“who can take tomorrow, dip it in a dream?
satisfy the sorrow and collect up all the cream,
the candy man can, oh the candy man can..”
– Sammy Davis Jr.
Coming into Coronado over the Bay Bridge Ryan and Neil felt dazed, for only then could they perceive the magnitude of their effrontery against Ryan’s parents, the authorities, her friends¾even Cindy and little Craig. Ryan was too bewildered, too lost to even realize she was returning on the very day she and Lia had marked on their calendars two months before; the day X was set to play over in San Diego.
In the final mile before Ryan’s house, Neil nudged the car forward at the pace of a hearse leading a funeral procession, and indeed they were dead, hovering as they were like gloomy spirits over the corpses of their mortal passions.
Having abandoned their initial plans for an adolescent wedding, the reason for their prodigal return was not because they’d been too consumed with one another to abandon some Tijuana conjugal bed, but because Neil had convinced Ryan to stay on with him in Galveston until his father returned and then after that, hedging fresh bets, Neil insisted she stay on in seclusion with him so that he could spend some time with his dad before heading back to Cali and dealing with the fallout of having stolen away with her in the first place.
As they moved along the curves of the towering bridge, Ryan and Neil paid the price for the ruse they created, for once trapped inside a dungeon of lies, they had no idea how to plot their escape; to stand in the sunshine of truth without getting burned.
With a new father who was sometimes drunk and sometimes sober, and always calm and placid in his demeanor, Neil found himself a sugar substitute and was unable to reciprocate Ryan’s surplus devotion. Initially, she’d made a concerted effort to understudy her future role as Mrs. Jimenez, helping Neil’s grandmother chop vegetables and give her Pomeranian Millie a bath in the kitchen sink. But inevitably, no matter how hard she tried, she faced moments of panic. Draping her arms over Neil’s shoulders, she mewed.
“Are we ever getting married? I’m missing a lot of school, you know. What if I get held back next year? I don’t want to graduate when I’m like, twenty.”
From the very start, Neil’s grandmother had been suspicious.
“She looks pretty young, shouldn’t she be in school?”
“Naw, she’s home schooled. Her parent’s are total hippies. They spend half the day high on weed. Besides, her parents are glad she’s making the trip; they believe in the educational benefit of travel.”
Grandmother considered Neil with an arch expression, yet she decided to go easy on this new grandson with whom she had only just become acquainted, because she was sympathetic to his obvious frailties. Sagacious with the wisdom of years, what harm would a few days of missed lessons do Ryan in the long run, she reasoned? She felt for these modern kids, whose parents were almost just as adolescent as they were. Smoking pot at home and permitting all sorts of leniencies. If anything, grandmother liked the idea of keeping the kids on with her for awhile¾perhaps she could set some sort of straightening rod against Neil’s crooked spine, all while keeping him close beneath the shelter of her protective wing.
When grandmother realized that Neil was too captivated by his drunken father to heed her subtle directives, and the days had begun to drag on and turn into weeks, she began to nudge the kids¾two amnesiac homing pigeons who’d seemingly lost their way¾back in the direction of home. “I think I’ll move you kids into the house out back.”
The “house out back” was a small shed in the yard behind the main house where Neil’s father sometimes slept. Cleverly, grandmother knew the kids wouldn’t last long cramped into that little house like chickens too constricted to peck their way around a coop.
In the modest quarters of the backyard shed, Ryan became the aberration that Lia had seen perched on the edge of her bed at dawn. In vacant daylight, Ryan stretched her outsize frame on the sleeping bag Neil’s grandmother had put down on the floor for her. Listless as a mermaid, Ryan plucked her brows into fine arches, stained her lips with cherry gloss, and creamed her cuticles for hours on end.
Neil swooned daily¾full to bursting with feelings that ranged from the serendipity of new love, to a simmering aversion for his father. He was soothed by the lullaby of the stories his father told him of his days as a young man.
“I had moves man. You should have seen me on the dance floor. More epic than James Brown….I’m talking smooth. Your grandma used to have to take the phone off the hook to get any sleep, so many girls were calling.” Yet, Neil was equally repulsed by the sound of his slurred speech and retching out on the lawn each morning.
All consumed as he was by the fresh fervor of love, for Neil too, Ryan became an ethereal flesh ghost who was no longer able to penetrate his desperate obsession with the inscrutable man who was his father. Each night, fighting the confines of irrelevancy, Ryan twirled the frayed ends of her hair around a curling iron and tried to look hopeful as she offered to fetch the men a snack.
