Picture Perfect Excerpt

 

Chapter 1

           My heart hammers in my chest as I am rattled awake from a shallow sleep. My nerves jangling, I peel open one eye. Except for a sliver of grey light slicing through the damask curtains, my bedroom is in complete darkness. I roll over and lift my head, searching for the glowing LCD numbers on my alarm clock. Six-o-three in the morning. Can that be right? Who the hell would be banging on my door at six in the morning?

           Bang bang bang!

           It is not the sound of a normal knock. It is urgent and loud and terrifyingly arresting. But I live in a safe building with around the clock security. Who the hell could have gotten up to the twenty-third floor without being announced? If Alan were here, he’d be the one to find out. But he isn’t here. He hasn’t been here for six months.

           Bang bang bang!

            “For fuck’s sake,” I grumble, tossing back my down comforter and throwing my legs over the side of the bed. My feet hit the cool hardwood floor, and I scurry to the closet in search of my fuzzy robe. It may be Los Angeles, but at six a.m. in the middle of February, it’s cold enough to send goose bumps marching up and down my body. I finally get the robe tied tightly around myself and shuffle into the hallway. I flip on the light, but it is blindingly bright, and I shut it off again.

           Bang bang bang!

            “Jesus! I’m coming,” I say, but not loud enough for anyone on the other side of my front door to hear.

           I make my way to the door and peer through the peephole to find a woman wearing a broad-brimmed brown hat and a tan and brown uniform. Judging by the gold star on her chest, I’m guessing she isn’t from UPS. I unlock the door and open it a crack.

            “Yes,” I say as indignantly as possible. The woman shines a flashlight in my eyes, and I put my hand up to block the light. “Is that really necessary?”

           She turns off the light. “Laurent Tate?” she asks with the kind of flat authoritative tone that tells me she knows damn well who I am.

            “Yes,” I reply.

            “Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.” She hands me a manila envelope. “You’ve been served.”

            “Served?”

            “Divorce proceedings. Good day, ma’am.”    

 

***

 

           I glance at the offending manila envelope resting on the passenger seat of my BMW. The drive from Westwood to Sunset Strip is even more nerve-racking than usual. I grip the steering wheel fiercely, as if I were taking a hairpin curve down a twisty mountain road and not crawling through rush hour traffic on Sunset Boulevard. Heading east, the morning sun is blindingly bright, and I pull down my visor to try to shield my eyes. It is always the same, this drive to Timeless Television. I know every pothole, every bend, every broken sprinkler to avoid on my route. Day after day for five years I have traveled this path, weaving in and out traffic, dodging road hazards with the instinct of a Formula 1 driver. But today, I am off my game.

           As I turn into the parking garage beneath the twelve-story building where Timeless Television’s offices are located, the manila envelope slides to the floor. I wind down to the second level and pull into my parking space. It’s in a good location, close to the elevator and at a spot where the attendant can see it. I often slip him a few extra bucks every week to make sure that he’s looking after it.

           I’ve learned it pays to pay others.

           I flip up my visor, cut off the engine, and stare down at the envelope sitting on the floor. A knot forms in my stomach.

           Damn it, I could kill Alan.  

           I make my way to the elevator, the envelope under my arm, and press the button for the twelfth floor. A gentle chime announces my arrival and the doors part, revealing a bright and busy office with assistants in high heels and tight skirts clattering across the marble floors, their arms full of file folders. Sally, the receptionist, offers me a broad smile.

            “Good morning, Ms. Tate,” she chirps at me as I whiz by, my fingers wrapped tightly around the manila envelope.

           She’s a sweet girl and a good receptionist as far as I can tell, but I often wonder how she got a job as the first face visitors see upon entering Timeless Television. She doesn’t have the first clue about appearances. The girl looks like she should be milking a cow on some farm in Ireland with her frizzy orange hair, fish belly white complexion, and a wardrobe that appears to have come from the set of Little House on the Prairie.

           Still, I give her a friendly nod as I head down the hallway. A receptionist today could be an executive tomorrow in this business.

           I pass by cubicles of young girls barely out of college as I stomp toward Alan’s office, my hands trembling with anger and anxiety. I grip the envelope tightly in my palm as I swivel on my heels and march through his open doorway.

