Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are. I switch off my apartment light and she comes with the dark. The train’s eye widens in the tunnel and there she is on the tracks, blond hair swinging. One of our old songs starts playing and I lose myself right in the middle of the cereal aisle. Sometimes, late at night, when I’m fumbling with the key outside my apartment door, my eyes meet my reflection in the hallway mirror and I see her, waiting.
Marlena and I are in Ryder’s van. That morning, while he was still asleep, she stole the keys from the pocket of his jeans. The spring’s burst gloriously, stupidly into summer, and we’re wearing drugstore flip-flops, hair tacky with salt at the temples, breath all cigarettes and cherry lip gloss and yesterday’s wine. I kick my sandals off and unfold my legs on the dash, press my toes against the windshield the way I do when it’s just Marlena and me. Ryder says I’ve ruined his car, that the spots won’t rub off, but I don’t care. Marlena painted my nails, propping my foot on her thigh. High-alert orange—her color.
Our windows are rolled all the way down. The breeze loosens the hair from my ponytail, sends it in tangles across my face so that everything I see is broken. We’re on our way to the beach, for a normal day. For holding our breath underwater until our lungs beg. For the breath-stealing slap of a wave against our stomachs and sour, fizzy mouthfuls of beer stolen from unattended coolers. We’ll track the sun’s movement with the angles of our towels and pass the same two magazines back and forth until the light sinks into the water. When we leave, unburying our feet from cold sand, we’ll have sunburns, then fevers.
We’re pretending to be girls with minor secrets, listening to Joni Mitchell with the volume turned up. Every line is a message written just for us. I sing so loud Marlena can’t hear herself, tells me shh, tells me I’m making her brain hurt. But in this memory, I only sing louder.
Marlena puts pressure on the gas and the car climbs the big hill on the dead-end road that leads to the lake. The speedometer leaps—we pass fifty-five, the limit on country roads, and hit seventy within a minute. The car fills with wind, so pushy and loud my hair whips against my neck and I can’t hear the music anymore. My voice hitches and I swing my feet to the floor. I try to roll my window up but Marlena locks it from her side. When she looks at me, grinning, I feel the car edge over to the shoulder, tires spitting gravel. She swerves back into the lane and the speedometer quivers before it jumps past eighty-five. Marlena’s ponytail has fallen almost out, and I wonder whether she can see, if maybe she doesn’t realize that we’re up to ninety now, and that underneath the wind there’s a new smell, bitter and hot, the van’s organs burning. We go faster and faster. I giggle a little and tell her to slow down, and a few seconds later to slow the fuck down, and when she doesn’t answer I shout that she’s crazy and scaring me and I want to get out of the goddamn car and that we’re going to die, please, she’s going to fucking kill us. We hit a hundred miles per hour, zipping up another hill, the car thrumming. When we reach the top the tires lift off the pavement, and when we land I slam against the glove compartment, catching myself with my forearms. She doesn’t brake and I wrestle my seatbelt on. Lake Michigan, Caribbean blue and winking light, rears up in our faces. We’re half a mile or less from the drop-off, the parking lot, the path to the beach.
She’s not going to stop, and for a second I feel something foreign, a rage that’s equal parts hunger and fear. Do it, I think, do it, and my stomach’s in my throat but I’m so tired of being the one to say no, be careful, stop. “What if I just keep going?” she shouts. Later I realize she was probably very high, because that would have been around the time of the pharmaceutical bottle of Oxy, forties, pills that loom in my memory of her like an extra feature; her eyes, the scraggly tips of her unwashed hair.
Now the lake is bigger than the sky. After we go under, how long will it take me to kick out the passenger-side window, my flip-flops floating to the roof of the car, my body shrieking for air? Marlena is a bad swimmer.
But then, no more than a dozen car lengths from the drop-off, we start to slow. The van weaves back and forth across the dotted line, careening onto the outer edges of its wheels. We stop with a shudder and a squeal. I jolt forward, the seat belt knifing into the space between my breasts. The headlights nose the slatted fence that marks the place where the land plummets a steep quarter mile to a crescent of stony beach. The car sighs, its engine ticking with relief. I am almost crying, my pulse a gallop, and I hate her for knowing it.
“Oh, come on,” Marlena says, but she’s out of breath and it takes her too long. “Do you really think I’d let anything bad happen to you?” Hives, the kind she gets when she’s anxious or excited, spread in a fine red lace from her collarbone up along the jumpy tendons of her neck, ending at her jaw. She scrapes a set of fingernails against my kneecap, a small circle that opens outward, shivering through me.
I want to spit right in her face. I want to walk away from everything she’s made me do and all the ways I’ve changed so bad that for an instant it’s possible, I almost do. I tuck my hands under my thighs so she won’t see them shaking, and stare at the pine-tree deodorizer. It utters like we’re still moving. “Cat,” she says.
It’s not a question. I love this wildness. I crave it. So why, when something in me asks if it’s worth ruining my life over, do I hear No?
I blink hard, until the tears are gone. When I laugh, shaking my head, she laughs too, and the horrible thing between us disappears, except for one indestructible sliver, mine forever. We grab the plastic bags of snacks from the backseat and trip down the path to the beach. Already I’m forgetting the feeling that seared me minutes before. Do it, just do it already, you bitch. She’s singing again, “California,” the part about kissing a sunset pig, the part about coming home. I chase her voice with mine.
Joni Mitchell songs fit Marlena. She was comfortable in higher registers, landing fast on each note, and she could perfectly mirror Joni’s trembling strength, the way she turned syllables into hard bells, ringing. That’s the last time I can remember hearing Marlena sing “California,” though it couldn’t have been. It was one of her favorites, and this was four months, at least, before she died. She drowned, technically. Though not in the way I’d feared that day, Ryder’s van, shooting through a guardrail. There was no great splash. No screams from the beach, no rushing lifeguard. She would have liked that better.
