An electric debut novel about love, addiction, and loss; the story of two girls and the feral year that will cost one her life, and define the other’s for decades
Everything about fifteen-year-old Cat’s new town in rural Michigan is lonely and off-kilter, until she meets her neighbor, the manic, beautiful, pill-popping Marlena. Cat, inexperienced and desperate for connection, is quickly lured into Marlena’s orbit by little more than an arched eyebrow and a shake of white-blond hair. As the two girls turn the untamed landscape of their desolate small town into a kind of playground, Cat catalogues a litany of firstsfirst drink, first cigarette, first kisswhile Marlena’s habits harden and calcify. Within the year, Marlena is dead, drowned in six inches of icy water in the woods nearby. Now, decades later, when a ghost from that pivotal year surfaces unexpectedly, Cat must try to forgive herself and move on, even as the memory of Marlena keeps her tangled in the past.
Alive with an urgent, unshakable tenderness, Julie Buntin’s Marlena is an unforgettable look at the people who shape us beyond reason and the ways it might be possible to pull oneself back from the brink.
About the Author
Julie Buntin is from northern Michigan. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, O, The Oprah Magazine, Slate, Electric Literature, and One Teen Story, among other publications. She teaches fiction at Marymount Manhattan College, and is the director of writing programs at Catapult. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Marlena is her debut novel.
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By Julie Buntin
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2017 Julie Buntin
All rights reserved.
Tell me what you can't forget, and I'll tell you who you are. I switch off my apartment light and she comes with the dark. The train's eye widens in the tunnel and there she is on the tracks, blond hair swinging. One of our old songs starts playing and I lose myself right in the middle of the cereal aisle. Sometimes, late at night, when I'm fumbling with the key outside my apartment door, my eyes meet my reflection in the hallway mirror and I see her, waiting.
Marlena and I are in Ryder's van. That morning, while he was still asleep, she stole the keys from the pocket of his jeans. The spring's burst gloriously, stupidly into summer, and we're wearing drugstore flip-flops, hair tacky with salt at the temples, breath all cigarettes and cherry lip gloss and yesterday's wine. I kick my sandals off and unfold my legs on the dash, press my toes against the windshield the way I do when it's just Marlena and me. Ryder says I've ruined his car, that the spots won't rub off, but I don't care. Marlena painted my nails, propping my foot on her thigh. High-alert orange — her color.
Our windows are rolled all the way down. The breeze loosens the hair from my ponytail, sends it in tangles across my face so that everything I see is broken. We're on our way to the beach, for a normal day. For holding our breath underwater until our lungs beg. For the breath-stealing slap of a wave against our stomachs and sour, fizzy mouthfuls of beer stolen from unattended coolers. We'll track the sun's movement with the angles of our towels and pass the same two magazines back and forth until the light sinks into the water. When we leave, unburying our feet from cold sand, we'll have sunburns, then fevers.
We're pretending to be girls with minor secrets, listening to Joni Mitchell with the volume turned up. Every line is a message written just for us. I sing so loud Marlena can't hear herself, tells me shh, tells me I'm making her brain hurt. But in this memory, I only sing louder.
Marlena puts pressure on the gas and the car climbs the big hill on the dead-end road that leads to the lake. The speedometer leaps — we pass fifty-five, the limit on country roads, and hit seventy within a minute. The car fills with wind, so pushy and loud my hair whips against my neck and I can't hear the music anymore. My voice hitches and I swing my feet to the floor. I try to roll my window up but Marlena locks it from her side. When she looks at me, grinning, I feel the car edge over to the shoulder, tires spitting gravel. She swerves back into the lane and the speedometer quivers before it jumps past eighty-five. Marlena's ponytail has fallen almost out, and I wonder whether she can see, if maybe she doesn't realize that we're up to ninety now, and that underneath the wind there's a new smell, bitter and hot, the van's organs burning. We go faster and faster. I giggle a little and tell her to slow down, and a few seconds later to slow the fuck down, and when she doesn't answer I shout that she's crazy and scaring me and I want to get out of the goddamn car and that we're going to die, please, she's going to fucking kill us. We hit a hundred miles per hour, zipping up another hill, the car thrumming. When we reach the top the tires lift off the pavement, and when we land I slam against the glove compartment, catching myself with my forearms. She doesn't brake and I wrestle my seatbelt on. Lake Michigan, Caribbean blue and winking light, rears up in our faces. We're half a mile or less from the drop-off, the parking lot, the path to the beach.
