This story was originally published by The Fiddleback.
So, what’s your secret, Dawn? asks her imaginary interviewer.
Fake it ‘til you make it, girl! Dawn laughs her conspiratorial girlfriend laugh. Seriously, the passion for acting is in my blood, it’s all I ever wanted. When people told me no, I just doubled down. The studio audience applauds as Dawn dissolves into warmth and oneness with her interviewer.
Dawn’s father is a film and television actor, not quite famous but featured in the latest Us Weekly, a small piece indicating his presence at some gala with a starlet. Not much, but not nothing either, his name in print and a snapshot with the actress. Big-breasted, Dawn notes. Necessary for an actress. One of the reasons she had to move back in with her mother. Boob debt. Twenty-seven years old and sleeping on her mother’s pullout couch, a temporary setback. Yes! I deserve success and recognition.
She found the magazine lying on the floor of Crystal’s Corvette, and even as Crystal lurches through traffic—heavy on the brakes and gas as if she’s trying to make Dawn carsick—Dawn zeroes in on the small, grainy photograph of her father until the image breaks up into its printed dot screen like reality itself, expressed in millions of vibrating particles. Nothing is solid. The universe always provides.
She grabs her phone from her purse to check for messages, observing the glossy blood-red perfection of her fingernails, which match her gauzy red sarong, red slippers and her toenails, and incidentally the red balloons bobbing in the back, impeding the rear vision. I synchronize with success! From manicure to pedicure, bikini wax to douche, clean and perfumed inside and out, she grooms herself for the moment she’ll be plucked from this mundane existence and dropped into a gleaming realm of magic and possibility where she can sparkle like the starlet pictured with her father.
It actually happened to Reese Witherspoon on an open casting call for a bit player, and Reese was awarded the lead, her big break. Okay, Reese was fourteen while Dawn is almost thirty, but everyone has her time. L.A.’s an industry town. Dawn carries her headshots and audition thumb-drives in her purse. She appears at every open audition she can physically get to without a car. All she needs is a little push from the universe. But there is no callback, no phone message from an agent, her ex-boyfriend, her father, or anyone.
We’re dirt to him. Her mother’s judgment intrudes. We’re nothing. That strident unhappy voice seems to dwell in the crevices of Dawn’s brain like a tumor, rooting so deeply into her tissue that it cannot be excised without destroying the rest of her. But didn’t Dawn just claim she would never surrender? Yes you did, girl! shouts her interviewer. Double down!
Navigating through her phone, Dawn listens to the most recent message from her father, several months ago. Dawn, darling daughter, this is the old man finally returning your many, many calls. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to get back to my baby who leaves me such beseeching messages. Stop with those, honey! I feel bad enough as it is. I’m sorry about this boyfriend, but you’re better off! Your mother works very hard so cut her some slack. You’re an adult now, darlin’, please try to act like one. Remember: It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings. And I have an exciting…
He was cut off. Exciting what?
“We’re here! Get ready to dance!” says Crystal, turning sharply left into the supermarket parking lot. The Ralph’s sign—block white letters in a red oval—looks painted against the sky like a movie set. Dawn’s heart quickens. Reality can shift in a moment. I am a gifted performer! But the hourly news on the radio interferes, announcing a suicide bomb in Kandahar, several dead and hundreds injured. Dawn turns it off. She hates news. War, violence, cruelty, lies, intolerance—it’s like there’s nothing else in the world but misery, and in the face of such suffering her aspirations seem worthless.
“Are you okay? You know, with Tom and your mother and everything?” Crystal swivels toward her, pouting with sympathy. In the subtle and complex balance of who’s up and who’s down, the gleam of the gold ring on Crystal’s finger gives her an advantage. Dawn’s relationship dies while Crystal’s blossoms into marriage. Now Crystal touches her gently on the arm with demeaning solicitude.
Dawn notices Crystal’s not wearing makeup. Her springy curly hair, surreally red, reveals the drab roots of her real color. Harsh sunlight angles through the windshield, rendering her every pore, capillary and pimple conspicuous. Not even a month married and already letting herself go. “I should be asking you if you’re okay,” Dawn withdraws her arm from under Crystal’s fingers, arranging her scarf, gathering her Spanish fans. “You’re looking…I don’t know. Tired, maybe.”
