“Here’s the body glue,” Grace Walker said, handing me a small glass bottle. “To prevent nip slips. Sexy, but classy. That’s the Chef Grace persona you’re going for. Most of the work is just being friendly when people recognize you and come up to ask questions. You’ve memorized the FAQs?”
I said I had, though the answers were just bland reassurances that liquid cleanses were good for you. My main task was looking the part, which I did: blond hair, big brown eyes, twenty-seven years old with long, lithe limbs, the magazine picture of natural health. Grace Walker, the CEO of a raw food cleanse company, had hired me to impersonate her. I was to serve as the female embodiment of the glowy, ethereal beauty women could attain through the Chef Grace nutrition program. The real Grace Walker looked like a white Aunt Jemima, jolly and rotund and unabashedly middle-aged. She wore patchouli and elastic-waist skirts and bangles that squeezed her pudgy wrists like sausage casings. The costume she’d designed for me was more urban hippie, all gauzy fabrics that highlighted a bare midriff. The piece de resistance was a silver belly chain with a jewel buckle, which I glued into place while changing in the bathroom. The buckle hit where my belly button would have been if it hadn’t been excised during a childhood stomach surgery. This physical omission had been the source of much bodily anxiety for me, which perhaps explains why I had, until then, led a largely closeted, solitary existence, all shame and self-loathing. Grace Walker was giving me my first chance at real life, to be seen, to touch the lives of others, to play a role in something bigger than myself. Before meeting her I’d been slapping together salami sandwiches in the windowless back room of a grab-and-go deli in Ventura. I’d been living in a converted garage with plywood walls and a two-inch gap under the roll-up door.
“Perfect, perfect, perfect,” Grace Walker said examining my face, turning it by the chin. Her words made me beam with childlike pride. “You’ll need a new cut, of course.” She grazed the ratty ends of my hair, which was starting to dread. “A signature style. What do you think?”
“I could get a bob,” I said.
“A bob might be too sharp.”
“Too functional. We want to attract male clients too. How about layers? Soft, to frame your face. That’ll get heads turning.”
“You think so?” I asked. After a pause, I blurted, “I’ve never had a boyfriend.”
Grace smiled. “Well, I’m sure that’ll change. You’ll find one you like soon enough, doing this job. And when you do, he’ll be one more joining the Chef Grace clan. I’m betting a year from now, say next Valentine’s Day, we’ll be celebrating your engagement!”
It was like I’d won the lottery, getting a loving family and fantastic job in one fell swoop. My gratitude kept me motivated, though the work itself was kind of a sham. On paper, Chef Grace was based on an organic farm in Malibu. In reality the business was run out of Grace Walker’s two-bedroom in Palms. What she promised was youth, vitality, health, and beauty. What she actually sold was a weekly vegetable drink and raw soup delivery service. Basically, it was her and her high-speed blender. She had a decent roster of customers, but wanted to expand and upscale. Make it luxe, as she put it. That’s where I came in. I was given a small wardrobe of organic silk dresses and vegan stilettos. A makeup artist was hired to teach me how to achieve the no makeup look: eyelash extensions, nightly application of eyebrow growth serum, plus base, concealer, illuminator, bronzer, and a special lip gloss that could only be removed with an oil-based cleanser. That plus the hair took a lot of time, but it was part of the job. Suddenly, I was beautiful, and for the first time I began to feel a strange sense of power. Heads did turn when I walked down the street. Women I didn’t know stopped me to ask for diet and fashion advice. I still looked down often to make sure my missing navel was safely hidden, but I started walking taller, even strutting a little, striking the poses Grace Walker pointed out to me in magazines. Above all I strove to exceed Grace Walker’s standards. I really admired her, her kindness, her sharp, ruthless business acumen, her unexpectedly handsome husband, Dune. Dune was a gentle, shell-shocked shut-in who occasionally came out of the bedroom for another slice of banana bread, always politely offering me some.
