Maestro: A Tribute to Philip Roth
I was first introduced to the work of Philip Roth by Dr. Morton Levitt, then-editor of the esteemed Journal of Modern Literature, in an undergraduate Modern Fiction course at Temple University. (Incidentally, another Temple professor, Peter Tasch, was quite chummy with Roth as undergraduates at Bucknell.) The book we read is called The Counterlife, and on almost every level it blew my young, unformed, undergraduate mind: thematically, structurally, artistically. Aside from the question of Jewish identity—a big question, that, as it pervades the book—I seemed to share Roth’s preoccupations, preoccupations that included, predominantly, writing, reading and sex. At twenty-one, as an English major and aspiring fiction writer, pretty much all I wanted to do all day, every day, was write, read and have sex (yes, probably in that order; I was introverted and bookish, as libertines go. The more things change…). I was so blown away by The Counterlife (a reading experience enhanced by Dr. Levitt’s brilliant lectures and revelatory class discussions) that I quickly devoured everything of Roth’s I could get my greedy hands on. I was penniless, of course, and most of Roth’s oeuvre I bought second- and third-hand at terrific Philly used bookstores like Book Haven in Fairmount and Big Jar in Old City. (This was back in the days when books didn’t just appear, smilingly, in your mailbox at your behest; you had to track them down.) Portnoy’s Complaint was the first book I remember reading outside of Dr. Levitt’s class, sort of a no-brainer for any budding Roth freak. Then it was the Zuckerman trilogy (The Ghost Writer; Zuckerman Unbound; The Anatomy Lesson), which I bought for five bucks at Book Haven as a single collected work, plus an epilogue called “The Prague Orgy”—what a steal! After that, the award-winning short story debut, Goodbye, Columbus; followed by the two very un-Roth early novels, When She was Good and Letting Go; followed by the satires; followed by My Life as a Man and The Professor of Desire and, up to that point, his only two works of nonfiction (in book form), Reading Myself and Others and The Facts; followed by Deception, a slight, sneaky book and one of my favorites—in some ways it reads like a call-back to the final chapter of The Counterlife, titled “Christendom,” as it’s set in England and details a romantic entanglement with an English woman. I was gorging myself on Roth, so much so that my even my bookworm girlfriend seemed worried about me, and specifically how fanatical my fandom had become. (A substitute teacher in the hardscrabble Philly public school system, I recall sleepless all-nighters reading Roth in her bathroom, so as not to disturb her with the light.) But at times she seemed more worried about the charges of misogyny some women had leveled against Roth and his work. But then, she hadn’t read the books. I told her I’d happily address the issue once she had. I don’t think she ever did. Perhaps I was partly to blame: I’d made Roth so much my own domain, claimed him as my own, did everything short of pissing on the texts to mark my territory that she might have felt too excluded to bother. Be that as it may, as someone who had read the work—all of the work—I found such charges myopic, misguided, and in some cases just plain mean. So it was with a clear conscience that I all but skipped to the store and bought another work of nonfiction, Patrimony, which, years later, as the father of three amazing sons, I continue to wonder at and appreciate anew. At this point I had a problem: I was caught up, and going through Roth withdraw. I could reread him, of course, which I did (and do). But I had to wait, like all the other Roth-adoring schmucks, for every new novel, which thankfully appeared every few years and many of which I picked up during excursions to Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, PA. These new novels included Operation Shylock (perhaps the sneakiest of Roth’s sneaky books) and Sabbath’s Theater (with its killer closing line), as well as what would become known as Roth’s American Trilogy: American Pastoral (of which I have an advanced reading copy, possibly bought at Strand in New York); I Married a Communist; The Human Stain. By this time Roth was in his sixties, but there seemed no stopping him, creatively speaking, and he racked up awards while most of his contemporaries seemed content to rest on their literary laurels. This jaw-dropping burst of creative energy couldn’t be sustained—how could it?—but impressively Roth would go on to write a half dozen more slighter, tighter books, including the scarily believable satire The Plot against America (for my money, I scathing indictment of the Bush-Cheney presidency) and the last in a long line of Zuckerman books, Exit Ghost (a late-career fave) before his death yesterday at age eighty-five.
So what exactly have I learned as a longtime Philip Roth fan and a writer of fiction? I learned that, except for family, the work comes first. I learned that routine and a strong work ethic is key; writers don’t get any better if they don’t sit down—or stand, in Roth’s case—preferably for a few hours every day, and actually write. I learned that there’s no place for shame or discretion in fiction. I learned that’s it’s possible—and in some cases even preferable—to be funny, angry, horny, and wicked smart all at the same time, sometimes even in the same sentence. I learned that there’s nothing wrong—well, okay, nothing very wrong—with spending one’s life “turning sentences around.” And I learned not to wait to be inspired. One of my favorite Philip Roth quotes isn’t a Philip Roth quote at all, but one that he’s admitted to having had pinned up in his office. It’s attributed to the painter Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Thank you, Maestro Roth, for doing just that, and for doing it so impossibly, inspiringly well, and for so fucking long. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?
The Cruel Kids
“Two questions,” the pretty, punkish blonde said to me when I returned to my table. “One, how do you know Molly Haycock and, two, why does she want you to go fuck yourself?”
She was lazily leafing through the novel I’d left splayed face-down on the table when I’d gone to use the café restroom, hungrily munching on one of the sweet potato fries that remained, soggy and forlorn, on my plate. I don’t know which act struck me as more invasive: the fact that a stranger was picking through my leftovers or leafing through my favorite author-inscribed book. Probably the leftovers; if you’d ever seen Taryn eat, you’d understand why.
As for the café, it was an annoyingly precious place, an eco-conscious outdoors store with a small restaurant tacked on back. I wasn’t an outdoorsy guy; my idea of bird-watching was witnessing two pigeons perform a desperate tug-o-war over a knot of soft pretzel. But I could usually get a table, the music didn’t suck and the roomy bathroom stalls, fashioned to resemble individual outhouses, were immaculate (and roughly one-third the size of my studio apartment). Plus, I was half in love with one of the baristas, or at least had been, until I’d returned from the restroom and found Taryn at my table.
I stood motionless, deciding what to do. I could’ve told her to get her greasy hands off my book and get lost. I should’ve told her to get lost, in hindsight. But pretty girls didn’t hijack my life on a daily basis. In fact girls as pretty as Taryn never even boarded the same plane.
“Molly and I go way back,” I lied.
I nodded. “She’s pretty good friends with my parents. They used to play bridge together.”
“I’m serious. She lived next-door to us growing up. The woman babysat me sometimes.”
Taryn was smirking widely now, but I could tell from the suspicious squint of her overly-green eyes that she wasn’t sure to what degree she was being messed with. She was savvy enough to know she was being messed with—the word savvy was invented for streetwise girls like Taryn—but she was having trouble determining if the mess could be cleaned up with a common mop and bucket or, say, might be troublesome enough to require that octopoid D.I.R.T. car from The Cat in the Hat.
“What did you do to her?” she asked, her voice lowered and her emerald eyes going wide. Mocking me.
“Isn’t it obvious? We were lovers,” I said nonchalantly, taking a seat. “It didn’t end well.”
“It never ends well,” Taryn snorted.
“Yes, but Molly’s a writer,” I said. “All writers are natural-born lunatics.”
She shot me a look. “You mean all women writers.”
I shook my head. “Gender is immaterial.” I caught her gaze and held it, gripped it, in fact, like a condemned man on the morning of his execution seizing the bars of his cell. “I’m a writer,” I said.
“Are you trying to impress me? Is that meant to be some kind of warning?”
I was trying to impress her; it was meant to be some kind of warning. But I didn’t see any point in admitting as much. Instead I shrugged and peered out of the window. I had a patrician profile, according to my thesis advisor. “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” the woman coyly asked me during one of our early meetings. “Oh yes, it was on the face of a denarius, when I last visited Rome.” I felt Taryn’s narrow green eyes tracing a line along my high forehead, over the speed cushion in my Roman nose and across my thin lips before disappearing again under my enviably knobbed chin. If I’d had a cigarette—if I’d smoked at all—I would’ve lit it then. “More like a friendly heads up.”
When I looked back at Taryn she was nodding knowingly. “Well, I’m a writer too. So we’re even.” Nothing, I was soon to learn, could have been further from the truth. “My name’s Taryn, and I’m a natural-born lunatic,” she said, AA-style, and extended a hand.
I took it, ignoring the French fry grease. “Andrew,” I said.
“But your friends call you Andy.”
“Actually, my friends call me Drew.” I let a beat go by before adding, “Are we going to be friends?”
Taryn flipped the book over and pushed it across the table toward me, losing my page. I was face to face with the attractive but tame, deceptively prim author photo. It was a ruse, of course; in person Molly more closely resembled her fiction: edgy and raw, full of all kinds of surprises. “Introduce me to Molly Haycock,” she said with the kind of sneer great stories are made of, “and I’ll be your fucking concubine.”
Trouble was, I didn’t know Molly Haycock in any sense that mattered. I’d met the woman, yes, we’d been introduced. She’d even critiqued my work during a week-long writer’s conference the previous spring, which was where she’d signed my copy of her breakthrough dark YA novel, The Cruel Kids. I’d graduated with an MFA from Rydal University a few weeks before meeting Taryn, where I’d spent two years sitting behind an oval conference table listening to other aspiring authors tell me what I was doing wrong. Some of the advice was sound, but most of it was woefully misguided and, I suspect, fueled by petty jealousy resulting from rumors that I was sleeping with the department chair, who also happened to be my thesis advisor. My master’s thesis was a collection of short stories that the woman—a not un-famous author in her own right—had supposedly sent to her high-profile New York agent for her expert opinion and consideration. Not surprisingly the agent—I privately thought of her as Agent Orange, as she’d been raised in Florida and had long waves of gorgeous tawny hair—declined to take me on. But I was young and exceptionally talented, to hear my thesis advisor tell it, and perhaps unwisely I chose to believe her (she had a reputation on campus for being a savage straight shooter). It was only a matter of time, and at twenty-five I still had plenty of that, even if it didn’t always feel that way. Even so I was in a mad rush to get published, which begged the question: What was I doing wasting precious time mooning over other people’s fiction in overpriced indie clothing boutiques masquerading as cafes? The short answer? Looking for Taryn.
Not consciously so, of course. It wasn’t as though I got up, showered and dressed, splashed on some cologne and left my studio apartment with the expectation—or even the hope—of being inspired by the world. I had a famous Chuck Close quote tacked above my writing desk that purported inspiration is for amateurs. And yet I could’ve taken my coffee to go; I could’ve just as easily read in bed or at my own kitchen table, in the quiet and privacy of my budding writer’s lonely little life. Instead I lingered for hours in very public places, my novel du jour doubling as would-be babe magnet or divining rod, waiting for something to happen, practically willing some strange woman, any woman, to change my life and, more importantly, infuse my fiction.
To my knowledge, there was no dating site dedicated to matching up a struggling artist with his or her muse. Tinder and Bumble and the like didn’t cater to this sort of connection. And I couldn’t very well take out a personal ad in Urban Scrawl or on philly.com, something along the lines of SMW (Single Male Writer) iso short-term relationship for mostly artistic purposes. It wasn’t that I was worried nobody would answer it; in fact I was likely to get plenty of responses, not all of them pranks. But that wasn’t how inspiration worked. To be clear, I didn’t want a girlfriend. I didn’t even want, or need, a lover, at least not in relation to writing fiction. What I needed was a human lightning bolt. If such a need was puerile or amateurish, so be it. After all I was an amateur, Mr. Close. Writing the sort of inspired fiction my literary heroes wrote was a noble goal, but a goal that was still a long way off.
Something about Taryn had my blood buzzing and my hair standing on end.
“For the record, my apartment’s too small for a concubine,” I said in response to her hyperbolic if tantalizing proposition. “No room even for all the sex toys.”
“Oh, we wouldn’t need any toys,” she told me. “Our God-given bodies and a little imagination, that’s it. I’m kind of old school when it comes to pimping myself out.”
We’d left the café and were headed toward the bridge, though we hadn’t agreed upon a destination and neither one of us seemed to be leading the way. My apartment was in the opposite direction. I had no idea where Taryn lived. So I asked her.
“In the hearts of men,” she said.
I laughed. “No doubt.”
“You don’t recognize it?” I shook my head. “Huh, I had you pegged as a DeLillo fan.”
“I fit the profile, you mean.”
She hiked up her T-shirt just enough to reveal a line of text scrawled elegantly along her pale, taut abdomen. Vivid girl, shapeless woman , it read.
“Any others?” I asked.
She nodded. “Eleven, in total.”
“No shit. Eleven?” I gave her the once-over. “None seem visible to the, ahem, naked eye.”
“I think of myself as a human advent calendar,” Taryn said. “You don’t know what sort of image awaits until you open up a window.” She gave me a sly sideways glance. “The windows are my clothes.”
We walked along in silence. It was a warm June day, and the streets were full of people riding their bikes, walking their dogs, enjoying the last precious minutes of their lunch hours. A lot of the men, I noticed, looked like me: short hair; uncool eyeglasses; seven o’clock shadow. Far fewer of the women resembled Taryn. Finally she said, “So are you taking me to Molly’s house?”
Molly Haycock was born in Western Pennsylvania, in a small town outside of Pittsburgh, but she’d moved to Philadelphia to attend college at what is now UArts and never left. At some point in her flagging career as a visual artist she decided to try her hand at writing fiction, which explains why so many of her early stories are populated by painters. She’d had a few of these stories published in fairly high-profile literary magazines—Tin House, BOMB, Yawp—and her second adult novel received a favorable review in the Times. But it was her latest book, the YA novel The Cruel Kids, which really put her on the literary map. It was even made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Asa Butterfield and the actress who would go on to play Alyssa in The End of the F***ing World (apparently a British studio had taken on the project). Molly Haycock was famous, by the literary world’s standards anyway. And she was the friend of a friend. Or at least the friend of my thesis advisor, with whom I’d had coffee on three separate occasions since graduating.
“Because if you’re taking me to Molly’s house,” Taryn was helpfully pointing out, “we’re going the wrong way.”
“I told you, it ended badly.”
“It ended good-badly, or bad-badly?”
“What are you talking about? What’s the difference?’
“Good-badly is when it ends badly but not, like, beyond-the-point-of-no-return badly. You’re still on okay terms, with a mutual, if grudging, respect for each other. Nobody abducts the other’s pet or, I dunno, fuck’s a sibling.”
“I never fucked Molly’s sister.” Not that I hadn’t fantasized about it. Molly had a fair-haired, more traditionally attractive younger sister named Vera, who’d accompanied her to the Academy Awards, where Molly was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (she lost, but it was an honor, blah blah blah). In my darker, sexually frustrated moments, I pulled up the only photo I could find of the two of them online, dressed to the nines, tens and elevens, standing on the red carpet looking, in their bowed satin finery, like a couple of presents some lucky Hollywood schmuck would eventually unwrap. “And I never even fucked Molly. I lied about us being lovers.”
“No shit, Sherlock Hemlock. You think I actually bought that?”
I shrugged. “I’m a pretty good liar.”
Taryn gave me a withering look. “Save it for the page, bruh.” She stopped at a red light and retied a shoelace. I noticed that her denim shorts weren’t high-waisted and they weren’t overly tight. Taryn hadn’t cut teasing little holes in them to reveal select, strategic parts of her skin, or stupidly paid a designer to do it for her. They were boring old cut-offs, possibly an old-boyfriend’s. They suited her perfectly.
“So all I have to do is introduce you?”
“She opens the door, I say, ‘Molly, this is Taryn. Taryn, Molly.’ The introduction is made.”
She shrugged. “Sounds fair.”
“You could always just introduce yourself.”
“I could,” she agreed. “But that’s a little odd, don’t you think? Some random stranger just knocking on the woman’s door, out of the blue. Besides, it’s more fun to stalk celebrities as a couple.”
“I don’t know if Molly Haycock qualifies as a celebrity.”
Taryn looked hurt. “Well she’s a celebrity to me.”
“Yeah, me too,” I said, turning around.
If only Taryn knew the half of it. I was still mooning over Molly, and not just her fiction. I use the word “mooning” intentionally; there was something tidal and spell-like about my preoccupation with the woman, a preoccupation that, at times, smacked of an obsession: I’d read and reread all of Molly’s published works, of course; I scoured the internet for her image and reviews and interviews; I visited her website daily. Closer to home, I relived the brief but cherished time I’d spent with her, at the conference table, sure, but mostly and more intensely the sixty-second exchange we had at the book signing following her obligatory reading, an exchange I couldn’t help feeling had changed my life, even if I had trouble pinpointing how.
“I’m a big fan,” I said. “Obviously.” A pause. “Would you mind signing this for me?” I handed her the book.
“Why would I mind? You didn’t mind reading it, did you?”
“No, not at all. Highlight of my year.”
Molly’s lightless eyes widened. “Well, let’s hope your year gets better.”
She raised her brows expectantly; they looked painted on, comprised mostly of make-up. “Should I dedicate it to Mr. Obvious, or…”
“My name’s Andrew. Or just Drew.”
“‘Dear Drew,’” she read aloud.
“Um, feel free to be nasty.”
Molly’s pen stopped mid-dedication. “Nasty?” she said, looking up at me.
“Yeah. Feel free to say something nasty, something vile.”
“I’m not a nasty person,” she said. “Well, no nastier than most. Never confuse a writer with her work,” she told me. “Fiction Reading Rule #1.”
“No, of course. I just meant—”
“I get it. You want something raunchy to whack off to, as you stare at my girl-next-door Betty Crocker impression on back.”
“You expect to be punished for your impertinence but rewarded for showing some balls.”
“Here, Mr. Obvious,” she said, before I could protest. “That should do the trick.”
After the reading, my thesis advisor took me aside. “Looks like somebody has managed to slip past the armored guards and invade the esteemed author’s head space.”
“Molly asked me who you are.”
“Really? What did you say?”
“I said you were the lovechild of Jack Kerouac and Joan Didion.”
“Holy shit, really?”
“Christ, Andrew, I certainly did not say that. You’re at best a poor man’s Philip Roth.” She gave me the once-over. “A very poor man.”
“But she asked about me.”
“Her exact words were, ‘Who’s the demented little perv who looks like Monty Clift?’ I knew right away she meant you.” She turned on her heel and began walking away.
“She told me to go fuck myself,” I called after her.
“Well she can’t be the first girl,” my razor-tongued thesis advisor called right back.
“This is crazy,” I said to Taryn now, halfway to Molly’s house. “I mean, what’s the goal here?”
“Well, you’re goal is to get me into bed,” Taryn told me.
I didn’t know what to say to that. She wasn’t wrong. But she wasn’t exactly right, either. I wouldn’t say no to sex with Taryn, of course. But I’d had plenty of sex. I needed something more.
“What’s your goal, then?” I asked.
“Me? My goal is to get Molly into bed,” she said, giggling. “Barring that—” she reached into her knapsack and retrieved a copy of The Cruel Kids—“I’d settle for a fuck-off autograph of my own.”
I looked at her. “So let me get this straight. Assuming she remembers me; assuming she’s in the habit of inviting groupies into her home; assuming she even is home, you fully expect to have, like, totally random daytime sex with comparatively famous, Oscar-nominated fiction writer Molly Haycock, a woman you’ve never met, know next to nothing about and have no reason to believe has, shall we say, Sapphic tendencies.”
“Congratulations, that’s the name of my new punk band: Sapphic Tendencies.”
“Ah,” Taryn smiled widely, “but who’s loopier, the loopy groupie or the groupie who follows the loopy groupie?”
“Technically, I’m leading the way.”
“Technically,” she agreed.
Comparatively famous, Oscar-nominated fiction writer Molly Haycock lived in a well-tended but fairly non-descript corner row house in a fashionable section of South Philly. The window boxes were bursting with unidentifiable, expensive-looking flowers, and the address displayed in custom-made art deco numbers, but otherwise there was little to suggest that a bona-fide literary celebrity lived here. In fact the most conspicuous sign that a noteworthy person might own the home were the two young fans lingering on the sidewalk outside her door like a couple of celebrity-crazed tourists, minus the map of the stars.
“This is it,” I said. “Chez Haycock. You’re welcome.” I headed off down the street.
“Wait, where are you going? You still have to introduce me.”
I stopped in my tracks and performed a petulant U-turn, groaning like a teenager. “Are you really going to hold me to that?”
“Deal’s a deal,” Taryn chirped. “No introduction, no sex. No sex, no story.” My eyes grew wide. “Oh, yeah, I know you’re only in it for the fiction. And I don’t have any problem being grist for your mill. Shit, maybe you’ll even end up being grist for mine.”
The thought hadn’t occurred to me. Me, grist? Why would anyone ever want to write anything about me?
I scaled the steps and knocked anemically on the imposing front door.
“Jesus,” Taryn said, “baby woodpeckers knock harder than that.
“No one’s home,” I said. “Apparently.”
“Maybe she’s busy chaining some adoring undergrad to a radiator. Give it a good ol’ Philly cop knock.”
I banged halfheartedly on the door. We waited. No one answered.
“Move,” Taryn said, materializing beside me. She tried the door and seemed surprised to find it locked. “There’s got to be a back way into this place,” she said, skipping down the front steps. “Follow me.”
“Wait, where are you going? What are you doing?”
Taryn marched around the block and located an alleyway shielded by a narrow wooden door. From the look in her eye and the set of her jaw, you’d have thought Molly owed her money, or was sleeping with her boyfriend. She grabbed hold of the alley door handle and pushed. “Voila,” she said, when the door swung open. “Abandon all hope, blah blah blah.”
“I’m one step ahead of you on that score,” I said, yet followed her inside.
The yard was full of potted greenery and larger than I expected, even for a corner property. Much of it was covered by an uneven brick patio badly in need of re-mortaring upon which sat cozy but sturdy outdoor furniture that could’ve done equal duty indoors; a cast-iron chimenea resembling an oversized bong; and the sort of elaborately knobbed barbecue grill that looked as if it might fly, or at least make music, a cross between some secret government drone and a mixing board.
Taryn glanced around admiringly. “So Molly Haycock enjoys a good ’cue. Who knew?”
“This is trespassing,” I told her.
She waved the idea away with the mien of a privileged woman pestered by a harmless flying bug. “Molly would never press charges.”
“Because you know her so well.”
“I know that much, anyway.” She took my hand. “C’mon.”
“I was raised in a house like this, only minus King Bong over there. Don’t you want to see what Molly’s place looks like on the inside?”
“You want to break in?”
“I want to pop in. And then pop out again. Like some pesky but lovable sitcom neighbor.”
“What if there’s an alarm.”
“Then we’ll run.”
“What if it’s a silent alarm?”
Taryn shrugged. “Then we’ll get caught.”
“And what happens to people who get caught breaking into other people’s houses, Taryn?”
“Hey, do we look like junkies? Do we look like thieves? No. We look like two adoring young fans who made one bad decision. Which is exactly what we are.”
“We can make a good decision by leaving.”
“Good decisions bore me,” she said. “And as a natural-born lunatic, they should bore you, too.” She gave me a look. “Are you bored right now?” I was the opposite of bored, and she knew it. “Good,” she said, reading my mind, and led me over to a window. “Now, if I’m right, these old school screens pop right out. No one ever locks them.”
She was right. Moments later we were standing in Molly Haycock’s dining room and my heart, to quote an even more famous if mostly fictional Molly, was going like mad.
“Huh,” Taryn said, not bothering to hide her disappointment. “It’s nothing like I imagined. And not in a good way.” She looked around the room, then looked at me. “How about you?”
“To be honest, I never even thought about it.”
She nodded, slowly. “So it’s not a let-down.” She grabbed my hand.
“Where are we…?”
“If I’m going to be impressed by any of this, it’s going to happen upstairs.” She shot me a look. “Where the magic happens.”
But what we found in place of an X-rated Santa’s workshop overflowing with cutting-edge sex toys, if not actual half-naked elfin love slaves, was pretty much the epitome of a bookish woman’s bedroom, complete with in-laid bookshelves and a calico cat slumbering on the plump four-poster bed.
“Holy fuck,” Taryn said. “It’s like a nightmare on west elm street in here.” I laughed. “You think this is funny?”
“Maybe this is the guest bedroom.”
“Even worse,” she snorted. “Guest bedrooms are made for fucking. This room’s made for nothing but…sleeping.”
“And reading,” I said, gesturing to the impressive array of books lining the walls.
“Well, we’ll have none of that,” Taryn said, taking both my hands in hers and moving to the bed. “Beat it, cat,” she hissed at Molly’s calico. Surprisingly, the cat skedaddled.
“Do you know Molly’s early story ‘Run Rabbit Run’?” Taryn asked, climbing on top of me, her lips inches from my own. Her long blonde curls hung all around me like a soft beaded curtain. I felt lost inside a PowerPoint presentation on DNA, surrounded by double-helixes, enviably isolated from the rest of the world, and willfully forgetful of the fact that we’d broken into a stranger’s home and were about to defile a stranger’s bed. It was just me and Taryn, nobody else even existed; the two of us were more than enough. “It only appeared in Nerve, a now-defunct online magazine,” she said, slowly grinding her crotch against mine, with the predictable results. “Anyway, it’s an obvious jab at Updike, and loosely based on an old song by the same name, with lyrics like ‘Bang, bang, bang, bang goes the farmer’s gun’ and ‘Don’t give the farmer his fun, fun, fun!’ It’s a metaphor for sex.”
I was confused, mostly by the fact that I’d never even heard of the story. “What’s any of that have to do with sex? Or Updike, for that matter?”
“The farmer’s gun, Drew. Get it?” She took my erection in hand. “Bang, bang!”
“So the rabbit is a woman?”
“Actually, in Molly’s story, the rabbit is…” And here she reached over and opened the top drawer of Molly’s nightstand, from which she produced a large hot-pink vibrator. “This is what’s called thinly-veiled autobiography.”
“Wow,” I said, having never viewed a vibrator up-close before. “That’s quite an apparatus.”
“You’re telling me.”
“So what do you need me for?”
“Oh, I still need you, Drew,” she assured me with a grin. “‘He’ll get by without his rabbit pie,’” she giggled, apparently another line from the song, and slid off of me, and off of the bed.
“Where are you going?”
“Rabbit needs a bath first,” she said. “This place may look like a glorified convent, but I’m giving the esteemed author the benefit of the doubt.”
Afterwards I lay in bed absently twirling one of Taryn’s semi-dreaded spring curls, but she soon grew tired of my attentions and moved from the overstuffed mattress to the built-in bookcases lining the walls. The rabbit, I’d found, was as good as its reputation; Taryn confessed to having had climaxed multiple times—though quietly, with flared nostrils and gritted teeth. As for rabbit pie, well, my newfound fuck buddy had served me up a delicious piece of that fragrant pastry; the farmer had had his fun too, despite warnings to the contrary.
I could tell by the purposeful way Taryn scanned the shelves that she was looking for something specific, and I thought I knew what.
I located my boxers beneath the bedclothes. “We should get out of here,” I said, pulling them on. “Molly could show up any minute. Or a cleaning lady. Or a boyfriend.”
“A boyfriend is doubtful,” Taryn said, keeping her back to me. It was an exquisite back, smooth and slightly broad shouldered, for a girl. I had a sudden urge to run my tongue along her spine and kiss each adorable shoulder blade in turn. “Same goes for a cleaning lady. The place is immaculate.”
She was right. Either Molly Haycock employed Mary Poppins or she was rarely at home.
“Where are your tattoos,” I said.
“You said you have eleven tattoos. I only see the one.”
“The others are still in the planning stages,” she said, distractedly.
“So they don’t really count.”
She stopped pursuing the shelves. “I didn’t know it was a contest.”
“Taryn, we’re trespassing,” I tried.
“Just a sec.” She reached for the spine of a book and held it aloft, smiling. “Got it.”
It was a hardback first edition of The Cruel Kids, just as I knew it would be.
“What do you need that for? I can always lend you mine.”
Taryn shook her head and sat on the bed. Her crazy blonde curls were everywhere. “I’ve already read it.”
“So put it back, and let’s go.”
“I want you to do me a favor first.”
I flashed a pseudo-suave smile. “I thought I just did you a favor, Taryn.”
“Ha-ha. Not even close.” She levelled her gorgeous feline eyes at me, mint-green now and mascara-smudged. Looking away was not an option. “I want you to defile it,” she cooed, “the same way you defiled me.”
“You want me to fuck Molly’s book?”
“That’s an idea,” she admitted. “But no. I want you to ruin it.”
“Ruin it how?”
She shrugged. “You could burn it,” she said. “Or better yet, just tear it up.”
“What? Are you serious?”
“Tear it up,” she repeated, thumbing the pages like a flipbook. “Rip them out. Tear out every page.” I just stared at her; Taryn stared back. “Seriously, Drew,” she said, taking me by the shoulders and moving her mouth very close to mine, “let’s make our lives extraordinary.”
“As opposed to extra ordinary?”
“As opposed to dull as fuck.” She pushed me away. “Jesus, it’s not the Bible. You’re not going to go to Hell for destroying Molly Haycock’s mediocre genre fiction. If Molly were here, she’d probably thank you.”
“Somehow I doubt it.”
“The woman told you to go fuck yourself!”
“I asked her to.”
“And I’m asking you to do this. For me,” she whispered, moving close again. “For us.”
A terrible thought struck me. “So you’re not a fan.”
“On the contrary, I’m a huge fan,” Taryn said. “That’s why books like this one bother me. I mean, what the fuck is ‘dark YA’ anyway? And what on God’s green Earth is Molly Haycock doing writing it? It’s self-sabotage. Another Oscar nod, and you can kiss the supposed Queen of Transgression goodbye.”
The worst part was, she had a point. The Cruel Kids wasn’t Molly’s best work, but it was the work she’d had the most success with—commercial success, that is. At the end of certain chapters, I recalled thinking that I had read better. And at the end of many sentences, I recalled thinking that I had written better.
“Trust me,” Taryn said, “in her deepest, darkest heart, Molly already knows this. She would’ve destroyed the book herself, if she had any balls.” She stood on the bed, naked except for the black V of her underwear, her pretty nipples glowing pink in the sunlight streaming through the open window. Her wild golden hair filled the room (I can still smell the cloyingly floral scent of her shampoo even as I write). “We’re taking a stand!” she loudly proclaimed to an imaginary audience—much too loudly, considering we were a couple of half-naked criminals who should’ve been trying to keep a low profile. “We’re not putting up with her bullshit! This is an intervention, and we expect better!” She tore out a page; it sounded like ligament being forcibly separated from bone. “We expect better!” she chanted, tearing another page. “We expect better!” Rip! “We expect better!” Rip! Taryn smirked evilly and handed me the book. “You have to admit, we’re doing her a favor.”
When it was over and we were covered in the found poetry-esque confetti of Molly’s celebrated novel, Taryn kissed me. It was a long, slow, urgent kiss, and in it I imagined I’d felt her desperate need to bind herself to me, or to anyone, really, even temporarily. But of course I could’ve been wrong about that, just as I was wrong to imagine us embarking upon a Bonnie and Clyde-type life of minor crime together, two book-defiling vandals breaking into the apartments and houses of our disappointing and disappointed literary heroes and serving them a much-needed wake-up call before being hauled in by the coppers and finally brought to justice. But it was not to be. Taryn—I’ve since wondered if that was even her real name, close as it sounds to “tearing”—vanished from my life as abruptly as she’d appeared, leaving me with little more than a guilty conscience and an archipelago of love bites to remember her by. As well as, of course, the start of a pretty good story.
excerpted from The Weirdos Who Are Out to Get Us Must Be Stopped
My dad loved to say I’m not weird, I’m Irish. As if the two were somehow synonymous. As if the remnants of a charming accent and a fondness for rasher sandwiches, coupled with an outwardly bleak, secretly romantic worldview, was all the weirdness anyone required.
And yet he is weird, above and beyond being Irish. Even though I’m his son—or is it because I’m his son?—I’m not blind to his weirdness. For starters, he’s older than my mom by like fifteen years, and although the age difference isn’t unheard of, it’s not exactly the norm. He insists on wearing these round black-framed Mr. Magoo glasses that make him look outright kooky. And whenever the arthritis in his knees flares up, he walks around with a “loaded” shillelagh, its knob fashioned to resemble Tom Foolery’s face, which was given to him by the sad-eyed singer of some defunct Irish rock band and “lifelong fan” of his comics. (My dad is always happy to hint at some years-long romance between himself and his once wild-child fellow countrywoman, but then he hints at a lot of stuff, only a tiny fraction of which can actually be proven true. Still, I’ve seen a cocktail napkin scrawled with what appears to be a cheeky kiss-off, dating from what he wistfully calls “the roarin’ nineties”: Lovely Ronan, let’s not do this again. –D xo.)
But even worse than his worsening appearance, lately my dad’s behavior is weird even for an Irish writer of comic books. (That’s his word, not mine. Everybody else I know calls them graphic novels.) Always reclusive—either fanatically reclusive or fanatically not, no in-between—he holes up for days, sometimes weeks on end without seeing anybody or so much as answering a simple text message. “I was busy” is always his excuse for not getting back to me within, oh, forty-eight hours of a text. “It takes three seconds to reply to a text,” I tell him. “I don’t have three seconds, son. Not when I’m thigh-deep in a new project.” Not even for me? would be my obvious reply, if I weren’t so reluctant to put him on the spot. Not for your only child? But I don’t take it personally. Not anymore. I used to do all kinds of bizarre things to get his attention when I was a kid, everything from faking various injuries to staging minor kitchen fires. But I’m not a kid anymore. I get it, the work comes first. It has to. If I’ve learned nothing else from my lone-wolf workaholic father, I’ve learned that.
Am I worried about him? Sure. He may be a lot older than my mom, but he’s nowhere near old enough to be acting like some cranky, misanthrope hermit knocking on death’s door. We studied the American Transcendentalists in English class last year, and father and son briefly bonded over a shared interest in Thoreau. (“Henry David Thorough,” Da likes to call him.) But then aging Ronan O’Malley remembered how, for him, “living deliberately” meant having ample time to work, and research his work, and reflect on his work, all of which leaves very little time for anyone else. I still sometimes call him Henry David right to his face, and not always as a compliment. My dad laughs it off and says something like, “I never found a companion as companionable as solitude.” “With friends like that…” I mutter and shake my head.
Not long ago, I worked up the courage to ask him if he was still seeing the woman he’d chosen over my mom. I thought he might lose his temper. My dad had a famously long fuse—my mom was the time bomb, always ticking away—but when he blew he really blew. (Da’s a big guy, six-two or three, but there’s always somebody bigger. Or meaner. Or smarter. Once, when I was small, my parents took me to a political rally in the city, where Bruce Springsteen was scheduled to play. I remember chomping on a salty soft pretzel, and being propped on my dad’s shoulders for a better view. I also remember a bearded man beside us in the crowd, a man even bigger than my dad, puffing away on a cigarette and paying no mind to where or in whose face he blew the smoke. This must’ve gone on for a good few minutes, because to this day I associate “The Rising” with the smell of tobacco. My dad must’ve been quietly stewing the whole time, but without any warning to anyone involved, and with me still on his shoulders, he turned to the man and growled, “Get that stinking cancer-stick out of my son’s face or you’ll be smoking it out your fucking arsehole.” The guy dead-eyed my dad for a few seconds, took the hint and wandered away.) I thought he might lose his temper at the mere mention of Ellison’s mom’s name, or worse: ignore me altogether. Instead he waved the idea away as if shooing a fly. “Lightning in a bottle, that one.” The look on my face must’ve said it all. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “Here’s this old gimp ruins his marriage to a lovely woman for a little lightning in a bottle. But you’ve got it all wrong, son. It’s not the lightning that ruins a marriage—it’s the bottle.”
I realize a statement like this could be misleading coming from an Irishman. But my dad was a borderline teetotaler. A six-pack of beer could sit in our fridge for weeks without anybody touching it (my mom preferred red wine, or Campari). And yet, as soon as it was gone—consumed during a birthday party, say, or over a long holiday weekend—I’d find it replaced with a fresh six, often the very same brand, as if the Alcohol Elves were too busy getting everyone bombed and couldn’t be bothered to experiment. (That’s not to say my dad couldn’t occasionally tie one on. He’d gotten shitfaced when the Phillies won the Series back in ’08, and “properly ossified,” to use his term, on gin martinis at a cousin’s wedding.) Funny as it sounds, I think he was more addicted to the idea of being a drunk. Or maybe he was just superstitious and considered it bad luck or mildly embarrassing for an Irishman to not have any beer on hand, on the off-chance, I don’t know, Bono stopped by and fancied a pint. But as for an addiction to actual alcohol, a debilitating dependency on lager or stout? No, Ronan Aloysius O’Malley didn’t have that particular problem.
As far as I could tell, his problems (in order of seriousness) were 1) professional 2) romantic 3) financial 4) biological. His financial problems could be solved by the solving of his professional problems. On the other hand, his romantic problems might only worsen by the solving of his professional problems. Nothing would solve his biological problems (gout, arthritis, a host of indefinable aches and pains), but the solving of any or all of his other problems might help to alleviate his physical suffering. The take-away? The man had problems to spare. Sometimes I wondered how many of them would be bequeathed to me, upon his untimely demise.
Da wasn’t always so strange. Scratch that. What I mean is, he wasn’t always so strange to me. To me, he was just my dad who drew cartoons. So what if he was a little older than the other dads. So what if he spent hours locked away in a spare bedroom bent over a drafting board. Other dads went to work all day, other dads disappeared for hours on end playing golf. As a kid, I thought he was super-cool. And I still think so, even if I don’t show it as much, or hardly ever. Even if I’m at the age where I’m able to recognize the super-weird, super-selfish person too.
“All artists are weird,” Ellison says, whose mom is the woman who effectively ended my parents’ marriage and who I have the great misfortune of going to school with. He should know; his mom’s a painter, his dad a self-proclaimed “guerilla poet.” Apparently a “guerilla poet” is a middle-aged man who goes down to the city and sneaks around doing graffiti, only instead of tagging walls and subway cars and traffic-less intersections with obscure monikers and silly cartoons, he stencils them with lines of verse. Sometimes the lines are quite famous (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”). Sometimes he invents the lines on the spot (“This city, its grime / its groove & spark / gives lies their eyes / and life to snark”). As far as I can tell, being a guerilla poet is the man’s only occupation. Good thing, then, that his wife’s popular local landscapes sell for thousands of dollars. I know this because my dad bought one—for some reason it’s called Philomel and is still hanging in his apartment—either right before or right after he began sleeping with the artist.
“An artist without the weird is like a birthday cake without the candles,” Ellison says. “Everyone standing around waiting to sing.” He gives me a look. “How’s your pop?”
I mirror his expression. “Same as your mom.” Ellison’s parents are still together. News of the affair didn’t drive a life-destroying wedge between them, prompting both parties to lawyer up. If anything they seem closer than ever. I saw them just last week, picking out pumpkins at Heatherton Orchard like a couple of lovesick teenagers. It burns me up, the way some people get to walk away unharmed from that kind of car wreck, while others end up casualties strewn all over the highway. It’s a small town, and everyone and his Chiweenie knows what happened—though not everyone knows why. I can’t say I find Ellison’s mom attractive, exactly, though I can see why my dad might’ve fallen for her. Maybe “fallen” is too strong a word. More like she tripped him up, a crack in the pavement, the root of a tree he didn’t see there until it was too late. She has a certain, I don’t know, presence. With her Navajo ponchos and overly long red hair, the woman commands attention. (I know some guys have a thing for older women—I don’t mean college girls, I mean females in their forties. Gimme some cookies, they wisecrack whenever they spot a supposedly hot mom, to go with that MILF. And, okay, I maybe can see getting with someone like Madonna or Michelle Obama, maybe the actress who played President Coin in the Hunger Games movies. But personally I prefer girls a lot closer to my own age.) Maybe this is why Ellison’s dad decided to look the other way. Or if not look the other way, pretend he doesn’t see things clearly, like an error-prone outfielder with the sun in his eyes. Or maybe there isn’t anything wrong with his vision, maybe he sees just fine. Maybe his commitment to his wife has less to do with love and forgiveness—less to do with all that hair—and more to do with the continued success of all those pretentiously titled landscape paintings.
So things went down a little differently for the O’Malley clan. News of my dad’s affair with Ellison’s mom caught everyone off guard, like one of those This is just a test bulletins from the Emergency Broadcast System. Only it wasn’t a test, it was the real deal. Quick, everyone run for cover—another seemingly solid, years-long marriage is about to end!
In the event of a real emergency, the robotic, pre-recorded voice informs us, the attention-getting signal would be followed by instructions (instructions, I’m guessing, other than simply Say your prayers or Run for your lives!). But any kid who’s ever had to live inside the drawn-out emergency of a breaking home knows there are no instructions. You go with your gut, you improvise. And you try to keep your head down.
Because, hey, love is a battlefield. And if love is a battlefield, then hate—or at least the allies of hate, like anger, insecurity, confusion, fear—is an Xbox-worthy apocalyptic war zone.
I don’t know for sure whether my mom had had any kind of heads-up. It’s not something we ever talk about. I don’t know whether she’d ever noticed how my dad suffered from RES (Roving Eye Syndrome), or whether she’d noticed it and just always hoped his condition wouldn’t spread, that his roving eye wouldn’t turn into a roving mouth, roving hands, a roving bulge between his legs. I don’t know to what degree she might’ve watched him watching other women. I only know what I saw as an innocent bystander with two good eyes, namely that my dad was at the mercy of the sustained glance, an outright slave to the double-take. It wasn’t his fault, exactly, it was pure instinct: like a passenger in a speeding car pumping an imaginary brake, or how you might throw your hands in front of your face to ward off an unsuspected blow. Whenever a woman caught his eye—the olive-skinned meter maid he for some reason called Rita, say, or the leggy blonde with the Lhasa Apso named Gulliver—she tended to hold onto it for a while, as if she refused to return it right away. And in a few extreme cases like Ellison’s mom, she even appeared to hold the milky blue thing for ransom.
I never held Da’s voyeurism against him. He’s a visual man, Ronan O’Malley, a visual artist. When he sees something or someone he finds attractive or intriguing or inspiring, it only makes sense that he should have a hard time looking away. Back in middle school, whenever someone asked another student Can I see that? the other kid was sure to reply See with your eyes, not with your hands. And that’s pretty much what it boiled down to; that was my dad’s big mistake: seeing with his hands. As if he were a sculptor, like his ex-wife. As if he were a blind man, groping for recognition.
Some might think Ronan O’Malley had all the recognition anyone could want. Thanks to Tom Foolery and his charming, smart-talking gang of working-class guttersnipes, the once-starving artist of my dad’s youth hasn’t missed a meal in a very long time. Although he’s since fallen out of favor with the publishing world and hasn’t made any real money in years, Da is no spendthrift—growing up poor on the mean streets of Ballymun will do that to you. Despite the divorce, he still has a sizeable chunk of his royalties in the bank. His fan base, though shrunken, is solid; he continues to get fan mail once or twice a week. After all, there’s always the chance he’ll pull himself together and produce something comparable to the Tom Foolery books. Something bankable as the Tom Foolery books. A slim chance, but still.
The Tom Foolery series is basically a comic book version of my dad’s childhood in Ireland, first in County Cork, where he (and both of his parents) were born, and later in Dublin, right about the time a certain globe-trotting rock band of do-gooders was coming of age. (In the series, the band is called Wee Three, a reference to both their youth and their status as a baby-faced trio, not a quartet. To hear my dad tell it, Adam Clayton once spilled a beer on his boots in Dockers Pub and never apologized. So he made the lead singer of Wee Three a bass player and wrote the Clayton character out of the comic.) My dad’s written about a hundred books, but only a dozen have seen the light of day. We were flush for a while, then we weren’t. My parents split. His mother died. He doesn’t write much anymore. By which I mean he writes all the time, though the drafts I’ve seen lack his old focus, and much of what I haven’t seen exists only in his head. But as far as actually publishing anything goes (and getting paid), he hasn’t had much luck. Margot, his agent—that rare older woman I can imagine hooking up with—keeps telling him to do something dark. But Dad doesn’t do dark. He claims he hasn’t suffered enough. I can hit you in the head with a hammer, Margot has suggested on more than one occasion, shooting me a wink. Would that qualify as suffering enough?
Ah, no. And so Da sits in his studio staring at the scenic Delaware River as the hours roll by, dreaming of a world in which the phrase “contemporary dark” might be used to describe some fleeting fashion trend but not literature, not high art—and definitely not comic books.
Mom’s a bit more realistic, but not by much. She grew up on the leafy, liberal-minded streets of Germantown, an aggressively diverse neighborhood in Philly not so very different from our quaint, extra-crunchy little town. My grandparents still live there, in the same spooky house my mom grew up in. I love that house. It’s not very big but it’s loaded with what my mom calls “nooks and crannies”—near-hidden rooms and shadowy alcoves and potential hideaway spots. I know every square inch of it by heart, and it still gives me the impression of having hidden rooms and secret passageways. It’s the best of both worlds: an overly familiar place you can potentially get lost in. Every time we drive by a multi-million-dollar development with huge identical houses being built, my mom shakes her head and wonders aloud how anybody could stand living in a characterless “barn” that looks just like everybody else’s. “That’s the point,” I tell her. “That’s why they live there: because they want to fit in, they want to be like everyone else.” She looks at me. “Well that’s sad,” she says, adding, “Sad but true, I guess.”
My mom seems to be at peace with her middle years, though occasionally she likes to remind her son that she, too, was a teenager once. She attended a prestigious public high school down in Philly, and although the place was “remarkably diverse,” to hear her tell it the school was as segregated, in its way, as the schools in the dated eighties movies she makes me watch with her every now and then, binging on white cheddar Smartfood and Klondike Bars as the adolescent stars of Sixteen Candles or Some Kind of Wonderful or (my favorite) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off get their hearts broken while getting into all sorts of age-appropriate mischief. My mom’s high school sat way up on a hill (as if reinforcing its prestige), and different cliques of kids claimed different sides of the hill as their own. The punk rockers and neo-hippie kids and goths (like her) hung on the South Side; the South Philly “junior goombas” hung on the East Side; the dean’s list computer geeks hung on the North Side; the graffiti-freak b-boys and girls hung on the West Side. Everybody else found temporary accommodations in the cafeteria or the library or just sprawled in the stairways and halls. Her point being, there’s safety in numbers, especially during the teen years. Nothing could be more natural than wanting to find a group of likeminded individuals—kids who dress the same and talk the same and listen to all the same music—and fit in.
When it comes to my mom, you don’t need a magnifying glass to read between the lines. This conversation, which we’d had more times than I can count, was her not-so-subtle way of suggesting that I try a little harder to make friends. And if making friends involves dying my hair or wearing secondhand clothes or even getting a tattoo, so be it. For the record, my mom has three tattoos: Edward Gorey’s The Wanton on her right shoulder blade; a cartoon teacup—the logo of some old goth band—on her inner left wrist; and a seahorse on her right ankle. It was the Gorey tattoo that first drew my dad’s attention to her, some twenty years ago, in a coffeehouse down in Philly.
I’ve heard the clichéd story a hundred times. Da was “delighted” when he found that the tall young woman serving the leisure class their mid-morning cappuccinos and double espressos bore more than a passing resemblance to the slinky, kohl-eyed one inked on her back. “He’s a friend of mine,” was his opening line, a gross exaggeration, though he and the famous illustrator had met at a party on Cape Cod and for a short time sent each other cryptic postcards, all of which my dad has kept in a fire-retardant box along with his most precious keepsakes. “The man who created your tattoo,” he gestured toward the striking barista’s pictorial back. My mom shrugged a single bare shoulder, unimpressed. “He’s a friend of mine too,” she said. Then, a corner of her lips curled: “Boyfriend, actually.” My dad was confused. “You want me to believe you’re dating Edward Gorey?” This made her laugh her raucous, crow-like laugh, drawing everyone’s attention to the not-unfamiliar scene of a dirty older man hitting on this particular pretty young thing. “I’m talking about Jake McCray,” she said. “He works at Tattoo U on South Street.” “Ah, a Scotsman,” my dad said, without even trying to keep the derision out of his voice. “I should’ve guessed.” “A fake Scotsman, it sounds like,” replied my mom, to which my dad could only nod his shaggy head and smile. He knew all about fake Scotsmen, you see. He knew any number of real Scotsmen too, but what did that matter? All that mattered at the moment was discrediting Jake McCray and somehow convincing this beautiful young woman to jump the counter and join him for coffee. “Is it serious, this attachment you have to the famed Mr. Jake McCray?” “I’m twenty-five,” she said. “Is anything serious at twenty-five?” He could argue the point—at twenty-five, Ronan O’Malley had been a serious young man indeed. But arguing with her wouldn’t get him any closer to obtaining the girl’s phone number. Not this girl, not here, not now. “Damn if I remember,” he chuckled. “I’m a wee bit older than that.” Emphasis on the wee, emphasis on the that. “Yes, you are,” she agreed, looking him up and down and up again, until their eyes met for real this time, with predictable results. She made a show of scanning the crowded café, the line forming behind him. “I have to get back to work. Would you like a coffee, Mr….” “O’Malley, he trumpeted. “Ronan O’Malley.” She knew him, of course. After all, she was a former art student, and the first Tom Foolery book was in all the shop windows. She shot him a Well, now look and he watched her make his drink, The Wanton mimicking her movements like some lithe, tiny shadow. She served it without smiling, which he took as a good sign. “I’m off in an hour,” she said, pushing the cappuccino at him. “Will you still be here in an hour?” “I won’t move a muscle,” he lied, because his heart, to quote one of the man’s more obvious heroes, was going like mad. They talked for hours, moving their marathon conversation from café to park bench to seedy oyster bar. Partly about Edward Gorey, partly about tattoos—my dad is inkless. “I already speak in images,” is his standard semi-explanation. “All my tattoos are inked between the covers of my books.”—but mostly they talked about Tom Foolery and art in general. My mom dumped needle-wielding Jake McCray the very next day. They were married three short months later, the day before Halloween. The bride wore black, as if attending her own funeral.
Still, isn’t it a little weird that a woman who prides herself on creative freedom and makes a living on her self-expression should force-feed conformity to her only child, even if that conformity is disguised as its opposite? The funny thing is, in most other schools I’d blend right in, you wouldn’t even notice me. In those eighties flicks my mom loves so much, it’s the girl in the homemade clothes or the guy with the outrageous hair who’s portrayed as the freak, the weirdo, the social outcast. Not the average Joe with average looks and average grades. By those standards I’d make a lousy protagonist. As you may have figured out on your own by now.
Not so, says my mom. The only child is the hero of any family, or should be. But what happens when the family dissolves, and all that’s left are victims and villains? “Play the dolphin song,” I used to tell my mom, meaning Bowie’s “Heroes,” whose lyrics have less to do with intelligent aquatic life than love and war. This was back when everyone’s illusions—Mom, Da, Bouncing Baby Boy—were still blissfully intact, back when shame, to quote Bowie, was on the other side. Back when we were all each other’s heroes, and I could swim like a dolphin, and my dad (the king) and my mom (his queen) actually did kiss, not with guns shooting above their heads, but celebratory fireworks.
It began, mock-innocently enough, as a game called Heartbreakers. Saul had played a bit part in tweaking the rules, but it was purely Anastasia’s invention, because Anastasia was the inventor, the fabulist, the fiction writer. Saul was a real estate broker; he invented nothing, merely capitalized on and helped to crystallize his clients’ nebulous domestic fantasies. Anastasia was a published author, after all, though she hadn’t published anything in a while, years in fact. Her latest work in progress was progressing slowly, dragging its feet, slouching, she joked, back towards Bethlehem, PA, where she’d been born (it was a bildungsroman, a belated coming-of-age tale from a woman infamous for playing fast and loose with her number of birthdays). Whenever this happened, Anastasia unwisely turned her feral creativity loose on her actual life—the all-too-real husband, lovers, children—to disastrous effect. Saul had been bitten, once upon a time. Now he was just like her: infected with a sexual restlessness he could never quite shake. Anastasia conveniently claimed she’d found him like this; his obvious similarity to her was why she’d sunk her teeth into him in the first place. Kindred spirits, missing pieces of the same fucked-up puzzle. Saul politely disagreed, even as he waggled his eyebrows and quasi-erotically licked his festering wound. He was well aware of Anastasia’s weaknesses, knew she had a thing for tongues. It was exactly the sort of secret she couldn’t resist sharing with people.
