If reading screenplays for a living has taught me anything, it’s that people’s pasts must follow some sort of linear progression. Everyone must be a sum of her neat parts. Let’s say someone had a rocky adolescence—that’s easy, cookie-cutter, a surefire recipe for present day pain. Maybe they have Daddy Issues—again, easy, two words that trivialize years of unpleasantness. Basic. Formulaic.
Another: people must have morals to be redemptive. This is the one I struggle with the most in my own work. “Your characters are sociopaths,” says everyone. Am I a sociopath? When I look back at my past, none of it adds up. I have all the elements of every screwed-up character imaginable. Alcoholic father. Needy mother. Their failed careers. My failed aspirations. I live in a studio apartment in West Hollywood that I can barely afford. People tell me to move to the Valley. Once someone handed me a pamphlet about Jesus—I read it, milked it for meaning, nothing. My parents had me going to a new age place on Wilshire for a while, but that didn’t work either. Morals? Meaning? Maybe my characters are just bad.
Life seems to lack a sense of narrative cohesion. A mopey childhood. Diet pills. Months of malaise punctuated by true despair. Perpetual crisis. Reality television. Sometimes I turn on the news and find out an actor I really love has just died. My mother calls and asks for money. My father tells me he’s disappointed. I listen to their voicemails and unleash primal wails that wake the neighbors—I just tell them I have a baby.
Janyce, one of our Talent Managers and also my boss, tells me not to get so involved with the screenplays I read. “You are checking for facts, grammar, inconsistencies, etcetera. This isn’t story-time,” she says. I can’t help but get caught up in the magic. A suitcase full of money. Witness protection. Someone can talk to his dog? All the plots get muddled in my head. Janyce, jaded and dark-haired, admits she never reads more than a few pages of them. “It’s all shit,” she says into her mug of black coffee. I’m starting to believe she’s right.
In my apartment—beige walls, beige carpet, an unremarkable slice of a window—I wait for Perry. The mirrored closet door stares at me, as if to scream, perpetually, Look at your life! No thank you. Mirrors are too Los Angeles. Constant self-monitoring, but no real self-reflection, that’s the problem. No one’s looking on the inside. Maybe.
Soaps are on. I try to follow the plot. Onscreen is a woman but all I see is a facelift. “You are sleeping with a sick freak who put our son in the path of a rapist!” she shrieks through her lip implants. It’s worse than the screenplays I read, but just barely. Hospital scene. Dark-paneled walls. I run out to meet Perry. He’s in his car, a Mercedes from the 90s. “Nice day,” I say. “Let’s roll the windows down.”
“No,” he says, grabbing my arm. “Drive-by shootings.”
“In West Hollywood?” I ask. Sunglasses on, not in the mood.
“No, Santa Monica. Crips territory.” When Perry’s driving, we stop on yellow. Parking is a nightmare since he’s afraid to parallel. If Perry’s life were a screenplay, the logline would go like this: After witnessing the death of his family in a car accident, a traumatized young man must overcome his fear of driving in order to save the life of the person he loves the most. In reality, Perry’s family is not dead. He was in a minor fender bender on the 101 once. His headlight was busted and ever since he’s been convinced it was a brush with death.
At lunch, I don’t have much to say to him. I screen more calls from my mother. When I see her name, I just turn the phone over. That’s something a shrink taught me. Perry and I go to this same diner every Sunday, like a ritual. We’ve been together so many years that the meaning of “together” has altered—withered even, into something that is not really togetherness at all. Today I keep my sunglasses on and stare at the linoleum. Like I said, not in the mood.
“You’re boring today,” Perry says, gnawing on a french fry.
“Yeah, but am I a sociopath?”
“Mmm,” he says. Eyes glued to the television behind me.
“What’s so fascinating?” I ask, not bothering to turn around.
“I’m watching a train derail.”
I roll my eyes. “Talking to me will have the same effect. I want to ask you about my screenplay. Did you like it?”
“The question is, did I read it. The answer is no.”
“Janyce thinks that what my screenplay lacks is a sense of narrative cohesion. But she doesn’t read past page ten so how could she know?”
“You mean a plot?” Perry says, grinning.
“No, I don’t mean a plot. Or maybe, yes, maybe plot is the problem. Or the characters—they’re not redeeming. Or redeemable. I’m not sure of the phrase. Everything is wrong.” I sigh and drink the coffee in front of me, wishing it were wine.
“Have you tried considering a new life path?” he says, not even joking.
“Is that something your yogi taught you?” I ask. I want to choke him.