Sweet baked goods were what they lived on, primarily, though Grace Walker did sample each batch of her soups. The first few weeks I spent a lot of time in that apartment. It was comforting there, the aroma of dairy-free muffins always wafting from the oven. Grace Walker assured me that so long as I stuck to vegan foods in public, I could eat whatever I wanted in private. “We are what we are,” she said often, breaking the top off another muffin and biting into it like a cookie. She had a very laidback attitude about food, as if what anyone chose to eat had already been predestined. She said she wasn’t interested in converting people, to veganism in general or her cleanse in particular. Her products were only there for the people seeking to find them. She lived comfortably off the vanity of others, but without judgment or malice. This made sense to me. I ate worse than Grace Walker but still had the body I had. I preferred synthetic, packaged goods – I found the smell of preservatives comforting. Near Grace Walker’s place, there was a shady Asian take-out shop I liked, where I’d get spam fried rice, sweet and sour beef, packages of cake donuts and coke. I got it all to go; I couldn’t be seen there. To get me in and out quickly, the owners, a squat Korean couple, always had a brown paper bag ready to go for me in the fridge. They’d hand me the bag over the counter with a deep bow each time, saying, “Yes, spam inside.”
The Chef Grace job was demanding, being a 24-7 gig technically, but it had a lot of perks. I could save money for belly button surgery because rent was pretty much my only expense. Even that was subsidized. Grace Walker moved me into a studio in Malibu, her business mail address, and leased a sky blue Prius for me. I diligently drove that car all over the city to health-focused events and parties, carrying a glass bottle of green drink emblazoned with the Chef Grace logo. Which is to say, the Chef Grace job also did a lot for my social life. For the first time I had a circle of acquaintances and a small fandom on Facebook. I even acquired some male admirers. The problem was that the ones that asked me out were too perfect, always the lean, handsome model types, the kind that gave me the once over and decided I’d complement them nicely in Instagram photos. They zoned into me, their aesthetic match. I feared what would happen if they discovered my imperfection, if they’d feel cheated, if they’d ridicule me, if they’d take photos and post them on the internet.
Despite the fears, I occasionally brought one home. I was too lonely not to. I reasoned that maybe they had flaws too; I’d discover them once I got them naked. I first made the guys hand over their phones and zipped them in the side compartment of my purse. The men gave them up easily, once I suggested going to my place. They left their cars behind too.
“Visitor parking – It’s impossible to find in Malibu,” I’d say, speeding up the PCH. Once in the apartment I’d tell them to take their clothes off, and I’d undress myself. It was the best way, I found, of keeping them from trying to remove the belly chain. “Don’t touch it,” I said, slapping away one guy who went for the clasp. I remember him because he was a vegan bodybuilder, stronger than the rest of them.
“Feisty,” he said. He rubbed his hand and smiled, teeth gleaming.
“Don’t touch the jewelry, and we can do whatever you want.”
He stopped talking then, though he’d prattled the whole time we were undressing. “My whole life is about breaking stereotypes,” he’d said. “And misconceptions. This,” he’d flexed his chest, “is really the best comeback. I’ve had the best results with SunWarrior protein.” He swallowed hungrily, the tendons of his neck straining out like umbrella spokes. He took off his pants and turned around to show me his calves. I examined him carefully but aside from his personality, could find nothing wrong with him. My anxiety grew, tinged with despair.
“What do you hate about yourself?” I asked finally, once he was inside me.
“I don’t like animals,” he said in gasps. He was behind me. I had my hands against the wall, and he was pulling my hair. His voice sounded strained. “I don’t know why. Last week I hit a squirrel. I could have swerved, but I didn’t want to.”
The bodybuilder moved his hands up towards my waist, for a better grip. “Don’t touch the jewelry,” I said again, reaching back.
“It’s dangerous,” he whined. “I could snag it, by accident.”
“Don’t snag it,” I said, pushing him off. I told him to lay down on the floor and straddled him. I told him to play with my nipples. He reached up obediently and rolled them under his calloused thumbs. I think I was hurting him with my movements but he didn’t complain. He didn’t seem to notice we weren’t doing it his way anymore, the whole locker room scenario he’d laid out.
“What’s your secret?” he asked, teeth clenched.
“I eat meat,” I said.
He screamed then, coming. I slapped him hard, and he stopped.
