Liza's first-day-of-school outfit, one she thought was fetching, instantly branded her as socially undesirable. She wore a diagonally striped minidress, high, white ankle-boots, and a braided metallic headband, having assembled the components at a strip-mall store named "WOW! EVERYTHING UNDER $10!" that her mother Peppy had taken her to for back to-school clothes.
In the main building, Liza could hear girls giggle as she passed by. A pack of preppy boys stared at her with their mouths open in cruel mock-shock.
"Catching flies?" Liza snapped.
They laughed heartily.
"Want to bob on my knob?" one of the boys yelled as she clicked away on her heels. Liza had no idea what he was talking about but flipped him the finger anyway.
Liza's homeroom was her English class, which was taught by a species of woman indigenous to Marin County: a fading beauty-cum-rich-ex-hippie clotheshorse, partial to flowing "art to wear" garments of hand-painted silk with bleeding color patterns that resembled magnified bacteria. Mrs. Gubbins -- "You can call me Kay!" -- had married well, divorced well, and married so well again that she was at leave to pursue her altruistic mission of teaching high school English as an aside to her real "life goals," which were apparently proselytizing for a certain faddish, Marin "self-actualization" cult known as everBest. Her mediocre, uninspired English teaching was peppered with shrilly enthusiastic everBest-ial axioms and smug truisms.
"Let's situate the desks into a circle so we can all monitor each other's eyes, shall we?" Kay trumpeted to her class of miserable, pocky fourteen-year-olds, all craving invisibility. Kay had all of the students go around the circle and say their names, their nicknames, and what they'd "rather be doing other than being responsibly here, now, in the present."
A striking, skinny boy with sardonic eyebrows and a crooked red mouth sat next to Liza. He had long auburn hair pulled back into two Willie Nelson braids and slouched angularly in his seat, his eyes barely open. When the circle came around to him, a few other boys in the class started snickering before he even said anything.
"Uh, my name is Anton Grosvenor," he drawled in a hoarse voice that sounded hungover. "But my friends call me Kay."
o?= At this several boys in the classroom fell over with hysterical laughter. A couple of them mumbled, "Go, Tonto ..."
"And, actually, I feel totally actualized, here. I don't want to be anywhere else. Ever."
The kids became alert, watching to see how the teacher would handle such scorching insincerity.
Kay looked at him with a tight-lipped smile.
"Kay? Shall we call you Kay?" she asked with no humor at all.
"That'd be great."
Kay opted to ignore the fact that she had just been successfully undermined.
Liza was next.
"Elizabeth Lynn Normal," Liza mumbled. "I've always been called Liza. I'd rather be at the High School of Performing Arts in New York, which is where I'll be next year."
"Are you a dancer, or an actress?" Kay asked.
"Mostly a singer," said Liza.
Liza felt a bump near her leg -- Anton Grosvenor was handing her a note. She unfolded it carefully in her lap.
IF YOU ARE A "SINGER" WHY DO YOU DRESS LIKE A WHOARE? ARE YOU A WHOARE, ALSO?
Liza had never even kissed a boy and was shocked by the visceral power and violence of the word whoare, even while misspelled. She ignored him.
Another note came banging against her knee:
HOW ABOUT MY UNIT DEEP IN YOUR FACE FOR $6?
Liza got out her pen and wrote back:
The note came back:
o?= OK HOW ABOUT $7
Liza ignored it. Another note came:
OK $7.35 THATS MY FINAL OFFER
Liza wrote back:
I HAVE A BIG BROTHER A-HOLE SHUT YOUR FACE
Anton smirked. He wrote for a while, as more students droned their least thoughtful answers to Kay's questions while nobody listened. The note came back:
CHANGED MY MIND YOU HAVE TO 1. GIVE ME $8 THEN 2. WRAP YOUR LAUGHING GEAR AROUND MY SNOT STICK.
The bell rang. Liza got up and moved away from Anton Grosvenor as quickly as possible.
A set of two matching girls, dressed and lip-glossed identically but clearly unrelated, approached Liza after class.
