Chloe felt from an early age that her life had a very small scope; unfortunately, she didn’t know exactly how brief her existence on earth would be.
At childhood birthday parties, she’d sit on the sidelines as the others romped about and roughed one another up. Adults praised her for being so well-behaved and so serious. But there was no question in her mind that pranks and wildness belonged to forbidden zones.
She was free, however, to experiment on birthday cake. She’d lick the chocolate frosting clinging to her small white plastic fork and look up with a sense of confusion as the camera bulbs flashed. That was all the fun she found in her world. That was all she had on her plate, so to speak.
In high school, Chloe studied hard and got good grades. She socialized as little as possible. She never came close to having a boyfriend. Yet she felt that longing deep within her—that longing that she connected to the last bite of chocolate and the final potato chip in the bag. At those times, she realized on some level that these cravings could not be satisfied with food; no matter what she ate, she starved.
At college, Chloe was at one time big bones and massive flesh. In her darkest days, celebrity magazines and junk food went together like coffee and cigarettes. The fingers that turned the pages were tinted nacho chip-orange. Who looks best in that dress? I mean the printed chiffon cocktail frock and the plunging charmingly retro dress? Something to consider while unwrapping ice cream sandwiches, Chloe thought. I was such an ugly child, the beautiful woman confesses. Pity me. Time for another swig of diet soda. This woman has a wrinkled neck. Ohmigosh! How could she go out in public? Just a few more bites…
The celebrity magazine—cunning, baffling, powerful—approached her in the dark corners of her mind, its covers plastered with cut-outs of various grinning paper dolls dressed in their glossy little outfits. Yes, she thought, in yellow and white boldface, we are given some alarming news: Extreme Diets! Pregnant Again! Breakup! Sexy Secrets! The celebrity magazine peddles its wares—a collage of people dressed and undressed, thin and desperate and “just like us.” Celebrities who are unable to do much but wave their stick-like arms.
The celebrity magazine is a toothless drug dealer who whispers in darkened parks: Wanna wanna wanna fix?
Sometimes the celebrity gossip hangover would be more intense than the junk food overload. And, predictably, the very next day Chloe would be tempted to buy any magazine that featured weight loss on its cover.
As for fashion magazines, they created a fantasy world, or—as she preferred to think it—they allowed her to creatively visualize her future self. She didn’t feel threatened or belittled by these skinny mannequins, but inspired and motivated. She would one day join the ranks of the sainted hip and breast-less if she could just focus enough.
Besides, she enjoyed the fashion magazines on an aesthetic level. They were saturated with color and shape and light—mystical visions. The size of the clothing and the measurements of the models were irrelevant.
After college, she moved to the city. A strange thing happened that fall. Strangers (well-wishers, really) started to congratulate her on the coming phantom baby. They gave her seats on the subway, teetered a bit as the train pulled between stations. Yes, yes, yes, you must sit down! When are you expecting? Soon, right? When waiting for the public restroom, older women would usher her to the front of the line. Supermarket checkout clerks eyed her girth with all sorts of indulgent cooing and sympathetic questions.
At first, Chloe’s face burned. “No, I’m not pregnant,” she would say. And the truth pained them—these mommy-lovers. The ones in on the whole deal and as excited for her as her own mother would have been.
But, no. If they could look inside her stomach, they would see no extraterrestrial-like fetus, no webs of translucent fingers or gray limbs quivering inside of her like jellyfish in seawater. They would see a lot of cheez puffs and caramel popcorn and chocolate-covered cherries and an unlucky distribution of body fat.
Oh, Dios! The reactions! The muffled apologies and looks of self-incrimination. Chloe began to feel sorry for them: these smiling maternal women who saw her as one of their charges. These women who thought the bun was in the oven and leaned over her and rubbed their hands together to capture a flicker of warmth. How beautiful they all looked bathed in the arresting light of the subway car—these women of all races and backgrounds. For what is a woman of any culture if she is not a mother or one the way to becoming one?
