The First Flight Out of the Cult of Celebrity
"You Have a Friend in 10A" by Maggie Shipstead, recommended by Stephanie Danler
Introduction by Stephanie Danler
Once I was picked up from LAX in a car driven by a middle-aged man. We chatted. I mentioned my fear of flying to him. He said he had died in a plane crash in World War One. It was one of his quickest lives. He was only eighteen. “Oh,” I said. He then told me that my own fear was an “engram,” one which could “clear” through “auditing.” “Ohhhhhh,” I said. “How does that work?” I was both frightened and thrilled to be speeding down the freeway with someone who did not collude with my version of reality. Small alarms went off in my head as he explained further: “enturblating,” “the basic-basic.” This is the language of Scientology.
Is it an accident that the same soil that fertilizes the fantasy machine of Hollywood is the home to so many religions that border on cults? Maggie Shipstead knows there aren’t accidents. Los Angeles has always been a haven for those seeking enlightenment and physical beauty, a spiritual synthesis of the mind and body. If you have a delusion, come west, and you might be a visionary.
Shipstead’s title story, “You Have a Friend in 10A” is, at first glance, a fiendishly delightful satire of a stunted former child movie star, Alison Karr, who has just left a church—a church in which she had both a husband and child—that feels very similar to Scientology. In the first paragraph, there was the same chilling freefall I experienced with my airport driver. Alison tells us about the first time she went “castratic” after being molested by an older man—“Jermone Shin (yes, the director)” she tells us, intoning an insider-y solipsism that is hilariously Hollywood. We don’t know exactly what “castratic” means yet. This anecdote is followed by Alison being told by her agent to change her name in order to become an actress. Between those two moments—being drugged and molested and then losing her name—it became clear that going “castratic” was a common response to trauma: Alison split. Disassociated. Craved leaving her body and pretending to be someone else. It’s not a surprise that Alison becomes a movie star right afterward.
Beyond the prurient joys, Shipstead’s story—to me—is about language. It is the language that seduces and lies. Alison is susceptible to the teachings of the Founder—and the machinations of the film industry—because she is desperate for a system. “A movie star…is like God,” she says. Her family unit consists of an alcoholic father who parties with her at the Chateau Marmont and then totals his car, necessitating the amputation of his lower leg, and a mother who—smartly—wants nothing to do with the two of them. At the time of her “conversion,” she’s an out-of-work actress and addict, fully masticated by the men who profited off her. The Founder, almost interchangeable with her husband, Billy (a mega-movie star clearly based on Tom Cruise), promises her not only a family, stability, and order: he promises her a language through which she can understand her pain. When we meet her, many years later, after an ugly divorce from Billy in which she lost all rights to her daughter, it’s the language that persists in her. She may not be in the church anymore. But it’s the only way she knows how to process the world.
Pick some aspect of wellness: the need for purifying cleanses or celery juice or the distrust of western medicine. Or examine the social media meme version of therapy in which the words triggered, trauma, and manifest are used as casually as references to avocado toast. You can exchange any of it with Shipstead’s church. Though there are voyeuristic pleasures in this story, pleasure doesn’t always equal pathos. Shipstead succeeds because while not every reader feels the tug of fanaticism within them, most of us want to heal, whether we admit it publicly or not. Most of us have done some stupid shit trying to feel better. The story ends with Alison making a delusional gesture of sympathy (the sort tone-deaf celebrities perform constantly), easy to mock, and easy to recognize with our own shame. Easy to remember our innocence, before the “degredons” and the mostly male “Usurpers” and the loss of our collective “Esteem.” Don’t we all want to believe?
– Stephanie Danler
Author of Sweetbitter
The First Flight Out of the Cult of Celebrity
You Have a Friend in 10A
I’m told I went catrastic for the first time in 1984, when Jerome Shin (yes, the director) took me up to my bathroom—my gaudy childhood bathroom with the big pink Jacuzzi and mirrors on all four walls—and cut me my first line and asked me to hold his balls while he jerked off. The request was casual, like my stepmother telling me to hold her purse while she fixed her lipstick. “Just hold them?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, pulling down the top of my dress and looking skeptically at my half-grown tits. “Just hold them.”
The pouch sat on my palm like rotten fruit while he worked his sad, skinny dick. It was a year or so after his young wife drowned. He must have been in his early forties then. I was fourteen.
“Now tug them!” he barked, scrunching up his face.
Startled, I tugged until he came onto my thigh and the hem of my dress. (My stepmother’s dress. I returned it to her closet without cleaning it.) My father’s party murmured through the floor and the pipes. All those people milling around, trying to out-fabulous each other, talking about green lights and opening grosses and sex. Probably every bathroom in the house was hosting some variation on our theme. Jerome cast me in his next movie.
My agent said we had to change my name. “No one uses their real name,” he said, “and yours is terrible.” We were at the Polo Lounge; he was eating a Cobb salad. He reached over with his fork and knocked my hand away from my fries. “Actors’ names are just labels you stick on a fantasy,” he said. “You know, like Armani or something. But it’d be nice to keep some reference to your father.” So I went from being Allison Lowenstein-Karr to being Karr Alison. No one could ever explain why we dropped the second l. “It’s a no-brainer,” my agent told me. “Go with it.”
