I have always been a clumsy person, a person who drops things that don’t belong to me and watches as they shatter. It’s this way with people, too. I can’t hold on to them. They breeze through my life and depart, and the second time I met Jade, in the cafeteria at college, I knew that she was one of them. I was sitting with my new roommate, and suddenly I saw Jade at another table across the room. She had spiky black hair and held an unlit cigarette. I stared at her until she turned, caught my eye, and walked over to our table.
“Do I know you?” she asked. “Where do I know you from?”
“California,” I said eagerly. “We were at…we were in that program together.”
“Right. I don’t remember your name.”
“Natalie. Natalie Keene.”
“Do you mind if I sit down? I just transferred here. Don’t know a soul.”
I looked at her dark eyes, almost black with tawny flecks, and I knew, in a flash, that we would have a relationship and that it would be finite.
My roommate said, “No, we—”
“Yes,” I said quickly and made room.
Jade and I were fast friends. I loved everything about her, her imperfections as exquisite as Persian carpets; her long fingers had ragged nails and dry skin at the knuckles. Her wardrobe was sloppy, prudish, huge frayed sweaters and corduroys with faded knees, at odds with her perfect protestant teeth and smooth, china-white skin. I loved her crazy, oily hair, which she cut herself so that it stuck up in a vaguely New Wave style that hadn’t been fashionable for a decade. I loved the way she smoked constantly, indifferently, holding the cigarette steady. I neurotically double-dragged before each exhalation. Jade’s eyes were like a cat’s, narrow and slanted, shiny like she had a fever. My own eyes flitted, nervous, furtive. I wanted her composure, wanted her or wanted to be her—my wanting never quite taking solid shape.
We sat on the lawn and talked about California, stubbing cigarettes into the grass. It was a warm time of year, an East Coast Indian summer. There was a charred, chocolaty smell to the air, and insects moved lazily through gummy sunlight. I watched Jade like she was actually made of jade. She was a rare and precious thing, an artifact I knew I must not break. She took off her sweater, revealing the scar where her boyfriend started to carve his name into her arm. There were only the faint traces of an “M.” I watched her, convinced that within us we both harbored the same kind of pain. More than anything, I wanted to believe this. We built Stonehenge out of cigarette butts in a small section of dirt. The sky above us was a juicy, delicious blue, like a child’s ice cream flavor.
* * *
The first time I met Jade was at drug rehab in Southern California, a discreet facility for parents of means to send their wayward adolescents. The sun was like a fist as I watched my father and stepmother drive away, my father’s knuckles showing white on the steering wheel. Not my problem, said those hands. My hand, too, tightened around my suitcase. I felt myself alone in an endless, frozen archetype of a winter. I felt stripped bare, lean and hungry. When threatened, I didn’t know what to show but teeth.
The rehab enforced a dress code and most of my clothes were taken away, so a few days later I received a box from my father containing jeans and white polos. After I had been there ten days, Jade arrived. I watched the bus deposit her and her tiny bag on the concrete outside the front door. Her hair hung straight and tangled to her shoulders. I could tell she was older than I, magnificent, with a despondence that was almost regal. She walked into the building with an air of aristocratic resignation.
She had nothing to do with me. She kept to herself, mostly, while the rest of us bragged and competed and fought. She looked into space. Her look, to me, was a dark thing, beautiful, extravagant, full of ancient hungers. She soon became an icon, had imitators. I was one. As the month passed, I let the roots of my Bettie Page hair grow in blond. I stopped wearing bruise-colored lipstick and liked the jeans better than the houndstooth A-lines and fishnets I came in with; I went on Prozac and stopped crying for my mother in my room. I looked into space.
I watched Jade in group therapy, her shoulders hunched and her feet pigeon-toed, and when the counselor asked us, “What do you want most in the world?” she looked up and said, “I want to be someone else.” When it was my turn, I said, “I want my Buzzcocks T-shirt back,” and everyone laughed but what I thought was, I want to be you.
