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SAMPLE FROM “IT’S ALL GOOD: EMAILS FROM A DYING BEST FRIEND”
Somehow, even with all of this weighing heavy on my mind, I still managed to find great joy in the holiday season. I became an expert at compartmentalizing, dividing my time and thoughts between my “Steve life” and other concerns. I told my many friends at home the “dying buddy in Orlando” story but didn’t dwell on it, and sometimes it may have come across matter-of-factly as if I were talking about an after-Christmas sale at Macy’s. Maybe I was just trying to disconnect emotionally. I thought about Steve as I saw some wonderful smooth jazz Christmas concerts, one in the backlot of Capitol Records with Dave Koz and Kenny Loggins, where gingerbread ran wild, underprivileged kids ran amok and we all watched the lighting of the tree atop the famous circular building at Hollywood and Vine. He would have enjoyed that, but probably not the Barry Manilow show I saw at Mandalay Bay when I went to Las Vegas to visit Cary. I didn’t pray at all, but hoped Steve was doing as well as could be expected.
I took deep breaths now before I called him because I knew the lighthearted banter we always loved to begin with might not be appropriate or garner much of a response on his end. I worried about detecting weakness in his voice, and he did sound a little winded when we talked after he got back from his trip to Key West.
“How were the sunsets? I’ve heard they’re beautiful,” I said.
“Yeah, they were pretty awesome, and we had some amazing seafood, some of the best I’ve ever had,” replied my favorite food critic. “Loved the Jacuzzi, but one night, I was just in so much pain. I asked my parents, ‘Why doesn’t God just take me now?’ Get it over with. Like, what’s the point? Just do it. ”
“That’s my big concern for you, the pain. I know how you adore that!”
“But otherwise, I mean, how many more sunsets can you see? I can’t see out of one eye, my one ear is part deaf…”
“We should ask God if you can get a refund on your body.”
“That’s the way it is,” he said, all too resigned. “Well, on the brighter side of things, what do you have going on? How do the next six months look?”
I honestly never have lived life with that sort of roadmap, so I didn’t know what to say. Steve was so much a part of the last few, that it was hard to imagine beyond him. “I just go day by day, like you.”
“You should write a book, Jon. The way you write about music, you can really touch people. Some girl in Germany could be at an outdoor café reading your Jazziz column, and you don’t even know how you’re making the music sound alive and exciting to her. You’ve got a great talent, don’t ever waste it. Do something bigger with it.”
I promised him I would, and he said he had to go and take some more oxygen.
Just after Christmas, I had the honor of “emcee-ing” at my friend Alan’s wedding in Palos Verdes. He was an old pal from church who had moved from L.A. to Rancho Cucamonga for a teaching position at a local community college. In August, just after I got back from Seattle, he emailed to ask if I would run the reception, make announcements, provide dinner music, etc. He and Lisa got married in a ceremony that was translated into Chinese for the bride’s family, and the dual culture aspect of it was unique. It was strange to wonder what Steve was up to while I was holding a microphone and telling folks to gather for the throwing of the bouquet. The joy of a new journey, the concluding chapters of another one. All in the same wacky, maddening lifetime. My own.
I called Steve right after New Year’s to tell him I was excited about my impending trip next week to see him, and he was wheezing more heavily and mostly listening as I fumbled for dialogue. He gave the phone back quickly to Rita after apologizing for being so out of it. “It’s just the drugs, man. It’s not me, really. See you soon.”
Rita said they made him tired and he was sleeping more and more these days. Getting ready.
Being such a sentimental fool really annoyed me sometimes, and I fought the temptation to compare the opening bell of this trip to Orlando with the last one. Ralph was with messy haired Steve at the airport the last time, and now he was picking me up alone. We made mostly small talk all the way back to the condo, though he told me that he and Rita were very pleased with the hospice nurse who was coming to the house once a week to supply morphine and check up on Steve.
Still, I kept wondering if deep down, he was looking at me with any sort of resentment, like why my only son when his best friend is here, maybe not gloriously smiling but still very much alive and vigorous? In the car and later when we stopped for a bite at Steak and Shake, Ralph broke from his trademark stoical character a bit and offered some ponderous insights. “Well, I guess a hundred and fifty years from now, nobody will care how long any of us lived,” and then, “Steve keeps telling me I should know Jesus better, trust God more.”
“He says it’s the old lead the horse to water routine,” I said. “He worries about you. He knows the comfort value of faith. Look at him, he’s handling this well.”
“That’s admirable, and I suppose you could do worse than to follow the teachings of Christ. But you could pray to anything a million times and get the same results we’re getting. Nothing.”
I appreciated his cynicism, and told him I understood and often felt the same way. “Maybe our faith is just for the peace we get, and the love we give to each other, not for active intervention. But you do hear stories…”
“I wish ours was one of those stories.”
Steve was happy to see me later at the condo, but his eyes were dull, his response time slow and he was groggy as he finished up another episode of The Simpsons. The drugs again. “You’re turning into Elvis!” I said, trying to lighten the mood.
“I’m the king, baby. Hey, thanks for the ninety nine cent Pez dispensers. But I gave my collection away to one of my students. And that Forrest Gump kid. He keeps calling, wanting to know, you know, when he can come back for his piano lessons. I don’t know what to tell him. He doesn’t understand all this.”
“Just make sure you save the Timmy lunchbox for me,” I said, with half a laugh and half a heart.
After a slow journey up the narrow stairway for Steve and his cumbersome oxygen tank, he was laying on the bed where Ralph was helping him change clothes. I saw an exfoliating pad in the bathroom and did his classic routine for him. He smiled softly. He reached out his hand and I held it gently, tears in my eyes, blankness in his. It seemed like I had been there only a few moments ago. But it was two months already. And he was a very different person.
I told Steve I had tried to find these new Homer and Bart Simpson cereals but the stores back home didn’t have any, so I made it my mission that first morning to go to Albertsons and buy two boxes. He ate some of Homer’s, but wasn’t too impressed. Glorified Apple Jacks, he called them. Glorified Apple Jacks for Simpsons fans. Big whoop. I got in the routine that day of being the one to put Steve’s moccasins on, and he always apologized even when I told him not to. My first full day in Orlando was a big event, moving day. It was becoming increasingly difficult for Steve to climb the stairs, and Ralph and Rita decided to move him back to his one story house. He felt comfy and safe at the condo, but this made more practical sense. The plan was to take the upstairs mattress that Steve liked and put it on the bed in Joe’s old room. Steve’s golfer roommate, Macrobiotics Man himself, was moving out that week, and his former digs were much bigger than Steve’s bedroom and had an adjacent bathroom. Ralph kept calling Steve’s old beat up Blazer an SUV as we got ready to load it, and I said such would increase its value tremendously. After loading up, I held tight to Steve’s arm and walked him gently down the outside stairs to the open carport. He offered more apologies that I scoffed at. “You’re fine, you’re great,” I kept saying.
Funny the things you remember, and always in no particular order. The move back to his house went well and he plopped himself on the bright white living room couch, remote control in hand, satisfied as he could be. I told him again that I admired the shiny wooden floors he had put in last year. “Cost me an arm and a leg, but so beautiful,” he said. He had a favorite reading spot in the backyard facing his cherished garden. Sitting there in the sunlight, wearing a baseball cap and hip sunglasses, he drank the latest Slurpee Ralph had fetched from 7-11 and often just stared straight ahead. I walked out on occasion to the adjacent screened-in porch, and asked if he needed anything. I thought it ironic the simple pleasure he derived from his relationship with the sun. He named the independent record label he released some of his music on “Sunspot” and had settled in Orlando because of the sunny climate. That same sun had turned hateful on him years later, no doubt inflicting the melanoma. But sitting there, enjoying the quiet beauty of these precious hours, it was clear Steve was perfectly reconciled to his old bright friend.
Stopping and starting frequently, he read as much as he could from a Billy Graham book with a terribly appropriate title, Death and the Life After. Steve found much comfort and courage from Dr. Graham’s simple yet touching rhetoric, and I was grateful for it. One time I picked it up myself and read a few pages. I adored its simple fundamental theology which concluded that death was never part of God’s original plan. But it was just too much to accept that somehow mankind’s sin was responsible for it all, that somehow anything bad I or anyone did could have caused things like famine, hurricanes or Steve’s cancer. Everything in nature dies eventually, I thought. Trees, dogs, people. It’s just the timing we hate sometimes. Still, there’s something poetic about the cyclical nature of things. The ebb and flow. Death gives way to life. That was the wonderful yet mysterious way of the world. And that was our faith, wasn’t it? That was Steve’s faith.
One time, I was sitting on the porch, just observing him there in the sun, wondering what if anything was going through his mind. I didn’t realize he knew I was sitting there. Suddenly he blurted out something he had said a few months ago, only now it came out of nowhere and had more meaning. “It’s not so bad, really. I don’t have a wife and kids.”
“Guess not,” was all I said.
Usually, if he made a request to do something, Ralph, Rita and I were at his beck and call. “Emperor Steve” wanted one day to head out towards Cocoa Beach, just take a road trip and lie on the sand and hear the waves crashing on the shore. It became a big event, getting the portable oxygen tank ready, dressing Steve, everything. He came out of his room excited, walking well on his own strength for a few minutes before sitting down. Somewhat robotic, though not in the funny “Exfoliating” kind of way, he said, “Okay now, we’re going, right? Okay, the oxygen tank is ready, Dad, you’re driving, Jon, you’re coming. Yes. Okay, okay, groovy. Just groovy.” Ralph had some things to take care of first and Steve sat alone on the porch for a spell. He looked up at me like a small child and said, “I want to go to the beach. Today! Where’s dad? Where is he? He promised, today. I don’t want to go tomorrow, I want to go today.” God, it was sad. Had the cancer gone to his brain, were the drugs that disorienting, or had he been reduced to relying on his parents so much for everything that he had literally become a little boy again? It felt like a put on. Come on, Beavis, I wanted to say, snap your butt out of it!
Before we left, I helped him walk to the bathroom once again. What a violent, humbling experience it was. Less than six months ago, we were climbing up Hurricane Ridge, strong and steady, into the misty clouds. In the rainforest, Steve had sprinted up the 75 stairs to the top of this lookout tower, only slightly worried about the little spots on his lungs which might hinder his breathing. And now this. For many readers, the most memorable line from Tuesdays With Morrie was when Morrie worries about “someone having to wipe his ass” for him. At least we weren’t there quite yet.
We drove out to the beach and it was nice to see Steve alert and enjoying the scenery and asking every five minutes, are we there yet? At the restaurant just before we hit Cocoa Beach, I asked him another Tuesdays type, dying friend question. “Is there anyplace in the world I could go for you? A place that you won’t get to see?”
He thought a minute, and said “Montana, never been there.” Nope, I said, been there, done that, Glacier National Park, Summer of ’95. “I’ve been so many great places…uh, okay. Alaska. Looks pretty there. No sun in the winter but you could go in summer.”
“Done,” I said. “I’ll take you there!”
Later at the beach, Ralph and I helped him onto a blanket on the sand and I took off walking down the crowded mid-winter shoreline, grateful for a moment away. Steve had wanted to watch and listen to the tide for a few hours, but when I returned twenty minutes later, he had fallen into a deep sleep. Still, it was important to take this trip, and we all had a good time. These last few years, I had felt like I was always measuring my life by beaches and who I was there with. When I was a kid, Cocoa Beach was the place where Jeannie and Major Nelson lived on I Dream of Jeannie. Now it had a whole other significance.
He wasn’t always tired, though. Not on some of the other days. It was exciting, in fact, to see that his desire to help people was still active, filling him full of whatever energy he could grasp. He overheard Ralph talk about the war in Afghanistan and the suffering natives. “I’d go over there in a heartbeat, if I could, to help,” he called out to our surprise.
“You’re nuts,” I laughed. “Stop being a Saint and just sit there and watch your MTV.”
The increased doses of morphine led us to believe that when Steve looked like he was in a stupor on the couch, he couldn’t hear anything we talked about at the dining room table across the room. It was so great to realize he could still make me laugh, even now. I was talking to Rita and saying something about the weekend Steve and I met in Jacksonville, when things were rocky in Georgia. That he had warned me about marrying Kathryn. He just knew.
“But did you listen?” he called out. “NO!”
“Bionic ears,” I whispered to Rita. “That must be it.”
One day, Ralph drove him over to help his cousin with her Spanish homework. He had learned a lot from all of his own studying, and he didn’t want to waste it all on himself. I did some writing work while I was there, happy for the distraction, and had a problem getting online. The local numbers weren’t working or something. After going to the bathroom, Steve stumbled into the office, sat down at his computer and tried to figure things out for me. I told him he didn’t have to, but he said he wanted me to be able to send my articles. He apologized when he couldn’t solve the problem after sitting there in a semi-daze for a few minutes.
