I lift my head from the sink and whip my hair back, splattering the tiled wall behind me with black droplets of water; I'm no longer blond. I comb a hand through my hair—shoulder length when wet—and look at my palm: streamers of black run down my lifeline like mascara. I pop the drain on the sink and watch the charcoal water whirlpool away. The mirror's fogged up with steam, but it doesn't matter; I haven't seen my reflection in three weeks, not since I graduated college.
I majored in archaeology; I want to excavate the past, analyze it.
I hear a knock on the door. "Cole, are you okay?" It's Kim Rhodes. She played my mom on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. She's been living with me ever since I moved into the presidential suite at the Midtown Hilton. "You've been in there awhile…"
My hair drips; the waistband of my boxer-briefs is damp; my bare back must be a monochromatic Jackson Pollack. I open the door. "I'm fine, mom," I say.
"Oh." She nods. "A new 'do. I like it." She puts a hand on my waist, kisses me. "But can you stop calling me mom? It's getting weird."
I look into her eyes. Under a powder foundation, crow’s feet claw at her temples. Her forehead is Botox smooth. Her lips are puffy from collagen injections. "It's the only reason I keep you around," I say.
Her fake lips quiver. "I'm your mother," she says.
A half-moon clicker dangles from her septum; when did she get it pierced? "You look like a cow," I say. "Do you want to be herded? Do you want me to drag you by your bovine nose ring?"
Her head falls, chin notching between her clavicles. She mutters into her chest, "You're cruel."
I push her aside and walk to the kitchenette. I can see her reflection in the 19" flat screen mounted above the microwave; she's still standing by the bathroom door. "Cole Sprouse," I say. She turns her head and looks at me. I continue: "My name. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy… Or is it an aptronym?" I shake my head. "Either way: Cole Sprouse; Cold Spouse. I'm fated to be cruel."
She sniffs; apparently she's been crying. "But we're not married," she says.
"And we never will be." I take a coffee mug from the cupboard and turn on the faucet.
"Don't use that," Kim Rhodes says, "The drain is clogged."
"Call Arwin when you get a chance," I say. I turn off the faucet, but knock over a two-liter bottle of Schweppes tonic water when I lift my hand from the knob. I reach to pick it up, but see something in the basin of the stainless steel sink as the water glugs out of the bottle. I dip my hand in and feel around: nothing's there. I stare into the basin and squint: at first it's only a shadow, but then the image gains definition—a nose, a mouth, a pair of eyes, all oscillating, distorted by waves, pocked by bubbles. I walk to the fridge, grab three more bottles of tonic water, empty them into the sink, and then I see it, staring back at me: my visage.
"I can see my reflection," I say, and when Kim Rhodes asks me to repeat myself, I look over my shoulder at her still-sniveling face and say, "I can only see my reflection in tonic water."
She sidles up to me and wraps an arm around my waist. "Is that supposed to be a metaphor, or…"
I shake my head and gesture toward the basin. She scrunches up her nose and says, "But, babe, that's just a sink. Filled with, uh, all of our tonic water."
I pay her no mind. This sink is clearer than any mirror could ever be. I pull my eyelids down into fleshy pink frowns and examine the Crayola-red squiggles of my whites. My cheeks are hollower than they used to be; my lips are chapped. I'm as pale as Marilyn Manson. "I look awful," I say.
Kim Rhodes rubs my back. "You're always beautiful to me."
"A mother's love is unconditional," I mutter. But no, I really do look terrible; like a drunken poet, or one of Davide Sorrenti's waifs, strung out and concave, skeletal and unfed. It reminds me that I need more meth.
I pull out my phone and call Shia LaBeouf. He answers on the first ring. "I need more meth," I say. He breathes heavy into the receiver. After 30 seconds, he says, "Me too. Meet me at Friends in half an hour." I check the time on the microwave's digital alarm clock: 2:30 p.m. "Okay," I say, "I'll leave now."
I tie on my blue velour bathrobe and strap a fanny pack on my waist. Kim Rhodes calls out to me with the drama of an aged lounge singer—"Please stay!"—voice saccharine but hollow, broken by years of performing to an empty hall; I don't respond. I slide into my Hilton slippers as I walk out the door. A trail of inky water follows me to the elevator.
