They called her Star.
Her best friend, Theresa, had started it after they'd seen that old Barbra Streisand movie A Star Is Born, when it had come on the late show on one of the two Miami channels they could pick up on Arcady Key. They'd been having a sleepover at Theresa's, and both girls had fallen hard for the over-the-top rock-star romance. When Ms. Streisand's character explained that her name, Esther, meant "star" in Hebrew, well...that was pretty much all it took. Esther Wood Leigh was instantly commissioned Star.
The name stuck for good reason.
There was just something about her. It had begun the minute she was born. The first baby of the new year, her arrival had been announced in all the papers as if she were heir to a throne or a fortune instead of the daughter of a sometime fisherman and fulltime gambler, and the best waitress at the Garden Cove Pancake House on U.S. 1. She just naturally attracted extra attention.
It wasn't that Star was the prettiest. She was kind of a late bloomer, the type of girl whose natural athletic abilities and aversion to all things "girlie" made her more tomboy than homecoming queen. But when it was time to decide who would be captain of the volleyball team or class officer or the one you'd tell your troubles to, it was always Star. People felt comfortable around her, relaxed and at home. Maybe that was why they tended to underestimate her. Like school, for example. She may have been the brightest, but she was far more likely to be called on for cutting up in class than for giving the correct answer. Only her mom knew about the straight A's, and that was because she signed the report cards. Star never told.
Despite her stellar performance in school and her place in the hearts of all those who knew her, Star had been unable to afford college and tried hard to make her place in the world. She'd moved the few miles up the coast from Arcady Key to Miami, where she shared a tiny apartment with Theresa, the lfriend who named her. Little by little, she was saving up enough money for formal cosmetology training so she could earn some real money burning hair at a nice salon.
As she made her way up the Dixie Highway from her day job at Talon's Nail and Tan Spa to her night job at Mother Pearl's Steak and Oyster Emporium, two rarely seen creases appeared between her brows. She worked hard. Two jobs took most of her time, and the few hours she didn't spend working were filled by constant activity with her friends and her boyfriend, Adam. It wasn't that the work bothered her or that she'd have traded in a single volleyball game, beach party, bar crawl, or wild night at Adam's apartment. It was a spider sense that something was missing, like that feeling you get when you stand looking into the refrigerator, not really hungry, but unable to stop looking. The feeling that this time, it might be there, right behind the ketchup and the pickled beets.
Talon's had been particularly trying that day. Miss Elliott, the rather terrifying Eurasian mistress of the establishment, who'd taught Star everything she knew about nails, was breaking up with her Cuban boyfriend, Adolpho. All day in between monsoon-sized crying jags, the scissors hadn't been sharp enough, the nail polish had been sorted wrong, the tan accelerator wasn't stocked right, and the tanning beds weren't clean enough.
"Go home and call in sick" had been Star's advice to Trudy, the second-shift girl, when she arrived.
As Star caught the long light at Calle Ocho, she began changing into her "uniform" for Mother Pearl's. The "uniform" -- and the girls all laughed at the word -- was a pair of silky, pearl-colored, onion-skin running shorts, white cross-trainers, a pair of light-toast Danskin shimmery tights, and a too-tight T-shirt with SHUCK ME, SUCK ME, EAT ME RAW emblazoned in red across the front. Mother's made almost as much from the sale of the T-shirts as from the oysters. And Star did her part to sell the shirts.
She may have been a late bloomer, but when she did finally bloom, it was with a vengeance. Star was used to the boys' teasing nickname -- Pirate's Favorite, code for "sunken chest." Since she could take most of the boys in her class best two falls out of three, the teasing was always good-natured. For her part, Star was perfectly content to be MVP and couldn't really see what all the fuss was about anyway.
And then came puberty. The onset was so abrupt that it frightened her. All she knew was that one day
up0there was a lump on the right side. Convinced she was dying of cancer, Star took the bus to the Broad Key Public Library and confirmed her worst suspicions. The bus ride home was long, and it took her all evening to get up the nerve to break the sad news to her mother.
