It was a bloody great hotel.
The minibar in Jule’s room stocked potato chips and four different chocolate bars. The bathtub had bubble jets. There was an endless supply of fat towels and liquid gardenia soap. In the lobby, an elderly gentleman played Gershwin on a grand piano at four each afternoon. You could get hot clay skin treatments, if you didn’t mind strangers touching you. Jule’s skin smelled like chlorine all day.
The Playa Grande Resort in Baja had white curtains, white tile, white carpets, and explosions of lush white flowers. The staff members were nurselike in their white cotton garments. Jule had been alone at the hotel for nearly four weeks now. She was eighteen years old.
This morning, she was running in the Playa Grande gym. She wore custom sea-green shoes with navy laces. She ran without music. She had been doing intervals for nearly an hour when a woman stepped onto the treadmill next to hers. This woman was younger than thirty. Her black hair was in a tight ponytail, slicked with hair spray. She had big arms and a solid torso, light brown skin, and a dusting of powdery blush on her cheeks. Her shoes were down at the heels and spattered with old mud.
No one else was in the gym.
Jule slowed to a walk, figuring to leave in a minute. She liked privacy, and she was pretty much done, anyway.
“You training?” the woman asked. She gestured at Jule’s digital readout. “Like, for a marathon or something?” The accent was Mexican American. She was probably a New Yorker raised in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood.
“I ran track in secondary school. That’s all.” Jule’s own speech was clipped, what the British call BBC English.
The woman gave her a penetrating look. “I like your accent,” she said. “Where you from?”
“London. St. John’s Wood.”
“New York.” The woman pointed to herself.
Jule stepped off the treadmill to stretch her quads.
“I’m here alone,” the woman confided after a moment. “Got in last night. I booked this hotel at the last minute. You been here long?”
“It’s never long enough,” said Jule, “at a place like this.”
“So what do you recommend? At the Playa Grande?”
Jule didn’t often talk to other hotel guests, but she saw no harm in answering. “Go on the snorkel tour,” she said. “I saw a bloody huge moray eel.”
“No kidding. An eel?”
“The guide tempted it with fish guts he had in a plastic milk jug. The eel swam out from the rocks. It must have been eight feet long. Bright green.”
The woman shivered. “I don’t like eels.” “You could skip it. If you scare easy.”
The woman laughed. “How’s the food? I didn’t eat yet.” “Get the chocolate cake.”
“Oh, yeah. They’ll bring it to you special, if you ask.” “Good to know. You traveling alone?”
“Listen, I’m gonna jet,” said Jule, feeling the conversation had turned personal. “Cheerio.” She headed for the door.
“My dad’s crazy sick,” the woman said, talking to Jule’s back. “I’ve been looking after him for a long time.”
A stab of sympathy. Jule stopped and turned.
“Every morning and every night after work, I’m with him,” the woman went on. “Now he’s finally stable, and I wanted to get away so badly I didn’t think about the price tag. I’m blowing a lot of cash here I shouldn’t blow.”
“What’s your father got?”
“MS,” said the woman. “Multiple sclerosis? And dementia. He used to be the head of our family. Very macho. Strong in all his opinions. Now he’s a twisted body in a bed. He doesn’t even know where he is half the time. He’s, like, asking me if I’m the waitress.”
“I’m scared I’m gonna lose him and I hate being with him, both at the same time. And when he’s dead and I’m an orphan, I know I’m going to be sorry I took this trip away from him, d’you know?” The woman stopped running and put her feet on either side of the treadmill. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “Sorry. Too much information.”
“You go on. Go shower or whatever. Maybe I’ll see you around later.”
The woman pushed up the arms of her long-sleeved shirt and turned to the digital readout of her treadmill. A scar wound down her right forearm, jagged, like from a knife, not clean like from an operation. There was a story there.
“Listen, do you like to play trivia?” Jule asked, against her better judgment.
A smile. White but crooked teeth. “I’m excellent at trivia, actually.”
“They run it every other night in the lounge downstairs,” said Jule. “It’s pretty much rubbish. You wanna go?”
“What kind of rubbish?” “Good rubbish. Silly and loud.” “Okay. Yeah, all right.”
“Good,” said Jule. “We’ll kill it. You’ll be glad you took a vacation. I’m strong on superheroes, spy movies, YouTubers, fitness, money, makeup, and Victorian writers. What about you?”
“Victorian writers? Like Dickens?”
“Yeah, whatever.” Jule felt her face flush. It suddenly seemed an odd set of things to be interested in.
“I love Dickens.” “Get out.”
“I do.” The woman smiled again. “I’m good on Dickens, cooking, current events, politics . . . let’s see, oh, and cats.”
“All right, then,” said Jule. “It starts at eight o’clock in that lounge off the main lobby. The bar with sofas.”
“Eight o’clock. You’re on.” The woman walked over and extended her hand. “What’s your name again? I’m Noa.”
Jule shook it. “I didn’t tell you my name,” she said. “But it’s Imogen.”
Jule West Williams was nice-enough-looking. She hardly ever got labeled ugly, nor was she commonly labeled hot. She was short, only five foot one, and carried herself with an uptilted chin. Her hair was in a gamine cut, streaked blond in a salon and currently showing dark roots. Green eyes, white skin, light freckles. In most of her clothes, you couldn’t see the strength of her frame. Jule had muscles that puffed off her bones in powerful arcs—like she’d been drawn by a comic- book artist, especially in the legs. There was a hard panel of abdominal muscle under a layer of fat in her midsection. She liked to eat meat and salt and chocolate and grease.
Jule believed that the more you sweat in practice, the less you bleed in battle.
She believed that the best way to avoid having your heart broken was to pretend you don’t have one.
She believed that the way you speak is often more important than anything you have to say.
She also believed in action movies, weight training, the power of makeup, memorization, equal rights, and the idea that YouTube videos can teach you a million things you won’t learn in college.
If she trusted you, Jule would tell you she went to Stanford for a year on a track-and-field scholarship. “I got recruited,” she explained to people she liked. “Stanford is Division One. The school gave me money for tuition, books, all that.”
Jule might shrug. “I wanted to study Victorian literature and sociology, but the head coach was a perv,” she’d say. “Touching all the girls. When he got around to me, I kicked him where it counts and told everybody who would listen. Professors, students, the Stanford Daily. I shouted it to the top of the stupid ivory tower, but you know what happens to athletes who tell tales on their coaches.”
She’d twist her fingers together and lower her eyes. “The other girls on the team denied it,” she’d say. “They said I was lying and that pervert never touched anybody. They didn’t want their parents to know, and they were afraid they’d lose their scholarships. That’s how the story ended. The coach kept his job. I quit the team. That meant I didn’t get my financial aid. And that’s how you make a dropout of a straight- A student.”
After the gym, Jule swam a mile in the Playa Grande pool and spent the rest of the morning as she often did, sitting in the business lounge, watching Spanish instruction videos. She was still in her bathing suit, but she wore her sea-green running shoes. She’d put on hot pink lipstick and some silver eyeliner. The suit was a gunmetal one-piece with a hoop at the chest and a deep plunge. It was a very Marvel Universe look.
The lounge was air-conditioned. No one else was ever in there. Jule put her feet up and wore headphones and drank Diet Coke.
After two hours of Spanish she ate a Snickers bar for lunch and watched music videos. She danced around on her caffeine jag, singing to the line of swivel chairs in the empty lounge. Life was bloody gorgeous today. She liked that sad woman running away from her sick father, the woman with the interesting scar and the surprising taste in books.
They would kill it at trivia.
Jule drank another Diet Coke. She checked her makeup and kickboxed her own image in the reflective glass of the lounge window. Then she laughed aloud, because she looked both foolish and awesome. All the while, the beat pulsed in her ears.
The poolside bartender, Donovan, was a local guy. He was big-boned but soft. Slick hair. Given to winking at the clien- tele. He spoke English with the accent particular to Baja and knew Jule’s drink: a Diet Coke with a shot of vanilla syrup.
Some afternoons, Donovan asked Jule about growing up in London. Jule practiced her Spanish. They’d watch movies on the screen above the bar as they talked.
Today, at three in the afternoon, Jule perched on the corner stool, still wearing her swimsuit. Donovan wore a Playa Grande white blazer and T-shirt. Stubble was growing on the back of his neck. “What’s the movie?” she asked him, looking up at the TV.
“Hulk.” “Which Hulk?” “I don’t know.”
“You put the DVD in. How can you not know?” “I don’t even know there’s two Hulks.”
“There’s three Hulks. Wait, I take that back. Multiple Hulks. If you count TV, cartoons, all that.”
“I don’t know which Hulk it is, Ms. Williams.”
The movie went on for a bit. Donovan rinsed glasses and wiped the counter. He made a scotch and soda for a woman who took it off to the other end of the pool area.
“It’s the second-best Hulk,” said Jule, when she had his attention again. “What’s the word for Scotch in Spanish?”
“Escocés. What’s a good kind to get?” “You never drink.”
“But if I did.”
“Macallan,” Donovan said, shrugging. “You want me to pour you a sample?”
He filled five shot glasses with different brands of high- end Scotch. He explained about Scotches and whiskeys and why you’d order one and not the other. Jule tasted each but didn’t drink much.
“This one smells like armpit,” she told him. “You’re crazy.”
“And this one smells like lighter fluid.”
He bent over the glass to smell it. “Maybe.”
She pointed to the third. “Dog piss, like from a really angry dog.”
Donovan laughed. “What do the others smell like?” he asked.
“Dried blood,” Jule said. “And that powder you use to clean bathrooms. Cleaning powder.”
“Which one d’you like the best?”
“The dried blood,” she said, sticking her finger in the glass and tasting it again. “Tell me what it’s called.”
“That’s the Macallan.” Donovan cleared the glasses. “Oh, and I forgot to say: a woman was asking about you earlier. Or maybe not you. She might have been confused.”
“A Mexican lady. Speaking Spanish. She asked about a white American girl with short blond hair, traveling alone,” said Donovan. “She said freckles.” He touched his face. “Across the nose.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I said it’s a big resort. Lots of Americans. I don’t know who’s staying alone and who’s not.”
“I’m not American,” said Jule.
“I know. So I told her I hadn’t seen anyone like that.” “That’s what you said?”
“But you still thought of me.”
He looked at Jule for a long minute. “I did think of you,” he said finally. “I’m not stupid, Ms. Williams.”
Noa knew she was American.
That meant Noa was a cop. Or something. Had to be. She had set Jule up, with all that talk. The ailing father,
Dickens, becoming an orphan. Noa had known exactly what to say. She had laid that bait out—“my father is crazy sick”— and Jule had snapped it up, hungry.
Jule’s face felt hot. She’d been lonely and weak and just bloody stupid, to fall for Noa’s lines. It was all a ruse, so Jule would see Noa as a confidante, not an adversary.
Jule walked back to her room, looking as relaxed as she could. Once inside, she grabbed her valuables from the safe. She put on jeans, boots, and a T-shirt and threw as many clothes as would fit into her smallest suitcase. The rest she left behind. On the bed, she laid a hundred-dollar tip for Gloria, the maid she sometimes talked to. Then she wheeled the suitcase down the hall and tucked it next to the ice ma- chine.
