In my dreams, Anabelle Paxton and I are still friends and that summer night in Playa never happened. I am married to her brother Luke and we live in a Spanish house overlooking the Pacific. Anabelle and her husband live down the street and each morning our kids walk down the sandstone cliffs to surf before school, just as we once did. There is sand on the floorboards and art on every wall and at night, our big unruly tribe gathers around the mesquite grill and someone strums a guitar.
And no one is dead.
For two years during high school, the Paxtons were my life, the sun around which I revolved. They taught me a new way of seeing. For them, there was no barrier between wanting something and getting it. They simply made it happen—with their money, connections and magnetic personalities. Their confidence was contagious, inspiring me to reach for a future I'd never imagined before. In many ways, they made me what I am. That's why despite everything that came later, I owe a debt to that family. And I wish things could have turned out differently.
The party was in The Jungle, not our usual scene at all, just a bunch of clapboard beach shacks in Playa del Rey, leaning drunkenly under the crescent moon.
Luke went on ahead while Anabelle and I stopped under a palm tree for a lip gloss boost. Above us, something rustled, but when I looked up, it was only dead gray fronds trembling in the breeze. The air smelled of coconut oil, spilled beer and Mr. Zog's sex wax.
From the party bungalow came hoots and jeers, then the knifing soprano of a girl's laugh. Black Flag blasted from fuzzy speakers. As the song ended, a wave crashed in perfect time just beyond the dunes.
Luke was already on the porch, high-fiving his surf buddies and nodding coolly at the girls.
Luke, our passport to adventure.
It was a mystery to me, in that world before IM and Twitter and Facebook, how he always knew where to show up. I never saw Luke call anyone or make plans. Anabelle believed that her brother and his surfer friends had their own secret language, like the eerie singing that whales use to communicate across vast distances. She said the booming surf was a tribal drum and that if you listened very hard, you'd hear words in the watery rush the pebbles made when the tide pulled back.
Each weekend, we'd pile into Luke's cherried-out '67 Mustang convertible in the indigo dusk and head for Malibu or Hermosa, County Line or Venice, wherever the party was happening. Luke popped in the latest metal, though he also liked Hawaiian steel guitar, and would even play one of Anabelle's mix tapes if we begged, and he was feeling charitable.
Luke drove fast, tires squealing around the curves, laughing as Anabelle and I slammed together in the backseat. We would shriek, our long hair whipping behind us in the warm desert air like fragrant banshees.
The summer we were 16, Anabelle dressed in tulle and organza and lace. She wore a ruby stud in her nose and hammered silver bracelets that made Gypsy music when she walked. When she was sad, she'd slip on fairy wings and sit cross-legged on her bed, drinking green tea and sketching out her demons so we could burn them in a ritual cleansing. I'd sprawl on the tiger rug that her grandfather had shot on Kenyan safari, reading "Les Miserables" and trying not to show how happy I was.
I loved Anabelle with an intensity that frightened me. She was my best friend and my only ally in that lunatic asylum known as Our Lady of Corvallis High School, and I knew I'd collapse in abject misery and die if she ever dropped me.
I also knew, despite my social awkwardness, that it was absolutely necessary to conceal these fears. I'd transferred into Corvallis as a sophomore that fall, an entire year after everybody else had met and bonded, so I cultivated an air of enigmatic aloofness for self-defense. This kept the pleated-skirt tormentors at bay, but it had the perverse effect of attracting Anabelle.
It wasn't until years later that I understood how my behavior must have been catnip to her. She was a girl who chased the unattainable, certain that, by virtue of her purity and goodness she could triumph over all adversity. We didn't yet understand that there are forces in this world that are immutable to change. That sees purity and goodness as something only to defile.
That summer, as L.A.'s infamous June gloom turned to firecracker July heat, Luke had finally caved to Anabelle's pleas and let us tag along to the parties he got invited to because he was a Surf God.
