A full-length play by Sheila Callaghan

Editor’s note (revised April 2014): Everything You Touch was originally commissioned by True Love Productions and premiered at Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena in April 2014. A full-length play written in three parts, the first of those parts, as presented below, was published in the 2013 edition of The Labletter.

Playwright’s note: Throughout the play, the CHORUS OF MODELS will be used as furniture, wall-paper, lamps, decor, often in a humorous way. But let it be noted— when not parading around the imagination of JESS or in a literal fashion show, they are ever-present objects, to be objectified at will.

PART ONE: FUCK YOU FUCK YOU

JESS appears in her office. She clutches a LARGE SCRAPBOOK. It’s chunky, filled with scraps of fabric, drawings, pieces of metal, etc. She is lit by the glow of her computer screen. LEWIS hangs over her shoulder. Both wear drab clothes. They are colored sickly beneath the fluorescent lights. THE MODELS are the desks, the chairs, the bad art on the walls.

JESS (to us): I hit the down arrow on my keyboard hard several times. I am aware the force of my finger is excessive but I am still meekly satisfied by this minor gesture. With my other hand I raise my coffee mug to my lips, knowing the coffee is terrible cold and also knowing it was terrible when it was hot. The wetness reminds me I am not made of pixels and page hits. I am capable of feeling wetness. I am human. [to Lewis] Okay. The overview is fine. The ‘scope of work’ is fine... You spent a lot of time on this.

LEWIS: Yeah.

JESS (reading): Sowuuuuuuhhhhhhhh underlying architectural changes that will be implemented during this project right right right right future initiatives will be easier to implement and ultimately become more scalable God who the fuck told them we’d be done with this mess by August? Seriously?

LEWIS: We all decided that.

JESS: In the past three years they’ve done so many work-arounds and patch-ups AND had so many Dreamweaver hacks fucking around with their code it’ll take five months just to slash through it. Did you talk to Lisa directly?

LEWIS: Yes.

JESS (to us): I become aware that two clumpy pieces of my unwashed hair are stuck to the eyelashes of my right eye. I realize I haven’t showered in four days. I wonder if Lewis can smell the oil of my scalp.

LEWIS : You smell weird. I think Lisa has someone who knows HTML.

JESS: H T Fucking M L. You’re serious.

LEWIS: No.

JESS: You’re joking.

LEWIS: Have you eaten lunch yet?

JESS: No.

LEWIS stands and grabs the strap of the brown leather messenger bag from the back of JESS’s chair, which may or may not be a MODEL. He hands the bag to JESS.

LEWIS: Beep beep beep. Burrito intervention. Let’s go.

They are now in a burrito place. A bassy African groove plays loudly above.

JESS (to us): Chipotles is crammed full of broody office clothing with humans speaking in tones several notches louder than hospitable. The air is heavy with moisture from the steam trays on the food line, which thickens the fermenty boiled florals of women’s hair products. I pinch at the folds of fat hanging over my waistband and apologize to my body in advance for what I am about to imbibe. [to Lewis] This place has a way of making you feel one rung lower in the cultural food chain.

LEWIS: What do you mean?

JESS: The music is globally responsive, the patrons are coiffed, and all the brushed metal trimmings and exposed ductwork and blond wood and track-lighting... it’s like you’re not just buying a sub-par Mexican meal, you’re buying a lifestyle.

LEWIS: What are you talking about.

JESS: I’m just tired of the assumption that I need a chain restaurant to tell me who I am.

LEWIS: It’s all natural farm fresh ingredients, Jess. You can stand to be awash in modernity for that.

JESS (to us): He doesn’t know about the email I got this morning from my mother’s neighbor. An elderly woman with one good eye, two good teeth, and posture like an elbow macaroni.

THE MODELS totter in wearing furs, leathers, and animal prints. The look is a fusion of low street and high glamour. It is rugged and elegant, and perverse. They pose. They pose again. JESS watches them. THE MODELS circle JESS. They speak in unison. It’s eerie.

MODELS: You are so beautiful, Jess. And so skinny. Were you walking around in Mommy’s high heels this morning? Were you?

JESS: Yes.

MODELS: I heard you. Clip-clop on the linoleum. Were you swinging your little hips around?

JESS: Yes.

MODELS: You little peanut. Oh how I adore you! Do you want me to buy you a new dress?

JESS: Yes.

MODELS: I saw something at Dillards. On sale. Pink taffeta with a giant red sash. Rose-tones look gorgeous on you. Do you know that?

