I parked in a lot and downed a fun-size bottle of Chivas I'd snagged at a Stuff Magazine party the night before. Went over my questions. One hundred degrees on the sidewalk, and I was about to go stand there for two hours, stuffed in a spot, waiting for the talent to arrive. I wasn't a paparazzi. God no, I had to dress up. I had to look the part, and I certainly didn't scream out, "Hey Jennifer! Show us your front!" I had class.
The shaking started as I walked over to the carpet, as the bodyguards looked at me and had me nailed a mile away. Press. I wasn't talent. I was a beggar with a tape recorder. Even though I'd sat in the car and smudged eyeliner on, nobody gave a crap because I wasn't famous. And if they saw it, if they saw the effort and the attempts at sex appeal on my face, in my clothes, then I was even lower than a reporter. I was a reporter who longed to be discovered. I stood on a red carpet, on the wrong side of the rope, alongside heavyset men with cameras on their shoulders and garish women from other countries who brandished microphones and asked all the wrong questions.
To Cameron Diaz: "Being a celebrity must be so hard. You have people hunting you, asking you questions, taking your picture..." On this girl went, enchanted by the sound of her vaguely European voice, not aware Cam was already gone. There was no question, after all.
I quit my job that night. Scoop Weekly would go on without me. I knew that. I wasn't a physician who could perform important surgeries that would baffle the other doctors. I wasn't a teacher with children relying on me, emotionally attached. I wasn't a teenager working at Burger King who had a crush on the hoochie who came in for French fries every afternoon. I wasn't anyone, and that was the problem.
Michael's the one who got me the passport. He's my least likely friend, a heroin dealer from New York, from one of those families with more houses than they have children. He wears Ben Sherman shirts and calls Lindsay Lohan a close friend—not a user though, as I told my boss repeatedly. And he's not what you picture. He's a skinny boy, just giving people what they'd get anyway. He calls it a social occupation. And it gets him to parties, to people. What he's doing with these connections nobody knows. He doesn't talk about his aspirations the way most people do. And that's why they trust him. I meet Leonardo diCaprio, and I'm huffing and shaking—could he help me get a job at a studio? Could he cast me in a movie? Michael meets him, and he couldn't care less. He doesn't want anything from anyone. He's the only person I know in LA who's like that. Yet sometimes when I'm about to fall asleep and he's passed out on my couch, I wake suddenly, shivering. He's a dealer. There is a dealer in my apartment. A drug dealer. And somehow that seems wrong. But he says what I do, begging celebrities for bullshit quotes, is lower. That I'm feeding a more evil need. He's Catholic. He's Michael. We met at a Lindsay Lohan premiere. This other girl journalist and I decided to talk to him, wondering who he was, who were the people who got invited to these things. He asked us what we wanted. She said she hoped to parlay her written work into a gig on Access Hollywood. And I'll never forget her using that word, parlay, as if this was all so serious. I said I wasn't sure, and he winked at me. "You're just hoping to marry well."
We sat across from each other at House of Pies. He couldn't believe I quit over voicemail. But I said it wasn't that bad. Everyone quits Scoop. They pay you shit, and when you say you're tired after doing four carpets in two days, they make casual conversation about cocaine. They suggest. He wouldn't just give me the passport though. He made me fight for it, threw all these options at me.
"Why don't you just start some fabulous tell-all blog where you dish dirt and rip the shit out of your boss?"
"I can't do that."
"Won't." He sipped his coffee. He always sat with his legs crossed.
"No, I can't."
"But you've been covering parties for months now. You know everyone in this town. I can pick up any magazine and point to any gal and you can tell me something vicious about her."
"Nothing intimate, though." I said. I couldn't stand the coffee. I'm not rich like Michael, bored of good things. I still have standards. "Meeting people isn't like knowing them. I've met everyone, but so what? It's no different than going to a cocktail party and saying you'll have dinner with someone you know damn well you'll never see again."
"But a girl like you needs a job."
"But I hate jobs. I hate offices. I hate driving to the same place every day. I hate publicists, Michael. I hate checking in. I hate smiling at people I don't like. I hate asking Rachel Bilson to tell me her favorite flavor of ice cream. I hate all of it. I hate paychecks and the people at offices who don't mind being at offices. I hate the way when I delete email it says deleted forever. The fucking redundancy of it all."
"That's not redundant."
"Delete means in the trash. And you can always pick a trash can."
I smiled. I did love him. He got it, the fucking asshole, he really did.
He didn't smile back. He just shifted, bored of my tirade, put his legs up on the pleather cushion. "You know Quentin wrote Pulp Fiction at this place."
He did that, Michael, called them all by first names, always refusing to tell me who was a client and who was a friend. Michael never wanted to fuck me, didn't really want to fuck anyone I guess. He reminded me of James Spader in Less Than Zero. He just liked making people uncomfortable. He loved asking me how my night was and telling me he'd been at the same bar but wound up in Nicole Richie's apartment. Of his clients, all he would ever say is his first sale was pot to a Friend. But that was just pot. Who cares? And he wouldn't say which Friend. But there was something in my lust to know that validated him. I suppose that was the basis of our friendship.
"Michael, you know you could tell me things and it would never get back to them. If you've dealt to Quentin, you could tell me that and I could report it and it would never in a million years get back."
He looked around. As if Mischa Barton was going to show up in Los Feliz in the middle of the night. What were we anyway? Everyone else here was something. There a hipster couple with matching dark-framed glasses. There two lonely overweight girls, ripe for a ride on the horse, is what Michael would call them. And there a Mexican waitress, needing her tips, doing her job, need do, need do. A guy with a laptop and a cup of coffee. He too knew about Quentin, but when he spoke of him, I'm sure he called him Quentin Tarantino. And then there was us. I wasn't one of these hipster girls. I'd met too many celebrities to be some girl just living her life and making the most of her Forever 21 clothes. And Michael was too relaxed to be one of these guys with aspirations. Yet together, what a mess.
"You know I'm not going to do that, Sara. Privacy is everything."
"I tell you stuff. I told you how Robert Downey Jr. asked me back to his room."
"He could have been kidding. You don't know that."
I blushed. There's no way a girl like me can tell a story like that. Not hot enough, definitely not. The waitress came along, more coffee, no, yes, pour, glare. "Why can't you just give me the passport?"
"So you can be in the foreign press." He didn't look at me when he laughed. He just rolled his eyes, as if I was a guest star on According to Jim and he was drunk, half into it.
"I want to know what it's like. It seems great. You get all this free stuff. I could sell stories to outlets all around the world." One time Michael took me to the Fred Segal sale, knowing my obsession with the finer things. But 50% off $1200 was still $600. I'd bought nothing.
"Why don't you just work with me?"
"I can't deal drugs."
"It's not like that. They exist no matter what. You think you're so important? You're one person."
I am one person. He is too, but he's not because before he is some guy he is this guy, he is Michael. That's growing up, becoming someone very specific. I threw a packet of sugar at him.
"You're a fucking asshole."
The waitress appeared then, and I think she overheard me. I wanted her to laugh or look at me with disgust—what fortune to have such problems, such freedom to sit here at three in the morning feeling sorry for yourself, you spoiled American brat! But she just poured coffee for Michael. I didn't interest her. Or maybe she didn't speak enough English to understand my words. And then I looked away. Everyone knows what that means, asshole. I'm lost.
Michael tossed the passport at me. I promised to call him on Thursday so we could hit the Roosevelt.
Now I was Gretchen Conazor. I was from Spain, which was fine. I am rather ethnic, with chocolate brown hair and olive skin. My dad is white as a ghost. It's this unspoken thing in our family, that my mother flew to Puerto Rico to get pregnant by a random guy when she found out my dad was sterile. She told me once, when she was very drunk, but the next day she'd forgotten she'd told me, and I wasn't living at home, and it was like a one night stand. Something that refused to come into the fold of our lives. I can't live anywhere but here, though. I grew up here. To have done that and not found your way into the center of it all, no, there was no leaving.
The junket was on Thursday morning at a posh hotel in Santa Monica. I couldn't stop smiling when I arrived. I'd been practicing my Spanish accent all night. I wore black pants, black shirt, what the foreign press girls always wore, as if Hollywood style confounded them so they didn't dare wear colors.
