Make Him Look Good
By Valdes-Rodriguez, Alisa
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 Valdes-Rodriguez, Alisa
All right reserved. ISBN: 0312349661
Thursday, February 14
So, welcome to my frilly yellow bedroom. Girly, immature. Teddy bears. And not just that, but Care Bears. Pitiful. I know. How sad is it to be twenty-four years old and still living at home with your mom and dad (and grandparents)? How sad is it that I'm still here, in this white-brick home in Coral Gables, near Blue Road and Alhambra Circle, on my once-canopied twin bed, silly ducky slippers hanging off my pudgy feet, a pink terry-cloth robe cinched around my waist, my greasy flat nothing brownish hair pulled up in two slightly sad, droopy-bunny ponytails?
Yeah, well, thanks. That's my sister Geneva speaking, as she stands in my doorway with an amused, superior look on her face. Geneva holds her Yorkie, Belle, under her arm like a football. The dog pants, making the red bow between her ears bob up and down like the comb on a nervous rooster. I am not what you'd call a dog person. There's nothing worse than the hot, rotten smell of dog mouth, and I can smell it from here. Yorkie mouth from here. I detest the dog, and I detest Geneva.
You know, Geneva. My tall, thin, financially successful thirty-year-old sister? The one who looks like a slightly darker, slightly prettier PenélopeCruz? The one who is five-eight and got an MBA from Harvard--compared to the five-four University of Miami graduate that is me? The one who has a group of female friends just as perfect as she is and no shortage of men she likes to call "sex toys"? The one whose feline body and long legs turn jeans into an art form? The one who has stolen exactly three boyfriends from me in the past ten years, during which time I only had four boyfriends, even though she claims it wasn't her fault that they left me for her? She said it was my fault, for not putting more effort into my appearance, my clothes, my studies, my job, my life. She then tried to act like she'd done me a favor by offering fashion tips and career advice. Right. Her.
Geneva has just walked into my room without knocking, wearing her "work" clothes--a spaghetti-strap black silk tunic that would make any other woman look six months pregnant but which, combined with skinny jeans, a sparkly tan, and strappy black sandals, makes Geneva look like a haughty, leggy Spanish princess. Her long black hair is twisted back in a tight knot, exposing the small yet scary dragon tattoo on her left shoulder blade, and she's got a black and white scarf wrapped around her head. Anyone else with a scarf twisted around like that would look like Aunt Jemima's nanny. Geneva? Royalty.
I do not make eye contact. You know, it's not advisable, with her being the devil and so on. I try to seem distracted and unconcerned. I type on the VAIO laptop between my extremely pale legs on the bed. The "n" key is worn off from all my loser online activities; these include commenting on people's blogs, doing chats, and posting fake profiles of myself on personals sites, just to see what kinds of responses I get in different cities. I pretend like I don't know that with that one little word, "sad," Geneva is talking about the loser that is me, the state of my hair, my body, my clothes, my bed, my room.
I feel her frowning at my robe. "How long have you had that thing, Milan? God. I remember it from when I left for Harvard." Geneva always mentions Harvard, and she always mentions the Portofino Towers, where she recently bought a condo. She's a name-dropper. She picks up my phone from my dresser. "Hello Kitty. Milan? Sad."
I ignore her, focus on the computer. She puts Belle from Hell on the floor, and sits next to me on the bed and peeks at the screen. I turn it away from her. I hear Belle doing the scratch-and-sniff under my bed. What has she found there? I can smell Geneva's perfume, something musky and dark. Something expensive and very grown-up. I am aware that after a full day working in Overtown as a laxative publicist for my uncle's "pharmaceutical" company (don't ask), I smell like a goat. But it's been so long since I smelled a goat I can't be sure. The last time was at a petting zoo in Kendall when I was ten. I tried to mask today's goatness with Sunflowers perfume I got on discount at Ross earlier because I was too lazy to take a shower.
"What ya doing?" Geneva asks, stretching her neck to see the screen. For the record, my sister would not be caught dead in a Ross, or any other store with the slogan "dress for less." That, for Geneva, would defeat the purpose of dressing at all.
"Just trying to set up a chat room." I scowl at the screen to make myself seem smarter and more ambitious than I am. To make it seem like Geneva's criticisms mean nothing to me. To seem like I'm happy here, in this room, in this house, in my life.
"You guys have wireless now?"
"Yes," I say. I set it up, but I let my dad think he did it. Our parents think I am a dutiful, passive Cuban daughter to have remained living at home, where I do things like wipe my grandmother's bottom (she's too stiff with arthritis) and fold my dad's undershirts (his Y chromosome makes housework impossible for him). To our Cuban-exile parents and tens of thousands just like them all over South Florida, girls like me--chubby, unmarried, overlooked--stay home until we're (best-case scenario) married or (worst-case scenario) hauled away to the convent. Geneva and I know the truth about me, however. I'm not dutiful or traditional. I'm not even a virgin (but don't tell my parents, please). Rather, I'm a purebred American slacker. I'll have a life one of these days, when I get around to it.
Other things you need to know about me: I would be pretty by normal standards, but because I live in Miami, a city where pretty must be nipped, tucked, and liposuctioned into uniformity and submission to qualify, I am plain by association. I have a pleasant round and very white face, with freckles. People stop to ask me for directions. I have been told I look "nice," but I am selfish and wild in my head.
Geneva lifts a foot and rotates the strappy sandal, cracking her ankle. It sounds like grasshoppers in a blender. I hate that sound. She used to dance ballet, and developed this disgusting habit of cracking everything all the time, especially her ankles, with no regard for those around her. She has double-jointed arms, but doesn't show off about it anymore, thank God. "A chat room?" she asks, unaware that her joint popping has made me want to throw up. "For what?"
"My Yahoo group."
"Las Ricky Chickies?" Geneva says the name of my group with a hint of scorn. Or is it mockery? With her, I can never tell. It could be derision. She says it as if Las Ricky Chickies, an Internet forum in honor of sexy male pop star Ricky Biscayne, were the dumbest thing in the world. To her, it probably is. After all, she throws parties for the rich and famous, and gets paid very well for it, so well that she makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and gets to name-drop at the same time--like anyone really cares that Fat Joe ordered massive amounts of caviar or something for a tacky rap-star party. She recently bought herself a new BMW, in white. I myself drive a fabulous puke-green Neon. She has no need, as do we mere mortals, to connect with our idols in other, more pedestrian ways.
For the record, Ricky Biscayne is a Latin-pop singer from Miami, half Mexican-American and half Cuban-American, and he is my obsession. I love him. I have loved him since he began as a salsa singer, and I have loved him as he recorded Grammy-winning albums in the Latin-pop genre. I love him now, as he prepares to cross over to the mainstream English-language pop realm. I love him so much I am the secretary of Las Ricky Chickies, the unofficial Ricky Biscayne online fan club. In addition to this club, I am also a member of a Coral Gables book club, Las Loquitas del Libro (the crazy book girls), that meets weekly at Books & Books. You might say I'm a joiner. That's the big difference between me and Geneva. She carves her own way and expects everyone to follow. The sucky part is, they usually do.
Geneva flops backward on the bed and picks up one of my Care Bears to throw it into the air, only to punch it violently on the descent. Then, as if trying to tell me something, she tosses the bear at the poster of Ricky Biscayne taped to my closet door.