Sometimes, his inability to just lay on the couch and be sick and stop helping was unintentionally comical. Some musician out in cyberspace found Steve’s musical services website and, having no way of knowing he was ill, sent Steve a cassette tape of a song he had written. Some big R&B singer had recorded a song very similar in tone and content to it, and made lots of money. Ken Biggins wanted to sue him, but he needed an “expert musicologist” to back up his contention that it was plagiarism. Steve’s old musical partner Angie was over one day for a visit (there were always streams of visitors, some disappointed that Steve wasn’t always in the mood to entertain them anymore!) and Ken called and asked if he had had a chance to listen.
“Well, I’ll try my best, but the thing is, I have this cancer thing I’m fighting and I’m not sure…”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” we were told Ken said without skipping a beat. “Well, listen to it and tell me what you think. I really need to get this lawsuit happening.”
Angie, Rita and I laughed at his overwhelming sense of compassion, then sat around and listened to the songs and offered our opinions. “If that jerk ever calls back, I’m gonna kill him,” Rita said. “The nerve of some people.”
“No, mom, I want to help. My ears still work a little. He calls back, make sure you let me talk to him.”
When every door that I knock
is closed again on my face
When all my dreams seem so far
and all the answers are "no"
When the more I try to be
The less I seem to be
When my faith is getting small
And hope is almost gone
Those are the times
That you remind me
That who I am, and what I am
is only there because of who you are
And its then I realize
That you've made me from the start
And you've given me much more
Than I deserve
So much more
much more than I deserve
I fantasized about another Morrie type moment where Steve might grab the guitar away from her and somehow rediscover his passion for the music he was forced to leave behind, but in the end, it was just important that he listen. That we all listened. He hardly reacted, but I knew it was meaningful to him. Sometimes he was with us, sometimes not. He would pop in and out and surprise us from out of the blue sometimes. One time I was watching TV with him and he said, “You know, it took a lot of courage to come here. Thanks, you’re my best friend.”
I got misty eyed, but tried not to cry. I didn’t want him to worry about me.
One of the most incredible aspects of my visit was realizing that it wasn’t so hard to watch somebody dying. Going in, I thought maybe a pall would be cast over every conversation, every meal, every trip to the bathroom, and every visit from a friend or former musical cohort. That the days would be full of gloom and doom, tears and even anger. We were certainly entitled. Instead, I found, it was just life. A different form of it, for sure, with an added perception that each moment was more of the essence. But in the end, still just regular life. The January sun still shone, birds still sang outside, happy rich celebrities chatted about irrelevant things on countless cable entertainment shows, and Steve’s neighbor Lisa brought over some spectacular spaghetti and meatballs she had cooked up. Ralph read books and he and Rita worked on their cherished crossword puzzles, keeping Steve involved as much as possible. We never talked about death, dying, God or the meaning of the sometimes indifferent seeming Universe. Morrie and all Morrie-esque discussions were banished by default.
I came to see Steve’s life in those final days as one of almost magical simplicity, all the cares of the world reduced to wondering what time Seinfeld came on, when Andy and Barney were on TV Land, and what Bart and Homer were up to. I watched TV with Steve like it was just an ordinary day, as we did back on my first visit. As long as he had his Billy Graham book handy and the freezer was stocked with his favorite mint chocolate chip ice cream, he was good to go. It was all so strangely refreshing, life reduced to its most primitive basics. We occupy our lives with so many mundane and trivial things like they are so important, always marking time. And somehow all of it matters, even if, in the end, none of it does. Yet it all came down to this: Jerry and Kramer, enough Dreyers, Andy Griffith and the love that was present through all of it. Just cherishing the moment, that’s what mattered most. Isn’t that what Morrie said, too?
I had my own trivial escape hatches too, just in case I needed to break free from those moments and the somber reality was too much to bear at any given time. Steve and his parents understood my need to take a few hours away, for walks along the trail, for more reflections on the bench and along the lake in Oakland, for breakfast at Downtown Brown’s and lunch at Bennigan’s with a wonderful and encouraging local online friend, and some private reading time at Borders. Hard as I tried, though, I could never escape for long. As the old song goes, there was always something there to remind me. Along the trail was a huge barn-like building with Florida State logos written all over it. Apparently, their coach was quitting and, naturally, his name was Steve. I looked at the block letters posted on a big message sign, dumbfounded: “We Hate to Say, Bye Bye Steve, But We All Agree It’s Time You Leave.” Yet every time I thought about crying, I stopped. A memory—say, “Exfoliate” or “It’s Been Awhile” sung in the voice of Cliff Clavin--would come to mind and I’d laugh! Probably just denial on my part, but it seemed genuine. My favorite thought for that day was the time Steve found out I was moving to a small Georgia town. “You’re gonna tell them folks about what you do for a living, and they’re gonna say, ‘Jazziz? Jazziz what?” At Borders, I sought comfort in The Dummies Guide to Near Death Experiences. The book’s consensus seemed to be like what it said in Matthew: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The common thread was, if you lived a life of love, you took with you the exact amount you gave away. If this were true, Steve would be in good shape. He was still giving a lot away even if he looked like a zombie half the time.
Just about a week before coming to Orlando, I had started a wonderful online friendship with Marsha, a fun loving Kentucky girl who sought some spiritual guidance from me in a chatroom (do you detect a theme in my life? When was I not online meeting people?!). Her screen name had something to do with “Dolphin Fanatic,” and she talked endlessly about the tranquility she found watching jumping dolphins at play. I shared with her a cherished “wish I had a camera” moment on the boat leaving from Catalina Island a few years ago. I was enjoying the splashing dolphins as the sun cast a late afternoon orange glow behind the mountains of the island, which was receding on the horizon. The dolphins appeared to be jumping through fire. We hit it off immediately, and I even heard Steve’s voice echoing to “be careful, no more Georgias” as I thought for a moment or two that it might turn romantic.
It was amusing that someone was asking me for spiritual direction during my own time of sadness and doubt. I was happy to encourage her, even if I probably didn’t fully believe all I was telling her at the time I shared my life stories. I broke down and told Marsha all about Orlando, and rather than recoil, she repaid the favor, writing wildly poetic letters about the soul, faith and how frolicking mammals in water proved the existence of God for her, even when life was at its lowest ebb. Her emails to me when I was there that week lifted me and gave me hope. As one friend leaves, another enters. At the most necessary junctures in life sometimes. She assured me that Steve knew I loved him even when he wasn’t saying it. She concluded each letter with a lush, forward thinking image of us exploring nature someday. I envisioned us fully enjoying those dolphins, swimming upriver, bathing in sunlit waterfalls and strolling on the beach fully embraced by the sun. We talked on the phone several times as well. There was never an appropriate time to tell Steve about “Curvy Marsha,” but I knew he would be excited for me as long as I didn’t move off to Kentucky and marry her. She was gorgeous, incidentally, a stunning California-looking blond who just happened to be born in rural Kentucky. Her relatives might have asked “Jazziz what?” too. Her life was in a state of flux, too. Over the whirlwind past year, she had lived in Atlanta (with friends) and Chicago (for business)before settling in Louisville. The thought of me with a kind and beautiful blonde would have made Beavis happy. “She’s like cool,” I wanted to say so many times but didn’t. Not during Seinfeld.
Ralph and I started a tradition that week of taking long after-dinner walks, much like he and Steve used to do. We came back one night to find Rita on the couch, crying hysterically, and then trying to cover when we entered still in conversation. I plopped down next to her and hugged her as tightly as I could. And my own tears flowed. It was easier for me to cry when I was crying for someone else. Within a few minutes, we were both sobbing hysterically. What else do you say through your sniffles but, “it’s okay”? Even when it’s not.
Rita wiped away her tears, her voice very shaky, and said, “I was lying on the bed with Steve and he asked me if I would lie with him like that when he died.” Ralph didn’t know how to respond and I was going on instinct.
“It’s not time yet…” I said.
“I look at the rest of the world, and there are couples with five, six, seven children, all laughing and happy and healthy. I have one and…I must have done something wrong. Why is God punishing me? All I ever did was be a good mom and love him.”
Nothing in life and especially nothing you ever learned in your faith tradition can prepare you for an outburst like that, but all I could say was, it’s not your fault. That can’t be God, could it? Don’t ever feel that way. Life is a mystery, Steve knew that, too. It was just the way things were, tragedy and tears all a part of it. How we respond is where God comes in, isn’t it? I was as much questioning as helping her out of her terrible moment of self-blame. She hugged me long and hard and said, “You’re my other son. Thank you, thank you, Jonathan.”
In the eight days I was there, I kept clinging to that image that Pastor Doug had mentioned, the AIDS patient, about ready to roll to the other side, who got up, dusted off and was completely cured. It was ridiculous, that was a million to one freak occurrence if it was true, and I knew real life worked differently. But I loved the idea of Steve, rising, tossing off his oxygen tube, saying “Damn, I better get on the phone. I thought I was dying and now all the other guys are getting the good gigs.” But I knew I would be leaving in the morning, and braced myself for our last words. He was lying in his bed, tucked in snug, looking up at the ceiling, in just a little bit of pain. Ralph nodded and I walked in and said, “Steve, you and I will always be friends, no matter what, wherever you are. If it’s okay, I’ll always talk about you in the present tense, as if you’re with me. Because you will be. Say hi to God for me and tell Him I love him. Despite all this.”
“Thanks, Jon, I will,” he said, and I kissed his cheek softly.
Like a scene in the movies, I was about to leave, eyes full of real live tears when he called me back. “Jon?” he said. “I love you. You’re my best friend.”
He was up early the next morning and so I was given one extra final moment, overtime. I started singing “Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face,” and he smiled. “I have this feeling that the next time I see you, you’re going to be completely healed, just in a different way. Whattaya think?”
“That’ll be nice,” he said. “Healing.”
SAMPLE FROM “SPITTING IMAGE”
A damp eight by ten jail cell that topped out at fifty degrees, I found, made for the ultimate humbling experience. Yet it gave me time to put my life in perspective. Staring up at the pale bulb swinging overhead, squirming all day and night on the most threadbare mattress I ever lay upon, I realized that balance was the key to everything. In many ways, my fall from grace and public favor was inevitable. Achieving so much, so fast always made me feel slightly guilty. Becoming the idol of millions on the basis of good genetics and sheer luck never seemed much like reality anyway. The murder charge and its accompanying miseries were just me waking from the whirlwind of borrowed dreams, the flip side of the fantasy.
Looking back on all the fame, fortune and glamour, they struck me as so damn ironic. Last year, when Meredian Publishing contracted me to do liner notes for a photo retrospective of my career, I shook my head and laughed. I wondered if there were any other business where twenty four was the age for reflecting, reminiscing and possibly retiring. Even the most successful rock stars waited at least till the big three-oh before winning those lifetime achievement awards, didn’t they? My people-those who put me on the treadmill, kept its wheels rolling smoothly and sped it up the minute the latest eighteen year old ingenue hit the cover of the new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue-told me my fans were clamoring for such an opus. I’d earn another million bucks easy. As with everything else I did, I had no choice but to sign on the dotted line.
But I didn’t know what to write, what pearls of wisdom I could impart. What had I really learned after eight years except how to smile, have my face painted like a totem pole every day and look good in the latest Versace gown? As queen of every frequent flier program known to man, who never spent more than a few days at a time in any one locale, I thought about mentioning my numerous travels. But all those beaches and mountains looked the same after a while. So the South African shoreline was more golden, colder in the morning than the Seychelles. This was an intimate look at the life of a supermodel? The cold truth was, it was never very glamorous. Nearly every decision, from what toothpaste to use to the text of my interviews with Hard Copy, was made for me. And even when everyone told me I was the most beautiful woman in the world, the drivers of the Daniela machine always treated me like a little girl. Worship came easy. Genuine respect was in short supply. And that adoring public was fickle. All I had to do was check out the latest poll in the National Enquirer to see that. It was less than three days since my arrest, yet already 79 percent of their readers believed I was guilty. Only eight percent thought it might be a mistake. The other thirteen percent offered no opinion. That’s what I’d been reduced to, a flow chart in the Enquirer.
If I didn’t laugh at the absurdity of it all, I thought I might cry. The funny part was, I never really aspired to any of this. None of the top models did. No one set out to be a legend just because she was told she had the so-called special look of the moment. Or to be a millionaire with lawyers, accountants and publicists before the age of twenty just because a few top designers called you the essence, the face of your generation. It always seemed weird to me, to be considered one of the most beloved women in the world simply because I grew to six feet, had Mom’s long, wispy blond hair, Dad’s photogenic blue-green eyes and a body that clothes hung nicely from. I didn’t sit around giggling with my Catholic School girlfriends and dream of someday prowling the catwalks of Milan. It felt weird being handed everything you ever dreamed of when you never really dreamed of any of it.
I received a few encouraging letters of support from what few diehard fans remained out there, but it was nothing like the old days, a few months ago. I often got handwritten notes from adolescent girls who would send their photos along, asking me if I thought they had what it took to become like me. I was always tempted to inform them that supermodels were made, not born, that we were creatures sculpted by the powers that be to sell their sartorial fantasies in any given haute couture season. But my handlers advised against it. The illusion was the thing. Shattering it in even one reply to an admirer would be like letting a photographer into my bedroom at five a.m. and shooting me without the proper lighting, with every childish freckle on my face still glowing. I simply wasn’t allowed to.
