Friday, November 15, 2013

Everyday People: A Short Story

The pale, middle-aged woman couldn’t have looked more out of place shuffling down the narrow labyrinth of palm-tree shaded boardwalks that connected the beachfront hotel’s luxury villas. From the knitted grey vest to the taupe wingtip oxford shoes to the red floral scarf pulled over her head, the woman looked like a Hollywood extra who had stepped out of a gritty Cold War drama into a 60s beach movie. The Cat Eye sunglasses finished the ensemble and she adjusted them on the bridge of her nose as she stepped down into the white sand leading to the ocean.
Rolled up bills vacuumed lines of coke off the glass tabletop in a whooshing breath. Photographer Eischi and his assistant Paulo alternately rubbed their noses and rolled their eyes as they endured fashion model Kendra Solano’s rant from the bedroom as she changed into her next bikini. The fan was too noisy and the fit of the suit was all wrong, and her high-pitched whine pierced the thin walls of the tropical villa like an overheated dentist’s drill. She soon emerged from a back room of the cabin pulling a bathrobe tie around her waist. She plopped into a high-back wicker chair where a make-up artist began touching up the flawless face that rested above the scientifically plumped up cleavage and air-brushed curves that mocked Midwestern housewives and drew sideway glances from their husbands in grocery store check-out lines. Model of the Year, Sexiest Woman Alive, the face and bust that launched a thousand products, Kendra was the most desired and despised woman on the planet.
            “Tom, get me a diet coke. I feel like I’m sucking on a cotton ball.” Her overly tanned and tattooed boyfriend Tom put down his iPad and obediently fetched the drink from the kitchen. “Eischi, I’m practically falling out of this suit just sitting here doing nothing. Does it have to be this damn small?”
            “If we were shooting in a suburban kitchen for Good Housekeeping, no. However, we’re in Bora Bora shooting for Maxim, so yes, Dear, it does. Darken her eyes. I want a panther look.”
            Outside, Eischi prepped a beach location and soon Kendra made her entrance, throwing off her bathrobe to the cheers of a dozen onlookers standing in a roped off area nearby. As Eischi barked directions, the voluptuous, golden-skinned beauty barely contained in a tiny black suit leaned, pouted, arched and flirted with the camera as the bright Polynesian sun backlit the paradise around her.
            As shadows lengthened and energy ebbed, Eischi called it a day and he and Paulo began packing up equipment. Kendra donned her bathrobe and sauntered back through the sand to her luxury cabin, ignoring the thin applause from a small group of oglers still in attendance. As the sun dipped below the low verdant hills west of the resort, Kendra sat in a wicker chair holding a glass of wine and critiqued the day’s work on her iPad.
            “I look like a greased sow,” she complained.
            “You’re the sexiest greased sow I’ve ever seen,” said Tom, handing her a glass pipe. She took a long draw and laid her head back, hoping that when her eyes returned to the slide show she would look more appealing. Neither the pot nor the momentary distraction helped.
            “The suit is just too Goddamn small. It makes me look beefy.”
            “We’re on a barnyard theme tonight. It’s Maxim, Babe. There will be millions of men around the world—”
            “Stop. I don’t want to hear about it.”
            “Christ. You’ve been a grouchy little bitch since we got here. What the hell?” asked Tom, flopping down on a nearby sofa.
            “I didn’t realize Eischi took shots of me walking back here,” she said, ignoring him, which he was used to.
            “Probably for the creep’s personal stash. Why?”
            She shook her head as if wondering whether to say what was on her mind aloud. “This woman standing here. I swear I’ve seen her before somewhere.”
            Wearily, Tom got up and sat next to Kendra. “Her?” he asked pointing to a drab middle-aged woman wearing a scarf and sunglasses. “Looks like a sexually frustrated housewife from Peoria on her once-in-a-lifetime cruise. Not one of your typical fans.”
            “That’s what makes her stand out.” She handed the pad to Tom. “Find the pics we kept of the Key West shoot. The one for Bacardi.”
            Tom’s fingers danced on the screen and soon he handed the pad to Kendra. “Here’s the file.”
            She progressed through the slideshow and then stopped, a triumphant grin spreading across her face. “There. I knew it. See?” Tom leaned in and squinted. “She’s standing next to that fat guy. Same scarf and glasses.”
            “Yeah. I see her.”
             “Don’t you think that’s creepy?”
