The New York Times Book Review, 1997
Skin Deepby Diana Wagman
Wanted: Woman to talk to. Three nights a week. Three hundred dollars a night. In this novel an unusual young woman answers this ad. She is Martha Ward, twenty-eight, an ex-topless waitress and part-time mother of an eight-year-old. She drives to Malibu for her new job and discovers she must dress entirely in blue - body, hands, hair, even her face, completely covered … See more details below
Wanted: Woman to talk to. Three nights a week. Three hundred dollars a night. In this novel an unusual young woman answers this ad. She is Martha Ward, twenty-eight, an ex-topless waitress and part-time mother of an eight-year-old. She drives to Malibu for her new job and discovers she must dress entirely in blue - body, hands, hair, even her face, completely covered - and talk to a man named Dr. Hamilton. He wants to talk about beauty. This startling novel is the compelling and poignant story of a young woman obsessed with her looks. Defining herself by the reactions of the various unforgettable men in her life - her father, who speaks to her only in aphorisms and platitudes, her pyromaniacal stepfather, her dramatically handsome boyfriend - Martha becomes more and more absorbed in the demands of being physically attractive. Through their eyes, she begins to see her life of solitude and independence as one of loneliness and desperate routine. Only in her nightly sessions with the remarkable but deeply disturbed Dr. Hamilton can she begin to gain control of her own point of view. Only with the one man who cannot see her can she learn to see herself.
The New York Times Book Review, 1997
Twenty-eight-year-old Martha Ward answers an ad that reads "Wanted: Woman to talk to. Three nights a week. Three hundred dollars a night." For Martha, life has become an endless, uneventful endurance test. She has few friends and little responsibility; she's divorced from husband Allentheir-eight- year-old daughter Jewel lives with him and his new wifeand she has nothing much to do but show up for her inexplicable job as a topless waitress. Intrigued by the ad, she answers it and is given very precise instructions: go to a pre-reserved hotel room and put on a blue sweatsuit, blue gloves and socks, and a blue masked hood, thereby totally obscuring her physical presence. The man who placed the ad, Dr. Hamilton, wants to talk about beauty. Invigorated by her anonymity and their discussions, Martha grows to depend on the meetings as the arena in which she can be herself. Revealing to Dr. Hamilton her sad childhoodunloved by a superficial and fickle father, forever out of sync with her beautiful, mentally ill motherMartha discusses the expectations and pitfalls of beauty. Meanwhile, she begins an affair with hunky Latino actor Reuben, a sweet guy who's obsessed with appearance. When, in quick succession, Reuben leaves her and the doctor ends their sessions, Martha is devastatedthough the novel takes yet another unexpected turn before the abrupt close.
Provocative issues of appearance and reality are raised here, but Wagman does little with them, dodging deeper matters by letting Martha's relationships with Reuben and flashbacks to her childhood dominate the story. A disappointing debut from screenwriter Wagman, especially considering its intriguing initial idea.
- University Press of Mississippi
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.56(d)
Read an Excerpt
DO BLIND PEOPLE SLEEP WITH THEIR EYES OPEN? ARE THEY EVEN AWARE THAT THEIR EYES are open? Do they feel them blink to stay moist?
Do the blind buy lamps for their apartments? When they get home from work, using the Braille buttons on the elevator, or the thump of their red-tipped cane on the stairs and it's a dark winter night, only 5:30, but dark already, do they turn their lights on?
Perhaps at night as you're driving by in your small blue car, using your eyes and your headlights vigilantly and you look up, really just with your peripheral vision for you mustn't take your eyes from the road, and you glance quickly and notice a dark house--or one dark apartment in a building of lit up windows--maybe a blind person lives there. Maybe a blind person lives there who doesn't know about the warmth of yellow light spilling into the night; the inviting and approachable glow of a home where people sit around the dining room table eating together, laughing and glad to be home. Maybe they just want to save on the electric bill.
Blindness, being blind and the lives of blind people, was the topic Martha was currently thinking about. She spent Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings in her office thinking. Or what she called her office, really the back booth by the window at the Winchell's Donuts down the hill from her house. It had a cheerful red and yellow decor of hard plastic, shiny surfaces, and clean glass that she found conducive to thought. She loved the hot and cold morning smells of coffee and window cleaner, fresh baked yeast and toasted sugar that made her swallow and stretch when she came in the door.
