All we had to do was open up the newspaper to see that girls disappeared and died like stray cats.
July 1, 2008
Jul 1, 2008
22 Min read time
All we had to do was open up the newspaper to see that girls disappeared and died like stray cats.
Mirabelle and I began collecting the names of the dead girls in December, after Marissa Hull fell out of an apartment window on Broadway. Marissa, fifteen, was six months pregnant, and although she was alone in the apartment before she died, there was little to suggest you could fall out a fourteenth-floor window in December, backwards, without trying. Marissa’s sister, Helen, was in homeroom down the hall from us. We didn’t go to Marissa’s funeral, or the funerals of the other dead girls, forty-three by the next September.
We used the notebook Mirabelle’s mother had given her as an early Christmas present; Mrs. Diehl had hoped Mirabelle would work out some of the adolescent moodiness that had hit her harder than the rest of us that year, eighth grade. Fuck that, she told me Christmas night, tossing the notebook to me across my bedroom. The brown leather book, bound with suede ties, thudded next to me on my unmade bed.
“Merry Christmas,” she added.
Our parents were downstairs, finishing off the wine Mirabelle’s parents had brought for Christmas dinner. Their laughter came up to us through the radiators, tinny and ghostlike.
“It’s nice. You sure you don’t want it?” Mirabelle and I had always traded a small present or two, but I thought Mrs. Diehl would be upset if she knew Mirabelle had so eagerly given away this gift. When I opened the journal, Marissa Hull’s name was in the top left corner of the first page. “Oh, you can just cross that out.” Mirabelle waved her hands, brushing the name away. She pulled on the new purple and yellow striped gloves my mother had knitted for her.
Then Mirabelle explained she’d been having dreams—in them, she’d be standing in front of the dry cleaner’s across the street from Marissa and Helen’s building. Marissa, no longer pregnant, would step out onto the ledge, face forward. Mirabelle would wait for Marissa’s body to hit the pavement.
“But it never does.” She shook her shoulders, shedding the idea from her skin. “She just stands there; it feels like hours.”
I set the notebook next to me on the bed.
“I just thought that by writing her name down, somehow.” She combed her bottom lip with her straight top teeth, recently freed from braces; her lips were chapped because of this habit. “It’s probably exactly the kind of shit she wants me to do,” she said, meaning her mother. “Which is why I’m giving it to you.”
“I don’t think dead girls are quite what Lucia had in mind.” We called our mothers by their first names only in their absence. We were still good girls then, touched lately by the irritations of most girls our age, but even if we’d been brave enough to try, we wouldn’t have known what to rebel against.
Mirabelle smiled wickedly, grabbed the notebook and held it back to her chest. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
All we had to do was open up the newspaper to see that girls disappeared and died like stray cats. The names stacked up in Mirabelle’s notebook easily, effortlessly: hit and runs, dog attacks, heart conditions, smotherings by an older brother or stepfather who just couldn’t stand the girl anymore. We understood that most of the girls were different from us—a little less comfortable, mostly not white. The distance from danger was farther for us, but that year we pretended it wasn’t.
We began passing the notebook back and forth, slipping it into each other’s knapsacks between classes every few weeks. Over the next ten months, the book’s spine cracked and its corners rounded from being shoved between our textbooks and under our mattresses, from being thumbed through on bored Saturday afternoons. Recording the names felt as inevitable as our summer salamander hunts or the spring we’d imagined the trees behind our house hid witches and trolls.
On one gray Saturday afternoon in January, at our usual booth at the diner—the one with the corner windows and the out-of-date jukebox—we were picking at plates of Belgian waffles and buttered bagels. Through the tinted brown window, I saw trucks kicking up slush onto a mailbox on the corner of 238th Street. I watched three boys climb out of a car in the parking lot.
Mirabelle had been spacing out in class lately, drawing overlapping stars on the rims of her sneakers during lab.
A girl had been shot in a church in California, and Mirabelle, who had the notebook last, had added her name to the list.
“I thought we were sticking to New York?” I said, and took a swig from the ice cream shake tumbler. The icy bits at the bottom made me shiver.
Across the table, her chin in her hand, Mirabelle’s eyes followed the young men as they goofed around in the parking lot. They clipped each other’s shoulders and mussed each other’s hair. It used to be easy to get Mirabelle to agree with me; she never bothered to test my temper. But even as Mirabelle’s growing disinterest in the world alarmed her parents, I’d noticed something else: she was less and less afraid.
