Caged Rose by Naomi West
The look in David’s eyes should’ve been my first warning.
“Turn around,” he orders, his eyebrows furrowed with displeasure.
His bald head reflects the flickering fluorescents above us. He’s all dolled up for tonight’s party in a blue blazer and tie, but on him, even that looks vaguely slimy.
I do as he says, pirouetting in a slow circle like a revolving mannequin. When I finish my spin, that nasty gleam in his eyes has worsened.
I glance past him. There are four other girls lined up behind David, though I recognize only one. She was at the agency last week, too, the interview after mine. The platinum blonde bob cut was hard to forget—which is probably the point. Hanna or Henley or Helena, something like that.
“Iris,” David seethes under his breath, “I told you last week what a big deal this party is. And yet here you are, barely showing an inch of goddamn skin. Are you stubborn, or just stupid?”
I catch my reflection in the window of the waiting agency van. I’m wearing black leather pants and a silver sequined halter top, along with my nicest pair of ankle boots, the ones with the silver chain link around the ankle.
I take another look at the girls standing behind David. I guess I do kind of stand out in comparison to the ocean of bare midriffs, backless dresses, and ass cheeks on full display.
“I was going for something… understated,” I mumble.
He rolls his eyes. “You’re not Heidi fucking Klum, goddammit. You can be understated when you’ve made a name for yourself. Until then, you need to make an impression. Impress them with your tits, impress them with your ass, but impress them with something, for God’s sake.”
I wrinkle my nose with distaste. “I’m not a whore, David.”
Again, that gleam flares in his eye. Dark and ugly. “When you signed onto my agency, you put me in charge of you. I’ve been in this business a long time, little ladybug.”
I have to suppress the cringe that works its way up my spine and bite back all the different ways I want to tell him to go fuck himself.
“You’ve got a gorgeous face and a knockout body,” he continues, oblivious to my disgust, “but this is Los Angeles, baby. There’s a million other girls out there with the same assets. Girls who are cooperative and easygoing and who don’t throw a fit when their agent tells them to put on the dress with more cleavage. Girls who are willing to do a lot more for a lot less. Between you and them, guess who’s going to get the jobs?”
He waits for me to answer. When I don’t, he nods, pleased with himself. “Yeah. That’s what I thought. Right now, you are a nobody. If you want to change that, I suggest you listen to my advice.”
Go to hell is right there on the tip of my tongue, begging to be set free. But as much as I want to chuck that in his face, I can’t.
Like it or not, I need this.
All my other bridges are currently burning.
I exhale slowly, my face hot and uncomfortable. “These are the nicest clothes I own,” I whisper to my feet.
I’m not lying. I spent the last of my savings on the leather pants. It was that or wear the faded jeans I’ve lived in for the past two years, and even I knew that that wouldn’t fly with David.
“Jesus Christ,” he groans. “There’s a wardrobe in the back. Find something sexy, put it on, and be out here in four minutes. The van leaves in five.”
He snaps his fingers at me and I slink towards the back of the agency. The “wardrobe” that David was referring to is mostly just racks of unorganized clothes leftover from various photo shoots over the years. Most of it isn’t right to wear to a glitzy party at one of the nicest hotels in the city, and the pieces that are nice enough aren’t in my size.
I pull out one hanger after another, but nothing looks good, until finally, I find a dress that could work. It’s cashmere, which might be a little warm, but the soft, dreamy sea green of the fabric will make my eyes pop.
The neckline is a deep V that highlights just enough of my cleavage to appease David, and the hemline is short, ending just below my ass, so that my legs are exposed, too. It’s what he’s requesting: bold, sexy, eye-catching.
I’m just not sure I’ll like which eyes I’ll catch in it.
But I don’t have a choice. It’s either do what David says, or go back home. And there’s no way in hell I’m going home. I turned my back on my past for good reason. Not a thing on this planet could send me back there.
The only thing I keep from my original outfit are the nipple pasties and my ankle boots. Since there’s no place to stash my phone anymore, I tuck it into the side of my panties.
My long black hair flows behind me as I run back to the front of the agency where David is already loading the other girls into the van. There’s a picture of a cartoonishly sexified woman in a tight minidress printed on the hood. David really runs a classy operation, lemme tell you.
