Dear Readers: A short story about a Hollywood actress living a lie, until one man exposes her truth … A hot read for your vacation entertainment at the Beach, Après-ski, or during your STAY-cation …
Happy Spring Break, Girlfriends! xoxo LB
By Lisa Barr
The warm bed reeked of fresh sex, but Ashleigh’s heart was cold and she smelled nothing. Her body continued to move in sync with the lover’s. Her hands, her mouth, her curves pressed against him, yet again. He moaned and whispered sexy things, and Ashleigh responded on cue. She knew her lines all too well. It was a flawlessly scripted one-nighter – in deep and out the door.
She waited for what felt like hours for the aerobics to finish and the cool-down to begin. Only then, when the man lost all form and voice becoming nothing more than a function of the night, a crook of an armpit, could Ashleigh close her eyes and relax. Finally. She smiled, and the lover mistook that for pleasure, the laugh for the satisfaction he thought he’d given her. And Ashleigh let him have it. For the moment, she felt kind.
The man finally got up off her bed and moved toward the heap of clothes near the door. His ass was tight and looked great even out of the jeans. She’d met his persistent gaze at the party with a nod. It had been that easy. It was always that easy. And now she wanted him to go.
But Ashleigh wasn’t heartless. At least he’d leave her bed with the prized goody bag: bragging rights. He’d just fucked the woman that everyone in America desired. Long legs, cat eyes, hair that was copied repeatedly, a million-dollar smile that captivated audiences, movie after movie. Ashleigh Miller at thirty-one was no longer an actress – not even a person – but a very high-paid fantasy.
The lover turned to her, saying something about it having been great, better than he’d imagined. Dinner next time, perhaps? He slipped on his buttery loafers, and looked at her adoringly. Ashleigh wouldn’t call him again.
* * *
Somebody placed cucumber slices doused in chamomile over Ashleigh’s eyes to calm the morning puffiness. A masseuse was busy working her feet. Somebody else was in the front of her trailer, discussing wardrobe. Enya was playing on the stereo – loud, but not too loud. Everything was orchestrated to relax Ashleigh Miller and done according to instructions – there was no room for mistakes. It was all right there in her contract.
The small window next to Ashleigh’s head was opened and she could hear her name mentioned by a thousand lackeys running frantically around the set. Ashleigh needs this … Stan said Ashleigh better have that or else … Kris will hit the fucking roof if Ashleigh doesn’t get …
Ashleigh … Ashleigh.
She closed her eyes as the doughy woman’s practiced hands moved from her toes to her upper thighs. She had just under an hour before they called her on set. Her mind began to drift away from the Ashleigh Miller spectacle, to hearing her name shouted out by the only two voices that she ever really cared about. She tried unsuccessfully to block that haunting sound. Twenty years. Twenty fucking years, and all the therapy in the world, and she still couldn’t stop the voices from her past ….
“Ashleigh … hey, Ashleigh. Nicky and I are going out skating.” Her older brother Kai called out. He already had his parka zipped up, and he was looking for his gloves. “We’ll be back in an hour, okay. You can watch another cartoon.”
“Why can’t I come too?” Nine-year-old Ashleigh jumped off the couch. It was nearly noon but she was still in her nightgown, going on her fifth cartoon in a row.
“Because you can’t.” Kai found the gloves behind the couch. “It’s freezing out, and it’s supposed to get worse. Besides, Mom said you have to stay home, meaning right here.”
Ashleigh stood cross-armed in front of her brother, just barely coming up to his chest. “Mom also said that you are supposed to stay here with me.”
“You’ll be fine.” He turned away from and yelled, “Nicky, come on! Let’s go to the park. Now!”
It was a Snow Day, and all three Miller kids were home from school. Their mother was at work. No fair! Ashleigh thought, not wanting to stay home alone while her brothers got to have all the fun as usual.
“Nicky!” She bolted upstairs. Kai never listened to her, but Nicky always did. “Can’t I come too. You know I’m a good skater.”