She's not going to stop, and for a second I feel something foreign, a rage that's equal parts hunger and fear. Do it, I think, do it, and my stomach's in my throat but I'm so tired of being the one to say no, be careful, stop. "What if I just keep going?" she shouts. Later I realize she was probably very high, because that would have been around the time of the pharmaceutical bottle of Oxy, forties, pills that loom in my memory of her like an extra feature; her eyes, the scraggly tips of her unwashed hair.
Now the lake is bigger than the sky. After we go under, how long will it take me to kick out the passenger-side window, my flip-flops floating to the roof of the car, my body shrieking for air? Marlena is a bad swimmer.
But then, no more than a dozen car lengths from the drop-off, we start to slow. The van weaves back and forth across the dotted line, careening onto the outer edges of its wheels. We stop with a shudder and a squeal. I jolt forward, the seat belt knifing into the space between my breasts. The headlights nose the slatted fence that marks the place where the land plummets a steep quarter mile to a crescent of stony beach. The car sighs, its engine ticking with relief. I am almost crying, my pulse a gallop, and I hate her for knowing it.
"Oh, come on," Marlena says, but she's out of breath and it takes her too long. "Do you really think I'd let anything bad happen to you?" Hives, the kind she gets when she's anxious or excited, spread in a fine red lace from her collarbone up along the jumpy tendons of her neck, ending at her jaw. She scrapes a set of fingernails against my kneecap, a small circle that opens outward, shivering through me.
I want to spit right in her face. I want to walk away from everything she's made me do and all the ways I've changed so bad that for an instant it's possible, I almost do. I tuck my hands under my thighs so she won't see them shaking, and stare at the pine-tree deodorizer. It flutters like we're still moving. "Cat," she says.
It's not a question. I love this wildness. I crave it. So why, when something in me asks if it's worth ruining my life over, do I hear No?
I blink hard, until the tears are gone. When I laugh, shaking my head, she laughs too, and the horrible thing between us disappears, except for one indestructible sliver, mine forever. We grab the plastic bags of snacks from the backseat and trip down the path to the beach. Already I'm forgetting the feeling that seared me minutes before. Do it, just do it already, you bitch. She's singing again, "California," the part about kissing a sunset pig, the part about coming home. I chase her voice with mine.
Joni Mitchell songs fit Marlena. She was comfortable in higher registers, landing fast on each note, and she could perfectly mirror Joni's trembling strength, the way she turned syllables into hard bells, ringing. That's the last time I can remember hearing Marlena sing "California," though it couldn't have been. It was one of her favorites, and this was four months, at least, before she died. She drowned, technically. Though not in the way I'd feared that day, Ryder's van, shooting through a guardrail. There was no great splash. No screams from the beach, no rushing lifeguard. She would have liked that better.
Marlena suffocated in less than six inches of ice-splintered river, in the woods on the outskirts of downtown Kewaunee, a place she had no reason to be at twilight in November. She was wearing one of my old coats and a pair of chewed-up Keds that the police would make much of. The tote bag she carried was full of loose change that must have rattled, as she walked, against that prescription bottle, her pay-as-you-go flip phone. She struck her head neatly, brutally, on a river boulder, and, it is assumed, her body slid just so, unconscious, until mouth and nostrils were submerged in water.
Some of the details are facts, but very few — where she was found, what she wore and carried. She was last seen alive at 5:12 p.m., according to Jimmy, my older brother. His memory of those three numbers blinking on the car clock is distinct. Though, he told me later, frustrated, drunk, he could be remembering what the clock read in the minutes just after she got in the car. It's possible, he said, that 5:12 p.m. was the time he left the house, before he even picked her up. I understand why it bothered him so much, not knowing the time line for sure. Neither of us really believes that what happened to her was pure accident.
