Monica Drake | Longreads | October 2017 | 14 minutes (3,538 words)
A hot Hollywood beauty optioned the film rights to my first novel, Clown Girl, then, months later, invited me out for dinner. Specifically, her people emailed my people — me.
Her agent asked if I’d be interested and available.
I was home alone when I got the message, and beyond interested. I was instantly dizzy, maybe sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated. I grabbed the back of a chair, knocking over a paper cup of cold coffee on our cluttered dining table. I teach English Composition at a small, private art school and I write. I’m a full-time mom with a full-time job and a full-time writing career on the side, wherever “the side” is. I live in a sea of student essays, department meetings, administrative work, my own pages of writing, submission, acceptance, rejection, my daughter’s projects and a lot of late nights at the computer. This Miss Hollywood, of course, is a movie star.
Now she’d reached out to me — she, this writer and actress, a woman said to have “single-handedly reinvented [the] romantic comedy formula,” hailed as a “comedic genius” by more than one publication.
I didn’t check my calendar. I’d make time. Morning, noon, night, I’d be in town. When opportunity knocks, right? “Yes,” I emailed back, tapping the single word into my phone. Coffee dripped to our worn floorboards.
We closed in on a date. Then I actually did glance, past birthday party invites and coupons pinned to a corkboard, at the old Nature Conservancy calendar tacked up in our kitchen. One of the two possible suggested dates fell on my cousin’s wedding day. I wrote back to Hollywood, to L.A., and New York, where the agents and reps lived, “My cousin is getting married…?”
I could take Miss Hollywood along with me, I reasoned, if she was in town for the wedding. I mean, why not? I’d lend her a dress, find her a drink, let her trash the reception romantic comedy-style if she felt inclined. She’d once played a bridesmaid. She’d be a stellar guest! The only reason I thought such a preposterous thing was because it was taking a risk to cross one possible date off the short list of two dates offered, and as I hit “send” on my email I worried that any lack of availability was a misstep.
The reps emailed back, suggesting another day.
So we did that! Of course we did. It was much more reasonable, to pick another date. We settled on the single remaining option, a small window several weeks out. I sang the actress’s name, to the tune of “Twist and Crawl,” by the English Beat, and did a little Ska dance in the kitchen. (In case there’s any confusion — no, it wasn’t Kristin Schaal, though that name also falls nicely along the tune of “Twist and Crawl,” it’s true, and she’d rock as Clown Girl, seriously, but it wasn’t her.)
Mine was a happy, nervous song.
Nervous, because I had a lot riding on it. I’ve never figured out the social rules of meeting famous people. I’m essentially shy, and awkward. There’s a trick to being appreciative without fawning except for when fawning is suddenly called for. People like to be recognized for their success, not embarrassed by a toady. They don’t want to be asked for things, and that was an immediate problem.
I wanted things.
I had definite desires. Specifically, I wanted Hollywood to follow through and adapt my novel, Clown Girl, to film. It’s an edgy romantic comedy about a clown and a cop, anarchy and order. It’s about art, love, hope, and breaking rules. It’s about clown work, as an art form and as a stand-in for all arts, being more than a job but an outright calling, in a world of clowns and costumes, both metaphoric and literal. Very specifically, it’s also about what it means to be a woman working in comedy, walking a line between raunch and beauty.
I’ve never figured out the social rules of meeting famous people. I’m essentially shy, and awkward. There’s a trick to being appreciative without fawning except for when fawning is suddenly called for.
That part was important to me.
I’d flown to L.A. twice on my own dime and driven a cheap rental car over the rush of unfamiliar freeways to nudge my book toward her. Now Clown Girl was drawing Hollywood to me, in a lovely turn of events. This had the potential to be the hottest date of my life.
Then came an email suggesting I choose the restaurant. Taking responsibility for the restaurant made the whole future more real. I started thinking about girth. Specifically, my girth.
I morphed from the kind of woman you’d find in my own writing — idea-driven, with aspirations — into the kind delivered by conventional corporate Hollywood: body-conscious.
I’m a normal-sized person for Portland, Oregon. I’m a “plus size” in the fashion world. I have a “healthy appetite” in the language of L.A. On one of my few trips there, an agent bought me breakfast. I ordered eggs Benedict, instead of the standard fruit cup. The agent said, “It’s nice to see a woman eat.”
I’m pretty much the same height and weight as Sylvester Stallone, at least up through Rocky III, though he carries it in his biceps, where it looks a whole lot different.
I imagined this Hollywood beauty sitting next to herself — two of her, side by side. That might equal one of me.
More often I worry about climate change, the rich/poor split, and the rise of religion-based politics. I worry about my daughter’s happiness and if that nuclear disaster in Japan will be cleaned up before the next major earthquake. The width of my booty is not important — it isn’t! — but I’ve seen photos of myself looking gargantuan next to famous women. Once I was wedged into a booth in a New York club next to the lovely Parker Posey. I was wedged. She sat delicately. The more successful women are, the smaller they seem to be. This Hollywood actress — a thin slip, hugely famous — would be no exception. Next to her, I’d loom like our local sculpture, Portlandia — a woman made of hammered copper like the Statue of Liberty, kneeling on a building, big as a Macy’s float. She reaches down over the city, substantial and eager.
That would be me.
I asked if this lovely actress, my guest, my date, would need a ride. What had I done? I looked around my Subaru. The seats were scattered with goldfish crackers and the outer wrappers of Botan rice candy.
It was too late to be body conscious. There wasn’t time. My job was to find a restaurant.
Not only is the actress a vegetarian, she’s so morally and physically pure of the bad karma of bacon that she was voted one of PETA’s “Sexiest Vegetarians of the Year.” I’m down with vegetarianism. I’ve gone weeks at a time without meat. When I was younger, I went over a year. These days though, I know myself. I have weaknesses.
When food is good, I’ll eat it. When it’s free, I’ll eat it. When it’s expensive and free, I’ll definitely eat. When I’m stressed, I turn to meat. When I was afraid I’d have a third miscarriage instead of a firstborn child, I climbed into bed with a whole roasted chicken — a chicken body the size of a new baby — pulled meat off the bone and ate, naked, like an animal.
My daughter lived.
Thank you for being there, irrational comfort food!
I’m sorry, but I’ll never be PETA’s Sexiest Vegetarian of the Year. Grant me some time to change my ways, and maybe I can aspire to be the sexiest octogenarian vegetarian. For now, I had to sort out where the Sexiest Vegetarian of the Year would go for dinner in Portland.
I asked friends who spend good money on pretty drinks. I asked Byron Beck, “Queer Window” columnist, Portland gadfly and celebrity hawk. He knew a spot, a place Ed Begley visited. I looked it up. The finer print: Reservations? Required. Kid friendly? No. Group friendly? No.
Reviews gave me the sense it would be uptight and precise. My guess? Portions would be small. The plates would be big. Grains would dominate. It’d cost a fortune. I made our reservation.
Later that week, in a grocery store, “Twist and Crawl” came on — a song from the ‘80’s, not in heavy rotation. I took it as a sign, my new prayer, and sang the actress’s name to the song again, out loud in the produce department as I picked out apples. On an impulse, I contacted the reps and asked if this lovely actress, my guest, my date, would need a ride. We’re not a city where people take taxis, in general. More often we bike, bus, skateboard, or drive. Her people wrote back. She’d love a ride!
In my car.
What had I done? I looked around my Subaru. The seats were scattered with goldfish crackers and the wrappers of Botan rice candy. An ink pen had leaked against the fabric into a dark blue pool. My daughter’s puffy pink Sears booster seat was grubby. She’d filled every cup holder with chewing gum carefully wadded and tucked neatly back in a wrapper. There were hundreds.
I’ve never been to prom, but felt like I was going now. I was going as the guy. I wanted to buy the actress flowers. Would that be weird?
I wanted to honor her.
The day of our date, I spent $49 at a car wash for the Express Detail Package. Three teenage boys scrubbed the car, inside and out. They put plastic over the wet seats and tried to hand my keys back to me.
I planned my arrival at her hotel to be exact. I was almost there when my phone cried out from where it rested on the passenger seat — the place I’d come to think of as Miss Hollywood’s seat.
So the actress would ride on plastic over wet seats in Oregon’s damp and cool weather?
I said, “Dry the seats, please.”
One young man stepped forward to say they didn’t have time.
“Take the time! Dry them!” I actually commanded! And the young men did it. They leaned over with their loud hoses and vacuums, and sucked water from the seats while blasting heat against the cloth.