"Mom," she'd said quietly, sticking her head in her parents' bedroom door. "Can I talk to you a minute?"
"What is it, honey?" Lucille Leigh said, looking up from her Stephen King novel. "You look like someone licked all the red off your candy." She patted the bed beside her.
The tears came even before Star got the words out of her mouth. She piled onto the bed beside her mother and buried her face in Lucille's ample bosom.
"Honey," Lucille said, stroking her daughter's hair. "What's wrong?"
"I...I found...a lump," Star managed to choke out.
"A lump?" Lucille asked, confused.
"Right here." Star took her mother's hand and placed in on the poisonous node. "I think it's cancer."
"Oh," Lucille said, drawing back suddenly and laughing as she wrapped her arms around her beloved daughter. "Well, well, well," she said, rocking Star gently. "You're not dying, you're just growing up. Looks like you're finally going to get some boobs. You're becoming a woman, honey. You're blooming!"
And bloom she did. Her breasts came on suddenly and tenaciously, as if trying to make up for lost time. The hard bump turned out to be one of a pair of unruly and self-willed nipples. And the boys' teasing quickly took a very different form.
As Star finished getting ready for work and her head popped through the tee, she came face-to-face with a gentleman in a nearby pickup truck. They exchanged a smile as the light changed, he made the left, and they went their separate ways.
Maybe she should move back in with her parents. She could save more money that way, she figured. Besides, she spent more time in the car than anywhere else. Her trusty old Chevy Impala -- Star called him "Rusty" for obvious reasons -- was a combination office, dressing-room, beauty-tech, and pet-rescue van. It was filled with pet treats, animal carriers, a wide supply of nail, hair, and beauty products, outfits for every occasion, volleyballs, net and boundary ropes, and a collection of petrified flower arrangements from her boyfriend, Adam. There was his I'm sorry bouquet from earlier in the week that hung from the rearview mirror, his I forgot your birthday nosegay that was relegated to the passenger-side footwell, and in the place of supreme honor -- the hat shelf above the backseat -- his well-mummified Will you marry me? arrangement. Adam had gone all out with that one. It looked as if it might have been boosted from a gangster's gravesite.
Maybe that was it. Maybe she should marry Adam. He was a sweet guy when he wanted to be. Good-looking, drove a hot Firebird that was practically brand-new and already paid for from his successful career marketing tan-spa products. At least they could talk shop after work. His dream of working as a photographer was starting to pan out too. He'd done three weddings in the past two weeks alone. Adam had asked Star to marry him and she'd asked him for time to think about it. It had been almost a month since he'd asked, and what had not been said changed the tone of everything that had.
She called her mom to ask for her advice, but the answer had been typical Lucille: "You know my husband. Do you really want my advice about marriage?"
Her parents' stormy relationship had endured some rough weather. Her dad's on-again, off-again wrestling with the bottle. Her mom's sharp wit and steady criticism. Their fights terrified Star. Once she even hid her brother, Hank, in a rain barrel at a neighbor's shed and reported him missing in a misguided effort to scare her parents and extort promises of good behavior. But Arcady Key was a tiny island community and the incident was more a source of laughter than anything else. No promises from Star's parents were made or kept, but amidst it all, there was still a lot of love and laughter. The fights continued, but so did the nights when Star fell asleep to the steady squeaking of her parents' bedsprings.
"It's our way, Star," Lucille had often said, shrugging, in explanation.
Maybe it was time to get married and make a new beginning of it. Maybe this was what she was looking for. Maybe Adam and the Firebird and Miami Beach were what was behind the pickled beets and the ketchup after all.
The advice she missed the most was that of her grandfather. Her mom's dad, Papa Jens, had always been a special ally for Star when she was growing up. His mercurial intelligence and metaphysical sensibilities had been unexpectedly grounding for a young girl rooted in such sandy soil. "Life is but a dream," he would sing to her when the world was too much with her. The tears came more than ten years later as she remembered losing him that night he slipped away in his sleep. Star always thought he'd found a dream he particularly liked and just stayed.
