Candy hated Grand Rapids as much as I did. She had moved there from Lansing when she was six and visited her grandparents in ‘the capital’ on holidays. Lansing was at least bigger, she said. And her family had lived in a house there. Now she lived with her father and sister in one apartment and sometimes stayed with her mother in another.
My mother, Sheila, was dead. Sheila and my dad, John, divorced only a few years before she died. Sheila got full custody of me, an only child, so we moved to Grand Rapids to be closer to Sheila’s sister, Jess. I hated Sheila for it, and then she got cancer, so I had to forgive her for everything. Sheila was angrier than I was, anyway, because she was finally free from her shitty husband, with all of her time to herself and with the start of a social life, but then she was dying.
I never even questioned if I would be sent back to John’s house in Ypsilanti. It was sort of Sheila’s dying wish that I would stay away from John and become close to Jess, who Sheila said was like a younger her. That wasn’t true at all, though. I hated Jess, her husband, and their children. I hated how loud they were and how Christian they were, and I hated how vocal each one of them was about missing Sheila, even though it was like they barely knew her, the way they’d talk about her.
I hated Grand Rapids so much that I started to think of it as an absurdist prison, each person in it a demented criminal I had to do my best to avoid. It was comforting to imagine it this way. I started to regularly feel out of body experiences while in school or walking to the grocery store. I couldn’t go home and I couldn’t stay here, so I was nowhere. In my diary, every night, I wrote about how much I missed Sheila and about how stupid my new family was. John was stupid, too, because he didn’t try to get me back.
One day, after I had started high school and made a friend – Candy – and got high with her on Robitussin and came home still tripping a little, I wrote that I was finally happy, which was sad. It was like all of the miserable things that were happening to me were finally so obviously bad that they were forming a protective barrier of depression around me. This was not going to go away, I wrote.
‘I have reached a new level of sadness, which, ironically, is comfort. Does that make me less sad, being happy about being sad? I hope not. I’m thrilled to be so incredibly, inconsolably sad, so I hope I don’t end up getting happy because of that.’
When we were in Candy’s room, alone, Candy said she wanted to show me something she’d been saving. She booted up the computer and opened up Napster, on which she had downloaded a song by a boy who was ‘only fourteen, like us,’ she said, before she hit play. ‘He is so sad. The saddest. I’ve never heard anyone this sad, and he’s fourteen!’ She played the song, which was very low quality in a way that made it sound authentic. ‘How could anyone be that sad?’ Candy asked, laughing.
‘Shh!’ I said. I felt something like a crush, and also jealousy. He was our age and could play a guitar and sing words that defined his emotions well. We should be doing that, I thought. We are sad, too. ‘Why is he so sad?’ I asked.
‘That’s the best part,’ Candy said. ‘His songs are about his parents getting a divorce. Like, get over it.’
‘I was sad about that,’ I said, surprising myself by defending him.
‘So was I,’ said Candy. ‘But I mean, he has so much more to get sad about.’ ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever be as sad as I am now,’ I said, honestly.
‘You’re not happy?’ asked Candy. It was a strange thing to ask. We were lying on her bed, looking at the ceiling, which was pulsating and glistening.
‘Aren’t you happy yet?’ she said, turning towards me, her best friend.
‘Yeah, sometimes.’ My organs were sinking inside my body and my face was getting hot. My fingers started tingling. A confusing, massive flush of lust washed over me. Was this a new side effect of the drug? Was I that in love with the boy singing on the computer? Or was it Candy? It was, I thought, as Candy put her hand on my cheek and kissed me, deeply. It was my first kiss, and Candy knew that, of course. I kissed her back and felt everything everyone had explained would happen: fireworks, lightheadedness, shuddering warmth. We wrapped our arms around each other and made out for what felt like an hour, until Candy broke the silence, which was eventually weighing us down.
‘We should save some for later,’ and then, ‘that was fun, though, right? Are you happy now?’
‘Yes,’ I said, smiling. But a piece of what Candy had said was painful. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing, god.’ And it was over. We had to eat something to level out, even though the cough syrup killed our appetites completely.
Jess would hate Candy, I could tell. I had started to worry about that when someone buzzed the apartment. ‘I’ll be right down,’ I said into the wall.
‘I’ll come up, don’t be silly,’ Jess said back. One second later, like a slow blink, she was knocking on the door. Candy looked at me like it was my fault. I opened the door and blocked it with my body.
