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The Life And Death Of Sophie Stark By Anna North

Sophie Stark is a genius. Sophie Stark is an egomaniac. Sophie Stark is a lover. Sophie Stark is a sister. Sophie Stark is an award-winning film director. Sophie Stark is a pain in the ass. Sophie Stark is a loner. The truth is, nobody really knew who Sophie Stark was when she was alive. And, now she's dead, it looks like they never will. Told from the perspective of six people whose lives were irrevocably shaped by Sophie Stark, the second novel from New York Times journalist Anna North is both a complex examination of the price of genius and an unputdownable page-turner. Jennifer Egan, look out. You have competition. SAM BAKER (*The Life & Death Of Sophie Stark is published next week in ebook only, but you can preorder it now on kindle for 99p.) SB

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THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SOPHIE STARK

Anna North

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Sophie Stark is a genius. Sophie Stark is an egomaniac. Sophie Stark is a lover. Sophie Stark is a sister. Sophie Stark is an award-winning film director. Sophie Stark is a pain in the ass. Sophie Stark is a loner. The truth is, nobody really knew who Sophie Stark was when she was alive. And, now she's dead, it looks like they never will. Told from the perspective of six people whose lives were irrevocably shaped by Sophie Stark, the second novel from New York Times journalist Anna North is both a complex examination of the price of genius and an unputdownable page-turner. Jennifer Egan, look out. You have competition. SAM BAKER (*The Life & Death Of Sophie Stark is published next week in ebook only, but you can preorder it now on kindle for 99p.) SB

Chapter:

One

Allison

***

When Sophie first saw me, I was onstage. This girl Irina who I lived with at the time had organized a storytelling series at a bar in Bushwick, and after a couple weeks of watching I decided I wanted to tell a story too. I wasn’t like the other kids in the house; I’d never assumed I’d be an actor or a writer or anything creative. When I was growing up, everybody figured I’d stay in Burnsville, West Virginia, and have some kids. But there I was in New York and for ten minutes I could make people listen to me and treat me like I was important. The theme that week was “scary camping stories.” I was wearing my only pretty dress, a blue halter with a full skirt that I’d bought for seven dollars at a vintage store, and I got up onstage after some girl talked for twenty minutes about seeing a possum. Here’s the story I told, the one that started everything for Sophie and me.

***

My school had some good kids, Christian kids, kids who got married at eighteen before they started popping out babies. But my family was one hundred percent trash for five generations back, and I didn’t fit in real well with the church crowd. Instead I used to hang out with this guy named Bean.

Bean was a couple years older than me, and he’d dropped out of high school to sell weed, and he made enough money to rent half a run-down old farmhouse outside of town. He was nice—he always shared his weed, especially with girls, and he’d give me a place to stay when things got bad at home. But he had an edge to him—his dad was a Marine and he had taught Bean this trick where you snap someone’s neck in a single motion. And Bean always made you feel like you were so cool, part of this secret club with just him, and you wanted to do exactly what he said so you could be in the club forever.

I never saw a girl turn Bean down until he decided he was into Stacey Ashton. Stacey was my only friend who was a good girl. She was in the French club and she didn’t smoke weed and she wanted to go to Emory someday—she had a sweatshirt from there and everything.

Maybe that’s why Bean liked her, because she was so different. But she wasn’t interested. He’d go up to her at a party and she’d just be polite and then turn away, talk to some other guy. It made Bean really angry. I’d never seen him mad before—things usually went so well for him. But now every time Stacey turned her back on him, he got that look on his face like pressure building up.

Bean convinced me to talk to Stacey for him—he said maybe she’d go out with him if we double-dated. I didn’t like the weird, angry Bean, and I wanted to bring the happy one back. Plus, he promised me an eighth of weed. Stacey wasn’t easy to sway—she kept saying he creeped her out, there was something off about him. I said she was crazy, everybody loved him—anyway, me and Tommy, this guy I was sort of dating, would be there the whole time. Finally I told her that if she didn’t have fun, I’d buy her these butterfly earrings she liked at the mall. Stacey loved all that girly shit.

So Bean showed up that Friday and him and Stacey and me and Tommy drove to the campground where we usually went to drink and make out without anybody bothering us. There had been a lot of stories about this serial killer that summer, not in our area but in Virginia and North Carolina. He used a bowie knife to kill his victims, mostly girls in their teens or twenties. The paper called him “The Charlottesville Stabber,” but we called him “Stabby,” and whenever we went out in the woods, we’d tease each other that Stabby was going to get us. On the car ride I kept poking Stacey in the ribs to make her shriek, and then I’d yell “Stabby!” When we got there, we roasted hot dogs and drank beer and had a good time, and I could tell Stacey was kind of loosening up. Bean moved closer to her, and she didn’t move away, and then he put his arm around her, and she didn’t stop him. The night got colder, and she actually snuggled up against him a little bit. Then Bean winked at me, and I turned and started kissing Tommy, and I heard Bean say, “Let’s go for a walk and give them a little privacy.” Then I heard them both walk off toward the creek.

I didn’t love Tommy but I liked fucking him, and since we both lived in houses full of kids and stepdads we were pretty used to doing it on the ground at the campsite or in the backs of pick-up trucks or on football fields or wherever we could get a minute to ourselves. So we were all sweaty and happy and pulling on our clothes when Bean came walking out of the bushes by himself with a look on his face I’d never seen before.

“We need to leave,” he said.

“Why?” I asked. “What’s the matter? Where’s Stacey?”

“She went off to pee,” he said, “and then I couldn’t find her. I called and called. I looked all over.”

“We can’t just leave,” I said.

I started calling Stacey’s name.

Bean took my arm. He looked at me, and I saw fear in his eyes for the first time.

“I think we need to get the police,” he said. “I mean, I’m sure she just got lost or something, but in case . . .”

He trailed off, but I knew what he meant. None of us wanted to bring up the Stabber’s silly nickname. I told Bean to give me another minute, and I walked just a few steps outside the campsite, but I started to get scared, and we all drove to the police station where we told our stories to Officer Gray, who spent most of his time breaking up our parties or arresting my stepdad when he tried to drive home drunk from Red’s on a Tuesday night.

The police searched with dogs for miles around the campsite, but they didn’t find her body. Sometimes a thing like that brings people together, but this just blew the three of us apart. Tommy and I didn’t hook up anymore after that night. Bean didn’t come to high school parties anymore, and then he moved away without telling anybody or saying good-bye. The Stabber killed another victim, this one in South Carolina. I felt the joy drain out of me. I dropped out of high school, left my sisters and my brother to fend for themselves, and took a job waiting tables at a pasta restaurant in Charlottesville.

