“It’s mostly full of nonsense and delusion and egomania. They think they’ll be young and beautiful forever, even though most of them aren’t even young and beautiful now.”
In 1986 I skipped off the airplane into the Burbank airport lugging a duffel full of ripped spandex clothing, a giant can of Aqua Net hairspray, Wayfarer sunglasses, and a copy of A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I had one pair of shoes, the ones I was wearing, white pumps with the heels worn down to metal and when I walked down the sidewalk, little sparks would fly.
At “the mansion,” a black-and-white butler gave me a quick introduction to the place and its lingo. He took me to “the stable” where “bunnies” stayed when they were in town– a low-slung structure set apart from the main house and furnished with stiff, clunky furniture. The walls felt as thin and flimsy as cardboard and the doors were hollow and I wondered if someone had slapped a cheap facade on what had once been a real stable.
“But you don’t keep bunnies in stables,” I mused. “You keep them in warrens, or maybe hutches.” I poked my head into one of the stalls. The bedspread on the twin bed was made of 1970‘s polyester printed to look like a patchwork quilt. “You have to lock bunnies up at night, you know. There might be dogs loose in the neighborhood.”
He was not impressed. “You can choose any room you want since you’re the only one here now but if another bunny comes, you’ll have to play nice and share the bathroom.”
“So is this place for bunnies only? Could a wolf in bunny clothing weasel in here? What if I smuggled a ferret under my shirt?”
“Bunnies only. No one else allowed.”
When exactly had I become a bunny? Maybe it happened the moment I stepped onto Playboy turf or the first time I slept in a stall at the stable on a hard little bed. Perhaps it happened when I first used the word “bunny” as opposed to “woman” or “employee” or “rabbit” or “dumb chick” or “mannequin” or “sock puppet” or “glossy wall-eyed hole-digger” or whatever other term I might have chosen. How easy it was to learn the lingo and absorb the local customs.
In the morning I went to the breakfast room furnished with glass-and-wrought-iron patio furniture to order anything I wanted, which turned out to be orange juice and toast, but even that was better than the crap I ate at home. At my apartment, I ate day-olds from my job at Dunkin’ Donuts and used the dollars I earned to buy giant jars of peanut butter and pinto beans in bulk. For the next two years I’d visit the mansion often and at that table, while I happily munched and slurped as much as I could, I’d meet Shel Silverstein, who wasn’t very chatty in the morning but helped me with the crossword puzzle.
When I discovered that I’d probably never meet another literary figure there, I was crestfallen. I had a list of questions for Margaret Atwood written in the margins of my beloved copy of A Handmaid’s Tale which I’d never get to ask because, although they contribute to the magazine, writers like Atwood (and Heller and Capote and Vonnegut and Bradbury) don’t slum at the mansion.
In Playboy, highbrow literature exists on the next page in a completely different dimension from the nudies and if I remembered anything about osmosis from science class I should have known that those glossy pages act as barriers separating the high from the low: the low, being somewhat empty, poses no threat of contamination to the high, which in turn exudes a little of its superior content (“rubs off on,” in layman’s terms,) through the semipermeable membrane and has a temporary elevating effect. This is why you might read Playboy for the articles. But for various sanitary reasons, not to mention everyone’s mental health, Updike and Bambi simply do not touch. Don’t shit where you eat, as they say.
But still, Tony Curtis would always sit and talk over his coffee cup which he held daintily in his beautiful hand and on the tennis court, I met actor Jimmy Caan, who treated me like a little sister, and producer Steve Bing who took me home to his parents’ house and showed me what a shooting script looks like. In the tanning bed I met Jessica Hahn who was undergoing a total surgical overhaul after the Jim Bakker/PTL scandal and Carrie Leigh, Hugh Hefner’s live-in girlfriend, took me under her wing. Carrie moved me to a bedroom in the main house and let me sit on the floor of her dressing room and watch her apply makeup. Sometimes she’d dress me up in one of her glamorous costumes–the spiderweb dress, the purple spandex sheath with panels of lace down the sides so you couldn’t wear underwear, the gloves– and we’d swallow quaaludes and drink champagne and roll around on the padded floor in the game house, laughing and shrieking at our reflections in the mirrored ceiling.
