She sat with me in the white-tiled bathroom, holding my hair while I upchucked into the toilet. When my hair fell out, thick blond clumps that collected in corners, she rubbed small circles between my shoulder blades. Weeks later, at the wig shop, she held up an auburn bob.
“Spunky,” she said. “And sexy.”
She drove me to radiation, to acupuncture, to support groups with women who had lost or were losing their breasts. She brewed herbal concoctions that smelled of twigs and dirt. She brought casseroles and cookies, and later, when the radiation and chemo totally did me in, homemade applesauce and other soft sick-foods. She fed me tiny measured spoonfuls, as if I were a baby bird.
She painted yellow happy faces on my toe nails, upside-down so my piggies smiled up at me during infusions. When the chemo raced down the tube and into my blood like liquid fire, her hand gripped mine. Sitting behind her, my husband stared at the space between my throat and stomach, his eyes round and empty as craters.
The summer before I got sick, I showed her my sanctuary, the place no one entered, not even my husband. I opened the door to my dressing room, a space larger than my living room. She entered, her hands covering her mouth, and slowly turned. Her voice muffled through her fingers.
“A girl’s dream come true.”
Her hands caressed the rows of show gowns hanging on maple hangers: satins blue as summer nights, coal black silks, wine-red velvets, ebony wool shawls draped with pearls. Silver stilettos, emerald-green pumps, shiny patent boots that ran to my thighs gleamed from the lower racks. Her fingers traced the faces of those I had worked with: Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin, Tony Orlando. She stopped before one blown-up black and white photograph, me and the rest of The Lipsticks posing on the stairs of a hired jet.
“My God,” she said. “You were…you are?”
“Yes,” I said, and when she looked at me, her eyes glittered, greener somehow, and harder.
I met my future husband twenty years ago, at the Good Views eye store in the big mall outside Philly. I needed reading glasses, he needed customers. For an eye doctor, he was sexy. He wore his silver hair pulled back into a short tail, and his crackle leather cowboy boots clipped on the marble floor. He sat me in the patient chair and leaned over me, a tiny flashlight in his hand.
“Follow the light,” he said.
His face bore closer. Silver flecks danced in his pupils, like angels or falling stars. I asked him why he became an eye doctor. “Eyes,” he said. “The windows to the soul.”
I married him because he looked into my eyes, because he saw more than a girl singing into a microphone.
Jersey Boys stormed Broadway. Bee-Bop roared back, and so did The Lipsticks. We went on tour, traveling the casino circuit: Foxwoods, Atlantic City, Branson, Reno. For the first time in twenty years, I was singing regularly. The royalty checks poured in. Jake bought another store, then another, hired more managers, and cut back on work to travel with me. We bought the country estate, the timeshare in Hawaii. We bought long-term care insurance.
The tour ended in Vegas. Orchids filled our Luxor suite with vanilla, my head buzzed from the Perrier. We danced, the strip sparkling below like an over-decorated Christmas tree, and my husband slipped his hand under my gown. He cupped my breast, his fingers exploring, and I pressed against him, wanting him.
He stopped. His fingers probed harder, kneaded the small bead. “What is this?”
After I survived the treatment, I weighed the possibility of reconstruction. She drove me to the prosthesis fitting. When I cried at the purple scars criss-crossing the flats of my chest, mourned how my husband once caressed the soft fullness of my breasts, she squeezed my hand the way only a best friend could.
“He loves all of you, not just your body parts.” She held up a C-cup mastectomy bra, a full size bigger than what I'd lost. “So let's go, Dolly.”
Turns out she brought more than food for comfort. I moved into the country house. My husband still begs me to take him back, but I never return his phone calls—or hers. Nights, I climb the stairs to the empty bedroom of our house, rubbing the stubble growing newly black on my head. I walk into the dressing room, never turning on the light, and slip into a gown. When I shut the door, a dozen wigs perched on Styrofoam heads stare after me.
published 30 November 2012
How easy it was to hate her: the houses, cars, clothes, travel, even a doting husband—the accoutrements of fame—and me, of course, the functionary who organized all the details of that too-abundant life. Aside from my paycheck, I can’t recall a single instance of appreciation unless you count the day she led me into her “sanctuary,” for her no doubt, an act of noblesse oblige. Only this haven offered walls of impossible shoes and racks of satin-doll-pushup-cleavage gowns. I wanted to laugh but acted the naïf, awestruck in finding herself in the presence of greatness.
