First appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, May 1997. Nominated for Best Short Story.
This is my story, but first I have to tell you about Jessie.
Jessie and I met at an audition. My agent had told me they were looking for someone to play a contemporary high school kid so I dressed the part-torn baggy jeans, white T-shirt, red flannel shirt tied around my waist.
I’d been waiting for about five minutes when Jessie walked in and gave her name to the receptionist. She wore one of those dress-for-success costumes that make women look like clowns-skirt and jacket of bright primary colors (hers were red), big buttons down the front, hugely padded shoulders. She looked at me and then down at herself and laughed and grimaced at the same time. It was an oddly endearing expression, the gesture of someone who knows how to poke fun at herself.
"You’re so clever," she said. She glanced at her outfit again. "I’ve probably blown it already."
She looked as if she wanted to talk further, but just then the receptionist called her name. I felt annoyed-I’d been waiting longer than she had, though I knew that that had nothing to do with Hollywood ’s pecking order. She was closeted with the casting people for about ten minutes. When she came out she looked at me, held her palms up and shrugged elaborately. Her gesture said, clearly as words, I have no idea whether I made it or not.
I didn’t think about her until the next cattle call, when I saw her again. She was wearing the same clothes-I wondered if it was the only decent outfit she owned. I was reading a magazine, but she sat down next to me anyway.
"Did you get called back for that high school thing?" she asked.
"No," I said.
"Neither did I. I’m Jessie."
The receptionist called my name then. I felt a rush of pleasure at being called first-this woman wasn’t all that far above me after all. "Listen," she said as I stood up. "If I get called next, wait for me and we’ll go to lunch. I don’t know too many people in this town."
"Okay," I said.
She did get called next. I waited, and when she came out she offered to drive us to a coffee shop in Westwood.
I had already pegged her as someone very much like myself, just barely getting by on bit parts and commercials and waitressing jobs. So I was surprised to see her walk up to a white BMW and turn off the car alarm. She must have noticed my expression, because she laughed. "Oh, it’s not mine," she said. "I rent it for casting calls. You have to play the game, make them think you’re worth it."
I’d heard this before, of course. In an image-conscious town like Hollywood every little bit helps. A fancy car isn’t enough to land you a part, though, and I wondered if she had any acting ability to back it up.
I got in the car and she drove us to the restaurant. When we were seated she looked directly at me and said, "So. Where would I have seen you?"
I told her about my few commercials and the made-for-cable movie I’d done. "I was Iras in
at the San Diego Shakespeare festival," I said. "I was also the understudy for Rosalind in
"I had a bit part on a soap," she said. "It was a great gig, until they killed my character off."
"I’m sorry," I said, and she laughed.
Los Angeles, they say, is where the best-looking boy and the prettiest girl from every high school in the country end up. You can’t sneeze in this town without infecting a former high school beauty queen or football quarterback. Even so, I thought this woman astonishingly beautiful. She had deep sea-blue eyes, dark lashes, and a mass of dark hair. More than that, though, she had some subtle arrangement of bone structure that compelled you to look at her. She might just make it, I thought, and felt the envy that had dogged me ever since I had come to town. Next to her all my faults stood out in sharp relief-I was too short, too plain, my mouth too thin. I hate myself when I feel this petty, I struggle against it, but I don’t seem to be able to help it.
As penance I made an effort to like her. And really, it wasn’t that difficult. She had probably been told that she was beautiful since before she could understand the words, but for some reason she didn’t seem to believe it. She ridiculed herself, her ambitions, the idea that she could make it in Hollywood where so many others had failed.
"My parents are sure I’ll come crawling home within the year," she said. "You wouldn’t believe the arguments I had before I left. Well, it’s the old story, isn’t it-young girl from the country goes to Hollywood."
"Where are you from?"
"A farming town in Wisconsin. You’ve never heard of it. What about you?"
"And how did your parents take it?"
"Actually, they’ve been pretty supportive," I said. "Especially my father. He did amateur theatricals in college. He said, ‘I think you’re good enough, but unfortunately what I think doesn’t count for much. You have my blessing.’ And then he laughed-he’d never said anything so old-fashioned in his life."
"That’s great." She was silent for a while, no doubt thinking about the differences between us. "Listen, Pam," she said. "I’m going to an audition next week. It’s another high school student. Ask your agent about it."
"Sure," I said, surprised. I would never tell a rival about an audition. Jessie was someone to keep, a caring, genuine person in a town full of hypocrites. "Thanks."
"See you there," she said.
We saw each other a lot after that. We went to plays and movies and critiqued the performances, took the white BMW to cattle calls, made cheap dinners for each other and shopped at outlet clothing stores. We took tap-dancing lessons together, from a woman who looked about as old as Hollywood itself. Jessie told me about auditions coming up and I began to tell her if I’d heard anything, though each time it was an effort for me.
She got called back to her soap-they wanted her to do a dream sequence with the man who’d played her lover. We rehearsed the scene together, with me taking the lover’s part.
It was the first time I’d seen her act. She was good, there was no question of that, but there was something she lacked, that spark that true geniuses have. The envious part of me rejoiced-this woman, I thought, would not be a threat. But there was another side of me that regretted she wasn’t better. I liked Jessie, I wanted to see her succeed. I felt almost protective toward her, like a mother toward a child. She was so innocent-I didn’t want her to get hurt.
I was offered several parts at the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival and began to make arrangements to go up north. Jessie was pleased for me, but by this time she knew me well enough to speak her mind. "There aren’t going to be any casting directors up there, Pam," she said. "Those parts aren’t going to lead to anything. It’s an honor, I know that, but it might be better to stay in town, see what you can get here."
"I need to stretch myself, see what I can do," I said. And when she seemed unconvinced I added, "It’ll look good on my resume."
We rehearsed together again. I had gotten the part of Emilia, Iago’s wife, in Othello, and I had her take the other roles. As we rehearsed I was amazed to realize that she didn’t have any idea what the play was about, that she stumbled speaking the old Elizabethan cadences. I had thought, naively I guess, that anyone who wanted to act had had at least some grounding in the classics.