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Happily Ever After
Modern romance, gift shop encounters, and an underwater music video shoot
When Lyssa was seven, her mother took her to see the movie where the mermaid wants legs. At the ending, she shook her head and squinted at the prince and said, “Why would she leave her family for that?” which for years contributed to the prevailing belief that Lyssa was sentimental or softhearted, when in fact she just knew a bad trade when she saw one. The whole ocean for one man. Not that she knew much about the ocean: Lyssa had been born in a landlocked state, and at 30, it seemed the closest approximation she might get was her job working the gift shop in the lobby of the Titanic. It was not a metaphor: It was an actual replica of the Titanic, with a mini-museum on the lower level, though it made most of its money off weddings and children’s birthday parties hosted on the upper decks.
A second-tier pop star had rented the whole structure for a music video shoot, which would shut down normal operations for three full days. Lyssa had been planning on the time off, but when the video’s director came to finalize the plans for the space, he stopped in front of the shop glass, stared for a minute, walked in, and said, “You — you’re perfect.”
She agreed to remain on site for the filming and canceled her follow-up with the doctor, giving herself, in her head, the stern lecture she imagined he would have. Her co-worker Mackenzie sulked around the rest of the afternoon, flinging herself into the director’s line of vision without success. Mackenzie sometimes worked the gift shop counter with Lyssa, but only sometimes; whenever there was a princess party, Mackenzie wore the costume dress and chaperoned as the princess-on-deck. Lyssa never worked parties; the one time anyone had bothered to give her an explanation for this (she hadn’t asked), it was a supervisor who mumbled something about historical accuracy meaning no black princesses.
“We’d hate for the six-year-olds having tea parties on the Titanic to get the wrong idea about history,” Lyssa said, so straight-faced that the supervisor failed to call her out for her attitude.
“I guess they must want diversity,” Mackenzie said after the director left, using air quotes for diversity even though it was the literal word she meant.
The next day, and, as Mackenzie went, genuinely conciliatory: “Maybe he wants to fuck you? He was cute, in a New York way. I bet he thinks you’re exotic.”
The former, not so much: The theme of the music video was sea monsters; everyone in it, including the pop star and Lyssa, would be painted with green body paint and spritzed with shimmer and filmed through a Vaseline lens that would add to the illusion that they were underwater. The pop star didn’t want a ship; she wanted a shipwreck. Lyssa was just supposed to wear her regular uniform and work the counter and be herself, in costume makeup. Most of the real action took place on the upper decks. In two days of shooting, Lyssa only saw the pop star from a distance, through the glass, but one of the extras from the gift shop scene was one of the pop star’s longtime backup dancers and gossiped about her during a coffee break. The pop star considered this video a clapback to an ex who told a tabloid she’d let herself go and looked like a monster in recent photos. The video was all about letting herself go, being on screen green and fat and nearly naked. The pop star was thinner than Lyssa had ever been in her life. Lyssa understood by then why she’d been picked and not Mackenzie: They needed someone in the store who could look like she knew what she was doing for more than five minutes at a time. She was backdrop.
But the director did, apparently, also want to fuck her, though it seemed as much an afterthought as anything, the kind of whim that came to the kind of man who always wanted to fuck somebody. When they weren’t filming, the pop star and her dancers traveled together like a swarm of fireflies, and the director and the tech crew and the hair and makeup artists were left to less glamorously fend for themselves. After they’d shut down for the second day, the director appeared as Lyssa was locking up the store and asked if she wanted a drink.
“Okay,” she said.
“I haven’t been here long enough to find a good bar, but I’ve got a great bottle of scotch back at the hotel,” he said.
Lyssa saw the opening. She had been here all her life. She could tell him where a good bar was. She did not. In the hotel bathroom, she scrubbed off the stubborn lingering bits of the green makeup and tried to look as respectable as a woman about to fuck a stranger could. When she came out, he had poured the drinks and didn’t seem to notice she was fully human-colored again. Lyssa took a sip and put the drink down, and he reached for her hand, turned her palm over and began to trace something in it.