In the lobby, the front desk is crowded with people trying to check in early; the sofas are crammed with tourists in cargo shorts sitting beside their rolling luggage, eyes locked on their smartphones, thumbs tapping at keypads. I cycle through the revolving door and turn toward a bellhop. "Esteban," I say, handing him a fiver from my fanny pack, "Hail me a cab." He smiles and nods, but as he walks to the curb I hear him grumble something about his name being Howard.
My robe falls open as I enter the cab; the cabbie leers at me through his rearview mirror. My ribs jut out like prison bars; my nipples are Lunchables pepperonis, pink and quarter-sized. "You like what you see?" I say.
"You a rent boy?" the cabbie asks. He's going for the serial killer aesthetic, with that Charles Manson hair and Chris Farley gut and what appears to be a neck tattoo, but could be a birthmark. Dry drool clings to his beard. His unibrow looks like a raven in flight.
"I prefer the term 'hooker'," I say, "It's gender neutral. More progressive." His mouth hangs ajar, crooked teeth overlapping one another, like grade schoolers fighting for first in line, graying snaggletooth standing at the front.
"Where ya going?" he asks.
"Friends Seminary," I say. Friends is a private school, the type I would've gone to had I not been world famous by the age of four. "Rutherford and 16th.”
He nods, turns on the meter. His pit stains are yellow half-moons. The cab smells like onions and burped-up sausage and sweat-soaked Old Spice and something I can’t place, something sour. Seven or eight air fresheners, Christmas trees of every color, dangle off the rearview mirror, adding an ambiguous chemical scent to the cab. I press down on the window switch but nothing happens. I feel like Jesus on the cross, a martyr atoning for the sins of former child stars, suffering for their DUIs and drug arrests and kleptomaniacal tendencies.
School's letting out when we pull up to the corner. I hand the cabbie a $50 bill—a Tribeca Food Stamp—and blow him a kiss as I open the door. I tie my robe so I won't get arrested for being fabulous in a school zone. Shia LaBeouf is standing under a streetlamp, tapping his foot like a jackrabbit and smoking a cigarette, pinched between his thumb and index finger, down to the filter. His beard is thick and mossy, and his hair is buzzed down to the scalp. He's wearing bright purple yoga pants and a polyester mint-green tanktop; he's been trying to merge Health Goth and Seapunk for the last few months.
"Oi!" he says when I walk up to him, "All right?" His voice has grown progressively deeper since I first met him, his vocabulary more monosyllabic. I run my hands through his beard, tug on it like fur. "I am well," I say.
He rifles through my fanny pack, hanging just above my crotch, and pulls out a wad of wrinkled bills. "How much you got in here?" he asks, and I shrug. Fifties, twenties, ones, it's a mixture of denominations; there's probably a few Euro in there, a couple of thousand Yen.
Shia LaBeouf thumbs through the bills, mouthing numbers to himself. "Aiden's charging two-fifty for an eight ball," he says, "You cool with that?"
"Sure," I say, then out of curiosity, ask, "You out of money again?"
He nods. "The flow is low."
I lift my arms, crucifix-style. "I will shoulder the burden," I say, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
"Righteous," Shia LaBeouf says, and then cranes his neck over my shoulder. His eyes go wide. "Here he comes. I just started buying from him, so be cool."
A middle schooler wearing Supreme sweatpants and a Supreme hoodie and a Supreme five-panel cap walks up to us. He's barely five feet tall. "Sup, fool," he says to Shia LaBeouf. He points at me. "Who's your bitch?" His voice hasn't cracked yet.
I extend my hand. "Chloë Sprouts," I say, "Lead singer of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody."
His hands recede deeper into his hoodie's kangaroo pouch; I let my arm drop to my side. "Never heard of you guys," he says. I wink at Shia LaBeouf: "I am not famous anymore," I say.
Shia LaBeouf lets out a nervous laugh; Aiden withdraws a book from his Supreme backpack and hands it to me: a hardback copy of The Giver. "Two-fifty," he says. Shia LaBeouf hands him the whole roll of cash; he must not have bothered to finish counting. Puzzled, I open the book and see that it's hollow: a tied-off plastic baggie of white powder sits in the middle. I plop the baggie into my fanny pack and zip it closed. Aiden removes his cap and scratches his head; his hair, cropped close to the forehead, is a shock of electric orange. "It's good stuff," he says, "I cut it with my Adderall."
