Through My Own Lens
Mickie B. Ashling © 2017
All Rights Reserved
Lowering his camera, Ian Carmichael squinted across the divide of harsh lights and eviscerated me with one question. “Do you always look like this, or did someone come in your mouth without your permission?”
Stunned by the unexpected attack, I struggled to catch my breath while deliberating my next move. I could throat punch the asshole—and get on the blacklist—or choose the high road and keep my dignity intact.
“Don’t just stand there, Red. Answer me when I ask you something.”
My pulse sped up, and I was tempted to walk out the door, but that would only prove I was an incompetent newbie. I decided to tough it out, but not until I had my say.
“First off, my name is Chyna Davidson, not Red, and you might consider rephrasing your question.”
Instead of backing down, Ian challenged. “What the hell kind of name is Chyna anyway?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but my mother was a fan of Wilson Phillips.”
“Forget it.” Clueless motherfucker.
“Listen up, kiddo. Once you’ve attained supermodel status, you can patent that insouciance, but at the moment, you’re nothing but a wannabe. Start making love to my camera or find another career.”
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Ian roared. “Pretend I’m your boyfriend and you’re craving some attention.”
Ooh, that did it. Yelling had never worked with me, and unfiltered words projected out of my mouth like vomit. “Dude, I have a boyfriend, and he gives me plenty of attention. And just so we’re clear, I’m not your bitch, so get over yourself. Fame doesn’t give you the right to be a first-class prick. You. Chose. Me. Stop acting like a bully and tell me what to do without insulting me.”
“Give me a goddamn break.” Ian turned his back and reached for one of several bottles of water he kept on the table piled high with camera lenses and filters. He drained the liquid in a few gulps while I stared at his backside, which, I had to admit, filled his faded jeans rather nicely. The world-renowned photographer, who’d begged for a fresh face to represent Armani’s next spring collection, knew damn well what he was getting when he requested my presence. I never said I was experienced, and instead of treating me with compassion, he was being an utter jerk.
Ian hollered for Melinda, my agent, who appeared at his side within seconds. She and her husband, Dan, owned Elite Plus, the Chicago-based agency who’d first discovered me.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, rubbing Ian’s back gently.
“Do something with your boy or get me a replacement.”
Hell no. I gnawed at my lower lip, terrified by the prospect of being fired on my first day of work. Ian was the most famous photog in Manhattan, the best of the best, or so I’d been told, and he wasn’t too hard on the eyes if one was into silver foxes, which I wasn’t, but that was beside the point. Making a good impression was the right move if I hoped to conquer the fashion world, but so far, this meeting had been a disaster. Ian tossed the empty bottle into a recycling bin and continued to glare at Melinda.
“I’m aware you have a deadline,” she conceded softly, “but honestly, Ian, a little sugar would go a long way to make this easier on our collective nerves. You wouldn’t have asked for Chyna if you didn’t believe he had potential.”
“I don’t have time to babysit,” he snapped.
“No one’s asking you to feed and burp the guy,” Melinda argued. “Chyna’s a natural, but he doesn’t know you or what you’re hoping to achieve. You’d get a lot more cooperation if you encouraged rather than criticized.”
“My God, woman! Do you have any idea how long it’s been since anyone asked me to adjust my attitude? I’m not the one with a problem. It’s your brat who needs a swift kick in the ass.”
I could feel my anger—and humiliation—rising again. My hands curled into fists as I got ready to punch Ian’s lights out.
“You’re the one acting like a diva,” Melinda shot back. “Chyna’s a hard worker with a lot of potential star power. It’s up to you to unleash the magic, not snuff it out with your craptastic posturing.”
Ian’s mouth gaped. I wondered how long it would take security to escort us out of the studio, and I was surprised—honestly flabbergasted—when it didn’t happen.
“Okay,” Ian agreed, backing down. “I’m willing to give this another chance, but I want to see more sass and less pouting.”
Nodding, Melinda acknowledged his request with a curt “Got it.”
She covered the short distance between us in a few determined strides, and I braced for whatever was coming next. Mel was fired up, willing to go the extra mile to ensure my success, but the responsibility now rested squarely on my shoulders. If I didn’t live up to her hype, I might as well pack it up.
My family would probably be relieved if I walked away, but Mel’s reputation was on the line, and I owed her big-time. When I walked into Elite Plus four years ago, I’d been passing for female, due in part to being born intersex, but mainly because of my mother’s irrational desire to have a daughter. Against all medical advice, and despite my fully formed male genitalia, she’d been raising me as a girl. Mel had seen through the charade and gently coaxed me into becoming my authentic self. She was more than my agent—she was my mentor and best friend. I couldn’t let her down after she’d put her reputation on the line for me.
“What an asshole,” I muttered. “He’s obviously too full of himself to mentor anyone.”
“I won’t deny it,” Mel whispered, “but Ian’s very much in demand. You’re lucky to be here.”
“Hon, you’ll have to trust me on this.”
“Put some enthusiasm into your smiles,” she began, “and own your beauty.”
“Sorry, but it’s difficult when he acts like I’m a waste of time.”
