I was only twenty-two and already I was infamous. I read the gossip pages with terror in my heart, certain I would find some humiliating detail about my recent downfall. I walked the streets with my eyes peeled, ever on the lookout for hidden paparazzi. I entered my local café with my sphincter tight, counting the seconds until a stranger recognized me, shouted my name, and mocked me for my crime, a crime no one understood, because of my adamant and prolonged silence on the matter.
I was the Hester Prynne of downtown. A public laughing-stock at an age when my biggest worry should have been my lack of health insurance. Shamed before my time, defamed without good cause, a huge red letter branded on my (sizable) chest.
Yet somehow it all made sense. I had always wanted to become someone who could walk into a room and have her reputation precede her. That's what I got. In the worst way.
I didn't move back to New York to be a sex columnist. I wanted to be an actress. The day after graduation, I moved into my parents' apartment in Brooklyn Heights and called my agent, Faye Glass. She had represented me since I was fourteen, and helped me book a few off-off-Broadway plays and an anticrack commercial during high school, but by senior year my career wasn't exactly promising enough to make it worth postponing college. So I let my contract expire, went off to Brown, and told Faye I'd be in touch in four years.
I don't think she realized I meant it literally, because when I got her on the phone that day in May and told her my name, she said, "Who?"
"Ariel Steiner," I repeated insistently. "You represented me when I was a kid. I finished college, I'm back in the city, and I want to start auditioning again."
"Oh," she said like she still wasn't sure who I was. "Come into my office sometime tomorrow and we can get reacquainted."
She seemed to recognize me when I walked in the door, which at first was a huge relief. Maybe her early-onset dementia wasn't as advanced as I had thought. She sat me down opposite her desk and I said, "How's the business changed since I've been away?"
"I'll tell you how you've changed," she said. "You're heavier. A lot heavier. I hate to say it, but looks are seventy-five percent of this business, and it's always going to be that way. I can't send you out for any ingenue parts until you lose fifteen pounds. Come back and see me when you've slimmed down. In the meantime, I'll submit you for fat character roles."
I nodded mutely, but as soon as I got out on the street, I started bawling. It came as something of a shock to have to put my life dream on hold all because I never got rid of my freshman fifteen. And it didn't help that I was being asked to diet when I had just graduated a college where you spend four years learning not to buy into the warped value system of the patriarchal hegemony.
The reason Faye's words were so surprising was that I'd never considered myself fat before. I was five five, 142 pounds -- no slim chicken, but by no means a total porker. Guys had always considered my body more of an asset than a liability. I'm what they call zaftig: all butt, boobs, and hips. I was a late bloomer, but once I bloomed, I bloomed big. I didn't understand how the same figure that had served me so well horizontally could serve me so poorly professionally. But it didn't matter how I felt about my body. If Faye said I was fat, then I was. I had to lose the weight or choose another career, and I wasn't going to choose another career.
I'd known acting was my calling since November 1976, when I was two. My parents had taken me to my grandparents' house in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, and after dinner the whole family gathered in the living room for the entertainment segment, where all the kids showed off their latest accomplishments. As my three-year-old cousin Eddie belted "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" into a microphone, I sat in the corner, watching them all watch him, and was seized by a jealous rage. I couldn't stand the sight of so many people paying so much attention to someone who wasn't me.
Then I got a brilliant idea. As Eddie continued to sing, I slowly and quietly began to strip off all my clothes. Everyone was so focused on him they didn't notice what I was doing. As soon as I was in the buff, I jumped in front of him with a loud "Ta-da!" and the entire room burst into fits of hysterical laughter. Eddie had been totally forgotten. They were all watching me. I didn't feel the slightest bit guilty for stealing his limelight. I just felt like justice had been served.
But now justice would have to be delayed until I lost my extra poundage. I wiped the tears off my face, bought a Slim-Fast at a Korean deli, and got on the subway home.
Brooklyn Heights is a quaint, old-fashioned neighborhood known for its tree-lined streets and elegant turn-of-the-century brownstones. I didn't grow up in one of those brownstones. I grew up in a three-bedroom apartment on the thirty-fifth floor of a middle-income apartment building, Silver Tower, that was built in August 1973. I once looked up Silver Tower in a Brooklyn history book and it was described as "a blot on the otherwise attractive landscape of the neighborhood."
Sad to say, that's pretty accurate. The railings on the terraces look like prison bars, the concrete is gray-brown and ribbed like a condom, and the entire phallic palace is the biggest eyesore in a twenty-block radius. The only thing that makes the apartment halfway worthwhile is the view. The terrace faces Queens, but if you lean all the way out and look toward the left, you can see the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, and from my bedroom you can spot the Statue of Liberty.
When I got home, my mom was in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and listening to All Things Considered. "How was Faye's?" she said.
"She can't send me out on any ingenue parts till I lose fifteen pounds."
"She really said you have to lose fifteen pounds?" said my mom, horrified.
"Because I think ten would be more than enough."
"Thanks," I said, went into my room, and shut the door. I lay down on the bed, closed my eyes, and fantasized about the day my skinny, perfect ass would be on the cover of Rolling Stone. It wouldn't take long. Once I lost the weight, Faye would send me on an audition for a murderous, conniving bitch part on the New York cop show Book 'Em. The casting director would be so blown away by my venomous appeal that she'd hire me on the spot. As soon as we shot the episode, every casting office in town would start buzzing about me, and before the show even aired, George C. Wolfe of the Public Theater would cast me in his next star-studded production -- as Lady Macbeth to Will Smith's Macbeth. Once we opened, Ben Brantley would cream all over me in the New York Times, and Hollywood would start calling.