The fan mail inevitably got around to asking me just how I made it so big. I always scrawled some platitude about working hard and following your dreams, but the truth was, I had no idea why any of it ever happened. The chain of events which made me a “super” just sort of led me to where I was, just as it now brought me to isolation behind bars with the very real possibility of a lifetime stay. I never attempted to question any of it. Maybe it was none of my business, trying to understand where all the good fortune came from and how and why it so cruelly ran out.
“Van Aschen, Daniela.” The burly female guard came by my cell and called out my name in a caustic monotone. She had a dour, craggy face, hulking arms, was about my height and double my weight. “You have visitors. Say they’re family. Funny Euro-accents. C’mon, get up.”
I put the velvet bookmark Jerry once gave me at the chapter break of the new Danielle Steele romance, eased slowly off the bunk and watched the woman’s movements as she pulled my hands out in front of me and cuffed my wrists. My back felt stiff, but I wasn’t about to ask her if I could rub it. She would probably break me in half.
“Let’s go, Blondie, Barbie, Goldilocks,” she sneered, using the nasty jail nicknames I would soon become used to. “Hey, maybe you should do a layout in Playboy, the women of City Jail. Look awfully cute in your orange Calvin Klein jumpsuit.”
I shot her an angry look and, just as I was instructed, averted my eyes from the other prisoners as she led me out of the cell, down a ramp, past the inmate processing center and towards a private conference room in the visiting area. I got a slew of lewd catcalls from behind the bars of the peanut gallery. The girls doing hard time for crimes they really committed were all aflutter at having a real live celebrity in their midst.
“Mom, Dad! James!” I gushed through the wire mesh when I spotted my parents and brother, who had flown the red-eye in from Brussels to see me. “God, it’s good to see your friendly faces.” The guard allowed us our privacy, but told us she’d be waiting just outside the steel door. She winked at me when she left.
“Hello, Daniela.” Dad, all stiff and businesslike with his three piece suit and troubled demeanor, gazed sternly at me. It reminded me of when I muddied the carpet after running through the garden he had just planted when I was seven. He tried to say something else, but just sighed and looked towards the floor instead.
“That’s okay, Dad, it’s just important that you’re here. Hi, Mom, hey, Squirt. Was your flight okay?”
“My God, Daniela, aren’t they feeding you in here?” My mother, Sophia, looked older since I’d gone back home for Christmas a few months ago, her sandy hair flecked by more gray than ever before. “You look like a stick figure.”
“Daniela’s the ultimate hangman character. She’s always been a stick, not to mention a stick in the mud.” James chuckled to ease the tension. He had just turned twenty and could have been a model himself with his tall, powerful build, dark blond and dark, boyishly handsome features. His eyes met their disapproval and he shrugged. “Just trying to ease the tension. It’s not everyone whose sister murders a famous movie star.”
Dad wasn’t in the mood for James’ sarcasm. “You think this is funny? Everything’s a big joke to you, isn’t it?. Your sister’s in deep trouble here. Nothing to laugh at.” When I first made it big, it was Mom who was most supportive. Dad sort of went along for the ride, but he was the cynical one, always wondering when the crash would come. The way he was brooding now seemed to be his way of saying he told us so.
I wanted to hug them all so badly. “Dad, please, ease up. I can’t blame him for not knowing what to say. It’s not exactly a five star hotel, Mom, but I couldn’t eat even if they served caviar. My stomach’s in knots, I can’t sleep. I sit there in my...what passes for a bed, keep going over everything in my mind. And I still can’t figure any of it out. I...I don’t know what happened.”
“It’s okay, honey,” Mom comforted me. She looked up at my father for approval. “We know you didn’t kill him, no matter what anyone says.”
“And even if you did, he was a cocky son of a bitch. Probably deserved it,” James couldn’t resist, his odd way of lifting my spirits. “By the way, you look cute having a bad hair day.” He met Dad’s glare and wisely shut up.
“Thanks,” I managed a smile, brushing the locks from my face. “But you’re wrong about Jerry. He was the best, I loved him. I didn’t care about his money, I was actually hoping to get out of the business, get him to slow down his career, move away to some island...”
“Lovely sentiment.” Dad looked bitter. “But I think Robinson Crusoe thought of it first. Only without the dead body.”
Mom softened the blow. “Daniela, please forgive your father and brother. It’s been a long flight. We’ve all been worried sick. Anything you need, we’ll be here for you. Just like the old days. I remember when I first brought you home from the hospital, I said you looked like an angel. You were so delicate, so fragile. I felt like God had given me the job of protecting you. Your father called you the sweetest Belgian waffle.”
Dad welled up at the sentiment. “I wish none of this supermodel crap had ever happened, Daniela. What good is it all now? Then we’d still be back there...you’d be in the back of the station wagon arguing with your brother over an ice cream cone...Those were the days.” He looked up at the flickering florescent light overhead, and I spotted a few tears in his eyes that stubbornly refused to fall. Soon, however, all three were overcome and couldn’t hold back.
I was the only one who didn’t break down, holding on instead to hope inspired by the memory he had conjured up. “James,” I said softly, “I believe I ordered the rocky road sugar cone that afternoon...”
The day my father spoke of was a postcard perfect sampling of all the magnificent simple summers of my childhood. It harkened back to everything that made my family so close and unique. Dad was an international lawyer who traveled for weeks on end and Mom taught the deaf part time, but they made up for whatever time they didn’t have for me and James during the week with those fabulous sunny weekends. Most every Sunday in July and August, they packed a picnic lunch, loaded up the station wagon and drove us out to the coast. If Dad was feeling adventurous, he’d take the scenic route along the North Sea out to the wide, sandy beaches of De Panne and dare us to run the hundred yards or so to the border of France. But we spent most of those lazy days with our blanket sprawled on the esplanade at Oostende, sitting on the concrete platform with the other tourists and looking out at the puffy clouds hovering over the sea. The jolly seaside resort town had a whiff of the Belle Epoque along its Albert I Promenade, from the Casino to the Hippodrome, a scent that mixed sweetly with oysters, cockles, mussels and suntan lotion. Often, we would roll down the windows just for a sugary sampling.
I was nine and James was four, and I should have known better than to argue with the little twerp that day. But sitting on the sticky leather back seat of the yellow family station wagon, looking at his mournful face, I couldn’t resist. Mom had just bought us ice cream cones on the pier at the Visserskaai Fisherman’s Wharf, and suddenly regretted it.
James whined the whole way to the beach, vanilla dripping down his hands. “Daniela promised she’d let me have a bite of her rocky road. Give it. Mom!”
“Oh, stop it, you weasel,” I baited him. “I told you maybe, maybe I’d let you. There’s a big difference.”
“No. You said for sure.”
“Did not.” I waved the cone in front of him, took a lick and told him how scrumptious it was. “Willy Wonka’s got nothing on this, kiddo.”
“Children!” Mom interrupted with her stern honey voice. “Stop fighting. Daniela, you should know better. We’re almost at the sand. Listen. Your father’s gonna tell us all about King Leopold again.”
James and I both sighed. I stuck out my tongue at him, chocolate full on display. He was about to start up again, but Dad’s droning monologue took precedence. We could just about recite the historical anecdote along with him.
“Listening, kids? See, Oostende wasn’t always the fun in the sun place you see before you,” he said as he pulled into the vast parking lot. “King Leopold I, however, turned it into one of Europe’s classiest 19th Century resorts, making it fashionable by establishing it...
Mom, James and I finished the well worn speech and laughed. “...as his holiday residence. And now it’s a cross channel ferry port and Belgium’s busiest beach resort.”
Dad seemed impressed. He had taught us well. “Okay, everyone out. Finish those ice creams and I don’t want to hear about it for the rest of the day. Like King Leopold, we’re here to relax.”
As we crunched in through the green tarpaulin lounge chairs to find our reserved spot on the platform, I noticed a huge ferry boat pulling out from port in the distance. “Look James, a ferry. God, I wish you were on it. Sail to London, give us all some peace.”
“Yeah, well, you’re so skinny, they probably would only charge you half. A quarter per chicken leg.”
Mom admonished us, but I assured her, “He knows I’m just teasing.” I pulled James close for a big hug as Dad pulled out his fancy camera. The beaches had a series of charming, very photogenic old-fashioned sunbathing huts, parasols and deck chairs that looked, from the promenade, like a battalion of toy soldiers. It was his favorite backdrop for our summer family portraits.
“See, we can get along just fine,” I said, hugging a reluctant James. My brother stuck out his own tongue at me in the first shot, then admitted he loved his sister before the next. I hugged him back. Those were two of many snapshots which filled up the albums of my childhood.
Dad put away his camera, looked out at the just barely visible coast of England and mused about James becoming a soccer star there someday. My brother was just a toddler in many ways, but he was also a natural born athlete. “What about you, Daniela? Ever give much thought as to what you want your life to be about?”
“I think I want to grow up just like Mom, be a teacher, special education, so I can work with retards like James.” I looked at Mom and Dad for their encouragement. “Just kidding. But what I’d really like is to just live on a ranch somewhere down in Wallonia, married, with kids and horses running wild.”
Dad seemed a little disappointed. “Don’t want to be a lawyer like your dear old dad? Your grades are good...”
“Too much pressure, and besides, you’re always traveling. Let James do all the traveling with his team someday. I’m a Belgian girl, I’m gonna stay right here.”
A crowd gathered at the edge of the esplanade to watch a formation of elegant seagulls in flight over the foamy edges of the water. When they grounded, I turned to Mom and Dad. “I like it best when they land. Watching them fly makes me dizzy.”
No one ever dared to dream big in Damme, the little Flemish town northeast of Brussels where I grew up. It was a village famed primarily for its attractive location beside a poplar lined canal which froze in winter and in the spring and summer allowed the bi-weekly passage of the Lamme Goedzak, a stern-wheeled paddle steamer which left from the jetty thirty minutes down the way in Noorweegse Kaai. There was an idle windmill alongside its banks, and Dad used to point it out in the background every time we strolled before all the little shops and specialty restaurants on Kerkstraight, which was our main street. Fortunately, whatever historical significance the windmill may have had was beyond his grasp, and so Mom, James and I were spared anecdotes about its place in European culture. But its lack of activity, especially when pitted against the yellowing haze of a winter sky when he took us skating on the river, seemed to reflect the laid back pace of life there. Dreaming of teaching and living on a ranch down South seemed like big talk from a nine year old girl.
In every interview I ever read with a top model, the girl inevitably recalled an adolescence of being shy, insecure and gawky. Unfortunately, being born with pencil legs that grew faster than my nails and hair put together, I was no exception. James’ teasing may not have bothered me when I was nine or ten, but when puberty hit, being the tallest and skinniest in my class became traumatic in a hurry. I hated what I saw when I looked in the mirror. Wearing braces on my teeth for my overbite didn’t help, either. Everything I wanted so desperately to change about myself then was exactly what others liked about me later.
Mom, who stood six foot one and on whom I always blamed own my physical absurdities, perfectly understood what I was going through. She claimed I would fill out and be beautiful someday, but all I ever wanted to be was one of the petite girls whom the boys favored so much. One morning during the second month of seventh grade, though, she wasn’t in such a patient mood. My refusal to get up and get dressed every day was taking its toll. Besides always making her late for work, my stubbornness about going to school on time led to numerous tardies and a slip from an A average to a C. That was intolerable by her standards.
“Daniela, I’m not gonna ask you again!” I heard her bellow from beneath the sheets of my pink canopied bed, where I barricaded myself every morning. “What am I gonna do with you? I can’t change your body overnight. You think it was easy for me? But I coped. You can’t keep doing this.”
I peeked out over the powder blue sheets. I had put on a baggy sweater over my nightgown, like I always did. I couldn’t bear the sight of my scrawny arms, either. “You’re not in secondary school now. You’re not the one the girls laugh at, who gets asked about having clouds around your head. You’re not the one who goes to dances wearing flat shoes and is still a head taller than the tallest boy. They’re all afraid of me, Mom. I hate myself, I hate everything I am.”
Mom looked at the mess on my floor. All the clothes I had tried on and rejected lay in a heap. None of it looked good on me. “Daniela...” She wanted to stay mad, but couldn’t. “Don’t you remember those life cycle books I gave you, those pictures where the girls at your age are taller than the boys? By the time they’re tall enough for you, you’ll be perfect for them.”
“Yeah, right. I’m so ugly, no boy is ever gonna want me.”
“Honey, some girls just blossom later than others. Don’t you ever read about famous actresses and singers who thought they were weird looking as teenagers? They become the most beautiful and successful adults. And they always fall in love.”
“Yeah, because they’re famous,” I sniffled. “But what if you’re just an average girl from a dinko town in a country no one’s ever heard of? Then you’re a freak like me.”