Anastasia had been married to the same man for almost twenty years; Saul, twice divorced. She had played a supporting role in the failure of his first marriage, but that was a long time ago now, a decade or more. They were friends, after a fashion, and occasional lovers. (Another game they played was called Fuck Buddy: three times a year a player could request sex from another and the latter could not deny it, barring severe illness or childcare issue—Anastasia had an adolescent son named Eliot and a toddler-age daughter named Mina; Saul’s own daughter, Ruby, was a freshman at Penn.) Their lovemaking, sporadic as it was, tended to rock both their worlds. Their sexual chemistry was an experiment they’d perfected long ago, always yielding the same mind-blowing results, which was exactly why they were so vigilant about setting boundaries. To wit: no gazing longingly into each other’s eyes. No less-than-ironic pillow talk. No cuddling. And absolutely under no circumstances were they to spend the night together (all in all, no hang ups and no let downs, to paraphrase the Stones). So far it’d worked. They remained half in love with each other, which to Saul’s way of thinking constituted the ideal romantic state. Half in love meant you could only ever experience half the hurt. He, for one, had a pitifully low threshold for emotional pain and disappointment.
They tended to fluctuate, but the basic rules of Heartbreakers went something like this: Saul and Anastasia would enter a bar or a restaurant or a concert venue (their taste in contemporary music didn’t often overlap—Anastasia was heavy into Kelela and Kendrick Lamar while anglophile Saul remained obsessed with Savages—but occasionally they could agree on a show, where unfashionable earplugs were required) and were allotted exactly ten minutes to scope the place out and decide on a “heart” to “break.” If no viable options presented themselves within the ten-minute timeframe, they would elect to either wait it out or simply move on. Not once had they called it a bust. Saul chose women exclusively; Anastasia, mostly men. (In theory Saul argued it was far easier for Anastasia to pick up random members of her own sex, but in practice he didn’t push the issue. There were few dramatic scenes he’d rather watch unfold than that of Anastasia seducing another woman.) If all went well, within days they would begin dating their respective “hearts” (“dating” was defined loosely, depending on the preferences, etc. of all relevant parties, with sexual intercourse possibly but not necessarily involved). The player whose “heart” was first to develop more than casual feelings—“catching the feels” it was called—was declared the winner. To date, Anastasia was ahead by a count of 3 to 2. But Saul had recently shed more than a few stress-related pounds; he had a new haircut; he was growing a beard. He was confident he was operating at full heartbreaking capacity. Tonight, at least, he felt like a winner. At least until his competition entered the bar.
He hadn’t seen her in, what, a month? Twice that, actually. Last he’d heard, Anastasia was “taking another stab at it” with Richard, her longsuffering husband. From the look of her, Saul guessed the eternally unhappy man had taken one of his wife’s stiletto-heeled ankle boots straight through the heart. He felt for the guy, he really did. Watching Anastasia move toward him through the crowd, Saul could just about feel his own heart begin to split, difficult as that was to believe. Of course this was against the rules of every game they played together, akin to an unspoken First Commandment: Thou shalt not break one another’s heart. As accessible as they remained to each other—not just the sex, but the texting, the emails, even the occasional phone call—they kept their inner lives mostly hidden. Saul realized they were fundamentally defensive people, fitted out in battle-tested emotional armor. Fire away, Cupid, their hearts seemed to challenge. Hit us with your best shot.
At the moment the divine bowman’s best shot took the striking form of Anastasia’s knit mini-dress. Along with that lone dimple in her cheek, the stark blueness of her eyes. It wasn’t a question of her being beautiful; beauty wasn’t so hard to come by, at least not in this town, on this block, in this bar. Rather it was the way Anastasia expertly wielded her beauty, like a tool. Or a weapon. The battle, Saul realized a second too late, had already begun.
“Yo, what up, See-saw?” Anastasia said, chastely kissing Saul’s cheek. She took off her coat, revealing the full and considerable effect of her outfit’s armor-piercing potential, and gingerly climbed onto an accompanying bar stool. Or maybe bar seat, since the thing had a back; it more closely resembled a highchair.
“Why hello, Anesthesia. You’re looking spry.”
They often spoke this way: she like a back-in-the-day wannabe b-girl, he like a character out of some American movie classic made long before b-girls existed.
“Well, only the spry survive.”
“Hey, that’s my line,” she said. “You’re boosting my style. Again.”
“Sorry, homie. But you forget where I was raised.”
She rolled her eyes. “In a van, down by the river.”
“River ward,” Saul corrected her. “It’s funny, none of my old friends can afford to live there now, not even in a van.”
“Oh, no,” Anastasia said, feigning desperation (real desperation was foreign to the woman). “Not the outrageous-property-values-in-my-old-hood riff again.”
“My parents could’ve bought three houses for what these yipsters are paying for one.”
“Excuse me,” she said, “but don’t you sell these yipsters their grossly overpriced houses? Gentrification is your middle name. And ‘yipster’ is redundant.”
“Some, yeah,” he admitted. “And you know what we say in the office every time we do?”
Anastasia smiled and shook her head no, though not exactly in response to Saul’s question.
“We say: ‘Welcome to Fishtown, reeling them in, hook, line and sinker.’”
“Cute,” she admitted, flagging down the bartender and ordering a beer. “What are you drinking?”
“Surprise, surprise.” She eyed him and smiled again, that sad, lonely dimple of hers on full display. Saul eyed her back, making a show of it by way of complimenting her dress. “So how are you?”
“Not as good as you,” he said. “Where’d you buy that dress, Forever 21?”
When Anastasia arched her back, Saul barely resisted an urge to place his tongue in the shallow declivity formed by her modest breasts. “You don’t like it?” she pouted. “It’s my ‘gay divorcee’ dress.”
Saul was taken aback. “Since when are you divorced?”
Anastasia checked an imaginary watch. “Since about ten o’clock this morning, give or take.”
“Serious as this dress.”
“Wow,” was all Saul could think to say at first. “Are you okay?”
“We tried and we failed,” shrugged Anastasia. “Then we tried some more and failed some more. It was a long time coming.”
“How are the kids?”
“Mina doesn’t know any better, but Eliot’s devastated. I can see it in his eyes.”
“He’ll be fine,” she said. “Everyone will be fine. Except maybe Richard.”
Saul remembered Anastasia telling him once how Richard had spat in her face over some suspected infidelity of hers, then spent the better part of the evening berating himself for it. She’d hid her husband’s car keys to prevent him from driving his car off a cliff, the man was that disgusted with himself.
“You think the dress is too much?” she asked him, clearly eager to change the subject.
“It does have me worried,” he confessed. “The term ‘dressed to kill’ comes to mind.”
“Shit, I wish I had Angie’s legs.” It was true, Anastasia’s legs weren’t long, though they were shapely.
Saul raised his glass. “To Angie Dickinson’s legs,” he said.
“And to serious dresses,” he said, “and the divorced women who wear them.”
They drank again.
“So, what’s with the beard?”
“Nothing’s with it,” he blurted, a shade too defensively. “I just forgot to shave. Again and again and again.”
“I like it,” she said. “It suits a man of angles.” Anastasia gulped her beer, made a face, gulped again.
“Speaking of angles…” Saul swiveled in his retooled highchair and gestured toward the crowded bar. He clapped his hands together and rubbed, evil genius-style. “Full house,” he said. “Easy pickins. And tonight, my newly single friend, you are going down.”
“With any luck,” she smirked. But Anastasia didn’t so much as glance over a fetchingly bare shoulder (her snug dress sported cut-outs where, say, epaulets might have been). “You’re way behind, boo,” she told him. “I’ve already marked my man.”
Saul pulled a pouty face and surveyed the bar. He didn’t see many prospects worthy of Anastasia’s attention, let alone her affection, let alone her love. But that, he grimly reminded himself, had never stopped her before.
“I can’t help wondering what the backlash will be like from the sheer abundance of facial hair in this bar.”
Anastasia reached over and stroked his beard as if it were a pet. Saul resisted yet another urge, this time to purr. “Said the man with the new, luxurious facial hair.”
“I’m thinking extreme hairlessness. Like, no eyebrows hairlessness.”
“Like Voldemort,” she said, removing her hand.
“Exactly like Voldemort. Or that movie Powder.”
“Ooh, I remember Powder,” she cooed, taking another swig of beer. “Not a good look.”
“I’m in the wrong business,” he said. “Wig makers are going to make a killing in two years’ time.”
Anastasia knitted her brow. “Do they even make wigs out of beards?”
He shrugged. “Then merkins, maybe.”
This made her laugh her head-turning Anastasia-laugh. “Now that I can see.”
“Well, fess up,” Saul said, after all the flannel-happy beardos and jackbooted bun-girls within earshot had gone back to their drinks. He adopted a spooky, Vincent Price-like voice. “Whose heart is doomed forevermore to be broken?”
Anastasia eyed him a beat longer than he was used to and shook her head. “Nope, sorry, you know the rules. We don’t reveal our hearts until both players have made their picks.”
This was true. But exactly when or why they’d agreed on such a rule, Saul couldn’t remember.
“You’re up, slugger,” she said, and showed him her phone. “Exactly ten minutes. Starting…now.”
This was Saul’s favorite part of the game, possibly because the field, so to speak, was wide open and the possibilities, at least in theory, endless. He glanced around the bar and saw easily half a dozen women he could imagine dating, and a dozen more he could imagine taking home. If this weren’t a game, he’d have a lot more fun choosing. But this was a game, and the trick was picking somebody who might actually be willing to date him. Heartbreakers, after all, was a two-way street. People didn’t “catch the feels” every day, at least not most people. And people like Saul and Anastasia seemed all but immune to the condition. So, he’d devised a few private rules of his own, foremost among them to know his limitations and never waste valuable time pursuing somebody so clearly out of his league. If love was essentially a power play—and Saul believed that it was—he needed to be the person in charge, the one calling the shots, even if he appeared not to be. Extreme caution was advisable, guardedness a must. Fortunately Saul excelled at being guarded, according to his second ex-wife. Guarded as fucking Buckingham Palace, was the phrase she’d used (she, too, had been a writer). So be it. Breaking hearts was risky business; there was always the chance, no matter how slim, that the heart that got broken would be your own.
Yes, picking a “heart” was by far Saul’s favorite part of the game. Actually approaching and befriending people, seducing people, well, that was a lot less fun.
“Tick-tock,” Anastasia stage-whispered. “Time is of the essence. You know what happens if you fail to choose.”
“I lose,” he said. “Game over.”
Anastasia shook her head. “That’s not what happens and you know it. If one player should fail to choose a heart within the allotted ten-minute timeframe,” she recited, as if from a set of instructions emblazoned on the inner side of a box top, “his opponent chooses for him by default.”
“Oh right,” he said, “now I remember.”
She let a long beat go by before asking, “You want some help, stud?”
“I’m pretty good at this, you have to admit,” Anastasia continued to whisper, dangerously close to Saul’s ear now. The intimacy was almost unbearable. “Better than you, anyway.” She looked off into the crowd. “What about that petite brunette over there, with the overbite. Men like overbites. I’ve never understood why.”
“It’s not the overbite, per se,” he explained. “It’s more about imagining how a woman might end up with such an overbite.”
“It’s just a theory,” he shrugged. “As for la petite princesse, that would hardly be a fair fight. Besides, I’m pretty sure she’s attached to that gray-haired geezer with the wire-rims.”
“Ew, really? Can you say ‘daddy issues’?”
“He looks like somebody who wandered in off the street.”
“She’s way too pretty for him,” Anastasia observed.
“Ah, maybe that’s the point. She’s punishing herself.”
“Or maybe she’s treating herself to a man who certainly won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.”
“Is that what women want?” he asked, genuinely curious. “To stoop? To settle?”
“Some women,” Anastasia said. “Women who’ve hit a certain age, maybe. Women who’ve been burned.” She held his gaze. “But not this woman.”
Aware this could be a diversionary tactic of hers, an effective if obvious ploy to trick him into wasting more time, Saul reluctantly turned away and continued scanning the bar. “I’m kind of partial to that artsy woman with the tattoos.”
“Ugh, really? Do you see what she’s drinking? My grandfather drinks that stuff, mostly because it costs a dollar a bottle.”
“She’s stunning. Plus…”
“I know: tattoos.”
“It’s not just the tattoos,” he said. “She looks like a survivor. She seems brave, somehow.”
“She’d have to be to wear that dress. And what’s with the Nike swooshes on her eyes? As if to say: Just do me.”
“You want a warrior, that’s fine by me. I can’t see the woman eating out of your hand anytime soon, but maybe you’re not interested in winning. Just ask yourself this: what is all that Winehouse-inspired eye makeup hiding?”
“Okay, fine.” Time almost up, he made a cursory survey of the bar. “How about the blonde.”
Anastasia made a show of following his gaze. “What blonde?”
He shot her a look. “The blonde-haired woman six feet away, to your left. In the bulky sweater and suede boots.”
Anastasia located the woman and gave her the once-over, finally admitting, “She’s cute.”
“Cute is good.”
“I don’t mind tiny,” he said. “I feel the Force is strong with this one.”
“By which you mean she seems uncommonly susceptible to catching the feels.”
“She’s half in love with me already,” pronounced Saul, getting his game face on. “We just made eye contact. The rest is academic.”
“Congratulations. When’s the big day?”
“First things first,” he said. “I need to tie the score before I tie the knot.”
“If your foreplay is anything like your wordplay…”
“Wait,” he said. “Where’d she go?” One minute the woman was there, cupping a comically large glass of red wine, and the next—poof!—she was gone.
“Dunno,” Anastasia said. “Maybe back to Neverland.”
“Shit, she was a shoo-in.”
“Sorry, hon,” she said, patting his back, “but time’s up. Now I, as your formidable opponent, get to choose a heart for you.”
“And sabotage my chances of winning,” he said.
“So I guess you’re going with the unattainable Sofia Vergara look-alike over there, knowing my track record with Latina women.”
“You have an actual track record with Latina women?”
“I don’t stand a chance with all that…boobs and hair. Is that really how you want to win this? By a blow-out?”
Anastasia smiled in such a way that Saul couldn’t read. He often had a hard time reading her—half the fun with Anastasia lay in the translating—but this current lip-curl of hers was downright inscrutable.
“What?” he asked.
“I don’t choose Sofia Vergara,” she said. “I choose myself.”
It took a second for this to register. “You choose yourself,” he said. “You want me to break your heart.”
“Well, I want you to try.”
“Didn’t Richard do a good enough job?”
The look Anastasia gave him was not kind. “Apparently not.”
“No, you’re not. But that’s okay.”
They were quiet for a while as they attended to their drinks. “Well, thanks for the offer,” Saul said. “But I’ll take my chances with Sofia.”
“It’s not up to you. The rules are clear.”
“We can change the rules,” he suggested. “It’s our game.”
“But we won’t.”
“You won’t,” he accused.
“Fine,” he said finally. “But I think you may’ve underestimated my considerable skills as a heartbreaker.”
“Maybe,” Anastasia said after a long pause. “We’ll see.”
“Your turn,” he prompted. “Time for the big reveal.”
“You’re not going to like it.”
“So what?” he said. “I never like it. You always pick someone glaringly unworthy of you, but unworthy is what wins the game.”
When Anastasia shrugged, Saul briefly considered leaning over and sinking his teeth into her shoulder, it was that tantalizing, shining in the twinkling bar lights like some ripe forbidden fruit. The moment passed. “Not always,” she said. “Not this time.”
“Oh really? Challenging yourself, for a change?”
She levelled her eyes at him. “Something like that.”
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense. Who’s the unlucky bastard?” He tried staring Anastasia down, but Anastasia stared right back. “Don’t tell me it’s Mr. Sensitive Ponytail Guy over there. Or worse, Daddy Doofus Wire-rims.”
Anastasia took a long pull on her overpriced beer. When she turned her attention back to Saul, her oceanic blue eyes were hard and glassy. “You,” she smirked.
“You,” she repeated, her smirk having softened into a smile bright enough to read by. “I choose you, Saul. You’re my heart.”
“What do you mean? You can’t choose me.”
“Sure I can. I just did,” she helpfully pointed out.
“But you can’t. It’s against the rules.”
“Sorry,” Anastasia said, utterly un-sorry, “but I’ve looked into it. We never excluded ourselves as potential hearts. Not once. Never ever ever.”
“But we’re not supposed to break each other’s heart, Anastasia. We’re not supposed to even try.”
“We’re not breaking each other’s heart,” she said. “If all goes well, only one heart will be broken.” She smiled again, not without love.
She was right, of course. Unless she was wrong. But Anesthesia wasn’t likely to catch the feels. A far worse fate awaited See-saw. He’d always assumed her nickname for him had been knee-jerk, born of her penchant for nursery rhyme rap music. But he now saw it as veiled reference to the unstable dynamic of their years-long relationship, if not his own moody emotional state, at least where Anastasia was concerned. Up and down, on and off, hot and cold. They wanted each other, to a degree. They were in love with each other, after a fashion. All those goddamn quantifiers. They’d had multiple opportunities to take things to the next level, but whenever they’d boarded that seductive, slow-moving elevator, it seemed someone always forgot to push the right button. Now Anastasia had pushed it, but she wasn’t there with him inside that airless metal box. She’d slipped out before the doors could close and sent Saul on his way.
“The object this time around,” Anastasia was saying, “is for you to make sure that your opponent catches the feels before you do.”
“I know how to play the game,” he said evenly.
“Good,” she chirped. “Because you’re right: blow-outs are never any fun.” Saul let Anastasia pinch his cheek and watched in silence as his adversary rose to go. “I have your number.” She extended a hand. “Good luck, yada yada yada.” He helped her on with her coat, thinking despite himself what a crime it was to cover such a dress, and what a calculated, near-criminal act it had been for Anastasia to pull it on in the first place. She turned away but stopped short and drew him near. “The good news is, I can actually see us together,” she whispered. “All things being equal, I think I made a good choice.”
Saul stood motionless as Anastasia exited the bar. He was tempted to cry foul, appeal to a higher court, fall on both knees and beg her not to do this ruthless thing to him, force him to fall in love. But there was no point. His pleas would fall on deaf ears, especially with a competitor as fierce and unforgiving as his longtime friend and sometime lover, his match in almost every conceivable way. All things being equal. But all things weren’t equal, and really never had been. Anastasia played Heartbreakers to win, but Saul played the game because playing the game was a form of protection, silly as that seemed now. The chink in Saul’s armor was wide enough to shoot a Patriot missile through, let alone Cupid’s stupid, reckless, game-changing arrow. His heart was already bursting. He was exposed.
Gabriel trailed Jana’s muscular truck to her favorite bar, a big corner property within walking distance, coincidentally, of the trinity row house in which he’d been raised. The bar was lit up like the inside of a refrigerator, and seemingly under attack by a gigantic mutant crab from outer space. The fake crustacean looked as if it were about to bore a hole through the poorly shingled roof and, as if in retribution for scores of atrocities perpetrated against its kind—vats of boiling water, carapace-crunching nut-crackers, Agent Orangesque Old Bay—devour the horde of heedless patrons partying hard inside.
But vengeful alien seafood, it struck Gabriel, was the least of his problems. He was about to enter a working-class watering hole, in what was arguably the least tolerant neighborhood in a famously intolerant city, to watch a football game with the sort of woman who didn’t so much as draw attention to herself as hijack it at knifepoint. Jana had tabby hair and perfect skin and eyes of Windex blue. She also had the kind of screen-goddess seductive power to which even Gabriel, a decidedly gay man, wasn’t wholly immune.
“Follow me,” Jana called, and for a heartbeat it actually seemed possible not to. For a heartbeat Gabriel, in the kind of wildly delusional moment he most often associated with really good sex, thought to himself No way, uh-uh. Catch you on the rebound.
He locked eyes with the lightless orbs of the rooftop shellfish and considered taking his chances with the crab.
“I need a beer,” Jana said, that skilled motivator of men. She turned in the doorway and shot Gabriel a phony little-girl frown to emphasize her need.
Gabriel was a bartender by trade, a kind of patron saint of parched throats. But even without the online mixology degree and a steady gig slinging drinks at Bella Luna, the upscale pizzeria where he and Jana worked, he would’ve felt obliged to fetch this eternally thirsty woman a drink.
Inside, the bar was standing room only, but Jana knew a waiter, a vanilla-haired musclehead, Richie Rich on steroids. He led them upstairs and showed them to a slab of Formica the size of a large cutting board. The football game was on in every sense of the term: on the ubiquitous TV screens orbiting the bar like stalled satellites; on the conspicuous team hats, jackets and jerseys management seemed to be handing out gratis at the door; on the wagging BBQ- and ranch-tinged tongues of the sort of diehard fans who weren’t so diehard that they could score tickets to the game. Jana, too, was on. She seemed to feed off the charged atmosphere. Some people got high on drugs or booze or sex or sports or art or religion or sex or food or sex. Jana Browne was addicted to attention. She got high on simply being seen.
“What?” she asked in response to Gabriel’s undivided attention. “See something you don’t like?”
“On the contrary, you look great,” he said. “Every guy in this bar knows your coordinates.”
Jana glanced down at the twin mounds of her jersey, ample even beneath her oversized, unsexy sports attire. “Wow, I’ve never heard them called that before.” She laughed her silent laugh, rolled her eyes, and showed her unlikely companion too many teeth to count. “First rule of being a woman,” she said, suddenly serious—or mock-serious, Gabriel couldn’t tell, “is don’t let ’em fool you. Every guy in this bar knows nothing but what down it is and how many inches there are to a fresh four. But I appreciate the compliment.”
Another waiter appeared, empty-faced and out of breath. Gabriel had expected college girls in skimpy outfits, not aging frat boys in polo shirts and Gap khakis. The guy was clean-cut, All-American, borderline invisible. A looming tabula rasa toting a blank tablet.
Jana ordered poppers and crab fries and mussels marinara. The waiter Frisbeed them CD-size paper plates like he was dealing a deck of cards. The beer selection was as provincial as the neighborhood: three of the five brews on tap were variations—Lite, Genuine, Ice—of the same tasteless brand.
The food arrived faster than it should have.
“I can’t believe Matt,” Jana said, biting into a tiny meteor of breaded pepper and cream cheese. A dollop of white decorated a corner of her lovely mouth before a tentacular pink tongue appeared and carried it away. “Such a wuss.”
Matt had bailed, received a text message from Laura, his off-again, on-again girlfriend, just as the three of them were walking out the door of Bella Luna. The message insinuated—as only truncated, Tarzan-inflected text messages can—that if Matt dropped whatever he was doing and ran right over, he could have his way with her. For once. Of course it was all baloney, the wicked manipulations of a woman who had dumped him three times in as many months and had no idea what she wanted from her Pavlovian dog-man. (Matt visibly salivated every time Laura’s number appeared on the tiny green screen of his phone.) Jana had told him on more than one occasion to grow some balls. Still Matt clung. Some men were gluttons for a very specific brand of punishment.
“He’s in love,” Gabriel countered. “We can’t hold that against him.” He swallowed a mouthful of watery beer. “Can we?”
Jana shot him a pained expression through the steam of red broth and obsidian shellfish.
“Right,” he said. “My bad.”
“I can’t stand guys like that,” she hissed. “It’s so unattractive.”
Gabriel screwed up his face. “What? Guys who show their emotions? Guys who care?”
“Guys who dote,” Jana clarified, chewing on a gummy mussel. “Promise me you’ll never be a guy who dotes.”
“You have my word.” He plucked a few orange-dusted fries from their paper boat and plunged them into a soufflé cup of melted cheese. “And here I thought you had a thing for him.”
Jana shook her head. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s totally hot and all. But I tend to need a little more than pimped-out rims and a pretty face. Not to mention a really cute ass.” Eyes on him, Jana scooped up some marinara with half of a stray shell and slurped the blood-red sauce with all the élan of someone drinking champagne from a shoe. Some of it missed her mouth, however, and streamed down her chin, making her look like she’d been sucker punched. “Not that a guy would notice,” she said, smiling evilly.
Gabriel still wasn’t sure what had tipped Jana off, if tipped off she was. There was little that was overtly “gay” or even feminine about him, minus the manicured hands and ridiculously feline eyes. In fact it always surprised him how most people, many of them gay, assumed he was straight. Gabriel passed, with flying colors. If anything, he was a straight-man stereotype, a downright slob: he had shirts with missing buttons he kept held together with twist ties and had been known, in a moment of desperation, to staple cuffs onto a pair of pants with unfinished hems. Oblivious women routinely threw themselves at him. Not just artsy women, who imagined he was creative (which he wasn’t) or sophisticated women, who assumed—despite or precisely because of his thrift—that he had money (which he didn’t). But shop girls and waitresses, working-class stock who should’ve been trained to spot if not stone the queer from a mile away.
His sexuality, by all accounts, was a well-kept secret. So why was Jana going out of her way to imply otherwise?
“I notice everything,” Gabriel said. “I’m a bartender. It’s my job.”
Jana ignored this comment. Something painful had just happened to the fans of the home team. An underage girl seated at the bar put her head in her hands and appeared to sob. Her underage girlfriend draped a comforting arm around her shoulder and breathed tender words like “They just got lucky” and “There’s plenty of time” in her multiply pierced ear.
When Jana finally trained her bluish-green eyes on him they were clear as the Caribbean. “Sorry this didn’t work out the way you planned.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I hadn’t planned anything.”
“Good,” said Jana. “I don’t believe you, but good. We’re here to have some fun.” She nodded toward the nearest TV screen. “Despite what happens up there.” She lifted her dainty, girl-shaped glass to her lips and drained what was left of her beer. “No more Kool-Aid,” she pronounced. “I want some hard stuff.”
“Yoo-hoo?” Gabriel joked.
No sooner had Jana lifted a finger to summon the waiter than he appeared, spaniel-like, by her side. “Two shots of Goose,” she said, not bothering to ask Gabriel what he preferred. “No, scratch that. Make it whiskey.” Then, to Gabriel: “We’ll replace pretty boy Matt Lowell with rough-and-tumble Jack Daniel’s.”
“A toast,” said Gabriel, when the miniature drinks arrived.
Unbidden, Jana came around to his side of the table and plopped herself down on his lap. Gabriel was vaguely aware of heads turning, of whispers being passed around the bar like those of huddled-up amateur athletes guarding plays.
“To Bella Luna,” Jana cooed. “The beautiful moon.” Her breath was hot on his neck; her tiger-striped hair smelled edible, like something he could sink his teeth into and swallow. “Our illustrious place of employ.”
Gabriel grimaced; she sounded like him. “To football,” he countered.
“Ah, to football,” echoed Jana. “And men in tight pants.”
Gabriel was still sober enough to suspect Jana of baiting him, so instead he said, “To splitting the uprights” and waggled his mother’s eyebrows.
Jana whooped. “I’ll drink to that!”
They drank. When Gabriel opened his eyes again, he found Jana making a sour face at him. It took him a minute to realize that her dancing features comprised a mirror image of the face he was making at her. They weren’t whiskey drinkers, that much was clear.
“Jack just kicked my ass, Jellybean,” Jana said. “But that’s okay. I like it rough.”
Jana had nicknamed him Jellybean simply because one slow night at Bella Luna, Gabriel had recited all the lyrics to Jellybean Benitez’s “Sidewalk Talk.” But then Gabriel knew the words to scores of silly pop songs. It could’ve been worse. She could’ve dubbed him Scritti Politti or Kajagoogoo or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
Gabriel put his empty shot glass on the table. When he glanced over his shoulder at the nearest TV screen, he saw that he and Jana were being watched.
Truth be told, Gabriel wasn’t attracted to many different kinds of men. Unlike his friend, Roger, whose only prerequisite was that a potential lover have a penis (and preferably an American Express gold card-carrying penis), Gabriel couldn’t just tumble into bed with someone simply because that someone seemed willing, if not eager, to tumble into bed with him. Of course there were always exceptions. Gabriel was thirty-three, had first slept with a man—a man about the age he was now—back when he was nineteen. Regrets, he had a few. But given the choice Gabriel preferred to be drawn to his lovers. Yeah, as in drawn and quartered Roger would say.
The man making eyes at him from clear across the bar was a cliché: Seven-o’-clock shadow. Shoulders broad as a buffalo’s. Hands like catcher’s mitts. As a rule Gabriel liked lanky guys, sinewy yet strong-limbed; very short hair; smooth chests; compact asses (with a pang he realized he had the same taste in men as Matt Lowell’s sometime girlfriend).
Gabriel wasn’t a big believer in “gaydar.” Barring flamboyant behavior, he couldn’t tell much from a person’s hair or clothes or supposed body language. But he rarely even needed to. A person—man or woman, straight or gay—looks you in the eye the way this man was looking at Gabriel and you just knew.
Jana nudged him. “Looks like somebody’s got an admirer.” She lifted her chin toward the bar, where the man Gabriel had secretly dubbed Buffalo Bill was holding court. He’d turned back to his beer buddies, who were engaged in a series of intricate hand-slaps and head butts in celebration of some favored call or another.
“You think so?”
“I don’t know much,” Jana smirked, “but I know when a man wants me.” She eyed Gabriel. “Chalk it up to women’s intuition.”
Gabriel was confused. “Who?” he said, only half-feigning ignorance. “With the tattoo?”
One of Bill’s buddies was an exceptionally loud guy—loud even for these human foghorns. Bald and prodigiously goateed, he resembled nothing so much as an overfed walrus barking for another pound of fish. There was some sort of tattoo crawling up or down the back of what should’ve been his neck. Even cold-sober Gabriel’s eyes weren’t the best, and he was too far away to unscramble the image.
“Eeewww. No way. Not with your junk.” Jana got more mileage out of foul language than most men Gabriel knew. It wasn’t unappealing. “The one next to him. The lumberjock.”
It was a reference to Bill’s plaid flannel and thermal undershirt combo.
“You mean jack.”
“You know him!” squealed Jana.
“No, no,” he clarified. “Lumberjack. You said jock.”
Jana’s eyes narrowed to non-existence. Gabriel had seen them do this before, in response to a disrespectful diner or a certain ass-grabbing busboy, and had always been thankful that he wasn’t the cause. “I meant jock,” Jana hissed. “It’s called a pun. I thought you studied lit.”
“Oh,” he said. “A long time ago.”
Could Jana be right? Could Buffalo Bill’s X-ray vision really have been meant for her? She was still perched on his lap, after all, where the bar flavors of beer, cigarettes and Old Bay mingled sickeningly with Jana’s fruity perfume.
“Fill me up, Gabe,” Jana said. “I feel a man-size thirst coming on.”
Gabriel did as he was told, tipping the fresh pitcher—when had it arrived?—and filling Jana’s miniature pilsner with too much beer.
“Easy, Stud,” she advised, damming the impromptu river with a bulwark of coarse brown napkins. “You trying to get me drunk or what?”
“Or what,” joked Gabriel, smiling gamely. He glanced at Buffalo Bill just as Bill glanced away.
Suddenly Gabriel wanted this man more than he should have, more than he felt he had any right to. By rights Bill belonged to Jana. This was her man, at her bar, in her world. If the man wasn’t gay and Jana wanted him, there was nothing Gabriel could do about it, short of throwing himself at the guy, which more likely than not would land him in the hospital. But if Gabriel was right and Bill was gay—or at least open to exploring his sexuality—didn’t he have every right to stake his claim, so to speak? His cock seemed to think so. But his cock, Gabriel reminded himself, was blind. Jana’s rump was fitted snugly against his groin, with the usual results, but his eyes were on Bill.
Jana looked lovingly over her shoulder at Gabriel and applied a bit more pressure to his lap. “Hmmm, that’s nice,” she whispered boozily in his ear. “That means a lot to me, Gabe.”
Gabriel had played this game before (though admittedly never with so tempting an opponent) and alcohol was always involved; it made things so much simpler, the way booze filtered a prism of infinite, consciousness-expanding colors into a single, manageable monochrome. Still, he didn’t trust it: not the booze, not Jana’s boobs, and certainly not flannel-happy Mr. Machismo, who for all Gabriel knew was in on the whole sorry pseudo-seduction.
Gabriel didn’t want Bill simply because Jana wanted him; it wasn’t as catty as all that. But he had to admit that Jana’s interest in the man put pursuing this rather tenuous attraction more on the scale of a military offensive.
Jana rasped something in his ear about Gabriel having his way with her, but he hardly heard her. He was busy thinking of all the pop songs associated with bison: “Buffalo Soldier.” “Buffalo Stance.” The U2 video for “One,” in which a herd of stampeding buffalo runs over the edge of a cliff and, perhaps not incongruously, the band members appear in drag. Not one of them—not even pretty boy Larry Mullen—made very convincing women.
“Did you hear what I said, Gabe?”
“You should be.” Jana tossed her fragrant hair in his face and leveled her heavy-lidded eyes at him. It was a look meant to convey that the always beautiful and infinitely charming Ms. Browne would not suffer another slight. She would commit hari-kari with her crab fork first. “I asked whether or not you were ever going to kiss me.”
All at once the deafening noise in the room seemed to drain away. Gabriel had no choice but to blame it on the booze. The former English major in him kicked in and he was reminded of a few favored lines by Wallace Stevens: “It may be that in all her phrases stirred / The grinding water and the gasping wind; / But it was she and not the sea we heard.” As house siren, Jana’s may have been the only song capable of drowning out the bar’s din. But her range was hopelessly limited from a closeted gay man’s point of view. Although Gabriel’s desire was palpable—so palpable that he drunkenly feared it would puncture his pants—it also happened to be grossly beside the point. What Gabriel wanted Jana Browne couldn’t give him. In fact all the woman could really do was take.
Still, what harm was there in a kiss?
“Clock’s ticking, Gabe. What do they say? ‘For a limited time only.’”
Jana’s face widened; she seemed to have multiple rows of teeth, like a shark. Gabriel wished he could say that the alcohol blunted her features, made her enviably angular face sag a bit, her greenish-blue eyes bulge, her lovely mouth go slack, but none of this was true. If anything the booze brought Jana’s beauty into sharper focus. She never seemed more in control of a situation than when there was a very real threat she might lose it. Some people were turned on by surrender in a lover. Not Gabriel. As far as he was concerned, surrendering was his job.
Jana, sensing as much, placed a warm hand on his thigh.
“Does this help?”
Without waiting for a response, Jana took Gabriel’s face in her hands and pressed her mouth urgently against his, roughly parting his teeth with her tongue. She tasted pretty much the way she smelled: like a well-tended woman in a neighborhood bar. Gabriel’s own tongue, that lousy host, had curled toward his throat when Jana Browne finally came to call, where it seemed intent on hiding until the unannounced guest got the hint and went away. Gabriel heard a collective cry of anguish and thought for a second that every fiber of his being was calling out in protest, if not in pain. Something, somehow, had gone horribly wrong.
He opened his eyes in time to catch the replay. The home team had blown not one but two easy tackles, allowing its opponent to run thirty-five yards for a touchdown. He watched a shoeless player kick the ball through a huge yellow tuning fork and saw that the score was 14-3. The game clock read late in the fourth quarter.
“Goddamn bums!” someone hollered in Gabriel’s ear. “He should be shot for missing that tackle!”
“Shot twice!” someone seconded.
“Hold up, lemme go get my gun,” joked another, sending a ripple of uneasy laughter around the bar.
“I’ll be right back,” cooed Jana. She slid off Gabriel’s lap and straightened her short denim skirt. She was impossibly pleased with herself for someone who had just won a game of tonsil tennis by forfeit. “Time to drain the pool.”
Jana wriggled her way toward the restroom. More than a few heads swiveled like spotlights in her direction. The largest and shaggiest of these heads, Gabriel couldn’t help noticing, belonged to Buffalo Bill.
Gabriel watched the massive man watch Jana slink past him. She didn’t so much as glance at him—didn’t acknowledge Bill at all, as far as he could tell—and yet the very pulse of her body, from the slight sway of her arms to the easy swivel of her considerable hips to the alternating steps of her oddly shod, cowboy-booted feet seemed engineered to put her on display, to signal her as a woman designed to be devoured with one’s eyes. Gabriel envied Jana’s inebriated grace, the way she turned a crowded bar into a catwalk simply by setting her fluid body in motion.
Gabriel considered leaving right then and there; he couldn’t honor the devil’s deal struck between his teeth and Jana’s tongue, couldn’t go through with whatever it was—marriage, kids, more consciousness-killing ménage à trois with throat-scorching Jack Daniel’s—Jana expected of him. He attempted to stand but couldn’t find the floor. His head felt like a flushed toilet. How could he make a seamless escape with the room rattling along like the Market-Frankford El?
Rather than go anywhere, Gabriel sought Buffalo Bill’s problematic gaze, resolved to make some telepathic point, no matter how misinformed or obscure. But Bill wasn’t where he was supposed to be. Maybe he too had needed to drain the pool. Maybe he was draining and drilling it right into Jana, her chlorine-streaked mane visible above the stall door, her gleaming legs hugging his mid-section like a snug-fitting floatation device. Bill was gone. In his stead Gabriel locked eyes with his buddy, The Walrus. And The Walrus was not impressed by what he saw.
A moment later the small mountain of a man loomed over Gabriel’s café table, heaving. The trek across the packed bar had done him in. He pointed an accusative finger at Gabriel. He might as well have been aiming a gun.
“That shirt’s purple, pal.”
Gabriel was speechless. He glanced down at what he was wearing and found that, indeed, his shirt was purple. The Walrus knew his color chart. But could the creature be objecting to what he perceived as a feminine color—and, by extension, an effete man—in such an undisputedly masculine environment? Did people overtly object to such things anymore? Gabriel’s shirt wasn’t made of silk, after all. It was neither blousy nor clingy, neither frilly nor sheer. It wasn’t lavender or orchid or even legitimately plum. It was a purple shirt. Plain purple. He’d bought it secondhand.
“So what?” Gabriel said. The syllables came out sounding more defiant than he’d intended. Everyone within earshot translated them as En garde!
The Walrus raised a paddle-flat flipper—for what purpose Gabriel did not know—but suddenly stopped short, for Jana was beside him now, lovely, glowing, unhappy Jana, with her boobs and her hair and her sluttish, double-edged smile. Gabriel smelled her before he felt her physical presence, her damp hand on his shoulder, her hip warm against his arm. The Walrus’s eyes widened in pure childlike wonder. Gabriel’s assailant hadn’t noticed Jana before. His eyes had been glued to the game. The dope.
“It’s not the same purple,” Gabriel heard Jana say in his defense, though in comparison to what he still didn’t know.
Ah, Jana to the rescue! Jana, like manna, falling from heaven. Instant babe in a box, just add beer. Gabriel’s very own goddess from a machine...
Jana glanced up at the nearest screen, which displayed two team emblems on either side of a chart of statistics. It was then Gabriel realized that it wasn’t the color The Walrus objected to—though he seriously doubted the guy had a closet full of purple, unless it appeared in tandem with silver or black, on his various hockey, football and basketball jerseys—so much as where he’d seen the offending shade and when. On this particular night, in this particular game, purple was the color of the enemy.
The Walrus gave Jana the once-over and somehow still mustered the courage to grumble, “Close enough.” He wasn’t a hopelessly dumb beast, for experience had taught him that the only reaction he would be capable of getting from a woman like Jana was a violent one. But that’s okay. Violence was his forte.
Gabriel saw Jana’s hand close around the long handle of her two-pronged shellfish fork. The old instincts were kicking in, the instincts Gabriel couldn’t help finding simultaneously thrilling and disconcerting. My god, he thought, in the slang of B-movie gang-bangers, she’s going to stick the guy. A faint smile played upon his lips.
“Go back to the bar,” Jana ordered. “He’s not bothering anybody. Leave us alone.”
The Walrus expelled a sour cloud of air in lieu of a laugh.
Jana brandished her pathetic weapon. “I said fuck off!”
“Whoa, whoa. There’s no need to get physical.” His emphasis made the word sound blue. “I’ll make a deal with you,” The Walrus said. “If he takes off the shirt he can stay.” He regarded buxom, short-skirted, cowboy-booted Jana Browne not unlike the way a toddler regards a chocolate Easter bunny. “Scratch that, sweetness. If you take off your shirt, he can stay.”
Jana bit her freshly painted lip. She seemed to be considering the proposal.
“Jimmy,” said a voice from behind Gabriel. It was deep and even, radio-smooth.
Gabriel turned and saw the kind eyes, easy smile and muscle-stuffed farmland flannel of Buffalo Bill.
“You’re embarrassing yourself, Jimmy. Go sit down.”
“Fuck no,” said The Walrus, whose tattoo Gabriel now noticed resembled some sort of snake with legs. “You see what this guy’s wearing?”
Bill said nothing, simply placed a brown paw on The Walrus’s shoulder. “Go sit down, Jimmy,” he repeated. “For me.” Bill made it sound as though The Walrus would be doing him a favor by honoring his request, though clearly it was the other way around. If anybody was being done a favor it was The Walrus, and he knew it.
Still, he looked from Jana to Gabriel and back again. What, with her pronounced face paint, roller coaster curves and homespun sugar hair, the woman was a human amusement park. The Walrus seemed to think he was being robbed of at least one good ride. “You’re a lucky motherfucker,” he hissed at Gabriel. Then, as emasculated as his favorite football team, he suavely blew Jana a parting kiss and waddled away.
“Sorry about that,” said Bill. “Jimmy takes sports far too seriously.”
“Apparently,” snorted Jana. “You should keep that guy on a leash.”
Bill smiled knowingly. “He’d only chew through it.”
Jana laughed, the sound of one seduction replacing another. Seducing Gabriel had been a challenge, a lark. But seducing Buffalo Bill was her stock-in-trade. “Have a seat,” she said, pulling up an empty chair. “You don’t want to miss the rest of the game.”
Bill sat down. “The game’s over,” he said, catching Gabriel’s eye. As if in extrasensory support of this pronouncement, the opposing team intercepted the ball. Within seconds they were up another seven points.
The bar crowd bawled and beat their breasts. Bill casually pulled a lighter from his flannel pocket and lit the cigarette that had magically appeared between Jana’s lips. Then he lit one of his own.
Jana exhaled dramatically. “Okay, now I’m bummed,” she said through a puff of smoke. She looked far from bummed to Gabriel. She looked like the birthday girl, homecoming queen and bride-to-be all rolled into one.
Again Bill smiled at Jana as one might smile at a lovingly crafted piece of furniture. More than his bulk or his easy banter or his obvious brains, it was the man’s confidence that disarmed Gabriel. Self-assurance looked good on the guy; like his Paul Bunyan get-up, he wore it well.
“I’m going to need to be consoled,” Jana said, glancing back and forth between the two men. “By somebody,” she teased when neither one of them raised a hand, “or somebodies.”
Buffalo Bill lifted his eyebrows at Gabriel, who responded with a shrug. Gabriel meant the gesture as Who needs her but Bill seemed to interpret it as Be my guest.
Bill peered over his shoulder at his buddies at the bar. The game was still on but all eyes were on him. The Walrus in particular appeared to be wondering what could be keeping the reluctant leader of their unsavory pack.
“Sure,” Bill finally said to Jana, seeming to avoid her companion’s gaze. “I’ll console you.”
“One for one,” said Jana, utterly unsurprised. The guy could’ve torn open his shirt to reveal her initials shaved into his chest hair, and Gabriel’s unfazed coworker would’ve kept her legendary cool. “How about you, Jellybean?”
It wasn’t the first time Gabriel had been presented with such an offer, and something in Jana’s eyes implied she didn’t expect to be turned down. Her staggering presumptuousness—about her allure, about Bill’s preference, about Gabriel’s sexuality—rankled him. That, and the ostensibly mindless way her hand had strayed to Bill’s Popeye-like forearm, a wayward pet returning home.
“I’m going to finish this beer, wait out the rest of the game,” he lied. “See you at work.”
It was refreshing to see Jana look flustered. She glanced from Gabriel to Bill and back again, as though the two men had secretly decided something that had nothing at all to do with the fabulous female specimen seated between them. She nodded, once, as if to say Your loss and left the bar without saying goodbye.
Gabriel had an inkling Bill wouldn’t actually go through with it; this was just an elaborate game some people played. The object was to see how far one was willing to go in order to dupe others and oneself. The more radical the extreme, the larger the score, though it became increasingly difficult, round to round, to keep an accurate tally. But Gabriel had underestimated his opponent; sadly, Bill proved to be quite skilled at the game. He was likely the local champ.
Bill rose and threw two twenties onto the rickety, beer-ringed table. He glanced resignedly at the empty beer cans lining the walls like so many unread books and presented a thick hand for Gabriel to take, or not take, it was his call. Only it wasn’t Gabriel’s call, not really. And it was beginning to look like it never would be.
Gabriel took the man’s hand in his and couldn’t resist giving it a light squeeze. It seemed to him, in the mild euphoria that surrounds and precipitates such risks, that Bill squeezed back. But maybe he was mistaken. Maybe Gabriel, desperate for evidence and half in love, only imagined the sensation, the way an amputee is said to imagine sensation in a limb that, despite what feels real, simply does not exist.
Bill shot Gabriel a sad half-smile before letting go. “Cool shirt,” he teased. He turned and followed tipsy Jana Browne out to her truck, where, like fair-weather football fans and diehards alike, they would spend what was left of the cold, hopeless night—or at least what remained of the big game—trying to console each other.
“Daughter of Numskull”
Saturday nights home alone, with her Fender Kingman and a jug of dago red (the “house red,” she’d come to think of it) as shapely if mostly silent partners in crime, Belle kept private vigil by tuning in to WZUP to watch the campy apparition of her father ham it up. Few things brought a smile to her lips faster than the sorry-ass sight of him, thirty pounds heavier than she remembered and well into middle age, pretending for a rapt home audience of low-budget film buffs and baked reefer aficionados to be a ghost, or a ghoul, or some Borscht Belt zombie-doctor with a highly suspect medical degree. Online forums still debated the scattershot genealogy of Dr. Numskull, wee-hour television personality and make-up sporting schlock jock, who looked to Belle to be the unfortunate result of a gruesome three-way starring Frank Zappa, Barnabas Collins and “Bad Romance”-era Lady Gaga. For her part Belle was content to let the twisted mystery be, though long ago she’d asked her paranormal paterfamilias if he wouldn’t mind tracing Numskull’s lineage along the creepy, anthropomorphic branches of his teratological family tree.
“It’s complicated,” hedged the inveterate dissembler and subject changer extraordinaire, her dad. “Numskull never knew his parents.”
“Well that’s sad.”
“Not really,” he backtracked, mistaking his daughter’s fairly innocuous adolescent-grade disappointment for something more potentially damaging, something darker. “What I mean is, he wasn’t born so much as made. In a lab. Think Frankenstein, only with bubbling test tubes and Erlenmeyer flasks spewing dry ice.”
“But made of what?” preteen Belle pushed back. “Snakes and snails and puppy dog tails?”
“Ha, you’re not far off.”
But the fact-hungry honors student wasn’t having it. “How far, hmm? Say within walking distance? Can I get there on my bike?”
Her father simply shook his head and threw up his hands, not so much conceding defeat as flat-out refusing to do battle. “What can I say, the good doctor’s a bit of a mystery man, Bella. Exact origins unknown.” He grinned his irresistible distant-daddy grin. “Kind of like your old man.”
If only the similarities had ended there. Like his creator, Dr. Gustav Obadiah Orson Numskull, M.D. (Monster Doctor)—or, affectionately, G.O.O.N.—couldn’t stand the sight of blood, or the smell of peanut butter, or the sound of a bagpipe. They shared a near debilitating fear of rodents, as well as a great love of straight-ahead jazz, most notably Ben Webster’s humid, sometimes brutish saxophone playing. They were younger than they looked, having been born during a leap year. And, perhaps most tellingly, both routinely succumbed to an uncontrollable impulse to crack incessantly recycled jokes, jokes so grade-A Jersey-corny—Belle’s father was originally from poetically if misleadingly named Mystic Island—you could slather them in butter and serve them up at summer barbecues, remnants of which would stick unappealingly between your teeth until some sympathetic soul took pity on you and handed you a toothpick.
What’s Casper’s favorite music? The boos.
How does a werewolf introduce himself? Hair do you do?
What position did Dracula play in Little League? Bat boy.
G-rated, groan-worthy stuff. So funny you forgot to laugh. Except Belle always remembered to laugh; even when she saw the punchlines coming a mile down the road, sirens blaring and red lights flashing, she couldn’t keep the tickle of a giggle out of her throat. Even the jokes she’d helped her father write she found herself tittering aloud at, alone in her living room decades later. She couldn’t blame it all on the wine. “Laughter is the very best medicine,” proclaimed Dr. Numskull for the umpteenth time, testing a disconcertingly lifelike skeleton’s knee for reflexes or applying his stethoscope to a bell jar housing a pickled heart. “As a monster of science, I should know.”
Yes, few things brought a smile to Belle’s wine stained lips faster than her father’s hopelessly outdated Halloweeny vaudeville routine. Few things brought a smile to her lips, period. In fact these days Belle Opaque, on whom the entertainment media had all but performed an eviscerating postmortem, needed all the emergency medical attention she could get.
If it was becoming depressingly less outlandish to view her recent career trajectory as an irreversible decline, Belle wasn’t alone in having a vested interest in spinning it as more potentially slippery slope than hopeless downward spiral. But whatever palatable candy-colored pills of optimism her management team might’ve felt duty-bound to feed her, eternally thirsty Belle found wine worked best. Lots and lots of wine, preferably cheap, preferably red. More somnambulist than sommelier—sleepwalking through her life now seemed as natural as seizing the day once had—and still (she hoped) evolutionary rungs away from being considered a true winosaur, Belle knew next to nothing about sipping the grape other than how to skip the sipping and just guzzle the stuff when home alone and nothing much on TV. Nothing much but reruns of her dead daddy.
Trouble was, even an influx of fermented grape juice never went a long way—or a long enough way—toward calming her nerves or completely dispelling her fears. What sort of fears? So glad you asked. Why, the very fears conveniently given voice by hipper-than-thou online forums like Fire Iron and the few remaining “venerable” industry rags: that Belle Opaque was a hack, a has-been, a literal pretender to the eternally up-for-grabs alternative rock throne. That she was morally bankrupt and creatively spent. Worse even, that she perhaps wasn’t creatively spent but nor did it matter, because while Belle had been busying herself with making a record no one outside of her shrinking coterie of self-proclaimed “Belle’s Angels” would care about (a largely unfinished work alternately titled Nazis & Nazarenes, Diary of Anne Frankenstein or Masturbation for a Master Race, depending on her mood), finessing the finer points, deviling the details, all the sotto voce, painfully sincere, prodigiously bearded boys and geisha-bunned girls had staged a coup that made Belle Opaque, along with every other aging rocker grrrl of her ilk, ridiculous and irrelevant if not outright revolting by comparison.
