No Mask to Conceal Her Voice, by Michael Griffin

Art by  Nick Gucker -http://www.nickthehat.com click to enlarge

Art by Nick Gucker – http://www.nickthehat.com – click to enlarge

I’ll go anywhere I want. I’m Lily Vaun. Just try telling me No.

Heard enough Yes, that’s all you hear any more. I’ve got enough Yes stored up to last me.

Sure, you know the Lily Vaun story, the ups and downs. My glamor years, the envy of Hollywood. My later crashes, humiliations.

Once you’re a star, though, once you’ve shined bright enough, that never fades. A certain level of fame, that sticks. Every time I disappear into some place like Alderberry Hospital, I get out and find the world’s still hungry for my story.

Agents can drop me. Studios can nullify contracts. After that shit, maybe you give up.

Not me. Demand may be on the decline, but I’m still Lily Vaun.

I haven’t had a screen credit in five years. I’m still worth eleven million.

I’ve wasted more luck and money than most people get in a lifetime. I still haven’t run through the last of it.

I’m forty-two years old. Men in the eighteen-to-twenty-four demographic still want to fuck me.

So you go ahead, just try telling me No. I’ll be heading for my next big Yes.

This time, my recovery’s for real. I’m ready to kick ass again. All the king’s horses, all the king’s men, they finally wrapped up the unravelling threads of my psyche. This morning I ended a nine month stint in Alderberry, which despite abundant luxuries, is a dreary place. All beige, not a single pleasure. No sharp edges.

Walk out that door and the very same day, I’m on a plane for Paris.

De Gaulle’s a weird airport. Countless times I’ve seen it, always wrecked on something. Seeing it sober is a first. I mean sober, not counting my one prescription, Doc Sennett approved.

The place is all white lines and glass, the desolate futurism of a 2001 space station. Or Ballardian, that’s a word I haven’t thrown around in a while. Back in ‘99, I co-starred in Concrete Island. Used to drop Ballardian into interviews all the time.

I walk the long hall, past yellow lights which flick by, evenly spaced in hypnotic rhythm, like staring into a dream machine. Something I’ve noticed, just since I’m sober. The rhythms of the world sort of rub off on me. Brain waves fall into sync. Not sure I like it. The last thing I want is to be too susceptible. You won’t survive this world,  being too influenced by what’s around you. Always waiting to be done-to.

For so long, I was always in demand, even after hospital stints, rehabs. At some point, one crash or another became too many. How do other people get jobs without an agent? I’ve never had to try.

Still in Alderberry, I got an envelope from the director, Leer Aster. Serious A-list, but strange, reclusive. French postmark.

A brief note. “The new Aster production needs Lily Vaun’s magic.”

A cashier’s check. US dollars, lots of zeroes.

No signature. Just “NO TIME FOR WORRY,” hand-scrawled across the bottom in lavender pen. Fucking weirdo, no question. The money’s exactly what I needed. The flattery aspect, I mean. I don’t exactly need the funds.

Paris sounded just right. Doesn’t Paris always sound like that? A solution?

Now that I’m here, there’s this little voice whispering, “Uh oh! What the fuck are you doing?”

I block out the voice. Na na na, not listening. By the time I’m done, the trades will announce Lily Vaun’s out, she’s working. Then I’ll fly home, interview agents. Keep pushing, moving forward.

First thing, la livraison des bagages. That much French I remember. Baggage claim.

A side-lit chauffeur awaits glittering, decked out in yellow-gold sequins, jacket and pants, hat and gloves. A real Siegfried and Roy vibe, typical Leer Aster bizarre. He holds a sign, my name beside some three-armed yellow symbol, the same that appeared on Aster’s letterhead. Must be the production company logo.

I walk past without stopping. The chauffeur grabs my rolling tote, carries it easily, and surges ahead. He’s no taller than me,  narrow through the shoulders, but his movements are confident. Strong. On him, the spangly outfit seems theatrical, not fruity. I catch no more than a glimpse of his face, which registers no expression. He says nothing, just keeps walking so fast I have to hurry, trying to catch up.

“They gave me a hard time at customs,” I say to the back of him, really projecting so he can’t pretend he doesn’t hear. “I mean, snotty, like, quelle purpose was I for visitez to la France. Anyway, what do you think I gave her right back? Just the shitty answers she deserved. But she wasn’t having it, and I start thinking uh-oh, is this bitch seriously about to turn me away? I mean, they’re going to border-block Lily Vaun? Luckily, the next booth agent recognizes me, comes over all grinning, both thumbs up. You know what she says?”

The chauffeur doesn’t slow, doesn’t turn. Doesn’t answer.

Guess it’s time to hit the road!” My voice rises, delivers the famous catch phrase in a girlish pitch. “The whole world still loves my Amber movies.”

He turns toward me, still walking. I think he’s about to speak. Instead he offers a slip of paper, a folded note.

