Wannabe scripters have their eyes on the screenwriting teacher and an agent and each other. 3,683 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Selma didn’t see anything outrageous in Cyndie’s behavior at first. Lots of people bring snacks to a UCLA Extension Class, especially the first session. And Cyndie’s triple chocolate four-layer brownies were incredible. She’d just thrown them together and wasn’t sure she’d have enough time before class started and thought maybe they were underdone. Oh no, Cyndie, they’re perfect. Ben had a hard time getting his class back on track and it didn’t help that he had a chocolate smear just to the right of his upper lip. Until Cyndie pointed it out, of course. And when Ben wasn’t able to get it the first time, Cyndie took the corner of her napkin, spit delicately, and wiped the offending spot away.
It was only after session two when Cyndie told Ben and the rest of the class how she’d asked her psychic if Ben was the best screenwriting teacher in the extension program. And after session three when Cyndie brought her travel guitar and serenaded the class with a song she’d written especially for them. Only then did anyone suspect that Cyndie might have an agenda.
“Why are all of us here? Cause we’ve heard about Ben," Deb says to Selma. "He’s got contacts. His sister is married to an agent at William Morris Endeavor.” Deb, who is small and fierce with an uncombed tangle of blonde hair, lowers her voice even though they are the only two people in the hallway. “Ben can hook you up. Don’t you want an agent?”
Selma hesitates and Deb jumps in. “An agent is the grand slam, the Big Mac, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Get it? Ben selects one person. One. Uno.”
“So he’ll pick the best script,” Selma offers.
Deb shakes her head. "No. It should be about the writing, but the truth is, this business doesn’t play fair. Cyndie’s a snake. A shark. Some kind of predator.”
Selma thinks that over. “Oh, she’s Eve Harrington.”
“Who’s that?" asks Deb. "The skinny girl in the back who chews on her notebook?”
“Don’t you watch old movies?” says Selma. She loves Turner Classic Movies. Especially Bette Davis. Give her Now, Voyager or Mr. Skefington any day of the week. “In All About Eve, Bette Davis is this famous Broadway star Margo Channing who gets totally scammed by Eve Harrington, a baby actress.”
Deb is smiling now. “Exactly. Cyndie’s dangerous.”
Selma considers. Okay, so maybe Cyndie has an agenda, but also maybe she’ll cook for them again. “I bet Ben’ll care more about the writing than the tricks. He’s not stupid. Cyndie’s not a threat.”
Deb isn’t buying it. “Brownies, psychics, guitars? You wait and see what Eve does next.”
Next turned out to be Cyndie’s visit to her favorite herbalist and a big paper bag filled with herbal products presented to the class so none of them would catch a cold, or even worse a new strain of flu, to ensure they’d be able to complete their screenplays in 10 weeks. Selma took her package of herbs back to her apartment, poured them into a teacup, and sniffed. They smelled like old feet. She had water near to boiling on the stove when Deb calls.
“You’re not gonna take those creepy herbs, are you?” Deb warns. “Cyndie’s trying to poison us. She’s scoped us out as her strongest competition. We have to be eliminated.”
Selma thinks Deb is prone to exaggeration, but dumps the teacup’s contents into the sink.
At the next class, it’s clear Cyndie exists to be the center of attention. Why else would she choose to sit in the front of the classroom, as close as possible to Ben? Selma notices when Cyndie bends over, she squeezes her arms against her chest, creating a chasm of cleavage.
Deb passes a note to Selma. “Is Ben getting an erection?” Selma tries not to laugh. Cyndie’s breasts bob up and down, straining against sweater fabric. Ben is talking about taking a character and putting him up a tree. "How will he get down? This is creating ‘conflict’.”