I start to sing in a falsetto: "Someone once told me the grass is much greener/On the other side." I swing my head back and forth; my hair is finally dry. "Till further notice!" I sing, gyrating my hips, moonwalking across the pavement. Shia LaBeouf begins to harmonize with me. "I'm in between/Somewhere I'm standing/My grass is green."
I pause to catch my breath. People are gaping at us. Shia LaBeouf blushes and looks at his shoes. An old lady in a cab starts to clap; I blow her a kiss. Aiden frowns. "What was that?" he asks.
I point to his hair. "As Told by Ginger."
He stares at me, waiting for further elaboration, but after 30 seconds of silence, he puts his cap back on and walks away, muttering "methheads" to himself. He waves at a black Range Rover idling outside the school and climbs into the backseat.
Shia LaBeouf's cheeks are still flaming. "Wanna do up this crank?" I ask. He nods.
We walk through the double doors of Friends Seminary—those mahogany gates of privilege leading me to a parallel life, one where I grew up in a city instead of a studio set, where I ate hot lunch in the cafeteria at noon, where I played baseball in the spring and possibly sold meth after math class—and duck into the first unoccupied room we see, a lab with microscopes and Bunsen burners and digital scales crowding the black countertops. The fluorescents are switched off, but there's enough daylight shining through the few un-blinded windows that I can see a message scrawled across the chalkboard: "GOOD MORNING FIFTH GRADE SCUM."
Shia LaBeouf tosses a graduated cylinder from one hand to the other. "I never went to school very much," he says. His brow furrows. "Never even thought about going to college."
"I went to college," I say, "I majored in Freudian psychology."
"I thought you did archaeology," he says.
I pause, squint. "Same thing."
Shia LaBeouf sets down the graduated cylinder and kneels before a desk, like a Catholic at mass. He asks for the meth. I toss the baggie on the desk and kneel next to him. He cuts four fat lines with a 60-day chip and asks for a bill. I don't have any more money in my fanny pack, so I survey the room and see a notecard by my ankle. I pick it up—"y(t) = a × ekt" is sharpie'd across the surface—and hand it to Shia LaBeouf. He rolls it into a straw and snorts two lines, one for each nostril; I do the same.
"Woo!" Shia LaBeouf yells, jumping around the room like a gorilla, elbows kinked, arms hanging limp, swinging back-and-forth like metronomic parentheses. I stay kneeling, though, grinding my teeth, transfixed by a carving in the corner of the desk, etched with a mechanical pencil or a penknife: "Joey + Dawson 4ever." I beckon Shia LaBeouf to my side and point at the carving. "Those are our ancestors," I say. He nods, but I can tell his mind is on other things, because his eye keeps twitching, and he can't stop rubbing his nose or glancing back at the door. "What's wrong?" he asks, "Why aren't you amped?"
"I can't get amped," I say, "The meth just levels me out at this point. I don't really feel anything anymore."
Shia LaBeouf scratches his beard. "I feel you," he says. He continues scratching, faster and faster. The chchch of his fingernails scraping against the velcro mass of his beard grows louder and louder, until it's the only sound I hear, crescendoing into white noise, suffocating me, blurring my vision into the fuzzy shiver of TV static.
He stops; my mind clears. "I know what you need," he says, "Follow me." I tie off the baggie of meth and trail behind him, out of the school and into a dark, dank alley. I lean against a dumpster and run my fingers along its rust-scarred exterior. It feels like a starfish, bumpy and abrasive.
He knocks the back of his head against the red brick wall and looks toward the sky. I look, too: only a sliver of light blue is visible, cracking through the orthodontic scaffolding mounted to the building like headgear. "You're numb, right?" he says, "Can't feel nothing?"
"I guess you could say that."
Shia LaBeouf cracks his knuckles. "I know what you need. This helped me after Even Stevens ended.”
