CHAPTER 17. “Sixteen, I had to leave.”




Violet wasn’t her real name but no one in the city knew that.


She’d been coined “Violet” when she was sixteen after bleaching her chocolate brown hair blonde and dying it a soft, smoky purple.


“You’re not what they say you are,” a skater-boy with sad silver-topaz eyes said to her over a cigarette on Siesta Key beach on a mid-winter night in ‘96.


“What do you mean?” she ashed into the white powdery sand.


The long-lashed skater boy looked at her shyly and pointed to her freshly dyed hair. “You’ve got Violet hair. You’re Violet.”


She stared into the ocean. It was so dark it blended into the black sky. Stars sparkled over their heads. She’d never felt more alive. More free. More herself. “I’m Violet,” she whispered into the half-moon.


Six months later the boy would start using heroin and Violet would get roofied at a house party — but in that moment everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.


They sat on the beach till sunrise, smoking clove cigarettes, talking about New York and their fathers and their favorite Smashing Pumpkins album: Siamese Dream.


She’d been Violet ever since.


Violet wasn’t like most sixteen-year-old girls on the gulf coast of Florida. She wasn’t tan. She wasn’t blonde. She wasn’t a cheerleader. She wasn’t a hick. She wasn’t beachy.


She wore clunky black Dr. Martens over torn black tights every single day, even when the air was scorching and pregnant with humidity, which it was often. She wore distressed wool sweaters with arms that fell past her knees, so you could never see her hands with the exception of her thumbs, which peeped out of little holes she’d cut with her pocketknife. She wore black velvet chokers studded with tiny silver hearts and rimmed her hazel eyes with intense black kohl and dragged a giant black canvas backpack with her everywhere she went.


She embodied winter. Not the slate-skyed, morose winters of London or Paris. She was bright blue and blanketed in crystal white snow. She was the kind of freezing that makes your blood flow. She was the feeling of walking out of a Broadway matinee in February, shivering excitedly, cold hands stuffed into parka pockets, chattering away with friends about art and life and theatre; flush-cheeked and high off the culture.


She was winter —

in New York —on her best day.


Violet’s home life was chaotic. She lived in an apartment overlooking a flat highway littered with sunbaked trash. It was motherless and messy, spearheaded by her unpredictable alcoholic shadow of a dad.


She went to a shitty public school with crumbling ceilings and rowdy students and overworked teachers with cortisol levels too high to be paid so low. She got deplorable grades and spent her time in class drawing pictures of girls with big, bruised eyes into her notebook. She didn’t get in trouble for never raising her hand or completing an assignment on time ‘cause her teachers had bigger fish to fry. They had fights to break up, child-abuse reports to file, small classrooms packed with thirty-five teenagers to wrangle.


Her only friends were a group of lost boys armed with skateboards who grew up feral and unsupervised like her. After school, they’d sit on little rocks by the bay downtown and drink beer and get high. The lost boys were crass and delinquent; under-showered and over-stimulated; starving for nurture and overfed with neglect; wild and ready to party; crusty and beautiful; fiercely protective and full of potential. The kind of potential adults can’t see.


But Violet wasn’t an adult. She was sixteen. She saw everything.


“One day we’re going to all move to New York,” she’d croon, elegantly clutching her canned beer like it was a flute of champagne.


“Why would we ever do that? The weather is shitty up north,” Will, a small sandy blonde with the saddest brown eyes you’ve ever seen, would ask. He’d toss a pebble into the bay and watch it skitter across the surface of the murky water.


Violet would snatch a cigarette out of his pack without asking, strike a match and light up, lean her back against a skinny palm tree. “Because they don’t get us here. But New York —” she’d inhale soulfully and part her lips. The boys would watch mesmerized as smoke billowed out of her mouth. “New York,” she’d continue, “is full of people like us.”


“People like what?” Alex, the most charismatic and broken of the group would ask, hoodie-over-head, skateboard resting by his feet like a dog.


“Winter people,” Violet would smirk, her moonbeam skin looking strange and out-of-context in the tropical wasteland.


“Bitch,” John, her next-door neighbor who’d hide her in his mom’s pantry when shit got real bad at home, would cackle. “You’re fucking crazy.” He’d sock her playfully in the arm. “But let’s get high,” he’d pull a joint from behind his left ear. They’d huddle together and smoke until their brains were blurry enough to forget that Violet was right. They didn’t belong here. But they’d never get out.


Except for Violet. Violet would get out. Which made them happy and sad at the same time. Sort of like setting something free that you love but was never really yours, to begin with.


