For my darling Emma, always. You are the light of my life. I love you bigger than the whole giant world.
And for my husband, who sacrifices his Saturday nights to plot with me, and has taken the toddler on too many Sunday afternoon adventures so that mommy can write.
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players."
~ Shakespeare, As You Like It
“Are you kidding me?” My voice sounded shrill to my ears, this weird high-pitched sound that was nothing like me. I wanted to strangle the girl whose voice it was. She sounded bitchy, desperate. This was not me. This was not the person I had become.
“River,” he said. He didn’t even try to take his dick out of the girl’s mouth.
Shit, she didn’t even stop blowing him.
I couldn’t see her face. Her blonde hair spilled down her shoulders and back. She was skinny under the little dress she was wearing, the one that should have hugged her curves.
It was my dress she was wearing.
I could see her spine in the middle of her back.
She was too skinny.
I had told her a million times she needed to eat more. But she's always deprived herself. She'd say it was her fast metabolism, but she subsisted on saltines and diet soda. It was going to kill her eventually.
My sister had never been one to listen to me. She was a model, had been since she was fifteen. First it was catalogs; then she got her first magazine shoot; now she was doing runway. She was famous.
We were famous.
I was about to be more famous- the realization hit me as I was standing there. I was about to be famous for this. Nothing else. This.
It would be in the tabloids tomorrow. The tabloids loved salacious stories, families ripped apart by drama. And this was certainly salacious.
It was like everything stood still, like someone just pushed the pause button on my life, as I looked back and forth from her to him, my mind completely numb.
It was like I was watching it on television.
I almost laughed. There was a part of me that wanted to laugh. I could feel it, bubbling up inside of me, threatening to spill out.
Pretty soon everyone would be watching it on television. The camera crew was behind me, silent, the ones who were filming me for this piece, part of a live special tonight. They were waiting for me to react. Then they could capture it on film, right in the moment.
A woman devastated.
I wanted to cut off his cock. I wanted to pull a Lorena Bobbitt and cut it right off.
I watched his face, screwed up, his hands threaded through her hair, forcing her head down on him, pushing himself further into her throat.
I knew that expression on his face.
I was just standing there like some kind of idiot, watching him. There was a camera crew behind me, and the asshole didn’t even bother to slow down. He didn’t even break his rhythm.
Jesus H., he's going to come, I thought. She is going to fucking blow him, on camera, right in front of me, and he’s going to come.
And it will be all over the television.
I didn’t even look at him as I walked past the two of them.
I didn’t know if the camera crew was behind me or focused on the blow job. What a choice for them to have to make. Both would make equally good television.
I felt strangely calm as I walked through the house, my heels echoing on the marble floors, click-click-clicking through the hall. I passed the photos of us on the wall, the framed pictures of ski trips and Paris and Bora Bora and the tour with the band. I entered his room, the one where he kept the things he loved, the vintage baseballs and cards. The walls were lined with rock memorabilia, the gold record and the guitars he collected. Shelves of stuff signed by his friends, mentors, his idols.
I picked up a bat, this collectible thing that was his pride and joy. I stood there holding it. The objects in here were priceless. Mostly irreplaceable. It was enough to give me pause for a moment. I didn't take stuff like this lightly- I wasn’t one to just destroy precious objects.
But I brought the bat up to my shoulder.
Swing, batter, batter.
And I started smashing.
I heard them behind me. I heard them running, their footsteps, his voice indignant, hers shrill. The camera crew was saying something. But no one touched me. Not yet.
I’m sure someone will call security. They should. I think the producers have security.
Everyone was about to hate me. No one expected this kind of thing from me. I could already hear my mother’s disapproving voice in my head.
This kind of behavior is unacceptable in public. No matter what happens, you smile for the camera and behave with grace.
This was definitely not grace.
But could you blame me?
In exactly three and a half hours, I was supposed to marry that man on live television, the one with his cock lodged in my sister’s throat in the middle of the foyer in our house.