Marlena suffocated in less than six inches of ice-splintered river, in the woods on the outskirts of downtown Kewaunee, a place she had no reason to be at twilight in November. She was wearing one of my old coats and a pair of chewed-up Keds that the police would make much of. The tote bag she carried was full of loose change that must have rattled, as she walked, against that prescription bottle, her pay-as-you-go flip phone. She struck her head neatly, brutally, on a river boulder, and, it is assumed, her body slid just so, unconscious, until mouth and nostrils were submerged in water.
Some of the details are facts, but very few—where she was found, what she wore and carried. She was last seen alive at 5:12 p.m., according to Jimmy, my older brother. His memory of those three numbers blinking on the car clock is distinct. Though, he told me later, frustrated, drunk, he could be remembering what the clock read in the minutes just after she got in the car. It’s possible, he said, that 5:12 p.m. was the time he left the house, before he even picked her up. I understand why it bothered him so much, not knowing the time line for sure. Neither of us really believes that what happened to her was pure accident.
At a little past one in the afternoon, almost twenty years after that day in the car, I received a phone call from a ghost. I was walking through a corridor of faceless skyscrapers on Fifth Avenue, congested with men in long wool coats who collectively bristled when I slowed and pulled my phone from my pocket. I had a hangover, a dull knot between my eyes, a flutter in my pulse. When I saw the area code, 231, I hit Ignore. I leaned against a deli window, my chest tightening. I had no business with anyone in northern Michigan anymore; Mom lived in Ann Arbor with Roger, who even after a decade I still thought of as her new husband; Jimmy was in the UP, working for a construction company that built overpriced vacation houses.
The caller left a voicemail.
Hi, the voice said, a man, a nasal tilt to his vowels that reminded me of home. I’m sorry, he said, and then said it again. This is weird. Is this the phone for the Cat, the Catherine, from Silver Lake? This is Sal.
I saw Sal the boy, the landline’s cord corkscrewing around his fingers, speaking, as if by magic, with a grown man’s voice. It almost made me laugh. Sal Joyner. I’m in New York. He stopped for a second and then said, drawing out the words, The Big Apple, as if to prove to whoever was listening that he meant it, that it was both incredible and real. You probably don’t even remember me, he said, and then I did laugh, something like a laugh at least, a sharp intake of breath that curved up at the end, a not-unhappy sound. I hope it’s okay that I called. I’m wondering if you might have some—an hour or whatever, to meet. To talk to me about my sister.
And it all came back, of course, the edges sharper, clearer, than the city around me, the city that had seemed to blur and then fall away as soon as Sal said his name. Though it was there already, wasn’t it? A period of my life so brief it was over almost as soon as it started, and still there’s something I want to know, a question ticking in the deep, a live mine.
231. For a second I had thought it was her.
The first time I saw Marlena Joyner, Jimmy and I were unloading a U-Haul. We’d driven it five hours from our old house near the thumb of Michigan, all the way to the top of the state’s ring finger. It was early December and snowing wet, sleety flakes. Marlena weaved through her front yard, between the soggy and overturned packing crates, the tin barrels and busted engines and miscellaneous scraps of metal, until she was right beside me, sizing up the boxes in the truck. She wore a white T-shirt with the collar scissored off, and a pair of Spider-Man snow boots. The details of her in my memory are so big and clear they almost can’t quite be true. Her arms were slicked with snowmelt and pimpled from the cold; her hair gave off a burnt-wood smell when she shook it out of her face, the way she often did before she spoke.
“You’re the new people.”
“So it would seem,” said Jimmy. He hoisted Mom’s rocking chair over his shoulders and disappeared into our garage without looking back, which is how I knew he thought she was beautiful.
Though it was an unremarkable meeting, the start of a familiar story, in the coming months we’d go over and over the details until they took on a mythical radiance. Marlena lived less than twenty paces away, in a renovated barn coated in layers of lilac paint that was sticky to the touch. The building sagged into the ground. Her living situation disturbed me then, but really, it wasn’t so different from ours. We’d bought a ranch-style modular on a grubby half-acre of land in Silver Lake. It was a prefab three bedroom, still new—the kind of place that had been assembled in a lot and dropped off by truck. It reminded me of a Monopoly house. Mom said she was attracted to its efficient lack of stairs, to the big backyard. She didn’t say what Jimmy and I knew: that a modular was a step up from a trailer, and that without Dad we were full-blown poor.
Marlena lifted her hair off her neck and twisted it into a damp rope. Pounds of hair, waist-length and alien pale, bangs angled across her forehead—a style I’d tried at the end of middle school, with crap results. She was alarmingly pretty—sly, feline face, all cheekbone and blink—and if I am honest, that was the first reason I wanted to become friends. At fifteen, I was somehow fat and skinny at the same time. My ears stuck straight out of my head. Still, I believed that any second I might become beautiful; I was crazy about girls who already were.
“I’m Marlena,” she said.
“Cat,” I answered. To my family I was Catherine or Cathy, but I’d decided I couldn’t be that girl here.
“Well, we don’t seem to have much choice.” She smiled, her eyes blue and giant. I couldn’t tell if it was nice or what.
Whenever I hear the word danger, I see Marlena and me staring into the mouth of that U-Haul in the winter hour between twilight and dark. Two girls full of plans, fifteen and seventeen years old in the middle of nowhere. Stop, I want to tell us. Stay right where you are, together. Don’t move. But we will. We always do. The clock’s already running.
After we distributed the boxes to their proper rooms, Mom, Jimmy, and I sat cross-legged on the living room floor eating frozen pizza. The cable wasn’t hooked up yet; the TV eyed us blankly. Mom was drinking from a tall plastic cup. The new fridge didn’t have an ice maker, let alone a crusher, so she’d rinsed a Ziplock used to transport makeup, turned it inside out, filled it with cubes from the tray, and then bashed the ice into pieces with a ketchup bottle. She asked Jimmy again about his scholarship, if he’d gotten a clear answer from the MSU people about whether it could be applied to enrollment next year. She’d asked him that at least three times since I put the pizza in the oven. When Mom drank more than a couple glasses of wine, her brain caught on the same idea, replaying it over and over.