“Don’t ever consider yourself average, Daniela. If I managed to deal with what God gave me, so can you. Staying home from school isn’t the answer. People always respect brains more than looks anyway. Besides,” she said, extending her hand across my shoulder and pushing the golden strands from my face, “I do think you’re beautiful. Maybe we could check with the doctor and see about getting you to put on some weight.”
“That would be a start,” I agreed.
“Think about if you were like one of the kids I teach, where you couldn’t talk normally or enjoy music or anything? Focus on the things you do have.” She looked at her watch and made a pleading glance. I got up, feeling not much better but well enough to realize that nothing good was about to come of staying home that day. “Trust me, Daniela. If you believe you’re beautiful, then you are. Make tall work for you. Make it beautiful.”
A few years later, that is precisely what I did.
One thing I came to believe was that no matter how hard I might have tried, I couldn’t outrun my destiny. I had just turned seventeen when it came calling in the form of a mysterious large man in a Panama hat, who wore a fancy Nikon camera around his bulging neck. Once a month throughout my teenage years, on the Saturdays when Dad was in town, he took me and James horseback riding at the Forest of Soignes, a landmark of greenery which spread in a wide arc to the Southeast of Brussels. Under its mile long rows of magnificent beech trees were cycle, walking and horse tracks where the two of us became enthusiastic riders, if not exactly Olympic material. From the start it was clear that my brother had more of a knack for the sportsman’s life. Until I got the hang of controlling the reigns on whichever filly seemed compatible, my best skill seemed to be falling from the saddle. And every time I took a spill, Dad joked that James had the coordination, but that I looked like a fashion plate in the black velvet uniform and riding helmet. Then he helped me get right back up, again and again, until mounting became second nature to me.
That sleek look-skinny six foot me all decked out in midnight, loping along on a misty spring day-was apparently what captured the roving eye of the oversized photographer who had come to take pictures of his own pre-teen daughter riding a gray stallion. I was leading my favorite mare back to the stables, trying to avoid getting mud on my boots, when he walked over with the girl, a cheery redhead who looked about ten. I was raised never to talk to strangers, but they looked friendly enough to me.
The man extended his hand and introduced himself. “Hello, young lady. I’m Walle Neilson and this is my daughter, Shyla. She’s just learning to ride. You have an interesting style.”
I shrugged, still tugging my reluctant friend under the wood shingles. “Hi. I’m Daniela. Daniela Van Aschen.” I shook his hand limply. “It’s my brother who’s the equestrian in the family. Look at him out there. Born to do it.” I pointed out to the track, where James was practicing expert hurdles. I finally got the horse into the stable and began brushing him. “Shyla, I hope you take after him, not me. I fall great, but otherwise...”
Walle gripped his camera. “Actually, I didn’t want to talk to you about horses, Daniela. Here’s my card. I’m a photographer for Paris Vogue, you know, the magazine, and I think you have a special look. My editors have been searching for a new blonde girl with your kind of features. I was wondering if you’d like to come to Paris and do some test shots.”
I stopped brushing and took his card, reluctantly. I looked at all the dirt on my uniform, touched my ratty hair and knew it had to be a put-on. “Come on. You’re joking, right? Is he putting me on, Shyla?”
“Nope,” the little girl shook her head. “My daddy is the best fashion photographer in France. He can make you famous. And I’m not just saying that ‘cause he bought me a milkshake and new stirrups today.”
I studied his card, which had the black Vogue logo on it. I remembered leafing through copies of the magazine Mom had bought a few times, always wishing I could be as glamorous as the models they showed. “I’ll...have to ask my Dad. I...I’m still in school, and it seems kind of silly. And besides, aren’t I too skinny?” I had filled out a little since junior high, but still weighed only one thirteen.
“Not at all, thin is big in Paris these days. I know it seems crazy now, Daniela,” Walle said, “and, believe me, I’m not accustomed to approaching stray girls. But I swear I’m on the level. Once I saw you, I knew I had the right one.”
Dad came over and I introduced him to the man whose vision would soon make me rich. He seemed wary at first, but eventually warmed up to Walle and believed he was legit. He turned to me and said, “A trip to Paris? My little girl?”
I just held out my hands, like “Why not?”
“Please, Mr. Van Aschen, I’d like to talk to you and your wife about this at greater length,” Walle explained. “Like I said, it’s just a trial run and my editors might not agree with my ideas. It’ll just be a few weekends to start with, in case school is a problem. If anything happens beyond that, many of our younger models have tutors. It’s a real opportunity. I think she has grace, poise, a great talent.”
Mom answered the phone the next day when Walle called, willing to do anything to meet with me and my parents to discuss my so-called career. He all but begged for a family gathering, and it turned out Mom was friendlier to him than he expected she would be. Ever my protector, she had just dialed the Vogue offices in Paris and got all enthusiastic when the photographer’s credentials checked out. He was indeed the magazine’s senior photography editor and had a crucial hand in helping launch the careers of Claudia Schiffer, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and other “tops” who would soon turn from celestial images to colleagues and work chums. He was one of Europe’s top scouts when it came to finding the next “it” girl.
Mom and Dad both had certain reservations, particularly about the need for me to finish high school before making any longterm commitments, but over lobster tail and poached salmon (his treat) at the exclusive Chateau de Groenendael, Walle convinced them of his gut feeling that, with the right guidance and breaks, I could be a star in the industry. I just sat there, dreamy-eyed, wiping Hollandaise sauce from my chin, as he laid out, point by point, what he had in mind for me once we got to Paris. The procedure was simple, he claimed. First a test shoot in his studio, then a few preliminary sessions. From there, who knew? Success was far from a certainty, but he could guarantee I would make easy pocket money and have a lot of fun, at his expense, roaming around the city.
He turned to my parents and suddenly became very serious. “Mr. and Mrs. Van Aschen, I won’t lie to you. It’s a crapshoot. Not all girls are as beautiful as Daniela...” He looked over at my embarrassed smile. “...but sometimes, being photogenic, looking good in the right makeup and clothes, is more important than pure physical beauty. But look at it this way. What do you have to lose? Except a million bucks if it works out like I think it will.”
Dad brightened. I saw visions of exotic vacations and lazy days of playing golf in early retirement in his eyes. Mom wondered, “I just hate to have her disrupt her studies when they’re going so well. She was planning to be a teacher. And she’d have to leave all her friends.”
I made a pleading glance at her. “Who cares about my friends? I’ll make new ones in Paris. Please let me do this, let me at least try. You know, I’ve always felt like the outsider, the weird one at school, the freak. Even if nothing happens, maybe taking glamorous pictures will help me feel better about myself. Make me feel pretty, worthwhile. You always say, use the gifts God gave me. I really want to.”
“Daniela,” Dad chimed in as the waiter brought the check and Walle threw his credit card down, “dreaming of fame and fortune is one thing, actually working for it’s another. I’ve heard brutal things about the modeling industry.”
“How about this? If it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to being my normal ugly Amazon self.”
“Daniela,” Mom shook her head, “no more talk like that. Jacques, it couldn’t hurt to let her take a few photos. We could use a few portraits around the house anyway, couldn’t we?”
Dad finally agreed to let me give it a shot. Walle pulled two train tickets out of his camel haired jacket and tossed them towards the daisy arrangement at the center of the table. “For the proud parents, just so they’re sure. What do you say, Daniela? Ready for some fun?”
I nodded, grinned without an overbite, and raised a Diet Coke with lemon toast to my uncertain but exciting future.
If Mom and Dad had any remaining reservations after that lunch, the exuberant looks on their faces when they returned from their weekend excursion to Paris erased them straight away. Showing me pictures of both the elegant Vogue offices as well as Walle’s elaborate, ultra-mod studio setup, they gushed on and on about how hospitable the French were to them. They met the director of the city’s top modeling agency, who told them he couldn’t wait to meet me. They met the editors and staff of the magazine, who were ready to roll out the red carpet based on their prized photographer’s assessment. Hype, I learned quickly, was everything in this business. If one guy in authority convinced a second in the know that a particular girl was the next big thing, it was simply so.
With Mom playing chaperone, I made it to Paris the next weekend. We had vacationed there as a family several times, but this was different, being treated like potential royalty by strangers who didn’t know I existed two weeks before. Mom told me to stop hunching over, stand tall (as if I could do differently) and not let on that I was ever self-conscious about my looks. As far as these tastemakers were concerned, I was born to be a legend. She had tried modeling for a while before she got married, and told me the best advice she had ever gotten was that more than anything else, consumers bought a model’s self-confidence. More than Cover Girl and hairspray, that’s what came across through the camera lens and onto newsstands worldwide.
Of all the new adventures I was about to have, wearing high heels for the first time at Walle’s studio proved the most harrowing. I had spent my whole life in bare feet or flat sandals, doing anything I could to de-emphasize the fact that I felt like a spindly giraffe. Suddenly, he gave me these four inch stiletto stilts to match the black and white striped Givenchy gown I would be wearing. I felt even more awkward, towering over even Mom in the dressing room and looking down as Hollis, Walle’s normal sized assistant, stood on his toes to reach above my shoulder and dab powder on my face. I tried walking around in the spikes, but kept falling and twisting my ankles. I liked the way I looked in the dress, but the shoes would have to go.
Finally, when Walle said he was ready for me, I slipped off the heels, threw them on the wooden floor emphatically, and walked out barefoot. He looked down, shook his head and pointed at my feet. Heels were part of the mystique, he explained. Six foot four or not, I’d have to put them back on. Make them sexy, Mom encouraged, echoing her advice of years before. Make them work for you. I reluctantly slid them back on, re-emerged from the dressing room and faced the camera for the first time like a lion hungry for his first prey. My feet still hurt like hell, but within minutes, I did what they call making love to the lens, and made myself right at home.
Even before he finished his second roll of film, Walle was calling me a natural, telling me I had an affinity for the camera. I wore makeup splendidly, made great eye contact, and looked divine in a ten thousand dollar designer creation. From his studio to the roving eyes of the world, it was only a matter of time and a few more rolls of Kodak. He laughed when I kept complaining about the shoes, and gave me the business card of Paris’ pre-eminent podiatrist to figure out a way to make being so tall slightly more comfortable.
Part of becoming a successful model, I learned, was accepting the fact that what you saw in a photograph rarely resembled what you saw in the mirror. So while I still viewed myself as a gangly teenager with too many freckles, Walle’s photos transformed me into a spectacular entity radiating passion and lust. With a few clicks of his magical shutter, I became a woman. Not even Mom could believe the transformation. I thought she would start griping about me having to miss my classes again, but instead she gave me a great big hug and said, “See? I always told you you were a beautiful angel.”
The proofs where he told me to brush my locks down into bangs and gaze into the distance with pursed lips were going to be the ticket, Walle claimed as he perused all five hundred test shots. With me and Mom in tow, he burst into the editor-in-chief’s office and waved them over the cluttered desk. The whole staff instantly agreed. They were so ecstatic, in fact, over what they considered my “natural radiance, sensuous lips and pout of innocence” that they immediately pulled their current cover of a pageboy Linda Evangelista and decided to go with the shot of my come-hither look and bony, freckly shoulder.
I giggled when I saw the one they chose because it looked nothing like the girl Walle discovered that day at the stables. In front of a total of five starmakers, I let slip, “It’s like I raided Mom’s make-up kit and wardrobe and I’m playing dress-up. It’s like poor Charlie winning Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Like, what am I doing here and what happened to the little girl from Damme?”
Walle shook his head at me, like don’t blow this, be an adult, be a professional. He took me aside as the Vogue folks dummied up my likeness behind the familiar logo and hung it on the wall. “Most girls react that way at first,” he agreed. “But just remember, it’s all about selling products and images. Promoting fantasies and dreams. You’re the canvas, we’re the artists. If people believe this is what you look like, you best believe it, too. You’re on your way, Daniela. From here on out, that girl is you.”
Later that day, the editors introduced me to Gerard Dupre, the head of Paris’ top modeling agency whom Walle had mentioned previously, and he said it was love at first sight. While making a knowing wink at Walle, the first thing he asked me was, “Daniela Van Aschen, great name, ashes, images of flames and smoldering desire. Are you set to be a superstar?” But as much fun as I was having in this land of make believe, the kid in me just wanted to snap my fingers, click my heels, go back home and do my schoolwork at the kitchen table. Mom told me she had never seen the kind of passion she saw now in my eyes. It delighted her to see me so confident about myself. She said she would support my decision, whether I made it a part-time avocation or full-time career. I could always go to back to college and become a teacher later.
Walle sensed me wavering and warned me that to ignore the excitement my presence was generating, to back off just as the iron was getting hot would be a huge mistake I would regret for the rest of my life. I chose to compromise, to study for a high school equivalency exam and commute back and forth to Paris on weekends until I had my certificate. I took a crash course and passed the test within three weeks.
