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Baxter is crying on the phone. He is a new client and very young, not yet twenty, so I am being patient. It is one in the morning and I stare out the bedroom window at the dark surf, mainly black with rising lines of ghostly white.
“Jewel’s left me,” Baxter somehow manages to cough out between sobs.
“That’s terrible, baby,” I say, and since my light is now on, check the bedside BlackBerry to see what’s lined up for the next day – well, technically that day, Saturday. [private]It’s pretty open until a late afternoon barbeque at a studio exec’s house, a concert with a casting agent, and then a party at the home of a not-so-important-at-the-moment-but-could-become-big producer.
“I mean, like … like … like … she’s really gone …” Baxter says with that pathetic sincerity common to so many of the newly signed – the beautiful young men whose acting careers I manage. “She even took the panda, man.”
“What panda?” I toss the BlackBerry back on the night-table and pick up the mirror to see if I’d been sleeping weird.
“The black-and-white one.”
“All pandas are black and white, darling,” I say, and am relieved to see my cheeks are crease free and eyes not too hideously puffy.
“Ling-Ling. Jewel always sleeps with Ling-Ling … That’s like, how I know she isn’t coming back …”
“Got it,” I say, and think these kids are so much younger than I remember being when I was their age. What the fuck did their parents do to retard this generation’s emotional development so uniformly?
“What should I do, Peg? I mean, like, really, I think I love her … What should I do?” Baxter asks, and the sweet thing is he really wants to know. He wants me to tell him.
I shake my head and say quietly, “Why don’t you just come over, baby?”
He hesitates and in that hesitation I find myself reconsidering. Although he is a stunning young man, sometimes, at my age, forty-one, a good night’s sleep is more tempting than sex and I am just about to retract the invitation when he says softly, like an obedient child, “Okay.”
Checking the refrigerator, I see there are still a couple of bottles of root beer, Baxter’s drink of choice. If Leon only knew, I think, he would be utterly disgusted. Even seven years ago, he used to bemoan the fact that “the boys” just didn’t know how to have a good time any more.
“Ecstasy! Raves! Snowboarding!” he would shout. “Give me a good old-fashioned revolutionary, any day!”
“Yes, but there is no revolution at the minute, Leon,” I would be forced to remind him.
“Oh, Louie,” he’d say wistfully, and drape his arm around my shoulder, and because it was Leon, it always felt sexy because everything he did was sexy. “The boys I used to meet at People’s Park, you would not believe …”
I was twenty-two, just out of college when I was sent by a temp agency to work for Leon, one of the biggest personal managers in Hollywood, and I remember thinking I couldn’t be luckier. I mean, Leon was gorgeous, funny, smart, and gay, so basically it was safe to ask him things I felt every young woman starting a career in Hollywood needed to know, like how do you make a studio executive return your phone calls, and what exactly constitutes a good blow job. I don’t know if he was as immediately taken with me, but after I worked for him a few days and it was revealed I had been a history major at Barnard and written my thesis on the Chinese Revolution, he decided to keep me on as a permanent employee.
“Louie,” he nicknamed me, in a nod to Casablanca, “this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Considering his heartbroken state, it doesn’t take me long to get Baxter in the sack, or rather for him to think he got me in the sack. That’s the game: I pretend to be seduced while, all along, I’m doing the seducing. It works, what can I tell you? Baxter is a beautiful boy as, I guess, they all are. Blond, tall, with a perfect, hairless body – your ideal SS candidate, the one Hitler would definitely have thrown into that mass-producing Aryan babies program. When I kiss him I can still taste the blandness of his boyhood spent in Kansas or Ohio or some other flat state that conjures images of corn dogs, white church steeples, and weekends of heart-stopping boredom.
“Think of it as part of your overall benefits package,” Leon said when I doubted the ethical correctness of our almost-routine practice of sleeping with the clients. “And it’s a hell of a lot more fun than full dental.”
Still, sometimes I feel funny doing what I am doing in what was once Leon’s bed, in what was once Leon’s house, everything almost exactly the way he left it seven years ago, furniture, sheets, towels, art – except I took down all the pictures of Leon and put them in milk crates that are in storage in my sister’s garage in Culver City. And it’s not like I think he would mind me sleeping with the boys in his bed – quite the opposite really – but it’s more like I sometimes worry I can’t live up to the achievements of the bed’s previous occupant, that I am not, nor ever will be, as good as Leon was rumoured to be in everything, business, sex, everything, even death.
“You’re amazing,” Baxter whispers as he hugs me close from behind in a postcoital cuddle.
“No, sweetie, you’re the amazing one,” I say because, mainly, it is my job to say shit like that.
“Yeah?” he asks so shyly that if I still had a heart, it might actually crumble, but instead, I turn over and lightly kiss the top of his head like you would to comfort a scared child in the middle of the night.