A glimpse of herself in the glass is what brought Ryan to a reckoning. Preening in a handheld mirror had failed to capture the entire picture; like the big patches of brown that had mushroomed around her scalp, the dark circles beneath her eyes that made her look like she had her mother’s face, and her fat¾in the weeks since they’d been away the fat from her face had retreated, making her, compared to her old self, appear gaunt and hollow cheeked, as though she were ill.
Seeing herself like this, Ryan realized that her Jane Mansfield curves were being ironed straight, and that her dimples had not enough fat in which to poke themselves. She barely recognized herself. She was loosing sight of her identity, and she suddenly felt terrible guilt for going ahead with life behind her parents’ back. Forced to confront the purposeful betrayal that she and Neil had concocted, all of a sudden it seemed absurd that she had deliberately lied, and that her family and Lia didn’t know where she was, and suddenly she was so guilty she felt mean inside, as though her heart had been moved, not by love, but by some sort of depraved, aimless narcissism. She began to weep mournfully and tried to pack her things through bleary eyes, all while cursing Baudelaire beneath her breath.
It just so happened that Grandmother’s fury coincided with Ryan’s tears, because she came out to the little spare house then, rapping at the door with aged knuckles. Having made a connection¾together with Ryan’s parents, Neil’s mother finally suspected that Neil had done the unthinkable; that he’d actually sought out the father who he’d always petulantly pretended to hate—and together the two mothers had huddled together with nothing but tears, hope, prayer, and bingo! Grandmother confirmed that they had indeed been partaking of her handmade tamales and suspicious glances for more than two weeks.
“You lied to me Neil!” Spittle flew from the corners of grandmother’s mouth she was so enraged. “You told me her parents knew where she was. Do you realize her mother is crazy with worry? You have to take her home right now, or else the police will come and I don’t want trouble.”
Caught red handed in stealth possession of a jilted teenage bride, Neil began to stammer. Grandmother didn’t understand his blue print. How he had needed Ryan to guide him to her door, that without her their lives might have passed like two stars shooting in opposite directions in a dark sky.
“It’s not what you think. We were gonna tell you¾everybody. We just needed some time. We were gonna get married. Or maybe we’d wait, get our own place here and Ryan would start school again, and I’d sign on as her legal guardian.”
As Neil flooded his grandmother’s ears with his rambling explanation, he realized that he in fact had had no plan, only a fatal thirst that would have killed him had it not been sated in time.
Grandmother only shook her head, her eyes wet with tears. “For years you were lost to us Neily, we never had a chance to know you. I know what it is to survive each day, a misplaced child haunting your heart. Why didn’t you just tell us your problems so we could help you? We love you Neily. You never have to lie to us.”
For so long, family for Neil had consisted of two half sisters and a mom. He never could have anticipated the weight, the responsibilities that came with the unconditional love rushing from the heart of these kindred strangers. On hearing grandmother’s scolding reprimand and soothing reassurances both, Neil only wanted to fall to his knees and bury his head in her lap, to weep at the loss of the days and hours that made her measure of love more foreign to him than the rapid Spanish she wove with her sharp yet honeyed tongue, and which he could not understand.
As Neil guided the Camaro back through the space he and Ryan had traversed only weeks before, oblivious to the endless pool of desert that lay vast and matter of fact on either side of the roadway, he felt the heaviness of shame bend his shoulders. Before the eyes of a grandmother he had only freshly grown to love, and a father teetering indecisively between drunkenness and sobriety, all Neil could see was his own failure.
Crowning Ryan with the scepter of his shame and devastation, he berated her for the duration of the trip.
“I knew it. Damn, I just knew it!” Neil slammed his open palm against the steering wheel until it stung. “I should have sent you home after the first week. All you did was get in the way; on your butt painting your nails and screwing around with sticky lip gloss. I didn’t need you to stay. I could have dealt with all this on my own.”
Ryan hadn’t the strength to broker a defense, but only toppled down, imploding in a mess unto herself. She sobbed behind a Kleenex and dabbed at her eyes, knowing it was all wrong¾and that was and had always been the point¾to flaunt her rebellion in the face of everyone too scared to step outside the pre-drafted boundaries of right and wrong; to live a real life adventure beyond the confines of popularity rules that automatically counted her among the rejects.
Tears cut at Neil’s eyes as he damned her over and over again, and Ryan was utterly stunned by the revelation that every notion she’d ever had of love, in reality, was not at all what she had thought.
Palms smeared bloody
After her scolding at the hands of the young, beige jacketed man, Lia stooped unto a curb, too fearful to move forward or retrace her steps. She decided she would simply stay put until death or daylight arrived to claim her.
