There was something about the way the headlights sliced right through the air that night, cutting through the black so quickly you could blink and miss any hint that light ever existed. Connie and I made it halfway home before I stopped crying, face sore and eyes burning with it. So sick with it that I told her to pull over, now, quick, so I could spill out of the passenger door and fall onto the pavement. Gravel cutting into my knees as I lost my last three meals along the side of the road.
Connie left the car running so we could squint by the cloud of light puffing out in front of it like cigarette smoke. Climbed out after me, cars whizzing by without even slowing, to hold my hair away from my face and whisper to me that Joe was never any good, that he never deserved me, that I’d been confused but now could see things straight. Her fingers running through my hair softer and more gentle than I deserved.
“Shh,” Connie said. “That jerk tried to play you like he’s playing that old lady, but it’s all going to be fine now. You and Artie’ll get married and have the most pretty little babies, you’ll see.”
My head was spinning. Dizzy with indecision and guilt, like I didn’t deserve to feel betrayed. But I did feel betrayed. And broken-hearted, shattered; I half-wished for a car to swerve and run me over until I looked like I felt on the inside. There was nothing left in my stomach, but that didn’t stop it from trying to punch something else out of me. I wretched some more. A car horn bleated on its way past.
I tried to explain why Connie was wrong, but nothing like sense came out. Maybe I’d lost the ability to string together words, to put together the plot and make it sing. Maybe that was my punishment.
They sure were singing it all over Schwab’s: Joe was dead, floating in a swimming pool all lit up like something out of a picture. Killed by the crazy old silent movie queen he’d been selling himself to for months. Maybe he’d written the story himself, sold it to Paramount between nights spent in her creaky arms.
“Did you know?” Voices coming from every direction. “Did you know?”
I stuffed the last couple bites of sandwich into my mouth. Ignored the stares and whispers, pretended I didn’t hear Artie’s name mixed in with the whole mess. Stood up. Walked out with my head held high. The ground below me shaking like an earthquake.
“As day breaks over the murder house, Norma Desmond, famous star of yesteryear, is in a state of complete mental shock,” Connie said. I couldn’t focus on the type of Hedda Hopper’s column, so Connie was reading it out to me. I grabbed another dress and tried to squeeze it into my suitcase. Didn’t even bother folding it; there were irons in Arizona, or so I’d been told. There were all sorts of things in Arizona.
I tuned out the words and focused on Connie’s voice. She was putting a little drama into it, acting it out like I was filming her for a screen test. It didn’t make Joe any less dead. Didn’t make me any less confused. I’d telephoned Artie a few hours earlier, “Surprise, let’s get married this weekend!”, and had a few swallows of something deadly and sweet before starting to pack.
“You should come with me,” I said. The idea bubbled through me, fizzing and popping. I felt the sudden urge to stand up and dance, to twirl until the world rebuilt itself around me.
Connie was mid-sentence, mid-soliloquy, and the newspaper rattled in her hands. She folded the paper. Put it down on the floor next to her tapping foot. “You know I can’t,” she said. A hint of white teeth against the red of her lipstick, and then the full shiny whole of her smile as sudden as a Los Angeles rainstorm. “This palace of ours isn’t free, and just because you’re running off to live happily ever after doesn’t mean I don’t have to pay the rent next month.”
The telephone rang. My hand twitched, a short spark of electricity running from my wrist to the tips of my fingers. The telephone kept ringing. Ringing and ringing and ringing, echoing in my head. Connie stood. Walked over to answer it.
The upstairs neighbor dragged something across her floor. A long screech and rat-a-tat thumps. Footsteps and laughter.
“It’s for you,” Connie yelled. “Someone from Paramount.”
It felt wrong. Fingers smudging ink across the paper, a sharp moment of foreboding when an edge caught my thumb. I sucked my thumb into my mouth. Hissed at the sting.
