Vapor: A Novel

Vapor: A Novel

by Amanda Filipacchi
Vapor: A Novel

Vapor: A Novel

by Amanda Filipacchi

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The Pygmalion myth recast by one of America’s boldest and most bewitching storytellers

Anna Graham has one ambition—to be a great actress. The only problem is, she can’t stop being herself. She is proud, stubborn, and moody; according to her acting teacher, she needs to be as bland and pliable as warm wax. Even when she rents a Good Fairy Queen Costume—complete with crown, wand, and wig—and walks the streets of New York City until three thirty in the morning, she fails to be anyone but Anna Graham. “Help,” she thinks, smoking a cigarette in a deserted subway station. “Help!” screams a man at the other end of the platform as two attackers pull him onto the train tracks. Red pepper spray in hand, the Good Fairy Queen rushes to Damon Wetly’s rescue—and Anna’s wish comes true, in the oddest way imaginable.

Locked inside a cage in Wetly’s cloud-filled country home, Anna learns to do everything—walk, talk, think, eat, breathe—differently. When she finally escapes, she becomes a star—as Wetly promised she would. The new-and-improved Anna attracts plenty of admirers—including a paraplegic soap opera celebrity; the world’s most famous supermodel; and a handsome cellist, Weight Watchers counselor, etiquette expert, and exotic dancer named Nathaniel Powers—but she only has eyes for her former captor, the creator of miniature clouds and major actresses. Just when it seems that her fairy tale ending is right around the corner, Anna’s whole world threatens to evaporate into thin air.

Fearless and fascinating, Vapor holds a funhouse mirror up to some of our deepest and most alluring notions about fame, identity, and desire.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497645783
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 06/24/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 317
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Described by the New York Times Book Review as a “lovely comic surrealist,” Amanda Filipacchi’s fiction has been translated into thirteen languages and her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic. Her novels have been called “hilarious and thought-provoking” by Tama Janowitz and “whimsical and subversive” by Edmund White. Filipacchi earned her MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

For months I had been trying to be less myself. This effort extended to every aspect of my life, including my personal tastes and opinions. I wanted to be pliable like warm wax. I began to admire vague people, even weak and spineless ones, and ones who could be easily influenced, or better yet, who had not much of an opinion to start with, on anything.

    My acting professor, Aaron Smith, had repeated to me many times that my problem with acting was that my personality was too strong, and that therefore I was unable to adopt a different one, or even a variety of emotions.

    I took his words seriously. I believe the reason I followed Aaron Smith's advice with so much tenacity was partly out of stubbornness. He had provoked me, in a sense, and it was a challenge I was determined to meet, even though I had almost lost sight of the original and ultimate goal: it just so happened the only thing I cared about in life was becoming a great actress. Let me say right off that it was not necessarily for the fame and the glamour, but for more noble and worthwhile reasons that had to do with art and a fascination with, and love of, human behavior.

    Today, like every month, I was having a meeting with this same professor in his office in school. But this time he was crushing me to bits. I listened to him, shocked.

    "Anna," he was saying, "I advise you to switch career goals, and I'll be very blunt as to why. You're twenty-seven years old, you have a cute face, but it's by no means ravishing, and let's just say that the rest of your body does notmake up for it. You could not be a leading lady."

    I needed a cigarette, but the large No Smoking sign behind his desk stopped me from reaching into my bag for one.

    Aaron then reiterated his usual criticism of me: I was myself too much. Or: I was too much myself. Same thing, but he always varied the wording a little, as if it would help me understand his concept better and I would do something about it.

    As he continued talking, he got harsher and blunter. He went to the extreme this time. No ambiguity. It was a nightmare. He then made a strange request that was so unexpected and stupid, yet so humiliating despite its stupidity, that I tried to forget about it as soon as I left his office.

    Chiara Mastroianni was standing outside the door, waiting to see him. I briefly said hi to her and hurried off. This particular student was a very good actor, which might have been partly due to the fact that she happened to be the daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, and therefore had acting in her genes. And it probably also helped to have been raised in that kind of actor's atmosphere.