The light at Arena turned red and Star turned the rearview to check that the tear for Papa Jens hadn't played too much havoc with her liner. A quick blot and a smear of fresh lipstick -- and a groan over her current Sun-In-accident hair color -- and she was ready for work. As she caught her own gaze in the tiny reflection, she could hear the old man's voice as if he were right there beside her.
"Star," Papa Jens soothed. "What are you fretting about girl? Life is but a dream, remember?"
"Papa," she whispered alone in the car.
"You are a brand-new light, my girl." She remembered his South Florida accent. "You are not an extension of your parents or that little town. You are an original, you were born a star and you always will be. All life asks of you is that you let your light shine. Don't hurt yourself or anyone else, and embrace all that life has to offer you. The rest will unfold, don't you worry."
The horn brought her back to the front seat of the Impala and Calle Ocho. She gave a little wave of apology to the car behind her and drove on. The memory made her smile, but it also made her wish she could ask the old man's advice one last time.
Determined to snap out of it, she switched on the radio as the lead singer of Journey sang out: Just a small town girl, livin' in a lonely world...She cranked up the souped-up radio she'd invested in and sang along as loud as she could.
"Don't stop believin'."
By the time she arrived at Mother's she was ten minutes late and feeling refreshed and reassured.
"There you are," Theresa hissed, spotting Star through the locker-room door.
"Hey, Ter." Star grinned as she strapped on the small canvas apron containing her guest checks and bank for the evening. "Sorry I'm late. Madam Sin Sin was ready to retake North Vietnam today. Honestly, if she doesn't find a boyfriend soon, I'm going to break into my savings and hire her the biggest -- "
"I don't know." Star shrugged. It was only a half-truth. She didn't really know what it was this time. "He seemed okay yesterday." Star sat heavily on the bench beside the lockers where the staff stowed their purses and street clothes.
Just off the kitchen, the dingy room reeked of old sneakers, foot powder, and fried seafood. The only ornamentation in the windowless cell was the "Choking" poster that detailed the Heimlich maneuver and a hand-lettered sign exhorting employees to wash their hands. On the far end was a sink, a medicine cabinet, and the door to the toilet. A bench was bolted to the floor down the center of the room, and on one side of that was a bank of old gray-green lockers that Mother had bought as surplus after a hurricane had leveled a local junior high. They had survived the storm, but only just. Opposite, the rough wooden shelf bolted to the wall served as vanity table to the lighted makeup mirror affixed to the wall above. Depending on which way you faced from your seat on the bench, you were either in the "dressing room" or the "makeup room" -- but really, you were just in a glorified broom closet.
"Well, Adam was plenty pissed and slamming around, let me tell you," Theresa said, sitting on the bench beside Star and facing the makeup-room side as she checked herself in the mirror. "Came back in the kitchen screaming out your name. Mother picked him up by the shirtfront and set him beside the Dumpster out back. Said next time he'd be in the Dumpster if he came in the place acting like trash."
Mother was Bernie Weintraub, a great grizzly bear of a man who defended and guided his girls with similar bruin ferocity.
"Now he's looking for me," Star said, biting the side of her lower lip.
"You bet your tights." Theresa sighed. "Star?"
f0"Do you think he's worth it?"
"Ladies," Vanda, the senior girl, said, popping her head into the locker room. "Just a reminder. We keep the customers in the dining room, so there's no point waiting for them back here."
"Sorry, Vanda, coming," Star said, glad of the interruption. She tested the bow on her apron as she made her way to the kitchen.
"Well?" Theresa asked, pursuing her. "Is he?"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Theresa." Star giggled. "That's like saying, 'Quick, what's the meaning of life?' You only find out after it's over."
"That seems like a mean trick," Theresa said, arms folded.
"Star!" Andre, the head cook and shucker, hollered as they passed through on their way to the dining room. "Dinnertime," he called, tossing her an enormous chocolate chip cookie, Frisbee-style.
"Thanks, Andre," Star said, catching it between two hands and backing through the swinging door into the dining room. The cookies were a shared joke. Star's vegetarian diet was at odds with the steak-house menu at Mother Pearl's.
"Star!" the bartender called to the busy room as she took up her cork-topped tray.