“Oh, totally,” I say and sigh. “Totally.”
Baxter relaxes in my arms and I can tell he is almost asleep when I ask in a studied casual way, “By the way. You never called. How’d that audition go today?”
“Huh?” He blinks and stiffens slightly.
“The one at Fox,” I say in a still relatively nice but focused way. “The comedy the Zankermans are producing.”
“Oh … yeah … that one. They said I was … good,” he mumbles, and I know he is lying.
“Oh, really?” I say, because when they’re new and young, that’s all I have to say. They still fear me on a certain level and won’t try to pass the untrue off, which I’ve noticed these young actors do routinely after they’ve been around the proverbial block.
“Well … you know what, actually?” Baxter curls his legs up to his chin in a fetal position. “I kind of, like, missed it.”
“You kind of, like, missed it?” I repeat.
“Yeah … well, Jewel wanted to go ice skating so …” His voice trails off to nothingness, into the world of all guilty little boys.
“Not good, Baxter,” I say very quietly. “We can’t start missing interviews. Do you know how fast that kind of reputation gets around? Pretty, pretty fast. And at this point, they’re doing us a favour by seeing you. Until they need you, sweetheart, nobody in this town needs you.”
To demonstrate how disappointed I am, I slowly roll out of bed and wrap a robe, Leon’s old silk robe to be precise, around myself. I step over to the French doors and stare past the deck at the dark restless water. I have lived here so long that I don’t even smell the energizing scent of the sea and all of its hidden life or hear the constant but varied beat of the surf any more. To take notice, I have to make a concerted effort, and I wonder vaguely, what else have I stopped noticing?
“Oh, Peggy, don’t be mad,” Baxter practically whines as he jumps out of bed. I turn away from the dark ocean and just stare at the kid who stands completely naked, so young I can almost smell the newness of the muscles that have appeared on his little boy frame. Slowly, his arms open like a bird preparing for flight or a martyr about to be hammered, pathetically offering up the only things he has that are of any value to me – his beauty, his youth, his promise – in penance.
“Please,” he whispers, and I, standing in the darkness, the cool silk of Leon’s faded black robe brushing against my body, covering what I know is no longer anyone’s standard of perfection, cross my arms and do what Leon taught me to maintain the power – because that is all we have: a kind of power over these kids, these boys, these beautiful specimens that I’m hoping will make me rich, or, more truthfully, richer.
“Keep ’em guessing,” Leon used to say. “Never ever give your hand away, Louie …”
When Leon took me firmly under his wing and made me a partner in the management firm, he said, “Congratulations. Too bad, one day you’re going to hate me for this.”
“I’ll never hate you,” I said, but he had just smiled knowingly and shook his head before picking up a gay S&M magazine and going into his office and closing the door. That was exactly the kind of thing he always did when he sensed I might be on the verge of declaring my love, which I actually managed to do a couple of times, and each time I told him I loved him, Leon responded in the exact same way.
“I know,” he would say with both sadness and annoyance.
Taking a small sip of champagne, I recline on one of the deck’s lounge chairs and stare out into the horizon, trying to catch the first signs of daylight, an almost imperceptible brightening, the gradual appearance of details. Even though this is the West Coast, the house is built on some kind of curve, so the sun rises over the water and sets behind my back. Baxter is snoring in the bedroom and I can smell his scent on my skin. It is pleasant and I am not eager to wash it off, although I soon will. That is what I do. Once they leave, I go into the ocean for a quick dip. Even in winter.
One of the things that has changed as I get older is I no longer like to sleep with the boys – I mean, really sleep. I find it disorienting, a feeling akin to seasickness, to wake up beside someone whose name I sometimes cannot remember. When I was younger I used to think that lapse of memory was funny, almost empowering, but that was when I still had Leon to laugh about it with.
What is funny – not ha-ha funny, the other kind – is that once clients leave me for another manager, I can suddenly remember everything about them. My dreams are over- populated with gorgeous young men whose fingers have not touched my skin in years. I taste their sweat, watch their nipples pucker, listen to a chorus of hoarse cries of ecstasy, and wake up filled with longing for those boys I never really had even when they were so briefly mine.
“Easy come, easy go,” Leon used to say when a client left us, and as with most things, he was right. Some of the boys left because they thought they were too big, and some left because they never took off, and some because they lost interest in playing the game and wanted to do something else with their lives. I remember all of them, but the boys who gave the finger to Hollywood are the only ones I respect.
What Leon lost in the year or so before he died was any belief he’d ever had in success. It just became clear to him that the goal, the finish line we were forever racing the clients toward, was just one big Xanadu, a never-to-be-completed monument to actual fulfilment. That was when he started to talk a lot about his ex-radical days in Berkeley and wanting me to tell him about Mao’s Long March and the miraculous defeat of the KMT, and only when I told him these stories would his eyes light up again in the same way they used to when he got to negotiate a seven-figure deal.
