This story is told through the voice of a young woman named Rhea. Late at night, Rhea, Scotty, Bennie, and Jocelyn go to Alice’s house. Alice tells the group about a private school where she went up until 6th grade. Her sisters still go there, and are required to wear uniforms. Scotty asks to see Alice’s sisters, so they go upstairs. Scotty and Bennie follow Alice. They both have a crush on Alice, though Bennie is entirely in love with her. Rhea has a crush on Scotty, but Alice loves Scotty. As they climb the stairs, Jocelyn tells Rhea that Alice’s sisters will be blond because rich children are always blond. In the room, as they look at Alice’s sleeping sisters, Rhea worries they will scare the children with their punk rock attire, which includes dog collars, safety pins, and shredded t-shirts.
This story involves the coming of age for these young characters. Alice’s innocent and sleeping younger sisters offer a contrast to the group of punk rockers, who are moving away from childhood. Rhea’s attention to the group’s triangulation of attraction and Jocelyn’s comment about Alice’s class shows the connections and disconnections within the group. Rhea’s fear around scaring the children suggests she is sympathetic to the young girls, and still tethered to that period of her life. Though she dons the appearance of an edgy punk rocker, she is stuck between the world of the young sisters and her life’s next stage.
The year is 1979, and Rhea is glad that the 1980s are almost here. She is sick of the burned out hippies that hang around San Francisco, where this story takes place. She enjoys punk rock music, and spends her time hanging out with Scotty and Bennie, who are in a punk rock band called the Flaming Dildos. At school, Rhea, Scotty, Bennie, and Jocelyn, hang out on a strip of pavement called “the pit” with the other punk rockers. Scotty plays a lap steel guitar he built by himself, and everyone listens to him. Scotty’s mother died three years prior from an overdose of sleeping pills, and he has gotten quieter since then.
These characters are strongly rooted in the popular culture of the late 1970s and seek to distinguish themselves from the last generation. They carve out their identities through their musical tastes, clothing, and territory (the pit). Scotty’s identity is exposed through his self-made guitar and magnetism. His character has also been shaped by the loss of his mother through a ruinous addiction to drugs.
Bennie is new to the school, and wears his hair in a Mohawk. Bennie is able to get along with the “cholos” (young Mexican Americans who dress in a particular style), who hang out down the path from the pit. Rhea wonders why the cholos talk to him, and Jocelyn tells her that Bennie is a cholo, too. Rhea explains the triangulations of love within the group: Rhea likes Bennie, but Bennie likes Alice, who likes Scotty. Scotty likes Jocelyn, and Jocelyn loves Scottie, but she isn’t in love with him. Jocelyn is seeing an older man named Lou, who picked her up hitchhiking.
Bennie expresses his punk identity through his Mohawk, though he is able to switch roles and interact with people from other groups (the cholos) as well, and it’s implied that Bennie himself is Latino. Rhea, who and imagines identity as a fixed component of an individual, struggles to understand how he navigates between the two groups. Again, Rhea mentions the connections and disconnections within the group, but this time she reveals her own attraction to Bennie. She laments the fact that Bennie is not attracted to her, which serves as a source of anxiety for her character.
Rhea notes that nobody in the group wants to date her. She blames this on her freckles, which she plans to remove when she can pay for it herself. Until then, she has her dog collar and dyes her hair green to draw attention away from the freckles. She feels ugly in comparison to Jocelyn, whom she thinks is beautiful. They have done everything together since fourth grade. Jocelyn has seen Rhea’s dad drunk, puking in the buses, and Rhea has seen Jocelyn’s dad hugging a male prostitute before her parents divorced. Despite these intimacies, Rhea missed the day Jocelyn met Lou while hitchhiking. Lou, a powerful record executive, snorted lines of cocaine off of Jocelyn’s bare butt, and they had sex twice. Rhea made Jocelyn tell each detail of the story so she could like she and Jocelyn were equals again.
Rhea focuses on external markers, crediting them as the source of an individual’s identity, as shown in her attempt to draw attention away from her freckles with her punk attire. She believes she can change internally by changing her appearance. Though Rhea feels Jocelyn is better looking than she is, she rests in the connection they have through their shared experiences. Jocelyn’s relationship with Lou is mature in a way that leaves Rhea feeling insecure, so knowing the details of the relationship allows Rhea to feel Jocelyn is not leaving her behind.
On Saturday, Jocelyn and Rhea go to Scotty’s garage for band practice. Alice is there with a recorder that her dad bought her, and with a real microphone. Joel, the band’s drummer, shows up next. His dad waits for him outside for the entire practice. Joel is a high achieving student who applied to Harvard, and his dad is overprotective. Rhea notes that the neighborhood is right by the ocean, and all of the houses are brightly colored, but when the garage door closes, they all suddenly feel enraged.
