This story originally appeared in Skidrow Penthouse. Burrow has collected it for Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut story collection TRAIN SHOTS.
The Princess of Pop remembered being a kid back in Louisiana on her cousins’ wide wooden swing, climbing so high that with one release of the chain links she might sail off into the clouds. If only she could fly like the pretty quail her dad and uncles used to talk about when they returned from hunting, with the same look in their eyes as if they were talking about their latest girlfriend or a sexy movie star. But then they would unhitch the tailgate of someone’s truck, toss aside the dirty canvas, and there would lay the quail, glossy soft feathers spotted with blood. “They fly fast but we get them eventually,” her dad had said, lifting one by its feet and turning the bird so that she might see its beauty up close.
In her room at the Highland Gardens Hotel, the Princess of Pop traced her fingers along the smooth, empty dresser before swinging her oversized Fred Segal bag onto the bedspread. She yanked out the half-full bottle of Grey Goose, a container of blue-cheese-stuffed olives, a pack of Marlboro menthol lights, and two books: one given to her by Mel Gibson that was about Jesus saving the world from sin (she had managed to read a few chapters before losing interest); the other one, which she liked only slightly better, was called A Confederacy of Dunces. Her older brother had insisted she read it because she liked to be funny, and he said she would appreciate the humor. And because she knew he was smart and she wanted him to think the same of her, she was struggling her way through the story so that the next time she visited him in New York they might have something to talk about besides their family sadness. But it had been months since she’d seen or spoken to her brother, and the corners of the book curled back and the bookmark had disappeared last week. She shook out her little bottles of precious pills and they bounced and rolled across the comforter. She left them there, poured a glass of warm vodka, added two olives, then wandered to the balcony and leaned over the rail.
The Highland Gardens pool area was a secluded paradise. Palms bent over the walkways and birds twittered in the trees. No one was swimming; the pool gleamed a still, shining blue. But then someone shouted her name, and this startled her out of the quiet. That was her name but she didn’t know who that person was anymore; they might as well be calling someone else. Why did her life matter so much, anyway? But she followed the familiar throaty voices to the unshaven faces of the men ducking behind their cameras, lenses like the long black snouts of wild boar—her uncles used to hunt them, too, she remembered. Click-click, click-click, click-click, the cameras sounded like water guns. The men fired and waved from the balcony straight across from hers, on the opposite side of the pool.
She wanted to melt into her heels right there; she wanted to die. Instead she just held up her glass and said, “Cheers, boys.” They were so busy shouting her name, though, the voices jamming atop one another, that she knew they didn’t hear her. She peered down at the walkway below and listened, but no one was coming. Then she held the glass over the side of the balcony, let go, and waited for the splintering impact.
Nothing. When she leaned over the rail, she saw no broken glass anywhere. Where had the glass gone? It couldn’t have just disappeared. Then she spotted it, nestled and whole in the long spiked leaves of a giant tropical plant underneath her balcony. The sunlight shone through and the glass had not a scratch; the two olives still floated on the bottom. She snorted, stalked back into the room, and swayed with her arms crossed, not quite sure of what to do. The sheer white curtain liner puffed in the breeze. She poured herself another glass of vodka.
* * *
She decided to write a note to her kids. She found a Highland Gardens Hotel notepad and pen at the desk and began to write. But everything sounded false until she grabbed her cell phone and scrolled through to find a picture of her two sons. Only after staring into their dark eyes did the words she needed to say come out right. “Dear Boys,” she wrote, “Mommy loves you but she can’t be your Mommy anymore because she doesn’t know how. She wanted love and a family so badly, but maybe she was just missing her own family too much. You will always be two wonderful bright shining stars, and Mommy knows that you will make her proud. But she has left for a good reason. You will be much better off without her around. Love and xoxos.” She stared at the word, Mommy, another name that didn’t fit, like a much-wished-for-but-too-snug gown that even the designer couldn’t tailor to her size.