Not that she completely disagreed with every criticism leveled her way. In fact most days she sided with the critics. Which, not unlike her increasing dependence on dago red, Belle suspected was becoming a problem. Something they all seemed to agree on was that somewhere along the way Belle Opaque had lost her mojo. “You haven’t lost it,” Karyn told her during one of their marathon telephone pep talks. “It’s simply been misplaced.” “It’s not a set of keys or pair of sunglasses, Karyn-with-a-y.” (The nickname had a double meaning. Of all her close friends—Belle could count them on one hand—Karyn was the one she trusted most, artistically speaking. As musician herself—Karyn played flute, and had even had a chart-placing single back in the mid-nineties—the woman always wondered aloud what Belle’s “motivation” was for any given creative decision. Hence, Karyn-with-a-why.) “Retracing my steps or turning the house upside-down isn’t going to help.” “Retracing your steps might help. Going, you know, back to the beginning.” But Belle didn’t see how traveling backwards through all those shadows might light her way forward. It was unquestionably beautiful, this darkness she’d created—lovely, dark and deep, to quote a poet—but it also shared certain characteristics with the blackest of black holes, which fascinated and often terrified her. “Izzy Horn died a long time ago,” she reminded her friend. “In a Galaxie 500 far, far away.” “I fucking loved that car,” sighed Karyn. “Me too,” agreed Belle. “Which is exactly why I’m glad it’s gone.”
Still, after she’d hung up with Karyn and put in a load of wash and halfheartedly began a grocery list—you know, all the classic rock star shit rock stars love to do—she semi-seriously considered tacking up a DIY flyer around town, or possibly placing an ad on Craigslist under the “misc romance” or “rants and raves” section: WASHED-UP MIDDLE-AGED ROCK STAR SEEKS REVITALIZING MOJO FOR LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIP. MUST BE IN GOOD SHAPE AND ENDLESSLY INSPIRING. KNOWLEDGE OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC A PLUS. POETRY READERS AND WINE LOVERS PREFERRED. FIRE IRON SUBSCRIBERS NEED NOT APPLY. After all, it was one thing to rage against the dying of the light when you had something to rage for, or against. Or when you yourself were all the rage. But it didn’t take the tolling of some looming Big Ben or ticking-bomb biological clock to tell Belle the times were rapidly passing her by. Even a cursory glance at her numberless Hublot, a decade-old gift from the Duke of Anjou—the freaking Duke of Anjou; suck my left one, Mojo!—revealed her coveted fifteen minutes to be just about up.
At least Cinderella had had evil step-family to spur her on. Belle Opaque was about to turn back into a pumpkin, and all she had to show for it was this reanimated quack waxing frenetic on late-night TV.
How do vampires stay clean? By taking a bloodbath.
What’s a zombie’s favorite kind of weather? A brainstorm.
Not that Belle’s current status as persona non grata had taken her by surprise. (In fact of all the personas she might’ve adopted—and there were a few—she’d seemed destined if not doomed to choose the wrong one.) For years now she’d suspected that the lofty perch she’d inhabited in the collective pop culture consciousness might be tainted with more than its fair share of pigeon shit. Who was she, an inherently shy and annoyingly quirky kid from the mean-ish streets of Northeast Philadelphia, to attain such rarefied heights? It wasn’t as if she were native to some indisputably cool place, like New Yawk, or undeniably hip, like San Fran, or inherently weird, like Nawlins. She couldn’t even claim allegiance to hardscrabble South Philly, with its grit and goombas and sky’s-the-limit street cred. The Great Northeast, as it was strivingly known, was a vast cultural wasteland, all smoggy skies and ashen fields of concrete, without so much as a single daisy—or even dandelion—to inspire any unfortunate local poets. It rivaled suburbia for its characterless housing and abundance of strip malls, but lacked suburbia’s arguably superior antiseptic sheen. Not a whole lot to root for or rail against, Belle’s entire childhood was like a listing on the New York Times Magazine’s “meh” list. Not hot, not not. Just meh.
In her darker moments—dark even for her, a self-professed direct descendant of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady—Belle suspected she’d stumbled into someone else’s life, some awe-inspiring prodigy from Appalachia, say, or the swamp-ass Florida panhandle, or Brooklyn. She tended to view her success as little more than a fluke, of which her current predicament seemed the cruelest of confirmations. One if not all of the Fates had made a crucial mistake—most likely it was Lachesis, whom Belle pictured as an eternally bored eye-rolling adolescent inured to the thankless task of having to tediously measure out, like, every single mortal’s life-thread. For all her accomplishments and Queen Bitch bravado—for all her talent—Belle had always felt a subtle but persistent queasiness deep within her gut, a distant echo of the seasickness she’d once suffered on Anjou’s sleek, well-stocked yacht, intimating (aside from having unwisely ingested too many oysters, too liberally washed down with Boerl & Kroff Rose) that her celebrated life was a sham, an elaborate and sustained trick some cosmic merry prankster was playing on her, a suspicion no dosage of self-medicating Grammys or platinum records or famous naked people in her bed would ever quite dispel.
So no, she wasn’t exactly surprised by the recent illegal U-turn her life had taken. Disheartened, certainly. Disappointed. Maybe even devastated. But not surprised. She drew what little solace she could from the fact that once again Belle Opaque had proven herself to be slightly ahead of the curve. Cold comfort, to be sure, for a strong start almost always ensures a weak finish. Vision blurred, legs jellied, Belle had been out of breath for a while now. It had only been a matter of time before the rest of the world caught up.
Or caught on. Because maybe Belle was the one playing tricks. Maybe instead of the Fates she was the real puppet master here, a kohl-eyed, wild-haired Gepetto pulling out all the stops and all the strings—even, or especially, the hopelessly tangled strings tied to herself. But if that was the case then how or why feel so manipulated, so manhandled, so used? Was it even possible for someone to take full advantage of herself? A wonderfully perverse part of Belle sure hoped so. Self-manipulation suited her just fine—she liked the tawdry, vaguely taboo ring of it, and greedily squirreled the term away in a mental manila file labeled Song Titles.
Because if Belle Opaque wasn’t a Real Girl, what was she? If she wasn’t made of messy Real Girl stuff, what was she made of? Wine? Wood? Ice (consensus said ice, but it would have to be the dry variety, used to great effect on stage). Sugar and spice and everything nice? Ha, tell that to the borderline beautiful soap star Belle had kicked out of her bed the night before, sending him headlong into a wee-hours thunderstorm of biblical proportions without so much as a wham-bam-thank-you, man. “Why can’t I stay over?” “Because you can’t.” “I really want to.” “I bet you do. But you can’t.” “But it’s like an Egyptian plague out there.” “You can borrow an umbrella.” “Look, the river’s practically at your doorstep. I’ll probably drown!” “Now that we’ve slept together, you can use your inflated ego as a flotation device. Now, go!”
Maybe she was a man-made monster, like Dr. Numskull here. What a camera hog! The quietly mischievous, mostly reserved man in life was a complete diva on screen, prompting the poor sap operating the camera to zoom in on his creepy contact-lensed eyes while he belted out a Weird Al-inspired song called “My Eyes Abhorred You” (originally recorded by Stanky Alley) in mock-serenade to his collection of medical anomalies, with tweaked lyrics like Morose, morose as a brain-filled jar. Belle wondered if he’d ever get back to the movie. Not that she was in a hurry for her daddy’s kitschy skit to end. She could watch him all night, now that he was gone for good. Maybe she would. Her calendar was clear.
And yet it wasn’t all an act. In fact most of the time Belle went around foolishly believing that everything she’d accomplished, everything she owned—from the Hublot to the converted clapboard church-slash-home studio she’d gleefully secularized to the ’62 Shelby Cobra hibernating in her garage—was simply her due. No more and certainly no less. After all, she alone had written those songs, every note, every word. She’d revised and recorded them and played them live, touring extensively while touring had been viable, sitting for interviews and making public appearances back when the invitations were plentiful and the pay, if she was being truthful, downright ridonkulous. Nothing had been handed to her (discounting the Hublot. But at times that particular relationship had felt more like a prolonged business trip than pleasure, payment for which a swanky luxury watch would only begin to cover). Unlike your typical nine-to-fiver, Belle wrote music round the clock, often getting out of bed in the middle of the night to hum a melody into her phone or jot down a lyric, or forgoing sleep altogether. (Songs like “Cord,” “Styx and Stone” and “The Dead Belle,” as well as most of Forbidden Morning, had been composed long after midnight.) Like anyone who routinely worked from home, the line between life and work could become blurred if you weren’t careful. Belle rarely was. Her job—to make music, to make art—felt less like a profession and more like a duty, something she’d signed on for knowing full well how it would consume her every waking moment and not a few of the non-waking ones. Try as she occasionally might, there was no separating the singer from the song, the clapper from its pleasingly curved, purposefully cacophonous Belle. Forever at the mercy of her taskmaster muse—she of the sharp tongue, she of the short fuse—Belle was incessantly, often inconveniently, at times irritatingly, on call.
As such, she tried to keep in mind that the embarrassing schoolyard scuffle the universe had picked with her wasn’t personal, it was business. Dirty business, for sure, but business nonetheless. The math wasn’t complicated; as usual it was all about a healthy bottom line. (Time was, it had all been about Belle’s healthy bottom line—how’s that for an allegorical bimbo persona, Belle Bottom!—but even the gushing college-age admirer who’d photographed her for a recent issue of Has-been Magazine or Faded Star Quarterly or whatever the fuck the campus arts rag was called had suggested shooting her exclusively from the front, now that her long-revered rear-end was pushing forty.) And yet she’d been luckier than most rock-n-roll hopefuls, unfathomably lucky, in fact. She should be grateful. She was grateful. Belle might’ve counted her blessings if everyone wasn’t so busy counting her out.
The rock-n-roll gods had smiled upon Belle Opaque for a time—a long time, in rock star years—but now all smiles, to quote Browning, stopped together. End of story.
Roll the credits.
Fade to black.
So here Belle sits as if alive, if not strictly comatose only slightly less dead than her deceptively corporeal father blathering on TV.
“The Hands of Love” (fragment)
The first time Ken had seen the name U2, emblazoned on the back of a thrift shop raincoat in what to his then-untrained eye appeared to be Wite-Out, he was eleven years old and had no idea it referred to an Irish band with a decidedly religious bent. He liked the look of it, though: one capital letter and one evenly matched digit, austere and unavoidable against the stark, charcoal-gray trench. He liked the look of the kid wearing the coat, too, though at the time he couldn’t say why. Despite being dressed head to toe in the subtly varied shades of a storm cloud (raincoat, combat boots, work shirt buttoned to the neck), the boy looked like any other neighborhood teen, with a strong jaw to his credit and short, spiky hair. Ken remembered wishing his own logo-centric clothes were this idiosyncratically obscure, more mysterious and monochrome, like that of a priest. He also wished away his own ignorance—whether U2 turned out to be some kind of secret code or private joke, he wanted in on it. He was an inquisitive kid who hated not knowing things.
Ken rose from his seat and staggered down the El car. “My friend wants to know if you’re a punk rocker,” he said, for some odd reason couching his question in a lie.
The boy, who couldn’t have been more than fifteen or sixteen, googled his eyes at his similarly dressed friend and laughed. “Do I look like a punk rocker?” he asked, not unkindly.
Eleven-year-old Ken shrugged. “Kind of. You don’t look like us,” he reasoned, nodding toward his buddies.
The boy glanced over at Ken’s friends, in their iridescent sweat pants and pristine sneakers. They looked to be members of some junior sports team, though few of them played sports with any real skill. “And what’s so great about the way you look?” he said.
He had Ken there. Gaudy gym clothes couldn’t hold a candle to the grim, militaristic uniform these boys favored. Although neither of them knew it, the kid was preaching to the very recently converted. “What’s U2 stand for?”
“It stands for U2.” Ken knitted his brow and the boy relented a bit. “It’s a band,” he said, settling the score once and for all.
“A punk rock band,” Ken offered.
The older boys rose from their seats; they were getting off at the next stop. “Buy a record,” the kid said, just before the El doors shot open and he got off the train. “Take a break from New Edition and DeBarge. You’ll find out.”
But Ken never bought a record, at least not right away. But he never forgot the name U2, just as he never forgot about that clean-cut, black-clad boy on the El.
By Ken’s freshman year of high school it seemed everybody, from his parents to his teachers to motor-mouthed Top Forty deejays, were overly familiar with the name U2. Boys no longer had to paint it on the backs of their old-man jackets, because T-shirts abounded. Girls no longer had to fight over the pretty-boy drummer, because the lead-singer had ditched his mullet for a sensitive-guy ponytail look. In spite of a bleak black-and-white cover photo of four unsmiling band mates seemingly stranded in the desert, The Joshua Tree was an international smash, and songs like “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” ruled the airwaves while their accompanying videos—the latter of which featured the band performing a supposedly impromptu concert on a rooftop in downtown L.A.—went into heavy rotation on MTV. The secret was out. U2 were no joke.
Ken, of course, was an instant fan. In fact the record—due in no small part to the gorgeous austerity of Anton Corbijn’s panoramic black-and-white photographs—made such a strong impression on him at such an impressionable age that for a time when Ken entertained the possibility of running away, it wasn’t to New York or L.A., but to the merciless Mojave Desert and the world’s most famous Joshua tree.
All this was running through Ken’s mind as he cruised what was on the surface, at least, the antithesis of a desert. As far as wastelands went, though, this particular strip of discount shoe and electronics stores, muffler shops and fast food chains was certainly holding its own. He didn’t consider himself an especially moody guy, but the seasons had always affected what types of music he listened to. (For this reason he got unduly upset with deejays who played the likes of Vampire Weekend in the winter or anything by Bauhaus or Joy Division in July. He was a big fan of contrast, but some contrasts were just too jarring.) Although much of U2’s oeuvre had Ken hankering for the shorter and darker days of the year, The Joshua Tree was warm-weather music, having been released in early spring and chock full of that bare-bones desert imagery. (He remembered having read somewhere that the band was actually freezing during Anton Corbijn’s legendary photo shoot, which went a long way toward explaining the tired eyes and set jaws—the band members weren’t self-important, they were only trying to keep their teeth from chattering.) Some people Ken knew—his wife foremost among them—insisted that great music transcended time and space and therefore the seasons, but Ken disagreed. Marlene had argued that listening to music was a highly subjective enterprise—she’d actually used the word “enterprise”—to begin with, and as such the same rules, as she put it, couldn’t possibly apply to everyone. And for the most part, she was right. But imagine listening to “Under the Boardwalk” at the height of a snowstorm, or “Winter Wonderland” in the middle of a heat wave. The only value in doing so was ironic, and irony only went so far.
Last week was a case in point. He and Marlene were in the kitchen preparing dinner when she popped a fresh CD into the player. When Ken heard the opening car-alarm chords of “I Will Follow,” he let out an involuntary groan.
“What,” Marlene said, “you love this record.”
“That’s exactly why I don’t want to hear it.”
“Sorry,” she said, a playful sneer curling the corner of her lip. “I don’t follow.”
“I mean it, though. Why wouldn’t you want to hear this?”
“Well, it might have something to do with the fact that it’s ninety degrees and the Fourth of July.”
“The Irish know about oppression, about revolution and the fight for freedom.”
She gave him a look. “I’m supposed to find July 4th songs for you to listen to?”
“Well, U2 actually has a song called ‘4th of July’ on The Unforgettable Fire, but that’s not the point.”
“What’s the point, Ken?” Marlene sighed. He wasn’t sure she didn’t mean this more generally, as in What’s the point of being married? Of starting a family? Of living at all? The fact that he had to spell it out for her made him feel suddenly very tired.
“Boy is an autumn album. The quintessential autumn album, in fact.”
He shrugged. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“Not to me it isn’t,” Marlene snorted, by her tone implying Not to the rest of the world.
“Okay,” Ken said, getting professorial, “discounting that U2 is an Irish band; discounting the shadowy song lyrics and echo-laden, atmospheric music; discounting the stark cover art, which is in creepily distorted black-and-white. Boy was released in October, 1980. Arguably the most autumnal October of all the Octobers the world has ever seen.”
“That’s total bullshit,” Marlene said, and laughed. “What’s that even mean? ‘The most autumnal October of all Octobers’?”
“The fact that I have to explain it to you is…,” he waved his hand vaguely and trailed off.
Ken just shook his head.
“Is what, Ken?” pressed Marlene.
He looked at her. “Disappointing,” he said.
Marlene slammed her finger down on the STOP button, silencing a youthful Bono for the time being. “No, you know what’s disappointing?” she said. “It’s disappointing that I’ve been working my ass off these last few months—I haven’t had a real day off in weeks—and you have to ruin it with this dick-swinging More Erudite than Thou crap.” She looked at him. “You’re such a fucking claimer.”
“Someone who takes something they love and ruins it for everybody else by claiming it as theirs and theirs alone. ‘You don’t love U2’s Boy like I do, because you don’t have the capacity to understand or appreciate it in quite the same way.’ It’s selfish and arrogant and pathetically immature. You know, all the things I love about you.” She pushed PLAY as a parting shot and stormed out of the kitchen.
“Hey,” Ken called after all, “listen to whatever you want, whenever you want. See if I care.”
But Ken did care. If Ken hadn’t cared, they would’ve ended up watching the fireworks from their shared bed (after having ignited a few jaw-dropping pyrotechnics of their own) instead of from separate rooms, on separate TVs, with separate ideas about what is and isn’t appropriate holiday music.
The Beautiful One
The beautiful ones always smash the picture—always, every time.
--Prince, “The Beautiful Ones"
PROLOGUE: WHEN YOU WERE MINE
Long before Janine Mikulski became Nina Mitchell, before the cosmetics line and the Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, before the flagrantly juvenile Prince-produced record, even before the toothpaste commercials and the embarrassing low-budget acting gigs, she and I were teenagers in love. Looking back, the phrase seems borderline oxymoronic: teenagers in love. What do teenagers know about love? More specifically, what did Janine and I know, two working class city kids rubbing our burgeoning bodies against one another in dog-infested alleyways and dimly lit schoolyards and, on those rare occasions when her parents weren’t at home, the shag-carpeted Mikulski living room floor? I, for one, knew next to nothing about sex. All I really knew was what I could glean from the entertainment industry, and Prince records in particular. At fourteen, I believed the purple-clad man to be as good as his word. So when he proclaimed sexuality to be all he’d ever need, I thought Of course. When he prophesied that come the year 2000 the party would be over, I figured Sounds about right. And when he confessed “sincerely” to want to fuck the taste out of some girl Marsha’s mouth—nice touch, that sincerely, a kind of good cop-bad cop seduction technique I couldn’t help but admire—I deemed it wholly possible, and longed for the day when I too might sincerely attempt the same.
And attempt it, at some point, with Janine. I’ll spare you the suspense and reveal that, eventually, I was given the opportunity. After a decade-long “hiatus”—her word, not mine. I prefer the term absence, because for ten full years Janine was absent from my life, a void I felt keenly, a glaring empty space in a head crammed with everyday detritus—Janine and I were married. We lived the sort of life together that at times resembled one of the outlandish scenarios on the daytime drama where her far more famous alter ego Nina Mitchell made her bones. The show, called Brotherly Love, was a local low-budget laugh factory, though all the laughs were unintentional. Janine knew this going in. “Unintentional laughs are better than no laughs,” she argued, and she was right. Fans of Brotherly Love may’ve tuned in simply to make fun of the show, but tune in they did. Many tuned in expressly to see Janine. To see her breaking the hearts of various clueless privileged boys. To see her tooling around the burbs in her fire engine red BMW Cabriolet. To see her lounging by the kidney-shaped pool of the stately Gladwyne mansion where the series was shot, in old school Wayfarers and hot-pink bandeau bikini. Janine was nineteen. She knew how to lounge.
Eventually Janine’s bikini caught the eye of a bigger fish in a much bigger pond, and she was offered more substantial, if horribly clichéd, roles even as she pursued an acting degree at Tisch. The clichéd acting roles led to less clichéd ones. The less clichéd acting roles led to a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. The Oscar nomination led to a cosmetics line. The cosmetics line made her wealthier than her fake father on TV. Then she met Prince, and on a whim (his whim, always his whim) she suddenly decided, pushing forty, to become a pop star. “Everybody can’t be on top,” I told her at the time, quoting Prince’s song “Pop Life.” “I’m already on top,” Janine replied, “so that doesn’t really apply to me.” She had a point. Her life at that stage of her career was what every little girl who longs to be an actress dreams of: courtship by the country’s top directors; dinner parties with celebrities and musicians and stars of reality TV; paparazzi popping out of the bushes and the trunks of random cars like so many camera-wielding jacks-in-the-box. I was there for a lot of it, and a lot of it was far from fun. So this is a story of survival as much as anything else—Janine’s and mine. I may not have much to show for it today, but we were in love for a very long time, a situation, I’m forced to admit, that wasn’t always healthy for either of us. I, for one, am tempted to have my time with Janine’s alter ego whittled down to single phrase and silk-screened onto a T-shirt: I SURVIVED NINA MITCHELL AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY BOOK. But that makes me sound vindictive and ungrateful, at least one of which I most certainly am not.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. (This was more typical of Janine, a woman who had her entire life—including the superstar status—planned out at a very young age. At times Janine got so far ahead that you could almost see her leaving the present version of herself behind, shaking free of it like an impractically packed knapsack, along with the army of poor saps who happened to be in love with her.) I can’t start in the middle, in medias res, as is the modern fashion. When it comes to Janine, I’m obliged to start at the beginning, because she was there from the start, or close enough to it that everything that came before seems mere preliminary, prologue to a play—by turns tragedy and comedy—we created together, improvising as we went. Contrary to what the makers of pithy refrigerator magnets would have us believe, life doesn’t begin at forty, it begins at fourteen. For me, life began with Janine.
And that’s what this book is about, more or less. How it all started, how it all ended, and many of the sometimes gory, often gorgeous details in-between. The Alpha and the Omega. The rise and fall. Not so much remembrance of things past as resemblance to things past, a marked similarity to actual events but, ultimately, mere simulation. Janine understood this better than most. Years ago, she showed up at my apartment unannounced and demanded that I write her a book. (In fact she appeared out of the blue and, not unlike Le Petit Prince, in her own odd little voice said exactly that: “Write me a book.”) At first I refused. Occasionally, over the years, I relented, but my many attempts were in vain; I never managed to get the thing right. And by “right” I mean it never earned Janine’s elusive seal of approval. The Mr. Alphaville series, and specifically the character of J-9, was clearly based on her. But Janine had no desire to be fictionalized. “Tell it true,” she once instructed me, as if the truth was something I ever had any claim to. I don’t know what the trouble was. Maybe I’m just a born liar. Maybe I was simply too close to the subject matter. Or maybe I was reluctant to share Janine any more than I already had to. As if I ever had a choice. As if hoarding her wasn’t a surefire way to diminish her worth.
Yet hoarding Janine paid off in one respect: this book. It’s not the book she wanted, and it’s certainly not the book she asked for. It’s not even the book I wanted to write—it’s the book I needed to write (if not particularly a book that needed to be written). I don’t know where Janine is, or if she’ll ever read this. We haven’t spoken in years. (I assume she’s still alive only because I’m convinced I’d know otherwise. To paraphrase an Auden poem, no moaning aeroplanes scribble the message She Is Dead.) Of course rumors abound. One of the more fanciful of these rumors maintains that Janine had a sex-change operation and—possibly in honor of her favorite author, J.D. Salinger—is currently working at the Museum of Natural History as a security officer named Jerome. Another, that she purchased her own island in the Bahamas and is the reclusive neighbor of Johnny Depp and his beautiful new wife. (Janine had a horrible girl-crush on Amber Heard and convinced the actress to sing back-up on what would’ve been her second record, though the deal eventually fell through. The album was called Santa Nina, and Heard’s ex-girlfriend Tasya van Ree took the cover photo of semi-naked Nina Mitchell tied to a stake. I confess to having sat through Pineapple Express more times than I care to remember.) Yet another rumor claims that Janine is still holed up at Paisley Park, if not detained, Rapunzel-style, in some crushed-velvet tower, at least hiding out, keeping the lowest profile imaginable for someone blessed with her perfect nose and pointed chin, to say nothing of all that flowing golden hair.
It hardly matters anymore. I haven’t written this book in order to flush Janine out or bully some response. On the contrary, I’ve written this book is in order to finally forget her, to get her out of my system, as it were. The Beautiful One is my goodbye. I’ve always loved Janine; I may in fact love Janine more now than when she was mine. Nostalgia works wonders on a doomed relationship; it’s like a talk show make-over for one’s memory. That said, I’ve learned rather late in life that love, for all its indubitable perks, is beside the point. Love is only part of the equation, merely one variable in the complex and possibly unsolvable algebra of a friendship, a marriage, a life. Love, to quote an old idol and former adversary, isn’t love until it’s past. I realize now there’s no future for me and Janine, if there ever was one. Everything that’s made us who and what we are has already happened.
1. GIRLS & BOYS
I’d first spotted Janine Mikulski on a poorly-paved public schoolyard back when Nina Mitchell was nothing more than a persona she’d adopted as a little girl playing dress-up. (She’d stolen the surname from her sister’s shampoo bottle. Writing this, it’s just occurred to me that I never really laid into Janine for changing her name, a capital offense where we come from. Nicknames were the norm in our working class river ward, and of course married women swapped surnames all the time. But nobody abandoned the name they were born with unless they had something to hide. And besides, Nina Mitchell wasn’t the marrying kind. I’m not saying this just to be nasty; she has repeatedly gone on the record as being adamantly anti-matrimony. Look it up, if you don’t believe me. Read the interviews, Google her Wikipedia page, sift through the lyrics of pop songs like “Dissolution,” “I Don’t,” and “Bended Knee,” which uses the Massacre at Wounded Knee as a metaphor for a loveless marriage: You went down on bended knee / the day we wed, you wounded me / a loaded gun, what’s it for? / warning shots end in all-out war. It wasn’t the trappings she objected to—I often joked that pageantry, not Anastasia, was Janine’s middle name—as much as the sheer audacity of the idea: one person, and only one person, for the rest of your life. For Janine, people were like potato chips: delicious, addictive, the worse for you, the better. The idea that she could, at any point, pick one and just put down the bag was at best laughable and at worst smacked of fascism.) I turned a corner and there she was, careening around the schoolyard in white knee socks and blood-red shorts, a trio of bare-chested pre-pubescent boys in hot pursuit. No neighborhood girl in her right mind would be caught dead sporting retina-damaging Mickey Mouse pants, and it was far too warm for the textured stockings, milk white and pulled tight, like somebody from the Alps. Janine wasn’t from the Alps, of course, only from the other side of Teutonically dubbed Auerbach Avenue. But she could’ve been from Planet Claire, for all I knew or cared. Where she came from didn’t seem nearly as crucial as where she might be going.
I skidded to a stop and my friend Brandon had to swerve at the last second in order to avoid a collision. Rarely did we spot something worth braking for, because braking, for a motion-obsessed adolescent boy, is a sign of great respect, if not outright awe. As Janine herself would be the first to tell you, I was in awe of her from the get-go.
“Her name’s Janine,” Brandon said, a hirsute kid whose patterned nervous ticks at times gave his face the air of a minor appliance or hand-held casino game. He blinked in rapid succession—one long, two short, one long, two short—as though signaling me in Morse code. I sized him up, not for the first time. He was wearing mascara, I was sure of it. He sported a full-blown mustache. His flimsy neon sneakers made his feet look freakishly big, like the kid had flippers where ten human toes ought to be. “Janine the beauty queen,” he whisper-sang. “She lives around the corner from my Uncle Walt.”
Brandon proceeded to explain how he’d gone to school with Janine, briefly, before transferring to Mother of Sublime Grace. His family was Protestant, which was a strange and somewhat superfluous thing to be in a parish full of Roman Catholics, like a self-proclaimed teetotaler at a New Year’s Eve party. “I’ll introduce you,” he said, then added with a smirk, “She’s Polish.”
Integrated is not a word anyone would ever use to describe Richtown, an immigrant enclave that even today seems more muffin pan than melting pot, though the flavors have changed. Brandon knew that my mother would make a disapproving face when she found out about her son’s apparent predilection for Polish girls. He also knew that if I went ahead and actually scored with Janine Mikulski—the thought boggled my mind, though other parts of my anatomy didn’t appear to be nearly as confused—I would be the victim of merciless teasing and the butt of numerous off-color jokes. And this just from my parents.
“Tomorrow,” I said, wondering how I could possibly wait that long.
Brandon’s face performed a hand-jive. “What about Tracy?”
“What about her?” I snapped. Tracy and I had had a good eighteen-month run. At fourteen, and as oversexed co-founder of The Erotic Citizens, a fledgling Prince fan club, I was looking to take our relationship to the next level. (Just what awaited us on the next level I wasn’t sure, but it was certainly set to the desperate pleading of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” followed quickly by the bluesy bump-and-grind of “Darling Nikki.”) Although I didn’t go so far as to sport ruffled shirts and shoulder-padded, rhinestone-studded trench coats to school dances like Brandon, I did own a pair of dark purple jeans and did my best to sweep my longish, wavy brown hair to one side, throwing over the then-popular, center-parted “wings” hairstyle in favor of a semi-successful pompadour. Like His Purple Majesty, we wanted to be in the “new breed,” and touted sexuality as all we’d ever need. Never mind that, for us, the sex act tended to take place with much older TV stars—like visions of wanton sugarplum fairies—while we were fast asleep.
Tracy disagreed. Tracy had no desire to count herself as a member of Prince’s new breed, or even as an honorary member of The Erotic Citizens (she thought we should call ourselves The Little Red Corvettes). In fact she had very little desire to speak of. Which made her new, eye-hijacking body the erotic equivalent of false advertising.
“Tracy won’t mind,” I lied, and almost laughed at how silly I sounded. “It’s not like we’re engaged.”
Strictly speaking this wasn’t true. I’d proposed to Tracy a few nights before. Her narrow, straightaway shape had morphed into some unexpected curves a few weeks back, like an intriguing detour you don’t mind following for a few miles. So when she’d shown up at our special make-out spot looking like a top-heavy Pat Benatar, in a black and green-striped off-the-shoulder top and second skin Sassoons, I lost it. I went down on one knee, scooping up a soda tab on my way to the ground. Neither of us said a word as I worked the aluminum ring over her expectant finger, but neither of us had to. I took the tears ruining her mascara as a yes.
“Meet me at Walt’s,” Brandon said. “I’ll invite her over.”
“Will she come? Does she like you?”
He blinked, and shrugged, and blinked some more. “Janine likes everybody,” he said noncommittally. “She’s a people person.”
The next day I did as Brandon instructed and showed up at his Uncle’s Walt’s row house, our de facto hangout spot. Back then, Walt and his roommate Timothy seemed ancient to us, but they must’ve only been in their late twenties. Apparently they were waiters at some restaurant or another—they routinely woke bleary-eyed around two in the afternoon after all-night binges and left the house in black slacks and tuxedo shirts, their heads wet, their skin the color of cream soda. Walt was rail-thin, with a throwback pencil mustache and sleepy eyes—John Waters minus the flair. Timothy was fleshier, clean-shaven, better looking. He had frosted, Make It Big George Michael hair. It had to have crossed our minds that, rather than the playboy image they knowingly fostered, they might be gay. Walt was nothing if not an effeminate man (the way he smoked his cigarettes, with an inverted hand on his hip, now seems glaringly girlish). But in 1984 androgyny was in. Brandon and I were oversexed fourteen-year-old working class kids; homosexuality should’ve been an issue, but it wasn’t.
Well, it certainly was an issue for Brandon’s mother, who often described her son’s flamboyant wardrobe as “faggy,” and for my dad, who pretended to ignore the lingerie-clad non-Caucasian women flashing him from my bedroom walls and focus instead on the seven paper doves hanging from my bedroom ceiling. “What are these supposed to be?” he’d asked me the day I hung them up. “Doves,” I answered matter-of-factly. “Take them down,” he told me. “I’ll get you a parakeet.” “I don’t want a parakeet. The song’s called “When Doves Cry,” not “When Parakeets Cry.” My dad looked as though he’d just swallowed a bug. “You mean the creepy record by that spic he-she you play non-stop? Forget about him,” he said. “He’s queer as a three-dollar bill.” “No, he’s not,” I said. “He gets all these girls.” I gestured to the tawny-skinned whorish performers hovering like underworld seraphim around my bed. “It’s an act,” my dad pronounced, after he’d zoned out for a full minute staring at the well of Apollonia’s cleavage. “The guy wears lace pants, for Christ’s sake. You want me to buy you a pair? You want to show up on your first day of high school in go-go boots and mascara, like Brandon?” I pretended to think this over. “No,” I said. A smug look swam across my father’s face, but it quickly disappeared when he saw how red my eyes were getting. “I didn’t think so,” he said, and left the room.
The conversation I struck up with Janine the next day on Walt’s front porch had to do with her “career,” as she called it. Brandon hadn’t been kidding about the beauty queen business. By age thirteen, Janine had won a number of small but increasingly significant pageants, most recently that of Miss Pre-Teen Pennsylvania. She was very pretty—too pretty for me. I was not one of the half dozen swarthy Don Juans who routinely stole the hearts and fondled the flourishing bodies of the neighborhood hotties. As a baby, my own mother had labeled me “interesting looking.” I had no business making a play for Janine. But I was a bright kid, and had procured a certain degree of street cred due to my dexterity with spray paint and colored Sharpies. I wasn’t a true bad boy, but I went to school with a few. Some of their casual arrogance and mindless bravery, if not their dark good looks, had rubbed off on me.
“Where’s your crown?” I asked, knowing full well it had a fancier name but damn, when faced point-blank with Janine’s undivided attention and flawless Slavic beauty, if I could remember it. Brandon had slyly introduced me as “an admirer,” a word with which Janine, by the ripe old age of thirteen, had become all too familiar.
“Tiara,” she clarified. “And it’s in my room.”
“Can I see it?”
She laughed. “My room or my tiara?”
“Either,” I shrugged, playing it cool. “Both.”
“No,” she said, rather seriously. “No boys allowed.”
“So bring it down,” I suggested, hardly hiding my disappointment. Even if we’d known each other for more than five minutes, there wasn’t much we would dare to do upstairs in Janine’s room that couldn’t be done holed up in an alley or behind the odd oak tree. I had no sisters, but somehow I sensed that a girl’s bedroom was a bastion second only to her body. Seeing where Janine slept, touching her stuff, sitting on her bed would be akin to feeling her up.
“Not yet,” she said vaguely.
Janine shot me a look out of her amazing baby blues that said All hail the newly crowned Idiot-King. “I barely know you.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. Leeringly, I said, “Don’t worry, I won’t touch it.” I all but waggled my eyebrows.
“No,” Janine said evenly, “you won’t.” I felt her ebb away.
It seemed I’d offended her, so I added, “Just think, one day I’ll be able to say I knew Miss America when.”
“Yeah,” she said, visibly warming to the idea. Then, out of nowhere: “And if you’re really lucky, one day you might be able to say you held her hand.”
Ordinarily, handholding didn’t turn me on. Tracy, of course, had been a champion hand-holder. Still, I resolved then and there to put my time in and, as per Sister Margaret Mary’s advice—which, despite the constant threat of nuclear catastrophe and my soul’s soon-to-be eternal role as Satan’s “quik-start” charcoal, I normally felt no burning desire to heed—tried to count my blessings.
As luck would have it, I didn’t have to count very high. People person indeed. After pleading my case for a week, something along the lines of pretty girls like you never give un-pretty guys like me a chance, and don’t know what you’re missing, I’d bullied Janine into going on a date with me, “date” being shorthand for after-dinner tonsil tickling in a semi-private, predetermined alley. Never mind that she was out of my league. Never mind that I had a fiancée. Prince, that model Erotic Citizen, sure wouldn’t let a little thing like being engaged stand in his way of a date with a future Miss America, and neither would I.
Besides which, it was Saturday night, I guess that made it all right, and what did I have to lose? I knew this great make-out spot, a cluster of one-car garages, some of which stood open and empty, secluded from the street. Tracy and I had camped out there two or three times, holed up with Yoo-hoos and Tastykakes, taking shelter from the chilling spring rain as well as from our moody, increasingly unhappy dads.
Our date was a bust. We never made it off Janine’s front porch. Somehow, someone, somewhere, must’ve heard something, because we were confronted by a dozen pre-scorned teenage girls, spearheaded by my blushing would-be bride. I suppose no one is ever really a stranger in such a provincial river ward, even those marginalized people who live on the other side of town, far from the water.
Janine had two much older sisters, women well into their twenties, one a very large, overbearing surrogate mom—I got the feeling she was living vicariously through her stunning younger sister—the other a Runaway reject, sexy in a yellow tape POLICE LINE—DO NOT CROSS sort of way, who looked like she could kick some serious ass if she was so inclined. Although scrappy Tracy appeared willing to fight for her man, Janine wasn’t sufficiently enamored of me to risk loss of hair or black eye. After all, she had her career to think about.
“You can have him,” she informed the angry mob, before anybody had a chance to say much of anything. “I didn’t even know he was taken.”
Tracy glared at me, huffing like she’d just fought hard for and won something she was no longer sure she even wanted. With Janine out of the way, she redirected what was left of her anger at me. “You totally don’t deserve me,” she said under her breath. She fished in the pocket of her pink denim mini-skirt and threw something at me that landed with a light clink at my feet. “I did then but I don’t now,” she spoke through some rather undramatic tears, sounding like something out of Dr. Seuss. “And I won’t with you ever again.”
“You’re trouble,” Janine said, once the disappointed, bloodthirsty villagers had extinguished their torches and gone home. She came down off her porch, sidling over to where the monster was seated on the curb and put her arm around my shoulder. I remember thinking This is all there is. I can die happy now.
“I’m really not,” I protested, dissatisfied with the tag of delinquency, despite its obvious allure. This was me at fourteen: hide-and-seek aficionado, incorrigible shape-shifter, a boy desperate to set the record straight even as he longed to distort it. “I’m a straight-A student. I’ve never even had a detention.”
Janine eyed me suspiciously. “Yeah, well Debbie says to stay far away from you.”
I looked into Janine’s cerulean eyes, where I was greeted by tiny twin images of myself, whoever that might’ve been. “Do you always do what your sister tells you?”
Janine laughed, again sounding more like some lascivious witch than, say, Snow White in the company of her budding “Prince” Charming. “Nope,” she said, sounding way too pleased with herself for her own good. “Usually I just do the opposite.”
So where did it get me, my impromptu Prince impression? Well with Janine it got me to first and then second base. And whatever the baseball equivalent is to dry humping on the living room floor—sacrifice fly, maybe. It earned me the admiration of all my friends, and a few enemies I didn’t even know I had. And it got me an “Erotic City” birthday dance.
Dig if you will the picture of teenage Janine and I engaged in a lap dance. Well not a lap dance, exactly (I’m not sure lap dances were invented yet). Janine didn’t straddle me, although she came damn close. And we were in a rented VFW hall, not the “private” back room of some strip club, surrounded by a roomful of guests, celebrating my beautiful new girlfriend’s fourteenth birthday. A chair was placed in the middle of the empty dance floor. I was instructed to sit on it. The lights were dimmed. Music sounded. I recognized the opening chord immediately. But before I could shoot a knowing glance Brandon’s way, Janine appeared, in one of his ruffled white shirts, purple leotards and a veiled fedora much like the one donned by His Royal Badness in the “When Doves Cry” video. She’d choreographed an original dance routine set to the tune of one of his more risqué B-sides (and for a man whose A-sides routinely included lines like you had a pocket full of horses, Trojan and some of ’em used, this was saying something). My eighth-grade Salome was going to dance for me. Well, for me and forty of her closest friends and relatives.
Like Janine’s parents, most of the guests watching this performance were over fifty and spoke broken English. The chorus to “Erotic City” may be We can funk until the dawn, making love till cherry’s gone, but it sure sounded like fuck, never more so than on that day. Still, the assembled were all smiles, nothing but encouraging oohs and ahhs as the birthday girl did her tawdry little dance, flailing her arms, mussing her heavily-sprayed hair, pushing her boobs in my face, shaking her ass in the air. I wondered how many of the lyrics these first-generation Poles understood, those who could hear well, that is. But then I suppose actually hearing the song was superfluous; Janine’s horny mime dance said it all. My face must’ve been as red as the goofy shorts I’d first spotted her in. To make matters worse, the assembled were clearly was getting a kick out of my discomfort; it must’ve been quite a hoot watching this self-styled Don Wannabe from the other side of Auerbach Avenue squirm. I don’t know what was worse, having all those eyes—some of which belonged to other boys my age—trained on my shapely, scantily-dressed girlfriend or having them trained on me. All I know is, if it had been a banquet hall full of my relatives, and my cousin Joanna, say, was writhing to a song like this in front of some guy, the looks on my uncles’ faces wouldn’t have been nearly as innocuous. And the deejay would’ve been a marked man. Gabe, did she just do what I think she did? Joe, did he just say what I think he said? And what’s this about a cherry? That fruit better be singing about a fruit…
Surreal doesn’t even begin to describe the scene. But then, what did I expect? Ever since making a play for Janine, I felt as though I were having a kind of out-of-body experience. At times—most notably when seated on Janine’s front step, my arm slung around her shoulders, her hand resting idly on my knee—I could see us as others must’ve seen us, as Debbie, my nemesis and Janine’s older sister-slash-handler, must’ve seen us: the shifty, strangely-dressed Romeo and his sheltered, secretly rebellious Juliet. What was she doing with him? everybody and his mother wanted to know. I’ll tell you what she was doing: she was flipping her family the bird.
Not quite Beauty and the Beast. More like Beauty and the Interesting-Looking Oversexed Teen. I was a scrawny kid—“gaunt,” as a high school history teacher would later describe me—with my makeshift pompadour and a nose too big for my face. But I had two things going for me. One was timing. Unbeknownst to perhaps even herself, Janine was just itching to act out. She had a wild streak that infuriated her aging parents and frightened her controlling older sister, mostly because that wildness represented everything Debbie would and could not be. The other thing was this: I correctly sensed that regret is a terrible, soul-devouring disease, and from a very young age have taken every precaution against getting infected.
For a while, of course, it was rather glamorous having a beauty queen girlfriend. But it was also nerve-racking and frustrating as hell. There were pageants, there were appearances, there were auditions. Janine was gone a lot, often for days at a time. To her credit, she played the dutiful girlfriend to rave reviews by buying me souvenirs and sending me postcards from the not always exotic places she visited. (I still have one of these postcards, sent from Miami Beach. On the cover is the picture of a chimp, seated in a miniature yellow leather armchair and puckering his lips for a kiss. I recall having danced for joy the day I received this particular piece of mail.) Still, I was an essentially poor kid who’d never been further south than the Jersey shore, no further north than Northeast Philly (the “Great Northeast,” as it’s called). I didn’t know it at the time, but I must’ve resented Janine’s jet-setting, resented the applause she garnered for no other reason than being pretty and showing up, resented the places she saw and the people she met. After all, weren’t there male models at some of these “appearances”? And exactly whom was she acting against at all these auditions?
As if the traveling wasn’t strain enough, Janine’s overbearing older sister had taken her sibling’s budding beauty career as seriously as if it had been her own. In effect my girlfriend had three parents, the sternest of whom by far was Debbie. When she was home, Janine had a strict curfew, and often she wasn’t allowed off her block. She was placed on a strict diet, which limited her intake of Ernie’s slice and soda special for a buck-fifty, which I could actually afford. My diet away from home consisted of soft pretzels and Tastykakes, Pepsi-cola and pizza, just like every other kid I knew besides Janine. Of course I tempted her. Sometimes I showed up at her house smuggling chocolate Kandy Kakes in the waistband of my shorts; often I led her to the corner candy store, where under the reproachful eye of Mrs. Macafferty I fed the beauty queen’s sugar habit with Lemon Heads and Chico Sticks and cherry Now & Laters. What did I have to lose? I was already tagged as “trouble,” by which I assume her surrogate mom had meant Janine was too good for me, or at the very least too busy. As if my goal was to disfigure rather than simply deflower Debbie’s perfect porcelain doll of a sister.
My luck couldn’t hold, and I knew it. Things went downhill quickly when Janine introduced me to Evan, a cousin of a friend from the pageant circuit who was helping my girlfriend with her “creative presentation,” whatever that meant. Evan had jet-black hair that fell over his wan, delicate features at an alarming angle and cheekbones like the triangular metal “slide” at Comstock playground. At sixteen, he also had a car. (I was still emotionally attached to my Huffy.) Worst of all, Evan had no patience for Prince. He wore chunky black shoes and his shirts buttoned up to the collar beneath his secondhand trench coat. He was into this up-and-coming Irish band that sang about poverty and ecocatastrophe and war. Serious stuff. I defended “1999” as a no-nukes tirade, and Evan dismissed it as a “hedonistic pop song.” I suggested that “When Doves Cry” tackled the issue of domestic violence, and he said he couldn’t take a song seriously if it lacked bass. I claimed “Purple Rain” was about the environment, and he openly scoffed. “It’s a pseudo-religious break-up song. ‘I could never steal you from another, it’s such a shame our friendship had to end.’” He gave a pout. “Boo-fucking-hoo.”
The beginning of the end began on the day I lost my girlfriend. I mean this literally.
The day started on a high note, with God smiling down on us and scheduling Debbie a dental appointment. Root canal, in fact. She’d been referred from her under-qualified neighborhood dentist to a specialist in Center City. We figured we had a few good hours before she got back and enlisted her littlest sister, like some Cinderella in reverse, to aid in her recovery. We both knew that Debbie wouldn’t need Janine’s help, not really. She just needed to know where the girl was 24/7.
No sooner had Debbie driven off for her doctor’s appointment than we boarded our bikes and headed south. We weren’t exactly sure where we were going. We only knew we were going away.
We spent most of the morning riding bikes down by the river, cruising along the tepid, un-blue Delaware without a care in the world, a more innocent, DIY version of the “Take Me with U” sequence in Purple Rain. I wouldn’t say it was cooler on the city’s coast; if anything, the lack of sun cover and stench of rotting fish made the textbook summer weather even more oppressive. But it felt good to get out of Richtown for a short while and even better to be alone with Janine. At home we were under constant scrutiny, what with Debbie watching us like a hawk, counting the beats before I made some fatal mistake that would justify her swooping down and plucking Janine away from me like some luckless, delectable prey. Nobody knew us here, or as much as noticed us, for that matter. We were just a couple of Philly kids whiling away a long summer day. We were free.
Of course the fact that we were still kids meant that our attention spans, much like our physical forms, hadn’t fully developed yet. We soon grew tired of smooching in the massive shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge and bored by the unremarkable view of Camden, which even from this distance looked less like a city than the bombed-out remains of one. Penn’s Landing was crowded that particular afternoon with a couple of busloads of German tourists, nodding and pointing and smiling like they’d just stumbled upon some world-class wharf rather than a glorified boat slip, no matter how historical. And although South Street, with its youthful promise of tattoo parlors and pizza shops and too-cool record stores, was only a few blocks away, by then we were both feeling a little out of our element, a gentle but irresistible tidal pull back toward our own neighborhood, where at least one of us belonged. With nothing more than a telepathic glance between us, we boarded our bikes again and headed for home.
We were two neighborhoods away from Richtown when I made a quick left turn to avoid a run-in with an ice cream truck and Janine failed to follow suit. When I glanced over my shoulder she was nowhere to be seen. The neighborhood wasn’t the best—though the streets were busy the residents kept to themselves, seemingly reluctant to acknowledge their inevitable presence in their own lives, let alone anyone else’s—so I double-backed, my mind a veritable slide show of Janine’s tragic, untimely demise, everything from a couple of heartless underage scruffs knocking her off her bike with a brick to an ill-timed flat tire, and the offer of help it prompted from a morally weak highwayman in a very dark car…
I looked everywhere for her. Then I looked again. I looked so long and so hard, in fact, that I, too, ended up getting lost; I have no real sense of direction. Besides, after a while all dilapidated buildings and abandoned sedans start to look the same. I finally found my way back, but any hope I had of tracking down Janine was long gone. I decided to head straight to Richtown, semi-content in the knowledge, however questionable, that Janine knew the way home better than her pathetic escort did.
When I got back to Janine’s I found her bike on the front porch but its rider M.I.A. I knocked hard on the door, but nobody answered. Mrs. Zebrinski, the reclusive widow who lived next door—ours was a neighborhood of widows, the women outliving the men by a suspiciously large margin—popped her head out of her front door long enough to tell me that Janine had taken a walk with “the Frenchman.” By this I understood her to mean Evan, and his silly, smug, girlfriend-stealing beret.
I circled the block, expecting to find them snuggling on the schoolyard steps or holed up in an alley—my alley—taking their infuriating friendship to the next logical level. But they were nowhere to be found. I expanded my search to include the next four blocks, then the next eight. Still nothing. I started back toward Janine’s, intending to go door-to-door, if necessary, and my stomach loudly growled; I hadn’t eaten in hours. Then a frightening thought struck me. “No,” I said out loud, wiping the sweat from my eyes. But my heart, for one, wasn’t convinced. It intercepted the message my brain was sending to my feet to stay put, and I found myself racing over to Auerbach Avenue and my favorite corner pizzeria.
I barged into Ernie’s and let the wooden screen door slam shut behind me. It was ninety degrees outside, and twice as hot inside the place, but Ernie refused to put in air conditioning—he claimed cold air made holes in the dough, but more likely it put holes in Ernie’s pockets.
“Can I help you?” droned Angie Martino from behind the counter. She’d been tapping a pen against an order pad to the tune of “Dancing in the Dark,” which blared from a flour-dusted boom box on a shelf above her head. Angie’s mythic hair was buttressed like a bridge, held aloft over her liquid brown eyes by all manner of pins and clips and colored rubber band. She was sweating wondrously through her flimsy white tank top, a fact I tried (and failed) not to notice.
“I’m looking for somebody,” I said, but at a glance it was obvious the place was empty.
“You can look but you can’t touch,” Angie said vaguely, and went back to answering the phone.
I had one foot out the door when the Springsteen song ended and, in the brief lull between numbers, I heard an uncanny cackle coming from the other room. Well, it wasn’t a room so much as an alcove, a table for two crammed into a space that was meant to house neither. Set back from the street, and partly shielded by a refrigerator full of two-liter soda bottles of every color and creed, it was the closest thing Ernie’s had to a private table. Nine times out of ten the customers who sat back here were up to no good, whether they were etching their names into the tabletop with a penknife or feeling each other up under the table.
I turned the corner and found that snake Evan feeding my weight- and complexion-conscious girlfriend a gooey, greasy slice of forbidden fruit.
“There you are!” Janine shouted, her mouth linked to Evan’s hand by an umbilical string of cheese. “What happened to you? What are you doing here?”
“Applying for a job,” I deadpanned, in response to which the intriguingly damp counter girl gave a snort.
“You left me all alone,” she said, a fetchingly defiant glint in her eye. A pause. “So Evan bought me lunch.”
“And fed it to you too,” I said, and regarded Evan. “What a guy.”
“A little carbs won’t kill her,” Evan said, meeting my gaze.
“No, but Debbie will.”
“Evan!” screeched Janine. She frowned at Evan, but it was the sort of frown meant to cover a secret smile.
“I gotta bolt,” Evan said, taking a bite of the pizza I’d caught him feeding Janine. It was then that I noticed there was only one slice between them. Had they ordered one lunch, intending to share? Was he that cheap, or had he scarfed his own already, perhaps in an effort to show scale-obsessed Janine how it was done? He adjusted his perennial beret and smiled at my girlfriend as if she were in the very process of unbecoming my girlfriend. “Are you still coming on Saturday?”
Saturday? I thought. What was Saturday?
“Definitely,” Janine said. “As long as I can get a ride.”
Evan put his hand on my shoulder and patted me on the belly like we were old buds. “Why don’t you get the flying purple people-eater here to take you? Plenty of room on the handlebars,” he chortled.
I shook him off and sat down across from Janine.
“Don’t sweat the ride,” he went on. “I’d be happy to drive over and pick you up.” He glanced my way. “You too.”
“Can’t wait,” I droned.
Janine frowned at me. “I’ll let you know for sure tomorrow.”
Again Evan smiled at Janine and again I suppressed a tempting urge to smash his face. Had I been a slightly more violent person—had I been violent at all—he wouldn’t have made it out of Ernie’s without the help of a good swift kick.
