The Politics of Lonely
by Pamela Langley
aren squeezed her Pomeranian into a human onesie and shared with me her visions of future motherhood. “You need full boobs for babies,” she informed me as Angel scooted the outfit across the floor. We were evaluating our images just before entering the ninth grade. Karen grasped each side of her tube top below her armpits, twisting the garment to adjust her glories and emphasize her point. “They’re essential for breastfeeding your babies, and boys love them,” she said.
At fourteen Karen sported an astonishing rack, but was concerned about mine. “You’re so scrawny, Anita,” she said, poking at my protruding collarbones and flat sternum, “you need to fill out.” Then she sighed and agreed there was hardly any hope for me, since my mother was definitely flat.
“Maybe you should get a padded bra.”
I considered the assortment of on-sale, department store bras that my mother purchased for me. The shriveled cups lay like deflated balloons in my underwear drawer. The women of my Greek lineage tended to be slim and long-boned, not built with the ample scaffolding that supported magnificent breasts like Karen’s, or those of my brother’s idol, Raquel Welch. Being flat didn’t bother my mother. She told me I’d appreciate it later in life when they weren’t dangling around my waist.
But what did I care about the distant future? If I had breasts now I’d gain an advantage like Karen’s. Karen and Raquel Welch were legends, objects of desire; I was a wingman—the comedic sidekick.
Later on at home I made a plea. “Mom, can you buy me a padded bra next time?”
“For what do you want pads in your bras? You have a darling little figure.”
“I don’t want a ‘darling little figure,’ mom, I want to fill out a blouse or a bathing suit top.”
“You do fill them out, just like nature intended you to, like a fourteen-year old girl should.”
With that, she continued to buy me unpadded bras off the bargain racks at May Company.
* * *
As the bustiest girl in ninth grade, Karen had broad carte blanche. When she entered fourth period geometry plopping into her chair with reverberating effects, Mr. Murrow habitually pushed back his glasses with a clammy forefinger and cleared his throat. When she approached him during free time with questions about angles and equivalents, she’d twirl a section of her hair with her finger, lean over her textbook, and explain her area of confusion. Mr. Murrow couldn’t keep his eyes from diving down those ocean swells of Karen’s breasts. He’d spend all the time she needed to help her out. As she walked away he’d grab Chap Stick out of his shirt pocket and rake it across his lips. If I had a question he’d point out impatiently that he’d covered it in class, or he’d turn my textbook to a page and bark, “Read here, you should know this.”
Males were collectively mesmerized by Karen. We’d walk to the 7-11 for Slurpees, our flip-flops snapping in unison, and cars would pass honking with reverbs of “blondie,” or “hey baby,” wolf calls trailing with the exhaust fumes. We’d lie on the beach, wiggling the tops of our toes in the scalding sand to create a chill, shifting our beach-blown hair from side to side. Guys would approach, barely a glance my way—sometimes backs right to me—riveted to Karen and her assets.
Karen’s divorced mother solely supported her three children on a secretarial salary. She was always turning out lights and whipping up saucy casseroles. More than once I overheard her behind the closed bedroom door screeching at her ex for child support.
At my house our foreign identity and general difference marked us. I looked nothing like the even-featured faces seducing the masses on magazine covers, or wrinkling their poreless noses and tossing their shimmering hair in television ads. My parents lectured against impractical or grand ambitions, and advocated honest “hard work” and the value of being “humble.”
We resolved that our trajectories would lead somewhere better than our mothers’. Karen’s considerable intellect was inconsequential to her goal of a stable, permanent family. My aspirations contrasted with my parents’ ethics about appropriate work. I sought to capture the gaze—TV, film, something attached to an end-note of being watched, as Karen was watched, not for her talents, but for her body.
* * *
In my sophomore year of high school my family moved to a distant, but nearly identical suburb of Los Angeles, where I initiated a personal redefinition. I boarded the bus headed down the vast asphalt boulevard to an Albertson’s with a Domino’s pizza on one side, and a tropical something-or-other tanning salon on the other. In the hair product aisle I selected Clairol’s highlighting kit. I couldn’t look the cashier in the eye as I counted out my change. The Clinique specialist at the mall explained how to emphasize my eyes and pop my emerging cheekbones, selling me corresponding trade tools. With money from a summer job, I joined Imperial Health Club. The makeover worked, I began to be noticed.
Karen and I remained in touch. Occasionally we braved the Greyhound bus ride through downtown LA, the ammonia odor of Skid Row permeating the ill-fitted window closures. In the bedrooms of our suburban homes we’d compare stories of the men who sat next to us on the bus striking up conversations. Some leering, some lonely, some who seemed protective—interactions evaluated through the lens of our increasing carnal currency.
