Note: I had some spectacular, all-singing, all-dancing post planned for today (well … I didn’t really, but I was thinking about it, I swear). I finish work, get in the car, get the news that we’re going out tonight, and unfortunately, I haven’t been sleeping well. So, because I was out late, and because I’m lazy and probably tired, I’m going to post a ‘short’ tonight from all the way back in November. Enjoy or don’t, I’m not too sure as yet … I mean, I could easily tell you what I think in retrospect, but I’m also too lazy to do that tonight.
Mark Sullivan remembers 1988. He remembers the summer, the kid sitting almost silent in front of the television screen, inexplicably drawn to the glass. He remembers how the temperature was rising, how she used to sit out on the balcony of their apartment and fan herself, staring listlessly up at the sun. He remembers he face, her smile, her golden-blond hair that she got from a bottle. Mark Sullivan remembers 1988, and the story that made headlines that year.
Mark watches this kid, day in, day out, waiting for the moment he turns eighteen. Waiting for the moment the college funds, saved up year after year, life insurance, a final payout, can be blown on whatever the kid cares about most. This kid, he doesn’t know much. He doesn’t care about much. He just sits in front of the screen, staring at reruns, at movies, at cartoons, at whatever a thirteen-year-old boy is supposed to watch. The kid, he doesn’t have too many friends. He forms bonds through the glass, phased through layer after layer of an invisible something, perhaps a million miles away from whoever it is he’s watching.
He has a thousand and one things to do before the end of the day, before the end of the week or the month. Most of it, paperwork to sign, print his name and that immortal date. The month. He can’t forget because the legal documents say he can’t. He’s trapped in this moment forever by the numbers written in his own hand, some unspoken agreement between himself and his late wife, a promise. A pact. Nothing quite so clandestine. He wants to stop signing but he can’t, not until this kid is old enough to go out on his own.
Mark knows this kid’s secret, after all. This secret that the boy staring at the screen doesn’t even know, how he came to be. How it was that his mother first got the idea, planted in her head by some screen bimbo or another, some brunette who’d starred in maybe two or three more movies than she had, who said she had all the answers to keeping your career alive. On track. Making sure that you were the only one those headlines talked about, the only one that women from here to Connecticut knew about. Gossiping. Whispering. Exchanging facts, rumors, things they heard from some unnamed source, about how Callista Vaughn was due to marry a big money producer. About how Callista Vaughn’s dress was going to be a Vera Wang original, but then, whose dress wasn’t a Vera Wang in this day and age? About that producer, how he never thought he’d get so lucky in all his sorry life.
This much is just about right. Mark doesn’t know and doesn’t care how he managed to hook up with that screen legend, that sex goddess. A woman thousands of boys, now men, had grown up fantasizing about, jerking off over until she disappeared one day. Then, when they were maybe married themselves, with kids, she came back in the exact same position as they were in. They could still fantasize. That bride to be, that aging screen princess, she’s the woman they walked down the aisle with. That honey blonde, or golden blonde, or maybe platinum now, the best way to hide gray hairs, they shared their first dance with her. They spoke their vows to her. Each one of them looking for their perfect replica of Callista Vaughn, or better.
No, Mark Sullivan doesn’t know how he got so lucky, or how he got so unlucky. What it came down to was that she wouldn’t take his last name. The kid, his surname is Vaughn, so that he could get ahead in life. So that her legacy would make sure he got whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it. The kid staring at the screen wouldn’t even have to lift a finger so long as he kept her last name.
With a surname like Sullivan, though, he’d have to fight just like the rest of the kids his age. No leeching of momma’s reputation for him. Mark knows that this is the only reason she insisted, only to have the best for her son. The kid stares at the screen, still, flinching every so often at every flash of light, at every scream. The heroine gets kidnapped and he looks lost in the moment, a boy who doesn’t know what to do because he realizes that he might just be about to lose everything. He turns to Mark. Mark, sitting at the dining table with his head down, squinting at papers, trying to make out tiny inscriptions on the document which illustrate loopholes. Ways for the company to get out of it. Not many do that unless a real star is involved, or if they know they’re talking to a schmuck.
