I didn’t have Margot’s number or even know where she lived anymore. But ever since I’d heard that she’d formed her own band, I’d been keeping tabs on her, waiting for the first chance to see them perform.
Now I stood waiting in a cramped club, my body pressed against an empty stage encased by Marshall stacks that were pulsing with the Velvet Underground. A single spotlight cut through the darkness, then dimmed to blackness, and the volume lowered until the room filled instead with the sounds of voices and glasses clinking. An electric rumbling became audible as red lights revealed two people, all in black, droning on a bass and synthesizer. Then the spotlight came up again, and she emerged, stepping into the beam of light. Standing tall only a few feet away, Margot appeared to have grown. In tall heels, with a black rectangle of hair pointing skyward, she resembled a pillar, capable of lifting the ceiling. A dramatic swing of her arm made her guitar puncture the wall of sound behind her. The instrument screeched and reverberated, and she opened her mouth wide. Her voice boomed out rhythmically, like an elegant hammer, weaving around the guitars.
I knew Margot had moved in with her boyfriend/bandmate, and I imagined them in the East Village or Soho. I’d read that his name was Snook. Whenever I walked out of the Cooper Union building onto Astor Place or wandered down St. Mark’s, I looked for her. I assumed I’d run into her on the same streets where we’d spent countless nights outside CBGB or the Mudd Club, when punk rock was still new and threatening. But I never saw her.
My hand shook slightly as I angled my camera so that she filled the viewfinder. Being so close after all this time was unnerving. In her black dress, with its big square sleeves, Margot’s movements were mechanical but smooth. Her dress created different shapes with every gesture she made—slowly lifting one knee or pointing the opposite elbow—and all the time she bellowed steadily into the microphone. She would tilt her head, changing the angle between phrases, while remaining in a static spotlight that caught the texture of her pancake makeup.
I’d never be able to capture her presence on film. There was some Kate Bush, some Lydia Lunch, and some Siouxsie in what she was doing, but Margot’s persona was unique. Like those icons, her confidence was soaring and electric. But her robotic tone, abstract words, and controlled movements were unlike anything I’d seen before. She was not Margot. She’d transformed herself into a circuit, bringing all the sound and energy of the hardened city through her and out to us.
I lowered my camera. I hadn’t come to take pictures, and the sound working through her expanded beyond a squared-off view. I let the camera hang off my shoulder and stepped back from the stage, deciding to take in the performance from further away.
Margot flicked an eye at me then, and my breath caught. She knew me well enough to pick me out of a crowd just by the way I moved. I imagined her eyes on me as I walked to an empty seat at the bar. The audience remained in a trance—a devoted crowd moving to the music, tightly hugging the stage.
In all the hours we’d spent screaming at bands and bouncing our bodies in dark clubs, I’d never once aspired to be on stage, and I’d never asked if she did. How could there be so much of her I hadn’t known about? We’d met during the worst summer of my life, and I’d latched onto her like a little crab, clinging for safety. I didn’t know how I’d managed to ruin it, only that I had.
So slowly that it was hard to notice the change, the band quieted down until at last Margot was just mumbling over a simple bass-line. When she eventually said “Thank you” into the microphone, it was jarring to hear her say something comprehensible. I clapped as loud as I could even after she climbed off stage, still in character.
The lights came up abruptly amid the furious applause. There would be no encore. How could there be? They’d performed one nonstop soundscape for what felt like thirty or forty minutes. She must’ve been tired, but if she was it didn’t show.
I waited alone at the bar, not knowing how long I’d stay. She’d seen me, so I couldn’t just leave, though I wouldn’t put it past her to exit out the back. I listened to the people around me talk about the show as “mind-blowing” and “beyond post-punk,” whatever that meant.
I’d emptied a second glass of water by the time Margot finally appeared, strutting toward me in electric-blue pleated trousers and a black tuxedo jacket. She’d hidden her radical hair under a bruised porkpie hat and changed her makeup to look glamorous rather than severe and ghostly. No one recognized her as she crossed the dingy floor and walked straight toward me.
