(Matt DeButts)– Jackson had never worn make up before—she had never needed to. She didn’t know it would feel so…chalky. She kept blinking and apologizing to the make-up artist whose name she thought was Valerie. In the mirror before her she perceived a transformation: her eyes were growing bigger, and deeper, outlined by purple-black paint. Her cheeks had reddened. She looked younger.
By the doorway the director watched her. The director was a well-dressed man, or rather, an intentionally-dressed man, the kind of man who wore nice clothes to make clear how seriously he took his job. In a B-list movie, he would have been cast as the villain. He had thin aristocratic lips, which presently quivered as if on the verge of making some utterance. He stared into the reflection of Jackson’s chest in the mirror.
“Yes…?” Jackson finally prompted him.
“Ah,” he said. “You signed the form. Good. You’re on in fifteen.”
The-woman-who-might-be-Valerie curled Jackson’s hair. Jackson tried to imagine Valerie stroking her legs, caressing her thighs, kissing her lips. The imagining made Valerie’s twirls seem more sexualized; charged. Jackson felt the tug of her scalp and the subsequent release of tension in her skin.
Jackson had a “condition.” Not a disease, her doctors insisted, just…a “condition.” The doctors had told her parents at birth: “She won’t appear on camera.” The doctors, the army and finally the scientists had tried but failed to diagnose its cause. Paintings, yes; film, no. Her voice could be recorded but not her image. This condition had led to all manner of strange interactions and perverse incentives. In her youth she had shoplifted but had never, to the storeowners’ dismay, been caught on tape.
Jackson remembered the irony of her prom night: she and her friends had spent hours selecting dresses, futzing with their hair, choosing boutonnieres. But when it came time for the photo—and it always came time for the photo—her date asked her sheepishly to remover herself from the scene. He didn’t want “awkward” prom photos to look back on. She had leaned against a tree in her friend’s front yard while her date and her friends rested hands on hips to form a fucked up conga line.
Around then had begun her love of radio. She felt a connection to these FM luminaries, a kinship she couldn’t replicate with her photogenic friends. At 4pm each afternoon Jackson would lie in bed and listen to Terry Gross from her bedside stereo. Jackson loved Terry’s Midwestern accent. Terry’s voice was an aural caress. Yes, Jackson would think on those days, this is NPR. Sometimes, amidst the pillows and sheets and Terry’s gentle questioning Jackson’s hand would wander to the top of her thighs and then between them. It didn’t feel like she was touching herself. It felt like Terry.
Jackson loved all the NPR hosts. Ira Glass, Melissa Block, Garrison Keillor, Renee Montagne, even—can you believe it—Diane Rehm. What mattered to Jackson was not who they were or what they said but rather how they said it. These hosts possessed a celebrity to which no Hollywood actor could compare. In the voice, their voices, Jackson could see the Truth. And the truth, if she were being honest, turned her on.
What changed? Jackson wondered. Why didn’t Eric excite her like Terry did? And why did he say those things last week—such nasty things! Men—men! Why not Valerie? Why not Terry?
Jackson had never watched pornography before yesterday; she had watched it yesterday only to prepare for today. She had been clear: one woman only, no toys, no BDSM filth; in return, they would act the role of a first-time lesbian, and she would act it free of charge. The paperwork hadn’t taken long.
In the studio Jackson heard the voice of a woman across the hall, speaking on the phone. Jackson wondered if this woman could be her. She drank in the woman’s voice, all walnut and black cherry. Jackson imagined her appearance. Narrow waist, large hips and lips, silky brown hair, dark eyes.
The woman across the hall laughed. A cascading, wind-chime-laugh that spilled out the doorway and into Jackson’s dressing room, lighting it like the winter sun. Jackson felt hot and unsure.
Valerie gestured for Jackson to stand and removed the bathrobe from her shoulders. There she stood, naked in the yellowing light of the halogen lamps. Her face looked like it had been transplanted from the cover of a cheap supermarket magazine. Her body, though unchanged, had acquired a different texture, as if eroticized by its surroundings. It looked like it was not hers.
What does it mean to be “invisible?” The other day Jackson was listening to the radio in the shower. An interview was being aired, but from the sound of cars in the background Jackson could tell the interview was taking place on the street. It was one of those vox pop interviews. The “public” was speaking.
“Which superpower would you rather have,” the voice was asking, “flight or invisibility?”
A woman named Christine said flight. “A person who chooses to fly has nothing to hide. A person who chooses to be invisible has something to hide.”
A car whizzed by and a truck horn sounded in the distance.