She found her iPod and cranked up the Janis Joplin song about the preacher’s son. She had only discovered Joplin recently, much to her embarrassment. One of the nurses during her hospital stay had been humming one of the songs, and something about the melody sounded familiar but she couldn’t think of what. Her entire childhood had been spent singing along to show tunes for pageants, belting out Debbie Gibson lyrics for the Mickey Mouse Club, and later, blasting hip-hop as she practiced routines over and over with her dancers. Those songs had disappeared along with the past, but once she listened to Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits all the way through, something didn’t let go. And then she found out the whole sad story one late night after staying up to watch Hollywood Mysteries. At least Janis hadn’t left any children behind. Was it the music or the story of Joplin’s life that so intrigued her? How did a woman her age, who had messed herself up with even more drugs and booze, end up creating music that stirred her soul? Her own albums had soared to Number One, had earned her the title Princess of Pop—but there was something missing in all those studio-conjured hits; they never made her shiver the way Joplin’s songs did, even as she was recording them. This had so bothered her that three days before, at the screening of her latest music video, she fled the theatre after the first thirty seconds. She hated the woman onscreen because that wasn’t really her; the electronic beats and the digitally altered voice weren’t her own, either. None of it was real music. Her manager and agent ran after her, but by the time they caught up she was bawling so hard that she could barely talk. “All I ever wanted to do was dance,” she said between chokes. “But they told me nobody ever got famous for just dancing.” And the three of them stood there, the other two not saying anything.
She poured out the Xanax and Ambien and tapped the pills into two piles.
* * *
She stood naked in front of the bathroom mirror. Hot water blasted into the Jacuzzi and the steam rose like the offerings she’d seen people leave outside the Buddhist temple in L.A. She lifted handfuls of her hair and let it fall. But the person who stared back wasn’t a girl anymore—she was a woman with a girl climbing out of her skin, and the face of the open-mouthed figure in the music video the other day belonged to someone else, a fabrication. Roots showed underneath her yellow hair. She remembered Bob, her first manager, the one who touched her while her mom was out running errands, saying to her mother, “Keep her as a blonde, just don’t let the roots show. She’s like a brand new Bardot.” That was the summer right before her breakout hit. They were still living in Orlando, her mom and Bob, even though her dad and her brother and sister back in Louisiana didn’t know that yet; her mom giggled and asked her all the time, “Can you keep a secret?” “Oh God, Mama,” was her usual reply. But then the song hit the charts, the tour started, and they left Orlando.
For years since becoming famous, the Princess of Pop dreamed about those early days in Orlando. She dreamed about going back and visiting a girl her age with long brown hair, just an ordinary girl she might have been friends with for the brief time she attended a normal high school, but she didn’t know for sure if the girl was someone real or imaginary. When she saw the girl in her dreams, the scenario was always the same. She would show up at a club and the girl would appear in the corner or next to her at the bar, and the Princess of Pop would grab the girl’s hand and they would run to the dance floor, laughing and dancing, just the two of them. But the girl never appeared on tour, or in a crowd of fans. Sometimes when the dream ended, the Princess of Pop woke up, her pillow damp with tears. Why did she keep dreaming about this girl she didn’t even know existed?
She took a gulp of vodka straight from the bottle, stepped one foot in the tub. Another thing she still wondered: who is Brigitte Bardot?
* * *
The room phone rang and rang. In the hallway someone pounded at her door, called out her name. She had turned her phone off because the thing wouldn’t stop lighting up, and besides, she had said her goodbyes. She eyed the hair dryer hanging from the wall. When she tried to steady herself in the scalding water, she teetered and clutched a towel bar for balance. That sure would be an easy way to die—a slip in the tub. No mess, no pain. But she leaned out, grabbed the dryer and flicked the switch; it roared to life. She pulled the dryer toward the tub to drop it in, but the curly cord yanked it back, so that the thing banged against the wall and swayed there, a blind, roaring head on a rope.
She crouched down in the tub, hugged her knees to her chest, and cried.
* * *
The sun was sinking, the sky darkening. She stood on the balcony again, wrapped in a towel, her hair drying in strings down her back, and shivered. In the pool below, a dark-haired young woman swam across the deep end like a frog.