In retrospect, I don’t think I felt catrastic in the bathroom with Jerome. I remember feeling flattered and grossed out and high and sophisticated. Still, my Helpers identified that night as when my system first became seriously susceptible to degradons, when I started to lose track of my Esteem. Jerome, they told me, was a Usurper—which I’ve never quite been able to sort out because Jerome’s movie is what made me famous, and the Church only ever liked me because I was famous. Jefferson Morris himself told me that the Founder says the important moments in life aren’t just points along a single straight line but are moving, swiveling hubs within a three-dimensional web and belong to multiple trajectories, both ascending and descending. When I held Jerome’s balls, I was beginning my descent into fucked-up druggie despectum, but I’d also hooked into that steep skyward line that would bring me to Billy and Jefferson and the teachings of the Founder. But then there was everything else, too. Like I said, I can’t sort it out.
Businessman, computer businessman, Steelers fan, Asian grandmother, clean-cut guy who’s probably a pervert, sullen punk kid, guy with big gold jewelry, retired couple with too much luggage, harried couple with too many children, Texan. They file past my seat, departing souls taking slow zombie steps down a fluorescent tunnel. “Well, I guess it’s hurry up and wait,” an older blond lady says to no one in particular. We’re all in this together, she is saying. A flight attendant squeezes past to get to the harried couple, who seem defeated by the overhead compartment, by their bags and diaper bags and children’s suitcases bursting with pointless junk. “Don’t mind us,” says the blond lady. But I like the flight attendants, their big hair and sexy blue vests and shiny red nails. The guy in the middle seat doesn’t seem to recognize me, which is just as well. I look out the window at the odd vehicles racing around the tarmac, the shadowy people behind the terminal windows, the transparent flutter of jet exhaust.
I am going to my mother’s house. An act of desperation. The last time I saw her, three years ago, we got in a fight before I could even get through the door—
You left her with that loon?
Don’t even talk to me about leaving. And he’s not a loon.
He’s a loon. Him and that Jefferson Starship guy and their Looney Tunes religion.
It’s my religion, too.
It’s not a religion. It’s a roach motel for idiots.
You don’t know. You don’t know anything about the Founder. You’re just a blip.
What’s a blip?
Someone who doesn’t know anything about the Founder.
You’re a Nazi.
—and then she slammed the door in my face, and I lifted up the metal flap of the mail slot and hollered through it that she was a cunt and a Usurper and I hoped she and her degradons had a very nice life together. But now I’ve left the Church, or the Church has left me, or we left each other, and Billy of course left me, and Quentin is dead, and I spent all my money trying to get Helena back and failed, and I tried to be in a play, and my friends finally, nicely, suggested I should look for my own place to live.
I’m in coach but near the front, and I see a tall man in a white uniform take a seat in first class. My heart flies up like a flushed dove but gets caught and tangled in a net. If I were hooked up to an Aurograph, it would be going crazy. I remind myself that Quentin is dead. Most everyone’s settled down and buckled up now, except for a paunchy guy who’s going to break the plane apart trying to stuff his huge suitcase into the overhead, his round belly assaulting the face of the woman in the aisle seat, sweat stains in his armpits. A flight attendant comes and splays her red nails across the suitcase as though calming a frightened animal. She lifts it down and takes it away. The pilot comes out of the plane’s little locked brain and shakes the hand of the man in white, bending down, nodding and somber as they exchange a few words.
There are all kinds of stories about me and Billy. The Church bought me for him; he’s gay; I’m gay; I was impregnated with the Founder’s frozen sperm; I was impregnated by Jefferson Morris; I was impregnated by Quentin; I was never pregnant at all.
I’d only been out of Cloudvista a couple of months when my agent called, all excited. “Billy Bjorn wants a meeting. Wear something classy. Don’t swear. Be sugar sweet, and try not to act like a junkie.”
“What’s the script?” I asked.
“Who the fuck cares?”
“Aren’t you coming?”
“He wants to meet you alone. They specified.”
Billy is not tall, but he wasn’t as short as I expected. He moved around his office with the same gymnastic energy as the commando squirrels I watched out the window at Cloudvista while they leapt and dangled and corkscrewed, raiding the bird feeders. He has strong, active hands, and I imagined an invisible tail whirling behind him as he poured me a glass of mineral water, then darted to the window to point out a jet taking off from Santa Monica (“I’ve been thinking about getting one like that myself—what do you think? Do you like it?”), then fiddled with papers on his desk, then flopped down beside me on a long white couch and unleashed his grin. Everyone knows Billy’s smile, but you can’t really understand its effect until you’re confronted by it in person. You lean toward those teeth, swim upstream, struggle closer to the origin of all that dazzle, that gush of stardust. Suddenly I was Suzanne in Tin Can Palace. I was that bitchy lawyer in Pleadings who doesn’t want to be charmed by him but is. I wasn’t a washed up twenty-year-old with a pill problem. I was inside a glorious sphere of light. I was a glorious sphere of light.
“You,” he said. “You are special. I can tell. I’ve always liked you on-screen, but now, talking to you in person, just sitting here looking at you”—he broke off and gave his famous trill of incredulous laughter. “Just look at you,” he said, taking my hand. “You just—you—you have so much to give. There’s something about you. I didn’t expect to react this way—I mean, I wasn’t planning—but—just look at you!”
I echoed his laugh and tried to amp up my smile. My smile is not my strong suit, though, and remembering that, I faltered and looked away. He put a finger under my chin and turned my face back. “And you’ve still got a sweet shyness,” he said. “Great. Really great.”
“I’m just so happy to meet you.”
“Yeah?” He shook his head and laughed again, staring at me, giddy. “Yeah. Am I crazy here? Are you feeling this, Karr? Because I’m feeling something—whew—something big.”
I had to turn away again. On a side table stood a framed picture of a young man in a white uniform with gold braid and colorful rows of ribbons. “Is that your son?” I asked, knowing it was. Quentin was the product of Billy’s first marriage, to his high school sweetheart. After her, he married an ethereal movie star, and after her, he married a model from Ecuador, and after her, he married me.
