Friday, October 28, 2011

Sam



I'm too old to know that Lauren "L.C." Conrad from MTV's “Laguna Beach” has an internship at Teen Vogue and is unlucky in love. I know that Mischa Barton from “The O.C.” has been wearing high-waisted jeans too often and needs to give the trend a rest. I know that Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton's former BFF, likes her boys "skinny and pale," like her ex-fiancĂ©, "DJ A.M." Adam Goldstein, and her current boyfriend, the tattooed and eyeliner-wearing Joel Madden from the band Good Charlotte, who is Hilary Duff's ex.

I look at them each week, People, Us Weekly, Life&Style, InTouch, Star, OK!, in order from least to most trashy. If there's a tremor in a celebrity's life, I know about it. I'm like a celebrity seismograph.

One week, there was a cover photo of a passed-out-drunk Lindsay Lohan sitting in the passenger seat of an SUV, eyes closed and brow furrowed and mouth wide open. She was wearing a hoodie with the hood up, as if someone had pulled the hood up for her, maybe to shield her face from paparazzi. But this photo succeeded in getting her face, head back against the seat, her lips parched and pale, her freckled skin tanned to within an inch of its life, glamorously made-up eyes pressed closed so that the lashes formed soft black crescent moons on the tops of her cheeks. What struck me was not so much this picture of a young, promising starlet living too fast and crashing before our eyes. What struck me was the person in the driver's seat.

Her name is Samantha Ronson, and she goes by "Sam." She's the daughter of someone in the entertainment industry, an “impresario” they call him, a heavyweight music producer. She has a twin named Charlotte, a hip fashion designer with long hair. Sam is a deejay, popular among the Hollywood kids, and her hair is short. She looks like a very pretty boy. I think she might be a lesbian—there were rumors of a lesbian affair between Lindsay and Sam. In the photo, Sam is leaning across from the driver's seat with a look of tender concern and protectiveness. It's a far sweeter look than you'll see on the faces of the guys Lindsay is photographed with, a turnstile succession of guys, some with names you'd put in bold type in a magazine gossip column, some who are more obscure – up-and-coming male models or Greek heirs to some unfathomable fortune.

***

From tabloids, I learn about human nature. There are patterns: Oh look, Drew Barrymore and her boyfriend, Fabrizio Moretti of The Strokes, break up, then she's photographed looking thin and laughing at the beach as ocean waves crash around her, and going to an outdoor music festival with her best friend, Cameron Diaz, and showing up at movie premieres looking happy and adorable – and now her boyfriend wants her back. When Prince William breaks up with Kate Middleton, she keeps her head held high and is photographed looking happy while shopping in London, and she goes on with her life, smiling all the while – and suddenly Will is said to want her back, too.

How do you make someone want you? Look beautiful and pretend you are happy without him.

***

Many people, even those who don't look at celebrity tabloids, know that Britney Spears had a meltdown and shaved her head. There were articles in which body-language experts studied her facial expressions in photos taken around that time and said she had the defensive stare and snarling mouth of a cornered dog.

Around the time that Britney and Lindsay were doing their stints in rehab, and that Amy Winehouse song came out about how "they tried to make me go to rehab, but I said no, no, no," I was longing for a place like that, but one that regular people could afford. In the photos, taken from surreptitious helicopters, of the posh rehab places that look more like resorts, the ones that celebrities go to, there are cabanas with clean white-canvas roofs and blooming hibiscus in bright sunshine. It's like going to a spa, and the people there treat you very delicately, or so I imagine. You have someone come and make your bed in the morning, someone to do your laundry. You eat meals prepared by a chef, maybe meditate in the afternoon, and write in a journal. Someone massages you out under that cabana. You stroll along the grounds and think about your life. No rush, no pressure, no cell phone or e-mail or BlackBerry. Around that time, I wanted a poor-man's version of this because I was thinking about ending my life; I'm not famous, so you won't read about why.

***

Here's a clue to why I was thinking about ending my life: Bart sent me a message asking me to hook up with him again. He wants to drug me with amyl nitrite, or "video head cleaner" as it's called by people who know about such things, so that my body will be relaxed enough for him to enter me anally. It falls under that category of things his wife won't do but I will. I don't know why I will. It's not as if he'll love me for it. But this is only a clue and not the overarching reason why I can’t do this for much longer. It’s not a paparazzi snapshot, but it’s the scandalous picture that I give to you so you can create a story around it; it’s likely that story will be completely wrong.