    I was not fortunate that way. My parents were fencers. My mother was a champion fencer and gave lessons. My father fenced well too, but he wasn't a champion, he was the super of an apartment building. My brother and I had been subjected to fencing since we were born, so we had no choice but to end up quite good at it. To my annoyance, communication in our family was achieved principally through this medium. We fenced to express anger, to play pranks, to tease, to irritate, to persuade, and even, in the most convoluted way, to express inexpressible love. (In addition, it was pretty obvious my parents had their own, private uses for fencing, not shared by the rest of the family: seduction and foreplay.) But I don't think it could be said, by any stretch of the imagination, that fencing was helpful to my acting. Except, I could play Zorro.

    I walked in the street feeling annihilated and powerless. I bought myself a pair of sunglasses from a street vendor, to hide my crying.

    Chiara was probably enjoying a splendid conference with Aaron Smith at this very moment. As for me, I never imagined conferences could get as bad as mine had.

    Evidently my efforts at erasing my personality hadn't been successful. I hadn't tried hard enough. But how was that possible? I recalled numerous attempts at self-erasement, many of which occurred at my job at the Xerox shop, and also in my uncle's jewelry store, where I pierced ears part-time to help him out. My natural tendency was to have a rather bad temper when I was even just slightly provoked, and in my six years of ear piercing, I had endured many dramas, many scenes, many fights. Ear piercing is a field rich in possible conflicts; there are an infinite number of potential causes for problems, and I had experienced a large number of them, ranging from clients hesitating, asking infinite questions, fainting, wanting to do it themselves, to the ear stapler breaking, puncturing the ear at the wrong place, holes being not even, holes getting infected, clients hitting you when you pierce them.

    But in the last few months I had restrained my temper remarkably, including the time when a rude and pretentious young woman entered the store and hit me, before I even pierced her, simply because she felt the cold of the stapler on her ear. I did not hit her back. All I did was pretend the stapler slipped, and I pierced her high up on the ear, far, far from the dot.

    And that was just one of many little efforts, in everyday life, at being as bland as possible. I also made these efforts with my family. For instance, it was ages since I had reprimanded my parents for fencing in the lobby of the building they lived in and of which my father was supposed to be the superintendent, or gotten mad at him (he's a hemophiliac) for not wearing his protective gear, or screamed at either of them for saying “En garde!” and drawing their swords every time I attempted to have a meaningful exchange with them.

    It was clear that I had tried hard. Yet, I blamed myself, suspected that part of me had been too proud or stubborn to become warm wax. I had a sudden desire to punish that side of me, teach it a lesson, bring it to its knees, subject it to humiliation so that it would be stripped of its pride and stubbornness, and would obey my desire that it should fade.

    All at once, I knew how to accomplish this; I knew how I would discipline and break myself like one broke a wild horse. I went to a costume store and rented the largest, most cumbersome and embarrassing costume they had. It was the Good Fairy Queen Costume. It consisted of a long crinoline dress (like in Gone With the Wind), made of lavender satin. That was one step in the right direction; one large step toward being not myself. When I put on the dress, it dragged on the ground a bit; it must have been made for a tall woman, which I was not. I was average.

    The salesman forced on me the crown, the wand, and the wig that came with the dress. I forced myself to accept them. I placed the wig on my head. The long straight blond synthetic hair was quite a change from my own, shoulder-length, strawberry-blond, slightly curly hair. I stood in front of the mirror, holding the wand, as he stuck pins into my head to hold the wig. I felt like a martyr. He then placed the crown on my head.

    I left the costume store walking stiffly, staring at the people who stared at me, hoping my acute embarrassment would traumatize me somehow, causing some sort of transformation within me, a transformation for the better; a beautiful metamorphosis, such as becoming a creature of talent.

    I walked the streets all evening, thinking, and not thinking. I tried not to replay too often in my mind Aaron's words, but I failed. I tried to come up with a new philosophy of life, or at least a new frame of mind, a new way of looking at things, a solution, anything that might make me a little more optimistic about my future in acting. I failed. No solutions, no revelations. I went into a church to get inspired by the interior architecture and the atmosphere. It didn't work.

    At 3:30 in the morning, after walking for hours, I went down into a subway station and sat on a bench on the deserted platform. I was not waiting for a train. My mind was blank, which had never happened to me before. I was actually having no thoughts. It was a little frightening. I was floating, completely lost, completely unattached to any belief, to any hope. Perhaps I had finally achieved the state of warm wax. Though somehow I doubted it. I lit a cigarette.

