Freak Like Me
One: My Baby Shot Me Down
I may as well begin by confessing, as though such a confession were required, that I am not the kind of man that women dream of.
I never was. From stuttering, sweaty, awkward puberty through isolated, workaholic college years and beyond into short, pallid, pudgy, myopic adulthood, I have never been a paragon of what society has elected to call 'Beauty'. This world is not kind to what we shall charitably call the husky gentleman, particularly not after he has forty-odd years on the odometer and an unfortunate haircut; even less so after he suffers a mutilating accident, an accident which, while it has proven over the years to have its benefits, cannot claim that conventional physical attractiveness is one of them.
I tell you this because I realise there is a chance, however slight, that you may interpret my narrative as being purely the result of sour grapes. "Well, of course he would do what he did," you might say, a dismissive chill in your voice. "An ugly man like him, jealous of the beautiful people, wanting to drag everyone down to his level. Of course he would despise all things beautiful."
But what is beauty, exactly?
It is in the eye of the beholder. It is in the heart of a rose. It comes from within. It illuminates and enlightens. It burns and it scalds. It is the curve of a lip, the flash of a bejewelled eye. It is glitter and flaming glamor. It is pure and untouched.
Oh, it is so many things. How could anyone, anywhere, ever hope to be all things beautiful?
Thus, we form standards. Human standards that they tell us are attainable. Buy this product and you will be beautiful, like this model. Have your nose broken and reconstructed, and you will be beautiful, like this model. Have the fat flensed from your thighs and your stomach, and you will be beautiful, like this model.
And once you are beautiful, like this model, a whole world, a golden world, will open up before your delighted eyes. You will be charming, witty, charismatic, confident. You will be wealthy, wealthy beyond the most fevered dreams of Croesus, showered with rewards for your unparalleled looks. You will be famous, millions of people hanging on your every word, every toss of your hair, every silly, vapid laugh that slithers from your pretty throat. Most of all, you will be loved. Drawn by the sheer, almost supernatural power of your loveliness, the man or woman you have longed for, the phantom creature who dances through your daydreams to the tune of your quickening heartbeat and the thrum of the blood in your veins, this marvellous being, will be your slave for life, will have you and hold you, will never, ever leave you.
Such are the dreams of Beauty. Such are its whispered, seductive promises.
But it would have no effect on us were it not for its snivelling, toadying little accomplice, the power behind the golden throne - the media. Constantly, unavoidably, eternally spinning its honeyed lies and veiled threats (they will depict a fat man or woman, certainly, on their television shows and in their motion pictures - but, look, Fatso never finds love, never finds happiness, just crawls home lonely at the end of the day and buries him or herself in a tub of Haagen-Dasz, and let that be a lesson to you!). They do, however, employ a secret weapon, a weapon that nobody can fail to shrink from in shame and intimidation, women disheartened and envious, men dejected and frustrated.
I speak, of course, of the women I believe I referred to earlier as "models".
And what models they are! Built to scale. Molded and dieted and exercised and vomited and starved to perfection. Pretty faces and pretty smiles and pretty, empty heads. Thin as my wrist. Blank as a slate. Lovely and curiously unhuman for that loveliness. Perfect, in other words.
All of this is off the top of my head, you realise. I'm not a sociologist. I don't make a study of such phenomena. In this, I am as amateur a student as I assume you are, merely observing, absorbing, that which is around me, forced upon me. My area of expertise lies in the sciences, which is where I found my own beauty, in the dance of atoms and the glint of artificial light on curving steel.
I was never really intrigued by the kind of beauty we are discussing until I was arrested for multiple counts of murder and terrorism.
Thanks to a certain arachnid individual (whose name we shall not mention), I found myself, after having committed certain deeds, locked away in a maximum security jail cell, with only a black-and-white television set and several unpromising-looking magazines for company. Thus I found myself immersed in our deplorable popular culture, exposed unwillingly to a crash course in social conditioning. Models surrounded me in that cell - winked flirtatiously from glossy pages, encouraged me to purchase chemically suspect creams and dyes, swayed gracefully behind my closed eyelids at night. Some men might have found pleasure in this. I found it only depressing.
How is it that nobody else has realised the injustice, the tyranny of society's standards of beauty? How is it that nobody else appears to realise the stranglehold the conventionally beautiful hold upon our culture, our thoughts, our feelings? How is it that nobody else has gazed upon these women and realised that they need to be destroyed, that their reign of sameness must be brought to an end if we, the ugly, the undesirable, the un-beautiful, are ever to believe ourselves worthwhile? How is that nobody else in this world sees what needs to be done, and knows how to go about doing it?
Nobody else in this world is Doctor Octopus.