“No, my old boss. Back when I was a PA, you remember, she was like, ‘Maybe you’d be better for post-production.’ And I was like, yeah.”
“It sounds like a real transformative moment.”
“You’re cynical, but I’m telling you. Consider the paths.” He pushes another fry into his mouth and continues to stare, rapt, at the television. His eyes are voids, the eyes of someone who has smoked too much weed. When did things go wrong with Perry? Or maybe the question is when, if ever, did things go right?
“My parents won’t stop calling me,” I say, eager to change the subject.
“You should really try to get in touch with them,” he says. “They’re worried about you.”
“How do you know?”
“I talked to your dad yesterday,” he says, no big deal, like they’re best friends. “I had a question about some editing software. Your parents call me all the time.”
“Yeah, well, do me a favor and don’t talk to my parents,” I say. “They have no right to be worried about me. You know what it is? They’re asking for money.”
“They think you don’t eat enough,” he says, pushing his plate toward me. I decline, and he pulls it back. “And they think you drink too much.”
I release a fake laugh, a sharp ha! that comes out louder than I’d like. “That’s a real joke, Perry.”
“I don’t know, I think they’re on to something.”
I lean back in my seat and pout like a little kid, arms folded, staring out at the fast-food places and auto body shops, the bland landscape of West LA.
In the evenings: white wine, TV movies. Emptying the crumbs of the candy wrapper right into my mouth. I wonder where Perry really is on nights like these. Editing? Or beer with his buddies, cozied up to some coworker bitch at the bar. I can see her clearly—leather jacket, mussed-up hair, black eyeliner. Three drinks in, his hand creeps around her waist like a cobra. I don’t bother calling. I switch to the news. Car bomb in Beirut kills seven. Clashes in South Sudan. But wait! A tonal shift, the anchorwoman’s brow unfurrows—some actress is pregnant, again. I know who she is, of course, she lives down the street from my parents.
I polish off the bottle of wine in my lap. I had a shrink once who told me I drank too much, so I got a new shrink. Then I realized how much money I spent on therapy and thought of how much wine I could be buying instead, and I stopped seeing anyone at all.
At work, Janyce has me fact-check a screenplay about a man who travels back in time to prevent a nuclear disaster and save the lives of his young family. I write, First major factual error: time travel does not exist. She drops it back on my desk an hour later, humorless, an eyebrow raised. On my lunch break, I stop by Trader Joe’s to buy more wine. The cashier, young and tattooed, stares at my ID. “Your name is so familiar,” he says.
“Maybe I went to your high school,” I say.
“No way,” his face lights up. “Dayton, Ohio? Belmont High?”
“Go Wildcats,” I smile weakly, running my debit card through its slot.
“We were the Bison,” he says, puzzled. “No, I know where I’ve seen your name. Do you happen to be related to the famous director?”
I gather my shopping bags. “Depends on your definition of famous,” I say.
Outside, the air is dry. Sun in my eyes. Music throbs from a passing car, briefly, but is soon replaced by an unfamiliar stillness. On days like today, Los Angeles feels like the absence of any place—a vast concrete mistake. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. There’s a smell in the air, and if Perry were here I know what he’d tell me: wildfires. Santa Annas. I picture the hills, lit by what would seem to be a thousand cigarettes. What would it be like to watch a fire like that? I would feel something, I know it, though I’m not sure what.
That night, a dream: In a hospital bed, my parents hovering over me, fish-eye lens, black and white. “We’ll have to operate,” they’re saying, their voices distant and muffled. “She’ll need a new liver. Oh, and a lobotomy.” My mother produces a scalpel from her labcoat pocket and holds it to the light. “Rusted,” she says, “but it’s all we got.”
I try to wriggle away but find that I’m tied down with ropes. “No!” I want to scream, but it comes out more like muh. “Muh! Muh!” I cry until I’m awake and sweating in my apartment, thirsty and hungover. I drink a tall glass of water so fiercely that it trickles down my front, all over my hair and my shirt and the carpet, and I know it’s time to call them, I can’t keep putting it off.
“Help me,” I say when she answers.
“It’s five in the morning,” my mother replies. “Oh, we’ve been so worried about you.”
“You shouldn’t worry,” I say. “Please, don’t, it gives me anxiety, it gives me nightmares, don’t lobotomize me, I’m okay.”
“Perry says you’re always alone, and when he sees you you’re so unhinged.”
“That isn’t true. I’m the same old me.”
“It isn’t fair that you live so close and we never see you,” she says, and I realize we are both so desperate that our conversation is drowning.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, if you want. I mean, if you have to see me.”
