On trips to Europe, I don’t discriminate; I try new things. In Paris, I wear black latex pants and black silk tops. I smoke through rich, sauced dinners with my sister, while our bodyguards block tatted doors. I wear an opal ring like the oval of the Virgin’s face, like she’s been beheaded and mounted on a gold band just for me.
In the middle of the night, we party at the totally green club. I perch on recycled tables and reuse my moves. I let a man thirteen inches taller than me push my body up against a wall and eat my face off. I let him work his tongue stronger and stronger and then I lick his neck. I taste stubble but still know nothing new. I wrap my legs around him and, though I’ve never even climbed a tree in real life, wriggle my way up his trunk. I receive a round of applause and his mouth blooming like a moonbeam.
At the end of the night, I have my own room. My sister is sometimes across the hall, sometimes a floor up, other times a floor down. After a night when I’m so bad, we say goodnight like an old married couple. I know she slips into crisp men’s pajamas, navy and cotton with pinstripes as slim as floss held taut, and tucks herself in within five minutes of her nighttime routine. In my own room, there’s no order. I don’t even have to bring a toothbrush if I don’t want to. Maybe I’ll drink a bottle of champagne. Maybe I’ll send for Swedish fish, a foot massage, and a dirty flick.
Instead, I smoke all my cigarettes and get a little high. By myself, the sitting room and the antique desk, the burgundy lamps and immense down comforters saturate my body like a second dinner. I roll around naked and feel everything entering my body without barrier. I’m looking for the greatest secret of all time.
I’ve been waiting for this secret my whole life. My muscles are slow yawns beneath my skin. I wonder and puzzle. I suppose and consider. Am I still allowed to write down my dreams? On my own, I am stronger and faster than with a man. I am savvy with my body and I don’t feel shame. I never had the talk with my mother but, at sixteen, I told my father all my dreams had come true—my fifth boyfriend finally taught me what it means to have learned a secret so luscious your insides rot all day with the sweetness. Mary-Kate, my father told me, you can find your dreams come true anytime you want.
On the third night of Fashion Week, first, I dream of my father. One eye green, one eye blue, the two of us flash around the Los Angeles arboretum like a pair of zoo-bred birds with plumage iridescent as an oil spill. The Canary Island palms are headless and drooping. Then, we wear khaki and matching boxy button-downs, mine with a Peter Pan collar. A sexless guide warns us that the crowns of the palms can plummet. Improper pruning has led to the spread of disease.
This is my first-ever dream with a chainsaw.
No one suspects that I’m a fan, not just like a front-row fixture at fashion week, no tourist talking to guards at the gates of the big studio blocks in the golden days of MGM. I’ve sent the letters neatly written on college-ruled paper in a leaky blue ballpoint. (My handwriting really sucks.) I’ve asked the pedestrian questions: How did you know you wanted to be a star? What’s your darkest secret? Where do you find inspiration? Then, the most pedestrian of them all: If you had to fuck someone, would she be wearing shoes or not?
My first fan letter never left the building, but I really meant everything I wrote. It’s in some drawer of my mother’s secretary. I still remember my supplies: A note card with a viscous white overlay imitating laciness, a hot pink pen lodged in a translucent body to write over the baby-breath pencil version I’d drafted first, the pink pearl eraser to remove those supports. I even bought Valentine’s Day stamps from a collector to make the April launch that much more amorous. My mother gobbled up the letter and told me as much. She said, “Mary-Kate, if you’ve got a crush on him, we’ll just set up a date.”
The child star and I went out for milkshakes and grilled cheese sandwiches. Recently, infusing crème fraiche with espresso beans, I smelled that Hollywood diner all over again: buttery, sweet, cornered. He was eleven and I was nine. We didn’t hold hands. I wasn’t sleek or beautiful yet; maybe I was cute. I tore the crusts off my sandwich and ate them like they were slim candy bars. When he dipped the crackly corner of his sandwich in his shake, I couldn’t stop myself from scraping off the taste buds on my tongue with my top two front teeth. I tasted something like dust. By the time I finished my first triangle of the four, he’d already asked me if I knew the truth about cameras.
This was the year when Full House ended, when my sister and I would stand on our own, when our one body would become two, when the differences between us would need to be smudged and softened, when our voices would zip through a tunnel of electricity and magnets to become one clear and autonomous tone.