“Quentin, yeah. My boy.” He sprang off the couch and picked up the photo, staring at it for a moment before he dropped back beside me, closer now, our thighs touching. I felt thrilled and twisted. I felt something big. I felt like I was a shred of myself caught on a sharp hook. I felt like a gust of wind. I felt desperate to get high and certain I would never want to be high again.
“I didn’t know he was in the navy,” I said, looking at Quentin’s face, which was a distorted version of Billy’s square bullet of masculinity, narrower and softer.
“He’s not.” Billy took my hand. “Listen, Karr. Do you ever feel like you need help?”
“What do you mean?” Don’t act like a junkie, don’t act like a junkie.
“Do you ever have doubts? Do you ever worry about rejection? Do you feel like there are people trying to bring you down?”
I thought about the men in suits who had greeted me in the lobby and ridden with me in the elevator to Billy’s office. They had asked after my father and stepmother by name. I said they’d moved to Hawaii and opened a Zen center, but the men already knew. With a pair of synchronized winks they mentioned an interview I gave when I was seventeen in which I had said I wanted to marry Billy.
“I just got out of rehab,” I said to Billy. “So. Yeah.”
His eyebrows squeezed his forehead into a rift of concern. His gaze fried me like light through a magnifying glass. Just when the tension was about to break me, he said, softly, “I can help you.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the pilot says in that twangy, folksy pilot voice, “today we have the honor of transporting the remains of Petty Officer First Class Reginald J. Roberts, who was killed in action in Afghanistan and is being escorted home to his family by Lieutenant Commander Howard Stanton. Out of respect to our fallen warrior, I ask that you remain seated upon arrival until Lieutenant Commander Stanton has deplaned.”
Everyone’s attention goes to the windows. We are curious for a glimpse of the casket being loaded. I can’t see anything. The officer has taken off his white hat, and his bald spot peeks over the back of his seat.
“Do you know anyone who’s died in the war?” the blip next to me says. He looks like he’s in his late twenties but might as well be older. Central casting has printed “Middle Management” on the back of his head shot. A book on how to be an effective leader is stuffed in his seat pocket.
“I do. A high school friend of mine. He went into a house and shot a guy who was wired to blow up. Bits of the other guy’s tissue got embedded in him and caused all kinds of infections. That’s what killed him eventually. Imagine having pieces of a dead person rotting inside you, someone you killed, someone who didn’t even speak your language and who’s going to take you with him. Makes me sick. It’s like a horror movie.”
He’s basically describing degradons—invisible little pellets of bad feelings from Usurpers that stick to your body and make their way into your Esteem—but I remind myself that I don’t believe in degradons anymore. I probably never did, not really, but the language of the Church has rooted in me like a fake accent I can’t shake. “Awful,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s weird to think of that poor guy down in the cargo hold with our bags and everything.” He looks at me, and I can see he wants something but I don’t know what. “It’s weird to think of flying after you’re dead.”
Holding his gaze, I uncoil the cord of my earphones from around my phone and put them in my ears.
A word about the Aurograph. People say it’s nothing more than goofy science-fiction wishful thinking, but I can tell you there’s magic in it. You focus on your life, and energy flows out of your brain and through the electrode bonnet into the monitor. Green waves appear on the black screen, spiking when you hit a catrastic moment, showing where your spirit has gotten all gunked up, and when that happens, you get excited; your Helper gets excited; you feel like undersea explorers who’ve just found a wreck. To maximize your Esteem, you have to isolate all those moments and let yourself be helped through them. “You are a hot air balloon,” Billy told me on one of our first nights, his hand on my belly, his breath in my ear, “and all around you are invisible tethers held by people on the ground, people who are trying to hold you down, usurp your Esteem. They don’t want to let go, Karr. They won’t. But you have to snip those tethers. You have to cut yourself loose so you can fly. You can do it—I know you can. You just need a little help.”
“Think about something that has troubled you recently,” my Helper said after my wedding.
I had planned to think about the helicopters that hovered above the château day and night and the paparazzi who clamored at the gates like angry peasants, but instead, Quentin welled up in my mind, standing at the window where I first saw him. A green line climbed the monitor.
“Okay,” said my Helper, “the Aurograph has registered your distress. What were you thinking about?”
“The night before the wedding,” I said.
“What in particular?”
“We had a big dinner for everyone. I was getting ready to come down to the ballroom, and I was alone in my room after I got my hair done, and I thought I heard someone calling my name. So I went and opened the door, and there was Billy’s son.”
“He was calling your name?”
“No. He was at the other end of the hall, looking out the window. I’d never met him before, actually. He’d been away on the Esteem.”
“Who was calling your name?”
“Why does this memory trouble you?”
(“Quentin?” I said, and he turned. He was wearing his white FounderCorps dress uniform, the one he wore in the picture in Billy’s office. Even from the other end of a long hallway, I could tell Quentin was different from Billy. Everything flows out from Billy, whooshing and blasting you back, and you fight to get closer. But everything pulls toward Quentin, and I felt queasy, like I should brace away.
“Should I call you Mom?” he said, not sarcastically but sadly. I was twenty-one. He was twenty-six.)
“I just wish,” I told my Helper, “I’d had the chance to meet him earlier so we could have felt like more of a family at the wedding.”
Already I had begun to understand that the infallibility of Billy was a cornerstone of the Church, and my Helper looked uncomfortable. “Quentin has very important work to do on the Esteem. He helps people reach the highest levels of study.”
The Esteem is the last of the Founder’s ships. According to Jefferson Morris, the Founder says the ocean is the place where we are most open and compassionate. Anyone who wishes to be really and truly free of degradons must spend time studying on the Esteem. I said, “I know. I don’t mean to be critical. It was just a little awkward.”