I'd get a walk-on in the new George Clooney vehicle shooting in New York, and then Woody would cast me as his mute fourteen-year-old mail-order bride in his Untitled Winter Project. Although I wouldn't have any actual lines, my face and body would be so expressive that I'd get nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar. I'd bring my father as my date, and when Jack Palance opened the envelope and announced me as the winner, I'd run up to the stage in strapless Chanel and they'd cut to a shot of my dad drowning in a sea of his own mucus.
I'd follow my Oscar-winning role with the girl roles in Speeds 4 and 5 and Insanely Indecent Proposals. Julia would become a has-been, Julianne a nobody, Juliette yesterday's news. Winona and Gwyneth would become my best buddies. I'd help Gwyn with her eating disorder and convince Winona to change her last name back to Horowitz, and the three of us would become the reigning Jewish Girl Power Mafia of Hollywood. Under our influence, Reform Judaism would become the most popular celebrity religion and Scientology would die out forever.
I'd start my own production company, Zaftig Pictures, and produce chick-friendly scripts with completely one-dimensional roles for men. I'd be the first woman to start asking twenty-five mil a pic. Time would put me on the cover, saying I was changing the rules of Hollywood. Brown would award me an honorary doctorate and I'd go back to campus to give a speech about female empowerment in a male-dominated world. All the young theaterfucks would clap wildly for me as I choked up and did a beauty pageant wave, remembering the day when Faye had told me I was Just Too Fat.
I must have dozed off, because I was awakened by my brother, Zach, standing over me, saying, "Hello, blubber." He was in his junior year at Stuyvesant High School and going through his smart-assed-prick stage.
"Mom told you?" I said.
"Do you think I need to lose weight? Be honest."
"Well, I've never wanted to say anything to you, but you have put on a few pounds over the last couple years. I think the diet's a good thing. It's an excuse to make yourself more attractive." Zach could be sharp sometimes. He cracked, but he cracked wise.
We went to the dinner table and started in on our fruit cocktail, and then my dad walked in. He kissed my mother, but not me. Since I hit puberty, I haven't let him kiss me. When I was a kid we embraced all the time, but as soon as I started developing, I stopped feeling comfortable around him. Then, when I got over my puberty weirdness, I didn't know how to go back to kissing him again, because that would have been admitting I'd been wrong not to kiss him, and you can never admit to your parents that you were wrong.
"What did Faye have to say?" he asked, sitting down at the table. I told him. "I see," he said, then began contorting his eyebrows violently. He has a bushy black beard and I've never seen his lips, but I can always tell what he's feeling by his forehead.
"Don't worry," I said. "It'll be OK. It's only fifteen pounds. I don't think it'll take me that long to lose it."
"I don't either," he said. But for the rest of the meal he didn't say another word about Faye. He just asked Zach a bunch of questions about his physics class, as I shoveled down the kasha varnishkes my mom had made for me, and pretended to like it.
The next morning I made an appointment to interview at a temp agency on Wall Street. I had gotten its name off the front page of the Sunday New York Times classifieds. The ad was diabolical, but it worked. Want to be a Star? it said, in bold caps. And on the next line, in much smaller letters, "Then sign up with Dynamic Associates for flexible, temporary work."
When I walked in the office, a coiffed fortyish woman introduced herself as Frances, took me into a conference room in the back, and had me fill out some employment history forms. Then she led me into another room, where I took the typing, word processing, and grammar tests. The last was the most humiliating. It consisted of retard-level questions like "Which is correct? (a) Washington, d.c., (b) Washington, DC, (c) Washington, D.C., (d) Washington dc" and "Pick the choice that defines or is most like the word collate. (a) destroy, (b) separate, (c) assemble, (d) moisten." I wondered what they did to the people who got that one wrong. Was there a special torture room in the back where they forced you to do huge mass mailings for hours on end, until the meaning of collate was forever embedded in your mind?
When I finished the tests, Frances took me back into her office and tabulated my results. "You need some work on your word processing skills," she said, "but your grammar is good and you type seventy-five, which is excellent. I'm going to try to get you something for tomorrow."
By the time I got home from the agency she had already left a message on my machine about an assignment. I'd be the secretary to a financial administrator at a magazine publishing company, McGinley Ladd, at Thirty-second and Park Avenue South. The rate was $18 an hour -- more than I'd gotten for any job in my life.
My boss greeted me in the lobby of the building. She was six feet tall with shoulder-length blond hair, and she introduced herself as Ashley Ginsburg. I could guess by that name that she was a shiksa who'd married a Jew, and despised her immediately for stealing one of our boys -- my own occasional shaygitz suckerdom aside.
She took me upstairs to the twelfth floor and led me to my desk. It was in a small dingy room with a window overlooking Park Avenue South. "This is my office," she said, pointing to a door to the right of the desk. "Don't walk in on me unannounced or when I'm on the phone."
She showed me how to transfer a call and work the intercom, turned on my computer, gave me a user ID, and disappeared into her office. As soon as she closed the door, I called my machine to see if Faye had left a message. Nothing. For the next two and a half hours, the Corposhit didn't come out of her office once. I sat at the desk staring at my watch, looking out the window, daydreaming, and checking the machine once every fifteen minutes. At eleven-fifty, just as I was on my way out to lunch, I dialed one more time and struck gold: "Ariel, it's Faye. I got you an audition for Book 'Em tomorrow at six. Please call." I couldn't believe my fantasy was coming true so quickly! But when I called her back she said the role was "a chunky young woman who works as a cashier and studies part-time at City College," and I realized it might take some time before my dream became reality.
On my lunch break I took the bus to the casting office and picked up the sides. They were in a folder titled "Fat Cashier" and they weren't too inspiring. The suspected murderess had ordered produce from my grocery store and I had to explain to the cops what she looked like. I tried to rehearse the scene on the ride back to work, but it wasn't too easy to find deep motivation for lines like "All's I know is he bought radicchio."