“Are you trying to tell my fortune?” she asked.
“I wasn’t,” he said. “But I have a lucky guess that you’re about to make a man very happy.”
It was so gross it was almost endearing.
The first time, they used the condom in the hotel’s romance kit, which included only a condom and a package of after-dinner mints. The second time, he pulled out, and the third time he didn’t.
“Was that okay? I mean I know I’m safe,” he said, a sentence that, in her experience, men who were in any capacity actually safe never had to say out loud. “But are you on something?”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” she said. “I don’t have ovaries.”
“My mom died of cancer. So they took mine out. To be safe. See the scar?”
She turned onto her back and pointed to the faint line across her abdomen.
“I’m sorry,” he said, placing a palm on her tummy.
“It’s fine,” she said.
“You don’t have to pretend it’s okay,” he said.
“We don’t have to be friends,” she said.
Lyssa did, in fact, have ovaries, but she also had a period you could set a watch by and an app that told her which weeks not to worry about carelessness. The scar on her belly was from an appendectomy and was the wrong direction for what it would have been if she’d had the other surgery. She was not supposed to still have the ovaries. A year and a half ago, her mother had gone to the hospital with what the intake doctor called textbook appendicitis and died of cancer 11 months later. It was only in the aftermath of that, when Lyssa was settling affairs with the hospital, that a doctor asked if she’d considered her own preventative options. She felt cheated, already, out of a mother, out of a textbook diagnosis where they could have lifted the bad thing out of her mother and sent her home to recover, and she was not ready to get cheated out of anything else.
“I don’t have any children,” Lyssa told the doctor she visited a few weeks later.
“Were you planning on them?” he asked.
“I wasn’t not planning on them.”
The doctor sighed. He leaned forward and made a facial expression somewhere between the a smile and a grimace, a face that looked like the kind of face a doctor would practice making after being lectured about his bedside manner but never get quite right without a mirror.
“Look, if you were going to try to have a baby tomorrow, I’d say perhaps that was your risk to take. But if you’re not planning on starting a family anytime soon, well, you’re not getting any younger, and I’d do this sooner rather than later. Take care of your real future, not your imaginary one.”
Lyssa tried to imagine her real future. She had lived with her mother until her mother wasn’t living. She had inherited the house, or whatever of the house she could get out from underneath the second mortgage, which locked her here for now if nothing else did. She had seen the way her mother died and she could not imagine choosing it, given a choice. But her mother had chosen it, had chosen, with her little bit of time left, every painful intervention, every last-chance effort, every surgical and injected and intravenous possibility of survival over comfort. When her mother asked, and Lyssa said, This is not what I would do if it were me, sometimes she meant You are so brave, and sometimes she meant You are reckless and foolish, and sometimes she meant I can’t imagine what in my life would be worth trying this hard to live for. If her mother’s ovaries had been gone by the time she was Lyssa’s age, perhaps they wouldn’t have killed her, but who would have been sitting by her bed when she died? The first time she thought about dying, Lyssa was 14. When she told her mother about the feeling, her mother said, “You’d have to shoot me first.”
