We drive down the empty roads, windows open, dry-looking palms all along the periphery. I notice the roads are incredibly wide. Lindsay says they’re made that way to accommodate drunk drivers.
Everyone drives drunk here, she says. It’s part of the culture.
The flight from New York was maybe six hours and I don’t remember a transfer but if there was it was longer and I drank the whole time and now I’m exhausted. I blink in the heat. Her hair is white blonde and her car’s an LA car, dark blue and streamlined, thin like she is. She’s stopped wearing perfume but I can still smell it, blackberry spice and some kind of flowers. She turns her head to look me over.
Looks like you could use some sun.
Her hands are white on the wheel where they aren’t tattooed and her nails are cut short to the skin, raw pink where they aren’t red lacquered. I watch her whole leg move as she steps on the gas. It’s harder in heels because you can’t really feel it.
We wore the same size but her shoes always felt too big when I put them on. The shoes were big too. Patent platforms, over the knee boots, tall bejeweled wedges all making noise as she walked on full volume, thighs and eyebrows and teeth a presence, Cheshire mouth up in a sexy smirk but I’ve seen her smile for real, when she wasn’t busy hustling her image, making a name of herself while I was still a scared little girl. Her look was alt-hooker but it never looked like sex. Proto-woman, Red Madonna. Even though we’re the same height, it always looked like she was taller.
You can work right here, she tells me. There’s a desk in the other half of the room where I put my laptop. Her studio is in the back of the tattoo shop where she goes to work to make her work possible. Half of the garment district is in it. Leather, sequins, satin, fabrics I never learn the names for rippling out of boxes in shades of sunrise. The gas station next door sells real wine, not the thing we have back home mysteriously labeled Wine Product. There’s a lot in the back where I go to smoke cigarettes. When I take breaks I walk around Melrose and try to warm up to LA.
Our first photoshoot together was at the bar I would move next door to after I left the dorms and haunt until it closed for violating one code or another. The cocktails were strong and had names like Strawberry Fields and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and for an eighteen year-old from the suburbs of nowhere that was exciting. My hair was new black and my face still stained around the edges from it. The blonde was a philosophy major and ready to be taken seriously. She picked me up in her minty blue Beetle.
I liked you better as a blonde, she said, and stopped flirting with me after that.
Now, urging my hair back to its birth blonde for the hundredth time, I know she hadn’t meant it mean. She just sees things the way they’re supposed to be.
We drink champagne and white wine and bad instant coffee. Her Chihuahua is a black one named Queen who sits in her purse. He’s yappy and nervous and I hate him for that but he also won’t leave her so I leave him alone. We go to the Rainbow and can’t quite get drunk and I wander alone as she sits on the patio. It’s quiet in the afternoon. There’s the vampire loft where Alice Cooper hung out and the place Mötley Crüe used to get head under the table. I find a picture of Courtney Love on the wall and take a picture of it to keep her close by. We eat when I make her and take walks when it’s cool. I try to say things that do not sound stupid.
She’s gentle with needles and if I still cared about piercings I’d ask for one more. I watch her hands now as they’re puncturing leather. They’re smaller than mine, squatter. They move faster and don’t drop as many things. Piano hands, my mother used to say, stretching mine out to their full length. I was no good at piano but I did figure out typing, even though I suspect I do it wrong. Watching them now I only use three fingers at a time. According to the manuals you’re supposed to use all ten.
We listen to Hole as she cuts and measures and I try to write. She has a show coming up and she’s making the clothes. The outfits are of the nightmare confectioner variety, pink and white and lollipop-red vinyl. Lethal Cocktail. I gave her the name from a sentence I cut. She cuts me a scarf from a piece of scrap fabric, black stars on a line of white silk. The edges are frayed now because they were left raw.
Who is she? I ask about the mannequin. She’s in the center of the room, nondescript and naked below the waist. The vest hanging on her has a heart on the back with a red triple X, the exact same design as her ex’s tattoo.
She just wants to go to a party, Lindsay says, running her scissors through a shred of pink satin. But she’s sick.
I don’t know what I’m doing. This is after the Jäger. It’s cold on the patio but the place is awake now, lit up with stars. Somewhere the book I’d been writing had become something else and I got this way to get to it but when I get this way I can’t get anywhere good. She takes my glass and pours it in hers.
You have to be brave and you have to be stupid but you have to be careful not to cross into crazy. Craft a good silence and use it.
That’s the performance that goes with the art.
At home I’m alone and I’m missing the heat. I sit with my drafts, throwing out what I’ve done. Lindsay sends pictures from the bathroom of her therapist’s office. Huge shades, huge hair, high waisted leggings with a strawberry print that looks almost violent, lips shiny dark red. Her four-gauge belly ring is tinged green in the fluorescence.
Mentally ill well dressed, reads the caption. Make sure every day gives you one good thing.
The models wear pearls and pink heart-shaped glasses as they stomp her designs down the runway. They vomit black blood all over their outfits.
The meeting is with her production company and she stays at my place when she visits New York. Their loft is a fancy one in Soho where the women call her babe and do their best to overcharge. The sample leather is ready and my role is her model. I change and I pose as she tugs and cinches, assessing.
Thrift store lace camisoles with my ex boyfriend’s jeans, the ones that could fit a whole circus in each pant leg, ripped hoodies and band shirts from high school, stripper heels that lit up on occasion. My look was immigrant secretary with a thing for the goth club, if a look is what you’d call it. I’m alive and I’m dressed, what more do you want.
Your outsides to match your insides, Lindsay would say. That’s what I want.
There’s several pieces but there’s one in particular. Skin-soft black leather and cropped at the waist, with sleeves longer than normal and a diagonal zipper. It feels like it was owned by a prior me. When I put it on I understand the whole thing. How a thing someone makes can make you feel real. I turn around and let her look.
Mentally ill well dressed, Lindsay says.
Once in a while you make one good thing.
Mila Jaroniec is a graduate of The New School’s MFA program in fiction whose work has appeared in Playboy, FLAPPERHOUSE and Luna Luna Magazine, among others. An excerpt from her first novel, Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover,is forthcoming from Split Lip Magazine in the fall.
52. Back to School w/ Polly Duff Kertis