*


Knife wasn’t her real name, but you already knew that.


Before she was “Knife” the notorious cokehead and androgynous model of lower Manhattan, she was the gangly daughter of Christian cranberry farmers in Warrens, Wisconsin.


At sixteen she was coined Knife by a popular cheerleader named Madeline. Madeline didn’t speak to her in school, but after school, they were the best of friends.


One week, Madeline’s parents traveled to Dallas with her little sister for a beauty pageant. Madeline and Knife had the house to themselves.


“You know what you remind me of?” Madeline asked. They were laying in her parent's four-poster bed, stuffing Doritos into their mouths, talking shit.


“What?”


“A knife.”


“Why do you say that?”


“You’re sharp and shiny.” Madeline giggled, still in her cheerleading outfit, pom-poms tossed haphazardly on the wood plank floors beneath them.


“I like that,” she said, suddenly unafraid. She grabbed Madeline by the waist and kissed her for the first time. Madeline’s body was warm and wanting, tan thighs trembling as she breathlessly kissed her back. “From now on, I’m Knife,” she grumbled into Madeline’s ear.


“I like that.”


“The kiss or my new name?”


“Both.” Madeline peeled her shirt off and threw it across the room. Knife lost her breath. The broken pieces fell into place.


“Will you touch me,” Madeline fluttered her eyelashes. “Knife?”


Knife nodded, slowly. She touched Madeline the way Madeline had always wanted to be touched. She touched Madeline in a way her football-playing boyfriend would never understand. She touched her carefully. Gently, like she was an expensive, fragile orchid. And then she clumsily breezed over her, brashly and playfully, like she was a tough little dandelion.


Madeline loved it.


Because all girls — regardless of where we come from — regardless of our social status or creed or upbringing — are equal parts orchid and equal parts dandelion. Beautiful but easily broken; scrappy and able to withstand the winter.


When it was over, they lay naked, Madeline’s parent’s expensive Egyptian cotton sheets damp and smelling like teen spirit. “This is always how I imagined it,” Madeline sighed, pressing her head beneath Knife’s arm.


Knife stroked Madeline’s freckled arm. “How you imagined what?”


Madeline looked at her with twinkly eyes. “Sex.”


“Kiss me so I know you’re real?” Knife asked, brushing her platinum wavy hair out of her blue-lagoon eyes.


Madeline kissed her until 2 a.m. on a school night. They fell asleep with raw, sore lips brushed against each other, sharing the same breath, sweaty and sixteen.


*


Violet had a black eye the day she met her.


They were at a house party in a backyard in Bradenton. Violet was sitting by the bonfire, uncomfortable and sticky-hot in her signature black tights and combat boots; sore-eyed and unable to cry; her sparkle fading fading fading with every swig of shitty beer, puff of a spliff, punch and putdown from her deadbeat dad. The skater boys had dragged her to the dumb hippy party because they made good money selling drugs to this class of kid. Oh, you know. Blue-collar white boys who listen to jam bands and wear hemp necklaces and fancy themselves “beatniks” after reading “Howl” in AP English.


Violet felt her before she saw her.


ZAP ZAP ZAP.


Violet jolted and swung her head around. It was like she’d been thrown into a field of electricity. Strange green eyes shined a spotlight against her face. It was blinding. But it was beautiful.


“What are you?” Violet asked, squinting from the bright light radiating from the mysterious green-eyed girl.


ZAP ZAP ZAP.


“I’m Shay.” The green-eyed girl paused. “And you’re…you’re —” she arched her brow “ — Violet, right?”


Violet couldn’t find words. She’d never seen anything like Shay.


Shay was dressed like a skater boy: low-slung baggy jeans, scuffed vans, oversized hoodie draped-over-head. But it wasn’t just Shay’s style that reminded Violet of a skater boy. It was her uncontained, rabid-dog-with-heart-of-gold energy. “How do you know who I am?” she finally managed.


“Alex told me ‘bout you. He said you’re the only other girl he knows who can hang,” she grinned. Her legs were spread open wide and her shoulders were the most relaxed shoulders Violet had ever seen. On a girl.


A punk show erupted inside of Violet’s body. “I’ve never seen you before.” Her chest was the moshpit. “I don’t think?” Her heart was the misunderstood rock kid thrashing violently around to the slam of the beat.


“I’ve never seen you either, I think.” Shay pulled her hood down. Her short, spiky hair was purple, like Violet’s. “We go to different schools.”


“Same hair color, different schools,” Violet stared into the flames.


