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Post Road Magazine #32


Ross McMeekin

I was sold on Liz Fletcher well before we sat down for Mexican food. She checked groceries at the Smith's by my primary residence in the foothills and for the previous month I'd shopped there every day—sometimes twice—just to get a chance to talk to her. Let's say my aisles got stocked every time I saw her.

I'd asked her out a dozen times in jest until finally she said, I'm off at five, if nothing else just to shut me up. Understand: I'm neither young nor attractive. But I'm persistent and have money. A man has to make do with what he's got.

When our margaritas arrived, I asked her what she would do if she could do anything she wanted in the world and not worry about money. I told her that I didn't want to hear anything about world peace or planting trees for tomorrow. Those were fine, of course, but I wanted the secret desires, the selfish.

She blushed. "I've always wanted to be a model."

Of course she had. I imagine that by age ten, most women have spent thousands of hours walking down imaginary runways and across fictional stages with cameras flashing in adoration. But by God, here was someone whose childhood dream had a chance of coming true.

I asked her, "What's stopping you?"

"What do you mean?" she said.

She looked shocked that I'd taken her seriously, further proof of there being too many repressed snobs in the world making people feel bad for un-starched desires. Naturally, I asked her if she'd entered any beauty contests, gotten any photos taken, or queried any agencies. After all, this wasn't the moon. We were only a forty-five minute drive to downtown.

She shrugged and wiped sweat from the coupette glass with her finger. I'd shamed her. She was one of those beautiful girls who no one had ever taken seriously, someone folks assumed hid no depth, when in reality, she had hopes and dreams and feelings like everyone else. And here I was, pushing her to be something she'd never been allowed since she hit puberty: a normal human being.

As it would turn out, that conclusion wasn't just premature, but generous. I tend to imagine the best in people.

Anyhow, I apologized a couple of times until she made eye contact, and then asked her, dead serious, what kind of model she wanted to be—c'mon, tell me—and she took a long sip of margarita as if to once again bolster her confidence.

"Centerfold," she said. "Is that embarrassing?"

Her shoulder was bare and the light was proud to touch it. There is no shame in a nude human body, only glory. I wanted to make her dreams come true. I wanted her to never break eye contact with anyone again. "It's beautiful. Never be embarrassed by your dreams."

The waiter brought out an iron skillet full of beef and onion and pepper, still crackling and spitting. I worried our bare arms would get spot burns. Then and there, an epiphany blossomed.

"We can't eat yet," I said.

She nodded and folded her hands and bowed her head. She thought I meant we should pray first.

"No, darling," I said. "I've got something here. See, they bring out the fajita skillet too hot to eat, so that while we're waiting, we get that sweet experience of having our food in front of us, enticing our senses, but with an aching two-minute delay before it cools down to where we can dive in. We want it even more because we can't have it yet."

She blinked.

"Anticipation," I said. "Compels mothers to give up their firstborn."

She looked confused, and granted, what I said had no point of reference. I explained that I was talking about modeling and her dream of being a centerfold. We needed to find a way to make her too hot to touch. We needed to photograph her in such a way that the anticipation would be so thick and steamy her photograph would be irresistible to the powers that be.

"That's all we need to capture your dream," I said. And I began to improvise—while she nibbled at the beef—a loose plan to make her a star.

I got excited. I barely touched the fajita platter for the rest of the night. Her eyes were wide with what I took as awe.

Convincing Liz to quit her job and come live with me was more difficult than I expected, considering her alternate path of Vitamin D deficiency and tendonitis from spending her days as a checker at Smith's. Did I mention the medieval dump of a split-level she'd been living in with some outwardly morose waif from the meat department and a Chili's waitress with acne to spare? I offered her the car of her choice, a healthy allowance, a new wardrobe. She said it wasn't about that.

