A new year, a new decade. And I re-emerge, once again, from the void that swallowed me in the last months of 2019. A year that I could not wait to see the end of. The theme for my 2020 is “Illumination”. Enough of the darkness for a while.
The long period of creative dormancy was a perfect opportunity to reassess my writing. I’ve finally begun to submit my memoir, Wish I Were Here, to agents. I am grinding away, slowly, on a new blog post. I’ve unearthed my novel, Blue, from the vault. I’ve decided to re-edit it and re-submit it to agents and publishers. It’s not Pulitzer material, but I’m confident that it deserves a wider audience than it received. A few years ago, I posted an excerpt – “What I Was Doing in Guam” – on this blog. It was featured on Freshly Pressed. How many of you remember the pre-Wordpress Discover days?
Blue was published in 2006 by Murphy’s Law Press, a Canadian micropress which no longer exists. The story is about one young woman’s journey into the vibrant, but shadowy world of exotic dancing. How she uses it to take back her power after sexual assault and other trauma. Some of you may know that I worked as an exotic dancer (stripper) for a couple of years in the mid-1990s. The novel is not autobiographical, but some of the characters and scenes are based on my experiences in that world. For a few years, there were copies of Blue available on Amazon. But even those have disappeared, hopefully into appreciative hands. To begin this new year/new decade, I’m posting the prologue and chapter one. Some caution for more sensitive souls – the beginning of the novel is dark and somewhat explicit, so you may want to skip this one.
In an industrial neighborhood of San Diego there is a lonely, forgotten lot guarded by nothing more than a chain-link fence. Little remains of the establishment that reigned here, or of the painted ladies who once graced its stage.
Stiletto heels protrude from the seared earth like tawdry tombstones. Sunlight glints off a garden of broken mirrors and scattered rhinestones. Sparkling apparitions flit about in the breeze. They are specters of the dancers who have been scattered like some lost tribe of Babylon.
Amid the rubble one thing remains intact: a blue sequined mask.
When I was eleven years old, Christine told me the story of how I came to be. I walked into the living room to find her sitting on the floor, a faded pink boa around her neck, cabaret music blaring from the stereo. Clippings, faded costumes, and photos were spread out around her. The flotsam of a past life I never knew about.
I turned the music down and sat beside her. I wanted to reach out and pluck the false eyelash that hung precariously from her swollen eyelid, but I was afraid she’d slap my hand away.
“If irony were a color it would be blue,” she said as she gathered me to herself. Tequila fumes wafted at me, but I didn’t look away.
I stiffened, unused to her affection. Something was wrong.
“A color so profound can only lead to melancholy,” she said as she stroked my slumped shoulders. She took my face in her hands. “It’s time you knew where you came from. You got a right to know. But don’t ever ask me about it again, you hear?”She picked up a high school yearbook. Swaying a bit, she riffled through the pages. “Here he is,” she said. “Kip Caruthers, your father.”
I looked at the black and white photo of the man who I was told had died in Vietnam. He was not what I imagined. He looked like a poster boy for the Aryan Nation. A frat boy. He wore an ascot in the photograph, for crying out loud. Be a good boy, Kippy, and fetch mummy another martini. This man never stepped one foot in Vietnam.
“It was all a lie,” Christine said. “I met him at a spring dance at a country club in Scottsdale. He saw me dance and, supposedly, that’s what caused him to approach a girl he wouldn’t have otherwise spit on. People threw money at me when I danced. That’s how good I was. Are you surprised?”
“I don’t know.”
“I was going to be a Vegas showgirl after high school. My parents hated this idea. But they knew better than to hold me back.”She paused, and took a deep breath. “Kip got me drunk and ended up forcing himself on me. I fought with everything I had, but it wasn’t enough. I marched back to the dance all torn and dirty and caused a scene. I expected help, but all I got were looks of disgust. Only sluts dreamed of being showgirls. I got what I was asking for.”
I sat silent, stunned. I was the offspring of rape. A vile joke. I didn’t deserve to live.
