Published in Yemassee Journal, Spring 2018
The boy I loved was a lighting designer and when he left he took all the light. It could be awkward when visitors came around to explain why my house contained only bare bulbs, but most of the visitors were sophisticated city types anyway, so they probably assumed I was being industro-ironic or something.
I had been in Beaverkill almost a year—six of those months absent the boy I loved—when I made the desperate decision to join the cast of a local musical production. It might have been the worst decision of my life if it hadn't been for Eva. We rehearsed that whole fall, as the leaves quivered and curled and finally gave up the ghost. I still hadn't grown accustomed to the winters up here, the way the land contracted and shriveled beneath the white sky, the way beauty turned to blight so completely. Fields cross-hatched with scars and the corpses of abandoned cars. In the city, there were seasonal compensations—fancy restaurants spilling their golden glow onto ice-slick sidewalks; hotel lobbies with wood-burning fireplaces; glimpsed faces of ravishing women framed by fur—but here there was nothing to distract you from decay. Winter entered the soul like a knife. The play qualified as a distraction, I suppose, which might be why so many of us signed up.
The casting went as expected. It's not like I ever really fostered dreams of playing Maria: I wasn't really the Maria type. At least not the type of Maria the director and producer were looking for. I auditioned instead for a chorus-line nun role and instantly regretted it when I realized that the Nazis were much nicer than the nuns. The Nazis would at least sit and smoke with you after rehearsals, grinding the butts into the ground with the heels of their glossy black boots and making vulgar remarks about attractive passersby. The nuns, with their sensible shoes, were kind of stand-offish. The worst thing about the Nazis was that they thought being villains made them complicated. Villains aren't complicated, I tried to explain to one of them. He looked at me blankly, as if he'd never heard of the banality of evil. You can't tell anyone anything.
Eva was chosen to play the lead and the reasons were painfully obvious. Painful to me, anyway. Eva's face was a miracle of symmetry, and she managed the complicated equation of being both dewy and sexy. At that stage I knew very little about her biography beyond the fact that she'd blown into Beaverkill in the manner of most of the new arrivals, flung out of New York City by personal circumstances whose cure promised to be composed of equal parts fresh air and scandalously cheap real estate.
The gentrification in this part of upstate followed the usual pattern: first the hippies, then the gays, then the hipsters and avant-gardists, and finally the bourgeoisie to conquer whatever was left. To the people whose quiet town we displaced, whose lives had been hollowed out by misfortune, we must have seemed a rare curse. We drove up house prices, colonized Main Street with third-wave coffee shops and independent bookstores, brought with us liberal ideas and an open-mindedness I'm sure they found at best sanctimonious, at worst odious.
Like everyone else who had been deposited in Beaverkill on a gust of fresh-start optimism and then fallen into upmarket despair on realizing that life's problems had failed to resolve themselves through geography, I stayed. The only thing more disagreeable to a certain type of striver than leaving New York was returning after having failed elsewhere. So it became necessary to stay if only to avoid that ignominious re-entry. There had been other errors. I had lived in Miami, Atlanta, Asheville, San Diego, and each of those places had called to me for a time, had whispered, Here it is; Here is the place; You can stop looking. But of course, their appeal had faded after a while, or was revealed to have been illusory all along, and I had moved on.
If I had often been lonely in New York then the opposite problem was in effect in Beaverkill. The arrivistes here socialized to an aggressive degree. I had never attended nor hosted as many dinner parties. There were trivia nights at the local bar and fundraisers at the bookstore. Grape-stomping parties and whiskey tastings. A feasting ritual called "Midnight Fish" during the full moon. It was, frankly, exhausting. I was too shy to give voice to it, but these occasions struck me as oddly performative, as if the participants were in rehearsal mode while they waited for some future, genuine version of camaraderie to start. Friendships failed to materialize. Bonds refused to form. It occurred to me occasionally, biliously, that maybe it was just me; maybe all the tight associations were being forged offstage and I just couldn't see them.
That fall, I was fucking the director, Greg. He was "on hiatus" from his long-time girlfriend, which made it sound like his relationship was a television series no one was confident would be renewed. He was tall and shaggy and he sported unfortunate tattoos, but he had kind eyes and a wicked mouth, a facial arrangement I've always liked in a man, so it all worked for a while. Until he abruptly returned to his girlfriend and they decided they were going to have a baby. I was devastated, not because I was in love with him but because I hadn't been and it seemed unfair that I didn't even get to feel properly heartbroken.
We were at dress rehearsal, only a week out from the production's opening night, when Greg broke the news. He called me into his office but left the door open. He explained the situation while I sat there, fidgeting with the hem of my skirt like a schoolgirl. If I'd had gum I would have snapped it. I considered quitting on the spot but the thought of returning to my little farmhouse, to ramen noodles cooked in the cup and rabid raccoons whose nails clattered as they raced up and down the rafters, was chilling. He pushed the tissue box across the table towards me, which was insulting enough to dry up any regret I might have been feeling, and then he deployed that quizzical, knitted-brow, "Well, what can you do?" expression he obviously thought was both charming and absolved him of any guilt. I looked at him, dry-eyed, for a stretch of time that allowed discomfort to seep in, then I left.
The bravado-high dissipated by the time I made it to the dressing room, where I wedged myself in a corner in front of the room-length mirror, savagely applying stage makeup in such reckless amounts that I emerged looking like a demented kabuki player. The room was small, with walls the color of rancid margarine, and crowded with people. The hierarchies were clear even in here: I noticed Eva sat under the only flattering light. Someone had replaced one of the standard blue-white daylight bulbs that made everyone look like corpses with an incandescent one, which had the effect of enhancing and warming Eva's complexion and really posed the question of why someone didn't just replace all the bulbs with flattering ones. I made a note to mention it to Tom.
As I finished troweling on a gash of red blush under my cheekbone, Tom himself poked his head around the door to let us know rehearsals would be starting in ten. Tom was the local undertaker and our stage manager. He had a head like a granite shelf and blue eyes so pale they looked like they'd been through the laundry too many times. Greg originally wanted to cast him in a role, any role. He was enraptured by Tom's face, in that director's way in which humans become reduced to discrete parts and exploitable qualities. But Tom refused, mumbled that he was more comfortable behind the scenes. He had a way of moving through the world that suggested he was trying to disappear. There was rage boiling inside him though, I could see it and was surprised no one else seemed to.
At Tom's appearance, the actor who played Liesl slid her headphones down her scalp, pursed her lips at her reflection and skip-walked with great gusto out of the room, as only someone with her whole life ahead of her could ever muster the energy to do. She was a local girl, the daughter of two realtors who had prospered during the decade's land-grab. In Beaverkill we divided ourselves—and were divided—into two camps, the locals and the transplants. There was something horticultural in the segregation. They were the natives and we were the invasive species. No matter how long you had lived in town, if you came there by way of elsewhere, namely metropolitan New York, you could never hope to move from the second camp into the first. 'Twas ever thus.