I later found out that Sam wasn't looking at Lindsay with tender concern and protectiveness. She'd had something to do with Linday's wasted state that night; the two had gotten into a fight earlier. If anything, Sam was probably looking at Lindsay with sheepishness, worried she was somehow at least partly responsible for the ruin in the passenger seat of the wrecked SUV that night. My story about that picture had been completely wrong.

In the green night-vision video of Paris Hilton having sex, that video everyone has either seen or knows about, she poses for the camera, arches her back, piles her long platinum hair on top of her head and releases it in a cascade, a tumble. She's looking to the lens for love, as if the guy fucking her isn't even there.

Sidra considers lunch

It’s noon now so I’ll just wait out the sun and the lunch crowds. Herds on the street, cannibalistically going for cow patties. Sheep wearing lightweight wool. I can’t see them as people.
I’m trying not to move. The air-conditioning unit is broken. I told the manager last week but it’s easier to leave things the way they are. You can do that, until someone scares you into thinking you have to change.
For lunch, I always try to go someplace familiar, where my presence is unremarkable. After the first time or two, I cease to be that girl they saw up on the big screen. They see me stammer my order – Mr. Daniels says I can’t be articulate without a script; he didn’t mean for it to come out that way; we were at that party and he’d been drinking and he said, “Oh Sidra, honey I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.” But I know it’s the truth. I open my mouth in real life and the spell is broken.
They ask about my glamorous life, and I tell them oh, it’s going swell – I have a maid and everything.
They say: Really? And I say: Yes, she works for the Motel 6.
I wait for a terrible moment before smiling to show them that hey, it’s OK, you can laugh. And then they laugh. But for that moment, they look so shocked and ashamed. I have to admit, I kind of like it – telling some swoony-eyed guy or lady that the stars don’t all live in castles made of cloud. I mean, people need to learn the truth someday, about everything. Even though the entertainment reporters say I represent superficial beauty, lies. They have never asked me about this, not once.
I should have had it better, Mr. Daniels says. He says he wants to strangle my agent for not making sure I had better contracts, but I feel that at last I am getting what I deserve, after so many years of getting more.
Karma balances things out. I believe this. But it will also punish you for things you never asked for.
I never asked for this, any of it. I simply took the path of the least resistance. Also, I don’t want to let Mr. Daniels down. In some ways, I am his project, although I know he thinks of me as a daughter. Still, it was his hand that nudged me toward the director who put me in the first flop and then the sequel.
“Everybody deserves a second chance.” For the sequel, he altered the role, tried to give my character more depth, even did the lighting different to create shadows of age on my face. I tried hard, too. But the audience wasn’t buying it.
So here I am, in my room that a maid cleans each day, sitting by the silent air-conditioner unit, a broken box that nobody fixes and that even I am giving up on, looking out onto the stampede on the sidewalks and streets. I don’t think of them as people, and I don’t want to join them. So help me, I don’t want to join them in anything. They do not love me back.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sidra

All babies are beautiful. It must have become apparent sometime after that, then.

The genetic jackpot. Not to her credit, not her fault. A roll of the dice. That’s the way it goes for everyone. Heads she won, said whoever had tossed the coin and made up that rule.

She rode the wave. She had no choice.

There were moments when she felt it was to her credit, even though she knew better. Occasionally she looked down on those perceived as less than she was. Couldn’t they do something about it? Not that she ever had, one way or the other.

“Chosen one” – she wondered what it was like for Jesus. Star over the humble manger and all that. All babies are beautiful, so how did they know? Right, God still spoke to people back then. Did He ever wish He could be normal? Like she did, wishing she did not always have to see such pride pouring from her parents’ eyes when she had not earned this. People have free will – like hell they do, she thought.

Whenever anyone at school was mean to her, her mother said, “They are just jealous.”

She got lazy. People made up their minds about her right away anyway, and why waste the energy trying to change them? The female teachers, many of them older and plain, were determined not to let her coast just because other people did, or so they assumed. The male teachers, many of them flustered around her, were resigned to not give things to her just because they wished they could.

There was Mr. Shields, who cleared his throat around her too much, and whose hands shook when he handed back her papers.

“What?” she wanted to ask.

The female students who studied her too hard, making a game of trying to find her flaws. The male students who saw her as a trophy, and later a conquest.

She didn’t make the cheerleading squad because the other girls claimed she was too clumsy, although she knew she was not. Only the theatre teacher, Mr. Daniels, truly loved her – he was gay, and saw in her a great, tortured star. Thus began her habit of only having gay male friends.