“’Inform the chauffeur of any chemical support required,’” I read. Then the little symbol, and Aster.

He flicks a glance back, again so quickly I get no sense of his features.

“Avoiding that shit, that’s half the reason I’m here. Just read the trades. If I had access to my old scripts, I’d be dead in a month. Ha ha, scripts, that’s funny, right? Actors, we read scripts. Then to get drugs to fuck our lives up, we need other scripts.”

Still no response. Why won’t he speak? If he’s got some problem, I can’t figure it.

“Anyway, no pills, just the one stabilizer I brought with me, Doc Sennet approved. I could use red wine, though. My last tango in Paris, they had all the vin rouge a girl could want.”

Aster’s gold glitter limousine, an absurdly opulent converted hearse, idles outside a 5th arrondissement late bar.

The chauffeur returns, hands me a bottle already uncorked.

As the limo pulls away, the sun roof retracts. Night sky feels dangerous, like it might pull me out of here, lift me away. Black stars shimmer against perilous depth.

The world spins fast, too much to absorb.

Trying to mellow, I lean back, sip wine from the bottle.

Paris. No midnight traffic, just palpable antiquity and whispers of suicide poets. Each inhalation carries fragments of disintegrating statues, dust from crumbling mausolea. Tourists find this evocative. People like Aster pay fortunes to mingle among blowing spirits, monuments to saints, museums for dead artists. Statues of Balzac, Voltaire. The dead hang on, refuse to let go. They inhabit every room, linger around corners. Like my memories.

Who needs reminders they’re dying? Maybe people who’ve already lived enough don’t mind the specter looming. That trembling curtain, threatening to drop.

Not me. Nine out of ten shrinks agree, that’s my whole fucking problem. Unwillingness to accept reality.

Bullshit. I’ve got too much unfinished business. Addictions set me back, plus a few bad decisions. Just need to stay clean and work, finish projects, rack up credits. Some comeback recognition, maybe a nomination.

The clock spins, spins. There’s still time.

I lean forward, shout, “Which hotel?”

I’m hoping not the Ritz. Too fussy, and they know me. Jesus, I do not feel like being recognized.

The chauffeur turns, grants a quarter profile glimpse through glass.

Will he answer?

Again, nothing. His face seems unreal, like a porcelain mask. The merest hint of eye creases. Smooth, too pale. Frozen, incapable of expressing emotion.

It’s a look I’ve seen too often in the mirror.

Traffic drops away. We turn into a district I don’t recognize. Gilt perimeter walls reflect golden light, transmuting the midnight scene into sunset.

Gates swing open. We pass through the barrier wall, like a castle carved into the heart of Paris. Otherworldly, extravagant, like a slightly more tactful Las Vegas. Not French, not American, more a liminal fantasyland, all lit fountains, luminous canals. Statues loom, seeming alive.

The car stops, my door opens. Light spills in, reveals large pearls scattered underfoot on the limousine floor. My hand goes to my throat. The pearls, not mine, roll minimally in unison, as if the car were still in motion.

I step out, Charlie about to explore Wonkaland, or Dorothy verging on colorful Oz.

Guarding the entry ramp of pale yellow brick are two upright mummies sealed in glass, bandages unwrapped and dangling, desiccated forms preserved with gold powder which glistens under spotlights.

I follow the chauffeur inside. An impressive exhibition of curiosities line the foyer, and the many halls diverge from the center. Bizarrely obscure memorabilia, fabulous costumes and props anyone would recognize. Nic Cage’s snakeskin jacket from Wild at Heart, Lecter’s restraint mask from Silence of the Lambs. Rosebud. Yoda. A man-sized Gojira.

Jesus, Dorothy’s ruby slippers.

Even by Hollywood standards, it’s a statement of determined excess.

The foyer’s central fountain lacks the showstopper quality of the rest, yet it’s the fountain that transfixes me. The sparkle of the water under piercing lights, like weightless diamonds. So brilliant. Fragile. Water falls, keeps falling, never damaged or diminished. An endless cycle of bright, undying renewal. The world drops away. I don’t mind being alone.

Everything’s quiet, all but this falling water. I guess the chauffeur must’ve gone, then I look up, find him there across the mist, watching protectively. That face, that pale mask, betrays nothing. I keep thinking he’ll excuse himself, leave me alone. He doesn’t move.

Is this piercing sharpness just a matter of the light? Maybe this isn’t water, but some dazzling liquid designed specially for illuminated fountains.

More likely it’s my bent perception. An artifact of a mind’s ruined chemistry.

Stop. I’m clean, can finally claim that achievement.

Not quite feeling it.

“I want to sleep,” I say, unsure who I mean to tell.

“No.” A voice behind surprises me. “Time for work.”

Finally the chauffeur speaks?

I spin. Not the chauffeur.

“Welcome to my home.” Aster grins as if my presence delights him, then closes the gap between us. He runs his hands all over me, wherever he finds bare skin – shoulders, arms, hands, even my face. He’s wearing eyeliner, a hint of blue eye shadow. Glossy lips.