I’d been working there about six months when I saw in the news that they’d found Stacey’s body. She’d washed up on the shore of Moncove Lake, about a half mile from the campsite. The police said it was probably the work of the Stabber, since Stacey fit the profile of his other victims. But they noticed a change in his MO—Stacey’s neck had been snapped.

Another year passed. I turned twenty. I was just marking time in my life. And then—I remember it was a Friday, the restaurant was crowded with students ordering carafes of our gross wine—he showed up. He had a woman with him, a pretty, thin girl with strawberry-blond hair. She was well dressed, well cared for, nice skin and expensive shoes. She looked the way people look at that time in their relationship when they’re absolutely sure the other person loves them and they haven’t started to love that person any less yet. The hostess seated them at one of my tables, and I went to take their drink orders. I didn’t even think about running away. I wanted to see what Bean ordered, what his girlfriend’s voice sounded like. It was more than curiosity—as I walked over, I had the feeling of finishing something.

And then he saw me, and we looked right at each other for just a moment, and he didn’t look frightened all. His face had no expression on it. For a second I thought he might pretend not to know me, but instead he smiled wide and said, “Allison! It’s been forever.”

“It has,” I said. I didn’t know what to say next. I hadn’t thought beyond walking up to the table, looking at Bean, and seeing what he did.

“Allison was my best friend back in Burnsville. Allison, this is my fiancée, Sarah Beth.”

Sarah Beth extended her hand and I saw the ring sparkling on the other one. Bean had come up in the world. He was wearing a sweater and a collared shirt. He looked like he had stopped dealing drugs.

“What are you doing here?” I asked him.

“Sarah Beth and I just bought a house in Sunflower Court,” he said. “I’m working at Alton Kenney.”

Alton Kenney was the biggest real-estate agency in Charlottesville. I looked at Sarah Beth and then back at Bean and thought: rich father-in-law, job, house, wife, life. I wasn’t disgusted—I just felt like I’d slipped into some other universe, one that had even less justice than the one I’d grown up in. I felt like I was moving through water. I took their drink orders and told them about our specials and even remembered to smile. Bean smiled back. I went back and got the drinks—white wine for her, red for him— and I took their meal orders and brought them their pasta, and then I went in the kitchen and stood for a minute staring at the wall.

That’s when Bean found me. He touched my elbow—not hard, not a grab, just a tap—and he asked me if I’d come outside with him for a minute. I thought about whether he would kill me too, just snap my neck the way he’d snapped hers, but I didn’t think he’d do that with his fiancée so close, sipping her wine and thinking he was normal. And I wanted to hear what he had to say. I let him lead me out to the parking lot.

“You know why I wasn’t surprised to see you?” he asked.

“Why?”

I kept my back against the kitchen door so I could let myself in quickly if I needed to.

“Because I’ve been keeping track of you. I knew when you moved here, and I knew where you worked, and I came here to see you.”

“Why?” I asked again.

“Because I wanted you to know that I can always find you.” And then he reached behind me and opened the door and went back inside.

That was three years ago. I quit that job, I changed my name, I moved here. But I still check behind me every time I let myself in my apartment. I still have a panic attack every time I see someone his height, his build. I’ve never told anyone this story before. I guess I keep hoping I’ll forget it, but I never do.

Two

After I finished, everyone applauded. A blond girl with perfect teeth came up to tell me how great I was. A guy who said he had a magazine gave me a homemade business card and told me to send my story to him. I was sleeping with this guy Barber at the time, who was in a band and who everyone thought was going places, and he put his arm around me and kissed me on the head and said, “That was so powerful, dude.”

Sophie waited until I was alone—Barber and Irina had gone off to get drinks when she came over. She was tiny, wearing a boy’s button-down shirt and jeans rolled up above scrawny ankles. Her hair was slicked back and her face was pale, pointy, wide-eyed. She looked about sixteen years old.

“That’s not a true story,” was the first thing she said to me. “Is it?”

“Excuse me?” I said. But she was right.

Bean was actually my best friend in high school. Everybody called him that because in third grade he’d gotten a bean stuck up his nose and had to go to the emergency room and his dad beat him so hard that he had to stand in the back of the classroom for a week instead of sitting down. He was six-foot-four and skinny as a bug, with this desperation about life that made him talk so fast his words turned into nonsense, or show up at my house in the middle of the night so jazzed and agitated about zombies or racism or the terrifying infinity of the universe that I would have to shout to get him to settle.

It was true that sometimes when Bean and I drove around at night in his gold Buick with the windshield wiper that stuck straight up like a clock striking midnight, I did feel like we were the only people in the world—especially after he calmed down a little and started to talk more slowly, and I could listen to his voice and watch the dark going by around us like it was a blanket that would wrap us up and keep us safe. But of course eventually he’d have to take me home, and my stepdad would be screaming in his nightmares or trying to drink them away at the kitchen table with his face like a deflated balloon, or my fourteen-year-old sister would be having sex with her twenty-two-year-old boyfriend, who my mom liked because sometimes he brought over hot dogs or oranges from his job at the Kroger, or my eleven-year-old sister would be sleeping in my bed because she was afraid of something she couldn’t name that lived in the hills behind our house and came in at night to lie on top of her, invisible and terribly heavy, trying to crush the breath out of her lungs.

I’d seen the real Bean angry plenty of times. I saw him rage about his dad, who tried to toughen him up by putting him in headlocks and calling him a pussy when he couldn’t get out of them, about our stupid high school he couldn’t wait to escape, about the hard guys who played football and shot deer with their dads’ guns and wrote “FAG” on his locker. About how all the girls wanted to go out with those guys instead of him. Bean’s rages weren’t scary—if anything, they made me sad. He was like a dog running in circles until it tires itself out; he was like a kid all out of breath from crying who’s just discovered the world is unfair.

There was no Tommy, there was no Stacey. There was no Stabby. It was just me and Bean in the woods that night. We used to go there when he was really worked up, because the trees and the silence and the smells of the long-dead campfires would slow him and calm him down. But that night he was really going off—he and his dad had gotten into a fight about the garbage, and his dad had shoved him and then laughed when he fell down. Bean went pacing and pacing in circles, and finally I got him to sit down and I was rubbing his back a little, the way you rub a kid with a bad chest cold. I’d done this for my sisters in the fall and spring, when the phlegm would catch in their throats and stick in their lungs and they would beg for lemon tea and Vicks cough drops and someone to sit up with them at night and sing. But my sisters had never wheeled around and kissed me hard on the mouth. My sisters had never held me tight when I tried to pull away and stopped my mouth with their tongues when I tried to yell. My sisters had never pushed me to the ground and unbuttoned my pants.