‘I’m ready, we can go.’
‘Hi, I’m Jess,’ she shoved past me. ‘We’ve met before, right?’
‘Yeah,’ Candy laughed. ‘You’re an English teacher at my school.’ She laughed again. ‘I know who you are, at least.’
‘Well, it’s nice to meet you.’ Jess looked at me. It was the first time I’d seen Jess appear nervous. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Yeah,’ I looked at the patterns in the carpet, which were cauliflowering. We needed jobs, Jess told me in the car. Candy and I. Fine, I thought, imagining the two of us working at a Dairy Queen together, eating soft serve. Once I was home, I called Candy from my basement bedroom. We each found the classified ads from papers in our respective homes and were reading jobs aloud to each other.
‘We could work at the car parts place down the street from me,’ I suggested. ‘But you’d need to get a ride.’ Ideally, we’d get jobs near the school and walk there when we got out. But maybe everyone had the same idea.
‘None of our classmates have jobs,’ Candy corrected. ‘They’re all rich.’
‘Then how come nothing around there is hiring? Why does everyone else want to work at the new movie theatre and the Panera Bread, too?’
‘Maybe those are actually good jobs.’
‘Oh my god, I’m looking at the sex ads now,’ said Candy. ‘It’s insane.’
‘Where is that?’
‘At the bottom. SWF for BDSM, I think I know what this means. Oh my god, ew, BWF and BWM seek playful third, open to all, drug free.’
I found the sex ads in my section, which was from a different week. ‘This one, though,’ I said, after we’d read almost all of our pages aloud. ‘Older gentleman seeks companion. So sad.’
‘Gross,’ said Candy. ‘He’s probably the worst one out of everyone because he’s not even saying what he would do.’
‘Why can’t Randall get us jobs at his mom’s office?’ I asked. Randall was Candy’s boyfriend, a senior in high school.
‘He doesn’t work there, he just hangs out,’ said Candy.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Yeah, he seriously just goes to his mom’s work after school and sits with her until she’s done. I don’t even know why she wouldn’t get in trouble for it, it’s horrible.’
‘It’s kind of embarrassing,’ I agreed. Randall was so much cooler than that. Or maybe his mom was that cool. Candy said once that she’d been in a cult, and now collected taxidermy animals, so their house was like a museum.
‘Well, he only goes there when he can’t see me.’
The next weekend, I was high at Candy’s house again when she decided I should have black hair and solid blue eye shadow, ‘like PJ Harvey.’
‘Who’s that?’ I asked, staring at the ceiling and slowly spinning in a circle. We liked to make ourselves dizzy and then collapse into a pile of pillows. The room would keep spinning in staccato motions, like a grunge music video.
‘Are you kidding? Cassie! Cassie!’ Cassie came into the room where I was tightly holding a comforter and burying my face in a stuffed rabbit.
‘You guys,’ she said, laughing. ‘Should I be worried right now?’
‘Yes,’ exclaimed Candy. ‘Cassie, Anika doesn’t know who PJ Harvey is.’
‘What? Aw,’ said Cassie. ‘That’s sad. You need to. You need to right now. I’m going to go put it on downstairs, you guys come down when you’re … ready.’
I wanted Cassie to come and pick me up, to carry me downstairs. That would be so fun, to get a piggyback ride. The music came on instantaneously. It was one second after she said she would play it, if that, and it sounded like it was coming from headphones wrapped in a paper bag, but also like it was echoing inside of me.
‘Cassie, no, you have to start it over!’ Candy was panicking, running from one corner of her bedroom to the other, tripping over my limp body and falling into the pillows. I stretched to grab her like a cat, but she had crawled up and was ripping dresses from hangers in her closet. She found a dark blue satin slip and changed into it. She never wore underwear and she always changed in front of anyone. It made me freeze, captivated by her muscle-bound body. She didn’t look good in the clothes she chose to wear to school, only in lingerie or nothing. The blue slip clung to her hips and was loose everywhere else, the straps immediately falling down, one and then the other. She was wide-eyed, letting out little ecstatic yelps that became forlorn in the air.
‘Come on, get up,’ she said. I did, and followed Candy, my head slumped down and bouncing with each carpeted step. ‘Start it over, start it over, please, Cassie, come on, you have to, please.’
