The main staircase at the Palladium on 14th Street in New York City was lit by hundreds of sparkling, luminous bulbs. It looked like the kind of staircase a princess would descend from in a fairytale – one written while the author was high on mescaline. And when I was fourteen years old, I tumbled down that staircase head first, and I landed in a heap at the bottom glowing step.
It was, for a very long time, the best night of my life.
And it all began the summer before with the flu.
I was living with my father and his wife, and we were spending part of the summer in Maine in a quaint town called Boothbay Harbor. There wasn’t much to do there. Days were spent rowing in the murky lake or tanning on its shore, our feet disappearing into the mushy marsh. The town had few stores, but one was a bookstore, and I all but bought the place out over the two weeks I was there, reading by day and, at night, often using the books as swatters in my murderous rampage against the largest mosquitoes I had ever seen before or since. It was summer and it was scandalously hot, and I was staring to bloom in the way flowers couldn’t in the oppressive heat, so I chose to read the most inappropriate books I could get away with: Flowers in the Attic, Wifey, and the book that would change things for me from that day forward – I’m With the Band, written by proud former groupie, Pamela Des Barres.
Pamela, as I came to think of her, had slept with everybody who had held a guitar or fondled a bass in the 60s and 70s. She had flowing blonde hair in her heyday, and in the pictures she included in the middle of the book, I could tell that it sparkled like glitter when she stood in the ever-present Los Angeles sun. I was thirteen and in a gawky phase: brown hair that curled in the wrong places at the wrong times, rocking braces over the frosted pink lipstick that nobody should ever wear. The only part of me that glinted in the sun was my teeth if I laughed when standing outside. I had only kind of kissed a boy at that point, and I guess only a thirteen year old who spent a bunch of summers at sleepaway camp can understand what it means to have “kind of” kissed a boy, but it wasn’t just experience I was lacking – it was the courage to be reckless…and it was finding a venue where recklessness could transpire.
During those Maine weeks, I came down with a flu so hellish that I couldn’t get out of bed. My father went into town and got me the kinds of things you bring a feverish adolescent to cheer her up, so I ended up with a gift bag filled with gummy worms, chapstick that tasted like Dr. Pepper, and teenybopper magazines that expounded upon the greatness of the Coreys – though even then I could find nothing hot about the Feldman version, and no well-paid PR rep could convince me otherwise. But one of the magazines was a special edition devoted entirely to River Phoenix, and I don’t know if it was the glossy centerfold of him lying atop heaps of hay or the way his hair managed to be equally blonde and brown at the same time or the very heavy flu medication I was on, but I fell in love that week with essentially a figment of my imagination.
According to interviews, River was drawn to girls who were energetic, silly, insightful, and followed a strict vegan diet.
I was, at the moment, basically comatose, humorless, cloudy with meds, and the only thing I had a craving for was a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder.
But I knew: we were meant to be.
I became a vegetarian that autumn. My new dietary restrictions were, well, restricting. I hated tofu. I missed steak. But River had flowed his way into my consciousness, and I knew better now.
I started wearing a pin I got from PETA that stated, “Fur is DEAD,” written in a blood-red font. I got comments about it everywhere I went, and my English teacher asked if I’d get him one.
I felt closer to Mr. Phoenix every time I shunned chicken, but I ingested cheese like it was a nearing-extinction dairy product, and I might have been the only vegetarian in history to gain weight.
I read every canned article and interview I could find about my new obsession, and I plotted the death of Martha Plimpton, the actress who had apparently won his heart.
She was a vegetarian too.
I was on the right track.
That school year, I had moved into Manhattan to live with my father, leaving suburban stability and Saturday nights spent in basements, nursing peach wine coolers, behind. I found myself instead riding the M14 bus to and from a school that boasted metal detectors before they became de rigor, and one freezing afternoon, as I got off the bus at 3rd Avenue, I saw that the marquee of the Palladium had changed and now it announced in big black letters that the Rock Against Fur concert, sponsored by PETA, would be held there in a month.
River Phoenix would be one block away from my apartment in one month’s time. Was there any way I could grow a set of tits in 30 days?
It didn’t matter that I was underage and couldn’t get into a club. If the groupie bible had taught me anything, it was that rules didn’t have to apply when there was a celebrity to encounter. I started making lists of anyone I knew, personally or peripherally, who had the connections necessary to get me into that event.
I didn’t even have to break a sweat. My stepmother’s friend wrote for The Village Voice. She knew I was big into PETA, and she invited me to go with her. She had a press pass, and said she’d try to get us backstage. I was instructed to be ready on the appointed night at 9:00 pm – and to keep my mouth shut when we were arms-length from a bouncer so my braces wouldn’t give me away as a total pubescent.
