By Corie Rosen
Viola had hated the apartment, though she would never tell her mother this. She disliked the musty smell, as though too many people had lived here before them. She hated the beige paint, the yellow linoleum tile, and the way her mother looked at the chipped cabinets so hopefully—as though a place like this could someday feel like home.
“Good enough,” her mother Anne had said on the day that they’d moved in. They had stepped in from the hallway ahead of the movers to find the apartment’s four dark rooms empty and smelling of sweat.
“Well, anyway,” Anne had said. “Good enough for now.”
In the months following her parents’ divorce, Viola had come to despise that phrase. There were whole days when Viola wondered if the rest of her life might not be a kind of waiting, holding her breath until good enough for now no longer applied.
While the movers carried in the furniture, her mother set to work wiping out the cupboards, and Viola went to stand in her new room. The closet doors had been left open and she saw that someone had left a row of Lakers stickers on the wall, stuck up in a crooked row behind a dozen or so multicolored plastic hangers. On one of the hangers, there was a beaded necklace. It dangled from the blue plastic as though looped around an invisible person’s throat.
Viola took the beads in her hand. They were heavy, accented at the center by a tiny silver cross. Not a necklace, she realized, but a rosary. Left behind as what? A gift? A warning? An afterthought? People can be so inscrutable, Viola though as she grasped the wooden beads.
When Viola came back into the living room, she found Anne arranging a pair of brass pelicans on the coffee table, which sat by itself at the center of the room.
“The movers will be back with the rest,” Anne said as she studied the metal birds. She scooted them to one side, then the other, then back to center again. “What do you think?”
Viola thought of the pelicans high up on the bookshelf in her father’s office at their Brentwood house. She’d barely noticed them then, when they’d been just two more things in a room that held so many other objects. Her father, the producer, had had shelves lined with awards and swag. Hats with the names of shows he’d made, photographs of him standing next to men and women so recognizable, Viola had sometimes thought they seemed more like family members than actors. Now, on the bare coffee table, the pelicans made the room feel even sadder — as though the birds were straining to expand into a space that refused to be filled.
“They look great,” Viola said. At least, she thought, good enough for now.
She wanted so badly to be out of that room, out of that apartment, but she didn’t have her own car, and it would have been strange, just then, to ask to borrow her mother’s. She remembered that she’d seen a vending machine in the narrow hallway that led out to the building’s parking lot.
“I need to step out for a minute. I’m going to get a soda.” And before her mother could ask why, Viola was walking alone down the dark, musty hall.
“I hope that’s not the last Diet Sprite,” a girl’s voice behind her said, as the soda Viola had chosen pounded down through the machine.
Without turning around, Viola reached through the plastic flap and took the cold can in her hand. Viola said, “Does it really matter? They have a bunch of other kinds.”
She turned back to find a tall, slim girl dressed all in black. The girl was leaning up against the alcove, her mouth pressed into a tight flower. The girl wore dark eye makeup that gave her a raccoon-like look, but even with the makeup, Viola could see the girl wasn’t much older than she was. Pretty, Viola thought, underneath all that glop. Or if not pretty, then something better. Self-possessed, or fearless.
“There really are a million other things to drink,” Viola said.
“Maybe so, but I only drink Diet Sprite. It’s my beverage.” The girl gave an amused smile. She held Viola’s gaze until Viola grew uncomfortable and glanced away. “I’m Mercedes,” said the girl. “People call me Mercy. As in, Have mercy on me and don’t drink the last Diet Sprite. I haven’t seen you before. You’re new to the building?”
Viola nodded. “First day.”
Mercy slid her quarters into the coin slot on the machine. “I’m eleven years in. There are worse places in Los Angeles,” she said. “Although you probably already know that most of the city is better than this place.”
Mercy pulled her Diet Sprite from the machine, opened it, and took a drink. “They got you, too, huh?”
“What?” Viola said. Then she realized that Mercy was pointing to her front pants pocket, where the rosary Viola had found was poking out from where Viola had jammed it into her jeans.
