Self(ie) Made

“We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance” (1841)

“Katy Major! Look at you!” My skin crawls. I know all too well what she is about to say: “You’ve changed!

Jessica, a girl from my graduating class, is in my face gasping, her outer disapproval barely concealing her inner delight. We are both at a birthday party for a mutual friend and former classmate, Michael. In honor of the party’s theme—drag—I am dolled up to rival Ru Paul’s finest (if gangly lesbians served as any competition): black lacy lingerie, heavy makeup, high heels … I notice, in a delayed sort of way, that a cigarette hangs from my hand.

She is genuinely scandalized, and I have to suppress an eye roll. At my liberal arts college outside of Columbus, my classmates wouldn’t bat an eyelash if I walked into a drag-themed party wearing nothing but a feather boa. But although Michael’s party itself is in Akron, tried-and-true tough and ready for anything, the party’s attendees from our high school are small-town Medina stock: conservative and gossipy—or, as I less charitably consider them, uptight.

They all say variations of what Jessica said: You’ve changed . I’m unsettled in spite of myself. After about the third or fourth time someone tells me I’ve “changed”, I find myself wondering if they’re referring to something beyond my appearance. Have they caught wind that I’m gay? A feminist (still a maligned breed where I grew up)? A heavy drinker? Mentally ill? Or maybe, somehow, they’ve heard about the brushes with the law, the pregnancy scares … I start to ruminate on sources of potential scandal, wondering what it is precisely that has set off this reaction.

Regardless, Jessica’s shock is absurd. After all, who hasn’t changed since high school? I’ll tell you one thing: in the halls of our posh, upper-class high school, I never once saw her slinging a bottle of wine the way she is even as she stands before me, smug written all over her flushed face—no surprise, since she was eighteen and we were, you know, at school. In the same way, it’s unsurprising that Jessica hasn’t seen me in lingerie; wearing nothing but underwear to school is the stuff of nightmares.

It’s interesting—sometimes I trick myself into thinking that my graduating class knows me best, because we’ve all spent at least six years in the same classrooms. For some, the full ten years between when I moved into the district and graduated. But, much as I’d like to believe that, especially amid all the unfamiliarity of my still-new college, it just isn’t true. The vast majority of those people didn’t really see me—or anybody beyond their closest friends—except in the form of some hackneyed stereotype: Slut. Jock. White trash. It didn’t occur to anyone back then, how we all move within and beyond those categories, both in high school and outside of it. Maybe this is why facets of who we are, newly risen to the surface from far below, have a tendency to shock, suddenly apparent post-graduation because, for the first time in six years, we’ve escaped the claustrophobic identification system that birthed satires like Freaks & Geeks and Mean Girls. It is then we begin the most radical years of self-formation.

Who we are is a complex matter. The selves of chance and the selves we choose merge haphazardly, unevenly, shaping a fully-fledged adult around the age of twenty-five—far past high school—when the brain reaches full development. Appearances give little away in terms of the story of who we are and how we have become … but, in the limited scope of the selfie, we exhibit who we might like to be in the subtleties of the image we create. This is the twenty-first century and, if we can’t be exactly who we’d like to be—that age-old tragedy—we can at least play pretend in the tiny frames of mobile phones and laptops.

selfie made photo

 

Before I went to college, the term “selfie” scarcely existed. Instagram was just barely kicking off in popularity, in no way the social media behemoth it would become. This is not to say that, as teenagers, we failed to document our every expression and mood, as today’s teenagers notoriously do. Back then, we pointed digital cameras into mirrors to capture ourselves, ever trying to hide the extended arm bearing the camera and the flash’s telltale rosette—an untidy blur if the mirror happened to be dirty. Around the time I graduated high school, however, the iPhone was gaining traction. Before long, everyone had one. The ubiquity of the front-facing camera made the selfie a near-daily ritual.

This one was taken five years ago—nearly a fifth of my lifetime ago. What stands out to me as I examine this picture is my youth, perhaps transparent to no one but me. My hair is undyed, plain brown, ruddy in the yellow lighting of—you guessed it—the bathroom. (Old habits die hard.) My cheeks are still round. My smile creases my entire face, a contrast to the thin, close-lipped smile I wear on my current driver’s license. My skin, I can’t help but notice, is smooth and pink, not marred by today’s scarring, the remains of years of stress acne and cigarette smoke damage. So much has yet to happen to the girl-woman in the picture, still teetering before the chasm of adult life.

Still, much had already occurred. God’s will, or the plain luck of genetics, had already done its work. I was born fortunate to caring middle-class parents in a safe Ohioan idyll. The face in the picture above bespeaks privilege, no doubt about it—that round and rosy face is the product of never wanting for food, for shelter, for chapter books to devour or Christmas presents to tear open. My father’s Mediterranean features are splayed across my face—leptorrhine nose, broad brow ridge, oval face, wide eyes—while my coloring is a near-perfect match to my mother’s: fair skin, blue eyes, dishwater hair. In a word, I’m average—a forgettable exemplar of the so-called melting pot that Americans proudly lay claim to.

This picture is rather casual in comparison to later selfies; eventually, technology caught up with my generation’s desire to make a self rather than simply reflect one, cropping tools and filters abounding. Instead, in this photo, the posturing is in the details: my smile is a bit too big and my hair is suspiciously neat. Yet, my skin shines with perspiration and I didn’t bother with framing the shot strategically or filtering the final product. Only I can discern, mostly by way of memory, the enormous discomfort of my life at that time, as the new and the old clashed dramatically.