Onstage, she tried to prove herself. Only here did she bother to change their minds. Mr. Daniels had connections, old acting-school friends who had made good out West, and got her an audition with a man making a “small art film.” It wasn’t porn – she could trust Mr. Daniels to not throw her into that. But once she was in town, before she got paid for the film – she had to eat, she had to pay her bills at the motel where she rented a room by the week, never sure how long she was really going to be here. Mr. Daniels urged her to stay, to meet people, that was the way to get more work, and sent a little money when he could to help her get by. It always seemed temporary, as if she were going home the next week.

That was how she justified it when she vacated her body and let it be used for whatever – “This picture will get me $200, and that will let me stay here for two more weeks, plus buy some groceries and maybe even a new dress.” She went cold and did math while it was happening: the floor-length plum dress had cost $30 at the vintage-clothing store; the silky half-kimono was $10 because it was stained and torn. Yes, she could have these things.

And then one night she went to a party. Mr. Daniels told her on the phone it was an honor just to be invited, and flew out to help her pick out what to wear and even be her “date.” No one batted an eye at their age difference, and besides he spoke and gestured in that way they all recognized, so everyone there quickly knew the deal.

He had heard that an important director at the party was on the lookout for a new muse; his last one – a household name, magazine pictures of her tacked to walls of teenage girls’ bedrooms – had grown stale, had gotten into drugs and left town. Mr. Daniels put his hand on Sidra’s back and nudged her into an invisible spotlight. “This is Sidra. She’s the one you’ve been looking for.” He said it with such faith that Sidra believed him. So did the director.

The director’s first film starring Sidra won critical raves but failed to win the hearts of audiences. But then, everyone was poor and there was a war going on, so who cared about this pretty girl with her loneliness, who had been given too much in life and was unable to give it back?

The director made a sequel anyway, because he was in love with her from afar, but he lost too much money and had to move on to the next girl. The new girl was scrappy and full of pluck, a spirit of the times, and she was unconventionally beautiful, so everyone celebrated that she was the anti-Sidra. In magazine articles, trend watchers placed their pictures side-by-side and talked about exactly what it was about Sidra that kept audiences from loving her.

“She has the kind of beauty that feels inaccessible to most people. Perfect face, perfect body. She’s certainly compelling to watch, and a naked pain comes through in many of her scenes. But in the end, there’s just too great a distance between her and the people in the seats. It keeps them from connecting with her, from really entering the story and feeling the character’s pain. They view her as an exotic bird, a rare specimen they secretly long to see shot down by a trophy hunter. They can’t help feeling that shooting the bird down is the right thing to do – the bird is too beautiful for this world, its very existence an affront somehow.”

She knew it was bullshit, and Mr. Daniels had said so, too, on the phone after reading the high-profile cover article – “The movies are an escape! When people are suffering, they don’t need to see a mirror showing and magnifying their miserable lives – they need to be reminded that something better exists.” She knew he didn’t mean “something better” as if she were superior, but it sounded that way, and she winced. And then she agreed with the reviewer, although she didn’t say so.

Whenever melancholy came on, she gave in to it; she had done that for as long as she could remember. She went to the zoo to see the exotic birds, the ones the writer had said people secretly want to see shot down out of the sky, or at least caged unhappily like the ones here, looking bored and shitting in their pseudo-tropical environment.

She didn’t work for a long time after that. So she vacated her body some more.

At a hamburger place one night she met a nice guy named Rodney. He was black, but Sidra of all people knew the passive role you played when life handed you your cards. He was just someone who was friendly, who teased her but not in a mean way, who made her laugh when she was sad.

“Sidra, is this what you want to be famous for?” Mr. Daniels swore that he, of all people, saw nothing wrong with it – but the papers would.

“Maybe,” she said. And Mr. Daniels sighed into the phone.

“Sweetie, I love you, but you’re no civil-rights crusader. You haven’t got the words to make people understand – unless you’ve got a script.” It had stung, but they had sworn long ago to be brutally honest with each other.

She and Rodney were photographed going to the movies together. She hadn’t realized it at the time; it must have happened on the way out. She remembered thinking how much she loved this, the lights down and the audience one collective eye watching the story. She remembered thinking it was too bad she spent so much time up there, on the screen, when it was nicer down here in the dark.

The photo ran on the front of a tabloid anyone could see in line at the supermarket. Reporters staked out her motel. She peeked out through the blinds at them, sitting with their cameras in the meager shade from the lot’s lone sickly palm tree. She tried to call Rodney but he was at work. She began to panic.

So she left town. She didn’t know what else to do. She promised herself she would call Rodney from somewhere along the road, and they would figure it all out. It was a Saturday, so she slid the rest of what she owed beneath the door of the motel manager’s office. She stuffed her golden hair into a baseball cap and put on big sunglasses and bulky clothes, but they saw right through it. The new photos appeared in the paper the next day.

