This story first appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A commentary track about the piece is available for Book Club members here.
Chapter 2 is here.
ALL OF ME
by R.S. Benedict
In the bathroom of a cabin in Crystal Cove, I’m watching myself live on television while deciding which toe I’m going to cut off.
The door to the outside is locked with a chair wedged under the knob. Early-morning sun bleeds through the closed curtains. When I lean, I can see the television through the open bathroom door. I’m talking to a pretty blonde woman approaching middle age. I don’t know her name. There are so many.
“Isabel del Mar,” she says, “you’re a woman of many talents.”
And I smile bashfully, enigmatically, for the cameras.
“Actress. Singer. Dancer. Model. Environmental activist. Fitness guru. Addiction survivor. And now, an author. I understand you did not use a ghostwriter for your memoirs.”
I shake my head, obsidian hair gleaming under the studio lights. “I would never let someone else tell my story.”
In the cabin, I lean back to focus on the bolt cutters. I clean them and rub them with antiseptic, but it is only a formality. I am not prone to infection.
Though I can no longer see the television, the two voices float into the bathroom. Hers, perky and chipper. Mine, breathy and faintly accented.
“How do you do it all?” she asks.
“Well, Carla,” (that’s her name), “my abuela raised me to put my whole self into everything I do. And,” (though I cannot see it, I am certain that I am smiling coyly, just as I practiced so many times), “it doesn’t hurt to have an army of well-trained staff.”
The bolt cutters are as clean as I will ever be able to get them. No more procrastinating. Sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, I stretch my foot into the shower stall, over the drain.
Carla laughs at my joke a little too hard. “Still, between putting together a new album, starring in The Fisherman’s Wife, and speaking to Congress about water pollution, it’s amazing that you found the time to write a book. Look at this thing! It’s huge. Like, three hundred pages, easily! You wrote all this?”
“I certainly did.”
I don’t believe I’m lying. I probably did write it, though not the me talking to Carla something-or-other on the morning show, and not the me playing “Eenie, meenie, miney, moe” with my own extremities.
“It was very challenging,” I say to Carla. “I had to dig deep and confront a lot of buried pain.”
I have chosen the pinkie of my left foot. That steel baron in Changzhou paid well, but not enough for a bigger toe.
“Like your nervous breakdown after your split with Eddie Haines,” Carla says.
I open the blades of the bolt cutters.
“Yes,” I say to Carla. “That was perhaps the darkest period of my life.”
With a snap, I slam the handles together. A little brown nub tipped with green nail polish pops onto the white porcelain, followed by a geyser of blood.
Though I muffle my scream with the flesh in the crook of my elbow, enough sound escapes to alert the seagulls, who shriek in kind. I have surely awakened anyone sleeping in the neighboring cabins.
I wrap the wound in a bandage and squeeze it tight, whimpering curses in every one of my languages.
“The book really doesn’t shy away from talking about your relationship with Christie Henkel,” Carla says.
“I am not ashamed of who I am or who I have loved,” I say.
“That’s inspiring,” Carla says. The audience applauds.
Once the bleeding starts to slow, I flop down onto the floor to pick up the severed toe. It was a clean cut, right at the joint.
“The book is called Me, Myself, and Isabel, and it comes out next Friday,” Carla says. “Isabel, thank you so much. Up next, we’re going to show you a recipe that’ll take your grilled cheese game to the next level.”
Applause. Theme song. Cut to commercial.
I wipe off the toe with a wet nap, seal it in a plastic baggie, tape it to a booklet of instructions in English and Mandarin, and stick the whole thing in a padded envelope to be smuggled to Changzhou. Then I grab an ice pack from the sink and press it against the foot. Cutting off a toe hurts like hell, no matter how many times I do it.
Once the flesh scabs over, I slip into a pair of flip-flops and hobble across the beach. I leave my dress and my towel at the water’s edge. I wear no swimsuit; I haven’t done so for the majority of my life and I do not intend to start now. No one ever complains.
The water slaps me as I enter it, and after I push myself in deeper, it shoves me upward so that my feet hover above the ridged seabed. Once, I crawled along the bottom, clinging to the sand with my tube feet. But I rejected the water, and now it rejects me in turn: I float.
Out beyond the breaking waves, I bob on my back. The gulls, no longer a marvel to me, swim in circles above. Seawater dissolves the adhesive and begins to unravel the bandage from my toe. The foot aches. I lift it to see a pale stub of bone and cartilage sticking out from the end of the severed digit. Then I raise my head to tread water and pull myself down to the bottom, and see how long I can stay there before the sea throws me up again.
