“Yet lost were I not won;
For beauty hath created been
T’ undo, or be undone.”
– from Ulysses and the Siren by Samuel Daniel
Don’t let that lying creep, my first manager that we fired, suggest it was him. Odysseus was my first.
My Odysseus walked up the beach with his friends and a surfboard under his arm, an olive-skinned man with hair curled and dark. Muscular, and famous, I knew him on sight. I was posing with a book I didn’t read for the camera men along the edge of the sand. I was alone, against the rules my parents had set for me. There I was. I believed I could sing, but it was a voice that came from deep inside of me, passed through microphones and soundboards and sound men. I had never heard my voice alone in an empty room. I never sang unless I had to, for joy. It was my job, and I was told to rest my voice outside the studio.
A singer who never sings, that’s me. Odysseus, the King of Thrace, a royal prince among the cellulite queens, lounging among us like a lotus eater, smiled upon all debutantes. Was he married? Was he still married? I don’t know. He loved to surf. I was at the ocean, and I saw him surfing, and smiled to myself. I fashioned myself a future queen. Everything else was mine. I had portrayed princesses before on screen.
I was born beneath the lights. My mother held me up to them so much that I knew nothing else. After school I ate cereal and smiled, take after take, or posed with school clothes for catalogs and magazines. I met directors, memorized meaningful family interactions, and went home after dark to sleep in a house three times as large as the set, waiting for my mother and father to stop shouting, throwing parties, or watching grown-up things that I could not for work. Naturally, I was convinced I could sing and sing, by a friend of my father.
I opened my mouth, and sound came out into a microphone and through it. From the speakers, the hay had been spun into gold. Platinum records of music written by men with daughters my age and my face on the cover like everything beautiful in the world. The men came to my door with signs and rummaged through the trash. I flushed everything I could. We mulched and composted. God forbid a hair– or worse: a maxi pad. They’d take anything. The more blood and sweat, the better. Not snot, oddly enough.
Baby, I’m a star.
Except, until Odysseus asked me to sing.
Odysseus saw me because the cameras were not solely his. He walked to me upon the sand. We had never stood in each other’s personal space before. He nodded. “Beautiful day,” he said.
It was beautiful. The sun was halfway through the sky. The cresting waves drowned the road sounds. The perfect horizon was dotted with sailboats, surfers laughter, and the timeless haze of summer.
“I saw you at the Grammies,” he said.
“I didn’t win,” I said. It was the first thing I ever said to him.
“You should have,” he said. He waved and walked away. “Your voice is as if the sea itself pours from your tongue. I had to stuff my ears to survive, you know, all that sound. The speakers were so loud, I couldn’t hear anything. Whenever I’m at concerts I wear earplugs. I didn’t rush the stage like the others. I wanted to.”
“Flattery,” I said. I had heard so much flattery.
“Yes, but still, you didn’t win. I’m sorry, I speak badly.”
“No. You’re fine.”
“Forgive me,” he said. He bowed like royalty and walked away from me, up the dunes to the café at the edge of the street.
I didn’t turn to watch. The shadows turned like sundials. Thirsty, and to the boardwalk, ignoring shutter bugs, I was surprised that I saw him drinking alone. My father’s lawyer would kill me for this. But I thought I shouldn’t be out alone, anyway, and I wasn’t alone if I could sit with him a while, and speak to him. (Of course, I was never alone with all the cameras. Gangly men with their cyclopean eye were always watching over me.)
“May I?” I said, to the King.
“My pleasure,” he said.
I carried two sodas. I gave him one beside his beer.
“Do you always go out alone?” I asked.
“I left the crew at the hotel. I have a house here. I don’t need a handler.”
“I do. I’m underage, you know. I snuck out alone.”
“We are never alone when we are on display. I love your voice. I heard you for the first time on a radio in Rome. I had to pull over to hear it, to stop the engine of the car and listen. You really shouldn’t be out alone. There are the crazy one – the collectors of things..”
“Then take me home.”
“Yours or mine?”
On screen, I never went to his. I was a chaste girl, with kisses on the cheek and hugs at proms. I sang of love that never passed second base.
He smiled. “Which would you like better?”
I looked up to his sunscreen-stained face, his naked eyes wrapped in white where the sunglasses protected him. “I don’t know,” I said.
We held still like that until the cars moved, and the camera-men shouted encouragement. I stood too long. It was awkward to stand here like this. I’m only a child. I don’t know what I’m doing. He does.
“I want to see where you live,” I said. “Where do kings live?”
“Castles in the sand,” he said. “We can walk there, if you like. It’s not a mile away up the beach. The surf carried me here, with my board.”
He lived on the water, in a condo on stilts at the beach. Inside he had surf boards, open windows and hardwood floors. I had to leave my shoes at his foyer, and walked barefoot on my toes on that hardwood.
“Sing for me,” he said. He had a piano, ivory white, a baby grand shorter than the surfboards along the walls.
He played a diminished chord, a major seventh, and resolved. I knew the song. My first hit. I laughed. I opened my mouth to sing.
Nothing came out.
He closed his eyes, playing the chords. I took a breath and tried to sing. Something came out, like the sound of a conch shell against the ear, as if my chest was a conch shell, and all the water sounds poured out from me. I was the sea. I had the song of the sea.
“What is the sound of joy? Is it truly this?” he said. He closed the keys of the piano. “You were too young to know the songs of the world. Too old to continue living so beguiled.”
I doubled over. I coughed to make the noise of it. It sounded like choking. Is this my voice when I project? How many machines stood between my rusty textures and the tone of the layered strings and drums?
A life lived in the lights and the cameras, what did I know of song? I lived more in empty rooms and homes carved up into camera tracks and seats on the set, sound studios where I stood alone while my father watched and spoke, disembodied, from the other side of the glass.
My song is of the sea, and only of the sea. A wind like whispered waves from my lips, poured into a piano. This texture hurts my lungs, spills over me with gravel. Sand spilled from my guts. Rocks and stones and driftwood, turtle shells and dessicated seaweed.
Afraid I ran upstairs, trying to sing the songs I knew by heart, trailing beachheads.
“No song,” said Odysseus, climbing after me. “None.”
Why does he do this to me? What have I done to him?
Into the bed, and dead sand dollars, now, like frozen coins, tumbling onto pillows.
My father and his friends had led me by the hand from stage to stage, so sure of myself — dancing on the stage with such applause, all lie and the machinery that contained the sound they threw upon the screaming fans who rushed the stage, trampling each other for a touch of my skin. All sand. All salty sea sand. I could not sing to stop the men from following me.
Odysseus climbed the stairs, the King of Thrace that threw me into the rocks I choked upon. My voice–my horrible voice–scattered onto silken waves.
My tears, my bleeding on the rocks.
Curse Odysseus, and all the men who would drown in my arms.