One day I was smoking a contraband cigarette outside, and she appeared around the side of the building to do the same. She stood next to me. The rustle of palm trees was like raindrops. The sun made everything ache.
“Have you ever felt that feeling of absolute nothing?” she asked suddenly, smoke billowing from her nose. “And you’re desperate to feel something, but there’s just nothing there?”
I thought nervously. I wanted to be honest. “No,” I said. “I feel something at all times. Too much something.”
She nodded a sharp, quick nod.
“Why?” I asked.
“Just thought you might’ve.” She flicked her cigarette, turned to leave.
A voluptuous fear uncoiled inside me. “For me it would be a relief to feel nothing,” I said quickly.
“God. Not really.” Her gaze was steady. It didn’t look empty. She seemed to be waiting for me to say something else.
“I used to fantasize about just not getting off the bus at my stop,” I said, telling the truth, kind of. “Becoming, like, homeless. I fantasized about disappearing.”
“Yeah,” she said, more interested now. “Just give yourself over to madness, sit in the park and drink yourself to death. Never worry what people think of you. They already think the worst.”
“Never have to watch your weight.”
“Or think about what you’re going to wear.”
“Live under a bridge.”
“Shoot up all day.”
“Be scary. Never be scared. Nothing to lose.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Her smile widened. The day seemed suddenly intoxicated, slapped-awake. Light obliquely bisected Jade’s face.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at the pomegranate-colored scar on her upper arm.
“My boyfriend was going to carve his name into my arm, but we only got to the first letter.”
We looked at one another for a while, then she leaned in and kissed me on the mouth. I had the momentary sensation that my mouth was filling with blood. A seismic shift took place inside me. Everything rearranged itself.
Jade turned away, then turned back and said, “See you.”
It was like a door had opened a sliver. I saw light behind it. It closed again as Jade walked away through the waxy sunlight, through the blue day that now had a familiar gleam to it, like some weird bad-childhood flashback. But I’d seen it, that other world. The air smelled different, like diesel and lemons. Sirens screamed in the distance like a flock of birds. Jade rounded the corner and disappeared.
* * *
I returned to San Francisco and made it through high school, mostly out of trouble. My stepmother and I circled each other like cats. My father sighed and worked late. My mother burst into town only once and left me sitting in an I, a vacuum widening in my stomach wide as the carbon arc of space, no beginning, no end. I took down the Buzzcocks posters and started spitting out the Prozac. Sometimes I cried in my room, listening to my father’s records: Glenn Miller, Julie London, the Ink Spots. Time went by. I thought about asking a boy to carve his name into my arm but didn’t, and time whirled cleanly around this absence and departed.
I wrote a good essay, and despite my grades, my SAT scores, my messy stop-and-start education, I was accepted at a little liberal arts college outside New York. In the cab from JFK, the bleak city was gorgeous. I wanted to shed my former life like a skin. All at once it seemed possible to scurry from beneath the weight of my stepmother’s disapproval, my father’s mortified regret, and, more palpably, my mother’s absence, the pain of which had taken on texture, pattern, form, an object that I could touch with my tongue, like an abscessed tooth.
* * *
And here was Jade, next to me, witness to my transformation. When I walked to her room, I heard her playing cello. I stood outside her door listening to her play, falter, and start again. This was a privilege I didn’t deserve. I stepped into her room, and she looked up from her cello, smiling.
“Let’s get our asses to the city,” she said.
We took the train into New York. I watched her pull her baggy sweater over one sharp knee and lift it onto the seat. I looked down at myself, tight pants and velvet paisley smoking jacket, and felt foppish, felt how hard I was trying. As a child I’d been a shrieker, a dare taker. I couldn’t imagine Jade as anything but this cool, unaffected calm. We were quiet. My wanting didn’t abate, but I couldn’t tell what I wanted. Did I want her to kiss me? No. Something more than that. I wanted her to pour her essence into me, to become me.
“Do you ever feel lonely?” she asked.
“Not now, but a lot,” I said.
“You seem like a person with a lot of friends.” Her mouth was wide, parted slightly over teeth as straight as tombstones.