 

My brother died in 2010, seventeen months before I snapped the selfie above to oh-so-casually send on to a crush via SnapChat, a brand-new phenomenon at the time. His death occurred just before the mobile phone’s transition from the pull-out keyboard to the touchscreen. I, too, was on the cusp of something: adulthood. A little over eight months after he died, I would graduate from high school, never more unsure of who I was—past, present, and future. Every classmate that walked across the stage at E. J. Thomas was engaged in the delicate process of self-formation, no doubt, but—perhaps like every teenager—I couldn’t help but feel terribly alone. In the year following Colin’s death, I drank my first beer, drifted away from old friends and made new ones, chose a college to attend, reluctantly attended prom. My parents divorced. I moved out.

These are all facts—just facts. Who is to say what re-makes a previous self and what cements what was already there? Later, I had a drinking problem, “alcohol dependence” drily noted on my chart when I was hospitalized a month or two before graduating college. It would be absurd to link those two words, penned four and a half years later, to that first half-full Solo cup I slugged back at Ohio State … wouldn’t it? And would it be equally as absurd to see my poor mental health as purely the result of trauma, rather than a destiny of chemical imbalances? Cause and effect, past and present—the distinction between who we have become and who we always have been is difficult to pinpoint.

I obsess over the possibility that who I have become might not necessarily be who I was “meant to be”—a slippery concept cobbled from superstition and faith and doubt and a certain resigned fatalism. I imagine myself, still fresh-faced and young, stumbling upon the proverbial fork in the road and glibly skipping down the wrong path, littered with hangovers and lost sleep and despair—just parallel to the path riddled with landmarks like graduating Summa Cum Laude and publishing a book by twenty-five and marrying young. I try to piece together an alternative self when I’m lying awake at night, imagining who I was “before”—before when? Before Colin died? Before I came out? Before I started drinking?—and trying to place her in my current circumstances, wondering how she’d react. Invariably, the answer is “better.” I imagine her sailing through her college classes, mind so clear from an uncluttered path to adulthood that she knows exactly what she wants and pursues it with a certainty that needs no outside reassurance. The real me stumbled through college, accidentally discovering passions and falling into bad habits and joining causes and abandoning the old for the new, all in an alarmingly haphazard fashion.

In my therapist’s office, I ask—though I know she doesn’t know any more than I do—whether I would be mentally ill if. If Colin hadn’t died. If my parents hadn’t divorced. If my coming-out at nineteen hadn’t been such a disaster.

In her usual calm, neutral tone, she says: “Well. You were born with anxiety, no doubt about that—just like you were born with blue eyes and blonde hair.”

I start to cry—and fail to confess that I’m a bottle blonde—even though her answer contradicts the one I feared I would receive: that the circumstances of my life have altered fate for the worse. Nothing is what I want it to be. “So, you mean I’ve always been fucked up?” I wail.

She shakes her head patiently. “Do you think that people born with diabetes are fucked up?”

“No,” I mutter, but I’m still picturing a smile as bright as the one I wore seven years ago, nine years ago, twelve years ago, plastered across an older face.

“A picture says a thousand words,” we say, intoning the old cliché as if it still holds any real meaning. On the contrary: a picture says little. While essayists are typically experts at wringing photographs for meaning, I find myself at a loss when I eye a selfie. Candids are easier—there’s Mom, harried, at my fifth birthday party, jerked out of comfortable introversion by the obligation to celebrate or Dad, interrupted from the computer’s hypnotic draw a second before a bleary-eyed snap is taken. Even group photos, staged as they are, rarely lack a lapse in order—a crying baby, a blinking uncle, a pair of “bunny ears” gone unnoticed. Selfies, however, are something quite different—an everyday artifice used to create someone new, not the past and present selves which so often disappoint, but an aspirational future self, an ideal. Genetics, luck, fate—they’re all muted by the artful use of strategic angles, filters, and multiple takes for good measure. It takes a keen eye to bypass technology’s disguise and see through to what lies beneath.

 

When you are young, it seems this simple: pick a job, a spouse, a number of children to bear—these are straightforward constructs that limit or expand your life. Who you are is another matter entirely. When you are a child, you presume that you will be the same forever. That you will always eat a cheese sandwich and watch Blue’s Clues at lunch. That you will always be best friends with the little girl next door—and, if you’re like me, that even if you and that little girl do happen to grow up, you will build conjoining mansions to live in. That you will always have a crystal-clear sense of right or wrong. It never occurs to you that the act of becoming will at times overwhelm you, the dizzying possibilities nearly buckling you under their psychic weight, that the choices you make will leave you wondering what is fundamental and what is evidence of becoming: mistakes, influential social trends, damage sustained through that trick of metamorphosis. Urgent and troubling questions will keep you up at night: What has life made of me? Have I ruined myself in the becoming? Who am I supposed to be?

 

Consider one of the world’s most famous women … the first “social media mogul,” boasting tens of millions of Instagram and Twitter followers, a mobile game she created and stars in, and a pack of emojis for the iPhone bearing exclusively her face and body. Her daily life televised for more than ten years. She’s the author of a book composed entirely of selfies. She’s a fashion model, a business owner, but mostly, a “celebutante”: famous for being famous. Her image is everywhere.