“Because that’s a lot of money to just throw away,” she said, and then launched into her regular speech, the one about his mistakes, and where did we think money came from?
“I want more pizza,” Jimmy said, and stood, leaving the room, probably to go blow blunt-smoke out of the fan propped reverse-ways in his bedroom window. It was the only thing he’d unpacked. He’d been smoking a lot since the divorce, and since his breakup with his chirpy-voiced girlfriend who was now well into the first term of her freshman year at MSU, where he should be, too. In my opinion, she was the real reason he’d deferred, turning down his scholarship just weeks before he was due to start, but who knew, when it came to Jimmy? He said it was because we needed him. College could wait. He joked that our band name should be the Pause-Outs—he’d paused-out of college, and I, for the moment at least, had paused-out of high school.
“If it turns out he had to fill out some paper or something, he’s going to be really pissed,” Mom told me, uncrossing her legs and tipping over her wine in the process. Ice slivered onto the floor and I scooped it back into the cup, the skinnier pieces wiggling out from between my fingers. “First stain,” she shouted, ceremoniously spreading her napkin over the spill. It darkened instantly, melting into the carpet.
Mom and I gathered up the plates and deposited them in the kitchen sink. “We can do them tomorrow,” Mom said, holding her cup under the Franzia box’s spigot until it filled back up. She kissed me loudly on the head and left. I turned the tap to burning and washed every single dish, even Jimmy’s.
The new house was a low-ceilinged, chubby rectangle propped up on a bunch of cement blocks. No basement. If you tapped any wall with your fist, a hollow echo bounced back. Our rooms all fed off a hallway to the right of the kitchen—bathroom first, then my room, then Jimmy’s, and across from his, Mom’s. I rattled the bathroom doorknob. “Quit pooping,” I said.
“Why? Don’t you want it to be nice and warm in here?” he said, from inside.
“You are disgusting.”
Jimmy opened the door, my tall, shaggy-haired brother, a dribble of toothpaste on his chin. When he was my age, he’d published an op-ed in the local newspaper about being a teenage atheist. He was blond and blue-eyed like Mom, and could run a mile in six minutes. Back when we were still the kind of family who went on camping trips, Jimmy and I used to share a bed in the rented motor home. Mom made us sleep head to toe, so we wouldn’t fight. Jimmy always got to put his head in the normal place; I was the one who had to be upside down. And so I loathed him, in an effortful way, for all that, but mostly because of how he dismissed Dad, and how that made Dad more eager for Jimmy’s attention than he ever was for mine.
For a long time, too long, I couldn’t stand that it was Jimmy, not me, who saw Marlena last. After Dad left, our sibling sonar, the one that travels via blood and cells and the bond of battling the same two parents, began to break down. A few years from that night in the bathroom we’d be like acquaintances. If we were closer, now, I’d tell him that I forgive him, for whatever he did or didn’t do, for letting her open the passenger-side door and walk off into the at gray dusk, her bag swinging against her hip, for those long, last minutes that are his, alone. It’s hard to admit that the worst part of me still feels like this is another way he got a little more of what we were supposed to share. Once a baby sister, I guess, always one.
I kicked a box labeled HALLWAY so that it blocked him from leaving the bathroom. “What’s this? What do we need for the hallway?”
“You know, hallway stuff. Pictures of you blowing out candles and so forth.”
“Are there towels in there?”
“In the closet. Is Mom out?” He touched the toothpaste on his chin.
“Think so. She didn’t say good night, but the light’s off in her room.”
“Did she get her sheets on and everything?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
He looked at me like, I’m trying, why can’t you? In the days before the move he’d amped up his über-adult attitude, as if he’d not only taken Dad’s place, but become Mom’s caretaker too. Had he really postponed his future to make sure Mom put her sheets on? The act seemed to me like a load of bullshit, and I couldn’t bear bullshit, which I sniffed everywhere I turned. At fifteen, I believed that I would grow up to be the exception to every rule.
Jimmy stepped over the box and squeezed my shoulder, his hand dampening my shirt. “It’s going to be okay, Cath. Try to have a little perspective.” He moved away down the hall and leaned against Mom’s door until it fell open a lightless inch. “Momma,” he stage-whispered, and stepped in, checking.
I peeled off the tape holding closed the HALLWAY box. The flaps popped open. No pictures of Jimmy with a foil crown on his head, me with baby teeth, Dad in the distance, waving a lit sparkler. All we needed for the HALLWAY were tangled extension cords.
What did I do, in those days before Marlena and I were friends? I unpacked my room, maybe, finished one of the books in my stack, watched a bowl of reheated soup spin in the microwave. But the I who began during those months, the I who’s still me now, had just begun to stir. I’d spent ninth grade at Concord Academy, an expensive prep school, on a combination of loans and scholarships—none of which were applicable for just the fall. After the news of the move I fought for my parents to let me stay on as a boarder (“Ha,” Dad said, “keep dreaming”), but they pulled me out a couple of days into my sophomore year, early enough to get a tuition refund. Mom called it an adventure; Dad said private institutions made people into sheep. Even with the aid, that single year did a number on their finances. I’d heard them fighting about it. I was a studious and focused girl, and already taking advanced classes—I don’t think it really occurred to them that letting me drift for an entire fall term would undo something in my brain. But cut free from the net of school and routine that had surrounded me since childhood, I could feel my edges rearranging.
I killed a lot of hours watching for signs of the people next door, telling myself it was boredom, that my interest had nothing to do with her. Besides Marlena, I noted a little boy, her twin in miniature; a scrawny man who always wore an orange knitted hunting cap; and another, larger man, who was around intermittently and drove a black truck with extra-large wheels. I had a good view of her house from the kitchen window. Sometimes Marlena came and went, flanked by two boys our age. One of them was cute; the other had terrible acne.
