The door of the McMansion was hanging open, so we let ourselves in.
The road was a couple of miles long, leading only to this house. There were signs everywhere for Beautiful, custom homes starting in the $200s. The signs held pictures of families with their dogs, playing catch in a fully developed brick neighborhood. The non-neighborhood was almost apocalyptic, big holes having been ripped in the signs, no trees or structures to protect them from the wind and wildlife.
The long, flat driveway was loaded with cars—shitty cars like mine that didn’t belong near this house. I felt immediately uncomfortable, even though the development was not yet filled with people to look at and judge us and ask us sweetly if we were lost. Even though the driveway alone could hold at least ten cars, there were more still parked on the dusty grass on either side of the shiny asphalt. The non-neighborhood developers prematurely indulged so severely. They thought they were rich enough to not have to put rocks in their asphalt. It was like a smear of black cream cheese sitting precariously on the lumpy ground.
The inside was just as ugly as the outside, all beige and white and clean. Even with all the people already crowding the bottom floor, the decor stuck out. Lots of reed diffusers and ambitious white countertops.
Jodi had all but forced me to come to this party. She said it would cheer me up after coming home from my first year of college with an unspeakably bad GPA and being immediately dumped by Jack. When that didn’t work, she whined that I should come to support her boyfriend because his band would be playing. When that didn’t work, she said that Celestine, the party’s host and high school bully of 80% of the girls in our town, had just returned from France looking like a sideshow act with a bleached-white head and armpit hair. Her final attempt was telling me Jack would be there, which I gave into.
As anyone should do when entering a party, Jodi and I made a beeline for the kitchen, which was surprisingly stocked. A variety of snacks and beer. I guess any old person can throw a successful party if they have the cash. Despite my better judgment, I ate as many sausage-dip-loaded tortilla chips as I could while Jodi carefully selected her beer. It was easy for me. I could only drink PBR or anything a normal person would discard and say, “This tastes like piss water.” Anything full-flavored or, God forbid, “robust” would be immediately rejected by my body. I would rather mix myself a drink with whatever white liquor my mom had laying around and whatever juice or Kool-Aid was in the fridge. But an occasional weak beer gave me something to finger at while Jodi made out with her boyfriend at a party, or a blood alcohol boost to allow me to talk to other people when she disappeared on me completely.
When Jodi’s boyfriend, Dillon, found us, I was pretending to drink my beer—tipping it up to my lips and just letting it touch my tongue, then swallowing hard on my spit.Dillon was a guy. Not much else to say about him. His talents included evading alcohol poisoning in a superhuman way and catching his own airborne loogies in his mouth. Jodi subjected me to many verbal fantasies about their wedding someday.
“Hey, babe,” he said before sticking his tongue down Jodi’s throat.
“Hey, Gertie,” he said to me, his lips centimeters from Jodi’s. “Enjoy the show.”
With a band name like Chicken Coop, I was sure I would not.
The “stage” was a makeshift platform made out of wooden pallets with an old rug thrown on top. I hoped there was something between the pallets and the rug to keep feet and equipment from slipping in, but I couldn’t really tell. The show started immediately, with Dillon crying out, “Sugarberry punks, let’s get cooped up!”
The bass started up and everyone in the room started moving. Their heads were whipping back and forth, the liquid sloshing out of their red plastic cups. It could have been a really beautiful sight had the music not been so unbearably awful.
The instruments and voices and all of it together created an enormous cacophony that chewed up the whole room. And don’t get me wrong, I’d heard this done well. There was something to be admired about singing too close to the mic and lacking harmony. To me, punk music had a dirty charm that was intoxicating. I could only guess Dillon and his band were trying to emulate this, but they were doing a bad job.
Dillon was the frontman, looking very pleased with himself. The rest of his band consisted of three young men who I didn’t know the names of and I swear looked identical to him.
I scoffed to myself. Let’s get cooped up. Okay. But Jodi was really into it. Her waist-length hair vibrated with the sound. Her feet hardly touched the floor. The little deposit of fat between her butt and her back, smooshed up by the waistband of her jeans, jiggled with her hops. I only hoped she felt joy from the music, as bad as it was, and not from Dillon.
