June 1, 2006
Today, the following ad appeared in the “talent gigs” section of Los Angeles’ Craigslist:
GIRLS NEEDED FOR BODYPAINTING
We are looking for HOT girls and really hot girls with personality for an industry party on June 3. Your job is to be body-painted and dance! It's simple and a lot of fun. You can be topless or nude. Nude pays more. Send pictures and phone number. IF YOU ARE A FLAKE... DON'T WASTE OUR TIME! Thanks and have a great day.
June 3, 2006
Santa Ana: Where “industry party” turns out to mean bachelor party for son-of-obscure-mob-affiliated-reality-TV-star and where rented female bodies stand in for window dressing: decorative as tassels, softening edges, showcasing the view. Where fire swirls on the end of two chains swung by naked dancers balanced on the edge of a terrace and where topless hypnotists and bare blackjack dealers attend to those men not cheering the strippers with their poles, plastic fists and double-headed dildos. Where women serve as kitchenware: sushi offered on fleshy platters, the teeth of men scraping rice off slender thighs. Daniel, the fourth Baldwin brother, dashes about, coke-addled, red-faced, sweating through his misbuttoned shirt. The urban legend is real. The other men have names like Vinnie, Carmine, Bronco, Charlie, Angelo and Snake (who secures the perimeter). They are New York Italians with Rolexes and Lamborghinis, customized choppers, wives interchangeable as silk handkerchiefs.
My job: arrive, disrobe, stand in front of airbrush gun, smile, socialize. My job: become a walking combodity with a painted-on personality, airbrushed lace. My job: slink in nude stockings and dance in man-made lace, glitter twinkling on skin.
At the edge of the swimming pool I am accosted by a large man with a bucktoothed smile and a mouth full of crown teeth. He is cradling two yipping Pomeranians, a gold and diamond-studded Rolex on his wrist. He whoops, “Girl, you are on fire! You can burn me anytime!” He proffers the fluffy dogs so he can snap a photo of me holding them against my flame-stenciled breasts and immediately wants to know what I do. “You’re not a stripper,” he says. “I can tell.”
When I tell him that I am in fact in graduate school, he huffs and begins to strut, indignant that I should be so smart and so naked. He is loud and excitable, a man of exclamation marks. Girls with brains shouldn’t have to strip for money! Broads like me are better than that! Don’t I know this party is full of assholes, real bad men! What am I doing here hanging out with such scum! Graduate school is expensive, I tell him, and I can fairly see the cape of Captain Save-a-Ho unfurl from his shoulders, can almost hear his shining armor begin to clank.
“Come with me,” he says, and grabs my hand, pulls me into the house and up the stairs. Toward the bedrooms. The dogs whine and dart around our feet. Bronco opens a door to one of the rooms; it is white walls and polyester zebra-striped bedding, a clock radio on a rickety nightstand - cheap décor in a house of ostentatious wealth.
His colossal arm encircling my waist, Bronco sweeps me into the bedroom, shuts the door, slaps my behind. He unzips his windbreaker, shrugs it off of his shoulders. “Put this on, girlie,” he says, and hands the jacket to me.
I tell him I can’t; it’s my job to be body-painted and dance. He wants to know how much I’m being paid for the evening’s entertainment, and when I tell him $250, he curses those “cheap kike bastards” because I “deserve at least a grand” and promises to collect my money himself. He paces and rails; they’ll be sure to pay me if he has anything to say about it. He’s a pro, used to collecting money from people who don’t want to give it up. I get drunk on vodka tonics and adulation -- a reckless sense of protection -- hardly notice I won’t be able to make the 50-mile drive home to L.A.
June 4, 2006
The morning after the party, I wake up alone in the zebra-decorated bedroom, sun streaming through the windows. Carmine is standing over me and smiling, his enormous opal ring flashing. “Where’s Bronco?” he wants to know. Smirking.
“I don’t know. Nothing happened,” I snap. “We didn’t do anything.”
“How old are you,” he says. “Do I look like your fuckin’ father? Ya think I care what ya did in the bed?” Carmine makes me feel like a child, rightfully chastised and silly—who am I, this naked painted girl, waking up in a mobster’s house in Orange County seeking approval and validation of myself from this older man I barely know?
