OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: You don’t have to win an Academy Award to have your life transform. 2,476 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
By the time my cousin Rebecca called to ask if she could spend February with me, I’d already planned a business trip right after the Oscars. She said she’d be fine staying in my house by herself. And who wouldn’t be? I have a condo in Venice with a view of the Pacific. It would be a great place to visit if I didn’t already live there and, since Rebecca lives in Vermont, I can see how it would appeal to her.
We are first cousins and were born only one month apart which is a problem when it comes to her visiting because I’ve been cutting seven years off my age since I arrived out here and Rebecca is likely to blow my cover. She doesn’t even dye her hair; that’s the least a woman can do. I went trophy-wife red five years ago. I’m a regular Rita Hayworth in a business suit.
I didn’t have the heart to refuse Rebecca who, at forty-three, was a widow. Five years ago, her husband, Harold Braddock III, was lost while climbing Annapurna. Rebecca has still not forgiven him even though he left her his enormous fortune.
Rebecca would be here for my boss’s Oscar Party. Billy Ward, the fearless leader at Spectacular Talent Agency, was holding it in the The Theatre at the Ace Hotel. Digging up a date each year for the Oscar party was a chore, especially this year since my sights were set on Billy Ward who was between wives. I’d been in love with Billy since my first day at STA. He had buckets of charisma and charm enough to land the whole entertainment industry at his feet.
The past few years of my Academy Awards party dates had not been auspicious. Last year I brought Stew Dickman, a writer who’d just had a major success with a thriller called Scattered Limbs. He was under the impression that he was more famous than he actually was, which caused some awkwardness when I introduced him to several people who had never heard of him. It didn’t help when I saw him filling his pockets with shrimp.
This time I wasn’t taking any chances, so I had invited my best friend Gary. I couldn’t call him now and tell him I was taking Rebecca. I’d have to nab another invite and find someone to take my cousin.
I had noticed Jaxson vaguely, as you do when a mailroom employee looks like a model. He was tall and slim and approaching thirtym which was a little old for the mailroom. But then Jaxson wasn’t in the training program. He just delivered mail around the office and did set-ups for meetings. No promotion was in his future. Jaxson took pride in his work. When he set out cookies and plates, fruit and flatware, it was done with both grace and precision.
The next day after Rebecca arrived, I was the first to arrive for the meeting and I watched Jaxson fanning the napkins. "Where did you learn to do that?" I asked.
"My mother always taught me that, when you do anything, you should do it right," he said. When he spoke, he looked me straight in the eyes. Even though I was pretending to be thirty-six, so there were only five years between us, I couldn’t date him. He was in the mailroom, and I was an agent. This was a class distinction that could not be transcended, not by a woman anyway, even though men did it all the time.
"Do you have a date on Oscar night?" I asked.
"I don’t think so, ma’am," he said, looking at me like I was speaking gibberish.
"I wonder if you’d do me a favor then? My cousin is going to be here for Bill Ward’s Oscar party and I was wondering — if you weren’t taking anyone – would you take her?"
He stood still for a moment as if caught in a beam of light.
"I’ll pay you, of course. Would five hundred be all right?"
"Just to take her to the party? Is there something wrong with her?"
"Not per se."
"You don’t have to pay me."
"It would make me feel better."
He shrugged. "Okay, then."
When Rebecca arrived at LAX, she was even dowdier than I remembered. It wasn’t that she was fat, it was that her bottom was bigger than her top. Small breasts run in our family. Both our mothers, who were sisters, couldn’t have put together a size C cup between them. I had been seriously contemplating buying implants with this year’s bonus. Anything to get Billy Ward’s attention. As far as I was concerned, there was no reason on earth that a person with as much money as Rebecca had to look her age.
I gave her a big hug. Neither of us had siblings, so this was as good as it got. Rebecca was wearing a coat that made her look like a pile of tires. "How was the flight?" I asked.