“We need parameters,” I said. We had just learned the word in physical science, and I knew Mirabelle had been spacing out in class lately, drawing overlapping stars on the rims of her sneakers during lab.
“Parameters,” I repeated. “Rules.”
Mirabelle turned back from the window. The boys were on the front steps now; they’d straightened up and quieted down, adjusting their hair back into place. I knew it was Mirabelle who had caught their attention as she stared dreamily out the window, her cheeks rosy, her light lashes making her seem delicate, precious. I was, you could say, conventionally pretty, with hair a few shades dirtier than Mirabelle’s halo-like blonde that fell straight and sensibly halfway down my back. I scared boys then, the way I met their eyes. Mirabelle had a way of disappearing with her body that only made you more aware of her presence. She was doing this now for them: the shifting carefully in her seat, letting her eyes fall on theirs only for a moment before she looked away.
Neither of us had much in the way of bodies then. We took each rounding of something that was once flat and bony as a sign that we were chosen, each pricking up of another consciousness in the world as a small affirmation. Of course we wanted to be desired.
I motioned for the book with impatient fingers as the boys were led to a table past ours. I began a list of the rules on a page across from Yvonne and Sierra Jeffries, five and seven, abandonment and starvation, and Paulina Krokos, twelve, car crash. We’d keep the dead girls’ names, their ages, and a brief description of how they died. Accidents counted, as did murders and suicides, of course. Eventual deaths—the fallout of beatings or multiple drug-overdoses that weakened and failed a girl’s organs—were tricky, and the rule was, if you went into the hospital following whatever had happened and you never left except through the morgue, it counted, no matter how long it took to die. The girls had to be under eighteen because, above this, they were women, and subject to another world of danger we weren’t ready to fathom.
We divided the Bronx by zip code: 10471, 10463, 10468. We’d take Inwood, which was technically Manhattan, but we’d stay west in the rest of the Bronx. Our borders were defined by the reaches of the number 1 or the 10 buses, farther out into the borough than we’d ever been, but seemingly within our reach. Eventually, we’d take in Yonkers and 10467, the neighborhood where our fathers had met as boys.
By the time we finished the rules, the streetlights were coming on along Broadway. We waited to be picked up in the diner’s vestibule, secured by our winter coats, re-wrapped in our scarves. I wore Mirabelle’s gloves; I had forgotten mine, and she shoved her hands in her coat pockets, chewing a toothpick, leaning against the one, mirrored wall. The parking-lot boys were leaving, too. Excuse me, they said, each one after the other, as they passed through the space. We weren’t in their way, but they let their jackets brush against ours. They lingered, waiting for one of us to respond, or to blush, which was usually Mirabelle’s job, but she wasn’t in the mood.
At school that March the boys had a new game: sticking all manner of sharp objects—sewing needles, freshly sharpened pencils—into the backs of girls’ thighs while we walked up the stairs in front of them. Most of us were resigned to the snickering of the boys, who’d slip the objects back up their shirtsleeves and smile with a shit-eating grin if you turned around and looked at them. But when the point of Julian Wilson’s compass went into Mirabelle’s ass, she didn’t yelp, as most of us had been doing for weeks. Mirabelle and I had been coming up the narrower southern stairs from gym. The boys behind us were from the rowdier classes on the other side of the building, the boys you least wanted at your back. They were in eighth grade, too, but many were bigger, some of them having been left behind, and the others—the small and cagey ones—were worse than the slow-moving dumb ones. Julian was one of those smaller ones, popular for being bad, considered handsome by some girls, but not by us.
Mirabelle stopped on the stairs, turning to face Julian. “Stop fucking pricking me.”
“What?” Julian looked at her as though she were crazy.
“I said stop fucking poking me with your fucking compass.” Mirabelle tried to fix her face into an ugly expression, but she always looked pretty, even when angry.
Julian smiled politely, and took one step up toward Mirabelle. He leaned in as close to her face as he could without touching her, his dark, pouty lower lip looking as though it might graze Mirabelle’s milky chin.
“I wouldn’t stick shit in your”—and here Julian looked around, to make sure the other boys were watching what he was about to do—“Skinny. White. Ass.”
I stood just behind Mirabelle’s right shoulder, facing a crowd of boys with whom I’d barely felt brave enough to make eye contact for the past two years. Their sudden laughter made me flinch. But not Mirabelle; the heat rising from her body wasn’t embarrassment, but a tiny thrill.
