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Mr. Right Is Dead
By Rona Jaffe
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1965 Rona Jaffe
All rights reserved.
Mr. Right Is Dead
Eventually, people are willing to admit most of their flaws—greed, jealousy, pride, hostility—but the feeling they're most ashamed to admit is loneliness. I guess that's because it's the one weakness we all secretly feel should be the easiest to overcome, and we secretly feel guilty that we can't. Go out and live—right? Everyone fights loneliness his own way, but some people have to let others do it for them. And that reminds me of my friend Melba Toast, the skinniest stripper in America, who once jumped out of a dietetic cake at a Shriners' Club dinner. Melba is the greatest analgesic for pain since aspirin, but if you told her so she would glare at you for a moment, trying to decide if you meant it as a compliment or something dirty.
"What's analgesic?" she would say. "You're the one who reads a lot." But on the other hand, Mel reads Zen and seems to understand it better than I ever could.
She isn't a working stripper, and sometimes I suspect she never has been except for that dietetic cake. But she had to be something, because everyone is Something. An actress sounded too definite (credits, please), a model too indefinite (subject to the tabloid misinterpretation), she was too old to be a student and too young to be a mother-going-back-to-college, and so she became a stripper. Anyone can become anything he wants, even a doctor; all you have to do is buy a white coat, rent an office, and accept patients until you get caught. Melba Toast is that kind of stripper, except she wants to get caught faking. If she didn't get caught faking, how could she buy all those nice clothes and pay the rent on her $250-a-month apartment?
She's not a hooker, she's more of a cab-fare girl. "I'll get home fine, just give me a hundred dollars." She gets fifty dollars Ladies' Room money to tip an attendant who hasn't been there for years. Her clothes and fur coats are always being impounded for nonpayment of rent, or, as she puts it: "My landlord was nice enough to put everything in storage for me until I come back." She takes quick flights of fancy and quick flights across the country in quest of someone she had two dates with a month before. She is impetuous and overactive and too insistent, but I like her and I'm always glad to see her, even when she's disappeared for six months without saying goodbye. Melba can take an enormous amount of abuse; I mean, you never have to return her phone calls or write to her or anything, and she always says hello as if she saw you yesterday. You never have to feel guilty with Melba, except when you won't lend her your evening gown.
Ordinarily I would never try to figure out why I like someone, except that most of Melba's friends do just that—sit around and try to figure out why they like her so much. They list their grievances (the afternoon phone call from a restaurant and the lunch check she stuck them with when they arrived, the way she name-drops celebrities she doesn't know in order to impress the taxi driver, the night she smoked pot in a taxi, etc.), and they list society's grievances (which are obvious), and they still admit Mel always makes them laugh when they're depressed, and feeds them when they're poor, and does turn up with those celebrities to introduce them to when they need a job.
Because I'm in analysis I try to dig deeper into my own motives, which is usually a bore, except that one of the reasons I like Melba, I have discovered, is that I am jealous of her. When I tell them that, my friends really wring their hands, and they tell me how she has no Real Friends and she's unhappy, and how I have Real Friends and I'm happy, and that I should discuss it with the doctor. But how many love affairs end with the man talking bitterly about the girl, claiming he dropped her, or saying she was a neurosis of the past and he's relieved she left? Compliments are given with clenched teeth after an affair has ended. But Melba's men, even years later, speak of her as if she's a special, kooky, marvelous person. I guess half of it is they can't admit they've been taken. And yet, secret motives aside, she moves in a glow of love, an afterglow, an afterglow of afterlove. And these men aren't all freaks or horrors: all of them are respectable, all of them are successful, most of them are famous, and some of them are even worth knowing. Mel has more unlisted phone numbers, I'd bet, than the phone company; she carries them with her at all times, and no one has ever been known to hang up on her.
It is true that someone can be rotten to you while you're there and then speak lovingly of you when you're safely not there, and so I'm sure many of us have present admirers who we know once hated us. It's easier to be tolerant of the past than the present; we change, we want to believe it was all lovely, for to remember it as it was would make us sad again. But I do think Mel is special, because she has a capacity for survival on her own terms that surpasses any I have ever seen. This is one of the things her friends think is tragic and her lovers have to admire.