I practiced the scene three times that night with Zach, until I felt confident about my read, and the next day after work I went into the ladies' room, changed into baggy pants and a sweatshirt, and took the bus to the audition. The waiting area was teeming with gorgeous slender girls, so I knew right away they were auditioning for the conniving murderess part. Maybe there was an advantage to going up for fat roles: the competition wasn't as stiff.
After twenty minutes the casting director finally called me into her office. There were two chairs opposite her desk -- a cushy one in the center of the room and a hard-backed metal one in the corner. "Sit wherever you want," she said. I felt like Goldilocks. Would my chair choice affect my chances? Was this a secret psychology trick to see what personality type I was? I weighed my options: I knew if I chose the comfy one I'd sink down into it and give a low-energy reading, but if I sat in the metal one I'd be too far away from the casting director to connect. So I picked up the cushy one, heaved it to the corner, and moved the metal one over in its place.
"Interesting choice," she said.
We ran through the scene together and when we finished she said, "You're clearly talented, and I know you could do it. Whether we cast you is simply going to depend on what the producers want. If they decide to go overweight, we'll have to go with someone else."
"Excuse me?" I said.
"If the producers want us to cast someone heavy, we're not going to go with you. You're not heavy at all." I grinned triumphantly and walked out.
The next day Faye left me a message saying I had a callback on Monday at one-fifteen at the production office in Chelsea, with the producers and director. As soon as she said the word "callback," I let out a yelp of glee. Then I hung up and rang the Corposhit on the intercom.
"Yes?" she huffed.
"I need to talk to you about something. Can I come in?"
"All right." I walked into her office. "I'm wondering if I can take a long lunch tomorrow."
"I'm actually an actress, and I have a callback." I couldn't resist a little self-satisfied smile.
"What's it for?"
Her eyes bugged out. "I watch that show every week! Would you get to meet Barry Rinaldi if you got the part?"
"Yes," I said proudly. "In fact, my scene is with him. So, is that OK?"
"Sure," she said, still looking slightly incredulous. Then she suddenly seemed to realize she was being nice to her underling, reassumed her permagrimace, and said, "Close the door behind you."
The afternoon of the audition, I changed into the same clothes I'd worn to the first audition (they say you always should) and took the train to Chelsea. Some of the same model-type girls from the first audition were in the waiting room, stretching their legs and mouthing their lines. I sat down between two of them, trying not to be distracted by their burgeoning breasts, and read my scene over to myself. Then the casting director called me in.
Behind a long table in a huge, airy studio were four middle-aged men. I didn't let them intimidate me, though. I read the scene with even more hostile, jaded-cashier energy than I'd been able to summon the first time. At the end they smiled, impressed. That had to be good, because when they don't like you, they don't fake it.
When I got out on the street, I called Faye. "It went really well," I said. "I think I have a good chance, but the casting director said they won't cast me if they decide to go with someone heavy. She said I'm not heavy at all."
"Face it, Ariel," said Faye. "I sent you on an audition for a fat part, and you got called back."
I didn't wind up booking it, but I wasn't discouraged. I would spend the next few months losing weight and doing the obese girl circuit, and then Faye would start sending me out on ingenue parts, and I'd take the world by storm.
But over the next month, as I stuck to my coffee, yogurt, and skinless chicken diet and narrowed to 137 pounds, Faye didn't get me one more audition. Whenever I called to check in with her, she said, "There just aren't that many character roles for young women. I'll send you out on anything you're right for. You have to just be patient and trust me."
I have never been good at being patient. Every single thing I've achieved in life has come to me because I am not a patient person. I ran for the morning-announcements position in high school with no school government experience and won because I wrote a funny campaign speech. I was always a straight-A student because I worked my ass off. My father told me when I was young that "talent is ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration," and I took it to heart, even though he was plagiarizing Edison. So it wasn't easy to be told I had to sit tight.
Whenever I got frustrated with my acting career during high school, I would switch my focus to the only other thing I was passionate about: boys. If I didn't get called back for a play, I'd call up a cute guy in my class and flirt, and the rejection wouldn't sting so hard. I wanted to be able to utilize that technique again, but if you want to meet guys, you have to have a frame, a context, and I didn't have one. College is a frame. My boyfriend at Brown, Will, and I made eyes in Moral Problems class the first week of freshman year and went out for the next year and a half. It doesn't work like that in the city, though. If you make eyes at a hot guy on the street, he might follow you home, rape you, hack you to a million pieces, and leave you for the maggots.
So instead of trying to meet new guys, I decided to try bluebinning -- recycling old ones. Whenever I had downtime at work (which was eighty percent of the time), I went through my address book and dialed my exes. I called every cock I'd caressed in summer camp, Reform Jewish youth group, and high school, but all I got were return messages from their moms, saying, "Sam's moved to Austin," or "You can reach David at his new number in Chelsea, where he's living with his girlfriend."
My temp job didn't open many romantic doors either. When you're a temp, nobody talks to you like you're a permanent resident of the planet. Besides, all the men at McGinley Ladd were rich workaholics, and I knew I couldn't have anything real with a guy who could hack the nine-to-five. I kept hoping someone from Brown would invite me to a party, but I didn't make too many friends there because I was so tied up in my relationship, so no one was calling.
Because I couldn't vent my career frustration through real-life nookie, I turned my energies to fantasizing. I stared like a hungry puppy at every male yupster who dropped a paper in the Corposhit's in box, trying to imagine how big their dicks were, what kind of noises they made when they came, and whether they were tit men, ass men, or pussy men. I concocted elaborate scenarios involving them sitting at important business meetings and me sucking them off under their conference tables while they tried to act normal.
