october 17, 2022
he’s looking in the mirror. What does she see? On your good days, you imagine she sees bags under her eyes, puffy cheeks from those pills you’ve read about, and those pink drinks you can’t afford, teeth too white and square, wad of gum perpetually wadded, smudged eye makeup, ratty extensions. You pretend she hates herself as much as you hate yourself. As much as you hate her. So rich, so lucky! This morning you discovered your dog had peed inside your shoe, the left one of the pair you bought at Payless because you squinted and convinced yourself they looked nice, though at home they were dull, not shiny, the toes rounded, making you think of the way you used to round your shoulders and retreat at recess, parties, work. Used to. Britney has dogs, and her frayed hems and knotted underhairs make you think surely that’s happened to her, surely one of her platform slides smells like animal, but she snaps her manicured fingers and someone with rounded shoulders comes and cleans it for her. Buys her new shoes. Buys her a new house, a new dog. You had to soak your shoe in hot water and dish soap, the cheap kind, thin, no bubbles, because dish soap was out of your budget that week. You can’t afford new shoes. You can’t even afford one new shoe. You slopped through a shift at Red Lobster two towns over in that shoe.
Britney’s on all the magazine covers. Everywhere you go, she sees you. She sees all of you. Britney’s in love! those covers bleat. You wonder if you’ve ever truly been in love. She wonders the same exact thing. You’re in love with her, or the closest thing to it. You, all of you, the way you obsess over her. Her nude body, flashing stars off her hips. No, just a flesh-colored body suit and rhinestones. Still, you imagine. A man asks her on live television about her breasts. My breasts, she repeats, the way teenagers do when you ask them something that dumbfounds them. My grades? My friends? My job? My breasts. Britney laughs; it’s funny! Right? She looks offscreen, maybe hoping to see defiance, rage, in her assistant Felicia’s eyes. Instead she sees the same dumb giggle. Haw haw. She went back that night and stabbed that man in his ear with his own monogrammed letter opener, collected the blood and brain matter in her Versace Medusa. If you stay past the encore, you can watch the lights go out one by one. Then you’re in total blackness. She stayed until he knew what she meant. Here you go, Fe, she said, handing over the bag the next morning. You work so hard.
Now she’s on a private jet and where are you? In your shitty hatchback on your way back to Red Lobster. You hate the dayshift, you hate your stacked block apartment on Chipeta and that you will return to it. Britney smells like an old bra and you smell like you walked through the breezeway of a Bath & Body Works a hundred times. Four hundred times. The clouds like a massive fluffy carpet rolled out for her. You hear the engine of a passing plane above and you see yourself in your rearview mirror and you look like someone is pressing you down, pushing you into the ground. Buried.
There are stories you’ve heard and you don’t know if they’re true but they’re fun to consider. Britney is high all the time, those lavender pills that cost a year’s paycheck for you; Britney has sex with whomever; Britney died and was replaced by a lookalike with brain damage. Britney put a hit out on her father. Britney cries every night because she misses home, misses her family. You cried the other night because you couldn’t afford to eat; you’d have to wait until the dinner shift and hope your manager Terry takes pity on you, doesn’t punch in your order but just hands over the plate and waves you away. You don’t have enough even with your employee discount.. Has Britney ever felt that?
You don’t know this for sure, but some part of you knows: Britney killed a paparazzo that wouldn’t stop following her. Lured him by letting him follow her, whipping around the curves in the Canyon, driving wildly, driving herself, she used to know someone who lived up there, that home that looks so cozy and clean all lit up at night, but he hurt her bad and thinking of it makes her sick to her stomach in the car. Her driver wanted to drive her, she is repeating this sentence over and over because it’s fun, it’s sort of musical, she is a musician. Her driver wanted to drive her, repeat. Her foot has pushed the gas pedal to the floor. If she dies at least her story will finally have an end. Instead she’s driving right up to the edge of a cliff, the paparazzo on her tail, accelerating into the promise of a photo, the photo, and at the last second Britney turns and he doesn’t. He sails right off the edge. Beautiful, really. She thinks she can hear his car burst into flames, but there is always roaring in her ears. Applause, feedback, terror. It’s all the same to her, now. The man had a fiancée and a tiny daughter who just had her ears pierced. Britney feels nothing.
You don’t even like that song, the one that came out about her. Melodramatic and tedious. You wonder how she feels about it. You imagine she is steel inside when it comes to him, her first. You don’t know that he is a bore, that he wanted constant reassurance from her, that he made her hold his penis like a mother holding her nervous child’s hand.
