Will ambition kickstart his movie career or kill his marriage? 2,292 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“So, yeah, this is risky. But life goes fast, Emma. We’re both starting to realize that. In two years we’ll be invited to our fifteen-year high school reunions and the next fifteen years will fly by. I want to have fun making films.”
“No, I think you want to feel like an important filmmaker. You want to drive some German sports car around Beverly Hills and sit by the swimming pool with movie stars and get the cool table at Craig’s. You want to read about yourself in Variety. You want to be respected by people you hate. Fine. But there’s no way to get that stuff unless you gamble with both of our lives. You can’t spin it, Mike. Paramount is safe, that’s a fact. You have friends there. If something happens, they’ll find you a job somewhere else. You’re always telling me that getting fired is the best way to get a promotion by moving from studio to studio. It’s a club and you’re finally a member. If you turn your back on that, they’ll be rooting for you to fail. And when it happens, you’ll be tainted goods. Is that what you want?”
Mike spoke very slowly into the burning silence of her stare. “I am not going to fail.”
“Really? So then tell me: when have you ever succeeded?”
“That’s not fair.”
“My life is at stake. So, sorry, fair doesn’t matter to me right now. What matters is making you see the truth before it’s too late.”
Mike rummaged helplessly for something to say back to Emma. It seemed that all the words had been used up. There were just three left.
“I want this.”
“You can have it. But you can’t have me, too. You can’t keep having everything you want because I can’t stand it anymore. I can’t live like this and I won’t live like this. I met you halfway when you took the Paramount job. I wanted to leave L.A. but I stayed on because you convinced me it was a good thing. So you have to choose. You can have this game you want to play, or you can have me. You can’t have both.”
Mike looked away from Emma’s eyes, studying the microwave oven. Like most of their appliances it was German, and he’d never really learned how to work it properly. He jammed his eyes closed. Something Bill Terhune said a long time ago came back to him. It was just after a friend’s divorce, and Bill was musing on the non-negotiable demands that had broken up the marriage.
“Ultimatums are women’s favorite form of gambling.”
Emma was gambling now, but not even she knew if she was bluffing or not. And suddenly a new humiliation occurred to Mike: he was living out the lives of all the characters in all the bad scripts he had read. Where the wife says, “If you leave now, I won’t be here when you get back.”
And he was supposed to say, “I’m a producer, damn it.”
It wasn’t exactly that he didn’t want to lose Emma; he was no longer sure how he felt about her. But he didn’t want to go through the ordeal of a divorce. He didn’t have the energy for it. He knew there would be months of sustained merciless acrimony, lawyers, court dates and depositions with old sins and grudges aired in public. He’d lose their home and half their savings. But the worst part was that somehow he would be the villain, the Hollywood operator whose reckless greedy fantasies had ruined their life together.
He couldn’t even say for sure that it wasn’t true. Emma was alarmingly persuasive. Her vision of the world was complete and self-referential. She had the answers to every question and they all made sense, at least while you were talking to her. He wasn’t sure about billionaire Carl Kreiden’s commitment to moviemaking or to his newly minted Filmwerk executive Bill Terhune.
Mike had never done much to impress anyone with his business acumen so Emma’s assessment of the dangers seemed chillingly accurate. Mike could see his former boss sitting around the pool, telling everyone how he tried to warn “the kid.” That would get a chuckle: human wreckage was always good for a laugh north of Sunset and west of La Cienega.
Still, all that freedom. Jim had made it sound real. Emma had made it sound like a practical joke that should never fool anyone twice. Some childish part of Mike wanted to get Jim and Emma in a room together and let them fight it out.
Maybe Jim could convince her. Mike couldn’t.
He wasn’t convinced himself.
“Okay,” he said, finally, to his wife. “You’re right. I’m out. I’ll call Jim in the morning.”
“Thank you,” Emma said quietly. But when he took a step toward her, she stepped backward; the old familiar dance of their terminal intimacy. “I need to be alone for a while.”
Mike’s drive to work the next day seemed to confirm his decision. It always felt good going through that elaborate studio gate, chatting with the guard and then cruising into the hurried activity of the big lot. It was like a small city with all the speed and intensity the rest of Los Angeles lacked. And he was at home in the middle of it. This was his town, too.
It was eleven in the morning before he got around to the phone call, and he found himself hoping to get Jim’s voicemail. Like most people, Mike preferred to just leave a message. At best, combined with caller ID on his phone, it allowed him to avoid confrontation altogether without appearing to. Even if he wound up talking after playing phone tag for a while, voicemails at least slowed the pace of the conversation. It gave him time to think. Mike jabbed in the numbers and heard the phone ring three times. He really was dreading this call. A tiny skip in the last ring told him Jim’s voicemail was going to pick up. Mike exhaled and waited.
“Hi, this is Jim and today I have the classic Hollywood answer: ‘I loved it. But my partner hated it.’ Leave a message at the beep.”
Mike smiled, took a breath and began.
“Jim, this is Mike. I’ve been thinking about your offer and I have to say no. I’m sure you’ll find someone else, better qualified, who’s free to do it. Look, I have a great job and I don’t want to lose it. I have a future here. Not that there’s no future at Filmwerk. But those indie production companies are a high-risk deal and I’m at Paramount, Jim. Paramount. It’s a real movie studio that’s been around since the twenties. It’s not going to go under if it puts out a couple of flops. I know I’m playing it safe, but that’s bad. Danger sounds cool until you’re in it. Then it sucks. Anyway, thanks for the offer. It’s good to know you still want to work with me. Maybe we can do it someday. But this isn’t the right time. We’ll talk soon.”
