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With or Without You

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The second novel from the author of the award-winning Kamikaze Lust.

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Excerpt from With or Without You

July 2, 1987: The Morning After

Because I’m wearing all my clothes, and because the bay is choppy, I pretend I’m trapped in a giant washing machine. Sun pecks the back of my neck, warming me through the glass. My legs bob up and down. It’s a light spin cycle, the setting for silk blouses, lacy underwear, or, if you’re my mother, an endless string of sheer pantyhose, the kind I don’t mind on other girls but hate wearing myself. Gentlemen prefer them, too. Ask my father. He and his pal Gustave shoot the most popular hosiery commercials in town.

You were wearing black hose when I left you. Maybe it was a different brand, but the sparkle in the crisscrossed fibers gave your shins the look of one of their spots. Edgy but sophisticated. And no blood on them, attached to your two black boots pointing skyward, forecasting the journey. If you believe in that kind of crap.

I swim out a few feet where the waves are calmer, turn over on my back, and float. In camp they called this the dead man’s float. But I’ve never felt more alive. Too alive for a murderer. Though I’m not any normal murderer, and you’re no ordinary victim.

Just a few days ago, I thought about picking you up outside the theatre and taking you to a fancy restaurant. Maybe bringing you to my summer house once my family cleared out. You were so tired and needed a break. Even with all the makeup caked into your cheeks I could tell—particularly that day I found you sitting in the stairwell, your legs triangled and head resting between them. You were pulling the blond hairs from your scalp one at a time. It must have been tough keeping up with your World scenes and being in a play at the same time. But you told Soap Opera Weekly it was a nice break from Los Angeles. Not that you didn’t like L.A. You had an apartment somewhere in Hollywood, a little red car and big sloppy dog, a personal fitness trainer. You said it was the only city where you ever felt comfortable.

I’d considered applying to art school out there before my parents decided Syracuse was the place for me. I think I told you in one of my letters how my father knew some guy at the school there. Jack promised he’d help fund the media literacy center if they’d overlook my lame SAT scores and enter me in the class of ’91. Nancy helped me complete the application, constructing the essay in a way that made me sound conventional. Just a slap-happy girl from the suburbs, my teenage years spent cheering football players from the bleachers and playing in the band. When we finished the draft, I asked, “Who’s this?”

“Exactly who they’re looking for,” she said, and I knew she’d done her research. She always did. It was how she made a fortune selling houses to other people just like herself. She said there was no way I would ruin the opportunity at Syracuse the way I’d sabotaged their attempts to send me to dance class—getting expelled for, quote, “negligent uncoordination.” And all of those camps. When I was booted from the last one for hitchhiking, Nancy called me an ingrate. A couple years later she was even more pissed I refused the nose job that was supposed to be my birthday present.

You had a perfect nose. Small and buttonlike. If your nostrils were any bigger, they would have been piggish, a distraction from those clear blue eyes. So reflective I could see myself in them, a shadow, the outline of my knuckles on the cool metal. Eyes corkscrewed and pleading . . . Why?

I skim my right hand along the gray-blue water. When it dips below the surface, it grows purplish white and humongous. No longer my hand at all. I can’t stand it. So I go down, fighting the weight of my parachute pants. They seem to have inflated. I touch my sneakers to the bottom and it feels turbulent. This is where the delicates give way to chain-gang fabrics, the denim and cotton and flannel.

Underwater my ears rumble like a distant subway car and I’m freaking. Can you hear the palpitations in my chest? Stay down, I tell myself. It’s only fair. Beams of light split the oily water. It’s not the celestial strobe near-death freaks talk about but more like the headlights from Jack’s BMW. Bright white circles illuminating this undersea world: moss, gnarled seaweed, silt. I try digging my feet into the bottom but it’s too rocky. What feels like slippery crepe paper wraps around my neck and I flinch, kicking off my sneakers. My lungs fill with water and I force myself up. Hacking but alive. Forget what anyone says, it’s hard to drown when you know how to swim. I am for one moment happy. My breathing turns to laughter and I dolphin-flip forward, wondering what I’ll do today, a bike ride, sit by the pool . . . it’s summer. Then I spot the motor boat coming toward me and remember where I am, what I’ve done.

I lean my head back into the water. Chickenshit. The boat rocks to the side of me. Aboard are two men in khaki pants, green shirts, and sunglasses, one by the steering wheel, the other leaning his thick leg on a bench and chewing a toothpick. Their patches say Shelter Island Police Department.

“This is a no-swimming zone,” says the cop behind the wheel.

“I’m not swimming.”

“Sure looks like it.”

“Can’t you see I’m trying to kill myself?”

I regret that the moment I say it. Mostly because they laugh at me. Ridiculous creature. Out here in the bay on a blinding summer day, wearing all my clothes, telling them I want to kill myself when I don’t. I was never good at suicide. Not for any throbbing love of life but a total lack of nerve. I just couldn’t do it. And, like most things in life, you don’t get much points for your failures.