Mel gave me the look she usually reserved for gossipy tidbits. “He’ll never admit it, but I know Ian finds you attractive, and that’s a big plus right there.”
“How can you tell?”
“His nostrils flared when we walked in.”
Grinning, I turned in his direction and noticed him watching us. I quickly looked away. “He must be a Taurus or something.”
Mel smirked. “I’ve heard he’s hung like a bull.”
“Gross. Weren’t you the one who said a huge cock was overrated?”
“If it’s being shoved up my hole, but I never said they weren’t fun to look at,” she finished with a wink.
“He’s too old anyway.”
“Hon, he’s only thirty-nine. I know that in your nineteen-year-old world that’s ancient, but he’s actually a man in his prime.”
“Regardless,” I muttered. “He’s an insensitive pig.”
“Now’s not the time to assert yourself, Chyna. Give him what he wants, and when you get to the point where designers are fighting over you, then you can tell him to kiss your ass.”
“You honestly think he’ll be more cooperative after your lecture?”
“I do,” Mel nodded. “Now turn on the awesomeness.”
She returned to her side of the room to watch me do my thing.
I did my best to get into a better headspace by thinking of Luca. Ian wasn’t too far off the mark with that suggestion. My boyfriend’s mixed heritage—Italian and Filipino—had blended perfectly, producing a black-haired, doe-eyed stud with the most kissable mouth this side of the Atlantic. Melinda was dying to represent him and had begged him to pose for a few head shots, but Luca always refused. He wanted to be an architect and join the Chicago-based firm founded by Lil Lampert, his stepfather, and his dad, Grier Dilorio. Someday it would be Lampert, Dilorio & Son, which was why Luca was in Ithaca instead of observing my photo shoot.
The issue of college had been debated over the last eighteen months. Lil had pushed for Stanford, his Alma Mater, but Luca reminded his stepfather that Cornell had a great architectural program, and it was closer to Manhattan than Palo Alto would ever be. Staying close to me had been Luca’s main objective, and there was nothing anyone could say to change his mind. Thank fuck. I didn’t know what I’d have done if he’d caved and gone West. Chip, my twin, and Luca’s best friend, had stayed in Illinois. He and his girlfriend, Meghan, were enrolled at Northwestern University. They’d been a couple throughout high school, and we all knew they’d go to the same college. They planned to marry before he moved on to med school.
The immediate concern—mine and everyone else’s—was seeing if I was going to make it as a model or join Luca at Cornell, where I’d taken a one-year deferment. I was finally standing in front of a camera after delaying my career for a couple of reasons. I had to finish high school, for one thing, and, more importantly, I needed to come to grips with my gender dysphoria. My foster parents—who were best friends with Luca’s parents—hadn’t been comfortable sending me off to New York on my own until my issues were thoroughly resolved. Through months of intense therapy, and Luca’s support, thoughts of transitioning to female were slowly being put to rest. I’d been living life as a male for the last three years, and getting used to it, mostly, but like everything else in my convoluted life, embracing my authentic self was a work in progress.
Now and then, I’d fall back into femme mode, applying makeup, slipping on a silky chemise, and pulling up lace panties rather than boxers. At first, the incidents left me confused, so I stomped on the urge, but when Luca assured me that it wasn’t a problem and, in fact, he found it sexy as hell, I put a lid on my fears and embraced that side of my nature. For fifteen years, I’d been pretending I was female, and short of having a lobotomy, I couldn’t forget the simple pleasure I derived from satin, eye shadow, and high heels.
Casting off all fears of rejection had been the biggest plus in my newly formed world. Luca had fallen for me when I was posing as female, and when it was revealed—in the ugliest most dramatic way possible—that I had a penis, and not the vagina he’d been expecting, Luca reassured me that his love went beyond body parts. It had been a defining moment in my life, and the unconditional support I’d received from the people that mattered the most had enabled me to move past the shame. I stepped into my new role as Luca’s boyfriend and Barrington High School’s first male cheerleader with pride.
The major problem these days was finding the time and place to meet. Aside from geographical constraints, there were work and school commitments to contend with. Both of us were overachievers. I wanted to prove modeling was a good fit for me, and Luca had to figure out how to balance school, football, and our relationship. Something would suffer if we didn’t learn how to manage our time.
Future goals aside, we were totally bummed out by our first separation in four years. Since the beginning of high school, we’d seen each other almost every day. Finding private time hadn’t been easy, but we’d managed a few special moments once we worked out parental schedules. This current separation was going on four weeks, and it felt like an eternity. Phone sex had been fun in the beginning, but it was getting old. I was perpetually horny, and right then, the idea of sex with Luca sent a signal straight to my cock. Heat crept up my neck and my cheeks felt like they were on fire. Adjusting myself, I caught Ian staring at my crotch and smirking.
“Thinking of your man does great things to your complexion,” he leered.
“Shut up.” I was mortified for being called out.
Ian hooted. “Did I hit it on the nail?”
I flipped him the bird but couldn’t hide my smile.
“Jesus, you’re gorgeous when you drop the mask,” Ian muttered to himself as the camera whirred and clicked a zillion shots per second. “Shake your hair out, kiddo, and look dazzling.”
