Ten degrees has made all the difference. I lock my house with a silver key, not wearing gloves and not needing to. I walk down my street with its barren trees, listening to the provincial sound of my boots against the concrete. In a few months they will sit abandoned in the back of my closet, banished in favor of less sturdy things, strapier and feminine.
Spring is a smell: wet pavement and trees about to fulfill promises. It’s the sound of skateboards traveling over buckled concrete, attached to boys in baggy jeans, shirts rippling away from their backs. Bicycles carry pretty girls with their long hair and heavy coats; their giggles come and go like a fire siren, loud and blaring and then immediately gone. Cars pass with their windows down. Rap music. Pop music. The man in the burgundy Subaru is back, screaming show tunes out his window while he makes circles around Bedford Avenue.
I check the branches overhead, looking for telltale green buds to confirm my hope that we have reached a clearing in the weather. Just two hours ago I was planning my escape to Nicaragua or Mexico – any place that only required a duffle bag filled with shorts and sunblock. But I can’t leave the city now, not after putting up with two months of garbage. This is the pay off, today and on.
The park is covered with developing grass, remarkable amounts of green poking through intensely saturated dirt. Prickly brown pods litter the ground beneath trees I don’t know the names of. Oak, maybe. The pods sit on the dirt and wait to be swallowed whole or decomposed. We used to crush these underfoot as children, making them explode into a fibrous mess. “Itching powder,” we called it, and would jam it down the backs of our enemies in fits of nasty laughter.
Provoked birds fly overhead in an intense flapping of wings, the sound of rustling taffeta or falling stacks of paper, traveling together on an unseen path, riding currents I cannot feel.
Old Polish men congregate around green benches, talking in their voices that sound like tapes being played in reverse, warbled and hugging to consonants. Baseball bats connect with white leather balls with that dense aluminum ping. Sickly pale faces crane their necks towards the sun, praying for their greenish translucence to be alleviated. Lovers walk down sidewalks holding hands, coming up for air.
Pam drove and a song came on the radio, some pop song sung by a man begging a woman to let him love her. She laughed, cynical and rude, and turned the song up loud on crackling speakers of a car that was nearly as old as she was, singing along because she knew the lyrics. Pop songs, no matter how much Pam did not care for them, were endlessly memorable, tapping into her subconscious with their easy lyrics and grade school rhymes. This had something to do with music theory or how all people were similarly simple to manipulate.
A warm wind whipped through the open windows of her car but she did not feel free. She hated that about Los Angeles – its in ability to cooperate or compliment her most miserable moods. Some days you just needed a rainy fucking day, sitting in your window and bemoaning your fate like the ugliest, most unwanted puppy in the pet shop. But no, LA, with its trees that were green year-round and its skies that were blue 90% of the time, made you feel like the depressed freak at the Happy Circus, the introverted, gothic sister of the homecoming queen.
The song continued, the singer humming and hawing in a smooth R & B way. He was trying to pry this woman away from her bad boyfriend, promising her love and protection and material things that girls supposedly care about. These were things Pam had heard before, nearly verbatim, and she laughed again, amazed at man’s collective ability to feel conviction in love. She had learned not to trust these convictions, instead seeing them as intense, fleeting things that meant nothing down the line. There was no use reciprocating in the lies in order to create a grounded reality in emotions, a false sense of permanence. Change was inevitable in life. Love was as unstable as anything else.
Pam hated that pop culture immortalized these passing phases, making it appear as though love was as permanent as this very unchangeable song, burned onto CDs and MP3s, fated to exist in this song-state forever. It would always be 4:07 minutes long and the lyrics would never change. A finished product. Pam thought about the man who wrote this song and who he wrote it about and she could bet a million dollars that they were already over, that he was already bored with this girl. Still, the song lived on as this constant thing, conning listeners that this love was equally definite. And so love’s lie is propagated like a sourceless rumor.
You should let me love you
Give you everything you want and need
“I need a whole lot more than love,” Pam thought. Firstly, she had student loans – massive, nasty, Ivy League loans in a degree that got her a job that paid nothing and would likely continue to pay her nothing. Paying those off would have a tangible, lasting impact on her life in terms of real interest. A boy, however, with his love and promises, was temporary, despite any professions of the contrary. Pam felt bad for the poor sucker she dated next and the one after that and the one after that and that and that, each one getting less and less of the real her because the previous ones had taken away her ability to give, the desire to expose herself. Despite what people said, behind walls could be a quite comfortable place to live.
