|WHOEVER YOU WANT ME TO
After five years of marriage my husband
stopped saying my name. At first, it seemed odd and I thought I might be imagining it, but
after a while I accepted that it was true. What does it mean to say just that one
word?a persons name. It can mean, I love you. Or, You betrayed me. Or,
Im happy for you. Or, Im sorry for you. Or, Is that you? Or, Dont worry,
Im here. I never thought about the power a name holds until I stopped hearing mine.
In the building where I work I
sit beside a wall of glass that faces the street. From my desk, which is two feet from
another desk, in a room filled with desks, I watch the prostitutes who hang out at the bus
bench on Sunset Boulevard. When no one is actually sitting on the bench, I can see the
face of Judy George, Realtor of the Month. She looks successful and happy in her work. I
watch the prostitutes while I do things like file the death certificates of recently
deceased union members and stuff envelopes with smaller envelopes and form letters
expressing the sorrow of the Screen Actors Guild for the passing of a loved one. Sometimes
Ill include a check for the beneficiary. A residual check earned by their dead actor
relative for a performance in some minor TV or movie role that they probably dont
remember. Or maybe they do remember. Maybe its their favorite thing to remember
about their dead actor.
The other women in the office
will often stop working and look out the window with me. The older ones are the worst.
They make the nastiest jokes about the girls and what they do. I try to picture these
women, my co-workers, doing the things they joke about, and I cant. Then I can, and
I wish I hadnt. Katie is the only one who says she feels sorry for those girls.
Katie is the only one Ive told about my husband moving out. Whenever my mother calls
from her home on the East Coast I say hes in the shower or at the store.
I spend a lot of time on the
phone but not for business. Mostly, I talk to this guy Im seeing now. I met him in a
bar the day after my husband moved out. Danny has irregular hours and spends his
afternoons getting high and calling me at work. He can talk at length about almost
anything. Hell start with some fact about dwarf stars, say, and then move on to
maritime law, which might take him to celestial navigation; then onto sushi and from there
its an easy segue to Japanese ceremonial suicide. He tells the kind of stories, that
when hes finished you wish youd listened to the whole thing. But usually I
dont. Usually, I forget to listen and I let his voice be a soft background to my
thoughts while I watch the girls on the bench.
Most days, there are three or
four girls in rotation. Cars pull up, a girl approaches the passenger side window and
after a few seconds she usually gets in. Twenty minutes later shes back. Twenty
minutes is average. It can be as long as forty-five or as little as ten. I time them and
when a girl is gone longer than an hour, I worry.
Lately, Ive been spending
my lunch hours shoplifting from the stores on the low-rent end of Hollywood Boulevard.
Small stuff. Underwear. Make-up. Travel-size bottles of anything. I never stole anything
as a kid and I used to hate to be in a store with my father because he always stole
things. Id never actually see him do it but then in the car on the way home
hed put his hand in his jacket pocket and take out a hair clip or a pin or a
bracelet. I hated those joyless gifts. Hated the way hed just say, "Here,"
as if giving me change for the parking meter. I didnt know why he took stuff but he
seemed to need to do it. He had to leave the store ahead of the game. And so here I am
doing the same thing. I tell myself Im alone now and I have to watch expenses.
Once, the store manager followed
me out of the Rite-Aid and I ducked into a photo booth and pulled the dirty gray curtain
closed. I watched the brown shoes with white socks stop beneath the stiff pleats of the
fabric that separated us, and then they turned around and walked away.
Every Thursday I go to lunch
with Katie. She works in contract administration two desks away from mine. She has a
seven-year-old son but shes never been married. The thing about Katie is that
shes above-average beautiful. And she can make you feel beautiful too, as long as
youre not standing in front of a mirror with her beside you. She makes it easy to
believe that the incredible way she looks is really just a clever trick that anyone could
learn to do. Even you.
* * *
My favorite prostitute is the short blonde one who is always
angry. I like that she doesnt have the kind of body youd think a woman would
need to be a successful prostitute. No tits, no ass, no hips
just attitude. It makes
me think maybe all men arent idiots after all. At least some of them must like a
little attitude with their blowjobs. And this girls attitude comes across all the
way to my second-story window. Shell approach a car with her middle finger
straight-armed out to the prospective client, calling out insults as if hed somehow
offended her by showing an interest. The finger might discourage a few of them, but not as
many as youd think. Most of the time shell drive off with the guy and when he
brings her back shell jam that same finger into the air to say bye-bye.
