Absolutely True Lies
People are always asking for my advice on how to break into this business. “It can’t have been easy,” they tell me, “landing your first TV show at the age of ten.” Nothing about show business is easy, but my path is not anyone else’s. I didn’t ask for fame and I didn’t ask for that first television show. One day I was going to school with my friends, worried about boys and how I’d do on Friday’s math test, and the next I was memorizing sixty script pages and trying to fit in photo shoots after tutoring. I’ve always felt it was God’s plan, to make me an ambassador for other people my age.
The day I graduated from Sarah Lawrence with my degree in creative writing, my mother told me, “Holly, in a few years, you’ll be so famous they’ll be asking you to give the commencement address.”
She was wrong.
Four years after graduating from college, I was twenty-five and writing for a magazine in Los Angeles that was so tiny they practically had to pay people to read it. It was supposed to be an insider view of celebrity life, but TMZ and Radar Online can pay top dollar for their inside scoops and we had an operating budget of about seventy-five cents. Meaning that no one wanted to talk to us. Not to mention, the readers Kragen Publishing so desperately sought were not the ones who routinely scoured newsstands for
celeb gossip; everything the teen and twenty-something set wants to know about the latest scandals is up in fifteen minutes. Our site was perpetually down for maintenance, which was perfect for our sixty-five-year-old readers, who didn’t know the first thing about computers, anyway. My boss once told me that our magazine was purchased most by widowed housewives who also happened to be buying the National Enquirer.
So I was reduced to writing blurbs on museum exhibitions, doing “interviews” by e-mail with famous people’s agents, and writing reviews of movies that had already come out. Despite my having graduated magna cum laude and applying for hundreds of jobs all over the country, this was one of only three job offers I received. The first was at my hometown newspaper, and the second was for a farming magazine in Montana. Both paid more than double what I was making now, but Westside Weekly was about Hollywood. How could I say no to that? I did, however, have to lie to my mother and tell her WW was my only job offer; if I had admitted that I was offered double to basically live down the block from her, she would have died of happiness. And I would have committed myself by the end of the year.
When I took the job in L.A., she sighed and whined that I was abandoning her, but she actually managed to let go of the car as I drove away. And every month since, she’s demanded to know why she can’t find the magazine at the grocery store. She lives in Syracuse, New York, a city of about 150,000 people. I couldn’t even find my magazine in Los Angeles, so I have no idea why she thought the Syracuse Wegmans would be flush with copies, but she was continually outraged. I finally got the assistant editor to send her a few courtesy issues, but I’m pretty sure by that point my mother thought I was really unemployed and had fabricated the entire thing on my computer.
My job did exist, although just barely. My paycheck showed up in the mail only sporadically and often not for the amount promised. But I lived in a studio apartment the size of a postage stamp,
so my overhead wasn’t terribly high. Even so, I couldn’t afford to go out very much, and my cat, Smitty, had to settle for whatever food was on special that week.
I’d lived in L.A. for more than four years and my social life consisted of an ornery cat and the occasional pint of Ben & Jerry’s on my Goodwill couch. I had a few close friends, but they all had jobs on film crews and worked twenty-hour days, so I only saw them between projects. And since I refused to accept a date with anyone whose opening salvo was “I drive a [insert Mercedes, Jaguar, BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini],” I hadn’t been out on a date in almost a year. Despite this dismal reality, everyone back home assumed I was living the high life. Whenever I visited, I was lauded for being the “big L.A. writer,” the one who hung out with celebrities until all hours of the night and then slept through the day until it was time to do it all over again. I once saw Steve Martin at the car wash, but I don’t really think that’s anything to write home about. I really did try to tell my friends and family the truth, explain to them that I lived in a suspected gang neighborhood with zero vegetation and a “no cruising” city mandate, but they just wouldn’t listen. And because my family is truly unimaginative, they all started calling me Holly Wood. Hilarious.
Yep, I was well on my way to . . . moving back home and writing gardening blurbs for the Syracuse Post-Standard.
Every once in a great while, though, I scored an assignment that gave me a glimpse of just how cool a career in celeb writing could be. When an actress from the CW started her own clothing line, they gave press credentials to pretty much anyone who asked, and I snapped mine up and found myself sandwiched between Perez Hilton and the editor of the Garden Grove High School newspaper. I tried to remain as calm and cool as the sixteen-year-old yawning apathetically next to me when Britney wandered past, but inside, I was jumping up and down. What was the matter with these people? Didn’t they know where we were, what we were doing? It was
dark and I couldn’t be sure, but I think Orlando Bloom may have spilled a martini down my dress. It was the pinnacle of my career to that point.