One Saturday evening, Chloe was leafing through a tabloid when she heard a thud in her bathroom.
“Felix, is that you?” she called.
She was in the middle of “cheez puff time”—that zone she went into in the evenings when she ingested that crunchy, powdery foam. Residue from the florescent-orange snack puffs would lodge itself under her fingernails like pollen, and the celebrity magazines she flipped through looked pawed by a great ginger cat.
“Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.”
She made her way to the bathroom on her soft naked feet. Felix suddenly appeared and ground his lanky form against her leg. She paused before she entered the bathroom.
The faucet inside drip-dropped in perfectly spaced intervals like the strokes of a metronome. The window was open. A rush of cold air sent a shock through her system. Was there an intruder? The tiny bathroom had a small shower; it smelled of lavender body wash. The curtain needed to be replaced—there were garish stripes of mold on the bottom.
Her heart was in her mouth as she reached for the plastic striped curtain. But before she could scream, the intruder tore the curtain away and his giant hands reached for her throat. She gagged as her eyes focused on his clenched face above her. He was tall and thin with a coarse-haired goatee, dark bushy eyebrows, and pockmarks on his cheeks. She thought he was the splitting image of Abraham Lincoln, yet she couldn’t make out his words. Finally, her body took a free fall like a felled tree.
The intruder examined the evidence: Chloe Wasserman, twenty-two. Strawberry blond hair. Lips as blue as antifreeze and fingernails lined with a florescent yellow. Her eyes left open for good after she took her final breath.
The intruder made his way into the living room. It was just as he had expected. Celebrity magazines everywhere. Stacks of them. Piled on the sofa, open face-down on the floor, various pages ripped out, all dusted with yellow powder.
They were the remains of a frightening orgy. Instead of tongues and thighs and breasts and balls, he saw the human condition spelled out in all of its excesses on the pages of gossip magazines: Baby Bump! Sexy Secrets! Is She Pregnant? Extreme Diets! Stars Without Makeup! I’ve Got a New Body! Is He Cheating? Caught on Camera!
Grainy photos taken with cell phones were blown up to superhero size. Look at them! Watch them suck in mouthfuls of spaghetti, kiss messily, walk on the beach with rib cages out of a crucifixion, go shopping in pairs, drink lattes on the street while wearing flip-flops like good-old American caffeinated go-getters, and act, act, act!
Watch them be watched! Little smiles of acknowledgement on their guilty faces. All that is unfit to print. All that denudes and disgraces. All that brings the readers to their knees as they sit and contemplate the lives of others more beautiful than they are, and yet, “just like them”! Is it envy the readers feel, or is it just empty excitement?
Did Chloe Wasserman ever live one moment of her life, or was it all in preparation for nothing—just the endless figure eights of an ice skater on crack?
The intruder stood in his big black leather boots and stomped on the magazines, trying to obliterate every false image, every sign of pride, every sign of transgression in one last act of rage. Sexy Secrets! Is She Pregnant? Breakup! Extreme Diets!
He ripped them by the fistful, crushed the glossy paper until it was nothing but shredded bits to use for lining the hamster cage, along with a few staples that got lodged in his teeth and the subscription cards that floated in the air like feathers in a pillow fight.
The police found a message carefully penned in black ink on the wall: THE SHOW IS OVER! APPLAUD!
Chapter One: Lucy
The sound came on before the picture. The voice she heard as the dark grey screen thawed out into a bloom of color was an insistent, halting purr. It was La MaMa, in town to promote her new album and announce her official entry into the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I’ve always been secretly famous.
La MaMa in town today! This was truly the first day of the rest of Lucy’s life. It must be a sign. The teacher has appeared. Perhaps it was a little self-centered to see everything in her life and environment as a personal message to her, Lucy.
No, she thought. There are no accidents. It’s all connected. I, she thought, I am being tested.