Okay, MJ. Deep breath. This is doable. You can handle it just fine. Telling Peter that you didn't need him to drive you to this meeting was a good thing. Proves how independent you are. Proves you're all confident and stuff. Don't need a man to lean on. You are strong, you are invincible...
You are babbling. Look, Mary Jane, just settle down. You're sitting in the most expensive restaurant in Manhattan – at seven in the morning, I might add - feeling horribly underdressed for the occasion, with approximately three cents left in your wallet after you handed most of your cash over to the cabbie who brought you here, and you're about to discuss what could very well be your breakthrough film role with the most sought-after indie director in New York, and you are going. To. Be. Fine.
The worst that can happen is you don't get the part. Fine. Okay. You can handle that. Wouldn't be the first time.
Oh God. I think I'm going to be sick.
There isn't much time for that, though, because Timothy Hollander, said sought-after indie director, has just emerged from the Men's Room. I can't help but notice that he's sniffling rather heavily, but because I really need to stay positive right now, I'll put it down to a persistent head cold. Or an allergy. Yeah. Let's go with an allergy.
Striding across the room, he slumps down into the seat opposite me with a moan, not bothering to remove his shades. "Oh, man," he moans, rubbing his forehead. "You would not believe how wasted I was last night, uh...Mary Jane, right? Mary Jane Watson?"
Okay. Now's the chance to dazzle him with my wit and erudition. "Huh huh," I laugh moronically. "Yeah. Right. Mary Jane. MJ! To my friends," I add. Oh, fantastic. Way to go, Erudition Girl. I hurry on. "Big party last night, then?"
He squints at me. "Yeah...So, y'know, I'd rather keep this kinda short. And quiet," he adds, wincing. "Swear to God, babe, I've been hung over every night for the last, uh...What month are we in now?"
I'd really like to meet the people who give Hollander the money to make his films. They must be deeply rich or deeply insane. "July."
And thus, my worst nightmare begins: the Awkward Silence. Quickly, I clear my throat, and launch right into the speech I rehearsed on Peter last night. "Now, Mr. Hollander - "
Tim. He wants me to call him 'Tim'! Okay. That's good. We can work with that. "Tim," I continue, flashing him the Megabuck, You-Just-Hit-The-Jackpot-Tiger smile. "I read the script my agent forwarded to me, and I have to say, I think it's just...Well, wow, is all I can think to say. It's brilliant, probably one of the best things I've ever read, certainly the best part I've ever been offered."
He perks up. Huzzah! "You think so?"
"Oh, definitely!" I assure him, my sincerity painful. I snap open my bag, and bring out the script, scanning it as I speak, as if to tell him that I'm trying to draw upon its unutterable brilliance for inspiration. "Definitely," I repeat. "I mean, I couldn't put it down. I stayed up all night just reading it, going through the journey with Donna, like she was someone I really knew, you know? I really felt her. And then, when I was done, I just had to go through it again!" I laugh. Was that too much? It felt like too much.
Luckily, he doesn't seem to have noticed. Apparently too much praise for this guy can never be enough. "Aw, man. I'm just - I'm so happy you feel that way. I mean, I've wanted to work with you for ages. I know I'm kinda fuzzy on names," he apologises - he's apologising! To me! Score! - "But ever since I saw you in that Revlon ad, I just had this...feel about you, y'know? Like you could be big. Super big. Julia Roberts big."
I grin, and this time it's genuine. I can't wait to tell Peter. And May. And Aunt Anna. And have the flyers printed up and distributed all over New York...
"That's so flattering that you think so. I mean, it can be hard, modelling, you know, people just look at you and think you can only do the one thing..."
"Oh, absolutely," he confirms, as if that's a hardship he has to deal with every day of his life - but shut up, MJ, no cynicism, not now that this man is your new best friend! "Sometimes pretty girls have a hard time breaking into movies, believe it or not. But you - you have something special. Something I just know you'll bring to the part of Bethany that just wasn't there on the page."
And the Oscar for Best Actress in a feature film goes t - huh? Wha? Bethany?
"Yeah," Tim continues blithely. "I mean, when I wrote Bethany, I was just thinking, 'Hey, you know, run-of-the-mill nasty cheerleader type with five lines'. Same ol' same ol', right? But you're gonna be special in this role. I can feel it, Mary Sue."
Bethany? Betha-goddamn-ny? "But, uh...Tim...I...It's just that I kind of...Well, maybe it sounds presumptuous, but I kind of saw myself more as a Donna type?"
"You? As Donna?" He throws back his head and laughs, rather harder than I feel is strictly necessary. "Ohhh, no offense, kitten, but honestly, look at you - do you really think an audience is gonna be able to buy you as Donna? No, no - Donna's the one the audience is meant to identify with. Donna's the tragic one, the complex one, the one whom the audience will invest themselves in emotionally. I can't have her looking like some stone fox who just stepped out of last month's Vogue. You can understand that, right?"
