OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: At Oscars time in Hollywood there are only winners and losers. 2,884 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
When I came back from New York a week later, Rebecca insisted on picking me up at the airport. The Los Angeles weather looked good on her. She was wearing a simple shift and sandals. Her muscular arms were tanned. Very obviously, her Oscars’ makeover had changed her.
"I have something to tell you," she said, as soon as I got into the car. She could have asked me how my business trip went, but no — she couldn’t wait to tell me what was going on with her. I waited. I could always tell her later about my boss and love interest Billy Ward finally asking me to join him for lunch on my second to last day at The W in Times Square. We ran into each other in the lobby. Billy had just checked in. I didn’t see him after that lunch, but I was sure I had made an impression.
“Shoot,” I said.
"Jaxson and I got married in Vegas." I was too flabbergasted to respond. "I know it’s a shock, but we drove out there and got a little tipsy, and before I knew it I was a married woman again." She held up her left hand to show me a slim gold band.
"You can get it annulled," I finally said.
“I don’t want to get it annulled."
"Are you in love with him?"
"Of course not." She moved her rental car into traffic carefully.
"Is he in love with you?"
"He says he is, but that’s not relevant."
"I’ve been alone for five years. I like Jaxson, I do. And he’s certainly easy on the eyes. We can spend some time together. It will be a relief to get off that damned mountain."
"You’re not going back to Vermont?"
"I’m buying a loft in downtown L.A."
"What about the goats and the farm and the cheese?"
"The caretaker can handle it. I have to thank you. I never expected this trip to change my life the way it has. All I really wanted was to get out of the cold."
"Well, it’s patently ridiculous. Jaxson obviously married Rebecca for her money," I said to my gay pal Gary a month after the Oscars. We were having brunch at Joan’s On Third.
"Rebecca is a nice woman," Gary countered.
"If there is a word that is duller than ‘nice,’ I haven’t found it." I bit into my second scone. The diet was going to hell. I’d gained seven pounds since I’d gotten back from New York. Rebecca was now ensconced in her presumably fabulous loft. When I moved to Venice, it was the edgy place. No longer. Now being downtown was, even though many blocks were still rife with homeless drug addicts.
The middle of March through the end of June are some of the busiest months at Spectacular Talent, and I have to admit that I didn’t make too much of an effort to see Rebecca. I expected her to try to see me. I’d check out my phone sheet to if she was on it, but she never was. Though I called her a couple of times, we never managed to get together. Jaxson no long worked at STA. I supposed Rebecca was keeping him like a pet.
Rebecca and Jaxson spent much of the summer in Vermont. I finally met Rebecca for lunch, but not until that fall. We met "in the middle" of L.A.. I dragged myself as far as Koreatown because I was in the mood for ethnic. Rebecca was wearing make-up, but with such grace that it looked like she wasn’t wearing any. Her skin was flawless. Now, if she would only do something about the gray hair.
One Tuesday in November, Billy came into our agency’s Lit meeting. He didn’t often attend since he was mainly a talent, not a literary, agent. He didn’t sit at the head of the table like he would at a full staff meeting. He slipped in toward the end just before we discussed new material. Billy’s appearance was so unusual that I wondered who’d been fired. There could be no other reason for his presence. Billy waited until department head Ezra Green asked if anyone had any new material.
"I have a script. It’s called Gaudy Monday." Billy said.
This was unheard of since it wasn’t up to Billy to discover new talent. In fact, Spectacular Talent Agency wasn’t in the market for new voices. We represented established writers. New writers were so much work and so much risk. If you had an eye on the bottom line, you didn’t rely on the lottery ticket of new talent.
"The writer’s name is Bex Sanders, and I need someone in the lit department to read it. I think she could be a new comedy talent."
Hands shot up around the table. No one was going to miss a chance to partner with Billy on a client. I was far too senior an agent to volunteer for a job like this, so I sat and smiled encouragingly at the junior agents.
I was curious, though. What kind of script would be so good that it would interest Billy? Or maybe Bex was his next bimbo.
Junior agent Skylar Lightman won the coveted spot of number two on Gaudy Monday. I emailed Sky for a copy as soon as I got out of the staff meeting. It took all the discipline I had not to start reading right away. But to be caught reading at work wasn’t exactly a feather in your cap.
That night at home, I sat out on my deck with a view of the ocean, dark and black as it was at this hour. Everyone thought that people in L.A. had outdoor lives and some do, I’m sure, but the agents at Spectacular were in the office from early morning to after dark. I rarely saw the light of day. I had three hours of reading left to do but I opened up my iPad to Bex Sanders’ script first.