It turned out to be perfect timing, because once the March issue of Paris Vogue hit the street, my likeness became all the rage. “Daniela,” Walle’s creation, was an immediate sensation. My booking agent’s phone rang off the hook with offers from every continent. Based on that cover shot and a three page insert of me wearing the striped dress, every designer from Versace to Isaac Mizrahi was suddenly dying for an audience with me. Fashion layout proposals from Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, American Vogue and W Magazine flooded in, and suddenly, my life was no longer my own. I, or at least what people thought was me, became a living mannequin, an entity, a grownup before my time. Within two weeks, Mom had taken a leave of absence from her teaching job and was on a plane with me to New York as my chaperone and manager. Neither of us were prepared for the hurricane of attention I received, nor even the four star treatment I was entitled to in first class on Virgin Airlines. The pilot and stewardesses, tipped off to who I was, said it was an honor to meet me and begged to pose for pictures. I kept looking around, thinking they must be talking about someone else.
Once the plane from Paris took off and we were on our first trip to America, I sipped a Diet Coke, munched a few peanuts, turned to Mom and laughed. “Can you believe any of this? A suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, all these showcases with top designers. I don’t get it. Why me? I mean, yeah, the pictures were nice, but aren’t there girls out there who could look just as good?”
“They chose you for a reason, Daniela,” she said, squeezing my hand. “That certain sparkle I told you about. The reason I’m letting you do this is because like I’ve always said, everyone has a destiny. Walle’s discovering you wasn’t just random, it was fate. Everything leading up to it, the horses, falling down all those times, they were all part of the plan.”
“Cool,” I nodded, pulling out my Walkman. “So then I should just go along with whatever happens. Like it’s the hand of God putting me on those mag covers. God and eight hundred psychotic makeup and hair artists.”
“Something like that. You know, your father wasn’t so crazy about us going on this trip. Even with me along, he was worried about them exploiting you, teaching you all the wrong values.”
“Yeah, I heard you talking to him,” I smiled, wondering for the first time if my teeth were perfectly white. “Like, hey, if you hadn’t taken her horseback riding...And then I heard James bragging to his pals on the phone about selling my baby pictures for ten bucks each. Who’d have thought my kid brother would be the first person to make a profit off me?”
“I told him you’d return the favor when he achieved his soccer dreams. As long as both of you remember where you came from, no amount of success should spoil you. It’s all coming fast and furious, but don’t let it get in the way of being a good Catholic girl.”
I touched the gold cross on my chest and remembered my last birthday, when Mom gave me the necklace, a family heirloom from my great grandmother. It seemed like such a long time ago. A few minutes went by, and I looked out the window, down through the feathery clouds at the endless blue Atlantic. Suddenly I got tears in my eyes. I turned to embrace her. “Oh, Mom, I’m so scared.”
“I know, baby, I know...”
“I mean, what if I can’t do this? What if I slip like I did in the Vogue office and they figure out I’m just a shy little girl underneath? What if after a few pictures, they see through the goop and see that I’m the same a six foot Godzilla I was in primary school?”
Mom asked the stewardess for another bag of peanuts and the girl brought two. “Once they meet you in person, you won’t have to pretend. Just be yourself, and they’ll discover the real you.”
“I just want to make sure they’ll listen to me and understand that I’m a person under all the paint. That I wanted to teach and use my brain, too.”
“They’ll know there’s a soul under there with passion and feelings. You’ll be so much more than just a pretty face. These days, models are spokespeople and businesswomen, too. With your brains, they’ll have to take you very seriously.”
I looked at her with the fresh pout that was about to make me famous. “If I get freaked, will you hold my hand? Even if the camera’s still rolling and the photographer gets pissed off?”
“Of course, sweetheart. Just don’t expect me to get up and join you on the catwalk. My varicose veins might not look so great in Versace.”
We shared a laugh, and I held her hand the rest of the flight. When we landed, I still had the headphones on my ears. I flipped on the radio. The chorus of Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” was playing. It was a definite sign.
All of my supporters in Paris told me that New York was a fabulous city for young girls to explore, but that first trip, all I got to see was rain streaked windows from the inside of a fully loaded stretch limo and the interior of more high rise offices. The fun, they promised me, would come later, after I was launched in America and could start enjoying Manhattan’s night life as one of the beautiful society people.
From the moment we landed at JFK, Mom and I were hustled around the city at a bustling pace. My first meeting at Elle went perfectly. I wore only faded Levis and a leather jacket, and my hair was a mess from sleeping on the long flight, but the editors were still somehow in awe. They immediately booked me for my first U.S. photo shoot. Everything snowballed from there. Five other magazines did “go-sees” and signed me right up. A rep from the prestigious Elite agency came out on a tip and told me they’d make me a millionaire within weeks, with major designer and makeup contracts a virtual certainty. Mizrahi, Versace, Todd Oldham and Donna Karan met me at a pre-arranged roundtable lunch at Tavern on the Green and offered me $10,000 each to appear in their upcoming fall collection shows. Thirty grand for a few hours of work? I mused. This was going to be one bizarre ride.
Mizrahi’s was the first show I did, and it was an exhilarating experience once I got over my jitters. I was just getting used to having one or two photographers ogling me with their lenses, but nothing prepared me for the onslaught of a thousand cheering journalists and hundreds of paparazzi from all over the world flashing away at my every pose as I got a crash course in grace on the runway. I was still shaky in the spike heels, and a nervous wreck about wobbling in that season’s clunky platforms, but I carried myself like an adult, strutting erect without a hint of self-consciousness. Mom said to pretend I was back in first grade, the daisy in the school pageant, hamming it up with not a care in the world. I took her advice, and it worked.
The admiring crowd, which included Rod Stewart, Elton John and Michelle Pfeiffer as well as TV and movie directors on the make, seemed to cheer the loudest every time I appeared. They especially liked me in the tight, red sequined mini-dress which made my small cleavage appear a little fuller. Bangs were definitely the ticket for me as well. Above the din of the synthesized disco music, I heard them gushing, “Who’s the new kid pixie queen?” “What a bod!” “She’s the most beautiful of them all,” “Six feet, six one?” and “Where has she been all our lives?” I held the women in awe and had the men scrambling to suck in their tummies and clear the drool from their chins. It was a blast.
Best of all, hanging around the other models, I suddenly felt average height. Even in heels, I was shorter than some of these beautifully elongated creatures. Standing before a mirror, clamoring for space with the leggy and gorgeous Naomi, Linda, Claudia and German powerhouse Nadja Auermann, I was to scale again, no more spectacular than anyone there. It was definitely an alternate reality.
In between costume changes, I sat in a director’s chair and made fast friends with Kate Moss, God’s gift to waifdom, who was also having her face touched up. At five seven and just over a hundred pounds, Kate was the only top model whom I could still tower over. Her bright personality always made her seem larger than she was.
“Hello, there, new girl,” she introduced herself in her sing-songy London brogue. “Now I don’t feel so bad. Your legs are as skinny as mine.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said sheepishly, trying to hide my awe at being so close to those amazing cheekbones which had graced five hundred magazine covers. “One question, though. How do you keep your head on straight with all the nutcases out there? I’m just a simple girl from Belgium. It’s so strange.”
“Laughter is the weapon of the media created goddesses,” she grinned as the makeup guy brushed away her many freckles. “Stay tight with your family, send them the money. Stay the same. If you’re nice, stay nice. If you’re a bitch, be a good one.”
As we changed costumes, Kate and I compared notes. I told her about the horse stables, she explained about being discovered at an airport when she was only fourteen. “So I shouldn’t take it seriously, huh? It’s all a game.”
“Works for me.”
I lifted my bangs to examine my forehead for any unsightly spots. “But how do you all avoid the stereotype of being thought of as a stupid airhead?”
“Surprise, honey,” she flashed her pointy upper canine at me. “We’ve all got the smarts to be neurosurgeons, most of us. But we go with the flow, you know? That’s part of the job. Once you sign on the dotted line, you are what they make you. You are what your publicist tells the world you are. You want a normal life, to be respected as your own person rather than one of the girls, go back and teach school in Belgium. It’s your dignity versus cash sometimes.”
Her words scared me, but I knew somehow I could overcome those stark, glamorous realities. Things would be different for me.
“Virgin, right, Kate?” Naomi, the gorgeous ebony English girl with sparkling green eyes, traipsed past my chair and patted me on the shoulder. “I can spot a cherry anywhere, no offense. We’ll have to take you to out on the town, get you a man.” I started to feel inferior when she and Kate laughed. “Just kidding, Daniela. Trying to rile up the new chick, that’s all. With those legs, those shoulders, you’ll be beating them off with a stick. My advice is, pretend you’re a woman, you’ve been around.” Suddenly, she looked down. “I’ve got a run in my stocking!” she whined. “Isaac! Isaac!”
Kate just shook her head and shrugged. Some photographers came by and blinded me with their quest for behind the scenes exclusives. Isaac came over, dealt with Naomi and kissed me on the cheek. “Daniela, you were fabulous on the first run. I’m gonna book you all the time, if you don’t mind. If it’s okay with your Mommy. Joking. But seriously, you’re a star. My Belgian princess.”
And he went on his way. Kate and I were up next, wearing lavender skirts with bikini tops and flat sandals. The crowd roared. I twirled around and smiled at Kate, who looked at me like, are we having fun yet? “You’re the new hotshot, kid. Stay cool, but enjoy it.”
I smiled down at Mom, who was clapping and pointing at me from the first row to the left of the runway. She made a thumbs up sign. Another roar went up when they announced me.
In no time at all, as if a magic wand had been whisked in my direction from the moment I was born, I belonged to the eyes of the world. Impressed with my Mizrahi debut, all the top designers used me in at least one of their spring and fall haute couture collections in Milan and New York, believing I was the perfect representative of the wholesomeness meets sartorial eloquence they were trying to convey in the early Nineties. I signed long term contracts with Ralph Lauren, Bruno Magli, Guess, Versace, Jil Sander and Chanel, representing everything from Polo Sport cologne to ripped and faded jeans to funky scents that brought out the worst in my allergies. I did ad campaigns for Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. I inked a multi-year deal with Maybelline which rivaled the reported eight figures Claudia had recently received from Revlon.
“Daniela” had arrived.
My new manager, Marlena Mazza, paid to cap my once imperfect teeth, and my sheepish, now flawless grin and come hither glance started appearing everywhere, on billboards, bus depots, even hovering over Times Square near where they dropped the ball on New Year’s Eve.
Where I was once self conscious about my sing-songy, vowel happy accent, I now went out of my way to emphasize it for the adoring cameras and microphone holders, becoming one of the most sought after Belgians in the world, right up there with Jean Claude Van-Damme, who was so flustered he could barely speak when he met me. Shouldn’t that be the other way around? I mused. The photo of us in the Village Voice said, “The Muscles from Brussels meets the Grande Dame of Damme”. The tabloids asked him endlessly about that kiss on my cheek, and made up stories that had us vacationing in Canne, cruising The Seine and dancing till dawn at places I didn’t know existed. He was flattered by the innuendo, but I didn’t know what to say. Here I was, just turned nineteen years old, a little girl on a very steep rollercoaster, and I had never had time to go on a real date, or even kiss a boy, let alone a world famous action star.
The tabloid rumors were just the beginning of the crazy whirlwind that became my life. It was all so dizzying, like a one way trip to a planet where there was never too much caviar, too many limos, too much temptation or too many people fawning over me. I tried my best to fit in, hanging out with the other girls and drinking virgin daiquiris till all hours, but sometimes I still had the funny feeling that they’d picked the wrong girl somehow. That some powerful fashion guru had goofed, allowing me to steal this life away from someone prettier, more elegant and deserving, who wanted and needed it more. Another six foot blond who fantasized of this as a child, traveled a great distance to New York or London with nothing but her looks and hopes for a better life, only to be denied because I was the one on the horse that day. Because I was the new “it” girl. Because the world said it was so. How many of them had I beaten to the throne? I wondered. How many of them had to lose so I could win?
Anytime I raised those concerns with Kate, Naomi, Christy or any of the others, they looked at me like, girl, you‘re a model, not a philosopher. Don’t question why Christmas is December 25 and others can’t afford tinsel, just open your presents and enjoy them. Be grateful. If you’re here, you deserve it. You know how many girls out there in Anytown, USA would kill to be in your patent leather spikes right now? That was just it, I explained. Why was I here and not one of them? They just scoffed and started giggling over some cute guy across the room. I humored the girls, acted like it didn’t matter, but deep down, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for all those who would spend their lives anonymously, putting years of effort into a dream that would never come true. All because I was here, tall, beautiful and lucky.
I rarely had a chance to talk to Dad or my brother, who mostly resented Mom’s absence from our home. But every once in a while, I turned to good old James, who was still in high school, to keep me in touch with who I was and put the whole crazy game, as well as those nagging thoughts, in perspective. Forgetting the time difference between Belgium and Tahiti, where I was doing a bikini shoot for Donna Karan, I called him one day and asked him if he had been reading about the so-called Van Damme romance.
After he finished grousing about waking him at four in the morning, he laughed and said, “Sis, would it kill you to have sex with him for real? He’d gladly give you his childhood memorabilia, and...you know how much I could get for a matching set of his and hers highchairs? I’d be the richest guy in Belgium.”
“Thanks, James, you’re a real help,” I chuckled. “How else am I changing your life?”
