"We've listened to this Mecca Normal album five times, put on something else!" Kira shouts from the back seat.
"I'm driving," Allison singsongs, but she shoves the cardboard box of cassette tapes toward Lydia. "Pick something?"
Lydia deigns to bend down and drag the box into her lap with the hand that's not in a cast. The radio in the van is mostly broken—they can surf through 87-91FM, pick up NPR sometimes—so Kira brought her boombox from home and duct-taped it to the underside of the console. They've had to stop for more D batteries twice since they left Pasadena and headed toward Los Angeles and up the coast, to Berkeley, to Seattle.
The van belongs to Cora's brother and has seen better lifetimes. Cora, Allison, and Kira are taking turns driving, Lydia's riding shotgun, and Malia's crammed onto the middle bench with whoever's not at the wheel. They took out the back seat before they left to make room for their gear: guitars, drums, beat-up amplifiers. When Allison left for college, Monstrous Regiment only played local shows—Erica shoved her kit in the back of her mom's station wagon and Allison and Lydia took Lydia's Beetle, hurrying after every show to get back to Allison's before her curfew.
A lineup and a lifetime later, the 101 is gridlocked in both directions, Allison's ex-girlfriend won't make eye contact with her, and she hasn't washed her hair in three days. Allison's pretty sure that the summer of 1991 is going to be the best one of her life.
Allison spends the month before they go on tour learning all the new songs, messing around Lydia's arrangements. It's weird getting them after the fact, on the cassette tape that Kira mails her with a little post-it, xoxo can't wait to meet you!. Allison has their EP from last year on vinyl, but this is newer stuff, what Monstrous Regiment has been throwing around for their album. Their album.
None of the songs that Lydia and Erica and Allison wrote together are on the EP or the tape. That stuff was spare, organic—Erica's drumming style is loose and playful, and Allison spent most of tenth grade obsessed with the Slits. The music Lydia wrote with them was sprawling and loose, the words she put to the beat less lyrics than sketches for her to howl. This Monstrous Regiment is tighter, louder, faster, more political. Malia has a wild energy like Sandy West from the Runaways, Kira and Lydia shred, and Cora anchors them with a steady, no-frills bass line. Their songs are about sexual harassment, discrimination, US political involvement abroad. Maybe it's college; maybe someone's really into 10,000 Maniacs and Jello Biafra.
They have two days to play together before they hit the road, cramming into the dirty rented storage space that doubles as Monstrous Regiment's practice studio. Allison's worried that fitting in with the new lineup will be awkward, but music is the great equalizer: an hour in, she and Kira are grinning through a cover of "Search and Destroy" while Malia flips her sticks in the air between beats and Cora snarls into the microphone. Lydia is sitting on someone's amp and paging through this month's New Yorker. Her cast is all doodles from palm to forearm, the biggest a crown with QUEEN LYDIA in blocky capitals below it. "Let me know when you're done messing around," she says when they break for water. "I'm ready to get to work."
Allison was in class when it happened back in May, so she didn't get the message until hours later, tinny on the tape of her answering machine. "Lydia broke her wrist and we need somebody to play guitar for Monstrous on tour this summer. This is Cora Hale. Call Lydia's parents. Thanks."
Monstrous Regiment started in Erica's garage their junior year of high school, back when Allison and Lydia were still making furtive eyes at each other and Erica was the token straight girl in the band. Allison thought the band would fall apart everyone split for college, but Lydia replaced them both instead and took over lead guitar. Lydia is terrifying and competent and everything Allison loves, still, even though Lydia's as serious about Cora as an Indigo Girls album.
Allison hates the Indigo Girls. She wishes it were easier to hate Cora.
"Okay," Cora recites as they pull up to the Taco Bell drive through. "Two dozen tacos, churros for Kira, I forget who but three Diet Cokes and one iced tea and water. That right?"
"You're a fast-food ordering god," Kira says dreamily as everyone digs into their wallets.