Cancel the flyers. "Yeah. Yeah, of course, yeah. I mean, it makes sense..." Bethany. Jesus Christ. I pluck up my courage. Time to make a last stand. Worked for Custer.
"But, you know, Tim, now that we bring it up, I have to ask, uhm - about Bethany - do you think it's really necessary for her to be so nasty? I mean, not to criticise or anything, or tell you how to write, or - but I mean, it's just that we've seen so many nasty cheerleaders in the movies, wouldn't it be more intriguing to see a...not-so-nasty one?"
Tim lowers his shades, bristling a little at the criticism. He barks a laugh.
"You ever known a cheerleader to be not-so-nasty, honey? When I was in high school, I swear, not one of them even gave me a second glance. Just looked right through me."
"But they may not have meant anything by it," I protest feebly. "And even - even if they did, it's just, not all cheerleaders are mean like that, you know? I was a cheerleader myself, and I don't think I was ever - "
He's perked up again. "Well, then, there's no problem! You'll handle the role great. All the tumbling and dancing and such. I always like an actor with relevant life experience."
And my point has flown right over his head, peppering the wall behind him. I give up. Take the scraps, MJ. "Well, I guess so. Yeah."
He claps his hands together, and leaps to his feet. "FanTAstic! We start shooting in a few weeks' time, I'll get Marie to send you the call sheet and stuff. Can't wait to see you there, Mary Ann!" He winks in what he probably thinks is a charming fashion, spins on his heel, and walks out, leaving me alone with a growing sense of disenchantment and the check.
Sighing heavily, I take a gulp of water. Honestly. I always thought modelling would a great stepping stone to an acting career; how could looking really good possibly make things harder?
Oh, well. As Peter likes to sing in the shower, 'always look on the bright side of life'. At least I've got a part in Mr. Indie King's next film. That's definitely worth something. And hey, any actress could make Donna complex - she's written that way. It takes something unique to make a bitchy cheerleader with five lines into a complicated, nuanced character. It'll be a challenge. A chance to display my creativity. To explore a character. To create her from practically the ground up. Really show what I can do.
About an hour later, I'm sitting on a packing crate in a drafty warehouse, warmed by a solitary, forlorn-looking ray of sunlight, dressed in a black negligee, hunched over the receiver of the pay phone. I'm attempting two things that may well prove impossible: the first is blocking out the fashion shoot taking place around me – assorted cries of "This way, Anoushka! Okay, now I want sexy! Oh, come on, 'Noush, I know your sexy and that just ain't it", followed by "This is my sexy, Gerald, and quite frankly, I've never heard anyone complain"; clothing racks speeding past on squeaky metal wheels, silken clothing rustling, plastic hangers clattering together and coming apart and clattering together once more; the hair and makeup people chattering away as they put the finishing touches on a model, completely ignoring her except occasionally to chide her upon her emitting an indignant "Ow!" ("Beauty is pain, honey-kitten"); the gurgle of the water cooler, the grind of the coffee machine, the clicking of high heels, the dazzling burst of a flashbulb in the watery, grayish light.
Ignoring all of that and focusing on my conversation is Impossible Feat Number One. Impossible Feat Number Two is getting both the attention and the interest of my darling, cherished husband, Peter. Still a little run down from this morning's non-meeting with Hollander, I'm attempting to elicit some spousal sympathy.
Do I really need to tell you how forthcoming it is?
"…I mean, it's just such a stereotype is what it is," I say, trying to convey some of the injustice of this situation. "Why is it that every time someone makes a movie with cheerleaders in it, that somebody has to have this huge vendetta against 'The Popular Crowd' and portray them as these soul-sucking adolescent vampires who're out to get anyone who isn't a size two?"
"Well, gee, MJ," says Mr Attentive vaguely "You know, a lot of people had really bad experiences in high school and can sort of relate to that kind of stuff…"
"But not all cheerleaders are like that! The girls I hung out were really smart and nice and cool, not these toxic bitchfaces you always see - "
"MJ," Peter interrupts "I can't help but think this is less about your imminent formation of the Cheerleader Anti-Defamation League than it is about the fact that you didn't get the lead role just because you're pretty."
"Well, yeah, that's part of it, obviously," I respond, my temper rising. "But that's just what I mean, isn't it? I didn't get the role just because of the way I look. If you've got big breasts and a little waist, people think you can't handle serious roles, that all you can play is the hero's arm candy, or Shrieking Horror Movie Victim Number Three, or - "
" – Bethany?"
