I was at a competition of sorts that Friday morning, something of a cross between a beauty pageant and a modeling contest put on by upstart organic fashion companies. More than three hundred girls had ponied up the $20 application fee for a chance to be crowned “Spokeswoman for the Environment,” a title that came with $2,000, a shopping spree, and a fashion spread in a just-launched nature magazine. The twelve finalists had been selected and brought to an airy home decor store in West Hollywood that had been cleared out for the occasion. That’s where I sat now with a notebook and camera on a white fold-up chair, waiting for the show to begin.
I sat in a jaded agitation, not because of the show but because of what had happened before it, with Alek. I’d been seeing him for a few months and we were in that weird space, where we had a fair sense of each other’s messy characters but still tiptoed around on good behavior for the time being. Alek was an affectionate guy I loved being alone with, but there was a rambunctious to him that unnerved me in public, when he sang along to background music or interrupted strangers’ conversations, though people seemed to like him, responding in kind. He whistled loudly whenever he came across something he liked. I assumed this exuberance was a cultural thing, he’d immigrated to the U.S. ten years ago when he was twenty-five, though I couldn’t say for sure because I didn’t really know any other Russians. He was in AA. He said he’d made a lot of money in finance but lost it all, partying, before going into rehab, which stuck the second time around. Now he owned his own small company, offering financial restructuring advice to struggling businesses. He seemed sincere in his quest to become a better person, to take life at face value, though I got the sense that he didn’t quite take me seriously. I was a freelance writer, and at the time I was covering a lot of kitschy events, restaurant openings and local festivals and the like, where the big attractions were the B and C-list celebrities that showed up to promote one product or another. Though we were the same age, when I talked about my work, Alek listened carefully but with an expression that to me seemed somewhat paternal, like my work was a cute little hobby that he nevertheless needed to be encouraging about. It was that expression he’d given me over coffee and toast at my place that morning, and I continued to grouse over it at the event, as I fiddled with the settings on my point-and-shoot.
I started to feel better though, as the start time neared. I was sitting in the front row, on a chair that literally had my name on it along with that of the magazine. PR girls milled about, jittery and eager to please, offering press kits and cucumber water. I sipped from a clear plastic cup feeling official, legitimate. I thought if Alek came with me to one of these, he might see me differently.
The event began. It was like a runway show with hiccups, the girls strutting out in trios to techno and posing in a row at the front, at which point the music would cut unceremoniously and each girl would drone on about the environmental aspects of the clothes and designers. The girls looked skittish standing there, most of them not professional models, one blonde’s chin actually quivering desperately. Still, there was a certain dramatic insouciance to the whole thing. Lights popped. Digital cameras whirred through their gratuitous shutter noises. The writers held their voice recorders aloft, wrists cocked, or scribbled furiously, though none of us needed the notes, it was all in the press kits.
The finalist I planned to focus my article on was in the last trio. She was a twenty-six year old called Lana. I’d picked her because, according to the bios, Lana was a vegan and thus a good fit for the vegetarian magazine for which I was covering the event. Lana had even turned her husband vegan, when they’d married two years before. My editor said that if Lana won, it would be a triumphant feature profile, if not, a heartwarming underdog story. It was only when I googled Lana, clicking through to the fifth or sixth page, that I’d found out she wasn’t new to being in front of the camera, that she’d posed for a good amount of soft core pornography before getting married. The photos still online seemed tastefully done, erotically lit with carefully draped hair and sheets. Lana had taken her husband’s name when she’d married but otherwise didn’t seem to have made much of an effort to change or hide her past identity, a choice about which I felt a nebulous respect. I wondered if I should mention the porn to my editor, or if doing so would just be spreading idle gossip. This wasn’t the Miss America pageant, after all. I wondered if the photos were how she’d met her husband, an older real estate guy who seemed moneyed. Since the wedding Lana volunteered for Farm Sanctuary and gave the occasional fermenting workshop at a local raw restaurant. In the press kit photos she looked like a fresh Audrey Hepburn type.
