Part 88: Fear and Loathing
This photograph was taken right before my 16th birthday. I always wore necklaces to cover up my scar. Jan took this photo for a painting she wanted to do, and I found the old slide not that long ago. It has some damage from sitting around too long–– looks like I have black freckles. @1980.
Some journal entries from age 15. I'm realizing Riley is a bullshitter, and becoming extremely sarcastic about him... although still clueless about what moving to "Camp Nelson" would mean....it would mean we'd be homeless and living in a campground. I actually didn't put that together until I read these pages.
More on plastic surgery which I continue to spell "Surgeory."
Just a few days before my 16th birthday, Riley came home with a purple dress wrapped in clear plastic draped over his arm.
“Look at this,” he said, holding it up by the wire hanger.
Jan reached out, pinching the plastic. “Is this from a dry cleaner?”
“Someone didn’t pick it up,” Riley said.
He handed me the dress. “See if this fits you. I’m going to an ASCAP meeting on your birthday. You can come if you want.”
“OK,” I said, taking the dress.
The ASCAP meeting was a union gathering for songwriters—it sounded glamorous to me. Several years prior, he’d taken his daughter Leslie, the half-sister who showed up at our house in Oxnard. Back then, I wanted to go, I'd wished it was me and not her. This time, it was my turn. Famous people might be there, someone might help Riley get a break–– or at least that’s what I’d thought at the time. Riley always seemed to have a potential money maker in the works, a big idea for an album or a show, he was pitching a show in Porterville called “And God Said.” He chose a religious show to promote when we ended up in a town with more churches per square foot than any place we’d ever been–– he thought the concept would sell. I kept hoping for his success, some breakthrough–– with the encyclopedia, one of his songs, something… anything, so we could move away from this hick town and start over.
I missed the life we’d had in Hollywood, where my parent's friends were struggling artists, musicians, actors, and writers. I didn’t feel like such an oddball there.
“Talented people live in Los Angeles or New York. The other places are a waste of time,” Riley used to say.
So now we lived in a waste-of-time-town.
My parents elevated artists to a higher level, better than other, ordinary people. Jan said if Hitler had been encouraged to paint, as he wanted to as a young man, maybe the Holocaust would’ve been avoided. If Charlie Manson could’ve made it in the music business, perhaps he wouldn’t have turned into a killer. She felt that their failures as artists made them sociopaths. Art might have saved them. I remember Jan, Riley, and their friends talking about Roman Polanski around the time he was charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. They all seemed to agree that Polanski deserved some sympathy because his family died in the Holocaust when he was a kid, and then, so horrible...his pregnant wife was murdered by the Manson Family. No one said, “Cut Polanski some slack!” But that was sort of the gist.
There seemed to be sort of a caste system in the thinking––artists, writers, and performers that were true to their art were the heroes, those who sold out for commercial work were ranked second rate citizens, regular, everyday people were at the bottom. Even worse than sell-outs, Porterville was full of regular people.
“Now you have something to wear. It’s your birthday present,” Riley said.
I took the dress, studying the sparkly silver threads woven in stripes on the bodice, it was like something a forty-year-old woman would wear to a cocktail party. The dress wasn’t what I would’ve chosen, but I was happy to have something new, or at least new to me. I wrestled the plastic off, noticing a chemical smell topped off with static electricity, and went to my room to put it on. I pulled the dress over my head and wriggled into it.
I looked in the full-length mirror on the door. The hem fell just below my knee and the nylon fabric draped in a form fitting way. A grown woman’s dress. I was finally beginning to fill out after being a skinny, flat-chested late bloomer all through my freshman and sophomore years. There was something exciting and powerful about appearing to be older than I was. I got up on my tiptoes to pretend I had heels on. I imagined being a woman and living in Hollywood or Manhattan, a famous actress. I swirled my hips in front of the mirror. Even if the skirt on the dress didn't twirl so much as cling, I felt like a kid playing dress-up.
I came out to show my parents. Riley nodded.
“See? It fits,” he said.
“Cute,” Jan said, before putting her head back down in her book.
I was so excited to get out of town, which seemed to bring us so much bad luck, and to go back to where all the artists, writers and talented people lived.
The next day Mom surprised me with the suede Candies slides I said I wanted, which had a three-inch heel.
“Are you sure you can walk in those? Mom asked.
I practiced walking around the living room, and it gave me confidence. I felt good, and elegant, although I was wobblier in the shoes rather than graceful. It was the first time I had clothes that felt as though I could pass as someone who belonged at a nice event.