He laughed eerily. “Eat pussy not pork,” he whispered. He was loopy and rambling, eyes glazed. “Avocado toast. Vegans taste better. Kale yeah.” Suddenly he yanked at the belly chain, breaking it. “Huh,” he said, touching the thin white scar. “Something’s missing here.”
Once Dune got used to my being around, he came out of his room more often and whipped Earth Balance while I talked. He did most of the baking. He was a great listener. I complained about the guys I’d been meeting. “I’m afraid of being my true self,” I said. “These guys, they’re so pretty on the outside. Like champagne flutes – tense and delicate and empty. If I revealed the center of my being, I think they might shatter. They might spray me with shards.”
Dune nodded carefully, and at that I prepared for the confused tangle of his mind. Later I found out Dune was mostly quoting from The Art of War, but at the time I thought him a gentle sage. “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity,” he said. “But high expectations disappoint us. The key is, remember, love is a type of war. Like the war against animals. What I’m saying is, don’t take your eyes off the long game. Or expect so much from the struggle. The greatest victory is that which requires no battle. Like me and Grace. Not you, Chef Grace, but Grace my wife. Two quiet souls but together we’ve been fierce warriors. Fierce but gentle, like the swan.”
“Thanks, Dune,” I said, blinking. “You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
“Thank you,” he said. “The student always becomes the teacher.”
Grace Walker’s business had one other employee, a pothead LA Valley College student called Chino, who delivered the liquids in his beat-up Dodge. I saw him some mornings, curled up in a dead sleep on Grace Walker’s rattan couch, muffin crumbs in his baby hair beard. The first time I saw him awake, he was scrolling through the Chef Grace Instagram feed, mostly me posing with my female fans.
“This one, the Asian girl,” he asked, awake but still prone on the couch. “Do you know if she’s single?”
“We can’t sleep with the clients,” I lied, and he nodded dutifully. He was stringy-haired, with sleep in his eyes. To give him a sense of possibility would have been cruel.
I liked Chino’s mellow vibe. I only saw him awake about once a month, but when I did, we had engaging conversations. For a guy whose days consisted of sleeping, sitting stoned through the occasional class, and schlepping soup at 3 am, Chino had an overwhelming gratitude for his life, as well as a vivid imagination. He had a lot in common with Dune in that way. I wondered what gave Chino his calm sense of belonging in the world, despite his gangly, adolescent appearance and dead-end job. I suspected the pot had to do with a lot of it. Chino said before meeting Grace Walker, he’d worked as a sign twirler and gotten bullied.
“How immature, that college students would still do that kind of thing,” I said.
“No, not them,” he said. “These were kids from Santa Monica High. Not really kids though. Seniors. Football players, I think.”
“Did they know you?”
“It’s possible,” he said. “I used to hang out at that school at night, with my friend Miguel, we’d just chill. He was the janitor there. This one time a group of kids came in the window and trashed the girls’ bathroom. We hid, you know, behind this one door, but I think they spotted us, they left like suddenly. I helped Miguel clean it up. I mean the bathroom hadn’t been cleaned yet, so it was like we had to. But I think maybe they didn’t like that. You know, they took my sign and threw it into the traffic. It got all dented.”
“Did they bully Miguel too?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Chino said. “Next time I went by the school he wasn’t there. I tried to talk to the new guy, but he said I was trespassing.” Chino stood up to imitate the janitor brandishing a mop, swinging it. “He called me a pervert.”
“That’s terrible,” I said.
“So aggro, you know? But it’s all good, because now I have this job. And it comes with free food and everything.”
Chino had adopted the Walkers’ baked goods diet wholesale. He also brought around his own microwave pot brownies, which Dune occasionally nibbled on, to be polite. Grace Walker and Dune were really accepting, compassionate people. If I seemed tired, they gently waved their arms over my body, to send me energy. They called this practice reiki sometimes and craniosacral therapy other times. At Christmas, Chino and I were each presented with a pink crystal necklace.
“We can always shift our vibration,” Dune explained, “for more love, joy, happiness. Chino, we can appear weak when we are strong, and strong when we are weak.”
“Yes, we must truly appear to embody what our customers want,” Grace Walker said. “Which you do, Chef Grace. I know I’ve told you this before, but I’m so grateful that you have this intuitive sense of what to put out there and what not to. You understand the value of a separate private life. You just get it.”
