Make Him Look Good
- ISBN 13:
- ISBN 10:
- Edition: Reprint
- Format: Paperback
- Copyright: 02/20/2007
- Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
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--New York Daily News
"Skillfully and lovingly illustrates the diversity of Latino culture."
â€œReaders will snap this book off the shelves and not be disappointed.â€
"Our refreshingly imperfect and insecure heroine, Milan, shines."
"The real fun comes from eating up all the oh-no-she-didn't parallels between the characters' exploits and real-life celeb misbehavior."
"Chica lit reina Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez is back this month with her third book...about six mujeres and their adventures with one horny cantante named Ricky Biscayne."
â€œStart reading it, and it's hard to stop."
--The Ohio Record Courier
"An unabashed glitzfest."
â€œScandalousâ€¦ [with] blatant sex appeal.â€
--The Sunday Oklahoman
â€œTop-notch look at human nature at its bestâ€”and worst.â€
â€œValdes-Rodriguez really shines when she rips on the lifestyle of the rich and self-indulgent.â€
--Sunday Journal (Albuquerque, NM)
â€œThe romp through Ricky's world of women is pure escapist fun.â€
The First Trimesterthursday, february 14So, welcome to my frilly yellow bedroom. Girly, immature. Teddy bears. And not just that, butCareBears. Pitiful. I know. Howsadis it to be twenty-four years old and still living at home with your mom and dad (andgrandparents)? How sad is it that I'm still here, in this white-brick home in Coral Gables, near Blue Road and Alhambra Circle, on my once-canopied twin bed, silly ducky slippers hanging off my pudgy feet, a pink terry-cloth robe cinched around my waist, my greasy flat nothing brownish hair pulled up in two slightly sad, droopy-bunny ponytails?"Sosad."Yeah, well,thanks. That's my sister Geneva speaking, as she stands in my doorway with an amused, superior look on her face. Geneva holds her Yorkie, Belle, under her arm like a football. The dog pants, making the red bow between her ears bob up and down like the comb on a nervous rooster. I am not what you'd call a dog person. There's nothing worse than the hot, rotten smell of dog mouth, and I can smell it from here. Yorkie mouth from here. I detest the dog, and I detest Geneva.You know,Geneva. My tall, thin, financially successful thirty-year-old sister? The one who looks like a slightly darker, slightly prettier Penélope Cruz? The one who is five-eight and got an MBA fromHarvard--compared to the five-four University of Miami graduate that is me? The one who has a group of female friends just as perfect as she is and no shortage of men she likes to call "sex toys"? The one whose feline body and long legs turn jeans into an art form? The one who has stolen exactly three boyfriends from me in the past ten years, during which time I only had four boyfriends, even though she claims it wasn't herfaultthat they left me for her? She said it was my fault, for not putting more effort into my appearance, my clothes, my studies, my job, my life. She then tried to act like she'd done me a favor by offering fashion tips and career advice. Right.Her.Geneva has just walked into my room without knocking, wearing her "work" clothes--a spaghetti-strap black silk tunic that would make any other woman look six months pregnant but which, combined with skinny jeans, a sparkly tan, and strappy black sandals, makes Geneva look like a haughty, leggy Spanish princess. Her long black hair is twisted back in a tight knot, exposing the small yet scary dragon tattoo on her left shoulder blade, and she's got a black and white scarf wrapped around her head. Anyone else with a scarf twisted around like that would look like Aunt Jemima's nanny. Geneva? Royalty.I do not make eye contact. You know, it's not advisable, with her being the devil and so on. I try to seem distracted and unconcerned. I type on the VAIO laptop between my extremely pale legs on the bed. The "n" key is worn off from all my loser online activities; these include commenting on people's blogs, doing chats, and posting fake profiles of myself on personals sites, just to see what kinds of responses I get in different cities. I pretend like I don't know that with that one little word, "sad," Geneva is talking about the loser that is me, the state of my hair, my body, my clothes, my bed, my room.I feel her frowning at my robe. "How long have you had that thing, Milan? God. I remember it from when I left for Harvard." Geneva always mentions Harvard, and she always mentions the Portofino Towers, where she recently bought a condo. She's a name-dropper. She picks up my phone from my dresser. "Hello Kitty. Milan? Sad."I ignore her, focus on the computer. She puts Belle from Hell onthe floor, and sits next to me on the bed and peeks at the screen. I turn it away from her. I hear Belle doing the scratch-and-sniff under my bed. What has she found there? I can smell Geneva's perfume, something musky and dark. Something expensive and very grown-up. I am aware that after a full day working in Overtown as a laxative publicist for my uncle's "pharmaceutical" company (don't ask), I smell like a goat. But it's been so long since I smelled a goat I can't be sure. The last time was at a petting zoo in Kendall when I was ten. I tried to mask today's goatness with Sunflowers perfume I got on discount at Ross earlier because I was too lazy to take a shower."What ya doing?" Geneva asks, stretching her neck to see the screen. For the record, my sister would not be caught dead in a Ross, or any other store with the slogan "dress for less." That, for Geneva, would defeat the purpose of dressing at all."Just trying to set up a chat room." I scowl at the screen to make myself seem smarter and more ambitious than I am. To make it seem like Geneva's criticisms mean nothing to me. To seem like I'm happy here, in this room, in this house, in my life."You guys have wireless now?""Yes," I say. I set it up, but I let my dad think he did it. Our parents think I am a dutiful, passive Cuban daughter to have remained living at home, where I do things like wipe my grandmother's bottom (she's too stiff with arthritis) and fold my dad's undershirts (his Y chromosome makes housework impossible for him). To our Cuban-exile parents and tens of thousands just like them all over South Florida, girls like me--chubby, unmarried, overlooked--stay home until we're (best-case scenario) married or (worst-case scenario) hauled away to the convent. Geneva and I know the truth about me, however. I'm not dutiful or traditional. I'm not even a virgin (but don't tell my parents, please). Rather, I'm a purebred American slacker. I'll have a life one of these days, when I get around to it.Other things you need to know about me: I would be pretty by normal standards, but because I live in Miami, a city where pretty must be nipped, tucked, and liposuctioned into uniformity and submission toqualify, I am plain by association. I have a pleasant round and very white face, with freckles. People stop to ask me for directions. I have been told I look "nice," but I am selfish and wild in my head.Geneva lifts a foot and rotates the strappy sandal, cracking her ankle. It sounds like grasshoppers in a blender. I hate that sound. She used to dance ballet, and developed this disgusting habit of cracking everything all the time, especially her ankles, with no regard for those around her. She has double-jointed arms, but doesn't show off about it anymore, thank God. "A chat room?" she asks, unaware that her joint popping has made me want to throw up. "For what?""My Yahoo group.""Las Ricky Chickies?" Geneva says the name of my group with a hint of scorn. Or is it mockery? With her, I can never tell. Itcouldbe derision. She says it as if Las Ricky Chickies, an Internet forum in honor of sexy male pop star Ricky Biscayne, were the dumbest thing in the world. To her, it probably is. After all, she throws parties for the rich and famous, and gets paid very well for it, so well that she makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and gets to name-drop at the same time--like anyone really cares that Fat Joe ordered massive amounts of caviar or something for a tacky rap-star party. She recently bought herself a new BMW, in white. I myself drive a fabulous puke-green Neon. She has no need, as do we mere mortals, to connect with our idols in other, more pedestrian ways.For the record, Ricky Biscayne is a Latin-pop singer from Miami, half Mexican-American and half Cuban-American, and he is my obsession. Ilovehim. I have loved him since he began as a salsa singer, and I have loved him as he recorded Grammy-winning albums in the Latin-pop genre. I love him now, as he prepares to cross over to the mainstream English-language pop realm. I love him so much I am the secretary of Las Ricky Chickies, the unofficial Ricky Biscayne online fan club. In addition to this club, I am also a member of a Coral Gables book club, Las Loquitas del Libro (the crazy book girls), that meets weekly at Books & Books. You might say I'm a joiner. That's thebig difference between me and Geneva. She carves her own way and expects everyone to follow. The sucky part is, they usually do.Geneva flops backward on the bed and picks up one of my Care Bears to throw it into the air, only to punch it violently on the descent. Then, as if trying to tell me something, she tosses the bear at the poster of Ricky Biscayne taped to my closet door."If you must know," I say, "we're going to have a live chat during Ricky'sTonight Showperformance."I look at the pink Hello Kitty clock on my nightstand, then at the TV on the sagging metal stand in the corner. It has cable. It doesn't look like it, but it does. My dad, who owns a shipping and export business and whose expensive ties are always crooked, jerry-rigged it somehow. Cuban ingenuity, I suppose. We never throw anything away, even though we're far from poor. My dad just tries to fix everything, or make a new invention out of it. This house is full of junk. Junk and birds. Canaries. We have four birdcages scattered around the house, and among my many unsavory chores is that of cleaning them."You think Ricky's gonna do well in English, Milan?" Geneva asks, with a tone that tells me she already knows the answer, and her answer isno. She rolls onto her belly and tries again to look at the screen. "He's so corny. I don't see how an American audience could deal.""Ricky does well at everything he tries," I say. I stop myself from correcting her misuse of the term "American" to mean only English-speaking U.S. citizens. I'm an American. So is Ricky. So are most of Ricky's millions of fans. "He's perfect."Geneva snorts a laugh and starts picking at her short, bitten, mangled fingernails--the only imperfect thing about her. The ankle cracking is bad, but the fingernail thing is worse. It makes a little clicking sound like a car that won't start. Click,click. Click,click. "Isn't it a little juvenile to be obsessed with a pop singer at your age, Milan?" she asks. "I mean, no disrespect, but ...""Stopwith the fingernails," I say."Sorry," she says. But she does it again, this time very close to my ear."Don't you have your own house to go to or something?" I ask as I push her hands away. "God.""Condo," she corrects me. "In the Portofino." Right. How could I forget that Geneva, president of a multimillion-dollar party-planning company favored by rappers and Latin American soap stars, just bought a very expensive condo for herself in one of the most expensive buildings on Miami Beach. Enrique Iglesias is her neighbor. She has joked about taking him away from his Russian tennis-babe wife. I did not find the joke amusing, for obvious reasons."Why are you here?" I ask. Belle has emerged from beneath the bed with one of my flat, comfortable sandals and is trying to either kill it or hump it. "It's late. Go home. And take that rat with you, please.""Mom asked me to hang out for a while to help her prepare for a show," says Geneva. Amazingly, she takes the sandal away from the dog. "What, I can't hang out here? You want me to leave?"I'm about to say yes when our mother, Violeta, an AM talk-radio host, sashays into the room carrying a tray with milk and cookies, like some housewife mom from a fifties TV show. She stops when she sees the two of us about to fight, me crouching away from Geneva, and Geneva leaning in for the kill. Mom knows us very well, and it shows on her face--or what's left of her face. She's had so much plastic surgery the last few years I hardly recognize her anymore. She looks like a tightly pulled lizard with Julie Stav hair."What's going on here?" she asks. She leans into her hip. Like Geneva, our mother is thin and tidy, and she does the hip-lean thing to give her the appearance ofcaderas.For the record, I got all thecaderas--hips--my mom and sister lack. I'm shaped like a pear. I'm overweight, slightly, in large part because of an addiction to guava and cheesepastelitosfrom Don Pan, but I still have a tiny waist. A certain kind of man likes that shape, but in general it is not the kind of man I like. I am told I look like my mulatta grandmother, even though I am the whitest member of our family. We run the spectrum, we Gotays,from black to white and back again, even though no one but Geneva seems to admit that we have any African in us.My mom and Geneva look alike, or they used to before our mother started to look like Joan Rivers with a platinum-blond bob. Mom wears high-waisted beige dress slacks, probably Liz Claiborne, her favorite brand, with a short-sleeved silk sweater, black. The whole obsession with black is something she shares with Geneva. Mom's breasts were recently remodeled, and they seem to have moved into their perkier bras quite happily. Did you know that when you get a boob lift they put something like a golf tee under your tits, attached to your ribs, to hold them up? Gross. Besides, it's just wrong to have a mother with perkier boobs than you, isn't it?"Everything okay here?" asks Mom.Geneva and I sort of shrug.Mom purses her lips. They used to be smaller than they are now, those lips. They've been blown up somehow, like tiny pink bicycle tubes. "Something's going on," she says. She sets the tray down on my Holly Hobby dresser, next to the porcelain statuette of La Caridad del Cobre. She taps her red manicured nails on the dresser top and scowls at us. I think that's what the face is, anyway. I'm learning to read her body language, like she's a cat now and can only express feelings with the arch of her back or something. Mom would be well served to have a tail these days."I think Milan wants me to leave," says Geneva. "Mom, she's so unfriendly."Before I have time to lie in protest, our mother sighs and does the thing where she makes us both feel so guilty, we are paralyzed. I want to save her. I want to make her happy. I hate myself for being a disappointment. Mom says, "You two. In Cuba, you'd never act like this."Geneva stands up and walks to the tray of cookies. "May I?" she asks our mother. Mom does her hand in a circle in the air to tell Geneva to eat, but she continues to frown at me."If this is about the thing with the boys," she says."Tú tienes que olvidar de todo ésto, Milán."I look at the television and ignore the fact that she just told me, in Spanish, that I have to forget about Geneva stealing all my men. Jay Leno appears to be winding up his zoo-animal segment, having petted a baby lion for the past few minutes. Ricky will be on next. I unmute the volume and study the screen. "Shh," I say. "Ricky's coming on. Everybody be quiet, please.""Blood is thicker than water," says our mother, pacing the room. She rarely stays still, our mother. She is high strung, wired, and motivated, just like Geneva. Mom sidesteps Belle--we share a dislike of dogs, my mother and I--and picks up a stack of magazines on my nightstand, all of them with Ricky on the cover. She sighs and clicks her tongue at me. "Ricky, Ricky, Ricky," says my mother as she drops the magazines one by one, as if Ricky made her tired. "I amsickof thisRicky.""Sit down, Mom," Geneva tells her through a mouthful of coconut ball. "This'll be fun. I just want to see him make an ass of himself on national television." Geneva brings the tray to the bed and sets it down next to me. She herself sits on the floor, with a great crackling of misused joints. Belle climbs into Geneva's lap and licks a fleck of grated coconut off Geneva's chin. Geneva doesn't seem to mind. "Milan? Cookie?"I take a coconut cookie ball, and bite. They are sweet enough to make you squint, chewy, made of nothing but sugar, vanilla extract, and grated coconut in heavy syrup. It's the taste of my childhood, sugar and coconut. Cubans eat sugar like Americans eat bread, and I don't even want to think about what my pancreas looks like. As I munch it I log in to the chat room and greet the twenty-one other Ricky Biscayne fans who are there. I know all of them by screen name. My mother and Geneva look at me, and look at each other with raised brows and smirky, pretty mouths. Fine. I know. They think I'm pathetic. A geek."Chew at least twenty times, Milan," says Mom. "You're not a snake. You're getting crumbs everywhere on your shirt.""Nightgown," I correct her."With you it's hard to tell," says my sister."Shh," I say. "Leave me alone. I'm trying to focus on Ricky.""This hair," says Geneva. She reaches up and touches my ponytail. Belle snaps at my lifeless strands and I daydream of punting her across the room. "You'd look so good if you got some highlights. Please let me do a makeover on you, Milan? Please?""Highlights would look beautiful," says my mother."Shh," I say."You should let your sister fix your hair," says our mother."Shh," I tell them as I type my hellos to Las Ricky Chickies. "Leave me alone.""How's your face, Mom?" Geneva asks. Mom recently had a face-lift, which explains why she has bangs cut into her bob at the moment."Oh, I feel great, better than ever," says Mom. Her cheeriness is almost unfathomable."Shh," I say."Did it hurt?" asks Geneva."Not at all," says Mom. No matter how many surgeries and other enhancements she has, our mother always says she feels great afterward. I glance at her. I can't tell if she is smiling or not. Ithinkshe is. She sips a bit of milk and looks surprised as she nibbles a coconut ball through her rubbery lips. I know enough to know she is not actually surprised. Not much surprises her.On the TV screen, Jay Leno holds a CD up for the camera. It's the same photo as the poster on my closet door. The closet itself is full of cheap linen work clothes from the Dress Barn. Sad, I know. I decorate like a high school girl and dress like a middle-aged secretary. But I have plans. Once I'm out of here. I'll get real furniture and real paintings or something. I'll get real clothes once I lose twenty pounds. Until then, it doesn't seem worth the expense. Seriously. If you saw whatI was up against, all the implants and high heels prancing up and down the Miracle Mile, their perfect little bodies ducking in and out of the Starbucks just to be seen, you'd realize that unless you have the spectacularcuerpazoof aSábado Gigantemodel, it's almost better to hide yourself. This is a city where the entire concept of pretty is impossible, where paunchy men in khakis and belts stare, and women spend hours a day and many fortunes making themselves stare-ready. I don't have that kind of time. Or if I do, I don't have that kind of patience. And as a laxative