“Dad,” the kid pauses, licks his lips, his shirt too big for him, making his frame look even smaller than it did already, sunk into the plush sofa. “Why would someone do that?”
“Do what?” Mark, dad, mutters back at him, not paying attention, suddenly wishing that his son was still staring at the screen. He doesn’t quite watch as the kid twists in his seat to face him, leaning forward, squinting. He keeps looking down at the paperwork, not seeing, not bothering to read it anymore, just in search of a distraction.
“I saw it. What they cleaned up and took away. That’s all that was left of her, isn’t it?” still, Mark doesn’t listen much, but he knows now what his son is talking about. Mark, who could care less about his son’s questions, because the kid reminds him as much of her as anyone can. He’s as close as he can get without being her sister, or mother. Without being a daughter instead of a son. Some days, he doesn’t even want to look at the kid, forces him into school each day to make sure he doesn’t have to spend time with him around. This small ghost who just stares at the television screen.
“Don’t tell me they don’t teach you physics in school,” out of the corner of his eye, Mark sees the kid shake his head.
“No. They do. Only, they don’t teach us that,” the kid pauses, or Mark thinks he does, maybe for breath, maybe to think about what exactly it is that he’s saying. That he’s asking about. Some things a kid doesn’t need to know right away, not just yet. Mark knows this. Learn too young and it breaks something inside of you, something important; you stop being who you thought you were, not so much a kid anymore as a shell. Growing into the teenage years too fast hurts more than any growing pain. Than any insult. “They don’t teach us why someone would do that, either.”
This time, Mark looks up from the paper he’s stopped reading through, looking directly at this brown-haired little ghost sunk into his sofa, this kid who has everything Callista used to have but doesn’t even know it yet.
“You want to know why a person kills themselves?” he repeats this like he doesn’t already know what the answer will be. Like telling a story to a small child, pretending that everything is new, exciting, not tiresome and pointless like it all suddenly seems. A prime reason to end it all right there; that life just isn’t new and exciting anymore. He watches the kid nod his head slowly, almost looking entranced, not tempted to glance back at the screen anymore. This kid could be any six-year-old he’s tucking into bed and reading a story to, only this story doesn’t have much of a happy ending. “It’s because they don’t want to live anymore. Alive, you’re aware of everything you’re doing wrong, and if you’re the kind of person to make a lot of mistakes, sometimes, death is the only way to put an end to that.”
“You think she made a lot of mistakes?” just like every question this kid has ever asked, this one floors Mark. He doesn’t know what to say. It’s as if this kid is interrogating him. Wanting to know why he decided to answer this way instead of telling him how kind and beautiful his mother was. Exactly the kind of thing any thirteen-year-old boy wants to hear.
“I don’t think it was that,” he tries not to choke. “I think things just got real hard.”
“Was it because of me?” exactly the kind of thing no kid wants to think about. It’s like telling a kid whose parents have just divorced that they got divorced because of something bad he did. That now his entire life has been thrown into chaos, because of that one little lie he told. Because he withheld information. Because he was sneaking extra snacks at recess to sell to the other kids for small change.
“Why would you think that?” Mark just wants to get back to his paperwork. Filing, insurance policies, a payout. Mark just wants to get to the end of this so that he can forget she ever existed afterward. He wants it to end so that he can sell the apartment and move out, move on, somewhere he doesn’t have to be constantly confronted by the small ghost in his sofa, images flickering across his face in the darkness. The kid shrugs. He doesn’t have an answer to the question, but he expects answers all the time. It’s just like a kid to expect answers that an adult doesn’t really have.
“Jason always tells me about how his mom says things were going just fine for her until he was born. That she wishes she’d never had him,” whether or not that was Callista’s reason, it was hard to say.
Once they were married, this starlet wanted a kid more than anything else in the world. Mark remembers how they locked themselves up inside the apartment whenever she wasn’t busy doing magazine features about her supposed comeback. When she had the time to want for the things she didn’t have, they sometimes spent whole days and longer locked up inside their room, refusing to even eat because they were that desperate to conceive. He slips off into a world lodged somewhere between reality and an intangible past, looking back as if he’s glancing at a reflection, a mirror image that lies while simultaneously being real.