“Stop,” David orders, holding up his hand before I can get into the van. “Let me look at you. Turn.”
I grit my teeth and turn on the spot. I hate this, feeling like a rotisserie chicken or a bug under a microscope while this gross man leers at me.
“Satisfied?” I snap when I’m facing him again.
“Getting there,” he says grudgingly. “Some strappy high heels would have been better. But it’s too late now. Get in the van.”
I’m climbing in when he slaps my ass. Before I can turn around and tell him off, he’s slid the van door closed.
“Don’t mind David,” one of the girls reassures me from the back as I stumble down the aisle. “He’s a dick, but he knows his shit.”
“He better,” I mumble.
David gets into the driver’s seat with a wheezing grunt, fires up the engine, and we head off.
“You’re Iris, right?” someone else says as we pull away from the curb. “I’m Helena.”
I turn to the girl sitting to my left who just spoke, the one with the blonde bob I met when I first interviewed. “Yeah, I’m Iris. Hi.”
“You two are the newbies,” another one of the girls explains. She’s almost as tall as I am, with flowing red hair and an attractive smattering of freckles. “I’m Kendra. This is Willa and that’s Adrianne.”
Willa is exquisite. She’s got a sharp crew cut and the most stunning features I’ve ever seen. Her eyes are a light caramel brown, but they stand out against her dark skin. Both her and Kendra are whip-thin. Adrianne, on the other hand, is voluptuous in all the right places. The kind of girl who makes Coke bottles look out of shape.
“Nice to meet you girls,” Helena says enthusiastically. “How long have you been with David?”
“Two years for me,” Kendra answers.
“I’ve been here nine months,” Willa says. “And Adrianne’s been here six.”
“So… what are these parties like?” Helena asks.
“Crazy!” Adrianne says. “Lots of famous people. I’m, like, one K-Pop star away from completing my Boy Band Bingo card.”
David butts into the conversation with a groan from his perch in the driver’s seat. “The hell does that matter? It’s the men whose names you don’t know who are actually important.”
Kendra rolls her eyes. “Here we go again. Pompous speech commencing in three, two, one…”
“Listen to me, ladies,” David booms right on cue, glancing at us over his shoulder. “Captain Boy Band McFuckFace might give you a smile and finger you until you come. But he ain’t gonna give you a job. You need to be looking at other agents, music producers, designers. People like that. People who see the potential behind a pretty face. They’re the ones that can make you famous.”
“I’d settle for a steady paycheck,” I mumble.
“What was that, spitfire?” David asks, glaring at me.
I’m about to retort, but just then, headlights fill up the interior of the van. David yelps and swerves us back into the proper lane as the horns of oncoming traffic blare at his stupidity. Everyone screams, but he ignores us and launches back into his spiel as though nothing happened.
“If you wanted a steady paycheck, you’d be tending bar in some shithole club or waiting tables at some shithole restaurant. You came to my agency because you wanted to climb the ladder faster. Isn’t that right?”
I find myself nodding reluctantly. It’s not that I care about climbing the ladder, or about fame, or fortune, or any of that nonsense.
I just want to make sure I escape the gravity of the nightmares I’m running from.
“Sometimes, the cost of cutting corners is your dignity. That shit ain’t worth anything anyway.”
I tense as the other girls fall silent. David keeps blathering on. The man loves attention. No such thing as too much of it. “Tonight, you need to make an impression. Be charming, be funny, be interesting, be alluring. They have to remember you tomorrow after the booze wears off. You got me?”
“Yeah, yeah, we got you, David,” Kendra says, speaking for all of us.
The other girls slip back into casual conversation. I watch them talk, wondering why I can’t muster up half their enthusiasm, half their excitement. They want to be here in a way I just can’t emulate. All I want is to not be there anymore.
When I look forward, I notice that David is watching us all from his rearview mirror. Those beady eyes never stop moving. Back and forth, back and forth, like a beetle’s.
When we finally get to Hotel Carnegie, David drives right past the entrance and into the adjoining parking lot. Being bussed here like cattle and then herded in through the side door is at least a little bit humiliating, but I’m actually glad for it tonight because it means no one will see his intensely embarrassing van and the intensely embarrassing picture he’s chosen to plaster on the side of it.
