Day tumbled into night tumbled into party time. I could barely change my shoes fast enough to keep up. When we dressed for the party, I chose my best suit because it was sexy and was actually the most expensive item of clothing I owned. I hoped it might inspire some confidence.

Destiny, Serena, and I waited for Ari in the foyer. As I grew accustomed to it, the house was looking less
like a palace and more like a banquet hall. I pictured a gaggle of bridesmaids posed on the staircase. But it was just the three of us, facing each other awkwardly, tallying up each other’s flaws and assets as we waited for Ari’s entrance. I figured that over Destiny and her acrylic claws, I had looks but not wildness. Over Serena and her china-doll eyes, I had smarts but not looks.

Serena leaned against a column opposite me. She was the blonde and I was the brunette. In the world of musical theater, she would be the soprano and I the alto. I was the one with the big ass who played her lines for laughs. Serena was the slender-waisted ingenue who got the guy in the end. I was Rizzo and she was Sandy. I was Ado Annie and she was what’s-her-name in the surrey. We faced off until, with a subtle shift in posture, she dismissed me as not much of a threat. One thing Sandy always forgets is that Rizzo has the best song in the show.

The palace was too far to walk, so we drove the golf carts that were parked in our carport. Ari drove with
Destiny and I hopped on with Serena, who silently steered through the winding, lit pathways, past the pools and tennis courts and palm trees. The air was humid and thick with the fragrance of tropical flowers. Not an hour out of the shower, I already felt sticky. My head raced with plans. I would make the best of my time here. I would improve my tennis game. I would get a tan. I would lose weight. And maybe I would even make a prince fall in love with me and my whole life would change in dazzling and unexpected ways. I longed for a magic pill to soothe the restlessness that prickled constantly under my skin. I’m not sure what made me think I’d find it in Brunei, but I wouldn’t be the first person who hoped to step off a plane on the other side of the world and discover their true self standing there waiting for them.

Up close the palace reminded me of a picture I had seen once of Hearst Castle, on the California Coast. There were gold domes, columns, and twin marble staircases that curved like ribbons up to the main entrance.

“We normally go in the side because it’s less of a hike, but I want you guys to see the entrance hall,” said
Ari. “I think you’ll like it.”

We were breathing hard when we reached the top of the stairs. We entered a cavernous cathedral of a room with a fountain at the center. I felt like I had walked onto the set of some 1930s MGM movie version of Salome. Surely a flock of harem-pants-clad showgirls was about to descend the stairs and launch into a Busby Berkeley dance number.

“It’s all real,” said Serena.

“Real what?”

“Like, the gold in the carpet is real gold. That ruby is a real ruby,” she said, pointing at a ceramic tiger that
stood near the fountain. The tiger held in its mouth a round, red stone the size of a tennis ball.

I spotted what looked like a Picasso directly across from the front door— also real, I assumed. We followed
Ari around a corner and there, where a hallway bisected the main foyer, a Degas ballerina sculpture stood on a pedestal, a little girl cast in bronze. She clasped her arms behind her back and pushed her chest out defiantly, her foot thrust in front of her in third position. It looked exactly like the one that I had loved visiting as a child, when my father would take me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on special Sundays to wander the wondrous galleries and then stuff ourselves with hot dogs on the steps. Each visit we chose a different gallery. We sat on a bench in front of a giant Jackson Pollock and looked for charging bulls and blooming irises and skywriters hiding in the paint splatter. We crossed our eyes and tried to reassemble the figures cut to pieces by Picasso. We stood washed in light next to the enormous wall of windows that faces
the Temple of Dendur and told stories of time travel. But at the end of the day we always visited my Degas ballerinas, numinous and frozen in time, pinned like butterflies to the wall.

When she caught me staring at the sculpture, Ari told me that Robin was an avid art collector. He had countless walls to decorate. Robin owned other palaces where he lived, still others where his three wives lived, whole office buildings where he conducted business, and hotels and estates in Singapore, London, and Los Angeles. But Ari informed me that some of his favorite art was right here. We were standing in the palace where he unwound every night, his sunny pleasure dome.