My disdain for the ultra-feminine and excess in general comes from being raised by a single father, and one who tended toward reclusiveness. He was taciturn, yes, but never sullen. He loved me, but life wasn’t always easy, though his reticence taught me self-reliance. At eighteen, I left for NYU. An MBA followed, and a job in the city.
In 2004 he died unexpectedly. Back in Pittsburgh, I cleared out his apartment, which appeared monkish, not much different from my own, I realized. In that moment, I felt profoundly alone. Co-workers took the place of friends. Lovers came and went. I told myself it was my stubborn independence, the accepted result of living so many years on my own; but now I wondered if I wasn’t duplicating my father’s existence, forever eking out an imitation of life in the shadow of my mother’s death.
I arranged with Fed Ex to pick up a box of files. His few personal belongings were in a valet case on his dresser: a watch, the black onyx cufflinks I’d given him on his last birthday, a 25-year commemorative tie tack from his employer, a gold wedding band, now tarnished. The case went into my bag. The Salvation Army could have the rest.
When the box of files arrived, its contents were as unremarkable as his apartment, with one exception—a sealed manila envelope with my name written across the front in my father’s handwriting. Part of me said it was just more trash, throw it away. I slit open the end and my father’s sole bequest spilled across the table—photos, clippings from celebrity magazines, ticket stubs, unopened letters marked “return to sender,” a divorce decree and child custody agreement—none of which I even knew existed.
It was easy to find out that “Dolly Wilson” lived outside Philadelphia with her husband, a successful optometrist, but I couldn’t simply show up on her doorstep. It might have been a rare stroke of luck that his business was expanding, but I saw it as destiny. Claiming family matters, I gave notice at work. I sublet my apartment and found a small condo not far from the upscale exurb where Dolly lived. A few weeks later, I sat in the Good Views office on Rittenhouse Row for the second time in two days.
“Your resumé is excellent,” he said, “and your references speak highly of you.”
I smiled, knowing the offer was coming.
“Unfortunately, Good Views has nothing to offer someone with your skills.” He stood and put out his hand. “But, as they say, when one door closes, another opens.”
Would she recognize me? My name, quite run-of-the-mill, might be a trigger, but probably not. Might she see in me something reminiscent of my father or even of her own image? Instead she scrutinized my Ann Taylor skirt and sweater, the Cole Haan pumps.
“She’ll do,” was all she said.
I kept her calendar, answered fan mail, organized the household staff, coordinated with her booking agent, travel agent, dry cleaner, and dressmaker. I performed a thousand daily mundane tasks while her ego thrived and my animus grew alongside her petulance. I anticipated the moment when I would reveal my father’s legacy, the day I would finally ask what kind of woman leaves a husband and infant daughter, what price such fame?
Then came the diagnosis.
I held her head while she vomited, massaged her shoulders until my hands ached, sat drowsy-eyed beside her when sleep wouldn’t come. I cooked and baked healthy foods as well as the not-so-healthy ones she craved. Support meetings, radiation therapy, wig shopping—through it all, I was by her side, even during those excruciating chemo sessions when she masked her pain and egged on my blithe chatter while Jake sat by, helpless and withdrawn.
I had become indispensible by giving her all she wanted, showing her all the love she could have had through all those lonely years. Something in me shifted. I wanted to be with her always, to tell her how I’d missed her, everything I’d sacrificed to be near her. I’d show her the picture of our little family, and with tears glazing her cheeks, she’d whisper forgive me and open her arms.
On her fiftieth birthday, she pirouetted into the room, her radiant dashiki swirling around her, a matching headscarf crowning her head. Her chemo one month behind, she was a queen.
“Mes chers petits!” Her voice fluttered, like it did when she addressed those faceless fans that pressed around her car. Alighting in her chair, she accepted Jake’s gift, black diamond lisette earrings, then rewarded him with a pristine kiss on the cheek.
“You shouldn’t have.” Her fingers reached into the envelope. When she looked at me again, her eyes were glittering, greener somehow, and much harder than ever before.
“What’s the meaning of this? What do you want?”
I started to say “nothing” but the truth stopped me.
“This is your fault, Jake! You brought her here.” He leaned closer, but she pulled away. “Did she plead with you? You always were a pushover, especially when they’re young and pretty.” Jake shrank into his chair, eyes averted.
She flung the photo at me. “Leave, now, before I call the police.”
How easy it would be to hate her, but the darkness soothes me. The city lights along the river flicker on, then off, reflecting in the cool metal of my father’s relics. Some nights I dial. The phone rings, and I know the machine will pick up again… and again… and again.
published 30 November 2012