She usually had a topic that she worked on for a few weeks. She never wrote anything down and to an outsider, an office worker picking up an assorted dozen for the secretaries, it might look like she was just staring blankly out the window. Her thinking never changed the look on her face, but she was working just the same. She would never have told anyone that's what she was doing. She knew it was in some way pointless, but it was part of her routine. Usually she looked forward to it.
Not today. Today, Tuesday, only the second working day of her week and she couldn't concentrate. She sighed and gave up. She slid a hand into the back pocket of her faded blue shorts and pulled out a newspaper clipping. The edges were straight, cut with scissors. She hadn't ripped it out of the classifieds like some people. She used both hands to smooth the neat and tiny rectangle on the light-hearted yellow Formica tabletop. She read the ad again:
"Wanted. Woman to talk to. Three nights a week. Three hours a night. Three hundred dollars per."
It was the money that made Martha pause and consider. It was so much money. In her experience, women were only paid well for illicit behavior. On the other hand, she could understand that it would be hard to find a woman for this particular schedule. Most women had children who needed them at night; boyfriends who came for dinner and then stayed; girls' night out at the movies. They couldn't give up their evenings.
She felt the muscles in her legs tighten. She was going to get up and go outside to the pay phone to call. Then she stopped. She felt a prickle on the back of her neck, a shiver of foreboding. She breathed in the reliable, innocent Winchell's smell of warm grease. She relaxed. The ad had been in the newspaper. Murderers didn't advertise.
She glanced up at the doughnut-shaped clock behind the cash register. It was only nine o'clock. She could work some more on the blind.
Instead she smiled at the young Latina girl behind the counter. The girl nodded, surprised.
"No, no thanks. Sorry. I was just thinking."
Martha never drank two cups of coffee. She never ate two doughnuts. She no longer even had to order when she came in. The girl knew what she wanted every morning: coffee with skim milk, a plain cake doughnut, two napkins. The counter girl even knew her name, "Hola, Martha. Hey, Martha."
Martha couldn't reply personally. She didn't know the counter girl's name. Her white name tags with the red letters kept changing. One day it said "Beatrice"; the next day it said "Maria"; the next "Esmerelda." Martha was embarrassed to ask, Is that your name? Or is that your name? Or are they all your names? So she just nodded and smiled and said thank you, gracias.
She wondered which nights were the three nights a week mentioned in the ad. She assumed it wouldn't be Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. And she worried about the three hours. Would she be late coming home? She didn't want to be tired in the mornings. She didn't want to feel weary and distant at Winchell's. She felt out of control in the watery haze of fatigue.
Of course she didn't even have the job yet. She could go call right now. Martha looked at the clock. Only minutes had passed. She decided that ten o'clock would be a good time to call. She would wait, work, for an hour.
Friday she didn't come to Winchell's. Friday was housework day. She did the laundry, scrubbed the bathroom, cleaned out the refrigerator.
Every other Friday afternoon after school, Martha's eight-year-old daughter, Jewel, came to spend the weekend. Martha and her ex, Allen, had been divorced since Jewel was three. Martha's single greatest regret in life was that she had ever agreed to name her daughter Jewel. Jewel's personality matched her name; hard, exacting, sharp. Martha often found it difficult to be with her. But physically Jewel had not an angle or a facet. She looked more like a marshmallow. Jet-puffed. Her face was wide and fat, her tiny blue eyes just two moist dots on the copious plain. She had the palest skin, the veins running blue and obvious underneath like snail trails on the sidewalk. Her too fine white-blonde hair didn't end in a curl or a blunt cut, but wisped away like unfinished sentences.
One of the topics Martha often thought about was how she felt about her own child's looks. Shouldn't she, as the mother, think Jewel was beautiful, no matter what? Or was it because she didn't see her every day that her flaws were so apparent? Martha returned to this subject time after time, but she had come to no conclusions.
It was obvious that Allen thought Jewel remarkable. Martha was glad he did. He was an exemplary ex-husband. Even their divorce proceedings had been fine; Allen felt so guilty that he offered everything, demanded it for Martha. He had fallen in love with Susan, the real estate agent who sold them their house. Allen gave the house to Martha. Martha couldn't remember what her lawyer looked like; Allen had paid for him too. She didn't mind when Allen and Susan immediately got married.
Then it seemed only natural that they take custody of Jewel. Allen and Susan were a family. Martha knew too well what it was like to grow up with just a mom, just a single, frazzled woman playing solitaire on the coffee table at night as you left for a party, saying good-bye, have fun, don't you worry about me. That first night that Allen and Jewel were gone, Martha woke up every hour staring at the nightstand where the baby monitor had been, worrying in the quiet, missing the snorting sound of Jewel's allergies. But then it only took her a few months to learn to sleep again.