Ashleigh was a pretty good skater. But not like her brothers. They played hockey and they were fast and hardly ever fell. But she could do twirls and crossovers better than anyone else in her ice skating class.
“Not today, Ash. Sorry.” Nicky shook his head of dark curls as he zipped up his snow overalls. He did a deep knee-bend and Ashleigh stared straight into his green eyes. She liked the way they always sparkled. “But when we get back I’ll make you hot chocolate, okay. The kind with the mini marshmallows, promise.”
She followed her brothers to the front door, eyeing with envy the shiny black skates dangling over their shoulders. “Why can’t I come? Just to watch. I’ll stay in the park part and not go by the lake. Please.”
“No. Mom will kill you if you go out to the lake,” Kai said, as he opened the door to a gust of cold wind.
“Then why won’t she kill you guys?” Ashleigh demanded.
Kai rolled his eyes and puts on his favorite Blackhawks hat. “She won’t if you don’t tell her.”
“I won’t tell her you went out skating and left me home all alone only if you let me come with you.”
Nicky and Kai glanced at each other – twelve-year-old twins. They were always together. From the beginning. Always leaving her out.
Ashleigh saw a thin layer of empathy shrouding Nicky’s face. Her case was starting to look hopeful. “Maybe we should let her come, Kai. That way she won’t tell.”
Kai shrugged. “I don’t know, Nick. Next thing you know she’ll want to bring her skates too.”
“Can I, Nicky? I won’t wear them, promise.” Yes I will. Yes I will.
“See what I mean. What’s the point?” Kai turned to his sister. “Just stay here, okay. Stop being such a pain.”
But I want to be with you. Ashleigh glanced at Nicky with wide, pleading eyes.
“Oh, all right. Put on long johns, and make it quick.” Nicky said, pulling Kai back in the house and closing the door behind his brother. “But no skating.”
Happily holding her white skates over her shoulders just like her brothers, Ashleigh thought the deserted lake looked like the biggest cake she’d ever seen. The ice over the top was so smooth and creamy, like vanilla frosting. Nicky and Kai quickly laced up their skates. They brought a puck and two sticks. Nothing for her. Ashleigh was condemned to the sidelines, on the edge of the frozen lake where the sand once was, but she was with them, and that’s all that mattered.
Every few minutes or so, her brothers glanced over just to check that her skates stayed off and that she remained sitting and following their rules. But once their game heated up, they quickly forget about her. They didn’t notice that Ashleigh was no longer sitting, that she was now standing with her skates on, practicing small figure eights on the ice.
The snowflakes became larger and heavier than any Ashleigh had ever seen before. Beneath her wool mittens, her frozen fingers felt like they were about to fall off. But she’d rather her fingers turned into Popsicles than complain to her brothers. Watching their scrimmage in the distance, Ashleigh heard the united echo of their laughter, the sheer joy of being best buddies, and she wished for the millionth time that she wasn’t a girl, and that they were all born at the same time together.
She heard Kai shouting out the score – 3-2. He was winning. Ashleigh brushed the snowflakes off her eyelashes and tried to move in the direction of her brothers’ fading voices, but the cold, blustery wind kept pulling her backward. Her heart beat rapidly when she could no longer hear the score. They seemed to have skated out even farther than their parents had ever allowed them to swim.
“Kai! Nicky!” she cried out. “Where are you? What’s the score?”
It seemed just seconds later that the gray sky blackened with fog and everything around her turned hazy. Ashleigh began screaming her head off. “C’mon, you guys – answer me! I’m scared. Stop playing games – I’ll tell Mom!”
She tried to skate out to where she’d last seen them playing, but her legs were wobbly, the ice not so strong and smooth anymore. “Kai! Nicky! Please, come back,” she wailed into the murkiness, the roaring wind overpowering her voice into nothingness.
Ashleigh got down on her hands and knees and crawled, not caring that her long johns were soaked through. In the distance, she spotted Nicky’s hockey stick strewn across the ice. He’d taped the top royal blue. Kai’s was green. She moves with trepidation toward the stick, until she saw the cracked ice behind it, and then the soaked Blackhawks’ hat clinging to a large shard of ice. “Kai,” she whispered faintly, her body freezing in place. “Kai.” She saw a leg, an arm, then another leg and an arm popping out of a pool of blue-black water.
