Ruth felt nervous, passing through just about the most cracker part of California on the long drive from LA back to her home. Three hours up the I-10, near Palmdale, a brother had been found hanging from a tree. ‘Suicide’, the ‘investigation’ had concluded. Very likely, Ruth thought. The ‘Confederacy of California’, the news stories had said Palmdale was known as. She’d never been to Palmdale and had no plans to go. But she doubted that Palmdale could be more cracker than this long desert stretch of Southern California east of Palm Springs and its neighbor cities, on the way to Arizona. To Ruth this part of California felt like Arizona, and Arizona was pretty cracker.
She tried to think of the name of the Arizona county where Joe Arpaio had been Sheriff forever — ‘America’s Toughest Sheriff’ by his own lights — and had got into the business of ‘investigating’ President Obama’s birth certificate. That wasn’t only cracker but, as far as Ruth could see, no business of a county Sheriff, especially if he was giving the time he ought to give to do his job right instead of doing his best to make the lives of prisoners and poor immigrants even worse.
Ruth had come all the way from Troup County, Georgia, by way of most of a semester at Albany State, to get away from crackers. But she thought that if she was here then she might as well be here, so she rolled down her window. None of the Salton Sea stink she’d heard about because the wind was right. She liked the window down, except that made it hard to hear Kendrick. She slowed to sixty and cranked him up and decided that life was good. The most cracker part of California but it still wasn’t Troup County, or even Albany. A ‘historically’ black university was fine. Ruth thought history was important so you’d know who’d mistreated you so you could make sure it didn’t happen again. But she reckoned more black folks had been mistreated in Georgia than in California.
She knew from personal experience that the people mistreating black folks could be black themselves. That included the two boys who’d approached her in the Student Center to recruit her for the movie they were making for their Narrative Film Making course. They’d pretended to think she was a Hollywood star scouting a location, and the laugh she got out of that convinced her to say yes. But when she realized they only wanted her to take her shirt off she stormed off their ‘film set’.
Ruth wouldn’t necessarily have minded taking her shirt off in front of the camera, although not for free. It was complicated. Having grown up in a Baptist home she knew the story of Adam and Eve and them being naked, but covering their nakedness, better than her ABC’s or her times table. She’d heard the meaning argued different ways and leaned toward the view that there was nothing shameful in nakedness. She thought the real problem was that it seemed it was always women pressured into it and never men. On the other hand, pressure or no, it was a way to get noticed if you wanted to be an actress. She’d noticed that so many young actresses did it that it was probably a way of paying dues. She didn’t like the idea of paying dues. But what if by paying all your dues you would get to a place where you could make a difference in the world? Maybe help make the world a place where women took their clothes off in front of the camera for the right reason—that there was nothing shameful in nakedness—instead of for all the bad reasons? Although she thought there might be more important causes she could devote herself to if she ever got to that place where she could make a difference. Maybe ending war and hunger for starters.
Anyway, she was getting ahead of herself. She thought about those two boys who’d tried to get her to take her shirt off. It said something that out of all the pretty girls at Albany State they’d gone after her. They’d pretended to think she was a Hollywood star because—and she’d never been afraid of a mirror but now she took the opportunity to look into every one she passed—she really looked like a Hollywood star. So one day when she was feeling especially discouraged by the work her professors were piling on her and wondering if it would lead anywhere, she thought maybe she ought to go for the real thing.
Which was how she’d ended up in LA. So far she hadn’t come close to being a star. But her friend Bushra, who was from London, had been going to casting calls for five years and wasn’t ready to stop. Since Ruth had been at it for only a year, she thought she might give it a couple more, at least.
She noticed a police cruiser coming up from behind. She thought she was going slow enough. But you can never tell, so she slowed down some more. When he pulled level with her, he slowed down. She slowed down even more and he slowed down too. He was holding up three or four other cars. She looked to her left and saw him looking back. She smiled but he didn’t. He dropped in behind her and the light on his roof started flashing.
Ruth left the window down as she accelerated to eighty, then ninety, then a hundred. The cruiser fell behind but then caught up. She saw an exit just ahead. The safe way to it would have been to ease off the accelerator and fall in behind the big rig she was about to overtake. Instead, she floored it and passed the big rig. As she braked into the exit the driver lay on his horn. Ruth needed both hands to guide her car through a curve not meant to be taken at eighty.