She felt herself hardening, turning more doubtful of men as she got older. Pam had stopped believing the things that boys told her, no matter how enthusiastic they were about her or how genuine they seemed. They were all salesmen, feeding you the right lines to sell you the last lemon on the lot. They were bankers, taking your money with promises of great returns and buying yachts in the Caribbean for themselves. They were professional, hammer-wielding destroyers of things.
When the song ended another one came on – this one sad and depressingly and not as easily mocked. She flipped through immediately before it could drag her down. Fuck sad songs. When she Pam was sad, she wanted to listen to Britney Spears. Pop. Garbage. Tasteless and easily swallowed. She wanted to listen to songs that appealed to the part of her brain that longed to remain in third grade, when the most trying part of her day was realizing that her mother accidentally gave her her brother’s lunch. Turkey sandwich on white bread and not ham sandwich on wheat. Back when boys had cooties and she still loved her parents without question because she hadn’t found out they were just people yet.
She stopped at a classic rock station, holding it on a song she recognized. She held it there until she was sad all over again. Bob Dylan, you mother fucker. The man had an uncanny ability to con you into thinking his songs were upbeat and lifting with his squirrely harmonica and a quick guitar, but his lyrics hit your sad button with an creeping force. Pam didn’t change the song. She didn’t slam on the shuffle button or sing along. The song sat next to her in the car and she would travel with it for a time until it was over. The sun beat down through Pam’s window, bouncing off of her pale thighs and her smudged Ray Ban’s, exposing the dent on the hood of her car along with other damaged things.
The casting is either for gum or tampons; I can’t remember which. They both have the word “free” in their name, implying some sort of liberty from various maladies. I’m hoping it’s for gum. When I arrive, my fear is confirmed: Tampons it is.
The room is light and airy, housed on the tenth floor across from a building sporting mind-numblingly large words painted in black letters on a white brick wall. HARRY’S REALTY it screams at me menacingly. Font size 1.7 billion is meant to be viewed from the street, not at eye level, and its size and intensity makes me inexplicably queasy.
There are other blondes in the room: blonder blondes with the meaty arms of actresses that haven’t made it yet. Once an actress sees herself on television enough, she inevitably begins to wither away, stripping herself to skin and bone. Before that, they look like normal girls – farm-fed, warm-blooded American chicks fresh off the bus from Ohio. After they’ve “made it,” it’s another story entirely. It might be fair to say one can judge the success of an actress by how anorexic she is. I’m only half kidding.
I sign in and grab a card to fill with my required information: my agent’s contact info in case the client actually wants to book me, my first and last name to keep track of my face, all of which is followed by boxes for my age and measurements. The first two are the only things on the little rectangle that are straightforward and true. The latter is a comical filling in of the same lies I’ve been using for the last five years, the same deflated numbers that everyone uses. They should just fill out everyone’s card with 32’’ 24’’ 35’’ and call it a day. I fill out the requisite bullshit using a black and white Bic pen with a fork attached to it to prevent theft.
When I first started modeling I dreaded commercial castings, not realizing that this was where the money was made, especially in Los Angeles. I was nineteen and wanted to be “editorial” even though I had no idea what the hell that really meant. To me, “editorial” was associated with traveling the world, living in hotels, being a supermodel. Paris, New York, Milan. You later find out that “editorial” is codeword for “broke.” It took me awhile before I was comfortable pretending to hop around in an imaginary ocean with some Labrador named Pooh Bear while keeping the look of embarrassed horror off of my face. Still, using my face to sell feminine hygenine products is something I have a hard time with.
The casting director comes out to check the list for another blonde to drag into the room with her. She is a warm and soft woman with a thick New York accent that reminds me that this city can actually raise people with souls. She calls the name of a girl in the corner, remembering her with a fondness that seems genuine. There’s something about the whole scenario that reminds me of going to the OBGYN, greeted by a kind nurse who’s well aware this is going to be the worst thing I do all day, which is, ironically enough, appropriate.
