1 On My Porch
May 2005: Nice to meet you, Husband. My name is Alice. It’s official. I have willingly followed you to the South and fallen into your rabbit hole.
I drowsily watch my sports-doctor husband, Burton, as he prepares for work at the hospital. He buttons up his crisp, white Brooks Brothers shirt and tucks it into his navy trousers. He’s escaping under the camouflage of early-morning darkness. It’s so early. I believe even the sun would be grumpy for being awakened this early. I’m certainly not giddy.
Repositioning my large body, I rub my feet up and down the sheets because I like the way they feel like warm butter against my toes. I am lying in our four-poster bed, tugging at the chocolate-brown chenille blanket to better cover myself up. When Burton leans down and kisses me good-bye, I hold my breath, trying not
to repulse him. He’s had an opportunity to brush with Crest, and my mouth tastes like the poop fairy has visited it.
“You gonna to be okay?” His Southern charm lazily rolls off his tongue, yet he manages to sound authentically concerned.
“I’m fine . . . Go.” I wave him off with a sleepy smile the way I imagine I would if we were an old married couple. But we are anything but that.
We were married eight days ago after living in sin for just over five months. The ceremony was private, held beneath a gazebo covered in ivy and next to a lake on his parents’ two-hundred-year-old vacation plantation. An overly large, bald, perspiring, African-American minister, whom I could barely understand due to my current condition, made it official. Amid the preacher’s Bible flailing and the elongated syllables at the end of every vow he preached, the sweltering Tennessee humidity—already in full boil despite its only being early May—and the distraction of mosquitoes attempting to suck my sweet blood, I was lucky to still be vertical.
Although this legalized religious ceremony may or may not have been my idea, I couldn’t help but daydream about lying in the sand in Malibu, gulping a Grey Goose vodka on the rocks with a lemon twist, and popping a Xanax to take the edge off. I just nodded halfheartedly at phrases like Till death do y’all part as I had been nodding for the past ten years at Jose, my car-wash guy in Los Angeles. Jose, who was from El Salvador, would ramble on and on about his family while he detailed my Navigator. I should have won an Oscar for how convincingly I would nod as if I heard him, as if I cared about what he was saying.
Once again, I was kinda listening, kinda not. Only this was my wedding, which should give an indication of my laissez-faire ideology regarding commitment.
The memories of my wedding fade in and out. They’re not the
typical scenes you’d watch in a Lifetime movie but more akin to something out of a Coen brothers’ film like Fargo. We were quite the motley crew. A black woman named LeChelle, whom I’d known for what seemed like only a second or two, was my maid of honor. She held my elbow to ensure that I didn’t fall over or possibly make a break to escape. She sure beat Annabelle, Burton’s judgmental, snickering, and recently divorced socialite sister, who kept rolling her eyes and making sucking noises with her monster veneer teeth. A doctor friend of Burton’s, whose name I cannot recall, was his best man, and I had only one guest from my side of the family: my gay business partner, Amos, who wore a superb Armani ensemble and held my white rosebud bouquet.
I do distinctly remember the wave of nausea that hit me when my groom’s plump father, Burton Banister II, clad in a pale-blue-and-white seersucker suit, wiped sweat off his comb-over and drooled a piece of a chewed unlit cigar onto the ground. I swear a little vomit came up my gastrointestinal tract and into my mouth.
I remember that Burton’s mother hid her disappointment in me under a large-brimmed white hat with a yellow sunflower on it that matched the trim on her tan linen-and-lace suit. June-Rae was clenching her jaw so tight that her red lip liner seeped into the creases of her frown lines and made her look like a mean jack-o’-lantern.
LeChelle, Annabelle, Dr. What’s His Name, Burton Banister II, June-Rae, and Amos were our witnesses, I suppose, so no one else would have to be.
Here’s the really horrifying thing, though. It isn’t 1956. It’s 2005! But change is slow to come to the South, if it comes at all. For instance, good Southern boys are not supposed to have a baby out of wedlock with a Los Angeles tramp. The Banisters had such high hopes for their only son. He was supposed to finally settle down with a homogenous, white-bread Southern girl. Subtract the
shotgun and add some generational land and money and, well, we got ourselves a hoedown.
