The voice says it got your information from the Diaphanous Casting Agency. You are on Route 6, driving back to Hyannis from your daughter Grace’s piano lesson. Grace, who is eight, hates piano, bangs on the keys with all the abilities of a fingerless life-form, and begs every week to quit. But you’ve already allowed her to abandon guitar for violin, and violin for piano, and she needs to learn that you only get so many chances, that sometimes you just have to accept what you’ve got and get on with it.
The voice is talking about an opportunity—something, it says, that would be right up your alley. Now, you know instinctively, is the perfect time to hang up. You and your husband are in the restaurant business and you hang up on people all the time: would-be reviewers, radio and magazine personnel peddling ad space, wholesalers insisting their gruyere and chevre is better and more affordable than their competitors’. There is an art to it. It’s best to catch the caller on the upswing, while he’s still trying to butter you up. You like to cut him off right there, mid-sentence if possible, so that you are rewarded with a split-second picture of him at his cubicle, helpless grin still plastered to his face, pitch stuck, still-born, in his throat, muted panic in his eyes.
The problem is, you’re driving, so everything takes longer. “I’m looking at your picture as we speak,” the voice goes on, “and goddamn, do you sparkle.”
You change lanes, take the phone off speaker, press it up to your ear.
“Who’s that Momma?” your younger daughter Claire wants to know. “Why did they say that bad word?”
“Shh,” you say to her. “Just a second baby.” But it’s going to be longer than that. Because you remember the photos the voice must be referring to. You remember posing for them on the top floor of that house way up in the Hollywood hills. ‘Lifestyle shots,’ they were called. You were a saleswoman with a briefcase. A yoga goddess in a leotard. A stormy temptress in a dress so sheer it was like wearing nothing at all. The sun glinted off the lip of the canyon; the wind machine blew your hair back. “Over here darlin’,” the photographer said, and the flashbulb blinded you. You and Alexander had just driven all the way down the coast from San Francisco: sampled bottle after exquisite bottle of wine in Carmel, stripped and jumped into the waves that frothed below Big Sur. You were twenty-eight—too old already, by some standards, to ever dream about making it. But everyone kept telling you yes.
So when the voice asks if you’re available for a meeting sometime this week to discuss the details of the project, you do not hang up. You do not protest that you’re on the other side of the country, that the comp card the voice must be referring to is a dozen years old, that the closest you’ve been to a film in ages is dropping your kids off for a playdate at the Cape Cod Mall multiplex to see The Lego Movie. “I’m actually on location at the moment,” you hear yourself say.
In the rearview, you see a puzzled look come over Grace’s face. She’s the one to watch out for—that’s what you tell all the babysitters. Unlike her sister or her friends, Grace doesn’t regard adult conversations as boring interludes between treats, movies, one more turn at the video game. You once picked her up from a birthday party to discover she’d gathered more evidence Tabitha Adams was having an affair than your nosey friend Pamela had managed to collect in five months. Not that Grace does this maliciously, or even with much understanding. She’s simply after verisimilitude. Her favorite games are ones where she reproduces known scenarios: school, the supermarket, the restaurant kitchen. She does an eerie impersonation of her French teacher, and a passable one of the frumpy checkout girl, but it’s the one she does of you—little chest puffed out, head severely cocked at an imaginary line cook, “pristine plates people!”–that puts Mark in stitches and your stomach in knots.
“Ah, I see,” the voice is saying regretfully. “That’s unfortunate. We had hoped to meet you in person right away. Time really is of the essence--”
The surge of disappointment that hits surprises you, distracts you from your exit, which is fast approaching. You hit the turn signal late, narrowly avoid a passing SUV.
“--but there’s no reason we can’t at least get things started over the phone.”
You catch your breath. “Excellent,” you say, in the taking-charge tone that has worked on so many. “When would be a good time to call back?” You don’t really know why you’re stalling. Maybe you just want a couple days, even one, with the possibility--to joke about it to Mark, to shut yourself up with it in the bathroom with the scented candles and the clawfoot tub. Maybe then, after you come clean to this person, you’ll call up this Diagram Casting place, see what in the world they’re thinking releasing materials that ancient, how they got them in the first place, if they’ll send them to you.
But the voice isn’t taking your cue. “Picture Downton Abbey meets Dostoyevsky. You know, a basic upstairs/downstairs, but with an existential twist. We’re also going to throw a bit of a Jack the Ripper subplot in, to try to reach those True Detective types.”
“I see,” you say, trying to sound collected with one hand on the wheel and your mind scrolling backwards, attempting to recover the bits of the conversation where you weren’t yet paying attention, like the name that went with this voice. “So I’d be--”
“Upstairs. Very upstairs. You can play British, can’t you? Basic RP?”
“Of course,” you stammer. You think, you can’t help it, of Alexander.
“Beautiful day,” he’d said to you, all those years ago. You were at Land’s End, which was where you went sometimes before your shift started, to take off your shoes and stand in the damp sand, to stare up at the underside of the Golden Gate, the container ships drifting past, and remind yourself you weren’t going to be a waitress forever. Before he’d spoken, in a bit of a dream, you’d drawn a circle in the sand with the tip of your toe, closed your eyes, spun around and around and around within it. His voice should have startled you, but it didn’t. It was cool and crisp: expensive sheets on a fresh-made bed. He had blond hair and dark eyes and a camera around his neck.
“Yes,” you agreed. “It is.”
He looked at you appraisingly. “It’s not the only thing. May I—I don’t suppose--” he gestured to the camera, “you’d let me take your picture?”
“So,” the voice is asking, “what do you think? Any interest?”
“Yes,” you say, before you can help it. “I mean--I’ll have to run it by my people first, of course.”
“Enough Momma,” Claire commands. She’s at that age where she can’t stand you spending more than five minutes on the phone, can’t comprehend the notion that someone she can’t see should be allowed to take up your time. She bangs a fist on her car seat for emphasis. “Enough, enough, enough!”
“What’s that?” The voice is sharp.
“Noisy set,” you tell it. “Why don’t I take your number and call you back?”
“I’d really rather you didn’t,” the voice says, a little sulkily. “Can’t you go somewhere you won’t be disturbed?”
You drive over the train tracks--thud, thud, thud--and the little red roof of the restaurant comes into sight. “Yes,” you say. “Just a minute.”
You parallel park as best you can, the voice keeping up a steady patter in your ear: an interlocked series of anecdotes about who is and who might be attached, peppered with a bunch of half-familiar names. “It’s potentially a break-out role,” it concludes reasonably. “Anti-heroes are so in right now. Not,” it adds, with a chuckle, “that they were ever really out.”
You turn off the ignition, hastily reach back to unbuckle Claire’s car seat, muffle the phone against your palm. “You and your sister can play in the restaurant for a while,” you say to Grace. “Tell your father I said so.”
This is a last resort, used only when one of you has to run a quick errand, or if the babysitter is late. Grace gets into the bar setup and eats all the maraschino cherries. Claire dances to the hip-hop that’s always playing in the kitchen, forcing the staff to stop what they’re doing to make sure she stays away from the knives and the fryers. The whole thing drives Mark crazy, especially if it’s going to be a busy night. The girls love it.
But Grace looks strangely unenthused. “Mom--” she says, shouldering her backpack.
“Do what I say,” you hiss, before striding up the walk and throwing open the door to the kitchen. The clatter of plates and the smell of calamari rush out.
“Sorry,” you say into the phone, once the girls are safely inside and you are breathlessly climbing the narrow stairs that lead up to where the four of you live, packed in under the eaves. “You were saying?”
You emerge into the apartment’s kitchenette, which is cramped and antiquated, all exposed wooden shelving, so slanted you’re often amazed the dishes stay stacked—nothing like the pristine stainless steel down below. You head for the sink, badly in need of a glass of water.
“Ah. Yes. Where was I?” the voice asks, and for the first time you detect something that may have been there all along: a hint of hesitation, of falseness. “There’s the matter of a few love scenes your character is scripted to have—if the show gets picked up, that is. Nothing over the top, all very tasteful I assure you, but we wanted to gauge your comfort level right away. And, of course, because these photos aren’t that recent…”
You put the glass down, let the water just run, spraying over the dirty dishes. It was the car ride, the girls, the late night you pulled yesterday. These are the only possible reasons you could have even begun to entertain this.
“I’m sorry,” you say crisply. “I don’t think I caught what production company you said you were with.”
“Forgive me. I see you’ve taken this completely the wrong way. I’m sure you still look exquisite. I mean your eyes alone--the way they soak up the color of the ocean like that--”
“Ocean?” You see the froth of the waves, the swell of the headlands, Alexander pointing the lens at you. “Where did you get those?”
“I’m sorry,” the voice says coldly. “I thought I’d already said.” The line goes dead with a click.
“Hello?” you say. “Hello?”
You should really go downstairs for the girls, get them out of Mark’s hair. They need their dinner and you need to go over the books. It’s well into March; you’ve been putting off the taxes for much too long.