"I treated myself to First Class. It was lovely." She could take first class flights all over the world and never run out of money. But, in her old Yankee way, it had to be a treat instead of a matter of course. "Let’s get something to eat," I offered.
It was the Saturday before the Oscars, and I had to figure out what I would say to Rebecca to keep her from blurting out that we were the same age. With her gray bob and frumpy sweater, she looked ancient. We went to a restaurant in Marina Del Rey and ate outdoors with a view of Mother’s Beach.
"I can’t believe it’s December,” Rebecca said. “I was snowed in last week. It gets a little lonely up on that mountain." She leaned back and lifted her face to the sun. "Maybe I should sell up and change my life."
"What would you do with the goats?" I asked, since Braddock Farm was famous for its goat cheese.
"I don’t think I’d miss the goats. They were fun when Harry and I did the whole thing together."
"You miss him," I said, wondering what it was like to love like that.
"Any other men in your life?"
She shook her head. "You?" she asked.
"I’ve been in love with the same man for years, but I don’t think he sees me as a woman."
"As what then?"
She took a sip of her iced tea and looked pretty all of a sudden. Relaxed. Her face was unlined, but if she didn’t start wearing sunscreen she was going to be in trouble. And a dab of foundation wouldn’t go amiss, either.
"So I thought you’d enjoy going to this Oscar party my boss is having. It’s a total scene. There’s too much of everything. Mountains of shrimp. Tables of sushi. Last year there were acrobats. This year the table’s centerpieces are going to be baskets of canned goods and toys for charity. It was my idea. I was hoping to impress my boss. He’s totally into giving back."
"How lucky for you," Rebecca said.
“I guess.” I stared out toward the bobbing boats in the bay. "And I got you a date for the party."
"Do I need one?"
“I was already bringing my friend Gary, so I found someone for you."
"Thanks, Hilly. It was so nice of you to think of it."
"I feel bad enough about abandoning you for this business trip I have to make to New York during your visit.”’
"Don’t. You told me what your plans were. I’m imposing, sorry, but I needed to get out of the snow. And I really wanted to see you."
"I’m glad you’re here." And I was. "There’s just one thing. Everyone around here thinks I’m thirty-six,"
She looked at me with her large green eyes. I would have liked eyes like that; mine were brown. "Really?" She sa,id as if she didn’t believe it which didn’t do much for my confidence. She took a breath and smiled. "And you think I’m going to expose you?"
I shrugged. "Not on purpose."
"I won’t tell anyone we’re the same age."
"I’d appreciate that."
"Do I look that old?" she asked, taking out her cell and tapping an app and looking at herself. "I suppose I do. I don’t spend too much time or money on my looks. I figure I am what I am."
"Have you thought of coloring your hair?" I asked.
"I’ve thought about it. I always decide against it. All those harsh chemicals."
I made two appointments at a salon on Abbott-Kinney on the afternoon before the party. I already had a dress, but I was hoping I could get Rebecca to do a little shopping. She had displayed the dress she had brought by laying it out on the bed in my guest-room. Hot pink and kelly green — definitely Talbots. I knew Talbots when I saw it; after all, I did go to prep school just like she had. But preppy was never my style. I was artsy. That’s what had brought me out to Los Angeles. I wanted to write screenplays. Instead, I ended up representing writers who wrote screenplays.
"You don’t like my dress," Rebecca said when she modeled it for me.
"I just think we can do better."
"How about if I put myself in your hands?"
It was then that I remembered the thing I had always liked best and hated most about my cousin Rebecca. She was so malleable, a regular chameleon. When we were at Deerfield Academy, she was the preppiest prep in the pack. With her husband Harry, she became the great country lady. I couldn’t turn her into a Hollywood hipster in one day, but I could go a long way toward making sure she didn’t embarrass me.
