The sound your heart makes when it stops beating

Credit: Unsplash

Apparently, being a home-wrecking whore with a heartbeat was good for Phoebe’s career. Phoebe landed a role on one of the television shows where women flipped tables and threw chairs. They were made famous by their husband’s money — second-rate dealmakers since the real players bound and gagged their wives with airtight confidentiality agreements — and Phoebe was promoted as the real life embodiment of the character she played for fifteen years: Sadie Grace, the most hated woman in daytime television. Sadie Grace bed-hopped and boy-toyed, but was ultimately cast out of her elite town Hayden Hills to live in the cold, dirty streets of Genoa City. In the world of Hayden Hills, only deviants and criminals lived in the city. However, after Sadie Grace did the unthinkable — cut the line in a kidney transplant, thereby causing the untimely death of a ten-year-old girl — the community, following the cue of the viewers and network focus groups, determined that the theft of an organ was the final straw. You could murder a senator and an obsessed teenage stalker (the line between self-defense and suicide was made deliberately vague as to appease advertisers), but you can’t heist a kidney from a child. Even Phoebe expressed concern when she first read the script, and her agents said that villains have a longer shelf life. “Two words: Shannen Doherty,” Phoebe said. Like a stolen car, Sadie Grace’s life was stripped for parts, and in the end, everyone in America, including her co-stars, applauded her sudden and tragic death. Phoebe’s management team laughed and talked about Daytime Emmy’s until they were no longer laughing and Phoebe’s options boiled down to anti-aging serums and chair-throwing on a cable reality show.

No one told her that she was lucky. A cousin of a famous reality TV family cancelled at the last minute when the bronzed pack leader couldn’t negotiate the salary the relative deserved. Another network offered the cousin a Bentley. The producers laughed for a sum total of five minutes and then offered the role to Phoebe, because an unstable, has-been former soap star, who got dragged in the media for bedding the husband of a woman dying of cancer, just screamed ratings gold. One of the producers promised a breakdown, to which Phoebe’s management team countered with, “Only if we’re guaranteed a People cover.”

When Phoebe raced home to deliver the good news, Alice barely looked up from her phone when she said, “Well, at least now you’ll get paid to humiliate yourself.” And when Phoebe asked for help in creating her social media accounts, Alice was apoplectic. “I think I’m going to throw up,” she said, running up the stairs. In the end, it was their housekeeper who set up Phoebe’s accounts and took the first few pictures. Phoebe threw her head back and flashed the widest smile. To look at the photos, you’d never guess that Alice was upstairs slamming doors and breaking things. You’d never imagine that Phoebe wondered just how long would she have to keep smiling. When could she return to the woman who gripped the edge of her kitchen counter with the realization that this was her sad, small life? You’d never suspect that the only person to congratulate Phoebe was Maria, the housekeeper. Phoebe held on to Maria for perhaps longer than she should, but it felt good to be held. It felt necessary to be in the company of someone who didn’t take inventory of her failures. Before Maria left their large and empty house in favor of a small apartment in Van Nuys, a home with paper thin walls and four children who shared a closet they called a bedroom, she took Phoebe’s hands in hers and said, “Ms. Phoebe, you’ll be famous again!”

*

Everyone claimed they knew Helene Gray, but no one did. She was unaffected by the sheer volume of bold-faced names that passed through her home. The insecurity and desperation, the dick swinging and name-dropping, the manufactured emotions — all of it had become intolerable. A few months before Helene died, she joked to her son that if cancer didn’t kill her, the Greek tragedy that was this town would. Once, she famously left a charity dinner after twenty minutes because if I have to sit here for a minute longer and listen to these vultures pick at the fucking carcass, I might gouge out my eyes with an acetylene torch. Helene considered everyone in Los Angeles morally bankrupt and profoundly stupid, and she was often right. At a PTA meeting she once sat across from a famous actress, who entertained a lifelong relationship with her pharmacologist, and said, “Sometimes I think you speak just to make sounds.” When she came home and faced a humiliated Benjamin Gray, who stated, quite emphatically, that the actress in question, the star of his next action film, had graduated from Yale, Helene said, “Which library did her father fund?” Helene considered everyone a shelter dog desperate to buy their way into a breeder with their oversized Chanel bags and their monogrammed pastel suits.

Helene Gray stopped attending PTA meetings.