"If you must know," I say, "we're going to have a live chat during Ricky's Tonight Show performance."
I look at the pink Hello Kitty clock on my nightstand, then at the TV on the sagging metal stand in the corner. It has cable. It doesn't look like it, but it does. My dad, who owns a shipping and export business and whose expensive ties are always crooked, jerry-rigged it somehow. Cuban ingenuity, I suppose. We never throw anything away, even though we're far from poor. My dad just tries to fix everything, or make a new invention out of it. This house is full of junk. Junk and birds. Canaries. We have four birdcages scattered around the house, and among my many unsavory chores is that of cleaning them.
"You think Ricky's gonna do well in English, Milan?" Geneva asks, with a tone that tells me she already knows the answer, and her answer is no. She rolls onto her belly and tries again to look at the screen. "He's so corny. I don't see how an American audience could deal."
"Ricky does well at everything he tries," I say. I stop myself from correcting her misuse of the term "American" to mean only English-speaking U.S. citizens. I'm an American. So is Ricky. So are most of Ricky's millions of fans. "He's perfect."
Geneva snorts a laugh and starts picking at her short, bitten, mangled fingernails--the only imperfect thing about her. The ankle cracking is bad, but the fingernail thing is worse. It makes a little clicking sound like a car that won't start. Click, click. Click, click. "Isn't it a little juvenile to be obsessed with a pop singer at your age, Milan?" she asks. "I mean, no disrespect, but . . ."
"Stop with the fingernails," I say.
"Sorry," she says. But she does it again, this time very close to my ear.
"Don't you have your own house to go to or something?" I ask as I push her hands away. "God."
"Condo," she corrects me. "In the Portofino." Right. How could I forget that Geneva, president of a multimillion-dollar party-planning company favored by rappers and Latin American soap stars, just bought a very expensive condo for herself in one of the most expensive buildings on Miami Beach. Enrique Iglesias is her neighbor. She has joked about taking him away from his Russian tennis-babe wife. I did not find the joke amusing, for obvious reasons.
"Why are you here?" I ask. Belle has emerged from beneath the bed with one of my flat, comfortable sandals and is trying to either kill it or hump it. "It's late. Go home. And take that rat with you, please."
"Mom asked me to hang out for a while to help her prepare for a show," says Geneva. Amazingly, she takes the sandal away from the dog. "What, I can't hang out here? You want me to leave?"
I'm about to say yes when our mother, Violeta, an AM talk-radio host, sashays into the room carrying a tray with milk and cookies, like some housewife mom from a fifties TV show. She stops when she sees the two of us about to fight, me crouching away from Geneva, and Geneva leaning in for the kill. Mom knows us very well, and it shows on her face--or what's left of her face. She's had so much plastic surgery the last few years I hardly recognize her anymore. She looks like a tightly pulled lizard with Julie Stav hair.
"What's going on here?" she asks. She leans into her hip. Like Geneva, our mother is thin and tidy, and she does the hip-lean thing to give her the appearance of caderas. For the record, I got all the caderas--hips--my mom and sister lack. I'm shaped like a pear. I'm overweight, slightly, in large part because of an addiction to guava and cheese pastelitos from Don Pan, but I still have a tiny waist. A certain kind of man likes that shape, but in general it is not the kind of man I like. I am told I look like my mulatta grandmother, even though I am the whitest member of our family. We run the spectrum, we Gotays, from black to white and back again, even though no one but Geneva seems to admit that we have any African in us.
My mom and Geneva look alike, or they used to before our mother started to look like Joan Rivers with a platinum-blond bob. Mom wears high-waisted beige dress slacks, probably Liz Claiborne, her favorite brand, with a short-sleeved silk sweater, black. The whole obsession with black is something she shares with Geneva. Mom's breasts were recently remodeled, and they seem to have moved into their perkier bras quite happily. Did you know that when you get a boob lift they put something like a golf tee under your tits, attached to your ribs, to hold them up? Gross. Besides, it's just wrong to have a mother with perkier boobs than you, isn't it?
"Everything okay here?" repeats Mom.
Geneva and I sort of shrug.
Mom purses her lips. They used to be smaller than they are now, those lips. They've been blown up somehow, like tiny pink bicycle tubes. "Something's going on," she says. She sets the tray down on my Holly Hobby dresser, next to the porcelain statuette of La Caridad del Cobre. She taps her red manicured nails on the dresser top and scowls at us. I think that's what the face is, anyway. I'm learning to read her body language, like she's a cat now and can only express feelings with the arch of her back or something. Mom would be well served to have a tail these days.
"I think Milan wants me to leave," says Geneva. "Mom, she's so unfriendly."
Before I have time to lie in protest, our mother sighs and does the thing where she makes us both feel so guilty, we are paralyzed. I want to save her. I want to make her happy. I hate myself for being a disappointment. Mom says, "You two. In Cuba, you'd never act like this."
Geneva stands up and walks to the tray of cookies. "May I?" she asks our mother. Mom does her hand in a circle in the air to tell Geneva to eat, but she continues to frown at me.
"If this is about the thing with the boys," she says. "Tú tienes que olvidar de todo ésto, Milán."
I look at the television and ignore the fact that she just told me, in Spanish, that I have to forget about Geneva stealing all my men. Jay Leno appears to be winding up his zoo-animal segment, having petted a baby lion for the past few minutes. Ricky will be on next. I unmute the volume and study the screen. "Shh," I say. "Ricky's coming on. Everybody be quiet, please."
"Blood is thicker than water," says our mother, pacing the room. She rarely stays still, our mother. She is high strung, wired, and motivated, just like Geneva. Mom sidesteps Belle--we share a dislike of dogs, my mother and I--and picks up a stack of magazines on my nightstand, all of them with Ricky on the cover. She sighs and clicks her tongue at me. "Ricky, Ricky, Ricky," says my mother as she drops the magazines one by one, as if Ricky made her tired. "I am sick of this Ricky."
"Sit down, Mom," Geneva tells her through a mouthful of coconut ball. "This'll be fun. I just want to see him make an ass of himself on national television." Geneva brings the tray to the bed and sets it down next to me. She herself sits on the floor, with a great crackling of misused joints. Belle climbs into Geneva's lap and licks a fleck of grated coconut off Geneva's chin. Geneva doesn't seem to mind. "Milan? Cookie?"
I take a coconut cookie ball, and bite. They are sweet enough to make you squint, chewy, made of nothing but sugar, vanilla extract, and grated coconut in heavy syrup. It's the taste of my childhood, sugar and coconut. Cubans eat sugar like Americans eat bread, and I don't even want to think about what my pancreas looks like. As I munch it I log in to the chat room and greet the twenty-one other Ricky Biscayne fans who are there. I know all of them by screen name. My mother and Geneva look at me, and look at each other with raised brows and smirky, pretty mouths. Fine. I know. They think I'm pathetic. A geek.
"Chew at least twenty times, Milan," says Mom. "You're not a snake. You're getting crumbs everywhere on your shirt."
"Nightgown," I correct her.
"With you it's hard to tell," says my sister.
"Shh," I say. "Leave me alone. I'm trying to focus on Ricky."
"This hair," says Geneva. She reaches up and touches my ponytail. Belle snaps at my lifeless strands and I daydream of punting her across the room. "You'd look so good if you got some highlights. Please let me do a makeover on you, Milan? Please?"
