A laid-off studio lawyer hangs around home and discovers a new neighbor. 3,443 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
It wasn’t just a job you left but a way of life. Lunches at a certain grade of restaurant expensed, and many colleagues and celebrities. It came to Jeffrey that he had been fired from the collective us, a place of order with its numbered parking spaces and assistants purchasing his favorite pens, to take on the solitary I. I am by myself, he thought many times afterward. An unemployed entertainment attorney in a town full of counsel. I am no longer negotiating for either side.
His first day unemployed he rose at his usual time of 4:30 AM, put on workout clothes and went to the gym. His trainer was waiting. Trainers were part of the style. Trainers also cost a thousand a month. The gym itself was five hundred a month which included valet parking, unlimited sweat towels during the workout and little bottles of water to maintain proper hydration during exercise.
Jeffrey was not focused that first morning unemployed. Focus was something he tried to bring to everything he did whether it was negotiating to stay within a film’s budget or a fourth set of cable flies. His trainer pulled and pushed at him, correcting his form, but the usual strength and energy were absent. Though Jeffrey was 52, he lifted as much weight as someone half his age. He had good flexibility and core strength. These things were important especially as the years moved on and the body became less stable.
After an hour session, Jeffrey had the deluxe strawberry fruit smoothie at the juice bar, a daily cost of five dollars, and then went to the showers. A familiar group was always there at that time, the same agents, attorneys and younger studio executives carrying scripts. Once he had been the youngest of them and now he was the oldest. How had that happened?
So far no change from them, though all knew he was gone. People stayed friendly, but careful. At any moment Jeffrey might resurface in a more important position where he could do things for them. In fact, they actively expected his return. They were certain he was making moves, arranging meetings, working his list. It didn’t matter that General Studios had just cut Jeffrey along with 1,200 others. The group believed that any day there’d be an announcement in the trades of Jeffrey’s new better job. They believed, because it might mean they would not return if they were ever let go.
Jeffrey dressed slowly after his shower. He had good suits from the partial-custom department of Brooks Brothers. These ran eight hundred dollars instead of the four thousand for the completely handmade. The cut was a little more conservative than some of the others in the locker room, the slim who could wear Armani, the not-as-slim who wore Hugo Boss. He knotted his tie. He put on wingtips that had been shined while he was working out, and he deliberately tied the laces tight. All and all he looked ready to join the others for another day of tussling on the phone, negotiating credits and profit participations, one side trying to whittle down the perks, the other working to build them out.
Right before Jeffrey finished dressing, Keckstein came by, said "That’s a good-looking suit," nodded, and walked on. Sometimes there was a message beyond the words which let you know what the other side really wanted. Still Keckstein often spoke in clues and this might be probative of nothing: a compliment just a compliment.
The agents drove off to their agencies and the attorneys drove off to their law firms and the studio executives drove off to expense account breakfasts with writers or producers, but Jeffrey went home.
There was someone new living next door, change after many years’ consistency, a new neighbor among the neighbors he rarely saw except once a year at the homeowners’ meeting. The communal garage was always tight, a leftover from when the building had been apartments and the builders begrudged the space. This morning, it was especially bad. A new car was encroaching on his spot, a classic VW Beetle with bumper stickers all over the rear calling for the end of war, the end of meat, the end of global warming.
Any opinions Jeffrey had on those topics he kept to himself. Focus on the numbers and the important deal points, his first boss had instructed, because politics didn’t travel well in a contract negotiation. Jeffrey parked as close to the wall as he could and got out carefully, making sure it did not touch the other car. Courtesy demanded no dings, especially among neighbors.
It was a small building of only 12 units north of Wilshire which meant the property values were rising. He lived in Unit 6 and the door to Unit 5 was wide open. It was 6:30 AM and a television was on without sound but music was playing and not softly; unusual music, world music he thought it was called, full of droning and chanting and stringed instruments other than guitars.
