Excerpt

“Model’s Assistant”

Alissa Nutting

July 20, 2018 
The following is from Alissa Nutting's collection, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. The collection tells the stories of 17 misfit women and girls with unusual jobs spread out across time, space, and different planes of reality. Alissa Nutting is an assistant professor of English at Grinnell College. She is the author of the novels Tampa and Made for Love.

My best friend, Garla, is a model from somewhere Swedishy; when people try to pin down where she just yells, “Vodka,” or if she’s in a better mood, “Vodka, you know?” which seems like she’s maybe saying she’s Russian, but really she just wants to drink. Wherever she’s from, Garla now lives inside the bubble of model-land. I wish I lived in model-land, too, but the closest I can come is hanging out with Garla, which is like going on vacation to a model-land time-share.

We met at a party in Chelsea that I pond-skipped to. I definitely wasn’t invited. I’d gone with a real friend to a not-so-hot party, and then left with her friend to go to a better party where I met a stranger who took me to a quite hot party. It was there that I made out with the photographer who took me to the party of Garla. She wasn’t hosting it but she was present, and anywhere Garla goes is Garla’s party.

I think the only reason I ever saw Garla again was because I was drunk enough to tell her the truth. She was trying on bizarre clothes—there was a shroud that looked space-like yet medical, like a gown one might wear to get a pap smear on Mars. Then she put on a dress whose pleating created the suggestion of a displaced goiter somewhere to the left of her neck and she sashayed toward me. I was holding my head onto my body, carefully and by the window, so that its breeze might sober me up enough to walk to the end of the room, where I might then become sober enough to walk to the toilet and land on the floor. There, hopefully, the pressure from my cheek against my cell phone could call someone who knew me and liked me enough to get me a cab and make sure this night was not where my life’s journey would end. But for all I knew it was, and when I saw Garla I held on to my head just a little bit tighter, because she appeared to be strutting over to rip it off.

“You,” she said, and I straightened up grammar-school style. I puked in my mouth but absolutely did not open my lips and let it fall on the floor. “Do you like this?” She did a turn that looked so elegant and stylized and unteachable to everyone in the room but to Garla was just something that accidentally slipped out of her like a tiny fart.

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“It makes you look like you’re pregnant in the back,” I said, using the nose of my beer bottle to itch between my shoulder blades, where the seam of her dress inexplicably globed out. She scowled and pranced off. I assumed she was offended until she brought over a silver-plated bowl filled with the car keys of various guests.

“Use for vomit,” she said, and then, “have phone,” and slipped a crystal-encrusted device into my purse. I think at that point two large gray wolfhounds magically walked up to either side of her and the three of them then headed toward the kitchen. “You love dogs and have a tendency to hallucinate them,” I told myself as I stumbled toward the bathroom. Various refined guests stared on in horror as I groped onto pieces of furniture and potted plants, trying to stabilize my journey into a small room housing cold linoleum and a sink. “Why am I always the nerd at the party?” I thought. “I am in my thirties and by now I should at least know how to pretend.”

The thing about bathrooms in parties is they don’t always stay bathrooms; they start out as such but then become make-out rooms or cocaine-snorting rooms or bubble-bath-orgy rooms. When I burst through the door holding my abdomen, a slight and waify couple seemed to be using it as a now-that-we’ve-agreed-the-night-will-end-with-mutual-oral-sex-let’s-take-our-time-getting-buzzed-first room; they were drinking very red wine, sitting on the side of the bathtub and giggling, using fingertips of wine to draw simple pictures onto the shower’s white tile. The “braap” sound I made while becoming sick intrigued them. They were in their early twenties, and I could feel them looking at me with something real and concentrated. I don’t think it was pity as much as curiosity; they seemed to wonder very much what it might be like to be so uncomposed. “I don’t get when people use puking in art,” said the boy, and the girl said, “Well, it’s not like that, when they do,” meaning not like me but like Garla throwing up pink paint onto a teal ceramic raccoon.

“I need a cab,” I mumbled, and the boy was sympathetic but firm. “I won’t touch you,” he said.

“No,” I agreed. “I’ll get myself down to the door.” It took a great while to do this. At some point I wondered if I should try to find Garla and give her the phone back, but then I saw a burst of light across the living room and there she was, the camera’s flash bouncing off her oiled thigh, her foot inside the host’s tropical aquarium. Everyone wanted a shot of her leather bondage shoe surrounded by fake coral: people were holding up cell phones and professional equipment and thin digital cameras; “Tickle fish,” Garla was saying to everyone, which continually prompted a laugh-track response from the entire crowd. There was no way I could deal with calling her name and having that amount of attention suddenly focus over to my own body. Plus I didn’t really want to give it back. A supermodel’s phone! I was like a turd inside someone who’d accidentally swallowed an engagement ring: though I was nothing myself, I now carried something uniquely special.