The morning of my birthday, I washed and curled my long, thick hair, put on make-up, adding eyeliner on the inside rims of my eyes. I took a mauve-brown lipstick I got at the drug store and carefully colored my lips, making sure it was even. I wiped the color off my front teeth with my finger, like I’d seen Jan do. I tried to cover up my scars and even out the crooked and uneven parts, my right upper lip still puffy from the nerve damage. I believed these cosmetics could somehow magically transform me, fix everything. I wanted to look like Stephanie Powers from “Hart to Hart.”
Jan said goodbye to us, and we headed out to the car. This was the part I dreaded: Riley’s Crapmobile with muffler problems. He got in the driver’s seat, started the rumbling engine, and lit a cigar for the ride. I turned on the radio, “My Sharona” blasted from the speakers.
“Oh! I love this song,” I said.
“Turn that down,” Riley said. “That’s not a good song, you know.” He shook his cigar into the ashtray.
It was a three-and-a-half-hour drive to LA, and although we got an early start, the sun was bright. By the time we hit Bakersfield, only thirty minutes in, the cigar smoke made the back of my throat burn. But I didn’t roll down the window, that would’ve messed up my perfect hair, so I was stuck in a cloud of sweltering cigar smoke the whole ride.
When we finally arrived, I was relieved to open the door and get out of the car. I rarely got sweaty, it wasn’t even that warm out, but the dress clung to the back of my legs and my whole backside felt damp.
Riley locked the car and we walked to the hotel. I had to keep pulling at the dress when I walked, and I was wobbly in my new shoes. I began to feel less excited about the event and more self-conscious. I was worried that the cling of the dress would haunt me all day.
The hotel lobby seemed palatial to me, with high ceilings, and fancy chandeliers. When we got to the check-in desk for the event, the guy with the list gave Riley a hard time, his name wasn’t there. Not on the list. They argued, and as Riley’s voice got louder, I felt the urge to wander away from the situation. I pretended to be just another person waiting in line, hoping no one would notice my face, flushed with shame. I didn’t want him to start a scene. People were glancing over to see what the commotion was about.
I was used to things going wrong for my father. I took a couple of steps back. Maybe people wouldn’t think I was with him if I stayed calm and kept my face neutral. I could be anybody in that dress, a songwriter, maybe an up-and-coming singer, a personal assistant. I could dissolve into the background.
Somehow things simmered down. Riley probably forgot what name he registered under. I was relieved–– I hated it when he became agitated. I was old enough to see that sometimes people didn’t react well to his personality. After the ordeal, I watched as Riley scanned the room.
From across the lobby, an old man with dyed black hair came towards my father, snapping his fingers and singing “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you….” A petite woman trailed behind him. This is the meeting that I wrote about in Part 59 of this blog, it was part of a long, strange day.
The two men embraced, clapping each other on the back and laughing like long lost brothers.
“Good to see you, Riley,” the man said, then set his eyes on me.
“Who have we here?”
My father introduced us. “Honey, this is Colonel Tom Parker. Tom, this is my daughter. Today's her 16th birthday.”
“Sweet 16 and never been kissed?” Parker said.
The old geezer leaned in and kissed me right on the mouth with his wet grampa lips. I froze, wishing I could wipe my mouth with the back of my arm. I glanced at Riley, who seemed unfazed, and then back to the woman Tom Parker was with, who smiled at me. She looked to be in her late 20s, super tan, perfectly feathered hair.
Riley and the old Colonel had a lot to talk about and catching up to do, while feathered hair lady and I hung out like groupies. We followed behind the men while they talked and laughed, down a long hallway and to the hotel room the Colonel was staying in. I felt invisible, which was fine with me. I didn’t want to be examined and kissed again by a stranger.
As I watched them talking, I was relieved to see my father had an important friend here, even if I wasn’t sure who the man was. They seemed to know each other from the music business. I wanted to meet people who knew Riley when he was successful. I wanted to be proud of him.
The hotel room was small, and the feathered hair lady perched on the edge of the bed and hung on their every word, looking back and forth at them like it was the most interesting conversation she’d ever been left out of.
Bored and uncomfortable, I stood by the door and spaced out.
Time for the ASCAP meeting, so we parted ways. Riley and I made our way to seats in the auditorium.
“That’s Fats Domino over there,” Riley said.
I glanced over, and there he was, in a perfectly tailored suit, surrounded by people, talking, and laughing.
It was a daytime event so people weren’t all that dressed up, not like I’d imagined. There was a woman who looked just like Lynda Carter, the star of "Wonder Woman." Seated near us was a man with a super shiny diamond earring and bleach blonde, short-cropped hair who looked like someone I should know. I realized I wasn’t sure if I’d recognize anyone in person, anyway.