At night, after dinner with my family, I would go into my room, get under the covers, and diddle the dai dai. If I couldn't sleep, I'd wank. If I was bored, I'd wank. (Once, Zach came in the room and I had to stop abruptly, but the great thing about being a chick is that no one can see your woody through the sheets.) My orgasms were pleasant enough, but my hand was a poor substitute for a bona fide bone. It was pathetic. I was making my living as a receptionist, the oldest pornographic stereotype in the book, and I didn't have anyone to role-play with. After a month in the most seminal city in the world, I was an overweight actress, an overqualified temp, and an oversexed celibate.
One muggy morning in July while I was waiting for the train at Borough Hall, I figured out a way to improve at least one aspect of my sorry life. I was leafing through magazines at the newsstand when I spotted a copy of Backstage. I picked it up and flipped to the Casting section. An ad caught my eye immediately: "Lolita: Rock On. A rock musical version of the Nabokov classic, to perform at 24th St. Stage. Seeking: Lolita, 15-25, pure but tainted, pristine but vulgar. Some singing required, but soul more important than technique." I hoped they meant it, because although I can do many things, singing is not one of them.
As soon as I got to work, I called the number in the ad. A middle-aged man answered. He had a sleazy, soft-sell voice, the kind you hear on luxury car commercials.
"I'm calling about the audition," I said. "My name's Ariel Steiner."
"I'm Gordon Gray, the director. Prepare a rock or jazz song and come in Saturday at four."
That night at dinner I told my family about the audition. My dad raised his eyebrows a little when I mentioned the word Lolita, then forced a smile and said, "Knock 'em dead." After dinner I locked myself in the bathroom, ran the tap water, and practiced Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You" into the mirror until I had more soul than JB. When I was done, I went into my room, opened the closet, and looked for an audition outfit. I picked out a polka-dot midriff for authenticity, because that's what Lolita is wearing when Humbert first catches sight of her. Then I caught a glimpse of my gut and decided against it.
I had to go down four flights of stairs to get to the theater. It was next to a karate center, on the bottom floor of an old church. The waiting room was dark and smelled of cigarettes. Battered copies of Backstage were spread out on the floor, and a decrepit black curtain led to the theater. A blond twelve-year-old and her mother were sitting on one side of the room and a brunette in her thirties was on the other. The girl was very cute, but I could see immediately that she was no nymphet. I didn't know what to make of the brunette. I figured she was either auditioning for the role of Mrs. Haze or seriously deluded about her age range.
After a few minutes the curtain opened and a short, squat man with a white beard came out. I could tell by his voice that it was Gordon. He smiled at the girl and said, "Betsy?" The mom gave her an eager smile, Betsy went into the theater, and the curtain closed behind her. I heard her say something about "hoping to get involved in off-Broadway theater." How clueless can she be? I thought. This show was about as far off Broadway as you could get. You count the offs by the number of stairs you have to go down to get to the theater.
It was quiet for a second, and then Betsy broke into this loud, throaty version of "Hand in My Pocket" by Alanis Morissette. I looked over at Betsy's mom. She was beaming with pride. I pitied that mom. Didn't she know her kid was never going to get cast with the most brain-numbing anthem in the history of pop as her audition song?
After about fifteen seconds I heard Gordon say, "Thanks so much, Betsy. That's all we need for today." Betsy came out of the room looking vacant and dazed, and she and her mom walked out.
The brunette got called in next. She sang "On My Own" from Les Misérables in a shaky falsetto and she got stopped after ten seconds. The curtain opened, she left in a huff, and Gordon came out.
"You must be Ariel," he said. "I'm Gordon Gray." He extended his hand. "Nice grip."
"Thanks," I said. I never underestimate the importance of the handshake.
The theater was tiny and dark and it took a second for my eyes to adjust to the light. It looked more like a bomb shelter than a theater. There were audience seats on three sides and the stage was just an empty square area of paint-chipped concrete floor.
A wiry, fiftyish man in a beard and glasses was sitting in front row center. "This is Gene," said Gordon. "He'll be playing Humbert and helping me with the casting. Did you bring a headshot?"
I handed it to him and he sat down next to Gene. They flipped over to the résumé side and glanced at it for a second, nodding like my credits were decent, and then Gordon looked up and said, "Whenever you're ready."
I took a spot downstage center and breathed in. I tried not to think about Faye or weight or my total lack of vocal training. I was young, I was nubile, and I was gonna blow these fuckers away. I started to sing: "How glad the many millions of Toms and Dicks and Williams would be to capture me! But you had such persistence, you wore down my resistance; I fell and it was swell..."
They were smiling, clearly enjoying it, but I knew I had to do something bigger. On the next line I walked over to Gordon, sat on his lap, wrapped my arms around his neck, and nibbled his ear. He turned bright red and squirmed under me. That squirming was a very good sign. It meant I was affecting him, and if you want to get cast you have to make a bold impression. I would show him I could do this part if it took a lap dance. At the final line I strutted back to the stage, did a few curtsies and twirls, and finished on my knees, with my thumb in my mouth.
Gordon whispered to Gene in such an excited way that I was sure I stood a serious chance. Then they looked down at my résumé and Gordon said, "Would you mind doing an improv?" I certainly did not mind. Improv has always been one of my strongest skills. Gordon set up two chairs onstage and said, "Here's the scenario: you've just finished baby-sitting for Gene's kids, and now he's driving you home."
"I don't remember that scene from the book," I said.
"Oh, that's not in the book," Gordon said. "The show is going to be very free-form. We're envisioning it more as a riff on pedophilia than a literal interpretation of Nabokov."
That was cool. I could riff. Gene and I took our seats. He mimed a steering wheel and said, "So, were my kids good tonight?"
"Oh yes, Mr. Jones," I answered. "Very good. But I'm afraid I'm not such a good girl at all." I scooted my chair closer to him and put my hand on his thigh.
Before long I was telling him how much I hated blowing guys my own age and how frustrating it was that none of them knew how to make me come. The raunchier I got, the more flustered I made Gene. I couldn't tell how much was real and how much was pretend. Finally I said, "Well, here's my house, Mr. Jones," leaned over, and kissed him on the lips good-bye. His breath stank and there was some crust caked on his mouth corners, but I pretended to be into it. Then I pulled away, stood up, mimed slamming the car door shut, turned to Gordon, and smiled triumphantly.
"I'd like to cast you," he said.
I felt like I'd just won the Olympic gold. I couldn't even sing and I'd gotten booked as the lead in a rock musical. Clearly my charisma had paid off. But then I remembered how scant my competition had been, and my gold morphed into a bronze.
"This is going to be a very special rehearsal process," said Gordon. "Each of the performers will be given a chance to contribute material which relates to the theme of Lolita. It can take any form -- song, story, sketch, whatever interests you. We want to examine pedophilia in our culture from all perspectives, and Lolita's is one of the most important. I'm particularly interested in having the performers use personal, autobiographical experiences in the project. So if you have anything you want to contribute, bring it to rehearsal on Monday."
When I got home from the audition the apartment was empty. My parents were at their country house in the Berkshires, and Zach was out with his friends. I went into my room, sat down in front of the computer, and tried to think of incidents from my adolescence that related to the theme of Lolita. Before I knew it my fingers were flying.
"Let's start with you, Ariel," Gordon said. It was the first rehearsal of the show, and the cast was assembled in a circle onstage: Gene; Gordon; Ted, the guy playing Quilty; Fran, the woman playing Mrs. Haze; the Push-Ups, the show's all-girl band; and me. James, the assistant director, was running late, Gordon said.
I was sweating profusely, but I tried to bite the bullet. "Um, I have two stories," I said. "The first is called 'Vanya in My Vulva.' It's about this forty-one-year-old playwright who fingered me last year at the movie Vanya on 42nd Street. The second is called 'Shooting Wad and Movies.' That's about this thirty-six-year-old married actor I hooked up with when I was sixteen, on the set of an NYU film. Which should I start with?"
Nobody said anything. The guys just stared at me with half-open mouths and the Push-Ups rolled their eyes. Finally Gordon cleared his throat and said, "How 'bout 'Vanya in My Vulva'?"
I took out the story.
"Roberto Pozzi and I met when I was fifteen and he was thirty-five. We were in a theater group together, and at each weekly meeting he would stare at my chest and tell me I was becoming a woman before his very eyes. One night he called me up and said he'd just written a play about a man who sodomizes and murders a crippled retarded girl he meets in Central Park. He said he wrote the little girl part with me in mind and wanted to know if I would come over to his apartment and read it with him. I said I wasn't sure, hung up, went into the living room, and asked my parents what sodomizing was. They wouldn't tell me.
"I never did the reading anyway, because Roberto booked a TV show in L.A. and had to move, and we didn't speak for the next four years. But junior year of college, he called me in my dorm room. He'd gotten my number from my parents. He started out asking me innocuous questions like how I liked school, but pretty soon he was asking how big my nipples were, whether my butt shook when I walked, how thick my pubic hair was, and what size bra I wore, cup and number."
Gene coughed. Gordon shifted in his seat.
"I loved these questions. Roberto was a freak, but he was a million times more exciting than all the idiot college boys I was dating. He said he'd be in New York for a few weeks around Christmas, visiting friends, and we arranged to meet at a café on MacDougal Street. I was pleased to find that his looks had only improved with age. His hair wasn't receding, he was tan and buff, he wore a long, gray wool coat and dark, clean jeans, and he kissed me on the mouth hello. We sat in the café reminiscing and then he suggested we see Vanya on 42nd Street.
"In the middle of the movie he started biting my ear and lip. 'Kiss me, Ariel, kiss me,' he said. 'I want you to kiss me. Turn to me and kiss me, baby. Come on, kiss me.' I did, but Roberto was a biter and biters really turn me off. I kept closing my mouth to hint that I liked to be kissed soft and sweet, instead of hard and rough, but he kept gnawing the tip of my tongue."
Right on the word tongue I saw someone come through the curtain into the theater, and as soon as I saw him a current shot straight from my heart to my hole. He was in his early thirties, medium height, in a hip-length leather jacket, and he had mussed yellow hair and Buddy Holly glasses. His glasses and strut made it clear he thought he was hot shit on a silver platter. It's always the cockiest guys who nerd themselves down because nerding yourself down is a way of saying, I'm so hot I can dress like a dork and women will still find me good looking. I was not turned off by his hotshitism, though. No indeed. I have always been a sucker for guys who think they're hot shit because I want to be the one woman to turn them into the weak fucks they really are.
He took a seat in the front row of the audience, and I struggled for a few seconds to find my place in the story.
"Then Roberto put his hand on my leg and up my skirt and rubbed my underpants. He slid his fingers under the panties and stuck one inside. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them I saw Wallace Shawn on the screen, lisping his way through a mournful monologue. I wondered if I was the only one watching Wallace Shawn who had a finger up her crack."
I glanced at Buddy Holly. He was smiling.
"When the movie was over we walked down the street holding hands. We headed up Sixth Avenue to Balducci's and he bought me jelly beans and cheese. I liked him buying me things. It didn't matter that he was leaving, a biter, and a highly unstable choice in the long run. It was a warm pleasure to walk down the street on the arm of a man who knew the importance of a nice wool coat, who had good teeth, clear skin, and thick hair. Who smelled like old Aramis, called me 'baby,' and walked briskly with his arm linked in mine. My life was like a Charlie perfume ad. With a very sick twist."
I looked up. "That's it."