She used a reassuring tone, but her words alarmed me. She seemed to be encouraging me to keep my secret under wraps. Had she intuited my missing navel somehow? Had she figured out I wasn’t the vision of perfection she was paying me to be? I feared I wasn’t meeting her expectations as a member of the Chef Grace clan. Valentine’s Day was drawing near and I was nowhere closer to bringing home a fiancé. I feared a sudden day of reckoning.
To distract Grace Walker from my romantic failings and prove my worth to the business, I came up with my first promotion idea: The Chef Grace Challenge. I invited Instagram followers to do the 14-day cleanse – the longest one we offered – as a New Year’s resolution, then post before and after photos. The prize wasn’t much, just a PDF copy of the Chef Grace un-cookbook and a promise to repost the photos. But new orders went through the roof. Grace Walker sang my praises as my savings grew. Those first two weeks of the year were really the happiest days of my life.
Then the pictures started coming in. Most before and afters showed just modest changes, but a few were real transformations, shy chubsters turning into mini-skirted vamps. The most impressive was a sixty-year-old who went from looking like Kathleen Turner to Susan Sarandon. “It’s never too late to make a change!” the woman had written under her exuberant after photo.
Seeing that post shook Grace Walker up. “Do you think she photoshopped it?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I hope not.” We clicked over to the sixty-year-old’s Instagram account. The latest photos showed the newly svelte woman energetically walking her dog, standing arms-wide in front of a park fountain, sipping a green drink in a spotless kitchen. The photos were all tagged #chefgracechallenge #lovinglife.
It was better than an ad campaign. More and more orders poured in. But Grace Walker lost interest in her business success. She stopped complimenting me, and turned pensive. Then she went on the cleanse herself. Each day, she allowed herself three bowls of carrot turmeric soup, plus unlimited amounts of her green drink – kale and chard and apple blended with filtered water. The pounds dropped off her. At the same time, her personality turned sadder. The Chef Grace brochures warned about this, that the cleanse might temporarily make the cleanser depressed, angry, and fatigued while the body expelled all the artificial chemicals and gunk accumulated through the years of bad eating. Still, Grace Walker’s low mood alarmed me, especially when she kept going after the 14 days were up. She had more weight to lose, she said. I asked her if it was true what her brochures promised, that the cleanse was so nutritious dieters never felt hungry.
“Hunger is all in the mind,” she said, guzzling more green drink.
I only drank the stuff myself when I had to, for photo shoots or at events. I hated vegetables in general. When I confessed this to Dune, he revealed he hadn’t always been vegan. “But Grace, he who does not know the evils of war cannot appreciate its benefits. In that sense, life is a double-edged sword. To learn, you have to discover for yourself, to use your body as a tool. But in that discovery the tool is forever tainted. Though we have to believe, in penance, and in forgiveness too.”
“Forgiveness from the animals?” I asked.
“We are all animals. We can all fall like a thunderbolt. Grace, in your energy I can often sense your discomfort about this. Have you tried yoga?” I shook my head. “If things worry you, it may be you’re thinking too big. Great results can be achieved with small forces.”
I found Dune’s advice oddly soothing. Though indecipherable, it made me feel I might find a solution for my life, through a mysterious spiritual osmosis. I seriously deliberated over telling him about my missing navel. A part of me believed he would find a way to help me with it. But my pragmatic self could already hear the ensuing gibberish: “Focus within, Grace,” he’d say. “That is the only way you mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy. The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known.”
It wasn’t too long after this I went to see a plastic surgeon about umbilicoplasty. I wanted the best – If I was going to do it, it would be done right – so I looked up the Beverly Hills surgeon I’d seen on a Real Housewives episode. The surgeon looked at my scar, nodded, then left me in the room with a flip book of different types of belly buttons to pick from. Then an aging Barbie-like woman came in to ask if I had considered add-ons, lipo, or a tummy tuck.
“Do you think you’d ever get liposuction?” I asked Grace Walker later, then saw her expression. “I’m asking for me.” I pointed at my butt.