“Do you resent Quentin’s obligations to the Church?”
“Do you wish your husband paid less attention to the Church and more attention to you?”
“I’m going to recommend a class for you—it’s called Overcoming Selfishness for the Sake of the Self. There’s an intensive version available at the Ranch.”
“Can you think of another moment in your past that troubled you in the same way?”
I reached, as I often did during Helping sessions, for the years between Jerome Shin and Billy.
You’ve seen my first movie, the one Jerome put me in. I think it holds up pretty well. Kind of gritty but still kind of a caper. Not as good as Jerome’s last movie, but Jerome was one of those people who knew he’d do his best work while he was dying.
When we started filming, I didn’t want anything from him—certainly I had no pressing urge to be reunited with his scrotum—but I was still offended he didn’t try anything with me. He was soft-spoken and professional. He made sure I put in my hours with the set tutors. “Allie, are you comfortable with this?” he asked before we filmed my scene in the bath.
Eventually I figured out he was boinking Genevieve Henry. Her beauty didn’t register with me back then. I thought my knobby knees and flat ass were what every man wanted, not Genny’s mouth like a fat berry and her weary eyes. I ditched my chaperone and went to her trailer and asked if we could talk. She was sprawled on a love seat in a black silk bathrobe patterned with white orchids, reading a paperback spy novel. “Sure, baby,” she said, tenting the book on her chest.
A bottle of white wine stood open in an ice bucket on her table. “Can I have some of that?”
I poured a glass and took a dramatic swig. As I told her what had happened with Jerome, she kept smiling as though I were some pleasant scene she had paused to admire: a children’s playground, a pretty sunset, a string quartet playing Vivaldi.
When I was done, she said, “That’s all?”
“Well,” I said, “I guess so.” I had never told the story before, and out loud it sounded flimsy and quick. “I just thought you should know Jerome’s a child molester.”
She swung her small mouth off to one side and studied me.
Finally, she said, “You’re not a child. You’re already a bad little chick.” She twisted her lips around some more and looked at her book for a minute. Then she turned a page and said, “Baby, if you want to be in the business, you should think about how much you’re willing to put up with, because if you think you’ve been creamed on for the last time, you’re wrong.”
What did she see when she looked at me? When I rewatch the film, I see a gangly, eager girl pretending to be jaded. I see a little circus pony, a raw nugget of pure ego. Those movie people snorted me and smoked me; they cooked me in a spoon. Now they say I’m weak. They say I’m unfeeling to abandon my child to a cult. But you try getting out of that prenup, the one where you agreed to forfeit any claim to your husband’s tens of millions in case of infidelity, where you certified that any and all of your children would be raised in accordance with the Founder’s teachings, regardless of your own status within the Church. And you wanted your child to grow up happy and secure, sheltered from doubt, able to fly above our despectulated world, and you signed it, not knowing you would be labeled a Usurper, and since your child must be raised in accordance with the teachings of the Founder, and the Founder said children must be shielded from Usurpers at any cost . . . Well, you try getting out of that one. Especially if Helena won’t even talk to you. She knows better than to talk to Usurpers.
It was true I hadn’t been creamed on for the last time. People put me in more movies. My father was getting into drugs, so I did too, the way other fathers and daughters joined Indian Princesses or went out to brunch after church. At first it wasn’t anything major. We’d sit by the pool and share a joint when my stepmother wasn’t around. “Kiddo,” he’d say, “tell Daddy how it feels to be a star.” And I’d say something random like, “Daddy, it feels like biting into a dead mouse” or “Daddy, it feels like really bad gas,” and he’d howl, he’d nearly fall off his chaise. But then my stepmother was around less and less—she couldn’t quite bring her self to leave him, not that she had such a high horse anyway, Our Lady of Dexedrine—and we took our show on the road, driving out to house parties in Bel Air or Malibu, Dad looking like Don Johnson in his blazer and T-shirt behind the wheel of his Corvette (ice blue with a caramel interior, speedometer flickering like a flame as he accelerated). We’d cross the threshold together and part like strangers, wading through shadow worlds where the air was thick with bodies and ash and stardust, neither wanting to witness the other’s search for relief. “Catch you on the flip side,” he’d murmur.
Those were times I was catrastic—no question. I had a trick where I could squeeze the insides of my knees against my ears so hard I created suction. I would do it in cars, bent forward, trying not to puke, and I would do it on my back when I got bored with getting fucked. I could see but not hear the guy say, You’re so flexible. I was walking around covered with a thick fur of degradons, and I didn’t even know it. But I also remember the way the night sky looked from the quiet bottom of a glowing blue swimming pool, the shifting membrane of light that separated me from the darkness, the drunks who drifted and murmured like ghosts around the edges.
In the mornings, my father and I would drink coffee in pained silence until our shame burned off like early fog. Soon we’d be back out by the pool, riding the fizz of my stepmother’s speed back to civility, sharing a copy of Variety and a pitcher of mimosas and gossiping about the night before, pretending I hadn’t been a limp and addled baby bimbo and he hadn’t spilled a baggie of coke and morphed into a crawling, snuffling thing, an anteater with a plastic straw proboscis, hoovering up white dust from the grout of some one’s Spanish tiles.
I remember a party at the Chateau Marmont after I got fired from what would have been my fifth film and someone pulling me down from a balcony railing when I pretended I was going to jump, and then the Corvette’s speedometer was flickering and Dad was saying I was a star and fuck ’em, just fuck ’em, and I yelled at him to go faster because faster was hilarious until the spinning began, a real spinning and not just the world running around trying to catch up with me. They found me sitting on the crumpled hood and smoking a cigarette, barefoot, loopy, apparently unmoved by the moans coming from the driver’s seat. His left leg had to be amputated above the knee.