In Los Angeles, I spent a lot of time looking at myself. In a chair in front of a mirror at the studio, I’d watch with rapt fascination as the makeup artist worked a transformation with layers of paint. In between shots, the photographer would hand me polaroids and point to the parts I needed to fix. I quickly learned which was my “good” side and how to contort myself to push my best parts forward. For my 20th birthday Carrie Leigh threw me a party and all the local bunnies were told to come, dressed in lingerie, with gifts, to celebrate even though I didn’t know any of them but they all came because Carrie asked them to. There was a giant cake decorated with my centerfold done in icing and everyone got a slice but still, there was half a cake left. The bunnies had started from the bottom so only my legs had been eaten, everything from the crotch up remained intact. Carrie said it was a shame to let it go to waste so that night, while we lay in her Olympic waterbed watching television, she flipped the channels and whenever she found a male celebrity she’d stop, turn my way, and cock one eyebrow at me. “How about him? Do you like him?”
“So I find someone I like and then what?”
“It’s just like ordering from the menu. Find something you like, then we’ll send him the cake.”
“And then what?”
She rolled her eyes at me and turned back to the television, flipped until she found Pretty Baby with Brooke Shields and Keith Carradine. “I bet he’d like to eat your cake.” We thought the whole world wanted to eat cake.
When you’re in LA, looking at yourself is just what you do. In LA, you drive down the freeway watching yourself in the rear-view mirror, thinking, “…look at her, driving down the freeway…” as if that were a complete thought. You flip through the channels or a magazine thinking, I’d never do that, or I’d look good in that, and then you go to the gym to watch yourself sweat. You think you’re having conversations but really, you’re watching yourself talk in the reflection of someone’s sunglasses, waiting for a turn to say your next line. Sometimes you might talk to yourself in the mirror then pull a face to see your reaction. You know from experience that when you cry, if you run to look at yourself in the mirror, the spectacle combines your sorrow with empathy and with the callousness of the voyeur, conflating and compounding, spotlighting and magnifying until the sadness is rendered completely meaningless and within fifteen minutes you’ve forgotten what you were crying about.
Elsewhere in Los Angeles there were probably people doing other things, thinking larger thoughts, but a bunny didn’t do that, a bunny just stood there like a prop, an ornamental shrub you might find at Disneyland, bit shapely bit of fleshy bonsai spray-painted with pink shellac, although I always had the sense that something more interesting might be happening on the next page. Andy Warhol once said, “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.” I wonder if Andy Warhol ever visited the mansion. The longer you look at plastic, the realer it looks.
In one of my favorite movies, Being John Malkovich by Charlie Kaufman, there’s one scene that epitomizes the whole Los Angeles experience for me. An office flunkey discovers a secret door hidden behind a file cabinet. Behind that door is a passageway that leads into the actor John Malkovich’s mind. If you crawl in, you get to be John Malkovich for a proverbial fifteen minutes–not just watching him on screen but inhabiting his reality. He might be doing Shakespeare on stage or ordering towels from a catalogue, it doesn’t matter, because you can occupy a life that is qualitatively and quantitatively better than your own.
At one point John Malkovich (playing himself) shows up at the office and demands to know what’s going on. When he crawls into his own head, he enters a nightmarish rabbit hole where everyone is John Malkovich–he’s the buxom thing in a red dress seated across the table at the restaurant, the waiters and waitresses, the lounge singer stretched across the piano, they’re all him and, to make it worse, when they open their mouths they all say the same thing: Malkovich! MalkovichMalkovich. Malkovich? They babble and squawk like a flock of bald turkeys.
When he’s spit back out of himself he screams, “I have been to the dark side; I have seen a world which no man should see!” Eventually, that’s what being in Los Angeles felt like, for me.
It was around this time I became preoccupied with my skin. Whenever I was in my room at the mansion, I wore green mud masks on my face and spent hours with a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers and began shaving the soles of my feet with a razor every day to get rid of the dead skin. When my face got dry or my feet started bleeding, I thought desiccation and blood was just what was needed to keep it all up. If I had stayed there one second longer, I certainly would have succumbed to the knife.
Since I didn’t have a car, once I was in Los Angeles, it was hard to get away from the mansion until I met a guy named Nicholas who introduced himself as a songwriter. Nicholas had swoony good looks, the empty gray eyes of a porn star, and a room in the lofty, glassy apartment of a producer-friend who let him stay there for free because, as Nicholas said, “He believes in me.” As he showed me around his place, Nicholas spoke his well-rehearsed lines in suave italics.
“This building is full of movers and shakers,” he told me, “people who know, the people-in-the-know.” Posing in front of a window, he shielded his eyes in a muscular salute. “You can see downtown LA from here: the center of the universe, the place where dreams come true.”