            “Well…she just doesn’t look like someone who would travel halfway around the world to see you in a photo shoot. I know you have some crazy fans, but seeing her there and then here does seem a little weird.” He took the pad from Kendra. A few moments later, the two were scanning photos from a shoot earlier that year in Cancun. “Holy shit. There she is.”
            Kendra looked at the photo and then at Tom. “What the fuck? Do you think she’s a stalker?”
            “Her?” he laughed. “She doesn’t look like she could hurt a fly.”
            “Neither did Hannibal Lector.”
            “You know he’s not real.”
            “Then why is she following me all over the world?” Kendra drained her glass of wine. “She is following me. That’s clear.”
            Tom stood up and filled her glass with chardonnay. “Every celebrity has a stalker or two. I’m surprised there haven’t been more. Don’t let her get under your skin. She’s just an admirer who has more money and time than she knows what to do with. Maybe she’s gay and has a thing for you.”
            “You really know how to comfort a girl.” She set the pad face down on the table. “I guess I feel sorry for her if her life revolves around following me everywhere I go. That’s just sad.”
            “Really? I do the same thing.”
            “Mmm. I need to get more sleep. Do you think I have bags under my eyes?”
            Tom walked over to Kendra and examined her eyes. “They look fine to me. You really do have to work hard to find something to complain about. Don’t you?”
             “Get me another glass of wine. Please?”
            Tom obeyed. How could he not? What’s a damaged ego compared to traveling the world with the hottest, sexiest woman on the planet? A long forgotten male model without a high school diploma and no other saleable skills had only so many options. This was as good as it gets. He could tell that Kendra was obsessing on the woman in the photo even if she seemed to have moved on to other topics as members of her personal entourage came and went throughout the evening. He’d been with her long enough to read the signs. Smiles faded quickly, words were clipped and her overall tolerance level had declined several notches. And she was drinking more than usual, although he knew better than to make an issue of that. A steady stream of partiers came and fawned over her into the late morning hours; a cavalcade of manufactured exuberance, pretension and barely veiled contempt. In other words, a typical night for Kendra.
            “Should we turn in?” asked Tom after he’d escorted the last woozy hanger’s on out the door around three a.m. “We start early….”
            “I want a cigarette, Tom.”
            The smile evaporated. “Kendra…”
            “Don’t lecture me. Not tonight. Just get me a goddamn cigarette.”
            This was a bad sign, he noted as he went into the bedroom. Cigarette’s only came out during times of extreme duress, like the day her mother went on a morning talk show drunk or the weeks after her brother died. This was unusual. He set the pack and lighter on the table in front of her, and then sat in a chair nearby. She lit a cigarette and exhaled slowly.
            “What’s going on?” he asked as she stared off into the dark evening.
            “Nothing. Just let me enjoy my cigarette.”
            She was gorgeous cast against the hazy moonlight, blue smoke curling up around her face like small adoring spirits. Her silhouette reminded the long-time film buff of stills from movies featuring a young Katharine Hepburn or Grace Kelly. Kendra had timeless features that defied generations of cultural identifiers of beauty and went back deep in time. The momentary lapse ended abruptly.
            “I have to go puke,” she announced and staggered down the hallway to the bathroom. Concerned about her edgy behavior, he broke a six-week smokeless stint and pulled a cigarette out of the pack.
            The next morning Kendra arrived at the shoot blurry-eyed and hung over. They were working in front of a thatched shack that Eischi felt conveyed both the influence of colonial oppression on indigenous peoples and the essence of self-sufficiency found in local tribal culture, and Tom had to literally dress his girl in the halter-top and vibrant sundress required for the shoot. The first half-hour went smoothly, with Eischi shrieking orders interspaced with Latvian curses and Kendra reacting instinctively as she always had. At one point, Kendra abruptly stopped the shoot and walked stiffly through the sand to Tom.
            “There she is,” said Kendra, without indicating where “there” was.
            “What? Who?”
            “The woman,” she hissed. “The one in all those other photos. She’s here.”
            Tom leaned around Kendra and looked toward the small crowd of onlookers pressed up against the yellow tape. “Actually, I don’t see her.”
            Kendra stomped. “She was there. I saw her.”
            “Is there a problem?” asked Eischi, eyelids fluttering.
            “No,” called Tom. “Just a minute, please.” He turned back to Kendra. “Listen, I’ll keep an eye out for her, and if she’s there, I’ll…talk to her. Okay?”
            “Yes. Now go back before Eischi starts hyperventilating.”
