Happy Birthday, Dear Stu

by Richard Natale

Two ex-roomies reconnect; one stayed in showbiz, the other didn’t. Who’s happier? 4,245 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.

In late May, I received a birthday invitation in the mail. Heavy stock, handsomely embossed, the kind of formal announcement that has increasingly fallen prey to Evites. I almost felt underdressed opening it.

The return address said “Rothberg”. A common enough last name in L.A.. But the invitation was from a specific Rothberg – Stu Rothberg.

Odd, I thought.

Showbiz has been very good to Stu Rothberg. A couple of years back he shared a Best Picture Oscar with another producer and one of his clients took home the Best Actress award. He now breathes the rarified air that wafts in over the Pacific to the promontory in the Palisades where he resides and didn’t have the time or inclination to rekindle our friendship.

Not long ago I saw Stu at a charity event, and he gave me the “Hollywood freeze” – staring directly through me with a blank-faced fixed gaze. The message was clear: “I see you, but I’m pretending not to. So please play along.” A silly game, but not an uncommon one, particularly in Hollywood with its site-specific caste system. Events are for networking, and he can’t very well network with someone who isn’t even on the grid.

The birthday invitation, therefore, was like a bolt from the proverbial blue and I should have been suspicious the moment it arrived. But the celebration was at his home, which I’d seen in Architectural Digest. It resembled a set from a Nancy Meyers movie: all white and cream and expensive and cushy.

Stu and I had met in acting class in New York City back in the late 1990s and soon became roomies. We shared a rat trap walk-up in Alphabet City and subsisted on baked beans and kosher franks, so much so that to this day I can’t stomach either. We went on auditions together – rarely for the same part, even though we were approximately the same age. But whereas I read Anglo, Stu leaned Mediterranean. In our off hours, Stu was a good hang and we had similar taste in movies and theater.

But when it came to men, we diverged. He favored Brahmin types but I was inclined to the exotic, the more offbeat the better. I’m the only person I know who’s slept with two men from Brunei, one of noble origin.

Since we both got our fair share of work, mostly out of town, we were apart for months at a time so never had the chance to get on each other’s nerves. In our twenties, the vagabond siren song was potent. But Stu and I gradually came to the realization that while we had talent and stage presence, we didn’t have quite enough of either to propel us forward from journeymen status. I stuck it out a bit longer than he did and landed a soap opera for a year. Then they killed off my character – a shark attack! – and I began searching for an alternative career.

Stu’s forté proved to be management and, subsequently, producing. He gravitated to the hondling aspects of his new profession since he was genetically incapable of conceding an argument. A certain “Mama Rose” instinct kicked in as he guided young aspirants. His stable of clients quickly expanded and he sometimes asked for my advice on prospects’ reels or to watch them perform in some dark Bowery basement with a jerry-rigged stage. He almost always signed the ones I suggested, except in those cases when they were clearly unhinged and/or addicts.

I used a lump sum left to me by my maternal grandfather to start a hybrid establishment: part laundromat, part internet café, part bookstore. Name: Sip ‘n Spin. By then, Stu had moved to L.A. and I saw him infrequently. I was as much to blame as he. Always busy. And I’d recently fallen in love with Arthur, who eventually became my business partner.

We eventually resettled to L.A. where Arthur abandoned me for a younger man, who later did the same thing to him. The temptation out here is insane. Arthur eventually got the shaft from his frolicsome young mate, and he and I reconnected as friends, which included the occasional sleepover. We always had a good rhythm in bed.

When Arthur and I split, I increased his participation in Sip ‘n Spin because having someone to share the operational duties benefitted us both. Neither of us now has to break a serious sweat to keep the business plates spinning. Good thing, too, since I like to work but don’t love working. Actually, I’m doing more than okay financially. I lack for nothing, except maybe someone to fill the emotional vacuum left by Arthur.

When I asked Arthur whether I should accept Stu’s birthday invitation, he said “absolutely.” Because fatally starstruck Arthur expected me to come back with gossip and a few discreet selfies with famous people. I made no promises to indulge his one-person-removed voyeurism.

A spirited male assistant answered Stu’s RSVP number. “Is this Jason?” the minion asked effusively. “I’m so glad you’re coming. I shouldn’t be telling you, but Stu was nervous you might refuse. This will make his day.”

Color me doubtful, I thought. “I hate to bother you but, uh, dress code?” I queried.