Back at the poolside bar, Jule told Donovan where the case was. She pushed a US twenty-dollar bill across the counter.
Asked a favor.
She pushed another twenty across and gave instructions.
In the staff parking lot, Jule looked around and found the bartender’s little blue sedan, unlocked. She got in and lay down on the floor in the back. It was littered with empty plastic bags and coffee cups.
She had an hour to wait before Donovan finished his bar shift. With luck, Noa wouldn’t realize anything was amiss until Jule was seriously late for trivia night, maybe around eight-thirty. Then she’d investigate the airport shuttle and the cab company records before thinking of the staff lot.
It was airless and hot in the car. Jule listened for footsteps. Her shoulder cramped. She was thirsty.
Donovan would help her, right?
He would. He had already covered for her. He’d told Noa he didn’t know anyone like that. He warned Jule and promised to collect the suitcase and give her a ride. She had paid him, too.
Besides, Donovan and Jule were friends.
Jule stretched her knees straight, one at a time, then folded herself back up in the space behind the seats.
She thought about what she was wearing, then took off her earrings and her jade ring, shoving them into her jeans pocket. She forced herself to calm her breathing.
Finally, there was the sound of a suitcase on rollers. The slam of the trunk. Donovan slipped behind the wheel, started the car, and pulled out of the lot. Jule stayed on the floor as he drove. The road had few streetlights. There was Mexican pop on the radio.
“Where d’you want to go?” Donovan asked eventually.
“Anywhere in town.”
“I’m going home, then.” His voice sounded predatory all of a sudden.
Damn. Was she wrong to have gotten in his car? Was Donovan one of those guys who thinks a girl who wants a favor has to mess around with him?
“Drop me a ways from where you live,” she told him sharply. “I’ll take care of myself.”
“You don’t have to say it like that,” he said. “I’m putting myself out for you right now.”
Imagine this: a sweet house sits on the outskirts of a town in Alabama. One night, eight-year-old Jule wakes up in the dark. Did she hear a noise?
She isn’t sure. The house is quiet.
She goes downstairs in a thin pink nightgown.
On the ground floor, a spike of cold fear goes through her. The living room is trashed, books and papers every- where. The office is even worse. File cabinets have been tipped over. The computers are gone.
“Mama? Papa?” Little Jule runs back upstairs to look in her parents’ room.
Their beds are empty.
Now she is truly frightened. She slams open the bathroom. They aren’t there. She sprints outside.
The yard is ringed with looming trees. Little Jule is halfway down the walkway when she realizes what she’s seeing there, in the circle of light created by a streetlamp.
Mama and Papa lie in the grass, facedown. Their bodies are crumpled and limp. The blood pools black underneath them. Mama has been shot through the brain. She must have died instantly. Papa is clearly dead, but the only injuries Jule can see are on his arms. He must have bled out from his wounds. He is curled around Mama, as if he thought of only her in his last moments.
Jule runs back into the house to call the police. The phone line is disconnected.
She returns to the yard, wanting to say a prayer, thinking to say goodbye, at least—but her parents’ bodies have dis- appeared. Their killer has taken them away.
She does not let herself cry. She sits for the rest of the night in that circle of light from the streetlamp, soaking her nightgown in thickening blood.
For the next two weeks, Little Jule is alone in that ran- sacked house. She stays strong. She cooks for herself and sorts through the papers left behind, looking for clues. As she reads the documents, she pieces together lives of heroism, power, and secret identities.
One afternoon she is in the attic, looking at old photo- graphs, when a woman in black appears in the room.
The woman steps forward, but Little Jule is quick. She throws a letter opener, hard and fast, but the woman catches it left-handed. Little Jule climbs a pile of boxes, grabs an over- head attic beam, and pulls herself onto it. She runs across the beam and squeezes through a high window onto the roof. Panic thuds in her chest.
The woman takes after her. Jule leaps from the roof to the branches of a neighboring tree and breaks off a sharp stick to use as a weapon. She holds it in her mouth as she climbs down. She is sprinting into the underbrush when the woman shoots her in the ankle.
The pain is intense. Little Jule is sure that her parents’ killer has come to finish her off—but the woman in black helps her up and tends the wound. She removes the bullet and treats the injury with antiseptic.
As she bandages, the woman explains that she is a recruiter. She has been watching these past two weeks. Not only is Jule the child of two exceptionally skilled people, she is a remarkable intellect with a fierce survival instinct. The woman wants to train Jule and help her seek revenge. Since she is something of a long-lost aunt. She knows the secrets those parents kept from their beloved only daughter.
Here begins a highly unusual education. Jule goes to a specialized academy housed in a renovated mansion on an ordinary street in New York City. She learns surveillance techniques, performs backflips, and masters the removal of handcuffs and straitjackets. She wears leather pants and loads her pockets with gadgets. There are lessons in foreign languages, social customs, literature, martial arts, the use of firearms, disguises, various accents, methods of forgery, and fine points of the law. The education lasts ten years. By the time it is complete, Jule has become the kind of woman it would be a great mistake to underestimate.
That was the origin story of Jule West Williams. By the time she was living at the Playa Grande, Jule preferred it to any other story she might tell about herself.
Donovan stopped and opened the driver’s-side door. The light came on inside the car.
“Where are we?” Jule asked. It was dark outside. “San José del Cabo.”
“This where you live?” “Not too close.”
Jule was relieved, but it seemed very black out. Shouldn’t there be streetlights and businesses, lit up for the tourist crowd? “Anyone nearby?” she asked.
“I parked in an alley so you wouldn’t be seen getting out of my car.”
Jule crawled out. Her muscles were stiff and her face felt coated in grease. The alley was lined with garbage bins. There was light only from a couple of second-story windows. “Thanks for the ride. Pop the trunk, will you?”
“You said a hundred dollars American when I got you to town.”
“Of course.” Jule took her wallet from her back pocket and paid.
“But now it’s more,” Donovan added. “What?”
“Three hundred more.”
“I thought we were friends.”
He took a step toward her. “I make you drinks because it’s my job. I pretend to like talking to you, because that’s my job, too. You think I don’t see how you look down at me? Second-best Hulk. What kind of scotch. We’re not friends, Ms. Williams. You’re lying to me half the time, and I’m lying to you all the time.” She could smell liquor spilled on his shirt. His breath was hot in her face.
Jule had honestly believed he liked her. They had shared jokes and he’d given her free potato chips. “Wow,” she said quietly.
“Another three hundred,” he said.
Was he a small-time hustler jacking a girl who was carrying a lot of American dollars? Or was he a sleazeball who thought she’d rub up against him rather than give him the extra three hundred? Could Noa have paid him off?
Jule tucked her wallet back in her pocket. She shifted the strap so her bag went across her chest. “Donovan?” She stepped forward, close. She looked up at him with big eyes. Then she brought her right forearm up hard, snapped his head back, and punched him in the groin. He doubled over.
Jule grabbed his slick hair and yanked his head back. She twisted him around, forcing him off balance.
He jabbed with one elbow, slamming Jule in the chest. It hurt, but the second thrust of the elbow missed as she side- stepped, grabbed that elbow, and twisted it behind Donovan’s back. His arm was soft, repulsive. She held on tight and with her free hand snatched her money out of his greedy fingers.
She shoved the cash into her jeans pocket and jerked Donovan’s elbow hard while she tapped his hip pockets, looking for his phone.
Not there. Back pocket, then.
She found it and shoved the phone down her bra for lack of anywhere else. Now he couldn’t call Noa with her location, but he still had the car keys in his left hand.
Donovan kicked out, hitting her in the shin. Jule punched him in the side of the neck and he crumpled forward. One hard shove and Donovan hit the ground. He started to push himself up, but Jule grabbed a metal lid from one of the nearby trash cans and banged it on his head twice and he collapsed on a pile of garbage bags, bleeding from the fore- head and one eye.
Jule backed out of his reach. She still held the lid. “Drop your keys.”
Moaning, Donovan extended his left hand and tossed them so they landed a couple of inches from his body.
Jule grabbed the keys and popped the trunk. Then she took her rolling suitcase and sprinted down the street before Donovan could stand up.
She slowed to a walk as soon as she hit the main road in San José del Cabo and checked her shirt. It looked clean enough. She wiped her hand slowly and calmly over her face, in case there was anything on it—dirt, spit, or blood. She pulled a compact out of her bag and checked herself as she moved, using the mirror to look over her shoulder.
There was no one behind her.
She put on matte pink lipstick, snapped her compact shut, and slowed her pace even more.
She couldn’t look like she was running from anything.
The air was warm, and music thumped from inside the bars. Tourists milled around in front of many of them— white, black, and Mexican, all drunk and loud. Cheap va- cation crowds. Jule tossed Donovan’s keys and phone in a trash can. She looked for a cab or a supercabos bus but didn’t see either.
She needed to hide and change, in case Donovan came after her. He would pursue her if he was working for Noa. Or if he wanted revenge.
Picture yourself, now, on film. Shadows flit across your smooth skin as you walk. There are bruises forming under- neath your clothes, but your hair looks excellent. You’re armed with gadgets, thin shards of metal that perform outrageous feats of technology and assault. You carry poisons and antidotes.
You are the center of the story. You and no one else. You’ve got that interesting origin tale, that unusual education. Now you’re ruthless, you’re brilliant, you’re practically fearless. There’s a body count behind you, because you do whatever’s required to stay alive—but it’s a day’s work, that’s all.
You look superb in the light from the Mexican bar windows. After a fight, your cheeks are flushed. And oh, your clothes are so very flattering.
Yes, it’s true that you are criminally violent. Brutal, even. But that’s your job and you’re uniquely qualified, so it’s sexy. Jule watched a shit-ton of movies. She knew that women were rarely the centers of such stories. Instead, they were eye candy, arm candy, victims, or love interests. Mostly, they existed to help the great white hetero hero on his fucking epic journey. When there was a heroine, she weighed very little, wore very little, and had had her teeth fixed.
Jule knew she didn’t look like those women. She would never look like those women. But she was everything those heroes were, and in some ways, she was more.
She knew that, too.
She reached the third Cabo bar and ducked inside. It was furnished with picnic tables and had taxidermied fish on the walls. The customers were mainly Americans, getting sloshed after a day of sport fishing. Jule pushed quickly to the back, glanced over her shoulder, and went into the men’s room.
It was empty. She ducked into a stall. Donovan would never look for her here.
The toilet seat was wet and coated yellow. Jule dug in her suitcase until she found a black wig—a sleek bob with bangs. She put it on, wiped off her lipstick, applied a dark gloss, and powdered her nose. She buttoned a black cotton cardigan over her white T-shirt.
A guy came in and used the urinal. Jule stood still, glad she was wearing jeans and heavy black boots. Only her feet and the bottom of her suitcase would be visible at the low edge of the stall.
A second guy came in and used the stall next to hers. She looked at his shoes.
It was Donovan.
Those were his dirty white Crocs. Those were his nurse- like Playa Grande trousers. Jule’s blood pounded in her ears.
She quietly picked her suitcase up off the floor and held it so he couldn’t see it. She stayed motionless.
Donovan flushed and Jule heard him shuffle to the sink.
He ran the water.
Another guy came in. “Could I borrow your phone?” Donovan asked in English. “Just a quick call.”