"Highlights would look beautiful," says my mother.
"Shh," I say.
"You should let your sister fix your hair," says our mother.
"Shh," I tell them as I type my hellos to Las Ricky Chickies. "Leave me alone."
"How's your face, Mom?" Geneva asks. Mom recently had a face-lift, which explains why she has bangs cut into her bob at the moment.
"Oh, I feel great, better than ever," says Mom. Her cheeriness is almost unfathomable.
"Shh," I say.
"Did it hurt?" asks Geneva.
"Not at all," says Mom. No matter how many surgeries and other enhancements she has, our mother always says she feels great afterward. I glance at her. I can't tell if she is smiling or not. I think she is. She sips a bit of milk and looks surprised as she nibbles a coconut ball through her rubbery lips. I know enough to know she is not actually surprised. Not much surprises her.
On the TV screen, Jay Leno holds a CD up for the camera. It's the same photo as the poster on my closet door. The closet itself is full of cheap linen work clothes from the Dress Barn. Sad, I know. I decorate like a high school girl and dress like a middle-aged secretary. But I have plans. Once I'm out of here. I'll get real furniture and real paintings or something. I'll get real clothes once I lose twenty pounds. Until then, it doesn't seem worth the expense. Seriously. If you saw what I was up against, all the implants and high heels prancing up and down the Miracle Mile, their perfect little bodies ducking in and out of the Starbucks just to be seen, you'd realize that unless you have the spectacular cuerpazo of a Sábado Gigante model, it's almost better to hide yourself. This is a city where the entire concept of pretty is impossible, where paunchy men in khakis and belts stare, and women spend hours a day and many fortunes making themselves stare-ready. I don't have that kind of time. Or if I do, I don't have that kind of patience. And as a laxative publicist I certainly don't have that kind of money. Don't judge me. I get enough of that at home.
Leno glances at the glossy photo of Ricky's perfectly bronzed six-pack and appears to suddenly have a mouth full of lime juice.
"Oh, jeez," he whines. "Put on a shirt!" The crowd laughs. The host grins and says, "Don't hold the abs against him. He's a great guy, really. Ladies and gentlemen, please help me welcome the newest Latin crossover sensation, Ricky Biscayne!"
"Oh, Ricky," cries my sister, making fun of me. "You're so dreamy!" Belle yaps her approval.
I sit up and hold my breath. Suddenly, everything else is too loud. Mom's pinched breathing through her five-year-old nose job. Belle's hyperpanting. The cool baritone hum of the air-conditioning vents, droning in concert with the twittering night song of cicadas and tree frogs in the backyard. Even with the window closed, the creatures are loud. At night, Miami swarms with things like this, things with slime or sheen on their backs, shiny-eyed things with suction cups on their big, goblin feet. This is why I prefer to stay inside at night, by the way. By day, Miami is one of the most beautiful cities on earth. By night, it's Mars.
Geneva's cracking ankles and clicking fingernails. I grab the remote from the bed, and tap, tap, tap it up. I don't want to miss Ricky's big moment.
With an energetic bang of trumpets and congas, the upbeat song begins, and Ricky starts to dance. "Dance" is actually too sissy of a word for what he does. It's more like making love to the air, grinding, pulsating, shimmying. Oh, baby. He's a graceful, masculine dancer. That's what people notice most about him. His hips, his tiny thrusts and gyrations, all with that happy, naughty grin and those shiny white teeth. Movie star teeth. Not an ounce of fat on him, either, just pure sculpted grace. He has the kind of rear end you want to grab and sink your fingernails into. Or teeth.
The camera pans across his band and focuses for a moment on a balding, redheaded man who plays the guitar with one hand and the keyboard with the other. He's got a microphone attached to his keyboard and sings into it with tremendous passion.
"That guy looks like a tiny Conan O'Brien," says Geneva.
"Shh," I say. The little Conan looks into the camera and I feel a strange pang in my gut; he's got none of Ricky's looks, but this guy has a certain appeal. Eh. Maybe not. Maybe I'm just like a groupie who will do any guy in the band just to get a shot at the leader.
Go back to Ricky, I think. Why is the camera focused on this guy? Who cares about the backup musicians when Ricky Biscayne is onstage? Honestly. The camera zooms back to Ricky, and every woman on earth recognizes his supreme maleness, even my mother, who, I notice, has let her tight jaw go slack at the sight of his wiggling. Is that drool I see in the corner of her mouth? Asquerosa. Maybe she can't feel her lips anymore? She told me that for her boob lift they actually had to remove her nipples and put them back in a different place. Sick.
"I'd marry him," I say out loud, grabbing another coconut ball from the pink plastic plate. "In a minute."
"No serías feliz," says my mother, meaning, You wouldn't be happy. I think my mother must tell me at least once I day I won't be happy doing something I want to do.
Happy? With Ricky? Eh. Maybe not. But who needs happy when you could have a body like that in your bed? I'd cry the entire freakin' day, filling wads of tissue with my tears and snot, if it meant spending the night thrashing with Ricky Biscayne.
I take a peek at Geneva, and to my surprise she appears to be enraptured by Ricky. She looks embarrassed. I don't think I've ever seen her look embarrassed before.
"See?" I tell her. "He's not making an ass of himself."
Geneva lifts her brows and looks around the room, then at me. "No," she says. "Actually, he's pretty good. I'm surprised."
"He's gonna be huge," I say.
"He might," says Geneva. "You might be right."
"I told you," I say. "You should have believed me. I mean, you usually like my taste in men."
Geneva ignores the jab and starts digging through her weird little fringy purse with the big tacky dior on the side, looking for her phone. She opens it and dials someone and starts talking in a loud voice about how she thinks she wants to get Ricky Biscayne as an investor in her newest business venture, Club G, a South Beach nightclub she plans to open later this year. "I know," she says. "I thought he was all about the neck chains and the mullet, too. But not anymore. He's totally hot. I think he's got it, star quality. It's what I'm looking for. Get me in touch with his people."
"Shhh," I say. Geneva scoops up her demon dog and takes her call into the hallway. Thank God. I don't need her in here.
"I'm going to bring your abuelito in," says my mom, rising from the bed. She stands in front of me, blocking my view with her flat Liz Claiborne-pants butt. They're like mom jeans, only they're pants. She means that she's going to bring my grandfather in from the front porch, where he likes to sit "on the lookout" for communists.
"Move!" I say, trying to duck around her for a view of Ricky.
"You need a hobby," says my mother, in Spanish. She tries to pinch my arm. When we were little, she used to pinch us to get us to pay attention to her. I swat her hand away, and she says, "This thing with Biscayne, it's ridiculous. You're not a little girl."
Then stop pinching me. "You need to move," I say, pushing her. I consider mentioning that I know all about her grown-up "hobby" up in La Broward, but, you know. It wouldn't be polite to tell your mom you know she's screwing a Jewish plastic surgeon on the side. I followed her one time, and spied on them. He's pretty muscular, for an old guy, like that one dude, Jack LaLanne. He's got a weird orange tan and big thick veins like blue worms in his neck. Dad's been schtupping bimbos--his secretaries and whatnot--on the side for decades, so it's only fair. And you wonder why I'm still single?