Just try keeping that out of the papers.
A movie star, especially when he has divorced you and stolen your child with his lawyers and his prenup and his riches, is like God. Omnipotent, omnipresent. His huge grinning face looks down over the road to the airport. He waves his invisible squirrel tail on the little TV in the taxi, talking to Regis, pumping his fist in the air about something while the driver dubs him with whatever guttural language he’s chortling into his phone. At the airport, he walks across the newsstands, holding his new girlfriend by one hand and your daughter by the other. He flickers across seatback screens. His voice whispers out of a hundred cheap headsets. The man beside you has recognized you after all; he gives a quick sideways glance when the guy in the aisle seat chooses Billy’s latest. A buddy comedy. It lost money. Billy can be funny, but self-seriousness clings to his humor like mildew. His career is suffering, not catastrophically but noticeably. People think his zeal for the Church is off-putting. They think he is controlling, a megalomaniac, but they don’t feel sorry for me. They only think I am even more of a fool.
The naval officer stands and walks to the lavatory at the front of the plane. I am relieved to see he is not watching Billy’s movie. Maybe he’s not supposed to partake of the in-flight entertainment. Maybe he’s supposed to sit and think about the guy in the box who’s soaring on his back over the Great Plains. For three years I’ve felt like I should be sitting and thinking about Quentin. I wasn’t allowed to go when they scattered his ashes off the Esteem. Jefferson Morris made an official announcement that the Founder had asked Quentin to cast off his body and move into a new dimension, embarking on a fact-finding mission into the afterlife. He is expected to report back as soon as he is able.
Most gossip within the Church centers around whether the Founder is alive or dead. Jefferson Morris says he is in exile, that he wishes to communicate only through Jefferson so as not to interrupt his state of perfect Esteem. Dozens of blip reporters and disgruntled ex-Church members have tried to track down the Founder, to prove he is dead, but the trail goes cold in 1970, after he sailed away on a solo round-the-world trip. His first communication reached Jefferson Morris five months later, announcing he had found perfect Esteem and declaring his intention to remain in exile. No wreckage was ever found; no SOS call was ever received. There is a photo from an Italian newspaper (June 20, 1973) in which a man sitting at a café in the background is either the Founder or his long-lost Florentine twin. The FounderCorps keeps an office waiting for him at every Church center and a house for him at the Ranch, dusted every day and made up with clean sheets and towels just in case he decides to return. I have nothing I can keep ready for Quentin except myself.
On our honeymoon, Billy woke me up in the middle of the night. “Karr,” he whispered. “Karr. I know the secret.”
“What secret?” I asked, woozy, disoriented by the gilded ceiling of our hotel suite.
“About the Founder.”
I rolled onto my side, facing him. His cheek, jaw, and shoulder were blue; the rest of him was dark. “What about him?”
“Whether he’s alive or dead. I know.”
The room was silent except for his breathing and, in the distance, one of those warbling European police sirens that always make me think of World War II. “Well?” I said.
Billy put his hand on my naked side. “He’s both.” I waited. He rolled me lightly back and forth as though trying to shake a response from me.
“I don’t think I understand.”
“He’s found a way to be both. That’s the miracle. That’s perfect Esteem. None of the burden of life, none of the finality of death. He did it, Karr. He’s the only one in the world, in the history of the world.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. Then with true wonder: “Yeah.”
I unbuckle, and Middle Management and the guy on the aisle get up so I can go pee. On my way back, I lift two little bottles of vodka from the drinks cart. Tacky, I know, but I am going to see my mother.
My mother has a talent for disgust and finality, and I’ve always had the impression she left me with my father to prove we deserve each other. But we needed someone who was disgusted with us, someone solid and human who smelled like office supplies. She lives in a small city full of fast-food chains and big-box stores and is a secretary for a personal injury lawyer. After we wrecked the Corvette, she came and checked Dad and his new steel shin and acrylic foot into Cloudvista and took me back with her, driving for fourteen hours straight while I slumped against the door of her Honda, watching the mesas and mountains go by. “No more movies,” she said. “I’m not even going to say ‘not for a while’ or ‘not until you’re old enough to handle it.’ Not ever. Someday you’ll thank me.”
“They won’t forget me,” I told her. “They’ll come find me.”
“Who’s they?” she said. “There’s no one who cares about you in that whole godforsaken city. Maybe they cared about the money you made them, but they didn’t care enough to stop you from flaming out, did they? Your father spent all your money, by the way. Every cent. It’s all gone.”
“No, it isn’t. It can’t be.”
I screamed, gripping the dashboard with my fingers. She glanced at me, then back at the road.
She was living with an amiable boyfriend named Tom, who surprised me by not wanting to fuck me. He just wanted to build birdhouses and play the mandolin and bake quiches for my mother. I went to a small school where the other kids were impressed by my celebrity for about a week but then changed their minds when they realized I didn’t have anything to say. After a year, I got called out of history class, and there was Dad waiting in the office to take me away.
“Did you buy this with my money?” I asked about his new black Corvette.
“I’ve got a slam-dunk project,” he said, gunning us away from my school, the speedometer licking up like a green flame, “with a part in it for you. We’re going to get everything back—you’ll see. Daddy just needs your help. Daddy can’t do it without you.”
That was true, and we both knew it. On the other hand, my mother didn’t need us. She didn’t even need us to need her.