Months and months of trying this, of Callista telling every imaginable source about how they were trying so damn hard for a kid, how they were fucking like rabbits just for that one chance. She talked to daytime TV hosts about it, who had to wave their hands and whisper small, insignificant asides about how this was supposed to be a family show, and she couldn’t get away with saying the things she was saying live. About how she would have to cool it for those shows that came on after dark, after half the world was asleep, safe from profanities, from the suggestion that any actress had such a progressive sex life. She told them about the different positions they’d been trying, about the best times of the month to try. About how the fucked at just the right time during her cycle to ensure the highest chance of her getting pregnant.
It was a wait that seemed to go on forever. Every home pregnancy test, every visit to the gynecologist, seemed to drag on forever. Whenever Callista heard the word no, she was inconsolable for maybe a week or two before they were right back on it again, picking up from where they had left off.
“You have no idea what we went through to get you,” Mark mutters this almost to himself, so the kid doesn’t really hear it and can only stare for a minute longer before turning his attention back onto the television screen. Just a new cartoon. A new episode of a show based on some comic book from the sixties.
Sure, Mark went through hell trying to give Callista a kid, but the only reason she wanted a baby so bad was to give her career an extra push. Already columnists were lining up to interview her about the recent nuptials, but Callista knew the media better than that. She wasn’t a naive twenty-something any longer, already able to tell that as soon as coverage of her wedding and everything that happened since wasn’t hot news anymore, she’d be history again.
In short, Callista wanted a baby to make sure she stayed in the spotlight.
The one test that came through positive, that day she whipped the media up into a frenzy.
Any talk show we could get on, she was on the waiting list, ready to drag him on set and scream ‘we’re pregnant’ at anyone who would listen. Any middle-aged man who grew up masturbating to her pictures in magazines could imagine Callista in stirrups, maybe the way he’d seen his own wife giving birth, screaming and sweaty, but somehow still glowing, forcing a head, shoulders, a torso, an entire human through that entrance, that exit, that had been pounded so many hundred times by that same guy, that same dick. Any lonely housewife, bored and flicking through glossy magazines would be able to hear every agonizing detail of Callista Vaughn’s sex life, her tips. That you couldn’t get pregnant if you had sex standing up was a myth. Same as if you fucked in the shower.
This kid, all he’s ever done since he tore kicking and screaming out of Callista’s vagina is stare at the same television screen. He learned to stand trying to reach that screen. He learned to crawl towards it. This kid loves TV more than he loved his own mother, because those fictional characters are just so much easier to connect with.
“Son?” the kid shudders and tears his blinking eyes away at the demand, the sound of an address he knows all too well. It’s rare he hears his own name. Now, Mark refuses to call him by it. “Your pal, Jason? His mom’s really fucked up.” He doesn’t wait to hear the kid’s response. Instead, he turns away, moves towards the kitchen. There’s beer, spirits, but what it comes down to is, Mark doesn’t want any of that. He just wants an excuse to get out of the room for a few minutes. He knows he should have taken the papers with him, pulled up one of those high stools and started writing, signing at the kitchen counter.
Mark, his hands press up against the marble counter-top, eyes rolling up at the off-pink ceiling, a mottled, strange color. The only room in the house not painted white. The only room in the house with black marble counters, with neat sets of utensils lining the far wall. Easy enough to run someone through with a butcher knife. Callista would only ever buy the best.
None of them ever cooked a meal in this room, but only one member of staff ever did it anyway, the one member of staff Callista could afford to keep on after her career started to pull down the drain. Even after she made her comeback, they still had this one maid come cook come nanny, this one woman who had nothing to do with the family except for the fact that she was being paid to be there, to do all the menial tasks Callista didn’t know how to do.