"Sock it to me," I say—more like drawl, actually, sarcastically, because everyone's eager to give me advice, whether it's Kim Rhodes or Mr. Moseby or my twin brother, and advice is always useless, a jumble of platitudinous self-congratulations and deprecations meant to be tolerated, not taken seriously, especially from someone like Shia LaBeouf—but when I take my eyes away from the scaffolding, his fist is already inches from my face, and everything slows down for a moment, to the point where I can see his knuckle hair wave through the air like cilia and his veins bulge like blue embossment. My nose snaps on impact; blood flows down my lips, thick as cherry syrup, and drips onto the pavement. My knees buckle and I fall to the ground. I look up at Shia LaBeouf; his fist is cocked back, like an arrow in an archer's bow.
I stand up, wobbling, blood polka dotting my Hilton slippers, and smile. "Do it again," I say. He does, nailing me in the eye. My eye socket swells up like a tumor. "Woo!" I yell, alive for the first time in weeks.
Shia LaBeouf squeezes my hand and pulls me into a hug. "You're my boy," he says into my ear, "I gotta dip now, but we'll talk soon." As he runs out of the alley, I notice a crumpled business card in my palm. I smooth it out against the wall. "Fight Club," it says, "Glenwood Power Plant." I zip it up in my fanny pack.
I start walking back to the Hilton, nearly 40 blocks away. I pass a street vendor on my way, and just the smell of the dirty water dogs makes me gag; it reminds me that I haven't eaten in what, four days? I duck into the lobby of the Chrysler Building, that hypodermic needle in the sky, and do a bump of meth. A security guard, gripping the walkie-talkie on his shoulder, approaches me. "Sir," he says, "You can't—"
I hold up my palm, a talk-to-the-hand gesture. "No autographs," I say.
He escorts me out of the building.
When I return to the Hilton, the hotel manager—just a Mr. Moseby cosplayer, really—guides me to the service elevator in the back of the building, muttering about how he can't let the other guests see me. I'm grateful that he's sympathetic to the plights of my celebrity; since the advent of the cameraphone, every tourist is a paparazzo.
I unzip my fanny pack and root around for my keycard, but it's empty save for the meth and crumpled up business card. I ring the bell and shout, "Mom, it's me! Let me in!" She opens the door and drops her glass of wine when she sees my face, still stained with blood. "It's ketchup," I say, "I ate a plate of ketchup." I step in broken glass and chardonnay as I push her aside and walk into the suite, but feel nothing. I plop onto the sofa.
She walks to the kitchenette and fills a glass of wine to the brim. "And your eye?" she asks, "What happened there?"
"Black eyes are, uh, they're goth," I say, "You're too old to understand, mom."
She opens her mouth; closes it; repeats. Eventually, arms folded, she walks into our bedroom. I hear her sob into a pillow. I lie down for a nap.
It's almost midnight by the time I wake up. I walk to the sink, still full of tonic water, and look at my reflection: the blood has dried on my face like a goatee; my eye is a purple peony bud. The euphoria from this afternoon has vanished, replaced by a vague emptiness. It's as if my emotions have been anesthetized, numbed by sleep, quelled by dreams I can't remember. I withdraw the meth from my fanny pack and the "Fight Club" business card falls to the ground. I wonder if they're operating tonight? I could ask Shia LaBeouf. Or I could go to the Glenwood Power Plant right now, and if there's no one there, maybe just beat up some homeless people instead? I do a bump of meth and order an Uber.
I'm feeling a bit sluggish, so I walk to the bathroom and pop a handful of Kim Rhodes' Vyvanse. My mouth is dry, and the pills stick to the back of my throat, so I wash them down with two slugs of Tanqueray; it's a good thing we keep a bottle in the medicine cabinet. My phone buzzes. The Uber man is here.
Outside, a white Ford Fusion is waiting by the curb. I climb into the backseat. "I am a Cold Louse," I say, "And I am your patron." The driver looks like the Smash Mouth guy, cherubic bordering on corpulent, with a chin strap wrapping around his jawline like a racetrack. He's wearing sunglasses, even though it's been dark for hours. He smells like Mountain Dew.
He turns his head around and looks at me. "Am I taking you to the hospital?"
