Call Martini

Meg Charlton
Courtesy Shutterstock/Elliott Cowand Jr.

This was a long time ago. I was twenty-two, just out of school. I was an assistant for this producer at Warner, which was shitty in the way that all those jobs are shitty, but there were perks in the way that all those jobs have perks. At first, I complained to my mom about the shitty stuff. But then she got sick, so I stopped complaining and focused only on the perks. Like I got a lot of fancy stuff for free. These were generally things which he, the producer, had gotten for free and then didn’t want and/or his wife didn’t want or their daughter was too young to want or which were offensive or defective in some undetectable way and so they became mine. A $400 juicer I couldn’t fit on my counter. A face cream made with caviar that smelled like Marmite. A massage chair. Wrap gifts for films whose title treatments alone filled me such profound anxiety that I couldn’t even see their billboards without wanting to throw up.

The producer would ask if I liked the things he gave me, whether to reassure himself of his generosity or to remind me of his largesse I wasn’t sure. Do you like the juicer, Nick? You use that chair yet, Nick? Didn’t we have fun on that shoot, Nick? This was the same man who once screamed at me in his kitchen that I was trying to poison his family after I bought expired almond milk and when I said that I was so sorry, it was an accident and I was, obviously, not trying to poison him, he threw it at me. That incident, for example, I did not share with my mom. I left out the abuse, verbal and occasionally physical, and told her only that the movie I’d worked on was coming out soon, that I was seeing the billboards everywhere, that I was sending her a face cream made with caviar. When I talked about my job like this, to her, it became bearable. It felt worth it.

I had learned by then that fame formed a kind of fourth wall that you, the player, could not breach without shattering the shared illusion of normalcy.

But one night I had to go by the house to drop off some dry cleaning, and the producer and his wife were there. This was a surprise. They were not supposed to be there. Their evening had been blocked off for an awards-season event. I apologized for disturbing them and they said I wasn’t. They looked happy and relaxed, which was also a surprise. I hung the cleaning in the coat closet and told them to enjoy themselves and that I’d lock the door behind me. Then the producer said:

Hey Nick. What are you doing tonight?

Nothing, I said.

You live in West Hollywood, right?

I was surprised that he had retained this information. I told him that I did.

The producer nodded, like this meant something. His wife smiled at him and stroked his back and I thought, then, of the other implications of the question, of what someone might be trying to discern about a young man when they asked, pointedly, if he lived in West Hollywood. I froze in place and thought with terror: Oh my god. He’s going to ask me to have a threesome. It seemed, somehow, inevitable, that with everything I already had shown I would tolerate, my duties as a personal assistant would finally escalate to this, assisting him and his wife in the most personal way possible.

But the producer was not in a threesome mood. Or a throwing-things mood. He was feeling generous—non-sexually. A fancy-stuff-for-free mood.

We’re in for the night, he said. Why don’t you go to that thing at the Chateau? It’s right down the road from you. My invitation is just going to go to waste otherwise.

I asked if there was someone he wanted me to meet with or observe.

No, he said. Just have fun.

It was the night before the Oscars. That’s why this party had the guest list it did. I walked slowly through the lobby, the garden, the bar. There was the teen heartthrob laughing with the arthouse auteur. There was the superhero bumming a cigarette off the supermodel. None of them knew who I was or had any reason to talk to me, so I looped around the ground floor of the Chateau in a kind of figure eight, observing and alone. I had seen celebrities before, often, in fact, in the course of my job. But seeing so many at once, off duty, felt different, awesome and deflating. It reminded me more than anything of going to the zoo; you walk around and you think, Wow. There’s a lion. There’s a tiger. There’s a penguin colony. And it’s incredible—it really is—to see these creatures up close that you’ve only seen on screens or in books. And yet there’s something sad about it, even aside from the larger sadness of animal captivity. It’s that they look all wrong, all bunched together like that, ecosystems jumbled up at random. You don’t get to encounter a lion as you’ve imagined them, noble and free and ferocious. Instead, you just see a big, bored cat in a dusty little yard and next to it, another little yard with another bored animal, and you have to keep reminding yourself: That’s a lion. A real lion, right in front of me.

I knew that when I described the party to my mom, I would have to make it sound better, more lion-y, like I had seen them racing across the savannah, the wind in their manes, the moon on their fur.

