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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Make Him Look Good

A Novel

Alisa Valdés-Rodríguez; Read by Daphne Rubin-Vega and Orlagh Cassidy

Macmillan Audio


Make Him Look Good

The First Trimester
thursday, february 14
So, welcome to my frilly yellow bedroom. Girly, immature. Teddy bears. And not just that, but Care Bears. Pitiful. I know. How sad is it to be twenty-four years old and still living at home with your mom and dad (and grandparents)? How sad is it that I'm still here, in this white-brick home in Coral Gables, near Blue Road and Alhambra Circle, on my once-canopied twin bed, silly ducky slippers hanging off my pudgy feet, a pink terry-cloth robe cinched around my waist, my greasy flat nothing brownish hair pulled up in two slightly sad, droopy-bunny ponytails?
"So sad."
Yeah, well, thanks. That's my sister Geneva speaking, as she stands in my doorway with an amused, superior look on her face. Geneva holds her Yorkie, Belle, under her arm like a football. The dog pants, making the red bow between her ears bob up and down like the comb on a nervous rooster. I am not what you'd call a dog person. There's nothing worse than the hot, rotten smell of dog mouth, and I can smell it from here. Yorkie mouth from here. I detest the dog, and I detest Geneva.
You know, Geneva. My tall, thin, financially successful thirty-year-old sister? The one who looks like a slightly darker, slightly prettier Penélope Cruz? The one who is five-eight and got an MBA fromHarvard--compared to the five-four University of Miami graduate that is me? The one who has a group of female friends just as perfect as she is and no shortage of men she likes to call "sex toys"? The one whose feline body and long legs turn jeans into an art form? The one who has stolen exactly three boyfriends from me in the past ten years, during which time I only had four boyfriends, even though she claims it wasn't her fault that they left me for her? She said it was my fault, for not putting more effort into my appearance, my clothes, my studies, my job, my life. She then tried to act like she'd done me a favor by offering fashion tips and career advice. Right. Her.
Geneva has just walked into my room without knocking, wearing her "work" clothes--a spaghetti-strap black silk tunic that would make any other woman look six months pregnant but which, combined with skinny jeans, a sparkly tan, and strappy black sandals, makes Geneva look like a haughty, leggy Spanish princess. Her long black hair is twisted back in a tight knot, exposing the small yet scary dragon tattoo on her left shoulder blade, and she's got a black and white scarf wrapped around her head. Anyone else with a scarf twisted around like that would look like Aunt Jemima's nanny. Geneva? Royalty.
I do not make eye contact. You know, it's not advisable, with her being the devil and so on. I try to seem distracted and unconcerned. I type on the VAIO laptop between my extremely pale legs on the bed. The "n" key is worn off from all my loser online activities; these include commenting on people's blogs, doing chats, and posting fake profiles of myself on personals sites, just to see what kinds of responses I get in different cities. I pretend like I don't know that with that one little word, "sad," Geneva is talking about the loser that is me, the state of my hair, my body, my clothes, my bed, my room.
I feel her frowning at my robe. "How long have you had that thing, Milan? God. I remember it from when I left for Harvard." Geneva always mentions Harvard, and she always mentions the Portofino Towers, where she recently bought a condo. She's a name-dropper. She picks up my phone from my dresser. "Hello Kitty. Milan? Sad."
I ignore her, focus on the computer. She puts Belle from Hell onthe floor, and sits next to me on the bed and peeks at the screen. I turn it away from her. I hear Belle doing the scratch-and-sniff under my bed. What has she found there? I can smell Geneva's perfume, something musky and dark. Something expensive and very grown-up. I am aware that after a full day working in Overtown as a laxative publicist for my uncle's "pharmaceutical" company (don't ask), I smell like a goat. But it's been so long since I smelled a goat I can't be sure. The last time was at a petting zoo in Kendall when I was ten. I tried to mask today's goatness with Sunflowers perfume I got on discount at Ross earlier because I was too lazy to take a shower.
"What ya doing?" Geneva asks, stretching her neck to see the screen. For the record, my sister would not be caught dead in a Ross, or any other store with the slogan "dress for less." That, for Geneva, would defeat the purpose of dressing at all.
"Just trying to set up a chat room." I scowl at the screen to make myself seem smarter and more ambitious than I am. To make it seem like Geneva's criticisms mean nothing to me. To seem like I'm happy here, in this room, in this house, in my life.
"You guys have wireless now?"
"Yes," I say. I set it up, but I let my dad think he did it. Our parents think I am a dutiful, passive Cuban daughter to have remained living at home, where I do things like wipe my grandmother's bottom (she's too stiff with arthritis) and fold my dad's undershirts (his Y chromosome makes housework impossible for him). To our Cuban-exile parents and tens of thousands just like them all over South Florida, girls like me--chubby, unmarried, overlooked--stay home until we're (best-case scenario) married or (worst-case scenario) hauled away to the convent. Geneva and I know the truth about me, however. I'm not dutiful or traditional. I'm not even a virgin (but don't tell my parents, please). Rather, I'm a purebred American slacker. I'll have a life one of these days, when I get around to it.
Other things you need to know about me: I would be pretty by normal standards, but because I live in Miami, a city where pretty must be nipped, tucked, and liposuctioned into uniformity and submission toqualify, I am plain by association. I have a pleasant round and very white face, with freckles. People stop to ask me for directions. I have been told I look "nice," but I am selfish and wild in my head.
Geneva lifts a foot and rotates the strappy sandal, cracking her ankle. It sounds like grasshoppers in a blender. I hate that sound. She used to dance ballet, and developed this disgusting habit of cracking everything all the time, especially her ankles, with no regard for those around her. She has double-jointed arms, but doesn't show off about it anymore, thank God. "A chat room?" she asks, unaware that her joint popping has made me want to throw up. "For what?"
"My Yahoo group."
"Las Ricky Chickies?" Geneva says the name of my group with a hint of scorn. Or is it mockery? With her, I can never tell. It could be derision. She says it as if Las Ricky Chickies, an Internet forum in honor of sexy male pop star Ricky Biscayne, were the dumbest thing in the world. To her, it probably is. After all, she throws parties for the rich and famous, and gets paid very well for it, so well that she makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and gets to name-drop at the same time--like anyone really cares that Fat Joe ordered massive amounts of caviar or something for a tacky rap-star party. She recently bought herself a new BMW, in white. I myself drive a fabulous puke-green Neon. She has no need, as do we mere mortals, to connect with our idols in other, more pedestrian ways.
For the record, Ricky Biscayne is a Latin-pop singer from Miami, half Mexican-American and half Cuban-American, and he is my obsession. I love him. I have loved him since he began as a salsa singer, and I have loved him as he recorded Grammy-winning albums in the Latin-pop genre. I love him now, as he prepares to cross over to the mainstream English-language pop realm. I love him so much I am the secretary of Las Ricky Chickies, the unofficial Ricky Biscayne online fan club. In addition to this club, I am also a member of a Coral Gables book club, Las Loquitas del Libro (the crazy book girls), that meets weekly at Books & Books. You might say I'm a joiner. That's thebig difference between me and Geneva. She carves her own way and expects everyone to follow. The sucky part is, they usually do.
Geneva flops backward on the bed and picks up one of my Care Bears to throw it into the air, only to punch it violently on the descent. Then, as if trying to tell me something, she tosses the bear at the poster of Ricky Biscayne taped to my closet door.
"If you must know," I say, "we're going to have a live chat during Ricky's Tonight Show performance."
I look at the pink Hello Kitty clock on my nightstand, then at the TV on the sagging metal stand in the corner. It has cable. It doesn't look like it, but it does. My dad, who owns a shipping and export business and whose expensive ties are always crooked, jerry-rigged it somehow. Cuban ingenuity, I suppose. We never throw anything away, even though we're far from poor. My dad just tries to fix everything, or make a new invention out of it. This house is full of junk. Junk and birds. Canaries. We have four birdcages scattered around the house, and among my many unsavory chores is that of cleaning them.
"You think Ricky's gonna do well in English, Milan?" Geneva asks, with a tone that tells me she already knows the answer, and her answer is no. She rolls onto her belly and tries again to look at the screen. "He's so corny. I don't see how an American audience could deal."
"Ricky does well at everything he tries," I say. I stop myself from correcting her misuse of the term "American" to mean only English-speaking U.S. citizens. I'm an American. So is Ricky. So are most of Ricky's millions of fans. "He's perfect."
Geneva snorts a laugh and starts picking at her short, bitten, mangled fingernails--the only imperfect thing about her. The ankle cracking is bad, but the fingernail thing is worse. It makes a little clicking sound like a car that won't start. Click, click. Click, click. "Isn't it a little juvenile to be obsessed with a pop singer at your age, Milan?" she asks. "I mean, no disrespect, but ..."
"Stop with the fingernails," I say.
"Sorry," she says. But she does it again, this time very close to my ear.
"Don't you have your own house to go to or something?" I ask as I push her hands away. "God."
"Condo," she corrects me. "In the Portofino." Right. How could I forget that Geneva, president of a multimillion-dollar party-planning company favored by rappers and Latin American soap stars, just bought a very expensive condo for herself in one of the most expensive buildings on Miami Beach. Enrique Iglesias is her neighbor. She has joked about taking him away from his Russian tennis-babe wife. I did not find the joke amusing, for obvious reasons.
"Why are you here?" I ask. Belle has emerged from beneath the bed with one of my flat, comfortable sandals and is trying to either kill it or hump it. "It's late. Go home. And take that rat with you, please."
"Mom asked me to hang out for a while to help her prepare for a show," says Geneva. Amazingly, she takes the sandal away from the dog. "What, I can't hang out here? You want me to leave?"
I'm about to say yes when our mother, Violeta, an AM talk-radio host, sashays into the room carrying a tray with milk and cookies, like some housewife mom from a fifties TV show. She stops when she sees the two of us about to fight, me crouching away from Geneva, and Geneva leaning in for the kill. Mom knows us very well, and it shows on her face--or what's left of her face. She's had so much plastic surgery the last few years I hardly recognize her anymore. She looks like a tightly pulled lizard with Julie Stav hair.
"What's going on here?" she asks. She leans into her hip. Like Geneva, our mother is thin and tidy, and she does the hip-lean thing to give her the appearance of caderas. For the record, I got all the caderas--hips--my mom and sister lack. I'm shaped like a pear. I'm overweight, slightly, in large part because of an addiction to guava and cheese pastelitos from Don Pan, but I still have a tiny waist. A certain kind of man likes that shape, but in general it is not the kind of man I like. I am told I look like my mulatta grandmother, even though I am the whitest member of our family. We run the spectrum, we Gotays,from black to white and back again, even though no one but Geneva seems to admit that we have any African in us.
My mom and Geneva look alike, or they used to before our mother started to look like Joan Rivers with a platinum-blond bob. Mom wears high-waisted beige dress slacks, probably Liz Claiborne, her favorite brand, with a short-sleeved silk sweater, black. The whole obsession with black is something she shares with Geneva. Mom's breasts were recently remodeled, and they seem to have moved into their perkier bras quite happily. Did you know that when you get a boob lift they put something like a golf tee under your tits, attached to your ribs, to hold them up? Gross. Besides, it's just wrong to have a mother with perkier boobs than you, isn't it?
"Everything okay here?" asks Mom.
Geneva and I sort of shrug.
Mom purses her lips. They used to be smaller than they are now, those lips. They've been blown up somehow, like tiny pink bicycle tubes. "Something's going on," she says. She sets the tray down on my Holly Hobby dresser, next to the porcelain statuette of La Caridad del Cobre. She taps her red manicured nails on the dresser top and scowls at us. I think that's what the face is, anyway. I'm learning to read her body language, like she's a cat now and can only express feelings with the arch of her back or something. Mom would be well served to have a tail these days.
"I think Milan wants me to leave," says Geneva. "Mom, she's so unfriendly."
Before I have time to lie in protest, our mother sighs and does the thing where she makes us both feel so guilty, we are paralyzed. I want to save her. I want to make her happy. I hate myself for being a disappointment. Mom says, "You two. In Cuba, you'd never act like this."
Geneva stands up and walks to the tray of cookies. "May I?" she asks our mother. Mom does her hand in a circle in the air to tell Geneva to eat, but she continues to frown at me.
"If this is about the thing with the boys," she says. "Tú tienes que olvidar de todo ésto, Milán."
I look at the television and ignore the fact that she just told me, in Spanish, that I have to forget about Geneva stealing all my men. Jay Leno appears to be winding up his zoo-animal segment, having petted a baby lion for the past few minutes. Ricky will be on next. I unmute the volume and study the screen. "Shh," I say. "Ricky's coming on. Everybody be quiet, please."
"Blood is thicker than water," says our mother, pacing the room. She rarely stays still, our mother. She is high strung, wired, and motivated, just like Geneva. Mom sidesteps Belle--we share a dislike of dogs, my mother and I--and picks up a stack of magazines on my nightstand, all of them with Ricky on the cover. She sighs and clicks her tongue at me. "Ricky, Ricky, Ricky," says my mother as she drops the magazines one by one, as if Ricky made her tired. "I am sick of this Ricky."
"Sit down, Mom," Geneva tells her through a mouthful of coconut ball. "This'll be fun. I just want to see him make an ass of himself on national television." Geneva brings the tray to the bed and sets it down next to me. She herself sits on the floor, with a great crackling of misused joints. Belle climbs into Geneva's lap and licks a fleck of grated coconut off Geneva's chin. Geneva doesn't seem to mind. "Milan? Cookie?"
I take a coconut cookie ball, and bite. They are sweet enough to make you squint, chewy, made of nothing but sugar, vanilla extract, and grated coconut in heavy syrup. It's the taste of my childhood, sugar and coconut. Cubans eat sugar like Americans eat bread, and I don't even want to think about what my pancreas looks like. As I munch it I log in to the chat room and greet the twenty-one other Ricky Biscayne fans who are there. I know all of them by screen name. My mother and Geneva look at me, and look at each other with raised brows and smirky, pretty mouths. Fine. I know. They think I'm pathetic. A geek.
"Chew at least twenty times, Milan," says Mom. "You're not a snake. You're getting crumbs everywhere on your shirt."
"Nightgown," I correct her.
"With you it's hard to tell," says my sister.
"Shh," I say. "Leave me alone. I'm trying to focus on Ricky."
"This hair," says Geneva. She reaches up and touches my ponytail. Belle snaps at my lifeless strands and I daydream of punting her across the room. "You'd look so good if you got some highlights. Please let me do a makeover on you, Milan? Please?"
"Highlights would look beautiful," says my mother.
"Shh," I say.
"You should let your sister fix your hair," says our mother.
"Shh," I tell them as I type my hellos to Las Ricky Chickies. "Leave me alone."
"How's your face, Mom?" Geneva asks. Mom recently had a face-lift, which explains why she has bangs cut into her bob at the moment.
"Oh, I feel great, better than ever," says Mom. Her cheeriness is almost unfathomable.
"Shh," I say.
"Did it hurt?" asks Geneva.
"Not at all," says Mom. No matter how many surgeries and other enhancements she has, our mother always says she feels great afterward. I glance at her. I can't tell if she is smiling or not. I think she is. She sips a bit of milk and looks surprised as she nibbles a coconut ball through her rubbery lips. I know enough to know she is not actually surprised. Not much surprises her.
On the TV screen, Jay Leno holds a CD up for the camera. It's the same photo as the poster on my closet door. The closet itself is full of cheap linen work clothes from the Dress Barn. Sad, I know. I decorate like a high school girl and dress like a middle-aged secretary. But I have plans. Once I'm out of here. I'll get real furniture and real paintings or something. I'll get real clothes once I lose twenty pounds. Until then, it doesn't seem worth the expense. Seriously. If you saw whatI was up against, all the implants and high heels prancing up and down the Miracle Mile, their perfect little bodies ducking in and out of the Starbucks just to be seen, you'd realize that unless you have the spectacular cuerpazo of a Sábado Gigante model, it's almost better to hide yourself. This is a city where the entire concept of pretty is impossible, where paunchy men in khakis and belts stare, and women spend hours a day and many fortunes making themselves stare-ready. I don't have that kind of time. Or if I do, I don't have that kind of patience. And as a laxative publicist I certainly don't have that kind of money. Don't judge me. I get enough of that at home.
Leno glances at the glossy photo of Ricky's perfectly bronzed six-pack and appears to suddenly have a mouth full of lime juice.
"Oh, jeez," he whines. "Put on a shirt!" The crowd laughs. The host grins and says, "Don't hold the abs against him. He's a great guy, really. Ladies and gentlemen, please help me welcome the newest Latin crossover sensation, Ricky Biscayne!"
"Oh, Ricky," cries my sister, making fun of me. "You're so dreamy!" Belle yaps her approval.
I sit up and hold my breath. Suddenly, everything else is too loud. Mom's pinched breathing through her five-year-old nose job. Belle's hyperpanting. The cool baritone hum of the air-conditioning vents, droning in concert with the twittering night song of cicadas and tree frogs in the backyard. Even with the window closed, the creatures are loud. At night, Miami swarms with things like this, things with slime or sheen on their backs, shiny-eyed things with suction cups on their big, goblin feet. This is why I prefer to stay inside at night, by the way. By day, Miami is one of the most beautiful cities on earth. By night, it's Mars.
Geneva's cracking ankles and clicking fingernails. I grab the remote from the bed, and tap, tap, tap it up. I don't want to miss Ricky's big moment.
With an energetic bang of trumpets and congas, the upbeat song begins, and Ricky starts to dance. "Dance" is actually too sissy of a word for what he does. It's more like making love to the air, grinding,pulsating, shimmying. Oh, baby. He's a graceful, masculine dancer. That's what people notice most about him. His hips, his tiny thrusts and gyrations, all with that happy, naughty grin and those shiny white teeth. Movie star teeth. Not an ounce of fat on him, either, just pure sculpted grace. He has the kind of rear end you want to grab and sink your fingernails into. Or teeth.
The camera pans across his band and focuses for a moment on a balding, redheaded man who plays the guitar with one hand and the keyboard with the other. He's got a microphone attached to his keyboard and sings into it with tremendous passion.
"That guy looks like a tiny Conan O'Brien," says Geneva.
"Shh," I say. The little Conan looks into the camera and I feel a strange pang in my gut; he's got none of Ricky's looks, but this guy has a certain appeal. Eh. Maybe not. Maybe I'm just like a groupie who will do any guy in the band just to get a shot at the leader.
Go back to Ricky, I think. Why is the camera focused on this guy? Who cares about the backup musicians when Ricky Biscayne is onstage? Honestly. The camera zooms back to Ricky, and every woman on earth recognizes his supreme maleness, even my mother, who, I notice, has let her tight jaw go slack at the sight of his wiggling. Is that drool I see in the corner of her mouth? Asquerosa. Maybe she can't feel her lips anymore? She told me that for her boob lift they actually had to remove her nipples and put them back in a different place. Sick.
"I'd marry him," I say out loud, grabbing another coconut ball from the pink plastic plate. "In a minute."
"No serías feliz," says my mother, meaning, You wouldn't be happy. I think my mother must tell me at least once I day I won't be happy doing something I want to do.
Happy? With Ricky? Eh. Maybe not. But who needs happy when you could have a body like that in your bed? I'd cry the entire freakin' day, filling wads of tissue with my tears and snot, if it meant spending the night thrashing with Ricky Biscayne.
I take a peek at Geneva, and to my surprise she appears to be enrapturedby Ricky. She looks embarrassed. I don't think I've ever seen her look embarrassed before.
"See?" I tell her. "He's not making an ass of himself."
Geneva lifts her brows and looks around the room, then at me. "No," she says. "Actually, he's pretty good. I'm surprised."
"He's gonna be huge," I say.
"He might," says Geneva. "You might be right."
"I told you," I say. "You should have believed me. I mean, you usually like my taste in men."
Geneva ignores the jab and starts digging through her weird little fringy purse with the big tacky DIOR on the side, looking for her phone. She opens it and dials someone and starts talking in a loud voice about how she thinks she wants to get Ricky Biscayne as an investor in her newest business venture, Club G, a South Beach nightclub she plans to open later this year. "I know," she says. "I thought he was all about the neck chains and the mullet, too. But not anymore. He's totally hot. I think he's got it, star quality. It's what I'm looking for. Get me in touch with his people."
"Shhh," I say. Geneva scoops up her demon dog and takes her call into the hallway. Thank God. I don't need her in here.
"I'm going to bring your abuelito in," says my mom, rising from the bed. She stands in front of me, blocking my view with her flat Liz Claiborne-pants butt. They're like mom jeans, only they're pants. She means that she's going to bring my grandfather in from the front porch, where he likes to sit "on the lookout" for communists.
"Move!" I say, trying to duck around her for a view of Ricky.
"You need a hobby," says my mother, in Spanish. She tries to pinch my arm. When we were little, she used to pinch us to get us to pay attention to her. I swat her hand away, and she says, "This thing with Biscayne, it's ridiculous. You're not a little girl."
Then stop pinching me. "You need to move," I say, pushing her. I consider mentioning that I know all about her grown-up "hobby" up in La Broward, but, you know. It wouldn't be polite to tell your mom you know she's screwing a Jewish plastic surgeon on the side. I followedher one time, and spied on them. He's pretty muscular, for an old guy, like that one dude, Jack LaLanne. He's got a weird orange tan and big thick veins like blue worms in his neck. Dad's been schtupping bimbos--his secretaries and whatnot--on the side for decades, so it's only fair. And you wonder why I'm still single?
She sighs and leaves the room. I happily lose myself in Ricky's performance. I've lusted after him since his first hit on WRTO Salsa, ten years ago, and continue to lust in pulsing, throbbing ways that shame me. There must be some defect in the genes of the women in this family, I swear. We're like a bunch of loser nymphos, especially Geneva the man-stealing whore. Oops. I didn't say that.
The camera focuses on Ricky, in his form-fitting, fashionable jeans and tight-fitting, nearly transparent dark blue tank top, his tanned arms sculpted in rounded waves of muscle. My mouth falls open as I stare into his hypnotic eyes. He's like an evil witch doctor, taking over my soul. I know. He's only looking at the camera. But I can't help it, I have this overwhelming sense that he's looking right into my soul. The lyrics are meant for me. They speak of a man's love for a plain yet complex and underestimated woman. No other man sings about average women with reverence. Seriously. I mean, not that I'm average. I am just average in Miami. And, for once, there's a man in the world who appreciates that a woman like me might be wild, passionate, lusty, interesting.
The chorus ends, and a timbale solo comes up. Ricky begins to dance again, with backup dancers, all of them female. And when he begins to do a sexy little salsa step, one masculine hand over his belly, right in that spot where men have hair creeping up in a sinful little line, his other hand held up as if holding my hot little fingers, I quite nearly choke on the last of the coconut balls. One minute he grins like the boy next door, dimples, full lips, cute; the next, he frowns with intensity, jaw determined and heroic, his eyes burning with dark lust and power. His body's motions send shock waves through my nervous system, and goose bumps rise on my skin. Ricky Biscayne is, without question, the sexiest man on earth. His hips thrust forward and back, and I correct myself. He is the sexiest man in the galaxy.
As he opens his mouth to sing the last chorus, I begin to speak a prayer to my statuette of La Caridad del Cobre. The peaceful virgin watches me with sympathy from her post on the white Holly Hobby dresser, ceramic blue waves lapping in curls at her feet. God only knows she's seen me do a lot of kinky, lonely stuff in this room, some of it involving innocent victims like hairbrush handles and tubes of eye-makeup remover. Don't ask. Anyway, I'm surprised she even tolerates me, actually. I'm surprised she hasn't struck me with lightning for my raging slacker libido.
"Holy Virgin," I say. "Please help me meet this man. I'll do anything."
Anything? the virgin seems to ask.
"Anything," I repeat.

Man, I'm sore. It was another slow day at the fire station yesterday, just a couple of calls from the regulars--a lonely diabetic and an older homeless guy who knows exactly what to say when he calls to get the paramedics out. I'm having chest pains. I can't breathe. I'm dizzy. I can't feel my arm. So, in between playing counselor to the lonely and desperate of South Florida, I lifted, big-time, in the station's weight room. Me and Tommy, competing like we do to see who could squat heavier--and me winning. Yep, that's right, I told them, the "girl" is strong. They still can't believe I'm smoking them on the physical exams, but they're coming around.
I'm not huge or anything, just solid, tall, and lean--like a professional volleyball player, which I might have been if I hadn't had a baby when I was still in high school. I rocked at volleyball. I've always been athletic, and I'm careful about what I eat. Not that I don't eat, I just eat a lot of protein and vegetables. A typical lunch for me might be a can of tuna, eaten with a fork, and a bag of grilled vegetables with a rice cake. Boring, but it does the trick. When I first started in the department five years ago, I was the first female on the team at Station 42. There was a lot of doubt about a woman firefighter. Not anymore.Or at least most of the guys don't have a problem with it. L'Roy still seems miffed, but that's probably just because I never gave him any, and he's lusted after me from day one.
I'm home now, in my green stucco tract house in Homestead, about to start my four days off. That's our schedule, two full days on, four off. I am beat, and I'd like to sleep, but I've got my feverish thirteen-year-old daughter resting her head in my lap. She's sniffling, struggling with the flu. I feel the tickle of the illness creeping into my throat, but as any single mother knows, I won't be able to actually be sick. I'll have to guzzle DayQuil and coffee and muddle through. Single moms don't get to be sick; we get to be drugged. The good news is that with four solid days off, I might get a chance to chill. Might. I said might.
I might get a chance to see my new man again, too. Did I say man? Preceded by the word "my"? Wow. (Grin, grin!) I guess I did. I am not in love or anything, but I have a playmate. I haven't told my daughter, or my mother, or anyone. Haven't told them what, you ask? This: I've had a few secret lunch dates with a local divorced cop named Jim Landry. He's tall, which is good because at five-foot-ten I'm not short. He's six-three at least, with dirty blond hair cut short just the way I like it. Like me, he's fit and takes his job protecting the public very seriously.
The only thing I really don't like about Jim Landry is that he's a born-again Christian and likes to talk about God all the time. He goes to church on Tuesday nights. He has a fish on his car. I mean, I respect it, but I don't dig it. I grew up Catholic, Irish Catholic, and I like to read Joseph Campbell and think about world religions and what they mean to everyone, so basically I don't need anyone shoving Jesus-this and Jesus-that down my throat all the time. But at the same time, men aren't exactly falling off trees at my feet, especially not cute, available ones, so I'll see if I can adjust to Jim's God-o-rama in exchange for a little nookie.
I see him at fire scenes now and then, and he surprised me by asking me to lunch last month. We've had three lunches, and eventhough it sounds shallow, we have very good chemistry and smell compatibility--even when he eats onions. He's the only man I've known who doesn't stink after onions. We had sex for the first time just yesterday, at his house, nothing earth-shattering, but pleasant. It was the first time I've done it in many years. So, you know, other than the flu, I feel young and sexy again just thinking about him. It's nice to have a reason to shave my legs again. I'm feeling good.
I stroke Sophia's wavy, dark brown hair, and try not to think about the sleep I won't be getting tonight. I replay yesterday's romp, Jim's dark brown eyes and the pheromone man-smell of his neck. I'd forgotten the animalistic sense of peace you get, as a woman, sniffing the musk of a man's neck.
My daughter and I lay atop the light goose-down comforter with the pale lavender Restoration Hardware duvet cover. The bedding was too expensive for me, but I fell in love with it and bought it. I am an excellent window-shopper, and sometimes I give in and use my credit cards. I'm usually not that impulsive, but I figured if you have to be single in your bed you might as well be comfortable. My bedroom is my oasis, a creamy, purple retreat. Sophia sighs, and I want to make her better instantly. If only we moms had that power.
I had her when I was fourteen, almost fifteen. Just a year older than she is now. I didn't feel as young then as I think she is now, but I realize now I was just a baby, too. I raised her alone, and made up for my long guilty hours at work, first as a waitress and grocery clerk, and for the past five years as a firefighter, by sharing a bed with her in a studio apartment. Maybe it was selfish, me wanting Sophia's warmth and reassuring breath by my side. When she was ten, Sophia said she wanted her own room like all her friends had, and I bought this little house through a HUD program. I don't want to live in Homestead, but my income restricts my choices. I like to drive through Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, looking at homes. If I won the lottery, that's where I'd live, in one of those old cities with big trees and lots of shade. Homestead is too bright, too hot.
I kiss her forehead. People say teenagers can't be good mothers, butI was. I was a damn good mom, and still am. I knew what I needed to do to be a good mother, because it was just the opposite of everything my parents had done. Don't smoke, don't drink, don't do drugs, don't collect welfare, don't beat your child, don't beat your partner in front of your child, don't be homeless, don't live in your car, don't sell your car for food, don't forget to brush your child's teeth for, like, years, don't leave your child unattended most of the time. It was easy to know the rules. She's turning out good, too. Soccer star, good grades, friends, chorus. A good kid. I hate to see my daughter ill, but I'll tell you, I love having my baby back, if only for a little while.
Sophia looks up at me with big, honey-brown eyes, the skin over her high cheekbones red from the flu. People who don't know us usually mistake us for friends rather than mother and daughter. Sophia is tall, like me, and looks older than she is. And people can't believe we're related because of the differences in our coloring. I'm a natural blonde, with blue eyes, tanned skin, and a squarish face. My short hair juts out in ragged peaks. I look good with long or short hair, but I keep it like this because when you're rushing into a fire scene you don't need to be worrying about tucking your hair up into your helmet. Some of the guys at the station say I remind them of a younger Meg Ryan. Others say Jenna Jameson, but I think that's mostly just to try to piss me off. I don't get pissed. I laugh right along with them; it's the best defense.
Sophia, in contrast, has skin the color of a roasted cashew. She's already nearly my height, and will likely be taller when she grows up. She's a big, strong girl. Her dark, wavy hair falls to the middle of her back, wild in a way that reminds me of women from Arthurian legends. Guinivere or something. Sophia isn't heavy, but her hips and thighs are thicker than mine, and already she wears a larger size in pants. I'm a ten; Sophia's a twelve. Sometimes, I can't believe my child is this big already. It truly feels like less than a week since she was born. Our mouths and noses are very much alike, and once we tell people we're mother and daughter, they see it.
"Try to sleep," I say. Is that too much to ask? That she sleep so Ican, too? But just as Sophia settles her head onto the pillow, a soft knock comes on the thin wood of the bedroom door. The doors are hollow and splinter easily. That's a sign of a cheap house. I want a better house someday. And I'll get there. You'll see. When I make lieutenant, and then captain. But this will do for now.
My mom, Alice, now forty-six, pokes her head in and smiles sarcastically as she pushes large brown plastic eyeglasses higher on her narrow stab of a nose. Since my penniless alcoholic father's death five years ago, Alice, the ultimate codependent enabler with nowhere to go, has lived with us, sleeping on the pull-out sofa. Alice smokes cigarettes in the front yard, in a housedress. I won't let her smoke inside. She still hangs out with her biker-bar friends, an unsavory bunch of Confederate-flag-waving yokels I've hated for decades. Some things never change. Alice most of all. I hate living with her, but I don't have the heart to kick her out. Abandonment is her specialty, not mine. I've stretched far the other direction, toward compassion and generosity.
"I thought you might want to see who's on the Tonight Show, getting rich," whispers Alice. I don't call her Mom because I think that's a title you have to earn. The slight odor of fresh cat discharge wafts in; I need to change the litter box in the tiny laundry room off the small garage. The granules of litter spray across the floor and seem to get tracked all over the house. I have to run the vacuum, too. There is never enough time, it seems, to do everything that needs to be done. You'd think Alice might help out, but no. That would be too considerate of her.
As Alice waddles back down the hall in her cheap leggings and Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt, she mutters, "No-good Messican son of a bitch." I know instantly who she must be talking about.
With my heart racing, I grab the universal television remote from my unfinished-maple nightstand, hold the batteries in with my fingers--I lost the back to the thing years ago and have lost faith in the duct-tape method--and aim it at the small white TV on my unfinished dresser. Sure enough, there's my high school sweetheart, RicardoBatista, or, as the world now knows him, Ricky Biscayne, singing his heart out. He looks so normal and harmless on television. On television, he almost looks like a nice guy.
"Who's that, Mommy?" asks Sophia. She sits up, rubs her eyes. I think she might have pinkeye. We'll have to go to the pediatrician.
I look at Ricardo's wavy dark brown hair, his high cheek red from singing. I look at his big, honey-brown eyes, and the pain of his unexpected abandonment washes through my body as forcefully as if it had happened minutes, not years, before.
"He's a boy I used to go to school with back in Fort Lauderdale," I tell her, with a false smile and a stabbing memory of the first time I ever really felt loved, long ago. Fourteen years ago, to be exact. "You get some sleep, baby."