publicist I certainly don't have that kind ofmoney. Don't judge me. I get enough of that at home.Leno glances at the glossy photo of Ricky's perfectly bronzed six-pack and appears to suddenly have a mouth full of lime juice."Oh, jeez," he whines. "Put on a shirt!" The crowd laughs. The host grins and says, "Don't hold the abs against him. He's a great guy, really. Ladies and gentlemen, please help me welcome the newest Latin crossover sensation, Ricky Biscayne!""Oh, Ricky," cries my sister, making fun of me. "You're so dreamy!" Belle yaps her approval.I sit up and hold my breath. Suddenly, everything else is too loud. Mom's pinched breathing through her five-year-old nose job. Belle's hyperpanting. The cool baritone hum of the air-conditioning vents, droning in concert with the twittering night song of cicadas and tree frogs in the backyard. Even with the window closed, the creatures are loud. At night, Miami swarms with things like this, things with slime or sheen on their backs, shiny-eyed things with suction cups on their big, goblin feet. This is why I prefer to stay inside at night, by the way. By day, Miami is one of the most beautiful cities on earth. By night, it's Mars.Geneva's cracking ankles and clicking fingernails. I grab the remote from the bed, and tap, tap, tap it up. I don't want to miss Ricky's big moment.With an energetic bang of trumpets and congas, the upbeat song begins, and Ricky starts to dance. "Dance" is actually too sissy of a word for what he does. It's more like making love to the air, grinding,pulsating, shimmying. Oh,baby. He's a graceful, masculine dancer. That's what people notice most about him. His hips, his tiny thrusts and gyrations, all with that happy, naughty grin and those shiny white teeth. Movie star teeth. Not an ounce of fat on him, either, just pure sculpted grace. He has the kind of rear end you want to grab and sink your fingernails into. Or teeth.The camera pans across his band and focuses for a moment on a balding, redheaded man who plays the guitar with one hand and the keyboard with the other. He's got a microphone attached to his keyboard and sings into it with tremendous passion."That guy looks like a tiny Conan O'Brien," says Geneva."Shh," I say. The little Conan looks into the camera and I feel a strange pang in my gut; he's got none of Ricky's looks, but this guy has a certain appeal. Eh. Maybe not. Maybe I'm just like a groupie who will do any guy in the band just to get a shot at the leader.Go back to Ricky, I think. Why is the camera focused on this guy? Who cares about the backup musicians when Ricky Biscayne is onstage? Honestly. The camera zooms back to Ricky, and every woman on earth recognizes his supreme maleness, even my mother, who, I notice, has let her tight jaw go slack at the sight of his wiggling. Is that drool I see in the corner of her mouth?Asquerosa. Maybe she can't feel her lips anymore? She told me that for her boob lift they actually had to remove her nipples and put them back in a different place. Sick."I'd marry him," I say out loud, grabbing another coconut ball from the pink plastic plate. "In a minute.""No serías feliz,"says my mother, meaning, You wouldn't be happy. I think my mother must tell me at least once I day I won't be happy doing something I want to do.Happy? With Ricky? Eh. Maybe not. But who needshappywhen you could have a body likethatin your bed? I'd cry the entire freakin'day,filling wads of tissue with my tears and snot, if it meant spending the night thrashing with Ricky Biscayne.I take a peek at Geneva, and to my surprise she appears to be enrapturedby Ricky. She looks embarrassed. I don't think I've ever seen her look embarrassed before."See?" I tell her. "He'snotmaking an ass of himself."Geneva lifts her brows and looks around the room, then at me. "No," she says. "Actually, he's pretty good. I'm surprised.""He's gonna be huge," I say."He might," says Geneva. "You might be right.""I told you," I say. "You should have believed me. I mean, you usually like my taste in men."Geneva ignores the jab and starts digging through her weird little fringy purse with the big tacky DIOR on the side, looking for her phone. She opens it and dials someone and starts talking in a loud voice about how she thinks she wants to get Ricky Biscayne as an investor in her newest business venture, Club G, a South Beach nightclub she plans to open later this year. "I know," she says. "I thought he was all about the neck chains and the mullet, too. But not anymore. He's totally hot. I think he's got it, star quality. It's what I'm looking for. Get me in touch with his people.""Shhh," I say. Geneva scoops up her demon dog and takes her call into the hallway. Thank God. I don't need her in here."I'm going to bring yourabuelitoin," says my mom, rising from the bed. She stands in front of me, blocking my view with her flat Liz Claiborne-pants butt. They're like mom jeans, only they're pants. She means that she's going to bring my grandfather in from the front porch, where he likes to sit "on the lookout" for communists."Move!" I say, trying to duck around her for a view of Ricky."You need a hobby," says my mother, in Spanish. She tries to pinch my arm. When we were little, she used to pinch us to get us to pay attention to her. I swat her hand away, and she says, "This thing with Biscayne, it's ridiculous. You're not a little girl."Then stop pinching me. "You need to move," I say, pushing her. I consider mentioning that I know all abouthergrown-up "hobby" up in La Broward, but, you know. It wouldn't be polite to tell your mom you know she's screwing a Jewish plastic surgeon on the side. I followedher one time, and spied on them. He's pretty muscular, for an old guy, like that one dude, Jack LaLanne. He's got a weird orange tan and big thick veins like blue worms in his neck. Dad's been schtupping bimbos--his secretaries and whatnot--on the side for decades, so it's only fair. And you wonder why I'm still single?She sighs and leaves the room. I happily lose myself in Ricky's performance. I've lusted after him since his first hit on WRTO Salsa, ten years ago, and continue to lust in pulsing, throbbing ways that shame me. There must be some defect in the genes of the women in this family, I swear. We're like a bunch of loser nymphos, especially Geneva the man-stealing whore. Oops. I didn't say that.The camera focuses on Ricky, in his form-fitting, fashionable jeans and tight-fitting, nearly transparent dark blue tank top, his tanned arms sculpted in rounded waves of muscle. My mouth falls open as I stare into his hypnotic eyes. He's like an evil witch doctor, taking over my soul. I know. He's only looking at the camera. But I can't help it, I have this overwhelming sense that he's looking right into my soul. The lyrics are meant for me. They speak of a man's love for a plain yet complex and underestimated woman. No other man sings about average women with reverence. Seriously. I mean, not that I'm average. I am just average in Miami. And, for once, there's a man in the world who appreciates that a woman like me might be wild, passionate, lusty, interesting.The chorus ends, and atimbalesolo comes up. Ricky begins to dance again, with backup dancers, all of them female. And when he begins to do a sexy little salsa step, one masculine hand over his belly, right in that spot where men have hair creeping up in a sinful little line, his other hand held up as if holding my hot little fingers, I quite nearly choke on the last of the coconut balls. One minute he grins like the boy next door, dimples, full lips, cute; the next, he frowns with intensity, jaw determined and heroic, his eyes burning with dark lust and power. His body's motions send shock waves through my nervous system, and goose bumps rise on my skin. Ricky Biscayne is, without question, the sexiest man on earth. His hips thrust forward and back, and I correct myself. He is the sexiest man in thegalaxy.As he opens his mouth to sing the last chorus, I begin to speak a prayer to my statuette of La Caridad del Cobre. The peaceful virgin watches me with sympathy from her post on the white Holly Hobby dresser, ceramic blue waves lapping in curls at her feet. God only knows she's seen me do a lot of kinky, lonely stuff in this room, some of it involving innocent victims like hairbrush handles and tubes of eye-makeup remover. Don't ask. Anyway, I'm surprised she even tolerates me, actually. I'm surprised she hasn't struck me with lightning for my raging slacker libido."Holy Virgin," I say. "Please help me meet this man. I'll do anything."Anything?the virgin seems to ask."Anything," I repeat.
Man, I'm sore. It was another slow day at the fire station yesterday, just a couple of calls from the regulars--a lonely diabetic and an older homeless guy who knows exactly what to say when he calls to get the paramedics out.I'm having chest pains. I can't breathe. I'm dizzy. I can't feel my arm.So, in between playing counselor to the lonely and desperate of South Florida, I lifted, big-time, in the station's weight room. Me and Tommy, competing like we do to see who could squat heavier--and me winning. Yep, that's right, I told them, the "girl" is strong. They still can't believe I'm smoking them on the physical exams, but they're coming around.I'm not huge or anything, just solid, tall, and lean--like a professional volleyball player, which I might have been if I hadn't had a baby when I was still in high school. I rocked at volleyball. I've always been athletic, and I'm careful about what I eat. Not that I don't eat, I just eat a lot of protein and vegetables. A typical lunch for me might be a can of tuna, eaten with a fork, and a bag of grilled vegetables with a rice cake. Boring, but it does the trick. When I first started in the department five years ago, I was the first female on the team at Station 42. There was a lot of doubt about a woman firefighter. Not anymore.Or at least most of the guys don't have a problem with it. L'Roy still seems miffed, but that's probably just because I never gave him any, and he's lusted after me from day one.I'm home now, in my green stucco tract house in Homestead, about to start my four days off. That's our schedule, two full days on, four off. I am beat, and I'd like to sleep, but I've got my feverish thirteen-year-old daughter resting her head in my lap. She's sniffling, struggling with the flu. I feel the tickle of the illness creeping into my throat, but as any single mother knows, I won't be able to actually be sick. I'll have to guzzle DayQuil and coffee and muddle through. Single moms don't get to be sick; we get to bedrugged. The good news is that with four solid days off, I might get a chance to chill.Might. I saidmight.I might get a chance to see my new man again, too. Did I say man? Preceded by the word "my"? Wow. (Grin, grin!) I guess I did. I am not inloveor anything, but I have a playmate. I haven't told my daughter, or my mother, or anyone. Haven't told them what, you ask? This: I've had a few secret lunch dates with a local divorced cop named Jim Landry. He's tall, which is good because at five-foot-ten I'm not short. He's six-three at least, with dirty blond hair cut short just the way I like it. Like me, he's fit and takes his job protecting the public very seriously.The only thing I really don't like about Jim Landry is that he's a born-again Christian and likes to talk about God all the time. He goes to church on Tuesday nights. He has a fish on his car. I mean, I respect it, but I don't dig it. I grew up Catholic, Irish Catholic, and I like to read Joseph Campbell and think about world religions and what they mean to everyone, so basically I don't need anyone shoving Jesus-this and Jesus-that down my throat all the time. But at the same time, men aren't exactly falling off trees at my feet, especially not cute, available ones, so I'll see if I can adjust to Jim's God-o-rama in exchange for a little nookie.I see him at fire scenes now and then, and he surprised me by asking me to lunch last month. We've had three lunches, and eventhough it sounds shallow, we have very good chemistry and smell compatibility--even when he eats onions. He's the only man I've known who doesn't stink after onions. We had sex for the first time just yesterday, at his house, nothing earth-shattering, but pleasant. It was the first time I've done it in many years. So, you know, other than the flu, I feel young and sexy again just thinking about him. It's nice to have a reason to shave my legs again. I'm feeling good.I stroke Sophia's wavy, dark brown hair, and try not to think about the sleep I won't be getting tonight. I replay yesterday's romp, Jim's dark brown eyes and the pheromone man-smell of his neck. I'd forgotten the animalistic sense of peace you get, as a woman, sniffing the musk of a man's neck.My daughter and I lay atop the light goose-down comforter with the pale lavender Restoration Hardware duvet cover. The bedding was too expensive for me, but I fell in love with it and bought it. I am an excellent window-shopper, and sometimes I give in and use my credit cards. I'm usually not that impulsive, but I figured if you have to be single in your bed you might as well be comfortable. My bedroom is my oasis, a creamy, purple retreat. Sophia sighs, and I want to make her better instantly. If only we moms had that power.I had her when I was fourteen, almost fifteen. Just a year older than she is now. I didn't feel as young then as I think she is now, but I realize now I was just a baby, too. I raised her alone, and made up for my long guilty hours at work, first as a waitress and grocery clerk, and for the past five years as a firefighter, by sharing a bed with her in a studio apartment. Maybe it was selfish, me wanting Sophia's warmth and reassuring breath by my side. When she was ten, Sophia said she wanted her own room like all her friends had, and I bought this little house through a HUD program. I don't want to live in Homestead, but my income restricts my choices. I like to drive through Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, looking at homes. If I won the lottery, that's where I'd live, in one of those old cities with big trees and lots of shade. Homestead is too bright, too hot.I kiss her forehead. People say teenagers can't be good mothers, butIwas. I was a damn good mom, and still am. I knew what I needed to do to be a good mother, because it was just theoppositeof everything my parents had done. Don't smoke, don't drink, don't do drugs, don't collect welfare, don't beat your child, don't beat your partner in front of your child, don't be homeless, don't live in your car, don't sell your car for food, don't forget to brush your child's teeth for, like, years, don't leave your child unattended most of the time. It was easy to know the rules. She's turning out good, too. Soccer star, good grades, friends, chorus. A good kid. I hate to see my daughter ill, but I'll tell you, I love having my baby back, if only for a little while.Sophia looks up at me with big, honey-brown eyes, the skin over her high cheekbones red from the flu. People who don't know us usually mistake us for friends rather than mother and daughter. Sophia is tall, like me, and looks older than she is. And people can't believe we're related because of the differences in our coloring. I'm a natural blonde, with blue eyes, tanned skin, and a squarish face. My short hair juts out in ragged peaks. I look good with long or short hair, but I keep it like this because when you're rushing into a fire scene you don't need to be worrying about tucking your hair up into your helmet. Some of the guys at the station say I remind them of a younger Meg Ryan. Others say Jenna Jameson, but I think that's mostly just to try to piss me off. I don't get pissed. I laugh right along with them; it's the best defense.Sophia, in contrast, has skin the color of a roasted cashew. She's already nearly my height, and will likely be taller when she grows up. She's a big, strong girl. Her dark, wavy hair falls to the middle of her back, wild in a way that reminds me of women from Arthurian legends. Guinivere or something. Sophia isn't heavy, but her hips and thighs are thicker than mine, and already she wears a larger size in pants. I'm a ten; Sophia's a twelve. Sometimes, I can't believe my child is this big already. It truly feels like less than a week since she was born. Our mouths and noses are very much alike, and once we tell people we're mother and daughter, they see it."Try to sleep," I say. Is that too much to ask? That she sleep so Ican, too? But just as Sophia settles her head onto the pillow, a soft knock comes on the thin wood of the bedroom door. The doors are hollow and splinter easily. That's a sign of a cheap house. I want a better house someday. And I'll get there. You'll see. When I make lieutenant, and then captain. But this will do for now.My mom, Alice, now forty-six, pokes her head in and smiles sarcastically as she pushes large brown plastic eyeglasses higher on her narrow stab of a nose. Since my penniless alcoholic father's death five years ago, Alice, the ultimate codependent enabler with nowhere to go, has lived with us, sleeping on the pull-out sofa. Alice smokes cigarettes in the front yard, in a housedress. I won't let her smoke inside. She still hangs out with her biker-bar friends, an unsavory bunch of Confederate-flag-waving yokels I've hated for decades. Some things never change. Alice most of all. I hate living with her, but I don't have the heart to kick her out. Abandonment is her specialty, not mine. I've stretched far the other direction, toward compassion and generosity."I thought you might want to see who's on theTonight Show,getting rich," whispers Alice. I don't call her Mom because I think that's a title you have to earn. The slight odor of fresh cat discharge wafts in; I need to change the litter box in the tiny laundry room off the small garage. The granules of litter spray across the floor and seem to get tracked all over the house. I have to run the vacuum, too. There is never enough time, it seems, to do everything that needs to be done. You'd think Alice might help out, but no. That would be too considerate of her.As Alice waddles back down the hall in her cheap leggings and Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt, she mutters, "No-good Messican son of a bitch." I know instantly who she must be talking about.With my heart racing, I grab the universal television remote from my unfinished-maple nightstand, hold the batteries in with my fingers--I lost the back to the thing years ago and have lost faith in the duct-tape method--and aim it at the small white TV on my unfinished dresser. Sure enough, there's my high school sweetheart, RicardoBatista, or, as the world now knows him, Ricky Biscayne, singing his heart out. He looks so normal and harmless on television. On television, he almost looks like a nice guy."Who's that, Mommy?" asks Sophia. She sits up, rubs her eyes. I think she might have pinkeye. We'll have to go to the pediatrician.I look at Ricardo's wavy dark brown hair, his high cheek red from singing. I look at his big, honey-brown eyes, and the pain of his unexpected abandonment washes through my body as forcefully as if it had happened minutes, not years, before."He's a boy I used to go to school with back in Fort Lauderdale," I tell her, with a false smile and a stabbing memory of the first time I ever really felt loved, long ago. Fourteen years ago, to be exact. "You get some sleep, baby."