* * *
After high school I enrolled at the local junior college where I took humanities, and elective courses like theater and dance. Karen went to USC and graduated with highest honors in the sciences. I received a graduation announcement in the mail with a scrawled note on the flip side: “Can you come,” she asked, and then in shaky writing, “I need you, Angel died yesterday.” But I couldn’t make the ceremony because I was getting my nose fixed a few days before the event. I sent along a card of congratulations apologizing for my absence and mourning the departed Angel.
The new nose took some getting used to; my breathing and voice were never the same—there was a ducky echo when I spoke. My mother would fixate on my profile sighing, commenting on how all the women on TV looked alike, “without any character” to their faces. Her unspoken disapproval was palpable.
After graduating, Karen got a first-rate job at a major defense company. I dropped out of junior college, floundered. I waited tables and started auditioning for community theater roles, sometimes playing to houses smaller than the number of actors in the cast.
I continually worked out, believing that one could maybe sculpt breasts from a body, but that only succeeded in firming up what little bit would have been better off remaining plump. I purchased a set of those malleable, raw-chicken breast inserts and stuffed them in my staunchest underwire bra, which seemed to work, until one day I grew careless. At a play reading, my slumpy posture squished one of the cutlets right out of my bra, where it settled between the bottom of my rib cage and my waistband. When I stood up I noticed one of the actors staring in wonder at my torso, where a half-cantaloupe bulge rested down around my belly. I threw the inserts out.
One evening I returned from rehearsal, and pulled an envelope addressed from Karen out of the stack of the day’s mail. I tossed my gym bag on the floor and tore the letter open. The pages smelled of pencil lead and excitement. I’ve met the love of my life, she enthused so vigorously that tiny leaden droplets scattered in the margins. I’m so READY. She told me their combined income could buy a house. And she was getting her master’s degree in Information technology, paid for by her employer. Oh, and she’d just been promoted. I was making minimum wage plus tips as a waitress, and sharing an apartment in Pasadena with two other women. I’d had to borrow money from my parents to buy a sofa and a used refrigerator. I assessed my apartment, the tacky Sofa-U-Love purchase flanked by mismatched armchairs and garage sale finds. I wasn’t even in a relationship. Men watched me now, like I’d craved, but when I scraped the veneer of attraction our intentions grew fuzzy.
So I went to see a surgeon, urged on by the phantom of Karen and her achievements, which I attributed to those breasts.
The pain from the implants was worse than the nose. For weeks I slept perched upright like a mannequin thrown against a wall. They throbbed like incessant bongo-drums, always reminding me they were there, and I suspected they weren’t enough.
I was still sore when I ran into Karen at a sports bar in Westwood. Wading through smoke and loopy patrons to reach her, I tapped her arm. We performed the squeal/laughter/hug that old friends do when they recognize each other in unexpected locales. She introduced me to her disinterested love, Bruce.
“It’s great to meet you,” I said, extending my hand. His grip was clammy and a ripe odor pooled around him.
“Hey,” he responded, his eyes never leaving the bar television as he cupped his hand back around his beer.
In the bathroom Karen made excuses for Bruce, his rough-hewn demeanor, explaining that he had his own construction company, was a guy’s guy. And, she added, “eager to start a family.”
“Are you thinking about marrying him?” I asked, wondering what they possibly had in common. In the stale fluorescent glare I noticed she looked different, an almost intangible sag in her formerly plush cheeks, shoulders slouched—a whisper of anxiety.
“He has traditional values, Anita,” she said, “and he wants children.”
“But, are you in love?” She seemed smaller, too, in the chest.
“Yeah. I mean, I spend a lot of time studying and he doesn’t complain because he watches his sports. It works. You look good,” she said, changing the subject, “You’ve filled out. Your … boobs!”
“I got them done, but I wish I’d gone bigger,” I complained, sneaking a silhouette comparison in the cloudy mirror.
“Are you seeing someone?”
“No one in particular; I’m keeping my options open.”
We returned to the bar where she smiled sweetly at Bruce, who nodded and tapped his cigarette tip into a Raiders ashtray. The beer glass was empty beside him, and he gestured for another without asking if we wanted something.
* * *
After the surgery I started to land better roles in bigger productions. I was reviewed in LA Weekly with descriptions that focused on “perfect for the ingénue,” “smoldering and sexy,” or “easy on the eyes.” Nothing about talent, but I was exhilarated.