But Carmine and Bronco do make me think of my father; they are men of the same generation, but my father is nothing like these men. My father, despite working seven days a week, year after year, is in monstrous debt, and his drinking lately has become routine. He works, and clients regularly refuse to pay him, and he lacks the energy, or the perhaps it is the authority, to demand that they do. When they pay only a fraction of what he’s billed, he discounts the bill until it matches the pittance they’ve paid. I think he would envy these men with their flashing jewelry, their easy gambling, their power to make raw commands. Before my grandmother’s small inheritance was all spent, my father bought two things that he rarely has occasion to wear: a fine tuxedo and a shining gold Rolex. He rarely wears the Rolex, but when he does, it seems to me it is only men like Carmine, Bronco and Charlie whom he might impress. My father would not agree with the mobsters’ morals, their violent paths to wealth, but by donning the same accoutrements, he sometimes looks as if he might.
I walk out of the bedroom, bleary and still nude under Bronco’s billowing windbreaker, airbrushed lace smeared across my legs. “Good morning, beautiful,” shouts Bronco, as he strides into the living room. “Whoo, is it time for some Moons-over-my-hammy! Let’s go to Denny’s.”
When I demur, he barks that he thought I was too smart to be such a dumb broad. I should think of it as the best job I’m ever gonna have: $500 for breakfast and he just wants to hear me talk. “I don’t want you for your tits, sweetie; I want you for your brains.”
June 15, 2006
Bronco, whom I’ve come to think of as the man with the Pomeranians and the exclamation marks, has called me daily since the bachelor party. They call him Bronco, he says, because he’s crazy like Bronco Billy, because he’s real, he likes to drive hard and he doesn’t take no shit. Bronco speaks a language unfamiliar to me, his sentences peppered with abbreviations, acronyms, masculine slang. He speaks of Rollers (Rolexes), Lambos (Lamborghinis), a C.C.W. (license to carry a concealed weapon), the O.C.D. (Organized Crime Division), forensic attorneys, chasing hard paper (debt collection). He is all flattery and money, braggadocio and eagerness to please. Full of fantasies that he knows me, Bronco says that I’m his girl, that one day I’ll be his wife, that we’ll have something to talk about when the topic of conversation isn’t him talking about how well he knows me, how perfect I am, my flat abs, my wonderful breasts and brains. Full of fantasies, neither one of us admits that our shopping trips are about his hopes that every dollar thrown my way will open up my heart and my legs.
This is power that I don’t know what to do with: a gruff, gun-slinging middle-aged man who recoils at the tiniest threat of my displeasure. I understand who he wants me to be, and who he wants me to let him be: my knight in a shining Lamborghini. It should be easy, it seems, to play this game, and the material rewards— “Sweetie, you don’t need to worry about a job”— glitter in his arms like a pot of gold at the end of this too-many-hours-a-week-at-a-school-I-wish-I-didn’t-need rainbow.
I think I want these things that Bronco is offering, though it feels, as if in accepting them, I might lose any grasp on what I know as my self, lose my independence, lose the freedom to account to no one for what I do with my time. As if letting someone else rescue me from my life means I’ll never learn how to rescue myself. Bronco wants my full attention, and fielding his advances is beginning to take every second I have. He is a man of uncompressed energy, a man who paces, sweats, wheezes, exclaims, gestures, shouts, calls constantly and jumps out of chairs. I am terrified of Bronco’s desire, a gaping abyss into which I am trying not to fall.
The first time Bronco cooks dinner for me, he locks Mufasa and Shere Kahn in his bedroom. Behind the door, they yap and scratch, their nails clicking rhythmically against the wood. He wraps shrimp, garlic and butter in foil and throws it on the grill, which he’s forgotten to preheat, impatiently checks the foil every 30 seconds. Bronco reddens, sweats; his temperature rises faster than the gas grill’s. He removes the shrimp from the grill too soon, serves them undercooked. He’s never made shrimp before; all this slow-cooking takes too goddamn long. He wants it to be perfect and he wants it now, tries to fix dinner by microwaving the shrimp, which become inedible, congealing to rubber. Except Bronco doesn’t know that the shrimp are rubbery because he doesn’t eat them, only watches me eat. From across the round kitchen table, he gazes at me - elbows on the table, leaning forward, fleshy hands folded as if in prayer of supplication. He knows I like shrimp though, personally, he hates seafood, would rather have prime rib and potatoes. Except I don’t eat red meat so this massive man has decided to go without. No plate rests on the table in front of him. This makes me angry, though if I am honest, it is the kind of anger that thinly disguises fear, and I snap at him. “Don’t ever do that again,” I tell him. “Make pasta next time or something else. No woman wants to eat alone.”