Now was the time to say something and stop the encroachment. In his work, he defended the studio against any onslaught from the other side. Precedent was essential because when you gave in on something once, everyone would demand it. For himself, he fought less hard. That was why he’d stayed at General so long when he might have risen higher elsewhere.
A new Welcome mat was at the door of Unit 5. To call it new meant only that it hadn’t been there the last time he’d noticed. It was muddy. On top was a small pile of red leaves. Jeffrey’s own door had a mat, one he specially ordered from Restoration Hardware for seventy-five dollars and replaced every six months whether or not it showed the slightest wear. Wasn’t this the first thing people saw when they came to your house? If you had people to your house.
"What?" a voice said before a figure appeared. Then she was at her door. She couldn’t have been more than 25, one arm heavily tattooed with looping patterns of red and blue, the other with several white lines at the wrist. She saw him looking. "Two tries, in case you were wondering. If I was really serious, I would have cut the other way. That’s what the doctor tells me."
It was hard to look at her but hard to look away because of the other details Jeffrey noticed: The bones of her face were as beautiful as any actress, but the face itself was ravaged and the skin so white it was translucent with a vein showing through at the forehead. Of course Angelina had that vein, so did Julia, and it hadn’t stopped their careers. The girl, he could think of no other term for her, had dark bruises under her sunken eyes which she accentuated with heavy eye makeup. She wore a very white blouse opened two buttons too far down with no bra, and tight jeans with a large hole at the knee and another at the back of the thigh.
"You’re either the guy next door or you’re selling me something. What time is it? It’s probably too early for selling. Do you like the music? I like the music. I always have to have music around me or there’s talking. I’m Rina. Rina Farina. Oh my mother. What a bitch. She said she thought about naming me Jesus because I was her little gift from god. Jesus Farina? I would have preferred Mimi, and then I could have pretended I was the second coming of Joan’s sister. Ever hear her sing? Just as good as Joan but never got the recognition.”
Was she on something? Drunk? There were more red leaves on the floor the first few feet inside. Eventually Jeffrey would learn that this was Rina unmedicated in the manic phase of her bipolar disorder. She talked because she had to fill up the spaces. She talked and she talked, and to Jeffrey this began to take on the qualities of some negotiations where the other side thought that by doing all the talking, they prevailed. But eventually everyone tired, his first boss instructed, and that’s when you came back with your responses.
She showed no signs of tiring yet. She walked while she talked, pacing further into her unit and then back toward the door. Now she was talking about the other people in the building, how it seemed that when her parents bought the place for her it was quiet but now everyone had a dog. Barking dogs. She didn’t like dogs.
"Do you have a dog?" she said. "Are you getting a dog? Where did all these dogs come from?"
They were still standing at the stoop and Jeffrey looked inside. The apartment had bare white walls, an upholstered chair in the middle of the room, and a small set of wire shelves with a television and the stereo. It was a place where someone hadn’t settled in.
"Do you want to come inside?" Rina said suddenly. "I could make some tea. I’m practicing my social skills."
With the lack of furniture and decoration, it was as if she had been deposited here to wait out some kind of sentence. She was from Orange County and her parents would have preferred she stay at home with them. But when her therapist moved to Santa Monica, she moved with him. Besides, the therapist said she was making progress and it was time for her to try more mainstreaming.
"That’s what they call it, this living on your own. I’m mainstreaming. Or is it mainlining? Ha, ha, I’m funny. No, I don’t do any of that anymore. No, no. No more needles for me."
Jeffrey still hadn’t been able to say anything. The monologue from the other side had been constant. He wasn’t sure if she expected him now to reveal some personal detail of his own life to put them on a more equal footing. Sometimes you had to reveal things to the other side, small things, war stories. This was something Jeffrey learned on his own; his first boss couldn’t teach him everything. Like the time Keckstein had missed a point about the size of a credit in relation to the title and failed to notice. Instead of screwing him in front of his client, Jeffrey quietly and graciously pointed out the lapse during a break in the negotiations.