She sighs and leaves the room. I happily lose myself in Ricky's performance. I've lusted after him since his first hit on WRTO Salsa, ten years ago, and continue to lust in pulsing, throbbing ways that shame me. There must be some defect in the genes of the women in this family, I swear. We're like a bunch of loser nymphos, especially Geneva the man-stealing whore. Oops. I didn't say that.
The camera focuses on Ricky, in his form-fitting, fashionable jeans and tight-fitting, nearly transparent dark blue tank top, his tanned arms sculpted in rounded waves of muscle. My mouth falls open as I stare into his hypnotic eyes. He's like an evil witch doctor, taking over my soul. I know. He's only looking at the camera. But I can't help it, I have this overwhelming sense that he's looking right into my soul. The lyrics are meant for me. They speak of a man's love for a plain yet complex and underestimated woman. No other man sings about average women with reverence. Seriously. I mean, not that I'm average. I am just average in Miami. And, for once, there's a man in the world who appreciates that a woman like me might be wild, passionate, lusty, interesting.
The chorus ends, and a timbale solo comes up. Ricky begins to dance again, with backup dancers, all of them female. And when he begins to do a sexy little salsa step, one masculine hand over his belly, right in that spot where men have hair creeping up in a sinful little line, his other hand held up as if holding my hot little fingers, I quite nearly choke on the last of the coconut balls. One minute he grins like the boy next door, dimples, full lips, cute; the next, he frowns with intensity, jaw determined and heroic, his eyes burning with dark lust and power. His body's motions send shock waves through my nervous system, and goose bumps rise on my skin. Ricky Biscayne is, without question, the sexiest man on earth. His hips thrust forward and back, and I correct myself. He is the sexiest man in the galaxy.
As he opens his mouth to sing the last chorus, I begin to speak a prayer to my statuette of La Caridad del Cobre. The peaceful virgin watches me with sympathy from her post on the white Holly Hobby dresser, ceramic blue waves lapping in curls at her feet. God only knows she's seen me do a lot of kinky, lonely stuff in this room, some of it involving innocent victims like hairbrush handles and tubes of eye-makeup remover. Don't ask. Anyway, I'm surprised she even tolerates me, actually. I'm surprised she hasn't struck me with lightning for my raging slacker libido.
"Holy Virgin," I say. "Please help me meet this man. I'll do anything."
Anything? the virgin seems to ask.
"Anything," I repeat.
Man, I'm sore. It was another slow day at the fire station yesterday, just a couple of calls from the regulars--a lonely diabetic and an older homeless guy who knows exactly what to say when he calls to get the paramedics out. I'm having chest pains. I can't breathe. I'm dizzy. I can't feel my arm. So, in between playing counselor to the lonely and desperate of South Florida, I lifted, big-time, in the station's weight room. Me and Tommy, competing like we do to see who could squat heavier--and me winning. Yep, that's right, I told them, the "girl" is strong. They still can't believe I'm smoking them on the physical exams, but they're coming around.
I'm not huge or anything, just solid, tall, and lean--like a professional volleyball player, which I might have been if I hadn't had a baby when I was still in high school. I rocked at volleyball. I've always been athletic, and I'm careful about what I eat. Not that I don't eat, I just eat a lot of protein and vegetables. A typical lunch for me might be a can of tuna, eaten with a fork, and a bag of grilled vegetables with a rice cake. Boring, but it does the trick. When I first started on the force five years ago, I was the first female on the team at Station 42. There was a lot of doubt about a woman firefighter. Not anymore. Or at least most of the guys don't have a problem with it. L'Roy still seems miffed, but that's probably just because I never gave him any, and he's lusted after me from day one.
I'm home now, in my green stucco tract house in Homestead, about to start my four days off. That's our schedule, two full days on, four off. I am beat, and I'd like to sleep, but I've got my feverish thirteen-year-old daughter resting her head in my lap. She's sniffling, struggling with a flu. I feel the tickle of the illness creeping into my throat, but as any single mother knows, I won't be able to actually be sick. I'll have to guzzle DayQuil and coffee and muddle through. Single moms don't get to be sick; we get to be drugged. The good news is that with four solid days off, I might get a chance to chill. Might. I said might.
I might get a chance to see my new man again, too. Did I say man? Preceded by the word "my"? Wow. (Grin, grin!) I guess I did. I am not in love or anything, but I have a playmate. I haven't told my daughter, or my mother, or anyone. Haven't told them what, you ask? This: I've had a few secret lunch dates with a local divorced cop named Jim Landry. He's tall, which is good because at five-foot-ten I'm not short. He's six-three at least, with dirty blond hair cut short just the way I like it. Like me, he's fit and takes his job protecting the public very seriously.
The only thing I really don't like about Jim Landry is that he's a born-again Christian and likes to talk about God all the time. He goes to church on Tuesday nights. He has a fish on his car. I mean, I respect it, but I don't dig it. I grew up Catholic, Irish Catholic, and I like to read Joseph Campbell and think about world religions and what they mean to everyone, so basically I don't need anyone shoving Jesus-this and Jesus-that down my throat all the time. But at the same time, men aren't exactly falling off trees at my feet, especially not cute, available ones, so I'll see if I can adjust to Jim's God-o-rama in exchange for a little nookie.
I see him at fire scenes now and then, and he surprised me by asking me to lunch last month. We've had three lunches, and even though it sounds shallow, we have very good chemistry and smell compatibility--even when he eats onions. He's the only man I've known who doesn't stink after onions. We had sex for the first time just yesterday, at his house, nothing earth-shattering, but pleasant. It was the first time I've done it in many years. So, you know, other than the flu, I feel young and sexy again just thinking about him. It's nice to have a reason to shave my legs again. I'm feeling good.
I stroke Sophia's wavy, dark brown hair, and try not to think about the sleep I won't be getting tonight. I replay yesterday's romp, Jim's dark brown eyes and the pheromone man-smell of his neck. I'd forgotten the animalistic sense of peace you get, as a woman, sniffing the musk of a man's neck.
My daughter and I lay atop the light goose-down comforter with the pale lavender Restoration Hardware duvet cover. The bedding was too expensive for me, but I fell in love with it and bought it. I am an excellent window-shopper, and sometimes I give in and use my credit cards. I'm usually not that impulsive, but I figured if you have to be single in your bed you might as well be comfortable. My bedroom is my oasis, a creamy, purple retreat. Sophia sighs, and I want to make her better instantly. If only we moms had that power.
I had her when I was fourteen, almost fifteen. Just a year older than she is now. I didn't feel as young then as I think she is now, but I realize now I was just a baby, too. I raised her alone, and made up for my long guilty hours at work, first as a waitress and grocery clerk, and for the past five years as a firefighter, by sharing a bed with her in a studio apartment. Maybe it was selfish, me wanting Sophia's warmth and reassuring breath by my side. When she was ten, Sophia said she wanted her own room like all her friends had, and I bought this little house through a HUD program. I don't want to live in Homestead, but my income restricts my choices. I like to drive through Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, looking at homes. If I won the lottery, that's where I'd live, in one of those old cities with big trees and lots of shade. Homestead is too bright, too hot.
