I hop the fence into an empty lot and walk toward the main road. Think it’s Garvey, can’t be sure. Kick some smashed-up Olde E 40s across the ripped-up asphalt.
Cancer butts and orange juice caps, old doll hair and other debris that’s floated down from the city clog up the cracks. The pink stucco apartments and motels stuffed into the flat expanse like miniature huts. Blinking vacant, vacant. The rainbow flags around the car dealerships flap underneath bright neon lights. “Three Days” by Jane’s Addiction is playing on my Walkman and I feel like I’m in a movie, like I’m an assassin. I skip through the dark street and wait in the middle of the road as souped-up rockets and old beaters honk and swerve around me. Raise my arms, cigarette hanging from my lips like some outlaw. I’m smiling. It’s clenched there all tobaccoey between my teeth. I’ve got someplace to be or maybe nowhere to go. My head is a hive of vibration and sonic awesomeness. The drums are like tat a tat tat, tat a tat tat, and then Dave Navarro squeals all over it with a sharp splice of noise. Perry Farrell slithers in behind. All now with wings! Fly around me motherfuckers! Fly around me like I’m not even here! Like I’m not even a person in this world at all.
Mom is in the kitchen grabbing her keys and throwing an apple into her purse. She’s tired and doesn’t look at me. I look up from my bowl of cereal. I’m wearing the clothes I wore yesterday and I know she’s trying to figure out if I just put them on again or never took them off. She was up when I came home last night. She didn’t come into the living room when the door opened like she sometimes does. I’m never really in trouble for anything. It’s more of a negotiation. Come on, she’d say. Just throw me a bone. But I’m not a bone thrower. Not anymore.
“Gotta go,” she says hovering near the door. “Go to school.”
“Not duh. Go.”
She shakes her head softly and heads outside to the car. I stand and walk into my bedroom. It’s seven thirty. A now or never sort of hour.
“What’s going on?” I ask, shoving my way toward the front of the gathering crowd at the entrance to King Hall, the main building at Cal State LA where our school is housed.
We go to the LA County High School for the Arts. Like Fame but here in LA and no one dances in the caf to “Hot Lunch” or stops traffic to boogie down on yellow taxicab roofs, mainly though cos we have a food court and it’s LA, you know? We all have cars. Crappy ones, we’re teenagers, but we drive. I can see the tops of our 1970s orange-and- yellow lockers, eighties Pirate Radio and Mark & Brian stickers stuck to the front, KROQ through the ages, a ubiquitous rainbow across genre and sex.
Everybody and their older sister loves KROQ. Power 106 stickers sprinkled sparsely throughout, a bolder radio choice made most often by the cool Black girl dancers and straight white art boys. Pirouetting across the mirror at lunch and bumping Aaliyah on the bus back home, pink leg warmers over gold Adidas, sending 80087355 911 on a sticker-covered pager. Silhouetting breasts in charcoal at break, smoking bowls, air punching Tupac, playing Sega after school in their game basement in North Hollywood, junior high posters of Jim Morrison, a giant psychedelic pot leaf, and Bob Marley behind them. Their public school teacher mother upstairs, making them sandwiches. Dance girl, paint boy. They ignore me anyway. I’m in musical theater. We’re sort of like the blissed-out cheerleaders on campus. Dancing, leaping, talking loudly about Disneyland and Barbra Streisand and how many times we saw Phantom at the Dorothy Chandler when it came to town in ’91, fourth grade. The chandelier! Each year in April, during the week Disneyland parade scouts come for summer cast-member auditions, we take over campus with our costumes and over-the-top talking hands. We make warm-up noises and click our tongues in the locker hallway. We transition from being marginally annoying to across-campus hated. I’m not really like that, though. Not anymore. I’m more of a Bob Fosse Cabaret, Jesus Christ Superstar type of brooding musical theater gal these days, but I mean that in the depressed, burned-out way. If someone in musical theater could be, you know, depressed and burned out. That’s me. I’m sixteen. Sing to me my angel of music!
Anyway, right now there’s shouting, and the crowd grows as my classmates run toward us from King Hall. Kids running late have bottlenecked the giant vertical stairs. Everyone starts backing down so the paramedics can pass. I had asked what was going on sort of rhetorically, but now I’m looking for someone to legitimately tell me what’s up because this entire scene is very three-dimensional.
Mike grabs my arm and pulls me toward him. “Get over here, look,” he says pointing at a stretcher being carried down the stairs by two medics. I crane my neck and look down the many flights of stairs to where an ambulance flashes red. “It’s Claire Chang, she was cutting at her arm during class and Lisa told Mr. York and he called 911.”
But the Canada stuff doesn’t matter anyway because my grandpa’s family never talked about before California. They’d cut that part out like a cancer.
