My young life was spent trying to be invisible. A person with a vague outline, mostly shapeless, spilling into the shapes of other people, easily becoming a shadow, a companion, a non-committal background dancer, a woman in grey tones who would have preferred to cast her vote as “maybe.” I wanted to be understood only foggily, because this was how I understood myself: as a haze, or as a yo-yo, suspended in air. In this way, my life could remain full of potential, somehow preserved inside the shapes of other things and other people. I might have been asking for clarity, but really all I wanted was ease.
Youth is mostly about formlessness anyway, and it’s during this time that we’re most open to being molded, pouring ourselves into different vessels to see how it feels. Is this me? Is this? It’s a time of many questions and for most of us, some mistakes. It’s dangerous time to make friends with strange people.
And yet, there are no mistakes, not really, and who we choose is never an accident. I might have been lost, but my navigation system wasn’t broken. I was drawn to her because she had something for me. It was a seedling, a glint, a tiny beginning. It was exactly as much as I could bear at the time.
I met her at the hair salon. She was the 25-year-old receptionist. I was 17, a senior in high school. She had a New Jersey accent, wasn’t very smart, and stroked her hair in a sexual way, as if her hair was some beautiful foreign man – or woman – that had landed on her head. She was splayed out in her chair, her limbs in every direction. She looked like an octopus, sunbathing. Clearly, she hated her job. She was categorically beautiful, blessed with good skin and symmetry, but when she looked at me, something was missing. Her eyes were lovely but dead.
I’d been getting blonde highlights since age 15, when my mom informed me I’d be getting blonde highlights. The girls at school had blonde highlights, and my mom had blonde highlights, so I would have them, too. Since my goal was to blend in, I didn’t argue.
I found the task of going to the hair salon very boring. Also, my stylist was gay and always asking me if I had a boyfriend and I hated it. My solution was to bring a friend with me, and of course I chose Carol, because to spend three hours without her during this period would’ve be weird.
Carol and I did everything together, and most of it wasn’t good. We started smoking cigarettes at 13, and slowly draining the contents of her parents’ liquor collection while they played bridge on Friday nights, and accidentally giving blow jobs to gross neighbors while drunk. Once we could drive, we’d ditch school and go down to Mexico, where we’d buy pills and tequila and cartons of Marlboro Lights, then get day drunk in a restaurant that was shaped like a ship. On the way back through border patrol, when the officer asked us the reason for our visit to Mexico today, we were two young girls with blonde highlights in a white Lexus singing, “Spanish project!”
Carol was my partner in crime, but unlike me, she wasn’t a very good criminal. After I got caught dropping a carton of cigarettes into my “Costco overalls,” Carol, who was supposed to be my look-out, mused about the undercover cop, “Yeah, I guess he was looking right at us.”
Other times, Carol was more benignly a crappy partner. Halfway through the hair appointment, she rudely abandoned me to chat with the receptionist. By the time I was done, they’d thoroughly discussed the pros and cons of being a damsel for Halloween, given each other French braids, and were now great friends – such great friends, in fact, that Tara’s husband Tony was on his way to sell us some weed. Tony was a handsome engineer in a baseball cap, and very generous. He threw in a joint for free and said we should all hang out.
As soon as we met Tara and Tony, our lives morphed to make room for them. Instead of drinking Carol’s parents’ liquor on Friday nights, we went to their apartment in Hillcrest to smoke pot from a bong filled with Midori and play with Tara’s snake. I thought the snake was creepy. Carol loved it.
One night, Tara, while doing the splits against a wall, said, “I used to be a dancer.” Carol asked, “Like a ballerina?”
Our weekdays consisted of getting stoned and smoking cigarettes at various cul-de-sacs with pretty views of the ocean in La Jolla, talking about who we planned to become. We both planned to become non-smokers as soon as high school was over.
