Shoe Salesgirl, Ermenegildo Zegna

If you had asked her, when she was, say, sixteen and just starting to develop the germinal idea of moving to Los Angeles, it would never have occurred to Gia to tell you that anything other than success would be her final outcome upon relocating. Not that she had a very long way to go. While some girls traveled from the far corners of the earth just to get to L.A., Gia had to go the distance of but one hundred and six miles to travel to Hollywood from Bakersfield. And that’s just what she did upon her well-timed eighteenth birthday on May 17, 2004. Though her mother, Joan, vehemently opposed the idea, she knew there was no stopping her only daughter, who, to this day, still insists to other people that she was named after the heroin-addicted model of the 80s. Joan actually decided upon the title in a Demerol-induced state of relaxed panic, when the nurse asked if she had a name picked out yet. Reading the nurse’s tag as “Gia” instead of “Gina,” that’s what she decided upon in the end. A mistake that, unlike most, actually worked out for the best, for to look at Gia, one couldn’t possibly imagine another moniker.

She did, in fact, have certain Gia Carangi qualities–sunken in cheeks, messy yet chic dark brown hair that fell just above her shoulders and a sartorial style that favored quite a bit of black. She was convinced that her “neorealist Italian film star” aesthetic would serve her well in the L.A. climate of plastic surgery blondes. Set her apart in a way that would lend her a competitive edge. She was very, very wrong. But then, Joan tried to tell her that. She herself had attempted the cliched dream of becoming an actress back in the late 70s, when she was just twenty-one. She surrendered most of her viable youth to the cause, barely making rent in her shabby Long Beach apartment (miles from where most of her auditions were) and waitressing in between casting calls to afford her marginal-to-a-movie-mogul bills. It was at the bar she worked at, Joe Jost’s, that she met Gia’s father, one-time sperm donor really. She didn’t usually make it a point to over-engage her customers, but Anselm was too suave to ignore. And though the adjective “suave” didn’t typically coincide with the nationality “German,” there was something undeniably irresistible about Anselm. So she went with him when her shift was over, back to his hotel, The Varden, old and small, but still overpriced precisely because it was old and small. In the morning, he was gone. No note, just breakfast served right around the time she had put her hair back in its headband and clasped her bracelet and necklace on again. But scrambled eggs and bacon were hardly a consolation for being a glorified prostitute. She didn’t even know anything about Anselm other than his name and country of origin. That he was probably a businessman who traveled a lot. Or maybe he was a film producer, that could explain why he offhandedly mentioned a Fassbinder movie he had seen recently, I Only Want You to Love Me, as it were. Even for a German, it was overly passionate for a “commoner” to take an interest in the auteur’s work. And it would also explain Gia’s adoration for the silver screen. Whatever the case, Joan would never know for sure. Now all she had as a souvenir was Gia. Gia who was leaving her to work her beige job as an administrative assistant in an office park alone. Gia who was making the exact same faux pas as Joan roughly thirty years ago. Except it wouldn’t be as easy for Gia to bounce back. Times weren’t what they used to be. Dispense with the path of getting a college education, and you likely weren’t going to get a job, not even as an administrative assistant in an office park. Sadly, Joan had “lucked” into the position when her co-worker at Joe’s connected her with a friend he knew in Bakersfield who knew another friend who had an in at this insurance company–hence, the abrupt move before Gia could ever even have a memorable taste of the Hollywood life, remote as Long Beach was from it.

Yet, so it goes that whenever you try to take a child out of an environment you don’t want her to be in, she ends up running right back to it. Gia had been planning her escape ever since she saw a screening of Singin’ in the Rain, at the Fox Theater, “one of the last of its kind built in the Gilded Age.” She was eleven when her mother took her to see it, and it was Jean Hagen’s character as Lina Lamont–not Debbie Reynolds’ Kathy Seldon–that she gravitated toward. She could remember very clearly thinking that she was born to play the villain–the misunderstood female antagonist–in a way that would far outshine Hagen, or any other actress “forced” to play the non-virtuous one. From that day forward, everything changed. Gia sought to alter her entire demeanor, which meant her entire wardrobe, hairstyle, room decor–everything that spoke to her now defunct personality. It was 1997, and the only women anyone wanted to copy were the Spice Girls or Romy and Michele. Gia opted for Greta Garbo. Slicked back hair, minimal yet dramatic makeup and a lot of black turtlenecks took hold, much to Joan’s dismay. It was, in fact, Joan who gently nudged Gia toward the idea of therapy upon taking note of her abrupt shift in appearance. Her work’s health insurance had recently amped up a notch, and now included a fairly affordable package to accommodate such a formerly bourgeois need.