All the notions I have about the man standing before me come from magazine articles and gossip. I’ve never met Leer Aster, or don’t remember if I have. Everybody knows his look. Always silver suits over rubber S&M shirts, spiky hair prematurely white. The man’s barely older than me, late forties. He lived on food stamps, working as a night watchman, while he scraped together his surrealist Seuss-meets-Cronenberg debut, Flowers in the Shuttermaze. Uncompromising and darkly perverse, it lit up Cannes and cemented his reputation.

Next, he took his swing at the Hollywood mainstream — megabudget, A-list cast — and despite pressure to succeed, expectations he’d fail, The Spectre of Memory topped 2008’s box office. Wowed critics, blew everyone’s minds. In lieu of salary, Aster took points. Variety put his take at $190 million.

Since then, everyone with an opinion, which in Hollywood means everyone, tried guessing: What will Leer Aster do next?

Return underground, self-finance a DV-shot guerrilla production with a small cast of unknowns?

Or swear everyone — from execs to catering, from D-girls to talent — to the airtight secrecy necessary to shoot Hollywood’s first completely covert, leak-free big budget tentpole picture?

Nobody really knows.

I know he’s got me in mind. That lovely note, all praise and poetry, sent at a time when nobody would touch me. His resources, his reputation. Aster can do any project he wants.

He wants me.

We’re in France, so of course I kiss both cheeks. “I shouldn’t impose on your home. Perhaps a hotel?”

“You’ll have the place to yourself,” Aster assures me. “I’m never home until production wraps. I’m only here now to take you to the studio.”

“Work, now? It’s the middle of the night. I’m game as anyone, dear, but I’ve been traveling days.”

“You imagined sleep?” he asks.

I smile, striving for lighthearted charm. “Sleep, yes. It’s something I try to do most nights.”

Aster leans in, grinning perversely. “Fatigue puts one in duress. Discomfort weakens restraint.”

“Restraints can be fun, used correctly.” I’m not sure what I’m saying. Defaulting to flirtation? Despite this smile, I’m determined to kill this idea of working straightaway. I really am bleary-eyed, stale from flying.

“The unique mood of my films, my special trick, let me tell you: It’s shattering control.” He smiles, not at me, and claps his hands forcefully as if declaring a scene’s end. “If you need espresso, the chauffeur will provide. Now, to work.”

I follow.

Wide open darkness. How broad is the universe? Boundaries too distant recede into invisibility, lose any function as limits. Walls should hold us in, prevent wandering off to infinity. Everybody needs tethers to prevent that inevitable drift.

I follow Aster into the void, alone, the chauffeur left outside with the car.

What does Aster have in store? Somehow he gets away, disappears. I’m left dangling.

A moment, a flash of indecision. Panic.

POP! A loud, amplified emission from an unseen public address speaker.

“Is she ready?” The voice echoes, accented and slurred. Not Aster’s, but a strange masculine voice.

If this is the soundstage, they can’t possibly be ready to shoot. No lights, no cameras. Just emptiness.

As if reading my thoughts, Aster speaks, somewhere near me in the dark.

“Filming is ended.”

A yellow light flicks on, illuminates this outsized madman striding toward me in exaggerated haste. Cinema’s great eccentrics — Jodorowsky, Lynch, Almodovar — they have nothing on Aster. The manipulations, the groping hands. Obscure proclamations shouted from strawberry-frosted lips.

Filming, ended. Must be a joke.

Look around, consider what I’ve seen. No sets. None of the machinery of filmmaking.

Leer Aster has no intention of shooting me.

He draws me nearer a pair of shed-like boxes, unfinished wood, like Swedish saunas. The larger, a glass-fronted control room, contains sound recording gear. Opposite stands a smaller vocal isolation booth with a tiny viewport.

“Only this remains.” Aster guides me, right hand across my lower back, left grasping my nearer forearm.

Through the window of the control room I see a wide mixing board, walls hung with rolled microphone cables, tall stacks of rack-mounted electronics. Some glow with the warmth of vacuum tubes, others with digital LED displays. Against the wall, an ancient Moviola editing table, spooled with 1″ mag tape and 16mm film. This isn’t pro-level Hollywood gear. Reminds me of the experiments and student projects I worked on back in the ‘80s, before my break.

Memory rushes back to one early project. I stop myself. Don’t want to recall.

“Sound!” Aster shouts. “Get out here.”

A narrow figure stands behind the mixer’s eerie glow, thin face hidden behind oversized bug-eye glasses with white frames. The mantis-like man gropes his way out of the booth, moves vaguely in my direction.

Aster tells me, “Sound, he’s another of my secret weapons.”

I take a few steps toward this man Sound, meaning to shake his hand. He continues stiff-legged past me, as if I’m not even there. For an instant this registers as a snub, intentional, then I understand. His dark lenses, the maneuvering by touch.

