novels

The Rise and Fall of Rocky Love

Chapter One

The Rise and Fall of Rocky Love

Manhattan
1989-91
The Beginning of the End

Late summer roses bloom along Park Avenue—red ones—a bright seam running up the wide sunwashed avenue all the way to th 89th Street and beyond. Cat crosses Madison and turns on Fifth. She passes under the blue awning, through the polished bronze entrance and into the familiar lobby. Her leather soles click along the marble floor. She smiles at Angel, the doorman, who winks and opens a drawer in his small desk. He hands her a bulky envelope, marked with her name, holding a spare set of keys.

She pushes the elevator button and waits. She wonders if she'll miss Angel. Right now, she feels she will. But even as she steps into the elevator, that sentimental feeling begins to dissipate. As she is whisked up to the penthouse, to her former boss Rocky Love's old digs—uninhabited and on the market—she realizes, really gets, that after this she will never come back here again.

A feeling of happiness sweeps through her when she thinks of her secret. She is pregnant—again. She has savored this knowledge for over a week, but before she can risk revealing it to anyone, she has to tie up some loose ends. A few hours at her old office, where for the last year she has learned what it really means to be a celebrity assistant, and then she can begin her future.

The living room is drenched in sunshine. Cat stands in front of the wall of windows and looks out. The view from way up here is spectacular, twenty stories high above Central Park. Her view at home, downtown on Sixth Street, is of a two-foot airshaft and the brick side of another building. She has a small mirror propped in the window, facing up, to catch a tiny bit of the sky. The same sky falls right into Rocky's vast uptown window, engorging it with color and light.

What struck Cat at first, when she started working for Rocky and the glitter dazzled her, was the transition home on the subway. The contrast was so stark, going from this penthouse with its luscious golds and lavenders and blue-skied panoramas, into the dark subway tunnels. People begging for food-pennies and drug-dimes below, when above fortunes went for haute couture and limousines that traveled between two beautiful, lonely homes.

Rocky could be anywhere in the world she wanted, but eventually no place and no one could comfort her. All that time and energy she put into angling for a comeback she thought would revive her once-brilliant career and rejuvenate her life—only no one would tell her the truth. She was a has-been, the world had moved on without her and it wasn't looking back. The problem was that no one really wanted to hurt her feelings. For all her faults, Rocky was capable of tenderness and humor and it was hard not to care for her when you didn't despise her.

Looking out the window at the inspiring view, Cat feels a stark awareness of how similarly ambivalent she had felt, as a girl, about her mother Janet before she conquered her alcoholism. Now, a year after entering Rocky's sinking-celebrity life, the parallel between these two women—both addicts, of one sort or another, who doled out heartbreak like after-school candy—seems painfully obvious. Her reaction to the familiar emotional toxins should have been predictable: first she would collaborate, then she would rebel. But if anyone had suggested, when she started her job, that as a so-called adult-child-of-an-alcoholic she was repeating old habits by setting herself up for disappointment in a co-dependent relationship, she would have told them to take their shrink-speak and stuff it. What she was looking for, she would have said, was a day job so that at night she could pursue her art without worry. The job was never just about paying off the mountain of credit card debt she had accidentally accumulated in her life as an aspiring cartoonist. It was an adventure. And what would be better than working for someone whom, as a teenager, she had idolized?

On her very first day, a warm September morning a year ago, Cat took care to dress professionally so she would make a good impression. She wore a white skirt with a pale yellow-and-blue striped blouse, and French braided her long wheat-blond hair, cinching the bottom with a little blue bow. She had never expected circumstances to converge into this job, but then that's life. You do things you never thought you would, learn things you never particularly wanted to know. Her live-in boyfriend Teddy just couldn't support them both as a freelance art critic, though he had tried valiantly, giving her the gift of time to concentrate on her own work. When she told him her father had said that his friend, the famous Rocky Love, was looking for a new assistant, Teddy nodded his head slowly, unsurprised, and she guessed that her lover and father had already discussed it. That her father and Rocky had had an affair made Cat wonder if it really was a good job or if he just wanted to do his old flame a favor. But the salary would be enough to cover her bills and pay down her credit cards, the hours would be tolerable, she'd be given health insurance, after six months she was promised her first week of paid vacation—and it was a chance to be close to an idol.