            The photo shoot continued, but Kendra couldn’t relax. Tom could see her scanning the crowd of onlookers every few minutes. Eischi grew frustrated and ended the session early.
            Hair pinned up on her head like a tornado survivor and wearing only a frayed bathrobe, Kendra started her second bottle of chardonnay.
            Working on dinner in the kitchen, Tom took a break and joined Kendra in the living room.
            “What is it, baby? Why are you drinking so much?”
            “Never mind how much I’m drinking. You’re not here to scold me like a parent.”
            “Then why am I here?”
            She ignored the question. “I want that woman arrested as a stalker.”
            “Jesus,” said Tom standing. “Why are you obsessing on this woman? All she’s guilty of is standing and watching the beautiful Kendra get photographed.”
            “I don’t want her to watch me. She’s too old and ugly and plain to watch me. It’s just weird. She’s weird.”
            “You’re too drunk to reason with.”
            “Screw you, Mr. Perfect.”
            Dinner will be ready in ten minutes,” he said, turning his back on Kendra and walking to the kitchen.
            The night was starry with a large low moon that covered the island in a bluish blanket of light. Her head throbbing, mouth dry, Kendra sat on the edge of the bed working up the energy to make it to the kitchen for a handful of ibuprofen. She made the journey without any major mishaps and washed downed several pills. Glass in hand she found her way back to the bedroom. Halfway across the room something caught her eye and she glanced to her right toward the large sliding glass doors leading the to deck. The black, motionless silhouette of a figure stood in front of a door. Kendra screamed loudly and dropped the glass to the tiled floor where it shattered. Tom’s bedside light snapped on and he jumped to his feet.
            “What? What is it?”
            “She’s out there,” yelled Kendra, pointing to the door. Tom started running toward the door but was caught up short when he stepped on a glass shard. “Shit,” he shouted, hopping on one foot. “Why didn’t you tell me there was glass on the floor?”
            “Stop fucking around and get out there,” she demanded.
            Cursing, Tom hobbled to the doors and flicked on the outside light, revealing nothing but several plastic chairs and a potted palm. He opened the door and stepped out on the deck, scanning the vicinity.
            “There’s no one here,” he called out angrily.
            “She was there. I saw her.”
            “Right,” he said through clenched teeth.
            Kendra cleaned up the broken glass while Tom bandaged his foot, neither saying a word about the incident until they were both lying in bed again.
            “I saw her, Tom. She was standing on the deck looking in.”
            “Good night,” Tom responded and flipped off his light.
            This was the last day of the Bora Bora shoot, and it was going horribly. Kendra was tired, hung over and short with everyone. Eischi ranted and rolled his eyes like a broken slot machine, taking out his frustration on Paolo. His right foot bandaged and aching, Tom sat near the small crowd of onlookers, keeping his eye out for the woman in the scarf. The shoot lasted two hours before Kendra called it quits.
            “I have to stop,” she called out, picking up her bathrobe and putting it on.
            “What?” yelled Eischer. “We’ve got another half-hour of good light. We can’t stop now.”
            “Yes we can,” shot back Kendra. “Tom could you bring me my flip flops?”
            Agitated, Eischi approached Kendra, kicking sand as he went. He lowered his voice only loud enough for her to hear. “Listen, you little…, I don’t have all the shots I need for the spread. Do you understand me? If I don’t come back with the photos they need, I will lose this very lucrative account. Take your robe off and let me finish.”
            Kendra pulled her sunglasses down her nose. “You can shoot my ass, and kiss it too, as I walk back to my room.” She turned and trod through the sand to Tom, who shrugged his shoulders in Eischi’s direction.
            “I’m going to get you kicked off this account. Do you hear me?” Eischi angrily kicked sand in her direction.
            “Kendra,” pleaded Tom as they walked the path back to the hotel. “This isn’t a good idea. Eischi’s an idiot, but he has a lot of pull and—“
            “Stop. Okay? Just stop. Did you see her?”
            Tom looked confused at the abrupt change of topic. “What?”
            “Did you see the woman with the scarf?”
            “No. I didn’t see her.”
            “Well I did. She was standing on a balcony at the hotel directly behind the shoot. She was watching me.”
            “Are you sure…?”
            “Of course I’m sure. I need to get out of here. She isn’t just some harmless fan.”
            “Why do you say that? You’ve never spoken one word to her.”
“I just know. Book us on the next flight to New York.”