Sound is blind.

I turn, glide up next to him, and take his elbow. He jumps. I close my hand over his. There’s a quiver in his next inhalation.

“I’m Lily Vaun.” At least for a moment, back in control.

Aster pushes me into the booth, prods my body into the narrow space, muttering oblique instructions. Apparently I’m to do overdubs, voice work for a picture already shot. I’ve seen no script.

On the tiny screen, unedited rough footage runs, snippets lacking any kind of continuity. A young woman is featured, a different type from myself. Pixie-blonde hair, like Jean Seberg fifty years ago, when she stormed the screen in Breathless.

I turn to Aster. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

Her mouth moves in soundless closeup. A blur of hair, or skin texture in macro. Lips move, responding to another actor I’m not seeing. They give me only this woman, no reactions, no wide shots. Even her, I haven’t seen clearly.

“What I desire is your guts,” Aster says. “Raw emotion, the real spice. Kick the audience in the heart.”

“There’s too much missing.” I feel unsettled, insecure. “These aren’t scenes, just flashes. Who is she?”

Sound leans in, adjusts my microphone by touch, then returns to his booth.

“You’ve gone deep.” Aster runs hands along my arms, then grips my shoulders. “You’ve lived it. Now, for film.”

The footage stops. All lights die except in the booth.

I’m helpless. Where’s the Lily Vaun confidence? I wait alone in the closed booth. No sound.

Yellow light flickers in the control room. Are they watching footage on the Moviola? Hot tungsten, celluloid and dust. I can smell it from here, the heat of the lamp, the ozone burn. The old way.

It’s crazy, what Aster suggests. Part of me believes. Nothing but my voice, the microphone, and fear in my gut. I have to dig out what I can. Manage my nerves, and get ready. Try to bleed.

I’m beyond exhausted, flat on my back in bed. Who knows if I even accomplished anything? Just confused myself, frustrated my director. He’s still at the studio, working.

I should want to sleep. Keep obsessing on this one thing.

I’m alone here. For the first time I can remember, real solitude.

So long, shut away, surrounded by a flock of loons. No silence. Too many cracked-bulbs, shrieking away the night.

Quiet.

When was the last time I slept behind a door not locked from outside? Nobody screaming. No obligation to bear witness to some neighbor’s agony. If anyone’s crying tonight, it’ll be me. Nerves rattle like chattering teeth. Sanity teeters on a blade’s edge, ready to cut. Will I slip?

No. Just rest. Lie motionless.

It’s coming. See it coming, feel it rise? A wave hits me full on. Pounds me down, buffets, washes over, presses me down.

Isn’t this what I wanted, to get back to living? So much time wasted, pining for release. Nights obsessing on getting out, on freedom. Why do we lust for money, more than love or sex? Because money buys freedom. Freedom like this, to lie trembling in anger, in fear, unable to sleep. Wealth, fame, isn’t that what everyone wants? That’s power. Imperviousness to No. The right to live without rules.

And all I can think, since I got out?

Someone please tell me what to do.

So much yearning, striving. To climb over bosses, taxmen, voting members of the board. Fucking executives with their notes. Sacrifice everything to get free. Then what?

This terror.

I want a drink. I want pills. Not Doc Sennet’s mellow ones. Fun, jazzy pills. Something to light me up.

Anything but lying here, facing myself. Straight, no chaser.

I wobble out of bed, find myself meandering down unknown halls. This enormous house, all statues and sculptures, memorabilia under spotlights. I’m a bleary-eyed kid shut overnight in the museum. It occurs to me that maybe Aster left staff behind. That’d be great, meet his old footman, me wearing just this sheer T-shirt. He could snap an iPhone pic, sell it to the highest bidder, and there’s my ass on TMZ.

Another corner, another dim hallway. The hall widens to an alcove, centering around a headless statue. A stone figure in yellow robes of real fabric, trailing to the ground. I step high to avoid tripping in the accumulated yellow fabric, which fills the hallway in tangles. I squeeze along the wall, press onward.

Just a dead end. A panel made of some reflective pale gold metal, like the shield Perseus used to gaze upon Medusa. No doorway. In its center, the three-fingered insignia, vaguely triangular. Aster’s sign, from his letter, and the chauffeur’s airport sign.

I search for seams, thinking some latch must be hidden. Some way to open this wall. What’s Aster hiding?

The gold wall seems immovable, merely decorative, like a shrine or monument. Finally I give up, begin to drift away, and hear a voice behind. A woman, on the other side of the metal wall.

“Lily,” she cries.

Did I really hear my name? So tired, can’t be sure. My heart pounds, like a nightmare revelation.

I hurry back, past the enrobed figure. Despite lacking a head, it seems to watch me. The way it stands, scrutinizing, reminds me of the chauffeur.

I wind back to a more comfortable part of the house. Less museum, more home. Passage to the kitchen. Industrial range, walk-in freezer. Glass door refrigerator.