They eat in the parking lot and take turns calling home on the payphone. Malia and Cora are cousins, so they can trade off, and Lydia's parents don't care, but Kira and Allison have overprotective parents who are convinced they're going to get murdered on the road. Allison has a black belt in karate, but Dad stuck a less-than-legal switchblade in her purse before she hit the road. This still isn't as bad the freakout when she decided to go across the country for school.
"Lydia said you make zines," Malia says as Cora pulls out of the parking lot. "I started, in high school—I write poetry. I do slams sometimes."
"That's awesome," Allison says. "I mostly write essays about stuff—you know, girls not hating girls, self-defense. Nail polish."
Kira leans her head against Allison's shoulder. "I could write an entire zine on nail polish."
"I wrote an essay about nail polish for one of Allison's zines," Lydia says after a moment. "Girls Run the World #3."
They're all in LA, the rest of Monstrous Regiment—Lydia at Caltech, Malia and Kira at USC, and Cora picking up day play grip work around town—city girls who go to punk shows a couple times a week. LA is another world from central Massachusetts, where Allison's at Smith, majoring in women's studies and minoring in the local indie scene. Northampton is hardly bigger than Beacon Hills. No one here seems interested in checking Allison's cred, though—but borrowing the stash of Sassy back issues she has stashed in her bag, definitely.
There's no place for them to crash after their show in San Luis Obispo, so they park in a the lot of a slumbering Wal-Mart, lock the doors of the van, and settle in for the night. Cora and Lydia take the front seats, Allison takes the bench, and Kira and Malia dig out a space large enough for them to lie down in the back. Allison's mostly asleep before she hears them kissing back there, Malia's soft breaths and Kira's gentle murmurs. Cora smacks her lips in her sleep; Lydia snores. An acute loneliness constricts Allison's chest like a too-tight bra band; her eyes sting. It's absurd, feeling like this in a cramped van with two people fucking in the back—Allison goes from tears to choking down laughter in a few minutes, biting her hand so she doesn't give herself away. She doesn't get to sleep until the sun's nearly up, but that's what coffee is for.
"I am going to murder someone if I don't get a shower in the next two hours," Cora says in the morning. "Let's go to the beach."
They load up on shitty McDonald's coffee and head out to the coast. Lydia has a beach towel already—she's prepared for every occasion—so she pillows her head on a collection of ratty bath towels and sets up on the sand with a book. "I'm working on my tan," she says primly, like keeping her cast dry has nothing to do with it. Everyone else is already stripping down to their underwear, bras and panties or, in Cora's case, dude's briefs. Kira runs into the ocean with her arms outstretched and Malia follows her in, whooping as she leaps into the waves. Allison wades in slowly, adjusting to the brisk water a few inches at a time. The worst is always when it hits her breasts, nipples puckering in protest beneath the flimsy cotton of her bra—once that's over, she relaxes enough to float on her back, face turned up to the sun and hair loose around around her. Alone, but exactly where she wants to be.
Erica lives in a big punk house in downtown Santa Cruz with her boyfriend and half-a-dozen other college kids, most of whom have gone home for at least the first few weeks of the summer. "You're crashing here," she said as soon as Allison called her up. "Wanna play a house party, too? I'll open for you."
"Of course." Allison twisted the phone cord around her finger. She didn't know how to voice quite what she felt, gratitude warring with a lurching sense of guilt and longing. "Thanks. I'm sorry I've been out of touch."
Erica said, "Babe. There's no out of touch with us."
Her boyfriend Boyd is a tall, quiet guy who fronts a hardcore band Allison's never heard of, and he hefts Malia's kit out of the back like it's nothing. Erica is already chatting Malia up, saying, "Girl, we are gonna jam together tonight, I'm so into all the stuff you did on the new EP—" while Cora and Kira help Boyd unload the rest of their gear.
Lydia's sitting by herself on the front steps, twiddling an unlit cigarette between her fingers, so Allison goes and plunks next to her. "Thought you quit."
"I did," Lydia says. She sighs, shoves the cigarette behind her ear, drums her fingers on her knee. "I thought it would be easier, being here."
"Come on, it's Erica," Allison says. "Everyone's going to be high and drinking shitty beer in half an hour." She looks at Lydia and it hurts, not being able to reach out to comfort her. Their history hangs heavy in the gulf of between them.