From the day Jewel had been born, Martha had felt out of her element. Allen stood beside her hospital bed grinning proudly like Little Jack Horner; his baby girl the plum he had pulled from his Christmas pie. Martha held Jewel awkwardly to her nipple that very first time and shuddered. She felt her throat constrict. Every noisy suck drew not only milk from her breast, but the air from her lungs. It was all she could do not to tear the tiny thing from her and throw it on the floor.
So, nursing hadn't worked out. That was only the first of Allen's major disappointments in Martha. Martha knew he blamed her because Jewel wasn't the easiest baby. She cried a lot and threw up a lot and didn't sleep through the night until she was over two. Martha had no one else to ask; she assumed Allen was right. If she had been a better mother, she would have had a better baby. She should never have had the epidural during labor. She should have forced herself to nurse. She should have spent more time holding Jewel. She should have loved her more. But she couldn't manage it then, she was suffocated in diapers and fuzzy pink baby blankets, how-to books, and the experts' advice. Now when she tried, it just seemed too late.
Martha shook her head and forced herself to think about the blind. If she allowed herself to think about her daughter she'd get distracted.
How do blind people dream? She saw her dreams in her mind, in that cavern behind her eyes. But if you couldn't see, would your mind be elsewhere? Maybe in your fingertips, in your ears, in your chest--the places that acted as your eyes--where you felt, heard, remembered. If she were blind she wouldn't care what Jewel looked like. Jewel felt nice to hold; she was soft and smooth, pliable and giggly. She smelled good like baby shampoo and school paste and sugary candy held too long in your hand. If Martha were blind she wouldn't care that Jewel insisted on wearing clothes decorated with Disney movie characters: Beauty and the Beast, Jasmine, pale blue and pale pink with spots of metallic glitter; clothes so pastel they had no color at all and did nothing for her chalky skin and anemic hair.
Well, today was only Tuesday. Jewel wouldn't come until Friday. And maybe, Martha thought, she would get this job and with all that money they could go shopping. Jewel would like that. They could go some place small and exclusive, some place where polyester shirts printed with princesses from two-dimensional movies didn't exist.
She had to concentrate. She pushed the ad away, down by the napkin dispenser against the window. She closed her eyes and ran her hands over the butter-colored tabletop. She felt the coolness of it and the hard bumps of someone else's sugar-coated doughnut that a wipe with the rag hadn't dislodged. She tried to feel the tabletop color. If she were blind, what would she know of color? How could color be explained? Red was easy, red was the dress your mother didn't allow you to wear; the smooth vinyl seat of the bad boy's car. And blue or yellow could be explained. But what about turquoise? If you were blind you could get married in a green dress, a black dress, or any dress that felt good to wear.
Martha opened her eyes and took a deep breath, exhaling through her nose, pushing all the air from her lungs until she had to gasp to get the next breath. She had been a topless waitress for the past year. She made pretty good money and there were some nice women. But it bothered Allen. He didn't think it was a proper profession for Jewel's mother, even her only every other weekend mother. The club had been fine, not degrading in the least. It was nice to feel good about your body. She had felt proud of her breasts even though they hadn't been any good for nursing. They were small but full, and they still pointed mostly to the ceiling when she lay down. Her areolas were a beautiful dark rose, not brown like some. And not a hair. Some of the waitresses actually had to pluck the hairs from their nipples. They said you got used to it, but just thinking about it made Martha cringe.
Still, Martha hadn't made much in tips and she hadn't made any friends. Allen still paid most of her bills and when he said it was time to stop, really time, that Jewel was beginning to ask questions, Martha figured she could find something else. She was smart. She had been to college, had almost graduated when she'd gotten pregnant with Jewel and then married Allen. She could type. She just hated to give up her mornings. Allen couldn't understand that. He thought she should work a regular daytime job. But Martha wouldn't do it. That was where she drew the line. She loved waking up alone, her little house quiet around her. The sheets were cool and smooth against her bare legs; the smell of her own pillow slightly sour and metallic with sleep. She liked to lie still and think about her day. Then she would get up, put her bare feet on the polished wood floor and pad about, loving that everything was just how she had left it the night before. On Jewel's weekends, Martha woke up earlier just to have this time to herself. She couldn't imagine not having the time to take her shower and afterwards wipe out the tub; to sit in her pink bathrobe at her own place at the table. She had her rituals, her liturgy for each day. She couldn't get up and dash out the door. She wouldn't.