JESS: Yes.

MODELS: You should. You are about a million times prettier than the other girls in your kindergarten class. Everyone says so. Those girls must be so jealous. I feel bad for them.

JESS: Me too.

JESS shoves a forkful of burrito into her mouth. THE MODELS become the decor a moment.

JESS (cont.): GNNAGGGKKK...

She grasps her paper cup and begins sucking urgently at the straw.

LEWIS: Why get the hot sauce if you can’t handle it?

JESS: I need to suffer for my food.

LEWIS: You need some time off. Chill for a week. Go to a spa. Do some yoga. Take some shrooms. Have a spiritual awakening.

JESS: My mother is dying.

Beat. THE MODELS lean in slightly.

LEWIS: Really?

JESS: Yeah.

LEWIS: Should you go be with her?

JESS: Unclear.

They freeze/disappear. SLAM. Lights up on 1975. We witness an amazing fashion show. THE MODELS totter in wearing their furs, leathers, and animal prints. Extravagant, theatrical. THE FINAL MODEL struts down the runway. She trips and falls. Lights up on VICTOR talking to THE MODEL WHO FELL. He is skinny, odd, dramatic. He chain-smokes.

VICTOR: Piper
I am tired of your pretty, lyrical, thought-provoking face.
When I’m sitting elbow to elbow at a runway show
I want to see what television and film and a book and poetry can’t deliver.
Immediacy. Fervor. Wreckage.
When the model spits with rage, I want to feel that spittle.
I want to smell your sweat.
I want to taste your bile.
I want my blood to boil.
And I want to feel too overwhelmed after the experience to speak.
This, to me, is the power of fashion.
It’s ugly.
It’s furious.
It creeps into my thoughts long after I’ve gone.
That’s why I design.
I make clothes that are obsessive, anxiety-ridden, fast-talking.
I don’t make antiques.
I don’t sew for history books.
I love confusion.
I love to watch people flail with passionate intention.
I love to watch bodies fabricate themselves.
This is life.
It’s a grotesque, furious, freakish pageant.

THE MODEL looks away. VICTOR snaps his fingers in her face.

Pay attention please.
I see my profession as
the fraught dialogue of a naked woman with all the hexes and spells of my fabric
It’s a lover’s quarrel that ends in murder

Piper.
Piper.
Are you listening to me?
Are your big blinking eyes soaking this in?
Do you know what inspires me?
Poverty.
Terrible terrible poverty.
I spent time in Guatemala
They exist on avocados
They live in shacks with tin roofs
Buildings crumbling apart
Naked babies squatting in the road
Donkeys
But even there in the muck of mortal despair
There’s an indefatigable humanity
It claws from the depths of pure anguish
THAT inspires me
THAT is what drives my impulses
THAT is what feeds my soul.
THAT is what you lack.
You are not a ruin.
You are youth and sex and butter
But I want gristle and grime.
Barbaric elegance.

You, Piper.
You are not visionary
You are not fearless
You do not have immense volume
Nor are you idiosyncratic.
You don a long-sleeved blouse and say “Wait! I can’t see my watch!”
When you should be saying, “Why would I need a time piece? Time stops when I wear this garment.”

You, Piper
You sleep in a sleigh bed at night,
upholstered in a chintz of deep pink cabbage roses
garlanded with blue ribbon
and outlined with sage fringing
You eat rose and violet creams in it
and read Barbara Cartland romances.
The person I’m looking for slumbers on a metal grate
under a tarp of nails
and eats leather and roots and feces.

Can you make the sound of an ambulance siren with your pupils?
Can you wear a steel cage like it’s heat-crinkled silk organza?
Can you make a garment look like a Sunday suicide?
No. No no no.

So.
Where does that leave us?

THE MODEL vanishes. Then. In silhouette. We see THE MODEL commit suicide.

Lights up on JESS in a bar. Alone. She clutches the scrapbook. THE MODELS are the bartender, the bar, the neon beer sign.

JESS (to us): Instead of purchasing an economy seat
On a budget airline to the South
To watch a dying woman who hates me
Take sips of oxygen
From a nose tube
I’m waiting for someone I haven’t met yet.

We don’t have an appointment.
He may not even exist.
But here are his stats:

One.
He is skinny
The kind of skinny that makes people nervous
It’s partially genetic
But mostly he just smokes a lot
And forgets to eat
I’m so jealous of that.