When I got in the car, I waited until I was on the highway to take the SIM card from the phone and toss it out the window, watching it bounce on the road, shattering into pieces.
The shards of my life.
So why the hell did I feel so relieved?
"Shit," Adam said, slapping me hard on the back. "Cheer the fuck up. It's your fucking retirement party."
"Yeah, man," I said. "Just a little distracted, that's all."
"Fuck yeah, you are!" He took a long pull on a beer. "All these tits, you should be fucking distracted."
We were in a suite in a hotel room in Vegas, partying it up. At least, my buddies were, this whole group of guys I've known for the past few years, living in San Diego. We were mostly Navy guys, a couple of my Marine friends.
Me? I was distracted at my own retirement party.
Some fucking retirement.
I didn't choose to leave the EOD. The explosive ordnance disposal unit, that was my job. It's what I had done for the last five years. That wasn't a long time to most people, but to me it was a lifetime. I'd joined the Navy at seventeen. EOD was everything to me. It was all I knew, and I didn't want to leave it. When the guys said I was having a retirement party, they weren't talking about the whole do-twenty-years, get-a-gold-watch bullshit. They were talking about getting medically retired. That was another thing entirely.
That wasn't a goddamned retirement. Not after five years. Not in my books anyway.
That was getting euthanized, put down like a fucking dog just because I lost my leg.
"Man, have a drink and lighten the hell up." Adam handed me a beer. "I know you're going to fucking miss me and everything, but you're being a fucking pussy. We've got booze, girls, and a suite in Vegas. Ain’t got all that back in West Bend.”
"Miss you, hah. Fuck you, man." But I took the beer anyway. It wasn’t his fault I was being an asshole. I wasn’t a drinker, didn't like being out of control. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a beer. It had been years. But this seemed like that kind of an occasion. The end of an era.
That sounded goddamned melodramatic. And I wasn’t an over-emotional kind of guy.
But hell, I was an EOD guy. Always had been, always would be. I didn’t know what to do outside of the Navy. It's all I'd known since I was seventeen. My mother was all too happy to sign that paperwork letting me go to boot camp early.
And all I wanted was to get the hell away from West Bend and the shit that I grew up with.
To get the hell away from the asshole. My father.
Now, here I was, headed right back to that shit. Back to the shithole piece of land where I was raised. Back to being a fucking pariah because of my brother.
But not back to my father. He died last week.
I hadn't told a single goddamned person that he's dead.
And I hadn't shed one fucking tear for him.
“Here,” Chase said, handing me a red plastic cup, even though I was already holding a beer. “Got the good fucking whiskey, too. We’re high rollers tonight, shithead. Drink up. Once we’re done looking at tits, we’re going to go down to the casino.”
I took a sip from the cup, feeling the burn of the alcohol as it slid down my throat. What the hell? You only live once, right?
I was flying, hurtling down the highway in the twilight of the early evening. I could see the Vegas lights up ahead. I didn’t know where the hell I was going when I left Hollywood, but somehow I'd ended up here. I had been driving in a daze. I was still in a daze, my head clouded and foggy.
I should feel something, I thought. More than just blank.
Viper- yeah, that was definitely not not his real name; his real name was David- was my everything. Was.
It was so hard to tell after a while, where he ended and I began. There were so many other people involved: his agent, my agent, our managers, our families.
I had no idea what I was doing right now. The one thing I knew was that I had to leave.
When I pulled up to the hotel, my hair was hidden, tucked up underneath my baseball cap. I didn’t take off my sunglasses, even though I knew it made me look ridiculously pretentious. I always hated that kind of thing, the stars who would wear their sunglasses inside just because they were too cool for school.
I showed the clerk the fake ID, gave him my fake credit card, the stuff I used when I couldn’t risk being found by the paparazzi. I was using them now for that reason. Hotel staff were notorious for letting photographers know where you were - at least that had been my extensive experience.
By extensive, I meant since I was discovered.