“Was she trying to kill herself?” I ask, knowing that she wasn’t and following the crowd now winding down the steps.
“No, I don’t think so.” The medics stop walking and then so do we. All present thump to a halt. Claire sits up on the gurney and we watch, like even though she plays clarinet and is in the music department, this is the greatest monologue of her life and we’ve been invited to her private theater. VIP. She turns her head slowly, Regan from The Exorcist, eyes focused and calm. Last year she was expelled for bringing a nitrous tank to the Monterey Jazz Festival and getting the ensemble high minutes before their performance. This past summer, angry with an ex-boyfriend, she drove her Miata to his family’s house while they were on vacation, stuck a hose in the mail slot and turned on the water full blast. Her sophomore year she was arrested and taken to juvenile hall for beating a boy over the head with a skateboard after he got her naked in a bedroom at a party then burned her clothes inside a paper bag. She’s always been cool to me. In fact, she’s one of the best girls I know. I look at her arm and the thin safety-pin scratches almost make me guffaw. She was bored, mindlessly dragging a lazy safety pin across her arm, chewing her pencil. Claire has just transformed into a witch, a warning to others who might embrace her path to freedom. I look up dutifully, in awe, in wonder.
When Junípero Serra and his long lineage of padres took off down the highway of old news and Pío Pico rode into town with his books and architecture, my great-great-great-grandfather stood in line to record our shit. We exist.
“Each and every one of you,” she begins, her blue-black hair crowned and hovering about her head, flames licking up toward the calm blue sky, “will remember me for the rest of your lives.”
In History later Principal Gaines walks in and we look up and across the room in unison. The entire day has been a little jumpy, shifty. “Mr. Sorenson,” he says, nodding, “I need to pull you away from class.”
“Is everything all right?” he asks, shutting his book and walking toward the door.
“Yes, everything’s fine, I need to ask you some questions about,” he clears his throat and leans in, “Claire Chang.” He whispers this but of course we can all hear him because he doesn’t actually care to be mindful of her privacy.
Mr. Gaines opens the door for Mr. Sorenson to follow and he does. In the hallway are two officers, hands on their belts. The door swings shut and…
“Did you hear what happened to Claire?” asks Chelo, pulling a bobby pin from between her teeth and parting my hair with one hand, looking for a place to shove it in my head as if trying to pick a point at random on a map.
“No,” I answer, sitting up.
“Hold still,” she says, stoned, still looking.
“Just pin the bangs,” I say.
“Oh, yeah.” She jams the pin in at my temple, certainly drawing blood.
“Jesus, Chelo,” I say, rubbing my cranium. “Cool it, vampire.”
“They took her away. Locked her up for good.”
“Shut up. They locked her up two years ago and she still didn’t get kicked out. She wins awards and shit.” “Don’t matter, and hell, they did more than kick home-girl out, she’s locked up in Pasadena at that girls’ center.”
“What girls’ center?” I ask, rolling my eyes and giving heavy ugh.
“Dude, you are not listening to me. She went crazy.They put her in the crazy house. The cathouse of death, yo. She’s like, you know, Frances Farmer now, or what- ever.”
“You are so wigged out.”
“Fine, don’t believe me, but watch it, the city’s investigating and they’re looking closely at everyone’s records, absences, shit like that.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Like hell I don’t. Renee works in the office. She heard them talking about it, Ms. Martínez and Mr. Gaines, in his office, this afternoon. They’re really tripped out about this thing. It doesn’t look good for the school. Their blue ribbons and shit.”
“Because Claire cut herself with a safety pin the police are investigating everyone?”
“Dude, you saw them pull Sorenson out of class. Plus, it was more than that. She carved a word—no, a phrase,” she says pointedly, smiling.
“Fuck. The. World.”
“No way. I saw her arm.”
“Did you? I mean, fuck the world? That’s pretty badass.
She’s badass. I’ll give her that.”
I might have seen it, I might not have. I’m not sure anymore. “So then what?”
“She’s been committed, probably cos she’s got priors. I think they’re gonna start kicking kids out or doing evaluations with doctors and shit. I mean, after that girl from choir tried to bleed herself in the prop room, and now Claire—”
“Stop,” I say, looking down at my hands.
“Come to class, that’s all I’m saying. Don’t get wiggy in the hallway.”I swallow hard and smile. I’m always wondering, is now the time to tell Chelo, or like my family do I just carry on like nothing happened?
I’m sitting on a tall white plastic laundry basket in Chelo’s closet, queenlike on a pile of dirty jeans and socks, blowing bud smoke out the window, swishing it around with my hand. The closet is hot and smoky like a high school gym locker, like in Carrie before she gets pelted with tampons. Before the pilot light goes on inside her brain. Your mom’s a witch, bitch!