“Later,” he said, moving toward the door.
“Much,” I countered, though he didn’t seem to hear me.
“What’s wrong with you?” Janine accused, angry-eyed. A pale filament of cheese clung to her flushed cheek. I considered wiping it away. But somehow I never got around to grabbing a napkin.
“What’s wrong with me?”
“You’re so suspicious all the time. Don’t you trust me?”
About as far as I can spit you, I thought.
“I asked you a question.”
“Yeah, I trust you.”
“Good.” She smiled a fake interview-smile for my benefit.
“What’s Saturday, or is that privileged information?”
“Evan’s birthday party,” she said, looking away.
“And you’re going,” I said.
Janine sighed in mock-exasperation, like I was a puppy she just found out had been falsely listed as house-trained. “We’re going,” she said, taking my hand. “At least I thought we would. But if you don’t want to…”
“You’ll skip it,” I offered.
She knitted her brow. “I’ll go alone,” she said.
Before I could argue, rag-toting, gum-cracking Angie Martino approached our table in all her sopping, high-haired, tanned-Italian-girl glory. In my mind I envisioned an epic, clothes-rending battle over my admittedly torn attentions, the prissy fair-haired beauty queen rolling across the grimy pizzeria floor with the scrappy brunette Queen of the Streets. But after a tenth of a second it was obvious that my mind was merely playing tricks on me, as was my mind’s habit.
“You guys almost done here,” Angie droned, gesturing toward the empty dining area, her beguiling brown eyes signaling that a wisecrack was on the way moments before it left her mouth. “A couple of actual lovebirds just reserved the table.”
Debbie insisted on driving us to Evan’s party, but as usual she was running late. When we pulled up outside the nondescript building, Debbie had Janine double-check the address. For once I couldn’t say I blamed her. It was hard to believe anybody would use the place to throw a party; it more closely resembled the sort of building where mob informants were hung upside-down with their heads in an oil drum filled with water. Still, we could hear a faint thumping sound emanating from deep inside and, just as Debbie was about to circle the block for a third time, a couple of teenage shadows stumbled out of a side door, waved at us and lighted cigarettes.
“This must be the place,” Janine said, exiting the car. She stuck her fetching blonde head back in the window and smirked at her sister. “News at eleven.”
“On the dot,” Debbie said. “And don’t go getting any funny ideas.” She nodded toward the twin smoking shadows and held her own cigarette aloft for Janine’s apparent inspection. “It’s a nasty habit.” Then, grinning for good measure: “Look how yellow my teeth are.”
Janine rolled her eyes and gave me a look I still haven’t forgotten, and likely never will. “Let’s go,” she said, opening the car door for me. It was one part declaration, two parts dare, and she looked ridiculously good delivering the line. I knew intuitively that this was the look that would make her famous, or infamous, whichever came first. I was fourteen, after all, a member of a key demographic.
“Can’t wait,” I mumbled, shutting the car door behind me. Janine took my hand.
“Have fun,” Debbie called evilly from the front seat.
Despite the building’s desolate location and unwelcoming demeanor, Janine was right: this was in fact the place. Outside, the site of Evan’s party appeared to have been rolled, pistol-whipped and left for dead. But inside it was, if not exactly alive, then at least far from drawing its last breath. To my surprise, the place was packed with guests: sour-pussed kids sporting long coats and funny haircuts. Their clothes—a limited palette of gray, black and navy blue—echoed the grim, disaffected looks on their faces. Smiles were scarce, considering it was a party. Scarce, too, were all the trappings that I continued, at age fourteen, to associate with birthdays: balloons, streamers, pointed paper hats. My relatives ritualistically congregated at my Nona’s house to celebrate Christmas, Easter, and family birthdays. My Aunt Theresa always brought balloons, no matter how old the honoree. My cousin Beth, a pastry chef at a high-end restaurant in Center City, always baked an elaborate cake. The pointed paper hats were optional. But the love, laughter and good-natured ribbing certainly were not.
“Who died?” I made the mistake of asking Janine.
“Don’t start,” she said.
“Start what?” I wanted to know.
Janine rolled her kohled eyes at me. “Being you,” she huffed. She broke free of my hand and headed over to where the birthday boy was holding court among a ragtag band of peace-loving militiamen, leaving me to figure out all on my own just who, then, I was supposed to be.
“You made it,” Evan said to my girlfriend. Then, noticing me: “And you brought His Purple Travesty with you.”
Janine shrugged and handed him a present, as if to say Well, you invited him. Funny, but I hadn’t noticed it before. In fact I hadn’t thought to bring a present at all. Doing so would’ve been like handing one’s executioner a brand-new ax.
“That’s from both of us,” I offered, which caused Janine to shoot me a nasty look I normally associated with her much older sister.
I glanced around the huge, rented room. Anthemic music was blaring, but nobody was dancing. The one or two girls—at least I think they were girls; their short hair and baggy strata of secondhand clothes made it difficult to tell—brave or drunk enough to draw attention to themselves didn’t so much move their bodies as hold hands and sway, a human suspension bridge caught amid gale-force winds. Stay until your love is, love is, alive and kicking… I watched the catatonic couple making a mockery of the dance floor and thought, Yeah, right.
“Help yourself to some food,” Evan said. “And there’s plenty of beer, of course. The keg’s over in the corner.”
“Hey, we’re Richtown kids,” I said. “Got any jungle juice?”
Evan smiled widely but knitted his brows. “Jungle juice?”
“Grain alcohol and Hawaiian Punch,” Janine informed him, making a yuck-face. Of course her yuck-faces tended to turn me on. “Disgusting stuff.”
“Sorry, mate,” Evan said, as though he were British. “Fresh out of jungle juice. Tarzan drank the last bottle.”
“It doesn’t come in bottles,” I began to explain, but Evan was already ignoring me. “You look gorgeous,” he addressed my girlfriend, right in front of me.
Janine blushed under her not wholly un-ironic makeup, something I couldn’t recall ever having seen her do before. “Thank you,” she beamed. “I try.”
He was right, of course. I mean, Janine looking gorgeous was par for the course. But this was a different kind of gorgeous, all masher-style and mixed signals. She’d thrown one of her father’s Old-World vests over a white Oxford shirt. But her skirt was as black as her stockings and very short. The ankle boots—a couple of sleek, unconcealed weapons—added three welcome inches to her 5’2” frame, while her hair (the phrase tongue of fire comes to mind) fulfilled a similar role at the other end. She still looked like a budding Miss America, though a Miss America with a warped sense of humor and pronounced sadistic streak.
That’s when it hit me. I’ve since heard it said that girls don’t dress for boys, they dress for other girls. But this time, at least, Janine had dressed for Evan.
“I’ve got to work the floor a bit,” Evan said, lowering his head to make it sound more confidential. He was excluding me, in both tone and body language, and wanted me to know it. “But after that we’ll hang out some more, okay?”
“Okay,” Janine said. In my ears it sounded suspiciously like Take me now!
Another song came on, something about stopping the world from melting, and Evan turned to me. “Why don’t you dance with your girlfriend,” he suggested.
“Just waiting for somebody to play some dance music,” I said.
This made the birthday boy smile, genuinely it seemed. “This isn’t First Avenue,” Evan said, referencing the infamous Minneapolis club showcased in Purple Rain where Prince had gotten his start. “But I’ll see what I can do.”
It turned out Evan was as good as his word. After suffering through a handful of earnest, heavily synthesized British ditties about changing the world, the lights suddenly went out and I heard the familiar sustained-note intro of “Let’s Go Crazy.” The note, however, went on for longer than it should have, for a full minute, at least. Once everyone’s attention had been effectively hijacked by that single, high-pitched sound, and the spoken-word opening that followed. But it wasn’t Prince we heard. Somehow Evan had taken the mike, replaced His Purple Majesty’s reverberated voice his own.
“Dearly beloved,” he said, lit by a spotlight and trying his best to sound suave, “we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Electric word life, it means forever, and that’s a really long time, but I’m here to tell you”—and here he paused and made a point of looking directly at Janine—“there’s someone else—Evan McEarl.” Laughter and catcalls from the crowd. “A McEarl of never-ending happiness,” he modestly continued. “You can always feel his love—day, or night. So when you call up that fink like I know you will, you know the one, Mr. Everything’ll be a fight”—this time Evan leveled a brazen look at me—“instead of asking him how much of your time is left, ask him how much of your mind, baby. ’Cause in his life, things are much harder than with Evan McEarl. In his life, you’re on your own! And if that instigator tries to put you down, I’ll go crazy, punch the tired bore….”
Here, thankfully, the real song took over; Evan was finished with his spiel.
“Well, that was dumb,” I said, dumbly, to Janine.
But Janine was obviously impressed. “I thought it was clever,” she said.
“He’s trying to embarrass me, to make me feel stupid,” I said. “And you don’t even care.”
“He’s just poking fun. Since when are you so sensitive?”
“You knew I didn’t want to come here.”
“Then why did you?”
“To be with you.”
“To keep an eye on me, you mean. You’re no better than Debbie.”
This stung, yet I had nothing to say in my defense.
“Maybe you don’t trust me because you don’t trust yourself,” she said.
She was wrong about that. I trusted myself more than I trusted just about anybody I knew. Yet I couldn’t help wondering what my response might’ve been had Angie Martino flipped the script and said, You can’t look, but you can touch. That’s it, close your eyes and open your hands. Tell me what you feel…
“Is that what the birthday boy told you?” I whined. “That I can’t be trusted?” Janine said nothing. “You’re so naïve. He’s trying to break us up!”
“Well just look at your track record. Who’s to say you won’t do the exact same thing to me that you did to that poor Tracy girl?”
“I do,” I said, relenting. “I say. Isn’t that good enough?”
Janine pulled a face and looked away. “This is supposed to be a party,” she said, “and you ruined it.”
“Hey, it’s still a party! You can still show the birthday boy a good time! I’m sure he’s got a cake around here big enough for you to jump out of.”
“Tracy was right, you are a jerk,” Janine said, walking toward the front door.
“Where are you going?”
“There’s a pay phone by the front door,” she said. “I want to go home. I’m calling Debbie.”
And home she went. Evan didn’t even try to stop her. And why should he? He was already winning the battle for Janine, and he had yet to put a single pair of boots on the ground. As for my own part, I refused to have to stoop to fight for Janine. Partly, deep down, I must’ve been scared. For all my schoolyard association with kids who couldn’t get a good night’s sleep unless they’d passed an enjoyable evening making someone bleed, you’d think I’d have learned, at least metaphorically, how to fight. All I’d learned was how to make a biting comment or two and cut my losses. I wasn’t completely ignorant about how relationships end. Hadn’t I suddenly and heartlessly ended one a few months before? I didn’t know much, but I knew not to get dumped. With Janine, the writing was already on the wall. But I was intent on revising it.
What followed was not pretty. Nor was it, I now realize, completely sane. Some of my erratic, malignant behavior included: burning a wallet-sized school portrait of Janine up to the neck and stuffing it through her mail slot in an envelope marked “The Beautiful One.”; treating her to a carton of Kandy Kakes and then belittling her for devouring the entire box in a matter of forty-eight hours; dousing her with holy water after an especially venomous fight about who-knows-what, as if she were a vampire I was trying to keep from sucking me dry or a demon I desperately needed to exorcise from my life. But all this was nothing, distracting smoke-and-mirror theatrics, for the most part an act. I remember feeling the need to do something truly powerful and irrevocably bad. I needed to hurt Janine before she hurt me (because when she hurt me, it would hurt forever). I needed to cross a line. Her name was Angelina Martino.
Sexuality is all I’ll ever need. Sexuality, I’m gonna let my body be free.
Angie Martino was independent and street smart whereas Janine Mikulski was spoiled and naïve. More than anything I craved that contrast. I recognized Angie as a bad girl-in-training, and this was both my rationale and partial impetus for cheating, the graffiti artist’s contention that the wall had been scrawled on long before he added his tag to the tangled mess—what was one more?
“Where’s Princess?” Angie said, an allusion to my well-known status as a Prince freak as well as Janine’s pageant titles and high self-regard. I’d caught her just in time to accompany her on her short walk home, after closing up the pizzeria.
“The Earl of Evan has her locked away in his dungeon,” I said, awkwardly.
But I didn’t answer. Conversation was beside the point. Rather, I correctly read the look in Angie’s eye—a look that said she’d been expecting me—as one of amused curiosity if not undiluted desire, and I made the most of the information. When finally we managed to untangle our tongues, Angie made sure to stick it to the backstabbing boyfriend. This was what passed for feminism in working-class Richtown, circa 1984.
“You’re an asshole,” she said, clearly happy to have had a hand in my undoing. “And you’re in deep shit now. Princess doesn’t seem like the forgiving type.”
“She’ll get over it,” I replied, doing my best to sound blasé. The truth was I already felt like some shape-shifting contortionist for cheating on Janine, despite the unsurprising fact that Angie was an acrobatic tongue kisser.
“Sure she will,” Angie said, smiling some more. “The big question is, will you?”
A few nights later we were camped on Janine’s front steps, arguing, of all things, about her shoes (or so I thought). She’d taken to wearing these big, black orthopedic things with her corduroy OP shorts. What with her halo-tinted hair and perfect smile and crisp blue eyes, coupled with the infamous red shorts and bump-toe Doc Martens, she looked like some unsettling hybrid Disney character, Alice in Wonderland’s face superimposed onto the lower half of Mickey Mouse. And in many ways she had fallen down a rabbit hole, a hole into which I hadn’t the guts or guile to follow her.
Then it happened. Completely out of left field, Janine asked me if what she’d heard was true. Did I kiss that “slutty pizza girl” and, what’s more, did I plan on kissing her again?
I could’ve lied. Whether or not Janine believed me was a moot point. If I denied everything it would be Angie’s word against mine. Of course I had more to lose by not lying—namely Janine’s love and respect—than Angie hoped to gain by telling the truth. But I didn’t lie. I told her the truth, more or less.
“What kind of kiss was it?” my stunned girlfriend asked me.
“A regular kiss,” I said, stunned that Janine was stunned. Like me, I thought she’d seen this coming.
I was already late for curfew, and Janine’s street was empty. There was a tell-tale chill in the air. Soon it would be fall, along with spring a time of year that has always made me feel dissatisfied, self-destructive, uppity, on edge. Too much change everywhere, I suppose.
“A regular kiss for most guys, or a regular kiss for you?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer. By this time I was a bit fed-up with Janine, fed-up with her childishness and infinite self-absorption, fed-up with her sister and her home life and her hair, fed-up, even, with her flawless good looks. In a week I would be a high school freshman, enrolled in a public school for the first time since kindergarten, where I’d no doubt find myself surrounded by interesting, intriguing new people—interesting, intriguing new girls—who would doodle on their clothes and dye their hair orange and seemingly wouldn’t give a rat’s ass what people thought about their antisocial, anti-religion, anti-Reagan behavior. None of these girls would come from my neighborhood. And none of them, I guessed, would aspire to be Miss America.
I looked away. Looking directly at my girlfriend was not an option.
Janine assumed the worst of my silence and put her pretty head in her hands. What, with a royal blue blanket cloaking her shoulders and the porch bulb shedding its light like some low-grade moon, she looked like a painterly product of the Renaissance, something that should’ve been hanging in a marble palace behind a discouraging velvet rope or protective wall of glass. The image took me by surprise. At that moment Janine seemed too lovely to touch, too beautiful to be real. Perhaps that was part of the problem.
“Look, I’m sorry,” I said finally. “I have to get home, I’m late as it is. We’ll talk some more tomorrow. I promise.”
“You can’t leave now,” Janine said, sniffling.
“My mom’s going to kill me if I don’t get home. You know how she is about curfew…”
“I’m sorry,” I said, backing down the steps. “I’ll call you tomorrow…”
“Please don’t go!” she shouted.
But I was halfway down the block, and vaguely aware of a dim figure staggering down the street in my direction.
The next voice I heard belonged to a shadowy French soldier. At least he put me in mind of a French soldier, in his beret and combat boots and long gray coat. Up close it was only Evan. His breath smelled like the caramel-colored stuff my grandfather sipped at Christmas.
“I bet making her cry makes you feel like a big man.”
“Stay out of it,” I said without slowing down. “It’s none of your business.” But Evan barred my way.
“I heard about your birds,” he said snidely.
“What?” For some reason I thought he was talking about the Eagles. “I don’t follow football.”
“I heard about your birds,” he repeated, and then it hit me. He was talking about the seven paper doves hanging from my bedroom ceiling. Janine must’ve mentioned them, against her better judgment. Evan, in his buttoned-up poindexter shirt and outlandish beret, was making fun of me.
“I heard they all have names.” I’m happy to report this was not true. “There’s Sissy and Mary and Patsy and Nancy….” He stopped there, unable to think of any more female names that doubled as homosexual slurs. “Know what else I heard?” Evan lowered his voice and leaned in close. The acrid, cinnamon-like stench was borderline unbearable. “I heard your girlfriend’s no longer a virgin.” He smiled. “Ask me how I know.”
I said nothing. I was busy envisioning what it would be like to have five of my favorite neighborhood thugs make this phony militiaman bleed.
“I’ll tell you how I know—”
“Fuck you,” I cut him off, my blood boiling, my ears burning red.
“Whoa!” he roared. “One at a time, Prince-cess.”
I swung at him. I swung and, as though Evan’s white round face were a particularly wicked curve ball, missed. Evan swung back. Sadly, his bat caught the sweet spot.
“Stop it!” I heard Janine scream as I stumbled backwards against a parked car, a Chevy Caprice, funnily enough. She rushed over and inserted herself between me and my inebriated attacker. “Omigod, are you okay?”
“Fuck off,” I snarled.
“Hey,” Evan barked at me. “You want one to match?”
“Leave him alone,” Janine said to him, though without much conviction. But something told me I’d survived the worst Evan McEarl had to offer in the way of sucker punches. It was the steel-tipped combat boots I was worried about. Self-preservation kicked in and I began to slink away.
“Where you going?” Evan taunted. For a pacifist, his sadistic streak bordered on the neocon.
“I said leave him alone,” Janine told him. But she didn’t slap his face or call the cops or run after me. She didn’t do anything, really, but stand her ground. It was worse than watching them hump right there on the hood of that Chevrolet.
“Stick around,” Evan called drunkenly over his shoulder, as Janine led him back to her house. “We want to hear what it really sounds like when doves cry…”
In the months that followed I saw Janine a few times after that night, but always accidentally, and invariably with Evan in tow. A week after her new drunken beau had socked me, Janine sent me a note apologizing for both of their behavior, and asking after my eye. She insisted I would like Evan, if I only got to know him. But as he was currently putting the moves on a girl I still thought of, marginally, as mine, this seemed unlikely.
Janine wasn’t mine, of course, any more than she was Evan’s, or Brandon’s, or even her controlling older sister’s. And it wasn’t that she made me “so confused,” like in “The Beautiful Ones”; or that she was “much 2 fast,” like in “Little Red Corvette”; or even that she was “promised 2 another man,” like in “Girls & Boys” (though she did have the cutest ass I’d ever seen). No, whether or not the rest of us knew it, Janine Mikulski was promised to the world. Only the world—famously slow on the uptake—didn’t know it yet.
That was about to change.
2. ALPHABET STREET
For a few years after Janine dumped me for Evan, I was forced to worship her from afar like everyone else. This worship typically took the form of me sprawled in front of the living room TV watching her shake her Slavic booty on Dance ’Til You Drop, the low-budget local dance party she helped popularize simply by dint of showing up every day after school and seducing the camera, as well as at least one camera man. Charlie Reznik left little presents for Janine in her cubby where the show’s regulars collected their mail—stuffed animals, drugstore chocolates, a quite tight T-shirt that read STAR POWER. Janine claims to not have encouraged Charlie’s intentions, but she did cop to accepting the man’s many trinkets, including the snug-fitting tee. I remember watching and wondering about the gloriously mixed message that she, even then, chose to send: was star power inherent to someone like Janine, or did it reside solely in her breasts, which strained against the fabric of her tiny cotton shirt? If the latter, did all women, then, have star power, and if so was this a feminist statement? Or was star power simply the shirt itself, and Janine, while not wearing the garment, literally and figuratively stripped of it? Looking back, the STAR POWER tee reminded me of the “Full Disclothesure” line of shirts Janine would help to popularize a few years later, after she gained a certain amount of fame and was seen grabbing coffee at Restless Eye Café in her “34B” T-shirt. Almost overnight the creator of the shirt—a Moore design student name Daphne Ketch—was flooded with orders. At the time someone from Urban Scrawl, Philly’s leading weekly paper, interviewed Ketch:
US: How did you feel when the now-famous photo of Nina Mitchell wearing your tee shirt surfaced?
DK: Omigod, it was amazing! And so surreal, you know? I mean, I know she’s local, or was local. But you can’t buy that kind of publicity. It’s unreal what she did for my little grass-roots business, Ketch Phrase, and the Full Disclothesure line specifically. Just totally unreal.
US: I take it business is going well?
DK: Oh yeah.
US: What was your inspiration?
DK: I’ve always loved those Katharine Hamnett shirts from the eighties. You know, the B Good and Y Not shirts styled on the original Frankie Say line.
US: But your shirts are more political.
DK: Well, the Hamnett stuff started out political. But yeah, it’s hard to be a woman and pretend not to notice how every other guy you pass on the street sneaks a peek at your chest. And some more than a peek! It’s like they’re on some twisted government-run game show where they win prizes for correctly guessing your bra size! So my shirts take the guesswork out of it, they spoil the game.
US: Don’t you ever sneak a peek at men?
DK: Sure. But I like to think I’m more subtle about it!
US: So the trick is subtlety.
DK: Subtlety. Respect. Decorum. Yeah, you hear that guys: Be subtle!
US: Your shirts are far from subtle.
DK: Fight fire with fire, right? But I’m not anti-men, as some people have claimed. I love men! And people who wear my tees aren’t necessarily anti-men either. I mean, it’s safe to assume Nina Mitchell isn’t anti-men. She’s got a new boyfriend, like, every month.
US: So you see yourself as a champion of men as well as women?
DK: Definitely. Now men are free to spend less time thinking about our boobs and more time about the person the boobs belong to.
US: Or they can check out our asses instead.
DK: Yeah, right! I’m working on that.
Despite its dated set and off-brand American Bandstand vibe, Dance ’Til You Drop was an instant hit. And why not? The formula was far from complex: film a bunch of nubile, doe-eyed, midriff-baring teenyboppers gyrating to popular music. Girls will watch to see what the girls on TV are wearing. Boys will watch to see what the girls aren’t wearing. Parents will watch ostensibly to keep tabs on what their kids are watching, when really all they want is to be right there on the set alongside them, showing the usurping youth of today what real gyrating looks like. It was a no-brainer, mostly because the audience’s collective brain was still in its pants.
DTYD, as it was affectionately known, boasted an adorable roster of popular regulars—including a female Prince freak named Viola (“My name literally means purple”) and a doll-faced blonde who would go on to become a beloved morning-show host. (Years later, Kim Prima would inherit Glorious Morning from longtime host Gloria Lusche-Malone, and publicly beg Janine to come on her new show and “catch up” with her old “DTYD homie,” which Janine begrudgingly did in February, 2000, shortly after we were married. “I should start by saying you had some wicked moves back in the day,” Prima began the stilted tete-a-tete, and cut to some old footage of teenaged Janine commandeering a line dance. “And you were just plain wicked,” quipped Janine. “I’m from Philly, not Boston,” she clarified. “So that’s not a compliment.” Things didn’t improve for Prima after that. Once Janine decided to take off her gloves, they stayed off.) But the real star of the show was a certain blue-eyed, wild-haired All-American-type girl the camera didn’t just love but seemed to be in hopeless thrall to, because it followed her everywhere, or at least seemed to, which in TV Land amounted to much the same thing. For her own part, Janine was sharp enough to know better than to make outright love to the camera. Rather, she tempted and taunted and teased it; her presence on the hour-long show was the equivalent of the time we’d spent dry-humping on her parents’ living room rug, or rather like an exercise in extended foreplay: the climax never came because a climax would signal the end of the show, and the show of Janine Mikulski was only just beginning.
I lived for the moments when Janine got to dance alone, her radiant, rotating image unobstructed by some adoring, lavishly coiffured girl or accosting boy, during one of the famed line dances. Or when she was asked sporadic, oddly pageant-ready questions like Where do you see yourself in ten years? (“Total global domination”) and How would you change the world? (“I’d run it”). Of course I cringed whenever it came time for a slow dance, and I had to suffer through three-plus interminable minutes of some undeserving joker’s hands on Janine’s hips, her head on his shoulder. Once, apparently as a lark, Janine was caught slow-dancing with another girl, a skinny brunette I didn’t recognize. The camera cut away sharply, but in the background of the subsequent shot a man in a green Adidas track suit can be seen rushing over and separating the two girls, who wander away giggling. In the moment before a more suitable dance partner is presented to Janine, she appears to blow her jilted accomplice a kiss. (The footage is available on YouTube. The girl has since been identified as Sheena McGarrigle, a Fishtown native and longtime tattoo artist who recently opened a parlor in her old neighborhood, a few blocks away from the very house in which she was raised. Sheena gave Janine her first tattoo—an acorn on her lower left abdomen with the words A thousand forests—but for reasons that remain a mystery to me, she refused to ink the YES hearts we used in lieu of wedding bands.) For this reason (and others) I never turned off the television or so much as looked away. Janine was full of surprises. So even when it hurt to do so, I made myself watch. I owed it to her.
Word eventually got back to me that Janine had put Evan out of his misery by initiating a fling with one of the show’s rotating hosts, a college sophomore studying Communications at a popular local university. They’d agreed to keep it a secret, but the guy was so obviously pleased with his conquest (or what he perceived to be his conquest) that he couldn’t help giving a variety of poker-game “tells”: eyeing Janine hungrily; calling her Nee-nee; insisting that Janine sit next of him during the “Mailbag” segment of the show, during which the regulars were given the chance to respond to their fan mail on the air. Initially, to keep the process “fair,” Rick Ronzoni would reach into the mail bag and pull out a supposedly random letter to be read. The show’s producers were forced to rethink the process once it became apparent that a grossly disproportionate amount of letters happened to be addressed to Janine.
Dear Janine, I love your look! Who does your hair? My sister Marie does hair. Hey, I bet she’d do your hair! She’d probably do it for free!! Keep dancing—but not until you drop!!!
Dear Janine, baby you’re so sweet. I love to watch your body move across the screen. It’s like your moves hypnotize me or something. I’d like to take you dancing at a real club sometime, maybe Neon Jungle or Carnivale. Here’s my number. Call me.
Dear Janine, I watch you every day after school and I think you’re the prettiest girl on TV, even prettier than Justine Bateman or Alyssa Milano. My girlfriend Amy thinks Alyssa is prettier but I think she’s crazy. You’re way prettier. Do you ever go shopping at The Gallery? It would be cool to go shopping with you, you have such great style! My friend Amy thinks I have a crush on you but I’m a girl and I like boys. But we should definitely go shopping together at The Gallery. I can buy you lots of nice things and you can help me pick out what to wear. We could become great friends, the kind of friends who dress each other and don’t think twice about sharing a dressing room! Do you want to go shopping with me?
It didn’t take long for the show’s regulars to catch on and complain. One heavily eye-lined girl named Elissa—half of a set of identical twins identifiable only by a Marilyn-like mole—went so far as to claim she’d caught Janine and Ronzoni “boinking” in one of the studio’s changing rooms. Ronzoni smirkily denied it; Janine ignored the charge completely. Anti-Janine sentiment spread like a salacious rumor through a high school locker room. Not that she cared. In response Janine doubled down and began dressing more and more provocatively in an effort to stick it to Elissa and curry male favor. It worked. She got away with the under-boob-exposing half shirts; the cheeky, strategically torn jean shorts; the lace pants. (When Viola showed up on the set in the same lace pants, she was advised to go and change. “Prince wears pants like these, and he’s a man,” she argued. “Prince has a better ass than you do,” someone reportedly wisecracked.) For the slumber party-themed show, Janine showed up in nothing but an oversized tee stenciled with the words Sweet Dreams, her hair in pigtails, her bright-red toenails separated by balls of cotton. For the DTYD Halloween party that year, Janine dressed as a “wet nurse,” a costume that consisted of a sopping flimsy white nurse uniform, its skirt shorter than a toddler’s attention span, and a miniature plastic baby doll affixed to each of her breasts. But nothing could top the beach party-themed show: rumor had it Janine initially walked onto the set sporting a flimsy flesh-toned body stocking, bemusedly announcing, “I thought this was a nude beach.” (No footage exists to lend credence to the rumor—perhaps all the cameramen were too awestruck to check and see that their equipment was functioning properly—but a handful of people who feasibly would’ve been there claim they witnessed the event.)
The rebellious behavior didn’t stop at her appearance. Janine also refused to pair up with anyone; she would only dance as a “soloist.” She’d become so popular that the producers couldn’t afford to refuse. Word was put out that no one was permitted to share her spotlight or come between her and the camera. It wasn’t until the other regulars, led by raccoon-eyed Elissa and her sister Elayne, threatened to strike that the producers finally toughened up and Janine was delivered an ultimatum: act like all the other seventeen-year-olds on the show and not like “the goddamn Queen of Siam,” or be replaced. Janine chose exile, famously claiming, “As stepping stones go, DTYD is a pebble.” Yet it speaks to the intensity of her popularity that amid all the animosity she was given an on-air bon voyage party, for which she squeezed herself back into her STAR POWER t-shirt. The DJ set consisted of songs pointedly handpicked by the guest of honor, including Prince’s “U Got the Look,” Duran Duran’s “Notorious,” and Bananarama’s “I Heard a Rumour.” Cherry-red balloons (Janine’s favorite color) filled the set, like so many buoyant pieces of possibly forbidden fruit. A sheet cake was wheeled out that, seemingly with a sigh of relief, read Goodbye and Good luck! “I’m destined for bigger and better things,” Janine said staring directly into the camera, during what was meant to be a heartfelt sendoff nearing the show’s close. “Well, maybe bigger but not better,” countered Ronzoni, who was sorriest by a wide margin to see her go. “No, better,” insisted Janine, momentarily hijacking the mic. She was clearly leaving against her will and pissed at Ronzoni for not standing up to the show’s producers. It’s amazing footage to watch, the glamorous upstart teenager getting the better of the normally suave though obviously heartbroken college boy. “Definitely better. Way better.”
Of course the first thing Janine did as a civilian was go to the press, such as it was. The Richtown Comet ran an article the following week with the headline SHE DANCED ’TIL SHE WAS DROPPED.
Comet: Did anyone force you off the show?
JM: It’s the nature of the beast.
Comet: And which beast is that?
JM: The show-biz beast. You feed it and feed it until it’s not hungry anymore. But the thing is you can’t tell it’s not hungry. It still eats and eats, devouring everything in sight. Till one day—Boom!
JM: Yeah, boom. Like, it throws you up.
Comet: What will you do now that you’re finished with show biz?
JM: Who said I’m finished with show biz?!? I’d rather be show-biz vomit than like regular, bland everyday food.
Comet: So what’s next?
JM: Today Philly, tomorrow the world!
Comet: You’re taking over.
JM: Well, I have to go to school first.
Comet: Which school?
JM: Thank you.
Comet: So, school first, global domination second.
JM: That’s the plan.
Comet: Maybe I should get your autograph.
JM: Do you have a pen handy? I have a funny feeling you’re going to have this interview framed and hanging in your office one day.
I don’t know about the interviewer, but I kept this edition of The Comet in my “special stash”—a Garcia y Vega cigar box—for years, later relocating it to multiple filing cabinets and even, after we began dating again, had it jokingly framed as an anniversary present. I still have it here in the house somewhere, back in a box of memorabilia I can’t bear to look at. Ashes to ashes, I suppose.
And that’s the last I would hear about Janine Mikulski for some time. After graduating high school she did in fact move to New York, where she was enrolled in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She was taking her fledgling acting career—and knowing Janine, nothing short of global domination—seriously.
As for me, I patched together the pieces of my shattered eggshell of an ego and tried, as best I could, to climb back up on that wall. I did so by keeping my head down and eventually producing the graphic novel that, after years of false starts and extensive revising, would become the first Mr. Alphaville book, the hero of which is a glaringly Prince-like semi-reclusive superhero whose only real weapon, aside from his acid tongue and devastating good looks, is Gregory, his guitar, a musical instrument with powers similar to that of Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver. (The magical properties of Gregory and Prince’s late-career recording of the song “Screwdriver” is likely mere coincidence, an example of life imitating art imitating life; there’s no hard evidence to suggest he ever read the Mr. Alphaville series or that he was a fan of the decades-spanning British show. That said, the phrase “party toes” from the “Screwdriver” song does seem to be a direct reference to the reverse sleeve of Janine’s first and only album, a close-up of her toenails painted alternately pink and purple, the words ALPHA and OMEGA spelled out in silver glitter.) I always envisioned Mr. Alphaville as a sort of Batman meets El Kabong character, with an orca splash of Sherlock Holmes.
But Mr. Alphaville is far from alone on his self-imposed mission to save the world. A gang of “bitchy pacifists,” a small group of women who call themselves the Irresistible Bitch Brigade, resides at Alphaville Estate, some of whom cook and clean (and, it’s implied, perform other duties behind closed doors) for their inscrutable host in exchange for housing. (Some feminists have misrepresented the Bitch Brigade as little more than a space-age maid service or futuristic harem, but all the Bitches have minds and powers—and agendas—of their own, and are free to come and go as they please. Besides, Zannalee, arguably the lead Bitch, becomes engaged to Mr. Alphaville by Book Three, and puts a killjoy moratorium on any “extracockcular activities.”) For the most part Mr. Alphaville is at the mercy of the IBB, and professes to be “half in love” with each and every one of them. Zannalee pointedly tells him, “Being half in love by definition requires you to be half out of love. Either way, we Bitches don’t believe in half measures.” As such, anything that smacks of fractions—half and half; quarter sticks of butter; the movie 9 ½ Weeks (one of Mr. Alphaville’s favorites)—subsequently is been banned from Alphaville Estate.
“Why do all the Bitches look the same?” my roomie and former classmate, Nuna, once asked me.
“What? Are you kidding me? Look, this one’s a leggy blonde and this one’s a short brunette. And this one over here is black!”
“Look at their faces, man. Are you trying to imply that they’re all related somehow? Because that’s wonderfully pervy for a guy like you, and I apologize ahead of time.”
But the women weren’t all related. And Nuna was right. Each and every one of them, no matter her shape or coloring or ethnicity, bore an unmistakable resemblance to Janine.
I resent the implication, vocalized by Nuna and secretly harbored by sundry others, that I moved to New York after graduating high school, and specifically Alphabet City, in order to be close to Janine. I resent it, but I also understand it. Chalk it up to boredom. Chalk it up to youthful wanderlust. Chalk it up to the lyrics to “All the Critics Love U in New York,” a tune I may’ve taken a tad too seriously, figuring that far less talented people had made it big in the Big Apple, so why not me? Of course I’d heard that Janine had moved to Manhattan and was studying at Tisch. But I didn’t know it for a fact; I never cited my sources, as it were. The plan, upon graduating high school, was to attend college, but the plan (along with my application for financial aid) had fallen through. Take a year off, I conveniently told myself. Focus on your art, refine your portfolio. Go find yourself. It wasn’t my intention to go find Janine.
Good thing too, because it never happened. I never found Janine in New York, not that I was actively looking for her. That’s not to say I didn’t keep my eyes peeled. (This phrase inevitably brings to mind that shocking eye-splitting scene from Un Chien Andalou, for which Nuna informed me a grape had been used.) Often I found myself paying very close attention to the faces of the people on the crowded Manhattan streets; the further west I ventured, the closer my attention became. But as a rule I tried to curtail my perambulations, to resist the seemingly magnetic pull I felt toward Tisch, and resigned to familiarize myself solely with my new neighborhood in the East Village.
Thanks largely to my mother’s repeated directive to “save while you can,” I’d managed to sock away a small chuck of change over the years, money I kidded myself might one day be used towards college tuition. Still, there weren’t many places I could afford to live in Manhattan on my own. But when I got word that Nuna, who was enrolled at School of Visual Arts, had parted ways with her roommate and was stuck trying to pay the rent until she found a new one, I figured it was as good a time as any to sell out. Because that’s what a Philly boy moving to New York would be doing: selling out. Again and again I tried not to see it that way, and again and again I failed.
Besides, I’d been fascinated with Nuna for years. Some girls grow on you. Some girls don’t reveal themselves to be that which you most desire until you’ve spent months with them right under your nose, helping them with their homework (or vice-versa), climbing un-climbable rope ladders, eating lunch. Then, without any warning, it hits you at the most unlikely moment: at the luncheon following a relative’s funeral or during a heated round of skeeball at the shore: Omigod. I’m in love with so-and-so. Life as I know it will never be the same.
Such had not been the case with Nuna No, the next great, would-be love of my life after Janine. (I ignored her prohibitive surname, choosing to believe it was a not-so-coded message meant for other boys, more easily discouraged boys, boys who lacked the balls to make a serious play for Nuna. Boy, how wrong I was.) With Nuna, you either fell at first sight or went running the other way. Prolonged indifference was not an option.
Sophomore year of high school she’d breezed into Dr. Willipwood’s class the very day we finished Gatsby, and I couldn’t help aligning the sudden stirring in my solar plexis (and various points south) with the central love affair of that book. Although on the surface my secret crush on Nuna bore little resemblance to Gatsby’s gut-wrenching obsession with Daisy, I identified with the guy’s helplessness, his desperation, his unstoppable desire to woo—or re-woo—the woman of his dreams. Of course, by the time of his lavish West Egg soirees, Daisy was more symbol than flesh-and-blood woman. Just as Janine had morphed into little more than a symbol of a flesh and blood girl. The notion that Nuna, too, might be a symbol of something wouldn’t occur to me until much later.
The following afternoon I spotted her, looking simultaneously lost and somehow native to the place, out on Midland’s blacktop, where on fine fall days and warm spring ones, gym classes were held. Nuna was lanky and adorable in her frumpy school sweats and black pocket tee, her trim, tan arms weighted like a fishing line by the lurid bait of homemade bracelets, her piano-black and electric-blue hair limp, deflated, a sagging balloon. She’d been buried beneath so many strata of clothing back in English class that she looked defenseless and naked to me now, out here in the open, and garishly lit, as if by a single bare bulb, in the still-warm mid-September sun. I had competing urges to run to her and cover her body with an equipment bag and to tug at the drawstring of her ill-fitting fleece breeches. I did neither. We’d begun reading Hamlet, and I half-feared some of that troubled, indecisive prince’s tragic flaw was rubbing off on me.
Close to the end of the period, I saw Nuna stumble upon and gradually disappear into a kind of hole in the foliage that lined the blacktop on two sides. I thought she’d stick her head in, maybe poke around a bit, but come out again after determining she hadn’t much time to go exploring. But after a few minutes I’d completely lost sight of her. The gaping maw of spiky tree limbs and dark green leaves appeared to have swallowed my would-be paramour whole.
How could I not think of Alice trailing an elusive white rabbit down that life-defining hole? How could I not follow, considering I was heartbroken and bored and seemingly doomed to pursue those most inclined, by nature or nurture, to run away?
I checked my Keith Haring Swatch. Trailing Nuna No wasn’t a good idea, on any level. The cosmic response to my behavior was right there in the girl’s last name: No! But sometimes the best ideas, I told myself, begin as utterly bad ones.
I knew that the short, winding path through the woods led to a steep but scalable incline, which set its climber firmly atop the neighboring university’s pristine soccer field. But most of the Midland students who set off down this path didn’t do so in order to steal a glance at a top-notch plot of grass. Their priorities weren’t that out of whack. Nuna was new to Midland, of course, and she was only exploring. In my own way, I too was exploring, though the previous spring I had passed more than a few gym periods here in this pastoral heavy petting zoo, groping more forgetful girls than Janine beneath their loose cotton clothes. I wanted to see what Nuna would do, whether she’d make it as far as the soccer field, whether she’d attempt to scale that baby cliff or, worse, just run away.
She was gone. I was only a few yards behind, but somehow I lost her. It wasn’t easy to lose someone in such a small area, even an area as densely wooded as this one, but it wasn’t impossible. Besides, I reminded myself that I was no Boy Scout, and Nuna No wasn’t a merit badge I needed to earn. I turned back, thinking she must’ve cut through the woods somehow and looped back around without my noticing. Still, I couldn’t resist standing there for a few moments more, listening. There had to be a rational explanation for Nuna’s impressive, impromptu vanishing act. Much as I might’ve liked to, I no longer believed in magic.
Something soft bounced off my head and I heard giggling. I looked up, and there was Nuna, sitting high up in the Y-shaped crotch formed by the branches of the nearest tree. She was chewing on something. “Gummy bears,” she explained, pelting me with another.
“Hey,” I said. “That doesn’t tickle.”
“Wussy,” she hissed. “Want another?”
I thought this over, thinking she would be coming down. “Okay, sure.”
She hit me again, right between the eyes. “Ow!” I yelped.
Nuna cackled, the sound of her hard, evil laughter bouncing off the trees like the silver sphere in a pinball machine ricocheting around the bumpers. “Will you never learn?”
Apparently not. Just ask Janine.
Nuna climbed down and landed with a soft thud on my foot. “Sorry.”
“I’ll be black and blue by the time we get back to school,” I told her.
“No pain no gain,” she said, though I wasn’t quite sure what I stood to gain from her strange, minor cruelties. The pain part was crystal clear.
We headed back in silence, which I tried to fill with small talk.
“How do you like Midland so far?” I said, reminding us both that we’d only just met. There was an odd familiarity and casualness between us, as though we’d known each other for years.
“I like it,” Nuna admitted. “Not as much as I’d like to skip high school altogether,” she added. “‘But ’tis enough, twill serve.’”
“Shakespeare,” I said.
“Romeo and Juliet.”
“Funny,” I said. “You don’t seem like a Romeo and Juliet kind of girl. Hamlet, maybe. No, Macbeth.”
“You don’t know me yet,” she said. “The truth is I’m a romantic tragedy just waiting to happen.”
That “yet” made my overtaxed heart sing.
“Well, don’t get your hopes up,” I said, playing it cool. “Nothing even remotely tragic ever happens in high school.”
“Tragedy doesn’t just happen, old sport.” She was doing Gatsby now. “Tragedy—the best ones, anyway—have to be made.”
I laughed knowingly, though I had no idea what she was even talking about. It was hard to concentrate on her words, distracted as I was by the orifice out of which they were tumbling. Nuna didn’t seem to know the meaning of the word subtlety: her eyes were underscored with what could’ve been conte crayon; her hair, shot through with winding ribbons of blue. But her mouth was the true attention-getter, that part of her face all of the others must’ve resented for incessantly stealing the show. Plump and pomegranate red, her lips looked downright edible, like something that had fallen off one of the surrounding trees and stuck, teasingly, to her face. I wondered with a pang whether I’d ever get a taste.
A purple-lit Prince lyric flashed through my brain like some lurid neon sign, the opening come-on line of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”: Excuse me but I need a mouth like yours, to help me forget the girl that just walked out my door.
Nuna tugged on my tee shirt and laughed. “Earth to Spaceboy,” she said. “Come in, Spaceboy. Do you read me?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, pretending not to know that she was flirting, pretending not to flirt back. I heard Mr. Conway’s shrill finger-whistle and froze. “That’s it,” I said. “We’re officially late.”
I instinctively quickened my pace. Nuna, by contrast, seemed to slow down. “Are you always so punctual?” Her tone implied she already knew the answer, or thought she knew.
“Not always,” I said, bristling at the accusation. “Sometimes I’m downright tardy.”
Nuna laughed at the word. That’s how I knew I had her, at least temporarily. I couldn’t rely on an inherent coolness or movie star looks. I had to rely on humor. Keep her laughing, I told myself, draw her attention away from your scrawny limbs and geeky gym clothes and unremarkable hair with jokes. Keep her laughing and then steal a kiss, right away, before her smile completely fades and the goofy goth chick comes to her senses.
“Can you keep a secret?” Nuna asked, pulling me close, sadistically shoving a handful of leaves down the front of my sweatpants. She pressed her wonderfully swollen mouth against mine, without waiting for a yes or a no or, in my discombobulated state, some awkward, barely audible answer in-between.
Maybe it was just me. Maybe I bruised too easily. But all that October, while hanging out with the punk Korean girl who’d shuttled to Midland presumably from Mars, I collected a number of purplish, impermanent “Nuna tattoos”: a bruise on my hip from when I’d slipped on some shellacked leaves chasing her down Pine Street; a stigmata cut on my palm, from the Exacto knife she handed me without retracting the blade; makeshift “tracks” along my arm from Nuna’s fearful, Ginsu-like fingernails, her idea of a joke. She’d even given me a black eye once, albeit by accident. We’d cut gym class to go play pool at the pizza parlor down the street from Midland, where we found more than a few students—Earl Shriver and Alan Hoeber and Heather Mealy, along with a Scorsesean assortment of East Lawn junior goombas—clutching arcade games and slouched on the wobbly patio furniture playing pinochle. I wasn’t the best pool player; Nuna had shown me the proper way to hold a stick. Still, setting up one unlucky shot, it was Nuna’s cue ball that jumped the nine, which it was intended to strike, and instead connected with my left eye. “We’ll tell everyone some neighborhood thugs were harassing me, and you defended my honor,” she suggested, and instructed the aging diva working the cash register to fetch us some ice. “Not that my honor even needs defending.” I glared at her with my good eye. “What I mean is,” Nuna said, giggling, “I can protect myself.” “No kidding,” I said.
Sadly, these bumps and bruises were as physical as we got. That sudden secluded kiss—which, incidentally, had gone on well past the degrading sound made by Mr. Conway’s mouth, and was worth the subsequent tongue-lashing by the bald, by-the-book gym teacher—turned out to be the highlight of our adolescent affair, an affair Nuna had me swear to secrecy. I didn’t stop to wonder why she might want to keep our relationship a secret; I was too busy being thankful to have a secret to keep. Besides, the secret keeping, in a manner of speaking, was what had drawn me to Nuna No in the first place. The perennial widow’s weeds, the motorcycle boots, the shock of lightning-blue hair—everything conspired to convince me that here was a girl with something to hide. It certainly didn’t hurt matters that she was Korean, her parents’ culture, at least, antithetical to my own. Perhaps more importantly, she was nothing like Janine. She was a strange girl, in every sense of the term. And it was becoming increasingly apparent that I, underneath the sweatpants and ITALIA sweatshirt and Midland High varsity jacket, was quite a strange boy.
One random afternoon Nuna offered me a crucial piece to the Cubist jigsaw puzzle that was her life. I knew that accepting it could only hasten the time when the overall image of Nuna No would appear intact. Then what? Wreck the thing and start fresh, only this time with a new puzzle, a new girl? Or glue the result to a piece of cardboard, as much to bask in its painstaking wholeness as to keep it from falling apart? After all, the point of a good puzzle isn’t really the finished product, but the process, the myriad steps—and missteps—you take getting to the end. What would happen when I reached the end of Nuna No? (I was still too self-absorbed to seriously consider the question of what would happen if and when Nuna No reached the end of me.) How much fascination would my Mystery Girl hold for me once all her secrets, if not her lithe, disconcertingly boyish body, were laid bare?
The rarity of October thunderstorms didn’t prevent one from blooming like a fresh bruise in the undamaged autumn sky and blowing across Center City in less time than it took to hail a cab. Frightening and enthralling, it dispelled the unseasonably warm weather like a neighborhood witch chasing a gang of pint-sized trespassers off her front lawn. We were caught in it, my pretty punk rock girl and me, our sneakers soaked with water, our plastic black portfolios held over their heads like the awnings of a chic after-hours club or funeral parlor. Shelter was all around us: the Gallery, Burger King, the piss-christened El platform. But there we stood, in the pouring rain, as though the day were dry and our fledgling love affair anything but strained.
We couldn’t go to my house, that was for sure. My parents claimed to have nothing against mixed couples in theory, but I knew that in practice they would sing a slightly different tune. Looking back, it’s a wonder they’d tolerated the presence of so many caramel-skinned women plastered across my bedroom walls for so long. Maybe they thought it was a phase I’d outgrow, as by this time I almost had. (Could they have been any more pleased that their son had thrown over the bare-assed chicas in favor of heavily made up British men?) Maybe they simply preferred to pick their battles, and were waiting for me to begin speaking Spanish slang before cruising into my room like the Enola Gay and dropping the provincial, parental equivalent of an atom bomb. In any event, I knew without having to be told that dating a black or Hispanic or—though this seemed far less likely—Asian girl was a no-no. Sometimes, of course, they slipped up, and their true feelings bubbled to the surface, like boiling pasta water onto the stove. My father wasn’t as adept at hiding his emotions as my mother (I still haven’t decided whether or not this is a good thing). But when the woman let her guard down, it was memorable. Once, as a pre-teen, I’d made the mistake of ogling a black girl on the Boardwalk, so distracted had I been by the cut of her fluorescent yellow bikini top and ragged Daisy Dukes. She smiled at me encouragingly as she passed, but I was too embarrassed to do anything but quickly look away. The hand that cuffed me on the back of the head belonged to my mother. “It’s not Easter,” she said. “Stop drooling over the chocolate bunnies.” Although couched in a joke like a bitter pill in a ball of bread, it was an order, not a suggestion, and for a long time I’d more or less followed it. Above and beyond, even, following Janine.
For her part, I could see Nuna was torn. She both did and did not want me to accompany her home; both did and did not want to hang out with me in her room; both did and did not want me, period. Such a reaction was arguably better than immediate and indiscriminate acceptance, which implies superficiality, or outright rejection, which implies nothing. In the end, though, Nuna caved, and we caught a train headed for the ’burbs. “I don’t think anybody’s home,” she said. “But just in case somebody is, pretend you like boys.”
Saying that I accepted Nuna’s invitation, such as it was, is a bit like saying that as a child I’d accepted the toys Santa brought me. The truth is I was powerless to resist it. I couldn’t have refused a glimpse into Nuna No’s home life any more than I could have refused a glimpse at the girl’s underwear, were one ever offered me. One view seemed no less intimate than the other.
Nuna’s house was within walking distance from the station. By the time we got off the train it had stopped raining, though the sky was far from clear. The wind had kicked up as if to pick up the slack, and it ripped through my poorly lined baseball jacket as it sent gold and green and scarlet leaves fluttering over our heads like so many Technicolor butterflies. I’d never been this far west of the city before, on my own. The farthest I’d ever traveled by train was to 15th Street, via the El. As such, a few things struck me about the suburbs: one, the trees. Two, the spaces between the houses; not narrow alley- or driveways, but actual spaces, in some cases room enough for a whole other house. Three, the quiet. Nuna’s neighborhood was as silent as six a.m. Mass on a cold winter’s weekday. It was three in the afternoon, early October. On Auerbach Avenue back in Richtown, three in the afternoon was the noisiest, most chaotic time of the day, what with the kids coming home from school and the contractors having put in a full day and the baby-plagued housewives making last-minute runs to the supermarket and fast food chains to pick up dinner. The few people who’d left the train with us got into attendant Volvos and BMWs, the odd Volkswagen. They’d all but disappeared. We didn’t see another living soul on the quarter-mile trek to Nuna’s, other than a stray white cat and a few scrambling squirrels.
After a while Nuna took me by the hand and led me off the road and into a dense cluster of trees. We scaled a low iron fence and, coming upon a clearing, found ourselves standing before a small stone castle, complete with boxy turrets, a cylindrical tower and lancet windows.
“Wow,” I said. “Who lives here, King Arthur?”
“King Arnold, actually,” Nuna said. “And Queen Suzie-Q.”
“You know them.”
“Just barely,” she snorted. “They’re my parents.”
