Smoke & Mirrors

By Vicky Deger


Sebastian was upstairs finishing his math homework. Jaxon was downstairs parked in front of an episode of The Simpsons doodling on the back of a Cheerios box. Spaghetti bolognaise simmered on the stove—two bay leaves and a quarter cup of ketchup, my mother's special additions.

I was tucked up against the washing machine folding an overdue pile of laundry when AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" rumbled from my back pocket. Within the first two lines of the first verse my internal speedometer redlined. I pulled my cell phone from my jeans pocket to confirm the display.

It was him.

A giant ball of holy shit lodged itself at the opening of my esophagus.

Derrick. Derrick, whose number I should have deleted years ago. I folded and stacked another pair of Spider-Man underpants, cleared my throat, and answered before it went to voice mail.

"What are you wearing, baby?" He spoke with an arrogant confidence. I'd not heard from him in over a year.

"A tattoo and a smile," I answered. "Where are you?"

"In Hollywood. Want to take me for oysters and martinis at Musso and Frank's?"

"Want to balance the martini glass on the small of my back while you fuck me in their restroom?"

I abandoned the laundry and headed upstairs to my bedroom, There, I traded the jeans for leather, strapped on my Jimmy Choos, and layered on the mascara. The boys and I were living with a Canadian roommate at the time; he watched the kids in exchange for rent. After some negotiating-slash-bribing with the boys, I kissed them good-bye and ran out the door.

I pointed the car towards a motel on Sunset. No name, just a red flashing motel sign.


Derrick and I had met five years earlier. I'd fallen in love with him over the cheese plate at a crowded Hollywood art gallery. We both preferred Brie over cheddar and agreed that the champagne grapes, although cute, were disappointing compared to their larger brothers and sisters. And we both had pink hair. He poured red wine to the brim of my plastic cup and played a tune on a bicycle bell for my kids. Later he drove us home in my Bronco. He helped me carry the sleeping boys from the car to the house, played me a song on the living room piano, and, by way of some serious penetration, took up residence deep within my DNA. But, as it turned out, he was married. For the next three years he lived between his wife, and the kids and I. Maybe others. He called it his Rubber Ball Syndrome. She'd kick him out and I'd welcome his doorstep-guitar-strumming-song-swooning ways with open arms. Derrick had been the front man for a punk band in the early nineties whose record deal had gone sour. Since then, he had reinvented himself as a music video hero, a casting director, and a celebrity fisherman.

Derrick was the dirty-rock-and-roll Ken to my not-as-perfectly-proportioned Barbie. Derrick was covered in tattoos. I wasn't. I adored our juxtaposition—his dark to my light; that his dangerousness magnified my femininity, or so my intoxicated mind assured me. In his arms I felt vulnerable and invincible all at once. We lit up a room. We owned it. I loved that in three-inch heels I'd tuck in under his cowboy hat and we'd stand eye to eye. Blue eyes. Blue like the robin's-egg blue from the boy's Crayola set. I adored that when he held my hand and led me across a street, people stared; that strangers assumed we were "somebodies" because we looked too good not to be. Being with Derrick was like being famous without having to deal with the paparazzi. Derrick was an anomaly: he drank vodka for breakfast, worshipped NASCAR Sundays, cooked with the precision and passion of a Cordon Bleu chef, helped fragile old ladies cross the street, hunted deer in the Sepulveda Pass, and serenaded me with love songs while I dressed for work in the mornings.

I pulled up to the motel in my black convertible Camaro. An impractical vehicle I'd exchanged the Bronco for a few months earlier. I had mixed emotions after the trade in. When I squeezed the kids into the cramped back seats I realized that carpooling teams of grubby little boys to soccer games was no longer a possibility. I'd driven past the motel on my trips down Sunset Boulevard to the YMCA where the boys had taken swimming lessons, but I'd never looked beyond the neon sign that flashed O-T-E-L at night. The rooms were stacked around a parking lot in a two-story horseshoe facing the street. The white lines that designated the parking spots were narrow and crooked—as if they'd been painted by a child. Jaxon had a two-story parking lot built into one of his Hot Wheels contraptions. He'd crowd the cars in and was often frustrated with not having enough room to open the tiny doors. I maneuvered my body sideways and squeezed out between my car and a burgundy 1980s Cadillac.

The motel was beige stucco. The two dozen or so sets of doors, windows, and trim were the same commercial beige color but coated with a polyurethane gloss—the drips and inconsistencies blared under the exterior fluorescent lights. Most of the doors were numbered, and on the ground floor was a door with a red and gold aluminum sign that read Reception. It was slightly ajar.

A black-haired, brown-skinned man with a Middle Eastern accent poked his head out. "Missus, can I help? Please. Missus."

"No, no." I said. "Room 17, second floor. I'll find it."

