Hollywood Boulevard

by Janyce Stefan-Cole

Excerpted from Janyce Stefan-Cole’s debut novel: Hollywood Boulevard. Look for her new book, The Detective’s Garden in September 2016.

[For a limited time, Hollywood Boulevard is specially priced at $1.99.]

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I used to think about quitting all the time. Then I quit, and now I still think about it. Maybe the dream slipped away, or got sullied into something no longer recognizable, or came at too high a price — as in be careful what you wish for. So I float between a sleeping dream and real life. At the moment I’m holed up at the hotel swimming pool, a terraced affair set below a pricey Japanese restaurant, with narrow gardens guests can visit via little golden keys that open short red gates to various paths. It’s off- season, the unheated pool is glacial; leaves fall in, float a while, and sink. A Shinto gate sits importantly on the pool’s south side, like offspring of the restaurant above. The landscaping is uneven: artificial waterfalls, a miniature pomegranate tree, the Shinto gate aligned with a chain- link fence facing nondescript Hollywood back streets below; calm and common all at once.

The maid cleaning my room is the reason I am lying low, wrapped in layers against the early- spring chill. What does the staff think of me in my suite — with kitchen — so much of the time? The awkwardness of having to get out of the maid’s way so my mess can be cleaned, though I like not having to do it myself and have mostly not had to. Her arrival threatens my days. Today the interruption came near noon; tomorrow it could be three p.m. or ten thirty a.m. Maid or no maid, I prefer my mornings. A day that ends badly may have begun with sunlit, wide- awake eyes. It doesn’t take much to tip the scales; my mornings do not inform my nights, they never have.

Too persistently the question arises just what the maid is interrupting. The answer is always a big nothing. I was an actor until I quit, walked away, some said with my best work in front of me, but that sort of talk comes cheap; quitting does not. Can the maid, Zaneda — I think that’s what she said her name is — imagine my life as I can so easily imagine hers? What does she think I am doing at the pool, noticing the haphazard landscaping while the sweet Chicana makes my very tossed bed? Does she wonder that there are no signs of sex on the sheets? Her prettiness is homey, eyes behind wire glasses gentle. She treats me as if I am special.

“El Señor is a director of movies, no?” she asked when I first arrived. She meant my husband, Andre Lucerne.

“ Señor is a director of movies, ,” I replied, cutting the conversation short. El Señor insisted I come, which explains in a nutshell my presence at the Hotel Muse. My having agreed, my being back in Hollywood while he shoots his film, could spell trouble, like a recovering junkie camped out in the poppy fields.

He said he needed me by his side. That’s not how Andre expresses himself. He expresses himself through his work, so I was surprised by his words and, I admit, a little suspicious, and I don’t know why I agreed to come.

I’m not sure how much English Zaneda understands. I try to speak to her in Spanish. I did learn that she has four children, aged sixteen to three. She works long, hard hours, traveling who knows how far to get to the hotel, by car or bus or metro, to support those many kids. Yet her smile is uncompromised by exploitation. I think she said the other day that she’d seen me in a movie once. Possibly I misunderstood. It hasn’t been that long since I quit, but Hollywood develops amnesia faster than a corpse forgets to breathe. I don’thave to escape my room and Zaneda’s enduring reality against my — what? — ethereal existence, but if explanations begin to be required, of how I spend my days and why I stopped acting, then I have no choice but to flee. Imagined conversations can be worse than actual ones.

I shifted my chaise three times just now. The sun was warm, out of the breeze. I looked up, hearing voices above me in the outdoor grill area that has been vacant each time I’ve come here before. I closed my eyes to wish the intruders away.

I dozed a few minutes, and now the voices have gone. It was probably safe to go back to my rooms, but I began rearranging the deck chairs instead. I walked the perimeter and found four wasted beer bottles tossed in a corner next to a blooming bird- of- paradise. Three days ago I walked the Japanese garden paths for the first time. Past stunted sculpted trees and little waterfalls and pools with timid goldfish that skittered away at my approach. Directly below the restaurant is a small pavilion with steep steps leading to it and two red benches under a peaked roof, a spot for viewing sunsets. Precisely below, a matter of inches from the pavilion, I noticed a bubblegum- blue used condom. I examined the red bench where the event had probably taken place. Maybe the couple had been drunk or in a hurry, the condom tossed in the dark. The next day it was still there. The find was solid gold, treasure a secret observer lives for — I’ve become a kind of hotel spy in my endless spare time. The restaurant has a reputation, so I was surprised to see the prophylactic lying there, but it’s off- season and we are in a recession; cleanups might not be what they have been. Still.