It was quiet. One of the Push-Ups glared at me and lit a cigarette. Gene and Gordon grinned uncomfortably, and Buddy Holly crossed his legs.
"Excellent, Ariel, excellent," said Gordon. "There's some real good stuff there. Real good stuff."
"I agree," said Gene. "You've got some vivid, potent material there. Your writing is so firm, and stark, and tight. I think she should read the other story, Gordon. What do you think?"
"I think so too," said Gordon. "This is James Delaney, everyone. The assistant director. Ariel's just finished reading a tantalizing tale about an experience with an older man, James."
"I'm sorry I came late," said James.
"Have you copyrighted your stories?" he asked, as I packed them into my bag. It was the end of rehearsal and everyone had left the theater except us.
"No, I just wrote them a few nights ago, for the show. Why?"
"You might want to consider it, in case you ever submit them somewhere. There's a lot of theft in literary magazines these days. You could submit something somewhere, have it rejected by an editorial assistant, then see it pop up under her name in another publication months later. Happens all the time."
"Jeez," I said innocently. "I had no idea that was so common. You wouldn't happen to have the number for the Copyright Office, would you?"
"As a matter of fact, I do. Not with me, but at home."
"Maybe you could...give me your number, then. And I could call you for the number of the office."
As he started to reach for the Pilot V5 Extra Fine pen protruding from his shirt pocket, my sexual frustration balled up into a fist and punched me in the face. I shot my hand out and grabbed the pen myself, letting my fingers rest against his chest for a second as I pulled. I glanced at him quickly to see his reaction. He looked half intrigued, half afraid. Maybe writing those stories had been a wiser move than I knew.
That night under the covers, I pretended my vagina was the trash compactor in Star Wars and James was this tiny Han Solo trapped inside me. The hotter I got, the faster my walls began to close and the harder he had to struggle to get out. After a few minutes he found this pole in there and desperately tried to pry me open with it, but it was to no avail. Each move he made only intensified my arousal and crushed him further. I was going to suffocate that little fucker with brute Chewbacca strength. As I finally began to come, I imagined myself shooting his miniature carcass out of me across the room. As soon as he landed he began to grow to human size -- still dressed as Han Solo, except in Buddy Holly glasses. He climbed on top of me, fucked me slowly and expertly, collapsed with a sigh, and hummed "Everyday" softly into my ear until I fell asleep.
The next morning at work, I couldn't stop thinking about James. I kept getting this image of him walking into the theater, and each time I got it, I'd wetten and sweat. When a guy makes you wetten and sweat each time you think of him, it kind of makes you want to call him. So I left a message on his machine saying I was calling for the number of the Copyright Office. A little while later he called back.
"Good morning, Ashley Ginsburg's office, Ariel Steiner speaking. How may I assist you?"
"Mmmm," he said. "You have such a sexy phone voice."
I loved that compliment. My voice has always been the attribute I'm most proud of. The only part of my job I enjoyed was answering the phone, since it let me put on a little show for each caller. I always tried to cultivate a pleasant, welcoming, and perfectly well modulated tone.
"I'm glad you think so," I said. "I work hard on it. I think good phone manners are essential to establishing the credibility of a place of work. Are you calling to give me the Copyright number?"
"Yes. But I also...had another agenda. I wanted to know if you'd like to get a drink with me tomorrow night, since we have rehearsal off."
I wrote "YES!!!!!!" in huge letters on my blotter.
"That sounds fine," I said.
"Good. Let's go to Corner Bar, at West Fourth and West Eleventh. At ten, say. And I want you to bring those stories."
f0 "Because as I watched you read last night, I could see that you possessed something...something highly alluring. If you got onstage and performed those stories for an audience of men, I am certain that you would electrify. I would just love to...present you. To be a part of you turning men on. To assist with that task." He was quiet. All I could hear was his heavy breath. I wondered if he had something in his hand.
"What about women, though? Would women be allowed in the theater?"
"Yes. The women would be jealous once they saw how the men were responding to you. They would come on to their men that night harder than ever and the men would make love to them thinking of you. The sex would be so good that the women would feel grateful to you. You have this incredible erotic energy, which should be put onstage for other people to watch. You have something powerful and hot and big."
There was something bizarre about James's vision, but he thought I was sexy and that flattered me. Besides, maybe he was on to something with this one-woman-show idea. We could tour the globe together and wow crowds from Houston to Hamburg. Critics would dub me the Jewish Madonna, the thinking girl's Robin Byrd, the straight Holly Hughes. After a few months on the road James would fall in love with my brilliance and propose. I'd insist that he convert to Judaism, we'd get hitched in Temple Emanu-El before a crowd of thousands and immediately have a litter of slightly off-balance children.
I'd drop the smut tales and start doing performance art about the joys of motherhood, and it would be even more provocative than before. Everyone who watched me would suddenly want to become parents, and it would set off a worldwide population explosion that would go down in history as the Steiner Effect.
"I should go," said James.
"OK," I said.
"I'm looking forward to tomorrow. I think it will be a highly entertaining evening, for both of us."
"I hope so."
That night at rehearsal, Gene played a composition he'd written on his French horn, entitled "Lovely Lolita," and James read a long, rambling poem about a deer hunter. It was boring and pretentious and made me lose some artistic respect for him, but it didn't diminish my lust. At the end of the night I waved good-bye to him casually so no one would know there was something budding between us.
After work the next day I stopped in the Village to browse for shoes. I was passing by Patricia Field, this transvestite store on Eighth Street, when in the center of the window I spotted a long, shiny black flip wig with the hair curled up at the ends. I went inside. "Where are the wigs?" I asked the hulking she-man behind the counter.