You have only ever been cheated on. You’ve never been the cheater. You hate these other women, these whores. They are better than you, aren’t they? They are. They are all Britneys and you, you don’t even have a name. Britney’s name is like two neat stabs, choreographed and rehearsed and on their marks. Swishing sharply away before the blood even runs. One boy you loved, though. You aren’t aware of what Britney knows, that love is a game of pretend and inevitably it gets tiring for one of the players. He just stopped talking to you, like you were something he imagined and he’d pivoted to a different creation. You were supposed to evaporate, to cease, but you couldn’t and you can’t. Hard as you try, because you’re a dumb bitch and you’re not even cool enough to say that part out loud.
Britney is a human being and she makes mistakes. Britney just wants to fall in love, fall right through the floor and keep on falling, past where those long camera lenses can find her. If she can just smear an eraser over herself. She knows she can’t become anyone else but she can ruin what is there. It is no longer possible to keep all of herself together. Every day she watches another little bit departiculate or unarticulate or whatever word Oprah would use is, watches it flutter off like the butterfly on her back and that is smeared too. At clubs people hear her yelling FUCK IT and WOOOO and YEAH but they don’t hear the rage, a tone which hovers above human hearing. She lets the cameras take her picture, take and take and take and take. She shows them her face, her creation, how it no longer does what it’s told. Her eyes change; now they stare into flashes without blinking, those great black pools that reflect back what they see, which is you, staring, grimacing, searching, laughing that mean laugh. You like what you see because you hate what you see. It’s you. Britney is you.
Next she kills a bartender she fucked. He fell down her spiral staircase. He fell, she says, in her baby voice. I see, says the cop, but he is wondering about her breasts. It wasn’t his fault, she thinks, but she can’t remember the reason. She kills her cook, just pushes his face right down into the vat of oil he’s boiling for her favorite fried chicken. He lets her, it’s heartbreaking how little he fights. He’s erect as he dies. She kills Leeza Gibbons, strangling her in the shadows of a red carpet, who is replaced by a lookalike, brain damage, before the first award is given out. Britney has people. Her people have people.
Then: where did he come from? He’s rangy and he has dimples and he smiles at her the way everyone smiled at each other in church when she was a girl. Anonymous and polite. It reminds her of something she’d long forgotten. She never figured out what that was. Girl, her assistant says, halfheartedly, already on the walkie about troubleshooting this one. They drink and they fuck and he knows about drugs, she lets him think he knows more than she does. This one, she kisses. She didn’t know kissing could be a search, find me, find me. He tries harder than anyone before. Or maybe not, maybe he was just as blank as a kite and she flew him and she was also the wind and it felt the way she wanted it to feel. It is hard to know if she is the world or if the world is a projector on a big blank wall. She has his babies, it is so fun to have his babies inside her. She doesn’t kill for nine months and that lasts through the next pregnancy. She has them so close together. A blessing, everyone tells her. A blessing, a blessing, she’s nodding and nodding and the tears coat her face. Aw, they say, aw.
You have kids, too. The cook at work is nice, and he stays until morning, and so what if he can’t have a driver’s license. We all have issues, don’t we? Before you even figure out if you wanted the first baby another comes along. They feel like invasions, like someone hooked up a hose to your chest and turned on the vacuum. You check your bank account, you check again. They’ll eat but you won’t and it’s fine, it’ll be fine. The cook moved three states away, because there’s work there, something with construction. He doesn’t own boots or a hammer, it’s his brother’s company or a friend of his brother’s company. Who knows. A woman downstairs watches the boys when you’re at work, and you’re always at work, and when you pick them up the woman is enraged and the boys are so sleepy, so sweet and warm and sleepy. Does Britney walk around feeling like this? This blanket of fear that something will happen, that something always happens, that the illusion of any order in the universe is just a card trick. Ask for help, the articles say just before your laptop dies. So simple! I am asking for help, you think. You haven’t showered in weeks. You cling to them, your babies, because making sure they know they’re loved, even if it’s a desperate, brackish, terrified love, is a mother’s only allowable violence. The TV is too loud and that’s something you can fix but you’ve forgotten how.
The nannies smile at Britney’s children in a way that makes her desperate, too. Is she jealous of her boys? I’m their mother, she reminds them. I’m their mother, she hisses at her assistant, her own mother, an interviewer from a third-rate magazine who buzzes at her gate. Yes you are, darlin, says her assistant, but she’s hidden her mouth behind her hand. Where’s Daddy? someone is asking. Where’s Daddy? Britney repeats. One of the nannies smiles at her and Britney smiles back even as she hits the woman, hits her again, can’t stop hitting her, the baby thinks it’s funny and she keeps going. Babe, her assistant says, babe come on now. That felt good, Britney says, out of breath, like the old days when she’d hop off the stage into the cool darkness and it’d finally be over, until the next one. She dials his number and he picks up and he says he was at the store, that she sent him for juice and brownie bites, but wasn’t that days ago? She tries to say something to her assistant. Tries to prep her by saying, I am about to say something. What day is it? is what she says, but her assistant is already turning, already laughing. It feels better when she is on the floor with the children, when she is really in it, when she is playing blocks or reading books about a grumpy fish but she looks up and only three minutes have passed. What will you do with your life? she remembers her pastor booming this at them when she was a child. What will you do with the life God has given you? It used to make her feel an urgency but now she knows the answer doesn’t matter. God? she thinks. God? She lets an interviewer touch her, smothers him with her thighs. Begs her assistant to keep him, put him in the case with the gleaming awards, but it’s another no. God never answers. She’s never looked better, they all say after her appearance on a late show. She’s back, they crow. But I was never even here, she thinks. You’re all liars.