            “I knew you were a bastard, Alan, but I didn’t think you’d have the nerve to send the LA County Sheriff’s Office to my house at six a.m. to serve me with divorce papers.” I toss the envelope onto his desk. “But then again, I’ve always underestimated you, haven’t I?”

            “Uh, Bob, I’m going to have to call you back,” he says into the phone cradled on his shoulder. “Something just landed on my desk.”

           Alan hangs up the phone as I launch into him. “We’ve only been separated for six months. I thought we were trying to work this out,” I say, fully aware that all of the office gossipmongers are hanging around the corner with their iced lattes in one hand and their cell phones in the other, fingers at the ready to tweet the latest Hollywood break up.

           Alan and I have tried to be discreet, but I no longer have the energy to keep up the charade. Both of us being VPs in a highly volatile industry, we are extra sensitive to the possible damage to our jobs should anyone get wind of our shaky situation. Since professions in entertainment can be made and obliterated based on a relationship, it’s especially important to keep up appearances.

           The career-ending effect that even a rumor in this industry can cause requires us to be on our best behavior. If they (and by they I mean anyone from a lowly production assistant to a studio president) learns of a break up (or any other unsettling event), they immediately start calculating how soon ‘til the poor slob starts falling apart at the office, takes up drinking dirty martinis for breakfast, starts producing crap movies, gets sacked, goes into rehab for addiction to pain killers and finally moves to an ashram in Oregon. So, to avoid all the bad publicity the studio might get, they just can the poor guy (or girl) before the situation spirals out of control.

            “Jesus, shut the door,” Alan orders me.

           I slam it closed and collapse onto his black leather couch. He stares at me from behind his glass desk, custom-framed classic movie posters hanging on the wall behind him. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula bends over the neck of an unwilling victim. I feel almost as vulnerable as that helpless woman just before he sucks the last drop of her blood.

           Almost.

            “Lauren, don’t get your panties in a twist. What did you expect? That we’d go on being separated forever? It’s time to cut the cord,” he says leaning back in his chair and glaring at me with his steel blue eyes.

            “We aren’t even going to talk about this?”

            “There isn’t anything left to talk about,” he says flatly. “I don’t want to be married anymore.”

            “What does that mean?”

            “Oh, Lauren. Let’s not do this now.”

            “No. I want to know what you mean by that. Do you mean you don’t love me anymore?”

            “Of course I love you. I’m just not in love with you.”

            “What is that bullshit?”

            “It’s just not fun anymore.”

            “Fun? A marriage isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s a relationship. Sometimes you have to work a little at it. You can’t just bail the moment it gets rocky. You can’t just leave,” I bark at him.

           Working in Hollywood, I understand rejection. I’ve got a nice thick skin to rival any Florida alligator, but hearing the love of my life compare our marriage to the likes of a video game he’s played one too many times is too much even for me to brush off.

            “How could you just spring this on me? We’re supposed to be working this out. This is a trial separation.”

            “Lauren, take it down a notch, will you?” He glares at me from behind his desk. “We know each other. We know it isn’t going to work.”

            “So, five years mean nothing to you?”

            “Of course not. We had our time. It was good when it was good, but now it’s over. It’s time to move on.” He fingers a Mont Blanc pen on his desk, tapping the blotter with it as if to hurry me along. But this is not a fight I feel like forfeiting just so he can get back to his phone calls.

            “Dammit, Alan! This is a marriage, not a Mercedes you can return at the end of your lease because the new models are out.” I get to my feet and pace toward his desk, planting my hands firmly on my hips. “We took vows. We said, ‘’til death do us part.’”

            “Come on. You don’t believe in that,” he says, tossing the pen aside and leaning one elbow on the arm of his oversized black leather desk chair. He knows it’s going to take more than a few platitudes to get me out of his office.

            “Why not?”

            “Because it’s totally passé. And it doesn’t work for people like us.”

            “People like us?”

            “You know. Showbiz people. It’s just the way things work in Hollywood. Don’t take it personally.”

            “Don’t take it personally?” I balk.

           He sighs deeply. “Not everything is always about you.”