In the lobby of the Pasadena Playhouse I stood for a meet and greet after a show. I recognized Janet Piedmont, who’d been Karen’s closest friend after I moved. She gushed, “I hardly recognized you, wow!” I could see her trying to determine what was different about me. I asked her about Karen and she told me that she’d broken up with Bruce.
“But I’m not speaking to Karen, I’m not sure if you heard,” Janet exhaled for dramatic effect, “because apparently she thinks it’s OK to screw her best friend’s fiancé when she’s lonely.”
“Oh, Janet. No, I hadn’t heard.”
Karen and the former fiancé were now a couple, but Janet was having the last laugh, she told me, because Larry was older and he’d had a vasectomy after a failed first marriage.
* * *
I started to land more work and moved into my own place. I kept seeking agents and hearing the same thing—you need to ramp it up. Own your typecast, commit. This is Hollywood, they’d emphasize, and even a large C doesn’t stand out. With all my potential invested in image, I returned to my surgeon to up the ante.
I had some time off for healing, so I looked up Karen and we met at Gladstone’s on the coast for lunch. I was shocked when she walked in. She’d lost weight, walked without confidence; her hair fell limp on angular shoulders. Where had that proud cleavage gone? Even in a knit tank top and short skirt, there were no head-turns when she entered. The waiter approached, focusing his fabricated smile on me.
“Are you ready for another one?” And after I answered yes, I had to point out that Karen needed a margarita. For the first time I felt I was occupying more space than she was, generating more buzz. She told me the relationship with Janet’s ex had been doomed from the start. He was older, she said, and didn’t want children. No mention of the vasectomy.
“You never feel safe when it starts like that.” Her regret was evident. “I can’t seem to find the good ones. How about you, anyone serious?”
“Nope, still searching.” I didn’t mention the married soap actor.
She told me she had just bought a house on her own in Torrance, convenient to her job, but lacking double sinks in the master. She showed me pictures of a typical post-WWII, pseudo-chalet/ranch. I stirred my Bloody Mary with the celery stalk and bragged that I’d finally secured an agent and a $2,000 per month North Hollywood apartment that smelled of chlorine, new flooring, and wafts of Roundup when the gardeners sprayed, but was central to most casting spots. Karen was pursuing a second master’s degree, news she shared without pride.
“I saw you in that State Farm ad,” she said, “I called my mom and we got such a kick out of it.”
“It’s one of my national commercials. That one alone pays my rent. Have you seen me in the vanilla vodka ad?”
“No, I missed it.”
“Well, I’m easy to miss. They focused on a younger model, but I worked the cameraman and got some screen time. Hey, do you think I should get extensions?”
She looked at me as if to determine whether I was joking. I figured she was envious. Then she leaned in so close I could see the moist corners of her eyes, the flaking bits of her drugstore mascara.
“Anita, do you feel like we’re missing out?” she asked me. “All our friends are married with kids. Their lives are so different from ours.”
“Their lives are ordinary,” I replied. “I want more, don’t you?”
She looked at me, pausing to chew a piece of fingernail, really ripping at it. “We’re almost thirty-three, there’s not a lot of time left to have kids. Janet’s married now, and pregnant I hear.” She sipped her margarita and licked the salt bits from her lips. “I’ve quit smoking and stopped taking the pill.”
“I want a child.”
All these years gone by, a thriving career, and still the imperative of motherhood.
“But your work, how will you raise it alone?”
“There are nannies, good ones, and agencies that screen them. I’ll figure it out.” She admitted that she yearned for an accident. We sat silent, our thoughts pounding in time with the surf.
“Don’t get extensions,” she said after a pause.
“But my agent thinks they’ll help.”
She smiled and I spotted the ghost of her former appeal. “Anita, I remember when you were so skinny, all leg and arm joints. You’ve changed, that’s for sure.”
I registered the comment as a victory.
* * *
Nearly eight years passed with only occasional e-mails and holiday cards from Karen. More broken relationships that she mourned and analyzed. A ratcheting up of desperation when she was cheated on or left. She must have felt that because I, too, was single, I’d understand. But I didn’t relate to her sorrow. I expertly deflected my mother’s what-about-my-grandchildren lament, and kept a steady stream of male friends in tow for holiday obligations.
For all Karen’s loneliness, her career soared. Each plaintive note mentioned a promotion or an enviable bonus, buried in the subtext of her sadness. I managed to keep booking print and TV ads, but the race for relevance was relentless. I discovered injections and spray tanning. As long as I focused on the advantages of a youthful chassis, I barely noticed those birthdays with relative strangers, or the solitude that ricocheted off the chic furnishings of my apartment.