But for every high moment, there were about fifty humiliating letdowns. The assistant editor knew someone who was second cousins with George Clooney’s personal hairstylist, and said that she could get me into the premiere of his new movie. It was Oscar season and the film had a lot of buzz surrounding it, and the magazine just happened to go to press one day before the movie’s release, so—for once—we would be in the thick of things. I didn’t have the money for a red carpet dress, so I went to Goodwill and bought an old quinceañera dress and some shoes, then spent three days meticulously pulling rhinestones off the hem and repainting the scuffed pair of heels. I’m sure I looked like a thrift store prom queen, but I was so excited I couldn’t eat for three days. When the assistant editor saw me, she was congratulatory and asked if I was finally taking an interest in my appearance (I’m five-ten and a size 8—in this town, that’s practically the giant blueberry girl from Willy Wonka).
So there I was, dressed to the nines and on my way to the premiere in Westwood. I couldn’t afford a chauffeured car, so I had to park almost a mile away and walk the distance in my cheap bridesmaid’s shoes. By the time I got to the theater, I was sweaty and had put a stiletto hole through the back of the dress, plus my shoes were a size too small and my feet had gone numb in the first five blocks. None of this dampened my elation as I got in line with the rest of the critics who were here to review the film.
The first thing I noticed was that I was the only one clad in evening wear. The rest of the reviewers looked like refugees from the MTV movie awards, with hipster haircuts and asymmetrical hemlines. They all gave me dirty looks, but I didn’t care—I still listen to bad eighties pop, and not even ironically. I shot a few dirty looks back at them, thinking, Heaven really is a place on earth, and you can all suck it.
As we reached security one by one and were asked for our publication names, everyone got through—except me.
“I’m sorry, what magazine did you say you were from?” the security guard asked.
“Westside Weekly,” I repeated for the third time. A gaggle of the hipster mafia who’d already made it past the checkpoint chuckled quietly.
“Doesn’t that come out once a month?” weird emo-girl with purple-streaked black hair asked me.
“Yes,” I replied quietly, trying to steel myself against hurt feelings. They were once fresh-faced, small-town newbies, I reminded myself. And despite the fact that their paychecks dwarfed mine, not one of those poser, Diablo Cody wannabes was any better than I was. At least, that’s what I told myself. “I have no idea why they call it a weekly.”
“I’m sorry, you’re not on the list,” the security guard told me. Despite his words, he didn’t look particularly sorry.
“But—” I sputtered. But—what? I didn’t have the name of the second cousin or the hairstylist, and it wasn’t like I knew a single person associated with the event. I tried desperately to think of a way to prove who I was, that I deserved to be on that list.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’m going to have to ask you to step out of line,” the guard said, starting to get a little irritated. “I’ve got a lot of real press to get through.”
Real press. “Oh,” I practically whispered. “Okay.”
With my cheeks on fire, trying to hold back tears, I turned around and stepped out of line, forcing myself to avoid eye contact with the now raucously laughing hipster critics. If I’d had any doubt where I rated in this town, I was sure I was a nobody now.
My eyes trained on the sidewalk, I staggered the mile back to my car. I tried to ignore the pain in my feet, even as they started to bleed, making the cheap satin heels slippery. I was only two blocks away from the parking garage when I turned a corner and the back of the dress caught on something. I didn’t notice the ripping sound
until the entire skirt pooled around my ankles and I realized I was nearly naked from the waist down.
After that night, I never bothered asking for better assignments. I took what they gave me, even if it meant the movie I was reviewing was already out of theaters by the time my article was printed. And when my mother complained that I was getting too old to be the “ingenue writer,” I just turned on the vacuum cleaner and told her the connection was breaking up.
I lived like this for another year, barely getting by, going out with my friends twice a month, and pretending I was happy. I was getting paid to write about Hollywood, wasn’t I? Wasn’t this all I said I ever wanted? As for my dream of one day writing a novel, well . . . Everyone wants to do that, but no one really gets around to it. Again, that’s what I told myself.
