Saturday, September 6, 2014

A place we weren't born in


The crack in the window is shaped like a starburst, and the windowsills are lined with the wings of moths.
The apartment is on the second story, so we'd have a balcony that faces the ocean.
From this building, it's four steps to the sand. The ceilings are nubby and constellated with silver sparkles.
The vending machine by the elevator at the end of the open-air corridor is stocked with cans of VeryFine fruit-flavored drinks. There's a Latin American grocery store down the block that sells candy made of pure sugar in pastel colors. If you don't have a car, there's a bus that can get you to Los Angeles in an hour and 45 minutes.
This life can be ours for $420 a month.
Neither of us has a job here, but I think that somehow we can swing it.

***

It was my idea to try out for the next play our community theater was doing back home in Bellingham, but it was Jess who was chosen to become a star. We auditioned a year, almost to the day, after my sister, Christina, passed away. She had leukemia. She was 7.

***

In the months before the audition, I had come up with this romantic idea of what it would be like to be an actress--not a starring one, but one of the background ones. I wanted to disappear into the role, whatever it was for each production--Pioneer Woman #4 in "Oklahoma!", a masked attendee of a Shakespearean ball, a shadowy creature in fishnets in "Cabaret." I would have no lines, but I would think up the character's backstory. I would smolder and seethe; I would do things you can do in silence.
The theater website said you had to read lines in front of the director even if you only wanted to be in the background. He had to be able to gauge your charisma. Jess came along, on a lark. She drove us in her mom's car. She saw me clutching my printed-out sample scene in fright on the drive there, and she said, "Hey, I'll try out, too!" At the theater, she asked to go first. With beguiling insouciance, she read the lines from my print-out that I'd lent to her. It was the first time she'd seen them, and she stumbled over the archaic words. She was laughing as she walked to me, in the wings. Her long brown hair was streaming behind her made-for-jeans lanky figure. "I didn't understand a word I was saying." She'd gone first to make me look good, thinking she'd bomb.
What happened instead was I got stage fright. "Delia Rodriguez?" the director called, his voice filling every corner of the auditorium. A pause. "Am I saying that right? Delia Rodriguez?"

***

I was the one who explained to Christina where your last name comes from. "It comes from your father," I told her.
"So Mommy and Daddy have the same father?"
"No, no. When you get married, you change your name to your husband's father's last name."
"What will my husband's last name be?"

***

I felt Jess's hand on my shoulder. I solemnly walked into the spotlight. I'd memorized the lines of the monologue I'd printed out, the one Jess had read directly from the pages. I'd chosen a scene from Romeo and Juliet--Act III, Scene 2--because of this part:

Take him and cut him out in little stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world shall be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.

When we read Romeo and Juliet in eleventh grade, I'd read it aloud to Christina, doing a different voice for each character, all in what I'd thought was a passable British accent. She was too little to understand any of it, but she loved it when I read to her--I could have read the phone book to her.
Onstage, I stood awkwardly and mumbled my lines without the accent I'd put on for her. My voice was tremulous, strangled, barely coming out. The director and his casting assistants squirmed. I looked at Jess, next to the curtain. Jess has big blue eyes, and they get bigger when she's concerned about me. The theater was silent. Jess rushed to join me onstage.
"Can I just say something?" She had her arm around me.
The director lowered his glasses and looked at her with interest over the rectangular lenses.
"Her sister died last year. She only wants a background part."
As soon as she mentioned Christina, I was storming off the stage. Jess was trying to help, but I don't discuss Christina with strangers.
I hadn't left through the auditorium door under the glowing Exit sign before I heard the director say to Jess, "...but you--you I'm interested in."

***

Jess got a good role in the play. But the bigger news was that the director had a friend who knew a casting agent in L.A. The casting agent needed professional photos of Jess for a portfolio that he could show to people who might pick her for roles. The casting agent's e-mail said: "Head shot, full-body shots--make sure we can see your figure in some of the pictures. You're encouraged to pose nude if you're comfortable, but flesh-tone underwear and pasties are acceptable."
Jess said to me, "Pasties? What's that?"
"It's those little things you put on your nipples. They can have little sequins and tassels on them. Remember that part in 'The Graduate,' when Dustin Hoffman takes Katharine Ross to the strip club and that stripper's swinging those tassels with her boobies? Those are pasties."
"Oh my god."
"But they make plain ones that you just use as nipple hiders, in case you're wearing a dress that your nipples might poke through but you don't want to wear a bra. I've seen them at CVS--they look like those round Band-Aid things you put on corns and bunions. I guess he thinks you'll feel less 'nude' if you wear them."
Jess laughed. "This guy is such a perv."
Jess's mom had briefly been a Las Vegas showgirl when she was younger, years before Jess was born; you'd think Jess would know about pasties.