I kicked the beer bottles next to the chain- link fence. I ought to have resisted the desire to arrange the pool deck but didn’t. Having to arrange,needing to, possibly reflects something wrong with me. But I’m not interested; what good would it do if I learned I was a compul sive this or that, a so- and- such unable to reveal myself except through gestures like rearranging furniture, an utterly failed communicator — for an actor? I enjoy few things better than creating order out of chaos, yet my life is a study in disorder. Lurking is the awareness, faint and intermittent, occasionally urgent, that something is wrong and does need fixing. Or maybe the pool area looking a lot better now is explanation enough.

Husband number one said I only played at house. This was around the time I signed with Harry and Hollywood. That would be Harry Machin, Big Time Agent and proprietor of the very exclusive Machin Talent. Apparently with issues of his own — I mean the ex, a writer, he once hid out in a broom closet. I’d taken him to a party, not an A- list deal but sufficiently who’s who. I didn’t notice him missing until the hostess found him among the cleaning products and whispered in my ear to ask what was wrong with my guy. Back then I thought we would be a comfort to each other in social situations. I thought that’s what couples did. Social outings are knotty anyway, on a guy’s arm or flying solo. At the time of the closet incident I was better at taking cues and holding up my end, though I’d wilt at the smallest off- key passage: a casually unkind word, the bon mot landing flat. Still, I had a solid sense of what I wanted to be when I grew up, and nothing was going to stop me; I’d run over anyone who tried. I’m not saying I don’t savvy the parley, flirting just enough to raise an eyebrow, playing the provocateur until my energy saps and I collapse like a diseased lung, sagging under the weight of human contact. Which, considering the assumed largeness of ego expected in my former profession, and the supposed need of an audience, makes me a candidate for problems from the start.

At a recent party here in Hollywood — no, Silver Lake, to be precise — where I knew enough people well enough to indulge in conversational back- and- forth, I left the crowd to play with the family’s five- year- old, Ella. She proudly exhibited her many fairy dolls. All showy dresses, translucent wings, and long luscious hair, blond and thick like hers. After oohing and aahing appropriately, I began checking for underwear, lifting gossamer gowns, cotton pinafores, and tulip minis. “Let’s see if she’s wearing underpants,” I said, peering at one doll’s lower parts. Soon the dear little girl was checking too. “Underpants!” she’d say. “Underpants,” we’d say, examining each doll. “No underpants!” she gasped. “Let’s see!” I said, pulling the delinquent figurine from her small hand. Seeing the naked, rubbery flesh- colored blank where genitals ought to be, it occurred to me that I’d taught this lovely child something her parents might not appreciate. What was I thinking? Children are so unself- consciously sexual as it is, and she was just at that Freudian cusp, five, the postphallic stage, on the verge of the superego. I’ve perused a few pages of Freud, and he’s a pessimist, if you ask me, and all wrong about penis envy. My grandmother used to say men start wars to match the heroics of women producing babies. Who knows, maybe they have the envy. That’s a thorny topic, though, starting with Adam trying to shift blame onto a wily snake, quite possibly the beginning of blaming the victim, and certainly the genesis of men getting all the good lines in movies while the actresses get the great clothes. And I’m not certain there really is a victim, though I read somewhere that, according to Victorian mores, a “lady lies still” during the sex act. And what, studies the ceiling? I know it’s a mixed- up ball of wax if the lady is taking it passively on her tummy or handing it out on top. Sex could be simple, lovely fun, but somehow there are always complications.

Anyhow, another guest (at the party), who happens to be a good- looking dwarf, poked his head through the doorway. “Are you hiding out in here?” he asked.

“Hiding out, yes,” I said softly (trying, I think, for an effect. Why? Because he was born condensed?), realizing a split second later that he meant the little girl. He abruptly left.

