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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Sunscreen: The Best of the Open Bar
Contrary to public sentiment, working in the publishing industry is pretty hard work. For starters, you have to know how to read. Big time. And then after you read, there is a lot of talk about reading, which can be fairly taxing if you don’t know how to talk and read at the same time. It gets pretty complicated after that, with a lot of technical terms and arguments about new meaning.
The stakes are always high in publishing, which is why so many of us in the industry end up taking July and August off. You can only read and argue about new meaning for so long before your body demands a timeout.
With this in mind, we here at The Open Bar are headed somewhere tropical, leaving you with a weeklong look at some of our favorite posts from the past year. Enjoy.
The Birthmark, by Jennifer Skye
(Originally published as a Web Extra, January 2012)
The blood on the grey marble floor is concerning me.
I am alone in the ballroom bathroom. It’s around four a.m., Michael Jackson went to bed hours ago, and I have had a lot of champagne. The small red spots look like cupcake crumbs leading into the thick dark of a forest.
Whose is it? I think. I shake my head in mild disgust, but don’t move or step away. I can’t stop staring.
That’s when I realize, the blood is mine.
* * *
Eight hours earlier I sat watching Faye Dunaway weigh her salad on the scale she kept in her purse. The tent we were seated under was laced with small white lights giving the effect of endless stars. On top of a gold-rimmed plate rested a blue velvet box. Inside I found a pair of crystal glasses and a small decanter etched with the name of the exclusive hotel owned by the second wife of a Sultan. The pad of my finger brushed the ridges of the scarred crystal as I considered how easy it would be to break. Outside lay a vast estate, the former country manor of a member of the English gentry, a person who perhaps enjoyed strolling the perforated ground of mud and sheep dung. I was deep in the English countryside for the Sultan’s son’s 25th birthday party.
The day before I arrived, Michael Jackson spent the evening playing Twister in the drawing room with a group of guys I’d refer to as “Young Hollywood.” This term could have been applied to me as well. The cover of Maxim will get you that club card. Modeling with Liv Tyler, traveling to Japan, Italy, and France (and sometimes making $2500 a day), living in New York and Miami by the time I was seventeen, co-starring in movies opposite DMX and Bradley Cooper, and playing the title character of a TV show got me that club card, too.
The focus has always been on my outside: the genetic coding that created the cheekbones, the one-sided dimple, the arrangement of hair fibers on the brow. The same coding passed down the flaw and grew the mass, the birthmark upon my liver. Hiding inside my body was this mark, a secret I harbored for years until an operation would cut me in half, save my life, and end my Hollywood career.
I still remember that first plane ride. The spots. The way the Plexiglas held salt residue. The way I counted at least seven dusty tear circles on the glass. The way the rising sun hit the crystals within the salt deposits. I remember watching the sea dunes and sand flats and ribbed blue water recede under the cloud cover. It was my first trip away from home, on my way to Japan for two and a half months. I was alone. It was a long time ago. My parents were still allowed to stand at the end of the worn, red jetway and watch their 15-year-old daughter go. It would take me another fifteen years, after my chest had been cut open, to realize that them not coming with me was a form of neglect.
The Japanese agency promised to take good care of me. They promised supervision and chaperones. They made lots of promises: “Tokyo is a wonderful opportunity to build a portfolio and make a significant amount of money in a short amount of time.”
I was put up in a small one-bedroom apartment to share with another teenage girl. The bathroom was traditionally Japanese, with a steel tank basin and a drain in the middle of the room. Outside the apartment was a three-story high mural of a yellow banana. It reminded me of Florida, the green, wet place I came from, of wide tropical leaves, of eating watermelon slices one at a time with my daddy on the porch in damp summer twilight. I could see this banana from a distance in this strange city.
The Japanese agency chaperoned me to a few of the first castings, mainly by subway. In a sea of people, mostly men in dark business suits, I stuck out, a tall, blonde alien. They rubbed against me, secretly grabbing. It was so packed inside I had no idea who was doing it. The experienced girls, the older models, warned me that this would happen. They said the men were basically harmless. Rape almost never happened in Japan, they said. It’s no big deal, they said. I believed them. I trusted them. They knew this place, and I had a lot to learn about the world. So I winced and gradually didn’t even notice the person-less hands brushing sacred places. I began assuming the position of ghost girl-adult, vacant and unfeeling. I would come to know this ghost-self as my modeling suit, one that I could put on to turn invisible inside. It was this exact disconnection (a dissociation that I would come to find is the calling card of PTSD) that would help me get through all the rounds of doctors when it came time.
A trickle of slightly sweet breeze ran along the almost invisible hairs of my 16-year-old neck.
“You could be a star if only you had a better personality,” said the man with a heavy Italian accent.
I looked at him. His big tan face. His jaw chewing on lunch. His lips slick with a slight oil-sheen from the pasta. I looked at him, this Italian Agent Man, then down at the black canvas flats I recently bought on sale, and chirped “Sorry….”