The whole time Bean was raping me, I kept my eyes shut and tried to pretend he was someone else. Not someone I wanted, someone I’d agreed to have sex with, but someone evil and mean who I could completely hate. It didn’t work. When he came, I opened my eyes and saw Bean, panting, an awful guilt dawning in his eyes, and I wrapped my arms around him and held him for a long time, because it seemed so important to let him know that he hadn’t lost me, that I would still be his friend.

Bean and I didn’t avoid each other after he raped me. Instead there was a weird energy between us, a brightness. We laughed too hard at each other’s jokes and argued loudly over nothing and ambushed each other from behind with big bear hugs. Some of my other friends asked me if we’d started sleeping together. And then we did.

At first I thought it was a way to erase what had happened. I thought that making it okay to have sex with him now would reach back in time and make it okay then. It didn’t, and once I knew it wouldn’t, the sex got violent. I banged my body against him, I bit his chest, I dug my nails into his back until he bled. He was rough with me too—he’d hold me down, grab big handfuls of my hair and yank my head straight back. It reminded me of the first time and I got scared, but I never told him to stop. I thought everything we did was fair somehow—in some way through this a score would be settled. Afterward we didn’t hold each other. We lay side by side sweating and panting, like boxers.

By the time graduation rolled around I started to worry I’d do something to really hurt Bean—gouge his eyes with my thumbnails while he fucked me, tear his lips off with my teeth. Something scary was awake in me and I wanted to put it back to sleep. I bought a bus ticket to New York with money I stole from my stepdad’s wallet over the course of a month, and I told my fourteen-year-old sister where I was going and that she was in charge now. Then I saw Bean one last time.

I don’t know why I told him where I was going. I know I wanted to get away from him—that night in bed my body was itching to leave. But also our fucking was less angry than usual, almost tender, and I came, and afterward he held me and I felt not peace but some kind of stillness. The next day I left town for good.

My first days in New York were like a bad dream. I moved into a basement apartment with no floor, just dirt under our feet, which my three roommates thought was funny. They were an NYU student whose parents had supposedly cut him off but still called every day demanding to talk to him; a part-time art restorer named Lady; and a forty-year-old guy named Charles who did odd jobs and might’ve been a drug dealer, but not a very good one, because he never had any money. Charles had adopted a cat with a broken jaw but he couldn’t afford to take her to the vet, so he mashed her food up in water into a runny paste, some of which always leaked out of her mouth as she ate and for a while afterward, so when she sat on your lap you ended up with little drops of spit and mashed cat food on your pants. No one I knew back home lived like that, not even the Mastersons, whose mom was schizophrenic and made them wear surgical masks to school every day to keep the chemicals out. I worked at a diner until my manager started stealing my tips, and then as a bar waitress until a customer tried to follow me home, and then at a bodega where I had to stay because I had no ideas left, even though the owner always pressed his crotch against my ass when he walked behind me and yelled at me for not selling expired food. I felt like I’d come to a place for people who didn’t know how to be people, and if I was there I must not really know how to be a person either.

After a couple of weeks I started expecting Bean to call. I hadn’t given him my phone number but my sister had it—he could easily ask her. At first I just wanted him to call me up and talk to me like nothing had happened, like he was just an old friend reminding me where I came from, that I’d once had a real floor and a dog instead of a fucked-up cat and a life that, even if it wasn’t that good or that happy, still made a little bit of sense. When it had been a month and still he hadn’t called, I started wanting him to say he missed me. I wanted him to tell me that he’d been stupid to let me go, that he wanted to see me again and he thought we could work things out. I felt terrible for the whole two months or so that I thought this way, and at the same time I imagined myself saying I missed him too, and yes, and yes, and yes.

And then I started wanting him to apologize. By this time I’d managed to get a job waiting tables at a decent place in Williamsburg, and I was making enough money to move to the house with Irina, which was also dirty and crowded and full of cats, but at least it had real floors. I started to feel a little bit more in charge of my life, and I found myself standing on the subway platform or walking down Atlantic Avenue or carrying a slice of birthday cake to a customer, shielding the candle’s little flame with my hand, and suddenly wishing, as hard as I’d ever wished for anything in my life, that Bean would say he was sorry. I didn’t want him to explain, I didn’t want him to tell me he loved me or he missed me or he wished things were different—I just wanted him to say those two words and never talk to me again.

The night I told the story it had been almost two years since I’d left Burnsville, and I still hadn’t heard from him. It had gotten weaker, but I still had the feeling that he had something of mine that he needed to give back, and that I couldn’t rest until I had it.

Maybe that’s why I told the story about Bean that night, instead of one of the others I could’ve told—he still had a hold on me, and my mom and dad and my sisters and my stepdad didn’t, or at least I thought they didn’t at the time. But I wasn’t about to tell the real story and have everybody know my business, and I guess I thought I could fool people—usually Brooklyn kids would believe anything you told them about West Virginia. I hadn’t expected this little stranger standing in front of me, acting like she knew something about my life.

“When people lie about their past,” she said, “they push their chests out and stand up straight, like someone’s going to challenge them.”

“And I was doing that?”

She nodded. “But some of it was true,” she went on, “because sometimes your whole body relaxed, like you knew the story in your sleep.”

I was annoyed with her for pegging me so well. I told all kinds of little lies about my life to Barber and Irina, to people I met, making my family and my town sound better or worse than they really were depending on the situation. I’d always gotten away with it, and I was happy to be able to make my own past and have people accept it. But I sometimes hoped somebody would catch me out, so I could feel like they really knew me. And the first person to do it was a girl who didn’t know me at all.

“What are you,” I asked, “some kind of psychologist?”

“I make movies about people,” she said, “and I’d like you to be in one.”

I thought she was fucking with me then. The arty kids I knew put on shows in crappy bars or made websites with a few cartoons on them—no one made movies. Either it was a joke, I figured, or she was one of those people who always had a crazy plan and never followed through. Plus Barber came back just then with a beer for me and wound his arm all the way around my back so he could touch the side of my left breast.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be in your movie, whatever.” 