Across from me I listen to the petite girl manning the front desk make phone calls to agents for an upcoming casting for paint. She reads from a list that has been written to memory. “They need to wear painter’s pants or white jeans, but they must be CLEAN. No actual paint on their clothing. We want them to look like painters but not be painters. A three-button polo shirt. We also want to make sure they’re comfortable on a ladder, bending to pick things up, etc.” I nearly laugh at the last bit but would like to be called in here again to audition for more embarrassing products down the road. I hear her hang up the phone and within half a minute she is going at it again, repeating the same drivel to the next person, peppering her spiel with new words to save her from her own boredom.
Today, I have come in jeans and a tank top as requested, though I am not a tank top type of girl. My outfits err on the side of bury-me-in-fabric-and-dress-me-like-a-dude. The tank I am wearing today is a friend’s that I have not yet returned. Its somber olive green color in combination with my gray jeans and black boots and studded punk belt would probably be more suitable for enlisting military recruits at a bar, but it’s about all I could manage before I left the house today. My oversized men’s jacket is an added bonus; its unattractive bulkiness reminiscent of my dad gutting fish at June Lake on foggy mornings.
My eyes are burning from a night spent crying on the floor of my living room. I touch the puffiness above my cheekbones and know that this is not a good look for me. The client won’t care about my reasons for looking rough and raw; these people are not expected to be forgiving in nature. Later, they’ll be in a screening room flipping through footage of girls like the pages of a vacuous, boring glossy mag. When they arrive at me, someone will say in between bites of his club sandwich, “Man. She’s got tiny little eyes. And they’re so…pink. Her face must look that miserable all the time. Miserable Face. Next!” There is no creativity in casting. If they tell you to show up like a nurse, don’t show up like you’re a girl who thinks this casting is fucking stupid and people can think for themselves. Dress like a fucking nurse. You better show up wearing a white button up dress with your tits poking out enough (though not too provocatively) and some orthopedic shoes. Too often I have played the “Fuck You” card, throwing dress code suggestions out the window completely or marring their vision beyond recognition with my own stylistic interpretation. Case in point: today. Needless to say, I don’t book commercials too often.
It’s my turn up to bat and the casting director greets me with equal kindness. I am taller by her than a foot, looming behind her like some kind of skinny-limbed monster as we walk into the room. The clients sit at a large table in front of lists and production sheets, watching the results of a camera taking pictures of me on a bigger screen.
The casting director stands on her tippy toes behind her Canon, giving me my inspiration for each shot. Half-way through I feel as though I have successfully relived my life as a baby, being coochie coochie cooed by a total and complete stranger. God love this woman, she’s just doing her job.
So, you’ve got an idea…
And it’s a great idea…
And you’re SURPRISED!
Look up at the bubble…
I have forgotten that the copy sheet outside featured the top portion of a blonde’s face accompanied by a thought bubble, both flanked by a box of…uh-hem… “product.” Confused, I look around the room for a real bubble, thinking that she had perhaps nicknamed the light-box above her. I remember the sheet and I laugh, mumbling about how I’m an idiot or something vaguely self-deprecating.
Give me a smile. BIG SMILE!
Just a smirk…
Now raise your eyebrow suspiciously…
Until you’re stuck in a casting studio with a camera, a TV featuring your giant makeup-less face, and a table full of people staring at you, you have no idea how difficult it is to raise your eyebrow on cue, or make any other facial expression for that matter. This is why actors should be paid offensive amounts of money. Frankly, this shit is hard.
She’s standing in front of me, waiting in her patient and friendly way. I try to raise my eyebrow and laugh when I realize it’s not cooperating with my brain’s control center. I laugh again and cover my face, hoping that my shortcomings as a face maker are made up for with my charm.
“Sorry,” I say. “I don’t know why I’m struggling today.”
Oh yeah, I remember: I spent the previous twelve hours crying in my empty apartment. Before this moment, being watched by people who could potentially pay my rent for the next few months, the idea of smiling, laughing, or thought-bubble-looking were the furthest things from my emotional wheelhouse. Had she asked me for tears, total and complete desperation, agony, or the look of “Fear of Dying Alone” I would have been their most promising subject all day.