It wasn’t Jeffrey’s way to get into the personal. Even his closest friends — and there weren’t many, maybe one or two from law school — would say Jeffrey wasn’t very open.
He had come to Los Angeles to be a screenwriter. He never got farther than a story credit on an episode of Silver Spoons. At 30, Jeffrey stopped writing. His late mother called him one day and declared it was time he got serious. "I am serious," he said to her. "About the writing." She volunteered to pay for law school, including all of his living expenses. He thought at the time, why not?
Legal discourse was a whole different style of writing, strange and convoluted, sentences written to confuse but always for the advantage against the other side. He discovered he was pretty good at it: consideration, condition precedent, breach — all the intricacies of law. He would never get back to the writing. There was a tendency to pigeonhole in Hollywood: If you were a lawyer, you were a lawyer; no one expected you to write scripts. Only the waiters were actually actors, the kids parking cars ready to direct their first film.
He worked as a summer intern at General Studios and then full-time as soon as he graduated and passed the bar. He burrowed in, some might say. He became a solid production attorney, capable of translating deal memos into documents for a movie about to shoot, closing things fast, possessed of enough wit and tolerance to withstand the shouting from the other side. And they mostly always shouted because shouting got things done.
"The car. I’m guessing yours is the Beetle?" he asked. He interrupted her because sometimes you had to throw the other side off balance to restore the focus. She stopped her pacing.
"It’s parked a little close. You wouldn’t mind…?"
"My car?" said Rina, "I can move it. Did you want to come in?"
Jeffrey waved her off. He had things to do, people to call.
He had a girlfriend, or he’d had one. A litigator at a big firm. They’d been going out for a year. When General fired him, she said he didn’t need the pressure of a relationship at this difficult moment. He agreed.
This could or should have been a time for introspection. What did he really want to do? A different job? He could go into independent filmmaking as production counsel for hire, set up his own small office, take a piece of every film. If something hit, he’d have a quick way to a fortune. And there was Keckstein, commenting on his suit. That had to mean something.
There were other things he had wanted to do, once. When he was a boy, he wanted to play the drums. The image of him sitting behind a trap set and banging away consumed him. The image consumed his mother as well, more like haunted, and so she negotiated with him. If he took cello lessons for a year, he could play the drums. One year became two, and somehow the drums never appeared. Jeffrey never got the things he loved.
Now he would focus. Using his favorite pen which he had liberated from his office, he started to compile a "to do" list of people to write, people to call, lunches to schedule. Keckstein was first and then he got no farther. The cursor blinked on and off in its relentless fashion. He had his hands on the keyboard but nothing came. There should have been plenty of names, plenty of contacts, but there were only five names on the screen. He left the names, and started on a brief note requesting meetings. He needed something casual but still on point, something that suggested he was interested in working but didn’t need to work. Something to give him leverage.
At 12:30 he went out to get the mail. His new neighbor’s door was closed but the music still played. As he went down the walkway, dogs began barking. When had the dogs moved in? Near the building’s front entrance, one of the trees in the planter bed was leaning against the railing, split in half as if someone had jumped on it from a height and broken its main trunk, ripping the larger branches away. The tree radiated outward now, fatally wounded.
Jeffrey retreated to his condo. He was not on the board this year, had forgotten who was. Later in the afternoon he got an email from the board’s president calling the destruction of the tree a deliberate act of vandalism. Things would be repaired as soon as possible though an assessment was likely for those concerned about costs.
When Jeffrey got up the next morning to go to the gym, Rina opened the door as he was closing his.
"Where are you going this early?" she said.