Georgina always did my hair and, since Rebecca and I were getting ours done at the same time, Georgie chose Leon to take care of my cousin. We sat in chairs beside each other, and I watched Leon flick at Rebecca’s gray locks with his thumb and forefinger and sigh deeply.
"Is it that bad?" Rebecca asked.
"Oh, honey. It’s worse," he said.
"She lives in Vermont," I explained.
"That’s no excuse," he said, twisting a curl around his fingers.
"Put a sock in it, Leon," Georgie ordered. "She’s paying good money to be transformed — not insulted."
Rebecca looked into the mirror. "He’s just trying to help."
“What do you use on your face?” Leon asked, running a thumb along her skin.
“Crayons,” Rebecca said. At that, Leon started to laugh and so did Georgie. “Make-up sticks that I get from the drugstore. I just mark up my face like an American Indian about to do battle and then smooth it on with my fingers.”
The hilarity increased. "Is that funny?" Rebecca asked.
“Just the way you said it,” Georgie said.
"What moisturizer?" Leon asked.
“Oh, Bag Balm. We use it on the goats.”
Both Georgie and Leon opened their eyes wide and bit their lips. I didn’t see what was so humorous because Rebecca was only stating a fact about her life.
When I came out of the salon, my hair was longer due to the judicious use of extensions. I swung my head around for the full effect. I looked better, but not different. Rebecca, however, was transformed. Her hair was short on the sides and back, long on the top. Leon made it shine. I never noticed it before but with the short haircut, Rebecca’s green eyes were so big, she looked like a Disney Princess.
I took her to Vince, the high-end clothing boutique where she bought a gray sheath that slid sensuously over her hips. As it turned out, the lumpy L.L.Bean jeans and A-line skirts hadn’t been doing Rebecca any favors.
When Jaxson arrived in a black suit, he looked like he’d come straight off the cover of a romance novel. Of course, those men are usually in disarray, bare chests heaving, but I find business attire more alluring. The car met us at my building, and I was feeling festive when we stopped to pick up Gary on the way.
"Gay best friend, at your service," Gary said, scooting in beside me. Because there were four of us, I had ordered a stretch limo. My philosophy was that you should begin as you mean to go on and I aspired to great luxury. Rebecca, with all her money, could have offered to pitch in but I was her hostess, and I wouldn’t have let her even if she had asked — which she didn’t.
I had to admit that four was more lively than two, and Rebecca had been transformed by the clothes and the haircut. Even so, I was worried that she’d out me. Rebecca looked better than she had, but not necessarily younger. My own blue form-fitting dress had only a few more inches of material than a one piece bathing suit. I’d been starving myself because this was the year Billy Ward was going to see me for who I was — a worthy consort to the king.
When we arrived, Billy was standing in the middle of the lobby of the restored historic theatre. The place brought me right back to the days of the MGM musical. I would be Debbie Reynolds to his Gene Kelly as we jump-clicked across the vintage tile.
The first job any successful executive has at an Oscar party is to greet the people who are above her in the Hollywood hierarchy. Not to do this would be to miss a valuable opportunity to suck up. So I left Gary to fend for himself — he was good at that, which was one reason he was my favorite companion — and I did my rounds, ending with Billy. That’s where I wanted to linger. From what I could see, he’d come stag. With my silky hair extensions, spray tan, Jimmy Choos, and Jason Wu cocktail dress, I finally had the look and shape of the airheads Billy was so fond of. Of course, his last wife was in her twenties and I was reputedly thirty-six. By now, Billy had to see that he needed more than a young face to help him run his life and empire.
As it turned out, the Oscar party wasn’t the best place for me to spend time with my boss. He was too busy making everyone feel important. He did take the time to dance with my cousin Rebecca, and I found this gratifying because I knew it was his way of giving me attention without being obvious about it.
Three days later, I left for New York.
Part Two tomorrow
Oscar®, Academy Award®, and AMPAS® are registered trademarks of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ©AMPAS.