Before Viola could explain, Mercy reached into the neck of her t-shirt and took out a tiny silver cross pendant. Mercy’s cross was prettier, slimmer, hung from a delicate chain. But in shape and weight, it was identical.
“Same, same,” Mercy said and gave Viola a smile.
It wasn’t the right moment, Viola thought, to explain about the Lakers stickers and plastic hangers, how she’d found the rosary dangling there on its own. How she was supposed to be something else, half Jewish, half Episcopalian, but that in her case the two halves added up to nothing at all. It’s easier, Viola thought, to just give people what they wanted. Easier, at least for now, to let this pretty stranger think what she liked.
“Same, same,” Viola said. She tucked the rosary back into her jeans. She would, she told herself, correct the mistake later. If that later ever came.
The next afternoon, Viola headed down to the vending machine just before three o’clock, almost exactly the same time she’d gone down the day before, hoping that Mercy might be there. When Mercy showed up a little before three-fifteen, she laughed and said, “We must be on the same schedule.”
“Same, same,” Viola said and slid her quarters into the machine.
In the parking lot, they sat on the crumbling retaining wall and drank their cold sodas in the day’s remaining sun. Mercy told Viola that she went to a private Catholic school, that she’d come from an old Hancock Park family, but that her father had had “some issues” and they’d lost their house. “A long time ago. It was beautiful. A big colonial. I barely remember it now.”
Viola wondered if she’d ever feel like that about her parents’ Brentwood house. Could she forget a place that had been her home up until a few weeks ago?
“What’s Catholic school like?” Viola asked, shifting the subject. “Do you go to chapel every day like in the movies?”
Mercy laughed. “Something like that.”
She had a wonderful laugh, Viola thought. Bright, and full of an almost reckless joy.
Mercy said, “School is… whatever, whatever. I’m just trying not to flunk math.”
Viola said, “Oh, God. Math. I know.”
Mercy said she was a junior, but not yet through geometry and trig. Viola, who had been pushed to excel — up until her parents started arguing so much that they’d stopped noticing her report cards — was already in calculus, doing well, though it did feel overwhelming sometimes.
“I hate math,” Voila lied, because it seemed like the right thing to say just then. “I mean, it’s the worst, right?”
Mercy gave another big, bright laugh and Viola felt a ripple of pleasure pulse through her. It was such a wonderful laugh, even though the lies Viola was telling made her feel a deep, private shame.
They sat on the wall, drank their Diet Sprites, and watched cars slip down the street as the afternoon twisted itself into a mauve-colored twilight.
“So are you in a youth group?” Mercy asked.
“You know, at your church. I go to a good one. Meets Saturday nights. You should come with me sometime.”
Viola looked at Mercy and felt the usually tense spot between her shoulders easing. Mercy liked her, Viola realized. This, Viola felt, was the best thing that had happened to her in a while. Mercy, with her dark eyeliner, her laugh, and now this invitation. She knew that she should tell Mercy she wasn’t Catholic. But almost as soon as she thought this, she worried that if she did tell her, maybe Mercy wouldn’t want to sit and drink Diet Sprite with her anymore. She certainly wouldn’t want Viola to come with her to her youth group. She probably wouldn’t want to be her friend.
Viola sat back and considered. She would explain. Now wasn’t the time, though. There would be time later on. But just now, it wasn’t worth the risk.
“I’d love to go sometime,” Viola said.
At school the next day, Viola took her usual seat at the lunch table. The other girls, Sam, and Kayla, were late today. They always sat together at this table on one corner of the quad, just under the split oak tree and out of the sun. Viola took her yogurt and spoon out of her bag and waited, willing the other girls to appear.
Viola thought of Mercy, of the way her face held what Viola thought might be a secret anger. What was it about some people that made it seem they had authority over their own lives? Confidence, maybe, or intelligence, or beauty. Maybe just a kind of inborn pride. She wondered if belonging to yourself was something that just happened, or if, like calculus or physics, it was something you could learn if you gave it enough time.
Viola sat at the table alone and tried to imitate Mercy’s expression.