Anyway, Liesl. She was half my age and twice as confident as I will ever be. She had golden skin splattered with freckles, a cute snub nose and hair that fell like curtains around the open stage of her face. It was Greg's idea to have her play Liesl as a little spitfire, a kind of Lolita-on-steroids. I tried to talk him out of it but you can imagine how effective that was.
"By the time she finishes singing 'Sixteen Going on Seventeen,' I want the whole audience to want to fuck her," he declared.
"Gross," I said.
Others started to filter out of the dressing room in Liesl's wake. I could hear Liesl out in the corridor, talking to the actor who played Captain Von Trapp. He had a prosthetic leg. He'd suffered a terrible motorcycle accident as a teenager and had to have the leg amputated just above the knee. He was distractingly handsome, with artfully disheveled dark hair, architectural jaw and cheekbones, flashing eyes and rakish facial hair, and if I've made him sound like a pirate that wasn't too far from the reality of him. He could have passed as Jesus, the dreamy Caucasian Jesus depicted in the paintings people like to hang in their living rooms, also a surfer, or a swashbuckling Don Juan type. Very versatile, as they say in the theatre. Everyone was in love with him, and rightfully so. Only Eva was sleeping with him, though. At least we all assumed so, as he was the only one at whom she deigned to look directly or speak to. They always took a beat too long to separate from clinches, found excuses to huddle together over pages.
I strained to hear what Von Trapp and Liesl were talking about, but the cacophony of backstage drowned out anything meaningful. Soon they moved on, joining the tide of people flowing stageward, but I continued sitting there at the mirror, half sad and half enjoying the Whatever Happened to Baby Janepathos of it all. It was pleasant in a maudlin kind of way to imagine I was a washed-up star desperately trying to cling to her youth and beauty, determined to prove she still has what it takes. Instead of a bored urban refugee joining a Podunk musical production because she was scared of being alone with the raccoons.
I was so lost in my fantasy it took me a while to notice I wasn't the only one left in the dressing room. Eva was still there as well. I glanced down the mirror towards her and was disconcerted to catch her looking at me. She dropped her gaze right away, but even that tiny quicksilver connection rattled both of us. The meeting of our eyes in that dank, airless space so recently vacated by dozens of bodies felt inappropriately intimate. I could feel the discomfort growing and swelling in the air between us, suffocating and gaseous. My heart was beating like a frightened bird caught in a fist. But an excitement beat there too. I waited for her to say something, but she remained tight-lipped, swabbing a sponge back and forth across her cheeks with a hypnotic kind of grace. Staring only at herself now.
We were saved from whatever was happening between us by Tom, who returned—cheeks flaming under the anguish of direct communication—to let us know the rehearsal was about to start.
"OK, thanks," I said, hazarding another glance along the bench, but Eva's reflection didn't meet my eye this time. She slowly applied false lashes, sticky black spider legs, and when she was done they swallowed her eyes. She turned her head away, rummaging in her purse, and I pretended to be engaged with other things too, tidying the makeup tray and sorting bobby pins into piles.
Eva was the kind of woman a 1950s chauvinist might have described in terms like ice queen, frigid, pricktease. She held her beauty close, like a precious egg she was saving. I had never understood the appeal of that kind of iciness, but after that moment in the dressing room I was overcome by a kind of madness. I wanted her to sing to me, just me alone. I burned with the dangerous idea of asking her this. But there was never a chance, not on stage obviously, or afterwards, because she was always encased in her solitude, standing or sitting apart from the groups who stayed behind to gossip as opening night grew closer. I found it odd that she didn't just leave, return to whatever home she had, rather than sit silently apart while everyone else socialized and drank. Sometimes Greg would have a few words with her, or Captain Von Trapp would approach. He was the only one she seemed to tolerate. Occasionally he'd coax a laugh from her, but even then her hand would always fly to her mouth afterwards, to prevent any more mirth from escaping. I recalled I girl I went to school with, an aspiring ballerina, and how the girl's mother had warned her never to smile or laugh because such movements caused premature wrinkles.
Four days before opening night Greg assembled the cast and crew and told us all to take time off. There would be no final, lead-up rehearsals as we'd all assumed. He wanted us refreshed and relaxed before the big night.
"You've earned this," he boomed. "I love each and every one of you!" People whooped, clapped him on the back. I had never hated him more. "And one more thing. Opening night is a sellout." This news sent a wave of excitement rippling around the room. Even the cynics like me who had only signed on out of ennui perked up, as if a big audience meant we were doing something important. I looked over at Eva but she wasn't smiling. If anything, I thought I detected a hint of distress in the way she blinked her eyes, twice, three times, as if trying to clear her vision.
The next night I found myself outside the theater. I had driven to Main Street to pick up a pizza from Raffaelo's. With the boy I loved gone, there was no one to condemn my sick preference for olives and pineapple. Yet somehow I ended up at the other end of town from Raffaelo's, and seeing I was already there I figured I'd step inside for a moment, maybe try and absorb some of the good theater juju to get me through opening night. I tried the front door and it opened. I could see hunched figures working at the front of the stage and when I got closer I recognized two of the local contractors Greg had hired to build and construct the sets and perform other odd jobs.
"Oh hey, Dave. Hey, Vincent."
"Don't mind me. Just checking, think I left something in the dressing room."
I blushed at this lie, but they had already lost interest in me, were arguing softly about the placement of some furniture. I had no choice then but to move towards the dressing room. If I'd had a plan going in, it had been to sit for a moment absorbing the gentle quiet of the empty theater, imagining what the audience would see. But instead I strode purposefully backstage to retrieve my fictitious lost item. There was a light on in the dressing room and a prickling at my neck told me who was in there. Sure enough, there she was, sitting in the same spot as before. I hesitated at the door, there was still time to beat a retreat, but some stubborn streak surfaced in me and I pushed the door all the way open and entered as if I had every right to be there, which in fact I did.
"Oh," I said, almost choking on my disingenuousness. "I didn't realize anyone else was here."
Her reflection looked up at me and I was startled to see something strange and naked shining out of her face. It took me a moment to recognize the look as fear.
"That's OK," she said, and I underwent a second shock in realizing that I had so rarely heard her normal speaking voice before. I was so used to hearing her singing or inhabiting Maria. "Come on in."
I obeyed, aware that there was no existing protocol for what I should do next. I couldn't exactly pretend to be getting ready for a non-existent rehearsal. I considered resurrecting the lie about having left something behind, but in the end I simply sat, a few seats away from her. We contemplated one another in the mirror.
"You can come closer," she said. "I don't bite. Contrary to what you might have heard."
I shrugged, but my stomach lurched as I pulled out the chair next to her.
"I heard about you and Greg. I'm sorry."
Reflected her said this to reflected me. Next to her blonde incandescence I looked small and dark and watchful, like prey on the savanna. I shrugged again, but with more bitter vehemence this time.
"Didn't realize the whole town knew. Anyway, I'm fine. He was kind of a dick."