“Come at six,” she says. “Come at six and I’ll make dinner.”
At work that day, groggy and makeupless, I am called into Janyce’s office, and I know it can’t be good.
“Parker, we have interns who work harder than you,” she tells me point-blank. No sugarcoating. She leans back in her chair and blows a stream of wind upward, ruffling her bangs. Hands in her pockets, feet on the desk, casual as ever, casual but pissed.
“I’m sorry?” I say. “Maybe I am an alcoholic. I’m not sure.”
She sighs, leans forward, puts her feet down. “If that’s affecting your work ethic, I apologize. I would get that checked out.”
“I have. I mean, I will.”
“It’s just that we have this girl, you know Meredith, right? She is so good, so on top of her shit, everything’s meticulous and in by deadline. And we don’t pay her. And I feel like that’s unfair, because I keep getting back your ha-ha comments on things, you know, all the sarcasm, and it’s… well, frankly, it’s counterproductive. And we pay you. Do you see where I’m going?”
“I’m fired,” I say, feeling strangely relieved.
“No, you’re not fired. I’m not firing you! I just want you to get it together. You might think they hired you because of your father’s connection, but that’s not why. At least, that’s not 100 percent why. It was a factor. But the reason they hired you is because you’re qualified. Or, you were.”
Janyce begins to shuffle the pages on her desk, fiddle with her pens, etcetera, as if to signal the end of the discussion. Sunlight streams blandly through the window. In the distance, a row of palm trees, sturdy as soldiers, stand at attention. “I will try harder,” I say mechanically. “I will work on it.”
“Yeah,” she says, her mouth a thin, pleased line. She says it like it’s a given, like it’s my duty to work harder, and I wonder why I cling to this job so tightly, or why I cling to anything anymore.
And then, finally, the evening, or Nightmare Part Two. The sequel. I pull up to my parents’ aging mansion and feel a wave of dread when I see Perry’s car parked out front. I consider leaving but know it would only delay the inevitable. May as well get it over with now, and then I can give it another couple months. I walk up to the house. The yard is dead and yellow, the flowerbeds full of overgrown shrubs. My mother greets me at the door with a hug that I want to pull away from until I realize it’s the most intimate human contact that I’ve had in a long time. I offer her a bottle of wine.
“Oh, you know you shouldn’t bring that,” she says, examining the label anyway. “Your father has been sober three weeks now.”
“Incredible. That calls for celebration. I can celebrate for him, I mean,” I say, gesturing to the wine.
Inside, the house is dim and dark, a sad cave for childhood memories to hang out. Perry is on the sofa, looking comfortable until he spots me. “Hey, how’s it going?” he says, like we’re acquaintances bumping into each other in an awkward place. Isn’t that essentially what we are? Next to him is my father, also sheepish. The last time I heard from him he called me a “fucking princess.” His words. Seeing them together makes me think, wow, these people need to apologize to me. All of them. Apologize for agonizing me, apologize for asking too much of me, apologize for the years of expectations. And yet seeing the three of them lined up on the sofa like a panel of talk-show guests makes me feel like maybe it’s me who’s going to have to apologize, like maybe I’m being backed into a corner here.
“Have a seat,” my mother says. “We’ve been wanting to talk to you for a while now.”
“This is it,” I say. “Finally, you are going to tell me I’m adopted.”
They all just stare at me, blinking, benevolent. Cut to the scene, I’m thinking, I can’t stand the suspense.
I sit in the chair beside them. Perry reaches to place his hand on my knee. “Everyone’s been concerned,” he says.
“So I’ve heard.”
“You drink a bottle of wine a night,” my mother says. “I understand how your work can be stressful, maybe, but it’s not right. That’s too much.”
“And baby, you don’t eat,” Perry says, a mask of concern slapped on his face. “Or if you do, it’s some little thing, a cheese stick or some candy bar. You don’t take care of yourself.”
I shrug, my mouth agape. “Do you have anything to say?” I ask my father, the stoic, sulking figure opposite me. “Do you want to talk to me about drinking? Do you want to lecture me about disappointment?”
His look changes to fury in a heartbeat. “Don’t talk to me like we are any different,” he says.
Both my mother and Perry turn to him, confused, and I sit in the holy silence he’s created. He’s a commanding force despite his brokenness, and somewhere beneath the layers of age and addiction I can see who he once was, charismatic and bold. I choke on a lump in my throat, and I want the wine now, I want the wine.
“I’m guessing you read it,” I say, and he nods. “Yeah? Perry sent it to you?”