Ben doesn’t seem distracted by Cyndie’s breasts, although he’s spelled “antagonist” wrong on the white board. Selma wonders if Ben is single. He doesn’t wear a wedding ring, but he looks like someone who has his clothes picked out for him. Ben wears khaki pants and sherbet-colored polo shirts and navy boat shoes, possibly selected by his mother from the Land’s End catalogue. He has thick dark hair and a prominent widow’s peak that reminds Selma of Count Floyd from the old SCTV shows. And he looks like he plays a leisure sport, like golf. His forearms are tan, but Selma’s willing to bet, if he took his shirt off, his upper arms would be as white as the sheet of empty notebook paper in front of her.
Cyndie is raising her hand. She licks her lips and Selma can see the pink tip of her tongue moving back and forth, like a pit viper on a National Geographic special just before the kill. “So, Ben, an example of sustaining character conflict would be like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader with Luke ultimately finding out Darth Vader’s his father?”
Ben smiles at Cyndie. “That’s exactly right, Cyndie. Excellent.”
Deb looks at Selma, puts her finger in her mouth and makes a gagging sound.
Cyndie isn’t paying attention to them. Selma has to admit Cyndie’s not unattractive. She’s tall, more striking than pretty, with wide shoulders. She possesses an arrogance that seems to announce – So what if I’m not model-thin? I’m proud to be zaftig. You’d be lucky to have me, You’d be lucky to be me. Her hair is dark brown with red highlights. She’s smiling back at Ben, doing the boob thing again and Selma notices Cyndie’s nipples visible through her sweater, two little peaks, standing at attention. For Ben.
There are about a dozen students in the class. Most, like Selma and Deb, are in their twenties. Two sisters from France wear matching Camp Beverly Hills t-shirts. The very thin girl who chews on her notebook is writing a script about eating disorders. One guy in a black leather jacket wants to write action movies. Another guy is old, at least 40, and wants to be Woody Allen. A third is the most unfunny person Selma has ever met, like he’s memorized the Shecky Green joke book. (He tells Woody Allen guy, "Hey, maybe you can marry your daughter, har har.") The one handsome man in the class held romantic promise until he revealed his screenplay would be about outing himself to his parents by giving them the finished script. The last guy is pretty cute, except for the scar that runs from the side of his mouth up to his ear. Everyone, including Ben, is afraid of him.
Of all the students, Cyndie is clearly the most popular. She offers friendly advice to everyone. To the French sisters, she recommends favorite restaurants. To the Woody Allen wannabe, she brings a pair of thick black-framed sunglasses. She’s the class pet, their mascot. If they had an election for class president, Cyndie would win in a landslide. Except for Selma and Deb, the two skeptics.
Selma whispers to Deb, “Okay, she’s creepy, but I still think Ben’s too smart to fall for her act.”
Deb disagrees. “The world is cruel, Selma. Ruthless and without pity.”
In spite of her bleak world view, Deb has deep confidence in her writing, which she thinks Cyndie senses. Which helps explain why Cyndie has ignored Deb since the first session. Deb has told the class to oohs and ahs how one of her scripts placed second in a nationwide screenwriting competition. Deb also insists Cyndie is jealous of Deb’s screenplay idea: an action adventure in the vein of Raiders Of The Lost Ark where Eleanor Roosevelt goes undercover with the French Resistance and helps defeat a Nazi spy ring. Selma wonders if Eleanor Roosevelt is such a good idea for a female lead. It’s not like Eleanor was InStyle cover material.
Selma’s been struggling with her own screenplay. She’s always loved to tell stories. Growing up, all she heard was, “Selma, you have such an imagination.” But now, in her first screenwriting class, she’s stuck. She finally decides on writing a screenplay sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. But then Harper Lee’s lawyer announces the book has its own sequel.
Cyndie comes up to Selma after class. “I wish I could be as creative as you.” She has her hand on Selma’s wrist and she presses her fingers down, a friendly squeeze. Or is she taking Selma’s pulse?
By session four, Deb is deep into her screenplay. She’s added a new character, Joan of Arc. Selma explains to Deb, "She’s a ghost. Ghost movies are big. Think out of the box, Selma."