Terry stood near the bar, behind other dark bodies waiting for their fix. If ever there were a time to drink, this was it. When Terry was younger she drank on a near-nightly basis, just because that’s what you did, especially living in the middle of fucking nowhere. Eighteen, falling over onto the dirty floors of a frat bar, laughing hysterically in the arms of an equally slammed girlfriend. Nineteen, trying every vodka on the bottom row of the liquor store shelves (plastic bottle required). Twenty, nursing her very own bottle of Boon’s Farm Strawberry Wine, the liquor equivalent of soda pop, possessing the ability to get you drunk only by sheer volume of consumption and not actual alcohol content. Her tastes had been refined by the time she reached the legal drinking age, preferring a sensible Capital Morgan’s on the rocks to anything else, shots if she were feeling particularly miserable. As Terry got older and the ravages of a hangover began to effect her life in rather unappealing ways, she ratcheted down her drinking quite a bit. Now, Terry found that she enjoyed a few cocktails at birthday parties, weddings, and work functions. And, most importantly, after getting totally and utterly destroyed by a boy.
She tapped the two gentlemen in front of her on the shoulder, impatient to obliterate any memory of what had happened to her over the course of the last twenty-four hours. It had only been a year since her heart had been broken badly and it was happening again. It was her fault; she let it happen. Michael’s stupid voice persisted in the back of her head – “I’m sorry” and “I don’t want” playing over again on loop until she could think of nothing else but his phrases of choice, each of them just different words telling her, “I don’t love you.”
“Shot of Patron,” she commanded to the bartender, compulsively picking at the splintered wooden bar with a fingernail while she waited. She watched him pour from a cold, fat bottle, liquid running over the rim of the shot glass – a dangerously generous pour. He placed it in front of her on a polite paper napkin accompanied by the saddest looking lime wedge she had ever seen. Even in the darkened, cavernous lightening of this shitty bar, Terry noticed its sallow green skin, either picked prematurely or left to nearly rot in their refrigerator. She didn’t care; she didn’t care about anything at the moment with the exception of getting terrifically fucking hammered.
Terry picked up the small glass with her long fingers, the liquor obliged to slosh over the rim and onto her skin. She knocked it back before any more could escape, biting into her sad little lime wedge and tasting nothing but the bitter sting of alcohol on her tongue.
Her friends were waiting on the dance floor. These were people who would never intentionally hurt her and around them she felt safe. Anyone she had ever dated had ended up hurting her and as she threw her fists in the air and felt her legs light and moving underneath her, Terry wondered why she wanted to date anyone in the first place. She felt the music pulse and wondered what the appeal was and how she was continually able to put the past aside and try again. The fairy tale didn’t exist, she knew it, but she kept trying. This perhaps made her stupid by definition.
She had been doing considerably well all evening, stuffing her overwhelming sadness down deep in the vain hope she might be able to bury it there forever. The tequila cursed through her in a casual way and she felt her limbs loosen and forgive normal structural obligations. Terry felt the motion of her hips and the passing of her long, thick hair in front of her face. She felt the buzz and the music and the bodies bumping into her unapologetically. But there, in the middle of a song with no lyrics and a bass line that stuttered and shook, she felt her heart being ripped from her chest, strings snapping hard and silent, until she felt separated from it entirely, left with a big, gaping hole somewhere under her Chambray shirt. She knew this feeling well enough and dreaded its ramifications – the doubt and insecurities, the emptiness, the daunting thought of eventually rebuilding. She pulled her hair in front of her face, hoping that behind its curtain she could perhaps transport herself to a few months before she had ever met Michael.
When the waves of hurt came with greater frequency and intensity, Terry knew she wouldn’t be able to hold it together long enough to get home. The pain sneaked up on her, crashing down heavy on her shoulders and seizing her chest with its inescapable grip – an emotional stroke, paralyzing and impossible.
Terry left without telling anyone, leaving her friends to dance in their own drunken happiness. It was cold outside and as Terry held her hand up to hail a cab, she debated stepping in front of the next approaching car just to feel something other than how fucking sad she was. She was so tired of the psychotic yo-yo of it all. Loving someone and then trying desperately to hate them when they didn’t want you anymore. Sitting across from someone and pretending to give a shit about where they were born or if their parents were divorced. Memorizing what kind of candy they liked as a child and filling their Christmas stockings with endless bunches of it. Terry wanted to physically to break something – an arm, a hand, anything. She was just sick of nursing her own stupid heart.