* * *
At a little past one in the afternoon, almost twenty years after that day in the car, I received a phone call from a ghost. I was walking through a corridor of faceless skyscrapers on Fifth Avenue, congested with men in long wool coats who collectively bristled when I slowed and pulled my phone from my pocket. I had a hangover, a dull knot between my eyes, a flutter in my pulse. When I saw the area code, 231, I hit Ignore. I leaned against a deli window, my chest tightening. I had no business with anyone in northern Michigan anymore; Mom lived in Ann Arbor with Roger, who even after a decade I still thought of as her new husband; Jimmy was in the UP, working for a construction company that built overpriced vacation houses.
The caller left a voicemail.
Hi, the voice said, a man, a nasal tilt to his vowels that reminded me of home. I'm sorry, he said, and then said it again. This is weird. Is this the phone for the Cat, the Catherine, from Silver Lake? This is Sal.
I saw Sal the boy, the landline's cord corkscrewing around his fingers, speaking, as if by magic, with a grown man's voice. It almost made me laugh. Sal Joyner. I'm in New York. He stopped for a second and then said, drawing out the words, The Big Apple, as if to prove to whoever was listening that he meant it, that it was both incredible and real. You probably don't even remember me, he said, and then I did laugh, something like a laugh at least, a sharp intake of breath that curved up at the end, a not-unhappy sound. I hope it's okay that I called. I'm wondering if you might have some — an hour or whatever, to meet. To talk to me about my sister.
And it all came back, of course, the edges sharper, clearer, than the city around me, the city that had seemed to blur and then fall away as soon as Sal said his name. Though it was there already, wasn't it? A period of my life so brief it was over almost as soon as it started, and still there's something I want to know, a question ticking in the deep, a live mine.
231. For a second I had thought it was her.
The first time I saw Marlena Joyner, Jimmy and I were unloading a U-Haul. We'd driven it five hours from our old house near the thumb of Michigan, all the way to the top of the state's ring finger. It was early December and snowing wet, sleety flakes. Marlena weaved through her front yard, between the soggy and overturned packing crates, the tin barrels and busted engines and miscellaneous scraps of metal, until she was right beside me, sizing up the boxes in the truck. She wore a white T-shirt with the collar scissored off, and a pair of Spider-Man snow boots. The details of her in my memory are so big and clear they almost can't quite be true. Her arms were slicked with snowmelt and pimpled from the cold; her hair gave off a burnt-wood smell when she shook it out of her face, the way she often did before she spoke.
"You're the new people."
"So it would seem," said Jimmy. He hoisted Mom's rocking chair over his shoulders and disappeared into our garage without looking back, which is how I knew he thought she was beautiful.
Though it was an unremarkable meeting, the start of a familiar story, in the coming months we'd go over and over the details until they took on a mythical radiance. Marlena lived less than twenty paces away, in a renovated barn coated in layers of lilac paint that was sticky to the touch. The building sagged into the ground. Her living situation disturbed me then, but really, it wasn't so different from ours. We'd bought a ranch-style modular on a grubby half-acre of land in Silver Lake. It was a prefab three bedroom, still new — the kind of place that had been assembled in a lot and dropped off by truck. It reminded me of a Monopoly house. Mom said she was attracted to its efficient lack of stairs, to the big backyard. She didn't say what Jimmy and I knew: that a modular was a step up from a trailer, and that without Dad we were full-blown poor.
Marlena lifted her hair off her neck and twisted it into a damp rope. Pounds of hair, waist-length and alien pale, bangs angled across her forehead — a style I'd tried at the end of middle school, with crap results. She was alarmingly pretty — sly, feline face, all cheekbone and blink — and if I am honest, that was the first reason I wanted to become friends. At fifteen, I was somehow fat and skinny at the same time. My ears stuck straight out of my head. Still, I believed that any second I might become beautiful; I was crazy about girls who already were.