Always together. Always leaving her out.
* * *
Nicky and Kai were buried side by side. No one knew it, but Ashleigh died too that day at the lake. At the funeral, she was unable to shed a single tear for the only boys she would ever love. She tried desperately to cry, even pinched her arm until it bled, craving for a release. But the tears were trapped, stuck, and then they they were gone.
As dirt was thrown over the twin graves, Ashleigh’s father held her close and rocked her, pressing his grieving face against her matted hair. He kissed her and told her again and again through his tears how brave she was. She forced a pretend smile to make her father feel better. And it did. Ashleigh was only acting, but from that moment on, she couldn’t stop. Years later, that same pretend smile would make everyone feel better.
No one ever left an Ashleigh Miller movie unhappy, except for Ashleigh Miller.
And her latest film was no different; straight from the box office cookie cutter. Ashleigh had barely studied the script – she could do it with her eyes closed: girl meets boy, girl loses boy and finds another one, girl and new boy kiss, fuck in PG position (ruffling of the sheets, bare shoulders, thighs caress but don’t intertwine), and in the end, after a few predictable plot twists, they live happily ever after. Yet another romantic comedy slated for yet another Christmas release; a blockbuster no-brainer: twelve million in the bank, an affair with the leading man – yet another Aussie heartthrob. The requisite tabloid photographs would be taken of the two stars attending the movie premiere together. Ashleigh would throw back her long dark hair, laughing at something the Aussie had said, and the cameras would go berserk. The same photo would be reprinted in every celebrity weekly. The façade would go on for a few months, until the next location and the next heartthrob. Everyone understood: It was all part of The Biz.
* * *
The massage was done, the cucumbers had wilted, Ashleigh’s hair was styled and sprayed, and now she ready to begin the long day of shooting. She was punctual, knew her lines, and did her job, making it a point never to throw shit-fits on the set, where the media could get wind of it. As she stepped down from her trailer, she saw Peter Lyons emerging from his. Wearing khakis, a black T-shirt, and a new tan, her leading man looked yummy. She waved, and he winked back. They’d fuck at lunch.
This particular scene was the climax of the movie, and both actors were well prepped – they’d been practicing all week in and out of bed. Ashleigh and Peter were rival architects trying to outdo the other’s design to rebuild the World Trade Center. Each had lost someone in the terror attack, and now, plans aside, they were about to fall in love at Ground Zero. It was a painfully romantic moment with lots of close-ups.
Tears welled in Peter’s eyes as he held Ashleigh’s hand. Ashleigh’s return gaze, however, was as dry as the Sahara. The director clearly wanted more from her. She could see the disappointment on Stan Moss’s face even before he opened his mouth to call for a break and summon her over.
“Ashleigh, Ashleigh,” he said softly, draping his leather-jacketed arm around her. “You’re the best. Everybody knows it. But your husband died here. They never found the body. You are building this monument in his honor, and now you’ve found love once again. But the guy has been your nemesis for years. I need torment, pain. Tears, Ash, friggin’ tears.”
Ashleigh glared at the director and said quietly, “Stan, read my contract.”
“I know. I know. Everybody knows. The ‘No Crying Clause.’ But just this once. I can’t have Peter Lyons sobbing like a fucking newborn and nothing from you. The audience won’t buy it.”
Ashleigh drew a heavy sigh. “They always do.”
“C’mon, Ash.” His eyes begged hers.
“Don’t worry, Stan,” she said firmly. “You’ll get your money’s worth.”
The director removed his baseball hat and mopped his forehead. Someone in the distance began running for Advil. “It’s not the money, Ashleigh.”
“It’s always the money. Focus on my lips.” Ashleigh ran a French-manicured nail slowly over her famous mouth. “Watch the way I can fill it with emotion. Concentrate on the quiver.” She glanced over the director’s shoulder and saw that one of the cameramen was still filming her. She pointed at the offensive camera. “Who the hell is that?”