She cut her speed in half and saw that the police cruiser had taken the safe way onto the exit. He was gaining on her. She slowed down even more to study the sand off to the sides. It looked to be packed hard onto the desert floor. The vegetation was scrubby and sparse. The lanes of sand between the plants looked wide. She turned off the road to her left—sudden and sharp, but the cruiser stayed with her again. She didn’t drive far into the sand and the scrub because she could see that he wasn’t going to give up. She stopped and listened for traffic noises. She heard the wind whisper to the scrubby plants that they would be the only witnesses.
Looking in her rearview, she patted her hair in place and watched the cop approach on foot.
He said something she couldn’t hear. She lowered the volume.
“Sorry, Mr. McGraw.”
“Tim,” she said, pointing at his black Stetson. “Like the singer?”
“That’s funny,” he said, not appearing to think so. “You don’t look like you listen to Tim McGraw.”
“Shouldn’t it be white?” she smiled. “Since cops are good guys?”
“Cops are good guys? That what this brother thinks? Turn that crap off.”
She killed the music. He showed his white teeth and said, “Out of the car, Ma’am.”
She got out. Her image, mirrored in the lenses of his sunglasses, looked scared. He removed his sunglasses. His eyes of blue ice made her shiver. She looked again at his white teeth.
“Face the car,” he said.
She turned around. He pulled on her arm.
“Over here, Brown Sugar. I want you bent over the hood.”
She did as she was told.
“But hands off it. I want them behind you.”
She felt the metal encircle her wrists.
“You going to gag me too?”
“No, ma’am. I want to hear you scream. Spread your legs.”
She knew the wind had changed direction when she caught some of the stink off the Salton Sea. She felt him raise her dress and yank her underwear down.
“Shouldn’t of cuffed you.”
She felt her hands suddenly freed.
“Arms over your head.”
He removed her dress and bra and dropped them on the hood.
“You can handle the sun, right?” he said. “You people don’t burn.”
It would be hot later, but the sun was still in the east.
“You’ve got protection?” she said.
“I got a way to do it, you can’t get pregnant.”
“But there’s AIDS, and. . .”
After the initial pain, she began emitting little cries of pleasure. But something was off with him.
“Oh, no…” he said.
She felt his lips against her right ear. She wrenched her head to the left as he screamed.
“Cut,” he said to the cameraman, Neil, after he’d quieted down.
She could already hear that his accent was gone.
“That won’t happen when we shoot the actual scene,” he said, sounding Scandinavian again. “If you get the part. That was embarrassing, but it’s your fault for getting me so excited.”
He watched her get dressed. He turned to Neil and said, “What did you think?”
“She was great,” Neil said. “But you were a little. . .”
The cameraman laughed.
“A little stiff, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
“I haven’t acted in so long,” Morten said. “Being behind the camera is totally different.”
“You were fine,” she said. “And your accent. . .”
“I sounded American?”
She nodded. Neil pointed his thumbs at the sky.
“So maybe I’ll get the part?” she said.
“You have cigarettes in there?” Morten said. “I could use a smoke.”
He stuck his head through the open window of her car.
“Sorry,” she said.
He pulled his head out.
“Maybe I’ll get the part?” she repeated.
“Where’d you learn to drive?” Morten said. “The way you cut in front of that truck…”
“You said you wanted it real, so I got in the mood.”
“In the mood to die,” Morten said. “When we shoot the actual scene, I’ll tell whoever gets the part not to take chances like that. You could have passed the exit and circled back.”
“We don’t have to get it all in one take,” Neil said. “There’s a little thing called editing.”
“Got it,” she said. “But getting in the mood helped with everything else. I literally forgot that you weren’t really a white cop who’d targeted me because of my color. I just thought of what I’ve learned about taking care of myself in a society ruled by men. Especially white men.”
“Beautiful,” Morten said. “That’s such a powerful theme, and precisely what Her Too is all about. It’s going to be so empowering to black women to bring this story to the screen, to show a black woman who’s brutalized by a white cop but who doesn’t just take it, who tracks him down and takes revenge by—”
“Empowering to all women,” Neil interrupted, “which explains the title. But if, personally, you’re more into Black Lives Matter. . .”
Morten nodded his approval.
“I like the story,” Ruth said.