“Someone beat you up, man?” The other guy had an American accent, Californian. “You look like you been through it.”
“I’m fine,” said Donovan. “I just need a phone.”
“I don’t have calls here, just texting,” the guy said. “I have to get back to my buddies.”
“I’m not going to steal it,” said Donovan. “I just need to—”
“I said no, okay? But I wish you well, dude.” The other guy left without using the facilities.
Did Donovan want the phone because he had no car keys and needed a ride? Or because he wanted to call Noa?
He breathed heavily, as if in pain. He didn’t run the water again.
Finally, he left.
Jule set the suitcase down. She shook her hands to get the blood moving again and stretched her arms behind her back. Still in the stall, she counted her money, both pesos and dollars. She checked her wig in her compact mirror.
When she felt certain Donovan was gone, Jule walked out of the men’s room, confident, no big thing, and headed for the street. Outside, she pushed through the crowds of partiers to a corner and found herself in luck. A taxi pulled up. She jumped in and asked for the Grand Solmar, the re- sort next to Playa Grande.
At the Grand Solmar she got a second taxi easily. She asked the new driver to take her to a cheap, locally owned place in town. He drove her to the Cabo Inn.
It was a dive. Cheap walls, dirty paint, plastic furniture, plastic flowers on the counter. Jule checked in under a false name and paid the clerk in pesos. He didn’t ask for ID.
Up in the room, she used the small coffeemaker to brew a cup of decaf. She put three sugars in. She sat on the edge of the bed.
Did she need to run? No.
Nobody knew where she was. No one on earth. That fact should have made her happy. She had wanted to disappear, after all.
But she felt afraid.
She wished for Paolo. Wished for Imogen.
Wished she could undo everything that had happened.
If only she could go back in time, Jule felt, she would be a better person. Or a different person. She would be more her- self. Or maybe less herself. She didn’t know which, because she didn’t any longer know what shape her own self was, or whether there was really no Jule at all, but only a series of selves she presented for different contexts.
Were all people like that, with no true self? Or was it only Jule?
She didn’t know if she could love her own mangled, strange heart. She wanted someone else to do it for her, to see it beating behind her ribs and to say, I can see your true self. It is there, and it is rare and worthy. I love you.
How dark and stupid it was to be mangled and strange, to be no particular shape, to have no self when life was stretch- ing out before her. Jule had many rare talents. She worked hard and really had so damn much to offer. She knew all that.
So why did she feel worthless at the same time?
She wanted to call Imogen. She wished she could hear Immie’s low laugh and her run-on sentences spilling out secrets. She wished she could say to Imogen, I’m scared. And Immie would say, But you’re brave, Jule. You’re the bravest person I know.
She wished Paolo would come and put his arms around her, telling her as he had once that she was a top-notch, excel- lent person.
She wanted there to be someone who loved her unconditionally, someone who would forgive her anything. Or better, someone who knew everything already and loved her for it.
Neither Paolo nor Immie was capable of that.
Still, Jule remembered the feel of Paolo’s lips on hers, and the smell of Immie’s jasmine perfume.
Wearing the black wig, Jule went downstairs to the Cabo Inn’s business office. She had thought out her strategy. The office was closed this time of night, but she tipped the desk clerk to open it for her. On the computer, she booked a flight out of San José del Cabo to Los Angeles for the next morning. She used her own name and charged it on her usual credit card, the same one she’d been using at the Playa Grande.
Then she asked the clerk where she could buy a car for cash. He said there was a dealer who worked out of a back- yard who could sell her something in the morning for American dollars. He wrote down an address, on Ortiz off Ejido, he said.
Noa was tracking credit cards. She had to be, or she’d never have found Jule. Now the detective would see the new charge and go to LA. Jule herself would buy a car for cash and drive toward Cancùn. From Cancùn, she’d make her way eventually to the island of Culebra in Puerto Rico, where there were loads of Americans who never showed their pass- ports to anyone.
She thanked the clerk for the information about the car dealer. “You’re not going to remember our conversation, are you?” she said, pushing another twenty across the counter to him.
“I might,” he said.
“No you won’t.” She added a fifty. “I never saw you,” he said.
The sleep was bad. Even worse than usual. Dreams of drowning in warm turquoise water; dreams of abandoned cats walking across her body as she slept; dreams of strangulation by serpent. Jule woke up screaming.
She drank water. Took a cold shower. Slept and woke up screaming again.
At five a.m., she stumbled to the bathroom, splashed water on her face, and lined her eyes. Why not? She liked makeup. She had time. She layered concealer and powder, added smoky shadow, then mascara and a nearly black lip- stick with a gloss over it.
She rubbed gel into her hair and got dressed. Black jeans, boots again, and a dark T-shirt. Too warm for the Mexican heat, but practical. She packed her suitcase, drank a bottle of water, and stepped out the door.
Noa was sitting in the hallway, her back against the wall, holding a steaming cup of coffee between her hands.
Seven weeks earlier, at the end of April, Jule woke up in a youth hostel on the outskirts of London. There were eight bunks to a room: thin mattresses, topped with regulation white sheets. Sleeping bags lay on top of those. Backpacks leaned against the walls. There was a faint reek of body odor and patchouli.
She’d slept in her workout clothes. She eased out of bed, laced her shoes, and ran eight miles through the suburb, past pubs and butcher shops that were still shuttered in the early light. On return, she did planks, lunges, push-ups, and squats in the hostel common room.
Jule was in the shower before her roommates woke up and started using the hot water. Then she climbed back into her top bunk and unwrapped a chocolate protein bar.
The bunk room was still dark. She opened Our Mutual Friend and read by the light on her phone. It was a thick Victorian novel about an orphan. Charles Dickens wrote it. Her friend Imogen had given it to her.
Imogen Sokoloff was the best friend Jule had ever had.
Her favorite books were always about orphans. Immie was an orphan herself, born in Minnesota to a teenage mama who had died when Immie was two. Then she’d been ad- opted by a couple who lived in a penthouse on New York’s Upper East Side.
Patti and Gil Sokoloff were in their late thirties at the time. They couldn’t have children, and Gil’s legal work had long included volunteer advocacy for kids in the foster care system. He believed in adoption. So, after several years on wait lists for a newborn baby, the Sokoloffs declared them- selves open to taking an older child.
They fell in love with this particular two-year-old’s fat arms and freckled nose. They took her in, renamed her Imo- gen, and left her old name in a file cabinet. She was photo- graphed and tickled. Patti cooked her hot macaroni with butter and cheese. When little Immie was five, the Sokoloffs sent her to the Greenbriar School, a private establishment in Manhattan. There, she wore a uniform of green and white and learned to speak French. On weekends, little Immie played Lego, baked cookies, and went to the American Museum of Natural History, where she loved the reptile skeletons best. She celebrated all the Jewish holidays and, when she grew up, had an unorthodox bat mitzvah ceremony in the woods upstate.
The bat mitzvah became complicated. Patti’s mother and Gil’s parents did not consider Imogen Jewish, because her biological mother had not been. They all pushed for a formal conversion process that would put off the ceremony for a year, but instead Patti left the family synagogue and joined a secular Jewish community that did ceremonies at a mountain retreat.
Thus it was that at age thirteen, Imogen Sokoloff became more conscious of her orphan status than she ever had been before, and began reading the stories that would become a touchstone of her interior life. At first she went back to the orphan books she’d been pushed to read in school. There were a lot of those. “I liked the clothes and puddings and the horse-drawn carriages,” Immie told Jule.
Back in June, the two of them had been living together in a house Immie rented on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. That day, they drove to a farm stand where you could pick your own flowers. “I liked Heidi and God knows what other dreck,” Immie told Jule. She was bent over a dahlia bush with a pair of scissors. “But later, all those books made me puke. The heroines were so effing cheerful all the time. They were paragons of self-sacrificing womanhood. Like, ‘I’m starving to death! Here, eat my only bakery bun!’ ‘I can’t walk, I’m paralyzed, but still I see the bright side of life, happy happy!’ A Little Princess and Pollyanna, let me tell you, they are sell- ing you a pack of ugly lies. Once I realized that, I was pretty much over them.”
Finished with her bouquet, Immie climbed up to sit on the wooden fence. Jule was still picking flowers.
“In high school I read Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, Great Expectations, et cetera,” Immie went on. “They’re, like, the edgy orphans.”
“The books you gave me,” Jule said, realizing.
“Yeah. Like, in Vanity Fair, Becky Sharp is one big ambition machine. She’ll stop at zero. Jane Eyre has temper tantrums, throws herself on the floor. Pip in Great Expecta- tions is deluded and money hungry. All of them want a better life and go after it, and all of them are morally compromised. That makes them interesting.”
“I like them already,” said Jule.
Immie had gotten into Vassar College on the strength of her essay about those characters. She wasn’t much for school be- sides that, she admitted. She didn’t like it when people told her what to do. When professors assigned her to read the ancient Greeks, she had not done it. When her friend Brooke told her to read Suzanne Collins, she had not done that, either. And when her mother told her to work harder on her studies, Immie had dropped out of school.
Of course the pressure hadn’t been the only reason Immie left Vassar. The situation was desperately complicated. But Patti Sokoloff’s controlling nature was definitely a factor.
“My mother believes in the American dream,” said Imogen. “And she wants me to believe in it, too. Her parents were born in Belarus. They full-on bought the package. You know, that idea that here in the US of A, anyone can reach the top. Doesn’t matter where you start out, one day, you can run the country, get rich, own a mansion. Right?”
This conversation happened a little later in the Martha’s Vineyard summer. Jule and Immie were at Moshup Beach. They had a large cotton blanket spread underneath them.
“It’s a pretty dream,” said Jule, popping a potato chip into her mouth.
“My dad’s family bought it, too,” Immie continued. “His grandparents came from Poland and they lived in these tenements. Then his father did well and owned a delicatessen. My dad was supposed to move even further up, be the first in his family to go to college, so he did exactly that. He became, like, this big lawyer. His parents were so proud. It seemed simple to them: Leave the old country behind and reinvent your life. And if you couldn’t quite live the American dream, then your children would do it for you.”
Jule loved hearing Immie talk. She hadn’t ever met any- one who spoke so freely. Immie’s dialogue was rambling, but it was also relentlessly curious and thoughtful. She didn’t seem to censor herself or craft her sentences. She just talked, in a flow that made her seem alternately questioning and desperate to be heard.
“Land of opportunity,” Jule said now, just to see what direction Immie would go.
“That’s what they believe, but I don’t think it’s really true,” Immie responded. “Like, you can figure out from half an hour of watching the news that there’s more opportunity for white people. And for people who speak English.”
“And for people with your kind of accent.”
“East Coast?” said Immie. “Yeah, I guess. And for non- disabled people. Oh, and men! Men, men, men! Men still walk around like the US of A is a big cake store and all the cake is for them. Don’t you think?”
“I’m not letting them have my cake,” said Jule. “That’s my bloody cake and I’m eating it.”
“Yes. You defend your cake,” said Immie. “And you get chocolate cake with chocolate icing and, like, five layers. But for me, the point is—go ahead and call me stupid, but I don’t want cake. Maybe I’m not even hungry. I’m trying to just be. To exist and enjoy what’s right in front of me. I know that’s a luxury and I’m probably an asshole for even having that luxury, but I also think, I’m trying to appreciate it, people! Let me just be grateful that I’m here on this beach, and not feel like I’m supposed to be striving all the time.”