I didn’t want to like it as much as I did, especially since I thought it was Billy’s attempt to give yet another airhead a step up. Bex? What kind of name was that? I pictured a twentysomething with fake breasts on an otherwise slim body. Don’t men realize that huge boobs on thin women are an aberration or just plain false.
Bex Sanders wasn’t stupid, not if she’d written this script. It was a deadpan look at L.A. from an outsider’s point of view. There was a laugh on every page. I stood up and vomited in my ficus plant. Maybe I was getting a bug.
The next morning, I hosed off the plant and dressed carefully in my scarlet power suit. I had to decide whether I wanted to tell Billy I’d read the script. We could bond over finding ways to sell his new talent. She’d have to come in for a meeting, and then I’d see her. Better still, I’d be able to watch Billy with her and gauge whether it was just her talent that interested him.
Billy’s office was on the third floor and his assistant, Albany, was guarding the door like Cerberus. "Is he in?" I asked.
She was tall and efficient. "Is he expecting you?"
I barged past her. Inside, the shades were drawn and the only light in the room was what managed to make its way through the cracks between blinds and the edge of the windows. He did not look well.
"Are you okay?"
“What’s the matter?”
“I think I may be in love.”
Oh, not again. "Is it Bex, the screenwriter?"
He looked up, surprised. "You amaze me sometimes."
Now I amazed him. Great. "I came to tell you I read the script."
His face lit up. He looked ten years younger, expectant, nervous. Even in the dim light, his brown eyes gleamed. "It’s good, isn’t it?"
"I was fairly sure of that, but I thought I might be biased, given how I feel about the writer."
"Tell me about her." Stick a knife in my heart. I looked around for flora and fauna whose pots I could use as a vomit repository.
"She’s married. A newlywed."
Oh, thank God. Poor Billy had gone round the bend this time, and now I’d be able to comfort the silly dolt. "Billy," I said, “it sounds like she’s not available,” I spoke in a low voice as if comforting someone having a mental breakdown.
He put his head in his hands. "This has never happened to me before. She’s not my usual type."
"You can have anyone you want. You don’t need a married woman. Forget about her."
He took a deep breath. "Thanks, Hilly, for letting me confide in you. "
"I’m always here for you, Billy. You know that. I want what’s best for you — what’s best for STA. This company is my whole life."
"You should think about getting married," he said, as if that’s all you had to do, think about it, to get it to happen.
Then, I did it. I might never get another chance. "You and I would make a great power couple," I said. "We could run the world." Then I smiled, trying to pretend that what I was saying was a joke even though I was deadly serious.
He laughed. Not a guffaw, more a gurgle. "Hilly and Billy."
Inside I was screaming I love you. I want to have your babies before my eggs turn to raisins. I want us to grow old together, to buy a house in the Malibu Colony. I want to write a script, and I want you to love it as much as you love hers.
In the new year Rebecca was holding her own Oscar party. This would have been awkward in the extreme if she hadn’t chosen the night before the Oscars instead of Sunday like everyone else. I wondered how a person who didn’t work iand was married to a guy whose most recent job was setting up conference room meetings had met enough people to invite to a party. I figured I’d be the only one there. I hoped my cousin wouldn’t be disappointed when the turnout was less than she expected.
When I arrived at Rebecca’s building, there was a valet to park cars. I took the elevator to the penthouse. Rebecca’s Vermont mansion had been cluttered and homey, but this place was grandly pristine. The loft was wall-to-wall partygoers. Jaxson, apparently, had loads of friends in the fashion industry and they were there en masse, each one dressed more outlandishly than the next. Then there were the celebrities, at least seven scattered throughout a room that would dwarf an Olympic-sized swimming pool. I wandered through the artists, fashionistas, and actors. I didn’t see Rebecca anywhere. The hipness factor here made Billy Ward’s Oscar party look like a barn dance.
It was Jaxson who found me. "Hilly, I’m so glad you came."
"Where’s Rebecca?" I asked.
"She’s right over there." He pointed to a striking woman with short spiky blonde hair. Although her figure wasn’t perfect, her layered look emphasized a voluptuous promise. She came toward me and wrapped me in a hug. "Hilly, darling, you’ve changed my life. Totally. I have you to thank for all this." She opened her arms and spun around unselfconsciously. This was not the kind of uninhibited move my cousin Rebecca was known for. She took my hand and led me toward the back of the loft where there was a separate bedroom. The California King only took up a small section of the space, and the rest held two comfortable chairs. Scripts and books were piled everywhere. "Sit. I have to tell you something."