She arrived exactly on time that first day and entered the magnificent penthouse in awe. The morning light was pure and brilliant and the living room was like a jewel shimmering atop the sordid city, a crown on a crazy head. Cat was greeted by Annie, the woman who cared for Rocky's seven-year-old son Parker and also ran both homes. (The country house was perched behind a dune in Amagansett, and they fled there every weekend.) Annie was somewhere in her sixties, small and stout, with curly short gray hair and smile lines wrinkle-etched into her face. She dressed in bright white sneakers, pants and pastel sweatshirts which sometimes bore legends such as have a nice day before some jerk comes along and wrecks it or executive cook and parlor maid.

Annie smiled. "Come on in, honey. What can I getcha? Coffee, tea, some juice?" When Cat hesitated, Annie added, "Rocky's on the phone to France. It'll be a while."

"Okay, coffee. Thanks."

Annie walked in small even steps through the sunken living room, with its lavender couches and golden-framed paintings, into the adjoining dining room. Cat followed.

"Have a seat," Annie said before continuing into the kitchen.

Cat sat at the oval dining table, sun-streaked smoky glass, and waited. A red button on the multi-line wall phone near the kitchen must have been Rocky talking overseas. Annie clearly intended to make Cat feel welcome. They chatted, Cat sipping her coffee and Annie her tea, until they heard the thud of footsteps. The red light was gone. Rocky was coming.

She burst into the dining room with a bright, "Hello!" She was wearing a green silk caftan, her feet were bare and her reddish brown hair was swept back in a ponytail. Her face looked puffy without makeup. When they had last met, for Cat's interview, Rocky was dressed as for TV, lavishly, with a made-up youngish face. Now she looked sleepy, raw—real. Cat could feel a smile stretch across her face as Rocky planted a kiss on her cheek.

"This is going to work so well for both of us." Rocky's voice was smooth and youthful, hopeful, contrary to her fatigue-rimmed eyes. "I can feel it."

Cat said, "Me, too." She was too nervous to summon her normal loud voice which probably would have blurted out something like if I have to have a job this is the one I want so thank you. This was The Rocky Love, voice of courage and hope. Cat felt lucky to be here.

"Your father was a genius to put us together," Rocky said. "How is Mort, by the way? We haven't spoken lately."

Cat was aware that her father's unclassifiable relationship with Rocky petered out soon after Cat's interview. From what he said, Rocky had been undergoing a transformation, and had apparently transformed him out of her life. "A relief," he called the ending of the friendship, advising his daughter to, "Have fun if you take the job—Rocky is like no one I've ever known." It was his only comment about a woman he had dated, or whatever, for months.

"He's fine," Cat said, and left it at that.

"He told me you're an artist." Cat felt a blossom of gratitude for Rocky's interest in her.

"Yes. A cartoonist, actually. I've been working on a comic strip about bisexuality and AIDS."

"It sounds brilliant. You should show it to me one of these days. I'd love to see your work."

"Thanks for asking."

But the way Rocky's smile remained frozen, Cat wasn't sure she meant it, and decided she'd better play that one by ear.

"Well, the day is short." Rocky stood. "Shall we?"

Cat followed Rocky through the living room and down a long hallway. There were six rooms off the hall, two on either side, and two at the very end. Cat's office was the first room on the left. It was bigger than her bedroom downtown, where she and Teddy squeezed themselves into a dark space with just enough room left over to maneuver around the double bed. Here she would have space and light and quiet and a door to shut. An L-shaped desk faced a huge window that overlooked Central Park. There was a computer and a printer, a heavy duty copier, a fax machine, an answering machine and a phone.

"This is our control center," Rocky said. "If you need anything to make yourself more comfortable, ask. You're in charge here. You'll work very much on your own."

Cat had never imagined she would have a room like this to herself and couldn't resist a smile of pleasure.

They proceeded down the hallway. Rocky walked with a swagger, her bare feet pressing into the champagne colored carpet. Cat felt acutely conscious of the history of the woman leading her down the hall. This was Rocky Love—in person.

Back when the women's movement had some exciting voices that offered hope to drifting young girls like Cat, Rocky Love's voice was the loudest. The things she said became buttons and posters and television sound-bites. Don't Call Me Girl! demanded that people stop infantilizing women. Slavery Lives at Sixty-nine Cents on the Dollar! was a battle cry for equal pay. Choice Is Our Right! championed and helped win the right to choose abortion. Rocky Love made it her business to broadcast the idea that becoming a woman was a hopeful prospect. Cat remembered wearing a button with one of Rocky's most famous slogans: The ERA for change is NOW or never! Well, the Equal Rights Amendment never passed, and the National Organization for Women lost the promise of its early momentum—but Cat still had her button, knowing that sometimes old fashions returned.