That was why she had been so interested in this new job when she read about it in the classifieds. She could wait to say anything about it to Allen.
The morning rush was over at Winchell's. The shop gave off a sense of relief, of a breath taken, held, and finally released. The other counter girl, not the one who knew Martha, but the one who worked from 3 until 9 A.M., was leaving. She yawned as she walked to the door. There were feet and inches marked on the doorframe to catalog criminals who didn't pay for their doughnuts. The girl's head of long, silky, dark hair barely cleared the five-foot line.
Martha thought about the girl's bed waiting for her. It would be upstairs in her mother's house, a room shared by two younger sisters already up and gone to school. The girl would peel off her sticky sweet uniform, grateful for the cool air against her floured skin. She would pull the shade down, not noticing the tiny ripped corner that let the bleached sunlight stripe her bare abdomen. She would fall into the bed that she'd had since she was a child with the same blue flowered sheets, the same gold and brown quilted bedspread. Instantly the girl would be asleep and dreaming as always of Barbie dolls and pink dream houses and of Ken driving up in his fast plastic convertible.
"Later," Martha's counter girl spoke in English to her departing coworker.
Martha could hear the envy and resignation in her voice. She watched her rinsing the coffeepot, wiping the counter, filling the creamer. She was efficient, her busy arms free of blemishes or freckles, her pretty skin just a shade lighter than the cardboard inside the doughnut boxes. She was good at her job. Martha was envious of her future at Winchell's.
Martha peeled her bare legs from the red plastic bench and stood up.
"I'll be right back." She wasn't sure the girl had heard her. She hoped her coffee would still be there.
Martha stood on the sidewalk outside Winchell's and felt the sun on her face and neck. It was going to be hot. The sky was white and the air thick with haze. The trees across the road had lost their color; she saw everything filtered through the pallid smog and moisture. Los Angeles in September. It was a terrible, ugly time of year. Martha walked up the melancholy strip mall to the stand of pay phones by the supermarket. She passed the crowded, disorganized video store, the bad Chinese fast food, the ice cream parlor with the cracked linoleum floor. They were run-down, dirty little places to shop, but they were walking distance from her house and she loved her Winchell's.
She dialed and listened to the ringing. She was queasy, her stomach a child's bright xylophone of nervousness.
"Dr. Hamilton." His voice was deep and serious.
He was a doctor, Martha liked that. "Hi. I'm calling about the ad in the paper?"
There was a pause. She heard his desk chair squeak, give as he moved.
"Is it filled?" Martha asked, not sure which answer she wanted to hear.
"No," he replied, "no, it's not."
"Well--" Martha began and then stopped.
"I just need someone to answer some questions," he said. "Maybe have a conversation." He paused, cleared his throat. "Tell me about yourself. No, don't, wait, um ... what other work have you done?"
Martha was prepared. "I've been a waitress, you know, a barmaid really, at a topless club, the Sweet Spot, for about a year. I went to UCLA, I majored in urban studies." She didn't tell him she still had no idea what that really meant. "I'm just a couple of semesters short--"
"Can you start tonight?"
"We'll try it. See how it goes."
Martha didn't say anything. She saw her reflection, distorted and bent in the shiny silver panel on the telephone. Her eyes looked like two long ghosts in her face. She closed them, felt the phone's buttons, the knobbly black casing, pretended she was blind.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Martha Ward," she said and then thought, Should I have lied?
"Ms. Ward," he began, his voice raised in pitch, "it's perfectly legal. I'll pay you in cash. If you don't like me, it ... you're free to leave at any time."
She recognized his desperation, his need to convince her to do it, to come and do it, whatever it was he was after.
"Okay," she said. Her palms were sweating; she tasted the salt on her upper lip. She wasn't doing anything tonight anyway. Or tomorrow night either. "Okay."
Things at Winchell's hadn't changed. Martha sat down, lifted her coffee to her lips. She closed her eyes and took a sip. It was only barely warm now. Tepid. She liked it that way and she rolled it around in her mouth. It had its own taste now, like the smell of pencil erasers.
How would a blind person know what they'd been served? Every trip to a restaurant would be an adventure. Would they feel the plate first? Would they use their fingers to identify and separate the chicken breast, the steamed carrots, the mashed potatoes? Or would they stab away, confident and trusting that what came up on their fork would be edible? If she ever made dinner for a blind person, she would be sure not to use any decorative garnishes.