It started to make sense how Liz had gotten to where she was, both socio-economically and culturally. The world opens doors for beautiful women; by appearance, she should have been rush chair at her sorority, on the fast track to a cush PR job downtown, if not doing the weather for a network affiliate. Not sharing leftover pizza with the skee-ball team from the local arcade. I painted her as the humble victim. Desire is blind, but it won't just blind you; it'll make you see things that aren't there.

Liz said that living and working together might not be a good idea, and I thought she was being careful not to move too fast. I told her we'd have plenty of personal space—she could have the whole east wing of the estate and I'd never enter her territory unless she invited me over the intercom. My house is the largest in terms of square footage in the county, if you don't count sheds (and no one ever should, because hell, what's next, counting dog runs? Chicken coops?) You get the point: my house is incredible, and I say that for no other reason than to let you know that Liz's situation was, shall we say, improved.

Look, it's not like I needed her to be impressed, or even grateful. The last thing I wanted to invite into our relationship was more power dynamics than there already were, by virtue of our differences in age, beauty, and holdings. But it would have been nice if she at least recognized what I was doing for her, considering the lavish praise I gave for what she was bringing to the table (and, by the way, she ended up agreeing to take the allowance, car, and wardrobe, despite her misgivings).

Within the first week of our business meetings we decided our play would be to get her entered in the Country Cuties competition in one of the more reputable of the sensual magazines, Steam. The competition was open to the public. Contestants submitted pictures of themselves, and a panel of judges—combined with the online votes of users—winnowed the competition from semis to finalists to a champion. Winner got a cover, a spread, and an initial contract.

I did some market research and found that the track record of Country Cuties going on to modeling careers beyond that first contract was decent. Plus, I told Liz, since we were going the sensual route first, she wouldn't have to reveal the whole kit and caboodle. She'd get to make the rounds to the other sensual mags, do the swimsuit tour, and maybe even lock down a few films before showing it all. Naked didn't fit well with the fajita principle, at least not yet. The world hadn't even taken a bite.

Then I made my first mistake (other than the gracious assumptions regarding her character). It's funny how trouble always begins with virtue. I've always been proud of my discipline. I'm a routine guy, through and through. When Forbes did a web feature on my ethos—for anyone boring enough to care—I claimed discipline as the foundation of my success. So it was in my nature to believe scheduling each of Liz's day would help her become more productive.

I should also say that the schedule was absurdly laid back. Pandering, in hindsight. We'd wake up and shower separate, smoke a couple bowls and eat breakfast while watching Good Morning America, then work out in my fitness center. After that, she'd get free time for a few hours while I managed my fracking operations, after which we'd shower and meet up in the Jacuzzi and have a short little howdy neighbor before a light lunch. We only engaged in business in the afternoons, and even then, only until dinnertime. And most of that was research.

Sounds good, right? Liz hated it. She pouted from the moment I attached the schedule to the refrigerator. She thought I was trying to control her. Lock her down were the words she used. Then: cage. Cage! There were so many things I would have said if I didn't love her. That ninety-nine percent of the world would kill for such an imprisonment. That pride was the enemy of success until you'd achieved it. That if designer clothes didn't suit her, there was a vomit green apron waiting for her at Smith's on some rusted out hook next to the frozen Salisbury Steak Hungry Man meals that needed to be stocked.

I should have kicked her to the curb. Instead, I told her to remember the fajita. Remember the crackle! Remember your dream, my wildcat! You can do this. We can do this. "I know it's tough now, but it will all be worth it."

She took a deep breath, bit her painfully full lip, and finally relented. But consider the disagreement I just mentioned to be a foreshadowing of what was to come.

We stayed with this schedule for about a month with no real progress. We couldn't figure out how the fajita should look, and you only got to reveal a beauty like Liz Fletcher for the first time once. I wasn't about to have someone I was so dearly beginning to hate come off as trailer trash.

Then it came to me: the second epiphany. It was a Tuesday morning and already ninety in the shade, so we skipped the hot tub and instead took a quick ride in the shallow end of the pool, on an inflatable raft so Liz's backside wouldn't get scratched up just in case we wanted to do some pictures featuring her epic caboose. Then we relaxed and I went to the kitchen to get us iced tea and a joint from the humidor. When I came back out, Liz was still naked, but now in the middle of the pool on that same inflatable raft from our lunchtime screw.

