On (Not) Leaving Los Angeles
by SARAH LABRIE
Hollywood sweeps into your life in the form of Shelley Steinburger, a forty-year-old costume designer from the San Fernando Valley who sits next to you in Intro Spanish at the Amigos del Sol language school. She looks like your friends’ moms — bosomy and pear-shaped with a careless silver haircut — but she says "like" and "fuck" and does impressions of the pudgy tourists and retired old ladies in your class. You are eighteen and from Texas, studying in Mexico over winter break because someday you want to get a Ph.D. Shelley is here on a lark, the first woman over thirty you have met with no husband or kids. In your eyes, she is a unicorn.
Over coffee, Shelley complains about Los Angeles and drops hints about her resume, something you will find out later is an essential Hollywood skill. Shelley designed the costumes for The Virgin Suicides. That’s Shelley’s voice on the phone with Bill Murray in the bathtub scene in Lost in Translation. Shelley knows Kirsten Dunst. Knowing Shelley basically means you know Kirsten Dunst. You buzz around Shelley like a manic fruit fly, hoping when the two week class is over she will take you home with her. Your new life will start in a mystical place called Silver Lake. You, Kirsten and Shelley dancing around a big, light-filled kitchen making pancakes in your underwear: it is only a matter of time.
Over the next four years, you will think about Shelley every time Hollywood intersects with your existence, first via a fraught long-term relationship with a boy from Beverly Hills, then thanks to a University of Colorado drop-out turned American Apparel model who whistles at you on Brown's campus one day where he is visiting a friend. Later, you visit him in Los Angeles, where he spends a whole afternoon showing you pictures of his haircuts and snorting oxycontin. You convince yourself you are in love. You neglect to tell him about your relationship, but you do tell him you plan to move to California after you graduate. He offers you a room in his manse. He doesn't believe you are serious. You are serious.
In May of your senior year, when everyone sobers up and starts frantically searching the Internet for something to fill the abyss that will be the rest of their lives, you send out emails to everybody you know on the West Coast. You wind up with interviews for assistant jobs at three big entertainment agencies and you're surprised, but not that surprised, because it is 2007 and things like that still happen. You buy a blazer from Banana Republic and tell Human Resources at Major Entertainment Agency One that yes, you majored in Comparative Literature, but you’re also very business-minded. You're looking for a way to combine your two loves, books and business, business-minded person that you are. You are still young enough not to recognize how damaging such a lie can be, especially when it is believed.
"Yes, but what Important Book Agent really needs is an assistant he can look at every day," says Human Resources, whose name is Paul. You nod thoughtfully, as though you know exactly what he means. Paul seems satisfied. You are very good at this interviewing thing. Paul bares his teeth at you.
Waiting for your interview at Major Entertainment Agency Two, you hover by the reception desk trying not to stare at the girl behind it. The bones of her face are thin and lovely. You want to run your hands through her hair. A wiry blonde boy with thick-framed glasses walks out of the office next to hers. Together, they look like models in an advertisement for the future.
A thin older woman with poreless skin comes out to collect you. She introduces herself as Helene. Helene shakes your hand and looks you up and down and then says "she's so pretty" to the receptionist, as if you’re not there. She doesn't make "pretty" sound like a good thing.
"You don't want this job," Helene tells you in her office. "The pay is bad. The hours are long. Think about what you’re doing here." Because you have been taught to recognize tests when they present themselves to you, you tell Helene that all you want, all you have ever wanted, is to work at a Major Entertainment Agency. Truthfully, you’re still not sure what the job you’re applying for entails. This is not something anyone has been able to explain, not even your friend who helped you get the interview and who already works there. Everyone keeps telling you to watch Entourage. Basically, you’re going to be Lloyd, they say. You do not want to be Lloyd.
What you want is to go back home to Texas and cry. Your fraught relationship has ended, in part because of the American Apparel model, and it is affecting you more than you ever thought it could. At night you cry, you wake up crying, you spend far too long on the phone yelling at your ex-boyfriend and crying. You are 22 and love isn't yet the warm distraction it will become later, when you are fully human. This love is something hard lodged in your chest. It feeds on pain. You feel it every time you breathe. You haven’t learned yet that the universe doesn’t revolve around your mood swings.