But my tenuous hold on life came crashing down one Tuesday afternoon, about five hours after I’d submitted my latest article, a review of a Korean day spa in downtown L.A. I was already in a bad mood because the spa hadn’t comped my facial and I’d been forced to pay the seventy bucks out of my own pocket. They hadn’t told me this up front, and so I’d had to hand over my grocery money just to leave the building.
I spent the entire ride home repeatedly calling the assistant editor and leaving voice mails about reimbursement, but no one answered or called me back. I’d just pulled up in front of the demilitarized zone that was my apartment building when Lacy, a colleague of mine at the magazine, called me.
“I’m waiting on a call from Susan,” I told her. “I can’t talk long.”
“Susan got fired,” Lacy said. “That’s why I called you.”
“Oh,” I replied, feeling sorry for her. Susan was incompetent, rude, and had the IQ of a housefly, but hey—everyone needs a job. “Who’d they hire to replace her?”
“No one,” Lacy said, like I was missing some big piece of information that should have been staring me in the face.
“Does that mean her job’s open?” I hated working for the magazine, but I was practically making twelve cents an hour; any salary increase would have made a difference in my life.
“Are you deaf, Hol? There’s no job. Not for any of us. Kragen Publishing is shutting down the magazine.”
Too shocked to reply, I sat in my car and watched as a ten-year-old sold marijuana to an old man in a fedora and cardigan on the front steps of my building. My job—my shitty, humiliating, barely-minimum-wage job—was gone.
“Are you still there?” Lacy asked.
“Um . . . I gotta go feed Smitty. I’ll talk to you later.”
I hung up the phone, knowing that if Lacy said one more word, I was going to throw up all over my steering wheel. And in my fifteen-year-old car, there were already enough noxious odors without adding vomit to the list. So I flung my cell into my purse and got out of the car, ignoring the drug deal ten feet in front of me and heading into my building.
My mind raced, trying to figure out what to do. I couldn’t throw in the towel and get a job at the Coffee Bean, I just couldn’t. It would mean the end of everything I’d worked for. I wasn’t even sure which was worse—getting a retail job or going back home and taking that job at The Post-Standard. And I knew that half the kids I went to high school with, who still lived in the same zip code and married the guys they’d lost their virginity to, would be smugly elated to welcome me back. I’d seen it in their eyes when they bought me good-bye drinks four years ago—they wanted me to fail, needed me to fail to justify their own choices in life. I couldn’t let that happen. I had to find another writing job, and soon.
My rent was only eight hundred a month, but I had no savings. Zero dollars minus eight hundred equaled living on a park bench at the Santa Monica Pier. And I’ve been down there plenty of times—all the good benches have already been claimed, and I’m not so keen on shivving people. My family was pretty much right out of
the trailer park, so it was futile asking for help from them unless I needed a skinned possum overnighted to me, and even then, I’m not sure any one of them could figure out how to properly mail the package.
So I was screwed. And not even in a good way.
• • •
Four hours later, I’d eaten an economy-size bag of M&M’s, four boxes of Girl Scout cookies, and every frozen pizza, Hot Pocket, and burrito I had ready for the next week’s lunches. I was also drunk off my ass, having gone through all the daiquiri and margarita mixes hours ago, and was now down to doing shots of chocolate syrup and peppermint schnapps. I was in my own minty hell when Susan finally called me back at eleven o’clock that night.
“I’m sorry I didn’t call you sooner,” she cooed. “But I didn’t know if I was authorized to tell you or not.”
“’Ssssss okay,” I replied, a split second before I burped into the phone.
“Are you drunk?” she asked, her tone laced with irritating self-righteousness. I mean, who the hell was she? My mother? Unemployed or not, how was it her business if I was plastered before midnight on a Tuesday?
“Maybe.” I shrugged, as though she could see me. “What’s it to you? You’re not my boss anymore.”
“I’m just concerned, that’s all. It’s a stupid little magazine, Holly. I think Starbucks pays more than you were making.”
Suddenly, I reached that moment where you slide from “everything’s cool” to “morose drunk girl.” “At least I was making something. Someone was paying me to write.”
“Haven’t you always wanted to write a novel?” she said cheerfully. “Why don’t you take your savings and spend six months doing that?”
Was she fucking serious? Did Susan Baker think I was a fuck
ing Rockefeller? Thanks to the money I’d unwillingly spent at the Korean spa, I now had less than a thousand dollars to my name. And it was the twenty-first of the month—I had five weeks until I turned into a pumpkin. The only writers I knew who could crank out a book in that time were coked out of their minds. And I was way too poor to take up a drug habit right now.