Forty miles north, in Bal Harbour, Jill Sanchez watches Ricky Biscayne sing on a fifty-inch Sony plasma television that, when a button is pressed, whirs down out of the ceiling of her home gym. The television is as thick as a slice of bread. Jill, who believes carbs were invented by Satan, has not eaten bread in five years. This is her second workout session of the day, the first having been at four this morning. She wears a pink and gray Nina Bucci sports bra, and sexy matching stretch pants that ride low on the hips and have holes cut out along the sides of the legs. Jill Sanchez has her own line of workout wear that makes loads of money for her, but, being a woman of discriminating tastes, she refuses to wear her line herself, knowing that her clothes are cheaply made. She has a Nike endorsement and finds the shoes suitable and convenient; they come every month, free, in the mail, a dozen or so pairs. This morning, she wore baby-blue Lululemon yoga pants with a matching tank; they make outstanding workout wear. And Jill knows workouts. A trained jazz dancer, on average she exercises three hours per day.As she pumps her legs on a stair-climber, she remembers the last time she herself performed onThe Tonight Show,two years ago. Or wasit four? Five? God, no. Really? She frowns at the passage of time, as if frowning might stop it. It can't have been that long ago. Jill pumps her legs harder, hoping to keep her thirties at bay, even though she is already thirty-seven. As a policy, she does not consider the fact that she will soon enter her forties, even as she has her hair colored every five or six days to make sure no one ever sees the graying roots. The forties are unthinkable to Jill Sanchez, who still believes she belongs on MTV'sTotal Request Livealongside teenaged singers with their black, bitten fingernails and angst. The harder she pumps, the faster her long, straightened brown ponytail with the highlights swings back and forth, just brushing the top of her mighty, spherical, and famously famous rear end.Six years ago, she was the first woman to simultaneously have a top-rated movie, album, and perfume in a single week. She'd gone on theLate Show,singing and dancing in those scandalous nude-colored pants that some people thought rode just a wee bit too low, revealing by design the tiniest hint of well-coiffed, short-short, sweet-smelling pubic hair, but also being interviewed about her new movie and clothing line. The clothing line, for the record, then brought in more than $175 million a year, worldwide, because--and wasn't it obvious?--women everywhere wanted to dress like Jill Sanchez, and men everywherewantedthem to.Some people in the press liked to say her star was fading these days, just because she'd had a messy couple of divorces and other assorted and generally well-timed and professionally calculated "scandals," including this newest one about the fur. PETA is a group of whiners, in her opinion. How many of them wore leather? Huh? How could anyone complain about fur and wear leather? Whiny losers and hyprocrites. They should try being her, Jill Sanchez, for a day or two. They'd know about brutality then. Was itherfault the media vultures circled her carcass day and night? Was itherfault the vile press descended upon every scrap of Jill-ness she threw their way? Who were "the press" anyway, except a bunch of wannabe stars, envious sagging hags and ugly pockmarked men she'd never even give the time of day?Everyone in the press had bucked teeth or buggy eyes. She did not doubt that the very men who wrote horrible things about her whacked off to her image in their private moments. They picked on her because she was a woman, and a powerful one at that. Lots ofmenin Hollywood had botched love lives and bombed movies, but the press was easy on them. Just look at that skeezy George Clooney. Or that other one, the superboring guy who always sounded like he was sleeping or stoned--KevinCostner. The media went easy on them. But not on her, Jill Sanchez. Jill Sanchez, theycrucified. Hollywood had such double standards for women, and Latina women in particular. Just look at Paula Abdul. The cute-as-a-buttonAmerican Idoljudge had been divorcedthree times. But did the media crucify her or call her a whore? No. She'd run over someone on the freeway in her Mercedes, and then she'd slept with that oneIdolcontestant, but no one hated her for it. Did the media callherheartless, ruthless, all the words they had called her, Jill Sanchez? No. They reservedthatvenom for Jill.But Jill Sanchez had not gotten to be Jill Sanchez by sitting idly by while the world happened to her. She made the world happen, just how she liked it, and her slick, highly produced upcoming comeback movie and album would prove it. And once she'd taken care of all that, Jill would be free to find love, real love, once and for all, and maybe pop out a baby or two. And maybe, just maybe, her father would forgive her for not being the docile Puerto Rican daughter he'd always wanted. Maybe then she'd actually learn how to make thearroz con polloshe always ordered out for on those rare occasions when her mother was able to talk her father into visiting.As it is, Jill's father, a plumber by trade and odor, says he is too ashamed of her "putaass-shaking" videos to set foot in her home or her life. He tells her he has never watched one of her videos all the way through, and seems to favor her oldest sister, a homely schoolteacher who can do no wrong. His loss.Jill's mother, for her part, reminds her that just because the public thinks Jill is in her late twenties does not mean that herovariesbelievelikewise. Her mother has long been intensely critical of Jill, her middle and flashiest daughter, and in a way this criticism has subconsciously driven Jill to overachieve in every aspect of her life, in the hope that her mother will finally be pleased with her.Jill has never gone to therapy and doesn't understand her conscious--much less subconscious--motivations for success. She will never go to therapy, mostly because Jill Sanchez is convinced that there is nothingwrongwith Jill Sanchez and that fault, when it must be assigned, always falls elsewhere. In the meantime, she likes looking at herself and believes others do, too. It doesn't get much deeper than that.Jill watches Ricky Biscayne sing his guts out, and smiles to herself. What he lacks in the penis department he more than makes up for with that gigantic vibrating sweep of voice. No one sings like Ricky Biscayne. When he left this house yesterday to fly to Los Angeles with his stupid sorry-ass wife, Ricky had been giddy with nerves, and Jill had tried to reassure him by fucking his brains out. The host ofThe Tonight Showwas nice, she'd told him, and would make Ricky feel comfortable.Jill and Rickytriedto be "just friends" but slipped up and made love--twice. Once in the kitchen, and once on the slick black tiles of the pool-house floor. He had agonized over it, as usual, complaining of his lack of control and his need for a personality overhaul, of his love for Jasminka Uskokovic, the pathetic Serbian stick-figure "supermodel" he'd married. He'd even talked about Jasminka's dog as if the dog would feel betrayed by him. Jill had reassured him it was the last time, knowing as she did it that it was a lie. Actors were good at lying. Ricky had been wounded from a life without a father, and from having been molested by a male neighbor who'd pretended to be a father figure when Ricky was about sixteen--both issues he'd rather not talk about but that she had been able to draw out of him in their moments of quiet postcoital intimacy, as he rested his head on her belly and his tears filled her navel. Jill, like most predators, understood weaknesses, and used them to her advantage.After sex yesterday, she and Ricky had gone to her enormous and well-appointed in-home recording studio, and he'd gamely listened to some tracks from her upcoming album,Born Again.The album cover would feature a photo of a nearly naked Jill, sexily, sweatily suffering, tied and nailed to the cross. Ifthatdidn't get attention, she figured, nothing would. Ricky had suggested harmonies that blew Jill's mind. He was a much better singer than she was, but a little computerized pitch control could fix that. Besides, he wasn't as smart about business, which was one of the reasons she'd broken up with him the first time, six years ago. He was damn stupid about business, in fact. That and the fact that he'd boned her younger horse-faced sister, Natalia--but he'd been high, Natalia was a two-horse-faced whore, and that was all behind them now.Still, they have so much in common that she regrets the breakup at least once a day. They are both Miami Latinos. Jill is Puerto Rican and has the diamond flag necklaces, Hector Lavoe albums, andboricuathong panties to prove it. Ricky is Cuban from his dad and Mexican from his mom. They both started out in humble homes, he in Fort Lauderdale, she in Wynwood, Miami's most Puerto Rican neighborhood. Through hard work and discipline they had moved themselves to places of power and prestige--meaning South Beach waterfront homes, hers five times the size and price of his, but whatever. They both sing and act, though sheknowsshe is ten times the actor he is and feels no guilt in telling him so; sadly for Ricky, there is no actor's equivalent of pitch control.They both love fashion, though Jill is sure that her taste, which leans toward fur, leather, Versace, and other assorted dead things, and diamonds, is much better than his, which tends toward the sorts of items a member of Kid 'n Play might have liked: stone-washed jeans with too-big patches on the front, long knitted scarves, and those weird square-toed biker boots. He dresses like a member of Menudo, in Jill's opinion, before they started calling the band MDO. Happily, there is pitch control for poorly dressed men: it is calledJill.Both Jill and Ricky want children someday, and plan to piercetheir daughter's ears during infancy, something Jill's current fiancé, the boyishly handsome and patently non-Hispanic white actor and screenwriter Jack Ingroff, finds barbaric. Jill is forever having to translate the culture of her life for Jack, and it is exhausting.With Ricky, Jill never has to explain herself. It is too bad he is married, really. She'd been relieved at first, to be rid of him. He was much more in love with her than she was with him, and even though he swore he had quit doing coke, she wasn't convinced. She'd had a crush on him at the start, that was all, but when she realized how tiny his penis was she'd had a hard time keeping up the excitement, no pun intended. If he'd been better endowed, she might have stuck it out with him back then.But as it was, the thing with the drugs and the dick, you know, it made sense to just beoverit already. She had decided to move on with Jack, who was famous, mostly sober, and had the ample, ready loins of a Brahman donkey.This didnotmean she stopped thinking about Ricky. Now that Ricky's star was crossing over to the mainstream, and now that Jack was turning out to be a bit of a literal whoremonger, Jill believed Ricky might finally be able to hang with her without feeling threatened the way so many of these guys did. Jill works hard. She needs her men to do so as well. Otherwise, it won't last. If she's learned anything from her failed marriages--one to an awkwardly effeminate bartender and the other to a carnally talented gymnast from Cirque du Soleil--it is that a successful woman has to marry her equal, or not marry at all.Oh, and the bonus? Jack is deathly jealous of Ricky, whom he sees as a threat because of his shared ethnic background with Jill. Jack knows that even though Jill is strong and powerful, part of her wants amachistaasshole to put her in her place now and then, someone she can claw, a real man who would grab her wrists to keep her in check. She longs for this type of passion and drama. Because of his crunchy granola New England upbringing, Jack will never be that kind of guy,no matter how desperately he wants to in order to please the un-pleasable and unspeakably perfect Jill Sanchez.She-man habit aside, Jack, thanks to his poet mother with the Birkenstocks, hairy armpits, and New England pedigree, will now and forever be something of a wuss.Jill opens her mouth as her new trainer, a big Austrian named Rigor, squirts in a stream of cool, clear, bottled water. His nervous assistant wipes the sweat from her face with a pink monogrammed Egyptian cotton towel. The press ridicules her preference for high-thread-count towels and linens, but that only shows you how desperate they are for news and how inexperienced they are personally with high thread counts. Anyone who's experienced a thick towel does not want to go back, and Jill sees this as something of a metaphor for her own life and career. She is not going back. Ever.Rigor informs her that she has fifteen more minutes of cardio before they begin the sculpting session. Jill looks at herself in the mirrored wall and wonders if all this sweating with Rigor isn't shaving a little too much off her famed backside. She isn't that starving bag of bones, Renée Zellweger. She certainly doesn't want to look like it, either. "I'm known for this," she says, slapping a manicured hand against her bootylicious rump. "And I don't want to lose it. I do, and you're fired."Rigor nods, and Jill relaxes a bit. She had to fire the last trainer after he leaked a story to a tabloid about Jack's alleged occasional bouts with transvestite prostitutes. They denied it all to the public, of course, but Jill knows it was true. Jack is her equal, but he is getting too complicated.On the screen, Ricky's face tenses with passion, and Jill gets a secret thrill remembering the last time she saw that expression, as he pressed her body against the cool stainless steel of her Sub-Zero freezer. He mostly made up for size with motion and focus on the woman's parts, and she'd gotten used to it. No one knows they are still in love. Now isn't the right time, strategically, to let it be known, either.Jill and Jack are costarring in a romantic comedy that opens in two months, adorably titledCame Tumbling After,and she has to wait at least until then to make a big move. Pretend to be happily engaged. Giggle through a Diane Sawyer interview or something. After her Oscar nomination--if she doesn't get it for this role, she doesn't know what she'll get it for--Jill will be free to do whom and what she pleases.No, no one knows about Jill and Ricky and the happy reunion looming on the horizon. But they will. Jill has a plan, and she's never seen a plan of hers fall through. She looks again at her reflection and smiles. Yes, sir. Jill Sanchez has plans. It does not matter that Ricky is married. He settled for Jasminka when he couldn't have Jill, and really, honestly, was there a marriage anywhere on earth that could withstand the interference of a booty like this? She didn't think so.