The microphone bought by Alice’s dad signifies her privilege, and the overprotectiveness of Joel’s dad is something the other character’s lives lack, despite their general sense of connection through the band. Likewise, the counterpoint between the rage-filled garage and the affluent neighborhood offers an ironic commentary on these teenagers’ perceptions of their lives and identities.
Toward the end of the practice, a kid named Marty shows up to try out for the band. Rhea notes that he is overweight, has pimples, wears an AC/DC t-shirt, and plays violin. They record a song called “what the fuck” about a failed relationship. While everyone sings, Rhea watches Bennie, admiring his Mohawk, but he turns his attention to Alice.
Rhea judges Marty based on his external markers, though this act can be read as a projection of her own insecurity. The insecurity is furthered by her focus on Bennie’s attention to Alice.
Bennie and Scotty later drive around from club to club with the recording of their music, trying to get the Flaming Dildos a gig. They want to play a show at a club called the Mab, where all of the best punk bands play. Bennie deals with the club managers while Scotty waits in the car. The band members feel that they have to be careful with Scotty. As a young boy, when his mother went away, Scotty would stare at the sun. There are permanent smudges in his vision now, but he likes them because they remind him of his mom.
The sun is connected to the theme of time and the ruinous effects of time on these characters’ lives. Even before her death, Scotty’s mom was absent, and staring at the sun was his way of passing the time, hoping she would return. The act is destructive to his vision, but the ruined vision has also become a way to connect with her memory.
The band goes to the Mab every Saturday after band practice. They drink from Rhea’s dad’s liquor before going, and Rhea notes that Jocelyn needs to drink more than her to get drunk. They eavesdrop in the Mab’s bathroom, getting all of the gossip around the punk scene. They also enjoy slam dancing to the bands, which makes them feel like real punk rockers. But Rhea wonders what makes a person really punk. She notices that no punk rockers have freckles.
Rhea’s attention to Jocelyn’s drinking foreshadows Jocelyn’s future struggles with drugs and alcohol. The Mab is the center of the local punk community, and a place Rhea and Jocelyn seek connection. Access to the scene’s gossip and slam dancing lets them feel connected and authentic in their assumed punk identities. Despite these activities, Rhea continues to feel insecure.
On another Saturday night, the band goes to the Mab, but Jocelyn goes out with Lou. After the concert, they return to Alice’s house, where Alice’s mom serves them yogurt. Rhea remembers one night Alice’s mom brought hot cocoa to them on a gold tray, and Jocelyn said she just wanted to flaunt her wealth. This evening, with Jocelyn gone, Rhea asks Alice if she still has the school uniforms she mentioned earlier. She brings Rhea upstairs to her room, which is full of stuffed animals. Rhea notes that Alice seems nicer when Jocelyn is not around.
Rhea feels slighted by Jocelyn because she goes out with Lou, so Rhea turns to Alice instead. Jocelyn constantly draws comparisons between herself and Alice, which interferes with Rhea’s ability to connect, but with Jocelyn gone, she is able to feel affection for Alice. The stuffed animals and dresses are symbols of childhood, and in this moment, both Rhea and Alice are less concerned with projecting a mature and tough identity.
Alice takes the uniforms from her closet and asks if Rhea is making a joke. Rhea says no, and promises not to laugh with Jocelyn later about the uniforms. Alice says she doesn’t care either way. Rhea notices that Alice’s pants are ripped and her eyes have dark makeup, but because of her blond hair, she could never be a real punk. Rhea asks why Alice’s parents let them come over, and Alice says they aren’t her parents, but her mother and stepfather.
Alice is more secure in her identity than Rhea, which is reflected in her lack of concern about Rhea and Jocelyn laughing at her. Rhea, however, remains stuck on the external markers, noting that Alice isn’t really punk because of her blond hair. Alice’s home life becomes more complicated when she corrects Rhea about her stepfather. The comment suggests her home is more conflicted than Jocelyn and Rhea perceive.
Later, Bennie tells Jocelyn and Rhea that the Flaming Dildos got a gig at the Mab. They shriek and hug him, and Rhea notices his heartbeat. She remembers each and every time they have hugged. They ask who else knows, and he tells them Alice, which bothers them.
The hug is a moment of connection for Rhea, and the fact that she remembers every hug with Bennie reveals her love for him. She feels resentful, however, after she finds out Alice knew about the show before her.