But back to what really mattered: I looked fabulous. I wore a fantastic off-white, Empire-waisted Vera Wang dress that accented everything I wanted to show off and beautifully concealed everything I didn’t. My swollen breasts were on proud display for all to see. They left no question unanswered about the extent of my lustful ambition and the shame it had cast on the pristine Banister lineage. It was a great dress.
Now, eight days later, the wedding is the least of my worries. I have a husband. And a supernice one at that. After kissing me good-bye, Burton stands back up and pauses.
I tried not to show my discomfort as he stared at me. “Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” I teased.
“You take care of our baby, okay?” he says, placing his hand below my baby bump, rubbing it with care over my Superwoman PJs. “You sure you’re gonna be all right? I can get Jed to fill in for me this trip.”
“I’m not even dilated. Go. Save a hockey player or an NFL football player’s life. ’Tis the season for off-season surgeries. I don’t need a babysitter. I’ll be fine.”
I want to scream that I’ve been taking care of myself since I was fourteen. But I just blink lovingly as even now, when I am as huge as a house, his puppy-dog hazel eyes make me melt. Being a nasty hormonal nightmare isn’t an option. I just smile. Wave and smile.
I understand that sexy and the name Burton do not traditionally fit together, but I will tell you: Burton is fine-looking to the bone. At six foot three, he has brown hair cut like Cary Grant’s in An Affair to Remember. He is an old soul. A good, bourbon-drinking, forty-two-year-old sports doctor who swaggers like Dean Martin, minus the cigarette.
Husband. Husband. Husband. The word cartwheels around and around in my brain. It doesn’t feel real. How can any of this be plausible?
My husband, I am convinced, is from another era, an era when men still call women, not text them, when they want to ask you to go to dinner. An era when men open the car door for their best girl, pay the check, and still love their mothers even when their mothers are overbearing, judgmental cows. He is a sporty, smart Southern Baptist who believes that God has some greater plan, but like many other men has fallen prey to a woman like me. He graduated from Ole Miss just like his daddy did before him, and his granddaddy before him.
Burton is a family name, and in the South, family does mean something. Even if that family is as crazy and mean as a pit of poisonous snakes. Family means everything, which is why I suppose he chose to marry me: I was carrying his unborn baby girl. That made me family. For better or for worse.
On this particular bleary-eyed morning, Burton is off to make his rounds at the hospital. He is always off to something at this hour. When I moved here in the chill of winter, he was always off to another professional hockey or football game. I don’t hold it against him or the gig. I love a hard-hitting sack of a quarterback, a half-court shot at the buzzer during March Madness, and “Gentlemen, start your engines!” at a NASCAR race. Call me a competitive junkie, but I like them in prime time, not before dawn. Later, it was another road trip and another surgery. The reasons for these painful 5:45 a.m. departure times are all starting to meld.
According to his corporate biography on the Baptist Hospital website, Burton is one of the leading sports doctors in the country. I have landed one of Nashville’s most eligible bachelors without even trying, and believe me it hasn’t gone unnoticed or ungossiped
about, or left me unscathed. However, the cackling neighborhood hens had better beware. This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been up against women before who place their hands over their mouths while whispering unsavory comments and drawing their assumptions out of the gutter. In fact, I’ve been material for women like them my whole life. The only difference is, where I’m from there were no pleases, thank-yous, or good manners to mask their bad behavior.
So, ladies, let’s be clear: I am your friendly neighborhood harlot with an illegitimate offspring to prove it. It wouldn’t be worth it if Burton weren’t so yummy. He’s intelligent and accomplished, sure, but he’s also a hunka-hunka burning love. He has a great smile. His strong jawline is the perfect frame for his gleaming, white teeth, which are neatly aligned from years of braces. He also has broad shoulders and, my personal favorite, a firm, juicy tush.
To be perfectly honest, that’s all I really know about him. Which, I suppose, is exactly the type of shallow observation that landed me here, barefoot and pregnant, in some handsome Southern stranger’s rabbit hole.
I suppose, too, that I deserve to be tethered to a man I barely know by the unborn child in my belly. I did, after all, sleep with him the first night we met.
Ahhh, the night we met. I close my eyes and imagine I can inhale the salty sea air, and go back to that night in California . . .
