Lesser Sensibilities


Co-winner writing to the Right-Hand Margin Prize in Fiction
Published: April 22, 2010

Lily Clearwater smoothed her hands across the lap of her floor-length silver dress.  Though it was backless, with a slit cut up to her hip, and a neckline that plunged to her bellybutton, she felt self-conscious and thought that she was too covered up.  Earlier in the afternoon, she had frantically tried on and taken off six other dresses before her roommate for the weekend, Kiki LaRue, told her to go with the silver.  “It’ll really pop with the flashbulbs,” Kiki had said, her voice still recovering from a recent pitch-altering surgery that in the end would leave her sounding disappointingly androgynous, rather than naturally female as she so desired.  So Lily, a first-timer to the AVN Awards—the Oscars of porn as they’re called in the industry—took Kiki’s advice and moved on to shoe selection.

Lily’s real name was Lisa Clark, though no one but her parents had called her that for close to a year.  She knew she was pretty in a jack-off inducing sort of way, with dyed blond hair, acrylic nails, a perpetual glow from weekly sessions of spray tanning, and D-cup implants large enough to be a handful, but not so large that they limited her to fetish.  Her manager, Frank Gasman, had wanted her to go larger but she was glad that she stuck to her guns.  Lisa had grown up in Brazil, Indiana—a town whose population hovered around 8,400 give or take a few dozen.  That had been her favorite white lie when she’d moved to California to attend USC… she’d conveniently leave off the “Indiana” part when people asked her where she was from.  At first she’d just smile and shrug when people told her she spoke English so well, but by the middle of her first semester she’d concocted an elaborate story about her parents working for the Foreign Service.  By the end of that first semester though, she had a much bigger set of lies to keep track of.

Lisa’s parents hadn’t wanted her to go to USC.  It wasn’t that it was far away or that they were afraid of their daughter being alone in a big city.  It was much simpler than that.  As the fourth oldest child in a family of nine, Lisa’s parents made her feel like she had expectations to live up to, like no one in her family could do something that someone else hadn’t already done first.  And since three of her siblings had gone to Hallbrook Community College near their home in Indiana, Lisa’s parents had ruled out everything else as too expensive and completely out of the question.  “Something came for you in the mail today,” her mom said when she found Lisa’s acceptance packet.  It was the second week in May and Lisa had just come home from school.  Her mother was standing in the kitchen hovering over a pot of beef stew.  Her youngest brother Dustin was strapped into a high chair he was clearly too big for, kicking his feet in a futile attempt to struggle free and slamming his hands on the tray top, sending flakes of dry cereal straight to the kitchen floor.  “Everyone else went to Hallbrook and they turned out fine. Gary’s a patrolman, Tiffany’s been at the insurance company for six years, and Melanie’s gonna be a dental assistant,” her mother said as Lisa poured over the contents of the already torn envelope.  “Your father’s gonna flip his lid.”

Lisa’s parents didn’t actually agree to USC until after Lisa had forged her father’s signature on student aid forms and miraculously been approved for a college loan.  As a send off, her parents bought her a one-way ticket to Los Angeles and an electric hotplate—more than the cost of an entire semester at home.  After they dropped her off at the airport, she fantasized about the life she was about to begin.  She would be a sorority sister and a Dean’s List student.  She would forge a lifelong friendship with her still unknown dorm roommate.  She would never have to deal with another Midwest winter, and at her high school reunion people would refer to her as the girl who got away, who followed her dreams and lived life to its fullest, and wasn’t still stuck in rural Indiana.  Neither she nor her parents had thought about how she would get home at the end of the year, so when she lied about dropping out after she bombed her midterms and told them she’d just moved to an off-campus apartment, they didn’t ask much.  And even though she was used to getting ignored in the bustle of a large family, her heart felt heavy when they didn’t ask for her new address.

Frank Gasman had been the one who’d convinced her to drop out.  Actually, the way he put it—and the way Lisa really believed it would be—it was more like taking a break for a semester or two so she could save up some money and finally get her life on track. Gasman was an up-and-coming director in the adult film industry and he knew talent when he saw it. He met Lisa while she was enrolled as an anthropology major and working weekends at a Quiznos in a shopping strip near campus.  She had a smudge of mayonnaise on the collar of her uniform shirt and he told her it looked good on her.  Though she’d been popular in high school, Lisa felt like she just couldn’t compete with the real California girls in Los Angeles, and missed the attention guys had given her back home.  When she opened the cash register and Gasman asked her where she was from, she smiled and said, “Brazil.”  Two months later she was cashing an advance for her portrayal of Elle Dashforwood, a character loosely based on Elinor Dashwood in Gasman’s direct-to-video release Lesser Sensibilities—a loose interpretation itself that would have A Lady rolling in her grave.

At first Lisa wasn’t sure if she wanted to do it, but the realities of her life in California and the prospect of returning to Indiana to face her parents’ smug satisfaction made it hard to pass up.  Gasman promised her that she would make enough money to pay for her entire education, and assured her that no one would need to know if she didn’t want them to find out.  He gave her a new name—Lily Clearwater—and a makeover that changed her brown hair to blond and helped her fill out her Quiznos uniform, which she was grateful she no longer needed.  Lisa Clark was completely unrecognizable when Lily Clearwater looked in the mirror, and even though she’d been so good at telling white lies when she came to California, she couldn’t quite figure out how she’d explain the change in her appearance when she finally would go home to Indiana.  At first she’d thought that maybe she could get away with saying she had a part-time job working in a hair salon and had put on the proverbial freshman fifteen, but she’d performed so well in Lesser Sensibilities that she was headed straight for vixen infamy.  She was poised to be the next Jenna Jameson which, name changes aside, did not bode well for maintaining anonymity.  For Lesser Sensibilities, she’d been nominated for Best New Starlet and was favored to win an AVN Award, or a “Woody” as they’re popularly known.  Even worse, she was in a contract with Gasman to do three more films the following year ranging from “oral-themed” to “all-girl feature,” each one inopportunely scheduled to shoot mid-semester, dashing any hopes she had of re-enrolling in school the following year.  All of this was clouding her already questionable judgment as she readied herself in her hotel room.

“Are you nervous?” Kiki asked as she slipped on a size 13 shoe.  Kiki had been nominated for Transexual Performer of the Year and was also managed by Gasman.

“I’m something,” Lily said.

“You are something girl, and I bet you’re gonna be a winner tonight. Take it from me sweetie, this is all just the beginning. I did a shoot last year that was nominated for Best Ethnic-Themed Series. We didn’t even win but my bookings have tripled.”

Lily tried to look like she was concentrating on lining her lips in cherry red.  “That’s amazing.”

“That’s right, it is amazing.”  Kiki adjusted her weave in the mirror.  “Keep it up and next year you’ll be nominated for Best Female Performer.”

Lily, who couldn’t explain why she had done the things she’d done that year, who couldn’t decide who she wanted to be, who felt torn between the Lisa she had been and the starlet who could be her future, who loved and hated her life at the same time, felt like she had been performing for herself forever.  And though she didn’t know which life she would choose, she puckered her lips in the mirror and absent-mindedly agreed with Kiki.  “Yeah, maybe I’ll be a winner.”