But now I am a celebrity murderer. A murderer soon to be a celebrity. I deserve a little respect from a couple of bumble-fuck cops. The talky one backs away from the steering wheel and throws out a rope ladder. History warns, climb aboard or they’ll shoot. And they should, if justice is anything like the Bible says. An eye for an eye, tit for tat. But because like my father I’m an atheist, I grab the ladder and with wrinkled fingers hoist myself aboard. Sun smacks the left side of my body. My skin is always quick to burn. A splotched face’ll ruin the perp walk. I’ll look pathetic on the news.

“Got any sunscreen?” I ask.

The silent cop hands me a tube of lotion. Taking it from him, I notice a piece of egg or muffin trapped in the thick strands of his moustache. The hairs remind me of a straw broom. I imagine them pricking the lips of a girl and know even with a mouth so creepy he can get it whenever he wants. Bastard.

I squeeze a few drops of coconut lotion into my palms and rub them together before bringing my hands to my face. The lotion, too greasy under normal circumstances, loosens the saltwater mask on my cheeks. Then I do my arms. When I’m finished, I hold out my fists. “You can cuff me now.”

Silent cop smiles, the dirty straws above his lips expanding as he surveys my waterlogged Syracuse sweatshirt and parachute pants. Talking cop says, “I think we better get you home. You on-island for the summer?”

“No.”

“Then where do you live?”

I try to remember the address of my summer house but draw a blank. They’re questioning me like I’m any other suicide teen. I probably seem young. When my hair’s wet you can’t see the shock of white on the left side. Makes people think I’m older than I am. I’ve got ancient hair and two webbed toes on each foot.

Talking cop is trying to be nice, smiling as he says they can’t take me home if they don’t know where I live. “I’m telling you, arrest me!” I shout at him. “Read me my rights . . . I have the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, c’mon.”

“You watch too much TV.”

“You really don’t get it.”

“No, you don’t get it,” silent cop says. It’s the first time he speaks and I don’t like it. “We got better things to do than play idiot games all morning. So tell us where you live or we’ll dump you back in the bay.”

“Go ahead,” I say, sick of their small-time attitude. They have no idea who they’re dealing with. “I killed someone big last night,” I say, and they both burst out laughing. “Hey, jerk, if you don’t believe me, call New York. Ask them about Brooke Harrison. I’m about to make you very famous.”

Saying the words I am for a few seconds tough like the baddest motherfucker in the world. Bad like Al Cappone, Michael Jackson. Badder than old King Kong, meaner than a junkyard dog. Then I see your face and know you’re watching.

The cops look back and forth between each other and me. They must have seen the news and are trying to decide if I’m actually . . . my temples pound. I said I killed somebody. And told them your name. Anything I say can and will be held against me. I said I killed somebody!

I want to drop to my knees and beg their forgiveness, beg for a lawyer, but something tells me stay tough. I lean back on my hands and stare off into the blues of summer. A sea gull caws overhead. The ocean glimmers in the distance like a flattened disco ball; up close you can see the hypodermic needles, beer cans, and plastic bags floating nowhere.

Suddenly, I know what to do: I jump overboard.

The water is colder, more intimidating. Breathing in, I swallow all the water I can this time. Something hard and fleshy pulls across my stomach, and I feel my body being lifted up and thrown over the boat. Shoving me to the floor, the silent cop puts a black boot on my stomach. We are both dripping wet and hyperventilating.

“Give me the cuffs,” he says.

“Don’t got ’em,” the other says.

“What?”

“Last night . . . at the school.”

“So?”

“I think we left them in the car.”

“Fucken idiot! Get the wheel!” the silent cop screams, pressing his foot down against my stomach. I’m going to puke. He lifts a soiled towel from the floor, pulls me up, and turns me around. Now he’s got his foot on my back and he’s squeezing the towel around my wrists behind me.

My face splashes against the fiberglass, the sun caressing the right side of my face this time. I hear the motor crank, feel the waves beneath my stomach. Then the voice rings faintly in my ear. “Listen up, sweetheart, here comes Mr. Miranda . . .”

 

Girls, Girls, Girls

I am quiet in my cell.

I read a lot in my cell. I lie on my bed a lot talking to you.

Those jokes about women behind bars‹they’re all true. Jail is crawling with dykes, although most of them would never use that word. Not too different from what I found outside. But here they’re big into role-playing. For the girls who like to be manly, the kind who scare the pants off me they’re so real, so much the better. They rule with their heavy boots and bad haircuts, their chests puffed out like drug lords.

If a girl’s strong enough or the opposite, there’s more sex in here than you can imagine. Most do it for power, some to connect. Others want to feel anything at all. These are the women who let Mimi zap them with her vibrating needle. Ink siphoned from a ballpoint pen. She’s been after me since the day I arrived and asked her how she made the needle move. She lifted her transistor radio. There was a wire attached to a small motor in the back, but I still didn’t get it. She said I would know it all one day, when I let her tattoo me. I smiled but no way was I letting her brand me. As the days go on, I want to give in. I like her silky green-black etchings and know she could copy one of my drawings, although I haven’t drawn anything in the month and a half I’ve been in here. My fingers won’t connect to my brain. So I pretend not to know anything about art and artists, pretend I never earned the praise of my painting teachers or interned at the advertising agency, pretend I never even owned a sketchbook, all for the sake of Mimi, who’s convinced she’s schooling me in the creative process. She’s the toughest of the tough girls and all the protection I have inside. The trick is I have to please her, if you know what I mean, which is much better than the other way, getting pleased, though she’s schooling me a bit there, too. I wonder if I’m still a virgin.