"Yeah." I can hear the smile in his voice, and I know he's not taking this seriously. "Peter, look, I know you weren't popular in high school like I was, and I know it sounds all, like, 'don't hate me because I'm beautiful' or something, but it's just this keeps happening to me, over and over again. I'm never gonna get a really interesting character to play, a chance to show people what I'm capable of, as long as all they see is - "
"Uh, hold that thought, honey," he interrupts again, and God help me, I detect the sound of a TV in the background. "Peter," I demand, trying to hold on to some dignity, "You haven't by any chance been watching television this entire time, have - ?"
"MJ, I'm really sorry," he says, his voice rushed and tense now, "But I gotta go. Something big's going on. One of my 'old buddies' has slipped his chain again. We'll talk over dinner tonight, okay?"
"Peter, you know I've got the Georgiano show to do tonight, I can't - "
I exhale. There's no point getting riled up about this. Peter's got a job to do. This city needs saving, a lot. That's much more important than listening to the wife bitch and moan about physical stereotyping all afternoon. See it from his point of view, MJ. Sit. Stay. Good spouse.
"Yeah, sure, Peter," I say disconsolately. "Go get 'im, Tiger."
The line goes dead. A 'good-bye' wouldn't have gone unappreciated.
I hang up, and adjust myself uncomfortably on the wooden crate. I think I've got some splinters embedded in unmentionable areas. As if there aren't enough things in my life I could legitimately call 'pains in the ass'…
"MJ!" calls Gerald, the snake-hipped English photographer this magazine I'm posing for stole from The Face last month. "We're good to go over here, and we require the perfumed incandescence that is your presence to continue the day's schedule. Shake a leg, would you, darling?"
Click. Click. Flash. Click. Turn your head this way, baby. Give me sultry. Give me innocent. Give me a young girl on Christmas morning. Click. Flash. Click. I want the agony and the ecstasy, sweetheart. Give me love. Give me pain. Give me something a little wild. Flash. Flash. Flash. Click.
Lord, give me something. Give me something different.
"…And we now cross to Angela Morgan, our on-the-spot correspondant."
"Thanks, David. I'm here outside Riker's Island Pententiary, where a scene of carnage has taken place unlike any the infamous prison has ever seen.
At approximately two-thirty this morning, perhaps the jail's most dangerous inmate, Doctor Otto Octavius, a.k.a 'Doctor Octopus', escaped from custody, killing thirteen guards in the process. It is believed that Octavius employed a high-frequency pulse emitter concealed in one of his trademark metal 'tentacles', in order to shut down the sophisticated security systems that had been installed to prevent him from escaping.
Octavius, a former nuclear researcher who turned to crime after the disfiguring accident that left him surgically attached to the apparatus he had formerly used to handle sensitive materials, has directly and indirectly caused the deaths of over seventy people in New York alone. Police have cautioned civilians to avoid densely populated areas, where Octavius has frequently attacked on previous occasions, and in particular to avoid being within the same vicinity as the vigilante known as Spider-Man, towards whom Octavius has a long-standing enmity.
The police are baffled, however, as to Octavius' current whereabouts, and any possible motivations he may have had for his escape…"
The rain rattles in the gutters overhead, hissing through the dark veins of pipes and sluicing across concrete, draining down the open throats of sewers. I hear it drumming, a constant war dance, on the rooftop of this house, the next house, the house after that, a choir invisible of polluted water. The skies, beyond the cracked glass of my window, are iron-gray, a silent threat.
They say you can't go home again. I thought perhaps I might not be able to. Surely, I thought, this would be the very first place the police would stake out – my childhood home in Queens. But no. When I arrived on the scene, tentacles sheathed in a black coat that swirled around me like dark wings, the rain slick against my face and my glasses, I expected to be greeted by the howl of sirens, the flash of blue and red. Nothing. The street was deserted, save for a thin, starving dog. It stood before me, the repository of my childhood memories, the rotting, eyeless husk, abandoned and alone.
The house did not look this way as a result of neglect. On the contrary, it was purposeful. I have owned and maintained this house for the last ten years, and its exterior is decrepit in order to be deceptive: upon entering the house, I was greeted once again by all that I hold familiar: the ticking grandfather clock, the overstuffed sofa, the long wooden dining table. The carpeted staircase, leading upwards, to that room.
And below, where my family's basement once was, that elephants' graveyard where old bicycles and crates of broken toys were banished, never to be seen again – there I have organised everything I will need for this brave new venture.
On my way across the living room towards those basement stairs, I pass by a tarnished mirror. I scarcely recognise myself. I seem to have changed so much. My hair is long, black, slick as the ink produced by my namesake. I have lost some weight, but, I remind myself bitterly, not nearly enough for the culture in which I live. The failing light glimmers off the black surface of the tinted glasses that have become the eyes I present to the outside world, eyes that let the others know they will never see through to my soul.