“What are you having?” I yelled over the Cure song playing now, before she’d even reached the space next to me at the bar.
She looked at me with disbelief. “Have you already forgotten what I drink?” That lovely accent. The downward lilt at the end of the question still killed me.
I flagged the bartender and ordered two vodka tonics.
Margot looked around at the crowd until he put our drinks on the bar. She was waiting for me to say something, but I saw boredom in her eyes, a wariness that told me she was ready to move on.
“Your show was incredible,” I said. If I wasn’t her friend anymore, I could at least be a fan. Trying to make even that much of a connection while she kept her distance felt pathetic, but I had to say something. And she should know how amazing she was. “I had no idea you could…do that.”
Margot shrugged. “It’s not hard. Just takes a bit of discipline. And practice.”
She tapped a cigarette out of a new pack and lit it with a rhinestone-encrusted lighter. Then she blew a plume of smoke over my head and said, “Hell, if I can make music, anyone can.” When she took a big slug from her glass, I saw a slackness to her mouth, almost a frown.
That had always been my problem. I’d imagined that being Margot was easy.
“Thank you,” I said. I hadn’t planned to say it.
“For what?” She passed me her cigarette, the way she used to when we could only bum and share them.
I took one drag and passed it back. “I honestly don’t know where I’d be if you hadn’t shown up when you did.”
She stuck her tongue out. I was embarrassing her.
Snook—I assumed it was him—appeared at her shoulder and bent to whisper in her ear. Immediately Margot brightened and walked away, leaving her drink on the bar and her cigarette burning in the ashes.
It took me a minute to realize she wasn’t coming back.
A great black curtain came down and stole all the light.
The hum of the fan by my bed disappeared, but the blades kept spinning in the dark, slowing in silence to a stop. The sudden quiet—no faint voices from the TV downstairs or music from an open window next door—added to the strange stillness that seeped through all four stories of the house.
I pressed my feet to the wood floor. Even that was warm.
“Val?” I heard my voice call, too slow and heavy.
Evening had not brought relief from the cruel heat we’d been suffering for days. I needed my fan. I moved to the window, hoping for a breeze and trying not to stumble over sneakers and clothes in the dark. The numbness that had arrived yesterday—was it only yesterday?—came with me. It kept me at a distance from my senses, as if some barrier, a density like water, were trying to protect me. The heavy humid air in the room only added to the feeling.
My door creaked open. “The power’s out,” Val said, matter-of-factly. My eyes couldn’t make out her long face or waves of hair.
I turned to the window, slow to understand how Manhattan had disappeared—as if a giant had plucked the whole island out of the river by its pointed skyscrapers.
“It’s not just us,” I said, as a few lights blinked on in rows along the tall columns of the World Trade Center. I could hear Val behind me, moving across my bedroom, and pulled my knees in tight, making room for her on the window seat.
The only other lights I could see were on a tugboat, pushing a barge downriver, and two Staten Island ferries passing each other in the harbor. Did the people driving the boats see all the darkened buildings around them?
Val took a quick breath when she saw the scene. We sat in silence, staring at all the nothing, slowly adjusting to the vague outlines of the Promenade below and the black water swirling between us and Manhattan. A crescent moon poked out briefly from behind heavy clouds, then retreated to a dim glowing smile.
My sister sighed, but still neither of us offered up words. We’d had all the language pulled from us yesterday. We could only feel the raw void, sickening and unknown. She squeezed my arm, then let go.
I sensed her need to do something. She’d always been the strong one, the one who didn’t flinch. I’d been able to ask her things that I wouldn’t ask our parents. She knew when they’d had a fight; she knew how much money Dad made. But I couldn’t talk to her about the numb feeling enveloping me or even think about yesterday, already a black hole in my memory banks, threatening to suck me in.
“Let’s find Dad,” Val said, moving away from the window. I was happy to follow her direction as I always had, until recently.
Recently. What a strange concept that was. I struggled to look back now on the last few weeks and months—as if a chasm, wide as the Grand Canyon, stood between the way things were before and the way they would be now. After.