It felt liberating to say that. She laughed and I saw all the way inside the pink cave of her mouth before she clapped her hand in front of it. In the spirit of this new intimacy, I countered with, "So how's everything with you and Captain Von Trapp?" It seemed funnier not to say his real name. She swiveled around, her real face aghast.
"What? I mean, we're not..."
"Oh, sorry. I thought. Well, everyone thinks, frankly."
"God, no. I mean, he's lovely, but he's just a friend. He's the only one who knows."
But the trap door closed down again over her face. "Nothing."
My mind floundered, trying to hatch another line of inquiry. I didn't think I could bear it if she got up and walked out.
"So are you nervous, about opening night?"
At this, she stared at me for so long and with such a pained expression that I began to wonder if she was all there. Her face, even beneath the flattering light, appeared flushed, less perfect than before.
"Are you fucking with me?" she said eventually.
I felt the heat rising to my ears, spreading to my scalp. "No," I stammered. "I mean, no. Of course not."
"I. Am. Absolutely. Petrified."
"Ah." I felt intensely stupid, like someone had given me all the answers to the crossword but I still couldn't work out the clues. "I guess it's normal to get nerves. This is my first production."
"I'm sure it will be fine."
"Fine for you, maybe," she said sharply, which seemed unnecessarily cruel.
"Right, well I'm just a nobody, not the lead, so..."
Eva flung her arm out towards me. Her hand landed on my knee and she squeezed so hard it brought tears to my eyes.
"Oh my god, I didn't mean it like that. I'm so sorry. I'm such a mess."
"Don't worry about it," I said, experimentally patting the top of her hand. Her skin felt like silk. "I'm a mess too. This has all been hell."
Her big eyes were now brimming with tears, her lip trembling like a small child on the threshold of wailing. The astonishing, changing climate of this woman who had always maintained the most perfect poker face.
"Yes, yes, it's hell."
I nodded, urging her on. I really had no idea what we were talking about now, but I longed to have it continue.
"This musical," she went on, her voice quavering fetchingly. "The stupid songs! Some days I can't even stand it. I mean, it has songs about goats!"
Our hands were clenched tight together now, like we were steadying each other on the deck of a storm-tossed ship.
"Sometimes Ifeel like the loneliest goatherd," I said, reaching for levity, and we both snorted laughing but then something horrifying happened, my laughter changed direction mid-stream and became tears and suddenly I was weeping on her cashmere shoulder while she made alarmed shushing sounds.
"I know how you feel," she said as I drenched her shoulder, and that may have been the only thing she could have said to reverse the flow, restore the tears back to laughter.
"You?" I looked up in bleary disbelief, oblivious to the substances leaking out of my eyes and nose. "But you're perfect and beautiful. What would you know about it?"
Which was a rude thing to say, admittedly. Her face screwed up in a kind of disgust and while at first I thought it was justifiably directed at me, I soon realized that on the contrary, I had on my hands that not uncommon specimen, a beautiful woman who considers herself hideous.
"You want to see perfect and beautiful?"
"Yes," I whispered, not wanting to sound too eager.
She turned her head sharply, presenting her left ear, and yanked a shank of hair aside. She gestured that I should lean in and examine closer. When I did I saw the telltale fretwork of an elaborate weave, sewn tightly, almost painfully, close to her skull.
"I have alopecia. Without the help of these I'm almost bald. And there's another thing. Well, you'll see."
I could hardly wait to see what other disfigurements she might be hiding. I stroked her hair, well her weave really, and made soothing noises and we sat there for a little while longer, until the sounds of Vince and Dave brought us back to earth and we gathered our things and ourselves and headed back into the night. I was so shaken up I didn't remember the pizza until I was already home.
Eva asked if I would swing by and pick her up on my way to the theater on opening night. Given that I knew virtually nothing about her life, I wasn't sure if this was because she didn't have a car, or wanted to get drunk after the show, or what. She lived in the heart of Beaverkill, behind Main Street, on a block known for its tidy Victorian houses and air of suburbia. When I had first moved here with the boy I loved, it had been my idea to get a farmhouse slightly out of town, rather than what I considered capitulating to the bourgeois notions of front lawns and regular trash collection. Standing outside her house, I wished I had chosen differently. It looked so cozy, this row of homes whose residents existed mere feet away from one another. In an emergency, you could just shout out your window. I walked up the path and knocked on her lipstick-red front door. A stranger answered.
"Oh shit," I said, gaping at her. Then quickly followed up with, "Sorry, I mean are you OK?"
Eva's face was marred by huge patches of red, angry skin, flaking away in parts like strips of bark sloughing from a birch tree. It looked raw and painful, like she'd been mauled in the night by a mountain lion. I was so jolted by this overnight disfigurement it took me a moment to register that she was wearing a pale pink faux fur coat over a black velour tracksuit, with a hand-crocheted beanie covering most of her hair. That she could pull off such a ridiculous ensemble even in her state almost caused my resentment to return.
"Don't worry," she said. "Everyone has the same reaction. My ex-husband couldn't even look at me when I was like this."
I was sorry to hear I was guilty of having the same reaction as everybody else, so I chased it with, "Well, you kind of needed a handicap. At least this levels the playing field a bit for the rest of us."
For a second she looked hurt, but then she laughed, an excellent full-throated laugh. "You're such a crazy bitch. I like you."
I blushed like a debutante receiving a compliment. She thrust several of her multitudes of bags at me and we walked down her path together.
"Your car looks like a fava bean," she declared when we reached the curb. We both stood and contemplated it. The boy I loved had left me the car, a 1980s Ford Taurus in a most uncommon shade of green, and sometimes I thought it was the most distinctive thing about me.
"Would you like to stop somewhere along the way?" I asked her after we had departed in the fava bean, taking my eyes off the road momentarily to witness again the surreal wonder of her ravaged face. "The pharmacy?"
"Oh no. I have a whole pharmacy's worth in here." She patted the bulging tote bag on her lap. "And I've already taken a Xanax, two beta-blockers and a large shot of whiskey. That's why I couldn't drive."
"I would have taken all that even if the eczema hadn't flared up." I could feel her gaze boring into the side of my face, like she was trying to burn a hole in my cheek. "That's how I cope with any stressful public situation."
"Fair enough," I said mildly. She seemed to be spoiling for a fight, but I just smiled to let her know I understood.
The advantage of driving an automatic car is that when the passenger next to you takes your hand and presses it into their lap, you don't have to worry about causing an accident. Necessarily. She took my hand so naturally, almost without thought, and I realized that after our encounter in the dressing room this was to become our lingua franca. I had never been a hand-holder: I couldn't recall ever having held the hands of my mother or father, although I suppose I must have. But it felt right with Eva and it seemed to calm her down, so I went with it.
We went our separate ways once we got to the theater, which was vibrating with high spirits and the distinct animal smell of panic. I saw people staring at Eva's face, whispering behind hands. Even Greg looked kind of sick the first time he caught sight of her. He bundled her off into a private room, where no doubt he was planning to have a makeup artist conceal the crisis.