On May 24, 2006, Kim Kardashian left a Brentwood cinema after seeing a matinee showing of The Da Vinci Code with post-Newlyweds Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees. Midafternoon. Brentwood. Yet Kim’s toes had barely brushed the pavement before the two were swarmed by paparazzi, eager to photograph the latest substitute for America’s sweetheart, Jessica Simpson. There they were, in a quiet LA suburb—in droves.

Strange. What would possess LA paparazzi, typically busy chasing down stars downtown, to schlep their way to a suburban movie theater? Lachey, particularly now that he has all but faded into obscurity—a tombstone marked “98 Degrees” sprouting up in the graveyard of nineties boy bands and more than a decade having elapsed since the finale of Newlyweds—is fond of pointing out the role he played in Kim’s rise to fame. “No one followed us [to the movie],” he told Details magazine in 2013. “Somehow, mysteriously, when we left, there were thirty photographers waiting outside.” He laughed good-naturedly before getting to the heart of the matter: “There are certain ways to play the game, and some people play it well.”

The reaction Kim Kardashian typically evokes is a grudging mixture of exasperation and admiration, resentment and awe. Although many Americans are, perhaps rightfully, quick to point the finger at Kardashian and her ilk for rendering fame meaningless—no longer an indication of exemplary talent or even obscene wealth—no one can quite bring himself to go so far as to deny the astonishing cleverness with which she played the celebrity machine.

Similarly, around the time that Kim was reaching the upper echelons of tabloid ubiquity, a sex tape was “leaked” and later sold as Kim Kardashian: Superstar, a scandal which generated plenty of scorn, but even more media attention. In a coincidence that parallels Kim’s star-crossed encounter with the paparazzi in Brentwood, a little over six months later, Keeping Up With the Kardashians premiered. 1.3 million tuned in. Today, the show has been on the air for fourteen seasons and more than ten years.

The game that Lachey enigmatically refers to is a game that we all play to some extent. Whether we like to admit it or not, self-formation is often forced, at least at first. Remember when you were a teenager and determinedly wore a political t-shirt bearing an eco-friendly message every single day, dead-set on proving yourself a hardcore activist? Or, when you signed your name “Marilyn Monroe” sometimes, in hopes that willing yourself glamorous could make you someone equivalent? Or, when you gave your entire presentation for your elementary French class entirely in French, just to prove that you could?

Maybe you don’t, reader, but I do: because this is my story of self-formation.

Pushing the traits that we most treasure in ourselves to their dramatic extremes is a part of teenage life, a precursor to the young adult years when our most definitive features settle back into their natural state and the adolescent pressure to individuate fades. Today, I volunteer at the local parks to do my part for the environment, though the “Save the World” t-shirts are long since abandoned. I’m not glamorous by any means, but wear Marilyn’s signature red on my lips for special occasions. I don’t need to prove my intelligence, because by this point, I know who I am: maybe not a genius savant with a sky-high IQ, but someone with skill and dedication who laps up knowledge eagerly and occasionally retains it. I’ve settled into myself and, let’s be honest—so has Kim. She scarcely needs to call the paparazzi now—if this is, indeed, what happened in the spring of ’06—for they doggedly follow her wherever she goes. Kim’s experience is magnified by her celebrity, her game played with higher stakes—a potent risk of public humiliation and the shining opportunity to matter in the public eye—yet still she only demonstrates—on a giant, media-swollen scale—what we all practice.

 

In 2015, Kim published Selfish, an autobiography entirely consisting of photographs of her—not professional shots, but “selfies” previously posted on Instagram, each skillfully rendered glamour shot swollen to a dozen times the size of an iPhone screen on wide, glossy pages. On the surface, it seems as though such a project is doomed to flop: if Kim’s reputation suffers, it is because the public perceives her—and the desire for fame that drives her—as shallow and self-absorbed. A book entirely comprised of selfies seems perfect fodder for such criticisms. Surprisingly, however, critics by and large found Selfish poignantly revealing, despite the crafted artifice of the selfie and the layers of expensive clothing, lingerie, or makeup draped on the subject, intensifying the smoldering gaze with which she so often meets the camera.

The photograph—like the film—is a slanted replica of a person or her life. An artifact that we view as a reflection of reality, but in truth, veers closer to fantasy. The form is fundamentally different from the experience of witnessing someone in motion—not only because the moment frozen in a photograph whizzes by before we can process its meaning, but because even candid shots are staged, arranged in the mind’s eye of the photographer. The selfie, then, is something more altogether: to the subject, it is a skewed funhouse mirror. While, the spectator can’t discern where reality ends and fantasy starts. Psychoanalysts theorize that when a child first looks into a mirror, paradoxically, he perceives the other for the first time. He sees his reflection as a separate object and is presented with the illusion of self as other—and so two others appear to be confined in the looking-glass before him. He identifies with the reflection—a separate object—a not-him—a creation of his own. He’s witnessed his first potential selfie.

Kim Kardashian West’s selfies are crafted reflections of her, canny as her public self-formation. Artfully wrought, each one depicts another angle of Kim’s success. Here she is in 2006, still dark-skinned and visibly Armenian, using the now-archaic mirror and digital camera to capture the shot. Here she is in 2009, cavorting with Kourtney Kardashian, both still twentysomething and baby-free in Mexico. And here, she is in 2014, showing off her resplendent post-baby body in a lavish full bathroom that could only belong to the wife of Kanye West. Her pictures move from apparent carefreeness to the smoldering stare of a successful businesswoman and international sex symbol.