The buzzer sounded for fifth period. Neither Mirabelle nor Julian moved.
“Boo,” Julian said, before pushing his way past her, leading the boys up the stairs to class.
Two weeks after school let out, junior high already a memory we were both trying to forget, the day was sticky hot. Mirabelle and I took the bus to a carnival where the old D’Agastino’s warehouse had been. We rode the Spider first, delighting in the grip of the floor loosening under the soles of our sneakers, in our bodies rising up from under the safety bars. We screamed like children.
When I returned with a large lemonade, she was on her back, an arm draped over her face, drained of color.
Perhaps it was the heat that drew us to the Himalaya by mid-morning, whose backdrop was painted to look like a wall of ice, a scene of polar caps and polar bears. In line, we enviously watched other girls’ hair lift off their necks against this frosty landscape. Music blared continuously from the ride’s central speakers, drowning out the fair games’ bells and whirrs. When it was our turn, our hips banged against each others’, against the metal sides of the car, as we rode the Himalaya forwards and backwards, our car swinging wildly with our lightness, our necks snapping back as the ride changed direction.
We rode three times in a row when the lines were short, and a boy came by to collect our tickets, wilted by our sweaty hands, after each go. He smiled at Mirabelle sideways, and she smiled back, a flush rising up to the dip of her tank top. When we’d had enough, we lifted the bar and stood, our knees buckling; we fell into one another. Mirabelle hooked her elbow into mine and we tried hard to walk normally down the ramp, but after we passed through the gate the boy held open for us, Mirabelle said, “I don’t feel so well.”
I left her on a bench along the side of the children’s roller coaster while I went to get her something cold to drink. When I returned with a large lemonade, she was on her back, an arm draped over her face, drained of color.
“She okay?” asked another boy from the Himalaya; he’d sat inside the deejay booth. He was well groomed though not particularly handsome, but he had intense blue eyes and dark lashes. They were blinking on me.
“She’ll be fine.”
He lit a cigarette, asked, “This okay?”
“Sure,” I said.
He took a few drags while Mirabelle hogged the drink. My throat felt dry, but asking her for a sip seemed mean.
“What’s your name?” he asked me, stomping out the half-smoked cigarette with a clean sneaker.
I smiled at him, squinting against the chalky white sky. I didn’t know if I should tell the truth.
“Nicole,” Mirabelle answered for me, and I wanted to stick an elbow in her ribs.
“You live around here, Nicole?”
“Up the hill.” I nodded in the direction of our houses.
“Oh, up there, huh?” He pointed his chin up Beekman Avenue, and it seemed like a faraway land, an inestimable climb.
“Jersey.” He waited for me respond, but I just nodded. “But I work all week. You girls coming back here tonight?” Mirabelle rattled the ice cubes in the drink. “Because my cousin’s coming by. We could get you in for free.” We weren’t allowed to go to the fair at night.
“We have to go,” Mirabelle said, sucking up the last of the lemonade.
“You feel better?” I asked her.
“I feel fine,” she said, rising.
“I’m Henry, by the way,” he called out after us as Mirabelle, her hand sticky on my wrist, led me back toward the fair.
“Goodbye, Henry,” Mirabelle said just to me.
The rain was light at first, the red and yellow bulbs of the top of the Zipper brilliant against the pale gray sky. But then a single flash of lightning, and a rumble of thunder, and the rides were shut off one by one. They rounded us up like sheep and shooed us out in groups, handing us tickets for a full day as compensation.
Because of the lemonade, we were a dollar short for bus fare home. We spent our change calling Mirabelle’s mom from the gas station on the corner, and then mine, but neither of them were home, so we walked. Mirabelle’s hoop earrings, which the guy had made her take off before getting on the Gravitron, jingled in her pockets. She put them back in as we walked uphill. The rain curled the ends of Mirabelle’s hair into semi-circles, pulling it away from her ears, where the hoops shone bright against her flushed skin.
Two blocks from the top of Beekman, a good mile from home, our sneakers were soaked, our bare feet blistering against their slick, rubbery insides. My shorts kept bunching up against the backs of my thighs. I suggested we hitchhike.
“Go ahead,” Mirabelle dared me. She started walking faster, looking up at the sky as if it would suddenly stop raining.
