Someone was trying to eat her valise. She awoke in her tent to the sound of licking and gnawing, and in her dreamy state, she thought it was Gimli, the English bulldog she’d had as a teenager, making love to a rawhide at the foot of her bed, leaving white stains of rehydrated meat juice and saliva on her comforter. As she awoke, she found that she was an adult, and that a man was trying to separate a piece of leather from her travel bag using his teeth and a box cutter. She didn’t know where he’d gotten the box cutter.
Her publicist’s response was that a trip to a refugee camp, while dangerous, would be a great way to get the media’s attention right before the new movie.
When he realized she was watching him, he did not stop, but looked at her with bulging eyes, black at the center and yellow and dented as moons all around that. There was a granola bar in her purse she could offer him, and she dug for it a moment before she realized that giving him a granola bar might have nasty consequences. The sugar could poison him somehow, his body unaccustomed to processing anything richer than a handful of yellow grass, and she would have killed him. Or the other refugees might see the treasure and try to fight him for it.
Instead of the granola bar, she pulled from her purse a Swiss Army knife and a tube of lip balm. She moved slowly, on her knees, toward where he still knelt, frozen, still holding her valise with one hand and brandishing the box cutter with the other. She tried to decide if he looked insane, the sort of insane that would allow him to slit her throat, and determined that despite the moony eyes and fierce grip, he looked too empty for murder. Psychotic killers, she had heard, had “vacant expressions,” but his face had a quality that transcended vacancy.
He watched her as she slowly began cutting strips of leather from the bag with her knife, his eyes on her wrist in case she took a mind to stab him. She demonstrated how she wanted him to use the lip balm, coating the strips of leather with the tube, miming the licking of it, and then demonstrated how she did not want him to use the lip balm by miming biting and chewing it, then clutching her belly, falling to her side, and pretending to vomit. It was an elaborate show, but she needed to get her point across.
“Understand? Yes?” she whispered.
He offered no indication that he did, except to hold out his hand. She gave him the strips and the lip balm, and he left like a ghost, not even disturbing the sand beneath his feet.
Virginia just wanted to help, she had told herself at first. She’d seen them in pictures, coiled in their blankets like snakes that had recently swallowed a random selection of human bones: a hip plate here, a femur there, a fistful of fingers.
Her publicist’s response was that a trip to a refugee camp, while dangerous, would be a great way to get the media’s attention right before the new movie, predicted to be her breakout film, in which she played a widowed shepherdess in a sort of feudal France. This comment from her publicist was aggravating, because her desire to go had nothing to do with her career, or her image, or politics, or the refugees themselves. In fact, she realized when she got on the plane that she really had no idea why she wanted to go. There was the vague compulsion to help them, to assist them in uncurling and getting back on their feet, but she was a realist, and she could see that this was impossible, that whatever she could give them, it wouldn’t be enough. So his insinuation that he knew why she wanted to go insulted her and made her feel ugly.
When she stopped for her layover in Spain, she expected to meet a handful of American paparazzi there, and possibly a European journalist or two. (She was staying the night, not wanting to press on to the next leg of the trip until she’d gotten a good night’s sleep. She would continue on a private plane.) Twenty minutes before landing she popped a purple pick-me-up pill that her doctor had given her to decrease the sensation (and cosmetic ramifications) of jet lag. She brushed shadow on her eyelids and put a scarf on her head to hide the oily sag of her yellow hair. She didn’t feel dishonest about doing these things, as some people acted like she ought to. It was unreasonable for people to expect her to get off a plane with pillow head and mascara under her eyes, even if it made her seem like a “real person.” She wasn’t a “real person.” Real people didn’t take vacations to refugee camps.
She called her brother from her hotel room and made herself a twenty-dollar martini at the mini bar.
“Ginny? You in Madrid?”
It was eight in the morning in California. Scott was probably just pouring himself a cup of coffee, pulling the frying pan out of the dishwasher and examining it for the residue of yesterday’s breakfast before cracking today’s into it.
“Yeah. I’m exhausted. But I can’t sleep because of all the fucking speed I took before I got off the plane.”
“Dr. Frank wouldn’t give you speed. He knows your itinerary. It’s just a little caffeine.”
“It’s trucker speed.”
“I’m sure it’s just caffeine. Otherwise you wouldn’t still feel tired.”
She sighed. Scott sighed back at her. “I don’t like this,” he said, as if making the admission for the first time. Scott was one of the world’s beloved “real” people. He was a doctor in Los Angeles. Not a plastic surgeon, but what her parents called a “family doctor,” the type that diagnosed ear infections and gave physicals to high school football players. He had told her he thought the idea of going to a refugee camp was dangerous and would accomplish nothing. This seemed true to her. So while she considered being real overrated, she knew that having a real person in one’s life was invaluable for orienting oneself in a situation.
“It’ll be fine. It’ll be good for me. At any rate, by the time I leave the embassy, I’ll have a twenty-man entourage. If the refugees get violent, I’ll start throwing translators at them. They hate translators.”
Scott didn’t laugh. “Call me when you get there,” he said, “and don’t forget to wear sunscreen, all right? You’re going to fry like a piece of bologna out there.”