Phoebe met Helene once on a day when Helene was feeling particularly masochistic having attended a benefit for blind dogs or blind children or blind dogs with children — who’s to say? Everyone in the room wore sunglasses, practicing their empathy. There was a lot of blindness going on, and Helene sat in the corner of Caitlin Ryan’s expansive Bel Air home dressed in denim because no way was she putting on a dress for these mutts. Moderately drunk, she held court while a parade of bejeweled hands clasped hers. Make no mistake, everyone hated Helene Gray, but they sought her approval. One such hand belonged to Phoebe Basquait, a mediocre actress known for her exceptional blowjobs. Helene knew this because she sat in a chair on the other side of a motel room door listening to Phoebe and her husband going at it for over an hour. Never would she consider confronting Phoebe because that would lower her — Helene was a woman who never exposed her wounds; rather, she stitched herself up behind closed doors and contemplated her revenge. A few of Helene’s well-placed friends assured her that Phoebe Basquait’s run on Hayden Hills would come to a tragic end. When the final episode of Hayden Hills aired, Helene made a point to watch the woman who bedded her husband die from a fatal gunshot wound because vengeance is satisfying when your victim can’t trace its origin. Now, Phoebe’s a woman nearing forty pulling at the edges of her too-short leather skirt, trying to play nice with the woman whom she humiliated. Helene wanted nothing more than to grab this woman by the neck and shout, I know what you are. Instead, she said, “You’re that Sadie Grace girl, right?”

“You watch the show?”

“No, but I read about your death. Shot in the face, was it? What a terrible way to die.”

Anxious, Phoebe laughed a little too loud, and some of the women in the room turned and stared. A woman whispered to a friend, what’s she doing here? The friend laughed when she said, well, this is a charity.

“You know these young writers. Anything for ratings,” Phoebe said. She edged herself in front of the two women thinking that her body could block the whispering and gossip.

“The extreme seems to make an impression. I was just telling my husband that there are so many desperate people in this town. You could drown in it, the want, if you’re not careful.”

Fear washed over Phoebe’s face. She thought about the fire escapes in her building when she was small. No one used them as protection against fire, but they afforded you the ability to flee without being seen. No one knew about the girl who snuck out, climbed the stairs to the roof, and passed the time with boys who would invariably forget her name. No one saw the mother, who sat at the edge of the iron makeshift balcony, sobbing into a dishtowel because this wasn’t the life she had planned or wanted. For a brief period of time, you could be invisible, free, and this was Phoebe wanted while she stood in front of the woman married to the man she once thought she loved only to realize what she loved was opportunity. If only there was a fire escape smack in the middle of the room or a window she could climb out of. But there was only a coterie of coiffed women in Max Mara suits, drinking Chardonnay like their life depended on it. Seeing eye dogs toured the room, busying themselves with chew toys.

“I think my daughter might be in some of your son’s classes. It’s Kevin, right?”

“Funny how that is considering we live in the same town.” Helene scanned the room. She recognized the famous actress from the benefit, the one who went to school in New Haven, and she was whining over a botched Brazilian. You should sue, her friend said. The actress shrugged. I’ll just tell US Weekly. The actress’s lamentations bordered on Byzantine. I’d like to thank the Academy. Helene wondered how her life would’ve played out had she been blind, had she remained in Connecticut to live out her days. She entertained this fantasy until she realized that if there was no Benjamin Gray, there would’ve never been a Kevin Gray, and Kevin, her son, was the one true thing in her life. Kevin was the one person who made it all matter.

“I’m also from back east. New York, actually.” You could tell Phoebe was reaching. She handed Helene a glass of wine. Helene removed her glasses and took slow, meticulous sips.

“Is that right? Whereabouts?”

“Queens,” Phoebe said.

“Queens.”

It was the way Helene said Queens, working the word in her mouth before spitting it out. And the way she looked at Phoebe, registering every limb and shape on her body, as if Phoebe were on a gurney being examined and excavated. Did Helene know? Had she known all along? When she first started seeing Ben, she couldn’t picture his wife — it was easier that way. It was easy to bring her down with the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions: a cold, calculating woman who robbed her husband of affection. Phoebe pictured her tacky and tasteless, a woman sporting Lee Press On Nails and hair piled so high it grazed the bottom of low-flying planes. While Helene was some of these things (cruel, iceberg-level cold), she wasn’t all of these things; instead, she was Helene Gray, a wife and mother to the man who sometimes occupied Phoebe’s bed. But mostly, they passed time in expensive hotels and Ben would watch Phoebe dress and undress with a certain kind of concealed sadness — one she hadn’t encountered yet, until now, until Helene said the word Queens like it was a dull, cheap knife that still managed to break through skin when no one had expected it to. Phoebe didn’t know which was worse: Helene knowing or not knowing, or perhaps she was caught somewhere in the space in between. Suspicious, yet holding out for hope.