She wished she could go down and talk to the woman—find out if she was from out of town, ask her if she had kids or divorced parents. Of course, the girl would recognize her. But what if she didn’t? The thought sent a different chill. What if the girl was foreign, or had gone to Harvard? What if she didn’t want to hear the Princess of Pop’s side of things about the judge taking her sons away, or about buying millions of dollars in real estate for her parents? What if the girl asked her something like, “What’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever done?”
The Princess of Pop would say, “Las Vegas.” She wouldn’t be able to look the girl in the eye.
“I’ll bet you’ve never been to a museum,” the girl might reply. And she would be right.
* * *
Janis Joplin was staying at the Highland Gardens when she died at twenty-seven, so perhaps it was no coincidence that the Princess of Pop had pointed her black Mercedes SUV in the hotel’s direction when she peeled out of her Beverly Hills driveway that morning. All the way down the Sunset Strip, the photographers’ vans trailed her. They dodged in and out of lanes like cats.
The Princess of Pop received the same treatment when she left the hotel in search of provisions, veering into the parking lot of the first pharmacy that appeared. Inside, the lights hurt her eyes. She bought scissors, more vodka, Rich Brown #27 hair dye, milk, and a box of Fruit Loops cereal. She stepped out, lit a cigarette, and blew smoke into the surrounding cameras. “What are you doing at the Highland Gardens?” the voices behind the cameras asked. “Where’s the party?”
She pushed past them. “Why don’t you throw one, if you’re so interested?” she said. The photographers shoved into one another as they jogged to keep up with her, hurling questions like spears; their bodies pressed in so that she gasped for a breath of night air but instead choked on someone’s cheap musk. She muttered, “How do you know I’m not here to pay my respects to Janis Joplin?”
“How long have you been a fan of Joplin?”
“Do you believe she killed herself?”
“What are you doing in a hotel room all alone? Everybody’s worried about you.”
She hauled herself into the SUV. “Maybe I’m going to kill myself,” she said, shielding her eyes from the blinding flashes; she felt as if she was still wandering the illuminated aisles of the pharmacy. “Or maybe I just want to read a book,” she said, and slammed the door.
* * *
Back in the hotel room, she read the instructions to the hair dye three times while singing along to Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” Soon she would transform into Rich Brown #27. She worked the chemicals into her scalp, draped a towel around her neck, and scooped the pills back into their bottles. Then she read a few pages of A Confederacy of Dunces and thought about Ignatius in his hunting cap. She didn’t know anyone like Ignatius, only Hollywood people, but she guessed that his kind existed. Perhaps what she needed wasn’t a disguise, but to actually be someone else.
She rinsed off the dye, combed out her hair, and read more of the book while her hair dried. Some parts made her laugh out loud. She couldn’t remember ever laughing while reading the Jackie Collins novels her mother used to leave around the tour bus. But then she read the author’s note in the back. The writer had committed suicide, and the book was published after his death, had even won prizes. She realized that even someone who created great work could feel as worthless as she did. How ridiculous she’d been to think that by reinventing herself—disappearing from Hollywood and starting her own dance academy for kids, for instance—those parts of her life that were most painful would change. Her father would still be aloof, her mother jealous, her ex a cheat, her younger sister an embarrassment, her brother loving but distant. I’ll show them, she thought. I’ll do it and they’ll have to think about how they ruined my life.
The phone rang, but she ignored it. She walked out on the balcony, eating the blue-cheese-stuffed olives, and the wind blew her hair across her face. She looked into the glowing water for the girl who had been swimming earlier, but the pool was as desolate as the moon. Only two photographers stood on the balcony across from hers. They were smoking; she could smell pot and cigarettes. They spoke in fast, private tones, and about sex; the breeze caught the words “pussy” and “tits” and carried them over. She remembered when the photographers first started following her everywhere. She had just turned sixteen and posed for the cover of Rolling Stone. One of them asked her if she’d had a boob job, and she lied.
She had changed her will the day before; now everything was in the names of her sons, still toddlers. They would have money for birthday parties, museums, college.