This isn’t snooping. Just look without touching. Don’t open anything.

Would if I could.

No, just wandering, observing. Thinking of wine, even beer. No, I won’t drink. Just obsessing. Is it something I should be officially not thinking about? Probably.

Maybe if I know there’s nothing here, I can stop thinking about it. Maybe sleep.

Of course, I could always go out, buy my own. We’re still in the city. I don’t have any local currency, whatever that is now. Francs, Euros? I could find a shop, offer to pay triple in dollars. They’d recognize me. Six years I haven’t been onscreen, but my train-wreck life kept me on magazine covers. Probably in France, too. They like their films, the French. Isn’t Depardieu Mayor of Paris or something?

Behind the glass, a row of clear bottles chilling, like champagne. Clear glass, liquid contents brilliant gold.

I swing open the door. Curious. Not planning to drink. I reach.

Remember what happens if you get started. That last crack-up, pretty unglamorous. Hysterical days, raving tears, finally found wandering, drunk and pill-wasted in the hills above Mulholland. Barefoot, mostly naked. So much blood, the cops who found me thought I’d been shot.

How does life go so badly wrong, when almost everything is right? Just the downside, maybe, to being someone who doesn’t believe in No. Sure, I’m not great at respecting limits. I get that.

I need someone to apply the brakes for me. Long hours, pressure, endless vodka tonics. Abundant chemicals, prescription and otherwise, all to avoid a reckoning. A ruined heart, the gangrenous death that never heals. Before success, when all ahead was upside. Nobody knew my name.

I fell hard, so hard. My own fault I walked away.

Tried so many ways to salve the pain. A million A-list beaux, names like Brad and Jack, Bruce and Robert Junior.

I should’ve taken better care. You would’ve given me strength to survive, whatever fallout. Me and another girl. Would my career have risen like it did? Probably not. I could’ve handled it. Riding high from Amber, we could’ve weathered it together.

How did I convince myself to stay away?

I fall back into bed, afraid what I might do, where the memories might lead. Adrift, too much feeling.

What scares me most is I’ll stop fearing the edge. That next time, I’ll just keep walking.

I keep exiting the booth, requesting direction. I’m trying to act my way into something I can’t see, don’t feel. It’s  hard to overdub blind, to envision reality from only hints.

“Show us your desire,” Aster commands. “Moaning, kissing. Let passion boil out of you.”

Overhead, the daylight panels are open. Polished concrete reflects brittle light in all directions, piercing bright like Aster’s fountain.

This place, not a living world, but a dead aftermath. All sets struck, shipped away. Lighting rigs packed, cameras returned to rental agencies. A sunblasted vacancy. This tiny booth, a satellite to Sound’s studio, bound by nothing but strewn cables, overseen by mad god Aster.

So exhausted. Nothing left but pain.

I can’t work in solitude, but this is all I have. A desolate factory, no props to help pretend. No fellow players, no scenery. Some actors have real chops, can call forth the perfect emotional note, even in solitary reshoots. Once I watched Malkovich, alone in a soundstage like this one, work himself up to deliver a trembling, sneering, perfectly-pitched retort to a line delivered months earlier. Alone, after everyone else had moved on to subsequent gigs.

I’m not that actress. To be jealous, I need to look into the eyes of someone and pretend they did me wrong. I need to project a relationship, motivations, shared history. I work off people. They’re the only way I can summon real emotions.

Obsessing on Can’t isn’t going to help me do this. I have to try. I’m just setting up for failure. Pre-excusing another crack-up.

It’s hard, though. This place is insanely hot, so bright I can’t see my monitor. Am I supposed to dub blind, isolated, dripping sweat? What am I even seeing? Some impersonal embrace, supposedly passionate, fumbling toward a sex scene. Who are these people? Which one’s me?

I want to hide. Sweat pours down my back. I’m swooning against the wall. I could die in here.

Nightmares of unpreparedness are universal. Show up for the final exam, don’t know a single answer. All the questions written in code. Today feels like that dream. I’m trying to give what he wants. All morning, Aster has me acting short voice loops, without any visual reference. I’m supposed to speak a short bit based on description alone.

In response to his come-on, she hums a few notes.

How the fuck am I supposed to play this?

Seductive, playful growl. Carnal laughter.

It’s impossible for me, and he doesn’t care.

Disrobing. Spanking. Penetration.

That’s Aster’s focus. It’s my discomfort he wants. My agony. Keeps opening the door between every line, screaming at me. He knows it’s impossible. He’s bullying.

I go silent, stop reacting.

Finally, Aster just stares. “No bonding company in Hollywood will cover any production you’re part of. Same in Britain, Australia.” He leans in grinning, breath warm on my face. “You can only work here, with me. A genuine madman.”