Christine took another swig of tequila, “When I started to show, I stalked Kip. I went to his football practices. I strutted right by those snotty cheerleaders and took a seat in the bleachers. I’d pat my fat belly and call out, ‘Little Kippy says hi too’. After a couple of times Daddy Kip got involved. He paid me to shut my mouth and go away. I had no choice but to take the money. There was no longer any hope for me to be a dancer. Abortion was illegal back then and damned if I was going to ruin my body and give the child away. I know it’s not a pretty story, but you need to learn how to take honesty if you’re going to survive in this world,” she said. “Sugar-coated words aren’t worth shit, baby Blue. Look where they got me.”
They got her saggy tits, stretch marks, and me. And I got Kip’s blonde blandness. Every time she looked at me she saw him.
She stumbled down the hall to her room.
I sat amid the tattered remnants of her dream. I fished out a pair of white gloves and a rhinestone choker. I modeled them in the mirror, but couldn’t bring myself to meet my own gaze. Why didn’t I somehow abort myself and make it easier on everyone? Clenched within that claustrophobic scarlet cocoon, I was toxic. That’s what she should have named me: Scarlet. The color of blood-boiling rage.
But some part of me knew that I was destined for great things. I knew that someday someone would see the spark hidden inside me and nurture it to flame. It made me want to live as revenge on her revenge, but I was never able to muster up as much rage as she did. I was born seeing scarlet, yet my tendencies deepened into blue.
I made it a point to disappear from Christine’s radar. We wandered ghostly through each other’s lives like two phantoms trapped in adjacent realities. Most of the memories from my youth are as faded as the desert in the noonday sun. I know that I was an honor student. I won gold stars for perfect attendance. I was unseen, not even interesting enough to be picked on. I was a nice, quiet girl who didn’t make waves. The girl nobody remembered.
I awoke one morning when I was seventeen to find a strange man sitting at our kitchen table drinking coffee while Christine made scrambled eggs and bacon. I stood in the doorway, unsure if I should enter.
“Oh, hi, honey,” Christine said. “I made you some breakfast, too. George, this is my baby Blue.”
I slid into the seat opposite George. His eyes lit up when he saw me. He had short black hair with a long, skinny braid that curled up under his collar like a rat’s tail. I shuddered. “I’m what you’d call an optimistic fatalist,” he said and flashed a crooked smile.
“George has a degree in Psychology,” Christine said as she set his plate before him. She sat beside him, beaming at each mouthful he ate.
“I’m planning on going into Psychology,” I said, trying to make conversation. “Right now we’re studying the philosophies of Freud. You know, the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. It’s fascinating.”
His face was seized by panic, and then he brushed my words aside with a sneer. “As if any of these theories make a difference in the grand scheme of things.” He had no idea what I was talking about.
He wasn’t blatantly insulting, but I would have preferred that to his self-righteous arrogance. It took all my will to be polite. If he stopped coming around because of me, there’d be hell to pay.
I was in the final weeks of high school. Close to freedom from both school and Christine.“Once you’re eighteen you’re out the door,” she had said so many times, as if she’d have to force me to leave. I had a job as a waitress at a coffee shop. It was a dismal little place on Main Street. The customers were year-round desert rats who had nothing better to do than to blame me for their withering lives. I saved every cent toward my escape. I was fed up with living in a place where people came to die. All the trailer parks and wheezing geriatrics.
When Belinda Black walked into my life, I knew that my life was about to dramatically change. One day, she was there at the counter, a dazzling jewel amid the dusty fossils. Her green gaze was as direct and piercing as a cobra’s. Her dark skin and those shimmering eyes paralyzed me.
“My mother is Haitian,” she said, as if reading my thoughts. “You get some strange genetic combinations down there.”
I stared at her, coffeepot poised in mid pour. She had spoken to me! With a quick glance around at the other customers, I refilled her cup and set the pot down. The dinner rush was over and I deserved a break.