Why did she care? He wore business suits and she had tattoos. What less could they have in common? When he told her he was going to the gym, she said, "Take me along. My therapist says I need to get into an exercise program." Jeffrey didn’t know what to say. If the other side demanded a hundred thousand over their last quote, Jeffrey had an answer. If the other side insisted they were going to need an on-site exercise facility, Jeffrey could agree or disagree based on the actor’s stature and precedent. But for this request, well… Without the studio behind him to assess, he was adrift.
"I’ll change," she said. "It’ll take a minute." When she returned, she was wearing a perfect gym outfit: tight black nylon shorts, a matching sports bra leaving a wide expanse of white stomach. She had running shoes that looked as if they’d just come out of their box.
"Ready," she said.
As they drove, she talked about shopping and her parents and how she was supposed to get married a year ago but something had happened, she’d gotten her diagnosis and the guy had backed out which hurt her feelings and now they weren’t even friends.
Jeffrey cut two yellow lights close and made it to the gym about two minutes before he was due to meet his trainer. This didn’t give him enough time to adequately stretch or warm up, but at least he wasn’t late. Lateness was bad form and disrespectful. Lateness meant a lack of focus. Jeffrey ran to the main floor. His trainer was tapping his watch. "Unusual," the trainer said, "I don’t think you’ve ever been late." Jeffrey just shook his head.
Forty-five minutes into the work out and things were going well. The trainer liked to move things around, hit all the different muscles groups. Jeffrey sat down on a shoulder machine when one of the staff members came over.
"It’s about your guest. Could you come with me, please?"
Rina was in the pro shop.
“She’s in there," the staff member said, pointing to one of the dressing rooms. She took a lot of clothes in with her. She’s not coming out. She’s not speaking. We don’t know what’s going on."
Jeffrey went over to the door and tapped on it. "Rina? It’s Jeffrey.”
There was no answer and Jeffrey waited. Then he heard the sound of crying.
"Rina? Rina, could you open the door?"
"No," she said. "I can’t."
Tthe staff member was next to him and said with a certain harshness, "You have to get her out of there."
"Or?” Jeffrey said. “Assuming arguendo, I just want to outline the parameters of the complaint. You’ll be angry? You’ll be in trouble? You’ll suspend my membership? You’ll call the police? Or what?”
"Why don’t you let me handle this, okay? I’m not sure how this is a big inconvenience to you. I mean there’s no one even here." Jeffrey swept his arm around the room. "I’m going to work this out."
For the first time it was Jeffrey doing most of the talking. "Rina, why don’t you open the door and let me see the clothes." She unlocked the door and Jeffrey opened it a little. She had at least fifteen outfits strewn all over the small room. She was sitting down, wearing the same clothes in which she’d arrived. A hanger dangled from her hand, swinging in time with her sobs.
In any negotiation, his first boss told him, it was critical to keep in mind the goal. But not everyone thought that way. Some on the other side were interested in scoring points. They had to win everything even on the smallest item. Others brought up silly things that didn’t serve their client just so they could say, look what I’ve done for you lately. Jeffrey never let himself get into a competition. His job wasn’t winning, it was about closing, getting deals done. That required compromise, diplomacy, a willingness to find solutions.
Was the goal here to get Rina out of the dressing room? Or was it to calm her down? Or some combination of both with all sides winning. He never thought of what he might be getting in any negotiation.
"Rina," he said, "are you worried about what the people at the gym are going to say? You’ve never seen them before, you probably won’t see them again. Are you worried about what I might think?"
"Yes," she said.
"There’s no one judging," Jeffrey said, "and I have no taste in women’s sport clothing. Just put everything down and stand up and come out of the dressing room. Then it’ll be like it never happened."
Sometimes the other side acts crazy whether from inexperience or lack of preparation or that they were simply out of their element. It was hard to proceed when the other side is crazy, when the other side won’t close. Find a way, his first boss told him, there’s always a way.
"Rina Farina, stand up right now and walk out of this dressing room. Take the outfits or leave the outfits, I don’t care. But you and I are leaving. Now."
Her head snapped up. She came with him and she didn’t say a word.