It was one of those nights when, sleepless and hungry and full of vague anger, I got out of bed in the predawn morning. I stepped into a pair of Dad’s slippers and wrapped a blanket around my shoulders. The new house was too quiet. I stood in the refrigerator light, drinking orange juice from the gallon, and wiped a sticky drizzle off my chin with the back of my hand. Mom kept her secret cigarettes—secret cigarettes, such a Mom thing to do—inside an Express shoebox that she hid on the upper shelf of our coat closet in Detroit. We had no equivalent place in Silver Lake, so it took me a while to find the shoebox at the bottom of a giant nylon bag full of odds and ends. I removed the lid and there they were, the Merits, nestled between the spooning heels of her mint-green pumps. Mom and Dad used to come back from nights out smelling like smoke and salt and wind and something sweeter: raisins maybe, or wine.
I grabbed the lighter gun from the kitchen counter—like lots of our stuff, it would never find a proper place in the new house, and would drift around from surface to surface. Outside was just inside with worse cold. Stars, stars, stars, and a couple trailer windows glowing television blue. I sat on the platform outside the front door, where Jimmy had left his muddy shoes. A poor man’s pied- à-terre, Mom kept calling the tiny deck, until Jimmy told her that pied-à-terre didn’t mean balcony or even porch, his voice weary. I opened Mom’s pack and pulled out one of the two cigarettes turned smoking-side-up. Who knew how old it was. I propped the filter between my teeth and clicked the lighter’s trigger. The flame didn’t catch until I sucked a little. I’d imagined that I’d splutter and hack, that my very first drag would burn. But I was three inhales in before I coughed. Smoke curled above my head, and I exhaled and watched the cloud tumble away, traveling far from Silver Lake.
I reached the filter, snubbing the ember out against the railing, and a sparkling started behind my eyes. I breathed deep and lit another. The cold from the icy step burned through the three layers I sat on—blanket, flannel pants, cotton underwear—but I was committed.
A pair of headlights appeared down the road, and then the truck with giant wheels swung into Marlena’s driveway. I slid off our stairs and crouched in a triangle of space between the porch, the house, and one of the chubby evergreen bushes that flanked the steps. I’d told myself that in Silver Lake, I was going to be someone new, someone too bold for hiding, and yet I hid. Catherine had apologized for everything, for the simple fact of her body taking up space. But not Cat. Or that’s what I hoped. The passenger-side door opened. I’d only been Cat for a couple of days; I decided not to move. Marlena sat in the cab, despite the hanging-open door. The cigarette pack crumpled in my hand as I craned to see. The lighter had fallen into the snow. Marlena pulled her knees into her lap, tucking them under her chin. In the quiet, early dark, every sound was amplified—her nails scritch-scratched against her jeans as if she were crouched next to me. She ran them up and down her legs.
“I’m going,” she said. A cough spidered around in my throat, but I fought it back.
“Just a minute,” said the driver. “I love looking at your goddamn pretty face.” He clicked on the dash light, and her body came into focus. From her outline I knew the position she was in—her chin buried between her kneecaps, her elbows hugging her sides. I’d made that shape in the car with Dad, the last time I saw him. Don’t touch me was what that meant. Leave me alone. I stood up a little, trying to see.
“Goddamn pretty,” she said, with a fake laugh. “Please.”
“I brought you home, didn’t I?”
“Give it to me, Bolt.” Her voice sounded tired. “C’mon, babe. My daddy could come back any minute and I haven’t checked on Sal all day.”
“Your daddy,” the man, Bolt, said, as if he were saying Yeah right. “But I’ll give them to you. Didn’t I say? But I want a kiss first. Just a kiss good night.” Kissing noises, like a crappy punch line.
She didn’t move and my legs ached and I ticked off the seconds, sure I would cough. He lifted a something into the air, pinched between his fingers, and shook it above her head. Her body undid itself as she grabbed, laughing, at whatever he held. I swallowed over and over. She turned to face him and his palms slid over her shoulders and then she was just whitish hair, one of his tattooed arms all tangled up in it, the other sliding up her sweater. I don’t know how I knew it from there, when she was still a stranger, but I could tell that she could hardly bear him touching her. She wriggled away after a few seconds and jumped from the truck. My skin crawled on her behalf.
“We need Band-Aids, too,” she said. “And eggs. Tomorrow or the next day, okay?” She slammed the door before I could hear an answer.
Marlena sat on a crate near where I’d first seen her, a kind of alternate-universe version of my front steps, and lit her own cigarette, staring at the blank windshield. As soon as the car left her driveway I started coughing, hands on my knees, until the coughing turned to hacking and the hacking turned to dry heaves and I had to steady myself against the house. I spat a few times, tasting pennies, or blood. Knowing I was found, I scrambled out from behind the bushes and stood where she could see me, right between our two houses, just a few long strides away from where she’d kissed him. She kept staring at the place the car had been, like I wasn’t there.
Marlena began to sing, very quietly, a song I couldn’t place. Her voice was so clear, coming from a million directions at once, that to hear it was to feel it in your skin. I didn’t go inside until her song was over.
In the version of this story where Marlena lives, I force her to stop singing, to tell me what’s going on. I force her, even though in that moment we are no more than strangers, to show me what’s in the plastic baggie she’s twisting in her fingers, its thin membrane illuminated by moonlight and snow. I threaten her, maybe, I grab her by the shoulders and shake, I refuse to leave until she confesses everything.
The adult reading room was almost empty, except for a couple of college students and that girl again, nodding out, her dirty backpack placed on top of the table—the biggest in the room, and empty except for her—as if daring us to ask her to move. Her forehead nearly touching the wood. When I passed the info desk, Alice caught my eye and then tilted her head toward the girl, pointedly. I lifted my shoulders, gave her a so what face. So what? The girl smelled like urine and soil, but only if you got close. She was quiet, and it had been weeks since we’d found any syringes in the bathroom trash, at least.