Two.
He wears gorgeous clothes.
Clothes I’ve only seen in photos.
The kind I could never bring myself to buy.
He spends every penny he makes on them
He’d rather be poor than have an unfit garment touch his skin
But he isn’t superficial
He just loves himself
Some people do.

Three.
He looks like my father.
Who died when I was two so I can’t call upon his face with any precision but that’s probably okay ’cause now I can make my small inventions around the parts I do know such as his body type, his complexion, his hairline.

Four.
He’ll have no qualms about allowing a tipsy degenerate to take him home.

Five.
We’re gonna have some crazy epic drunk sex. Slamming against walls and tearing up bedsheets, et cetera. Someone will probably get a black eye. It’ll go on for like, ever. And eventually his particles will become mine and we’ll shrink down all microscopic. We’ll travel into the corpuscles of strangers, in and out of cells and cilia, through mucous membranes, beneath fingernails, then out into the earth, through the roots of a grass blade, through the hard shells of Amazonian insects, onto the tongues of termites, and oh then we’ll get fucking HUGE! We’ll billow upwards into the galaxy and cloak the constellations, wrap ’em up like wedding gifts. And then we’ll collapse in the pull of our own gravity and reconstitute as a white, heatless star, and wash the universe in our ghostly glow.

Yeah, man.

That’s how rockin’ our sex will be.

Six.
This is more me than him but he’ll fall asleep right after and I’ll just stroke him and talk to his sleeping body like people do on TV.

I’ll tell him this:

“I am stroking the space between your ear and your shoulder
I am stroking the space between your hip and your thigh
I am stroking the space between your spine and your navel
I am consumed with your spaces between”

And from these I’ll build out my father. Shape him from dust and aromas and smoke and breath and everything else in the invisible world.

And later on I’ll wonder if I raised my father from the dead just so I could fuck him.
Which is pretty dark, right?

But first he’s gotta walk through that door.

VICTOR walks through the door, looking much as described. He wears gorgeous clothes. He immediately lights a cigarette.

VICTOR: Hey.

JESS: Hey.

VICTOR: Pretty dead in here

JESS: All the hipsters are across the street doing 90’s karaoke
That’s a hell of a jacket

VICTOR: It’s really fucking hot out
But I can’t take it off
It’s a perfect reflection of my id right now

JESS: You look thirsty
Can I buy you a drink?

VICTOR: Don’t you want my name first?

JESS: Not a requirement.

VICTOR: Fair enough. Dry martini please. With a twist.

JESS: Not really a man’s drink.

VICTOR: I’m not really a man.
I’m a filthy, bratty, terrible baby.

JESS: Nice sales pitch.

VICTOR: Something tells me you don’t need the hard sell. [THE MODEL serves him his drink.] What do you do?

JESS: I work for an upstart dotcom. I dream in pixels.

VICTOR: How very modern.

JESS: I’m the bleeding edge of culture, man. Except I want to kill myself.

VICTOR: Oh please. Suicide is the most BANAL choice a human can make.

JESS: Except when one’s life is even more banal than the choice to end it. Which in my opinion is less of a choice and more of a way to quiet the noise.

VICTOR: Yikes.

JESS: Just kidding. What about you?

VICTOR: I’m all over the place. Right now I drive a gypsy cab.

JESS: Are you a prostitute?

VICTOR: Should I take that as an insult or a compliment?

JESS: Or a trust-fundie?

VICTOR: Now I’m insulted.

JESS: Just trying to figure out how you got the cash for those sick duds.

VICTOR: I made these.

JESS: Made.

VICTOR: Sewed. Cut. Fitted. Et cetera.

JESS: Color me dazzled.

VICTOR: I have aspirations. Also it’s difficult to find things in my size for grown-ups.

JESS: You don’t eat I assume.

VICTOR: Food is for the weak and for women who hate themselves.

JESS: Here’s to low self-esteem.

They clink glasses and drink.

VICTOR: Your ass is kind of huge.

JESS: Well.

VICTOR: It’s like two trash bags filled with sadness.

JESS: How could you be that drunk already?

VICTOR: I’m not. I’m just an asshole.

JESS: Good thing I dig assholes.

VICTOR: I guess you’re the chick whose friends tell her she should date better dudes.

JESS: I don’t have friends. And I don’t date. I just fuck.

VICTOR: People don’t “just fuck.” That’s a movie dream.

JESS: I do. I’m like your mom’s worst nightmare. Self-employed self-destructive and omnivorous. Speaking of moms. Mine’s dying.

VICTOR: I’m sorry. Of what?