“Different schools, same story.” Shay stared at Violet.


Violet turned to Shay and stared back at her. She noticed a large, expensive-looking camera resting in the folds of Shay’s baggy denim lap. “You take pictures?”


“If there’s something worth capturing.”


“How do you know?”


“How do I know what?”


“What’s worth capturing?”


“I don’t know. I just do. I guess it’s a feeling or something.”


“Huh.” Violet felt like she was in a Bizzaro universe where up was down and down was up and left was right and the sun was the moon and the moon was the stars and the ocean was the desert.


Shay reached into the pocket of her black hoodie and pulled out a plastic bag with a dozen or so tiny white pills rattling inside of it. She grabbed one and shoved it into her mouth, washing it down with a Pabst Blue Ribbon.


It was the mid-90s. Not all fuck-up teens had prescriptions. The pill thing was just getting started.


But Violet was curious. She was always curious, that was her problem. “What’s that?”


“Ritalin.”


“What’s Ritalin?”


“It’s medication for ADD.”


“What’s ADD?”


“A disease I have that makes it actually impossible for me to do homework or pay attention in math.”


“Oh. Then I definitely have it too.” Violet giggled.


“Well, if you take enough of these pretty white pills,” Shay’s pupils were big and round and glowing vibrant black rings inside of her green gemstone eyes. “You can do anything.”


“You know, I used to feel like I could do anything.” Violet suddenly felt homesick for her mom. She hugged her knees. “But it’s been so long, I can’t even remember what that feels like.”


Shay shook two loose pills out of the plastic bag and held them tight in her fist. “Maybe this will remind you?” She extended her hand toward Violet and unlocked her fingers. Violet suddenly realized they were alone. Everyone had left to take shots of 151 in the kitchen. It was dead quiet except for the cackle of the fire. Violet’s fingertips danced along the surface of Shay’s palm.


ZAP. ZAP. ZAP.


She lingered over Shay’s hand for a small, electric moment before curling her fingers around the pills, popping them into her mouth, and swallowing them down without liquid because Violet was nothing if not a natural.


“Want to get out of this shitty party? I could take your picture at the beach?”


Violet couldn’t recall ever wanting to do anything more. “Yes.” The flames cast a warm orange filter across Violet’s pale face. “Fuck, yes.”


“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” Shay jumped out of the rusty lawn chair she’d been sitting in. “My truck’s out front.”


Violet leaped into the air weightless, like a fawn, and trotted across the wet lawn.


They peeled out of the driveway, stray pieces of gravel flying behind them.


“Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill blasted through the speakers.


Violet rested her hand against the console.


Shay kept her stare intensely fixated on the road but shifted a free hand next to Violet’s hand.


Violet stared at their fingertips. Her nails were painted black with a shiny top coat of gold glitter. Shay’s nails were short and chewed down. Their hands spoke their own language. They wordlessly decided to intertwine.


ZAP ZAP ZAP.


The windows were down. The air reeked of burnt oranges. The headquarters of Tropicana. The truck sped down the dark industrial road. Their nervous systems sped even faster. Seatbelts carelessly unbuckled, squeezing hands, like two girls on the run with nothing left to lose.


Rebel Girl, Rebel Girl, You are The Queen Of My World.


*


Knife snuck into Madeline’s room every single night for thirty-one days after their first kiss.


They had it down to a science.


Madeline’s mom took her nightly Valium at 9 p.m. and by 10 p.m. she was knocked out on the couch, sound asleep, her mouth stretched open wide. Her dad slugged whiskey in his home office till 10:30. At 10:35 Madeline would listen to his slippers shuffle against the floorboards as he padded to bed. As soon as Madeline heard his snoring, usually at 11 on the dot, she’d beep Knife, who’d be sitting on her bed clutching her beeper, anxiously awaiting her cue. Knife’s parents would already be in a deep farmer’s sleep, exhausted from a day of manual labor.


Knife would quell the barking from the family’s three sheepdogs by offering them each a slab of ham in exchange for a vow of silence. They dutifully kept their promise, as sheepdogs always do.


Knife would pet them goodbye and tip-toe through the snow, past the cows, past the barn, past the chicken coop, until finally, she made her way to the fence that circled their property. She’d easily hop the fence like an English Schoolboy and sprint a mile in heavy snow boots to Madeline’s house. If the light to Madeline’s bathroom was on — that meant it was safe for Knife to sneak through the backdoor and slink upstairs to Madeline’s room.


