Gunshine State by Michelle Lyn King
When I tell you fragments of stories about the person I used to be, you think I might be lying. That doesn’t sound anything like you, you say. I tell you that’s because I’m not that person anymore. That’s the part that’s a lie.
You want to know who I was when I lived in Hollywood and I’ve only given you brief glimmers. I’ve told you about getting into a moving car on a road that looked out onto the ocean so that I could buy cocaine and I’ve told you about the guy who snorted Vicodin off my living room coffee table while a Tarantino movie droned on in the background because I told him I’d never seen a Tarantino movie and he said what the fuck that’s crazy Tarantino is the best artist alive but then he spent the whole movie high and he threw up all over my doormat at seven AM and I kicked him out and I washed that rug all morning but the shadow of the vomit stain never left. I’ve told you about how I went by a different name then—not Sarah, my middle name and the name you know, but Jo, short for Josephine, my real name and the person I was before you met me.
You know me as so many things. Your fiancé. A person who thinks three drinks is one drink too many. A woman you love. But what I’m trying to tell you now is I’m still that other person too. I’m hoping that if I tell you the whole story, you might finally believe me.
When I was twenty-two I moved from my hometown in Pensacola down to Hollywood. I needed to get away from my boyfriend. Things with him had gotten dark. After a construction accident he started moving up the opioid ladder, even long after his leg healed—prescription pethidine to morphine, then inevitably to heroin. One night he punched through our wood coffee table until his veins began to split so that he could go to the ER and say, “More pills, please.” I remember looking at the broken up coffee table and thinking that this was not his breaking point but it was mine. The two of us had been together since he was twenty-four and I was seventeen. When I left, I was twenty-one and he was pushing thirty. For so long I’d thought of loyalty as nothing more than a good trait. Suddenly I understood how it could be a kind of weakness. The line between loyalty and obedience—it’s remarkably fine.
When I lived in Pensacola I didn’t do any drugs because I didn’t want to become my boyfriend and I didn’t drink any alcohol because I didn’t want to become my mom. I got a reputation as a good girl. My boyfriend liked that about me. He liked that I was good. It made him think that if he was loved by a good person he would become good by proxy. Eventually, that fact alone made me stop wanting to be good. I wanted to be more than people’s perception of me. I had a car and I had enough money to get me to the other end of the state. Using the computers at the library, I spent two months researching new towns. Each one presented the same problem: how do you start a new life out of nothing?
A friend of a friend of my cousin Casper. That’s how I first heard about Hollywood. This girl Jewels told me about it, or at least that’s what I think her name was, though maybe that’s just what people called her or maybe I misheard and there’s no one named Jewels. Anyway, I met her at Casper’s birthday party and I mentioned to her that I was looking for somewhere to live that wasn’t the place where I currently lived. She told me about Hollywood. She said she had a brother who managed a strip club there, the Diamond Dolls, and that he could get me a job.
“I don’t think I have the money to get to California,” I told her.
She laughed. “Not that Hollywood, honey.”
I told her I didn’t think I had the body for stripping.
She said she didn’t either. “I meant as a waitress. They’re known for their steak.”
One week later, I was loading the truck of my car while my boyfriend was at work. Then I was driving that car straight drown from Pensacola to Hollywood, Florida. Then, two days later, I was sitting across from Jewels’s brother and he tells me that I am hired as a server at the Diamond Dolls and it sounds like an act of mercy.
It’s true that in Hollywood the air is different. Saltier. Stickier. Sweatier. Geographically speaking, Pensacola is closer to Houston than it is to Hollywood. There was something about Hollywood that I found disorienting. Bolts of neon colors mixed up with the greens and browns of the swamp. It almost never rained in the year I was there. People always spoke about how strange it was that it never rained. They kept asking, “When is it going to rain?” in a way that made it seem like they thought someone might really know. It never rained but the air was always wet. People said it was paradise. I wasn’t so sure.
I spent my first week sleeping in my car, showering in the sand showers at the beach and subsisting on one meal a day, the one the club provided the servers and the dancers before the night started, usually some hot dogs or big trays of pasta or tubs of cold chicken fingers. One of the Kellys heard through the rumor mill that I needed a place to stay and she told me, “Give me a week and I’ll kick my roommate out. He’s always two weeks late on rent anyway.” Sure enough, a week went by and Georgia Kelly handed over a set of keys.