And Lana did have some of that poise in person too now, walking down the makeshift runway, though her posture was less precise, more inviting in a lax, giving sort of way. She made an impression, moving with a formulaic sashay in a blue dress. The cut was demure but the fabric slippery, the silk shivering on her skin. When she spoke, instead of reciting the product info in the press kits like the other girls, Lana said she was especially proud that the brand she was wearing made use of reclaimed materials, and that all clothes should be, considering the detrimental environmental effects of making new clothing, organic or not. The fashion industry’s disposable attitude towards clothes led to a whole host of unseen travesties—child labor, sweatshop conditions, chemical leaching, water pollution, landfill waste—problems, she said, even many so-called green companies happily turned a blind eye to. “Of course,” she said, laughing indulgently, “I’m not talking about any of the companies here. These companies are making fashions that last, the kind you’ll want to pass down to your grandchildren, the very opposite of disposable!” The crowd seemed to be with her, nodding along. “Some of you might remember that old PETA campaign, ‘I’d rather go naked than to wear fur,’” Lana went on. “Well, I say we start a new campaign. I’d rather go naked than wear new!”
There was agreeable applause. For a second I thought Lana was going to take off her dress; her left hand had started fiddling with a strap during the speech. But she didn’t. She put both hands on the mic and went on. “We’ve heard the mantra—Reduce, reuse, recycle. But in my opinion, we could just reduce that saying down to reuse. When we reuse, we are reducing what we need. We are recycling what we have.” At this the emcee made a small wrap it up motion and Lana nodded at him energetically. “Okay, they’re telling me my time is up, but as you can see, I’m passionate about these issues!” She made a fist, and shook it jokily.
The crowd laughed and applauded again. I clapped along, skeptical, but interested in spite of myself. Lana stepped back and the last two girls gave their spiel, but no one was really paying attention anymore. After Lana’s performance, these girls’ recitations of press kit fodder sounded especially canned and false, boring, and even worse, status quo. The audience, mostly writers on the environmental beat, had grown restless, discomfited by the tainted histories of their own clothing but also empowered to do better, as if a new focus on recycled fashion would suddenly turn them sexy and articulate and charismatic too.
The emcee took the mic and stammered out a few ingratiating sentences about the fashion sponsors without whom which this event would not have been possible. Then more confidently, he introduced the next competition: swimsuits. “In the spirit of reuse,” he said, “the finalists are wearing what they already had in their wardrobes. None of these swimsuits are new!”
I thought it more likely that the competition hadn’t been able to find a swimsuit sponsor, but the announcement nonetheless had an exciting effect. The two cameramen shuffled closer. This time, all twelve girls came out in a long row. Most of the girls were in demure suits, the kind their mothers would have approved of, but Lana had on a skimpy red thing, with a bottom that looked close to, but wasn’t quite, a G-string. Her bikini top was more substantial, with solid cups and padding. Even more than the near nudity, Lana’s self-assurance stuck out like a bold, throbbing thumb, her simple contrapposto stance almost lascivious compared to the somewhat embarrassed, apologetic postures of the other girls. To her credit, Lana’s bikini looked like it could have been hand-crafted, something that had been fashioned out of a bigger, less stylish suit.
The cameramen ran back and forth, panning for angles. The crowd, largely women, clapped obligingly, with a mix of admiration and jealousy and, perhaps, muted annoyance. In fact, at that moment, I felt rather annoyed myself.
I didn’t consider myself to be an environmentalist, though an online search of my name told a different story, thanks to all the hippie articles I’d written for the vegetarian magazine over the years. Those bylines had certainly fooled Alek. On our third date, he’d brought me a bouquet of lilies, gleefully pointing out the VeriFlora certification label, his way of letting me know he cared about me, enough to google my name and act on what came up, in any case. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the certification didn’t matter to me; I knew exactly how much the leftie lilies had cost him, having written the article promoting them, after all. It’s not that I didn’t care at all about the environment—I’d watched An Inconvenient Truth and bought organic oranges at Trader Joe’s and separated my recyclables—but that I felt the idea of environmentalism was something that circulated far outside and beyond me. I sensed that becoming an environmentalist would mean entering a sort of miasmic, otherworldly society, one that would require exploration with a Margaret Mead-ian tenacity I had neither the interest nor time to develop. Environmentalists seemed an angry, combative lot anyway, quick to point fingers with holier-than-thou attitudes while splintering into smaller and smaller factions in the manner of religious denominations. There were the older moneyed hippie types, with their gaggle of kids in charter schools and heirloom tomatoes in raised gardens. Then there were the younger ones, with their hipster glasses and punny blogs and titillating T-shirt slogans, like “Go Green: Fuck a Vegetarian!” Those kids puttered around documenting their “activism” for Tumblr accounts with their cameraphones, proselytizing for the environment with a fervent yet deadpan kind of sincerity I had a hard time distinguishing from irony. It was those young bloggers that seemed to be having a good time at this contest now, tweeting out their picks while tittering Perez Hilton-style about the cellulite on one of the girl’s thighs before going on to say, “But she looked good in that dress. Natural. Thick,” then nodding at each other seriously. To them environmentalism seemed reduced down to soundbytes and photo poses. And maybe in a way I was jealous of them, of Lana too, her youth and enthusiasm, of how effortlessly she went off script to make what she had to say sound important and urgent. Maybe this is what environmentalism needed, a pretty face, bikini waxes, one-word mantras. I imagined Lana at the award party to take place that night, being crowned the winner in her heels, giving a speech about changing identities and changing worlds, about being flexible enough to use whatever we had to save the planet. The speech would be motivating in its own nakedly optimistic way, as if any problem could be resolved, or at least made beautiful, if we just stripped down to work it. Sure, it was exactly the kind of thing that made Alek take my work unseriously, but I also thought if he were here, he would listen to her, let himself be drawn in.