Mike hung up the phone. It wasn’t great but it was finished; awkward but painless. His words were in limbo, spoken but unheard. They might never be heard; messages erase, voicemails break. Nothing was final yet. But that was idiotic: he might as well imagine a stick of dynamite wasn’t final because the fuse was still burning.
The explosion came ten minutes later when Jim called back.
“Here’s what you say after you get my voicemail. ‘We need to talk. Call me at the office.’ You don’t hide behind it. That’s kid stuff. Like having your Mom get on the phone and say you’re sick so you can go to the movies with the cool group instead of you having to playing softball with the losers.”
Mike had done that. He had told Jim about it. That was a mistake; Jim never forgot anything.
“We all went to the funeral so we know your Mom isn’t available anymore. That’s Emma’s job now. I’m surprised she didn’t do the dirty work for you.”
“Jim – ”
“Look, I understand that she’s running things. And she laid down the law. Which is fine. Do what you like, do what she likes, whatever. But you need to think about what’s really happening, Mike. Why do you think she cares so much?”
“She cares about me. She wants me to have a stable job. She wants me to build a career.”
Jim made a harsh buzzing noise, like when “time’s up” on a quiz show. “Wrong. Totally wrong. So wrong it’s funny. Except it’s not politically correct to laugh at cripples like you anymore.”
“Hold on a second – ”
“No. You hold on. You have to listen to this because everybody knows it but you. The same way everybody but me knew that Chloe was wrecking my life. Even my fucking chiropractor knew. He said to me, “These vertebral subluxations would be far less frequent and severe if you had less stress at home.” And he was right. My back hasn’t gone out once since Chloe left me. Coincidence? I don’t think so. The point is, no one was surprised when we broke up. Everybody was ecstatic. You said to me, ‘I thought you’d never do it.’ And I pointed out that I didn’t do anything. I would have hung on forever trying to make things right, and I’d still be married to that fucking shrew, if she hadn’t left me. But my friends would have given up on me years ago.”
“I wouldn’t have.”
“I know that, Mike. And I’m not giving up on you, either. So let me tell you the hard truth about your wife. She wants to kill your dream. She’s bitter and jealous and angry. She has good reason to be because her dream is never going to come true or it already would have. She’d be decades into a successful career by now. Music is brutal that way. Thirty-year-old pianists don’t make their debuts at the Carnegie recital hall. Ten-year-old pianists do. It’s a fact and she knows it. She failed, Mike. She didn’t have what it takes. But you do. You could actually make it in this town and that’s killing her. She’s going to make your life as bad as she can until you give up. She knows what this opportunity means to you. That’s why she can’t let it happen.”
“This is way out of line, Jim. You breeze back into my life and just assume you can – ”
“But that’s the whole point. We didn’t see each other for almost three years and, when we get back together, everything’s exactly the same. No, sorry, actually it’s much worse. You think you can make her happy, but you can’t. That never happens. An overdose of Zoloft couldn’t cheer her up. Staging the Verdi Requiem for her in the fucking Grand Canyon couldn’t cheer her up. She’s not wired that way. When a basically happy person meets a basically unhappy person, the unhappy person never gets lifted up. The happy person gets dragged down. That’s a fact of life. She thinks being happy makes people superficial and shallow. Miserable means deep. You think you’re going to change that attitude? She’ll just wind up despising you even more than she does now. It’s a no-win situation.”
“She’s happy sometimes. She just hates L.A., that’s all.”
“That’s all? Your family goes back three generations here. You’re Hollywood royalty, Mike. Your grandfather was Sidney broke John Huston’s nose, he drank William Faulkner under the table at Romanoff’s, he survived the blacklist and he won a goddamn Oscar for a movie he wrote with a front. He was a hero. Your dad was a great producer. Your mom was a celebrated actress. This is your town: it’s in your bloodlines. You can’t be married to someone who hates L.A. She might as well say she hates you. But that’s the whole point. She doesn’t want what you want. She doesn’t love what you love. She doesn’t need what you need. Think back. Has she ever been cheerleading on your side? Just the opposite! She’s undermining you every chance she gets. She’s an obstacle, Mike. You know it.”
Mike inhaled sharply, pressed his tongue against the back of his teeth, flexing the wet muscle against the sharp edge of pain. “I can’t deal with this right now. I can’t deal with any more chaos and conflict.”
“No, you prefer tidiness and dread. That’s a great way to live.”
“I’m sorry. I need to give my marriage a chance and I can’t do that daydreaming about going off on another adventure with you.”
There was a long silence. Mike could hear phones ringing and the traffic grumbling beyond the sigh of the air-conditioning. Jim sounded tired when he spoke again.
“There’s one thing worse than beating a dead horse, Mike. Saddling it and putting it on the bit and trying to ride it. Entering it in some three-day equestrian event. That kind of shit makes the dead horse beaters look normal.”
“Jim – ”
“The horse is dead, Mike. Bury it and walk away. Before it’s too late.”
Jim hung up. Mike held the phone for a few moments before he put it back down.
Even years later Mike would be never completely sure why he capitulated to Emma that night. But today he still had work to do, at this secure studio job of his with the shiny future. He had a list: he would check off the items on it and then go home to her.