Maybe in the Next World

The starchy white pillowcase left faint red imprints on Lana’s cheek. She blinked, considered—for a beat too long—just where an insinuating shaft of sunlight was coming from. Her bedroom windows faced east, their azure-colored curtains vibrantly awash with the morning sun. This light was from the west and these curtains were taupe, tawdry. Tubes itched at their points of insertion. Not her condominium then, but St. Barnabas’s Hospital. It took longer, lately, to distinguish. To lay claim to a sense of place.

The flat, insistent light. Like that autumn afternoon in Manhattan leaving the clinic. Riding the crosstown bus and seeing, as the vehicle halted at the intersection, a toddler perched on his young father’s shoulders. The pair ran across street, the boy giggling, the man’s gleaming toothpaste-commercial-teeth flashing. They boarded and an elderly man with a cane made space for them to sit up front, the boy jolly in his cap and overalls. This is the choice you made for yourself. What you wanted, what you didn’t. She hugged her purse closer to her stomach, her hands, her very being, chilled.

Consciousness is taxing. Better to ignore it. Someone rustled the pages of her chart. The young doctor with the cold hands. Seemingly it is always young doctors with cold hands. That clinic, this hospital, the emergency room that one time, an overdose they’d reported but no, not that night, who can overdose when they’re that contented? An OD is a sad, private affair. She had been dewy and bright onstage, incandescent some shirtless tawny boy in gold lamé shorts screeched as she passed him after the show. Less incandescent she’d been on the couch in the basement, dewy giving way to sweat-sheened, flushed and chattering. But still, not sad. Todd had been there, then, tracking the gurney down the hall. By her side. A flurry of questions barked at her by medical personnel, her makeup a clumped, glittery ruin on her cheeks.

A soft rap at the door, the click of the handle and the squeak of a leather sole across the floor.

Todd, her long-time lawyer-slash-manager, manifested, both here and there, now and then. (They’d been lovers, briefly, if you could call it that, during his Bacchanalian heyday, in his quote unquote bisexual phase.) He had remained loyal through the shifts and permutations of her notoriety. The one constant.

“Roger sent flowers,” he said, placing an arrangement of lilies on the nightstand.

Roger, aka Y’oung Dizazter, was a rapper and hip-hop producer who had sampled a section of “Wash Over Me (Love Flood)” over a decade prior, providing a substantial bump in Lana’s royalties and a hiccup of recognition once again. Can a career be made of a series of hiccups? At the time Roger had been in Miami recording and had made the short trip to her condo. They drank Oolong tea on her sectional sofa and discussed a traveling Egon Schiele exhibition and Lana found him such a gentle man, so refined. A contrast to the character he portrayed in his videos, clad in a sports jersey, thick, ropey gold chains aglow under the Klieg lights—a pose. Though, she knew from poses. Fifteen years prior she would’ve invited him into her bed. As it was he left her with the number of his personal acupuncturist and promises to email.

Todd poured her a cup of water from a beige plastic pitcher and she sipped. Sitting up was a chore, but she didn’t want to admit she felt brittle, like old sheet music. “How are we today La?” he asked.

“I’m emboldened,” she murmured.

“Good,” he said. “Can we discuss some of the lingering matters pertaining to, well, ahem, your wishes, your…” She watched Todd finger a sheaf of papers, then shift uncomfortably in the scratchy upholstered chair before getting up and crossing to the window and futzing with the curtains. He still could not manage to say the word “final” when speaking her.

“Lingering matters?” she asked, finding her voice. “I’m the lingering matter here. What about the show? That’s a pressing matter. Did you pitch it, Toddy did you even?”

“Inquiries were made.”

Lana let out a dismayed puff of air. “They give shows to homophobic hillbillies and a woman with a uterus like a clown car and I don’t even merit a lousy hour-long special on E!?”

“La, even in this climate, no wants to watch, well…” He found he couldn’t still, even at this late stage, mention the disease. He couldn’t, if he were honest, see the hook, the appeal. His sensibilities did not align with the current; he’d developed no appetite for the ghoulish. Plus there just wasn’t time.

She struggled to catch her breath. “Bull. They’ll watch. People noticed me when I was onscreen.”

“It wasn’t your grace under difficult circumstances that your key demographic was glued to.”

“Oh wasn’t it?” she barked.

Their giggles abated when Lana’s resolved into a coughing fit that left her gasping for air. Todd refilled her water glass. He knew the steps to this routine. When to humor her, when to acquiesce. “Rest. You’re not…I’ll pop back in again tomorrow.”

She gestured. “I want this. Don’t let them forget I was first,” she said, shutting her eyes. Well over a decade before a certain peroxide pop star had arrived in town, Lana liked to remind people, she’d done the same: fresh off the bus in New York with a suitcase and an implacable need, a desire to vamp her way into the public eye. An only child and one among how many similar young girls with Midwestern roots, parents stolid, sturdy, and unhappy in an undefined way? A childhood of tap and ballet, chorus class, the lead in her senior high production of The Music Man. She’d always carried herself as one to be looked at. Someone told her that, her mother? Shopping for new school outfits at the downtown department store.

“You carry yourself like you think you’re someone to be looked at, Lana Silber.”

“Silver now, sugar, not Silber. Less dour eh, less dull. More…um…incandescent.” That was the advice of her first manger, Terry Visco, hands clasped behind his pomaded locks as he tilted back in his Naugahyde chair, all free surfaces on his desk stacked with towers of moldering paper. “A consonant can make all the difference.”

