HALLOWEEN FICTION – A narcissistic actress meets the one man she can’t have. 2,546 words. Illustration by John David Carlucci.
When Jacqui decides to rent a house, the most important item on her wish list is the position of the pool. The wrong exposure, too much shade – deal breaker. No tanning beds or creams, Jacqui enjoys the sun. She has zero interest in people who obsess about skin cancer. God created sun, didn’t he? But did he create dihydroxyacetone, the creepy stinky chemical in self-tanners that does who knows what to your immune system? She visits her dermatologist once a year to get checked out and she’s doing just fine, thanks. SPF? Not for Jacqui.
Jacqui never wanted to be an actress. She moved to L.A. with a high school girlfriend who had the acting bug. Jacqui figured she’d get a job, then marry a nice man. Enough of a reason to leave Fresno. The girlfriend took acting classes and one night, after a showcase, Jacqui was approached in the lobby by an agent who said he admired her performance.
“I wasn’t in the show,” Jacqui told him.
“You should’ve been,” the agent told her, not missing a beat.
Jacqui married the agent, did some guest spots on TV shows. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Quantum Leap. She learned her lines, got along with everybody, became known for her pretty face and nice body. But L.A. was filled with actresses like Jacqui. Fortunately, there also were plenty of men who admired them. Divorce, alimony. Another marriage, another divorce. Alimony again. Star Trek: Voyager, NCIS, a couple Lifetime movies. She was aware of getting older, of losing roles to younger women. But Jacqui didn’t care. She had money – not a huge amount, but enough. She still worked. Other actresses talked about their plastic surgeons and line fillers and boob lifts, but Jacqui was oblivious. Because, no matter what, Jacqui always had the best tan.
She knows people admire her tan and want to ask what product she uses. L’Oreal? Kiehl’s? One of those tanning towels you see on the home shopping networks? I’m natural, that’s what she’d tell them. She feels pity when she walks by a woman with a bottle tan. “I can see your orange palms or the brown on your cuticles where you thought you wiped off the lotion, but you didn’t. Fake fake, faker,” she wants to say. But she doesn’t.
The stone cottage in Laurel Canyon she’s looking at to rent only has one and a half bathrooms — and the half bath is so small her knees bang against the sink when she sits on the toilet. The kitchen floor has checkerboard black and white press-n-stick linoleum tiles that curl up at the edges. But the pool, that pool, is the home run.
Built in the backyard halfway up the hillside, it sits like a mini-oasis, surrounded by a low brick and metal fence, with cypress trees behind it on two sides not creating shade, only privacy. The pool is oval, with a flagstone deck and sapphire and bronze glass tiles rimming the edge. A black bottom pool, the leasing agent explains to Jacqui. “They don’t make them like that any more. It’s against code.” Jacqui isn’t listening. She looks down at the water in the pool. Flat and still, deep blue and dark green.
“The price seems like a steal, especially for this neighborhood,” Jacqui says to the leasing agent. In her mind, she’s already arranging new pool furniture around the deck.
Darlene hesitates. She is pale, with ginger hair and freckles. What a curse, thinks Jacqui. “I was going to have to tell you anyway,” Darlene says. “Full disclosure. There were some deaths.”
Jacqui is trying to decide between a striped patio umbrella or a solid color. Dark green might disappear in front of the cypress trees, but would a multi-stripe be too busy? She realizes Darlene has said something about death.
“Somebody died here?”
“The last owner, she was elderly.” Darlene takes a deep breath. “She drowned. In the pool.”
Jacqui looks at the water again. More green now than blue, with splashes of bronze reflect from the tiles.
“An accident,” Darlene says. And takes another breath. “The man who lived here before her, too.”
“Both of them drowned?”
Why don’t more people take swimming lessons, Jacqui wonders.
“There was an investigation,” says Darlene. “But they didn’t find anything. Tragic accidents.”
“Were the people drunk?” Jacqui asks.
“I don’t know. I guess they could have been.”
“Probably drunk.” Jacqui smiles at Darlene. “Are you warning me about ghosts? Woo woo? That’s silly. Everything has a logical explanation.”
“I agree.” Darlene says. Jacqui can see the relief on her face.