"Hi," the skinnier one said to Liza. "Were you passing notes to Tonto?"
"Who?" Liza asked, trying to de-code the class schedule that had been printed for her.
"Tonto. Anton Grosvenor. That guy."
They pointed to the note giver, who was striking a criminally suave posture near the bulletin board with several of his male groupies.
"Yeah, I guess," stammered Liza.
"What did he say?" the slimmer girl asked, clearly burning with self-interest.
"Not much," Liza sidestepped, unable to figure out where to go for her history class.
"You should stay away from him," said the girl, suddenly turning ugly. Liza now noticed the large, carefully drawn "Nikki + Tonto" tattooed in ballpoint on her new denim binder. "Nikki" dotted all of her is with fat hearts.
"That guy is totally disgusting, I wouldn't go near him if he paid me," Liza blurted out. Her brain was still so infected by the notes, she realized, too late, that the "Liza + Money = Sex" equation was a bad thing to put into the minds of her classmates.
"You look like you'd go near anyone that paid you," sneered Nikki.
"Yeah,pardon our mistake," condescended Nikki's chubbier accomplice.
Liza reddened, then purpled.
"Fuck you skanky-ass bitches!" Liza shrieked, rearing back into her past when she was a minority in a Reno junior high, and remembering that the best way to frighten white girls was to act nonwhite. "Bes' get the fuck out my face 'fo I kick both yo asses!"
Liza could hear Anton "Tonto" Grosvenor and his minions giggling down the hall at her display.
"Oh, you're black, I get it now," sneered Nikki, derisive but clearly nervous.
"Thass right, I 'mo kill your bitch-ass ugly face, too, skeezah!" Liza shouted triumphantly, sensing that her foes were on the run. "Don'tchu fuck wit' me, bitch, I been jumped in wit' the Nevada Queens!"
Liza had never been "jumped in" with the Nevada Queens, an ethnic high school girl-gang she had heard of once, but it seemed to intimidate Nikki and her friend enough to make them leave her alone, after giving her penetrating looks of disgust.
Enough other students witnessed that first-day-of-school display that Liza was instantly branded as feral, trashy, violent, and suffering a racial identity crisis by her peers. They didn't think of her in those words -- "gross" was all they were able to articulate -- but the girls gave Liza a wide berth, and the boys opted to openly deride her, since they found her outfits sexually intimidating.
It became clear, in Liza's first few days at Miwok Butte, that socially, the entire school was held hostage by members of the extensive Grosvenor family: six exceptional teens born to the famous identical twins Radcliffe and Horatio, partners in the thriving Grosvenor and Grosvenor law firm. None of the Grosvenor kids would have been attending public school were it not for the political aspirations of their fathers, who considered it important that their children mingle with the Great Unwashed during their preuniversity years, just in case they ever wanted to be mayors or assemblymen or even Governor Grosvenors. Teachers fawned over them, seduced by the glamour of such a healthy, wealthy, intelligent, and beautifully toothed army of teens; the Grosvenor presence lent dignity to their second-rate teaching jobs in the way that fine china can dignify a modest meal.
Miwok public opinion set as hard and instantly as epoxy -- one was either in or under the Grosvenor vanguard. Because there were so many of them, the deadly Grosvenor gaze was virtually omnipresent and held the entire school in its crosshairs.
One would think, given Liza's hapless high school debut, that she would scuttle down to join the lowest dregs of the sub-staircase-dwelling teens and live out her next four years suffering quietly beneath the Grosvenor boot. But Liza, as we know, is not a girl ruled by the logic of self-preservation.
High school girls, whose hormones outweigh their brains, generally fall for the worst, most abusive male louts available, out of some DNA-throwback, chimpanzee fealty to the Alpha Male. Over the first few weeks of high school, the felonious visage of Tonto Grosvenor began to creep into Liza's subconscious and create a Feeling that Liza thought she recognized as Mild Hate -- a safe and comfortable feeling, with which one can have a laugh and a beer, then forget about moments later.
