“Actor for Hire” by Laura Bogart
Brandon felt no pleasure when he came, only a blunt physical relief like finally urinating at the end of a long car trip. The woman ground down on him in reverse cowgirl; so he didn’t have to exaggerate his face, just fist his toes. His gaze flitted between the carton of Rocky Road melting on her faux marble counter-top and the thin rind of cellulite along her buttocks; she was toning it flat, he could tell. His ex-wife had cellulite though she was only twenty-eight; at first, he’d been mildly disgusted by her pitted thighs, but when he closed his eyes and let her body drip over his, she was rich with textures. Her thighs became the memory of running over warm, slightly damp sand. He’d never taken his wife to the ocean; he only went there as a boy. His ice cream always melted during those days at the beach when he’d watch his mother argue motel room fees with the latest I’ll take the boy swimming but I ain’t his daddy. As his mother’s voice rose, he’d get too nervous to eat, and the cone melted between his fingers.
The woman slapped her panties back on, but he’d learned not to sit up until she’d buttoned her blouse: This made him a gentleman. He dressed as she palmed the rest of the cash out of her wallet. Brandon shook his head at himself and unlaced the green apron strings he’d just tied; he’d come as Johnny Depp from that movie where he supports his retarded brother and morbidly obese mother as a grocery boy. And, just like in the movie, he made special home deliveries to a frustrated housewife.
He studied her apartment for signs of life — the life you shared with someone else. Some of these apartments never felt lived-in. He remembered mugs ringed with coffee stains though she only drank tea, the sink dotted with stubble and the shower drain clotted with long blond hair; all their shoes kicked carelessly into the corner so, sleep-addled, he’d try and ram his size eleven and a half feet into her ballerina flats.
She palmed him the rest of his money like he was a cashier. He never looked at the money right when it was given, though he supposed he should have. Six months into this, and he still felt like what he’d imagined those boys who paced the back of the gym during dances must’ve felt. He’d never been one of them.
Though he was twenty-eight years old, Brandon Asher could still elicit a wilted “hey” from the high school girls in his apartment building. Now and again, it was a quick of I’ve still got it like an uptick on a heart monitor. In between the now and again, it was just a waste.
The girl one floor below him was getting her family’s mail as he trudged in, the paper bag tucked against his chest. He looked down at the dribbles on the dirty green carpet, then up at her mint-colored tights, and then (though not for long) at a denim skirt that was—he was old enough to admit—far too short for her. He heard her giggling after him as he ascended the steps to his apartment.
Brandon pulled his legs up toward his chest, balancing the ice cream on his knees. The ice cream dripped a clammy film down his calves. He remembered the fights he and Ashley about his eating in the bathtub; Ashley wouldn’t speak to him for at least a day after a fight, no matter how petty. Her aloofness wasn’t that feline withdraw that had amused him in other women, imagining they were a challenge when all they required was a scritch under the chin. Ashley’s disappointment was parental in its inscrutable severity.
He realized now, or maybe he’d known it then, that she wasn’t angered by watery ribbon of fudge hugging the basin. It was his indiscriminate—and consequence-free—eating. Ashley wrote essays about Christmases when her mother—a former debutant who (as Ashley wrote) “had fallen into what most reasonable people would call hard times, which she’d sugar-spun into ‘happy accidents’ ” — told her that she’d take on a third job to help Ashley pay for a personal trainer, even as she scooped heavily syruped sweet potatoes on their plates. Brandon’s mother heated frozen pizzas for Thanksgiving because, every year, “it was the best deal out of all the coupons.” When he’d mentioned this to Ashley on their second date, she made the third date dinner at her place and served him sweet potatoes and tofurky (“they don’t really sell turkey at Trader Joe’s in July”).
Brandon submerged his head; the water sang through his ears, but failed to find the low thrum of his pulse.
