“Litany” by Amy Castillo
She came home a few days ago with a new pantsuit. Double-breasted with oversized lapels and chunky brass buttons with little pyramids on them. Spendy, but he wouldn’t quibble. It was her money.
He understood the suit was supposed to be modern, but he was astonished she wanted to wear it to the ceremony. He thought it was butch as hell, no doubt selected with the help of her new friends. He wanted to say, why don’t you wear a dress? You used to wear them all the time. You looked great.
He didn’t tell her that, though. There were already too many people telling her how hot she was. How fabulous and talented and amazing. So he told her the suit was ugly. Because it was.
It wasn’t his opening gambit, but he lobbed it out there after they’d been going at it for awhile and things took a turn for the nasty. He briefly regretted it when he saw her eyes swimming with tears. He felt a nagging flutter in his chest, reminding him that he should be more mindful of her feelings.
It was the same way he felt when he walked in on her last year, standing in her bra in front of the bathroom mirror. She looked lost and he knew why almost instantly. She’d been manipulating the layer of skin covering her clavicle, pinching it between her thumb and index finger as if measuring some laboratory specimen, shaking her head almost imperceptibly. He’d startled her with an embrace, draping his long arms over her shoulders, resting his chin on top of her head, pulling her hand away, saying Reggie, no. It’s skin. Not fat. Skin. And she leaned back against him, and they stood that way for awhile.
But today, a few minutes before they were to leave for the ceremony, she came downstairs to pour herself a glass of Pinot Blanc. He saw her wearing the suit, actually in it, and he was sickened by her. Repulsed by her. By her inexorable need, drawing him in like a star collapsing into a black hole.
The hall was packed with fans, mostly women. Some of them swayed and waved homemade signs. Others didn’t, because they were in wheelchairs or hugely obese, incapacitated by their weight, the backs of their Reggie! tee-shirts drenched in perspiration. When they saw Reggie, the hall swelled with their roars and stamping.
She’s getting older, Cal thought. This can’t last.
Last week they went out for lunch, al fresco on the terrazzo of a hotel plaza, but under a large umbrella so Reggie wouldn’t bake in the sun. He looked across the table at her, pushing greens around her plate and pretending she wasn’t hungry, the sunlight brilliant behind her. He noticed that her skin wasn’t quite taut anymore. Her neck was beginning to sag. He saw that she would soon have a wrinkle in the spot where she knitted her brows together. He hadn’t noticed it before. He hoped she’d let herself have the wrinkle instead of trying to dispatch it with neurotoxins. He wanted it to watch it grow into a furrow, to have its way with her.
As she ascended to the stage, he was forced to stand along with everyone else. He couldn’t sit on his ass while ten thousand strangers were on their feet. He was supposed to applaud and shake his head in awe at his own good fortune. What a lucky guy, what a swell fella.
He knew she would be looking at him when she got to the podium. She always did. He decided not to look back at her. He gazed ahead, applauding without enthusiasm. He could feel the weight of her stare, but ignored it and studied a spot on the floor six feet behind her. Then he made it a point to sit down a millisecond before everyone else.
Standing at the lectern, she put on a pair of cheaters to read from note cards that she’d written in her large, loopy cursive. So fucking pretentious. She never wore glasses at home. There was nothing wrong with her eyes.
She began to speak, acknowledging the crowd with a practiced series of gestures. She was excited. She’d been bragging about this award for weeks. She was a collector, a trophy hunter of sorts, drawn to these ceremonies like a numismatist to a double die penny. She stood one hundred percent behind her Reggie! brand of bullshit. She really thought she inspired these people. These women.
But they were all just dumpy hausfraus with money to burn and too much time on their hands. If Reggie hadn’t come along, someone else would have. They practically opened up their purses and begged her to take their cash, their credit cards, whatever she wanted. And that was fine with her. Reggie! was strictly a for-profit institution. Self-help to Reggie meant, help yourself.