“Put him in my backpack. He can breathe, it’s got holes in it.”
Chelo flips her fire-engine Manic Panic hair and leans in close, holding the small silver scissor sideways near my forehead, like a professional. “Bettie Page was a puta,” she says, changing the subject, and I love her.
“But she had good hair.” “And she gave good head.” “And found Jesus in the end.” “Your roots are showing.” “We’re writing a poem.”
She snips and small black pieces flutter into the basket, on top of a vintage Disneyland sweatshirt. The kind Lydia Lunch wore in the seventies. The kind we spend all day on Melrose looking for in old barrels of mildewed army jackets at the Melrose Punk Store, aka the Salvation Army. Near the Hassidic retirement home. Near the chained-up dog, near the skateboarder who sniffed glue from that lunch bag. Near the ghost of rock ’n’ roll. By the guts of some dumb bird. Some dumb pigeon. Who knows what.
“Your roots are bleached and black.”
“I need to buy more dye. I think I did ’em good. Look.” She holds out a small oval hand mirror. My face, my strange, crooked face. Even with all this other muck I still look like me. That’s all that counts I guess.
“It doesn’t even look like you. You look hot.”
Black bob, short black bangs, Cleopatra eyeliner, penciled eyebrows, and outlined brown lips. Fire-engine apple virginity-ripped red. All lacquered and stained.
“I look like a chola.”
“You are a chola, puta. A psychobilly chola.”
“A white girl in disguise. And what are you?”
“Half-white, puta. Don’t forget your familia.”
She throws hands and I push them away with a roll of the eyes. “I’m punk rock,” she says.
“Punk rockers don’t wear Gunne Sax, daisies in their hair, and combat boots.”
“Fine. I’m me.” She brings her hands to her chin and opens them like fans, like wings, as if she’s presenting herself to me, a human offering. A teenage girl head.
“Then I’m me, too.”
“If you say so, Mousie,” she says, referencing Mi Vida Loca, and winks at me.
“Shut up, stupid,” I say and we laugh.
My grandpa’s from Echo Park. He grew up on Carroll Avenue in a rundown apartment. They’d come over from Canada, the part that’s above Washington. They were English, Spanish. The last name changed somewhere along the way. Became Darling. Can’t tell you how exactly, but I’ve made up tons of stories. Spread them thick around town. It’s a thing to do when people ask and they always do. Truthfully? I think the Darlings were just ancient English boot makers or something. Which would make sense since my great-great-grandfather started the first denim factory in downtown at the turn of the century. But the Canada stuff doesn’t matter anyway because my grandpa’s family never talked about before California. They’d cut that part out like a cancer. We burned the tip like a shoelace, made a hard, gnarled new closure so the past wouldn’t unravel.
Here’s the skinny and you’ve got no choice to believe me, but I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t lie about it anyway because I think it’s cool. We’re in the first California social registry. With the Californios. When Junípero Serra and his long lineage of padres took off down the highway of old news and Pío Pico rode into town with his books and architecture, my great-great-great-grandfather stood in line to record our shit. We exist. I’ll tell you that.
Since then it’s been endless birthing of blond-haired, blue-eyed, devil-could-care Darling surfer boys riding their bikes down to the shore, along the LA river, telling girls that being a Darling was no big deal. Slipping bikini straps off golden shoulders, pressing the ladies into the leathered upholstery of unlocked VW backseats. Riding crooked on the way back home, the orange sun on their peeling backs, laughing about what poor dope had to wipe their scuzz off the inside of his windows.
Alta California, my girl. My woman. Queen. Open your legs and give birth to this dirty nonsense. This muck-rucking nest of black magic and flickering film reels. You unforgiving greedy plot of flowers. You empty desert. You cotton ball dipped in sand. My history lies with you. I’ll make hands to that. I’ll spray-paint my name across a slip of a boy to claim you. A stocky rod. A silver, shining, sad-eyed boy. Brown. White tube socks in Nike chanclas. Tiny pinpricks up and down his mocha arms. Yellow crust around the outside of his mouth. Thick tongue trying to moisten up. SGV scarred and scabbed blue into the skin. Olde English. Let’s take him. Let’s eat him alive, you and me.
Lydia pages from the Target in Alhambra. She wants us to pick her up, and Chelo’s down.
“I don’t know, man,” I say, lying back on her bed. The sheet with the constellation pattern on it that she uses as a curtain is pulled up and hooked on a nail. Bright afternoon sunlight cuts across our bodies like the slow lid of a coffin moving in to entomb us. “I can’t miss Arts.”
“We won’t miss Arts, okay? It’s like,” she holds up the pager, “two-thirty.”
“By the time we go all the way to Alhambra and drive all the way back to school it’ll be past four. I can’t miss anyway. I have a monologue due.”