She glanced at Neil.
“But what?” Morten said.
She looked at the cameraman again.
“Maybe Neil has the same question,” she said. “So she’s raped by this cop…”
The men were nodding their heads.
“But even though it’s rape, she enjoys it?”
The men looked at each other.
“You’re not worried that her getting off on being raped is going to…” she said.
“You want to field this one, boss?” the cameraman said to Morten.
“You’re worried that if she takes pleasure in being raped it will confuse the message,” Morten said.
With his cheeks sucked in and his lips pursed, he looked thoughtful.
“It’s a risk,” he finally said.
He crossed his arms.
“But the greatest art doesn’t shy away from risks, it welcomes them. And you haven’t read the entire script, darling.”
She looked at Morten and then at Neil. She looked at Morten. He took her hand and stroked the back of her wrist. Ruth thought about his hands on her body. She pulled her hand away.
“So in the context of the whole movie it will make sense?” she said.
She looked Morten in the eye. He nodded. She looked at Neil. He nodded.
“Well, if it really makes sense, like you say…”
She hesitated. But she had every right to ask.
“My five thousand dollars?”
“Stupid on my part,” Morten said. “Dropped it in the mail this morning without thinking, and then Neil…”
He turned to the cameraman, who seemed startled.
“Neil asked why I couldn’t just hand you the check in person today.”
Morten smacked his forehead with his hand. He looked genuinely sorry.
“You understand that the check is for forty-seven hundred, since you already have your three-hundred-dollar advance?”
“I understand,” Ruth smiled. “Thank you.”
* * *
During the meeting with Morten Larsen in which she expressed her interest in appearing in Her Too, Ruth had never quite understood his contribution to the making of Nymphomaniac.
“It wouldn’t interest you,” he’d said. “But what interests me is what you thought of it.”
He seemed crushed when she said she hadn’t seen it.
“I’ve known plenty of nymphos, though,” she said, trying to lighten the mood.
His request to meet her in Blackwood’s, on Sunset Boulevard, had impressed her. Too many of the men in Hollywood wanted young women to “audition” in private offices or hotel rooms. His silk shirt also impressed her. She wondered if his eyes were the same blue.
Her joke had not amused Morten. He took off his sunglasses. The polar ice caps were melting, but his eyes remained frozen.
“You understand that the title was ironic?” he said. “In this age, no one with an awakened consciousness can speak of ‘nymphomania’ other than ironically. The fact that we have no male equivalent in our vocabulary shows that it’s a slur, based on a vicious double standard— benefiting only men—that divides your entire gender between ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls.’”
He cleared his throat.
“You understand also that you’re not a candidate for the lead role?”
“I have one scene, but you’ll pay five thousand dollars?”
That would take care of the rent for her room for six months.
“Your one scene, together with a parallel scene featuring the lead actress, will establish the cop as a serial brutalizer of women.”
“You’re playing the cop, right? You’re writing, directing, and starring.”
“An expression of the project’s ambition,” he said. “In conventional films, the manifestation of the pure artistic idea is weakened by its dispersal among separate individuals.”
“Uh-huh. But you won’t pay me for the audition, right? Because it’s an audition.”
His pale eyes bored into her.
“You understand my aesthetic principles?” he said.
“Aesthetic principles. So you’d say it’s an art film? Not. . . not blaxploitation?”
“The only exploitation is of certain tropes that do incalculable damage to our society. These will be turned upside down. Think of Her Too as a kind of toppling of statues.”
He showed his teeth.
“I asked whether you understand my aesthetic principles,” he said.
She looked down at her latte.
“Extreme naturalism—hyperrealism, if you like—is central to my aesthetic.”
“You mean the unsimulated sex,” she said.
She did her best to steady her eyes on him as she sipped from the latte. She thought about the five thousand dollars.
“Unsimulated sex is the only kind worth having,” she said.
He showed his teeth again. She didn’t want to call it a smile, but his teeth were very white.
* * *
Morten had made no promises about the part. He’d said he would audition more candidates. The first one was scheduled for the next day. She needed to drive back to LA, but he and Neil would only go as far as Palm Springs. He offered to buy her lunch there—“anyplace you want”—and she told him not to worry about it. They parted on good terms. Neil had winked. She thought Morten might find someone better for the role, but not likely.