But Liza's Mild Hate for Tonto Grosvenor, once it had gotten safely under her skin, shed its Wicked Wolf suit and revealed itself, when she was utterly defenseless, as the Deadly Lamb of Love.
Cupid has rarely been so cruel. The romance continued thusly:
YOU ARE A SPUNK-DRENCHED BAG OF USED SLUT-MEAT,
Tonto wrote as Nikki and her chunky friend Beth watched the transaction with furious eyes. While part of Liza was stung by Tonto's notes, another part of her was impressed with his flair for writing them. The verbal section of her mind began inadvertently developing as she wracked her vocabulary sheet and pocket thesaurus to come up with a laudable insult.
You are a jejune, lice-infested pariah, she wrote hopefully.
LAME THESAURAUS WORK YOU CUM-SICK HOSE MONSTER
Liza dissected Tonto's notes during class, trying to reverse-engineer them and determine the reasons for their toothsome violence and shock power:
MODIFIER (Somethinged-up/out/on) -- NOUN (weird receptacle), PREPOSITION (of) ADJECTIVE (weak/small or sexual), MODIFIER (suggesting gross sex/disease), NOUN (food/weak/ugly thing).
Using this as a model to respond to Tonto's notes, Liza began to "A.A.I.: Apprehend, Adapt and Improve," as Kay had been sanctimoniously harping upon them to do:
Eat yourself, you piss-stained prison puppy
AWESOME ALLITERATION, ASSHOLE
So many rules! Liza fumed. Nevertheless, spurred by this wretched correspondence, she was doing well in English.
One wretched, gray, fifty-two-degree morning, when the gym teacher humiliated Liza by having her paddle on a foam kickboard while other girls swam elegant laps, Liza noticed a redheaded girl with a pink bandanna around her neck, wearing a men's overcoat and dirty red leather skirt, sitting in the bleachers above the pool, painting her fingernails. Some girls got out of swimming for monthly bleeding or illness; this girl didn't appear to be sick at all but had sat out of class for two full weeks, scowling at the water, never even bothering with the locker room. Liza was famished with curiosity as to how the girl pulled it off.
Liza saw the girl later that day in the "smoking section" of the outdoor amphitheatre.
"Excuse me, um, can I ask you something?" Liza stammered, approaching the redhead.
"What?" asked the girl, lighting a Marlboro 100.
"Um, how did you get out of swimming?"
"Oh, that was totally easy. I said I had hep."
"Is that like a school credit?"
"No, it's hepatitis. A disease. If you have it, they worry you could give it to everyone in the pool."
Liza shifted in her pumps, wondering how close you had to get to somebody with hepatitis to catch it in the open air.
"I don't actually have it," continued the girl.
"Then ... why did you say you did?" asked Liza. The girl gave her a look.
"To get out of swimming! This is Northern California! Nobody should swim here! It's too fucking cold!"
"O-o-o-oh. That is so, so true."
"I'm Lorna," said the girl, holding out a hand with bitten red fingernails, then pulling it back when she remembered her fresh polish was still tacky.
The next day, Liza forged a note from Peppy.
Please excuse my daughter Liza Normal from aquatics
since we think there is a possibility she might have
Hepatites. We'll update you when the tests come back from
the hospital. Thank you,
Now Liza Normal and Lorna Wax both sat out of aquatics, and this way they became friends. Lorna, a sophomore, was a font of experience.
"Beware the goddamned Grosvenors," Lorna warned, after unfolding a terrible story about her unrequited lust for Dino Grosvenor the previous school year, which had culminated in a disappointing bout of drunken fellatio that sealed Lorna's reputation as a "Campus Slut" for what would surely be her entire high school career.
