Skylar Rose Cumming signed the last of the lease documents for her new Mercedes C300 Coupe and was reminded once again of her unfortunate name. The jokes commenced in the fifth grade when some prepubescent schoolboy dusted off his father’s old Playboy magazine collection in the basement and discovered the word cum. The abuse and ridicule of having a pornographic surname haunted her well into adulthood, so she only used her full name on legal documents and introduced herself as Skylar Rose or simply Skye. As she drove off the Mercedes-Benz of Beverly Hills lot and inhaled that new car smell, Skye knew she had finally arrived. Not in Los Angeles, that happened fifteen years earlier after attending a nine-month program at the National Academy of Beauty Arts in St. Louis.
In September 1994, after returning to Omaha from St. Louis, Skye bid farewell to her mother, loaded up her Volkswagen Cabriolet full of clothes and curling irons and headed west with a heart full of excitement and a head full of dreams. Like most young girls who came to Los Angeles, she had no plan, no money and only a moderate amount of ambition. From the very first day she set foot on the star-studded sidewalks of Hollywood, she discovered image was everything. Whether an aspiring actress, a Beverly Hills housewife, or an executive assistant, you were nobody unless you looked like you were somebody. To play the part, Skye garnered the requisite Beverly Hills address (albeit a P.O. Box), joined a gym and mastered the InStyle “look for less.” Her closet overflowed with designer jeans in every conceivable wash and her prized possessions, a pair of red-soled Christian Louboutin pumps and a black Chanel box-shaped handbag, had their own shelf above a colorful sea of cheap clothes, uncomfortable shoes and knockoff bags. Her biggest investment by far was a pair of 34Ds she bought when American Express increased her limit. The only asset that didn’t break the bank was her Pamela Anderson hair. With its highlights, lowlights and infinite extensions, it was her trademark, and she did it herself. With all these trappings, she still didn’t rank without the ultimate L.A. status symbol: a brand-new leased Mercedes-Benz.
It seemed like only yesterday when Skye was reheating Thai food and scouring the L.A. Weekly for odd jobs like being a seat-filler for an awards show, a focus-group participant or a movie extra. After six months in L.A., she scored a gig as a makeup artist/hairstylist for a headshot photographer and signed on with a temp agency. She was a hairstylist/makeup-artist/temp, a slasher – a multivocational struggling artist who often had actor or actress on one side the slash and writer, director, producer, waitress, bartender or, occasionally, dog walker on the other side. After five years of spinning her wheels in L.A. and juggling low-paying jobs, she landed a full-time position with a venture capital firm. Ten years later, she was an executive assistant to the president at Pacific Capital, making over seven grand a month and expecting a nice cushy raise. She needed to celebrate. She needed a new car! But, having rung up over sixty grand in credit card debt from a decade of manicures, Botox injections and an ever-expanding wardrobe, this was not something she could accomplish on her own. After a respectable amount of negotiating, she convinced her mother to give her the down payment and cover the lease payments. No more parking a block away from restaurants to avoid embarrassment. As of today, she could pull right up to the valet, step out in her Louboutins and hold her head and Chanel bag high as she handed over the keys to her Mercedes.
“Thanks, Mom,” she said over the Bluetooth system of her new car, trying to convince the former stripper turned dry-cleaning maven that she had made the right decision. “You have no idea how important this is. People in L.A. practically live in their cars.”
“Why does it sound so echoey?” Glydia Cumming asked as she handed a customer a dozen lightly starched dress shirts on hangers. “Honey? Are you there?”
“I’m here,” Skye replied, fixing her makeup in the rearview mirror as she inched westward on Wilshire Boulevard in the midmorning traffic. “It’s the Bluetooth.”
“What about your tooth? Do you need another root canal? Because, I’m laundering shirts not money.”
“No, it’s…never mind.”
“It’s my daughter,” Glydia said to her customer. “The company gave her a Mercedes.”
Glydia told everyone who came into Starbrite Cleaners about her daughter’s success in Los Angeles. She stretched the truth a little. To her customers, Skye was an executive, not an executive assistant, and she had earned the Mercedes, not mooched off her mother for the lease payments. She wasn’t ashamed of her daughter. She just didn’t see the point in giving the snooty housewives who dropped their soiled designer duds on her counter the satisfaction of thinking they were better than her. Glydia was a single mother who raised her daughter on the road, living out of two suitcases: one filled with six-inch stilettos, glitter body spray and skimpy costumes, the other with stuffed animals, Dr. Seuss books and Barbie dolls. She had been an exotic dancer most of her adult life, doing the circuit tour of America’s finest small towns. It wasn’t until one of her regular customers discovered a very young Skylar sleeping in the back room during Glydia’s shift that her life achieved any semblance of stability. In exchange for a little companionship, this kind-hearted married man who became known to Skye as Uncle Ernie, taught Glydia how to manage her money and over a period of two years gave her enough cash to retire the glitter, pack up the suitcases and move to Omaha to open a small dry-cleaning business.