They both promptly pull down the sun visors to check themselves in the vanity mirrors. They care how they look, what’s wrong with that? It brings a sense of kinship, she and Crystal in this together, performing their various acts, bringing small bursts of cheer and transcendence into the lives of ordinary people. The job is a stopgap measure until Dawn’s real life begins but Crystal doesn’t need to know that, especially as the stopgap has lasted two years. Dawn’s impeccable reflection reassures her there’s no evidence of defeat. Wide expressive lips, hazel eyes, perfect eyebrows, gently waved brown hair; she’s as pretty as she can make herself. Every day in every way, I’m growing better and better. Smearing Vaseline across her teeth, she practices her smile, lips sliding easily.
“I didn’t have time to take a shower this morning,” says Crystal. “I’m not in top form, it’s true.”
Dawn waits for Crystal to confide the truth that Dawn suspects: she’d only married the owner of Party-On, Incorporated because she saw no other path. Dawn can sympathize. Sometimes any action is better than none at all. He had gifted her the Corvette, too, which must have been impossible to resist.
But Crystal slides out the car, shutting the door behind her.
“Everything in life is temporary,” Dawn says, putting on her sunglasses before she gets out, to avoid premature wrinkles caused by squinting. I accept the love and support that others give me.
But Dawn’s act, a tough balance in the best of times, has become more precarious since she and Tom broke up, another reason she had to move back in with her mother. He’s a bum,her mother tosses off with an insulting laugh. Yet he was a drop-dead handsome bum with a deep, velvety voice, charm, and a great dancer. They had been together a year, her most enduring love to date. A producer-actress team, Tom’s big pitch was a reality show about Dawn’s job at Party On, Inc., an idea that never got off the ground. Instead, Tom worked as a driver, ferrying industry moguls around. His deficiencies had been inconsequential when he’d loved her. Only love mattered. Enough love, they could change their lives. They had been planning their wedding. Love? her mother snaps. There’s no such thing as love.
Crystal opens the trunk, extracting white I-pod dock and speakers from under colored boas, silky scarves, tutus and tunics, all the glamor and glitter, no matter how cheap and synthetic, that allures with the promise of enchantment. By the time Dawn reaches behind the seats for the balloons, fighting with them as their strings entangle, Crystal is already stalking past the interlocking metal line of shopping carts and Dawn has to kick the car door shut with her ballet-slippered foot and dash to catch up. The red balloons fly out behind her, a force field pulling her skyward. I can let go of the past and embrace the future.
“You don’t have to be a Rockefeller to help a feller, do you?” A stooped old man blocks her way, his face hidden behind the feathers and tinseled fishing flies that dangle from the rim of his droopy hat.
Dawn attracts this kind of obstacle, no matter how hard she works to shift the energy. “Excuse me, I’m in a rush.”
“You’re such a little thing! Those balloons are bigger than you are!” A leathery-skinned woman comes up alongside her. Wearing a big Mickey Mouse T-shirt cinched at the waist like a dress with a wide plastic belt, she says to Dawn, “Why the getup? Are you supposed to be a flamenco dancer, belly dancer, gypsy or a deluxe combo?”
“This is not getup and I am not a little thing!” She draws herself to her full height of five feet-one inch, almost as tall as Reese, whose mother never told her: You’re too short to make it as an actress. Go into sales, that’s all acting. No, Reese’s mother lovingly called her “Little Type A.” Reese did not have to deal with naysayers and down-and-outs hanging around the supermarket, emphatically not. Why Dawn has to fend is an accident of circumstance still waiting to be remedied.
These two have her cornered. The old woman is so made-up, she looks like a carnival queen, though the old man is more mascot than barker. False eyelashes, lip-liner, her foundation makeup has settled in the creases of her skin like flesh-toned grout. But she soft-shoes a few steps, swinging her arms, surprisingly graceful. “I used to be a dancer once myself.”
Sympathy swells inside Dawn’s chest, dilating her heart like a bubble. If she gives them money, she can escape their fate. If she’s unkind or stingy, they will drag her into their destiny like an ocean current that pulls together all the flotsam, jetsam and floating trash and she will never break free. But she can’t unzip her purse because she’s carrying balloons in one hand, her Spanish fans in the other and her scarf is already slipping off her shoulders. “I’m in debt,” she says.
“What the hell’s the matter with you? I thought you were right behind me!” Crystal’s suddenly beside her, bristling like a boss-lady, revealing her unshaven armpit through the rip in her sequined top as she snatches the balloons and grabs Dawn by the elbow. “You’re too nice. Don’t be a pushover.”
