The Beautiful One (novella excerpt)

PROLOGUE: WHEN YOU WERE MINE

Long before Janine Mikulski became Nina Mitchell, before the cosmetics line and the Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, before the flagrantly juvenile Prince-produced record, even before the toothpaste commercials and the cringeworthy acting gigs, she and I were teenagers in love. Looking back, the phrase seems borderline oxymoronic: teenagers in love. What do teenagers know about love? More specifically, what did Janine and I know, two working-class city kids rubbing our burgeoning bodies together in dog-infested alleyways and dimly lit schoolyards and, on those rare occasions when her parents weren’t at home, the shag-carpeted Mikulski living room floor? I, for one, knew next to nothing about sex. All I really knew was what I could glean from the entertainment industry, and Prince records in particular. At fourteen, I believed the purple-clad man to be as good as his word. So when he proclaimed sexuality to be all he’d ever need, I thought Of course. When he prophesied that come the year 2000 the party would be over, I figured Sounds about right. And when he confessed “sincerely” to want to fuck the taste out of some girl Marsha’s mouth — nice touch, that sincerely, a kind of good cop-bad cop seduction technique I couldn’t help but admire — I deemed it wholly possible, and longed for the day when I too might sincerely attempt the same.

And attempt it, at some point, with Janine. I’ll spare you the suspense and reveal that, eventually, I was given the opportunity. After a decade-long “hiatus” — her word, not mine. I prefer the term absence, because for ten full years Janine was absent from my life, a void I felt keenly, a glaring empty space in a head crammed with everyday detritus — Janine and I were married. We lived the sort of life together that at times resembled one of the outlandish scenarios on the daytime drama where her far more famous alter ego Nina Mitchell made her bones. The show, called Brotherly Love, was a local low-budget laugh factory, though all the laughs were accidental. Janine knew this going in. “Unintentional laughs are better than no laughs,” she argued, and she was right. Fans of Brotherly Love may’ve tuned in simply to make fun of the show, but tune in they did. Many tuned in expressly to see Janine. To see her breaking the hearts of various clueless privileged boys. To see her tooling around the burbs in her fire engine-red BMW Cabriolet. To see her lounging by the kidney-shaped pool of the stately Gladwyne mansion where the series was shot, in old school Wayfarers and hot-pink bandeau bikini. Janine was nineteen. She knew how to lounge.

Eventually Janine’s bikini caught the eye of a bigger fish in a much bigger pond, and she was offered more substantial, if horribly clichéd, roles even as she pursued an acting degree at Tisch. The clichéd acting roles led to less clichéd ones. The less clichéd acting roles led to a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. The Oscar nomination led to a cosmetics line. The cosmetics line made her wealthier than her fake father on TV. Then she met Prince, and on a whim (his whim, always his whim) she suddenly decided, pushing forty, to become a pop star. “Everybody can’t be on top,” I told her at the time, quoting Prince’s song “Pop Life.” “I’m already on top,” Janine replied, “so that doesn’t really apply to me.” She had a point. Her life at that stage of her career was what every little girl who longs to be an actress dreams of: courtship by the country’s top directors; dinner parties with celebrities and musicians and stars of reality TV; paparazzi popping out of the bushes and the trunks of random cars like so many camera-wielding jacks-in-the-box. I was there for a lot of it, and a lot of it was far from fun. So this is a story of survival as much as anything else — Janine’s and mine. I may not have much to show for it today, but we were in love for a very long time, a situation, I’m forced to admit, that wasn’t always healthy for either of us. I, for one, am tempted to have my time with Janine’s alter ego whittled down to a single phrase and silk-screened onto a T-shirt: I SURVIVED NINA MITCHELL AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY BOOK. But that makes me sound vindictive and ungrateful, at least one of which I most certainly am not.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. (This was more typical of Janine, a woman who had her entire life — including the superstar status — planned out at a very young age. At times Janine got so far ahead that you could almost see her leaving the present version of herself behind, shaking free of it like an impractically packed knapsack, along with the army of poor saps who happened to be in love with her.) I can’t start in the middle, in medias res, as is the modern fashion. When it comes to Janine, I’m obliged to start at the beginning, because she was there from the start, or close enough to it that everything that came before seems mere preliminary, prologue to a play — by turns tragedy and comedy — we created together, improvising as we went. Contrary to what the makers of pithy refrigerator magnets would have us believe, life doesn’t begin at forty, it begins at fourteen. For me, life began with Janine.