            “Wait a minute,” I say, realizing that there might be more to this than irreconcilable differences. “Did you meet someone? Are you having an affair?”

            “You’re too close to the subject. Let’s talk about this later,” he says as if we are haggling over the print campaign of one of my films.

            “The subject? The subject is our marriage, Alan! Not a fucking movie-of-the-week!”

            “Oh, yeah. Congrats on the Saturday Night Movie. I hear the numbers were really great,” he says, leaning back in his chair and clasping his hands behind his head. “You should be proud of that. You really know what our audience wants.”

            “Don’t patronize me. I’m not one of your eager little assistants trying to impress you with my business acumen while you size up my tits.”

            “Thirty-six D, if I remember correctly. And worth every penny.”

            “That is low, even for you. And not true.” I say that last part for the benefit of those listening at the door. He knows full well that they’re real.

            “Look, I don’t really have time for this conversation right now.” He picks up the manila envelope on his desk and offers it to me. “If you had bothered to read the settlement agreement before flying in here like a banshee, you would have seen that my lawyer has drawn up a very nice alimony package for you.”

           Alan’s self-righteousness sets my stomach on fire, and though five minutes ago I wanted nothing more than to save our marriage, now all I can think is how badly I want to see him suffer.

            “First of all, I make more money than you do,” I say, leaning over his desk and snatching up the manila envelope. “Secondly, we have a pre-nup, which guarantees me two million if you quit the marriage before seven years is up. So, I don’t need your lawyer to draw up a piddling alimony package that’s supposed to appease some pathetic little hausfrau. Or did you forget that seven-year-itch clause I added? After all, we’re showbiz people, Alan.”

            “Are we done here?” he asks, his smug smile dissolving. “Because I’ve got a new Marketing Manager coming in tomorrow, and I’ve got to get her office set up.”

            “Oh, yeah. We’re done. We’re so done,” I say before stomping out of his office and straight into a herd of rumormongers hanging outside the door. I know I should try to mitigate the damage right then and there, but it is all I can do just to walk past them. The whispers, the sounds of their feet hitting the floor on their way back to their desks, the chuckles and the snickers, all pierce me, and before I know it, I am practically sprinting down the hallway, past Sally’s smiling face and into the stairwell.

           I trod down the stairs to the eleventh floor where the creative suites are located and shuffle down the hallway toward my office. A group of young girls standing at my assistant’s desk catch sight of me and scurry away like rats on a sinking ship. I’m sure they know every single word that Alan and I exchanged only three minutes ago.

            “Did you see the numbers?” I ask of Jennifer, my blond, Prada-clad (courtesy of Daddy’s Platinum Visa) and perpetually perky assistant as I whiz by her desk, grabbing the Nielson ratings off the corner.

            “Yeah, they were great!” she beams, obviously trying to conceal her knowledge of my now infamous tantrum in Alan’s office. “We blew away the competition.”

            “Did we beat the bikini special on Fox?” I ask her as she follows me into my office.

            “Uh, no.”

            “Then we didn’t exactly blow them away.”

            “Yeah, but that isn’t our target audience. I thought it only mattered how we did compared to relevant programming.”

            “You’re starting to sound like an executive. Be careful. You might just end up becoming one.”

            “Actually—”

            “What the hell is that?” I say, indicating a cinnamon-raisin bagel sitting on my desk. “That does not look like a reduced-fat lemon blueberry muffin.”

            “Yeah. I’m sorry about that. They were out.”

            “So, you thought this would be a sufficient replacement?” I pick up the bagel and toss it into the trash bin. “I hate raisins.”

            “Oh, I forgot! Raisins and egglplant.”

            “And cherry tomatoes. And celery. Don’t you have a list somewhere?”

            “Yes, I’m so sorry, Lauren. It won’t happen again.”

            “I certainly hope not. You should know this by now.”

            “You’re absolutely right,” she says, none of the twinkle leaving her eyes. I must admit that I somewhat enjoy terrorizing her. I think it’s the fact that her perkiness is so utterly disingenuous. All the assistants here are like that. It’s as if they have to go through some ass-kissing orientation before they can clock in.