One recent selfie, near the end of Selfish, depicts Kim, hair ocean-tousled, in full makeup—though her eyeliner is artfully smudged, as if to suggest that this is a casual pose—wearing nothing but a towel, barely visible at the bottom edge of the photo. No longer a smiley twentysomething, glib and cutesy, Kim is all sex symbol, all the time, her face carefully arranged into an expression of haughty indifference, her shining visage as glossy and surreal as the sleek coffee table book itself. Since her first pregnancy, her curves are more pronounced than ever, her breasts bulbous and veiny, and it’s hard to tell what the focus is intended to be: the dark eyes which gaze unwavering at the camera lens, or the eye-popping presence of her breasts below. The sweetheart of her family reality TV show, the drool-worthy and busty babe of the likes of Maxim and Playboy … spectators can’t decide and, based on this selfie, maybe Kim can’t, either.

Selfish depicts Kim’s journey from celeb wannabe, cheesing and sticking her tongue out, releasing shot after endearing shot of her hugging Kourtney and Khloé or lounging around LA nightclubs and coastal beaches, to legitimized celebrity, wanted by Vanity Fair and Us Weekly alike. Her older selfies depicted a young woman intent on being fun, carefree, sweet—everything America could want for its next rising starlet, but as the book approaches its end, we find that Kim has attained iconic status.

Perhaps back in 2009, or even as recently as 2011, Kim would have been slammed by the likes of the New York Times and The Telegraph for Selfish, but not in 2015, when her atmospheric fame and status demand a certain measure of respect. The Telegraph concedes that Selfish is “oddly moving” and The Times marvels at the visual progression from celebrity sidekick to superstar: “This is the post-Calabasas Kim, the Kanye West Kim, the Kim who must be deferred to by the world’s greatest photographers and designers.” Whatever Kim may have been, natural-born narcissist or just another rich nobody, today, she is the selfie we see and what was once a pose is now an unconscious gesture.

 

I am no Kim Kardashian West: at my age, Kim was already appearing regularly in the New York Daily News, peddling designer wares as “kimsaprincess” on eBay, and skillfully turning aspirations of fame into press coverage. What it would be like to live the life of a celebutante, every detail of origin and transformation scrupulously documented for public consumption? Would such attention be liberating—or invite the suffocating pressure I feel when old friends scrutinize me, Jessica’s “You’ve changed” amplified to the voice of a million so-called fans?

Our world is a place where photographs —once considered straightforward depictions of reality—are not captured but crafted, a place where the famous have abandoned the game of chance for one of strategy. Discerning the essential self from the obfuscating effects of trauma—airbrushing tools, Instagram filters, contouring—is a bewildering process and so, in an effort to understand—to wield control over the seemingly uncontrollable act of becoming—I write. It’s not glamorous, but it’s my best chance at self-recognition. Who was I, and what was there to love in her? Would she be proud of who I have become? Words teach me what I suspect Kim Kardashian learns at twice the rate—how story becomes mythology and how those mythologies shape not just a self, but also a world that intimately surrounds her.

Ultimately, it is up to us to craft the story, in a most Kardashian-esque way, whether it ends up a cautionary tale of hitting the bottle too hard or a fairy tale about becoming the author you’ve dreamed of being since girlhood. Writing changes the world—in the smallest of ways—and, in doing so, the person who writes bypasses the empty life we all so fear. Whether or not you believe that life’s destined path is brimming with your essential self or with fate’s obscure plans, what is meant to happen must: whether by God’s design or your own careful construction of each resplendent, artful selfie.


Katy Major is a writer and critic from Medina, Ohio. Previously, her award-winning work has been published in Otterbein University’s Humanities journal, Aegis, and Quiz & Quill Magazine. Most recently, her work was featured in ‘Adelaide Magazine’s summer issue. Katy is currently at work on her first essay collection, Self(ie) Made: American Essays. You can find her on Twitter at @wildthingwriter or visit her website on all things horror at WildernessHorrorBlog.wordpress.com.

 

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Famous

“My parents are famous,” Chanel boasted.

She stood on the dirty steps of Hollywood High school. A minty Newport dangled from her glossed lips. Her thin legs were wrapped in torn fishnets and she wore an oversized Sonic Youth shirt, belted into a sloppy dress. A mural sprawled behind her, acrylic and stucco images of celebrities—legends—former students who once stood on these steps and carried their books down these halls. Rudolph Valentino was the last painted face, dressed in his famous Sheik robes. He had gone to school in Italy.

Other students stood on the steps below her or in patches of desiccated grass. Ravers sucked on oversized pacifiers, their necks stained from candy necklaces and stuffed animals draped down their Day-Glo backs. Popular girls with shiny hair stretched their tanned legs over a fluffy pink comforter. They blew iridescent bubbles that they popped with manicured fingers. They ate bananas and tossed the peels behind them. Behind the girls were stoner boys with greasy hair and acoustic guitars slung over flannelled shoulders. They kicked up a limp hacky sack with the sides of their scuffed Vans.

“Who are they?” one of them asked.

Chanel bit her lip, tasted the saccharine berry of her gloss, and scanned her audience. It wouldn’t matter to them that her mom once photographed David Bowie or gave giggly hand jobs with Sable Starr. It wouldn’t matter that she’d been an early fixture of the Sunset Strip and was once invited to dance on the tables of the Rainbow. And her dad? The fact that he filled in the gaps of forgotten anachronistic bands wouldn’t matter either. The New York Dolls were nothing but a Hot Topic t-shirt to these kids.