I stuck my thumb out on the corner of Greystone and 239th mostly because I knew Mirabelle would be a little scared if I did. Before either of us could regret my boldness, a blue sedan pulled over. The driver, a woman, motioned us inside, the auto-unlock of the doors like gates being opened. Mirabelle opened the back door, leaving me the front seat. The woman cleared bags and papers onto the floor for me.
“Thank you,” I said, surprised my plan had worked, and that we had landed in exactly the kind of car our mothers would be relieved to see us in.
“Oh, please, of course. This weather . . .”She was younger than she had first appeared to be through the rain-streaked window. No wedding ring, raspy voice.
Mirabelle slid into the backseat next to the woman’s two girls, who unbuckled and re-buckled their seatbelts accordingly. The older one eyed us warily, embarrassed by what her mother had done. But Mirabelle was doll-pretty, and when she checked her lobes for her hoops, their little mouths opened with awe.
“Those are pretty,” the smaller one said, reaching up to stick her fingers into the earring’s diameter.
At the turn before our houses, the woman said, “Look, I know I shouldn’t be saying this, considering I picked you up and all that, but you girls should be careful with this kind of thing. There are a lot of creeps around here.”
“We don’t usually . . . we’ve never . . .”I began.
“We know,” Mirabelle said, smiling apologetically at the woman in the rearview mirror.
Later, in front of my bedroom mirror, we pushed our shorts off our hips and compared the size of our bruises: mine was a lemon, Mirabelle’s a peach.
That night, someone dropped a knife from the top of the Ferris wheel. It spun and spun and entered Kiara Nelson’s skull at a forty-five degree angle while she waited in line with her father. The blade severed multiple arteries in her brain, sending Kiara into a coma from which she’d never emerge. We weren’t allowed to go back to the fair. Not that summer, not ever.
In September Mirabelle’s mother found the notebook. As they always had when we were girls, our mothers gathered us in one kitchen to scold us, Mirabelle’s this time.
“Can you tell us why you are doing this?” my mother asked, shaking her head.
We shrugged, one after the other.
My mother would say I’d taken advantage of Mirabelle, manipulated her.
“You understand why this is disturbing, don’t you?” Mrs. Diehl asked us, her hand on top of the notebook we’d never see again.
Mirabelle fixed her gaze on the marble countertops. I stared at my mother, who refused to meet my eyes.
“Nicole?” Mrs. Diehl came forward to touch my shoulder.
“You understand why we’re going to have to take this away, right?”
I didn’t answer.
“Whose idea was this?” my mother asked. She directed this stern question at both of us, but her eyes waited on Mirabelle, who, when we were smaller, had always been the first to own up to what we’d done wrong, to cry through her confession of drawing on the walls with crayons or digging up the flowers for a game we’d invented. After, there’d be a private scolding for me at home, during which my mother would say I’d taken advantage of Mirabelle, manipulated her, and that I should be more mindful of my influence over her.
But Mirabelle didn’t say anything, and we both waited them out, our arms crossed over our chests, till they sent us out of the room. I didn’t get that lecture this time.
Waiting for the 10 bus to school in late November, it felt like it might snow soon. We were only a few stops from school when Mirabelle suggested we cut. At the high school, the bus driver waited for us to file out with the other kids. He looked at us in his rearview mirror and shook his head silently before letting the doors hiss close.
When we returned to where we’d started, we slipped our knapsacks under our jackets and walked briskly home. Our parents were at work; we left our bags by my back door and set off on a walk. Leaves, brown and brittle, swirled around our ankles, following us as we walked down the road. I felt happily invisible as we moved deeper into the neighborhood.
As the houses got bigger and the streets got quieter, we came to a house that looked abandoned, in the way only houses in our neighborhood could be: wrapped in tarps and guarded by a construction dumpster, its renovations on hold for the winter. Mirabelle tried a window along the back side of the house; it opened without a fight. The room we climbed into was filled with a concrete gray light, dark enough to make me wish we’d had a flashlight, or candles. The house smelled of construction dust and cold, and faintly of the wood from a neighbor’s fireplace.
The house was just a shell, its insides ripped out. We snaked through the rooms silently, our hands locked into each other’s. When we got to what was once probably, or was going to be, the kitchen, we sat on the floor, looking out onto the Hudson through the new French doors. There seemed no rush to get anywhere, no one would be looking for us in the place we’d gone to.
“I’m thinking of going away,” Mirabelle told me then, the first words either of us had spoken since we’d been in the house.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s a boarding school in Connecticut that we’re looking at.”