After the news, Jocelyn uses Rhea’s phone (at her house) to call Lou. Lou scolds Jocelyn, telling her not to call him, but to just let him call her. Rhea grabs the phone and asks Lou why he is being rude, but he tells Rhea to give the phone back to Jocelyn. Jocelyn tells Rhea she has to leave the room. Rhea joins her brothers, who are working on a science project, on the balcony. She looks straight into the sun, the way Scotty did. Jocelyn comes out a short while later, overjoyed. She tells Rhea that Lou is coming to the show and might give the Flaming Dildos a record contract.
Lou’s actions toward the girls depict an imbalance of power in the relationship. Lou is a much older man who exerts control over Jocelyn. By making Rhea leave the room, Jocelyn furthers the disconnection Rhea feels developing between them. The contrast between the adult situation in the room and the kids working on their science project depicts Rhea’s situation—she is caught between a childhood and adult identity, trying to find her way.
The night of the concert, Rhea and Jocelyn meet Lou for dinner at a fancy restaurant. Rhea notes that he looks as old as her dad. The girls sit under Lou’s arms, and Rhea notes that they are “Lou’s Girls.” After they order, Lou slides a tiny brown bottle of cocaine under the table, and the girls go into the bathroom. Jocelyn has a small spoon, and takes four hits. She gives Rhea one. When they return, Rhea feels as if she has eyes all over her head. Lou tells them about a trip he took to Africa, and about a train there that didn’t stop, but only slowed down for people to jump off. Rhea says she wants to go to Africa, and Lou tells her maybe they will go sometime. Rhea feels as if she is beginning her adult life this evening.
Lou’s power as a famous record executive is displayed in this scene through the glamorous restaurant and cocaine, and in his action of claiming the young girls as “his.” Jocelyn is already growing accustomed to this life, as shown through her drug use, and the fact that she takes more than Rhea. The conversation around the train serves as a metaphor for the life Jocelyn is entering—she is getting on a train that will not slow down. This moment is important in Rhea’s coming of age, as she is entering a world that is much more adult than she has yet experienced.
They walk together to the Mab, Rhea and Jocelyn beneath Lou’s arm. In the hustle and bustle of Broadway, Rhea feels that once her freckles are gone, her whole life will be like this. The girls go into the bathroom and put their dog collars and safety pins on, and when they return the band is setting up. Bennie shakes Lou’s hand, and tells him it’s an honor to meet him.
In the bathroom, the girls assume their external punk signifiers, again speaking to the idea that identity is fluid and assumed. Bennie’s connection with Lou marks his beginning in the record business, which will make him very successful, but ultimately ruin him.
The band starts playing, and people respond by throwing cans and bottles at the stage. The band keeps on playing, and Alice tries to tackle the people throwing garbage. The crowd erupts, and everyone begins slam dancing. Rhea notices Scotty close his eyes, and notes that his magnetism is starting to work. One of the garbage-throwing spectators jumps on stage, but Scotty kicks the man in the chest. Scotty smiles in a way Rhea has never seen before, and she realizes that Scotty, out of all of the friends, is the truly angry one.
Alice’s attempt to protect the band is surprising, again revealing a deeper layer to her that Rhea and Jocelyn overlook. Likewise, Scotty’s identity is further illuminated. While playing music, he shifts from an introverted individual to a magnetic and aggressive one. Rhea recognizes his anger, which becomes a defining characteristic for him as the novel progresses.
Rhea turns to Jocelyn, and is surprised to find her kneeling in front of Lou, giving him oral sex. Lou’s hand rests on the back of her head, and his other arm is around Rhea. Rhea wonders how Jocelyn is able to breathe, and it begins to seem like Jocelyn is some kind of animal or machine. Rhea tries to focus on the band, but Lou grasps her shoulder. He turns his head toward her and lets out a groan. Rhea begins to cry.
In this moment, Rhea is initiated into the adult world in a way she is not ready for. She feels further disconnected from Jocelyn, as shown through her perception of her as an animal or machine. The groan Rhea receives implicates her in the sexual act, and she find this so disturbing she begins to cry.
After the concert, everyone goes to Lou’s house. The apartment is more extravagant than Jocelyn told Rhea, and she feels betrayed by this. Inside, everyone is shook up from the show. Lou brings Bennie up to his recording studio, and Rhea tags along. She notices how Bennie continues to look out the door at Alice. Rhea feels like she wants to cry again. She worries that what happened in the club counts as having sex with Lou. She leaves the studio and goes into Lou’s bedroom, lying down on his bed. Jocelyn joins her, and Rhea says that Jocelyn should have told her. Jocelyn asks what she means, but Rhea doesn’t know. Jocelyn grabs a framed picture from the nightstand and shows it to Rhea. Lou is in the picture with his six children. Lou looks happy in the picture, and Rhea notes that he looks like a normal dad.
