Dark Lady Laughed and Danced by Emily Mack

Emily Mack was the winner of the 2017 Maggie Nelson Nonfiction Prize for her piece, "Dark Lady Laughed and Danced."

Part One: Ephemeral

At the New York premiere of Silkwood in 1983, the room laughed when Cher's name appeared on the screen.

There is a photo from that night: Cher and Meryl Streep stand together, looking distracted and to the right. Streep’s young face seems surprised and her soft, blonde hair is upswept. Streep wore a white blazer and a white top with a lace collar, horrendously ’80s. Cher wore a dark, heavy overcoat and a gold wristwatch. Her eyemakeup was dark and heavy. In the photo, Streep’s face looks like a girl who practices looking surprised in the mirror. Cher’s face does not look surprised at all.

Willow-bodied Cher suspends herself above my head while I sleep in soft, red light. My college dorm room walls are warm christmas lights and a Moonstruck poster, creased white down the middle. It’s not an altar: we cannot light candles in the dorm.

I told the boy who I loved over the summer that he couldn’t understand me until he watched Moonstruck, not that I have much in common with its heroine, Loretta. But Brooklyn movies feel like Chicago movies when they show the bridge from the East side. I asked the boy if he wanted to come over to watch Moonstruck when my parents were gone, but he wanted to wait for it to be special. In August, Moonstruck was playing on a big screen downtown in Millennium Park for the full moon. We would go.

Cher is a fabulous woman in the most scientific sense of the word. The extraordinary largeness of her personal life and musical accomplishments often overshadows a quiet but vibrant career in film. At the New York premiere of Silkwood in 1983, Cher was a tabloid catastrophe: the single mother who emerges, dancing, from the wreckage of a broken marriage, a failed TV show, and two bad records. The crowd laughed, but Cher won the golden globe that year. (She won the Oscar later, of course, for Moonstruck.) The diva is a comeback kid, always.

The diva wears bedazzled bustiers and red velvet and has tattoos. Cher does not have much in common with Moonstruck’s heroine, Loretta. Loretta has grey hair and wears cardigans. Loretta is a watcher, not a performer. In this body, Cher occupies the screen slowly. She walks down small streets with a sensual realism, and her skirt sways. Her eyelids are still Cher’s though, heavy. And both women did have a steamy affair with a breadmaker. The Moonstruck makeover scene, though, is what bridges the fiction with legend as Loretta emerges in dark lipstick for a night at the opera.

In August, I wait for the boy on the lawn at the park. I spread my jean jacket like a blanket as the moon rises, but I don’t see him. The movie starts: Dean Martin croons and yellow words swim across the screen. It is humid summer so there is a bottle of wine in my purse (always) and I open it nervously in a crowd full of old ladies. My heart races, but I don’t see him. My lipstick comes off on the neck of the bottle.

I often watch Moonstruck this way.

The Cher that I love is a ghost. Loretta covers her “love bites” with makeup. There are wrinkles around her mouth. I tried to paint this for art class but my portraits were garish: a wonky-eyed woman with watercolor hair and thick, acrylic smirks. I could never hope to draw Cher, so I’d pause the DVD to sketch Loretta. Even so, the series was cartoonishly disproportionate. Cher, supposedly, is real and Loretta is the character -- though I would argue that Loretta is merely humanization of a relentless machine. Anyways, I could render neither.

Cher’s face today is not the one from the movies (it’s plastic) and that bothers some people. Personally, I like the miracle. On the screen, Nicolas Cage quivers his wooden hand and throws the coffee table over. He lunges toward Cher and he grabs her waist. Or Ronny grabs Loretta.

This is the part where I get confused. This is the part where the breath gets caught in my throat. The old ladies in the park are gaping. I turn right and I see the boy, and he was sitting right behind me.