Derrick was leaning over the upstairs railing with can of Budweiser in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The fluorescent lights cast shadows under his eyes and on his cheekbones. The boys had similar faces when they'd turn out the lights, shine a flashlight under their chins, and walk around the house impersonating zombies. Up on the balcony, Derrick looked torturously handsome. Or was it handsomely torturous? His hair was black now, slicked back off his face. His shirt, unbuttoned to just above his pierced navel, revealed a tattooed history—all of which I knew intimately. En Dios Yo Confio—In God I Trust--stretched out across his six-packed stomach. The Egyptian symbol for psychic children–a thick line and a wave–was inked in blue above his heart. His shirt-sleeves were rolled. The barrel of his tattooed revolver reminded me of the time he'd talked about shooting himself. I was scared. I'd called my mother in Australia and asked for advice. She'd explained how much courage it takes to go through with suicide, and that he'd likely not do it if he was being vocal about it. But her advice was to not interfere if he was determined. That he'd be in a better place. That it was his story not mine.

"Your henchman awaits, my princess," he called down. Derrick had an innate ability to smile, smoke, and talk simultaneously.

The journey up the cinder-block stairwell was sticky. It reeked of human piss—evidence of which dripped down the walls to puddles on the floor. I sidestepped my way up the stairs, mostly on tiptoe. I stepped over condoms, a couple of syringes. A ticket stub to The Lion King at Pantages was lodged in a crack in the cement next to a toothbrush and an empty wallet. I thought about the wallet. Who came in with an identity and left without? I clutched my own purse against my ribcage as images of its contents flash-carded their way through my mind: Wallet, keys, cell phone, lip gloss, checkbook, Sharpie, seam ripper and a plastic soldier. A few years earlier, a five-year-old Jaxon had frantically called me into the bathroom where he was lying in the bath on his back. "Look Mommy, look Mommy," he'd gushed while pointing to his erect penis stacked with three green plastic soldiers; soldiers like the one in my purse.

The second-floor landing opened onto an AstroTurf corridor. I ran my hand along its metal railing.

"Hey sexy," he said as if he'd seen me that morning over coffee. "How was your day?"

"Fine." I wrapped my arms around his torso and tucked my shoulder inside his. "My day was fine."

Then I swooned. He pulled me to my feet and kissed me until I had no breath of my own left, just his. His cigarettes. His booze. Whoosh. My eyes rolled to the back of my head. I lingered at his bottom lip until he pulled it away and my teeth clacked together in front. He crushed his beer can, kicked it off the balcony, and led me by the hand into the motel room.

Lit by an exposed overhead bulb, the room was not much bigger than its queen-size bed. It smelled like drug-store cologne and cheap pussy. I could have reached up and touched the blemished ceiling tiles, but instead I kept my arms at my side, avoiding association with previous occupants. The walls had been painted in an over zealous goldenrod yellow shade, but the unfinished edges and dirty outlines and gaping screw holes from now-gone wall hangings only added to the room's stank. In the bathroom off to the right a dripping showerhead left a rusty thoroughfare down the cracked subway tile wall. A seething black mold growth ambled up the ceramic base of the salmon colored toilet. I studied the empty space where a mirror had once been above the matching salmon sink.

Derrick closed the door behind us. I thought about putting my purse down on top of the polyester bedcover but instead lay it on the side table next to the digital clock that flashed 12:00 in time with the dripping shower. It was perpetually midday or midnight in room 17. I was fine with that. He pulled out a clear plastic tube from his back pocket. Tiny ornamental flowers were imbedded in its tip, and squeezed in among the miniature bouquet was a note reading "I love you." I'd seen these cute plastic tubes for sale near the counter at the liquor store. I had no idea what they were.

He poured white chalky rocks from a plastic bag onto his palm. "Want to go to heaven?"

"I thought we were going to Musso and Frank's."

We laughed.

I'd never smoked crack. But this was Derrick, the man I adored. The man I rarely said no to. So, like the good little love-intoxicated girl that I was, I agreed to try it. I studied as he loaded the pipe for himself, sliding the rock up against the little flowers. He lit it, and sucked hard and long. Locked and loaded. His forearm's black revolver was ready to fire. Bam. A few seconds later he released a train of gray smoke that smelt like burned sugar cookies.

I'd burned a batch of sugar cookies a couple of weeks earlier. Sebastian, who'd come home from school with a hankering to bake, had found a recipe on the Internet. He'd gone to the store by himself to buy the ingredients and after measuring, mixing, and spooning the dough onto the aluminum sheets he carefully arranged the trays into the preheated oven. It was homework time. We'd made a deal that if he focused on his spelling words I'd be in charge of the timing. I was outside on the phone when I caught the burning whiff from the kitchen.

He smelled it too and came running in as I opened the oven.

"They're not supposed to be brown," he said.

"I'm so sorry, baby." I felt awful. I'd let him down.

"It's OK, Mom. You didn't mean to." He wiped his eyes with the back of his hands and stared down at his socked feet. He'd so wanted to pack cookies in the lunch boxes the next morning.

In room 17, Derrick passed me the loaded pipe. I prickled with pins and needles while I fumbled around it, finding the right grip. I pressed the pipe to my lips. A hole in the carpet stared up at me, held my attention for too long, then winked. I should go home, blow raspberries on Jaxon's outie belly button, tickle Sebastian till he laughed so hard that snot shot out of his nose, but instead, I inhaled, held, exhaled, and fell in love all over again.