I walk across to the dining table, where I left today's newspapers, and flick through the cheap newsprint pages of the Bugle until I find my destination. A full-page, color announcement. The Alessandra Georgiano fashion show. Tonight at eight PM. The first glimpse of the new Winter collection. Exclusive Attendance - Invitation Only.I have never been much of a believer in exclusivity.
The bed back at our apartment is a king-size. The mattress is one hundred per cent duck feather, and the sheets I use to cover it are the softest, cleanest white linen. The pillows are enormous, three times the size of my and Peter's heads, and when you lie down on it, you could almost deceive yourself into thinking you're floating. I've had some good times on that bed.
I'm thinking about it right now because, even though it's only 7:45 in the evening, there's really nowhere else I'd rather be. Certainly, I'd rather be there than here, backstage at the Georgiano Winter Collection show.
I just spent the last two hours being made up; while sitting in the chair did give me a chance to doze a little, I'm afraid I might have lost the use of my legs. Wincing as the pins-and-needles bite into my calves and feet, looking like a goddess from the neck up but dressed in a schlumpy bathrobe otherwise, I pick my way gingerly through the chaos that's ensuing all around me: the despairing wails of assistants trying desperately to fit models into rubber corsets, the desperate thudding of boots as makeup artists and hairdressers rush this way and that, putting the finishing touches on the girls; harried-looking wardrobe women dashing across the room, wielding coat-hangers, thousand-dollar dresses slung over their arms, pins and tape-measures clamped tightly between their teeth. Striding through it all is Alessandra Georgiano herself, five-foot-four, rumored to be fifty-seven years old but age indeterminate due to massive facelifting, squeezed into a black corset-and-feathers creation of her own design, long dyed black hair swinging down to her cinched waist, little dog Bobo tucked under one arm looking anxious, high black boots crunching ruthlessly over the confetti that litters the floor, tracked in from outside.
Unable to resist, feeling the adrenaline beginning to course through my veins despite myself, I peek out through the curtains.
I've seen this kind of thing a hundred times, a thousand times, but the dazzle of it all never seems to fade. It bursts into view; a million sequins glittering off the bodies of a hundred beautiful starlets, their lips bright as blood, their eyes bright as carnivores'. The press – you can always tell the press, they never dress as well – clustered around the edges of the catwalk, cameras at the ready. And the catwalk itself, stretching ahead of me, the great white strip of road that leads nowhere, shining tonight with pools of red glittering confetti, tumbling from the sky like red rain. The room is dark but you'd never know it, not with the twin kliegs that stand on either side of the stage, sweeping across the room like police searchlights; not with the brilliant footlights that line the catwalk, hot and bright as miniature suns, ready to light our paths; not with the glistening confetti that winks and sparkles every time its fall catches the illumination within its red depths.
It's a kind of Paradise. A celebration of everything that's beautiful.
I grin. So Peter's not here tonight, out and about, swinging around the skyscrapers, scouting around for his 'old buddy'; so I didn't get the role I wanted in some stupid prestigious movie. Big deal. Tonight I'm gonna go out there, and I'm gonna be a star.
A pair of clawlike fingers catch me painfully around my bare shoulders, spinning me around. It's Alessandra, a cigarette in a fancy holder sticking out of her painted mouth. She eyes me up and down. "You look…tired!" she says accusatively, in her lilting Italian accent. "And why is it you are not dressed?"
"Liliana said she'd be with me - " I begin.
Alessandra waves her cigarette holder impatiently. "Liliana, Liliana! Liliana is an imbecile. What is it you were to wear, child?"
"The ballgown. The organza one? I'm supposed to go on after Chloe - "
"You will go on after Sasha," Alessandra interrupts, sizing me up again. "I will have you wearing the black feathers. The organza ballgown is a better fit for Sasha. Your face – the feathers – spectacular!" She stalks off, clicking her fingers, and immediately three dressers rush over to start hauling me into the black feather ensemble. I'm pushed and pulled every which way; some nasty-looking metal hooks are brought out of one dresser's pocket to haul me into the corset.
"Oof," I groan, as the corset is pulled even tighter than it already is. I'm beginning to understand why these things were phased out after the Victorian era. One of the dressers eyes me critically.
"Been gaining a little weight, have we?" she asks, her voice slightly snappish, as she pulls the corset even goddamn tighter.
"I, uh, don't think so," I gasp.
"How old are you?" she asks, looking me over. My face flushes scarlet. "Twenty-five."
"Oh, well, I suppose that explains it," she says, her lip curling a little. Meow. Hiss. Spit.
