By Brett Paesel
January 14th, 2013
The following post by Brett Paesel is part of our online companion to our Winter 2013 issue on Classic Hollywood. (Click here for an overview.) This essay first appeared at Brett Paesel’s blog, Last of the Bohemians.
It happens every now and then. Someone who is famous or semi-famous, someone that almost everyone would recognize from the small screen, wants to meet with me because they liked my first book and they want to make it into a TV show or a movie, and—even once—a play. I go on these meetings because it’s Hollywood and anything can happen. But mostly, I go because I get to meet the famous person in a restaurant that is so upscale that I could never hope to afford it and couldn’t even get hired as a waitress there because I’m not pretty enough, thin enough, or young enough. It’s like getting a free pass to visit the planet where famous people live.
No matter what anyone says about famous people putting their pants on one leg at a time, they really aren’t like the rest of us. Not a bit. I do not make this assessment from a place of judgment or envy. It is merely a fact. The pants that famous people put their lasered smooth legs into cost more than my annual rent and lots of people are fighting each other to take pictures of them in those pants. It is simply impossible to remain unaffected by how excited people get about you in your pants. You can still be a swell person; you can still be generous, kind, and loyal to your friends. But in the end, you either think that you deserve those pants or you are secretly frightened that you don’t deserve the pants and you will go to extreme measures to hang onto them.
You and I do not have a relationship like this to any of our pants.
I once met a semi-famous person who liked my book at Sardi’s in Beverly Hills and got caught up in a crush of excitement over someone who must have been super-famous entering the bar. My heart started racing. Who was it? President Clinton? Desmond Tutu? Princess Diana? The fervor in the room was so high that I honestly felt like my life was about to be changed forever. Cameras flashed, people in expensive suits shoved each other to get a better look. Finally the throng reverently parted for a creature that looked like Gandalf in make-up and high heels. I hadn’t a clue who it was. The semi-famous person I was with grabbed my hand across the table and whispered, “Oh my God. It’s Joan Collins.” She didn’t even look like Joan Collins but it didn’t matter because she was.
For as many times as I have been on the edges of this world, I’ve never felt a part of it and I wonder if writers ever do. Even when they, themselves, are famous-ish. For the most part, writers are invisible, unless a seriously famous person wants something from them.
And in that case, the writer gets to go to lunch.
The Actress and the Comedienne love my book and they want to meet me in the bar of the Beverly Hills Hotel. I don’t know what plans they have for the book but I’m open to anything that will generate income. I am expecting two checks for magazine articles and my husband, Pat, is picking up work for a friend. But at this very moment, we’re seriously tapped out until we get paid.
Sometimes I buy a new blouse for meetings like this, just so I can feel more confident that people aren’t whispering to each other behind their menus, “How did she get in here?” But this time I can’t even afford a schmatta from Target. So I’m wearing an old standby that only needs one safety pin.
The Comedienne waves me over to their booth in the back. She recognizes me even though we’ve never met because in this particular room, I am the standout. I walk over and shake both of their hands. Introductions are made and I slide in opposite both of them. I notice that their glasses of white wine have already been delivered and sipped.
“We’ll get you a glass,” the Actress says, raising her hand to a waiter and pointing down at my chest. He nods.
“Right?” says the Comedienne. “It’s never too early. Right?”
They both laugh. My book is Mommies Who Drink, which leads readers of all stripes to believe that I drink all the time. This is not the case in life or in the book, but I’m not going to turn down a glass of fancy chilled wine in the Beverly Hills Hotel.
“Right,” I affirm. Never too early.
“Besides,” says the actress who is on the thin side of lithe and whose silken blonde hair falls in wisps from behind her ears in a way that is at once casual and planned, “I just found out that my series is cancelled. So I’m celebrating, right?”
She mock pouts. I’m not sure what my response should be. Is she happy or sad about the cancellation? Fortunately, the waiter appears with my glass of wine. He places it down in front of me and turns to the Comedienne.
“I just want to say, that I loved you in your show,” he says to her. “You were the best thing on it. You were hilarious. I can’t believe it’s over.”
“Thanks, honey,” says the comedienne. “I fucking loved doing it.” She touches the waiter’s arm, “Call up the network and tell them to put the fucking show back on the air!”
She guffaws, leans over, and slaps her own ass. The Actress giggles and the waiter throws back his head and laughs like that’s the funniest thing he’s heard in his whole life.
My corresponding smile, here, is not disingenuous. The Comedienne and the Actress are harmless enough and this is probably one of the highlights of the waiter’s year. In fact, I feel excited. Maybe they want to option my book. And I can’t wait to see what is on the menu.
They tell me the parts of my book that made them howl with laughter. They tell me that they are just like me.
“You tell the truth about motherhood,” the Comedienne says, conspiratorially.
I’m not sure what truth they are talking about.
“It’s boring,” says, the Actress. “I could never stay home and just play with the kids.”
Ah, that truth, I think. In the book I write about how bored I felt being at home with an infant. Days fuzzing into each other and when the baby wasn’t sleeping, he was crying. I was bored, yes. But the other part of that truth is that we banded together then. When he slept and when he cried, I was smelling him. Cooing. Rocking, Feeling him against me and making him mine.
I wonder if the Actress and the Comedienne have noticed that I have barely spoken at all. Not that I mind. The endive salad with pear, caramelized onions, and goat cheese crostini is so delicious that I have to tell myself to slow down. I’ve already consumed half of it while my hosts have only moved food around on their plates. In anticipation of a great meal, I didn’t eat any breakfast and I now realize that this was a tactical mistake because the salad isn’t going to be enough. I should have ordered the lamb burger with gorgonzola cheese and string fries. But salads are standard famous-person food and I didn’t want to draw attention to my otherness.