A police car pulled up alongside her and two cops asked why she was out alone so late at night. It was five a.m. and dawn was on the horizon. They coaxed her inside the patrol car, amused by her wariness of them, obviously fearful that they might hurt her. Before crossing back over the bridge to Coronado, where they would safely deposit her home, the two cops¾one white, one black, both middle aged, their tummies burdened by the girth of fast food diets¾doted on her like two uncles. After stopping at some twenty four hour donut place they’d come out carrying a cup of hot chocolate for her, and a cake donut dusted with powdered sugar, which the white cop thrust at her through the open car window.
Lia sipped the cocoa timidly, not trusting that it was not laced with some drug. With the same reluctance she took a small bite of donut. Sugar caused a wave of nausea to rush though her system. The dinner her mother had forced her to eat so many hours before still cowered inside her. Now, it came rushing to the fore. Releasing fear, exhaustion, anger; vomit splattered all along the back seat of the patrol car as the officers pulled up to the pewter colored house on Palm Avenue in Coronado. Too ashamed to apologize, Lia wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, ducked quietly out of the car and scampered inside.
In her night of epic wandering Lia had been forgetful of all else but love, Vainly do I try to find the wound, so that she didn’t even realize that she’d staged a Ryanesque re-enactment of unbearable worry for her parents.
The phone rang at the Payne home at 2AM.
“Dear God, no!” Dorothea shrieked as she and her husband lay in bed wide awake, their eyes flung towards the ceiling in darkness¾two fresh cadavers, not yet cold inside their coffins, waiting for the reality of death to sink in.
“Calm down.” Greg Payne scolded. “It’s probably Lia calling for a ride.”
Greg picked up the phone after just one ring. Listening intently, he drew in a quick breath. Mrs. Payne sat bolt upright, a marionette tugged by a string at the top of her head. She saw worry on her husband’s face. She could tell it wasn’t Lia calling. Dorothea watched, feeling helpless as the corners of her husband’s mouth collapsed into a frown.
“My God, when?” My God, he kept saying. Suddenly, tears wet his eyes. Dorothea gasped.
“Just a moment please.” Greg Payne placed his hand over the receiver and spoke to his wife. Shaking his head, he told her, “It’s not what you think. It’s Karen. Ryan. They’ve found her. She’s okay.”
Mrs. Payne sighed deeply. Greg put down the phone. “Thank God. Jesus. What a relief. She’s home safe. Thank God that’s over with.”
The Payne’s spent little time speculating on what had happened. Who’d abducted Ryan? Where he’d taken her? Or was it willful. Had all along Ryan been just another teenage runaway? Karen Green hadn’t offered many details and Greg Payne knew it wasn’t the time to ask. Neither had he wanted to spoil Karen Green’s moment of triumph by mentioning that now, their daughter (perennially good, trustworthy, a keeper of promises and rules) was officially late by four hours. Besides, how could four hours compare to four weeks of blind ignorance about a daughter¾not knowing if she were alive or dead?
Relieved though they were about Ryan, the Payne’s felt themselves lurching into yet another unknowable spate of terror, a rollercoaster ride not programmed to stop. It was Dorothea Payne who’d finally thrown back the bed sheet and marched over to the phone, dialing the San Diego police in a fury.
“What are you doing?” Greg Payne had bellowed. Relishing the comfort of fatalism, he preferred to wait, unwilling to entertain the notion that anything untoward could have happened.
“Calling the police, in San Diego. To hell with these idiots in Coronado.”
Within forty minutes of Mrs. Payne’s phone call, the police found Lia. In one night both girls were returned (though no one would ever know that for six hours Lia had roamed the streets of San Diego on a love quest). As soon as she came in the house, Lia was greeted by the faces of her parents, still stricken with worry and also relief, because finally the entire ordeal was over. They could go back to being themselves; regular parents, no longer tiptoeing around their daughter as though she might break.
It would be years before Lia could actually laugh at the fact that Ryan had upstaged her¾pulling up in front of her parents home in Neil Jimenez’s car, leaping from the passenger seat at one a.m. and racing across the lawn to beat on her parent’s front door with her fists, her hair hanging down her back tangled, brown and greasy.
When she did emerge, tumbling out the Camaro that Saturday, (having missed X by only a few hours) it never was clear to anyone outside the immediate Green family whether Ryan had left of her own accord; a saucy child bride, hair whipping around her face from the open car window, while Neil gunned the engine in a race to get to Mexico—or if she’d been coerced and taken against her will. Some members of the community noted however, that a Sheriff’s car sat parked outside the Green home for at least an hour that night, and that the Sheriff and a Deputy were spotted entering and retreating from the house.