She found me just before the curtain was about to rise. The rustling and sighing of real live audience members out there caused a stomach-dropping moment even for me, whose investment in the whole enterprise was marginal. I was standing a little apart from the other cast members, nibbling my cuticles and watching Tom hurrying around, when she appeared at my side. I went to say something and she tilted her head towards me. It had been so long since I'd dwelled in the land of natural affection that I didn't realize at first what she was doing: I thought perhaps she was leaning in to hear my words better. But instead she touched her lips briefly on my mouth and then moved away. I watched her retreating back, her cascade of hair swinging. I brought my fingers to my mouth and held them there for a moment.
Then the creaky old curtains were opening and the audience was stamping its feet and cheering and whistling. Eva strode out singing, her voice flawless and her face throbbing and flaky under the harsh lights.
"That's hideous," whispered someone behind me.
"God, so unfortunate," their companion answered. The gleeful disgust was palpable. I swiveled my head around to frown at whoever was talking, but all I could see was a sea of nuns, rustling and twittering like birds. We were all standing in the wings, waiting to go on. The poorly-ventilated theater had never felt so prickly-hot and oppressive.
But as I continued watching my new friend out there, her vivid skin pulsing under the lights, a surge of antic joy filled my lungs like helium. A current of clear, cool air arrived, a blessing all the way from the Swiss Alps. A little chink of possibility opened up then, like light leaking between curtains. If the feeling contained more than a hint of the familiar then I chose to ignore that and focus on its novelty instead, the old dopamine-generating, fright-inducing, pupil-enlarging thrill of it all. What a trickster hope was, I thought, as my cheek brushed against the dusty plush of the curtain, that each time it came garbed in the illusion of being brand new.
The Things They Left Behind
Published in Headland Journal, May 2016
When Gabriel Arms turned nine he asked for a puppy and got an accordion. It wasn't that his parents were keen to foster his musical talent or were against pets or even that they felt the accordion an appropriate or desirable gift for their son. It just happened to turn up when his birthday rolled around. Conveniently the accordion was made for a child, so it was the perfect plaything for a few weeks before its owner came to reclaim it. The owner had rustled up the cash somehow, maybe begged friends or secured a loan, played on the sympathy of neighbors. Gabe's father spoke admiringly of that man. A rare bird, he said. Most people never came back.
Some years Gabe and his siblings would be given bicycles, or karaoke machines, or more baroque treasures like elaborately taxidermied animals -- a threadbare peacock one Christmas -- but the understanding was that these things were temporary. That was the nature of having a pawn shop, Gabe explained. Sometimes his mother turned up to dinner in a full length mink coat. Once a speed boat had been parked on their front lawn for two months. His parents loved to throw parties and it was common for them to "borrow" items for these bacchanals, anything from sound systems to crystal goblet sets. So many things turned up, who would miss them?
Gabe was a grown man by the time I heard these stories. I loved hearing them not least because their intimation of a life lived fully and without regard for rules reinforced my decision to come to this difficult city on the Hudson River, whose first winter shocked me with its grim, jaw-chattering brutality. I had never met anyone as fascinating and potentially transformational as Gabe.
"You must have been upset when you had to give the things back," I commented the first time Gabe shared these stories.
"Not at all."
"But didn't you ever want to keep them?"
"No. They were more valuable to me because I knew I couldn't keep them."
"You're telling me this was a fun way to live as a kid?" I insisted, although my own Northern Ireland childhood hadn't exactly involved silver spoons.
"Yes, that's exactly what I'm telling you. You're just not listening. I got to enjoy incredible things for a little while. I can't think of a better way to live."
Our friendship didn't so much start as resume, as if it had been interrupted at some earlier, forgotten point on the space-time continuum. We would gravitate to the free seat next to the other in class or study hall or the cafeteria or the library, where we would take up whatever conversation we'd been having the last time we encountered one another, as if no time had elapsed at all.
Others remarked on the fact that we could have been brothers. It was true we were the same height and lean build, with long dark lashes and dark eyes, but mine were especially dark, so dark that in certain lights they looked as black as my hair. I have round boyish features with dimples that dart out unbidden when I smile, and I envied Gabe his face all angles and planes, hair cropped so short you could admire the perfect shape of his skull if you were so inclined.
One fractious heat-hazed summer afternoon Gabe sauntered over to me the hallway.
"Hey Emmet, do you want to go smoke some weed?"
There was a place Gabe knew down by the river. I didn't really care for smoking but then as now I longed to be amenable.
"Sure. Do you want me to get my car?"
"Nah. I have two bikes, just junkers from the store."
"My parents' pawn store. We could probably just dump them when we're finished."
We rode the rusted-out bicycles down to the spot, a small copse of trees in a sheltered cove near the deserted, formerly industrial part of the river. Evidence existed of others who had been there before, little middens of beer cans and butts and debris. We kicked clear a space beneath a maple tree and sat with our backs against the trunk, facing the river. Gabe rolled the joint in his single-minded fastidious way while I lazily skimmed stones into the water. Some skipped, some sank. We talked and smoked, watching a flock of honking geese trace a wobbly V across the white sky.
"How did you end up in this shithole town anyway, Irish?" asked Gabe. I pinched the joint between my fingers: inhaled, exhaled, shrugged.
"I could have done an MBA in Dublin but I thought fuck it, I want to live abroad anyway and so I applied to a whole lot of US universities. This was the only one that said yes. Fucked if I know why they let me in."
Gabe took his turn inhaling, pausing to contemplate me through a veil of smoke.
"Probably the accent," he speculated.
"Or the eyes."
I glanced at Gabe then away quickly, my face flushing, and Gabe burst out laughing.
"Man, I didn't realize you could get any prettier until you blushed just then. Goddamn."
Naturally I scowled my disapproval of such talk. But the quickened tempo of my sneaky heart beat out a different story.
Gabe fluidly changed the conversation then, to some subject so safe and benign that I could honestly say I was thinking of nothing at all when it happened. In one confident effortless movement Gabe flicked the roach away and turned towards me, tenderly cradling the back of my head in his left hand like it was a Fabergé egg and pulling me in. For the duration of that kiss, which lasted either two minutes or two millennia, historians are still trying to sort it out, I frantically tried to record every sensation and sound and sight for posterity, like some crazed stenographer of love.
It was Gabe who heard the voices, it must have been because the next thing I knew we were separate entities again and Gabe was calmly lighting another joint behind a cupped hand. The kids approached, two girls and three boys, vaguely familiar faces from the campus, their backpacks clinking with every step.
Hey, said Gabe, looking up through squinted James Dean eyes as they passed. Hey, they said.
I sat with arms wrapped around my knees, resumed staring out at the river with a galloping runaway heart while the kids settled in about a hundred feet away, the baritone and soprano of their voices rising and falling as they talked shit and drank and laughed softly, mirth over the end of the scene they probably arrived just in time to witness. Gabe took a last drag with a little smile and then got to his feet, hoisting his backpack onto his shoulders.
"You ready to split?" His tone light and untroubled.