I floated in the most wonderful state of consciousness, engulfed in an acute sense of being alive. Derrick and I were one. We were together. Happily ever after. I loved us more than I ever had. My head and heart felt one hundred percent clear, one hundred percent true. Fearless. It was like I'd jumped from the castle's highest battlements and I was flying, not falling. I felt the air pressure pounding up on my face, pulling my wrinkles taut, my skin back, revealing the youthfulness I'd had that day at the gallery. We were swirling, spinning, somersaulting our way to the stained paisley carpet. My Cinderella gown bellowed behind me, flapping up and slapping over my shoulders. I made buzzing sounds between my lips and dropped my head back before flopping onto the side of the bed where I found myself eye level with Derrick's lap. He packed another pipe while I, slowly and meticulously, sucked and coddled the most beautiful penis I'd known. Derrick slept around; he had been with men; he shot heroin on occasion. Derrick and I did not use condoms.

Derrick drove us around in my Camaro. We held each other's thighs across the leather console discussing our future.

"Let's sell your house and move to the North Shore. We'll open a roadside fish shack," he said.

"Yeah, the kids can go to Waialua Elementary." I was excited. Derrick and I had been to Hawaii twice together.

"Fuck that," he laughed. "We'll send them to boarding school."


We made three trips to the doughnut store on the corner of Hollywood and Gower where we met the black kid in a do-rag, oversized New York Yankees jacket, and baggy jeans that hung off his ass. For twenty dollars he spit a ballooned bag of the white rock from his mouth onto my palm. The crack was wrapped in tiny rubber balloons. Tiny children's balloons of dope.

Back at the motel we climbed back up the cinder-block stairwell then smoked in the room and on the ledge overlooking the parking lot. The burgundy Cadillac was gone. We became less and less cautious with our smoking, hanging outside on the railing, talking too loudly to our neighbors from across the hall. Eventually the reception guy yelled up and told us we had to leave. Something about "not to smoking the crack in his otel."

We cruised the streets of Los Angeles for hours. Where the streets are paved with gold. Sunset, Fountain, Hollywood boulevards. We were invincible. On crack, leaping tall buildings in a single bound is absolutely doable. Comic book heroes. Smoke and mirrors. We stopped for last call at the Frolic Room where we made fast friends with strangers. Derrick introduced me as his wife. I liked it when he did that. Blue and white light from the neon beer signs jumped out from the wall at a crowd of Hollywood hipsters in plaid shirts and tube dresses. We exchanged business cards with a couple who might have been from Ohio and discussed a meeting place and time for the following evening that we had every intention of showing up for, but wouldn't.

We never made it to Musso and Frank's.


It was late. I'd lost my glass slipper. We sat in the Camaro outside his girlfriend's apartment in Silver Lake. I had no idea who she was, or whom her rubber ball counterpart might be. I buried my face in his neck, cried quietly, and breathed him in as deeply as I could.

"Forever, baby," he pulled his neck up from the headrest and levered me off his shoulder.

Dawn hovered on the palmed concrete hillside.

"I know." I'd said it dozens of times before. "Always and forever."

He kissed me, unlatched the door, and stepped out. I adjusted the rearview mirror and watched as he ambled toward another woman's front door.


For the first time that evening I felt a sense of shame, a sense of "what the fuck was I thinking?" I was lonely. All alone. Blindfolded and teetering at the end of a gangplank awaiting the shove. I contemplated driving myself back to the doughnut shop, stopping at a liquor store for a plastic pipe and mini-bouquet of love. Fairytale love. I wanted to twirl and swirl in the fanciful happily-ever-afters, but instead I drove down Hollywood Boulevard toward my house. I passed bus stops crowded with cleaning women and their gardener cousins or brothers. Slowed down beside dawn-patrol joggers and diligent dog walkers.

The house smelled like dryer sheets, lemongrass candles, and last night's spaghetti. I stepped out of my heels onto the stone kitchen floor and set to scrubbing the clumps of bolognaise off the frying pan before heading upstairs where I pulled off my leather pants and crawled into my white linen bed. My brain was noisy, buzzing with a sickly sweet residue. I lifted the duvet up over my face. The nanny would arrive in an hour to get the boys up and ready for school. Ordinarily, after a night out, I wouldn't join them, but that day I knew my only road to sanity was to get up with them and rejoin their naive reality over Cheerios. My own reality was not a place I wanted to linger.

 

Vicky Deger: Hailing originally from the northern beaches of Sydney, Australia, a surfer girl at heart, Vicky Deger found her way to New York City in the mid 1980's. It didn't take long for the city's seedy underbelly to capture her, and between film production jobs, mohawks, and lovers, she scrutinized the innermost details of a gritty post-punk city life – so wildly juxtaposed to the bleached-blond beach life she'd grown up in. Intoxicated by the odd, the colorful and the uniquely real, her "life studies" transplanted her from New York to Brazil and to London. Now in Los Angeles, having raised two amazing young men, she surfs, works in the entertainment industry and is usually in the throws of planning her next adventure.

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