The next day, Allison wakes up in bed with Malia, her bra somewhere at the end of the bed and Malia's sleep shirt rucked up around her armpits. At least they're still wearing underwear. Allison glances over her shoulder to where Kira's blissfully snoozing in a sleeping bag on the floor, kitty eyemask still in place. "Did we hook up last night?" Allison whispers to Malia. Sound hurts. Ugh. She is hungover as hell and they still have the real show to play later.
Malia yawns. "A little? Is that okay?"
It's not something that Allison's put a lot of thought into, sober, but they're all girls who like girls in a band and Malia's cute as hell. "Sure," she says, leaning in to press a kiss to Malia's cheek. "As long as that's okay with you and Kira."
"Kira doesn't mind sharing," Kira says groggily. "As long as someone brings Kira so much water. And aspirin, oh my god."
Malia crawls over Allison and tumbles onto the floor, loose-legged, to crawl over to Kira and kiss her open-mouthed. Morning breath, that's love. Allison sits up and fumbles through the sheets for her shirt. Maybe she can beat them to the shower.
Erica and Lydia are in the kitchen when Allison goes down for breakfast, wet hair damp on the back of her cleanest t-shirt. Their heads are bent together, conspiratory, two bowls of Kix between them. Erica is the first to look up. "Oh, you're not dead. Congratulations."
"Dead sounds really good right now," Allison says. "Coffee? Please?"
Lydia watches them while Erica gets up and rescues Allison from her inability to pour liquid or operate a toaster. Finally, Lydia says, "Are you and Malia a thing now?"
Allison is only a few gulps into her coffee, so that takes her a minute to process. Then she narrows her eyes over the top of her mug. "What, are you jealous?"
"You're in my band," Lydia says. "It's my business."
"Oh, so it's your band," Allison says.
Lydia's mouth tightens. "You left. It's mine now."
"Hey, I left, too," Erica says, handing Allison a plate of dry toast. "Let's not make your relationship drama into band drama."
"I don't want Allison to make her relationship drama into band drama," Lydia snaps.
Cora clears her throat. She's standing in the doorway; Allison doesn't know how long she's been there. "Lydia," Cora says quietly. "Let it go."
Allison takes her breakfast out onto the back porch, empty and sheltered from the morning sun. She sits on a lawn chair with mildewed plastic cushions and eats her toast while birds chirp around her. The city is already awake, cars rumbling down the big street out front, the auto shop next door blasting Mexican pop music. Her head throbs. She startles when Erica lets the screen door slam behind her.
"Did you ever talk about it?" Erica plunks down on the recliner next to Allison. "You and Lydia, I mean."
"How are you so awake?" Allison says instead.
Erica stretches out her leg and gently knocks her toes against Allison's ankle. "New meds, can't drink anymore. Come on, tell Auntie Erica all your sorrows."
Allison doesn't want to think about this. She doesn't want to think about anything. "Ugh," she says. "No. I mean—what was there to say? Lydia wants to win a Fields Medal. I wanted to get out of California. You know that."
Things didn't seem bad at the end. The three of them drove out from Beacon Hills to drop Erica at UCSC—her parents were still freaked out about her going to school three hours from home—and then Allison and Lydia drove back, one last weekend to themselves before Allison got on a plane to Boston. Everyone was leaving. They'd all made it out of Beacon Hills and out of high school alive with three cassette tapes of music floating between them. The future stretched before them, bright and real. Lydia kissed Allison on the cheek in front of her parents at the airport, and that was it for two years aside from a string of letters that petered out after spring break. Allison's parents moved to Phoenix before the summer rolled around.
"Use your words," Erica says.
Allison sighs. "Words are Lydia's thing."
In Berkeley, they crash at Kira's parents' place. The Yukimuras are both professors at Cal and freshly departed on a year's sabbatical. "Dad says we have to replace anything in the liquor cabinet," Kira says, "but I think he'd rather we get trashed her than try our fake IDs at a bar."
"I just want to do laundry," Lydia says.