Jacqui watches light dance on the surface of the water, like silver ribbons. It’s not as if the bodies are still floating in there, bloated and decaying. They must have drained the pool. And cleaned it. At least twice.
She’ll go with the multi-colored umbrella. Bright patches of color against the flat green background. Stunning.
There are two gardeners who come on Fridays. The first day they show up, Jacqui is poolside trying out her new commercial-grade chaise lounge. She’s adjusting the dark brown weather-resistant aluminum frame when she hears the roar of a leaf blower from the front of the house. Damn. Why do they have to come at prime tanning time? Those negative people who talk about skin cancer yammer about the most dangerous hours to sit in the sun. Well, duh. Who’s going to get a tan at 5 p.m.?
She supposes she could ask the gardeners to come back later. But when they appear in the backyard, they do their job quickly, and avoid the pool area completely. Jacqui gives them a polite wave and wonders if they speak English.
“Hot,” one of the gardeners says to her as he wipes sweat off his forehead with a dirty red handkerchief. She says, “Very,” before she slips in the pool to cool off.
The first time the pool boy arrives, she’s on her stomach. For years, lying on her stomach has been the least favorite part of her tanning routine. Smushed boobs. Too much sweat. But lately she’s come to prefer it. The cushion on her new chaise lounge is comfortable, and in this position it’s easier to look at her iPad. When she sits up, she has to squint to read and lately she’s noticed lines on the sides of her eyes. She refuses to think about Botox. Her latest agent mentioned it, very politely, and she laughed. “Maybe after I book the next job,” she told him.
She has a callback on a low budget horror movie and she’s pretty sure she’ll get it. The director told her he was a big fan, but warned her the movie was scary. “A spider walks across your face,” the director said. “A real spider.”
Jacqui shrugged. “I’d let a dozen spiders walk across my face. I’m not afraid of anything.”
The click of the gate makes her turn and she wonders if the gardeners have picked the wrong day. But it’s not the gardeners. A slim young man has appeared, wearing dark jeans and a white shirt and carrying a long pole with a net and a plastic bucket.
He nods at her. His cap is pulled low over his face so she can’t see his eyes. There’s a name stitched on the front of his shirt: Juan. He’s Hispanic like the gardeners. Does he speak English? Probably not.
“Hot,” she says.
He nods at her again and moves to the other side of the pool.
Is it rude for her to sit here while he works? Should she go inside? But she doesn’t want to miss prime tanning time. Plus she hasn’t flipped over yet. She has 10 more minutes on her stomach. The weather forecast tomorrow calls for showers. And possibly the day after that. Miss two days of tanning in a row?
She chooses to stay put. Glances at the fashion magazines on her iPad Newstand. On some women, the slashed-sleeve top would look slutty. Not on her though. She saves the pages.
The pool boy is skimming the water with his net. Like a fly fisherman, she thinks. There aren’t many leaves in the pool. Just a few sticks, and bugs, but it’s probably a good thing he’s here cleaning. It’s not as if she’d enjoy swimming through scum or dirt. She should thank him. Instead, she checks her watch lying on the patio table. Time to flip.
The pool boy examines the skimmer basket and removes some leaves. He pulls out the chlorine float and adds to it from a white jar. Cleaning leaves and changing pool filters all day must be boring, Jacqui thinks. On the upside, at least he gets to look at women in bathing suits. Unless he’s gay. Well, he probably sees dozens of men and women in bathing suits, too. Either way.
She considers saying goodbye to him when he’s finished, but the shoes she’s looking at are cute. Even though the black patent leather strappy sandals might be too shiny. So when she hears the sound of the gate closing, he has his back to her. What would be the point of saying goodbye when he’s already gone?
Her new house is perfection. She rarely sees her neighbors. At night she sleeps with the windows open in the bedroom and listens to barking coyotes, but they never appear in her yard. The gardeners to accommodate her have changed their schedule and now come late in the afternoons. The pool boy still hasn’t spoken to her, but she knows he’s watching her. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the skimming pole moving back and forth, but he’s not paying attention to his work. He’s looking at her. She feels a flush of pride. I’m probably old enough to be his mother and he’s admiring me. But maybe he shouldn’t be. He’s my employee. My rent pays for the house’s upkeep. He’s not paid to look at me, he’s paid to do his job. I should complain.