I kiss her forehead. People say teenagers can't be good mothers, but I was. I was a damn good mom, and still am. I knew what I needed to do to be a good mother, because it was just the opposite of everything my parents had done. Don't smoke, don't drink, don't do drugs, don't collect welfare, don't beat your child, don't beat your partner in front of your child, don't be homeless, don't live in your car, don't sell your car for food, don't forget to brush your child's teeth for, like, years, don't leave your child unattended most of the time. It was easy to know the rules. She's turning out good, too. Soccer star, good grades, friends, chorus. A good kid. I hate to see my daughter ill, but I'll tell you, I love having my baby back, if only for a little while.
Sophia looks up at me with big, honey-brown eyes, the skin over her high cheekbones red from the flu. People who don't know us usually mistake us for friends rather than mother and daughter. Sophia is tall, like me, and looks older than she is. And people can't believe we're related because of the differences in our coloring. I'm a natural blonde, with blue eyes, tanned skin, and a squarish face. My short hair juts out in ragged peaks. I look good with long or short hair, but I keep it like this because when you're rushing into a fire scene you don't need to be worrying about tucking your hair up into your helmet. Some of the guys at the station say I remind them of a younger Meg Ryan. Others say Jenna Jameson, but I think that's mostly just to try to piss me off. I don't get pissed. I laugh right along with them; it's the best defense.
Sophia, in contrast, has skin the color of a roasted cashew. She's already nearly my height, and will likely be taller when she grows up. She's a big, strong girl. Her dark, wavy hair falls to the middle of her back, wild in a way that reminds me of women from Arthurian legends. Guinivere or something. Sophia isn't heavy, but her hips and thighs are thicker than mine, and already she wears a larger size in pants. I'm a ten; Sophia's a twelve. Sometimes, I can't believe my child is this big already. It truly feels like less than a week since she was born. Our mouths and noses are very much alike, and once we tell people we're mother and daughter, they see it.
"Try to sleep," I say. Is that too much to ask? That she sleep so I can, too? But just as Sophia settles her head onto the pillow, a soft knock comes on the thin wood of the bedroom door. The doors are hollow and splinter easily. That's a sign of a cheap house. I want a better house someday. And I'll get there. You'll see. When I make lieutenant, and then captain. But this will do for now.
My mom, Alice, now forty-six, pokes her head in and smiles sarcastically as she pushes large brown plastic eyeglasses higher on her narrow stab of a nose. Since my penniless alcoholic father's death five years ago, Alice, the ultimate codependent enabler with nowhere to go, has lived with us, sleeping on the pull-out sofa. Alice smokes cigarettes in the front yard, in a housedress. I won't let her smoke inside. She still hangs out with her biker-bar friends, an unsavory bunch of Confederate-flag-waving yokels I've hated for decades. Some things never change. Alice most of all. I hate living with her, but I don't have the heart to kick her out. Abandonment is her specialty, not mine. I've stretched far the other direction, toward compassion and generosity.
"I thought you might want to see who's on the Tonight Show, getting rich," whispers Alice. I don't call her Mom because I think that's a title you have to earn. The slight odor of fresh cat discharge wafts in; I need to change the litter box in the tiny laundry room off the small garage. The granules of litter spray across the floor and seem to get tracked all over the house. I have to run the vacuum, too. There is never enough time, it seems, to do everything that needs to be done. You'd think Alice might help out, but no. That would be too considerate of her.
As Alice waddles back down the hall in her cheap leggings and Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt, she mutters, "No-good Messican son of a bitch." I know instantly who she must be talking about.
With my heart racing, I grab the universal television remote from my unfinished-maple nightstand, hold the batteries in with my fingers--I lost the back to the thing years ago and have lost faith in the duct-tape method--and aim it at the small white TV on my unfinished dresser. Sure enough, there's my high school sweetheart, Ricardo Batista, or, as the world now knows him, Ricky Biscayne, singing his heart out. He looks so normal and harmless on television. On television, he almost looks like a nice guy.
"Who's that, Mommy?" asks Sophia. She sits up, rubs her eyes. I think she might have pinkeye. We'll have to go to the pediatrician.
I look at Ricardo's wavy dark brown hair, his high cheek red from singing. I look at his big, honey-brown eyes, and the pain of his unexpected abandonment washes through my body as forcefully as if it had happened minutes, not years, before.
"He's a boy I used to go to school with back in Fort Lauderdale," I tell her, with a false smile and a stabbing memory of the first time I ever really felt loved, long ago. Fourteen years ago, to be exact. "You get some sleep, baby."
Forty miles north, in Bal Harbour, Jill Sanchez watches Ricky Biscayne sing on a fifty-inch Sony plasma television that, when a button is pressed, whirs down out of the ceiling of her home gym. The television is as thick as a slice of bread. Jill, who believes carbs were invented by Satan, has not eaten bread in five years. This is her second workout session of the day, the first having been at four this morning. She wears a pink and gray Nina Bucci sports bra, and sexy matching stretch pants that ride low on the hips and have holes cut out along the sides of the legs. Jill Sanchez has her own line of workout wear that makes loads of money for her, but, being a woman of discriminating tastes, she refuses to wear her line herself, knowing that her clothes are cheaply made. She has a Nike endorsement and finds the shoes suitable and convenient; they come every month, free, in the mail, a dozen or so pairs. This morning, she wore baby-blue Lululemon yoga pants with a matching tank; they make outstanding workout wear. And Jill knows workouts. A trained jazz dancer, on average she exercises three hours per day.
As she pumps her legs on a stair-climber, she remembers the last time she herself performed on The Tonight Show, two years ago. Or was it four? Five? God, no. Really? She frowns at the passage of time, as if frowning might stop it. It can't have been that long ago. Jill pumps her legs harder, hoping to keep her thirties at bay, even though she is already thirty-seven. As a policy, she does not consider the fact that she will soon enter her forties, even as she has her hair colored every five or six days to make sure no one ever sees the graying roots. The forties are unthinkable to Jill Sanchez, who still believes she belongs on MTV's Total Request Live alongside teenaged singers with their black, bitten fingernails and angst. The harder she pumps, the faster her long, straightened brown ponytail with the highlights swings back and forth, just brushing the top of her mighty, spherical, and famously famous rear end.
Six years ago, she was the first woman to simultaneously have a top-rated movie, album, and perfume in a single week. She'd gone on the Late Show, singing and dancing in those scandalous nude-colored pants that some people thought rode just a wee bit too low, revealing by design the tiniest hint of well-coiffed, short-short, sweet-smelling pubic hair, but also being interviewed about her new movie and clothing line. The clothing line, for the record, then brought in more than $175 million a year, worldwide, because--and wasn't it obvious?--women everywhere wanted to dress like Jill Sanchez, and men everywhere wanted them to.
Some people in the press liked to say her star was fading these days, just because she'd had a messy couple of divorces and other assorted and generally well timed and professionally calculated "scandals," including this newest one about the fur. PETA is a group of whiners, in her opinion. How many of them wore leather? Huh? How could anyone complain about fur and wear leather? Whiny losers and hyprocrites. They should try being her, Jill Sanchez, for a day or two. They'd know about brutality then. Was it her fault the media vultures circled her carcass day and night? Was it her fault the vile press descended upon every scrap of Jill-ness she threw their way? Who were "the press" anyway, except a bunch of wannabe stars, envious sagging hags and ugly pockmarked men she'd never even give the time of day? Everyone in the press had bucked teeth or buggy eyes. She did not doubt that the very men who wrote horrible things about her whacked off to her image in their private moments. They picked on her because she was a woman, and a powerful one at that. Lots of men in Hollywood had botched love lives and bombed movies, but the press was easy on them. Just look at that skeezy George Clooney. Or that other one, the superboring guy who always sounded like he was sleeping or stoned--Kevin Costner. The media went easy on them. But not on her, Jill Sanchez. Jill Sanchez, they crucified. Hollywood had such double standards for women, and Latina women in particular. Just look at Paula Abdul. The cute-as-a-button American Idol judge had been divorced three times. But did the media crucify her or call her a whore? No. She'd run over someone on the freeway in her Mercedes, and then she'd slept with that one Idol contestant, but no one hated her for it. Did the media call her heartless, ruthless, all the words they had called her, Jill Sanchez? No. They reserved that venom for Jill.