Jess and I grew up in the same neighborhood. Most of the families on our street, including mine, are Mexican-American. We were in third grade when she moved in with her mom. Jess was the only kid on our block who didn't understand when we talked in Spanish, the only white kid, and at school she was taken out of class for an hour each day for sessions with an "LD" teacher--we all knew that stood for "learning disability." I was the only one who was nice to her.
We graduated from Sehome High School two years ago. I was on what they call the "gifted" track, and helped Jess with her Remedial English assignments (we never joked or even spoke about the irony of this, a Mexican-American girl helping a white girl with her English). My grades and SATs were good. The social worker who showed my parents how to get help with Christina's medical bills also offered to help me get a scholarship. I didn't consider going away to college; Christina was still here.

More than our parents and our brother, I took care of my sister. I asked the doctors informed questions that surprised and even impressed them. There was a tube that fed medications into a vein in her upper arm, a "venous access device" that was so much a part of our lives that we shortened it to VAD; we said "VAD" as often as we said "milk" and "homework" and "laundry." I was the one who took her to her chemo appointments; I was the one who could take it. I was there when the first long, glossy black strands fell onto the bedsheets.
"Do you know what this means?" I said to her, trying to pretend to be excited. She was five years old at the time. "This means it's time for you to get new hair--and this time you can pick it out yourself! Any style you want, any color of the rainbow."
I was desperate. I was so desperate.
I ran around the room, picking up storybooks and a JCPenney catalog. I pointed to Cinderella's hair, a luxuriant honey-colored elegant updo with jewels in it. And Ariel from "The Little Mermaid," whose red hair flowed behind her as she swam in the sea. I flipped to the toys section of the catalog, to the dolls, and pointed to Barbie's spun-gold mane.
"Any hair, you can pick any kind of hair you want. You just tell me what you want, and it's yours."

One night, I walked away from my life.
It was only for a couple of hours.
Christina was still here.
I walked, away from my house, away from my street, away from my neighborhood, down roads with other houses on them. I was walking fast. I walked until the sidewalk ended, then I walked along the shoulder of a busy road. The muscles in my legs grew hard. I walked away from her, felt her calling me back, and turned around.

***

It was my need for a new role, a new center of gravity, that led to the auditions, to Jess and me here in this beach town in California where a professional photographer could take her pictures this afternoon. We had hours until the appointment at his house; we had left our hometown before dawn. In the vestibule of a Burger King where we had egg 'n' cheese biscuits and orange juice, we'd found free glossy booklets of local apartment listings. The listing for this place, the place four steps from the sand, caught our eye--it's called "Sand Castle Apartments." It was easy to find. A bored-seeming man sitting in the front office with a fan blowing full-force on him and "Sergio" embroidered on his chest pocket got up and showed us the available second-floor apartment. Jess and I both still lived with our parents, and it'd felt so great to say to the man, "We'll think about it and maybe we'll be back."

Piled in the back of Jess's mom's car were outfits for the photos, to show all the different people Jess could be: jeans and a white sweater for a role as a girl-next-door in a sitcom, a disco-era purple evening gown of her mom's for a soap-opera drama-queen role, her miniskirt and my favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers tank top for a role as the dream girl in a rock music video. And in a tote bag were the "flesh-tone underwear and pasties" for the role that we fear Jess is most likely to be offered, in an "adult" movie shown late at night on Cinemax. (Jess swears she'll turn these roles down, but says she'd do nudity if a cool role required it.) Jess and I can share clothes because we're both tall and slim, although her body is more toned, from softball, and mine is mushier through the tummy and curvy like all the women in my family. Jess has a face like a doll's, and mine is round like a full moon, with a generous mouth. I started rimming my eyes with thick black eye pencil and wearing goth chokers around the time Christina got sick, which was also around the time I grew too angry to go to church with my family. My hair is long and black and glossy like hers would have been.

At ten till two, we pulled into the driveway of Nicholas Lutz, the photographer. The casting agent who'd sent the creepy e-mail had also sent a list of photographers who could do the portfolio shots; Nicholas lived the farthest from L.A. and was the cheapest. Nicholas had long hair, looked vaguely Native American, and was sweet and shy. He told us he does these portfolio photos for extra money, but that his main job is creating book covers for a small publishing company. Throughout his small house were dream-catchers. He showed me where I could sit on his comfy, nubby couch and select a book from his shelf of sci-fi and fantasy novels while they took the photos. He had designed many of these covers. I picked up one and opened to a scene in which a space warrior was taking an alien girl's virginity. I stifled a laugh and couldn't wait to tell Jess about it. Jess changed in the bathroom and, from the other side of the camera, Nicholas gave her gentle guidance in his soft voice.