Mimi likes my doing but won’t say so. Even after she gets off a few times then throws me off, making what we are together worse than what got either one of us in here in the first place. “I’m going to tattoo the word on your stomach,” she says, and runs her hand along the haphazard hairs beneath my belly button. She tries to yank at one, but it slips between her fingers. “Right here, it’s gonna say pata.”

“Why does it have to be in Spanish?”

“Because it’s happy.”

I smile because happy is as good as anything gets for Mimi. She uses the word the way other people say cool or excellent. It rolls from her tongue, sweet like strawberry margaritas, like her Spanish phrases I can understand thanks to Long Island’s exceptional public schools. In seventh grade, we were forced to check a box for either French or Spanish. Having no preference, I shut my eyes and dropped my index finger on the paper. It fell closest to Spanish.

Mimi’s got a guy and a couple of kids outside. They all do; gay for the stay is how they put it, and I get the feeling it’s not something they talk about otherwise. It’s hard to imagine most of them wiping dirty faces and throwing dinner on the table. I get the feeling women have been through a lot of shit in their lives before ending up here. You can see it in their eyes like smudged nickels, their sandpaper skin, no matter what color. Faces blend into one another after a while. But not Mimi’s. She’s got the look, and that invisible aura like the ring around Mars. It takes my built-in 3-D glasses to see it.

This time, Mimi’s waiting trial on four counts of armed robbery and reckless endangerment. She shot the owner of an appliance store as she and a friend were loading her station wagon with television sets and videocassette recorders. She says the shooting was an accident and I believe her. She does not use drugs. She is an artist. She sounds like you.

The handsome attorney my father hired says I shouldn’t talk about you. He’s convinced I didn’t do it, although I confessed to those moron cops, and the evidence against me is mounting. But when the bottom of the Hudson spit up what they thought was my gun, it had no fingerprints and didn’t match the deadly bullet. My lawyer had the cojones to claim my gun never existed. There is somebody else who’s seen it, I warn him, not to mention one house missing a .38 Special and blue Tiffany bag full of bullets. But so far he’s managed to talk our way around that, too. Still, the D.A. postponed my bail hearing, railing to the papers, “We’re going to prosecute this case to the fullest extent of the law!”

So I’m stuck at Women’s House. Sounds like a safe space: some warm and cuddly hippie commune. But let me tell you, I’m scared. There are gangs in here who kill people in other gangs ’cause they look funny, women who gouge out eyeballs with their fingers or pound in heads with a padlock wrapped in a sweat sock. At first my lawyer tried to get the case moved to juvie, but since I’d just turned eighteen and the crime was getting so much press, the D.A. said I would be treated as an adult. And adults without bail end up here, waiting to be shipped Upstate, where most of the big prisons are—literally, up the river. When I’m in a funny mood, I tell myself it’s like being sent off to college, but usually I hate myself too much to joke. I wish I lived in California where they have the death penalty. I would be gassed for sure because it’s a television culture out there.

In some ways, death would be easy. A quick electronic current or snap of the spine and it’s over. I’ve been having nightmares about dying—always violently. I’ve been nailed to a cross and stoned, shot by firing squad, had my limbs severed by the Long Island Rail Road. Dreams so vivid I wake up sweating and shaking, my body twisted in pain. So I try to stay awake, each night playing back your death in my head.

I messed up, I tell Jack and Nancy when they come to visit. They ignore my sloppy confessions. Jack wrings his fingers together. Nancy stares at the couple making out by the front windows. In her eyes, a wandering glow. Hands on the table, the guard shouts. Jack asks if I’m eating right, if I’m talking to the shrink. Before they leave, he gives me ballpoint pens and yellow legal pads. Between reading up on my case and apprenticing with Mimi, I’m trying to write my story. One of the reporters asked for it, but I don’t give a shit about him. If I don’t tell it like it is, somebody else is going to get out there first. I hear your mother’s been talking to some people. I guess she’s got a right.

The problem is I spend a lot of time scribbling notes and shredding the pages. I feel guilty because paper can be hard to come by, but not for me because I’m a famous prisoner. Because my daddy’s rich and my lawyer’s good-looking.

So hush, little darling.

Don’t you cry.

 

I don’t remember the womb or coming out or any of the other stuff that happens when you’re really young. Without the baby book Nancy kept my first couple of years or my grandmother in the desert, I might never have known it took me only eight months to pull myself up off the floor or that the white streak in my hair had sprouted from a bald spot, that I was a most verbal child, though I made up my own names for everything, and that it was me who’d started calling my parents by their first names, actually one name: Jackanan, short for Jack and Nancy, says my grandmother.

I spent a lot of time with her early on and then we moved out of the city and then my grandparents moved across the country and I hardly ever saw them. There were a few more houses and schools and summer camps before we landed on the northern tip of Long Island the day the president was shot. The day I met Blair.



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