A 17-year-old Latina aspiring actress has the best and worst day of her fledgling showbiz career. 2,073 words. Part One. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I drove back down Franklin Avenue until I reached the 101 Coffee Shop. I sat at the counter and tried to come up with a game plan. I pulled up Craigslist on my cell and scoured the rental listings. Everything was too expensive. The cheapest was a share in Koreatown for $500 a month. I called the number.
“I’m calling about your furnished room. Is it still available?”
The woman who answered made an appointment for me to see it in 30 minutes. As I drove, I felt a lump form in my throat like I was going to cry. I pressed the worn out button next to Unit 3 and entered the creaky elevator. Please don’t be a murderer, I whispered to myself. To my relief, the woman was in her twenties with a warm smile.
“Hi. I’m Liz. Let me take you on the grand tour,” she said wryly. The place was tiny. “I’m never around. I work all the time as an assistant in a talent agency. What do you do?”
“I just moved here. I’m a model and an actress,” I told her.
“I figured,” she said looking at me.
To rent the room, I needed to pay one month’s rent in advance. My heart sank.
“I’m filming a Target commercial next week and can give you the money as soon as I get paid.”
Liz’s face had a skeptical look.
“I swear it’s true. I really need this place.” Then I did the unthinkable. I took off the gold necklace with a small diamond pendant around my neck and gave it to her. “Here. Take this until I pay you. Please be careful with it. It was my Mom’s.”
Maybe it was the tear on my cheek or my shaking hands but Liz took pity on me. “When do you think you’ll move in?”
“I have all my stuff downstairs.”
After making the bed and unpacking my suitcase into a makeshift dresser, I asked her if I could use the shower. I turned on the hot water knob until it wouldn’t turn anymore. I wanted the water to burn. So I could feel anything other than the pain I had been trying to suffocate since the moment I walked in on the musician with the girl. Salty tears began raining down my face. Nobody loved me. Nobody would care if I died. Worse, nobody would even know, except for a stranger in Koreatown.
I ached for the time in my life when Mom was still alive and would say to me, “I’m proud of you,” after I got a good part in the school play. I needed her now to say to me, “You’re stronger than you know, Natalia.” I didn’t just miss her; I was pissed at her for leaving me. I shouted, “My whole life has gone to shit since you died! Dad is an asshole! Dee is even worse! Why did you bother having me if you were going to die? I hate you!”
And, with that, I collapsed on the bathroom floor and apologized. “I’m sorry, Mom. I know you loved me and wouldn’t have left if you’d had a choice. It’s just that life is so hard. I wish you were here to help me.”
Liz knocked on the door. “Are you OK?” she asked.
As the week wore on, I was eager for the commercial job to start. Not just because of the money. I wanted to be around other people. Liz would leave early in the morning and come home late. On the rare night when we talked, it felt like a hit of oxygen after being deprived of breathing for too long.
By the end of the week, Model Emporium called with my marching orders. The commercial would make me eligible to join SAG-AFTRA. The day of the shoot, I arrived hours before call time and walked down the Venice boardwalk. I finally spotted a yellow sign with black font that had “Target” written on it and an arrow pointing to a trailer. The door was open. A woman in her thirties greeted me.
“Are you Natalia? I’m Meg. Come on in, beautiful. I bet you get that all the time.”
“This is my first job,” I told her.
“Then I’m going to take extra good care of you because you’re popping your cherry today!”
My hair was washed and blow-dried, and my makeup applied. About forty-five minutes in, a production manager with a clipboard announced, “Wardrobe is ready for her.”
“I’m just putting on the finishing touches,” Meg told him. She looked me me over one last time and declared, “Perfection.”
Someone began pounding loudly on the trailer door. A man in his thirties with blond highlighted hair appeared with clothes spilling out of his arms. “Look at you!” Tom exclaimed, “This is going to be fun.” He proceeded to drape each piece over me, then asked me to try on three outfits. I began walking with them to the bathroom.
“Don’t worry, honey. You don’t have anything I’m interested in.”
I put on the first outfit and was stunned by what I saw in the mirror. I looked like an older and air-brushed version of myself. Tom seemed very pleased with himself. “I nailed it,” he grinned.
At that moment, the director walked in. He didn’t introduce himself. He just looked at me, motioned to one of the outfits that I wasn’t wearing and walked out.
“I guess you need to change,” Tom said.
We all gathered on the sandy beach as various people prepped lights and cameras. A young guy made sure I knew my lines. They started shooting. I did take after take, listening to their advice. “More animated!” “You’re talking to a friend.” “Pretend you’re in a hurry.”
By the end of the day, my throat hurt and I just wanted to rest. Tom told me the crew was going out for dinner and asked if I wanted to come along. I showed him my wallet. It had twelve dollars inside.
