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  • Published: 16 April 2019
  • ISBN: 9780099589969
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $19.99

The Mars Room



Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays. Once a week the defining moment for sixty women takes place. For some of the sixty, that defining moment happens over and over. For them it is routine. For me it happened only once. I was woken at two a.m. and shackled and counted, Romy Leslie Hall, inmate W314159, and lined up with the others for an all-night ride up the valley.

As our bus exited the jail perimeter, I glued myself to the mesh-reinforced window to try to see the world. There wasn’t much to look at. Underpasses and on-ramps, dark, deserted boulevards. No one was on the street. We were passing through a moment in the night so remote that traffic lights had ceased to go from green to red and merely blinked a constant yellow. Another car came alongside. It had no lights. It surged past the bus, a dark thing with demonic energy. There was a girl on my unit in county who got life for nothing but driving. She wasn’t the shooter, she would tell anyone who’d listen. She wasn’t the shooter. All she did was drive the car. That was it. They’d used license plate reader technology. They had it on video surveillance. What they had was an image of the car, at night, moving along a street, first with lights on, then with lights off. If the driver cuts the lights, that is premeditation. If the driver cuts the lights, it’s murder.

They were moving us at that hour for a reason, for many reasons. If they could have shot us to the prison in a capsule they would have. Anything to shield the regular people from having to look at us, a crew of cuffed and chained women on a sheriff’s department bus.

Some of the younger ones were whimpering and sniffling as we pulled onto the highway. There was a girl in a cage who looked about eight months pregnant, her belly so large they had to get an extra length of waist chain to shackle her hands to her sides. She hiccupped and shook, her face a mess of tears. They had her in the cage on account of her age, to protect her from the rest of us. She was fifteen.

A woman up ahead turned toward the crying girl in the cage and hissed like she was spraying ant killer. When that didn’t work she yelled.

“Shut the hell up!”

“Dang,” the person across from me said. I’m from San Francisco and a trans to me is nothing new, but this person truly looked like a man. Shoulders as broad as the aisle, and a jawline beard. I assumed she was from the daddy tank at county, where they put the butches. This was Conan, who later I got to know.

“Dang, I mean, it’s a kid. Let her cry.”

The woman told Conan to shut up and then they were arguing and the cops intervened.

Certain women in jail and prison make rules for everyone else, and the woman insisting on quiet was one of those. If you follow their rules, they make more rules. You have to fight people or you end up with nothing.

I had learned already not to cry. Two years earlier, when I was arrested, I cried uncontrollably. My life was over and I knew it was over. It was my first night in jail and I kept hoping the dreamlike state of my situation would break, that I would wake up from it. I kept on not waking up into anything different from a piss-smelling mattress and slamming doors, shouting lunatics and alarms. The girl in the cell with me, who was not a lunatic, shook me roughly to get my attention. I looked up. She turned around and lifted her jail shirt to show me her low back tattoo, her tramp stamp. It said

Shut the Fuck Up

It worked on me. I stopped crying.

It was a gentle moment with my cellmate in county. She wanted to help me. It’s not everyone who can shut the fuck up, and although I tried I was not my cellmate, who I later considered a kind of saint. Not for the tattoo but the loyalty to the mandate.

The cops had put me with another white woman on the bus. My seatmate had long limp and shiny brown hair and a big creepy smile like she was advertising for tooth whitener. Few in jail and prison have white teeth, and neither did she, but she had that grand and inappropriate grin. I didn’t like it. It made her seem like she had undergone partial brain removal surgery. She offered her full name, Laura Lipp, and said she was being transferred from Chino up to Stanville, as if we each had nothing to hide. Since then, no one has ever introduced themselves to me by full name, or attempted to give any believable-seeming account of who they are on a first introduction, and no one would, and I don’t, either.

“Lipp double p is my stepfather’s name, which I took later,” she said as if I’d inquired. As if such a thing could matter to me, then or ever.

“My father-father was a Culpepper. That’s the Culpeppers of Apple Valley, not Victorville. There’s a Culpepper’s shoe repair, see, in Victorville, but there’s no relation.”

No one is supposed to talk on the bus. This rule did not stop her.

“My family goes back three generations in Apple Valley. Which sounds like a wonderful place, doesn’t it? You can practically smell the apple blossoms and hear the honeybees and it makes you think about fresh apple cider and warm apple pie. The autumn decorations they start putting up every July at Craft Cubby, bright leaves and plastic pumpkins: it is mostly the baking and preparing of meth that is traditional in Apple Valley. Not in my family. Don’t want to give you the wrong impression. The Culpeppers are useful people. My father owned his own construction business. Not like the family I married into, who—Oh! Oh look! It’s Magic Mountain!”

