"Do you know," Jessica said, removing the lollipop from her mouth, "who the first celebrity was to urinate in a man's mouth during a strip show before making it big? Back when she was still a redhead?"
He sighed, and closed his eyes. After pretending to think about it for a moment, he said, "No."
"You wanna know?"
He said nothing.
She studied his reaction. He opened his eyes, stared briefly at the ceiling, then turned back to his book.
"Are you surprised?"
"You could be making it up for all I know."
"But are you surprised?"
"I don't know anything about her. I have absolutely no idea who she is."
Jessica glared at him with a look of total astonishment that bordered on fury.
"Jean Harlow was the first platinum blond! Can't you at least pretend to respect that? I mean, what's your fucking problem?"
"Why would I care about entertainment types? God, would you just lay off? I don't know anything about them, and honestly I don't really care."
She stared hatefully.
"That's so bogus. You're such a goddamn heathen."
He read his textbook. She let the tastes of her multi-colored lollipop swirl up images in her mind. The cherry (if that's what it was, she couldn't tell for sure) reminded her of something. So did the apple. But it was difficult to tell what: old experiences that had fallen into some remote mental fissure, maybe evolving down there, mutating out of any easily recognizable form; becoming memories of different people, maybe-- things she'd recall as if a friend had narrated them from his life, when actually they had happened to her.
Sometimes the opposite happened. She'd be in a conversation with a few people and one of them would mention an unusual occurrence in his life, triggering a flash in the smoky depths of her memory. What a coincidence, she's say, because (this is really funny, actually) something a lot like that happened to me. Then she'd describe something that happened to a character in a movie. After a dense, nauseating pause, everyone would laugh, and someone would say, Oh, so your real name is BatGirl (or whoever)? And she'd blush, and say stiffly; "I was...just kidding."
But they'd know.
And she'd know they knew.
And she'd feel crazy, crazy, crazy.
"Do you know--"
"No, I don't."
"Don't be pissy. Next question..."
His face sank onto his book.
"Do you know what the first movie Bernadette Peters' aunt was in -- before she was Bernadette's aunt, technically, since Bernadette wasn't quite born -- in which there was only natural lighting during the outdoor scenes except when the statue of the pig happened to be there, when they had to use torches?"
His face was flat on the book. Abruptly, he turned.
"Yeah, it was called Asleep in Paradise."
For a moment she couldn't taste the lollipop. She stared at him intently. He looked away, blushing.
"How the fuck do you know that?"
He shook his head.
"Tell me. How the fuck do you just happen to know that?"
"I don't know. I think I might've seen it, or..."
"Are you dating someone else?"
"No! I don't remember how I know."
She turned away from him and stared at the ceiling. She tapped the Lollipop on her teeth, then bit a piece off and crunched. She swallowed, and spoke slowly, hearing her voice waver, "I feel like this... has all happened before."
Jessica had hobby of observing the anniversaries of important people's deaths. On the anniversary of Robert Kennedy's assassination, for example, she stood in front of the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard where he was assassinated and read aloud from his speeches. She had leaned a large framed photograph of the former presidential candidate against the chain link fence that now surrounded the hotel, and she had encircled this with flowers and candles. Above it she draped an American flag.
On the anniversary of the King's death, she laid flowers on the steps of the Jasondel Hotel, where he liked to stay when he was in Los Angeles, and strummed his songs on an acoustic guitar. The hotel had long ago been converted into an apartment building, and the neighborhood had become impoverished. One of the tenants of the building laughed at her, and sat down on the stairs above her with a boom-box blasting gangsta rap so that she couldn't hear herself sing. After he got bored with annoying her and left, a deranged homeless man tried to steal her guitar right out of her hands while she was in the middle of "Love Me Tender."
She celebrated at least one death every week. Assassinations were the most poignant anniversaries for her, and then tragedies, such as airplane crashes, or fatal illnesses. Rituals for normal, healthy types of death were more of an exercise than anything, and rarely brought her to tears.
Also every week, she celebrated at least one birth -- sometimes the birth of a person whose death she had commemorated only a few weeks earlier. She found one would-be-celebrity, the only son of the silent film actor Charlie Ward, who had died the very same day he was born. She liked the fact that she could celebrate his birth and his death simultaneously.
There were certain celebrities who Jessica considered truly magnificent -- people who in her estimation had added substantial color and warmth to American culture, such as Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Jacky O, and so on -- and in addition to celebrating their births and mourning their deaths she also celebrated other events in their lives such as marriages, college graduations, bar mitzvahs, debut performances, contract-signings, and so on.
One day Jessica called Tom and asked him to pick her up from Griffith Park. She was there lighting a candle to commemorate the group picnic in which actress Sandy Welsh met businessman Jason Leighton, who three days later became her husband, then two months later became her murderer.
"Why do you do that stuff?" Tom asked her that evening over dinner. "Isn't it enough that you watch their movies or listen to their records all the time?"