Terry got into the cab, the air sickeningly warm. The driver didn’t understand where her apartment was. On the radio someone with a refined British accent talked about some horror in Libya. She felt herself perspire under her wool pea coat, overcome with acute sensation of being suffocated. “Ah!” the driver said, “The south side. Okay, I go.” Terry was thankful he had figured it out in time. She didn’t have enough energy in her to summon the amount of aggression and irritation usually required to get cabs to drive over the Williamsburg Bridge on a Saturday night. She stared out the window, feeling tears well up uncontrollably, then streaming down her face in steady flows while they unburied the last hour, the last week, the last month.
The job is in a department store. When I get the call sheet I know it will involve rich people drinking cocktails and me standing on a wooden box wearing clothes I cannot afford. Yet. Clothes I cannot afford, yet. I tell myself I will one day be able to justify the purchase of YSL and Prada even though I have witness firsthand what a ridiculous thing said pursuit is. “Pretty clothes. Empty souls,” a friend once told me.
Still, I would like to think that I am not just an indentured servant in the fashion trade – that I will one day be worthy of the clothes people hire me to look good in, because, after all, I do look good in them. Admittedly, there is something sick about using beauty and youth to model clothes sold to the older, moneyed set with their elderly bulges and sagging skin. It’s easier to sell a Chanel tweed suit off a thirteen year old with a tight, twenty-three-inch waist and stick legs – this is about the only thing tweed suits look good hanging off of. The dream is, of course, to be young and fabulous and outrageously wealthy, purchasing designer goods and traveling to Saint Tropez while you still had a tight ass and looked good in the stuff. You know, like Kate Moss.
We get our hair and makeup done: pink lips and a strong eyebrow, straight hair parted to on the side. I sit on a chair and watch people on their way home from work, real jobs that require plain wool coats and dress shoes, walking in the shadow of some giant gray church. Cold radiates through the windows, old and thin and made before the day of double-paned insulation.
I listen to the girls talk about things I don’t care about over the blissful noise of a hairdryer. The one who just had her wedding talks about what they put in their goody bags. The one planning her own discusses the outrageous cost of engraved champagne flutes that no one will ever use once they take them home, glasses destined to end up in a Goodwill in the company of similar intentions with different names and dates. When I am done being made up I go hide in the dressing room with a rack full of designer clothes and color-blocked wedge sandals.
It is difficult to be a non-girl surrounded by “girls.” I don’t want to talk about your newest copy of US Weekly Magazine. I don’t care that your negligent boyfriend forgot to pick up your dry cleaning yesterday. And I really don’t want to hear about your audition tomorrow morning to play some dude’s silent girlfriend on a soap opera. This attitude inevitably makes me look like a nonparticipatory bitch, judgmental and harsh. However, I am willing to appear this way if it means saving what few brain cells I have managed to retain over the course of my career doing this.
The sky outside is fully black and its time for us to suit up – the first of four outfits apiece. An easy, every-twenty-minutes rotation that you could never complain about. I’m literally being paid to stand, quiet and still, for eighty some-odd minutes. That’s it.
We are walked to our white boxes in different corners. I heave myself upwards and prepare for the boredom to set in. The DJ is the same one they used last time, a hip chick with blonde hair and a matching entourage and the inability to mix music together. She could listen to a song by The Shins and logically come up with a way to bleed it into LL Cool Jay’s “Doin’ It.”
The room begins to fill with people teetering on their shoes and wielding glasses of free champagne. It is a not-so-interesting mix, the fashion whores and the fashion bores, people obsessed with how good they think they look. They crane their necks around, attempting to see if people are watching them or if anyone worthwhile has arrived.
Through the crowd a terrifyingly anorexic woman weaves, parting the seas with a silent horror. Orange silk track shorts hang off the rattling bones of her protruding hips. Her boned legs are covered in tights likely made for an infant in order to utilize enough stretch to hug onto the nothing of her limbs. A black tank top clings to her rib cage. Her skin is tan and her hair is short; it is unlikely her body is able to produce much more than a few inches before falling out. She is, quite literally, skin and bone. Walking death. The model across from me spots her at the same time and we widen our eyes in unison.