But Jill Sanchez had not gotten to be Jill Sanchez by sitting idly by while the world happened to her. She made the world happen, just how she liked it, and her slick, highly produced upcoming comeback movie and album would prove it. And once she'd taken care of all that, Jill would be free to find love, real love, once and for all, and maybe pop out a baby or two. And maybe, just maybe, her father would forgive her for not being the docile Puerto Rican daughter he'd always wanted. Maybe then she'd actually learn how to make the arroz con pollo she always ordered out for on those rare occasions when her mother was able to talk her father into visiting.
As it is, Jill's father, a plumber by trade and odor, says he is too ashamed of her "puta ass-shaking" videos to set foot in her home or her life. He tells her he has never watched one of her videos all the way through, and seems to favor her oldest sister, a homely schoolteacher who can do no wrong. His loss.
Jill's mother, for her part, reminds her that just because the public thinks Jill is in her late twenties does not mean that her ovaries believe likewise. Her mother has long been intensely critical of Jill, her middle and flashiest daughter, and in a way this criticism has subconsciously driven Jill to overachieve in every aspect of her life, in the hope that her mother will finally be pleased with her.
Jill has never gone to therapy and doesn't understand her conscious--much less subconscious--motivations for success. She will never go to therapy, mostly because Jill Sanchez is convinced that there is nothing wrong with Jill Sanchez and that fault, when it must be assigned, always falls elsewhere. In the meantime, she likes looking at herself and believes others do, too. It doesn't get much deeper than that.
Jill watches Ricky Biscayne sing his guts out, and smiles to herself. What he lacks in the penis department he more than makes up for with that gigantic vibrating sweep of voice. No one sings like Ricky Biscayne. When he left this house yesterday to fly to Los Angeles with his stupid sorry-ass wife, Ricky had been giddy with nerves, and Jill had tried to reassure him by fucking his brains out. The host of The Tonight Show was nice, she'd told him, and would make Ricky feel comfortable.
Jill and Ricky tried to be "just friends" but slipped up and made love--twice. Once in the kitchen, and once on the slick black tiles of the pool-house floor. He had agonized over it, as usual, complaining of his lack of control and his need for a personality overhaul, of his love for Jasminka Uskokovic, the pathetic Serbian stick-figure "supermodel" he'd married. He'd even talked about Jasminka's dog as if the dog would feel betrayed by him. Jill had reassured him it was the last time, knowing as she did it that it was a lie. Actors were good at lying. Ricky had been wounded from a life without a father, and from having been molested by a male neighbor who'd pretended to be a father figure when Ricky was about sixteen--both issues he'd rather not talk about but that she had been able to draw out of him in their moments of quiet postcoital intimacy, as he rested his head on her belly and his tears filled her navel. Jill, like most predators, understood weaknesses, and used them to her advantage.
After sex yesterday, she and Ricky had gone to her enormous and well-appointed in-home recording studio, and he'd gamely listened to some tracks from her upcoming album, Born Again. The album cover would feature a photo of a nearly naked Jill, sexily, sweatily suffering, tied and nailed to the cross. If that didn't get attention, she figured, nothing would. Ricky had suggested harmonies that blew Jill's mind. He was a much better singer than she was, but a little computerized pitch control could fix that. Besides, he wasn't as smart about business, which was one of the reasons she'd broken up with him the first time, six years ago. He was damn stupid about business, in fact. That and the fact that he'd boned her younger horse-faced sister, Natalia--but he'd been high, Natalia was a two-horse-faced whore, and that was all behind them now.
Still, they have so much in common that she regrets the breakup at least once a day. They are both Miami Latinos. Jill is Puerto Rican and has the diamond flag necklaces, Hector Lavoe albums, and boricua thong panties to prove it. Ricky is Cuban from his dad and Mexican from his mom. They both started out in humble homes, he in Fort Lauderdale, she in Wynwood, Miami's most Puerto Rican neighborhood. Through hard work and discipline they had moved themselves to places of power and prestige--meaning South Beach waterfront homes, hers five times the size and price of his, but whatever. They both sing and act, though she knows she is ten times the actor he is and feels no guilt in telling him so; sadly for Ricky, there is no actor's equivalent of pitch control.
They both love fashion, though Jill is sure that her taste, which leans toward fur, leather, Versace, and other assorted dead things, and diamonds, is much better than his, which tends toward the sorts of items a member of Kid 'n Play might have liked: stone-washed jeans with too-big patches on the front, long knitted scarves, and those weird square-toed biker boots. He dresses like a member of Menudo, in Jill's opinion, before they started calling the band MDO. Happily, there is pitch control for poorly dressed men: it is called Jill.
Both Jill and Ricky want children someday, and plan to pierce their daughter's ears during infancy, something Jill's current fiancé, the boyishly handsome and patently non-Hispanic white actor and screenwriter Jack Ingroff, finds barbaric. Jill is forever having to translate the culture of her life for Jack, and it is exhausting.
With Ricky, Jill never has to explain herself. It is too bad he is married, really. She'd been relieved at first, to be rid of him. He was much more in love with her than she was with him, and even though he swore he had quit doing coke, she wasn't convinced. She'd had a crush on him at the start, that was all, but when she realized how tiny his penis was she'd had a hard time keeping up the excitement, no pun intended. If he'd been better endowed, she might have stuck it out with him back then.
But as it was, the thing with the drugs and the dick, you know, it made sense to just be over it already. She had decided to move on with Jack, who was famous, mostly sober, and had the ample, ready loins of a Brahman donkey.
This did not mean she stopped thinking about Ricky. Now that Ricky's star was crossing over to the mainstream, and now that Jack was turning out to be a bit of a literal whoremonger, Jill believed Ricky might finally be able to hang with her without feeling threatened the way so many of these guys did. Jill works hard. She needs her men to do so as well. Otherwise, it won't last. If she's learned anything from her failed marriages--one to an awkwardly effeminate bartender and the other to a carnally talented gymnast from Cirque du Soleil--it is that a successful woman has to marry her equal, or not marry at all.
Oh, and the bonus? Jack is deathly jealous of Ricky, whom he sees as a threat because of his shared ethnic background with Jill. Jack knows that even though Jill is strong and powerful, part of her wants a machista asshole to put her in her place now and then, someone she can claw, a real man who would grab her wrists to keep her in check. She longs for this type of passion and drama. Because of his crunchy granola New England upbringing, Jack will never be that kind of guy, no matter how desperately he wants to in order to please the unpleasable and unspeakably perfect Jill Sanchez.