Which I suppose explains why I felt annoyed. Lana’s call for change was infectious, yet what she was advocating as a solution—rehemming clothes to make them smaller, basically—seemed obscenely frivolous in light of the gravity of the problems for which she was to stand in as a spokesperson. It was hard to picture how Lana would actually advocate for serious change, like instituting a carbon cap or convincing people to relocate away from the New Jersey shoreline. Then again, maybe she could. Though there was an obvious, attention-mongering side to Lana’s personality, her act as a whole had been on message, inviting, her tone sincere and positive. People wanted to give her attention. Maybe she could in fact convince stalwart Jerseyans to relocate. I pictured her in her bikini at the beach, strutting inland at the head of a long line families, who pedaled along behind her, sweating industriously as they pulled their kids and belongings in refurbished bicycle trailers. I imagined someone taking a photo of this exodus, then posting the photo on Facebook, where it collected likes. Lana certainly had a can-do attitude. If nothing else, her reused clothing solution was tangible, doable. She even knew how to make it look good. I kept letting my mind circle around this way until I grew exasperated with myself for thinking so much about it. I wasn’t selecting the head of the Environmental Protection Agency here. I was at a beauty pageant, for Christ’s sake.
After the lilies, I’d tried googling Alek too, but wasn’t able to find out much of anything about him. His full name sounded pretty unique to me, but apparently it was like John Smith among Russians, and unbeknownst to me until then, there was a gigantic Russian population in Los Angeles. Alek also just didn’t have the kind of job that put an online identity out there. Discovering this, I felt at a disadvantage. My articles revealed a lot about me—places I’d visited, people I’d interviewed and liked, my relative worth in the freelance writing market, and even my bra size, wedged into a pseudo-personal article I’d written on the difficulty of finding cute, organic underwear. On top of that, the writing painted a skewed picture of me. The upbeat, gregarious tone I was hired to pen presented me as a sort of urban Pollyanna, someone in the know yet still unabashedly optimistic, almost chirpy. Thinking about the sincerity of my online persona made me wince, yet I really didn’t see any easy way of correcting this image. In contrast, Alek remained a blank slate. I could learn nothing about him except what he chose to tell me about himself, and I resented this, though he kept telling me he was an open book. “Ask me,” he’d say, facing me with this calm, patient expression, something I imagined he picked up from AA and its insistence on honesty. But I was reluctant to ask. I did find out a few things—he’d been married, he and his ex-wife had separated eight months ago, and he still paid the lease on the condo where she lived—but beyond that, any question I could think up seemed to reveal too much about my own vulnerabilities. I assumed he wasn’t quite divorced yet, but didn’t press to find out if he’d filed the papers. I felt asking about that would be like exacting some reassurance that he pictured something long term with me, when in reality I was ambivalent myself. So I just kept grousing about it, not asking.