I raked my long hair with both hands, the one constant in my ever-changing world. Luca loved my hair, twirling the strands around his fingers when we talked or tugging on my ponytail to get my attention. Ian seemed to dig redheads as well. It was empowering, and the idea of reducing the snarky photographer into my lapdog gave me a small measure of satisfaction. Ian circled, angling the camera to get a better shot, coming close one minute and backing up the next.
“Take off your tie,” he purred. “Unbutton your shirt so I can see some of that fuzz.”
I did as I was told, in slow motion of course, moving my gaze down Ian’s body and resting them on the bulge that had grown more noticeable in the last ten minutes. I licked my lips and Ian went nuts.
“That’s it, kiddo. Look at me and say ‘do me’ like you mean it.”
That made me pause. Should I object or go with the flow now that peace had been restored? His suggestion made me feel dirty, and I was tempted to shoot him down, but I let it slide. Next time Ian crossed the line, I’d knee him in the nuts.
After what seemed like hours, the camera stopped whirring, and Ian gave me an enthusiastic nod of approval. “You rock, kiddo. Let’s go and have a drink to celebrate.”
“I’m not legal.”
“Right,” he said, chuckling. “How about if you have a virgin whatever while Melinda and I have our grownup drinks?”
“Nice. Just when I thought you were a decent guy, you had to go and fuck it up with that comment.”
Ian snorted. “Don’t worry, Chyna. I’m a regular at the bar, and it won’t be a problem to slip you a beer.”
“Actually, I don’t like the taste of beer.”
“We’ll find something you do like.” Ian promised.
“Okay.” Maybe modeling wasn’t that hard when you had the photog eating out of your hand. With success on my mind, and nothing else, I agreed to join him and Mel.
“I have to pass,” Melinda said. “But you should go with Ian.”
I’d known Mel long enough to know she wanted me to accept the invitation and continue bonding with Mr. Wonderful. The photo shoot had ended on a high note, and sealing our partnership with a friendly drink must have been SOP in the industry. Refusing him would be tantamount to saying I didn’t trust him. I hesitated for another second, and I could see panic written all over Mel’s face. Hopefully Luca wouldn’t flip out when I recounted my day. He had a jealous streak a mile wide, but this was my business, and staying on Ian’s good side could only mean better jobs in the future.
“Okay,” I decided. “Lead the way.”
“Great,” he said, giving me the first genuine smile since I’d met him. Mel seemed relieved by my decision and promised to call me later.
Ian took me to a bar about five blocks away, and after we got settled, he ordered a salty dog for himself and a tequila sunrise for me. My fruity beverage came in a tall glass with an orange slice and cherry stuck to the rim. I chowed down the garnish because I was ravenous, and when I took my first sip of the drink, I was relieved the booze was masked by the tangy orange juice. If I had been savvier, I would have nursed my drink, instead of gulping it down like a thirsty camel, but that’s exactly what I didn’t do. Ian lifted his hand when my glass was empty and a fresh drink appeared out of nowhere. This time they added a plate of cut-up bagel dogs and mini pizzas. I pounced on the food and shoved an entire pizza in my mouth.
Ian raised a brow. “Hungry much?”
Embarrassed, I tried explaining around a mouthful of cheesy dough. “Haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.”
“Neither have I,” Ian said, “but I’m used to it. You’ll soon learn that a proper breakfast, with the right amount of protein and carbs, is what will carry you through the day. Lunches are a rare event in our industry. I don’t want you to fall back on coffee and cigarettes like most of your peers. Malnutrition will make you break out, and it’ll add years to your appearance. It’s not a good look on anyone, especially a model.”
“Is that a common thing in this industry?” I asked, reaching for a bagel dog. I’d been blessed with a great metabolism and could usually eat anything I wanted without gaining an ounce.
“Eating disorders are rampant,” Ian said with a moue of disgust, “as well as alcohol and drug abuse. You have to work on your inner strength to keep those demons at bay.”
“I’m not addicted to anything,” I pronounced. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“What about success?” Ian asked.
I stopped midchew and blinked at him.
“The need to be number one is also an addiction, Chyna. People do crazy things to get ahead. Learn how to find the right balance, or you’ll crash and burn.”
“Right,” I said, drawing out the word. He was staring at me like he could see into my soul. If Ian only knew the shit I’d overcome to get to this point, he’d realize I would do anything to succeed in this world.
After stuffing my face, I’d sobered up enough to risk taking the subway home, even though Ian suggested Uber. I didn’t want him to think I was a lightweight. Despite our rocky start, I could tell he had years of wisdom to impart, and once the snarky prima donna was put aside, he wasn’t so bad. His opinion mattered, and I intended to stay on his good side.
We bro-hugged at the top of the subway entrance, and he walked away without a backward glance. I headed down the stairs, jostling with hundreds of tired commuters, determined to get a seat for the twenty-minute ride uptown. Luck was on my side, and I was able to slide into a chair as soon as I stepped on. I stuck in my earbuds and started my playlist. It was always the same set, the ones they’d played the night of my senior prom. Memories of that special time materialized with each song, and as I listened to Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and Rihanna. I closed my eyes and remembered.