Day tumbled into night tumbled into party time. I could barely change my shoes fast enough to keep up. When we dressed for the party, I chose my best suit because it was sexy and was actually the most expensive item of clothing I owned. I hoped it might inspire some confidence.
Destiny, Serena, and I waited for Ari in the foyer. As I grew accustomed to it, the house was looking less like a palace and more like a banquet hall. I pictured a gaggle of bridesmaids posed on the staircase. But it was just the three of us, facing each other awkwardly, tallying up each other’s flaws and assets as we waited for Ari’s entrance. I figured that over Destiny and her acrylic claws, I had looks but not wildness. Over Serena and her china-doll eyes, I had smarts but not looks.
Serena leaned against a column opposite me. She was the blonde and I was the brunette. In the world of musical theater, she would be the soprano and I the alto. I was the one with the big ass who played her lines for laughs. Serena was the slender-waisted ingenue who got the guy in the end. I was Rizzo and she was Sandy. I was Ado Annie and she was what’s-her-name in the surrey. We faced off until, with a subtle shift in posture, she dismissed me as not much of a threat. One thing Sandy always forgets is that Rizzo has the best song in the show.
The palace was too far to walk, so we drove the golf carts that were parked in our carport. Ari drove with Destiny and I hopped on with Serena, who silently steered through the winding, lit pathways, past the pools and tennis courts and palm trees. The air was humid and thick with the fragrance of tropical flowers. Not an hour out of the shower, I already felt sticky. My head raced with plans. I would make the best of my time here. I would improve my tennis game. I would get a tan. I would lose weight. And maybe I would even make a prince fall in love with me and my whole life would change in dazzling and unexpected ways. I longed for a magic pill to soothe the restlessness that prickled constantly under my skin. I’m not sure what made me think I’d find it in Brunei, but
Up close the palace reminded me of a picture I had seen once of Hearst Castle, on the California Coast. There were gold domes, columns, and twin marble staircases that curved like ribbons up to the main entrance.
“We normally go in the side because it’s less of a hike, but I want you guys to see the entrance hall,” said Ari. “I think you’ll like it.”
We were breathing hard when we reached the top of the stairs. We entered a cavernous cathedral of a room with a fountain at the center. I felt like I had walked onto the set of some 1930s MGM movie version of Salome. Surely a flock of harem-pants-clad showgirls was about to descend the stairs and launch into a Busby Berkeley dance number.
“It’s all real,” said Serena.
“Like, the gold in the carpet is real gold. That ruby is a real ruby,” she said, pointing at a ceramic tiger that stood near the fountain. The tiger held in its mouth a round, red stone the size of a tennis ball.
I spotted what looked like a Picasso directly across from the front door — also real, I assumed. We followed Ari around a corner and there, where a hallway bisected the main foyer, a Degas ballerina sculpture stood on a pedestal, a little girl cast in bronze. She clasped her arms behind her back and pushed her chest out defiantly, her foot thrust in front of her in third position. It looked exactly like the one that I had loved visiting as a child, when my father would take me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on special Sundays to wander the wondrous galleries and then stuff ourselves with hot dogs on the steps. Each visit we chose a different gallery. We sat on a bench in front of a giant Jackson Pollock and looked for charging bulls and blooming irises and skywriters hiding in the paint splatter. We crossed our eyes and tried to reassemble the figures cut to pieces by Picasso. We stood washed in light next to the enormous wall of windows that faces the Temple of Dendur and told stories of time travel. But at the end of the day we always visited my Degas ballerinas, numinous and frozen in time, pinned like butterflies to the wall.
When she caught me staring at the sculpture, Ari told me that Robin [the prince of Brunei] was an avid art collector. He had countless walls to decorate. Robin owned other palaces where he lived, still others where his three wives lived, whole office buildings where he conducted business, and hotels and estates in Singapore, London, and Los Angeles. But Ari informed me that some of his favorite art was right here. We were standing in the palace where he unwound every night, his sunny pleasure dome.
“Come on,” she said, with a hint of trepidation. “Let’s go in.”
We were so close I could have walked up and touched the Degas. In fact, I felt an overwhelming compulsion to do just that. I made a note to try to sneak back and do it sometime later. Like people touch the feet of Jesus on the Pietà and hope for a blessing, I would touch the feet of the dancer and hope for grace.
Photo: Matt Hoyle for LA Weekly
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