“I think you’re wrong about the American dream,” said Jule.
“No, I’m not. Why?”
“The American dream is to be an action hero.” “Seriously?”
“Americans like to fight wars,” said Jule. “We want to change laws or break them. We like vigilantes. We’re crazy about them, right? Superheroes and the Taken movies and whatever. We’re all about heading out west and grabbing land from people who had it before. Slaughtering the so-called bad guys and fighting the system. That’s the American dream.”
“Tell that to my mom,” said Immie. “Say, Hello! Immie wants to grow up to be a vigilante, rather than a captain of industry. See how it goes.”
“I’ll have a talk with her.”
“Good. That’ll fix everything.” Immie chuckled and rolled over on the beach blanket. She took off her sunglasses. “She has ideas about me that don’t fit. Like, when I was a kid, it would have been a huge deal to me to have a couple friends who were also adopted, so I didn’t feel alone or different or whatever, but back then she was all, Immie’s fine, she doesn’t need that, we’re just like other families! Then five hundred years later, in ninth grade, she read a magazine article about adopted kids and decided I had to be friends with this girl Jolie, this girl who’d just started at Greenbriar.”
Jule remembered. The girl from the birthday party and American Ballet Theatre.
“My mom had fantasies about the two of us bonding, and I tried, but that girl seriously did not like me,” Immie continued. “She had blue hair. Very cooler-than-thou. She teased me for my whole thing about stray cats, and for reading Heidi, and she made fun of the music I liked. But my mom kept calling her mom, and her mom kept calling my mom, making plans for the two of us. They imagined this whole adopted-kid connection between us that never existed.” Imogen sighed. “It was just sad. But then she moved to Chicago and my mom let it go.”
“Now you have me,” said Jule.
Immie reached up to touch the back of Jule’s neck. “Now I have you, which makes me significantly less mental.”
“Less mental is good.”
Immie opened the cooler and found two bottles of home- made iced tea. She always packed drinks for the beach. Jule didn’t like the lemon slices floating in it, but she drank some anyway.
“You look pretty with your hair cut short,” Immie said, touching Jule’s neck again.
On her winter break from her first year at Vassar, Imogen had rummaged in Gil Sokoloff’s file cabinet, looking for her adoption records. They weren’t hard to find. “I guess I thought reading the file would give me some insight into my identity,” she said. “Like learning names would explain why I was so miserable in college, or make me feel grounded in some way I never had. But no.”
That day, Immie and Jule had driven to Menemsha, a fishing village not far from Immie’s Vineyard house. They had walked out onto a stone pier that stretched into the sea. Gulls wheeled overhead. Water lapped at their feet. They were the same height, and as they sat on the rocks, their legs were tan in front of them, shiny with sunblock.
“Yeah, it was total poop,” said Imogen. “There was no dad listed at all.”
“What was your birth name?”
Immie blushed and pulled her hoodie up over her face for a moment. She had deep dimples and even teeth. Her pixie- cut bleached hair showed her tiny ears, one of which was triple pierced. Her eyebrows were plucked into thin lines.
“I don’t want to say,” she told Jule from inside the fabric. “I’m hiding in my hoodie now.”
“Come on. You started the story.”
“You can’t laugh if I tell you.” Immie lifted the hoodie and looked at Jule. “Forrest laughed and then I got mad. I didn’t forgive him for two days until he brought me lemon cream chocolates.” Forrest was Immie’s boyfriend. He lived with them in the Martha’s Vineyard house.
“Forrest could learn manners,” said Jule.
“He didn’t think. He just blurted out the laugh. Then he was super sorry afterward.” Immie always defended Forrest after criticizing him.
“Please tell me your birth name,” said Jule. “I will not laugh.”
“Promise?” “I promise.”
Immie whispered in Jule’s ear, “Melody, and then Bacon.
“Was there a middle name?” Jule asked. “Nope.”
Jule did not laugh, or even smile. She put both her arms around Immie’s body. They looked out at the sea. “Do you feel like a Melody?”
“No.” Immie was thoughtful. “But I don’t feel like an Imogen, either.”
They watched a pair of seagulls that had just landed on a rock near them.
“Why did your mother die?” Jule asked eventually. “Was that in the file?”
“I guessed the basic picture before I read it, but yeah. She overdosed on meth.”
Jule took that in. She pictured her friend as a toddler in a wet diaper, crawling across dirty bedclothes while her mother lay beneath them, high and neglectful. Or dead.
“I have two marks on my upper right arm,” said Immie. “I had them when I came to live in New York. As far as I knew, I’d always had them. I never thought to ask, but the nurse at Vassar told me they were burns. Like from a cigarette.”
Jule didn’t know what to say. She wanted to fix things for baby Immie, but Patti and Gil Sokoloff had already done that, long ago.
“My parents are dead, too,” she said, finally. It was the first time she’d spoken it aloud, though Immie already knew she’d been raised by her aunt.
“I figured,” said Immie. “But I also figured you didn’t want to talk about it.”
“I don’t,” said Jule. “Not yet, anyway.” She leaned for- ward, separating herself from Imogen. “I don’t know what story to tell about it yet. It doesn’t . . .” Words failed her. She couldn’t ramble like Immie did, to figure herself out. “The story won’t take shape.”
It was true. At that time, Jule had only begun to construct the origin tale she would later rely upon, and she could not, could not tell anything else.
“All good,” said Imogen.
She reached into her backpack and pulled out a thick bar of milk chocolate. She unwrapped it halfway and broke off a piece for Jule and a piece for herself. Jule leaned back against the rock and let the chocolate melt in her mouth and the sun warm her face. Immie shooed the begging seagulls away, scolding them.
Jule felt then that she knew Imogen completely. Everything was understood between them, and it always would be.
Now, in the youth hostel, Jule put down Our Mutual Friend. There was a body in the Thames, early in the story. She didn’t like reading that—the description of a waterlogged dead body. Jule’s days were long now, since news had got- ten around that Imogen Sokoloff had killed herself in that selfsame river, weighting her pockets with stones and jumping off the Westminster Bridge, leaving a suicide note in her bread box.
Jule thought about Immie every day. Every hour. She remembered the way Immie covered her face with her hands or her hoodie when she felt vulnerable. The high, bubble- gum sound of her voice. Imogen rolled her rings around her fingers. She had those two cigarette burns on her upper arm and a scar on one hand from a hot pan of cream-cheese brownies. She chopped onions fast and hard with an outsize heavy knife, something she had learned to do from a cooking video. She smelled like jasmine and sometimes like coffee with cream and sugar. There was a lemony spray she put on her hair.
Imogen Sokoloff was the type of girl teachers never thought worked to her full potential. The type of girl who blew off studying and yet filled her favorite books with sticky notes. Immie refused to strive for greatness or to work toward other people’s definitions of success. She struggled to wrest herself from men who wanted to dominate her and women who wanted her exclusive attention. She refused, over and over, to give any single person her devotion, preferring in- stead to make a home for herself that she defined on her own terms, and of which she was master. She had accepted her parents’ money but not their control of her identity, and had taken advantage of her good fortune to reinvent herself, to find a different way of living. It was a particular kind of bravery, one that often got mistaken for selfishness or laziness. She was the type of girl you might think was nothing more than a private-school blonde, but you’d be very wrong if you went no deeper than that.
Today, when the hostel woke up and the backpackers began staggering to the bathroom, Jule went out. She spent the day as she often did, on self-improvement. She walked through the halls of the British Museum for a couple of hours, learning the names of paintings and drinking a series of Diet Cokes from small bottles. She stood in a bookshop for an hour and committed a map of Mexico to memory, then learned by heart a chapter of a book called Wealth Management: Eight Core Principles.
She wanted to call Paolo, but she could not.
She wouldn’t answer any calls except the one she was waiting for.
The phone rang as Jule came out of the tube near the hostel. It was Patti Sokoloff. Jule saw the cell number and used her general American accent.
Patti was in London, it turned out. Jule was not expecting that.
Could Jule meet for lunch at the Ivy tomorrow?
Of course. Jule said how surprised she was to hear from Patti. They had spoken a number of times directly after Immie’s death, when Jule had talked to police officers and shipped back items from Immie’s London flat while Patti nursed Gil in New York City, but all those difficult conversations had finished some weeks ago.
Patti normally had a busy, chatty way about her, but today she sounded low and her voice didn’t have its usual animation. “I should tell you,” she said, “that I lost Gil.”
That was a shock. Jule thought of Gil Sokoloff’s swollen gray face and the funny little dogs he doted on. She had liked him very much. She hadn’t known he was dead.
Patti explained that Gil had died two weeks ago of heart failure. All those years of kidney dialysis, and his heart had killed him. Or maybe, Patti said, because of Immie’s suicide, he had not wanted to continue living any longer.
They talked about Gil’s illness for a while, and about how wonderful he was, and about Immie. Patti said what a help Jule had been, handling things in London when the Sokoloffs couldn’t leave New York. “I know it seems strange for me to be traveling,” Patti said, “but after all those years of looking after Gil, I can’t bear to be in the apartment alone. It’s filled with his things, Immie’s things. I was going to . . .” Her voice trailed off, and when she started talking again it was forced and bright. “Anyway, my friend Rebecca lives in Hampshire and she offered me use of her guest cottage to rest up and heal. She told me I had to come. Some friends are just like that. I hadn’t talked to Rebecca in ages, but the moment she called—after hearing about Immie and Gil—we started up again right away. No small talk. It was all honesty. We went to Greenbriar together. School friends have these memories, these shared histories that bind them together, I think. Look at you and Immie. You picked up again so brilliantly after being apart.”
“I’m very, very sorry about Gil,” Jule said. She meant it completely.
“He was sick forever. So many pills.” Patti paused, and when she went on she sounded choked. “I think after what happened to Immie, he just had no fight left in his body. He and Immie, they were my sweetie potatoes.” Then she pushed her voice again into busy brightness: “Now, back to the reason I called. You’ll come to lunch, right?”
“I said I’d come. Of course.”
“The Ivy, tomorrow at one. I want to thank you for all you did for me, and for Gil, after Immie died. And I even have a surprise for you,” said Patti. “Something that might actually cheer us both up. So don’t be late.”
When the conversation was over, Jule held the phone to her chest for a while.
The Ivy inhabited its narrow corner of London perfectly. It seemed custom-fit to its plot of land. Inside, the walls were lined with portraits and stained glass. It smelled like money: roasted lamb and hothouse flowers. Jule wore a fitted dress and ballet flats. She had added red lipstick to her college-girl makeup.
She found Patti waiting for her at a table, drinking water from a wineglass. When Jule had last seen her eleven months ago, Immie’s mother had been a glossy woman. She was a dermatologist, midfifties, trim except for a potbelly. Her skin had had a moist pinkish sheen, and her hair had been long, dyed deep brown and ironed into loose curls. Now the hair was gray at the roots and chopped into a bob. Her mouth looked swollen and manly without lipstick. She wore, as women of the Upper East Side do, narrow black pants and a long cashmere cardigan—but instead of heels, she had on a pair of bright blue running shoes. Jule almost didn’t recognize her. Patti stood and smiled as Jule came across the room. “I look different, I know.”