Rhea’s feeling of disconnection is furthered by the fact that Jocelyn has not told her everything about Lou. She continues to examine the implications of her experience in the club with Lou, and worries she has been ruined by it. In the bedroom, she seeks connection with Jocelyn, but it is a futile attempt because she doesn’t know exactly what she is looking for. This confusion is an indication of her naïveté about the adult world Jocelyn is now a part of. The picture of Lou reinforces his age, and the fact that he looks like a “normal dad” shows the complexity of his identity—he is a father, a powerful record executive, and a lecherous man who abuses his power by seducing young women.
Lou comes into the bedroom, and Rhea leaves. She waits, at the top of the stairs, looking down into the living room. Scotty is playing a gold guitar and Alice is behind him with her arms around his neck. Bennie is still in the recording studio, playing music over the house’s sound system. As Rhea listens, she thinks that Bennie will never know how much she understands him. In that moment, she notices Marty looking at her, and she understands that she is the ugly one in the group, so she “gets” Marty. Frustrated, she goes through a set of glass doors onto Lou’s balcony.
Rhea is positioned away from the group, which shows her lack of connection to them. Her musing about Bennie and how he will never know she understands him furthers this idea. Her thoughts about Marty—that Rhea is ugly and so gets Marty, the ugly boy—show her continued insecurity and confusion. In Rhea’s mind, the external determines everything, including the outcomes of one’s life.
After a short while, Lou joins Rhea on the balcony. Rhea asks him if he remembers being their age, and Lou responds that he is their age. She tells him he has six kids, and he agrees, but tells her he will never get old. She says he is already old, and Lou tells her that she is scary. Rhea agrees, saying that her freckles are scary. He tells her it’s not the freckles. She is a scary person, and he likes it. He says she is going to keep him honest. Lou tells Rhea that people will try to change her, but she shouldn’t let them. He says she is beautiful, and one day a man will fall in love with her freckles and kiss them one by one. Rhea starts to cry. Lou gets close and Rhea focuses on Lou’s body, stating that it looks like someone has walked on his skin and left footprints. The world is full of shitheads, Lou says, but Rhea shouldn’t listen to them. She knows Lou is a shithead, but she listens anyways.
Lou lives his life as if time and ageing are not a factor. He lives the decadent lifestyle of a famous man, unaware that it will have devastating consequences later in life. This fact is furthered by Rhea’s attention to his body—time has already lift “footprints” on him, though Lou denies it. Rhea scares Lou because she is not subjugated by his power. Rhea sees through Lou’s image, while Jocelyn doesn’t. Lou also sees through Rhea, though, recognizing her insecurity. As an adult, Lou at least has a broader perspective than Rhea, and understands that freckles are not the defining factor of her identity.
Two weeks later, Jocelyn runs away. Rhea tells her parents that she is with Lou. Scotty and Alice have begun dating, and Bennie no longer hangs out with Scotty. Rhea notes that it is like Bennie and Scotty no longer know each other. Rhea wonders if she had pulled away from Lou that night at the Mab, if Benny would have settled for her the way Scotty settled for Alice. Jocelyn’s parents contact Lou, and he tells them he will bring her home in two weeks, next time he comes to San Francisco.
By running away, Jocelyn exerts her independence (but also her recklessness), while Rhea remains rooted in a less mature position, as shown by her connection with Jocelyn’s parents. Lou’s response to them, however, shows that he still maintains the power, and Jocelyn may not be as mature as she thinks she is.
While Rhea is waiting for Jocelyn to come home, Alice invites her over to her house. She has never seen Alice’s house in the daytime, and it seems smaller. Alice is calm and happy now that Scotty loves her. Rhea wonders if Alice is actually real, or if she’s stopped caring whether she is real or not, or if not caring is what actually makes a person real. They go to the backyard where Alice’s sisters are playing tetherball. Alice’s sisters turn to them, laughing, wearing their green uniforms.
Rhea’s perception of Alice has shifted, and Alice’s true identity becomes clearer now that Jocelyn is not influencing Rhea with her critiques of Alice. Rhea tries repeatedly to find authenticity through external markers, but she begins to realize that authenticity cannot be found through other people’s perceptions and opinions. Alice’s sisters offer a final iteration of youth in the story, and their carefree laughter in counterpoint to the seriousness of Rhea’s pondering shows that she has, over the course of the story, taken a major leap toward adulthood.