After school, Rachel comes over and we climb through the craggy hole in the fence and into the park. Everything is wet because it always is but we don’t care. We climb across the hillside to a patch of trees where Rachel likes to smoke cigarettes. We lie back on the grass and I listen to the leaves tap against one another.
“We should have a party at your house,” Rachel says for the hundredth time. Rachel loves parties and lugs me along on weekends. Parties are too chaotic for me but I am a teenager and that’s what we are supposed to do. Says who, I don’t know. Says Rachel. Rachel has streaks of blue in her hair because of course she does. She glitters everywhere she goes.
“I guess.” I twist stalks of grass around my fingers.
Through the trees we can see the tip of my grey house. It is a big old shattered house, on the edge of a highway at the edge of an airport on the edge of the sea. Late at night, they test the airplane engines, and it is the loudest thing around here, louder than take off, louder than landing, louder than the tractor-trailers bumping down the highway and shaking the earth. The engines start soft and build so if I’m not listening for them, I don’t notice the crescendo until the sound is an everything din in my ears and it’s like I’m hearing nothing at all until the engine is abruptly shut off and it is all of a sudden quiet.
“No one is ever there! You are so lucky.” Rachel has said this dozens of times too, although I’m not sure if she really means it. “Ugh, Jilly.” Rachel closes her eyes, “My mother is all over everything. I can’t breathe without her commenting on the depth of my breaths.”
I can’t tell Rachel that I don’t want to have a party because I am afraid my grandparents and my father won’t even notice. I’ve been friends with Rachel since elementary school, and she has a mother who makes apple pancakes in the mornings while fat cascading light comes through the windows. When we were younger, and maybe a little too old for it, her mom read to us from Anne of Green Gables until we fell asleep. Rachel thinks I have it great with no one watching me, but if no one is watching you, you feel like it’s possible to disappear, like you were never even there.
“I should probably get back,” Rachel puts out her cigarette. “God forbid I’m not home in time.” Rachel sprays herself with apricot body spray and pops two sticks of gum in her mouth. We pick our way back to the fence and climb through, careful not to get scratched on the pointy edges.
I walk alone into the quiet house and up the stairs into my bedroom, which faces the highway, airport and sea. There are so many rooms in our house and sometimes I lie awake at night and try to pick apart which sounds belong to which parts of the house. I try to feel my father move in his room down the hallway. I try to hear my grandfather or grandmother’s steps in the downstairs hallway. Sometimes I hear shifting weight in rooms where I know no one lives. The house leans to one side then the other. I imagine gravity pushing down on the wooden floorboards, forcing them to creak. Out my window, there are trees to buffer the highway and there is an unkempt neighborhood park on the other side of our chain-link fence, so when it rains I hear drops of water hit ten thousand leaves and behind that tires splash the watery highway. I hear the various motor songs of 50 million cars. I hear plane wheels touch down on the runway. At night I hear a party boat on the sea just beyond the highway. I can imagine its lights reflecting against the water. I can almost make out its music.
Once, this house bordered only the sea. There were no cars on a highway or planes on a runway. There were no engines.
At school, we see a flyer for an all ages show at a dingy club in the neighborhood. Rachel pockets it and maybe we will go because there is not much else to do. Sometimes we bus it to the city but it is far and Rachel doesn’t like to drive there. I see her get nervous. Cars come close like they aren’t afraid to hit you. Rachel will yell at nothing, “There are no lanes! You’re just gonna cut me off? I could’ve crashed into you!”
On Friday Rachel picks me up and we head to the tiny club. It’s on a wide, heavily trafficked but somehow still desolate part of the neighborhood, far from the water. We see a few kids from school lining the walls and Rachel chats with them as I look around. I count 25 people, which is not bad for something like this. The bar seems to be serving anyone who asks.
I love music because I can get lost in it and I don’t even care what it is. I will listen to any kind of live music. Sometimes I pause in the empty hallways at school and listen to the band practice. People make fun of them but I think they are amazing. I used to have a math class above the band room and in spring they open the windows and I didn’t learn a thing in that class, not when I could look out the window and listen to the school band tinker and build sound until a full song formed. I could almost see the music in the air. I love piecing apart the sounds and figuring out who is making what sound and separating each and holding them apart in my mind. Then I forget and they melt and I am lost inside the music just like the engines.
Rachel and I find a spot against the wall and sit. We look at people’s shoes.
We recognize one of the guitarists from school but we have never talked to him. His name is Bogie and he was just a kid like everyone else until tonight. He takes his shirt off and Rachel and I both say, “Ew,” though he actually looks pretty good.