She opened her eyes and felt assaulted by the cheerful decor. It was time to go. Tuesdays she always went to the grocery store after thinking. She wondered what to wear tonight. She wondered why they were meeting at a hotel and not at his office. She had never heard of the Hotel Belle Noche before, out on Route 1, north of Malibu. It would be a long trip home. She decided on jeans. If anything weird were to happen, she would rather be in pants. Allen had always said she had great legs, but her legs had not been mentioned when she had spoken on the phone to her new employer. Martha assumed it was some kind of psychology experiment. One of the other topless waitresses had been paid lots of money to test a new drug for depression. The drug had made the girl very thirsty and likely to giggle inappropriately at her customers, but she said she felt better and the doctors had paid her well. Martha didn't want to take any new drugs, but she was happy to sit and talk about anything. She didn't get the chance to talk to many people.
She smiled at the counter girl as she stood. The counter girl smiled back wearily. "Bye, Martha."
Martha wanted to say something about her new job. But she looked at the capable and secure counter girl and was afraid of her reaction afraid she would spoil it. Martha could tell her about it tomorrow, afterward.
"Hasta manana," Martha said as she left. She always made an effort to use what little Spanish she knew.
After her usual careful hour of shopping, she carried two bags of groceries up the hill to her house. She bent her head against the relentless sunshine and noticed her own smell, her tart and musky sweat smell. It wasn't unpleasant to her, but Allen hadn't liked it. He didn't like any smell but Chanel 22 and Crest mint gel. When she'd been first married to him she had brushed her teeth ten, maybe thirteen, times a day. She waited to shower until an hour before he got home from work. She slid out of bed in the morning before he woke and replaced her perfume.
She pushed open the door on her little house and smiled. It was such a nice house, so feminine. Two bedrooms, hardwood floors, Spanish style, filled with arches and curves, wrought iron and funny little icon niches. She thought of her house as a maiden aunt with a big soft bosom and warm brown arms that wrapped around her when she walked in. She was glad she had talked Allen into buying it even if that was when he met Susan, the seller's effervescent real estate agent. It was almost as if Martha had known the future. The house had been too small for Allen and Martha and Jewel, but it was perfect for Martha alone.
She noticed the light blinking on her answering machine. There was a lifting in her chest. Perhaps one of the other waitresses wanted to have lunch. Maybe that nice guy she'd met at the club two weeks ago had finally gotten around to calling her.
She forced herself to put the groceries away, just like always, arranging them by color and item on the shelves in the refrigerator and the pantry. Apples went in the vegetable drawer, next to the grapes, but separated from the carrots and celery. Cheeses went in the cheese compartment, but first each block was unwrapped and sealed in a new ziplock bag. On the top shelf she lined up the milk, apple juice, and orange juice. She would never put the orange juice next to the milk--the two didn't mix--they needed the apple juice between. On the bottom shelf went her little pleasures, oatmeal cookies and microwave popcorn. It was her ritual and she usually enjoyed it.
But this Tuesday she was anxious to listen to her message. She knew it might be a wrong number, a salesperson, a survey of some kind. She tried not to get excited. Only when she was completely finished with the groceries, the bags folded and put away in their special drawer, did she allow herself to turn to the small telephone table. She pushed the button. The machine gave a little shucking sound and then sighed, rewinding. It was a long message, possibly two. There was another soft shuck-shuck and then a man's voice:
This is Dr. Hamilton with a message for Martha Ward; a few instructions concerning our meeting tonight. At the hotel, give them your name. They will be expecting you. Go up to the room and let yourself in. In the room, you will find clothes to put on and further instructions. If any of this is in any way distressing to you, simply leave the room and tell them at the front desk. Otherwise, approximately, fifteen minutes after you've arrived, I will knock on the door, come in, and we will commence. I hope, I very much hope, to see you this evening.
The answering machine stopped. Martha rewound and listened once more. She liked the way Dr. Hamilton sounded. His voice was masculine and precise. She wondered if he had called the Sweet Spot for a reference, although she couldn't imagine what they could have said about her. She felt a sharp uneasiness, a sense of unknown prophecies coming true.
She shook her head, her arms, shuddered away the restless feeling. She needed a change. She had nothing to save. She was glad it didn't matter what she wore. She had liked that about being a topless waitress too. They couldn't expect too much from your appearance when they supplied the tiny skirt, the high heels, the fishnet stockings, even the garter belt, and hoped it all would fit.
She set about making the food she would eat that week: lentil soup; corn bread; vegetable ragout. She was only spontaneous when Jewel was visiting. She chopped the celery and smiled to herself, hoping, very much hoping, for miraculous alterations.
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