“Aside from the fact that Dad yells about dinner to me instead of Mom and we have to eat Tuna Helper most of the time, well...I am dating the most popular girl in school. She’s got your hairstyle, Daniela. You’ve turned me into a magnet. My grades are slipping, though.”
“I wish that was all I had to worry about,” I sighed wistfully, looking out over the white beach and green ocean in the distance as the sun inched towards the midpoint of the sky. “Stay young, enjoy it, James. You don’t want to grow up.”
“I will. When I get older, you might be washed up or something, and I’ll be a nobody again.”
I laughed as I heard Mom turn on the shower in the bathroom. We had a busy day ahead. “What do you mean, again?” I teased. “By the way, does your girlfriend want a signed picture, or to meet me sometime?”
“Who doesn’t?” he giggled. “But she’s not getting it. Keeping her waiting and hoping is the only way I can guarantee she’ll hang around. The minute she meets you, bang, there goes the best kissing I’ve ever had.”
I was incredulous, glad that Mom was preoccupied. “So thanks to me, you’re the king of swing and the best I can do is date phantom movie stars I hardly know. I’m scared, James. I’m worried no man will ever want me for me, Daniela. They’re all in love with who they think I am, and probably don’t care about finding out if it’s real.”
“Your life, your choice, sis. You know how many girls would love to be you out there traveling the world, kissing Jean-Claude?”
I rubbed my eyes as the sun shone through the parted drapes onto the bedspread. “Including your girlfriend. Well, let her in on a secret. It gets a little lonely. If I didn’t have Mom here helping me keep my sanity, I don’t know what I’d do. I wish I could be bitchy sometimes, you know?”
“In other words,” he said, “be yourself?”
“Exactly,” I cracked up.
“Well, you know you can always come back and be bored in Damme with Dad and me. And don’t listen to anyone who says the higher you climb, the quicker you fall. If some nut out there wants to drag you down, they’ll have to deal with me. It’s cool being the brother of a legend. Don’t take it too seriously, picture them all in their underwear and you’ll be fine. Belgian goddess.”
“Thanks, squirt. Belgian goddess’ brother.” I hung up, walked out onto the balcony and took in the balmy breezes of a lazy Tahitian morning. I wanted so badly to just forget everything and go walking on the beach with Mom, like we did in the old days at Oostende.
She came out of the bathroom, and told me to hurry up, we’d be late for the shoot. I nodded silently and went in to shower, ready to roll back the night and face yet another day as the most beautiful woman in the world. Someday, if I tried really hard, I was hoping I would come to believe the myth myself.
“Come on, you skinny bitch! Where the hell’s my Whopper and fries? I’m in a hurry!”
The slimeball at the drive-thru window in the souped up Camaro was honking so loud that everyone in the dining room looked up and covered their ears. The whole place, employees and customers alike, looked at me like it was all my fault. I got blamed for everything. I hated this job. I hated my life. For four seventy five an hour, they made me wear this stupid turquoise polyester uniform, a knit cap with a cherry tassel, and on top of those insults, I had to put up with being treated like shit on a regular basis.
Rosa glared and waved her stubby little index finger at me. “Hop to it, Ashley! Chop chop! Stop slacking off! The gentleman needs his Whopper Meal Deal! The guarantee is under a minute or it’s free, remember? The two ninety nine is coming out of your check.”
God, I wished she would shut up. She was just jealous because I was prettier and she was trapped working here for the rest of her life. I had been wanting to tell my manager off for months now, but never got up the nerve. I was a foot taller, fifty pounds thinner, ten times smarter, and still I let her intimidate me.
She blinded me with her crooked yellow teeth. “Merkinskin! Get moving! It’s the lunch rush, that means fast. Do I have to spell it out for you? You retarded or something?”
I didn’t mind so much her talking down to me like one of the part time high school kids, but I couldn’t handle her railing at me with just my last name. It was so dehumanizing. It made me feel even more pathetic than I already was. If anyone called her “Sanchez,” they knew they’d be out the door in a minute.
“Oh, so this is what’s slowing you down!” The jerk in the mufflerless Camaro was still slamming on the horn when she came over to the tiny drive thru space-my domain on that particular shift-and yanked my dog eared copy of the latest Glamour off the nearby countertop. He yelled again for his Whopper. “I catch you reading while you’re supposed to be working one more time, termination, you got it? Now, give him his order, huh?”
I glared at Rosa, opened the little window and threw the guy his lunch. He sneered, revved up, peeled the brakes and pulled out over the curb. Rosa reminded me to smile, but I would have rather spit at him. Then the next impatient bastard pulled up. There were at least five cars backed up, all honking in schizophrenic syncopation. There was never a shortage of belligerent baboons lining up to stuff their faces.
“Sorry,” I whispered to Rosa, rolling my eyes in defiance. Like an extra thirty seconds was some huge deal.
It was one p.m. and customers kept swarming throughout the dining room, but it was more important for her to reprimand me. Gave her useless existence some purpose, I guessed. She put her hand on her hip and looked skyward at me from under her blue manager’s visor. “What’s with you, blondie? Got an attitude problem? Trouble with the boyfriend again? Leave it in the bedroom, huh?” I hated “Blondie” even worse than “Merkinskin”. I started seething. My ears plugged up and I couldn’t hear the honking anymore.
“Fine,” I complied weakly, shaking my head at the little troll.
Rosa kept yapping, but instead of torturing myself looking at her mish mashed face and huge gut, I focused instead on the crinkled cover of the magazine she waved at me. It was Daniela Van Aschen, Miss “Don’t you wish you were flawless like me?” herself, posing sumptuously in a sleeveless red sundress under the neon headline, Summer Heartthrobs. Even scrunched up with a few splotches of ketchup adorning her haystack of shiny hair, there was no mistaking the idol of millions. Miss fucking perfect. Planet Earth’s premiere airhead. Twenty three, a year, two months and three days younger than me, a multi-zillionaire, she earned more per day than Rosa and I put together could make in five years. All for just smiling, wearing ten thousand dollar outfits and looking fake and plastic. All for just standing there and being told she was Queen.
Bet she never has to tolerate low class trash like Rosa looking down on her, I thought, my bitterness spilling out as I gagged at the sight of more Whoppers coming down the metallic chute. No one makes her feel like a pesky rodent for getting an order wrong. She never has to get her hair greasy, sweat over a two hundred degree broiler or get mayonnaise under her thumbnails. No, I’ll bet the minute she gets an ounce of dirt on her face or hands, she has an army of servants begging to lick it off. Goddamn Belgian bitch. I’m a six foot blonde with nice features, too, and no one cares about me. Why does she have all the luck? What has she got that I don’t? I wondered how many millions of girls out here in reality, a place the supermodel could never comprehend, felt the same as I did.
Funny thing was, as much as I detested Daniela, as tortured as the sight of her smiling mug on another magazine cover made me, sometimes I found myself staring at her for minutes or even hours at a time. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t take my eyes off her delicate innocence. As shallow as I imagined her to be in real life, she amazed me. How this gawky teenager from some hick windmill town in a nothing country became a worldwide superstar by the age of twenty fascinated me, compelled me, drew me in. Even more unbelievable was how she managed to stay so popular in the five years since. Madonna kept in the limelight for a decade longer than anyone thought she would, but she had plenty of detractors, too. But no one whose opinion mattered ever got sick of or criticized Daniela. Too wholesome, I guessed. Her ideal was never out of date or demand.
I tried to get her out of my mind, but to no avail. All I thought about every day was just how she pulled it off. My obsession grew by the day, with every new magazine cover and appearance on Entertainment Tonight. I lay awake at night, studying every inch of that gorgeous frame, analyzing every strand of hair, every last freckle and every inch of blemishless skin, asking myself what the world kept responding to. And why no one ever reacted to me that way, despite our similarities. How come no one ever came along to take her place? And what would it take for someone else, another beautiful babe, to spring up out of nowhere and do just that? My dreaming always ended with the vague and foolish notion that that girl was destined to be me.
Sometimes, my Daniela fixation was the only way to get Rosa and every other nasty creature who ever put me down out of my mind. She saved me from acting on my violent desires. Better to fantasize that I was flying in Daniela’s high heels than visualize Rosa taking a trip through the broiler with the Whopper meat. And then the breakfast shift would begin at seven a.m. sharp, and the reality of Burger King came back to haunt me. I wished I never had to wake up.
“Merkinskin, head outta the clouds, huh?” Rosa screeched in her charmless Spanish accent, snapping me out of my reverie once again. “Get your butt over there, take the next car’s order, and shape up. Or you can take your act down the street to McDonald’s, got it?”
She glared at me, then went back into the kitchen, where some of the kids were in crisis because some of the filets of fish hadn’t thawed properly.
I pulled the Glamour out of the trash and stared once again at Daniela’s carefree face as I pressed the buttons for Chicken, large fries and small Diet Coke. I couldn’t help myself. The honking began again, and I knew Rosa would be out here harping on me in a second. Why can’t I be you? my brain screamed silently to my famous lookalike. But she never heard. No one would ever hear my silent screams.
Not owning my own car sucked big time. I got off at three every day, but had to hang around the dining room for over an hour till Michael, my loser boyfriend but obviously the best I could do, came and picked me up. Sipping my Coke and scratching the polyester uniform as it clung to every ounce of sweat on my body, I sat at the wood table furthest from the front counter, hoping to avoid Rosa’s evil eye. I took a drag from a cigarette I had lit a few minutes earlier, then looked out the window at the traffic on Van Nuys Blvd. Across the street, children were playing on a jungle gym in the park, and I remembered my own dreams as a kid. None of them were coming true, not even close. For a fleeting second, I wondered if Rosa ever had dreams, or if this was the pinnacle of her life as well. Then I thought of Daniela, who never aspired to anything before that photographer caught up with her at the stables that day. I always dreamed that a man like that would peep through the drive thru window someday and rescue me the same way. Somehow, though, with my luck, it would be about a minute after I clocked out. That was always the way things went for me.
“Hey, Ashley, can we join you? Our shift doesn’t start for a few minutes.” It was cute little dopey faced fifteen year old Kacy, holding hands with her little boy toy Joe, seventeen year old big wimp on campus. They were Burger King’s resident happy couple, working for pocket money while filling out those SAT applications.
“Sure guys, let me put out my cigarette.” I wasn’t terribly keen on their company. They were such goody-goodys. But they meant no harm. It wasn’t their fault I envied their simplicity and the bright futures they no doubt saw for themselves.
They sat down once I had brushed away the rising smoke. “Hey, cool, Daniela Van Aschen,” Joe all but salivated when he spotted the crumpled magazine. “Man, she was hot in that Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. What a body. She’s like superwoman or something.” Off Kacy’s hurt look, he added, “But I like redheads better. So Daniela’s the second most beautiful babe in the world.” He squeezed Kacy’s hands, they sipped from the same milkshake, and she seemed pacified.
I tried to hold back my resentment, but was never very successful at it. “You know, Joe, you may find this hard to believe,” I baited him in a pseudo-cocky manner, “but people have noticed I bear a striking resemblance to her. Just last week, I was in the grocery store and this woman looked at this very same cover and insisted it was me. Even asked for my autograph.”
Kacy was all wide eyed, her freckles dancing. “Did you tell her you were Daniela?”
I nodded sheepishly, holding up the cover next to my face. I was hoping they’d notice the same resemblance, even if Daniela was all made up and my mascara had long since been run off by grease and sweat.
“I don’t buy it,” Joe scoffed. “Daniela’s a goddess. I mean, yeah, you’re blonde, maybe your eyes have the same color and shape or whatever, but you’re just a six foot Whopper girl, Ashley. Nothing glamorous about you. Especially in the uniform.” Kacy admonished him, hitting his arm. “Not to say you’re not attractive, just...I mean, I can’t see guys in a frat house hanging up your calendar every year.”
“Maybe if you saw me in a bikini, Joe,” I couldn’t resist pissing Kacy off. She checked her watch, no doubt hoping their shift started any minute. “You know, back in Tulsa, when I was like sixteen, I took a few modeling classes. A few scouts came by and told me I could be really big. They told me I had a special look.”
Joe spewed nasty. Typical chauvinist pig. “Hey, the Elephant Man had a special look. Look where it got him.”
“Joseph,” Miss Prim shook her head. “Ignore him, Ashley, I think you’re really pretty. And I think you look like her even if he doesn’t. I don’t care if you’re not a supermodel.”
“You can say that again,” Joe rolled his eyes, then licked his lips over Daniela again.
“But see, I could have been. Shut up, Joe, just listen. The truth is, Daniela Van Aschen’s success destroyed any chance for mine. I was going places before she came along and ruined everything.”
This time, Kacy rolled her eyes along with her cruel boyfriend. I hated when people, even kids, did that. Nobody ever believed my long sad story. But with ten minutes till their shift, they were a captive audience. I told them anyway. Even if they didn’t care, someone listening to me was better than no one.
