Can You See Me Now?
Another night. Another too-tight dress. Another glass of Moët and aching feet. She leaned on the railing of the gallery and stared down.
The glitterati filled the cavernous space; a flock of sleek cranes in shimmering fabric. Every possible hue and tint of white, cream, gray and black was represented. The monochrome vista was sprinkled artfully with the wannabe trendsetters, draped in wine-dark shades of red. Simone thought it was a possibility for the color next season. The tasteful image was spoiled by one outcast, wearing last year’s canary yellow shift, blonde hair in tousled curls and a permanent tan. She dismissed the woman after a glance. A hanger-on: not a player.
“ — did you see her? At least twenty pounds since Paris and —”
“ — he spends twelve hours a day at the Veridian; darling, you’d like look like that if — ”
“ — she says she’s nineteen but that’s a fucking lie, more like twenty-five — ”
Challice tipped the impossibly long flute of golden bubbles into her mouth, ignoring the smiling, vicious chatter of the girls and boys surrounding her. The liquid refreshed momentarily, then increased her thirst. She looked around for somewhere to dump the glass, taking an involuntary step sideways as her heels wobbled. It wasn’t the alcohol. Four days of non-stop shooting and four nights of non-stop partying, little sleep, no food and too many snorts.
A hand grasped her arm, above the elbow, and she turned her head. One of the boys, thick, sooty-lashed eyes on her.
“Feeling okay?” he asked.
There was only the faintest trace of concern in his face, almost as perfectly smooth as hers. Too many years of trying to show nothing, leave no lines around mouth or eyes. He looked like a robot. Except for his eyes. They held a rapacious curiosity. She nodded and pulled her arm away, gently.
Coming up the gallery stairs, her agent was fawning over another investor, the two men abreast, trailed by an older woman.
Every muscle ached as she forced her eyes to focus, her mouth to stretch. Part of the job. Smile.
The man, and his wife — a seemly two steps behind him — were both corpulent, their formal dress shiny where it stretched over curves of flesh, seams straining.
“Challice, I’d like you to meet Mr and Mrs Weinberner. They’re from Ohio.”
Andy’s face held only a pleasant grin, the mockery held down, visible only to those who knew him well.
Mr Weinberner’s hands, moist and soft, reached out eagerly, gripping hers. She swallowed the bubble of bile that burned in her throat.
“So pleased to meet you — ” he murmured, leaning close enough to smell the brandy on his breath, her eye level a couple of inches above his. “You’re even more beautiful than your pictures — ”
Photographs of her — giant, well lit, terrifyingly flawless — hung on the walls of the gallery. Mitchell’s idea. Her gaze drifted past Weinberner to the portrait above the stairs. Not a pore visible, not a hair out of place, not so much as a scratch marred the porcelain complexion. Mitchell swore he’d done no retouching but she woke up every morning with that face and it didn’t look like that.
It was the face she’d grown up with, grown into, but it wasn’t. It was a likeness, showing nothing.
“Very nice to meet you,” she said to him, including the woman standing behind and to one side in a high-wattage smile.
Short and middle-aged, uncomfortable in the heavy dress and perspiring under the strong lights, her nose and chin shining, Mrs Weinberner smiled tightly, her knuckles white as she clutched a beaded evening bag. In her eyes, Challice saw a familiar hatred.
The evening dragged on.
Faces blurred, one into another. Their eyes crawled over her. She didn’t know if they were searching for imperfection or memorizing for later fantasies. She didn’t much care. They saw nothing but a smooth mask and they looked for nothing else.
It could have been one hour or six later, when her agent came back, this time alone.
“Ready to go, babe?” Andy slipped his hand beneath her arm and pressed close.
Thirty-five, successful, attractive, well dressed, he was as slick as the products he sold. The heads of women and men turned as he went by.
She nodded, exhaustion dropping onto her like a weight, without warning.
“I thought we could go to Vitti’s — the buzz is great — get a light supper?”
The buzz was all he cared about. New place, famous face. Perfect opportunity.
“I want to go home,” she said.
It was no more of a home than any of the thousand hotel rooms she’d spent her nights in over the last couple of years. Andy had a designer furnish it. It held nothing of her. But, high above the city, it was quiet.
“Sure,” he said quickly, his gaze brushing over her skin, her lips, avoiding her eyes. “Sure, you looked a bit tired. Been a tough haul, these last couple of weeks, let’s get you home and into bed.”
When she’d met him, she’d thought he’d want to sleep with her — nearly every man she’d met did and all of them had made that clear. Andy hadn’t and still didn’t. He’d told her he wasn’t gay. He didn’t find anyone attractive in a sexual way. The idea had been startling at first. Then amusing when they went out and she noticed how he drew the eyes of everyone there.
He got her coat and helped her into it, and offered his arm for the icy steps outside. The air hurt as she breathed it in. A limousine pulled up and they got in the back, cocooned in warmth and soft leather seats.