Lucy remembered the first time she had heard a La MaMa song, “Keep Dancing.” It had a thumping, catchy beat designed for moving bodies. It was so immediate and sexual and its insistent hook provided her with a certain release. The lyrics sang of letting go and surrendering to the night. The messy, melted-makeup-under-the-strobe-lights night of a disco club. Its electronic charms were due to its simple lines and its promise of bare limbs. It was addictive and, as soon as it was over, Lucy wanted to hear it again. Somehow, that song gave her a fresh take on life. She could live within its naughty world and feel victorious over a hum-drum day.
The video that went with it showed La MaMa astride an inflated plastic shark in the middle of a child’s wading pool. It showed her half-naked, pouring champagne, posing with a glittering ball. It showed strange creatures dancing in sunglasses inside an abandoned mansion.
La MaMa was in the middle, dressed in a red latex leotard, writhing in fury, sprawled on a table covered with hundred dollar bills. Camera bulbs flashed like strobe lights at the height of orgasm. “Keep dancing!” La MaMa sang. “Don’t stop, don’t think, you’re on the brink, keep dancing!”
It was unavoidable; it was everywhere, like a powerful electronic virus traveling through cyberspace. It was the spring semester of Lucy’s senior year of high school. She’s been accepted to Columbia University, yet still studied hard, and she listened to “Keep Dancing” in the background as she studied late into the night for her finals. She listened to “Keep Dancing,” and it seemed to symbolize everything about that time in her life: on the cusp of adulthood, feeling strange around her classmates who were in a different, more celebratory world than she was, and there she was, deeply saddened by the distance she put between herself and her soon to be ex-classmates, yet unable to really unwind—unlike the decadent vampires in the La MaMa video.
Lucy went to one party and drank too much while sitting next to a boy who told her she was pretty, but a little too depressed-looking. Still, he touched her chin, and, as her head turned, he leaned in for a kiss. On her way home in the early hours, she walked down West End Avenue to her parents’ penthouse in the mid-seventies, and she thought of the La MaMa song. She hummed it a little, feeling each ravenous inflection, and she just wanted to keep dancing, keep dancing, keep dancing.
La MaMa’s next hit was “Rotten Romance.” It came out during Lucy’s first semester of college. It was more diva-like, more theatrical. La MaMa danced in the video to her own throaty wail: “Lost in a rotten romance!” She was clad in everything from strategically placed slices of red ribbon to an elaborate golden gown. Her persona was completely different from the party girl in “Keep Dancing.” She was powerfully adult.
Lucy studied La MaMa’s videos with the same hunger she applied to her coursework. What’s more, they emboldened her inwardly. She sensed they held secret instructions in how to find her place in the world.
She found spiritual mystery in the morbid scenes of white rats invading a coffin where La MaMa lay entombed in a Victorian-style red leather dress. The pop star rested in her coffin like a doll still in its package—her eyes open and her lips parted, revealing a lustful gap between her front teeth. Next, there was a cut to a scene of scantily clad muscular men marching in military style in a dark, snowy night. Finally, Lucy saw La MaMa following her own funeral possession, her light footprints in the snow.
She found romantic depth in the scenes of La MaMa hemorrhaging all over her own wedding gown and hung up to dry, so that her delicate torso was covered in what looked like a bucketful of pig’s blood, as her head dangled from its noose.
She found artistic risk taking in the scenes of La MaMa giving birth to a shape-shifting devil and then, later, dancing in a bra made out of twin machine guns, loaded and pointing straight ahead.
Soon, La MaMa was everywhere. She towered over everyone in her midst in heels so awkward and misshapen, they looked like abnormal growths. Her trademark look was to appear in disguise: one moment she was dressed in slabs of meat like a walking advertisement for the Atkins diet, while the next moment she wore spiky metal sheets bent about her torso like steel origami, and once again, she showed up in billowing skirts and the strange logic of erect golden feathers planted on her head. She was part-porn and part-horror flick and part-science fiction. She was “on” all the time, and utterly selfless in her total dedication to her celebrity.