We were passing the white arcs of a roller coaster on the far side of the big multi-lane freeway.

When I’d moved to Los Angeles three years earlier, that amusement park had seemed like the gateway to my new life. It was the first big vision off the freeway hurtling south, bright and ugly and exciting, but that no longer mattered.

“There was a lady on my unit who stole children at Magic Mountain,” Laura Lipp said, “she and her sicko husband.”

She had a way of flipping her shiny sheet of hair without using her arms, as if the hair were attached to the rest of her by an electrical current.

“She told me how they did it. People trusted her and her husband because they were old. You know, sweet gentle elderly people, and a mother might have children running in three directions and go off to chase one and the old lady—I bunked with her at CIW and she told me the whole story—she would be sitting there knitting and offer to keep an eye on the child. As soon as the parent was out of sight, this child was escorted to a bathroom with a knife under his chin. This old lady and her husband had a system worked out. The kid was fitted with a wig, different clothes, and then that sneaky old couple muscled the poor thing out of the park.”

“That’s horrible,” I said, and tried to lean away from her as best I could in my chains.

I have a child of my own, Jackson.

I love my son but it’s hard for me to think about him. I try not to.

My mother named me after a German actress who told a bank robber on a television talk show that she liked him a lot.

Very much, the actress said, I like you very much.

Like the German actress, he was on the talk show to be interviewed. Interviewees did not generally cross talk, while sitting on the chairs to the left of the interviewer’s desk. They moved outward as the show progressed.

You start outward, some prick had said to me once about silverware. It wasn’t a thing I’d ever learned, or been taught. He was paying me for the date with him, and in this exchange he felt he didn’t get his money’s worth unless he found small ways to try to humiliate me over the course of the evening. Leaving his hotel room that night, I took a shopping bag that was by the door. He didn’t notice, figured he was off-duty from the vigilance of demeaning me and could luxuriate in the hotel bed. The bag was from Saks Fifth Avenue and contained many other bags, all with presents for a woman, I assumed his wife. Dowdy and expensive clothes I would never wear. I carried the bag through the lobby and shoved it in a trash can on the way to my car, which I’d parked several blocks away, in a garage on Mission, because I didn’t want this guy to know anything about me.

The outward chair of the TV show’s set held a bank robber who was on the show to talk about his past, and the German movie actress was on next and she turned to the bank robber and told him that she liked him.

My mother named me after this actress, who spoke to the bank robber instead of to the host.

I think he enjoyed that I stole the shopping bag. He wanted to see me regularly after that. He was looking for the girlfriend experience and a lot of women I knew considered that the gold standard: these men would pay a year’s worth of rent, up front; all you needed was one of them and you were set. I’d gone on the date because my old friend Eva had convinced me to. Sometimes what other people want is wantable, briefly, before dissolving in the face of your own wants. That night, while this square from Silicon Valley pretended we had a complicity like lovers, which meant treating me like trash, telling me I was pretty in a “common” sort of way, using his money to try to have power over me socially, like this was a relationship but since he was paying for it we would interact on his terms, and he could tell me what to say, how to walk, what to order, which fork to use, what to fake like I enjoyed—I realized that the girlfriend experience was not my thing. I would stick to hustling my income as a lap dancer at the Mars Room on Market Street. I didn’t care what was honest work, only what wasn’t repulsive to me. I knew from lap dancing that grinding was easier than talking. Everyone is different when it comes to personal standards and what they can offer. I cannot pretend to be friends. I didn’t want anyone getting to know me, although there were a couple of guys I gave crumbs to. Jimmy the Beard, the doorman, who required only that I pretend his sadistic sense of humor was normal. And Dart, the night manager, because we were both into classic cars and he was always saying he wanted to take me to Hot August Nights, in Reno. It was just banter, and he was just the night manager. Hot August Nights. It wasn’t my kind of car event. I went to the Sonoma dirt track with Jimmy Darling, ate hot dogs and drank draft beer as sprint cars chipped mud against the chain link.

Some girls at the Mars Room wanted regulars and were always looking to cultivate them. I didn’t, but I ended up with one anyway, Kurt Kennedy. Creep Kennedy.