The chairs were whisked away and trays of champagne and mimosas brought around. The girls, back in the dresses from the beginning of the show, mingled with the now standing crowd. Lana was clearly a media favorite. She stood giving informal interviews close to the front, the better to pose for photos against the vinyl backdrop. The sponsors, most of them judges for the competition, watched as the journalists circled her, waiting their turn. There were a few judges outside the fashion industry too, including a short man with sad eyes who headed up the local Surfrider Foundation chapter, and a raw vegan cookbook author, a half-Japanese, half-German woman who was in her early forties but looked to be in her late twenties. I’d interviewed her a few months before for the vegetarian magazine’s “Ask a Chef” feature. She too was watching Lana, through the corners of her eyes. I guess I was watching Lana also, the way she leaned into her interviewers as she talked, asking their names, her expression engaged and welcoming, vaguely presidential.
Soon she’ll be channeling a magnanimous queen receiving her subjects, I thought. Still, I had to talk to her. It was already decided that she would be my story. As the crowd ebbed I edged up and waited for a tall, balding man to wrap it up. He talked to Lana while pumping her hand urgently, not having let go after the handshake. She squeezed back, her eyes in a friendly crinkle. “I actually made that bikini myself,” she said. “From my mother’s old suit.”
“Wow,” the man said. “Just, wow. You really practice what you preach.”
He didn’t seem ready to step aside anytime soon, so I piped up. “What you said about reuse,” I said. “It seems to have really struck a nerve.”
“I hope so,” she said brightly. She managed to extricate her hand and extended it to me. I introduced myself and the magazine, and when I did, she took in a sharp, excited breath. “I love you guys!” she gushed. “Honestly, you guys are the one magazine that I feel—gets it.” She looked at me meaningfully. At this the balding man slunk away reluctantly. I felt a strange mix of pride and embarrassment, like I’d gotten away with some small lie of omission. I noticed that up close, her face was a bit drawn, with a tightness to the jaw.
I thanked her. “You’re obviously a gifted fashion designer yourself,” I said. “What advice do you have for women who, say, can’t sew?”
“Oh, but they should learn!” she said. “The sewing machine—it should really be considered one of our major environmental tools. For women, especially. Our grandmothers had the right idea, don’t you think? They were so self-sufficient, making exactly what they needed for the family in the sewing room. The kitchen too!”
I wanted to shoot back about this domestic women thing, but demurred. “We’re planning to do a feature. Maybe we could chat at the party?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “Could I get a card? I have so much to talk to you about.”
I handed her one somewhat reluctantly. When I turned to walk away I nearly collided with a passing tray of mimosas, and took a flute, as if in apology. Sipping against a wall, I decided that it was probably a good thing, after all, that Alek wasn’t here, even though I was still vaguely curious about how he might respond to Lana, if his interest would be as blatant as the balding man’s had been. Lana really had something that made men stand at attention. I remembered a conversation Alek and I had had, when we shared what we thought each other’s strengths and weaknesses were. The talk was an assigned exercise for some leadership course Alek was taking at the Landmark Forum, another one of his quests for self-improvement. I couldn’t really remember what he’d said my strengths were, but I recalled that when we got to the weaknesses part, he’d said that I had a trudging sort of attitude. At least that’s how I interpreted his words. The actual phrase he used was “opposite of full of life,” which depressed me then, to the point that for a few days, I really did go around feeling pretty lethargic. Later he said that wasn’t what he’d meant, that it was a language issue, and that the word opposite was too extreme, he’d just meant something less than totally full of life, and that perhaps that was a good thing, he liked that I had both feet on the ground. His explanation hadn’t made me feel much better, though the phrase “opposite of full of life” became a kind of joke between us later on. Thinking about it now, I wondered if what Alek had wanted, what he had expected after googling my articles, was something more like Lana.
Irritated, I eavesdropped uninterestedly on the raw vegan author making small talk with a fashion designer. The author seemed to be jockeying for free clothes to wear during her book tour. “I only wear companies I feel proud to represent,” she said, “to spread the word, to other people.” I missed the next few words, but then heard her say “environmentalism with legs.”