And yet, it was her “message” that pushed her to the top: one of inclusion, of recognizing one’s own tendencies toward self-hatred, of ridding oneself of the taint left by the judgment of one’s peers, of embracing pop culture as religion. This is what charmed and inspired Lucy.
Lucy, for one, recognized raw genius. La MaMa was a superstar who spun her own web of illusion, designed to be documented like the truth. Her red carpet poses were outlandish, but the world stopped and took notice every time she wore a new variation on going without pants or wearing a purple wig or sporting hefty shoulder pads.
She was a magnificent, magical creature. There was something about her that made Lucy feel there was no one more honest than La MaMa. She embodied a childlike, creative spirit much like the fairy sprites in bedtime stories.
And she was in town today!
With this, Lucy switched off the television, nudged the cat with one foot, and slipped out the door.
On her way out the door, she bumped into her neighbor, Fran, who toted her rolled yoga mat over one shoulder like a giant baguette.
“Lovely day,” Fran said.
“Is it?” Lucy said.
Lucy had an inkling that she was on the verge of discovering an unspeakable beauty. She tried to summon it note by note, layer by layer, but it evaded her grasp. She had moments in which she was able to peer over to the other side.
The pop star La MaMa was a work of art. The details about her that Lucy read online were intimate clues to mysteries within Lucy herself. If she met this woman, this star, they would immediately fall into step with a genuine, mutual admiration that would make fools of those who simply read the articles on celebrities for cheap gossip.
The books she read hungrily, the literally big books—Trollope, Dickens, Tolstoy—she had made her very own. Yet a slight apercu in a magazine, some funny or revealing remark, would give her the sense that she was not fully alive and that other people—celebrities, for instance—had more of a handle on things. Then she could see the yellow lamp reflected in the dark window frame and feel sad and dull and on the wrong side of the glass. It seemed she might have had it wrong from the start.
She should act, she should influence others and negotiate and unroll giant projects. She should charge into rooms and enunciate and wear expensive lipstick. She should play someone important and embody that role and smile shyly while lighting a cigarette and anticipate a laugh on page fourteen of the script. She should live her life as a movie, feel the staginess of each act in her life: putting a kettle of water on the stove, smoothing her dress in front of the mirror, waiting for the elevator with her eyes on the lit button, signing her name at the bottom of a check.
The camera always on, always sweeping the mundane together with the brilliant and the unusual, and then showing it to everybody at the same time. She would be a fixture in the collective unconsciousness, someone illuminated among the millions in the dark, someone standing in for the others, and therefore someone else entirely. They would keep insisting she was a stranger and demand to know her nature and her ways so that it would fit into a story, a blurb, an arresting headline. In short, she should be famous.
Out on the street, Lucy headed in the direction of the subway. But first she stopped to splurge on that month’s Vogue magazine. She was about to pay for it, when she glanced at the cover. Oh my god! La MaMa! Soberly, she lodged it under one arm as she fished in her purse for the right amount of money. A breeze blew through her wispy hair, and as she turned a corner, her dress flew up. She shielded her face with the rolled-up magazine and then found a bench in a calm area to sit down upon.
Lucy looked at the full-page close-up of La MaMa. There she was in one of her blood-splattered wedding dresses. Lucy centered on the quotes inside the magazine, alongside the pictures.
I always wanted to be famous. I always wanted to inspire people on a global level. We all possess inner fame; we’re all famous. The party is here for everyone to take part in.
Lucy looked up as if from a deep sleep, and blinked in the sunlight. It was all there. Her calling. The opening of a previously locked door. It was one of those moments in which she looked down from space onto the planet Earth and saw it all objectively: the blue and green marble upon which so much blood is spilled, so many unnecessary boundaries put up, so many lives begun and ended effortlessly. The rivers and the oceans were raised veins on the back of an ancient hand. And Lucy’s own path was set to intersect with a very big, rushing body of water, uprooting trees and pulling everything forward with its momentum.