Back in my office, I sat down and slipped off my pumps, pressing my stockinged feet against the floor under my desk. My space is off a little landing between the library’s second and third floors. It is very small, just enough room for a desk and me; the single window lets in a kaleidoscope of green and blue light. On the higher levels, most of the smaller panes of glass are stained. From the outside, this building looks like a church, but it was built for trials. In the early twentieth century, it became a women-only courtroom, with a detention center in the back. The girl, and there have been many different versions of her over the years, belongs here as much as the books, I told Alice just the other day. She scares the kids, Alice said. She scares the moms, I corrected, and won, for a little while. I never give the girl any money, though seeing her always gets me thinking about how much I have. Of course she reminds me of Marlena. My office is full of money. Three-hundred-dollar leather bag hanging from the door hook. Cropped jeans, exact price forgotten, but definitely not less than one hundred and ten. Silver bracelet with inlaid row of turquoise, gift from Liam, probably half a grand. That morning I’d patted a seventy-dollar serum, a nose-stinging concentrate of green tea and rose hip, along my cheekbones. Growing up, we had just enough, and yet Mom had expensive taste, an innate sense of what made something beautiful and fine, probably fueled by the hours we spent dusting invaluable tchotchkes in the houses that she cleaned. We lived in fear of emergencies—an errant tree limb, one of Mom’s seasonal clients skipping their ski trip north, a rattle in the car’s engine, a toothache or slipped disc. We were just one big one away from Marlena and Sal, from the handful of other families that lived in the mobile homes and A-frames on our street.
The smell of my hours-old coffee made my stomach twist, and I nudged the mug to the edge of my desk. My computer pinged. I tapped my phone instead, illuminating Sal’s message. Twenty-five seconds long. Call me back, if you want, he’d said. I’ll be here until Sunday. He actually spelled out the ten digits of his phone number, even the one, like the person from the past that he was. No one left voicemails anymore—Mom or Liam, sometimes, as a novelty, or maybe the pharmacy with an automated reminder, but that was it. Sal had sent me an email, too, his spelling and grammar perfect, a smiley face beside his name.
Sal. Eight, maybe nine years old when I last saw him. His springy body appeared to be mostly limb, so that Marlena joked that if you threw him down a well he’d bounce right back. Marlena claimed to love him more than herself, but that didn’t always seem true—we’d go days and days without seeing him, or so I remember, days he must have spent shut up in that barn by himself, watching the adults filter in and out, mostly high, mostly drunk, mostly men, except for us two girls, who treated him like a toy. Once, when I was carrying Sal piggyback—this was in the fall, around when Marlena died—I smelled body odor, salty, like my brother’s. That was the first time he registered in my brain as a child who would grow up.
I met him one of our first nights in Silver Lake. The doorbell rang three times in a row, crazily, and I’d been both alarmed and excited—I was still on the lookout, then, for Dad. Jimmy hollered at me to get it and I pointed my middle finger in the direction of his voice, closing my book, The Stand, I think, because I was reading it when we moved. That novel colored my first impression of Silver Lake, all trees and crooked mailboxes and snowed-over road, without even any streetlights. When I opened the door a few inches, Sal blew in, a runty, child-sized draft, a flightless piece of wind. His pajama shirt was misbuttoned, so that one end hung down past the other; he wore no coat. A child of the 45th Parallel, impervious to cold. He invited me over, babbling about his purple house, and I imagined that she’d sent him. Before he left, I knelt to his level and wrapped him in Jimmy’s checked scarf, knotting the edges at his collarbone, so that it hung down his back like a cape. Sal stood there patiently, giving off his kittenish smell, all fur and warm milk.
When he dialed my number, did he think of the scarf, our house chaotic with boxes, the teapot whistling in the kitchen? What did he see when he looked at me that day? When we still had the potential to be nothing to each other? I was just a girl, a girl in the same general shape as his sister, but not yet an extension of her. Or maybe, to him, I was only ever what I am now: an accessory of Marlena’s, just as he was to me. As soon as I finished the knot, he pushed out the door and darted through the snow-drifts that separated our yards. His house was dark, but he went inside. To what, I can still only really guess, despite how many hours I spent there.
I would call him back. Of course I would. It was less a decision than it was an acceptance. Alice knocked on my office door, two sharp raps that made my hungover ears ring. We had a staff meeting. I smiled and sat up straight in my chair, ignoring the hard throb in my head when I changed positions, and jammed my feet back into my shoes. Steady old Cat. I always come when called.
A few days after Christmas, I woke late—nearly one in the afternoon, though I’d gone to bed before midnight. What a luxury, the endless velvet of teenaged sleep. Now I sleep patchily and have trouble waking; less than eight hours or more than three glasses of wine, and I’m hungry and dim.
Mom was on the couch, reading the classifieds. The house was dark and cold, except where the winter sun splashed in through the living room window, a shriek of yellow that made me squint. “Good morning,” she said, glancing away from the paper. Her hair was in a fresh braid, and she wore jeans and a white pullover in her actual size—all good signs. “It’s the year 3000 and we’re still alive. But the bad news is, the aliens heard a rumor that lazy people taste the best.”
“You hungry? Want me to make you something?”
“I think I’m going for a walk.” How else would I be able to have a cigarette? I wasn’t hooked yet, not physically, but it gave me something to do, and I treasured having even that small action to hang my days on.
Mom followed me into the kitchen, filling the teakettle with water while I poked around in the cabinets, loading up my sweatshirt pouch with fruit snack packets. Tea and wine, tea and wine; Mom was always drinking one or the other. “You know how expensive those are?” Mom said. “We’ve gone through like two boxes in a week.”
“It’s not my fault we don’t have anything else to eat.”