You’ve figured something out. One day you look at your oldest boy’s shoulders, so tiny, his perfect posture, the delicate lines of his neck, and you want someone to come and do something, protect him, take him somewhere safe. And you hear a voice and maybe it’s Britney’s and it’s saying, That’s you. That’s your job. And from that day forward it is your job. You surrender. You go on food stamps and you take one less shift and you water down the milk, let yourself eat half a sandwich a day, because it’s what you can do. Let’s go to the library, you say. Let’s go to the park. You hand them strawberries, frozen because they’re cheaper. You become that thing everyone warns against, that pitied and embarrassing thing. You become a mother, and the secret is that you’ve never felt more powerful in your life. They grow and grow and they’re polite and curious and impossibly sweet and when they talk back or say No! you are sure you’re doing something right, because you’re not a weed choking the life out of them, you’re the sun and water and air and they flourish. Your pockets are filled with wrappers and pebbles and snotty tissue. You feel a sort of communion with the natural order of things, but every once in a while, you strut. You start to think maybe this is better than everything she has, everything you thought you wanted. Smoothing your kid’s cowlick, offering a Band-Aid, there you are, forgetting to covet her.
You see pictures of Britney. She almost drops her baby. She’s crying in a restaurant, seated right by the window, clutching her child. Someone help her, you think. Then you remember she’s rich enough to have all the help she could stand and your boy wants a string cheese and you forget all about it. You smell like seafood blend out of a plastic bag but you don’t smell anything.
Britney’s head hurts. It always hurts so fucking bad. The doctor gives her pills the size of gumballs but still it throbs. She can’t hear what anyone is saying. Roaring. Her teeth push against each other, the only way to distract from the pain. Sweetie, it’s these nasty extensions, someone says one night. He’s got his fingers in them, examining. Honey, this is a crime, he says. He’s shouting and she can’t hear him but she figured out how to read lips long ago. Come to the salon, he says. But she doesn’t know which one. She finds one and it’s closed but an ugly woman lets her in. It smells like the hairspray of her childhood and the walls seem to hold the roar of hair dryers in a yellowy hush and the woman says No, I won’t do that, so Britney does it herself. It’s nice to remember she can do some things by herself. See, Britney says to the woman, who isn’t ugly, just plain, and Britney almost cries she is so happy to see a face that hasn’t been surgically adjusted, See, she says and hurries out the door and leaves the woman to wonder what exactly it is Britney Spears smells like, is it body odor or takeout or some new expensive perfume she doesn’t understand, and years later she will realize what it was, it was decay. Britney takes a taxi home. The driver clucks and says it’s a shame, what she’s done to herself. Says it like he owns a part of her and maybe he does. She pushes the pen she stole from the salon into the driver’s neck and leaves the door open as she walks away. Where are her boys? She has to find out. Her head doesn’t hurt anymore, does it?
The whole world is saying they’re concerned but they’re saying it behind their hands. She’s fine because she has the money to be just fine. At one point everyone has felt envious of her and for that she’s paying an appropriate price. The Leeza Gibbons clone wonders if it has something to do with postpartum depression and the man next to her clamps his hand over her mouth. How dare you, he grits, motherhood is a gift. Then it’s too late, they all talk about how she needs help. Britney Needs Help, sources cry out. Not sexy, not pretty. Kill her, they start to think. She should die.
If she survives, she’ll show up wearing next to nothing again, just the way you like her. You’ll all pause and stare at her abdomen, at her thighs, at the return of those extensions. Sometimes she’ll make a triumphant return. The next one will be a disaster. The one after that will be nostalgic, filled with grace. But it all depends on you. It all depends on what you’re willing to allow. You’re aging, so why does she have to? You scroll and zoom. If you’re feeling even that day, you’ll comfort yourself. She must have gotten help, you’ll think. I’m glad she got help. ♦
Lindsay Hunter is the author of two story collections and two novels. Her most recent novel, Eat Only When You're Hungry, was a Book of the Month Club selection, a finalist for the 2017 Chicago Review of Books Fiction Award, and a 2017 NPR Great Read. Her next book, a novel titled Hot Springs Drive, is forthcoming on Roxane Gay Books in November 2023. She lives in Chicago with her family.