Instead you make for the wine rack, grab a fresh glass, fish around for an opener. You wander into the girls’ room, the only one big enough to accommodate a full-length mirror. As usual everything’s a mess: toys spilling from the closet, books splayed broken-spined at the foot of the shelves. You trip on something and nearly go over—it’s a shoe, one of your black imitation Manolos. The other evening Grace had strapped her small feet into them, found and applied your darkest shade of lipstick, clattered into the living room wearing the black velvet dress that was supposed to have been for her recital next month. You were attempting to wipe the chocolate sauce off Claire’s face with a damp cloth, but as soon as you looked up you knew who Grace was supposed to be: one of the waitresses, a young woman called Lanka, who hailed from the Ukraine, wore bras that pushed her tits halfway to her throat, and was always parading them under the nose of any man she thought might be inclined to help her out with a green card. Grace put her hand on her hip, tilted her chin. “Vat do you tink?” she asked, nailing the accent.
You were on her so fast she didn’t have a chance to move, grabbing her arm and twisting it up against her back, the heels buckling out from beneath her. “I never want to see you dressed like this again,” you snarled in her ear. “Never, understand? I mean, I don’t care if you’re fifty.” Claire began to cry.
You pick up the shoe and chuck it down the hallway toward yours and Mark’s room. The cat, startled, glares up from where it has been sleeping on an unmade bed, slips hastily into the shadows. You feed it every day, but it’s never liked you.
You stare into the dingy mirror.
“Not now,” Alexander had protested as you flung your suitcase onto the bed. “We’re just getting going. This meeting tonight—it’s a real possibility.”
This was the last time you’d seen him, standing in the hallway of your old place in Venice Beach. You’d slid open the closet and stared at the rainbow of clothes hanging inside, understanding by then that Alexander could set up dozens of meetings, book hundreds of auditions—you could dress any way you liked. You’d still be a dog on a track: over-eager, whip-thin. Your heart would burst chasing after a mark you’d never be allowed to catch.
You closed your eyes, tired not from this fight, but from all the ones before. “Why are you making this so hard? I told you, I’m sick of it.” And you are. Sick of commercials, of music videos, of praying your tiny part in an art house film won’t get cut. Sick of playing girls, when you’re actually a woman. Sick of your meager, badly written lines that don’t require much memorization because, face it, there’s only one thing anyone wants to hear you say. “You should think about adult films,” the casting director told you at the audition yesterday, sweaty hand on your bare shoulder. “You’d really shine there.”
You picked up your bag and pushed past Alexander, fumbled for a minute with the screen door. You were crying. He moved into the doorway as you stood on the stoop, his shirt a blinding white.
“You’ll always regret it,” he said. “I can promise you that.”
You were trying to figure out what to say. It felt like a scene from a film, not even a very good one, but still better than anything you’d done in the two years you’d been here. And if nothing else, maybe you could point this out, let it stand for your anger and conceal your love, conceal the fact that he was right, that even then you knew one day you’d be forty, making dinner for your kids on a Friday while the TV droned, your attention torn between the knife in your hands and the people on the television, who could have been you, who could have known you, but who weren’t and didn’t.
But Alexander came down to you then, put his arms around you, and you felt the fight leaving your body. You let it relax, let the bag hit the concrete, tipped your face up for the kiss. “I can make you great,” he murmured instead. “You just have to let me.”
You pulled away, throat aching, nearly tripping to recover the bag. “No hard feelings,” he called, as you neared the front gate. “If anything good comes along, someone will be in touch.”
You let yourself sink onto Grace’s bed, so lately vacated by the cat. You run your hand over the bedspread, which is patchwork, from when she was a baby. You are not the sort of mother who roughs up her kids. You’ve slunk in here like a crook in the dark every night since, sat where you’re sitting now, stared at your daughter’s sleeping face. You’ve wanted to reach out and touch her, to explain, to apologize, but every time you try your throat locks up, and anyway, you haven’t known where to begin.
Now you pick up your phone, dial 411, harangue the operator. “Diagram,” you say. “Diagonal, Diamond, Diadem, Diabolic…What, I have to do your job for you? What about Santa Monica, then? What about the Valley?...See? Well wasn’t that what I said? Yes, I want you to connect me.”
A woman answers on the third ring. She wants to know how she can help you. You say you want to speak to Alexander, and in the space before her reply you hope desperately that she’ll tell you you’ve got the wrong number, or simply hang up. “Of course,” she says, and your stomach lurches. She puts you on hold.
Call waiting music begins to play, except it’s like no call waiting music you’ve ever heard, not after thousands of calls to dozens of distributers. It’s piano, sweet and sorrowful, and you can tell, though you know next to nothing about such things, that it’s being played by a master. The rise and fall of it pulls you into a moment that, up until now, you’d long forgotten: those slight, seemingly insignificant minutes in the house up in the hills, just after the shoot and just before Alexander poured the champagne, when he’d slid the release forms toward you over the mahogany table and your hand, holding the pen, had skated across the page.
You turn your gaze back to the mirror. Your heartbeat is in your ears. You don’t look your age--everyone’s always telling you so. You tilt your head, and as the pianist continues to play, you watch your fingers reach for your blouse, undo one button, then another.