Forty miles north, in Bal Harbour, Jill Sanchez watches Ricky Biscayne sing on a fifty-inch Sony plasma television that, when a button is pressed, whirs down out of the ceiling of her home gym. The television is as thick as a slice of bread. Jill, who believes carbs were invented by Satan, has not eaten bread in five years. This is her second workout session of the day, the first having been at four this morning. She wears a pink and gray Nina Bucci sports bra, and sexy matching stretch pants that ride low on the hips and have holes cut out along the sides of the legs. Jill Sanchez has her own line of workout wear that makes loads of money for her, but, being a woman of discriminating tastes, she refuses to wear her line herself, knowing that her clothes are cheaply made. She has a Nike endorsement and finds the shoes suitable and convenient; they come every month, free, in the mail, a dozen or so pairs. This morning, she wore baby-blue Lululemon yoga pants with a matching tank; they make outstanding workout wear. And Jill knows workouts. A trained jazz dancer, on average she exercises three hours per day.
As she pumps her legs on a stair-climber, she remembers the last time she herself performed on The Tonight Show, two years ago. Or wasit four? Five? God, no. Really? She frowns at the passage of time, as if frowning might stop it. It can't have been that long ago. Jill pumps her legs harder, hoping to keep her thirties at bay, even though she is already thirty-seven. As a policy, she does not consider the fact that she will soon enter her forties, even as she has her hair colored every five or six days to make sure no one ever sees the graying roots. The forties are unthinkable to Jill Sanchez, who still believes she belongs on MTV's Total Request Live alongside teenaged singers with their black, bitten fingernails and angst. The harder she pumps, the faster her long, straightened brown ponytail with the highlights swings back and forth, just brushing the top of her mighty, spherical, and famously famous rear end.
Six years ago, she was the first woman to simultaneously have a top-rated movie, album, and perfume in a single week. She'd gone on the Late Show, singing and dancing in those scandalous nude-colored pants that some people thought rode just a wee bit too low, revealing by design the tiniest hint of well-coiffed, short-short, sweet-smelling pubic hair, but also being interviewed about her new movie and clothing line. The clothing line, for the record, then brought in more than $175 million a year, worldwide, because--and wasn't it obvious?--women everywhere wanted to dress like Jill Sanchez, and men everywhere wanted them to.
Some people in the press liked to say her star was fading these days, just because she'd had a messy couple of divorces and other assorted and generally well-timed and professionally calculated "scandals," including this newest one about the fur. PETA is a group of whiners, in her opinion. How many of them wore leather? Huh? How could anyone complain about fur and wear leather? Whiny losers and hyprocrites. They should try being her, Jill Sanchez, for a day or two. They'd know about brutality then. Was it her fault the media vultures circled her carcass day and night? Was it her fault the vile press descended upon every scrap of Jill-ness she threw their way? Who were "the press" anyway, except a bunch of wannabe stars, envious sagging hags and ugly pockmarked men she'd never even give the time of day?Everyone in the press had bucked teeth or buggy eyes. She did not doubt that the very men who wrote horrible things about her whacked off to her image in their private moments. They picked on her because she was a woman, and a powerful one at that. Lots of men in Hollywood had botched love lives and bombed movies, but the press was easy on them. Just look at that skeezy George Clooney. Or that other one, the superboring guy who always sounded like he was sleeping or stoned--Kevin Costner. The media went easy on them. But not on her, Jill Sanchez. Jill Sanchez, they crucified. Hollywood had such double standards for women, and Latina women in particular. Just look at Paula Abdul. The cute-as-a-button American Idol judge had been divorced three times. But did the media crucify her or call her a whore? No. She'd run over someone on the freeway in her Mercedes, and then she'd slept with that one Idol contestant, but no one hated her for it. Did the media call her heartless, ruthless, all the words they had called her, Jill Sanchez? No. They reserved that venom for Jill.
But Jill Sanchez had not gotten to be Jill Sanchez by sitting idly by while the world happened to her. She made the world happen, just how she liked it, and her slick, highly produced upcoming comeback movie and album would prove it. And once she'd taken care of all that, Jill would be free to find love, real love, once and for all, and maybe pop out a baby or two. And maybe, just maybe, her father would forgive her for not being the docile Puerto Rican daughter he'd always wanted. Maybe then she'd actually learn how to make the arroz con pollo she always ordered out for on those rare occasions when her mother was able to talk her father into visiting.
As it is, Jill's father, a plumber by trade and odor, says he is too ashamed of her "puta ass-shaking" videos to set foot in her home or her life. He tells her he has never watched one of her videos all the way through, and seems to favor her oldest sister, a homely schoolteacher who can do no wrong. His loss.
Jill's mother, for her part, reminds her that just because the public thinks Jill is in her late twenties does not mean that her ovaries believelikewise. Her mother has long been intensely critical of Jill, her middle and flashiest daughter, and in a way this criticism has subconsciously driven Jill to overachieve in every aspect of her life, in the hope that her mother will finally be pleased with her.
Jill has never gone to therapy and doesn't understand her conscious--much less subconscious--motivations for success. She will never go to therapy, mostly because Jill Sanchez is convinced that there is nothing wrong with Jill Sanchez and that fault, when it must be assigned, always falls elsewhere. In the meantime, she likes looking at herself and believes others do, too. It doesn't get much deeper than that.
Jill watches Ricky Biscayne sing his guts out, and smiles to herself. What he lacks in the penis department he more than makes up for with that gigantic vibrating sweep of voice. No one sings like Ricky Biscayne. When he left this house yesterday to fly to Los Angeles with his stupid sorry-ass wife, Ricky had been giddy with nerves, and Jill had tried to reassure him by fucking his brains out. The host of The Tonight Show was nice, she'd told him, and would make Ricky feel comfortable.
Jill and Ricky tried to be "just friends" but slipped up and made love--twice. Once in the kitchen, and once on the slick black tiles of the pool-house floor. He had agonized over it, as usual, complaining of his lack of control and his need for a personality overhaul, of his love for Jasminka Uskokovic, the pathetic Serbian stick-figure "supermodel" he'd married. He'd even talked about Jasminka's dog as if the dog would feel betrayed by him. Jill had reassured him it was the last time, knowing as she did it that it was a lie. Actors were good at lying. Ricky had been wounded from a life without a father, and from having been molested by a male neighbor who'd pretended to be a father figure when Ricky was about sixteen--both issues he'd rather not talk about but that she had been able to draw out of him in their moments of quiet postcoital intimacy, as he rested his head on her belly and his tears filled her navel. Jill, like most predators, understood weaknesses, and used them to her advantage.
After sex yesterday, she and Ricky had gone to her enormous and well-appointed in-home recording studio, and he'd gamely listened to some tracks from her upcoming album, Born Again. The album cover would feature a photo of a nearly naked Jill, sexily, sweatily suffering, tied and nailed to the cross. If that didn't get attention, she figured, nothing would. Ricky had suggested harmonies that blew Jill's mind. He was a much better singer than she was, but a little computerized pitch control could fix that. Besides, he wasn't as smart about business, which was one of the reasons she'd broken up with him the first time, six years ago. He was damn stupid about business, in fact. That and the fact that he'd boned her younger horse-faced sister, Natalia--but he'd been high, Natalia was a two-horse-faced whore, and that was all behind them now.
Still, they have so much in common that she regrets the breakup at least once a day. They are both Miami Latinos. Jill is Puerto Rican and has the diamond flag necklaces, Hector Lavoe albums, and boricua thong panties to prove it. Ricky is Cuban from his dad and Mexican from his mom. They both started out in humble homes, he in Fort Lauderdale, she in Wynwood, Miami's most Puerto Rican neighborhood. Through hard work and discipline they had moved themselves to places of power and prestige--meaning South Beach waterfront homes, hers five times the size and price of his, but whatever. They both sing and act, though she knows she is ten times the actor he is and feels no guilt in telling him so; sadly for Ricky, there is no actor's equivalent of pitch control.
They both love fashion, though Jill is sure that her taste, which leans toward fur, leather, Versace, and other assorted dead things, and diamonds, is much better than his, which tends toward the sorts of items a member of Kid 'n Play might have liked: stone-washed jeans with too-big patches on the front, long knitted scarves, and those weird square-toed biker boots. He dresses like a member of Menudo, in Jill's opinion, before they started calling the band MDO. Happily, there is pitch control for poorly dressed men: it is called Jill.
Both Jill and Ricky want children someday, and plan to piercetheir daughter's ears during infancy, something Jill's current fiancé, the boyishly handsome and patently non-Hispanic white actor and screenwriter Jack Ingroff, finds barbaric. Jill is forever having to translate the culture of her life for Jack, and it is exhausting.
With Ricky, Jill never has to explain herself. It is too bad he is married, really. She'd been relieved at first, to be rid of him. He was much more in love with her than she was with him, and even though he swore he had quit doing coke, she wasn't convinced. She'd had a crush on him at the start, that was all, but when she realized how tiny his penis was she'd had a hard time keeping up the excitement, no pun intended. If he'd been better endowed, she might have stuck it out with him back then.
But as it was, the thing with the drugs and the dick, you know, it made sense to just be over it already. She had decided to move on with Jack, who was famous, mostly sober, and had the ample, ready loins of a Brahman donkey.
This did not mean she stopped thinking about Ricky. Now that Ricky's star was crossing over to the mainstream, and now that Jack was turning out to be a bit of a literal whoremonger, Jill believed Ricky might finally be able to hang with her without feeling threatened the way so many of these guys did. Jill works hard. She needs her men to do so as well. Otherwise, it won't last. If she's learned anything from her failed marriages--one to an awkwardly effeminate bartender and the other to a carnally talented gymnast from Cirque du Soleil--it is that a successful woman has to marry her equal, or not marry at all.
Oh, and the bonus? Jack is deathly jealous of Ricky, whom he sees as a threat because of his shared ethnic background with Jill. Jack knows that even though Jill is strong and powerful, part of her wants a machista asshole to put her in her place now and then, someone she can claw, a real man who would grab her wrists to keep her in check. She longs for this type of passion and drama. Because of his crunchy granola New England upbringing, Jack will never be that kind of guy,no matter how desperately he wants to in order to please the un-pleasable and unspeakably perfect Jill Sanchez.
She-man habit aside, Jack, thanks to his poet mother with the Birkenstocks, hairy armpits, and New England pedigree, will now and forever be something of a wuss.
Jill opens her mouth as her new trainer, a big Austrian named Rigor, squirts in a stream of cool, clear, bottled water. His nervous assistant wipes the sweat from her face with a pink monogrammed Egyptian cotton towel. The press ridicules her preference for high-thread-count towels and linens, but that only shows you how desperate they are for news and how inexperienced they are personally with high thread counts. Anyone who's experienced a thick towel does not want to go back, and Jill sees this as something of a metaphor for her own life and career. She is not going back. Ever.
Rigor informs her that she has fifteen more minutes of cardio before they begin the sculpting session. Jill looks at herself in the mirrored wall and wonders if all this sweating with Rigor isn't shaving a little too much off her famed backside. She isn't that starving bag of bones, Renée Zellweger. She certainly doesn't want to look like it, either. "I'm known for this," she says, slapping a manicured hand against her bootylicious rump. "And I don't want to lose it. I do, and you're fired."
Rigor nods, and Jill relaxes a bit. She had to fire the last trainer after he leaked a story to a tabloid about Jack's alleged occasional bouts with transvestite prostitutes. They denied it all to the public, of course, but Jill knows it was true. Jack is her equal, but he is getting too complicated.
On the screen, Ricky's face tenses with passion, and Jill gets a secret thrill remembering the last time she saw that expression, as he pressed her body against the cool stainless steel of her Sub-Zero freezer. He mostly made up for size with motion and focus on the woman's parts, and she'd gotten used to it. No one knows they are still in love. Now isn't the right time, strategically, to let it be known, either.Jill and Jack are costarring in a romantic comedy that opens in two months, adorably titled Came Tumbling After, and she has to wait at least until then to make a big move. Pretend to be happily engaged. Giggle through a Diane Sawyer interview or something. After her Oscar nomination--if she doesn't get it for this role, she doesn't know what she'll get it for--Jill will be free to do whom and what she pleases.
No, no one knows about Jill and Ricky and the happy reunion looming on the horizon. But they will. Jill has a plan, and she's never seen a plan of hers fall through. She looks again at her reflection and smiles. Yes, sir. Jill Sanchez has plans. It does not matter that Ricky is married. He settled for Jasminka when he couldn't have Jill, and really, honestly, was there a marriage anywhere on earth that could withstand the interference of a booty like this? She didn't think so.

My name is Jasminka Uskokovic, and I am not dead.
I am twenty-six years old, and right now I hold hands with my husband, Ricky Biscayne. His hand is cold. Mine is hot. In the middle is moisture, from his nerves. His palms sweat with anxiety often. We sit on overstuffed creamy beige sofa in living room of a luxurious suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. My fat brown dog, Mishko, snores at our feet as we watch broadcast of Ricky's performance on The Tonight Show. It was taped earlier in day. I can see our reflection in big gilded mirror across the room, and we are beautiful couple. We'd make such pretty baby. I'd like that, very much.
I take deep breath and try to place the mild astringent scent of air in the room. Pine? Yes, but with something else, something delicious that clears the head. Mint? I think is pine and mint. I wonder how the room carries this scent. No candles burn, and no obvious air freshener. Could it be the cleaning solution they use, or detergent for washing towels and sheets? I am very scent-centered, and I recall scents the way other people recall conversations. I make soaps in free time and try to reproduce the scents of my life in them. When we return to ourhome in Miami, I will make soap of pine and mint, to remember this moment.
My long, dark brown hair is pulled back in ponytail. My eyes feel sticky and tired. This man is very special. I look again at the mirror and see us. I swell up inside that this man chose me for his own. I wear no makeup because I don't need it. I have soft, clear skin, broad, high cheekbones, a long nose, full lips, green eyes, and an Eastern European symmetry that has given me a profitable career in modeling. I began to be model at fifteen, and by sixteen Vogue and Vanity Fair both said I was newest "supermodel" from Eastern Europe. I don't want so much to be model anymore. I want now to be Ricky's wife and mother of his children.
Many people find modeling glamorous. Not me. I associate it with death. I was fifteen when my family's cottage home in the fertile, hilly green town of Slunj was dynamited by Croatian forces, with entire family (other than me) inside. I had been making out with my boyfriend that day, Croatian boy from sympathetic family. We were hidden in a cool green pocket of pine trees near one of the larger waterfalls outside town. The shelling and exploding began, and we stayed hidden, afraid, until the sound of explosions stopped and night came. The boy begged me not to go home, to come with him, to pretend to be Croatian. He said his family would care for me. But I wanted to find my family. To know they were okay. I wanted to be with them. I'd run home past stone walls and majestic pines, smelling burned flesh, gunpowder, and tar in air, stunned by the glowing orange embers everywhere, the smoke and chaos. When drunk Croatian soldiers asked me to name my ethnicity, I had lied and said Croatian. It wasn't entirely lie, actually. I have, had, Croatian grandmother. I speak the language fluently. The soldiers each kissed me on lips and moved on. This was victory for them.
When I returned to the once tidy cottage house with the flowers in boxes along the front walk, the home in which I had grown up, there was nothing left but smoldering red and black pile of debris. All along path to my house I'd come across decapitated bodies of old men I'dknown. The Croatian soldiers had singled out the old men. To this day I have never fully understood the issues between Serbs and Croatians; to me, it was all stupid, men trying to come up with ways to kill other men, ways to rape women. Both sides were equally vile to each other. My own family had not been political at all, and my mother and father both believed the recent "tensions" had been orchestrated by United States after fall of Soviet Union, in hopes of smashing any other country that might try to become communist stronghold--Yugoslavia included.
For this, I thought then, staring into the milky, frozen eyes of the dead. For this the old men lay chopped to bits in the streets. Twice I'd had to stop to throw up walking to the cottage. All along the way, I found young women and others wandering in my same daze, unable to comprehend what had come to pass, the soundtrack endless wail of thousands sobbing, and people limping blindly toward what had been, in injury and disorientation, like ants whose hill has been stomped to nothing, searching for entrance, for safety. I sat by rubble of my home and waited hours, unable to believe what had happened. I called out names of my family members. But no one came. They were gone. I could not cry at first, because the mind and heart were not designed for such enormous loads of grief. A human being faced with this weight of emotion simply stops feeling, the breaths coming fast and shallow. I knew they'd all been home. In instant, my mother, father, grandparents, and four siblings had vanished. The entire neighborhood had been blown to oily splinters.
I had been surprised to find one lone survivor: my tiny brown mutt puppy, Mishko, a gift from my father, limping and with bloody eye, but alive nonetheless, with her tail wagging at sight of me, impervious to her own injuries and still able to lick my hands and face with affection and optimism. The feel of dog kisses kept me from killing myself. Mishko saved my life. I scooped Mishko up and began to wander. I heard from those who wandered streets that Serbians like us were being forced from the land, and that we were all walking out of the town. And so I joined other people along road, surrounded by livestock,tractors, old cars, and whatever scraps we could salvage from our lives. It's like dream now. Later I would learn that refugees from Krajina that day had numbered three hundred thousand. The dead civilians had numbered fourteen thousand.
It was at that moment, walking out of my hometown with no one left in world to love me but a one-eyed dog, that I began my long relationship with starvation, a drawn-out flirtation with death. I had been plump and round. But when I realized I had survived massacre because of my womanly lust for a Croatian boy, I wanted to get rid of my hips and breasts. I wanted to waste away. I did not deserve to live. I hated myself for surviving.
Weeks later, as Mishko and I spent numb days in stunned silence on cot at a refugee camp in Serbia, a tall, elegant man in gray striped suit had walked up and down the rows between cots, staring through eyeglasses into faces of the girls he found there as if he were looking for someone he knew. In truth, he was scout for ruthless, successful international modeling agency in Paris, searching for someone exactly like me: a beautiful, unfortunate girl whose face might be used to sell perfume in fashion magazines. In all, he went home to France with twenty-two Serbian girls and one puppy. I lived in apartment with four other girls and Mishko, the dog having gotten quite fat eating all the food the girls were forbidden. I quickly became the most successful of us all, as my empty eyes and sunken features were at once scarily symmetrical and otherworldly. I believe I looked like pretty, fragile, empty, hollowed-out corpse doll.
The years that followed since have all run together, and there are times I wake up and do not know where I am. There are times I take a knife to the flesh on insides of my arms and legs, cutting until I feel something, anything. It takes that much sometimes for me to feel at all. I have webs of scabs across my body that have to be airbrushed out of photos. If I didn't cut, I wouldn't feel connected to world of living.
Meeting and marrying Ricky was the first action I had taken that made me start to feel alive again, as he tenderly coaxed me from shell, as he sang to me and I felt love again. I had not expected to marry, buthe had asked, and that meant family, didn't it? And family meant finally moving on. It meant eating, no more cutting. Soon.
I had been starving myself almost as habit to remain, at five-foot-eleven, a skeletal size two. I was used to burning in my gut. It comforted me. Cigarettes had become my substitute for food, but I didn't like what they did to skin or nerves and I would quit soon. I trembled often. I wanted to eat again. To quit smoking. To have children. To stay home and not model anymore. To start family and try to root myself in the world again.
Ricky likes me thin. When we go out in public together, to a party or a concert of his, my emaciated body is source of pride for Ricky. He, like many men who choose to date only models, tells me the sweet, acetone scent of my breath, a by-product of the body digesting itself, turns him on.
I don't like how mean Ricky gets when he drinks. But we anyhow share a bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne, a gift from the hotel manager. On my empty stomach, the alcohol goes directly to my head, making me woozy, sad, and sleepy. We wear cheerful, matching pale green silk pajamas I picked up for us on Rodeo Drive yesterday, in color close to that of my eyes. I watch him closely. His beauty is so great it makes me ache. His tanned skin, dark mess of hair, and inspired, almost madmanlike light brown eyes seemed, when I first met him, warm like home was warm, and I felt instinct to protect him and please him all at once. He was one of those people who seemed to be boy and man at the same time, the kind of man who could get away with saying or doing the wrong thing because his smile, the dimples of it, the sincerity and beauty of it, made people forget his faults. He had smooth sort of skin, creamy-looking, without much body hair, the kind of skin you wanted to bite. I was hungry for Ricky as surely as I was hungry for food, and yet I never felt him connect with me, the way man and wife should be together. His mind always seemed elsewhere.
I don't know right now whether intensity in Ricky's eyes indicates anger or pleasure. In interviews, he is laid-back, the kind of guy youmight want to have over for barbecue. At home, he is different, his own toughest critic, obsessed with making himself better. His perfectionism amazes me. I myself have stumbled through life making every mistake you could make and never bothering to correct them.
In my eleven-year modeling career I have met many rich and famous people. But I have never known more focused human being than Ricky Biscayne. He smells of cigarettes and woodsy cologne. His smell reminds me of Slunj. Home. He is always trying to be better, at everything he does, from singing to cooking to making love. If I have one orgasm with him is not enough in his opinion. He will push me to go again, two, sometimes three times, even when I insist I am satisfied and ready to go to sleep. He doesn't do this to please me. He does it because Ricky is always performing. Proving something to someone, to God. I wonder when, exactly, Ricky will be good enough to make Ricky happy. He makes me feel awe.
I look from screen to his real face, trying to register what he might be thinking or feeling. We have only been married one year, since meeting at fashion show in Paris where I was model and he was musical guest. I still have a difficult time reading him. He does not exactly keep secrets from me, but he seems to keep storms of self-doubt from me, bottled-up anxiety and rage I do not understand. If I had his kinds of gifts, I would be happy all the time.
"Is so good your wonderful performing," I say, aware of my lingering Serbian accent. I overemphasized the "so." I don't think I'll ever be able to pronounce "Thursday," which comes out of my mouth "tours-day."
Ricky doesn't answer me. Rather, he pushes my hand away, leans forward, elbows on his knees, and studies himself. He sniffs and scratches at his reddened nose with back of his hand. Is he sick? The stress is getting to him. He seems sick all the time, sniffling sniffling sniffling. I reach out and begin to massage his shoulders, planting small kisses on the back of his neck. He shrugs me off of him, and concentrates on the screen.
Quickly, Ricky is up, sprinting across the room to the desk, wherehe sits and uses his laptop to log on to check his ranking again. He is obsessed with this number. Since the segment began, he tells me, it has dropped by 480,000. Nearly half a million spots in two minutes? Amazing.
"Padrísimo," he says, finally breaking a small smile, using the Spanish slang he uses when he's either very happy or very angry. His moods change as quickly as weather in Miami, cloudy and foreboding one moment, sunny and sharp the next. Success makes him crazy with happiness, but only for a while. He runs back to the sofa, takes powerful leap over the back of it, right into my lap, with rippling, masculine grace.
Ricky is skilled, wonderful dancer; in fact, that is a big part of his success as singer. His stage shows are exactly that, shows--choreographed, exciting, with Ricky at the center, shimmying and strutting. He was a track and soccer star when he was younger, in high school, and his mother, Alma, still has his old bedroom filled with trophies. Ricky works out like an athlete, even if he enjoys an occasional cigarette. His abs are hard, and at this moment they aren't the only part.
"I love you, Jasminka," he says, his eyes locked on mine.
We embrace, and kiss. Ricky scoops me off sofa and begins to carry me toward bedroom, singing.
"Hey," I say. "What you are doing me, huh?"
"Let's make a baby," he says.
I have been asking for children since we married, but Ricky has always asked me to wait until his career was better, because, he said, he wanted to be hands-on father, unlike his own absentee dad. Besides which, he said it would be mistake for someone in his position to have children too young, because his career thrived on his appearance of youth, and young men weren't supposed to have children, especially not if they wanted their female fans to maintain the illusion that they might someday be his lovers. I'd wondered, silently of course, how he could keep that illusion if he were married, but I never asked.
"You are serious? You are ready?" I ask him, tears of joy forming in my eyes as he lowers me gently onto the bed.
He looks deeply into my eyes, and answers simply. "Yes. Are you ready to give up modeling for a while?"
I answer my husband with kiss. I am ready to give up modeling forever. I am ready to come back to life. Happiness tickles my body like sunlight on cold skin. I close my eyes and thank God for finally making Ricky happy.
friday, march 22
Well, hello there. Welcome to the job from hell. I'm Milan Gotay. I'll be your escort. If you feel happy, uplifted, or optimistic, come over here to my workplace for a while. We'll fix you right up. We'll make you dread your next breath. We'll make you call Dr. Kevorkian. It doesn't help that I'm dressed like a bag lady in yet another ankle-length, baggy linen dress suit from Ross, beige, complete with huge round plastic buttons, the kind that shatter in the washer like SweeTarts on molars. I know better. I really do. But I can't bring myself to spend real money on clothes for this job. I mean, no one sees me. Other than my uncle, who is my employer. What's the point?
I should mention here that I'm dressed extra-baggy because I am scheduled to leave tomorrow morning on a weekend cruise with my mother and sister and I therefore want to hide today. For this same reason, I have a greasy white paper bag full of guava and cheese pastelitos on my desk, and a massive iced coffee. Yummy junk makes the day go faster.
The cruise is my mother's great idea to get me and Geneva to trust each other again. It's actually called a Rebuilding Trust Cruise, and it's some genius new-age guru's scam to get a bunch of sad, angry people to pay money to do things like fall backward into each other's arms.Me? I think it's a really, really bad plan. I mean, get a bunch of people who hate each other to go out on the high seas for two days and one night of bonding? Hello? What is this guru chick smoking? I wonder if they do a complete head count. I bet the cruise comes back missing one or two people every time. I'm going to do my best not to push Geneva overboard, but I make no promises. Not only has she taken my boyfriends with alarming regularity, but she continues to make wardrobe suggestions in the form of her leftover accessories, which she leaves for me in slightly wrinkled white paper Neiman Marcus bags. I hate her, almost as much as I hate this job.
I stare at the grim gray wall of my cubicle and contemplate quitting--for the seventy-sixth time today. I kick off the tight gray Payless pumps under my desk and rub my feet together in their runny hose. It makes a scratchy noise inside my legs. Yuck.
"No, I know Miami Style magazine doesn't usually run stories on regularity aids," I say, as sweetly as possible, into the phone.
"You mean laxatives?" asks the reporter on the other end.
"We say 'regularity aids.'"
The reporter chuckles. I hate when they do that. I look around, find solace in the new photo of Ricky Biscayne I found in People magazine, which, to my great joy, just named him a "sexiest man alive." No argument there. If only to fall into his eyes instead of being ... here.
"Regularity aids," repeats the reporter, laughing. "Oh, shit. Er, no pun intended."
I search the photo and notice that same redheaded musician in the background, staring right into the camera. Again I feel that weird pang in my heart. Like I've met him, or know him, something very eerie about him. He reminds me of a ghost for some reason, but a cute ghost--cute and mysterious. When I was little I used to think I saw ghosts. Maybe one of them looked like this guy.
I look up at the round white clock on the wall in the hallway. It is the same plain kind of clock they used to have in my grade-school classrooms, with big black numbers, and it moves just as slowly. Two? How could it only be two? I glance down at the coffee-stained scripton my metal desk. I mean, do I really need a script for this? Shouldn't it go more like: Hello, I'm Milan and I'm here to try to sell you on the dumbest thing you've ever heard of? Whatever happened to honesty in business? Oh, wait. This is Miami. We never had that.
I'm bored. By my life. It's a fine life. I know that. But it is damn boring.
Just three more hours. Then I can go home and get ready for the book club, where tonight we will be analyzing the Kyra Davis novel Sex, Murder and a Double Latte. I love my book club. I love this book. Okay, muscle through it, Milan. Do it.
I read the script out loud, as required by my uncle, "Because, you see, E-Z Go is more than just a regularity aid. It's a lifestyle. From celebs to the pres, everyone has to go. And if you gotta go, why not E-Z Go?"
I don't mean to sound like a freakin' droid, but come on. The script is awful. But my boss and uncle, Tío Jesús, wrote it himself. Have I mentioned he has the writing ability of a fifth-grader? He thinks he's a good writer, though. He also thinks no one can tell that the hair on his forehead actually originates on the back of his head and is combed forward like a dead thing squished on the road. I have to read this script this exact way, every day. I'm also supposed to be pitching Tío's crapper drug for pregnant women, but I'm not all that sure it's, like, safe for fetuses. I don't want that kind of responsibility.
As usual, I'm met with eerie silence, ghost-town, tumbleweed-blowing silence. There's nothing to ease the pain but the sickly motorized buzz of the window-unit air conditioner. Tío is too cheap for central air. Cheap bastard. Did the reporter hang up on me? It wouldn't have been the first time, certainly. My heart sinks. "Hello?" I call into the phone, as if yelling to the bottom of a well. "Hello?"
Finally, the reporter speaks. "Uh, is this, like, a joke? Did my boyfriend tell you to call?"
"No," I say. Well, actually, my career is a joke. But that is obvious. At least it is obvious to everyone but my parents, who still, like, pretend to be proud that their little Milan is helping Tío Jesús with his shit business.
"Sorry. I thought it might be a joke."
"That's okay," I say. I am a joke.
I have to think of something, quick. I have to land a story, or I'm in trouble. I haven't landed a story in weeks. I flip through the People magazine in front of me, and stop on a golden, glowing photo of Jill Sanchez, the beautiful Puerto Rican movie star and singer, posing on a red carpet for the release of her latest line of exercise wear, her head turned sharply over her shoulder so that her rear end and big white smile are both aimed directly at the photographer. I feel a rush of small joy that a woman of ample tush might be a star in America. But as instantly as I feel pleasure at this thought, I feel sick that this woman looks as flexible and heartless as a panther. Jill has no back fat, just a lean little crease where the ribs begin. Like millions of other people, I hate Jill Sanchez because I'm not Jill Sanchez and will never be Jill Sanchez.
"Uh, we might get Jill Sanchez as a spokesperson," I blurt, like an idiot. Oops! It was a complete lie, of course. From what little I know of her, Jill eats plenty of fiber and so would likely be quite regular all on her own. I feel guilty and weird for even picturing Jill Sanchez pooping, and silently ask La Caridad to forgive me.
The reporter laughs even louder. "You picked the actress with the biggest ass in Hollywood? Oh, my God. Jill Sanchez, queen of the crapper. That's hilarious, dog." Reporters should not call publicists "dog." There's something very wrong with that.
Laughter. Click. Dead space. Dial tone. Sinking feeling I might have just landed my beloved uncle a massive lawsuit. I place the black plastic receiver back in the cradle, tug at a strand of my flat, unstyled light brown hair, drop my head onto the stink-ass desk, and begin to cry. Because Cosmopolitan says you're never supposed to let anyone see you cry at work, I stop. I live my life by magazines, just so you know. It's retarded, but I can't help it. I have no other barometer of what normal life is supposed to look like for normal American women. My favorite is InStyle, probably because I am utterly Out of Style. I look at the clock again. It is still two. What the hell? How is it possible thattime moves backward here? I, of all people, work in the Twilight Zone. How nice.
I hear Tío clear his throat in the next cubicle. Then, there he is. Uncle Jesús, or rather, Uncle Jesús's balding brown head, rising above the partition, followed by his thick round eyeglasses. He looks like a nearsighted thumb. I can almost hear the scary music playing, like the monster is coming. He was listening to me, of course. That's what he does. Eavesdrops on me all day long, and because I am family, he has no problem instantly critiquing my performances. Other employees get twice-yearly performance evaluations. Me? Twice an hour, if I'm lucky.
"I know," I say. I can't look up at that combover. I'll cry again. Anyway, I know what he's going to say. I put my hands over my ears but hear him anyway.
"You weren't aggressive enough," he says, in Spanish.
"I know."
"You can't lie to reporters. It's not smart."
"I know."
"Why did you do that? Are you stupid?" He taps me on the back of the head with a piece of paper. I should file for abuse.
"I don't know," I say. Thinking, Yes, for taking this job.
"You better call back and tell them you lied."
"I know."
"If you don't make quota, we'll, uh, have to talk," he says.
"I know."
"I mean talk."
"I know."
"I don't want to have to fire you. My own niece."
"I know." Wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, now would it?
Tío coughs. "My favorite niece."
"I know," I say, but I know he's lying.
Tío Jesús, like everyone else on planet Earth, prefers Geneva.

I can't believe I, Geneva Gotay, a woman who prides herself on being alternative and cutting edge, am sitting outside on the patio at Larios in South Beach like a SoBe tourist. Belle is here, too, peeking up out of her little black carrier, and she's no more impressed with the place than I am. But this is where Ricky wanted to meet, so here I am, waiting for the sexy singer and his new manager, Ron DiMeola. If he'd said, Geneva, you pick the spot, I would never in a million years have chosen this. Too commercial. Too predictable. If it had been up to me, and if we'd had to stick to South Beach, I would have suggested China Grill, or Pao. Something elegant and cool. I love Asian food, and around here, you know, there's nothing exotic or particularly interesting about Cuban food--or Gloria Estefan, for that matter. Ricky picked Gloria's beachfront restaurant. You can take the neck chains off the boy, but ...
It has been a little more than a month since I saw Ricky on The Tonight Show. I can hardly believe how quickly everything has come together in setting up this meeting and getting him interested in my club. I shouldn't say that. I'm not surprised. I know how to get things done. I'm just excited. People always ask me how I "do it," meaning how successful I am at business, at nearly everything I try. The answer is simple. No fear. If I fail, I try again. And if I fail, I do it again. That's all. Again and again. There are two things I don't believe in: luck and failure. Setbacks only make me work harder. That, by the way, is also a Cuban thing. A recent piece in the Herald talked about how the Cubans who came to Miami twenty years ago in the Mariel Boatlift, penniless at the time, are now almost all middle class, making more money and finding more success in just one generation than did most Floridians who were native to the area. So, it goes without saying that I had no fear in calling Ricky directly and asking. And here I am.
I'm wearing MaxMara, my favorite brand of the moment, a flirty ruffled miniskirt made of distressed pale cream and mustard floral silk, a tailored linen jacket with a Chinese collar, and strappy brown Giuseppe Zanotti sandals with a scorpion buckle. I've stacked each of my wrists in cream and kumquat chunky bangles, and my eyes arehidden behind a sexy pair of Salvatore Ferragamo sunglasses with creamy white rims that I picked up just this morning at the Bal Harbour shops. You might say I have a shopping fetish.
My long black hair is flat-ironed into obedience. I wrapped a black and cream silk patterned scarf around my head this morning, like a gypsy headdress. I'm thinking this is my new look. The turban. I'm planning an exotic, mystical atmosphere for Club G, and figure I ought to live its essence every moment, embody the product I am selling, become one with my vision. My makeup is done in peach and gold tones that seem at once natural and luxurious, and slightly Eastern. Feeling, overall, pretty damn fabulous.
I've already chatted with the Colombian valet, the Uruguayan hostess, and the Chilean busboy, because you never knew who you might need. The busboy? Pobrecito. He asked me if I was a novela star. Said he recognized me from somewhere. This happens. Very sweet.
The waiter brings me the glass of mineral water I ordered for me, and the bowl of bottled water for Belle. I thank him in Spanish. Never assume anyone in this town speaks English. Always assume they speak Spanish. I compliment his hands and leave him blushing. That's what I do. Position myself on top, the one making judgments, the one in charge, but in a roundabout way that makes others feel self-consciously happy. There is so much power in this method. Trust me. If you can get people to fall in love with you, you can accomplish anything.
I look around at the city I grew up in and realize how much different it looks after being in Boston for a few years. Sometimes, you have to leave a place to understand it. I now realize that Miami wasn't a big deal until all the Cubans moved here in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Before us, it was a mosquito town. At the start of the twentieth century, there were only about a thousand people living in Miami. In the '60s, more than six hundred thousand Cuban exiles came here, fleeing communism. Hurricanes destroyed this city over and over, and nobody but us, apparently, had the tenacity, or stupidity, or mob connections, or all of the above, to keep rebuilding this place. Most of useither already had money or we had the education and desire to make money.
Now, Miami is the largest Hispanic-majority city in the United States; as a group, Cuban-Americans have done better than pretty much any other immigrant group in the nation, which is amazing. Cuban-American women, as a subgroup, have higher levels of edua-tion and income than any other women in the United States. No, I didn't say any other Hispanic women; I said any other women. We succeed at higher rates than all other women here. I attribute our success to our tendency to never give up and to fight with anyone and anything that gets in our way. We Cubans are a nation of pugilists, and we've turned Miami into a city of pugilists. Don't believe me? Go to any Cuban restaurant and stand near the outdoor coffee window, with all the men in guayaberas, and just listen to them. Fight, fight, fight. That's what Cubans do best. Fight, and eat.
I'm not trying to insult my own people here. It's just that, as the Elián González and the Posada Carriles debacles showed, a tolerant bunch we are not. Once you leave Miami, you understand just how crazy we look to everyone else. We look like Nazis con sabor. That's what we look like. Don't let me get into this discussion with my father, though. Oh, man. It all ends there. He, like many of my countrymen, tolerates dissent and free speech as well as he might tolerate arsenic. There's a reason the highest suicide rates in the Americas are among Cuban women in Cuba, and Cuban-American males in the United States. Men lord it over women in Cuba, and once we women get here and get a taste of freedom, we love it. The men hate us for it in Miami, trust me.
I check my watch. I walked here from my condo, but I'm ten minutes early. I hadn't meant to walk that fast. What to do? The worst thing is to do nothing, to sit and be stared at like a zoo animal. Especially here. I hope I don't see anyone I know. I hate zoos, the whole animal sense of having nothing to do but wait to be fed, ogled, or die. That awful feeling of never-ending, dependent pause. I never go to movies alone, either.
Blissfully, my cell phone rings. I look at the caller ID. Ignacio, the black Cuban ballet dancer I've been dating--one of the Marielitos I told you about who's done well here. I answer the phone and speak sweetly to him. I really do feel a certain excitement when he calls, even though I never intended this to be a relationship; I intended it to be occasional sex. I've had a few black sex partners; I have a thing for black guys, especially if they wear baseball caps backward and "wife beater" tank tops. But Ignacio is different. He's very well educated, talented, funny, and smart, and I fear I'm starting to really like him.
He asks me to attend a book reading with him later tonight. Uh-oh. We've, you know, never been on a real, official date before. I'm also not the poetry-reading type. Why would a person sit and listen to a poem if you could read it? And another question: Do you go on a date with your sex toy? Would that ruin everything? Would we have anything to talk about for that long? Would I see someone I know?
He rattles off the details--it's an exile poet he knew back in Cuba. Safe. No one in my crowd would attend something like that. I say yes. I don't want to be out too late tonight, since I have to get up early and go on the Trust Cruise my mom bought for me and Milan. Mom seems to think my sister and I have deep-seated issues, that we don't trust each other. The sad truth is that Milan is so dull it is impossible to have issues with her; I don't think about Milan often enough or with enough energy to make it worthwhile to trust or not trust her. She's a big blank in my life. We don't have much in common, we don't have much to talk about, and I leave it at that. I do not mistrust my sister. To mistrust someone, you have to actually care deeply about what they think.
I rummage through my Luella Carmen "biker bag" and remove my Shiseido lip base, liner, color, and gloss, and apply them in the four steps. Afterward, I wish I had a newspaper to read, or my BlackBerry to check e-mail; I left the latter in the car. I take a pen from the bag and start writing key words I want people to associate with Club G on the drinks menu, which I've removed from its holder. Nothing helpsyou focus more than writing things down. I write everything down. All the time.
Theme and vibe. Colorful. Rich. Eastern influences. Gold, red, orange. The colors of the sun on your eyelids. Cardamom. Green mango. Bedouin tents. Draping silk. Sahara. Soft floors. Oasis. Belly-dance. Koi. Nutmeg. Musk. Huge red pillows. Tiny round mirrors. Tassels. Secluded tentlike corners for making out. Folds of cloth on every surface. Womblike. Warm. Tropical but not in a Miami sense. Tropical in a sweepingly dry Moroccan sense. Throbbing. Sexual. Female staff dressed in see-through harem garb. Lots of abs. G-strings. Male staff shirtless with harem pants. Genies. Magical. The colors of curry. Soft, sexy lighting. Sex. Money. Harem. Sex, everywhere. Nude portraits. Graphic yet tasteful sex photos, hard to tell what they are unless looking very hard or very drunk. Sex. Money. Oil. Power. Sin. Pleasure. Genghis Khan. Pleasure dome. Power did decree.
I look up and see Ricky Biscayne pull up to the curb in a black BMW 5 series. I have a white one. We have matching cars. That's kind of cool, anyway. At least he has good taste in vehicles.
He is alone. I fold the menu and stash it in my handbag with the pen. He gets out, hands the keys to the valet, and I see his faded jeans with the big patch on the knee, yellow silk guayabera, and dress shoes. He looks good, but sort of clothing-clueless. I call out to him and wave. He smiles and joins me at the table, as most of the diners stare in awe. They all seem to recognize him, which is exactly as I hoped it would be. Why bother to get a nobody to invest in your club? You need star power if you want to get anywhere in the club business in this town. That, and a theme that sets you apart.
"Hi, Ricky. I'm Geneva Gotay. It's really great to meet you."
I stand up and hold my hand out to shake his, but he pulls me in for a strong embrace, kissing me on both cheeks, the Miami way. Hesmells of lettuce and tobacco, and his skin feels cool and slightly clammy.
"¡Coño! You're prettier than I expected, morenita," he says, flirting. Even Ricky recognizes that I look black. But my own parents? Forget it. They think we're white. In Boston, everyone assumed I was black. He glances down at Belle, who pants up at him. "Cute dog," he says.
"Thanks," I say.
He sits across from me at the square, beige granite table and takes off his sunglasses. I am still turned on from imagining what Club G would mean to amorous drunk people, so I instantly want to jump him, lame jeans and all. He'd probably be an incredible sex toy. You can just tell which guys get it and which guys don't. His eyes are his best feature, almost amber yellow, with green and brown flecks, intelligent and angry as hell. I hadn't realized the anger bit when I saw him on television. On TV, the anger comes across as lust. There's a fine line between the two, really, if you think about it. He's got that proverbial bad-boy thing. He's dangerous, that's what he is. Danger, of the nature that women crave like chocolate.
"Yeah, girl," he says, in a joking manner, doing his hands like a gang member. I would like to say it's unnatural, but it's not. He's steeped in it. "Harvard Business School. I just think something different when I think that. You don't look Harvard. Dang, girl. Hey." He sits up straighter, leans down to pet Belle, winning points with me. "Is it true your mom is Violeta, with the radio show?"
"Cool! My moms loves that show. She listens to it every day." He fingers a crucifix around his neck.
"Really? That's funny."
"Your mom be talking about some crazy things," he says. "She's all puñeta y pinga y to' eso, man."
On second thought, maybe I wouldn't do him, even if he asked. I like my dangerous men to at the very least have safe grammar. I smilewith my nose, a snooty little prep-girl smile, to let him know that I'll humor him but don't find him all that charming. All those years at Ransom Everglades School made me a first-class snob, when I need to be. He gets it, and looks away, shifts in his seat.
"Nah, you know." He scans the crowd and tries not to look hurt. "You really do look better than I thought." He leans back in his seat, hands clasped behind his head, and licks his lips at me. "You got plans tonight?"
"Yes, thanks," I say. "Poetry reading."
His brows shoot up and he laughs. "Okay, girl, I'm scared of you now. Check you out." Why is he speaking Ebonics?
I decide to do the all-business approach. I look at my watch. "So, Ricky. Where's your manager? I thought he was coming, too?"
Ricky shrugs. "Ron? Nah. That mamabicho ain't coming. He got business in the Cayman Islands. I don't think I need him for this. I trust you."
Business in the Cayman Islands? That's not good, is it? Only dealers and money launderers have business in the Cayman Islands. "But you just met me," I say. "How can you trust me?"
"You got Harvard, you look awesome, you're a Miami homegirl." Ricky sniffles and rubs his nose with the back of his hand. He clears his throat and places a cool, clammy hand on top of mine. "So, beautiful, where do I sign up?"
"You're joking, right?" It can't be this easy.
"Not at all," he says.
Someone should counsel this man, I think. He could very well sign his life away to a pretty girl. Is he really this stupid? I'm stunned. Someone should save him from himself. But not me. Not now. I caught him, and I'm not letting go. I smile sweetly, and remove a contract and silver Tiffany pen from my briefcase.
I wonder if there's room for Ricky on the Trust Cruise.

Matthew Baker sits in the recording studio in his usual work clothes--black jeans and a faded Green Day T-shirt, with a warped and well-loved Marlins baseball cap to protect the prematurely bald spot on the top of his head. He is twenty-eight and has been losing his hair steadily for the past seven years.
For this and several other reasons, Matthew Baker is incapable of recognizing that many women find him mysteriously attractive. Most attractive about him are his smallish, dark brown eyes, which turn slightly downward at the outer edges, the heavy-hooded eyes of a thinker, affecting eyes that make women want to find out what's on his mind.
But Matthew knows none of this, even when told. In his heart, he knows only that he is pathetic. Every morning, he counts on finding a mess of short red hairs tangled in the shower drain, and every morning, as he wipes them up, flicks them from his fingertips, and flushes them, he feels a little less attractive to the entirety of womankind. Given that his hair had been bright red to begin with, he feels that the powers of the universe were particularly unkind to him when doling out the details in his "appearance" column. He doesn't see any godly reason why he should have to be balding, redheaded, freckled, chubby, and short. What, did God hate him? Five-foot-nine, unlikely. That, in a nutshell, is how Matthew Baker perceives himself: short, bald, and unlikely. Unlikely to ever get another date, now that he's been dumped, for the third time, by the same plain yet brilliant and passionate woman.
Matthew presses the button on the computer and the song he's been working on all day starts to play through the speakers. It is almost finished. It's a ballad about strolling in Milan, Italy, with a soulful woman, called "The Last Supper." He's been laying down the keyboards, the drums, and the background vocals for a single on the upcoming new Ricky Biscayne Spanish-language song. Bored, he's gone ahead and recorded the lead track as well. Ricky's Englishcrossover, which mostly features Matthew's singing, truth be told, is slammin', burning up the charts. Ricky wanted to do nothing but English from now on, but Matthew has persuaded him not to give up his original core Spanish audience, the ones who will, Matthew figures, still love him after America's love affair with the hot-new-Latin-sensation crap peters out. Didn't Ricky understand yet that the American media could not make room for a Latino star for more than a season or two? It doesn't matter how talented the star is. Latin seems to mean trendy and disposable to mainstream America. Every six or seven years, it seems like, the country announces the arrival of "Latino chic," only to let it die out again the following year, every new wave of it seeming to have been the first ever. Ridiculous.
Matthew closes his eyes and listens to the melody and lyrics, both of which he's written. As he focuses, a new harmony line comes to him. He writes it down, fighting the urge to go back into the studio and record it. Damn. The song sounds fucking great. Once he learns the song, Ricky will have another hit record. All those years of songwriting classes at Berklee College of Music are finally paying off for Matthew, as the craft gets easier, and more exciting. Sort of paying off, anyway. Ricky makes mad money these days, and Matthew knows he ought to be entitled, by virtue of creative input, to a big cut of it. But Ricky has him on a yearly salary. It isn't the best setup. But Matthew has not been raised to associate art and creativity with money. He has never really been in music for the money. People who look like Ricky might go into the business for money. But guys who look like Matthew are usually musicians because they love music, period. Matthew knows he's a dipshit about the money. He'll have a talk with Ricky one of these days, and see if there isn't something they can do, an arrangement they can come to, that would be a little more fair. Matthew's mother and father might not have taught him the importance of business sense and money, but they had taught him the value of karma and justice.
"Time to go," he says to himself, though even as he says it he realizes there is no reason to rush back to his apartment. There is no onewaiting for him, and nothing much for him to do once he gets home. But the principle of the thing makes him leave work. That's what people do, right? Normal people. Normal, twenty-something people. They leave work at the end of the day, even if they love their art so much they would gladly stay up all night working. They go home and have lives. Matthew has a home, or at least an apartment. The life thing, however, continues to elude him, particularly here in Miami, where he never has, and probably never will, fit in.
For years, growing up in San Francisco and elsewhere, Matthew had looked at the shiny men's dress shoes in department stores and wondered just who the hell wore the kinds with tassels or black-and-white cowhide. He'd wondered the same thing of belts. Now he knew. Men in Miami wear those things. He'd never met a bigger bunch of preppy pretty boys than the Latino dudes in this city, all of them walking around in a fog of Gucci cologne with the kind of jeans you could buy only in Europe. You wouldn't think any real men would wear something like yellow moccasins until you moved here, and he isn't just talking about sissy men, either. Macho men wear soft leather fancy shoes here, and they never seem to skip a day of shaving. The men in Miami seem to moisturize. He's never seen anything like it. A slob at heart and in appearance, Matthew despises Miami for its lack of hippies, hairy-pit women, and messy artistic-looking men. Men like him. This city, in the humble opinion of Matthew Baker, is too fucking slick, so slick it's greasy.
Matthew locks up the recording studio at Ricky Biscayne's house, waves good-bye to Jasminka, who lies mournfully by the pool like a dried-out piece of model jerky. In another time and place, she would have floored him with her beauty. But around here, she is common. The women who get your attention in Miami Beach are the fat ones, because they are rare. Beautiful women? Everywhere you look. This is why Matthew often feels like a starving man at a banquet, forbidden to eat. So many amazing women, and not a single one interested in him.
She raises a weak-looking bone of an arm and waves back, like something dragged from a concentration camp. She has all these redmarks on her arms. Matthew has asked Ricky about it and now knows that Jasminka cuts herself. What kind of crap is that? Matthew feels sorry for her, but even more than that he finds her creepy. She is impossibly skinny, like an alien. It is sick to be that skinny. And then the cutting. People have issues. He doesn't care how rich, famous, or pretty you are, you have shit you want to hide from other people and that is all there is to it. People are weird and complicated and, at the moment, he is sick of feeling sorry for them, especially Jasminka. Matthew wants to feed her all the time. Ricky never seems to notice how sad his wife is, or how needy, how chopped up. Ricky doesn't get it.
Matthew walks to the side yard to unchain his Trek bicycle from the trellis. He doesn't know where Ricky is, and he feels oddly liberated by Mr. Super Stud's absence. There was a time, almost ten years ago, after meeting as insecure students at Berklee, when he and Ricky had been dorm mates and, he thought, good friends, talking music until late in the night, hitting clubs, laughing over pizza and Celtics games. Back then, they joked about how ungodly, stupidly fucking pretty Ricky was, and how ridiculously, volcanically rich Matthew's "Barry White voice" seemed for his skin tone and size. Matthew thought Ricky looked like a soap-opera actor, and Ricky thought Matthew looked like a baby that might have been produced by a union between Ren and Stimpy. Both guys could sing in those days. Matthew thought Ricky sounded like Luis Miguel or something. Ricky thought Matthew sounded like Bono, which he probably did back then, having been very into Bono at the time.
Back then, they had joked about how Ricky, the "Latino" from Miami, spoke worse Spanish than Matthew, the "gringo" from San Francisco. In truth, Matthew's hippie parents had been Baha'i missionaries in Panama and Bolivia for much of his childhood, and he'd grown up in weirdly scratchy homemade pants tied on with string, often shoeless, living between small towns in Latin America and the family's small bungalow house in a shady part of Oakland. And by shady he meant drive-bys, not trees.
Matthew begins to pedal home--a one-bedroom SoBe condo withfuton furniture, a dead houseplant, and not a whole lot else. Matthew can afford more. Ricky pays him about eighty thousand a year. Not bad in Miami. But the truth is, Matthew doesn't know how to decorate, or shop. Those things don't matter much to him. What he lacks in furniture, he makes up for in musical equipment. He has more than twenty guitars, many keyboards, computers, drums, all manner of instruments. His apartment looks like a pawnshop.
He thinks about Ricky as he rides. Ricky seems to be getting progressively less mature as time goes on, and these days he goes to a lot of beachy hotel parties without Matthew, seeming to prefer his shiny new crowd of lame-ass wannabe models and stars. What sucks even bigger-time is that Ricky seems like he can't sing as well now as he could five years ago. Like he got a throat disease or something. He coughs and hacks and sniffles, like he's got tuberculosis or a hairball. He seems like he can't focus to save his life. Matthew has a feeling that the decline in singing ability has to do with the increasing frequency with which Ricky indulges his curiosity about tobacco and cocaine, but he has no proof of the latter, other than the red nose. He knows better than to ask about it, because Ricky doesn't like to talk about weaknesses. No, he takes that back. Ricky likes to talk about other people's weakness, just not his own.
Just the other day, when Ricky was introducing Matthew to some of his new management-team members, he'd joked that Matthew was "the Baha'i Rick Astley," which stung like a motherfucker. Fuck Rick Astley. Okay? If you were a redheaded male singer, you did not want that comparison, okay? Matthew knows he himself isn't heartthrob material like Ricky, and he knows he'll never make any man-of-the-year lists, other than "most sunburned." But Matthew has musical talent, and a powerful singing voice that he uses more and more to bolster Ricky's weakening one. That deserves respect, as does the fact that most of Ricky's songs have been written or at least cowritten by Matthew, even if he rarely gets official credit because he is way too nice, because somehow his role was grandfathered in, from the days before success, and never updated.
Matthew whistles the latest melody he's come up with as he leaves for home, and congratulates himself for actually riding his bike to work today. He's put on a few pounds in the past couple of years. Lonely, he's substituted eating for company. He wants to lose weight, but he doesn't want to have to stop eating to do it.
He slips the round white plastic earpieces from his iPod into his ears and begins to pump his short, bowed legs. The ride from Ricky's house to Matthew's small apartment takes about ten minutes, and by the time he gets there he is exhausted. Not physically exhausted, but emotionally exhausted.
Matthew has once again made the mistake of spending the entire bike ride thinking about Eydis, the ghostly, somewhat plain Icelandic singer he fell for at Berklee. She has a voice that reminds him of the aurora borealis, just like he wrote in the song no one knew was his love letter to her. And a sense of humor that catches everyone off guard. She also speaks six languages and hopes to live one day in Milan, Italy. He's never met anyone as amazing as Eydis. She also happens to have a wonderfully full bottom, a butt like an upside-down valentine, and Matthew is a butt man. Anyway, he has her favorite playlist of dreary ECM artists programmed into his iPod, that's what exhausted his ass. Listening to Eydis's favorite songs. The sickeningly sweet memory of that horrible, wonderful woman.
They met in music history and dated for five years. She is taller than he is but told him his height didn't matter. She told him he had the most penetrating and intelligent gaze she'd ever seen. She was the only woman he'd ever known who thought he was better-looking than Ricky. She'd performed amazing, biteless oral sex, lodging a vibrator against her cheek as she sucked him, delivering a most unnerving and amazing sensation. They shared a passion for Thai food and Monty Python. He loved her, both the pure and the raunchy bits. He wanted to marry her. Then she dumped him for some hairy-assed, hairy-backed, hairy-eared Israeli drummer in the cruise-ship band she had taken up with. Dude looked like a really handsome Wookie. Eydis is stupid about men. She falls for them all.
This last dumping of Matthew happened about six months ago. Matthew was blindsided by it, but Ricky, during a late-night session involving two six-packs of Fat Tire, had sagely pointed out that it should not have come as a surprise, given that Eydis had cheated on and dumped Matthew Baker on exactly three previous occasions, always returning like a pigeon when the new relationship petered out, cooing for him to take her back. Matthew realizes he is Eydis's stocky security blanket, and part of him hopes she will one day outgrow her infidelities and finally settle down with him. Unlike Ricky, who claims to detest children, Matthew loves them. During his years with his parents in Bolivia and Panama, it was the children who were the most forgiving, the most hopeful. Children rocked.
For his love of children and Eydis, Ricky calls Matthew a pussy, and Matthew is not sure Ricky has it wrong on the Eydis portion. In fact, if Eydis were to show up at his door tonight, begging him to take her back again, he would. There's a chance. She's in town. He knows her schedule, and he knows her ship leaves tomorrow. If she were to trip up the stairs and beg, he'd take her back. That might just have been another list to which the unlikely Matthew could imagine himself topping--biggest dumb-ass pussy of the year. Sounds about right to him. He thinks for a moment about heading down to the docks to try to talk to her before her ship sets off again. He knows more or less what time she'd get there. He might casually bump into her, and casually beg her to come back to him. It could work.
The whole reason Matthew moved to Miami--aside from working with Ricky--was to be able to see Eydis on her days off, when her Carnival ship docked and she came ashore to love him. Six months since the latest dump, and he still hasn't gotten over it, or dated anyone. When you look like Matthew Baker, in Matthew Baker's opinion, you don't just go up to women and ask them out, because you risk nine times out of ten having them laugh at you in front of their friends. He figures he'll never date again, unless the thing with the hairy Israeli doesn't work out, of course, and then, there he'd be, pussy boy, begging.
Friday night in South Beach. Oh, man. It is going to be a crazy one, he can tell. His gay neighbors have told him that South Beach is only 10 percent gay these days, that all the hip gays have moved on to Belle Meade or Shorecrest. Still, Matthew feels like his neighborhood is full of gay guys because, having grown up mostly in South America, where no one talks about homosexuality, he still cannot get used to the feeling of men's eyes on him. The Saint Patrick's Day spring-break stupidity would be going on tonight, and there would be drunk tourists and other weirdos puking green beer all over, girls sucking Jell-O shots out of each other's navels, and the like. The only place he could imagine that would be crazier than South Beach was Rio. Maybe Gomorrah, Sodom, one of those. He'd have to get upstairs and hole himself in.
Matthew observes the crowd of cars already clogging the street, feels depressed. There are beer-faced frat boys, fat tourists in pastel shirts, models, golden girls with Ann Richards hair, rowdy groups of big-nose girls from Brazil and Japan who look pretty from only the chin down, drag queens, and insecure middle-aged men who drive penis cars and rev the engines at intersections. He really doesn't fit in in Miami, but even less so around here. Somewhere, there must be a place where he'd actually fit in. The closest he's come is San Francisco, the thought of which makes him even gloomier. You can't make a living as a pop musician in San Francisco. You just can't. The city is too damn laid-back for hard-hitting pop music of the kind that Matthew likes to make.
Speaking of which, a car drives past now, blasting Ricky's English hit song. It is surreal. The male driver sings along, and looks at Matthew like he's scum, like the driver is much cooler than Matthew for listening to a hip Latin singer, and the driver has no clue that Matthew not only wrote the song but is the main voice on the recording, too. Life is too weird sometimes.
All his life, ever since he was a little boy listening to crackly radios in homes and shops in Latin America, ever since he got his first guitar when he was four years old, Matthew has written songs. It came naturallyto him, so naturally that he never really considered it a talent. Talent seemed like something that had to be at least a little bit challenging. Music was fun, and easy. By the time he was ten, Matthew was a master guitarist, and he'd composed more than a hundred songs. That's just the way he is and has always been. When he was about twelve, he decided that he wanted to grow up to hear one of his songs on the radio. Now, with four years of working with (for?) Ricky Biscayne, Matthew has heard exactly eleven of his songs on the radio in Miami. It is fucking amazing, as Ricky would say. But this one, the English-crossover tune, his song for Eydis, is the first one that has hit hard in the mainstream market, and since The Tonight Show performance it has steadily climbed the charts and seems to be headed where none of Matthew's work has gone before: The Billboard Hot 100.
Matthew is so happy, he even waves at the guys in frayed Daisy Dukes who whistle at him across the street. They know it bugs the crap out of him when they do that--the shorts and the harassment. They have told him they wanted to "queer eye" him, meaning make him over. Shudder. Women. He likes women, thank you very much. Every size of woman, every color. He loves them all. Even the pregnant ones are sexy and sensual to Matthew, who thinks women rule the universe with life-giving powers.
The only women he sees regularly are Ricky's wife and her model friends, them and the various skeezer bitches who work for Ricky and blow him whenever he asks; but they are not appealing, quite the opposite. He does not, under any circumstances, want his dick in a mouth that once held Ricky's dick. He of all people knows the countless orifices into which Ricky has dipped himself. No thanks. Also unappealing are Ricky's assorted groupies, who actually offer with some regularity to do Matthew if he'll introduce them to Ricky. The thought is as appealing to Matthew Baker as electrodes to the nuts.
In desperation, Matthew signed up for an online dating service a month ago, but has yet to actually ask anyone out. The women on there scare him, with those weirdly fishbowl-looking gray photos it looks like they took of themselves next to their computers with digitalcameras. They must be very lonely to have to take their own photos like that, with the extended arm showing and the nose too big because of the weird angle. So far, he's heard from only one woman, whose profile talks mostly about her childhood sexual abuse and trust issues. He did not take her up on an offer to get togther at a tattoo parlor. They have to be as desperate as he is, and that isn't good.
Matthew climbs the three flights of stairs to his apartment, wades through the shrapnel of his life, chords and keyboards, guitars and take-out trash, and opens the freezer. Ice cream. Chunky Monkey. A DiGiorno pizza. In the fridge, he finds a couple of Sam Adams bottles. Those, and a couple of hours of channel surfing, and he'll be all set. Yup, all set. The way Matthew sees it, going out is expensive and pointless, and he's earned the calories and mindless television.

Bulls tapdance on my cranium. The headache has as a backdrop a sore lower back and an aching belly, all foretelling the arrival of yet another glorious period in the barren land of Milan. I would like to take the Pill, like Geneva, but I wouldn't want my dad to find the pills and flip out on me. He thinks I'm a virgin, and for some stupid reason this is very important to him.
As the decrepit ice maker in the office kitchen down the hall plops out its latest frigid offerings with a harsh thunk thunk thunk, I gather my belongings, consisting of a purse and a purple vinyl lunch bag probably intended for children. I rush past the sound of Tío Jesús bellowing into the phone to one of his suppliers, and hurry out the door of the glorified trailer that is the E-Z Go offices, into the muggy gray light of Overtown, by many estimates the most miserable and cock-roached neighborhood in Miami. I instantly hear sirens, emergency vehicles rushing somewhere in crisis. Welcome to Overtown.
My breasts bounce a little as I trot to my car, tender and lifeless with the PMS stupidity. I need to shorten the straps on my bra. I'm too lazy to remember to do that. I can feel myself bloating, swelling up like Harry Potter's evil aunt in that movie. I need an elastic waistband.And more pastries. Oh, and coffee. Mmm, coffee. A good book wouldn't hurt. Thank God it's Friday--book-club night with Las Loquitas del Libro! I can't wait to see the girls and listen to them laugh as their spoons click comfortingly against the porcelain of their coffee cups. Best sounds in the world.
I hear something rustle in the bushes, probably something delightfully Overtown, like a rat snacking on a pigeon carcass. Miami is wonderful, yes, if you are in the right places. In the wrong places, it is disgusting, with things that never rot in trash cans, things that just mold and puff up and ooze--kind of like me at the moment, come to think of it. I feel disgusting. I need a shower. I push aside the food wrappers and old mail in the driver's seat of my Neon, and dump my tired body into it. I engage the door locks and the air-conditioning, which somehow comes out smelling like dirty feet and tuna fish (time to change the filter?). I drive as quickly as possible through the neighborhood and onto the freeway. There are always stories in the Herald about carjackings and rapes, and, you know, I don't really want to be that kind of story. Or any kind of story, unless it involves marrying, or at the very least screwing, Ricky Biscayne. Which I'd do, in a second. Even if he's married. If Ricky Biscayne had a harem, I'd happily join it.
Once I'm zipping along--or as close to zipping as one can get in a Dodge Neon--I turn the dial to my mother's AM radio talk show, El Show de Violeta. It started as a local show, initially aimed at the Cuban-exile community, women in particular, but now, as Miami's Hispanic demographics have grown more diverse, Mom's show is aimed at Spanish-speaking women in general. Violeta has been doing the daily show for twenty years, and has never been paid for it, which Geneva and I agree is just plain wrong. Bear in mind that Geneva and I rarely agree on anything, and I am telling you right now that the Trust Cruise tomorrow is not going to change a single thing. I will never, repeat never, trust my sister. But we don't tell Mom anything. She's the one who likes giving advice, much of it hypocritical, particularly the stuff about fidelity and marriage, two subjects neither of my parents seems to know anything about.
"Hoooollllaaaaa, Miami," cries my mother in her trademark greeting, through the crackling speakers I long ago blew with loud Ricky. Jesus God! She sounds like a macaw. She belongs at Parrot Jungle, pecking seeds out of children's hands. She continues in Spanish, "Happy Friday! Welcome to The Violeta Show! Today we have sexologist Miriam Delgado joining us from Mercy Hospital, to talk about an issue that affects many marriages, but which many in our community don't feel comfortable talking about. I'm talking about the clitoris."
I search the car for something to throw up in. The clitoris? Really? My mom's going to spend the next hour talking about that? You don't even like to think your mom has one, let alone listen to her talk about it for a whole damn hour. God. It's a good thing my dad doesn't ever listen to the show. He thinks it's silly, figures she talks about cooking and cleaning, and I don't think he's heard a single one in ten years. I don't know how he'd handle this topic. He's a bit machista. I doubt he knows what the clitoris is, much less where. Eew? Can I please not be having these thoughts? Is this not a form of child abuse?
Mom pauses for emphasis, and I can almost see her serious frown. Then, dramatic as someone doing a dying scene in a Shakespeare play, Mom drops her voice and says, "Dr. Delgado, welcome to the show."
"Thank you, Violeta," says Dr. Delgado, without a hint of humor. She sounds really old, like an antique piano being pried open. "It's a real pleasure to be here with you today, talking about marriage and the female clitoris."
Ralph. No, seriously, I'm going to be sick. And traffic is hardly moving. Is there a male clitoris? Please tell me I didn't miss that chapter in the Kama Sutra.
Suddenly, my headache gets worse, and I feel something sticky and primordial splooge out of me. Great. Nothing like blood oozing into the stained seat of your Neon.
Have I mentioned I'd like a new life? Yeah. And a new car, too. A white Mercedes, to compete with Geneva's white Beemer.
My dream car.

My name is Jasminka, and I'm still alive.
The bloodlike, saline scent of ocean swirls around us, blowing in off beach a block away. Ricky holds my hand as we walk past paparazzi and gawking tourists toward door of Tides South Beach hotel. I wear bright blue cotton robe, with sandals, thong sandals. Ricky is dressed in jeans and trench coat, I don't know why. He looks like detective from bad movie. He acts like one, too.
I'm here for a photo shoot, for a spread on the top swimsuit models in Miami, to appear in Maxim, and Ricky said he had to come with me. I used to be able to go to shoots alone, but recently Ricky seems very possessive, afraid I might cheat on him. He talks about it all the time, as if I would do such thing. I have never considered the possibility. Besides which, I'm feeling sick today. Why would I be looking for men to cheat on my husband with? Poor Ricky. I wonder what's troubling him. I hope he's not projecting.
Some of the photographers shout his name, and mine. They snap photos of us. Ricky holds hand up in front of one of the cameras and tells man to leave us alone. I'm not the only model here today. There are ten of us. A nice, round number. And the media are out in swarms.
We enter hotel lobby and people turn to stare. I breathe in the cool vanilla scents of lobby as they whisper through it. It's a fashionable crowd, self-conscious as they tend to be at these hotels. I don't know why social life of Miami must revolve around hotels, especially for people who actually live here, but that's how it is. Hotels are more than just places to stay here. They are places to go to be seen. Ricky loves it, I can tell by way he carries himself, like one of those male pigeons that chases the female ones around, cocky and proud. It's so soothing here, cool and white.
Almost as soon as we enter, young woman with black cat-eye glasses and a flippy pink shoulder-length hairdo rushes over to us withwalkie-talkie in her hand. She wears all black. I assume she is publicist or assistant. This is their uniform, and they almost never laugh. I wonder, if you tickled her, would she even smile? She smells of men's cologne, of lime and salt, like a margarita.
"Jasminka," she says, very serious. I nod behind my large sunglasses and do my best to smile. I feel like I have hangover, except I haven't been drinking. I grab on to Ricky for balance. I'm hungry, but sick. The woman grumbles something I can't understand into her walkie-talkie, puts it on her ear to listen for a response. "They'll be right over to get you," she says. I realize now that she has British accent. I am getting better at telling different accents apart. Everybody speaking English used to sound the same to me. Maybe her perfume is English.
Ricky pulls me in and kisses me dramatically, as if he has something to prove to everyone here. "I love you," he says. I taste tobacco on his lips, the secret smoke he tries to keep from his fans. I see lights from flashbulbs popping off and realize there are lots of photographers here, too. I don't understand why they care so much about the lives of two strangers. We're not even very interesting if you think about it--at least I'm not.
Soon, two large men with shaved heads appear at my side. With them is short, thin man with unmistakably gay hand gestures, wearing leopard-print shirt that is far too tight and short. I don't like to see man's nipples through shirt. He introduces himself as fashion director for magazine, and after we all shake hands and they all tell me how fabulous I look, they whisk us off to bar. The shoot is going to take place here, in the 1220 Bar, the director tells me, though I assumed as much from army of technicians in the place. Lighting, hair, makeup, wardrobe, nails, you name it. Everyone has staked out their own little corner of bar and started to set up.
I see four of other models huddled at table, sipping iced tea or water. It smells of grilled steaks and balsamic vinegar in here, pepper too, and I think we must be close to a kitchen for one of restaurants. I wave and smile, but the thought of tea makes me faint.
"I need to sit down," I tell Ricky. He scans the room and settles onspot at the shiny, thick blue-glass bar. A spot far from everyone else. I wonder why he never seems to want to socialize with others when I'm around. An assistant rushes over and tells us not to dirty the glass because photos are going to be shot at the bar. Ricky nods, hostile. He doesn't like being out of his element. This is my element, and he doesn't like that I have advantage. He likes to be in control.
"I want this to be last one for a while," I say.
"The last what, baby?" he asks me.
"Yeah?" His eyes wander room, and he doesn't seem to be listening to me. I want to quit modeling, but I don't think this is right time to talk about it. I am sad he isn't listening, and sadder that he hasn't noticed I am ill.
"Ricky, get me some soda water please?" I ask him.
"Huh? Oh, sure."
He leaves me at counter and heads for the catering table. I still don't know why they cater these things. Surely the fruits and pastries aren't for models. They must be for the photographers and assistants and magazine people. Ricky returns with regular Coke. I feel sad again, and my forehead has small beads of sweat on it, even though I feel cold.
"I can't drink this," I tell him.
"Why not?" He's looking around room, at all the models who are stringing in. Right in front of me, he stares like fox with its tongue hanging out. Like I'm not here.
"I am trying to stop caffeine, I told you," I say. I think I might be pregnant, so I've stopped all things that might harm baby. I took home pregnancy test last night, and even though I'm not supposed to take it for another few days, it looked positive to me. The cross in the results window meant pregnant, and even though the two pink lines were pale, they were there. I'm sure. Ricky doesn't believe I'm pregnant because sometimes I have irregular periods from not eating enough, but I feel sick and think it's a sign. Ricky thinks I'm sick because I quit smoking and started eating broccoli and taking prenatal vitamins from the drugstore. "Plus, all that sugar. I can't."
Ricky rolls his eyes as if I've done something to annoy him, mutters "pendejo," and starts back toward catering table. I reach out to stop him. "No," I say, "it's okay. I'm fine. Don't worry about it."
As soon as last model arrives, and, no surprise, it's a Canadian girl, French Canadian, that everyone is raving about, a young girl with a drug problem who is notoriously late for everything and will likely burn out soon, the fashion director claps his hands to get our attention. He calls us "girls," and tells us that we're going to be at bar, in bikinis, holding but not sipping colorful drinks, that overall "effect" he wants is of "lifeless, frozen girls, you are sexy cadavers, girls, got that? You are rigor mortis on these cold metal seats with your legs spread and your breasts hanging out blue and cold, like you're waiting for the man of your dreams to come and warm you up and bring you back to life with his big, hot uhhhh." As he grunts last word, he thrusts his girlie hips forward and back, and I feel even sicker.
There's something very sick about this business, I think. Some of these girls aren't even eighteen yet, but that's how they talk to us all the time.
We models are corralled toward the wardrobe section of the room, and I suddenly wish Ricky would leave. He's only husband here, and all of us are about to strip and put on bathing suits. I don't really want him looking at all these other women naked and bending over. But he's sitting, in chair now, watching it all with a strange smile on his face. I remove my clothes, and my breasts feel very tender out of the bra, like they felt when they were first growing when I was eleven. I feel sort of sick, and a little bloated. I'm used to being naked in front of people, it's just part of the business, but the thought that I might be pregnant makes me feel very exposed, as if I want to hide away in cave.
The wardrobe director chooses white and orange Onda de Mar bikini for me, sporty and psychedelic. I love it, the way it hugs my breasts to chest, keeps them safe and snug, and want to keep it. The bottom is roomy, not thong, and I'm thankful for that. I am in no mood to be exposed too much right now. I can't. I hope they let mekeep bathing suit. I mean, after you wear bikini, you know. It gets personal.
I try not to look too much at the other girls as they bend and stuff themselves into their suits. There's so much competition. I have to remind myself all the time that I am as good as others, and that they are as good as me, that we are all equal. But it's hard not to look at their thighs to see if they're touching, or not to feel a little bit proud that someone else might have a dimple of cellulite in a place where I don't. I don't like being this way. I am not proud of what modeling has done to me. I size up other women all the time.
We head over to the hair station, and the stylists start to come up with their creations. I glance at Ricky and try to see through his pants with X-ray vision to see if anything has occurred that shouldn't have, from him looking at all these naked, beautiful women. He's staring at young black model who is bent over, mooning him. How can he do that to me? He shouldn't be here. I don't like that he's here. I am tired of it. Modeling, Ricky. The whole thing. I love him. But I'm just tired right now. I just want to sleep, alone, without anyone touching me.
In the end, my hair is braided on either side of my face, like Native American princess, and I am topped with big, white floppy hat, the kind that star Ricky used to date, Jill Sanchez, might wear. The stylist tells me he's going for modern Joni Mitchell look on me. I don't know who he's talking about.
I'm brought next to the makeup station, take a seat in the black canvas chair, and the artists open their large black suitcases full of colors and pigments. They start to pat, smear, and rub me. The dry scent of flesh-toned powder fills my nose. I am nothing more than a canvas for these people. They forget after a while that we are people. Or they never realized it in first place. I close my eyes and try to think of other things. I'm chilled. I listen to conversations happening all around me. The artists chat. So I told him there's no way I'm doing that again. Uh-uh. No way. What does he think I am? His own personal whore? And models talking to each other. Laxatives? Me too! I used to use themall the time, but it's sort of a problem once you're on a shoot, like, if you have to go right there? One time I had an accident, actually ... I try to think of other things, but death is foremost on my mind. The scent of makeup and metal. I imagine this is what funeral parlor smells like.
Soon enough, we're all ready to be placed on our seats. Somewhere, someone puts a CD on. Björk. Fitting. The shoot director hops here and there, adjusting us. There are plants on bar. He demands they be removed. No life, he says. No life anywhere here. Assistants bring fashionable martini and other glasses full of colorful liquid and set them along bar near us. I look at other girls and see that they, like I, have gray and black makeup. We are all made to look beautiful, but lifeless and bruised. Even our bodies have been smeared gray and blue. The director approaches me with his head tilted to one side. "Spread," he says, pushing my knees apart. He adjusts crotch of the suit to cover me just right. "Just like that. Good, perfect. Beautiful." I smile at him in thanks, and he scowls. "No," he says. He smells of sweat and semen. "No smiles. You are dead, girl, you hear me? Dead. No smiling."
His words stab me. Make me want to run away. I look at Ricky to see if he has heard and if he is as outraged as I am. He is busy staring at Canadian girl. I hate this, all of this. It's absurd, the whole thing. I don't want to be dead girl. I have seen dead girls. I wonder if this man, this fashion director, has ever, in his life, seen dead girl. I want to ask him. To slap him. I want to scream about all this. I want to curl in a nest and protect my baby. I know I'm pregnant. I feel so emotional right now. I can't cry. It will ruin my makeup. My dead-girl makeup. But I don't know what else to do.
I stare at cool, blue glass of the bar, and think of swimming pool at home. Our home. The only home I've had since my childhood disappeared. I love my home, the safety I feel there. I imagine I am there, in backyard, only place in the world that soothes me.
This is my last shoot, I tell myself. This is the last time I model. I have a name. I have a past. I am my mother's daughter.
And this is last time in my life I ever play a dead girl.

I've turned off my mother's show, and, blasting yet another Ricky Biscayne CD, I pull the now-bloody Neon into the half-circle driveway of my parents' house. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to walk into the house like this, a mess, but I will try to face everyone head on, and slink along the walls or something. I get out of the car and scoot past my grandfather, who is dozing on the porch in his chair. I open the front door to the comforting olive-oil smell of my grandmother's cooking. Another exciting Friday night with the old folks. Smells like vaca frita, which means "fried cow" in Spanish but is actually a delicious dish of shredded beef sautéed in tangy lime and garlic sauce. There will be white rice, and a side salad. Maybe some plantains. I'm starving. My stomach rumbles. It should be another hour until Violeta the clit-master gets home from the Hialeah radio station, and dinner will be served. I don't think I'll ask Mom about the show tonight. I don't really want to hear it.
After dinner, I'll head to Blockbuster to get a movie everyone might like; I'll make them popcorn and then try to disappear quietly to go to my book club--this time with a tampon firmly in place.
My dad, Eliseo, is home from work and still in his blue suit and red tie. He sits reading El Nuevo Herald in his plaid recliner in the living room, and notices my long face immediately. No, I think. Don't look at me. Don't see the blood on my dress. Please don't. There's nothing worse than your Cuban dad realizing that the person he wants to be forever a girl is actually a hairy, bloody, grown woman. It's very creepy. Look away! Look away!
"Sit," he declares. He takes off his reading glasses and sits forward, listening. "Talk."
"Papi, just give me a chance to use the bathroom, I'll be right back."
"Okay, but then you talk. I can tell something's bothering you."
I slip down the hall, watching for errant family members whomight invade my privacy. Whew! No one. I get to the bathroom and duck inside, locking the door behind me. I turn my back to the mirror and swivel my head in a poor imitation of the People magazine photo of Jill Sanchez, craning my neck to see how bad the damage is. A dark red spot, about the size and shape of a lime. Not as bad as I thought. But still not good. I take off my clothes and hop into the shower. I wash quickly, hop out, towel off, and stick a deodorant tampon where you stick them. I wrap myself in a towel, scurry to my room, put on a pair of old sweats and a large T-shirt, and return to the living room, my hair wrapped up in a towel.
Dad eyes me suspiciously. "A shower? What have you been up to?" Why must he always seem to be implying that every woman on earth, if not being watched hawkishly by a man somewhere, is a whore? Even me, who he thinks a virgin?
"Nothing, Papi. I'm tired. I needed the water to wake me up."
"Wake you up? In the evening?" Even more suspicious.
"Book club," I say. "Las Loquitas del Libro. Remember?"
"Oh, the knitting club," he says with a satisfied smile. Dismissive. Fine. He has no idea how racy the stuff we read is. God forbid he ever read Going Down, by Jennifer Belle--one of my all-time favorites. He'd have a heart attack. He thinks I get together with a bunch of spinsters to knit baby booties. I don't care. Let him think what he wants. He will anyway, no matter what the evidence to the contrary is. Dad is weird like that. He creates his own reality, often in direct contrast to the real world around him. To him, he is in charge. To us, he is to be tolerated.
The living room is separated from the rest of the hall and family room by elevation--up a step--and by a low wrought-iron fence. You actually have to go through a little gate to get to the living room. I grew up thinking it was normal to have a fence indoors. I enter the living room yard and sit on the sofa. Dad looks at me and sighs.
"Spit it out," he says. "What's going on."
"It's nothing."
I sigh and weigh my options. I hear the quick, dry flutter of the canaries fussing in their iron cage on the enclosed back porch, and I relate to them. Trapped. No matter what I tell him, he won't believe I have a problem. He believes my life is perfect, and does not endure complainers well. "I don't think I like my job all that much, Papi," I say, tears forming in my eyes. Geneva's right. I am a wimp. I didn't expect to react so strongly, but Cosmo said nothing about crying in front of your father, and, you know, period hormones and all. I guess it's okay.
He shrugs and purses his lips in that dad-sign-language meant to say, Why? What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you wasting my time with this?
"It's kind of degrading ... ."
My dad's face grows dark and serious. "Listen to me, Freckles," he says, using a nickname I loathe. "There is no such thing as a degrading job. Except stripping." He pauses, deep in thought. "And prostitute. And hired goon."
Hired goon? "You need to quit watching The Sopranos, Papi."
He keeps talking like I haven't said anything. "When we came to Miami, we had nothing," he begins. Here we go. The Speech. How many times have I heard it? So many I can recite it, along with him, but I won't because I don't like to see him get mad. "We started from zero. And we worked hard. Everybody has to start somewhere. It's a great service you're doing to your uncle. You should be proud."
"I know," I say. When all else fails, say "I know" or "I see" or "You're right." It's a good policy, and it works for me. For the record, Dad was only seven years old when he came to Miami, and his parents had quite a bit of money. He acts like he went straight to work in a factory or something. Like he was some pauper begging on the streets of Calcutta. Weirdo.
"What's not to like about your job?" he asks, shrugging all the way up to his big ears and leaving his shoulders hitched up there for theduration of his monologue. "You have a nice desk, air-conditioning, you get to make phone calls. You're not out cutting sugarcane."
"I know." Sugarcane? Is he out of his mind? Dad is always mentioning cutting sugarcane, I have no idea why. No one we know has ever cut sugarcane. The people in our family are much more likely to cut the cheese.
Speaking of cheese. Grandma walks in, toting her Bible. She clutches it all the time lately. She never used to be terribly into the Bible, preferring the Cuban method of putting glasses of water behind doors and whatnot, but now, as she gets older I guess, she needs to comfort herself with the book. "'Beware of false prophets,'" she rambles in Spanish, "'which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.'"
"That's nice, Grandma," I say.
"Book of Matthew," says Grandma, waving her Bible at me. "Matthew 7:16." She opens the book and reads, "'A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, and neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.'"
I consider responding, but Dad gives me a look meant to silence me. I spy the day's mail in two neat stacks on the ornate Spanish-style dark wood coffee table, one for them, one for me. Yay! The new InStyle has come. I don't want to stand here with a towel on my head, arguing with my dad about why it sucks to be a laxative publicist. If a person doesn't get that already, like, from the get-go, I don't see how I will convince him. I just want to go to my room. Be alone with InStyle. Dad negotiates with people all day long, about rugs being taken from here to there, whatever, and he's basically not able to stop negotiating when he gets home. I find him exhausting and turn to leave.
"You can quit when you get married," he says, trying to bait me back in. I stop and smile. When I get married? What is this, the fifties? I look at his eyes and see that he says this nonsense without really meaning it, almost as if it is the duty of a father to say such things. He looks at me looking at him, and I can see that he knows I know hedoesn't mean it. I wonder for a moment what he really thinks, but I don't have the patience or desire to ask.
"I know."
He points a finger at me, just so I know that he's, like, talking to me and not, I don't know, to the television. Ever helpful, my father. "Your problem is you want too much. You shouldn't need more than you find on the Miracle Mile. That street has everything a woman your age needs." Here he counts on his fingers. "Bridal shops, baby clothes, and cribs. That's what you should be worried about, or you should stop worrying." His eyes cringe, like he knows the modern world is going to slap him back one of these days. I don't have the heart to make that day today.
I say, "I know, Papi. Okay. Look. I have a headache. I'll be in my room."
I close the door behind me and flop onto the bed with the magazine. I prop up on my elbows and start to read. So many beautiful people, with such white teeth and pretty clothes. Sigh. And there, on page 97, is a feature story about Mr. Ricky Biscayne, his gorgeous Serbian model wife with the dark hair and wide-set green eyes, and their gorgeous mansion in Miami Beach. The article calls him "the quintessential family guy," noting that he is learning Serbian so that the children he plans to have someday will speak three languages. The article also says Ricky is a health fiend, drinking a broccoli-and-wheatgrass shake for breakfast every morning. His wife continues to model, and is to be featured in an upcoming issue of Maxim.
Life is so not fair.
I feel like crying again. Because I'm not Jasminka. Because I don't live in a mansion. Because no one would pay for a photo of me in a bikini. Because People magazine always calls Renée Zellweger the all-American Texan girl, even though her parents are immigrants just like mine, while continuing to portray "Hispanics" as spicy foreigners. Because I have to go on a Trust Cruise with my mother and sister tomorrow and I'm not even strong enough to refuse. My mom gets freebieslike this cruise all the time, in exchange for a promise to talk about it on the show.
Just as I'm about to dive into a vat of self-pity, my phone rings. Yes, it's a Hello Kitty phone. I know. It doesn't help my cause. The caller ID reads Club G. Great. My glamorous sister has already gotten a phone number for the club she plans to open. She is a consummate optimist, another reason I hate her. Why can't she just wallow and complain and suffer silently like me? I don't feel like talking to her. She's just going to tell me how great life is. Correction: She's going to tell me how great her life is.
I leave her to the answering machine.
Hello. It's me, Milan. Leave me a message, and have a great day!
"Hey, M. You know, you don't have to say, 'It's me, Milan.' That's redundant." F-you! F-you! "Okay, so it's G. Just had lunch with Ricky Biscayne, and thought you might want to hear about it."
Excuse me? Geneva knows I'm the secretary of the unofficial Ricky Biscayne online fan club. She knows I've lusted after Ricky for years. You know what she is, my sister? She's like those people who toss food scraps to poor children. She is evil. I raise my middle finger to Hello Kitty, and realize how bad that looks, but still, it's not the cat per se. It's my evil sister.
Geneva takes what sounds like a long sip of water, followed by a vulgar gulp, and says, "I've convinced him to invest in my new club, and I think you'd be just the girl to do PR for it. What do you think? It'd be a three-, maybe four-month contract, with a good shot at lots more work down the road. He's looking for a new publicist, too, full-time, too, so it could be a two-birds one-stone kinda thing. Gimme a call if you're ready to get out of the constipation business with Uncle Messiah. Ciaocito."
I lunge for the phone now. I am aware as I do it that I have the grace and ripple of a sea lion on rocks. The towel tumbles off my head and tangles over my face. I'm too late. Geneva has hung up, and Hello Kitty falls with a clatter to the white tile floor. Kitty's eye has popped out. I check to see if the phone still works. It does. And then, for thefirst time in I don't know how long, I voluntarily dial my evil sister's phone number.

Jill Sanchez stands in a tight, white vinyl cat suit behind the hot-pink podium, which is molded into the trademark hourglass shape of her body, and watches as two slack-jawed lackeys lift the mink-trimmed red velvet sheet off the oversized poster for her new perfume.
A collective "ahh" rises from the crowd of loser journalists and entertainment industry executives, all of them trying to find a comfortable spot on the pillows and mattresses scattered across the floor of the trendy Miami club BED. It was not cheap booking this club for three hours for a private party on a Friday evening, but Jill Sanchez isn't cheap. In fact, she has worked very hard to associate her name and image with the very opposite of cheap. Still, she hates the idea of spending that kind of money for a bunch of news reporters. The ugly price of fame. The club overcharged, in her opinion, because they knew Jill and the press would be cleared out by ten, in plenty of time for them to get a solid crowd going for the night. But what can you do?
Jill smiles down at them like a parade-float queen as they smile up at the poster, and she basks in her own possibilities once more. She grew up always hearing about what a great businesswoman Madonna was, blah blah blah, Madonna, Madonna, Madonna. But Madonna has nothing on her, Jill Sanchez. No one wants to smell like Madonna, do they? Madonna looks like she smells like syphilis. Just like no one wants to smell like that scrawny barbed-wire sculpture called Celine Dion, either. Or, who is that other one who has her own perfume? Reba McEntire or something. Is that country bumpkin completely insane? No one wants to smell like a redheaded elf. But everyone wants to smell like her, Jill Sanchez, who, in her own estimation, is the sexiest, cleanest woman alive. Even when movie executives called her box-office poison two years ago, her perfume line continued to outsell all others in the land--to everyone's surprise except her own. EvenBeyoncé's perfume couldn't compete; and neither, in Jill's opinion, could her booty.
"Ladies and gentlemen," says Jill, giggling for effect, though she does not, in fact, see herself as the giggling type. She deliberately, cutely teeters for a moment on the superhigh, clear-soled platform sandals made especially for her and for tonight by the fine gentlemen at Prada, but catches herself before falling. Years of dancing coupled with the temperamental qualities of a hungry lioness have prepared her to rarely make a misstep, even here, in impossibly difficult and costly footwear, on the stage covered with two hundred thousand dollars' worth of Swarovski crystals. The crystals might have been overkill, but Jill has been wildly jealous of Britney Spears since she appeared in nothing but sparkling diamonds in the "Toxic" video, and this is Jill Sanchez's revenge on that Louisiana reject for having had the audacity to believe for one moment that she might outshine Jill Sanchez at her own game. One of these days, Jill will appear in public wearing nothing but a diamond thong and pasties.
"Gosh, it's big," she giggles about the poster, pretending to be as stunned as they are by it, even though she is the one who insisted on the gargantuan size. She has practiced this line, and the openmouthed kissy lips in the style of Marilyn Monroe. She has meant for the breathy words to have a hint of sexuality to them, as if she were commenting on something other than a poster. The giggle is intended to offset the brazen sexuality, offering up saint and whore in equal doses. Giggling revolts her. But the revolting media seems to prefer her when she giggles revoltingly, so that's what she does when they are around. She rarely giggles otherwise.
"Okay, well, I introduce to you Flamenco Flame, the new fragrance by me, Jill Sanchez."
Again she giggles, lest it seem that she does, in fact, take great pride in branding herself like a cow. Even as she does so, Jill worries that the makeup and high-end studio lighting she paid to have perfectly in synch are somehow revealing her wrinkles and lines to aworld that still doesn't know she has them. She will have to go in for Botox again soon, and perhaps some belly lipo. Belly lipo is one of the finest inventions of all time, in Jill Sanchez's opinion. A breast lift might also be in order, as all the dancing over the years has invited gravitational pulls she will not tolerate. Jill Sanchez believes she is superior to gravity and other science.
The poster is a life-size replica of the dewy peach-toned ad that will soon appear in fashion magazines and on the sides of buses worldwide. In the foreground is the pink hourglass bottle, in the shape of Jill's own heavily insured body, because in Jill's humble estimation there is simply no better shape to be found. It isn't vanity; it is honesty.
In the background stands Jill herself, nude as a wood nymph, though strategically positioned and airbrushed, so nothing that shouldn't be seen could be seen. She is curvy in ways the establishment used to think would not sell, until she began to outsell everyone else--smaller on top, bigger on the bottom. The vibe of the ad is misty, and hot, as if she stepped out of the shower and into your bedroom, aflame with Flamenco Flame, the new fragrance by her, Jill Sanchez.
The press begins to applaud. Jill acts all shucks and embarrassed.
"Stop it, you guys," she says sweetly, blinking the mink fur on her eyelashes. "Oh, come on, it's just perfume. Jeez!"
At that moment, the six hot girls who were hired because they were almost but not quite as hot as Jill Sanchez, start to circulate through the club, with silver Tiffany trays full of tiny fabulous bottles of Flamenco Flame, the new fragrance by Jill Sanchez. They spritz and spray, and those in attendance can't help but marvel at the perfect mixture of vanilla and lemongrass. Jill believes she is one of the cleanest women on earth, bathing several times a day, slathering her body in expensive creams that so far work in congress with Botox and exercise to convince the public that she, in truth thirty-seven years old, is a mere twenty-eight. Years ago, a profile or two had printed her true birthday, but year after year she got younger and no one seemed to question this, except The New York Times, which none of her fans readanyway. Literacy is on the decline in America, and no one knows this better than Jill, who keeps up on cultural trends the way a stockbroker attends to market fluctuations. Why worry about the print media when no one reads anyway?
"So, what do you think, you guys?" she asks, as modest and folksy as possible. She played a modest girl, a Mexican maid, in a movie once, and was almost nominated for an Academy Award. Or that's what she heard. She doesn't know for sure. She knows she deserves an Oscar for something, however.
The crowd bursts into applause and Jill Sanchez bursts into a grin.
"Oh, gosh. I'm so glad you liked it!" Hand to neck, beat. "I was so nervous!" In truth, Jill has not been nervous in seven years, since becoming one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. They say Cameron Diaz makes more these days, but that will change as soon as everyone figures out that La Diaz looks like a puff-faced munchkin on stilts and her success is due almost entirely to Ben Stiller's jism hair gel.
On cue, the lights go down, and the curtain on the small stage goes up. And there are Jill Sanchez's male backup dancers, including the two she slept with when she was bored on tour. She doesn't remember their names. And there is Jill's pin-on microphone, to aid the illusion that she is singing live. And there is the music, a hip-hop Latin-inspired jingle a young songwriter named Matthew Baker penned for the perfume, but for which she, Jill Sanchez, will get a 75 percent writing credit, because Jill Sanchez has one of the best entertainment lawyers in the universe and, as Ricky once told her, Matthew Baker, who she got through Ricky, is a bit of a sucker.
She begins to dance, and sing, pretending all the while to be surprised by her own sexy gyrations, a trick of the trade she gleaned from Britney Spears herself. Nothing appeals to America more than innocence paired with lust. Jill Sanchez takes great pride in the fact that she is much older than Spears, but just as relevant with high school girls--and boys. But even as she thinks this, she worries that the new crop of young singers might have something on her. There is a Lindsay something or other, and an Ashley, at least one, maybe more. Shedoesn't even know their names anymore, but if she did, she would never admit it.
After the performance, the crowd claps some more, and Jill Sanchez takes questions. Of course, most of them have to do with her engagement to Jack Ingroff, the handsome indie actor, screenwriter, and Rhodes scholar. She answers by holding up her left hand and squealing at the sight of her massive yellow diamond, as if she's only just now seen it for the first time, as if she were sitting in a group of girlfriends instead of in a room full of bloodsucking bastards.
"Omigosh! We're, like, so happy!" she says. "With him I'm just a girl who cooks, and he's just a guy who likes baseball and a beer."
"What do you cook, Jill?" asks a reporter. Somewhere in the back of the room, a male voice shouts, "¡Si cocinas como caminas, ay mami!" drawing a smattering of applause from the assembled Spanish-speaking men.
"Oh, my mother's asopao de pollo, it's this chicken dish with green peppers and garlic," she says, as if it has just occurred to her, when in fact she rehearsed this very answer with a media coach last night. "I just love my mom! She is such a great cook!"
Jill attempted this dish only once, and it came out half burned and half raw, with undertones of dishwashing liquid mixed in; Jack ate it because he's a nice guy and then he had diarrhea for days.
"Yum! Jack loves chicken. And I love to cook. I finally found a man who'll make an honest woman of me!" In truth, Jill Sanchez has three personal chefs and has not set foot in a grocery store in at least six years. She has come to think that refrigerators fill themselves.
A hefty, homely, female entertainment reporter Jill recognizes from The Miami Herald approaches the stage, with a stern look on her face. With khaki pants that pull and strain across her sagging lower belly, she reminds Jill of a prison guard. The pockets on the sides gape open like holes in a carnival ball-toss game. Her name is Lilia, a name far prettier than the woman it belongs to, and she speaks with that lesbian lisp Jill despises. Even when Jill played a horny lesbian in amovie once, she didn't do that lisp. For Jill, it was too horrible to imagine that sound coming from Jill Sanchez's lips.
On top of that, Lilia takes herself and her work far more seriously than Jill believes she ought to, and never squanders a chance to skewer Jill in her "Lunch with Lilia" column, the only place on earth, Jill figures, that Lilia is allowed to feel beautiful and popular. Newspapers are for geeks and losers what the Internet is for sociopaths, meaning that they are the only place these losers can find to socialize.
"Rumor has it," Lilia grumbles, "that you've been seeing Ricky Biscayne again. Jill, what is your response to that?" "Seeing" comes out she-ing, from the lesbian lisp.
Jill giggles and looks surprised, cringing only internally at Lilia's odd placement of her name in the sentence. It's like the reporter was trying to sound the way reporters sounded in Bogart movies. All Lilia needed was a pencil stuck behind her big, meaty ear. "It's the first I've heard of it. Last time I checked, Ricky was married and I was engaged." Jill wiggles the yellow diamond for effect, and giggles. "I just love this ring! Don't you guys?"
"So the fact that one of your home employees saw you have sex with him in your pool house doesn't ring a bell?"
Jill squashes her blush impulse and giggles instead. "This is ridiculous, Lilia. Maybe you should go on a diet instead of making up stories. For your information, I don't even own a pool house."
Lilia blushes as her peers laugh at her. Though most reporters are ugly, few are as ugly as Lilia. Jill knows her outburst will likely make headlines, and that some enterprising reporter will investigate real estate records and discover that Jill does, in fact, have a pool house; but what the hell. Who would read it? Who on earth reads anything but headlines anymore? Who bothers to even read headlines, frankly, when the colorful photos are more than enough? All press is good press, even press that says she was having an affair with Ricky. Let that Eastern European dishrag Jasminka see it and weep. That's the thing so many of Jill's celebrity peers don't understand about the press.The press are an instrument, made to be played, and in that craft Jill Sanchez is a virtuoso.
"I'm just joking, Lilia, you look great. But don't take that as a come-on. I know how you feel about me." More laughter, as Lilia stalks out of the room scribbling furiously on a notepad. Only the dishonest reporters use those things, Jill notes. The honest ones use digital recorders. She looks around the room and notices that no one has a digital recorder.
Jill giggles again, thanks everyone, offers them Champagne and gift bags, then excuses herself and leaves the club, saying she has a business meeting. Ricky Biscayne is back in town, and they have a date.

I'm wearing a baggy Ricky Biscayne T-shirt and a pair of Old Navy capri jeans that I realize are not as trendy as I like to think. I got them three years ago. I know people have moved on from these, but they're comfortable and I am going to the book group. I should mention, too, that I'm wearing Easy Spirit shoes, flat sandals, because I like them. I like how they feel. I just passed a woman riding a bike in high-heeled pumps, which is typical for Miami. I don't always fit in here. Sometimes, I think I'd be better off in Denver, or San Francisco.
Because I couldn't eat much at dinner, with my mother smiling as if she hadn't spent an hour talking clits, and my grandmother crunching her food with her mouth open, I steer the Neon to the El Pollo Tropical drive-through and order yuca fries and a mango batido. Yum. I stuff it all in as I drive the ten minutes to Books & Books on Aragon. As I pass the bridal shops along the Miracle Mile, I try to block Dad's bad advice about marriage and babies. I mean, I'd like to get married and be a mom, but not as my only goal in life. I turn up the cassette in the stereo. I know. Cassette. You don't have to remind me. I would like to have a CD player, but it's an old Neon. What can I say? I'm playing, you guessed it, Ricky! Yay, Ricky! I know every word by heart, every harmony part, every kick of the timbale. These songs?They're about me. He sings like a man who totally understands women. Ricky wrote these songs with me in mind. I know it. If I could meet a guy like that, I might have use for bridal shops. And you know what? If what Geneva said was true? I might be meeting Ricky himself, on this club project of hers. How cool is that?
All the spaces at the meters are taken, and I don't feel like going into the parking garage across the street. I pull into the alley behind the store and park illegally. I'm feeling risky tonight. All because Geneva told me I might meet Ricky, but I know I shouldn't put too much faith in anything my sister promises me; for all I know, it's going to turn out to be some kind of cruel joke she's played on me.
I trot to the store because I'm late and don't want to miss a single second of the best part of my week. I rush through the front gates, onto the patio. It's so cute, this place. There's a courtyard right as you walk in, with a refreshment stand and magazine stand, and all these little wrought-iron tables and chairs. My club girls are waiting for me here, outside. There are six of them, plus me. The store itself wraps around the outdoor space, giving it a Spanish touch that I adore. To me, this bookshop is the most peaceful, perfect place on earth, a place where I feel free to be entirely myself, to make jokes that my father might find off-color or inappropriate for a woman, to sit with my feet far apart, to dream about worlds greater than my own, and to place myself fearlessly in the shoes of the protagonist women who live in these pages. At Books & Books, I am no longer just Milan; here, I am Bridget Jones, Jemima Jones, Jojo Harvey, Emma Corrigan, Cannie Shapiro. Here, I am fabulous, grown-up, and allowed to be free. Here, I feel like I might one day wear fancy shoes.
Even if I don't own a single pair of fancy shoes, I can pretend. For the record, I will say that I would love to own expensive, sexy shoes, but I've never had a real excuse to get them, and also I know that once I give myself an excuse it is going to be very hard to stop with just one or two pairs; I am excessive in my consumption of food and television,and I believe I will be likewise in my consumption of beautiful shoes and clothes if and when I finally get around to it.
The six women from the book club, each with Sex, Murder and a Double Latte, by Kyra Davis, on her lap, smile and wave. The women are so happy, and perfectly happy, at least for these moments when we are all here, to live without men. Can I just say this, that I could live in this book club? Everyone already has a cappuccino and a pastry, or iced tea--in short, they are my kind of girls. Suddenly, I'm hungry again. I want my own goodies.
"Be right back," I say, setting my book on a chair.
"Take your time," says one of my friends.
I go inside, to the café, and inspect the pastry case. I order the mini chocolate Bundt cake and the frosted scone. You only live once. I also order a large, creamy iced mocha cappuccino. I thought about going on a diet, but I don't see the point now. I just ate yuca fries. Might as well go all the way. Pork out. Why not? I'm feeling good. I don't care.
As I turn back toward the patio with my goodies on a tray, I regret my purchases because there, standing in line with a tall, beautiful (black!) man, is my sister, Geneva, in yet another pair of slender, long jeans, another pair of breathtaking designer heels, and another fancy embroidered designer tank top that fits like it was made especially for her and her perky little boobs. The man is stupendously built and wears a bright yellow polo shirt with khaki shorts. He looks like a Ralph Lauren model and is possibly the most attractive man I've ever seen her with. I've long had a fantasy of stealing a man from her, to get even, but I seriously doubt this would be the one. He's way out of my league. He's almost even out of Geneva's league.
"Milan!" cries Geneva, obviously as surprised to see me as I am to see her. "What are you doing here?"
I want to hide the tray. Can't. I smile as if there is nothing to be ashamed of. Maybe she'll think I'm bringing back goodies for the group. "Book club," I say. "Kyra Davis." I am sure as I say the name of the author that my sister will have no idea what I'm talking about.
"Oh, right." Geneva smiles awkwardly and the man lifts his brows and stares at her as if waiting for something. My God. My sister has dated attractive men before, but nothing that looked like this. Geneva looks at him and laughs. "Oh," she says. "I'm sorry. Milan, this is my ... friend. Ignacio. Ignacio, this is my sister, Milan."
Friend my ass. I wonder who she stole him from.
She smiles at the man, and he takes her hand. She doesn't pull it away. Geneva moves forward in line, dismissing me. "The reading's going to start in the other room in a minute. We should get going."
"Oh. Okay." Reading? Geneva? I back away. Lie: "Good to see you."
How weird.
"Bye, sweetie," says Geneva, insincere.
I shoot Geneva a look of approval about the man, and Geneva, to my surprise, looks insecure for the tiniest of moments. Then her eyes light up, like my approval matters.
I return to my book group and take my seat. As soon as I join the group of book girls I feel the muscles of my back and neck release. It's like the air gets thicker and more comforting. My breathing slows, and I feel happy. We do the usual round of hellos and updates on work, men, mothers (why must we always talk about our mothers?), and money. Then, Julia, the group leader, takes the lead.
"Shall we?" she asks, holding up the book. Pink cover. So many of our books have pink covers. And long women's legs. And a gun. How many are there like this? But this book rocked. It was one of my favorites.
"We shall," I say. I bounce in my seat and feel like a kid at show and tell. Remember that feeling? Like you're about to say something really important to connect with your peers? That's what this book group is like for me. I like that I can make decisions here, that I do, that I step up, as it were, to make things happen. It's almost, almost, like I'm not a slacker after all.
"So, what did you like best about this book?" asks Julia.
"I love Sophie," says Debra, speaking of the lead character, Sophie Katz. "I love that she's biracial. I totally identify, as a black Jewishwoman." For the record, Debra is constantly saying "as a black Jewish woman" for everything she says. Even things like, "I like food, as a black Jewish woman," or, "As a black Jewish woman, I use the can."
"Me too!" I say about the character. "I totally identify." They all look at me like I'm crazy. "What?" I ask. "I'm biracial."
They laugh. "You're Cuban," says Julia.
"My family in Cuba is black and white," I tell them. "You should see my sister. She looks light-skinned black. She's right there in the middle room if you don't believe me."
"You are the palest person I know," says Gina.
"Anyway," says Julia with a roll of her eyes. "Milan's African heritage aside, what did you guys like most about Sophie?"
"Her Starbucks addiction," I say. "I relate. Being an African woman and all."
"Oh, please," says Gina.
"I don't appreciate you making fun of me, Milan," Debra tells me.
"I'm not!" I tell her. "Oh, oh! And I think it's really cool how the author mixed chick lit with mystery." I feel my own caffeine and sugar high kicking in. "Like, didn't you guys just stay up all night to read it? I think I read it in one day."
"Yes!" they shout. I take over, as usual. When it comes to books and Ricky, no one can talk more than I can.
"The way she wrote about this guy who came up with all these sneaky ways of getting to her, making her look paranoid," I say. I take a bite of cake. "It was amazing, the plotting and everything."
"Absolutely," says Gina.
I take another bite of cake, and on it goes, me eating with abandon, talking with abandon, utterly happy and comfortable in the company of modern, literate women, finally completely free to be Milan the white (black) slacker Cuban girl who likes to read and doesn't like much else, except Ricky Biscayne and a good double latte. Now if I could only find a way to make a killer living off my intense, yet clearly limited, interests, instead of peddling poop-aids.
saturday, march 23
My daughters, who don't even look like they're related to me or to each other, sit in my new Jaguar as I pull into the parking lot at the cruise-ship docks. They say nothing. The tension is enough to kill a camel, or however the saying goes. I don't like to complain about my children, but these two are spoiled. Ungrateful, spoiled, and hateful toward each other. In Cuba they would never have been able to get away with being the way they are, so self-absorbed that they don't realize blood is thicker than water. I'm sick of it. If they knew how much we, their parents, have struggled to give them the lives they've had, they might realize how silly their petty issues with each other look to me. Don't they realize that in the end, all there is to count on is family? Don't they care? I don't know why I bother.
"We're here!" I say as cheerfully as I can.
"Yay," says Geneva, sarcastic as always. She is crumpled down in the passenger seat in the front, looking at some little thing she calls a BlackBerry. I hate all those metal things in her nose and eyebrows. She's been typing something on that little machine, and laughing. Lost in her own world, as usual. Geneva has never cared what I or anyone else thought of her. I admire it in her, as a woman, even though as her mother I wish she were different.
"Yeah, yay," says Milan.
"It's a beautiful day," I say. "Let's try to have a nice time."
I cut the engine, open my door, and stretch my arms over my head. It really is a beautiful day. Sunny, with a few clouds on the horizon to the east. All around us, people in touristy clothes park and hobble toward the ships with their suitcases in tow. The docks here are for nothing but cruise ships, and there must be six or seven of them docked at the moment, readying for various trips around the Caribbean.The cruise business is big business here, and I know this because I once did a show on undocumented sex workers on the ships.
My daughters emerge from the car. Geneva wears a sexy sarong and low-cut tank top, both black, with a teensy jeans jacket. She is beautiful in black, and every other color. She has her long hair curly today, held back in a scarf. She has a new tattoo, a ring of flowers around her right ankle. She looks very bohemian and artistic. Milan, on the other hand? Ay Dios mío. I don't know what to do with her. She is a pretty girl, nearly as pretty as her sister, but she doesn't seem to care. She seems to want to hide her beauty from the world. She wears a pair of stained sweatpants from college, with the words GO IBIS on the butt, and a large and baggy Ricky Biscayne T-shirt, the same one she wears all the time. I hate that shirt. I hate the entire outfit she wears. She looks terrible. And those sandals? They are the kind that hippie women wear, for women with hairy toes. Her hair looks greasy and shapeless. I've never seen her look quite so sloppy. I used to try to get her to take her clothes more seriously. I used to tell her that your clothes, the way you dress, is your greeting card to the world. I don't do that anymore because it never did any good. My husband, Eliseo, likes that she doesn't try to be pretty because he thinks that is a reflection of her devotion to him, somehow. He has issues about women, especially his own daughters. The prettier Geneva looks, the angrier he gets.
I myself wear a white linen Liz Claiborne shorts suit with beige pumps and gold jewelry. I've got my hat, too, a sun hat. I'm not supposed to get sun after the treatments I've had for my face. I take my suitcase from the trunk and the girls grab their bags. Geneva has a Vuitton. Milan has a backpack, like a sherpa. All she needs is a yak. I don't know how she fit any clothes in it at all. For all I know, she is planning to wear the same clothes again tomorrow.
"Ready?" I ask, trying to sound cheerful. Milan nods. Geneva pulls her sunglasses over her eyes and whistles in a way that communicates both boredom and arrogance. She pops her back, then her wrists, andMilan gives her a nasty look. I wonder where exactly I went wrong with these two. Was it because I was so focused on the show I didn't love them enough? I don't know. Off we go.
The Rebuilding Trust Cruise ship is the fourth ship down, a smaller ship than the others but nonetheless sizable. There must be a lot of people who don't trust each other walking around in the world. The ship belongs to one of the big cruise lines but has been chartered by a local self-help author, who I can see standing at the base of the ramp, greeting everyone with a warm smile and an embrace. Her pen name is Constancy Truth, and I admire her very much. I've wanted to meet her for a long time. This is going to be so good for my girls. I can feel it.
As we walk past the second ship, a big white oceanliner, Milan gets a call on her cell phone, and we all stop walking so she can talk, because my sloppier daughter apparently cannot walk and talk at the same time. People swarm around us trying to get to their ships. Geneva sighs and looks at her watch. So far, this is not going as I'd hoped. I look at the ship next to us. It is enormous. I still don't understand how these huge metal vessels float in the water. This one, the one near us, is a Carnival ship, and it is loading now, too. She mouths "book club" to me, like this means something important.
"No," says Milan into the phone. "I've never heard of that book."
Geneva looks at me like I should do something about this, rolls her eyes when I don't. Milan and her books. She should be a librarian. I turn away and watch a group of unattractive people with guitar cases and other musical equipment making their way up the ramp to the ship. There is one woman among the group, and for some strange reason she reminds me a little bit of Milan. A pretty girl who makes herself plain. She flirts with a man who looks almost too hairy to be real.
"What's it called?" Milan shouts into the phone, plugging her free ear with a finger. She squints against the noise and commotion around us, trying to hear the bookworm on the other end. Those are her only friends, a bunch of ladies who read too much. Milan should be meeting men, and getting on with her life. "It's a kid's book? Teens? Butyou picked it for next time? What is it? Loser? Is that the title? Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?"
Milan pulls the phone away, looks at the screen, frowns, curses, and folds the phone closed.
"Crap," she says. "No signal."
As she fiddles with her phone, I see a bowlegged young man with red hair slink past the ramp once, then turn to walk past again. He wears rumpled shorts and a ratty T-shirt and looks familiar somehow. He is watching the woman in the group of musicians as she laughs with the hairy guy. I know I've seen this redheaded man somewhere before. He reminds me of a shorter Conan O'Brien. That's it! It's the musician from Ricky Biscayne's band from The Tonight Show. Milan, staring only at the screen of her phone, starts to walk around without paying attention to where she's going, trying to get a signal. Geneva huffs and turns to walk toward our ship without us.
"Catch you on board," she says.
I stay with Milan only because that is the way it is with my girls. Geneva can take care of herself. Milan wanders aimlessly through the crowd, dumpy, bumping into people and not even noticing, focused on what's in her own head and nothing else. I watch as she walks backward, and in her haste to find a signal she bumps into the redheaded man just as he is about to head up the ramp. She nearly knocks him over into the water, but he grabs on to the guard chain of the ramp to steady himself.
"God!" he cries. He looks down at the water with fear in his eyes. The woman with the musicians on the ramp sees him and starts to laugh. The man looks at her.
"What a loser!" she calls out to him.
He blushes, and turns to look at Milan. Still focused on her phone call, she looks at him with anger, like she thinks he bumped into her. He lets go of the chain, and straightens himself out, still dazed from Milan's bump. He smiles at her and I do believe he thinks my little Milan is cute. I know enough about men to recognize that face. I've never seen a man look at her like that, and it gives me chills. Yes! Please,God, let her meet someone and move out of my house. I know you're supposed to love your children forever and always welcome them, but I always looked forward to the day my kids moved out. And Milan, as far as I'm concerned, is about six years over her limit.
But does Milan notice the man? Nope. She seems to have just gotten through to her friend because she holds her hand up to the young man and leans into her call. He shrugs, and waits for her to finish. Honestly, she owes him an apology. I think he's waiting for one. But all Milan does is give him a second look, like she's trying to place him, then, distracted, she turns away from him and shouts into the phone, "Loser!"
The young man's face falls and I realize he thinks she has insulted him. He looks up at the woman on the ramp, and his shoulders drop. He adjusts a baseball cap on his head like he's trying to hide something, and walks away. Milan comes back to me, her call over.
"You nearly knocked that young man into the water," I say.
"Oh, him? He ran into me."
"No, he didn't."
"Yes, he did."
"It was that guy from Ricky's band. Did you notice that?"
"What guy?"
"The musician."
"No, it wasn't, Mom."
"We're going to be late, Milan," I say. "Turn off your phone."
"Sorry," she says. "It was about our new book pick."
"Let me guess," I say. "Something called Loser?"
She nods. "How'd you know?"
"I heard you," I say. But what I want to say is that I think it might have been written about her.

I have a splinter in my butt. From the bleachers. Ow! I reach down with one hand, and there it is, right in the crease between my butt and my thigh. I've been popping up and down on these wooden bleachers, cheering my daughter, Sophia, on in her soccergame. She is not just playing, either, she is kicking butt. She takes after me, I think with a swell of pride. My kid is not only smart and pretty, she is a regular soccer prodigy.
So, anyway, here I am at the park, up one second, cheering and jumping around in my Target khaki shorts, canvas sneakers, and a long-sleeved yellow T-shirt, and the next, I'm sitting down and trying not to notice all the other parents staring at me.
"Gooooaaaalll," I bellow, like a reject from a Spanish-language sports show. Sophia looks up, embarrassed of me but proud of herself. She waves at me, then does a hand motion to get me to sit down. Parents must embarrass their children, I've decided. It's inevitable and a requirement. Ouch. I sit on the splinter. How do you remove such a thing? I'm going to have to ask Jim to remove it for me, later. I'm happy I have a Jim to remove my ass splinters. Life is good.
"Gooooall," I cry again. I pull at my short hair. I whoop and whistle. I'm making such a ruckus that my sunglasses clatter to the bleachers, then disappear beneath. I'm big, and I'm strong, and I am usually graceful, but not right now. I hardly notice. I squint against the harsh Homestead sun. "That's my girl!"
I feel the eyes of a few fathers turn toward me. It happens a lot. The wives growl at me. It's not my fault their men are hounds. It's not my fault I have to keep fit for my job and many of these women, apparently, don't. It's not that hard to be fit. You watch what you eat and you exercise. It's that simple. People try to make it so complicated with all the special diets and whatnot. It's all a distraction.
Sophia is getting entirely too pretty for her own good. The other day, I told her I was worried that she was becoming too beautiful, and she said something that surprised me. "You're beautiful, too, Mom. You look like Kate Hudson." It was the first compliment she's paid me in a couple of years. I'm hoping we've rounded some kind of corner, and that she's going to continue to be open with me throughout the rapids of adolescence. I hope she'll ask for my advice on dating, though I can't promise that I wouldn't say something stupid and overprotective, like, "Just wait, take your time, don't be like me, go to college first."
Don't be like me? Yeah, like I was with Ricardo Batista, aka Ricky Biscayne. I thought I was so in love back then, but in reality I didn't know squat about squat. I sit down and try to avoid thinking about Ricky. He's everywhere I go these days. Stores, TV, radio. I can't believe it. There was a time when I would have died for that boy, and now I don't know if he would even remember me.
The memory comes back like an unwelcome friend, but with exquisite detail.
English class. We are discussing The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, and the teacher tells us the book was written in a matter of days. Several students, including me, say that isn't possible or that, if it is possible, no book written so quickly could ever possibly be any good.
"It's possible," says a young man in the back of the class. Ricardo Batista. Soccer star. Loner. Gorgeous. A kid who laughs for no reason, at jokes only he has heard. A young man I keep catching trying to make eye contact with me, but who I am too shy to let approach. In class, I feel like it is okay to look at him, because everyone else is also looking at him. He is beautiful, with a few pimples that don't detract from the rest. Those eyes. Wow.
The teacher, a young woman with long, curly hair, smiles. "You think, Ricardo? What makes you say that?"
"Well," he says. "I wrote a book of poems last week. Two hundred pages long."
Most of the kids in the class laugh, but the teacher doesn't. Neither do I. I like to write poetry, too, and can't believe someone else at this shallow school, where all it seems anyone worries about is clothes and popularity, shares my passion. Without poetry, I feel I will die of sadness and loneliness. My father's rage has been directed mostly at me lately. My mom has taken off for two weeks and no one knows where she is. She does this a lot, and always comes back. I avoid home as much as I can, try to excel in school, in band, in swimming, in everything, because eventhough I am only fourteen years old I recognize that education is my only way out of the life my parents have given me.
"What are your poems about?" asks the teacher.
This is the moment my heart sprouts wings for the first time, as Ricardo Batista, the boy every girl wants to want her, looks directly at me and points at me with his gray mechanical pencil. "Her," he says with the softest, sweetest smile.
"Me?" I point to myself. A few classmates laugh.
"You," he says. It is the first time he's spoken to me directly.
"Why me?"
"I've seen you," he says. "It ain't easy on you."
"Irene Gallagher," he says. "The most beautiful, tormented girl in this school. I call you my mariposita rota, my broken butterfly."
The teacher interrupts and asks us to continue talking after class, directing everyone's attention back to the book. I turn away from Ricardo, but I can feel the heat of his eyes burning across my body for the rest of the class.
"Goal!" cries Coach Rob, as Sophia scores again. Again! I almost missed it, thinking about the past. This is why I try not to think about it. I shake myself back to the present, but still feel the sticky fingers of ghost love drag across my skin. I stand and cheer.
All the girls on Sophia's soccer team start to shout and trill with laughter as Sophia runs across the field to celebrate her newest goal. Her teammates lift her onto their shoulders for an instant, before accidentally dropping her on the hard, wet grass. Thud.
"Sophia!" I cry, hand slapping over my mouth in horror. "You okay, kid?" I dash onto the field.
Sophia looks up with me with her crooked grin. Sometimes the child looks so much like her father it is actually painful for me to look at her.
Ricky was good at soccer in high school, back when we dated. He was a very smart boy who was good at lots of things, and from all indicationshis daughter is likewise gifted. I'm stretched to the limit paying for Sophia's music and dance lessons, and soccer. She's starting to ask for better clothes, the kind that you get in the teen section at the expensive department stores. I can't afford those clothes, and it pains me to have to say so. I've been stashing some money away in hopes of one day having saved enough to live on for six months, when the time finally comes for me to sue my employer for sexual discrimination. Sophia doesn't know about the savings, or the harassment. She just thinks her mom is stingy about money.
I feel guilty. I should tell her about her dad. Maybe arrange for them to meet. Maybe see if he will provide a little bit for her. My pride has stood in the way all these years, but it seems foolish now. I don't know. He was awful to me, I mean really awful. It would be like accepting his prejudice to go back now, wouldn't it? I don't know what to do about it. I never have.
"I told my moms about the baby," he tells me. We share an Orange Julius at the mall. We are kids.
"What did she say?" I ask. I hope Ricky's mother will adopt me, take me out of my home and raise me and the baby together.
"She wants us to get rid of it," says Ricky.
"What?" My heart stops, and the tears come. I don't cry much, having learned to keep it inside. But I can't stop it. I try and can't.
"She doesn't want us to have it."
"I'm Catholic," I say. "I'm keeping this baby."
"You can't," says Ricky. "She says we should put it up for adoption."
"What? No! I'm having it and raising it."
"You can't."
"I can and I will, and either you help me or you don't."
Ricky looks at the ceiling, at me. He looks angry. "Don't do this to me, Irene."
"Why doesn't your mom like me?" I've seen his mother a fewtimes at his house, and she is the kind of mother I always wanted. A stable, working woman who keeps her house clean.
Ricky shrugs. "I don't know."
"Yes you do."
He stands up, still angry. "My mom thinks you're white trash, Irene. Okay? You happy now?"
"What? How can she say that?"
"She doesn't want me to associate with you. She thinks you're bad news."
"What do you think?"
"Well, you have to understand why she'd think that. Your parents ..."
"Ricky! I thought you loved me."
"We're too young. It's stupid. My mother is right. I think you should get rid of that baby. I gotta go."
I look up, surprised to find tears in my eyes. No. I won't reach out to him. I won't allow him to know this daughter of mine. He has no right to her, calling us names, looking down on us, demanding I give her away.
We don't need him.
Sophia shoos me back to the bleachers. I use the moment to crawl under them for my sunglasses. Then I sit and watch.
Sophia and the other girls consult with Rob, their young, good-looking coach, for a few moments, and then they are dismissed to their parents. Sophia runs to me on her long, tanned legs and buries herself in my embrace. She is almost old enough to be embarrassed by such behavior, but blissfully for me she still likes to cuddle--now and then.
"You're amazing, girl," I say, nuzzling her wild brown hair. "I am so proud of you, I can't even tell you."
"I've been practicing," says Sophia with a confident smile.
"I noticed." I gather my stuff from the bleachers and stand up. "You hungry, kid?"
"Could we get pizza?" Sophia loves pizza almost more than sheloves soccer, and now that she is thirteen, she seems to be hungry all the time.
"Sure," I say. I try once again to sound like a mom who doesn't worry about things--money things. But I wonder if the checks I wrote this week have all cleared. If they have, there won't be anything left for pizza, or anything else. If they haven't, I might be able to juggle things until payday next week.
"Cool!" cries Sophia. Doesn't take much to make her happy.
Hand in hand, we walk across the field toward the parking lot. I see Coach Rob look over at us, and then here he comes, jogging our way. He's cute. No question. And I'm pretty sure he likes me. He always wants to talk to me. I have never flirted back with him because I think it would muck up Sophia's life if I got involved with her coach, especially if things went badly with him down the road.
"Uh, hey, Irene?" he calls.
"Oh, hey, Coach Rob. Great game! What a girl, huh?" I muss Sophia's hair.
"Sophia's the best," says the coach. He looks me up and down and blushes. His eyes turn guilty. "Um, can I have a word with you in private for a second?"
Sophia elbows me in the side. Wise beyond her years, my kid continues to walk toward our blue Isuzu Rodeo in the parking lot. "I'll meet you at the car, Mom," she says with a teasing smile. Sophia thinks Coach Rob has a crush on me. This is wishful thinking from a little girl without a dad.
Rob waits until Sophia is out of earshot to put a hand on my shoulder. Mmm. Feels good. I wish it didn't. I will away any feelings of interest I might have, and try to think of Jim the Christian cop. "I didn't want to say this is front of her, or anybody," he says, wincing. He lowers his voice. "But your check for the new uniforms didn't clear."
Ugh. No. My stomach lurches in fear, like I'm being chased. Money issues have that impact on me, fight or flee. My usual impulse is to flee. "That can't be," I lie.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I went ahead and gave Sophia her uniform, but I need you to get that sixty dollars to me as soon as you can."
"Sure," I say, humiliated to my bones. "No problem. It must have been a mistake from the bank."
Rob smiles, and his eyes dip to look at my mouth. "We all go through hard times," he says softly. "I'd really like Sophia to attend soccer camp this summer. We need her. I know it's steep. If you can't swing it, we have some parents who can help, I can try--"
"I can swing it," I lie. Three hundred dollars, though? Ugh.
"Okay. But I know they don't pay firefighters enough. It's wrong how they do that. You guys are out there risking your necks and all."
"See you next week." I turn away before I turn red in the face. Soccer camp? There is no way I'll be able to afford soccer camp for the whole summer. I hurry toward the Isuzu with tears burning my eyes. How did I get here? How? When did this happen to me? I had bigger dreams than this. How do I get out?
"You okay, Mom?" asks Sophia, leaning against the car, bouncing her soccer ball off her head and catching it with her hands. The kid is psychic sometimes. It is incredible how you can never really get away with lying to your kids.
"No," I say. I unlock the car. "But I'll manage. Get in the car."
We drive for a while without saying anything, and Sophia fiddles with the radio dial. I try not to cry, but I do anyway. If they'd just been tears of sadness, or just tears of rage, I might have been able to handle it. But they are both this time.
"What's wrong, Mom?"
"I'm sorry, Sophia. I should be honest with you. We're having some money trouble this week."
"Again?" She slouches lower in her seat, as if she doesn't want anyone to see her being poor in the car.
"Yes," I say.
"So no pizza?"
"Not tonight. I'm sorry. We can make something at home. Maybe Grandma already did."
"Yippee," says Sophia cynically. "Maybe she'll make mayonnaise sandwiches."
"I'm sorry."
"No, Mom, it's okay." Sophia sighs. "Really. I understand. It's been a tough week, with the windows and Grandma's teeth."
I'm amazed, amazed, by Sophia's resilience and maturity. Earlier in the week, someone threw rocks through four windows in our house. Then I find out too late that I accidentally let the home insurance lapse. So I had to pay for that. Then my mother's dental bridge fell out. The dentist said Medicare wouldn't pay for it anymore. So, yup. I paid for that, too. I also paid the mortgage and the bills. The starts of the months are the worst. There's just not enough money, it's that simple.
Sophia flips to a pop station, and immediately the English-language Ricky Biscayne hit comes out of the speakers. I reach out by instinct and turn it off.
"I'm up for promotion," I say. I know I probably won't get it, but it's worth mentioning.
"That's good, Mom. Would you work more, though?"
"Yeah." I'd have to spend as many as four days and nights away from home, at the station, a week. That's the main reason I let my mother live with us.
"Oh well," says Sophia. She looks sad. I've wanted to be a firefighter since she was a little girl, but it's a piss-poor career choice for a single mom. I know that now. But what am I supposed to do? I can't really get any other kind of job at this point that pays as well.
Ricky. To hell with Ricky. Ricky is rich now. He was fifteen when I last talked to him. That means he would be twenty-eight now. Maybe he's changed. Maybe he could help us. I don't want to need anyone, but still. God. I don't know.
"So, you got homework, or what?"
"Yeah, a little," answers Sophia. "Math."
"We love math."
"Yeah, right." Sophia is just starting to master the art of sarcasm. We both hate numbers. "I love eating. I'm starving."
I pull into the driveway of our house, cut the engine.
"Hey, Mom?" asks Sophia as we walk across the front yard. A thundercloud rumbles overhead.
"Yeah, puppy dog?"
"That guy singing on the TV the other night?"
My heart races but I try to act calm. "Yeah, what about him?"
"I think he looks like me." I feel her eyes on me, but I don't look back. Instead, I stick the key in the front door.
"You think?" I ask with a shrug.
"I do."
I try to laugh like I don't have a care in the world. "Sweetie," I say to her. "Go on inside." Sophia looks confused.
Sophia squints at me for a long moment before entering the house. It smells like hamburgers frying.
I say, "Looks like Grandma made dinner, Sophia. Isn't that great?"
"I'm not hungry," says Sophia, plopping onto the cheap Ikea sofa with a frown.
"But you just said you were starving!"
"Well, I lied," says Sophia, all sass and attitude.
"Why'd you do that?" I ask, absently.
Sophia stares hard at me until I finally return her gaze. "Because," she says. "Lying obviously runs in the family."
sunday, march 24
All I want to do is sleep, but the entire cabin rocks back and forth with such force I have to tense every muscle in my body so that I don't throw up. Geneva snoozes in the bed next to mine, like there's nothing wrong. Even with all the commotion and her sleeping, she manages to raise a wrist and crack it. In her sleep. How can she do that? She must be the devil. That's the only answer I can come up with. Only the devil could look pretty snoring, and snore through the rocking carousel that is our cruise ship cabin.
I get up and stagger toward the little bathroom, aware of the precarious drone of the ship's engines somewhere under the floor. I don't know where Mom is, but she's not here. Everything on cruise ships is nailed or welded to the floor and the walls. Now I know why. I look at the little round window and see water sloshing up across the glass. Nice. We're supposed to be five stories up from the surface of the ocean. Why is there water slopping around up here? Are we going to capsize? Is this normal? I am not the ship type, I think, as I trip and fall to the floor.
"Ow!" I scream.
Geneva stirs in her bed and peeks up at me with one half-open eye. She has no mascara smudge because, unlike me, she remembers to remove the stuff before bed. "You okay, Milan?" she asks. I can't tell if she's being sarcastic.
"I'm fine," I say. I get up and continue to balance my way to the bathroom. Cruises suck, okay? For the record and now and forever let this be known.
I make it to the little bathroom and close the door. It's almost as small as an airplane bathroom. I don't want to throw up. All I want is to pee. And go back to sleep. I look at my watch. It's six in the morning. I listen to the hot hiss of liquid squirting from me to the bowl and wonder how I ended up here.
I exit the bathroom and find Geneva sitting up on her bed checking her BlackBerry again. She's addicted to her e-mail. I can't believe it works out here. Where are we, anyway? Somewhere near Cuba, circling the island of the doomed like it doesn't exist. This is a lame cruise because it doesn't even stop anywhere. We're at sea the whole time, supposedly learning to trust each other. I wish Geneva were still asleep because I want to raid the bag of guava cream pastries I have hidden in my backpack, but I don't want to get that look from her.
The door to the cabin opens and our mother waltzes in like a sitcom mom, cheery and perky, her makeup and clothes perfect. Does she never look bad, my mother? When did she have time to iron ablack linen pantsuit? She looks spiffy, with a yellow scarf tied just so around her neck.
"Good morning, girls!" she trills. She has two Starbucks paper cups of coffee, with lids. "Who wants a little caffeine?" she asks. "I've got Dramamine, too, for the tummy." She smiles like a schoolteacher. Geneva holds a hand out for her coffee and mumbles a thank-you. Is that a new tattoo on the inside of her wrist? I refuse the coffee, but Mom shoves the cup and the pills into my hand anyway.
"I'm sick," I say. I stagger to the bed and plop down.
"That's what Dramamine is for," says Mom. Yeah, thanks. I couldn't have figured that one out on my own.
I wonder how anyone can down pills with hot liquid, but I do my best. The boat shakes and pitches and it feels like the front end of it rises and slams back down to the sea, with a cold hard bang, like the water is solid cement or something.
"What was that?" asks Geneva.
"It's just a little storm," says my mother. I try to mentally calculate whether hurricane season has started yet. The boat veers to one side and my mom has to hold on to the little desk to keep herself from toppling over. She smiles nonetheless and smooths her hands down her sides the way she does when she's about to talk about a man. "I was just chatting with the captain, and he said it's nothing to worry about. It should pass in an hour or two, he said. He's very handsome. I'd like you girls to meet him." The ship shivers and dips as Geneva and I share a look that I take to mean we both wonder if Mom is sleeping with the ship's captain.
"Wake me up when we dock," says Geneva. She dives back under the covers and pulls them over her head.
"Oh, come on, girls!" Mom sips her coffee as she steadies herself against the wall. "Get dressed. There's a nice buffet, and after that is the nice Opening Our Hearts workshop."
"My heart is full of vomit at the moment," I say.
"Don't open it," calls Geneva. "It wouldn't be nice."
We laugh. Together. Me and Geneva. How about them apples? My mother doesn't laugh with us. Maybe Geneva and I will bond after all, at Mom's expense.
Mom's eyes narrow at me. "I've tried to be nice," she says. "But you two are pushing me to the limit. Now get up and get dressed and stop acting like a couple of spoiled brats. We're going to the darn breakfast."

Constancy Truth looks like a cartoon giraffe that teaches aerobics somewhere in the 1980s. She has a long skinny neck, weird half-black, half-blond hair that flips up in defiance of gravity and good taste, and huge black eyes with fake lashes. She stands in the middle of a circle of people in a room that looks like any bland conference room in any hotel. She wears hot-pink short shorts and a sparkly silver top. The people are sorry. That's the only word I have for them. They look like they should be at an AA meeting or something, you know the type, sort of needy and desperate and wounded. People who will believe anything. Constancy is as jumpy as a toad. Wiry, too, and, I would suspect, on speed or something like it. She zips around the circle, shaking hands and looking a little too deeply into our eyes. Her feet are bare, though she does wear thick gray leg warmers. Where on earth did she find leg warmers? My mother finds her charmingly eccentric and original. I find her weird and terrifying. Geneva seems to agree with me, because she leans over to me and whispers, "Is she going to ask us to drink cyanide Kool-Aid, you think? Should we have brought black Nikes?" We laugh viciously and our mother watches with a look of concern.
"Okay, people!" shouts Miss Truth. She has an accent from one of the islands. Jamaica? St. Thomas? "Everyone join hands."
"Oh my God," I mumble. Geneva snickers. Mom grabs our hands and places them together.
"Please try to cooperate," she hisses.
"Say, 'I love myself!'" shouts the giraffe guru.
"I love myself!" shout the gullible masses.
"Shout, 'I love everyone in this room!'"
"I love everyone in this room!" they shout.
"Now. Everyone quiet your heart," says Constancy.
"Hearts," Geneva whispers to me. "We don't all share a heart. If we did, we wouldn't have trust issues."
Constancy continues, "I want you to close your eyes and feel the warmth and humanity of the persons beside you. Take a deep breath."
I inhale and I smell farts. Awful, wet, beany, sprouty farts. That's warmth and humanity, all right. Who was it? Not me. It's usually me, so I'm surprised. Oh my God. It really stinks. I open my eyes and look at Geneva. Her eyes are wide open.
"Eeew?" I whisper.
"I bet it's Mom," says Geneva.
We crack up. Constancy is still babbling something, God knows what, and my sister and I are trying not to choke. Suddenly, the boat lurches and half the people in the room tumble to the floor. Geneva and I stagger, remain upright, and just sort of look at each other.
"Not a problem!" Constancy is shrieking. "Do not let this be a problem! Trust that we'll get through this! Trust that the weather will improve! Trust that this was meant to be, to teach us all a great lesson!"
A couple of people have thrown up on the floor from motion sickness. It was just one person at first, a sad-eyed woman with frizzy permed hair, but another saw her throw up and that made him throw up, which made another woman throw up. Constancy practically screams, "Regroup! Regroup! Trust that we have the collective power to regroup and rejoice!"
Now the smell of farts is joined by the smell of barf. I'm going to die.
"We must sit on the floor like Indians," says Constancy. She is rushing around shoving people into a circle. "We must trust! Trustthat by sitting we will not fall!" People moan and groan and the ship continues to rock violently. I am going to be sick.
"The smell," says someone with much bigger ovaries than mine. "Oh my God!" Good for her.
"Ignore the smell," says Constancy. She takes a hugely deep breath with a false smile on her face, raising her arms over her head dramatically. "Let us think of the smell as a gift from the universe, as a symbol of the very thing in our hearts that prevents us from trusting the people we mistrust. Trust in the smell to be sweet!"
"Isn't that denial?" Geneva asks me. Geneva looks at our mother. "Mom, Constancy's in denial."
Our mother places a hand over her mouth and nose as if this will somehow block the odor. "Let's make the best of this."
"Excuse me," I say, hand to mouth. I have the urge to throw up, so I run from the room out onto the deck. The cool air feels good on my skin. I lean over the railing and feel the spray of salt water on my skin. Geneva follows, and comes to stand beside me.
"Our mother is insane," she says. She rolls her head like a dancer and I hear the neck popping. Ugh.
"Ya think?"
"Trust in the smell? What is that? Why would Mom do this to us?"
I breathe deeply. "I guess her boyfriend was busy this weekend."
Geneva looks at me. "You know about him?"
"Yeah," I say. "You?"
"Totally. I saw them at a café once. I ran out."
"He looks like Jack LaLanne, right?"
"Oh, God! Totally!"
We laugh wickedly. It's terrible. We are spoiled brats. But we have to relieve the stress somehow.
"Can you believe Mom's got a lover?" Geneva asks.
"More power to her, I say. Dad's been cheating on her for years."
"I guess, but it's weird anyway."
I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn to see our mother. I don'tknow how long she's been listening, but she has a strange, sad look on her face.
"Oh, hey, Mom," says Geneva, eyes wide with guilt.
"Don't tell him," she says. "Okay?"
thursday, march 28
Ricky Biscayne enters Jill Sanchez's white baroque Bal Harbour estate early Monday morning, in the back of a van from a local florist shop that makes daily deliveries there. The driver and Jill are tight, and she knows he'll keep it on the down-low. But even if he doesn't, no harm done, really, right?
Jill has dismissed her household help for the day, and she is alone at home except for the outside security guards. She waits for Ricky in her bedroom, wearing a short, white, transparent La Perla lace robe, a yellow-gold and diamond Rolex, her yellow-diamond engagement ring, Crème de le Mer moisturizing cream (which is meant for the face but which she uses everywhere), and nothing else, with a hundred white candles burning. Ricky steps into her bedroom, wearing ripped jeans that look like castoffs from Billy Ray Cyrus, a hockey jersey, and Diesel sneakers. His wedding band burns in his pocket.
"No me jodas. This wasn't what we agreed to," he says, weakly, trying not to look at her magnificent body. He is here to talk business. He wants her advice on investing in this new nightclub, Club G, and on hiring a new publicist, now that Boolla Barbosa, his old one, will soon be going to prison for weapons smuggling and prescription-drug theft or some shit. Jill always knows how to hire the right kinds of people. He needs help. Business help.
But he can't think about that now. All he can think about is that body. How did she get her skin to look that soft and smooth? Jasminka is pretty, but pale and bony. Jill, though. Her body looks like it is sculpted out of hard coffee ice cream, or a hazelnut candle, and herbreath smells of fresh, cool milk. "We said we'd be good this time. I just came to hear your tracks."
When she stands inches away from him and drops the robe, Ricky starts to shake and sweat. Her peppy, erect nipples are the most exquisite shade of reddish brown. They are small. Jasminka has droopy model breasts with those huge nipples he'd first seen as a little boy in the YWCA locker room with his mother, breasts like long British faces. He prefers Jill's tight little body to his wife's stretched, lean one. He loves Jill's body, he says, with mad passion, a longing he says keeps him awake at night. You can almost balance a glass of beer or a piece of sheet music on top of her ass.
Jill listens to Ricky's attempts to stop her. He loves his wife--he babbles about that, as he tends to do--but he says he never stopped loving her, Jill Sanchez. Jill can't be sure, but it seems like he is struggling not to cry. If she hadn't dumped him, he says, he would still be with her. He would never have married Jasminka. But he is married now and wants to do the right thing, to be honorable, to be a good man, the way his mama raised him. He doesn't want to be a sinvergüenza like his father, who is somewhere in Venezuela with a whole new family. Blah, blah, blah.
"Be with me now," she purrs. She draws one manicured foot up over the shin of the other leg. Jill's feet never look blistered or callused the way normal people's feet do. They looked like the feet of a wax figure. "It's never too late, is it?"
Jill kisses Ricky's cheek, then his neck. She eases her hand over his crotch, and squeezes. He resists for a total of six seconds before grabbing her and scattering bites across her sweet-smelling skin. Jill's personal perfumes all come from a small, private shop in France.
Ricky cups his hands over her breasts and ducks to take a nipple into his mouth. Jill groans dramatically, realizing as she does so that she might be overacting. "Así, Papi," she says, Spanish for "Like that, Daddy." Ricky loves it when she calls him Daddy, and her Spanish inspires him to bite the nipple lightly. "Así," she says. "Muérdeme duro, Papi."
"You like it rough, eh?" he responds.
"The rougher the better, baby," she says. Ricky releases her breasts and grabs her hair and the back of her neck. He tugs her hair, and the pain makes her smile. "Harder," she challenges him. He pulls harder, arching her neck and back while pushing her down to her knees, maneuvering her head toward the zipper of his jeans.
"Suck it," he commands. "Mámame el bicho."
Jill unzips him and complies. Ricky's pants stop somewhere around midthigh. She is somewhat unimpressed with the semisoft state of his member, but moans and groans nonetheless, as if licking him out of mushiness excites her beyond words. She carries on with this, manually stimulating herself as she goes, until she decides she's had enough. Then, she stands up.
"Get on the bed," she says.
"Make me."
"Okay," says Jill. She turns her back to him, and bends over, using her hand to spread and display her carefully waxed wares clearly. She knows that in the peach light of the candles she will look smooth, succulent, and irresistible. Ricky watches and says, "Oh, shit, girl."
Jill slithers to all fours and crawls to the bed like a cat, rising and bending herself over the mattress. Feet on the floor, chest to the bed, she lifts her ass and arches her back, beckoning as she swivels her head to look at him. Her hair drapes across the peach comforter. Her crotch, like the rest of her, throbs for attention. "Come here," she says. "Spank me."
Ricky strips as he walks to her, littering the spotless, spacious room with his clothes. He has that violent look in his eyes, the one Jill loves. He's holding himself, stroking, as he comes to her. "Don't move," he instructs. Jill bites her lower lip, and waits. The spank comes quickly, not too hard, not too soft.
"I've been very bad," she tells him. "You can do better than that." He spanks her again, harder. Jill loves it. "I want you," she says. "I need you inside me."
Ricky obliges, and continues to slap her bottom as he goes "¿Quécarajo quieres, eh?" he asks. Jill closes her eyes and imagines what she must look like doing this. She's sure she looks beautiful. She releases the sorts of noises she has heard actresses make in porn movies, and it makes Ricky work harder. She knows just what to do to make him please her. Then, just as she thinks she has him in her control, Ricky surprises her by sticking a finger in her other opening. The pain is almost divine. She shrieks, and the sound is genuine. "You are so nasty," she says. "Cochino."
Ricky removes himself from her and leans over to lick her there. Everywhere. In places people are not supposed to lick. The taboo nature of it makes Jill crazy. "Cochino," she repeats, the Spanish word for "pig."
"I'm a pig, but you like it," he says. "A ti te gusta que te doy candela por el culo."
Jill flips over and lifts her sculpted legs into the air. Ricky sticks his tongue into her exposed openings, then his finger, fingers. "I love you," she says.
"I love you, too."
"But I hate you," she reminds him.
He jams his whole hand into her and she cries out in agony and pleasure. He is rough by nature, but his confusion and agony make him rougher. Jill feels dizzy with excitement. With Jack, sex has become almost rote in the three months since they got engaged, after meeting on the set of a film they starred in together. Jack has this puritan thing where he can only get wild with women (or boys?) he hates, and he actually likes Jill. But with Ricky, the tension of unrequited love and mutual admiration, mixed with a subtext of genuine disrespect, keeps everything fresh, and he performs for her as if he were on an audition, doing things to all the openings of her body she can't imagine a husband doing to a wife.
When they finish, Ricky dresses quickly, with a dark shadow of shame across his face. "I can't keep doing this," he says. "I need you to respect what I want."
"I know what you want," says Jill. "And I think I just respected it."
"You know what I mean. I really am trying to change."
Jill lounges nude across her bed and grins like the Cheshire cat. "Divorce her," she says. "I'll leave Jack. We'll get married, me and you. Imagine the press!"
Ricky's face drops. He looks at her with longing and love, but changes his expression immediately. "No," he says. "I'm not falling for that again."
And with that, he storms out of the room. Jill puts the robe on again and pads across the pink and white travertine tiles of her hallway, following him to the kitchen, where he helps himself to a glass of ice water.
"I love my wife," he fumes, as she enters the room. "She's an incredible woman."
Jill yawns dramatically.
"You have no idea what she's been through in her life," he says, on the verge of crying. He feels sorry for Jasminka, Jill realizes; this is what cements him to her. But pity is no reason to remain in a marriage. Jill knows this for a fact.
"We've all had hard times," says Jill.
"Jasminka survived ethnic cleansing, Jill. Do you have any idea what that must have been like?"
Jill nods. She once played a woman who had survived something like that. She knows how it feels.
"I'm not coming here anymore." Ricky gulps down the water and refills his glass. He points a finger at nothing in particular. "This is the last time."
"Whatever you say," says Jill. She hops up onto the counter and hikes up the robe to expose more of her legs.
"Oh, God," he says, not wanting to look, but looking. "Why do you do this to me?"
"Because," says Jill, "I still love you."
Ricky actually trembles. "This is so unfair," he says, as the glassclatters to the counter. All is fair in love and war, thinks Jill, who believes herself to be at war with Jasminka.
"Come here," says Jill.
"Come here."
Jill jumps to the floor, turns around so that her torso rests across the counter, and slides up her robe even farther, exposing her exquisite, caramel-candy ass. Ricky rattles the glass along the counter for a moment; then, as he's always done, he gives in to Jill's demands.
"It's too risky," she says as he enters her from behind, thrilled, as always, by danger and her own bad behavior. "The press and everything. After all, I'm America's sweetheart."
"Nah, girl, that's Julia Roberts," says Ricky. "You're America's rich Spanish bitch."
"Shut up," says Jill, biting Ricky's hand. It is supposed to be a playful nip, but it comes out a little too hard, a little too real. She tastes the iron of his blood on the polished white surfaces of her porcelain veneers.
Ricky recoils from the blow, then grabs her hard on the back of the neck. She loves rough sex. "Fuck you. Why do you hate me?" he asks.
"I don't know," she says, turning her head until she can lock eyes with him. "I just do."
He stares at her big, cold black pupils, growing more excited by the second, and thrusts harder.
monday, april 1
My forehead is numb from this morning's Botox injection. I also had it injected into my armpits, to help stop the sweating. As a mother of two grown women, I don't feel like I should be sweating in the armpits. It's not right.
I adjust my red beret over my blond bob, and swivel in the chair at the counter in the radio studio. I fix the headphones over the hat, then concentrate my attention on the three young men who sit acrossfrom me for my show. Dumb, dumber, and dumbest, I think. The men are today's panel, the topic of my show being "Cuban male prostitutes in Miami--why they do it, and who they do it with." It's a makeup recording session, a show I can store for days when I might call in sick.
"Welcome back to The Violeta Show!" I cry into the microphone, in Spanish. "We're talking today with men who have sold their bodies for money, and how the communists have driven them to do so in Cuba with alarming regularity, reducing real men to quivering communist whores. So," I say to the cutest of them, pointing at him with a red fingernail. "You're a handsome, intelligent man. No one would know to look at you that you sold your fertile young loins to women for money."
"Lots of money," jokes the ugliest one, who seems to be on drugs. I picked a winner this time. I cannot imagine for the life of me why any woman in her right mind would sleep with that man, much less pay to do so. There are so many willing men in bars. Not that I'd know. Well, actually, I would, but no one needs to know that about me, though I do suspect my daughters know about one of my lovers at least. I hope they don't tell Eliseo. There's no telling how he'd react.
I hold up a hand to silence the homely whoreboy who has spoken out of turn, and focus more intently on the cutest one, who, I should say, I would have done in a heartbeat. I have a much more active sex life than my husband or daughters know about, thanks to a few discreet gentlemen around Miami, including one in La Broward who likes to go with me to a sex video "newsstand" at least once a month. "Let me ask, what inspired you to go into this line of work? Did you have a difficult childhood, honey?"
"Pues," he begins in his thick, street Cuban Spanish. "No. Oye, I had a normal childhood. I didn't grow up wanting to be un jinetero. It just happened."
"Yes, but how did it happen? Did the communists force you to do it for tourism? Tell me exactly--in vivid detail--how it happened. What was Castro's role in your degradation?"
"Well, you get naked and have sex with women and they pay you for it."
I suddenly regret having called him "intelligent." It is possible to be too generous to a guest. He appears to be about as smart as a paper cup.
"Yes," I say. "I think we all get that. What I mean is, how did you make the switch from being a normal working man to being a whore? Was it Castro? Did he have something to do with it? And if not Fidel Castro, was it Raúl Castro? Which Castro made you into a man-whore?"
"Bueno," he says, then launches into a story about how he once was a doorman at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, when a beautiful, older French woman tourist asked him to help her up to her room with her shopping bags. "And when I got there, she closed the door and started to remove her clothes. I did what any man would do, and when it was over she paid me. I didn't expect it."
The other panelists laugh knowingly and high-five each other. "But," continues the man. "I didn't mind the money, and soon enough the French lady told her friends, and I fucked a few and they helped me get out of Cuba, and here I am."
I look at the producer. I know he won't be pleased with the word "fucked." Oh well. It's a word, that's my opinion. All words have their place. He signals me to go to break by playing the show's break-theme song. "Fascinating," I say as a segue. "Okay, Miami. We'll be right back with more tales from the dark side of prostitution from these three charming young men corrupted by the Castro regime into a life of debauchery and debasement, and figure out what we can do to prevent our own sons from entering this terrifying and dangerous profession, right after this commercial break."
I look at the clock. It is five thirty and my daughters should be arriving at the studio any moment for our group shopping trip to get Milan something suitable for her job interview with Ricky Biscayne. I love my daughter, but she dresses like a retired schoolteacher. It's quite sad.
I remove the headphones and poke my head out of the studio, locking into the lobby area. Sure enough, my daughters are alreadyhere. Milan wears another of her bag dresses, and sips a large iced coffee from a Starbucks; she's reading a book. Geneva looks elegant and cruelly beautiful in her simple jeans, black top, and black sandals. It looks like they're actually talking to each other. The cruise must have worked.
I whistle to get their attention, and wave.
"Hi, Mom," say the girls in unison. They have that whipped-dog look they get when my shows embarrass them. Like they never think or talk about these subjects? Why do children expect their mothers to be saints? It is too much pressure.
"Have you been listening to the show?" I ask. I want them to one day appreciate that their mother is a maverick taboo breaker. The girls nod, and it seems like Geneva tries not to laugh while Milan tries not to cry. "Well, what do you think?"
Milan and Geneva exchange a look of bewilderment, and I get an idea. Without waiting for the answer my kids obviously don't want to give anyway, I say, "Why don't you girls come in here and help me ask these boys some questions?"
"No, thanks, Mom," says Geneva, still staring at that computer thingy.
"Oh, come on. It would be fun! It would be great to have a young person's perspective on the whole thing. We could have the promiscuous single girl and the virgin."
That should get them. Yes! They look up, furious.
"I'm not promiscuous," says Geneva. Milan smiles at me in disagreement.
"What?" Geneva looks at me for an apology. "I'm not." Geneva looks hurt, and turns to Milan. "You're not still a virgin, are you, Milan ?" Milan stares at her book, blushing deeply. "Oh my God," says Geneva. An evil grin creeps across her face. "You're lying to Mom and Dad about that? Why?"
"I'm going back. Who's joining me?" I ask, hoping Milan is not a virgin at twenty-four. Don't all rush in at once, girls.
"Uh, I would but, you know, I have to read this book before nextweek," says Milan. "Book club." She holds up the book. Something called P.S. I Love You. Her and her book club.
"And you?" I ask Geneva.
"I'll go," she says, flashing a competitive smile at her sister. "I'm not afraid to try new things."
My heart breaks for my Milan, who pretends to read her book but who, I know for a fact, took the comment very hard. As the door to the studio closes, I say a little prayer to the Virgin of La Caridad del Cobre that Milan will do such great work helping her sister publicize the club that Geneva will see what she has refused to see so far--that Milan is as smart as she is. Then maybe Milan will get some confidence and a better job, and see a little bit of the world. I want Milan to give Geneva a reason to be jealous of her for once. As a mother, I would like to see that.
My producer scurries in and sets Geneva up with headphones as I resume the host's position. I note the hungry way the gigolos stare at Geneva, and I don't like it. Thankfully, Geneva seems to have little interest in them.
"Hellllloooo Miami," I say. "Welcome back to the show. Today we're speaking with three of Miami's top male prostitutes about their profession, clients, and the difficulties--and dangers--of their work. For the last quarter of the hour I have a special guest, my own daughter, Geneva Gotay, the Harvard Business School graduate, to help me ask the questions I know all of you would like to ask if you were here with us. Geneva, welcome to the show."
"Thanks, Mom," says Geneva in sarcastic Spanish.
"So, aren't they handsome?"
"Yep," says Geneva, with a wicked grin that makes me nervous.
"Do you have any questions for them?"
Geneva nods and turns to the men. "So," she says. "Do you guys think my mom here is hot, or what?"
The men grin and whistle at me as if on cue.
"Oh yeah," says one. The ugly one. Of course.
"So you'd do her for free?" asks Geneva.
"Absolutely," says the cutest one. I don't blush easily. That's why I'm the queen of taboo radio. But this makes me blush for the first time in years.
Geneva smiles at me and says, "April Fool's, Mami."
I don't like to play favorites with my children. I don't. But this one, this girl? I'm telling you. But it was almost impossible not to admire Geneva and her cojones. In another time and place, I think I would have been just like her.

Talk about degrading. This is degrading. Climbing into the backseat of my mom's new Jaguar, a stiff ugly car that still smells like chemicals for car leather. Am I the only one who thinks the new Jags look like Ford Tauruses? Degrading because Geneva has taken the front seat, again. The passenger seat. Of course she has. Does anyone have more of a right to everything they want in life than her? Me, oh, you know, Milan doesn't want much, need much, just stuff 'er in the back. Let the two glamour girls sit in front. As kids, I always got the back. Geneva? Front. Always in the front. It shouldn't bother me this much. I realize that. I could just drive my own car, and follow them. But Mom wants us all to go shopping together, to pick out something for me for a job interview at Ricky Biscayne's house. Turns out he's looking for a new publicist, and Geneva recommended me. I'm still in shock. Mom wants us to shop, and have dinner together, and be like adult children who love hanging out together with their mom, a mom who spent the afternoon talking to Havana gigolos about work.
Have I mentioned I want a new life? I can't wait for this interview. My life is going to change. I feel it.
Mom folds herself into the driver's seat and starts the engine. It purrs smoothly. My Neon? It burps and backfires. Life is fair. Mom doesn't work for a living, but she gets nice things. I work, and get nothing.
"Where to, girls?" asks Mom. Why is she asking us both? It's my shopping spree, isn't it? Not Geneva's.
Geneva answers first, of course, because I am too busy fuming about the injustice of it all. "How about the Bal Harbour Shops?"
I want to scream. Only very tiny women with very tiny purses and very tiny dogs shop there. And tiny women with huge professional athletes for husbands.
"No, thank you," I say.
"No," says Mom. "Milan's right." Is this where she finally asks me, Milan, what I want? "It's too far," she says. D'oh! "Why would you want to do all that driving? How about Merrick Park? It's practically around the corner."
Geneva shrugs. "Fine with me," she says. "I was hoping to stop at my place to let Belle out for a potty break. But she can use the doggy door for the patio if she gets too desperate."
"It's settled then," says Mom. What? Settled? I didn't even get to have an opinion and it's "settled"? I want to pinch them both until they bleed. But all I can manage to do is utter a sarcastic, "Yay."
"Don't act so excited," says Geneva. She turns in her seat and looks at me, smug. "We don't have to do this, you know. We could send you on your interview looking like an Amish maiden."
I squint at her and hope she gets the point. I. Hate. You.
I tap our mother on the shoulder. "Oh, Mom, I meant to tell you I saw Geneva the other night, at the bookstore." I shoot Geneva a look to let her know I plan to tell Mom about Ig-na-cio the African Prince. Geneva panics. Her eyes get wide and she tries to speak to me telepathically. That's the only possible thing that facial expression can mean.
"What's wrong, Geneva?" I ask her.
"What were you doing at the bookstore, Geneva?" asks Mom.
"Buying books," says Geneva.
"With a guy," I say.
"A friend," says Geneva, flashing me the most threatening stare I have ever seen.
"Play nice," says Mom. She checks her lipstick and hair in the rearview mirror, the car still idling in the parking lot. Satisfied with her face, she snaps her lipstick closed, jams the stick shift into Reverse, and eases out of the spot. "We're going to spend a nice evening together, a mother and her two beautiful daughters, having a nice dinner and buying some nice new things for Milan so that she looks extra beautiful for her nice job interview. ¿Me entienden?"
"Gee, Mom, think you might say 'nice' a few more times?" asks Geneva with a sarcastic snort, as Mom steers the shiny black Jaguar onto Red Road.
I could actually punch my sister and I wouldn't feel bad about it. That's what's scary. I can't stand her right now. And just when I thought maybe we were starting to get along. What's wrong with my clothes? Nothing. Just because I don't look like Geneva, or my mom. I'm fine the way I am.
"Nice," says Mom to Geneva. "You could learn something about it from your sister."
I smile. Wickedly. But my moment of gloating doesn't last.
"And you," Mom tells me, catching my eyes in the rearview mirror, witchy. "You could learn a little about fashion from Geneva. I think we all have something we could learn from each other. That is the beauty of family. Now let's go shopping. No more cat fights."

No more cat fights. No more cat fights. This is what I chant in my head as we walk across the parking garage toward the walkway to the mall. Mom and Geneva walk close together, each carrying her expensive handbag over her left shoulder.
"Is that a Tod's?" Mom asks Geneva, referring to her butter-yellow bag with the beige trim.
"It's a Carlos Falchi," says Geneva.
"Beautiful," says Mom.
I'm off to the side. Symbolic. This is my life. They are both talland lean. Mom's in a black suit with that ridiculous red beret. Geneva in her jeans and perfect black top. I flap along nearby like someone's discount linen boat sail. My handbag is Cherokee, from Target. Very chic.
I try to stay a few steps behind them in the walkway itself. They ooh and ahh and point at the giant posters of Tiffany & Co. jewelry. Have to have it, says Geneva. So Asian. What's up with her and Asian things lately? I totally don't get it. She's wearing jade jewelry right now, that's what she told me, for good luck. Puh-lease. The most upsetting thing here is that Geneva looks so much like the model in the ad that Mom stops and puts Geneva in front of it. I can see the similarities, but Mom rubs it in.
"Milan, look at this."
"Geneva. The model. They're identical."
Geneva pulls away and surprises me by putting her arm through mine, as if we actually ever did something like that. "So," she says, rolling her eyes toward Mom. "What do you feel like getting?"
I shrug, even though I want to ask her why she's bothering to seek my opinion. I guess you could say I hold a little bit of a grudge.

We emerge from the outdoor hallway from the parking garage into the light of the outdoor mall. It really is very pleasant and pretty here. I have to admit it. I have only been here a couple of other times, both times with Mom. It is four stories tall, the mall wrapped in sort of a U shape around a lush green courtyard with fountains and palm trees. Each "hallway" balcony has dozens of large ceiling fans blowing the air around. We are on the second level, and I look over the balcony and see there are sculptures below, too. There's hardly anyone here, just a few ladies walking around with worried faces. Why is it that the more money people seem to have, the less fun they seem to have spending it? If I had that kind ofmoney, I'd be happy about it. I see three women walking down in the courtyard area, near the purple and yellow flowers, and they all carry identical Louis Vuitton bags, the see-through-plastic kind everyone around here sports these days. The shopping uniform du jour appears to be tight pants, almost like riding pants, and high ponytails. Even women who appear to be in their fifties and sixties dress like this, chattering away on their cell phones in Spanish and, occasionally, Portuguese or English. The men have their hair slicked back like the evil men in Lifetime movies, most have puffy double chins, wear gaudy rings. I don't trust them. Their eyebrows are raised sardonically, like they don't approve of something, or like they want everyone to know they are rich. Miami men.
"Where to?" asks Mom, catching up to us at the railing. I look at her and see that she's sucking in her tummy. She does that in places like this. Age does nothing to cure vanity.
"I don't care," I say. I mean it. No matter what I get, it is bound to look bad on me.
"Neiman Marcus?" asks Mom.
"No," says Geneva. "Anthropologie. Milan's an Anthropologie girl."
So there they go, fighting about where to buy me clothes. It makes me think of the first time they tried to make me over, in junior high.
"Fine," says Mom, finally. "Anthropologie."
I follow them as they prance along, and I wonder what in the world can help me be somehow in the same room with Ricky's model wife. Nothing. But I guess it would be okay to look better than this. I am actually starting to get a little excited about it.
"Come on," says Mom. She grabs my hand and pulls me along with a grin. "Loosen up. This is going to be fun."
I'm trying to think "fun," but as soon as we walk into the store, I'm, like, uh, no. It's weird. First of all, it's not even like a clothing store. It's like a hardware and rug shop, with clothes thrown on tables with buckets and hoes. The shoes are displayed in suitcases on the floor. It is astore that tries too hard. And everything looks old and musty, only it is supposed to be new and trendy. Big poofy skirts, little embroidered sweaters. Poodle clothes. Geneva thinks I'm an "Anthropolgie girl"? Isn't that what she said? She's trying to insult me, is that it?
"Pero, browse, ya," says Mom.
"I don't know." I'm standing in the doorway like the biggest geek in high school at a dance.
"Come on." Mom rolls her eyes. "Just look around. It won't kill you to look."
I walk a little farther into the store and lift the price tag to a shirt. Ninety-eight dollars? For a shirt? Is this a joke? "I can't afford this," I say.
"You haven't paid rent in your entire life," Mom reminds me. "Where does your money go?"
"How much do you have saved up?"
None of her business. But it's close to twenty thousand dollars. I shrug. Mom shakes her head and says, "You have money. So spend a little."
Geneva dances over to us, grooving on the music that blares everywhere. "Come with me. Let's make this fast, and easy. I'm a shopping whiz. I should be a personal shopper."
I follow. She plucks things for me. I look at them and frown. She picks a few puffy knee-length skirts. There is no way in hell those things are going to look good on me.
"I'm not auditioning for Grease," I tell her. "I like them longer than that."
"You think I don't know that? You like to dress like a nun. No, I take that back. You dress like a priest. That's about to end."
"I look better in longer skirts. My legs."
"This isn't Little House on the Prairie, Milan. It's Ricky Biscayne."
"I have big ankles."
"Your ankles are fine," said Geneva. "God, why are you so insecure?"
Maybe because you used to call me a fat pig, I think. Maybe it's becauseevery man I ever really liked left me for you. I shrug. She drags me to a dressing-room area with lots of doors, in a U shape around the room, with big velvet chairs for everyone to lounge about as I stuff myself into these clown clothes. How nice for them.
A salesgirl takes the clothes, opens a door, and ushers me in. I shut the door behind me and take a deep breath. I'm such a sucker. If I knew what to wear, I'd pick something for myself, but I don't know what works.
I take off the linen Dress Barn dress. It's sweaty on the back and in the part where my crotch was, in the car. I avoid looking at myself in the worn-out bra and granny panties with the rip at the waistband. To my horror, the door to the room opens at that moment, and Geneva stands there, staring.
"I thought so," she says, looking me up and down.
"What?" I slam the door.
"Next stop? Lingerie shop," calls Geneva. Bitch.
I lock the door. I put on the stupid clothes.
Only they're not stupid.
Wait a minute. I'm looking at myself in the mirror, and you know what? The fullish black knee-length skirt actually looks good. My ankles aren't bad. It's all very flattering. I turn around and around. Weird. How is that me? The shirt, too. I would never pick a shirt like this. It's sleeveless, for crying out loud, and puffy in the front, and low cut. I don't do sleeveless. Or poofy. Or low. But the shirt looks good. The bright colors and patterns balance the basic black of the skirt and my body seems to instantly come into better balance with itself. The puffiness gives the illusion of a bigger bustline.
The doorknob rattles.
"How's it going in there?" calls Geneva.
I open the door. Step out, blushing a little. I'm not half bad. I'm really not.
"Wow!" they cry. They are so happy. Why couldn't they be this happy when I read a book I loved? Or did anything other than look better?
"You've got the job," says Geneva. She looks as surprised as I've ever seen her. "I mean, you actually look like a celebrity publicist."
Yeah, I think. I do.
tuesday, april 2
I'm at my desk, windows open, and a cool breeze blows in off the trees. I love my office. It's actually the master bedroom of a two-bedroom apartment in a two-story deco building on Meridian, between Seventh and Eighth. It's a quiet part of SoBe, and I can hear birds. I used to live in this apartment, with its wooden floors and vintage appliances, on the quiet tree-lined street, before I saved enough from my party business to buy the condo in the Portofino Towers. I keep the apartment on Meridian as an office. I like the neighbors and the peacefulness of the location. I've got the place furnished with some sleek modern pieces and a collection of colorful deco ones. I have a Caribbean-painting collection on display. I love this place. Some nights, I still sleep here. It's small, homey, comfortable. This is where I started my career. I feel attached to it. In the front office, formerly the living room, my assistant is busy pricing drinkware and bathroom fixtures. In the back bedroom, my party planners work on another rap extravaganza. My second assistant is off today. I'm going to need a third assistant soon. I can't do everything myself, even though I'm a control freak and, honestly, I'd like to.
I sip Fiji bottled water--the only kind I'll drink anymore--and listen to the music. I've got CDs in a stack on the desk, and I'm listening to them all. They've been sent here by some of the top DJs in town--and in New York and L.A., actually--who got my letter requesting a demo based on the philosophy of Club G. There are some keepers here. And some losers. Also in a stack are the interior-design portfolios. I have to pick one of them, too. I've signed the lease on the building on Washington, and I am giddy. The way some women describe feeling about having a baby? This is how I feel about Club G. Iam nesting, planning, getting ready. And you know what's helped enormously? Milan. Yeah. My sister. She hasn't had her interview with Ricky yet, but to get a leg up on it she sent out a press release on Ricky Biscayne's newest venture, Club G, and literally hundreds of media outlets picked it up. At that point, banks started calling me. Everything is falling into place, just like it is supposed to.
Belle sleeps in her bed under my potted palm, and kicks her feet as she dreams. As I listen to the reggaeton mix, I handwrite a list, on a yellow legal pad, of the services Club G will offer, how ours will differ from similar services at other clubs in town, and how I will implement the services. I write "Uniforms" on the yellow pad. Custom-made harem and genie outfits, in lush reds, yellows, pinks, and purples. I think about it for a while. The club will have male and female drink servers who not only work behind the bar but also circulate around the club. There should be three women for every male employee, for the simple fact that men and woman are equally conditioned to appreciate beautiful women, and men tend to be intimidated by attractive men.
The male servers should be shirtless, I decide, with golden armbands and short, intricately embroidered silver pants. The female servers should be of a uniform size, or should wear sizes two to eight, no bigger than that, both because it isn't attractive to have women larger than that wandering the club in revealing outfits, and because I don't want to have to spend more money on uniforms than I have to. If I order them in only three or four sizes, that solves the problem. I make a rough sketch of the ideal costume for a female server. Low-rise transparent harem pants, with jeweled thong underwear. Flat shoes that curl up at the toes. A bikini-type top, with a small, short, see-through jacket type thing over that. The servers should have long hair in high ponytails, and veils over their faces. This last part will be the most controversial, given the state of the Muslim world, and U.S. relations with the Middle East. But I plan to emphasize the Moroccan influence on Spain and the nations of the Spanish diaspora, most recently in the rhythms of reggaeton and Latin hip-hop, which draw heavily on Arabian popular music. Besides, few things are sexier thanwomen with veils and beautiful eyes. They won't be the standard veils. They'll be see-through. The entire vibe of Club G will be sexy, haremlike, and deliciously immoral.
I search through my computer address book for the phone numbers of some local clothing designers I know. I call a few and describe the costumes, to see if they are something they'd like to try. They are all interested. They've all heard of the club because of Ricky's involvement. News travels fast in Miami. I ask each of the designers to come up with prototypes based on my descriptions. The winner gets the contract. And free publicity. They all agree to do it on spec.
I move on to the next item. Services. I want the usual assortment of services offered at upscale local clubs, including cleverly titled packages for purchase. Such as? I chew the end of my pen and think. I pull up Explorer and google Genghis Khan, scanning the information for key words. One sticks out. Nokhor. A Mongol word for "comrade," it sounds very much like "knock whore." I like it. Club G will offer a Nokhor package for women who want to go home with a guy they met at the club, but still remain safe. It will include, and I write this all down, condoms, edible body gel, various aphrodisiacs (from green M&Ms to vanilla and cloves), a disposable camera, and pepper spray and emergency numbers in case things don't go according to plan. How would they be packaged? I think about it. How about gilded plastic genie bottles with phallic-looking spouts? That's it! With red rope and tassels around them. Bingo.
"Brilliant," I whisper to myself, writing it all down. I have goose bumps. I get them when I'm on to something good. "This is going to be so good."
I hear a knock on the office door. I look up to see my fuck buddy Ignacio stick his head in. All my friends have fuck buddies. It just so happens that mine is really smart, with two psychology degrees, and I may be starting to fall in love with him. I made wrong assumptions about him when I first starting having sex with him, probably because he's really dark black and I'm an idiot. I assumed things like that hewas just a fitness instructor. In truth, he's a famous ballet dancer from Cuba who defected a few years ago and brought his whole family here. My family would disown me if they knew I was dating a black man, even though we have plenty of features and history in our family to indicate that we are partially black ourselves. Welcome to hypocrisy, Cuban-style.
"Hi," I say. It's almost twelve thirty. I agreed to go to his one o'clock Zumba class today, but I lost track of time. That happens when I'm having a good time.
"Ready?" he asks. He smiles at me like he loves me. I melt. I stash the pen in the holder, grab my gym bag, and stand.
"Yup. Let's go, baby."

Station 42, in Pinecrest Bay, is a peach-colored Mediterranean-style building that looks like a really big house with a really big garage for the truck and the ambulance. It is a house, more than anything else, and the house where I spend forty-eight hours a week, nonstop, in the company of men. Of the twelve-man crew, I am the only female, which I guess means it's really an eleven-man crew. I walk in the front door and check in with the off-going lieutenant. He fills me in on what's happened in the last shift, which is basically nothing. I thank him with a "sir" at the end, and head to the living room.
Like any house, we have a living room, which we call the TV room. The television is usually tuned to news or ESPN, which is fine with me because I'm not what you'd call a TV watcher. A couple of the guys are here already, all of us wearing the dark blue pants and T-shirts that are our uniforms. We have a kitchen, where the men and I cook the meals we share together, and it looks out over the TV room. I greet the guys with a hello.
"Hey, Irene," one says. "What's shaking, beautiful?"
They smile. I smile back and act like it doesn't bother me. I know they're only trying to be nice.
"What's for breakfast?" I ask. "Which one of you ladies is cooking? Scrambled, not fried, for me, girls."
"I'll scramble ya," one jokes.
"I'm gonna set up camp," I say, heading to the bunk room. "Be back in a minute, ladies, and you better have my toast buttered."
I walk like a man, with no shake or jiggle, because I don't want their eyes on me. I also don't want to reveal to them any of the anger I feel. At first, I tried to avoid cooking altogether because I didn't want them to think I was some kind of girlie girl they could push around. I talked to my cop lover, Jim, about the way the guys treat me here, and he seemed to think that if they were talking sex with me there must be something I was doing to provoke it. That's what he said. I have decided it's time to stop returning Jim's calls. I don't need the stress of a born-again boyfriend who thinks I'm asking for it. If God, as he would say, wants me to have a boyfriend, he'll send me someone better than Jim. I have faith.
I enter the rear bunk room. We have two bunk rooms at this station, and two smaller private bedrooms for the captain and lieutenant. The bunk rooms are large and sparse, with white tile floors and lockers set up to section off the room into smaller compartments. Each compartment has a twin bed with a plain striped mattress--no box spring--and a little TV set, and, really, not much else. No posters, nothing that might offend or distract anyone. It's like a prison in design and function, mostly because our goal here is not to have a good time. Our goal here is to subsist, and to exist with the sole purpose of responding to a fire or other emergency. They don't design firehouses to be too comfortable.
I put my overnight duffel bag on the thin striped mattress and prepare to unpack it into my metal locker. I see that my locker is open a little, and inside is a new "gift." Not imaginative. Whoever does this has done it before. This time, it's a stack of porn mags, with a photo of my face taped over the women in the pictures. A scrawled note, I'm pretty sure in L'Roy's hand, says, "Youd look good like this." No apostrophe. No one ever accused L'Roy of being educated. At thirty-five, he's the world's oldest frat boy, minus, you know, the college part. He'sa good old boy from Daytona Beach, who looked like Burt Reynolds in his younger years, a mistake of genetics that led him to believe he is invincible and entitled to treat women however he likes. And how does he like to treat us? Let's just say his favorite dining establishment is Hooters. He's been married and divorced four times. He asked me out once, and after I turned him down he began his campaign to win my affections, with gifts like this. I think of him as a Neanderthal. I honestly don't think he realizes what he's doing is wrong. He thinks it's going to make me like him.
I sigh and dump the mags into my bag. I'll store them in the bin in my garage at home, where I've stored all of these things. Who knows? Someday I might have a use for them. A legal use.
I return to the TV room and lean against the wall. Most of us are here, now, and the guys from the last shift are slowly leaving the building.
"Hey, man, where are my eggs?" I call, bravely and with the best "one of the guys" grin I can muster. "Ernest? Billy? Who's going to cook for me today?"
A young recruit named Kevin peeks up from the refrigerator. "I'll make your eggs, Mr. Irene," he says.
"Don't forget the toast, sister," I say.
As Kevin mans the breakfast, the rest of us line up for roll call in the office. I immediately notice there's a new guy. A really good-looking new guy. A really young, good-looking new guy. Most firefighter men are fit and attractive because of the job requirements of physical strength, but this guy has the face and the sparkling eyes to go with his excellent physique. Yowza. He's probably about twenty-seven. Most of the guys here are in their thirties, for whatever reason. The new guy is clean-shaven, with a distinct resemblance to The Rock. And The Rock is basically my ideal man. I have a major thing for The Rock. I mean, a thing thing. I like strong men. The new guy catches me looking at him, and I look away, embarrassed.
Captain Sullivan reads the roll. He calls my name last, for some reason.
"Here, sir."
L'Roy makes kissy noises. His pals laugh. I ignore him. It's best to do that.
"Now," says Captain Sullivan, ignoring the boys, "I'd like to introduce you all to the newest member of our crew. This is Nestor Perez. He comes to us all the way from New York City."
The beautiful young man steps forward, smiles with a sweetness that catches me off guard. I have never seen a uniform fit a man quite that well, tight across the back and form-fitting enough in front to reveal a respectable, if not remarkable, package. "Make him feel welcome."
He dismisses us.
Perez, the new guy, falls into line at the rig check, and tries to seem as if he's always been here. Some of the guys shake hands with him. When Kevin passes around the coffee can to collect money for the day's groceries, however, Nestor Perez blushes and says he has forgotten to bring cash. It's just the advantage L'Roy and his insecure cronies are waiting for.
"What's a matter, Nest-boy? You don't eat?" L'Roy says. He seems to think it's his job to haze everyone. I do believe L'Roy would paddle us all if we let him.
"I eat," says Perez, wide-eyed at their hostility.
"Yeah, but do you eat pussy?" asks L'Roy. He grins at me. I shrug it off. "Some people around here like that, ain't that right, Irenie?"
"Yeah," I say. "L'Roy here loves to eat Kevin," I say. The men howl, but Nestor Perez looks very uncomfortable. It hits me that to normal people from the real world, this kind of locker-room humor might be pretty offensive. But hasn't he been in a firehouse before? He must be real new to this line of work.
Nestor Perez stares at L'Roy and his wide eyes narrow slowly. "I'm sorry?" he says, his forehead knotting with concern and disgust. Just like The Rock in that movie where he's a sheriff who takes on thewhole town. I feel my womb tighten. He steps closer to L'Roy and says, "What did you just ask me?"
The guys chuckle, and I feel my breath catch in my throat. I open the door to the engine and check the oxygen tanks. Full.
"I asked you if you ate pussy," says L'Roy, coming to stand a little too close to Perez. This is so male, and so stupid, I almost can't even believe what I'm seeing. Perez straightens himself to his full height, a good two inches taller than L'Roy, somewhere above six feet. Yikes. He's pretty, so pretty. He puffs out his chest, turns his head fearlessly to one side, frowns, then speaks.
"I don't know you well enough to answer a question like that," says Perez. "And standing here next to you, I don't know if I like you enough to ever get to know you that well. But I do know there's a lady here, and what you said is completely out of line."
I blush at the mention of me. "I'm not a lady," I say.
Dennis checks the hoses and chuckles. "Irenie's one of the guys."
"What, you're a fag?" L'Roy asks Nestor Perez. I know L'Roy is just joking around, or at least I think he is, but it seems like Nestor doesn't share his sense of humor.
Nestor Perez shrugs. "I don't know you well enough to tell you that, either," he says suggestively, looking at every centimeter of L'Roy's face with deliberation and calm.
He's gay? No way! I can't believe it. Our first gay firefighter. And I thought my struggle was tough. This guy's in for it.
"But if I were a homosexual," says Perez, inching even closer to L'Roy, intentionally staring at L'Roy's lips and licking his own, "you wouldn't have a problem with it, would you?" It is the first time I've seen L'Roy dumbfounded. I don't think any of the men on the team are gay. "Teamwork is the essence of firefighting," says Perez. "I mean, that's what I read in my training manual. Teamwork, and respect. And I'd hate to think you discriminated against anyone, especially since it's your job to save all types of people."
"People have to earn my respect," stutters L'Roy.
"Let me tell you something," says Perez, easing even a little closer to L'Roy, and lowering his voice. He raises a brow confidently, licks his luscious lips again, and says, softly, "L'Roy. That's your name, right?" L'Roy says nothing. "Well, let me tell you something, L'Roy. Even if I were gay? I just think you'd like to know, you're not my type."
Perez smiles at me. I smile back. Is he gay?
At that moment, the tones begin to chime in the station, indicating a fire. The dispatcher calls out on the radio system in the office, for us and for several other stations. This means it is not only a serious fire but a big one. In that moment, each of us forgets our prejudices and differences, and we spring into action.
We hurry to the hooks on the wall and step into our bunker pants, our jackets, our big yellow boots. We move quickly and smoothly. Nestor follows the rest of us, and seems calm in spite of how green he seemed earlier. We slip on our oxygen tanks and place the helmets on our heads. And then we take our places on the trucks. I'm hanging on the side, near the cross hose. Nestor is directly opposite.
As the engine pulls onto the street, I can hear dispatch calling for reinforcements on the scanner in the cab. The siren engages, and we're off. The rush of adrenaline is like nothing else in the world. I don't want to admit it, but I'm excited--and in the end, that's what it's all about here, with these guys.
We might be different in background, gender, and other things, but deep down inside, each and every one of us is attracted to danger, and every person on this truck has a masochistic love of a good, hot fire.

My name is Jasminka, and I'm still starving.
"You need to eat more, Jasminka." The doctor, young black man with double chin, looks at me over top of his glasses, right into my eyes. "This is serious. If you don't start eating more, there's a very good chance you'll have a low-birth-weight baby, or, worst-case scenario, lose this pregnancy."
I sit up straighter, trying to reclaim some dignity. I hear paper ofexam table crinkle beneath me. I must have some substance, to make it crinkle like that. I'm not completely invisible. "Okay," I say. "I eat more food, yes?"
"That depends on what you're eating." He sighs and sits on chair against wall, takes off glasses, rubs bridge of nose. I exhaust him. Why? I'm just a woman. "There are support groups for anorexia," he says. "I suggest you start going to one."
I shrug. "I am not anorexic."
He laughs. Are doctors supposed to do that? "Really. Hmm. Then bulimic? Listen, when a woman is five-foot-eleven and weighs a hundred fifteen pounds, and she's pregnant, there's a good chance she's got an eating disorder. There's no other reason to explain why you are dangerously underweight, unless you were ill, which you're not. It's a serious problem in your profession, and if you are serious about the health of your baby and your own health, you should take it seriously."
He's right. I know he's right. I just don't want to admit it. "Maybe," I say. "I eat more food. I eat, I eat."
He hands me some pamphlets on eating disorders and another on nutrition. He tells me to up my intake to at least 2000 calories a day. "While most women shouldn't gain more than 25 pounds during a pregnancy, you could easily gain 40 or more and be healthy," he says. "In fact, you could gain 40 pounds without being pregnant and still be healthy. Healthier than you are now."
I leave clinic and drive home in gold Cadillac Escalade Ricky bought for me. I'm pregnant. I'm pregnant! About ten weeks along. I'm going to have a baby. I can't believe it. I stop at McDonald's drive-through and order cheeseburger and french fries. I eat them as I drive, savoring every salty, greasy bite. I feel guilty when I'm done, like I have to find toilet to throw up in. I fight urge, and try to find something else to occupy me.
I head to the studio behind house, to see what Ricky is up to. I sit on tacky red and white Spanish-style sofa in little living-room area and listen to the sounds of a ballad coming out of the recording booth. It's a pretty song. Ricky's songs are all beautiful. I love his music.But the room? It makes me want to throw up again. The colors are bad. Red, white, yellow, and blue. Ricky's talented and attractive, but he does not know about decorating. I want to remodel entire house. It looks like it was decorated by drunk with squeeze bottle of ketchup. It is a very nice house, but falling apart. He told me he paid two million dollars in cash for the house. I wonder why he couldn't spend a little more to have it kept up better, or professionally decorated. He actually has pool table and jukebox in the living room. That isn't the kind of house I want to raise child in. This is--how do you say it? A bachelor's pad. It's like Ricky has not accepted that he is married man, or that I might have any right to change things here. Ricky still calls this Cleveland Road home "his" house, as if I were visitor. I'll have to talk to him about that.
I can see Matthew Baker through window of the mixing booth. There's something very comforting about his face. All of him, actually. He's very balanced. Spiritually. I like him. He also seems to be very talented, and devoted to Ricky. People can't help but be devoted to Ricky. He's got something needy about him that you want to rescue. Matthew looks up from turning knobs and buttons and smiles at me. He has humor in eyes, eyes that could melt woman's heart. He deserves good woman. Better than that eerie-looking Icelandic girl who stops by here sometimes when she is on shore from job on cruise ship. I don't like her. Eydis, that's her name. I don't know Matthew well enough to talk to him about it. But I'm good judge of character, and there is something compulsive about that girl.
Matthew opens door. "Hey, Jasminka, what's up?"
"Hello, Matthew," I say. "Where is my husband?"
"Right here, baby," says Ricky, peeking out from behind Matthew. He bounds over to me like happy dog. Kisses me. Kneels at my side and holds my hand. "What did the doctor say?" I tell him about the eating. He frowns. "What does that doctor know?" he asks. "You're healthy."
"He want that I am to eat more food."
"Then you have to eat more," he says. "I'll get my moms to come cook for you."
I wrap my arms around him and kiss his neck. I have nausea from the pregnancy, and the only thing in the world that seems to make it go away is smell of his neck. I love it. It reminds me of why I am this sick, because I have Ricky's baby inside of me, growing. He starts to rub my back, almost as if he knows it's sore. He can read my body sometimes, as if we were same person. It's amazing.
"More low please," I say.
"How's that?" He leans forward and kisses my collarbone, his hands working behind me. His arms wrap around the back of my neck.
"I love you," I say.
"I love you, too, baby," he says.
"Ah-hem," says Matthew.
Ricky kisses me on lips, squeezes me, and smiles at his production partner. "Sorry, dude," he says. "When you have a wife this beautiful, and she's carrying your baby, you know."
"You're--what?" Matthew looks at me and smiles. "Really? You're pregnant?"
I nod.
"That's fucking great!" he shouts. He runs over to shake Ricky's hand and give me pat on back. "Awesome. A little Ricky running around. Damn!"
One thing I've noticed about musicians is that they use foul language all the time, without realizing it. It's like their own little language. Ricky stands up and reaches for his Bambú rolling papers and harsh, raw tobacco from Thailand on coffee table. He's been smoking a lot lately. I have quit, and asked him to. He says he can't.
"Ricky, no smoke," I say. "The baby."
He puts the materials down and nods. "Right. Sorry. I forgot."
"Jaz, you have to hear this song we're doing," says Matthew.
"Crank it up," says Ricky to Matthew, who dashes to control booth and presses buttons until song comes on. He comes back, and he andRicky sit on the sofa with me. The song is lovely, a delicate flamenco-flavored piece, with lyrics about the pain of losing a woman to another man. Ricky and Matthew have wonderful musician's masculinity to them, the way they focus and lean forward, grinning at each other over things regular people do not hear or understand. I envy Ricky his brotherhood of friendship with Matthew. I wonder if I will ever meet woman I feel that safe with. With models, there's always competition that gets in way of true friendship.
I wish for a moment that God would send me a friend. A regular woman.
Almost as if on cue, the doorbell rings. I believe in signs. It is fancy doorbell, a doorbell like a melody, with a million notes that ring and keep ringing. I go in the main house. Cynthia starts to wipe her hands, as if she will answer the door. I am tired of feeling like this isn't my house. Like the hired help have more rights to it than I do.
"I answer it," I say. I walk to the house and go inside. Mishko limps in from the living room and wags her tail at me. Such good dog. My family. I love her. I scratch behind her ears. "Come with me, girl," I say in Serbian.
I walk down long hallway to the entry, smooth my hair back, more out of habit than anything, and open door. Standing on the front step is a plump young woman who looks so much like my mother I gasp. The universe works in such strange ways.
"I'm sorry," says woman. "Did I scare you?"
"No, no, not scare me," I say. She has shoulder-length blond hair, quite light, with highlights, cut in fashionable style. She has understated makeup in peaches and golds. And she wears a pretty, black ruffled skirt with red heels and red and purple sleeveless top. Over her shoulder is adorable Vuitton handbag, the clear one. I have one just like it.
"It's the clothes," says the woman, looking down at herself as if she wore something ugly. "They scared you."
"The clothes?"
"My sister made me get them." She tugs awkwardly at the hem of skirt. It reminds me of traditional Serbian skirt, sort of folksy in thick cotton, but modern, too. "I'm sorry. I'm Milan Gotay." The woman blushes and holds out her hand. Milan? Wasn't the song Ricky just played me about that city? Another sign. God has sent me a friend. I know it. "I'm here to interview with Mr. Biscayne for the publicist job."
Publicist job? Oh, right! Ricky has opening. His other guy is in jail. That's how it is with the people he usually picks. "Welcome," I say. I take her hand and shake. Her handshake, like her body, is solid but not soft. I find her stunning, and substantial, and am envious and drawn to her at the same time. I admire women with flat bellies and large rear ends. "I am Jasminka, I am wife of Ricky."
"I know who you are! You're so beautiful," gushes Milan, in a baby-like voice.
"I feel not so beautiful today. I am little bit sick." I want to tell her I'm pregnant, but Ricky and his manager want me to wait as long as I can. "Please come in."
The woman's face softens with awe as she enters house. At one time I might have thought it was luxurious home, but I've seen better homes since modeling, and I don't think Ricky takes very good care of house.
"You have a beautiful home," she says in that breathy, childlike voice. "Wow."
"I take you now to Ricky," I say. I pray he hires her. "Follow me."

The fire has engulfed half of a two-story stucco apartment complex in a poor part of Cutler Ridge, and I can feel the heat of it through my suit. It's like I don't even have the helmet or the oxygen tank over my face. I feel the heat as if someone were holding a torch directly to my skin.
I jump from the truck and grab an ax. It is one of the golden rules of firefighting that you always carry a tool, whether you think you will need it or not. I turn on my big red flashlight and prepare to meet thisfire head-on. I'm not really aware of who each of the firefighters around me are anymore, as individuals. As a unit, we move toward the building. Captain Sullivan tells us that our station has been assigned search and rescue, meaning that there are still people in there. People who could be alive, or who could be dead. It is our job to get them out.
We rush to the burning building, altruistic, ready to give our lives. I never feel more alive than I do in these moments, tempting fate, saying to fire and other elements and forces that try to destroy me that they won't be able to win--not on my watch. I'm going to win this. Heat blasts me like a wind from hell, and I charge through a doorway and into smoke and near-total darkness. I breathe the oxygen, but the taste and smell of smoke is everywhere around me anyway. I hear crying and screams, and I follow the sounds through a smoke-filled hallway. I hear the creaking, unmistakable groan of wood in flames. I run, the weight of the tank and the uniform cramping my back.
I find a closed door at the end of the hallway. The cries come from the other side of it. I kick it open, and enter. Inside are three children, two of them standing shivering in the corner, and the other, a baby, lying limp on the floor. I grab the baby, and feel another firefighter at my back. I can't tell who it is. He rushes in and grabs both girls. "Let's go, book it," he says. I don't recognize the voice. We run back through the flames and smoke with the children, and back into the light just as a timber falls across the doorway, missing me and the limp baby in my arms by centimeters. I rush the child, a girl in a diaper, with pink barettes in her hair, to the nearest paramedics. They take her and begin to do their job of assessing life or death, and the horror of bringing her back to the living. The other firefighter, who I now believe is Nestor Perez, hands the two older children to the paramedics. They scream that their cousin is still inside, in her room, and their mother.
I run back to the building and try to find my way back down the hallway. There are two other firefighters here, and I recognize them as Dennis and L'Roy by the way they move and by their voices. They have the child. Dennis rushes past us with the boy, and shouts something about a man who refuses to leave the room. Nestor and I rush tothe room with L'Roy and find a very drunk or drugged man who appears to be suicidal. He fights us when we try to get him out of the room. We gang up on him and lift him from the bed. Nestor hoists the man over his shoulder and hurries out of the room. L'Roy and I intend to follow, but as soon as we get to the doorway, it collapses and flames crash down from above, all around us. L'Roy is knocked to the floor by the crashing wood. I hear him cry out in pain. I look around the room for a way out, but there is none. Everything burns. The only way out will be through the window area, but it's blocked by debris and flames.
"Hang on, L'Roy," I call to him. "Can you move?"
"No! My fucking leg! Oh God it hurts!"
I act so fast I feel as if I watch myself from somewhere far, far away. I jump into the flames and begin to hack away at the wall around the window with my ax, praying I won't cause the building to cave in. I swing the ax like crazy, again and again, until a hole comes, and then, mercifully, a piece of the wall gives way and an opening big enough for the two of us appears. In all the swinging, my mask has come loose, and I feel the smoke choke me. I adjust the mask, but it won't go on right. I should leave now, but I can't let L'Roy stay here alone. I can't do it.
"Come on," I cry, rushing back to L'Roy. It is utterly counterintuitive to do this. I don't like this man. He doesn't respect me. I'm risking my life to save him, and I can't think of a good reason why other than the fact that he is a human being. I feel like I am on fire. I burn, every inch of me, and I almost can't stand the feel of it, needles on my skin, knives in my lungs. I am not going to let this man die here, I think. "Hold on to me!" L'Roy reaches up and wraps his hands around my neck, and I drag him toward the light. Through the flames, across the debris, and, God knows how, I get us out. I drag him as far as I can from the building and I drop to the grass with him and roll us to put the flames out. L'Roy screams in pain, but I don't care. He'll die if I don't get the flames off of us. And then we lie there, and the others come, and there is screaming and I'm dizzy. Someone picks me up off the ground like I weigh nothing. I look through his mask and see Nestor Perez, his eyes watering from smoke, or something else.
"Thank God," he says, his voice choked with emotion. "Thank God you're alive."

At that moment, a black Lincoln Town Car with dark windows eases past the guarded gate of Jill's ten-million-dollar Bal Bay
Drive waterfront estate, onto the pink tile circular driveway, and stops at the rounded white turret that serves as the formal entry to the courtyard leading to the front door. For a woman who has made her fortune on songs like "I'm Still Ur Ghetto Girl" and her supposed "street cred," Jill is oddly enamored of formalities, the tackier and more garish the better.
Jack Ingroff, jet-lagged and with a painful hamstring pulled during a stupidly acrobatic bit of purchased sex with an absolutely gorgeous Japanese transvestite, opens the back door of the car. He does this even though the driver, a grossly underemployed physics professor from Azerbaijan, hurries as fast as his hefty frame will take him, from the driver's side around the back of the car, in a nervous effort to pamper Jack the way his fiancée demands she herself be pampered. But Jack, a socialist in theory if not in practice, and a man from modest means, doesn't play that way. He opens his own doors, pays his own bills, and, well, other than the whole paid-sex thing, considers himself a pretty damn good and normal guy.
"Dude, don't worry about it. Seriously, Yaver, don't," says Jack as he stands in his rumpled jeans and T-shirt, squinting in the bright South Florida sunshine. He notes the surprise on Yaver's face at the mention of the man's name, and figures it is because Jill has never bothered to learn the names of those who work for her. Or if she has learned Yaver's name, likely she has never bothered to use it. Jack, who was raised by a single mother who was a poet and college teacher in a small Massachusetts town, is continually surprised--and sometimes intrigued--by his future wife's natural callousness. As a sensitive writer type and a formerly scrawny asthmatic kid who now yearns to be seen in real life as the tough guy he once played (quite badly, inhis opinion) in a blockbuster movie, Jack hopes some of Jill's cruelty will eventually rub off on him. If it does, he thinks, Hollywood and all the crap that goes along with it will be a hell of a lot easier to manage. If it does, he might even be able to stomach shopping in a regular store again, a grocery store. As it is, the mere sight of the checkout counter and all the gossipy rags that go along with it sends him into a panic. It is a good thing that Jill has personal shoppers to keep her house stocked with food and supplies, because otherwise Jack thinks he might never eat anywhere but restaurants. The thought of hiring someone to grocery shop for him makes him about as sick as the thought of waiting for a fat old Azerbaijani physicist to open his car door.
Yaver rushes around to the trunk and opens it, eager to open something. Jack notices the older man has a limp, and immediately realizes they both have limps at the moment. There is something sort of pathetic and almost noir about this, so Jack laughs. He has a bad habit of laughing at jokes he's told himself in his head, giving him the appearance in some circles of a crazy man. In other circles, he is considered simply a dick.
"I am sorry, sir," says Yaver, yanking one of Jack's two Louis Vuitton suitcases out of the trunk. "Did I do something to upset you?"
Jack places a comforting hand on Yaver's shoulder and shakes his head, smiling. "No, no, my man. Not at all. You've been great. I'll get the bags, though."
Yaver looks offended and confused by this last bit. "You are sure?" he asks.
"They're my fucking bags," says Jack, with a surprising burst of hostility aimed entirely at himself. He feels guilty and fraudulent for making upward of twelve million dollars a movie, when he is the first to recognize his own mediocrity. Jack is always looking for ways to blow his money, because the very feel of it in his bank accounts makes him loathe himself.
Yaver knows none of the reasons for Jack's outburst, and figures Jack is on drugs and possibly dangerous, neither of which is true but both ofwhich are widely reported in supermarket tabloids. "I'm sorry, sir."
"No," says Jack, running a frustrated hand through his disheveled hair. "I didn't mean it like that. I meant I'm a schmuck for being in a position to have someone like you, a good guy like you, an educated man, carry my idiot fucking designer bags for me."
"Okay." Yaver maintains a distance from Jack.
Jack laughs again, with the wry half-grin that has caused millions of women the world over, even some in Azerbaijan, to fall in love with him. "I might look like a pansy-ass wimp, but I can still schlep my own crap. That's what I'm trying to say, Yaver."
Yaver bows slightly, making Jack feel horrendous. Yaver would like to look as "wimpy" as Jack and doesn't know what the beautiful young man has to complain about.
"Look, man," Jack says. "You don't have to do all that." Jack pantomimes Yaver's bowing and scraping. He lowers his voice and realizes that the five bottles of Sapporo he had on the flight haven't yet worn off completely. "You really don't. I know you're a physicist. You're ten times smarter than me or Jill. I recognize that and I'm sure you recognize that."
Yaver blushes intensely and stares at the ground.
"You do recognize that, don't you? Don't shit me. You recognize that you work for a couple of fucking morons, right?" Jack smiles. Yaver says nothing. "So," Jack continues. "We're cool, okay?"
Yaver nods without looking up. Jack sets the suitcases down and approaches the older man. Jack places a hand beneath Yaver's chin and lifts his face, their eyes finally connecting.
"You know I'm right about you," says Jack with the grin. He points at Yaver's chest. Yaver blinks a few times, and smiles.
"Yes," he says softly. "I believe so." Until now, only Yaver's wife has known the utter disdain with which he regards Jill Sanchez and her associates.
"Good man," says Jack, and smacks the man's chest. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to hobble up the steps of this gaudy, idiotic cupcake of a mansion now."
"Yes, sir," says Yaver. He chokes back a laugh.
"It is gaudy, don't you think?"
Yaver examines the white Tuscan stucco of the mansion with the pink trim, the white marble columns, the cascading fountains with fat cherubs cavorting in the foamy blue spew. "I suppose it is, sir."
Jack shrugs, and lowers his voice and looks around like a conspirator. "I'm working on her, you know?"
Yaver nods solemnly and tries hard not to roll his eyes; he's seen other men work on Jill Sanchez, with the same luck as men who work on guiding Eastern Europe and Russia toward justice and honest government.
"I've got this plan," says Jack with dreamy eyes. "New Mexico. That's where I'd like to live. Somewhere close to the mountains, with big sunsets. Get us a little adobe casita, fill it up with art, raise some kids. Santa Fe. That's what I'm thinking. Like, a totally normal life, skiing, hiking. That's all I want, believe it or not."
Yaver smiles through his pity, and stops himself from bowing. "It's a good plan, sir," he lies.
"Jack. No more of this 'sir' shit, okay?"
"Okay, Jack."
"Eh, okay, Jack."
"We cool?"
"We are cool."
And with that, Jack turns toward Jill's house, leaves Yaver in the hot sun, and limps his way up the gaudy marble steps to the turret, dragging behind him the two stupidly self-conscious, hideously butt-fucking ugly, and overpriced designer suitcases Jill bought for him.

Ricky's skeleton of a model wife opens the door to the recording studio in the backyard of Ricky Biscayne's house, and I step in. Have I mentioned I hate her? For being his, for being gorgeous, for having that exotic accent. I blink once, and there he is.Ricky. In jeans and a simple white T-shirt, barefoot, with half a sandwich in one hand, chewing. So normal, and yet so godlike. Sigh. I start to shake. I don't mean hands, either. I mean I'm shaking, nervous, almost hyperventilating. I don't deserve to be here. Looking at him. Smelling the room, which smells like pickles and mustard and--what else?--cigarettes. Ricky doesn't smoke, does he? Maybe it's the other guy, who is turning around and staring at me with narrow eyes like he hates me. Oh my gosh. It's that little Conan O'Brien musician, the one my mom said was at the docks that day.
"You're the woman who almost drowned me," he says. "The one who called me a loser."
"I didn't push you," I tell him. "You pushed me." Ricky shoots him a strange look, and the redheaded guy continues to stare at me.
"Ricky, this is Milan," says the wife. "The publicist interview."
Ricky takes a few steps toward me and I almost hear violins. Oh, wait a minute. I do hear violins. They're listening to music, a Ricky song. Whoops! I'm standing in the recording studio of Ricky Biscayne's house, listening to a song no one else has ever heard before, and he's about to shake my hand. What would the girls of Las Ricky Chickies think of this? I can't wait to tell them. I should have brought my digital camera.
"Hi, Milan," he says. His voice is low and gravelly. "Geneva's told me a lot about you. Come in. Sit down. Can I get you water or something? Get comfy."
I decline the water. I feel too weird in these clothes to do anything normal like drink water. The model wife says she's going to the kitchen to eat. Good idea. She should eat for a year. The balding guitarist dude asks Ricky if it's okay if he adds some overdubs to the tracks, whatever that means. He's slightly chubby and has a hard-to-place accent. California? Because I'm a masochist about men and sex, I like the way he gives me the evil eye. Even though he is rude and almost pushed me into the water, I am telling you, if this guy wanted me, I'd do him. Maybe both Ricky and this guy, at the same time, like I've seen in photos on the Internet. Oh. My. God. That would be so awesome, a story to not tell my grandchildren.
Ricky introduces the guy in the cap to me as Matthew Baker, which makes me think of my grandma and how she's been spewing nonsense from the Book of Matthew lately. I think of sharing this detail, but think better of it. Rather, I shake Matthew Baker's hand. "Small world," he says, with attitude. He has pretty, expressive eyes.
I sit on the sofa and cross my legs. No need to show Ricky too much too soon, you know what I mean? No, I'm not joking. If he tells me I have to go down on him for the job, I will. I want to bite him, everywhere. I want to pinch him to see if he's real. He sits next to me and I smell grasslike cologne on him. I want to eat it. Him. The whole thing. Ravenous.
"Oh my God," I say. "I'm so nervous. I love you. I mean, I love your music. I'm seriously, I mean this, I am, like, your biggest, biggest, stupidest fan in the entire world. I'm, like, the secretary of Las Ricky Chickies? This Internet fan club for you? Have you heard of us?" I see the miniature Conan O'Brien roll his eyes at Ricky and I realize I've made a fool of myself. I backtrack. "I mean, I'm professional, too. I'm a good publicist. I really am. I just, oh my God. I don't know. I'm sorry." I look at my hands. "I'm acting like an idiot."
"You're cute," says Ricky, looking me up and down.
"But I'm not actually an idiot." I stop talking and it hits me that Ricky has just told me I'm cute. "I am?"
"Yeah, yeah," says Ricky. He's smiling and puts a hand on my knee. "Deep breath, Milan. Calm down." He looks at Matthew. "She's pretty, right?"
Matthew shrugs. "I don't think that's what you should be talking about," he says. What? Matthew doesn't think I'm cute? Not even after the full Geneva-inspired makeover, with highlights and a haircut and makeup lessons? I worked really hard to be cute today. Why doesn't he think I'm cute? I want them both to think I'm cute.
"Oh really." Ricky looks at him like these two argue a lot. "And what, exactly, do you think we should be talking about, Mr. Perfect?"
"Her résumé or something." Matthew gets up and shakes his head. "I'll be in the booth if you need me, Ricky. Milan, nice to meet you.Glad you didn't kill me at the docks. Sorry you think I'm a loser. An apology would be nice. Don't let him do anything to you that you don't want him to do."
Ricky and I sit in silence until the door to the booth is shut.
"Don't mind him," says Ricky. "Jackass."
"Who is he?"
"My producer. He's just jealous. He's not very good with women, either. Especially cute ones like you. So. What were we talking about?"
"Uh, how you think I'm cute?" I feel like I'm watching a movie of someone else's life. This is ridiculous.
"Yeah." He scoots closer to me and lifts an eyebrow. "Like a girl next door or something." He's staring at my mouth. Like he wants to kiss me. That's weird. But not impossible. Or is it? Okay. Think, Milan. Why is he doing this? You just saw his wife. She is perfect. And you are not. You, Milan, are an average girl. But then again, this is the same guy who writes songs in praise of average girls. Maybe he actually means it?
"This is very strange," says Ricky, still close, still staring.
"What is?" Do I stink? I showered. I scrubbed. Shaved. I even bent over like a cat and shaved my chocha, just in case.
"I feel something about you I didn't expect to feel."
I stomp a foot just to make sure I'm not dreaming.
"Something?" I ask. "Like what kind of something?"
"Like a good energy with you." He stands up and offers me his hand. "Come here."
I take his hand and stand. This. Isn't. Happening. He pulls me down a little hallway, to a door. The hall is dark and the door is closed. He puts me in front of the door, facing it, and stands behind me, right up against my body.
"You have a beautiful body," he tells me.
I say nothing. There's a sign on the door that says OFFICE, which seems sort of redundant to me, but I am a subtle sort of girl.
"This here," says Ricky, "is your office."
"My office?" I squeak. "But you didn't ask me anything yet. I just got here."
He reaches past me and turns the knob. Pushes me into the darkened room. It's an office, with shelves and a desk, plants and a rug. It's a pretty nice office, with lots of space. The computer is really nice, a Mac with a huge screen. Framed posters of Ricky grace the walls. Ricky steps in behind me and closes the door.
"Milan," he says. I don't move. "Turn around. Look at me."
I do. He's gorgeous. I know, that's a lame description. But I don't know what else to say. I can't even breathe, much less speak. This is so wrong, a total lawsuit. If this were someone like Tío Jesús, it would be really, really wrong. But it's not. It's Ricky Biscayne. And I've made love to him thousands of times in my head. It's like he knows that, the way he's smiling at me. I feel like I know him already, like I've known him forever.
"Come here," he says.
"Right here." I walk to him. He touches my face and says, "I don't do this. I don't usually have these strong feelings for women who work for me."
"You don't?"
"No." He looks into my eyes and I see that his are bloodshot. He must work a lot, sleep not enough. He needs me to help him. "But here's what you need to know about me. I'm very intuitive. I can feel things other people don't. I know when things are right or wrong, because I just feel it. It's almost like I'm psychic."
"Yeah. And I trust my instincts. I always do. That's how I've gotten here, where I am, that's how I've gotten to be Ricky Biscayne."
"What does this have to do with me?" I ask.
"I like you," he tells me. "I think we'll have a lot of fun working together. You like to have fun?"
What does this mean? I nod weakly. I expect he'll kiss me now, but he doesn't. He backs away with a grin, and turns on the lights, blinding me.
"Welcome to Ricky Biscayne Productions, Milan," he says. "This is your office."
What? No kiss? No sexual harassment? I don't believe it. After all that? Is this guy twisted? "You're hiring me?" I ask.
He opens the door to leave. "Yeah," he says.
"But you didn't ask me anything. You don't know anything about me."
He looks at me. "I know more than you think," he says. "And I trust your sister. You can start now. I have to get back to the studio. Let me know if you need anything, cutie."
He leaves. I stand there, humiliated for having thought he was going to seduce me. Totally, completely humiliated. I follow him down the hall. "Mr. Biscayne?" I ask. He stops in the little lounge area and we sit on the sofa again, side by side. "What do you want me to do? I mean, you want me to start, but with what, exactly?"
Ricky smiles at me again, and points to the window of the sound booth, where Matthew Baker sits at a large console, twirling buttons. "You like him?" asks Ricky.
"Matthew. You like him?" Ricky looks at Matthew as if he dislikes him, for some reason.
"I, uh, I don't know him."
"My wife thinks women find him attractive. I think he's a troll. Whose side are you on?"
Side? I have to pick sides? Really? No way. That's not right. I want this job, though. And Ricky doesn't seem to use the regular kinds of employment tactics. "Uh, yours, I guess."
"You guess?"
"No. Yours. Absolutely."
"Matthew's a troll? Is that what you're saying?"
I nod, and hate myself for doing it. Why am I doing that? Why am I insulting some guy I don't even know? But, then again, he shrugged when Ricky asked him if I was cute, so it could be seen as revenge. Screw Matthew Baker anyway. He's rude.
"What kind of guy do you like?" he asks.
"Ones that look like you," I answer honestly. "I have pictures of you all over my room."
He turns toward me and grins. "You're shitting me."
"No, sir. I'm not."
"So maybe I should have kissed you in the office back there. I was worried you didn't want me to."
I'm speechless. Totally, completely. Words? What words? What are words? It's all I can do to actually just keep breathing and stay alive. He stands up and laughs.
"Hey, don't look so scared. You know I'm kidding, right?"
Huh? "Yeah," I say. But I don't know. I don't know anything. "Right."
"I'm just kidding!" he says, laughing loudly at my shocked expression. "You're cute. I meant that part. But, Milan, I'm a married man."
Dizzy. Breathe, Milan. I say, "I, uh, I met your wife. She's really nice."
"We're all nice. We're like a family here. And we joke around like a family. We flirt. Get used to it. Welcome to the craziest family since the Osbournes."
Ricky opens a bamboo box on the coffee table and pulls out a rough-looking little cigarette, sticks it in the corner of his mouth. No! He doesn't smoke! Does he? I never read anything about that. I have read in his interviews that Ricky Biscayne takes his health very seriously. I remember the article perfectly, how it says he has a broccoli shake with wheatgrass every morning. After I read it, I even tried blending broccoli with apple juice a couple of times, trying to be like him. It was puke-a-licious, and I lasted two days before going back to eggs and sausage.
I stare, with my mouth gaping.
"I have one now and then," says Ricky with a shrug, as if reading my mind. "But I'm trying to quit." He lights the match on the fly of his jeans, and I feel a tingle of excitement. He smiles and blows smoke in my face. So pretty. He's so pretty with his lips like that. I forget all about how much I hate cigarettes.
Ricky picks up off the coffee table a stack of photos of himself and starts sifting through them while he smokes. "What do you think of that one?" he asks. The photo is sexy, of Ricky in a wet shirt and tight jeans, leaning against a wall with a toothpick in his mouth. His abs ripple. Fuckin' A.
"I'd hang it up over my bed," I say. I realize this is a weird thing to say and clap a hand over my mouth. "Oh, God. I'm sorry."
"I like you." He winks at me. Did he actually just wink at me? Is he allowed to do that? Why am I sitting here like a little deer in the headlights of a big-ass Hummer?
"You do?" Duh. Stupid Milan.
He pushes a stray hair out of my face with his hand. "Let's see what you can do, cutie."
I gulp for breath, like the guppy I had that jumped out of the Tupperware bowl onto the kitchen floor that time when I was little and Mom told me I had to clean the fish tank. I saw it gasping, only I guess it wasn't for air. It was for water. But you know what I mean. "Okay."
He stares into my eyes. "Sometimes I think it's too bad I'm married," he says. He takes another drag of his cigarette, close enough for me to hear the embers crackling at the end, narrowing his eyes. "My manager's coming to town today to talk about strategy. We're partying at the Delano tonight. I want you to come with us."
Ricky takes one more long drag of his cigarette, pinching the end of it with the tips of his thumb and pointer finger, the rest of his fingers balled in a strong knot. He touches my chin with his hand and seems to size me up again. "You. I think Ron will like you. But, uh, you might want to wear all black. That's my suggestion. Actually, it's my only requirement. Oh, and your hot sister. Bring her, too."
"Sorry?" He's telling me what to wear? Hot sister? Hello? What? What is all this? Trying to seduce me, or pretending to, toying with me? None of this is allowed, is it? Why does it feel good? Why do I not mind at all?
"No offense, cutie. I have an image, and my people have to be part of that image. Most of the chicks who work here, I have a few on payroll, they wear jeans and heels and sexy tops. They look sexy. Lots of black, my favorite color. You look funky, and cute. But you don't look sexy." He licks his lips again. Comes close and actually brushes them very lightly against mine, not quite a kiss, but almost. I feel my loins catch a tight, painful bit of fire. Too. Good. To. Be. True. And he says, low, soft, and seductive, "I wonder what you'd look like sexy."
He backs up abruptly, shuffles through a few more photos, and stops on one of him in his underwear only, lounging next to a bright blue swimming pool. "How about this one?" he asks. "Good for publicity?"
I feel tears form in my eyes. I love this man. I actually do. "I can't believe I get to work with you. Thank you, Ricky."
He chuckles to himself, stabs the cigarette out on the back of one of the photos he apparently doesn't like as much, and stands up, suddenly seeming to lose interest in me.
"Must be your lucky day," he says as he walks away.
I guess so.