“I do? I mean, I do?”
“You talk about your friends. You seem to have a lot of friends.”
“No. I have Mark, my boyfriend. He’s my best friend.”
“How long have you been together?”
“Since we were sophomores in high school.”
“That’s a while.”
We went to the punk bar where my roommate bartended, where we could drink for free. We smoked pot in the alley behind the club with some musicians, and when we got back inside, the club was loud and smoky and I was very stoned. I realized she was talking, so I focused myself and she said, “Are you a WASP?”
“I’m Jewish-Catholic,” I said. “I mean by heritage. I wasn’t brought up religious.”
“We’re straight off the Mayflower. WASPs.” She said it like it was a disease.
WASPs didn’t normally impress me. But when she said it, I felt jealous. My scattered family couldn’t manage that kind of organization of identity.
“I grew up in a clapboard house in Connecticut,” she said. “We WASPs like clapboard.”
“‘Jade’ isn’t a WASP name,” I said.
“My father’s an art historian. His specialty is East Asian art.”
She raised her eyebrows and lowered them. “What do your parents do?” she said.
“My dad’s an options trader in San Francisco. My mom’s been remarried and divorced and lives in Milan. She’s a fabric designer.” Then I added: “I don’t see her that often.”
“Do you get to go to Italy?”
“That’s why you’re lonely.” She reached her hands out and cupped my face. My heart nearly exploded. Her hands were cool, with very long fingers. She placed her forehead against mine. We sat like this for a full minute, until my neck began to ache, then she released me. On the train back to school we said nothing, but we looked at one another from time to time and smiled.
* * *
Jade said of Brattleboro, Vermont, “This is a funny town. You either go up or you go down.”
It was a town of hills. It was where Mark lived, in the top of a charming two-story clapboard halfway up a hill, a hill turned fiery by the season, leaves spiraling down and spiraling down, the sun spraying violet debris over the clouds. Mark wasn’t a WASP; he was small, moody, dark Irish with the kind of translucent skin that made him look like he constantly needed a shave. His mouth was thin-lipped and pretty, and his eyes were the blue of a chemical reaction. Sometimes he seemed broken and much older, and sometimes so youthful he’d swing on tree branches from his arms and Jade would cluck and turn to me, saying, “Mark is such a boy.” He took pictures of us constantly with an old Minolta. He was a photography major at the local college.
We walked down a street. Then we walked up one. There were two bars.
“One for the college kids,” Mark said, “and one for the locals.”
In the bar for the locals, Mark handed me a packet of speed, said, “Take this to the bathroom, then give it back. Do you want to?”
“Yes,” I said. In the bathroom my hands shook as I scooped some out with a pen cap and took it up my nose. It hurt and I had to lean forward a little while my eyes watered. Immediately the speed shot pink sparks into my periphery. I looked in the mirror and saw my mother’s features in my face and felt both bold and brash, like she was, and essentially hopeless, because I knew I wasn’t like her. I knew what I wanted to be. A wave of sorrow overcame me. The force of it caused me to lean against the sink and sweat, my elbows hyperextended. I was remembering a silken childhood; a mother who placed her slim hand on top of mine, showing me how to shift the gears while she drove. My father watched her, adoring.
Jade and Mark had ordered me a beer. I handed the packet to Mark under the table and he scrutinized me closely. “You’re sad,” he said.
He said, “You’re sad in the same way I am.”
Jade said, “I thought so, too.” And they looked at one another with almost excruciating intimacy. Mark took a close-up of Jade, then turned and took one of me.
“How old were you,” Jade asked, “when your mother left?”
“I was eight when my parents divorced, and my mom moved out of the country when I was ten.” My nerves were peeled, berserk. I looked at Jade. “What about you?”
“My parents are still together. But all they do is seethe. We don’t talk about anything. Ever.”
My hands lay on the table, shaking. The speed coursed through my blood. Jade reached out and squeezed my hand still. Mark went to the bathroom and returned, handed the packet to Jade, who took her turn.