“No you don’t,” Jule lied. She kissed Patti’s cheek.
“I can’t do it any longer,” said Patti. “All that time in front of the mirror in the morning, the uncomfortable shoes. Putting on the face.”
Jule sat down.
“I used to put on my face for Gil,” Patti went on. “And for Immie, when she was little. She used to say, ‘Mommy, curl your hair! Go put on sparkles!’ Now there’s no reason.
I’m taking time off work. One day I thought, I don’t have to bother. I walked out the door without doing anything and it was such a relief, I can’t say. But I do know it disturbs people. My friends worry. But I think, meh. I lost Imogen. I lost Gil. This is me now.”
Jule was anxious to say the right thing, but she didn’t know if sympathy or distraction was required. “I read a book about that in college,” she said.
“The presentation of self in everyday life. This guy Goffman had the idea that in different situations, you perform yourself differently. Your character isn’t static. It’s an adaptation.”
“I have stopped performing myself, you mean?”
“Or you’re doing it another way now. There are different versions of the self.”
Patti picked up the menu, then reached over and touched Jule’s hand. “You need to go back to college, sweetie potato. You’re so smart.”
Patti looked Jule in the eye. “I’m very intuitive about people, you know,” she said, “and you have so much poten- tial. You’re hungry and adventurous. I hope you know you could be anything in the world you want.”
The waiter arrived and took a drink order. Someone else set down a bread basket.
“I brought you Imogen’s rings,” said Jule, when the bustle was over. “I should have mailed them back before, but I—”
“I get it,” said Patti. “It was hard to let them go.”
Jule nodded. She handed over a package of tissue paper. Patti pulled the sticky tape off. Inside lay eight antique rings, all carved or shaped like animals. Immie had collected them. They were funny and unusual, carefully crafted, all different styles. The ninth one, Jule still wore. Immie had given it to her. It was a jade snake on her right ring finger.
Patti began to weep quietly into her napkin.
Jule looked down at the collection. Each of those circles had been on Immie’s fragile fingers at one point or another. Immie had stood, sun-kissed, in that jewelry store on the Vineyard. “I want to see the most unusual ring you have for sale,” she’d said to the shopkeeper. And later, “This one is for you.” She’d given Jule the snake ring, and Jule would not stop wearing it, now, even though she didn’t deserve it any longer, and maybe had never deserved it at all.
Jule gagged, a feeling that came from deep in her stomach and rippled through her throat. “Excuse me.” She got up and stumbled toward the ladies’ toilet. The restaurant spun around her. Black closed in from the sides of her eyes. She clutched the back of an empty chair to steady herself.
She was going to be sick. Or faint. Or both. Here in the Ivy, surrounded by these pristine people, where she didn’t deserve to be, embarrassing the poor, poor mother of a friend she hadn’t loved well enough, or had loved too much.
Jule reached the restroom and stood bent over the sink.
The gagging would not stop. Her throat contracted over and over.
She closed herself in a stall, steadying herself against the wall. Her shoulders shook. She heaved, but nothing came up.
She stayed in there until the gagging subsided, shaking and trying to catch her breath.
Back at the sink, she wiped her wet face with a paper towel. She pressed her swollen eyes with fingers dipped in cold water.
The red lipstick was in the pocket of her dress. Jule put it on like armor and went back to see Patti.
When Jule returned to the table, Patti had composed her- self and was talking to the waiter. “I’ll have the beetroot to start,” she told him as Jule sat down. “And then the sword- fish, I think. The swordfish is good? Yes, okay.”
Jule ordered a hamburger and a green salad.
When the waiter left, Patti apologized. “Sorry. I’m very sorry. Are you all right?”
“I warn you, I may cry again later. Possibly on the street! You never know these days. I’m liable to begin sobbing at any given moment.” The rings and their tissue paper were no longer on the table. “Listen, Jule,” said Patti. “You once told me that your parents failed you. Do you remember?”
Jule did not remember. She never thought of her parents anymore, at all, unless it was through the lens of the hero’s origin she had created for herself. She never, ever thought of her aunt.
Now the origin story flashed into her mind: Her parents in the front yard of a pretty little house at the end of a cul- de-sac, in that tiny Alabama town. They lay facedown in pools of black blood that seeped into the grass, lit by a single streetlight. Her mother shot through the brain. Her father bleeding out through bullet holes in his arms.
She found the story comforting. It was beautiful. The parents had been brave. The girl would grow up highly edu- cated and extremely powerful.
But she knew it was not a story to share with Patti. In- stead, she said mildly, “Did I say that?”
“Yes, and when you did, I thought maybe I had failed Imogen, too. Gil and I hardly ever talked about her being adopted when she was little. Not in front of her, or in private. I wanted to think of Immie as my baby, you know? Not anyone’s but mine and Gil’s. And it was hard to speak about, because her birth mother became an addict, and there were no family members who would take the baby. I told myself I was protecting her from pain. I had no idea how badly I was failing her until she—” Patti’s voice trailed off.
“Imogen loved you,” said Jule.
“She was desperate about something. And she didn’t come to me.”
“She didn’t come to me, either.”
“I should have raised her so that she could open up to people, get help if she was in trouble.”
“Immie told me everything,” said Jule. “Her secrets, her
insecurities, how she wanted to live her life. She told me her birth name. We wore each other’s clothes and read each other’s books. Honestly, I was very close to Immie when she died, and I think she was mad lucky to have you.”
Patti’s eyes welled and she touched Jule’s hand. “She was lucky to have you, too. I thought so when she first took up with you at Greenbriar freshman year. I know she adored you more than anyone in her life, Jule, because— Well. This is what I wanted to meet with you about. Our family lawyer tells me Immie left you her money.”
Jule felt dizzy. She put down her fork. Immie’s money. Millions.
It was safety and power. It was plane tickets and keys to cars, but more importantly, it was tuition payments, food in the larder, medical care. It meant that no one could say no. No one could stop her anymore, and no one could hurt her. Jule wouldn’t need help from anyone, ever again.
“I don’t understand finance,” Patti went on. “I should, I know. But I trusted Gil and I was glad he took care of all that. It bores me out of my skin. But Immie understood it, and she left a will. She sent it to the lawyer before she died. She had a lot of money from her father and me, once she turned eighteen. It was in trust till then, and after her birthday, Gil did the paperwork to shift it over to her.”
“She got the money when she was still in high school?” “The May before college started. Maybe that was a mistake. Anyway, it’s done.” Patti went on, “She was good with finances. She lived off the interest and never touched the capital except to buy the London flat. That’s why she didn’t have to work. And in her will, she left it all to you. She made small bequests to the National Kidney Foundation—because of Gil’s illness—and to the North Shore Animal League, but she made a will and left you the bulk of the money. She sent the lawyer an email that specifically says she wanted to help you go back to college.”
Jule was touched. It didn’t make sense, but she was.
Patti smiled. “She left this world sending you back to school. That’s the bright side I’m trying to see.”
“When did she write the will?”
“A few months before she died. She had it notarized in San Francisco. There are just a few things to sign.” Patti shoved an envelope across the table. “They’ll transfer the money directly into your account, and in September you’ll be a sophomore at Stanford.”
When the money arrived in her bank, Jule withdrew it all and opened a new checking account somewhere else. She started several new credit card accounts and arranged for the bills to be paid automatically every month.
Then she went shopping. She bought false eyelashes, foundation, liner, blush, powder, brushes, three different lipsticks, two shadows, and a small but expensive makeup box. A red wig, a black dress, and a pair of high heels. More would have been nice, but she needed to travel light.
She used her computer to purchase a plane ticket to Los Angeles, booked an LA hotel, and researched used car dealers in the Las Vegas area. London to LA, then LA by bus to Vegas. From Vegas by car to Mexico. That was the plan.
Jule paged through documents on her laptop. She made sure she knew all the bank numbers, customer service numbers, passwords, credit card numbers, and codes. She memorized passport and driver’s license numbers. Then one night, long after dark, she tossed the laptop and her phone into the Thames.
Back at the youth hostel, she wrote a sincere letter of thanks to Patti Sokoloff on an old-fashioned piece of air- mail paper and posted it. She cleaned out her storage locker and packed her suitcase. Her identification and papers were neatly organized. She made sure to place all her lotions and hair products in travel-size bottles in sealable plastic bags.
Jule had never been to Vegas. She changed her clothes in the bathroom at the bus station. The sink area was inhabited by a white woman in her fifties with a granny cart. She was sitting on the counter, eating a sandwich wrapped in greasy white paper. She wore dirty black leggings on narrow thighs. Her hair was teased up high, gray and blond. It was matted. Her shoes were on the floor—pale pink vinyl stilettos. Her bare feet, with Band-Aids on the heels, swung in the air.
Jule went into the biggest stall and dug through her case. She put on her hoop earrings for the first time in nearly a year. She wiggled into the dress she’d bought—short and black, paired with leather platform heels. She got out the red wig. It was unnaturally sleek, but the color looked good with her freckles. Jule took out the makeup box, closed her bag, and went to the sink.
The woman sitting on the counter didn’t remark on the change of hair color. She crumpled her sandwich wrapper and lit a cigarette.
Jule’s makeup skills came from watching online tutorials. For most of the last year she’d been wearing what she thought of as college-girl makeup: natural skin, blush, sheer lips, mascara. Now she brought out fake eyelashes, green shadow, black liner, base, contouring brushes, eyebrow pencil, coral gloss.
It wasn’t really necessary. She didn’t need the cosmetics, the dress, or the shoes. The wig was probably enough. Still, the transformation was good practice—that was how she thought of it. And she liked becoming someone else.
The other woman spoke as Jule finished her eyes. “You a working girl?”
Jule answered, just for fun, in her Scottish accent. “No.” “I mean, you selling yourself?”
“Don’t sell yourself. So sad, you girls.” “I’m not.”
“It’s a shame, that’s all I’m saying.”
Jule was silent. She applied highlighter to her cheek- bones.
“I did that job,” the woman went on. She lowered herself off the counter and stuffed her messed-up feet into the shoes. “No family anymore and no money: that was how I started, and it’s no different now. But it’s not a way up, even with high-rolling guys. You should know that.”
Jule shrugged into a green cardigan and picked up her case. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine, honestly.” Dragging the bag behind her, she headed for the door—but she stumbled slightly in the unfamiliar shoes.
“You all right?” the woman asked. “Oh, yeah.”
“It’s hard to be a woman sometimes.”
“Yeah, it pretty much sucks, except for the makeup,” Jule said. She pushed through the door without looking back.
With her suitcase stashed in a bus-station locker, Jule shouldered a tote bag and took a taxi to the Las Vegas strip. She was tired—she hadn’t been able to sleep on the bus ride, and she was on London time.
The casino was lit up with neon, chandeliers, and the sparkle of the slot machines. Jule walked past men in sports jerseys, pensioners, party girls, and a large group of librar- ians wearing conference badges. It took two hours, walking from place to place, but eventually she found what she was looking for.