We heard the splintered ring of glass breaking, then Dad’s steps echoing up the three flights of stairs. I followed Val’s faint shadow and reached for the banister. The shape of it made sense in my hand. I heard the broom—swish, tinkle, swish—against the hardwood floor. The fragility of wine glasses; how easily they slipped out of soapy hands to shatter in the sink. I’d hidden those accidents lately, knowing Dad would lose his temper. This time he’d been the careless one.
The whole house felt fragile. On a block of stately brownstones, ours was the smallest— only four stories instead of five. Like the others, it was shaped like a shoebox with windows on either end and a staircase up the middle. Val had once pointed out that ours was the only house on the block that wasn’t divided into apartments. We had the whole thing, which made me think we were special. Now the dark hallways enveloped us and the floors creaked noisily. Would this old house be too much for just the three of us?
I kept my hand on the banister, letting the smooth wood guide me through the pitch blackness, past Dad’s study and our parents’ bedroom, both too dark to see. I followed Val down another flight to the main floor, where I could just make out the faint shape of Dad’s body hunched, sweeping.
“It’s just a power failure. You girls all right?” His chipper tone rang false, and we didn’t answer him. “Don’t come down here until I get every bit of this cleaned up.” His voice turned impatient, quick. “I bumped the wall with my drink,” he added, his voice fading as he walked back to the kitchen with the dustbin and the broom. “Stupid.”
His hurried movements sent ripples through the murky, humid stillness. What was he rushing for?
Val and I waited on the last steps to be told we could move, as if we were small children. His sharp tone made us behave obediently, without objection.
A white flash jabbed the wall, and automatically I raised my hand to block it. “There,” Dad said, with the triumphant sigh of a small problem solved. He was barely visible behind the star of light in his hand. “I’m going downstairs to see what happened.”
At the far end of the bottom floor, near the water heater and behind the laundry and darkroom, the old circuit breakers lived among spiderwebs and peeling paint. The bottom floor was also called the garden level because it had doors that opened onto an overgrown square of greenery facing the Promenade.
“It seems like it’s the whole city,” Val said.
A siren wailed outside, far away. Dad looked at the frosted glass in the front door, his head tilted like a puppy. As if he didn’t believe her, he opened it to see for himself.
Val shook her head, and I thought we might, momentarily at least, be united against him. Normally she sided with Dad. I got in trouble more often—I was the one who hadn’t helped out enough when it became our job to do all the cooking and grocery shopping. But I did my part. They just didn’t always see it.
The street outside looked strange without street lamps or the lit-up windows of the apartment building across the street. The faint outlines of bodies holding flashlights shuffled toward the Promenade, where people often flocked when something happened, hoping for a better view. From the top of our stoop, the three of us stood watching the crowd move along the sidewalk. People whispered. Some laughed. Why would a blackout make people happy? Over the mumbling shadows came the soft sounds of a disco hit, getting louder: Don’t leave me this way. I saw someone swinging a large radio, bigger than a TV. I can’t survive, can’t stay alive, without your love… A few people started moving to the beat, side-stepping as they walked in the sludgy heat. I felt a crack in the mystifying pressure around me, a spark igniting. My heartbeat quickened.
“Dad, you need to look out the windows in the den.”
The den was a cozy room at the back of the house off the kitchen, overlooking the Promenade. It was also where we watched TV.
“All right.” He closed the heavy front door with a thud, the frosted window adding its distinctive ping to the familiar sound. Then he followed me and Val past the stairs on the left, down the hallway where the old family photos hung. Their surfaces glinted in the beam of his flashlight. We walked through the kitchen, and my hand instinctively flipped the light switch. Val shook her head, and an embarrassed chuckle escaped from me. Could I still laugh?
In the den we watched Dad survey the world turned black, his rounded shoulders silhouetted against the growing crowd of flashlights on the Promenade. The Manhattan skyline, stripped of its glittering glamor, was breathtaking. It punctured our speechlessness. The disruption outside promised a break, a vacation from the disorienting tidal wave we were swimming in. The whole gigantic city, now that it was a powerless, sorry collection of dark buildings, held the distinct whiff of possibility. I didn’t want anyone to fix it. I wanted this to last, for the darkness to cover everyone, not just us. A blanket. A blackout. A crack.