Sure, legs. Of course. I thought back to my interview with this cookbook author, conducted over a ridiculously early dinner at Lukshon, when the restaurant was otherwise empty. She’d taken me into her confidence immediately—I seemed to have this effect on interviewees—and confessed she was neither raw nor vegan. She had been for seven years, but eventually she’d gotten sick and started eating first cooked food then meat, having been told to do so by an acupuncturist, then a holistic Chinese health practitioner, then a medical doctor she finally consulted when her hair started to fall out. She looked surreptitiously around the restaurant before ordering the crispy whole fish. She said she generally didn’t eat animal products in public, because she didn’t want her fans to catch her on camera doing so. It would be bad for book sales. She said people thought a raw vegan diet made her look the way she did, but that really it was genetics, and that she counted calories and did a crazy amount of P90X. Of course, all this was off the record. Later that night, after she emailed a recipe from her book to feature with the interview, I checked her Twitter feed to read this: “Why do people want fake vegan leather to look like real animal leather? I want my fake leather to look really fake!” It had gotten 53 retweets, mostly from followers with handles like @goveganordie. Seeing this made me snort derisively, but I wasn’t actually that put off by her duplicity. I wrote for a vegetarian magazine, after all, and wasn’t a vegetarian. What I felt for her was mostly a distant, confused kind of pity, the sort I have for drug addicts, or world hunger. I saw her writhing desperately to force in a divider between her public image and private life, all for the sake of a few thousand Twitter followers. Her actual lived world seemed small, with just a Vitamix and a matching set of dumbbells. She said she hadn’t had a serious boyfriend in a long time, and I could see why, she had a rather pinched, aggressive personality that seemed to be standing guard over a sodden childhood wound. The whole raw vegan thing was part of this, something that gave her a concrete, exterior identity despite her private flouting of its rules. She seemed, in short, to be incapable of bridging the vast gap between her two selves, and resigned to living in the caustic gap between them, always looking over her shoulder.
It was this gap that seemed to be missing from Lana’s life. Her insouciance, her devil may care attitude, confetti-ing nude photos of herself all over the internet, then marrying a rich guy and flitting about preaching reduce. No, reuse. I imagined Lana at her sewing machine darting her G-string, trying it on, then darting it a little smaller and trying it on again, this time taking photos of herself in front of the mirror and tweeting them.
The cookbook author exchanged cards with the fashion designer in parting, then spotted me. She walked over and stood next to me in a familiar, collusive way, our arms touching, like we were close friends about to continue a private conversation we’d started long ago. She said she really didn’t have time for this, she needed to be getting ready for her book tour, which started next week. I ask her who her pick was.
“The token Asian,” she said, and laughed tetchily.
“I don’t know,” I said in a lilting, facetious tone. “She’s one of five blonds.”
She laughed again, this time with a disgruntled shrug. She sipped her cucumber water.
“You should have entered this yourself,” I said. “You would’ve won.”
She flicked her wrist dismissively. “It’s not the kind of exposure I want,” she said. “It’s desperate.”
I nodded, mulling this over. “I think she’ll win,” I said, pointing my chin at Lana.
The cookbook author sniffed. “She’s so obvious. But you’re probably right.” She seemed to realize something, and straightened up. “This isn’t like an interview right now, is it? Do you want a quote or something, for your article?”
At that moment the event photographer came and stood in front of us. Without prompting we turned a little sideways, put arms around each other, and smiled. The camera clicked three times.
A few years before, I’d been a judge myself. It was for a cooking contest, organized by the vegetarian magazine, which had flown into L.A. three readers whose submitted recipes had garnered the most votes on Facebook. The weekend was an unusually busy one for the magazine—three of the editors were in New York for Natural Products Expo East—which is why they’d made me judge, suddenly slapping me with the title of contributing editor to make it all seem less ad hoc. That’s how I found myself in the magazine offices in El Segundo one day, officiating behind a cheap veneer wood cubicle desk, trying to chew in a knowledgeable and impartial manner under the anxious gaze of the three finalists, two from the Midwest, one from Texas.
The most unexpected part of the ordeal was that the Texan, called Bryanna, was a very tall and obvious transvestite or transsexual. I didn’t ask which. She’d shown up in a bright red dress, a high-necked thing overlaid with lace. Her sizeable shoulder muscles strained the sleeves taut, and her mannerisms were rough around the edges. Seated face to face, I congratulated Bryanna on making it this far, and she said liltingly, “I knew I’d make it in Hollywood one day.” Then she added, “Or at least in El Segundo,” and guffawed, slapping the table.
Bryanna laughed and talked a lot, in a cloying, overly-familiar way, eager to pretend she could be one of the girls. “That’s what she said,” she kept saying, turning anything she could into a teenage innuendo, and each time I and the other two finalists, all more stereotypically female, laughed politely. I think Bryanna’s attitude was intended to make it seem like she didn’t notice or care about the discomfort around her, but we all became hyper-aware of her growing anxiety. The tension reached a peak when it came time to make the videos, short clips of the finalists that the magazine wanted to post online.