The agent arrived half an hour late, a cell phone at the side of his face. He was complaining about the long drive from L.A. He was short for a man, and his name was Ken, like Barbie's boyfriend. Flaxen, gelled hair.
Nicholas had already photographed Jess in some of the outfits, and the agent scrutinized the digital shots on the computer. "You're photogenic, but you've obviously never stood in front of a camera before."
Jess laughed her goofball laugh and said, "Uh, sure I have. I've been doing that since I was a baby. I have proof at home."
Ken's thin lizard lips remained in a straight line. "You know what I mean. Professionally. You're green."
The agent hunched over the computer, his back to us. Jess and I rolled our eyes, and Nicholas grinned with us.
"So have you done the nudes yet?" the agent asked in a don't-waste-my-time tone.
Jess's eyes grew big. "Not yet. But I brought the 'flesh-tone panties and pasties,'" she said, glancing my way with a smirk.
The agent turned to face us and snapped his sunglasses flat. "Look, there are a ton of girls who'd love to be in your place right now. So why don't you stop fucking around and get undressed?"
Jess had no reply. Nicholas looked down and fiddled with his camera unnecessarily.

***

Once, after we first found out that Christina was sick, an insurance-company representative had my mom in tears, holding the phone receiver to her ear with a trembling hand. My mom didn't understand why she had to pay for something the company had told her it would cover. I had just come home from school. I slammed my backpack down and took the receiver. "You fucking told us you would pay for this," I said. My mom didn't reprimand me for my language; her English isn't good, but she knows that word when she hears it. I was 15. The representative eventually apologized, and the company paid the amount it'd said it would.

***

I slammed the kinky-alien book closed. I stood up. I approached the agent as I told him off, making liberal use of the word "fuck." I told him that maybe Jess would do the semi-nude shots or maybe she wouldn't. I told him that he would not be permitted to watch Nicholas if Jess decided she did want to take those kinds of photos. The agent backed down easily. He told Nicholas to just e-mail him the shots when they were done, then he drove away in his silver convertible. 

Jess and I had dinner at a pizza place in town, then we weren't ready to make the drive north. We felt like celebrating. It wasn't that anything momentous had happened; we felt like celebrating being there, in this beach town that felt like ours, a place we weren't born in but that we'd discovered together. We went into a beachfront bar and boldly ordered gaudy fruit-flavored drinks, and the bartender didn't ask for ID even though we were two years short. "Put extra paper umbrellas in mine," Jess requested. We trooped around downtown with our arms around each other, the salty air making our hair fuzzy, a purple paper umbrella sticking artfully out of Jess's hair. Our bodies shimmered with perspiration, and I felt sultry, like a grown woman, like someone new.

To commemorate this feeling like someone new, I stopped in front of a tattoo parlor to examine the designs. "That's the one I want," I said to Jess, tapping my fingernail against the glass over an image of a pair of small angel wings.

We entered the tattoo parlor through a beaded curtain. I was emboldened, not by the little alcohol there'd been in my drink but by my enlargened sense of myself. The goateed young guy with a silver ring through his nose like a bull, the tattoo artist, was the first stranger I told about Christina.

He led me to a reclining chair like you'd find in a dentist's office. Because he needed at the back of my left shoulder blade, where I wanted the tattoo, I sat up, arms clasped around my knees. Jess sat in a chair by the door. The tattoo artist primed me, tenderly dabbing a cloth soaked with alcohol onto the patch of my skin where the tattoo would go. The light in the rest of the room seemed dim, but a strong spotlight shone down on where he worked on me. I looked around the room at panels of images: flaming hearts, voluptuous girls with devil horns and pointed red tails, swirling dragons, baroque crosses, "Mom."

As the needles of his handheld tattoo machine dotted my flesh and the ink trickled in, I closed my eyes and saw her. The hair she'd chosen was long, fluffy, and light-brown, like Belle's from "Beauty and the Beast." She had just lost her two front teeth and grown new ones that gave her a buck-toothed grin. She'd really liked the concept of the tooth fairy, and had left drawings of what she thought the tooth fairy might look like along with the teeth under her pillow. Tears slipped down my face and plinked onto my lap. I didn't let myself wince at the stabs of the needles.