She looked up from her Caesar salad, her eyebrows slanting sharply. "You're so goddamn insensitive. I'm showing that I cared about them, that they meant something to me. That they were important, and made a difference in the world. And I'm teaching other people about the greatest individuals in history, Tom. Some people have no idea who it is I'm celebrating; a while ago someone didn't know who Woody Guthrie was, can you fucking believe it?"
Recalling this made Jessica tense, sad, and a little pale. She put down her fork, and, shaking her head, stared at a small candle near the wall. It was drowning in its own wax, flickering and smoking. "And I'm also reminding everyone that all the great people are gone. All we have left are imitators. Clones. People doing trivial variations. The world is so hopeless right now."
"Maybe if we just forgot about them we could move on to new kinds of greatness."
"You're missing the fucking point. God damn you! Even if they're dead their greatness lives on, and so do their spirits. I'm showing them that they meant something. Besides, every time I celebrate a great person, I learn more about their greatness, and I absorb some of it. It makes me grow as a person."
One afternoon Jessica celebrated the anniversary of when the rumors of Paul McCartney's death broke the news.
"It's not even his real death-date," Tom observed, "but you're... oh, Christ, never mind."
Tom thought for a minute that she might just be looking for reasons to celebrate. But while the rituals were often joyous and touching, sometimes they were genuinely sad. Surely no one could enjoy all that sorrow. Or could they?
Starting on the day that Buddy Holly died in a tragic plane crash over someplace, Jessica cried incessantly for six days. After about three days of her anguished weeping -- which she accentuated from time to time by kicking the couch, the bed, or a wall -- Tom called her parents. The mom sat with Jessica while the dad ran out and bought nutrient-replenishing things to drink. When she figured out that her daughter was so anguished because Buddy Holly had died, she asked her lots of questions, which was probably a bad idea: What was so special about him, I mean, did he invent anything? How can you get so worked up about the death of someone who died before you were even born? Would it have been better if I hadn't let you listen to rock music as a child?
Just when the family was considering asking a doctor to prescribe anti-depressants, Jessica stopped crying.
Jessica was familiar with astrology, and often criticized her boyfriend for being such a typical Sagittarius. For example, she would scold him by saying, "Why do you always leave the bathroom in such a mess? That's so disgustingly Sagittarius of you." At other times she would say things like, "Why are all you Sagittarius so anal-retentive?" Her astrological generalizations were often contradictory in this way, and Tom noticed that attributes she considered Sagittarius one day she might describe quintessentially Gemini, or Libra, or Taurus, or anything else the next. Tom didn't entirely mind her fascination with astrology; the more she attributed his flaws to his birth date, the less she could legitimately blame him for them. How could he alter his cosmic nature simply by force of will?
In addition to blurring him in with other astrological types, she seemed to identify him more and more with her previous boyfriends. She once told him that her former boyfriend, Paul the chef, had worshipped his car -- an old convertible MG. He wouldn't let anyone else drive it, or wash it. Tom was entirely unattached to his four-door Honda Civic; his father had bought it for him without any consultation, and while it was functional, for him it was simply a means of transportation. One afternoon Jessica asked to borrow it, then froze, and turned to him with a look of embarrassment.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Forget it."
"Never mind; I know how protective you are with your wonderful chariot."
When they first began dating, Jessica told Tom that she had nicknamed her boyfriend Juan Juanitika, because he was part Polynesian. Then one afternoon, Jessica called him Tomitika, even though he didn't have a drop of Polynesian blood in his veins.
More and more, Tom felt like he was disappearing into Jessica's subconscious, being swirled into the characteristics of other men, losing his identity.
The fifteenth of December was Tom's birthday. Jessica completely forgot about it. That, or she deliberately ignored it.
Tom wondered: if he got into a car accident, or for some reason got executed by a shadowy branch of the government, would Jessica have annual services for him? What did it take for a person to make her list?
"I have to like them," she answered the question once, "A lot. Or love them."
"Well, yeah," he said, "It goes without saying that if you love someone you also like them."
"No it doesn't."
"Yes, it does. Sure it does."
"Uh uh. I loved my uncle Peter, but he was terribly mean to me and I really didn't like anything about him."
"Then... what sense does it make for you to say that you loved him? What does that really mean?"
"Well, on February tenth, I recognize his premature death by putting a bouquet and a letter for him on his grave."
"No, I mean, how did your alleged love for him manifest itself while he was alive?"
Jessica was scornfully silent for a while then went into the living room and turned on the TV. After a moment Tom looked over to see if her uncle was on the screen.
A week went by in which Jessica commemorated no deaths or births. While Jessica was at work and Tom was studying at their apartment, he opened her desktop calendar, and found that she had written down but ignored the death of Raul Julia and the birth of another person whose name he did not recognize.
Tom noted that there were two more death-days coming up in that weekend.
But Jessica performed no rituals for them, either.
At dinner that Saturday, he said, "Hey, isn't today the day the famous jazz dancer fell and cracked his head open in that bistro in Greenwich Village?"