So you aren’t prepared when Paul calls and exclaims "You got the job!" The way he says it, you look up at the ceiling expecting balloons and confetti to fall down on your head. "Important Book Agent is very excited to work with you. And oh, would you mind coming in today for training? Like, right now?"
The building Major Entertainment Agency One owns is a cluster of busy right angles and glass that looks ready to shoot off into space. Inside, you feel compelled to whisper, as though you are in Notre Dame. You train for four hours, over the course of which you consume two diet cokes and one iced coffee. The assistant you will replace never stops moving and she never smiles.
"I’m leaving to work for Very Successful Screenwriter," she tells you in the kind of clipped English accent you thought only existed in movies with Hugh Grant in them. "It's imperative that I start tomorrow so pay attention. You won’t be able to call me for help after I'm gone." When she says Very Successful Screenwriter's name, she makes eye contact with you and pauses, the way people do after they tell you they went to Harvard. The name means nothing to you, and you will find out later this is also common in Hollywood, dropping production company titles and names of executives the way unattainable hipster boys in college referenced obscure literary theorists.
At the end of the day, you still have no idea what your new job actually is. You know it has something to do with answering phones, something you attempted once, and failed at. (You were supposed to pick up and say "Very Important Book Agent’s Office" but instead you said "Hello?")
Back at home, you call your mother at work and tell her the good news. She is thrilled. After you hang up, you crawl into bed and sob. You dial his number. He answers. You cry into the phone, he cries back, and then you get angry and he hangs up and then you fall asleep.
The next morning, you call the office number at Major Entertainment Agency One and connect to the extension that will soon belong to you. The whole idea of work, of having a career, seems so abstract and poorly thought out. I was looking for a job and then I found a job, Morrissey whispers in your brain, and heaven knows I’m miserable now. What you need, what everyone needs really, is a long nap.
A temp answers on the second ring. He has been waiting for you to arrive.
"I'm not coming in after all," you say. "I don't think I can do this."
"I completely understand," he answers, his voice cracking with envy. You hang up. Immediately the phone rings again. It is Paul.
"I thought you had it more together than that," he yells. You have no idea what gave him that idea. When you try to explain, he actually hangs up on you. It is a good thing. You didn’t have anything to say.
You are appalled at what you have done, but not as appalled as your mother. Luckily, Major Entertainment Agency Two calls you back, and you find yourself with a job starting at the end of the summer. Hollywood is a roiling anthropological experiment, and you set about learning the customs of the natives. You say "slammed" instead of busy and "batshit" instead of crazy. You don't get annoyed when waiters mess up your order because you get that they are sleepy from open calls. You learn to recognize plastic surgery without looking twice. You pick up the language of the rich, inserting the names of very expensive pizza restaurants into casual conversation. You pretend you went to the Barney’s Warehouse Sale. You brunch. You discover no amount of money will ever be enough.
After a while you find yourself folded into the city, lulled into a kind of daze. You stop reading books and talk about box office grosses instead. There's no need for philosophy in a place where the weather is this nice. Still, voices from the outside reach you every once in a while, make it hard for you to sleep. The people you went to college with are editorial assistants, non-profit coordinators, teachers, medical students.
One night, your friend Jesse tells you a story about leaving his own birthday dinner to remove a bullet from someone’s skull. At work, you write script coverage for a comedy about Abraham Lincoln's ghost. You play on the Internet. You blog. You read magazines in search of ideas for movies the agency's clients might want to write. You begin to feel certain you will die there, in your swivel chair, typing out summaries of the next Miley Cyrus oeuvre.
Meanwhile, the boy from Beverly Hills stops picking up your drunk dials. The American Apparel model has, against all odds, established a film career. His face peers out from magazine covers and billboards. In music videos, he caresses faceless blonde girls. You saw him once after you moved to L.A. He played you his reel and you accidentally laughed out loud at his turn as a gay teen boxer in the made-for-TV movie Rope Burns. He looked at you, plaintive, and asked "Why can’t you just be nice to me?" Now he is in a movie with Beyoncé. Soon you will see his head every day, floating in space over the 10 freeway. You accept the sign for what it is: it’s time for you to go.