Since my husband moved out six
months ago I havent met a man I dont want to like me, even ones I loathe or
feel indifferent toward. I want them all to want me. She, on the other hand, seems to want
them all to hate her. The thing you learn about marriage is that when a person watches the
Weather Channel for hours, hes not really watching the Weather Channel, and the lies
he tells are all the truth you need.
On the phone with Danny I tell
him about my favorite prostitute and he gets very interested, which is unusual for him, to
be interested in a topic Ive introduced. He asks me questions about her. Well,
theres her hair, I tell him. Its too yellow but it works, and I like her odd
way of dressing. Not overtly sexy, she mixes provocative with army surplus and manages to
make it look sexy. What I really like is the way she closes a car door that unmistakably
says "fuck you." She doesnt slam it at all; she lets it go easy, her arm
making a slight upward motion as it moves away from the door. Go on and go, it says. Who
Danny has changed the subject
and is talking about electron spin reversal and Im thinking how do all the
bus drivers on the Sunset route know not to stop when there are only the prostitutes at
the bench, because they never do. Is this discussed at the bus terminal? Is it part of the
training? My boss puts a piece of paper in front of me. On it hes written Hang up
now. I ignore it.
"Danny," I say. "
I have no idea what youre talking about."
"Thats okay," he
says happily. "Neither did Joan."
Joan is his stepsister. Her
Greek father married Dannys Irish mother when both their children were small. They
grew up togetherthe pale, blond, beautiful Danny and his dark Mediterranean
stepsisterlooking like the negative and positive print of a picture.
* * *
Now when Danny calls, the first thing he wants to know is
whats she doing? Our favorite prostitute. We call her Cinderella, Im not sure
why. Maybe because her life so isnt. I start with what shes wearing. Then I
describe the car shes gone off in and we speculate about what she may or may not be
doing, depending on the make and model of the ride. Shes become more real and unreal
at the same time. Shes a little sex game we play, although we never speak about her
when were together actually having sex.
But then we dont speak
about a lot of things when were together. The future, for instance. Or the sad
remains of my husbands clothes that still hang in the closet. (If I dont
remember to shut the door I can see them when Danny and I are in bed.)
We dont speak about the
fact that hes in love with his stepsister. (I know this because he talks about her
way too much, the way some guys talk disparagingly about an ex-girlfriend you both know
hes never going to get over. Its clear the things he says he hates about her,
the things he complains about the most, are the things he loves. Like Joan is so
manipulative, and Joan is daddys little girl, and Joan lies but never gets caught,
and everything comes too easy to Joan, and Joans never had a broken heart.)
We never speak about the way his
mother looks at me when shes thinking that Im closer to her age than his.
(Apropos of nothing, one day she says to me, "Growing old isnt that bad. Your
skin gets a little loose is all.")
We never, ever speak about what
we do or who we do it with when were not together. The list of things we dont
speak about is long and interesting and growing all the time.
* * *
want to buy some pot?" Its her, my favorite bus bench girl. Shes standing
in front of the double glass doors at the entrance to my office building talking to me.
"I work here," I say,
indicating the building behind her, in case she may not have noticed it.
"Yeah. Ive seen you
goin in and out," she says. "You always look so sad. Job must be a bitch.
You want to buy some pot?"
"Well, I guess everybody
has to deal with their share of assholes in this life, right?" I say this and hope
shell go back to her bus bench. Back to the place where she belongs, where I can
make sense of her. But she doesnt move. She studies me and it makes me feel awkward,
clueless and badly dressed. Shes wearing a black bra clearly visible under a white
nylon blouse, several sizes too small, and low-riding cargo pants and very high heels. She
uses a necktie as a belt and manages to make it all look like cutting-edge fashion that
everyone is going to be wearing in the next five minutes. I think it has a lot to do with
her no-tits-no-hips body. I mentally go though my own wardrobe trying to approximate this
outfit. I know I have cargo pants; but those shoes?
"So, you got any acting
jobs? Ive done some acting. Im good."
I explain that we dont
hire actors. This is the actors union, where I work.