They wouldn’t get it. They just wouldn’t get it. She was part of the wrong generation.

They were all idiots.

Chanel jumped off the wall, smashing her cigarette on the rubbery sole of her boot. Shimmering embers danced down the gray steps.

Everyone looked at her.

“You wouldn’t know who they are,” she said, smirked, and lit another cigarette.

“That girl is so weird.”

“Her parents are probably has-beens, anyway.”

***

Chanel walked home alone. She kept her head down, her steps brisk down the smooth sidewalk. She avoided the homeless men, burrowed under the bushes holding out their smudged hands and asking for spare change. Squishy headphone speakers throbbed inside her ears, blasting T-Rex’s Electric Warrior.

She was surprised to come home with both parents’ cars parked in the driveway—her father’s dented ’52 Buick and her mother’s Rabbit, white and boxy with a hanging muffler. They always said her mother had the reliable car, even when the car sputtered and blackened fumes spewed from the exhaust.

Chanel wished they weren’t home. It was better when the house was quiet and Chanel could imagine them—not listen to them complain about hangovers or explode into mutual denigration. She liked to pretend they were on red carpets or drinking champagne with Iggy Pop, maybe driving around in Liberace’s rhinestone car wearing top hats and gaudy jewelry.

She opened the door slowly, the hinge creaking. Overpriced antiques—a rusted Victrola, a dented Jukebox, sun-damaged reels of silent film—cluttered the living room. All of them covered in brown dust and old, unopened bills. The pieces weren’t arranged, just propped against the burgundy walls or piled on the sticky wood floor. Her father couldn’t resist a steal at the local antique malls, even when the electric company threatened to shut off the lights. And Chanel’s mother wasn’t any better. She charged credit cards, and then called her own parents sobbing, telling them she didn’t know how Chanel would survive. Chanel stashed the money given to her at birthdays and holidays inside of worn socks and cracked CD cases. Just in case.

Chanel heard her parents. Loud and almost frantic from the back room—the one where her father kept his collection of vintage guitars. Cigarettes stained the walls of that room, the paint greasy and yellow. Old ashtrays covered the floor and teetered on blackened windowsills. Getting closer, she heard her mother’s shrill laughter and the manic words of her father. He was probably trying to secure himself on someone’s tour. Probably trying to sell his musical skills—reminding them about that time the LA Weekly wrote a glowing blurb about his show. Or, maybe, he was trying to sell a broken guitar. Chanel pressed herself against the hallway wall, careful to avoid the framed movie posters.

“There’s a tribute show to the Ramones in a couple of weeks. I’ll get in touch with CJ and Richie—if we could be ready by then.”

“Cool. I have a contact at Spaceland, but we need to get our merch together before we play anywhere. I’ll get some shirts done up and CDs. Maybe some posters or pins?”

“Are we recording just a few songs? I mean, I have an old Moog. It’s pretty nice, with a crackly, vintage feel.”

“Nah. We need to do my comeback big. No home recordings. We need big name producers, stuff to get the press going. I’ll give Rick a call. He used to produce all my stuff in the eighties.”

Chanel recognized her father’s voice—laden with desperation. The second voice was also familiar. Another one of those guys, she figured. Bloated, sweating men coming to her house on an almost daily basis. They responded to the ads, with the blurry photographs of vintage instruments. In the photos, the instruments were intact. When these men came to buy them, they found her dad only selling them in pieces. Dismembered skeletons of guitars and drum sets, and putrid, decaying trombones. These men were disappointed, rambling how they once met Keith Richards and talked to Perry Farrell at the Scream. They had seen Guns N’ Roses with Tracii Guns.

“It’s 100 bucks. This guitar was in perfect condition,” her father would tell them. These men would dig into their pockets, counting out wet twenty-dollar bills while watching Chanel. They didn’t care that she was sixteen. She wanted to tell them that Lori Mattix wouldn’t have slept with Jimmy Page if he was anything like them. They left quietly with their instrument pieces. Their rounded stomachs protruded from their too-tight Cramps shirt, silvery stretch marks slashed across their skin.

Chanel pushed herself off the wall and walked towards the kitchen. She didn’t need to see any of them again.

On the counter was a package of macaroni and cheese and a can of diet coke. Chanel was shocked. Eating was fickle in this house. Her mother was usually on some incredibly restrictive fad diet, the ones touted by waifish celebrities. She vacillated between Atkins, South Beach, starvation, and diet pills sold at GNC. Chanel’s father seemed to forget food existed. He survived on impromptu salads, chain-smoking, and cognac.

Chanel was boiling water when they all walked by. Her mother and father…and him.

She knew him. She knew him from the glossy photos scotch-taped to her bedroom walls, the edges serrated from when she tore them out of Hit Parader and Spin. She knew him from the glitzy videos shown on MTV flashbacks. She knew him from the stories she created in her mind.

The man walking with her parents was Troy Velvet.

The glam god of 1980s New Wave and current fodder for VH1’s glut of documentaries. He made her hate her own generation, and wish she’d been a part of his.

Chanel couldn’t talk or blink or smile. This was the man she gave herself to. To his dated pictures and videos. In her room she would pretend they were meeting. The year was always 1983 and she was always dressed like Cyndi Lauper with him frozen in time. His eyes lined black and doused with glitter.

Troy Velvet was here. His black hair spiky. His eyes more blue than they’d been in any photograph.

