I’m a ghost here, a cat with nine lives in this city, and most of them are past.
The place I stayed this time, in the 50s, had me walking through the theater district, remembering the first one. A brief, little one, that left a mark.
We saw Cats, the musical, the first time. 1979. Arriving on a bus with thirty other teenagers, from my church in Tennessee. Back when I went to church, at least open to the possibility that it might matter if I did. Must have taken us days, the drive, I don’t remember where we stopped. Or where we stayed when we got here. Or what we did with the church bus. Though we must have put it somewhere.
I remember this.
I remember the girl who disappeared from the Met on the last day, from among the imposing white statues of gods and men like gods, with their perfect bodies. The frenzied hours of payphones (there were no cells) and frantic counselors. Youth leaders packing bibles and guitars, suddenly with a missing girl on their hands. Or out of them.
The girl’s name was Kayla or Krysta, something with a “y” somewhere that made it sound cheap. She was someone’s friend, who sometimes came to Sunday youth nights in the basement, to sing songs and listen to the testimonies of the hard-core believers, and watch them cry together. I never testified because I had nothing to testify to. Jesus had never come looking for me.
The girl and I were both on the edges, but we were different.
She’d had trouble. She wore cherry lip gloss and too much eye shadow. She’d been in trouble. She wore tight, acid-washed jeans. She had feathered bangs, which she combed incessantly with a comb she kept in her back pocket. She had a chipped tooth and a tiny white scar on her chin. She painted her fingernails bright red and then bit them down to the quick, spitting little chips of polish. She was trouble.
I just wanted to be.
While they looked for the girl, the counselors tried to make the rest of the day normal for the rest of us. By sending us to Macy’s. They weren’t worried about us disappearing—fat Wendy with her bad case of acne. Responsible Leanne, who would knee anybody wanting to disappear her in the balls and leave him writhing on the ground, she’d just step over him and go on her way. And me. They weren’t worried about me.
I kind of wanted them to be.
At Macy’s I blew my babysitting money, a year’s worth. Eye shadow and lip gloss and an emerald green stretchy velveteen top that was tighter than anything I’d ever seen on anyone I knew. I changed in the bathroom. And put my makeup on.
Before Cats they took us to an Italian restaurant in a basement somewhere in the 40s, probably long gone now. I was anorexic, though I didn’t, at the time, have that word for what I was doing to my body. I ate salad with oil and vinegar and nibbled around the edges of olives, watched too hard as Wendy cleared three plates of pasta.
All the talk was about the girl. And we all agreed a man must have taken her. That’s what men did in cities, they took girls.
The counselors barely ate, because the police had come, and wanted to talk to them outside.
They had her. But she wouldn’t say where she’d been or with whom. She had a bruise on her neck. She looked at the adults like she hated them all, an alley cat who’d scratch their eyes out and give them rabies if she got half the chance. The police looked at her like they knew exactly what she was.
At Cats she sat between the two oldest counselors, women with boxy lady hair and mom jeans. She was their prisoner.
She looked around at the rest of us like someone who knew things. Sneering at us because we didn’t. The next day they did something no one did then—they put her on a plane. Back to Tennessee. Must have cost them, or someone, a fortune. Likely not her parents.
At Cats, I could feel one of the ushers noticing me—I’d layered on the new makeup, in my tight green shirt. A swarthy one with gummed back hair and a little flashlight for burgling, he looked like a criminal Colombo might hunt down, the hems of his trench coat flapping.
When we filed out for intermission I walked slow past him and he murmured that I was pretty in a tone I knew instinctively hid other things inside the words. Like neck bruises.
At the end, I was half hoping he’d grab me by the elbow and I’d have to pretend not to like it. But an older man showed us the way out, my criminal was gone.
The next day they loaded us into the bus for the long drive home. I wore my green shirt with my criminal’s look still imprinted on it, and eye shadow. Enough for the mom-jeans counselors to notice, but not so thick they’d make me wipe it off. The bus was full of Kayla or Kaytlyn or whatever her name was, bursting with her because she was gone. She was from another high school, so I never saw her again. I wonder what kind of lives she had.
As we headed south, the ugly gray outskirts of the city looked beautiful to me. They called to me as we passed. Speaking my new language.
I’d be back. I’d left some things unfinished. Pearls in my pocket to scatter before the swine.