Sometimes we committed small crimes. We drove around throwing all the take-out wrappers from the car onto the pristine streets. On trash day, we drove into the trash cans, bumping them over onto people’s lawns. Other times we were good Samaritans. We lamented the lack of public transportation because of its negative effect on the housekeepers who had to truck up and down Mount Soledad to get to work, and resolved to fix this problem by picking them up. “Hola, necessita un ride?”
My feelings about Tara changed quickly. I was judgmental, then interested, then enamored. That she was married seemed perfect. There were no stakes because nothing would ever come of it – or so I thought in the beginning. That she was unconnected to everyone in my teenage life besides Carol was ideal. She felt like a secret and I liked secrets. That Tara and Tony were 25 and hanging out with high school seniors wouldn’t strike me as bizarre until I turned 25. At the time, I thought they were open-minded.
The next year was a blur of drugs and confusion. Tara intuited my confusion and asked me to play with her hair a lot. When she asked Carol instead, I was jealous.
We did ecstasy at their house. I puked off their balcony into a canyon. I felt weightless. I thought I’d never been happier.
As Tara revealed more about her dark past, we continued to laugh it off. I was never lucid and this made it easy to pick and choose what I wanted to hear, then distort the bits of information into something palatable. Most of it I cast aside as “interesting.”
One night she said, “I robbed a bank.” She explained that she’d worked there as a teller, strategically skimming funds over a long period. Once she’d taken enough to buy her Jeep, she quit and drove to Vegas, where she became a stripper and a cokehead. She used to wake up at 6 AM, do a line, and go jogging on the treadmill. She became very rich very fast, then bottomed out, lost everything, and married Tony. They’d known each other from childhood. He was her savoir.
Tara didn’t like certain people. In her high and whiny voice, which bore the soft imprint of her New Jersey roots, she unveiled plans for retaliation. “Camp Tara” was the imaginary place where she’d torture her foes. She cited “curbing” as an example of how. This is when you set someone’s teeth on a curb, then bash their head in. It makes an appearance in the movie American History X.
In real life, Tara’s retaliations were laughable, sort of. She didn’t like my hairstylist, so she’d make fake appointments with him in different theatrical voices. Later, at the salon, she’d watch him wait for clients who didn’t exist.
She didn’t like her neighbors so she pooped on their welcome mat. They knew it was human poop. They knew she did it. She denied everything.
One night, Tara threw a steak knife at Tony. It was such an awkward throw that we were able to laugh this off, too.
One day, she brought me to a center for victims of domestic violence. I waited in the courtyard, staring at a dead palm tree. She came out with a hundred dollars. Tony had never hit her.
Tara had sticky fingers, just like me. She got caught stealing lingerie from Neiman Marcus and was taken to jail. If you go over $500, it’s a felony. Carol, Tony, and I got the money together and bailed her out. She said it was so stupid. She didn’t need that sparkly underwear anyway.
I told Tara I was unhappy at home. While rubbing my back, she convinced me to move out. But first, she wanted to raid my house, which was very big and beautiful. Tara treated it like a trip to the store. She took towels and cups and my stepfather’s bottles of Dom Perignon from the 80s. Later at her apartment, Tony spilled the champagne onto her naked breasts and I took pictures and developed them in black and white. In the pictures, her ecstatic smile rings false. Her eyes are empty.
By the end of senior year, I was living with my old neighbor D and doing speed on a regular basis. Not with Tara and Carol, but with the Mexican chefs at Pick Up Stix, where I worked. I subsisted on cigarettes, pink lemonade, white rice, and Metabocrack, also known as Metabolife, the diet pill with ephedra in it that was later recalled for that reason. I weighed four pounds and always took more than the recommended amount. When my heart beat too fast, I got stoned. When I was tired, I took more Metabocrack. D bought me a green truck with bullet holes in it. It used to be police evidence, and now it was mine.