“Well I knew you’d never send it yourself.”
“You’re right,” I say. “So. What did you think?”
He looks down at his hands, folded in his lap. “I wish I’d written it myself,” he replies. “You have so much talent, I don’t want you to waste it. Like I did.”
My mother looks to him, then me, then back at him again, and I see that she and Perry are just supporting players here, even if they think they’re leading the conversation.
“Are you talking about her screenplay?” she asks, turning then to me. “How come I never got to read it?”
“It lacks a sense of narrative cohesion,” I say. “It’s absolute shit.”
“I think it has real potential,” Perry says.
“Shut up. You haven’t read it.”
My mother, nervous, reaches to the bowl in front of her and begins to tear open the skin of a clementine. Perry takes one, too. The room fills with the sickly sweet citrus smell and I know I’ll never eat a clementine again because from now on they’re only going to taste like one thing to me: betrayal.
“You made me this way,” I say. “All three of you.”
“We did not,” my mother says, indignant.
“You did, and now you want to blame me for it, as if I exist in a vacuum, like everything I do is by choice. But how would I know how to be a healthy person? Who could have taught me?”
“Oh please,” my mother says, holding up a slice of clementine between her fingers. “We value health in this household. Always have, always will.”
“Right. Because it’s healthy to have a cabinet full of un-prescribed medication and a secret stash of booze. It’s healthy to keep clinging to delusions of the past instead of figuring out some way to fix your future. And it’s healthy to lie to your daughter for years, to give excuses for why he couldn’t make it to recitals, to readings, to my graduation, for god’s sake.” I take a deep breath, leaning forward in my chair, combative, realizing that this is really the first time I’ve confronted them, or anybody really. “And you ask me why I’m the way I am,” I say.
“This sounds like a pity party, to me,” Perry says. He laughs, and no one joins in.
“Listen,” I say, standing up and grabbing my purse. “We don’t even need to have this little intervention, because I know how it’s going to go. You’re going to say I have a problem. You’re going to say I need to go back to therapy, that I should take my antidepressants again and be some even number version of myself. But I can’t take advice from any of you. Solve your own problems first, then come talk to me.”
Leaving, I don’t look at their faces. I know what disappointment looks like, I’ve seen it enough. My mother and Perry trail behind me, loyal dogs yapping at my feet.
“Please, Parker, don’t go, I have a favor to ask of you,” she begs.
I laugh and look her straight in the eyes. “It’s money.”
“Yes, it’s money, it has to do with our mortgage. It’s very serious. If I could just borrow a little bit, just whatever you’ve got right now, I promise I’ll pay you back.”
“You owe me six hundred as it is,” I say, defeated. “This isn’t a good time. I’m one step away from getting fired from my job.” I crawl into the driver’s seat of my car. Done with all of it. Sunglasses on, not in the mood.
Perry’s face looms at the open car door. “Will I see you Sunday?” he asks. “For brunch? The usual?”
I take off my sunglasses for a moment, wanting him to see me, really see me, for once. “I don’t think so,” I say. “Why don’t you take my parents out instead.”
Without goodbyes, I drive away, off into the sunset, The End. Roll the credits. I realize I’ve left the wine behind, but no wine in the world could get me to go back to my parents’ house, not now. There are plenty of other places where I can drink for hours until the events of the day are behind me—repressed, forgotten, buried deep. And yet I can’t help but wonder: am I doomed to repeat the mistakes of my parents? Are they doomed to see themselves in me and hate it? It feels like an endless cycle of mistake after mistake, yet another habit of this screwed-up planet. As I drive down Sunset I think of all the injustices. Third world poverty. Secondhand smoke. Plastic surgery mishaps. People who bring you into this world and can’t even take care of you.
Tonight, I could get on the freeway and drive, just drive and drive until my old life is a distant speck in the rearview mirror. I could roll down the windows and let the hot wind whip against me, drowning out the voices of my parents and Perry and Janyce with her stupid smug look. I could shut it all out until I can’t hear anything anymore, no televisions or clicking heels on sundrenched sidewalks, no ringing phones or wine corks popping, no more glass clinking clumsily against the coffee table in a toast to myself. I could drive until it’s all just a memory, the sights and smells and feelings all melting into the past, and why not? What would happen? Nothing. There is no cause and effect, only a series of incidents all stacked up on top of one another, threatening to topple. Morals? Meaning? Any sense of a universal, guiding truth? I choose to check the final option, none of the above.
CLAIRE COBURN received her BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston. She currently works at a talent and modeling agency in Dallas, Texas. This is her first published piece.