“Sit pretty,” the cameraman, a gay Filipino guy called JD, kept saying to Bryanna. “Nice and pretty.”
“Like this?” she said, flicking her hair. She turned her face to the left. “This way?”
“No, don’t move around,” JD said. “Sit pretty.”
“This is my pretty side,” she said, with a testy laugh this time.
What JD was trying to get Bryanna to do was pull her knees together. Her muscular white thighs were splayed apart mannishly and we could see half way up her skirt. But no one wanted to actually say this, so we all just watched Bryanna try on different facial expressions. In the end JD zoomed in closer, to capture just her head.
“That’s perfect,” he said after the first take, and took down the tripod.
Bryanna looked confused; the other finalists had gone through a half dozen takes each. I thought she might protest. When she looked at me I smiled at her and nodded encouragingly. “You’re a natural,” I said. This seemed to placate her somewhat. After the finalists left, I watched the footage with JD. “You could have at least warned me she was going to be a six-foot-three tranny,” he said, elbowing me. I shrugged, laughing, though I felt irritated. I’d wanted to tell Bryanna that she didn’t have to try so hard, but I hadn’t known how to do so without making her feel even more self-conscious.
And maybe it wouldn’t have helped anyway, maybe it would have been worse if Bryanna had been more relaxed. Maybe this was about as good as things could go for her, for all the contestants. The whole deal seemed ill-planned and unprofessional to me, and I felt bad for these three readers who’d taken the contest so seriously, fretting about presentation and plates getting cold, stammering a little as they explained to me what they were trying to “do” with their dish. Their servile, ingratiating attitudes toward me had made me cringe inwardly, ashamed for them, and for me too. I really knew nothing about food.
Of course, Bryanna’s video was never posted. My editor picked one of the Midwesterners as the winner and, diplomatically, posted only her clip and photos. If Bryanna was unhappy about that, I never heard about it. For a few weeks I wondered about her. I wanted to understand her motivations. Unlike the Midwestern women who’d practically blended into the background, Bryanna had wanted badly to stick out, to be noticed, with her red dress and gigantic heels. Yet she must have known the kind of attention she’d receive would be the awkward, avoidant kind. Was that attention to her still better than none? Or did she imagine that this time, on her big trip to Los Angeles, she’d wear a red dress and somehow the world would see her differently, react to her the way it did to women like Lana?
That night, at the closing party held at a new dance club in Hollywood, short videos of each of the finalists were shown to showcase their “environmental journeys.” The two hundred or so partygoers, mostly twenty-something blogger types in skinny jeans, stood impatiently on the dance floor with drinks in hand and heads cocked up, watching the projection on the white wall. The video footage itself looked amateurish, shot at home by the girls themselves, but the clips had been montaged together by a professional editor to give real drama and pathos to each girl’s life. Watching them, I slowly came to think that perhaps I’d judged these girls too quickly and harshly. Sure, some of the pretty ones looked like they’d done only token beach cleanups. But others, including Lana, who through her video I discovered was Russian too, had really been chosen for their environmental activism. Lana’s video told a typical immigration tale but with a twist; her parents had come to the U.S. and settled not in a city to work, but in a really rural part of Montana to be hippies. Her father, now dead, had had some liver and kidney disease, probably due to polluted water he’d grown up drinking, and to combat it, the family grew and ate their own organic food. At this point Lana’s story bifurcated, on the one hand telling an idyllic tale of swimming naked and climbing trees, on the other describing a crushing poverty and hinting cryptically at some sort of murky familial abuse. At school she faced bullying and racism; she responded in her teenage years by cutting herself and growing a Mohawk. “I was so angry,” Lana said in the video, her eyes welling up. It wasn’t entirely clear how, but environmentalism had given her a productive way out of her anger.
I wondered if the porn had also helped in some way. There was little in Lana’s story that reflected my own, but I felt an instinctual connection to her nonetheless. Others felt it too. She had revealed through the video a poignant kind of personal suffering that showed that what she’d gone through was unique, yet open and accepting of all of us, so that we could gaze at that suffering, touch it, involve ourselves in it. Of course the masochism to all this confessionalism was somewhat disturbing too, but we still all wanted to revel in it, the edited, sanitized version of it anyway, the once festering, pulsing wound now disinfected but left unbandaged, so we could run our fingers over the skin, clean and ruddy and swollen around the neat sutures.