"Upstairs," she said in a German accent that sounded fabricated. At the top of the stairs was a counter with a row of wigs behind it. A tall, severe-looking queen was behind it, fitting a girl my age with the very wig I wanted. It didn't look too good on her. She had pale skin and small features and it was too big for her face. I felt sure it would took better on me because I have large features and a large head. The girl shook her head no, the queen took off the wig, and I stepped up to the counter.
"Excuse me," I said. "How much is that one?"
"A hundred," she said, primping it up.
There was no way in hell I could afford it. But I had to see it on me. I knew she would probably hate me for trying on something I wasn't planning to buy, but I didn't care. Her job frustration was her problem, not mine. "I'd like to put it on."
I sat down in the swivel chair behind the counter. She turned me so my back was to the mirror, fitted me with the wig, then spun me around so I could see my reflection.
Suddenly I was a raven-haired knockout. My skin looked visibly pinker. Usually it looks green because of my Russian Jewish ancestry. My mother's always called it olive, but it's really closer to chartreuse. My eyes looked bright and alive and my torso seemed slimmer.
"You look like Mary Richards," said the queen.
"Oh, honey. You never saw The Mary Tyler Moore Show?"
"It was kind of before my time," I said, blushing. "But thanks anyway. I'm glad I look like her."
She fluffed the wig and made the ends curl out more dramatically. I ran my fingers through the hair as if it were my own, but the gesture looked distinctly false in the mirror. I tried again, and the second time it looked more natural.
I couldn't stop looking at the new me. I loved her. I felt gorgeous and available and on top of the world. Then I remembered the price. "You can take it off now," I said. She sneered, removed the wig, and put it back on the dummy head. I trudged down the stairs without looking back.
When I got outside I noticed a bank machine across the street. Suddenly I heard Robin Williams's voice in my head saying, "Carpe diem." The only reason I saw Dead Poets Society was for the young hottie quotient, but that line has always rung truer than true. I looked at the display wig in the window, then back across the street at the cash machine, and, well, I carped that diem.
The queen was visibly delighted when I told her I'd take it. I knew she'd probably get a handsome commission. She trimmed the wig a bit, said, "If you tweeze your brows it'll look even better," and started to put it in a plastic bag.
"No," I said. "I'll wear it."
As soon as I got out on the street, I felt like a new woman. Men turned and stared. I didn't know if they were staring because they thought I was hot or because they knew it was a wig, but it didn't really matter. They were looking.
When I got home from the store I raced to my room and opened my closet. There was no doubt in my mind that I should wear the wig on the date, because it seemed like just the sort of thing James would enjoy. But I needed a dress to go with it: something saucy yet simultaneously demure. Cute hot, not slut hot. I combed through my clothes until my eyes fell upon a bright white number.
It was the nurse dress I'd bought junior year for Halloween at the Providence Salvation Army, also known as the fashion locus of the Western world. I had found it in the uniforms section, and when I got back to my dorm I hemmed it to ass length and went to a party. I didn't stop getting compliments the whole night. I felt like a porno movie come to life. And James was a highly pornographic man.
After dinner I showered, tweezed my eyebrows, bleached my mustache, and put on some lipstick, the wig, the dress, and my brown platform heels. I slipped on a boiled-wool car coat, put the stories in a fake-alligator-leather lunch-box handbag, and went to the front door. My mom came out of the kitchen. "What did you do to your hair?"
"It's a wig," I said.
"Leo! Zach! You gotta see this!"
My dad and Zach emerged from Zach's room, where they'd been surfing the Net.
"Oh, dear God," said my dad.
"It's not real!" said my mom. "It's a wig!"
"You look like one of those Hasidic women," said Zach.
"I'm trying to look like Mary Richards."
"You don't look like Mary!" laughed my dad. "You look more like one of the daughters in Fiddler on the Roof. How ya doing, Chava? Why aren't your legs covered?" My mom laughed and so did Zach, and then the three of them broke into the chorus of "Sunrise, Sunset."
"Leave me alone!" I snapped, went out the door, and slammed it behind me. I felt a little guilty for being such a bitch, but it was such a mood killer to be dressed like a looker and have to deal with a naggy family.
When I got out of the subway I stopped at a newsstand and bought a pack of American Spirit cigarettes, the natural, nonadditive kind. I've always thought their motto should be "They'll kill you, but slowly." I don't really like smoking but I like the way I look smoking. I buy cigarettes whenever I want to feel sexy or jaded, then smoke one or two and throw the rest of the pack out.
I lit up, walked to the bar, and cupped my hands against the window to see if I could spot James. He was sitting right by the window, sipping a glass of beer. I pushed the door open and posed in the doorway, the cigarette hand poised against the jamb, the other on my hip. I looked straight at him and said, "I'm not a smoker, but I play one on TV." He lifted his head and smiled. So did some of the other patrons. That was a little embarrassing, but I knew I had to own the moment.
I approached him in the sultriest strut I could muster, trying not to stumble in my platform heels, feeling glad I'd worn control-top panty hose.
"That's a gorgeous wig," he said.
"How'd you know it was a wig?"
"It's crooked. I can see your hairline." I pulled it down. "What would you like to drink?"
I was about to say a Bass, but I thought it might sound unfeminine, so instead I said, "How about a whiskey sour?" I'd never had one before but it seemed like just the kind of drink a swinging single woman might order.
He beckoned the bartender over. "Another Bass please, and a whiskey sour."
"I don't have any sour mix," said the bartender a bit gruffly, looking at me. "I can give you whiskey, lemon juice, and sugar." Suddenly I realized my faux pas: a whiskey sour was a bourgeois drink -- and this was not a bourgeois bar. There was sawdust on the floor and a few rickety tables in the back, and all the other patrons were haggard old men.
"Just make it two Basses," I mumbled.
The bartender brought the beers and James and I went to a table in the back. "Can I help you with your coat?" he asked.
