In Search of Us

In Search of Us

by Ava Dellaira


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374305314
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/06/2018
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 145,111
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Ava Dellaira is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. She grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, andreceived her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago.Love Letters to the Dead is her debut novel. She currently lives in Santa Monica

Read an Excerpt



18 Years Earlier

Marilyn is seventeen today. She stares back at her own eyes reflected in the car window, transposed over the man on the corner wearing a CASH FOR GOLDsign and a woman pushing a shopping cart full of clattering bottles. They pass an Arco station where a crew of boys with backward baseball caps carry away cigars and sodas. The backs of her thighs stick to the seat, and she can feel sweat beading around her hairline. The classic end-of-summer Los Angeles heat wave has hit. It has to be at least a hundred degrees out, and the '80s Buick, loaded down with boxes, has no working AC.

"It's just for a little while," her mom, Sylvie, rambles on. "Until we get another break, you know. You have your appointment with LA Talent in a couple weeks."

Marilyn nods without turning her mother's way.

Her last audition (where she was to be one in a family of four out to buy a television) was a downright disaster. She'd understood the stakes, and all morning, sitting in the waiting room with the other girls, her chest had felt tight, her stomach queasy. She tried to concentrate on her book — The White Album by Joan Didion — but she'd been stuck on the first paragraph, unable to focus, rereading the same opening sentence: We tell ourselves stories in order to live. As she'd gotten in front of the camera, she found she could hardly breathe.

When her mother came to pick her up, Marilyn didn't mention the sense of panic, the dizziness, or the casting assistant who'd brought her a glass of water and shot an oh god look to the director across the room. She endured Sylvie's look of deep disappointment — brows arched in tension — when a week later their supper of Lean Cuisines was interrupted by the news that Marilyn had failed yet again. As Sylvie hung up the phone and stared out the window at the pool and its plastic lounge chairs, Marilyn pushed a piece of wilted broccoli around her plate.

After a long moment of silence Sylvie poured herself a third glass of white wine and turned to Marilyn. "It's a wasteland around here, really. I've been thinking we should move up near Hollywood, get closer to it all," she said, too brightly. "I mean, who knows, you could run into a casting director in the grocery store." As if they weren't fleeing the apartment they hadn't paid rent on in months.

Marilyn knows her mom would let her go ass-first in a photo (like the girl sprawled on the billboard over the freeway, advertising jeans) if it meant the money that would get them into a shiny new house in the hills above the city, above everything, where she believes they belong. As far as Sylvie's concerned, a new and better life is just around the corner, the revolving door to the future a mere step away.

As a child, perhaps Marilyn believed in Sylvie's dreams of a better place, but by now, she's given up on ever walking through the door in her mother's fantasies. She holds tightly to the thought that it's only another year until she'll be eighteen, moving away for college, beginning a life that belongs to her. She sees the future like a little diamond of light at the end of the tunnel; she's learned to fix her gaze on it, to struggle toward it, to keep that diamond in her mind.

* * *

A car honks at Sylvie as she holds up traffic behind her to make a left turn onto Washington Boulevard. Marilyn takes in the sunburned look of the streets, the smell of meat drifting from a taco truck mixed with the faint scent of the ocean, the bright bougainvillea growing up a chain-link fence.

Sylvie ignores the honking and navigates the Buick onto South Gramercy Place. Marilyn vaguely recognizes the residential street lined with dilapidated apartment buildings. LOW DEPOSIT advertises one banner. She notices a red flower box hanging out of a window, a laundry line where clothes wave like flags. A man leans against the building below, dragging from a cigarette.

"Marilyn, look. You can see the sign from here." The car swerves through the middle of the road as Sylvie turns around in her seat to point to the white letters: H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D on the mountain in the distance, standing stalwart through the haze of smog that comes with the summer heat.

"Mmm-hmm." Marilyn does her best to ignore the dread building in her chest as they continue down the block and pull up to 1814 — a two-story duplex at the corner, with crumbling pink stucco and an unkempt yard, where a few orange trees survive nonetheless.

* * *

Lauryn Hill's voice drifts up from a radio in the apartment below: How you gonna win ... Sylvie fumbles for the key under the mat, the curls in her dyed blond hair falling loose in the heat and sticking against her pale cheeks. As they enter, Marilyn is transported back in time by the familiar scent — some odd mix of cigars, Febreze, and cooked meat.

Pieces of furniture lie haphazardly about the room — the couch slightly askew from the wall, the coffee table butting diagonally against it, holding a candy jar filled mostly with butterscotch wrappers. Late-afternoon sun streams though barred windows, casting spots of light on the shag carpet.

For a moment they both just stand there.

"Well, this could be worse," Sylvie says with forced cheer. Marilyn wishes that somehow she'd been able to do better. That she could have managed just one more commercial, one more success that would have kept them away from here.

In the tiny bedroom that was once hers and will be again, Marilyn opens the windows, letting in a burst of hot air. It's already past five o'clock, but the heat hasn't let up. She stares out at a distant line of skinny palm trees, their tops wavering. She thinks they look like scattered soldiers, the last ones still standing in the battleground of the city, and raises her hands in two opposing L shapes in front of her eyes — the frame of a photograph. With a blink — her imaginary shutter — she freezes the image in her mind.