“You go to my high school,” she continued. “I’ve seen you around. I don’t talk to anyone there. They’re a bunch of flatliners, but you’ve got a real spark in you. We should go out sometime.”
I nodded, dumbfounded. And so our friendship began.
“I haven’t lived at home in three years—since I was fifteen,” Belinda said as she put the finishing touches on my makeup. We were going to a high school party, something she would normally never do, but she wanted me to try out the man catching skills that she had painstakingly taught me. “Too many rules and not enough rewards. I’m out of here after graduation. Off to LA. Why don’t you come along? We’ll make our fortune in Hollywood.”
“Ok, I guess,” I said, trying to hide how thrilled I was. It wasn’t like I had any other plans besides to get away from Mesa. I was sick to death of looking at five hundred shades of brown. I wanted to be somewhere green, where things blossomed. California sounded so full of possibilities.
“Voilà, you’re finished, my dear,” she said as she turned me toward the mirror. “See how good you look with just a light touch of makeup? You don’t need a lot, but you do need a little help. You’re too plain without it.” I nodded, grateful for her attention.
“I’m going to be a movie producer,” she said as we pulled up to the party. “Push It” by Salt ’N’ Pepa blared out of the house. A boy barfed in the front hedge as we approached the front door. “I know I’m beautiful enough to be a star, but I want to work behind the scenes. I’m going to be the one that recognizes the talent hidden inside an unknown. I’m going to nurture it and make it shine. And grow filthy rich.”
Belinda was the only female I knew who smoked cigars and drank Armagnac. She conversed on topics such as stock options and world dictatorships.
“An educated woman who can also fuck like a whore is a gem,” she said as we made a circuit through the house. “She can name her price.”
I watched her work the room, scoping out the most promising conquests. The jocks pretended not to notice her; they rough housed and made fun of each other to hide their nervousness. What would it be like being worshipped like that? Women like her always get what they want, I thought. They’re all so sure of themselves too: Oh, I’m every guy’s type. When I tried it, it came across as desperate.
“Over there,” Belinda said with a tilt of her chin. It was Brett Banks. He was one of those boys who fit into every group and none at all. And for that every girl wanted him.
“Can’t we try someone less intimidating?” I begged.
“He’s looking over here. At you, not me,” Belinda insisted. “Go on. Remember, just stare deep into his eyes and pretend that anything he says is the most fascinating thing you’ve ever heard.” She gave me a little push.
I did what she said and it was working. We had just begun to make out when Belinda turned around and snatched him right from under my nose.
“Almost, but not quite,” she said with a patronizing smile as she led Brett away from me, toward a vacant back bedroom.
My heart wilted. I settled for the dorky friend, a boy with a face and name I didn’t know. I willingly laid down for him as I had for so many others. There was really no reason not to, and the boys all seemed to want it so badly. I didn’t see what the fuss was about. The contorted faces and strangled moans. It was all I could do to keep from laughing. At least someone got some satisfaction out of it. All I got out of it was soreness and disappointment.
Boys were nothing more than amusement for Belinda. Diversions. She always had at least two flings going at once, usually with rich old men from the various country clubs in Scottsdale.
“You always gotta have at least two,” she said. “That way they sense that something’s up. It keeps them interested.”
She knew about my father and thought it would be a hoot to nab him. She never got a chance to penetrate Kip’s inner circle of cronies, however. My home life shattered for good, and Belinda was there to gather me up and whisk me away.
I should have paid heed to the unease that I felt whenever I was alone with George.
I came home from work one night to find him on our couch, whisky in hand, his flabby arm outstretched, inviting me to dance.
What the hell? I thought. Maybe I’d been too hard on the guy.
“Have a drink to celebrate your graduation,” he said. “Soon we won’t get to see your pretty face around here anymore.” He fixed me a drink. I downed it in one swallow.
“That’s a girl,” he laughed. He scratched his hairy belly and lurched toward me.
I backed away, already feeling woozy. “Thanks for the drink. I’m going to my room.”