Later: Lana ensconced in some grubby midtown atelier, posing for “art photos” on commission. Tommy B., a greasy man with a pronounced gut and blank face, working by rote. “Tweak your nipples. Arch your back. There it is.” At one point he stopped, eye still affixed to the camera lens. “Well you’re something different.”

“How so?” she said, coming to life.

“Different than most of the others, I dunno. Rotate your hips toward the camera. Yeah. That’s fine.”

“You’re doing just fine now,” the nurse said, clutching Lana’s thin arm in her doughy palm.

“Just fine.” Lana rolled over, groggy. “I know. I’m in control,” she said.

After the photo shoots came the “French Art Films.” Her career a euphemistic whorl. Innocuous phrases substituted for calculated choices. Her solitary life lived in an Alphabet City cold-water flat, complete with bathtub in the kitchen. Her hair color moved up the scale from ash blonde to platinum. She consisted on cottage cheese and lettuce wedges and diet cola, for her figure. It’s not exploitation when you put yourself on the market. A girlfriend had told Lana that. That girl—Mona? Miranda?—died soon after in a shooting gallery on Avenue C. Lana sent letters home to her parents as redacted of detail as classified government documents.

The porno whimpers, the pursed lips, being both in her body and outside it, both puppet and puppet master. “I’m ready to lose my inhibitions,” she said with a stiff assurance to the lens of the film camera, tossing her voluminous mane of hair back and winking, before tackling a debauched scene. She recycled that line later, when writing The Song.

She’d made her first substantial money with commercial work, doing voice-overs. Breathy radio spots for tuna fish, soft drinks, slim cigarettes marketed to free-spirited gals. The anonymous pitchwoman shilling sundries with a hint of sexual thrill. Television commercials followed, then bit parts in modestly budgeted movies, playing the dim secretary or the salacious blind date. A page of dialogue for a paycheck. She banked it all.

It led to her being stranded under an umbrella, on a beach, sticky from tanning oil. Stuck in Jamaica in some sort of tax loophole after shooting a commercial. Todd to the rescue. Just put the money into a recording studio he advised. It’s what you want anyway. Cut a demo and write it off.

And so she did, taking control of the process with a preternatural assurance. She always seemed to instinctively intuit opportunity versus cost. The lyrics came quickly, a single based on her adult film work. “Don’t bury my vocals in the mix,” was her directive. From red tape to magnetic tape, Lana Silver’s first bona fide hit: “Love Flood (Wash Over Me).” Her cash cow, later her albatross. Her entry point and her epitaph.

Over the subsequent three decades it had been licensed by juice companies, sampled by rap and pop stars, replayed on the radio and on countless countdown shows. It was a musical memoir of hedonism; a breathy disco monologue begging for it; lust made accessible to the masses line dancing in bars across the country who didn’t care to parse the meaning, who only needed the beat. It was an account of sex-for-pay gussied up as a dance tune, but what of it, compared to what it yielded?

And it yielded entree into a certain life: the ups and downs of a recording artist, a striver hovering near the margins. Lesser hits followed on the heels of the Death of Disco. Then, one failed attempt at recording a New Wave single—a certified flop. A year or so spent with a bottle of Chardonnay and a corkscrew always at her side and not answering phone calls from friends or associates. A purging of her address book. An ex-boyfriend who left her with a concussion and a pile of bad debt. That brief blip of time spent as a phone psychic. Then, time back on the road, nightclub gigs in one-off casino towns and the occasional county fair.

Unable to pinpoint herself on the cultural landscape. The artist of a classic in a maligned genre. A slow downward arc, like a tragedy but ignoble. Vocal nodes made performing impossible for a time. She had begun work on her autobiography. She was set to record again. Someone from a studio had approached her about making her life into a biopic. Time seemed to thaw, melt, progress again. Until the diagnosis. Stage four. Fatal. Optimistic prognosis: six months. Any immediate family members to contact? Who do you tell? She’d buried both her parents several years prior. Time began to be measured in chemo drips.

She’d seen Roger’s acupuncturist a day before cameras rolled on a second-tier music television docu-series Whither the One Hit Wonders? She’d been taped on her balcony. The daylight diffuse, the humidity thick. She worried about, as she said, “dew on her brow.” The make-up girl, pierced and punky, squinted at her and walked away.

“How do I look?” she asked aloud, but the nurse taking her temperature didn’t respond. “Am I dewy?”

The next evening she awoke as daylight yielded to the fluorescent parking lot saturation. Todd in the room, alert. His documents splayed out on the table. Could he detect a shift in her? She seemed without a frame, he thought. She did not do well outside of a frame, a context. “What babes?” he asked. She realized she must have said something because Todd was then seated at her bedside, his hand on hers. Not cold. Familiar. Her mind flashed to the opening night telegram sent from Noel Coward to Gertrude Lawrence: “a warm hand on your opening.” She made a sound like a laugh.

The obituary she imagines, the one which won’t run. The alternate history. “She died peacefully at home” it would read, “surrounded by friends and family.” The fantasy scene she art-directs in her mind as it pulls further away. Even now, she’s not sure if that life would have satisfied her, but it’s too late to know.

Mike Dressel is a writer and educator living in New York. His work has appeared in OCHO: A Journal of Queer Arts, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Metazen, Promethean, and Chelsea Station, among other places. He also co-produces the nonfiction reading series No, YOU Tell It!