Afterwards, the party really began, with disco lights and a DJ playing house. I stood near the bar, watching people gyrate on the dance floor. I started picking out the finalists in this mass; they were spread out almost perfectly evenly through the crowd, each one ensconced in her own little pulsating orb of humanity. It was a little after eleven. I thought about leaving, Alek would be just getting out of his AA meeting, but the winner hadn’t been announced yet. I noticed the judges clustered together in a corner, deliberating.
Suddenly Lana was beside me. She gave me a loose, exuberant hug. She looked like she’d already had a few drinks, her face a wet grin and her eyes loose in their sockets, very different from the sincere, tremulous look that had been captured on film. Still, her enthusiasm was infectious. We yelled at each other over the music. I told her I liked her video. She nodded back energetically; I could tell she hadn’t heard me right.
“I totally didn’t think I’d make it this far,” she said, spitting a little. She started talking about the other girls, how they’d all been speculating about the judging process and where each of them stood. As she talked I watched her loose, happy face and wondered what secret it was she was keeping about her family. Her tipsy attitude now reminded me a bit of a girl that had lived on my floor freshman year in college, the one that had broken her hip when a guy she was having drunken sex with in a fraternity bathroom dropped her on the floor. I hadn’t been there, but apparently everyone else had been, had watched her get wheeled out by the paramedics with her pants down. She’d been in too much pain to care at the time, but afterwards, she’d dropped out of college.
If this type of thing happened now, there would be photos and videos documenting the incident, circulating among the kids’ digital devices to be gawked at, zoomed into, photoshopped. Suddenly I felt an overwhelming gratitude that I’d grown up in the days before cell phones and Facebook. At least then the past really could be glossed over, almost forgotten with the help of new friends and a new hometown. Now, even big cities afforded no anonymity; anyone could do a reverse image search.
Not that I was against technology. On one of our earlier dates, neither Alek nor I could remember where we’d parked in the gigantic Santa Monica Place structure. Luckily the mall had just installed cameras, one pointed at the rear of every parked car. These cameras were linked up to little kiosks that let you locate your car by typing in the license plate. When Alek type his in, the machine told us the floor and quadrant, and shot us back a real-time video of his car, waiting quietly in its spot. “This is perfect!” Alek said. “Every parking lot should have this.” When we got to his car he said, “Wave for the camera!” And we did. His easy exuberance rubbed off on me when I was with him. Later that night, cuddled on my bed, we pretended to watch Breaking Bad on the laptop for a while before starting to fool around. When he went down on me I closed the laptop—the dialogue was distracting—but after I came and we took the rest of our clothes off, he repositioned the laptop and asked, “Can I open this?” He said he wanted to see me. The blue light of the welcome screen glowed against our skin in a way that made the experience feel like a performance, and we moved against each other in a desiring yet somewhat ritualistic, programmatic fashion. Oddly, afterwards, I felt a lot closer to him. It was as if we’d revealed to each other for the first time the way we wanted ourselves to be seen.
I let myself feel again that small, posed moment of tenderness. Maybe that’s what closeness really was. We could all keep waiting to come across something more visceral, more real, but reality was always strung up in the performative wires of living itself. Better to take it all at face value, without digging around in constant agitation to find something more beneath it. Better not to idealize love, or desire, or affection. Perhaps the cookbook author and I really were as intimate as her collusive attitude had implied when she’d stood by me. Perhaps she had the right idea, eating whatever she thought in private, but maintaining a lean, leggy exterior. At least it got people to eat more vegetables, and gave them hope. And perhaps Lana too really was sincere, her nakedly self-promoting efforts simply an honest reflection of this sincerity.
Lana had stopped talking. We stood watching the dancing crowd, and above them, the projector’s flashing through the photos from the competition events. The photo of me with the cookbook author came up, and seeing it, I felt exposed yet also gratified in a small way. “Hey, that’s you,” Lana said, then looked at me and smiled.
It was time for the winner to be revealed. The dance music faded out, the finalists were lined up center stage, and the emcee who’d introduced the videos earlier started officiating. He was a good-looking guy, a host on some small cable show, but he was clearly drunk now, his eyelids at half-mast. “We’ve really run these women through the gauntlet,” he said, “though I personally would have liked a mud-wrestling contest.” A few people tittered. After another minute or so of this the older emcee from the morning took over the mic, somewhat forcibly, and walked us through the judging process. The crowd that until a few minutes ago had been dancing sweatily against each other now stood in lonely, self-conscious postures, waiting unhappily.