Lorna had also had an unconventional childhood. She lived in Sausalito, in a cluster of ramshackle houseboats made locally famous by a legion of hippie squatters who fought off gentrification (and subsequent eviction) in the 1970s by staging a riot. Long-haired men shouting in rubber dinghies were teargassed on the news; braless mothers hit police with oars. Finally, after months of bloody foreheads and pro-bono legal wrangling, the houseboat community was written off as an intractable nuisance by the city and left to fester. Dead, rusty cars filled the unpaved parking lot; children with dirty mouths and no pants ran barefoot on splintering gangplanks. Lorna's houseboat, named The Amnion by Lorna's Wiccan midwife mother, was a rotting geodesic dome on a plywood platform, which floated in the murky bay on barnacle-crusted blocks of orange polystyrene. Inside the dome, the triangular ceiling panels were strung with dusty crystals and fading pinatas. Lorna's father, like Liza's, hadn't been in the picture for years and was, said Lorna, "probably in jail." Her mother, Sky-Rose Wax, was a pot dealer in addition to her midwifery. Liza felt comforted that Lorna had never fit in with the local rich kids, either -- whatever social cachet Lorna was able to cobble together came from stealing buds out of her mother's stash and selling them to her classmates. Lorna herself abhorred pot; "It makes my mother so fucking stupid," she would say.
It was Lorna's reluctant pot-sales that got her and Liza invited to a party with the inner sanctum of popular kids. It was the end of October; the sudden, crisp smartness of the air and the thrilling pine and sea atoms in the sprinting wind made everyone hopeful and ambitious, except Liza and Lorna, who had spent every recess since they had met in the outdoor amphitheatre, huddled around the lit ends of Marlboro 100s.
Tonto's brother Dezi walked up to the unhappy girls in a red plaid scarf, his strawberry-blond hair sticking straight up from the wind. Dezi was clearly in a different life-movie than they were -- he looked like he should be whistling bird calls and carrying armfuls of Christmas gifts to bouncy violin music, while Liza and Lorna evoked an exhausted, soup-kitcheny desolation.
"Hullo! Lorna Wax?" asked Dezi, twinkling, holding out his scrubbed pink paw. "Glad to meet ya! Hey, it's kind of OK over here in the smoking section, isn't it?" Dezi surveyed the amphitheatre and its shivering teen clientele, braving a miserable chill for the comforts of Mother Nicotine.
"I guess," Lorna muttered, nonplussed by the invading Grosvenor.
"Smoking is what brings me here, actually," Dezi segued, his eyes alight with Claymation mischief.
Dezi sidled up next to Lorna.
"I hear you sell a little you-know-what every now and then. Why don't you guys come to this little Halloween party." Dezi handed Lorna a square of slick paper. "Annabella Sorkin's parents are out of town for the weekend. You know Annabella?"
"No," said Lorna.
"Well, it doesn't matter, I'm sure she'll be glad you showed up. So come, and bring as much you-know-what as you can, I'm sure you'll sell it all."
Dezi flashed a dazzling smile and sauntered away.
"What the fuck was that?" Lorna asked.
Liza's eyes spun in her head.
"Our big chance," she said, breathily.
High school, for most people, gets boiled down to select formative experiences that can still make the person writhe like a cold ball of worms, twenty years later. The agent of Liza's demise, what the Greeks would call ate -- the "blindness of folly" that led our hero to her destruction -- was her unwillingness to accept, during the first two months of high school, that she would be reviled by the popular kids forever. Something had to give, she thought. There had to be an "Ugly Duckling" moment that would subvert her lowly status: a new haircut, or a talent contest, or maybe just the right animal-print spandex unitard. This delusion, brought on by rapt consumption of certain films and sitcoms, would be her undoing at Annabella Sorkin's Halloween party. Lorna, having lived through her own Great Death of Hope the year before, warned Liza to no avail.
"We're just going to be, like, delivery people, like pizza guys. They're not interested in us, they just want drugs."
"But maybe they'll decide we're cool and then we'll get to go to more parties."
"I don't understand why you want to hang out with them anyway... Oh wait, yes I do, oh fuck Liza."
"You're going to throw yourself at Tonto." Lorna's tone was mournful.
"No I'm not," said Liza, hating herself for her ecstatic dreams of devouring his sinister mouth.
"Yes you are," said Lorna.
Liza desperately wanted to stay away from Tonto Grosvenor, but her hormones fizzed and popped like bacon grease every time he slipped her another well-turned character assassination:
. . . FIST IT UP YOUR CAKEHOLE, YOU SPIT-SHINED DISCO PIG . . .