JESS: Broken heart. Slow process. I haven’t talked to her in seven years. Her neighbor just sent me an email yesterday saying it’s gotten serious. She thinks I should go out there.

VICTOR takes a dramatic drag of his cigarette.

VICTOR: Listening.

JESS: My mother is a smoker too. She buys Vantage 100’s by the carton and lights up before her bowl of Special K every morning. She holds her cigarette high up in her knuckles and gestures casually. It’s like the cigarette is a sixth finger. She likes to guess how much weight I’ve gained just by looking at me. When I was growing up she filled my closet with beautiful, expensive clothes that were always a size too small, hoping I’d feel inspired to fit into them one day. I’m not sure why I’m still talking.

VICTOR: Because you need something ineffable and I’m standing right here?

JESS: Maybe. And maybe you’re not even real. You’re made of pixels. Or dust.

VICTOR: I don’t know whether to hold you or to ask you to take me home.

JESS: Both. Please.

VICTOR holds JESS.

VICTOR: Take me home.

Freeze on them.

Lights up on VICTOR and ESME in the 70’s in Victor’s boutique. They are smoking. ESME fusses with a gumball machine. She is a slim female protégé with a feathered haircut from the 70’s and tons of black eyeliner. She is gorgeous and full of drama. She holds herself just so.

VICTOR: Suicide.
Really?
That is the most BANAL choice a human can make.
The world may be better off without such a BANAL choice-maker.
I didn’t invent truth you know.
Should I have said “YES! PERFECTION! THANK YOU!
You shit rubies and I want to eat them.”
Her one job in life is to walk in a straight line
Point A to point B.
One foot then the other then the other then the other then... Done.
She failed.
Not my fault, am I right?

ESME: Also her ass was huge.

VICTOR: I mean did you see that?
Should have its own zip code.
Fucking fuck.
There was more press about the suicide than the clothes.
Did anyone even see the clothes?

ESME: Shall I quote?

VICTOR: Please.

ESME reads from a paper.

ESME: “Victor Cavanaugh’s new line is garishly delectable. His solid, architectural aesthetic melds progressively with the gothic, the treacherous, and the peculiar.”

VICTOR: And the unwearable.

ESME: It didn’t say—

VICTOR: And the un-fucking-wearable. [then] So she couldn’t walk, so what! Must be a hundred other jobs in this city for tiny women with saucer eyes and weak ankles. I shouldn’t have said any of that stuff to her. I was imitating a self that no longer exists.

ESME: BORING. Where are the matches?

VICTOR: Over there.

ESME grabs matches and lights a lavender candle.

ESME: Landlord is still burning that filthy sulfur oil. Makes everything smell like boiled eggs.

VICTOR: I stopped noticing.

ESME: ’Cause you never leave the fucking store.

VICTOR: I want to understand who is interested in what I make. If anyone. I don’t feel well, Esme.

ESME: Fine. I’ll pull for tomorrow, and you can spit some ideas for fall.

VICTOR: I have none. Without you I’m just a hand sewing the air without any thread.

ESME: Don’t make me pity-fuck you. I’m too high right now.

VICTOR: You’re high?

ESME: That dead model had a hippie boyfriend who passed out dime bags before the show. Speaking of chumps, we’re supposed to get some bunny shipped in this week from like, Little Rock.

VICTOR: Why is she coming here?

ESME: For that promotion we did with the NBC radio affiliate. VIP fashion treatment. Tour of your workroom and maybe a free headband. You said you wanted more attention from the middle.

VICTOR: I said I wanted the mainstream to catch on to my ideas. As in, have them make their way to me on their own. Not yank them from their sofas and ram my designs down their gullets.

ESME: Some folks need to be bludgeoned into awareness. What’s that quote, “Fashion must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us”?

VICTOR: That’s Kafka. He was talking about literature.

ESME: Art is art.

VICTOR: Who wears a fucking $9000 jacquard chiffon blazer cut for someone six foot three and 92 pounds? In the worst fucking economy since the depression? As if the 16th Century will ever come back into fashion? [He begins arranging the jackets on the rack.] They are stunning, though. If I’d gotten my start ten years earlier I’d be famous by now. Not drowning in a sea of F.I.T. infants in their parent-funded shops.

VICTOR begins pulling outfits from the racks.

ESME: So the other day? I’m thinking about Vietnam, right? And I get this vision.

Oddly, JESS appears, paging through the scrapbook. Neither ESME nor VICTOR see her. JESS appears not to notice them as well.