Though Neil was legally an adult and Ryan still a minor child, ultimately he was only charged with misdemeanor child endangerment. He did not contest the charges, but willfully turned himself in to the Coronado police. He was sentenced to three months of house arrest; and through it all, Lia marveled, enviously imagining how terrific it must have been.
an Ophelia resuscitated,
Two weeks after she’d come back to Coronado, Lia caught a glimpse of Ryan through the glass of Karen Green’s car window in the parking lot of the Safeway. Ryan had seemed more dead then, through that window, than Lia could ever have imagined. Not her face, but a face that looked very much like hers—only paler, narrower and terribly frightened, had hovered behind the window of that car.
With Ryan’s newfound celebrity, Lia was almost thrilled at having spotted her. Once her closest confidant, Ryan had retreated behind a shroud of tight security like an impossibly inaccessible superstar. Yet, for a fleeting instant, she had been almost close enough to touch.
Ryan had lost weight. She no longer appeared older―a knowing Mamie Van Doren with acne―but looked almost normal, like a regular teenage girl. The gossip around school was that her parents had bought her a breast reduction to help her recover from the whole ordeal, which she refused to ever discuss. Ryan’s fair, white skin looked baby powder pale, and she’d had a hair cut, and she seemed, with her sick, frail looking demeanor, more beautiful than ever before—all as though she’d only just returned from a spa, or an adolescent fat farm, and not the unpredictable whimsy of Neil Jimenez’s wavering heart.
Beyond the Valley
of the Dolls
Ryan had seen Lia in the parking lot of the Safeway, and had longed to get out the car and call, “Hey Lia, wait up,” but shame and fear had kept her motionless behind the safety of tinted glass.
Having been born with the preternatural look of a woman in disgrace had been punitive enough, so that Ryan never imagined that Neil would have outwitted her or done her a bad turn, or that her lark would have ended so disastrously. Her plan of returning to Coronado, brazen and triumphant, to show them all―Megan Hamilton, Lia, Elizabeth Cole―what real love really looked like, had been one appalling fiasco. Chastened by the error of her ways, Ryan dressed modestly, lightened her makeup, and spent most of her time indoors, pining away for a normal boy her own age, and remembering wistfully her days, now seemingly an era long past, with Lia.
The only time Lia seemed accessible again, as though Ryan might actually call to say ‘hi,’ or plan a trip into the city, was at nighttime. In dreams Lia floated over head, a gingerbread angel, dusting Ryan all over with talc and a whisper of mild words, “Slow down Ryan, time moves in circles.” In these sequences, Ryan became the serene cadaver Lia had imagined when she’d first learned the news of her disappearance, so that Ryan looked down on herself in that cold, stony and quixotic mausoleum, freshly reliving the anguish of her family and friends over and over again, until she was powerless to do anything but clutch her pillow and sob grand, choking sobs.
Somehow, though it was never spoken aloud, Ryan’s feelings of shame (at both herself, and her brother for what he had done to Lia) and Lia’s fool-hardy, and mawkish devotion had been too great an embarrassment for either of them to live down.
The film reel is nearing its end. There are just a few frames of grainy, black and white footage left, and it appears Exene is making her final appearance as Ryan, and that Ryan in turn is impersonating Exene.
In a spacious loft area on the top floor of some building in San Diego, Exene moves gracefully in soft light. Her trademark scowl erased, her face is calm, possibly serene. She wears an old fashioned navy dress with white polka dots and a sailor collar, and black and white saddle shoes with little white socks.
Lia has carefully torn out the sheets of the journal she never managed to present, and has pasted each page along the wall of that wide, pristine space. Exene tours the room like a society lady at a gallery, carefully taking in the work. Lia observes her with mean eyes and a sulking mouth; prepared for harsh words, ready to jump to her own defense.
Exene utters no word, but only offers a delicate nod every so often, that could mean approval. This sets Lia into a fury, so that she rushes about the room, tearing down the pictures and poems, shredding them in her hands.
Thanks for the book. I’ve never heard of Maya Angelou
before but I will give it a try.
The girls were too romantic to be cut and dry at the demise of their friendship. In an unclaimed locker in a quiet corridor of the high school, one of them—which one, what matter? Even in the face of the fatality their bond, the girls remained fused together, so that it was still impossible at times for them to recall who had done what—had started a shrine. One of the girls had pasted the tiny paper doll cutout of Exene, which captured her usual, smoldering defiance¾atop a portion of painted gilt cardboard and tacked it up on the back wall of the locker.
For a time the locker became a timeless portal, a safe place for the girls to have a meeting of minds. One of the two of them might leave a poem, a bottle of some new nail polish, or the name of a new band—though how could anything be better, absurd the very notion, than X?