Or not. Does he know I’m an actress? Maybe he’s obsessed with me, she wonders. Is he trying to guess how old I am? I’m older than I look, she wants to tell him. Almost 40. He’ll look surprised, and she’ll put a finger to his lips. No, Juan. It’s true. Cross my heart. She smiles at the thought.
She realizes then that Juan is handsome, with his black hair curling from under his cap and almost touching his shoulders. His forearms are thick and strong and muscular which Jacqui has always admired in men. Hispanic skin is pretty, she decides. Like a tan. She wishes she could see his eyes, but they’re always hidden under the cap.
I know what you’re doing, Juan. And I suppose it’s okay. It’s my job to have people watch me. Want me. Have you seen one of the Lifetime movies or an episode of Psych? Ever wish you could meet that actress See her in person. Maybe even date her and go to bed with her. But what are the chances of that?
Aroused, she decides to give Juan a present. She sits up quickly and doesn’t grab her bikini top in time and flashes her breasts for him. Did he see? She’s not sure, but she hopes so.
He doesn’t say anything. Just keeps skimming the leaves, the dirt, the palm fronds. Back and forth, never too fast. The waves slap against the sides of the pool as she daydreams about Juan.
Sometimes she keeps the pool lights on at night so she can see the pool from her bed. The water shimmers. The coyotes howl. She could invite Juan over one night. They’ll drink wine at the patio table. Take off their clothes and dive into the silver blue water. “Juan,” she’ll say, tracing the letters on his bare chest.
His lack of reaction makes her rethink flashing her boobs. But it’s not as if he’s getting too familiar. He still doesn’t speak. Only nods. She sips iced green tea and considers offering him some. She could go into the kitchen and get another glass. But is he expecting that? The feeling she gets from him these days is he’s entitled to tea. Entitled to see her tits.
The ice cubes clink against her teeth and she frowns. Don’t be presumptuous, Juan. Know your place. I’m a working actress and you’re a pool boy. You can’t have me. That’s what she should say. Except he still isn’t paying attention to her. She imagined herself as Juan’s favorite client, but now there’s something in the way he moves past her. It’s as if she’s become invisible. His disinterest makes her uncomfortable. Does he see her as ridiculous? Desperate, lonely, trying too hard? I don’t need you, Juan. I’ve got my career and, if that goes south, I’ll marry again. To somebody with a real job. Not a pool boy.
Jacqui is sitting by the pool looking over the script for the spider movie. The director has talked to her about acting afraid. He wants to know, doesn’t anything scare her? She told him she’d think that over. She considers scary things. An earthquake? Terminal illness? The best she can come up with is being pale.
The temperature must be in the 90s today, but the light breeze helps a little. Jacqui watches the tops of the cypress trees wave back and forth. The sun feels warm on her skin. She almost doesn’t answer her cell when it rings, but it might be the director so she picks up. It’s Darlene wanting to know how things are going with the house.
“It’s wonderful,” she tells Darlene. “I don’t have any complaints. Well, just one. I’m not sure the pool boy is working out. The pool is very clean. But I don’t think I like his attitude. He’s a little…”Jacqui searches for the right adjective.
“What pool boy?” Darlene says.
“Juan. He comes twice a week.”
“The house doesn’t come with pool service, only gardening.”
The tops of the cypress trees are moving more quickly now, the breeze has picked up.
“I’ve got another call, Jacqui. Hold on a sec,” Darlene says.
Jacqui is put on hold. Then she hears the sound of a click. With that, the gate swings open and Juan walks in. But this time he puts his skimmer and bucket down by the fence and walks to the foot of Jacqui’s lounge chair. When she looks up at him, she can see his eyes. Large and almost black.
Only something’s wrong. She can’t see any white. That can’t be right, everybody has white in their eyes, don’t they?
She realizes she’s not looking at his eyes because he doesn’t have any. There are holes, empty caves where his eyes should be.
She shivers, even though the sun is still warm.
Juan is smiling at her.
“Hot,” he says. “A swim will cool you off.”
He reaches for her hand. She hesitates, but takes it. It feels wet and clammy. And she thinks, as he leads her slowly to the pool steps, okay, at least now I know what I’ll tell the director about how it feels to be afraid.