“Well fuck,” she says, lying on her stomach and kicking her legs up, pulling the crust off a piece of cinnamon toast we’d made in the kitchen. “What about Lydia?”
“What about her? No one told her dumb ass to go suck cock in Vincent Lugo Park.”
“I could eat this shit all day.”
“I can’t miss. If I miss I’m on probation.”
“All right,” she says swinging her legs to the edge of the bed and sitting up “Lemme brush my teeth and we’ll go back.”
“Well, don’t you have class too?”
She shrugs her shoulders. “Just Figure Drawing. Nothing serious or nothing. Besides, you’re the dummy that misses academics all the time. If you paced yourself you could chill more, but each time you gotta sneeze, you skip out. This is your own fault.”
“What the hell is this right now? It doesn’t look like you’re in class either.”
“Yeah, but my ass isn’t on probation.”
“Exactly, come on!”
She gets up and disappears down the hallway toward the bathroom. I roll on my stomach and stare at the Drew Barrymore postcard taped to the wall. Drew’s hair is short and bleached and daisies are pinned in it. She’s licking her bottom lip and holding her titties. The butterfly tattoo above her happy trail looks soft and fleshy.
“Yummy,” Chelo says, licking her fingers and holding a new piece of cinnamon toast.
“Dude, you are majorly malfunctioned.”
“What?” she says, getting hard with me.
“Fuck you. I’m faded. Don’t get like that, I’ll pow pow you.” And she means it.
“Just hurry up, dude.”
“Hurry up, dude,” she says mimicking my voice. In her mouth I sound like a cartoon mouse on helium. “Like whatever, majorly mal, mal estúpida. I’ll drop you off in Sherman Oaks, dude, you can take the bus home.”
“Probation, Chelo. Come on.”
“Then you should have stayed at school, dummy.” “Please.”
“Fine! I said I would. Chill, crazy. I’m eating, okay? It’s not even three yet.”
“Because Claire cut herself with a safety pin the police are investigating everyone?”
I sigh and sit up, stuff CDs I brought over into my backpack.
“Ugh,” she says, exhaling. “You’re such an elevator operator. Come on.” She grabs her Star Wars lunch box and heads for the front door.
“Thank you, thank you.”
“Whatever. You have to tell Lydia why we ditched her ass, though.”
“You’re a burn, man.”
I’m going through Chelo’s tapes in the glove compartment looking for something decent to listen to.
“Put on the Lilliput,” she says reaching over my lap and fishing through the pile. I look down and the bottom pocket of her hoodie moves.
“What the fuck is that?” I shout, jumping back. She grabs the Lilliput and shoves it in the cassette player.
“It’s Pinwheel Loco. Chill.”
“You brought the fucking hamster?”
“Whatever. I’m dropping your whiny, bitch ass off and getting Lydia.”
“So you brought your hamster?”
“What is wrong with you today, man? Is it your moon times? Are you PMSing? Why do you even care?
“Well, can’t he die?”
“What?” she asks, getting all twisted up in the face.
“No. Why the fuck would he die? Do I look like Lennie from Mice and Estúpidos?”
“Well, what are you going to do with him?”
“Put him in my backpack. He can breathe, it’s got holes in it.”
I shake my head.
“Just get out when it’s time to get out. I’ll call you never.”
“Whatever, dude,” I say, leaning my head against the glass.
“Swear to god you’re a bitch.”
“Whatever, dude.” I look down at my nails and start to bite.
“Don’t spit that shit in here.”
I scrunch up my face and look at her. What? I ask without words. “You’ve got fucking Taco Bell wrappers on the floor.”
“Yeah, but those are nails. Swallow that shit or roll down the window.”
“I can’t believe you even eat that crap.”
“I like the cinnamon twists, bitch,” she hisses.
“That’s a taco wrapper, grosso.”
“Man, why you gotta be such a bummer bitch about everything, your way or the highway, right? Next time don’t even ditch with me. I’m tired of chauffeuring your ass all over LA. Enjoy your two-hour bus ride home.”
We pull into F lot. Chelo grabs the hand brake and the whole thing dies in a lurch. I pull the seat back and grab my stuff. We flip each other off and I slam the door. Head for the long stairway toward campus and look back, watch her white ’68 Super Beetle zoom and sputter toward Val- ley Boulevard. Whatever, man. Whatever by so much. Hope your fucking hamster dies.
Nikki Darling is the author of the novel Fade Into You (excerpted above). Her music criticism and essays appear regularly in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, the LA Review of Books, and The Believer. She is a visual and performance artist, and has exhibited her work at Five Car Garage, Human Resources, and Public Fiction. She lives in Los Angeles and is affiliated with the Creative Writing/Literature PhD program at the University of Southern California.