Tara sat in the audience on the morning I graduated from high school. I’d been up all night doing speed and had consumed three Coors Lights for breakfast. Under my robes, I was wearing a slutty dress she’d let me borrow.
Tara’s graduation gift to me was an eight-ball of coke and a trip to Vegas with her friend Ted, an old customer from her dancing days who’d allegedly murdered a man in Colorado. Ted was obsessed with Tara. While she was in the shower, I watched him take one of her hairs off a hotel pillow and lay it in a book for safekeeping.
Tara’s other gift to me was a card. In it, she wrote that later, we would live in San Francisco together. She drew stick figures to show me what she meant. Her penmanship was childlike. She was a terrible speller. She signed the card, “I love you.”
One night that summer while Tony was out, we were snuggling in bed and I asked, “Do you think I’m a dyke?” Tara waited a long time to answer, then said she didn’t know. After she fell asleep, I went outside with my beer and smoked cigarettes and looked at the moon and made up stories about our future, even though she was just inside. My reveries, unlike reality, involved no pain.
I told my mom she couldn’t drive me to college because Tara and Tony wanted to take me. I squished into the back of Tara’s Jeep and we headed north.
In San Francisco, we checked into a bad hotel, where they asked me to have a threesome. I said no thanks. Tara and I slept in the bed, my arm draped over her, and Tony slept on the floor.
My goodbye to Tara happened on the blue, plasticky extra-long twin mattress of my college dorm room. She said, “Ten minutes” and told me to lay on top of her. I don’t remember what we said, but I know it was full of promises.
College was lonely. I called her all the time. She called me back sometimes. Her life was changing. She left Tony, and moved into a new apartment with her snake. She’d started massage school and was also training to become a yoga teacher.
I, meanwhile, was smoking meth out of a lightbulb I broke for this purpose and hooking up with random college boys. I got one A and two F’s my first quarter. I had five roommates. One night, all of them went out. I de-thorned a peyote cactus ear I bought from a guy for $20, blended it up, and forced myself to drink it all. Nothing happened. I ordered a pizza from Domino’s. While I waited for it to come, I laid on top of a giant stuffed panda bear in the empty living room, remembering our goodbye.
I saw Tara on school breaks. It was different without Tony and Carol, but there was the same tension. We petted each other. She sat on my lap. I sat on hers. In all this time, we never kissed, but one afternoon, when the sun was slanting through the window, she asked me to go down on her and I did. She coached me, then climaxed, her ecstasy, as always, ringing false. Afterwards, I said, “I need a cigarette.” Tara had always hated that I smoked, but that day she said, “Have one.”
My answer to my loneliness was to do more drugs. One foggy afternoon, sitting on a perch that overlooked a soccer field, hallucinating on mushrooms, I called my mom and told her that I was doing meth and that I might be a lesbian. I don’t remember what she said. What I do remember is the soccer field, which looked like it was breathing.
My performance at school continued to be defined by the drugs in my system. On uppers, I was a super-human note taker. Stoned, I nodded off in class. My French teacher pulled me aside one day and told me I was wasting her time and my parents’ money and that I should go to France for a year to be an au pair.
Since I’d be gone for a year, I agreed to let Tara borrow my computer. Then, a week before I was set to leave for Paris, she stopped returning my calls.
First, I left her a thousand messages. Next, I called the police. They went to her house. She denied having seen any computer. After that, I bought a 24-pack of Bud Light and sat in a lawn chair with a friend outside her apartment, calling her repeatedly from my cell phone. I knew she was inside. Her Jeep was parked on the street. As usual, she’d left it uncovered, and I took the opportunity to remove her yoga mat and massage oils and put them in my trunk. The stake out ended with no success. The following morning, I woke up at dawn, got stoned, drove to her apartment, and knocked on the door. Her whole body slumped when she saw it was me.