And I saw it. Remember that old movie The Graduate? Northeast libs love that movie, and I knew for a fact that the ownership of Steam was littered with Delts from Dartmouth. So I imagined a way to play off the famous scene with the oh-so-young-and-existential Dustin Hoffman by dressing Liz in a classic sixties bra and panties and then posing her bored, reading a magazine, sexy as hell on a lawn chair—you guessed it—at the bottom of the pool.

It had the entire audience in mind. The simpletons would go for the skin, while the melancholies would get stiff from the subtext: she was drowning and didn't even know it, like we all are.

Well, once Liz realized I was serious about the shoot, she thought I was nuts. "How am I going to breathe?"

"We'll have a diver feeding you from an oxygen tank."

"That's not modeling," she said. "That's desperation."

I reminded her that quotidian definitions of beauty rarely captivated the hearts and minds of weary men. Take the Seven Year Itch, and how something as strange as Marilyn Monroe calling delicious the foul breeze from a Manhattan subway—up through an iron grate, billowing her dress, oh here comes another one—had aroused the complicated loins of generations. And when that wasn't enough, I reminded her of all that I'd done for her already and told her that if she didn't like it their was always a mop and aisle five (by that time I'd advanced in my weariness over her entitlement).

She agreed, but couldn't resist getting back at me for my little power play by informing me, that very night, over the intercom, that we would no longer be engaging is coitus, in order that she might better promote her sizzle.

Liz didn't warm up to The Graduate idea no matter how many times I tried to convince her. I'd learned by that point not to say anything, but I'd begun question her resolve. It still never entered my mind that I might be getting played. I offered to get her coaches, dozens of them, for her posture, her gait, facial care, body toning, her diet…if she'd said the word she could have had a full staff of experts attending her every bowel movement. But she treated my suggestions—I only recognize this now, of course—how a prom queen from an 80s comedy might treat study skills advice from the hapless nerd who's going to end up doing her homework, regardless.

It's embarrassing to admit, but I'd become petrified of her leaving. I'd upped her allowance to the point that she was making six figures. She'd taken over driving my Maserati. No credit limit at Neiman Marcus. If she'd had the gall to ask me to sign over a stake in my mining empire, I might have agreed.

She developed, in the week leading up the shoot, a glare that could freeze vodka. It both terrified me and made me feel more alive than I'd been in years. People wonder why the rich so often make such stupid personal decisions, seemingly at odds with their careful business management. It's because they so rarely ever feel fear, real fear, and when they finally do, it's like a drug. You always want what you can't have, but when you can have pretty much everything, each elusive jewel—no matter how stupid and toxic—becomes irresistible.

I neglected my business responsibilities to try and make it work. I hired a scuba instructor to hang out with her on the bottom of the pool, as well as an ocean photographer and an aquarium light specialist. They all looked and acted like young Harrison Fords: always getting away with something, always up to no good, but softies at heart. I perceived nothing. Her dream was all that I thought about. If I made her dreams come true, she'd be happy, then we'd be happy, and finally I would have a love that loved me back.

I'm convinced that all three of those hires slept with her, in my house—perhaps in my bed—and perhaps all at the same time! The evidence was there—swimsuits, body hair, stains—but I ignored them, like so many lonely men before me.

My team and I realized that while keeping the lawn chair situated on the bottom of the pool was easy, keeping Liz there wasn't. We'd failed to account for the fact that she had oxygen in her blood and lungs, desperate to bring her body back to the surface. One of the makeup artist's friends had dealt with this sort of thing before, so we flew him out from Los Angeles, too.

In the end, we didn't need the makeup artist's friend, because the solution was something a monkey could've figured out. We zip-tied the back of Liz's swimsuit to the lawn chair and got the photographs. And damned if they weren't they weren't hotter than a fajita from hell. Which is to say that hell is precisely as advertised: easy to dismiss but mighty difficult to resist.