“Rent is $375,” she told me. “I know you just moved here, so I spotted you this month.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll get you back.”
“Yeah, no shit. You can pay me when your first check comes through.”
Both of the Kelly were dancers, two of the best. The Kelly I lived with was the meaner of the two Kellys but she was a good kind of mean. Tough, not cruel. It was confusing to talk about them, so people called them Georgia Kelly or Texas Kelly, but no one could ever remember which was which even though Georgia Kelly was one of the most beautiful people you’ve ever seen. She wasn’t just podunk pretty. She was actually beautiful. Texas Kelly was what everyone agreed was a butterface.
It was hard to remember which Kelly was which because it was hard to remember what anyone’s life was before Hollywood. It was hard because each one of us had come to Hollywood in an effort to forget those lives. Some people called Georgia Kelly Cinderella because that’s who she’d been for half a year, way, way up in Orlando in that ice blue gown, signing autographs for little girls outside the Magic Kingdom. Most of the servers at the Diamond Dolls wanted to be promoted to dancers. Kelly said it was like that at Disney too. Anyone working in the restaurants or at the gift stores wanted to become a princess.
Kelly’s apartment smelled like the inside of a Papa John’s pizza box but I felt lucky to live there. I felt lucky to be Kelly’s roommate. It was the first place I could call home without wishing it wasn’t. There was even a dog, a fourteen-year-old Yorkie named Diamond. Diamond had milky clouds for eyes and a tongue that hung out the side of his mouth but he’d still bark in a way that sounded happy when you came home.
Living with Kelly is what gave me a social life in Hollywood. Men loved Kelly and Kelly knew all about men. Dimas, one of the bouncers, told me she fucked like a feral cat and I had to clarify whether or not that was a good thing. He said that it was.
Kelly and I used to get stoned and watch The Bachelor and Kelly would tell me that was no way to get a man.
“They don’t like that,” she said to me, eagerly. “They like it when you’re mean to them. If I were on this show I would be so mean to that guy and I would win.” She spoke with a rabid energy.
It was Kelly who taught me about tapping cigarettes—dipping the wet edge of a cigarette along the residue of a line of coke and smoking it—and it was Kelly who taught me how to balance four dinner plates on my arm at once and it was Kelly who taught me that the girls who wore black lace and red silk to dance were doing it all wrong.
“Those men don’t want to fuck a bad girl,” she told me. “They’re all trying to reinvent the first girl they ever loved. They want the class valedictorian.”
When she danced, Kelly wore white lace and baby blue silk. She wore lipgloss and tied her hair up in a pale pink ribbon that she’d untie late into the night, writhing her hips as she did. She used this Bath and Body Works soap scented like cucumber melon and when you got close to her you could smell it in her pores. When I took a shower I used to open up the cap and inhale. I wanted to absorb her. I didn’t dare use any of it because once I put a bit of her milk in my coffee and she took all the clothes out of my dresser drawers and stripped the sheets off my bed and wrote a note in lipstick on my mirror. Don’t touch my shit.
When it was good, that was the best life I ever had. Kelly introduced me to her friends, these guys Dominic and Miles and this fat Goth girl named Shelly who everyone insisted was hilarious but I never heard say a single word. We sat on top of cars, baking in the midday Florida sun, waiting for the sun to set and that evening energy to roll through. I don’t remember what we did with all the hours there are in a day. Sometimes the boys would take Xanax bars, which made no fucking sense to me because I’d take half of one and be asleep for two days straight. I didn’t get the fun in taking two and beating the shit out of one another in the Burger King parking lot. I remember nursing their bloody knuckles and how they told the girls they couldn’t feel a single thing.