“What about cameras?” I asked. I was no baby. I looked into his eyes and thought of drawing him a picture—I could make a unicorn with a mane gushing curls, a bed of stars for her to stomp with her hooves. I thought about showing him the picture at suppertime, with his whole family opening their faces toward me: wide-lipped, straight-teethed smiles.
“The camera has secret powers,” he said. “You know about ghosts?” I nodded solemnly and took two bites of my sandwich and let my tongue relax under the smoothness of the cheese. Under the table, I scratched the palms of my hands and crossed my legs.
“The camera is a ghost,” he said. “When it’s just you and no one else there, the camera looks deeper into you than God. It finds your soul. It’s hungry for your spirit and it starts counting down the days till you die.”
It was August, the end of summer. The year before, in catechism, I’d made my communion. All year we collected stickers on a shiny black sheet of cardboard when we did well. I received Barbies glittering in pink gown, grapes dull beneath my fingers but sweet like medicine on the inhale, black and white panda bears with googly eyes, holographic race cars I knew forwards and backwards. All year long I’d looked at my board of stickers, slipping it out of a goldenrod envelope covered with lines that my mother signed every week. At the diner, I remembered my board and those stickers. I hadn’t thought about them all summer. I knew just where my envelope was and wondered if I could carry that black cardboard in my backpack. I wondered if I could take it to school. Before you know it, my father had said, you’ll be missing these days. My sister and I received the host in matching white Mary-Janes, frilly anklets, gowns that floated around our knees, beribboned and whiter than the clouds.
I looked at my new boyfriend. I said, “I know.”
Believe it or not, I’ve never been photoshopped. Take my picture and then sign the contract. No ifs ands or buts. A girl needs motivation to keep up appearances. Imagine if my waist whispered tiny nothings under the cursor of some graphic design geek. Picture my face eroding on the screen of an iMac. If beauty becomes malleable in the hands of others, then I’m out of luck. My skills are as obsolete as tapes to clean a VHS. In plenty of video stores, our VHS tapes fill the reduced bins, the boxes faded behind a plastic case. Those covers position my sister and me, often back to back, as if we were connected like freaks. Our bodies open out, like a ballet dancer’s third position. For covers, photographers learn the ins and outs of working with children. Every one of them knew a different command. Every one of them took a different route. Look tough. Smile at the stuffed animal. Act fierce. Be sweet.
I would always rather act fierce than be sweet. Or act sweet than be fierce. Acting, I can do. What’s so tough about putting yourself in another person’s body? I haven’t read too much but I understand contortionist techniques. Not just because I am small but, since it’s come up, I can still fit into clothes from third grade. I skip the Underoos and opt for the real deal.
For family photos, my mother dressed my sister and me in identical dresses. Collared, drop-waisted, as if we were Parisian schoolgirls. In the summer, we wore cerulean blue. We pushed our hair back with white headbands. We sat on the chairs around the pool and sweat beaded our foreheads. The chlorine scent clung to the monkey flowers and palm trees. From the balcony in my bedroom, I could see the ocean like so much Windex. Waiting, staring into the pool, I thought about the differences between a real body of water and what had become part of my home. Every time, I decided the difference didn’t matter. My father hated the pool. Inside the house, my parents screamed about taking pictures. My father hated to pose. He hated to preen. He wore button downs constantly and he never styled his hair. He did have one eye blue and one eye green. On days when my mother wanted the family together for a portrait, my father sulked and pouted. With the date like a death sentence, he’d devote himself to not shaving. Not playing tennis. After a week, say cheese, he’d loaf inside, a puffy gray ghost with his big white feet on the coffee table. We’d sit by the pool. My sister would not listen to my parents fight. She held her arms up and plugged her ears. She’d scamper down to the basketball court by the garages. She’d jump on the bed in the pool house. I never stood up. I sat tight and held onto the backs of my legs. I’d move the tendons behind the knees and feel tight ropes lacing my body. In all our family photos, my father’s absence has been cured by my mother, a fiend for detail, who, with the help of a graphic designer, has converted all our images to digital, reduced the red eyes, adjusted the contrast, and inserted an icon of my father, a perfect circle, a sideways C for his mouth, two dots, one green, one blue, for the eyes.
JoAnna Novak is the author of the novel I Must Have You (Skyhorse Publishing 2017) and the book-length poem Noirmania (Inside the Castle 2018). She is a co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy.