Yassa Martin & Me
by Kyra Baldwin
Should the story have pictures? Well, it’d be better if it did. I could give you the one of her at the Met Gala, wearing a bright pink tutu and a Guy Fawkes mask. The theme was The Internet; she had bangles made of old Dell keyboards that slid down to her elbows and bunched like tourniquets. If you look past her, you can just see my shoulder and a bit of my beard in the top corner.
There are better photos of us, like the one of her climbing out of an SUV in Venice where I’m holding an umbrella. I must’ve said something to make her laugh because she’s looking up at me with a huge grin. The rain blurs around us in vignette. I would like to remember what I said.
Or the one of us on Bond Street where she’s wearing a giant sweatshirt and high heels and talking on the phone. I trail three feet behind carrying pastel shopping bags. Nobody knows who she’s talking to but me. It’s her mother. She asked Yassa to thank me for keeping her daughter safe every time they talked.
I like the Met Gala photo because of its secrecy. Everyone knew who Yassa was and no one knew who I was except Yassa. Yassa knew I was somewhere, watching, waiting, poised like a Doberman through a chain-link fence. I liked to think I made her calm enough to do what she needed to do for the world, which was be very charming. I can’t imagine having to be that charming. That’s why I carried the gun. Haha.
No, I won’t say anything cruel about her, I only agreed because I want to tell my side of the story. Be honest. Do you think there’s a chance she’ll read this?
People get confused and think they have to like all of somebody or none of somebody. They think if you like the way the president dresses, it means you stand by everything he’s ever said and done. That’s not true. You have to take people by each little slice they give you.
I learned this because I had a lot of bullies growing up. There was always something nice about them even if they never sent it my way. Like Jake Holden. Jake was really funny. In the 5th grade, he discovered that my name, Cameron, could be shortened to Cam, which if you then followed with my last name, O’Bramh, gave a near-perfect rhyme for Mammogram. Although this hurt my feelings and I went by Mammogram until graduation, I’ll admit it’s funny. Jake’s mom died of breast cancer the following year. Hilarious.
I like to think my bullies saw something nice in me too, even as they dared disgusted girls in floral dresses to dance with me at school formals and cut the soles from my shoes during gym class so they flapped like a duck’s mouth. I knew that Mike Washington was great at math, so I hope he knew that my teeth really were that straight despite never having braces. I knew Lauren Zanieski was the first girl to become an altar server in her church, so I hope she knew that there was a big, beating heart in my chest waiting for someone to love it. I was an ugly kid. It wasn’t my features exactly, but rather the mechanisms and mannerisms that shifted them into motion. I had a slack-jaw, giving me the appearance of someone always ogling and leering. The corners of my mouth were bright red and cracked. My eyebrows were straight, unarched minus signs until puberty. I didn’t look like a child. I looked like a pervert in miniature. Maybe that’s why I went unloved by my peers. I became good looking later on. I joined the military straight out of high school and muscle turned my lanky frame into something slick and coherent. I enlisted because I’d gotten so good at getting bullied, I thought, why not try it professionally? For five years, my days were filled with so many assigned tasks, I never had time to think or feel. When I honorably finished up my duty, I set out to find the same sort of unthinking.
The Turret Security Agency was looking for veterans. The head of the company had an office that was one-way glass so she could see everyone who worked for her but they couldn’t see her.
“You don’t happen to be a fan of the show The Songstress, do you?” she asked.
I did not. It was some kind of reality show where aspiring girl singers all under twenty-five sang in front of actualized singers for a chance to win $100,000. I was assigned to a competitor who had just been eliminated. “Why does she need a bodyguard then? You know, if she’s a loser.” Melissa explained that the winners of reality shows are rarely the most famous because usually they’re the most boring. The losers have more personality.
When I got home, I typed “Yassa Martin” into Google.
I had never liked art. Music was background noise and language was a public utility like a subway system. If you had asked me what the most beautiful place in the world was, I would have said Sharper Image. I liked the clean, uncomplicated lines of printers and back massagers and humidifiers. I didn’t hate paintings or books or movies, I just didn’t think about them. I learned them like I learned the branches of the government: neutrally and forgetfully.
I clicked the first link I saw. The host was a square-jawed man in a navy blue suit. He stood backstage and smiled with all his teeth.
“Now for her fourth performance, singing another original song, Yassa Martin!”
The stage was black and the audience seemed to collectively inhale. Then FLASH! There stood Yassa in hot pink leather pants that matched her hot pink hair. She winked at the camera, then she sang.
Bully this, bully that
You think I’m just a kitty kat
You don’t know what I have inside
I’m a lioness and it’s bona fide
So hurt me now and hurt me then
Dare you to step into my den
I was in shock. These words pressed me to the bone. This girl was belting a truth I swore belonged to me. Someone held up a “YASSA QUEEN” sign. Tears blurred my vision until Yassa was a fuchsia smear and I had to restart the video before I missed anything. For the first time, I understood music.
I met Yassa two days later at a medium-sized venue in the Meatpacking district. I was shaky and sweaty, but she still smiled in my direction when her agent introduced us. She wasn’t famous yet, but she’d garnered a small following by being the only songstress to perform original songs. Everything else was just covers. I had no respect for that.
She was opening for a boy band called X-Press. I watched her closely as she peeked out from backstage at the multiplying teenagers. She shook her head and whispered something to herself. She looked nervous, like a fourth grader at a talent show. She looked approachable.
“Hey,” I yelled. She startled. I realized I had no plan.
“I just wanted to let you know that everything looks safe, uh, and secure.” I nodded.
“Oh. Thanks!” She started laughing. At me?
“Sorry, Miss Martin. I’m new to this.”
I started to walk away and stumbled over duct-taped wires.
“Wait. I’m sorry. I just can’t believe I have a bodyguard.”
She was looking up at me with wide, enameled eyes, like someone would at a great monument. I realized I was a timestamp of success for her. This thrilled me.
“I have to get dressed,” she pushed her middle-parted hair behind her ears. Then she reached out and squeezed my shoulder. “It’s Cameron, right? Thank you so much for taking care of me, Cameron.”
Her performance that night was incredible. She opened, yes, but she was the main event. By the end, people were standing and screaming her name (no seats, but still). Later in the show, she was invited to sing a song with X-Press. She harmonized every chorus with Benny Luzo, lead singer. As they sang, he slowly moved closer towards her like a striptease. The fans lost their minds when he finally put his hands on her hips.
I waited by the back exit for Yassa after the show. I watched her fans through the window panel of the door, screaming YASSA WE LOVE YOU and ARE YOU DATING BENNY. There were so many of them! She was so beloved! It made me shiver.
When Yassa approached, I quickly put myself together and asked her if I could put my arm around her.
“Makes it easiest to get through the crowd, Miss Martin, but its no problem if it makes you uncomfortable. I–”
“–You’re too polite, Cameron. We’ll have to loosen you up.”
I felt the goosebumps prickle my arms and thanked God a blazer was covering them. I didn’t want her to think I was a certified creep. I felt almost guilty letting her fold herself into me as we pushed open the door, dodging and ducking hands and phones and pens.
We’d almost made it to the car when I felt her pull away. My head rushed with blood. Who dare try to take her from my protection? I was reaching for my holster and assuming the absolute worst–you know, some trench-coat Hinckley Jr. holding a knife to her throat for not responding to his cum-covered letters fast enough–when I looked up and saw Yassa bouncing a little girl on her hip. The kid was around five and dressed in tiny pink pants and a tiny pink wig.
She caught my rattled expression and mouthed SORRY. But how could I be upset? She was holding a child in her arms. I wasn’t upset. I was madly and irreparably in love.
Yassa didn’t turn into a star overnight, but the X-Press performance certainly propelled things. She was offered a deal with their label and started recording a debut album. Boxes of free stuff began showing up at her apartment: lipstick, designer sweatpants, water bottles, weighted blankets. She hired an assistant who hired an intern to sort through it all. A photo of her dropping an iced latte, the plastic cup inches from the ground, even went minimally viral online after being featured in some Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us! section. I’m actually in this picture too, my arm extended, reaching uselessly for the gravity-bound coffee. She was wearing white suede shoes that day. Disaster.
I went with Yassa everywhere. I had purpose for the first time. I picked her up at 9am each day and brought her to the recording studio. There, I stood in the corner with my arms crossed like Mr. Clean. I tried to look intimidating, even as her syrupy smooth voice filled the room and made me feel faint. We stayed there till 7pm most days, after which I took Yassa home. She usually fell asleep in the car.
Yassa and I didn’t really talk much. But sometimes, when she was addressing someone else, she’d look right at me. This happened especially when she was frustrated, at her producer or her assistant or the label’s publicist. They’d be arguing over something, like she wanted all the text on the album to be lowercase. She’d be saying everything to them, like I want the visual experience to be as jarring and unclear as possible Mark, but she’d be making eye contact with me.
One day, towards the end of recording, she asked me to sit next to her on the ride home. By now, she was using a car service and I usually sat shotgun with her driver.
We quietly stared out the windows for a few minutes until she spoke.
“You want to hear something funny I overheard the other day? I was in the bathroom and
Mark’s assistant came in talking to another assistant, completely fucking oblivious to anyone in the stalls. And they were talking about you! Apparently, Mark’s assistant thinks you’re cute. So the other one says, ‘Isn’t it weird that Yassa lets him into her recording sessions?’ And the other one was like, ‘Yeah I’ve never seen that with bodyguards before, everything’s usually on lockdown.’ So then she says, ‘It means they’re fucking, doesn’t it?’ And they just started dying. So I flushed and came out and now neither of them will make eye contact with me. Isn’t that funny?”
I don’t think anyone had ever given me so much information at once.
“Oh my god, Cameron! Don’t glitch out or anything. I keep you there because you make me feel safe. That’s all. When I feel safe, I can do anything.”
After that night, I didn’t sit in the front anymore.
Yassa’s debut dropped. It was titled “scream ur truth” and it reached number four on the charts. Yassa, who had sworn to herself she wouldn’t have so much as a sip of communion wine until her album was finished, started going out every night. So I started going out every night, stone cold sober of course. With the substances and sycophants flying around, Yassa needed me more than ever.
I was like a beefeater in these clubs. Unflappable, stoic, high-headed. Sometimes people would try to talk to me, buy me a drink, ask me to buy them a drink, but I wouldn’t respond. I kept Yassa in my crosshairs, bulleting in when someone got too friendly or she got too stumbly. Then I’d get her into the Escalade. On the way home, she’d demand we play 96.5 so we could see if any of her songs were on. If she was really drunk, she’d pass out. My favorite nights were when she slumped over, too exhausted to realize her head was in my lap.
Yassa’s star was growing fast and I was made head of her security detail. Three more guards were added to the rotation and I was in charge of training them. I hadn’t realized Yassa was Turret’s most high-profile client until I saw how happy my boss was. I guessed this made me Turret’s most high-profile employee.
Everything was great. In the mornings, I’d play the title track of scream ur truth while shaving, hard-boiling eggs, brushing my teeth. I’d try to internalize her lyrics. I mean, I’d watched her write them, sitting hunched over tables and desks, biting her lip and scribbling into the sticker-covered journal she carried everywhere. I’d seen her work, sweat, and toil over these words.
I know you have something to say
Don’t hold back, Don’t hold back
Hit me up like today
Don’t backtrack, Don’t backtrack
Bae I’ll listen always
I dreamt that one day I’d be the living embodiment of her lyrics. That I’d have important, burning things to say and I would always say them. No matter what.
One night, Yassa went on the Tonight Show. The thin host laughed uproariously at everything she said and the audience took their cues. Her dress was golden gate orange, tight at the top but draped loose below her breasts. It was like maternity wear. It made me imagine Yassa pregnant, flushed, and needy. Maybe she drank too much. That wasn’t good for babies. Maybe I should say something.
After the show, she was buoyant. She clung to my arm in the cold and re-told the same story she’d told the host. When we got in the car, she demanded we go to 3 TREE because she loved what she was wearing and wanted more people to see it.
“But you hate that place, Miss Martin.”
So did I. Everyone was self-consciously rich.
“I need to celebrate Cam!”
“But why go somewhere you hate? We could go to Canoe, or Mother, or Barcelona. We could even go home. Tomorrow–”
“–Cam, I’m meeting someone there, chill.”
Benny freaking Luzo. Playboy Christian. Public Playboy and Christian. How can someone be both? When did it become cool to do blow in nightclub bathrooms all week and then apologize for it in a megachurch every Sunday? I didn’t get it. People were bad or good. This third category of being bad and then apologizing for it before being bad again made no sense to me. But that was Benny Luzo. His solo album, Hellelujah, had just come out to smashing success. On the car ride to the club, Yassa gushed that it was the first Christian Pop album to reach number one on the charts ever.
When we got inside, Yassa turned frantic. He wasn’t there, no one had seen him. I hadn’t seen her nervous since the first night I met her. Yet here she was, practically on the verge of tears over some greasy loser.
“Cam, do you see him? You’re taller than me.”
“I don’t think he’s here, Miss Martin.” She grabbed my arm.
“You–you don’t think someone would stand me up, would they?”
She looked so helpless. My annoyance melted and I saw her as she was. Stubborn, perfect.
“Miss Martin, you are so much better than him. Don’t you think for one second–”
Just then, the song changed and a roar erupted. The floor vibrated with the opening bass of Hellelujah. Benny Luzo’s entourage had strutted in and they were headed straight for Yassa.
Benny began coming everywhere with Yassa. We’d pick him on the way to the studio or a show or an interview. I tried to carry on business like usual, always climbing into the backseat with the two of them. He couldn’t scare me off because I was there for Yassa. Who was he there for? Himself.
He called me “Boss”. Like, Yo Boss, do you mind checking if the car is outside? Ay Boss, does this place have room service? I tried to give him as minimal an answer as I could, which he seemed to find amusing. He didn’t even have a bodyguard. He used to but decided he could “handle himself”.