"Yes," I say, and then, to clarify: "Just metaphorically, though. We're going to Yonkers."
He nods, taps his iPhone—suction cupped to the windshield—and starts driving. His lime-green, polyester bowling shirt shines in the glow of every passing streetlamp. There's hardly any traffic, so we arrive in half an hour. I step out of the car and he drives off before I can even wave goodbye.
A twig snaps under my feet; I look down and realize I forgot to wear my slippers. It's dark, so I pull out my iPhone and turn on the flashlight. Train tracks stretch out in front of me. Weeds have sprouted between the rusted rails. I step over them, walk past a swath of trees, and am confronted with this behemoth, this modern Ozymandias, this power plant: ivy crawls across the red bricks; the windows, framed by Roman arches, are cracked and cloudy; power lines hang limp as vines from their wooden towers; two phallic smokestacks stretch 500 feet into the air. I can hear the Hudson slosh in the distance.
I can hear cheers, too. A light shines through one of the broken windows. I inch up to the doorway of the power plant and peek my head in: a circle of 30 shirtless men vibrate like magnets, throwing elbows, pumping their fists in the air. I stand on my tippy-toes to get a better look. Two guys—skinheads, seems like, wearing Docs and black khakis—wail on each other, bare-knuckled. The concrete floor is a Rorschach Test of blood and sweat. A few teeth are scattered here and there. I become more entranced with every solid hit, and soon the only sounds I can hear are my quickening heartbeat and the dull thwack of skin on skin.
The shorter skinhead takes a hard right hook to the jaw and collapses to the ground, motionless. I'm seized by the urge to stomp on his skull until his brain matter drenches my feet like chili; when I'm finished, I want someone to do the same to me. "I'm next!" I call out. My voice echoes through the power plant. The circle of skinheads—they're all skinheads, I see now—turn their heads toward me. I throw off my robe and walk to them, humming the Rocky theme song along the way. One of them approaches me and tilts my chin upwards. He examines my face. "You good to fight?" he asks. "You're pretty messed up already."
I pause, unable to think of a witty response, so instead I say, "I am Lucifer in the flesh," and that seems to be enough for him, because he pushes me into the circle and motions for one of his pals, a Vin Diesel-looking meathead with the Celtic Cross stick-and-poked on his pec, to join me.
"You ready?" Vin Diesel asks. He punches me in the teeth before I have time to respond. I wobble a little, shake the dizziness from my head, and spit a canine on the floor. Blood drips down my chin like drool. I swing at him, but his chest is as hard as steel, and my hand shatters on contact. He punches me in the gut and I puke on his feet, mostly bile. He headbutts me and I fall on my back. Two hands hook into my armpits and drag me out of the circle before I can stand up. The skinheads scatter. I can hear the hurried clomp of their Docs as they run out of the power plant. Walkie talkies ka-chk behind me. Someone must've called the pigs.
We stop moving; my armpits are released. My twin brother, Dylan, leans over me. He snaps his fingers above my face. "Cole," he says, "Cole, can you hear me?"
I grab Dylan by the cheeks and kiss him on the lips, Michael-on-Fredo style. He wipes his mouth with the hem of his shirt. "Why'd you do that?" he asks.
"I wanted to make sure you weren't Tyler Durden'ing me."
Dylan sighs. "What does that even mean?" he asks. A few feet behind me, a deep voice says, "We need to get that boy into an ambulance." Dylan addresses the voice: "Can you just give me a couple minutes with him, officer? I'm his brother."
I grab Dylan by the collar, leaving a bloody handprint on his white button-down. "How'd you find me?" I ask.
He shows me the "Fight Club" business card. "Kim Rhodes called me," he says, "She found this on the ground. Said she was worried." I nod, impressed; a mother's intuition is formidable. I move my hand down to his breastplate and try to find his heartbeat. I feel nothing. I lean in for another kiss, just because, but he rebuffs me. He flips me off as he walks away.
Two EMTs kneel next to me. Another one prepares a stretcher. They start talking to me, yammering and yammering, but I don't listen. I grip my naked chest: my heartbeat, a chattering snare drum only minutes ago, has disappeared, too. This is life.
—Follow Booker Smith for more parodies on Twitter: @handsome_bookor