When Jade was gone, Mark said, “Jade’s parents are fucked up. They live in a pretty little house full of art; her dad makes a modest living as a professor, and her mom is a housewife. They ignore Jade until she makes a big mess, and then they pay someone to clean it up.”
“Oh. Boy,” I said.
Jade returned and took my hand again, smoothed a thumb over the inside of my wrist. Then she placed her thumb against my lips and I kissed it. Again, I saw that door open a sliver. Mark took a picture.
Later we took a drive through a landscape dotted with small stone walls. The air up there was still and clean as glycerin. We were very high. Mark turned into the parking lot of a closed-down store with a swinging sign that read Arts and Things.
“This place is creepy,” he said. “And they never lock it.”
He left the headlights on and pushed open the door. We wandered around an abandoned building full of weird ceramic sculpture, stained glass windows, enormous fiberglass flowers, a giant wooden hand holding a polished wood sphere, the wire mold of half a man’s body. The flash of Mark’s camera periodically saturated the scene with liquidy white light. I tripped over the giant hand, and the ball rolled onto the floor and slowly came to rest against the wall.
“I get a weird feeling here,” said Jade.
“I know. Me too. Here,” Mark said, procuring a bottle of prescription pills, “I have some Percocet. So we can sleep.” We each took three in our palms, leaning against the walls, which moaned against our weight. They swallowed theirs dry.
“Are you sure you don’t want to keep these?” I asked.
“I have another bottle at home. They were my reward for an appendectomy last year. I’ve been waiting to use them.”
I swallowed mine, too. They didn’t begin to take effect until we were back in Mark’s apartment, and when they did, I felt better. When I looked at Jade and Mark, I felt love for them and I thought, I will never love anyone else this much again.
The following day we woke up after 3 p.m. Mark took us down by the river, under a bridge, where we ate cheese and bread and did a line of speed. The water floated past, the color of melted sapphires, with arrangements of light on the surface like hieroglyphics. I was transfixed. A barge floated by with families of tourists on board. Some kids waved at us and I stood, vehemently waving back at them.
“Hi!” I shouted to a chorus of similar greetings.
“Isn’t she something?” Jade asked Mark, who was looking at me. He nodded, snapped his camera. Sunlight broke from behind some clouds in a dazed, sexual way.
Jade pointed to a spray-painted sign on the far side of the bridge, across the river, a heart with wings on it. Inside the heart it said, I love you, Sam. I noticed that a man was sitting under the sign, legs extended.
“Not many junkies in this town. I guess this is where you go,” said Jade.
I stood up and shouted, “Hi, Sam!” and the man across the river looked up and waved at us. We saw he was holding a fishing pole.
On the way back to Mark’s apartment, Jade and I circled each other, pretending to do karate, making guttural noises in our throats and lunging, kicking. Mark stood to one side, bemused, his camera clicking.
We sat and talked until 3:30 a.m., and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep.
“Can I have more of that Percocet,” I said.
Jade said, “I’m going to sleep.”
Mark and I each took two Percocet, leaning back into the couch, watching the blank TV screen. Nico played on the stereo. After a while I started to feel a sense of well-being, of being wrapped in bandages, stillness, like the blanket cocoons my mother used to wrap me in, on her lap in the rocking chair, reading to me from a book of Rilke. I remember looking up through a tunnel of blankets, watching her mouth move.
Mark turned to me. “Jade is fucked up, you know.”
“No she’s not,” I said.
“She has psychiatric problems.”
“I don’t know really. She’s definitely bipolar, or something worse. Her family doesn’t want to acknowledge it. She had to beg them to send her to rehab.”
“She has you though,” I said.
“Yes,” he sighed, “she has me.”
“I’m jealous of your relationship.”
“It’s not as great as it looks.” He brought his head very close to mine, and we looked into each other’s eyes, our foreheads almost touching. “She keeps leaving me for other people. Then she comes back. Sometimes she leaves me for my friends. She’s done that twice.”
A pause stretched between us.
He said, “She’s really talented. She’s good at everything she does. Like the cello; she could be really good at that. But she doesn’t finish things. She’s gone to four universities so far. I keep waiting for her to settle down and try.”