When I reach the shore, I take a moment to gather my strength. Standing on two feet is hard enough when they’re not mutilated. Still, there is growth; nine toes have become nine and a half, and there’s a pink lump protruding from the knuckle where I used the cutters. Soon, I will have a complete foot, albeit missing a little nail polish, and a certain steel baron in Changzhou will have a new Isabel del Mar with one of her toes painted emerald-green.
Before I surfaced, I had no words.
I lived below, in a place where the water glimmered with living lights in green and blue and colors that human eyes cannot see. At times, I stuck my head Above to see the white stars that shone for hours and did not move, and to hear the voices of the people who lived there. To me, their song was hardly different from the screech of the gulls, or the chirp of the coquí frogs. Nothing so precise as a language.
I learned my first words on a moonless summer night, when the great Above screamed and thundered with explosions of red and blue and gold, and a white ship teased the bay into its display of swirling blue light. I fixed my eyes upward, wrapped in the depths like a child watching a lightning storm from under a blanket.
And then the surface broke.
A man with white skin and black hair fell from Above, and as he sank, the water he stirred erupted in light, trailing above him as he descended like the tail of a falling star, and the whole of his body shimmered in electric-blue. I had seen surface-men before, but never one so beautiful. His features were perfect, with delicate cheeks and a cupid’s bow mouth. And when he opened his eyes, I saw they were the color of the ocean at midday under a cloudless sky.
Hitting the surface had stunned him, and as he regained consciousness, he began to kick and claw at the water, which only sparkled brighter the more he fought. He was in too deep and his body was too heavy, and in the darkness, it was impossible to tell up from down.
And so he spent all his strength. A great calm came over him. The ocean drew him down to me, where I laid his head in one of my laps and traced the angles and curves of his perfect face. He began to grow still, and as he did, the aura around him faded.
I have seen a thousand men end their lives like this. But I could not let someone so beautiful bloat and rot. And so I breathed into him, from my lips to his, and hauled him to shore as the sea dressed us in twinkling blue. I even allowed myself to enter the air just to pull him out of reach of the tide.
Voices were shouting from land and sea, a two-syllable refrain. When he heard it, he listened, and I understood that the call was meant for him only. And this is what it was, the first word I ever learned:
I left before the other surface-men could find me.
I returned to the shallows of the bay the next night and sang the word “Eddie” until he came to meet me in the water. He taught me two more names, for the women drawn into the flesh of his arms. The one on the right was named the Virgin Mary. And the one on his left was a redhead called Rita.
And then he gave me a name: Isabel.
He visited me every night after that and taught me the many names that belonged to the place where I lived: Mosquito Bay, Vieques, water, ocean, bioluminescence. There were thousands more names; humans must label everything, even movement.
After one and a half of what he called “weeks,” one of Eddie’s associates came searching for him. The man found us together, Eddie on his back in the sand with the surf rolling up and down our bodies, me on top, all five of my legs wrapped around him.
A circle of painfully bright light fell upon us. The man screamed for someone named Jesus Fucking Christ. A black cylinder fell from his hand and the light died. I leapt from Eddie, into the safety of the ocean.
But Eddie called me back. His voice cannot travel like mine does, but when I heard the name “Isabel,” it dug into me like a fishhook.
“It’s okay,” Eddie said. “She’s fine. She saved me the other night.”
The man waddled into the water until it pushed and pulled at his ankles. He squatted and peered at me under the moonlight. He had the body of a dugong and the face of an eel.
“Isabel,” Eddie said. “This is Vic.”
The man called Vic descended to one knee in the sand and peered at my face. “So that’s what you’ve been up to every night,” he said. “Figures. You can’t stick with a girl longer than a week unless she’s goddamn mythical.”
“She can sing like a siren,” Eddie told him.
“Isabel,” Vic said, stepping closer to look me over. He liked what he saw, for he began to tell me a story of many wonderful names I had not yet learned: jewelry, Learjet, swimming pool, Gucci, and something very important called money. All of these things would be mine, and so would Eddie, and my name would live forever. I only had to sing.
“Baby,” he said, “I’m gonna make you a star.”
Everyone has heard my story, or at least some version of it. But storytellers always gut the truth to make it easier to swallow.
To start, I had no tail. I was not that kind of fish—not really a fish at all, according to marine biology. But shining scales are a prettier image than thousands of wriggling tube feet and a five-jawed mouth between one’s legs.