Before she knew it, Knife would be in Madeline’s pink puffy bed, kissing her everywhere, golden trophies and framed family portraits, gawking at them.


“You make me feel so good,” Madeline would whisper, her eyes soft rose petals, her body limp and safe.


Knife gave Madeline an orgasm every night. Madeline never touched Knife between the thighs but Knife didn’t care. She was just happy to be there.


Knife would kiss Madeline’s eyelids, her heart a field of wildflowers, holding Madeline in her arms until she drifted to sleep. Once Madeline had been asleep for at least twenty minutes, she’d make sure she was fully covered and cozy in pink quilts and blankets, and would quietly make her way down the stairs. Then she’d tear into the vast open night, running, running, running.


But the thirty-first night was different. After they had sex she whispered “I love you,” into Madeline’s ear. “I love you too,” Madeline whispered back, closing her eyes. Knife closed her eyes too. Within minutes, she was passed out cold, long skinny arm draped over Madeline, platinum mohawk and black tattered Metallica shirt looking strange and out of context in the bubblegum teen dream.


*


They were high on Ritalin and mushrooms in a grassy park overlooking a neglected Marina when Violet told Shay she loved her.


They’d known each other for two weeks.


Violet would’ve found that funny if she’d known the joke about lesbians and u-hauls but she didn’t.


Violet sunk into the grass and observed Shay. Shay was zipping wildly around the docks on her longboard. I want to crawl into your skin and live there forever, she thought.


Shay panted over to Violet, her cheeks bright red, her eyes christmas tree green. She lay in the grass next to Violet.


“Has anyone ever told you that your eyes are the color of Christmas?” Violet mused, dreamily.


“The shrooms are kicking in, huh?” Shay laughed, wiping beads of sweat off her forehead. She laid down in the grass.


The two sixteen-year-old girls stared silently into the sky. The sky was cloudless and blinding white. It was surreal; like heaven in a movie.


“I have to tell you something.”


“Tell me something.” Shay closed her eyes. A kaleidoscope of colors burst through her brain.


“I love you.”


“I love you too.”


“No, like, I love you, love you.


Shay’s eyelids flung open. “Like as a friend?”


A big yellow butterfly hovered over Violet’s face. “No.”


“Violet.” She watched the butterfly land on Violet’s arm. Violet didn’t seem to notice. “You’re straight.”


“No. I’m not.”


“But you have all these boyfriends?”


“Who doesn’t?” Violet twisted a lock of faded purple hair around her finger. “You don’t have to feel the same way. But I had to tell you the truth.”


Shay’s silence hung heavy in the thick humid air. The butterfly fluttered her wings and took off into the strange, white light. Come back, she thought quietly.


“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.” Violet felt a tear roll down her cheek. It wasn’t a sad tear. It was an honest tear.


“I want to show you something.” Shay grabbed Violet by the hand and pulled her to her feet.


“What?”


“Let me show you.” She led Violet past the Marina and down a jungle-y, sandy path. They walked and walked and walked until they reached a silent stretch of water. The sand was soft and the palm trees were still. There was nothing there besides the two girls and an old wooden bench.


Shay turned to face Violet. “What do you think?”


“It’s beautiful.”


“Can I kiss you?” Shay asked softly.


Violet nodded, slowly.


Shay’s fingers lightly brushed her face. Her black eye was healing. They hadn’t spoken about it.


She kissed Violet on the eye first.


And then on the mouth.


Slowly.


It was a kiss that felt like music.


They got lost in the symphony. Even though there was no wind, the palm trees couldn’t help but softly swish to the swell of the beautiful sound of young love.



*


Knife tasted metal inside her mouth.


Her head throbbed and she couldn’t see.


But her legs kept running.


Blood poured out from her nose, staining the pristine green football field a violent crimson, as she sprinted to Madeline’s house.


*


No one knew Violet and Shay were in love at that party. Maybe if they had things would’ve turned out differently.


Maybe the boy wouldn’t have done what he did.


Maybe he would have done worse.


*


“Knife!” Madeline bolted out the front door of her large colonial house.


“Your boyfriend — he, he,” Knife couldn’t breathe. Her vision cut to black. She fell hard against the snow-adorned lawn.


Madeline stood above her. “I’m sorry. My sister saw us. She told him everything. Why did you stay the night?” she screamed. “You were supposed to leave!”


Knife felt like her skull, ribs, and nose were cracked. Like shattered particles of glass were piercing through her flesh and puncturing her bones. She wasn’t human. She was raw nerve. Raw nerves can’t speak.


“Knife! You were supposed to leave last night.”