Some nights got too wild but it was still a good story so who really cares. At Kelly’s birthday party I helped her shoot Molly mixed with water into her asshole with a syringe because it was something she’d read about on the internet. She spent the night sobbing and shitting herself but by the next day she was already laughing even though she was still leaking. “What the fuck, babe?” she said. “How could you let me do that to myself?” We didn’t think of anything we were doing as dangerous or as having long-term effects. We were having fun. Everything would turn out fine. Some nights at the club were hard to get through but you wound up being more grateful for the difficult nights because it made everyone band together. I remember one night in particular there was a group of real estate bros—big gluttonous money guys who lived in glass condominiums and spent double our weekly income in one night—and one of them ripped out Jaclyn’s nipple-piercing with his teeth. Dimas punched him in the face and they all got blacklisted for life. That was the night the Heat won the championship and our regular manager was away on vacation so Bartender Nicky was running the show and he shut us down two hours early and let us all drink top-shelf for free and you could hear people in the streets partying and screaming Dwayne Wade’s name, screaming, “White hot Heat, white hot Heat, white hot Heat.”
Some nights my ex used to call me up. He’d either cry and tell me to come home or scream and tell me to come home. He told me he was going to find me. He told me he knew my scent and that he could sniff me out. Lucky for me, it was 2006 and not as easy to find a person as it is now. If you wanted to disappear, you really could get lost. If he called when we were with the guys, Miles would snatch my phone from me and tell my ex that if he called his girl again, he was going to drive up to Pensacola and shoot him straight between the eyes. I wasn’t Miles’ girl but a small part of me wanted to be. I thought it was nice that he was protective of me and funny that he was so full of empty threats but then Kelly told me that Miles really did have a collection of guns and that he was the type crazy enough to use them. I gave a skeptical face and she turned her hand into a pistol, cocked it and shot an imaginary bullet up into the air. “Gunshine state, baby,” she said.
There were days when I thought we could all go on like that forever or maybe we could all move out of Hollywood, go down to Miami or leave Florida all together, all five of us, even Fat Goth Shelly. I told Kelly once about this dream of mine.
“We could get a house together,” I said. “You could work somewhere real.”
Her eyes turned dark. “I do work somewhere real,” she told me.
I began apologizing. She cut me off.
“You think you’re better than everyone,” she said to me.
“No I don’t.”
“Of course you do.” She reached out and twirled a piece of my hair. “I bet you could go back to mommy and daddy whenever you wanted. You’re just a child playing make-believe.”
She was wrong about me. My mom was dead and my dad was I didn’t know where. “I like it here,” Kelly said, dropping both my hair and her voice. “I like my life.”
Management began cracking down on getting fucked up while on the clock. They brought us all in for a staff meeting, the owners too, and told us customers had been complaining about girls slurring or looking down at them with empty, bloodshot eyes.
“This is a nice place,” Roger, the weekend manager, said. The higher-ups were always reminding us that this was a nice place, a place you could get a steak and have a martini, a place you’d take your wife if you were trying to shake things up.
“Don’t pull that shit here,” Roger said. “If you want to behave that way, you can work in one of the Chlamydia clubs over on Dixie Highway.”
What Roger really meant was don’t get so messed up that the guests can tell. He couldn’t say it with the owners looming behind him, but we all knew what he was getting at. Snort a line if you need to or do a couple of shots to loosen up and get yourself fun but Jesus Christ don’t show up to work without irises.
Two weeks after that meeting, I was fired for selling drugs and I wasn’t even a drug dealer. Drug dealers were smart. If you wanted to buy from Miles, you had to send him a text that mentioned one of his current clients and did not mention drugs. Something like, “Hey man, my boy Adam told me I could hit you up. I heard you might be planning a ski trip this winter. Eighty bucks for a ski pass, right?” Yeah. Right. I wasn’t smart like that. I’d stolen six Adderall from the medicine cabinet of a guy Kelly knew and was trying to sell them for extra cash.
Roger called me in on a Sunday, my day off, and told me to bring my uniform but not to wear it. I stayed silent when he told me. It was Kelly who taught me how powerful silence could be, how you didn’t have to respond just because somebody spoke to you.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” he asked. “Don’t you have anything to say?”
I’d heard stories about other girls who’d been fired—fired for missing shifts, fired for stealing company liquor, fired for stealing food from the kitchen—and got to keep their job because they slept with Roger or gave him a sad handjob from the passenger’s seat of his desperate Range Rover. He placed a hand on my knee and told me there are things he could overlook. I remember looking down at his fingernails and seeing that they were manicured. Cut cuticles and a clear gloss painted over them. That was more repellant to me than if they had been caked with dirt.