“Vietnam,” Leon said one day, out of the blue. I was sitting on the black leather sofa in his office, supposedly reading the trades, but really daydreaming about one of the boys, Jock Kent, the star of a nighttime soap about a kind of Club Med–like resort where, of course, everyone sleeps with everyone before, both figuratively and literally, stabbing them in the back.
“Is Oliver Stone casting?” I asked, forcing myself to shove away the fantasy (in which, if you must know, Jock and I were having incredible sex in the Hollywood Bowl fountain.)
“You want to go, Louie?” Leon asked, and looked at me in a way that instantly made me uncomfortable.
“Vietnam?” I replied, truly startled, because although I hung out with Leon a lot at his house, he never, never asked me to go anywhere with him. I was the one always asking him to go places with me, to screenings, dinners at producers’ homes, clients’ birthday parties at bowling alleys, invitations that he invariably refused, saying, “Oh Jesus! Don’t we see more than enough of each other, Louie?”
“What’s in Vietnam?” I asked, suspiciously, and wondered if he was trying to use me to lure some actor (straight) to our agency, a task I had performed gladly when I first started the job, but no longer felt so glad to do.
“Amazing architecture, delicious food, deserted beaches, unspoiled boys …” The words came out hard and fast from Leon’s mouth like handfuls of pennies thrown onto a side- walk. There was definitely a desperate quality to his speech, a quality that was absolutely verboten in our line of work where the golden rule is to never act like you want anything, because it’ll all but guarantee that you won’t get it.
“Yeah. And about a billion tons of bad karma,” I said, still convinced there was some underlying motive for this invitation, anxious to put the whole idea to rest.
“Leon, think about it. The karmic implications for Americans in Vietnam can’t be good.”
“But I was always on the Vietcong’s side! I have clippings from my student protest days to prove it!”
“The Vietnamese aren’t going to look at your clippings, Leon. To them you’re just going to be another middle-aged Ugly American Capitalist Pig. I mean, come on, whether you like it or not, that’s who you now are.”
I was returning my attention to the trades when I happened to see, out of the corner of my eyes, Leon’s expression. In the years I’d known him, I had never seen a look like that. He appeared to be stricken, absolutely stricken, and I immediately regretted what I had said. I should have known better, but it was as if I no longer had that gate inside my brain that stops a person from saying horrible, hurtful things. Whatever that gate is called, mine was gone.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, forcing the almost forgotten feelings of remorse to come up from inside me. “Oh, Leon. I’m really sorry.”
“Forget it,” he said, and pointedly put his headset on and turned his chair away from me, fixing his gaze on the computer screen. “File it under Another Bad Idea, Louie. Scratch it. Now let me get some work done, for a change.”
I rose and moved towards the door and didn’t look back even when I thought I might have heard Leon start to cry.
If I knew my colours better I could tell you what that strip is on the horizon – maybe a royal blue – and how it is subtly different from the rest of the sky and in a very short time, it will grow and expand, making all the stars disappear. Just like Hollywood, right? Stars come and stars go. Maybe Baxter will be a star, but he will have to toughen up first. Before he went to sleep he told me what he and his girlfriend, Jewel, had fought about.
“She doesn’t believe in me,” he had whispered. “Not like you, Peg. You believe in me, don’t you?”
Well, the truth is, of course, I don’t believe in anyone. Oh yeah, I lay my money on the line and wait for the wheel to stop, but that’s different from believing. But how can I tell them that? So instead I murmured the same words I’ve murmured into countless young men’s ears, a tuneless lullaby promising him riches and fame and power and love. All things nobody can promise anyone because, excepting love, they are not anything anyone really has to give. But for some reason, they all believe me, and soon Baxter’s breath became steady and his bones almost softened as he lost himself in what I took to be a confident sleep.
“Today, Baxter will win back his Jewel,” I whisper, as if saying it will make it so. I like to think of myself as being kind, even if I am hard of heart.
The first seagulls have started to squawk, reminding me it was about this time roughly seven years ago that I watched Leon dive under a not particularly large wave and never resurface. We had spent the night together at what was then his place, but is now mine, drinking Cristal, doing coke, and listening to Hendrix. I was thirty-four years old at the time, which did not seem young to me then, but sounds young to me now. My breasts were just beginning to fall, and the first fine lines spiked out around my eyes. Leon was forty-one. My age now.
“Past forty, your tolerance for bullshit takes an alarming dip, Louie,” he had told me that night.