“That’s okay baby, you’ll still do well. I’ll take care of you.” He smiled, nodding, and took another bite.
“Okay.” I responded with flushed cheeks and looked across at Tomas, my naturally blonde booking agent, who nodded and winked. They started off on a tangent in Italian–“Bellissima, blah, blah, blah”–and ignored me as if I were just another weatherproof chair.
The shallows of the Gulf of Mexico were bathwater warm. This is going to be easy. It’s not real work, I thought, truly enjoying the moment. I looked away from the photographer’s focused lens, my face turned up to the sun.
A roll of film later, he headed back to the beach where the rest of the crew was stationed. I continued to lounge in the silver-blue water, warming in the bright day like a little seal lioness.
The photographer returned with the group. I shaded my eyes to look up at them. They circled me. They were shadowed as they asked if it would be okay if I took off my bikini top. “We’re only going to shoot you from behind,” they reassured. “It would be so nice for us, for the photograph, for our whole campaign, if you have a long, tan, bare back, no straps in sight.”
I looked at that group of waiting adults. They looked at me with expectation. They looked at me with need. They looked at me like this was the plan all along.
I was only sixteen.
I nodded and removed the four-inch wide strip of cloth.
When asked if I was okay, I smiled back. I was a well-trained seal.
In a pool winter-chilled, I spent a week modeling bathing suits. The food I continuously shoveled into my mouth—the thousands of extra calories—did nothing to protect me from the cold. My wide lips couldn’t help but turn blue hues, purple and periwinkle. These were not pretty things for his pictures. I stood, trying hard to hold back tears, facing the anger of a large Italian man with a plate-sized face. He looked down at me from inches away, his accent thick, but meaning getting through loud and clear. Curses leapt off his tongue, rumbled over each and every molar. The words quickened and sharpened over the points of his canines, growing to an ego-fuelled crescendo.
“You think you are the star?
You are not the star!
You are nothing!
I am the star!”
After he had his fill, I was excused for a “rest.” I had one thing in mind. I bought a phone card, found a pay phone, and called my mom.
“I was just so cold.” I moaned, hanging on the phone box cord, crouching on the ground like a little beast. Hiding under the booth, hugging my knees, I cried until my phone card ran out. She soothed and reassured me as best she could from across an ocean. When a foreign voice came on, speaking words I didn’t understand but indicating that my time was running out, Mom said, “I love you. I love you, my girl,” and the phone disconnected.
This was not the fairy tale I had signed up for, unless it was a dark one, the kind that was used to frighten children. It left a metallic taste at the back of my throat and made me want to lie down under that the phone booth with the lingering sounds of my mother’s voice.
The morning before the party was filled with planned activities: falconry, skeet shooting. I heard talk of balloon rides. Georgia May Jagger shot arrows at big orange targets in the English countryside while speaking quickly about her recent pedicure. There was a spa connected to the exclusive hotel and the nail-tech said she had the ugliest feet she’d ever seen. Her mother, Jerry Hall, wasn’t too happy upon hearing this news. A frown crossed her famous Texas lips: she has a twin, did you know that? Or that she gave birth to all her children at home, in the squatting position? Intimate, private things were shared in this world, but no one knew I was sick.
* * *
My husband has gone to bed and the Spanish supermodel with dark hair and pale eyes is trying to convince me to go outside for a walk with him. He is the most beautiful man I have ever seen in person, other than the blonde pixie-like man I married. A DJ has replaced the series of superstar singers who rotated over the stage all night. Someone knocks into the table holding hundreds of champagne flutes. When the shrill of the crystal hits the marble floor, splintering the air, it puts the dark-suited security team on edge. I head towards the bathroom to take my hair down from its well-sprayed pin curls, leaving my shoes beside the stage next to Georgia May’s.
I stare. I am bleeding all over the grey marble bathroom floor.
The shattered glass flutes made only a few slices, none I even felt. But, because my blood is so thin, and because of the growth that is part of my liver, I have become a borderline hemophiliac. My exhale catches, and I grab fistfuls of toilet paper to clean up the blood. I wonder where this flaw has come from. My eyes came from my mother. My skin and specific jaw structure came from my father. Whose genetics made it possible to grow a blood-filled sack in my liver? I hurry to clean up the evidence that I’m sick even before treating my own injuries. It has been over ten years now of deep conditioning. My personal comfort does not come first. That is the truth of fashion. It is freezing. It is boiling. It is painful. It is too bad. All I can do is hope that no one comes in.
Finished cleaning, I hop up on the polished counter. It is cold on my ass through the silk of the strapless sheath dress. I make a compress of toilet paper to press against the red droplets along the pad of my right foot. I wait for it to coagulate.
