Everyone knows that that is Esther Williams’ corner. We know it because of “Pretty Woman.” Julia told us.
We prostitutes were all pretty women. Or that’s what we were told, so we kept on moving. Our glamorous, tragic nights. Our too-bright-the-next-days. We all had metaphorical thick curls of red hair — a head full of beautiful flourishes — and confidently unconfident smiles with fit bodies. We could charm a millionaire and end up with the life we only saw in magazines or on cordoned-off streets with stage lights, a makeup team and multiple takes.
I catch the movie tonight on cable. It had already begun. But I sit for the rest of it. I’ve seen it once before, with my daughter. But this is the first time I am watching it alone. By now, Julia Roberts has kids of her own, I’ve heard. On my small TV screen, young Julia plays naïve Vivian Ward — a novice prostitute. I watch every movement, searching for truth or clues, or both. But in the end, I’m taken by the fairy-tale ending. Again. Almost everyone is.
I put on my boots. All the way to my mid-thigh, where it begins to dimple and not in a smiling way. The boots are blue and shiny and iridescent. I am wearing my thigh-high, blue, shiny, iridescent boots and it’s my 50th birthday. The boots are all I’m wearing and in the mirrors on the bathroom walls I look as though my legs have been broken and put in bright casts. They do that these days, make fun, colored casts for when things break. I wonder what color cast I would get for this heart of mine.
I rummage through a drawer of oversized T-shirts and what Marty used to call my “smocks” — but they’re caftans. I finally find a shirt that is tight enough, one of Marty’s. She was always the slender one; I never lost my pregnancy weight after my daughter, Stella, was born. It’s not meant to be tight but it is and it laces up the middle. It’s somewhat Renaissance faire-like, but I haven’t been to one of those since Marty died 16 years ago. And even then we were the oldest of the hags and witches and hausfraus laughing and dancing and intoning grave things on the grounds of an old horse farm in Pasadena. We would dance barefoot along with our daughters — our little familiars.
I slip on a stretchy black skirt that skims the tops of the boots. I don’t take the time to assess any more in the accusing mirrors. I grab my little purse and head out. Ned the doorman does a double take. It’s also been a while since I’ve been granted one of those.
“Have a nice evening, Mrs. Steadman.”
I walk east down Wilshire. It’s 9 p.m. on a Friday. The street is packed with cars. The light at the corner is red and thick bass from several cars form one big testosterone party down the boulevard. No one whistles at me.
The light turns, the cars go and the party goes with them, and for a brief moment it’s just me and the clip-clop of my old boots.
A sports car sails by. It turns onto Beverly but does not corner like it’s on rails and it screeches its metallic banshee yell, sparks and fishtails out before it collides with the front end of a Prius.
And then it is quiet again. Tragedy does that — makes silence out of something awesome. The two smashed cars are still, metal entangled; they are one. Traffic begins to collect. Honks and swear words spill from open windows. In the Prius, an unmoving woman rests on a deployed air bag. I scramble over, teetering in my boots.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” I ask through the open window. A baby is crying from a car seat in the back. Looks to be about a year old. The woman doesn’t answer. I check for a pulse the way I see the actors do it. I feel for activity in her neck. It is warm and soft and I feel the tiny fist of life there; she’s alive.
The girl is unscathed. The back half of the car is fine. I open the door to the burnt smell of chemicals — that generic biting smell — the air bag. Also in the air is the smell of fruit and I see applesauce pouches and goldfish crackers scattered in the back seat. Plastic figurines and pacifiers and a tattered copy of “Are You My Mother?” — that was my daughter’s favorite book, asking me to read it again and again and again until the seams gave out and the thick board pages peeled. I unbuckle the many buckles of the car seat, somehow remembering this most mundane and motherly of tasks. As I pull the girl out, she crumples against my body.
It doesn’t take long for the sirens to sound in the distance. After some time, a man pulls himself from the sports car, which is red — something we would have called Fuck Me Red back in the day, and low to the ground. The guy leans against it, pushes things into his cellphone. Doesn’t even look up. Doesn’t even see the broken mother or hear her desperate baby. He’s an asshole. That much I could have said even before the crash. His license plate reads LGL EGLE1. Pedestrians on the sidewalk gather, point. Irritated car horns issue from up the street. A Good Samaritan directs the cars to pass. The sirens sound like they are getting nearer, but they haven’t arrived. The child, with a few blond curls at her neck and wearing a riot of pink and purple ruffles and sparkles, has calmed. I hold her like a football and she pulls at the V of my shirt.