I met her as I was getting my third drink. The bartenders were snipping the basil leaves for the cocktails off a living wall of hydroponic plants. I checked the time. It was around now, actually, that I usually called my mom. I could leave. Go home and talk to her. But I shouldn’t, I thought. I should commit to another drink, not because I was enjoying myself, I wasn’t really, but because it felt silly to leave a party like this, the very kind of event that I had taken this awful job to attend, that made me tolerate the stress and the screaming and the threats of a threesome. I should network, I thought. I hadn’t spoken to anyone but the bartender all night. I promised myself I would talk to the next person I saw.

The next person I saw was Tom Cruise.

I sipped my drink. The next one, then.

I recognized her, in a shadowy way, like she was the close relative of someone I knew. Then I realized that was exactly how I had recognized her. I’d seen her picture recently because she was the daughter of . . . well, I’ll grant him that last privacy. Let’s just call him “Harry.” Harry had been a real dissolute, and Harry had recently died. His agent had announced his passing in the trades just a month earlier. There had been lots of photos floating around—Harry on set, Harry in a race car, Harry at home with his various ex-wives and children—and even in those family snapshots, he still had something. No amount of drinking or decline could rob him of that. He was a movie star, a real one. They don’t make ’em like that anymore, they would say, and they would be right. But he hadn’t worked in years. Financially, he hadn’t needed to. In addition to his movies, he’d made some canny investments in Vegas back in the ’60s. And his drinking had gotten worse over the decades, making him at first unreliable and finally uninsurable. He couldn’t have worked even if he’d wanted to. In spite of all this, he had been beloved. His presence made people feel happy and safe, on screen and off. Even the men whose wives he’d fucked seemed delighted by the connection.

There was one about a bank robbery that we watched all the time when I was a kid and another, a western, that always made her cry.

The girl in front of me, I deduced, was his youngest child, my age or close to it. I knew he’d had a kid in his late sixties, the last of many, fifteen in total, a staggering, biblical number, especially to me, the only child of a single parent. And maybe all of them looked like him, but she really looked like him. In a good way, I mean, his well-thumbed features made fresh again in her new form. They had the same eyes. Same shape, same color. A famous and specific blue.

I was happy that his daughter was the person that fate had selected for me to talk to because my mom loved Harry, loved his movies. There was one about a bank robbery that we watched all the time when I was a kid and another, a western, that always made her cry. She would love this. Though, of course, for the moment, I would have to pretend that I had never seen his movies, that I knew nothing about his love affairs or drinking or investments and that I certainly did not know that this young woman before me, playing with her commemorative silver swizzle stick, was his daughter. I had learned by then that fame formed a kind of fourth wall that you, the player, could not breach without shattering the shared illusion of normalcy. Being good at this illusion was a job requirement for me, for all of us. I had to be totally unimpressed while knowing that this would be, to others, impressive. I had to play dumb while knowing everything. I did this all the time.

I asked Harry’s daughter how she had ended up here, if she was an actor. It felt like a blatant charade, but she seemed to consider the question very seriously. Eventually she said, no, she wasn’t. Not yet, not really. She asked if I was and I said, no, I was an assistant. She said she thought that sounded more respectable. I told her it was pretty humiliating, actually, and she said she was sure it was less humiliating than trying to be an actor. We both laughed.

We started walking around the party together, and as we walked and drank, we shared different things we’d heard about the different people there: Who was nice, who was creepy, whose contract had weird riders. She pointed to the superhero, still chain-smoking in the courtyard.

He insists on doing all of his own stunts, she said. On his last movie, this kids’ movie, his only stunt was to fall backwards in a chair and . . .

She paused for effect, and I cut in, I couldn’t help it. I knew this one all too well. And somehow, I said, he broke both his arms?

She clapped her hands in delight. Yes, exactly! But they were only two days into shooting, so rather than restructure the whole shooting schedule . . . She gestured for me to continue.

Smiling, I complied: They decided it would be cheaper and less disruptive to just . . . wrap his casts in green-screen fabric and. . . . I raised an eyebrow and waited.

She finished, grinning and triumphant: And CGI . . . his forearms in . . . in post.

I applauded. We both laughed. She shook her head. Dammit, she said, still grinning. I thought I’d get to tell you something you didn’t already know.

Sorry, I said. I know too much. I had seen the raw footage in the rushes from set, the plasters neon green, bent stiff at his sides like cartoon T-Rex arms. It was one of my producer’s films, its billboard particularly haunting.