That weekend, she had received an invitation to Kayla’s little sister Max’s bat mitzvah. The invitation was a viewfinder. It had come in a pink plastic box along with a plastic kaleidoscope that, when you looked through and turned the pictures, showed Max’s family in various smiling poses. Max and Kayla eating cotton candy at last year’s school fair. Their parents sitting with both girls on a bench at the beach. The four of them on top of a snowy mountain, smiling in their helmets and goggles in spite of the cold.
“That was a cool invitation,” Viola said when Kayla and Sam finally sat down. “It’s all right, I guess,” said Kayla.
Viola forced a smile.
As Viola was finishing her sandwich, Kayla turned to her and said, “Are you even coming? I mean, the party is on the West Side. Don’t you live, where is it now? Near Hancock Park? Those old apartments. Aren’t those places, like, on the way other side of town?”
“We use a little thing called a car,” Viola said. Again, she tried to conjure Mercy’s expression. “It’s this machine that makes it possible to, like, live and work on opposite sides of town.”
Sam gave a laugh and Kayla shot her a look across the table.
“I’m coming to the party,” Viola said.
“Sure,” Kayla said. “Whatever. You’re invited. Do what you like.”
By the time Viola’s mother picked her up from the library after school, it was dark out. Kayla’s words bumped around in Viola’s memory as she slid into the car. The West Side of Los Angeles flipped past, lighted hillsides above them, Pico and Olympic lined with large, quiet houses whose rooflines whispered of their owners’ happiness and success. The city changed as they drove. They passed the crowded buildings of central LA along third street, slowing for clusters of pedestrians, kids standing in the street to avoid whatever it was that awaited them in their apartments. Viola held very still until they turned onto their street and her mother pulled the car into the cracked asphalt parking lot.
“Everything all right?” Viola’s mother turned off the car, and they sat, staring at the jacaranda tree branches that hung above the windshield, their flowers vaguely purple in the smoggy darkness.
“I’m fine,” Viola said. “Same as always. Same, same.”
Mercy’s fifth floor apartment had the same layout as the one Viola shared with her mother, though in Mercy’s apartment they had painted the walls screaming shades of blue, yellow, and red. Red in the living room, blue in the kitchen, and yellow in the bedrooms. Such a bright, lemony hue that it gave the illusion the walls were washed with light.
They sat together on the end of Mercy’s bed, surrounded by the glow of the room. Viola sipped her soda tentatively, aware that her presence in Mercy’s apartment meant that things were different between them. She wasn’t sure exactly what had changed, but she felt glad to be there in Mercy’s tiny bedroom, pleased that Mercy had invited her up.
Mercy’s room was lined with posters for bands with names like Kitten Killer and Blood to Black. The dark-haired, black-clothed women in them looked out of place against the yellow walls, as though someone had hung up heavy metal posters in a little girl’s nursery. “You listen to way different stuff than I do,” Viola said.
Mercy sat back on the bed and laughed. “I’m not actually super into Death Metal stuff. At least, not anymore. I just keep the posters up to freak out my dad.”
Viola laughed. She thought how lucky she was to have met this girl, to have Mercy for a friend.
“That reminds me,” Mercy said. “I have an old pair of combat boots sort of like these ones,” she said and gestured to the heavy boots that she was wearing. “They’d look good on you. Maybe piss off your mom.”
“I’m not really trying to piss off my mom. It isn’t her fault, our situation.”
Mercy peered at her with a question on her face. Then her expression changed and she said, “Okay then, your dad, or your stepmom, or somebody. I mean, if you’re interested.”
“Yeah,” Viola said. “I can think of somebody like that.”
When she got back to her apartment, Viola shoved Mercy’s old boots, lug soled and dirty, with frayed, worn laces, into the back of her closet, beneath where she’d found the rosary the day they’d moved in.
“Nice boots,” Kayla said the next day at lunch. “Did you, like, join a band?”
Kayla snickered. Sam shot Viola an apologetic look.
“They’re combat boots,” Viola said. “You know. It’s what people wear to war.”