Bogie is the youngest one on stage and we don’t recognize anyone else. The lead singer looks like the oldest and tallest person in the room. The boys are almost scary, all together like that on the stage. Their music is funky and hard and sometimes the boys lift their feet in unison. I try to concentrate on something aside from Bogie’s hands and the sounds of his guitar. Already I can’t hear their music the way I usually do.
After the show, we wait and Rachel talks to them outside while I stand against a wall and watch.
She directs her attention to Vernon, the singer. I watch him look at Rachel leaning against her station wagon. I mean, who is actually named Vernon? He talks a lot and everyone watches him talk. He has a girl length bob and is constantly tucking it behind his ears. He talks the way he sings, like he is standing on tiptoe to tower over whoever is in front of him. I figure it’s now weird that I am not there so I saunter over and Rachel introduces me. There is Vernon the lead singer, and Bogie from school, and Decaf Nickey the bassist and Jack the drummer and Sil the other guitarist who isn’t Bogie.
“We could actually use a ride,” Vernon says. “This your wagon?”
“Yea,” Rachel says.
“Sweet,” Vernon nods his head.
The drummer drives off with his own equipment in his car and the boys load up Rachel’s wagon and we all pile inside and suddenly we have these boys for friends.
They have a show on the weekend. Rachel is a fantastic liar and tells her mom she is sleeping at my house. Rachel’s mom calls my father every so often and trusts him, but he would never know if we were in the house or not. He doesn’t see me the way Rachel’s mom sees her. Rachel has to keep her bedroom door open, even when we are talking about things we don’t want her mom to hear. Once when we were little, we made a list of all the traits we’d want in a boyfriend. Rachel’s mom hovered near the door, just outside our eyeshot but we knew she was there.
She came in after awhile and sat on Rachel’s bed. “I have something to say to you girls.” We looked up at her and Rachel rolled her eyes but we listened. She told us please don’t revolve your life around boys. She said we needed self-esteem from ourselves. Basically she said we don’t need boys because they are totally useless anyway.
Maybe she is right.
I know Rachel doesn’t like driving her mom’s car into the city and only I notice that she hesitates, just for a second, before she tells the boys, yea sure, I’ll drive to the city. When Saturday comes, we park in a coned off area and walk in the back with the boys. We don’t have to pay. The boys stand with us and get us beers and after the show Bogie drapes his arm heavy around my shoulders. We laugh all night. I don’t remember the music. We feel like maybe the boys need us, like they would crumble without us.
Through the hole in the fence and in our circle of trees, Rachel says, “Let’s have a party with the boys. This weekend?”
I can’t say no. I don’t think my father or grandparents will care, or even notice, but this bothers me less now. I have this group of friends now.
“Who will come?”
“I don’t know. It was Vern’s idea. I think it will be fun.”
Of course it’s Vern’s idea. I’ve started to notice his decaying teeth, yellow in the center and green at the edges.
I think of the boys in my house, and strangers. The house full of people and noise.
There are about thirty houses clustered with mine, houses once meant to border the sea, before the highway and before the airport, houses built before there was a town and maybe even before there was a proper city. Houses that had grand, refined parties and families with history. People say these houses have secret rooms and passageways and tunnels but I have never been able to find any.
I like getting into the boys’ shows for free, and riding in the front seat with Rachel while they squeeze in back with their equipment piled high. I like watching Rachel’s painted nails tap against the steering wheel, and how the tough boys all know the words to the silly ’90s songs and sing along. I like the car full of buzz and people and laughter, and the tiny towns we drive to outside the city, places I’d never have seen otherwise.
While Rachel drives the long dark highways to the boys’ next show, I imagine fingers in my hair, bashing my head against the wall in middle school. I let myself think of the two boys I never want to think about again. They started by flicking rubber bands at me each time they passed me in the hallway. Maybe I did the wrong thing by reacting but I did. I yelled at them to stop but that made them laugh and soon it was much worse than rubber bands. Soon they held me against the wall, snapped my bra, then slammed me against the wall with their hands on my chest. Sometimes they did nothing, they ignored me and there was nothing worse than the anticipation of violence that never came. I imagine telling the boys in the car. I imagine sending them after my tormentors like they are a pack of bloodthirsty dogs. I imagine feeling safe. Protected. Like people are watching me. I like being in a car with my friend and these boys who would go nuts if someone smashed my head against a wall.
Vernon sometimes twirls his fingers around my hair and sometimes pulls a little and it feels like I hate him but then some of me doesn’t. I like his fingers in my hair even if they hurt.
