Outside their motel window, Wyoming is lurid with sunset. A billboard for Winstons simmers on the horizon of highway, as if the cigarettes might ignite in their box.
Standing rain has collected in the sagebrush close to the road, and heat makes a perfume from these puddles: herbal, medicinal, otherworldly.
Inside Room 186 of the Wagon Wheel Inn, Elise will be kneeling on the carpet, which is orange like a tangerine. Her hair is greasy and braided, and a name—tattooed in calligraphy on her neck—is visible. She keeps both hands on the shotgun—the muzzle pressed into Jamey’s breast.
He’ll be sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, hands on thighs.
“Don’t you love me?” he’ll ask, quiet and desperate. “Elise. Come on. Don’t you love me?”
She bites her lip.
He’s not wearing a shirt—just jeans—and his bare feet are splayed. The couple has been in this position for two hours and fourteen minutes.
Fifteen minutes now.
Her muscles are quaking. His should be.
In case the room seems small in this recounting, be sure it’s not. It’s gigantic, swollen, pounding on a molecular level like a billion hearts, the way a space does when the people in it realize their power. Elise will close her eyes, turn her head, and push the safety off.
Connecticut is where it begins.
Elise sits on the couch and listens carefully to this evening’s city song of church bells and police sirens. She tilts her long and fine skull in a minor way.
New Haven winter: sour, brittle, gray like ice that forms on milk.
Robbie’s place—and her place too, Robbie insists—is bare as a squat, with a mattress and thin blankets in each bedroom. The curtains are smoke-soiled. The fridge door is scaled in decals from radio stations and hard-core bands, and stickers peeled off apples. One Lucky Charm lies bloated in the drain.
Taped to her wall, where someone else might hang a crucifix, is a page torn from Rolling Stone: Prince in a misty lavender paradise.
Elise moved in three months ago, after Robbie found her snoring in his boyfriend-of-the-night’s unlocked Pontiac; she was shivering under a ragged white fur coat.
At first they thought she was a dog.
She squinted at Robbie and his friend, who both stood there with the door open.
“Whoops. This your car?” she’d asked, smiling lopsided, eyes clear, drug-free.
When she stood up out of the backseat, taller than them, a backpack hanging like a pendulum from her hand—then she looked scared. An elegantly sad runaway in generic white sneakers and gold bamboo earrings.
The men had to unclench their fists.
Robbie took her home, and the two became incongruous animals in a fable—a giraffe that helps a honeybee, or a rabbit who saves an elephant, having little adventures from page to page.
The new roommates bonded by cooking macaroni together, dancing in pajamas and socks to Michael Jackson, drinking soda, and watching late-night public access TV. Shit, neither of them has a clue what to do in life except live.
✷ ✷ ✷
She’s looking out her living-room window. Her and Robbie’s building is rotted from its eaves down, the floors broken into discount apartment units. Their building has stoic—almost happy—bad health, the way a smile is gleeful if it’s missing teeth.
Next door is a white townhouse where two Yale guys live. A chandelier glimmers inside, shining with leftover daylight when everything else is dark. Wealthy families lived there before the neighborhood slipped, and the house is forlorn like a society girl forced to get a job.
These boys happen to be smoking on the porch.
Now Elise is going to do it—before she thinks it over and backs down. It’s been driving her crazy.
Now she zips up the knee-length rabbit coat with its vinyl belt, the name Esther stitched in violet into the taffeta lining that is threadbare and shimmering. (She traded her can of Pringles for the coat on a Greyhound bus one abnormally warm autumn night, while the factories of Elizabeth, New Jersey, ghosted by in the dark. The black girl was strung out and thought it was a good deal since she wasn’t cold at that moment and seemed to revel in the dream she’d never be cold again. But I already ate some of the chips, Elise joked in protest, handing over the tube and taking the fur. No, kid, the girl murmured, it’s cool.)
Elise leaves the apartment. Night air snakes into her seams within seconds as she walks down the sidewalk.
Everyone sizes each other up. She waves.
“Hey neighbor,” says one guy for the first time since she moved in.
“Hey,” she says.
“Where you going?” he asks, obviously intoxicated.
She sniffs and looks away. “Buy some beer.”
Her accent is harder than they expected.
“We’ve got beer.”
“What kind?” she says, eyes narrowed.
“The kind,” he says, “you don’t have to go walking in the cold for.”
The three of them amble into the house as if this is an everyday meeting, as if no one is curious about anyone else. Inside, Matt goes to the fridge and pops the caps off three Heinekens.
Elise’s heart is a broken machine, crashing and thumping.
“What’s your name again?” he asks even though she hasn’t said it.
Is she frightening? Is she pretty? The guys blink their eyes as if her body is rippling and morphing and they can’t finalize an idea.
She’s lanky with round and solid tits. Boys’ hips. She’s a greyhound, curved to run, aerodynamic, beaten, fast as fuck, born to lose. Her face is stark, outlined by dark cornrows. The features drawn down for velocity. The scalp—ghostly. Her skin and hair verge on oily, but the gray eyes are soft in black-liner confines. A divot in her cheekbone might have come from chicken pox.
“I’m Matt,” says the one doing all the talking, his own face appraising, unkind. Nothing happens in his eyes except a vague fizz, like flat root beer.