There was a cluster of women around a bank of Batman slots having what seemed to be a ridiculously good time. They had frozen drinks, purple and slushy. A couple looked Asian American, a couple white. It was a bachelorette party, and the bride was perfect, just what Jule needed. She was pale and petite, with strong-looking shoulders and gentle freckles—couldn’t have been more than twenty-three. Her light brown hair was up in a ponytail, and she wore a hot- pink minidress and a white sash with rhinestones on it: bride
to be. Dangling from her left shoulder was a small turquoise
bag with multiple zippers. She leaned over as her friends played the machines, cheering, comfortable being adored by everyone around her.
Jule walked over to the group and used a lowland Southern accent, like in Alabama. “’Scuse me, do any of y’all— well, my phone’s out of charge and I gotta text my friend. I last saw her over by the sushi bar, but then I started playing, and now, whoop! It’s three hours later and she’s MIA.”
The bachelorettes turned around.
Jule smiled. “Oh, are y’all a bridal party?”
“She’s getting married on Saturday!” cried one of the women, clutching the bride.
“Hooray!” said Jule. “What’s your name?”
“Shanna,” said the bride. They were the same height, but Shanna wore flats, so Jule stood over her a little.
“Shanna Dixie, soon to be Shanna McFetridge!” cried a bachelorette.
“Dang,” said Jule. “Do you have a dress?” “Of course I do,” said Shanna.
“It’s not a Vegas wedding,” said a bachelorette. “It’s a church wedding.”
“Where are y’all from?” asked Jule.
“Tacoma. It’s in Washington. You know it? We’re just in Vegas for—”
“They planned the whole weekend for me,” said Shanna. “We flew in this morning and went to the spa and the nail salon. See? I got the gel. Then we hit the casino, and tomorrow we’re gonna see the white tigers.”
“And what’s your dress? For the wedding, I mean.”
Shanna clutched Jule’s arm. “It’s to die for. I feel like a princess, it’s so good.”
“Can I see it? On your phone? You must have a picture.” Jule put her hand over her mouth and ducked her head a little. “I have a thing about wedding dresses, you know? Ever since I was a bitty girl.”
“Hell yes, I have a picture,” said Shanna. She unzipped her bag and pulled out a phone in a gold case. The lining of the bag was pink. Inside were a wallet of dark brown leather, two tampons wrapped in plastic, a pack of gum, and a lip- stick.
“Lemme see,” said Jule. She stepped around to look at Shanna’s phone.
Shanna swiped through the pictures. A dog. The rusty underside of a sink. A baby. The same baby again. “That’s my boy, Declan. He’s eighteen months.” Some trees by a lake. “There it is.”
The dress was strapless and long, with folds of fabric around the hips. In the picture, Shanna modeled it in a bridal store filled with other white gowns.
Jule oohed and aahed. “Can I see your fiancé?”
“Hell yes. He, like, killed the proposal,” said Shanna. “He put the ring in a doughnut. He’s in law school. I won’t have to work unless I want to.” She went on. Talking, talking. She held up the phone to show the lucky guy grinning on the slopes.
“Crazy cute,” said Jule. Her hand went into Shanna’s bag. She lifted the wallet and slid it into her tote. “My boy- friend, Paolo, is backpacking around the world,” she con- tinued. “He’s in the Philippines right now. Can you believe it? So I’m in Vegas with my girlfriend. I should get a guy who wants to settle down, not backpack the world, right? If I want a wedding.”
“If that’s what you want,” said Shanna, “you can definitely have it. You can have anything if you set your mind to it. You pray and you, like, visualize.”
“Visualization,” said one of the bridesmaids. “We went to this workshop. It really works.”
“Listen,” Jule said. “The reason I came up to talk to y’all was, could I use your phone? Mine’s dead. Would that be okay?”
Shanna handed over her phone and Jule texted a random number. “Meet at 10:15 at the Cheesecake Factory.” She handed the phone back to Shanna. “Thanks. You’re gonna be the most beautiful bride.”
“Same to you, sweetie,” said Shanna. “Someday soon.”
The bachelorettes waved. Jule waved back and booked it through the lines of slot machines to a bank of elevators.
As soon as the elevator door closed and she was alone, Jule pulled off the wig. She kicked off the heels and pulled joggers and Vans from the tote, yanked the pants on over the short black dress, and slipped the Vans on her feet. The wig and the heels went into the bag. She put on a zip-up hoodie and the doors opened on the tenth floor of the hotel.
Jule didn’t get off. As the elevator went back down, she pulled out a makeup wipe and peeled off her false eyelashes. She wiped off her lip gloss. Then she opened Shanna’s wallet, snagged the driver’s license, and dropped the wallet itself on the floor.
She was another person by the time the doors opened.
Four casinos down on the strip, Jule surveyed six restaurants until she found a place to order a coffee and chat up a lonely college student who was just starting work on the night shift. The place was a 1950s diner replica. The waitress was a tiny woman with freckles and soft brown curls. She wore a polka- dot dress and a frilly housewife’s apron. When a crowd of drunk guys barged in talking about beer and burgers, Jule put some cash on the counter to pay for her food and then slid into the kitchen. She snagged the most feminine back- pack off a line of hooks and left through a back exit into the casino’s service hallway. Running down a flight of stairs and then out into the alley, she shouldered the pack and pushed her way through a group of people lined up for a magic show. A ways down she rummaged through the bag. In the zip- per pocket was a passport. The name on it was Adelaide Belle
Perry, age twenty-one.
It was a lucky take. Jule had figured she might have to work a long time before she got a passport. She felt sorry for Adelaide, though, and after taking the passport, she turned the backpack in to a lost properties office.
Back on the strip, she found a wig store and two clothing shops. She stocked up, and by morning, she had moved casinos twice more. Wearing a wavy blond wig and orange lip- stick, she lifted the license of one Dakota Pleasance, five foot two. In a black wig and a silver jacket she snagged the pass- port of Dorothea von Schnell of Germany, five foot three.
By eight a.m., Jule was back in the joggers and Vans, her face wiped clean. She got a cab to the Rio hotel and took the elevator to the roof. She had read about the VooDoo Lounge, fifty-one stories up.
When a battle is over, when he has lived to fight again another day, the great white hetero action hero goes somewhere high above the city, somewhere with a view. Iron Man, Spider- Man, Batman, Wolverine, Jason Bourne, James Bond—they all do it. The hero gazes out at the pain and beauty contained in the twinkling lights of the metropolis. He thinks about his special mission, his unique talents, his strength, his strange, violent life and all the sacrifices he makes to live it.
The VooDoo Lounge early in the morning was little more than a concrete expanse of roof dotted with red and black couches. The chairs were shaped like enormous hands. A staircase curved above the roof. Patrons could climb it for a better view of the Vegas strip below. There were a couple of cages for showgirls to dance in, but no one was in the lounge now except a janitor. He raised his eyebrows as Jule came in. “I just want to have a look,” Jule told him. “I’m harmless, I swear.”
“Of course you are,” he said. “Go ahead. I’m mopping up.”
Jule went to the top of the staircase and gazed at the city. She thought of all the lives being led down there. People were buying toothpaste, having arguments, picking up eggs on the way home from work. They lived their lives surrounded by all that glitter and neon, happily assuming that small, cute women were harmless.
Three years ago, Julietta West Williams was fifteen. She’d been in an arcade—a big one, air-conditioned and shiny-new. She was racking up points on a war simulation. She was lost in it, shooting, when two boys she knew from school came up behind her and squeezed her boobs. One on each side.
Julietta elbowed one sharply in his soft stomach, then swung around and stomped hard on the other one’s foot. Then she kneed him in the groin.
It was the first time she’d ever hit anyone outside of her martial arts classes. The first time she’d needed to.
All right, she hadn’t needed to. She’d wanted to. She en- joyed it.
When that boy bent over, coughing, Jule turned and hit the first one in the face with the heel of her hand. His head flew back and she yanked the front of his T-shirt and yelled into his greasy ear, “I’m not yours to touch!”
She wanted to see fear on that boy’s face, and to see his friend crumpled over on a nearby bench. Those two boys had always been so cocky at school, afraid of nothing.
A pimple-face man who worked at the arcade came over and grabbed Julietta’s arm. “We can’t have fighting in here, miss. I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”
“Are you grabbing my arm?” she asked him. “’Cause I don’t want you to grab my arm.”
He dropped it fast. He was afraid of her.
He was six inches taller than her and at least three years older. He was a grown man, and he was afraid of her.
It felt good.
Julietta left the arcade. She didn’t worry that the boys would follow her. She felt like she was in a movie. She hadn’t known she could take care of herself that way, hadn’t known that the strength she’d been building in the classes and in the weight room at the high school would pay off. She realized she had built armor for herself. Perhaps that was what she’d been intending to do.
She looked the same, looked just like anyone, but she saw the world differently after that. To be a physically powerful woman—it was something. You could go anywhere, do anything, if you were difficult to hurt.
A few floors down in the Rio hotel hallway, Jule found a maid who was pushing a cart. A forty-dollar tip and she had a room to sleep in until three-thirty. The check-in time was four p.m.
Another night of lifting wallets and another day of sleep and Jule was ready to buy an inconspicuous used car off a sleazy guy in a parking lot. She paid cash. She collected her luggage from the bus station and stashed her extra IDs deep under the felt that lined the hatchback.
She drove herself across the border to Mexico with Adelaide Belle Perry’s passport.
Three months before Jule arrived in Mexico, Forrest Smith- Martin was on Jule’s couch, eating baby carrots with his straight, glossy teeth. He had been staying at her London flat for five nights.
Forrest was Immie’s ex-boyfriend. He always acted like he didn’t believe a word Jule said. If she said she liked blue- berries, he raised his eyebrows like he highly doubted it. If she said Immie had flitted off to Paris, he questioned her about where, precisely, Immie was staying. He made Jule feel illegitimate.
Pale and slim, Forrest belonged to the category of scrawny men who are uncomfortable when women are more muscular than they are. His joints seemed loosely attached, and the woven bracelet around his left wrist looked dirty. He had gone to Yale for world literature. He liked people to know he’d gone to Yale and often brought it up in conversation. He wore little spectacles, was developing a beard that never quite sprouted, and kept his long hair in a man bun on the top of his head. He was twenty-two and working on his novel.
Right now, he was reading a book translated from the French. Albert Camus. He pronounced it Camoo. He was draped on the couch, not just sitting, and wore a sweatshirt and his boxer shorts.
Forrest was in the flat because of Immie’s death. He said he wanted to sleep on the fold-out couch in the den, to be near Imogen’s things. More than once, Jule found him taking Immie’s clothes out of the closet and smelling them. A couple of times he hung them from the window frames. He found Imogen’s old books—early editions of Vanity Fair and other Victorian novels—and piled them next to his bed, as if he needed to see them before he fell asleep. Then he left the toilet seat up.
He and Jule had been handling Immie’s death from the London end. Gil and Patti were stuck in New York because of Gil’s health. The Sokoloffs had managed to keep the suicide out of all the papers. They said they didn’t want publicity, and there was no question of foul play, according to the police. Even though her body hadn’t been found, no one doubted what had happened. Immie had left that note in the bread box.
Everyone agreed she must have been depressed. People jumped into the Thames all the time, said the police. If a person weighted herself down before jumping, as Imogen had written she planned to do, there was no telling how long it might take before a body was found.