And so one night, with Labor Day and school already glittering darkly on the horizon, Anabelle and I picked our way past tangled surfboard leashes and drifts of sand, up the steps to a bungalow in a crowded, run-down part of Playa Del Rey known as The Jungle.
The party was in full swing.
Up close, the music was so loud that the glass in the front windows rattled in time to the subwoofer. The wood porch sagged like a busted trampoline from all the kids hanging off it. Punks, Goths, surfers, glammed-out Hollywood kids, a squad of polo shirts that looked like they'd wandered down from a UCLA fraternity. Lithe tanned girls with kaleidoscope eyes drifting like jellyfish.
Luke disappeared inside with a wave and a grin. That was our deal. He brought us along but he didn't babysit.
"Whoa," said Anabelle, her platform heel catching on an empty beer bottle. With a gurgle it spun and rolled away. Spin the bottle. I caught her arm to steady her and breathed in gusts of Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo.
Anabelle wore a batik skirt with indigo fringe and a sleeveless crop-top made of crocheted lace. I wore an ivory satin camisole slip dress with round-toed vintage pumps from Bullock's Wilshire that I'd found in at an estate sale in Hollywood.
In the living room, furniture had been cleared away and kids were pogoing in slow motion, as if the music in their heads ran at half-speed. Guys leaned against the walls, drinking beer out of plastic cups.
Not knowing a soul, we made our way to the bathroom to check our fabulousness and plan our assault on the evening. I locked the door. Anabelle leaned against the counter, cradled her taut, exposed belly and frowned.
"I look fat," she told the mirror.
"No you don't," I said loyally. (And truthfully.) "You're skinny."
"I feel so bloated. I'm about to get my period."
"You can't tell."
Someone pounded on the door.
"Just a minute," I called.
In the mirror, Anabelle's eyes flickered over my dress. "Let's switch," she said. "I have to hide my big fat poochy stomach tonight."
"You're on crack," I said.
But I was already shimmying out of my frock and handing it to her because it was inconceivable for me to deny her anything. In fact, I was grateful. We were the same size, but it was usually me raiding her huge closet.
When we were dressed again, I put one hand behind my head, thrust out a hip and vogued, amazed at the foxy stranger who stared back from the mirror. But a flutter of panic rose in my throat. Where was the real me?
Anabelle leaned in and examined our reflections.
"We really could be sisters."
I didn't say anything. I didn't trust my voice. I wanted to freeze that frame, to stay in that cruddy bathroom in that halo of perfumed, squeaky-clean, lace-and-satin-and-indigo-batik grrrl love, forever.
We were as perfect that night as we'd ever be.
The doorknob rattled angrily.
"Let's get a drink," Anabelle said as we slipped our fabulous selves past a gaggle of scowling girls to the kitchen, where we got in line for the keg.
"You don't want to drink that pisswater."
It was a cute blond guy in shorts and a faded Wile E. Coyote t-shirt.
"Got something better?" said Anabelle, giving him the full-on face.
He smiled in appreciation.
"I'm Ivan," he said, his arm already snaking around Anabelle's waist. "Follow me."
He led us back through the crowded living room and down a hallway into the rear of the house, with me clinging to Anabelle so we wouldn't get separated.
He opened a door and we entered a room lit only by flickering candlelight. There was a futon in the corner where a couple lay entwined. Kids sat cross-legged in a circle on the floor, passing around a joint.
Ivan shut the door and we sat down. The guy next to me said his name was Dan. He had the most amazing blue eyes and curly brown hair pulled back in a ponytail.
"What about our drinks?" I said.
"Coming right up."
Ivan went into the adjoining bathroom and returned with ice, a bottle of gin and cans of tonic.
"G&T OK?" he asked.
Anabelle and I said yes.
Ivan's eyes met Dan's. A look passed between them. Almost imperceptibly, Dan nodded. "Sure thing, bro," he said. "I'll behave myself."
