Even Before Success, Pussy Was Number One

Available in Forever Mag Issue II

“Come to Marquee tonight and show it off,” is what Alex says over AIM when I mention my new tattoo.

It’s a dancing symbol on my hand that looks like a flower but is not a flower.

His screen name is MrBelvedere459. My screenname is ShoeGirl and every sentence I write is flourished, floral; I call every guy I chat with darlin’ or sugar, though I don’t really talk that way, never have, never will.

“What’s that a flower?” Alex says when he sees my tat in the flesh, in amongst the flashing lights, the pounding Maneater, Smack That, SexyBack.

I say, “What do you think, darlin?” and neglect to mention the seed of the design, how it dawned midway through a retreat in the Berkshires–my mom trying to fix me with meditation, mindfulness seminars I couldn’t sit still for. The problem is that I think I’m unlovable, how pathetic is that?

At the meditation center in the Berkshires, a guru sat on an elevated platform, facing the room full of desperate people, and me. She said cryptic things like: “Who would you be if you surrendered the story you’ve created about the person you’ve become?” There was a giant OM symbol on the wall behind her and I stared at it, antsy for powder. It would make a good tattoo, I thought and came home to New York early, to get it.

Now the ink is barely dry, slick with Aquaphor, though I’ve ditched the saran wrap. I am, of course, at Marquee, numb-gummed and dancing at Alex’s table, holding up my hand to everyone I meet. “What’s that a flower?” they all ask. I’ve never even chanted OM before. “Sort of,” I respond. I don’t have a better answer and I’m well suited to petals and nectar, dressed in pink, sugar. During the day, I work at a high-end boutique called Intermix. But tonight my dress is a ten-dollar halter top from Joyce Leslie. Polyester, pulled down to cover my butt, a plastic crystal pin where the neckline ends, somewhere around my belly button.

I head for the bathroom with a baggie Alex passes me in his palm. When his skin touches mine, he takes hold of my whole hand, lifts it to his lips, kisses. I give him a nasty look. We both know he’s not sweet. “Even before success, pussy was number one,” he will one day tell Billboard Magazine.

My problem is that I think I’m unlovable. “You have this vision in your head, of an abandoned, unwanted child,” my mother has told me recently, in a long voicemail she left because I never pick up her calls. “But that’s not who you are.” Then she said she’s not giving up. Then she sent me to the Berkshires. Cut rate rehab.

On the way to the Marquee bathroom someone grabs my ass but I don’t see who and who cares. I get grabbed a lot at clubs, all the girls do. I take it as a compliment. Other times, when I’m thirsty for attention, I’ll wander into Game Workshop on Eighth Street, where nerdy guys play Magic the Gathering. I like to sit with them, let them explain cards to me–spells, artifacts, creatures–while they try to hide their boners. I leave abruptly, with the first hint of boredom, and take with me all the hope in the room.

Every girl in the bathroom is coked up, chewing gum, and no one puts money in the attendant’s jar. I have three crumpled dollars in my clutch, which is fake black satin. My mom cut me off, trying to set an ultimatum. Intermix only pays eight dollars an hour. But I don’t need much. When it comes to clubs, I always drink and snort for free.

At Marquee, Alex’s table is upstairs, overlooking the floor where all the plebes grind. I get back from the bathroom, thighs burning from the climb, and I trade him the bag for a new drink, vodka and a splash of the too sweet cranberry juice sweating beside the ice bucket. I sip, sniff, wipe my nose. A few weekends ago, at a club called Snitch, with a different promoter, I full on bled, bright red down my chin, my white Forever 21 dress, ruined. That was strike one. Strike two and three was my period, arrived by surprise after months missing, all over the promoter’s face, oops.

So I’m with Alex now, pretending to hear what he yells despite the music, waggling my skin and bones in my shirt-dress, wiping my nose again.

"Like, 'Why am I trying to make all this money?'” Alex will muse in that Billboard article, in ten years’ time, speaking of his motivation, his art. The answer was always simple, he concludes: “I wanted to hook up with hotter girls.” For now, he’s got me. I may not be hot, but according to the fake ID I bought for sixty bucks in the back of a hijab store on First Avenue, I am young, which is essentially the same as hot. The ID says I’m twenty-two but really I’m nineteen, which is actually even better.