“Designer jeans and a nice top that shows off your great gym body.”

“Excuse me?”

“You don’t know me, but I used to haunt Sip ‘n Spin hoping to see you.”

“And what is your name? I mean, in case I run into you at the party.”

“You won’t. His first assistant, Gregory, is working the party. I’m the second assistant and chained to the office. And it’s Chet.”

“Thanks, Chet. Hope we get to meet when you’re unshackled.”

“That won’t be anytime soon. Oh, I have to get off. He’s yelling for me.”

Dead. No goodbye. No dial tone like in the movies. Just dead.

Driving west on Sunset past Beverly Hills is one of the great L.A. pleasure drives. The boulevard curves northwest and opens up and there are certain patches to actually get some mileage out of a convertible. I like to imagine what it must have been like in the 1930s when the city was sparser and the stoplights fewer and farther between.

The wind tossed my hair like a salad and I didn’t attempt to pat it back down. I was attending the party solely out of curiosity and not to impress anyone. Besides, I was sure to be the least famous person in the room.

Another thing: no one but no one goes to these gatherings to get laid. And if they go home with someone, it has little to do with sexual attraction.

I drove through the massive wrought iron gates and followed a gravel driveway. The valet took my keys, and there was Stu, almost as if he’d been waiting for me.

His face had changed. Not a lift but definitely an erasure, probably Botox and a sanding, so the texture was baby-bottom smooth with neither a line or crease. Stu wore a fitted white shirt halfway opened to reveal trainer-worked hairless pecs. The scruff that had once grown on his chest had been whisked away via wax strips. He made the mistake of tucking the shirt into his white jeans thus accenting a petit paunch which only religious ab crunches and no booze, ever, could remedy.

Allow me to rewind for a moment. Stu, while not handsome, had great character in his face. He was never going to be a leading man but, if he’d stuck it out, he might now be getting good secondary roles in movies or as a series co-star on TV. Even in his twenties he exuded the nerdy appeal of a young Jason Biggs or an even younger Richard Dreyfuss. Combined with his natural brashness, he gave off a neurotic energy that some men find sexy.

“Jason. Sweetheart,” Stu said, opening his arms and enveloping me like the prodigal son returned. Yes, he’d actually called me “sweetheart.” And it came out as soigné as it sounded. “Good to see you. It’s been too long.”

“Thank you for inviting me,” I replied. “And happy birthday.” I handed him a card. “Not a gift,” I explained since the invitation had insisted Absolutely No Presents. “I made a donation to Project Angel Food in your name.”

He lowered his eyes and flashed a smile of humility before handing off the card to a crisp-looking young man whom I assumed was the first assistant. Gregory had the ever-alert eyes of a well-trained guard dog, one who only barks or growls on command. Given that, I half expected Stu to place the card in Gregory’s mouth.

Ever so discreetly, Stu waved him off. “I was so afraid you wouldn’t come,” Stu said, giving me the once over. “Before we go inside, you must see my new car.” I followed toward what I recognized as a Model X Tesla, this year’s must-have among the bragging rights crowd. The auto was a pale silver and I ran my fingers along it as if I was engaging in foreplay.

“Would you like to take it for a spin?” he offered.

That’s all I needed. I could see the TMZ headline: Laundromat Operator Smashes Oscar-Winner’s Hundred-Thousand-Dollar Car.

Stu put his arm in mine and led me into the house, which looked even more like a movie set than it had in Architectural Digest. The décor did not lack for personal touches but I suspected they were the interior designer’s flourishes, not Stu’s. Photo frames and tasteful tchotchkes were carefully placed so as to appear strewn. Celebs and the occasional money-raising politician often but not always posed with Stu. Several were autographed. The mezzanine was a wall of bookcases even though I’d never known Stu to read anything more taxing than a script. The place was starved of color. I almost wished someone would gash open a leg on a sharp corner for a welcome splash of red.

The public rooms and adjoining wraparound terrace were merely a backdrop for the actors of various rankings, several of whom were Stu’s clients. Many faces were familiar from awards shows and interviews. Almost without exception, they were smaller in person, some wispily so. The agents were easy to distinguish as were the producer/writer/director types. The former all wore expensive suits and looked tweaked. The latter were casually dressed in rumpled Boho luxury sportswear.