He was in her house, in her kitchen, with the dishes spilling from the sink, watching her stand in front of the stove with her mouth hanging open. She forgot the interesting things she once said to him inside of her head.
“What band are you in? You must be a singer or something,” he said, winked, and leaned an elbow on the faux marble countertop.

“I’m not in a band. I just live here,” Chanel mumbled.

“So, Troy, can you call that person at Spaceland? Today? Maybe book a show by next week?” her father blocked their view, lighting a new cigarette while the old one extinguished between his lips.

“Sure. I’ll let you know tomorrow,” he said. Troy offered a small wave and friendly smirk to Chanel, who stood rigid in front of the stove, “Nice to meet you.”

The water was boiling over, sizzling on the red burners.

Troy was at her house the next day. And the day after that. He wore vintage suits and band t-shirts and heeled boots. Her dad ferried him outside to the makeshift studio while Chanel pretended to do homework. Chanel held her breath listening to the muffled sounds of crashing symbols and electrified strings. Her mother sat in front of the computer, selling old clothing and shoes on Ebay. She didn’t seem to notice Chanel’s behavior, didn’t notice her gliding through the house with her fingers trailing the walls.

After listening to her dad and Troy run through “Glam Boy” seven times, Chanel crept into her room, slowly shutting the door behind her. On her knees, she placed a scratched Joy Division record on the turntable. “She’s Lost Control” purred from her speakers. The record stuttered, repeated synthesized claps. Chanel loved how worn the record was.

She twirled around the room, her home-bleached hair swishing in her ears. Troy’s face was ubiquitous in her bedroom. There was an image of him from the late 70s, shirtless and wearing heavy eyeliner while holding a laced joint in one hand and a book of Dylan Thomas’ poetry in the other. Above her dresser was a picture of him from 1984, dangling from the article discussing his struggle with heroin. He was clean in this photograph, his eyes brighter. A little heavier.

Chanel loved him. She penciled their names together in class. She wrote his name in Sharpie around the scuffed whites of her Converse. She wrote I love Troy on the palm of her hand, watching the black bleed down the drain when she had to wash it off.

She knew everything about Troy Velvet. Trevor Vaughn was born on May 18th, 1958 in a Jersey suburb. He ran away to join CBGB’s coterie. They welcomed him—gave him beat up instruments, fed him flat beers, let him share their drugs. He cleaned up and went more new wave than punk. He won Grammys, had platinum records. Now he was here. In her house. In her kitchen. Practicing in her garage. It had to be fate. She knew his favorite food was pizza, his favorite color was red, and his greatest inspiration was The Velvet Underground. She was in love with him.

She placed her cheek on one of the pictures taped to her bedroom wall. The glossy paper stuck to her warm skin.

Chanel’s head spun with imagined, sensational magazine covers—her and Troy a front-page story. A scandal. A romance. Dizzy, she collapsed onto the twisted floral comforter of her unmade bed. She hummed the next song, “Shadowplay,” the needle leaping over the vinyl’s grooves. Her hands traveled down her stomach and under the elastic of her skirt. They moved along with the song’s dark notes, her eyes wide open and watching the picture of Troy above her bed. She didn’t stop, her eyes on his inanimate image.

Far away she heard a soft click. She wished she’d heard it quicker. She sat up, her heart pounding in her ears. Troy stood against her door, his eyes surveying her walls and seeing his own face everywhere.

Chanel wanted to die.

“I thought this was the bathroom,” he said, his hands flat against the door. Chanel’s hands smoothed down her skirt.

“It’s down the hall,” she muttered to her chest.

Troy didn’t leave.

“Your dad and I are playing that show at Spaceland tomorrow. I can get you on the list,” Troy said.

“They won’t let me go. My parents, I mean.”

Troy walked over to her. Chanel could smell the stale cigarettes and masculine perspiration.

He bent down in front of her, his index finger held to his lips.

“They don’t have to know. Meet me there at 11. Our secret?”

***

Chanel couldn’t eat. She wrote out what she wanted to say to Troy, then tore up the pages. Burned them with her lighter.

Her parents were oblivious. Her dad spent the day sleeping and then crafting his image for the show. He wanted to appear like Alice Cooper, only softer and prettier. Her mother called up distant acquaintances, telling them they had to see this show of a lifetime.

“Everyone will be there!”

Yes, everyone, Chanel thought. She worked on her own image, covertly in the bathroom. She dipped the ends of her peroxided hair in Purple Haze Manic Panic and snuck into her mother’s room for a black sequin skirt and a pair of false eyelashes.

Her parents left around nine. Their loud, cacophonous voices trailed behind them before she heard the rattling engine of the old car. Chanel ran to the living room, slowly peeling back the blackout curtain to make sure. She stared at the ticking clock on the wall, sipping on the small amount of vodka she had stolen from their open liquor cabinet and smoking a Newport.

She couldn’t wait for 10:45. That’s when she would strut up to Spaceland, her shoulders pulled back and pouting her lips.

***

“I’m on the list,” Chanel said in a powerful voice to the worn, bearded man leaning in the threshold.

“So?” he sneered back to her.

Chanel felt herself shaking.

“I’m on the list for Troy Velvet.”

“I said ‘so.’ I don’t give a shit who is on any list. I don’t work here.”

The man lit up a cigarette and leaned farther into the wall.

Chanel felt panicky. Lost. She walked farther to the door.

“What are you doing?” a woman with taut puffy lips asked.

“I—I’m on the list. I’m just trying to tell somebody.” Chanel wondered if Troy had forgotten. She wondered if he hadn’t meant it.