It's one thing to survive on other people's terms; we all do that every day, and we call it adjustment, understanding, compromise, and some dead people even call it strength. But Melba not only gets along in life on her own terms, they are terms she has enthusiastically adopted from the silliest movie magazines, gossip columns, adolescent fantasies, and bits and pieces of the philosophies of one or two former boyfriends who happened to impress her. She has latched on to these clichés with a deadly earnestness that has made them come to life. When she lolls in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven "limo," or when she sits behind the wheel of a convertible—a really brand-new, ostentatious, too-horse-powered, mile-long, glistening, expensive, Grade-B-Movie-Star car—it means something to her that most of us cannot understand. And when she goes into the latest tourist trap, proud and serene on the arm of some insecure, married, middle-aged man with a health-club tan and a diamond ring on his pinkie, a tourist trap in which Diamond Ring (at Melba's instructions) whisks out a fifty-dollar bill and is then allowed to proceed to a tiny table, it means something to Melba that most of us cannot understand. She sits there in that noisy room, she listens to the music but does not dance, she gazes at all the pinking shears salesmen in their dinner jackets and the dress models in their vacant stares, she orders enormous quantities of food without looking at the menu and then does not eat a bite, she orders champagne—insisting the bottle be brought to the table before being poured so she can inspect the label—and then has only two sips; and she is happy.
Diamond Ring puts his hand on her knee. Melba opens her evening purse and takes out a handful of business cards.
"Do you know him? How about him? Oh, this one, I forget who he was. I got all these at one party last week. Do you have your card with you? Mmm, very nice."
She puts his card with the others. He notices small letters she has penciled on the margin of each card. He asks what they mean.
"Real—that means he's in real estate. O. means oil. W.S. stands for wealthy and a swinger. Now, what shall I write for you ...?"
She writes two letters on the corner of his card and smiles, then she puts all the cards back into her purse. She won't tell him what his letters mean. He wonders ... he feels now he has been judged for some unaccountable crime ... he hates her for it ... and secretly, ashamedly, he wants her to like him, to change his letters to G.L.—Great Lover. For him, that is all he will know of love. He will appear again through the months, perhaps through the years. Melba never forgets anyone. Not the one with the yacht, nor the one with a private island, nor the one who sent her twelve dresses from Paris, nor the one with no money at all, for whom she cooked dinner every night for a week.
Perhaps I should start from the beginning, when I met her. It was the usual hot summer in New York. August in New York is a month of such total, perfect vileness that most New Yorkers pretend it doesn't exist. Unemployed actors lie sweating on secondhand beds in railroad apartments, looking at their fire escapes and the fire escapes of the people across the street. The ones with initiative flee to California to do television, and find hundreds of others with the same idea—and the same face. Employed actors are away doing movies or pilot films, or touring in stock, or on Broadway with air conditioning. It's different for girls. Girls seem to get along: they covey together like quail, they visit Mama for the summer, they find some fellow with air conditioning, or they get taken out a lot. There's always somebody with a back yard or a terrace, another girl, maybe, who's struck it lucky and wants company while the owner of the terrace is at the office. He is lucky that he is at the office, because offices are air conditioned, while terraces in New York are open-air sweatboxes assailed by a confetti of soot. Terraces are the chic equivalent of fire escapes except that fire escapes are useful.
All the losers are home in August; the winners are away. At night the losers come out of their lonely rooms and infest the bars. They drink beer, soak in the air conditioning, and exude hostility. Their faces never seem to lose that patina of perspiration they acquired all day in their rooms reading Casting Calls. They never walk in the park in the afternoons because it reminds them too much of their first year in New York when they did that all the time because it reminded them of home.
Since it is such an outside-of-the-home month, August is the best time to meet new men and have a romance. But August is the worst time to get involved with someone, because that's the month all the analysts are away. Yours and theirs. By the time the analysts get back the entire romance has flowered and been destroyed, and then it takes you at least until Christmas to get the guilt sorted out with the doctor: fifty-five percent his, forty-five percent mine?
Anyway, that summer I was taking ballet because I was trying to be an actress. You may have seen me on TV. I'm the young housewife who says, "Yes, it is a cleaner wash!" on the commercials; and also I'm the one who gets sick when the boss is coming for dinner; and once I was the one with the stringy, drab hair. It's pretty dispiriting to be the one with the yut husband and the jam-faced kids when my real life is bad enough, but I'm a good type because I look like anybody, and you can't knock the residuals. It's not a sure shot to stardom but I never do expect to play Juliet—maybe the Nurse when I get old enough, provided she has arthritis or migraine or menopause.
Anyway, the main reason I was taking ballet, aside from my natural urge for self-improvement, was that I was going around with an actor who said I had to take the class because dancing purged the soul. He said you could go to dance class with a hangover or the flu or suicidally depressed, and after an hour and a half of hard work you would feel refreshed and elated. Even the flu would be gone. He said the only thing better than a ballet class was two ballet classes in a row. I settled for one a day, Beginners, and it was there I first saw Melba.