It wasn’t always mansions and hot cars and partying with the “it” girls and boys. Before all that, I was about as white trash as it got, living in a trailer with my mom and sister, barely getting by on food stamps. Well, to be more precise, it was my mom, my sister, and my mom’s string of shitty boyfriends she paraded through the trailer, the ones that beat up on her, beat up on us.
A few of them did more than just beat up on us.
Not that she was any better. If anything, she was worse than any of them, at least to me. I was the scapegoat.
And she was still part of my life, out in Malibu, living in a place I paid for.
Fate is sometimes cruel, but not to the people it should be cruel toward.
Everything changed when I was discovered, sitting on a curb in my tattered sundress, with my skinned knees and bruised arms, my limbs browned from a mixture of sun and dirt. I was barefoot not because it was summer, but because someone had stolen my shoes at school and we couldn’t afford another pair. My sister and I had been looking for loose change on the sidewalk, scrounging around to see if we could get together enough for a soda after school, but really just buying time away from the trailer because mom was inside with one of her boyfriends and it wasn’t safe to go home.
~ ~ ~
He pulled up near the curb, in a shiny black car that looked like it belonged to a millionaire. He stepped out, and when he paused as he walked by me, looking down at me over the edge of his sunglasses, I thought I was looking at a prince or a king or something. This man was someone important, someone special.
And, as it turned out, he wasn't a prince or a king. But he was someone special.
He looked at me for a long time, my face reddening under his gaze, then squatted down to look me in the eye. “Is this your sister?” he asked me.
I nodded, too shy to speak.
“You’re going to have to say something,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“River,” I said.
He smiled and nodded. “It’s perfect,” he said, and stood up. “You’re perfect. Abso-fucking-lutely perfect. Where are your parents?”
“My mom’s at home,” I said. “Her boyfriend’s there.”
He just nodded, didn’t say a word for a minute, and I sat there on the curb, rolling a pebble around underneath my foot.
Then he cleared his throat. “When’s the last time you kids ate?” he asked.
I shrugged. I was used to being hungry. Had I eaten breakfast? I couldn’t remember. “Last night?” I asked.
“Where do people eat around here?” he asked.
~ ~ ~
The rest was history. The man was an major Hollywood producer and, cleaned up, I became the darling of one of his films. The first of many films. And my life became a carefully crafted Cinderella story, one that glossed over the more sordid details of my childhood, at least in the more reputable magazines. Every so often, the tabloids tried to dredge up details of the past- to interview one of my mom’s old boyfriends or talk to someone from my hometown. But mostly, they let me play the role of fairytale princess, the girl who was plucked from obscurity and swept up into Hollywood glamour.
It was supposed to be roses and sunshine, designer shoes and expensive champagne for the rest of my life. That was the fantasy. That was what people wanted when they looked at me- they wanted to believe in the power of fate, in the suggestion of possibility- that they too might be whisked away from their lives into the castle to live with a prince.
It was the reason that my wedding, the live broadcast to millions of viewers, was such a big deal. I’d grown up in front of cameras- and now I’d be married in front of them too.
Inside the hotel room, I opened a box of hair dye, a dark brown color I selected at the drugstore where I’d made a pit stop to buy pajamas and toiletries, my fingers lingering on the box of fuchsia I’d briefly considered, my whole body longing for a change. I wanted to be something else, someone other than the person I had become.
But in the end I chose sensible brown, something that wouldn’t call attention to me.
I still didn’t know what the hell I was doing, here in a hotel, dyeing my hair like I was some kind of fugitive. I needed to turn around and face things. I needed to go back home. I just wasn’t sure where home was anymore.
After I finished the dye job, I raised the scissors to my hair, snipping at the long tresses, now brown instead of blonde, a huge part of my identity.
My image was polished, classic- the past few years, I’ve been compared to Grace Kelly. The thing was, I'd always empathized more with Marilyn Monroe. She was tragic, her demons so much a part of her that they eventually destroyed her.
That was something I could understand.
The pieces fell into the sink, curling at the ends, scattering on the flat surface of the countertop. I chopped with the scissors until I resembled something I hoped was more pixie-punk than cut-by-a-lawnmower.