As she spoke, she stole small looks at him, mostly out of the corner of her eye. He refused to acknowledge her. He knew she had a touch of stage fright and he was making it worse. He’d felt her tension while they sat in the front row together. As she waited to take the stage, her thigh jittered and twitched against his. Her hands trembled. For one searing moment, he realized she could develop one of her migraines. It would be a disaster if she got that sick here, the color draining from her face, maybe even vomiting or fainting in front of all these people. There would be all kinds of bullshit about it on the internet.
He knew he had the ability to foreclose these awful possibilities. All he had to do was put a hand on her, to still her and make things safe before she walked up to the stage.
But he didn’t. Instead, he thought of all the times she pointed to him from behind a podium and asked the crowd to give him a hand, because none of it was possible without him. Which wasn’t true. She didn’t need him. His ears always burned when he stood and smiled on her cue, until the perfunctory applause died down. Stand, Cal. Now sit. Like her trained dog. Her fucking lap dog.
She finished her speech and made her way along the first row, shaking hands, signing books, touching and listening. Like she thought she was Jesus instead of some tawdry secular swami. Her fans bent precariously over the rail, red-faced and desperate to shove their books at her. She inscribed each one with her name and an exclamation point after the “e.”
Her handwritten signature was the only thing in the books original to her. She’d dictated them to a ghostwriter, a mousy, retiring little woman who was overmatched by Reggie’s effervescence and seemed to disappear into the cocoa-colored walls of the study. Most of the time Reggie didn’t dictate actual prose, just ideas and points of interest from her internet research. She was a lousy writer. She never bothered to learn the conventions. She couldn’t keep plurals and possessives straight, and it made him think less of her. He just couldn’t help it.
When she finally returned, he saw she was puzzled by the ugliness he had put between them. Satisfied, he made his way to the door, held it for her and then walked behind her, silent as they moved through the cavernous passageway. She would have no choice but to slow down and turn around if she wanted to address him. To ask what was wrong.
But that possibility was foreclosed because they were accompanied by her manager, agent, assistant, and a representative from the facility. Some of her friends were waiting outside. Everyone crowded into the limo Reggie had chartered for the occasion, and Cal slid over to a window. Reggie orchestrated the conversation; it was her night. She tried to draw Cal into the banter, but his responses were terse, cursory. He embarrassed her, and she gave up. He saw her fall silent for a moment, pursing her lips and staring out the window. He was winning.
Now they were at a bar and he was crammed into a corner booth with Reggie and her bottom feeders. Somehow she’d picked up this coterie after the first video took off. He could never remember their names. They all looked the same to him, with their false fishy lips and enormous tits. Their faces were made inscrutable with Botox, and they took their blow up sculpted noses.
Reggie hadn’t gotten that bad yet. Yet. She was on her way.
The music was too loud. The lights were too dim, except for the strobe in the next room. He was getting a headache. His back and thighs were sweating against the leather seat, but there was nothing he could do about it. Somehow he’d wound up bookended between two of the women, across the table from Reggie. He would have to spend the rest of the night with his knees pulled up and his elbows tucked into his sides. He clasped his hands in his lap; he didn’t want anyone making incidental contact with his cock under the table.
Reggie was resting her chin on one fist and dangling a martini glass from the other. He could tell she wanted him to think she was engrossed in the conversation. She nodded, smiled broadly and moved her hands emphatically. Cal couldn’t hear what she was saying over the syncopated boom, boom, boom that was punctuating every remark, but he was sure that whatever they were discussing wasn’t that interesting. She kept looking over at him, little glances out of the corner of her eye, smile fading just a bit. Peeks that told him what she needed. Why she was afraid. What she hoped he would do.
But he didn’t require any of that to tell him what she wanted. He already knew. For a moment, he felt something shifting. He knew she was worried. He didn’t want that, exactly. Not exactly. Still, he decided not to make it easy for her. He would not tell her it was okay. Why was that his burden?
The truth was, Reggie was a phony. What qualified her to tell anyone how to live? Was it clean living? Couldn’t be. She was no addict, but she also wasn’t above a few bumps of crank before a photo shoot. She insisted it got rid of the water weight, but she always said it with a smirk. They both knew she’d be in their gym all night, never stopping, never even touching a drop of water until it was time to go. It worried him. But he let it go because he had to make certain allowances. To accommodate Reggie!