Mine was the typically tragic upbringing I heard movie stars relate, about being abused and abandoned by uncaring alcoholic parents, only there were no happy endings and Oscar victories for me. Somehow, despite my determination, I was never able to break free from the cloud that hovered over my poisoned family tree. I grew up in a dusty trailer park on the outskirts of Ada, Oklahoma, but unlike Roseanne and Demi Moore, never conjured up a way to outrun those humble beginnings.
My mother the heartless psychotic always blamed my father the cruel sociopath for turning her into a raging alcoholic, and I always resented her for calmly taking his battering and staying with him until he finally stormed out when I was ten. He threatened to kidnap me to get even with her, but I told him I hated him, wished he would die for all the times he bruised me, and he realized I would be a burden to his new life anyway. When he left, life went from horrendously frightening to just plain bleak. But at least I didn’t have to worry about hiding my black eyes anymore.
So then it was just me, mother and my baby brother Jared, trying to live off her five hundred dollar a month disability checks, going to bed hungry most of the time since she spent almost every penny drowning her sorrows in Jim Beam. Jared and I were closer than the normal brother and sister, but with mother bombed half the time and absorbed in her soaps on that dinky thirteen inch black and white TV the rest of the day, we had only each other to turn to. Some nights, we’d hike up to Ada’s main drag, turn on the cutes and beg on streetcorners for enough spare change to get a taco and Coke at Phil’s Drive-in. Depending on our luck, we’d either feast on a combo platter or wind up splitting a forty nine cent burrito. We’d pocket a bunch of extra salsa packets just in case we got hungry in the middle of the night. Mother never bothered going to the store, and the fridge grew over with ice. She liked her booze warm, she said.
The only thing Jared and I had to take our minds off life at home was school, but we had no one to share our good grades with. Mother never cared whether we studied or not, but unlike most kids, we looked forward to sitting on the front porch, swatting away fireflies and doing our homework by candlelight. It was either that or listen to her snore like a lawnmower on the couch inside. I remember mother having a heart to heart talk with me only once, in seventh grade, when I brought home my first straight-A report card.
“Sometimes you just have to accept your fate, girl,” she said bluntly. “You’re a pretty and smart little stringbean, Ashley, but that don’t mean much around here, you know? Best you and your brother are gonna do is maybe work in the lumber mill in Norman. What else can anyone amount to in this shithole?” Then she went back to One Life to Live, and I told Jared not to bother sharing his improved marks with her. She would just defeat his optimism for an escape route, too.
I knew I had to make a move or her prophecy for my life would come true. So one day, when I was seventeen, I woke Jared up in the middle of the night and told him I had to leave, but once I was rich and famous, I’d be back for him. He was too groggy to object, and I felt guilty leaving an eleven year old in such a hostile environment, but it was either get out now or kill myself. Jared could endure a few more years of torment, I knew, before he found himself at the same hellish crossroads. After looking at my tall, slim figure and American as apple pie face in mother’s streaked bathroom mirror, I decided my best bet would be listening to those modeling scouts and trying my luck as a high fashion model. It was New York or bust.
With nothing but a sparsely filled knapsack and a few hundred dollars I’d saved from babysitting the neighbors’ kids over the years, I made it out to the main highway by dawn and hitchhiked all the way cross country. I slept at random campsites, on hard trailer beds, in the back of family station wagons, even with horny truckers with whom I exchanged my virginity for the next five hundred miles through snow swept Pennsylvania or wherever. Every time I told one of the drivers about my ambitions to conquer the modeling world, they said, yeah, definitely, if I was ever in Playboy, they’d hang me up in their bathroom and let their dreams run wild. One crazy hillbilly kook said he hoped he never saw me on a billboard in the middle of nowhere, because he’d freak out and didn’t know how to handle a jackknife. They instilled me with a confidence neither my mother nor my father ever could, making me feel sexy, like a woman instead of a stupid little girl. It was just the attitude I would need to conquer the world. I would show my parents that they were wrong about me. I was going to amount to something, and wouldn’t they be sorry then? Truth was, I realized as a family of four drove me through the Holland tunnel into Manhattan, I had no other choice.
They dropped me off on the edge of Central Park, where I slept on benches for a few nights while exploring the city and its filthy public showers by day. Hanging out at the coffeehouses of Soho in the evening, I kept noticing a conspicuous, full page ad in the Voice announcing that year’s Collegefest activities on the New York University Campus. One of the careers they offered was modeling, followed by the caption, FREE EVALUATIONS. Perfect. I knew I could fake being a student just long enough to snag a meeting. Sneaking into the YWCA’s locker room, I changed into the only sporty outfit I had, a leather miniskirt, tight sleeveless leopardskin blouse and high heel leather boots. The Middle Eastern cab driver who drove me back across town to the campus was so enamored that he took five bucks off the tab. Thank God, because I only had a few hundred left.
No student I.D. was required to get into the expo, an overcrowded advertiser’s wet dream of corporate come-on after come-on-Discover Cards, BMWs, Snapple-before the winding rows of career booths began. Ford Model Management was at the end of the first, next to the glitzy displays by Smith Barney and Prudential Bank. Rather than the fancy setup I would expect from such a prestigious company, there was just a little card table reminiscent of a kid selling pulpy lemonade on a streetcorner. A few girls and guys of very average height and looks stood in line and gaped when I approached, as if to say, now there’s a born model. I smiled down on them, feeling cool and important. Great, I thought, no competition. Suddenly, the similarly statuesque middle aged woman behind the table glanced beyond the mediocrity and set her sights on me.
The world stood still. “Hey, dollface, marvelous outfit, fantastic body,” she said with a silky smooth upper crust timbre. “Have you ever thought of being a model?”
Bam. So that’s all it took. Within a minute, I had signed the requisite forms and made an appointment with the company’s director of “Model Careers Concepts”. Once I paid the $25 dollar consultation fee, the lemonade lady virtually assured me I would be on my way. From everything I had read, Ford Models was one of the biggest agencies in the business, launching the careers of former tops like Christie Brinkley and Cheryl Tiegs.
But when I showed up for my interview, something went terribly wrong. The agency was in a dirty warehouse loft in a Queens slum rather than in a Manhattan penthouse. The floor was a bare concrete slab and there were no photos of working models on the gray wall. The receptionist was just a creaky old answering machine. Pipes leaked overhead. A few other lame looking hopefuls were waiting on the torn leather couch. It was about as far from the big time as you could get.
Wearing the same outfit, I waited for fifteen minutes and was about to storm away when Jasmine Westney, the president, sauntered out and extended a limp hand. She was a thirtysomething peroxide head who could have used less makeup and more skirt length. She admired my long legs, medium sized breasts and perky but fading smile, and beckoned me into her office, which was just a beat-up desk, a bookcase with hundreds of head shots and a view of an alley with scattered winos.
“Sit down, Amber...” she began, glancing at my application in between looking me up and down as I stood before her.
“Ashley,” I corrected her, indignant. I didn’t feel much like sitting on the card chairs. What was going on here?
“Ashley, sorry, so many girls, you know,” she apologized, lighting up a cigarette. “I think you’d be perfect for TV work. You’re the kind of spokesmodel type Star Search could only wish for. You’re one of the lucky ones. Most of the girls we meet don’t get interviews with me. Waste of time.”
I was starting to know the feeling. “I have a question,” I said sheepishly, my head bowed, feeling small all of a sudden. My voice echoed throughout the warehouse. “I thought this was the Ford place with all the supermodels. Is this just an affiliate office?”
She laughed and kicked up her wobbly legs on the table. “Honey, this is Ford Model Management. That’s Ford Models, Inc. you’re thinking about. We’re a great stepping stone for lots of girls, though.”
“Thanks, but just the same, I think I’ll go uptown and try the other agency.” I turned towards the door. “Thanks.”
She stopped me in my tracks. “Who do you think you are, kid? Scruffy girl like you from the dust bowl, no portfolio, not even a fucking Polaroid? You know what they’re gonna tell you? Sorry, busy, get in the next line of two thousand wannabe Paulina Porizkovas. Or get out.”
I turned back to her, tears in my eyes. “I just want to work so bad. I’m new in town, don’t know anyone...”
She licked her lips. “Whole thing is,” she consoled me at an emotional distance, “ya gotta start small, then build. That’s how the business works.”
“Not for Claudia Schiffer,” I countered desperately. “I read where she met some guy at a disco and...”
“That’s the one in ten million. Face it honey, you probably ain’t one of those.” She blew smoke rings to the ceiling. “But cheer up. Guess what? We’ve chosen you for our special weekend seminar. Clinic consists of a photo shoot, twenty second video spot and pro tips on hairstyle, makeup, runway walking and camera flirting. From the looks of you, I’d say you need it.”
I was furious, ready to start swinging. The truckers said I was beautiful, I thought. I’m gonna be famous someday. Who was she to judge me? But I was also desperate for any hope. “You really think I could learn?”
“All for only two hundred and fifty dollars. Plus, of course, it would help to buy our official makeup kit. It’s only sixty, but it’s got all the right colors to make your test shoot a gem.”
Three hundred bucks. That was all I had in the world. I shuddered, thinking about life back home and my desperate need to make it big. It was only my first week in town, but nothing was improving. Where could I go to get discovered like Claudia? “Geez, that’s kinda steep.”
Desperate to keep my interest and suck me dry, Jasmine instantly jumped into a pro-forma spiel about the loads of casting agencies and photographers who worked with Ford, what a great career move this would be, yadda, yadda yadda.
I despised her immediately, but she was right. I may have had the perfect body and face, but so did probably every other girl who came to the Big Apple with dreams of roaming the catwalks of the world. I was still a nobody. I had no professional pictures, old second hand clothes, and hardly knew how to apply mascara. I had to start somewhere. This might be my only shot.
Long story short, they fleeced me and I lost every penny I came to town with. I laid down the cash, attended the seminar and was told by the weasel who ran it that I received a one out of four-the highest rating among prospects. Then one day I called and the phone was disconnected. There was no forwarding number. With my last dollar, I took a bus back out to Queens, but the warehouse was empty. I broke down and cried on the steps of the loft. I’d been had. No top model I ever heard of started out this way.
I was nearly destroyed, but I couldn’t lay down and die this easy. I didn’t want to go back home. There was nothing for me there but pain and tattered memories. It was fall, and the leaves in Central Park were turning yellow to orange to crispy brown to black. Snow fell early, and the premature cold all but stuck me like an icicle to the benches in the Park. Screw this city, I thought. If they don’t want me, L.A. will. And if it’s just as indifferent to me, at least I can starve in warmer weather. Maybe I was an actress waiting to be discovered. Or maybe there were more modeling agencies in L.A.
It took me four weeks to hitchhike out to the Coast, and I only had to sleep with a total of four truckers this time. But when I got to L.A., it was the same old story. Even with acting, the policy was, no headshots, no portfolio, no resume, no dice. Hell, in this town, there was even competition for jobs at Taco Bell. Fortunately, Burger King in Van Nuys was hiring, and I got the morning shift.
In two months, after maybe a hundred customer insults and a thousand Whoppers served, I scraped together two hundred bucks and took some legitimate photos with a classy photographer who usually charged more. He even had a huge wardrobe I could choose from. The 8x10s came out magnificently, me dazzling in a clingy red minidress, fishnets and spike heels, my eyes glowing innocently, like a doe just finding its way. Take that, Jasmine Westney, I thought. I was going places now.
I started sending them out to local agencies which I cleared first with the Better Business Bureau. But bad luck slapped me again, this time in the form of Daniela’s rise to prominence. Over the past few months, starting just before I left New York, she had become the “it” girl. I must have passed by her likeness on the cover of magazines at checkout counters of convenience stores all along the backroads of America, but who had time to notice? Even if certain ones, especially those in which she wore little makeup, would have been like looking in a mirror. At least ten of the rejection letters I received made mention of the likeness. A few even called me Daniela’s “spitting image”. But the world didn’t need two of them. A few said they might have signed me up a year ago, but forget it now. I was six months too late. Sorry.
Then it occurred to me. While I was pissing away every last dime on those Ford scam artists, while I was torturing myself trying to escape from hell and get my life together, Daniela came out of nowhere to shatter my chances for good.
“Can you believe that?” I turned back to Joe and Kacy, whose eyes showed genuine sorrow and compassion for me. They never knew the mysterious tall blonde at the drive thru had such a traumatic history. “She only beat me to New York by a few months. Like we could have crossed paths. She was probably doing one of her first photo shoots the weekend I was at that seminar. And look at her and look at me.” I glanced down at the Glamour again and gnashed my teeth. “But you know what pisses me off the most?”
Kacy took the last sip of her Coke and checked her watch. “That you feel it should be her who’s bummed ‘cause you were the one who made it? Like it should all be reversed.”
“More than that, Kacy. I mean, look at her childhood compared to mine. Nice family, good parents. She had all the advantages. There were no beach vacations or stupid horseback riding lessons for me. Just cracks across the face.”
Joe smiled weakly, probably wishing he were feeding meat into the broiler instead of listening to me. Or maybe he wished he could throw me on the fire to shut me up. “Guess we can’t all get the breaks, Ashley. You know, maybe you should just stop blaming Daniela. Give up your dream, go back to school, make something more of yourself.”