The two Jagger girls are dancing on the stage. I stayed the bleeding on my right foot half an hour before, drank another glass of bubbly, and returned to the party. I don’t wallow. I dance at the foot of the stage with one of the Young Hollywood guys named Aaron Paul. We alternate dancing together while holding hands, then dance apart. He likes to twirl me and do a dip or two. We begin using the stage stairs as a prop for maneuvering, adding to the show. My head is having a difficult time equalizing. Up the stairs I run. I twirl too hard and down I come. The thing with being a borderline hemophiliac: I bleed thin red blood, even if it does not have an exit point. It will pool under the surface of the skin, but it won’t clot well.
Georgia May has disappeared and Elizabeth is distraught and yelling, “Where is my sister? She’s a virgin!”
I pick up her forgotten shoes and shake my head, not having seen her for awhile. I am quite drunk and once again pondering the also-disappeared male-model-Eros-figure, and my husband, and the growing pain from the fall that I know cannot be a good thing. I put that aside, as I had been taught to do and I end the night taking a short run down a gold-laced hall hand-in-hand with the birthday boy, the Prince.
It wakes me, the pain. The look on my husband’s cupid face is displeasure.
He has no understanding of me having to still occasionally live “normally”, not like the sick girl I secretly am. The size of the bruise, almost black, covers the whole of my butt and runs up my back: a simple slip, a fall from dancing. Together we stay hidden in the baroque hotel room. It takes me twelve hours to be able to get out of bed. Outside I see a tethered hot air balloon rise and fall.
At the fashion show, thirty-six hours later, the special dress they give me to wear is translucent in the spotlights. It sparkles, the crystals hand-woven. Sitting in the front row, it is tight and uncomfortable, the bruise still sensitive and the dress so fitted that the distended way my chest has become–ribs, lungs, stomach cinched–has begun to make it hard to breathe. I smile and pout, in a fashionable, pretty way, and watch the Versace Man satin suits and their counterparts walk flatly by.
The villa’s garden holds orange trees, great figs, and other greens. Kanye West roams restlessly drinking out of a flute. A small vial of potion is passed around my table, a flower essence to ward off the “secret pest” Gianni’s house is known for in the summer months: mosquitoes. Allegra is so thin she looks desperately sick, yet I know she is just a victim, a creation of the same world that had turned me too.
In a cold, white pre-op room a horde of us wait. No privacy in our most vulnerable of states, lined up one-by-one, human bodies broken. Souls are contained within those vessels, connected to brain to veins to nerves. Together we ignore each other. Together we breathed through the pain. Together we pray for good outcomes.
Dying is a very quiet time. I know exactly who it is I want at my side. I only get to choose one.
In my hand I hold my husband’s and a rosary from Italy, given to him by a fan. I’m not Catholic. It doesn’t matter. It took my doctors three years to agree to try to remove the mass from my body and 50/50 is still the chances given to me that they will succeed. My parents take Xanax in the waiting room.
The operation is successful. I lose half my liver, along with the football-sized tumor.
The incision runs from mid-breast bone to mid-belly and across each side. The first time I shower at home after the hospital, the first time in two weeks, I cry hysterically, scared to wet the long rows of surgical tape covering my expansive wound, scared they will somehow detach and my insides will pop out.
I lose my Hollywood career that year, the career with which I was trained to identify my self-worth. With the new, raw scar, the cover of Maxim is in the past. The long list of medical records and my still present pre-existing condition—the other liver mass, much smaller, the doctors had to leave behind—makes me uninsurable, unbondable in industry speak.
I lose my husband two years later on a tropical Christmas Eve night. It takes me a year to breathe correctly and him the same to ask another to be his next wife.
I survive. The long wound has begun to heal, is fading and pink.
In May I will graduate from college, a thing I never had time to do before. I hope to become a teacher someday.
You can’t see my scars when you pass me by. What you see is simply the older version of that little model girl, now a thirty-five year old woman. I take three pills every day and when the headaches come (which they do, often), I need to rest in the dark and the quiet.
I do not miss the dieting or the long days sitting around on set waiting for my turn to arrive. I do miss the The Screen Actors Guild insurance, the union coverage I had been part of since I was fifteen and was dropped from as soon as I could no longer perform. I did believe in my marriage vows and I still believe in the vows I learned at Sunday school. I thank God for the five strangers I received blood from and the doctors that cut the mass out, opening my chest wide side-to-side, leaving me to clot, to heal, to regenerate.
Sometimes I lay in the dark and run the pad of my finger along the scars, tracing the path of the knife. It is smooth in places, ridged or raised in others. The scars feel the way the inside felt for so many years. I think it fits. The outside of my body finally matches the places I’ve been, the things I have accomplished.
Jennifer Sky is a writer of fiction and nonfiction, a student, and believer in magical things. Her work has appeared online at The Rumpus, Interview Magazine, Electric Literature, AOL, 12th Street, and in the short story anthology Love Magick. She lives in Brooklyn and is working on a memoir about fashion, Hollywood, and PTSD. Visit her on the web here.