The crowd took up the greeting. "Star!" they called, not together but in fits and starts as they spotted her, like a syncopated echo, erratic and startling but totally endearing.
"Star, there you are," called a familiar voice.
"Randy, Andy," Star said, dropping off a couple of beers before making her way over to their table. "Hi, boys. Are those clamshells in your pockets or just the best you can do?"
"You know better than that." Randy grinned. "You've been in our hot tub before."
Randy and Andy were the world's oldest living frat boys. They'd made a career out of being good-looking beach bums, always hustling some angle to keep themselves afloat without actually having to work. Their most successful scheme was getting the Zax beer company to pay for their Jeep, gas, insurance, and all by designating it the Zax Mobile and turning it into a rolling billboard for the company. Their backyard Jacuzzi was also the scene of frequent Zax promotions, which kept the hot tub bubbling and the coolers full of complimentary beer.
"So, what'll it be?" Star teased. "A couple of Buds?"
"Never," Andy said, clutching his throat dramatically.
"Maybe some iced tea?"
Both guys slumped over, tongues lolling out of their mouths like a couple of dead bodies.
"How about the refreshing, smooth taste of Zax?" Star said, mocking the commercial. "The only brew that could tame old Rough and Ready?"
"Zax you say?" Randy said, stroking his chin. "That sounds interesting."
"Yes, let's try some of that," Andy suggested.
"All right then." Star laughed.
"So, Star, you got plans tomorrow night?"
"I have plans every night." Star winked. "It just depends on what kind of mood I'm in as to which ones I end up keeping."
"How about spending the evening with the Miami Dolphins?"
"Oh, I don't know," Star began.
"We really need you," Randy put in. "It's a Zax thing and we need more bodacious babes like yourself."
"So you two won't look like losers?" Star teased, crossing her arms.
"Exactly," Andy agreed. "We want to show people that if they drink Zax, they can come to the Dolphins games with you."
"But you're not going to promise them that, right?" Star asked to make sure. With Randy and Andy it was never wise to leave such things to chance.
"Well, if you put it like that...no," Randy said with a little pout.
"I don't know, guys," she said with a toss of her hair. "I haven't been spending enough time with Adam lately."
"Oh, come on, Star," Andy urged. "You have to embrace what life has to offer you."
The phrase she'd heard so often from her grandfather stopped her in her tracks and stunned her into silence. Here was a small but very real opportunity to say yes to life.
"So, we'll pick you up tomorrow evening?" Andy asked tentatively when she said nothing else.
"Zax honor," both guys said, raising their bottles.
"And two more?" she asked, writing down their order.
"Always," Randy said.
"As luck would have it, I'm off tomorrow night and I'm pretty sure I saw two more cold Zax in the fridge, so you guys get both your wishes," she said, turning to go.
"Pick you up at six," Andy called after her.
Time passed with no sign of Mother or Adam. Star was having a pretty good night of it. Along with the Miami tourists, there for the T-shirts and what was in them, one of the regulars had a birthday party. That meant the traditional Mother Pearl's Gob Smack -- a Polaroid of a kiss on the cheek from one of Pearl's Girls and, of course, a souvenir T-shirt the birthday boy was required to wear in the photo. Star was just presenting the birthday party with the Polaroid in its cardboard oyster-shell frame when Theresa brushed by and whispered in her ear.
"You might want to take your break now," Theresa said with a note of warning in her voice.
Star's head snapped to the front door in search of Adam, and to the office door in search of Mother. Spotting neither, she caught up to Theresa, already on her way to the back. "What's up, Ter?"
"The leech," Theresa said, moving on.
"Theresa," Star sighed, following her. "You have got to stop calling Brandi that."
"Okay," Theresa said, raising her shoulder mockingly. "The mooch then. Is that better?"
"Theresa," Star warned.
"Okay, lookit," Theresa began. "When was the last time you heard from Brandi -- there, I said her name. Are you satisfied? When was the last time you heard from her that she didn't want something?"
"I don't know. I don't keep track," Star said as the two turned in their drink orders at the service bar.