I glared at the little punk. He seemed intimidated. Kacy looked worried. “Don’t tell me to stop harping on her. It’s her fault I have to work here, it’s her fault I live in a chicken coop with Michael, it’s because of her I’m a nobody. She stole everything from me.”
“You’re not a nobody, Ashley,” Kacy tried to pacify me as Joe rolled his eyes. “You just have to find your own road, that’s all.”
I just rolled my eyes. “Sometimes I get so mad I feel like driving by the newsstand and tearing up every magazine she’s on.” The devil in my eye made the couple nervous. I enjoyed intimidating them. Joe and Kacy got up and said their shift was starting.
Before he walked away, he looked closely in my eyes. “No offense, Ash, but maybe you should, you know, get a life. Just learned a new word on the English vocab test this week. Serendipity, you’ve heard of it? Means the fates were smiling on her. Get over it. Whining gets old.”
“Go to hell, Joe. Come on, Kacy, you understand, don’t you? I mean, why wasn’t I at that horse stable? How come I’m never at that party? If I’d been on a plane with some agency director who could have made it happen for me, it probably would have crashed on takeoff. Shit.”
By that time, both were behind the registers, ready to face the late afternoon dinner rush. I saw them kiss each other and it made me sick. Stupid kids. Wait’ll you get out into the real world and you don’t have mommy and daddy to save you anymore. Then you’ll know what it’s like.
I heard a series of staccato honks. I looked out at the busy parking lot, through the “WHOPPER - ONLY 99 CENTS” paint, and spotted the billows of white haze spewing from the tailpipe of Michael’s beat up maroon LeMans. Damn it. Why couldn’t he be late sometimes? It was so nice after work to just sit there, pondering my future, getting lost in my daydreams. Then loser boy came and reminded me how messed up things truly were. I let out a big sigh, extinguished my Marlboro Light, grabbed my purse and trudged towards the door. None of the other employees noticed I was leaving. They never noticed.
The two ton car door made a creaky sound as I opened it and got in. I smelled alcohol on his breath immediately. Bastard probably downed a whole twelve pack while I was at work, I thought. He leaned over to kiss me, but I turned away. “In your dreams, honey. You stink like a brewery. Cops’re gonna pick up your sorry ass one of these days.”
“Hey, baby, what’s your problem? Just want me some sugar, that’s all. Don’t worry ‘bout no cops, huh? I can handle my brewskis.” He leaned over again, flashing his yellow grin with ten gold fillings and two side teeth missing. He hadn’t washed his Jesus-long hair or shaved in two days. I closed my eyes and obliged him.
I always shut my eyes and conjured up a nicer image when I was intimate with him. The sight of his sorry, drug-addled face made me sick. He knew it, but he was also aware that his disability check helped me pay the rent, so I had to keep him around. I swore to God I was living with my mother again. “There, you happy? Got your sweetness?” I shot him a sarcastic look.
“That’s more like it, baby. Hey, you up for a pizza tonight? Got my check today, let’s do the town, huh?”
He peeled out onto Van Nuys, brakes squealing, steering column making noise like a moaning cow. We could hardly see through all the smoke pouring from the engine. I sipped my Sprite refill, looked over at his glazed eyes and realized here we were, going home to a trash-strewn chicken coop in the back of a slummy house in a worn down gang neighborhood, about to order in Little Caesars’, and this was my life.
A few minutes after we got home (if you could call it that), Michael caught me in the bathroom again, standing naked and wearing high heels in front of the mirror, touching myself and holding up last month’s Vogue spread of Daniela wearing a skimpy bikini in Cabo. The cheap mattress we called a bedroom was only about a foot away from the door, and he liked kicking it open and embarrassing me sometimes. The lock had broken the month before.
He sat up in bed, and I was assaulted by the reflection of his shirtless body with rolls of fat over his flat belt. “Girl, would you stop torturing yourself? Jesus. You ain’t Daniela, you ain’t never gonna be her, so tear up the magazine and flush it, huh?” He was always so keen on decimating my dreams.
I threw the Vogue down, squeezed my breasts tightly and felt a warm rush through my body. Why was I looking to him for approval? Didn’t he know I was special? Then I sat on the toilet and cried. “It’s all wrong. This can’t be all there is. I should be somewhere else. I should be Daniela.”
Michael got up and rushed in, reaching up and putting his pizza greased hand on my soft shoulder, then admiring my erect nipples. I glared at him as if to say, you touch them, you die.
“What, you telling me you’re dissatisfied? Shit, I give you everything a girl could want. Great sex, roof over your head even if it leaks when it rains, account at Blockbuster. My check and your BK dough keep us from goin’ hungry. So what gives?”
Wouldn’t anyone in my life ever understand me? I looked at the cracked pink tiles on the floor. All I said was, “I dreamed of more.”
“More, what, you getting wet over that supermodel fantasy again? Traveling the world, charming the beautiful people?” I could swear his beard had lice in it, too. “Baby, not every chick who’s six three in heels is gonna be a wet dream in a gym locker. Just like not every seven foot black guy’s gonna be Shaq O’Neal or whatever his name is.” He started caressing my midriff and I pushed him away. “Oh, fine, attitude. Hey, you could do worse. Lotsa guys out there beat their women. Least I ain’t like your no good daddy.”
“Go to hell, Michael!” I screamed, rattling my perfume bottles on the sink. “Outta my way, I’m going to get some air.” I stood up and considered the contrasts in the mirror of my tall, lithe body towering over his short, slovenly frame. Tears engulfed me again. I ran from the bathroom, slipped on a pair of sweats, grabbed my windbreaker and stormed out the door.
He called after me from the creaky doorframe. “Fine, honey, you go get your air. Just remember, that was what you were after that night in the laundry room in that dive on Western when I rescued you. Forgetting that, huh, Ashley? Forgetting how I saved your sorry ass?”
I swung around the side of the house and onto the quiet, black tree-lined street. I forgot to change shoes, and the spikes seemed noisy coming in contact with the cement. For a moment, I imagined I was on a catwalk and the few stars overhead got brighter and shone like a spotlight on the great Ashley Merkinskin.
But he was right. As ill as he made me, he was kind of my knight in shining armor. Just that the fairy tale was warped and had a crappy ending. When I got to LA, I pulled the Central Park routine again, sleeping on benches, showering at the Y, the whole bit. Wandering down seedy Western Avenue one night, taking in the pale yellow neon and carrying nothing but a sack of dirty clothes, I stumbled upon a dilapidated brick building whose laundry room happened to be open. A door ajar was an open invitation in my book. I snuck in, swiped a cup of all temperature Cheer that was sitting on one of the two machines that wasn’t broken, and started the spin cycle. Michael came in, noticed me, and we got to talking. He was crazy for me from the start, saying, “No woman who looks as good as you should do laundry alone. You gotta be a model with that bod,” or something like that. It was like he was another trucker, boosting my self esteem. Every little bit helped.
He wasn’t bad in those days. Trim, more muscular. He had a decent job, as a security guard at a fancy jewelry store in Beverly Hills, till his kidneys started acting up and he spent so much time on dialysis that he had to go on disability. Liquor and drugs finally did him in, but I was desperate for his friendship. Anyone’s friendship. I didn’t have time to judge anyone. I just needed a place to stay. He offered to let me move in rent free till I found a job. Not long after, we moved to the much cheaper chicken coop in Van Nuys. He turned into a grade A jerk who just used me to get his rocks off seven nights a week, but like he said, at least he didn’t beat me and I had a roof over my head. Truth was, I needed the son of a bitch.
I could almost tolerate the tradeoff for a while, but then he made me start hating him. Every time I sent out my sexy photo composites, he told me it was a waste of time. And he laughed at my tears every time the form letters came rejecting me. Called me a sorry ass bitch who wasn’t as hot as she thought and should face reality before it drove her to the funny farm.
Every time he did that, I thought about interrupting his offkey bathtub warbling by dropping our corroded hot plate in the water. I dreamed of his suffering. The minute I’d gather my courage, though, I’d look at my skimpy paycheck stub and realize putting him out of his misery would only make mine worse.
I got to the end of the street and started shivering. I had nowhere else to go, so I slowly walked home to face my doom. As always, Michael apologized profusely for upsetting me and I consented to sex with him on the mattress as water dripped on us from the ceiling. Not surprisingly, I didn’t feel a thing except the emptiness of the world passing me by.
The next day, after he picked me up from work and we pulled the same old cat and mouse kissing routine, Michael cracked an evil Cheshire grin and said he had a surprise for me. It had been another crummy day in the salt mines with fat Rosa, and I was at the end of my rope. Anything to look forward to was a godsend. He drove the Pontiac bomb over Laurel Canyon, the car wheezing, choking and nearly dying out at every stop past Mulholland. We barely made it to the corner at Sunset where Laurel turned into Crescent Heights when he told me to glance up and to my right. He pulled over so I could get a better look.
It was a new Charlie perfume billboard, towering high on the Boulevard over the Coconut Teaszer, with a fifteen foot likeness of Daniela’s face radiating smiling sunshine down on the awed commuters. Was there no escaping her torment?
“Hey, baby, there you are,” Michael exploded in laughter, gazing up from the El Pollo Loco parking lot and admiring her holding a bottle of eau de toilette. “Who’d a thunk it? My chick, the babe whose ass I saved, making it big on Sunset Strip! I’d be the envy of all my friends, if I had any.”
In a rage, I slapped him hard across the cheek. He winced in pain, but kept on chortling. “You sorry scumbag, I hate you, you drunk piece of...” I could only scream. I grabbed my purse and ran from the car, slamming the door hard.
“What’s the matter, ‘Daniela’? Can’t you take a joke?” he called and chased after me. “What, you gonna run away and do tricks in your Burger King uniform? You’ll be lucky if you get five bucks for that skinny ostrich ass.” He caught up with me and tugged on the loose fitting pants.
Under the watchful but indifferent eyes of Daniela Van Aschen, I pulled away again, hoping to catch the green light at Crescent Heights. “I am so sick of you belittling my dreams, Michael. If you ever had any, maybe you wouldn’t be so quick to treat everyone like the shit you are. You, Rosa...I’m sick of all of you.”
I was surprised how this softened him. “Hey, come on, I was just teasing. I’m sorry.”
“So am I, that I ever met you.” The light changed and I was tempted to run away and not look back. But there was no breaking free from him right now.
I was grateful there were no mirrors around. Being in Daniela’s presence when I was in uniform made me feel lowest of all. “Damn it, It’s not my fault I couldn’t figure out how to use the gifts I had to make more of myself. And you, you’re no help, bringing me down here, you sorry sack of...”
He became indignant. Over all the traffic, squealing brakes and running engines, he roared, “Well, excuse me. We can’t all be your precious Jerry Nave. I know you think about him when we’re doing it.”
When I first met Michael and he asked me about my most ambitious sexual fantasy, I told him it would be doing Jerry Nave on a beach in Aruba, where he had shot his most famous movie, Island Tropicale. Now I realized it was a mistake to tell him I had posters of the swashbuckling star all over the room in the trailer growing up. In those days, whimsical thoughts of Jerry were often the only things that kept me from slashing my wrists.
“So I like a famous actor,” I shrugged. “Everyone drools over him. So what? I should never have told you I like him. You use everything against me.”
“Well, then, maybe you should call him and let him rescue you from the next laundry room you’re in, huh? Useless middle aged womanizer. Makes one comeback movie and he’s god’s gift to women again.”
“Ah, jealous, are we?” I brightened.
“Hell no, but you’re gonna be. Get back in the car, and I’ll show you.” I gave in like a spineless twit and agreed to go along. He raced back over Laurel Canyon and pulled up to the Laurel newsstand. “Hate to break this to you, babe, but, I was here this morning picking up a racing form and saw something...I don’t mean to shatter your heart any further, I swear. I’m just showing it to you for information’s sake, not to tease you, okay?”
“What is it?” I wondered. We crossed over to the stand and the latest National Enquirer was splashed everywhere. On the cover was a grainy photo of a dapper, tuxedoed Jerry Nave kissing a strapless, blue chiffon Daniela under the headline, “Comeback Kid Dumps Mourning Wife for Sexy Supermodel”. I broke into tears and fell into Michael’s uneasy embrace even before glimpsing the shrill subhead: “Friends Say It’s Hot and Heavy”.
“Sorry,” was all Michael could manage as I threw a tantrum and pounded the sidewalk in front of the newsstand’s cash register. The fat, old, buzz cut owner shook his head at me and shooed us away. No way, not Jerry, I felt the rage bubbling over inside. This couldn’t be happening. It was bad enough she stole my life, but now the love of my childhood, too?
On instinct I bought an issue of the tabloid and immediately spit on the cover and tore it to shreds all over the adjacent Thrifty drugstore parking lot. Michael told me to chill out, he’d take me home and give me some sugar, but that wasn’t enough for me. It never was. He tried to find the words to comfort me, but again, I was just howling out to an indifferent wind.
Daniela Van Aschen was in love with Jerry Nave. The degradation was now complete.