A youthful man said flight. His voice emanated an easy confidence, as if he had thought it all before. “Flying is for people who want to let it all hang out. Invisibility is for fearful crouching masturbators.” He said it with a smile—Jackson could hear it. His friends laughed in the background.
“It all has to do with guile. Wanting to be invisible means you’re a more guileful person. If you want to fly, it means you’re guileless.”
The interviewer said “mmmm” as if he agreed, and then the street noise cut out. They were back in the studio, the interviewer and Jackson.
“Flight is the hero, selfless and confident and unashamed. And invisibility, the villain. I learned this from almost everyone I talked to.
“But in the end, it’s not a question of what kind of person flies and what kind of person fades,” the interviewer said, speaking softly now into the microphone. It was a salacious intimacy, like he was in the shower with Jackson, placing his arm conspiratorially across her shoulders and whispering into her ear.
“At the heart of this decision,” he said, “is this. Who do you want to be: the person you hope to be, or the person you fear you are? Don’t rush into it. Think it over. Which would you choose?”
Jackson had had to sit down in the shower, and suddenly she felt upset. She was on her period—that’s all. That’s what she would tell Eric later, and she wanted to believe it herself. She was thankful for the wash of warm water and the sound of it splashing against her chest. She rinsed her hair three times, each time with greater vigor than the last. She didn’t notice until leaving the shower that the radio had been playing in the background, that she had never switched it off.
Today she had waited in the car before entering the warehouse. Amphitheatric Studios read the sign, juxtaposed against the faded letters XXX in red. The warehouse had aluminum siding and looked to all appearances like it should be abandoned (the other buildings on the street were empty) but Jackson could tell it was not: there was no graffiti, no litter. Amphitheatric Studios was real alright. She could see it.
In her car this morning Jackson had lain in the driver’s seat, set in full recline, pretending it was a therapist’s couch. With her right hand she jiggled the car’s manual transmission, tugging it back and forth, settling into each gear with a satisfying clawk. Her phone, switched off, was riding shotgun. It stood in for Eric, who remained at home.
“I’m not mad about it now,” she said aloud, “This isn’t for him. This is for myself.”
“The FDA has issued new guidelines for cholesterol-lowing drugs,” the radio had replied. “But the pharmaceutical companies have been slow to follow them.”
“This is adventurous. This is the time to try.”
“Pfizer says that the new regulations could cost millions.”
“The video will never be shown online. There won’t be a video at all. There can’t be.”
“But consumer advocates argue that’s not the case.”
Forget the consumer advocates, Jackson thought. They could watch blank pornographic reel for all she cared. Eric could watch blank pornographic reel for all she cared. If her boyfriends wanted porn, she would give it to them in its truest form—with the human being removed.
And thus she stood nude in front of a mirror in a porn studio’s dressing room. Presently the director reentered the doorway and gestured for her to follow. Valerie said, “Break a leg.”
Jackson and the director arrived finally at a mock bedroom. The bed was large, a king, tactfully overlaid with white sheets. The wallpaper was pink. The director gestured for her to sit on the bed. He moved to the stationary camera in the corner of the room and situated himself behind it. Jackson noticed with a mix of gratitude and trepidation that he didn’t look through the camera lens. Instead he reached into a bag and withdrew a small handheld video-recorder.
“Jaya,” he called. “We’re ready for you now.”
A red-headed woman emerged topless from the bathroom. She walked with confidence and grace, commanding her body like a loyal vassal. She glanced at Jackson.
“You’re cute,” the woman said.
“Thanks,” Jackson said nervously.
“Mmmmm,” the woman said. She lay Jackson on the bed and kissed her.
Jackson forgot about the cameras and the well-dressed director and Eric. She kissed the woman back. The director nodded from the high-backed cameraman’s chair and approached the couple with the handheld video recorder at his chest. He circled the bed like a vulture, zooming in close and pulling back. The camera light stayed on, bright red.
Jackson would later learn that the video didn’t turn out. The director shook his head as he told her this, stunned. Never before had his equipment so utterly and completely failed him. His equipment must have been faulty.
Jackson assured him, as she once again put on her clothes, that he was certainly correct. His equipment must have been faulty—it’s okay, she told him, that happens sometimes. She didn’t mind.
For the first time in a long time, she didn’t listen to the radio as she drove home. This time, she enjoyed the silence.
Happy Friday everyone! Today marks the beginning of our “Fiction Fridays” series on AC Voice. If you are interested in submitting whole or excerpted fiction writing for publication on the site, contact Marie Lambert at firstname.lastname@example.org.