A Prisoner of His Looks
From about 7th grade, the girls began swooning. It wasn’t just the long flowing golden locks and the rock star good looks. Kenny Roberge had something subtle about him, even then. His walk, his demeanor, his look of indifference, of imperiousness almost; it reeked of confidence. He learned then that confidence, or even the mere appearance of it, was aphrodisiacal to girls.
Tall and thin, and with a sense of fashion even then in the 70s, when fashion died a thousand deaths, he loped across his high school campus knowing he had the pick of the litter, babe-wise.
But here’s the part they didn’t know. He didn’t want to cut a wide swath through the young, willing, and quite able bevy of cheerleaders who pressed their firm young bosom into his arm after every basketball game. He longed for substance. Yet, at this fledgling stage of his sexuality and his burgeoning manhood, he portrayed the very image of stud, of ‘look at me’ and ‘come get it’. He was a walking dichotomy, as every message his exterior screamed made his interior howl even louder in protest. An unCivil War in his soul that would take him years to understand.
So in high school he was the reluctant stud, the guy trying to balance his unsophisticated, infantile idea of love with the more obvious presence of lust, and though he got laid more than Patrick Swayze at a college sorority party, his head rested not so easy on his pillow each evening. He knew he was a fraud in bell bottoms, with his feathered hair parted in the middle and sprayed into place. His smile never rose above his upper lip, however. His sad eyes were a magnet to any girl wanting to turn them happy, to fix the pretty boy.
He remembered watching “The Way We Were” when he was 15. He’d dabbled in keeping a journal, so he’d already fantasized about being a writer. In the movie, Redford’s character, Hubbell Gardiner, was a tow headed, athletic looker who wrote a successful novel after college called “A Country Made of Ice Cream”, about a man to whom life had come too easily. Kenny felt a painful kinship. He felt the same sense of being in jail that Redford portrayed. Confined and bound by his looks, with most people, male and female, unable to look past the visual to the marrow within. He would eventually come to realize that almost every good looking female was faced with this. It was much more pervasive for them. At least they had a historical blueprint from which to possibly learn. He felt helpless.
The double edged sword of beauty cut you no matter which side came arching toward your throat.
Kenny managed to skate through high school and college avoiding two traps that most of his friends assumed he would fall into: unintended fatherhood, and then marriage.
He stopped keeping a journal in college, but did take four years of English and Creative Writing courses. He knew he wanted to write. He knew he could write. He did not know who to write for.
He managed one serious relationship, in his senior year at UCLA. She was a mirror image of him. Blonde, thin, big tits, a cheerleader who was almost too pretty. Yet the similarities stopped there. With Susie, ‘there’ was a key word. There was no ‘there’ there. Kenny’s friends nicknamed her “Oakland” and teased him unmercifully about it. He didn’t care. Their picture in the yearbook looked like a Scavullo masterpiece. Two beautiful people, about to graduate from a campus filled with beautiful people, into a town that predicated its very existence on the beauty of people. They were as much a fabrication of reality as any onscreen romance that Hollywood spewed out.
Their relationship, an obvious house of cards built on soft sand, collapsed of its own weight before they could toss their mortar boards skyward. There was a sense with both of them of relief, no longer having to keep up appearances as the perfect couple.
Susie went on to marry a pipe fitter, had three kids before she was 25, and never got back under 160lbs.
Released from the unseen yet very real cocoon that is a college campus, Kenny’s love life became such a chaotic hash that he would occasionally miss the simpler times with Susie. He moved to Hollywood, got an agent and a publicist, and immediately garnered a handful of modeling jobs, mostly print but a couple of music videos.
Though he despised the air of superficiality that was as present and stultifying in L.A. as the smog in the basin, he couldn’t force himself to leave. And the approval and validation he received professionally was as superficially thin as a plastic baggy, yet it came to him on a daily basis, a narcotic addiction which he proved unable or unwilling to eschew.
He’d dabbled in drugs in college, but his active participation in a handful of intramural sports kept him from indulging in anything that might impair his formidable athletic skills.
Once in the real world of working people, however, where athletic opportunities tended to shrink, his partying blossomed. It didn’t help that most of the women he dated were starlets intent on seeing how much coke they could inhale in between glasses of Champaign. His circle of ‘friends’ contained none of the real thing.
He made the rounds of the Hollywood party circuit, including becoming a regular at the Playboy Mansion. One night, bombed on Tequila and Quaaludes, alone and half submerged in the famous grotto with Hef five feet away surrounded by four gorgeous playmates, he realized that 80% of the guys in the place looked almost exactly like him.
It was an epiphany of sorts. He never went back to the mansion.
Within weeks, he’d re-established communication with his parents in the Bay Area, dropping hints as to his unhappiness and subsequent desire to come back up north.
They supported him completely. His mom was a real estate agent and offered to find him a condo on the peninsula. His dad offered him a job with his construction company, though what Kenny could actually do was left unsaid. Male modeling was not a gateway to working with your hands.
Kenny remained non-committal on the phone, though once he would hang up, he would wonder what the hell he was waiting for. There was, of course, the defeatist outlook in returning home, the vision being one of a tail tucked between legs. Especially when the place you were retreating from was Los Angeles, which is the most clearly delineated of all cities in the world, when it came to success or failure. One never left L.A. when successful, unless you were Redford or Newman.
