“What about your parents?” I asked. “Didn’t they think you should maybe slow it down some, take some college classes or whatever first?”
“I’m not like you, Heather,” Tania said, smiling a little ruefully, like I’d said something sweetly funny. “I didn’t have parents who did things like save up for college.”
As it happened, neither did I, but I didn’t see the point in mentioning this.
“My dad left when I was a baby,” Tania went on. “My mom was real supportive when I told her I was moving to New York, because she was having a hard enough time feeding my three little brothers on what she was making at the restaurant. Plus”—the color began to rise in Tania’s face—“she’d remarried, and with my new stepdad, well, it was getting kind of crowded in the house . . .”
I could only imagine how “crowded” it was getting in the house and how positively Tania’s mother must have viewed Tania’s decision to move to New York, especially when it came to getting her away from the new stepdad. You don’t become one of People magazine’s fifty most beautiful overnight. Tania must have been as much of a knockout back then as she was now.
“So you got married and moved here,” I said.
“Yeah,” Tania said, looking at one of her bare feet, peeking out from beneath the faux-fur chinchilla. She had a gorgeous pedicure to match her dark, glossy purple manicure. The manicurist must have bungled the finish on her smallest toe, since Tania found a rough spot and began to pick at it. “And even though I know we should have been happy as newlyweds, it was much harder than I thought it was going to be, at first. The only apartment we could afford was this tiny one-room studio in Queens on the second floor above this bar, so not only was it noisy, but it was filled with cockroaches. When you turned the light on, they’d all skitter away to hide under the refrigerator.” I noticed she was tugging harder at the nail polish. “But Gary said as soon as I got a job, we’d move to a better place. And we did, after I got signed as one of the backup singers on Williamsburg Live, do you remember that show? Probably not, it got canceled after one season. Then we got a better place, in Chinatown. It was still only one room, but at least it didn’t have roaches. And then we got an even better apartment after I got hired as a backup singer for Easy Street when they went on that European tour. And then I got the contract with Cartwright Records—”
“And what was Gary doing while you were working at all these jobs?” I asked, thinking how common her story was, repeated day in, day out, at least in New York City. Poor girl meets poor boy. Poor girl marries poor boy, and they move to the big city to pursue their big dream. There, poor girl meets rich boy, becomes a big star, and dumps poor boy. Poor boy tries to murder girl in revenge.
“Well,” she said, biting her lip, “that was the thing. Gary was my manager—”
“What?” This was a different twist on the story.
“Gary was my manager,” Tania repeated. “So he worked real hard with me on my vocal training and spent a lot of time on the phone with people, trying to get me auditions and stuff. The thing was, I don’t think he really had that many connections, or as many as he said he did, coming from Florida. I started getting the feeling he was mostly annoying people—”
I bet he was, some high school kid who’d hitched himself to a star like Tania’s. I bet he’d annoyed a lot of people. It was amazing no one had tried to murder him.
“So . . .”—Tania picked harder at her toe—“I started going out to auditions on my own, jobs I heard about through other girls. I didn’t want to make Gary mad. I did it because I loved him, and I wanted to prove what we had was special. I thought things would get better when I got some work. He was so stressed out because I wasn’t really making a lot of money for us,” Tania said. “It was my fault, really. He’d get so stressed, he’d say things he didn’t mean.”
“What kinds of things?” I asked, keeping my voice neutral with an effort. I wanted to go back out onto the deck, find Cooper, and tell him to go after this Gary guy with everything he had—including, and most especially, his gun.
But I knew I had to get the whole story first. Besides, no one knew better than I did that violence doesn’t solve anything. Most of the time.
“Oh,” Tania said with a shrug, still picking at her toe, “stupid things, like I was never going to make it because I wasn’t talented enough and maybe I should quit.”
The lyrics from her hit song “So Sue Me,” the one that was so different from her others, popped into my head.
All those times you said
I’d never make it
All those times you said
I should quit
“But that didn’t make any sense, because if I quit, then we’d have no money,” Tania said. I noticed her eyes were filled with tears. “And then when I did get work,” she went on, “he’d get so mad, because of course the jobs were never through his contacts. I’d have to pretend they were, you know, make things up, like that someone he’d called had hired me instead of someone I knew. Otherwise, the things he’d say . . . they were even worse.”
“Like what?” I asked carefully.
All those times you said
I’m nothing without you
The sad part is
I believed it too
“I don’t know,” she said, her shoulders hunched defensively. “Just . . . things.”
Then I left and
What do you know
I made it on
My very own
“Tania,” I said, still keeping my voice neutral, “did Gary hit you?”
“Oh,” Tania said, in dismay. “Oh no. Not again.”
I looked down and saw that blood was welling from her toe. She’d peeled off the nail polish and in doing so had ripped part of the nail. Her face crumpled.
“I don’t want to get blood on their furry thing,” she said, tears flowing down her face.
“Don’t worry,” I said, though my heart had begun to race. She’d ripped part of her own toenail off, right in front of me, when I’d asked if Gary ever hit her. “Here, I have a Band-Aid.”
My fingers shaking, I reached for my purse. I had tucked a handful of adhesive bandages into it before leaving home in anticipation of the blisters I was going to get from my high heels . . . although truthfully, I nearly always had a Band-Aid or two with me. It was another symptom of the hypervigilance from which I suffered, working in Death Dorm. Though how a Band-Aid would have helped Jared today, I don’t know. I didn’t know how it was going to help Tania, either. I knew only I had to try.