The publicist spoke very slowly and smiled at each of us. There was no barking. I felt like a privileged kindergarten student in Pac Pal at my first day of school. She asked me my name four times, then handed me a gift basket. My first day and already I was getting gifts! The junket was for an action movie. There were six of us journalists in a suite, and the ocean was right there, beyond the window. As an American reporter I'd never been in any place this nice. We ate like pigs. French toast. The fat man with the digital recorder from Mexico sang Fox's praises: "They give the best breakfasts. But my God, Paramount knows how for lunch!"
Everyone's English was broken. Imagine six ethnic people doing their best Salma Hayek impression. Pashmi was from India—she'd moved to the states six months ago. Herman was a tall Frenchman with wiry legs. He stole everything, the silverware, the rolls. When I set my water glass on the table, he rose his white eyebrow. I nodded. He took that glass, too.
After we were well stuffed, the publicist returned and filed us onto the patio. There we sat with a pitcher of lemonade, the good stuff, actual lemons inside. All this time and no one had even asked me what magazine I was representing. I had invented one for the publicist, Al Mundo I called it, a pop culture start up out of Barcelona. We were told one question at a time for the young man from Massachusetts on whom the studio was relying to draw in legions of young girls like myself. "His name is Brando Kirk," she said. "We expect big things of him." Before I'd even laid eyes on him, I had feelings. Big things. What pressure. There was something about the atmosphere in that room: you knew whoever this Brando Kirk was, you knew he wasn't going to deliver.
And then he appeared in a Red Sox cap and T-shirt. Big arms. He was every guy you met your first week of college, asking him for his name over and over again. There was comfort here now. He asked me my name, I answered, he gulped. I started to shake, just my leg though. And since we were sitting at a table, nobody could see. I felt enraged, trapped suddenly, like an animal with a bleeding paw. What was happening? Why was I reacting like this? At once, my life felt all locked down. Well clearly, Brando Kirk is my future, I kept thinking to myself. The fucking absurdity of such a thought!
"I never even liked comic books," he said to the Indian woman. "I still don't like 'em now."
A publicist came forward then, rested a hand on Brando's shoulder. She looked at us. "Everyone strike that, please. Brando misunderstood the question."
Poor kid. He couldn't even handle a junket. The movie would be a clunker. That some things were simply shit was relaxing. It was the feeling I'd wanted to get at yoga classes. I wasn't shaking now. This boy was ours for twenty five minutes, and nobody was going to take him away so he could flash his smile for Access Hollywood. The questions continued.
"You are a big movie star, eh?"
"You are in this movie. This movie is huge!"
"So the big movie is to be very big!"
I couldn't believe it. These weren't questions. They were declarations. I sat up very straight. I'd never felt so smart, like Norman fucking Mailer or something.
"America is to love you and your big movie!"
"What did you for breakfast eat you?"
"Do you like cars?"
"What to make of fur coats?" That was the Parisian girl. She was with a PETA-like magazine.
The publicist poked her head in. "Stay on topic, please."
The Frenchie sighed. "Do you wear fur coat in big movie?"
And then it came back to the fat Mexican. "Jessica Alba is hot, eh?"
And then to me. I was catching on. "You are going to be famous. Soon you will have fans!"
The reason I can't tell you what Brando Kirk said is I can't remember. It's like that when you're falling in love with someone. You don't really hear them talk; you just hear sounds, blurred. He kept looking at me, so much that the fat Mexican kicked me under the table again and again. After the junket, I left. That's what everyone was doing. We were all given T-shirts and pens and watches with the cartoon on the face and press kits and baseball hats. Some of the journalists wore their swag. What a crowd we were, walking down the hallway of this hotel, our arms burdened with bags of crap. Pashmi invited me to join her for a drink. I said no, that I had a long drive ahead of me.
It's lucky the valet misplaced my keys. Otherwise I never would have met Brando. He came right up to me, fierce cologne, Drakaar. Who still wore that?
"Could you tell me about Barcelona?"
"Don't you have things you have to do?"
He shrugged. "I'd just like to hear about Barcelona. I was gonna go abroad there when I was in college."
"Oh," I said. And we stood there, staring at my Toyota Corolla.
"Fucking weird, right?" he said.
"Yeah." Was this really happening? "I know."