When we were back in LA, she called and asked if I had gone with him willingly. When I said yes, she hung up, and I didn’t see her again until I was nineteen and it was my turn to go to Cloudvista. After I got out, she was the one who set me up with the shrink who told me to imagine the tiger. “Imagine a tiger,” he said in his hypnotic voice, “and imagine yourself taming him by feeding him all your doubts, all your worries, all your pain, all your fear. The more he eats, the more he glows. When you find yourself in situations where you’re doubting yourself, just imagine the tiger beside you, radiating light, and imagine everything and everyone else covered with a thick layer of dust.” He had a lot of show business clients. He said he understood the stresses we were under. He told me about an actress who won an Oscar after one year of imagining the tiger.
I want to nap, but as soon as I close my eyes, I have a funny feeling and pop them open. Sure enough, the sullen punk kid in front of me has his phone between the seats and is taking a picture of me. I put my hand over the phone, and it goes away.
“That must be annoying,” Middle Management says.
“Yeah.” People often hit me with a big dose of chummy compassion as an opening gambit, like I’ll be so grateful someone finally understands my plight. Wistfully, I think of Billy’s jet.
“You were amazing in that Jerome Shin movie. We watched it in a film class I took in college.”
“Thanks.” I unscrew the top of one of the little vodka bottles and pour its contents into a paper Starbucks cup I saved. The liquid turns faintly tea-colored from the coffee dregs. I raise the window shade a few inches and look down at a dazzling river, gleaming gold and shaped like a wild jungle vine.
“Is it true they brainwashed you?” the guy asks in a serious tone meant to assure me that my answer would be kept confidential.
I think of a television interview of Jefferson Morris I’d once watched in which he’d said, How do you wash brains? Seriously. I’ve had it on my to-do list to find out, since supposedly it’s all I do all day. Do you put them in a big bucket with some dish soap and scrub? Do you clip them to a line to dry?
“Pretty much,” I say.
I salute him with my Starbucks cup and empty it. Then I pour in the other bottle.
“Did you believe in Neptunius and all that?”
The sullen punk kid in the next row is watching Billy’s movie too. Billy, his skin slightly orange on the shitty airplane screen, drives a red convertible. He grins and wears sunglasses. He pumps his fist. A man comes down the aisle wearing big headphones and a neck pillow, moving slowly, buoyantly, like he is walking on the bottom of the ocean. The headphones’ cord trails behind him. I crane to see the naval officer, but all I can see is his bald spot. He is the only person on this plane I want to talk to, and so it is to him more than the blip next to me that I say, “The Founder said truth is in the heart of the believer.”
“Who? Oh, right, you mean—right, that guy. X. Genesis Wilderness, or whatever.”
“F. Genesis Inverness. But people in the Church consider it impolite to say his earth name.”
“Isn’t he the one where nobody knows if he’s alive or dead?”
Billy kisses a blond starlet on-screen, and I lean closer to Middle Management and tell him the biggest secret I know. “Actually,” I say, “he’s both.”
He laughs, a high-pitched trill like Billy’s. “He’s both? He’s like a vampire or something? Wait, so, you did believe.” Suddenly, he gets serious, concerned for me. “Do you still?”
“I’m just saying belief isn’t necessarily something you either have or don’t have, like a car or something. You can’t just think ‘Do I believe X, Y, and Z?’ and then go look in the driveway and find out. I mean, do you really believe that book will make you a leader?”
I can see he wants to push his book farther down into the seat pocket. He presses his lips together. He is getting disgruntled, the way people do when our conversations don’t line up with their fantasies. “No offense,” he says, “but it all seems so silly.”
Last year I did a play Off-Broadway, and during previews someone in the crowd shouted when I made my entrance, “Hail, Neptunius!”
I tried to cover the moment by briskly dusting my fake coffee table. My costar’s jaw tightened as he read his fake newspaper. Our plywood living room had been perfectly real a second before, but suddenly its falseness mortified me. What was I doing, a grown woman, a mother separated from her child, dressing up like a fifties housewife and reciting words typed out by a notorious drunk and wife-beater who’s been dead for thirty years? Those people filling up the dark with their glinting eyes—did they pay money to see the play or just to gawk at me? Out in the world, people stare as I go about my business, like I’m a traffic-stopping freak for buying coffee or having lunch in a restaurant. I gaze back at them through the lopsided hole in the Elephant Man’s sack.
What I want to say to the man on the plane is that I’ve spent my whole life believing in silliness.
When we first met, Billy took me on his motorcycle from his office to the Santa Monica airport, and then a helicopter whisked us to Palm Springs, where a big house with a swimming pool was waiting, stocked with foie gras and cold lobster salad and strawberries but no booze. No one heard from me for two weeks, but no one seemed to miss me. After Palm Springs we came back to L.A. and allowed ourselves to be photographed together, the cameras snapping like piranhas, and then Billy drove me in his Aston Martin to the Ranch to meet Jefferson Morris.
“Jefferson,” Billy said over dinner, “I’ve got to tell you, Karr is the most compassionate woman I’ve ever met. She has a real gift for giving and receiving help. It blows my mind. Truly. She’s exactly what I’ve been waiting for. The moment she walked into my office—I don’t know, it was like I reached a new understanding of Esteem right then. I don’t think I was capable of this kind of love before. Maybe I wasn’t ready. But this is the right woman at the right time.”
We were sitting on the deck of a reproduction Spanish galleon that the FounderCorps had built right next to the Ranch’s main swimming pool. Red sails snapped in the breeze; the mast creaked. I half expected us to move, even though we were out in the middle of the desert, the keel fixed in sand, the hot orange sun shooting sideways across the dark horizon as it set. Jefferson looked at me. His four bodyguards in khaki FounderCorps uniforms looked at me.