As they charge forward, the glass door slides open, the icy chill of the supermarket embraces them, and the panhandlers vanish into the past. I welcome the here and now.
“Luckily, our birthday boy is clueless. He didn’t even notice me.” Crystal steers Dawn past the cash registers where customers crane over their carts and kids who work checkout stretch across the conveyer belts to catch a glimpse, in case Dawn and Crystal are celebrities worth glimpsing. A small occurrence, but Dawn appreciates the ripple.
The i-pod dock and speakers are already positioned at the head of the produce aisle. Crystal points to a man in a white Ralph’s coat bending over a crate of vegetables. “That’s Wallace. He’s fifty today. Give me your sunglasses.”
Fluorescent lights jangle Dawn’s nerves as she tries to hone in on the man. He is short, bald and square-shaped, stacking cabbages, taking his sweet time like resigned people do. His co-workers all chipped in for this gift. It’s up to her to release the pixie dust of illusion and alter his reality, if only for a little while.
When Crystal hits play, music explodes, their middle-eastern medley, hip-hop rhythm with a sitar. Dawn throws herself into a full-body shimmy, dancing past a stack of bulging violet eggplants, past displays of green beans and snow pea pods, piles of red and brown potatoes, bags of golden onions. Shopping carts stop short as customers cluster. I am magnificent.Spreading her two Spanish fans and waving them seductively in front of her breasts, Dawn envisions herself as a lovely ample goddess touching down on earth to set the mortals’ hearts ablaze. Nothing can undermine my magnificence. Applause propels her. Oranges, lemons and limes pulsate bright citrus colors. Bananas transform into a hill of yellow smiles. Crystal does her little yelps. “Ooh yeah. Ow!”
Wallace slowly straightens. Comprehension registers with a look of such fatigue, his face seems to crumple in on itself, while something dark and desperate flickers in his eyes like shadows in a cave. Dawn ratchets up her smile, harder, brighter, shinier, lighting up the darkness, bringing joy to the dejected. “Whose birthday is it today?”
With a heave of his shoulders, the man trundles off. It happens quickly. His co-workers block the aisle and push him into a metal folding chair. Red splotches bloom on his cheeks and ears and neck.
“Today’s your special day!” Dawn snaps her Spanish fans open and pivots them shut, open, shut, encouraged by the clacking sound of their painted slats. A gift from her father from a film shoot in Barcelona several years ago, the fans release his spirit in the breeze she generates by waving them. She has saved his every gift and letter, proof that he loves her though he refuses to help with her career.
“Go girl!” Crystal cries. The cue.
Dawn relinquishes the fans to the floor. She snakes her gauzy scarf through her slinking cobra arms, wrapping it around her body before she casts it over the man’s head, which is freckled and bumpy like a large root vegetable. He ducks, exposing a jagged scar near the base of his skull, a nasty red gouge broken with serrated pits. Sweat oozes off his scalp. His collar is soaked.
She whips the scarf away as the dark image of the cave reappears. Flitting shadows on the ceiling at night alone on her mother’s pullout couch, shadows that threaten to smother, hands that reach from the realm of death—You will die and leave no trace. Tom doesn’t love you. Your father doesn’t want to know you. Your mother is already dead in her own mind. And you will die though you believe you are alive.
“Hey Dawn! That’s Dawn. She’s fabulous!” Saved by the flashing light of costume jewelry as frantic be-ringed fingers wave from the crowd. It’s a flabby sunburnt woman who takes Dawn’s zumba class at the Mademoiselle Health Spa where all the nautilus machines are pink. I will not die. Dawn twirls out of her sarong. The show must go on. It doesn’t matter how tawdry and false it appears, the spectacle can still amaze and delight. We do it for the fat lady, her father once told her. He and Dawn, the royal we.
We do it because there’s nothing else that fractures the solidity of the ordinary world into spangles of light and magic and unexpected marvels, and so we persevere in the face of all indignity. The control-top, flesh-toned tights under her red sparkling bikini make her hips and thighs look flawless. Her plump breasts jiggle in her skimpy top. No regrets for her cleavage. Of course they’re real! I’m a natural! She gushes to her imaginary interviewer, who has reappeared to admire Dawn’s figure.