"I'm Marlena," she said.
"Cat," I answered. To my family I was Catherine or Cathy, but I'd decided I couldn't be that girl here.
"Well, we don't seem to have much choice." She smiled, her eyes blue and giant. I couldn't tell if it was nice or what.
Whenever I hear the word danger, I see Marlena and me staring into the mouth of that U-Haul in the winter hour between twilight and dark. Two girls full of plans, fifteen and seventeen years old in the middle of nowhere. Stop, I want to tell us. Stay right where you are, together. Don't move. But we will. We always do. The clock's already running.
* * *
After we distributed the boxes to their proper rooms, Mom, Jimmy, and I sat cross-legged on the living room floor eating frozen pizza. The cable wasn't hooked up yet; the TV eyed us blankly. Mom was drinking from a tall plastic cup. The new fridge didn't have an ice maker, let alone a crusher, so she'd rinsed a Ziplock used to transport makeup, turned it inside out, filled it with cubes from the tray, and then bashed the ice into pieces with a ketchup bottle. She asked Jimmy again about his scholarship, if he'd gotten a clear answer from the MSU people about whether it could be applied to enrollment next year. She'd asked him that at least three times since I put the pizza in the oven. When Mom drank more than a couple glasses of wine, her brain caught on the same idea, replaying it over and over.
"Because that's a lot of money to just throw away," she said, and then launched into her regular speech, the one about his mistakes, and where did we think money came from?
"I want more pizza," Jimmy said, and stood, leaving the room, probably to go blow blunt-smoke out of the fan propped reverse-ways in his bedroom window. It was the only thing he'd unpacked. He'd been smoking a lot since the divorce, and since his breakup with his chirpy-voiced girlfriend who was now well into the first term of her freshman year at MSU, where he should be, too. In my opinion, she was the real reason he'd deferred, turning down his scholarship just weeks before he was due to start, but who knew, when it came to Jimmy? He said it was because we needed him. College could wait. He joked that our band name should be the Pause-Outs — he'd paused-out of college, and I, for the moment at least, had paused-out of high school.
"If it turns out he had to fill out some paper or something, he's going to be really pissed," Mom told me, uncrossing her legs and tipping over her wine in the process. Ice slivered onto the floor and I scooped it back into the cup, the skinnier pieces wiggling out from between my fingers. "First stain," she shouted, ceremoniously spreading her napkin over the spill. It darkened instantly, melting into the carpet.
Mom and I gathered up the plates and deposited them in the kitchen sink. "We can do them tomorrow," Mom said, holding her cup under the Franzia box's spigot until it filled back up. She kissed me loudly on the head and left. I turned the tap to burning and washed every single dish, even Jimmy's.
The new house was a low-ceilinged, chubby rectangle propped up on a bunch of cement blocks. No basement. If you tapped any wall with your fist, a hollow echo bounced back. Our rooms all fed off a hallway to the right of the kitchen — bathroom first, then my room, then Jimmy's, and across from his, Mom's. I rattled the bathroom doorknob. "Quit pooping," I said.
"Why? Don't you want it to be nice and warm in here?" he said, from inside.
"You are disgusting."
Jimmy opened the door, my tall, shaggy-haired brother, a dribble of toothpaste on his chin. When he was my age, he'd published an op-ed in the local newspaper about being a teenage atheist. He was blond and blue-eyed like Mom, and could run a mile in six minutes. Back when we were still the kind of family who went on camping trips, Jimmy and I used to share a bed in the rented motor home. Mom made us sleep head to toe, so we wouldn't fight. Jimmy always got to put his head in the normal place; I was the one who had to be upside down. And so I loathed him, in an effortful way, for all that, but mostly because of how he dismissed Dad, and how that made Dad more eager for Jimmy's attention than he ever was for mine.
