Read an Excerpt
Next on the list: Kiss a stranger.
"How about him?" Susan pointed to a guy so rakishly handsome, it was odd to see him in a downtown Los Angeles bar wearing a shirt and tie instead of modeling underwear in front of a camera, where he clearly belonged.
"Let's be realistic."
"Why? It's just a kiss."
Easy for her to sayshe wasn't the one doing the kissing.
It was Thursday after work, and the Brass Monkey was hopping. Susan and I had already been at the bar for an hour, casing the joint and sipping two-dollar margaritas that were, sadly, much too weak to help me muster my courage.
"What do you thinkon the lips?" I asked.
"Definitely, but tongue is up to you."
After much debate, I settled on three guys at a cocktail table across the bar. Mid- to late thirties and dressed in casual business attire, they seemed harmless, which was their primary appeal. Here goes. I hoisted myself bravely from my chair as if I were about to march forth into battle. My plan was to go up to their table, explain my predicament, and hope one of them would take pity on me and volunteer for the job.
In the event that that didn't workwell, I didn't want to think about what would happen if it didn't work. I suppose it would involve skulking away in humiliation.
I swigged down the last of my drink, took a breath, and strode to the table. The three guys looked at me with open curiosity. A woman approaching who wasn't a waitress was an interesting sight indeed. Plus I'd sort of slutted up for the occasion. I wore a snug suit over a camisole, and I'd gone to town with the eyeliner. My hair was doing its usual insane tumble of waves and curls to my shoulders.
"Hi! I'm June!" I said perkily.
After a moment, perhaps debating if I was going to try to sell them something, one of them said, "I'm Frank, and this is Ted, and Alfonso."
"Nice to meet you!" And then I plunged in. "I came over here because I was wondering if you could help me? I have this list of things I need to do." I held up the list, Exhibit A, which was handwritten on a sheet of ordinary notebook paper. "One of the things on it is that I need to kiss a stranger. So I was wondering"
"You want to kiss one of us?" Alfonso asked eagerly.
Frank chimed in, "Whatyou on a scavenger hunt?"
"Not exactly," I answered.
"So would this kiss be on the mouth?"
Three sets of eyes gave me a once-over, butbonus points for themthey tried to make it appear as if they weren't.
"Aw, Christ," Alfonso said with what appeared to be genuine regret, "we're all married."
"I'm not that married," Ted added. "I mean, if it'll help the girl out . . ."
"That's okay," I said, starting to back away. Why hadn't I thought to check for rings?
"No, we want to help you. None of us can do it, but we got a buddy here from work who might be able to. Hey, Marco!" Frank shouted across the bar, and who should turn around but the underwear model. Terrific. "There's a girl here needs a hand!"
Marco trotted over. Well, he seemed eager enough. Trying not to blushand knowing Susan was probably bursting a spleen laughingI repeated my story. Before I could finish, he snatched the paper from my hand and started reading it aloud.
"Let's see what this list is about," he boomed. "'Twenty Things to Do by My Twenty-fifth Birthday.'" Then he paused to look at me and smirk. "Twenty-fifth birthday?"
Oh, real nice!
I'll have him know that I may be thirty-four, but in certain lighting I still get carded.
"Give me that." I made a grab for the list.
He blocked me with his shoulder and kept reading. "Let's see what it says, shall we? Ah, yes, here it is: Kiss a stranger. . . ."
Afraid the list might get ripped if I grabbed for it again, I stood still, arms crossed, fuming.
Ted attempted to defend me. "Dude, don't be an a-hole."
"Run a 5K. . . . Get on TV. . . . Oh, wait, here's the best one: Lose one hundred pounds. Used to be a fatty, huh? Well, you're looking mighty fine now, sweetheart, so I can see why that one's got a line through it."
"Look," I snapped, "it's not even my list."
"It's not. But it so happens I need to do the things on it."
Alfonso asked innocently enough, "Why's that?"
I sighed. "Long story. Please . . ." I held my hand out. "Give it back."
it was true. The list wasn't mine.
It belonged to Marissa Jones.
Even though there was no signature on it, I'm certain it's hers. I know because I discovered it myself in the days after I killed her. I'd been washing the blood off her purse so I could return it to her parents, and there it was. Folded and tucked inside her wallet.
Of course, I gave everything of hers backeven a pair of sunglasses found near the scene that I thought might possibly be mine.
But I kept the list. Didn't say a word about it to them. After all, how heartbreaking would it be to see your twenty-four-year-old daughter's list of dreams that would never be fulfilled?
Out of twenty items, she'd completed only two: Lose 100 pounds and Wear sexy shoes. The first one was already crossed off. The second I had to mark off for her myselfand seeing it written there sure explained those silver stilettos she was wearing when she died.
Naturally, everyone insisted that it wasn't my fault.
They nearly fell over one another at the funeral offering assurances and hugswhich I accepted as part of my penance. My body was one big bruise. Even the gentlest touch was agony.
And here's the worst part: She'd been thin less than a month. One lousy month. After a lifetime of knowing nothing but being fat.
As if to rub it in, staring at me from the front of the church had been a blown-up photo of Marissa standing in a pair of size twenty-eight pantsher body fitting in one leg while she held the waist out to its side. The smile on her face clearly said, Okay, world, here I come!
The whole time the minister was at the podium, I barely heard a thing he said. Instead, I devoted my thoughts to concocting the lie I would tell Marissa's family about her final words. They were going to want to know, after all. And there was no way I was going to tell them the truth: that she'd been giving me a recipe for taco soup.
Turned out I didn't need to worry. My entire interaction with them was limited to a handshake and an "I'm so sorry for your loss." I skipped the wake, feeling that my presence therewith my bruised collarbone and big shinerwould be nothing short of vulgar. Besides, it's not as if Marisssa and I were friends. I'd only met her the night she died.
She and I had been at the same Weight Watchers meeting. I'd just joined, hoping to lose the ten pounds that had managed to creep up from the last time I lost ten pounds. She'd received her lifetime pin for being at her weight goal (the irony of that word lifetime not lost on me now). Offering a ride to a stranger is something I wouldn't normally do, but I saw her teetering toward the bus stop on those "sexy shoes." I thought about how amazing it was she'd dropped so much weight and said to myself, What the heck. Maybe her success will rub off on me.
So there we were, zipping along Centinela Boulevard and chatting about dieting. I said to her something along the lines of "I'm worried I'll fail because I get so hungry when I go on a diet."
Then she said, "I have a recipe for a soup that's super filling."
And I said, "I'm not much of a cook."
And she said, "This is totally easy."
And I said, "Really?"
And she said, "I have the recipe right here with me. I swear, it's so simplenothing but opening a bunch of cans."
And I said, "Well, great, let's see it!"
And she reached into the backseat of my car to grab her purse, which was the reason her seat belt was unbuckled at the moment of impact.
Marissa Jones's Taco Soup
4 cans navy or northern beans
1 can Mexican-spiced tomatoes
1 can diced tomatoes
1 can corn
1 package taco seasoning
1 package fat-free ranch dressing mix
Mix ingredients in large saucepan. Heat and serve.
makes 8 servings.
As best I can recall (my head took quite a whack, so my memory is dodgy), a dresser toppled off a truck in front of us, and I'd jerked the steering wheel to avoid it. The rest is unclear. Witnesses reported that we skimmed the curb at an angle, which sent us rolling.
"Landed ass over teakettle," I heard one paramedic say to another as they slid my stretcher into the ambulance.
Another thing I overheard: "No hurry on that one, she's dead."
Dead? My hands felt around on my body. I wasn't sure which one of us he referring to.
It wasn't me.
Which meant . . .
Shit, shit, shit.
After the accident, I tried to go back to life as usual, without success. Seemed I'd failed to account for one simple yet irrefutable fact, which is as follows: Knowing that you killed somebody is really depressing. Honestly, I can't fathom how people like Scott Peterson can pick themselves up afterward and go fishing. I barely had the energy to report to the office and perform a job I've been doing so long that I suspect I could do it in a coma.
The weeks ticked by. The bruises faded, and yet, unable to shake the despair that clung to me like a fog, I was left to conclude that there are two types of horrible events: the type that shake you up and cause you to grab life by the throat and never again take it for granted, and the type that make you lie in bed and watch a lot of reality TV.
Mine fell into the latter category.
With no one close enough to witness my downward spiral, I was free to fall. No husband or kids. No roommate. My boyfriend Robert made his break in late August, a month after the accident. We'd been on the brink of splitting anyway, lingering at that stage where we both knew things were over and yet, like a car we weren't quite ready to sell, we kept patching and paying for small repairs, waiting for something huge like the transmission to blow. As it turned out, the relationship was totaled. Robert could barely stand to look at the wreckage I'd become, and frankly, it was a relief when he left. I barely noticed him packing his toothbrush and the extra set of shoes he kept under my bed, what with the new fall TV season starting up.
If only Marissa hadn't written that list . . . or if hers had been more like my to-do lists: a bunch of nothing that nevertheless had occupied my time for the past three-plus decades. Pick up the dry cleaning. Run to the gym. Meet a friend for lunch. Some of the tasks got crossed off . . . others were transferred from paper to paper until I'd either finally get around to doing them or decide they weren't as important as I thought they were.
If I died, what could my obituary possibly even say? June Parker, on- and off-again girlfriend, midlevel employee, and lifelong underachiever, died waiting for something to happen. She is survived by a new pack of socks, the purchase of which was the greatest achievement crossed off her
I'd read Marissa's list only once before hiding it away in my dresser drawer. I wasn't even sure why I'd kept it. Sure, I told myself it would be sad for the familybut still, why did it bother me so much?
It was only when bathed in the forgiving light of the TV that I could bear to admit the truth to myself: Horrible as it was that I'd killed someone, I was relieved I hadn't died. For whatever reason, I'd been given a second chance.
Which is why I felt so guilty about squandering it. The gods who spared me were probably sitting around in the clouds, scratching their heads, and saying things like "You'd assume rescuing her from a pile of destroyed metal was enough! What do we need to get through to this woman? Plague? Locusts?!"
Problem was, I had no idea how to change. I wasn't and had never been that person who could sit down and write a list of things I wanted to do and then actually do them. Marissa Jones needed to rub off on me all right. Not so much the part of her that could lose weight, but the part that seemed to at least have a clue about what she wanted once she did.
It seemed it would require a miracle to pry me from my malaise and set me on a new course. As it turned out, all it took was a guy at the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Eleventh Street selling ten-dollar bouquets of roses.
it was january 20, exactly six months from the day Marissa died. My stomach had twisted when I noticed the date on my calendar and realized half a year had passed. It felt like both yesterday and a lifetime ago. My original plans to honor the occasion involved going home after work and . . . well, I had no plans. But then I stopped at a traffic light next to the man selling roses, and an idea instantly formulated in my head. I'd visit her grave. I'd apologize, and in doing so, maybe I'd be set free.
Flowers resting on my passenger seat, I stopped by a booth at the cemetery's entrance for directions. A woman gave me a photocopied map, using a Sharpie to mark the route to Marissa's grave site. I parked and then walked the rest of the way to where she was buried. Her tombstone, a tastefully simple marker, read, Marissa Jones, loving daughter, sister, and friend, and gave her birth and death dates.
"Sorry," I whispered, and set down the flowers.
I stood there for a while, waiting for a sense of peace that didn't come, when someone behind me said, "June?"