SOMETIMES IT’S PREFERABLE TO BREATHE
IN BLACK & WHITE
JOHN MANUAL ARIAS
1988: New York City
She sashays through the hotel’s revolving door—Alice into Wonderland—and stops to admire the chandelier. The lozenge-shaped glass beads drip as water does, or if her mind were in the gutter, as something else does after a good round. But no liquid refracts light like crystal does. In the lobby mirror, the smudged glass refracts her, warps her somehow, into someone who is both beautiful and terrifying, staring back.
Venus tries to remember the room number. 501… no, 510.
She passes the uninterested attendant, who is both oblivious to her and the news reports on his portable radio: 243 dead in plane accident. Bomb thought to be the culprit. So many dead in an explosion like no other. For a moment, Venus thinks she heard 244.
The hotel is a walk-up. She reapplies her deodorant at the top of the stairs. With her nails, she flares out her blonde hair, teased this evening in anticipation. With the money tonight, she can buy a present to surprise Angie at the Christmas show at Sally’s. Christmas is four days away.
The john swings the door open, flashes a gold tooth in the new light. A Magi with a gift. His gold rings flash red for a moment. His knuckles are almost square. They are strong-looking, grip-like. “Another Man” plays again in her head.
THE BELL, THE BOW-TIE, THE BALL & THE BOOT
The chicken revolution is here! Finally, farmers can fatten their fowls to strip down to the bone, grind to paste, shape into wondrous shapes, deep fry, and serve with delicious dipping sauces. These McNuggets are the future. They’re flying out of the fryer as if the pulverizering had left them with wings.
Keystone Foods, who McDonald’s has trusted to mechanize chicken-chopping, constructs another processing plant within just one-hundred days of the nuggets’ introduction. Demand is only expected to boom. Once these chunks hit nation-wide, stocks will soar, and once they enter the international markets, chicken might be so popular as to deplete the world’s supply.
Thanks to Gallus gallus domesticus, so continues McDonald’s global domination.
Florida has been unkind to Aileen. It is void of peace, but abundant in natural life, which to many, would provide sufficient tranquility, —the hum of cicadas, starlight in creeks, the scent of magnolias so delicious as to be bottled up. But this place has been unkind. Thirteen years of unkindness, tonight is no different.
A lone car appears on the interstate, and its lights float to Aileen’s thumb, pointed up at the moon hidden by a shadow, her own shadow retreating to the trees. In her purse, the muzzle of her revolver touches the tip of her lipstick, cap lost in another john’s backseat. Who knew that a muzzle had lips? Painted in a hurry, no doubt.
Richard Mallory will find out in half an hour. That the flash of a gun is no different than a woman’s kiss in the dark.
1981: New Jersey
VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR
Saturday, August 1st, 12:01 AM (EST): “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.”
Music Television launches, and only Jersey boys and girls can watch. They savor this unusual privilege. But eventually, everyone else is allowed a taste. On their screens, an astronaut plants his flag on the moon, and that flag is music. Through the expansive, silent blackness of the universe, rock and roll breaks, jumping from that imagined lunar surface to the bedrooms of teens just waiting to rebel with the guidance of punk, new wave and world beat. Their flannels flow from their bodies like that lunar flag. Their pimply skin and ripped jeans vibrating with angst and newly inspired spirits. The television antennae catch every blurry guitar and drum set, and now, finally, music can be enjoyed as if these bands were front and center in every American household.
1985: Washington, D.C.
NO PERSONAL FAVORS
AIDS, it seems, will be the great equalizer. Nancy rereads the desperate telegram from Paris and decides she won’t get her husband into this mess. This cancer for queers has finally found her with one degree of separation. Sure, everyone has known for years he was a fag, but no one knew it would come to this—dying in a French Ritz Carlton, collapsed on the floor. Such a pathetic husk of the man she used to know. Whom she had a crush on for years, despite his sexuality occulted by his stardom.
She won’t be able to contact Liz anymore, or invite over Mia or Julie, or Carol who makes her laugh uncontrollably. They love him dearly; and here, Nancy will condemn him. Her husband’s legacy won’t be tarnished, even by an old friend.
Rock Hudson’s assistant pleads for the White House to consider calling the French military base’s hospital that has refused the leading man treatment because he’s a foreign national. It is the only facility in the entire world that can provide him with any hope. Her husband, or a general, or even she—with her sweet voice—has the power to get him admitted. To bypass international treaties, so he can be treated for this disease. Maybe even give him a few more years. But Nancy can’t. She won’t.