When he finished, the artist handed me a small round mirror to hold at an angle from my shoulder, to examine his handiwork. He'd made her wings beautiful, more ethereal and less cartoonish than the ones in his sample image. He'd made a special effort under the circumstances. I wanted to throw my arms around him.

Jess, who had watched in silence from her chair, jumped up and said, "I want a tattoo, too." She turned and lifted the back of her tank top, exposing her lower back. The tattoo artist instructed her to lie on the reclining chair front-down, and she took my place under his care. I watched his hands on her smooth tawny skin, at the painfully erotic dip at the small of her back just above the twin dimples of her tailbone. I stood to the side. Christina's presence, so strong in the tiny tattoo parlor earlier, felt diminished and cheapened. Jess was flirting with the tattoo artist, her head to the side, peeking up at him provocatively through her sideswept bangs as he ministered to the curve at the base of her spine.

I left.

It's in my nature to protect, and I've done it for her many times, with predatory men and with less harmful jerks, not just with the casting agent. But I'm a woman, too.

It had hurt more than I'd let on that it was she the director had wanted and not me. As I'd stood onstage, trembling and speaking the lines I'd read to my sister, I'd thought that someone should recognize my beauty. Someone, a director, a casting agent, someone who assigns people to absorb the emotions of other characters--someone like that should recognize my capacity to feel. But no. What it came down to was are you charismatic or not, are you telegenic or not. It wasn't Jess's fault. Back home, we were both half-heartedly taking a few community college courses and working at the mall--she was a hostess at Slade's restaurant, and I was a clerk at Bed Bath & Beyond. Of course she'd want more.

I was training to become an assistant manager; it's a tiny raise, a tiny bump up in prestige--within the store, at least. It's something. Jess had tried to get one of the positions at Slade's that get you good tips--she went through training to be a waitress but couldn't keep the orders straight because of her learning disability, then she said she'd try tending the bar after she turned 21, but she has trouble remembering all the drinks. One night a man wearing chunky gold rings gave her his business card and a coupon for free entry to his establishment. He wanted her to come work for him. It was a strip club. After he left, Jess's co-workers examined the card and talked about how much money she could make. A few days later, I rode over there with her so we could check the place out. In the parked car, Jess stared up at the giant red lips next to the signs that said "Juicy's Exotic Cabaret" and "Live! Girls Girls Girls." We sat there for a long time. We never got out of the car.
Of course she'd want more.

At Nicholas Lutz's house, after the asshole casting agent was gone, Jess had decided to do the semi-nude shots. She emerged from Nicholas's bathroom in the beige panties, with the Band-Aid-colored pasties over her nipples. "These things are so stupid. Who am I kidding? I might as well be topless." She might as well have been naked. Nicholas photographed her in hushed reverence. He might as well have been making love to her.

Nicholas and the tattoo artist were guys I'd be interested in, if we lived here.

I could only walk so far away from her.

Jess found me sitting on a curb, not a block from the tattoo parlor.
"What's wrong?"
I stood. "Why do you always have to fucking upstage me?"
"What?"
"A lower-back tattoo? Really? I thought we made fun of girls with 'tramp stamps.'"
I had never yelled at Jess, ever. She had tears in her eyes. She swallowed. "What?"
I said, "Look, getting that tattoo was very meaningful for me. So, it kind of sucked just a little bit that afterward you'd--"
"What?"
Her arms were spread and her hands were splayed open in an I-didn't-do-anything-wrong gesture.

I was afraid she was going to start really crying. I looked at her thin shoulders and thought she looked fragile, and as soon as I thought this, I only wanted to hug her.

I said, in a softer tone, "What tattoo did you get?"
With the back of her hand, Jess swiped at a tear on her cheek. She laughed. "You're gonna feel so bad when I show you."
She turned and lifted the bottom of her shirt. It was small, barely noticeable, probably didn't take as long for the artist to do as mine had or cost half as much. " D.R., J.M." At the small of her back were my initials, with hers, inked onto her forever.
She laughed. "Now don't you feel like a bitch."
"Now I feel like a bitch. I'm sorry."

We decided to drive back over to the Sand Castle Apartments to see what the beach there was like at night. We were thrilled to see that the residents had come out to play. An Indian family played volleyball on the sand, illuminated by a floodlight shining from the roof of the apartment building. The ladies' jewel-toned saris fluttered in the breeze. Jess and I sat on the soft sand and watched them.
I said, "I know what I want to do. I want to become a pediatrician. It's so obvious, and it just hit me."
Jess said, "Let's just sleep here and wait for Sergio to come so we can tell him we'll take it."

***

Our new apartment has a crack in the window shaped like a starburst, and when the sun shines through it, fairies dance on the ceiling.

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