One morning, about two weeks into him and Yassa, Benny and I found ourselves in her kitchen waiting for her to finish putting on makeup. Benny was fixing himself a bowl of Rice Krispies. I was trying to ignore the crackling sounds, when Benny suddenly looked up at me like he had an idea.
“Hey Boss. I just gotta say, I really appreciate how much you care about my girl.”
His girl? It took everything in me not to poke three fingers into his chest and ask him who the heck he thought he was.
“But we were talking and she thinks we need some privacy. We think you should sit upfront in the car going forward.”
What was he saying? I wanted to bust open the door to Yassa’s room and tell her what he’d said. She’d come out furious, betrayed, tell him to never talk to her again. I thought about what it’d be like if I wore a tape recorder all the time. I could pull her aside later, say get what this jabroni said, and show her. She’d laugh her head off, be furious, betrayed, tell him never talk to her again. What if I just let things happen organically? We’d get downstairs and I’d climb into the front seat. She’d say, Cam, what are you doing? So I’d say, Oh, your boy-toy told me I’m up here now. She’d start laughing. She’d be furious, betrayed, we’d say never talk to us again.
But when we got to the street and I climbed into the front seat, Yassa didn’t say anything.
She started being different, you know. Like, she picked up this habit of talking about her fans with contempt. Her fans had made everything happen, they’d given her an album, her swanky high-rise, her VMA astronaut, me. I know she got this from Benny because I’d heard him do it. The fans, who she’d always called her crumpets and to whom she’d attributed every last cent and headline, were suddenly “in the way” and “too obsessed” and should “take a Xanax.”
And she stopped looking at me, stopped talking to me, stopped acknowledging I existed. Sure, I was mad at her. But I need you to know, I never lost sight of my duty. Even when she pushed me aside for some jerk, I protected her nobly.
Her and Benny were planning a joint tour, like they were children sharing a birthday party. Everyone was pumped and tickets sold out at $400. Big deal, big time, we all freaking made it.
The Friday before the tour was to start, Benny, Yassa, and Benny’s entourage headed to 3 TREE for a celebratory romp. It was like most nights there, everybody looking at them and them pretending everybody wasn’t looking at them. I stood fifteen feet off, nursing a seltzer, watching them cuddle. Yassa traced her finger around Benny’s nose and smiled. It wasn’t a real smile though; it was close-lipped, conciliatory. I knew her well enough to know that. He bent forward and whispered something in her ear.
Yassa pulled away. I’d never seen her do that before. She looked disgusted. He grabbed her wrist, but she got up. Benny rolled his eyes like it was her fault, before following her towards the bathroom. My feet started moving. He reached for her hand and she shook him off again. I was getting angry. He tried to pull her in again and I heard her inhale sharply.
I had punched him before I realized what I was doing. Then I heard a bone crack on his face and I kept punching him, knowing what I was doing. Someone grabbed my shoulders and hit me and I fell back. When I opened my unstruck eye. I saw Yassa bent over Benny like Florence Nightingale.
“Cam. What the FUCK?” I thought she was in shock so I tried to explain.
“He grabbed you so–” “
–It’s none of your business!” Her voice was hoarse and strained. Benny started laughing, blood spouting out of his mouth.
“What the fuck, man. What the fucking fuck.”
I knew I’d acted honorably, but I felt my face growing hot. A small crowd had gathered and I could see the white light of recording phones.
“Miss Martin, I’m your BODYguard, you know. I protect your body and–”
“–Are you okay, babe? Do you need ice?”
Yassa wasn’t even listening, too busy stroking Benny’s hair.
“He’s in love with you Yass, I fucking told you.” Benny was trying hard to sound amused.
“He fucking is.” She looked up at me for the first time.
“You’re not, right Cam?”
I wanted to lie. It killed me that the truth was coming from Benny Luzo instead of me. But I looked at her round face and her pink lips and it was almost as if she was mouthing the words of scream ur truth to me. I started to sing.
I know I have something to say
Won’t hold back, Won’t hold back
Hit you up like today
Won’t backtrack, Won’t backtrack
Bae I’ll love you always
Well, you know, she fired me. She had to for the optics, so I forgive her. There’s not much I wouldn’t forgive Yassa Martin for. That’s why I hope she reads this, because I know in my heart of hearts there’s still a chance.
They have T-Shirts. Have you seen them? They say “Team Hot Bodyguard” and “Benny LUZER”. I have my supporters. They’re great and they’ve shown me lots of love through this whole thing. I think I have more fans than Benny does, which matters. Yassa cares what people think.
So do I. It’s one more thing we have in common.
Kyra Baldwin‘s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Reductress, X-RAY, Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Hobart. https://kyrabaldwin.com/
Photo credit: Claus Grünstäudl/Unsplash