I reach over and take a second warm, crusty, sourdough roll out of the basket in the middle of the table.
“We have the best nanny. She just loves my fucking kid,” the comedienne says.
I smile. Not just because she’s just modified her child with an expletive (which makes me uncomfortable), but because moms always say that the nanny loves their children. Never thinking that quite possibly the nanny is just as bored by their children as they are. The nanny is doing a job. The nanny needs the money.
I wonder if they are thinking of the book as a series or a made-for-TV movie. I want to tell them that I’m wide open.
The Comedienne finally takes a bite of her salad. “We’re like you,” she says to me. “Just because we’re moms doesn’t mean that all we talk about is playgroups and diapers. You know what? The other day, I called her up,” she points to the Actress, “and I asked her if she ever touches her vagina just for comfort. You know. Not for anything else.”
The Actress leans in, her eyes twinkling, “And I said, ‘Of course I do. We all do.’”
They titter. I titter, rip my roll in half, and drag it through the olive oil on my plate. Really? I think. Really? Are we going to talk about our vaginas now? When are we going to talk about the book? For some reason, famous women feel compelled to bring up their vaginas pretty early on in a conversation. I know this because it has happened to me before on several occasions. And never with a non-famous woman. Maybe famous women do it to convince the non-famous that they are like everybody else. “Don’t worry,” they are saying, “I have a vagina just like you.” Or possibly they are proving that they can get down and dirty too. Whatever the reason, it’s standard fare and I never have a thing to add about my own vagina. Not because I’m a prude but because it’s simply there, doing what it does. I like it. I use it. But I don’t have anything funny or interesting to say about it.
“And then I ask her,” the Comedienne continues, “if she ever does this two finger thing on her vagina.” She holds her fingers up and slices them back and forth. Not in a masturbatory way, but more contemplative.
“And I’ve never heard of that before,” chirps the Actress.
“Neither have I, “ I say, just to stay in the game. “Three fingers. Sure. But never two.”
They whoop in response. I haven’t a clue what I’m saying, but I said it like it was a quip and they bought it. I look down at my plate and my salad is gone. Somehow I have eaten the whole thing without even realizing it. I feel a little panicky because I am nowhere near full and I don’t handle hunger well. It’s either a blood sugar thing or basic immaturity, but I have been known to sob in the car when we’re out in the middle of nowhere with no food. I have snapped at my children to hand over their last five gummi bears before I lose it. If I had lived through famine after a war, I’d be famous for performing any sex act just to get a rotting potato. I’d been known to the soldiers as “Rotting Potato Jane.”
I reach for the breadbasket, flip over the napkin, and find it empty. How can that be? Did I wolf down three pieces of bread? I thought I only had two and famous women never eat bread. There should be at least one piece left. Then I glance over at the Actress’ plate and spy an untouched roll. I forget. Sometimes famous women pretend to eat like the rest of us and take a roll that they never intend to eat.
The Actress and the Comedienne order a couple of more drinks and talk about the Actress’ kitchen. She needs a new one. That’s why, she says, she needs to get another series soon. Because she needs a new kitchen and she has to keep the nanny who loves her kid. Doesn’t her network understand that?
All of these concerns I remind myself, stomach growling, are perfectly reasonable in their world. It makes perfect sense, I tell myself, that the Actress wants a new kitchen. If I were her I would want a new kitchen too. Hell, I do want a new kitchen. The Actress doesn’t know that yesterday I rifled through my sons’ closet to see if there was a passable pair of Spencer’s old sneakers that I could pass down to Murphy—and that I deemed a pair, with a small hole in a sole, worthy. She isn’t being insensitive. For all she knows, I just got my own new kitchen.
The Actress says that she bought a ten-thousand dollar present as an apology to a famous colleague. And the colleague didn’t have the grace to acknowledge it.
Ten thousand dollars? As an I’m-sorry-I-fucked-up gift? What happened to the carefully worded e-mail?
Their concerns have nothing to do with me, I repeat to myself like a mantra. Their concerns have nothing to do with me. The Actress and the Comedienne aren’t parading what they have in front of my face to cause me pain. The Actress and the Comedienne love their husbands and their fucking children. They have lost pets and doubled over with pain. They have woken up in the middle of the night, countless times, bewildered by how they got so old and agonized over why didn’t they do this or that when they were younger. When they had time.
They put their pants on one leg at a time. They have vaginas.
Why isn’t the Actress eating her roll? I almost laugh when I think that. “An actress eating her role.” Maybe I should turn this into a joke. Steer the conversation somewhere else. But normally I don’t do puns. I’m not punny.
What the fuck am I doing with my life? Why didn’t I settle into a real job years ago? Why didn’t Pat? I can’t write for a whole living, it’s insane. I am not like these women. I’m desperate. I cannot afford to buy a ten-thousand-dollar-I’m-sorry-gift. Murphy has a hole in the sole of his sneaker.
If I don’t get another writing job, what will we do?
“Can you believe it? He couldn’t even pick up the fucking phone to thank me.”
The huge gaping hunger in my belly widens, a carnivorous yawn. I will never be able to fill it up. It will have to feed upon itself. Turn inside out and eat me whole. Where is the waiter? I look for him above the ladies’ heads.
Their concerns have nothing to do with me.
Waiter. Waiter. There is a fly in my soup. There is a hole in my sole.
About the author: Brett Paesel is the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller, Mommies Who Drink: Sex, Drugs, and Other Distant Memories of an Ordinary Mom, which The Observer called, “funny, rare, honest, and complicated” and The Boston globe called, “raunchy, real, and laugh-out-loud funny.” She currently lives in Los Angeles where she writes for television and numerous national publications. Visit her blog.
Film Personal Essay Winter 2013: Classic Hollywood