“We don’t? We have apples. We have cereal. Why don’t you make yourself an egg? There’s soup in the cabinet too—”
The teakettle hissed and she stopped talking. Mom has a way of dropping out of conversations. She gets a little worse as the years pass. At her second wedding, it happened during her toast, Mom standing at the foot of the long table and going silent right in the middle of explaining her own happiness, so that Roger had to pick up the thread. Dad would have made fun of her, especially given such a public opportunity, and I started falling for Roger then, when he paused, smiling, and asked her a question to get her started again, pulling her closer to him. Like Liam can be—gentle. But when I was a girl, I had no patience with Mom’s scramble to find her place in her own mind. “Let me make you a sandwich,” she said, finally, and I pictured how, if Dad were here, he’d meet my eyes, the two of us in on the joke. And we’re back! he used to shout at the dinner table, banging his hand against the table so that our plates rattled.
In my room, I packed my bag with the cigarettes, the lighter gun, my phone, a copy of Franny and Zooey, and the fruit snacks. Mom appeared in the door frame, holding a brown paper bag, and I zipped my backpack in a hurry. She’d lost at least ten pounds since the divorce; her cheeks had caved into a permanent fish face. Jimmy and I gave her new nicknames—Elly the Skelly, Clickity-Clack, Mr. Bones—and though she laughed with us, it must have stung. Even at her skinniest, she was lovely, with her Nordic coloring and elfin cheek dimple, her intelligent eyes. I hated that she hadn’t passed their color—aqua blue and distinct—down to me. For a teenage girl, a beautiful mother is a uniquely painful curse.
“Heads up,” she said, and tossed the sandwich. It hit my shoulder with a crinkling sound and landed on the floor. I picked it up, sighing pointedly. “Don’t go too far. We don’t really know what’s out there yet.”
Our houses butted up against a swath of open field, big enough for a full-fledged game of soccer, that ended, abruptly, with a row of trees. Up against the woods stood a rotting jungle gym with a dented slide. Marlena and I would lie there hundreds of times over the next year, our legs dangling o the platform edge, blowing smoke into the sky. Winter, spring, summer, fall, tenting a garbage bag over the wooden stakes like a roof when it rained, meeting at all hours of the night to talk. About the future, I think, and the past, and what we wanted and who we were and especially who we weren’t. Sometimes we’d take a harmonica with us, Marlena’s busted-ass guitar, and sing until our throats were raw.
I walked straight toward the pines. Trails that started and stopped at random twined through the snowy field, converging a few yards behind our houses into a wider one, tramped down by a steady battering of boot prints. I followed it all the way to the jungle gym, where I crouched under the slide to light my cigarette. The path swung a little to the left and disappeared into the trees. I continued on, the woods thickening around me. Thanks to Dad, king of facts, I knew that the unruly rows of trees probably meant the forest had been around for a long time, since well before loggers struck down miles of Michigan trees and replanted them in perfect lines.
What was I doing here? The same thing happened to my family that happens to many families: my parents decided they didn’t want to be married anymore. But that didn’t exactly explain the move up north, which had driven me, an otherwise steady girl, to scream into my pillow at night, to saw off my own hair with kitchen scissors, to press a razor into the skin on my upper thigh until it drew blood. (Result: I didn’t have the stomach for it.) I turned fifteen the first week of December, a few days before we left Pontiac—it was cheaper, Mom said, to move in the winter. She had hung a Happy Birthday banner up in the living room, emptied, by then, of everything that made it ours.
When my parents split, my father, apron-wearing cooker of French toast, snowshoer and whiskey drinker and Red Wings fan, pick-you-up-and-spin-you hugger, beloved by my best friend Haesung, reviled by eldest and only son James, worshipped by me, was not the assistant manager of Foodtown, as he claimed. He’d gotten laid off four months before, give or take a week. And so, when he left the house early in the morning, Monday through Friday, work was not where he was going. From what I’d overheard, his days instead consisted mostly of sex acts with Becky, the twentysomething barista he was still seeing. The divorce was not fine, exactly, but it wasn’t a surprise.
Mom had lived near Silver Lake for a couple of years as a kid, and she called that time—all pebbly beaches, pines top-hatted with snow, boat masts piercing melodramatic sunsets—the happiest of her life. “I need a change,” she’d said, the summer of the divorce, which she spent mostly on the computer, messaging her friends from high school and flirting vindictively with men from all over the state. “Everyone here knows every last thing about us.” Jimmy told me once that for a while she was forwarding him five, ten listings a day, with subject lines like LOOK! HOW CHEAP. On this, my brother and I agreed: Mom was in the market for something only she could leave, and what better than a place of her own? Jimmy and I had this look we gave each other whenever Mom spun out on a tangent of hypotheticals—thinking about it makes me miss him. Mom bought the Silver Lake house without ever seeing more than a handful of photographs. I’m not sure even she was prepared for this nothingness, the gray snow, the trash-strewn yards, this dense tangle of trees that felt, as I moved through them, almost hungry, as if they would swallow you up if you weren’t careful. It was a twenty-minute drive to a grocery store that stocked any vegetables; nearly thirty minutes to the high school I’d be attending come January, which was in another township entirely. It might be pretty, and I could appreciate that, these woods with their old feeling, the clean, clear air, but this was a lonesome place.
I wrapped my scarf around my head, pulling it low over my brow, so that only the tiniest circle of my face was exposed, just enough for me to breathe and smoke. My throat was swollen from all the smoking—every time I swallowed, a lump moved from my tonsils to my chest. I had traveled maybe a quarter mile past the jungle gym when I noticed a set of snowmobile treads crisscrossing the path, drawing eights around the trees. Then music, tinny and faraway. I followed the sound until I could make out the melody, and then the voice of a radio DJ, clear as if I’d picked up the phone. The trees began to thin. Up ahead, they gave way to a clearing, where there was some kind of structure—long and low and dark as a bruise. A couple of snowmobiles were parked with their noses right up against the woods-facing, longer side. I followed the tree line, trying to stay out of sight. It looked almost like a train, or a piece of one, its windows painted black, except for one that was busted out and plugged with a propeller or a fan or something, the blades slowly rotating. A boxcar, like in that children’s series. A door in the wall slid open, and a man jumped out, shutting it behind him. He looked right at me. “Hey,” he shouted, taking a couple of steps forward. “Who’s that?”