The screenplay was just about finished–I was tinkering, really, rewriting everything DeMille wanted changed before shooting started–and I wanted it perfect. Wanted it to make Joe’s death worth it, somehow. Some way.
I licked a finger, tried to blot out the speck of blood near the corner of the page. Studied the way my handwriting danced around the typewritten words, let them blur together into stars and clouds as I stared. I could just about hear Joe’s voice telling me his opinion on my changes.
“No,” he’d say. “That’s not–”
I shook my head. Shook Joe right out of my brain and settled down to fix one last line of dialogue before heading home. The sun was coming up outside my office door. I could feel it, wrapping around me like a cloak.
Connie was rolling her stocking up, right leg perched on the bed. I stood in the doorway. She bit her lower lip, teeth white against tomato red. My entire body felt like it was stuck in tar – heavy and sinking to the center of the earth.
“Good morning,” Connie said. She lifted her foot from the bed and sat down on the edge. I could just make out the outline of her toes in her stockings, echoes of color where I knew her nails were painted bright.
“Good night, more like,” I answered.
I forced my legs to wade across the room. Sat down next to Connie as she buckled her shoes. She felt warm next to me, and alive. I felt cold and stiff and so tired I might crack open right there. Dried blood flaking out all over the floor, sharp and deadly.
“Artie called again,” Connie said.
I leaned closer. Rested my head against Connie’s shoulder, felt her fingers tracing questions against my scalp. I’d been putting Artie off ever since I stood him up at the wedding I was pretty sure we were never going to have. “I’ll talk to him soon,” I promised.
“Good girl,” she said. She kissed the crown of my head. Her voice felt warm, like drinking hot cocoa and letting it heat me from the inside out. Even my toes tingled.
I felt like I could live right there, in that moment, closed curtains and the buzzing overhead light and Connie sitting next to me on that bed.
I finished the screenplay in one year-long day, fueled by coffee and cigarettes and the taste of ink when I licked my fingers.
By the end of it, I couldn’t tell what was up and what was down. I couldn’t tell you my own name. I sealed that final draft up in an envelope and sent it out into production.
“Come on,” Connie said.
I blinked. Stood. The room swayed around me, everything going in and out of focus like some sort of trick of the camera. Connie was by my side just as my knees started to give out, arms around my waist and reminding me to breathe.
“I am,” I said. I was, after all: inhaling, exhaling, all of it. Connie laughed. Kissed my temple.
“Aren’t we all,” she said.
I kissed her cheek, the corner of her mouth – she flinched, and we stumbled like drunken sailors on leave. My back hit a wall with enough force to bruise and her mouth was back on mine, waxy lipstick and dueling noses and my stomach flying its way out of my body.
A crash just outside the unlocked door. We pushed apart, hands straightening skirts and re-tucking our blouses. Connie’s cheeks were flushed, and her lipstick smudged beyond repair. I smiled. Wiped my own lips with the back of my hand and tried to remember how to walk.
Joe’s name was splashed as big as they could make it, spotlights aimed so no one could miss the tragic story. My name was smaller, practically a whisper, but still there.
Not to mention I was the only one of us to get paid. Cold hard cash did a lot to make up for a name you had to squint to read, and an order for a second script by Joe and me did the rest of the work on that score.
“You gonna move into a big mansion now and forget all about me?” Connie asked, her voice striving for a joke but falling slightly flat. Her body was soft and secure against my back. Her arms warmer than our heaviest blanket.
“Of course,” I said. I’d be lucky to afford a small bungalow in a bad part of town: a step up from this place, but nothing fancy. No swimming pools and butlers for me, which was probably for the best.
I twisted my neck around to kiss her, brushed my lips against her chin. Licked a line up her cheek so I could feel her giggle up and down my body.
She rolled onto her back. Pulling me on top of her, breast to breast and no air between us. Outside car horns blared. The skies opened: angry Los Angeles rain pelting against our room’s lonely window.