He remembered the first time he’d coaxed Ashley into the pool at their old apartment complex; she’d attempted a mock-sensuous strut out to the patio, fingering those absurd ruffles along the hips of her one-piece, the look on her face tensed between acknowledging her awkwardness and wanting to be pretty. Something about the way she tugged on the front of her swimdress reminded him of his mother sighing at the mirror as she put on her lipstick. Her eyes followed him as he paddled backward from the edge of the pool; she was waiting for him to smile back at her. Brandon just let himself sink beneath the translucent blue.
Brandon had been clever enough to post his Craig’s List ad for an “Actor for Hire” in the “creative gigs” section: He’d kept his language vague enough that he got messages from women who wanted him to come to their four-year-old’s birthday party as Buzz Lightyear, but with enough subtle precision that he was able to set up at least five or six clients a week—not counting the repeats. He scanned first for obvious crazies, like the woman who said she wanted to play “Gitmo” and asked if he could hold his breath under water.
He’d had the ad up for four months, just enough time for the transgressive thrill to wane, but not enough time for him to settle so thoroughly into what he was doing that it was all he could ever bear to do, no matter how much he hated it. Brandon had burned through the last of his student loan money, and since he couldn’t rely on Ashley’s freelance articles to cover the gas bill, or her adjunct’s salary to pay two-thirds of the rent, he had to be creative. Whenever he needed heartening, he’d imagine his future infamy as the man who made paper arts—none of this conceptual stuff, just paint and canvas, pencil and paper—raw (and popular) again; he envisioned all the professors who’d told him his work was too “surface level”, that he needed to “come out and play,” doing cartoon spit-takes when they read interviews where he admitted that he’d been a hustler during “that dark time after grad school,” but that “the range of experiences” he’d had “gave me my core as an artist.”
Then he thought of Ashley’s inevitable essay about having been married to him, something she’d title “Who, Her?” in a simultaneous gesture of self-depreciation and aggrandizement. He wondered if she’d open it with those jokes she’d crack when her course schedule came in the mail: “Well, we won’t get evicted this semester; if I hadn’t gotten that section of 101, though, I’d be puttin’ your fine ass to work.” She’d lean over the sofa to smack him on the ass, light enough to feign play, but hard enough that he’d remember her no matter how many girls ordered their tall mochas with a wink in their tone.
Of course, after he’d read her essay, he’d have to email her back: Thanks for the suggestion. One line, immaculately cold—she’d appreciate that. He had to admit he’d felt begrudgingly grateful to her for even putting the idea into his mind. Still, the cost of keeping his own apartment—though cheap by even Baltimore standards—made him resent his own grubbiness. Every time the lights flickered, he wondered if this was it. He could never bring himself to add more than a futon, a bookshelf (empty except for some old textbooks), a TV stand (empty except for a water pipe and a picked-clean carton of cold noodles), an end table with his art supplies on it, and a single floor lamp. He chuckled when he read “young gentleman” in the subject heading of his only unread email. Brandon couldn’t remember how long it’d been since he’d read an email that was more than just a paragraph, and had actual words instead of acronyms. The word “married” surprised him (he was used to “discreet”), but it was “love” that snapped a rubber band inside his rib cage.
She was more forthright than any woman who’d ever written him before; behind the bluntness of her words, he saw a schoolgirl standing pigeon-toed as a chaperon shooed her onto the dance floor: A year ago, her husband of thirty years was paralyzed by a stroke, and since “there were certain things he feels a husband should provide his wife that he is no longer able to provide for me, he has allowed me out of my vows on certain occasions.”
If he and Ashley were friends again—not even friends after marriage, but friends like they’d been before they’d even kissed—he could call her, and they’d marvel at how the situation reminded them of that Danish movie they’d been so thoroughly saddened by that they drank all of that blueberry-infusion vodka she made (though she let it steep too long, and, sickened by the sweetness, they lay on her bathroom tile until the world went right-side up again). Ashley would muse that the husband was probably the only son of an only son and made into “a precious little king” before he even knew who he was; he’d probably always had latent fantasies of being humiliated that the stroke finally allowed him to indulge. She’d phrase her observations with an unnecessary cruelty that made them seem all the more true.