None of the restaurants I applied to wanted to hire me. None of them gave a shit that Diamond Dolls was known for their steak. They said they wanted real restaurant experience and I’d tell them that was real restaurant experience and they’d tell me not to be argumentative and to get out of their restaurant.
There’s a kind of partying that stops being fun. I got fired right around the time our kind of partying stopped being fun. People we knew started disappearing or, worse, they died off. You’d lose touch with someone only to hear the news of their life as an afterthought, a story rushed through at a bar. “Did you hear about Joey? One night he took too many pills and in the morning he didn’t wake up.” Miles went to prison for trafficking cocaine and no one seemed to care, which I found to be the saddest part of the whole thing. One day I looked at Kelly and noticed a ring of flesh around her once cut jawline. It rained three days in a row. On the third day, Diamond had a seizure and died and we didn’t know what to do with his body so we threw it in the dumpsters behind the Publix and Kelly said, “I think this is super illegal,” but nothing ever came of it and that’s the end of that story. A nice, good thing is that I heard Fat Goth Shelly lost weight and lost the Goth make-up and got her GED and got some normal job, either a receptionist or a nurse or a paralegal. I can’t really remember but good for her.
It’s incredible how quickly something reaches its limit. Without money, I had nowhere to go but back to Pensacola, back to my ex-boyfriend and his black mold apartment that used to be our black mold apartment.
One night I showed up alone to a party of a friend of Fat Goth Shelly. It was unusual for me to show up alone to parties but Kelly was working and Dominic had moved to Miami and Miles was in prison. I went because I had it bad for one of Fat Goth Shelly’s friends, this hardcore kid who worked at Petsmart and looked exactly like Brandon Lee, complete with that sort of rare kinetic charisma that only people who die young seem to possess. When I arrived at the party Brandon Lee was already talking to a girl who had a girlfriend sort of vibe, so instead I ended up talking to this shirtless magician named Tyler. Tyler was hot. He had the kind of bone structure that made me think he should’ve been a frat bro but instead he dressed himself like some Taking Back Sunday looking motherfucker. He had emo bangs and a lip ring and trashy gauges so big it was a miracle his lobes didn’t rip right open. Tattooed on his forearm was a poorly drawn alligator. It looked like a cross between an iguana and a rat.
On the patio, Tyler did a magic trick for me and I said, “I know how you did that,” even though I did not. At one point I looked around and realized I was the only girl in the room. I remembered being a kid—twelve, maybe thirteen—and realizing that for as long I lived, I would never get to be alone in a room full of boys. So long as I was in the room, it was not a room full of boys.
Tyler kept bringing me drinks and I kept thinking, I’m a girl who knows how to hold her own. I kept thinking of myself as a downass chick. That was something guys used to say about Kelly. Kelly is a downass chick. Kelly is chill as fuck. Kelly doesn’t care. Kelly’s like a guy.
What I remember next is that I woke up in Tyler’s brother’s truck and that my dress was still on but my underwear was not. It was so deep into the night that it was already morning. Tyler drove me home and I remember trying to convince myself that him driving me home was proof that he wasn’t bad, maybe. When I got home, I did not cry. I took a searing hot bath and then I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with crunchy peanut butter and I still did not cry. It took me a long time to cry. It took me many years.
“I need to get out of this town,” I told Kelly ten days later, after taking a pregnancy test that turned out negative. “Get me out of this town.”
“Well,” she said. “There is something.”
“What kind of something?”
“Something one of my private clients has been interested in for awhile now. He’ll pay. A lot.”
“I’m not going to have a threeway with you,” I said.
“Not that. You wouldn’t have to do anything.”
I didn’t follow.
“He wants someone to watch.”
“For how much?”
“Five-thousand for me. Three-thousand for you. You’d just have to come to his apartment and sit there.”
I thought about it for a moment. “That’s all? I’d just have to sit there?”