“I’ve finally met the Sadie Grace,” said Helene. Pity about your show, but you seem like the resourceful type. Something will come along, it always does.”

Phoebe set her empty glass down on the table and steadied herself when Helene leaned in and kissed both of her cheeks. Phoebe opened her mouth to speak but no sound came out.

“I’ll make sure to give my husband your regards,” Helene said and wove her way through the crowd of cashmere and crepe.

*

Phoebe liked to go to places where she could be seen. Sometimes, she’d go full-on incognito with the fedora and Mary Kate Olsen-style sunglasses, just for the thrill of it, to hear the whispering of is it her? The whispers always suggested stars that shone brighter than hers, but on days when she was feeling particularly low it felt necessary to be wanted even if that love was reserved for someone else. When she wasn’t in disguise, she used to pretend to field calls from her agents about the big part in that much-hyped blockbuster until it occurred to her that every wannabe in a five-mile radius of Urth Café (including the dishwasher and barista) was doing the same thing.

“If it makes money it makes sense,” Maxwell, her agent, when he returned one in ten of her phone calls. He was rationalizing her demotion. Phoebe wasn’t getting the intern, but a twenty-four-year-old junior agent, who predominately represented bikini girls with large social media followings, was now in charge of strategizing Phoebe’s career. Maxwell would get weekly reports, but her livelihood would now be in the hands of a child. In a Starbucks bathroom Phoebe cried about loyalty, and Maxwell sighed and said, loyalty was keeping dead weight on the ship even when you know it needed to go overboard. Make the most of the reality show. Think about the Vietnamese baby. Buy followers (1,000 for $100!). So Phoebe bought her fans, snuck into the Ace and Beverly Hilton hotels and snapped selfies lying poolside in a string bikini. It was all very Brokedown Palace without the Thai prison. She even tried to get Alice to take a “Girls’ Night In” photo to which Alice countered with, “If you put me on your Instagram, I will literally shove my head in the oven.”

“I just want people to like me,” Phoebe said.

“Then stop banging all the men in a ten-mile radius,” Alice said. “Jesus Fucking Christ, mom, you’re the Sahara of thirst.”

“What does that even mean?” Phoebe shouted.

Alice stomped up the stairs, yelling over her shoulder, “Ask your agent.”

A week later, the child agent called and said, “So, I’ve been talking with the producers and how do you feel about a nervous breakdown? We would totally pay for the hospital bills. We were initially thinking Lyme disease or cancer, but since Helene Gray…anyway, a nervous breakdown seemed like a logical trajectory. If all goes well, the Hayden Hill producers have been brainstorming a long-lost Sadie Grace twin plotline. You know, the evil twin rises from dead sister’s ashes.”

“I thought Sadie was evil,” Phoebe said, in disbelief that she was having this conversation.

“Just think about it,” her agent said. “You laid up in a hospital could be a killer season finale.”

Phoebe echoed what her daughter said a week earlier, “I’d rather shove my head in the oven.”

“We weren’t thinking that dramatic, but I like where you’re going with this. It’s creative, a little Sylvia Plath, but a tad over-the-top. Listen, I gotta take this. It’s Alina and she’s in the hospital for bulimia, which totally fucks up her Jack-In-The-Box shoot. Think about the breakdown. Ok?”

Phoebe thought of calling one of her new reality show friends, but remembered they only spoke to her when the cameras were rolling. She considered one of her old Hayden Hills co-stars but recalled them throwing a champagne toast the day after she left the show. She thought about calling Ben in Fiji. Even though she broke it off, he was always open to the non-committal fuck. But he was facing extradition for tax evasion and even though he was in hiding, he only wanted to think happy thoughts.

In the end, Phoebe paid her housekeeper, Maria, for overtime. At first, Maria was frightened. Was Miss Phoebe really having a nervous breakdown?

“No, they just want me to fake it for the cameras,” Phoebe said. “You know, for ratings.” They sat across from one another at the kitchen table and listened to the music that came in through the window. Phoebe’s landscaper carried a boombox on his shoulders, blasting sounds from the seventies. Peace came upon me and it leaves me weak. So sleep, silent angel, go to sleep. Sometimes all I need is the air that I breathe.

“They want you to be crazy to be famous?” Maria stared at her for a long time and then she said, “That’s crazy.”

This chapter is an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Women in Salt. Read other excerpts here, here, and here.

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