"You're so beautiful." Sylvie's voice startles her. She turns to see her mom watching her from the doorway, as the radio from below goes to commercial and a voice instructs her to double your pleasure, double your fun. Marilyn wants to collapse on the floor, suddenly exhausted.

As Sylvie moves to wrap her arms around her, Marilyn remembers the day — almost ten years ago now — that they left Woody's and moved into the then-brand-new apartment they've just left behind in Orange County. Sylvie loved the pool and the fresh carpet, but Marilyn's favorite part was the air that didn't smell like anything. She'd been in her bedroom putting her clothes away neatly in a new pink dresser when she heard her mom scream her name.

She rushed into the living room to find Sylvie in tears and her own face on the TV. Marilyn-on-screen opened the top of a My Little Pony and pulled out a jeweled bracelet, exclaiming There's a surprise for me! before kissing the top of Twilight Sparkle's head. The image of herself gave Marilyn an uneasy feeling — that wasn't her, was it? Not really. No. She found herself wanting to back away from the screen, but when Sylvie pulled Marilyn to her and said, in whispered awe, "You're so beautiful. My baby girl. You're on TV," she couldn't help but revel in her mom's pride.

Marilyn now lingers in Sylvie's arms, engulfed in her perfume — Eternity by Calvin Klein? Sylvie's scent is a rotating kaleidoscope of samples from the counter at Macy's, where she spends her workdays convincing customers that a bottle of Chanel or Burberry is a potion powerful enough to transform them into the kind of women they want to be.

"It'll all work out. You'll see," Sylvie says, almost to herself.

She releases Marilyn from her grip just as suddenly as she'd embraced her. "Let's unload now, so we have time for the birthday dinner."

Marilyn can see her mom is working, even harder than Marilyn herself, not to crumble.

"Great," Marilyn replies, and kisses her on the cheek.

* * *

Moving boxes up the flight of stairs goes slowly. By the time the sun drops and the day starts to give up, the Buick's two-thirds empty and they're both sticky, struggling with one of the heaviest boxes in the load, containing Marilyn's books.

As Marilyn backs up the stairs, the muscles in her arms burning, she sees a man's figure — tall, broad-shouldered, dark-skinned, head down — crossing the street toward them. She blows a strand of hair away from her face and regrets that her hands are full, because she wants to lift them into a frame, to take a picture of him in her mind as he steps beneath a jacaranda tree and into its puddle of purple petals collected in the gutter.

As he walks quickly up the pavement toward their building, she can see that he must be close to her own age: though he looks physically grown, he still has the wide eyes of a boy. He wears basketball shorts, sneakers, and a white T-shirt, soaked down the front with sweat. Tattoos cover his left arm.

"Marilyn! Stay with it! The time to go on one of your little journeys is not while we're carrying a load of your bricks," Sylvie complains. And, perhaps hearing the noise, he turns and sees Marilyn staring. She watches him as she struggles with the weight of the box, manages a backward step up the stairs.

He looks away, but after a moment, he's climbing toward them.

"You need help?" His voice is different than she would have imagined. Softer, shyer. The sound of it seems to match the gentle blue of the early-evening sky.

"My goodness, yes! What a darling. Someone must have sent us an angel." Sylvie immediately drops the box, never one to refuse the charity of others.

"I'm Sylvie, and this is my daughter, Marilyn. It's her birthday."

Marilyn is grateful for the exertion, which has undoubtedly already turned her cheeks pink, disguising her blush.

"Happy birthday," he says simply. She thinks she can feel the heat radiating off his body.

"Thanks." She lets her eyes drift upward to the gulls floating high against the pink clouds. She tries not to look at his shirt sticking to his muscular body.

"And you are?" Sylvie prompts.


"James. Good to know we have a strapping young lad in the building."

"You guys moving in?"

"Yes yes. We're up there. My daughter's an actress, we thought it would be better if she were closer to Hollywood."

Marilyn knows how silly this must sound — she's obviously not an actual actress, or they wouldn't be moving here. But James just nods and lifts the box, his body so close to Marilyn's that for a fleeting moment she can smell his skin. Though she can hear the effort in his breathing, his face doesn't indicate any strain as he carries the books into the apartment.

"We've got a few more in the car, you wouldn't mind terribly would you," Sylvie says (more than asks). Marilyn winces.

"Sure," James says, and she can't tell if he's irritated.

Sylvie stays inside, making a show of looking busy as she starts to unpack, but Marilyn follows James up and down the stairs with the lighter boxes, determined to do her part. He laps her on every round and doesn't make much eye contact.

When they've finished, Sylvie thanks James again and Marilyn follows him downstairs so she can lock up the car. The sky's beginning to darken, and the heat of the day has suddenly given way to the empty cool of desert night. She feels a chill, her clothes still damp with sweat.

At the bottom of the staircase, he turns to her. "So, how old?"

For a moment, Marilyn's confused, before she remembers it's her birthday. "Seventeen."

He nods. "Me too."

She looks out at the sidewalk, littered with scattered trash — a Coke bottle, a crushed beer can, a Carl's Jr. bag, of all things. Carl's Jr. was the last commercial she'd booked, five years ago. Residual checks don't last forever.

"So where you guys coming from?"

"Orange County. We're staying with my uncle again. We lived here when we first came to LA."

"You're an actress?"

"No, not really. My mom wishes I were. I was in a couple of commercials forever ago ... it's her thing, but I've been playing along for so long I guess it's become routine."

"Yeah, I feel that. I mean, you gotta be what you gotta be for the people you love. It's not always you, unfortunately."

Marilyn nods. She can smell someone's dinner cooking, can hear a distant siren.

"Thanks again for helping us."

"No problem."

She smiles at him and for the first time he seems to be really looking at her.

"Later," he says.

As Marilyn watches him disappear into the apartment below her own new home, her skin feels prickly, her senses uncannily acute. The building at 1814 South Gramercy suddenly seems beautiful.

* * *

Marilyn's uncle does not look happy to see them when he comes in an hour later to find Marilyn unpacking dishes and Sylvie on the phone with Domino's. Woody's a slight man, with long graying hair pulled back into a ponytail and a tiny gut.

"Hello, ladies," he says dryly. "Welcome back."

Sylvie hangs up the phone and turns to him. "Thank you for letting us stay," she gushes in her best Sweet'N Low voice.

"You were my brother's wife," he says remotely.

Sylvie hides her wince fairly well, but Marilyn catches it. To Woody's credit, he did agree to give up his bedroom for Sylvie and sleep on the couch. Marilyn's tiny room, it seems, had mostly been storing boxes, which now litter the hall.

"Like we talked about," Sylvie adds quickly, "it will only be for a bit. In the meantime, we'll make lovely housemates. The place will be spic and span. You won't have to worry about a thing."

"I do love your mashed potato casserole," Woody hints.

"I'm planning on making it for you tomorrow. I've just ordered us a pizza for this evening. You know, it's your niece's seventeenth birthday," she prompts.

Woody looks at Marilyn, sizing her up. Since they moved out, Marilyn has seen him only a handful of times, the last of which was two Christmases ago when he came down to the OC with a twelve-pack and passed out on their couch.

"Well," he says, "you sure have grown up since last you were here. Even since the last time I saw you. Grab me a beer, would you, doll?"

She goes to the fridge and pulls out a Miller Light, briefly pressing the cold bottle against her cheek. She feels vaguely feverish. Though it's cooled down outdoors, Woody's apartment seems to have caged the day's heat.

"Get one for yourself if you like, it's your birthday," he says.

Marilyn does not.

When the pizza arrives, Sylvie insists they put birthday candles in, which she's managed to fish out from one of the unpacked boxes. Marilyn leans over the flames that are starting to drip spots of pink wax onto the cheese: I wish that by this time next year, I'll be far away from here, in college in New York City, beginning a life that belongs to me ... But as she closes her eyes to blow out the candles, it's James she sees behind her lids, the image of him tugging at her like an undertow.

* * *

Lying awake atop the creaky single bed, between the worn My Little Pony sheets her mom bought her years ago, Marilyn hears muffled voices floating in through her window. One of them sounds like James's, and there's another, a kid's voice. She strains to hear what they're saying, but they talk softly and she can only make out words: Nana ... shoes ... school ... promise ... A faint bit of laughter.

The voices go quiet, and she's alone with the emptiness of the room where she once spent her first sleepless nights in the city. She stares up at the familiar patterns in the ceiling as a helicopter circles overhead. Then, moments later, there's music. She thinks she recognizes the melody, and the sweet voice that comes in from the night. Try me, try me ... She imagines James in bed listening, and the sound becomes an invisible bridge between them. She finally drifts off, sharing his song.

Marilyn wakes in a sweat to early-morning light flooding in through her window. Outside an ice cream truck plays its song, over and over. She surveys the boxes strewn around her, her chest tightening. She takes a deep breath and holds her hands up to frame a photograph of the detritus of her life, blinks, and takes a picture.

She'd discovered her love of photography when she joined yearbook last year, mostly as a means of having a worthwhile extracurricular to add to her college apps. But instead of simply photographing her fellow students, she soon found herself using the school-issued 35-millimeter camera at every chance she got — capturing a child struggling to be released from his father's grip, a girl tucking a white rockrose behind her ear, the streaks of a plane left behind in the pale blue sky, Sylvie on a plastic lounge chair at the apartment pool leaning down to paint her toes. As Marilyn looked through the lens, her surroundings had become something worth watching. Worth keeping. She began to go to the library to look through photography books, studying the work of Robert Frank, Carrie Mae Weems, Sally Mann, Gordon Parks. She'd discovered that by learning to click the shutter at the right moment, you could make art out of anything. But, of course, she'd had to return the camera to school at the end of the year. In its absence, she's begun taking mind-pictures — an effort to salvage the much-needed connection to the world around her.


Excerpted from "In Search of Us"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Ava Dellaira.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Prologue: Angie,
Epilogue: Marilyn,
About the Author,

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