Nuna’s bedroom was located in the uppermost part of the cylindrical tower, which made traditional picture hanging impossible. She’d painted a mural, however, to liven up the place, a kind of Sgt. Pepper’s-esque group portrait of all the people she’d known, or admired, or loved, I supposed. Some, like Shakespeare and Sid Vicious and Frida Kahlo dancing with a monkey, were instantly recognizable. Others were not. Roughly one-quarter of the crowd was Korean, and every sadly stoic or pleasingly mischievous or horribly contorted face belonged to Nuna. She reappeared in various poses and outfits—kitschy Catwoman; Jazz Age flapper; great, golden-bellied Buddha—and, although not all of the portraits were flattering—some were downright ugly—the time and energy that went into their creation was obvious. Or at least obvious to me. But then I was biased.
Nuna slipped out of her navy blue bomber jacket, which was lined in construction cone-orange, and popped a cassette into her paint-splattered boom box.
When you screw up your ey-eyes, when you screw up your fa-ace, when you throw out your ar-arms, and keep changing your sha-ape
“Hungry?” she asked.
“Starved.” Nuna looked at me and smiled. She seemed conspicuously relieved, as though the two-headed snakes and albino bats and giant flying eyeballs she feared would be unleashed from the Pandora’s box of having me in her bedroom hadn’t materialized. Yet.
“Be right back.”
While she was gone, I busied myself with studying the mural and the many faces of Nuna No. That is, at least until I came across a disarming Asian countenance I didn’t recognize. She was a vacant-eyed, Burger King-crowned beauty without any clothes, patterned after Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” Her flesh, though, was as blindingly yellow as my Boardwalk bunny’s bikini had been. One hand strayed intriguingly toward the unruly dark thatch between her legs, from which crawled a host of lurid insects, their slimy, segmented bodies all the colors of a heavily polluted, late-summer sunset. A scrolled caption at her feet read Queen Sally, on the Half-Shell, no doubt a reference to some private joke or catty slur.
“Who’s this?” I said when Nuna came back into the room. She had a plastic sack of Doritos in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other.
She shrugged as though she had no idea, as though her naked doppelganger had snuck into her bedroom while Nuna was at school and painted herself into the mural. “My sister,” she said.
“Why is she so…yellow?”
Nuna shot me a hard look. “She’s very Korean,” she said, not taking her eyes off me. She presented me with the shiny bag of snacks. “Plus she’s a coward.”
I looked again at the lovely lemon-skinned woman in the fast food paper crown. I didn’t know where Sally was or what Nuna had against her, but I had a sudden urge to want to meet her, and probably more. The portrait was a success.
We heard a car pull onto the circular gravel drive.
“Shit,” she hissed.
“What? Who is it?”
Nuna went to the window. “The king hath returneth.” She squashed out her cigarette in the soil of a tentacular aloe plant and christened the room with Aqua Net. Then she turned off the music and hit the light.
In the sudden gloom of Nuna’s bedroom we watched the king emerge, slowly, alone, from his sleek obsidian carriage, which boasted a retractable roof and a flawed peace emblem for a hood ornament.
Nuna’s father was small, stoop-shouldered, and balding—hardly regal. But even from the skewed view of an uppermost lancet, I could see he was impeccably dressed in a crisp white shirt, slate gray suit and too-bright necktie. He pinched the dimple of his gaudy cravat as if in preparation for some dodgy closing remarks and smugly surveyed his Camelot—or maybe Cawdor is more appropriate; if this man routinely passed for Macbeth, as Nuna claimed he could, then she certainly cast herself as one of the Weird Sisters (she’d even paid homage to the sibling witches in her mural, a trio of Nunas in traditional pointed hats crowded around a cauldron of bubbling trouble). The man’s gaze seemed to linger for a nanosecond on his daughter’s window. Then, after picking something shiny—coin? key? doublet-stashed dagger?—out of the leaves at his feet, he closed the car door with a muffled thud and came determinedly toward the house.
“What do we do now?”
Nuna shrugged. “Hide,” she said, as though I’d just asked the world’s dumbest question, which, come to think of it, I probably had.
I glanced worriedly around the room, which seemed oddly inhospitable to budding Don Juans. Nuna’s mattress was on the floor—no bed to hide beneath. Her window was too narrow to squeeze through—no sneaking down the terrace. The curved walls didn’t offer as much as a shadowy corner in which to cower and plead for my life. “Where?”
“In here.” Nuna opened a secret door and shoved me inside, where my face collided with a soft wall of plaid flannels and autumnal corduroys and billowing ankle-length skirts. She’d painted over the door, which had made it hard to spot among the mural. As anxious as I was, there was something undeniably arousing about being ensconced in Nuna’s clothes, despite the fact that she’d bought most of them secondhand, and they smelled like it.
There was a knock on the bedroom door, as a heavily accented semi-male voice called someone’s name.
“Who’s that?” I whispered.
“My dad, you dork.”
“No, I mean who’s he calling for?”
“Me,” Nuna said. “That’s my full Korean name.”
“You have two names.”
“As far as you’re concerned, no.” Apparently, keeping her Korean name locked safely away behind the ramparts of the No family castle was more important to Nuna than having her dad find her huddling in the closet with a Caucasian boy, because she took hold of my longish hair and yanked. “Swear you won’t ever repeat it, to anybody, ever.”
“Ow! I swear, I swear.”
The bedroom door creaked open. Then, after a tense moment, thankfully, it creaked closed again.
Although there was no good reason to, other than sheer want, we stayed there in Nuna’s closet long after we heard her father leave the house again, relishing the proximity of our still-strange bodies, the warmth they radiated, and the blissful dark that made such claustrophobic quarters not only bearable but preferable to the wasted negative space with which most people surround themselves.
“What’s your worst fear?” Nuna asked me point-blank, handing me a beer. We’d made a quick, frightening expedition to the kitchen for the booze, where we found a note tucked under the sugar bowl on the out-sized café table. “What’s it say?” I asked, for it was written in Korean. “It says bread and water for dinner, and not to forget to chain myself to the bed after I say my prayers.” We had Nuna’s boom box now in the closet with us, and a milk crate housing her extensive dubbed tape collection, bands with mildly offensive names like Dead Kennedys and Violent Femmes and Jesus and Mary Chain. Much of the music suited my mood—schizophrenic stuff, by turns cheery and gray, like the weather outside. We still hadn’t kissed again, and it was beginning to look like we never would. Alone in Nuna’s bedroom, on a day tailor-made for canoodling in a closet, was the perfect opportunity for a long round of tonsil tennis, if not a full-blown tournament. Maybe too perfect. Every time I leaned in toward her, she seemed to find a reason to pull away.
“Don’t say death,” Nuna said, quantifying her original question. “Everybody’s afraid to die.”
“Your dad,” I half-lied, “finding me here, deflowering his daughter.”
“Yeah, I’m a regular English rose,” Nuna laughed, the sound of a car engine reluctant to turn over.
“I was thinking Easter lily.” Again I leaned in close.
Nuna unsubtly turned her head, ignoring my comment. “You know that fairy tale, about the ogre under the bridge?”
I said that I did.
“That’s the recurring dream I have about my father. That he’s the ogre hiding under my bridge.”
I wondered. The man hadn’t seemed especially ogre-ish to me. How many ogres knock on bedroom doors? How many ogres leave notes signed with a heart? This was the jailer who forbade his daughter to date non-Korean boys under penalty of house arrest? The domestic tyrant who threatened her with disinheritance if she didn’t give up painting by the time she got to college in order to pursue a law degree? As much as I wanted to believe Nuna, as much as I wanted to solve every unknown variable of our brief but complicated, algebraic relationship, something just didn’t add up. Either I hadn’t done my homework, or Nuna No was fudging the numbers.
“I don’t believe you, by the way.”
“Don’t believe what?” I said, genuinely surprised.
“You didn’t answer my question honestly. Which means you didn’t take it seriously. Which means you don’t take me seriously…”
I racked my brain for a suitable response. I thought about our eventual graduation, how bittersweet that day was sure to be, and how quickly our high school career would pass, no matter how many algebra tests I took or Old English poems I memorized or gym classes I cut. I thought about the future in general, how I was anxious and excited and scared all at the same time, not unlike the way I felt in Nuna No’s bedroom. But this wasn’t really what she wanted, and I knew it. “Spooky Electric,” I said finally.
“What?” she guffawed, spraying me with airborne orange crumbs.
“It’s from a Prince song,” I explained. “‘In every man’s life there will be a hang-up, a whirlwind designed to slow him down. It cuts like a knife, it tries to get in you, this Spooky Electric sound.’ It’s shorthand for one’s own personal bugaboo.”
Nuna rolled her eyes. “So then what’s your ‘personal bugaboo’?”
I shrugged. “Algebra II. Thermonuclear war. Wasting my life.” I failed to mention the Janine Mikulski part. I failed to mention the falling hard for Nuna No part.
“Hmmm,” she said, and took a long pull on her beer. “Heavy stuff.”
“Your turn,” I prompted. “What’s your worst fear, O Fearless Leader?”
Nuna wiped her Dorito-dusted fingers on her flannel and smiled at me. “Hanging out in my bedroom closet with a boy who quotes Prince songs,” she said.
We became fast friends after that afternoon spent inside Nuna’s closet. Friends, but not lovers, never lovers. Ultimately, I failed to meet Nuna’s very exacting romantic requirements. But I tried not to take it personally. After all, it was hardly my fault I’d been born a boy.
To her credit, Nuna never held my gender against me. And that was the beauty of Nuna No, or part of it: she was perhaps the most inclusive person I’ve ever met, welcoming not merely of the ABCs but the XYZs as well—no, especially the XYZs—and every alphabetic combination in-between. Every androgynous new friend she introduced me to was literally and figuratively more colorful than the last. Once (and only once), when I showed her a photo of Janine, Nuna smiled tolerantly but I could tell she was disappointed. So you’ve fallen for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl-next-door, her look seemed to say (the girls who lived next-door to Nuna may’ve been boys; it was hard to tell). Why don’t you just pledge a frat or buy a Bon Jovi album, Mr. Mainstream?
But the heart wants what the heart wants (to say nothing of other select parts of the anatomy). Half a decade after having been dumped by her, my heart still wanted Janine.
Did I experience a disproportionate amount of mistaken identities while living blocks away from Janine in New York City? Yes. Did I follow random women I believed to be Janine into cafes and laundromats and the lobbies of grand hotels? Maybe. Did I invent new and increasingly outlandish excuses to wander the Tisch campus in the hopes of bumping into her, or someone who knew her, or even someone who resembled her? Not nearly as often as you might think. Despite what might’ve been going on internally—wide eyes; sweaty palms; teetering towers of poker chips ecstatically pushed into the pot—externally I was a firm believer in not overplaying my hand. I knew from experience that the more I tried to tighten my grip on Janine, such as it was, the faster she’d slip through my fingers. So I resolved to live my life as if she no longer existed. Who? Janine Mikulski? Never heard of her. Nina Mitchell? Sorry, her neither. I was just another Manhattan transplant, a newbie New Yorker come to find out for myself whether, as the ditty says, all the critics did in fact love you here. I had my own muse to pursue, after all, and she was the jealous type. I had to keep Janine a secret, for the most part. Because if my muse ever got wind that I was pining for another, some sassy girl next-door acting student, no less, she’d be out on the street hailing a cab faster than I could say Calliope.
Though brief, my time in Alphabet City proved fruitful. Nuna’s strong work ethic combined with my increasing disinclination to venture outside the apartment often forced me to work on my art long after I believed I was finished working on it for the day. Besides, I still had Spooky Electric haunting the labyrinthine, lightless hallways of my head. To me, Spooky Electric didn’t merely represent a challenge, or a dare. Spooky Electric was nothing less than the incarnation of regret—dream-deferring, eternally second-guessing, soul-devouring regret. I flat-out refused to have any regrets, especially when it came to my art. I already had one too many regrets—a glaring regret—by the name of Janine.
So I dug in and got to work. Slowly but surely the Mr. Alphaville series began to take shape. At times I felt as if I were coaxing some reluctant genie from the bottle of my brain. Other times it all came in a rush, not unlike ejaculation, or regurgitation. Don’t get me wrong, days could go by without so much as my writing a word or drawing a single line. This wasn’t because I had nothing to say but rather the opposite: if anything I had too many ideas—too many potential plot lines and character sketches and unexplored themes—and the overwhelming number of them could cripple me for hours on end. But Mr. Alphaville had been trapped for a long time, too long, and was desperate to get out. It was my job to shine a light, to lead the way. To aid the wrongfully convicted prisoner in his escape.
And so what if, on those occasions when I was feeling inordinately proud of myself or unduly depressed, I found myself wandering Washington Square Park, one flap of cardboard away from holding up a sign bearing Janine’s name? So what if, on two separate occasions, strangers had stopped me and asked if I was okay, so distracted and lovesick I’d become? So what if a third stranger—a man sitting in the well of a shopping cart wearing not one but two paper birthday hats as if they were horns—had lobbed a line of verse at me, a line I later looked up and found attributable to Keats. O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering? The phrase stuck: alone and palely loitering. Immersed in my work, I could go weeks without leaving the apartment. Even Nuna, who tended to shield her pale skin with a black ruffled parasol on hot summer days, said I needed to get more sun. But simply going outside and exposing my pasty self to sunlight was the easy part. Being less alone was trickier, partly because generally I didn’t mind solitude and as a rule even welcomed it. As a self-styled lone wolf, I’d never really run in a pack. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t about self-sufficiency—to this day I still haven’t learned how to properly drain a radiator or operate a gas grill or change a flat tire. I’d never even learned how to swim! But I’d always preferred the simple perks of being alone to the more complicated benefits of being part of a larger group or gang. Groups and gangs involve near-constant compromise, or at the very least a partial abdication of one’s identity. I’ve never been willing to relinquish my God-given right to that particular throne.
Janine was the same way. Or so she claimed. She seemed eager to see herself as an isolated individual even as she flew to Italy with her team for a role in a big-budget movie or danced the night away with a coterie of models and their musician boyfriends. That’s not to say she didn’t have a private side; everyone does. But her private side was unapproachable and could be prickly as a cactus; it didn’t need a lot of tending. Like most attractive, outgoing personalities, she craved an audience, even if it were only an audience of one. “Eyes on the prize,” she would say on those rare occasions when my attention wandered away from her. She was in no rush to be alone with herself, with her own thoughts, whatever form they might take. Time and again I watched her choose the public—and when it came to Janine, the public tended to be very public indeed—over the private. She was quick to feed you the party line, explaining that the impetus for her acting career was the very real if not desperate desire to lose herself, but in her case I think there was actually something to it. I know for a fact she didn’t completely trust herself, and I’m convinced that underneath all the professional makeup and fancy clothes Janine didn’t even like herself—her true self—very much. But so what? The same could be said for thousands, if not millions of people who didn’t go on to become famous. As Evan might say, Boo-fucking-hoo. “Sometimes I think I’m the loneliest girl in the world,” she said to me once when we were out to dinner, after I’d failed to read her mind concerning her choice of wine. But for once I didn’t take the bait. “Well you can add that adjective to ‘prettiest’ and ‘sexiest’ and ‘luckiest’ girl in the world too.” This made her smile, as I was banking it would. “You forgot ‘funniest’ and ‘smartest,’” she said, running her bare foot between my legs under the table. “And ‘horniest,’” I said, myself instantly aroused. “Oh yes,” Janine agreed, meeting my gaze. She raised a single brow and I was hooked. “Definitely horniest.” We skipped dinner, as I recall.
I was tempted to title this book The Loneliest Girl in the World, and sometimes still think of it as such. The phenomenon reminded me of a line from “17 Days”: If you’re the one who’s always lonely, then I’m the one who’s always alone. For the most part this was true. If nothing else, Janine was a ridiculously busy person. For most of our adult relationship I was busy too—not nearly as busy as a celebrity, of course—but I worked alone. Janine had a team. I had the shifty trio of me, myself and I. But that was just fine by me. I preferred being alone to having to depend on or deal with or entertain other people, excluding Janine. Despite being simultaneously drawn to and intimidated by her looks, I experienced an ease around her from the get-go. Actually meeting her for the first time had been like familiarizing myself with someone I’d already known for years. Part of this surely had to do with having come from the same neighborhood, surrounded by the same people and places and things—in a phrase, cultural touchstones. But another part had to do with something else, something fundamental but far more elusive, even mystical. Call it kismet, or chemistry, or even call it love. Call it what you will, but I know this: Janine was the only person I didn’t mind or resent making art around. Which is pretty much my working definition of love.
Not even semi-reclusive Nuna, who worked on her art more tirelessly than anybody I’ve ever known and could fall down the rabbit hole of some design project or another for days on end, thought that being alone 24/7 was such a good idea. “You don’t need to skulk off to your bedroom just because I’m home. I’m a visual artist too, remember? I totally get it. I won’t judge.” But it wasn’t judgment I feared, not really. What I feared—though I didn’t know it at the time—was possibly forgetting about and thereby losing Janine. No matter that I’d already lost her. If I hung out with other people, and specifically other girls, and allowed myself to have a good time, even a great time—if I took my eyes off the prize—who’s to say the deity in charge of such things wouldn’t deem me unworthy of Janine and see to it that I would never see her again, other than on billboards and the silver screen—which is to say, not at all? Again, I wasn’t conscious of any of this at age nineteen. All I really knew was that I needed to be alone. So despite Nuna’s chiding, skulk off I did, so much so that one of her friends dubbed me “The Incredible Skulk”: an ultra-private (and perhaps cowardly) creature that slips off into the shadows at the slightest possibility of human contact. (Around this time I storyboarded an entire book with the working title Mr. Alphaville Meets the Incredible Skulk, but in true Skulk fashion it never saw the light of day.)
Nuna wasn’t pleased but she put up with my “lovesick nonsense,” as she put it. A good if misguided friend, she even went so far as to enlist the help of one of her less particular girlfriends to semi-seduce me one night after drinks at Bimbo’s, our favorite bar. Her name was Leah, and we had a lot in common despite my being a budding graphic novelist from Philly and she a cellist originally, I believe, from Texas. But Leah wasn’t nearly as enamored of me as I was of Janine, and it didn’t take long for the romance to fizzle like the carbonated sloe gin drinks that initially fueled it. “You can’t say I didn’t try,” Nuna told me the day after Leah gave me the boot. “She dumped me,” I said. “It was bound to happen.” Nuna smacked me on the side of my head. “Idiot,” she said. “You know what Leah told me?” I shrugged. “She said you wouldn’t fuck her.” The revelation took me by surprise. Sort of. “I didn’t have a condom handy,” I lied. “Not with your dick,” Nuna said, ignoring me, “not with your tongue, barely even with your finger. The mayor of Erotic City himself flat-out refused to fuck the almost comically fuckable Leah Cisneros.” I looked away. It was far from my proudest moment. “You know what else she said? Some blonde walked into Bimbo’s and you lost your shit.” “I didn’t lose my shit.” “No? What do you call hiding in the corner, then playing a block of “When Doves Cry” on the jukebox to gauge the stranger’s reaction, and then following said stranger out onto the street?” I didn’t know what to say. Any way you sliced it, it sure sounded like I’d lost my shit. “It wasn’t her,” I whispered. “No shit it wasn’t her. Because if it had been her, you’d probably still be trailing her all over the East Village like some lost little puppy.” Nuna made a disgusted sound, a cross between a snort and tsk-tsk. “You need help,” she said. “So as your friend, I’m helping you. Consider yourself officially kicked out.” “What?” I said. “Why?” “I just told you why.” Nuna stared me down. More than anything she hated to repeat herself. “Go back to Philly,” she said. “Go to Minneapolis and First Avenue and Paisley fucking Park if it’ll help. Just get out of New York, and get away from this girl.” “Leah?” I said, half serious. “Ha! Leah’s over it. You get one shot at a filthy-cute woman like that, and you blew it.” “But I can’t leave New York,” I argued. “I’m still not finished Mr. Alphaville. I need to be here.” “One month,” Nuna said, and I knew arguing was not an option. “Thirty days from today. Then Becca moves in and you move out.” Becca was her new girlfriend. “I’m doing you a huge favor,” Nuna said, not bothering to acknowledge that she too stood to benefit from her own generosity. She put a consoling hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “You’re welcome,” she said.
Nuna was as good as her word. By the time I left New York a month later, I’d learned at least one invaluable lesson: muses are best left alone to inspire you from afar. Although I never ran into Janine, you wouldn’t have known it from my production level. Whether intentionally or not (mostly intentionally), Janine’s presence filled every page of the manuscript I was working on. And was it any wonder? I thought about her constantly; thought about what it might mean that I was thinking about her constantly; thought about devising new and creative strategies—many of which just boiled down to my attempting to bed other women—to help me not think about her constantly, which underneath it all was really just me continuing to think about her constantly. To wit: the chief antagonist of the Mr. Alphaville series—and certainly the villain of that first book—is a lascivious cyborg that goes only by the name J-9. Her origin story, told to Mr. Alphaville near the end of the book, minutes after J-9 has successfully seduced her seductive nemesis and moments before she attempts to murder him, is a twisted Frankenstein-like yarn that includes, what else, global domination. The “J” of J-9 stands for “Joy”; the “9” is her number in the series. (“Joy” as in “Private Joy,” the line of uncannily lifelike “pleasure bots” for which the cyborgs are named.) There were originally nine Joys (representing a feline’s nine lives) manufactured by Dr. Valentine Albright, a former psychoanalyst and part-time cyber-geneticist, but all but two were destroyed by the government. J-7 has gone into hiding, and is rumored to be badly in need of repair. It is J-9’s duty to find and rescue her twin “sister,” assuming rescuing her is an option. Dr. Albright originally constructed the Joys—known collectively and alternately as the Joy Love Club, the Joy Lust Club, the Joy Lick Club—to satisfy his insatiable sexual needs. One of the original co-founders of the Erotic Citizens, a band of “hyper-intelligent do-goody hedonists,” Dr. Albright broke from the group, accusing them of being too timid and unimaginative and, perhaps worst of all, downright unfunky. At the time of the book, the Erotic Citizens are little more than a rag-tag gang of libertines, a “bedroom vigilante” whose sole purpose is to save the world from Dr. Albright and his harem of “robot whores.” But Dr. Albright is cleverer and more daring than all of the Erotic Citizens combined. They need help. Enter Mr. Alphaville, retired funkmaster, and androgyne extraordinaire, to the rescue.
Needless to say that J-9, aside from bearing a play on my ex-girlfriend’s name, had a nose suspiciously like Janine’s nose, and eyes suspiciously like Janine’s eyes, and a mouth suspiciously like Janine’s mouth. She had Janine’s hair and skin color; Janine’s habit of licking her lips before speaking; Janine’s razor tongue. She even had a version of Janine’s old STAR POWER T-shirt—BORN STAR—worn beneath a pink leather car coat and two sizes too small. Nuna liked to say that if the real Janine was half as sexy as the fictional J-9, she’d propose to the drama student on the spot. Funnily enough, at that point actually marrying Janine had never even entered my mind. Yet my entire fledgling love life was defined by and lorded over by thoughts of Janine. Every time I met a new potential new lover—every time I passed an attractive woman on the street—I thought of that opening come-on line of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” (Was it naïve of Prince or genius of him to associate long-term monogamy—at least seven years—with incessant “balling”?) It’d been years since Janine “walked out my door,” and yet here I was still playing the victim, licking some very old wounds, wounds that seemed to be taking their own bittersweet time to heal. But it was Nuna who’d suggested that maybe New York, and Alphabet City in particular, might not be the healthiest environment for me. I’d moved to New York with two goals in mind: complete a manuscript and (if more subconsciously) find Janine. I’d be lying if I said that finishing the first volume of Mr. Alphaville didn’t feel like a consolation prize.
3. BABY I’M A STAR
Funny thing was, Janine had dropped out of school and abandoned New York City a few weeks prior to my own departure. To hear her tell it, her sudden leave-taking had nothing to do with the affections of a “quite charming and brilliant” (not to say quite married) drama professor and everything to do with joining the cast of Brotherly Love, a daytime soap notable mostly for having been filmed in the undersung city of her (and my) birth.
Brotherly Love was the brainchild of a woman named Rosalind Glade. In broad terms, it tells the story of Dorian Brothers, a failed novelist-cum-wildly successful financial advisor (“I wanted to write the next Gatsby. Instead I became the next Gatsby”) whose primary residence (he owns five) is on the Main Line. Brothers has two sons, Easton and Wesley (although it’s later revealed that Easton is adopted, the child of Dorian’s first and only true love, though he isn’t the father). Wesley is his father’s son, in every sense of the term, and his father openly resents him for it. Easton is the proverbial black sheep, the archetypal party-boy prodigal son who, presumed dead, returns toward the end of the show’s premiere after having lived a dissolute life in the clubs and bars (and sometimes on the streets) of Philadelphia before experiencing what he calls an “epiphany.” (“I take it this ‘epiphany’ of yours,” Dorian snidely tells him, “is the realization that you’re filthy rich.”) Unbeknownst to everyone, Easton’s real modus operandi is to write a fictitious thinly-veiled family history. Janine plays Wesley’s college-age daughter, Fiona, a girl with too much time on her hands, too much money in the bank and too few boundaries. She spends most of Season 1 toying with the fragile emotions of her handsome, recently arrived presumptive uncle.
I wasn’t exactly Brotherly Love’s target audience, but I never missed an episode. In fact I planned my day around the show’s late-morning time slot. I typically rose at eight, spent a few hours working on the latest installment of Mr. Alphaville, and then ate lunch watching Brotherly Love (devouring homemade hoagies and tuna salad sandwiches with my mouth, Janine with my eyes). Evenings I waited tables at an Italian restaurant. Afterwards, the entire staff would pile into a taxi and spend what remained of the night drinking Cuba Libres at Ricardo’s, a lightless bar in Old City. Sometimes I got lucky, and brought a girl back to my place. Sometimes I got luckier still, and spent the night at the girl’s. On the luckiest nights of all, the girl bore a striking resemblance to the actress who played Fiona Brothers on TV. (I once drunkenly told a pretty young woman this. She less drunkenly replied, “Maybe Fiona Brothers resembles me.” Touché.) It wasn’t the healthiest existence, I admit, but I was young and relatively stupid and still madly in love. No matter that the object of my affections lived inside a squat metal box, behind a glass screen. I was pining for a more-or-less fictional character, a hologram, a girl comprised of light: Help me, Janine Anastasia Mikulski. You’re my only hope. But to quote a modern-day slogan, love is love.
And yet, despite the torch I was so foolishly carrying, despite my own modest success and budding celebrity status as a graphic novelist of note, despite the almost unbearable fact that she was apparently living and working a mere few miles from where I lived and worked, I never tried to contact Janine. I was too scared that if I did, she wouldn’t respond or, worse yet, simply tell me to get lost—a near impossible, Skulkian feat in a city the size of Philadelphia.
Brotherly Love ran for just three seasons, but the impact the show had on Janine’s career and her celebrity, for better or worse, cannot be overstated. In essence the show made her. All the leftover Material Girls wanted to be Fiona Brothers and all their horn-dog boyfriends wanted to sleep with her, or at the very least feel her up in the backseat of her eye-catching Cabriolet. Her involvement on the soap led to her first legitimate movie role, that of tan-happy wild-child Suzanne Razzle in Property Lines, a sort of Lolita reboot, minus the road trip and shimmering prose. (Suzanne is much older than Dolores Haze, though not quite old enough to eradicate the taboo.) Even though the film was a flop, landing the part was the acting equivalent of being called up to the Major League after years spent playing double-A ball. The silver screen was Janine’s Jumbotron. And her stats were impressive indeed.
All this by way of explaining that by the time Janine showed up at my apartment on that fateful day in early April, 1994, she was already a star, albeit a dwarf star named Nina Mitchell.
At the risk of sounding immodest, I’d become a bit of a celebrity myself. Well, a celebrity in certain circles. Comicon-type circles. Fanboy and -girl circles. These days my fan base consists mostly of anemic boys in substantial eyeglasses and their neon-haired neo-goth girlfriends, girls who wear Victorian underwear as outerwear and flaunt impressively applied makeup. But back in 1994, the graphic novel was still a relatively new art form. (Even the term “graphic novel” wouldn’t become widely used for close to another decade.) Art Spiegelman got the ball rolling when his Maus won the Pulitzer in ’92, and subsequent works like Watchmen and Ghost World and Gaiman’s Sandman series speeded that ball up immeasurably. But the fans I had back then were just like me, only much better read and slightly younger.
Not that I’m complaining. The first three books of the Mr. Alphaville series were doing better than I’d ever expected, better than, back when I was holed up in Nuna’s cozy if under-warm and dimly-lit Alphabet City apartment, I had any reason to believe they would. Certain people—important people, people with cache and all manner of cartes blanches—had even begun to talk about optioning the first book, Rise of Mr. Alphaville, into a movie or series of movies. At twenty-four, I was a rising star of what was still referred to as the comic book industry. You may’ve needed a telescope and clear night sky to notice me (you may’ve needed a Hubble), but I was out there, for any comics-loving insomniac interested in looking.
Janine was looking. She even looked me up.
As a rule, I rarely answered the telephone. But this day was different. On this day, the body of a much beloved rock star had been found in his Seattle home, an apparent suicide. It might be a stretch to call Kurt Cobain the John Lennon of my generation, but news of his not-so-sudden death left most Gen Xers reeling. As a revised smiley face flag-waving Nirvana fan—I’d attended their gig at J.C. Dobbs down on South Street nearly five years before, and had even modeled the marginal character of Mr. Hurt after the uncommonly sensitive but infamously troubled lead singer—my phone hadn’t stopped ringing all afternoon. I picked up every time, and was greeted either with tearful condolences or utter disbelief. No one could believe Kurt was actually gone, including me.
Ring-ring. I picked up the receiver. “Yeah,” I said, having grown weary of saying hello.
“Yeah what,” said an unfamiliar female voice. “I haven’t asked you anything.”
“Oh, sorry. Hello.”
I lowered the TV, which happened to be within arm’s reach of the bed I was sitting on. Did I mention it was a “studio” apartment, which is real estate code for “glorified broom closet”?
“I’m glad you approve.”
A snort. “Well, you should be,” said the voice. It was a pleasant voice, dare I say a sexy voice, and growing more familiar all the time.
“Sorry, who is this?”
A pause. “It’s the girl of your dreams.”
“Cameron Diaz?” I said, playing it off. Sometimes fangirls phoned and flirted with me. It didn’t happen often, but it happened enough that I was considering having my number changed. “What are you wearing? Please don’t say that slinky red dress from The Mask.”
The voice made an unidentifiable noise, a cross between another snort and a hiccup. “No, not Cameron Diaz. The other girl of your dreams.”
I wasn’t really in the mood to be flirted with, considering the world had just lost one of its cultural icons and a major musical talent, to say nothing of a supremely cool human being.
“The girl of my dreams left my apartment, like, ten minutes ago.”
I was referring to Maura, my girlfriend. Or rather, a friend of mine who happened to be a girl, and who I sometimes thought of as more than a friend, particularly when she spent the night, as she just had. It was complicated. Maura was complicated. And now Kurt Cobain was dead.
“Puh-lease,” said the by now really quite familiar female voice. “As if I’d ever stoop to compete with a brunette.”
“Ha! You got lucky that time,” I said. “It just so happens that she is a brunette.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it.”
“So, what, you’re psychic?”
She ignored my comment. “She’s, what, 5’2”, 5’3” tops? Petite is the word. Dark hair, pale skin, very pretty. Almost too pretty. I like her boots. Though that hobo corduroy coat of hers has seen better days.”
She’d just described Maura to a T. “Why do I get the feeling I’m being watched?”
Feigned frustration, exemplified by an exaggerated groan. “Because I’m on a payphone across the street, dork, waiting for your girlfriend to catch her bus.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“Of course she’s not,” the knowing voice said. “They never are.”
“Life’s complicated, babe. You’re only twenty-four. Better get used to it.”
“So does the girl of my dreams actually have a name? Or is it some unpronounceable symbol, like with Prince?”
Recently the musician had changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph in a feeble if creative attempt to extricate himself from his contract with Warner Bros. It didn’t work. Imagine the precedent it would’ve set if it had!
“Funny you should mention Prince,” she said, and suddenly I knew who I’d been taking to. The realization hit me like the proverbial brick wall, one covered in wild-style graffiti bearing her serpentine spray-painted name.
“Janine,” I said.
“Errr,” she replied, an unsubtle gameshow buzzer signaling I’d got something wrong. “Nina,” she said, as if she were the only Nina in the whole wide world, as if the name alone—like Sting or Madonna or formerly Prince—was all the information I’d ever need. “Nina Mitchell, to be specific. Janine the Beauty Queen is dead.”
Minutes later world-famous Janine Anastasia Mikulski, now known professionally as Nina Mitchell, was seated across from me on the floral love seat I’d found on the street two days before moving out of my parents’ house in Richtown and into this cramped but clean studio apartment in Fairmount. She looked good. Better than good. She looked magazine-grade. Everyone always says photos of celebrities are manipulated or airbrushed, that so-and-so’s skin can’t be that clear or what’s-her-name’s waistline can’t be that trim after having twins. But I’m here to tell you that back then Janine would have had no more use for an airbrush than, say, Joanie from Mad Men would breast implants. Granted, she was only twenty-three, soon to be twenty-four. But she looked nothing so much as ageless, and almost comically wholesome, sitting there in her poppy-colored sundress and Sperry Topsiders, her long blonde hair longer and blonder than I’d ever seen it, her smattering of sun-coaxed freckles tinted like a photo-negative of a rural night sky. She looked as if age, and by extension time, somehow didn’t apply to her. As if she were above, or beyond it.
I asked her if I could get her anything—a glass of water or wine, some bakery-fresh biscotti and a cup of tea.
“I can’t stay long,” Janine said, refusing my offers of refreshment. “Nobody knows where I am, and I have to get back.”
“Nobody knows you’re in Philly, or nobody knows you’re visiting me?”
Janine shot me a suspicious look. “What makes you think I don’t live in Philly?”
“I just assume.”
“You know what happens when you assume,” she said.
“Yes, I make an ass of you and me.”
“Wrong—you only make an ass of yourself!” She stuck out her tongue, which took me by surprise. “Good assumption, though. I moved back to New York after Brotherly Love got cancelled.” Another suspicious look. “As if you didn’t know.”
“How would I know anything?” I said. “This is crazy. So nobody knows you’re here.”
“Nobody knows anything, depending who you ask. But even my personal companions—that’s what they call themselves, my “companions”—don’t know I made this quick little detour.” She winked at me. “I gave them the slip.”
“Won’t they be worried? Put out an APB? File a missing person’s report?”
“You and your hyperactive imagination.” Janine held my gaze for a moment and the backs of my knees began to sweat. “Yes, they will be worried—worried that if they don’t find me fast they’ll be out of a job. But no APB. Trust me, they’ll want to keep this as quiet as possible. I know from experience. I’ve disappeared before.”
“So, why are you here?” I said. “Not to sound too…inhospitable.”
“Oh, I’m here for purely selfish reasons,” she said.
“Ha-ha.” She gave me a look, cranked up the intensity of her big blue eyes. “I want you to write me a book,” she said.
“That’s what you do, isn’t it? Write books? Or at least comic books.”
“They’re called graphic novels nowadays.”
“Whatever they’re called, I want you to write one for me.”
“Really? About what, exactly?”
“About me,” she said.
“Something dramatic, like Nina Mitchell: Superstar or The Rise and Fall of Nina Mitchell, etcetera, etcetera.”
“But aren’t you still rising?”
“I am,” she said, obviously pleased with herself. “And thanks for noticing.” She rose to go. “But use your imagination,” she advised. “Pretend I’m on my way down. Hell, pretend I’m long dead. Make it up as you go along. Isn’t that what you do?”
For a moment I was truly flabbergasted. I was having a hard time believing that Janine was here, sitting in my living room, after all this time and her recent fame. The first time I’d realized just how famous she’d become was when Maura and I had gone to the movies to see True Romance and happened to catch a preview for Property Lines. I know that girl,” I said more to myself than to Maura. “Oh sure, you know Andie MacDowell.” I turned to her. “No, the younger one. The neighbor.” Maura’s eyes grew wide. “You know her how? Like, you went to school with her?” It was taking me longer than it should have to process the information, let alone to verbalize it, to hear myself say it out loud. “Actually,” I said, feeling how my ears had begun burning red, “we sort of grew up together. We’re from the same neighborhood.” I swallowed hard. “She used to be my girlfriend.”
“Well, I’m honored,” I said finally, and meant it. “But—”
“Don’t be honored,” Janine said, cutting me off. “Just be grateful. Or not grateful, flattered.” She smiled her impish smile again. “Consider yourself flattered.”
“I am very, very flattered,” I said, gushing.
“Look, I know it’s a big favor. Bigger than a favor, even. More like a project. And it has to be kept a secret, to the best of your ability.”
I didn’t know what she was implying. “Hey, I can keep a secret,” I said.
“Good luck with that,” she snorted. “I can’t sneeze without some paparazzi handing me a Kleenex.” She shot me an oh-woe-is-me look. “Only they don’t hand me a Kleenex—that would be cool. All they do is taking my picture.”
I glanced around my small, seemingly paparazzi-less apartment. There was no need to peer into closets or check under the bed.
“It wasn’t easy getting here,” Janine said, reading my mind. “Let’s just say I didn’t leave the hotel in this dress.”
Flash to an image of Janine leaving her luxury hotel in her underwear, though I knew full well that wasn’t what she’d meant. Dodging traffic in her black lace bra and panties, no trouble hailing a cab…
“Ahem,” she said. “Am I interrupting something?”
“Oh, sorry, no.”
“I really have to go,” she said. She went over to my drafting table and, taking up a fine-tipped pen, wrote down her phone number. “Call me with any questions.”
“Are you serious? All I have are questions.”
“Good,” she said, “because all I have are answers.” For a long time after this I believed her. Was she an accomplished actress, or was I simply the most gullible audience member to ever buy a bucket of popcorn?
“Did you hear the news?” I said, out of the blue.
“You mean about Kurt Cobain?” She shrugged. “It’s sad, I guess, but stupid too.”
“It was just plain dumb of him to kill himself. The guy was practically king of the world.”
I thought of the lyrics to “Dumb,” a pretty pop song uncharacteristic of Nirvana’s back catalogue. I’m not like them but I can pretend.
“He was dealing with some serious issues,” I said. “The guy needed help.”
Janine just rolled her pretty blue eyes. “You have no business being famous if you can’t handle the fame,” she said. “You wouldn’t take your car to a mechanic who didn’t know the difference between a muffler and a fuel pump. You wouldn’t go to a hair stylist who didn’t know how to hold a pair of scissors.”
“Don’t you think this is a little different?”
“Why, because my hair stylist isn’t a heroin addict?”
“What? No, I mean because a great musical talent is gone, one of the defining voices of our generation, and the world should mourn.”
“Mourn all you want,” Janine said, rising to go. A caught a whiff of her perfume; it smelled like some exotic, very expensive fruit. “But when you’re done mourning do me a favor and get started on my book.”
“Does that mean you’re leaving?”
Janine offered a hand for me to shake. When I took it, she pulled me close and gave me a great big hug. “As far as the rest of the world is concerned,” she whispered in my ear, “I was never here.”
How right she was. For days afterwards I was half convinced I’d imagined Janine’s visit. But then how to explain the periodic postcards that arrived in the mail every couple of weeks, odd photos the flipsides of which were scrawled with playful words of encouragement like Keep up the good work(s)! (depiction of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead) and Right like you mean it!! (unflattering photo of House Speaker Newt Gingrich) or quotes from classic works of fiction like (my favorite, via Gatsby) “No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart”? Although I’d started the project, if creating an outline and making a handful of sketches that failed to do Janine justice could be considered a start, I discovered to my dismay that although I may’ve known a fairly good amount about teenage Janine Mikulski, I knew next to nothing about soon-to-be twenty-four-year-old Nina Mitchell. And wasn’t Nina Mitchell the real subject of the book?
To make matters worse, I had no way of getting in touch with Janine. The phone number she’d left on my drafting table belonged to a local theatre playing Property Lines. It was a clever joke, but one I failed to find much humor in once it dawned on me that I likely wouldn’t be seeing Janine again any time soon. Apparently it wasn’t enough that the deck was stacked ridiculously in her favor, she still insisted on holding all the cards.
Then, the following Halloween, while I was getting ready for a costume party, my buzzer sounded. “Trick or treat,” I heard a female voice call over the intercom. “You’re an hour early, Maura.” A pause. Then the voice: “Smell my feet. Give me something good to eat,” she all but cackled.
I buzzed her in. The pretty blonde woman who appeared in my doorway wore a maroon leotard and white figure skates. Her hair was pulled tight away from her heavily made-up face and tied with a ribbon. She held what looked to be a billy club in one hand. The make-up was elaborate, but there was no mistaking her for Janine.
“You really do enjoy making an entrance,” I said.
“An entrance is just an exit with a lot more hope.”
“Who said that?”
“Well, it sure as hell wasn’t Tonya Harding.”
“You look great.”
She shrugged. “I’m too pretty for the part, but Nancy’s a bit of a stretch.” She stood on tippy toes. “Literally. Besides, Tonya’s more my style.”
“Two-faced sociopath with a pronounced violent streak?”
“Spunky competitor who’ll stop at nothing to achieve her dreams.” She smiled. “Speaking of which…”
I glanced at my watch.
“Is it a bad time?”
“Well, I’m expecting someone,” I said. “We’re going to a party.”
“Ugh, not the bo-ho brunette.”
“Her name’s Maura,” I said. “She sort of lives here too.”
It was true. Over the summer Maura had spent increasingly more time lounging around my apartment, which among other things meant that I got increasingly less work done. It began with a toothbrush and a short cotton robe and ended with half my dresser filled with her clothes, half my bookshelves lined with her books, half the refrigerator filled with food of her choosing. And if I couldn’t pinpoint the exact day when she had moved in, or recall a specific conversation that we’d had discussing it, was that so unusual? Surely not as unusual as having a bona fide movie star show up on my doorstep dressed as a cutthroat figure skater, looking to proofread some nonexistent manuscript describing her own life.
“You make a good werewolf,” Janine said, ignoring my comment and sidling up to me. “I don’t remember you having such a hairy chest the last time I saw you shirtless.”
“That’s because the last time you saw me shirtless was at Comstock pool, and I was maybe fourteen.”
Janine placed a chilly hand on my chest and toyed with the hair. “I like it,” she said. “It’s so manly. I’m pleasantly surprised.” She moved closer still. “Aren’t you going to return the favor?”
“Touch me,” she whispered. “Touch my chest.”
“That’s not the best idea right now.” I caught a whiff of something sour, not unlike rotting fruit. “Are you drunk?”
“Just a little wine with dinner,” she admitted. “Nothing I can’t handle.” She took my hand and placed it over her sequined breast.
“We shouldn’t,” I said, though we both noticed how I made no attempt to remove my hand.
“Don’t be such a crybaby,” she said, using a word commensurate with her costume. “I’m here for two reasons, and this isn’t even the first one.”
“So, what, I’m like a consolation prize or something?”
“More like a fringe benefit.” She moved a hand to my crotch. “I’m a trick-or-treater,” she said. “I already tricked you into letting me in. Now it’s time for the treat.”
We tumbled onto the floral loveseat, gasping and grasping at each other like a couple of shipwreck survivors desperate to stay afloat. Janine left her ice skates on.
“Do you want to see me again?” Janine said afterwards, retying the ribbon in her hair. I did, of course I did, and told her so. “Good,” she smiled, wholly unsurprised. “Lose the girl,” she said. “And write the book. Or I won’t be coming back.”
“What if I can’t?”
There was no time to explain whether I was referring to the book or to dumping Maura or to both. Because here she was, my lovely bo-ho girlfriend, in a gossamer nightdress stained with fake blood, looking every bit like the sort of woman a ravenous moon-mad beast would pursue across fog-plagued English moors. How did she even get in? Oh, that’s right: her overzealous boyfriend had given her a key.
“It’s not what it looks like.”
“Oh no?” Maura said. “Looks to me like you just fucked Tonya Harding.”
Janine and I exchanged a glance. For once neither of us knew what to say.
“You know what,” Maura said, “spare me the gory details. I can fill in my own blanks.”
“Let her go,” Janine said, grabbing my arm.
So I did. I was half in love with her, but I just let her go.
“Fuck,” I said under my breath. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“Look on the bright side, Wolfman Jack,” Janine said, flushed now from not one but two decisive victories. “You’re halfway there.”
“How do you figure that?” I said.
“Lose the girl,” she repeated, “write the book.”
We kept things casual for a couple of years—Janine preferred the term “causal,” because our feelings for one another were, as she put it, “a means to an end”—but whenever Janine was in town I was expected to drop everything for her, and I gladly did so. We weren’t monogamous in the strictest sense of the word, but there was an intuitive, almost telepathic understanding that we belonged together and that one day we’d make it official. In the meantime Janine was to become richer and more famous than she already was, and I was to make a serious attempt at writing her book. “I don’t mind if you make stuff up,” she said, “to fill in the gaps and what-have-you. But the big stuff has to be true.” “I’m not so good with what’s true,” I told her. “Try harder,” was her only advice.
For my part, I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a starving artist. The Mr. Alphaville series put plenty of food on the fold-out Ikea kitchen table and more than paid my rent. It also financed the trips I made with Janine in the mid-nineties to California and Vancouver, Prague and Greece, not to mention my constant train rides to New York. Janine’s bankbook was far bigger than mine (try as I might, I would never catch up) and she offered to buy the tickets for every Amtrak I boarded and every flight we booked, but I was still very much a working-class kid and I didn’t want her paying my way. “Think of it as a retaining fee, or an advance for the work you’re doing on the book.” “You can’t afford that kind of artistry,” I joked, secretly ashamed at my lack of progress. “Try me,” she said.
It became a running joke between us: the book I’d forever barely started, the book I might never finish. Eventually the book became, more ominously, The Book. It was The Book that had brought us together, and The Book would tear us apart. I was sure of it. But Janine, bless her heart, made constant excuses for me, even as her career took off—three more movies, one more successful than the last—and my own career stalled, and progress on The Book became no progress at all. “You’re just overwhelmed by your material,” she’d say, or “It’s not like there’s a deadline” or (later) “I have the kind of beauty that moves,” quoting a favorite Ani DiFranco line to explain my inability to capture her likeness to either of our liking. Yet I worked on it nearly every day, or at least thought about working on it, even if it was just to scribble notes about some newly learned anecdote in Janine’s life—the pet goldfish named Silver Giggles or her addiction to instant oatmeal or the schizophrenic cousin I never knew she had—or some subtle but telltale mannerism that might help define her character. In case anybody hadn’t noticed, I was having an exceptionally hard time pinning this particular butterfly down. Every time I thought I had her within my grasp, she’d flutter those gorgeous wings of hers and fly away.
It had occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t the material that resisted me but rather the other way around. Maybe my lack of progress on The Book had less to do with Janine’s apparent inscrutability and more to do with my reluctance over what I might discover, not only about Janine but also about myself. Maybe I actually liked (or at least appreciated) the fact that the butterfly was free to flutter its wings, because what in god’s name would I do with her once I had her formulated and wriggling on the wall, to borrow a phrase? How would I presume? Janine denied all formulae. Wasn’t that the point? “A little mystery goes a long way,” she once told me, and although I recognized it as an overworked line from her first movie, I couldn’t deny its veracity.
We were sprawled on her king-size bed in Janine’s courtly Tribeca loft, designed by some Teutonic New York architect whose name I could never remember. It was a bright Sunday morning, early autumn, I think. We’d had sex, then a light breakfast, then sex again, and now the sections of the Times had been divvied up—Arts & Entertainment and Real Estate and Styles for Janine, The Book Review and Sports for me—and littered the mattress along with, quite literally, her bed clothes: the slub-knit sweater and striped raglan socks Janine wore to sleep whenever she was chilly (the woman was invariably chilly). But I couldn’t focus. I kept seeing myself from some distant vantage, a sort of out-of-body experience, even though I was still very much alive. Who was this lucky sonofabitch boffing the movie star in her million-dollar apartment? I hardly recognized him. How did he get here? And more importantly, where was he going?
“Why me?” I said.
“Nothing’s wrong,” I assured her. “Absolutely nothing. Which is why I’m wondering, Why me?”
“Why not you?” she replied, putting aside her newspaper and inching closer.
“No, I’m serious. You can date pretty much any guy you want.” I looked at her. “Literally, any guy.
“I am dating a literal guy, and he’s the one that I want.” She smiled. “Ooo-ooo-ooo.”
“Sure, but why?”
“Stop fishing for compliments,” she told me. “It’s unbecoming.”
And there was a word for me to wrap my inflated head around: unbecoming. I still couldn’t tell whether I was unraveling, actively un-becoming the person I thought I was, or whether the opposite was true and I was simply solidifying into the person I was always meant to be. A person who sponges off his wealthy, famous girlfriend. A person who used to make art.
Janine softly bit my ear. “Maybe you rock my world,” she whispered. “Or maybe I never really got over you.” She rested her head on my chest. “It’s not really something I can explain. Are you going to make me explain it?”
“No,” I said, wishing she were able to do just that. “Let the mystery be.”
“Good,” she said, cuddling up against me. “A little mystery goes a long way.”
In Property Lines, college dropout turned professional house-sitter Suzanne Razzle (played by Janine) becomes infatuated with her mysterious new neighbor, a man twice her age. She spies on him relentlessly, and attempts to entice him into spying on her (she leaves her bedroom lights on after dark, sunbathes on the hood of her car, and even abducts the man’s dog in order to lure him into her world). She invents a sordid history for the guy, which she eventually begins to believe. Early in the film, a frustratingly vague conversation she engineers goes like this:
Suzanne: “What do you do in that room all day?”
Suzanne: [Laughing] “Work? What kind of work?”
Neighbor: “Hard work.”
Neighbor: “I’m a writer.”
Suzanne: “So what do you write?”
Neighbor: [Long pause, followed by sigh] “Alas, it’s a mystery.”
Suzanne: “I love mysteries! Have you read The Scorpion Illusion?”
Neighbor: “Scorpio. And no.” [Draws on cigarette, exhales] “What I mean is, more often than not what I write is a mystery to me.”
Suzanne: “That makes absolutely no sense.”
Neighbor: “Tell me about it.”
Suzanne: “How can what you write be a mystery to you if you’re the one writing it?”
Neighbor: “I don’t know. It just is.”
Neighbor: [Exhaling cigarette smoke] “Agreed.”
Suzanne: “My mother says a little mystery goes a long way.”
Neighbor: [Interested] “Does she now?”
Suzanne: [Nodding] “She says it’s better to keep men guessing. Otherwise they get bored.” [Frowning] “Most men have extremely short attention spans. According to my mother.”
Neighbor: “Sounds like a real secret-keeper, your mom.”
Suzanne: “She prefers the term ‘private.’ She believes in boundaries.”
Neighbor: [Eyeing her] “Unlike you.”
Suzanne: “Me? I believe in boundaries too, insofar as they’re meant to be broken.”
In most respects, Suzanne Razzle was the antithesis of Janine. But they shared at least one admirable trait: the constant, indefatigable feeling that anything was possible, that boundaries existed exclusively to be broken. And why not? Janine broke more boundaries before breakfast than most people broke their entire lives. And when she couldn’t break them, there had always been other people—people like me—willing to break them for her.
While we were having sex for the third time that morning, the phone rang. I don’t know why, but I reached over and answered it. Maybe I was in a boundary-breaking mood of my own. Maybe I was exercising a little control over the life I hardy recognized anymore. Or maybe my actions were more prosaic than that. Maybe I answered her phone simply because Janine couldn’t very well have answered it herself, seeing as how her mouth was full.
“Is Nina there?” demanded an unfamiliar male voice.
“Hello to you too,” I sniped.