Donna showed up to my apartment that night wearing a leather jacket to an animal right’s event because she was cool enough not to give a shit. She took one look at me in my Lucky Star-era crinoline skirt and told me to put on jeans.
I threw on some denim but I wouldn’t even consider taking off the high-heeled booties I’d convinced my father to buy me for this event. I could barely walk, but the Palladium was one block over; if I had to, I would crawl there.
I was the youngest person on line that night. I had the least amount of sex appeal or style. And yet I couldn’t stop wondering where I should take River after we left the club together. I figured Fatburger was out.
There were vendors in the lobby selling shirts and “cruelty-free” makeup. I bought black eyeliner. It lasted for years, smudging in the worst way possible.
Donna and I stood near the stage and the acts came on, one at a time. My senses were heightened in a way I now recognize as being sexually charged. I hardly listened to any of the performances, instead searching the balconies for my lettuce-imbibing love, never realizing that what he was really dabbling in at the time was heroin. From a distance, I saw Kevin Bacon cradling his pregnant wife’s belly and the brown haired Go-Go drinking what looked like water, but I didn’t see River.
And then he walked on stage.
I have no idea whether he could sing. I couldn’t tell you how many songs his band played.
But to this day, I can recite with total clarity every aspect of the outfit he wore and how his greenish-brown flannel brought out the hints of hazel buried deep within his eyes.
I told Donna I’d be back, that I was going to try to get backstage, and because she was not a mother and she recognized a crazed deliriousness in my eyes, she let me go. The backstage area was guarded by an enormous man. I walked over and tried to patiently explain the situation, which I now realize must have sounded pathetically hilarious. A flat-chested fourteen-year-old wanted backstage entry? And I had braces to boot, so I couldn’t even bribe the guy with a blowjob, which was good, as I had not yet practiced, let alone perfected, any sort of technique.
I was told I wouldn’t get backstage. I walked back to Donna, dejected.
But this was my chance; tonight was my moment. He was here and so was I. I was getting backstage.
An energy I didn’t know was lurking inside of me took over, primal and unstoppable. I walked to the backstage entry again, and the bouncer looked up.
“I’m not leaving,” I replied, shaking my asymmetrical hair. “I’m getting back there. Look – I’m clearly not a threat. Just let me in.”
“Can’t do it.”
A big guy tried to jump over the rope that separated the main room from the VIP area. The bouncer reached his arms out to grab him. And I took that second of opportunity to slip past the bouncer, finding myself backstage, fourteen years old and embracing being reckless.
I ran right into River’s sister, and I introduced myself, talking a million miles an hour, telling her I’d love to meet her brother. (I thought I sounded at best suave, at worst nervous. I am certain now that I sounded like a lunatic, but the girl was drenched in patchouli and couldn’t have been sweeter to me.)
“Well, River is coming offstage in a second, and I’m sure he’d love to meet you.”
And then he actually walked off the stage. And he was standing close enough for me to touch him. And simple womanly need kicked nerve’s ass, and I walked right over.
What actually transpired? I complimented him on his singing, waving off his human response that his earpiece had malfunctioned and he couldn’t hear himself. I congratulated him on his recent Academy Award nomination, which he looked like he couldn’t have cared less about earning.
I wanted to tell him that his ideas had changed my life.
I wanted to tell him that I sucked down tofurkey in an effort to feel closer to him.
I wanted to tell him that I went to sleep at night, imaging myself wrapped in his arms, and that the boys at my high school simply couldn’t compare.
But even then I knew that sometimes a girl just has to stay quiet and walk away, so I smiled and wished him well, and that’s when he reached out and gripped me for a moment on the forearm, and it was like I had been branded -- and I loved it.
I walked back to the velvet rope and the bouncer shook his head at me, and I smiled, fully flashing the silver. I returned to Donna, who had not moved from where I had left her, and I calmly told her I had done it.
A feeling of peace set over me. I hadn’t made this movie star my first real boyfriend, and he would be dead of an overdose outside another club in less than five years, but that night I had not let circumstance or authority stop me from getting what I wanted. I hadn’t relied on feminine wiles, because I didn’t have any at the time. I’d harnessed pure drive, a refusal to be denied, and I’m pretty sure I came of age in that cavernous room as I smiled in the dark, knowing that I could do fucking anything.
Unfortunately, “anything” did not include navigating lit stairs in heels. I went flying down them, and I scraped my knees – both of them – and one of those scrapes turned into a scar.
And I wear it like a crown.