Now she waited for what seemed like a long time before the photographers noticed her, but neither of them picked up a camera. One of them slipped back inside. The other one lingered, clutching his beer bottle and looking up at the sky. Then across at her. He drained his beer, tossed the bottle into the bushes below, and called out to her through cupped hands. “We can still tell it’s you,” he said, just before disappearing inside.
She stood there in disbelief, her fingers rummaging through the last of the olives. She hurled one after another at their balcony. The olives struck the glass and scattered on the deck like BB pellets. “I hope you slip and fall, you assholes,” she yelled. But no one opened the door even a crack.
The room phone rang again, and this time she answered it. The front desk clerk told her the hotel was concerned with the media vans and trucks crowding the parking lot, and asked how long she planned to stay? “Why? Do I have to leave?” she asked. “You have my credit card, so swipe it.”
“It’s just that your presence is creating a disturbance for the other guests,” the clerk said. “But of course, you may stay as long as you like.”
“I’ll be checking out shortly,” she replied. Her voice was almost a whisper. She hung up. Your presence is creating a disturbance. She repeated that line to herself as she ate dry handfuls of Fruit Loops. Once again, she poured out the pills and divided them into two piles. Your presence is creating a disturbance. She grabbed the milk from the fridge, tore off the cap. After swallowing the first pile, she found her iPod and played “Summertime.” She didn’t know the words but hummed along as best she could. Your presence is creating a disturbance. What else is there to do but create a disturbance? She thought of Janis Joplin, who died in the very same hotel, perhaps down this very same hall. And the author who wrote about the funny guy wearing a hunter’s cap on Bourbon Street, how did he perform his last dance? I belong to a confederacy of dunces, she thought and laughed because she didn’t know what the title meant but saying it felt right. The last notes of “Summertime” faded away, and she downed the rest of the pills with the milk. I belong to a confederacy of dunces.
* * *
It wasn’t long before she started throwing up. She crawled from the toilet to the phone by the bed and dialed zero. The clerk she’d spoken with earlier answered in the same crisp voice.
“Ready to check out, Princess?”
“I’m afraid I’ve created a disturbance,” she said into the phone. “By killing myself. Please call my dad.”
* * *
Someone rattled a key in the hotel door, and then she was surrounded by fast-talking, fast-moving men, but not paparazzi. These men were young and smooth-faced; they wore dark jumpsuits and lifted her onto a stretcher. The world opened out, and she was dashing down the brightly lit hallway as if swooping down a playground slide, everything on either side a blur. Voices babbled and called her name, but their tone was not like her brother coaxing her out to play when they were little. These voices wanted to know about the pills and the time, but her mouth wouldn’t open to speak. In the lobby more voices rained down, high-pitched females joining the men, her chorus welcoming her back home.
“Is that the Princess of Pop, with the brown hair?”
“Did she finally kill herself?”
“Hang in there, gorgeous! We love you.”
Outside she couldn’t tell if it was night or morning; the light was as bright as day. She flew past a crowd holding up signs that said beautiful things: you are loved, Princess of Pop, you are a beautiful girl, you were born with creative genius. For the first time, she felt those things to be true. She tried to lift up one hand to wave but her arm didn’t move. She struggled to keep her eyes open and even though she was wrapped in blankets, she shuddered with chills. But she could still see enough to glimpse the faces of the crowd, to recognize her own image imprinted on t-shirts like the face of the Virgin Mary faded on a calendar she remembered in her grandparents’ house. The person she had called for wasn’t there.
One of the EMTs squeezed her hand; the others shouted for the throng to clear away from the ambulance doors. “Is my father here yet?” the Princess of Pop asked.
“He’s on his way,” the young man answered. He squeezed her hand harder and said, “Stay with me.”
“Where is he?” she asked. “Is he hunting?”
“He’s flying here as fast as he can, sweetie.”
“I’m nobody’s sweetie,” she said.
“Okay then,” he said, and dropped her hand. They hoisted her into the back of the ambulance and shut the doors. The lights and noise vanished. She heard her own breathing, felt the jab of a needle in her arm, her blood draining away. The one who had clasped her hand before squeezed it again, leaned close, and said, “Stay, beautiful, stay.”