I feel good when things are going wrong / I only listen to the sad, sad songs
The music came first. Always, always – the music came first.
Sally grew up in a boxy white house in the San Fernando Valley surrounded by flat neon green lawn and half-dead ferns struggling to grow towards the blank windows. It was not a house that looked like anything. It was not a house that felt like anything. It didn't reflect anything Sally was inside, vengeful and dark and wrecked. She felt like a blot on its surface.
In the summer she used to sit on a sheet on the lawn next to her sister, both of them coating themselves in oil, working on a base. Sally always felt like she was some kind of ghost watching herself from a distance. Like she was inside the cool house standing in the shadows of the window watching those two interchangeable girls with their heavy brown hair in matching ponytails getting tan. Sally knew she looked normal from the outside. From the outside no one could see.
It wasn't until Patti Smith's Horses that Sally knew there was more to the world than the boxy white house with its square green lawn. She used to put her turntable in the closet and close the door, cord snaking out the sliver that remained open. Then she would listen to that record over and over and cry. She would cry until she hiccupped, until her mascara smeared.
Music was the first time Sally knew there was a world outside, and that it hurt as much as she did.
Sally left home on the back of a boy's motorbike when she was eighteen, which felt old until she got older. She bleached her brown hair white. She made herself as hard and brittle on the outside as she had always been inside.
His name was Rick and Sally love, love, loved him. He was two years older and she used to watch him in the halls in high school, she ripped his photo out of the yearbook and kissed it every night before she went to bed. She wrote poetry about him on her arms with black Sharpie, she scratched an R on the inside of her thigh with a safety pin. He was the first boy she ever put her hands on and she watched his face the whole time, his glassy eyes and open mouth. That was love, right? That looked like love.
He took her away from everything. They had plans to go to New York but they only got as far as downtown Los Angeles, less than two hours from home, where they slept on friends' couches and got stoned. He was the first person to stick her with a needle, to make eternity explode in her veins, to make the world soft and dreamy and pleasant to the touch. Before that it had been so hard. Afterwards it was harder.
That was love, right? That felt like love.
Sally looked like a good girl before she ran away but her heart was a black rotten thing. She almost wasn't born at all, came out choked blue and had to be pulled back from the brink. If she'd had the ability she would have told them not to bother. She always wondered if that was the reason she was the way she was, if being born blue made her brain wrong.
Sally looked like a good girl but she acted like a bad one. She used to play mean pranks like cutting her sister's hair in the middle of the night; she once pushed a girl she didn't like down the stairs. She ran away from home four times before she did it for good, she dropped out of school, she slept with any boy who looked at her twice. She shoplifted, she scored her secret soft parts with razor lines. Her parents made her see a psychiatrist who diagnosed her but didn't heal her.
Sally felt like there was a war inside her head. Music made it make sense. Heroin made it stop.
She started selling for Rick because she would have done anything for him, even after he started rolling his eyes when she cried and pushing her hands away when she reached for him. Even when he found a new girl who put stars in his eyes. Selling was how Sally met the bands – the louche boys with floppy hair and brittle women with too much eyeliner. They welcomed her with big bright smiles and open arms as long as she put a needle in it for them. God, Sally loved that, the way they would light up when they saw her coming, how she could make their shivering stop.
Sometimes when they were good and fucked up they'd pause long enough to listen to Sally's heartbreaker poetry. They'd tell her how good it would sound put to music while they lifted their arms for another hit.
Then one day she was at a party, Rick's place with his new girl, and she overheard them talking about her. Sad Sally, they called her. Sickening Sally. Sally from the Valley. Hypodermic Sally, because that was the only thing she was good for.
Sally cried hard, angrily, until black streaked down her cheeks and mixed with her red, red lips. She thought she'd found a place amongst all the people who didn't fit anywhere else, but nobody wanted her here either.
Maybe she should've gone to New York.
Even as a joke Sally's name got around and eventually she actually booked a real live meeting with her god amongst gods: Patti Smith. Sally didn't sleep for three days beforehand, amphetamines zipping around inside her like shooting stars, and then she crashed, slept right through the appointment. All her little crumpled notebook songs. All her little ashen dreams. Gone, just like that.
Sally started talking it up afterwards, said she and Patti had a whole album sketched out together, that they worked together like a dream but Patti stabbed her in the back. "Bitch took everything from me," Hypodermic Sally slurred to messy-headed kids fresh off the bus who wanted a taste of big city life. Sally showed them her arms, riddled with holes. "That's why I do this now. That bitch."
Sally could no longer remember the name of the boy whose motorcycle brought her here. She was getting too old for the scene and she wasn’t a fixture, she was an embarrassment. It was more poetic to blame Patti Smith for everything and, in a way, truer too.
Sally met Donovan at the Viper Room two days after River Phoenix died out on the curb. He had an elegance about him despite his dirty hair, unwashed clothes, haunted eyes. "You're so beautiful," she cooed at him over drinks, ignoring the bartender rolling his eyes. She fished a little packet out of her bra. "You want some?"
Donovan's eyes lit up and Sally felt that shiver of excitement she always felt, that someone needed her, someone beautiful. She could tell he was like her right away: washed up, desperate, needy for affection. They got along real well.
They stumbled out into the cool night, her fingers knotted tight in the sleeve of his flannel shirt, and he stopped, eyes glued to the pavement. "What a shitty way to die," he said.
Sally lost track of him for almost a year after that. He got a bit part on some soap opera and cleaned up, cleared out of Sally's old haunts. She used to watch him sometimes, immaculately pretty on an overlit soap set, while she lay in bed in her bra and panties, fucked up. If she'd given him better stuff, would he have stayed?
He ended up written out, his character taking a sudden death plunge into a river that the network was too cheap to pay to shoot. He was just there one day and gone the next, taken out by narrative exposition like he was never there. He found Sally not soon after that. They always did when they were at their worst.
"Goddamn, they said –" Donovan was shaking as he held out his arm for her. "I missed filming too much. They said I wasn't worth the money they paid me."
"It's okay, baby," Sally promised. "Something new will come around."
"Yeah?" He looked at her like she really knew the answer. "Will it?"
"You bet," Sally said. "Until then, I know somewhere we can go. Real nice place. You'll love it, never want to leave."
After he was dead, or almost dead, Sally put on her lipstick and staggered out into the hallway. Another one gone, just like the rest. She'd lost plenty before; Donovan got to go out better than most. At least it was all silent for him. At least he was dreaming. No one sewed him up or ripped him apart. No one.
She was conscious of the wallpaper under her fingertips. The floor was listing, tipping back and forth like a ship on the open sea. She could feel the breeze from the open window calling to her, beckoning her over, something sweet and fresh in all the stale. As she stood there in that breeze she thought, If only I could fly. And that was the last thing she thought.
Sally stood at the window looking down on her body below. “Fuck," she said, and almost laughed. "I should’ve gone to New York."