I try again. Today, I’ll give Aster all I can. Tomorrow, I’ll bring a knife from his kitchen. Either I’ll wow him, or if that’s not enough, it ends here, in this box. He wants degeneracy, total breakdown. I’ll let myself shatter and bleed.

A dying star. A last performance to burn the screen.

Commotion wakes me. The bedroom, blue-silver dawn.

Light from the hallway outlines a gold statue, now moving. He enters my room quickly, determined, as if pursuing some urgent plan. The wardrobe, he withdraws something. My clothing.

I’m out of bed, standing barefoot in my sleep shirt, rubbing my eyes.

The gold uniformed chauffeur approaches, carrying my white sleeveless silk top and pleated black skirt.

“Doesn’t matter what I wear,” I say.

He throws these on the bed, grabs the bottom of my shirt, and lifts. Without thinking I raise my arms, and it’s up, over my head. He hooks thumbs into the waistband of my panties at both sides, pulls down. I step out.

Before I can object, I’m standing naked before him.

“Hey,” I protest, barely awake. “I can dress myself.”

I have no sense he’s looking at me. He avoids eye contact, as in the airport and limousine, averts his face. I barely catch a glimpse as he kneels before me, stands again.

I want to resist. Instead, I freeze. This conception of myself as an unstoppable force? Maybe it’s just that usually, nobody resists me. I’m used to getting what I want. Everything I ask for.

“Stop,” I say.

The chauffeur bends, holding the skirt, lifts my right foot in, and gently presses sideways against my hip to shift my weight. As I lift my left foot involuntarily to balance, he slips the other side of the skirt under. It shimmies up, past knees and thighs, over hips.

Briefly he stands before me. So close, his face appears artificial, immobile white, like the mask in Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage. In an instant he moves, grabs the blouse, shifts behind. He guides my right hand into an armhole, then my left. Silk glides over my shoulders. He fastens the lowest buttons, leaves the rest to me.

He returns to the bureau. It occurs to me I should feel molested, but the coercive element of our dressing game feels playful, like a couple in wordless agreement acting out a violation fantasy. I’m not angry, just a bit stimulated. A sensation, a rushing tingle, sends me back into memory.

On location, no rules. The boundaries of actors give way to those of characters we portray. Looser, often justifying the indulgence of appetites. We use this game to approach things we’re reluctant to admit we desire.

That’s how it began. 1988, a certain co-star. Trading vodka shots, listening to Duran Duran in my trailer. Playful wrestling gives way to pinching. Exaggerated name-calling.

Bitch.

Kisses, bitten lips.

Whore.

Torn fabric, spanking. Bare skin.

The chauffeur drops a pair of black strap-heels next to the bed. I step in.

He takes my arm, drags me after him. Away from Absolut Citron, my “New Religion,” and her.

On the way out, near the fountain in the broad central hall, we pass a gilt statue that wasn’t there when I arrived. Hooded, with a great, flowing mantle. It’s the same yellow-robed statue I saw two nights ago, headless then. Now it stands watch over the bedroom hall.

I struggle to button up as the chauffeur pulls me down the stairs, toward the limousine waiting at the driveway curb. My blouse flutters open, reveals my breast in the pale dawn. I laugh at such a scene, an actress half-dressed, half-asleep, rushed by her driver to an idling car. This drama makes more sense when I imagine it onscreen, not something happening to myself. I wonder where the story leads?

Then I realize, there’s no paparazzi, no eager public. We’re still within Aster’s gates.

Aster’s fingertips trace a line down my sweat-dripping arm to the back of my hand. I feel his frustration. I’m stuck, incapacitated. The heat makes everything worse, despite frequent ice water breaks.

Finally he removes the silver jacket, down to that absurd yellow rubber shirt. His skin’s so dangerously pink I feel sorry for him, despite the way he torments me.

He closes the door, goes back to berating me through the viewport. Tiny dots of spit spray the glass. My attention divides between my screen, the headphone cues, Aster’s lips moving.

“Soundproof, dummy. I can’t hear.”

I know his abuse is just manipulation. Still, it stings.

The next time Aster throws the door open, Sound’s behind him. One leans in, then the other. The booth fills with the odor of their sweat.

“Sun-wasted hag.”

“Filthy prostitute.”

They alternate taunts.

“Washed-up junkie.”

“Talentless bitch.”

Hands grope me. Prod, pinch.

“Frigid.”

“Slut.”

This jolts me. “Stop!” I’m angry, breathing hard.

“That’s what I want,” Aster says. “That’s the Lily Vaun I paid for.”

I feel myself slide. Can’t let myself.

“I smell it,” Aster hisses. “Some real emotion you’re hiding.”

I shake my head.

“What? Tell us!” he roars. “Into the microphone.”

He doesn’t understand.

“Love,” I blurt. “True, real love. Pushed it away. It haunts… every dream.”

He laughs, giddy. “Who was it? Who has power over you?”

I cover my face. He thinks he can do this to me?

“Say the name,” he taunts. “You were on top, now you’re ruined. Who?”