You need the tits, an agent told her. Unless you want to do dance-o-grams and fitness DVDs for the rest of your life, take my advice: Get the tits.
In no time at all she’d landed with a surgeon who made it seem as simple as a Botox injection, just two small incisions. Count backwards from ten. The anesthesiologist was a grizzled man who claimed he’d put people under too many times to count. Wait! I’m scared! Dawn cried. But she was on the gurney in a hospital gown with the IV already inserted. The charge was on her credit card. Her chest had been marked. Too late, Faustus,her father used to say in a spooky voice that made her shriek with laughter as she waited for the next part. It’s never too late if Faustus will repent!
“Happy Birthday to you!” She launches into the birthday song. “C’mon everyone!”
And they sing along. Dawn reaches for the man’s hand, bending one knee to the dirty floor. Above and beyond, that’s why Dawn is the number-one requested dancer at Party-On, Inc. But her eyes are level with the man’s thigh and his leg twitches so briskly he could accidentally kick her.
“Happy birthday dear…” Blanking on his name, she springs up with a spin that makes her dizzy.
“Wally!” Crystal shouts behind her.
And they all finish together, “Happy birthday to you!”
“What does Wally want for his birthday?” cries Crystal.
“Give him what he wants!” The crowd yells. His co-workers bang soup cans together. “Wally! Wally!”
Sitting on laps is part of the act. Most often they’re harmless old men who try to touch her. Sometimes they’re aggressive young men who grab her like they’re desperate. This one mutters under his breath, sounds like a chant or a prayer. Taking no chances, Dawn thrusts out her bottom without making contact. I am strong and powerful. Her thighs quiver.
He raises his voice. “Fuck you, ugly cunt.”
Stunned silence inflates around her. Dawn can’t breathe. Her throat locks shut. All the good becomes ephemeral when weighed against the bad.
She woke alone, her chest swathed in bandages with tubes on either side of her torso, emptying mucousy liquid into clear plastic spheres. She was alone because she’d kept it secret. She would simply reappear in her life a few cup sizes larger. She hadn’t anticipated the desolation and the pain, the follow-up visits, the strange rippling texture, the scars.
Then what happened? Her interviewer asks breathlessly. The studio audience strains like a tensile animal. They want triumph. They want human connection.
But the golden illusion of happiness lies at one end of the spectrum, the grim, dull reality behind the stripped-away curtain at the other. No audition callbacks. No further meeting with the agent. Worse, Dawn discovered a black lacy bra under the bed she shared with Tom, a bra much wider in the ribs than any of hers, never mind the cup size. It’s yours! Tom argued. Your old bra for your old boobs! You just don’t remember! People treat her like she’s stupid.
We’re dead to him, her mother says. We’re nothing. Dawn can’t move. The ground sponges beneath her feet. It’s like a dream except she’s not asleep.
“I gave my fucking life to this country,” says the man. “And they pull this shit?”
“This is a gift mister so lighten your ass up.” Crystal blares like an ambulance. She thrusts the balloons at him. When he won’t acknowledge her, she releases them to bob along the ceiling girders, bright shiny red artifacts of fun.
It’s time to fall through the fourth wall and plunge into the abyss where the shadows shift and Dawn can end the story because there’s nowhere else to go. But reality ensnares her.
“Hey Dawn! I recorded everything! He has no right!” The sunburnt woman from the health spa waves her cell phone. It seems she wants Dawn to view the footage.
“Leave us alone!” With a talon hold, Crystal yanks Dawn up the aisle. Pulled backwards, past the bananas and the citrus fruit, the onions and potatoes, the eggplants and the faceless customers. At least the vegetables are neutral. Human pity is hot and damp and saturates her with extra humiliation.
They are outside now. She can feel the heat of the parking lot burn through her ballet slippers.
“Pull yourself together!” Crystal slings her arms around Dawn, capturing her in the ripe smell of salt and perspiration. “The man is a worm. He’s nothing! You’re strong. You’re healthy. This is just a job. It is not your life!”
She seems wise now, rather than sloppy, not bothering to shower or put on makeup or dye her hair. She knows her priorities. Dawn had been naïve to judge. She wants to stay in this warm, comforting wisdom, safe and hidden, until it seeps into her so deeply it becomes her own.
But you do it for you, right, girlfriend? Her interviewer hasn’t abandoned her yet. You want to look good for numero uno.
I do it because otherwise I will die. Suddenly Dawn is so angry she can’t contain herself. “What do you mean, it’s not my life?” She wrenches free with a shove that almost knocks Crystal over. “It is so my life!”
“Don’t beat on me! I’m your friend! I’m trying to help!”
“So, I’m supposed to act like I’m being helped? A boss is not a friend! I hate you!” In a panic, Dawn stumbles into the Corvette, which is warm and smooth to lean against. Sweat trickles down the backs of her knees, sealed in her flesh-toned stockings. The sad truth is she’s comfortable living with her mother, carping about the impossibility of love, success or basic happiness. It’s familiar. It’s relaxing. Why bother trying?
“I’m sorry you’re mad at me because I wanted to get married.” Crystal’s voice sounds small and far away, like it’s coming from inside a tin can. “This is the suckiest morning from hell. No more supermarket dance-o-grams! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to open the trunk. Let’s get out of here.”
Shutting her eyes, Dawn envisions her scarf, her sarong and the Spanish fans from her father, all strewn across the supermarket floor like pieces of an abandoned doll.
“My stuff,” she says. “I can’t leave it.”
“We’re not going back in,” says Crystal. “We’ll replace them.”
“Hello! That was some performance! A marvelous interlude. You’re a wonderful dancer, my dear! I was a dancer once myself!” The old woman in her oversized Mickey Mouse T-shirt weaves through parked cars, applauding with great vigor.
“Best thing we seen all month.” The man in the fishing hat whistles by putting his fingers in his mouth.
Reese Witherspoon would never have been so pathetically grateful for their praise that tears would well up and a lump form in her throat. That’s why Reese dwells in rarified stardom and Dawn is here. It’s a terrible thing to encounter your future outside a supermarket. The slipstream flows around her, bumping her up against people like Wallace and these two, dragging her with the detritus through the undertow and flinging them all onto the shore of failure.
She stares up at the sky, willing the tears to recede. She doesn’t put on her sunglasses but gazes directly at the sun. In the blinding whiteness she experiences the extraordinary sensation of being plucked from her skin to ascend through the atmosphere, disintegrating as she soars. No longer trapped in this body, no longer confined by this set of circumstances and dreams, she is nothing more than a diffusion of twinkling particles. Then she is not even that. She is merely nothing. Not the bitter nothing her mother claims, not the nothing she is reduced to when news of war intrudes, or the nothing rendered by a wounded man to whom she is no gift at all, but simply nothing. Free. Limitless. I will not abandon you.
When she drops back with a thud into the stifling space of her own limbs, the beneficent energy of the universe still holds her in its clarifying light. She strides across the parking lot in her bikini and her flesh-toned tights, heading toward the supermarket to gather the tossed pieces of her costume.
As the Ralph’s door opens before her, she is thwarted by a body tackle, startling and painful.
“You’re insane! I won’t let you do it! I got you into this.” Crystal clutches her around the waist. “I’ll go get your stuff.”
Dawn struggles but she can’t break the stranglehold. The Ralph’s door opens and shuts as they move in and out of the sensor detector. People gather for another spectacle. Dawn relents. She goes slack. She won’t be a laughingstock twice. If Crystal wants to save her, she’ll accept.
“Hold this. Wait for me!” When Crystal shoves her purse at Dawn, she clasps it like a baby and carries it back to the Corvette where she realizes she’s trembling. Her teeth are chattering.
The phone in Crystal’s purse is ringing. She locates it in a side pocket, surprised by her bright red fingernails, still glossy and perfect. It’s Crystal’s husband, the boss, calling. Dawn waits until the ringing stops before she scrolls through the numbers, finds her name and calls herself. She can feel her own phone vibrate through her bag hanging off her shoulder. It stops when her breathy recording kicks in. “Hi. Thanks for calling Dawn. Don’t hang up, I want to hear from you!”
“You are loved,” she says. “And lovable.”
She speaks assertively, as if she’s cutting deals with her agent or a producer. “You have everything you need to enjoy your here and now.”
She’s speaks emphatically as if she’s in a starring role, a woman who refuses to capitulate. “Your past has no power over you.”
She speaks passionately, as if she’s describing the humanitarian foundation she’ll establish as soon as she’s famous. “The more you prosper the more you share.”
She speaks insistently and persuasively, one affirmation after the other, so that when she picks up the message later, she will have to believe every word.