I keep telling myself that I will let Bronco think what he wants of me and I will play his arm-charm game. Instead, an uncontrollable rebellious streak keeps surfacing. When Bronco orders from his favorite Chinese restaurant, I tell him his use of the term “gook food” is disgusting and call him a racist pig. When he buys me leather pumps, I tell him I’m a tomboy and hate stilettos, that he should throw the shoes in the trash, that if he really cared about me, he wouldn’t want my feet to hurt. When he asks if I like his Roller and its matching rope chain, I tell him that yellow gold jewelry on a man is the province of slimeballs. When he makes me osso buco in a second attempt at dinner, I refuse to eat, declaring that eating veal is inhumane, and furthermore, the red roses he’s given me are trite. He should never give a woman cut flowers, I tell him, because they symbolize the way attempting to possess beauty leads to a withering away and death. When I’m alone, I go on uncontrollable eating binges, reshaping my body, subconsciously attempting to redefine myself as more than my body, destroying the flat abs that flatten me into a paper doll.
June 17, 2006
My girlfriend says my petulance must be due to low self-esteem, that daddy must have never bought me a thing. Women with high self-esteem, she says, not only think they deserve such gifts, they demand them. I could get rich quick, but I’m hopeless, she says, hopelessly middle-class, hopelessly grounded in my Indiana upbringing, my family of pig farmers, peasant German stock.
My other girlfriends advise, “Meet him in public places. Have him pick you up from ‘friends’ houses.’ Don’t let him know where you live.”
Bronco asks specific questions; I give evasive answers. He wants to know, “What freeway do you take to get home? Which exit? And then which way do you go? Do you live close to here? How far?”
I deliberately choose meeting places outside of my neighborhood. “My house isn’t far,” I lie. “10 minutes, northeast.” I tell him I’m a control freak and insist on always having my own car.
“Honey,” says my sister, “please don’t piss off the hit man.”
“Is anyone messing with my girl?” Bronco wants to know. “I’ll squash ‘em like a cockroach!”
June 21, 2006
Bronco wants to know why I won’t say I’m his lady, why I don’t move in.
I touch his hands, pass my fingers over the grizzled hairs sprouting from his knuckles, tell him I’m not used to thinking of men his age in any but a fatherly way.
“Fatherly!” Bronco sputters and tears his hand away. The white hairs combed carefully across his scalp springing out of place as he lies, “I’m only 39! Girl, I ain’t nobody’s dad.”
June 24, 2006
I’ve begun to calculate my worth in dollars and cents. How many two-hour breakfasts at suburban Orange County diners and how much of my time and energy and body and soul does $350 or $500 or $800 buy, exactly? Does a new dress from a trip to the shopping mall equal a whole day’s worth of my life, and if so, which brand of dress is worth a whole day and which kind is worth a quick lunch? If Bronco pays my rent, do I owe him a month? With each gift that I accept, how much less valuable do I become? When I decline to go shopping because it is too exhausting to do so much math, though I don’t tell him this is the reason, Bronco sputters and wheezes and sighs, lacking the words but not the exclamation marks. He is unaccustomed to women who do not know their own worth.
June 29, 2006
I am preparing to leave for a 10-day trip to Mexico where I’ll meet my family, most of whom live in Indiana. I’ve warned Bronco, who calls me at least ten times each day, that during my trip I’ll be unreachable by cell phone. As I take my leave, Bronco is hurt because, still not wanting him to know where I live, I have refused to allow him to drive me to the airport. I’ve also flatly refused to allow him to come along on the trip, despite his desire to meet the strictly Catholic parents who produced such a perfect daughter and for whom, he refuses to believe, they wouldn’t think he was wonderful. He says, “I’ll miss you so much. I feel like I’m losing my best friend.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” I say, “I’m coming back.”
The next day, upon arrival in Mexico, I see that Cozumel is still in the throes of hurricane recovery. The island shimmers with a treacherous beauty: broken balustrades and rumpled lengths of rebar jutting from crumbling, half-painted concrete; forests of sharply stripped branches pointing skyward; scorpions flexing their tails alongside open-toed sandals on sidewalks; all of this sharing space with darting striped iguanas, stinging fire coral, cabbage roses, barracudas and nurse sharks in an impossibly sapphire sea. The island, like Bronco’s bouquet of cut flowers, makes me ineffably sad. I buy a sparkling Mexican opal on a string, but it does not cheer me up. For every opal I take home, the island left behind fades a little. The money I spend here, I realize, is as much an attempt to possess beauty as the money Bronco spends on my rent, leading just as surely to a devaluation, every day a diminishing return.