Almost nine months earlier: It’s Burton’s green eyes that lead me to the open, striped four-ball on the pool table. It’s a summer night and I’m at a party in Bel Air. The place and the party are courtesy of NFL bad boy Chad Johnson, otherwise known as
Chad Ochocinco. Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble mill about his rented house. Guests take in the sparkling lights of Westwood from the second-story deck and outdoor infinity pool. Everyone is gyrating to the techno music courtesy of a hired DJ.
Any Friday night in Los Angeles can seem like a costume party, but this is a costume party. I’m dressed as Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Art imitates life, so my costume isn’t quite that simple. I’m Alice after being hit by a car. My blue dress is torn and bloodied. There are black tread marks on the white apron. I have glued surprisingly realistic fake blood and gashes onto my cheek and arms. My white tights are ripped from the trauma. Some Alices in short skirts try to be sexy. I am not one of those Alices. I am the inside-out Alice who is demented and broken, with all her wounds showing.
Everywhere I look, I see A-listers flitting about. First, there’s the who’s who of Angeleno pro athletes: Laker players Kobe, Lamar, and Luke Walton; Dodger closer Eric Gagne; a very pregnant Britney Spears and her husband, Kevin Federline. Charlie Sheen, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Aniston, Clooney, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer are making the rounds, and finally, we have the decoration beauties: six-foot, long-legged Sports Illustrated models and happy-ending ladies who were hired to make the night more fun for dorky CAA talent-agent types.
The wigs, false eyelashes, and elaborate costumes would confuse the casual party guests, but I am a tabloid reporter who has been trained for almost a decade to see through all the fakeness. I know who is here and I am on the clock.
I can’t help but feel a tinge of pride as I note fear in the eyes of celebrities when they see me now—fear and trepidation. After launching Trashville, my twenty-four-hour website dedicated to digging in the Dumpster of Tinseltown, celebrities have grown to both loathe and love me. More than anything, LA has become a
celeb society and an industry that needs me. And I am more than happy to serve it. I was born to play the role of tabloid reporter and, after playing it at National Celebrity News magazine for five years, I’ve become the very best. I can cut to the jugular of gossip stories before my competitors can say, Would you like to comment? During the hunt for my next image kill, I can hear this town cheering and egging me on, beating the drums even as they pretend to look away. I am the celebrity-hunting femme fatale.
I have so much sour juice and dirty evidence in my vault of shame, at this point in my career I can make or break almost anyone in Hollywood. At thirty-eight I have made it to the top, and I don’t care that I had to climb a pile of bloody glass to get there. I wear my scars like Girl Scout badges of honor.
Celebrities pretend to hate the paparazzi and tabloids, but it is their hired publicists who are texting tips to our team at Trashville, telling them where Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are going to be dropping their drugs and undies on the floor every night. This is why I’m usually invited to parties. They want the publicity and love looking shocked for the camera. Why oh why? The facade satisfies our bloodlust and we are all too happy to don our masks and play along.
I have wandered into the entertainment room, when I lock eyes with Burton. He is wearing hospital scrubs. It’s clearly a last-minute costume. He had come to Los Angeles on Friday morning to speak at a medical conference in Marina del Rey with Neal Spartelli, a sports doctor who specializes in fixing jacked-up shoulders. Neal is dressed as Groucho Marx. He heads up an orthopedic clinic in Los Angeles and scored his invitation because he operated on Chad last season.
Chad is talking about himself in third person. He’s dressed as some type of vampire thing and is promoting a new reality football show. I’m here tonight because Chad needs free publicity and
Trashville needs real scoops on his guests, which I will get after they snort a line of cocaine or two and get overly chatty and sweaty.
Burton and I are partners playing a game of eight ball on the pool table. We are paired up against Chad and his date, and it is my turn to shoot. I have taken my time chalking up my stick, looking puzzled and purposely missing my first couple of shots.
I coquettishly lead Mr. Johnson to increase his wager with Burton, my unwitting partner in the short con. I hit the four ball in the side pocket followed by the six and the two, but it isn’t until I drain the eight ball that Ochocinco realizes I’ve hustled him in his own house.
Oh goody, goody. Shame on me.