As a child, I lived with my mother in the La Paradiso apartments — the palm trees out front did nothing to convince me that it was paradise, nor did the incorrect Spanish grammar. My father was mysterious and absent; I stopped asking about him by age 7. My mother bagged groceries at Vons and spent many nights at the varied sundry apartments of varied sundry men she dubbed “boyfriends.” While she was out, I stayed at La Paradiso chewing my hair, reading old magazines left in the hallways or talking to Estelle next door.
Estelle was beautiful. Even in my youth, I could see that. The landlord responded to her calls the fastest. He never even bothered with ours. Our stove didn’t work, our bathroom light — littered with the corpses of insects — flickered, and a window with a tiny hole in it and fast-growing spider cracks threatened to shatter at any resolute blow from Santa Ana.
Estelle was a whore. That’s what my mother said the first time she came home to find me in Estelle’s apartment. But I watched men come with gifts and in nice cars to pick Estelle up. They always came to her door, kissed her fingertips. She smiled and glittered. I practiced in the mirror with makeup that Estelle let me play with and that I hid from my own mother under the mattress. I smiled at my reflection. Oh, John! I’d sing and giggle and it seemed so much more glamorous and lovely than what we had in our apartment, even though we shared a wall. Estelle always seemed happy. Joie de vivre, she called it.
So many years later, on Beverly Drive and Wilshire Boulevard, we were only 10 blocks from La Paradiso. I’ve driven by. It’s been rebranded: Las Palmas. The doors have been painted bright yellow and teal. The hopeful, lying palm trees out front still there, maybe a little taller. Estelle long dead. The landlord long dead. My mother long dead. Just me now. An aging woman who followed the advice of the loveliest woman she’d ever known. With a baby in my arms. A beautiful, heavy, whimpering girl.
It took eight years for the cracked window in our apartment to break. The landlord had never come to fix it and it weakened and weakened until I leaned on it one day when I was 16. I was waiting for my own boyfriend to come pick me up, filing my nails, resting on the glass, and when I got to my thumb, the glass gave way and instead of falling inward, it just dropped and shattered into a million pieces. My boyfriend never came, so I went to Estelle’s and she combed through my hair, trying to pull out all the glass shards. My mother arrived home four hours later, dragged me from Estelle’s by the wrist and demanded to know what had happened. That night was a rare, rainy Los Angeles night and the city and its dirty rain blew into our hovel of a home. Drunk and pissed, my mother told me to get the fuck out and never come back. I still found glass in my hair a week later. So I found some scissors at a gas station bathroom and cut it off.
A firetruck is the first to arrive. Heaving men in dark uniforms hop down and approach the vehicles. One of them yells and waves when he sees the mother. He bends and feels for her vitals.
“She’s alive,” he yells. And still the legal eagle asshole does not look up. An ambulance and two police cars scream in and park at angles. The EMTs go immediately to the woman behind the wheel. I whisper to the girl. I sing. You are my sunshine. She looks into my eyes, snot collects above her lip. Her diaper, I can tell by its heft, is full. I don’t watch them extract the baby’s mother from the car. It isn’t any jaws-of-life business, but you can tell the mother will wake with all kinds of bruises. I keep humming the melody of the song, since I don’t recall all the words. There’s a second verse. Something about hanging your head and crying. Not sunshiney at all. Even if I remembered it, I think I’d leave it out right now. The girl doesn’t need that, on top of all this.
Getting pregnant had been unexpected, but not entirely surprising. That much sex and my youth made it a when and not an if. Better that than AIDS, which is what eventually got Estelle. I found a shelter specifically for pregnant women. Got a job at, funnily enough, Ralphs — the competitor of my mother’s former employer.
Nursing was difficult with my daughter. Back then, formula was the latest craze and I wasn’t interested in that. I was making an about-face now that I was a mother. Healthy. Safe. So the doctors and nurses said “suit yourself” and left me and a baby who couldn’t quite latch. She lost three pounds before she began to gain again. My chapped, peach breasts were so fatigued. I was only 20 and completely confused at the change of role for these once sexual accessories. But I embraced their new utility, decided to take charge and then met Marty at a La Leche League meeting. She was beautiful and exhausted in that way mothers are. We became fast friends and then became lovers. Our two daughters effectively became sisters when I moved in with her a year later. Tired still, we were at least tired together. And we were tired with a roof over our heads and an unending supply of Diet Coke.