“Yeah . . . yeah, maybe,” I told her, too embarrassed to admit the truth. “What about you?”
“Oh, I knew this was coming,” Susan said, sounding pretty damn pleased with herself. “I’ve been putting out résumés for months. I start my new job on Monday.”
Months? She knew about this for months?
“Again, sorry I couldn’t tell you sooner, but I was told not to worry anyone.”
Bitch. “Yeah, I totally get it,” I said. “Well, good luck to you. I gotta go. I’m . . . out with some friends.”
From the far end of the couch, Smitty meowed at me and I prayed to God Susan couldn’t hear it through the phone.
“Ohh-kay,” she answered, clearly calling me a liar. “I’ll call you next week, maybe we can do lunch.”
“Sure,” I said, knowing I would never, ever, ever see her name on my caller ID again. “Take care and good luck in your new job.”
“Thanks, babe,” Susan said. “Talk to you later.”
I hung up the phone and then stared at it for a moment.
“Liar,” I said, wishing I’d had the nerve to actually say that to her. But then, I was just as big a liar, who was I to judge? As if to verify this, Smitty meowed again, batting his declawed paw at me.
“Whose side are you on?” I said, now slipping into angry drunk-girl mode. “Do you work for Susan now?”
In response, Smitty came over and settled in my lap. I was momentarily touched by his affection until he began licking the chocolate syrup off the sides of my glass. I almost swatted him away, but I didn’t really care enough to do it.
“I guess we’ll both end the night by puking.”
That’s the last thing I remember until about eleven the next morning, when I woke up to find Tito, my neighbor, staring at me from just outside my patio. I guess I’d fallen asleep with the blinds open, and since my legs were splayed across the couch, I’m sure he got a pretty good show. At least someone should have been enjoying the view.
Too depressed to think straight, I stood up and walked to the blinds, flipping Tito the bird before shutting them. I then collapsed into my tiny bed and went to sleep. For days. And I do mean days. By the time my mother called to make sure I hadn’t been gang-raped and strangled to death, the hair on my legs could have been French-braided.
“What, Ma?” I said from beneath the covers, lest I accidentally let any light enter my dungeon of despair. “I’m not in the mood.”
“You haven’t called me in a week, Holly. I thought you were dead.”
No, I just wished I was dead. “I’m fine,” I lied, yawning. “I’m just tired.”
“Why are you tired? You go to the movies and write five hundred words about it.”
This was an argument we had all the time. My mother works for city government and feels that her forty hours a week at a desk is much more grueling than my forty hours a week at a desk. I didn’t know how to tell her that I no longer even had a desk.
“I’m sick, okay?” I shot back, about ready to throw the phone at the wall.
“Were you making out with someone last night?” my mother asked, chastising me like I was twelve years old and caught with the boy next door. “You don’t know where those men have been, Holly.”
The only creature who’d attempted to make out with me in months was Smitty, and even that only happened when I was eating something that smelled appetizing.
“No, Mom, it’s just something that’s going around at work.” Yeah, it’s called unemployment. “I’ll call you back in a couple of days when I feel better.”
“I just wanted to let you know that Uncle Bob is going to be calling you—”
“Great,” I said, “Love you, Mom. Bye.” I hung up quickly, before she could say anything else.
Then I opened up the back of the phone and yanked out the battery, tossing all three pieces on the floor next to the bed. I had no job, no boyfriend, and very few friends—who the hell needed to talk to me? If I were found dead in this apartment a week or so from now (the manager always bangs on the door and lets himself in when the rent is even six seconds late), who would really care besides the local news? I’d even be willing to bet that I’m worth more to this world as a tragic, twenty-five-year-old dead Hollywood wannabe than a living, breathing, aspiring novelist. And my mother would finally have an emotional wound big enough to top everyone else in her bridge club, including Debbie Paul, whose son was born with a cleft palate and, according to my mom, never shuts up about it.
So I went back to sleep, half of me hoping that this was all just a really cliché insecurity dream and the other half praying that God, Allah, Zeus, or whoever would just strike me down in my sleep and save me from having to wake up again.