Everyone has a comment when Deb reads a scene to the class. Leather Jacket thinks it’s not very realistic, but his script is set on the rings of Saturn in 2525 so nobody really cares about his opinion. Scar Boy wants to know if Eleanor and Joan are naked. The too-thin girl wants to make sure Eleanor and Joan survive. Ben offers many suggestions, all supportive, and thinks Deb could use less description.
Cyndie has nothing to say. Which is odd, because she’s been a font of wisdom for the other writers. Instead, Cyndie produces a Tupperware container filled with key lime pie bars. Everyone can’t wait to try them, especially Ben. How did Cyndie know key lime is his favorite flavor?
Cyndie’s script is about, naturally, Cyndie. She’s had a strange and unusual life. It seems Cyndie’s father thought he’d been kidnapped by aliens and his sperm was somehow affected so that Cyndie’s DNA, if studied carefully, contains elements not known on this planet. Cyndie’s mother had been a Vegas show girl. Six feet tall, she could have been a model, but her hands and feet in photographs were too disproportioned. “Genetics,” Cyndie explains, flopping her leg on the conference table to reveal a tight leather boot. “Size eleven, can you believe that? My sister wears a twelve.”
“Maybe it’s the alien genetics,” says Unfunny Boy.
Cyndie’s script will be about her growing up with her eccentric family. When she was eight, her father moved the family to the Caribbean where he tried to raise marijuana and her mother was able to put her over-sized hands and feet to good use diving for pearls. The script begins with an 18 year old free-spirited wild child who’s spent years living on a remote island.
Selma and Deb are waiting for Ben to say, “You’re full of shit, Cyndie.”
Instead Ben says, "Tell us about the hurricane, Cyndie,”
“Did I mention I was naked most of the time?" Cyndie tells him and the class. "It made me feel so free. Even now, when I’m writing, it’s part of my ritual. I take off all my clothes, get into a warm bath, meditate, and then I sit down at my computer. Still naked. And wet, too. It reminds me of the tidal pools on the island.”
Ben turns bright pink. Selma can see that Deb has dug her fingernails into the palm of her hand so hard she’s drawn blood.
By sexual adventure number 15 and Tao sexual position Cat And Mice Sharing A Hole, Selma and Deb are ready to club Cyndie senseless. Deb is practically foaming at the mouth.
When class is over, Ben asks Cyndie to stay behind. Selma and Deb linger at the door and hear Ben say, “I think you’ve got a real shot with this.”
Selma imagines Cyndie’s reaction. A blush? Do people flutter their eyelashes anymore? She can hear Cyndie’s voice. “I don’t know, Ben. I’m afraid. Some of the people in this class, they’re so… professional.”
“Write what you know. Write what’s inside here.”
Deb gasps so loudly Selma has to put her hand over Deb’s mouth. They are both imagining Ben touching Cyndie’s heart. Quickly they head down the hallway, trying not to retch.
“It’s because he wants to fuck her,” says Deb, shoveling chocolate chip cheesecake into her mouth at Jerry’s Famous Deli. Deb pushes her fork on her plate to mush up the last few graham cracker crumbs. “If Ben’s such a hot screenwriter, what’s he doing teaching a shitty extension class?”
“He wants to share his knowledge, why else do teachers teach?” Selma defends Ben.
“We need to kill her.”
“What do you mean, ‘Kill her’? Kill Cyndie?”
The waitress appears. Deb wants more iced tea. And extra lemon slices
Selma’s wondering if she’s heard wrong.
“Don’t you think she deserves to die?" Deb continues "Do you want her to get an agent? She doesn’t deserve it. She’s a manipulative, lying, hideous Eve Harrington. Like you said, Selma.”
Selma looks straight at Deb. “You aren’t serious about killing Cyndie. It’s a joke, right?” she asks. “Margo Channing didn’t have to kill Eve Harrington. In fact, it’s a great ending in the movie. Another young girl sneaks into Eve’s hotel room and the audience gets the idea that she’s going to make Eve’s life a living hell, just like Eve did to Margo.”