Knife opened her eyes. Salty tears stung like peroxide to a gaping wound.


“Knife. You need to go. Now. I don’t want anything to do with you,” Madeline shrilled.


Knife felt the sky fall on top of her. “But I make you feel good,” she whispered as an ocean of tears exploded out of her eyes, crashing and burning into her broken heart.


“I’m not like you, Knife. I’m not a dyke. I have a boyfriend. I love him. And I never, ever want you to touch me again. You tried to poison me. Now get out of here before I call the police,” Madeline’s voice was cold and quiet like a corpse.


Knife picked herself and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed and screamed and screamed and screamed as she ran and ran and ran a mile home with a fractured skull and two broken ribs.


*


“Where’s Shay?” Violet slurred. Her head felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. Her mind was mush. Her body lead.


“Shay’s fine,” A boy voice assured.


Violet could hear party sounds from behind the door. High-pitched girl laughter. Liquid splashing into plastic cups. Cheap Bic lighters falling out of jean pockets, landing quietly on ugly carpets.


She looked around. She was in a bed. A boy bed. There were Pearl Jam posters taped to the wall. The sheets were plaid and cheap and stunk of drug store cologne and semen.


“I need to find Shay,” Violet tried to swing her legs to the ground but they felt crazy glued to the sheets.


She felt boy breath land on her girl face. “You’re safe here with me.” The boy breath slithered across her body like a snake.


The room spun.


She felt nothing but the weight of boy on her girl bones.


*


“We’re not mad. We want to help you.” Knife heard her mother’s voice weep. She opened her eyes and looked around. She was in a hospital. An IV bag was stuck out of her arm.


“There’s a place.” Her dad’s voice was void of emotion. “It will fix this,” he added firmly.


Knife heard a deep sob erupt from her mother’s throat. “We love you. We’re going to get this demon out of you! It’s been in you for so long! I’ve known about it for so long! It’s my fault I didn’t fix this sooner,” she wailed and wailed and wailed.


Knife knew her parents loved her.


But she had just learned the most painful lesson of all: to be loved is to be destroyed.


She felt herself turn hard.


She was a survivor.


And a survivor doesn’t let herself get destroyed.


*


“Where’s Violet?” Shay’s heart rocketed through the war inside of her body.


“Violet’s fucking Chad in his little brother’s bedroom.”


Her heart drew a gun. “No, she’s not.”


“Why don’t you go look?”


She marched like a soldier down the crowded hall of the house party and opened the bedroom door. There was Violet. Beneath Chad. “Violet!” She screamed.


Violet said nothing.


Shay’s heart was shot down dead.


She knew Violet would destroy her.


But not like this.


She sobbed in her truck ‘till dawn.


Violet had made her feel like she belonged.


But Violet had been a dream.


And dreams aren’t real.


Even when they feel so real you can taste them.


Touch them.


Hold them in your hand.


Luckily, Shay thought to herself. Dreams are forgotten easily. She felt her heart harden. She put her key in the ignition and sped home.


*


“I’m sorry, but I don’t belong here.” Knife whispered to the sheepdogs. They’d been her only friends for so many years. She shoved slabs of meat into their mouths. “I’ll miss you.” She wiped her tears and took off into the night. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here played in a loop in her head as she ran past the barn and hopped the fence. She sprinted past Madeline’s house, past her shitty hellhole of a school, and didn’t stop till she reached the bus station.


She had nothing but a backpack. And a bus ticket to the only place she thought she might maybe belong:


New York.


*


Violet wasn’t sure what happened. But she knew it was bad.


Girls always know when it’s bad. Even if the brain is blacked out. The body remembers everything.


She felt paralyzed, chained to her own bed. Too ashamed to call Shay. This was her fault. She came from a long line of this sort of thing.


But she wouldn’t let Shay get dragged into the dirt with her. Shay belonged in the sun.


She heard her father and a gaggle of his drunk friends cackle in the living room. Her door didn’t lock. It was only a matter of time until it happened. Again.


I don’t belong in the sun. But I don’t belong here, either.


She picked up the phone by her bed.


Alex picked up on the first ring, broken boys always do.


“Want to drive to New York?” Violet asked.


He looked at his stepdad who was slugging beer on the couch. It was only a matter of time before he was wasted and it happened. Again.


“Yes,” Alex answered. “Fuck yes.”


Shay had made her soft, but Violet couldn’t be soft. Violet felt herself harden. She needed to survive.


*


Do you see why I had to leave the way I did?


I had to get out.












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