More satisfying than taking Mr. NFL’s benjamins—which I scoop up and tuck into my Louis Vuitton purse—is watching the true surprise and delight on Burton’s face.
Burton isn’t from LA. He doesn’t know me. He’s never clicked on my links at Trashville. He doesn’t know the dangers or the pleasures of being friends with a tabloid editor. He just sees a five-foot-six, fairly decent-looking, sandy-blond-haired, blue-eyed gal, whose hips, booty, and boobs are equally curvy and real. I’m not freakishly LA skinny and I work hard to keep my muffin top soft, but not flabby. I’m a firm believer in women looking like real women, with hips, hourglass silhouettes, and laugh lines. I like food too much to barf it up and I hate doing the lunges I do to keep my bottom at its current address. I have mastered the craft of male conversation by perfecting my act of understanding the trifecta of things men care about—box scores, movie quotes, and political folly—all while licking the salt off a tequila shooter. Mostly, I’m not book smart, but life smart, which in this business is the key to survival.
It is only one night at the St. Regis hotel. One long, sweaty
night that involves Patrón, Jack Daniel’s, and for me, a Vicodin or two.
I can’t help but get the feeling that Burton isn’t the one-night kind of guy. Case in point: He kisses me for hours before ever touching another one of my body parts. He dims the lights and lets the moonlight flood the room with Andrea Bocelli belting out “Con te partirò.” It is, for what it is, romantic. And I need it. Boy, do I need it.
He has a way of taking care of me, even on this first date. I use the word date loosely. He covers me with a blanket when he thinks I am asleep. He orders me coffee and pancakes with bacon for breakfast. He does this long before my head starts pounding from that last shot at 3:15 a.m.
He was and still is thoughtful and endearing, two concepts in a man that were foreign to me.
Flash forward to today. As sweet and glamorous as my life seems replaying in my head, I have been forced for the most part to throw my career, my friends, and my pseudo-powerful existence down the swirling porcelain flusher. Those parties in the Hollywood Hills, premieres at Paramount Studios, steak dinners at Dan Tana’s, trunk shows at Lisa Kline, and A-list celebrity-laden farmers’ markets in Santa Monica on Saturday mornings are now temporarily (note to self: the word temporarily!) behind me—and not because I chose to let them go.
How I got here is a blur. It’s a bad version of a weird, dream-infused movie like Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I have no idea if this is reality or if I’m living in someone else’s subconscious. It’s a dream that began with my hurling at the smell of salmon lox on a toasted onion bagel at my office on Sunset Boulevard, then a blurred blue plus sign on an EPT, further blurred
into the blood test confirming that Burton’s baby was indeed growing in my belly. Through my careless practice of not insisting on a condom, I am now imprisoned in the land of y’alls.
I can barely remember being in my Thanksgiving-decorated corner office with my business partner, Amos. Designer jeans, cotton tee, and Fred Segal blazer dripping off his tall, lanky frame, he was holding me up as I leaned on him from wooziness. The door was shut and our people were scurrying around outside trying to make a midday deadline about celebrities on the move.
“I’m almost forty. This is possibly my last chance to ever have a child, not that I ever really wanted one,” I say, then gag. Amos extends me a tissue when I’m done dry heaving in the trash can. “I have no husband, and I’ve had no boyfriend—present company excluded—for over two years. I’m way past the start date when women shoot gallons of filler into their cheeks and lips. I’m totally wrecked.”
“You’re beautiful.” He tries to sound convincing, “Except for that little bit of barf on your gray cashmere hoodie. Happy gobble-gobble, Baby Thanksgiving!”
“Gross!” I bang my head on my desk as Amos tries to dab my sweater clean.
My only true male relationship of substance up to this time has been with Amos, a Mormon queen from Utah. We met at NCN and he laid down the money his parents gave him to get married to a girl to help fund Trashville. He had been a fantastic publicist turned assistant editor, then was promoted to editor and is now an even better copublisher, business partner, and friend. He knows everyone, and everyone knows and loves him. We are the good cop/bad cop of electronic tabloid publishing and I’m, shockingly, the bad one. Okay, it’s not such a stretch.
“You don’t have to keep it.” He winces as if he thinks I will hit him with a stick.