    Three young businessmen walked in. As they passed my bench, they informed me that it was illegal to smoke in the subway. I ignored them. They inquired whether I was deaf. I ignored them. They proceeded to utter certain words such as bitch and suck. I felt at peace. I stared into space, wondering if they meant suck in a literal sense (as in "suck me") or in a slang sense (as in "life sucks"). As they walked away I picked up bits of their musings: "Costume ... insane asylum ... Halloween ... play ... actress ..."

    That last word sharpened my despair. I uttered the word help in my head. I looked at the columns, at the ceiling, at my cigarette.

    Suddenly, as if echoing my thought, a man screamed "Help!" at the other end of the platform. I looked.

    "Help!" he screamed again, and I saw him, being attacked by two men who were pulling him down onto the tracks. He was trying to free himself, but they dragged him into the tunnel.

    The three businessmen leaned over the edge of the platform and looked on.

    "Should we call the cops?" asked one of them.

    "You're right. Go call," said another.

    "Yeah, but hang on a sec. I wanna see what's going on."

    In my bag I had Red Pepper Spray that my mother had given me in case I was ever attacked. I took it out, walked to the edge of the platform, and jumped down onto the tracks.

    It was as if I was responding to my own cry for help. Or, who knows, perhaps it was simply a convenient excuse for, and roundabout attempt at, suicide.

    The businessmen exhibited curious indignation at my behavior, as if they had been personally, and terribly, insulted. They asked what I was doing, what the fuck was I doing, and who the hell did I think I was, Super Cinderella or something?

    I can't blame them for their harshness; after all, what must I have looked like, waddling down the train tracks, cigarette in my left hand, pepper spray in my right, wand tucked under my arm, dress dragging over the garbage, sunglasses on, wig and crown still in place.

    I had trouble walking because I kept tripping over the front of my dress, which my hands were too encumbered to hold up. I therefore resorted to kicking the gown forward at every step to free my feet.

    My emotional state seemed to have desensitized me. I approached the danger with strange indifference and detachment, something like lassitude. The sensation of fear was present, but only vaguely, like a faint pulse in someone dying. Even though I knew it was far from true, I almost imagined that if I were to be shot or stabbed, it would not significantly add to my pain.

    The inside of the tunnel was so dark that I could barely make out the three vague human shapes, and at first it didn't occur to me to take off my sunglasses, which I hadn't realized I was still wearing. But even when I finally did realize it, I did not take them off, because I preferred not to see my opponents' faces; I feared that if I saw what was before me I might suddenly lose my indifference and become terrified.

    The attackers stopped moving and stared as I approached. They began to threaten me. I replied something along the line of, "Please release him or I will spray you."

    Then they made fun of my spray. They were under the mistaken impression that it was Mace, so I informed them that it was worse, that it was Red Pepper Spray.

    The conversation started to flag, and I unconsciously took a drag on my cigarette, which, like the sunglasses, I hadn't realized I was still holding.

    Not knowing what else to do, and feeling it was too soon to spray them without having first tried a peaceful alternative, I pulled out of my bag the literature on the red pepper spray and read to them the scariest parts regarding the effects of being sprayed.

    By that time I had taken off my sunglasses and had flung them aside, to be able to see the print on the instruction sheet, and when I was done reading and looked up at the men, I was less frightened by the attackers' faces, than strangely annoyed by the victim's sex appeal. He was being held by one of the men. His nose and lip were bleeding.

    A physical struggle began between me and the other man, during which my wig came off in his hand. I was still not shooting my pepper spray, I don't know why; I felt okay just holding it. I cannot wholly attribute my lack of concentration to the victim's charisma, but it probably played a part. Thankfully though, I did have enough presence of mind to use my cigarette, extinguishing it on my assailant's bare arm.

    Before things got worse, they got better for a moment. The feel of the wand in my hand must have triggered old fencing habits, because when the attacker pulled out his switchblade, my arm lashed out in a familiar, oft-repeated motion, and with a quick flick of the wand, the knife leaped from his hand, rather theatrically, and went flying a few feet away.

    Things quickly degenerated to the point where I had somehow been flung over the man's shoulder and was beating his back with the wand, from which sparkles were flying off, attesting to my energy. But the blows were useless.