Jefferson will never say exactly how the Founder communicates with him, if it’s by letter or if they chat on the phone or if the Founder’s whispers travel through the ether from a distant island or another dimension and find their way to his ears. Even oracles have their trade secrets. Blip journalists have tried more than once to tap Jefferson’s phone, unsuccessfully because Jefferson has an uncanny knack for detecting and exposing spies. On the galleon, I first thought that Jefferson was blandly handsome, as harmless as a catalog model, but as he studied me, squinting against the sunset, something in me shifted and sank, like I had just received a blackmail letter.
“Billy needs a gal who can be a strong supporter,” Jefferson told me in a voice that suggested we were negotiating an agreement, just the two of us. “Someone who doesn’t want to get in the way of his faith. Are you that kind of gal?”
“Billy wants to make people’s lives better,” I said solemnly. “I think it’s noble.”
“She’s something special,” Billy said.
“I don’t doubt it,” said Jefferson. “Not for a second.”
At the Ranch, our fantasies popped into reality like toadstools springing from the earth. If I mentioned a food I liked, it would appear in our refrigerator. If Billy admired one of Jefferson’s motorcycles, a duplicate would arrive on a flatbed truck within days. Billy told Jefferson that we had joked about wanting to run through a field of wildflowers together and—poof!—two dozen FounderCorps members were out tilling and seeding the desert behind our villa, laying down rich, dark mulch on top of the sand. The next time we came back, we held hands and ran through a field of wild mustard to a spot where a picnic was waiting for us on a gingham blanket.
Billy pulled me down beside him and said, “If the truth is in the heart of the believer, then you’re my truth. Do you believe in me like that?”
“Of course I do,” I said. “You saved me.”
“That’s all I want,” he said. “All I want is to help you.”
Out the window an enormous moon has risen. We thump across ruts of air, and Middle Management crosses himself. New York buses have little stenciled notices by their doors that say: This Is a Kneeling Bus. When a bus stops to let people on, it lets out a long, sad, hydraulic sigh and lowers itself into the gutter. When I first noticed the sign, I thought it was so beautiful, so artistic how some bus bureaucrat had recognized the buses as kneeling.
I want to talk to the man in white. I want to find out what he knows, for him to help me. We are all on a funeral barge, and he is at the helm. When he leaves us, we will have arrived somewhere; we will have been transformed. In Jerome Shin’s last movie, LA is the afterlife, although no one says so explicitly. I would have been in it, but Billy said no, Jerome was a Usurper. We watched it in our screening room at home. Billy and Quentin sat side by side, and I sat behind them, studying the dark silhouettes of their heads against the bright screen.
The last time I was in bed with Quentin, he said to the ceiling, “Why isn’t it working?”
I touched his chest, the wings of sparse black hair that spread from his sternum. “You don’t think it is?”
“My whole life I’ve done everything they said. I’ve read every word the Founder ever wrote. I’ve treated Jefferson like a god. I’ve disengaged Usurpers—I disengaged my own mother. There shouldn’t be a single degradon left on me. But I feel like my Esteem is just draining away, like I’m nothing but doubt.”
“You have more Esteem than anyone I know.”
“Is it working for you?”
“Have you talked to Jefferson? What does he say?”
“He told me I needed to adjust my attitude.”
We were in my bedroom. One of Helena’s nannies had taken her to ballet. Billy was away on location. The whole staff must have known what we were up to. Probably it was one of them who leaked the story to the tabloids. I hope whoever it was bought a nice house with the money. I hope they didn’t feel too guilty when Quentin hanged himself.
“The first time I went to the Ranch,” I said, “there was this FounderCorps girl who would come collect my laundry. She wasn’t supposed to be around when I was in the bungalow, but one day she was late or I was early and we happened to meet. I had just started dating Billy, and I asked her if she liked being in the Church.”
“What did she say?”
“She said she was born into it, and then she said of course she loved it, that she’d learned so much about herself. And even then I thought, What self? What is there besides what they’ve taught her?”
He looked at me, and I felt that whirlpool sensation, like I was being sucked into him. “That’s what I mean,” he said. “Exactly.”
“Oh, God, sorry, I wasn’t saying—you have a self. You’re not like that. It’s just—sometimes I wonder—”
“My mother says it’s wrong to think we’re entitled to avoid bad feelings. She says they’re part of the price we pay for living.”
“No. No one deserves to live with doubt.”
After a moment he said, “Is she a Usurper?”
“I think Billy’s gearing up to tell me so. It’s okay. She probably won’t notice if I disengage her.”
He was silent for a minute. “But why isn’t it working?” he said.
We lay in silence, two animals that had wandered into the same trap. At the time, I would have said pure lust had drawn me to Quentin, lust and our mutual urge to soil some corner of Billy’s perfect world. But after he died I knew he had been my true love.
“Why don’t you leave?”
“And be a blip?”
“You could do it.”
“Easy for you to say. You’ve lived out there.”
“People would help you. You could do it.”
Again the vertigo of looking at him. “Really?” he said. “Someone who’s spent most of his life on a ship or at the Ranch? Who’s never been to normal schools? Who’s never had a job that didn’t involve Jefferson Morris?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I told him about the glowing tiger and the dust that smothers everything else.
“Excuse me.” I flag down a passing flight attendant. “Would you give this to the man in white?”
She takes the small square napkin from me with her red talons and glances at it, reading the message. I can see she recognizes me and that she thinks she likes me. “I’ll see what I can do.” She starts to turn away, then turns back. “That poor boy,” she says. “That poor, poor boy.”
During Helena’s birth, I was asked to keep silent so as not to attach any degradons to her. She would encounter the despectulation of the world soon enough, but being born should not be traumatic.