The woman sighed, flipping her long blonde hair.

“You gotta walk around the corner. There’s another door there. Aren’t you kinda young to be here, though?”

“I’m old enough.”

Chanel scurried to the other side of Spaceland. She heard Troy. Behind the black walls was his music. A cloudy and quieted version of “Junk” unbraided into the heavier “In the Bowery.” She stood on tiptoe and urged the three people ahead of her to move faster. The line inched past the smoking section. Chanel saw her mom, her head thrown back in exaggerated laughter. Wispy trails of smoke circled around her head like a halo.

She never noticed Chanel.

The other door was shut, plastered with torn band stickers and pieces of hardened gum. A man with a tall pompadour and a punk Virgin Mary tattoo on his bicep slouched on a stool outside of the door.

“I’m on the list,” Chanel told him.

“What’s your name?”

“Chanel Lombard. I’m on Troy’s list. Troy Velvet.”

The man grabbed her wrist, stamping her hand with a black bat.

***

Chanel stood in the shadows, her feet pigeon-toed. She saw Troy on stage. He wore a fitted black suit and skinny red tie. His ringed fingers curled around the microphone, while he jerked around the stage. A blue Stratocaster swayed across his front, bouncing between bony hips. Behind him her dad posed with his own guitar, his fingers sliding down the neck. He snarled to the last notes of “Glam Boy.” The song gurgled from Spaceland’s wall speakers, guttural and nothing like the version from MTV or 93.1’s Flashback lunch.

There were maybe a dozen people standing around the stage. Another fifteen stood or sat at the bar, their conversations dissonant. Plinking glasses laced through the grating voices. Five women huddled closest to the stage. Their hair conservatively colored and bobbed. Their middles rolled under clingy outfits they had probably pulled from the attic, buried in musty boxes beneath old Bop magazines and cassette tapes they’d forgotten about. Cellulite dimpled legs peeked from under miniskirts. Shoulders made shelf-like from the padding in their fluorescent jackets. Chanel noticed one woman yawn and look at her phone. The screen’s wallpaper was a smiling, freckled child. Troy ignored the women as they sang along to his songs, as they reached to graze his pant leg when he danced close to the lip of the stage. Chanel wondered if she should stand there. She wondered if Troy saw her.

“Thank you!” Troy yelled into the microphone. The ceiling lights brightened, bleaching the room. Chanel leaned behind a pillar.

The women surrounded Troy as he stepped off the stage. Shoved old records and tattered posters at him to sign. Took cellphone photos with him. Chanel knew he wasn’t happy and liked that he kept space between the grinning women and himself in each pose. After they took the photo, they walked out hugging their tattooed relics.

“That was worth coming out for.”

“I don’t even care how tired I’ll be tomorrow.”

Chanel stayed behind the pillar. Watched her dad put his guitar in the case. Watched Troy head to the bar. Watched her dad wave good-bye to Troy and dart outside. Watched the crowd thin.

She headed for the bar. Troy sucked down two amber shots before he sat down.

“Hey,” she tapped his shoulder. Let her finger rest on the smooth fabric.

He turned to her. His face was strange in the dusky glow of bar lights. She saw creases down his cheeks and darkness under his eyes.

“I’m glad to see you. We played already. It was awful.”

Chanel jumped onto the stool beside him.

“I heard some of it. I didn’t think it was awful at all. Those women liked it.”

“They like reliving the past,” he snorted.

“Yeah, I guess,” she muttered, running her fingers down the sequin scales on her skirt.

Troy turned to her.

“You want a drink?”

“Uh—I don’t know.”

“Nobody will card you.”

Troy bought her a drink, something pastel in a fancy glass. He also bought her a shot. She wouldn’t let herself gag. The room felt hazy and she was uncomfortably warm. Troy was talking about music. He was telling her piece by piece how it had gone downhill.

***

It was nearly two when he took her to the parking lot. They smoked cigarettes under the flickering street lights. Most of Spaceland’s crowd had already left, stumbling into yellow cabs and demanding a drive-thru. Chanel wondered if her parents noticed she wasn’t home, if they were even there. They were probably at some after-party. Sitting on plastic covered furniture talking about how great things used to be, and how great they would be again. Chanel was happy to be here with Troy. It was what she had always wanted.

“In the seventies, I ran away. You probably knew that, though. All the articles love that story. Some Jersey kid running to CBGB. The place was a mess. People shooting up in that dirty bathroom, fucking next to the stage. But I loved it. I got to stay with the bands. You know Blondie and Television? The Ramones? The Talking Heads? They were my first friends. Did you know that?” His eyes were wide, expectant. Chanel nodded. Hearing these same stories from him was magical. Even when he spoke about stained urinals.

“In the eighties, I had to go to England. That’s where it was at then. That’s where they helped me get really big. I hung out with everyone. Duran Duran and Adam Ant. Malcolm McClaren dressed me. I even met Princess Di. She told me her favorite song was ‘Glam Boy.’”

Chanel sucked on her cigarette. The world was blurred by the shots at the bar. Her stomach gargled. She realized she hadn’t eaten anything all day.

“What’s your favorite song?” He asked. Chanel paused.

“What’s your favorite song from the seventies? From the eighties? From the nineties?” His eyes darted around wildly. Chanel couldn’t answer, her throat was choked by an invisible pressure. Why did she suddenly feel so anxious?