ESME: A G.I. Jezebel cabaret show
We’ll gather an army of sizzling, sleek-limbed supergirls
Give them tattered T-shirts
huge-shouldered, metal-epauletted tailcoats
military shirts with shrapnel holes
rusty bullet belts slung around completely destroyed jeans
stained, minute, raggedy leather loincloths
sequined camouflage
Stilettos shaped like rifle barrels
And we’ll make little hanging septum rings out of tiny garnets
Nosebleed chic
These bitches will fight for our love
Because our love is war, man.

What do you think?

VICTOR: I think it’s gonna piss a lot of people off.

ESME: It could be our fall line. The troops will be out by then. And even if they aren’t— it’s protest art! Co-opting the bloody spectacle and cranking it through the glamourizer. You don’t think the kids will eat that shit up?

VICTOR: I think the kids a) couldn’t afford it and b) are tired of the war being commodified and sold back to them.

ESME: I got a feeling about this—

VICTOR: Is that pity-fuck still on the table?

ESME drops her panties and bends over the worktable in her dress.

ESME: Don’t get me sweaty. I want to wear this to the Missoni dinner tonight.

Freeze on them. Lights up on JESS and VICTOR in bed together. VICTOR reading a fashion magazine. THE MODELS are the bed. The walls. The take-out containers.

JESS (to us): We lay in my queen bed for three straight days, stopping only to eat and watch DVDs and have sex on my tartan sheets— the salesgirl at Bed Bath and Beyond begged me not to buy them because they looked “mannish,” so of course I had to.

Turns out he’s a pretty selfish lover. It isn’t epic at all. But at least it’s real. More or less.

For breakfast we have muesli and rice milk. For lunch we make pizza bagels in my toaster oven. And for dinner each of the three nights we order Thai food. He of course eats nothing. But he smokes. A lot.

My phone rings constantly at first. It’s my job. I only answer it once.

She answers the phone.

Hello?

LEWIS (on the phone): They said the Saratoga— you know the Saratoga? The big war ship? They said the Saratoga is actually sailing today. Sort of.

JESS: Get out.

LEWIS: Ya. It’s being dragged by tugboats across the river so they can renovate it. It hasn’t moved in twenty-four years. Did you know that thing survived five kamikaze suicide attacks in World War II? And a port attack in Vietnam.

JESS: Did you see that on the Who Gives a Shit network?

LEWIS: You sound better. Are you?

JESS: Well, my hair is too thin. My pores are enormous. My ass is two russet potatoes sitting in a scarf.

LEWIS: Don’t you like to hyperbolize to make yourself seem compelling.

JESS: Don’t you like to violate your therapist with a frozen turkey frank.

LEWIS: I told you that in confidence.

JESS: How are you?

LEWIS: Neutral. Although last night I made the grave tactical error of attending an after-work happy hour. Cara made a hostile play for me.

JESS: That girl drives me batty. Always wants to know what your “deal” is.

LEWIS: She was relentless. “Why haven’t we hung out yet? Why don’t you ever go for drinks with us?” Bwak bwak bwak. I was slowly inching away the entire time. Went back to the office and drunk-worked on the bug database ’til four.

JESS: You’re too nice to those fembots in sales.

LEWIS: They aren’t completely evil.

JESS: They’re using you to score nerd cred. You’d better not make out with any of them.

LEWIS: I’d rather gag myself with an insulated chip insertion/extraction clipper. Oh Jesus. Kevin G. from MDP just IMed me. The secure server is not processing orders correctly. Something to do with variables.

JESS: Forward me what he sent you, then ask him to send the EXACT error message his customers are receiving—

LEWIS: Nope. You’re going on a trip to visit your dying mother.

JESS: I’m not.

LEWIS: Do it.

JESS: No, man. I’m trying to preserve what little dignity I have.

LEWIS: It’s a “cusp-of-mortality” visit. There’s a loophole in the dignity rulebook for that.

JESS: I need a more convincing argument, dude.

LEWIS: Um, how ’bout you don’t need another massive regret careening you into another random penis?

JESS: Too late maybe?

LEWIS: Is he there right now?

JESS: Maybe?

LEWIS: What does he look like?

JESS: The usual. Emaciated. Caffeinated. Perforated with angst.

LEWIS: Don’t let him stay more than four days. He’ll sell your bike and leave pit stains in your T-shirts.

JESS: This one’s different.

LEWIS: How so?

JESS: I’m not sure he actually exists.

LEWIS: I’m booking you a ticket. Little Rock, right?