Now Jule sat next to Forrest and flipped on the TV. It was late-night BBC programming. The two of them had spent the day going through Immie’s kitchen, packing things as Patti had requested. It had been a long and emotional project.
“That girl looks like Immie,” Forrest said, pointing to an actress on the screen.
Jule shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Yes, she does,” said Forrest. “To me, she does.”
“Not up close,” Jule said. “She just has short hair. People think I look like Immie, too, from a distance.”
He looked at her steadily. “You don’t look like her, Jule,” he said. “Imogen was a million times prettier than you will ever be.”
Jule glared. “I didn’t know we were getting hostile to- night. I’m kinda tired. Can we just skip it, or are you really jonesing for an argument?”
Forrest leaned toward her, shutting his Camus. “Did Imogen lend you money?” he asked.
“No, she didn’t,” Jule answered truthfully. “Did you want to sleep with her?”
“Did you sleep with her?” “No.”
“Did she have a new boyfriend?” “No.”
“There’s something you’re not telling me.”
“There are six hundred things I’m not telling you,” Jule said. “Because I’m a private person. And my friend just died. I’m sad and I’m trying to deal with it. Is that all right with you?”
“No,” said Forrest. “I need to understand what happened.” “Look. The rule of you staying in this flat is, don’t ask Jule a million questions about Immie’s private life. Or about
Jule’s private life. Then we can get along. All right?”
Forrest sputtered. “The rule of this flat? What are you talking about, the rule of this flat?”
“Every place has rules. What you do when you come into a new place is, you figure them out. Like when you’re a guest, you learn the codes of behavior and adapt. Yes?”
“Maybe that’s what you do.”
“That’s what everyone does. You work out how loud you can talk, how you can sit, what things are okay to say and what’s rude. It’s called being a human in society.”
“Nah.” Forrest crossed his legs in a leisurely fashion. “I’m not that fake. I just do what feels right to me. And you know what? It’s never been a problem, until now.”
“Because you’re you.” “What does that mean?”
“You’re a guy. You come from money, you’re white, you have really good teeth, you graduated from Yale, the list goes on.”
“Other people adapt to you, asshole. You think there’s no adapting going on, but you’re fucking blind, Forrest. It’s all around you, all the time.”
“That’s a point,” he said. “Okay, I’ll grant you that.” “Thank you.”
“But if you’re thinking through all that lunacy every time you walk into a new situation, then there is something seri- ously wrong with you, Jule.”
“My friend is dead,” she told him. “That’s what’s wrong with me.”
Immie hadn’t told her secrets to Forrest. She had told them to Jule.
Jule had realized the truth of it early on, even before Immie had told Jule her birth name, and before Brooke Lannon ever turned up at the Vineyard house.
It was the Fourth of July, not long after Jule had first moved in. Immie had found a recipe for pizza dough you made on an outdoor grill. She was messing around with yeast in the kitchen. She had invited friends, summer people she’d met a couple of days earlier at a farmer’s market. They came over and ate. Everything was fine, but they wanted to leave early. “Let’s drive into town for the fireworks,” they said. “We shouldn’t miss them. Hurry up.”
Jule knew Imogen hated the crush of people at crowded events. She couldn’t see over people’s heads. There was al- ways too much noise.
Forrest didn’t seem to care. He just got in the car with the summer people, stopping only to snag a box of cookies from the pantry.
Jule stayed behind. She and Immie left the dishes for the cleaner and changed into swimsuits. Jule pulled the lid off the hot tub, and Immie brought out tall glasses of seltzer with lemon.
They sat in silence for a bit. The evening had turned cool, and steam rose off the water.
“Do you like it here?” Immie asked finally. “In my house? With me?”
Jule did, and she said so. When Immie looked at her expectantly, she added: “Every day there’s time to actually see the sky, and to taste what I’m eating. There’s room to stretch out. No work, no expectations, no adults.”
“We’re the adults,” said Immie, tilting her head back. “I think so, at least. You and me and Forrest, we’re the effing adults, and that’s why it feels so good. Oops!” She had tipped her seltzer into the hot tub by accident. Now she chased around three slowly sinking pieces of sliced lemon until she caught them. “It’s good you like it here,” Immie said as she fished the last slice out, “because there was a part of living with Forrest that was like—being alone. I can’t ex- plain it. Maybe it’s because he’s writing a novel, or because he’s older than I am. But it’s better with you here.”
“How did you meet him?”
“In London I went to a summer program with his cousin, and then one day I was getting coffee at Black Dog and I recognized him from Instagram. We started talking. He was here for a month to work on his book. He didn’t know any- body. That was that, basically.” Immie trailed her fingers across the top of the water. “How about you? You seeing anybody?”
“There were some boyfriends at Stanford,” said Jule. “But they’re still in California.”
“Some boyfriends?” “Three boyfriends.”
“Three boyfriends is a lot, Jule!” Jule shrugged. “I couldn’t decide.”
“When I first got to college,” Immie said, “Vivian Abromowitz invited me to the Students of Color Union party. You’ve heard me talk about Vivian, right? Anyway, her mom is Chinese American; her dad’s Korean Jewish. She was set on going to this party because some guy she crushed on would be there. I was a little nervous about being the only white person, but that turned out fine. The awkward part was that everyone was all political and ambitious. Like, talking about protest rallies and philosophy reading lists and this Harlem Renaissance film series. At a party! I was like, when are we dancing? And the answer was never. Were parties like that at Stanford? With no beer and people being all intellectual?”
“Stanford has a Greek system.”
“Okay then, maybe not. Anyway, this tall black guy with dreads, really cute, was like, ‘You went to Greenbriar and you haven’t read James Baldwin? What about Toni Morrison? You should read Ta-Nehisi Coates.’ And I said, ‘Hello? I just got to college. I haven’t read anybody yet!’ Vivian was next to me and she was all, ‘Brooke texted me and there’s another party that has a DJ, and the rugby team is there. Should we jet?’ And I wanted to go to a party where there was dancing. So we left.” Immie ducked her head under the water of the hot tub and came back up again.
“What happened with the condescending guy?”
Immie laughed. “Isaac Tupperman. He’s why I’m telling this story. I went out with him for nearly two months. That’s how come I can remember the names of his favorite writers.”
“He was your boyfriend?”
“Yeah. He’d write me poems and leave them on my bicycle. He’d come over late at night, like at two in the morning, and say he missed me. But the pressure was on, too. He grew up in the Bronx and went to Stuy, and he was—”
“Public school for smart kids in New York. He had a lot of ideas about what I should be, what I should study, what I should care about. He wanted to be the amazing older guy who would enlighten me. And I was flattered, and kind of in awe, but then also sometimes really bored.”
“So he was like Forrest.”
“What? No. I was so happy when I met Forrest because he was the opposite of Isaac.” Immie said it decisively, as if it were completely true. “Isaac liked me because I was ignorant and that meant he could teach me, right? That made him feel like a man. And he did know about a lot of things that I never studied or experienced or whatever. But then—and this is the irony—he was totally annoyed by my ignorance. And in the end, after he broke up with me and I was sad and mental, I came to the Vineyard and one day I thought: Eff you, Mr. Isaac. I’m not so very ignorant. I just know stuff about stuff that you dismiss as unimportant and useless. Does that make sense? I mean, I didn’t know Isaac’s stuff. And I do know Isaac’s stuff is important, but all the time I spent with him I felt like I was just so dumb and blank. The fact that I couldn’t under- stand his life experience very well, combined with how he was a year ahead of me and really into all his academics, the literary magazine, et cetera—that meant that all the time, he got to be the big man and I was looking up at him with wide eyes. And that was what he liked about me. And why he despised me.
“Then there was this week I thought I was pregnant,” Immie went on. “Jule, imagine. I’m an adopted kid. And there I am, pregnant with a kid I think I might have to put up for adoption. Or have aborted. The dad is a guy my parents met once and wrote him off as a party person—because of his color and his hairstyle the one time they met him— and I have no idea what to do, so I spend all week skipping class and reading people’s abortion stories on the Internet. Then one day I finally get my period and I text Isaac. He drops everything and comes over to my dorm room—and he breaks up with me.” Immie put her hands over her face. “I have never been as scared as I was that week,” she went on. “When I thought I had a baby inside me.”
That night, when Forrest came back from the fireworks, Imogen had already gone to bed. Jule was still awake, watching TV on the living room couch. She followed him as he rummaged in the fridge and found himself a beer and a leftover grilled pork chop. “Do you know how to cook?” she asked him.
“I can boil noodles. And heat up tomato sauce.” “Imogen’s really good.”
“Yeah. Nice for us, right?”
“She works hard in the kitchen. She taught herself by watching videos and getting cookbooks from the library.”
“Did she?” said Forrest, mildly. “Hey, is there crumble left over? Crumble is necessary to my existence right now.”
“I ate it,” Jule told him.
“Lucky girl,” he said. “All right, then. I’m gonna go work on my book. Night is when my brain works best.”
One night, after Forrest had been staying with Jule in Lon- don for a week, he bought the two of them tickets to see A Winter’s Tale at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was something to do. They needed to leave the flat.
They took the Jubilee line to the Central line to St. Paul’s and walked toward the theater. It was raining. Since the show didn’t start for an hour, they found a pub and ordered fish and chips. The room was dark and the walls were lined with mirrors. They ate at the bar.
Forrest talked a great deal about books. Jule asked him about the Camus he had been reading, L’Etranger. She made him explain the plot, which was about a guy with a dead mother who kills another guy and then goes to prison for it.
“It’s a mystery?”
“Not at all,” said Forrest. “Mysteries perpetuate the status quo. Everything always wraps up at the end. Order is restored. But order doesn’t really exist, right? It’s an artificial construct. The whole genre of the mystery novel reinforces the hegemony of Western notions of causation. In L’Etranger, you know everything that happens from the beginning. There’s nothing to find out, because human existence is ultimately meaningless.”
“Oh, it’s so hot when you say French words,” Jule told him, reaching over to his plate and taking a chip. “Not.”
When the bill came, Forrest took out his credit card. “My treat, thanks to Gabe Martin.”
“Yeah. He pays the bills on this baby”—Forrest tapped the card—“till I’m twenty-five. So I can work on my novel.” “Lucky.” Jule picked up the card. She memorized the number; she flipped it over and memorized the code on the
back. “You don’t even see the bill?”
Forrest laughed and took it back. Pushed it across the bar. “Nah. It goes to Connecticut. But I try to stay conscious of my privilege and not take it for granted.”
As they walked the rest of the way to the Barbican Centre in the drizzle, Forrest held the umbrella over them both. He bought a program, the kind you can buy in London theaters that’s full of photographs and gives a history of the production. They sat down in the dark.
During the intermission, Jule leaned against one wall of the lobby and watched the crowd. Forrest went to the men’s room. Jule listened to the accents of the theatergoers: Lon- don, Yorkshire, Liverpool. Boston, General American, California. South Africa. London again.
Paolo Vallarta-Bellstone was here. Right now. Across the lobby from Jule.