“So,” Andy said, pulling out his phone. “Next week we’ve got — ”
She tuned out his bland, pleasant voice, her eyes on the buildings going by. Her face stared back at her from billboards and posters. Poor little beautiful rich girl. No one would ever sympathize that her life was less than perfect, and she couldn’t blame them. From the outside, it was too good to be true.
Closing her eyes, she rested her temple against the cool window glass. Her heartbeat finally settled into something approximating a steady rhythm instead of the rabbity rushes and stops.
Andy leaned closer. “You feeling all right?”
Once, she’d thought he’d meant questions like that. Had thought he’d seen past the face and wanted to know what was behind it. Inside. Now, she knew better.
“I’m just tired.”
The car pulled up in front of the tower and the driver opened her door. She stumbled onto the sidewalk.
“Right, pick you up at twelve, then?” Andy called from inside the car.
She nodded without looking back, walking past the doorman and into the warm lobby.
On the top floor, the elevator opened into a wide foyer, the apartment lights on. Steps led down to a long, wide room with floor-to-ceiling glass showing the lit city. A long hallway ran from the foyer to either side. She kicked off her shoes and veered left. At the end of the hallway, a kitchen big enough for a restaurant was white on white and spotless. The glass-doored fridge held twenty bottles of water and a small tub of probiotic yoghurt. Her stomach turned over at the thought of either.
She turned around and walked the length of the hall to the other end, pushing through the door to the bedroom. The layout and the clean, minimalist furniture was designed to make her the focus of every room, Andy had told her. It was cold and bare, so much like the set for a shoot, she sometimes found herself looking for the cameras.
Pulling at the thin straps of her dress, she let it drop on the floor. She stepped away from it and turned to the bathroom.
Like the kitchen, it was white on white: stone tiles and marble vanity, a massive tub and separate shower cubicle big enough to fit four people. She twisted the dimmer, reducing the glare to a bearable level. Her face — the face — stared back at her from the mirror.
Ten years, she’d stood in front of the cameras, trying to create expressions for experiences she’d never had. The first photographer — had that been Reggie? Or Michel? One of them, anyway — had handed her a book. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. He’d told her to read it and everything else she could find, to get the experiences she needed and would not be able to find in her scheduled life.
Andy’s designer had frowned on the idea of books in the penthouse. Something about clutter. Or de-cluttering. She couldn’t remember. Pulling open a drawer in the vanity, she picked out the tubs of makeup remover and cotton buds.
The way you look, baby? One in a billion. That face is your treasure. You take care of it.
She wiped the foundation and eyeliner from her skin, staring as the colors ran together before they were removed completely.
The evening came back in trickles of memory.
— what are your favorite restaurants?
— did you see Helena? Must have had her eyes done…
— Gay? I don’t think so…
— what do you eat?
— don’t eat the shrimp — it’s like twelve hundred calories…
That babble of voices was always present, somewhere along the edges of consciousness, in the shadows of recall. The same questions, over and over. Her friends talked about everyone else. The fans…they never asked her anything about who she was. What she thought. Or felt. They touched her, spider-light fingertips on her arms, her sides, her hands.
Because of the face. There was nothing more important than the shape of her eyes and her lips, the contours of bone beneath skin. She dropped the last tissue in the trash and turned on the water, lathering a mild facewash onto her hands and scrubbing it over her face.
She wanted to go home but home was gone. Her mother had died two years ago.
Leaning against the sink’s rim, she stared at the smooth, white porcelain. It didn’t have to be that way.
She could let it all go. Make a home for herself. Somewhere quiet. Fill a house with books. She had enough money.
Lifting her head, the face stared back at her.
But she would never escape that.
Letting go of the vanity, she dropped to the floor, the stone cool against her skin. Her stomach bubbled.
Life is what you make it.
What she’d made was a wind-up-and-watch-her-go toy. A beautiful ghost lost in lights and clicks and too many brain-altering substances. Even if she could get away, who was she now?
She didn’t know. Couldn’t remember the girl who’d come to the city.
Petulantly, she kicked at the vanity’s door and the spring latch clicked and opened. In the shadowy recess, unknown bottles stood on the lowest shelf. It took her a moment to realize they were the cleaner’s supplies.
A short, squat canister stood at the front, the skull clearly visible on the label. Danger. Toxic. Corrosive.
Leaning forward, she stretched out her arm and drew it out, her eyes skipping past the name and benefits to the properties on the back.
Just add water.
She could do that.
Just add water.
The crystals glittered in the bottom of the sink. She turned the tap and they foamed, toxic steam rising. Taking a deep breath, she plunged her face downward.
I can stand for eight hours in six inch heels, her mind yammered at her as pain gouged and spat and hissed. I can smile through —
Fire leapt through her nervous system and she jerked upright, arms swinging wildly, falling backwards, hands scrabbling for the shower cubicle’s edge, the tiled walls cracking and jittering in the pitch of the raw scream that poured from her throat.