. . . YOU CHEAP RENTAL BACK-HO . . .
. . . YOU DOUCHE-HUFFER . . .
Halloween had always been an incriminating holiday for Liza, whose mother had curious ideas about what constituted "dress-up." While other schoolchildren arrived at Halloween parties wearing handmade panda suits, faerie princess gowns with yards of pink tulle, or respectable, store-bought Superman or Wonder Woman masks with printed nylon coveralls, Peppy had always dug into her box of sequined Reno finery and tarted up Liza in cocktail dresses, wobbling lines of liquid eyeliner, and a long black wig. "Tell people you're a gypsy fortune-teller," Peppy would slur. "Pull up your bra strap."
"I can see your future, all right," a smirking mother once said to Liza while dropping Tootsie Rolls into her plastic pumpkin.
Liza and Lorna rooted through a Hefty bag of Peppy's old outfits, considering what to wear to the party, taking occasional breaks to smoke cigarettes in the backyard.
"That's a horrible habit!" Noreen yelled down at them from the kitchen window. "You look ridiculous smoking with those young little faces! You should stop trying to be things you're not!" Noreen slammed the window shut.
"I like your grandma." Lorna laughed.
At Peppy's urging, Ned had gotten a driver's license at the beginning of the month. Peppy had taken to getting drunk so early in the day she was rightfully worried about her ability to steer to and from the supermarket, and was sick of being berated in the car by Noreen. For Liza and Lorna, this meant that Ned was their chauffeur, by right.
"You're coming to the Halloween party with us," Liza informed him.
"No I'm NOT." Ned was petrified at the idea of being in an unstructured environment where teens would be making out.
"You'll be in costume," Liza begged.
("Get on with the horrible life-altering Incident of Shame already," you're thinking at this point. To soothe your impatience, we Fast-Forward: Liza and Lorna, moving in kung fu blurs, compose costumes. Lorna steals a bag of pot from her spaced-out mother, and Ned is bribed with a promise of $20 in after-pot-sales. Tonto passes more hair-raisingly rude notes to Liza. Liza and Lorna consume five more packs of Marlboro Lights. That is all, and now it is The Night.)
The Honda wheezed up the driveway of an enormous modern stilt house perched on a hill in Belvedere. The Sorkin home was exquisite: long and spacious with walls of polished Carpathian elm burl, a Japanese garden with koi-filled Zen pond, enormous picture windows and a wraparound balcony with a view that stretched and rolled like a beautiful nude over Angel Island and Alcatraz, the marinas and dark green hills of Sausalito, the black satin sheets of the bay and the twinkling Golden Gate Bridge, finally meeting the horizon in the sparkling tiara of San Francisco, city of jewels -- a soul-stirring luxury view that made those fortunate enough to be standing on that balcony, hanging over the fog as it poured like steamed milk down the hills, intoxicated with a feeling of owning the world.
The house hurt Liza, it was so beautiful.
"I never want to go back to my shit-hole of a room," Liza said to Lorna as they threw their coats on the pile on Annabella Sorkin's nineteenth-century four-poster bed. "Me either," said Lorna. "Me threether," mumbled Ned, looking at Annabella's sleek personal home entertainment setup.
Lorna and Liza looked fairly wonderful in their mermaid ensembles. They had hot-glued glitter and shells to bikini tops, and cut and stapled two of Peppy's old sequined dresses into remedial fish-tails. The crimping iron was used to excellent effect; Lorna's hair was big and purple, Liza's huge and green with food coloring and glitter. Liza's ordinarily vulgar makeup looked appropriate and whimsical. Together they were snazzy and fantastic; they felt full of the strange power of new personalities (as a successfully transformative outfit will do) and strong hopes of a fabulous entrance and subsequent social improvement. Ned, likewise, was happy to be seen in his Long John Silver costume, and proud of how well the components had come together at the Salvation Army. Ike had rigged him a fake peg leg with Ace bandages, big pants, and a toilet plunger. The eyepatch hid his lazy eye, and his portliness was in character. "Arrgh, ye swabby," he said happily, waving his hook at the moth-eaten stuffed woodpecker hot-glued to his epaulet in lieu of a parrot.