“Why, hello there. I’m calling for Nina.”
“Who is it?” whispered Janine, switching to her hand.
“It’s customary to state your name when calling a stranger’s house.”
“Well, Nina’s not exactly a stranger,” the man said. “Is she home?”
“I still don’t know who this is.”
“Give me the phone,” croaked Janine.
“Very funny,” he said. “Look, just tell Nina I called.”
“He hung up on me.”
“Who exactly hung up on you?” Janine said. “I hope it wasn’t who I think it was.”
“Some asshole claiming to be Ben Affleck.”
“Jesus, are you serious? I’ve been waiting for him to call.”
“Well he was rude.”
“You were rude,” she accused. “Besides, he’s allowed to be rude. He’s involved in some big-budget movie about World War II. It’s all anyone’s talking about. I think he wants me to audition.”
“How do you know Ben Affleck? He said you weren’t strangers.”
“I know a lot of famous people. I’m a famous person myself, remember?”
I shrugged. “Good Will Hunting was overrated.”
“That was so not cool,” Janine said.
“If you blew this for me…” she trailed off, during which time I was free to imagine all the horrible things that might befall me as a result of her not getting an audition. “So not cool.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” I said, sounding even to my own ears less sorry than I might have. “I’ll make it up to you. Promise.”
She glared at me. “I don’t think you get just how fucking uncool that was.”
“No, I do. I really do.” A crazy thought popped into my head and stayed there. “Look, what if we get married? Would that be cool?”
Janine froze. I could practically feel the temperature in the apartment change. Where was that slub-knit sweater? “Is that your pathetic way of apologizing, or are you just lousy at marriage proposals?”
“I can work on it,” I said. “Work on them both.”
“I think you should.”
“But think about this. A more perfect union would help me feel better about phone calls like that, phone calls from all your famous male admirers.”
“We’ve been through this a million times,” sighed Janine. “Besides, Ben’s with Gwyneth. He isn’t—”
“And it would certainly get you some publicity. And it might help with The Book too,” I reasoned. “I keep getting the sense that I’m just not close enough to my subject.”
“You were literally inside of me a few minutes ago,” Janine said. “You can’t get much closer than that.”
I thought of a line from “Glam Slam”: I know I hold U 2 tight, but I just can’t seem 2 get close enough.
“I just think maybe it’s time we took whatever this is to the next level.”
Janine appeared to take me seriously. At least as seriously as I was taking myself. “Well, when you’re ready to pop the question in a more respectable and flattering way, let me know.”
“I’ll send you a postcard,” I joked. Then, warming to the idea, “Something like: GREETINGS FROM MY LIFE. HAVING A LOUSY TIME. MISERABLE WITHOUT YOU. WISH YOU WERE HERE.”
“Is that true?” she said, climbing on top of me. “Are you having a lousy time?”
“Only when we’re apart.”
“And are you really so miserable without me?”
I stroked her hair. “More miserable than you can imagine.”
Janine was quiet for such a long time I suspected she’d fallen back asleep. “Yes,” she said finally.
“Yes what?” I asked.
She looked at me. “Yes, I accept your proposal, such as it is.”
I stared deep into those depthless blue eyes, judging her degree of seriousness. After a while I smiled at Janine and she smiled back. “Looks like I need to buy somebody a ring,” I laughed.
Janine kissed me, long and hard, then suddenly pulled away. “Remember I’m a movie star,” she said, as if the thought had just occurred to her. Her smiling lips were swollen, her long yellow hair hanging in my face. “Make it a big one.”
4. LET’S PRETEND WE’RE MARRIED
Following a long engagement—a year too long, for my taste—Janine and I were finally married on Friday, October 8, 1999. It was a small, private ceremony, which is to say we were the only people in attendance, excluding the civil-servant witness and officiating judge, and we told none of our family and friends we were tying the proverbial knot. No rings were exchanged; rather, being extremists, we exchanged tattoos: tiny hearts with the word YES written inside them—artwork culled from the Lovesexy inner sleeve—where wedding bands should’ve been. Getting tattoos had been Janine’s idea. “We’re visual people,” she’d argued. “Rings are visible,” I unhelpfully pointed out. “But they’re not art.” “Tell that to the jeweler,” I said, “or the metal-worker, or whatever.” “Oh, stop being difficult. You know what I mean.” I did. Our love was rare, if not downright unique, and we wanted a symbol more overtly permanent to reflect its uniqueness. Rings can be taken off, secreted away, hidden. Despite keeping the ceremony secret, we knew that once we were married we’d long to do the opposite of hide. Tattoos can be removed, of course, but the mere connotation associated with getting inked is, in a word, commitment. Any lovesick puppy can slip a piece of metal on someone’s finger. But indelibly marking your flesh, taking a needle to your skin and inscribing each other’s name or some other symbol of your deep, presumably eternal feelings for each other: now that’s love.
The week of the wedding I happened to be listening to Lovesexy, Prince’s more or less solo, underrated record of affirmation—a record he’d released at the last minute instead of the much darker, sex-fueled The Black Album; a record some believed to be the by-product of Prince having tried ecstasy for the first time—when I remembered I’d always liked the slim, sort of carved wood look that Margo Chase came up with for the album’s typography. (But then, it seemed I always liked the types of font graphic designers invented for Prince records, from the cartoonish cut-paper collage-work of 1999 to the rapier-like, neo-heavy metal lettering of Purple Rain to the crammed paisley script of Around the World in a Day and beyond.) The liner notes were littered with words like “Positivity” and “New Power Generation” and “Yes,” this last one fashioned into the shape of a heart (a heart, I couldn’t help thinking, carved into a tree), reminiscent of concrete poetry. “What do you think of this, instead of rings?” Janine took one look at it and smiled. “Yes,” she read. “Yes, it says yes,” I said. She gave me a look. “Yes, yes,” she said, adding, as if to avoid further confusion, “yes I said yes I will Yes.”
So the night before the ceremony, our euphoric heads buzzing like beehives, our lips curled into permanent smiles and our eyes glazed over like incurable love junkies, we headed over to Tattoo U on South Street and I showed the artist—a skinny, pink-haired Goth-girl named Gwen—the heart artwork on the Lovesexy cassette sleeve. “How sweet,” she’d said, blissfully unaware that the woman whose finger she was about to ink was a famous celebrity whose new film was about to make her an outright superstar. “Prince is a freak, though,” she added, as if to warn us against aligning ourselves and associating our fledgling union with His Purple Majesty, apparently concerned that the freakishness was contagious. Little did she know that I, for one, had been bitten by the Prince bug way back when I was thirteen, an illness for which there was no known cure. (The disease, dubbed Purple Fever in my mind, was manifested by sustained wide-eyed stares; spasms of funky footwork; random vocal outbursts, everything from heavenly cooing to hellish grunts and growls.) I pulled out my wallet and promptly ignored her.
Afterwards, we had dinner at cramped but cozy Astral Plane, the very place where Janine and I had had our first official adult date some five years before. Throughout the meal we couldn’t stop staring at our tattoos. We had no honeymoon to speak of, not yet, but we treated ourselves to a wedding night at the Four Seasons across from Swann Fountain and Calder’s spouting river gods, where we officially consummated our marriage and didn’t stop consummating it until the morning light, to quote a Prince ode to semi-conjugal bliss. It was the happiest night of my life, and I like to think Janine’s.
Our happiness was in stark contrast to the prevailing apocalyptic mood out on the street. It seemed everywhere you looked you encountered the very real fear of what might happen at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve and the date rolled over to the year 2000. Urban Scrawl ran a cover story that (rather irresponsibly, even for them) capitalized on the collective anxiety and read: PARTY OVER: HOW TO PREPARE FOR A MODERN-DAY APOCALYPSE. Despite experts’ protestations that an unprecedented global catastrophe in the form of widespread social upheaval was far from a foregone conclusion, everywhere you turned people were stockpiling bottled water, canned goods and ammunition. Topping the list of concerns was that some confused computer somewhere would launch a nuclear missile, triggering all-out war. Man had put far too much faith in his machines, and the world was about to pay dearly for it.
Yet we were in love, and in love with the idea of a fresh start. Prince, too, the very man who’d written the most prescient, perhaps definitive ode to nuclear Armageddon seemed to have little interests in endings and was embarking on a new beginning of his own. That November, he released his twenty-third studio album, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, but he’d released its first single, “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” a few days before our wedding, and Janine immediately fell in love with the tune and adopted it as our unofficial theme song. Musically, I, for one, was less impressed, and the title sounded snarky to me, even though it was apparently meant to be heartfelt. More tellingly, perhaps, the song contained a line about Adam never leaving Eve, and I pounced on it.
“It wasn’t like he had much choice,” I said. “Slim pickins, there, in the Garden of Eden.”
“You’re missing the point,” said my new wife.
“Adam had every right to be pissed. But he stuck it out with Eve, even though she basically brought evil into the world and damned them both to hell.” She shrugged. “Until Jesus came along, anyway.”
“What a guy.”
“No, Adam,” I clarified. “Let me get this straight. Eve’s the only woman in all of Creation, she’s buck-naked and hotter than Satan’s hibachi, but Adam’s to be commended for not kicking her to the curb?”
“There weren’t any curbs in Paradise.” Janine shot me a look. “They had to pave it over first.”
I laughed in reference to the famous Joni Mitchell song. Prince had cited the songstress as a musical and lyrical influence on numerous occasions, perhaps no more obviously (and charmingly) than on “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” from the double-album many critics consider his masterwork, Sign “O” the Times.
“Aren’t you just a wee-bit bothered by the fact that the Bible says it was a woman who was deceived by the Devil, and a woman who in turn deceived mankind?”
“Not really,” Janine said. “In fact I’m kind of proud of her. Knowledge is power and she seized it at the first opportunity. Then she shared it with her man. Eve wanted it all, just like career women who want babies supposedly want it all. It wasn’t her fault God got all pissy and kicked them out of their home.”
I smiled and shook my head. Misogyny ran rampant in the Bible, but Janine had a point. I’d never heard it put this way. I’d also never heard her mention babies before, and it gave me pause.
“Is this your way of telling me you’re already considering having kids?”
Janine’s eyes got very wide. For a second they resembled twin mini Earths adrift in a milk-white universe. “Relax,” she said. “When I’m ready to have kids, you’ll be the first to know. This is just my way of telling you that women don’t always have to be victims, even when they’re being victimized.”
I believed her, of course. But I also believed in reading between the lines, even when the lines were so densely packed no semblance of subtext could squeak through. This was one of the pitfalls of being a writer, even a writer of graphic novels (not that I’d been doing much writing). Or maybe it was just one of the many pitfalls of being me.
In any case, I’d always wanted to have kids with Janine, even though, up until this point, sex with her had never been about that. Part of the reason was that I always assumed having a baby was still a long ways off for her, considering her chosen career path. Besides, although surely we’d decide together, getting pregnant should be Janine’s decision, ultimately; she would have final say. After all, she was the one who would carry the child for forty weeks, it was her body that would change. And unlike most working moms, an actress’s career—certainly an actress like Janine—was tied to her body. Message received: Procreation could wait.
In the meantime, I was coming to terms with yet another personal pitfall: the sudden, largely uncharacteristic bouts of jealousy I’d been experiencing ever since our momentous trip to City Hall. It wasn’t like me. It wasn’t not like me either, but then that was the problem. Every time I envisioned some smug, good-looking leading man putting his muscular arm around her waist or kissing her hello; every time I envisioned her performing a supposedly awkward and innocuous sex scene without any clothes, I had to stop myself from barging onto the imaginary set and shouting Hey, that’s my JAM! Because Janine was an actress—a crazy-famous actress, in case I hadn’t noticed—and this was what actresses did. They kissed and cuddled and pretended to have sex with other people, pretty much all the time. I watched television, I’d been to the movies. So where was the surprise?
I’ll tell you where: the surprise was finding out that married life differed from unmarried life, even an unmarried life that boasted all the trappings of a marriage. Part of me told my newly-wedded self to grow up and deal with it; Janine was a professional. But another part believed that taking marriage vows and saying you do should mean that you don’t, sexually speaking, both in the real world and in the hyper-real world of Make Believe. Just why this hadn’t bothered me so much while we were dating, I do not know. It had been easier to look the other way. And when I had sneaked a peek, I was sort of turned on. I thought I could handle it long-term, for the long haul, but how wrong I was. She’s not yours, she’s theirs Spooky Electric rasped in my ear. She doesn’t belong to you, she still belongs to them. What’s more, Janine the Beauty Queen continues to get her cake and eat it too. You and I both know that the only difference between a fake fuck and a real fuck is the number of people who get to watch.
In this last respect it was important for and helpful to me—and, I think, helpful to Janine—not only to train myself to think of my wife as two different people but to go to great pains to keep the two women from meeting, as it were. It wasn’t as difficult as it sounds. But complicating matters was the fact that Nina Mitchell wasn’t an alter-ego in the strictest sense of the term; she didn’t represent a suppressed or contrary side of Janine. Nina and Janine were more like close-knit twin sisters than dueling personalities. And perhaps unsurprisingly, Janine was a Gemini, the Zodiacal twin. It seemed perfectly natural, or at least somehow appropriate, for her to divvy herself up in this way, even if the divisions were far from clearly defined. “Nina Mitchell” wasn’t merely a stage name; it was more complicated than that. She wasn’t coy about who she was or where she came from. She wasn’t some Donald Draper attributing a “This never happened” to her past. Janine wasn’t hiding or running from anything. On the contrary, she was inordinately proud of her working-class roots, and took every opportunity to put them on display or refer to herself as a “home-grown Philly girl.” (One of the many projects she had planned was a documentary about Richtown—dubbed “Hope Farm” during colonial times—from the crucial role it played as a port for colliers during the two world wars to the begrudging gentrification that had begun at the turn of the last century. Working titles included Richtown Untold, Rags to Richtown and—my favorite—Neighborhood Girl.) Yet there was no denying her aspirations to break from of the constraints fate had placed on her, to transcend round-the-way-girl Janine Mikulski, to become, if not someone else exactly, then someone much harder to get a handle on or pigeonhole. (Janine didn’t have many phobias but she was extremely, almost comically afraid of pigeons. Typically we were forced to cross the street to avoid a flock of them, and if one dared to pop onto a park bench where we happened to be having a snack or sipping coffee—immune to humans and emboldened by hunger, Philly pigeons are alarmingly brazen creatures—Janine would squeal in horror and run the other way, as if she were being pursued by a Hitchcockian mass of murderous birds. “They’re like rats with wings,” she complained to me once. “Bats are rats with wings,” I said. “Pigeons are just birds.” “Well whatever they are, they skeeve me to no end.”) People tend to make a lot of assumptions about beautiful blonde-haired girls with humble beginnings. Janine didn’t believe in assumptions. Or rather, she believed in assumptions insofar as she could disprove or undercut them. “You know what happens when you assume, don’t you?” she was continually fond of asking. “Yes,” the person invariably replied, “you make an ass of you and me.” “You got it half right,” Janine would say, smirking. “You only make an ass of yourself.”
Different but the same, then. Separate but equal. As you see, I never warmed to the idea of calling Janine by her adopted name. Interestingly, Janine never pushed the issue. “Call me whatever makes you comfortable,” she advised not long after we began dating. “I’ll use whichever name you prefer,” I told her, “but it will take some getting used to.” “But that’s just it. I don’t prefer any name. I’m Janine with you and Nee-Nee with my cousins and Jam to a small but fiercely loyal group of Richtown girls.” (For years Janine maintained the running joke that Carl Carlton must’ve had her in mind when he sang his ode to a “bad mama jama.” “Foxy, classy, sexy, sassy,” she’d say. “You know anybody else who fits that description?” It was a rhetorical question.) “But those are just nicknames,” I argued. “They don’t represent separate identities.” “Oh no? You should see the confusion on my cousin Monica’s kid’s face if she happens to call me Janine. Or for that matter the look on my father’s face if an old friend calls me Jam. People don’t want a Janine Mikulski autograph, they want a Nina Mitchell.” “It doesn’t matter what other people want, or say. Only what you say.” Janine looked at me as if to say No duh. “Well, I say I contain multitudes.” “So now you’re quoting poetry?” “Like I said,” she smirked, knowing how to end a scene, “multitudes.”
Because I’d always known and thought of her as Janine, I continued to do so. Over time, as she became increasingly famous and the name Nina Mitchell grew familiar to an increasingly large part of the country’s, if not the world’s population, Janine’s birth name came to seem more like a quaint term of endearment, a private pet name very few people called her, or even knew about. For me (and I suspect for others) calling her Janine became just another way of marking her as mine. Use of the name said We have a history. We go waaay back, back even before all this bullshit began. Was it more subtle than sporting a NINA’S GUY ball cap or I’M WITH HER T-shirt? Probably not. But it thrilled me and filled me with a perhaps false sense of entitlement to use Janine’s given name among people who either didn’t know any better or who knew but would never dare take such a liberty with her.
Back in the mid-nineties, wildly successful but still far from super-famous, Janine briefly toyed with the idea of going rogue. “Maybe I should take a page out of Prince’s playbook,” she said, coming into my office where I was working on the latest Mr. Alphaville a book. “And which page is that?” I asked. “The exile yourself in France and make a Raspberry Award-winning movie page? The wear ass-less pants on national TV page?” Janine glanced approvingly over her shoulder at her perfect heart-shaped behind. “Tempting, but no,” she said. “The man changed his name to a symbol. I’m so sick of being Nina Mitchell. Maybe I should do that.” “The Love Symbol is already taken,” I said, humoring her, and thought it over. “But the Lust Symbol is still available, as far as I know.” This made Janine smile, momentarily snapping her out of her funk. “What’s the Lust Symbol look like?” she asked. I grabbed my sketchbook and began doodling her a glyph. It began as an anarchy symbol only with a Z instead of an A, and a vertical line bisecting it like a dollar sign. “There,” I said. “I christen thee Zina Ca-ching, the world’s first anarchist-Objectivist.” Janine wrinkled her nose at me. “What else you got?” I shrugged and resumed doodling, this time revising the peace symbol by having the central vertical line puncture and extend past the circle’s border. I capped it off with an arrowhead. “Dang,” Janine said. “That’s pretty good.” “That’s because it’s you,” I said. “Pure, unadulterated lust.” She giggled, and began nibbling at my neck. “Hey, what’s so funny about peace, lust and understanding?” “You’re nuts,” she said, and we tumbled onto the floor. Yet years later there it was again, my improvised Lust Symbol, right on the cover of Nina Mitchell’s one and only album. To her credit, the thirty-seven-year-old budding chanteuse actually gave me credit in the liner notes: Special thanks to Mr. Alphaville, the Creator of Lust. I didn’t know whether to feel honored or offended. I split the difference, as is my habit concerning my feelings for Janine.
I only ever referred to Janine as Nina when I needed to make a very specific point: You’re starting to sound just like Nina Mitchell or That’s seems like something Nina Mitchell might do. Usually my use of Janine’s stage name signaled behavior I disapproved of or took issue with. Like a parent using a child’s full name as a reprimand, the phrase Nina Mitchell came to be synonymous with wrongdoing, or at the very least dissatisfaction. But there was one aspect of our life together for which the name was more compliment then critique: sex. I sometimes called Janine Nina in bed, and very occasionally made a point of desiring to fuck Nina Mitchell rather than Janine Mikulski. This happened more often before we were married, but the practice persisted post-finger tattoos. Another form of role play, I suppose. Not surprisingly, the famous woman’s appearance in our bed almost always coincided with an excess of booze, or worse. (On the record Janine was staunchly against narcotics of any kind. She even did a spot for Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign in the very early nineties, the script of which alluded to the reckless characters she sometimes played: “I’ve made a few bad decisions in my life.” Cut to montage of sundry bad decisions, culled from both the small and silver screen. “But I’m happy to say that abusing drugs is not one of them.” But off the record I knew firsthand how she experimented with ecstasy and coke and, on at least one occasion, even dropped acid; she always seemed to know where to score a dub of weed when she wanted one.) Very rarely Janine would play both parts in the dark, initiating a sort of two-person three-way. I never asked her to do this, but I also never refused. If screwing Janine’s alter ego had any ill effect on our relationship, it was just nebulous enough to not talk about, for both of us. “Don’t talk about Nina that way,” she would say, as if she were a separate entity, a completely different person. “God knows you didn’t mind her so much the other night, with her mouth on your cock.” “The woman can be very persuasive, I’ll give her that.” This made Janine laugh. “You’ll give her whatever she asks for, and more,” she proclaimed, shooting me a knowing look. “Besides, some people are more easily persuaded than others.” Once, and only once, I expressed regret over the fact that the third leg of our bizarre love triangle hadn’t joined us for breakfast but rather had slunk from our bed without so much as saying goodbye. The derisive look on Janine’s face took me by surprise. “I hate to break it to you, but she’s only fucking you to get to me.” “Really,” I said, playing along. “Did she tell you that?” Janine flashed me a tolerant smile. “Not in so many words, no. But she told me with her tongue.” For a split-second I thought she was serious.
Aside from these occasional kinks, I’m happy to report that sex with my stunning megastar was fairly regular and uniformly amazing, sometimes even world-rocking. There’s a verse Prince adds to the 12” version of “Pop Life”—dubbed “Fresh Dance Mix”—that begins What’s the matter with your sex, is fifteen minutes your best? For better or worse, I always seem to have this question in the back of my mind while making love to a woman. As a much younger man, I saw the lyric as a challenge, as if Prince himself were hovering over my shoulder when- and wherever I happened to be engaged in the sex act, egging me on with snide comments like C’mon, man, is that all u got? and Let me take over, show u how it’s done and U formed the Erotic Citizens when u were only fourteen, please tell me you can do better than this! As I got older I came to realize that fifteen minutes can seem like an eternity, depending on the situation. (Perhaps this is the thinking behind Prince declaring It’s time 2 fix your clock toward the end of “D.M.S.R.”) But fifteen minutes with Janine, I told myself, was not, nor ever had been, fifteen minutes with an average woman, a regular woman, a normal woman. The phrase “orgasmic” is overused nowadays, used to sell domestic beer and scented shampoo. But typically Janine would come in record time, often reaching climax before I’d had time to fully undress. Fifteen minutes may not have been my best, but often it was all she required.
Forgive me if discussing my sex life—and particularly my sex life with a sex symbol of Janine’s stature—seems in poor taste, the worst kind of braggadocio. These are simply the facts, as I experienced them. Besides, I feel it’s good to remind people of her humanness. Janine’s level of celebrity has a way of up-ending the playing field; idolization is by its very definition dehumanizing. You watch her at the movies and on TV; you come across her image on entertainment-based websites and on the cover of magazines; you see her airbrushed face plastered on billboards and buses and flickering across the Jumbo Tron at Times Square and perhaps you can be forgiven for momentarily forgetting that she’s a regular flesh-and-blood woman, with a flesh-and-blood woman’s desires and needs, with foibles and fuck-ups and all manner of faux-pas. A woman with feelings. Not easily hurt feelings, but feelings nonetheless. A woman not just with but of substance. Granted, it certainly didn’t help Janine’s reputation that three of the five major film roles she played up to this point were artfully tweaked stereotypes, riffs on the archetypal oversexed femme fatale (Suzanne Razzle, in Property Lines; Angelina, a pizzeria waitress and aspiring porn star, in Frankie the Saint; the title character in the 1920’s-era psychodrama The Wanton). Some people (mostly men) were so desperate for her attention that they’d make all kinds of misguided overtures in their fan mail. Some were oblivious to my existence. Others saw me as no more an obstacle to Janine’s affections than a pothole he needed to steer his steroidal pickup or flashy spots car around. Sentiments such as Get a real man and You can do so much better and Dump the four-eyed fanboy geek were common enough. But to the best of my knowledge, Janine stayed loyal. “They just don’t get it. I don’t want to do better,” she’d half joke, pinching my cheek like ancient Mrs. Zinni back in Richtown, and for a while I was reassured. One demented fucker even sent a used condom, with a note that read Sorry, just couldn’t wait! We tried to keep a sense of humor about it. Once, after receiving a massive box of very expensive artisanal truffles on Valentine’s Day, I shoved an imaginary microphone in her face and asked, “Nina Mitchell, now that you’ve conquered the hearts of America and the mere mention of your name inspires immediate and lasting erections in 8 out of 10 males across this great land of ours, what’s next?” Janine turned toward an imaginary camera and, flashing her awards-ceremony multi-watt smile, barked: “I’m going to Disney World,” adding, “I’m gonna fuck the ears off that famous mouse!” Cackling, only slightly taken aback, I repeated paparazzi-style, “What’s next?” Janine didn’t miss a beat. “Well,” she said, her teeth shining like the bulbs of a marquee lighting up a busy avenue, “I’m gonna suck off his dog, and finger-fuck his little bow-haired girlfriend, and fuck that grumpy duck everybody’s always bitchin’ about!” “What’s next?” “Then I’m gonna fuck all the pretty Disney Princesses and their pretty Prince Charmings, and all the witches too, and every one of those adorable Seven Dwarfs! Except Sneezy—that’s just gross.” “What’s next?” “Then I’m gonna fuck that puppet with the big nose, and I’m gonna fuck that old dago who made him, and I’m gonna fuck that little bug he pals around with!” “What’s next?” “Then I’m gonna fuck Peter Pan and Wendy at the same time and make all those little Lost Boys watch, and I’m gonna fuck Captain Hook and all those disgusting pirates, and I’m gonna fuck that little fairy too, fuck her right in her perfect little apple-shaped ass! Oh, I’m gonna give it to her real good!” “What’s next?” “I’m gonna fuck Goofy!” This stopped the interview cold. “Goofy?” I said, deadpan, “That’s fucked up.” And we fell over laughing and, inevitably, ended up fucking each other while doing the voices of various Disney characters—I singing “The Bare Necessities”; Janine giving the Weird Al treatment to “When You Jizz Upon A Star”—for our own twisted entertainment.
Speaking of twisted entertainment, maybe you’ve seen Marriage for Amateurs, the Academy Award-nominated film starring Catherine Keener, Billy Crudup and Nina Mitchell, and directed by Neil LaBute? Crudup plays a “serial groom,” a man so infatuated with the idea of being somebody’s husband that his obsession leads him to the altar multiple times. Keener plays his woefully inept matchmaking step-sister, a kind of Emma Woodhouse gone horribly awry. Janine plays the inevitable thorn in Crudup’s side, the one woman who, for her own warped reasons, refuses to marry him or anybody; she sees herself as the “last single girl on earth.” If the whole thing sounds slightly more rom-commy than LaBute’s other work, that’s because it is. But it’s a decidedly dark, psychologically astute rom-com. Many high-profile critics agreed: “The funniest, most painfully honest, most unsettling depiction of marriage ever shown on the big screen.” “Emma meets So I Married an Axe Murderer with a hint of Shainberg’s Secretary.” “A must-see reality-check for anyone thinking about tying—or even untying—the knot.” Both Janine and Keener were nominated for the Supporting Actress award (and both lost to Julianne Moore). But the nomination would prove to be the highlight of Janine’s acting career, exponentially expanding her fan base and giving her invaluable industry street-cred, or more specifically, red carpet-cred.
Cut to Leeza Gibbons, hair swept back, make-up au naturel, wearing a white gossamer shawl over a powder blue sleeveless gown. “Thanks, Chris. I’m joined now on the red carpet by Supporting Actress-nominated starlet Nina Mitchell.” [Turning to Janine] “First off, congratulations on your nomination.”
“Thank you, Leeza. I’m so excited, and very honored, of course.”
“I hear you recently got married, to this charming fellow.”
[Charming Fellow smiles sheepishly, continues to hang back]
“A couples years ago, actually.”
“And rumor has it a baby is on the way.”
[Feigned shock from Janine, or actual shock, if slightly exaggerated] “What? Really?” [She turns to Charming Fellow] “Did you hear anything about this?” [Charming Fellow shrugs Who, me?] “I know I’ve put on a few pounds…”
“Oh, stop it. You look amazing.”
“As do you.”
“Thank you. Pregnancy rumors aside, now that you’re off the market, do you have any advice for aspiring actresses trying to juggle marriage, work, starting a family?”
“No real advice, because every relationship is different. I’m an exceptionally lucky girl, as you can see.”
[Laughing, ogling Charming Fellow] “He is quite a catch.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s the real juggler. He’s my right- and left-hand man.” [Addressing camera] “Girls, if you can’t find a charming fellow like mine…” [Finally throws up hands] “I don’t know, go marry an octopus!”
5. POP LIFE
You’ve seen the commercials: A hotel suite overlooking sunny, mid-morning Paris. A young, sexily disheveled couple—he, shirtless Parisian; she, heavily made-up American blonde cheekily reading Proust—enjoying what is clearly meant to be a post-coital breakfast. They sip coffee. They sample madeleines. They smear marmalade on toast. All the while a looped, accordion-heavy cover of that sexy, famously unsubtle, stuck-in-your-head-all-day pop song is playing: Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir? The line is repeated, once, twice, not so much a question as a foregone conclusion. The unbearably attractive couple’s eyes meet over the breakfast table, telepathizing to one another a more urgent idea than sharing this mid-morning meal. The buff Frenchman (whose real name happens to be Chad) tosses the fruit-smeared toast over his shoulder and moves toward Janine. Her robe falls open, revealing the gossamer latticework of a very pretty black bra. Chad pounces and sets about devouring Janine, kissing and licking and nibbling my wife’s face, her neck, the tops of her breasts. JAM Cosmetics, Janine croons in seductive voice-over, They’re not technically edible.
Complaints of implied cannibalism from various watchdog groups aside, it was a sexy, clever, effective spot. Just like the company’s founder: Sexy. Clever. Nothing if not effective.
JAM, the company name, was simply her initials: Janine Anastasia Mikulski. But the word had significant connotations. Jam, as in a favored song: Hey man, turn it up, that’s my jam! Jam, as in a fruit-based preserve: Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam. Jam, as in a sticky situation: Can you just shut up and wire me the money, I’m in a jam!? (The advertising campaign surrounding the launch of JAM cosmetics—and the TART lipstick line in particular—featured Janine herself covering “Lady Marmalade”). But for my money, it was this last definition that made the most obvious sense, for simply knowing Janine Mikulski was a sticky situation indeed. Picture an airborne insect being abruptly introduced to flypaper; or picture a toddler being handed a big caramel apple; for that matter, picture some luckless scoundrel being tarred and feathered. Knowing Janine was all of these things: shocking; joyful; borderline tortuous. She was my jam, and I devoured her with hardly even using my hands.
Trouble is, I was far from alone. Back in 2004, it seemed everybody wanted a piece of Janine. Yet there was only so much of the addictive confection to go around.
How do you define success? At the highlight of her career, Nina Mitchell’s face was as familiar to the random man on the street as it was to me, her longtime friend and husband. She’d made a marqueed name for herself in the movies, but movies weren’t enough for Janine. To her, it was no great feat to mesmerize a captive audience, to capture the imagination of a group of people already eager to escape their lives for a couple of hours, and to do it from the privileged, intimidating vantage of a thirty-foot screen. (In fact it hardly seemed fair. Most people were cowed by Janine’s beauty and celebrity in person. But Janine the giantess? Attack of the 30-foot woman Janine? Mouth as wide as a swimming pool and eyes as bright as a summer moon? Her victims didn’t stand a chance.) But what happened after the movie was over and real life reasserted itself? They’d been madly in love for ninety-odd minutes, but love never lasts. They’d forget about her soon enough, far too soon for Janine’s taste. She wanted to follow these people home, become essential, somehow, to their everyday lives. Oh, and she also wanted to make mad money. Truly mad money, the kind of money one only makes in American retail. So the fabled homewrecker flipped the script and became a household name. It was a neat trick. Most of us could only watch, mesmerized, from the wings. Watch, and cheer, and applaud. As Janine’s husband, I had particular reason to trumpet the no-brainer tag line That’s my JAM!
I’d be lying if I said that seeing my wife’s gleaming face (to say nothing of her suggestively semi-clothed torso) plastered across roadside billboards and tucked into centerfolds of fashion magazines and parading across the television screen didn’t fill me with a dangerous kind of pride. But pride wasn’t the only emotion it filled me with. I learned early on in our adult relationship that it just didn’t pay to wonder: to wonder if Janine was where she claimed to be, and if she was with whom she claimed to be with, and if she was doing what she claimed to be doing. Try doing that for very long with a person you get to see every day, let alone with someone who’s gone for days, often weeks at a time. It’s emotionally and psychologically exhausting. At least I could cut out the middle man, so to speak, because working in my favor was a lack of paranoia: I didn’t suspect other men (and not a few women) of wanting Janine, I already knew they wanted her. Everybody wanted her. How could they not? But what about Janine? What did she want? She claimed to want me and only me, but I was no fool. Know thy limitations is a personal credo of mine, and I’m the first to admit to being a painfully limited human being. But maybe Janine wanted me, warts and all? If not, then why the YES finger tattoos? Why share her wealth? Why indeed. Woe to the man who doubts what he’s sure of, so I decided to remain blissfully unsure of it. I didn’t assume Janine was cheating on me, but I wouldn’t have been exactly surprised to open my laptop and read about some perceived or even actual infidelity on Gawker. I suppose I was never fully convinced that I was the only man in her life, and remaining unconvinced of her loyalty and love served as a kind of defense mechanism. I wasn’t ignorant of the fact that this rather unenlightened behavior of mine went back to when we were kids. I didn’t deserve Janine, never had. What exactly was a woman of her stature still doing with me? Could she still be flipping her family the bird some twenty years later? It didn’t seem likely. And yet. One thing I knew for sure was that when the stiletto-heeled other shoe finally dropped, I was determined to not find myself beneath it.
That’s not to say I didn’t trust her. I simply tried not to dwell on the question of whether or not I trusted her. For a long time it worked. Until, one day, it didn’t.
In retrospect, I’m surprised my stopgap defense mechanism hadn’t stopped working sooner. Janine had hundreds if not thousands of admirers, most of whom were fairly adept at distinguishing fantasy from reality. Yet the world is a dangerous place, and it’s full of creepy, dangerous people. A disconcerting number of these creepers seemed to latch on to Nina Mitchell. (Maybe it was the line, uttered by nineteen-year-old Suzanne Razzle, “Some lines should never be crossed, but my tan lines aren’t some of them”; or this line, delivered by part-time porn star Angelina Prima: “If music be the food of love, and sex is the food of music, then pizza is the sex of food”; or this line, post-coitally murmured by a nameless character known only as The Wanton: “Passionate people make no distinction between want and need” that fired the demented imaginations of these Nina-crazed wackos.) Some were so far gone they seemed incapable of drawing a distinction between Nina and the morally lax characters she portrayed. When Janine appeared as Suzanne Razzle, devoid of clothing save for Suzanne’s trademark veiled fedora, for PETA’s “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” Campaign (various tag lines read: Some lines should never be crossed, including the wearing of fur; I’d rather show all my tan lines at once than wear fur; Crossing the line by wearing fur will never get you across my tan lines), a man named Martin Seymour actually showed up on our doorstep in his rather hirsute birthday suit. “Me too,” he said when Janine made the mistake of answering the door, apparently alluding to the campaign’s overarching theme. “We’re just like Adam and Eve,” Seymour told Janine, offering her an apple (whether he’d misread the Bible, was baiting her or sincerely offering Janine some form of forbidden knowledge, we’ll never know). “More like Adam and ewww,” quipped Janine, after her unhinged visitor had been forcibly clothed and carted away by the cops.
It was around this time that Janine received a call from her agent informing her that she was officially scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show.
“Well it’s about time,” I heard her say into the receiver. “Leno’s been playing hard to get for years.” (It was a line she would use later during her onscreen interview. As Jay Leno kissed her hand and said, “It’s so nice to finally get to meet you,” Janine replied, “Oh, please, you’ve been playing hard to get for years.” “It’s called stupidity,” quipped Leno, eyeing my new wife’s eye-catching dress.) But I could tell she was slightly more ecstatic than she was letting on. “The Tonight Show,” she beamed, hanging up the phone.
But that wasn’t the best part. Or maybe it was the best part, though the best part got even better: a week or so before the big day, we were watching the penultimate episode of Friends when we caught a spot for her upcoming Tonight Show appearance along with David Hyde Pierce and a little-known musician named Prince.
His Royal Badness.
His Purple Majesty.
The Artist Currently Known As.
We didn’t say a word at first, only looked at each other for a very long time. “Did I hear that right?” she asked me, chomping a favored snack of cream cheese-slathered celery.
“I heard it too.”
“Maybe we dreamt it? Collectively?”
“Or maybe you’re going to meet Prince.”
“Not just me,” she said. “You’ll be there too. You’ll meet him.”
We resumed staring at each other in silence. When Janine let out a scream, I screamed right along with her.
Prince was fresh from his dynamic Grammy performance with Beyonce and his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In April he’d released Musicology, his twenty-eighth studio album, and was embarking on a tour to promote it. I’d fallen out of the purple loop, so to speak, sometime in the early nineties, not long after my longtime idol began appearing in public with the word “slave” scrawled on his cheek. It was a reaction to how frustrated he felt as a creative artist under contract to Warner Bros., a glaring physical manifestation of the notion that his name no longer belonged to him, but had been appropriated by a force far greater than himself, and for dubious if not outright egregious means. But even to a devoted, enduring fan such as myself the gesture seemed clumsy and misguided. Shortly thereafter Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph—a kind of tricked-out Purple Rain-era Love Symbol—prompting media outlets to refer to him as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (TAFKAP) or simply The Artist, out of convenience. It was an ingenious move, from a marketing standpoint: whatever you felt about the man or his music, at the time it seemed everyone was talking about Prince again.
The downside was that the controversy didn’t necessarily translate into record sales. To this day I, for one, still don’t own copies of Come and The Gold Experience, albums released purely to fulfill contractual obligations to his label. But then, I had been busy with my own creative output; Prince’s lackluster early-nineties releases coincided with the heyday of the first Mr. Alphaville and its sequels. So I’d had a lot going on. And after Janine reentered my life in 1994, I was busier than ever (and busy getting busy with her). So although I still considered myself a tried-and-true Prince fan, I wasn’t what you might call an active one. In fact I hadn’t even known this latest Prince record was forthcoming—a shameful fact when viewed from the oft-mascaraed eyes of the boy who’d worshipped the man back in the eighties, the founder of the Erotic Citizens and unlikely seducer of his very own Beautiful One with the seven paper doves hanging from his bedroom ceiling! Among other things, I viewed Musicology as a personal call to action, prompting me to renew my Erotic Citizens membership and more or less reenlist as a dues-paying member of Prince’s “new breed.” More importantly, I viewed it as music by which to seduce my Beautiful One all over again.
Because, after five years of marriage and another five years of having dated before that (discounting the year and a half we spent “hooking up” as young teens), seduction had become something of a dirty word, and not in a good way. The sex was still good; the sex would always be good. But lately fifteen minutes didn’t cut it with Janine (not that I was counting). I may’ve missed a lot of things, but I hadn’t failed to notice that my wife was a somewhat less orgasmic woman than she was before I married her. In fact more and more we relied on the appearance of ratings-boosting Nina Mitchell to make Janine come. It seemed Nina was open to the sort of transgressive sex acts Janine just couldn’t bring herself to partake in. But even transgression only gets you so far. Somehow, somewhere along the way foreplay had switched from being simple, perfect, instantaneous 45’s to extended twelve-inch dance remixes. (Maybe if you had twelve inches, I sometimes privately berated myself, the song would’ve stayed the same.) Only trouble was, I was a lousy dancer. I would’ve demanded a word with the deejay, had the deejay not been me.
Janine blamed stress for her disconcerting difficulty to climax, the relentless demands made on her as CEO of JAM Cosmetics and, in essence, a living, breathing brand. But I knew better. I didn’t deserve her. The other shoe was on its inevitable way down.
But hey, we had a Tonight Show appearance and apparent meeting with Prince to prepare for!
For the next few days following her agent’s call we walked around in a kind of fog, wondering what in god’s name not only Janine but I would wear. Janine finally settled on a lavender wrap dress we found at Rescue, an undersung Third Street boutique. Here she was, a bona-fide movie star and, now, successful businesswoman, and she still patronized local businesses, and not merely because she claimed to have a “girl crush” on the severely-cheekboned owner of Rescue, a tiny young woman who bore a distinct resemblance to Deborah Harry. Janine also insisted on returning to the old neighborhood often, and not just to visit family. We still ate pizza at Zinderella’s; we still bought our birthday cakes almost exclusively at Stosh’s. “You can take the girl out of Richtown…,” she was fond of saying.
As for the dress, it seemed to have been designed specifically to get Prince’s undivided attention.
“You don’t think it makes me look, I don’t know, chunky?”
“What? Damn no. You look the opposite of chunky. You look…funky!”
“Always so clever with the words,” Janine said. “My writer man.”
The sad truth was that I hadn’t written, or even so much as sketched, anything in months. And I hadn’t actually published anything in years. Oh, I’d thought a lot about writing and sketching, mentally toyed with the idea of giving a minor character from Mr. Alphaville (Lucius or Dr. Wink, maybe even J-9) his or her own series, but my heart wasn’t in it and nothing stuck. Besides, doing so seemed even to me like a copout. I needed something new, something fresh, something that popped. I had no idea what that something might be. In the meantime (quite literally, “mean time”; April may in fact be the cruelest month, and the rudderless weeks between creative projects the meanest time) I told myself that I was subconsciously collecting data. I’d get inspired, sooner or later. My Muse would show, she was simply running late, making me wait, playing hard to get…
I couldn’t help thinking that part of the problem was tied to my happiness. As an artist, I’d never wanted to believe that the best or most legitimate art was conceived in pain, but the evidence, at least in my limited experience, seemed to support it. A quick tally of my favorite albums revealed them to be break-up albums; my favorite books were grim affairs where the hero dies at the end; my favorite films were anything but uplifting, films that upended all those Happily ever after… Hollywood endings. It’d been five long years since the fifth and final volume of Mr. Alphaville (The Scorns of Time) appeared, and although I was arguably happy at the time, Janine and I had yet to marry and I was far from contented. It was becoming increasingly clear that if I ever wanted to produce reputable art again, I’d better find a way to fuck up my life, and fast.
Janine didn’t have this problem. As an actress, she got to inhabit other people—the moonlighting waitress; the nubile neighbor-girl; the accidental love object with a taste for being unloved—and then simply cast them off as easily as someone shrugging off a winter coat. Or so it seemed to an outsider, a non-actor, like me. I knew that Janine preferred the image of a snake shedding its skin because, as she once explained to me, “molting is physical. Although a new one—maybe even a better one—grows back in its place, the snake always loses a part of itself when it loses its skin.” Janine felt as if she lost a little bit of herself with every persona she adopted, every role she played, no matter how minor or seemingly silly. First, she had to find common ground with the character, and latch on to whatever it was they happened to share, even if it was only something as seemingly inconsequential as a preferred flavor ice cream. Then she would build on that preference, extrapolate an entire identity, and once she had a new identity, she could more readily give, sympathize, control. Janine avoided talking about the process, the craft, of acting as much as she could because she had a neighborhood girl’s disdain for people who sounded pretentious or too “artsy-fartsy.” But acting is in fact a craft, just like any other art form, and there was no getting around it. “You’re the real artist,” she sometimes told me. “You actually create things. All I do is pretend.” “We’re both charlatans,” I’d remind her. “We’re both con artists who dupe people into believing things that aren’t real. Only my snake oil is ‘comic books,’ yours is whatever role you happen to play. Bottom line? We’re exactly the same.”
Would that it were true.
The day before we were to fly to Los Angeles, I got hit hard with a stomach flu. Hard enough to keep me in bed for forty-eight hours. Hard enough to keep me from meeting my boyhood idol.
“I hate having to go without you,” Janine said.
“I hate it too.”
“Do you want me to back out? Reschedule?”
“That would only make me feel so much worse.”
“Good, because I’d have to be crazy not to go.” She kissed me on the cheek. “Get plenty of rest. And stay hydrated, if you can.”
“Say hi to Prince for me.”
Unsurprisingly, Janine aced her interview. She had the pompadoured, long-chinned host eating out of her hand. Clearly Leno was enamored of her. She even garnered a huge hug from bandleader Kevin Eubanks, a fellow Philadelphian. When Leno announced her name, the band struck up ABBA’s “Nina, Pretty Ballerina.”
For his part, Prince performed a medley of three songs that night culled from the Musicology album, including “Cinnamon Girl,” “The Marrying Kind” and “If Eye Was the Man in Ur Life.” To prolonged cheers and almost everyone’s surprise, he dance-strolled over to Jay Leno’s desk after the performance, plopped into an armchair and, gallantly kissing Janine’s hand, submitted to a handful of brief questions once the studio audience finally quieted down.
Leno: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re not known to linger after a television performance.”
Prince: “That’s because Nina Mitchell isn’t usually lingering next to me.”
Janine [Blushing]: “Aw, isn’t he sweet. I can’t believe you even know my name.”
Leno: “You know, I heard somewhere that you were a smooth talker.”
Prince: “Well, don’t believe everything you hear.” [Turning to Janine] “You’re wearing my favorite color.”
Janine: “Well, it’s hardly a coincidence.”
Leno: “Hey, but this new album’s terrific. And I mean that. I can’t stop listening to it.”
Prince: “Well, thank you, Jay.”
Leno: “People are saying it’s your best work in years.”
Prince: “People say a lot of things.”
Leno: “That’s certainly true. This record’s got a little bit of everything.”
Prince: “Yeah, that’s why I called it Musicology. I wanted to educate people a little bit about the history of music, real music—including some of my own.”
Leno: “Well, you get an A for the project, my friend.”
Leno [Stage whispering]: “Guess who was teacher’s pet?”
Prince [Shrugs, turns to Janine]: “What are you doing after the show? You wanna take in a movie?”
Leno: “Hey, this is a happily married woman, remember.”
Prince: “And I’m a happily married man. People still watch movies.”
Janine [Blushing, giggling to herself] “For a second I thought you asked if I wanted to make a movie.”
Prince: “Um, my track record in that department isn’t as good as yours. But you never know.”
Leno: [Addressing camera] “Get well soon, Mr. Nina Mitchell. Meanwhile, Prince is taking your wife to the movies.”
It’s a charming, almost surreal exchange, and I watched it with an enormous grin on my face. Janine was practically levitating out of her seat. To meet Prince on national television was of course a dream come true, but to be so brazenly complimented by him was the proverbial icing on the cake. Of course by the time the show had aired I’d already heard all about it in great detail. It was one of the strangest telephone calls I’d ever had.
“You were amazing,” I said.
But Janine barely heard me. “Guess where I’m going after the show?” she said, sounding all of twelve years old.
“Where? Home to your dying husband?”
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry. Are you feeling any better?”
“I’m fine,” I lied. “Where are you going?”
“Paisley Park!” she squealed.
“Paisley Park? Paisley Park is in your heart,” I deadpanned.
“No, I’m serious. Prince invited me over.”
“He saw my ring tattoo, and I told him all about it, and you.”
“I don’t get it. You’re in L.A.,” I said. “How are you supposed to get to Minneapolis?”
“Gee, I don’t know,” she said, a shadow of annoyance creeping into her voice to imply that I was focusing on the wrong things. “Maybe on the wings of our love,” she droned, and immediately I had that sappy Jeffrey Osborne song stuck in my head, when what I should’ve been hearing, as any normal Prince fan would’ve heard—as Janine as no doubt hearing—was “Partyup” or “D.M.S.R.” or “Housequake.”
“He has a plane,” she said. “He has a posse.”
“I’m sure he does.”
“I thought you’d be more excited.”
“No, I am. I’m very excited.” And yet. “What does Margot think about it?” Margot was Janine’s handler, for lack of a better term.
A pause. “I’m pretty sure Margot’s onboard,” Janine said. “No pun intended. She’s in the ladies’ room air-drying her panties.”
Of course she was. I was reminded of that line from “International Lover” where the “pilot” advises how in the event of overexcitement the seat cushions of the Seduction 747 double as flotation devices. But I expected nothing less. A party at Prince’s house and all the girls swoon. And a good portion of the guys as well. So why wasn’t I swooning? Maybe I was all swooned out from my illness. Or maybe I feared that Janine and Prince, as celebrities, as performers, as human beings, had far more in common than she and I had. Maybe it was just the green-eyed ghost of Evan McEarl rearing its ugly, comically bereted head. Happily married man or not, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that Prince might be trying to steal my girl.
It was nothing new. If I had a dime for every guy (or girl) who tried to seduce Janine on an almost daily basis, I too would be able to afford my own private jet and bankroll a posse of beautiful people to fill it with. I learned a long time ago that you couldn’t be romantically involved with a woman as eye-poppingly beautiful as Janine and play the part of jealous boyfriend or controlling husband. I didn’t have much choice but to trust my wife, to trust that she took our marriage as seriously as I did, to trust that she wouldn’t run off with some genius director or dashing leading man. Anyone with even one good eye would glance at us and say that I made out on the deal. I was far from a physical match for Janine. I told myself that my superior intellect and artistic ability, as well as our shared history, made up for any minor physical defects and for the most part flat-out refused to worry about losing her. And I didn’t fret about not being famous; fame, at this late stage of the game, was no longer an aphrodisiac for Janine. Besides, she was famous enough for the two of us. I could count on one hand the number of famous men I secretly thought might have a plausible shot at wooing Janine away from me. And leading the quintet, as symbolic middle finger, was Prince.
“Sorry to miss it,” I said.
“I’m sorry too, babe. This is crazy. Maybe you can, I don’t know, get on a plane and meet us there?”
“And vomit all over his paisley carpet?”
“Well it’s not like anybody would notice,” she joked.
“I’m feeling a little better,” I said, “but far from party-like-it’s-1999 mode.”
“Well it’s 2004, so we’ll keep the hedonism in check.” A pause. “Are you absolutely sure? Did I mention it’s a party at Prince’s house?”
“I know, I know.”
“I miss you,” she said.
“So skip it and come home.”
“Ha, yeah, right. Skip the party at Prince’s house. That’s like asking me to skip the Oscars.” Silence. “You weren’t serious, were you?”
“No way.” Another lie.
“Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. And not just as a fan, but in terms of my career.”
“I mean, god knows who else is on the guest list.”
“Something tells me you are the guest list.”
“Oh, please. He’s a married man. Besides, wait till you see his back-up dancers. One is sexier than the next.”
She was trying to soothe my anxiety, I knew. But the seductive power of Nina Mitchell in her Balenciaga heels and purple wrap dress was not to be underestimated. Like the rest of the world, I would have to wait until midnight to see the sexy back-up dancers, but I already knew one thing for sure: none of them was Janine.
Besides, didn’t most men crave nothing but variety? Wasn’t variety more or less Prince’s whole reason for being?
“In fact, as an actress, I can’t afford not to go to this party. I may end up rubbing elbows with the titans of the industry. Who knows, I may even end up inspiring Prince—”
“I’d say you’ve already inspired him.”
“No, I mean really inspire him.”
“What, by fucking him?”
The words were out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying.
When Janine spoke again, her tone had a discouraging edge to it. “Jesus, you’re unbelievable sometimes. Give me a little credit. At least give him a little credit.” She took a breath. “I was going to say this could change the whole trajectory of my career.”
“Your trajectory is perfect,” I said, trying to lighten the mood by switching tacks. “Which is what worries me.”
Janine pounced on the line. “What, you worry?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you’re not the jealous type. You’re above all that, an enlightened twenty-first century man.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
“Not bad. Just…”
“Just what, Janine?”
“A little boring, sometimes.”
“Jesus Christ. So now I’m supposed to punch every guy who whistles at you on the street? Is that the kind of unenlightened man who turns you on?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t not say it.”
“Look, I’m your wife, remember?” she said. “Don’t you trust me?”
“It’s him I don’t trust.”
“Him, as in the man you’ve idolized for most of your life?”