You take the money you’ve been saving, buy a ticket to Europe and quit your job. You visit friends in graduate school overseas, people who made better life choices than you. You leave L.A. feeling proud of yourself for doing something so many people say they will do, and then don't. When you come back to find yourself broke and jobless, it occurs to you that the reason they don’t do it is because it is a terrible idea.
You scramble and manage to get part time work at a tiny literary agency that sells the film rights for novels to studios. This one doesn't own a building, but you like its small, cozy offices and cultivated bookshelves. Your boss, the company's founder, is an elderly hustler stuck in an old-timey Los Angeles, when packages were delivered by messengers on bikes with one big wheel on the front. He is the first fundamentally dishonest adult you have ever met.
From him, you learn that fiction doesn’t sell, but neither does non-fiction, and neither do hard covers. Ebooks are the future, or maybe they aren’t. Nobody reads anymore, or people only read the Internet, or people will always read books, or they won’t. Nobody wants to read your memoir unless you are already famous. No one wants to read your screenplay, even if you are already famous, unless you are famous for being a screenwriter. No one who is not already a screenwriter should aspire to be one because, look, it is too late. Also: everybody is over vampires. Don't even think about werewolves. The next big thing is children’s books, or it is true crime, or it is fantasy or it is none of these things.
You read terrible thrillers by the dime store novelists who are the agency's only real source of income. You spend a tremendous amount of time feeling sorry for yourself. Once you had dreams of translating Spanish poetry in a dusty university library. Here you translate schlock into the only language your boss understands, which is money.
"How is it?" he asks, watching you page dismally through a new manuscript.
"It's. Well. I think the pregnant coke-addicted black prostitute might put some people off. And later, when the angel comes down to smite all the gays... it's like, there’s just a lot going on here."
"Pretty impressive right? He wrote that whole thing in two weeks. You think I can sell it?"
"Good. Get me Random House on the phone. Who’s the editor at that imprint we like?"
You eye the ever-growing slush pile on your desk with disgust. When your boss leaves for the day, you recycle the manuscripts and make up fake synopses. Later, you start doing it while he is in the office. By this time, you’ve been working at the company for almost a year and you can feel bits of your soul drifting away. Still, you don’t look for a new job. Probably for the same reason your friends who swear they’re moving to New York never make it. The same reason everybody takes the same route to Beverly Hills each morning, even though they know they’ll hit mind-bending traffic. Something about living in a place where it is almost always summer inspires a comfortable inertia. The sun shines in January. In March, you spend whole weekends at the beach.
And then there is Mark, the merry, red-haired assistant/office manager who sits one desk over from yours. You love him with the fierce passion reserved for depressed women and their gay best friends. He trained to be an actor at SUNY Buffalo and when he senses you about to fall into a spiral of self-loathing, he slips into character as Mabel Lee, fading Southern belle. "Why as I live and breathe," he says when your hands start to shake. "Did you see what Beverly Jones wore to church the other day? I do declare. She looked just like a duck in a pillbox hat." The Old South by way of Manhasset, Long Island. Once a week, he visits his therapist over lunch and comes back armed with new survival tactics. "Every time something makes us sad, let's give each other compliments," he says one afternoon.
"What’s that?" Your boss peeks his giant bald head out of his office. Wisps of white hair cling to it desperately. "Did the First-Class mail come yet?" Mail time is your boss’s favorite. He sniffs out royalty checks in the piles of doomed query letters like a police dog sniffing for weed.
"Not yet,” You answer. “By the way, I love that scarf,” you say to Mark.
"Thank you. Your hair is very buoyant today,” he answers.
Your e-mail alert buzzes and you turn back to your computer.
Attached please find a proposal for a novel based on Facebook status updates written by my cat. Enclosed also are pictures of my cat. If you would like to see the full manuscript please reply. I also have a screenplay.
While we read your query with great interest, we are not enthusiastic enough about it to represent it for commercial sale. Best of luck finding a home for it elsewhere.
You spend the rest of the day editing a manuscript by a bestselling YA fantasy author no one will admit is a pedophile. On your way out the door, you overhear your boss on the phone with Ashley Bulgaz, the company’s bookkeeper.