103 minutes is not enough time to age disgracefully, so instead we watch Loretta fall in love. (Not at all like Cher.) Loretta wears a ravishing burgandy dress to the opera. It matches the seat. As the music swells, somebody dies on the stage. It can be assumed that Loretta knows Italian, though I suspect she would have cried anyways. Ronny kisses her hand, but she stays watching the woman perish in blue. I turn to look at the boy, who now is sitting next to me, sharing the jean jacket. This is where I would pause the DVD to sketch her tear. I turn, but his eyes are on the screen.

Cher’s story is a redemptive one, full of leather and feather headdresses and sexy young actors. Loretta’s story is a love story. The lady on my poster is poised over the moon over Brooklyn with her fishnetted knee bent and her thin arms thrown open: I don’t know which woman it is now. The eyes closed. I don’t know what I’m looking at. So I go to Walgreens and I print the photo, the one from 1983 of Cher next to Meryl Streep. I tape it up under the red lights.

Part Two: Frozen Lake

Dear Cher,
Yes, I loved a boy over the summer. But I met him in the winter. Remember?

We were snowed in even though Chicago kids don’t usually get snow days; we get cold days. School is cancelled when the temperature drops past 15 below and the teachers call it the polar vortex. On those days, you could die outside. (You could die outside most days there, especially back then.) But that day was really a snow day, the first in twenty years, which is always what everyone says when something good happens.

We weren’t even twenty back then. Anyways, we got snowed into this rich kid’s house. He had a wide staircase and a wide porch that wrapped around the whole front of the house. It was white. The rich kid and I had made out on a Greyhound bus once, but we were still friends, sort of. And the boy was his friend too, remember? Best friends.

They stopped talking though after the boy’s dad died and the band kind of fell apart, but this was before any of that, before spring even. We were sliding around on the rich kid’s kitchen floor in our wet socks, making spaghetti. I found the stereo system in his pantry above the boxes of noodles and it was a big stereo system. You could hear it through the whole house. Both of them were music snobs who could never agree on what to play anyways, so they suggested I pick the album, mostly as a joke. I looked through the rich kid’s family CD rack.

On the cover of The Very Best of Cher, your hair is blonde. (The same bottled whiteness as mine now.) There’s the color lilac all over you. With your silver eyelids, you look like an ice queen. I remember wishing I looked so pastel that winter. I wore my crop tops all the way into January, but you looked weather-less. Yet Ice Queen.

I remember pressing play and how the kitchen filled. Me and these two. Twisting. The rich kid was looking at me from the side like he was remembering the Greyhound bus. I was dancing with his best friend, the boy. And I remember the boy, how he looked specifically not sad in that moment, and how I thought to myself: Dear Cher, what am I going to do now? I knew in that second how everything would turn when it turned in the spring.

And you had the voice that could melt snow. (Like the glinting shard of a disco ball.) My toe was sticking out of my sock while we danced. I was not anything like glass or frost or sexy back then. Later, I would strip the color from my hair and still not stop. I would add lilac and later pink and gloss my lips for a year.

In 2002, Oprah asked you if you hate the sound of your own voice. You said yes. Then you said you think your voice is getting better. You were 56 at the time, and then admitted that you were only now realizing your hair didn’t have to be black. (On Oprah that day , you wore it platinum, curly. “It’s a mood,” you said.) You said that your mother always told you your voice wasn’t the best, but that it was okay, because it makes people feel. You shrugged.

When I go to prom with the boy, my dress is silver. We’re still not twenty, even now. And whenever I play your greatest hits, the first song on is always Do you believe in life after love? The one where your voice sounds like a robot.

What should I do?