Deb takes a slice of lemon and sucks on it. It puckers her mouth. “Totally serious. It’s her or us. I’m thinking a stabbing. Stab her with an icicle. So the evidence melts away.”
“Where do we get an icicle? We live in L.A.”
Deb sucks harder on the lemon. “We’ll create it. Keep it in a freezer. Carry it in a cooler. You’re in this with me, aren’t you?”
No, Selma wants to say. But she’s silent, just watching Deb and the lemons. They make her own mouth pucker.
On a night Deb is absent, Cyndie approaches Selma after class and says, “I think I could help you with your screenplay.” Selma forces a smile. Imagines the palm of her hand smashing flat against Cyndie’s cheek, the sound of flesh on flesh, the red rising to Cyndie’s face, the startled ‘O’ of her mouth. “You could come over to my place. I’ll make us decaf.”
She is not Satan, she is not Eve Harrington, it’s a writing class, that’s all – Selma keeps repeating as she drives to Cyndie’s apartment in Mar Vista. Cyndie’s apartment isn’t big. It has a window in the living room that looks straight out to the back wall of an Office Depot. The furniture is Ikea-like, particleboard and fake chrome. Cyndie is such a gracious host. If Cyndie were to appear in a crisp cotton apron holding a silver platter with canapés, Selma wouldn’t be surprised.
Please God, just don’t let her take off her clothes, Selma thinks to herself.
Cyndie walks out of the kitchen holding two jelly glasses filled with white wine, and a bag of Ruffles under her arm. She kicks off her shoes and settles on the sofa beside Selma, the Ruffles bag between them as Cyndie digs into Selma’s script. Although it makes Selma sick to admit it, Cyndie offers good advice. “Show, don’t tell,” she says. “Let us get to know the characters. What do you think? Why did you want to write this anyway?”
“To see what happens," Selma answers. "Like Ben says, you put somebody up a tree. And then what? That’s what I like about writing. The ‘then what.’ Isn’t that why you do it?”
Cyndie looks at Selma for a long beat. “I wasn’t sure about you at first. I thought you didn’t like me,” Cyndie says. “Some people think I try too hard, I can tell. But I’m just masking my own insecurity.”
“You don’t seem that insecure, Cyndie,” says Selma.
“That’s sweet of you to say. I want to make a good impression. I want people to know I’m serious about my writing.” Cyndie looks down at her lap. Is she going to cry? She reaches over and takes Selma’s hand.
Selma tries to smile and wipe away the image of Deb stabbing Cyndie in the heart with an icicle. Selma nods. Cyndie squeezes her hand harder.
“And because you’re such a true friend, I’ll tell you a secret.” She leans close. Selma thinks Cyndie is about to kiss her. Instead Cyndie says, “I’m going to drop the class. Ben read the first third of my script and he sent it out to a couple of agents. And one of them — well, all of them — adored it, but this one guy sent it to some studios. There’s a bidding war. And they want me to write it super fast so I’ll have time for the rewrite because Naomi Watts and Jude Law are only available until December.”
Selma can feel the wine coming back into her throat. She can’t speak.
“I had to tell somebody, I’ve been just dying, it’s so amazing. Who could imagine something like this happening to me?”
Who could imagine? Selma could dash into the bathroom and call Deb on her cell and ask her to get over here right away with the icicle. No, that won’t work. Maybe Selma will have to perform the deed alone. What could she do, strangle her? But Cyndie’s a big girl, she’s strong, she’s got a reason to live, she gets to meet Jude Law, she’ll fight hard to live.
No, Selma calls Deb who shows up. And Cyndie opens the door, surprised to see her. Deb is holding a small cooler. “What’s in the cooler?” Cyndie asks. “Ice," Deb says giving Cyndie a thin smile. The three women get drunk. Deb excuses herself and when she comes back, she’s wearing gloves. Cyndie is too drunk to notice. She’s in the middle of telling a story about meeting Bono at the Sherman Oaks Galleria when Deb plunges the icicle into Cyndie’s heart. Selma has to look away. The sound is terrible — a crack and a whoosh and the liquid sound of blood.
