The studio counsel ponders a future without the law or the neighbor. 2,787 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jeffrey couldn’t accurately assess how his job search was going. He made calls — all of them taken. He’d sent emails — all of them answered. This was a relief. All the usual players from gym were still friendly in the locker room. He had no sense that he’d crossed some great divide of people who were in the business and those who weren’t. Still no offers. He was an unemployed studio lawyer.
He had no income except his severance from General Studios but he had a routine. He had a half a dozen lunches for which the other side always paid. He went out to meetings. He came home. Every day he worked out. Every day in the early afternoon he went to check his mail and saw the planter bed out front with a gash in the landscaping where the tree used to be. He had his car washed and waxed; that was seventy dollars each time. He kept the tank full of gas; that was sixty dollars.
Almost every time he went out and came back, there was Rina tapping on his door. She must have known he wasn’t in and still she tapped on his door.
Sometimes, if he saw her from the stairs as he was coming up from the garage, he turned around and went back to his car. After that first time at the gym, Rina didn’t ask to come along anymore. Most often she was unavoidable, following him into his condominium, acting as if it were her home. It didn’t matter if he was in his workout clothes, sweating and smelly and in need of some kind of recovery drink. She wandered around his apartment, picking up the one framed picture he had on a side table and putting it down, opening the art books on his coffee table and closing them after flipping through a couple of pages. It didn’t matter if he was out for a moment to empty the trash. There she was again.
He tried a variety of ways to negotiate her out of this behavior. Statements as undisputed hints — I have to take a shower now; I’m getting ready for a meeting; I have some calls to make. They had no effect on her. He resorted to subterfuge. He took to going out the sliders, unlocking the deck door and hopping down some three feet to the alley. It was more than a little inconvenient, but it made for one less encounter with Rina.
One day, as he came past the back door of the building, he saw that the plastic vents from the driers of the communal laundry room had been broken off and were lying on the ground. There were other things going wrong around the building: One of the lights was smashed. A railing baluster kicked in. The Board was investigating but there were no witnesses to this wanton vandalism.
During his time off, Jeffrey felt no urge to call his former girlfriend unlike an associate of his who dated much younger women and, when inevitably the relationship soured over age, went through a period of stalking them. Jeffrey felt he wasn’t so much losing a partner as gaining more time for himself, another separation from the universal us.
But Jeffrey did have the urge to revisit the historic lot that once was General Studios. Jeffrey waited until he thought the morning traffic had subsided, except it didn’t. On every street, the traffic surged.
He had never actually worked on the lot. By the time he started interning 20 years before, General had moved into an office building across the street. All the historic props were sold and dumpsters filled with all the posters from the famous movies when the studio had all the stars that filled the sky. When the company was sold that first time, it moved and discarded all its history. That started a pattern of selling and moving. Each time the company shed jobs. At one point employees were warned to ensure the receipt of their salaries through automatic deposit because physical checks might not clear. Somehow Jeffrey managed to hang on.
The company moved farther and farther away from the former lot. It took over office space, and there was not much to distinguish the studio from an insurance firm or a brokerage house. It had no stages or facilities though sometimes you might see a star of some caliber walking down the hall for a meeting. Mostly it was people in cubicles busy with whatever they were busy with.
There’d been plenty of warning this last time of the impending sale. Prospective buyers and their progress were reported daily in the trades. No longer would there be a pretense of making and distributing movies. Whoever would buy was interested only in the extensive film library and nothing more. General no longer had a lot so its real estate was not exploitable. Its personnel could be expended in an instant. Its location simply a property lease ready to be broken and settled on the right terms.
The employees without contracts who hadn’t been there long took whatever jobs might be offered elsewhere, and their work was reassigned. Fewer and fewer people assumed more of the work. They’d been told there was going to be a great severance package for the people who stayed until their separation date known in advance. On this, the company always delivered.
Jeffrey had been asked to stay on for the transition, and offered a bonus that would come when he left. They’d been quite clear that he was leaving. His first boss couldn’t help him; he was long gone himself. The end was surprisingly unemotional. Everyone with Jeffrey’s same separation date was told to report to a conference room at 10 AM. When the last day came around, Jeffrey had one small box. They were in the conference room and heard a brief presentation. They could either sign their severance agreement and receive a check immediately, or take whatever action they thought would get them more. Jeffrey signed. He had read the papers. There was nothing to negotiate. Then he turned over his office keys. He shook hands with the human resources administrator whom he’d known for years. She wished him luck.
On the way out of the building, Jeffrey handed his company I.D. card to a guard who stood beside the exit to the parking structure. When the gate came down for the last time, that it was it. Three summers of internship, 17 years of work, done in the drop of a wooden arm. Losing his job felt much like losing his mother: in a small way, he resented having to go to the office every day as much as he resented calling her. But once there was nowhere to go and no one to call, he immediately felt nostalgic for what he’d lost.
Jeffrey came home to find that flower blossoms from the planting beds in the building’s courtyards had been strewn haphazardly on the walkway and on the bricks that lined the beds. The cost of new landscaping had been two thousand dollars a unit. Now the owners would be assessed again.
And Rina never moved her car. It was still there in the same position, encroaching. He was a man who had negotiated multimillion dollar deals with the most recalcitrant talent. hey always reached an accommodation. Sometimes he was forced to give away more than the studio wanted, but in the end he closed his deals. Now he couldn’t get a neighbor to move a car? A couple of weeks out of work and he lost his magic, it appeared. The answer had to do with the nature of the other side. Every deal concluded only if both parties were interested in resolution. Except to get her towed, Jeffrey had no leverage with Rina. He wasn’t going to converse with her about the car because it would take an hour to extricate himself.
Usually he had no trouble sleeping, but since the layoff things had changed. One night he heard a tearing sound that was strange and didn’t seem right. He got on a pair of shoes, grabbed his keys and ran outside. There was a flash of denim and someone climbing over his back gate. He returned to the back of the building to discover that someone had mangled the jacaranda and torn it down. This was a tree he knew, its strong scent with him throughout the summers. Purple blossoms littered the pavement and one of his windows was visible. The screen was ripped where a branch had poked into it.
In the morning, another note from the board came with a promise to do something as well as call the police.
There was no sound from his neighbor next door. No music. No television. No face at the door. It was almost like no one was living there anymore and, for a second, Jeffrey hoped that was true.
Keckstein called and suggested they meet. Jeffrey allowed himself a moment of partial elation. Keckstein might have something for him or know of a job. They had lunch in a new Italian restaurant in Century City, the place full of attorneys, agents and lawyers, most of whom Jeffrey knew. As was their custom, Keckstein and Jeffrey talked about sports. When dessert came, Keckstein leaned in.
"There’s something I’d like to talk to you about," he said, "and I think it would be good for you. I’m doing a charity event for the Motion Picture Home. I want you involved. I need your help."
This was not what Jeffrey had expected but it was flattering to be asked. Then Keckstein continued. "I’d like you to be at the door to greet the arrivals. I’d like the first person they see to be a friendly industry face. Can you do that for me?"
Doorman? Friendly face? This meant Jeffrey was not invited to the event, he was being asked to volunteer. How would that look?
In every negotiation there had to be quid pro quo, which meant that when you gave up something the other side had to give something in return. This most basic concept was something the smartest lawyers often forgot in their drive to redefine profit participation according to some abstruse mathematical formula that even derivative traders couldn’t understand. Don’t get fancy, his first boss told him. The upside here was that Jeffrey would have the opportunity to greet everyone from every side in one evening. The downside was it might appear that Jeffrey was an unemployed lackey with too much time on his hands and desperate to be seen.
But sometimes in a negotiation, you had to bank a favor. “Certainly," Jeffrey said to Keckstein. "I’m flattered that you asked."