Yeah, only in this business could you be considered over the hill at twenty-five. Still, I'm determined not to let her get to me. After all, she's not the one who's going to awe and dazzle New York's glitterati in about five minutes' time. Just the thought of it is like a drug to me; I don't know about any of the other girls being powdered, rouged, lipsticked, pushed, pulled, tugged, corseted and glamorised this evening, but right now, I'm feeling like the most beautiful woman in the whole damn world.
I can hear Alessandra making her speech outside, her voice magnified by the mike, words like "dahlings" and "exclusive" and "fantasy" drifting through the curtains – the usual designers' spiel. And then thunderous applause, practically a palpable thing, thrumming through my body like a second bloodstream, and the music, so loud it pulses through the bones in my head – it's an old nightclubbing favorite of mine, Dead or Alive, "You Spin Me Round" – and the curtains are thrown aside as Chloe steps out onto the catwalk, shoulders thrown back, eyes narrowed against the lights, and the show's begun.
It has begun. As the annoying music I have come to associate with fashionable social events blasts out of the speakers, and I have to pause to brush some of this godforsaken glitter off the surface of my glasses, the curtain parts and one of them storms out amid a burst of photographic wildfire, her vacant eyes alight, all bare tanned arms and ruby lips and purposeful, purposeless stride. Wherever does she think she is going? Only to the end, and then to turn back again, back the way she came. Lost little girls, all of them, puppets on strings.
When I first began to observe these women, I believed they were all the same. Certainly, all of them look the same, evincing only as much variation as the strict laws of Beauty will allow: they may occasionally deviate from the norm by being Asian, black, Latino; blonde, brunette or redheaded; but essentially, they are all one, their body types and facial features a hall of mirrors, endlessly repeating itself.
My initial impression, however, was slightly mistaken. There are differences, differences only evident to the subtle eye. Certain qualities. The first one, the one I will need for my prototype, must be special. She is to be my example. She must possess, in her one, slender body, every single quality that our society accepts as beautiful. She must be Venus incarnate. Not merely beautiful, but the most beautiful.
This first girl is not that girl, not my girl. Nor this next one, nor this one, nor this, nor any of the others. Watching, unnoticed, from my position at the back of the hall, checking the clock and realising that the show is almost over, I am about ready to give up. Clearly, the one I seek is not to be found here.
And then the curtain parts…
…And the lights explode all around me, blinding me, and the glitter falls across my face and over my shoulders as I step out, striding ferociously, a thousand feet tall, towering over all of them. The black feathers swirl around me, snaking in and out of my field of vision, and my eyes are as narrowed as those of a great cat, painted in red and black and gold, my lips sparkling in the brilliant light. I know why they call it a runway, because I feel, I really feel, that if I were to just gather some momentum, I could fly…
….I know this woman. Know her in my heart, in my veins, in sleepless nights of resentment and malice. This is she, the icon of Beauty, its high priestess. Her hair the red of the blood flowing through the heart's secret chambers; her eyes the green of spite, more Eris than Aphrodite. Her skin as white as snow, as the fairy tale has taught us. The glistening scarlet lips that kiss the booted foot of Society, and in return it strokes her lovely head, granting her its favor. The crowd around me loves her. They worship her. She is the one I have been waiting for.
Only she. Only she will do.
Midnight. The hall is quiet now. All the starlets, all their pretty arm candy, all the photographers and fashion reporters are gone. Home, presumably, to their comfy, comfy beds.
Oh, all right, I know that isn't true: they're probably all off to the Rainbow Room or somewhere to party until dawn. It's me that wants to go home and sleep. The adrenaline has finally worn off, ebbed away; after being hugged by Alessandra and assured I was "a magnificent hit", and staying back out of courtesy to have a drink of champagne with everyone, and then getting out of that corset (a four-woman job, turns out) and learning to breathe again, and showering, and getting changed, I now, really and truly, no fooling, feel about ready to hit the hay.
Chloe, the last one here besides me, her bag slung over one shoulder, waves me goodnight as she steps out through the back exit; I give a wave back, grinning, and set about collecting all my stuff into my own bag. Once that's done, with a sigh, I slump down onto one of the chairs, my gaze drifting upwards to meet my own in one of the lighted mirrors.
Alessandra was right. I do look tired, and I'm not sure it's anything to do with the fatigues of the day. I lean a little closer, examine myself in the reflective surface. I've got a touch of black around my eyes – nothing a little foundation can't conceal, but there nevertheless. I've got to admit, I'm not the dewy, fresh-faced ingenue any more. Twenty-five indeed.