Used to be her face, Callista Vaughn’s face, lined billboards, shop windows. In theaters, all you could see was her face next to some handsome male co-star, the hero and the heroine side by side. She wanted to take on more challenging roles, she said. Wanted to show the world that she was more than just a sex symbol, that she really could act as well. One night, one slow night when they’re done trying and she’s massaging the small bump that is her stomach, a curve underneath the sheets, Callista looks at Mark and tells him,
“All I ever wanted to be was an actress,” he watches her sigh and slip down beneath the sheets. “Ever since I was small. That’s all I wanted. Is it any wonder I’m still hanging on so hard?” Mark, he doesn’t answer, just switches the light off next to the bed. One flick of a switch, and they’re both in darkness. The truth is, Mark doesn’t know what to say to that. He was raised in a family where you marry someone, you have a kid with them, because you love them. Not because you want to keep your career on track. As he closes his eyes, rolls over on one side, he hears Callista whisper through the darkness again. “It’s funny, isn’t it? Once this kid’s born, I’m quitting movies for good.”
Quitting something you’ve done for most of your life, like smoking, isn’t that easy, You’re already addicted. Mark knows this because it’s only recently that he stopped drinking.
It’s only recently that he stopped asking for that extra glass of Cristal at parties, downing vodka, whiskey, in huge, fiery gulps. It’s only recently that he stopped staggering out to the taxi or the limo, he forgets which they could afford at any given time, thankful that he didn’t have to drive home. Instead, he carries around tall glasses of bottled water with ice. Virgin martinis, or a flute of coke. He stopped because Callista asked him to, but really because he couldn’t stand the headlines. The tabloids referring to him not as a drunk himself, but as Callista Vaughn’s drunk husband. His one vice not his own. His every action scrutinized, bot not to degrade his own merits. Callista asked him to stop because he was damaging her reputation, but couldn’t divorce him because it would look even worse than having a drunk husband. Because the baby was on the way and the kid needed a father. He didn’t stop. She had to keep going. After nearly thirteen years of coming home stinking sour, booze on his breath, Mark stopped.
When you’re addicted to something, a lifestyle, a drug, drink, you can’t just turn your back on it.
You’ll always know that you left behind something that made you feel good, no matter what it cost to feel that way. Like the kid’s addicted to TV, and tearing him away from it will mean he’ll just go back and sit on the sofa again. The next day, he’ll be back there again, and you’ll tug him away, only for him to go back. This goes on for a while, until one day, you walk into the room, and he’s not sitting there anymore, but it’s hard to say where he is. He might be wandering, lost, from room to room, barefoot and wild-eyed because he doesn’t know what to do. He might be out on the street with his fucked-up friends for once. It’s hard to say what’s changed, but somehow, you know everything has changed for the better.
Mark knows this, but he’s still tempted to reach inside the fridge and open a bottle of beer, the first in months. Weeks. He doesn’t know how long because he hasn’t been counting. He doesn’t much care, either. All he knows is he really could use a beer.
“Dad?” even now, the expression is foreign, it almost hurts his ears to hear it. For a moment, it’s almost as though this kitchen, this pink-tiled hell is his heaven, a cocoon he doesn’t want to leave. It’s a room where words can’t hurt him, but he still can’t escape the truth. His guess is right; that if he has a beer it might make things better just for a while. He might be able to put these things to the back of his mind where he wants them to belong, but they never will.
When mark looks at the paperwork still sitting where it was on the table, limp, lifeless, he’s back where he was fifteen minutes ago. He’s back faced with the reality of things, not a memory, something he has to deal with, to know, not to ignore. When he looks over at the kid sunk into the chair, sunk and staring expectantly around, not at the screen this time, he’s a part of this life, this thing, a length of time that goes on and on with no sense of stopping until you reach the very end. Until you know you’re going to die.
“Dad,” the kid repeats the word, and Mark knows he’ll answer this time, because he’s sick of hearing it. “How many movies was mom in?” Mark doesn’t know what to say.
The kid’s mother was in a lot of movies in the late sixties. She so desperately wanted to be a Bond girl, but didn’t every twenty-something in those days? Every girl who knew she was attractive enough to do it. She settled for a role in a prime-time series first, something to do with special agents, spies fighting for the good of the country. It was only natural that she made her name here, formed her reputation, running around in high-heels and skin-tight cat suits, her dyed, bleached, teased hair cropped because it was hard to manage otherwise. Silky and smooth for the camera, bobbing about her neck, the sharp cut threatening to slit her throat every time she slid across the floor.
