Underworld

Paige is drunk, which is impressive in and of itself. She doesn’t look remotely twenty-one, even in the dark, even by L.A. standards.

My aunt Demmie is somewhere over by the kitchen, wrangling waiters—much too far to stop it, assuming the notion struck her. When I was little, she used to tell people the name belonged to her before it was Demi Moore’s, but now she just doesn’t say anything. Showing your age is the mortal sin of Hollywood.

Paige is drinking some kind of elaborate punch made with lime juice and pomegranate vodka, which is the latest trend in cocktails this month. She’s holding my hand as we come up to the bar, swinging her almost-empty glass in the other.

The bartender is deeply tan and also very gay. He smiles mechanically and says, “What are two pretty girls doing in a place like this?”

Paige sets down her glass, pink sugar still clinging to the rim. “You can never have too many pretty girls at a party.” Which is something my aunt says when she’s deciding which pseudo-celebrities will be seen drinking Disaronno and wearing Prada at which new club. When in doubt, invite more B-list models.

“We’re cousins,” Paige says. “Tell him that we’re cousins, Nenny.”

I nod and smile at the bartender, who makes obligatory conversation. “Nenny—that’s an interesting name.”

“It’s actually Anna. She’s the only one who calls me that.”

“Because it’s her name,” Paige says, resting her head on my shoulder. She has to bend awkwardly to do it, but she’s lithe and graceful and totally makes it work.

When I order bourbon, she sighs like a building coming down. “Oh, Nenny, ask for something fun.”

Behind the bar, the mirror shows us glowing like moths under recessed lighting, two girls in heavy eye-makeup and black dresses. Paige’s hand is tucked in the crook of my elbow and she presses her cheek against my hair.

The boy behind us is barely a shadow, nothing but luscious mouth and cheekbones. When the record changes to a Top-40 dance mix, he doesn’t smile, and it doesn’t take a mystic to know that my aunt didn’t invite him, but the dealers are everywhere anyway, just as much a part of the industry as plastic surgery and new-age religions.

He turns away when he sees me looking, rubbing the back of his neck in a nervous, self-conscious way that doesn’t fit his black coat or his hard bone structure. He’s watching Paige like he can’t look anyplace else, and in the mirror, her skin is blinding.

In a way, whiteness suits her. Once, three years ago, I took her downtown to see Dollhouse of Mayhem, because it was an all-ages show.

I left her on the second level, standing at the rail so she wouldn’t get hurt and when I came back to check on her, the heat rising from the pit had sucked all the color out of her face.

“Nenny,” she said, with her eyes huge and black. “I can’t see you.”

I caught her as she started to fall.

“I’m sorry,” I said later, as we sat on the floor in the bathrooms, as I splashed her with water and patted her cheeks. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“No,” she said, smiling in a dreamy, dazed way. “It’s amazing—it’s just like I thought it would be.” She flung her arms around my neck suddenly and her skin felt damp and cold. “It’s better.”

We took a cab home because my aunt has given her money, and she fell asleep with her head in my lap. I don’t think her color ever came back.

Now, she is languid and elegant, poses in the background for spreads in Vanity Fair, but soon they’ll start putting her at the front.

Behind us, the boy is moving closer and she does not see him, or she pretends not to see him. Her eyes are black like stones and in the glass, her reflection smiles. I realize that she’s picked him. That she’s been drawing him closer for hours.

“You don’t look like you belong here,” she tells me unexpectedly. “You look best when everyone else is going crazy. When you’re delicate and still, and everyone else is moving so fast you can barely see them. You’re like wearing combat boots with petticoats.”

“Relegated to 1989?” I say.

“You think too much, Nenny. Just once, you should stop thinking and enjoy the party. Here, hold still.”

She unlatches her beaded clutch and takes out a lipstick, steadies my chin with her fingertips. The makeup feels greasy, but in the mirror, my mouth becomes lurid and spectacular, so red it almost looks black.

Behind us, the boy is right up against her suddenly, says something in her ear and she smiles. She presses the lipstick into my hand and follows him. It isn’t until she reaches the middle of the room that she turns to look back. His arm is already around her waist. He’s already leaning in to breathe against her neck.

I stand alone at the bar, holding the lipstick. The sticker on the bottom says, “Pomegranate Fizz,” which I realize is also the name of Paige’s drink. She’s left her sugared glass in front of me and taken my bourbon, perhaps through carelessness, but I doubt it.

I used to think that when she wanted what I had, it was because she was trying to seem older, but now her life is more glamorous than anything I can offer, and she keeps trying to give it to me. I sip the punch, realize it was never that she wanted what I had at all; just that she wanted us to share.

Her drink is too sweet and I put it down. The party is too plastic and I want to leave. In the mirror, her lipstick makes me look fake.

My aunt comes gliding across the dance-floor like a tall, angry swan—goddess of photo opps and trendy flavored vodka. She catches my wrist. “Anna, tell me that did not just happen!”

I look away and shrug. “I think maybe she knew him from somewhere.”

I should tell her that I’m sorry. That I tried my best to stop it, but that wouldn’t be the truth. I wait for someone to tell me that I haven’t done the wrong thing. That Paige, for all her grace and beauty, is darker than me, and more frightening.

My job is to stand at the rail, looking delicate, while she heads for the pit.

This is what she’s been wanting her whole life.

5 thoughts on “Underworld

  1. This is fascinating and mysterious. I can taste the bitterness, the temptation, and yet I also laughed out loud at the 1989 joke. 🙂

  2. Athena–the sensible, reasonable, virginal, and in many ways uneventful goddess. Doesn’t she get to be a little bitter now and then? 😉

  3. Ooo, very subtle. It took me a minute.

    I love thinking of Auntie Dem as “goddess of photo opps and trendy flavored vodka.”

  4. Thanks!

    I’m sure there are many versions of Dem that would suit the contemporary idea of abundance, but that’s one of the most sordid ones I could think of 😉

  5. Very moody–something about the bar scene made me think of Crime and Punishment. Don’t ask me why.

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