Moderation? Balance? She was obsessed with her metabolism. She never stopped exercising. Never stopped moving. She did three hundred flutter kicks when she first got into bed at night, two hundred more if she felt bloated. She perspired and panted and tugged the sheets to her side of the bed as she flailed away. In the meantime, all he wanted her to do was slip under the sheets and press herself against him, so he could bury his face in her hair and breathe her in. Maybe he’d get more attention if he started wearing a Reggie! tee shirt to bed. Like she did.
They should know all this shit about her, these women. These fans. They should know what he knew. They should know she spent day after day wandering through the same old boutiques and jewelry stores, snatching up sparkly baubles like a crow swooping down to pick up a shiny new pull tab. That she came home afterward with a trunk full of packages and before she’d even unpacked them, went into her office to shop online. That the second she hit the “order” button, she began to wait for the packages to arrive. Packages, packages, packages.
But ordering the packages was just the beginning. Reggie had to cajole the maid to watch for the FedEx truck, to let it in the gate when it arrived. To scold her, irrationally, on the days it didn’t come. To track packing labels on the internet, checking them again and again. Sometimes she woke him up at night, the bright little screen of her Blackberry illuminating the room as she checked one more time. Just in case.
Reggie noticed another of her friends coming in through the foyer. She hurried over to the woman, embracing her and bussing her on both cheeks. She squealed in delight, taking off the pageboy hat the other woman was wearing and setting it atop her own head. The two returned to the table and Cal was forced to squeeze deeper into the booth.
It never ceased to amaze him that she shared such easy intimacy with people who didn’t really matter. Disgusted him, really. Affection was contrived for her. Inauthentic. He wondered if, when she was with him, she was Reggie, or Reggie!
Everyone was ignoring him. He knew what they thought about him. Cal’s always such a wet blanket. A real stiff. Reggie married down.
They began drinking in earnest. Soon, Reggie went to dance with several of the women. They danced together, in one of those odd little clusters that women form when they dance without men. Reggie swayed, arms above her head. She was drunk.
Stranded back at the table, Cal lifted his glass, concealing a glance at her. She saw him before he had a chance to look away, and made her way back to him, wedging herself into the booth and onto his lap. His body stiffened and he turned his head away. She took his chin in her hand and whispered something he couldn’t hear over the boom, boom, boom.
She got up and tugged his left hand, pulling him toward the dance floor. She had taken off that fucking jacket and was wearing a sleeveless shirt. She liked to show off her arms.
She clung to his hand. He did not want to be led, but she insisted and he got up and trudged alongside her. Her hand was small and soft.
He thought about how she smacked when she chewed gum. How she sometimes farted in bed, and laughed and called him an old lady and threatened to give him a Dutch oven when he protested.
She took his arm and rested her head against his bicep as they walked. It felt good, like how things were before.
He forced himself to remember that she publicly claimed to be an animal rights proponent, but had her assistant put glue traps in the garage to quell an autumn infestation of field mice. That she cracked her knuckles. That for seven months, she’d been humming the same song while she brushed her hair in the morning.
They got to the edge of the dance floor. The music was fast, but she leaned against him and rocked slowly. Nobody was watching. It was just the two of them; she had somehow taken them to an intimate spot in the midst of flailing and chaos and flashing light.
He thought back to how she refused to pay union scale to the demonstrators in her last video; when they balked, she had her manager fire them and find replacements. How she sometimes forgot to flush the toilet when she was in a hurry. How she kept forgetting to change the cat litter on the weekends they didn’t have a maid, and the cats finally gave up and crapped under an end table.
But finally, he looked at her, and he forgot everything. He felt himself relenting. Her eyes were full of hurt and concern. He hadn’t the will for this, for cutting her to the quick. He hadn’t her will.
He relaxed against her, and suddenly she had what she needed, too. She pressed herself against him, and he could feel the tension leaving her, leaving them.
It’s okay, he murmured.
But fuck, he thought. Fuck, it’s no good.
His hands drifted down to her ass and he closed his eyes. She looked up at him and touched his cheek.
Baby, she whispered.