Gia loved therapy. It was where she learned words like “absolute threshold” and “instinctual drift” and “reciprocity norm.” She also realized that she enjoyed the effects her physical presentation had on men. She would test the utmost boundaries of what she could get away with wearing during her weekly Thursday afternoon appointment with Dr. Gerard, a shy type with glasses, ill-fitting pants and suspenders and a grey button-front shirt that always seemed to have a stain in a different place. His hair was thinning and his face often gleamed from sweating. Especially after a session with Gia, during which she would frequently pace the room slowly, finding ways to face her back toward him and bend over just enough to show that she wasn’t wearing underwear. Maybe she was oversexualized for her age, but Dr. Gerard’s reaction to her body taught her soon enough what it might be able to get her, and all without ever actually letting any man too close.

*****

The store was located at 9600 Wilshire Boulevard, near the William Morris Agency. It was Saks. She had passed over it during her first sweep of the block, not wanting to deign to work in a department store. Shopgirl hadn’t come out yet, so there was no prestige to slumming it in the hope of spontaneously attracting the favor of a rich older man. Her first choice had been, of course, Versace, freestanding and independent of department store riffraff, and this was well after the brand’s cachet went up because of the assassination. But she didn’t hear back from them within her two week time frame of expectation, and cash was wearing thin. The “by-the-night” room she was renting on Hollywood Boulevard had already become insufferable, and she needed to get out soon, before she woke up to find something sinister happening to her.

And, speaking of happening, she only happened into the Ermenegildo Zegna section, which felt suddenly fortuitous when a salesgirl came up to her and said, “Oh my god, I love your eyeliner. How long did that take you?”

Gia shrugged, “Not very.”

The girl, one of the plastic surgery blondes she anticipated seeing in this neck of the woods looked both twenty-five and thirty-five at the same time. “Are you by any chance looking for work? We could really use someone with your vibe here.”

Not wanting to sound desperate, Gia cautiously admitted, “I’ve been casually searching.”

“Do you have any experience in sales?”

Gia couldn’t help but flashback to the time she had spiked her homemade lemonade with some of Joan’s “hidden” literal top shelf vodka to get her clients to keep coming back for more. “A little.”

“Well, I’m not gonna lie, your aloof attitude could really help us sell some shoes to the fellas.”

It was then that she apprehended Eva was an assistant manager with the sort of authority to make a job happen right then and there. So it was that Gia commenced her life as a shoe salesgirl. It was, like so many of our best laid plans, never intended to be permanent. And, at first, it really felt as though it might be a great stepping stone into the acting world, what with all those junior agents coming in to browse for shoes in the excitement of a potential promotion or a potentially life-changing client. Gia wanted to be one such life-changing client. Which is how things with one agent ended up going too far, leading to word of mouth and a subsequent slippery slope. A mudslide in effect.

His name was Adam Goldenstein, and he was, predictably, the godson of someone high-up in the agency. Attractive enough, for a greaseball anyway, Adam was a twenty-six year old who drove a Lexus convertible and lived in Laurel Canyon. He wasn’t supposed to have these things yet, but he did. Because life was and is easy for the connected white male. Gia thought she was prepared for the blatant nepotism that she would be faced with in this alternate reality. But when it was actually flung in her face in the form of a whipped out dick in the changing room, she had the epiphany that she wasn’t as equipped as she thought. Though certainly more “equipped” than Adam. For a moment she hesitated before doing what she knew was expected of her. And it was in that split second that her morality switched sides. Unlike a pendulum swinging, however, it couldn’t shift back, would always be compromised. This decision, and what it meant, was irreversible in its long-standing aftermath. So from the second she placed her mouth around it, she became for sale.

The price, ultimately, was very low. Junior agents would come in, get their sexual favor and then give her some paltry tip about a bit part in a soap opera shrouding itself behind the classification of “hour drama.” Soon, every hour of Gia’s life was drama, with agents pouring into the Ermenegildo Zegna section in droves. At first, Eva genuinely believed Gia was just that good of a salesgirl. Catching her come out of the dressing room one afternoon with a still pimple-faced agent named Max quickly made her wise to what was going on. But she had gotten too used to the skyrocketing sales numbers and therefore chose to turn the other way, not even mentioning the incident to Gia, just treating her with taciturn contempt as her best form of punishment.