Most kids at the party weren't Miwok Butte students, but private and prep-school types who knew one another through country, yacht, and ski clubs. They seemed to be a whiter, shinier race of superior young humans, dressed in movie-quality French Court ensembles with powdered wigs, Sherlock Holmes tweeds, and die-cast metal armor.
"Shit, those are the best costumes I have ever seen."
"Moneymoneymoney," Lorna murmured, watching a girl (who must have been Annabella Sorkin) in a huge, satin Scarlett O'Hara hoop dress swan over to the doorway to kiss a seven-foot tennis ball can.
Dezi Grosvenor waddled up to Lorna wearing an adorable penguin suit, fanning his face with $300 in twenties.
"You look great! You bring it?" Dezi squealed.
"I don't know if I brought that much," Lorna said, suddenly self-conscious.
"Meet me in the master bathroom. It's the big black one with the Jacuzzi and the palm trees!" With that he wobbled down the hall. Two attractive cat-girls pounced up against his plush breast with meowling delight.
"LOOK! IT'S CAPTAIN QUASIMODO AND THE SEAWHORES!" shouted Tonto's familiar voice. Liza felt goose bumps spray from her knees up to her shoulders. Tonto was dressed like an Indian -- he had, in fact, dressed like an Indian for nine of the fifteen Halloweens of his life. Each year, his schtick had gotten a little better. The long, feathered headdress, fringed buckskin pants, beaded accessories, and hairless, painted torso, along with his customary long braids, was more than Liza's young lust could bear. Behind him, Dino Grosvenor (Lawrence of Arabia) was chatting intimately with Chantal Baumgarten, powdered and sublime in a vintage silk geisha ensemble, fresh from rehearsals for the Eiderdijken Academy production of The Mikado. Liza looked down at her hot-glue mermaid outfit, which was leaving a snail-trail of glitter and escaped sequins, and the old leaden feeling of inescapable trashiness settled into her stomach, ruining her mood.
Liza and Lorna proceeded to the bar, which boasted an impressive alcohol selection.
"I'm going to drink heavily, like I've never drunk before," announced Liza.
"You're the one that wanted to make friends with these people. Don't make it your personal Waterloo." Lorna sounded ominous.
"Whatever that means!"
Liza poured herself an extra-large glass of triple sec.
"I'm gonna go find Dezi," Lorna said, watching Liza watch Tonto. "Try not to do anything you'll regret later, OK?"
"How will I ever know what I regret later if I never do anything, ever?" Liza asked loudly in a perturbed tone.
"That's one way of looking at it," Lorna said doubtfully.
"I'm not going to be around these assholes next year," Liza said, as her inner disgrace generator picked up speed. "I'm going to New York. To the High School of Performing Arts." She made this announcement with belligerent denial; she and Lorna both knew that dream had shriveled on the vine. She downed the rest of her glass of triple sec, slammed the glass down, and mock-gagged. "Jesus, what was that stuff? These people obviously don't know their liquor."
"Next year's a long way off," Lorna cautioned, her monotone implying she knew it would do no good.
As Lorna went off in search of the master bathroom, Liza remained at the bar to watch Tonto and his boy sycophants play mumblety-peg in the kitchen, stabbing a paring knife between their splayed fingers.
"Liza!" Tonto shouted. "Come here! Lay on this butcher block and we'll amputate your upper half so you can be all fish."
"Yeah RIGHT," Liza brayed artlessly, her head suddenly glowing like a kerosene lamp. She tottered over to Tonto, her legs pinned together by her tight tail.
"Want to make a movie?" Tonto asked. "I've got a camcorder and a cot."
His groupies laughed.
"It would depend on the role," Liza said, not getting it. "You have to call my agent."
(The only thing worse than this naive and grandiose comment was the Taser jolt of embarrassment Liza felt, eleven years later, when she finally realized what Tonto actually meant.)
Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.