“Good,” she said. “I’ll come by next week.”

Three

I didn’t know her name, and I hadn’t told her where I lived, and I figured I’d never see her again. But there she was the following Monday, at my door.

“I’m Sophie,” she said, and sat down on my bed without asking.

She kicked off her sneakers—her feet underneath were sockless, long and thin and graceful. She smelled good, like the dark valleys back home, cool even in the summer and full of ferns.

“We start shooting in three weeks,” she said. “I need to raise a little more money, but I already know where I’m going to get it.”

“Okay,” I said. I started to take her a little more seriously. My friends with their shows and websites rarely talked about raising money.

“You’re going to star, so you need to be there pretty much every day.”

“Hold on,” I said. Over the weekend Barber had told me that we needed to have an open relationship, because he and the bass player of his band, a tall blond girl named Victoria, needed to have sex.

“It’s not even about the physical,” he said. “She’s just such an amazing artist.”

I didn’t care that much about the open relationship—I hadn’t really been aware we were in a relationship at all. But I was jealous that he was so impressed with her; after my story I’d quickly gone back to being unimpressive.

“I’m not an actress,” I told Sophie. “I can’t star in a movie.”

She waved her hand in the air like she was swatting away a fly. 

“That doesn’t matter,” she said. “You’re the one I want.”

She was staring at me. She reminded me of the boys I liked in high school, the pretty, intense boys with their fake swagger, their soft mouths. They wrote bad songs and sang them well, and their girl- friends talked lovingly about how fucked up they were, how they should’ve been born in another place, another time. They always had girlfriends; those had never been the boys who liked me.

“What’s the movie about?” I asked.

“It’s about your story,” she said.

I was flattered, but I was worried again—I figured no real director makes a movie after hearing a ten-minute lie from someone she’s never met. And practically speaking, that meant she probably didn’t even have a script yet. Maybe this was all a joke, a way to fuck with me by making me think I was important.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “That’s not how people make movies.”

She shrugged. “It’s how I do,” she said. “Movies are how I get to know people.”

I laughed; she sounded so cocky. “How’s that working?” I asked. “Pretty well so far.”

“For you or the people in the movies?” I asked.

“Both,” she said.

After that she came over every day so we could work on the script. Always my place, never hers—I don’t even know where she lived that year. She always sat close to me on my bed, but I wanted her closer. I wasn’t even sure if it was sexual at first—I just wanted to feel her sleek hair, her narrow bones. Her body gave off so much heat, like a field mouse, an animal that has to survive in the wild. I wanted to know what she looked like under her boys’ clothes—I imagined something neither boy nor girl, something I’d never seen before.

On the third night we worked together she asked for the real story of what happened to me back home. The room seemed too small all of a sudden, and I made us go for a walk. It was summer, after midnight, warm as a bath. Williamsburg was still ugly then—as I talked, stray cats skulked in the gutters, all bullet heads and scrawny shoulders. I felt so far away from home.

After I finished, we didn’t talk for a while. My chest felt hollow. We looped back, and when we got near the house I felt Sophie staring at me. I didn’t meet her eyes. I thought maybe I’d call Barber— telling the story made me lonely, and I wanted someone in my bed. But Sophie stopped outside the door, her hand on my arm. She made a face I’d never seen before—very serious, but with tenderness fighting through, like it almost hurt to show it. Like a knight from an old movie, I thought later, a hero.

“I want you to know something,” she said.

“What?” I wasn’t sure there was anything she could say to make me feel less lost.

“I would never do that to you,” she said. “I would never do anything you didn’t want me to do.”

I wanted to laugh at first. Who was she to assume she’d get that opportunity? She didn’t even know if I liked girls—I didn’t even know. And even if I did, what was this little mouse going to do to me, when I had four inches and forty pounds on her? Then she took hold of my right wrist. Her hands were strong and she had me fixed with her giant eyes, and I thought maybe she could hurt me after all. I took a step toward her.

It didn’t matter much that I’d never been with a woman before. Her body was so different from mine—her sharp hip bones, her boy’s ass, her breasts you could cover with tablespoons. She fucked me like a man too—not like the boys I’d been with, but like the men I’d meet later on, who’d learned to read a woman’s body and knew without asking that I wanted them to hold me down. She always knew how far to go and when to kiss me on the forehead or loosen her grip on my wrists so I didn’t get too scared. Every now and then something would surprise me—how delicate she looked when she was sleeping, how when she showered and put on deodorant, she smelled just like me. And I knew my mom would cry if she found out and say it was my dad’s fault for leaving us alone. But once I started spending all my time with Sophie, I didn’t think about anything but us. That summer she was a hot wind I blew through the city on.

For a while after we got together, the movie seemed both real and not real. We talked about it all the time, and I helped Sophie with the screenplay. She submitted it for grants and fellowships—she was businesslike and organized and already knew what to do. I learned she was twenty-three, older than I was, that she’d already made a short film called Daniel and spent a year in a big-deal filmmaking program, that she knew dozens of people who worked on real movies and shows. I was always asking her to let me see Daniel, and she said she would, but somehow it never happened. All I knew about it was that it was about a boy she went to college with—which made me curious and jealous—and that she thought it had a lot of technical problems.

“This one will be better,” she said. “I know how to make a movie now.”

I liked this side of her, that talked about a complicated thing like it was easy and asked people for thousands of dollars like she knew they would say yes. And at the same time, I never thought we’d really make the movie. I thought we’d be working on it forever, the two of us, a project to keep us close, and all the other things that I now know make up a film seemed so strange and far away that I figured they’d never actually arrive.

And then it was November and Sophie got a grant. It wasn’t quite enough to make the movie, but it was enough to start, and suddenly she was scouting out locations, calling grips she knew, and teaching me what the word “grip” meant. I started to get scared then. I’d made the whole story of the movie from something terrible, and I was worried I’d be punished somehow. Everybody in my family believed in ghosts, and my grandma said it wasn’t just bad people who turned into them, it was bad deeds too. I was worried I’d made Bean’s bad deed grow.

Sophie said the world didn’t work that way. And she said even if it did, we should be punished if we didn’t make the movie, because we’d be depriving something great of the chance to exist. She never doubted herself in those days. She was more sure about everything she said than I’d ever been about anything. Eventually I got her to change my character’s name at least—I picked Marianne because I’d always thought it was perfect, plain but a little bit classy too. I told myself that made the movie just based on me, not really about me, and that made me feel better, for a while.