At school Bogie, Rachel and I eat lunch together and Bogie hands me letters he has written me in class. They are about nothing. What he is doing, homework, what the person next to him is saying. He doodles in the margins. I write back. I keep all his letters. He never gives any to Rachel.
In the hallways he puts his arm around my shoulder when he sees me, smiles and says, “Hey, sister.”
After school, Rachel drops me off and I step into my quiet house. I drop my school bag in the foyer and stand still, listening. I close my eyes. I hear an unfamiliar noise. A quiet tinkle echoes across the walls. I softly step towards the tiny ground floor mini apartment where my grandparents live. They have a small side kitchen, and a bedroom. The tinkle gets louder. I peek into the kitchen and see a pot of water boiling, bubbles violently jumping from the surface.
“Grandma? Grandpa?” I look into the bedroom. There is no one there. “Dad?”
There is only the crinkle of hot metal, the rush of agitated water.
I shut the stove off, pick up my bag and go upstairs.
Nights I don’t have anything to do, I am so lonely I feel like I could sink right through everything and into the core of the earth where I will mercifully melt to a lava goo. I am grateful for mindless homework, for the television. But the moment between finishing one thing and starting another I feel dropped from some high place, plummeted, I feel squished like I may never get back up.
The night before the party, we are driving the boys to Jersey and Vernon tries to sit in front with Rachel. “I’m the tallest,” he says.
Rachel and I both say, “No way,” And I look at her like I love her.
Rachel shakes her head. “Jilly sits in front.”
I sit in front. He can’t get by us.
He raises his hands, “I surrender to you, ladies!”
We have parties at my house three weekends in a row. The boys bring other bands and other girls and there are some people from school. I want to say I don’t like the parties but it is nice not knowing what will happen next. There will be a fight, there will be hook ups, and there will be conversations. I will listen to Bogie talk about physics class and for the first time I look forward to going to school. I will learn about Decaf Nickey’s aversion to all things caffeine or alcohol or drug. I will learn Vern got his wife pregnant but she miscarried. I will see Rachel entwined with a different boy every time. She likes to kiss and I keep an eye on her and though I know she can take care of herself, I know where she is at all times.
At some point I notice the yelling and laughing is too loud for this house, too loud for my ears. I listen to everyone laugh and yelp and screech and I stare at my father’s bedroom door, down the hallway of closed doors. Nothing will open that door. I have no idea if he is even home.
In this small enclave of a neighborhood that juts out into the sea, there used to be parties every weekend. People drove wide fancy cars and dressed in frills and top hats, I imagine. They burned grand oil lamps and wore feathers in their hair. The biggest and richest houses had tunnels that connected underground so servants could quickly move from one house to the other, so overnight secrets could be kept from the press. There were big bands and the only rolling noise was from the sea, before the sound of the highway, before the sound of the planes.
If the engines go off during the parties I don’t hear them and neither does anyone else.
After the boys arrive and before the party gets into full swing, my grandmother finds me and tells me to follow her down to her apartment. She holds my wrist.
“There is a man here.”
I look around nervously. I don’t understand what she is saying and I am not used to her looking for me inside the house.
“That man upstairs,” she clarifies. She is talking about Vernon.
She says it again, low. “He is a man. What is he doing here?”
I stutter and try to say he is not that old.
“You are a child,” she says.
“I know, Grandma. I know. Don’t worry.”
She lets go of my wrist and closes her bedroom door behind her. I peek out her kitchen window and see my father’s car in the driveway but he could be anywhere. The house is so big you could never know exactly where someone is.
Some weekends there are no parties. Bogie and Rachel come over and explore the rooms of my house. This is sick, Bogie says every other second. He loves the piano no one ever plays in the giant sitting room where no one ever goes. One night, Rachel and I lie underneath the piano while Bogie picks apart a melody. He has never played a piano before. It’s an instrument, he says, like any other, and it seems like he has music already in his fingers and can play any instrument he touches.
Late at night we take Bogie through the fence into the park and pick through the woods to the highway overpass and wind down the spiral staircase to the water. There are broken bottles and tags but we don’t see anyone else. We climb down the rocks to the edge of the sea and try to forget about the rats. There is another highway across the bay and it makes the twirling, black water sparkle. We stare at the water for hours until we see things: People, arms, then monsters. The airplanes dip down in rhythm one after the over, noses tilted up. Bogie sits next to me, his hip against mine, and Rachel lays sprawled out on the rocks, facing the sky. I hear flaps in the water like a mermaid tail but I don’t admit to what I hear.
