At 8 A.M., Maria walked into her mother’s room. “Mami,” she said, “I’m going to New Jersey.”
“No,” said Marcia. She had chauffeured her daughter and her friends to the Warped Tour the previous year, but this year she had to work. (Marcia is a supervisor at a jewelry wholesaler in Long Island City; Juan Carlos is a parking-garage attendant in Manhattan.)
“Mami, don’t be mean!” Maria said. “Don’t do this to me!” Maria got onto her parents’ bed on her hands and knees and bounced up and down like a little girl.
“OK, mi hija,” Marcia said, astonished. “Who are you going with?”
Marcia hadn’t remembered Mellie’s name; that, she would say later, is how unconnected that girl was to her daughter.
“How are you getting there?”
“On the bus,” Maria said.
“OK,” said Marcia, “but please don’t come home late.”
Maria ducked into her 15-year-old sister Karla’s room—“Karlita, I’ll take you to the beach another day!”—and kissed her sister Daniella, 7, on the cheek. As Maria was walking out the door, her mother looked at her one last time. She was wearing a striped shirt and tiny white miniskirt—so short that Marcia couldn’t help but blurt out, “Are you wearing underwear, Maria?” She remembers it now as a tender, just-us-girls moment, tempered with a giggle.
“My love, you look beautiful,” Marcia said and blew her a kiss.
Sometime after nine that morning, in the kitchen of a sun-drenched West Side apartment, Mellie Carballo was eating a bowl of cereal as her mother, Mariel, sipped her coffee. Mariel teaches at a local Montessori school; Miguel, Mellie’s father, is the superintendent of their building at 59th and Columbus. Mariel and Miguel had saved to send Mellie and her older sister, Celeste, to private school. Now, with both in college, the hard part of parenting seemed over. That their daughters still chose to live at home was a bonus.
That morning, Mellie didn’t mention the Warped Tour to her mother; instead she said she’d be spending the weekend at a friend’s place in the Hamptons. Mellie finished her breakfast, said good-bye, and darted out the door, her slender arms hauling a vintage, heart-shaped brown leather suitcase she’d picked out on eBay.
A moment later, she came back through the door.
“This bag is toooo heavy,” Mellie said.
“Why don’t you use my bag?” said Mariel. “It has wheels.”
Mellie repacked, then breezed out the door, light as a feather.
It was the mothers, Marcia and Mariel, who got the twin phone calls from the hospitals. Shortly after 6 P.M., they were later told, Maria Pesantez and Mellie Carballo were found unconscious in a drab two-room apartment on the ninth floor of a Lower East Side housing project. Mellie was pronounced dead on arrival at Cabrini Medical Center; her body was still warm when Mariel arrived. Maria held on a little longer at Bellevue before dying on Saturday, her mother Marcia’s birthday. Police said the girls had spent much of the afternoon with Roberto Martinez, a 41-year-old paroled drug dealer, and Alfredo Morales, a 33-year-old maintenance worker with a record of drug possession who grew up in the building and lived in the apartment. The toxicology reports on both girls showed the presence of cocaine and heroin in their systems.
Almost instantly, the girls’ lives were probed and gossiped about and even fetishized. Information surfaced that police had found needle marks on their hands. People noted that Maria’s Myspace.com home page contained a photo of her swilling a cocktail and a list of favorite movies including Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream—the Citizen Kane and Grand Illusion of the drug-movie canon. Alluring photos of Mellie appeared on a downtown dance-party Website, and her memory was saluted by a number of risqué clubland blogs. Suddenly, Maria and Mellie were David Lynch characters—good girls with dark secrets.
I’m having lunch with Mariel and Miguel Carballo. It’s been a month since their daughter died, and they’ve just visited the housing project where she and Maria overdosed. They appeared as guest speakers at a press conference for a tough-on-drugs City Council candidate named Mike Beys. “I do not want Mellie’s death to be in vain,” Mariel told the handful of assembled journalists. “There were two men with long-standing criminal records who were with my daughter. I am here today to speak for justice.”
Despite the evidence to the contrary, Mariel doesn’t believe Mellie had a drug habit; if she did, Mariel says, Celeste, with whom she shared a room, would have known it. Mellie had been home a lot in July, at around the time police and friends say she met Roberto Martinez; Mariel noticed no changes in her behavior. Besides, when Mellie had had her nose job in December, the doctor would have noticed signs of regular cocaine use, had there been any. Mariel believes that Martinez and Morales are simply “predators” who took advantage of two young girls who, while not entirely innocent, were by no means hard-core drug users, either. “Mellie was 18—she could vote and do other things, but she still was a child,” Mariel says. “You know, the line is very thin when they move from 17 to 18. They’re still young. That’s why she was living at home, because I felt like she still needed to be surrounded by adults who can guide her.”