Ivan brought four drinks and sat down next to Anabelle. I'd never had a G&T but I could tell he'd made them strong. I sipped, trying not to gag on the oily juniper taste and the bitter tonic that puckered my mouth like I'd sucked a grapefruit. The joint came around and I took a half-hearted toke. Immediately, the smoke expanded in my lungs, making me cough.
"Here," Dan said, handing me my glass.
Embarrassed, I drank. After the first few gulps, I didn't notice the bitter taste anymore.
The room began to vibrate in a way that was not unpleasant.
I tried to focus. Ivan and Anabelle were kissing.
"Want to go for a walk along the beach?" Dan asked, standing up and holding out his hand, which shimmered and pulsed before my eyes.
I pushed it away. "I want to stay with my friend."
"It's OK," Anabelle said from a great distance.
There were only the four of us in the room now. When had the others left? Even the couple on the futon were gone. Someone blew out the candles and the air filled with waxy smoke. The room was nearly dark, lit only by the spectral moon.
I stood up but the floor shifted beneath me. I put one foot in front of the other, extended my arms like a high-wire artist and made my way painstakingly to Anabelle. Proud of my accomplishment, I tried to take a bow and nearly fell.
Maybe a walk was just what I needed to clear my head. I wished Luke would come and find us, but he didn't know where we were.
I tapped Anabelle on the shoulder. She and Ivan stopped making out.
"What?" she said, annoyed.
Ivan let out a sigh.
"I don't want to leave you here all alone."
"She's not alone," Ivan said, nuzzling her neck.
"You sure you want me to go?" I said miserably.
I felt a hand on the small of my back. "C'mon, babe," said Dan. "A little fresh air will do you good."
Still I hesitated.
"Oh for God's sake," said Ivan, breaking away from Anabelle.
He began to lay out lines on a mirror.
"It's fi-yunne," Anabelle told me with a wall-eyed smile. Her lip gloss was smeared over half her face and she looked like a pretty clown. "Nothing's gonna happen unless I want it to."
With reluctance, I let Dan lead me out of the room. The hallway was dark, the light blocked by the silhouette of a big guy with a beer gut who leaned against the wall. I caught a glimpse of his face as he lifted a cigarette to his lips. It was red and bloated, the hairline receding, the nose splotchy with incipient skin cancer. One of the aging beach boys who hovered on the fringes of the scene.
I shrunk against the opposite wall as we squeezed past and reached for Dan's hand.
The air outside was misty-wet, salt spray clinging to my lashes. From beyond the dunes came voices. And the crash of the waves, rhythmic and soothing as a lullaby.
"Going for a walk?" said a guy sitting with friends around the barbeque pit. There were guffaws all around.
"Shut-up," Dan told them.
"Should be a good view from there," I said, pointing to a high dune. The words were clear enough in my brain. But what came out was more like "pshaw."
"I wanna show you the phosphorescence," said Dan. "Lights dancing in the waves. It's magical."
He led me down to the waterline, where it was as beautiful as he said but also darker and more lonely. All of a sudden, I missed Anabelle and Luke and wanted them to be here too. The moon rose higher in the sky. A madness seized me and I began to spin, thinking that Anabelle was right, the pebbles did whisper as they tumbled in the tide. I could almost make out the words. But my feet weren't doing what my brain told them anymore. I tripped and fell.
I lay there giggling and making a sand angel. Then the moon was blotted out as Dan loomed over me.
'Oh, you pretty thing," he said. "You're driving me crazy. I've got to kiss you."
He was very beautiful, suspended against the night sky. Then he came closer. His cornflower blue eyes held a sad, rueful look that I wouldn't understand until much later. Not many boys had kissed me, at that point in my life, and the possibility usually filled me with breathless giddiness. But tonight there was only a strange, disengaged hunger. Then part of me rose up and left my body. Looking down from the sky, I felt like I was watching a wanton actress play me in a movie. Just before I floated away altogether, the me on the sand reached for Dan.
"Yes," she said, smiling in invitation. "I'd like that very much."