"Cut back on flower deliveries for the lobby? Sure, I guess. That saves us how much? Two hundred dollars? I'm spending four hundred dollars a week on flowers? What the fuck. Fine. Do what you need to do. Just keep twelve-thousand five a month in my account. I can’t live on less."
$12,500.00 is more than half of what you will make for the year after taxes. You don’t have health insurance. Right now you subsist on a box of frozen burritos your roommate bought from Trader Joe’s and then abandoned.
Mark is gone for the day so you speak to his empty desk chair. "Hey Mark?" You say to it. "That tie you were wearing today? So chic."
Not all the query letters that come in are terrible. Some are even quite good, which, in a way, is even worse. Each morning, your boss dictates responses to promising ones, requesting e-mailed copies of novels from bright-eyed writers with freshly minted MFAs. In the afternoon you enter his office with a pile of manuscripts. He skims the first few pages and sighs.
"Who do these people think they are? Wasting my time with this crap. Tell them to go fuck themselves." You take them back to your desk and type out another form rejection. You hate to admit it, but you know he is right. Too many people who want to write don't read. Too many people who want to write should be gardeners or dentists or waiters or chemists or actuaries. You wonder, often, if too many people includes you.
Because though you have spent the past three years working actively against it, the only thing you ever wanted to do is write. Now you leave work every day with the truth heavy in your soul: no one deserves that kind of life. For every story about the acceptance that came after 100 rejections, there are millions about people who wrote for eighty years and died humiliated, poor, hungry and alone. You should have gone into banking, you should have been pre-med, you should have joined a cult.
Perhaps it is not too late to join a cult.
And yet, you keep working on your stupid short stories. Because you can’t help it, because it isn’t a choice, because if you decide to do a thing, why not keep doing it until you get better at it? Because in this shiny, impossible city, it is the only thing keeping you sane. The boy from Beverly Hills has moved in with the girl he will probably marry. Variety tells you the American Apparel model will star opposite one of the actresses from Mean Girls in her next feature. But if you can figure out how to build fictional characters who live and breathe and move around in space, then none of that will matter. Or at least, it will matter less.
Ages ago, when he interviewed you for the assistant job, your boss demanded to know your college major. "Comparative Literature and Literary Arts," you answered. Five words that never get any less embarrassing. He winced. "You're not going to be, like, writing stuff while you're at work, right? I don't want to see that." You laughed, kind of, and changed the subject.
A year and a half later, when you tell him you're applying to graduate school he asks you with his customary tact, "What in the hell are you doing that for?" It’s a question you put to yourself often, and you want to answer him honestly. Working your way down the corporate ladder, you have come face to face with the fact that your only real skill, if you can call it that, is reading obscure literary fiction, talking about it and trying to imitate people who write it. Instead you answer in the only words he can understand.
"Well." You turn your voice into a question. "The classes will be free? Because. I mean. The University is going to pay me a…" You almost say the word “stipend” but then you catch yourself. "Money? To teach?"
He grunts at you but you don’t care because you’re feeling oddly confident. Lately, your life has been falling into place along a strange Los Angeles logic. That morning you got a $50 parking ticket, but last night you went to a party at Bret Easton Ellis’ house. The party was exactly what you expected, down to the minimalist monochrome décor, the celebrities famous for reasons no one could define. In an apartment overlooking Beverly Hills, you lived out the wildest dream of the college sophomore version of yourself. A gleam hovered over the fading film stars, the impeccable bartender, the party guests caught up in Bret's orbit as he circled the room, glass in hand, imitating perfectly the person everyone assumes he is.
To break the spell, you were tempted to light a cigarette even though you don’t smoke, or drop your glass over the balcony to the concrete below. But in the past few years, you’ve transformed from the type of person who destroys delicate things on purpose to the type of person who thinks about destroying them and then doesn't. Out over the city, fireworks flowered. The friend you came with lifted his glass and you clinked yours against it. Beneath you, Los Angeles shimmered like something jeweled and alive and you wondered for a moment so brief it was almost invisible how you could possibly live anywhere else.
"All These Strangers" - Elvis Costello (mp3)
"The Spell That You Cast" - Elvis Costello (mp3)
"That's Not The Part of Him You're Leaving" - Elvis Costello (mp3)