"Yeah? Well, how about never? She's always borrowing your clothes, your time, even your boyfriend."
"Alvin was not my boyfriend," Star cut her off. "He had a crush on me but I was not interested. I'm glad they got together."
"But she only wanted him 'cause he was with you," Theresa said, exasperated. "Why do you refuse to see it? She's a loser and a leech."
"She is a figure skater and she has all her badges," Star defended. "That can't be a bad thing."
"Yeah, right. Tonya Harding turned out okay." Theresa laughed. "And remember her modeling portfolio? Borrowing your clothes and wearing them to get her pictures made in the photo booth in front of Kmart? And then passing them out to people at school and sending them to magazines and modeling agencies?"
"That was a little odd," Star agreed reluctantly.
"Everything about her is a little odd," Theresa said, starting to get herself wound up. Theresa was protective of Star. She loved her best friend dearly but worried about her tendency to trust people too readily. "Those underwear shots her step-dad took of her and sent into the Star Search spokesmodel competition?"
"They were lingerie shots," Star corrected without much conviction, as she loaded up her tray with beers and drinks.
"No, lingerie shots are sexy and provocative and tasteful and, most of all, professionally done," Theresa insisted. "These were just sleazy snapshots of her lying on her Sears French Provincial canopy bed in her bra and panties."
"I always liked that bed."
"It was the best they could do."
"You are always trying to find the best in people," Theresa snapped irritably.
"And that's a bad thing?"
"No." Theresa sulked. "It's one of the things I like best about you."
"Star, there you are," Brandi called, approaching.
"Hey, Brandi," Star said with a little hug. "How've you been? I haven't seen you since the Miss Dade Mall contest. Too bad about your baton catching that hairpiece on fire."
"Well, at least I met that cute fireman," Brandi said with a snort of laughter.
"Did Alvin get to meet him too?" Theresa asked primly.
Star gave Theresa's shoe a little kick.
"Oh, hi, Maria," Brandi said with a little smirk of a smile. "I'm sure one day if you ever get a boyfriend, you'll understand."
"It's Theresa. And maybe I'll just ask Alvin to explain it to me, Shotzy," Theresa said, dodging the second kick from Star. "Excuse me, ladies."
"What was that all about?" Brandi asked, rolling her eyes. "Oh, before I forget, new shots." She reached into her backpack and pulled out a strip of photo-booth pictures. She tore off a couple and handed them to Star.
"These are nice," Star said, squinting. "Isn't that my vest?"
"I'm so glad you think so," Brandi said, hopping nervously and exuberantly from one foot to the other. "I've got a test shoot tomorrow for Mann magazine."
"Shut up," Star gasped. "That is so cool!"
"Yeah," Brandi said, continuing her dance. "I sent in some of those shots my step-father took. The test is tomorrow."
Both girls squealed with excitement.
"That is so great," Star said, joining in the little dance.
"I'm really nervous though. And I was wondering...could you help me out?"
"Sure," Star said, trying to wipe Theresa's words from her mind. "If I can."
"Would you come and do my hair and makeup?" Brandi asked, suddenly still, taking both of Star's hands in hers. "You're the only almost-cosmetologist I know, and you do such a great job with your own. I really admire your taste. Please?"
"Of course I will," Star said, trying not to let on that she'd just given away pretty much her entire day off. "I've got to go the Dolphins game with Randy and Andy at six though."
"No problem," Brandi said, embracing Star. "This is so great. I don't know how to thank you."
"You gonna drink all those yourself?" Vanda asked as she breezed by, pointing at Star's full tray sitting on the bar beside them.
"I gotta work," Star said with an apologetic shrug as she turned and hefted the overloaded tray onto her arm.
"I'm sorry, of course," Brandi said, climbing onto a nearby stool. "I'll just wait at the bar and we can talk about it all on your next break."
"Thanks I -- " Star began, but that was as far as she got. The tray full of drinks was knocked violently out of her hand. The room was filled with the sound of breaking glass, and then a shocked silence.
"There you are!" Adam shouted. "Why the hell haven't you called me back?"