And the man I loved was no prince tempest-tossed into the ocean, but a matinee idol who fell off his producer’s yacht on break from filming Lost in San Juan while drunkenly leaning over the bow to fire a Roman candle into the air.
There was no sea-witch, no magic, but Vic knew an experimental cosmetic surgeon with a background in genetic engineering. Her name was Dr. Seong Chun-hwa, and she spent the better part of a year turning my five legs into two, carving out toes and ankles, and sculpting my curves as I lay in a hospital bed learning how to speak and act like a movie star.
My story has no fairy-tale ending, neither the revisionist Disney happily-ever-after, nor the dour Hans Christian Andersen martyrdom. Just a tired old tale too many women already know: A husband gets bored waiting for his wife to finish her hospital stay, so he starts fucking another woman. The end.
My real history is an open secret, whispered between insiders but never publicly acknowledged, like any other bit of Hollywood gossip. This one has an eating disorder; that one’s gay; this one hosts sleepovers with underage costars at his house; that one’s a mermaid. It’s not that big a deal.
If anything, it’s an advantage. I can cut off an arm and grow another Isabel to record a studio album while I’m busy on set filming a movie. I can cut off a hand to go demonstrate how to make an egg white tortilla Española on a cooking show, or pluck out an eye to design a fashion line for Nordstrom, or chop off a foot to go start a tabloid-friendly romance with Brett Fowler. (He’s into feet.)
And the Isabel del Mar whose director masturbates in front of her doesn’t have to be the same Isabel del Mar who records a public service announcement telling girls to believe in themselves. In a Lamborghini parked outside a nightclub, Eddie Haines slaps one Isabel and calls her a “freaky-ass sea slut,” but it is a different Isabel who sits beside him at the Oscars, holding his hand as he bites his lip and waits to hear if his name will be called. A new me, a fresh start, over and over again.
After two hours on the 405, I pull up in a used Neon to the drive-through of an In-N-Out in Santa Monica. The girl tasked to take my order peers in through the window, gapes, and shakes her head. “Sorry,” she says. “I totally thought you were Isabel del Mar.”
I laugh. “I get that a lot.”
I’m in disguise—not celebrity-in-public incognito, with the Versace sunglasses and Dolce & Gabbana hat, but actual incognito: drugstore lipstick, cheap red hair dye self-administered over a bathroom sink, shapeless jeans, company team-building retreat commemorative T-shirt for some failed start-up called Tangl. I don’t look rich or famous; I look like a normal person who just happens to share a striking resemblance with a certain public figure.
I pull up to the window. Dan-O’s working the till this shift. I hand him the money and the envelope.
“Changzhou,” he says. “That’s a long way, dude.”
He stuffs it into his apron and hands me my food. I park behind Starbucks to mooch off the free wifi. While I eat, I check Google Alerts for any news about myself.
Will Isabel’s New Book Tell the Truth About Eddie Haines?
Isabel EVISCERATES Mike Pence on Twitter, and It Is Everything
OMG: Isabel Secretly Entered an Isabel Look-alike Contest and Lost—To a Drag Queen!
EXCLUSIVE: Isabel and Eddie Seen at AV. Are They Getting Back Together?
Isabel del Mar to Star in Upcoming Splash Remake
WATCH: Isabel Visits Sick Fan in Hospital Wearing El Coquí Dress, Sings “Stormy Weather”
After a half-hour of scanning headlines, I find one worth reading:
Hollywood Boulevard Isabel del Mar Impersonator Dies in Apartment Fire
It’s a minor item, the type that wouldn’t make the news anymore now that local papers are all dead. But it’s worth a note to some blog called Cosplay News, and the story got posted on Isabel del Mar’s official Facebook feed:
Carmen Estrella, a street performer who made a living dressing up as Isabel del Mar’s iconic nightclub singer in El Coquí, died in an apartment fire at her home in Hyde Park on Tuesday.
“It looks like the fire was started by a cigarette she dropped on her futon,” according to Fire Department spokesman Stanley Enright of the 66th Station. “We can’t stress enough how dangerous it is to smoke in bed. It’s so easy to fall asleep and cause an accident.”
Estrella was the only resident killed in the fire, though several neighbors were sent to the hospital for smoke inhalation.
“This is a real shock to all of us,” says Bruce Mrowicki, Estrella’s longtime friend, who performs as horror villain Freddy Krueger on Hollywood Boulevard. “She was an amazing person. Just fearless. I can’t believe she’s gone.”
Estrella’s fellow performers are soliciting donations for her memorial service via GoFundMe.