“She’s sixty-five,” he’d say, thinking that the only women he could ever readily identify as in their sixties were those women who put on lipstick to go mall-walking.
“It’s sad that she feels the need to apologize for it,” Ashley would reply, smoothing her dress around her stomach. When she tugged down a skirt that had been riding up in the back, he sometimes felt a swell of tenderness; she’d have been too easy a target for her own wit.
Still, if she had been harder on herself, they wouldn’t have gotten those stares when they were out in public. Sometimes he thought of the staccato kisses she’d leave across his temples when she thought he was sleeping; how she’d giggle afterward like a girl at the fair whose father won her the stuffed unicorn. Sometimes, he thought of how easily his hips moved over a flatter stomach, like water rushing a stone.
She wanted to meet him for coffee first—this woman, who was “still trim,” and “what some would still find attractive,” though “more gray than blond”—the first date he’d had since long before his marriage. He hadn’t dated; he’d just hung out with girls until they made it clear (by overplaying playing coy) that they wanted him to try for a kiss.
What does sixty-five even look like? Skin as dry as paper. Accordion folds at the knees. The gas was due, or maybe the rent. He never wrote things down.
Brandon padded to the twin canvases tacked to his back wall; both were covered in a wash of mottled blue, with charcoal shavings smeared over long cloud-like rasps of color; on one, words in brown and white conte spiraled up from the center: “urban cowboy”, “stoner who is secretly a genius”, “boy next door who has had a crush on me since kindergarten”, “frat boy who secretly reads, understands—and enjoys!—James Joyce,” “masked intruder”. He was each of them, sometimes more than once, sometimes for the same woman, sometimes not. In a cramped cursive, Brandon looped “young gentleman” into the spiral. He always used their exact words.
The other canvas was layered in white silhouettes of women’s bodies; simple line drawings with mute ovals for faces and the suggestions of hairstyles. The smudges that evoked sagging bellies, the jagged crosshatch that sloped bony knees expressed more than any pouting mouth ever could. They were the women who wanted him as everyone but himself, and they were the only good work he’d ever done.
“Don’t say that,” Ashley would’ve said, had said before whenever he’d disparaged his work as “only portraits.” They’d been walking together after the interdisciplinary art class their respective graduate programs—fine art and creative writing—mandated; at first he thought her slight breathlessness came from the strain of keeping up with him, but when she ended her sentences by dropping her mittened fist against her flattened palm, he realized that she was genuinely indignant on his behalf. Already, she had a reputation as that girl you hoped wouldn’t come out to the bar after workshop, but whose insights and advice you copied down, word for word.
He’d gotten good at shucking things off with a smile. But Ashley’s face—before she was even Ashley and still just that girl from workshop—was so open, he had nowhere to hide. He had to thank her, and mean it.
While contemplating what exactly, a young gentleman was supposed to wear to a mid-afternoon coffee with a sixty-five year old woman, Brandon fixed himself a packet of instant miso soup. Could she even get wet? He thought back to being the tallest boy at sleepovers; how, after he’d thanked her for the paper plate of Little Caesar’s pizza she’d set down in front of him, his friend’s mother would muss his hair. He couldn’t remember her name—or even his friend’s name—but he remembered the raspy tickle of her water-chapped fingers through his scalp. “See, boys, Brandon knows how to say thank you,” she’d say in a mocking lilt he’d come to know as the voice women used to flirt and rebuke at the same time. A hot shiver whipped through his skin. When he looked up, the other boys were sword fighting with their crusts.
The water splashed back out of the bowl, scalding his thumb. Before he was married, powdered soup felt like a nourishing meal just because the packet said “heart healthy.”
Within his selection of “situation-mandated attire” (he would never call what he wore “outfits”) the best choice for a young gentleman was a blue sweater vest over a white collared shirt, gray slacks and brown loafers. As he inspected himself in the full-length mirror affixed behind the front door, he was surprised by how nice he looked; not just clean-cut, like the kind of person who not only calls when he says he will, but actually remembers a joke she told when he’d met her two days earlier.