Anna Nora arrives wearing True Religion and Marc Jacob pumps with spikes up the heel. Her t-shirt is gauzy, embroidered with skulls. I recognize it from Intermix, where it sells for three hundred dollars. Skulls are clutch lately. It’s all about bones, but she has big tits, which are not on trend the way my skinny is. I’m so gaunt guys ask if I’m a model. My head looks like a bobble. I think this gets me away with cheap halter tops and Steve Madden shoes. Does it? I’ll never know. Anna Nora grabs my hand. “What’s that a flower?” she says.

At four we take a cab to Alex’s apartment in a luxury building on Twenty Third street, next to the Home Depot. Upstairs he sits on a black leather couch with his legs spread. The mirrored coffee table is strewn with cigarette butts and weed, streaked with powder. There’s sexy lingerie on the floor by his bed. Anna Nora makes a joke about wearing it, but it belonged to Alex’s ex, and he doesn’t think it’s funny. Nor do I because his ex Facebook messaged me last week and called me a slut, hah. Her name is Fleur. She ended it and Alex is still hung up, dejected, tickle-fighting Anna Nora on the couch like they’re siblings or something. Their thinly veiled foreplay annoys me. Isn’t it obvious why we’re here?

The first time I came over he asked me what assumptions I had about him, now that I knew how well he lived. The answer was none. I wasn’t surprised by his wealth, or the tattoo on his ribcage, bearing his dead dad’s name. The money and the loss were entwined, I assumed. But even before success, pussy was number one.

Alex takes off his shirt. He takes off Anna Nora’s. I sit back with a baggie and bump bump bump, trying to look cool but my tattoo itches.

Afternoon and Anna Nora is racoon-eyed and snoring. Alex is passed out also, one leg out from under the comforter, dead dad tattoo swaddled in greasy sheets. In the bathroom I rub his cinnamon toothpaste over my gums like it’s powder. There’s spit stains on the mirror. I hold up my hand for the glass, examine the ink there. It’s red around the edges, raised and puffy. It never heals right. Twelve years later and it’s still fuzzy, front and center where my hand holds the steering wheel.

Up and down Hollywood Boulevard I drive to get to work, day after day in a poorly ventilated room full of sweaty writers, day after day past advertisements of barely legal girls in desirous poses, actresses airbrushed to perfection, actors whose wrinkles have been accentuated. And a giant billboard with Alex’s face on it. Stony, serious, famous, he blooms from the blue background, smog and skyline. What’s that, a flower?

He’s a DJ, one half of a duo responsible for songs played billions of times, all over the world. On stage he stands behind his laptop and grins. The songs Alex makes don’t require him to do much but press play. They include the breakout hit, #selfie, making fun of the vapid, needy girls that attend the band’s shows. And Closer, another song about stupid, unimpressive girls. We ain’t never getting older, the lyrics to that one go.

I went to real rehab. Got married. Published a book, marketed as the tell-all memoir of a pretty-ish writer with a sad family story. It enjoyed a blush of success, but failed to sell as well as the publisher had hoped. Now I sense my career has stalled. I want to write something big enough for a billboard, a billion readers. But the story of an unimpressive, pathetic girl is the story I keep coming back to. Every day, I put her to the page. Then I drive home, past Alex’s billboard, and stare up at him, the impressive one.

You have this vision of an abandoned, unwanted child, my mother said.
Who would you be if you surrendered that story? The mindfulness guru asked the room.
We ain’t never getting older, Alex’s song goes.

The tattoo on my hand looks like a crushed flower, smudged, sideways. It’s fashioned after OM, the symbol of inner self, the sound of the universe. But it’s actually a design all my own. I made it in the waiting area of a tattoo shop on West Fourth Street when I was nineteen years old, drawing awkward arms and legs where Sanskrit letters belong, a mark in the middle that looks like a petal but also a face. Then I sat, sweating, while a bald man needled it into my skin. I had to beg him to do it.
“You’ll never work a corporate job with a hand tat, honey,” he said. “You have to be sure.”
“I’m sure,” I promised, though I wasn’t. And though the tattoo healed poorly, and though it still looks like a flower, it is not a flower.


Allie Rowbottom is the author of JELL-O GIRLS, a New York Times Editor's Choice selection. Her essays and short fiction can be found in Vanity Fair, Salon, Literary Hub, New York Tyrant, The Drunken Canal, Bitch and elsewhere. She holds a PhD from the University of Houston and an MFA from CalArts and lives in LA.

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