Around eleven o’clock the night she left town, she finally stopped and got a room. She collapsed onto the motel bed, vowing to call Rodney in the morning. Only when she woke up did she realize he had surely seen the photos of her leaving town, hiding behind a disguise. She tried to reach him, but he was at work. She stayed where she was and called him every hour. By the second day, she gave up and checked out.

She couldn’t go home; to her parents she was still the movie star. (Had the news about her and Rodney gotten to them?) So she just drove. She had a little money, she had her car. She went to bars in little towns and drank. The rough men and women seemed to like her better a little crude, a little bawdy, so she swore and cackled like a witch and made dirty jokes. She would crash in a nearby motel, then move on to another little town and do it all again. Often they knew who she was and bought her drinks, and she would try to show them she was no better than they were. At the end of the year she looked in the mirror and saw she had aged a good decade. This felt fair; it was time for the coin to come up tails. She would have kept going, on into her grave. She always told her parents things were going just fine.

It was Mr. Daniels who saved her after she drunk-dialed him from another motel room. She had told him to tell Rodney that she loved him, and he interpreted this as a good-bye. “Where are you?" “I’m in Godforsaken, Nevada. I don’t know where I am.” “Sidra. Sidra, listen to me. Do you have your motel bill, with the address on it? No? OK, look in the nightstand drawer for the phone book – what town does it say on the top?” The phone book said Tonopah, and she told him this. “End scene,” she said and then passed out. In her drunkenness, she had thought it would be funny, to say that then. She had imagined it on her tombstone before.
“Sidra? Sidra?”

The doctors said just a few more hours and she would have been gone. But maybe they just said that to scare her.

Mr. Daniels had called the local police, and two officers drove to the only three motels in the area. It was late, but they finally spoke with a manager who recalled a guest matching Sidra's description and let them into her room. The manager and officers found her on the bathroom floor. The evidence lay around her like props: a bottle of top-shelf vodka, and a bottle of regular drugstore aspirin. She was wearing her long plum vintage gown and the torn, for-sale half-kimono. She had been wearing it before, overdressed for the small-town bar. The following morning, Mr. Daniels had flown to Las Vegas, rented a car, and found her in the hospital. After a few days, Sidra went back home with him.

Her parents put her up in her old room, and she slept for most of the day. Now the look that poured from their eyes was one of pain. It shamed her, yet she realized – finally they felt for her something she deserved, something she had earned.

A few months later, Mr. Daniels got her a gig helping with his acting classes and community-theatre workshops. The locals viewed her as their very own home-grown star, and attendance was high because she cast her light there. She went to the movies alone during the day to have the theatre to herself. She sat at the center and disappeared in the dark.

Sometimes – less and less often as time went on – she had to get out of town, just for the night. In the bars, she drank and was bawdy. Sometimes she formed her hand into the shape of a gun, pointing up at the sky and cackling as it showered her with invisible rainbow-colored feathers.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Andersons

The killer of children dipped her index and middle fingers into the jar of Pond’s Cold Cream and smeared some underneath each eye. The cold would shrink pores and tighten capillaries, pulling the skin taut. The emollients would soften dryness and decrease the visibility of fine lines and crow’s feet. That’s what was promised in the commercials and women’s–magazine ads: “decrease the visibility of fine lines.”

The duct system in the old house bypassed the bathroom that was hers. Heat flowed through the rooms, up and down the three aboveground stories and even into the basement and attic, breathing into the rooms via floor or ceiling vents, but her bedroom and bathroom were on the second story of a newer wing. Second story, new wing. Everything possessed some other, deeper meaning if you thought about it long enough. Or at least, the words did.

***

It would have been more ironic – that she worked at the sheriff’s office – had it not been such a small town. In a small town, it’s up to everyone to do everything. It’s like an elementary-school play where one kid plays the king and his best friend plays the thief who robs him just because somebody in the class has to; the role can’t go unfilled or you don’t have a play.

So she played her old part in the room with the other dispatchers who took the 911 calls. This was her role; it’d been unfair for her to be given two contradictory roles, the universe’s error, so she just pretended the newer one didn’t exist. Until it occurred to her that the second role – the villain of the play – had been her real part all along, and she had only been playing one of the normal townsfolk to kill time until her scene.

***

They blamed the ice.