“Just because I idolize him doesn’t mean I have to trust him. Not with my wife. Not with my life, more or less.”
“Hey, who’s the starlet here?”
“You’re being so dramatic.” She conspiratorially lowered her voice. “He could write a song about me, babe, maybe even a whole album. He could put me in a movie, even give me a new name, like Carmen Electra or Anna Fantastic.”
“You already changed your name once. How many aliases does one person need?”
“I don’t know. How many does Prince have?”
Jamie Starr. Alexander Nevermind. Joey Coco. Camille. The Kid. The Artist. Too many to count.
“Or,” I said, “you could just be another notch on Prince’s bedpost.”
“And would that be so bad?”
She was trying to bait me, but I wasn’t biting. Enlightened man indeed. “Normally, I’d say no,” I said, adopting a sensible tone. “But notoriety as a sexual conquest of Prince’s could undermine your entire career. Who remembers Anna Fantastic now? Where are Carmen Electra’s Oscars, or her Grammys, for that matter? You’d cease to be Nina Mitchell. Instead you’d forever be known as the latest starlet to bed Prince.” I let this sink in for a minute before adding, “No different than all the others.”
This was my ace card, and we both knew it. Janine hated being lots of things: she hated being late, she hated being cold, she hated being bored. But she hated—I mean absolutely, unequivocally 110% hated—being perceived to be just like everybody else.
“You’re right,” she said finally, and for a spilt-second I actually believed her. But no sooner had she copped to my correctness than I knew something crucial between us had changed. “My trajectory is perfect,” she said, and I could practically hear her smirking. She hung up the phone.
Was I crazy for holding my ground? Or just plain stupid for not showing up and keeping an eye on her? Even if I were healthy, even if I weren’t a thousand miles away, I knew that if Janine believed I had crashed Prince’s party for the wrong reasons—more controlling husband than freewheeling partner-in-crime—she’d never forgive me. She couldn’t stand possessiveness in a man, a trait she said her father possessed in droves. (Apparently her mother couldn’t go to the hairdresser’s or collect the mail from the mailman without incurring her father’s suspicion that something unseemly was going on. “He must’ve been boffing half the neighborhood, by the way he accused my mother of catting around.” A pause. “Is it still catting around when a woman cheats?” For my own part, I learned this lesson early in our marriage, when we made first anniversary dinner plans and I’d arrived late to find the bartender putting all kinds of moves on my supposedly immovable wife. Flirting with him was just Janine’s way of punishing me for my tardiness, but the bartender didn’t know that. “What did Tyler Durden want?” I snarkily asked once we were shown to our table and had ordered drinks, for the guy really did bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Brad Pitt’s spiky-haired Fight Club character. “He wanted me to convince him of something.” “Oh yeah, let me guess: The first rule of infidelity is you do not talk about infidelity.” Janine leveled her sparkling eyes at me. “No. That I’m not disappointed you never gave me a proper engagement ring.” She gave me a look. “His word, not mine.” “Really,” I said. “I should go over there and give him a proper punch in the nose. Who does he think he is, hitting on my wife?” “Maybe he thinks he’s Brad Pitt.” “You’re still my wife,” I grumbled, as if this made any sense. “Can I see your receipt?” Janine said, irked at something herself now. “Sorry?” “If I’m bought and paid for, I assume you have receipt.” I smirked and tapped the tattoo on her ring finger. “That’s my receipt,” I said. But Janine just shook her head. “There’s still no money-back guarantee,” she said. “So don’t blow it by being the biggest asshole in the room.”) Ruining her night at Paisley Park would be infinitely worse than making her go alone. And as much as I wanted to be there—as much as I’d dreamt of meeting Prince and visiting his majestically tricked-out home studio as a boy—I couldn’t trust myself not to ruin it. It was important for me to show Janine that I trusted her. But maybe she didn’t want to be trusted. What was all that business about never worrying, about being enlightened? Try as I might, I couldn’t imagine she wanted me to barge into Prince’s house party, grab him by his prodigiously lapelled suit coat and shout, “Stay away from my girl!” Or worse. But then, what did she want? Had I ever truly known? Fortunately I had a debilitating stomach flu to blame for my immobility. But looking back, it now seems just as likely that I was all but paralyzed with fear. Fear of losing Janine, or even just a part of her, any part of her. Fear of coming face-to-face with my longtime idol and possibly being disappointed. Fear that I’d see something between them—or imagine that I saw something between them, which amounted to the same thing—I’d never be able to forget.
Which is why, though over the years I’ve had a handful of opportunities to do so, I’ve never actually met the man. Instead I’ve met plenty of people who have met him, many of whom were at one time or another Prince associates, protégés or hangers-on (Charles “Big Chick” Huntsberry, Anthony Mosley, Catherine “Cat” Glover, born and bred Philly girl Elisa Fiorillo). And of course I happened to be married to Janine, who became good enough friends with Prince that eventually I did get to visit Paisley Park, and even spent the night there: although certain areas of Prince’s home were off limits to everybody, including Janine, she was given free reign otherwise. “He gave you a key to Paisley Park?” “Well, not all of Paisley Park. And it’s not an actual key, it’s a symbolic one. But yes, he granted me access. I show up, they let me in.” “They.” “They. Them. The sunglassed guy at the gates.” I pretended to think this over. “And you’re not sleeping with him.” “The security guard!?” “No, Prince. Am I really supposed to believe nothing’s going on, especially now that he’s no longer married?” (Prince and pretty, slender Manuela Tesolini divorced amicably in 2006.) “Odd as it may sound, yes, you’re really supposed to believe that your wife isn’t lying to you.” “And he never put a single move on you?” “A man like Prince doesn’t have to put a move on you. He is the move.” “What a relief.” “You want relief, you should’ve married a psychiatrist, not an actress.”
Like most others, the dissolution of our marriage didn’t happen overnight. It happened slowly, almost imperceptibly, so that for a long time we hardly noticed (or at least I hardly noticed; Janine likely owned the marital equivalent of night-vision goggles). But it’s hard for me not to see the night of her Tonight Show appearance and subsequent trip to Prince’s home as the beginning of the end. To hear her tell it, though, it was only the beginning. Janine arrived home around noon the next day, hungry and jetlagged but buzzing with news of the “surreal” evening (and very early morning) she’d spent partying at Paisley Park. The compound would become quite familiar to her over the next few years, but it would always hold an element of the supernatural for her, as if she were visiting a magical realm where anything could happen, and often did.
I suppose she needed a little magic in her life. Despite the Supporting Actress nomination for Marriage for Amateurs, Janine’s acting career had stalled and, over the ensuing months, refused to start. By the spring of 2007, her new friend Prince was preparing to release Planet Earth, his thirty-second studio album, an amazing feat by anybody’s standards. Although equally ambitious, Janine’s creative output came nowhere near as close. But then whose did? Although she worshipped the man, I knew that being close to him—close to this level of sheer creativity—was difficult for her. It was difficult for me, and I’d only heard about it secondhand! In my darker moments I tended to blame her lack of success on the amount of time she’d begun spending flying back and forth to Paisley Park, particularly after Prince’s failed second marriage. She’d even begun dressing like one of the Purple One’s protégés, though the changes in her wardrobe wouldn’t have been readily apparent to anyone who didn’t know her as well as I did.
“A little less time in Xanadu and a little more time pounding those Hollywood pavements is all you need.”
“Well he needs me now,” she argued. “He’s still pining for Manny. It’s a tough time for him.”
“His last record debuted at number one! How tough could it be?”
“Creative success isn’t everything.”
“To an artist like Prince it is, or should be. Besides, he’s hardly alone. There’s his ever-present posse, and his pussy brigade.”
“Stop it! That’s not true.”
“Well, maybe just a little.”
“So what’s that make you? Brigadier general?”
“We’ve been over this.”
“And under it, and inside of it…”
“He’s grooming me,” Janine said.
“Like a horse?”
“You don’t get it. You’re not in the business.”
“And what business is that, exactly. Because last time I checked, you haven’t done a lick of acting in over two years.”
She put on a brave face. “Yet I’ve been busy.”
“Busy competing with the new girl.”
“It’s not a competition. Bria and I are complete opposites. We each give him things the other one can’t, or won’t.”
I refused to ask about the specificity of these “things.” I’d already done all the asking I was going to do.
“And what about Prince? What’s he give you?”
“Well, I told you that I’ve been busy.” I could tell by her tone that she was about to justify all those frequent flyer miles, all those long hours logged at some space-age playground on the outskirts of Minneapolis. “We’re making a record.”
I looked at her. “But you can’t sing.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“It has nothing to do with confidence in you. I’ve heard you sing, quote-unquote. Even in the shower you sound like someone doing an impression of an awful singer. Is this not a running joke between us, how even with the help of Cleopatra’s burliest litter men you couldn’t carry a tune?”
“Still, I think it might be a good move for me. If nothing else, I could use the exposure.”
“I repeat: you can’t sing.”
“That’s what computers are for.”
“Spoken like a true modern-day chanteuse.”
“It’s pop music, babe. I’ve got the pop, he’s got the music.”
“And the computers, apparently.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I want you to act.”
“Well I’m not twenty-five anymore!” she shouted. “All the best parts go to the twentysomethings.”
“Not true,” I said. “Look at Uma Thurman and Kill Bill. Look at Cate Blanchett. You’re about the same age.”
“Great, how am I supposed to compete with Cate Blanchett?”
“She even uses JAM cosmetics, I hear.” Janine shot me a pissy look. “You can do anything you set your mind to.”
“It’s not my mind I’m worried about.” But she looked fantastic and she knew it. “No one takes me seriously enough,” she said. “Including you.”
“Why would you say that?”
“I’m just another pretty face.”
“You’re the only pretty face,” I said, pulling her close. “I could look at you for hours.”
“Yeah, well that’s the problem with pretty faces.”
“Take a picture,” she said, reminding me of the old schoolyard taunt. “Or make a movie, for that matter. It lasts longer.” She took a breath. “He thinks I’m still acting,” she said.
She nodded. “He asked me when my next movie’s coming out and I lied. I told him not until after the record. I hated lying to him. It was like lying to Santa Claus.”
“Does that mean you were sitting on his lap?”
This made Janine smile, but not happily. “Something has to change.”
“Give it time,” I told her. Something always does.”
“No,” she said. “I’m sick of waiting. I have to do it.”
“Tear it down, burn it up. Start over.”
I looked at her. “Tear what down?” I said. “Burn what up?”
Janine held my gaze. “I’m moving out,” she said finally, a moment after I’d read her mind.
“What are you even talking about? You own the place.”
“We own the place.”
“I need some time alone. Really alone. A year, at least.”
“To do what?” I was flabbergasted. “Find yourself? At thirty-seven?”
“You still don’t understand.”
“I understand that you’re going through a dry spell, that you’re creatively frustrated. I’m frustrated too.”
“I know. We’re no good for each other, creatively. You haven’t written a word in years. Fucking years. You’ve never even written my book.”
“It’s not like I haven’t tried.”
“I know you’ve tried.” To her credit, she made a point of looking me in the eye. “You tried and failed.”
“Look at it this way,” Janine said, putting her hand against my face. “We got everything we wanted. Now it’s time to give some of it back.”
Ooh La La…Nina, Janine’s debut album, dropped a year later. It was put out by Paisley Park Records and produced by someone called Jonny Omega (a sterling, if grating, example of life imitating art imitating life). I suppose the implication was that if Mr. Alphaville was her beginning, Jonny Omega would be her end.
Ooh La La…Nina is an unfailingly amateurish affair, beginning with the clumsy album title, a rather silly and unsettling meshing of innocence (la nina is Spanish for “little girl”) with experience (the sexual innuendo of the supposed French-ism ooh la la). As if to underscore the contrast, Janine appears on the album sleeve dressed rather…immaturely for a woman of thirty-eight years, in a daisy-print romper, baby doll socks and star-shaped sunglasses, her pout stained blue from the voluminous cone of cotton candy in her left hand. (It’s meant as an homage to the classic image of Lolita, sucking on a lollipop in her heart-shaped sunglasses, though I wished she’d undercut the routine saccharine taste it left in one’s mouth with some edgy sourness.) That’s not to say she doesn’t look ridiculously good, and somehow still taboo despite her age. A new tattoo is visible on her creamy upper thigh: a blue, rough-hewn Love Symbol, straight off the Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic album artwork, which I suspected and couldn’t resist confirming had been released the same year Janine and I were married.
To my chagrin, roughly half the songs seem to be about declaring independence in the aftermath of a failed relationship (“I Don’t”; “Bended Knee”; “(Dis)Solution”; “Faded Ink”) and the other half about finding new love, or at least new lust (“Nu Man”: “Sexfest 2004/7”; “Lolita @ Heart”; “Harmonica in Your Pocket”; “Alpha & Omega”). It wasn’t healthy of me to speculate, of course, but I couldn’t seeing that new tattoo as a sort of branding, in every sense of the word. And if a small, twisted part of me was borderline proud that my childhood idol had finally succeeded in stealing my wife, I didn’t let on, not even to myself.
Of course some of the song titles stung more than others, but upon closer inspection their lyrics were like tiny serif-ed daggers through my heart. Like this couplet from “Nu Man”: “I need a new man, I need a true man, I need a do-unto-others-as-they-do-unto-you man / I need a real love, I need a stud dove, I need a you’re-the-only-star-shining-in-my-sky-above”; or this, from “Alpha and Omega”: “You’re my Alpha and Omega, my beginning and my end / our love is multi-mega, our friendship never ends”; or the blunt chorus of “Sexfest 2004/7”: “Don’t leave my bed / let me clear your head / don’t run away / tomorrow’s today / these pillows are clouds, this mattress is heaven / God, He’s so proud, you’re body’s eleven / my sexfest 2004/7”; or, perhaps most painful of all: “Faded ink / a single word / but now I think / love’s so absurd / faded ink / by now you’ve heard / I flew from you / an uncaged bird.”
It’s that last line—“an uncaged bird”—that bugged me the most. I can’t imagine that Janine ever considered herself “caged” by our love. This was a woman who came and went as she pleased, a world-famous celebrity who could board a plane to Santo Domingo one day and Paris the next without as much as an au revoir. Early on we’d decided to never stop each other from pursuing whatever it was we needed to pursue as artists, or just as people (excluding the pursuit of extracurricular romance). So if Janine felt imprisoned in any way, it had to be sexually. Sexuality is all I’ll ever need. Sexuality, I’m gonna let my body be free. Apparently infamous Prince lyrics—lyrics I’d once lived my young life by—were coming back to haunt me.
Needless to say, Ooh La La…Nina wasn’t quite the soundtrack to Janine’s newfound independence she hoped it would be. In fact it was a commercial failure and a critical disgrace. People paid attention to it for only two reasons: Prince’s involvement and Nina Mitchell’s dwindling celebrity status. Pitchfork called it “a record chock-full of underfinished Prince C-sides.” The New York Times ran an article headlined “The Prince and the Show Girl Make a Record, Sort Of.” The Philadelphia Inquirer ran one titled “Prince and Nina’s Inferior Playlist.” Even relatively benign Rolling Stone, who doled out starred reviews like a kids’ haircutters handing out lollipops, gave it an underwhelming two and a half stars. The cynic in me (and plenty of others) attributed any interest whatsoever to the high-profile pseudo-affair circling the music. Nobody knew for sure whether Prince and his latest protégé were linked romantically, but given the man’s track record, the smart money said another notch had been added to his bedpost.
The truth, of course, would’ve sold far fewer records. Despite the rumors, Janine never moved into Paisley Park, and she and Prince were never engaged. In fact there’s scant evidence to suggest the pair were romantically involved at all, aside from a possibly damning photo of the two of them at First Avenue around the time they recorded Janine’s album, a grainy, amateurish photo that shows what appears to be Janine’s hand clutching her puppetish mentor’s ass. (People magazine published the photo, complete with a circle drawn round Nina’s hand and the caption Ooh la la…Nina Mitchell gets a fistful of royal rump!) But one late-night grope does not a legendary love affair make. Of course they both understood the power of publicity, good and bad. Nothing sells a record like some good old fashioned scandal. Nina Mitchell Ditches Artist Husband for The Artist; Exclusive: TAFKAP Prefers His Toast with JAM; Ohhh No No, Nina Mitchell Tells Estranged Hubby He’s No Love Dove; Housequake: A source close to Prince reveals how the home-wrecking musician seduced married starlet. The list goes on. I took the lumps, for the most part. But Janine was the real casualty of the media backlash: rather than jumpstart a stalled career, it served only to total it. Janine would continue to act well into her forties, appearing in three feature films and a Showtime series over the course of the next five years (Golden Raspberry-nominated rom-com Buy Me Dinner First; horror flick Mange; He Said, We Said, another rom-com; Grade-A Lady, respectively). But the writing was on the wall, and mostly it took the form of the burgeoning wrinkles on her face. Thirty-seven is relatively young in human years, but Janine was an actress. She measured her life in Hollywood years.
To me, at least, it seemed only fitting that Janine and Prince ended up together, if only professionally. Janine once confided to me that it was the Prince’s song “Pop Life” that initially filled her head with “illusions of grandeur,” as she called them. But this couldn’t be true, because the timing was off: Around the World in a Day, the follow-up to Purple Rain and the record on which “Pop Life” appears, was released on April 21, 1985. Janine was almost fifteen. But by age fifteen she’d already won a number of beauty pageants, and we’d been dating for over a year (though we were soon to break up). Her “illusions of grandeur” were firmly in place by the time we’d met in the spring of 1984. She’d had ambitions of becoming a star—any kind of star—years prior to hearing “Pop Life.” Yet it was only after I’d played the song for her on my Walkman that the idea really crystallized for her. According to Janine, it was the line Everybody can’t be on top that sealed the devil’s deal she’d made with herself, no less exacting a business partner than Lucifer himself, the “bright one,” the “light-bringer.” “He’s right,” I recall teenage Janine saying to me as we sat on her mother’s stoop on Spring Street, forcing me—daring me, it now seems—to look her in the eye. “Everybody can’t be on top. But I’m not everybody.”
“But everybody thinks that,” I said.
She seemed confused by the idea. “Really? You’re saying that Mrs. Zeronski thinks she’s star material? And Joe the Mailman? And the guy who wanders around the neighborhood mumbled obscenities to himself?”
“Nothing. That’s the guy’s name. Whoa-whoa.”
Janine giggled. “That’s definitely not the guy’s name.” She glanced over her shoulder, checking to confirm that the Mikulski air-conditioner was running and the front door closed. She inched closer to me. “I think most people don’t think twice about the fact they’re not famous. But it’s pretty much all I think about, all day, every day.” She took hold of my hand and let it fall idly onto her lap. “I need my life to be funky,” she said. “I need it to pop.” She looked at me. “Do you get it?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, getting some things better than others, and apparently about to get the most private part of Janine.
My soon-to-be ex-girlfriend smirked knowingly but seemed unimpressed with my response. As if to emphasize her point, she pushed my open palm onto her crotch, a place on a girl’s body I had never touched, not even Janine’s. It was soft and hard at the same time, and almost unbearably warm. A full year of tongue kissing and ass-grabbing and dry-humping hadn’t prepared me for this.
“Now do you get it?”
“I think so,” I said, my excitement mingled deliciously with worry that her mother or father or worse, her older sister might barge outside and catch me with my trembling hand tucked between Janine the Beauty Queen’s creamy thighs.
Janine didn’t seem so worried. In fact she upped the ante by putting her own hand between my legs and grasping the bulge that had formed in my shorts. “Pop,” she giggled, and gave me a gentle squeeze.
“Pop,” I whispered, slowly moving my fingers over foreign terrain.
“Pop,” Janine softly moaned.
Soon everything would be different, and Janine would be granted her grandiose childhood wish. Soon the delusional bubble would get so big all it could do was burst.
On June 7, 2009, Prince’s fifty-first birthday, I found out along with the rest of the world that Janine had filed a paternity suit against him over the birth of her daughter, Fiona Camille.
2009 was a rough year for Janine. In addition to the paternity suit, her latest (and what would be her last) movie opened to an abysmal box office showing and especially mean-spirited reviews. Sharon Wickle rather tastelessly wrote, “If Costner’s laughingly hubristic Waterworld is considered the Katrina of the film industry—a mostly man-made, nearly self-willed catastrophe—then Red Light, Green Light is certainly its 9-11, a surreal jaw-dropper of horror and disbelief.” The picture won no fewer than five Golden Raspberry Awards, outdoing even Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon. It currently holds an abysmal 12% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
With both her personal and professional lives taking a prolonged nosedive, Janine did the only thing a former enfant terrible and self-professed extremist could do: she upped the ante and proved everyone right by getting caught shoplifting. At an Urban Outfitters in the Village, no less. The baby-faced employee who snagged Janine on her way out the door seemed unfazed by her run-in with a dying star: “I thought she looked like somebody, you know? Because we get a lot of somebodies in here, plus all the people who think they’re somebody but aren’t. But I had my eye on her. That’s when I saw her stuff that flannel blouse down her pants. Then Gigi said ‘Hey, isn’t that Nina Mitchell?’ Someone else said ‘Nina who?’ But by then I was at the door, like, totally barring her exit.” The punishing media backlash far exceeded the crime. Even Winona Ryder, never a Nina Mitchell fan (and vice-versa. Winona once accused Janine of trying to “lure” fiancé Johnny Depp away from her in the early nineties; Janine claims that the zigzag tattoo on the back of Depp’s left hand is actually an N that stands for “Nina”), delivered her SNL monologue wearing a FREE NINA? tee shirt and called her behavior a “copycat crime, right down to the part where she got caught.”
I tried to get in touch with her around this time, something I told myself I wouldn’t do. Because it was far from the first time Janine had exited a shop with unpaid for goods on her person. In fact she’d done it all the time back when we were kids, a habit that both thrilled and scared me. “Are you crazy?” I whispered the first time I witnessed Janine slip a pack of Lemonheads into the back pocket of her jeans, circa 1984. “Mr. Frisch won’t miss it,” she shrugged. “The trick is to actually buy something so you don’t seem so suspicious.” No, I recall thinking, the trick is to charm an old guy with your gold hair and your sparking blue eyes and your million-dollar smile. “It’s easy,” Janine said, grabbing a pack of Peanut Chews (my favorite) and shoving them down the front of my pants. “Sure beats a tube sock,” she giggled. I wish I could say scenes like this were a rare occurrence, but they weren’t. Maybe if she had been flat-broke, Janine’s repeated thefts would’ve been easier for me to digest. But Janine always had money, at least enough money to afford anything for sale in Mr. Frisch’s crumbling corner market. After we’d broken up, I’d forgotten all about this particular “quirk” of her personality (her word, not mine) until the time we attended the Wanamaker’s Christmas Light Show incognito and afterwards, out on Market Street, Janine reached into her parka and produced a pair of pilfered leather gloves. “Shoplifters of the world, unite!” she cried. “Jesus, you’re insane,” I said, glancing over my shoulder for any shadowing store detectives. “Once a crook, always a crook,” she declared, as I ushered us past the Salvation Army Santa and toward Reading Terminal, all the while trying to ignore the unmistakable note of pride in her voice.
As I said, I tried to contact Janine. Trouble was, I didn’t have her new house number in New York, and I no longer had her private number. The few people I managed to contact who did in fact have it said (with varying degrees of surprise to be hearing from me) that they would check with Nina first and get back to me. They never did.
So I was forced to watch Janine’s unravelling on TV and in the news and online, like everybody else. One fantastical story begot another: Nina Mitchell provokes gourmet food fight with Kristen Stewart. Nina Mitchell suffers “swine flu-like” symptoms. Nina Mitchell takes Boxster for test drive with Zach Galifianakis and never comes back!
It probably didn’t help matters that she agreed to go on the Daily Show to “clear the air.” She showed up in a very low-cut azure silk blouse, ivory harem pants and running shoes. “I call these my Gingerbread men. You know, run, run as fast as you can. Can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man.” “Who’s chasing you?” Stewart asked. “Only the world,” snorted Janine. “But mostly paparazzi.” “Ever consider,” Stewart politely hypothesized, “that maybe you’re not running away from something in those things, but rather running toward it?” “No,” Janine laughingly shook her head. “I’m definitely running away.” When her left breast came perilously close to tumbling out of her shirt, Stewart said, “Careful, you’re in danger of losing something there. I believe that’s called a wardrobe malfunction.” “It’s called a life malfunction,” quipped Janine, unashamedly tucking herself in. Throughout the brief interview Stewart, who was clearly sympathetic to Janine and seemingly intent on making her look good, patiently tried to steer the conversation toward a quasi-serious discussion of double standards and gender politics in Hollywood, and the psychology behind Americans’ lust for gossip, however unfounded. Janine was having none of it. “Jon, you’re sooo [fucking] nice,” she cooed, all but crawling into her blushing host’s lap. “Smart and funny and nice. Isn’t he nice?” she polled the audience, to resounding cheers. “There are nice people like you,” she went on, “and not so nice people like that has-been [cunt] Winona Ryder. And then, all by herself, way off in the shadows on the other side of Nicetown, there’s me.” “Well, you seem perfectly sweet to me,” Stewart tried, patting her hand. “Ha!” Janine cried. “Fooled you! And people say I can’t act.”
People were right about that. Or to put it more precisely, she could no longer act, if her stilted performance in Red Light, Green Light was any indication. Not that the script warranted the Meryl Streep treatment. The film was ponderous and pretentious and of course chock-full of gratuitous nudity. (It’s the first time in her career, not counting those tastefully shot PETA ads, that Janine appeared in public without a stitch of clothes on. Not that there weren’t offers. In fact most of the scripts sent her way involved some form of nudity, but she never took these roles or else negotiated her way out of baring her breasts or flashing her derriere. While we were married, Hugh Hefner himself wrote to Janine and practically begged her to appear in Playboy. His idea was to have Janine pose against a backdrop of red velvet, in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. The outlandish offer he made was hard for Janine to refuse, but refuse it she did.) Not that I’m complaining, exactly. It’d been a very long time since I’d seen Janine’s body. Age thirty-nine and she still had the sort of figure that could stand up to thirty-foot screen-type scrutiny. She didn’t appear to have put on a single pound since I last saw her. If anything she seemed trimmer, with stronger arms and slightly smaller breasts and a tighter tummy. Still, it was the sort of trimness that comes from overdoing it. Like her performance in the film, Janine seemed to be trying too hard, and her efforts, though admirable (and in the case of her naked body, arousing), smacked of desperation. But that wasn’t all. Hell may hath no fury like a woman scorned, but hell really hath no fury like an aging actress facing a future of auditions against women half her age. Above all else—above the desperation, above the self-doubt, above the fear—Janine was angry, and it showed. One of the people she was apparently angriest with was Prince.
As usual, she seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. For a well-documented lothario and tireless control freak with an ego as big as Lake Minnetonka, Prince didn’t appear to have many enemies. Even those individuals he’d callously cut loose from gigs or out of his life altogether remained tightlipped about their disagreements years afterwards. Was it fear? What was there to fear from a high-voiced pipsqueak in ass-less pants? They say fear lasts longer than respect, but the opposite was true where the Napoleonic Minnesotan was concerned. For somebody to bad-mouth Prince, it seemed he had to be either high or crazy or both. Bruised egos and hurt feelings just weren’t enough.
Given the man’s apparent sexual prowess and many high-profile love affairs, it’s a wonder he hadn’t been slapped with a paternity suit sooner, bogus or otherwise. Odds were in favor of a little Prince or Princess running around Minneapolis, or New York, or L.A., teaching him- or herself to play a dozen different instruments, practicing spins and splits, the notorious “wooden leg.” Then again, he’s so good at keeping much of his private life private, maybe he’s duped the world into believing he practices the safest sex imaginable, or is simply sterile. (He’d managed to father a child with first wife Mayte Garcia, but the baby boy tragically died of Pfeiffer syndrome a week after he was born.) But how can it be that women weren’t lining up and accusing this wealthy, handsome, gifted sex fiend of being a serial baby daddy? Hush money? Maybe. Most people who’ve worked for him were required to sign extensive non-disclosure agreements. But people just seem willing to keep Prince’s secrets. Something about him inspires that kind of loyalty.
Even though most straight men dig tripping on the thought of being caught with someone like Janine’s beauty, style and grace, even though they’d cut off their wanking hand with a potato peeler for just two nights with her face, to this day Prince maintains the pair never had a sexual relationship. In an uncharacteristically revealing interview with Tavis Smiley, ostensibly to promote the triple-disc Lotusflower but really to attempt to diffuse this paternity suit business with Janine, Prince went out of his way to set the record straight.
TS: So I have to ask you this. And I know you know I have to ask you this. Did you have a romantic relationship with Nina Mitchell?
PRN: Define romantic.
TS: Aw, man. I guess I should’ve seen that one coming.
PRN: What I mean is, the word “romance” is a big one. I’m romantic when I watch the sun set. I’m being romantic when I make music. I have lots of friends I consider myself to be romantic with, and most of them, y’know, I’ve never even kissed…
TS: Okay, I get you. Let me rephrase the question. Have you ever had a sexual relationship with Nina Mitchell?
PRN: That’s easy. The answer is no.
TS: [Laughing] You’re sure now? You don’t want to think about that at all?
PRN: There’s nothing to think about. Just no.
TS: You might want to look into the camera when you say that, just so people get it right.
PRN [Looking directly at camera] America, I did not have sexual relations with that woman.
TS: [Laughing] Now, where have I heard that before? [Prince shrugs] We’re joking here, having a good time, but it’s no laughing matter. Ms. Mitchell has made some pretty serious claims.
PRN: Yes, she has.
TS: Filing a suit.
PRN: So I’ve heard.
TS: She’s a fine-looking woman.
PRN: She sure is.
TS: Some people might say—I know better, so I’m not one of them—but some people might say, that Prince, he has a sort of weakness, shall we say, for fine-looking women. What would you say to those people?
PRN: [Long pause] I guess I’d say that I take being a father very seriously. As you know, I lost a child a few years back and it haunts me to this day, every day. What Nina’s doing is wrong. More than wrong, it’s cruel. She wasn’t a cruel person when I knew her.
TS: You guys made a record together.
TS: Are you proud of it.
PRN: I love all my children the same.
TS: C’mon, man. You’re telling me you love Ooh La La as much as you love 1999 and Purple Rain? Sign “O” the Times?
PRN: I have to be careful here. They might be listening.
Janine has been vigilant about not posting photos of her daughter online or allowing the press to snap her picture. But everyone has seen the most famous photo of little Fiona Camille tackling a double-scoop ice cream cone, eyes wide, mouth forming an O as if in song. Her eyes are brown; her little-girl lips are full; her skin is the color of over-steeped tea. (Her nose and face shape are pure Janine.) If Prince Rogers Nelson does in fact have a young daughter, it’s easy to believe it might be her.
And yet why didn’t I believe Janine? Was it because the math was off? Was is it because she’d stopped short of subjecting the superstar to a paternity test? (It’s a scenario perhaps more worthy of a Michael Jackson tune: Billie Janine is not my lover…) No, I didn’t believe her because, as talented as she was, I always knew when she was acting. She could fool most of the people most of the time, but she could never fool me.
It turned out that the real biological father of the child was a light-skinned African-American man named Thornel Williams, someone any half-serious fan of Dance ’Til You Drop would immediately recognize as simply “Thorn.” (As a teenager, Thorn had had more moves than a game of Checkers and was an obvious hit with the DTYD ladies, though the ladies were far from a hit with him: Thorn was openly gay. That’s not to say the producers of DTYD, to say nothing of the show’s mostly young but fairly provincial audience, were willing to allow this gifted young dancer to suggestively grind against or slow dance with another boy. Because he was pretty and talented (and largely unthreatening), Thorn was often paired with Violet or Luanne. But more often than not he was paired with Janine, when Janine deigned to be paired with anyone, and once famously quipped, “Every Thorn has its rose” in reference to his red-loving dance partner. “The girl actually lives on Spring Street, where love is always in bloom!”)
Eventually Janine stopped accusing Prince of fathering her child, though she never outright copped to the lie. Despite all the pressure to do so, she never confessed. Smelling blood, the media hounded her relentlessly. Prince fans weren’t any easier on her; public outcry was loud and it was livid. A group calling themselves the Crying Doves even went so far as to picket outside the Greenpoint brownstone Janine bought and rented “dirt cheap” to her niece, Anka, and three of Anka’s girlfriends. The members inked Love Symbols onto their faces and carried placards bearing the titles of actual or tweaked song titles: DON’T ME, BABY; MONEY DOES MATTER 2 NIGHT; THE GREATEST ROMANCE EVER SOLD; SCANDALOUS! Others chanted NO DNA 4 PRN! But the big question concerned the child’s conception. Either the baby was made the old-fashioned way or the happy couple had made use of some other medical means, most likely artificial insemination (which implied that a plot to leave Prince holding the diaper bag may’ve been afoot). Of course it was to Janine’s benefit to claim that she and Thorn had had sex shortly before or after she’d slept with Prince, and that something must’ve gone wrong. “Our best guess is that, barring Immaculate Conception, Thornel’s condom broke,” she’d told the Times. “It happens,” she said, adding, “It was probably a little too small for him in the first place.” But Thornel Williams was an openly gay man, was he not? He’s had a number of well-documented sexual relationships with men, including a years-long romance with singer/songwriter Roland Winthrop and, more recently, the son of an outspoken right-wing United States senator. “Labels are so restrictive, don’t you think? The irony is that they often say far more about the labeler than about the labeled.” But was the world to believe that even homosexual men weren’t immune to Nina Mitchell’s admittedly considerable powers of seduction? “Apparently,” was Janine’s scoffing response. “I’ve got a baby to prove it.” Thornel Williams’ only comment was that he “eternally” had no comment.
Ultimately Prince decided against pressing charges. He seemed relieved that “Babygate” (as one unimaginative blogger had dubbed it) was finally over and appeared eager to move beyond the paternity scandal, such as it was, echoing Janine’s sentiment that it was all a “big misunderstanding.” When pressed on the matter of how anyone could “misunderstand” having had sex with another person, Prince smirked knowingly and, giving the guy a withering once-over, declared, “You’re working too hard, Walter.” (The reporter’s name was Philip Stevens. Apparently this was an allusion to famous broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite.) “Sex ain’t always so black and white.”
A few days after this provocative if rather obvious pronouncement, Janine disappeared.
7. STRANGE RELATIONSHIP
Richtown is all the rage. Rage not in the way I’d experienced it; not adolescent gang fights or sporadic race riots or mumbling drunks stumbling down the street (though I suspect all these still exist). Rage as in trendy, fashionable, suddenly, almost inexplicably popular. All the modish young turks have outposts here now, all the Warby Parkered beardos and their braided, high-waisted pants-wearing girlfriends. Coffee shops and high-end restaurants rubbing inked elbows with tattoo parlors and bike repair shops and too many dive bars to count (some of these dives, like Bobo’s Mack Shack, are actual dives with long, complicated histories, others are faux-dives, not so much holes in the wall as atmospheric niches or alcoves). So what’s an aging artiste to do? I bought a house, and bought it for a song despite the soaring property values. It once belonged to my grandmother, you see. My dad, bless his heart, gave his prodigal son a deal.
It’s strange being back in the old neighborhood and for once not longing to leave. Still, other times I feel as if I’m walking around in a dream. The bakery where we scarfed coffee cake as kids is now an organic juice bar. The grade school where I first met Janine has been turned into apartments. Richtown Terrace, it’s called, a cheery if mildly misleading name. As if there’s any kind of view. As if it’s always sunny in our newly trendy part of town, if not Philadelphia proper.
As for Janine, I haven’t heard from her in years. That said, I haven’t tried to contact her either. I’ve taken a page out of the Nina Mitchell Handbook for the Newly Reclusive and gone off the grid, deleting all my social media accounts (to the extent such accounts can be deleted). I still have a website complete with contact information, for anybody who might be interested in contacting me. So I’m not so hard to find. But I don’t feel a need to monitor the detritus of other people’s lives like I once did, or to overshare the detritus of my own. Maybe I’m just getting old. One thing’s for sure, I’m definitely getting older, as some of my old neighbors never tire of reminding me. Mrs. Zinni, who seemed ancient when I was a kid, is truly ancient now, a skin-veiled skeleton in perennial housecoat and slippers. Mrs. Mopp, Brandon’s mother, gets more penquin-esque every day: I see her waddling around the neighborhood even more now than I did back when her son and I were best friends and she had actual places to go, people to see. (She tells me Brandon is a semi-retired schoolteacher in South Jersey and, although it’s a little hard to believe, mayor of his town.)
And then there’s Angie Martino. I ran into her working the counter at Wide Eyes the other day, a local coffee shop I’d begun to frequent (not all changes provoke grumbling). We looked each other up and down like two lost countrymen caught between enemy lines, though far from being prisoners of war. “What’s the matter, Wawa’s not good enough for you?” “No,” I said point-blank, “it’s not.” Angie snorted. “I’m not surprised.” She took and had begun to fill my order—Americano, egg and bacon on croissant—when suddenly she shrugged and said, “I heard you moved back.” “Where you’d hear that?” She shrugged. “Around.” I looked at her. The rest of Richtown’s longtime residents may’ve aged, but not Angie. Her hair, though clearly color-enhanced, was as long and lush as ever. To my surprise, there wasn’t a ring on her finger. “My father took pity on me and sold me his mother’s house,” I explained. Angie nodded. “And Princess Janine?” “Traveling the world, I assume.” Angie rung me up but I could see her doing another kind of math. And why not? I’d already begun working out the algebraic equation that would entail—eventually, likely at some point far into the future—solving for x, where x equals Angelina Martino. “You should stop by sometime, seeing as how we’re old friends.” “I’d like that.” “Yeah,” she said, turning away, “I figured you would.” She greeted the guy in line behind me and I kept my eyes on her, Angelina Martino being the sort of woman I’d always been reluctant to take my eyes off of. She turned suddenly and caught me staring. It wasn’t exactly a smile she’d sent my way, yet she didn’t seem displeased. “I’ll have Pellegrino kill a fatted calf,” she said, by way of goodbye.
To this day whenever I hear the Prince song “Strange Relationship,” I can’t help dwelling on one particular lyric, the part about the singer’s lover not being able to rewrite his every line, like in a movie. It’s struck me that I’ve done quite a bit of line rewriting here, misremembered or confabulated entire conversations. But that’s the nature of the beast, I suppose, and if I’m being honest, also one of its perks: the author gets final say over who said what, as well as when and why and how. If I’ve misrepresented Janine, it’s likely that I’ve done so willingly, and for my own gain. But I shouldn’t write if I’m misrepresented her, it’s when I’ve misrepresented her, because what is fiction if not a willful misrepresentation, a fabrication, a lie? Much of what I’ve related is true, to the best of my memory. Watching the latest episode of Madmen, I was reminded of the old (apparently Chinese) proverb that faded ink is preferable to the clearest memory. It’s a shame I’d never written any of this stuff down until now. But then, I’d never had much reason to.
And so there exists two Janines (at the very least two): the one I’ve semi-invented here on the page and the one Janine herself has semi-invented in real life. Which one is more authentic, more accurate, more faithful? I honestly don’t know anymore. And the truth is I don’t much care.
Strange relationship indeed. I’ve come to think of it as our theme song. Not “Erotic City.” Not “Little Red Corvette.” Not “Pop Life” or “U Got the Look” or “Anotherloverholenyohead.” Not even the gorgeous ballad from which this book takes its title. Another line from “Strange Relationship” refers to how the singer might do “something rash” if his lover leaves him. For a while after Janine left me, I thought that the rash thing I might do is take my own life. I thought about it off and on for weeks on end. For a short while—a matter of hours, perhaps, certainly no more than a day or two—it was all I thought about. The epicenter of my own personal housequake, the eye of my eerily quiet storm. I could never decide exactly how I’d do it, just that it would be done. I finally decided that I’d already sacrificed enough, more than my fair share, and I wouldn’t sacrifice myself any longer, wouldn’t make a sacrifice of myself, like the prodigal’s fatted calf. Sacrifices are made to appease the gods, not spite them. I would spite Janine by staying alive and going on without her.
Spite. It may not be a valid reason for returning a recently bought jacket (as Jerry Seinfeld famously learned), but it suited me just fine. If living well was indeed the best revenge, I would do Janine one better by not only living well but living my life over. Back to the beginning, back to Richtown, where it all began. A second chance. A do-over. I didn’t know this at the time, of course, not consciously so. At the time, the decision to relocate to the neighborhood of my youth simply made a lot of sense: the price was right; the place was familiar (maybe too familiar), with fewer distractions than Center City; Richtown was on a surprising but undeniable upswing, a freshly minted hipster enclave, with property values predicted to increase. Friends and family members who might otherwise suspect me of regressing would be forced to acknowledge these facts.
Even so, the less charitable of my acquaintances—the less charitable side of myself—were still inclined to see the move back to Richtown as a regression, a nostalgic step backwards. What was I doing, if not chasing after the long-gone ghost of Janine? For how long was I going to allow this woman to haunt me? How many doors would slam and lights would flicker before I employed the services of a professional? A psychoanalyst can help exorcise a ghost just as effectively as a Catholic priest or a medium can. (I suspected I might need a team of them, like Jerry accuses George of needing in yet another famous scene from Seinfeld.) Janine was no minor mischievous spirit or chair-stacking poltergeist. She was a phantom of the first order, and if she could be dispelled at all, it would not be willingly.
It took a long time for me to realize that I don’t have to exorcise Janine. She’s a vital part of me and always will be. For better or worse, she was integral to making me the writer I am, the artist I am, and the man. The only proper and beneficial (I hesitate to say therapeutic) way to exorcise the woman from my life would be to exercise her, that is to say to utilize our shared experiences, to apply what I’d learned from our time together (as well as our time apart) by putting it in a book. This book. Now that it’s nearing its end, I find that my heartrate is up, my pulse has quickened. I feel better than I’ve felt in years. Lucid as sunlight. Lighter than air.
Adieu, Janine, or Nina, or whoever you happen to be, wherever you happen to exist. Remember me.
EPILOGUE: SOMETIMES IT SNOWS IN APRIL
Sunday, April 24, 2016
Prince died the other day. What a strange statement for the co-founder of the Erotic Citizens to have to make: Prince died the other day. Its sheer surrealness, I find, rivals that of Trump elected President or The sky is falling. Not quite the seventh sign of the apocalypse, but surely a sign nonetheless. I just haven’t figured out of what.
Prince died the other day, the only day, the day Prince died. I’m still trying to make sense of the phrase, to re-order the words into some kind of statement I can accept. But how can I be expected to accept something I can barely even acknowledge?
The strangest part, I find, isn’t that despite his reputation as a drug-free, generally clean-living individual, Prince died of an accidental overdose, or even all the conspiracy-theorist claims that “Sometimes It Snows in April”—a song reputedly written on April 21,1986—was a harbinger of its composer’s death. (“Let’s Go Crazy” seems at least as prescient, with all its talk of “de-elevator,” as if in spooky reference to the actual Paisley Park elevator Prince’s lifeless body, decades later, would be found in.) No, the strangest part is that I have yet to hear from Janine. No email, no text message, no phone call. Not so much as ping suggesting she’s visited my website. Three full days since the Purple One’s uncanny demise. That’s seventy-two hours. Not quite seven hours and fifteen days, as Prince famously put it in “Nothing Compares 2 U” (though he changed it to thirteen in a live performance with Rosie Gaines, and nobody knows why). I surely wasn’t expecting flowers. But I won’t lie: her silence stings.
What’s worse is my inability to contact her. Janine knew the deceased better, you could say more intimately, than I did. What’s it like to have a world-famous friend, possibly even a former lover, suddenly die?
I can only speak metaphorically. But now, as if her self-willed exile from my life weren’t bad enough, she seems intent on punishing me further by remaining a ghost. My Irresistible Bitch, my Beautiful One, both beautiful and cruel. For a certain kind of man, it’s a powerful combination. For a certain kind of man, it’s the only combination.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it hasn’t even crossed Janine’s mind to drop me a line. This, of course, is exponentially worse than being consciously ignored. Willful avoidance is one thing, but indifference is a fate worse than death. More likely she’s simply dealing with her own astounding grief at the news of Prince’s death. I just wish we could grieve together.
I suppose there’s always the possibility that news of Prince’s death has yet to reach Janine, wherever she is. Possible, but hardly likely, considering how the entire world seems to be in mourning (innumerable magazine covers and articles; the SNL tribute show; the sad spectacle of D’Angelo covering “Sometimes It Snows in April” on Jimmy Fallon and choking up midway through his performance). It may be out of character for Janine to have sequestered herself on some remote, quasi-deserted island—she has no love for the tropics—but not out of the realm of possibility. With Janine, there was little that was out of the realm of possibility. Boundaries were always meant to be broken. Beliefs were invented to be defied.
Speaking of defying beliefs: complicating all of these feelings and more is the fact that Angelino Martino is right across the hall, in the bed we share, as I write. I stopped by her mother’s old house, as Angie had suggested, and was soon making a habit of it, mostly for Sunday dinner. Sunday dinners, then Saturday breakfasts, then drinks and appetizers on Thursday or Friday nights at one of the newly opened souperies or gastropubs. It seemed we were always eating. The eating subsided a bit (but just a bit) once we began touching each other, one appetite supplanted by another. Angie insists I’ve always been a sucker for a pretty face, and she’s right. She herself has an uncommonly pretty face. In fact I find her breathtakingly beautiful, no less so than when she’s surrendered to a deep, untroubled sleep, like now. It’s a beauty that rivals Janine’s, though neither woman would ever believe it. It’s my job to make Angie believe it. I hope one day I can.
Tuesday, June 7, 2016
Two noteworthy things happened today—a day that would’ve been Prince Rogers Nelson’s 58th birthday. First, I treated myself to my second tattoo. I think of it (and described it to Marcus, the tattoo artist and current owner of Tattoo U; pink-haired Gwen was long gone) as the Prince glyph: a melding of the traditional symbols for “male” and “female,” the kind that appears in hot pink on the fairing of his Honda motorcycle, circa Purple Rain. Later, when Prince changed his name to this symbol in an effort to free himself from his contract with Warner Bros., he finessed the glyph—dubbed the “Love Symbol”—by adding a spiral to one end of the crossbar and a bell shape to the other, giving it the vague aspect of a French horn. But I prefer the simpler design of the original Love Symbol. I suppose I’d have to, as it’s now inked onto my right forearm.
The second, and only slightly more astounding thing that happened is that I finally heard from Janine. Or rather, I assume I heard from Janine, since the postcard she sent me wasn’t signed and there’s no postmark (meaning that it was hand-delivered, but whether by Janine’s hand or someone else’s is anybody’s guess). The purple ink penmanship, however, is unmistakably hers. It reads: Love isn’t love until it’s past. A paraphrase of the final line of “Sometimes It Snows in April.” Just how might the line refer to me or, more specifically, us I have yet to puzzle out. Was Janine trying to tell me something, something big? Was she suggesting (as the song suggests) that maybe one day she would see her Tracy again? And if so, exactly which one of us was Janine’s Tracy, me or Prince? If the former, could I expect a visit from her in the near future? If the latter (or The Ladder, Prince’s more taxing stairway to heaven), was this her way of saying that she was even more devoted to the man now that he was dead? Or was it scarier than that? Was this Janine’s goodbye, not just to me but to the entire world?
If I could speak to her now I’d tell her that however bad things seem, somehow they always get better. I’d tell her that, yes, all good things never last, but the bad stuff, too, never sticks around for any longer than it has to. I’d tell her to cherish her life, no matter how bleak or seemingly unbearable. I’d tell her that most mistakes aren’t irreparable, but this one—this huge, inconceivable, heartbreaking mistake she was about to make—certainly is. I’d tell her that I don’t know if we humans get to see each other again after we die, but—as much as I miss family members and friends and even certain celebrities who have passed away—I’m in no hurry to find out. You want an answer to all the April snow? Go ask Al Gore, he made a whole movie about it.
But of course I can’t speak to Janine, or write to her, or so much as post some inane communique on her Facebook wall. The transmission remains one-sided, as is her preference. After all this time, after all we’ve achieved, I’m still little more than a rapt audience member, eternally seated in the dark somewhere, watching the show.
Here's a story set during Lent, a time of year when confessions of all kinds seem more prevalent (at least to a lapsed Catholic):
“Act of Contrition”
“You’re joking,” Bruno said, grasping Sara’s shoulders in lieu of a hug. Despite the stereotype—South Philly Italians, and a family of artists to boot—the Spaventas weren’t an overly affectionate bunch. Plus, Bruno had it on good authority that his wayward daughter despised him. “This is your idea of a birthday present?”
Sara didn’t crack a smile. “I don’t want anything from you anymore,” she said. “Not one thing.” She angled her chin toward a small marquee outside St. Benedict’s that read CONFESSION 430-5. “Only this.”
Unconvinced, Bruno returned her gaze, suspiciously eying his only child. Sara resembled the heroine of a steampunk dystopian fiction, dissatisfaction wafting from her very pores like some mood-ruining pheromone. Her hair was even shorter than he remembered, artfully awninged over an eye but shaved smooth in back, as if an ill omen were precariously perched on her head.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” he said, deciding for the moment to play along. “Confession, at my advanced age. Strictly speaking, I’m not even a Catholic. You could’ve at least warned me.”
“I could’ve,” agreed Sara, smiling now almost despite herself. “But then I would’ve missed out on that priceless face you’re making.”
“So this is a joke.”
Sara shook her head slowly. Her smile, that unexpected guest, promptly disappeared. “Sorry,” she said. “No joke.” Her phone buzzed and she consulted its screen. Bruno watched her thumbs fly over the mini keyboard with something akin to fatherly pride. You might think a celebrated mosaics artist, a man so adept at using his hands for so long would be able to master the keyboard on a smartphone. Yet it took him ages to peck out a simple text message, and not only because cutesy abbreviations and moon-faced emojis weren’t his style. Like most supposed technological advances, texting was a double-edged sword: Bruno valued the depersonalization but resented how the act made him feel like an imperfectly trained circus animal performing a trick.
“Is that birthday-related?” he asked and immediately wished he hadn’t.
“Give me a sec,” Sara said, drifting away.
Bruno had seen his fair share of churches, both at home and abroad, and from a purely aesthetic standpoint St. Benedict’s ranked somewhere near the bottom. The opposite of grandiose, as a purported house of God its flagrant lack of ornamentation and inexplicable boxlike construction bordered on the blasphemous. A far cry from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, never mind St. Peter’s, never mind mansions of gold. St. Benedict’s put him in mind of a repurposed bunker (not that any Spaventa had ever seen the inside of a bunker; although forced to undergo a physical exam, the war was effectively over by the time Bruno had turned eighteen. His cousin Louie hadn’t been so lucky). Worse than that, it forced him to think of Ruby’s funeral, of how—quite against his young wife’s wishes—he’d gone along with boxing up his beloved and burying her in the ground. Maybe money had been tight and this glorified shoebox had been all the archdiocese could afford. Or maybe the architects responsible for its uninspired design had seen the Catholic backlash coming and drawn up their blueprints accordingly. To hear the cable news con-men tell it, the insidious War on Christmas was but one skirmish in a sustained terrorist attack on religion. Soon a standoff would take place between Those Who Love Jesus and Those Who Just Aren’t That into Him. (Those Who Want to Just Be Friends, like Bruno, would undoubtedly get caught in the crossfire.) The end—or depending on the state of your soul, the beginning—was near. Diehards on both sides were digging in.