“Not an option,” I say emphatically. “It’s not politics or God or anything. It’s just not an option.” What I should really say is that I understand the unbearable consequences of losing a life meant to be held in your arms, but I have no energy to share that with anyone, not even Amos.
While Amos runs off to fetch me an apple juice with crushed ice, I type out an email to Burton:
Happy Holidays. Hope the Titans are winning. FYI, I’m with child. We are all good. No worries.
And hit send.
I feel he has the right to know that he’s going to have a kid somewhere in the world. I owe him that, at least. And I want nothing from him.
I don’t want his money or his involvement at all. This kid is, like my life up to this point, something I can handle on my own. Most people don’t get second chances like this, but I’m getting a second chance to make up for my past and I’m taking it.
Well, honestly I figure Amos and I can raise it. He’ll be my baby’s surrogate father figure. Better a well-dressed dad with a flair for shopping and cooking than no dad at all—or the dad that I had.
I am capable of predicting with 98-percent accuracy the next move of every Hollywood mover and shaker, but I never anticipated that upon receiving that email, Burton would leave the operating room immediately after surgery and be on the next taxi-flight-taxi trajectory directly into my living room.
That Los Angeles fall day he and I cover all obvious questions and answers and discuss DNA testing. The latter is totally needless, but I want it more for his sanity than my own. I haven’t had an actual intimate encounter with another person since last summer when I woke up with a B-list actor after a long, hot night in his Malibu beach house. Burton offers all the appropriate financial
and emotional suggestions that a man offers a woman who is pregnant with his child. He even suggests prayer, which I politely decline. I do agree to let him be a part of our child’s life if he wants to do that—which he does. But honestly everything at this point is negotiable. Before he clumsily kisses my cheek and walks out of my house, he asks if I would consider moving to Nashville with him, which, as fairy-tale-like as it sounds, makes me shudder.
It’s ironic how the punishment for my sinful behavior of a one-night stand at a swanky hotel is a pregnancy punctuated by barf, high blood pressure, and high risk to my health and that of my unborn child. Seven or so weeks after Burton and I sat in my living room, my womb and my life got tossed into a “you’re going to die unless . . .” pressure cooker. Here are my choices: One, stay in LA and die. Two, move to the South and feel like I’m dying. Thus, I’ve been sentenced to the South, where my husband—wow, that’s still so weird to say—and his medical staff can monitor my health and support my every move. I’ve been grounded with no travel, no work—as it adds too much stress and spikes my heart rate—and basically, no fun.
Amos is now broadcasting Trashville on the web solo. He’s posting headlines and scandalous celebrity photos and cracking the whip on our minions. He’s managing Trashville without me, and while I’m boohooing about it, I know I had no choice. If I were to leave my work-baby to anyone, it would be Amos—at least for now. I look at it as a pregnancy sabbatical.
But I will be back. I’ve come too far to give it all up for a kid and pretend family in a pretend land.
For now I’m serving my time in a Tennessee cottontail lair behind electronic gates with a guardhouse bigger than most guest cabanas in Beverly Hills. The entrance to my rabbit hole is magnificently shaded by magnolia trees. Their boughs drape over the cursive marble lettering of LAUREL BROOKE on the iron sign
that announces the community’s status to all those looky-loos who drive by.
Well, if I’m sentenced to do time here, at least my surroundings are pretty. I will admit this much: I do really love the scenery of the South. Water spouts high into the air from a three-tiered fountain, sparkling when it lands in the green murky pond that surrounds it. Two swans paddle around the fountain’s muddy edge, giving prestige to this highly developed community.
I hate those swans. They make a beeline for me every time my 175-pound, blubbery body ambles near their mating area. They are vicious and territorial. They try to intimidate me with their thick, white, dirt-stained necks outstretched and wings batting like those of prehistoric predators. It works on unsuspecting passersby but not on me, not anymore. I made the mistake last week of walking on the path by one of the swans that was out of the pond. It looked harmless and beautiful until its neck overextended like ET’s and it spread its massive wings and started running toward me. It was terrifying. I’ve never been afraid of barking dogs or runaway galloping horses, but that charging, menacing swan scared the living daylights out of me. I scurried up the hill away from it and tripped on a tree branch and scraped my palms and knees. I swear that bird stood there squawking, mocking me.
