It was not the paper doll cut out, but Exene’s actual mouth that Lia imagined, twisted into a snarl, blaming, “It’s you Lia! It’s all your fault what happened to Ryan!” Because Lia’s mother had woken her to say Ryan never made it home the previous night. Fraught with worry, Mrs. Green had already phoned the police, and instantly Lia’s first thought was that Ryan must be dead.
Right away Lia found the only way to deal with the worst possible scenario was to confront it head on, to embrace it as though she were cradling in her arms a soft kitten. Lia’s rendition of the death of her very best friend was not especially morbid, or as gruesomely detailed as it might have been. It was the quixotic rendering of a burgeoning poetess.
At the very least, Ryan deserved the grandeur of theatre, so that Lia envisioned the most enchanted garden; a neat little knoll of green, green grass nestled beneath an elegant magnolia tree in full bloom. That graceful magnolia would weep its ripe, inflorescent tears down onto a grand mausoleum. Ryan’s body would lay inside, near the hollow mouth of her final abode; a structure built of the finest marble, festooned with chiseled hearts, and inside those hearts would be inscribed eternal valentines proclaiming, “Ryan we love you,” and “Forever in our hearts,” all with floating cupids, their arrows shooting heavenward. Ryan’s body would lay cold, her skin luminous, enlivened by the candent glow of four flaming torches, bathing her heart shaped face in a delicate nimbus of pale yellow light; her body covered by a white linen sheet, and nestled against the slope of her shoulders and the tapering silhouette of her waist and legs would be flowers¾orchids and white roses, failing in all their beauty to compare to Ryan’s infinitely ravishing, cold, dead grace.
Lia’s short revelry was disturbed by her mother’s persistence¾Mrs. Payne stood in the doorway of Lia’s bedroom with a hand on her hip, “Baby, you’ve got to get up. Don’t be scared now. The police just want to talk to you about what you and Ryan did last night.”
of tiny shoes
Right before her disappearing act, Ryan had finally blossomed. With the help of ninety-nine cents worth of drug store peroxide she had transformed from a brunette, with a head full of muted brown hair, to a blonde, possessed of the sort of ravishing, buxom beauty of almost another era¾for there was something very film noir, a dollop of some essence teetering towards the burlesque about her¾like a young Monroe. Unfortunately for Ryan, her particular look did not draw a parallel to a Marilyn of fifteen or sixteen, but could literally be likened to the physique of a young Monroe; meaning that Ryan was an approximate, though more tender prototype, of Ms. Monroe’s during the years of her decline at middle age, when her figure had stretched beyond the voluptuous to a form slightly more grotesque.
This strange beauty of Ryan’s, her husky voice, her height (from the ages of eleven to thirteen she had shot from 5’3 to 5’9) her quaking limbs, large hands and heaving bust, gave her a grand and dramatic beauty¾wholly unsuitable for a girl in a southern California middle school. The young boys her own age were singularly intrigued yet frightened and repulsed by the sight of her, striding down the hallways at school all Viking and grandiose, while older men simply couldn’t get enough of her. The sole arrow that pointed to any girlish charm was in her face: young, heart shaped, pale and baby plump; the mien of some milk maid of a nineteenth century painting.
Ryan set everyone at ease with her affable, babysitter charm. Yet, beneath her sunny, unblemished exterior there brewed an intensity, a profound impatience with the purgatory of adolescence. Striding around the Baxter family master bedroom, a rogue babysitter in a pair of Mrs. Baxter’s pumps, the mistress’s black negligee pulled tight over her ample body, Ryan laughed and tossed her head back, and rolled about the bed in a fit of giggles. Lia stood by, remonstrating with her like a stern parent, “Ryan stop it! The Baxter’s will be home any minute and you’ll wake the kids.”
Lia and Ryan’s inseparability had been formed of near necessity, as grand things sometimes are. Ryan who at eleven had been menstruating and wearing bras before every other girl in her class, was something of an outcast. Lia, small and wide eyed, and pretty to everyone except herself, was one of about only five black kids in the entire middle and high school combined. Both were somewhat withdrawn, and more in love with the dreams floating inside their heads than social obligations that demanded perfectly blow dried hair.
sometimes even Jimi Hendrix
was the odd manout
Coronado, adrift in the midst of San Diego Bay; that lone puzzle piece tucked beneath the sofa cushion that becomes a small puzzle unto itself.
Lia was the only dollop of chocolate in a row of blondes and a token brunette on the beach, the afternoon sun hanging low above the lazy, slow moving waves. She squirmed in her bikini when Megan Hamilton declared, “I’m practically nigger on my belly from laying out all day.” Terror ripped through Lia’s small frame, preempting anger, quivering from her small feet and shooting straight to her brain like a bullet. It was the fear of the social isolation she’d face if she stood up and stomped Megan in the face like she wanted. Instead, she slyly kicked a small mound of sand onto the end corner of Megan’s towel.