The meeting started, and there were some speeches and lots of talk about the music business, something about 1981 being an amazing year. I didn’t really follow. After, we got to go eat free food in a banquet room, where trays were piled high with shrimp, dips, fruit platters, cheese, and all kinds of snacks. I didn’t mind eating by myself when Riley went to find people he knew— by then I was more hungry than self-conscious.
After we ate, we left the hotel. Riley said he wanted to take a walk before the long drive back. He seemed moody and distant, so I stayed quiet, too.
“I want to find this bookstore that used to be around here, then we’ll go,” he said.
We walked down the Hollywood Walk of Fame, not far from where we’d lived in an apartment. I was on the lookout for the Hollywood’s Largest Toy Store, a childhood favorite. The air was heavy and smelled like a dirty bathroom mixed with exhaust fumes. Everything about the old neighborhood seemed seedier to me, or maybe it always was, and I was too young and had nothing to compare it to when I was little.
The sun rose higher in the sky, warming the air, which made my dress feel even stickier. The dress stuck to my legs, and kept bunching up above my knees, as if the fabric had come to life. I could hardly keep up with Riley. Jan was right about the shoes––they hobbled me.
To my right, a group of men lurked in a doorway; I felt their eyes on me. I looked away quickly. I could feel my face get hot and a chill settle on my damp skin. I was desperate to keep up with Riley.
A man broke away from the group and came up close to me. He was tall, lanky, and his broad smile showed broken, yellow front teeth. He walked alongside me, staring me up and down, his eyes boiling in his skull. I tried to skip ahead of him. With one hand, he grabbed my ass, hard. He said things, but my ears pounded, I couldn’t hear, my vision tunneled.
“Hey, stop it,” I said.
There were people all around. I couldn’t focus on their faces, but no one intervened. That’s something that's stuck with me all these years later. Maybe they thought I knew him? Or maybe they were tourists, thinking this was just how it was in Hollywood, some normal part of sidewalk life.
I looked ahead. Riley seemed to be in his own world. How could he not hear me telling the man to leave me alone, again, more forcefully? The man whirled around behind me and used both hands to grab my backside–– it felt like he’d broken my skin, he was laughing, grabbing me again and again. I walked faster to catch up with Riley, who was somehow oblivious to my plight.
Panic seemed to move my body forward, somehow the shoes stayed on my feet.
At last, I caught up to Riley and looped my skinny arm though his, so glad to finally be safe.
Riley shook me off. “Don’t take my arm! People are going to think you’re my sweetheart,” he said.
Riley walked on, keeping his stride, cigar smoke trailing behind him.
Didn’t he understand? Didn’t he know what was happening to me? All he had to do was turn around, say something, just tell the man to leave me alone. It was clear to everyone, including the man, that no one was looking out for me. I had the sensation of leaving my body.
I had to keep focused, keep moving forward. The man was still behind me. Finally, he said something especially foul and put his arm around me, pulling me close to him, knocking me off balance. I could smell beer, and his sour, rotten breath, body odor.
My fear turned to rage, a rush of energy filled every cell in my body. I became strong and violent, and using this Incredible Hulk moment, I pushed the man with everything I had. He stumbled into the street.
“Fuck off!” I yelled the curse in a loud, scary voice that I didn’t recognize it as my own. He backed off, holding his hands up as if I had offended him.
I quickened my pace, catching up to Riley. He turned around, looking at me with wide eyes.
“What were you trying to do back there? Get me in a fist fight with that guy?” Riley yelled, then pointing his finger at me, added, “What the hell is wrong with you?” He was angry with me, not the grabber. He turned around and strode off ahead of me again, as if he was embarrassed to be seen with me.
I tried to stop breathing so hard, not wanting people to see that I was trying not to cry. The man had gone back to his buddies. The passersby had moved on. I willed myself to control my face and body, to keep moving, keeping my eyes down, looking at the sidewalk, glancing at the pink stars with famous names in gold letters.
Holding myself together, I focused on the click of my wooden heels on the marble sidewalk. My dress felt mottled and sweaty, and I knew I’d never wear it again.
On the long ride home, I rolled my window all the way down, letting the wind whip and tangle my hair.
“Roll that window up,” Dad said.
I pretended not to hear him. I ignored him the rest of the drive, looking into the other cars in the next lane, trying to imagine where people had been or where they were headed.
Less than five months later, after the infamous ASCAP meeting, I refer to Riley as a "hub cap" again for sucking up to people with money in Porterville. On the same page, I call him a son of a bitch, (on Father's Day!) and on another page I call him a bum.