He shrugged. “Hugh Jones. Came over on the same boat as Peter.”
“Why is he filming me right now?”
“Christ, I don’t know.” Stan took the four Advil from the assistant and downed the pills.
“Well then make him stop.”
Stan shouted over his shoulder. “Cut it, Hugh. We’ll start shooting again in twenty.”
The cameraman nodded and smiled slightly. The light went out in his camera, the shutter closed, and Ashleigh saw the man’s face. He was around forty and not unattractive. His gray-brown hair was shaggy like a sheepdog’s, his clothes were as wrinkled and creased as his face. But from where Ashleigh stood, the man’s eyes jumped out. They were a startling shade of blue, sparkly like a fisherman’s.
“Let Elaine put a little something in your eyes, Ash,” Stan pleaded. “Just to glisten them up a bit.”
Ashleigh wagged her famous mane. It was a subtle yet familiar defiant gesture, seen in all her movies. Her voice had a dead calm that everyone knew meant Ashleigh Miller was unhappy. “If you ask me again. I’m walking.”
Stan knew better than to push his star to the brink. They’d filmed their first blockbuster together a decade ago.
Ashleigh Miller had no problem taking off her shirt if the character called for it – but no crying. A clause was a fucking clause.
Stan stared at her with gray, helpless pupils. Ashleigh smiled wanly and glanced at her watch. “Lunchtime. I’ll be back. Don’t worry, Stan. You’ll get what you want. I promise.”
She air-kissed the director’s bearded cheek and walked straight toward Peter Lyon’s trailer.
Eleven takes but the scene was finally done. Stan Moss focused on Peter’s watery eyes and Ashleigh’s quivering mouth. There was enough emotion to go around. The kiss was deeply passionate; the chemistry more than believable. Stan apologized to Ashleigh and had a vase sent over from Tiffany’s. Everybody kissed-kissed and made up. Peter had dinner plans with his daughter. She’d see him later, maybe. Right now Ashleigh needed a drink and a joint – in either order.
They were shooting in a remote area in upstate New York. Ashleigh had a choice of one of two college bars or a townie dive. She smoked a fat joint in her hotel room, put on a blond wig, glasses, a black beret, and headed over to the dive. She walked in and the place was barely breathing. A few pool tables, a jukebox and a sorry-looking bar. She sat down on a rickety stool and saw several of the camera crew hanging out at a nearby table, and waved.
“How’s it going, guys?” She smiled prettily, removed the glasses. That guy Hugh with the eyes was among the trio. The other two cameramen began to make conversation, discussing a few key scenes with her. They shared a good laugh, but she was watching Hugh. He nursed his drink and didn’t even look up at her. He clearly had other things on his mind, other than her. He suddenly became more interesting. Ashleigh ordered a pitcher for the table.
“You’re from Sydney,” Ashleigh said, leaning toward him. “You came with Peter.”
“Yes.” He eyed her intently but didn’t ask her anything back or even attempt small talk. Ashleigh waited for him to say something else – anything – but instead, he got up abruptly, mumbling a lame excuse and left the bar.
Ashleigh finished her drink then went straight to Peter’s hotel room, fucked him, and thought of the cameraman. Why had he looked at her like that? Crazy callous eyes. Inhuman.
The next morning the Ashleigh Miller frenzy began with the usual latte, and anything else she wanted. But when she arrived on the set, the cameraman didn’t even look at her. He seemed to be busy fixing something on his camera. Who was he? A nothing, a nobody.
Later in the day, Ashleigh watched the way he’d flirt with her makeup artist, his whole cracked face seemed to come alive with laughter, like sunshine bursting through dark clouds. She saw his large veiny hand slide down the woman’s back and the way she blushed back. It was infuriating. And worse, he’d seen Ashleigh watching the playful exchange. Ashleigh quickly averted her eyes. She knew his game. She’d had harder ones before. He’d be in her bed begging by the end of the week.