A fan

Part Three: Folk Rock

After Rafael Campos’ VII. Fucking

I was five when I learned about Karen Carpenter. Our kindergarten class was performing On Top of the World for the June pageant and during practice, Mrs. Littau, who mothers said was too mean to teach, said to the girls, “You know she threw up to death.” And we chorused Ewww from the fuzzy rug, because at five we didn’t know much besides how vomiting tasted and that it hurt. Why would somebody do that? And Mrs. Littau said, “She thought she was fat. Come on now! ‘I’m on top of the world, looking down on creation...’” She waved her old fingers above our heads and we sang and god, how I loved that song in kindergarten. I used to hulahoop to it on the front lawn until the sun went down. And now that I am somewhat grown, I realized I never stopped thinking about Karen: girls who die young are the crippling mythos that no good teacher would let you forget: how someone once lived bathed in light. How someone once lived big and with consequence. We all love to kill a beautiful girl, and repeat the exquisite libretto of how she sings clear while dancing like a skeleton. The heroine who marries and has a daughter who stays a daughter. Stories only become comedies should the woman age. (Yes, I’m talking about Cher.) A burlesque show. Little straight girls don’t dream about husbands who ski into trees. About living to tell the tale.

Part Four: An Erasure

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Part Five: Roofies (or La Finale Aria)

There was a blonde girl from a big city. Not the biggest city, but it was up there. And she was really smart as a kid. She use to write and perform one-woman plays for the class. She was close with her mom. And as a teenager, she was wild. On the weekends, she wore costumes: neon faux fur and rhinestones and slinky dresses and tutu skirts, clunky boots. Blue lipstick. For a while, her hair was the color of cotton candy. One time she partied for three full days in a row and bathed in the lake downtown. She broke into the hardware store with the boys and staged a paint fight. In platform shoes, she climbed to the top of the Damen Silos, up the ladder with missing rungs during a rainstorm. She hitched rides. She fell in love all of the time and ran from the police barefoot and told stories of her battles loudly, and wherever she could. She was always talking. And everyone was always telling her how brave she was. She was brave because nothing bad ever happened to her.

According to rumor, Cher was fifteen when she had sex with Warren Beatty. They met when he nearly hit her with his car on Sunset Boulevard in 1961. Nothing really came of it. Cher was sixteen when she met Sonny. She wanted to be an actress. So did Cher’s mother, who was married eight times and nearly clinched the lead role in noir drama, The Asphalt Jungle but was passed up for Marilyn Monroe at the last minute.

According to rumor, I was fifteen when I had sex with an upperclassman in exchange for a cappuccino. This was, of course, technically false. The two of us went on a date to a coffee shop before barely making it to second base. I also did not get fingered by him during Django, as everyone liked to believe -- the term at my high school for getting fingered during a movie actually became Getting Django’d. When a sophomore girl (Frankie, a kleptomaniac) called me Starbucks Whore, I didn’t really care. I actually kind of liked everyone talking about me. And my mother, thankfully, did not know a thing about the incident.

Cher wanted to be an actress. But she was sixteen and Sonny wanted her to be a singer, and so she was a singer. Years later, after she was both, Cher calls David Letterman an asshole on Late Night. She calls him an asshole before he tells her that she looks terrific and after she explains that her perfume is vanilla. She calls him an asshole before he motions toward the floral tattoos on her ankles and asks why she would permanently scar her body, to which Cher says, “It’s like what Dolly Parton says: when she does this, she feels that she is beautiful.” David says that Cher is the first person to call him an asshole. It is the week she turns 40 and David tells her she looks 20. He asks why she hasn’t come out with an album in five years and Cher says that lately everyone is telling her to be an actress. Cher admits that she misses singing though. And David says, “I think you’ve proven to a lot of people and perhaps to yourself that you can be taken seriously.”

Back in Chicago, I explain to the boy that I would never get a tattoo. I would never want to believe in anything that much. It’s the night before I leave for college. It’s the boy who I love and who was also my best friend that summer. We talk about leaving for a while. Nobody could believe it when I got into college. “It’s just amazing, ‘cause you drink so much,” said the class treasurer. During high school I used to slam big poems on big stages and they were always about sex and drugs and peeing outside. When I say that I am scared to leave, the boy tells me that he is proud of me, and that only a place as big New York could hold me. (I want him to hold me.) I say that I’m only scared because there are no alleys in New York, so I won’t know where to pee.