“Hey!” I hear. I look up, but no one notices me. An officer is trying to get the man’s attention. The man who caused the wreck. I watch as the officer snaps the cell from his hand. Berates him. Hands flailing with anger, once or twice near enough to slap the asshole, but the officer refrains. The asshole’s face remains passive. There is some pantomiming walking on a tightrope, some touching of the nose. The asshole seems to pass the test. But he is still, clearly, an asshole. He is led to the police car. No handcuffs or anything, but he is encouraged into the backseat.
One of my mother’s boyfriends was a cop. When I was 7, as a joke, he cuffed me to the heater pipe that ran from the ceiling to the floor. “Ha ha,” he said. “Look at her!” My mother laughed too. Said, “Where were those when she was a toddler!?” Ha ha. They went out that night and didn’t return until morning. They hadn’t removed the cuffs. I slept on the itchy carpet in the dampness of my own warm urine. In the morning, my mother said I was disgusting as she unlocked me in the dizzy drunken sunlight streaming in from the window.
On this night, in my thigh-high blue boots, I am a stone’s throw from the Reg Bev Wil. I first watched “Pretty Woman” long after I’d abandoned the business. My daughter said I’d love the movie. I cried; she didn’t understand why. After my daughter was born, I packed away my boots into a trunk, couldn’t quite part from them entirely. They got it wrong, some said of the film. They’re glamorizing something horrible, awful, terrible, seedy. And while I was never offered a room at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, and didn’t exactly find my Richard Gere prince, I had my daughter and wouldn’t have otherwise. I look at my outfit and realize I’m cold. What was I wearing? Why was I wearing this? To reclaim what, exactly, about my past? I rocked the girl in my arms. She looked like Stella, my girl, now 30, getting her MBA at USC. All the acronyms I jumble up and laugh at her. She laughs back, doesn’t know my life yet. Doesn’t know why she has her name.
“Are you family?” a police officer touches my back. I jump, startling the baby.
“No, I —”
“We are going to have to take the child.” I am not prepared for this. I look up to see one of the ambulance doors closing. A tow truck is hooking up the mangled mess. I’m not prepared for any of it.
“Can I just —”
“I’m sorry. Thank you. Really. I think you saved this little sweetheart from some serious stress.” I can see in the streetlight that the officer’s hands are calloused, deep lines etched that are supposed to tell you about life and love and success. Stitched on his shirt is a name: Donovan.
“I have a little girl. And a boy, actually,” he says. “Twins.”
“Me too. But one. Not really a girl anymore,” I say.
“You’re a natural. I knew you were a mother when I walked up.” He smiles. His teeth are crooked and he needs to shave. Handsome enough. Young, around my daughter’s age.
“Elaine. We have to take the girl. But … and, okay, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but we are going to bring them to Cedars … if you want to … I don’t know … meet the mother or something. She was already starting to wake up. She’ll be fine. So will this little lady,” he starts to take her from my arms. Cradling her, murmuring. “Hey sweetie, sweetie.”
“Okay,” I breathe, not sure what more I can say but also because I’m not sure if it’s okay. If I’m okay. Would it be weird if I followed? Showed up in my 30-year-old hooker clothes? I allow the full weight of the girl off my chest. Immediately I feel naked. I look down. Cleavage, thighs. Worn cleavage and worn thighs, but still, they hold me up.
Officer Donovan nods. “Hope you don’t mind me saying, but you look lovely,” he says and walks off toward the ambulance.
As the siren goes off into the night, I walk back toward my building. I pass the Regent Beverly Wilshire and look up at the ornate hotel, the striped awnings. Some curtains are closed, but many hang open. Bodies move inside, dancing their own private dances, silhouettes. The place of movie dreams and of nightmares, I’m sure. Not mine. I think it’s OK that I tell my daughter what happened.
Title from lyrics to “Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based essayist and short-story writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Citron Review, Bird’s Thumb, Brain, Child Magazine, *82 Review, District Lit, Narratively, Ravishly, The Compassion Anthology and elsewhere. She recently was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Contest and a winner of the Writing By Writers short-story contest. More of her work is available on jenniferflisscreative.com. Follow her on Twitter @jenniferflisscreative.