He’d nicked himself shaving, and, without a bandage, the chill kissed his cut raw. Though he tried not to, Brandon couldn’t help but tongue the sore spot as he walked to the Starbucks at the corner of St. Paul street that had replaced the coffee shop he’d haunted in grad school though he always bitched about how weak the brew was.
This woman, the only one, come to think of it, who’d ever given him her real name—Rose—her hair was actually more blond than white. Ashley always called herself a dandelion blond, hair so white she was practically all face. “But at least it’s ‘such a pretty face’,” she’d say, using that tone—wry yet wounded—that demanded he say something comforting, but with a slight edge in his voice to make him sound less mushy, and therefore more sincere. If he missed the narrow time frame where he could actually assuage her, he’d spend the rest of the night dodging sighs.
Rose looked up from the pound cake she’d been picking to bits between pink-polished fingers. Her fingers were bare, though he did see the tan-line where her wedding ring had been; the skin there seemed as fragile and pale as the worms he’d dissected in high school. He hadn’t worn his ring long enough for his skin to brown around it. Even then, he had a habit of swirling it around pens and paintbrushes until it went pinging across the room.
She said something to him, but he was following the constellation of freckles that spread over her nose, along her cheeks. He’d always thought of freckles as something you aged out of. The skin around her eyes was a thicket of creases; her jawline was an incomplete thought. The youthfulness of her freckles was brazen; he felt like he’d walked by her window and caught her undressing.
“You’re bleeding,” she said.
When she spit into a napkin, he knew she was a mother. She’d moved to stand, so the top of her head grazed his armpit; static from her hair zipped ticklishly through his shirt. He hadn’t been tickled since he was a soft-soled little boy and his own mother nibbled his heels before bedtime. She hadn’t been particularly thick, but somehow all he recalled was breasts and belly pressing him to the sheets until he was breathless.
Thanking her, he held his hand out for the napkin because nice young gentlemen aren’t grossed out by a mother’s saliva. Still, he was relieved when she slid the cup of water over to him. As he held the napkin to his jaw, he felt that distinct pleasure, robust yet shivery, of indulging a sore spot. He only noticed her again when she shook some crumbs from the fabric flower pinned to her lapel. Back when he was in college, girls wore those flowers all the time. He thought of something he’d overheard Ashley quip to a friend on the phone: “We’ll know we’re old when we very earnestly compliment people for wearing things that, back when they were in vogue, we were far too enlightened for.”
Rose licked her lips with a hesitant expectancy that made him sense he was going to say the wrong thing. Still, the anxiety ticking up his spine was comfortable in its familiarity. What unsettled him was that he wished she wasn’t so achingly old, and not for the obvious reason. He felt something between hope and fear, that same something he’d felt when he’d realized for the first time — though he’d been married for six months by that point — that when his friends left the bar, they could just flop on the sofas in their empty apartment; but he had someone waiting for him in bed, he had family.
“Aren’t you going to get some coffee?”
“Oh,” she said, her mouth forming the letter. “I guess I thought … ”
“Oh,” he said, his eyes forming the letter. I can’t believe I have to spend my own money on this. “You want, um, a black coffee?”
“I like soy milk. The doctor said it’s good for my estrogen.”
She relieved him of the need to figure how a gentleman would respond by laughing. Her laugh was sweet with chagrin; he realized that he hadn’t actually talked to a woman in over a year, more than that, really. He just avoided silences.
“Soy it is then.”
He intended a faux-gallant tone, but the genuine sincerity in his voice pleased him. He even added in a little anecdote he’d read online about soy milk being better than regular milk for people with sinus conditions; when she said she’d read the same thing in the paper, she smiled. The smile furrowed her face in a way that made it seem more open, like something that had been boiled out of its shell. He didn’t even mind the extra seventy-five cents for her soy.