"Oh, yeah? Actors have a
union, huh? I can type eighty-eight words a minute. I used to work for an attorney in
Beverly Hills. Maybe Ill freshen up my résumé and start punchin a
Now I think shes making
fun of me. Pretending to want a job in the straight world. Making me feel foolish for
I answer that its a small
office and I dont think there are any open positions. I immediately regret saying
"open positions" to a prostitute but the moment goes by quickly.
"Shit yeah, I used to work
for an attorney until he went to jail. Gives you some idea how good of an attorney he was.
Thats when I got into acting. I was in a movie with Sean Penn. Maybe you saw
I wait for her to say the title
but she never does.
"Maybe I did," is all
I can think to say. I sense that she likes me, or more accurately that I, and everything I
represent, displeases her in an amusing way.
"So, you want to buy some
pot or what? Trust me, you look like you need to get high. Its good stuff."
"Okay, sure," I say.
But I dont really want to buy anything. I just want to keep talking to her.
She flicks her hand and suddenly
theres a black Towncar right up close to the curb. I recognize it as a car Id
seen often at the bus bench and I dont know why I hadnt noticed it before now.
The guy behind the wheel looks bored. He has close-cropped hair combed forward and a long
straight nose. Its the profile of a Caesar on a gold coin. He wears a cashmere
turtleneck sweater even though its too warm for it. He could be Black or Asian. He
could be twenty or fifty.
Cinderella slides into the back
seat of the car, leaving the door as an open invitation. The driver watches in his
rear-view as I slide in beside her. I close the door and wonder why in hell Im doing
this. Theres a soft hip-hop beat coming from a speaker behind my head and when the
driver turns around to us, the moving air brings the smell of his cologne. This man smells
like Earl Grey tea and black pepper. Its so wonderful it makes me smile.
"How much?" I ask,
knowing I dont have enough cash no matter what the answer is.
* * *
Sitting on the floor of my nearly empty living
roomone leather chair, one Oriental rug, one dying palm, four stacks of books that
make a tableIm on the phone with Danny telling him how I did this insane
thing; letting Cinderella and her pimp drive me to my ATM and how I bought what I hope is
marijuana. He doesnt believe it at first. He says that it was a crazy thing to do
and I agree with him. Then he wants details.
So I tell him how we parked five
blocks from where I workalso five blocks from where Cinderella works, it occurs to
me now. I tell him how I gave a handful of twenties to the man behind the wheel who
smelled so good I wanted to lick him. And how, once the deal was done, he lit a very thin
and perfect joint, and with the A/C blasting, and the hip-hop thrumming, and the car
standing stillbut feeling as if we were floatingwe smoked behind tinted
windows. The more I tell, the more I remember. Im surprised how much there is to
tell because the whole adventure only lasted twenty minutes. The usual amount of time for
Cinderella. And then, before I knew it, she was back where she started and so was I.
At one-thirty in the morning the
phone rings. I sleep with the TV on now so at first Im not sure if it really is my
phone. The caller is my soon to be ex-husband.
"Hello, you," he says
too casually. Too friendly.
"Who is this?" I say,
buying some time to decide whether to be angry, pleasant or disengaged.
He gives out an impatient little
puff of air. "Its me. Jeffery."
"And to whom do you wish to
speak?" I ask, sounding now like someone I dont even know.
"You. I want to speak to
you. Stop playing."
You. Her. She. Anything but my
name. The only thing I hear is the sound of a person whos drunk, trying to breathe
"I just want the rest of my
stuff. When can I come over?"
"Yeah? How about now?"
he says, thickly. Letting all sorts of possibilities hang in the air.
I push the Talk button by
mistake and the phone beeps unnaturally loud. Then I push the End button and I say,
"Good-bye, you" to the dial tone.
* * *
Katie isnt at work today and I wonder if the
bruises on her arm have anything to do with that. No bus bench girls either. Ive
been thinking about them all morning and doing nothing with that stack of files on my
desk. All those dead actors waiting patiently. Ive been letting the work pile up,
coming in late, leaving early and spending lots of time on the phone. The boss
doesnt like it. He asks another woman in the office to get him his coffee today.
This is supposed to make me feel bad. This is supposed to be a warning.
Danny calls. Hes stoned or
buzzed or both. He needs to talk; or rather, he needs to be listened to. As usual, the
conversation seems to have started without me. Hes already halfway into a story
about a fish thats called the Sarcastic Fringehead . Theyre very territorial,
hes telling me, and they have big, oversized jaws that extend nearly to the gills.