July 4, 2006
I’ve spent the week reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Mitchell’s text and its indictment of consumerism come at a time of my life when consumerism in the form of a lonely, wealthy middle-aged man beckons me and my newly constructed body through a gilded doorway, price of entrance merely leaving my identity on the floor, flaked off like 29-year-old paint.
Mitchell speaks to me now as I sweat under a thatched umbrella on a deceptively pristine strip of island beach. I watch my father standing at the water line with a cocktail in hand, puffed up and pretentiously impressed with the expensive liquors available at the open bar to those of us wearing the properly colored wristbands.
Next to his wristband, tonight, I’m sure my father will wear his Rolex. It’s not the sort of thing he wears much at home, but on vacation it’s easier for us to indulge pretensions to socioeconomic success. We’re members of a vacation club, Platinum Plus level, and I wish my father, who is a terrible businessman running my family into slow, sure bankruptcy, but who is honest and generous to bank-breaking fault, would stop dropping names, names he can’t even pronounce. That’s one of the benefits of being Platinum Plus, he’s informed me countless times, as much premium liquor as a body can drink, including Dom Perignon (which he calls “Dom Perry-non”), as many Cuban cigars as we can puff without throwing up.
Every year on vacation, my father spends the week gorging himself on the symbols of affluence that he can’t afford at home. He doesn’t understand why I don’t join him in these indulgences, but I never do. During these humid weeks, I want them less than I ever would. He seems genuinely baffled by my behavior. As if the cigars I’ll never smoke or the champagne I think is grotesquely overpriced have any stake in the reasons why I love my father -- my wonderful, flawed, dedicated, hard-working and infuriatingly dependable father, too terrified of change to climb out of his own sinking ship.
I love my father for the swim lessons and camping trips, for Saturday afternoon noon tuna salads and Sunday morning newspapers, for chopping firewood and riding boogie boards and “cooking us in the pot,” for reading me stories at night and walking me to the bus stop, for chocolate Frosties after gymnastics and for toasted bagels with butter and cream cheese in the mornings. I love my father for all of those things, but I do not love him for his Rolex; I would like to throw his Rolex into the rolling sea.
This is what makes me sad for my father; that he seems to live his life trying, through meaningless monetary gestures, to impress people he neither knows nor likes, to impress the people he does both know and like with material things, with posturing and qualities we know better than in which to believe. This is what has precipitated the looming bankruptcy to which he’ll never admit, but the rest of us have seen coming for years.
What will happen if I keep on accepting Bronco’s gifts? I fear I will turn into my father; that I’ll stop talking about the things that matter, equate the cost of liquor with its ability to dull a shaming pain, put on a toxic cloak made of amber bubbles and stinking smoke.
What will happen if I keep on accepting Bronco’s gifts? I fear that that with every rose and stiletto I take, I discount myself; that in the accepting things he’s bought, I turn myself into the thing that can be bought.
I see two Rolex-decorated wrists, heavy with expectations and gold, both badges but neither with honor. My father’s watch, earned honestly, is worn dishonestly. It is the sign of a kind of wealth he does not possess, a uniform of men with whom he would not fit. In that man’s universe, life can be measured out in diamond-encrusted coffee spoons. There exists only one kind of wealth in that universe. It is not the means to wealth that matter there, but only the ends. In my father’s universe, though he kills himself thinking it is the ends that matter, those ends which rise up like a horizon he is never able to reach, like a house payment that can never quite be met, his refusal to resort to dishonesty earns him a badge of honor which does not glitter and which he does not know he wears. In a world where the Rolex is the only badge that matters, my father’s integrity makes him dull as the scuffed nickel back of an old railroad watch. I wish he could see that Bronco’s watch, earned dishonestly, is worn with the honor of thieves, sign of a lifestyle that takes far less courage than my father’s to live.
Erika Szostak holds an M.A. from Loyola Marymount University with emphases in Rhetoric and Creative Writing. Currently, she works as an instructor of English at various Los Angeles area colleges.