I didn’t turn away and I didn’t respond. Mark’s eyes were blue in a crazy way. I thought that I’d like to kiss him, and the way he was turned toward me, eyes ferocious blue and dilated and unblinking, suggested that he wouldn’t mind. We watched each other for a long time.
“You know,” he said, “I used to cry every day, in the shower.”
“I used to cry every day too. But I’d never let anyone see me.”
I said, “Sometimes I still cry.”
He looked at me. “Me too,” he said.
Then I fell asleep. I woke up lying stretched out on the couch with two blankets pulled up to my chin and a pillow beneath my head.
* * *
That weekend was etched in my mind, detailed as a blueprint. There were other times with Jade and Mark, like the time we visited Mark’s parents in Morristown, New Jersey. They had declared bankruptcy and were living in a dark, gruesome house next to a cemetery. They were modest, terrorized people who crossed themselves constantly and had a house full of cheap, eerie religious pictures and thrift-store furniture. Mark and I took some speed and talked all night. We drove to the store for more cigarettes, and on the way back he pulled over and turned off the engine. He wrapped his hand around my upper arm and held my eyes with his.
“You’re so cool, Natalie,” he said.
I felt autopsied. Inside I was alchemical, useful, an elixir. I realized that since childhood I had not felt myself, as though I were trapped in a photograph of myself, as though the people who saw me saw only the stylized representation of something decorative and dull. Mark, I thought, saw my potential.
“You’re cool, too, Mark.” The response wasn’t adequate.
He let go of my arm and restarted the engine.
“Please be real,” I said under my breath.
“What?” Mark said.
I didn’t answer.
* * *
The following evening, Jade and I smoked pot in the cemetery, leaning against a gravestone.
“I want a boyfriend like yours,” I said idly, plucking weeds with my fingers. They snapped in a satisfying way in my hands. “No one’s been interested in me in months.”
“Mark’s interested,” she said. “You could have a go with him.”
I blushed. “I’d never do that,” I said. But would I? Could we be closer, I thought, the three of us? A mass of people, a merging?
“I wouldn’t mind,” said Jade.
“He’s interested? In me?” I said, snapping the weeds, shaken. There was an ominous mist rolling over the churchyard like boiling fur. “How do you know?”
“I know him. I can tell.”
“I couldn’t.” I looked down and realized I’d been snapping not grass stalks but American flags someone planted next to the grave. My chest felt it would rupture with excitement and horror.
“Let’s go,” I said, and we walked through thickening mist toward the house, flags strewn behind us like carcasses on the ground.
* * *
A few weeks later Jade knocked on my door.
“Mark just tried to kill himself,” she said. Her tone was cold and flat. “He took a bottle of pills and slit his wrists. The neighbors downstairs heard him fall down. They called the police.”
I was stunned, but before I could respond, Jade asked, “Can I borrow your car to go up and see him?”
“Of course. I’ll go with you.”
“Yes. I’ll drive you up.”
“I have to go alone.”
“Please?” I felt near tears.
“No, Natalie,” she said, clenching the keys in her hand. “I don’t fucking want you.”
“Please?” There was an embarrassing whine in my voice.
“I don’t want you anymore.” A finality in her voice that chilled me.
I saw the outline of her body in the air long after she’d closed the door.
Too clingy, too clingy, went through my head.
Four days later Jade knocked on my door. “Here are your keys.” She threw them on my bed.
“I just can’t,” she said, not meeting my eye. “I just can’t.”
“Was it me?”
Jade slitted her eyes. “Of course not, Natalie. Not everything is about you. In fact, nothing is about you.”
She wouldn’t speak to me after that. She wouldn’t answer when I knocked on her door, and she went out of her way to avoid me when I saw her around campus. I tried to run into her. I felt a loss so complex and corporeal that I could not eat; I held the core of a pear like a nerve. I couldn’t even cry. Nor could I define what exactly I’d lost.