Allison takes a luxurious bath and shaves her legs, then spends the afternoon jamming with Kira and Cora in the living room. Kira has a battered Les Paul that looks like it's held together by a decade's worth of bumper stickers; Allison's Telecaster lost the volume knob last year and she hasn't bother to replace it. They noodle around on some old Grateful Dead stuff before Kira says, "Can we try one of your old songs? I really like 'Dido on Fire.'" Cora nods.
"Uh, sure, let me—" Allison takes a minute to tune her guitar down to D, and then they dive in. This song was one of the first ones she and Erica wrote—Lydia added the lyrics and rhythm line later. Cora picks up Erica's 3:2 backing and Kira strums through the chords while Allison plucks her way up to the crescendo up to the bridge and the double-time chorus. She's not a great singer, but she knows the words, so she starts to sing, softly at first and then louder—
you're like Dido on fire but
you have got a living flame
pull me to your giving pyre
show me how to burn again
When Lydia starts singing along, Allison almost loses her place, but she keeps singing, chugging ahead. The next voice, another voice chimes in—Malia's. Then Cora and Kira join them, rising up to howl through the breakdown together.
gonna burn, burn together
burn me with the girl on fire
strike a match
strike a match
strike a match and light me up
light me up, Dido on fire
light me up
Into the silence that follows, Malia says, "Okay, we've definitely got to do that again."
At soundcheck for their Berkeley girl, a girl in a leopard mini-skirt and a Mudhoney shirt comes up to them and says shyly, "Can you sign my EP?"
Allison takes it from her, the record light in her hand, turns toward the band assembled behind her. Malia is adjusting the height on her cymbals, Kira is tuning up, Lydia's arguing about something with the sound guy. It's Cora who steps forward and says, "Of course. You got a sharpie?"
While Cora passes the record around the band, Allison finishes dealing with the spill of cables across the stage and hovers, awkward, at the threshold. She makes brief eye contact with their fan, glances away. It's weird to think about fans—they're just a bunch of kids playing for other kids. Even the records and cassettes Malia sells out of milk crates after the show feel like toys.
Cora brings Lydia back with her, holds the record out to Allison. "You should sign, too."
While Allison adds an incredulous scribble, Lydia crouches down before the girl at the front of the stage and holds out her arm, the one with the cast. "What's your name?"
"Brenda," the girl says.
"Okay, Brenda." Lydia turns her arm, exposing a sliver of bare space near her inner elbow. "Your turn." Brenda goes wide-eyed before she takes the marker from Allison to sign Lydia's cast, inking her name into the plaster.
Allison doesn't even realize she's staring until Cora puts a hand on her shoulder and Allison startles, catching herself with her left palm on the rough wood floor. "Come on," Cora says. "Let's—" She jerks her head toward the wings.
In a daze, Allison follows her, worrying her palm, checking for splinters. It's just scraped, but it's going to hurt tonight. At least it's not the hand that'll be dancing over the strings. "What was that all about?" she says softly as she steps out into the alley behind the venue.
"What?" Cora raises her eyebrows. "You're part of the band. You can sign stuff."
Allison shakes her head, presses her thumb into the meat of her palm, right where it hurts. "Lydia's not—nice."
Cora huffs. "What else does Lydia have on that cast?"
Hearts and stars. Poetry in a language and handwriting that Allison doesn't recognize. The press of Erica's lips, mimicked in marker. QUEEN LYDIA. "Oh," Allison says.
"Lydia's mean to people she cares about," Cora says. "You know that."
They play in San Francisco the next night, a packed dive near USF that reeks of pot and stale beer. Malia and Kira split a joint before the show, but Allison begs off. She's felt unsettled and nervy ever since last night, watching Lydia on stage. Really watching her.
As ever, Lydia's made-up to the nines, even though the rest of the band is dressed for maximum comfort and utility. In concession to the cool San Francisco summer, Allison layered a leather jacket over her tank top, but she takes it off before they go on stage so she doesn't melt alive. Malia has stripped down to a bra and shorts, Kira's wearing a kilt and a faded Dukakis shirt, and Cora's in jeans and a workout shirt that's cut low enough on the sides to expose her sports bra. Lydia outshines them all in a Betsey Johnson minidress with fishnets and teal combat boots.