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I was so in charge. I demanded this extra effort, for important business. Being in charge meant standing on the side of the road between a McDonald’s and the car wash for a really long time. After a while I went back inside the car wash’s tiny building and read an entire free USA Today. I read all of our local daily, the Oregonian. I drank a cup of coffee with a dry powdered “whitener” in it. I watched car racing on a tiny TV over the cashier’s head. The sun inched past noon, then began its route down toward the city skyline. I walked around the block to Wendy’s for a one-dollar deal on a fish sandwich, and waited until those seats were dry, dry, dry.
Dear Miss Hollywood, bearer of my high hopes, would not get a damp stain on the back of her clothes from riding in my car. No. She wouldn’t have to stick to the thin plastic wrap either. We could throw that wrap away! My car was perfect.
All I had left to do was get dressed, pick up my daughter at school and drop her off again at the neighbors, and abdicate all parenting obligations for the night. I could do it.
My closet is a museum. I put on a flowered shirt so old it’s caused college students — students younger than the skirt itself — to ask if I vintage shop. I bought it once upon a time, when that skirt was new. I put on tights, a black skirt, and twenty-five year old Frye boots.
When people read Clown Girl, they expect me to show up with multi-colored hair and tattoos. They want me to embody Portland, clown work, and anarchy. But I’m a writer. A writer can show up neutral as a blank page, until the material is made manifest.
People share things with a blank page.
I picked up my daughter at school, slapped together a grilled cheese, then packed her up with Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, hoping she wouldn’t read so far that she’d get to the part where Dumbledore (spoiler!) dies.
My child has grown up with Clown Girl — first I was trying to sell the book, then revising it, then celebrating its publication, then promoting it, and now, I said, “I’m sorry, hon. An actress from Hollywood wants to talk about Clown Girl.” I pulled my daughter into a coat, held her tiny, warm hand, and walked her swiftly to the neighbor’s house.
Clown Girl was like an invisible sister, who sometimes needed more attention.
Then I got in the car.
This actress and I had both gone to the University of Arizona. Did she know that? I could bring it up as small talk.
I’d ask if she’d ever had a beer on the patio at Mike’s Place and watched an orange sunset over the smog of the distant L.A. skyline, across Tucson’s downtown, or if she hung out at the Club Congress, maybe showing up for a Jonathan Richman show, or a local band.
I planned my arrival at her hotel to be exact — not early, not late. I was almost there, when my phone cried out from where it rested on the empty, clean, and dry passenger’s seat — the place I’d come to think of as Miss Hollywood’s seat. I saw the number on the screen: an L.A. area code. There was nowhere to pull over. I tapped the brakes, the phone slid and landed on the floor. I couldn’t reach it. I pulled up fast onto a cement median. It was the only place to pull over — a small concrete island where two arterial streets reached toward the freeway entrance. I was probably doing damage to my car’s undercarriage; there was a scraping sound as I stopped, and one tire was off the ground.
The actress leaned in and said the kindest, most generous things about Clown Girl. I’d write them here, but wouldn’t want to misquote what I took as lavish praise, and besides, it would make me blush.
I called the number back. The actress’s agent answered. He was swift with the message: Dinner was canceled. The actress had reasons. They were good reasons, I’m sure.
I floated out of my body. Traffic swirled around my car, my island. The sun was setting. I put a hand to the dust-free dash.
While her agent spoke, I took a deep breath and tried to count my blessings: I had a clean, dry car. The car seats wouldn’t sport mold. In Oregon, land of rain, mold, and pollen, that’s worth something. And I could pick my daughter up early. I’d read to her, we’d be together when she got to Dumbledore’s death. And I hadn’t missed my cousin’s wedding.
I could eat meat, if I wanted.
But I wanted to have dinner with the actress. I admit, my hopes were crushed. I thought maybe, in the romantic comedy formula, this would be our lowest low, this actress, Hollywood and me. This would be the time, about three-quarters of the way through our personal movie, our love story, when rain would beat against the car windows to underscore a great sadness, except it didn’t actually rain, so there was that. Still, it could be the moment I’d saunter down an empty city street in a trench coat, looking like a lost and cool John Cusack, when the soundtrack takes over in service of emotion.
I had another novel in the works, almost done. I was hammering out a writing career. Did I need Hollywood, at all? Do all books need to be movies? Did this dinner mean anything, anyway?
I held the phone to my ear. Before the agent signed off, he assured me they would call me back.
I’m pretty certain I said, “Thank you.”
The beautiful thing is, they did call me back. We made a fresh plan. The new plan was that I’d meet up with the actress on the set of Portlandia — the show, not the sculpture, this time. They were filming in a house, and her co-ordinator or handler or agent gave me directions. The next day, I put on the same carefully chosen outfit and drove across town to find the house. When I was almost there, I got a call. Again, an L.A. area code, one of the actress’s crew. I answered, and was told they’d left the house where we’d planned to meet. Scratch that. Forget the address, eat the notes.