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I fell easily down the stairs and by the time I was able to stand, to my great surprise, a cab had come. “Thank you,” I called up to the couple in the bathroom, but it came out gurgled, and they were likely busy readying to use their youth and beauty to give one another endless reciprocal orgasms.

“Why am I always the nerd at the party?” I thought. “I am in my thirties and by now I should at least know how to pretend.”

I kept the phone on my desk for several days wondering what to do about it. There was something wrong with the phone; it didn’t ring. Garla’s phone would ring, wouldn’t it?

It didn’t ring until the fourth day. “Hi, Womun.” It was Garla. I began explaining how I’d meant to give the phone back, how I certainly hadn’t called various pawnshops to price it (had!), but she interrupted. “It your phone, for me. I call you with it,” she said, to which I could’ve said a lot of things, like how I already have a phone, or that I was very afraid of getting killed for this jewel-phone, should someone see me talking on it in my neighborhood, because I don’t have a lot of money and neither does anyone else who lives here, but oftentimes people badly need money, and desperate times/desperate measures.

“I get you for fashion show,” she said, “tonight at the seven-thirty.” Out of some type of pride I wanted to make sure she didn’t mean that I would be in the fashion show, that it wasn’t an ironic thing where Beautifuls each try to snag themselves an Ugly, and whoever snags the ugliest Ugly and dresses it up best is the winner. “You mean go watch one with you?” I asked, and she said, “Ha,” then it sounded like she lit a cigarette or something and said, “Ha. Ha. I mean this,” and told me where to meet her.

Since that night my life has changed in many ways. I’m still no one, unless I am with Garla, and then I become with Garla, a new, exciting identity that makes nearly everything possible, except being attractive myself. And except being important when I am not with Garla.

At the oxygen bar, Garla gives my face three firm slaps on the cheek. She is always taking grandmotherly liberties such as these. “Put you in special coffin,” she says, which is a term of endearment on her part but I don’t know what it means exactly. I like to think that it’s a sort of Snow White reference, that I’m so dear to her that she wants to keep my body displayed in a glass box next to her couch, forever asleep. Though I guess it could also mean she wants to close me inside an iron maiden.

Garla is sitting in front of a laptop with a solar charger plugged into it, although it is raining outside and we are in a darkened room. Garla doesn’t have opinions on things; she’s not really the pro or con type. Right now she is into being very anti–global warming because she knows that being very anti–global warming is chic. Either things are chic or they aren’t, and if they’re chic then they’re for Garla. “The web won’t come,” Garla says.

“Solar charger,” I point out. “No sun.”

“Global warming,” Garla says. She will often randomly say the media titles of topics and events, such as “Crisis in Darfur,” then take a drink and be silent for a few more hours.

A waitress wearing a hemp robe enters with two tanks and two breathing masks, hooking Garla in first. With the mask on Garla appears to be a pilot from the future, possibly a computer-generated one. Her perfect skin looks like a plasma screen.

“Are you from Sweden?” the waitress asks. “Vodka, you know?” says Garla, and the waitress’s eyes frown; perhaps she has just Botoxed because I can tell she wants to make an expression but instead she blinks a few times.

“Could she get a glass of vodka,” I ask, and the woman mentions that alcohol is not usually consumed during the treatment. She is already on the way to get it, though, and when she returns there’s also a glass for me.

It gets a little overwhelming in the mask when the pure oxygen starts to hit us at the same time as the vodka. Garla takes my hand. I don’t know if I’m attracted to her or if she’s just beautiful. I think it’s the latter because she doesn’t say much, and what she does say doesn’t make much sense to me. But people don’t have to talk a lot or make sense for others to love them. Just look at dogs and babies.

“Cloud of vodka!” Garla screams. I decide she wants another glass because I want another glass, so I hold two fingers up at the woman in hemp while pointing down to our melted ice. My fingers stay in an upright “peace” position; with our masks I imagine that Garla and I are on some kind of extreme roller coaster that goes into the stratosphere, and we’re passing the camera that takes a picture for us to buy at the end, and I am saying, “This is me and Garla. Peace.”

She has made me the best-dressed party nerd of all time. Once, she put these chain-link pants on me and I couldn’t move, not even like a robot. So Garla—wearing six-inch stiletto heels—actually picked me up, carried me up the stairs to the party, and planted me by yet another fish tank, either so I’d have something to watch or because she knew that at some point, a part of her body would be posing inside of it and she very much wanted for me to be there to say, “Now Garla has to go home” when it started to get boring for her.