The swan wasn’t so lucky yesterday. I am proud to report that I came prepared. I will not be bullied by anything with feathers and a brain the size of a peanut. I walked the same path where I had fallen down, and there it stood, like an outlaw on a dusty street waiting to have an old-fashioned gunfight. I stared it down and gave it a chance to mosey on into the lake, but again it mocked me and stretched its neck, let loose its large white wings, and lunged for me. My heart beat faster and faster as it charged until I put my arm out in front of me and showed it my Mace canister and . . . it stopped.
Not so fast, buddy-boy.
I had my finger on the trigger, ready to take my place back at the top of the food chain, and then something caught my eye.
Eggs. Six enormous eggs in the marsh in a weird-looking nest.
It’s not a mean mugger bird; it’s a momma bird.
I started to back-step slowly as if to say, Sorry, I didn’t understand. Or I know how you feel. But she just kept her wings out, signaling me to keep on going, fat lady.
It gave me a whole new appreciation for those birds.
Minus the rabid momma fowl, there is a richness to these luxurious rolling green acres, peppered with seven-thousand-square-foot estates; hundred-year-old oaks; weeping cherry trees; scarlet maples; and rows of tangerine, yellow, and purple tulips lining the golf-cart paths. The flowers get replanted and replenished as the seasons change.
New-world McMansion security and old-world charm have been sewn together to create a suburban utopia. Everything is manicured to perfection. I can’t help but wonder what a ragtag like me is doing here.
“Good mornin’!” A ponytailed, tennis skirt–wearing woman waves at me as she zips by in her golf cart. I manage a smile as I inwardly grimace and wonder if it’s the Adderall that makes them all so thin and perky and able to play tennis in this heat.
To be honest, I could use some of that Adderall to shrink my bloat. I’m actually too enlarged and pregnant to slip into any rabbit hole. It is at this moment, slowly walking the paved walkway, that I realize I have fallen deep and I am trapped!
This is a backward place where churches, not Starbucks, have been erected on every corner. My husband, whom I barely know, works late at the hospital and is on the road every weekend, which practically guarantees I never will know him.
I sit down on my porch to get my breath, and reality begins to really set in. I am alone, sober, huge, depressed, and dangerously close to kicking the bucket. I don’t recognize the last five months of my life. I miss Trashville and I miss being single and free. I am longing for anything and everything but what I currently have. Sure, there are pockets of relief. But they are times I can count on my fingers and toes. I’m in a state of what seems like constant desperation, and I’m slowly going insane.
My only friends, and I use that term very loosely, are our neighbor Tim and his wife, LeChelle. He senses my dissatisfaction. My wanderlust. My lostness. My frustration.
Tim, a forty-four-year-old African-American, is a former NFL defensive lineman who is now an imposing 250-pound evangelical pastor. He’s a retired football Bernie Mac whose stand-up shtick is the Bible.
He jogs past me in an old Florida State T-shirt as I not-so-invisibly sit on my porch perusing a stack of Us Weekly, People, and In Touch magazines. “How you doin’, baby girl?” he calls out to me from the mailbox.
I love that he calls me baby girl. Love, love, love it. It’s like some ethnic thing I didn’t get growing up next to a Circle K in the heat of Tucson. It’s endearing and makes me feel organically included in his heritage. “Oh, I’m just peachy,” I answer with enough sarcasm to fill my Lincoln Navigator. “What’s up with you, preacher man?”
He places his hands on his large thighs, trying to catch his breath. His legs are more fleshy than muscular these days. The evening breeze is cooling the heat of the day, but that doesn’t stop beads of sweat from pouring through the razor stubble on his big brown head and onto the pavement.
“I can see you’re filling up with some good word.” He smiles at my magazines.
“I read it for the pictures,” I say, holding up an In Touch with Jennifer Aniston half-naked on the cover.
“You hungry? LeChelle’s makin’ friiiiiied chicken, biscuits, and gravy,” he says.
That is all it takes for me to unanchor my buttocks from the cushioned rocking chair and lurch forward. He had me at fried. He knows that after a few months of being here, following sixteen years of starving on a strict diet of lettuce cups filled with air and celery in Los Angeles, I can be easily convinced to cancel my solo reservation at the bitter porch pity-party for one with the promise of food—real food.