‘Okay, Jesus, I am.’ Cassie hit the back button on the CD player, which was part of a huge system that connected a big screen TV and Blue-ray player to giant speakers in the opposite corners of the room. Candy was in the centre, crouched, her head between her knees, her palms flat against the floor. Cassie corralled me onto one of the leather couches, sitting close to me. ‘She does this,’ she said. I was suddenly scared. Candy was perfectly still. A car passed the house and flooded it with white light that bloomed on my eyes for minutes afterward. I looked at her tiny body, a ball in the middle of a hardwood floor, silent and faceless. If she died, what would I do? If she ever left, what would I feel? Would I become someone as strong as her, with her gone, now that I had met her? Or would I crumble? I wanted to cry at the thought.
The music started, a one-note bass line and a soft, flaky snare drum that I assumed was my own heartbeat. When the female voice started whisper singing, ‘Tie yourself to me, no one else, no,’ I assumed it was Candy. I’d somehow expected PJ to be a man. Candy stood up, one vertebrae at a time, facing the blank TV instead of us, one leg crossed behind the other. ‘You’re not rid of me.’
As she slowly turned to face us, her arms started to rise, her hands still flat. She was lip synching, breathing heavily out, ‘ha, ha,’ and snaking her neck to sing the other part, ‘lick my legs and I’m on fire.’ Her hands then travelled towards her face until they were finally touching it, cradling her trembling mouth that sang, ‘I’ll make you lick my injuries, I’m gonna twist your head off, see,’ and then the guitar came crashing in so loud that I jumped, and her arms came crashing down, her hands now in fists pounding her hips. She pivoted on her toes around the room, leaping and spinning, mouthing, ‘’til you say don’t you wish you, never, never met her, don’t you, don’t you wish you, never, never met her?’
I had never seen anyone lip synch the way you’re supposed to do it, like this. Maybe she was the first to have ever done this or anything like it. Maybe she had invented something. The song got quiet again, whimpering, ‘I beg you, my darling, don’t leave me, I’m hurting.’ And soon it got loud again, for longer this time. One of the straps of her slip fell and exposed one of her tits, so Cassie got up and reached to fix it, but Candy was shaking her head and bending down as if she was really screaming and she had to catch her breath. Now the other strap fell and both tits were out, the whole slip shimmying down so the top was at her waist. For the last quiet stanza, she clutched her chest and kneeled, looking up as if in prayer. ‘Lick my legs and I’m on fire, lick my legs of desire.’
Someone had needed to die. In all of my favourite movies, someone had just died before it started, or the trouble was covering up a death, or by the end, death was imminent. My mother had died, and so the movie had started, with me as the unlikely star. But maybe another death had to make a balance. No one here knew Sheila, and they were all so bitter about nothing.
They had more money than us. Jess with her big family and their summer home and their boat on the lake in town. Candy and Cassie were different because they lived in the one apartment complex in our district. It was full of refugees from Bosnia. Candy said she hated all of them, that they were perverts. ‘It probably isn’t their fault, but that doesn’t make me like them any more,’ she said.
Who would die next in my life? I’d suffered, it felt, a disproportionate amount, having had to move from one shithole city to another. I hated Grand Rapids more than anything, and I’d hated Ypsilanti before that. Two of my turns at life wasted. While I sat in my basement room reading paperbacks Jess had kept since college and staring out the narrow window into the dark woods, I would imagine something violent happening to me, anything. In the book I read, a group of men found a body in the river. When I got to the end, I felt I’d missed something. What had happened to the body?
I was waiting for someone else to feel death the way I had. Nothing had hurt as bad as the knowledge of Sheila’s death, like curtains being yanked shut but instead of closing, something comes loose at the top and everything comes down, weighted velvet and tassels. It’s over, after everything, and then it’s not, because the feeling of it being over is one that replaces the anticipation of it ending. Her life is gone; your life is changed. Repeated, until you are asleep, and then you dream every night that she’s alive but somehow not quite, just reanimated, and not happy but not upset, just less cognisant.
I’d thought that moving into a big house surrounded by horses and churches, moving to a new school full of brats, changing my look to the harsh one I finally earned by witnessing something so sad would change me into something more tough. I had lived through it, and yet I couldn’t tell anyone. I practiced ways of shoving the information in some jock’s face, ‘she’s dead, asshole,’ or something like that, but every time it came up, I’d look down instead, almost apologising for making everyone uncomfortable. It’s not their fault, after all. Was I the type of girl who had a dead mother?