Ruth was therefore in an upbeat mood two nights later when she met Bushra for tacos from a Sunset Boulevard food truck. Bushra wanted to take their relationship to the next level and Ruth thought she might be ready. As they sat with their tacos on a bus shelter bench, she found it hard to take her eyes off the low neckline of Bushra’s maroon chiffon blouse.
“I have to stop wearing tops like this when I show up for casting calls,” Bushra said. “A casting director who puts out a call for an ‘Arab/Muslim type’ expects the hordes to show up in their abayas. They see an inch of breast and it’s ‘No: wrong type.’”
Ruth spilled sauce on her blue jeans, near the crotch.
“Allow me, Sweet Georgia Brown,” Bushra said, and she licked the spot.
“Looks like some bloke missed the target,” she said as a wave of heat spread throughout Ruth’s body. “And didn’t notice you were wearing clothes.”
Bushra straightened up.
“Which reminds me of a story I heard yesterday from one of those ‘Arab/Muslim types’ at a casting call. She was staring at my breasts—but not in that way—so I said, ‘I know: big mistake. But even my mother never covered after she emigrated to the UK. She burned her abayas.’”
Ruth was half-listening, thinking she was ready to take the relationship to the next level.
“Anyway,” Bushra continued, “she said the abaya lets casting directors know she won’t do certain things, but this Scandinavian guy she’d agreed to do a film with didn’t get it.”
“Scandinavian guy?” Ruth said.
“Told her he’d worked on Nymphomaniac, but she said she thought he was—this sounded funny coming from her—all hat and no cattle.”
It was Bushra’s turn to spill sauce. It fell below the hem of her shorts, on her bare thigh.
“I won’t ask you to return the favor,” she smiled. “Yet. Anyway, one scene, three hundred dollars, gas money for her to drive to the sodding desert past Palm Springs, and lunch. Film’s about this Islamophobe cop who brutalizes Muslim women. She’s just one victim.”
Ruth had stopped thinking about her relationship with Bushra.
“Funniest part is that Bent or Björn, or whatever his sodding name is, asked this covered Muslim woman if she’d appear nude in her rape scene. Asked her after he’d given her the three hundred in cash to get her out to the desert. She kept the cash and didn’t even go to the desert.”
Bushra shook her head.
“Aren’t they supposed to have high levels of education in those Scandinavian countries? You wonder how a thick twat like that could have made it through their schools. Not like he was educated in a sodding one-room schoolhouse in the backwoods of Troup County, Georgia.”
Bushra had expected Ruth to smile, as she usually did when she was teased about Georgia.
“Taking the piss, Ruth. Country girl or not, this Bent or Björn would never fool you.”
Bushra nodded toward the sauce on her thigh.
“Go on. You know you want to.”
Ruth had been gazing at the lights of Sunset Boulevard but seeing the desert. Now she fixed her eyes on Bushra.
“Do you have to keep saying ‘sodding’ over and over?”
“Think how poor our lives would be if we only did what we had to do,” Bushra said.
Ruth tried to remember Morten’s number. After a second it came to her.
“My phone’s not charged,” she lied. “Can I use yours to make a call? There’s a guy who might have work for me in the morning.”
Morten’s number was out of service.
She told Bushra she didn’t feel well. They would have to take the next step another night.
* * *
Ruth slept poorly. In the morning, she got up before she felt ready for the long drive.
On the highway past the Salton Sea, she found her exit. She waited until a car driven by a young black woman passed her, chased by a police cruiser. She followed at a great distance as both cars turned off the paved road onto the sand. Out of respect for the woman, she permitted the distance to increase as the cars stopped. She worried about what she would do in case, once the filming had ended, the woman left with the men. But she left first.
Driving toward the men, Ruth saw that the one not holding a camera was smoking.
“I hope that’s a toy gun, darling,” Morten said, dropping his cigarette.
Ruth suddenly wondered if the gun would work. She’d bought it for protection a couple of years before, during the panic about a series of murders of young women that had occurred near her neighborhood. She had never oiled the gun. She had the impression you were supposed to do that. And she’d certainly never fired it. Not this gun, or any other. She decided to pull the trigger, anyway. Then she recalled having heard that you should squeeze rather than pull.
She squeezed twice. Then she ascertained that the deaths of the men had been unsimulated.