There was never a conversation where Garla hired me to be her assistant. I just started speaking up when it made sense to, like when a director asked if he could film himself cutting her arm a tiny bit with a designer katana sword and licking her blood off the blade, and she answered him with “Special coffin,” in a very small voice. “We have to go, Garla,” I used to say, but I soon learned that “Garla has to go” is a better way to phrase it, because then it seems like she doesn’t have a choice.

Tonight we go to another fashion show. Garla’s walking in it so I wait backstage in the chair where her makeup was done, and at several points people inquire as to why I’m there. Very few actually want me to leave; they’re just baffled.

Afterward we go to the home of a fellow model where I watch Garla drink herself into a deep sea. She is a metronomic drinker. I can count the glasses she drinks per hour, like a time signature, and know exactly how drunk she is at any given moment. With me it’s the opposite; the drunk is that mystery wedding guest who may show up early, late, or not at all.

By four A.M. Garla is lying on an island countertop in the kitchen. Some guy has dumped a miniature Buddhist sand garden out on her abdomen, and he’s swirling the sand around her belly button with a tiny bamboo rake. Her head is hanging off the counter; it’s flipped back like a Pez dispenser, and I walk over and we have this intoxicated moment.

“I know you’re more,” my drunken eyes say. They say this in a breathy, hesitant manner that insists it has taken a lot of time for them to work up the courage to say such a thing, without words nonetheless.

“Yes,” answer Garla’s eyes, and like all of Garla’s answers it is a mysterious pearl whose full value I begin to appraise immediately. I walk over to her and lift her head up with my hands so it is level with the counter, holding it. I look down at her like a surgeon.

“Some type of sausage,” Garla says; she likes the cured meats. For a second I have the urge to drop her head. I’m reminded of being a child on the beach, the shells I’d leap to pick up and then throw back. They always seemed of greater worth from a distance, beneath the water.

*

I keep wondering if Garla will ask me to quit my job copyediting and join her full-time in model-land. Her agency is very good to her, but I know she needs me, or at least could really use me, more than she does, which leads me to wonder two things: Does Garla have others like Me? If so, how many Mes are there? Does she really need Me at all? The thing about Garla is that it’s always okay for Garla. No matter what happens, Garla will be okay. I just speed the okayness up a little bit for her so that okay is sure to happen in real time.

Although my life has many more great things in it now than before I met Garla, I’m still beginning to feel a bit used. And—how can I deny this—I want more of Garla. She is a rare substance, if only because of the role and power she has in our society and not anything she holds innately. Rare substances make people feel selfish and greedy, and Garla is no exception. Neither am I.

I am also getting a little sick of my special Garla-phone, but it’s really expensive and the only thing Garla will call me on. I got rid of my other phone and now have only the phone Garla gave me, perhaps because I know she intended it to only be used when she called me, and this is a small rebellion on my part. Garla doesn’t pick up on rebellions, though, big or small. She has no need for them.

I decide to ask if I can be her paid assistant, because she probably will not say yes or no, and I can just interpret it as yes. If anything, by quitting my job and hanging out with her more I will get additional goodies I can sell online, and Garla’s schwag pays several times more than my current employer.

I strike when we are in the back of a town car on the way to a designer’s private shoot. Garla is stretched out on my lap with her muss of blond hair hanging down over my knees. Her hair is softer than my shaved legs.

“Garla,” I say, “I’m going to quit my job and be your assistant. You don’t have to pay me hardly anything. I don’t make very much as it is.” There’s a pause and she hands up a tiny golden comb to me, I presume for me to begin brushing her hair with. I also presume this means “yes,” is a quid pro quo gesture. I call my boss right then on the Garla-phone and quit as loudly as I can without seeming hostile, just to try to burn the event a little deeper into the ether of Garla’s memory.

The shoot goes well. Afterward I take her glasses of chilled vodka that look like refreshing water and we have a look at the pictures, which are beautiful. We leave with giant bags of expensive clothing that we neither paid nor asked for.

I am feeling more visible by the second. Perhaps, I think, I should move into Garla’s apartment. That way I’d always be right there to meet her needs and there wouldn’t be all the Garla-phone calls in the middle of the night; she could just yell or do a special grunt. Though I’ve never heard Garla yell. Everyone is already paying attention.

Except the next morning, she doesn’t answer my calls, and she doesn’t call me. This goes on for a week and a half. I sulk like a real model. I don’t eat and I drink lots of vodka and I cut my own hair in the bathroom with dull scissors and then regret it, and the next morning I think about going to a really expensive salon and having it fixed except I don’t have the money for that, especially now that I have no job. For that, I need Garla.

