Read an Excerpt
All Our Pretty Songs
By Sara McCarry
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Sarah McCarry
All rights reserved.
Aurora and I live in a world without fathers. Hers is dead and mine was gone before I was born. Her house in the hills is full of his absence: his guitars in every room, his picture on all the walls, his flannel shirts and worn-through jeans still hanging in the closets, his platinum records on the mantel of the marble fireplace that is so big we both used to crawl inside it when we were little. He is everywhere, and so we never think about him. Aurora's mother is a junkie and mine is a witch. When I say it like that, it sounds funny, but that doesn't mean it's not true.
* * *
This is a story about love, but not the kind of love you think. You'll see.
* * *
Aurora and I grew up like sisters, and this is how we match: same bony, long-toed feet; same sharp elbows; same single crooked tooth (Aurora's left canine, my right front). Same way of looking at you out of the corners of our eyes until you blush. Same taste in music: faster, harder, more. Same appetite. Same heart.
Aurora and I live like sisters, but we are not alike. I am tidy, and Aurora has never cleaned a mess she made in her life. Aurora sleeps until four if you let her, loves Aliens, smiles often, is the kind of girl who will break into your car to leave you a present you don't know you want until you find it. Aurora's mom is richer than anything you can imagine, and mine is poor. Aurora is sunlight, and I'm a walking scowl. Aurora's skin is dark, and mine is watery cream. She bleaches her black hair white and smokes unfiltered Lucky Strikes and drinks too much. She wears dresses made out of white lace and gloves with the fingers cut off, Converse with holes at the toes and old-lady satin pumps, and if you think right now of the most beautiful girl you know, Aurora next to that girl is a galaxy dwarfing an ordinary sun.
I am not beautiful at all, but I am mean. Every day I wear black jeans and the worn-out Misfits shirt that used to be Aurora's dad's and combat boots with steel in the toes. People keep away from my fists in the pit at shows. I cut my dark hair short and my eyes are grey like smoke when I am happy and like concrete when I am not. Every morning I get up at six and run seven miles, into the hills and back, and where Aurora's body is model-skinny, mine is solid muscle sheathed in a soft layer that all the miles in the world can't skim away. Aurora breaks hearts, and I paint pictures. We are both pretty good at what we do.
Before we were born our moms lived like sisters, too. They drove up and down the coast in Maia's diesel Mercedes, following punk bands and sleeping on the beach, dyeing each other's hair pink and blue and orange and green. Maia met Aurora's dad backstage at a show in Los Angeles, before anyone knew how famous he would be. Back then he was just a sad-eyed boy from a shitty town in the Northwest with a guitar and dirty clothes. Maia chased him out into the parking lot and they fell in love as the moon rose over the Pacific. Cass drove them around while they kissed in the backseat. "It was so much fun we drove to Mexico," Cass said, the only time she told me the story. The three of them spent a week living on the beach and swimming naked in the ocean every day, sleeping on striped blankets they bought in a market. They had no money, but that was a time when you didn't need money, when it was enough to be young and beautiful and in love. Cass drove them back to LA and they got married in a twenty-four-hour chapel next to the freeway, with Cass as their witness and a hungover Elvis impersonator officiating. Neither Cass nor Maia owned a dress. Maia wore a white slip she'd bought that afternoon in a thrift store and a headdress Cass made her out of roses and silk ribbons. Cass wore cutoffs, a dog collar, and the Misfits shirt she stole from Aurora's dad and later gave to me. Before the year was over Aurora's dad would make one of the bestselling albums of all time, and then Maia and Cass would have Aurora and me, and then everything would fall apart. Now Maia sleeps away the years like a friendless fairy-tale princess behind a wall of thorns, and Aurora's dad is dead, and Cass and I are stuck in the real world of never having enough money for bills despite all of Cass's spells.
"But that week," Cass said. "That week was the most perfect week of my life." Maybe it was perfect for Maia, too. I've never thought to ask.
* * *
Aurora's room is like an antique store and a record store exploded while mating. Posters hang all over the walls: Arthur Rackham prints, the Pixies, a wet cat hanging from a tree branch with the motto HANG IN THERE. Aurora's embellished the cat with a markered-on mustache and fedora. Piles of magazines, Vogue and Ben is Dead and Spin, Sassy with all the quizzes dog-eared and filled out in different-colored inks (red for Aurora's answers, blue for mine). Every inch of wall that isn't covered in posters is covered in pictures: Aurora in her dad's arms as a baby, his face already haunted; Aurora and me at every stage of development, from infants with the same fat, formless faces to our first junior-high dance (Aurora in sunglasses to hide how stoned she is, me looking serious and faintly alarmed); Aurora and Maia; Cass and Maia. The famous picture from Rolling Stone: Aurora as a wide-eyed toddler, clutching her father's guitar, surrounded by the members of his band. It was taken right after he died. The guitar dwarfs her. It's an original print, unframed, tacked carelessly next to a sheaf of dried roses tied together with a dirty ribbon and hanging from a nail. Empty Dr Pepper cans and sticks of incense, rhinestone-covered dresses, Christmas lights and piles of silk scarves, an empty bottle of Chanel No. 5 in a dish full of quarters. Her dad's record collection—crate after crate of old punk and new wave, obscure soul music, seven-inches his band recorded before they were famous. Books on witchcraft, travel guides, old anatomical textbooks, Flowers in the Attic. Her battered copy of Tam Lin that we traded back and forth as kids until the covers fell off. Winterlong and Weetzie Bat.