But they rarely fight. They just give each other lots of attitude. Theres a nervous
excitement in his voice that makes me a little afraid for him. I want to hear this story
through. For once, I want to get to the point of it with him, but my mind shifts. I hear
him say Anacapa Island but its too late. Im already thinking again
about why the girls arent on the bench today and if Katies little boy knows
why his mother isnt at work.
only nine inches long but the thing is, they have this major attitude and they get all
" Danny is almost laughing now. "And so thats why we
have to change her name from Cinderella to Fringehead. Its perfect."
"You know, our
I asked him if its our
Cinderellas pot hes been smoking and he says, yes, and I should get more.
Hell pay. Then he wants to know what shes wearing today.
I stare out at the empty bench
and say, "She looks good. Shes wearing the cut-offs. The really shorts ones
that show some butt-cheek. Theyre camouflage, the orange and brown desert kind. And
she has a yellow bandana tied around her boobs as a kind of halter-top. Shes like
some tacky beautiful rainbow. And the chunky boots. The ones that look too heavy to lift.
But they make her legs look great."
I hear him take a long drag on a
.a joint? He almost purrs doing it. Then he says something in a low
intimate voice and after a second I realize its not me hes talking to.
"Whos there?" I
He takes too long to answer.
"Joan," he says, still holding the smoke in his lungs. Then he lets it all go.
"Joan," he says again.
But Im not sure if hes talking to me or calling to her.
Theres an old woman on the
bench now. She has one of those rope shopping bags and the bus is stopping for her.
"A red Vipers just
pulled up and Cinderellas going for it," I say.
corrects me. "Thats her name now."
I put off going to lunch as long
as I can, but when I leave the building theres still no one there on the bench. Only
Judy George, Realtor of the Month, with graffiti on her forehead.
I drive to the photo machine in
front of the Rite-Aid. I go inside the booth and spin the round seat to make me taller. I
pull the little curtain closed and sit quietly for a minute. I feel unprepared for
everything. Like going on a camping trip with just a comb and pack of gum. Thats
what it feels like now.
I feed the machine all the
quarters it wants and I wait. There are five flashes and then I wait some more. While the
machine makes developing noises I glance down and notice a strip of photos in the slot.
Done already? I lift it out and see a happy couple. Two faces smiling for the camera and
the world. How did this man get into my pictures? But theyre not my pictures.
Theyre of whoever was in this booth before me. A couple who simply forgot to take
their pictures with them. A couple who probably took bunches of pictures and forgot about
Another strip of photos falls
into the slot. These are my pictures, but I dont touch them. I leave the booth with
what I have. The couple I dont know.
The boss is sitting at my desk
waiting for me when I get back. Hes grinning and looking at my phone, watching it
ring. Hes lit that cigar that he always has but never lights because theres no
smoking in the building now. But he doesnt care about that. Hes breaking the
rules and hes having fun doing itjust like me, I think, is the message. He
blows thick hot smoke right onto my phone and then some right onto my keyboard and then
some right into my face while Im standing next to him. Everyone in the room is
watching. He looks odd sitting in my chair because its too high for him and he seems
precariously balanced. I stand there, not sure what to do, my arms folded across my chest,
kind of hugging myself. I can feel the edges of the metal frame I stole from Rite-Aid
inside my jacket and sharp against my ribs. Its for the picture of the couple I
dont know. The funny thing is, it came with a picture of a couple I dont know,
but my couple seems better somehow. I realize Im smiling inappropriately.
* * *
The cigar smell made me a bit dizzy and nauseous but
outside, sitting on the bus bench, I take a few deep breaths and I begin to feel better.
Did I actually say "I quit" or did I imagine that part as I was walking out? I
look up at the window trying to see the place where I used to sit but I cant see
inside the building. I can only see palm trees reflected in the glass. Clouds and palm
trees against a black sky.
A bus stops in front of me,
blinking Sunset/Downtown. The doors fold back and the driver looks down at me. Ive
never taken a bus downtown so I climb on board and take a seat near a window. The bus is
cleaner and emptier than I thought it would be. Across the aisle is a woman with heavy
legs and feet swelling up out of her shoes. Shes nodding, half asleep. As the bus
jerks away and into traffic I catch a glimpse of my car parked there on the side street.
Then my car and the building where I workused to workmoves into the distance.
Then theyre gone. If I stay on the bus long enough itll bring me back.