Meg walked over to us. “Guess what? Since lunch never arrived, Target is taking us out to dinner.” I was in.
We went to a fish restaurant on Abbot Kinney and the director, who still hadn’t told me his name, sat on one side of me and Tom on the other. I ordered pasta with clams and a side of French fries, which I inhaled along with all the table’s bread and butter.
The director looked at me. “Hungry?”
After dinner he invited us all back to his loft. Tom convinced me to go. Everybody had been drinking since dinner, but I’d been too scared to even order a beer in case I got carded. They assumed I was in AA. “Honey, it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Tom reassured me.
After about an hour, I went to the bathroom. When I returned, everyone had gone except for the director.
“Sorry, I didn’t realize the party was over,” I told him.
“I asked them to leave.”
I suddenly felt uncomfortable. “I’m going to go.”
“No, you’re not.” The director walked toward me in a drunken stupor and lunged his tongue toward my face.
I pushed him away. “I’m sorry if you got the wrong impression…”
“You like to play hard to get, huh?” He grabbed me and threw me on the couch, pinning me down. “Come on, you know you want it, you dirty little cunt ” he said, pulling my shorts down.
I yelled and tried to fight him off. When I was eleven, Mom made me join a Girls Scout troop. I learned two things. If you eat too many peanut butter cookies, you’ll throw up. And if a bear attacks, you poke it in the eyes and run. This director wasn’t a bear but he was a beast. So I pointed my two fingers and stuck both in his eyes as hard as I could. He screamed at the top of his lungs, then fell down in excruciating pain on the floor next to his couch.
“What the fuck!? You’ll never work in this town again!”
I pulled up my shorts and ran out the front door and didn’t stop running until I reached my car. I drove home crying. When I walked in, Liz was watching TV until she saw my face. “What happened?”
I couldn’t keep it inside. I broke down and told her everything
“We should go to the police. Men get away with this shit all the time in this business,” Liz said angrily.
“Not now," I replied. "I’m too freaked out. I just keep thinking about what could have happened if I hadn’t fought him off.”
“Do you need anything?”
I didn’t know where to begin. My Mom, a family, a friend.
“I’m okay,” I told her.
“How about some popcorn?”
We spent the next hour eating and talking. She had all kinds of questions for me about Mom, Dad, Dee, José, Selma, and what brought me to LA. She was surprised I’d been bullied by girls in school.
“When I first met you, I assumed you had it easy because of the way you look.” She had been bullied growing up gay in a small town in Iowa. “I never thought I’d have THAT in common with you.”
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” I told her.
“They should make an ‘It Gets Better’ campaign for pretty girls. But it doesn’t really. I mean, everyone gets uglier as they get older.”
We both laughed. She had taken me in when I didn’t have anyplace to go. She was there for me the night I was assaulted. And she made me believe again that there were good people in the world, some even in Hollywood. She was my first real friend.
I had trouble sleeping that night. My heart kept racing and every time I started to drift off, a flashback of the director pinning me down on the couch jolted me awake again. My body finally gave out as the sun began to rise. But not for long.
My cell phone kept ringing. It was Laurie.
“Hello,” I said in a groggy voice.
“I heard you were difficult to work with. Do you want to pack your bag and go back to the mall where I found you?”
“What do you mean?” I was now very awake.
“I’m having to take time out of my very busy workday to do damage control because of you. You’re not getting paid.”
I felt my blood boil. I had fought back a rapist and now she was going to keep my paycheck for herself? There was no way in hell I was going to let her get away with that. I hung up, drove straight to her office and ran in. Her assistant tried to stop me but it was too late. I stormed into Laurie’s office.
“I’m here to get paid for the job I did yesterday.”
“I told you. You caused problems. And those problems have cost me my time, which is money.”
“Problems because I didn’t let the director rape me?”
“He tried to rape me at his loft.”
“Why were you at his place?”
“The entire crew went back there after the shoot.”
“You probably gave him the wrong idea.”
She wasn’t a person. She was a monster.
“I didn’t drink. I didn’t flirt. When I came out of the bathroom, he’d sent the entire crew home and he attacked me.”
“There were only two of you there, so nobody will ever know what really happened.”
“And if you don’t pay me, I’m going to the police and telling them you agreed to represent a seventeen year old without her parents’ permission who was attacked by a director on the job.”
Laurie stared back at me in shock.
“Uh… uh… fine,” she stammered and then quickly collected herself. “I’ll advance you the check for the day rate today and the residuals will start coming in a month after the commercial starts to air.”
I walked out of the office and slammed the door without saying a word. When Liz came home that night after work, I told her what Laurie had tried to do. Liz was furious and wanted to help me get different representation. She said her agency had just promoted a new commercial agent, Eli, who was looking for clients.
This short story first posted here on June 28, 2016.