While Karen pursued a permanent connection, I settled for doomed scenarios. I traded the married soap star for a married producer, who I left for an admiring CEO, who insisted he was almost separated. Dead ends. They made promises I didn’t require, and disappeared on weekends. I couldn’t care. There was always someone new to pick up where the last one had left off.
I fancied my life as enviable. I’d moved to a sleek Westwood high-rise with rooftop pool, doormen who greeted me by name and neighbors who were all in the biz. We gathered for cocktail parties, clutching our lemon drops and bite-sized sushi and discussing who was cheating and with whom. I bought a sable Pomeranian from top champion lines and named her Pumpkin. I brought her everywhere I went, wide child-eyes peering at the world from behind the screen of a Louis Vuitton carrier.
When I turned forty, most of my work changed to voice-overs.
One day I noticed visible rippling at the side of my right breast. The doctor determined my implant had ruptured and scar tissue had formed. The fix was lopsided, my nipple pointing outward and all sensitivity gone, but the “best he could do,” the surgeon said. And they’d found a suspicious mass that was “probably nothing,” but they’d taken a biopsy.
About a week after the surgery I checked my e-mails while Pumpkin curled in my lap. There was one from Karen, subject line: I Did It! It was a note to undisclosed recipients asking for our congratulations, she had achieved successful “implantation of triplets” into her friendly, but still unclaimed, womb.
Triplets! I tried to imagine what that would do to her body.
I fired off a response:
Hi, and congratulations! It’s been a while—what surprising news. I expect your life will soon be filled with diaper bags and interrupted sleep. But in a good way. Karen, I’m happy that you proactively achieved what you have always wanted. I’m still booking work and I have a dog that’s a Pomeranian, just like Angel. I’m happy for us both. We’re doing pretty well for ourselves, right? Please let me know when the babies come.
She replied to me explaining she had taken matters into her own hands and gone to a sperm bank where she selected a donor from a portfolio of profiles. She was traversing pregnancy well, she said, and had already secured a Romanian nanny. She attached a photo of herself to the e-mail. In the picture she stood on a concrete slab, slightly greened by shrill sunlight cast through a corrugated plastic patio cover. She was turned to the side, happily clutching her ripe belly with both hands. Her coveted breasts were more splendid than ever, ample—I imagined pulsing with purpose. She finally seemed happy, frumpy and framed by overgrown hibiscus and camellia bushes.
I couldn’t think of a reply, so I set Pumpkin down on the cool travertine, poured some Grey Goose into a shaker and made myself a drink. It occurred to me that for the first time in our adult lives, Karen would no longer be alone. But I would. I felt an impulse to smash something. Instead I texted my latest companion a message that we were through. I noticed I needed a manicure, so I scheduled a spa day with a deluxe mani-pedi and microdermabrasion for the following Saturday, and called the cleaning lady with certain complaints. I gulped my martini and made another. I phoned my doctor’s office where, after ten minutes of holding to muzak’d versions of “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls,” and “She’s Always a Woman,” they told me my lab results weren’t in yet.
My phone rang, caller ID mispronouncing my agent’s name. I let it ring. I rose, wincing from the sore incision and made another drink. I walked out onto my terrace and settled into a stylish chaise, purchased straight from the pages of Dwell magazine. I felt something inside me give, shifting like earth splitting from a quake.
Pumpkin jumped up and knocked my drink off a side table, the Italian glass shattering all around us. I grabbed her and walked inside, slamming the slider. I called my mother, but she wasn’t home.
My wound throbbed and I felt sick. I looked around at nothing but sterile design and pandering choices. Who lived here? Where had my humor gone? Did I have cancer? I sat on my chilly leather sofa and choked on sobs for being forty-something, for feeling broken, for awaiting a verdict, and mostly for ending up alone. Pumpkin whined and pawed at my tucked knees. When I finally stopped, I saw that the new ex had texted back with one word, “FINE,” in all caps. Outside, past the spotless glass, it was one of those spectacular Los Angeles winter sunsets, the sky like ash and smoldering embers glowing from the mouth of a kiln.
Pamela Ramos Langley lives in an exurb of So Cal, three degrees of suburban separation from a happening city center. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Literary Orphans, The Writing Disorder, The Story Shack, Hippocampus, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Elohi Gaduji, The River Poets Journal, and elsewhere. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net, is Managing Editor of Drunk Monkeys, hosts a blog at langleywrite.com, and fantasizes that she’s progressing from aspiring to emerging.
Love this story. It’s so real, and deals with all these things we as Western women must navigate.