I nodded, scrambling to my feet with murder in my heart. How I hated those blameless kids for their bad timing: I wished them dead, drowned in the polluted river. Gabe and I peddled back to campus, Gabe with his hood pulled over his head blithe and chatty, prattling the whole way.
If we were together almost every day after that, we were never alone. There were always girls around, the glossy-haired high-pitched varsity types that tended to be drawn into Gabe's orbit. One night in desperation I joined an amorphous group heading to one of the downtown pubs known for its generous happy hour. There I took up a defensive slouch on a bar stool, staring across the room at Gabe, who sat with his arm around the waist of some pretty patrician bitch. She was gazing in adoration at his straight-nosed Roman profile. I ordered another drink and during the bitter course of finishing it managed to convince myself that Gabe took everyone to that place by the river as...what? Some kind of perverse friendship initiation?
"Hey Emmet." A kid from my political science class approached, pulled out the next stool while slopping beer foam on my jeans. "Shit, sorry man."
Forget it, I said. The guy, maybe his name was Jack, started up a conversation about the semester's study load but I didn't even pretend to participate, just slumped with my elbow resting in a puddle on the bar and stared miserably across the room at Gabe with combustible single-mindedness. I let Jack buy me one drink and then another in exchange for pretending to listen to him complain. By the time Gabe finally came my way I was drunk as hell. Gabe sat down, hooked an arm casually around my neck with his hand resting lightly on my chest, nodded hi to Jack. He leaned in close to my ear to be heard over the music, so close I could feel the warm breath on my neck.
"Hey Irish, if you don't stop looking at me like that I won't be held responsible for my actions."
I looked away, ashamed finally.
September was well underway and certain expectations and hopes had been packed away when Gabe called me one Friday to ask if I wanted to go to a strip club.
"There's a really filthy one I know, on the outskirts of town."
"Um, OK. When?"
"Fuck man, I don't know. Tonight?"
In the back seat of the taxi Gabe showed me the ecstasy pills he had scored, neat little pink discs stamped with the number seven, one of which he slipped into the pocket of my hoodie. The sign on the awning outside the strip joint read in cursive, Gentlemen's Club.
We washed the pills down at the bar with gin and tonics. I remarked that this was an incredibly classy joint as I took in the streaked walls swathed in padded red fabric and the yellow lamps swaddled in soiled satin. The orange and green and pink lights bled and pulsated with a sickening urgency as we watched the show begin. As the first frantic signals began to fizz inside my brain I leaned in to Gabe, shouting over the grinding music, "Do you have any singles?"
Gabe laughed, fished out some sweaty crumpled notes from his pocket, slapped them onto my palm and took a slug of his drink. His eyes glittered like an ocean in which sailors long to drown. What? Concentrate, Emmet. I shoved my way to the stage and gestured with a smile to one of the less attractive strippers, who obliged by shimmying over and bending down so I could snap a handle of singles in the cheap elastic of her panties.
"Why did you do that?" asked Gabe when I rejoined him at the bar.
"That. With the money?"
"Well I don't know if you noticed but we're in a strip bar." The words came out skittered and slippery, not joined together in any logical way. "Do you not approve?"
Gabe shook his head with a smile.
"Wasn't this your idea?" I insisted.
"Sure. I love these places."
I shrugged. "Well, continue to not make sense."
"Listen Irish, it's no great riddle, I dig the kitchiness, that's all. Doesn't mean I have to approve of what these ladies do for a living."
"I can see why you didn't get into that feminist theory class."
Gabe laughed, finished off his drink and wiped his mouth back-handed like he'd been practicing from watching old westerns.
"You're misunderstanding me. I fully respect their right as women to exercise the autonomy of their own bodies by gyrating on a stage. I just don't respect them asking money for it."
"Why you dirty little communist!"
But I've read some Marx in my time and it occurred to me that my friend might just contain the seeds of his own destruction.
We stood together for a while, jaws working, until one of the strippers who had already danced her set muscled her way over, honing in on me as the more obvious dispenser of cash. I gallantly fixed her up with an Alabama Slammer while Gabe looked on, amused.
"You boys sure are lookers," she drawled hopefully. "Where'd you blow in from?"
"Mars," answered Gabe.
"Don't listen to him," I said, reminded in my sentimental state of a favorite great-aunt of mine from the old country. When we hugged I could feel her hard tits against my rib cage.
Head by now fully abuzz with a swarm of bees frantically resetting my neural pathways for pleasure, I gazed at Gabe, statuesque and untouchable as a Greek god beneath the artificial lights. When I reached out for him I felt as though I were slipping off the edge of the universe. Gabe laughed.
"I guess it worked, huh? Follow me."
I disentangled myself from the stripper and followed Gabe through the heaving crowd. When he led me into the unbelievably squalid men's bathrooms I reeled back. Gabe said, "Don't wrinkle up your little nose like that. This is just a waystation. We're going through here."
He opened a magic portal I hadn't even noticed at the back of the bathroom, which gave out onto a tiny sliver of alleyway. I noted without any particular dismay the sheer volume of syringes and other drug paraphernalia strewn in the easement. Gabe closed the door gently behind us, abruptly shutting off the loud world. He put a finger to his lips and smiled.
Now there was just the wind rustling in some nearby pines and the stars wheeling overhead. I telescoped my neck in wonder and Gabe gently pushed me until my back was pressed up against the brick wall. It felt cold but pleasingly, sensuously so. Gabe put out his hand and stroked my cheek and then were kissing and falling but somehow staying upright and Gabe was pressing the length of his body along mine and it became difficult to tell which hard-on belonged to which man and it didn't really seem to matter.
Gabe ran his hands up under my shirt and I groaned. Stop, I feel like I'm going to come.
Gabe pressed his jaw against the side of my face and whispered in my ear, I'm going to fuck you so hard you won't be able to walk straight.
Then time became elastic for a moment and I felt death standing by, not impatiently but with unnerving tenacity, like a cat at a mouse hole. I decided my last act must be to kneel down in the dirt in defiance of my horror of syringes and the bodily fluids of strangers to blow my beautiful friend, but instead found myself being dragged back through the purgatory of the bathrooms, then levitating through the club, being disgorged into the merciful cool of the evening and sealed inside an intergalactic cab, then finally arriving at my cramped bachelor apartment in Center Square, where Gabe made good on his promise. Although it wasn't walking straight but thinking straight that seemed to be my main affliction afterwards.
I woke as dawn was leaking through my thin white curtains. Gabe was lying beside me, statue made flesh. On his back with one arm crooked beneath his head, white sheets bunched up just below his washboard stomach, staring at the ceiling as if patiently reading through a legal document written there. I furtively memorized it all: the smooth chest bisected by a narrow black trail of hair that ran from his clavicle to his pubic bone. The tiny gold ring encircling his right ear lobe. The fact he looked clean-shaven even with week-old scruff. Gabe, sensing eyes on him, turned to smile at me and light poured from his skin, a last little gift of the drug.
"I love you so much."
Gabe frowned. "Don't say that."
"I don't care. I don't expect you to say it. I know you probably don't feel the same way."