I was sitting next to him on the couch, listening to Electric Ladyland, when he suddenly got very quiet and just stared out at the ocean, and I don’t know if it was the Cristal or the coke or the overly familiar music or just the proximity of Leon, the intoxicating warmth of his always-beautiful smell that was reminiscent of sawdust and pearls, but something pulled me firmly into what seemed like a deep, dark blue sleep that was too busy to actually be called rest, and when I came out of whatever it was I was in, maybe an hour later, maybe not even that, my head was plastered against Leon’s shirt, and his arm was firmly around my shoulder.
I stayed as quiet as I could, because at that moment I could not think of anywhere I wanted to be but right there, so close to the only man I have ever loved.
“You awake?” he asked so softly a shiver shook up my spine, and when I nodded, he slowly pulled away, and that was when I saw the wet spot on his shirt.
“Oh God. I’m sorry. I drooled all over you …” I said, feeling heavy and slow from uncompleted dreams and too much wine and drugs.
Leon shrugged as he stood up and stretched.
“That’s not drool,” he said in a voice I imagined he used with the new boys when he was alone with them. And that’s when I felt the dampness around my eyes and an odd heat on my cheeks, and in a rush of horror and shame I realized I had been crying in my sleep. Crying was one of those things I’d had to give up when I became a big power broker in Hollywood.
“Blood in the water! Blood in the water!” Leon used to yell when I expressed any negative emotions. “Good God, Louie! Pull yourself together! You’ll attract the sharks!”
But instead of chiding me that night, he just said in that same sweetly hopeless way, “Give me an ideal, Louie.”
“What?” I asked, wiping my eyes.
“An ideal. Any one will do,” he said, even softer.
“Okay,” I said, but then could not think of a single thing to tell him. I picked up a bottle of Perrier off the floor and took a long drink, hoping to wash the heavy drowsiness out of me; the bubbles felt funny going through my body, more like lightning than liquid.
Leon took off his wet shirt and laid it carefully against the back of the sofa. Then he kneeled down and did something he had never done before, and that was to lightly stroke my cheek with the back of his warm, warm hand. And looking into Leon’s beautiful face, so close to mine, I remember it felt like I was in one of those weird movie special effects when the lights suddenly brighten and dim at the same time, putting me at once extremely on edge.
“Guess what, Louie? All this time, we’ve been playing the wrong parts in the wrong story,” Leon said, looking right into my eyes. “Fuck Casablanca.”
Then Leon kissed me – a chaste, gentle, almost what one could call pretty kiss, before dropping his pants and going out to the beach. Alone.
The sky is now pale and the water no longer black but partly a dark, I guess what you might call sea green. It’s going to be a cold swim today, but I have no choice. Another split of champagne gone, and I can hear Baxter shifting in the bed. He’s a definite type, and if he sticks with the acting lessons and has a few good breaks, he could make it in a Tom Cruise kind of a way, but he could just as easily not. He’s sweet, but I don’t think I want to sleep with him any more. I’ve had my share of sweetness. I need some real nourishment.
The boys I signed right after Leon’s death used to ask me about him. I mean, he was a legend in the industry, having launched the careers of many very big stars, but after a while nobody seemed to talk about him any more because, really, it’s pointless to be a legend in Hollywood. You have no value, dead or alive, if you’re not somehow making somebody a lot of money.
My thesis on the Chinese Revolution did not go into the dark years that followed the CCP attaining control of the country. I didn’t delve into the Cultural Revolution, Gang of Four, One Hundred Flowers. That was a conscious choice because I wanted to come out of college high on hope. Leon, on the other hand, left Berkeley with the radical left already in ruins. He came to Hollywood a cynic, anxious to make a living off the only other thing he was good at besides organizing student demonstrations, which was picking up beautiful boys. Two different starting points, yet here I am, almost in the same spot as Leon when he took the big dive under.
“Beware,” I whisper to both no one and everyone. “All roads in Hollywood lead here.”
I had no idea how rich Leon was until he died and left everything to me, and I have given a lot, a lot, a lot of that money to political causes I think Leon would want to support, but lately, I find myself thinking of ways I could’ve saved Leon with all of the money he had, that is now mine. My current favourite is one in which Leon and I buy a big hunk of land in Montana, and become the Ma and Pa of the dude ranch and sleep with all the gorgeous cowboys, who wouldn’t ever have to be told how gorgeous they are because that isn’t the point with real cowboys, and we’d ride horses and learn to fish, and every day we’d decide on something new and delicious to cook before opening the fridge and finding it filled with a seemingly endless supply of fresh, red meat.[/private]
Janice Shapiro’s stories have been published in The North American Review, The Santa Monica Review, and The Seattle Review. A screenwriter, she co-wrote the cult film Dead Beat. Night and Day is taken from her latest collection Bummer, published by Soft Skull Press. She is currently working on another collection of short stories and a graphic memoir, Crushable: My Life in Crushes from Ricky Nelson to Viggo Mortensen. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, son, and dog.