I backed away. “I’m just taking a walk,” I said. I had to yell a little.
“Come back here a second,” he said.
I turned around, feeling him watching, and got the hell out of there. I didn’t slow down until I reached the jungle gym. Sweating under my coat, I slumped down in an area of relative snowlessness underneath the slide. I waited for my heart to quiet and then lit another cigarette. I finished it, calmer, and pulled the brown paper bag from my backpack. When I took a bite of the sandwich, I realized it was just lettuce and mayo and mealy tomato, because Mom had forgotten the meat.
Not long after I got home, minutes after I’d changed into a fresh T-shirt and scoured my hands until I could smell smoke only when I held my fingertips to my nose, our doorbell rang. I opened the door, kicking the word Dad out of my mind.
“Been meaning to introduce myself,” the man told me, standing uncomfortably close to the threshold. “Though now we already met. I live right there. Got a daughter about your age.” He had a very slight, unplaceable accent, his vowels loose. Up close, he was near as skinny as my mom, something starving but not unkind about his eyes. Aside from his size, the sores ringing his hairline, an especially raw one picked to bleeding on the right side of his nose, he could have been any old dad. He didn’t scare me, even if he had caught me snooping around in the woods.
“Hi,” I said. “I guess I met her. And Sal, too.”
“Sal? He’s a funny little shit,” he said, like we were old friends. “There’s nothing to see out back there, girl.”
“Just trees, and private property.” His gaze roamed around. “Did you know, your gutter’s fallin’ off?” I stepped outside, onto the wooden platform barely big enough for both of us, and he pointed up where a row of icicles was tugging the gutter away from the eaves of the roof. “See?”
“I’ll get my mom.” I left him standing there in his sweatshirt, his too-large jeans, a boy with a very old face, as I intentionally shut the door.
Mom was in bed, buried under her blanket, wearing the glasses that made her eyes look like they were at the bottom of a well. “Who’s it,” she said, turning the page of the nine-hundred-pound paperback she was reading, one of those time traveler books about sex in Scotland. I’d read them all.
“Neighbor. Says our gutter’s falling off.”
“That weaselly guy from the barn next door?” Mom asked, swinging her legs out of bed.
Outside, Marlena’s dad walked us around the house, swiping at the icicles with a snow shovel so that they careened into the ground. “You gotta do this every couple weeks this time a year, especially when you live in one of these prefab thingies,” he said, “where they stick the gutters on with Silly Putty.”
“Thank you.” While he was faced away from her, slamming at the gutters, Mom nudged me and rolled her eyes. This guy, she mouthed. Thinks he knows everything. A dozen icicles came crashing down, and he looked at her for approval, leaning against the shovel, awkwardly out of breath. “I had no idea,” she said.
“Another day and they would’ve busted for good.”
“I see that.”
“I can do it, if you want, when I do mine. It’s no trouble.”
“That’s okay,” Mom said. I’d been silent the whole time, standing guard I guess, or maybe just curious. “Would you believe it, I have a grown son? I think this is probably a good job for him.”
“I can’t believe it,” said Marlena’s dad, his face entirely, inexplicably red. “You’re no more’n twenty-five, I’d say.”
The effect Mom had on men infuriated me as a teenager, especially then, before I’d ever had sex. I resented her for failing in that way, too, by not giving me that quality, her charm, her way of making even prescription goggles look sort of geekily elegant. This is your daughter? people always said when she introduced me, like I’d stolen her, forced her to claim me as her own. This? I left them there.
I was in my room, reading my mom’s book from the exact place she’d left off, when Marlena opened my bedroom door. A flicker of annoyance—no matter how bad I wanted to be friends, I hated to be snapped out of a book.
“Your mom said you were in here. My dad’s in the zone. He’s shoveling your driveway now. I think he’s trying to be charming.”
“This place looks like a prison cell,” Marlena declared, scratching at her neck. She wore a man’s button-down over a T-shirt that, like the one I’d seen her in before, canoed along her collar- bone, its neck cut out.
My room consisted of a mattress on the floor, a box serving double duty as a hamper, a taped-up picture of Haesung and me beside a torn photo of a shirtless model from an Abercrombie catalogue, six plastic drawers stacked three deep and positioned side by side. Two boxes in the corner nearest the closet that I hadn’t bothered to unpack. What was even in them? Stuff from my old room, a bulletin board, my American Girl doll, a couple ceramic horses that were a gift from my Nana, a week’s worth of Concord uniforms that I was saving for no good reason.
“I have an idea,” Marlena said, and left.
Soon she reappeared with two half-empty cans of paint, one yellow and one blue, Michigan colors, and a James Taylor CD, guitar songs full of camp re smoke that reminded me of Dad. We levered o the stuck-on lids with spoons and peeled away the skin of dried paint to get to the still-wet insides. We wiped trails on our jeans, each other’s arms, messing ourselves up on purpose. No paintbrushes, so we opened a brand-new pack of kitchen sponges that we found under the sink. We moved everything to the center of my room and then went to work, dropping the sponges in the paint and dabbing the excess off on my hamper-box. We each took a wall. Marlena sang as she painted, harmonizing with James Taylor, going higher or lower depending on the song. “You have a really good voice,” I told her, shyly.
“I have perfect pitch,” she said. “I used to get all the solos— gospel, pop, everything—until I missed too many rehearsals.” After the CD hiccuped and started over, I joined in singing too, stumbling my way through the words. I never had enough confidence to follow anything but the strongest voice. When “Fire and Rain” came on, Marlena talked for a while about how the magic of a song is in its transitions. She paused and replayed the tracks in different places, but I sort of lost the thread.