JESS: No.

LEWIS: I’ll tell Kevin you are having a family crisis.

JESS: I don’t want to fly.

LEWIS: A rental then. We have a corporate account with Hertz.

JESS: Seriously, though, stop.

LEWIS: Death stops for no one, baby.

JESS: My credit cards are maxed.

LEWIS: This one’s on me. Come back with just one tiny issue semi-resolved and I will feel somewhat validated as a human. I don’t exist to validate you. Booking...

JESS: I have nothing to wear—

LEWIS: Booked! Emailing confirmation now. Bring me back a souvenir from the Clinton library. Photocopy, bookmark, semen sample—

She hangs up. VICTOR awakens.

VICTOR: Your breasts are like little affable puppy heads. I just want to pet them.

JESS: Well your dick is like a failed hard drive. Tell me again how huge my ass is.

VICTOR: Your ass is so fucking huge it looks like you’re shop-lifting throw pillows.

JESS: Weak!

VICTOR: It’s 4am. My “A” game is still hours away. [He lights his last cigarette.] Last smoke. Does this mean I have to actually leave the bed or do you think we can bribe the delivery guy to seize a pack?

JESS: Well considering I’m going to ask you to leave after you finish that cigarette, I’d say don’t sweat it too much.

VICTOR: Was it something I said?

JESS: No. You’re just a little too beautiful and I’m a little too fucked up.

VICTOR: I thought that was kind of working for us.

JESS: And, I need to leave town for a little while.

VICTOR: To where?

JESS: Gotta go see a man about a dog.

VICTOR: And that man is... boyfriend?

JESS: Nope.

VICTOR: Husband?

JESS: Nein.

VICTOR: Wife?

JESS: Nyet.

VICTOR: Mommy?

JESS: Stop that.

VICTOR: Ding-ding-ding!!

JESS: I don’t like being sussed.

VICTOR: Tell me a story. From your childhood.

JESS: And, I don’t like talking about myself.

VICTOR: Okay, tell yourself one. Act like I’m not here.

JESS: Fine. What about?

VICTOR: Um. Cigarettes. You got any smoking stories?

JESS: As a matter of fact, my exit from adolescence was through the butt end of cigarette.

VICTOR: Rockin’. Carry on.

JESS: Um so I’m eleven years old, and I’m very odd. I play D&D by myself. I hoard Mars bars. I’m glued to my Nintendo. I have no friends. I am the polar opposite of my mother at that age. She has no idea what to do with me. So she decides to “make an effort.” She takes us on the only mother/daughter vacation we’ll ever have.

VICTOR: Where’d you go?

JESS: A motel a few miles from where we lived.

VICTOR: That’s so sad. Wah.

JESS: She gets us two adjoining rooms at the motel for a week. She locks her door. I don’t see her for days. I get through all the books I brought. Then I just wander the halls. I’m totally waiting to get bonded with, or fixed, or lectured to... but it’s not coming. On my fourth day I see this girl standing by the Pepsi machine drinking from a can. Skinny as a corpse, face full of freckles, reddish-brown hair—

VICTOR: So this is like the early 80’s, right?

JESS: Yeah.

VICTOR: What is she wearing?

JESS: Pegged Jordaches. Checkerboard Keds. A terry tie-strap tank top.

VICTOR: Color?

JESS: Plush emerald.

VICTOR: Jesus Christ I want to rape the 80’s. Continue.

JESS: So she looks me up and down and asks me how old I am.

VICTOR: You lie of course.

JESS: I tell her thirteen. She asks me if there’s anything fun to do around here. I’m like, “smoke.”

VICTOR: You smoked at eleven? Tsk tsk.

JESS: I’m gonna fake it. I tiptoe into mom’s room while she’s showering. Swipe a pack of Vantages off her dresser and sneak off. Find my freckled friend by the soda machine. She suggests we hide out in the maintenance closet.

VICTOR: Dirtbag.

JESS: So there we are. Metal shelves, mop bucket, industrial vacuum. She pulls out a green lighter that matches her shirt.

VICTOR: Delish.

JESS: She touches the flame to the end of my cigarette and I inhale. I know I’m not doing it right, but I cannot bring myself to imitate my mother. I take shallow, timid puffs from the tips of my fingers like a douche.

But this girl’s the real deal.

She drags with slow pleasure and exhales with precision... a scarf of air and ash curling around her head... Even her posture is wicked. One thumb laced through an empty belt loop.