It was the end of two weeks of shooting, and Hugh had not progressed from acknowledging Ashleigh with a nod, not even a little. The makeup artist told her that he was divorced, no kids, and amazing in bed. Not to mention that his manners were impeccable – always making sure she got off first. This cameraman was beginning to make Ashleigh crazy.
One night, after a long day of shooting, Ashleigh left Peter’s hotel room and found herself walking the streets aimlessly. It had just rained. And the empty tree-lined streets glistened like a Monet. Pretty, she thought. Pretty damn boring. She saw her reflection in a puddle and stepped on it. She passed by a bank, a post office, a cleaners, and when she reached the street-side window of an all-night diner she stopped cold. Inside, the cameraman was drinking coffee alone and writing something. A letter maybe? This late? He saw her and she waved. He nodded and looked back down. Damn him. The nodding game had gone too far.
Ashleigh marched into the diner and walked straight to his table. “Hi, Hugh.”
He glanced at his watch. “Or early,” he .
“Can I sit?”
“I don’t know. Can you?” he said, sounding annoyed.
Ashleigh ignored the attitude and sat. She ordered coffee. “So.”
“So,” he repeated, making her do all the work. She lit a cigarette and he didn’t bother to light it, even though there was a lighter right next to his elbow.
“You don’t like me, Hugh, do you?”
He leaned forward with those dangerous eyes. “You mean you don’t like you.”
Ashleigh slammed her fist against the sticky white Formica. She could have him fired in a blink of an eye. “Exactly who the hell do you think you are?”
He snapped his fingers mockingly. “I recognize that line. Lovers & Leavers, right?” He leaned back against the candy apple red booth cushion, smiling slyly. Up close he had lots of lines on his face, like those windblown-looking guys who’d spent years on a safari or a boat.
“Really.” Ashleigh was steaming but tried to sound coy. “I’m impressed that you follow my movies so closely.”
“Don’t be. Really,” he mimicked, tapping the saltshaker against the table in time with his laughter.
Ashleigh slid out of the booth and stood. “I should go.”
“Please don’t let me keep you from Peter Lyons’ bed.”
“Don’t worry, Hugh, you won’t. I was already there.”
Two points, Ashleigh thought.
“Well then, how ‘bout a tear for the road?” He gripped the shaker with both hands as though it were a microphone, and began to imitate Stan Moss begging for a tear. “Can anyone on this set get me a fucking tear? All the shot needs is one. Just one.”
Ashleigh’s eyes blazed. “You’re a cruel bastard.”
“Your type, right?”
“You know nothing about me.” She stood.
He began stacking Sweet ‘n Lows. “Before your dramatic getaway, let’s get something straight. You’ve wanted to sleep with me since Day One. Let me save you time and energy. I don’t do actresses. Stick with Peter. He does at least one per flick.”
Ashleigh wanted to hit him, to slap his stupid cracked face, but she was afraid that he’d seen that move in another one of her films, so she remained perfectly still, her shoes anchored to the linoleum floor.
“I know your game,” he continued, his voice lowering menacingly. “Leading man, tabloid shots, bank the money. Every girl in America wants to be just like you. Every man wants to wake up next to you. Everyone thinks you’re so goddamn alive, got it together. But you’re dead. See, it’s the lighting. It tells me the whole story. Your eyes don’t sparkle – they deflect light. They’re iced actually, like a winter fucking lake.” He laughed scornfully as Ashleigh’s face paled. “You want me? Then cry for my camera. Show me something truthful, and I’m all yours.”
Like a winter fucking lake. He’s right. Dead, cold eyes.
Ashleigh ran out of the restaurant. She’d never run out of anywhere. She’d never not had the last word, the last line. She looked back because she had to, and saw the cameraman still sitting there in the window, his head bent back to his writing, as if she were nothing more than a disturbance – a take-twenty. She wasn’t a fantasy for him. She wasn’t even fuck-worthy. She hated him. She’d go to Stan Moss right now in the middle of the night and have the cameraman fired or she’d walk. Yes, she’d walk so fast that Stan and his stupid movie would never find her.