    In the end, however, I did manage to use my spray. The bright orange pepper juice was more effective than I had anticipated, and it quickly put an end to the whole affair, not unlike the way I imagine a machine gun might have. The men fell to their knees, screaming and throwing up, their faces against the floor. The victim had been sprayed a bit too, which was unfortunate but inevitable, since he had been held closely by one of the assailants.

    I picked up my wig, grabbed the victim's arm, and helped him climb onto the platform. I led him up the long stairway, hugging my wig to my chest, perhaps for comfort. My legs were nervously springing me up, and I was dragging the man with more energy than I knew was polite. Who knew how quickly they would recover from the spray? Judging from my companion's agony, however, they were probably not recovering too quickly.

    I informed the subway teller that we were attacked and asked him if there was a bathroom we could use to rinse the pepper spray off of my friend's face. He said no.

    We hurried out of the station.

    In the street, I looked around. All the stores were closed. An all-night supermarket shone in the distance. The man's eyes were shut, and his head was bent as I guided him, telling him when to step up or down a curb. I also asked him if he knew the attackers. He shook his head.

    In front of the supermarket there was a bench on which I helped him sit. I rushed into the store and looked for the bottled water section. I ran through the aisles like a swift bulldozer, my wide skirts mopping the floor as I went. My quest was slightly delayed when I slipped on a piece of lettuce while turning a corner. I collapsed on my side, but luckily didn't get hurt because my dress cushioned the fall.

    I finally found the bottled water section, and wondered if I should get an American or a European brand. The latter might lend a desirable air of sophistication to my person. Unfortunately the European brands only came in little bottles, and it would not have been reasonable to choose little bottles to rinse off a man in agony. But when have attempts at being attractive ever been reasonable? I picked up as many little bottles of Evian as my arms would hold and paid for them.

    He was still sitting on the bench, his head in his hands, when I returned.

    "I'm back," I said, and helped him lie down on the bench. His eyes were closed. I kneeled next to him and opened a bottle. "Okay, I'm going to pour water on your face now, so hold your breath."

    As soon as the water hit his face he groaned. The wetness must have revived the sting of the pepper spray. He wriggled his body with discomfort as I kept on pouring, and suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I perceived something that was arresting: a unique, rubbery, loose and rapid jiggle, that, as far as I knew, could only be produced by one thing. I believed that, for an instant, through the fabric of his pants, I had seen his penis.

    His singular outfit, which I had hitherto been aware of only vaguely and subconsciously, had now abruptly jumped to the forefront of my consciousness: his loose-fitting pants and shirt were made of cloth that was thin, white, and extraordinarily transparent. I looked again at his crotch, but without much luck this time, because the angle had changed; he kept shifting in discomfort.

    I was tempted to ask him why he was wearing transparent clothes, and why in this cold weather.

    He suddenly sat up, groaning again, this time not so much with pain as exasperation, which I was afraid was because he caught me looking.

    "Enough," he said.

    I leaned back on my heels. His legs were open in front of me, but I didn't dare look. My eyes were fixed on his chest, a neutral point. His reproachful silence became unbearable, so I slowly raised my eyes to his face, only to discover that my fears were unfounded; his eyes were still closed.

    "What's wrong?" I asked.

    "The pH is very uncomfortable."

    "The pH?"

    "Yes," he said, and asked: "Isn't this Evian water?"


    "I would be so grateful if you could get me water with a lower pH, like Volvic."

    I tried to register his words, but I couldn't believe my ears.

    "Are you still there?" he asked, like a blind person.

    "Yes," I replied. "You're saying the pH level is uncomfortable? Don't you think it's maybe just the wetness that has revived the stinging of the spray?"

    "Yes, but the alkalinity of this water is also the cause. I'm in no condition to have to endure a gap."

    "What gap?"

    "From seven, neutral pH. Please get me Volvic water."

    "Okay," I said, and went and got him Volvic water.

    He was lying on the bench again when I returned. I kneeled next to him, opened a bottle, and started pouring it on his face.

    He sighed, and said, "Yes, that's better. Thank you."

    I opened a second bottle and emptied it on his face as well. It drenched his collar.

    "Now open your eyes so I can rinse them," I told him.

    "I can't," he said, so I held his eyes open with my fingers, one at a time, and poured a third bottle into them. My fingers on his eyelids started to feel a little nervous as I noticed, once again, his attractiveness. His face was sinuous and his features aquiline, with no sharp edges. His hair was blonde, shoulder length and slightly wavy. He seemed to be in his early thirties.

    By the fourth bottle, my eyes had started wandering down his body again, and I had all but forgotten the matter of the pH, because, to be frank, the matter of his humanness interested me more than that of his super humanness. Accordingly, I tried to get a glimpse of his penis again. But maybe I had hallucinated.

    I leaned toward his crotch slightly to get a closer look. I hadn't hallucinated. It was really there.

    The man suddenly grabbed my wrist. Straightaway, I imagined the worst: that he caught me looking. But no, he was simply readjusting my aim, repositioning my arm over his face, because I had begun pouring the water on the sidewalk.

    "You seem distracted," he said, keeping a hold of my wrist. "What were you looking at?"

    They say that when you lie you should try to stay close to the truth: "I thought I saw a policeman for a second, but I wasn't sure if I had hallucinated."

    "You weren't hallucinating. But ignore him, because he won't make any difference."

    I suddenly realized with discomfort that he knew perfectly well I was looking at his penis, and that it was the subject of our conversation. That being the case, I wondered what he meant by telling me that his penis wouldn't make any difference.

    "Then why is he there?" I ventured.

    "It'll emerge in time."

    I wondered if the "it" referred to the answer to my question, or what. I decided it was probably to the answer, but possibly to what.

    I started to rinse his hands and asked, "Do you know why these men attacked you?"

    He shook his head.

    "Do you think we should report it to the police?"

    He shook his head again.

    "Do you want to go to an emergency room?"

    "I don't think so," he said. "I'd like to go home. If you could just hail me a cab, I'd be grateful. And would you mind also giving me your phone number so that I can thank you properly?"

    I took out a piece of paper on which I wrote Anna Graham, and my phone number. I handed it to him, and he squinted at it, still unable to open his eyes completely.

    "Thank you," he said, shoving it in his pocket. "I'm Damon Wetly. I won't shake your hand in case I'm still contaminated with your spray. How far do you live?"

    I told him, and since we didn't live in the same direction, we decided each to take our own cab. I hailed two and before Damon climbed into his, he gave my cabdriver a twenty-dollar bill. I told him it wasn't necessary.

    "It's the least I can do," he said. "It was a relief to meet you, and almost a pleasure, which is saying a lot under the circumstances. And again, thank you."

    It was only once I was in the taxi going home that it occurred to me we could have asked to use the supermarket bathroom. But then I recalled the pH problem: the tap water's pH level might not have been to his liking. This seemed preposterous to me. I didn't know what to make of it.

    When I got home I sat on my couch for an hour, wondering why in the world I had put my life at risk to save this man. Was I a courageous person and just hadn't known it? Was I noble, deep down? I wasn't sure, but these possibilities made me feel good.

    Or maybe my risk-taking had simply been caused by the frustration of having tried so hard to succeed at something and failed. And I certainly had tried hard to improve my acting.... In addition to striving to erase myself, I did all sorts of other acting exercises. Among those, of course, was the standard practice of performing scenes in front of the class. But apart from that, I had my own strange little activity that I performed exclusively at my other job, at Copies Always, the Xerox shop. I was supposed to copy documents, but actually, I also copied people. When customers came in, I immediately copied their mannerisms, behavior, and tone of voice. Since the customers didn't know my true self, they had no idea I was imitating them. One day, however, I think a client did notice it because as he was paying the bill he said, "Your prices are quite reasonable here. And you didn't even charge me for your Xerox of me."

    I think the sound of the copiers triggered off this need and ability within me to become a copier myself. It wasn't unlike singing along with a song on the radio: I felt quite competent as long as the real singer's voice was there to support, guide, and slightly drown out mine, but as soon as I tried to sing that same song alone, the result was usually less gratifying.

    I knew I had tried hard at my acting. Yet perhaps I had to try still harder. But what did trying harder consist of? What more could I do? I mean, should I just abandon acting?

    No. That, I would never do. I would rather spend the rest of my life trying without success than succeed at anything else.

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