After Chicken Coop’s set, Jodi and Dillon disappeared into the crowd, likely to catch a quick fuck, which couldn’t possibly end in an orgasm for both of them. Actually, a lot of people started shifting around, going outside, raiding the kitchen, getting in the endless bathroom lines. Most people stood stock still like they were indebted to Celestine somehow and had to stay and watch. I didn’t have anywhere else to be and figured if anything, I could score at least a mild ego boost watching the most popular girl from my high school and her corny band perform.
I wasn’t ready for what I saw when they took the stage.
Celestine looked very much like herself, but the newest edition. Her bleached hair was crimped and teased. She had eyeliner smudged all the way around her eyes and wore a dark lip shade, more like a stain than a stick or gloss, as it dried out her lips. She wore a white top—I think it was meant to be worn as a bustier and not as a shirt, but she could pull it off—short short cut-offs, and tall black boots. As she adjusted the mic stand, I saw that she did in fact have two little round discs of dark armpit hair.
I recognized the drummer as Billie Hill—Hillbillie, we called her in high school. She still had the same linebacker build and thick ankles but now her hair was cut short, almost buzzed.
Two more girls walked up onto the stage, but I had never seen them before. They both took stringed instruments, but I didn’t know right away which was the guitar and which was the bass, or if either one was the bass because I’m an idiot. One girl was one of the three whole Black people in the whole joint, possibly in our whole small town in the Georgia High Country. Her hair was also cut short, but not as short as Billie’s. It stood almost straight up in tight curls and was tossed over to one side, pushed back by a bandana tied around her forehead. She wore tiny cut-offs like Celestine’s, but instead of lingerie up top, she was wearing an oversized black Bikini Kill t-shirt, the front of which was tucked into her shorts.
And then the last girl.
She was short. Short, short, like a kid. Like Shetland pony short. But you couldn’t really tell once she got settled onstage. She stood far enough away from the other girls but close enough to the sitting drummer that it wasn’t obvious, and all the rippage and tightness of her clothing lengthened her limbs.
She wore knee-length shorts that had obviously been cut from pants. They were form-fitting and black, splattered with flecks of dried white paint. Her shirt was a cut-up muscle shirt and I could tell she wasn’t wearing a bra underneath. Brave. The shirt was black and also splattered with paint, the original yellow print—FBI: Female Body Inspector—chipping off. A tiny ball cap, which had to have been made for a child, sat backwards on her head, and when she turned around briefly I could see that it had “Georgetown Tee-Ball Camp” printed on the front. I couldn’t tell much about her hair, except that it was either really short or tucked into the hat.
Shetland Pony Girl fidgeted with her ear for a minute while Celestine adjusted the mic, but no one seemed to notice but me.
“One more yee-haw for Chicken Coop!” Celestine screamed into the crowd. Scattered claps and Woo-hoos. All of Chicken Coop’s biggest fans had already left the room. “Now, for the debut performance of my band, Kitty Council!”
And then she did the most annoying thing. She set up a keyboard. I wished Jodi were here to enjoy this with me. When she started playing, I realized why she had the keyboard, and could not wait for the rest of it to start. She was tackling a classic. This would be deliciously bad.
“Blue jean baby, L.A. lady,” Celestine started into the mic. There were some whoops of recognition from the crowd. I rolled my eyes.
But as she continued, I became hypnotized. Her singing voice was soft, low, with a gentle, crackling fry. The other band members weren’t playing their instruments, but it somehow wasn’t awkward. Billie hung her head and nodded with the beat, while the two string girls swayed just slightly, looking at Celestine’s back.
I always forgot how long “Tiny Dancer” is before the chorus. When it finally came, I was nearly asleep. I had subconsciously begun to rock myself back and forth like the girls on stage. Celestine’s voice filled my head to the brim and spilled out my ears, then filled me right back up again.
“And I said softly … slooooooowly.”
All the other instruments jumped in at once, and Celestine switched her keyboard over to synth mode.
“Hold me closer tiny dance-eh-ehr.”
The beginning of the song had been classic Elton, but this was something else. Something new. I felt my spine vibrate. It was everything I had heard when dragged to house shows like this by Jodi. All the hard sounds were there. But there was something extra. Coke fizz. Butter sizzle. Fingers climbing up my back.
And then I could feel it and knew immediately that Bikini Kill Girl was playing guitar and Shetland Pony Girl was definitely, without a doubt, on bass. She leaned into the instrument, feeling it, loving it, getting life from it.
And then it was over.
“If you want to see more, catch us on our Southeast tour this summer!” Celestine said. “Grab a flier from Billie.”