"Sure. That's sweet of you."
"It's not as altruistic as you think," he said, easing it off my shoulders. "Do you know where the tradition of men helping women with their coats comes from?"
"From men wanting to rub against women's rears. It's a classic masking of an ageless urge." I waited for him to press himself against me but he just pulled the coat off and sat down across from me.
"Did you bring the stories?" he said.
"Why don't you read me one?"
I reached for my handbag and took out "Shooting Wad and Movies." He came across the table and sat down next to me.
"Why did you move?" I asked.
"Because I want to watch you from the side. That way, when you look at me, you'll have to peer over your shoulder. I find it very sexy when a woman peers over her shoulder at me. Did you ever notice how women in fashion advertisements are posed that way?"
"It's because that's the mammalian come-hither look, from the days we were four-legged creatures and did it from behind." James was revealing himself to be severely deranged, but I'm never intrigued unless the guy's somewhat deranged.
I looked down at the papers.
"I first met Mitchell Sorensen on the set of an NYU graduate film we had both been cast in. It was about a young girl's budding friendship with the school janitor."
As I continued to read, James watched me closely. If I lifted my hand to brush the wig from my face, he stared at my hand. If I licked my lips because my mouth was getting dry, he stared at my tongue. He watched me like watching me was a cottage industry.
When I finished the story, he said, "Now, why don't you take out the other one?"
"But you heard it at rehearsal," I said. "Why do you want to hear it again?"
"It'll help me get performance ideas."
I was in a predicament I could not have anticipated: James was turning out to be more interested in my talent than my talent. Suddenly, someone turned on the jukebox. Loud Sinatra came on. "Let's go somewhere quieter," said James. I was relieved. Maybe the change of pace would make him forget about the stories.
We went to a Greek diner and sat down in a booth, side by side. When the waiter came I ordered a coffee and James ordered a grapefruit. That made me slightly uncomfortable. I'd never met a man who ordered grapefruit. He spooned out a wedge, munched it, and said, "Please read."
"I don't want to anymore," I said.
"I think you should."
"It's good for you."
"No, it's not. I know what's good for me and I can tell you that's not it. What would be good would be if you took me home with you."
"But you have so much tension inside you right now. That tense energy is exactly what I want to put onstage. It's what makes you so sexy -- that desire, that fervor. I want you to play with what it feels like not to have any release."
"I want release!"
He spooned out another wedge, chewed it slowly, sighed, and said, "All right. Let me help you with your coat."
He had his own place on Christopher, with a loft bed. There was a brown leather couch, a TV across from it, and an armchair in the far corner, by the window. To the left of the front door was a kitchen with a butcher-block island. "What do you do for a living?" I asked.
"I'm a carpenter." Boy oh boy. He worked with his hands. I wanted to jump him, but I had to play it cool.
He went into the kitchen, poured himself some whiskey, and offered me a glass. I took a sip. It burned my throat but I tried not to wince. He sat on the couch. I put down the drink and started to climb up the ladder to the bed, hoping he would follow. But he tugged on my leg and said sternly, "You can't go up there. It's private."
I wished he'd put it more politely, but politeness is so overrated. I sat down next to him and leaned in to kiss him. He kissed back a little, but his tongue was fat and lazy and he didn't seem to take any pleasure in the contact. Then he pulled away, stood up, and crossed over to the armchair.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"My primary interest is in watching men watch you. That's why I wanted to meet you in a bar. Did you notice how all the men looked at you when you took off your coat?"
"That's because you have something very special. You exude sex. And men can smell that. You will walk down the streets and they will sniff it in you. You should stare into the eyes of men on the streets and enjoy how much they will want you."
I wanted to believe I had that much power. I wanted to believe I was the kind of girl who made men crazy, even if I was too fat to be an ingenue, even if this was my first date since I'd come to the city.
He kept talking, and I stuck my hand down my stockings. Between his dirty talk and the buildup from the diner, it only took me about ten minutes.
"I came," I said after. (I don't make any loud noises. I never do.)
"I'm glad," he said.
I thought about leaving but I didn't feel ready. I wanted to arouse him, and since he wouldn't let me touch him, I decided to try another way. I stood up by the couch and slowly unzipped the front of my nurse dress. I slid it off my shoulders and threw it on the floor, till I was standing in front of him in just my panty hose and Minimizer bra. I unsnapped my bra slowly, dropped it on the floor too, and ran my fingers up and down my breasts, like a stripper in a movie.
He opened his mouth and watched me, and then he unzipped his pants, took it out, and began to stroke it. I kept moving around, pretending "Fever" was playing in the background, and from time to time I would reach my hand up and flip the wig like it was real. His blinds were up and it was dark outside, so I could see my reflection in the window. In that black wig, with my bra off, in my stockings and platform heels, I was a glam queen. I was beautiful.
After several minutes he leaned his head back hard and fast against the chair with a thump and shot it out all over his hand and pants. I went to the bathroom and got a Kleenex. As I handed it to him he looked up at me with sad, round eyes and whispered, "You found my weakness." I put my dress back on and he walked me to a cab, but when I tried to kiss him good night, he turned his face away again.
On the ride home I thought about what I had done. I didn't like how he'd refused to kiss me or let me in his bed, but I really liked that line about me finding his weakness. That meant I'd made him vulnerable. That meant he was into me.
When I got back to the apartment it was one in the morning and the house was quiet. I tiptoed past my parents' bedroom toward mine. "Did you have a good time?" my mom called out.
I felt a pang of guilt that she'd been awake worrying about me and that I'd been such a bitch on my way out the door. "Yes," I said. "Really good."
I went into the bathroom and took off the wig. I looked in the mirror and my real hair looked strange framing my face.
Copyright © 1999 by Amy Sohn