The new girl at the ice cream shop smoked cigarettes and wore a moon around her neck, a fake-gold chain necklace with a little crescent pendant. Her name was Justine, and on her last smoke break our first night working together I took the trash out as an excuse to spy on her. I liked to watch people in their private smoking moments, I liked how they squinted and stared off like they were thinking deep and heavy things. Plus Justine smoked Benson & Hedges, and Benson & Hedges were my brother’s cigarette, and I figured maybe that could mean something good.
Justine’s smoking move was to lean against the wall around the corner from the takeout window, her cigarette in one hand and a paperback in the other. She never took her eyes off the book, just lifted the cigarette to her mouth and dragged and blew smoke sideways. Her book was dog-eared and on the cover was a woman with blue hair and blue skin, blue butterflies flying from her mouth. The book was named The Song of Rhiannon.
“What is that?” I asked when she came back inside. We’d been quiet with each other all night but it was almost closing time and I felt loosened up and friendly, knowing I could go home and be alone in my room again soon. “Some kinda Fleetwood Mac thing?”
“Sort of. It’s the story ‘Rhiannon’’s based on. Why?” she asked, rubbing the moon between her thumb and pointer finger. “You like Fleetwood Mac?”
I shrugged and said yeah, sure, but it wasn’t completely true. Really I thought Fleetwood Mac were for prissy hippies, or hippie prisses. But I could tell that Justine probably loved them, and I didn’t believe in trash-talking another person’s favorite music. My brother and I had agreed years ago that it was low and pathetic, one of the most unimaginative ways to try to feel cool.
“Yeah, me too,” she said. “Stevie Nicks is my idol.”
I checked Justine out again, her pale-denim mini-skirt and tennis shoes and tight blonde ponytail, and made a face that was possibly rude. “You don’t look like one of those Stevie Nicks girls,” I told her.
“What, should I be wearing a shawl or something?” Justine asked. “A black-lace shawl with some goddamn fringe?” She sneered but then laughed, touched her necklace and went back to her book.
When I got home I kissed my parents hello and goodnight and went to my room and got my notebook and wrote some lines about the new girl’s cigarettes and butterflies, in the swoopy cursive I always used when I wanted to turn something into a song. If it was about six months ago I could’ve gone to my brother’s room, picked up his electric guitar and messed around until I found a scratchy or creepy or pretty sound to go with the words. But my brother had gone away just before Christmas last year, and maybe taken his guitar with him, so I had to settle for lying down and letting the words bounce around my brain.
After about an hour of lying there I started to see the blue butterflies landing on Justine’s fingers and flying into her mouth instead of out, and then I heard a melody I was mostly sure I’d made up on my own. I sang the notes to myself to try to burn them into my mind, and pretended my brother was still around and I was sitting on his floor and working out the rest of the song. My brother would lie on his bed and smoke his cigarettes and watch the wall, where his ex-girlfriend had painted the whole solar system last year. He’d stare off at Neptune or wherever and say things like, “Maybe it should be more waterfally?” or “Make it like a slow-motion car crash” or “Make it like ghosts…but, like, lazy ghosts.” In a while I’d figure out what he meant and of course he’d be right, it would be perfect, he’d turn the song into what it was supposed to be.
By the first Friday of July the shop started to get the sweet and slightly disgusting smell that always showed up by mid-summer, after a few weeks of kids dropping their cones and the ice cream melting into milky puddles. Toward the end of the night I wrote the words hot pavement and sticky milk on the order pad, then tore the page out and tucked it into the pocket of my jeans. Justine was working with me, reading her Rhiannon book again.
“What are you doing tonight?” she asked as we cleaned up. “Come over. We could use some company.”
So after closing we walked a few blocks down Sherman Way to the apartment where Justine lived with her boyfriend, the guy she’d moved out to California with from Michigan. I’d never met him and I pictured a feathered-haired and mean-mouthed guy in his own pale denim, the kind of boy I’d ideally never have to deal with again once I went off to college out East in the fall.
Justine’s building was one of those motel-style apartment complexes with a swimming pool in the courtyard. Her apartment was right by the pool and when we walked in her boyfriend was lying on the couch, drinking a beer and watching Dallas on an old TV propped up on milk crates. He wasn’t what I’d pictured; he was boney with bad skin, floppy hair like my brother’s. Justine introduced us to each other—his name was Matt, and when he sat up to make room for her on the couch, I saw that he was wearing a David Bowie shirt.
“Hey,” I said, sitting down, pointing to Matt’s shirt. “He’s my favorite.”
“Oh yeah?” Matt asked.
“His too,” Justine said, waving toward Matt without looking at him. “God, you guys are just the same.”
“Are we?” I asked. I glanced over at Matt and he cracked a smile and his smile was snaggletoothed and it looked cool. I liked the idea of being just the same.
“Yeah,” said Justine. “You’ve always got your hair in your eyes. You keep to yourselves. You wear those goddamn Chuck Taylors every day. You both love David Bowie.”
“Huh,” I said. “Yeah, that’s me.” There were no chairs so I sat on the dingy carpet, and asked lots of questions that I’d never thought to ask Justine before. I learned about how they’d gone to high school together, how Matt had played guitar in a band and the band had moved to L.A. when school was over. But after a year nothing had happened, and the band broke up and now he had no band at all. He’d been working as a stocker in a grocery store and gotten let go in March, which was why Justine worked two jobs—one at the shop, the other at a temp agency.
“You still got a guitar?” I asked Matt, and he sighed and nodded and got up and left the room and came back with a turquoise-and-white Stratocaster. I took the guitar and blew the dust off and started to play a David Bowie song, the first track on the second side of Space Oddity. It felt nice to have the strings cut into my skin again.