Just then, we heard the approaching rumble-and-clink of catering trolleys and quickly wedged ourselves against the wall, out of the path of the waiters who, in elegant coordination, swept by with towers of tiny, exquisite desserts that I knew no one here would ever eat. One of them murmured an apology as she brushed by us. Pardon me, she said, with sharp red lips, to each of us in turn. But on Harry’s daughter, her gaze lingered long enough to make it clear that she recognized her, the same way I had, and therefore knew who her father was, or rather, had been, and probably who he had slept with and how much he drank and when he died, and in that moment, this red-lipped caterer stood in for the whole party and maybe the whole world. Everyone knew everything. But Harry’s daughter didn’t acknowledge it. The red-lipped caterer didn’t acknowledge it. The fourth wall.

As the waiters and the trolleys receded, I realized that we were standing very close together. The shimmer on her cheeks caught the candlelight. Neither of us moved. Just to fill the silence, I said: I love that story.

But it proves my point about our jobs, she said. Being an actor is so humiliating, because even if you’re successful, it’s so. . . . She gestured with her cocktail at the superhero, then at her own unbroken, non-CGI forearms. Your job is more dignified, she said. That’s all I mean.

I started laughing. There was something abruptly hilarious about the use of the word “dignified” to describe my job, my life. I laughed so hard that I began to cry, hard enough that the superhero looked up from across the courtyard and we had to flee, both of us laughing now, back into the peopled crush of the main room, lest he think we were laughing at him. Wiping at my eyes, I said that the indignities of my work were so varied and frequent that I couldn’t begin to describe them. Try, she said. I told her about the almond milk.

I can beat that, she said, and told me about how she’d gotten two callbacks for the part of “hot teenage corpse” and didn’t book it and then I told her about the time my boss sent me a photo of his literal shit to forward to his gastroenterologist and then she told me about the time her agent had, during a call with two other colleagues about pilot season, asked her if her breasts were real and then God, yes, okay, I said. You win.

But there were no texts or emails from the producer. Only a missed call from my mom and then a text from her, containing nothing but a heart.

My third drink was hitting me harder than I expected, and I could feel myself getting hot in the cheeks when she touched my arm. I was no longer subtle in staring at her neck, her lips, the soft space behind her ear, the smooth curve of her shoulder. She asked if I was overheated, too, and I said yes, it was crowded, we should go outside, and so we did, walking in that heavy, humming silence you have before a kiss, where you’re so aware, without even daring to look, of the other person’s body in space. I knew that the next time I looked her in the eye I would kiss her, and so I had to look at something else, just for a second, as a kind of delay, so I looked at my phone, actually hoping, for the first time, that I would have a message from the producer, because the feeling of wanting to kiss her was unbearable but also I was afraid to commit to it and also maybe if the producer’s message required a response, she might briefly think that I had something important to do, some alternative-milk-related emergency, and that by extension I was someone important. But there were no texts or emails from the producer. Only a missed call from my mom and then a text from her, containing nothing but a heart.

I followed Harry’s daughter through the courtyard to the pool, the fabric of attraction between us now curling at the edges with anxiety, or not exactly anxiety but a strange feeling of FOMO, strange because I was here at this party that people would later pore over pictures of, but I knew those people weren’t missing anything. I was. I should not be at this fancy party or in this job or in LA at all, I thought. I should be home. I should be back east, with my mom.

And so, when Harry’s daughter finally turned to me, as the pool deck gate latched behind us, and gazed up at me in the blue chlorine light, I couldn’t kiss her. I was too preoccupied. She could tell, I guess, because she said, What is it? And then I said—

It’s so embarrassing, even now. But I was preoccupied thinking about my mom, and so I said, I suppose, what I thought my mom would have said if she had been there, and what she would have wanted me to say in her stead, which was:

I really loved your father.

She looked at me for a long time. Then back out at the pool. Her famous-blue eyes filmed over with tears. Finally, she asked: Did you know him?

Oh, I said. No.

Oh.

But my mom and I watched all his films growing up. He was always her favorite. She. . . . I paused. I had a vertiginous moment where I almost said she was dead too. She had been so close to it for so long that I practiced, sometimes, in my head, saying that. I cleared my throat. Anyway, I’m sorry, I said. For your loss, I added.