The last thing I remember is walking down the hall, George on my heels, his clammy hand upon my arm. I tried to shrug it away as everything faded.
I don’t know how long I was under. Sometimes I wish I had stayed under forever. But consciousness gradually returned. When the shadows came into focus George was on top of me, slick with sweat, pumping away.
“Oh no!” I wailed. “Get off of me!”
“What, baby? You were digging it a minute ago. Let’s have some good sex. Your mommy doesn’t need to find out.”
“Oh, oh God,” I sobbed. I got up and ran into the hall. Streaks and sparks whizzed in front of my eyes. The Grateful Dead music that had once sounded sensual now seemed sinister. I nearly passed out again. I huddled on the floor of the bathroom sick with shame. How could I have allowed this to happen to me? Especially after I knew what had happened to Christine. I should have seen the signs.
Then Christine came home. Her harsh voice bounced up the stairs and down the hall, edgy as shattered glass.
I took off my window screen and climbed into the garden. She would never believe me. It was best to just leave. I threw on my work clothes that smelled of grease and sweat. Whatever drug he had given me wore off and I felt like filth. I didn’t have time to grab my shoes.
I went to Belinda. There was no place else to go.
“God, nasty old George,” she said. “He must have slipped you that date rape drug. Well, at least he didn’t finish off in you. Did he?”
“No, I’m pretty sure he didn’t. But you know what the worst thing is? When I didn’t know it was him, it felt good.” I shuddered.
“You give him too much power. All he did was stick his dick in you. Breaking your nose is worse. Think about it.”
I could have sworn she looked secretly pleased that I had nowhere else to go.
She continued, “Well, I guess we have no excuse to stick around these parts anymore. First thing we gotta do is go get your stuff.”
My work shoes were on the front porch when we arrived. They were lined up neatly, the toes pointed away from the door. Next to them a suitcase, my clothes folded neatly inside. Christine had even put my favorite stuffed animal, a pink bunny, next to the suitcase. That touch of finality, most of all, made my heart wrench. I sat on the steps and sobbed. It hadn’t been much of a home, but I could never again go back to it.
One evening, soon after, Belinda set me up with one of her country club connections. “You have to be practical. You have no money. You have to use what God gave you to survive. Anyway, it’s just a couple of times and then we can split for LA.”
The man, Alan, was seventy and made his fortune with high-quality hair products. When I met him he was wearing spandex bike shorts and a tank top. “I was just making a protein smoothie. Want one?”
I nodded and settled back onto the couch. “Pump up the Jams” by Technotronic blared from the speakers. He danced toward me, smoothies in hand. His flabby, gray-haired breasts swayed. I sighed with resignation and leaned my head against the back of the couch.
He launched into small talk. “How about this wacky weather? Monsoon season is so early this year!” He paused to get into the groove of the song. “So, what do you want to be when you grow up? You can never go wrong with a degree in Business Administration! That’s what I did and I’ve never regretted it!”
I took a deep breath and shut him up with a kiss. His mouth was wet and soggy. As appetizing as a fallen soufflé. I got up and walked into his bedroom. It was decorated like a lair. Animal prints, foliage, and in one corner there were giant plumes in a floor vase.
He rubbed his stiff weenie against me and bleated, “Oh, Blue, please hold me.”
I undressed and stretched out on the leopard-print sheets. He pumped away on me, watching us in the wall mirrors, while I clenched my teeth against the pain. Just a few more times, I thought. Just this one man. I tried to remember what Belinda had told me: I gave the physical act too much power. Nothing could defile me without my permission, and so on. I ended up crying silently, wishing he’d just finish.
He mistook my sobs for shudders of ecstasy, “Oh yeah, you like that don’t you, baby? No young man can hold out as long as I can.”
As if that were something I should cherish: a whiny old man banging me until the end of time.
“Adios, all you losers,” Belinda sang as we drove away from Mesa for the last time. The wad of cash from my visits with Alan was stuffed into the bottom of my backpack. As we left the desert behind I vowed to forget my past. All of it. My life begins now.