The guy’s name was Jeffrey and he was ugly, which made me trust him. When we got there, he poured us each a drink and started telling me all about his life, even though I did not ask. He said he went to school in New Haven. “Oh, really?” I said. “Which school? New Haven Community College?” He didn’t like that. He told me to play nice. Before Kelly and I went to Jeffrey’s place we stopped off at her dealer’s house and bought three twenty bags. After what felt like an hour but couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes Kelly piled a tiny mountain of coke onto the marble countertop of Jeffrey’s kitchen island.
“Can I have your card, please?” she asked Jeffrey in a voice that was not her regular voice. I recognized it as the high-pitched breathy one she told me she’d had to learn in order to become Cinderella.
Jeffrey handed over a heavy-looking black card and Kelly made two lines, then snorted using a straw she always kept on her. She licked the edge of the card and her eyes locked on Jeffrey. I felt as if I might as well not have been there. I wondered if I was. The two of them kissed.
“Let’s move to the bedroom,” Jeffrey said. “Alice, do you want to join us in the bedroom?” I wondered who Alice was, then remembered. That was the fake name I’d given him. Kelly was Marie and I was Alice. Jeffrey smiled at Alice. His teeth were too big and too white. Alice smiled back.
“Sure,” I heard myself say. “Let’s go to the bedroom.”
It was strange to watch Kelly in that space. She kept giggling and calling Jeffrey baby. “Baby, baby, baby.” What scared me most is how gentle he was with her. I’d imagined he would be rough—pulling her hair, spanking her ass, dragging the razor edges of his teeth against the paper thin skin of her neck. But no. He fucked her like she was his wife, missionary style. The only thing missing was the admission, “I love you.”
At one point, Kelly moved positions and her eyes met mine. She winked and I did not wink back. I wondered what it was like to have someone inside of you that you did not desire. I knew and also I did not—I didn’t know what it was like when it was a choice. I didn’t know what it was like when you were the one in control, the one aware of what the shape of the situation really was. Suddenly I saw the life I had been living in Hollywood as merely a footnote to my real life, the one I hadn’t started living yet. None of it mattered. I could destroy it and it didn’t matter, not one bit.
“I have to pee,” I said, though no one was listening to me.
In the bathroom, I turned on the sink and then I saw it. A Rolex watch, patterned silver and rose gold, flanked with diamonds. Who invites two strange girls over to their home and leaves that sort of thing out? Somebody with more than one Rolex watch, that’s who. Three years later I would spend two hours Googling various combinations of Jeffrey + Hollywood, Jeffrey + Yale, Jeffrey + stock broker, Jeffrey + Smith Barney until I finally found him. Jeffrey Ghysels. Convicted of insider trading in 2009. I took the watch and I nestled it under my thick padded bra. You couldn’t even see the outline of it.
Two days later I pawned the watch for $13,000 and drove straight like a gunshot out of Florida until I reached Cleveland. When I arrived my name was Sarah. I got a job working as a server in a fine-dining restaurant. That’s where I met you, state school, straight-laced, good man. You said, “What’s a pretty girl like you doing working in a restaurant?” I said I didn’t know.
It took Kelly a week to realize what I’d done. When she did, she went crazy on me. She left me twelve screaming voicemail messages, telling me she was coming after me. She told me that Jeffrey told the Diamond Dolls owners that she was a thief and she’d gotten fired. I didn’t care. Actually, I did care and I liked it. It was helpful, having her that angry at me, angry past the point of forgiveness. I knew that I needed to burn down that life. Now there really was no going back.
The night I met you I told you I was from Florida and you asked me if I grew up near the beach. You asked me if I knew how to sail. I told you that my life was nothing like the life you were imagining, but I didn’t give you any specifics. I wanted you to keep imagining because I liked the person you imagined me as. She seemed nice and easy. I thought, I could become her, couldn’t I? And haven’t I?
The first time I saw snow I thought, This is why everyone goes crazy down south. Without the change of seasons, how can any of us be expected to do anything but the same thing over and over and over again? I’m telling you all this now because I want you to know that I am not the person you love or at least not all of me is and I’m telling you this because I want to know if you could love all of the person I am.
All said and done it was only a year. Some years last longer than others. That was a year that lasted a very long time. What I want is to believe that Hollywood didn’t leave so much as a scratch but I know it must have added up to something. I’m not yet sure of the sum.