My name is Jasminka Uskokovic, and I am not dead.I am twenty-six years old, and right now I hold hands with my husband, Ricky Biscayne. His hand is cold. Mine is hot. In the middle is moisture, from his nerves. His palms sweat with anxiety often. We sit on overstuffed creamy beige sofa in living room of a luxurious suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. My fat brown dog, Mishko, snores at our feet as we watch broadcast of Ricky's performance onThe Tonight Show. It was taped earlier in day. I can see our reflection in big gilded mirror across the room, and we are beautiful couple. We'd make such pretty baby. I'd like that, very much.I take deep breath and try to place the mild astringent scent of air in the room. Pine? Yes, but with something else, something delicious that clears the head. Mint? I think is pine and mint. I wonder how the room carries this scent. No candles burn, and no obvious air freshener. Could it be the cleaning solution they use, or detergent for washing towels and sheets? I am very scent-centered, and I recall scents the way other people recall conversations. I make soaps in free time and try to reproduce the scents of my life in them. When we return to ourhome in Miami, I will make soap of pine and mint, to remember this moment.My long, dark brown hair is pulled back in ponytail. My eyes feel sticky and tired. This man is very special. I look again at the mirror and see us. I swell up inside that this man chose me for his own. I wear no makeup because I don't need it. I have soft, clear skin, broad, high cheekbones, a long nose, full lips, green eyes, and an Eastern European symmetry that has given me a profitable career in modeling. I began to be model at fifteen, and by sixteenVogueandVanity Fairboth said I was newest "supermodel" from Eastern Europe. I don't want so much to be model anymore. I want now to be Ricky's wife and mother of his children.Many people find modeling glamorous. Not me. I associate it with death. I was fifteen when my family's cottage home in the fertile, hilly green town of Slunj was dynamited by Croatian forces, with entire family (other than me) inside. I had been making out with my boyfriend that day, Croatian boy from sympathetic family. We were hidden in a cool green pocket of pine trees near one of the larger waterfalls outside town. The shelling and exploding began, and we stayed hidden, afraid, until the sound of explosions stopped and night came. The boy begged me not to go home, to come with him, to pretend to be Croatian. He said his family would care for me. But I wanted to find my family. To know they were okay. I wanted to be with them. I'd run home past stone walls and majestic pines, smelling burned flesh, gunpowder, and tar in air, stunned by the glowing orange embers everywhere, the smoke and chaos. When drunk Croatian soldiers asked me to name my ethnicity, I had lied and said Croatian. It wasn't entirely lie, actually. I have, had, Croatian grandmother. I speak the language fluently. The soldiers each kissed me on lips and moved on. This was victory for them.When I returned to the once tidy cottage house with the flowers in boxes along the front walk, the home in which I had grown up, there was nothing left but smoldering red and black pile of debris. All along path to my house I'd come across decapitated bodies of old men I'dknown. The Croatian soldiers had singled out the old men. To this day I have never fully understood the issues between Serbs and Croatians; to me, it was all stupid, men trying to come up with ways to kill other men, ways to rape women. Both sides were equally vile to each other. My own family had not been political at all, and my mother and father both believed the recent "tensions" had been orchestrated by United States after fall of Soviet Union, in hopes of smashing any other country that might try to become communist stronghold--Yugoslavia included.Forthis,I thought then, staring into the milky, frozen eyes of the dead. Forthisthe old men lay chopped to bits in the streets. Twice I'd had to stop to throw up walking to the cottage. All along the way, I found young women and others wandering in my same daze, unable to comprehend what had come to pass, the soundtrack endless wail of thousands sobbing, and people limping blindly toward what had been, in injury and disorientation, like ants whose hill has been stomped to nothing, searching for entrance, for safety. I sat by rubble of my home and waited hours, unable to believe what had happened. I called out names of my family members. But no one came. They were gone. I could not cry at first, because the mind and heart were not designed for such enormous loads of grief. A human being faced with this weight of emotion simply stops feeling, the breaths coming fast and shallow. I knew they'd all been home. In instant, my mother, father, grandparents, and four siblings had vanished. The entire neighborhood had been blown to oily splinters.I had been surprised to find one lone survivor: my tiny brown mutt puppy, Mishko, a gift from my father, limping and with bloody eye, but alive nonetheless, with her tail wagging at sight of me, impervious to her own injuries and still able to lick my hands and face with affection and optimism. The feel of dog kisses kept me from killing myself. Mishko saved my life. I scooped Mishko up and began to wander. I heard from those who wandered streets that Serbians like us were being forced from the land, and that we were all walking out of the town. And so I joined other people along road, surrounded by livestock,tractors, old cars, and whatever scraps we could salvage from our lives. It's like dream now. Later I would learn that refugees from Krajina that day had numbered three hundred thousand. The dead civilians had numbered fourteen thousand.It was at that moment, walking out of my hometown with no one left in world to love me but a one-eyed dog, that I began my long relationship with starvation, a drawn-out flirtation with death. I had been plump and round. But when I realized I had survived massacre because of my womanly lust for a Croatian boy, I wanted to get rid of my hips and breasts. I wanted to waste away. I did not deserve to live. I hated myself for surviving.Weeks later, as Mishko and I spent numb days in stunned silence on cot at a refugee camp in Serbia, a tall, elegant man in gray striped suit had walked up and down the rows between cots, staring through eyeglasses into faces of the girls he found there as if he were looking for someone he knew. In truth, he was scout for ruthless, successful international modeling agency in Paris, searching for someone exactly like me: a beautiful, unfortunate girl whose face might be used to sell perfume in fashion magazines. In all, he went home to France with twenty-two Serbian girls and one puppy. I lived in apartment with four other girls and Mishko, the dog having gotten quite fat eating all the food the girls were forbidden. I quickly became the most successful of us all, as my empty eyes and sunken features were at once scarily symmetrical and otherworldly. I believe I looked like pretty, fragile, empty, hollowed-out corpse doll.The years that followed since have all run together, and there are times I wake up and do not know where I am. There are times I take a knife to the flesh on insides of my arms and legs, cutting until I feelsomething,anything. It takes that much sometimes for me to feel at all. I have webs of scabs across my body that have to be airbrushed out of photos. If I didn't cut, I wouldn't feel connected to world of living.Meeting and marrying Ricky was the first action I had taken that made me start to feel alive again, as he tenderly coaxed me from shell, as he sang to me and I felt love again. I had not expected to marry, buthe had asked, and that meant family, didn't it? And family meant finally moving on. It meant eating, no more cutting. Soon.I had been starving myself almost as habit to remain, at five-foot-eleven, a skeletal size two. I was used to burning in my gut. It comforted me. Cigarettes had become my substitute for food, but I didn't like what they did to skin or nerves and I would quit soon. I trembled often. I wanted to eat again. To quit smoking. To have children. To stay home and not model anymore. To start family and try to root myself in the world again.Ricky likes me thin. When we go out in public together, to a party or a concert of his, my emaciated body is source of pride for Ricky. He, like many men who choose to date only models, tells me the sweet, acetone scent of my breath, a by-product of the body digesting itself, turns him on.I don't like how mean Ricky gets when he drinks. But we anyhow share a bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne, a gift from the hotel manager. On my empty stomach, the alcohol goes directly to my head, making me woozy, sad, and sleepy. We wear cheerful, matching pale green silk pajamas I picked up for us on Rodeo Drive yesterday, in color close to that of my eyes. I watch him closely. His beauty is so great it makes me ache. His tanned skin, dark mess of hair, and inspired, almost madmanlike light brown eyes seemed, when I first met him, warm like home was warm, and I felt instinct to protect him and please him all at once. He was one of those people who seemed to be boy and man at the same time, the kind of man who could get away with saying or doing the wrong thing because his smile, the dimples of it, the sincerity and beauty of it, made people forget his faults. He had smooth sort of skin, creamy-looking, without much body hair, the kind of skin you wanted to bite. I was hungry for Ricky as surely as I was hungry for food, and yet I never felt him connect with me, the way man and wife should be together. His mind always seemed elsewhere.I don't know right now whether intensity in Ricky's eyes indicates anger or pleasure. In interviews, he is laid-back, the kind of guy youmight want to have over for barbecue. At home, he is different, his own toughest critic, obsessed with making himself better. His perfectionism amazes me. I myself have stumbled through life making every mistake you could make and never bothering to correct them.In my eleven-year modeling career I have met many rich and famous people. But I have never known more focused human being than Ricky Biscayne. He smells of cigarettes and woodsy cologne. His smell reminds me of Slunj. Home. He is always trying to be better, at everything he does, from singing to cooking to making love. If I have one orgasm with him is not enough in his opinion. He will push me to go again, two, sometimes three times, even when I insist I am satisfied and ready to go to sleep. He doesn't do this to pleaseme. He does it because Ricky is always performing. Proving something to someone, to God. I wonder when, exactly, Ricky will be good enough to make Ricky happy. He makes me feel awe.I look from screen to his real face, trying to register what he might be thinking or feeling. We have only been married one year, since meeting at fashion show in Paris where I was model and he was musical guest. I still have a difficult time reading him. He does not exactly keep secrets from me, but he seems to keep storms of self-doubt from me, bottled-up anxiety and rage I do not understand. If I had his kinds of gifts, I would be happy all the time."Issogood your wonderful performing," I say, aware of my lingering Serbian accent. I overemphasized the "so." I don't think I'll ever be able to pronounce "Thursday," which comes out of my mouth "tours-day."Ricky doesn't answer me. Rather, he pushes my hand away, leans forward, elbows on his knees, and studies himself. He sniffs and scratches at his reddened nose with back of his hand. Is he sick? The stress is getting to him. He seems sick all the time, sniffling sniffling sniffling. I reach out and begin to massage his shoulders, planting small kisses on the back of his neck. He shrugs me off of him, and concentrates on the screen.Quickly, Ricky is up, sprinting across the room to the desk, wherehe sits and uses his laptop to log on to check his CDnow.com ranking again. He is obsessed with this number. Since the segment began, he tells me, it has dropped by 480,000. Nearly half a million spots in two minutes? Amazing."Padrísimo,"he says, finally breaking a small smile, using the Spanish slang he uses when he's either very happy or very angry. His moods change as quickly as weather in Miami, cloudy and foreboding one moment, sunny and sharp the next. Success makes him crazy with happiness, but only for a while. He runs back to the sofa, takes powerful leap over the back of it, right into my lap, with rippling, masculine grace.Ricky is skilled, wonderful dancer; in fact, that is a big part of his success as singer. His stage shows are exactly that, shows--choreographed, exciting, with Ricky at the center, shimmying and strutting. He was a track and soccer star when he was younger, in high school, and his mother, Alma, still has his old bedroom filled with trophies. Ricky works out like an athlete, even if he enjoys an occasional cigarette. His abs are hard, and at this moment they aren't the only part."I love you, Jasminka," he says, his eyes locked on mine.We embrace, and kiss. Ricky scoops me off sofa and begins to carry me toward bedroom, singing."Hey," I say. "What you are doing me, huh?""Let's make a baby," he says.I have been asking for children since we married, but Ricky has always asked me to wait until his career was better, because, he said, he wanted to be hands-on father, unlike his own absentee dad. Besides which, he said it would be mistake for someone in his position to have children too young, because his career thrived on his appearance of youth, and young men weren't supposed to have children, especially not if they wanted their female fans to maintain the illusion that they might someday be his lovers. I'd wondered, silently of course, how he could keep that illusion if he were married, but I never asked."You are serious? You are ready?" I ask him, tears of joy forming in my eyes as he lowers me gently onto the bed.He looks deeply into my eyes, and answers simply. "Yes. Are you ready to give up modeling for a while?"I answer my husband with kiss. I am ready to give up modeling forever. I am ready to come back to life. Happiness tickles my body like sunlight on cold skin. I close my eyes and thank God for finally making Ricky happy.friday, march 22Well, hello there. Welcome to the job from hell. I'm Milan Gotay. I'll be your escort. If you feel happy, uplifted, or optimistic, come over here to my workplace for a while. We'll fix you right up. We'll make you dread your next breath. We'll make you call Dr. Kevorkian. It doesn't help that I'm dressed like a bag lady in yet another ankle-length, baggy linen dress suit from Ross, beige, complete with huge round plastic buttons, the kind that shatter in the washer like SweeTarts on molars. I know better. I really do. But I can't bring myself to spend real money on clothes for this job. I mean, no one sees me. Other than my uncle, who is my employer. What's the point?I should mention here that I'm dressed extra-baggy because I am scheduled to leave tomorrow morning on a weekend cruise with my mother and sister and I therefore want to hide today. For this same reason, I have a greasy white paper bag full of guava and cheesepastelitoson my desk, and a massive iced coffee. Yummy junk makes the day go faster.The cruise is my mother's great idea to get me and Geneva to trust each other again. It's actually called a Rebuilding Trust Cruise, and it's some genius new-age guru's scam to get a bunch of sad, angry people to pay money to do things like fall backward into each other's arms.Me? I think it's a really, really bad plan. I mean, get a bunch of people who hate each other to go out on the high seas for two days and one night of bonding? Hello? What is this guru chick smoking? I wonder if they do a complete head count. I bet the cruise comes back missing one or two people every time. I'm going to do my best not to push Geneva overboard, but I make no promises. Not only has she taken my boyfriends with alarming regularity, but she continues to make wardrobe suggestions in the form of her leftover accessories, which she leaves for me in slightly wrinkled white paper Neiman Marcus bags. I hate her, almost as much as I hate this job.I stare at the grim gray wall of my cubicle and contemplate quitting--for the seventy-sixth time today. I kick off the tight gray Payless pumps under my desk and rub my feet together in their runny hose. It makes a scratchy noise inside my legs. Yuck."No, Iknow Miami Stylemagazine doesn'tusuallyrun stories on regularity aids," I say, as sweetly as possible, into the phone."You mean laxatives?" asks the reporter on the other end."We say 'regularity aids.'"The reporter chuckles. I hate when they do that. I look around, find solace in the new photo of Ricky Biscayne I found inPeoplemagazine, which, to my great joy, just named him a "sexiest man alive." No argument there. If only to fall into his eyes instead of being ... here."Regularity aids," repeats the reporter, laughing. "Oh, shit. Er, no pun intended."I search the photo and notice that same redheaded musician in the background, staring right into the camera. Again I feel that weird pang in my heart. Like I've met him, or know him, something very eerie about him. He reminds me of a ghost for some reason, but a cute ghost--cute and mysterious. When I was little I used to think I saw ghosts. Maybe one of them looked like this guy.I look up at the round white clock on the wall in the hallway. It is the same plain kind of clock they used to have in my grade-school classrooms, with big black numbers, and it moves just as slowly. Two? How could it only be two? I glance down at the coffee-stained scripton my metal desk. I mean, do I really need a script for this? Shouldn't it go more like:Hello, I'm Milan and I'm here to try to sell you on the dumbest thing you've ever heard of?Whatever happened to honesty in business? Oh, wait. This is Miami. We never had that.I'm bored. By my life. It's a fine life. I know that. But it is damn boring.Just three more hours. Then I can go home and get ready for the book club, where tonight we will be analyzing the Kyra Davis novelSex, Murder and a Double Latte.Ilovemy book club. I love this book. Okay, muscle through it, Milan. Do it.I read the script out loud, as required by my uncle, "Because, you see, E-Z Go ismorethan just a regularity aid. It's alifestyle. From celebs to the pres, everyone has to go. And if you gotta go, why not E-Z Go?"I don't mean to sound like a freakin' droid, but comeon. The script is awful. But my boss and uncle, Tío Jesús, wrote it himself. Have I mentioned he has the writing ability of a fifth-grader? He thinks he's a good writer, though. He also thinks no one can tell that the hair on his forehead actually originates on the back of his head and is combed forward like a dead thing squished on the road. I have to read this script this exact way, every day. I'm also supposed to be pitching Tío's crapper drug for pregnant women, but I'm not all that sure it's, like, safe for fetuses. I don't want that kind of responsibility.As usual, I'm met with eerie silence, ghost-town, tumbleweed-blowing silence. There's nothing to ease the pain but the sickly motorized buzz of the window-unit air conditioner. Tío is too cheap for central air. Cheap bastard. Did the reporter hang up on me? It wouldn't have been the first time, certainly. My heart sinks. "Hello?" I call into the phone, as if yelling to the bottom of a well. "Hello?"Finally, the reporter speaks. "Uh, is this, like, ajoke? Did my boyfriend tell you to call?""No," I say. Well, actually, my careerisa joke. But that is obvious. At least it is obvious to everyone but my parents, who still, like, pretend to be proud that their little Milan is helping Tío Jesús with his shit business."Sorry. I thought it might be a joke.""That's okay," I say. I am a joke.I have to think of something, quick. I have to land a story, or I'm in trouble. I haven't landed a story in weeks. I flip through thePeoplemagazine in front of me, and stop on a golden, glowing photo of Jill Sanchez, the beautiful Puerto Rican movie star and singer, posing on a red carpet for the release of her latest line of exercise wear, her head turned sharply over her shoulder so that her rear end and big white smile are both aimed directly at the photographer. I feel a rush of small joy that a woman of ample tush might be a star in America. But as instantly as I feel pleasure at this thought, I feel sick that this woman looks as flexible and heartless as a panther. Jill has no back fat, just a lean little crease where the ribs begin. Like millions of other people, I hate Jill Sanchez because I'mnotJill Sanchez and will neverbeJill Sanchez."Uh, we might get Jill Sanchez as a spokesperson," I blurt, like an idiot. Oops! It was a complete lie, of course. From what little I know of her, Jill eats plenty of fiber and so would likely be quite regular all on her own. I feel guilty and weird for even picturing Jill Sanchez pooping, and silently ask La Caridad to forgive me.The reporter laughs even louder. "You picked the actress with the biggest ass in Hollywood? Oh, my God. Jill Sanchez, queen of the crapper. That's hilarious, dog." Reporters should not call publicists "dog." There's something very wrong with that.Laughter. Click. Dead space. Dial tone. Sinking feeling I might have just landed my beloved uncle a massive lawsuit. I place the black plastic receiver back in the cradle, tug at a strand of my flat, unstyled light brown hair, drop my head onto the stink-ass desk, and begin to cry. BecauseCosmopolitansays you're never supposed to let anyone see you cry at work, I stop. I live my life by magazines, just so you know. It's retarded, but I can't help it. I have no other barometer of what normal life is supposed to look like for normal American women. My favorite isInStyle,probably because I am utterly Out of Style. I look at the clock again. It isstilltwo. What the hell? How is it possible thattime moves backward here? I, of all people, work in the Twilight Zone. How nice.I hear Tío clear his throat in the next cubicle. Then, there he is. Uncle Jesús, or rather, Uncle Jesús's balding brown head, rising above the partition, followed by his thick round eyeglasses. He looks like a nearsighted thumb. I can almost hear the scary music playing, like the monster is coming. He was listening to me, of course. That's what he does. Eavesdrops on me all day long, and because I am family, he has no problem instantly critiquing my performances. Other employees get twice-yearly performance evaluations. Me? Twice an hour, if I'm lucky."I know," I say. I can't look up at that combover. I'll cry again. Anyway, I know what he's going to say. I put my hands over my ears but hear him anyway."You weren't aggressive enough," he says, in Spanish."I know.""You can't lie to reporters. It's not smart.""I know.""Why did you do that? Are you stupid?" He taps me on the back of the head with a piece of paper. I should file for abuse."I don't know," I say. Thinking, Yes, for taking this job."You better call back and tell them you lied.""I know.""If you don't make quota, we'll, uh, have to talk," he says."I know.""I meantalk.""I know.""I don't want to have to fire you. My own niece.""I know." Wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, now would it?Tío coughs. "My favorite niece.""I know," I say, but I know he's lying.Tío Jesús, like everyone else on planet Earth, prefers Geneva.