“Tell him we can’t intervene,” she dictates to her aide. Not even for him…
“This is not something the White House should get into. Tell them to contact the embassy in Paris. We’re very sorry about his condition, but we can’t treat him any differently than anyone else. If we do, everyone will want our help.”
She will get Ronnie to phone him with well-wishes.
“And be sure to inform the press of that call,” she adds. “You might want to keep this on hand just in case it resurfaces.”
1980: New York City
YOU GOT MY VOTE!
Miss Pam Grier (the first female action star, pioneer of the Blaxploitation movement, master of gun-wielding and outfit malfunctions) stumbles down the Avenue of the Americas, giddily on her way to meet Mister Paul Newman and some film executives to audition for a role in his new movie. Charlotte is the character’s name. Heroin, her drug of choice. Pam has transformed into her—that’s how important this part is.
Her breath stinks of cherry pie left out in the sun; an acidic, cooked egg taste turned rotten. She’s so convincing as this murderous she-addict that a policeman stops her on street.
“Where do you think you’re headed?” He asks.
“I’m going’ to audition for Paul Newman,” she smiles, teeth yellower than yesterday.
“You got my vote!” The officer’s partner chuckles.
Yes, his vote. Pam will remember that for the scene where she shoots two cops in the face, after charming them with her movie star smile. Even un-showered, withered, and frightening, she’s the most beautiful woman of her time.
1986: The Atlantic Ocean
3… 2… 1…
Terminal Velocity is the highest velocity attainable by an object as it falls through air. It occurs when the sum of the drag force and air resistance is equal to the downward force of gravity. That is, it’s the fastest an object can possibly fall.
No more acceleration, only a freefall to earth.
To the human eye, an object—say, a ball in an experiment or the body of an astronaut—hurtling through the atmosphere will suddenly slow; this optical illusion happens when said body reaches terminal velocity. Luckily, no one watching the Challenger explode mid-air sees the crew members aboard reach it. Their T.V.s’ static blurs those gruesome details. Seventeen percent of Americans just see metal, and fire, and seat upholstery crash into the concrete sea.
ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN
Their relationship is deteriorating in front of everyone—artist and muse, soulmate and soulmate—and tension is high on set. Carmen gives her everything to this role as Pepa Marcos, protagonist overcome by bouts of feminine madness (telephone-throwing, bitch-slapping, gazpacho-spiking); Pedro, her director and, until now, best friend, gives her a cold shoulder that pierces her sentimentality like an ice storm.
Perhaps this is a technique he acquired from Kubrick: destroying the confidence of his lead actress, cracking her open like an egg to reveal raw emotion unforgettable to viewers for years to come. But this is a comedy—Carmen has just finished the scene where she throws a vinyl out the window with a Frisbee player’s precision. There is no way he can be this serious. There is no reason she can think of.
Again, he passes her by without encouragement. She prepares for the next scene, sipping the warm glass of gazpacho, wishing it was actually laced with barbiturates.
1988: Los Angeles
YEP! YEP! YEP!
Across the country—around the world even—those five little dinosaurs on their too-big journey snag the heart strings of every child with an imagination. Busy parents roll their eyes, but their offspring, eyes wide, mouths agape, are transported to a land before time; a place of dewy leaves like stars, desert crossings, and bravery.
A Long-neck. A Three-horn. A Spike Tail. A Flyer. And a Bigmouth.
That Bigmouth voiced by a young girl, who just half a year before the premiere, witnessed her father’s beatings, absorbed the impacts with her frail, petite frame, and broke down several times in front of agents and producers because it was too much for a ten-year-old to handle.
But on she trudged, lending her voice to anthropomorphic characters who didn’t smell whiskey on their father’s breath, finding solace in plucking out her own blonde eyelashes and the whiskers of her cat. A calico or a tortoise shell; something with many spots like her bruises. One shares their pain like a gift with another who reminds her of what she may or may not survive.
And that sunny last day, she rode wobbly on her bike—newly able without the training wheels for babies—and she went to sleep without a peep. The next sound that greeted her in the night was the bang from her father’s pistol. First her, so she wouldn’t have to live through the other two: first her mother, sleeping, then her father, hell-bent on punishing himself for two days by staring at the motionless bodies of the two he convinced himself he loved, and sucking the gasoline out of his own car to throw on their bodies like holy water, then lighting a match like the rapture.