“So, this new friend?” Viola’s father asked. They were sitting in the dining room of the Brentwood house. Her father in his usual spot, Viola in the chair that had been her mother’s.
Viola wrote, Esperar, to wait on the first line of her workbook.
On the next line Viola wrote, Esperar algo. To wait for something.
“You giving up your old friends?”
Viola sighed and looked up at her father. His face was expectant, as though he deserved an answer. Why, she thought, was he allowed to ask these sorts of questions, when it was his choices, his actions, that had gotten them here?
Her father’s girlfriend Muriel appeared in the doorway that separated the dining room from the kitchen. She was younger than Viola’s mother. Prettier in a way that made her seem compliant, vacant. Such white teeth. Such a ready smile.
Viola wondered what Muriel believed in. Was she only a smile, an eager nod, or did secret desires simmer inside her?
“Dinner is supposed to be ready soon,” Muriel said. She twisted her green apron nervously as though she were unsure if what she’d just said was true.
“Yeah?” Viola said, in tone of voice so forceful it surprised her.
“Um, well, yeah,” Muriel said. She gave Viola a smile.
“Smells like it’s burning,” Viola said, less surprised at the power in her own voice now.
Nobody said anything. Muriel laughed uncomfortably and then, after a long moment, turned and disappeared back through the open door.
Estamos esperando. We are waiting. Viola wrote on the next workbook line.
“It’s hard, right?” her father said. “When things changed all of a sudden?”
She looked up from the workbook, directly at him. “Is that actually the way things change?” Now the sharpness in her voice gave her a twinge of pleasure. Her mouth curled into a smile.
In his chair, her father shifted. “Come on, Viola. Can’t you be serious?”
“Oh, I am being serious,” Viola said.
“Come with me to youth group tonight,” Mercy insisted the next Saturday when they were lying on the floor of Mercy’s room, staring up at the glow-in-the dark stars that Mercy had stuck up on the ceiling the day before.
“Please. You always say you will, but then you never come.”
“Mercy,” Viola said, “I’m not…I’m not...”
She wanted to say she wasn’t Catholic. That she wasn’t anything. That the thing she most wanted to be was Mercy’s friend. But if she told Mercy, then Mercy might despise her. Weeks had passed, and Viola had done nothing to correct Mercy’s misconception. She’d just let the lie smolder. A spark that couldn’t be extinguished by itself. But then, it was such a small ember. If it became a fire, sure. Viola told herself that if she absolutely had to, she would tell her. But this was such a small lie. Faith for one of the faithless. Wasn’t that sort of a good thing? To believe? Even if the belief was only pretend?
She knew she ought to tell her. Do it now, Viola thought. She opened her mouth to say the words, but Mercy started talking again before Viola had a chance to speak.
“I know you’ll really like it. There’s a guy coming to play guitar this week. Acoustic or whatever, which might otherwise be lame, but this guy is supposed to be super good. Plus, even if it sucks, it’ll be more fun than hanging around at home.”
At home. The words made Viola sit up and shiver. Viola never used those words to describe her apartment or this building. But Mercy was right. This was her home, her life.
“Just come the one time,” Mercy was saying. “If you hate it, I’ll never ask again.”
Never being asked again was what Viola was afraid of. But she was always at Mercy’s these days, always being asked over for something. Borrowing Mercy’s clothes. Listening to Mercy’s music. Admiring Mercy’s rounded face, her slightly uneven eyebrows, the way her mouth curled pleasingly at the corners whenever she tried not to laugh. The way her face spread out with a stunning burst of happiness when she finally did.
She would go to the meeting just this one time. After that, she’d tell Mercy. Mercy liked her enough, Viola told herself. When Viola finally explained, Mercy would understand.
When they got to the church’s rec room, the lights were on, but the rest of the building stood sheathed in dark. With its arches and bricks, the dark church made Viola think of Hitchcock. Of Kim Novak falling to her death after seeing her double.
“It’s beautiful, right?” Mercy said. Viola nodded, but to her the place felt creepy, a set from a Halloween movie. In spite of the haunted feel and the lack of lighting, Mercy seemed at ease. She reached for Viola’s hand and grasped it.