The other girls yawned with insouciance, stretching their tawny limbs and wondering what to eat for lunch. Taking a deep breath, Lia tried to calm herself. They were her friends, they liked her. Yet, she was expected to consume the racist epithets that glided off Megan’s sassy tongue in the same way that the waves felt themselves powerless to keep from tumbling towards the shore. Alternately, she could simply choose not to have any friends at all. What did it matter? Before long she’d find herself lying on her towel all alone while the others frolicked in the ocean, because getting her permed hair wet at the beach was a whole other thing.
She had a love hate relationship with Different Strokes. She watched it to take comfort in the sight of other black faces like hers, plus the older boy Willis was pretty cute. She detested though, the fawning, eager condescension of Mr. Drummond and his perky daughter Kimberly, and most of all she hated the way the little boy Arnold―whose part was played by an actor who in real life was older than she was―bugged his eyes out, pursed his lips and said, “Whatcha talking’ bout Willis?” on every single episode. She did not know Steppin Fetchit, she was only vaguely familiar with Amos and Andy—she only knew she hated when the little boy started in with his entertaining little darky routine.
Things got better when Janet Jackson came on the show to play the girlfriend of the cute boy Willis, because at least she was pretty and wore her hair cute, and wasn’t being abused or crying all the time like when she played Penny on Good Times.
O de Boll Weevil am a little black bug/
Come from Mexico day say/Come all de way to Texas/
Just a lookin’ foh a place to stay/
Just a-lookin’ foh a home, I just a-lookin’ foh a home…
- de ballit of de boll weevil
“Let’s go back for a moment to this Neil. You say he lives in Imperial Beach?” Lia had not imagined that the police made house calls. She’d envisioned a more chilling scene. She imagined being escorted into a sparse chamber with a metal table and chairs to be questioned for hours under a harsh light.
Propped between her parents on the sofa, she felt like a child. The officer’s skin was an odd combination of beige and orange tones from excessive parlor tanning. In his early forties, his flesh was spread generously over his massive frame. All the while, as he sat on the sofa opposite the Payne family, Lia eyes kept drifting to his lavishly dense fingers. It seemed to her that they were fingers suffering from miss-use. Hands not meant for pulling pistol triggers or handcuffing illegal aliens; but thick, soft tools, better suited to more tactile pursuits, like kneading dough or chiseling the alphabet onto baby’s blocks.
For Lia, nothing the police officer said could redeem the situation from its patent absurdity. A meeting taken at the police station would have made the dilemma seem more real. As it was, Lia could only fume quietly, furious with Ryan for leaving her holding the bag—for getting her into trouble while she suddenly slipped behind a curtain of mystery. Perhaps it was normal for a girl, not yet fifteen, to approach the situation with a certain, stubborn obtuseness—for in the sage retrospect of a few hours, Lia had come to realize the grim fears she’d felt after initially being told about Ryan were nothing but hyperbole, paranoia.
Hadn’t there been a kidnapping? A small child spirited away just the previous summer from the park just blocks away? No. Lia shook the thought from her head. It was totally different with little kids. Who would try and make off with Ryan? Ryan, who was mistaken in restaurants and shopping malls for a grown woman, (department store clerks often asked if she wanted to establish a line of credit).
Lia hadn’t thought either, that police officers like secretaries, scribbled notes onto little blocks of paper. He looked absurd, perched on the edge of the sofa, his thighs nearly bursting like the Incredible Hulk’s through the close weft of his beige trousers.
“So, this Neil, you ever been over to his place, with Ryan?”
“No.” Lia shook her head resolutely. The penetration of her parent’s eyes, both sets upon her, was both subtle and intense, so that their collective, boring gaze swelled to a thin murmur¾their unrelenting stares actually made a sound, like the low, throaty growl of some forest dwelling rodent.
“You sure now?” The police officer gently nudged her towards a confession. Lacking even the slightest measure of Ryan’s defiance, Lia easily capitulated.
“Well, now that I think of it, I might have been there for a little while, but only one time for sure.”
Lia’s mother gasped, and looked sharply at the officer. “You mean this man had these girls over to his house? Good Lord. Officer, how old did you say he was?”
Lia wished she could stuff a wad of paper towels inside her mother’s throat. The officer had already said Neil was twenty-one. Yet, turning to face Lia’s father Greg, Dorothea Payne was still incredulous. “I can’t believe anyone so bold. A grown man keeping company with girls just out of Middle School!”