Next to Cat's office was the guest room, blue-flowered walls and antique furniture and the same Central Park view. She expected to move consecutively door to door along the hall, but instead Rocky led her back to the beginning, to the door directly across from Cat's office. This was Annie's room, done in shades of cantaloupe, and more antiques. The country inn feeling was adultered only by the view, which on this side of the penthouse was a cityscape of building apexes and valleys at the bottom of which were the city streets. They moved on to the next door, which was Parker's room. One whole wall of shelves was crammed full of toys. A Star Wars mobile hung from the center of the ceiling. A single bed was pressed into the corner. Something was wrong with this room and then Cat realized what it was: there was no mess, no little boy clutter, no residue of last-minute play. She felt mildly uneasy as they moved to the last two rooms, twin doors at the end of the hall leading to what Rocky called her "suite."

She was shown the bedroom first, the door on the right. The walls were painted a deep maroon and spotlights directed your attention to specific areas. A black lacquered table in the corner. Four small Oriental pictures that Cat saw, upon really looking, were blatantly erotic. A big lacywhite bed. Immediately she sensed the contradictions: hard surfaces and soft, sharp edges and smooth, black lacquer and white lace. Next to an antique dresser, upon which sat a red and gold jewelry box and a large bottle of Opium perfume, was an old battered trunk.

Rocky's study was connected to the bedroom by an inner door. This room, in contrast to the darkness of the bedroom, was light and airy, more a room for dreaming than working. The walls were papered in creamy orange swirls. The floor was plush with a fawn colored carpet. On the wall above an antique wooden desk was a large framed poster of a black-and-white photograph advertising a Dutch play—a bride in windswept white and her groom clung together and hurried forward. They were beautiful, urgent. Across the room was a picture window, bursting with another lush park view. Half of one wall was completely covered with photographs, mostly of Rocky.

"This is the Love Wall," she said, with her wide smile and big brown eyes watching Cat's face. Cat stepped up for a closer look. Rocky moved with her, and pointed. "This is me as a child. And here, with my parents on a ship when I was eleven. Here I am when I first hosted The Mad Wife. Here, with my first husband Bob Love. Second husband Jason Barthoff. When Parker was born. My boyfriend Tim. Correction, ex-boyfriend. He turned out to be just another cad, but don't they all?"

Cat tried to follow but got sidetracked by a collage of black- and-white nudes taken when Rocky was young. She must have been forty-five by now, and in these she was barely in her twenties. She had had an earthy beauty; her appeal was not blatant, not covergirl cute, but easygoing and direct. Like her first solo radio show. The Mad Wife had a gutsy, honest voice women loved and a sexiness men loved. It had made her famous and, eventually, rich. There she was, as the girl within whom that voice was building up its tenor. Stretched out naked on the sand with her eyes closed. Spread-eagled on a bed looking innocent and terrified. Striding across a room with a happy, surprised expression. "I don't know why I have those up," Rocky said. "I sued the photographer. He published them without my knowledge, after I was famous. I'm very litigious." She smiled. "I won."

"Who's this?" Cat was struck by a candid black-and-white photo of the same earthy young woman standing with a tall-dark- and-handsome young man. "Were you in love?"

"That's me and my brother, Nathan, after he got back from Vietnam."

But Cat thought the photo showed lovers, not siblings. She looked again. Their eyes were shining and they leaned together with unmistakable intimacy. But incest? No way. The sexual politics of that would be too dark for an idealist like Rocky Love. Cat told herself that she must have misread the photo. It was the only explanation.

"Where is he now?" Cat asked.

Rocky touched the next picture without answering. "Here's me with Parker." It was a professional portrait, happy faces pressed together. He was a chubby boy with black hair and a wide smile that was just like Rocky's.

"He's adorable," Cat said, though it was an exaggeration. He looked remarkably average in the picture.

"Isn't he?" Rocky smiled. "Motherhood is about the best thing that can happen to a woman."

Cat didn't know what to say; it was the kind of throwback remark she never would have expected to fall from the lips of Rocky Love. But expectations were made to be broken. It was a disappointment and a relief to discover that this woman, famous for her salty social commentary, was soft at the core.

And then Rocky broke the spell. "Motherhood is great, as long as you don't have to raise the little bastards yourself!"

Red roses. Cat had doodled a bouquet of five dogs, leashed to the hand of a single dogwalker, sniffing the roses with Park Avenue buildings looming above. It was just a rough idea but she had liked it and taped it to the wall next to her desk. Beneath it is the first four-frame row of the Man in Tights: Adventures of a Bisexual in the Age of AIDS comic strip she finished just before coming to work for Rocky. All the cartoons she has done since are too subversive, raw and autobiographical to hang on an office wall.