“Come on,” she said, with a hint of trepidation. “Let’s go in.”

We were so close I could have walked up and touched the Degas. In fact, I felt an overwhelming compulsion to do just that. I made a note to try to sneak back and do it sometime later. Like people touch the feet of Jesus on the Pietà and hope for a blessing, I would touch the feet of the dancer and hope for grace.

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Author and performer JILLIAN LAUREN grew up in suburban New Jersey and fled across the water to New York City. She attended New York University for three minutes but promptly dropped out to work with Richard Foreman’s Ontological Hysteric Theater and with The Wooster Group, among others.

Her memoir, SOME GIRLS, will be published by Plume/Penguin on April 27, 2010.

Her novel, PRETTY, is scheduled to be released in January 2011.

Jillian has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. Her writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, Flaunt Magazine, Pindeldyboz Magazine, Opium Magazine, Society, Pale House: A Collective and in the anthology My First Time: A Collection of First Punk Show Stories, among others.

She has read at spoken word events in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and has recently worked with directors as diverse as Steve Balderson, Lynne Breedlove and Margaret Cho.

She is married to musician Scott Shriner. They live in Los Angeles with their son.

11 responses to “That Ruby is a Real Ruby: An Excerpt from Some Girls: My Life in a Harem

  1. Judy Prince says:

    Beautiful, evocative descriptions, Jillian, especially of the Degas ballerina sculpture and your visits with your Dad to the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

    ” . . . a Degas ballerina sculpture stood on a pedestal, a little girl cast in bronze. She clasped her arms behind her back and pushed her chest out defiantly, her foot thrust in front of her in third position. It looked exactly like the one that I had loved visiting as a child, when my father would take me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on special Sundays to wander the wondrous galleries and then stuff ourselves with hot dogs on the steps. Each visit we chose a different gallery. We sat on a bench in front of a giant Jackson Pollock and looked for charging bulls and blooming irises and skywriters hiding in the paint splatter. We crossed our eyes and tried to reassemble the figures cut to pieces by Picasso. We stood washed in light next to the enormous wall of windows that faces
    the Temple of Dendur and told stories of time travel. But at the end of the day we always visited my Degas ballerinas, numinous and frozen in time, pinned like butterflies to the wall.”

    Your clear, well-considered excerpt from your book _Some Girls: My Life in a Harem_ reminds me of the story and love of Mary Magdalene. Here, a fascinating account of her life (and lives) as given by psychic Edgar Cayce, summarized by John Van Auken on the A.R.E.’s website: http://www.edgarcayce.org/MaryMagdalene.asp

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    Welcome to TNB, Jillian!

    You may also be interested in In My Skin, by Kate Holden, an Australian writer who turned to prostitution to support her drug habit.

    I don’t know… people keep writing books, and I keep wanting to read them…

  3. simply scott says:

    Ok, superb. As someone with a strong connection to other cultures through my work, I am very interested to see how you viewed the culture in Brunei, even though you got a very select experience. From what I’ve read, this is excellent, and I’m totally going to buy the book. I see it comes out today. And, by the way, the like about Sandy and Rizzo — perfection! All women should read that line, which is why it is currently my FB status — I have a 13 yr old daughter, so I’m rather proactive in women’s issues. Good luck!

  4. Oksana says:

    You paint a breathtaking picture, Jillian. I can’t wait to read the rest.

  5. Mary Richert says:

    Wow, this is a really intriguing story. I want to know more!

  6. Can’t wait to read this. What an intriguing story!

  7. Joe Daly says:

    Fabulous excerpt. Looking forward to the full read.

  8. Erika Rae says:

    This is just the right blend of poetic, sensual, and fascinating. I’m dying to read more.

    Welcome to TNB!

  9. dwoz says:

    Wonderful excerpt.

    however, my dear, I must ask. One does not normally associate the word “thrust” with third position.

    perhaps with an arabesque penchée, or perhaps an Échappé.

    I think I must buy your book. How to defend against my daughters reading it, though….such a dilemma.

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