I sometimes think San Francisco is cursed. I mostly think it’s a sad suckville of a place. People say it’s beautiful, but the beauty is only visible to newcomers, and invisible to those who had to grow up there. Like the glimpses of blue bay through the breezeways along the street that wraps around the back of Buena Vista Park. Later, from prison, I could see that view like I was ghost-walking around the city. House by house, I looked at all there was to see, pressed my face to the breezeway gates of the Victorians along the eastern ridge of Buena Vista Park, the blue of the water softened by the faintest residue of fog, a kiss of moisture, a glow. I did not admire those views when I was free. Growing up, that park was a place where we drank. Where older men cruised, and snuck off to mattresses hidden under bushes. Where boys I knew beat up those men who cruised, and threw one off a cliff after he’d bought them a case of beer.

On Tenth Avenue at Moraga, where I had lived with my mother when I was a kid, you could see Golden Gate Park, then the Presidio, the matte red points of the Golden Gate Bridge, and behind it the steep, green-crinkled folds of the Marin Headlands. I knew that for everyone else in the world the Golden Gate Bridge was considered something special, but to me and my friends it was nothing. We just wanted to get wasted. The city to us was clammy fingers of fog working their way into our clothes, always those clammy fingers, and big bluffs of wet mist hurling themselves down Judah Street while I waited by sandy streetcar tracks for the N, which ran once an hour late-night, waited and waited with mud caked on the hems of my jeans, mud from the puddles in the parking lot of Ocean Beach. Or mud from climbing Acid Mountain on acid, which was what Acid Mountain was for. The bad feeling of extra weight tugging me downward, from the mud caked on my jean hems. The bad feeling from doing cocaine with strangers in a motel in Colma, by the cemetery. The city was wet feet and soggy cigarettes at a rainy kegger in the Grove. The rain and beer and bloody fights on St. Patrick’s Day. Being sick from Bacardi 151 and splitting my chin open on a concrete barrier in Minipark. Someone overdosing in a bedroom in the white people projects on the Great Highway. Someone holding a loaded gun to my head for no reason in Big Rec, where people play baseball in the park. It was night, and this psycho attached himself to us while we were sitting and drinking our forties, a situation so typical, even if it never happened again, that I don’t recall how it resolved itself. San Francisco to me was the McGoldricks and the McKittricks and the Boyles and the O’Boils and the Hicks and the Hickeys and their Erin go bragh tattoos, the fights they started and won.

Our bus moved into the right lane and began to slow. We were getting off at the Magic Mountain exit.

“They taking us on rides?” Conan asked. “That would be dope.”

Magic Mountain was left, across the freeway. Right was a men’s county correctional facility. Our bus turned right.

The world had split into good and bad, bound together. Amusement park and county jail.

“It’s cool,” Conan said. “Wasn’t really up for it. Tickets hella expensive. Rather go back to the big O. Or-lan-do.”

“Listen to this fool,” someone said. “You ain’t been to no Orlando.”

“I dropped twenty G there,” Conan said. “In three days. Brought my girl. Her kids. Jacuzzi suite. All-access pass. Alligator steaks. Orlando is dope. A lot doper than this bus, that’s for sure.”

“Thought they were taking you to Magic Mountain,” the woman in front of Conan said. “Stupid motherfucker.” She had a face full of tattoos.

“Dang, you got a lot of ink. Just looking at this group of us here I’m voting you Most Likely to Succeed.”

She clucked and turned away.

What I eventually came to understand, about San Francisco, was that I was immersed in beauty and barred from seeing it. Still, I never could bring myself to leave, not until my regular customer Kurt Kennedy forced me to, but the curse of the city followed me. In other ways she was a miserable person, this actress after whom I am named. Her son climbed a fence and cut a leg artery and died at fourteen, and then she drank continuously until dying herself at forty-three.

I’m twenty-nine. Fourteen years is forever, if that’s what I have to live. In any case, it’s more than twice that—thirty-seven years—before I will see a parole board, at which point, if they grant me it, I can start my second life sentence. I have two consecutive life sentences plus six years.

I don’t plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not, until you don’t exist, and then your plans are meaningless.

But not having plans doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets.

If I had never worked at the Mars Room.

If I had never met Creep Kennedy.

If Creep Kennedy had not decided to stalk me.

But he did decide to, and then he did it relentlessly. If none of that had happened, I would not be on a bus heading for a life in a concrete slot.

The Mars Room Rachel Kushner

From the author of internationally acclaimed The Flamethrowers – a fearless and heartbreaking novel about love, friendship and incarceration.

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