A 17-year-old Latina aspiring actress starts a journey through personal and professional pitfalls. 2,373 words. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
May 11th was my last day of high school. It ended in the girls’ locker room where Ava, Tess and Viv finally got the last word after months of threats. Actually few words were exchanged. They beat me up and left me a bloody unconscious mess. When I came to, I was lying face down on the ground alone. I can still smell the ammonia the janitor used to clean the floor earlier that morning.
People talk about life-changing moments. This was mine. As I licked the blood off my lips, a light switch went off inside my brain. I was done. Done with Selma, California. Done with my family. And done with the bitches from school. I went home, packed my bags and tried not to cry as I left a note for José, my 10-year-old brother:
Dear José, This note is to let you know I’m going away. I promise to visit soon. I love you, little man. Natalia
I grabbed my stuff and headed for my car. There was only one place for me to go: Hollywood. Because of a boy, but that wasn’t the entire story. A year earlier, a model scout had approached my Dad at a local mall. She thought I had “potential” and handed him her business card. He never followed up, because he wanted me at home. Ever since Mom died, I had been left with all of her tasks: laundry, shopping, cooking and cleaning. One night when I was looking for a pen in his roll-top desk, I found the scout’s business card with a Los Angeles number. I knew it would be my golden ticket, if I ever needed one. My face would be the parachute out of the hellscape of my life, when it was also the reason for so many of my problems.
On my way to L.A., I called the boy. We had met at Coachella the spring before. He was a nineteen-year-old aspiring musician and told me I could crash with him if I ever decided to make it to the big city. I knew there would be a price. Nothing is free in this life. But to be totally honest, that price sounded good. Body on body heat, even for a moment, means you’re temporarily not alone in this world. And for those of us who are alone, that’s the glue we think keeps us together. Until it makes us come undone.
I followed Google’s map directions, which dumped me on Hollywood Boulevard, or as Mom used to call it, “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” She wanted to be an actress but accidentally got pregnant with me and then unaccidentally with José. I sometimes felt her sadness around us. It’s not that she didn’t love us, because she did. A lot. But let’s face it; we had gotten in the way. They say living with a broken heart is more dangerous for a woman than for a man. When I came home from high school one afternoon, I found her dead on the kitchen floor. Aortic aneurysm.
She had been my rock, my cheerleader, my everything. And then she was gone. The day her heart gave out, mine smashed into tiny pieces. I tried putting it back together along with the life I once had, but nothing was ever the same and I realized it never would be.
Mom used to take me to Hollywood Boulevard as a kid. I loved it. Now my black Corolla made its way down the street and I took a sharp right turn on Highland and another one on Franklin and up Beachwood Canyon until I heard the magic words, “You have reached your final destination.” I turned off the engine and my heart began to race. The musician’s place was actually his uncle’s who lived abroad. I got my bag out of the trunk, walked toward the front door and knocked on it. He couldn’t hear me at first because his band was practicing loudly.
“I love surprises,” Jason said as he bent down to give me a hug.
“I decided to finally take you up on your offer,” I told him.
He flashed me his front man smile, “We have to practice for another hour for our gig tomorrow night. Make yourself comfortable. My room is down the hall. Drinks in the fridge.”
I brought my bag into his bedroom, took a deep breath and looked down at my phone. I knew Dad had been trying to call me, but I didn’t have the stomach to listen to his messages yet. I didn’t expect him to get really angry at me for running away and threaten to call the cops if I didn’t return. Actually, I was half-expecting him to be relieved that I was gone.
Nine months after Mom died, Dad’s new girlfriend, Dee, moved in. I quickly became a reminder of the woman she was trying to replace. She was jealous of Mom, which seemed strange to me, since Mom was the one who was dead. One morning I caught her staring at a picture of Mom on Dad’s desk and then going to the mirror and puckering her lips and primping her hair. Unfortunately for me, I looked a lot like Mom, so Dee had it out for me from the start. She was always telling Dad how I was failing at my life. In the beginning he’d stick up for me but after a while he stopped and just nodded.
I decided to bite the bullet, call Dad and get it over with.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“Los Angeles,” I responded.
He paused. “You should come home.”
“Can we not do this pretending that you want me around when you don’t? Can you at least admit that it’s easier for you without me there?”
He didn’t say a word. And that was about as much truth as I could handle, so I hung up and turned off my cell phone.
“So what brings you to the City of Angels?” Jason asked me that night.
“An angel,” I answered coyly.
He stopped rolling a joint and kissed me hard. We picked up exactly where we had left off on that dusty desert day the spring before.
A part of me believed that if I found a guy who wanted me, and only me, it would somehow fill all the holes that Mom’s death had left behind. As he climbed on top of me, I was willing to suspend belief, because I was wanted in this moment, even if it was fleeting.
The following days were a blur. I was getting my bearings around Los Angeles, trying to figure out where everything was. I’d arrived with just fifty-seven dollars and it was dwindling fast. I looked for jobs on Craigslist and tried applying for a few waitressing positions. But nobody wanted to hire a 17-year-old without experience. It was time to use my golden ticket. I decided just to show up at the agent’s door.