This time when Gabe extended his hand to caress the back of my head it wasn't like he was handling a Fabergé egg, more like a stone he was trying to crush.
"Listen to me." His dark eyes blazed with a terrible fire. "Let's get one thing straight. I would die for you. Die for you. In a heartbeat." I smiled, the dormant bees in my brain resuming a low-pitched humming. "But I have no intention of doing that. None. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
The bees disappeared. I nodded. But in truth I didn't understand what Gabe was saying, not then.
Later that afternoon when the MDMA buzz had finally worn off and the fearful melancholy had set in, I distracted myself by taking an inventory of the items that had been removed and placed on the nightstand as Gabe had peeled off his clothes the night (morning?) before, emerging out of his sweatshirt and T-shirt and jeans and shorts looking so artlessly, heart-stoppingly fine I wasn't sure I would survive it. I certainly hadn't been concentrating on the contents of my lover's pockets as I gazed upon his nakedness for the first time. But now those contents seemed to warrant further examination. Let's see. Keys, lip balm, a pocket knife. A lighter, papers, notes and coins, a screwed-up receipt. A small dented and pitted metallic box that looked like an old-fashioned cigar case, engraved on the front with a faded green image that might have been a dragon, or an imp. From its clasp hung a little locked padlock.
"Your stash of extra special condoms," I teased, dangling the case out of Gabe's reach, but Gabe just smiled mysteriously.
"Oh come on, tell me what's in it."
"It's something precious to me, that's all."
"What kind of thing?"
"A less standup guy might say that's none of your business."
"Oh for fuck's sake."
"If you must know, it's my most treasured possession. The most precious thing in the world to me."
I studied the outside of the case, which was made of some kind of flimsy soft metal, like beaten copper, but it weighed a lot more than I would have guessed. I shook the box, keeping my eyes on Gabe's face. It gave off a faint rattle, but I realized that was just the lock hitting against the side. So whatever was in there must have been packed pretty tightly.
After graduation, just before we left Albany, two things happened. The first was that Gabe took me to meet his parents. They still lived above the pawn broker's, in a rambling six-room wallpapered apartment packed literally floor to ceiling with other people's relinquished objects, things modern life had rendered irrelevant or shameful: sets of encyclopedias, transistor radios, watches, Bakelite telephones, vinyl records and record players, Civil War-era weapons, plastic bins full of tangled costume jewelry, cameras, Playboys dating back decades, if not centuries. (Some of the models looked antediluvian.) There was even a pinball machine, half covered with a yellow striped sheet.
The most startling was the life-size stuffed lion, threadbare and desperate looking in the corner, its mangy jaw prized wide to reveal ruined teeth, damage from some kind of burrowing insect, and the kind of impotent rage you'd expect the king of the jungle to feel on coming to such an insalubrious end. There was something insane about not just the environment but the way each of them -- Gabe and his parents -- acted like it wasn't there.
I confess I had imagined them bitter and eccentric, maybe even estranged like my parents. Instead they were upbeat wild-haired hippies in the Berkeley/Summer of Love mold, brimming with a strange and incandescent ebullience like children. It wasn't hard to see where Gabe's grave, Slavic-style looks had come from. (You see, even now I can't pin him down, not even the geography of his beauty.) They were extravagantly affectionate with one another and seemed eager to display an almost aggressive open-mindedness.
"This is my friend, Emmet," Gabe said and his mother Jeanie nodded approvingly and answered with warmth, "How lovely."
She took a small Murano glass airplane off a shelf, blew dust off and presented it to me. I blushed and stammered thank you, not sure where to put the fragile thing.
"Oh and I kept this funny little thing for you, sweetheart."
She pulled a necklace from the pocket of her denim overalls, fastened it behind her son's neck. It was a tiny green stone, perhaps jade, shaped like an arrowhead and strung on a piece of black leather. She stood back and we all gazed at Gabe with varying degrees of approval and adoration. I felt an odd and inexplicable jealousy as we drove away. A week later Gabe took the necklace off and gave it to me.
"It would look better on you," he said, folding it into my palm. I've never taken it off since apart from to shower.
The second thing was that I decided to get a tattoo to commemorate my time in Albany. I had a Celtic cross tattooed on my left biceps and in the crossbar I had the tattoo artist ink the number 7 and Gabe's name in tiny Gothic print, wound through the design like a secret. I tried to talk Gabe into getting a tattoo as well but he declined. Too permanent, he said.
After we moved to New York City I got a job as a junior analyst at an investment bank in midtown. I bought a custom-tailored black Dior suit that seemed to go with my new position in life. But when I presented myself in it for the first time, Gabe just studied me for a while then said with a genial shrug, I prefer you in jeans and a T-shirt. Given that Gabe still dressed like a student, all hoodies and sneakers and baggy jeans slung low to reveal an inch of boxer briefs, I suppose he meant it. He kept his hair buzzcut short and kept his little gold hoop earring too, because he didn't care or didn't feel which way the winds of fashion were blowing. But it all suited him and even years after our first meeting I never looked at him without feeling the huge, precarious desire. If anything it got larger and less controllable as time went on.
Another thing I failed to lose: my curiosity about the contents of the cigar case, which began to assume an outsized significance, especially given how infuriatingly careless Gabe was with it. I became an expert at detecting the distinct sound of that padlock rattling against the metal, and while the sound sometimes came from Gabe's pocket, where he would compulsively turn it over and over when he was concentrating on something, at other times I'd find it shoved under a cushion when I cleaned the apartment, or sitting on top of a book or fallen behind the sofa.
In bed one rainy fall afternoon, watching a shirtless Gabe make coffee in my East Village galley kitchen, I'd had enough:
"Are you ever going to tell me what's in it?"
"There's no need for you to know."
"If it's so precious to you, why do you leave it just lying around where anyone could take it?"
"Because what's inside wouldn't be precious to anyone else."
"Look just tell me what's in there and I'll never ask about it again."
Gabe laughed. "Oh cool, what a great deal."
"I hate you."
"Do you really though?"
Gabe sauntered over, placed his coffee cup on the bedside table and stood looking down at me, sprawled on the edge of the bed on propped elbows, my legs dangling.
"Yes, I really do hate you."
"How about now?"
I turned my head away, sulking. "Yes."
"How about now?"
I pushed him away. "Yes, still quite a lot."
"How about now?"
"A little bit."
"How about now?"
"Maybe not as much."
Then Gabe didn't let me talk anymore.
The longest job Gabe had was teaching boxing at a Chelsea gym. He liked it, he said. It was disciplined but mindless, so he could think about whatever he wanted. Some days he would come home with yellow and purple bruises on his back and chest, like faded tattoos.
"Why don't you get a better job?" I nagged. "You're so much smarter than you act."
Gabe just shrugged.
"You know I don't like white collar jobs. I want to be able to leave anytime, without any fuss."
This chafed almost as much as wondering whatever happened to the various gifts I had given Gabe over the years: the cufflinks, the watch, the messenger bag, the shoes. All missing. I refused to see any of these things as warnings, being more the type to double down.