Lia writhed in her spot, her mother’s words like knives, stabbing her repeatedly. By attacking Neil, her mother indirectly made her feel filthy. They’d only watched Starsky and Hutch and a re-run of Dallas and eaten tacos. That was all. Besides, he was Ryan’s boyfriend, not hers.
“Umm,” the police officer paused to mull over this fact.
“Where did you, or Ryan, say you met this fellow, Neil?”
“I didn’t meet him anywhere. Ryan did!” Lia blurted her words at the officer angrily. She could feel the penetration of her mother’s eyes, glaring with the suggestion that Lia change her tone. She couldn’t win. At once her mother suspected the worse, and yet she had to speak respectfully as the officer insinuated things with his probing questions.
“Okay Lia, you’re doing great. I’ve just got one more question. This may be a little uncomfortable for you, but it’s important.”
Here, the officer paused to moisten his lips with a rapid flick of his tongue. Lia couldn’t be certain of what the officer would ask next, but she had an idea, and thus, could feel herself cringing as he began to speak.
“Did Neil ever touch you, or speak to you in a sexual way? Did he ever try to coax you into any sort of sexual act, either he or any of his friends?”
This time, it may have been Lia who gasped audibly, or at least she thought she had. Never had she been so humiliated. Her parents at either side staring silently, impatiently awaiting her answer.
“No! Never!” This time, she felt her impertinent tone completely justified, and didn’t care whether her mother liked it or not. Lia refused to lift her gaze to entertain her mother’s possible glare, or worse yet, an irritating look of relief spread across her face.
“You sure now? There’s nothing to be embarrassed about if he tried anything. It wouldn’t be your fault...” With the officer adding to her humiliation with every syllable he uttered, Lia spoke no words, but only responded with a firm look that said she had nothing more to offer on the subject.
“All righty.” The officer stood on his feet in a surprisingly agile motion. “With these types of situations, the first week or so is crucial. I hate to be the one to sound grim, but beyond that, it might be weeks or months before we ever figure out what’s happened. Anyway, here’s my card,” the officer bent to look Lia in the eye and offer her a plastic smile, “please give me a call if you think of any new information that might help us locate your friend, okay?”
Lia, still sitting on the couch, still shaken by the officer’s questions, and angry that Ryan had abandoned her, felt winded, as though someone had taken a fist to her stomach. She watched though, as her father thanked the officer for his time, and extended his large brown hand for a handshake. It seemed the officer, who had been quite patient and friendly in questioning her, grasped her father’s hand with reluctance.
At the open front door, the officer halted, and as he turned towards Greg Payne, Lia thought sure that his once open and friendly face had become clouded with an intense look, of fear or malevolence perhaps, and she couldn’t be certain if he was just shielding his eyes from a stream of sunlight angling through the door or what, because for some reason his expression had changed, his eyes narrowed down to thin slots where one might fit a coin.
“So, you folks own or rent?” The officer blocked the doorway, unwilling to move until his question was answered.
“Beg pardon?” Lia could see that her father was surprised by the officer’s question, and that his jaw hardened then, taking on the tell-tale clench that suggested his irritation.
“Just curious, how long you folks have been here.”
“About two years now.” Lia noted that her father strained to keep his upbeat tone.
“Two years, eh. How long do you plan to stay?”
Lia couldn’t understand what was happening¾the faint shifts in the atmosphere in the Payne living room were real, yet surreal at the same time. She was surprised that the same officer now sounded rude, like one of those surfers who came to class stoned without as much as a notebook and were quick to smart off to the teacher.
“Well, I don’t know. I’d say we’re pretty happy, pretty well settled right now.” Lia noticed that her father spoke loudly, in a formal tone. It was the voice he reserved for important telephone calls, and tactful quarrels with restaurant managers when there was some discrepancy with the bill.
To Greg Payne’s reply, the officer only snorted with open incredulity, as he carried his hulking frame down the porch steps.
Lia worried about the possibility of further proceedings, if in time she’d be asked to testify under oath, or take a lie detector’s test. She felt burdened by the woe of unspoken truths, for when asked about Neil’s friends, she’d purposefully neglected to mention the sailor Keith, a man (had he been twenty-one, or twenty-two, she couldn’t remember?) whom she’d kissed, and who she wished was available to spirit her away just as Neil had taken off in his Camaro with Ryan on so many balmy summer nights.
It seemed to Lia that if they’d only stop wasting time with questioning and talk, they’d find Ryan: watching television at the condo at the Cays with Neil, their faces fixed in expressions of wry defiance; or sprawled out together on those white patio chairs next to the pool, lulled to sleep by the heat of the afternoon sun.