too: Leah and the sisters, posing for the camera, smoking, pouting, standing in combat boots in somebody’s shower. Of Johnny, there’s only his shoulder with the back of my head at the edge of one frame. A flash of red hair. I remember I held his hand, what it felt like—cool, damp, rough like stone—but there’s no picture of that.
I tell Tasha I can’t find the bridge. I’ve been gone a long time, but I drive up and down Broadway whenever I’m here, looking for it.
Tasha says, “What bridge?”
“On the way to the house, remember?” I nod in Conrad’s direction.
“Oh yeah,” she says, then she’s quiet while I watch her eyes flicker over the tail lights and traffic ahead like we’re there, in the car, again. Her pale blue, clear-as-water eyes are painted just like mine. My hand remembers how to draw the thin black line, the way it curves down and up and flattens at the corner: a sharp, clean wedge. It ends just above the freckle whose position I still know by heart. The shape of that black line, how to trace it perfectly—we taught each other that.