“And I’m Jamey,” says the one with the dimple. He looks like a matinee idol who got drugged—waxy, his eyes heavy with lust but also choir-boy chaste.
Somehow he gives the impression of being a hustler, but also being the mark, his self twisted into a Möbius strip of innate glamour and his own exploitation.
“Nice place,” she says.
Elise doesn’t know what to make of it. A camel-hair coat on a chair. Interview magazine and Wall Street Journals, cigarette packs and folded twenties and coins and Perrier bottles on the coffee table.
She moves around, in boots and that skanky fur, like an inspector.
“You at Yale?” asks Matt with a straight face, even though they know she’s not.
Jamey asks: “Are you from here?”
“From around. You guys from here?”
“We’re from New York,” Matt says, lighting a smoke, his tone polite considering the absurdity of the question.
“You brothers?” Elise prompts.
“No,” says Matt, shaking out the match. “Just look like brothers.”
“Grew up together,” Jamey adds.
She’s watched them since she moved onto the block a few months ago, and could barely tell them apart before tonight. Now it’s obvious they’re opposites. She’s watched as they shaved on the other side of a steamed window, white towel around a waist. They buttoned long coats, getting into their cars where they talked on giant blocks of telephones.
Jamey gets up for another beer.
“Grab me one?” Matt says.
“Me too,” Elise adds.
Matt shoots a look to Jamey, who just grins and shrugs, comes back with three bottles.
They sit there, drinking. Elise should go home, but she isn’t standing up.
Late at night, Elise has watched them bring home girls in gowns (that drag the dead leaves on the ground) and big tuxedo jackets over their shoulders. Or a girl in a kilt will lean her bicycle against the porch railing and sidle inside on golden afternoons. The boys leave early for classes, hair damp and combed, the world moody with sleep. They wave to the elderly landlord shoveling snow from their walk.
“Well,” Matt says in a disingenuous voice. “Bedtime for me.”
She’s also watched Matt shadow Robbie down the sidewalk to amuse his Ray-Bans-and-Shetland-sweater buddies, without Robbie realizing it (in fact after he’d waved hesitantly to them as he passed), Matt mincing his steps and hanging his wrist, making his face fey and pathetic.
“Guess we’ll see you around,” Matt says to her forcefully.
“Sure, yeah.” Elise lights a Newport King. She stands to blow smoke in his face. “And if you ever get near my friend Robbie again, let alone make fun of him like I seen you do, I’ll burn your motherfucking house down.”
The blue smoke hangs, waiting, and she looks at him, her eyes half-lidded and suddenly red, deadened. The tiniest smirk touches her mouth.
“I’m sorry, what?” Matt says shrilly.
“You heard me,” Elise says, mission accomplished but now having to control her voice from shaking.
“Are you coming into my house and telling me what to do?” Matt pushes her shoulder, testing the moment.
Elise looks at where he touched her then raises her head to stare at him.
“Okay, Matt. I don’t think so,” Jamey says, moving between them.
“She’s out of here,” Matt says to no one.
“You’re fucking correct about that,” Elise snarls.
Matt points Elise toward the door. “All right, let’s move.”
“I’ll go as fast as I wanna,” she says.
She glances back to lock eyes with Jamey, who—with a mystified half smile—is watching her leave.
✷ ✷ ✷
Elise lies in her dark bedroom, ashing into a Dr Pepper can next to the mattress.
She’s the uncommon baby left in a crib that consoles itself, that can stare for hours at the ceiling. Most people need to sleep once the lights are off, the sex over, and Carson’s said good night; something’s wrong if they stay awake.
Elise never separates things into day and night, rarely thinks about being a boy or girl, or alive or dead. Without divisions, there’s less work to do. She floats, free in a cheap and magic way.
She happily replays what could have happened. She comes from fighters—her mom can drive a stick shift, smoke a cigarette, drink a soda, put on mascara, and deliver a smack to every member of the family without taking her eyes off the highway. Elise could knock that kid’s teeth out with a single swing.
She grins into the dark, walks herself around the ring with one arm raised.
But it’s the dimpled one, Jamey—she didn’t know he could exist until tonight; it’s like she was watching a jet cross the sky then realized it’s a bird. She has to reorient herself.
She didn’t leave home last summer with a plan. Twenty years old, she never finished high school, she was half-white and half–Puerto Rican, childless, employed at the time, not lost and not found, not incarcerated, not beautiful and not ugly and not ordinary. She doesn’t check any box; her face has Boricua contours and her skin is alabaster.
She left her family and everything she knew the morning after a Sunday barbecue in June. They’d all taken over the grill and picnic tables in the Bridgeport park, the Sally S. Turnbull projects looming in the near distance but far enough away to forget for a few hours.
They sat hunched, swatting at black flies, laughing till they cried. Boom boxes, hot dogs, jean shorts and half shirts, Lay’s potato chips, cherry soda, and sunshine that fried their brains and hearts. It was a rapturous last supper. She left the housing unit at dawn, when everyone was sticky with hangover. She walked out the way girls do in campfire stories, heeding a knock on the door that no one else heard, and vanishing.
And she hadn’t known why till now. Oh, sweet mercy, now she knows.