I sigh, the corners of my reflection's mouth drooping down. What am I gonna do when I'm too old to model any more? I never made it big enough to have millions stashed away in the bank in preparation for that day, and nobody seems to want to cast me in a role noteworthy enough to forge a second career as an actor. Sometimes I even worry about losing my looks, even though it immediately makes me feel shallow and stupid for buying into that kind of 'Useless at Thirty' crap. Peter always says I look terrific. But Peter's hardly ever around.
And what if, someday, I don't look terrific? Everyone gets old. Everyone's looks fade. What's Peter going to say to me when I'm not young, when I'm not beautiful, when all that glamor has vanished and all he finds himself with is a plain old lady who never achieved anything, who doesn't have any skills, who can't make her own living? What's he going to do then? What am I going to do then?
Oh, hell, I don't know. I'm just tired. Crashing from the adrenaline high. Post-Catwalk Depression. I'll just go home and sleep it off.
Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I get up and start to head over to the exit. On the way, a fluttering motion catches my eye. The curtain leading out to the catwalk. I smile at the memory. I may be feeling crappy again now, but out there, I was the Queen. I owned that stage, it was all mine, those people looking up at me were all mine, and no one can take that away from me.
Oh, what the hell. Why not?
I saunter up to the curtain, push it aside, gaze out once again over that thin white vista. All the lights are dim now, a far cry from their earlier brilliance. Most of the glitter has been swept up into a huge pile, like Fall leaves, at the foot of the catwalk. Everything is so silent now, almost hushed, like a church. Here and there, a bit of red glitter the cleaners didn't catch winks in the dark blue light.
I step out onto the stage. Down at the side, I can see the sound system, where the music guys pulled off their bit of wizardry for the evening. I step down, inspecting the track listings of the CDs they left behind, and, grinning, find something I really love, something absolutely perfect. I set it up, and leap back onto the stage, just as it starts to play.
I close my eyes as a spooky, reverberating, spectral guitar begins to play, and a ghostly, plaintive female voice echoes through the empty room. Nancy Sinatra. The only version of this song I've ever really loved.
I was five and he was six
We rode on horses made of sticks
He wore black and I wore white
He would always win the fight…
My mom used to love this song. Maybe that's why I do, too. And songs like this, all those Fifties and early Sixties girly songs, the Shangri-Las, the Chiffons, the Shirelles, she always used to walk around humming them. When I was little, we used to dance to them, she and I, in our tiny, sunlit living room…
Bang, bang – he shot me down
Bang, bang – I hit the ground
Bang, bang – that awful sound
Bang, bang – my baby shot me down…
The guitar weaves through the abandoned hall, and as it does, I slowly begin to dance. I never thought you could dance to this song, not this version of it, anyway. It's slow and it's sad, and it haunts your mind. But I dance to it. I raise my arms above my head, my eyes closed, and I allow a shiver, an undulation, to travel down my body. I wind one leg around the other, moving as slow as slow can be down that catwalk again, becoming a sinew, a snake. As the second verse begins, I start to sing along:
Seasons came and changed the time
When I grew up I called him mine
He would always laugh and say
'Remember when we used to play…'
My eyes fly open. Did I just hear something?
Apparently I did. A shadow moves on the wall, at the far end of the room. I peer into the gloom, and cry out over the music: "Hello?"
'Bang, bang – I shot you down
Bang, bang – you hit the ground
Bang, bang – that awful sound
Bang, bang – I used to shoot you down…'
An almighty CRASH. And I throw an arm up to my face as, without warning, the searing heat and burning brightness of a harsh spotlight is thrown down upon me, engulfing me. Lowering my arm, dazzled, I blink fiercely, trying to clear the flashing spots out of my eyes.
I almost wish I hadn't.
Towering feet in the air above me, backlit by the ferocious artificial light, supported by four gleaming metal tentacles that cage me all around, is Doctor Octopus.
Dimly, I realise that this must be the 'old buddy'.
He's changed, I can see that much. The green and orange is gone, the bowl haircut is gone. He's thinner than he used to be, paler. He's wearing a black trenchcoat, almost a cassock, that swirls around his feet, hiding them from view. His hair is long, slicked back, a shining black. The lights glitter off the surface of the tinted glasses that obscure his eyes. His face is utterly expressionless. I'd almost say he looked attractive, if I didn't know so very much better. There's nothing at all attractive about this man, on the outside or on the inside.
I stand there, a deer in headlights, staring up at him, my mouth hanging open like a stunned mullet. A horrible thought hits me – is this something to do with Peter? Has Ock figured out that he and Spider-Man - ?
Before I can ride any further on this train of thought, Ock begins to speak.
"I wouldn't advise you to try to run, Miss. It will only make things worse."
I try to think of some witty comeback. What would Spider-Man do? But my mouth is dry, and my mind is a total blank. I don't have superpowers. Those tentacles can tear me limb from limb.