“I’m so glad you’re here.”
It was the first time that Mercy had intentionally touched her, and Viola felt the heat of Mercy’s hand move through her body like a warm pulse.
“I’m glad I’m here, too,” Viola said. She grasped Mercy’s hand tighter.
The meeting was nothing, it meant nothing, Viola told herself. Just some kids with nothing to do on a Saturday night and a priest in jeans. It’s not like she was going to do this all the time. It’s not like she believed this stuff. She didn’t believe in anything. She would tell them, if anyone asked her, that she wasn’t Catholic. She would be honest. If it came up.
At the start of the meeting, Viola, Mercy, and the other members of the group stood in a circle with the priest at the center. He asked each of them to come forward and say a few words about why they had come. The others stood with their eyes closed as, one by-one, they each stepped forward. Viola let her eyes flutter open. She was in a blank, brightly lit room, standing in a circle with Mercy and these strangers. Her heart jumped into her throat. She shouldn’t have come, she told herself. She shouldn’t be pretending like this. But she couldn’t leave. She didn’t want to ruin it for everybody else.
“He punishes sinners and loves his loyal children,” the priest told them. “He knows all the secret desires of your heart.”
Viola doubted that anyone knew the secret desires of her heart, but the idea that someone could know them made her take a breath. Then again, if somebody could sense all of her secrets, then that person would know that Viola was lying, passing. That she didn’t belong. As though to reassure her, Mercy reached out and squeezed Viola’s hand. Eventually, after they’d sung what felt like the hundredth song, the priest excused them for the evening.
Viola and Mercy were walking toward the church door when Viola felt a hand on her shoulder. “It was so nice to have you with us tonight,” the priest said.
“Sure,” Viola said. “Sure. It was, ah, really nice.”
Did he know? she wondered. She looked Italian—people were always telling her this, commenting on her olive skin and dark hair. Italians, she thought, were usually Catholic. But maybe there was something she had done, or not done, that had made him doubt her. Could the priest really talk to God? Could he tell?
The priest held out a card, a little smaller than a bookmark. “For you,” he said.
Viola took the card and nodded her thanks.
In the car, Viola read the card’s text aloud to Mercy. “I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don't know if I ama falcon, or a storm, or a great song.”
“What do you think that’s supposed to mean?” Mercy said. Though Viola suspected she knew what it meant, she told Mercy she had no idea. She kept her eyes fixed on the red taillights streaming down Sunset as Mercy drove them home.
Come with me again tonight? Mercy asked in a text the following Saturday.
It was mid-morning. Viola was getting dressed for Max’s bat mitzvah. She was wearing an old Betsy Johnson ruffle-hemmed dress, the black one with the pink trim and the off-the-shoulder neckline, one she’d worn to other parties before. Her friends would be in new dresses, but Viola told herself this one was fine. Anyway, good enough for now. She knew that she should respond to Mercy, tell her the truth finally, that she wasn’t going to youth group because she had to attend a bat mitzvah. That she herself was half-Jewish. But there seemed to be no point in explaining now if she couldn’t even go tonight. Another time, she told herself. She’d find the right occasion.
The party was at the Four Seasons, in a back ballroom made golden by three rows of crystal chandeliers. The other girls were dressed in form-fitting, brightly colored dresses, tight through the waist and hips in the way that was in style now. Viola tugged the frills of her dress down, as though she could transform it just by pulling at its hem.
“Nice dress,” Kayla said when Viola joined the other girls at their table. Viola wasn’t sure, but it seemed that, when she offered a meek “Thanks,” Kayla snickered. They were her friends, she told herself, and friends stuck together. Even if she had moved across town. Even if she lived in an apartment. Even if she couldn’t afford the right dress. Viola thought of Mercy and the youth group meeting. Her hand moved to the little silver cross, another gift from Mercy. A near duplicate of Mercy’s own, though smaller. The one Mercy had worn when she was younger. Viola felt it on its slender chain, tucked inside the neckline of her dress. She had worn it here because she had wanted to bring a piece of Mercy with her. She had thought if she could do that, it would make her brave—brave enough to be there with Kayla and Sam and everyone else in their new dresses.