I used to borrow Aurora's clothes, but as I got older, as it became apparent I'd be the draft ox to her dragonfly, I quit shimmer for death-metal gloom. But sometimes when we're bored we stay up all night eating ice cream and listening to her dad's records. We raid Aurora's makeup drawer for mascara wands and compacts of pressed powder; iridescent eyeshadows; rich, dark-red lipsticks by the handful. I let her paint my eyelids with the intense concentration of an old master, color my lips a Jazz Age maroon. We take Polaroids of ourselves and tape them to her walls, steal Maia's video camera and film ourselves gyrating to the Clash. When we're finally exhausted we fall asleep in her giant bed, curled around each other in a pile of silk and feathers. We don't wake up until long after the morning sun gives way to afternoon.
Tonight, we're catnapping in Aurora's bed, watching Heathers for the fortieth time and eating Cheetos. Cass would die a thousand agonized deaths if she saw the color of the chemicals going into my mouth. Aurora's in love with Christian Slater, but I think he is too cheesy, even as JD. It's a longstanding bone of contention between us. "Look at him." I lick fluorescent orange powder off my fingertips. "He's, like, engineered in a factory. A factory for teenage girls."
"You comprehend nothing," Aurora says, wounded. "I would totally have gone the distance. Winona Ryder isn't worthy."
"He tries to kill her," I point out.
"Only because she wouldn't follow through with her own vision. You have to commit. That's the lesson. God, look at those cheekbones." But nothing she says can convince me. There's no real torment behind those eyes. JD is a sham.
"How very." I smirk. Aurora hits me with a pillow.
When the movie is over it's time to go out. Aurora puts on Joy Division and turns it all the way up, knots her bleach-white hair, paints her mouth vampire-purple, puts on dresses and takes them off again, dancing around the room in her underwear. I pretend to be bored. It's our ritual. When she's ready we drive downtown in the old Mercedes that used to be Maia's, windows down, the Jesus and Mary Chain cranked so loud we can't hear ourselves talk. We have fake IDs, but we rarely need them. I've never seen anyone say no to Aurora. We're barely inside the club before someone's buying her one drink, and then another, boys and girls getting in line to cajole her into a smile. Every other drink she hands to me, but I give them back most of the time. Somebody has to keep us safe on the way home. Aurora never thinks about what comes after; she's all now, all the time. This moment, this kiss, this second holds everything. People like Aurora don't have to live with consequences. The stage lights go down and we push our way to the front, ready for magic, for wild rumpus, for anything. Ready to go ecstatic.
Tonight, we aren't disappointed. This band is on fire. The singer's tiny, her shaggy red-dyed hair sticking up like a ragged halo. She's wearing a long-sleeved thermal, its fraying sleeves hanging to her knuckles, her bony fingers barely visible against the guitar strings. The music is heavy, a sludgy mass of guitar that makes the room seem even darker. When she opens her mouth to sing the voice that rips out of her is a banshee howl climbing to an operatic shriek. She paces the stage in smaller and smaller circles, pivoting around the axis of the mic stand, energy crackling off her in waves, never once looking at the audience. The drummer is moving so fast her arms are blurs. The bassist plays the way I love best, cigarette dangling, eyes closed, completely still except for his fingers. Like he's asleep standing up, too cool even to acknowledge how good he is.
Here's me and Aurora in the pit: hot press of bodies, humid smoke-thick air, the two of us up against the stage, elbows planted on the dirty wood. When the music starts with a roar we throw ourselves backward into the crush of people behind us. All the way inside our bodies and all the way outside them at the same time. A wall of noise crashes through us, washing us clean. Like when we are on the edge of coming and the whole world blows wide open for a second and we can see all the way to the center where everything is still. Guitar so loud we can feel it in our chests. Someone else's hair in our faces and someone else's knuckles in our teeth and sometimes, when it's really good, a current charges from body to body and everyone around us is part of it, part of us, part of the drumbeat thundering through us so hard our breathing shifts to follow its pulse. Music turns us inside out with hunger, the need to hurt ourselves, get drunk, fuck, punch strangers, the need to take off all our clothes and run around in the grass screaming, the need get in a car and drive off in the middle of the night with a pack of strangers. We let the music shake us loose from the moorings of our bodies and hearts and brains, until we are nothing but sex and sweat and fists and hot hot light.