Waiting for the results wasn't pleasant. I was so nervous I developed sores on the inside of my butt cheeks. I hadn't slept with Liz in over a month and she was skipping out on our Blue Dream parties, too, probably to spend my money snacking with big leaguers like the stallion of a first basemen I watched taking a piss in my Juliet rose grove one morning (I said nothing). I took her to buy some dresses from Herve L. Leroux in France. She moped. I took her to Beacher's Madhouse to rub elbows with Hollywood's finest. She spent the night in the arms of a beached reality television star.

That didn't matter to me.

I'd placed all my hope in her dream coming true and the situation at Steam was dire. The online votes got Liz into the semifinals, but our artistry was losing out to more blunt, carnal photographic invitations to the strong-wristed readership. A little encouragement was needed for tastemakers at Steam. I had my lawyer call them up and see if they required anything to help the process along, and sent over a bottle of Chivas Regal 50-year Royal Salute to each of them—along with boxes of Gurkha Black Dragons—to make my intentions clear. It was a loss, as a class gesture always is to those with negligible taste. My lawyer talked to a host of plebes who were offended that I would try to mess around with their stupid contest. Finally, after I called in a favor from a client with arms-dealer connections, we got someone on the phone with some fucking power. Now, you'd think the editor for a mid-level skin mag would exhibit a fair amount of moral flexibility. He balked. But he did say something helpful: "The only way she's getting on the cover is if you buy the damn magazine."

Call me a romantic, but if someone wanted me to make the cover so badly that they bought me a magazine to make it happen, I'd be pretty impressed. Maybe even touched.

Well, I took Liz out to dinner at the same restaurant we'd been in for the first epiphany to tell her the news.

"Liz," I told her, holding up a prickly pear margarita in a glass the size of a soup bowl. "Let's toast to you being not only the Country Cuties winner, but Steam's new cover girl."

I watched as the color drained from her cheeks and filled those deceitful lips to smiling.

My heart almost stopped. She hadn't smiled at me in months.

"Don't fuck with me," she said.

"We've got a conference call tomorrow with the new editor."

I'll be damned if a perfect little tear didn't form in each of her eyes, shaped just like Aphrodite's rear, and I'd be lying if a tear in the shape of the Hephaestus's stone heart didn't fall from mine.

"And Liz," I said. "It's only going up from here, because you're looking at the new owner of Steam magazine."

She was just about to give me a toast, but then stopped, glass mid-air, and a little of the margarita spilled onto the table in between us. "What?" she said.

"You can call me Mr. Publisher."

She set her margarita down. The tears dried up and a scowl wrecked her beautiful face. "So you're saying the only reason I won the contest is because you bought the magazine."

I tried to explain to her how this all works, how these contests, these magazines, these awards, none of them are fair; it's all business, all buying and selling and who wants something bad enough. Dollars make these things happen. I told her if it wasn't me, it would be someone else.

"This is proof of my love," I told her. Publishing? There isn't a worse investment. I was doing this for her. And hadn't her dream come true?

"You think you can buy me," she said.

"No, Liz, I'd never even think that, these are just gifts, this is how I show my love." I could have shown it in so many other ways—God knows I tried—but she wouldn't let me.

She yelled at me. Told me all of the things she'd probably been telling all of the other visitors at my place since I'd first invited her in. I'd destroyed her dream, apparently. She called me a dream hog, said she didn't ever want to model again, said she'd have been better off just staying at the grocery. "You can't buy Liz Fletcher."

The fajita plate arrived and there it sat in front of us, hot and sizzling, and we just stared until it went quiet.

She moved to Los Angeles with the boys. You've seen her, if you own a television or a computer. Can't help but see her, and deservedly so. But apparently I'm foul for recognizing it, and evil for helping her along.

Love someone, really love them. Try to make their dreams come true. Give everything. Save nothing for yourself. See what happens.

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