I was still working at the bar then, and Sophie did all the casting without me. So I didn’t meet the guy she picked for Bean until our first day of shooting. He hadn’t come to the read-through—Sophie’s assistant director, a stuck-up girl named Susan who I already didn’t like, read his part in a schoolteachery voice. But there he was the first day, at the community center that was supposed to be my high school, wearing a white T-shirt that looked like it had been dipped in pee.

“This is Peter,” Sophie said.

I stuck out my hand, but he just nodded at it. He didn’t look like Bean, but he looked like the scary, cocky Bean I’d made up for the story. He wasn’t tall, but his arms were ropy and his hands were big, a fighter’s hands. His face was ugly in that way a lot of girls like, hard angles and slitty eyes. He held his body like he didn’t trust people.

In the first scene that day, he was supposed to ask me about Stacey. The community center had a hallway with olive drab lockers that looked a lot like a high school; we took down the signs for senior-citizen groups, and Sophie had Peter lean up against one of the lockers like he was waiting for me. I didn’t like how she reached out to move his left shoulder down. He didn’t like it either; he rolled it away from her and gave her a junkyard-dog look. She didn’t back down, though. Instead she said, “You’re not mad in this scene. You’re relaxed.”

“This is what I look like when I’m relaxed,” he said.

“Well that’s not what Bean looks like when he’s relaxed. I need you to lower your shoulder.”

He looked at her for a hard minute, and when she didn’t break her gaze he did drop his shoulder, but slowly, like it was a favor. Then the camera was ready; Sophie sent a couple teenagers we’d paid ten dollars to be extras down the hallway first, and I followed, carrying a backpack. People always talk about what a “natural” actor I am, like I don’t actually have any skills and I just grew out of the ground like this, some prized tomato. But really I have to think carefully all the time, because I don’t have any formal training. You learn a lot of things in drama class that I had to teach myself. Especially back then I was thinking constantly, because I wanted so hard to show Sophie she wasn’t an idiot for picking me, and also because I wanted everyone to see how great we both were, how well we worked together. That day in the hallway I was thinking about how I was in high school, ornery and impatient but starved for the feeling of being liked, for the feeling of somebody seeking you out to spend time with, not because you were making them dinner or fixing their bro- ken doll or telling them no, they didn’t mess their life up. I thought of how it was to walk down the hall and see the real Bean, before he hurt me, the pleasure of running into somebody I didn’t have to make any effort with, and how it might have been to see fake Bean, who was supposed to be cool and scary and who I would have wanted to impress, and I tried to mix those things in my face and my body and the way I walked. It felt like a long walk down that short hall- way with cameras on me for the first time ever, and when I reached Peter, I was relieved.

But his face looked funny, like he was lost or something, and instead of saying his line he growled, “What are you looking at?”

“That’s good,” Sophie called out. “But your line is actually, ‘Come here a minute, Marianne.’”

What about that was good? I wanted to ask.

But Peter just rocked back on his heels and slipped his thumbs into his pockets and said, “I know. I was just messing with Allie.”

I hated when people called me that, but I thought Peter was trying to get a rise out of me, and I didn’t want to let him. I knew something else was going on too. Peter looked nervous. He took his hand out of his pocket to scratch his nose. I wondered if he was on drugs. I walked up again, and this time he said the line right, and I said, “What’s up?”—which was my line—and then he just said, “Not much,” and I looked up at Sophie because that wasn’t his line either— he was supposed to say, “How well do you know Stacey Ashton?”

“Okay,” Sophie said. “Take a minute and look over the script again.”

The skinny kid who was our production assistant handed Peter a copy of the script, and then Peter did something weird. He flipped through the whole thing for a minute, not even stopping on our scene at all.

“Okay,” he said, “I’m ready.”

We went through it again, and this time instead of bringing up Stacey he said, “I have to talk to you about something.”

Sophie was getting frustrated.

“Just stick to the script,” she said. “You don’t need to ad-lib.”

But I knew Peter wasn’t ad-libbing. I’d seen that lost, defensive face before, on Arnie Phelps, who finally got passed to seventh grade because he was too big for the grade-school chairs. Peter couldn’t read.

He must’ve known I knew, because he dropped the script on the floor and mumbled, “Whatever, this is bullshit,” and walked down the hall and out the door.

Sophie stood empty-handed in the hallway. She looked as lost as he was.

“What just happened?” she asked me.

“He can’t read,” I said.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Sophie said. “He was reading the script.”

“He wasn’t,” I said. “He was pretending. Where did you find him anyway?”

“He was working at this bakery I go to,” she said. “I liked the way he looked. Why would somebody pretend to know how to read?”

“He’s embarrassed,” I told her. “He doesn’t want anyone to find out.” 

“Why?” Sophie said. “Who cares if he can’t read?”

I was quickly learning that even though Sophie seemed to understand me so well at times, there were things she didn’t understand at all. That day I didn’t feel like explaining how normal people cared what everyone else thought of them or how if you weren’t good at school you always felt nervous around people who were, like any minute you might have to prove you really were as smart as them.

“He thinks you’ll think he’s stupid,” was all I said.

Sophie had a habit when she was frustrated—she would rake her fingers through her hair and pull it back hard from her face. It made her look like a hawk, diving.

“It’s okay,” she said, more to herself than to the rest of us, who were gathered around looking confused.

“It’s fine. We’ll just explain the story to him and let him ad-lib it.”

She waved at the production assistant. “Chris, come here, we’ll make some notes. Allison, you want to go out there and get Peter?”

I didn’t. I didn’t like Peter, and I didn’t like that Sophie did. I didn’t like that she liked the look of him, all skinny and hard everywhere that I was soft. We hadn’t talked much about men but I knew she’d been with them, and I thought maybe what she liked in them was the opposite of everything about me. I was worried that one day she’d be with a man and tell him I was disgusting—my big ass, the way I submitted to her without question. I loved her in that headlong way that makes people jealous and anxious and greedy.

But loving her also meant I loved it when she was strong and in charge, when she knew what she wanted and she took it, even from me. And she wanted Peter to be in our movie.

“Fine,” I said.

Four

Peter was outside, leaning against the dirty wall of the community center, smoking a cigarette. Across the street was a park where the grass was dead for the winter, and some starlings were pecking at it. He was watching them.

“Hey,” I said.

He jumped a little bit, and I felt good that I could startle him.

“What?” he asked.

“I came to tell you that you don’t have to read off the script,” I said. “You can just ad-lib from now on. Sophie says it’ll be fine.”