I met my mother only once. It was just after they gave Isabel a star on the Walk of Fame. Business was good then, so I got up early, put on my dress, and headed to the Boulevard.
I noticed on the ride over that I’d lost a few sequins, like a sick fish molting scales. My dress was a cheap thing from a bag, one of those knock-off costumes with names like “Star Warrior with Light Sword” or “Dark Jungle Cat Hero” or “Sexy Latina Lounge Singer” to narrowly escape copyright infringement claims. In a hand mirror, I did my best to shove my hair into an approximation of a 1940s wave.
I was made for a nightclub in Tijuana. That life aged me a decade in the year before I made my way back to California. By then, I was haggard and bloated, too thick around the waist, skin too dry, too creased. I barely looked like myself anymore, but the resemblance was still good enough to make a little cash.
In posters, in magazines, in ads on the sides of buses all over Hollywood Boulevard, Isabel’s image grinned, promoting some shitty new romcom called ¿Dónde Está la Biblioteca? And from a billboard over the street, right above the new star, my face leered down at me, bigger and more beautiful than I have ever been or ever will be.
The star wasn’t in a spot with heavy traffic, but dozens of Isabel fans made the pilgrimage out to see it, and enough of them were happy to open their wallets for a selfie with me or a song. Bruce worked the same strip in his Freddy Krueger costume, even though he knew it meant a pay cut for that day. He liked to keep an eye on me, and I was happy for his company. He’d used that knife glove to chase away a public masturbator more than once.
When the shadows were creeping nearly to North Gower Street, I saw myself in the flesh. She didn’t move like Isabel, with that sultry swing of the hips, head high like a finishing school graduate; instead, she slouched and shuffled like any of the thousands of tourists who plodded the pavement looking for their favorite idol. Her hair was chopped pageboy-short and badly bleached, mostly stuffed under a baseball cap, and her eyes were hidden beneath mini-mart sunglasses, but I recognized her. I was the only one. To the rest of the world, Isabel meant timeless glamour and ethereal beauty, and it simply wasn’t there.
When I saw her, I knew she was the one who made me. We can always tell.
And when she saw me, she froze, then quickly spun away.
“Hey,” I called. “Hey!”
I ran in strides so big I tore the threads on my skirt, sending green sequins raining upon the terrazzo. Even though she was in sneakers, I caught up with her and grabbed her by the wrist.
“You gonna tear my arm off?” she asked. “Go ahead. There’s more where that came from.”
I had spent my whole life imagining what I was going to say and do in the great confrontation. I rehearsed speeches in bathroom mirrors, menacingly flicking a lighter. But all that came out of me was, “You can’t just do that. You can’t just make people and throw them away.”
She wriggled out of my grasp and kept going, looking for a crowd big enough to get lost in. I chased her, cha-cha heels clacking, shouting, “I’m a person, you know! I have bills to pay!”
By then, the flip-flopped, wide-shorted tourists were gawking at us, snickering, raising their cell phones to take pictures.
Isabel dropped her pretense of calm and took off sprinting, arms pumping, in that funny gait of ours. I could not keep up; I could only scream at her back, “I’m a person! You fucking slave trader!”
Something low and dark and old floated to the surface of my voice, something not meant for human language. The tourists gaped in horror, and a dumpy woman ambled into the center of Hollywood Boulevard to lie down on the pavement. My own voice can’t make me rich like Isabel, but I can still make people want to die.
Bruce dashed out to help the woman, raising a razor-fingered hand to stop traffic. The crowd kept filming.
I knew their videos would spread: They’re an irresistible mixture of female hysteria and pop culture surrealism, topped off with an unexpected heroic deed. And someone watching it, no doubt, would recognize me and myself as some of Isabel’s knock-offs. And then they would come for us.
I was too tired and too broke to run, and I wasn’t cruel enough to split myself off as a decoy. I promised myself I would be ready for them, and I hoped the other Isabel—the one who made me and sold me—would not.
Carmen’s official ending was simple and senseless and common, a house fire caused by a moment of carelessness. The article didn’t say it, but Carmen must have burned up in the accident; smoke inhalation alone isn’t enough to kill us.
But here’s the first-act twist: I don’t smoke. None of me does. We’re daughters of Poseidon; we hate fire.
Which means Carmen’s death was not an accident at all; it was only made to look like one to fool everyone but me.
It’s time for another cut. I need a new me, fast. An arm might be good enough, hacked off at the elbow, left to sprout beneath the Santa Monica Pier.