And that’s what this book is about, more or less. How it all started, how it all ended, and many of the sometimes gory, often gorgeous details in-between. The Alpha and the Omega. The rise and fall. Not so much remembrance of things past as resemblance to things past, a marked similarity to actual events but, ultimately, mere simulation. Janine understood this better than most. Years ago, she showed up at my apartment unannounced and demanded that I write her a book. (In fact she appeared out of the blue and, not unlike Le Petit Prince, in her own odd little voice said exactly that: “Write me a book.”) At first I refused. Occasionally, over the years, I relented, but my many attempts were in vain; I never managed to get the thing right. And by “right” I mean it never earned Janine’s elusive seal of approval. The Mr. Alphaville series, and specifically the character of J-9, was clearly based on her. But Janine had no desire to be fictionalized. “Tell it true,” she once instructed me, as if the truth was something I ever had any claim to. I don’t know what the trouble was. Maybe I’m just a born liar. Maybe I was simply too close to the subject matter. Or maybe I was reluctant to share Janine any more than I already had to — as if I ever had a choice. I should’ve known better: Hoarding her was a surefire way to diminish her worth.

Yet hoarding Janine paid off in one respect: this book. It’s not the book she wanted, and it’s certainly not the book she asked for. It’s not even the book I wanted to write — it’s the one I needed to write (if not particularly a book that needed to be written). I don’t know where Janine is, or if she’ll ever read this. We haven’t spoken in years. (I assume she’s still alive only because I’m convinced I’d know otherwise. To paraphrase an Auden poem, no moaning aeroplanes scribble the message She Is Dead.) Of course rumors abound. One of the more fanciful of these rumors maintains that Janine had a sex-change operation and — possibly in honor of her favorite author, J.D. Salinger — is currently working at the Museum of Natural History as a security officer named Jerome. Another, that she purchased her own island in the Bahamas and is the reclusive neighbor of Johnny Depp and his beautiful new wife. (Janine had a horrible girl-crush on Amber Heard and convinced the actress to sing back-up on what would’ve been her second record, though the deal fell through. The album was called Santa Nina, and Heard’s ex-girlfriend Tasya van Ree took the cover photo of semi-naked Nina Mitchell tied to a stake. I confess to having fidgetily sat through Pineapple Express more times than I care to remember.) Yet another rumor claims that Janine is still holed up at Paisley Park, if not detained, Rapunzel-style, in some crushed-velvet tower, at least hiding out, keeping the lowest profile imaginable for someone blessed with her perfect nose and pointed chin, to say nothing of all that flowing golden hair.

It hardly matters anymore. I haven’t written this book in order to flush Janine out or bully some response. On the contrary, I’ve written it in order to finally forget her, to get her out of my system, as it were. The Beautiful One is my goodbye. I’ve always loved Janine; I may in fact love Janine more now than when she was mine. Nostalgia works wonders on a doomed relationship; it’s like a talk show make-over for one’s memory. That said, I’ve learned rather late in life that love, for all its indubitable perks, is beside the point. Love is only part of the equation, merely one variable in the complex and possibly unsolvable algebra of a friendship, a marriage, a life. Love, to quote an old idol and former adversary, isn’t love until it’s past. There’s no future for me and Janine, not anymore. Everything that’s made us who and what we are has already happened.

February, 2015

Public Displays of Affectation (stories)