Unhappy, bored: This was how people really felt about environmentalism and its killjoy mentality, I thought, feeling smug. At the same time my appreciation for Lana grew. So she was showoff-y, but so what? There was a vague emptiness at the center of Lana’s message that still bothered me, but she was smart in her own way, strategic, and deserved the mic more than the boob slurring about mud-wrestling, or the tight-lipped guy droning on about carbon emissions now, unaware of the mood of the crowd.
In the end I was glad Lana won the competition. It wasn’t so much that she’d managed to win as that she’d decided to win from the start, to make that firm grab, and the tenacity and certainty of that was refreshing, so unlike the wishy-washy, I’ll try and hope for the best-ness of the rest of us. Watching Lana hold that little trophy above her head, both arms raised and chest thrust out like in a gymnast finish, I did feel a little proud of her. I liked her even more when, after her husband came up and gave her a congratulations hug, she stepped away from him with a hint of irritation and held the trophy aloft again to dying applause. This was a big moment for her, winning this tiny environmental competition, and seeing that made me feel protective of her happiness.
After that the crowd dispersed. There was a long queue out front for the valet, and waiting in it holding my ticket, I saw the raw cookbook author on the good-looking emcee’s arm, giggling as she got into his car, a silver convertible. She turned and saw me watching her. “Oh hey!” she said brightly. She pointed vaguely in the direction of the emcee, who was walking around to the driver’s side. “He’s giving me a ride home,” she said. “Uh huh,” I said, and she blushed a little, and shrugged. Then they were off into the night, the red taillights blinking on and off cheerily.
The next morning I had several emails from Lana. Each one was long and a little strange. One asked that I not mention the word “model” in my article, never mind that the tagline for the competition had been “Be a model for the environment.” She said that as the winner, she was trying to do something different, that she was really positioning herself as an intelligent voice for the cause. The word “model,” she felt, would undermine her efforts, so she’d appreciate my help with this. I sent back a rather caustic email, to the effect that she could do her job, and I would do mine. At this she wrote back that she understood, she certainly hadn’t meant to step on my toes. “You determine how the world sees this,” she wrote. “I trust you’ll do the right thing.”
The world. I scoffed, at her, and also at myself. Lana didn’t seem to realize how little my article mattered, even in the small scheme of things. Then on reflection, I thought maybe she was right to be concerned, to try to do what she could to shape how she’d be portrayed. Sure, only a few thousand people would bother to read my write-up, but anyone, at any time, would be able to google it. Perhaps she was wise, more cognizant than I of the web’s panopticon. I googled her name with the word “model,” and saw that the phrase immediately brought up all the softcore porn photos on the first page, and at that I felt a little sorry for her, her feeble, belated attempt to separate her past and present personae. I emailed back saying I thought she’ll be happy with the piece, and apologized that it would be an online-only article. I said that the magazine was trying to expand its web presence and hinted that its web traffic was not high, and I imagined Lana reading this and feeling both disappointed and relieved.
I realized this was how I felt about my own work. It wasn’t much, but I had my small little place in the world, and there was a certain freedom in being out of the limelight. I recalled again the night Alek and I found his car using the camera kiosk. Driving to my place afterwards, I told him I had mixed feelings about the cameras. I was thinking back to high school, when cars were about the most private spaces we had. Where did teenagers have sex these days, I wondered. I wondered if they had less sex, or if the sex was even more furtive and closeted, frightening in the YouTube era. This made me a little sad, though almost immediately I began to deliberate over whether or not a little inhibition may be a good thing, may have been a good thing for me.
“Why mixed feelings?” Alek asked.
I deliberated for a moment. “It prevents a certain freedom of imagination,” I said. I’d meant it as an innuendo though wasn’t sure he’d get it. A lot of jokes in English still sailed right past him.
He smiled though. “Tell me what you’re imagining,” he said, and squeezed my thigh. I laughed, and he slid his hand up, bunching my skirt. For a second I thought about stopping him, then decided not to. Whoever was watching the cameras would never see us in real life anyway. And in any case, the cameras weren’t watching us. They were watching the cars.
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