For a room that was ostensibly straight, there were more limp wrists and cruise kisses than at a drag show. Again and again, one person grazed his chin against the other person’s cheek while surreptitiously checking out everyone else in the room. I wondered what turned them all fey?

“I want to introduce you to my one of my oldest and dearest friends, Jason Goodman,” Stu kvelled to a small group as if I were his nephew down from Stanford for the holidays. “Is that a sheyna punim or what?”

The non-reciprocal introductions continued as we moved from clique to clique and outside onto the terrace and once around the pool. In addition to extolling my looks, which Stu had never done before, he made certain everyone knew I was an entrepreneur, though he didn’t specify what kind. I supposed this was deliberate. These days, it’s shorthand for Silicon Valley billionaire, and it had the intended effect of widening the eyes of producers and agents perennially on the lookout for investors.

As long as Stu was semi-attached to me, people were cordial and glad-handy. Inevitably he had to break away to fry bigger fish. That enabled me to amble about and at least take mental snapshots to share later with Arthur. My eavesdropping was a bust, however. Most conversations were focused on deals and numbers: budgets, box office, TV ratings. A few gossips dished people I didn’t know, which took all the fun out of it.

An hour of this sufficed and my energy soon flagged. I found Stu at the center of a small coven, again wished him happy birthday and muttered the obligatory, “We should get together sometime and catch up.”

“You’re not leaving already?” he asked. He spoke with a sense of alarm, as if I was about to abscond with the Steuben crystal vase poised on the fireplace mantle. “I really need to talk to you. Do you mind waiting until the crowd thins out? It won’t be long. Please?”

“Okay,” I shrugged, trying not to sound put upon.

“Thanks. I would really, really appreciate it.”

Now I was curious to hear what had provoked the double “really.” I drifted over to a hunky bartender who began doing everything but cop a feel. I can spot from fifty paces a wannabe actor who’s tired of catering jobs. I’ve been there. I thanked him politely and retreated to the terrace where I found a padded chaise and listened to the distant surf. And fell asleep. The sensation of Stu’s rump on the edge of the chair roused me.

“It’s so good to see you,” he said, batting his eyes as if we’d been exchanging risqué confidences. Except for an adorable waiter here and a hot bartender there and the devoted Gregory, we were alone.

“Did I miss the cake?” I asked.

“Cake? Please, who does cake anymore?” Stu gasped.

“So what did you want to talk about?”

He pondered the question as if it had caught him unawares, then nodded as if it had suddenly come back to him. “I just wanted to know if you were interested in going to Cabo with me for a week.”

What? Stu did not wait for my answer.

“See, my birthday’s not actually until the end of the month and I need to do something fun. The only time I take a ‘vacation,’” he said making air quotes, “is Christmas week when I shlep to the Big Island or St. Bart’s, where I run into all the same people who were here tonight. I want to take a real break this time. I booked the same suite at the Palmilla that Denzel stays in, but I have no one to go with.”

His voice descended into a whimper.

“How about that bartender over there?” I suggested.

“I meant someone special. You and me have history. We go way back.”

“I don’t know if I can get away,” I said, unable to think of a more original excuse.

“Cabo has internet. It has phone service. It’s two hours by plane. And it’s not as if we’ll be flying commercial,” Stu snapped. “Is it because we haven’t spoken in so long? I understand and I apologize. But cut me some slack, Jason. I work twenty-five hours a day. Please, I desperately need some R&R and you’re the perfect travel mate. We used to have so much fun back then. I miss it terribly.”

All the while Stu never took his hand off my leg, and I leapt to a not illogical conclusion. “Would this be …you know…?” I said, placing one index finger against the other.

“No, no, no,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s a two-bedroom, two-bath suite. Maybe even your own swimming pool. But that? No.”

Stu ran across the living room and up the stairs and quickly back down again and tossed me a thick glossy brochure. “Tell me you can resist a week there. Gourmet meals. Long walks on the beach. Facials and massages every day. Like going to heaven without having to die.”

The evening was an object lesson in why Stu had become a Hollywood mover and shaker. He interpreted my silence as acquiescence.

“I’m so excited,” he chortled. “A car will be by Thursday to pick you up.”

I will not lie. Being pampered has a certain addictive appeal. Short of a sedan chair and four eunuchs to carry me aloft, I couldn’t think of a single want that wasn’t gratified after we arrived. Stu even had a private number to provide me with whatever shape, size and versatility I might desire. “Thanks, but a good massage without a happy ending, will more than suffice,” I said, and he didn’t bring it up again.