I think I realize in that moment I will never be something worth looking at. That I’ll always be the one looking.

So she peers at me strangely, with like a touch of like, malice. And suddenly, the lights are out. A hand is touching my breast, or what is struggling to become a breast. I forgot to wear my training bra. I’m so shocked I can’t move, can’t breathe. Then her mouth is on mine. I taste ash, then the sugary residue from her Pepsi. Then the lights flick on again. And she’s laughing at me.

She drops her cigarette on the floor of the closet and presses the tip of her Ked on it. She says “Thanks for the smoke.” And leaves.

I want to tell my mother about it. Or just talk to her. So I run back to her room. Shaking. Knock lightly on her door. No answer. Try the knob. Locked. Then I open the door of our adjoining bathroom. And there she is, standing at her open window in her nightgown... it’s raining, her nightgown is blowing and wet... and I say, “Mom. Mom.” Nothing for like three full minutes. Then she says...

MODELS: He loved the wrong one.

JESS: Just like that.

VICTOR: Was she drunk?

JESS: Sleepwalking. I touch her arm and she wakes up and says...

MODELS: Why am I wet?

JESS: And then...

MODELS: What’s the matter, love? You look so sad.

JESS: And then.

MODELS: You’re breaking out. You need to wash your face every night. Don’t ruin your complexion, Jessica. You’ll never forgive yourself.

JESS: And then.

MODELS: I love you. You know that.

Longish beat.

VICTOR: I have something to show you, Jess.

VICTOR blows his last breath of smoke from his mouth. It curls around his head like a beautiful ash scarf. Then... THE PARADE OF MODELS wearing wispy grey dresses and gowns struts through the room.

JESS: Can you see them?

VICTOR: Of course.

JESS: Other people usually can’t.

VICTOR: That’s too bad.

They watch the fashion show for a while. Music, etc. Then, THE MODELS disappear.

JESS: Wanna take a trip to the South?

Freeze on them. Lights up on ESME in the workroom in the 70’s, sketching. She wears something amazing, as usual. THE MODELS are the desk, the gumball machine, the lighting fixtures. LOUELLA, a cheerful ruddy woman wearing horrible clothes, pops her head in.

LOUELLA: Hi!
I’m here!
Sorry I’m so late
I had to take a cab
The subways are so confusing!
I’m staying at the Best Western.
Louella Wilkens?
I won tickets on WCFW?
Um in Little Rock Arkansas?
VIP fashion treatment?
All inclusive package?
Two nights in a three-star hotel?
Tour of the studio?
Headband?

Silence.

I was trying to win Simon and Garfunkel tickets
I asked around about you folks afterwards
The name rang a bell
A little bell
I don’t really follow fashion
I just go to Dillards and buy what’s on the sale rack
Is someone boiling an egg?

ESME (with contempt): Is that what you’re wearing right now?
Dillards?

LOUELLA: I don’t think that’s the brand.
It’s just where I got it.
I mean it’s comfortable and doesn’t make my ass look huge.
I also like a little give in the waist
Oh and I hate itchy fabrics
And stuff I have to dry clean.
Such a hassel.

More silence. She retrieves a Tupperware from her bag.

I made these. They’re cupcakes. Brought them on the plane.
I got creative with the frosting.
I like to be creative. I paint.
Watercolors. Landscapes.
Last spring I had a little showing in our community room
Neighbors mostly
Some girls from my office
And guess what!
I sold two paintings!
And a rocking chair.
Someone right now is rocking in front of my artwork
Drinking a lemonade and feeling good about life.

Beat.

I cannot stop talking.

She tries to hand ESME the Tupperware. ESME does not take it.

Just cupcakes. They don’t bite.

ESME: I don’t imbibe sugar.

LOUELLA: Well no wonder you’re so skinny!
Like everyone else in this city
I’ve never seen such skinny people
Except my cousin with MS
And you’re so pretty
Are you Mr. Cavanaugh’s assistant?

ESME: No.

LOUELLA: Oh. Are you a model?

ESME: Former.

LOUELLA: How glamorous! What do you do now?

ESME: I’m Victor’s muse.

LOUELLA: Muse! Sounds like an important job.
Is he around?

ESME: Not yet.

LOUELLA: Oh. I was afraid I missed him.
I don’t often get to see famous people in person.
Once? When I was a waitress at our local greasy spoon?
Smokey Robinson came in to eat one night
I served him coffee and toast
and afterwards they had to tell me he was someone special!
You know what I said?
“Everyone is someone special.”
The more people who see how special you are
The more famous you become—

ESME: Oh my god you really need to shut the fuck up.
I mean Jesus. I know New York City is a VERY exciting place but could you at least try to keep your shit together?