Later, after the first dances, Viola excused herself and went to use the bathroom. Kayla was somewhere else by then, probably with the rest of her family. For the moment, Voila thought, it was safe to move through the party alone. She was just on her way back to their table, stepping carefully down the long carpeted hallway in the high heels she rarely wore, when Kayla appeared and started coming toward her. “You know,” Kayla said, walking toward her, “I didn’t want to invite you. I just knew you’d show up in something like that.” Kayla gestured to Viola’s dress.
Viola took a breath. “So why am I here then?”
Kayla sighed. “My sister said she’s known you practically all her life. That out of all my ‘friends’, you were the one she most wanted here.”
Viola wasn’t sure whether she felt grateful to Kayla’s sister or just angry. Right now, she could be barefoot, lying on the carpet in Mercy’s bedroom, or strapped into the passenger seat of Mercy’s car, sailing across the city. Or sitting on the wall in the parking lot, watching the evening settle and drinking a cold Diet Sprite.
“I mean, you don’t have to stay the whole time or anything,” Kayla was saying.
“I only mean that, now that you don’t live on the West Side, things are different. It’s not like you and I are going to be forever friends.”
Viola thought about the summer Kayla had broken her arm on the playground and Viola’s mother had driven Kayla to the emergency room to get an X-ray. About the weekend when Kayla grandmother was sick and Kayla had spent Friday night whimpering in the guest room of Viola’s old house, worried about her grandmother’s health. How, that night, Viola had let Kayla crawl into her single bed and sleep snuggled in beside her.
Give people enough time, Viola thought, and they become something different. Here was Kayla, squinting at Viola from the other side of the hallway, telling Viola that because her address had changed, they no longer had anything in common.
Viola looked up and saw Kayla’s sister Max coming toward them, up the hallway. Viola took a step back, as though trying to escape.
“I was wondering where you guys had disappeared to,” Max said. She paused, bit her lower lip and stared hard at Viola.
“What?” Viola said. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” Max said. “It’s just, what’s that necklace?”
Viola touched her chest and felt where the silver cross had slipped out from under her dress.
“Viola?” Max said. “Is there something you need to tell us?”
Kayla folded her arms across her chest and tilted her head toward Viola in a gesture that seemed to mean, I told you so. I told you she was different.
Viola rubbed the silver cross between her fingers. How could she explain her lie, about how she’d needed to tell it, and how she’d needed Mercy? “Oh, Max,” she said. “It’s just something I’m trying out.”
“Okay,” Max said. She sounded doubtful. “And how’s that going?”
The three girls stood there for a long moment while Viola considered the question. “You know,” she said at last, “I’m not really sure.”
The DJ had just started the hora when Viola slipped out of the party. With everyone else on the dance floor, nobody saw her go. In her mother’s car, Viola picked up speed and felt the city recede around her. She felt as though the only real things were her body, the car, and the other cars sliding forward along Wilshire. She was still in her party dress, but by the time she reached the church, she didn’t care. It was as if the night had closed up around her, and all of Los Angeles had become a one-way tunnel that could lead to only one place. When she walked into the rec room, Mercy looked up and smiled, and Viola told herself that she had done the right thing. That it made sense to have come here. In spite of the fact that she’d lied to Mercy. In spite of Kayla and Max. In spite of the dress.
If only it were a little easier to want what you were supposed to want. To be what others needed you to be.
The room felt almost too quiet when Viola stepped in and found her place in the circle among the others. Next to her, Mercy reached out to squeeze her hand. Viola felt her body go warm again with Mercy’s touch, with its heat and pressure.
“Let us pray,” the priest said.
Mercy turned and gave Viola a smile.
See, the smile seemed to say. I knew that you belonged here. In this room. With me.
Viola’s bare legs felt cold in the large, drafty room and she shivered. The priest began to sing, and the people in the circle around her began to chant along with him. The priest asked them to close their eyes. And silently, without thinking, Viola obeyed.