He seemed very bright in the middle of the drab crowd. He had on a red T-shirt under a sport coat and wore blue- and-yellow track shoes. The bottom edges of his jeans were frayed. Paolo had a Filipina mom and a white hodgepodge American dad. That was how he described them. He had black hair—cut short since she’d seen him last—and gentle- looking eyebrows. Round cheeks, brown eyes, and soft red lips, almost puffy. Straight teeth. Paolo was the type of guy who travels around the world with nothing more than a backpack, who talks to strangers on carousels and in wax museums. He was a conversationalist without pretension. He liked people and always thought the best of them. Right now he was eating Swedish Fish from a small yellow bag.
Jule turned away. She didn’t like how happy she felt. She didn’t like how beautiful he was.
No. She didn’t want to see Paolo Vallarta-Bellstone. She couldn’t see him. Not now, not ever.
She left the lobby promptly and headed back into the theater. The double doors shut behind her. There weren’t many audience members in there. Just ushers and a couple of elderly folk who hadn’t wanted to leave their seats.
She had to get out as quickly as possible, without seeing Paolo. She grabbed her coat. She wouldn’t wait for Forrest.
Was there a side exit somewhere?
She was running up the aisle with her jacket over her arm—and there he was. Standing in front of her. She stopped. There was no getting away from him now.
Paolo waved his bag of Swedish Fish. “Imogen!” He ran the last length of the aisle and kissed her cheek. Jule caught the whiff of sugar on his breath. “I am crazy glad to see you.” “Hello,” she said coldly. “I thought you were in Thailand.”
“Plans got delayed,” Paolo said. “We pushed everything back.” He stepped back as if to admire her. “You’ve got to be the prettiest girl in London. Yowza.”
“I mean it. Woman, not girl. Sorry. Are people following you around, like with their tongues hanging out? How did you get prettier since I last saw you? It’s terrifying. I’m talking too much because I’m nervous.”
Jule felt her skin warm.
“Come with me,” he said. “I’ll buy you tea. Or a coffee.
Whatever you want. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.” She didn’t mean to say it. The words came out and they were true.
Paolo grabbed her hand, touching only her fingers. He had always been confident like that. Even though she’d rejected him, he could tell right away that she hadn’t meant it. He was supremely gentle and yet sure of himself at the same time. He touched her like the two of them were lucky to be touching each other; like he knew she didn’t very often let anyone touch her. Fingertip to fingertip, he led Jule back to the lobby.
“I only didn’t call because you told me not to call,” Paolo said, letting go of her hand as they stepped into line for tea. “I want to call you all the time. Every day. I stare at my phone and then I don’t call because I don’t want to be creepy. I’m so glad I ran into you. God, you’re pretty.”
Jule liked how his T-shirt lay against his collarbone, and the way his wrists moved against the fabric of his jacket. He bit his lower lip when he was worried. His face curved softly against the black of his eyelashes. She wanted to see him first thing in the morning. She felt like if she could just see Paolo Vallarta-Bellstone first thing in the morning, everything would be okay.
“You still don’t want to go home to New York?” he asked. “I don’t want to go home, ever,” said Jule. Like so many things she found herself saying to him, it was absolutely true. Her eyes filled.
“I don’t want to go home, either,” he said. Paolo’s father was a real estate mogul who had been indicted for insider trading some months ago. It had been all over the news. “My mom left my dad when she found out what he’d been doing. Now she’s living with her sister and commuting to work from New Jersey. Things are all mangled with the money and there are divorce lawyers and criminal lawyers and mediators. Ugh.”
“It’s just ugly. My dad’s brother is being a giant racist about the divorce. You wouldn’t believe what’s come out of his mouth. And so my mother is full of venom, frankly. She has a right to be, but it’s hellish to even talk to her on the phone. I don’t think there’s anything, really, to go back to.”
“What will you do?”
“Travel around some more. My friend will be ready to go in another couple weeks, and then we’ll backpack through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, same plan as before. Then to Hong Kong, and we’ll go see my grandmother in the Philippines.” He took Jule’s hand again. He ran his finger softly across her palm. “You’re not wearing your rings.” Her nails were painted with pale pink polish.
“Just the one.” Jule showed him her other hand, which had the jade viper on it. “The others all belonged to this friend of mine. I was only borrowing them.”
“I thought they were yours.” “No. Yes. No.” Jule sighed. “Which is it?”
“My friend killed herself not that long ago. We argued and she died angry at me.” Jule was telling the truth, and she was lying. Being with Paolo muddled her thinking. She knew she shouldn’t talk to him anymore. She could feel the stories she told herself and the stories she told others shifting around, overlapping, changing shades. She couldn’t tell, tonight, what the names of the stories were, what she meant and what she didn’t.
Paolo squeezed her hand. “I’m sorry.”
Jule blurted: “Tell me, do you think a person is as bad as her worst actions?”
“Do you think a person is as bad as her worst actions?” “You mean, will your friend go to hell because she killed
“No.” That wasn’t what Jule meant at all. “I mean, do our worst actions define us when we’re alive? Or do you think human beings are better than the very worst things we have ever done?”
Paolo thought. “Well, take Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. He tried to poison his friend, he threw his own wife in prison, and he abandoned his baby in the wilderness. So he’s the absolute worst. Right?”
“But in the end—have you seen it before tonight?” “No.”
“At the end, he’s sorry. He’s just really, really sorry about everything, and that’s enough. Everyone forgives him. Shakespeare lets Leontes be redeemed even though he did all that evil stuff.”
Jule wanted to tell Paolo everything.
She wanted to reveal her past to him in its ugliness and beauty, its courage and complexity. She would be redeemed.
She could not speak.
“Ohhh,” said Paolo, drawing out the word. “We’re not talking about the play, are we?”
Jule shook her head.
“I’m not angry with you, Imogen,” said Paolo. “I am crazy about you.” He reached out and touched her cheek. Then he ran the pad of his thumb across her lower lip. “I’m sure your friend isn’t still angry with you, either, whatever happened when she was alive. You’re a top-notch, excellent person. I can tell.”
They had reached the front of the line. “Two cups of tea,” Jule said to the lady at the counter. Her eyes leaked even though she was not crying. She had to stop being emotional. “This seems like a dinner conversation,” said Paolo. He paid for the tea. “Do you want to get dinner after the play? Or bagels? I know a pub that serves real New York bagels.”
Jule knew she should say no, but she nodded.
“Bagels, good. So for now, let’s talk about cheerful things,” said Paolo. They brought their drinks in paper cups over to a stand with milk and coffee spoons. “I take two sugars and a giant glug of cream. How do you drink it?”
“With lemon,” Jule said. “I need like four slices of lemon for tea.”
“Okay, cheerful, distracting things,” Paolo said as they walked to a table. “Shall I talk about myself?”
“I don’t think anyone could stop you.”
He laughed. “When I was eight, I broke my ankle jumping off the roof of my uncle’s car. I had a dog named Twister and a hamster named St. George. I wanted to be a detective when I was a boy. I made myself sick from eating too many cherries once. And I haven’t been out with anyone since you told me not to call you.”
She smiled in spite of herself. “Liar.”
“Not one single woman. I’m here tonight with Artie Thatcher.”
“The friend of your dad’s?”
“The one I’m staying with. He said I hadn’t seen London if I hadn’t seen the RSC. And you?”
Jule was brought back to reality. She was here with Forrest.
It had been stupid, unthinkably stupid, to let Paolo derail her.
She had been leaving the theater. But then he’d brushed her cheek with his lips. He had touched her fingers. He noticed her hands and he’d said God, she was pretty. He’d said he wanted to call her every day.
Jule had missed Paolo very much. But Forrest was here.
They couldn’t meet. Paolo must absolutely not see Forrest.
“Listen, I have to—”
Forrest appeared at her elbow. He was languid and slouching. “You found a friend,” he said to Jule. He said it as if speaking to a puppy.
They had to leave immediately. Jule stood up. “I’m not feeling well,” she said. “I got a head rush. I’m nauseated. Can you take me home?” She grabbed Forrest’s wrist and pulled him toward the lobby doors.
“You were fine a minute ago,” he said, trailing behind her.
“Great to see you,” she called to Paolo. “Goodbye.”
She had intended Paolo to stay rooted in his seat, but he got up and followed Jule and Forrest to the door. “I’m Paolo Vallarta-Bellstone,” he said, smiling at Forrest as they walked. “I’m a friend of Imogen’s.”
“We have to go,” Jule said.
“Forrest Smith-Martin,” Forrest responded. “You’ve heard, then?”
“Let’s go,” said Jule. “Now.”
“Heard what?” said Paolo. He kept pace as Jule pulled Forrest outside.
“Sorry, sorry,” Jule said. “Something is wrong with me.
Get a taxi. Please.”
They were outside now, in heavy rain. The Barbican Centre had long walkways leading to the street. Jule pulled For- rest along the pavement.
Paolo stopped under the shelter of the building, unwilling to get wet.
Jule flagged a black taxi. Got in. Gave the address of the flat in St. John’s Wood.
Then she took a deep breath and settled her mind. She decided what to tell Forrest.
“I left my jacket on my seat,” he complained. “Are you sick?”
“No, not really.”
“Then what was it? Why are we going home?” “That guy has been bothering me.”
“Yes. He calls me all the time. Like, many times a day.
Texts. Emails. I think he’s following me.” “You have weird relationships.”
“It’s not a relationship. He doesn’t take no for an answer.
That’s why I had to get away.”
“Paolo something Bellstone, right?” said Forrest. “That was his name?”
“Is he related to Stuart Bellstone?” “I don’t know.”
“But was that the last name? Bellstone?” Forrest had his phone out. “On Wikipedia it says—yeah, the son of Stuart Bellstone, the D and G trading scandal, blah, blah, his son is Paolo Vallarta-Bellstone.”
“I guess so,” said Jule. “I think about him as little as I possibly can.”
“Bellstone, that’s funny,” said Forrest. “Did Imogen meet him?”
“Yes. No.” She was flustered. “Which is it?”
“Their families know each other. We ran into him when we first got to London.”
“And now he’s stalking you?” “Yes.”
“And it never occurred to you that this stalker Bellstone might be worth mentioning to the police in terms of investigating Immie’s disappearance?”
“He has nothing to do with anything.”
“He might. There are a lot of things that don’t add up.” “Immie killed herself and there’s nothing more to it,”
snapped Jule. “She was depressed and she didn’t love you anymore and she didn’t love me enough to stay alive, either. Stop acting like there’s anything else that could have happened.”
Forrest bit his lip and they rode in silence. After a minute or two, Jule looked over and saw that he was crying.
In the morning, Forrest was gone. He was simply not on the fold-out couch. His bag was not in the hall closet. His fuzzy man-sweaters were not lying around the room. His laptop was gone and so were his French novels. He had left his dirty dishes in the sink.
Jule wouldn’t miss him. She never wanted to see him again. But she didn’t want him leaving without saying why.
What had Paolo said to Forrest the night before? Only “I’m a friend of Imogen’s” and “Heard what?”—and his name. That was all.
He hadn’t heard Paolo call Jule Imogen. Had he? No.
Why did Forrest want Paolo investigated? Did he think Imogen had been stalked and murdered? Did he think Imo- gen had been romantically involved with Paolo? Did he think Jule was lying?
Jule packed her bags and went to a youth hostel she’d read about, on the other end of town.