Though the line was long enough that he only took one step away to join it, he still stood with his back to her; a force of habit. She cleared her throat with a sound that was somewhere between an “oh pardon me” and a “ well, excuse me please.” This authority in her tone thinned into the apologetic as she tugged at the sleeves of her powder blue blazer. As discretely as he could, he glanced at the lean breasts that sagged gently against her blouse and wondered what they’d feel like. He thought of dough, he thought of water; when he thought of her belly, he thought of grass glutted after a long rainfall, soft and teeming. Then he thought of what was under her belly, and when he thought of that, he thought of her hands, and how, with kindness and skill, they wiped a man who would never get up again.
He wondered, then, how that part of her would take him in, or if it even could. Perhaps it would sense that he had no business there and shrivel up like burnt paper. Still, when Brandon noticed that the pinkness of her bra flushed through her white blouse, he imagined her standing in front of her bedroom mirror and smiling slyly.
“So, I guess I should call you Harold,” she said when he sat down again. Her voice was a teasing lilt that somehow made the coffee settle in his belly with a warmth that felt like anticipation, and not the heartburn he’d expected. He wasn’t sure what to do with this.
He couldn’t guard his expression against his silent puzzlement, though he did stop himself from asking if that was her husband’s name; something a nice young man would never have done, especially if he wanted to get paid. Maybe she actually can’t get wet for anyone who isn’t him. He wondered what it would be like to take the name of a man who inspired that kind of devotion, to be told, slowly and specifically, how to fuck like him; he most likely fucked with the precision that came from fucking the same woman for decades and the tenderness that came from not thinking of it as fucking. So all she could do was tell him how to arrange himself and let her imagination do the rest.
The loneliness he felt had same blunted sensuality of gnawing on a stale caramel. Every time a woman closed her eyes, she wished him into someone else.
“You know, from that movie,” she said, shifting in her seat. “Harold and Maude.”
“So Harold is the guy?”
She looked at him with the kind of strained beneficence that crossed his middle school math teacher’s face when he’d told her that he really had answered all those questions himself; the same look Ashley had given him when he said he’d read that Mary Gaitskill story that she’d xeroxed for him (she couldn’t bear to part with the book), and no, the language wasn’t too “rich” for him to appreciate. Rose at least nodded to clear his question from the air. She was probably flattered that he was acting a bit – if not nervous (not really) – then flustered.
“ Is that the one with that tall lady from The Golden Girls?” He asked.
“No, you’re thinking of the show called Maude.”
She held the cup to her mouth long after she’d finished the final sip. He imagined that slurping-from-an-empty-cup sound was the same sound as dragging a lake.
“My wife used to watch Golden Girls marathons on TV.”
That thickly particular kind of disappointment — like waking up before your sleeping pill wears off — gave him a full-body flush. Well, who the fuck was she to judge him? Here he was, doing his best, and she hadn’t even told him what he was supposed to do.
“Ex-wife,” he said. “I should have said ex. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry. To hear of, well … that’s unfortunate.”
Her voice thrummed with a softness he could take for sincerity. None of his friends had ever affected genuine sympathy about his marriage ending; they’d simply indulged him in longer bong hits and told him that he’d go on to do better — literally.
“It was only two years.”
“Oh,” she said. The way she cleared her throat added “still.”
“It was amicable.”
The end had been a trudge of unanswered text messages, oatmeal left crusted in bowls, and moans that didn’t quite time up with that tell-tale tensing of her body. It was after one of those times, when he’d released himself inside a flabby dampness, that he’d said the rude thing, the thing that had her stuffing a duffel bag with random clothes (among the dress shirts and pajama bottoms, he’d found only one of his flip-flops, several pairs of her tights, and a few crumpled pages from one of her students’ papers with “how so?” red-penned after each paragraph).
“Seriously? You’re lucky that I’m fucking you.”
“ So,” he said. “I guess I just wanna know, I guess, how I should be.”