She was now staring at some point beyond me, eyes squinted, lips pursed. She was trying not to cry. Several tears spilled over and she dabbed at them carefully as she spoke. I got excited at first, when you said you loved him. I thought you actually knew him.

I’m sorry, I said, feeling fully, stupidly drunk. I didn’t mean to upset you.

She laughed, slightly, and sniffled. Please, she said. None of you could possibly upset me anymore than I already am.

None of you. I could see myself reframed, recast, could see her reevaluating the entire evening in the wake of my blunder. How each moment now seemed like a careful manipulation, an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine constructed to produce an anecdote to trot out at other parties, a cute story for my mom. Which, I realized, it had been, all along.

I’m so sorry, I said. We really did love him. My mom and I.

Well, she said. There’s “love” and love, right? She wiped her face and looked at me and I hoped, for a moment, I think we both did, that the hum between us could return. But it didn’t. It couldn’t. She brushed her hair out of her face and said, in a new voice, practiced and polite and distant, that it had been nice to meet me, and then she left me by the water’s edge, where I stood frozen, staring after her, sick with embarrassment and then with something else, until I vomited vodka and basil leaves onto the pool deck.

Without my mom, I had no one left to delight. Instead, I trained myself to be unimpressed with everything.

That was the only time I ever broke the fourth wall. On Monday, the producer asked me how I’d enjoyed the party. Had I met anyone interesting? I told him no, not really. I remember the next two days being consumed by the producer’s rage at a lost FedEx package, and then by a tardy town car, and then by my impending vacation that I used to travel home to see my mom, and during which, she died.

I would go on to another job, just three months after that, then another, both better, in many ways, than my job with the producer. But I liked them even less, or rather, I found less about them to like. Without my mom, I had no one left to delight. Instead, I trained myself to be unimpressed with everything. I trained myself to be awful. I complained about my seats at the Emmys. I complained about my flights to Sundance. I pretended I didn’t want to be loved or even liked. I overheard a colleague call me a psychopath and a fucking prick and then I told other colleagues about it, gleefully, like that was something to be proud of.

None of my assistants have lasted longer than a year. I’m not proud of that.

I was at the Chateau today, actually, having lunch with the superhero. We’ve worked together a lot. I’ve met his producers, his agents, his childhood friends. I have stayed at his house in Malibu and attended his first and second weddings, all things my younger self would have found remarkable and lion-y and which now I just complain about. At lunch he tells me about his ankle surgery; last month, he slipped on the deck of a yacht, not even drunk or attempting a stunt, just an accident now of old age, bad balance. He is no longer a superhero, of course. He mostly plays fathers now, although he never had any children of his own. Neither have I. Harry’s daughter did, though. I remember hearing from someone that she’d moved up to Ojai, where she got married and had two girls. She gave up acting before she ever really got started.

My new house has a pool and a starry view of the sprawl and from the living room I can just make out the roof of my old building on North Gardner, the one I walked back to from the Chateau that night. I remember that a couple cars thought I was a hitchhiker and that I passed a woman crying outside the Laugh Factory and that, when I got home, I sat in the courtyard of my building, by the pool no one swam in, and video-called my mom. It was late for her, almost 1 a.m. But no one ever sleeps in hospitals, really. Plus, I had something fun to tell her. She answered. It was our last phone call. The martini shot, you’d say on set. Last setup of the day, next shot’s the one we take out of a glass. She couldn’t speak well by that point. She was on a lot of oxygen and, over the phone, you couldn’t hear her. But over video, she could write notes, in Sharpie.

I went to an Oscar party tonight, I said.

HOW GLAMOROUS, she wrote.

I told her about the party. About Harry. “Harry.” I said I’d met his daughter. I told her she had his eyes.

DID YOU GET HER NUMBER?

I think it said number. It was hard to read her handwriting sometimes. Mom, I said.

She looked at me like, What?

No, I said. I didn’t.

I left out the real ending, how I’d implicated her in my shame. Instead I agreed that it was glamorous. And it had been. It was. I told my mom we could watch one of Harry’s movies the next time I was there. She gave me a thumbs-up.

I ALWAYS LOVED HIM, she wrote.

I told her I did too.

Meg Charlton holds an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. Her work has appeared in Vice, Slate, and Lux, and in the anthology Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us. She lives in New York City.
Originally published:
March 6, 2023

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