After school one day Bogie comes over alone and wants to go to the water. I am impressed by my ability to make new friends. He loves the hole in the fence and the park and the overpass and the sea. He tells me his mom wakes him up at night to check his eyes to see if he has demons inside. She says she saw demons crawl from his back once and there are scars to prove it but Bogie says she put the scars there when she tried to cut the demons from his skin.
We talk slow and easy and sober.
Later that weekend when he takes his shirt off on stage I look for the scars. After the show he is embarrassed and he pulls me to the side. His shirt is still off and he leans in close. I can smell his sweat and deodorant and I can hear his breath shake in his chest, “Please don’t tell anyone about my mother. She is better now.”
“I won’t,” I say.
I have always heard that there are secret tunnels underneath these houses that line the sea. There are storm drains that lead out to the water and sometimes prisoners swam into the drains and into our tunnels and our houses, using us and our secret rooms, sometimes we didn’t even know. Sometimes we closed our eyes tight and let it happen. Because anyway we were of use, we weren’t just big and pretty and cavernous.
One day the boys start bringing other girls around, Karen and Emma and they circle us like cats and make us feel there isn’t room for everyone. They are tall with the right hair, the right clothes, the right attitude, and the right tattoos.
Karen laughs hard at Bogie’s jokes and she gazes at him and she puts her hand on his upper arm.
You’d wonder what a nineteen-year-old girl wants with a high school boy but I get it. Bogie is tall and has little muscles and is fucked up and smart and sweet like he wouldn’t hurt you.
At the next party, Karen passes out in the bathroom early in the night, but I don’t think anything of it because her friend is there and I figure they look out for each other like Rachel and I but I am wrong. Next think I know, Karen is on the bed in one of the guest bedrooms and all the boys are in there too. I sneak in before they can close the door, even though they say they are having a private conversation. Karen is half on the bed, her legs dangling off the side. “What are you talking about?” I ask as I see Decaf Nickey slip out the door and into the hallway and I think where the fuck are you going?
“Just band stuff. We need to make some decisions.” Vernon stands, arms folded.
“Downstairs. You should go there too.”
I make up my mind to stay in the room. I want Emma to be here and I don’t understand how she could just leave her friend passed out. These boys are supposed to make us feel safe but right now this room does not feel safe, not for Karen and not for me.
Vernon asks me questions and tries to engage me in casual conversation but I know this is a ploy. I won’t leave.
He says, your hair smells great. What do you use? Can I try some? I half believe him because he is always tending to his hair, and I half know I am being manipulated to leave, and I am confused about why I am here when, when I know they don’t want me here.
The boys talk and talk and I won’t leave the room and finally, Vernon looks hard at Bogie.
From across the room, Bogie lifts his head and meets my eyes. “It’s ok, Jilly.” He says my name gently and I trust him. “You can go.”
I want Bogie to come with me. I want Emma to be here next to her friend.
Once I am outside the door, I hear the lock click and I try the handle and can’t open my own door in my own house and I know I have made a mistake. I can’t trust any of them, not even Bogie. I panic and I want to cry and I never want to cry. I feel like a hurricane came through the house, the sea through the windows, like a plane missed the runway and crashed into the house, like the engines are in the hallway.
In the next room, I find Decaf Nickey sitting alone with a cup of herbal tea, and I say, “Can you go in there and see what they are doing?” Nickey slowly shakes his head. “I am not going in there.
It is quiet and I can’t hear anything, anywhere. I need to find Emma and Rachel. I need to make sure Rachel is not in a locked room.
I go downstairs and Rachel and Emma and a few other people are smoking and playing pool.
“Emma,” I say. “Emma. Do you know where Karen is?”
“She passed out in the bathroom. I left her in the tub,” Emma giggles.
“She is not in the tub. She is in the bedroom with them and the door is locked.”
Emma stops smiling, and looks up into the air like she is considering something. She puts her cigarette out and goes up the stairs.
Rachel and I look at each other and we follow her.
I am mad at Rachel. I don’t know why. I can’t look at her.
Emma bangs and bangs on the door. I hear it open and a minute later Emma comes back out and I cannot read her face. “Everything is fine,” Emma says.
“She’s awake?” I ask.
I don’t know what else to do.
In the next room, Decaf Nickey is still sitting there alone with his cup of tea. I try the door again but it is still locked. Emma disappears downstairs.
I look at Nickey until he says something. “Emma says everything is ok,” Nickey shrugs.
“It’s not ok,” I tell Nickey. He hangs his head because he knows I’m right.