There is some truth to what my ex said about how I play house. I spent time and some money nesting in the current suite. Which means I think I’ll stay, though I threaten Andre from day to day to clear out back to our loft in New York. I’ve lived countless days and months in hotels, and I’ve learned it’s important to claim the place, leave my mark like a dog peeing on a pole. But my ex implied it’s all pretense, that things are not so clean under appealing surfaces. Dirt’s not the point, I once tried to explain, but the way a spacefeels: harmonious or not, high or low contrast, and lighting — lighting is of utmost importance. He scoffed, “Spoken like a true actress.” He told me I see things as others would, like a performance. As if light and color don’t have real effect. “What’s wrong with considering the effect?” I asked, apparently missing the point.

“Life,” he said, “my pretty- pretty, is not an effect.” (You know, I knew that.)

“Then you can be my resident reality check,” I said, trying to disarm a potential fight. He frowned — set to object — but I jumped in: “Actors require reality checks; didn’t that come with my instruc tions?”

Harry — this was back then — told me to cut “the hubby” loose. “Get him off the nipple; he’s nothing. You’re a great actress, the next Kate Hepburn.”

“Harry, you know I can’t stand Hepburn.”

“I meant you’re classy, not flimflam in a costume. Never a cheap shot from Ardennes Thrush.”

That sounded like a line he might have used before. I didn’t have a comeback, so I just sat there, opposite Harry at his very wide, bleached- birch desk, so wide it seemed like the deck of a small ship.

“I see what he is,” Harry said to my silence. “That — what’s his name again?”

“Joe?”

“Joe. Perfect. Joe Schmo. He’s a moper. He’ll never let you succeed. He’ll tear down anything you do. Trust me on this. Guys like that prey on a woman’s weakness.”

I thought, isn’t that what producers and the other money men do? There was an iota of truth to Harry’s words, though; Joe did seem at times to debunk my growing success. What surprised me was Harry picking up on that part of Joe after at most two very brief meetings. I wondered how a deal- making manipulator like Harry Machin could have such insights. Maybe it was because Harry truly enjoyed what he did, was in it up to his elbows with all his heart.

“He doesn’t have an agent, does he?” Harry added, watching me from under those heavy eyelids of his.

He didn’t. I kept quiet again. Harry’s phone rang. He said, “Okay,” into the receiver, which meant he’d take the call. Which meant it was someone important because when Harry called you into the office he meant business and had his calls held. Harry was always telling me what to do and I was always trying to sort out for myself what I should do. Which is not to imply I knew back then what was best for me, but when I didn’t know, I had my ready fall back position, which was to hold out. I was named after the Ardennes Forest, where what is called the Battle of the Bulge took place in the bitter winter of 1944. My father was a boy of twenty and he made it out alive when something on the order of 81,000 GIs were wounded, died or went missing in the last merciless thrust of the Nazis. I wasn’t born then, not even close. My mother wanted to name me Autumn, after her favorite season, when she and my dad married. He was a good deal older than his second wife, just as my half- brother and -sister were to me. My mother said it wasn’t a good idea to name a child, a girl no less, after a World War II battle, but I’d had a rough go of it and wasn’t expected to live because of a problem in my tiny heart, a valve that they were able to reroute or something, and my dad told her I was a fighter and a survivor, like him. Maybe he figured he might not be around for me as long as most dads and wanted me to remember the young soldier who’d made it through the Ardennes Offensive. Anyhow, my mother agreed, and if I don’t tell people the origin they think my name is exotically French or that I made it up as a stage name. I don’t usually bother to explain.

It was probably just as well he wasn’t around when I quit acting. How could I tell my dad it was the thought of quitting that kept me going? That the idea was a relief, like death, if you try to look into death’s positive light, its silver lining. I don’t mean to be morbid; in fact, I think it’s morbid to want life to go on forever. There’d be no edge, just a soppy on and on. Maybe deep down inside everyone dreams of quitting, of being free of the task each of us supposedly has in life. I picked up that idea — about the task each of us has — from reading Sufiwisdom, the catch being, I suppose, finding the destined path. I sometimes wonder if Joe would have celebrated my quitting. We’d have made a normal life together; I’d have cooked dinner and been home to ask how his day had been. I once told Harry I gave my best performances on the days I was sure I would drop out. He wept the day I told him I was through; honest- to- goodness tears, nose honking, hanky and all.