We drove in her Jeep to a bank in Coronado, not talking. She went inside and returned with a wad of cash. Inside was a yellow Post-It note, which I decided to read later. As we headed back to her place, I was bawling. I told her I had so many mean things to say to her but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Suddenly, she was intrigued. “Tell me.” I think she wanted to see if she was capable of feeling, but I don’t think she was. When I told her I hoped she never had children, she smiled.
It was a definitive morning, the type you’re telling yourself to remember as it happens. I remember the cool easy air, the smell of the beach, and the final incline of her hill. I don’t remember our very last words. I don’t remember her going inside, but I can picture it: her curvy body swaying low to the ground. She always complained about how short and fat and unintelligent she was, and maybe in those final moments I saw her as others did, or as I did in the beginning, before the blur: as just some unremarkable lady I probably didn’t want to know.
After she went inside, I put the oils and the mat back in the Jeep. Then I read the Post-It note. In her childlike handwriting, she’d scrawled, “Here’s $200. Have a nice life.” I was 19 years old.
Months later, I’d be in France when one of the cars would disappear from my family’s driveway. In its place would be a lump of human poop. I’d remember her saying, “I can’t believe you leave your keys in the cars, even with the gate.” The car was found a few days later with the keys inside.
In my car in France I kept a photo of her kissing my cheek. My expression is pure joy. I’m so happy to be kissed. There’s a yellow flower behind my ear. One day, one of my new French children took the photo and showed it to her father. He looked at me with a new curiosity, or at least that was what I interpreted. We didn’t talk about it.
Years passed. I continued to drink and date men. The alcohol made it bearable. At 25, every high school student I saw made me wonder why Tara and Tony had been friends with us. Every so often, I Googled them. I learned nothing extraordinary. Tara’s online footprint was small. She faded further into the rearview, became a story distilled for therapists. Still, every time I walked into an Aveda store, I thought of her. Aveda was her smell.
At 26, a caring IT worker from Maine wanted to have sex with me sober on a Sunday afternoon. Lies spilled forth. “I’m tired.” He left wounded. I drowned myself in vodka and cried. In the days after, I came out to friends and family. Everyone was loving. My mom referenced the woman who’d pooped in our driveway. We seemed to have a thing. I told her it was complicated but yes, essentially, sort of.
A fellow intern at the time asked me why, if my parents were progressive and I lived in a liberal place, it took me so long to come out. At the time, I just shrugged. What I can say now is that coming to terms with the truth about oneself is a deeply internal process. It wasn’t a secret I was keeping from the world. I didn’t know either.
Secrets keep us sick. They also keep us safe. A life that’s filled with dreaming is necessary to uphold this misshapen understanding of safety. Others might call it a “postage stamp life,” one that’s lived within tiny parameters, but it’s the tininess that makes the square easy to fill up.
At 28, my postage stamp was a studio apartment on West 83rd Street where I drank alone – until one weird, divine morning when I realized I was an alcoholic.
The same year I quit drinking, I found Tara’s obituary online. She died at 34 of a rare disease, the name of which I can’t remember. It’s an odd thing to find out someone from whom you’ve been estranged for years has died. It was just me alone at my computer, going, “Oh.”
It’s easy to look back and see everything so clearly. Tara was unwell, and probably a sociopath, and I was young and confused. She was a black barge and I was the grey fog that swirled around her, moving to make room. My teenage life already felt like a swirling but with Tara, I swirled more furiously, my inner chaos turning outward to match hers. In all this movement, the clouds parted a little for me. Although it would be years until I’d get honest enough to be able to say I was gay out loud, it was Tara who planted the seed, and who, despite her constant withholding and all her demented schemes, gave me the feeling that it might be okay.
When I asked her that night, “Do you think I’m a dyke?” there was no judgment from her. The hate was all mine, and I remember clocking it then, thinking it was something. Tara was the one who held the space for me to ask that question. For a person who didn’t want to take up space, this tiny bit was enough, and that was exactly as much as I could bear at the time: just enough and nothing more.