Laurie’s office was on Beverly Boulevard east of the Grove. A worn out sign hung on her office window that read, “Model Emporium,” which sounded like a Chinese restaurant. I walked in and her assistant was sitting at the front desk on the phone.
“The email I sent you bounced back. The Target TV commercial audition is at 2:15 p.m., West Coast Casting, 1219 Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica.” After she hung up, she looked up at me, annoyed.
“Can I help you?”
“Is Laurie in?”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No, but I know she wants to see me.” I showed her the card Laurie had given Dad at the mall.
“Laurie!” she shouted.
An older woman appeared.
“Hi. I’m Natalia,” I said and put my hand out to shake hers, which she limply shook back.
“Have we met?” she asked.
“At the Vintage Faire Mall in Selma, California.”
“Oh… I remember,” she said in a strained way, like she had no memory of it all. As she stared at me, I could feel her calculating dollar signs. But I didn’t care. I needed a job.
“How old are you?”
Before I could answer, she quickly followed up with, “Think very carefully before you answer that question. I can’t take on any new clients who are under eighteen without their parents’ permission.”
“I’m eighteen,” I said.
“Great. We work with models for both print and commercial. Do you have any pictures?”
“We can set you up with a photographer. If you don’t have the money to pay him now, we’ll take it out of your paycheck after you land your first job.”
My Mom always told me never to get in a position where I owed anything to anyone I didn’t trust. And I didn’t trust Laurie who had just asked me to lie about my age.
“Sorry, I’m not okay with that,” I answered back.
She looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, “Well, without pictures, you can’t work.”
“I guess I’ll have to come back when I have the money. It was nice seeing you again,” I said and left.
Thankfully, I have a near photographic memory which was the main reason I was a straight A student before dropping out of high school. I had a Target audition to go to now.
When I walked inside the Santa Monica building, I noticed parents trying to force their distracted kids to rehearse lines. Then I noticed a group of adult actors with Down Syndrome going over scripts. When I finally found my room number, I spotted a row of girls my age and older sitting outside. One was more beautiful than the next.
There was a sign-in sheet asking for name, phone number and agency. I debated whether to leave the agency space blank but wrote down “Model Emporium” and grabbed the sides.
After about 20 minutes of watching each girl go in and out of the audition room, it was my turn. There was a camera with a young female assistant standing behind it and a grumpy bearded man sitting down. The woman instructed me to say my name, hold up my hands and turn around slowly showing the front, back and side profile of my body. She then handed me a box and told me to improvise with the items inside while I said the lines.
I first pulled out a kite and muttered to myself, “How am I supposed to fly a kite without wind?”
“You’re a spicy one, aren’t you?” the man said, smiling.
I took out a shovel and looked around the room. “Where’s the sand?”
“Are you a comedienne, too?” he remarked.
I then spotted a volleyball. This I could work with. I placed the ball in position, said my lines and slammed a winning shot, which nearly hit him.
“Thanks for waking me up. Where have you been been hiding?”
“In Selma, California.”
He burst out laughing and offered me the job on the spot. I couldn’t believe it. I decided to treat myself to an iced tea at a nearby coffee shop. Then my phone rang.
“If you ever go behind my back again and use my company name, we won’t be working together anymore,” Laurie spat out.
“I just wanted to pay for my own pictures.”
“The shoot is in Venice next week,” she said and then hung up.
My phone immediately rang again. This time it was Dad. He didn’t pretend to want me back. He said he’d still keep me on his cell phone plan but only until I got on my own two feet. I guess he’d failed to read the part in the parenting handbook that says kids need more than a cell phone to survive. After I hung up, the realization hit me. And it hit me hard. I was now on my own. There was no turning back. Because there was nothing to go back to. No Mom. No friends. No school. I had never felt more scared in my life.
I looked around at all the people sitting and drinking coffee in the sunshine of the patio as the palm trees hovered above like gigantic feathers. Everyone was talking about films, shows, deals and scripts. I was now in a city of dreamers and makers. And, in this moment, I decided I was going to make something of my life.
As I drove down Hollywood Boulevard back to the musician’s place, I was excited. I had gotten a job, and I couldn’t wait to tell him how I had landed it. I noticed a car parked in front of the garage, but it wasn’t his. He had given me an extra pair of house keys so I let myself in. I heard a couple of voices. As soon as I walked into his bedroom, I saw him kissing another girl the same way he had kissed me the night before and the night before that.
My brain quickly shifted into get-shit-done mode, just like it had when I found Mom lying lifeless on the kitchen floor: perform CPR, check pulse, call 911, call Dad, wait for paramedics, continue to perform CPR. Now it was time for a new checklist and another goodbye.
I collected my things in silence as the musician followed me from room to room saying that he wasn’t a bad guy. I walked out of the house to my car with all my stuff spilling out of my arms.
My mind went back to the hospital when Mom was pronounced dead. I never fell apart. It wasn’t until her funeral when I saw the gurney lowering her casket into the ground that I got down on my knees in a pile of dirt and came undone. As José clung to my skirt, I begged the groundskeepers not to fill up the hole. Dad finally stood up and came over to tell me they needed to finish the burial. I threw an envelope on top of her wooden casket. Enclosed was a locket of my baby hair she had saved from my first haircut. I wanted her to have a piece of me as she crossed to the other side.