“This is a crime against God,” he said when he could finally speak.

His extreme reaction surprised me. “Against God, Harry?”

“Why? Tell me how your kind of talent quits, throws itself into the toilet and flushes. How?”

“It’s not as if I was single- handedly making you rich,” I said, trying for levity. I think I thought he’d get mad, yell, insult me, anything but that pained expression as he slowly shook his oversized head. He spent the next hour telling me what was wrong with my decision. He barked at his secretary to hold everything: “Everything, even if it’s the president of the United States on the line!” I just remember being thirsty as he carried on. The longer he went on, the thirstier I got. This is where the Battle of The Ardennes comes in: I can hold out against just about anybody’s verbal barrage to get me to change my mind. The more they try, the more I dig in. The truth is, I can black out the whole world, blacker than the blackest cave two miles into the bowels of the earth. I can go to a place so dark it’s as if the world was never created. So Harry couldn’t squeeze out of me why I quit, try as he did. He couldn’t blame Joe either; it was too late for that. And by the way, Harry had nothing to do with Joe and me busting up. He did practically dance a jig on his desktop when he found out, but that was before I called it quits.

It took me a long time to shake Joe, considering the rough ride we’d had almost from day one. I’m not sure I ever did shake him. I’ve always been attracted to writers and this one was no slouch, though he could barely earn a dime on his work the whole while we were together. He had socialist ideas too, so that if I did bring in a nice check from time to time, a part in a pet- food commercial, say, that went national — with hefty residuals — it was right away suspect, like Chairman Mao or Lenin would get wind of Joe having had dealings with the capitalist devil.

Joe had a lot of anger. Not because the world had been unjust to him but because it’s an unjust place. For me, the world’s too big to be angry at all in a gulp. Joe scolded old friends too, if they betrayed the code. He would go on for days about the crime of getting a book published for a sum that had to be corrupt. What kind of whore game did he play to get that advance? Christ!But the lapsed friend was only a pawn of the society that had wrought him, a culture of which Joe disapproved and felt punished living in. Joe’s basic premise was if people at the top would only wise up and take less, things could even out.

Happily, not even Joe could contemplate the distribution of wealth every day, and if he didn’t bother too much about saving the world, he was just the guy I wanted. Basically, he lived simply, wanting most of all to read and write and think. The two of us, side by side reading in bed, Joe charming me with a passage of Yeats or Wordsworth pulled out of the air. Knowing when I was lost in my lines rehearsing for an off- off- Broadway play, a cold- water, firetrap stage. Showing up at late- night rehearsals, walking me home after midnight, streets solitary and slick, maybe one of those cat- sized rats running out from behind a trash can, Joe saying there were worse rats than them living in penthouse apartments. Giving me notes, really, really wanting me to soar; that was where I wanted my world to be.

He kept me guessing too, not a dull bone to him; there was always a new corner to turn with Joe. I never got all the way inside. Then again, Joe didn’t think it was possible for an actor to get truly close. Or did he mean that about me only? All those emotions, he’d say, faking it with a part, how would anyone know if the tears at home weren’t just more of the same?

Finally exasperated, I said, “ Maybe they aren’t ever an act.”

“That only proves it, even you don’t know,” he shot back.

Worse than that was the time he said I was empty when no one was looking. It was only years later that the rejoinder came to me: How would you know? How could you possibly know, Joe? Was he knowing or only passing judgment? He’d get me all confused. Partly because I needed him to be right and partly because I needed him so much that I’d get muddled and couldn’t think what to say, maybe couldn’t think at all.

It was moving to L.A. that finally did the marriage in. Harry was after me to settle out west from the first big job he landed me: four scenes in a star- cast movie, thirty lines. My character — Laurel, early twenties — was not a hooker but available to wealthy men with fetishes like foot sucking or egg rolling. My first scene had me in a slinky summer dress: I walk into a darkened hotel room, balcony shutters closed to the tropical sea beyond, strips of sunlight piercing through the slats. A thug slips out of the shadows.

Thug: “What are you doing here?”

Laurel, frightened but keeping her cool: “I left my hat.”

Thug: “Who let you in?”

Laurel: “I’m a friend of Abe’s.”

Thug, looking Laurel over like she’s quick lunch: “Nobody’s a friend of Abe’s. Whaddaya, servicing his spanking needs?”