Though he entertained the option to go home on a daily basis, he nonetheless began a relationship with a fellow writer wannabe, a woman his age with crow’s feet and silver strands weaving their way through her long black straight hair. She was attracted to his looks; he was attracted to her earthy, gritty intellect. They enjoyed smoking dope together, which seemed to inspire her writing and kill off any ambitions of his to put fingers to keyboard. Soon, he realized he was going to hold her back with his lite-beer career and sophomoric goals of sitcom TV. She wanted to resonate as a writer. He couldn’t even resonate as a person.
Once that potentially promising relationship dissolved, he swore off commitment for a while, but he realized sardonically, that was like Pavarotti swearing off vegetables.
He was abandoning the one thing he needed to work on the most, while knowing full well he was still going to gorge at the female buffet table, this time using Tapas plates.
On the eve of his 30th birthday, almost instantly upon returning the now anachronistic dial up phone he still used back into its cradle, ending a birthday call from his mother, he realized that this birthday with the zero on the end was THE time to bust a move. He needed to get out of this town made of ice cream, where for the ones which did make it, it came too easily, and the have-nots went to sleep each night with at least a partial realization that they would never pass through those golden gates.
He awoke on his birthday and began to pack.
He called his agent and publicist, getting voice mail both times, and left a short cryptic message: “I’m outta here. This city is killing me. I’ll be at my folks if you need me. But you’d better really need me if you call.”
He’d emptied out both his checking and savings, netting a mere $11,000 and change. Not much to show after 8 years toiling in the City of Angel’s Dust, as he liked to call it. But he could burrow in, hunker down and stay out of the line of fire for a while and still have beer money. His parents had generously allowed him to live with them in Palo Alto.
Within days of moving back into his upstairs boxy little bedroom where it had all begun for him, he met a girl at Starbucks and they quickly began dating.
She was the first girl since Susie that would meet his parents.
They loved her at first sight. She was Asian, the kind of Asian girl with very slanted eyes, a flat angular face that hinted at Hmong roots, and not a single trace of an accent. American born and educated, she’d been a sucker for blondes her whole life, and Kenny was not her first. Her American dream followed much of the stereotypical image; white picket fence, cozy cottage style house, good looking husband, boob job and yearly teeth whitening.
Kenny had chosen another airhead. This time, his judgment further clouded by his dwindling finances and the specter of having to take his father’s job offer much more seriously, he married Kim Li, who in addition to bringing very little baggage, familial or personal, into the marriage, did bring a sizeable trust fund from which she could tap probably for the rest of her life.
Kenny appeared, at least on paper, to be on easy street.
Two months after the birth of their second child, and just days after having stepped off the scale, grinning like a Native American alcoholic on an Arizona reservation watching an old Custer movie, Kim Li took her 125lbs and deserted her husband and children.
The next time Kenny heard from her was a year later in an email from the Philippines inquiring about the kids, as if she cared. He’d ignored it.
Kim Li had shown little signs of her unhappiness. She was from a culture that prided itself on hard work, and her husband was not that kind of man. Content to skate through life oozing from one sensation to the next, she watched as he become completely reliant on her money, ambition being a concept he only occasionally gave lip service to.
Left to raise his 4 year old daughter and his newborn son by himself, Kenny quickly moved all three of them into a cheaper, smaller apartment; selling the condo Kim Li and he had lived in. He kept the money with no guilt attached to it, figuring it was any combination of alimony, child support or blood money for desertion of duty. A mother abandoning her post in this fashion was frowned upon in any culture, so Kenny was sure she’d spun a fairy tale back home as to why she was no longer married to the American.
With the help of his parents, who lavished their grandkids with love and affection and gifts, Kenny grew into fatherhood with a maturity and sense of responsibility that he’d never knew he possessed.
He’d started his own modeling agency, recruiting from the surprisingly abundant local crop of beautiful people in the Bay Area. Male models were more prevalent, given the large gay contingent in San Francisco, and he’d been very pleasantly surprised to find a couple of beautiful female students willing to supplement their income in order to stay abreast of their dues at a little campus a mile or so from his apartment known as Stanford.
Other than the loving wife by his side, his life resembled normalcy more than at any other time in his 40 years.
One day, exhuming a couple of old boxes from the rear of his closet, he came upon his original journal. As he turned the pages, the cringe-worthy prose and banal, superficial observations were embarrassing in their triteness. Then he read the following passage, dated June 29, 1977.
“I’ve graduated from high school. Some might say from boyhood to manhood. I would disagree. Nobody asks what I think. Nobody solicits my opinion on anything of substance. I hate being good looking.”
He was stunned at the insight. Amidst all the facile, shallow postings was this nugget that resonated like a ball peen hammer to the testicles.
He thought back to how he felt about his girlfriends in high school. How beyond sex they interested him not a whit. Then he thought to how he continued that pattern as a college student and then as a young adult.
Was it about sex only? Was he incapable of nothing more than physical intimacy? Could it even be considered intimate?
With a piercing clarity, he put the book down and sat back on the ground, his long legs extending into the closet.
He’d never pursued substantive relationships, because nobody approached him with that in mind, or as a goal. Male or female. And he’d accepted that. He let others determine how he lived, even when it ran counter to his own desires.
He’d become an airhead, just like the all the bimbos he’d fucked all his life. He’d lowered himself to their level, for the simple physical validation that only vapid people get from random sex.
He picked up his journal and threw it at the back wall of the closet. The binding broke.
It was an old book.
But with a brand new story waiting to be told.