In New York, I go clubbing all the time. I go alone during the week, because the drinks are free. It feels good not to know anyone. Leaving a club one Tuesday night, I see a skinny guy with long hair. I ask him for directions. (He’s a cater waiter leaving a gig, but really he’s a photographer.) He invites me to a 36-hour funeral-themed rave in a warehouse in Bushwick that Friday. At the rave, someone dances up to me and offers me poppers. His name is Eddie, and he tells me he goes to my school. He lives in my building. On Sunday morning, we take the train back uptown together and we have a lot in common. He loves Cher.

Eddie and I spend the fall playing music in his room. We don’t just play Cher, though. We play Gloria Gaynor and Karen Carpenter and Kate Bush and Nina Simone and Chaka Khan. Eddie always knows just what to play. We listen to Dionne Warwick when we get ready to go out and we listen to Madonna in the morning. We listen to Whitney Houston when we are restless and The Weather Girls if we have company. We listen to Joni Mitchell while we do homework and Vicki Carr when we’re finished. Bjork. Blondie. The Cranberries. Chic. Diana Ross. We listen to Donna Summer. Always the greatest hits.

On Halloween, Eddie and I go to party on a rooftop in Brooklyn. He’s dressed as something shirtless and covered in eyeballs. I’m Cher. For the whole weekend, I live in that skin: silver lamé bell bottoms, bedazzled bustier, a fur vest, and a long, black wig. I couldn’t decide if I was Disco Cher or Hippie Cher. At the party, no one knows who I am, even though I drew brown lines on the side of my nose to make it look thin. Eddie is somewhere flirting with a man dressed as a goddess. In the corner of the party, there is a short guy with a mop top and a walrus mustache. I ask who he is. He just says, “Someone seventies.” I say, “Sonny?”

The next week, Eddie and I go to another party on the same rooftop. The Cubs have just won the world series. I sit with my legs dangling and crane my neck to look for a lake or somewhere where the buildings stop, but a New York skyline surrounds on every side. In Chicago, I imagine there are fireworks and gunshots in the streets. I imagine the parade has already begun. Some people flew home from college when the Cubs won The World Series. I want to celebrate too, so I try explaining to a stranger what this feels like: like midnight on New Year’s if the year was 108 years long. They don’t understand. I call the boy from home while I stare at the Williamsburg Bridge. We talk about the Cubs for a while and breathe together over the phone. (After we hang up, I resolve to tell him I love him at Thanksgiving.) Everyone at the party is dancing on the rooftop as they celebrate another weekend, so I grab a drink and pretend they are celebrating what it feels like to think that maybe you are not cursed.

The day after Trump wins the election, it rains hard. I go to the big protest downtown. I’m shouting “PUSSY GRABS BACK” in a crowd, clutching a wet cardboard sign. Eddie moves his mouth toward my ear. He says, “Don’t turn around now.” I turn. And there she is, in front of me. She wears her face like a mask, under the shadow of sunglasses and a large felt hat. I squint. It’s definitely her. Her lips are pursed. Her hair is still long and black. I say, “Cher?”

So the girl meets her hero. It becomes a lovely story for the girl to tell. The drama of it: how the clouds thundered and the anger of marching Manhattanites reverberated in the air. And how she said, “I’m a fan.” And Cher held her hands and said thank you and said no photographs and said, “Where do you go to school?” And when the girl said where she went to school, Cher said, “I’m very proud of you. For being here.” And the girl snuck a photograph. And later, her dad says, “You are very lucky. Most people never meet their heroes.” But this girl lives a lucky life.

She gets free drinks and studies poetry at school. She is a happy girl for such dark times. For such dark times, the girl and her friends think surely this means something good. A triumph. “I can’t believe you met Cher.”

The Sunday before Thanksgiving, I go to the club with the girl who introduced to me the term “body count” as reference to the litany of men we’ve slept with. We always have fun when we go out together. I remember we danced and were drinking champagne. I remember my second glass of champagne. I remember a white hallway leading to a bedroom. I can’t remember his skin or his body, just the outline of it. And just for a moment. When I come to again, he is leading me by the hand down 110th. He walks me all the way to my dorm and puts something into my palm (closes my fingers tight around it), but I can’t remember his face. He kisses my cheek. In the morning, there are two grams of cocaine in my purse. No money is missing from my wallet. For two days, I don’t speak or cry or move.