They were on their way to the Doug Fir Lounge at the Jupiter Hotel, one of Portland’s a hipster spots, a band venue, a restaurant. The new plan was to meet them there, join them on their lunch break. I turned my car around and drove back across town, glad I wasn’t doing these laps on my bike because I would be so very sweaty.
I got to the hotel twenty minutes ahead of the proposed time.
To be polite, I waited in my car. I didn’t want to walk in while they were working. I ate one Altoid, then another. I checked my teeth. Why was I stressing out?
I had a talk with myself, in those twenty minutes: the woman, the actress, is human. She went to the same state university I attended. She and I both wrote material with good guy cops in the romantic lead, we had that in common, showing a similar sensibility, though truthfully, I wrote mine first by years. I tried to think about it all in more abstract terms, larger concerns. Was this about indie lit bumping up against corporate Hollywood? Perhaps. A little.
If my book became a Hollywood movie, my world would shift.
But mostly, it was about coming face to face with my own ambitions. It can be hard to claim ambitions. I was ready. I chewed a third mint, straightened my shirt, and got out of the car.
I wanted things.
The actress, the beauty, Miss Hollywood, was seated at a table outside next to Fred Armisen. I saw their backs first. Closer, I saw they were eating an unrecognizable meal out of small bowls, some sexy superstar vegan food was my guess, and perhaps my projection, because really I had no idea. When I was still behind the actress, I heard her say, “Yeah, is she going to show up, or what?”
Another woman, working on the set, pointed me out.
The actress stood up, wiped off her hand, reached to shake. I looked closely at her face — it was exactly the person from the movies, no tricks, no heavy makeup. She said, “Let’s go where we can talk.” And she ducked one way, then another, like a bird in a parking lot.
I followed her. We went downstairs, into the dark and empty basement of the Doug Fir. It was the middle of the day. The basement was like a place a preteen would host a make out party, dark and abandoned as an unused rec room. We sat together on a low wall.
And there in the dark the actress leaned in and said the kindest, most generous things about Clown Girl.
I’d write them here, but wouldn’t want to misquote what I took as lavish praise, and besides, it would make me blush.
Most of all — she understood my character! She’d really read the book. She had. Every line. My heart picked up. It was delightful. I have no idea what exactly is meant to come of a meeting like that, but it was heaven.
When the meeting was over, when it was time for her to work on a Portlandia sketch, we went upstairs together again, blinking in the sunlight.
She said, “If you come to New York, I’ll get you tickets for the show,” meaning a well-known, late-night sketch comedy TV show.
Was this about indie lit bumping up against corporate Hollywood? Perhaps. A little. If my book became a Hollywood movie, my world would shift. But mostly, it was about coming face to face with my own ambitions.
I rarely leave Portland, my home. I rarely leave the world of literature, of teaching, of parenting. I rarely leave the world of holding my life together.
I didn’t make it out to New York before she left the sketch comedy show. Later, when the option ran out, she didn’t renew it. She said she was too busy. Clown Girl is back on the market.
Oddly, the actress’s colleagues — friends I’d call them, though I don’t know the intricacies of all that — eventually made a show, about a clown and high art, a clown for whom clown work is more than a job, it’s a calling, as with Clown Girl. The show runner was at the Doug Fir, the day we met up. The actress isn’t part of that show, though she knows the players. I’ve been told it’s entirely coincidence.
But before any of that happened, on a busy street in Portland outside the Jupiter Hotel, the Doug Fir Lounge, the actress offered a warm hug goodbye. I raised an arm, laced it around her. She did the same. I felt the knobby bones of her spine through her clothes, under my palm. I’m sure she felt my body, my human-ness, large, looming, and eager, wanting things, wanting so much. For one moment, all we were and all we stood for — ideas, aspirations, hard work, Hollywood, indie lit, women and ambition, blood and bones and high hopes — we were just that close.
* * *
Monica Drake is the author of the novels Clown Girl and The Stud Book, as well as the linked story collection, The Folly of Loving Life. Her work has been featured in The New York Times (Modern Love), The Paris Review Daily, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Northwest Review, The Rumpus and other publications. She designed and launched the BFA in Writing at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, in Portland, Oregon.
Editor: Sari Botton