Two days later Tom sat fidgeting in an uncomfortable leather chair in an outer office of Ford Models agency in Manhattan, cringing at the exchange of angry voices emanating from the president’s office. A door slammed and a fuming Kendra strode stiffly into the lobby choking her coat in one hand. Tom got up and followed out to the hallway.
“Kendra, stop. What happened?”
“I quit.”
“Babe, wait. You quit?”
She stopped at the elevators. “I quit. I know people in town. I’ll have another agency in 24 hours. These…assholes have no respect for me or how I’ve helped their pathetic little agency grow.
The west side building emptied out onto a busy 57th street, and the two made their way toward a taxi when Kendra stopped short. Her eyes were following someone in the crowd walking east. Before he could say anything, Kendra took off and was jostling through people along the sidewalk.
“Hey,” she called out. “Hey, you.”
Following her, Tom could now see what had caught her attention. A woman wearing a scarf just like the one worn by the fan in Bora Bora was walking away from them, with Kendra right on her heels. Kendra nearly knocked a man to the ground as she caught up with the woman, yelling all the way. As Tom followed her, he watched the woman turn around and face Kendra. It was an elderly African American woman with a shriveled apple face, none to happy to be accosted by a stranger on the street.
“What kind of drugs are you on, Girl?” she asked.
“I…I’m sorry. I thought you were somebody else,” explained the out of breath Kendra.
“You almost gave me a heart attack. What’s wrong with you?”
“Really, I am so sorry.” Tom reached her and gently slid his hand under the crook of her arm and guided her back toward the cab. She was trembling. “What’s wrong with me, Tom? I feel like my world has gone insane. That woman is almost all I can think about, and I don’t know why.” He helped her slide into the taxi seat and he followed her in.
“You just need some rest, Kendra. You’ve had a brutal schedule for months, and now you should take a little break.”
Over the next few weeks, Kendra’s mood grew darker and darker. Ford’s must have put out the word on her because she was not having any luck getting another agency. She stopped her daily workouts and runs, and was spending more days in her pajamas than dressed. Tom felt the distance between them growing and despite efforts to get her out for dinner or a show, she always declined. Like a cat warming itself, a great part of her day was sitting on a wide windowsill staring down at the street below. She lost interest in virtually everything, her work, sex, and even simple conversation.
            The money started to run low and Tom began considering his own future. On the one hand, he wanted to try and help Kendra, who was now neglecting even the most basic aspects of self-care, like showering, brushing teeth and washing her clothes, on the other, their relationship was never so much about love as it was about filling unmet needs in each others lives, but he felt that this was more than he had signed on for.
            “I’m not pretty anymore. Am I?” came out more like a lament than a question.
            “You’re as beautiful as you always were,” he lied.
            “No. Now I’m plain and boring just like all those people down there.”
            One day spilled over to the next until a morning where Tom sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee between his hands, working out the break up monologue in his head when Kendra’s body stiffened and she pressed a hand against the window.
            “There’s the bitch,” she snarled, and then jumped off the sill, ran into the kitchen where she pulled a carving knife from its wooden sheath, and scurried toward the door, barefoot, wearing only a t-shirt and pajama bottoms. As she ran out the front door toward the elevators, a stunned Tom went to the window and looked down. There indeed was the woman with the scarf and sunglasses standing in front of Barrett’s dry cleaners looking up at him with an odd and disturbing smile. Kendra was planning to kill her. He dashed out of the condo and jumped down four flights of stairs, finally pushing open the heavy glass door and stumbling out onto the busy street.
            He was in the midst of a crowd of New Yorkers moving by like currents in a river. He turned his head, frantically looking for Kendra in hopes of averting a disaster. Directly across the street was Barrett’s, but the woman was gone. Horns honked and drivers yelled as Tom rushed across the street like a running back picking his way through the defense. He stopped again in front of Barrett’s and scanned the crowds until he spotted the top of a woman’s head scarf about three-quarters of a block away. He frantically picked his way through the walkers until he was a few feet behind the woman.
            “Excuse me? Ma’am?” he called out, but her gait remained steady. “Ma’am? Kendra?”
            The woman stopped as if she’d just experienced an unpleasant thought, then, almost imperceptibly, shook her head, chasing away whatever dark cloud had passed over her. A truck horn startled Tom and he turned away for a second. When he looked back, he caught one last glimpse of the woman, her bag tucked securely under her arm, disappearing into the crowd of everyday people.

No comments: