A Monday in October
You’re a very fortunate woman, Ms. Merrick,” the petite blonde nurse with the bouncing boobs tells me as she pushes my wheelchair down the corridor. “They did a heroic, even a miraculous job after your accident. You were touch and go for a while there.”
With my entire cranium swathed in gauze like some latter-day mummy, I nod. Not just because I understand what little Miss Perky Tits, RN, has said, but because there’s nothing else I can do. I’m wrapped so tight that there is no way to do much more than grunt or hum.
“You lucked out. When a woman goes through the windshield like you did, she is often scarred for the rest of her life. Of course, with all your broken bones, there was no way to rebuild your face exactly the way it was before.” She pushes me through the door into a tiny examining room. “Nevertheless, when Dr. Schroeder comes in to remove your bandages, I think you’ll be pleased,” she says in a tone that’s a bit too bloody cheerful for me. “I’m gonna leave you for just a moment while I go get him. I’ll be back real quick,” she adds over her shoulder with a wink and a jiggle as she’s halfway out into the corridor. “I’m sure you’re dying to see ‘the new you.’ ”
Alone for a moment, I go back over what happened. Cruising in the vintage Mercedes convertible that had been so lovingly restored . . . Laughing and carefree, enjoying the balmy summer night, the full moon, and the sound of the Pacific lapping at the shoreline. Burke at the wheel of his pride and joy . . . No seatbelts—“it’s more ‘authentic’ that way,” he said.
He’d been doing such a great impersonation of a sober person that I hadn’t realized how much he’d been drinking until he suddenly slammed on the brakes, even though the traffic signal was still a quarter mile up ahead. The SUV behind us couldn’t stop until it was somewhere in the back seat. By that time, however, I had been turned into a human projectile launched through the windshield.
Lying in a crumpled heap on the highway, I became aware of sirens and flashing lights, the squawk of walkie-talkies . . . and many faces hovering overhead. “Devon . . . Devon . . . Devon . . . Devon Merrick. Don’t try to move. Blink twice if you can hear me. I’m a paramedic. First we’re going to stabilize you, and then we’ll take you to the hospital. They’ll take good care of you there.”
What followed is still a blur: the frenzied trip to the ER . . . the urgent voices of doctors and nurses. “On my count . . . one . . . two . . .”
Then it all goes blank for a while. Waking up numb and cold with my lips wrapped around a plastic tube . . . I must be underwater, but how the hell do they expect me to scuba dive in this headgear? And where’s my mask and flippers?
I hear muffled bustling sounds around me. “She’s regained consciousness.”
Okay, so I got a bump on the head and I’m a little disoriented, but I really must get this huge radiator hose out of my throat. It’s not as if I’m a ’55 Buick. “Please don’t try to remove your breathing tube, Ms. Merrick. A nurse will help you shortly.”
My eyes come to half mast and I become increasingly aware of my surroundings. “Too soon to tell how much permanent damage there will be.”
Clearly I wasn’t supposed to hear that—my eyes bulge in alarm. The recovery room nurse answers the questions I’m unable to ask. “You were in an automobile accident. When you were ejected from the vehicle, your cheekbone and your eye socket were shattered. Your jaw was broken in four places and your nose was smashed. You were rather a mess. Since then you’ve had surgery to rebuild the bone structure of your face. You’re all held together with plates and screws—right now you’d set off metal detectors in every airport in the country. Miraculously enough, your companion walked away without a scratch. At least we think so—he seems to have disappeared. If he ever shows up, the cops would like to have a little Q&A with him about what happened.”
That conversation seems like ancient history as the peppy little nurse returns with Dr. Schroeder, who gives me a faux-cheery “And how are we this morning?”
I glower at him. I try to manage a “Fuck you” through my bandages, but “Mmmmph” is all that comes out.
Officious toad. Wait, that makes me sound like an ingrate. Okay, surgically proficient officious toad . . . but how condescending of him to refer to me in the first- person plural—unless of course he really does see two of me.
“You must be dying to see what you look like. We’re going to get those bandages off you right away now.”
Dr. Schroeder and the nurse begin snipping at the gauze and unwinding my shroud. “There’s never a good time for an accident like yours, Devon, but if you had to have it, you’re lucky that it happened when it did. You are truly a miracle of laser microsurgery. Even two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to give you nearly the result that you have.”
Snip. Snip. “That’s the last of it.” Schroeder steps back and looks at my face with a critical eye. “Yesssssssss!” I bet he says the same thing when he sinks a twenty-foot putt. “Devon, you’re wearing some of my very best work!” The smug, self-satisfied look on his face should be reassuring. It isn’t.
Schroeder nods to the nurse and pats her on the ass, even as she pats my face with a moist cloth, then holds a mirror up to my face. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” I gasp.
“Cut!” The disembodied voice booms over the set. “Very nice, all of you. Way to get your feet wet, Kate—you give great gasp. Welcome aboard as the new Devon Merrick. . . . Now mooooveit, people! Some of us would like to go home tonight before we have to come back tomorrow. I don’t give a shit about seeing my wife, but I have to walk my dog.”
The lights snap out in the hospital, and like giant R2-D2s the cameras roll onto the next set. A cameraman gives me an encouraging wink and says, “Welcome to Hope Canyon.” Makeup and Hair pick up their massive beauty kits and lumber wearily toward their next heart-stopping dramatic venue, dragging their chairs like spectators on a golf course.
I extricate myself from the hospital bed, peel back another layer of sticky bandage to be able to locate the exit, and make my escape. Prop guys and stagehands go about the business of tearing down parts of the set until someone bellows, “Shutthefuckup. We’re taping here!”
I feel deflated—plagued by the usual overexposed, vulnerable, nagging doubt that inhabits every moment of every job I’ve ever had. Ever. I stagger toward the exit sign, holding my hospital gown shut, so that my dimpled, cellulite-riddled ass doesn’t put in an uncredited cameo appearance.
As I peer blinking into the dimly lit hallway, I make out several people apparently lined up to welcome the new guy—moi. As my myopia struggles to focus, I begin to discern that these people are . . . girls. Actresses. Hollywood girl actresses. A species that strikes fear in my soul.
A searing hot poker of anxiety shoots through my gut, spreading out into my limbs and sending a tremor of terror into my brain as I recognize the gaggle of women for what they are . . . perfection. They are each and every one of them perfect—perfect specimens of youthful femaleness, caught in fleeting moments of prime, succulent ripeness. It’s disgusting and wildly mesmerizing—thick golden flesh covering miles and miles of divine bone; skin so taut it seems ready to spill its luscious contents onto the hallway carpet. What a waste.
They grin—in unison. Their size 2 bodies sway precariously in the air conditioning. I shudder. It is a Victoria’s Secret catalogue tableau come to life. They each have a (to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” all together now—)
Fo-ur goll-den limmmbs,
Two-oo purr-fect breasts
and a boy-freh-end in a T-V show.
My fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in, and I choose flight.
To the dressing room—save yourself, Kate, before you’re revealed as the fraud that you are. There will be time enough for greetings and small talk when you don’t look quite so much like a woman who’s survived a car wreck.
I’ll never get through that thicket of women without saying something.
As full-blown panic sets in, the thunder noise that I hear inside my head whenever I yawn gets louder and louder. The voices in the corridor sound like they’re coming from the bottom of a soup tureen—or a toilet bowl.
Worst of all, a dreadfully familiar pneumatic sensation comes over me as I feel myself start to inflate. Suddenly I am Alice in Wonderland, and I have nibbled off the wrong corner of the cookie. Growing, growing . . .
I’m feeling unmistakably warm, and surprise, surprise—my thighs have become immense. I’ve also become aware of my pubic hairs lying darkly beneath the hos- pital gown. They too have begun to grow, germinating menacingly beneath the low-rise Cosabella teal mesh thong in which I secreted them earlier this morning. Their tendrils have already escaped the confines of the thong and are threatening to curl out into the world, like time-lapse footage of an overgrown forest in Blair Witch III.
My pubic hairs mock the system, and they’re going to betray me. “She’s dark,” they say, “she’s brunette! She’s a big, sweaty, Irish witch with thick thighs, brown eyes, and a brown heart. She’s an imposter—an imposteress!”
Growing, growing . . .
If you wait any longer, Katiegirl, you’ll be too enormous to even fit through the dressing room door. Run!!!! Run before your pubic hair gets so long you trip over it. Get your waaaay-bigger-than-size-2 Irish ass out of this wretched hospital gown, and into something flattering. And while you’re at it, lose the celadon green “recuperating sickie” makeup.
If I felt vaguely cowlike before, now I feel positively Brobdingnagian in comparison to these impossibly small, perfectly formed human beings. I slump, I hunker, but no amount of slouching can make me invisible.
Busted. I don’t belong here. Why are they all smiling at me? Shit—even their teeth are perfect . . . straight and dazzling white! No one in the UK has those—an obscure Act of Parliament forbids it.
“You’re Kate McPhee.” A honeyed voice emanating from a deeply tanned, highly cleavaged Britney-Spearsian twentysomething blonde intrudes into my hysteria from the depths of the hallway/commode. “Hi. I’m Tiffany Duquette—Fallon Salisbury.”
Oh please—perfect names, too? It rolls off her tongue smoothly, rhythmically even, like a lyric from a Broadway show tune. What mother’s malice aforethought would name a child “Tiffany Duquette,” unless she knew from the moment of birth—or maybe from conception—that her offspring would be a soap star?
Of course, in my unnerved condition, the possibility is lost on me that her name, like her boobs, could be a complete fabrication.
“It’s so wonderful to meet you in person, Kate. I’ve heard such wonderful things about you. I just know you’ll be a wonderful Devon, and I’m looking forward to working with you. You’re going to love being part of our Live for Tomorrow family.”
“Mmmph.” I’m so stupefied by all the wonderful that I can’t talk. It’s as if my jaw is still draped in the gauze from the last scene.
“Kate, I’m Alison Goodwin—Taylor Daniels.” Alison has perfect features reminiscent of Grace Kelly, but just slightly more cheesy Wisconsin. She is creamy, liquid, and lush, her face all spread like a bowl full of freshly churned butter. She has a cupid’s-bow mouth, and her very long straight blonde hair falls in a silky milk curtain over one creamy shoulder. As she smiles a creamy-dreamy, wispy half smile at me, her sky blue eyes give me the message: It is impossibly nice to be me.
“And I’m Amber Hartman. I play Jennifer Abell.” Amber is well named, with honey blonde, rather than blonder-than-blonde hair, and is so tan that she looks to have been dipped in cocoa. It’s all warm and chummy and Southern-California-friendly among just-us-girls there in the corridor.
Except that I’m still growing. By now I’m the size of a battleship-class Lane Bryant dinner lady—one of those 44DD uniform-clad hairnetted aunties who plops enormous portions of mashed potatoes and meat loaf on your plate at the cafeteria. . . . or used to. This is Southern California, home of the bean sprout and the no-foam soy latte, and although dinner ladies still abound in Britain, this place hasn’t seen them since Jane Fonda was still in leg warmers.
The hen party is broken up by the very welcome arrival of some testosterone. “Right—you must be Kate. I’m Trent Winterfield—Philip Salisbury on the show.”
Alrighty then. About thirty-two, dark wavy hair. Twinkly green eyes with what I perceive to be a puckish nature behind them. Puckish and sexy, too, in a you-bet- I-know-where-this-soft-leather-restraint-should-go kind of way. Yup. That works. Peachy—I’m looking like such a piece of doggie doo.
“Oh shit,” he says. “Places, everyone! Here comes the Queen.”
The queen? She’s in America? What in the world is Queen Elizabeth doing on a soap opera set? Oh, of course, not that queen . . .
Our quintet prepares for the imminent arrival of Meredith Contini. Even people who don’t follow the soaps know Meredith and her character, Regina Abell. She started on Live for Tomorrow as the ingénue thirty-plus years ago. Now she’s become the franchise—the most recognizable face in soaps. A vision in puce ruffles, every perfectly coiffed auburn hair in place, Meredith is moving with regal grace up the hallway toward us.
Ah, the prima donna.
Her Majesty docks herself at our cluster, but it’s clear she could never, ever be mistaken for one of the gang. Petite but curvaceous, her perfectly pedicured feet balance on tiny Jimmy Choo sandals with a four-inch heel. She is almost but not quite chubby. Her legs touch at the thighs, and when she walks they rub together with an ultrafeminine rustle, a sound enhanced by the Vera Wang soufflé of a dress she’s wearing. And she has a legendary JLo-class ass. Meredith is almost as famous for her derriere as she is for her deep copper hair. Despite her roundness, her face is a cheekboned perfection. Through the play of light and shadow, her makeup artist has given her the illusion of cheekbones where none exist in nature. She has large liquid grey eyes, with sweeping eyelids topped by eyebrows that are perfect dark slashes in her kabuki mask. Skimming the brows is a cylinder of henna-sunset bangs, a look that is virtually unchanged over the score-plus-ten of years she’s been on the show.
“Kayyyytte,” she says with self-consciously pear-shaped tones. “I’m Mehrreddithhh. How delightful that you are joining us.”
I try not to register alarm—or pleasure—as I feel Trent’s strong masculine fingers grip my shoulder, firmly pulling me backward till my ear is just inches from his lips. “Don’t take it personally, Kate,” Trent whisper-breathes into my ear. “That’s what she says to everyone on their first day.”
“Forgive me for not staying longer,” Meredith continues, “but Regina Abell is needed on set, and I have to save her voice, so I’ll just say ‘Wellllllllcommmme to my worrrlllddd.’ ”
“Remember that you’ll be fine,” Trent murmurs . . .
—Ooooooooh! Sexy murmur!—
. . . as she glides away, “as long as you recognize that it is indeed her world, or her ‘Gahrden Pahrty,’ as we’ve all come to know and loathe it. And darling, if you are to remain a guest at her Gahrden Pahrty, there are just two rules:
1.Know your place;
2.Stay in it.”
Whatthefuck have I gotten myself into?
On the double, a ruggedly handsome older man with a full head of silver hair sails past our little gaggle with a hearty wave. “Can’t stop now,” he says in a rich, perfectly enunciated mid-Atlantic baritone. “I’m up next.”
“That’s Richard Blakeley—Mason Salisbury,” explains Amber helpfully in a little-girl voice that is equal parts Melanie Griffith and born-again Betty Boop. “He’s our imminit Grease.”
I know that, against my volition, my eyes register anxiety as my brain goes on Thesaurus Autosort in a desperate effort to decode imminit Grease.
Trent saves me the trouble. “Richard is the éminence grise of LFT—our patriarch, who has a liver the size of Montana and an ego to match. And for those of you keeping score, that’s one point for him—he and Meredith have been having a late-off, and he’s arriving at the Gahrden Pahrty after she’s already up there. She really hates that!”
“Now, Trent,” says Amber with a Valley Girl giggle. “You behave yourself.”
There must be a factory in East Pasadena that turns out these blonde Barbies by the boatload: perfect blue eyes, perfect hair, perfect bodies, flawless skin—and fuckall for brains underneath. Of course, when you’re a 38D—by means fair or foul—in this town it really doesn’t much matter that you’re a nincompoop.
As I proceed down the corridor, I feel as if I’m still getting larger and larger with each step. By the time I get to my dressing room door, I’m the size of one of those giant balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—it’s all I can do to squeeze through the door frame and gain the safety of my private space. Worse yet, I’m sweating like a pig. My hospital attire is drenched, so I take all my clothes off and start soaking my various appendages in the sink in an effort to cool down and shrink back to my normal—but still elephantine—size.
As I balance precariously on my left foot, my right calf and left forearm are marinating in ice water when there’s a knock on the door. I look in the mirror, expecting to see just one eyeball and a portion of a giant nostril, but the image looking back at me is surprisingly familiar. Draping a towel around my fishbelly white midsection, I open the door to admit a gnome, who without saying a word deposits a pink-and-silver gift basket on my dressing table and departs.
The card reads,
I just know we’ll become the greatest of friends.
Welcome again to my world.
Tied into the pink bow at the top of the basket is an eleven-inch Meredith replica—a Meredith Barbie dressed in cherry red taffeta, with tiny matching jeweled sandals and Meredith’s own perfectly reproduced light auburn hairstyle. Setting the Meredith Mini-Me aside, I tear at the shrink-wrap and the pink ribbon to find that I’m looking at a reject from the Worst of QVC, or a Lovely Parting Gift for an unsuccessful game show contestant.
Oh Gawd. Girlie-girl stuff.
Meredith has bestowed on me some samples of her eponymous edible beauty products—Capelli di Regina Shampoo (grapefruit-lavender), Texturizing Rinse (blackberry-starfruit), and Velvet Glove hairspray (blood orange–mint). Hair is obviously a biggie at her Gahrden Pahrty.
But do I ever really want to smell like a fruit salad from the neck up?
But wait, there’s more. . . . Regina’s Eyes self-curling mascara in Chianti, Regina’s Lips ultrashine gloss in Tuscan Melon, Contessa di Contini body lotion (“carefree and casual”), and Contini di Notte cologne (“elegantly transitions from the boardroom to the bedroom”).
Why would I want to smell like Meredith Contini—especially in bed? Come to think of it, why would I want to smell like any celebrity—Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Taylor, or God forbid Celine Dion—between the sheets?
The pièce de résistance, however, is a lace-trimmed waltz-length nightgown and matching edible peignoir from Boudoir by Regina in Relentless Raspberry. If you’d given someone the task of putting together a gift assortment that was as unlike me as possible, you’d scarcely have done better.
How the fuck can I write anything that can even masquerade as a sincere thank-you note?
I’m so not a girlie-girl. There isn’t a ruffle anywhere in my psyche. My family is Irish—I see myself as having potato-picking hands and childbearing calves; if necessary I could squat in a field, give birth, catch the newborn with the left hand, and continue picking potatoes with the right.
Oh, the leftover baggage we carry with us from childhood.
I remember being ten years old. My friend Sophie and I were sitting on the stoop in front of our house. This is the age when kids discover how different they are, one from the other. Sophie was beautiful—Brooke Shields gorgeous—with a luxuriant mane of curly chestnut hair, finely chiseled features, and wild eyebrows that framed emerald green eyes. I remember looking at her legs—they were delicate, skinny little beautifully shaped legs, with a teeny little calf, showcased in a cute espadrille. Me—I was wearing sensible clumpy brown boots, and I had my enormous calves stuffed into them.
While we were sitting there, my mom came home with her shopping bags. At that age it was all about comparing, so I asked her, “Who’s prettier, Sophie or me?” And my mom looked at us and said, “Sophie is beautiful, but you’re just Irish, Kate, you’re just Irish.”
After all these years, that one still stings.
Even before I asked the question, I knew that Sophie was prettier than I was, but a mother’s not supposed to say so, and of course when we went inside I had to badger her about what she meant.
“It doesn’t matter who’s prettier, Kate,” she tried to explain, “because Sophie’s got a junkie mom and her parents split up. Worse yet, between her mother and her mother’s abusive boyfriend, she’s getting no good role models at home. Because she’s learning such a terrible way of living, it’s important for me to tell Sophie that she’s beautiful. She needs to hear that, but you . . . you don’t need it, Kate, so I’m going to tell you that you’re Irish.”
No amount of explaining could keep “You’re just Irish” from searing its way into my psyche. In her defense, my mother was a staunch feminist, and I’m sure she was trying to jump-start me out of this mind-set of comparing myself to other girls. That’s how she brought me up—no bullshit—not even when I really needed some to smooth out the bumps of adolescence. What she did made me strong, but I can’t help but wonder whether maybe if she told me I was pretty even just once, I wouldn’t feel myself inflating like the Michelin Man whenever I come up against the Barbies and Bambis and Brandis—or in this case the Alisons and Tiffanys and Ambers—who inhabit daytime television.
See, when you become an actor, a part of you reverts to being ten years old—and freezes that way. The comparing of faces and bodies starts up all over again, and it never really goes away. Insecurity is the actor’s lot. You spend a great deal of time looking over your shoulder to see who’s gaining on you—and there’s always someone there. And that someone is always younger and prettier than you.
I grab the basket and tomorrow’s script and head for the parking lot.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Soapsuds by Finola Hughes and Digby Diehl. Copyright © 2005 by Finola Hughes. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.