For a long time, too long, I couldn't stand that it was Jimmy, not me, who saw Marlena last. After Dad left, our sibling sonar, the one that travels via blood and cells and the bond of battling the same two parents, began to break down. A few years from that night in the bathroom we'd be like acquaintances. If we were closer, now, I'd tell him that I forgive him, for whatever he did or didn't do, for letting her open the passenger-side door and walk off into the flat gray dusk, her bag swinging against her hip, for those long, last minutes that are his, alone. It's hard to admit that the worst part of me still feels like this is another way he got a little more of what we were supposed to share. Once a baby sister, I guess, always one.
I kicked a box labeled HALLWAY so that it blocked him from leaving the bathroom. "What's this? What do we need for the hallway?"
Excerpted from Marlena by Julie Buntin. Copyright © 2017 Julie Buntin. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a story about Cat, who moves to a new town and meets Marlena. Marlena is intoxicating: she’s the bad girl archetype fully realized, gorgeous and witty but careless and dangerous. She allows herself to be drawn into the darkness, and once she’s there, you don’t have much of a choice but to join her. It’s a character type that looms large in the contemporary imagination lately, but what makes Buntin’s take distinct is Marlena’s innocence. She’s portrayed here as vulnerable, teetering between intentional manipulation and casual naiveté. Marlena is not the femme fatale, not yet—she never gets wise enough to own herself in that way. One of the most admirable qualities of this novel is its portrayal of adolescence. A word I see in many reviews is “unflinching,” though I’m not sure that’s the appropriate choice here: it’s not so much that Marlena shies away from anything as it’s so devoted to its perspective that we never question, never doubt, never stop engaging with the fantasy of teenage immortality. Teenagers are, of course, terrible, and they’re terrible here, too, but Cat is honest and clear in describing her friends and their particular terribleness. For a moment, for 300 pages (whichever comes first), you slip outside of your knowing right and wrong, your Adult Smartness™, and remember how infallible you felt in high school. The book, narrated from the present moment by a thirty-something Cat, alternates between glimpses of her life now and extended narration of the past. The structure is such an intelligent choice for this novel, since it teaches us about Cat’s mental space: this is a story about compartmentalizing and eulogizing and forgetting and remembering, and the balance between the past and the present (or lack thereof) gives us a meaningful understanding of how the past works as scar tissue. It’s not that Cat is, years later, still obsessed with her dead friend. She hasn’t devoted her entire life to memorializing Marlena. But Marlena will not—cannot—be dismissed. Even in death she is a force of nature that wreaks havoc on someone who escaped her pull not by choice but by accident, and the consequences of those circumstances have left their mark. How can you attain closure when you weren’t trying to suture your wounds at all, but simply woke up to find them stitched? Ultimately, what I find so satisfying about Buntin’s debut is its willingness not to hide anything: our narrator does not obfuscate. We know early that Marlena dies. We know early Cat moves on. And despite it, the book shivers and shakes with tension—it takes over your body and kills you, page by page. Engrossing, horrifying, delightful. My rating: 5/5
I was surprised with the adoration that Cat had towards Marlena. As their friendship grew, she saw Marlena for who she was and what her life was composed of and still, she idolized her. Their lives had a lot of similarities yet Marlena’s life was out of control and I didn’t see how Cat could envy what Marlena had. Marlena lived for drugs, I could see her cycling downward as her addiction was taking control of her life. Marlena’s father was a ghost, appearing sporadically, leaving Marlena to tend to her younger brother. Cat tried to change, she wanted to be more like Marlena but sometimes the grass is not always greener on the other side. Cat knew that her friend’s life was not ideal yet Cat didn’t try to save Marlena from her own life, Cat didn’t preach to Marlena and try to set her straight, she let Marlena, be Marlena. I liked that about this novel. There were times that Marlena was extreme and Cat stayed by her side and encouraged her along, there wasn’t any lecturing or winners in their friendship. Cat let things fall where they landed and in the process and she became a central part of Marlena’s life. I liked that the novel demonstrates how one person can affect your life and shape you. Importantly, this person doesn’t need to be perfect or great to have an impact.