In the neutral zone of the abandoned locker, Ryan became what she’d never been before; a normal teenage girl, de-womanized, girlish, coy. In the era B.N. (before Neil) it was as though she’d been ten, suddenly thirteen, then careering madly towards forty¾a buxom, worldly dame; but only in appearance, never inside herself. Never mind about moments of precocious willfulness when she pantomimed adulthood¾lacy drawers, pilfered cigarettes and trash books don’t make anyone grown. Yet here, in a space that would begin as a shrine to Exene and become something else entirely, Ryan could show her face, begin to remove the stain of her experience with Neil, and be tender still.
Ryan found a place where she could be sweet to her former best friend, without the complications of rivalry, jealousy, and the uneven pacing of their former preoccupations; the hunger of a wayward woman-child juxtaposed against the fears of a girl still held fast inside the arms of innocence.
The girls mostly liked to leave sweet, feminine things for one another, as though they still spent lazy afternoons sprawled on Ryan’s bed, reading their horoscopes and giving one another manicures.
Hi Lia, here’s a recipe for a homemade facial made with cucumber and honey.
Above the notes, tattered copies of Cosmo, or books by authors like Angelou or Capote that Lia had freshly discovered, Exene stared out at them, her face framed by the hastily fashioned gilt frame¾yet she was somehow diminished, as the role she’d played in their lives had already begun to wane. Exene, their once and forever thrall, hovered inside the shrine, festooned with dried flowers, locks of hair tied with ribbons (Ryan had carefully wound one thin, pale blue ribbon around a lock of Neil’s black hair, as both a sobering note of caution and something of a joke) half burned candles and photos of Ryan and Lia¾when being together had been the easiest, most natural thing in the world.
In the weeks following Ryan’s return, the girls tracked their history with an increasing fervor, an indication that indeed there was no turning back, no chance of reconciling their friendship. It was as though they feared they might forget their most cherished memories if they failed to record them with care. Thus, they even went as far as to put up photos of themselves in the third and fourth grade, before they’d ever known one another, to mark like a height chart the increasingly steep and challenging incline from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to that most frightening, obscure thing they were fast approaching.
In the end, Ryan was the last to write.
Dear Lia, I made you a new paper doll of Ronnie Spector, just for fun... Didn’t the one you had before end up falling apart or something? I found the photo in Rolling Stone. I thought you did your eye makeup kind of like this the last time we went to see X play. Whenever I see a picture of her, I think of you. Anyway, I met this new guy, his name is Kyle. Can’t write anything more now, gotta get ready for my date!
Lia palmed the photo of Ronnie Spector, a feeling of taut, bemused anger swelling inside her as she regarded it. Sure, she liked Ronnie Spector all right—she loved her strong, timeless, bad girl voice. And there was something about her heavy make up and elaborate hair dressing that suggested the dreamy, captivating glamour of another era. Beyond that, Lia was angry, finally recognizing the shape of things so long after the fact. All along Lia had been the one to really take X seriously; to honor Exene and the band with her own fledgling talents. Whereas Ryan had easily cast it all aside, and for what; the temporal warmth of Neil’s seductive, yet fleeting affections. Now, here was Ryan, telling her, indirectly, that Ronnie Spector was a more appropriate muse for her; the star black girl out of a total of three in all of Coronado High.
In an instant, everything came back to Lia in a wash of putrid green and ocherish yellow―searing memories burning at her skin like an acid; from the abuse she’d suffered at the hand of Jeff Green, to the infuriating, nasal tone of the beige jacketed man and the cruel words he’d hollered at her in the middle of the street; even her tolerance of Ryan, and of herself; her blind, mauling devotion and what it had lead her to¾the arms of Chuck in a filthy apartment building she might never have entered, for it was just such a filthy tenement, pitched in a black ghetto somewhere, that her parents had worked so hard to spare her from in the first place.
Lia cupped the tiny cut out of Ronnie Spector, gazing at it deliberately; the singer’s hooded doe eyes, heavy in their liquid eye liner and false lashes reminded Lia of her own eyes. Lia balled the photo into a tight wad, crushing Ronnie’s romantic gaze, and with it she hoped to crush every sliver of her own miserable naiveté, and the little tremors of social truth that had shaken her for so long, like boys who don’t ask you to dance or nobody in the entire school uses Afro Sheen but you.
With anger making her movements jerky yet swift, Lia reached into the locker and tore down the paper doll Exene. She would take it home and paste it inside her journal. She threw the crumpled photo of Ronnie Spector in a nearby wastepaper basket and stomped off down the hall, singing “the world’s a mess it’s in my kiss,” as she went.