Legends, she calls this new work, the chronicle of her life in a series of comic strips: Growing up alone-ish in 1970's Manhattan; failing to starve herself to death, but not for lack of effort; abortion (making a choice without ever really deciding); finding and losing and re-defining love; the undertow of being both woman and artist, how the conflicts start early, pull hard and become who you are. These strips grew out of the journal she began writing as a way to keep herself sane during this last challenging year. To her surprise, Legends, which she created purely as a personal exploration with no intention ever to show them to any-one—on the assumption that even in 1990 no one would be interested in comic strips about a young woman's inner life—have turned out to be her most persuasive work. She recently received the good news that they will be included in a gallery show of emerging cartoonists, setting the stage for a promising career of her own, should she be so lucky.

And then, of course, there is her secret, which will change her life more than anything else, and which she will keep to herself for now. Motherhood. She would raise her own child and follow her ambition, which was the ultimate feminist litmus test Rocky not only couldn't master but never even tried.

Cat lays the cartoons from her office wall neatly in a file folder, which she packs into a cardboard box marked CAT- PERSONAL. Then she stoops to the floor to get her purse, in which she has been carrying the disk with the most recent version of Rocky's memoirs ever since she deleted it from the hard drive. She decides that while she is here, she may as well print a copy of the memoirs for John Paglia, Rocky's collaborator and recently her nemesis. He had worked hard at understanding her, certainly harder than she ever had, and when he was through the mirror he held up— and the secrets he revealed—sent her tumbling over the edge.

Cat inserts the disk in the B drive and calls up the directory. Then, one by one, she prints out the chapters of John's formerly authorized, currently unauthorized biographical opus of the roller coaster ride of the life of Rochelle Libbon Love Barthoff: The Rise and Fall of Rocky Love.

Everything else, all the office stuff, is going into storage and will have to be inventoried in detail.

It's amazing how time can slip by. A whole year in this room, organizing Rocky. Liking her, even loving her, then learning to pretend to like her, and finally betraying her. Well, they all betrayed her, didn't they? There's money in fame, even if it's not your own, and with money comes temptation. Though Cat herself didn't do it for money, nor would she get any. It was really just Rocky's agent and biographer who were poised to make off with extra cash. What she got was a private satisfaction, a sense of her own small powers in a situation in which she had come to feel powerless. Handing over Rocky's secrets to John was wrong, Cat knows that now. Even so, she feels justified by John's own notion that no one betrayed Rocky until long after she had betrayed herself.

The big L-shaped desk is scattered with papers Cat called "miscellaneous" and never really found a place for. But today she must. She has to label and categorize these random leftover memos and clippings and photos and receipts and bills and letters. For a moment she considers stuffing them all into a big file and titling it The End.

And yet, for Cat, this is a beginning. That Rocky's fall has coincided with the start of Cat's rise is an irony that does not escape her. She doesn't yet know how to interpret the fact that some of her recent choices seem antithetical to the ideologies that made Rocky famous. The ideas that inspired Cat as a girl now seem to fly above society's head like untethered helium balloons. She has stood on the ground of her adulthood watching the balloons vanish, discovering that real-life choices are too wordy, complex and uncertain to fit on a button or bumper sticker. She wishes she had the clarity of Rocky's early convictions. But then again, look where it got her: locked up in a psychiatric facility, free-writing a version of her life no one would ever see.

Poor Rocky, Cat thinks. Sitting at the desk, she surveys the mess. There is so much to do. She starts with the easiest—bills. She digs through the paper debris and collects eleven utility and service bills, setting them aside for Rocky's father, Dr. Norman Libbon. He brought her into the world; he can decide what to do now.

The photos from Rocky's childhood can go to Dr. Libbon, too. It seems a shame to pack them up with the publicity glossies of Rocky, all teased and sprayed and skin-stretched and made-up. The old photos from her childhood are black-and-whites of a dreamy girl with wild brown hair, wearing jeans or miniskirts with scanty tie- dyed halter tops. Smiling. Rocky used to smile with so much hope. She had fire in her eyes when she was young; you could tell she intended to conquer the world. And she did, in a funny suicidal kind of way. Some of the childhood photos have been published in books, but the Libbons might appreciate having Rocky's own tattered prints. At one point, she had signed the backs of some of them with her huge round signature, which grew over the years, screaming ME ME ME.

© Katia Lief