CUT!

It would be my one and only megamovie role. After that the studios made some overtures, smelled young blood in the water, but I wasn’t interested. It wasn’t as if Paramount was breaking down the door, but if Harry had his way I’d have cultivated myself, played along. Harry’s line was that you have to wade through a little garbage to get to the high road you’re meant to be on; that nothing good comes pure. Joe helped me steer clear of what he saw as Harry’s hype. Some said Joe’s steering might have ruined me. Anyhow, I got noticed in the medium- budget and indie- film worlds. Joe was okay with that. He’d ranted when I took the mega job, paragraphs’ worth, and promised not to touch one penny of the filthy lucre I was paid, going so far as to set up a separate account for himself. He did live by his word.

I began flying back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. With the bigger parts I had to stay out for longer spells, and the parts were getting bigger. I made a few friends and stopped making so much fun of the too- friendly Angelinos. There’s too much space is the problem, that’s why they’re so eager to connect. I once had a woman start a chat from underneath the next toilet stall. That was technically not in L.A. but at a stop for date shakes at Hadley’s on the 10 Freeway, the San Bernardino route to Palm Springs, out past the wind farm that took my breath away every time I saw those thousand arms circling crazily over the arid earth. But people talk to strangers in elevators, other customers in a store, standing at a stop light, all friendly and open. I never got used to it.

I did get Los Angeles itself, a tactile place with big light and lots of texture where nature hasn’t been conquered. Earthquakes lie in wait, full- blown desert only a hard drought away. Rub the surface of anyone who’s been there long enough and you’ll find a seeker. It doesn’t much matter after what — L.A. is cult nirvana — some sort of god quest over the rainbow, born of that light and an underlying sense that all this gorgeousness can’t last. The only thing people in New York City seek, my singer friend Dottie once let me know, is a way out. Dottie did her time in the Big Apple, but she was from Kansas and wide- open space was home to her and that translated into Los Angeles. In her case, her cabaret career faltered. We sort of reversed each other: I was always glad to get back to New York and Joe. I was never going to put down roots in that shallow western soil.

My time in Hollywood — especially my first serious movie — was more like a prolonged in- passing friendship. Mostly I was holding my emotional breath. Joe and me having phone sex, trying hard to keep it real over long distance. Harry giving me no peace, making threats, saying I was hurting my career by not making myself available to the machinery, that I wasn’t hungry enough and was being passed over. He said if I wanted things to happen I had to get out there and get dirty.

“You’re a Hollywood dame,” he harangued. “Look at you, you blossom in the sunlight.”

I’ll never forget that conversation. It was winter, it was cold and wet. I was wrapping up a part, my ticket home already purchased. “It’s been raining in L.A. for three days, Harry.”

“Ardennes, Ardennes, Ardennes, when will you come to your senses?”

“I’m a New York– based actor. For the umpteenth time: I’ll come out anytime a good part calls, but home is — “

He cut me off with a grunt and a half wave of his left hand, temporarily lifted off its perch on his belly. “Home! With Joe and the two cats, a dark, roach- infested apartment. Are the cats helpful there? Listen to me: What makes a rose more beautiful?” I lifted my hands to say, tell me. “Manure, that’s what. Cow shit in the soil. See my point? You gotta taste it, Ardennes, you gotta sacrifice to it morning, noon, and night; you gotta want the prize, and you gotta make the journey to the prize.”

What Harry didn’t see was that, different as we were, Joe and I overlapped in crucial ways. He could pick up a false note in my work and excise it like a surgeon. And I loved those two cats, Molly and Corot, and our too- small West Side flat. The dark streets of New York were like the veins along my hands, avenues and boulevards in my blood. I held New York close in my heart. “Success at what price, Harry?”

He looked at me from below those heavy lids, scanning my interior, a stone Buddha, arms across his large front. “You think I talk of crass success? Dollar bills falling out of your brassiere, manse in the hills with the saline pool, ego billing on the marquee? You think I don’t know you? Craft, Ardennes — A- R- T — is not going to settle for trysts and one- night stands, rendezvous in a bus station. A- R- T wants all of you! And all of you is all I want you to be.”

It sounded so enlightened.