Ricky walks into the recording booth. He looks triumphant. Matthew looks at him and figures he got the psychotic job applicant to blow him. Matthew saw them kissing on the sofa just now. Disgusting. That's how he usually does his hiring, when the applicant is pretty and female. Fucks them, eats them, makes them blow him. He's a total fucking pig.
"She seems like a nice person," says Matthew. He feels sorry for the girl, even if she is rude, because Ricky is to rude what gold is to metal. She probably had no idea what she was getting into. Most of them are so starstruck they don't know how to say no. They want jobs, money, fame, and, yes, probably the majority of them want to fuck Ricky, too. Whatever. Matthew couldn't watch it--that's why he had to leave when Ricky got close to her on the couch like that. Knowing his wifewas pregnant and everything, and he still did that? It was so weird. Ricky was a sociopath.
"You like her?" asks Ricky. "Little Milanesa?"
"I don't know her." Matthew tries to seem offended by the question, as a teaching tool. To show Ricky that you shouldn't screw around with women you don't know and just met, particularly when they are looking to you to hire them.
"You like her like that? Would you do her?"
"She's pretty," says Matthew. He shrugs. As a rule, he doesn't like to "do" women at all. He likes to make love to them, and only once he loves them, and to love a woman, you have to actually talk to her and get to know her. That's how Matthew sees it, but Ricky has never understood because Ricky is to insight what Abilene is to mountain peaks.
"Yeah, well, you can forget it," says Ricky, with an oddly triumphant look on his face.
Matthew feels a pit open in his stomach. "Why?"
"I asked her about you, man," says Ricky. "While she was going down on me."
"You're a sick fucker."
"You know me, I'm always looking out for you. Always trying to get you some."
"Yeah, thanks."
"And I have to be totally honest with you."
"Why do I hope you won't?" asks Matthew.
"Do you want to know what she said?"
"No." Matthew starts walking toward the door. He isn't in a mood for rejection. On a total losing streak, he'd called Eydis on the cruise ship last night, on her satellite phone, and begged her to come back to him. She'd laughed and said she would think about it.
"She said she thought you were a troll," says Ricky. "A loser."
"No, she didn't."
"Dude, I wouldn't say that if it wasn't true. I wouldn't do that to you."
"That wasn't a nice thing for her to say."
"I hired her," says Ricky. "She gives good head. I like that in a publicist."
Matthew is truly starting to hate Ricky Biscayne. He had figured, you know, that when he, Matthew, grew up, naturally his longtime friend and collaborator would, too. But Ricky appears to be going backward.
Matthew can't wait to get out of the studio and away from both of them.

There's this idea that firefighters are brave, right? And we are, when we have to be. But most of the time, our lives are pretty damn boring. This is one of the boring times. I've been instructed to show Nestor Perez, the handsome rookie from New York, how to clean the station windows, and so we stand in the hot white sun and sickening humidity, with buckets and rags, and a ladder, wiping. In downtime at a fire station, everyone does things that are actually traditionally women's work: cleaning, cooking, laundry. Ironic. I once read an interview with a commercial airplane pilot where he said he spent most of his job in a bored stupor and the rest of it in a terrified panic. Same here.
I needed to get out of the firehouse anyway. It's L'Roy. He has not once thanked me for saving his life. He acts like it never happened. No one saw it happen, and so he's started telling people that we got out of the fire at the same time. I told Jim, the cop I'm dating, about it, and his advice to me was to let L'Roy have his pride. This made me finally tell Jim the famous words: "This isn't working out."
"Like this," I say to Nestor Perez as I dip the sponge in the bucket.
"You sure?" he says with a wry grin. He's chewing gum. He's got a New York accent. "It's sponge in water, right? Not sponge on ground? Let me make sure I understand the basics of this window-washing thing."
"Very funny," I say.
"Thanks." He smiles and starts to wash a large window in great big broad strokes, his back muscles rippling through his shirt. Wow. So what that he's probably gay? He's still the best-looking, sweetest-smelling man I've been near. If he's gay? We'll talk boys. It will be heartbreaking at first, hearing about his conquests, but I'll get used to it, and then Sophia and I will have something in common--cute, gay best friends.
"Uh, so am I doing it right?" he asks, deadpan. "Not too hard? Too light? I mean, I want to make sure I understand this stuff."
I glance over at Nestor, and watch his biceps flex and contract as he rubs the grime off the glass. Yikes. "You're okay," I say.
"You're okay, too," he says. He flashes me the white grill again. Dayum. What I might do to that. I try to think of something else. The first thing that occurs to me is Sophia, who has lately been hinting that she knows Ricky Biscayne is her father. She'll be out of school for the summer soon, with nowhere to go and nothing to do except punk around with her pal David, who will probably try to talk her into piercing something, or robbing someone. I want to trust David, to like him, but he is too wild and attractive for Sophia's good. I don't need Sophia falling for a gay boy, but then, look who's talking, right? I shudder to think that Sophia might be developing some sexual fantasies of her own. It is too awful to contemplate. She's my baby. She can't be growing up so soon. I just figured out how to be a mom, and now this, already? It's not right. I don't know how to handle Sophia anymore.
Captain Sullivan joins us outside with his beer belly, and observes our washing for a few moments before asking me to come with him to his office. My heart jumps and I feel a jolt of adrenaline. Why would he want to see me? I feel like I've been called to the principal's office. I set my bucket and squeegee down and remove the yellow rubber gloves with a snap.
"I'll take care of the rest," says Nestor. He smiles at me, blushes. Why is he blushing at me as if he's gay? He has perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth, with the tiniest of gaps between the top front two. Lovely.
Captain Sullivan leads me back into the station, to his office, and stands at the door until I've gone in. He shuts the door behind us.
"Have a seat," says Captain Sullivan. His belly slops over the front of his pants, and his skin has the gray cast of a man who eats too few vegetables. I sit on the rocky vinyl chair. "I know you've been studying for the lieutenant exam," he says.
I nod.
"You are aware L'Roy and some others want it, too?"
I nod again.
Sullivan looks at the papers on his desk and frowns, sighing. "I have to be honest with you, Gallagher. You're one of the most qualified candidates for the job. That's obvious. But as your captain I have to say I don't think you'd be the best match for the position at this time."
What? An invisible fist punches me in the gut. "What? Why not?"
He sighs and can't make eye contact, that coward. "The way this station is right now, with the particular personalities we have working here, I just had to make the decision I felt would be best for the whole team, not just one or two individuals."
"I don't understand."
Another sigh. He looks around the office, at everything but me. "What I'm saying is, I don't honestly think you should waste your time with the exam right now. You know, I just don't think some of these guys are going to take orders from you, Irene. Even though they should. That's not what I'm saying. I just don't think they're ready."
"Ready for what?"
"A female supervisor. It's nothing personal. It's all about the team." I say nothing, stare at him until he finally winces in my direction. The corners of my mouth harden. He says, "Now wait a minute. I'm not finished yet. I know a big part of the reason you want the promotion is because you're raising a kid by yourself. So I've decided to raise your salary to $41,850, even with the lieutenant position, so in a way it's like you got the promotion. At least from a money standpoint. I don't want you to think I don't appreciate how hard you work here."
"So you want to pay me like I got the promotion, without giving me any of the authority, sir?"
He sighs. "I know this isn't easy to hear, but in a field like ours you have to think of what's best for the function of the whole team, Irene. You know that as well as I do. And trust me, if you weren't such a team player, if you were more like those feminazis out there who sue over things like this, I wouldn't have been so up-front with you about all this. I'm sure you understand."
I thank Captain Sullivan with the usual "sir" at the end, and walk out the door of the fire house without responding to L'Roy's catcalls, and quietly resume my duties cleaning the windows of the station house.
"Hey," says Nestor Perez, tossing his rag into the bucket and trying to catch my eyes. "You okay?"
"Not really. But I'll be fine."
"Is there anything I can do to help?" he asks. I look from his rippling muscles to his earnest, square face, and think, Yes, you can ravage me in the backseat of my car before I go home to my miserable mother and teenaged daughter.
"Nope," I say. "Thanks, though." I start to whistle as I work, like a stinking dwarf. Like one of the guys.
Like I don't have a goddamned care in the world.

Swank. That's the word that comes to mind. I'm not a fan of the word. It's not a Milan word, see. But I have to use it because, frankly, there's no better way to describe the Delano Hotel, where I find myself at the moment. Swank. Say it like this: schwank. Lift a blue martini. Wink. Throw your head back and laugh like tinkling bells for the benefit of all those around who might not be having as fabulous a time as you are. Yes, dahling. That's it. You got it. You, too, now belong at the Delano. Smooches!
I've driven past this place a million times, and I've heard about it from Geneva and whoever. You know the place, even if you think youdon't. Think massive white curtains, outside. Maybe they're a palest pink. Tall building, deco, matte, chalky white and rose, like after-dinner butter mints, only it's a hotel. The Delano is all about the huge white curtains, curtains two or three stories tall, perfectly clean and wrinkle free--God knows how--billowing slowly and gently, with fairy-tale calm. That's outside, in front. Inside, think minimalist, dark wood floors with huge fat white columns like giant pieces of sidewalk chalk, all of it so clean and fresh and white you want to take a minty deep breath that never ends and just sort of float away. Things are in odd proportions here, like a giant lampshade, white, hanging over a tiny sofa, also white. Interesting. I like it. I really, really like this place. It's me I don't like, in it. Until this morning, I was a poop publicist. That does a number on a girl's self-esteem. I don't feel like a poop peddler belongs here. Me, in the Delano, is clumsy, like a hungover birthday clown at a sushi bar.
This is my first time actually here. It's on the beach, in South Beach, and very pretentious, even though it claims to be "casual chic." I've just walked in with Ricky and his entourage. Can I use that word now? Entourage. I'm part of the entourage. Only I feel like, you know, the hungover-clown contingent of the entourage, while the rest of the entourage is people like Jasminka and her model friends, other people who look way better than me, and then Geneva, who I brought because Ricky wanted me to. Geneva "the hottie" fits in here, with her stinky little dog and her Fiji water. She even waves to the manager, after cracking her wrists, and then waves at some other people in the lobby because she knows everyone in town from her days as the party-planner girl. I watch her and try to affect the same posture. As part of the entourage, maybe I fit in better than I think. I don't know. But I do know I better stop saying the word "entourage" in my head because it's starting to give me a headache, and because I'm an idiot and I start to repeat things like that just for fun when I'm nervous, which would be now. Entourage, entourage, entourage. Speaking of the entourage, I wonder where that little redheaded man is. Isn't he part of Ricky's entourage?
We stroll along, the group and I, following Ricky and his manager, Ron DiMeola, who is married to Analicia, the Mexican novela star. A crew from the hotel escorts us. How cool is that? Normal people have to find their own way around. Ricky gets guides everywhere he goes. They offer him water in bottles, they bow and scrape. I would like to be bowed and scraped to. That would rock. I'm liking this job, even if I feel like a total impostor. I'll get used to it. No, really. I promise.
We go down halls that smell of wood and lacquer, past fabulous people eating fabulous food in fabulous cafés and swank restaurants. We walk out onto a ground-level patio spilling over with little pots of flowers that smell of citrus and soil. Sunset is coming, and with it the slowing of the pulses of sound in the air. I look at Geneva and she smiles at me. Without sarcasm. Like she's proud of me and a little bit excited about all of this.
"Nice, eh?" she says, as we keep walking behind Ricky.
"Thanks," I say, truly grateful for her help in getting me this gig. "I can't believe I'm here."
"Yeah," she says, scratching Belle's ears. "Maybe you should keep that thought to yourself."
Pop! So much for my little balloon of sisterly love.
We get to the beach, and it looks like a really elegant circus, with pastel green and white square tents set up here and there, and tents that are bars, and beautiful bodies in bikinis and, ew, Speedos. Hell-o? Shouldn't Speedos be illegal? I mean, for men? They are probably the worst invention ever for the male body. There's a guy in one right over there and he turns around and I see that, ew, ew, ew, it's actually a thong. Geneva gasps and grabs my arm.
"Nasty," she says.
We laugh. Ah, insecurity. Nothing makes you feel better about yourself than putting someone else down.
As we head toward our own little collection of pointed, pastel fairy-tale tents, I feel like I'm not as bad as I thought a minute ago. After all, Ricky hired me. He even tried to kiss me, but I'm not sharing that news with anyone. Maybe I'm just being overly judgmentalbecause I still don't feel like I fit in here. And while, yes, I'd like to be taller, thinner, richer, with better clothes, and, yes, I'd like to be really tan, in something like a white curtain, something that drapes and flows and makes me look Grecian and statuesque, I'm okay. I'm not "chic," but at the moment I am starting to feel a bit scheewank. I want a blue martini.
Wearing a sexy white-mesh shirt and white linen shorts, Ricky comes over and puts his arm around me, ushers me and Geneva into a tent. Asks us what we want to drink. Geneva orders a cosmopolitan. I ask for the blue martini. Wow! It's like he read my mind or something. Off he goes. I can't believe the star is actually waiting on us. I feel like I should be doing that.
"He's cool," says Geneva.
I want so badly to tell her about our almost kiss, but I don't.
"You look good, Milan," she says, with a touch of surprise in her voice that I could do without. She clicks her fingernails, picking at them, and I put my hand over hers to stop her. I'm wearing the results of our late-afternoon emergency shopping spree: dark denim Moschino low-rise jeans and a sleeveless, puffy-front black Cavalli top, short-sleeved and cut in a peasant-blouse style. I like the clothes, but I worry that my crack shows all the time. Geneva thinks I have a pretty belly and that I should focus on that, but I'm always worrying about my behind. She has suggested I get my belly button pierced, but I would rather stick a toothpick in my eardrum.
Geneva wears her version of the same outfit, though her jeans have tiny back pockets. Geneva has forbidden me to wear any brand of jeans with tiny back pockets. The bigger the back pockets, the better, she says. We are both barefoot with our shoes stashed in our bags. Geneva knew we'd be on the beach and suggested flip-flops and big totes.
Ricky comes back with the drinks and gives me one of his looks. Like a seductive look. Then he goes to the next tent to do something else, with a quick look over his shoulder at me and a little wink.
"What was that?" asks Geneva.
"What?" I say.
"That wink."
"What wink?"
Geneva observes me over the rim of her cosmopolitan. "Just be careful," she says.
"Don't do anything stupid." She touches my newly lightened and shortened hair, running her fingertips through its many layers. "I can't get over the hair. Why did you wait so long to get your hair done?"
"I don't know."
"Why don't you listen to me more?"
"Because I've hated you for stealing my men, Geneva. That's why."
She stares at the sand and shakes her head. "I'm sorry. I really am. I was immature and stupid. I'll never do it again."
"Will you pierce your belly button now?"
"I don't know," I say.
"You have to stop saying that all the time."
"Saying what?"
"'I don't know.' You say it way too much."
"Stop saying 'sorry,' too."
We watch the stars and models. "Just remember one thing," says Geneva, tilting her glass toward Ricky and his glamorous ... entour-group.
"They're human. And most of them are really insecure and really messed up."
"Why would you tell me that right now?"
"You look starstruck," says Geneva. "Don't get too swept up in it. He's not that great. He's just a guy who can't dress."
"Somebody's bitter."
"Just remember that and you'll be fine."

Three martinis and almost an hour later, and we're still sitting there, watching Ricky and his pals run around and drink. Belle is asleep, thank God. "Are we going to have a meeting, or what?" I ask. Geneva laughs at me. "What?" I ask. "Ricky said it was a business meeting. They've been drinking and prancing around for an hour."
Geneva shakes her head at me in shame. "You are too much," she says.
"Partying is business in Miami Beach, sweetie, didn't you know that? They're all watching each other. Survival of the fittest."
I watch. Lots of drinking, eating, and making out. Jasminka's back, in her bathing suit and sarong. Every time Ricky leans over to kiss her, I feel, like, pain in my body. He's mine. Doesn't she know that? I growl, and realize too late that I've done it out loud. Shouldn't drink on the job, I s'pose.
"Forget it," says Geneva, with an ankle rotation and a pop.
"You can't have sex with him."
Her look tells me she knows I know who she means, and, furthermore, she finds me idiotic. "Even if he offers. Say no. You have to say no. Got that?"
"Never mind."
Jasminka and her model friends traipse off to swim in the ocean, their flat bottoms barely jiggling as they skip and cavort. They remind me of a herd of very small deer. Finally, Ricky, Ron, and Analicia join us in our little tent. Ron closes the curtains. I take a notebook out of my tote bag. Geneva says hello to everyone and Ricky introduces her as his new business partner in "a hot new club." He introduces me as his "new right-hand girl," whatever that means.
Ron is drunk, and fat, and old, with a body like Jack Nicholson's. With his suit jacket and no shirt, his long hair slicked back over thebald top of his head, he looks overdressed, sweaty, and greasy, like a Hollywood movie stereotype of an Italian mobster. Why does he make himself look like that? You'd think if a guy was Italian-American he might actually try not to look like that stereotype. And why did Analicia, a novela star and pop singer adored by everyone in Latin America and many other parts of the world, choose him to marry, of all the men on earth? She was already rich, wasn't she? She was also adorable; with her pale skin and freckles she was almost like a much more beautiful and slender version of me. I don't understand what a perfect and successful woman like Analicia sees in a sleazy slob like Ron DiMeola, a man who, if I understand correctly, was fired out of his high-powered record-company job last year. But that's none of my business. He has to be at least twenty-five years older than she is, too. If I looked like Analicia, I'd find a guy like Ricky. En punto.
"Shall we get started, gentlemen?" I ask, trying my best to sound confident and like I belong here. Geneva rolls her eyes and laughs at me. Thanks for the support, man stealer.
"Yeah, just as soon as I get some vitamins." Ron takes a silver tin out of his pocket. Ricky watches as he opens it to reveal a tiny mountain of white powder, and smiles. Analicia stares off into space and pretends not to watch as Ron sticks one end of a little silver tube into the tin, and the other into his big fat hairy nostril. Uh, okay. I didn't expect to be caught in the middle of a bad episode of Miami Vice. I really didn't. All that's missing is Don Johnson and a peach-colored men's blazer.
I guess my jaw drops as Ron takes a snort like a pig in truffles. He looks up at me with that "you lookin' at me?" face. "You want some, Milan?" he asks, in a tone that lets me know he knows I'm a drug virgin. The tone also implies that if I rat him out, I will die soon after. I look at Analicia, but the starlet still stares off, twirling a piece of her curly brown hair with her fingers.
"No, thanks," I say.
I'm remembering that a couple of years ago Analicia did a bunch of Spanish public-service announcements about how bad drugs are for kids. How could she lie like that? I'm starting to feel less like a hungover clown and more like a kid who has awakened to see if Santa Claus came, only to find her mom and dad in a three-way with a reindeer under the tree.
Ron offers the cocaine to Ricky. Ricky looks at me and Geneva, then shakes his head. "No, thanks, man."
Ron laughs. "Suit yourself." He turns to me. He doesn't have meat in his mouth, but he looks like he should, a big raw bloody piece. "Now, so, Milan, like, if Ricky had just done coke, which the little prick isn't doing because he wants to make a good fucking impression, this is one of those things I obviously don't want you to tell reporters about."
Ron, Analicia, and Ricky laugh. The martinis have gone to my head and I feel like I should laugh, too, but I'm not sure why. I smile like a jackass, trying to fit in. Geneva watches it all without changing her disapproving expression.
"Of course," I say.
"Look, kid. Now and then you get a smart-ass who asks about this kind of thing," explains Ron. "And what do you tell them?"
"I tell them nothing?" Is that the right answer? I have no idea.
"Wrong," says Ron. Okay. Now I have an idea. "You tell them they're fucking crazy. You tell them Ricky is as healthy as Jane Fonda." He shoots Ricky a disgusted look, and slaps his own pudgy knee. "Who the fuck did you hire for a publicist, Ricky, Betty fucking Crocker?"
"Milan's had a long day," says Geneva, coming to my defense. "And this," she points to Ron, the drugs, "isn't exactly professional behavior."
Analicia, wearing a miniskirt and a bustier, climbs onto her husband's lap, smoking a cigarette. No way! She smokes, too? "Who's Jane Fonda, baby?" Analicia asks Ron in her thick Spanish accent, tracing his lips with her fingertip as if he were not as repulsive as a zoo gorilla eating its own mucousy yellow turd.
"Nothing, forget it," says Ron to Analicia. The feel of her body on his lap must have calmed him down, because he stops talking and just grins. Then, in front of everyone, he grabs one of her breasts and squeezes it. "These are so fucking great," he says of the breasts to Ricky. "They're new. She got 'em lifted up and filled out. They're like beach fucking balls. What do you think?"
"Yeah, man," says Ricky as Analicia giggles. Ricky shoots me an apologetic look. I feel sorry for him. I don't think he's liking this, either.
"Here," says Ron. He takes Ricky's hand and places it on his wife's breast. Geneva and I both gasp as Ricky squeezes it and Analicia throws her head back and laughs. What is wrong with these people?
"Very nice," Ricky tells Ron in a flat tone, once again wincing at me. He's embarrassed, poor thing.
"You think that's good, look at this." Ron uses his hands to spread Analicia's legs. She isn't wearing underwear. Okay. What the hell? I turn away. "Prettiest shaved kitty in the world."
"Oh my God," whispers Geneva, hitting my leg with her own.
"Brazilian wax," corrects Analicia. "No one shaves anymore, baby. Razor bumps."
Geneva and I lock eyes. We've entered the fun house. Fallen down the rabbit hole. Whatever. This is another universe. And Geneva, who I would expect to be able to handle something like this? I don't think she knows what to do, either. I peek back just in time to see Ron lick one of his fat, grubby fingers and stuff it into his wife. Ugh! Analicia groans with pleasure and kisses his neck.
Ricky turns away and smokes his cigarette. Another cigarette? Man.
"I think we'll step out until this is finished," says Geneva, grabbing my hand.
"No, hold on," says Ricky. He turns his attention to his manager. "Ron, I think you're making the ladies uncomfortable. We should chill a bit."
"Fine," says Ron. His eyes appear suddenly alive with energy, and with Analicia nibbling his neck he removes his finger from her and she sucks it clean.
"Jesus," whispers Geneva. She looks at me with wide eyes. "What did I get you into?"
"Me? You just cashed the guy's check, Geneva. Us. We're in this."
"Us," Geneva corrects herself. Analicia has the blank eyes of a drug addict. "What did I get us into?"
"Milan," says Ron. "Let's talk fucking business. Let's figure out how you," he points at me as if he hasn't just said my name, "and me are gonna make him," he points at Ricky, "the next hottest-shit boy next door in American popular music. A squeaky-clean all-American guy, with Latin hips." I feel like crying. I don't know why, exactly, because I'm a little drunk and freaked, but I just want to curl up and cry. "What's the matter?" asks Ron. "You nervous?"
I look at Geneva, and she's clueless. We're both clueless. It makes me like her. My sister. God, I'm glad she's here. I like her again. You bond in moments of natural disaster.
Ron looks at Ricky with disapproval. "You should have checked with me before hiring her," he says. Uh-oh. Is he going to fire me? That would be sad. I would be fired without ever having gotten to have sex with my employer.
"It's not her fault," says Geneva. "You guys are acting like assholes. What do you expect?"
Ron shrugs and seems to ignore Geneva. "But now that she's here, and now that she knows certain things about us that we don't want nobody to know, we have to fix the problem."
His New York accent, piss-poor syntax, and mobster appearance make me think I'm about to be offed, as in killed. Geneva looks like she thinks the same thing. What the fuck? What did she do to me? Why couldn't I just be the secretary of the online fan club? Why did I want this job again?
Jasminka sticks her head into the tent. "Hi there," she says to Ricky. "How's everything?"
"Good," says Ricky. He forgets to mention the porn show.
I see Analicia's eyes narrow competitively at the sight of the beautiful Jasminka. She's jealous? How weird. Me too!
"We're going up to the suite," says Jasminka. She sees me and smiles warmly. "Hi, Milan! I'm glad you're to be working for Ricky! We need someone like you around."
I smile back, weak. Jasminka waves and ducks back out of the tent, clueless about what just happened here.
"How much is he paying you?" Ron asks me. I tell him. It's a good salary, almost a third more than I made working for my uncle.
"Triple it," he says to Ricky.
"Wow," says Geneva. Six figures? I am now making more than my sister?
Ron continues, "And get her a new fucking car. I saw the piece of shit she drove here. What was it?" He looks at Ricky.
"A Dodge Neon?"
Ron shakes his head as Analicia laughs. "Unacceptable. Tell him what kind of car you'd like."
I blink. "I'm sorry?"
Ron nods impatiently, like he's hearing something for the hundredth time. "Go on."
I stutter, and Geneva jumps in for me. "Mercedes," says Geneva. "My sister would like a white Mercedes."
Hello? I mean, it's true. But still. Why is she doing this? Shouldn't I just quit? This is weird. But maybe this is how it is in the big time. Geneva knows. I don't.
"Done," says Ron.
I stare at him, speechless. What the fuck?
"What, you want some clothes, too? Chicks always want fucking clothes. Ricky?"
"Triple the salary, get her the car, and get your wife to take her shopping. That make you happy, Milan?"
I don't move. Don't speak. I am drunk and weirded out. I want to go home. Ricky gives me another apologetic look, and now I want to do Ricky like I've never wanted anything in my life. Why? Why is he looking at me like that?
"Milan," he says. "Can I talk to you outside for a second?"
I look at Geneva for permission. Don't ask me why. Habit. She smiles and shrugs. I follow Ricky out of the bungalow, into the night air.
"I have to apologize for Ron," he says with a look of agony on his face. "He's going through some weird times right now. I can't get into it, but ..." He pauses and chews his lower lip. I see how tortured Ricky is, and feel bad for him. Maybe this isn't really how Ron behaves all the time. Maybe this is rare. Maybe it will all be okay. "I am really, really embarrassed about this," says Ricky. "The record company made me hire him for the English stuff, and I've been planning to get rid of him for a while, but I haven't found anyone else yet. I'm really sorry. Okay?"
He touches my face.
"Do you still want the job?"
"I think so," I say. He is so earnest, so normal right now. Like a real person, not like a star. I want to hold him. For him to hold me.
"I'll have a talk with him," says Ricky, sniffling and wiping the end of his nose with the back of his hand. He stares with fierce eyes back at the tent. "He works for me, not the other way around."
"Okay, Ricky."
"No, I mean it. He's always doing shit like this. His ass is so fired."
"I swear, Milan, it won't happen again. Do you believe me?"
He steps close, and pulls me in. And kisses me.
Kisses me.
On the mouth. With a bite, small and sweet, to my lower lip. Holy fuck. I can't breathe. Where am I? Where are my legs? I can't feel my legs.
He pulls away and I grin up at him. I think I'm going to fall to the floor, or the sand, or whatever is under me, I can't remember right now.
"Sorry," he says softly, his eyes closed, then open and looking into my soul. "You just have the sweetest little mouth. I had to. I've wanted to do that since I met you. I don't like these people. Know that. Do you believe me?"
I don't know what to believe. But I still love Ricky Biscayne more than any other singer in the world. Nobody is perfect. I have stored up years of adoring him inside my heart. And he is such a soulful singer and songwriter, I don't think it's possible for him to be as crude and disgusting as the man in the tent. I smile at him. I love his music. That, more than this nightmare with Ron, speaks of his soul. I know him from his music. I love him. "I believe you."
"My wife and I, it's not what it seems like, we have issues. I have a separate room for her here tonight, and I want you in mine, with me. I know it's forward. I am impulsive. I told you that. I feel something for you."
He looks sweetly embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I'm just a man, and I feel something for you, Milan, something I've never felt before ... ."
Geneva comes barreling out of the tent like someone tripping alone in a bad comedy sketch. "Hi," she says, blinking sarcastically.
"Hi," I say. Did she see? No. There's no way. Geneva takes me by the arm and pulls me away from Ricky.
"What are you doing?" I ask.
"They're having sex," says Geneva with a fake-ass smile.
"That fat pig and Analicia."
"Like seals. Milan, you don't have to take this job. I can find other investors."
"No, it's okay. Ricky apologized. He said he's gonna fire Ron."
"You sure? You can handle this?"
"Yes," I say, the full knowledge that I've just kissed Ricky Biscayne coming down on me like a flock of doves. "It's just Ron. It's not Ricky. Ricky's fine. His label forced him to hire that guy."
"I'm sorry I got you into this," says Geneva. "We should go home now."
"Uh," I say. I want to stay, go up with Ricky. But I can't tell Geneva, and she's pulling me away. I don't know what to do. I lookover my shoulder at Ricky, and this time it's me with the apology in my eyes. I see him receding, gorgeous, understanding, gentle, with love in his heart for a plain, interesting woman like me. He's not happy in his marriage. He told me so. And now Geneva is pulling me away? This isn't happening. Can't be. To me? Really? No. There's no way.
"Come on," says Geneva, rotating her neck in little pops. "I'll take you home."
"I have my car."
"You're drunk."
As Geneva pulls me through the pretty, swanky lobby, her fury speeding us along, I see Matthew Baker sitting alone on a chair. He's reading a travel book on Milan, of all places. Weird. He's kind of cute. He looks worried about something. He looks up and sees me, watches me with strange, sad eyes, and waves as I pass by.
"This loser of a troll will see you Monday, publicity girl," he says, like a coworker. Like I have a normal job, with normal people, which I totally do not. "Have a good weekend."

MAKE HIM LOOK GOOD. Copyright © 2006 by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.