I waited in the lobby while Brando finished up with the publicist. We walked on the beach, to Venice, and sat at a Mexican restaurant just off the beach. It was so trashy there, '80s music blaring. Our margaritas had something the waitress called wine tequila. Still, we drank. We talked. And eventually I told him I wasn't from Barcelona.
"You're too interesting to spend your life writing about other people."
"That's all I wanted to hear someone say," I said.
Brando's movie flopped. Big time. He lost his agent. But I was exciting now that I was his girlfriend. The teen magazines had picked him as the next big thing, and they didn't let go easily. There was talk of a WB sitcom; he signed a deal, did some guest spots. The money came. Miraculous little checks. They looked like my checks, only not. I existed now. When you're with someone who's been in a studio picture, people want to talk to you. And the day my picture showed up in Scoop, I tore it out of the magazine and stared at it for hours. We were living together in Malibu. There I was in a magazine, on the right side of the rope. I couldn't tire of looking at that photograph, my name in boldface, me looking down sheepishly, a Katie Holmes to his Tom Cruise. So there I was.
Michael showed up the day Scoop came out. I hadn't seen him since that night at House of Pies. God, how good it felt to not return his calls. To not invite him to our engagement party. To not tell him when I changed my number. To see him across the pool at the Tropicana and not wave over and leave by the time he made his way over. Four months had passed.
"How did you find me?"
"That's what you say to me." He laughed, and it was as if my relationship with a C list celebrity didn't even exist. How dare he feel comfortable enough to laugh? He told me he'd written a script and sold it to Miramax.
"But they're not even around anymore."
"Honey, they very much are. Harvey never really goes away."
Quentin was mad about the story, which was about a drug dealer who fell in love with an agent and proceeded to get each of her clients hooked. Now he was rich. Richer than us because Michael was the kind of person who parlayed one thing into another. If he'd been me, dating a C lister, he would have gotten a sitcom or at least a reality show out of it.
"I never even knew you were writing a script," I said. I wanted my boyfriend, but he was auditioning.
"I wasn't. I just got bored. It's no big deal, you know. Studios buy up scripts all the time."
"Well, that's great."
"Does that mean you're still dealing?"
"Easier to do it than not. You going to Kirsten's later?"
Dunst. Just call her Kirsten Dunst, I wanted to say. "No, I'm not."
"I never see you guys anywhere."
"We go out a lot. I've seen you." Shit. I hadn't meant to say that. "I mean, I think I see you. Anyway we're going to Beverly Mitchell's later."
He stared at me.
"She's on 7th Heaven. She's great."
He nodded. He didn't care. Truly didn't care. "Fucking Paris threw up in my car last night."
"That's too bad," I said. It wasn't fair. How come he got to be cool? How come he got to know the people on the covers of the magazines, the people I wondered about so intensely, the people I'd been desperate to get close to? And here I had WB starlets. They were decent, and I liked them for it, but they weren't Michael's people. They weren't fixtures on Robertson, never would be.
It was dark now. We were on the deck of my two bedroom condo, and Michael was pointing out where all the famous people live. He'd been at Courtney's place—you couldn't walk there from here, he said. He had his feet up on my table, and he didn't ask if I was writing, if I was still using the passport, if I was back at Scoop. He didn't mention my picture, and I knew he'd seen it. Michael devoured all the tabloids. We were out of wine now, and I knew he wouldn't leave. This was too good for him, winning, just by showing up here and not wanting me. He also didn't ask about my boyfriend, about his career. He just sat there pointing out all the houses, always careful not to call my home a house but to say the word condo as if it was dirty. I felt dirty. I was living off my boyfriend. My passport had expired. I missed Michael. My boyfriend and I never sat out here like this. My parents had called that day, so excited over the Scoop photo, telling me they'd bought every copy at the newsstand. My father kept saying, "That's my daughter in a big magazine. That's my daughter." And my mother kept squealing, "I know! Can you believe it!" I'd made them happy. And it all looked different now that Michael was here. California gets cold at night, and I started shaking, my teeth rattling. He stood up and went behind me, put his arms around my shoulders and let me cry. We never hugged, we weren't like that. He rubbed my shoulders and patted my head, telling me everything was going to be fine, didn't I see everything was fine? I don't remember how he convinced me to try heroin. All I remember is his eyes, honing in, like I was one of the famous girls.