Ashleigh kept running, past a discount strip mall, a rundown movie theater, a McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, a salon called “Nail ‘Em’ and a video store – one of her own movie posters staring back at her from the sepia-tinted window. Big hair, high cheekbones, lying eyes. Ashleigh kept running until she found herself standing under the sign of the cheap hotel where the crew was staying. She watched the flickering neon OTEL, until she saw Hugh approaching, hands deep in pockets, his gaze direct. He walked passed her and nodded in the direction of his room. Yet another nod to add to her collection. Not even a flicker of surprise to see her. Worse, he expected her, and she hated him for that too.
He opened the door to his room, took off his jacket and threw it onto the unmade bed – a tornado of white sheets. He tossed his keys on the nightstand and went to the bathroom. She heard the even flow of his pee, the flush, the leisurely hand wash. He returned, handing her a white bathrobe with a stitched blue crown on the pocket – it was from some other two-star hotel.
“Put it on,” he whispered firmly. “I’ll get the camera.”
She did not move nor did she put on the robe. She closed her eyes and waited for him. She smelled his musky scent fill the air behind her, felt his fingers lightly touch her shoulders, peeling of her sweater first, then her yoga pants. When he reached under her T-shirt and lifted it up over her head, she held her breath with anticipation, but he remained totally unresponsive. She wasn’t wearing a bra and he did not seem surprised nor care. He did not t seem to want anything from her.
The camera was small but powerful, yet the glare felt like Klieg lights beaming over her face, and Ashleigh began to perspire profusely. She stared at the cameraman’s one closed eye, the half of his mouth not covered by the camera. She watched his wiry body, the way it curled into a noodle-like pose. She closed her own eyes under his penetrating gaze, and waited. The room was too quiet, unbearable.
“What now?” she whispered.
“What nothing. Just let it out. When you’re ready. Ashleigh,” he added softly. Ashleigh … Ashleigh …
Ashleigh dragged her brothers across the jagged ice like rag dolls. She pulled them by their skates and realized that it was the only time she’d ever been first. Icy tears streamed down her face as she wished she were last once again. Ashleigh looked up in a daze, as though unaware of the cameraman’s probing lens. She was disoriented, dangling somewhere between her past and present. She extended her hand toward him, but he refused to take it. The cameraman stood his ground, offering her nothing more than a steady beacon of light, which suddenly felt blinding, the pain overwhelming.
“No!” she cried out, as the first tear released, emerging hesitantly, almost bride-like from the corner of her eye. It slid lazily down Ashleigh’s cheek, then quickly multiplied into partners, clusters, and then a downpour. It was as though the saltwater seemed to drench her body, and she knew she was drowning. Ashleigh dug her foot into the shag carpeting lining Hugh’s bed, as though trying to reclaim land, but the ice seemed to break into pieces all around her. An eddy of water materialized out of nowhere, revolving slowly around the hotel room, cleaving to her bones and spraying recklessly throughout her body, devouring her like it had her brothers.
The force was too great, and Ashleigh fell backward onto the bed, twisting inside the tangled sheets, as she wept openly for the first time for her brothers, for all the awards and accolades that meant nothing to her because they hadn’t been there to say “Not bad for a girl, Ashy.”
She cried because she couldn’t forgive them for leaving her behind, and because it was time to forgive herself for staying alive.
Through the wet haze, Ashleigh saw the light finally go out in the camera and she heard the clicking sound of the shutter closing. She felt long arms wrapping tightly around her waist, a surprisingly soft mouth pressing against her ear. The voice whispered her name repeatedly, a sound which had been cold just an hour earlier, now waxed tender. There were no expert lines, no practiced strokes, just a man who demanded nothing but took everything.
And Ashleigh gave it all, bathing in his silky touch, the downy comfort of chest hair blanketing her nakedness.
And much later, whether day was over or just beginning, Ashleigh nestled easily into the crook of the cameraman’s arm and smelled him. Strong and unapologetic. And she stayed there like that, silent and still, her tear-streaked face pressing against him through the grainy darkness and into the glow of morning.
# # #