After all, the accident happened on a lonely country road after a big storm. Thanksgiving Day, and the family driving home after a visit with the kids’ paternal grandparents, also named the Andersons. The town paper said the father had likely hit an invisible black patch, or had maybe been besieged by a sudden deer. They had gone into a ditch and flipped, the sedan ending up on its roof, which had smashed in. The family spent the night together in the field, still buckled up. Dawn came otherworldly to the field, bestowed it with heavenly hues that sparkled on the ice-crusted blades. Lt. McAllister had been the one on patrol, gliding along, thinking how pretty it all was. Of course she only knew this because she’d heard the story around the office. By then she was long gone.

***

It would pass. It had to. Her shaking hands. Insomnia. She turned to booze even more than before. The universe had made an error. Why hadn’t she joined them? “Excuse me, there must have been some mistake.”

***

Of all the stupid things to think about: How that group of popular girls from her high-school class would react if she turned herself in. How they would shape it into something pre-destined, because they were married and had children, and she had not gone that route. There must have always been something wrong with her.

She could have gone down that road, sure. There were boys, but they were boring to her. Then there were men, and they were never what she’d hoped they’d be. Or she never was.

She had worked at a cash register at the Piggly Wiggly after school and on summers and weekends. She had saved up – her parents had kicked in some – for a trip to Paris with her French teacher and a couple of the rich kids. Walking those magic streets alone in the morning – breaking her teacher’s rule to not go out unchaperoned – to get a croissant and bring it back to the hotel, she had vowed to return as an adult.

It occurred to her now that she still could. That was another error, because she wasn’t supposed to be so free. Why would the universe reward you for doing the wrong thing? Maybe a dark heart beat at the center of everything, and God was really the devil.

By then she was long gone.

***

Another stupid thing to think about: What dawn must have looked like on that icy field. Lt. McAllister always had that part in his story, about the colors and the sparkling. That was the part she could think about, and even liked to think about, found it calming as crazy as that sounded. She imagined the family transformed into glittering angels, the children with frost crystals in their eyelashes, twinkling in the morning sun.

***

She had been drinking.

Thanksgiving was hard. Her younger brother and sister both had kids, and dogs even. She lived alone in a room she rented – there were no apartment buildings in this town, not enough single young people for that – from a widow who had inherited a mansion. Not only was the bathroom cold, but when you twisted the spigot to use the sink or the tub, the pipes groaned and spat out rusty water first before relenting and changing to clear. As if the pipes had a role to play, too, and they weren’t happy about it. Maybe a weary heart beat at the center of everything.

***

Her parents didn’t know she drank. It was against their religion, but not hers. She told them what was in the bottle was a diet shake. That she was trying to shed some weight, so she was on this special diet. She even made up a part about how the shake had wheatgrass juice in it, although she’d never had that before and only said it because it sounded right. They believed her.

Her sister bounced her baby in her lap. Her brother wrestled with his small fluffy dog in front of the fire. Her father asked her if she had pepper spray, because she liked to go walking at night and it wasn’t safe for a pretty young woman to be out there alone. She said, “I take care of myself just fine, don’t worry.” And drank from her bottle.

***

She went out walking a week after it happened. She was drawn to the field but stayed away to avoid provoking suspicion. She wondered if someone had placed four crosses there, and plastic flowers.

The door at the side of the Baptist church was open, and children in coats were playing in the snow, packing it into balls in their mittened hands to take part in a benign fight. She stopped to watch them. The fight was only play, it wasn't real, so they laughed.

A girl with blond hair and a puffy pink coat ran up to her. This was what children did in this small town – they trusted grown-ups without question, because everyone here did everything.

The girl said, “Do you want to go to heaven?”

It must have been some game they were playing. Or maybe they had been learning about what heaven was like in Sunday-school class that week.

She said that yes, yes she did.

The girl took her hand and led her into the church. The other children followed as the blond girl took her into what looked like a classroom, one wall partly covered with construction-paper hand cut-outs that had children’s names on them. "Caitlin." "Max." It occurred to her that those two kids, the ones with the twinkling frost in their eyelashes, might have hands on that wall, but she had already gotten very good at dismissing thoughts like these before they really cut in.

“Come on!” said the girl, running down the hall on her own. The others streamed after her.

She should not have been able to go to Paris. She should not have been able to go to heaven. She walked toward where they had gone, because they had invited her.

The kids were now in a room filled with stiffly billowing white chiffon and Styrofoam packing peanuts, white and silver helium-filled balloons, construction-paper angels finger-painted and Scotch-taped to the walls. And she knew: their Sunday-school teacher had indeed been teaching them about heaven, where the little boy and girl in the car had gone, and had told them don’t be sad because they’re in a better place now.

That had to be it, right?

The children jumped around in the “clouds” and threw up handfuls of packing peanuts like they were in a snow globe. The little girl reached out her hand and said, again, “Come on!” So she joined them.