She was the ugliest girl I had ever seen in my life. She was so ugly she fascinated me. I would get the place behind her at the bar so I could stare at her in the mirror in front of us. She was very thin and all muscle, with an enormous pouting mouth and sharp monkey eyes. She wore a bright red leotard, and all her hair was up in rollers under what looked like a mobcap. The floppy brim of this grotesque headgear hid her eyebrows, but flipped up on the sides so her ears could protrude. She looked like that chimp they used to dress up to go on television in the mornings. I wondered who she was. I stared at her every day, and in the dressing room I looked at her open purse, her clothes, searching for more clues about her.
She seemed trying to make herself ugly, as if it was part of the discipline of study. She was not a particularly good dancer, but she worked hard. She never spoke to anyone and no one spoke to her. Every day when ballet class was over she took a shower, dried herself with a towel marked Plaza Hotel, put on the tightest slacks and the tightest shirt in New York, yanked them both together with a heavy leather belt, straightened the mobcap, slung her canvas bag over her shoulder, and loped to the elevator.
One day I couldn't stand it any more; there was no one in the dressing room, so I spoke to her. What does one girl say to another when they are total strangers? It's easy—I complimented her on the hat I hated and asked where she had gotten it. She said it was very old, that she had bought it either in California or Boston or Chicago, she forgot which. Her speech was a little affected but her voice was humorous, as if she was deciding how much she could let go.
I said it was clever of her to set her hair while she was in dance class, since the heat made my hair so stringy. She said that was the only time she ever got. Besides, she said, what difference did it make if you wore rollers and a hat in dance class and looked ugly, because there was no such thing as Ugly, and besides, what mattered when you were dancing was your soul. She added emotionally that dancing was just like life and the only thing that should matter in life was your soul and not external things. Then she said if I was going to the East Side she could give me a lift because she had borrowed somebody's Cadillac convertible.
In the elevator she told me her name was Melba Toast.
"I'm a stripper. You have to have a name like that when you're a stripper—it has to be an object or an idea. I'm very thin, so when I first started working they named me Melba Toast, the skinniest stripper in America. In Chicago I jumped out of a dietetic cake at a Shriners' Club dinner. In L.A. I made a movie, but it was never released. It will be someday, though. But right now I'm giving it all up to study seriously to be a good dancer."
"Oh," I said, wondering why she felt called upon to give Instant Credits.
The borrowed convertible was gleaming like wet gold in the afternoon sun. It had pearlescent plastic seat covers and looked as if it belonged to a gangster. Melba had parked it next to an expired parking meter and there was a ticket tucked under the windshield wiper. A young motorcycle cop was just leaving.
"Excuse me, Officer," Melba said. "Officer ..."
He looked up. Her voice had suddenly changed; it was the voice of the wronged princess, Ophelia when Hamlet tells her to get to a nunnery—Yes, my lord.
"Officer, was that a ticket you were writing?"
The cop stared at her. Her blouse, I noticed, was unbuttoned down to the leather belt, and she wasn't as skinny as I had thought. "I'm terribly sorry," Melba went on in that voice. "Was I parked overtime?"
"You sure were," he said. "You never put any money in this meter at all."
She turned and looked at me as if I were the princess's royal purse carrier and had forgotten my duties. "I'm terribly sorry," Melba said. Her accent became almost British. "My friend was feeling ill and I took her upstairs to a doctor. I suppose I must have forgotten."
The cop looked at me for the first time. If not actually sick I certainly looked peculiar. "This your friend here?"
"It was only the heat," Melba said graciously. "We just drove here from California and she's very tired. We came right to the doctor. We haven't even unpacked."
He looked at the license plate. "California in this heat," he said. "Quite a trip."
"Yes, and we don't know anybody."
There was a flicker of interest on his face. He was about twenty-two and not bad looking.
"Well," he said, "you'll want to look around."
"We're looking forward to it."
"Where are you staying?" he asked, looking at her blouse. Melba was looking at the parking ticket.
"If you have something to write it on I'll give you our phone number."
He pulled the parking ticket from under the windshield wiper and tore it in half. "Seeing as you're strangers in town, and it was only five minutes ..." He poised his pencil over the torn ticket.
"Thank you, Officer. Thank you."
Excerpted from Mr. Right Is Dead by Rona Jaffe. Copyright © 1965 Rona Jaffe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsMr. Right Is Dead,
Guess Who This Is,
He Can't Be Dead, He Spoke to Me,
Love Me, Love My Dog,
Rima The Bird Girl,