* * *
I saw Jade again. Twice. The first time was two years after our breakup. It was in the middle of a summer that was screaming-hot. I’d dropped out of school, moved into the city, and gotten a job doing grunt work for a Midtown art gallery. I was careful not to break anything, but when I forgot to wash my hands and left smudge marks on two prints, I put them away and didn’t tell anyone.
One night, on my way to a bar, I walked through the disastrous heat in Washington Square Park. The sunset was an iodine smear. Suddenly I stopped short, watching a sloped figure on a bench. She looked exactly the same. Cigarette held straight up between two long, gnawed fingers. She read a book, alone, one knee tucked beneath her gray, long-sleeved shirt, and I approached, excited, yearning.
“Jade,” I said and she looked at me blankly. “It’s Natalie.”
“Oh God. Natalie. How are you?” She made room for me on the bench. Her brown corduroys were torn on one knee, and the skin beneath was the blanched yellow of a healing scar. Her body was thin. She was more beautiful and more ugly than the last time I’d seen her.
“What are you doing now?” I asked her.
“Temp jobs here and there.”
“How’s Mark?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
“He’s OK.” She hesitated, and though I could tell she didn’t want to talk, I continued to watch her. “He’s alive. We’re back together again, living down on Sullivan.”
“You broke up?”
“Yeah, you didn’t hear?” She let out a long, tired, smoky exhale. She lit another cigarette and I saw that her hands shook. I wanted to squeeze them still. She seemed bored, or agitated, or embarrassed, I couldn’t tell. “I’m surprised,” she said. “It was a small school.”
“I dropped out.”
She looked at me with new interest. “I left him when he got into drugs,” she said. “That was right after the suicide attempt. Then I moved to the Lower East Side with another guy. Then I got into drugs.”
“But…?” I said. The sunlight scattered around Jade like broken glass.
“Real drugs. We just started methadone.”
We looked at each other. The sun died its slow-motion death. I realized that she might be lying about the methadone.
Finally she shook her head and said in a low, awed voice, “You’re a real survivor.”
I started to mumble “Certainly not,” but then it occurred to me that we were never really as similar as I thought we were. I said nothing.
* * *
The last time I saw Jade was at a museum opening celebrating textile arts, a show I’d curated. Eleven years had passed. My mother was there, one of the artists, air-kissing friends and fans and speaking on her phone in Italian. She’d flown in from Malmö, her new home, just for the opening. Before the guests arrived, she cupped my face in her hands—hands that now had raised, luminous veins on their surfaces—and this small gesture of thanks was expected, enough for me.
An editor from Artforum approached me, a tall chic woman with a rakishly angled hat and sheath dress patterned with chevrons.
“Do you think I could get a moment with Mrs. Keene?” she asked. “Are you in charge of that?”
“I think there’s a…” I looked closer. “Jade?” I said.
“Oh shit,” she said, losing her polish. “Natalie. I didn’t put it together.”
“It’s been… You look…”
I gestured up and down and neither of us needed clarification about what I meant. Here we both were.
“I was going to profile her, if she was amenable,” said Jade.
“How long have you—?”
“Six years. Started as an intern, now a staff writer.”
“Good for you.”
“And for you,” she said, looking around the room. “I’m doing this article for my father, actually. He just passed away, but your mom’s Balinese-inspired designs caught his eye a few years ago. I thought I’d do this for him. A tribute.”
“That’s nice,” I said. I meant it. “How’s Mark?”
“Not sure,” she said. “I haven’t heard from him in a few years. He was married last time I spoke with him. Was into woodworking or something.”
We both watched my mother work the room. She had no power over me anymore, I thought to myself, nor did Jade. This astonished me.
“Here’s my number,” said Jade. “Let’s catch up.” She smiled a smile I didn’t recognize. “I’m serious.”
“Let’s,” I said. “Let’s definitely do that.”
* * *
Sometimes, still, I sit on my fire escape smoking and think about calling the number she gave me. But she isn’t that Jade anymore, my first love. I think about dialing the number, and then I think about something else, and time flows smoothly around this absence and departs.