He dropped his cigarette on the sidewalk and ground it out with his shoe. “No,” he said. “I’m done with this shit. I told her I wasn’t an actor.”

There was a wooden bench pushed up against the wall near where he was standing, and I sat down on it. I wanted to show that I wasn’t afraid of him.

“Look,” I said, “I don’t know you. I don’t know if you can act or what. But Sophie wants you to be in the movie, and she knows what she’s doing.”

He didn’t say anything.

“She’s going to be a big deal someday,” I added.

I hadn’t thought about this before I said it, but I realized it was true. Right then I imagined the day I would be talking about Sophie in the past tense, when people would ask me about her. I hoped I’d say, That was the beginning of our life together. But Peter didn’t ask anything. He ran a hand through his oily hair. That’s when I saw the tattoo, black-green on his white inner arm. It was an amateur job—a tiger with a head way bigger than its body, and one leg all long and wiggly like a hairy snake. The edges were blurring—ten years and it’d just look like a bruise.

“Where’d you get that?” I asked him.

He looked at me then, and his mean mouth had gone a little bit soft, and I realized he wasn’t much older than I was, probably twenty- five. He didn’t answer, but he seemed like he wanted to, kind of.

“Prison?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Juvie.”

“What did you do?”

He shrugged again.

“My dad was in prison,” I told him.

Peter lit another cigarette.

“What’d he do?” he asked.

I used to make up stories about my dad, like he was a bank robber or a gunrunner or a hit man. But I didn’t think Peter would like those stories, so I told him the dumbest, saddest one of all, which was the truth.

“He stole a car outside of Richmond and he was going to take it home to my mom and me to surprise us. But then he got lost and he pulled in to a gas station for directions, and the gas station was across from a police station, and the cops recognized the car and arrested him.”

Peter shook his head. “Your dad was a dumb-ass.”

My mom used to say this about him while he was away, from when I was three to when I was seven. When he came back, though, she cried and wrapped her legs around him, and they tried to make it work for a while and even had one of my sisters. But he was just missing the thing that lets people get by in the world, and he was always getting in trouble for no reason, getting thrown out of McDonald’s for trying to smoke or fired from jobs for skipping three days just because he felt like it. He wasn’t evil or even all that stupid; he was just really, really bad at following rules, and eventually he left us and moved out to the desert, where he said there were no rules at all. I didn’t tell Peter this, though. I just said, “Yeah.” I didn’t want him to think he’d riled me.

“I didn’t do anything,” he said. “Some older kids were selling weed and I was the lookout, that’s all.”

“How long were you away?” I asked him.

“Well once I was in there I kept getting in trouble for other stuff. Fighting. So six months and then another six, and then I got transferred and then two years. So three years.”

“That’s a long time,” I said, and then I took a little risk. “I bet you missed a lot of school.”

“Yeah,” he said. “So?”

“Listen,” I said. “Where I grew up the schools were shit, and a lot of kids didn’t go anyway. I knew a lot of people who couldn’t read.”

“Don’t fucking condescend to me,” he said in a low hot rage-whisper. “I know she thinks I’m a fucking retard and I don’t need you to explain it to me.”

His face went all tense the way boys’ faces get when they’re trying not to cry. I realized then that even if he didn’t care much about acting, he cared about impressing Sophie. I wondered if all the cast and crew were people like us, people who loved Sophie a little or a lot and were willing to do whatever she said. It made me jealous—I wanted to be the only one. But it also made me feel warm toward him; we were in the same boat.

“Sophie didn’t even know you couldn’t read. She thought you were just being a jerk, and she didn’t care. If she wanted trained Shakespearean actors, she could’ve gotten them. She wanted us. And that should make you feel good.”

“Why do you care about this so much?” Peter asked. “It’s not like you like me.”

“I love her,” I said, “and I want to make her happy.”

This was true, but there was something else I didn’t say—I could tell people were going to start coming between me and Sophie, and if I could take charge of Peter, maybe I could take charge of the next one too. And if I was in charge, maybe they wouldn’t make it as far in and it wouldn’t hurt as much.

Peter give me a little smirk then, held up two fingers in front of his face, flicked his tongue.

“So you guys are, like, lezzies?” he asked.

I almost liked him then; he looked like a twelve-year-old kid. 

“Yeah,” I said, bugging my eyes out, making fun of him, “we do this.” And I flicked my tongue between my two fingers too.

He laughed. Then he shook two cigarettes out of his pack and handed me one without asking. I’ve never been a big smoker, but I had a cigarette with him and watched the starlings, and then we both went inside. 

***

The next few days were exciting ones. We were constantly behind schedule, and the production assistant quit, and the nineteen-year-old grip dropped one of the lights and sprayed broken glass all over the floor, and the little trust-fund girl who was playing Stacey cut her foot and cried and talked about a lawsuit, but Sophie just powered through all that with this kind of scary joy. She was barely eating and her collarbones stuck way out and her eyes were huge. One night she yanked my hair and snarled and bit me on the thigh, and I wore a short skirt the next day so everyone could see the bruise.

Because Peter was ad-libbing we all ended up doing it a little, and we kind of got into a rhythm with each other, especially Peter and me. Hating each other was a joke we kept pushing further and further. Once during a take of the scene where Bean tells Marianne he knows how to snap someone’s neck, we just busted up laughing for no reason, and Sophie came charging over yelling at us, asking what was so funny. We couldn’t explain. I could tell she was a little jealous, and I didn’t mind. Peter started to flirt with me—he asked me did I ever date guys, and did girls have special tricks, and could they ever teach them to a man or were there things only a woman could ever do—and I didn’t mind that either. I still didn’t think Peter was good- looking, but there was something raunchy and sneaky about him that I liked. He always smelled like sweat, and I liked that too.

The day we were supposed to shoot the big scene at the restaurant was the first day of February. Our version didn’t end the way my story had; instead of letting him leave, I was going to shove a knife into Bean’s belly. We were in the parking lot behind a Turkish restaurant in Bay Ridge whose owner loved movies. Inside we made it bright and cheesy-looking with checkered tablecloths and menus we printed out at the DP’s mom’s house, but the parking lot was still dirty and lonely, a sad place to end up. I took my mark, my back against the faded red door. Peter stood in front of me. The makeup artist, who was the nineteen-year-old grip’s big sister, had given him a close shave, and in his polo shirt and khakis and leather shoes he looked like a stranger. The wedding ring we borrowed from the other grip fit like it was his.