Luckily for me, Ock likes the sound of his own voice.
"It might comfort you to learn that I have selected you for a most particular purpose. A social experiment, you might say. I don't expect you to understand, of course, but your limited intelligence surely will allow you to grasp the fact that you now have an opportunity to finally do something useful with your vain and empty existence. I suggest you take it."
'Limited intelligence'? 'Vain and empty existence'? Okay. Good one, Ock. Now I'm not scared, I'm pissed.
I fold my arms, keeping one eye trained on Ock, the other scanning the room for something I can use. "Well, golly gee, Mister Octopus-Man," I squeak, in a wide-eyed parody of bimbodom. "I ain't never been one for the book-learnin' and such, but if you say it's an ex-per-ee-ment, it must be real important."
"Are you making fun of me?" he demands, instantly on the defensive. Right, right. Peter told me about this. Ock's got a really fragile ego. This, plus the item I've spotted out of the corner of my eye, has possibilities.
"No, honey, this is making fun of you: love the new ensemble. Leaps and bounds ahead of the first one. You've gone from Elton John to Meat Loaf in only a few easy steps. Good for you!"
And on the count of "you", I run three long steps, grab the bottle of champagne left on the side of the stage, and haul off with all my strength, hurling it upwards, where it connects and shatters against Ock's skull. Groaning, he falls downwards, tentacles flailing wildly, holding his head in his hands. I race past him down the catwalk, staring straight at the doors ahead of me. If I can only reach them before –
Something as strong as a steel cable wraps itself around my ankle, pulling hard; I slam to the ground, my surroundings spinning. Ock is dragging me towards him, as he struggles to get to his feet; I dig my nails into the floor, shredding the paper that covers the 'walk, tearing it into white ribbons. Ock is standing now, glaring, imperious once again; as soon as I'm within range, I send a sweeping kick out with my other leg, catching him squarely in the stomach. With a muffled 'Ugh', he's down again, but the tentacle has a death grip on my leg and still pulling me closer to him, as though it's something independent of him, a lackey rather than an appendage.
We're close now, horribly close; with his human arms, he seizes me, teeth bared in an animal snarl, composure lost; he strikes me hard across the face, white light exploding behind my eyes; balling up my fist, I punch him right back, aiming for his glasses, knowing how sensitive his eyes are to light; the lenses crack, but don't break. I hit him again, struggling against his grip on my waist, around my leg. All around us, his three other tentacles continue to flail, swiping at me, missing, his vision obstructed by the blows I keep aiming, usually successfully, at his face.
Ock falls back, still holding onto me for grim death with one arm, striking at me with the other, and I fall forward on top of him. We roll over and over each other, lips bloodied, faces scratched and bruised. Our legs entangle. We're gasping and shuddering, each of us trying to catch our respective breaths before the other one does. To anyone watching, this would look obscene.
Something smacks me, hard as a telephone pole, in the back of the head, and I fall forward, more light dancing in my eyes. Ock, in one motion, hauls himself up to stand over me. "I wasn't going to hurt you!" he thunders, as his tentacles come down, rolling me over so I can look up at him, pinning me by the legs and shoulders.
"Funny," I pant. "I can't seem to regret hurting you."
With a final burst of strength, I pull one leg out from under his tentacle, and slam my heel into his groin. He gasps, and falls to his knees, then onto his side, releasing me from his grip. I whip around, push myself up from the floor, and run hell for leather down the end of the catwalk – the doors are ahead of me, they're open wide, run, Mary Jane, run, run, go, go, go –
Something catches me in the back of the leg. A slight stinging sensation. A trickle of warmth, running upwards into my body, spreading through me. I keep running. I stumble. My whole body feels warm, so warm, as though hot molasses are inching through my bloodstream. My head feels heavy, my limbs, my torso, slowing down, so heavy…
I stand there, swaying on the spot, trying to remember what I was doing. I was running. Lifting my feet. Lift feet. Won't lift. Eyelids loaded down, so much weight. Tired. Sleep. Need sleep. Need run. Feet. Tired…
At the edge of the runway, I fall. As I tumble through the air, I catch the briefest glimpse of Ock, dishevelled, still lying on his side, propped up on one elbow, watching me, a weapon I'll later recognise as a tranquiliser gun clutched in one hand. Then he spins out of my view, as my gaze is thrown up to the gilded ceiling. A burst of red all around me. For one confused moment, I mistake it for blood. Later, I'll realise it's just that pile of red glitter, the pile I have fallen into now, rising and cascading all around me as I collapse into its soft, sparkling depths.
My eyes, less than half open, blink once, twice.
And everything else is darkness.
Bang, bang – my baby shot me down.