She-man habit aside, Jack, thanks to his poet mother with the Birkenstocks, hairy armpits, and New England pedigree, will now and forever be something of a wuss.
Jill opens her mouth as her new trainer, a big Austrian named Rigor, squirts in a stream of cool, clear, bottled water. His nervous assistant wipes the sweat from her face with a pink monogrammed Egyptian cotton towel. The press ridicules her preference for high-thread-count towels and linens, but that only shows you how desperate they are for news and how inexperienced they are personally with high thread counts. Anyone who's experienced a thick towel does not want to go back, and Jill sees this as something of a metaphor for her own life and career. She is not going back. Ever.
Rigor informs her that she has fifteen more minutes of cardio before they begin the sculpting session. Jill looks at herself in the mirrored wall and wonders if all this sweating with Rigor isn't shaving a little too much off her famed backside. She isn't that starving bag of bones, Renée Zellweger. She certainly doesn't want to look like it, either. "I'm known for this," she says, slapping a manicured hand against her bootylicious rump. "And I don't want to lose it. I do, and you're fired."
Rigor nods, and Jill relaxes a bit. She had to fire the last trainer after he leaked a story to a tabloid about Jack's alleged occasional bouts with transvestite prostitutes. They denied it all to the public, of course, but Jill knows it was true. Jack is her equal, but he is getting too complicated.
On the screen, Ricky's face tenses with passion, and Jill gets a secret thrill remembering the last time she saw that expression, as he pressed her body against the cool stainless steel of her Sub-Zero freezer. He mostly made up for size with motion and focus on the woman's parts, and she'd gotten used to it. No one knows they are still in love. Now isn't the right time, strategically, to let it be known, either. Jill and Jack are costarring in a romantic comedy that opens in two months, adorably titled Came Tumbling After, and she has to wait at least until then to make a big move. Pretend to be happily engaged. Giggle through a Diane Sawyer interview or something. After her Oscar nomination--if she doesn't get it for this role, she doesn't know what she'll get it for--Jill will be free to do whom and what she pleases.
No, no one knows about Jill and Ricky and the happy reunion looming on the horizon. But they will. Jill has a plan, and she's never seen a plan of hers fall through. She looks again at her reflection and smiles. Yes, sir. Jill Sanchez has plans. It does not matter that Ricky is married. He settled for Jasminka when he couldn't have Jill, and really, honestly, was there a marriage anywhere on earth that could withstand the interference of a booty like this? She didn't think so.
My name is Jasminka Uskokovic, and I am not dead.
I am twenty-six years old, and right now I hold hands with my husband, Ricky Biscayne. His hand is cold. Mine is hot. In the middle is moisture, from his nerves. His palms sweat with anxiety often. We sit on overstuffed creamy beige sofa in living room of a luxurious suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. My fat brown dog, Mishko, snores at our feet as we watch broadcast of Ricky's performance on The Tonight Show. It was taped earlier in day. I can see our reflection in big gilded mirror across the room, and we are beautiful couple. We'd make such pretty baby. I'd like that, very much.
I take deep breath and try to place the mild astringent scent of air in the room. Pine? Yes, but with something else, something delicious that clears the head. Mint? I think is pine and mint. I wonder how the room carries this scent. No candles burn, and no obvious air freshener. Could it be the cleaning solution they use, or detergent for washing towels and sheets? I am very scent-centered, and I recall scents the way other people recall conversations. I make soaps in free time and try to reproduce the scents of my life in them. When we return to our home in Miami, I will make soap of pine and mint, to remember this moment.
My long, dark brown hair is pulled back in ponytail. My eyes feel sticky and tired. This man is very special. I look again at the mirror and see us. I swell up inside that this man chose me for his own. I wear no makeup because I don't need it. I have soft, clear skin, broad, high cheekbones, a long nose, full lips, green eyes, and an Eastern European symmetry that has given me a profitable career in modeling. I began to be model at fifteen, and by sixteen Vogue and Vanity Fair both said I was newest "supermodel" from Eastern Europe. I don't want so much to be model anymore. I want now to be Ricky's wife and mother of his children.
Many people find modeling glamorous. Not me. I associate it with death. I was fifteen when my family's cottage home in the fertile, hilly green town of Slunj was dynamited by Croatian forces, with entire family (other than me) inside. I had been making out with my boyfriend that day, Croatian boy from sympathetic family. We were hidden in a cool green pocket of pine trees near one of the larger waterfalls outside town. The shelling and exploding began, and we stayed hidden, afraid, until the sound of explosions stopped and night came. The boy begged me not to go home, to come with him, to pretend to be Croatian. He said his family would care for me. But I wanted to find my family. To know they were okay. I wanted to be with them. I'd run home past stone walls and majestic pines, smelling burned flesh, gunpowder, and tar in air, stunned by the glowing orange embers everywhere, the smoke and chaos. When drunk Croatian soldiers asked me to name my ethnicity, I had lied and said Croatian. It wasn't entirely lie, actually. I have, had, Croatian grandmother. I speak the language fluently. The soldiers each kissed me on lips and moved on. This was victory for them.
When I returned to the once tidy cottage house with the flowers in boxes along the front walk, the home in which I had grown up, there was nothing left but smoldering red and black pile of debris. All along path to my house I'd come across decapitated bodies of old men I'd known. The Croatian soldiers had singled out the old men. To this day I have never fully understood the issues between Serbs and Croatians; to me, it was all stupid, men trying to come up with ways to kill other men, ways to rape women. Both sides were equally vile to each other. My own family had not been political at all, and my mother and father both believed the recent "tensions" had been orchestrated by United States after fall of Soviet Union, in hopes of smashing any other country that might try to become communist stronghold--Yugoslavia included.
For this, I thought then, staring into the milky, frozen eyes of the dead. For this the old men lay chopped to bits in the streets. Twice I'd had to stop to throw up walking to the cottage. All along the way, I found young women and others wandering in my same daze, unable to comprehend what had come to pass, the soundtrack endless wail of thousands sobbing, and people limping blindly toward what had been, in injury and disorientation, like ants whose hill has been stomped to nothing, searching for entrance, for safety. I sat by rubble of my home and waited hours, unable to believe what had happened. I called out names of my family members. But no one came. They were gone. I could not cry at first, because the mind and heart were not designed for such enormous loads of grief. A human being faced with this weight of emotion simply stops feeling, the breaths coming fast and shallow. I knew they'd all been home. In instant, my mother, father, grandparents, and four siblings had vanished. The entire neighborhood had been blown to oily splinters.
I had been surprised to find one lone survivor: my tiny brown mutt puppy, Mishko, a gift from my father, limping and with bloody eye, but alive nonetheless, with her tail wagging at sight of me, impervious to her own injuries and still able to lick my hands and face with affection and optimism. The feel of dog kisses kept me from killing myself. Mishko saved my life. I scooped Mishko up and began to wander. I heard from those who wandered streets that Serbians like us were being forced from the land, and that we were all walking out of the town. And so I joined other people along road, surrounded by livestock, tractors, old cars, and whatever scraps we could salvage from our lives. It's like dream now. Later I would learn that refugees from Krajina that day had numbered three hundred thousand. The dead civilians had numbered fourteen thousand.