“Do you wish you were there?” He asked, leaning forward. Under the eerie yellow of the streetlights he was different from the photos. Bloodshot, yellowed eyes. Gritty skin. Jagged shadows made him almost grotesque.

But he was Troy Velvet—he wasn’t allowed to be anything but perfect.

Chanel felt queasy when he slid her into his car. He had an old silver Volvo, parts of it held together with peeling duct tape. He had to jiggle the metal handle before he guided her in. The car’s interior smelled like trash and aged skin. How strange that he didn’t have a nicer car. A fleeting wish to go home quivered through her. She told herself to be quiet. Why would she want to go home?

“Let’s smoke again,” he said, lifting his lighter to her face. She nodded weakly.

“You’re really pretty,” he said, his breath hot and reeking like booze.

Chanel thought about the image used for Rock and Rhinestone. Andy Warhol had helped design the cover. Troy’s hair was ratted and he wore a pencil-thin silver suit. She loved the way he looked on that album.

He kissed her with his brittle mouth, his scratchy tongue sliding between her lips.

Troy pushed her sequin skirt above her stiff thighs. She heard the fabric tear, felt the dangling strands and the edges of the sequins digging into her stomach. Slowly, she unbuttoned her own shirt.

Her eyes stayed shut. She thought about one of his music videos. Her favorite one, from 1981. It was a parody of silent films—The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Flesh and the Devil, and a medley of Harold Lloyd stunts. None of the films made sense together. The entire video didn’t make sense. But she watched it over and over. The VHS had warped, the screen smeared with blue and red streaks. The sound slow and demonic.

He undid her bra, the straps tugging against her arms as it was pulled off. He held her with moist, shaking hands. She stayed still. He grunted from on top of her, heavy and dripping with pungent sweat. Stinging wetness trickled down her nose and pooled in the corners of her eyes.

Chanel opened her eyes and stared at the car’s ceiling—drooping fabric held in place with mismatched thumb tacks. She tasted the dryness in her mouth. She watched the moon fade behind the fogging car window. She sang silent songs in her head.

It shouldn’t take more than a few songs.

He didn’t say anything when he was done, just stared ahead. Eyeliner smudged and dripping around his eyes. His pants were pulled down to his knees. Hairy thighs marred with scabs.

Chanel saw her own reflection in the rearview mirror. She was pale, her make-up bleeding. Scarlet splotches on her cheeks. Troy’s face was behind her. Ashen. Rough. He was somebody else in the reflection, not Troy Velvet.

“I have to go,” Chanel said quietly.

He unlocked her door, looking away.

“Things were so much better before,” he muttered, lighting another cigarette.

Chanel shut the door behind her, the metal clanging echoed in the barren parking lot.


Ashley Roth‘s work has appeared in 100 Word Story, The Molotov Cocktail, Moonsick Magazine, and HerStories: So Glad They Told Me.

Hat Envy

            —Wearing a large hat, Aretha Franklin sang
            for President Obama’s Inauguration, 2009

Aretha, people were talkin’
—a profusion of poems, a billion blogs—
they saw your hat as a political statement.
They might’ve been right, but I have my own views.
I bet you wore that hat for the natural woman in you.

We’re not like birds,
where males get the pretty plumage.
Women like to strut
for the envy of females, the eyes of men.
In that dove gray, winged and crystal wonder,
you were as queenly as your voice.
In that hat, you must have felt
goldfinch gold, peacock grand.

Among the cold, bundled crowd
no one else wore a fashion hat.
Did you wear it because, like many women,
you have a little crush on Barack?
But only you had enough pluck.

Ever since, women flock to your Motown milliner,
except poor Michelle, who can’t wear one
now without being compared
to the First Lady of Soul.

I have a gray chapeau too—
wore it twice, twenty years ago.
Men loved it; women wished they could pull it off.

For white women like me, hat wearin’s a lost art.
We hanker for your style, hate you a tad
for exposing our hatless state.
Mostly, we give the respect you command,
way beyond just a little bit.


Karen Paul Holmes has a full-length poetry collection, Untying the Knot (Aldrich Press, 2014). She was chosen for Best Emerging Poets (Stay Thirsty Media, forthcoming). Publications include Prairie Schooner, Poetry East, Atlanta Review, Slipstream, and Poet Lore. To support fellow writers, Holmes originated and hosts a critique group in Atlanta and Writers’ Night Out in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Dear John Cusack

Thank you for age sixteen when I, bashed apart by loneliness,
curled up in your dark hair and white skin and the spaces
between your crooked teeth.

We expected more of you, us dollar-store girls, dictionary hoarders,
cat-eye marble, library lovers, trapper-keeper, SWAK, pleated skirt,
tattooed snake, rebel lolitas without a cause.

It’s one thing to tell me, “You’re not ready for it,” on the night I threw
my body out of a limelight cab on the highway of tenderness
and instead of fucking me, you sucked the city streets from my
skinned knees and told me, “You’re so young,”
—it’s another thing to ask forgiveness.

We know now sixteen is a battlefield and these are proving grounds.
Fifty-yard lines, cream-colored Volvo backseats, concrete basement
floors, shitty dorm rooms, public displays of poetry
where we ask your opinion, still seeking your approval.


Holly Lyn Walrath‘s poetry and fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, The Fem, Literary Orphans, and Liminality among others. Her poetry was recently nominated for a Rhysling Award. She wrangles writers as a freelance editor and volunteers with Writespace, a nonprofit literary center in Houston, Texas. Find her online @hollylynwalrath or hlwalrath.com.