“You ready?” I asked him, smiling, trying to get comfortable.

He nodded, but he was looking past my shoulder at the beat-up door. Sophie counted down.

“You know why it didn’t bother me, running into you today?” he asked.

His voice was different—he sounded slick, polite almost. For the first time, I realized he was good at this, at being someone else.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I came here on purpose,” he said. “Just to see you.”

Then he moved close to me, the way he’d been in the run-through, so close I could smell him and feel the heat coming off his chest. And then he came closer. He was fully against me, pressing on me with all his weight. I looked at him to get him to ease up, but his eyes were flat. I looked at Sophie but she was staring over the DP’s shoulder at the picture of us in the viewfinder. Peter pressed harder, and I could feel his cock against my belly, through those stupid khaki pants, and I wanted to scream so he would stop, but the take would be ruined and everyone would know how weak I was, how someone could scare me just by pretending.

“Why would you come to see me?” I asked him, and people who love the movie have told me this is their favorite part, the fear and anger in my voice feel so real, so authentic. I hate it when people say that.

“Because I want you to know that I know how to find you. Wherever you go, I’ll always be there.”

And then he grabbed my chin and put his mouth on my mouth.

People who have been raped talk about flashbacks, and I believe them. But that’s not what I felt while Peter was holding me against the door and mashing his lips against mine. What I felt was pure shame. I’d gone to such trouble to tell a good story about my life, a story that was exciting and didn’t make me look bad, and now the cast and crew and anyone who saw the movie would see the other story anyway. They would see me letting Peter do something I didn’t want; they would see me fearful and helpless and struggling. And even though it was just a movie, even though I was supposed to be Marianne and he was supposed to be Bean, Peter was taking my dignity away, and everybody knew it.

It went on for a long time before I remembered I could stop it, and I felt even worse that I’d forgotten. I took the retractable knife from my apron pocket and jabbed him in the ribs, hard enough to bruise. He fell back, crushing the blood packets in his shirt; the red paint bloomed from his body, and I wished it was real. After the cameras stopped rolling, he asked me if I was okay, but I ignored him. I left the set and walked down the street in the cold to a coffee shop. I ordered a mocha, which I’ve always hated, and I sat at the table staring at it. After a while Sophie came in. She sat down across from me and put her hand over mine on the table, but I pulled away.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “I’m fine.”

I hated girls who pretended nothing was wrong when they were obviously mad, but if Sophie actually didn’t understand why I was upset, I didn’t think she deserved an explanation.

“That’s not true,” she said.

I shrugged. The whipped cream on top of the mocha was melting. 

“Are you upset about how Peter played the scene?”

She said it slowly, in that way she had of puzzling out things that would’ve been obvious to any normal human, and this time it made me furious.

“You think?” I asked. “You think I might not like how he held me down and kissed me without any warning, in front of everyone? You think I might be a little upset about that?”

I realized then that I’d never really yelled at her before. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Maybe she’d break up with me. Maybe she’d cry. I was scared, but I was excited too, like I’d climbed up to a high place and I was looking down. But she didn’t cry, and she didn’t yell back. She just looked at me for a minute, and then she said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know he was going to do that. I should’ve stopped him.”

This was also the first time she’d ever apologized to me. The words sounded weird coming out of her mouth, like a foreign language, but hearing them made my heart crack open a little bit. I felt like I was seeing a part of her I’d never seen before, a part that wasn’t totally sure she was right all the time, a part that could admit she’d fucked up. And seeing that made me love her more than I had the whole time we’d been working on the movie, when she’d seemed so perfect and competent and impenetrable.

“It’s okay,” I said. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“I’m sorry anyway,” she said. “I wish I could’ve protected you.” This time I reached out and took her hand. “It’s okay,” I said.

“You didn’t know.”

Five

We still had a few scenes to shoot, and they went easily. Sophie promised to edit the kiss out of the final cut, and I felt closer to her than ever. She’d moved into my room at the house with Irina by then, and we started talking about what we’d do when the movie was finished, how we’d enter it in festivals where everyone would see how great it was. We talked about winning at Cannes, how we’d go up together to accept the award. We talked about how I’d look in my red-carpet dress.

I didn’t see Peter again until after the shoot was over. The last day had been odds and ends in what was supposed to be Burnsville, footage of me sitting on bleachers, waiting for the bus. It made me laugh, how little it was like home—the cameras in my face, the bright light, the city poking out through the smog on the horizon. Later I’d see the movie and shake for days at how real it looked, and forever after the fake memory would lie on top of the real one in my head, covering it over. But that day the air was sweet with the beginning of spring, and I was happy, and Peter came to the house to see me.

I was in our room, drinking wine from a jar and trying to hang the pretty Indian cloth I’d just bought for curtains. Sophie was in the editing room, and I’d just started to wonder when she’d be home. These days I wanted her to spend all her time with me, lazy in our bed, like I imagined she’d do if I were pregnant. But it was more like she was having the baby, and she had to work hard every day to make sure it got born right.

One of our housemates must have let Peter in. I heard someone on the stairs and I ran to the door with my face all shining, ready for Sophie, and when I saw Peter I turned away. I was embarrassed to let him see me so happy, like I was waiting for him.

“Hi Allison,” he said.

“What do you want?” I asked.

My mother always said good manners were for people who deserved them. This attitude used to get her in a lot of trouble, but it was one of the few things I ever learned from her that I liked.

“I want to talk to you,” he said.

“Well I’ve got nothing to say to you.”

It wasn’t true. Really I wanted to ask him why, why he thought he could act that way to me, just shove himself against me without warning when we’d already gone over the scene. I was worried there was something about me, something that said, Do what you want with this one, some kind of smell on my skin. That’s why when Peter said again that he wanted to talk to me and asked if he could come in, I moved aside and let him sit at the edge of the bed. I stayed standing, holding my wine, looking down at him like that would give me the advantage somehow.

“First,” he said, “I want to say I’m sorry.”

“A little late,” I said.

He went on. “I’m sorry because I knew you’d be scared when I kissed you, and I did it anyway.”

He was talking fast and flat, like he’d written the speech out beforehand, and he wasn’t meeting my eyes. I didn’t want to give him any more power than he already had; I didn’t want him to know how much he’d rattled me.

“I wasn’t scared,” I said. “It was just a shitty thing to do, that’s all.”

He looked up at me then. “I knew it would scare you,” he said, “because Sophie told me it would.” 