I fell into a chair. “Did you have work done?” I asked, leaning forward to look into her face.
“Work? Well, I had a lot of work done on the apartment,” she said. “It was just a shell when I bought it.”
“I thought you were about to tell me you had plastic surgery.”
“Why would I tell you that?”
“Then you haven’t had any?”
“Of course not,” she said.
“But there’s something different about you.”
"I’m in love. That’s what it is." She squeezed my hand. “And I have you to thank.”
"All I did was introduce you to Jaxson," I said. And, really, I hadn’t expected her to marry him, and I would have been perfectly happy if she hadn’t.
"It’s not Jaxson," she said. Her face went pink.
"But you married him."
"And I’m so grateful to him. I know you think he married me for my money. Frankly, I didn’t care what anyone thought. I jumped off a cliff and landed on a cloud." She fluttered her hands in front of her face and then rested them in her lap.
"Are you going to divorce Jaxson?"
"Eventually. But I want to make it easy on him."
"The fact that you’re rich should make it pretty easy on him."
"Oh, Hilly," she laughed, "don’t be so ridiculous. We have a prenup. Still, I want to make sure he’s well provided for."
"Who are you in love with, then?”
“Someone my own age.” She paused and looked into her lap. "Billy Ward."
My Billy Ward? “But you only met him that once at the Oscar party."
“I’ve seen him a few more times since then. I wrote a script, and I sent it to him."
"Why didn’t you tell me?"
"I didn’t want to bother you. You’d already done so much for me, and since I’d met him at the party and he was really nice, I called him. I didn’t want to get any special treatment for being your cousin so I didn’t remind him who I was and he didn’t remember. He said he was happy to read my script."
"People like Billy Ward don’t do that."
How could I explain? Because if she knew the unwritten rules, she’d know that only neophytes and rubes went straight to the top at an agency. Then it hit me. "You’re Bex Sanders." Rebecca, Becks, Bex. Jaxson Sanders. Bex Sanders. I hadn’t remembered Jaxson’s last name. At STA, we’d nicknamed him Jax Set-ups.
My cousin Rebecca was on her way to fame, success, and love, not because she refused to follow the rules but because she had no idea what the rules were. Whereas I had assiduously learned the rules and had been following them for over a decade.
There was no point in telling her now that I loved Billy Ward. it would only cause awkwardness later. The fact that Billy hadn’t equated Bex Sanders with the Rebecca Braddock he’d met in the scrum of his Oscar party last year was a testament to how much she’d changed.
"I’m going to give Jaxson all the money from the script, and I’ll make him a producer on the project. You think that will make it okay for him?"
"If he really loves you, nothing will make it okay for him," I said.
"Please don’t say that,"
"I’m just stating the truth."
"That’s what I do. Only when I do it, everyone thinks it’s hilarious." She looked like she barely understood it herself. "Sometimes, I feel like I’m living in a dream." She was. She was living in my dream. Rebecca stood up. "We’d better get back to the party." She went first and turned to me at the door. "You always thought I was a little dull, didn’t you?"
“Not true,” I lied.
"Never know when the world’s going to surprise you," she said.
I followed her out into the throng of guests. The elevator at the end of the loft opened and spat out Billy Ward. "Hilly, what a pleasant surprise. What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Rebecca is my cousin," I said. "Bex Sanders is my cousin. I only found out tonight they’re the same person."
"You’re in love with my cousin," I said.
"That’s good news. You can put in a good word for me." He twisted his fingers together like a nervous teenager.
"I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“You think she likes me?” He asked, sounding fourteen, not forty-five.
"I do." I walked away, out to the balcony that looked down on a city that was both old and new, a downtown in the midst of a renaissance. The lights twinkled. The cars buzzed. If I jumped off this balcony, everyone would wonder why. Then they’d have a big Hollywood funeral for me. Then they’d go on with their lives.
I’m not sure I can blame Rebecca. She wasn’t a thief who’d broken into my house and taken my valuables. She was more like a squatter who’d wandered into an empty home and set up shop. The problem was that I was still in it.
I didn’t jump off the building. I am not the Anna Karenina type. I am more Jane Eyre, steadfast and reliable. Maybe that makes me the dull one. But then I can’t see Rebecca dying for love either. And she won’t have to because she’s got everything I ever wanted.
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