“So what do you miss the most,” she asked, frowning at the comet she was trying to paint. “Your boyfriend? Your best friend?”
Haesung had reached out since the move a grand total of four times. I responded to all her emails almost instantly, even the one that was just a chain forward. I felt like I knew Haesung so well—that she kept candy hidden from her parents in a shoebox under her bed, that she was hopelessly in love with our French teacher. I was there the day she got her period, and had coached her through the insertion of her first tampon. We’d spent almost every Friday night since childhood sleeping over at one of our houses. In the months before I moved, I’d sometimes try and push her to do something new—sneak out after midnight and walk down to the 7-Eleven, rent a movie like Eyes Wide Shut, even steal a little bit of Jimmy’s pot. Ugh, Cath, she’d say. You’re such a spaz. Or worse, she’d just ask why.
“My dad, I guess. Though I think that makes me a traitor. Can I say my school?”
“No. No you cannot.”
“It was a really good school,” I said, startled by the feeling in my voice. I’d campaigned hard to get my parents to even let me apply to Concord—neither of them had gone to college, let alone private school. When I’d had to leave, I felt my small life was over. I’m embarrassed to remember how silly and overblown my tantrums must have seemed to Mom and Dad; to Jimmy, especially. I withdrew, and Mom used the returned tuition to cover some of the moving costs.
“So you’re not just a nerd! You’re a genius.”
“It’s not—it’s just, my life was one thing, and now it’s really different.”
“I know what you mean. Like when you get a replacement puppy after your old one gets hit by a car.”
“Yeah, and the replacement has no legs.”
“And instead of puppy dog eyes it has, like, pieces of coal.”
“Or no face at all, just a deep, unshakable feeling of mortal sadness when you have to look at it.”
“Eww, I know people with faces like that. My boyfriend has a face like that when I tell him I don’t want to fuck. He literally goes . . .” She extended her tongue and crossed her eyes, until, finally, I laughed.
After her James Taylor CD restarted for the third time, she asked me if we had anything to drink. In the kitchen, I spent a long time trying to decide whether to bring her a glass of orange juice or just plain water. I chose water with a couple of cubes of ice. I hadn’t noticed the matchbook-sized silver house, a kind of brooch, pinned to her T-shirt, but I did when she pressed on it with her pinky, springing it open and taking care to catch the bluish pill that rolled out of the little cavity. She popped the pill into her mouth and sucked on it for a minute before, I think, crushing it between her teeth. Then she took a gulp of water, making the face you do when something is bitter.
“What was that?”
“What was it?”
“I get headaches.”
“Oh,” I said. It was odd, sure, but no odder than that she had a trio of marker-drawn hearts on the back of her right hand, or that her mascara was ever-so-slightly blue, or that her old-lady house pin was nicer, even in miniature, than all the houses in Silver Lake. She finished the water and sucked one of the cubes into her mouth. Then she sent me to go hunt down scissors.
When I brought them back, Marlena snipped one of the sponges into a heart shape. Outside my window, the sun was going down. Maybe she would stay for dinner. Maybe she would sleep over. I turned on the overhead light, so we could see what we were doing. She cut the last three sponges into the letters of my name, a lopsided C-A-T. In a cereal bowl she swirled together a dollop of yellow and blue paint until she made an Eastery green. She dipped her fingers in and wrote “sweet greens and blues are the colors I choose” in mouse-print along the baseboard. On my wall I’d done nothing but alternate yellow and blue squares, like I was decorating the dorm of an overeager U-of-M freshman. But hers—hearts in yellow, my name here and there in blue, song lyrics in varying shades of green running horizontally and vertically and even diagonally, little secret messages, so many that in the months to come I’d discover new phrases all the time.
When I looked at what she’d done, I felt embarrassed by my cookie-cutter geometric design, so on a clean square of wall below the window I tried for something different. After a long time staring I couldn’t come up with anything good, and just wound up drawing blue and yellow spirals until I wiped away the whole mess with a handful of solid blue. A sick green shone through where the yellow had been. As long as I lived there, whenever I saw that spot, I felt a sharp and particular pain.
I guess Jimmy was standing in the doorway for a while before we noticed him—we were singing again, and loud. “You are talented,” he said, blocking off the whole hallway, big as a grown man, and for a second I thought he was talking to me.
“Thank you,” Marlena said, and reflexively finger-combed her hair, streaking the blond a deeper yellow. That took me aback, too, how gracefully she accepted the compliment. Rich kids never bragged—the kids at Concord always spoke about their accomplishments with a kind of watered-down shame, forced or not, and so I did the same. Wasn’t it rude not to deflect compliments, especially when they came from boys? Immodest, unattractive, unladylike, somehow?
“Wanna hear how high I can go?” She paused the CD player, leaving a smear of paint on the button.
“Sure,” said Jimmy.
She lifted her chest and formed a perfect O with her mouth, her eyebrows raised, cheeks hollow, and out came a sound that was all needle, so high it reorganized your cells, lifted the hair on your arms. Audible from the future, where it follows me around. When she stopped we were all quiet for a few seconds, but the sound was still in the room, as if she’d made something real out of her voice and set it free.
“That was amazing,” Jimmy said, clapping his hands.
I’ve never believed in the idea of an innocent bystander. The act of watching changes what happens. Just because you don’t touch anything doesn’t mean you are exempt. You might be tempted to forgive me for being just fifteen, in over my head, for not knowing what to do, for not understanding, yet, the way even the tiniest choices domino, until you’re irretrievably grown up, the person you were always going to be. Or in Marlena’s case, the person you’ll never have a chance to be. The world doesn’t care that you’re just a girl.
Let the record show that I was smarter than I looked. And anyway, I touched.