I tried to follow his gaze through the tobacco-stained landscape. “I thought that was Disneyland?”
He shot me a dimple. “That’s a common mistake.”
He sat down at the baby grand to serve me up a little sample of his songwriting, the song that was going to make him famous when he sold it to Lionel Richie (his people were talking to their people). The song started with a refrain that went something like this:
I am I,
you are you,
this is all we ever have to do
because you are yours and yours alone,
and I am I…
followed by three rising notes… dum dum dum… and while he played, he closed his eyes as if the emotion might drown him if he didn’t and his gold-tone wristwatch glistened in the sun and when he was done, he sat still until the last note dissipated into the orange Los Angeles light.
Carrie got permission to go out for sushi one night. We sat at the bar and so many people sent us drinks that soon, we were dropping shoes and sliding off our stools. Several vases of sake had come from a woman seated alone in the corner, her face obscured by a floppy black hat and long platinum curls so before we left, we went over to thank her and when I shook her hand, she wouldn’t let go. I was close enough to see that her spectacularly beautiful face, moulded by a Michelangelo, painted by a da Vinci, was once a man’s. She said her name was Dolores del Monaco and she shed tears as she gushed how good it was to meet us, how it had always been her fondest dream, her wildest, fondest dream, and when I said (because it was true) that she was much more beautiful than I was, she nearly fainted with happiness and told me she’d love to get together sometime, that she’d show me how to fix my eyeliner, so we exchanged phone numbers and when I came to the breakfast table the next morning, a butler met me with a stack of increasingly desperate phone messages from Dolores, the last one sounding almost like a suicide note. The butler said this was why bunnies shouldn’t go out and gave me a stern warning to never, ever give out that phone number again.
By then, I’d finally earned enough money to buy a car so instead of doing the crossword puzzle, I searched the classifieds and found an ad for a used Mazda. When Tony Curtis came to breakfast and saw what I was doing, he offered to help. When that guy opened the door of his crappy Culver City apartment and saw Tony Curtis on his doorstep, he lost his cool. While Tony Curtis, the only person I’ve ever met who could pull off an ascot, the movie-starriest movie star you could ever hope to meet walked around that car, kicking tires (why do they kick the tires, I wonder?) and inspecting windshield wipers, that poor guy just stood there gaping and nodding and when I offered him $1000 less than he was asking he just took the money and waved as we pulled out of his driveway.
That night I drove over to Nicholas’s place–radio blasting, all four windows cranked down, arm stretched out into the soft, warm night. He played his song for me and then we went to bed. Late at night something woke me up, the silent rattle of a restless mind. “Are you awake?” I whispered.
“Yes. I am awake. I am wide awake.”
“My dreams won’t let me sleep.”
“What do you mean?” My eyes found him lying there like a toppled Greek statue. Even in the dark, that guy had cheekbones.
He spoke to the ceiling. “There’s something you don’t know about me. Something you perhaps sensed but have not put in words. Do you know what I’m talking about?
“If you tried hard enough, you might see.”
The sound of a distant highway had shushed me back to sleep when he spoke again. “Do you see it yet? Do you see?”
Fully awake, I pondered my options. Under these postcoital circumstances a girl likes to think the guy is lying there thinking nice things about her, having romantic feelings perhaps, maybe even dreams for the future: I was naive, but not as dumb as all that. Was there something monstrously wrong with him, something that only happened when the lights were off? The only options I could think of were scary ones, malicious kernels exploding in my head: the idea that he might be gay popped like a firecracker and then doubt detonated like a mushroom cloud, releasing a lethal deluge of pyrotechnic STDs. He was my brother: I just had sex with my brother. He had a knife and he was going to kill me.
Before I could make a sound he was leaning over me, breathing on my face. “I am the chosen one.”
“What?” I gasped. “You mean you’re Jewish? What a relief! For a second I thought….”
“No, I mean I’m special, a bright light, like Elvis before he shook it on network television or Jesus before he had disciples. Big things are happening inside me. I…” and while he talked, I resisted the urge to tell him that not only was his song snickering-silly but it didn’t make grammatical sense and that everyone wants to be special, we all want to shine in the dark– Bambi the bunny, Dolores the transsexual, Atwood and the other famous writers, and me– but instead, I let him talk us both to sleep because I knew he wasn’t looking for understanding. He wanted much, much more than that.
Or maybe it wasn’t LA. Maybe it was the 1980s. Maybe it was my 20s. What were you doing in the 1980’s or 1990’s? Or had you even been born yet? What were you doing when you were 20? Tell me a story.
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