Malia opens the show with a drum solo, a deliberate 1-2 1-2 that explodes into a frenetic backbeat. Allison jumps in next, launching into the three chords that open the first song on their set list; she waits for Kira and Cora to come in before she starts with the melody. Finally, Lydia comes in with a high shriek that turns into the wail of the verse:
I'm so hot, you wanna get naked
I'm so hot, you wanna just take me
Get all my clothes off
Get on the floor now
"Wanna" is the operative word
My body's not self-serve
Wanna wanna wanna get what you want
Not your all-you-can-fuck restaurant
Her whole body trembles with the force of her voice, her accusing glare leveled on the crowd before her. This is Queen Lydia in all her wrath and glory, the inverse of the benevolent monarch who knelt before Brenda, strategically vulnerable, deliberately exposed. This is the Lydia Allison loves. She loves Lydia's anger and her passion; she loves the way Lydia lights up with it on stage. Lydia's a Venus, a goddess, a planet pulling them all into her gravitational orbit, and no matter how much time has passed, Allison will still gladly go.
After the show, they cram themselves and their gear back into the van and Kira drives them back across the bridge for one last night at her parents' house before they head north to Eugene. "That was amazing," she says. "We had such good energy."
"Duh, we're great," Malia says. She cranks the volume on the worn cassette of Under the Big Black Sun as they drive past Treasure Island on the Bay Bridge. Allison is sitting in the back next to Cora, who has her arm around Lydia's shoulders. Lydia dozes, unfazed, while John and Exene scream, I AM THE HUNGRY WOLF AND RUN ENDLESSLY WITH MY MATE. Allison is still wound up, stage adrenaline running through her veins. She could play all night.
Instead, they go home and pair off, Kira and Malia giggling in Kira's room, Lydia and Cora in the guest room across the hall. Allison's getting ready to bunk down in the office when someone knocks on the door. "Allison?" It's Cora.
Allison yawns, opens the door. "What's up?"
Cora's dressed for bed, her hair loose around her shoulders, brows drawn together. "Can we talk?"
"Sure," Allison says. "About what?"
There's a long moment when she sees it coming, as Cora puts her hands on Allison's shoulders and tugs her down so their mouths can meet. Allison's expecting it and she's not. Cora's small, like Lydia, and she tastes like minty toothpaste; she closes her eyes when they kiss, lashes fluttering.
Allison pulls back after a moment and says, "But—Lydia?"
"Well, yeah," Cora says, which is when Allison gets it.
Lydia is lying on the plush comforter of the guest bedroom, heels kicked off, still in her fishnets and underwear. She looks up at Allison when she enters the room and flushes. Behind them, Cora shuts and locks the door. The room feels too quiet until Lydia says, "I didn't think you'd come."
"Cora invited me." Allison sits on the edge of the bed. Cora's been the one inviting her the whole way—on tour, into the band, into Lydia's bed. Their shared bed. She glances at Cora.
Cora shrugs. "I like making her happy, so sue me."
"Me, too," Allison says. "I bet we'll make a great team."
"You'd better," Lydia says.
Allison puts her hand on Lydia's calf, runs her hand over net and soft skin down to Lydia's ankle. "Is that right, Your Highness?"
They do, in fact, make a great team.
"I'm putting on Revolution Girl Style Now! again and you can't stop me," Lydia says as she climbs into the passenger seat of the van. They're getting ready to head out of Eugene, more-or-less fresh from a night on the show organizer's floor, and up to Portland where they're playing a club and a house show back-to-back. Lydia has a dark bruise on her neck that Allison put there, she's wearing one of Cora's shirts, and Malia's scribbled a poem onto the last open space on her cast.
Allison can't stop smiling. "Only if we listen to the Go-Gos after."
"The Go-Gos?" Lydia says.
From the back seat, Malia says, "Yeah, okay," and Kira adds, "If you put on 'We Got the Beat'."
Cora says, "Fine by me," and slams shut the back doors of the van.
Lydia slouches down in her seat. "Plebes."
"And you like it," says Allison.