“Well. That is something,” Dad said, turning his flashlight and moving toward the kitchen. I heard Max’s warbly squawk. How could Dad already have had enough of this new Manhattan?
“Here you go, Max,” Dad cooed to his parakeet. Seeds tinkled into the metal dish. “You know, I never thought this would happen again,” he shouted to me and Val. Clearly his habit of leaving the room and then yelling to us hadn’t changed.
I stayed at the window, watching the growing parade of shadows gather on the walkway outside.
“This happened before?” Val asked, joining Dad in the kitchen.
“Yes. Just a few years ago.” He told us about the earlier blackout and how Con Ed, the power company, had promised it would never happen again. His chipper, know-it-all tone annoyed me. How could he and Val talk about the past when this was happening now?
I pushed the gold ring around my finger. The diamond swung down so that I had to persuade it back up with my pinky. I wasn’t used to wearing such a fancy ring. Val had chosen the plain gold band.
My mind flashed to her, downstairs, where she’d insisted that we move her when the stairs became too hard to manage. We’d moved skis and bikes so she could see green from the rented hospital bed. Just a week before, she’d made me take the ring. I did so only because she wanted me to have it, not because I wanted it.
Then it hit me again—a punch in the stomach. She’s gone.
I must have been staring out the window in the den for a while because, when the doorbell’s frazzled ring brought me back, one foot was asleep. I stomped it against the floor, ignoring the needle-sharp pain of nerves waking up. Did the doorbell operate without electricity? Was there an actual bell somewhere, hidden behind the ornate mirror in the entryway? I’d never thought about the doorbell before.
“Everyone surviving all right?” Jean’s voice rang through the main floor. She’d been a singer in college, leading an a capella group at Wellesley, and she still sort of sang even when she talked. She lived across the street and had been Mom’s best friend—more like an aunt than a neighbor.
“I didn’t know what to do with it,” I heard her say from the kitchen, as something heavy banged on the butcherblock counter. “I made this casserole for tomorrow, but I’m afraid it won’t survive this heat.”
Carl, Jean’s son, stood in the doorway of the den. Val was stooping over the coffee table with a long match, lighting a cluster of candles she’d pulled from a drawer. The yellow light lit up Carl’s shoulder-length, sun-bleached hair. I waited for him to say something, maybe offer up a comment about the nonexistent skyline, but it seemed that only the adults were capable of pretending things were fine. Instead he respected my silence, nodding to me with a half-smile as he tucked a strand of hair behind his ear.
I heard Dad say we’d already eaten. Of course we had; it was almost ten o’clock. And other neighbors had also dropped off bags of food. I’d avoided answering the door, hating the feeling of receiving charity. Their pity stuck to my skin like a bad smell. A steady stream of lasagnas and roast chickens had been arriving for the last week or two, but yesterday’s news had brought an onslaught, which now overwhelmed the powerless refrigerator.
I hadn’t eaten all day. At least, I couldn’t remember eating. I couldn’t remember doing anything. My stomach felt cold, while the rest of me was slick with sweat. As Dad fussed over keeping things cool, I smiled at the image of all that food rotting in the fridge. The decay of everyone’s good intentions.
I turned back to the window to see how many more people had gathered on the Promenade. Carl kneeled on the cushion next to me, and my knees slipped against the leather. “Weird, huh?” I mumbled. Carl nodded.
“Val, help me get the cooler,” Dad said. Then came the sound of a stool moving to the cupboard, and Dad climbing up. “Of course the stores won’t have ice,” he said, sounding defeated.
Jean laughed. “Yes, they will. The deli is probably giving it away. Why don’t you and Carl go get some before it’s all gone?” Jean was the only person who could laugh at my father without making him mad.
Carl slid off the couch and followed Dad to the front door. Dad tried to be like a father to him, and I sometimes wondered if Carl appreciated it or was just too polite to object.