I took a breath, realizing I was unnecessarily upset that their set had only one song when Chicken Coop, their opener, had played several. Were they creating false scarcity? Did they not know how to play other songs? I wanted to criticize them, but the truth was I would do anything to hear them play more.
I watched Shetland Pony Girl. She took her bass off her body and placed it gingerly into a case.
“Good show,” I said as she walked off stage, but she ignored me. She had to have. The room wasn’t an outright bar brawl like it had been when Dillon’s band wrapped. There was no way she didn’t hear me.
Trying not to be too heartbroken, I walked to the back of the room looking for Jodi. She was at the door on her own, which gave me a sense of relief. She looked annoyed, but I pretended not to notice so I could retrieve the info I needed.
“Hey,” I said. “Do you know anything about the girls in Celestine’s band?”
“Well,” she said, looking up at the ceiling. “There’s Billie-”
“I remember Billie from school,” I said quickly, manically.
“Oh-kaaay. Well, the guitarist just joined so I don’t really know her. The bassist is Sawyer. Celestine dated her-”
“Dated her?” Jodi took a step back and I realized I had kind of been in her face.
“Yeah,” Jodi said, obviously wondering why the fuck I cared. “I guess going to France turned Celestine into a bitch and a queer.”
Jodi walked away before I could ask any more questions. I knew she was pissed at me for not asking her what was wrong, where was Dillon, but I wanted to be free from pretending to care about her relationship for just a few minutes. I spotted Sawyer in the crowd.
I saw her nod toward my direction and smile, but I was smart enough to know she wasn’t looking at me. I had been at the center of enough awkward misunderstandings to not even accept as a possibility that she could be looking at me. But once she was a couple feet away and I maneuvered myself in the crowd to let her pass, she didn’t walk around me.
“Hey,” she said. “You’re Jodi’s friend, right?”
I was the most pleased I had ever been to just be “Jodi’s friend.”
I didn’t know what to say. I would normally want anyone who had just ignored me to pay for their infraction, but I didn’t want to end this conversation before it began. So I just blurted, “Gertie.”
“Sorry, am I bothering you?” Despite my best efforts, I must have come off as bitchy.
“No,” I said earnestly, my shoulders falling. “It’s just, I said something to you while you were leaving the stage and you completely ignored me. And don’t try to say you didn’t because I was standing right next to you. I know you heard me.”
A smile cracked Sawyer’s face like she was doing everything she could to keep a neutral expression but it just leapt out. And then she laughed. It started out like a windchime, high and jingly, then got throatier, then disappeared completely, and she heaved breathlessly. She doubled over for just a second, really selling it.
I refused to smile.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought pretty much everyone knew.”
“That you ignore people?”
She laughed again. “That I’m deaf.”
She turned and pointed at a hearing aid in her ear. “I turn this baby off while performing. Too much feedback. Can’t hear much of anything without it.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Can’t hear a lot of stuff with it, if we’re being honest.” She nudged me.
“Hey, you guyyyys!” Billie came tumbling into our conversation. “Who’s this?” She shouldered Sawyer and nodded toward me. Her face was sweaty and she was panting.
“This is Gertie,” Sawyer said. I thought it best to not bring up to Billie that I had sat behind her in eight different classes throughout high school.
“Well, does she have a flier?” Billie waved a stack of curled, wrinkled paper. Sawyer shook her head and gave Billie a Be my quest gesture.
Billie slapped a flier into my hand, which I didn’t realize had been outstretched. The flier was damp and smelled like beer and socks.
“Sorry,” Billie said, sounding suddenly sincere. “The crowd really did a number on these. I swear they were clean and flat when I brought them in. And I spent a prett-tee penny getting these bad boys Xeroxed.” She tucked her top lip down into her bottom and made a sucking sound. “Welp,” she said, suddenly. “Hope you can make it to a show,” and slapped me on the back.
“Tonight was just a taste,” Sawyer said, raising her eyebrows.
Billie turned around and shouted something into the crowd.
"I’m sorry,” Sawyer said, and she really did seem sorry. “I’ve got to get this one home.”
“Uh—” I said. I wanted to tell her to wait. I wanted to ask how I could reach her. But I couldn’t say any of it out loud.
“I’ll see you around!” Sawyer said to me as Billie dragged her across the party. Somehow, I knew she meant it.
I didn’t realize until I got home that night that I never came across Jack at the party and I hadn’t even noticed.