We troop out into the parking lot. Once we’re all out of the van, David stands in front of us like a drill sergeant, his eyes laser-focused and intense. “This night could make or break your careers in the modeling world,” he tells us grimly. “So make it count.” Then he marches off towards the hotel, leaving us to trail behind him.
Kendra and Willa take the lead, but I lag behind, hoping for some time to collect my thoughts before we enter what I’m beginning to think might be a cesspool of the worst L.A. has to offer.
Helena falls into step beside me, flicking that shocking blonde hair back and forth. She’s a few inches shorter than I am, but her hot pink platform heels bring her up to my level.
“I knew he would sign you from the moment I saw you,” Helena confides, giving me a curious smile.
I blush. “Yeah?”
“Are you kidding? You’re stunning. I could barely take my eyes off you.” She says it a little sharply, in a way that blunts the compliment and turns into something else. Something competitive, with a bit of a nasty edge.
“Look around,” I say, as we enter the area reserved for the party. “Everyone here is stunning.”
“Not like you,” Helena insists. “I’ve never seen eyes that green before. What’s your ancestry?”
“Um… I don’t know. I’m white.”
“Obviously, but where’s your family from?” she presses. “My roots are Scandinavian.”
I’m about to tell her that the whole reason I’m here is because I’m trying to cut my roots. Either that or set them on fire.
But before I can, David waves me over. Apparently, he’s already caught a hold of some big shot he wants me to meet.
“Excuse me,” I mutter. “Duty calls.”
I happen to notice Helena’s face as I walk away. She’s not happy to be left out of the introduction.
“Jared,” David croons when I approach, placing his hand on the small of my back and pushing me toward the guy. “This is one of my new girls.”
Jared is young, probably around thirty or so. He’s wearing a red shirt unbuttoned so low that I can see his greasy paunch and a smattering of chest hair. On top of that, he’s flashing an obnoxiously large watch encrusted with diamonds, a pair of thick gold chains, and enough cologne to kill an elephant.
His whole look screams “I’m spending Daddy’s money.” Nothing but a ball of sleaze surrounded by equally sleazy men, most of whom have a scantily-clad woman or two wrapped around them. A few of them—the women, that is, not the men—are even wearing bikinis, although I don’t see a pool anywhere in the vicinity.
“Gawdamn, D,” Jared whistles, looking me up and down. “She’s fuckin’ gorgeous.”
“She’s also got a name,” I snap before I can think better of it. “It’s Iris, in case anyone was wondering.”
I know it’s a stupid thing to say the second it comes out of my mouth. The whole point of coming here—to L.A., to David’s agency, to this party—is to make connections, right? Because connections mean money, and money means freedom, and freedom means I’ll never, ever have to step foot in my father’s home again.
But does starting over mean I have to sacrifice everything to get there?
Neither of these men are likely to have answers. They both sold their dignity a long time ago.
Jared’s grin curdles at once. “On second thought, David, maybe you should have broken this one in before bringing her out.”
“Okay, fuck this,” I scowl. I rip myself out of his grasp and stride away.
“Iris!” I hear David calling after me. I can tell from his tone that he’s livid, but I’m running pretty hot now, too. “Iris! Turn around. I’m not kidding here!”
I skid to a stop and twist around. David almost runs into me. He’s red in the face and his bald head has a fresh sheen of sweat over the top.
“What the hell was that?” he demands.
“I didn’t sign up for this shit,” I say. “I’m not a show pony, I’m a human being. I’m not some—some thing for creepy rich men to ogle at!”
I intended to say it angrily, defiantly, but at the very end, my voice catches and breaks, revealing the undercurrent of desperation beneath it. The stain of memories I can’t scrub away. My cheeks redden with shame.
“Stop making a scene,” David snarls. He reaches out and snares my arm in a grip that’s way too tight, way too menacing. “Do you realize that I took a risk investing in you? Those headshots I gave you cost money, Iris. Those clothes cost money.”
“Let go of me.”
“You think you can just throw a bitch fit if—”
The words die on David’s lips.
When I look up, I realize why.
And from that moment on, nothing was ever the same.
|August 23, 2022
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