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.

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