“Did Billy eat the placenta?” my mother asked when I called to give her the news. “It says in the magazines that they eat the placenta.”
“Can’t you be happy for me?” I said. “Just this once? Just for giggles? And lots of people eat the placenta.”
I think I remember when my parents were together, but I can’t be sure. They never married, and they split when I was three, but I can picture my father in the kitchen of an unfamiliar house, pretending to tap-dance. My mother is facedown on the counter, one hand over her wild hair, one in a fist, laughing so hard the sound is crushed into silence. Her fist beats three times on the tiles, slowly, like an ominous messenger pounding on a door.
I can’t decide if I understood the risk I was taking when I first found myself kissing Quentin in my bungalow at the Ranch. He walked in on me when I was alone and crying on the sofa, and his embrace, instinctive and meant to comfort, pushed us over a precipice we had not known we were standing on. I was crying because of Helena, because she had told me she would never love me as much as she loved the Founder, and I had realized I did not like my own daughter, that I disdained her infantile conceit, her parroting of Billy, her certainty of her place at the center of a convenient cosmology. I blamed her for her gullibility even though she was only a child, even though I had not been brave enough to warn her by screaming as she emerged from me. Tendrils of contempt wrapped around my love, and perhaps they made me susceptible to the dark gravity that bound my body to Quentin’s. Or perhaps I was simply still the reckless girl who was pulled from swimming pools and prevented from jumping off balconies, who climbed unscathed from crumpled Corvettes, who lived at the center of a different convenient cosmology. Maybe I thought I could get fired from my life, take some time to watch the squirrels, and then present myself for absorption by a revised destiny.
Something is coming apart. Grief bears down on me like a black wave that has traveled thousands of miles and now is nearing shore. I look out the window, but there is only the hugeness of the moon and a few lights scattered like birdseed over the earth. I wait for the naval officer to come and find me, but his bald spot stays where it is. I need to talk to him. I need someone to really look at me. I remind myself that Quentin is dead, but I press the orange plastic cube in the ceiling. The flight attendant leans over me, smiling.
“Did you give it to him?” I ask.
“I sure did.”
“What did he say?”
“He said thank you.”
“Will he come talk to me?”
Her smile freezes around its edges, and I can see she already likes me less than she did. “Well, I don’t know. I didn’t ask him that.”
“Will you ask him, please?” I dig deep and come up with a gritty half handful of stardust that I fling at her. “Please?”
She tilts her head and walks up the aisle. I can see her back as she speaks to him, dipping apologetically.
The shrink I was seeing in New York gave me a mantra to replace the tiger: I am not the center of the universe. He sat back in his Eames chair with the satisfaction of someone who’d just laid down a royal flush, and I said, “You mean I should overcome my selfishness for the sake of myself?”
He beamed. “Exactly.”
We’re all on the same team, I wanted to tell him. We’re all fighting a common enemy: bad feelings. But, unbidden, my mother’s voice offers its two cents: “Self-doubt is not the plague of our time. People starve; the planet is dying; people have terrible diseases; people are wrongly imprisoned; people watch their families get murdered; people die because bits of someone else are decomposing inside them.”
I know, I tell her. Shut up. I get it.
Almost six years passed between the wedding and when I conceived Helena, and I could tell Billy and Jefferson were worried. They had equated youth with fertility, but my womb was still hungover from my teens, I think, and preferred to laze around and watch Billy’s seed float harmlessly by. Now Helena is the age I was when Jerome Shin took me into the bathroom. But she is a girl who holds her father’s hand and not the testicles of tragic film directors. When I see her picture in magazines, an excruciating bloom of love opens in my chest, threatening to break me from the inside. I believe she will come to me someday. I believe doubt will lead her to me.
“Ma’am, I was given a note saying I had a friend in this seat. Would that be you?”
“Yes,” I say, staring up at him. “Yes.”
“Is there something I can help you with, ma’am?”
“Can I do anything? To help you? I’d like to help.”
“Thank you, ma’am, but right now there’s not much for me to do but wait to arrive.”
I nod. Middle Management is staring at me. His big vanilla head crowds my peripheral vision. “Do you recognize me?” I ask. What I mean is Do you see me? Do you know me?
He does. I can always tell. Disgust creeps through his serious, respectful mask, and I am filled with longing for my mother. “Ma’am, my duty is to see that Petty Officer Roberts’s remains are treated with the respect they deserve and that they are delivered safely to his family. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d better return to my seat.”
“Wait,” I say. He waits. He thinks I am a spoiled movie star. He thinks I want special treatment, to involve myself in something that has nothing to do with me. He thinks I’m jealous of the attention a dead man is getting. I begin to cry. “I’m just so sorry,” I say.
The officer frowns but out of confusion and no longer disgust. “We all are, ma’am. You have my word I’ll pass along your condolences to his family.”
I lean against the window and cry. I fly through the air at five hundred miles per hour. I cry for Quentin, for the dead soldier, mostly for myself. The seat belt sign comes on, pinging a soothing tone. My mother tells me I am out of touch with reality. My glowing tiger prowls the aisle. Dust settles thickly on the other passengers, obliterating their faces, their T-shirts, their laptops, furring the ice cubes in their plastic cups. Sometimes, late at night, my father and I would find ourselves in the kitchen at the same time, and we would pour half-and-half over bowls of Raisin Bran. We lift spoonfuls of dust to our mouths. Faster, I tell him, drive faster. A field of orange lights swings into my window, and I want to run through it and collapse on a gingham blanket. The landing gear squeals out from under the dead soldier. The buses of the world kneel and ask forgiveness.