“Nobody.” I want to say her name. Saffron. “It was me. I should’ve been stronger.”

“It’s Ferdinand Toth, isn’t it? That weirdo. You love a gap-toothed man with long hair? Those red pants?”

“No.”

“Everyone knew about you and Gianni Ross, through all the Amber movies. You ruined his marriage.”

“He ruined his own marriage. I was just toying with him. Never love.”

“Who? Everyone you dated, loved, fucked, they’re all famous.”

“Not all,” I say. “Not before.”

Everything flows back, 1988 again. Playful flirting in my trailer. Smiles, cherry ice cream. A first hint of what the lust would become.

Back then, my desires ruled.

Now, I let Aster take over. I give in, shriek my rage, vent a bitter flood into the microphone.

Sound rushes back to the booth.

I growl like an animal, eyes wild, tears streaming hot. Trembling in my chest, acid rumbles in my gut.

“Yes!” Aster roars. “Sound, you better be getting this.”

If I faint, die, have a stroke, I don’t care. So sick of holding it in. I need to be rid of this.

Aster’s smiling, pleased with me.

I lash out with fists, shove him away. Eyes sting. Ashamed I’ve given in.

Aster takes me gently by the shoulders. “If you’re broken, Lily, use it.”

I grip the microphone, shriek and rage, spew all my poison, ventilate all the buried anger, all the pain. Give in, summon everything. The blackest emotion, the bitterest depressive cloud. Shame, self-hatred. Craving for death. Worst of all, my biggest fear, that all this is bullshit, suicidal ideation no more than a ploy to get back on talk shows. Fuel for a comeback. The thought makes me hate myself.

Trail off. Try to breathe.

“Saffron,” I gasp. “My secret, twenty-five years. Saffron Page. Before the world knew me. Before I was Amber.”

“Mmm, Saffron,” Aster says. “Haven’t seen her, not in any movie of yours.”

Tears burn. My eyes sting from the poison. “A small film, artistic. Erotic. Me, with a woman.” Starting to breathe again. “Diamond Starshine.”

“Lovely title.” Aster grins. “Why haven’t we heard of that? Or your Saffron?”

A heart full of pleasures. Fucking, love-making. Soul-tearing orgasm. Blissful, wet kisses. Things I used to know, forgotten by memory. Remembered only in the gut.

I start to speak, caught in the momentum of release, of revelation. Try to stop myself. “Saffron didn’t get much work after. Once I had power, I tried to help get her a few roles.”

“So you stayed in touch,” Aster says. “It’s not a case of missed connections. You could’ve found her.”

I climb out of the booth. “For a while. I lost track. She vanished after her agent, my first agent, cut her loose.”

“Now, I recall a rumor,” Aster says. “A lost jewel of sublime artistic perversion, early in Lily Vaun’s career. Occult weirdness, explicit lesbian smut. You made your Amber millions, bought all the prints. Ensured it never came out on video.”

I know what I did. Saffron’s big chance, starring opposite Lily Vaun, about to become the big star of the ‘90s. What would Diamond Starshine have meant to her career? I should have helped her, not abandoned her.

“My new agent said I had no choice.” I look down, can’t meet his eyes.

Who else knew the story? My second agent, and the first I shared with Saffron. Who else?

Aster grinning. He knows all this.

“Saffron,” I say. “You know her.” My mind leaps, an electric jolt.

Aster shrugs. “Who do you think recommended you? Whose story do you think you’ve been dubbing?”

I look around, frantic. “Where is she?”

“Soon, my Lily.” Aster cups my cheek in his palm, looks at me with utmost gentleness, with perfect understanding. “She’s almost here.”

From behind his back, Aster produces a book.

I’ve asked for the script I don’t know how many times. Aster always laughs. Now I stop asking, and he hands it over. Plain black cover, perhaps a dozen blank pages. Then I come to the title.

The King in Yellow.” Flip ahead. “Act One.”

“Are you sure you want this?” Aster whispers, watching. “No going back.”

I jump pages at a time, skimming, until I find something familiar. “Song of my soul...” A girl, young, innocent. A cloaked yellow figure follows. Lust in the air, mingled with death. “I remember some of this.”

“Maybe better if I just show you the next clip,” Aster says. “Come, time to see what you’ve been performing.”

He takes my hand, pulls me into the booth and presses up beside me. We’re smashed together in a space meant for one, sharing a little wobbling bench. The monitor flickers up.

Click, hum. Snippet of argument. Then no sound.

I feel Aster’s breathing quicken beside me, shallow and fast. So close, he keeps shifting, moving against me.

Picture flares to life, high contrast black and white. Abstracted bodies, too close to identify. The extreme closeup is intimate, uncomfortable. Fine details like skin texture shift in and out of focus.

“I keep dreaming this…” I trail off. “Where it started. Before it went wrong.”