Boys growing up with this series knew what to expect from Callista, the secret agent they always wanted to fuck, but could turn on the TV at six and see some other guy about to fuck her instead. Some actor whose name they couldn’t remember, but who all the girls in class swooned over. Some dick with long hair who got to get up close with their beloved Callista.
By the seventies, Callista had just started out in movies. She was already a household name, so most directors had no trouble finding a film to cast her in, no screenwriter would turn down the chance to write a part especially for her. Some leggy, sexy blonde who was undressed for most of the time she was on screen, or wearing something that clung to her flesh. A second skin. A fourth-degree burn covering most of her body that she could slip on and off at will. In casting sessions, most of them would just say ‘you’re that hot spy from TV, right?’ and she’d just nod, give them a little smile, read her lines and fuck up every one of them but it didn’t matter because she was great to look at.
“As many as any actress makes before she decides she wants to settle down,” this was the official lie they’d agreed to tell him. Mom settled down because she wanted to. Because she fell in love with some rugged, young producer who made promises and got her pregnant instead. Behind the scenes, this official lie was the first line of some black comedy, where they both laughed bitterly in bed about how their lives had turned out. About how she’d only settled for Mark because he was there, because he had money, because he’d worked on a number of reputable projects and she knew that this could work for her. It really could work. Because she knew that this was someone she’d have to spend the rest of her life with, she found the most handsome guy she could, but one desperate enough that he’d propose to her, marry her in a heartbeat.
Mark never bothered to tell her how he wanted more than that. He was just glad he got so lucky.
“But how many?” the kid repeats, impatience rising in his otherwise placid voice. “Like ten? A hundred? How many did she make?” the truth is, it’s impossible to say how many she made. It’s impossible to say how many movies Callista Vaughn made because about half of them flopped at the box office. Sure, she had legions of adoring male fans going to see her, visit her in what they considered to be her domain, but they were the only ones. Most of her fans were too young to get in; the ones that got caught out while using their fake IDs, not old enough to see a film rated R. This was what killed Callista’s movies nine times out of ten. The rating. The critics, for the most part, did the rest.
“A lot,” Mark’s answer cuts across the low rumble of the television set, the sounds of his own breathing, their own breathing, him and this ghost on the sofa. He looks back down at the papers. But can’t bring himself to sign anything, just him and the papers at a stalemate, refusing to do anything. Sitting silently, he stares out across the room. The curtains are still drawn across the balcony door.
For a while, that door was a crime scene. For a while after, a shrine. Now, the door is just there, but hidden, so that he doesn’t have to face reality.
He doesn’t sleep in their bed anymore. He sleeps on the plush sofa the kid is sunk into, a world all on its own, away from dark drapes. He keeps the television on, screen playing the same few scenes of softcore porn over and over. The same woman gasping, butt naked, moaning, only nobody’s really fucking her. They’re just there. This actor, paid to hump her without even getting his dick wet. Mark doesn’t care. The television is the last thing he turns off at night because the sound of a fake orgasm brings him some kind of comfort.
It’s like being in a room full of people. You don’t care about what anyone’s saying, you can’t even bear to hold a conversation with most of them, but the soft, low buzz of the conversation makes you feel safe. Makes you feel like you’re a part of something, even if you’re sitting alone in a corner. You know that nothing is wrong, nothing is really wrong in this room because the conversation is still going on, because nobody has stopped talking. Because there’s no reason for anyone to stop talking right now, not really. You wait a while before approaching anyone because you’re so at ease.
“Mom was really famous, wasn’t she?” these days, it’s all the kid can think about, all he can talk about. His mom. His absent mom. He doesn’t care that a copy of The Lost Boys was playing at the time, but he’ll never watch the film again. He doesn’t care about anything much, apart from watching the same images play over his face, ghosts playing over a ghost, neither of them really there any longer. Mark can’t make sense of the kid’s behavior most days, has got him booked in and seeing a shrink about it, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. At night, the kid won’t go to sleep without the television set still playing, only Mark can’t do anything about that or care because he knows he does the exact same thing.