Eddie finds me convulsing on the floor of my dorm room. Moaning on the carpet, I look up to a watery view of my Moonstruck poster. The paralyzing moment comes when I imagine trying to listen to Cher again. Or trying to write a poem about the delicacy of her frame, the vibrating strength in her contralto. I think, “I will never do this again.” I will never have champagne. Or go dancing. Or have sex with the boy who I love. I barely remember calling Eddie and begging him to come and take the cocaine out of my room. Only lying on the floor, gazing up at the urban ecstasy of Cher splayed across my wall while I wait for breath. (I feel betrayed.) Then I call my mom and I say, “I got raped,” which is a very hard thing to do.

At the hospital, the doctor sticks a clamp up between my legs that makes robotic clicks when it pinches my vaginal walls. The doctor says I was roofied. She give me seven pills and a shot on the ass and another shot to make the first shot hurt less. She gives me a prescription for HIV prevention medication and it costs $2,700 for the month. In a slow daze, I board the flight home to Chicago for the holiday. My dad is very angry. We cannot be in the same room. At Thanksgiving dinner, he drinks two bottles of wine and starts a fight with my uncle who voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary. My dad screams at my uncle that Bernie Sanders was the last chance we had and now everything is ruined and he will not lower his voice until we are asked (begged) to leave their house. My mom is very upset.

That night, I am afraid walking alone beneath the underpass. I call a cab halfway to meet the boy at a party. I’m excited to see everyone. But my drunk friends speak too closely when they say, “Well, how is New York?” They place arms around my shoulders. The HIV prevention medication gives me passing nausea and diarrhea. I close my eyes to steady myself before saying that New York is fabulous, and did I tell you that I met Cher? I say this ten or fifty or a hundred times. “Where’s your glass?” people ask me. “Where’s your flask?” ask the ones who know me better. I tell everyone that I’m experimenting with sobriety. They laugh. I throw up in the bathroom. When no one is watching, I quickly finish a bottle of beer in the kitchen which reacts negatively to the HIV prevention medication. The floor tilts. The boy drives me home so no one will see me like this.

We lay adjacent on my parents’ L-shaped couch. At its corner, our fingers lace only a little bit. He says he’ll stay with me until I fall asleep. He asks if I want to watch Moonstruck. I say The Simpsons is fine, or whatever is on. We’re silent for a long time. The lights in the living room are all off and I study the way the quivering moon lights his cheek pink. I open my mouth and then close it. He asks what’s wrong. I say, “I feel sexless.”

My dad drives me to the airport on Monday. He apologizes for calling me promiscuous. At the American Airlines gate, he says he is proud of me. Back at school, I find out that Eddie is seeing La Bohème at The Met. I think about Cher or, rather, I think about Loretta and how she cried at the end of the opera. One single, affected tear. I think about this even before I learn that Eddie has a ticket to see La Bohème. I fantasize being so composed. I tell Eddie that I’ll go with him. I buy a black velvet dress that reaches the floor and I don’t drink a glass of red wine while I get ready like Loretta did, on account of the HIV prevention medication. I do take my time though (and play music in my room). I do wear dark lipstick.

In the biggest city, the girl goes to the opera for her first time. She recognizes the inside of The Met from the movies which she has watched and rewatched. Her friend meets her by the fountain in his suit. In the elegant red lobby, women sip from flutes of champagne. The girl buys an expensive ticket for the discounted student rate. From their seats, you can see everything: the shifting fabric of the shimmering skirts and the half-lowered eyelids of actors who sing with their heads thrown back. She is surprised to realize how many of the songs she already knows. Her favorite part of La Bohème is when the dying girl, hunched, asks “Am I still beautiful?” and the poet says, “As beautiful as the dawn.”