Ican't believe I, Geneva Gotay, a woman who prides herself on being alternative and cutting edge, am sitting outside on the patio at Larios in South Beach like a SoBe tourist. Belle is here, too, peeking up out of her little black carrier, and she's no more impressed with the place than I am. But this is where Ricky wanted to meet, so here I am, waiting for the sexy singer and his new manager, Ron DiMeola. If he'd said,Geneva, you pick the spot,I would never in a million years have chosen this. Too commercial. Too predictable. If it had been up to me, and if we'd had to stick to South Beach, I would have suggested China Grill, or Pao. Something elegant and cool. I love Asian food, and around here, you know, there's nothing exotic or particularly interesting about Cuban food--or Gloria Estefan, for that matter. Ricky picked Gloria's beachfront restaurant. You can take the neck chains off the boy, but ...It has been a little more than a month since I saw Ricky onThe Tonight Show.I can hardly believe how quickly everything has come together in setting up this meeting and getting him interested in my club. I shouldn't say that. I'm not surprised. I know how to get things done. I'm just excited. People always ask me how I "do it," meaning how successful I am at business, at nearly everything I try. The answer is simple. No fear. If I fail, I try again. And if I fail, I do it again. That's all. Again and again. There are two things I don't believe in: luck and failure. Setbacks only make me work harder. That, by the way, is also a Cuban thing. A recent piece in theHeraldtalked about how the Cubans who came to Miami twenty years ago in the Mariel Boatlift, penniless at the time, are now almost all middle class, making more money and finding more success in just one generation than did most Floridians who were native to the area. So, it goes without saying that I had no fear in calling Ricky directly and asking. And here I am.I'm wearing MaxMara, my favorite brand of the moment, a flirty ruffled miniskirt made of distressed pale cream and mustard floral silk, a tailored linen jacket with a Chinese collar, and strappy brown Giuseppe Zanotti sandals with a scorpion buckle. I've stacked each of my wrists in cream and kumquat chunky bangles, and my eyes arehidden behind a sexy pair of Salvatore Ferragamo sunglasses with creamy white rims that I picked up just this morning at the Bal Harbour shops. You might say I have a shopping fetish.My long black hair is flat-ironed into obedience. I wrapped a black and cream silk patterned scarf around my head this morning, like a gypsy headdress. I'm thinking this is my new look. The turban. I'm planning an exotic, mystical atmosphere for Club G, and figure I ought to live its essence every moment, embody the product I am selling, become one with my vision. My makeup is done in peach and gold tones that seem at once natural and luxurious, and slightly Eastern. Feeling, overall, pretty damn fabulous.I've already chatted with the Colombian valet, the Uruguayan hostess, and the Chilean busboy, because you never knew who you might need. The busboy?Pobrecito.He asked me if I was anovelastar. Said he recognized me from somewhere. This happens. Very sweet.The waiter brings me the glass of mineral water I ordered for me, and the bowl of bottled water for Belle. I thank him in Spanish. Never assume anyone in this town speaks English. Always assume they speak Spanish. I compliment his hands and leave him blushing. That's what I do. Position myself on top, the one making judgments, the one in charge, but in a roundabout way that makes others feel self-consciously happy. There is so much power in this method. Trust me. If you can get people to fall in love with you, you can accomplish anything.I look around at the city I grew up in and realize how much different it looks after being in Boston for a few years. Sometimes, you have to leave a place to understand it. I now realize that Miami wasn't a big deal until all the Cubans moved here in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Before us, it was a mosquito town. At the start of the twentieth century, there were only about a thousand people living in Miami. In the '60s, more than six hundred thousand Cuban exiles came here, fleeing communism. Hurricanes destroyed this city over and over, and nobody but us, apparently, had the tenacity, or stupidity, or mob connections, or all of the above, to keep rebuilding this place. Most of useither already had money or we had the education and desire to make money.Now, Miami is the largest Hispanic-majority city in the United States; as a group, Cuban-Americans have done better than pretty much any other immigrant group in the nation, which is amazing. Cuban-American women, as a subgroup, have higher levels of edua-tion and income than any other women in the United States. No, I didn't say any otherHispanicwomen; I said any otherwomen. We succeed at higher rates than all other women here. I attribute our success to our tendency to never give up and to fight with anyone and anything that gets in our way. We Cubans are a nation of pugilists, and we've turned Miami into a city of pugilists. Don't believe me? Go to any Cuban restaurant and stand near the outdoor coffee window, with all the men in guayaberas, and just listen to them. Fight, fight, fight. That's what Cubans do best. Fight, and eat.I'm not trying to insult my own people here. It's just that, as the Elián González and the Posada Carriles debacles showed, a tolerant bunch we are not. Once you leave Miami, you understand just how crazy we look to everyone else. We look like Naziscon sabor. That's what we look like. Don't let me get into this discussion with my father, though. Oh, man. It all ends there. He, like many of my countrymen, tolerates dissent and free speech as well as he might tolerate arsenic. There's a reason the highest suicide rates in the Americas are among Cuban women in Cuba, and Cuban-American males in the United States. Men lord it over women in Cuba, and once we women get here and get a taste of freedom, we love it. The men hate us for it in Miami, trust me.I check my watch. I walked here from my condo, but I'm ten minutes early. I hadn't meant to walk that fast. What to do? The worst thing is to do nothing, to sit and be stared at like a zoo animal. Especially here. I hope I don't see anyone I know. I hate zoos, the whole animal sense of having nothing to do but wait to be fed, ogled, or die. That awful feeling of never-ending, dependent pause. I never go to movies alone, either.Blissfully, my cell phone rings. I look at the caller ID. Ignacio, the black Cuban ballet dancer I've been dating--one of theMarielitosI told you about who's done well here. I answer the phone and speak sweetly to him. I reallydofeel a certain excitement when he calls, even though I never intended this to be a relationship; I intended it to be occasional sex. I've had a few black sex partners; I have a thing for black guys, especially if they wear baseball caps backward and "wife beater" tank tops. But Ignacio is different. He's very well educated, talented, funny, and smart, and I fear I'm starting to really like him.He asks me to attend a book reading with him later tonight. Uh-oh. We've, you know, never been on a real, officialdatebefore. I'm also not the poetry-reading type. Why would a person sit and listen to a poem if you could read it? And another question: Do you go on a date with your sex toy? Would that ruin everything? Would we have anything to talk about for that long? Would I see someone I know?He rattles off the details--it's an exile poet he knew back in Cuba. Safe. No one in my crowd would attend something like that. I say yes. I don't want to be out too late tonight, since I have to get up early and go on the Trust Cruise my mom bought for me and Milan. Mom seems to think my sister and I have deep-seated issues, that we don't trust each other. The sad truth is that Milan is so dull it is impossible to have issues with her; I don't think about Milan often enough or with enough energy to make it worthwhile to trust or not trust her. She's a big blank in my life. We don't have much in common, we don't have much to talk about, and I leave it at that. I do not mistrust my sister. To mistrust someone, you have to actually care deeply about what they think.I rummage through my Luella Carmen "biker bag" and remove my Shiseido lip base, liner, color, and gloss, and apply them in the four steps. Afterward, I wish I had a newspaper to read, or my BlackBerry to check e-mail; I left the latter in the car. I take a pen from the bag and start writing key words I want people to associate with Club G on the drinks menu, which I've removed from its holder. Nothing helpsyou focus more than writing things down. I write everything down. All the time.Theme and vibe. Colorful. Rich. Eastern influences. Gold, red, orange. The colors of the sun on your eyelids. Cardamom. Green mango. Bedouin tents. Draping silk. Sahara. Soft floors. Oasis. Belly-dance. Koi. Nutmeg. Musk. Huge red pillows. Tiny round mirrors. Tassels. Secluded tentlike corners for making out. Folds of cloth on every surface. Womblike. Warm. Tropical but not in a Miami sense. Tropical in a sweepingly dry Moroccan sense. Throbbing. Sexual. Female staff dressed in see-through harem garb. Lots of abs. G-strings. Male staff shirtless with harem pants. Genies. Magical. The colors of curry. Soft, sexy lighting. Sex. Money. Harem. Sex, everywhere. Nude portraits. Graphic yet tasteful sex photos, hard to tell what they are unless looking very hard or very drunk. Sex. Money. Oil. Power. Sin. Pleasure. Genghis Khan. Pleasure dome. Power did decree.I look up and see Ricky Biscayne pull up to the curb in a black BMW 5 series. I have a white one. We have matching cars. That's kind of cool, anyway. At least he has good taste in vehicles.He is alone. I fold the menu and stash it in my handbag with the pen. He gets out, hands the keys to the valet, and I see his faded jeans with the big patch on the knee, yellow silk guayabera, and dress shoes. He looks good, but sort of clothing-clueless. I call out to him and wave. He smiles and joins me at the table, as most of the diners stare in awe. They all seem to recognize him, which is exactly as I hoped it would be. Why bother to get a nobody to invest in your club? You need star power if you want to get anywhere in the club business in this town. That, and a theme that sets you apart."Hi, Ricky. I'm Geneva Gotay. It's really great to meet you."I stand up and hold my hand out to shake his, but he pulls me in for a strong embrace, kissing me on both cheeks, the Miami way. Hesmells of lettuce and tobacco, and his skin feels cool and slightly clammy."¡Coño!You're prettier than I expected,morenita," he says, flirting. Even Ricky recognizes that I look black. But my own parents? Forget it. They think we're white. In Boston, everyone assumed I was black. He glances down at Belle, who pants up at him. "Cute dog," he says."Thanks," I say.He sits across from me at the square, beige granite table and takes off his sunglasses. I am still turned on from imagining what Club G would mean to amorous drunk people, so I instantly want to jump him, lame jeans and all. He'd probably be an incredible sex toy. You can just tell which guys get it and which guys don't. His eyes are his best feature, almost amber yellow, with green and brown flecks, intelligent and angry as hell. I hadn't realized the anger bit when I saw him on television. On TV, the anger comes across as lust. There's a fine line between the two, really, if you think about it. He's got that proverbial bad-boy thing. He's dangerous, that's what he is. Danger, of the nature that women crave like chocolate."Yeah, girl," he says, in a joking manner, doing his hands like a gang member. I would like to say it's unnatural, but it's not. He's steeped in it. "Harvard Business School. I just think something different when I think that. You don't look Harvard. Dang, girl. Hey." He sits up straighter, leans down to pet Belle, winning points with me. "Is it true your mom is Violeta, with the radio show?""Yeah.""Cool! My moms loves that show. She listens to it every day." He fingers a crucifix around his neck."Really? That's funny.""Your mom be talking about some crazy things," he says. "She's allpuñeta y pinga y to' eso,man."On second thought, maybe I wouldn't do him, even if he asked. I like my dangerous men to at the very least have safe grammar. I smilewith my nose, a snooty little prep-girl smile, to let him know that I'll humor him but don't find him all that charming. All those years at Ransom Everglades School made me a first-class snob, when I need to be. He gets it, and looks away, shifts in his seat."Nah, you know." He scans the crowd and tries not to look hurt. "You really do look better than I thought." He leans back in his seat, hands clasped behind his head, and licks his lips at me. "You got plans tonight?""Yes, thanks," I say. "Poetry reading."His brows shoot up and he laughs. "Okay, girl, I'm scared ofyounow. Check you out." Why is he speaking Ebonics?I decide to do the all-business approach. I look at my watch. "So, Ricky. Where's your manager? I thought he was coming, too?"Ricky shrugs. "Ron? Nah. Thatmamabichoain't coming. He got business in the Cayman Islands. I don't think I need him for this. I trust you."Business in the Cayman Islands? That's not good, is it? Only dealers and money launderers have business in the Cayman Islands. "But you just met me," I say. "How can you trust me?""You got Harvard, you look awesome, you're a Miami homegirl." Ricky sniffles and rubs his nose with the back of his hand. He clears his throat and places a cool, clammy hand on top of mine. "So, beautiful, where do I sign up?""You're joking, right?" It can't be this easy."Not at all," he says.Someone should counsel this man, I think. He could very well sign his life away to a pretty girl. Is he really this stupid? I'm stunned. Someone should save him from himself. But not me. Not now. I caught him, and I'm not letting go. I smile sweetly, and remove a contract and silver Tiffany pen from my briefcase.I wonder if there's room for Ricky on the Trust Cruise.