By the third day, I began to feel vaguely uneasy at just how many different people were employed to cater to my every whim. Stu was by now comfortable with having attendants at his fingertips. When absolutely necessary, he addressed them directly albeit with a tinge of condescension. I countered by being excessively polite, which probably only exacerbated the situation. They undoubtedly regarded us as a couple of entitled queers, which bothered me less than the assumption that we were a couple.

Stu and I did enjoy some laughs sharing a few sweet and sometimes embarrassing reminiscences. But from time to time I had to escape, usually on the excuse that I was going downtown for souvenirs or the Retin-A I’d promised to buy Arthur from the local pharmacies. Stu did not volunteer to accompany me. Instead, the man with whom I lazed beside our private pool seemed to be mainlining caffeine. And even the killer grass he had brought along couldn’t mellow or mute him.

He constantly glanced over at his cell phone with an anxious look in his eye. He certainly spoke regularly to Gregory despite ordering him to remain incommunicado unless “Netanyahu bombs Iran.” In his low moments, usually after a bottle of Cristal, Stu delivered self-pitying monologues about the clients he’d discovered and nurtured until they unceremoniously abandoned him for some asshole who promised to take them to the next level. Then in the next breath, unprompted, he would crow about his net worth and the celebs and dignitaries he knew too well. I filed away some of the more interesting off-color tidbits for Arthur.

On the final night, Stu pulled out all the stops. A lavish birthday dinner on the balcony of our suite served by two Chippendale-styled waiters clad only in bow ties and trunks. “Didn’t I say this would be heaven?” he enthused whenever another course was laid out.

I half expected the waiters to be served up as dessert. But once they’d poured the after-dinner brandies, they quietly backed out of the room.

“Let’s go for one last walk on the beach,” Stu said, lifting his snifter.

We were barefoot, our toes curling in the cooling sands along the Sea of Cortez a half mile away when the other huarache dropped.

“Did you have a good time?” Stu asked. “Don’t you wish it could always be like this? I’m beginning to reconsider my life. Between you and me, I’ll be forty next year.”

“I know that.”

“Well, you’re the only one who does. Officially, I’m 35. Look it up on Wikipedia and IMDB.”

“Stu, forty is the new…”

“Don’t,” he admonished. “It’s not that I’m vain. I look good for my age. And, when I no longer do, I can always have something done.”

“You mean you haven’t had any work already?”

“Why, what have you heard?” Then he cracked a devilish smile. “I was right. You are the perfect travel mate. Would you marry me?”

“Where’s the ring?” I joked, hoping he was kidding, too. Though on some level I realized he wasn’t.

“I’m serious, Jason.”

“You and me? C’mon Stu,” I said, more dismissively than I’d intended. Because I was familiar with these lines from my other showbiz pals. They almost never meant any of them, and I knew neither did Stu.

“Look, we’re friends. At least we used to be,” Stu continued. “You’re the right age. You’re more than presentable. And it’s time I settled down. All friends have, straight and gay. It’s not too late for me to have kids.”

“What about romance? Attraction?” I said, offering him a wet blanket.

“I would like someone I could sleep with but if that’s a deal breaker…”

“Can we stop right now before this vacation is ruined?”

I expected Stu to continue with the hard sell, but my intransigence pricked his balloon. He moved down towards the water. I came up behind him and gave him a fraternal hug. To his credit, he didn’t turn around and try to kiss me. He kept facing the sea and said, “I’m afraid if I don’t connect with someone soon, I’ll be too old to be in a relationship. And I’ve already lived with you. I had a crush on you back then.”

I nodded. It was something I’d suspected but successfully filed under denial. “What do you need me for?” I pressed him. “You meet thousands of gorgeous men every year in your line of work, more than a few gays.”

“They don’t like me for me. They like me because of who I am.”

“But Stu, who you are is who you are. Who you are is a very successful manager and producer. Powerful even. Feared and envied.”

He looked at me bug-eyed as if I’d just tried to explain string theory. “That’s what I do, not who I am.”

“In a way, it is. I’m not saying you don’t have a personality, but you’ve poured everything into becoming successful. That’s what workaholics do. Why not step back a bit now and work on your personal life?”