It was at that moment, walking out of my hometown with no one left in world to love me but a one-eyed dog, that I began my long relationship with starvation, a drawn-out flirtation with death. I had been plump and round. But when I realized I had survived massacre because of my womanly lust for a Croatian boy, I wanted to get rid of my hips and breasts. I wanted to waste away. I did not deserve to live. I hated myself for surviving.
Weeks later, as Mishko and I spent numb days in stunned silence on cot at a refugee camp in Serbia, a tall, elegant man in gray striped suit had walked up and down the rows between cots, staring through eyeglasses into faces of the girls he found there as if he were looking for someone he knew. In truth, he was scout for ruthless, successful international modeling agency in Paris, searching for someone exactly like me: a beautiful, unfortunate girl whose face might be used to sell perfume in fashion magazines. In all, he went home to France with twenty-two Serbian girls and one puppy. I lived in apartment with four other girls and Mishko, the dog having gotten quite fat eating all the food the girls were forbidden. I quickly became the most successful of us all, as my empty eyes and sunken features were at once scarily symmetrical and otherworldly. I believe I looked like pretty, fragile, empty, hollowed-out corpse doll.
The years that followed since have all run together, and there are times I wake up and do not know where I am. There are times I take a knife to the flesh on insides of my arms and legs, cutting until I feel something, anything. It takes that much sometimes for me to feel at all. I have webs of scabs across my body that have to be airbrushed out of photos. If I didn't cut, I wouldn't feel connected to world of living.
Meeting and marrying Ricky was the first action I had taken that made me start to feel alive again, as he tenderly coaxed me from shell, as he sang to me and I felt love again. I had not expected to marry, but he had asked, and that meant family, didn't it? And family meant finally moving on. It meant ea
ting, no more cutting. Soon.
I had been starving myself almost as habit to remain, at five-foot-eleven, a skeletal size two. I was used to burning in my gut. It comforted me. Cigarettes had become my substitute for food, but I didn't like what they did to skin or nerves and I would quit soon. I trembled often. I wanted to eat again. To quit smoking. To have children. To stay home and not model anymore. To start family and try to root myself in the world again.
Ricky likes me thin. When we go out in public together, to a party or a concert of his, my emaciated body is source of pride for Ricky. He, like many men who choose to date only models, tells me the sweet, acetone scent of my breath, a by-product of the body digesting itself, turns him on.
I don't like how mean Ricky gets when he drinks. But we anyhow share a bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne, a gift from the hotel manager. On my empty stomach, the alcohol goes directly to my head, making me woozy, sad, and sleepy. We wear cheerful, matching pale green silk pajamas I picked up for us on Rodeo Drive yesterday, in color close to that of my eyes. I watch him closely. His beauty is so great it makes me ache. His tanned skin, dark mess of hair, and inspired, almost madmanlike light brown eyes seemed, when I first met him, warm like home was warm, and I felt instinct to protect him and please him all at once. He was one of those people who seemed to be boy and man at the same time, the kind of man who could get away with saying or doing the wrong thing because his smile, the dimples of it, the sincerity and beauty of it, made people forget his faults. He had smooth sort of skin, creamy-looking, without much body hair, the kind of skin you wanted to bite. I was hungry for Ricky as surely as I was hungry for food, and yet I never felt him connect with me, the way man and wife should be together. His mind always seemed elsewhere.
I don't know right now whether intensity in Ricky's eyes indicates anger or pleasure. In interviews, he is laid-back, the kind of guy you might want to have over for barbecue. At home, he is different, his own toughest critic, obsessed with making himself better. His perfectionism amazes me. I myself have stumbled through life making every mistake you could make and never bothering to correct them.
In my eleven-year modeling career I have met many rich and famous people. But I have never known more focused human being than Ricky Biscayne. He smells of cigarettes and woodsy cologne. His smell reminds me of Slunj. Home. He is always trying to be better, at everything he does, from singing to cooking to making love. If I have one orgasm with him is not enough in his opinion. He will push me to go again, two, sometimes three times, even when I insist I am satisfied and ready to go to sleep. He doesn't do this to please me. He does it because Ricky is always performing. Proving something to someone, to God. I wonder when, exactly, Ricky will be good enough to make Ricky happy. He makes me feel awe.
I look from screen to his real face, trying to register what he might be thinking or feeling. We have only been married one year, since meeting at fashion show in Paris where I was model and he was musical guest. I still have a difficult time reading him. He does not exactly keep secrets from me, but he seems to keep storms of self-doubt from me, bottled-up anxiety and rage I do not understand. If I had his kinds of gifts, I would be happy all the time.
"Is so good your wonderful performing," I say, aware of my lingering Serbian accent. I overemphasized the "so." I don't think I'll ever be able to pronounce "Thursday," which comes out of my mouth "tours-day."
Ricky doesn't answer me. Rather, he pushes my hand away, leans forward, elbows on his knees, and studies himself. He sniffs and scratches at his reddened nose with back of his hand. Is he sick? The stress is getting to him. He seems sick all the time, sniffling sniffling sniffling. I reach out and begin to massage his shoulders, planting small kisses on the back of his neck. He shrugs me off of him, and concentrates on the screen.
Quickly, Ricky is up, sprinting across the room to the desk, where he sits and uses his laptop to log on to check his CDnow.com ranking again. He is obsessed with this number. Since the segment began, he tells me, it has dropped by 480,000. Nearly half a million spots in two minutes? Amazing.
"Padrísimo," he says, finally breaking a small smile, using the Spanish slang he uses when he's either very happy or very angry. His moods change as quickly as weather in Miami, cloudy and foreboding one moment, sunny and sharp the next. Success makes him crazy with happiness, but only for a while. He runs back to the sofa, takes powerful leap over the back of it, right into my lap, with rippling, masculine grace.
Ricky is skilled, wonderful dancer; in fact, that is a big part of his success as singer. His stage shows are exactly that, shows--choreographed, exciting, with Ricky at the center, shimmying and strutting. He was a track and soccer star when he was younger, in high school, and his mother, Alma, still has his old bedroom filled with trophies. Ricky works out like an athlete, even if he enjoys an occasional cigarette. His abs are hard, and at this moment they aren't the only part.
"I love you, Jasminka," he says, his eyes locked on mine.
We embrace, and kiss. Ricky scoops me off sofa and begins to carry me toward bedroom, singing.
"Hey," I say. "What you are doing me, huh?"
"Let's make a baby," he says.
I have been asking for children since we married, but Ricky has always asked me to wait until his career was better, because, he said, he wanted to be hands-on father, unlike his own absentee dad. Besides which, he said it would be mistake for someone in his position to have children too young, because his career thrived on his appearance of youth, and young men weren't supposed to have children, especially not if they wanted their female fans to maintain the illusion that they might someday be his lovers. I'd wondered, silently of course, how he could keep that illusion if he were married, but I never asked.
"You are serious? You are ready?" I ask him, tears of joy forming in my eyes as he lowers me gently onto the bed.
He looks deeply into my eyes, and answers simply. "Yes. Are you ready to give up modeling for a while?"
I answer my husband with kiss. I am ready to give up modeling forever. I am ready to come back to life. Happiness tickles my body like sunlight on cold skin. I close my eyes and thank God for finally making Ricky happy.
Copyright © 2006 by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
Excerpted from Make Him Look Good by Valdes-Rodriguez, Alisa Copyright © 2006 by Valdes-Rodriguez, Alisa. Excerpted by permission.
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