• • •
But I did wake up eventually. By the time I actually did get out of bed long enough to take a shower and change my clothes, Smitty was in the kitchen, chewing through a cardboard box of cereal. I had a sudden pang of guilt as I saw the row of hastily opened cans of cat food I had just tossed on the floor each night before crawling back into my den of self-pity. Apparently, I had forgotten to even do that the night before.
“I’m sorry, Smits,” I said, bending down to pet him. But Smitty
just gave me a look of contempt and abandoned the cereal box, sashaying his way into the living room without so much as a backward glance. Great. Now even my cat hated me.
I didn’t know what day it was, and it was only by the sun peeking through my blinds that I guessed the microwave clock read 2:00 P.M., not 2:00 A.M. Against my better judgment, I walked the ten feet from my kitchenette back to my bed and knelt down, gathering the pieces of my cell phone. The only thought running through my mind was that I had had this phone number for four years now; four years and I was likely about to have my phone shut off for nonpayment.
As the screen blinked to life, I saw that it was now the twenty-ninth. I had been asleep for eight days. I waited anxiously for my phone to register any texts or voice mails, hoping to discover that Kragen had reconsidered and saved the magazine, even though I’m fairly certain they made about eleven dollars an issue.
I was even more hopeful when my phone politely dinged and said I had nine new voice mails. But my excitement quickly faded as I discovered that the first five were from my mother.
At least number six was a surprise. “Hey, kid, it’s your Uncle Bob-O. I just wanted to let you know that I gave out your number to a friend of mine in the L.A. area. He said something about needing an entertainment writer and I told him I had just the gal. His name is Jameson Lloyd and he used to jam with me back in high school. Not really sure what he does now, but maybe you can clear some extra cash. Talk to you later, Holly.”
I pressed delete. You might think I was excited by this message, or at least the teensiest bit encouraged, but I wasn’t. Not even the slightest. That’s because in this town, people promise you Tiffany and can’t even deliver Taco Bell. Everyone I’ve ever met in L.A. has told me what a fantastic, talented, brilliant, genius writer I am, and how they plan to catapult me to the top of the literary world. No one has ever gotten me a job, read a single word of what I’ve written, or even bothered to call me back a second time. Even my “agent,”
Gus, who I met through the aunt of a friend of a boss’s sister-in-law, who guaranteed me he’d tear the throat out of any client who tried to screw me, never met with me again after I hired him. Though he does dutifully collect his ten percent of my measly earnings every month. When my paycheck from Kragen is late, it’s Gus who notices first, not me. Oh, and he didn’t even get me that job—I applied over the Internet and was stupid enough to tell him about it.
So when I listened to the next two messages, I wasn’t expecting a thing. My best friend, Camille, called to say she was worried about me and that my mother had been obsessively texting her for information, and was I alive and available for a drink? As I thought back to my drunken mint stupor, the bile rose in my throat and I quickly pressed 7 and moved on. I resolved to abstain from alcohol for six months or until I had hung myself in despair, unable to wash the stench of failure off my skin, whichever was sooner.
The eighth was from a local congressman, hoping for my vote in the special election. I was not aware we were having a special election, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not altogether sure I’m registered to vote in the state of California (I’ve always had a misaligned sense of civic duty). I sighed and expected that the last would be from a Chinese food hellhole telling me about their latest egg foo yong special, but I was unfamiliar with the voice speaking back at me through the phone.
“Heya, Holly, my name is Jameson and I got your name through Bob Riker.”
I sat up straighter in astonishment. I think I may have even glanced at Smitty to make sure he wasn’t talking to me, as somehow, that would have seemed less strange.
“I have a client who’s looking for a good ghostwriter, and Bob recommended you. I’d love you to come out and meet with us next week if possible, and you two can chat and see how things go. I can’t promise you anything beyond that, but give me a call and we’ll see if we can work something out. My number is 3-1-0—”
I heaved myself off the floor and ran for a pen. Not finding a piece of paper, I wrote the phone number on the wall with a Sharpie. Hey—I already lived in a shitty apartment, how much more damage could I do to the place? I then replayed the message to double-check the number and make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. But it was real, all of it. I had no idea who this client was or how much the job might pay, but if it could get me through even another month, it might be enough to keep me afloat until I could find something else.
My grandmother always says that God never closes a door without opening a window. For twenty-five years, I was pretty sure she was full of shit, but right about now, I was ready to throw open every one of the barred and double-paned windows in my postage stamp. Hallelujah, praise Jebus—there was a chance that I was back in business.