“Poetic, Harry,” I said. I looked at my watch. “I gotta run, a night shoot today. I’m due on set at four.” I stood up, reaching for my purse. I still didn’t know why Harry had called me in that day. I was hoping for a month off, time with Joe.

He barely stirred, ever so slightly lifted that left hand again. “You got the part.”

“What? You mean Separation and Rain? The lead ?”

Harry nodded sagely. “You start one hour before this part ends. No time to go home and feed the cats.”

I whooped, I spun, I clapped my hands. I was young enough to whoop and spin. I was big- eyed, all goals, virgin territory; I was all the places I would never get to that I would strive for until the last breath was out of me. This was big, colossal, this would move the earth: a plum part I knew I was right for, that I wanted badly, that would give me the chance to really show what I knew I had untapped inside me. This was my shot to breathe life into a character half alive on paper; this was my Michelangelo: Adam reaching out to touch the hand of God. Okay, I was not about to be God to some Adam, but I would make that character live. I would! Wouldn’t I? I flashed on a memory of Joe and me stretched out on a blanket on the rolling grass of the Sheep Meadow in Central Park. Joe poured wine into a thermos so we wouldn’t be caught drinking out in the open. We had a baguette and cheese, and grapes, I think. We were having a what- if- one- of- us- makes- it conversation we had a lot in those days, and Joe said I wouldn’t be able to take it anyway if I did make it big. He was tender about it. He knew how uncomfortable strange surroundings can make me, and that too many demands send me into a confused tailspin so I lose my bearings and need to run away. “I should have been a librarian,” I told him that day. Joe said, “Nah, not with that face; none of the boys would get any homework done.” I smiled at him from my toes up to my heart. “Your home is with me,” he said. That was a good moment, the kind that can make up for so much, that ought to be the real essence of being alive but somehow never is.

“Harry, don’t fool with me.”

Harry’s eyelids widened a fraction. “I never fool,” he said with mild indignation.

“Then this is real!” I felt my breath catch. “The lead . . .” I sat down. This was a twenty- million- dollar budget with a solid script and a superior director. (I didn’t know that day — and it was a few years off — that I would one day be married to Andre Lucerne, perhaps the most demanding director in Hollywood.) “You’re sure? Andre Lucerne cast me?” I remember the doubts starting to creep in, that a mistake had been made, a mix- up in head shots or the audition tapes. I even suspected Harry might have bribed the producer, used blackmail, called in a life- and- death favor owed and I would be found out and dismissed as a fraud. I was working up to full- fledged panic when I heard Harry moving.

He lifted his cumbersome frame out of the plush leather desk chair and waddled to a small fridge you wouldn’t know was there, tucked beneath some shelves in the well- appointed, screaming- success office. He leaned down heavily and pulled out a split of champagne, and from a nearby cabinet two flutes. “If you didn’t have work tonight, we’d celebrate properly at Spago, on the Strip. Will this do for now?” He held up a bottle of Cristal. Spago was the place to be seen; the Cristal cost about what a New York City immigrant garment worker made in a week. He popped the cork and poured out wine and fizz.

I reached blindly for the glass Harry pushed toward me. I’d had my small victories; some — plenty of — actors would say I was in a good place even without this bit of luck, but I suddenly didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to handle getting what I wanted. Harry was always saying luck had nothing to do with it, but that’s not so; luck is either at work in a person’s life or it’s not. I sagged backward into the thick cushions of Harry’s buffalo- hide sofa and put the flute down on the coffee table. Harry chuckled. I looked up; tears filled my eyes, ready to spill over. “ Thank you, Harry,” I whispered.

“Don’t thank me. All I did was make a few calls, let the world know an angel had descended. You did the rest.”

That snapped me back to my senses. I never knew if Harry bought his own lines or not. I jumped up, pointing to the phone on his desk. “I have to tell Joe!”

Janyce Stefan-Cole writes fiction, essay and freelance journalism. A finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, she is included in the Boston Globe bestselling anthology, Dick for a Day {Villard Books}, The Healing Muse, Knock Literary Arts Magazine and the Editions Bibliotekos anthology, Being Human: The Call of the Wild.

A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, she attended the Sqaw Valley Community of Writers, and resides with her husband, filmmaker Brandon Cole, in Brooklyn, NY and Freedom, NH.