At the time she went to see the doctor, Lyssa was dating a bartender named Travis. She’d been intending to break up with Travis since before her mother got sick, not so much for a reason as because she couldn’t think of a reason not to, but when her mother was admitted to the hospital the first time he showed up with flowers and a teddy bear, it was too late then. Then, closer to the end, her mom ran out of the only painkiller that worked, and Lyssa had to go to work, so Travis offered to pick up the medicine and bring it to the house. Lyssa went to the pharmacy for her mother’s medicine all the time, and she never showed her mother’s ID and rarely got asked for her own, but Travis was a man and a good three shades darker than she was. When he went to get the medicine, the clerk accused him of having a fake ID and asked him to come back with two other forms of ID and the patient. The patient couldn’t get out of bed just then, and Travis got so upset that first he argued, and then he tried to call the doctor, and then he cried, though he was not a man who cried, and while all this was happening, he wouldn’t get out of the line. Security came and pinned him to the ground, and it was only because just then the manager who knew who Lyssa’s mom was came back from her lunch break that the cops didn’t get called. Travis didn’t even tell her any of that happened; she only heard about it because the manager apologized to her the next time she went to fill a prescription, and no one had ever protected her from the world like that, so Travis was still around. She told him what the doctor said and half hoped he’d say. Well, okay, if it has to be tomorrow, we have a baby tomorrow then, but he just listened quietly and said, “If that’s what you have to do to be healthy, that’s what you have to do.”
“That’s sweet,” her cousin said, when she tried to explain why this was unsatisfactory. “He wants you alive more than he wants you knocked up. Could be the other way around.”
Lyssa was unsatisfied with these being her only two options, so she told Travis she was going through with it, and then broke up with him so he would never know she didn’t. She went back to the doctor one more time to tell him no and to promise she’d let them monitor her risk levels, but so far she’d found a reason not to be at every scheduled follow-up and blood draw. Lyssa couldn’t remember walking around without anything inside her that wanted her dead. What future had there ever been but the imaginary?
She was not getting any younger. Maybe she wasn’t getting much older either. In the dim hotel light, Lyssa noticed a green smudge she’d missed on her arm, while the director wrapped an arm around to spoon her. She thought he was still trying to comfort her and tried to change the subject. She asked if it was true the pop star felt like a monster when she came up with the video concept.
“Who knows how she feels?” he said. “But she didn’t come up with the concept.”
“Her manager did. He’s also the one who told the press her ex thought she looked like a monster. He thought she needed something to spark her. I was skeptical, but she was actually fucking magnificent today. It worked.”
“For you,” Lyssa said.
“We’ll see,” he said. He breathed into her neck until he fell asleep.
In the morning, the director ordered them room service breakfast and went off to wrap things up at the shoot. Lyssa lounged around in the bathrobe and watched the hotel cable until it was late enough that she was worried the director might be back soon. The next day, work was closed for a deep cleaning, paid for by the pop stars’ people, though for months they kept finding glitter everywhere anyway. The children at the birthday parties were mostly delighted. The day the pop star’s video launched, there was a birthday party on the top deck, and Mackenzie was upstairs in the princess dress chasing shrieking six-year-olds. A wayward boy — one of the princess’ brothers, wearing one of the captain hats they saved for male guests — wandered into the gift shop. He picked up a plastic replica of the replica.
“Do you know this boat sank?” he asked.
“I do,” Lyssa said. “Where are your parents?”
“If I’d been there, I would have fought that iceberg,” he said. “I wish I could find that iceberg and kick its ass.”
“Well, it turns out we’ve been fighting the ice for a long time now, and the ice is definitely losing,” Lyssa said. “If you go back in time you can tell that iceberg that Antarctica is already melting and doesn’t know it yet.”
“Huh?” said the boy. He wandered out of the gift shop and into the arms of his bewildered-looking father.
Lyssa slouched over the counter and looked up the pop star’s video on her phone. It was a bad week for a breakthrough: Antarctica was, in fact, melting, perhaps irreversibly; a first-tier pop star and her famous actor husband were having a messy breakup; the president had made a blustering threat; a kid with a gun held a fast-food restaurant hostage before killing himself. But the pop star was radiant, larger and greener on screen than she had seemed when Lyssa saw her from a distance, joyful where in person she had looked morose. Lyssa was onscreen for maybe ten seconds. There was the underwater version of where she was standing; there she was, lovely and monstrous, arranging the gift shop baubles, the snow globes and deck prisms pointing toward her, casting tiny shadows, leaving the smallest spaces on her body all lit up with danger.