“Pretty famous, yeah,” he sounds tired. He sounds tired and looks tired, but he knows it. He is. He doesn’t sleep much at night. He wants to get out of the house, to sell up and move away, but the kid’s shrink says it would be too much. All this suffering for some thirteen-year-old boy. “Way back when.”
“Before she had me,” a moment of silence hangs in the air, and Mark doesn’t want to admit to it, but he can’t tell the kid the truth, either. That she only had him to become more famous than she already was. That she only tried so hard …
“She wanted you more than she wanted to be famous,” letting a kid know he’s loved. The only way to handle a head case. The two things were always mutually exclusive – she couldn’t have one without the other. Callista always wanted her own way, though.
Way back, there was an episode of her show that was pulled from the air. You can catch it every so often on late night re-runs. Callista wanted to do something more edgy. Not content with her closest to nude scenes being her barely dressed in a silk slip, Callista, she wanted to film a topless scene. And the company, they said no. They said they had a strong following. They had a strong following of teenagers, kids just learning about sex, or kids raised in liberal America by hippies. Kids, younger than teens, whose parents didn’t care much. Kids of hippies whose parents didn’t like them watching it, not for the sex, but for the strong pro-War message.
The episode never aired, but eventually, Callista got to do her scene. Said she made a few sacrifices, but said that she was doing it, not for the ratings, but for the liberation of women everywhere. Spiel that’s still hard to believe, even eighteen years on. The show was coming to the end of its last season, though they didn’t know that yet, and Callista was intending to use the episode as a springboard. When they cut it, she was beyond words. Her perfect, pink nipples never made it onto prime time television, because the censors wouldn’t let it happen. Now, that episode, lost for almost two decades, swims around in the same time slot as the softcore films, the B-movie violence. Bad special effects. When they air episodes in blocks of two or three or four, the same length as a feature, you can see Callista Vaughn’s breasts, immortalized on television forever. The only part of her that wasn’t going to grow old.
Callista Vaughn never really got old. She got to maybe middle age, still cutting her hair and bleaching it platinum to hide her gray hairs the best she could. Still using the latest anti-aging serums, refusing cosmetic surgery but seriously considering it as, year after year, she got older.
“Do you think mom fell?” when the human body hits a hard surface at terminal velocity, the end result is an unrecognizable mess. A body is either like a water balloon with viscose fluid, not-quite solids floating around inside a fleshy exterior. Upon impact, the skin, the rubber of the balloon, gives out because of the force it hits a hard surface at. Because of how fast it’s traveling on the way down. There’s too much inside, held inside by flesh and bone maybe, too much water inside the balloon, and the sides split, everything splits. When a body hits the sidewalk at terminal velocity, you can bet you won’t be able to recognize who it was that fell from that height; you’ll see the intestines spread out along the ground, five feet long and not curled, packed tightly inside anymore. The stomach has burst, undigested food slathered in blood. You can see what used to be a ribcage sticking out, up, the way that they do in horror movies like a cage, arms, legs. Clumps of hair. She must have fallen headfirst, because you can’t really find her face, all you can see is what used to be platinum blond and gray hair, now red and matted with slow drying blood.
“Probably,” Mark doesn’t know how to talk about it anymore.
The limbs, what’s left, stick out at odd angles, not attached to anything anymore. There’s a six-foot trail of blood in a rough circle, the limbs are still pumping out the rest. Veins knotted and tied, only the bonds are broken now because the impact blew them off. If you could find Callista Vaughn’s head, if she hadn’t jumped, fallen headfirst, the eyes would be closed, and it would look like the head of a doll that’s been dragged around a few too many times, but sticky and dirtied with blood rather than dirt and fingerprints. Most people won’t know what happened until Mark sells the story to People magazine.
“But what I don’t get, is …” the kid pauses again, like he can’t figure out a way to say it. Like these word get lost in his head before he can get them out. “Mom was so pretty. But that mess on the sidewalk, it … it wasn’t her, you know?” Mark hauls himself up from his seat, step by step getting closer and closer to the sofa where the kid, the ghost sits, paler now, while he thinks about it. Mark catches a glimpse or two of what it is he’s been watching. Callista’s pale green eyes stare back at him through layer after layer of invisible glass. Callista, the way she looked once, young, golden-blonde, whole.