Matthew Baker sits in the recording studio in his usual work clothes--black jeans and a faded Green Day T-shirt, with a warped and well-loved Marlins baseball cap to protect the prematurely bald spot on the top of his head. He is twenty-eight and has been losing his hair steadily for the past seven years.For this and several other reasons, Matthew Baker is incapable of recognizing that many women find him mysteriously attractive. Most attractive about him are his smallish, dark brown eyes, which turn slightly downward at the outer edges, the heavy-hooded eyes of a thinker, affecting eyes that make women want to find out what's on his mind.But Matthewknowsnone of this, even when told. In his heart, he knows only that he ispathetic. Every morning, he counts on finding a mess of short red hairs tangled in the shower drain, and every morning, as he wipes them up, flicks them from his fingertips, and flushes them, he feels a little less attractive to the entirety of womankind. Given that his hair had beenbright redto begin with, he feels that the powers of the universe were particularly unkind to him when doling out the details in his "appearance" column. He doesn't see any godly reason why he should have to be balding, redheaded, freckled, chubby,andshort. What, did God hate him? Five-foot-nine, unlikely. That, in a nutshell, is how Matthew Baker perceives himself: short, bald, and unlikely. Unlikely to ever get another date, now that he's been dumped, for the third time, by the same plain yet brilliant and passionate woman.Matthew presses the button on the computer and the song he's been working on all day starts to play through the speakers. It is almost finished. It's a ballad about strolling in Milan, Italy, with a soulful woman, called "The Last Supper." He's been laying down the keyboards, the drums, and the background vocals for a single on the upcoming new Ricky Biscayne Spanish-language song. Bored, he's gone ahead and recorded the lead track as well. Ricky's Englishcrossover, which mostly features Matthew's singing, truth be told, is slammin', burning up the charts. Ricky wanted to do nothing but English from now on, but Matthew has persuaded him not to give up his original core Spanish audience, the ones who will, Matthew figures, still love him after America's love affair with the hot-new-Latin-sensation crap peters out. Didn't Ricky understand yet that the American media could not make room for a Latino star for more than a season or two? It doesn't matter how talented the star is. Latin seems to mean trendy and disposable to mainstream America. Every six or seven years, it seems like, the country announces the arrival of "Latino chic," only to let it die out again the following year, every new wave of it seeming to have been the first ever. Ridiculous.Matthew closes his eyes and listens to the melody and lyrics, both of which he's written. As he focuses, a new harmony line comes to him. He writes it down, fighting the urge to go back into the studio and record it. Damn. The song sounds fuckinggreat. Once he learns the song, Ricky will have another hit record. All those years of songwriting classes at Berklee College of Music are finally paying off for Matthew, as the craft gets easier, and more exciting. Sort of paying off, anyway. Ricky makes mad money these days, and Matthew knows he ought to be entitled, by virtue of creative input, to a big cut of it. But Ricky has him on a yearly salary. It isn't the best setup. But Matthew has not been raised to associate art and creativity with money. He has never really been in music for the money. People who look like Ricky might go into the business for money. But guys who look like Matthew are usually musicians because they love music, period. Matthew knows he's a dipshit about the money. He'll have a talk with Ricky one of these days, and see if there isn't something they can do, an arrangement they can come to, that would be a little more fair. Matthew's mother and father might not have taught him the importance of business sense and money, but they had taught him the value of karma and justice."Time to go," he says to himself, though even as he says it he realizes there is no reason to rush back to his apartment. There is no onewaiting for him, and nothing much for him to do once he gets home. But the principle of the thing makes him leave work. That's what people do, right? Normal people. Normal, twenty-something people. They leave work at the end of the day, even if they love their art so much they would gladly stay up all night working. They go home and have lives. Matthew has a home, or at least an apartment. The life thing, however, continues to elude him, particularly here in Miami, where he never has, and probably never will, fit in.For years, growing up in San Francisco and elsewhere, Matthew had looked at the shiny men's dress shoes in department stores and wondered just who thehellwore the kinds with tassels or black-and-white cowhide. He'd wondered the same thing of belts. Now he knew. Men in Miami wear those things. He'd never met a bigger bunch of preppy pretty boys than the Latino dudes in this city, all of them walking around in a fog of Gucci cologne with the kind of jeans you could buy only in Europe. You wouldn't think any real men would wear something like yellow moccasins until you moved here, and he isn't just talking about sissy men, either. Macho men wear soft leather fancy shoes here, and they never seem to skip a day of shaving. The men in Miami seem to moisturize. He's never seen anything like it. A slob at heart and in appearance, Matthew despises Miami for its lack of hippies, hairy-pit women, and messy artistic-looking men. Men like him. This city, in the humble opinion of Matthew Baker, is too fucking slick, so slick it's greasy.Matthew locks up the recording studio at Ricky Biscayne's house, waves good-bye to Jasminka, who lies mournfully by the pool like a dried-out piece of model jerky. In another time and place, she would have floored him with her beauty. But around here, she is common. The women who get your attention in Miami Beach are the fat ones, because they are rare. Beautiful women? Everywhere you look. This is why Matthew often feels like a starving man at a banquet, forbidden to eat. So many amazing women, and not a single one interested in him.She raises a weak-looking bone of an arm and waves back, like something dragged from a concentration camp. She has all these redmarks on her arms. Matthew has asked Ricky about it and now knows that Jasminka cuts herself. What kind of crap is that? Matthew feels sorry for her, but even more than that he finds her creepy. She is impossibly skinny, like an alien. It is sick to be that skinny. And then the cutting. People have issues. He doesn't care how rich, famous, or pretty you are, you have shit you want to hide from other people and that is all there is to it. People are weird and complicated and, at the moment, he is sick of feeling sorry for them, especially Jasminka. Matthew wants to feed her all the time. Ricky never seems to notice how sad his wife is, or how needy, how chopped up. Ricky doesn't get it.Matthew walks to the side yard to unchain his Trek bicycle from the trellis. He doesn't know where Ricky is, and he feels oddly liberated by Mr. Super Stud's absence. There was a time, almost ten years ago, after meeting as insecure students at Berklee, when he and Ricky had been dorm mates and, he thought, good friends, talking music until late in the night, hitting clubs, laughing over pizza and Celtics games. Back then, they joked about how ungodly, stupidly fuckingprettyRicky was, and how ridiculously, volcanically rich Matthew's "Barry White voice" seemed for his skin tone and size. Matthew thought Ricky looked like a soap-opera actor, and Ricky thought Matthew looked like a baby that might have been produced by a union between Ren and Stimpy. Both guys could sing in those days. Matthew thought Ricky sounded like Luis Miguel or something. Ricky thought Matthew sounded like Bono, which he probably did back then, having been very into Bono at the time.Back then, they had joked about how Ricky, the "Latino" from Miami, spoke worse Spanish than Matthew, the "gringo" from San Francisco. In truth, Matthew's hippie parents had been Baha'i missionaries in Panama and Bolivia for much of his childhood, and he'd grown up in weirdly scratchy homemade pants tied on with string, often shoeless, living between small towns in Latin America and the family's small bungalow house in a shady part of Oakland. And by shady he meant drive-bys, not trees.Matthew begins to pedal home--a one-bedroom SoBe condo withfuton furniture, a dead houseplant, and not a whole lot else. Matthew can afford more. Ricky pays him about eighty thousand a year. Not bad in Miami. But the truth is, Matthew doesn't know how to decorate, or shop. Those things don't matter much to him. What he lacks in furniture, he makes up for in musical equipment. He has more than twenty guitars, many keyboards, computers, drums, all manner of instruments. His apartment looks like a pawnshop.He thinks about Ricky as he rides. Ricky seems to be getting progressively less mature as time goes on, and these days he goes to a lot of beachy hotel parties without Matthew, seeming to prefer his shiny new crowd of lame-ass wannabe models and stars. What sucks even bigger-time is that Ricky seems like he can't sing as well now as he could five years ago. Like he got a throat disease or something. He coughs and hacks and sniffles, like he's got tuberculosis or a hairball. He seems like he can't focus to save his life. Matthew has a feeling that the decline in singing ability has to do with the increasing frequency with which Ricky indulges his curiosity about tobacco and cocaine, but he has no proof of the latter, other than the red nose. He knows better than to ask about it, because Ricky doesn't like to talk about weaknesses. No, he takes that back. Ricky likes to talk aboutotherpeople's weakness, just not his own.Just the other day, when Ricky was introducing Matthew to some of his new management-team members, he'd joked that Matthew was "the Baha'i Rick Astley," which stung like a motherfucker. Fuck Rick Astley. Okay? If you were a redheaded male singer, you didnotwant that comparison, okay? Matthew knows he himself isn't heartthrob material like Ricky, and he knows he'll never make any man-of-the-year lists, other than "most sunburned." But Matthew has musical talent, and a powerful singing voice that he uses more and more to bolster Ricky's weakening one. That deserves respect, as does the fact that most of Ricky's songs have been written or at least cowritten by Matthew, even if he rarely gets official credit because he is way too nice, because somehow his role was grandfathered in, from the days before success, and never updated.Matthew whistles the latest melody he's come up with as he leaves for home, and congratulates himself for actually riding his bike to work today. He's put on a few pounds in the past couple of years. Lonely, he's substituted eating for company. He wants to lose weight, but he doesn't want to have to stop eating to do it.He slips the round white plastic earpieces from his iPod into his ears and begins to pump his short, bowed legs. The ride from Ricky's house to Matthew's small apartment takes about ten minutes, and by the time he gets there he is exhausted. Not physically exhausted, but emotionally exhausted.Matthew has once again made the mistake of spending the entire bike ride thinking about Eydis, the ghostly, somewhat plain Icelandic singer he fell for at Berklee. She has a voice that reminds him of the aurora borealis, just like he wrote in the song no one knew was his love letter to her. And a sense of humor that catches everyone off guard. She also speaks six languages and hopes to live one day in Milan, Italy. He's never met anyone as amazing as Eydis. She also happens to have a wonderfully full bottom, a butt like an upside-down valentine, and Matthew is a butt man. Anyway, he has her favorite playlist of dreary ECM artists programmed into his iPod, that's what exhausted his ass. Listening to Eydis's favorite songs. The sickeningly sweet memory of that horrible, wonderful woman.They met in music history and dated for five years. She is taller than he is but told him his height didn't matter. She told him he had the most penetrating and intelligent gaze she'd ever seen. She was the only woman he'd ever known who thought he was better-looking than Ricky. She'd performed amazing, biteless oral sex, lodging a vibrator against her cheek as she sucked him, delivering a most unnerving and amazing sensation. They shared a passion for Thai food and Monty Python. He loved her, both the pure and the raunchy bits. He wanted to marry her. Then she dumped him for some hairy-assed, hairy-backed, hairy-eared Israeli drummer in the cruise-ship band she had taken up with. Dude looked like a really handsome Wookie. Eydis is stupid about men. She falls for them all.This last dumping of Matthew happened about six months ago. Matthew was blindsided by it, but Ricky, during a late-night session involving two six-packs of Fat Tire, had sagely pointed out that it should not have come as a surprise, given that Eydis had cheated on and dumped Matthew Baker on exactly three previous occasions, always returning like a pigeon when the new relationship petered out, cooing for him to take her back. Matthew realizes he is Eydis's stocky security blanket, and part of him hopes she will one day outgrow her infidelities and finally settle down with him. Unlike Ricky, who claims to detest children, Matthew loves them. During his years with his parents in Bolivia and Panama, it was the children who were the most forgiving, the most hopeful. Childrenrocked.For his love of children and Eydis, Ricky calls Matthew a pussy, and Matthew is not sure Ricky has it wrong on the Eydis portion. In fact, if Eydis were to show up at his door tonight, begging him to take her back again, he would. There's a chance. She's in town. He knows her schedule, and he knows her ship leaves tomorrow. If she were to trip up the stairs and beg, he'd take her back. That might just have been another list to which the unlikely Matthew could imagine himself topping--biggest dumb-ass pussy of the year. Sounds about right to him. He thinks for a moment about heading down to the docks to try to talk to her before her ship sets off again. He knows more or less what time she'd get there. He might casually bump into her, and casually beg her to come back to him. It could work.The whole reason Matthew moved to Miami--aside from working with Ricky--was to be able to see Eydis on her days off, when her Carnival ship docked and she came ashore to love him. Six months since the latest dump, and he still hasn't gotten over it, or dated anyone. When you look like Matthew Baker, in Matthew Baker's opinion, you don't just go up to women and ask them out, because you risk nine times out of ten having them laugh at you in front of their friends. He figures he'll never date again, unless the thing with the hairy Israeli doesn't work out, of course, and then, there he'd be, pussy boy, begging.Friday night in South Beach. Oh, man. It is going to be a crazy one, he can tell. His gay neighbors have told him that South Beach is only 10 percent gay these days, that all the hip gays have moved on to Belle Meade or Shorecrest. Still, Matthew feels like his neighborhood isfullof gay guys because, having grown up mostly in South America, where no one talks about homosexuality, he still cannot get used to the feeling of men's eyes on him. The Saint Patrick's Day spring-break stupidity would be going on tonight, and there would be drunk tourists and other weirdos puking green beer all over, girls sucking Jell-O shots out of each other's navels, and the like. The only place he could imagine that would be crazier than South Beach was Rio. Maybe Gomorrah, Sodom, one of those. He'd have to get upstairs and hole himself in.Matthew observes the crowd of cars already clogging the street, feels depressed. There are beer-faced frat boys, fat tourists in pastel shirts, models, golden girls with Ann Richards hair, rowdy groups of big-nose girls from Brazil and Japan who look pretty from only the chin down, drag queens, and insecure middle-aged men who drive penis cars and rev the engines at intersections. He really doesn't fit in in Miami, but even less so aroundhere. Somewhere, there must be a place where he'd actually fit in. The closest he's come is San Francisco, the thought of which makes him even gloomier. You can't make a living as a pop musician in San Francisco. You just can't. The city is too damn laid-back for hard-hitting pop music of the kind that Matthew likes to make.Speaking of which, a car drives past now, blasting Ricky's English hit song. It is surreal. The male driver sings along, and looks at Matthew like he's scum, like the driver is much cooler than Matthew for listening to a hip Latin singer, and the driver has no clue that Matthew not only wrote the song but is the main voice on the recording, too. Life is too weird sometimes.All his life, ever since he was a little boy listening to crackly radios in homes and shops in Latin America, ever since he got his first guitar when he was four years old, Matthew has written songs. It came naturallyto him, so naturally that he never really considered it a talent. Talent seemed like something that had to be at least a little bit challenging. Music was fun, and easy. By the time he was ten, Matthew was a master guitarist, and he'd composed more than a hundred songs. That's just the way he is and has always been. When he was about twelve, he decided that he wanted to grow up to hear one of his songs on the radio. Now, with four years of working with (for?) Ricky Biscayne, Matthew has heard exactly eleven of his songs on the radio in Miami. It is fucking amazing, as Ricky would say. But this one, the English-crossover tune, his song for Eydis, is the first one that has hit hard in the mainstream market, and sinceThe Tonight Showperformance it has steadily climbed the charts and seems to be headed where none of Matthew's work has gone before: The Billboard Hot 100.Matthew is so happy, he even waves at the guys in frayed Daisy Dukes who whistle at him across the street. They know it bugs the crap out of him when they do that--the shorts and the harassment. They have told him they wanted to "queer eye" him, meaning make him over. Shudder. Women. He likes women, thank you very much. Every size of woman, every color. He loves them all. Even the pregnant ones are sexy and sensual to Matthew, who thinks women rule the universe with life-giving powers.The only women he sees regularly are Ricky's wife and her model friends, them and the various skeezer bitches who work for Ricky and blow him whenever he asks; but they are not appealing, quite the opposite. He does not, under any circumstances, want his dick in a mouth that once held Ricky's dick. He of all people knows the countless orifices into which Ricky has dipped himself. No thanks. Also unappealing are Ricky's assorted groupies, who actually offer with some regularity to do Matthew if he'll introduce them to Ricky. The thought is as appealing to Matthew Baker as electrodes to the nuts.In desperation, Matthew signed up for an online dating service a month ago, but has yet to actually ask anyone out. The women on there scare him, with those weirdly fishbowl-looking gray photos it looks like they took of themselves next to their computers with digitalcameras. They must be very lonely to have to take their own photos like that, with the extended arm showing and the nose too big because of the weird angle. So far, he's heard from only one woman, whose profile talks mostly about her childhood sexual abuse and trust issues. He did not take her up on an offer to get togther at a tattoo parlor. They have to be as desperate as he is, and that isn't good.Matthew climbs the three flights of stairs to his apartment, wades through the shrapnel of his life, chords and keyboards, guitars and take-out trash, and opens the freezer. Ice cream. Chunky Monkey. A DiGiorno pizza. In the fridge, he finds a couple of Sam Adams bottles. Those, and a couple of hours of channel surfing, and he'll be all set. Yup, all set. The way Matthew sees it, going out is expensive and pointless, and he's earned the calories and mindless television.
Bulls tapdance on my cranium. The headache has as a backdrop a sore lower back and an aching belly, all foretelling the arrival of yet another glorious period in the barren land of Milan. I would like to take the Pill, like Geneva, but I wouldn't want my dad to find the pills and flip out on me. He thinks I'm a virgin, and for some stupid reason this is very important to him.As the decrepit ice maker in the office kitchen down the hall plops out its latest frigid offerings with a harshthunk thunk thunk,I gather my belongings, consisting of a purse and a purple vinyl lunch bag probably intended for children. I rush past the sound of Tío Jesús bellowing into the phone to one of his suppliers, and hurry out the door of the glorified trailer that is the E-Z Go offices, into the muggy gray light of Overtown, by many estimates the most miserable and cock-roached neighborhood in Miami. I instantly hear sirens, emergency vehicles rushing somewhere in crisis. Welcome to Overtown.My breasts bounce a little as I trot to my car, tender and lifeless with the PMS stupidity. I need to shorten the straps on my bra. I'm too lazy to remember to do that. I can feel myself bloating, swelling up like Harry Potter's evil aunt in that movie. I need an elastic waistband.And more pastries. Oh, and coffee. Mmm, coffee. A good book wouldn't hurt. Thank God it's Friday--book-club night with Las Loquitas del Libro! I can't wait to see the girls and listen to them laugh as their spoons click comfortingly against the porcelain of their coffee cups. Best sounds in the world.I hear something rustle in the bushes, probably something delightfully Overtown, like a rat snacking on a pigeon carcass. Miami is wonderful, yes, if you are in the right places. In the wrong places, it is disgusting, with things that never rot in trash cans, things that just mold and puff up and ooze--kind of like me at the moment, come to think of it. I feel disgusting. I need a shower. I push aside the food wrappers and old mail in the driver's seat of my Neon, and dump my tired body into it. I engage the door locks and the air-conditioning, which somehow comes out smelling like dirty feet and tuna fish (time to change the filter?). I drive as quickly as possible through the neighborhood and onto the freeway. There are always stories in theHeraldabout carjackings and rapes, and, you know, I don't really want to be that kind of story. Or any kind of story, unless it involves marrying, or at the very least screwing, Ricky Biscayne. Which I'd do, in a second. Even if he's married. If Ricky Biscayne had a harem, I'd happily join it.Once I'm zipping along--or as close to zipping as one can get in a Dodge Neon--I turn the dial to my mother's AM radio talk show,El Show de Violeta.It started as a local show, initially aimed at the Cuban-exile community, women in particular, but now, as Miami's Hispanic demographics have grown more diverse, Mom's show is aimed at Spanish-speaking women in general. Violeta has been doing the daily show for twenty years, and has never been paid for it, which Geneva and I agree is just plain wrong. Bear in mind that Geneva and I rarely agree on anything, and I am telling you right now that the Trust Cruise tomorrow is not going to change a single thing. I will never, repeatnever,trust my sister. But we don't tell Mom anything. She's the one who likes giving advice, much of it hypocritical, particularly the stuff about fidelity and marriage, two subjects neither of my parents seems to know anything about."Hoooollllaaaaa, Miami," cries my mother in her trademark greeting, through the crackling speakers I long ago blew with loud Ricky. Jesus God! She sounds like a macaw. She belongs at Parrot Jungle, pecking seeds out of children's hands. She continues in Spanish, "Happy Friday! Welcome toThe Violeta Show! Today we have sexologist Miriam Delgado joining us from Mercy Hospital, to talk about an issue that affects many marriages, but which many in our community don't feel comfortable talking about. I'm talking about the clitoris."I search the car for something to throw up in. Theclitoris? Really? My mom's going to spend the next hour talking aboutthat? You don't even like to think your momhasone, let alone listen to her talk about it for a whole damn hour. God. It's a good thing my dad doesn't ever listen to the show. He thinks it's silly, figures she talks about cooking and cleaning, and I don't think he's heard a single one in ten years. I don't know how he'd handlethistopic. He's a bitmachista. I doubt he knows what the clitoris is, much less where. Eew? Can I please not be having these thoughts? Is this not a form of child abuse?Mom pauses for emphasis, and I can almost see her serious frown. Then, dramatic as someone doing a dying scene in a Shakespeare play, Mom drops her voice and says, "Dr. Delgado, welcome to the show.""Thank you, Violeta," says Dr. Delgado, without a hint of humor. She sounds really old, like an antique piano being pried open. "It's a real pleasure to be here with you today, talking about marriage and the female clitoris."Ralph. No, seriously, I'm going to be sick. And traffic is hardly moving. Is there amaleclitoris? Please tell me I didn't miss that chapter in the Kama Sutra.Suddenly, my headache gets worse, and I feel something sticky and primordial splooge out of me. Great. Nothing like blood oozing into the stained seat of your Neon.Have I mentioned I'd like a new life? Yeah. And a new car, too. A white Mercedes, to compete with Geneva's white Beemer.My dream car.