Up front we are often the only girls, and we learned early to make a space for ourselves, to punch if anyone gets too close in the wrong way, kick out like boys, throw ourselves at everyone around us like our bodies are stones. People know who we are now, know Aurora's face and my fists, smile at us, leave room. Sometimes a boy will kneel down, weave both hands into a step for one of us, let us put one booted foot into the cradle of his fingers and then catapult us over the crowd, hands rising to keep us aloft, carrying us to the edge of the stage and then back again. Our bodies are rafts moving across a sea of brothers, fathers, lovers. The air is charged and reckless. Up front is when I feel all the way alive, deep in my animal body, a live wire humming electric. Me and Aurora together, like sisters, like twins. Do you know what it's like to be a girl pieced together out of appetite and impulse? We do. In that place of heat and noise I forget everything, forget being poor and being scared, forget the looming misery of school and the adult world, forget walls and masks and pretense. Up front I forget everything except drum and guitar and heat, the anchor of Aurora's hand in mine as we're tossed across an ocean made out of bodies, breathless and alive and blooming with sound.
When the show is over we are soaked and panting, holding each other tight. Aurora's eyes are huge. "Oh my god. That was, like, the best." The boy standing next to us is already trying to ask her name, but she ignores him. "Come backstage," she says to me. "I know that girl."
This is the part I hate. I like to keep the magic close, not ruin it with people. "I kind of want to go home."
"Are you kidding? You're no fun."
I sigh. "Okay." She takes my hand and tows me after the band. Backstage, she hops in place while they drag their amps offstage, take apart the drum kit and cart it to their van. I stand, awkward, digging the toe of my boot into the concrete floor. The singer comes over to us and gives Aurora a hug. Up close she's even more beautiful than she was on stage. I'm so shy I don't know where to look. She and Aurora jump straight into gossip. The bass player, still cool, lurks nearby, pretending not to pay attention.
"You got a light?" It's the drummer.
"Yeah, sure." I follow her outside. Behind the club the alleyway is dark. I light her cigarette for her, and then mine. "You guys were great."
"Thanks." She smokes like she wants to chew on the filter, taps her fingers against her thighs. She's wearing a white men's undershirt. The muscles in her arms ripple as she brings the cigarette to her mouth, patters out a rhythm with her free hand. "You know Aurora?"
"Yeah. She's like my sister."
"Same mom? You don't look alike."
"No, grew up together."
"We lived in the same house for a long time. Our moms are old friends." This is not exactly the truth. Our moms were old friends. Our moms haven't spoken since I was a kid.
"You knew her dad?"
"I mean, kind of. I don't remember him. We were really young when he died."
"Yeah." I wait for her to pry. I'm used to deflecting questions about Aurora, about her dad, about her life, about her money. But she drops it.
"Sorry. That's messed up to ask. I can never think of the right thing to say to people."
I laugh. "Me, either. Aurora's the one who's good at that stuff. I stand around."
"She doesn't either, right?"
"I guess that's some pretty heavy stuff to carry around. Shit," she says, exhaling. "There I go again. Sorry."
"No, it's okay."
We smoke the rest of our cigarettes in silence. Back inside, the bass player's made his move, slinking up to Aurora as she chirps away. The euphoria of the show has worn off. My ears are ringing and I'm tired. I can tell by the way Aurora is leaning into the bass player that it's going to be a long night.
The band invites us over. I make Aurora let me drive, follow their beat-up van to an old industrial neighborhood down by the water. Their apartment is the whole third floor of an abandoned factory. It's obviously supposed to be a practice space, but they have a hot plate plugged into a wall and a curtained-off toilet that I guess passes as a bathroom. Every surface is covered with overflowing ashtrays, coffee mugs stuffed with cigarette butts, empty beer cans, half-empty bottles of whisky. There are nests of blankets and clothes in three corners of the enormous room. Somebody, more ambitious than the rest of the band, has gone so far as to hang a moldy shower curtain from the ceiling for privacy. I walk over to the huge windows that overlook the bay and try to ignore the smell. This place must be freezing in the winter, but underneath the filth it's pretty amazing. I can see the streaming lights of cars on the viaduct, and past that the wine-dark water. Far away, the firefly glow of a ferry moves toward the far horizon.
"Pretty great view, huh?" It's the drummer again. Behind me the bassist is pouring Aurora a drink. I can hear him apologize for the lack of ice, and she giggles.
Excerpted from All Our Pretty Songs by Sara McCarry. Copyright © 2013 Sarah McCarry. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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