The woman on my right is Last Year’s It Girl, according to the trades. Bits of white powder cling to, then puff out, her shaved down nose when she laughs too loudly at the Aging Actor’s joke. During a gulp of vodka with a splash of cranberry, no fruit, the chalky, wet drops of her nasal discharge barely miss my fuschia toenails.
Everyone’s eyes flicker past mine and land on someone behind me. I turn to see the Actress. The group straightens their backs, pushes out their chests. Tell her she looks a-MAY-zing. A feat after the weight gain required for the indie film that’s sure to be a Sundance hit. Brave, they murmur and nod. Last Year’s It Girl grabs the Actress’s arm to ask what her strategy is: one blockbuster, one indie? Some cash, some credibility? The others tsk at the offence: This is why she’ll never graduate to the A-list. She holds onto the Actress’s arm until the Comedian asks her if she’s practicing the death scene from Titanic.
The Actress thanks the group without answering the question or acknowledging the exchange and smiles and is polite. Last Year’s It Girl fades into the background, and the Actress turns to me.
“It’s crowded in here,” she says. She draws her hand across a blue stone draped around her neck before resting a finger along her bronze-dusted décolletage.
Across the room, a noise interrupts the din of empty chatter. My agent has stumbled on the sliding glass doorframe that opens onto the minimalist green lawn. He reddens, then searches the room to count witnesses. His eyes lock onto mine. He brought me here tonight. Sent his assistant over with a dress, shoes, hairstylist, makeup artist. In his office a month ago, he sat in front of me, hands crossed, legs wide. I had a chance to be seen with pop stars, movie stars, TV stars, mainstream rap stars without grills and gold chains and names that followed “featuring” in their friends’ music videos. My skin is light enough, he said. I have potential, crossover appeal. If I’m willing, if I’m cautious, I could be the next big thing.
“Yes, it is crowded,” I tell the Actress and watch my agent pinch the skin between his eyes.
The Actress presses a piece of paper into my palm. She says a quick goodbye to the lucky ones, kisses their cheeks with promises to see them soon. When she arrives at a set of stairs, she raises the silk fabric to ascend. I see the skin of her ankles, the delicate bones that hold and balance the weight of her silk dress whose delicate imperfections I’d like to skim with the tips of my fingers.
The cab drops me off at a signless bar. Holiday lights twinkle along the perimeter. The room is dark, with red candleholders found at old pizza joints in small towns. A glowing Wurlitzer jukebox plays Sam Cooke on a loop. A trio of tie-dyed men sits on stools feeding quarters into bar-fitted Keno machines between swallows of beer. Down from them, a woman holds an unlit cigarette and a conversation with herself. A few couples sway on the floor, the alcohol teasing their lids lower.
I locate the Actress in a wooden booth, a recent coat of stain still fresh and slick so that I slide across the seat. Her black dress has been replaced by dark jeans and a dark sweater whose soft fuzz reminds me of holes in children’s books where the child can touch the fur of a kitten, a lion, a lamb.
When the bartender brings me a fountain soda, she slips him a large bill. I rip the perforated edges off the straw wrapper. The discarded edges drift across the table. She scoops them into her hand, blows into her fist like wishes on dice and tosses them onto the fresh swept floor. She goes back to her coffee, picking up pieces of sugar granules with her thumb, sucking them off while looking at me.
I should go.
Her eyes say, stay. Her hand is outstretched, one corner of her mouth lifts into a smile. “Come on. The song is less than three minutes long.”
I look around the bar, at the drinkers and the dancers. All of them, thick in themselves. Thick enough to hide the way I look at her and wonder at the world, if there are methods she could teach me to bury one need for another so that I won’t feel as if I’m on fire from the inside.
What I know is that I am beginning. What I wish is that I did not have to choose.
Tomorrow, I’ll be on early-morning TV. I’ll pull on the leather hot pants and tank top. Let them curl my hair under fluorescent lights while the makeup artist creates come-hither eyes at 6 AM. When the Host asks me how I’ve adjusted to LA, I’ll say it’s great.
He’ll ask if I’ve made the rounds at parties. I’ll say no; he’ll persist and rattle off the names of socialites and reality TV stars. I’ll laugh and insist I’m focused on my music.
It’s all in the script.
He’ll mention the photo from the magazine, the one with the R&B Singer who sat next to me at lunch, his hand on the back of my chair, his fingers grazing the bare skin under my arm. He leaned in close for the photographer his agent had hired when the paparazzi caught him with the wrong person. The wrong gender. He whispered in my ear: I owe you one.
I’ll tell the Host, “We’re just friends.”
I won’t tell about her. About tonight. About how her hand drifts down to mine when we dance a second time, when it traces the curve of my thigh in the cab and where it lingers until the alarm sounds on the table next to the hotel bed.