Tiffany Scandal’s Jigsaw Youth, out later this month on Ladybox Books, is the fragmented story of one woman’s life. Visceral and unpredictable, this book is a narrative that’s distinctively told, with many a nod to punk rock incorporated into the larger work. We’re pleased to present an excerpt from this book for your reading today.
Red Light Dancer
Onstage she was “Jackie-Oh!” (and yes, the exclamation point was necessary). Friends called her Jack or Jackie. But paperwork always had her as Lucy, a person that no longer resembled who she was, a girl from Charlottesville, Virginia. Lucy was the daughter of a child-diddling Baptist minister and a subservient, god-fearing mother. The stage’s red lights blurred any scarring or bruises you might otherwise have noticed. Jack didn’t like the red lights because they made her “look better,” but because they helped her continue to feel different. Because she could be flawless, there. She still got self-conscious when she was intimate with someone, something the wash of red inhibited. When Portishead’s “Wandering Star” began, she tuned everything out, mouthing the word “Power” to the rhythm of it. She ran away when she was fifteen because she was angry. It was easy to blame the things that happened at home. Her father often punished her for sinning, entering her room when the mother was out for groceries or in bed late at night, pressing the good book against young Lucy’s face with one hand while the other lifted her gown. That her mother called her “lies” the devil’s work, and accused her of trysts with neighborhood boys. But really, it was having a voice around no one that could hear it. Onstage, she was an idea that couldn’t be touched unless she let it. She’d stare men and women in the eye and dare them to look away. All this without saying anything. Jackie-Oh! was an athlete, working the pole with expert agility, spinning and dancing, walking upside down to the ceiling on the strength of her arms. When she slid back down, she hit the stage hard enough that everyone looked up. She teased what everyone had come to see, lowering and raising what little covered her, making them wait. Don’t call her a stripper, she didn’t dance; she was a performer.
Every now and then when she caught herself doing something Lucy would do, she told herself she was Jack. Most of the places she cut were covered in tattoos. This was someone else’s story now, she’d remind herself.
Jack had moved to Portland on a whim—she’d never been before.
She had divided what little she had on an Amtrak ticket and her wallet. Two hundred dollars to last her as long as it could, hopefully long enough to find work out there. When the countryside along the tracks began to change, she felt awe, never having left the eastern coast before.
She got a job as a social worker, at a residential facility for at-risk young women. She would teach them coping skills, something they’d never taught her at the church her father told the word. While the work was rewarding, she wasn’t making enough to support herself, even at fifty hours. After commiserating with people she’d met, and listing the things she was good at, she decided to audition at a couple clubs. As Lucy, she’d been pushed by her father to excel, at sports, at ballet. She’d been in beauty pageants at a very young age, her mother’s pride. An only child, she was both a son and a daughter. It took a few tries before she got offered the day shift, each time reworking her set, and she made more in four hours than she had in three days as a social worker, so she quit that job.
And like many who come to Portland, Jack was also an artist. She liked to deconstruct salvaged china dolls and old computer parts, make them into something new. For a while, she was dating the bassist of a well-known punk band. She’d picked up a few things, even got good at it. That’s actually how we met, when she answered an ad. I recognized her immediately. I’d seen her perform.
It wasn’t long before she got promoted to nights, weekends, and started to gain the attention of regulars with the exposure. They’d be there, always willing to pay for the show, even when she had sets at other clubs. What she made in a month at even her best paying job she started to make in a night. Somehow exposing your tits was more valuable than helping people in trouble. And she missed social work, because there was a satisfaction in making a difference for people whose stories were often too similar to hers.
I watched her move now, twisting glitter, the way stars move over time, thinking how she’d told me stripping made her more confident. How she loved to dance to songs by Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, whatever else. How she used to hate her body, thought her vagina was too big, her tits too small. And when she was a teenager she’d compare her body to naked women in movies and magazines. They were all so perfect it must have meant she was defective. But now she loved her “voluptuous labia” and “itty, bitty titties,” as she’d put it, in a way that sounded convincing enough to me.
A few days later, it was Christmas eve. The city was dormant, with so many transplants off for the holidays, and because she didn’t have a family to visit, and I couldn’t afford to leave, we decided to spend the holidays together. That whole thing about your friends being the family you get to choose. I found a shitty tree and some decorations at a Dollar Store, and she brought over treats and the supplies with which to decorate them. We listened to old mixtapes and burned through joints. We drew tits and dicks and cunts, and wrote words like “fuck” and “fart,” on the glass ball ornaments with glue pens and glitter. We started to kill a bottle of whiskey and talk about the band, scumbags we’d encountered, songs we wanted to write . . .
“I never got to tell him off.”
“My sperm donor.”
“I wanted to be something in spite of him.”
“But you are. You’re a well-known performer. You’re strong and independent. I admire the hell out of you.”
She started to blush.
“I wish I could move like you do.” I took another swig from the bottle.
Jack leaned in close, put her hand over mine as she grabbed for the whiskey. She took a swig inches from my face, and whispered, “I can teach you.”
We lit candles and set them around her in a circle, and turned off the lights. I was sitting on the floor, continuing to drink straight from the bottle. Jack fished a mixtape out of her bag that was decorated with rainbow stars and a unicorn. Put it in the cassette deck and rewound it. The song that came on was Babes In Toyland’s “Catatonic.” She started to dance, smiling at me, but the way she was looking it wasn’t empty—she saw me. Jack spun, bent down, fell, covering her face with her hair. Clawing at her clothes. Lit by fire, she looked like she was performing some lost, primitive ritual.
Blood was coming out of her nose. Jack noticed it the moment I did, feeling at her lips for whatever was so wet.
“I’ll get a towel.”
But it got thicker, the red.
She collapsed. I crawled desperately over to her, put a pillow under her head. Held her hand. She squeezed.
“Fuck . . .” She was terrified when she asked me what was happening to her, dazedly.
“I don’t know, I don’t know.”
I searched around for my phone on the floor, but couldn’t find it. My legs wanted to seize. I couldn’t find it. I found her phone; it was dead. I let go of her hand and got up to turn the lights back on. The keys to the Rambler were still in my coat. She said something to me, or maybe nobody, but it was so faint I didn’t quite understand it. I was thinking of the fastest way to the hospital. I was going to get help.
I dropped the keys.
But she wasn’t answering anymore.
“No, no, no, no, no . . .”
I held her hand in the middle of the circle.
I didn’t know what to do.
Eyes slightly open like she was sleepily looking up at me.
Blood starting to dry on the side of her face, where it’d run.
She was so still, she wasn’t breathing anymore.
I started to scream for help . . .
I spent Christmas day on the bank of the Willamette, watching the current. I hadn’t slept, because each time I closed my eyes, I saw her. I decided I wouldn’t yet tell the rest of the band, because they were home with their families, and I needed to hold onto the grief a little longer. I thought of Mensa. The things that happen around you, to you, and with that frequency, you’ve got to wonder if it’s somehow your fault. If you attract pain. I was drinking instant matcha I’d mixed into a thermos, shivering but not giving a shit. Hot breath drifting out of me like smoke. I didn’t even care that this was the end of the band.
I thought of Jack’s present, unopened at the base of the tree. An Elvis bust I’d found at a vintage shop in southeast. Above, the sparse holiday traffic on the Hawthorne bridge continued on, oblivious.
Jack had come a long distance, no closer to what she’d set out to do.
It made all that effort appear meaningless.
I skipped a rock over the water, holding in the feeling.
Wanting something tangible to hate and coming up with fuck-all.