Another girl in school had a dead father, and she brought it up as if it was her religion. She lived because her father no longer could, the brave man. He had died from cancer, too, like most parents. And then a teacher said her sister had died, and the whole class would say something about some distant person who had been sick, or the time they’d been to the hospital to see a baby just born, and at that point I would rather lie than say my mother was dead, it felt so cheap.
The next weekend, Candy came over to dye my hair in my basement bathroom. I’d asked permission, even though I was the only one using this tub now. Jess said sure, if we didn’t make a mess. We made a huge mess, staining edges of the sink and rugs with dark purple drops. The bowl of the sink would definitely be permanently bluish near the drain. I would get yelled at but not grounded. Everyone felt sorry for me, so I didn’t really get in trouble, just humiliated. How could I not know that we would make a mess, they would ask. Candy ran upstairs and asked one of my cousins for Saran wrap as I sat on the lid of the toilet trying not to move. When she ran back downstairs, laughing, Candy said that the boys looked at her like she was an alien. She wrapped the solid black dripping swirl in pink plastic and scrubbed the drops from my shoulders, forehead, and ears with soapy hands.
After twenty minutes, I took a shower to rinse out the dye. The bathtub was filled with black that thinned to blue and purple in beautiful streams. I yelled to Candy that it looked crazy, and Candy opened the bathroom door. ‘Let me see it,’ she said, pulling back the curtain. I instinctively backed away and put both hands over my crotch.
‘What? Let me see it,’ said Candy, pretending she meant the dye. She had this laugh that made it so you knew that she knew she was being ridiculous.
‘Are you going to get in with me?’ I asked. The water was spraying Candy in the face and she was squinting comically, like a clown getting sprayed with seltzer who refuses to look away. She stripped quickly, waving her hands like flippers so as not to make the situation any sexier. At night, Candy would sleep in my bed, sober. Neither of us would touch each other and an aching, breathing void would form between us each time we carefully turned our bodies. Now, lacey soap ran down Candy’s curves and we reached for one another. When we were tired of standing, we towelled off and went into my bedroom to sit on our calves and continue to masturbate each other while kissing, openmouthed.
When Randall and Candy finally broke up, I consoled her but was secretly happy. I knew I wanted to be with Candy for real now. I’d never really had a boyfriend and didn’t think I would ever start wanting one. Candy’s hair was getting whiter with every bleach job and now mine was black-on-the-outside (because black is the way I feel on the inside). After a grace period of a few days, I asked her to come over again.
Candy’s relatives were in town and she couldn’t leave her apartment. On Friday, she’d listed activities for us to do together all summer, like Motor Mall downtown and the Lowell Fair. She had always wanted to go to the ‘World’s Largest Antique Store’ and to see the fish ladder. Michigan was only fun in the summer, she said. But this was the first day of summer and I had no plans. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t spend the day with Candy; it was that I had never been this alone. I kept an antique pill planner on my nightstand – an enamelled metal tray of seven plastic drawers – even though the dose I took every day was the same. I swallowed one Prozac capsule without water and wandered into the TV room.
It was maybe my first day in Grand Rapids alone and without supervision, without the schedule of school and homework, without church or some other plan Jess and John had made for the kids: my two cousins and me. The basement TV room was usually taken over by the boys peeling off hockey and football gear, watching football or hockey on the big screen, but it was empty this morning, the TV big and blank. The Home Shopping Network was okay for the early hour, even-toned and slowly rotating, cut metal gleaming on a mirror-plated rack. What Sheila would say about wasting a day as nice as this.
Jess and John were out shopping for a gift before attending the birthday party of a baby. My cousins were probably at some kind of practice or youth group. Jess usually made a later breakfast on Saturdays just for the girls, a healthier meal of fruit and granola. She’d set it on the table for me, an olive branch. ‘Sleeping in is good for you once in a while,’ she’d say, and I would look at the clock that said ten or nine thirty or even nine in the morning.
Sunlight sifted in through the glass-covered slits in the basement like drawings of biblical prisoners in some colouring book or worksheet. What parties would I miss tonight, not having been seen by those who were throwing them? How many joyrides would I be offered if I was sitting in the mall parking lot? What drugs would older kids have given me just to see a girl experience something for the first time? I didn’t want to do it, but because I couldn’t bear not to, I called my only other friend, the one I’d vowed to stop speaking to, Lauren.
Natasha Stagg is the author of Surveys (2016) and Sleeveless (2019), both published by Semiotext(e). She works as a writer and editor in New York. In this issue is an excerpt from a longer work in progress.