Rose’s expression flickered between intrigue and irritation, like she’d just won the scratch-off lotto only to come outside and find a ticket on her car. Then her features settled into a stiff sort of calm; he’d seen that look on his own face back when he was in high school and stoned with this girl who told him it’d be “avant garde” to fuck in front of a full-length mirror. He’d looked into the mirror as she sighed into his neck and he knew he couldn’t do much for her, she was too far gone.
“You seem very nice,” she said. “I think, though, I think I just can’t.”
Brandon became acutely aware of the other people around him; a middle-aged mother spooning peaches into her baby’s mouth, a teenage girl who swore when she spilled tea on the page she was reading, and a older man who kept wincing every time he sipped from his cup. For all they knew — if they even noticed — he was just a recent graduate on a job interview, or even a young professional catching up with his mother during a lunch break.
“Can’t what?” He said, softly enough to seem sincere but loud enough to embarrass her.
“I responded too soon. To your ad. ”
As he watched her root through her purse, he thought just take it. But when she laid a five dollar bill on the table, his cheeks stung the way they had that day Ashley sent him the drawings he’d sprayed with fixative and pinned to the wall carelessly folded into an 8 x 11 envelope. Even her favorite drawing, the one he thought she’d keep: that assignment from their first class together, when he’d illustrated a character from one of her short stories — a ne’er do well dad who feigns success as a stage actor but fucks strange men in the park for money to buy his son an elaborate gaming system and thereby impress his ex-girlfriend. Brandon had indicated the shapes of his face and hands in soft charcoal, but rendered the details — hooded eyes and flexed knuckles, thin nostrils and deep creases in the palms — in sharper pencil; he was all features and no form.
Ashley had been close to moved to tears as he’d ever seen her, and wholly unashamed when she told him that he understood her.
He waited to pocket the money until the door closed behind her. The coffee was a chilled slither down his throat; he coughed back the aftertaste and let it linger in his mouth a while before swallowing. He couldn’t quite stand up to go, not yet. When he closed his eyes, he saw his canvas, the one with the naked bodies. To imagine Rose that way felt like plagiarism. But he needed something to fill that space. His fingertips began to glide across the tabletop, tracing the shape of a sofa, that neurotically angular Ikea sofa in Ashley’s old apartment. He was sitting beside her, a sketchbook on his lap; she attended to the manuscript scattered on her coffee table.
That apartment had been Spartanly-attired, just matching black furniture and a few frameless prints nailed to the walls; mostly O’Keefes and Kahlos, the kinds of art she joked about picking “so my cranky art-girl card isn’t revoked.” Still, he appreciated that she hadn’t made those clenched, desperate attempts to twee up her space by sticking stale flowers in old coke bottles or letting candles cake along her bookshelves. Her acceptance — her embrace — of plainness was consoling; maybe he wouldn’t have to smile so much to get through a conversation.
When she leaned back to kiss him, her lips grazed his neck; she’d been aiming for his cheek. The utter gracelessness of the gesture charmed him. Something tender and protective flushed through him; it felt like that rush of heat before an orgasm, and it was just as exciting, though milder. She stammered on about how sorry she was, Christ, she was just like some frat boy date rapist, she understood if he wanted to change partners but God, don’t tell anyone — until he kissed her on the mouth. She kissed him back with a warm muscularity. It was the first of his first kisses that left him a little breathless.
Brandon began to sketch another moment on that sofa. He drew an overripe ass, turned up with the exuberant eagerness of a dog rolling on its belly. If he was a writer, he would’ve made this one of the first, or the very last, times he and Ashley made love. Really, though, it had been just another fuck in the somewhere in between. Ashley’s shoulders rolled upward with a languid ease that somehow smoothed out the static still crackling in the air above where they’d done what they’d done. She’d lain there under him as he’d pulled up his boxers, and he couldn’t stop looking at her raw, injured-looking asshole. His thoughts were over-muscled animals pacing a small cage: Was she this? Or was she the quiet sigh he’d felt as she came?