“Whatever they are doing in there, don’t ever let them do that to me.”
“Never,” he says, but I can see from him sitting there that he is lying.
I don’t even know what I’m saying. The words are stupid. No one was ever protecting me. No one was ever watching. I was never safe.
We don’t sleep that night. On the floor with our feet pressed against the walls, I ask Rachel, “Would you have left me there?”
She frowns, “Of course not.”
Rachel is the only one I believe. The only safe thing. But she sits close to Emma, too, like she wants to know how other people live.
I remember in middle school, one of the boys came up behind me and caught me by surprise when I was walking around with a bathroom pass.
He pressed against me and took my head between his palms and slammed my head against the wall. I saw his face blur before me and break apart into a thousand tiny lights. I didn’t struggle and I let him hold me up against the wall or else I would’ve fallen. We stayed like that, unmoving. Something shifted in his eyes. He carefully loosened his grip. “Are you ok?” he asked. I stayed against the wall, afraid of crumbling to the ground. I looked up at him. “Are you ok?” he repeated, concerned. “Did that hurt?”
I took a step closer to him and made sure I was looking into his eyes when I said, “No.” I kept my face hard. “It didn’t hurt.” And I walked back into my class.
In the morning, Karen comes out on Bogie’s arm. His arm slides down hers and they hold hands.
Karen is at school on Monday even though she is too old for high school. I watch her from afar. She sits on the floor outside school and is wearing all tattered black, and glasses I didn’t know she wore. They have clear frames and she is pretty. She isn’t wearing make-up. I can’t understand why she is here.
She waits for Bogie all day and they are entwined like snakes everywhere they go. I think she is Vernon’s gift to Bogie. I don’t know what I have missed, what part of the story I am missing.
Soon Emma is with Decaf Nickey, which seems about right and the parties are somewhere else and I don’t go. Bogie doesn’t meet my eyes in the hallway, except once, when he says, “Don’t look at me like that.”
“I am not looking at you any way.”
Karen is on his arm and she is smirking at me. She is his girl now.
You know too much about me, he said one night by the sea. He said it in my hair with his arm around me.
Rachel goes to the parties by herself because she is friends with Emma now. The blue streaks in her hair are gone, everything dyed black and cut short.
I think about the trees outside Bogie’s apartment building. I know it is section 8 housing because everyone knows that. He spent last Christmas up in the tree outside his building because it was too much to be inside. It is not that big of a tree and that made the whole story even sadder.
I look out past the trees towards the highway to the sea and I believe the stories. There must be tunnels underneath all this.
In the early morning, I am coming home from the park and I find Rachel at our front door. She is sitting there and she has definitely been up all night. She is leaning against my house. She looks up and watches me climb through the hole in the fence.
I put my hand out and help her up. “How was the party?”
“Oh you know,” she says. “No fun without you.”
“Let’s go in,” Rachel says.
“No,” I say, “let’s go to your place.”
“Ugh why. Mine is the worst.”
“She’s not,” I say, though I am confused about what I am saying.
Before we leave I close my eyes and listen to the leaves tap in the wind. The din of engines and tires. The wind and the whoosh of wings.
In bed we whisper so Rachel’s mother can’t hear.
“That night, did Karen want to?”
“I don’t know,” Rachel says, “but she sure wants to now.”
Once Rachel falls asleep, I walk out to the kitchen and Rachel’s mom asks if I would like breakfast. I say yes.
From my bedroom I hear the engines and I am grateful.
It only happens after midnight. They must know a sound so gradual wouldn’t wake people up. The sound is like the highway, just there, just underneath a thousand million cars gliding over it every day. The sound makes me feel like I am being folded into it, then gently let go.
I crawl through the hole in the fence and into the park and across the highway. I am by myself as I descend the spiral stairs and walk out to the water. It used to be these houses were waterfront. It used to be there was no highway. It used to be that the tunnels burrowed underground to connect the houses to the sea. I look for tunnels under the boulder. I look out onto the calm sea and try to discern shapes in the moving water. I see branches floating by. I see monster eyes and giant tentacles. I see long wisps of hair. A floating flower. A spider using only its legs to stand atop the sea.
SARA FINNERTY has essays and stories published in Black Warrior Review, Brevity, Joyland, The Weeklings, Dame, Burrow Press, and others. She is the co-curator of The Griffith Park Storytelling Series, Sunday Editor at Entropy magazine and a 2013 Best of the Net finalist. Sara is originally from Queens, NY and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. Find her at www.sarafinnerty.com.