“I don’t want to wait. I’m ready now,” he yelled, tossing the snifter into the sea. “Why are you being so difficult? Look I’ll even bring you on as a manager. You’ve always had a good eye for talent. And you don’t even have to get your hands dirty doing deals. I’ll handle that part.”

“I’m perfectly happy. I don’t want to change careers. Believe it or not, I have everything I need,” I replied curtly.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody has everything they need. And it’s not as if you’re with anyone now. The only relationship you’ve ever had was with that Arthur, who’s not even in your league.”

“I’d take Arthur back in a second. I love Arthur. And I’m so glad I still have him as a friend.”

In what I’d come to recognize as Stu’s push-pull style of arguing, he turned conciliatory. “All I’m saying is think about it,” he sighed. “I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement. We don’t have to have sex. You can have as many men as you like. I just need a companion. I want that.”

“Here’s the thing, Stu. That’s not what I want.”

With a wrinkle of the nose and a slight gnashing of teeth, Stu turned on his heel and walked back down the beach. I decided to let him go ahead and cool down a bit. I sat at the hotel bar and had a couple of drinks and flirted with the bartender, who flirted back. I left him a very good tip.

When I returned to the room, Stu was gone. I had to find my own way home.

A year or so later, at the Sip ‘n Spin, I was approached by a little firecracker who identified himself as Chet. He reminded me that we’d talked when he used to work for Stu. I said I remembered the conversation and invited him home. He eagerly accepted. We had sex a few times until he tired of the reality of someone who’d been a fantasy.

During one of our post-coital chats, he mentioned that Stu had fired him for some unidentified infraction. “Me, too,” I chuckled.

“I know. When he came back from Cabo, he ordered me to strike that quote-unquote ‘loser’ from his contact sheets. And should you happen to call, I was never to put you through,” Chet recalled.

I wasn’t particularly shocked to hear this. But one of the reasons I walked away from acting was because each rejection reinforced my insecurities. I spent less time reveling in landing roles than stewing over the ones I’d lost. And I still wasn’t over being on the losing end of love with Arthur.

If there are winners in life, I reasoned, there also have to be losers. What’s important is to be gracious about it. Either way.

“Do you think Stu was in love with you?” Chet asked.

I shook my head. “He probably tried to convince himself that he had feelings for me. But all his friends had partners and he wanted one, too.”

“I don’t know why. He’s got men at his house all the time,” Chet observed. “A few are hungry actor types, and some are by-the-hour. Oops, did I just say that? My bad,” he tittered.

“Hope he finds someone. He seemed pretty lonely.”

“Save your pity,” said Chet. “Stu’s getting married.”

“Who’s the lucky guy?”

“Lucky? We’ll see. Anyway, it’s Gregory who already sounds miserable. But he’s going through with it anyway because he really wants that life. He’s very ambitious.”

“Then they’re perfect for each other,” I said, though it annoyed me to know I’d been replaced by an obedient guard dog. “Hope Stu has an ironclad pre-nup.”

I thought maybe Stu had stumbled on a kindred spirit in Gregory. So what if it sounded more like a barter exchange than a marriage. Not to be cynical, but straight people have been doing that for centuries. And I’m guessing that Gregory will be putting out, which is more than Stu would have gotten from me. In a strange way, I wished them well.

About The Author:
Richard Natale
Richard Natale is a writer and journalist. His stories have appeared in such literary journals as Gertrude Press, the MCB Quarterly, Chelsea Station, Dementia, Wilde Oats, and the anthologies Image/Out, Happy Hours, and Off the Rocks. His novels include Love The Jersey Shore, Cafe Eisenhower (which received an honorable mention from the Rainbow Book Awards), Junior Willis, the YA fantasy The Golden City of Doubloon and the short-story compilation ISland Fever. He also wrote and directed the feature film Green Plaid Shirt which played at film festivals around the world.

About Richard Natale

Richard Natale is a writer and journalist. His stories have appeared in such literary journals as Gertrude Press, the MCB Quarterly, Chelsea Station, Dementia, Wilde Oats, and the anthologies Image/Out, Happy Hours, and Off the Rocks. His novels include Love The Jersey Shore, Cafe Eisenhower (which received an honorable mention from the Rainbow Book Awards), Junior Willis, the YA fantasy The Golden City of Doubloon and the short-story compilation ISland Fever. He also wrote and directed the feature film Green Plaid Shirt which played at film festivals around the world.

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