It happens so quickly that Cyndie hasn’t had time to scream.
“Jeez, are you gonna sit there or help me out here already.” Deb is trying to drag Cyndie’s body off the sofa. “Let’s put her in the bedroom and make it look like some sex crime. Don’t you watch Law & Order, SVU?”
Deb is tugging at Cyndie’s shoulders when Cyndie reaches up and grabs Deb around the throat. “Shit — she’s not dead yet.” Cyndie is making strangling sounds. Deb tries to pull Cyndie’s hands away but she’s making strangling sounds of her own. “Do something, Selma.”
Selma looks around. The icicle is a puddle on the floor. What to use as a weapon? Deb is having a hard time speaking now. Selma doesn’t like the sight of blood, the red stain in the middle of Cyndie’s chest unnerves her. Selma sees a huge book holding up one end of the coffee table. She jerks it out, moves close to Cyndie, and brings the book down hard on Cyndie’s head. Cyndie’s hands relax. Her arms flop back.
Deb pushes Cyndie’s body away. Selma looks at the book on the floor. The Film Encyclopedia, Second Edition.
Cyndie is waiting for Selma to say something. Selma takes a deep breath. “I’m really happy for you, Cyndie. But we’ll miss you in class.”
“I’ll make sure you get tickets to the premiere.”
On the way back to her apartment, Selma wonders what it would be like to drive her car into a telephone pole. Would she feel pain? Would the air bag save her life? Or could she just bury her face and let it suffocate her? Cyndie’s movie will be a box office smash, no doubt break every record in the books. She’ll win an Academy Award. Then win a second Academy Award for her screenplay adaptation of the book sequel for To Kill A Mockingbird.
Selma goes home and starts a new script, a thriller about two children who find a body and a wallet stuffed with money. She stays up all night, drinking a six-pack of Diet Dr. Pepper. The next morning she reads what she has written and is surprised to see that it’s not half-bad. She calls in sick to her day job at Barnes & Noble. Deb phones several times, but Selma doesn’t pick up. She keeps writing.
At the last class, Cyndie is not there. Ben seems subdued. Deb keeps hissing at Selma, "What’s the Cyndie scoop?"Selma doesn’t want to be the one to tell Deb about Cyndie’s screenplay and her agent. Deb’s told Selma she wasn’t really serious about killing Cyndie. Selma thinks if Deb finds out about Jude Law and Naomi Watts, Deb will no longer be a big kidder, but somebody growing old and grey on Death Row.
Everyone reads their last acts. Scar Guy’s is a Grand Guignol gore fest. Unfunny Boy reads his last act, a “wild and crazy” adventure at a mime convention, and laughs all the way through it. The French sisters have written a gentle script about a dog with magical powers. Deb’s script features a final battle between the French Resistance led by Eleanor and Joan of Arc, and the Nazis, through the sewers of Paris. Deb tells the class she’s thought about adding the Phantom of the Opera, but that might be overkill. People seem to like Selma’s new thriller. “You show some nice insight, Selma,” Ben tells her. “Engaging characters.”
Then Ben says, "Cyndie couldn’t make it tonight." Are tears welling up in his eyes? “She’s taking another class.”
What about Jude Law? And the bidding war? He says nothing about his sister’s agent husband at William Morris Endeavor. In the hallway, as they walk out, Selma approaches Ben. “Is Cyndie really taking another class?”
Ben nods. “A Robert McKee seminar. The famous screenwriting teacher. He only accepts six students. Getting into his class is extremely competitive.”
“Maybe her agent helped,” Selma suggests.
Ben looks puzzled. “Cyndie doesn’t have an agent. I wonder how she got in?”
Selma knows. She already has an idea for her next script.