“I wouldn’t have hired you if I thought you needed lipo,” Grace Walker said in a soothing tone. “But okay, yes, I’ve thought about it. Not lipo, that’s for lazy people, but that surgery to get rid of loose skin. I keep having this dream lately, where I wake up and go to the bathroom and wash my face, then I look in the mirror and I have the head of a shar-pei. Then I’ll actually wake up and look in the mirror and I’ll see a clear resemblance, between the shar-pei me and the real me. Once, it wasn’t just my head, I was naked, and my whole body was that way, loose.” Grace Walker’s eyes teared up here. She waved away my attempt to interrupt. “I know you’ll say they’re just dreams, but the thing is, dreams always have an inner truth. I’ve been thinking, I’ve been living my real life like a dream. Meaning all my life, even before I met you, I’ve had this unrealistic image, when I pictured myself going about, I pictured someone who looked like you. The dreams are telling me to wake up, I’ve got to own up to myself, my own body. Yes, we are what we are, but we can be better, too. My clients have known this all along, but now I’m learning it. That’s what you’ve shown me. No, don’t apologize. None of this is your fault. You’ve been a goddess-send.” She dabbed her eyes.
It was true Grace Walker’s face had gotten looser; her body remained hidden under her frumpy clothes. Thinking her too fragile to be my confidante, I ended up telling Chino about my plans for surgery.
“Ten grand?” he said. “If I had that kind of money I would retire or something. Why would you want to get a belly button anyway? It doesn’t do anything. I mean, has anyone stopped you on the street and been like, girl, where’s your belly button?”
“People are polite. They don’t comment on that kind of stuff. But it doesn’t mean they don’t notice. Also, you can’t retire on ten grand.”
“Let me see, then.”
“No,” I said. “It’s private. No one touches the jewelry. I told you that.”
“I’m telling you, guys don’t care about belly buttons,” Chino said. “It’s like, the last thing they would ever think about on a girl.”
“Unless,” I said, “it’s not there.”
“I mean, what’s under there? Is it like, ugly or something? Even if it’s ugly, the rest of you is pretty, you can just tell your man to not look at that part. He’d be cool with that if he got the rest of it. Look – Just let me see it.”
“Don’t touch me,” I said. “No means no.”
“Think about what you could do with ten grand, Grace. You could do literally anything you wanted. Go to Madagascar. Go skydiving. Go on Jeopardy. Any guy would want to be with you just because of the money alone,” Chino said. “I mean, I know you said you haven’t saved it all yet. But if I had ten grand, probably the first thing I would do is I would quit school. The second thing, buy a new car, like a Jaguar or something. The third thing, medical marijuana business.” He remembered his brownies, and crumbled one from his pocket to his mouth. “And I’d be doing that not because I need the money, but because I just want to help people, make them happy, you know?”
That night I brought another guy home from a party, to give love another try. “We’re in Malibu?” he said, walking into my apartment. He’d sobered up, napping during the drive. When I’d met him he’d been sitting on his heels in a corner of the gallery, humming and rolling his eyes around and sipping a rancid-smelling cocktail made with something called Veev. He was at that stage of drunkenness where he didn’t care what people thought of him. This is what attracted me to him, that he’d be self-absorbed and unobservant. If I kept him in this state, maybe we could get married before he ever discovered the truth.
“I’ve already forgotten where I parked,” he said, looking around my place. He was a lot older than me, maybe early forties. “Do you, do they validate? I probably shouldn’t have been driving. I know I can seem sober when I’m really not. It’s an occupational hazard, for wine reps.”
“Shoes off on the carpet,” I said. “I drove.”
He slipped his loafers off. “I can’t remember if I told you, but I have a really early morning. Trying to sign this new restaurant. A really finicky one. Finally pinned the manager down on a time. Didn’t want to do it so early but he left me no choice. Sorry, embarrassing, but I don’t remember your name.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “No problemo.”
“Okay. Well, I’m Brad. Should I just – Do you want to – ” He shook his head. “I like your belly chain there.”
“You can look but you can’t touch,” I said. “Take off your clothes and lay down.”