Because Eva was one of the few females she interacted with and could count as at least somewhat of a friend, this new rift between them made Gia feel more isolated than ever. But she was landing gigs, sensing that she was ever closer to finagling a role in a movie. When she called Joan to tell her about her positive premonition, Joan balked. “Just temper your expectations, okay? It’s very easy to get hopeful down there, and just as easy to feel hopeless. It turns on a dime that quickly. And you’re already getting too old.”

Gia hung up the phone with a slam, the restlessness within her boiling to the surface. She decided to take one of the business cards off of her dresser at random and call whoever she picked to take her somewhere. Anywhere. But preferably the Madonna Inn. It was Adam Goldenstein. He had a live-in girlfriend, as he informed her in a hissing tone when she called. “Don’t fucking call me after 6 p.m. ever again!” he shouted before the dial tone sounded.

Not wanting to risk another possibly self-esteem crippling rejection, Gia took the bus as far as she could to get down to Long Beach–the place of her conception that seemed to be calling to her now more than ever–then took a cab the rest of the way to get to San Pedro Harbor.

She arrived at Catalina soon after. It was an island she had long wanted to visit, more than Maui or Sicily or any other exotic location. For Gia, Catalina held the magic of being a part of Marilyn Monroe’s history. It was here that she lived with her first husband as Norma Jeane Baker. She was sixteen, and essentially left no option but to marry since her adoptive family was moving out of state, plans that didn’t include Norma Jeane. So there was James Dougherty, one of many men who would serve as a temporary fix for rescuing her. And in 1942, a woman couldn’t ask for much more. Apparently not in 2005 either, Gia mused to herself as she let the cool ocean breeze wash over her. After visiting Monroe’s house at 310 Metropole Avenue, she walked to the beach, to Avalon Bay. Wading slowly out into the water, Gia found herself scarcely aware of her actions as she climbed into one of the anchored boats floating in the water. It wasn’t as luxurious as the one Tony Curtis pretended to own in Some Like It Hot, but it would have to suffice for the night.

She awoke the next morning to sunlight on her face and a revelation. She couldn’t–wouldn’t–persist in allowing these agents to use her any longer. Even if it meant that she’d have to find a different way to secure acting jobs. Or maybe acting wasn’t in the cards if she didn’t. Whatever the outcome, she had to stop.

What felt like weeks later but was really just the next day, Gia enacted her “no sexual favors” policy to many a dissatisfied client. It didn’t take very long for her sales quotas to drop significantly, along with the number of auditions she was tipped off to and/or given a callback for. It was Eva who eventually had to be “politely” forceful about the sudden dip in “activity” one day after asking her to have lunch with her at nearby Il Fornaio.

“Look it’s not Spago, but I wanted to treat you,” Eva opened. “You’ve been a real asset to me this past year and a half. And I don’t want you to think I don’t appreciate it in spite of my judgmental stare.”

Gia sneered. “Are you even aware that I’m trying to be an actress? Why the fuck would you take me to a chain Italian restaurant where I can’t even eat any bread?”

Eva appeared taken aback. “I guess it didn’t cross my mind.”

“No, of course it didn’t. My dreams, my ambitions never seem to matter.” Surrendering to the bread basket, Gia took a piece, dipped it in oil and shoved it into her mouth angrily.

Eva watched in horror. “Okay, well, I guess I’ll get to the point. Can you deliver on what you’ve been sustaining during your time here or am I to understand that you’re not going to…take certain measures any longer?”

Gia spit her bread out onto the table. Eva and several others around them gasped at the uncouthness.

“Yes, Eva, you would be correct in your ‘understanding.’ Consider this masticated piece of bread my resignation.”

Eva had been kind, for a brief second when it suited her, but like everyone else in this slipstream to hell, her kindness came with an associated expectation. “Reciprocity norm,” the term came flooding back to Gia on the sidewalk outside, just as a car with its window rolled down let the sampled notes of “Hung Up” emanate from the interior.

I’m tired of waitin’ on you, warned the lyrics as the car drifted away. Gia was nineteen. And she didn’t think she could possibly feel any older or more wizened.

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