My name is Jasminka, and I'm still alive.The bloodlike, saline scent of ocean swirls around us, blowing in off beach a block away. Ricky holds my hand as we walk past paparazzi and gawking tourists toward door of Tides South Beach hotel. I wear bright blue cotton robe, with sandals, thong sandals. Ricky is dressed in jeans and trench coat, I don't know why. He looks like detective from bad movie. He acts like one, too.I'm here for a photo shoot, for a spread on the top swimsuit models in Miami, to appear inMaxim,and Ricky said he had to come with me. I used to be able to go to shoots alone, but recently Ricky seems very possessive, afraid I might cheat on him. He talks about it all the time, as if I would do such thing. I have never considered the possibility. Besides which, I'm feeling sick today. Why would I be looking for men to cheat on my husband with? Poor Ricky. I wonder what's troubling him. I hope he's not projecting.Some of the photographers shout his name, and mine. They snap photos of us. Ricky holds hand up in front of one of the cameras and tells man to leave us alone. I'm not the only model here today. There are ten of us. A nice, round number. And the media are out in swarms.We enter hotel lobby and people turn to stare. I breathe in the cool vanilla scents of lobby as they whisper through it. It's a fashionable crowd, self-conscious as they tend to be at these hotels. I don't know why social life of Miami must revolve around hotels, especially for people who actually live here, but that's how it is. Hotels are more than just places to stay here. They are places to go to be seen. Ricky loves it, I can tell by way he carries himself, like one of those male pigeons that chases the female ones around, cocky and proud. It's so soothing here, cool and white.Almost as soon as we enter, young woman with black cat-eye glasses and a flippy pink shoulder-length hairdo rushes over to us withwalkie-talkie in her hand. She wears all black. I assume she is publicist or assistant. This is their uniform, and they almost never laugh. I wonder, if you tickled her, would she even smile? She smells of men's cologne, of lime and salt, like a margarita."Jasminka," she says, very serious. I nod behind my large sunglasses and do my best to smile. I feel like I have hangover, except I haven't been drinking. I grab on to Ricky for balance. I'm hungry, but sick. The woman grumbles something I can't understand into her walkie-talkie, puts it on her ear to listen for a response. "They'll be right over to get you," she says. I realize now that she has British accent. I am getting better at telling different accents apart. Everybody speaking English used to sound the same to me. Maybe her perfume is English.Ricky pulls me in and kisses me dramatically, as if he has something to prove to everyone here. "I love you," he says. I taste tobacco on his lips, the secret smoke he tries to keep from his fans. I see lights from flashbulbs popping off and realize there are lots of photographers here, too. I don't understand why they care so much about the lives of two strangers. We're not even very interesting if you think about it--at least I'm not.Soon, two large men with shaved heads appear at my side. With them is short, thin man with unmistakably gay hand gestures, wearing leopard-print shirt that is far too tight and short. I don't like to see man's nipples through shirt. He introduces himself as fashion director for magazine, and after we all shake hands and they all tell me how fabulous I look, they whisk us off to bar. The shoot is going to take place here, in the 1220 Bar, the director tells me, though I assumed as much from army of technicians in the place. Lighting, hair, makeup, wardrobe, nails, you name it. Everyone has staked out their own little corner of bar and started to set up.I see four of other models huddled at table, sipping iced tea or water. It smells of grilled steaks and balsamic vinegar in here, pepper too, and I think we must be close to a kitchen for one of restaurants. I wave and smile, but the thought of tea makes me faint."I need to sit down," I tell Ricky. He scans the room and settles onspot at the shiny, thick blue-glass bar. A spot far from everyone else. I wonder why he never seems to want to socialize with others when I'm around. An assistant rushes over and tells us not to dirty the glass because photos are going to be shot at the bar. Ricky nods, hostile. He doesn't like being out of his element. This is my element, and he doesn't like that I have advantage. He likes to be in control."I want this to be last one for a while," I say."The last what, baby?" he asks me."Shoot.""Yeah?" His eyes wander room, and he doesn't seem to be listening to me. I want to quit modeling, but I don't think this is right time to talk about it. I am sad he isn't listening, and sadder that he hasn't noticed I am ill."Ricky, get me some soda water please?" I ask him."Huh? Oh, sure."He leaves me at counter and heads for the catering table. I still don't know why they cater these things. Surely the fruits and pastries aren't for models. They must be for the photographers and assistants and magazine people. Ricky returns with regular Coke. I feel sad again, and my forehead has small beads of sweat on it, even though I feel cold."I can't drink this," I tell him."Why not?" He's looking around room, at all the models who are stringing in. Right in front of me, he stares like fox with its tongue hanging out. Like I'm not here."I am trying to stop caffeine, I told you," I say. I think I might be pregnant, so I've stopped all things that might harm baby. I took home pregnancy test last night, and even though I'm not supposed to take it for another few days, it looked positive to me. The cross in the results window meant pregnant, and even though the two pink lines were pale, they werethere.I'm sure. Ricky doesn't believe I'm pregnant because sometimes I have irregular periods from not eating enough, but I feel sick and think it's a sign. Ricky thinks I'm sick because I quit smoking and started eating broccoli and taking prenatal vitamins from the drugstore. "Plus, all that sugar. I can't."Ricky rolls his eyes as if I've done something to annoy him, mutters"pendejo,"and starts back toward catering table. I reach out to stop him. "No," I say, "it's okay. I'm fine. Don't worry about it."As soon as last model arrives, and, no surprise, it's a Canadian girl, French Canadian, that everyone is raving about, a young girl with a drug problem who is notoriously late for everything and will likely burn out soon, the fashion director claps his hands to get our attention. He calls us "girls," and tells us that we're going to be at bar, in bikinis, holding but not sipping colorful drinks, that overall "effect" he wants is of "lifeless, frozen girls, you aresexy cadavers,girls, got that? You are rigormortison these cold metal seats with your legs spread and your breasts hanging out blue and cold, like you're waiting for the man of your dreams to come and warm you up and bring you back to life with his big, hotuhhhh." As he grunts last word, he thrusts his girlie hips forward and back, and I feel even sicker.There's something very sick about this business, I think. Some of these girls aren't even eighteen yet, but that's how they talk to us all the time.We models are corralled toward the wardrobe section of the room, and I suddenly wish Ricky would leave. He's only husband here, and all of us are about to strip and put on bathing suits. I don't really want him looking at all these other women naked and bending over. But he's sitting, in chair now, watching it all with a strange smile on his face. I remove my clothes, and my breasts feel very tender out of the bra, like they felt when they were first growing when I was eleven. I feel sort of sick, and a little bloated. I'm used to being naked in front of people, it's just part of the business, but the thought that I might be pregnant makes me feel very exposed, as if I want to hide away in cave.The wardrobe director chooses white and orange Onda de Mar bikini for me, sporty and psychedelic. I love it, the way it hugs my breasts to chest, keeps them safe and snug, and want to keep it. The bottom is roomy, not thong, and I'm thankful for that. I am in no mood to be exposed too much right now. I can't. I hope they let mekeep bathing suit. I mean, after you wear bikini, you know. It gets personal.I try not to look too much at the other girls as they bend and stuff themselves into their suits. There's so much competition. I have to remind myself all the time that I am as good as others, and that they are as good as me, that we are all equal. But it's hard not to look at their thighs to see if they're touching, or not to feel a little bit proud that someone else might have a dimple of cellulite in a place where I don't. I don't like being this way. I am not proud of what modeling has done to me. I size up other women all the time.We head over to the hair station, and the stylists start to come up with their creations. I glance at Ricky and try to see through his pants with X-ray vision to see if anything has occurred that shouldn't have, from him looking at all these naked, beautiful women. He's staring at young black model who is bent over, mooning him. How can he do that to me? He shouldn't be here. I don't like that he's here. I am tired of it. Modeling, Ricky. The whole thing. I love him. But I'm just tired right now. I just want to sleep, alone, without anyone touching me.In the end, my hair is braided on either side of my face, like Native American princess, and I am topped with big, white floppy hat, the kind that star Ricky used to date, Jill Sanchez, might wear. The stylist tells me he's going for modern Joni Mitchell look on me. I don't know who he's talking about.I'm brought next to the makeup station, take a seat in the black canvas chair, and the artists open their large black suitcases full of colors and pigments. They start to pat, smear, and rub me. The dry scent of flesh-toned powder fills my nose. I am nothing more than a canvas for these people. They forget after a while that we are people. Or they never realized it in first place. I close my eyes and try to think of other things. I'm chilled. I listen to conversations happening all around me. The artists chat.So I told him there's no way I'm doing that again. Uh-uh. No way. What does he think I am? His own personal whore?And models talking to each other.Laxatives? Me too! I used to use themall the time, but it's sort of a problem once you're on a shoot, like, if you have to go right there? One time I had an accident, actually... I try to think of other things, but death is foremost on my mind. The scent of makeup and metal. I imagine this is what funeral parlor smells like.Soon enough, we're all ready to be placed on our seats. Somewhere, someone puts a CD on. Björk. Fitting. The shoot director hops here and there, adjusting us. There are plants on bar. He demands they be removed. No life, he says. No life anywhere here. Assistants bring fashionable martini and other glasses full of colorful liquid and set them along bar near us. I look at other girls and see that they, like I, have gray and black makeup. We are all made to look beautiful, but lifeless and bruised. Even our bodies have been smeared gray and blue. The director approaches me with his head tilted to one side. "Spread," he says, pushing my knees apart. He adjusts crotch of the suit to cover me just right. "Just like that. Good, perfect. Beautiful." I smile at him in thanks, and he scowls. "No," he says. He smells of sweat and semen. "No smiles. You are dead, girl, you hear me? Dead. No smiling."His words stab me. Make me want to run away. I look at Ricky to see if he has heard and if he is as outraged as I am. He is busy staring at Canadian girl. I hate this, all of this. It's absurd, the whole thing. I don't want to be dead girl. I haveseendead girls. I wonder if this man, this fashion director, has ever, in his life, seen dead girl. I want to ask him. To slap him. I want to scream about all this. I want to curl in a nest and protect my baby. I know I'm pregnant. I feel so emotional right now. I can't cry. It will ruin my makeup. My dead-girl makeup. But I don't know what else to do.I stare at cool, blue glass of the bar, and think of swimming pool at home. Our home. The only home I've had since my childhood disappeared. I love my home, the safety I feel there. I imagine I am there, in backyard, only place in the world that soothes me.This is my last shoot, I tell myself. This is the last time I model. I have a name. I have a past. I am my mother's daughter.And this is last time in my life I ever play a dead girl.