“On the floor? Okay. I love women who can be direct. A real turn on. Hey, I remember the party now. Sorry, embarrassing, but I actually just walked into it off the street. Needed a few drinks and saw an open bar. What was it for?”
I went to the kitchen to grab a bottle of vodka. When he saw it, he shook his head. I stood over him and started dribbling it on his face, like I was gently waterboarding him. He started to swallow, choking a little. Soon after that he was the docile, semi-conscious drooler I’d met at the gallery. I scanned him, turning him over a few times, checking for third nipples, microtia, even crooked toes. But his body was perfect. Distraught, I decided to ugg him up. I scratched up his legs with my nail file and cut the hair on the right side of his head. “That feels good,” he said as I snipped.
“What do you hate about yourself?” I asked.
“What’s your name?” His head lolled sleepily. “Can I call you android girl? Beep beep,” he said, a finger pressing my jewel buckle.
Dune had warned me that high expectations disappoint us, yet I couldn’t keep myself from hoping, maybe even expecting, things would keep getting better. That’s how much optimism I’d developed as Chef Grace.
But Grace Walker died just before Valentine’s Day, from a heart attack. She passed out while blending soup; Dune came out his room to find her when the Vitamix kept running. Even then he couldn’t leave the house; he woke Chino, who rode the ambulance with the body. The doctors said Grace Walker’s heart had given out from a severe electrolyte imbalance. We held a little memorial service in the apartment once we got her urn of cremains, just me, Chino and Dune, who sprinkled bits of ash in various corners of the rooms before flinging the rest out the window in messy handfuls. It was a windy day. I imagined Grace Walker’s spirit whipping through the city streets, blending with the smog, turning the ocean sunset a brilliant butternut squash orange. Afterwards Dune handed out zucchini muffins, and we ate them solemnly, like we were sharing communion bread.
The business came to an abrupt halt. Dune processed credit card refunds and canceled recurring charges. Chino moved in and made more brownies. I got Facebook to memorialize the Chef Grace profile, then posted screenshots of that on all the other social media accounts. A confusion of comments followed, but none of us bothered to answer them, and email inquiries slowly dropped off. I dyed my hair black and let it dread to go incognito, though I didn’t plan to go to any more health or foodie events where I might run into former Chef Grace fans.
The Chef Grace clan broke up. “There are roads which must not be followed,” Dune said when I told him goodbye. “But after this, we can never be strangers again. Which is to say, Grace, try a different path. When I was at war I had the mindset of a soldier. But though I was at the bottom of the ranks, my attitude shouldn’t have been so simple, so black and white. Even when we think we have been coerced, there are choices, of intent and purpose. The key is, always visualize a bigger goal. That’s the lesson Grace my wife taught me.” He got Grace Walker’s extra Vitamix carafe and tucked it under my arm, though I didn’t own a base for it. “You inspired her, Grace. The night before she died, she told me that this new year had given her clarity for the first time, that she embraced that, even if it meant life felt like a new, sharp pain. You told me once, that you are shattering men. My advice about that is, let them shatter. Give yourself permission to focus just on healing yourself, all of yourself, from the very center radiating out.”
I paid for the umbilicoplasty with all my savings, then three years later, started getting fat. I got fatter than Grace Walker had ever been. My new belly button distorted and morphed and pinked, until it looked like a second vagina, placed horizontally on my protruding belly. That’s when I called Dune. I needed to hear a kind voice.
“I’ve tried so hard to heal myself,” I told him. “But I’m like bad fruit, still clinging on to the tree. There’s still so much to hate inside me, and now on the outside too. It’s like parts of me have ripened, have gotten too ripe, but other parts of me are still too green, not edible.”
“You’re not Grace,” Dune said. “Grace died.”
I thought about ending things then. But minutes after I hung up the phone rang, and it was Chino. He still lived in Grace Walker’s apartment; he got a monthly check from Veterans Affairs as a social worker and caretaker for Dune, who’d been declared incapacitated.
“We’re watching Jeopardy right now,” he enthused. “The category’s Before and After.”
So I’ve moved in too. True to his word Chino doesn’t mind, about the navel. Other parts are way more interesting, he says. And Dune – He still doesn’t remember me, but he’s peaceful about it. He’s taken to holding me in his sleep.