The music screeches along and I change my outfits per the schedule. Strange women want pictures taken with me. Drunk women think I’m a mannequin. Older men wearing wool scarves and gray hair stare over their drinks, thinking they have a chance in hell. And soon enough, we’re done. Off to put on our own cheap clothing and our ratty and salt-stained shoes, off to our real lives of Metrocards and dinners eaten at home.
It’s market again – that time after fashion week when the real work starts: buyers and their appointments, orders paid for in currencies from around the world, commerce. I walk towards my normal changing room for the week of showroom I have to look forward to. It’s not so much a room as it is a 3’ x 6’ storage closet they’ve moved boxes out of on our account. Three girls normally change here, weaving between each other’s naked bodies and a rolling rack filled with a never-ending barrage of clothing. The nice blonde is already there, sitting on a folding chair crammed underneath shelves filled with clear Rubbermaid storage boxes. Her head is down, reading a magazine, waiting for someone to not look at her and say, “Here. Try this on.”
I’ve been doing this sort of work since I moved to New York a year ago. I had done it before, some three years back, for a famous designer adored by old ladies who like a nice full skirt and a fur jacket or two. We paraded the entire collection in front of panel of department stores, sitting on the carpeted floor of a proper dressing room in between the time it took for people to make real decisions outside. I was working with an obnoxious Brazilian with impossibly thin everything and crooked white teeth. Her voice was deep and throaty, everything she said accompanied by the word, “Bay-beeeeee.”
I’m hanging up my coat when I am pulled aside by one of the head sales reps and told, “You’re actually supposed to be in here,” and walked down the hallway into an office. “We’re doing something different this season,” she tells me and I know that I have been demoted to doing denim and jersey, not the runway collection shown the day before. I sit down on a plastic chair and note the familiar name written on a sticker placed on the inside of my pair of size 41 shoes. Aline: blonde supermodel. Me: blonde not-so-super-model.
Last week I had to come in and try on thirty-five pairs of jeans that squeezed my hips and pushed whatever fat I had northward into an all-too-desirable muffin top. They do this every season, throwing you in the tiniest pieces they have, just to make sure you haven’t put on five pounds so they can hire you again – a model’s litmus test.
“What size are you?” they asked, scrunching their faces while they asked me to turn around. I felt myself sweating the sweat of someone who believed they were about to be fired for eating too many almonds that week. “Let’s try these in on another size…” one said, handing me a larger pair. I went home feeling like a fat chick, wanting to slit my wrists and call it a day. Now, I’d be wearing these for days on end.
Often, modeling is like going over to your skinny, boneless, fourteen-year-old’s house and being forced to wear her clothing for a week because the airline you’ve just flown on for the holidays has lost your bags. You fit, but not really. Things pull over and around your body but don’t zip up. Pants stretch offensively in places that they would not if they were just a smidge bigger. You feel uncomfortable, guilty, and horrifically ugly, not remembering that you’re a decade older than this person who hasn’t gone through puberty yet. Except I get paid to do this, and if you don’t fit, you don’t get paid.
After trying on skinny jeans made out of raw denim, I went home and had a mini-nervous breakdown in my mirror, looking around my apartment and hating that it and that everything I owned depended on the static size of my hip measurements. It brought on a crushing wave of anxiety, thinking how long I could keep it all up. I watched my face twist in the mirror, feeling spoiled and stupid, wishing that I could just pack up my bags and move back to LA, get a real job that commanded real respect and responsibilities, eat meatballs and live in some shitty apartment in Korea Town.
It was one of those nights, rare and premature in its warmth and, subsequently, its beauty. The intense cold had made New York City disappear for months on end – its inhabitants downcast and turned in, voices muffled by falling snow and wool scarves likely in need of washing. It was warm enough that you felt inspired to look around, up at billboards of giant women wearing tight jeans or giant bottles of tequila. Things you had missed while watching for black ice since November. I looked into apartment windows, the shadows and light inside someone else’s universe. Voices jumped, buoyant and free, off of narrow streets of brick and mortar, cobblestone and taxicabs. These were the nights you lived for – the one out of two hundred. A pure, unadulterated blissful expanse of time. Unshackled New York.