I've turned off my mother's show, and, blasting yet another Ricky Biscayne CD, I pull the now-bloody Neon into the half-circle driveway of my parents' house. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to walk into the house like this, a mess, but I will try to face everyone head on, and slink along the walls or something. I get out of the car and scoot past my grandfather, who is dozing on the porch in his chair. I open the front door to the comforting olive-oil smell of my grandmother's cooking. Another exciting Friday night with the old folks. Smells likevaca frita,which means "fried cow" in Spanish but is actually a delicious dish of shredded beef sautéed in tangy lime and garlic sauce. There will be white rice, and a side salad. Maybe some plantains. I'm starving. My stomach rumbles. It should be another hour until Violeta the clit-master gets home from the Hialeah radio station, and dinner will be served. I don't think I'll ask Mom about the show tonight. I don't really want to hear it.After dinner, I'll head to Blockbuster to get a movie everyone might like; I'll make them popcorn and then try to disappear quietly to go to my book club--this time with a tampon firmly in place.My dad, Eliseo, is home from work and still in his blue suit and red tie. He sits readingEl Nuevo Heraldin his plaid recliner in the living room, and notices my long face immediately. No, I think. Don't look at me. Don't see the blood on my dress. Please don't. There's nothing worse than your Cuban dad realizing that the person he wants to be forever a girl is actually a hairy, bloody, grown woman. It's very creepy. Look away! Look away!"Sit," he declares. He takes off his reading glasses and sits forward, listening. "Talk.""Papi, just give me a chance to use the bathroom, I'll be right back.""Okay, but then you talk. I can tell something's bothering you."I slip down the hall, watching for errant family members whomight invade my privacy. Whew! No one. I get to the bathroom and duck inside, locking the door behind me. I turn my back to the mirror and swivel my head in a poor imitation of thePeoplemagazine photo of Jill Sanchez, craning my neck to see how bad the damage is. A dark red spot, about the size and shape of a lime. Not as bad as I thought. But still not good. I take off my clothes and hop into the shower. I wash quickly, hop out, towel off, and stick a deodorant tampon where you stick them. I wrap myself in a towel, scurry to my room, put on a pair of old sweats and a large T-shirt, and return to the living room, my hair wrapped up in a towel.Dad eyes me suspiciously. "A shower? What have you been up to?" Why must he always seem to be implying that every woman on earth, if not being watched hawkishly by a man somewhere, is a whore? Even me, who he thinks a virgin?"Nothing, Papi. I'm tired. I needed the water to wake me up.""Wake you up? In the evening?" Even more suspicious."Book club," I say. "Las Loquitas del Libro. Remember?""Oh, the knitting club," he says with a satisfied smile. Dismissive. Fine. He has no idea how racy the stuff we read is. God forbid he ever readGoing Down,by Jennifer Belle--one of my all-time favorites. He'd have a heart attack. He thinks I get together with a bunch of spinsters to knit baby booties. I don't care. Let him think what he wants. He will anyway, no matter what the evidence to the contrary is. Dad is weird like that. He creates his own reality, often in direct contrast to the real world around him. To him, he is in charge. To us, he is to be tolerated.The living room is separated from the rest of the hall and family room by elevation--up a step--and by a low wrought-iron fence. You actually have to go through a little gate to get to the living room. I grew up thinking it was normal to have a fence indoors. I enter the living room yard and sit on the sofa. Dad looks at me and sighs."Spit it out," he says. "What's going on.""It's nothing.""Talk."I sigh and weigh my options. I hear the quick, dry flutter of the canaries fussing in their iron cage on the enclosed back porch, and I relate to them. Trapped. No matter what I tell him, he won't believe I have a problem. He believes my life is perfect, and does not endure complainers well. "I don't think I like my job all that much, Papi," I say, tears forming in my eyes. Geneva's right. I am a wimp. I didn't expect to react so strongly, butCosmosaid nothing about crying in front of your father, and, you know, period hormones and all. I guess it's okay.He shrugs and purses his lips in that dad-sign-language meant to say,Why? What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you wasting my time with this?"It's kind of degrading ... ."My dad's face grows dark and serious. "Listen to me, Freckles," he says, using a nickname I loathe. "There is no such thing as a degrading job. Except stripping." He pauses, deep in thought. "And prostitute. And hired goon."Hired goon? "You need to quit watchingThe Sopranos,Papi."He keeps talking like I haven't said anything. "When we came to Miami, we had nothing," he begins. Here we go. The Speech. How many times have I heard it? So many I can recite it, along with him, but I won't because I don't like to see him get mad. "We started from zero. And we worked hard. Everybody has to start somewhere. It's a great service you're doing to your uncle. You should be proud.""I know," I say. When all else fails, say "I know" or "I see" or "You're right." It's a good policy, and it works for me. For the record, Dad was only seven years old when he came to Miami, and his parents had quite a bit of money. He acts like he went straight to work in a factory or something. Like he was some pauper begging on the streets of Calcutta. Weirdo."What's not to like about your job?" he asks, shrugging all the way up to his big ears and leaving his shoulders hitched up there for theduration of his monologue. "You have a nice desk, air-conditioning, you get to make phone calls. You're not out cutting sugarcane.""I know." Sugarcane? Is he out of hismind? Dad is always mentioning cutting sugarcane, I have no idea why. No one we know has ever cut sugarcane. The people in our family are much more likely to cut the cheese.Speaking of cheese. Grandma walks in, toting her Bible. She clutches it all the time lately. She never used to be terribly into the Bible, preferring the Cuban method of putting glasses of water behind doors and whatnot, but now, as she gets older I guess, she needs to comfort herself with the book. "'Beware of false prophets,'" she rambles in Spanish, "'which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.'""That's nice, Grandma," I say."Book of Matthew," says Grandma, waving her Bible at me. "Matthew 7:16." She opens the book and reads, "'A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, and neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.'"I consider responding, but Dad gives me a look meant to silence me. I spy the day's mail in two neat stacks on the ornate Spanish-style dark wood coffee table, one for them, one for me. Yay! The newInStylehas come. I don't want to stand here with a towel on my head, arguing with my dad about why it sucks to be a laxative publicist. If a person doesn'tgetthat already, like, from the get-go, I don't see how I will convince him. I just want to go to my room. Be alone withInStyle. Dad negotiates with people all day long, about rugs being taken from here to there, whatever, and he's basically not able to stop negotiating when he gets home. I find him exhausting and turn to leave."You can quit when you get married," he says, trying to bait me back in. I stop and smile. When I getmarried? What is this, the fifties? I look at his eyes and see that he says this nonsense without really meaning it, almost as if it is the duty of a father to say such things. He looks at me looking at him, and I can see that he knows I know hedoesn't mean it. I wonder for a moment what he really thinks, but I don't have the patience or desire to ask."I know."He points a finger at me, just so I know that he's, like, talking to me and not, I don't know, to the television. Ever helpful, my father. "Your problem is you want too much. You shouldn't need more than you find on the Miracle Mile. That street has everything a woman your age needs." Here he counts on his fingers. "Bridal shops, baby clothes, and cribs. That's what you should be worried about, or you should stop worrying." His eyes cringe, like he knows the modern world is going to slap him back one of these days. I don't have the heart to make that day today.I say, "I know, Papi. Okay. Look. I have a headache. I'll be in my room."I close the door behind me and flop onto the bed with the magazine. I prop up on my elbows and start to read. So many beautiful people, with such white teeth and pretty clothes. Sigh. And there, on page 97, is a feature story about Mr. Ricky Biscayne, his gorgeous Serbian model wife with the dark hair and wide-set green eyes, and their gorgeous mansion in Miami Beach. The article calls him "the quintessential family guy," noting that he is learning Serbian so that the children he plans to have someday will speak three languages. The article also says Ricky is a health fiend, drinking a broccoli-and-wheatgrass shake for breakfast every morning. His wife continues to model, and is to be featured in an upcoming issue ofMaxim.Life issonot fair.I feel like crying again. Because I'm not Jasminka. Because I don't live in a mansion. Because no one would pay for a photo of me in a bikini. BecausePeoplemagazine always calls Renée Zellweger the all-American Texan girl, even though her parents are immigrants just like mine, while continuing to portray "Hispanics" as spicy foreigners. Because I have to go on a Trust Cruise with my mother and sister tomorrow and I'm not even strong enough to refuse. My mom gets freebieslike this cruise all the time, in exchange for a promise to talk about it on the show.Just as I'm about to dive into a vat of self-pity, my phone rings. Yes, it's a Hello Kitty phone. I know. It doesn't help my cause. The caller ID reads Club G. Great. My glamorous sister has already gotten a phone number for the club she plans to open. She is a consummate optimist, another reason I hate her. Why can't she just wallow and complain and suffer silently like me? I don't feel like talking to her. She's just going to tell me how great life is. Correction: She's going to tell me how greatherlife is.I leave her to the answering machine.Hello. It's me, Milan. Leave me a message, and have a great day!"Hey, M. You know, you don't have to say, 'It's me, Milan.' That's redundant." F-you! F-you! "Okay, so it's G. Just had lunch with Ricky Biscayne, and thought you might want to hear about it."Excuseme? Geneva knows I'm the secretary of the unofficial Ricky Biscayne online fan club. SheknowsI've lusted after Ricky for years. You know what she is, my sister? She's like those people who toss food scraps to poor children. She is evil. I raise my middle finger to Hello Kitty, and realize how bad that looks, but still, it's not the cat per se. It's my evil sister.Geneva takes what sounds like a long sip of water, followed by a vulgar gulp, and says, "I've convinced him to invest in my new club, and I think you'd be just the girl to do PR for it. What do you think? It'd be a three-, maybe four-month contract, with a good shot at lots more work down the road. He's looking for a new publicist, too, full-time, too, so it could be a two-birds one-stone kinda thing. Gimme a call if you're ready to get out of the constipation business with Uncle Messiah.Ciaocito."I lunge for the phone now. I am aware as I do it that I have the grace and ripple of a sea lion on rocks. The towel tumbles off my head and tangles over my face. I'm too late. Geneva has hung up, and Hello Kitty falls with a clatter to the white tile floor. Kitty's eye has popped out. I check to see if the phone still works. It does. And then, for thefirst time in I don't know how long, I voluntarily dial my evil sister's phone number.
Jill Sanchez stands in a tight, white vinyl cat suit behind the hot-pink podium, which is molded into the trademark hourglass shape of her body, and watches as two slack-jawed lackeys lift the mink-trimmed red velvet sheet off the oversized poster for her new perfume.A collective "ahh" rises from the crowd of loser journalists and entertainment industry executives, all of them trying to find a comfortable spot on the pillows and mattresses scattered across the floor of the trendy Miami club BED. It was not cheap booking this club for three hours for a private party on a Friday evening, but Jill Sanchez isn't cheap. In fact, she has worked very hard to associate her name and image with the very opposite of cheap. Still, she hates the idea of spending that kind of money for a bunch of newsreporters. The ugly price of fame. The club overcharged, in her opinion, because they knew Jill and the press would be cleared out by ten, in plenty of time for them to get a solid crowd going for the night. But what can you do?Jill smiles down at them like a parade-float queen as they smile up at the poster, and she basks in her own possibilities once more. She grew up always hearing about what a great businesswoman Madonna was, blah blah blah, Madonna, Madonna, Madonna. But Madonna has nothing onher,Jill Sanchez. No one wants to smell likeMadonna,do they? Madonna looks like she smells like syphilis. Just like no one wants to smell like that scrawny barbed-wire sculpture called Celine Dion, either. Or, who is that other one who has her own perfume? Reba McEntire or something. Is that country bumpkin completely insane? No one wants to smell like a redheadedelf. Buteveryonewants to smell like her, Jill Sanchez, who, in her own estimation, is the sexiest, cleanest woman alive. Even when movie executives called her box-office poison two years ago, her perfume line continued to outsell all others in the land--to everyone's surprise except her own. EvenBeyoncé's perfume couldn't compete; and neither, in Jill's opinion, could her booty."Ladies and gentlemen," says Jill, giggling for effect, though she does not, in fact, see herself as the giggling type. She deliberately, cutely teeters for a moment on the superhigh, clear-soled platform sandals made especially for her and for tonight by the fine gentlemen at Prada, but catches herself before falling. Years of dancing coupled with the temperamental qualities of a hungry lioness have prepared her to rarely make a misstep, even here, in impossibly difficult and costly footwear, on the stage covered with two hundred thousand dollars' worth of Swarovski crystals. The crystals might have been overkill, but Jill has been wildly jealous of Britney Spears since she appeared in nothing but sparkling diamonds in the "Toxic" video, and this is Jill Sanchez's revenge on that Louisiana reject for having had the audacity to believe for one moment that she might outshine Jill Sanchez at her own game. One of these days, Jill will appear in public wearing nothing but a diamond thong and pasties."Gosh, it's big," she giggles about the poster, pretending to be as stunned as they are by it, even though she is the one who insisted on the gargantuan size. She has practiced this line, and the openmouthed kissy lips in the style of Marilyn Monroe. She has meant for the breathy words to have a hint of sexuality to them, as if she were commenting on something other than a poster. The giggle is intended to offset the brazen sexuality, offering up saint and whore in equal doses. Giggling revolts her. But the revolting media seems to prefer her when she giggles revoltingly, so that's what she does when they are around. She rarely giggles otherwise."Okay, well, I introduce to you Flamenco Flame, the new fragrance by me, Jill Sanchez."Again she giggles, lest it seem that she does, in fact, take great pride in branding herself like a cow. Even as she does so, Jill worries that the makeup and high-end studio lighting she paid to have perfectly in synch are somehow revealing her wrinkles and lines to aworld that still doesn't know she has them. She will have to go in for Botox again soon, and perhaps some belly lipo. Belly lipo is one of the finest inventions of all time, in Jill Sanchez's opinion. A breast lift might also be in order, as all the dancing over the years has invited gravitational pulls she will not tolerate. Jill Sanchez believes she is superior to gravity and other science.The poster is a life-size replica of the dewy peach-toned ad that will soon appear in fashion magazines and on the sides of buses worldwide. In the foreground is the pink hourglass bottle, in the shape of Jill's own heavily insured body, because in Jill's humble estimation there is simply no better shape to be found. It isn't vanity; it is honesty.In the background stands Jill herself, nude as a wood nymph, though strategically positioned and airbrushed, so nothing that shouldn't be seencouldbe seen. She is curvy in ways the establishment used to think would not sell, until she began to outsell everyone else--smaller on top, bigger on the bottom. The vibe of the ad is misty, and hot, as if she stepped out of the shower and into your bedroom, aflame with Flamenco Flame, the new fragrance by her, Jill Sanchez.The press begins to applaud. Jill acts all shucks and embarrassed."Stop it, you guys," she says sweetly, blinking the mink fur on her eyelashes. "Oh, come on, it's just perfume. Jeez!"At that moment, the six hot girls who were hired because they were almost but not quite as hot as Jill Sanchez, start to circulate through the club, with silver Tiffany trays full of tiny fabulous bottles of Flamenco Flame, the new fragrance by Jill Sanchez. They spritz and spray, and those in attendance can't help but marvel at the perfect mixture of vanilla and lemongrass. Jill believes she is one of the cleanest women on earth, bathing several times a day, slathering her body in expensive creams that so far work in congress with Botox and exercise to convince the public that she, in truth thirty-seven years old, is a mere twenty-eight. Years ago, a profile or two had printed her true birthday, but year after year she got younger and no one seemed to question this, exceptThe New York Times,which none of her fans readanyway. Literacy is on the decline in America, and no one knows this better than Jill, who keeps up on cultural trends the way a stockbroker attends to market fluctuations. Why worry about the print media when no one reads anyway?"So, what do you think, you guys?" she asks, as modest and folksy as possible. She played a modest girl, a Mexican maid, in a movie once, and was almost nominated for an Academy Award. Or that's what she heard. She doesn't know for sure. She knows she deserves an Oscarfor something,however.The crowd bursts into applause and Jill Sanchez bursts into a grin."Oh, gosh. I'm so glad you liked it!" Hand to neck, beat. "I was so nervous!" In truth, Jill has not been nervous in seven years, since becoming one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. They say Cameron Diaz makes more these days, but that will change as soon as everyone figures out that La Diaz looks like a puff-faced munchkin on stilts and her success is due almost entirely to Ben Stiller's jism hair gel.On cue, the lights go down, and the curtain on the small stage goes up. And there are Jill Sanchez's male backup dancers, including the two she slept with when she was bored on tour. She doesn't remember their names. And there is Jill's pin-on microphone, to aid the illusion that she is singing live. And there is the music, a hip-hop Latin-inspired jingle a young songwriter named Matthew Baker penned for the perfume, but for which she, Jill Sanchez, will get a 75 percent writing credit, because Jill Sanchez has one of the best entertainment lawyers in the universe and, as Ricky once told her, Matthew Baker, who she got through Ricky, is a bit of a sucker.She begins to dance, and sing, pretending all the while to be surprised by her own sexy gyrations, a trick of the trade she gleaned from Britney Spears herself. Nothing appeals to America more than innocence paired with lust. Jill Sanchez takes great pride in the fact that she is much older than Spears, but just as relevant with high school girls--and boys. But even as she thinks this, she worries that the new crop of young singers might have something on her. There is a Lindsay something or other, and an Ashley, at least one, maybe more. Shedoesn't even know their names anymore, but if she did, she would never admit it.After the performance, the crowd claps some more, and Jill Sanchez takes questions. Of course, most of them have to do with her engagement to Jack Ingroff, the handsome indie actor, screenwriter, and Rhodes scholar. She answers by holding up her left hand and squealing at the sight of her massive yellow diamond, as if she's only just now seen it for the first time, as if she were sitting in a group of girlfriends instead of in a room full of bloodsucking bastards."Omigosh! We're, like,sohappy!" she says. "With him I'm just a girl who cooks, and he's just a guy who likes baseball and a beer.""What do you cook, Jill?" asks a reporter. Somewhere in the back of the room, a male voice shouts,"¡Si cocinas como caminas, ay mami!"drawing a smattering of applause from the assembled Spanish-speaking men."Oh, my mother'sasopao de pollo,it's this chicken dish with green peppers and garlic," she says, as if it has just occurred to her, when in fact she rehearsed this very answer with a media coach last night. "I just love my mom! She is such a great cook!"Jill attempted this dish only once, and it came out half burned and half raw, with undertones of dishwashing liquid mixed in; Jack ate it because he's a nice guy and then he had diarrhea for days."Yum! Jack loves chicken. And I love to cook. I finally found a man who'll make an honest woman of me!" In truth, Jill Sanchez has three personal chefs and has not set foot in a grocery store in at least six years. She has come to think that refrigerators fill themselves.A hefty, homely, female entertainment reporter Jill recognizes fromThe Miami Heraldapproaches the stage, with a stern look on her face. With khaki pants that pull and strain across her sagging lower belly, she reminds Jill of a prison guard. The pockets on the sides gape open like holes in a carnival ball-toss game. Her name is Lilia, a name far prettier than the woman it belongs to, and she speaks with that lesbian lisp Jill despises. Even when Jill played a horny lesbian in amovie once, she didn't do that lisp. For Jill, it was too horrible to imagine that sound coming from Jill Sanchez's lips.On top of that, Lilia takes herself and her work far more seriously than Jill believes she ought to, and never squanders a chance to skewer Jill in her "Lunch with Lilia" column, the only place on earth, Jill figures, that Lilia is allowed to feel beautiful and popular. Newspapers are for geeks and losers what the Internet is for sociopaths, meaning that they are the only place these losers can find to socialize."Rumor has it," Lilia grumbles, "that you've been seeing Ricky Biscayne again. Jill, what is your response to that?" "Seeing" comes outshe-ing,from the lesbian lisp.Jill giggles and looks surprised, cringing only internally at Lilia's odd placement of her name in the sentence. It's like the reporter was trying to sound the way reporters sounded in Bogart movies. All Lilia needed was a pencil stuck behind her big, meaty ear.