Sometimes when something bad is about to happen, I get this rushing feeling, almost like joy. Right then I wanted to jump in the air or throw my jar of wine across the room. Instead I sat down on the bed next to Peter.

“What did she tell you?” I asked.

He stared at the floor. I was embarrassed about the T-shirts and panties and wine corks that lay there, all the evidence of the months we’d been fucking and drinking and sleeping and loving in that room, but it was too late to clean anything up.

“She said she didn’t like the way things were going. She wanted the last scene to be different.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What didn’t she like?”

He paused. I could tell he was choosing his words and that he wasn’t very good at it.

“It wasn’t that she didn’t like your performance. She liked it. It’s just, she wanted something more intense for the end.”

I could feel acid rising up my throat. Ever since the beginning, Sophie’d had only good things to say about my acting. She was always talking about how we were going to make so many more movies together. I wanted to kick Peter out, tell him he had no idea what he was talking about, but I also wanted to hear the rest of the story.

“And?” I asked.

“She said I should get in your face a little bit, to make the scene better.”

“Get in my face?”

He stuck his hands in his hair, looked at his shoes. “I don’t remember how she put it—she just said I should get close to you, even kiss you maybe. She told me to do that. I wouldn’t have come up with it on my own.”

I thought I had him figured out. He acted all hard, but really he was one of those guys who couldn’t stand to have anybody hate him. Now that he’d had his fun freaking me out, he was going to pin everything on Sophie and look like the good guy.

“Bullshit,” I said. “Get out of here.”

He stood up. I stood too. I’d expected him to try to argue, but he looked defeated, almost relieved.

“Okay,” he said.

But at our door, he turned back to me, and now he looked scared. 

“She told me this other thing,” he said. “She told me that because of something that happened to you, you might get really mad if I tried to kiss you. That you might even leave the set. But that I shouldn’t worry because that was part of it. Whatever happened to you—she didn’t say what—was going to make the movie better.”

I had to sit back down.

“I didn’t ask what it was,” he went on. “I should have. I knew we were doing something fucked up to you, and I did it anyway, and I’m sorry.”

And then he did leave, and I was alone, and I didn’t know if I believed him, but I noticed that I was picking all my clothes up off the floor, like I didn’t want them touching hers anymore.

***

Sophie came home hours later. I’d finished the bottle of wine and started in on somebody’s cheap vodka from the kitchen freezer, and I was in what my mom used to call a bloodred mood. I wanted Sophie to ask me what was wrong, but she came in all important, talking about her day, wearing a new suit jacket she’d bought, and finally when she lay back on the bed and started talking at the ceiling without even looking at me, I gave up and interrupted.

“Peter came to see me today,” I told her.

She didn’t look worried. She didn’t look at me at all. She was still staring at the ceiling like something was written up there.

“I thought you weren’t speaking to him,” she said.

“I wasn’t,” I said.

Sophie looked at me then. She sat up on her elbows and fixed me with those giant eyes, but still she didn’t look angry or upset. She just looked focused, like she was in the editing room, cutting a tough scene.

“Did you tell him to kiss me?” I asked.

“Did he say that?” Sophie asked.

“Is it true?”

I wanted so badly for her to say something that made sense, something simple and obvious that would make Peter the liar and not her. Instead she stood up, took her jacket off, ran her fingers through her hair. She still just looked like she was thinking.

I started yelling. “Tell me if it’s fucking true!”

“Can we talk about this in the morning?” she asked.

She held her hand out to me the way she did when she wanted me to come to bed. I took it and dug my nails into it the way I did when she was making me feel so good it hurt.

“Did you tell Peter to kiss me?” I asked again.

She looked away. “I did,” she said.

I threw my jar of vodka against the wall. When it shattered into a million pieces, I picked up the bottle and threw that too. I was looking around for something else to throw when Sophie started talking in a new voice, loud and with a panicky edge on it.

“Allison, you know when you want something to be perfect?” “No!” I shouted.

“Well, you know when I want something to be perfect?”

I turned to face her. My blood was pounding in my ears. 

“Sometimes I just want that so badly that I don’t think about what will happen or how other people feel. I can’t think about it, even though I know I should.”

“Why can’t you?” I asked.

Her eyes were wet. I realized she was scared now, as scared as I’d ever seen her. She raised her arms in a silent shrug, and I remembered how small she was, how fragile.

“Well, you need to learn,” I said. I wasn’t yelling anymore. I was hoarse. “You can’t be like this forever.”

“I know,” she said. She held out her hand again, and this time I took it and lay down on the bed with her. But all that night I dreamed a dog was chasing me, barking and biting at my heels.

***

My grandma and my grandpa loved each other, and when he died she cried for one whole day, my mom said, and then she went out and got a second job baking bread at the women’s prison. She was smart and fast, and soon she was promoted to line cook, then kitchen manager, and she was able to quit her first job at a factory that made wooden dishware, and she worked at the prison until she died. My mom and I visited her when I was four or five years old, before my sisters were born, and she made bread with a soft cheese baked inside it and I kept wondering what magic she used to get it in there. Another woman was staying with my grandma then, a lady named Elma who had been a prisoner. She had a big square body and a face that had seen a lot of sun, and I remember she taught me how to peel an orange in a spiral so you’re left with a bouncy, sweet- smelling snake. She also told me a story about her grandfather that I didn’t believe but that I loved. She said he was a sailor who was captured by pirates, and they were about to make him walk the plank when he made a special Masonic hand signal, and since they were Masons too, they not only let him go but taught him all their pirate secrets and codes and ways of avoiding the law. Elma had round cheeks and deep wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, and when she smiled, I thought she looked like Mrs. Claus, and I told her that, and she laughed.

That night when my grandma was putting me to bed, I asked her what Elma had done to go to prison. My grandma didn’t believe in lying to children, so she told me that Elma’s husband used to beat her and her daughter, so one night Elma killed him. I was scared then—not because I thought Elma would kill us but because I was worried that the nice lady who I’d started to love the quick way little kids do was actually evil and I’d have to hate her.

“Is Elma a bad person?” I asked my grandma.

“What she did was bad,” she said. “But not as bad as letting somebody hurt you over and over and not doing anything about it.”

I knew she was talking about my dad, which wasn’t fair, because he was just a screwup who never hit anyone in his life. But I remembered this forever, how bad she thought Mom was for taking shit from him. And I thought of it the day I packed up my stuff while Sophie was editing and moved to a new apartment across town.

Follow Anna North on twitter @annanorthtweets

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