“For next fall?”
“No, for January. It’s expensive, but my parents are worried I’m not doing well here,” she said, and began to cry.
I looked at her, her knees drawn up to her chest, her fingers turning salmon pink in the cold.
I listened to the trains along the river below, to the cars on Palisades Avenue. I let Mirabelle cry next to me in the cold and empty house, because that is what she wanted to do.
Although her parents went to see her at school two or three times that semester, I never took the invitations they extended to me to join them. I could tell from her voice during our few phone calls that Mirabelle didn’t really want me there, that we both needed the space. We wrote each other letters; mostly I sent her gossip about the kids we knew, and she told me about how bad the food was and what the buildings on campus looked like. Neither of us mentioned the new friends we were making.
Mirabelle came home for the summer while I was still finishing up ninth grade. She had a boyfriend, but not the kind her parents had wanted for her, not some East Coast old-money type but a pale Irish kid from Yonkers named Joseph with a shaved head and a diamond earring. He’d pick her up three blocks from her house in a rumbling Oldsmobile that smelled like a lifetime of smoke. He was somebody’s cousin’s friend from school. “Not all of them are snobs, you know,” she told me. “There are some real people there too.”
I had fallen for a neighborhood boy, one of the kind she would say wasn’t real, and he wasn’t: he had thick, god-like eyebrows, and t-shirts with little rips in them; he went to a private school, and was two grades above me. Every few weeks I let him push me up against his garage and kiss me, his chest a little too strong against mine; I let him make me keep it all a secret. I’d look at him longingly across the driveway as we both helped our parents in the yard on the weekend, waiting for some signal of recognition. He’d concentrate on the grass or the spade in his hand. I wasn’t real to him either.
I saw Mirabelle and Joseph riding around one afternoon on Milton Avenue, where I was picking up hamburger meat for my mother from the butcher. At the four-way stop, Mirabelle pulled out a piece of golden hair from her mouth where it got caught in a laugh. She waved as they turned the corner, her face turning more childlike when she noticed me. I waved back, but I was already looking at the car behind them by then.
Mirabelle came by the house later that night with her mother, who sat with mine at the kitchen table, drinking beer, sun-kissed and loud, as if they were the teenagers. I didn’t understand then how they could love each other so unconditionally, how they didn’t seem to want or need anyone else, didn’t need a little breathing room.
Mirabelle and I sat in the yard, our heels tucked up against our shorts bottoms on the old wood chairs.
“Did you see me today, on Milton? I waved.”
I thought about pretending I hadn’t, decided not to.
“I did. I waved back, but you were already gone.”
“Oh, I didn’t see.”
“Where were you going?”
“Just around. Just driving.”
I picked at the back of my heels with a fingernail, flaking off hard skin.
“Hey, you should come with us one day,” Mirabelle said.
“Sure,” I said, but I knew I couldn’t stand to be in the backseat of that car, watching his hand cup her shoulder, massage the back of her neck, slink through her hair. It was too goddamned hot to be close to anyone those days, but I knew they did it, knew they pulled over to the shady places and went at it. I could tell by the way Mirabelle moved, how loose-limbed she was. She didn’t need to tell me herself.
After dinner, we walked over to the park—although it was nearly nine, the night wasn’t dark yet. We each took a swing, leaving one between us. The seats bore the memory of the day’s sun, swollen and forgiving in their warmth, metal that would have stung our thighs had we let it meet our skin earlier.
I was the first to stand up on the swing, but it was Mirabelle who said, “Contest?” and I said, “Why not?” We began to bend our knees and pump, our hands slippery on the chains, the fence flying up to meet us. We had heard that these sorts of games were dangerous, that if we were to become part of local legend, if other girls were to keep watch over us, one of us must level out with the top of the set, then catapult over the chain-link to the street on the other side, land in a heap of wasted child-body, lie in rivers of blood. Be gone. We had heard such things had happened, but neither of us had seen them.
Mirabelle’s swing creaked, a little rusty. The air was cool on my skin, perfect, and for a few minutes I let myself forget that Mirabelle didn’t really live here anymore, that I was angry with her, with us, for not being who we thought we’d be, for how easy it had been to leave each other behind.
We could become one of them, we might even have wanted to, but we wouldn’t. We swung until our thighs ached, until it was really so dark we had to get home.
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July 01, 2008
22 Min read time