Mean Baby: A Memoir of Growing Up
In the fall of 2002, I saw a tarot reader in Los Angeles. I had just been cast in a movie that was about to film in Prague for six months. I was thirty years old, anxious and searching. My mind was a void, and I wanted someone to fill it. I wanted to hear the story of who I would become, what signs I should seek along the way. I wanted an outline, if not an epiphany. After all, that’s why we open our checkbooks to fortune-tellers. Tell us a tale. Make it wild. Make it entertaining. But make it our own.
The reader was named T—, and she looked a bit like a Berkeley professor, very thin, very intellectual. Large eyes framed by black bangs falling straight across her forehead. She kept a hankie tucked in one palm. Her breath smelled of Altoids. A skinny black cat curled up at her feet. As we spoke, I learned that T— used to be a lawyer, a profession she left to fully utilize her gifts. In all ways, she seemed like a good captain to have on this metaphysical journey, the right person to relay the drama of my life.
T— was not my first intuitive. For much of my life, I’d sought out such stories from mystics and chakra healers, mediums and numerologists, past-life therapists and astrologers. My fascination goes way back to when I was a child growing up in Southfield, Michigan. At a birthday party in second grade, my friend Melissa Stern’s glamorous mother dressed up as a fortune-teller, a sparkling vision in a headscarf and layers of necklaces and bracelets. Melissa’s mom was beautiful and lived in a giant house, which felt like evidence enough that she could see into the future, or at the very least that her words must have some merit. When it was my turn, she stared into a crystal ball, traced the lines on both my palms, closed her eyes, held my little hands, and told me that when I grew up, I was going to be a beautiful actress.
“There will be so many boys throughout your life that there will be a line,” Mrs. Stern said as she swept the air with her finger to indicate a long queue of men waiting to swoop me off my feet. Seven-year-old me couldn’t imagine why on earth she thought this. I had heavy eyebrows and stringy hair and did not believe myself to be an especially attractive child. And though I was prone to dramatic outbursts, the idea of performing in front of an audience terrified me. But I wanted so desperately to believe it. So convinced was I by Mrs. Stern’s future-predicting abilities that I internalized every word. I couldn’t wait to tell my mother, who would delight in the news.
As soon as my mom drove up in her navy blue 1979 Corvette, the Evita soundtrack blaring, I climbed into the back. Our cute neighbor Todd, a little older than I was, settled into the white leather bucket seat that was tinged yellow from cigarette smoke. I wanted them both to know what was predicted for me, so I spilled it all. “Mrs. Stern read my fortune and she said I’m going to be a beautiful actress,” I bragged. I wanted my mother to be impressed. I wanted Todd to notice me. Even at age seven I knew beauty was a rare prize.
“Yeah, right,” Todd scoffed.
“That’s ridiculous,” my mother said as she pulled out of the Sterns’ long driveway. Once we were safely out of view, she took a drag off her Vantage cigarette. She exhaled against the dashboard, filling the car with curls of smoke. “Why would she tell you that? Besides. If you do grow up to be beautiful”—emphasis on the “if”—“and tall”—emphasis on the “and”—“you’ll be a model. Or you’ll marry an oilman and spend your days on his yacht.” That settled it. My mother’s word was gospel. End of discussion. I looked out the window.
As it happened, Mrs. Stern’s prediction for me came true, at least in part: I was an actress. And by this point, I’d gone through my fair share of men. Even an oilman, whom I eventually found lacking. But I was still searching, still unsatisfied, still restless and stuck, still desperate to please, still prone to periods of overwhelming despair. Still binge drinking when I couldn’t make sense of what to do next or needed to escape my body. I wanted clues, signs, good fortune. I wanted someone to tell me how the story unfolded. I wanted someone to spell out what came next.
Now, many years and many seers later, here I was again. T— studied the cards for a long time and then stacked them up in a neat deck. She tented her fingers, her unpolished nails touching, and said with the kind of conviction that one expects from a tarot reader: “Your life is going to change in Prague.” The cat at her feet looked up at me as if in agreement.
I smiled. There it was: my life was going to change in Prague. She went on to say that I would meet a little man who would become important to me and that the true meaning of my life would be revealed. This, too, sounded fine. In fact, this whole visit was turning out to be much better than the last psychic I’d seen, who informed me that in my past life I’d been held captive by my own father and locked in a cement tomb in the woods, where I was burned alive, unknown by anyone.
I was going to Prague to shoot the movie Hellboy, in which I’d been cast as Liz Sherman, a pyro-telekinetic who, in a rage, accidentally burned her family to death and now must learn to control her powers. The director, Guillermo del Toro, had seen me in an indie film called Storytelling and thought my face held great loss. Loss was at the pit of Liz, he said. She couldn’t touch anyone. Any feeling made her burn. It was a fitting role for me because, for years of my life beginning in my twenties, I often had the sensation that my arms were on fire. The feeling would come and go inexplicably: a tingle all the way down to my fingertips like tiny electric shocks, then a burning so intense I felt I might combust, then gone. Though it nagged at me, I never said anything about this to anyone, not even my mother. It was just one more mystery about my body that I didn’t understand.
So, I went to Prague, where I waited for the magical life-changing moment T— predicted. A short man—T— was right about that bit—sought me out, a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, and we spent every night together, drinking slivovitz and champagne in bars. We fought, made up, made out, got drunk, fought, made up, made out, drank more. I felt as if I were living inside a Bukowski novel. In the morning, I woke up wondering who this tiny, tattooed, hot-tempered, blue-eyed man next to me was. Only to realize he was now mine. This wasn’t the change I wanted.
When the film wrapped, I returned to L.A., once again flailing. My life hadn’t transformed in Prague, except that I got even better, and also worse, at drinking, a skill at which I already excelled. In retrospect, I see now that I did learn some things. How to play the part of a woman who was trying to gain control over her own disobedient body. How to distract myself from the pain in my arms when I felt them begin to flare. How to spend long, lonely nights in bars and somehow get through the next day.
But at the time, I felt hopeless.
What I didn’t know then, but what I’m starting to learn now, is that I don’t need a fortune-teller to tell me a story about who I am or where I’m going. I don’t need a psychic to make connections between my past and my present. I know how the story unfolds. I’ve seen how the pieces fit together. And I want to be the one to tell it.
Part I: Signs
Part II: Questions
The Man and the Muse
Part III: Answers
A Note About the Author
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|Epub||May 17, 2022|
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