When they were gone I heard the muted pop of wine being uncorked. “Where’s Alison?” Jean asked.
“In the den,” Val said.
Jean’s silhouette appeared in the doorway; in the candlelight I recognized the pattern of one of her Indian print skirts—little black and brown diamond shapes. “Probably not the best idea,” she said, offering me a glass with an inch of wine in it, “but what the hell?”
I took a small sip and sloshed it around in my mouth, strange and bitter. Nothing tasted right; that must have been why I didn’t want to eat. I put the glass down on the table and watched Jean take a few fast sips from hers.
“How ya doin’, Alison?” she asked, but I had no answer. I hoped she could see that, without my having to look at her.
She sat down next to me and rubbed my back. I liked Jean, probably even loved her. But I wanted her hand off my back. The black hole loomed so dangerously close that it put me on edge. I wanted to slide away, slip outside.
Val came in with a glass of wine and sat tall and straight in the hard-backed chair in the corner.
Jean sighed. “You girls will be all right.” Her eyes glistened in the candlelight. I could just make out the freckles on her nose.
I remembered the three of us sitting on the couch in Jean’s apartment the day before. The phone ringing and Dad on the other end. Studying Jean’s face for clues. Seeing her emotions work through her broad mouth, ripple up her cheeks to her eyebrows, her eyes. The hollow feeling that grew in my chest.
I shook my head and looked at Jean’s face now, into her brown eyes. Jean looked back at me as if I were one of her kindergarten students, and I held her gaze like an anchor.
My mind slipped back to before. She was still downstairs, in the hospital bed. If I tried, I could imagine her silent presence in the house, the faint glow of her existence. She’s still here. She’ll be okay.
On a breezy September afternoon in 1978, I sat down on a stoop in Brooklyn with an idea. My mother had recently died of breast cancer, and I wanted to write about the experience of letting her go. It would be so cool, I thought, to write about it from a teenager’s perspective. On that promising fall day, I had little idea that “letting her go” would be the central theme of my life for decades to come. I made art about it. I did therapy around it. I tried to forget about it.
It was only many years later, watching my own young teenagers deal with hardship, that I began to write about my experience. I was encouraged when I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, because she described the long aftermath of adolescent grief so accurately. Instead of glossing over the main character’s emotional life, she highlighted his low self-esteem and reckless behavior, and the relentless muck of depression. It was refreshing to read an orphan’s story that was not a straight path to heroism.
My aim in SHATTERPROOF GLASS was to tell a similarly honest story about grief, friendship, and rebellion, but for a younger audience. I wanted to follow the main character, Alison, through the first two years of high school after her mother dies, with a glimpse ahead to her college years. I did not want to show her unrealistically bouncing back in a few months and finding happiness at the end.
For teens friends are critical, and Alison’s friend Margot is a big part of her story. Margot arrives with spiked hair and pegged pants, unafraid to stand out. Unlike Alison’s old friends, Margot doesn’t flinch at the mention of death. She’s tough and inspires Alison to take risks and have fun. She introduces Alison to the burgeoning punk clubs and record shops in downtown Manhattan, offering her an escape, an outlet for ugly feelings, and a new identity that Alison swallows whole.
I set the story in the late ’70s in order to show the roots of where we are now. As a society, we still struggle to consider grief in young people, but just a generation ago it often wasn’t even recognized. My aim was also to evoke the experience of freedom, to conjure the excitement of that time in rock history, along with the grubby edges of it. Alison’s rebellion is not just a messy way to get attention; it actually gives her the confidence she needs to take responsibility for her family, without making her a hero.
My purpose in writing SHATTERPROOF GLASS was to examine the long tail of my own grief while weaving together a realistic story about a family trying to pull itself back together. It’s not what really happened, but it’s what I would have wanted for my younger self.
Ann Faison was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived in Los Angeles since 1990. She received her MFA in Art and Music from CalArts in 1993. In 2011 she self-published Dancing with the Midwives: A Memoir of Art and Grief, about a stillbirth. SHATTERPROOF GLASS is her first novel.
Embark, Issue 17, October 2022