When Jeffrey returned home, the Beetle was now half in his spot and half in hers. There was no way for him to park. He found a place on the street three blocks away. Now he was steaming. But he knew never to enter any negotiation in a state of high heat. His first boss told him to always turn the burner down. Let the other side get angry; it was important for you to stay cool. You’ll have to deal with the other side over and over again, the same names, the same calls, the same terms with variations. You don’t have to win every round. You’re looking for what the studio can live with as long as the precedent stays intact. So Jeffrey knocked on Rina’s door.
"Come in," she sang, as if she were expecting him. "It’s open."
The place did not smell good. The odor of trash was unmistakable.
"What can I do for you, my favorite neighbor from next door? What can you do for me? We can do a lot for each other. I know we can."
She was talking to him out of his line of sight. Then she stepped into view. She was wearing thong underwear and nothing else, a young woman mostly naked. Her body — at least the parts that weren’t tattooed — were as white as her face. In addition to the arm, she had tattoos across her chest and down her sides, extending past her waist and onto her back. "Do you like?" she said, and spun around.
When an offer was made, both sides knew the terms which were, after all, right there on paper. Was this one any different? He stood at the door and didn’t come closer. Rina stopped her twirl. She smiled at him, put her hand on her hip and jutted forward. She cupped her small breasts and moved them alternatively up and down. It was a move from a porno star improperly executed.
"I’m very bendy," she said, and, as if to illustrate, she bent over with her back to him, the thong disappearing between her cheeks and reappearing when she straightened up. "In school I got an A in flexibility." She leered at him as she said it.
He needed to focus. What was his goal here? The car. "I came about. . . You need to move–"
"Don’t you think it’s time?" she said.
He looked at her for a long moment, her white breasts, her many tattoos, her black thong. He was fooling himself if he thought it was about the car. The car would never move. The car was her move. Sometimes the other side gains the upper hand. Who can say why, they simply outmaneuver. They had been negotiating for a long time, Rina and he, since his first day out of work. Now, this was Rina closing. On him. All he had to do was say, yes, and she would come to him. Once. Twice. Maybe more. Wasn’t that a great reward?
And then what? How would his life be different or better? Was this the change he was looking for? The new beginning?
"Time for what?" he said.
Instead of going to his unit, he went to his car. He took off his suit coat and his tie and tossed them in the back seat where they were sure to wrinkle. He started to drive. He went up the coast, past the structured cliffs on the right always under construction to prevent their collapse, past the beach on his left and a few surfers bobbing in the waves. The danger of negotiation, his first boss said just before he’d retired, is that you start to see every dealing as one more battle. You begin to measure each interaction in terms of gains and losses — and when that happens, you never come out ahead. Jeffrey drove and drove until he hit the county line and then he turned around and came home. He didn’t even bother pulling in the garage. He found a place on the street and went inside.
An ambulance was parked out front.
It was nearly 6 PM when Jeffrey came down the walkway. All the other neighbors were standing in small groups and talking.
"What’s happening?" Jeffrey asked the people in Unit 2. They only pointed. EMTs were coming out of Rina’s apartment, wheeling her on a gurney. The neighbors stepped back to give the EMTs plenty of room. An oxygen mask was over Rina’s face when she came by. She wasn’t moving, her wrists bandaged, her color even whiter, if that were possible, against the red.
A week after Rina left, Jeffrey called Keckstein. They talked about the upcoming charity dinner and then Keckstein said he could easily get Jeffrey a job at Fox. Two interviews later, he was hired, same title, significantly more money. No longer I, he was once again part of the unified we. Each morning Jeffrey renewed his routine: gym, work, home. He never talked to Rina again but saw her once, after a few months, one morning on his way to work.
He was sure it was her on the corner crossing to the other side. Her skin as white as ever, her eyes still bruised beneath. She looked at him. There was no recognition. Then the light changed and Jeffrey drove on. Or maybe the light changed but Jeffrey didn’t move.
All the possibilities of life taken or not taken. He could have indulged her. Sometimes, before he went to sleep, he thought back on that day she’d offered herself to him, and not without a little guilt. He could have walked across the room, pulled her into his arms and moved aside the thong. Or he could have refused her advance. He also could have been a great drummer. Of that, Jeffrey was sure.