Images familiar, teetering madness. A cinematic nightmare imprinted on the mind. Such craving. Terrible hunger, fit to extinguish sanity.

The camera pulls back. A woman’s hand moves across skin. Another breast. Two women. Reverse angle, hands trace the curve of a hip. Shoulder blade, upper back. Such proximity forces the viewer to take part in the intimacy.

A yellow sign. Brief flashes, more explicit. Tongue on nipple. Curve of hip blends into shadow, transitions to black. Fingers delve, the figure turns. Illuminated feminine roundness, seen from the side. Darkness of the cleft, absolute.

On one set of hands, nails long, painted black. The other has thin, white fingers, nails short and natural.

Closeup on bodies of two women, lovers. The imagery is explicit, shockingly transgressive for a director like Aster. His work has always found a mainstream audience. For something like this, that’s impossible.

It arouses, stirs me deep, in a place pornography can’t reach. Thoughtless, instinctive, the hot and turbulent provocation of lusty dreams. I feel confused, watching headless bodies writhe and stroke. Despite this stirring, I’m trying to decode, to gain all the information I can.

Then I see the paisley-shaped birthmark under her small, pale breast.

I gasp, speak her name. “Saffron.”

“No,” Aster says. “Saffron was her screen name. That person faded away.”

Her face fills the monitor. No older. No less beautiful.

Movement in the control room catches my eye. I look up, expecting to see Sound.

There in the yellow neon flicker, the chauffeur holds up a clear glass bottle of the gold wine I saw in Aster’s refrigerator.

I realize I’m still acting for the microphone. Emotion without thought, words and tears in perfect sync with scene.

No need for script. Now I understand.

The chauffeur unbuttons his jacket, pulls it open. Beneath, no shirt, his skin startlingly pale. Perfect ivory white, like the mask he wears. Is it a mask? He shakes the bottle once, thumbs the cork loose, and amber wine erupts into white effervescent froth. It rises, overflows.

The jacket falls from shoulders, drops away. Narrow waist, small pale breasts. The birthmark. I’m stunned at the shape, the body of a woman. Somehow I failed to see.

The seething layer of milk-white foam settles away, leaves behind splendid radiant hues, veins the color of opal, skin like diamond.

I gaze on her face, finally able to study it. Why did I think this was a mask? Too smooth, too pale?

I wasn’t looking at her face. Now I see.

She pulls back the hat, reveals a boyish platinum-blonde flip.

Still I’m acting, voicing guttural cries and carnal moans as I watch her move in a slow-shifting dance, as if she perceives music I can’t hear. Both of us perform our separate pieces, eyes locked.

The image of her dancing repeats on my monitor.

I have to break through, see her in the flesh. I open the booth door, rush to the control room.

There is no mask. Long black eyelashes, blood red lips. Eyes, familiar, so clear. Her face, straight out of dreams.

“My Lily,” she says, eyes intent. “You haven’t changed at all.”

“I don’t feel… ” I breathe. “I don’t recognize myself.”

Saffron, lost to the long winter of my insanity. Poisoned by my betrayal.

“You never knew my name.” She leans close, extends her hand. “I’m Camilla.”

I take her hand. It’s like a first meeting. A new beginning. “I’m Lily Vaun.” Am I, though? Still?

Movement in the doorway behind. Aster, now changed, cool and impervious. “You completed my great work.” His voice is gentle, his gaze far away, as if he sees through us, to another place. “A gesture across worlds. Voice of Lily, image of Camilla.”

“How do we–” I begin.

Aster raises two fingers of his right hand. Above the fingertips appears a pinpoint star of pure yellow light, more brilliant and penetrating than the light of his fountain. The light burns bright and cold, shining over a face I thought I would never find.

“How do you beat time?” he asks. “Let me show you.”

My tears again. This time they don’t burn. These tears wash the charred pathways of all that have fallen before.

My love leans closer, so near I smell her skin. “It will be far,” she whispers.

Life comes undone. All my worn threads unwind.

“Carcosa,” Camilla says.

Already I see, and recognize. All else gone. All but Camilla, who remains.

mgsideMichael Griffin’s short fiction has appeared in the Thomas Ligotti tribute anthology The Grimscribe’s Puppets, the Current 93 tribute Mighty in Sorrow, and many periodicals including Apex Magazine, Black Static and The Lovecraft eZine. His work is upcoming the Laird Barron tribute Children of Old Leech, and his standalone novella “Far From Streets” will be published by Dunhams Manor Press in the summer of 2014.

Michael blogs about books and writing at griffinwords.com and his Twitter feeds are @MGSoundVisions and @griffinwords. He’s also an electronic ambient musician (as M. Griffin, and half of Viridian Sun) and founder of Hypnos Recordings (www.hypnos.com), an ambient music record label he operates with his wife in Portland, Oregon.

If you enjoyed this story, let Michael know know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Nick Gucker.

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4 responses to “No Mask to Conceal Her Voice, by Michael Griffin

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