But four-thirty to five? Were the clerics of St. Benny’s actively trying to discourage people from repenting? Back when Bruno was a boy, the priests were available to hear confessions all day on Saturdays. He and his friends would play stickball in the schoolyard and watch the neighborhood sinners file in. The absolution business was booming. It’s a wonder they hadn’t figured out a way to capitalize on the sorry state of humanity’s soul—charge, say, five bucks a head if not a pound of flesh. A small price to pay for currying God’s favor. Not that they’d have squeezed a dime out of Bruno. Despite having attended eight years of rigorous Catholic schooling, he’d never actually made the Sacrament of Reconciliation, never so much as performed a single confession in nearly sixty years of life and, by definition, sin. A disabling bout of mononucleosis had kept him quarantined for weeks. While his classmates were busy admitting to all kinds of elementary school atrocities (fist fights in the schoolyard; lifting Tastykakes from the corner store; skipping out of Sunday Mass halfway through the homily), Bruno was laid up in bed with a fever and sore throat. There was talk of a “make-up” ceremony once he returned to school, but it never materialized. The following summer his family moved to a new neighborhood, which meant a new parish, and a roster of new teaching nuns who simply assumed that their new charge by this point had made his Confession. Someone should’ve spoken up, but no one ever did. Certainly not Bruno.
Often as a kid, and even occasionally as a grown man, Bruno had been visited by the image of a blackened soul saturated with sin, sagging and stinking like a neglected dirty diaper. But just as quickly he pushed the image away. There wasn’t much he was willing to do about it, either then or now.
“Okay,” Sara said, stowing her phone in her battered motorcycle jacket. “All set?”
It was a rhetorical question. No doubt Sara had a similarly attired gang of starry-eyed, dress-hating devotees waiting on her arrival, taking full if anxious advantage of her absence to hastily hang streamers and fill voice-altering balloons. Bruno recalled one of his more memorable birthdays—or thought he did—with some relish: the Sons of Italy hall crammed with unfamiliar relatives; his girlfriend at the time, in a red wrap dress and boyfriend-dwarfing heels, looking like Gia Carangi and dancing to “More, More, More”; his half-soused father foisting shot after shot of homemade grappa on him as if it were the antidote to some obscure poison his son had inadvertently consumed. Never would it cross his old man’s mind that the grappa was the poison, not even when he found himself flat on his back in a hospital bed, having broken his nose and shattered three ribs after drunkenly wrapping his prized Fleetwood around a tree. To this day Bruno never touched the stuff.
“None bigger than this,” Sara said, moving toward the church steps.
“Then I feel sorry for you,” scoffed Bruno. “Because this”—he waved his hand dismissively at the marquee, at St. Benny’s, at the entire Roman Catholic Apostolic Church—“is ridiculous.”
“Which is your way of saying I’m ridiculous.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Of course it isn’t,” she snorted. She’d lifted the gesture wholesale from her mother, though she would’ve been too young to remember it. “Here’s the thing about what Bruno Spaventa says and what he means: rarely are they related.”
“We had a deal,” she cut him off. “Otherwise I wouldn’t even be here.”
“It was your idea to meet here, of all places,” he reminded her.
“And it was your idea to meet at all.”
Bruno dug his hands deep into his trouser pockets—a surefire sign his temper was on the rise. “Did you really expect me to let my daughter’s birthday go by without at least a phone call?”
“That’s just it,” she sneered, “I have no expectations where you’re concerned, and haven’t ever since I left home. My expectations are nil.”
She stood there glaring at him with her all-knowing Eckleberg eyes. Bruno couldn’t be sure, but he suspected that was a new piercing there, bisecting his daughter’s lowered left eyebrow. New to him anyway. And if there were new piercings there had to be new tattoos. A chess piece, perhaps, to go along with the unintelligible line of The Waste Land etched along her forearm, the severed Medusa’s head on her shoulder, the cryptic glyph crawling like some prideful serpent across the delicately tapered nape of her neck. And these were just the tattoos he knew about, the ones in plain sight. Not long ago—well, in fact it had been years—Bruno had slept with a leggy, blindingly blonde young woman who would’ve given Lydia the Tattooed Lady a run for her money. Fantastic animals. Man-eating flowers. Twin zombie-dolls joined at the hip. “I don’t just want to make art,” she’d said, shaking off her clothes, sort of Tim Burton-meets-Taylor Swift. “I want to be art.” “Ah, but that’s where things get confusing,” he’d said, feeling simultaneously paternal and oddly inadequate that all he had to show for himself was his art. “What’s wrong with confusing?” came her tantalizing reply. “I like confusing.”
Maybe if he got to see Sara more often he wouldn’t find the heavily graffitied wall that was his daughter so jarring. Since enrolling at Moore, he could count on both hands the number of times she’d honored him with an actual face-to-face conversation. Never mind that his influence had gone a long way toward getting her in, never mind that he was footing the outlandish bill. Sara was an imaginative young woman and a talented artist in her own right. But she could also be impatient with herself if not downright lazy, her high school grades less than stellar despite a strong, if incomplete, portfolio. Yet they’d rolled out the red carpet for her upon her admission to the prestigious art school, and there was no denying that it was her father’s fame (declining though it may be) she had to thank.
And how did she repay him? By treating him like a chore she was occasionally obliged to perform. For the most part whatever interaction they had was conducted electronically, via emails and texts, though lately even these were hard to come by. (Apparently young people couldn’t be bothered to check their email. It was all such a hassle, signing in and signing out, opening and closing and occasionally deleting. Soon even texting would be obsolete. Only telepathy could be next, the instantaneous and hassle-free reading of minds!) Sara Spaventa was a woman of few words. Popular almost despite herself, she also was expert at keeping her distance. That, she’d lifted from her old man.
Sara brusquely turned away from him now and headed up the shallow church steps, signaling that the time for small talk was over. She was a difficult young woman, no question, what Bruno’s incorrigibly Old World father would’ve derisively referred to as la lupa. But the New World seemed an especially dangerous place, and all the better to navigate its vast and shadowy wilds as some badass-biker wolf rather than a basket-toting little girl in a fatally conspicuous hoodie.
“Are you coming or what?” Sara called over her jangling leather-clad shoulder. Now or never, her blazing, caramel-brown eyes told him. One last chance.
Nothing was stopping Bruno from hailing a cab, hopping a bus, simply turning on his heel and walking away. Nothing would stop him. La Lupa certainly wouldn’t stoop to hurl herself at her father’s swiftly moving feet and howl for him to stay. Another similarity between mother and daughter.
Bruno made a halfhearted show of holding his ground. Then, hands fluttering in an overly ethnic gesture of resignation, he followed Sara inside.
The interior of St. Benedict’s was only slightly more churchlike than its façade. Whenever Bruno had occasion to enter this unhospitable house of worship he was unimpressed anew. Not for the first time he vaguely wondered how God felt about it, knowing what little he knew—or thought he knew—about God. He couldn’t help picturing the Heavenly Father looking down at homely St. Benedict’s and shaking his prodigiously bearded head in a Come now, is that the best you can do? gesture of extreme paternal disappointment.
The most obvious indication that you had entered a church and not, say, some shadowy, concrete-reinforced bomb shelter, were two very large, very garish stained glass windows set in the wall behind the altar. These windows seemed wildly extravagant, out of place even, in such a hum-drum utilitarian space, though Bruno suspected the idea, architecturally speaking, was to amp up the windows’ wow-factor by playing down—way down—the church’s interior. The colors—bright cobalt blues, rich ruby golds, what he suspected might even be cadmium yellows—were eye-catching even on this sunless March afternoon, with the cowl-wearing holy figures depicted within the panels, both presumably St. Benedict (one brandishing what appeared to be a broken pasta colander, the other crushing a serpent underfoot) more closely resembling a couple of soulful-eyed circus clowns hired to liven up a no-frills nursing home.
Not surprisingly the place was empty, or near-empty: a dark-haired man in a dark leather coat was seated on the right side, halfway up the nave; an old woman in a floral headscarf on the left, way up front.
Bruno snuck a sidelong glance at Sara and saw that she was already enjoying this. Meeting his gaze, she dipped her fingers into a font of holy water and impishly said, “We here at St. Benedict’s cordially invite you to leave your demons at the door.”
Bruno nodded but they both knew it was bullshit. On the contrary, his demons would be honored guests here at St. Benedict’s. His demons weren’t meant to be left out in the cold but to accompany him into the confessional, tethered to his fingers like a troupe of sinister, soul-devouring marionettes: Pride, with his puffed-up chest; Gluttony, with her outsized stomach; Lust, with a Viagra-inspired bulge in his pants. God loves a sinner, everybody said so, and by extension so do priests. Without sinners where would they all go, what would they all do?
He trailed his daughter down the wide center aisle, the same aisle he’d followed Ruby’s casket down some fifteen years before. The same unwittingly sinister red-lit lanterns; the same speckled floor; the same cookie-cutter crosses punched into the sides of all the pews. The casket had been the most lavish thing in the place, a gleaming solid copper box with a plush velvet interior. His wife hadn’t wanted a church service but that’s exactly what she got. Her holy-roller twin sisters had seen to that, arguing that at the time of her death Ruby had gone to Mass on a “fairly regular basis.” In fact the only times she’d set foot inside a church—this church—was on Ash Wednesday, Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve. Bruno hadn’t had the strength to fight them on it. It was true that Ruby had had an inexplicable soft spot for the rituals and pageantry of her religion, the smudged foreheads and origami palm and barnyard animals huddled round the holy baby, snug as a nursery rhyme. When they got you young they got you forever. Wasn’t that the point?
How or why they’d broached the subject of their ultimate demise, Bruno couldn’t recall. It was hardly a topic for post-coital chitchat. Yet there they were in his mind’s eye, post-coitally chatting about flowers and music selections and who should read what: in short, funeral arrangements.
“Seriously, I want you to drive down the shore and scatter my ashes over the Atlantic,” Ruby said.
“You hate the ocean.”
“I don’t hate the ocean,” she clarified. “As someone who can’t swim, I fear the ocean. You can hate something you fear, and you can fear something you hate. But the terms aren’t interchangeable.” She paused as if to consider the veracity of her argument. “I hate broccoli,” she continued, “but I don’t fear it. And I fear Y2K, but it would be wrong to say I hate something that hasn’t even happened yet.”
“Point taken,” conceded Bruno, mildly amused by her uncharacteristic chattiness. “But it’s a big ocean. Can you be more specific?”
She nodded. “The lighthouse in Cape May. A one hundred-fifty-foot phallus with a flashing light at the top. My cousin Maryanne used to call it God’s cock when we were kids.” Bruno laughed, and Ruby tugged playfully at his chest hair. “So, you have to climb to the top of God’s cock, on the anniversary of our unholy union, and scatter my cremated remains to the wind.”
“Sounds surprisingly poetic for such a pragmatic South Philly girl.”
Ruby shrugged. “I have my moments.” She darted from the bed—a mere slip of a woman—and pulled on a very worn, very unsexy (which somehow Bruno found sexy) terrycloth bathrobe. “And what about you?” asked Ruby. “Any last rites I should be informed of?” Bruno frowned. “Oh right, you’re going to live forever.”
“That’s the plan.”
“Good luck with that, gramps.” Ruby was twenty-seven and Bruno forty-five at the time, but she’d loved to play up the age difference, going so far as to attribute fault-line nicknames to specific wrinkles and keep a running tally of his gray hairs. She’d even bought him a box of adult diapers as a gag Christmas gift one year. “Just let me know when I need to get started on the lion-headed pyramid or whatever. I can skimp on materials but union labor is going to cost a bundle.”
The pyramid reference was a joke, of course, but there was a time when the more fanatical of Bruno’s devotees would’ve erected jaw-dropping monuments in his honor. Though short-lived, his fame—or rather Mirror Man’s fame, his mischievous alter ego—had been a powerful thing, more powerful than he’d had any right to expect, so much so, in fact, that for the first time since being a boy Bruno knew what it must feel like to have superpowers. Then, almost as quickly and inexplicably as they’d arrived, his superpowers vanished and he was a mere mortal again, just another chump in a disused phone booth, a flawed human being.
“Not exactly the Vatican,” whispered Sara, sliding into a pew. She clamped her eyes shut and stuck out her tongue exactly as she’d done as a child whenever Bruno had made her swallow supposedly kid-friendly cold medicine. “Ugh, I’m almost about to retch, it smells so clean.”
“Have you ever seen a dirty church?”
“Queen of Heaven and Earth,” she snorted, nodding toward a statue of the Blessed Mother, a larger version of the ceramic kind found on the front lawn of every other row house from here to Packer Avenue. “Replacing that scepter with a mop would make a lot more sense.”
She had a point. Cleanliness was said to be next to Godliness but as usual it was more complicated than that. Not for the first time Bruno reflected upon how it was his immigrant mother’s most obvious way of proving her worth in a land where nobody knew her—and thus betraying a deep-seated insecurity, an all-encompassing if largely subconscious fear of being cast out of paradise—this fanaticism of broom and dustpan, this almost clerical devotion to keeping house.
It was one of the things he’d found so refreshing about Ruby, her refusal to become a slave to domesticity. Perennially unmade beds. Dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. Damp towels on the bathroom floor. Bruno had reveled in it all. Of course he himself kept the Wilder Street house neat as a purist’s tumbler of whiskey.
He’d met Ruby Marie Martello quite by accident, on his way out of a greengrocer’s down the street from Rittenhouse Park. He’d just come from having lunch with a striking, liberally dreadlocked young woman, a graduate student at NYU who’d taken the train into Philly in order to discuss her thesis and Mirror Man’s possible inclusion in it, a project she touted as a “visual record of multi-dimensional neo-graffiti.” The lunch was a bust but the grad student didn’t know it yet, and Bruno had stopped at the produce stand to stock up on bananas, his sole breakfast item—barring coffee and the occasional bowl of oatmeal—for years. Ruby hadn’t known he was a mosaics artist of some renown any more than he’d recognized her as the black sheep middle child on Brotherly Love, a fledgling, locally produced daytime soap. They nonetheless seemed to intuit that they each hailed from parts south of curiously diagonaled Passyunk Avenue, Philly’s very own Mason-Dixon Line.
“Is that a banana in your pocket,” Ruby said, “or are you about to commit a sex crime?”
Only slightly taken aback—Mirror Man had long since grown accustomed to unsolicited comments from random passersby—Bruno stage-whispered, “Produce gets me all hot and bothered.”
“I was a Carmen Miranda freak as a kid,” he said, fleshing out the falsehood. “I know entire scenes of The Gang’s All Here by heart.”
“Now I’m impressed.”
“You can keep your Julia Robertses and Angelina Jolies. I’ll take the woman with the cornucopia on her head every time.”
Ruby shook her head slowly and stared at her fruit-laden basket in mock disbelief. “And here all I planned to do was dump it in a bowl on my dining room table.”
Bruno Spaventa wasn’t a shy man, and Ruby Martello happened to do all of her best thinking on her feet, which is to say they got on well together. They had a date, then another, and another after that. Before either of them realized it they were moving in together, mingling their most cherished possessions, making long-term plans. Apparently they’d fallen in love.
Back then all Bruno could think about, for hours at a stretch, was Ruby. He wanted her more than he could remembering wanting anybody or anything, other than becoming an artist. He wanted her, and eventually he got what he wanted. Then, as it must’ve appeared to others—as it must’ve appeared to Ruby—he didn’t want her anymore. Only it wasn’t true. He’d never stopped wanting Ruby, even if, after a while, he found himself wanting other women too. He’d never stopped wanting her and he wanted her still. Often he awoke and upon reaching out for her slight, boyish form beside him in bed found himself wondering how soon she’d be back from her morning run or, if it happened to be Sunday, with a string-tied box of zeppole from Isgro’s. But Ruby was never coming back. And some days the sheer force and finality of this realization left Bruno prostrate as a deposed king on his chessboard kitchen floor.
The great irony in the aftermath of Ruby’s death was that once he was free to see other women, he no longer had any desire to. Almost overnight he’d lost the taste for sex, much as one might lose the taste for cloyingly sweet desserts after binging on Cinnabon, or mindless dance music after hours spent writhing on the floor of some crowded after-hours club. Without ever quite realizing it he’d sworn off women. The only female he hadn’t sworn off was his six-year-old daughter. In fact for years he’d all but binged on his only child, barely letting the girl out of his sight. And who could blame him? All he really had left was Sara. Bruno wasn’t just a helicopter parent, hovering anxiously above her dear, dark head. He was the girl’s second shadow, every move she made, his move; every shape he took a duplicate, if distorted, version of her own.
Eventually word of Bruno’s newfound monasticism got out. There were only so many openings he could skip, only so many parties he could miss, only so many interviews media-savvy Mirror Man could decline without arousing suspicion. They all assumed he was still in mourning, and of course he was (is one ever fully out of mourning for a loved one?). But mourning Ruby was only part of the equation. In his own warped way he must’ve been trying to make amends.
“Buongiorno, padre. Good to see you out and about.”
“Hey, Saint Bruno! Pray for me, will you?”
Often Bruno would humor his old acquaintances and long-suffering neighbors by flashing an abridged Sign of the Cross and moving swiftly down the street. A more sensitive man might’ve taken offense, but he didn’t mind. You didn’t spend your formative years knocking around these hardscrabble South Philly streets without developing a significantly thicker skin than the one you were born with.
Of course the work suffered. Maybe some men could sustain a successful career and still win Father of the Year, even after the tragic loss of a spouse, but not Bruno. He’d had to choose; he’d chosen Sara. And when finally Sara was grown and had gone off to school, where she’d determined that Bruno and Bruno alone was responsible for her mother’s untimely death, whatever hope he’d had at resuming his once-vibrant career, of simply picking up where he’d rather abruptly left off, went out the proverbial window. Out the window, down the side of the building, shattered into oblivion on the empty street below. For a man who’d made his living trafficking in glass shards, endlessly shoring these fragments against his ruin, to borrow a phrase, there was no picking up or fitting together again the scattered pieces of his ruined career, to say nothing of the obliterated image his daughter lately had of him. Certainly not without Sara’s help. Not without her blessing.
He turned to Sara in the pew and stared her down. “Are you really going to make me do this?”
She smirked in a way that was not encouraging. “Are you really going to go back on your word? ‘It’s your birthday, Sara-smile. Anything you want, Sara-smile.’ That’s what you said. ‘Just name it.’ So I’m naming it. It’s called Confession.”
“But you don’t believe in this stuff any more than I do.”
Sara flashed her catlike, incandescent brown eyes at him, so like his own. “You don’t get to tell me what I believe,” she hissed.
“Fine,” Bruno said after a moment. “I’m just trying to make sense of it all.”
A priest emerged from a small room to the side of the altar. What was it called, the sacristy? Or was the alcove with the altar the sacristy? It’d been a long time. Long ago, Bruno had pictured that room as a sort of clergyman’s clubhouse, with the priests and their altar boys back there in undershirts and suspenders playing cards, a ball game on the radio and the smell of Christ’s blood on their breath. He was more interested in what went on in that room than the routine miracle that transpired at every Mass, in full view of a few hundred people, some more pious than others.
The priest was a gangly fellow, with broad shoulders and a shock of Samuel Beckett-style white hair. Though the man was clean-shaven, his snow-capped head put Bruno in mind of the Donald Sutherland character in the Hunger Games movies. As he got closer, however, he could see that the priest was much younger than his wintry coif might lead one to believe. He passed by the end of their bench without a glance and disappeared into the confessional.
“Shades of President Snow,” Bruno whispered to Sara.
“I must’ve read that book twenty times,” she said, sounding very far away. “I used to sleep with it under my pillow.”
“I gave it to you as a present for your fifteenth birthday.”
Sara cracked another one of her mirthless smiles and clapped him chummily on the back. “Best gift I ever got—until today.”
The dark-haired young man in the leather car coat blessed himself hastily before leaving his seat and noisily entered the confessional. The sound of the door shutting behind him in the near-deserted church rivaled that of a shot going off.
To Bruno he’d resembled a character in a movie, Hollywood’s notion of what a stereotypical junior goomba should look like. Which came first, the character or the caricature? Maybe Car Coat was a mild-mannered regular and had little more to confess, week to week, than disrespecting his parents or getting to second base with his girlfriend. Or maybe the guy had stumbled in here, after much soul searching and/or heavy self-medicating, with a truly damning transgression to confess. Given the demographics, Father Snow must’ve seen his share of ambivalent neighborhood thugs whose less than ironclad consciences kept them up at night—that, and stalwarts like the hunched head-scarfed old woman in the front pew who as far as Bruno could tell hadn’t moved a muscle since he and Sara had entered the church; he wasn’t convinced she was even still breathing. Tony Soprano had his Dr. Melfi, but how realistic was that? No, in real life most guilt-ridden wiseguys would turn to the priests—or the police—if they turned at all.
A moment later Car Coat exited the mysterious magic box with as much fanfare as he’d entered it. His eyes met Bruno’s for a brief instant before the newly absolved dropped into a pew and knelt to say his penance. Grow a pair, Gramps the scoffing eyes seemed to say. Own your sins.
Sara knew as well as he did that asking for forgiveness was tantamount to an admission of guilt. Bruno didn’t murder her mother, not even metaphorically. And if anything he’d proven himself to be an exceptional father in Ruby’s absence. He’d cooked, he’d cleaned, he’d read Sara a story from Frog and Toad and tucked her in every night of her life with a kiss and a “sweet sleeps” (Sara suffered from nightmares for weeks following Ruby’s funeral and quickly developed an aversion to all dreams; wishing her “sweet dreams” was out of the question). He’d given up women, for the most part. He’d given up art. He’d given up his life for her, and now she wanted him to apologize. There were scores of people Bruno owed apologies to—Ruby foremost among them—but his twenty-two-year-old daughter wasn’t one of them.
“What kind of satisfaction could you possibly get out of this, huh?” he snapped. “How will you even know what I say in there? Do you have a drinking glass stowed in that hackneyed jacket of yours? Do you plan on listening, like some gossip-hound neighbor, through the confessional door?”
Sara, stone-faced, refused to meet his gaze. “I remember the funeral,” she said after a short silence had passed between them.
“You were six,” Bruno reminded her. “What could you possibly remember?” He said this despite having persistent if sketchy memories of his own—his mother’s parakeet, Poco, flitting about the house; a toothless huckster hawking his wares; the nylon stocking his father wore over his head one Halloween—that must’ve dated from when he was quite young, younger even than six years old.
“I remember the coffin, shining like some Egyptian sarcophagus, and thinking it was solid gold,” Sara said. “I remember the priest with the Drew Carey glasses, how he sweated bullets even though it was the dead of winter.” She fixed her gaze on him. “And I remember you, the grieving widower, not shedding a single tear.”
Bruno ignored the taunt. They’d had this conversation before, the everyone-grieves-in-his-own-way conversation, Sara’s accusation of callousness followed by her father’s swift assurance that although he hadn’t cried in front of a church filled with people he’d done a first-rate job of falling apart in private. And fell apart still, from time to time. “I didn’t want you there,” he said. “I thought you were too young. But your aunts insisted.”
Sara laughed mockingly at this. “The great and powerful Mirror Man? Bullied by a couple of South Jersey soccer moms? Don’t even.”
More silence. Bruno braced for what was coming next.
“I remember other stuff too. The fight you had the night Mom died. Her cutting you with the car keys. How you called her a crazy bitch, and she left the house in tears.”
Bruno hung his head. The night Ruby died was far from his finest moment. Although in all the years that followed they’d never spoken of it, he’d always worried that Sara, who’d been upstairs in bed during what would turn out to be her parents’ parting argument, hadn’t slept through it. He supposed he could stop worrying now.
It had been well past midnight when distant noises roused Bruno from troubled sleep. Coming down the stairs he found Ruby—boots on, car keys in hand—pulling on the lavish cashmere trench coat he’d given her for Christmas. She was in a state, he could see that, in a rush not so much to get somewhere as to leave the house. “What are you doing?” he asked her. She ignored him. “Where are you going?” he insisted. “Somewhere you’ll never guess.” She could’ve been headed anywhere—to his lover’s apartment; to the Mildred Street studio, where he kept a portable camp bed; maybe even to the stopgap sanctuary of Saint Benedict’s, for all her groggy, befuddled husband knew—but it hardly mattered. She was fiercely, almost savagely insistent about getting away—away from him. He tried to stop her, of course. But Ruby wasn’t about to be stopped. “Get out of my way,” she snarled at him when he unwisely tried to bar the door, jabbing his hand with the surprisingly sharp key to her Caddy. He still had the scar.
“You’re talking about a freak marital spat that took place some fifteen years ago,” he said, offering his accusing only child whatever solace she could glean from his knee-jerk defensive gesture, South Philly’s version of a shrug.
“Mom died that night,” she said evenly. “And I don’t even know what you were arguing about.” She looked at him. “Do I?”
Bruno threw up his hands. “Who knows what the argument was about? Even I can’t remember everything.”
Sara put her face very close to his, got right up in his grill, as the kids would say, or used to say, day before yesterday. “I remember,” she said, and backed away again.
“Memories are faulty, Sara,” he said, feeling very tired now, as if the wind had been methodically wrung from his lungs rather than knocked out of him. “Memories lie.”
“You’re right,” his daughter agreed, looking like some steely-eyed trained assassin as she reached inside her jacket. “Good thing I have this.”
A few muddled moments passed before Bruno realized what was going on here, what Sara was holding out to him. He’d found the folded index card in their bedroom long after Ruby had stormed out of the house, tented on his wife’s pillow as cordially as a miniature chocolate. He’d kept it in the uppermost compartment of his wardrobe, in an ancient cigar box full of what he’d reluctantly come to think of as the idiosyncratic relics of a private saint—Ruby’s driver’s license; the ticket stub to a Belle Opaque concert she insisted they attend; her cigarette lighter; an acorn he’d given her as a “first-day-of-fall” present; a half-serious business card that read RUBY MARIE MARTELLO – STARLET. He hadn’t exactly been hiding the note, but it wasn’t where anyone—his snooping teenage daughter, say—could easily find it.
I know everything, it read. It’s over.
Far from the first time Bruno wondered at how an entire marriage could be whittled down to five little words.
“Hey, I get it,” Sara said, slipping the card back into her jacket when Bruno refused to take it. “It’s a bitch to beg for forgiveness. But maybe you’ll do better in that little room over there, faced with Father Snow. You sure couldn’t do any worse.”
Bruno was stunned. In dumb silence he watched Sara glance at her wrist, at the outlandish timepiece fastened there. “Hurry up, please,” he heard her say. “It’s time.”
“And what will you be doing,” he said slowly, feeling queasy now, blinking as though he’d just awoken from a trance, “while I’m in there getting the third degree from Father Snow? Lighting candles? Saying rosaries?”
“What’s a rosary?”
“I could confess to anything,” he rambled on, “tell the man I robbed a bank, stole from the poor box, exposed myself to old ladies in the park. Or say nothing at all, for that matter. Plead the Fifth.” He stared at his daughter’s severe, coin-worthy profile, the pointed nose, the perfect chin, so like her mother’s. “You’d never even know.”
He watched Sara’s sleek jaw tighten as she turned toward him in the pew. For a wild second Bruno thought she might spit in his face, or worse, offer him the Sign of Peace. Without a trace of her trademark sarcasm she held his bemused gaze and said simply, “Guess I’ll just have to trust you, Dad.”
As if on cue the old woman at the front of the church rose slowly and, inching her way out of the pew, departed St. Benedict’s without a sound. Bruno wondered what this stooped, cinematic nonna could possibly have to confess. Had she missed weekday Mass, swiped her neighbor’s newspaper, poisoned a pesky alley cat? Perhaps she had allowed herself to be seduced by her sister’s husband half a lifetime ago and was only now getting around to setting the record straight. Yet she hadn’t spoken to Father Snow at all.
Et tu, nonna? he couldn’t help thinking. Good for you. Get out while you can.
Time was running out. Bruno ran down a mental checklist of his own soul-damning transgressions: decades of missed Masses; countless bouts of casual—and not-so-casual—sex; petty thefts from his adolescence; all the shameless, superfluous coveting he did, from the instant he opened his eyes in the morning till the moment he surrendered consciousness at night. And the lies. Lie upon lie upon lie upon lie. But confessing any or all of these quasi-wrongdoings wouldn’t grant him true absolution, not in Sara’s eyes. And Sara’s eyes were the only ones that mattered. Or were they? What if he was wrong about that? What if this supposedly soul-cleansing confession didn’t leave him free and clear, with a reconciled daughter and a rejuvenated career, but morally bankrupt, all but unrecognizable to himself and unable to face the irreparably fractured man in the mirror?
“You ruined everything,” Sara whispered almost to herself.
Bruno turned toward her and once again found himself confronted by a set of eyes so like his own they startled him, long, caramel-colored eyes that for all their apparent warmth struck him as essentially cold, intractable, unforgiving. He doubted his confession would make much difference to those eyes, despite the assertions of the straight-shooting young woman they belonged to. Those eyes saw him as a foolish, overly proud, hopelessly duplicitous old man, and no doubt Bruno Spaventa, aka the infamous Mirror Man, was all of these things and worse. Yet Sara had given him this one last chance to make amends. Possibly she loved him. But it wasn’t the sort of love that would keep her from vanishing from his life upon graduation. She’d already become little more than a ghost to him, but not a ghost like Ruby, a welcome apparition to chat with about the day’s events or inhabit his waking dreams. Sara’s absence from his life haunted Bruno’s every waking moment, and would continue to haunt him, relentlessly, until the end of his days. Yes, his lifelong plan had been to live forever, but every day he battled the very real and pressing possibility that his plan might—cruelly, inconceivably—fall through.
Time was up. He wished more than anything he could say he was sorry. Even if he didn’t meet Sara’s definition of sorry, even if secretly he felt he had nothing to be sorry for, he wished at least he could say it.
Bruno sat in the eerie, empty church beside his disappearing daughter, praying the words would come.
Here's a link to "Cock and Bull," my contribution to Philadelphia Stories' Naked Came the Cheesesteak serial novel: bit.ly/1PZLCD1
"Magna Cum Lately" (excerpts)
If it wasn’t far and away the worst idea Sullivan’s mother had ever had, it was certainly in contention. Not quite on a par, perhaps, with the time she’d left her toddler-age daughter unattended for “five lousy minutes” at a hotel pool and Sullivan had nearly drowned. Or the time she’d brought home a feral cat the size of an overfed raccoon that had nearly scratched Sullivan’s eyes out. Or how about the time she’d paid a near-stranger to babysit, a sluttish college student named Lee-Anne who gave the shy and gangly eleven-year-old Sullivan her first hit of pot? Yes, over the years her endearingly, often dangerously inept mother had entertained a host of bad ideas, one seemingly worse than the next. But at this point in the odd and lavish family history, everyone—and by everyone she was thinking simply herself, Sullivan Clyne, and her mother, Cordelia—seemed to agree that the worst idea her mother had ever had, if not the worst idea ever known to Man, had been involving herself with Sullivan’s no-account father, a person Sullivan had never even met and her mother was fond of pretending was long dead, killed in some careless motorcycle accident or botched criminal caper of his own devising. “Either way he’s dead to me,” her mother often said—said so often, in fact, that Sullivan routinely suggested the woman save her breath by having the phrase stenciled onto a T-shirt or inked, along with the requisite dagger-pierced skull, onto her forearm.
Here’s the thing, though: if she wasn’t going to allow anything untoward to happen—if the last thing Sullivan wanted was for something untoward to happen—why did she waste part of her precious morning getting a bikini wax? Because it’s summer, duh, and I’m headed to the beach. Okay, sure. So why did she pack her pricey black Kari bra? Again, because it’s summer, and you never know who you might meet. But also because it’s more comfortable than it looks, and I really don’t have a whole lot of underwear, at least not compared to my friends. Got it. Noted. But then why did she Google images of Mr. Alphaville (whose real name, apparently, was not common knowledge. It wasn’t uncommon knowledge either, you just had to know where to look) and save to her camera roll not only what she assumed to be a fairly recent photo of a kindly-looking gnomish old man but also a few youthful shots of him looking sultry and sexily androgynous, sporting lipstick and eyeliner and possibly even a penciled-on Marilyn-style mole? So when I disgrace myself and mortify my mother by becoming the man’s concubine, I can show my woefully ignorant detractors these very photos in the hopes they’ll understand. Obvs.
Facebook, that modern-day cliché, was to blame. Her mother had suspected all along that Mr. Alphaville himself was maintaining the MrAlphavilleFanClub page, but she had no hard evidence to support her suspicion. Until one day when she posted a photo of Sullivan and her best friend Evie in scarily high heels and very tight dresses, headed out to celebrate Evie's twenty-second birthday. (Evie was no slouch in the looks department, but next to Sullivan the poor girl appeared washed out and chubby, her hair flimsy, her jawline ill-defined.) The photo drew some seventy-eight comments, one of which was attributed to MrAlphavilleFanClub. It read: The beauty on the left, who I assume to be your daughter, would look great on an album cover.
Then her mother’s comment on the comment: Too bad she doesn’t know any rock stars.
Then the comment on the comment made on the original comment: Maybe her well-connected mother could put her in touch with the relevant parties.
This was what passed for flirting between the two incorrigibly cagey long-ago lovers. It made Sullivan cringe. The rest of the correspondence was done directly through messaging. Sullivan gathered that the gist of said correspondence was that her mother’s old boss/bedmate/guru was in the market for fresh meat. If the meat could sing, so much the better.
The Weirdos Who Are Out to Get Us Must Be Stopped (excerpt)
For the record, my mom has three tattoos: Edward Gorey’s The Wanton on her right shoulder blade; a cartoon teacup—the logo, I think, of some old goth band—on her inner left wrist; and a seahorse on her right ankle. It was the Gorey tattoo that first drew my dad’s attention to her, some twenty years ago, in a coffeehouse down in Philly. I’ve heard this story a hundred times. Dad was “delighted” when he found that the tall young woman serving the leisure class their mid-morning cappuccinos and double espressos bore more than a passing resemblance to the slinky, kohl-eyed one inked on her back. “He’s a friend of mine,” was his opening line, a gross exaggeration, though he and the famous illustrator had met at a party on Cape Cod and for a short time sent each other cryptic postcards, all of which my dad has kept in a fire-retardant box along with his most precious keepsakes. “The man who created your tattoo,” he gestured toward the striking barista’s pictorial back. My mom-to-be shrugged a single bare shoulder, unimpressed. “He’s a friend of mine too,” she said. Then, a corner of her lips curled: “Boyfriend, actually.” My dad was confused. “You want me to believe you’re dating Edward Gorey?” This made her laugh her raucous, crow-like laugh, drawing everyone’s attention to the not-unfamiliar scene of a dirty older man hitting on this particular pretty young thing. “I’m talking about Jake O’Hara,” she said. “He works at Tattoo U on South Street.” “Ah, an Irishman,” my dad said, without even trying to keep the derision out of his voice. “I should’ve guessed.” “A fake Irishman, it sounds like,” replied my mom, to which my dad could only nod his shaggy head and smile. He knew all about fake Irishmen, you see. He knew any number of real Irishmen too, but what did that matter? All that mattered at the moment was discrediting Jake O’Hara and somehow convincing this beautiful young woman to jump the counter and join him for coffee. “Is it serious, this attachment you have to the famed Mr. Jake O’Hara?” “I’m twenty-five,” she said. “Is anything serious at twenty-five?” He could argue the point—at twenty-five, Ronan McGillicudy had been a serious young man indeed. But arguing with her wouldn’t get him any closer to obtaining the girl’s phone number. Not this girl, not here, not now. “Damn if I remember,” he chuckled. “I’m a wee bit older than that.” Emphasis on the wee, emphasis on the that. “Yes, you are,” she agreed, looking him up and down and up again, until their eyes met for real this time, with predictable results. She made a show of scanning the crowded café, the line forming behind him. “I have to get back to work. Would you like a coffee, Mr….” “McGillicudy, Ronan McGillicudy,” he trumpeted. She knew him, of course. After all she was a former art student, and the first Tom Foolery book was in all the shop windows. She shot him a Well, now look and he watched her make his drink, The Wanton mimicking her movements like some lithe, tiny shadow. She served it without smiling, which he took as a good sign. “I’m off in an hour,” she said, pushing the cappuccino at him. “Will you still be here in an hour?” “I won’t move a muscle,” he lied, because his heart, to quote one of the man’s more obvious heroes, was going like mad. They talked for hours, moving their marathon conversation from café to park bench to seedy oyster bar. Partly about Edward Gorey, partly about tattoos—my dad is inkless. “I already speak in images,” is his standard semi-explanation. “All my tattoos are inked between the covers of my books.”—but mostly they talked about Tom Foolery and art in general. My mom dumped needle-wielding Jake O’Hara the very next day. They were married three short months later, the day before Halloween. The bride wore black, as if attending her own funeral.
Excerpts of selected PDA stories:
Gabriel trailed Jana’s muscular truck to her favorite bar, a big corner property within walking distance, coincidentally, of the trinity row house in which he’d been raised. The bar was lit up like the inside of a refrigerator, and seemingly under attack by a gigantic mutant crab from outer space. The fake crustacean looked as if it were about to bore a hole through the poorly shingled roof and, as if in retribution for scores of atrocities perpetrated against its kind—vats of boiling water, carapace-crunching nutcrackers, Agent Orangesque Old Bay—devour the horde of heedless patrons partying hard inside.
The birthday girl’s a born flirt, strutting the length of the living room floor to the strangled chords of the Sex Pistols, her two-toned hair artfully tousled, her silly striped dress and battered jack boots radiating as many mixed signals as a wartime sub. They don’t know what to make of her, the half-soused thirty-somethings positioned like star-struck movie extras amid the whimsical, hand-me-down decor. Daniel decides it’s her willingness to play the fool that makes thirty-five-year-old Kristina Kolakowski such a catch. Dancing on the sofa, out-whining even Johnny Rotten, she’s simultaneously attainable and safely out of reach. Hester Prynne for beginners. Madame Bovary-lite.
"Carpe Diem Disease"
Dexter stood over Alison’s crouched form, his father’s golf umbrella in hand, an expression of exaggerated disgust distorting his face. The expression was bogus, a flimsy defense. Alison looked feral, wolf-raised, pawing through the dirt, and beautiful in a way Dexter wasn’t prepared for. She’d never had any qualms about getting her hands dirty; it never bothered her to have food or dirt—or later, paint and clay—jammed beneath her fingernails. Dexter was the fastidious one, the clean freak, the prude. He kept his distance, telling himself he didn’t want mud on his clothes. But if Alison Croft so much as nodded toward the mire, there was little doubt in either of their minds Dexter would join her there.
“Is it risqué?” Lauren asked, using a word DeMarco associated with burlesque, with fleshy retro strippers named Candy or Bubbles, not with literature, not high art. Her tar-black hair was down for once, her lips shellacked a disarming, visceral shade of red. Enveloped in a stinky bubble of smoke—apparently the owners of neighborhood dives like this could afford to snub their noses at anti-smoking legislation—the woman still smelled like fresh fruit salad. “You seem like the kind of guy whose work might raise eyebrows, all buttoned up and battened down. Like some prim Victorian with a basement full of corseted sex slaves.”
“Johnny’s back,” my mother announced one muggy summer night over a steaming plate of baked ziti. My dad hadn’t been paying particular attention to her, which was a shame, because even I’d noticed she had her hair done differently—nothing dramatic, just a fresh cut, adding extra bounce to her bob—and was cruising for a compliment. But Gabe Hayes was a preternaturally distracted man, one step ahead of himself and two steps behind everyone else. He routinely walked around with his fly open and got into fender-benders with parked cars. Some men, the lucky ones, were preoccupied with sports teams, or car parts, or with defiling their barely-legal babysitters. Others, the doomed, the walking wounded, were slaves to a dream that, due to bad timing or poor life choices or a debilitating tragic flaw, would always remain just out of reach. My dad dreamt of cartoons. He was a working-class Walt Disney in search of his million-dollar mouse.
Aislinn pulled on her T-shirt and blew out the few candles that remained burning along the wide, paint-flaking windowsill. It was a sweltering summer afternoon—the third day running to hit the nineties—and still Sara had insisted on lighting candles. “It smells like Cracker Jacks in here,” she’d said, sniffing the air suspiciously, wearing that infamous scowl of hers like a facemask. “Cracker Jacks and cat piss, with—what—a splash of Listerine?” Sara’s sense of smell was legendary among their small circle of friends. She could correctly identify a perfume from clear across a crowded bar. Not that many of them even bothered with perfume. Often they camped it up with self-parodic fixative-sprayed wrists, a dab of linseed oil behind each ear. They were art students, after all. That was image enough.
Stevie was a mere few feet from the register when a toddler sporting a full-head werewolf mask wandered into his path, tempting him to reconsider his last-minute costume choice. The kid had the right idea. Werewolves were more Stevie’s style. The furred face, the torn clothes, the shameless, hair-raising howling at the moon. Werewolves didn’t put on airs. Werewolves didn’t let you use the phone, knowing full well the line was dead. Werewolves didn’t make polite chit chat over the turtle soup only to sink their incisors into the necks of their dinner guests the first chance they got. Still, if it was said of men with beards that they couldn’t be trusted, what to make of a moon-mad half-man covered head to foot in synthetic fur?
Gritty, ungodly music manhandles Paul as he climbs the warped stairs leading to Tilda’s apartment. He finds her door torn free of its hinges; it lounges in its jamb as casually as a kid on a street corner. Paul considers showing himself in but hangs back and knocks hard on the hollow wood. Tilda claims to be shameless—the girl can transform a common belch into a kind of gastrointestinal aria—but he has no desire to catch her in the midst of that most private of acts: the air-guitar solo.
"American Gothic" (excerpt)
I knew the place called American Gothic, or of it, anyway. It was on 3rd Street just south of Market. A disused bank turned dance club for the alternative set, showcasing the kind of rainy day music I no longer had much patience for, even, well, on the rainiest of days. The places I went dancing—not that I danced—were loud and well-lit, full of laughter and saucy banter and capital-F Fun. The guys didn’t wear make-up, unless you counted their girlfriends’ lipstick smeared proudly across their mouths. The girls didn’t wear black, unless they’d come directly from a funeral (which, considering the mellifluous, multi-syllabic surnames, happened more often than you might think). Nobody, to my eyes, pretended to be dead. Just the opposite. Life was everywhere in evidence, from the thumping rhythm sections to the Paas-colored drinks to the taut, tan, user-friendly bodies on parade.
Colette emerged from American Gothic’s whitewashed, neoclassical colonnade arm-in-arm with a striking blonde-haired girl neither of us, it turned out, knew very well. She was a full head taller than my friend, with fierce blue eyes and a choppy yellow bob, though her own dress mirrored that of Colette, which was very short and very black indeed. Their shoes too—Maryjanes on steroids—could’ve been sisters separated at birth. The sole distinguishing mark between their outfits was Colette’s thigh-high stockings, which were striped like the Wicked Witch of Whatever. As they came down the steps together and carefully toward my car, I remember thinking of the blonde Amazon She’s too big, she’ll never fit. I almost sped away.
That’s when Grim made his entertaining, wholly unwise entrance. Colette’s aptly named beau was an anemic boy with sheen-less black hair and the oddest pair of shoes I’d ever seen, vicious cartoony shoes resembling something a Disney character might wear, if those wizards over at the Magic Kingdom ever saw fit to create a floppy-eared assassin. He was dressed from head to toe in black, which wasn’t surprising. What did surprise me, though, was that he was wearing a dress. He came barreling through the wooden double doors, skidded across the wide front porch and overtook the girls on the sidewalk, where, in front of a half-interested crowd of college-age Transylvanians—fangless vampires and vampiras; eerily hairless werewolves; witches and warlocks that looked to be the victims of each other’s semi-successful spells—he placed a proprietary black-nailed hand on my stunning friend’s shoulder. Colette, who couldn’t stand possessiveness in a man, especially a man who himself refused to be romantically “collared,” shot Grim a look that conveyed in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t loosen his grip, tout de suite, he’d likely lose the whole hand. Then she gestured with her adorable pointed chin toward my car. Without a word, the girls climbed into the back seat of my idling Mustang.
“I’m keeping your Bauhaus T-shirt!” Colette called to the frocked suitor with the threatening taste in footwear. “Chalk it up to mental anguish.” She looked far from mentally anguished to me; this Grim, by comparison, looked about ready to burst into tears.
We drove in awkward silence for a while, during which time I tried my hand at feigning indifference to the statuesque blonde slouched on my backseat. At eighteen, however, feigning indifference to statuesque blondes was not in my repertoire. Every time I checked my rear-view mirror I accidentally caught her eye.
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense,” I said. “What did the guy do, besides raid your closet? He looked harmless enough to me. Except for those shoes.”
Colette shifted in her seat. Talk of Grim was making her uncomfortable.
“OK, forget it. I don’t need to know.”
“He hooked up with Aurora in the bathroom,” she blurted.
Feigning ignorance far more successfully than I’d feigned indifference, I asked, “Who’s Aurora?”
“Oh,” Colette said, realizing her faux pas. “This is Aurora. Aurora Borealis,” she trumpeted.
I glanced in my mirror by way of an introduction; Aurora Borealis glanced at the floor.
“Aurora,” Colette continued, “this is Sammartino Hayes. My knight in shining armor!”
She threw her arms around my neck and I nearly sideswiped an eighteen-wheeler. I shrugged off Colette with more annoyance than I would have had Aurora not been witnessing the move from the back seat.
“And this,” she continued, giggling and gesturing dramatically to my Mustang’s cramped interior, “is his steed.” She made the word sound vulgar.
Colette guffawed. Her friend, though, seemed reluctant to join in the fun. I thought better of commenting on Aurora’s unusual name—no doubt she expected an uninspired inquiry. Only when she mouthed a delicate hello that barely reached me from the back seat did I decide to address her directly.
“So, what, Grim followed you into the ladies’ room? Is that why he wears a dress? What a creep.”
I’d put the question, unmistakably, to Aurora. Aurora’s eyes petitioned Colette as if requesting permission to speak. Permission denied.
“There is no ladies’ room,” Colette explained. “The bathrooms at American Gothic are bisexual.”
Laughingly, and too quickly, I said, “I think you mean unisex.”
Colette eyed me maliciously. “Whatever,” she hissed. “Take the next exit, please.”
There was an unbearable lull. I’d inadvertently offended the only girl talking. I knew I’d regret it, but, instead of apologizing or turning on the radio, simply to fill the silent car with sound, I blurted, “Aurora. That’s an unusual name. Beautiful but unusual. Any significance?”
Aurora stared blankly ahead as if she hadn’t heard, hadn’t understood or hadn’t deemed to acknowledge the question.
“Significance?” Colette groaned. “Gee-zus, just look at her!”
Taking advantage of a well-timed red light, I did just that, flicking on the overhead light for exaggerated effect. The significance was indeed apparent: cobalt blue eyes set into a flawless, almost buttery complexion; pillow lips painted red for the occasion; luminous tufts of flaxen hair that, in the event of a blackout, you could read by.
I could’ve sat there for hours, gawking at Aurora in my rear-view. But she squirmed under my scrutiny, the light turned green, and Colette rather tactlessly informed me that the show was over by inquiring whether I preferred a series of wallet-sized or a single
8x10 glossy. I agreed to settle for a life-size cardboard cutout and stepped on the gas.
A few minutes later we pulled up outside Aurora’s house and I cut the engine. The whole way over Colette hadn’t stopped chattering, while Aurora had simply sat back and smiled, giggling, occasionally, when Colette giggled, but not once, as far as I could tell, contributing an audible word to the conversation. I felt like a swarthy, odd-smelling cabby whom the starlets, in their infinite self-absorption, felt it their sworn duty to ignore. I comforted myself with the knowledge that soon I would be alone with the darker of the two, and the thought cheered me, even if the unexpected appearance of Aurora Borealis had—sadly, astoundingly—relegated the lovely Colette to consolation prize.
Aurora lived in an open-porch row house not unlike the one my parents—or rather, now that my dad was officially no longer a member of the Hayes household, my mother—would own, eleven years hence, just in time for the Apocalypse. As best as I could tell, row houses were constructed on the premise that many people living in very close proximity to one another is an inherently good thing. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. Many people living in very close proximity to one another happens to be the root of every one of society’s woes, especially in summer, when you can’t hear the low-life sneaking in your kitchen window over the collective drone of air-conditioners, particularly in winter, when you can get yourself shot over a freshly-dug out parking space. An aerial view of my tar-roofed hometown resembles nothing so much as discouragingly black text on a page, with virtually no dialogue or breath-catching paragraph breaks to speak of.
Aurora’s house came as a bit of a shock. I know it sounds dumb, but I half-expected a home outfitted like an Amish farmhouse, all unassuming Shaker furniture and comfy, life-affirming quilts. Either that or a magnificent cave comprised of ice, like some unassailable fortress of solitude. Instead I got windows so filthy you could graffiti them with a finger; an angry mob of dehydrated mums fighting for elbow room inside a faux-terra cotta tub; aluminum siding coming down in unseemly places, like the straps of a drunken woman’s dress. It was Richtown, only worse. I hadn’t thought such a place existed.
A menacing pumpkin-headed scarecrow stuffed with junk mail was slumped in a lawn chair by the front door, daring one to enter.
“Thanks for the ride,” a low-pitched voice I didn’t recognize crooned from the back seat. “Sam,” it added, almost as an afterthought, making my banal, truncated birth name sound exotic, poetic—heroic, even.
Colette bolted from the back seat and was joined by Aurora on the porch, where the former politely shook hands with Pumpkinhead and proceeded to whisper sweet somethings in her new friend’s ear. As the two girls stood there chatting, basked in a red-bulbed, sexy-sinister glow, I noticed how antithetical they were in physique, if not in fashion. Whereas Aurora was fleshy and fair, a dairymaid whose daily regimen routinely included the hefting of kid-sized milk cans, Colette was edgy and dark, a coltish girl whose perfect posture and classic profile betrayed both her disciplined upbringing and Franco-Italian extraction. Each was clad in swaths of black—sleeveless shift dresses, thigh-high stockings, souped-up orthopedic shoes—but only Colette truly pulled it off, her lithe frame tailor-made for the costume. Aurora’s outfit seemed forced on her, as though the clothes were having trouble containing her protean curves.
Still, in comparison to the dismal get-ups donned by the other spooky club-goers, many of whom preferred loitering on the front steps of American Gothic to being inside, where they puffed dramatically on borrowed cigarettes and pouted for the benefit of the stalled 3rd Street traffic, both Aurora and Colette seemed expertly, even elegantly dressed. The dual female silhouettes confiding on the crumbling porch—glancing my way occasionally, hugging themselves against the blue-black autumnal chill—possessed something that brood of sluttish, teenage Transylvanians clearly did not.
Suddenly Colette was beside me, Aurora swallowed up by a dented storm door.
“So, what do you think?” she asked me.
“About what?” I said.
Colette shot a suspicious glance my way. “About Aurora,” she whined, fully aware that I was playing dumb. “Duh.”
“Well, to be honest,” I said, realizing that I was about to give too much away to the one person I probably shouldn’t. “I think she’s amazing.”
Colette seemed to weigh my response before answering. “Funny,” she said finally, staring blankly through the windshield of my grumbling compact car. “She said the exact same thing about me.”
"Muse #1" (excerpt)
Gemma was my first muse. I photographed her everywhere: gloomy pre-dawn beaches; bombed out El cars; the subterranean rec rooms of instantly forgettable, undersupervised teenage friends. Gemma tended to strike a pose first and ask questions later. Perfect, really, for a girl like me who thrilled at ordering others around. Wear this tin foil tutu, Gemma, and hang upside-down from that tree. Slip into this wicker swimsuit, Gemma, it’ll only scratch when you move. She never complained. And she certainly never refused my requests, no matter how uncomfortable, inconvenient or bizarre. Gemma was up for anything, all the time, which should’ve worried me more than it did. But I was too busy abusing her, happy to have an eager accomplice—a doe-eyed acolyte, really—suffering alongside me for my art. Once, when we were seventeen, I became fixated with the idea of photographing her with gobs of peanut butter smeared in her hair. Gemma headed straight for the pantry, inquiring whether I preferred crunchy or smooth. “How sweet,” our mother said, under the impression my chronically accommodating twin sister was making me a sandwich.