"I've been thinking," I brought up over drinks one night. "We could buy an apartment together now that I have this job. Live together at last."
A long silence: not hostile, but still.
"I like where I'm living though. With Charlotte paying the rent and all I have to do is look after her cat. It's a sweet deal. And all the furniture belongs to her. I'd have to get new furniture if we moved in together."
"We could buy furniture together, for fuck's sake. Why don't we go shopping this weekend, find some stuff we both like?"
Gabe shook his head in wonder.
"Why do you have this fixation with buying stuff?"
"Because that's normal!" I shouted at him. "That's what people do who want to live together! You act like you're the normal one but you're not the normal one! I'm the normal one!"
"I don't recall ever acting like the normal one actually."
I closed my eyes then, made a steeple with my hands to hide my stinging sight within that darkened church. Gabe stood in front of me, bent my head towards him and kissed my forehead softly, like a priest bestowing benediction. That was the closest he ever got to apologizing.
Some people just need a push. Especially stubborn people like Gabe. This theory didn't even pass muster in my own head let alone in the actual world, nevertheless it was my last strategy and as such propelled me all the way into Tiffany & Co. to loiter around the glass cabinets while an almost unbearably sympathetic middle-aged lady in a houndstooth jacket tried to gently steer me in the direction of whichever wedding bands truly spoke to me. In the end I quite literally fled. She must have pegged me as a reluctant groom. I stood on Fifth Avenue close to hyperventilating, head bowed, face consumed in a blush that rose from some infernal internal furnace: my shame, my eternal tell.
In the end I decided it was better anyway to do it without the rings. But before I could stammer it out over dinner that night, Gabe had already preempted, Gabe who was always several steps ahead, close to bursting with exciting news of his own. Not quite on the same level as what I had planned though, no.
It was obvious from Gabe's disappointed face that I had failed in my one required task, which had been to appear delighted.
I confess I did something terrible the night before Gabe was due to fly out to Nepal. I took Gabe's precious cigar case and hid it away somewhere I knew Gabe would never think to look. But Gabe didn't even ask after it. A month later, an email from someone else's computer:
I made it to Annapurna and now Lukla. Nepal is beautiful and disgusting. I got pretty sick the first couple of weeks I was here but I'm fine now. I've hooked up with a group of climbers from Switzerland who are making the ascent to base camp some time next week. I'm planning to go with them. Will report back from the basement of the roof of the world.
I miss you like crazy and I think about you all the time.
I doubt I'll ever love anyone again like I've loved you.
Until next time,
There were many line breaks and then a P.S. I almost missed.
P.S. I know you stole my cigar case, and I forgive you. I'm sure you've opened it by now. I hope it answers whatever questions you had.
I put my head in my hands and cried then. Not so much over the belated declaration of love which anyway I had gamely believed in all along, but with the bitter knowledge that Gabe wasn't coming back, for his most prized possession or for me.
I took the little cigar case from its hiding spot. I found a hammer and smashed the lock open. It was laughably flimsy, I could probably have broken it with a fingernail. I weighed it in my hand for a moment before opening it. It wasn't such a surprise really to find that the box was empty. It was lined with some kind of heavy metal, maybe lead, which must have been what made it so heavy. There was a story I could have told himself at this point, that Gabe had found the case in its hiding place and taken the precious contents with him for safekeeping. But I knew that wasn't the truth. I knew the box had been empty all along.
So a few weeks later, standing in the middle of my empty apartment surrounded by the last of the bags packed for the flight back to Dublin, I can't really explain why I slipped the cigar case in at the last minute, zipping the bag up with it safe inside. Gabe and his empty symbolism. As if he needed reminding of his precious freedom. But I'm not Gabe: objects and talismans have always mattered to me. I've always been sentimental that way.
Published in Structo magazine (UK), Autumn/Winter 2017
I don’t need to invite you to imagine her because she is everywhere. Her likeness, that is. Choose the phase in which you prefer to picture her. Some favor her early years, the dewy newness of her a gift bestowed on the public by a particularly generous anonymous donor. It may as well have been illegal for anyone to write about her in those days without making reference to Lolita, either directly or obliquely. The erotic mass of her golden hair pouring over her lightly freckled shoulders (always exposed it seems), the clarity of the gaze with which she pouted out of magazine pages. Her eyes an unearthly green and her lips with their exaggerated cupid’s bow. You might choose to skip ahead if you prefer not to think about what her breasts were like in those days, those breasts so ponderous and womanly on that slight frame. Insiders claimed they were real, too, and they should know. Such breasts on a girl so recently a child, it didn’t seem quite right. Don’t worry, it wasn’t just you, it made everyone uncomfortable.
Or you might prefer to conjure up her mid-career years, when her maturity seemed to catch up to her physicality. Remember the acclaim, and the smugness of those who had predicted it all along, who had called it early. She did her best work then, in hindsight. There was the movie about the drug-addicted single mother in which she heroically declined to wear makeup or have her hair styled: who could forget that arresting sight, her familiar features so touching in their nakedness, like she was offering her very soul up to us for scrutiny? Like any self-respecting starlet she did her time treading the boards as well – ten shows a week, two matinees – for that Broadway show that was a big hit at the time. It was another difficult role, a Liz Taylor Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf scenery-chewing role, the kind that actors profess to really love getting their teeth into. She might even have played Virginia Woolf herself. It’s not important now. What matters is that she did it, made herself dowdy and undesirable for us. Her beauty was more respectable by then. It didn’t make everyone feel so weird anymore. She cut that glorious mane off to just below her ears for some other role and there was a general outcry, a lamenting, but some of us were secretly grateful.
Only the truly merciless will insist instead on picturing her as she is now. Not old, not so young anymore, but diminished. That is the tragedy of it in the end, that she is less than she was and that we are all somehow to blame. We killed her. Not literally, feel free to Google her, she’s as alive as any of us. But in some less palpable way she is no longer here. We killed her best friend as well, although he really is dead, in the biological sense. Ashes to ashes dead. Clods of dirt on the coffin dead. Discovered in the bath tub by the housekeeper dead. No need to look that up.
So choose your version of her and join me as I contemplate her now, enjoying the last few moments before her best friend is about to call her up for the last time. She is late arriving on set, but everyone involved in the making of the movie already expects that, in the bitter and exhausted way of people who have given up any hope that the film might come in under the eight hundred thousand dollars that was crowd-funded to get it rolling. She is in the back seat of her black Escalade and she is insisting on stopping for a cold brew coffee, ostensibly because she had a late night and needs the caffeine but also for the unspoken understanding that she needs validation, must have validation of the value of her existence from someone in the coffee shop before she can reasonably be expected to begin her day.
Her assistant Aaron – if you’re an entertainment journalist you’d know him as the exceedingly well-groomed blond guy who sits quietly yet with a certain unimpeachable authority in the corner while you interview her, ready to cut off any verboten lines of enquiry with the slightest lifting of his silver pen, the universally understood warning signal that you might want to ask a different question – Aaron has long ago given up trying to convince her it’s not a good idea to sally forth alone into public places. He, like the rest of us, has his own problems.