This is the root of my pain. I had convinced myself that she needed me, specifically, when really, anyone could and would do what I did: follow around a gorgeous person and get gifts and call outrages by name for what they are. How did I lend any type of panache to that role? Looking in the mirror at my botched home haircut, I realize that my new expensive clothes still look nerdy because they don’t fit me right. They never will.

Her agency is very good to her, but I know she needs me, or at least could really use me, more than she does, which leads me to wonder two things: Does Garla have others like Me? If so, how many Mes are there? Does she really need Me at all?”

When the Garla-phone finally lights up and makes its synthetic music, it’s like an air-raid siren. I’m paralyzed with fear but angst-ridden from loneliness and desperation. “Where have you been?” I scream. “We agreed I’d be your assistant. I quit my job! I haven’t seen you for like ten days!” “Vodka head,” Garla explains. I want to pretend like nothing is wrong. “I’m not a bad assistant,” I say. “I’m a good assistant, which means I need to be where you are, and help you with things.”

“Later, a party,” she says. I can hear happy screams in the background and their shrillness stabs into me. I know those screams belong to completely impractical people, and I hate that she chose them over me. “What time?” I ask, but she already hung up.

Eventually she does text me the party’s address. I stop by a nearby bar to have a few drinks alone first. It feels good to sulk over a glass in public. How could I have let my guard down so badly? Before Garla, I had been all-guard. Before Garla, I would’ve seen Garla coming. My pre-Garla life suddenly seems like an amazing thing; I hadn’t even known what I was missing. As I walk out of the bar and look up near the balcony I’m headed to, I can actually see Garla. It makes me feel creepy but I stand there and watch for a while anyway, until the two of us seem like strangers. Even at this distance and with the party’s disco lights, it’s clear she has dazzling bone structure.

Compared to her, I am like a sandwich. I am completely inhuman and benign. I try to remember a sandwich I ate in the fourth grade and cannot. I can’t even really remember one I ate a month ago. We all must be like fourth-grade sandwiches to Garla.

It’s not until I get inside the suite and look around that I realize it’s the same residence where Garla and I first met. This makes my hands and feet sweat rapidly; the line is becoming a circle.

As the night moves on, it’s like going back in time. When I enter, Garla gives me a soft embrace and kisses my cheek, but I want restitution. I quit my job and had the week from hell, andshe isn’t  going to reenter my life with one quick, pouty smile. Maybe I’m replaceable, but I don’t have to be happy about it.

I take my old seat by the window and start rapidly boozing. The lights change colors in ways that suggest I’m going too fast, and that is the speed I want to go. It’s a rush, like skydiving. I keep giving Garla a scowl that says, “Hey, you. I’m not holding on. I’m in free fall.”

She’s rubbing pieces of chocolate over her lips like ChapStick and men are helplessly pulled to her side of the room. Garla’s face is a centrifuge that separates the confident from the weak and the jealous, and I have been spun away.

Stumbling to the bathroom, I get out my jeweled Garla-phone. Part of me wants to put it into the toilet, or at least try to see if it will fit through the hole in the bottom of the bowl. I want to throw up on it but it is so shiny that with its sparkling crystals and my drunken compound fly-eye vision, I have no aim. Instead the puke falls into the water and the phone falls on the ground, and when I’m finished and my cheek hits the floor the phone looks like a store of riches behind the plunger. I grab the phone and open it, kind of bumping it around, hoping it will call a friend who will come pick me up.

But it’s Garla’s phone, so it calls Garla. I hang up but a few minutes later she’s standing over me in an Amazonian manner, one leg on either side of my body. “Put you in tiny coffin,” she says, rolling out some toilet paper and batting it against my wet cheek.

“I wish you would.” She doesn’t appreciate my display of self-pity. I watch her toss her martini glass out the window onto the patio, where it breaks. “You go home and rest doctor-television.”

After she leaves, a bodyguard enters and picks me up with a disgusted look, like he’s emptying a full bedpan. He helps me into the taxi. Motoring away, I watch the colored streaks of Garla on the patio upstairs.

In a panic I check my purse to make sure I still have it: the Garla-phone, the jewel. The cursed treasure that brought distress alongside fortune. Glistening in my lap, it is too beautiful to be trusted. The cab nears my apartment, and I have the urge to leave the phone behind on the seat for someone else to find and answer. But I won’t. Instead I’ll go home and wait for her to call me and turn me into something special for however long she wants, and this time I won’t forget to be grateful.

__________________________________

From Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. Used with permission of Ecco Books. Copyright © 2018 by Alissa Nutting.




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