“Whoa, you play?” said Justine.
“Uh-huh. It’s been a while though. I don’t have a guitar anymore.”
“What happened to it?” Matt asked.
“It was my brother’s. He’s not around right now.”
“I didn’t know you had a brother,” said Justine.
“Yup,” I said. I stopped playing but kept staring at the guitar—I hadn’t talked to anyone about my brother in a while, and I wasn’t sure what it would do to my eyes. “His name’s Jonathan,” I said, pressing my pinky into the low E string. “He’s a year and a half older than me. He moved out in December.” I told them how my brother and I used to be close, but sometime last fall he’d started disappearing for days. He never actually moved out, he just kept coming home less and staying away longer, taking things with him one at a time: his stereo, the fancy camera our grandfather had left to him, the TV from our living room, a gold bracelet of our mom’s. And then the guitar was gone, and he didn’t come back at all. Nobody knew where he was now but his room was untouched, like he might walk back in the door any day.
“So why don’t you buy a guitar?” Matt asked when I was done talking. “There’s like a thousand pawn shops around here.”
“I can’t,” I said. “Pawning a guitar’s too sad. I don’t want a sad guitar.”
“No, of course you don’t,” said Justine. She gave me a soft smile and got up and sat down beside me, then reached into her purse and pulled out a bottle of pearly-white nail polish. As she painted her nails I remembered the song I’d started to make up about the butterflies landing on her fingers, and I tried to get the melody back and work it out on Matt’s guitar. Once it felt almost right I kept playing it, looking up at Matt every now and then to see if he was paying attention. But he was glued to the TV, so after a while I gave up and just played for myself. At around midnight Justine said, “Let me take you home,” and I waved to Matt and he waved back as we headed out the door.
On the ride home the streets were empty and I wished I was driving around with my brother, like we used to before he left. Sometimes late at night he’d let me sneak out with him and we’d get into our dad’s car and take Reseda Boulevard to the freeway, the freeway to Malibu Canyon. We were always quiet as we rode along; we were a quiet family in general. Jonathan would play his weird sleepy music and I’d stare out the window and put my own words into places where the lyrics felt wrong. The best words always came when we got to the canyon and everything was black, and I could make up what was happening out there. In daylight it looked like outer space, like the desert planet in Star Wars, and at night I made-believe we were in another galaxy that felt like home to my brother in a way that real home never seemed to.
After Justine dropped me off I went to my room and listened to the night birds and to my own song in my head. I imagined my brother playing it in some other stolen car at four a.m., and the song and the dark being enough for him—as good and faraway-feeling as one of Saturn’s rings or Neptune’s moons or the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, or wherever it was he’d actually disappeared to.
The next Friday night Justine asked me over again, but Matt wasn’t home. “He’s hanging out with some people in Hollywood or something,” Justine said. She took a bottle of white wine from the fridge and poured it into two juice glasses, and we went out to the pool and sat at the edge with our feet in the warm grimy water.
“God, look at the moon,” said Justine, when half her wine was gone. She made her eyes big and sighed, then drank some more.
I glanced up and the moon was fat and almost full, but it didn’t make me sigh—I wasn’t really the sigh-at-the-moon type. It seemed to me that girls only got dreamy about the moon once they realized they couldn’t rely on guys to be the magic thing they’d hoped for, and needed to put that longing somewhere else. It was rude, I thought, to treat the moon as a last resort. It made gazing up at the sky just as plain as gazing up at some boring boy.
While Justine stared at the moon more I went back inside and brought Matt’s guitar out, and tried playing my song again.
“You were playing that last time,” Justine said. “Keep going, it’s pretty.”
I did as she said and Justine got up and took her skirt off, then dove into the pool. She swam laps, gliding beneath the surface, and I watched and wondered whether she wanted an audience: I’d been nightswimming and I knew the picture it gave you of yourself, like you were some perfect celestial creature, glowing from the inside. But after a few laps I decided that Justine probably wanted to be alone under her Stevie Nicks moon, so I took my eyes off her and went back to the guitar. I messed around more and tried to find a new chord progression, one that sounded like gliding or maybe like twirling, although definitely not in a fringed lace shawl.
Justine quit the shop the first week of August; she got a job at a steakhouse where she’d make real money. The last time we worked together, she waited until the end of the night to tell me that she’d broken up with Matt.
“He’s having a thing with some girl,” she said, blowing smoke into the sky as we stepped into the parking lot. “It’s actually a huge relief.” She’d driven to work and she dropped me off, and got out of the car with me after parking in front of my building. I followed her to the trunk and she opened it up, then pulled out the turquoise Strat and handed it over, saying “There you go—all yours.”
For a few long seconds I just stared down at the strings, realizing that it was a nicer guitar than my brother’s, and that in some ways that wasn’t fair. “Does he know you took it?” I asked, biting my lip.
“It doesn’t matter.” Justine shook her head, rolled her eyes. “Layla, he never played it anymore. Don’t feel bad for him.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay,” I said again, nodding, deciding she was right.
Justine made me promise I’d take the guitar to school and I told her of course I would. She kissed my cheek and we said goodbye and then she drove off, waving out the window with her moony nails.
When Justine was gone I went to my room and sat on the floor, thinking how it wasn’t a sad guitar: it was mine. I played the twirling chords again and made up another lyric to go along with them, about a girl with the moon in her bones and her hair and that protein that your fingernails are made of. It was with her all the time but she never got used to it; it was always something for her to sigh at.