Beat.

LOUELLA: You might be a little cranky from the not-eating?
You know a cupcake would solve a lot of your problems.

VICTOR walks in, fraught, and a little exhilarated.

VICTOR: I couldn’t sleep, Esme. All night, in my head. Piper dangling from a lighting fixture in her mother’s kitchen. Breeze blowing through the fucking curtains. I’ve crossed over into something.

Beat.

LOUELLA: Fashion designer.

VICTOR: Louella Wilkens. A pleasure. Welcome to the East Village! Bet you had to step over a few bodies on the way in. Don’t worry, they’re not dead. Just coming off the heroin. Don’t take pictures of them or they’ll hunt you down and slip their pinkies in your butthole. Ha ha ha ha!! Gumball?

LOUELLA: Please. I like sugar.

She takes a gumball from the MODEL MACHINE.

VICTOR: I see you’ve met the incomparable Esme Varick. Esme is the soul of the Victor Cavanaugh line. Before she came along I was making clothes for myself alone and costumes for the occasional broke theatre troupe—

ESME: I’m going outside to smoke.

She exits.

LOUELLA: I was having trouble looking at her directly
Like staring into the sun

VICTOR: Yes, she’s always been like that. Sort of brutally beautiful. Like an alien.

LOUELLA: Where’d you find her?

VICTOR: Sipping coffee on the Bowery one summer afternoon. Wearing this magnificent outlandish Betsy Johnson cocktail dress— miles and miles of pink taffeta and a huge red sash with a bow on the back. Absurd. She wore drama like it was skin.

Outside, ESME smokes, and remembers.

ESME: I was so hung over from a party the night before... hadn’t even changed my clothes...

VICTOR: I begged her to come back to my studio and try on these tuxedo pants I had just sewn for myself...

ESME: I told him yes, on the condition he let me pass out in his bed for a few hours...

VICTOR: I brought her back to my tiny apartment in Chinatown. Fabrics, patterns everywhere. A sty. She unzipped her dress, draped it over a chair, grabbed a T-shirt from the floor, slid it over her head, and passed out in my bed...

ESME: ... and when I woke up, a square of sunlight from his tiny window perfectly framed his outrageous purple and grey Spectators by the doorway. “A stunning shoe,” I thought. And he emerged from the bathroom, damp and fruity and bearded and wearing just a towel, and he grabbed his clothes from the dresser and moved into the kitchen, and moments later I smelled eggs and coffee, and I pulled myself from his brine-y sheets and met him by his ancient stove where he stood cooking me dinner and wearing green velvet flares and a zebra button down.

I left a piece of myself in that kitchen that day.

VICTOR: By fall she was walking in my menswear line.

LOUELLA: I can see that.
She has a cockiness that feels mannish.
Must be hard to have everyone staring all the time.
I realized pretty young I’d never be something worth looking at.
That I’d always be the one looking.

VICTOR: Do you mind me asking a personal question?

LOUELLA: I’m not married.
I live next door to my mother.
She’s a firecracker
We have a good time.

VICTOR: I was going to ask how much you pay for your clothes.

LOUELLA: Oh.
Everyone likes a good deal
But I suppose I would pay for quality
I’m at that point in my life
I’ve bought cheaply made clothes before
They just don’t last!
I’d rather spend fifty dollars on a good pair of shoes
That I can wear for years
Than five dollars on a pair that falls apart in a month.
I work too hard to waste my money on trash.
You know?

VICTOR: What else do you like?
Fashion-wise.

LOUELLA: Gosh, um...
Bright colors?
But not too bright?
I love honey butter
Such a pretty name
I tend to like things that are food-colored
Coffee, toffee, cherry, rum, eggplant
Oh! Here. I made these. Back home.

She hands him a Tupperware container.

They’re cupcakes.
I got creative and made designs on them.

VICTOR stands slowly and approaches LOUELLA. He takes a cupcake and examines it.

VICTOR: Is this a cubist painting?

LOUELLA: I don’t know what that is.

He peels it slowly. He eats it very slowly. LOUELLA watches him. It seems to go on forever. He finishes the cupcake.

VICTOR: That was.
Perfectly.
Average.

Freeze on them as ESME finishes her cigarette outside.

This excerpt from Everything You Touch was published in the 2013 edition of The Labletter.

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