So he remains in the front passenger seat of the Escalade as it idles curbside, checking emails and trying not to think about her in there, drawing stares that any woman braless in a tank top would have elicited regardless of her level of fame, trying also not to think about his most bitter regret these days, that he hadn’t opted to work with her twin brother, Lee, instead. You might now have to even stop and wrack your brain for a moment. It’s possible these days to forget about Lee for whole weeks at a time. He doesn’t appear in celebrity magazines or on VH1 and he doesn’t even have his own blog or Twitter account. He is functionally non-existent.
No need to feel sorry for him, though, that’s the way he wants it as far as anyone can tell. Seven or eight years of the spotlight were enough for him, if you can believe it. After the sitcom finally ended there had been talk of them both going on to star in and produce their own show about child stars, the meta nature of which delighted some of us at the time, but he put the kibosh on that idea. You might remember reading about how the parents were outraged at his lack of interest in exploiting his adolescence further, how they basically disowned him when he declared he didn’t want them to be his managers anymore. How we all wondered and gossiped about that at the time. What was wrong with him? A few years later he announced he was going to law school because he wanted to be, get this, a human rights lawyer. That’s when he had approached Aaron: he wanted to hire a full-time assistant. But no. Aaron had allowed himself instead to be seduced away by the sister, who at that time was at her most incandescent and irrefusable.
So now here a substantially older Aaron is, waiting outside a coffee shop off Ventura Boulevard for his charge to wrap up the latest episode in her exhausting crusade for attention. She, meanwhile, is waiting for her coffee order to be completed, feigning obliviousness to the cafe all atwitter around her, to the patrons barely bothering to hide the fact they are holding their phones aloft to snap pictures of her. These are her most triumphant moments these days, the times when she inhabits most completely her true self. That many of these same patrons will later attempt to sell their snapshots to a celebrity weekly for a special called “Washed-Up Stars We Still Love” is beside the point.
She scrolls with practiced nonchalance through her messages and stops with a frown at one from James.
I need to talk to you.
Unlike him to send such a short message and as such it does not bode well. Imagine her predicament. She does not respond to cries of help. There is an understanding between herself and anyone she lets into her circle that she is the one who needs help, she is the one who needs to talk to you. But James holds a special sanctified place in her life. She thinks of him as The Only One Who Understands.
And it is true that he alone fully knows the pain of being a stage-managed child whose formative years were spent under the crushing weight of expectation and the constant threat of abuse both physical and psychological. (We all know what monsters his parents were.) He alone knows the impossibility of resisting the siren call of oblivion that certain substances bring. He is intimately acquainted with scandals both rumored and verified. He too is on those celebrity death watch lists. And even if their shared condition is not that uncommon in this world, she still feels he is the only one to comprehend the exact dimensions of her suffering.
There is also a sanctimonious aspect to her relationship with him. She doesn’t mind telling him that insisting on only taking roles in which he can star opposite children isn’t doing him any favors. She tried to talk him out of fostering those kids, and building that school. Don’t give them ammunition, she had scolded. But he didn’t listen. He loved children so much and while she might have become incapable over the years of experiencing any kind of real empathy, in this regard she could genuinely say she felt for him and honestly, deep down, believed that his interest in children was innocent. Who knows? Certainly not any of us, we weren’t there.
Nevertheless she is torn now. Does she call him? Wait until after the certain dreariness of the day on the under-catered set of this humiliatingly low-budget movie – on which it is already painfully obvious that nothing, absolutely nothing, will go right – is behind her? No, by then the only thing she’ll care to do will be to line up a couple of bumps in her trailer – if they even have a trailer – and have someone mix up one of the childishly sweet cocktails she is unashamed of loving in spite of everyone making fun of her for it. James makes the decision for her in the end, calling as she is stepping back into the Escalade (a paparazzo is on the scene by then and takes a listless shot up her short skirt while crouching in the gutter), but James’s voice is so faint she can barely hear him.
I can’t hear you, she shouts, signaling impatiently for the driver to get going. They move away from the curb, glide into the traffic and merge onto the freeway. Finally they are stuck in the middle lane of a hopeless snarled gridlock that stretches for miles in each direction with the Eagles’ Hotel California issuing from the radio. It is only then she understands that her best friend, The Only One Who Understands Her, has done something terrible and that it is too late to do anything about it.
James, James! Answer me, James!
I’m here baby, he whispers in what would have sounded a seductive voice if she hadn’t already known he didn’t like her in that way. (Is this part of why she clings to him, that he’s the only attractive man she’s ever met who hasn’t wanted to fuck her?) I’m here.
James, what’s happening there? Aaron!
Aaron’s gleaming head cranes around from the front seat, alarmed at her tone. She waves him away. What can he possibly do, after all?
I’m coming to get you, okay? Don’t move! Are you at home? James?
I’m at home, he says, and he laughs long and soft and low, a sound that terrifies her.
Don’t leave me, she implores.
Baby girl, he whispers. Baby girl.
What have you done? She cries, but she knows or can guess at it.
It’s all good now. His voice is so, so faint she has to block her other ear to try and hear him. It’s…
What? What are you saying?
What…you just what?
His voice comes through loudly for a moment, but it sounds strange and labored and whistling, the rumor of a train approaching.
I just wanted to feel young again. He expels the words in a long sigh.
Please no. Aaron is frantically signaling for the driver to pull over as soon as he can. He reaches over the seat for her hand and she lets him take it.
I want you to know I didn’t hurt anybody.
Stop it, James. Stop it right now. You’re scaring me.
I never had a childhood. She thinks she can hear his voice crack then. I just wanted to be young. Just once.
Please don’t. Please don’t leave me, she whimpers. Please hold on.
They ki…his voice is whisked away on an errant wind, then tossed back towards her.
They killed us.
Then he is gone.
Everyone was at the funeral. Everyone. You remember it, I’m sure. It would have been crass to call it the funeral of the year, nonetheless that’s what most of us secretly felt. Many things were forgiven that day. Cruel words were taken back. Sins were absolved. Certain accusations were shelved. Her former incandescence was reignited briefly at the funeral. You’ll recall how she looked so tragic and beautiful and young, alone and shivering in a veil and a low-cut black Valentino inappropriate for the season, goose bumps etched like braille in her still-delicate skin. Too thin though, some of us felt. Almost emaciated. She was supposed to say a few words but in the end she was overcome by grief and had to be led away. Everyone knew how she had loved him, had stood by him through everything. You had to admire her for that.
Imagine her afterwards, back in the safety and loneliness of the hotel room, half out of her mind with grief and the very best cocaine on the continent, and what must have gone through her head as she gazed into that face in the mirror, with its Rorschach blots of mascara and cheeks mottled from the cold. It doesn’t get better, she must surely have been thinking.
And outside in the street, the reporters and gawkers and hangers-on dispersing to nearby bars to avidly discuss it all; and a few of the worst – the most heartless – among them would have been moving her straight to the top of their list. You know the type.