"That was yesterday," she replied.
"So... did you celebrate it?"
She was quiet, then said, "No."
"But I thought you loved him."
Jessica stared at him for a moment, seeming briefly puzzled, then hurt, then angry. She stood up from the table and went into the bedroom without commenting.
Later, after Tom had finished cleaning the kitchen and did some more studying, he joined her in the bedroom. When he walked in the bed was covered with photographs, magazine clippings, and newspaper articles about celebrities. Jessica was sitting at the edge of the bed, holding a color photograph of Brad Whitman, a muscular, young stud who had starred in many movies before becoming a heroin addict. As Tom stood at the doorway, he watched Jessica rip the photograph in half, then tossed the pieces onto the bed behind her. Tom stared at the mess of photographs and articles on the bed, and saw that they, too, were all torn up.
"What are you doing?" He asked, incredulous.
"Leave me the fuck alone."
Tom stood silently, and watched her rip up two more photographs.
"Jessica, why are you doing that?"
She answered tearfully, "'Cause I'm never going to be famous. All I want is to be famous, but they're never going to let me. They're never gonna fucking let me."
After Jessica tore up all of the photographs and articles from her celebrity files, she grabbed them by handfuls from the bed and dumped them in the bathtub. When the tub was nearly filled with torn, crumpled, shredded pieces of paper, she began lighting wooden matches from Musso's Grill, a Hollywood restaurant famous as a deal-making site, then dropped the lit matches one by one onto the heap. While Tom frantically dismantled the smoke detectors in the living room and the kitchen, heavy gray smoke filled the air of their apartment. After a few moments, Jessica began choking, and ran from the apartment onto the lawn. Gagging, Tom turned on the shower to extinguish the flames. The ash formed a thick, black mud on the inside of their tub.
Jessica did not clean out the tub. She said she was not going to waste any more time on rituals, that her creativity and effort was better spent on nurturing the celebrity within her. The ash-mud would remain, she said, to commemorate her ritual to end all rituals; the mud in the tub would be like a bed of fragrant, rich soil, from which would grow and blossom her new inner life. For four days she took showers at her friend Jenny's house, and then Tom cleaned the tub.
For several weeks Tom wondered why she had suddenly changed, but he was afraid to mention it; she might seize up emotionally, or detonate. Without the elaborate ceremonies to devote herself to, Jessica had abundant free time. For about a week she sat catatonically in front of the television. Then she stopped watching TV, except for her two favorite shows, and instead she added another shift at the restaurant.
And then another.
Jessica would come home at eleven at night, then leave for work by nine. On weekends she worked well past midnight.
Late one Friday night he went to a payphone outside a Denny's, and called her work, disguising his voice. They said she had gotten off several hours earlier.
Jessica came home very late that night, and when she woke up she was moody and a little haggard.
"You must be making tons of money."
"Waitressing doesn't pay shit."
"You must be making a killing in tips. Are you saving for something?"
She was silent for a few moments, spooning sugar into her coffee, mixing it only slightly so that the crystals would form a thick, translucent syrup at the bottom of the cup.
"A trip to Vegas. I want to kidnap a bunch of Elvis impersonators and ransom our culture."
She called that afternoon while he was out, and left a message on the machine saying that she was seeing someone else; that she was sorry, but these things happened; that she would be back in a couple of days to collect her things, if she had any there -- she couldn't really remember.
And that was all the ceremony she gave him; no ritual good-byes, no bitter tears to express the depth of her pain or loss.
But then he began to think that it was all a ceremony, their relationship: programmed acts designed to evoke emotions that seemed right in the order of things, but never really came through. He saw how she had related to the celebrities she was once into: worshipful, distant, knowing them only by image, inference and hearsay; peering, but not exploring. They couldn't respond to her either because they were dead, or had no connection with her life. He hadn't responded to her because ceremony is inherently one-way. He wasn't supposed to respond. Eventually it turned out he didn't deserve a ceremony.
For the next couple of days he thought of ceremonies he could perform for her. He could time it so that when she arrived to get her stuff his funeral service for their relationship would be in progress. He could lay photographs of her in some elaborate pattern on the floor, then strum her guitar and croon about the time they met. Or he could pretend that she had died: lay flowers before her picture, light a candle, burn incense, then completely ignore her when she walked in, as if she'd already transcended the body, a ghost, a celebrity.
He realized that she would take it all wrong, mistake the ironic thrust for sincerity, or simply be baffled, pout a little, then forget about it.
When she showed up, her appearance had changed: she was heavily made up, and had dyed her hair blond.
"Do you like it?" She asked pensively, still not sure herself. "Sort of a Jean Harlow look?"
She touched a curl.
He shrugged, then said, "I don't know who that is."
She looked at him briefly, then carried a box of clothing out to the car she had borrowed from her new boyfriend, put it in the trunk, and left.
Copyright © 1998 Swagazine Six