           I ease into my cushy leather chair, feeling my tummy rumble. Damn it, I really want that reduced-fat lemon blueberry muffin. Jennifer sits down in one of the suede designer guest chairs in front of my enormous mahogany desk.

           I hired a foppish man in leather pants a couple of years ago to design my office, and what I ended up with was a lush Balinese-style sanctuary equipped with requisite palm trees and trickling water fountains. Everyone hated it. I couldn’t be more pleased. Why should I have to work in an environment so filled with glass and steel that even Superman’s ass would get tired? 

            “The casting agency called and asked if they should continue casting for A True Heart, or wait until the contract issues are worked out with Jack Ford,” she informs me, her pen at the ready.

            “Call them and tell them to continue casting the secondary roles,” I reply barely audibly over the grumbling in my stomach.

           Jennifer leans forward, as if to say something in confidence. “Are we close to sealing that deal with Jack Ford?”

            “Very close. Reserve a table for two at Spago for lunch. Call his agent to make sure he’s available for a sit down. I’ll sign him over Wolfgang’s roast chicken.”

           I believe my stomach has now collapsed in upon itself and is beginning to devour my intestines. If I don’t get some food fast I’m likely to eat my own shoes.

            “Jack is so hot right now. Are you sure you can get him to commit to TV?”

           Jack Ford is the new “it” boy in Hollywood. He played a gay porn star dying of AIDS in an indie flick (which no one outside of Hollywood and New York would ever pay a nickel to sit through) with such sensitivity that even linebackers were weeping by the end of the movie. And he’s hot. Thick, wavy dark hair, deep brown eyes, full lips and rock hard abs. And he’s straight. An increasingly rare occurrence in this town. Basically, in LA, if the boy is pretty, he’s probably gay—openly or not.

            “I always get my man,” I wink at her.

            “I guess two Emmys and a Golden Globe are testament to that.”

           Oh, she’s kissing up again. How lovely. I think I will strangle her with that Pucci scarf she’s so deftly wrapped around her neck.

            “Awards are not the only measure of a film’s quality. They don’t mean jack if you don’t have the ratings to back them up. In television, it’s all about the numbers. You have to know what your audience wants.”

            “Absolutely!”

            “What else?”

            “You got an invitation to the Women in Pictures luncheon being held at The Beverly Hills Hotel next Wednesday. Rebecca Walters is the guest speaker. How should I RSVP?”

            “Yes, obviously. Rebecca is my boss, and one of the most respected female producers in Television. Of course, I’m going to attend.”

            “Of course. And is there a plus one?”

           She’s wrangling for an invitation of her own now. I hesitate for a millisecond and then say, “No.”

            “Fine.” Jennifer makes a note on her pad, and I can tell she’s stung. I didn’t start getting invitations to industry functions until I was a fully vetted player. Why should she be any different?

            “What else?”

           She peruses the phone log in her lap. “The ad campaign for A True Heart has been awarded to a boutique company called Big Hat.”

            “Big Hat?”

            “Yeah, Big Hat.”

            “Okay, set up a meeting with them, Alan Tate in Marketing, and myself for later this week. Anything else?”

            “Yeah, um, Alan offered me a position in his department.”

            “Alan who? Alan, my husband, Alan?”

            “Y-yes,” she stammers.

            “Well, what did you say?”

            “I, uh, I accepted?”

            “Is that a question? Did you or did you not accept a position with my husband?” I demand.

            “I did,” she admits, hanging her head in shame. “I’m so sorry, Lauren, but Christie Davis left to go to Paramount and he needs a new Marketing Manager to lead the in-house marketing campaign for—”

            “Marketing Manager!” I screech as the acids in my empty stomach start gurgling even more aggressively. “You didn’t even know that a one-sheet was a poster until I told you three months ago. You thought it was a sign-in roster! How the hell are you going to lead a marketing campaign?”

            “I know what a one-sheet is now. I know a lot of things now. And Alan happens to believe in me,” she says smugly. “And you know I’ve always wanted to get into theatrical. This is just a stepping stone.”

            “You promised me a year when I hired you.”

            “I know I did, but this is just an opportunity I can’t pass up.”

           So, not only did that fucking bastard ditch me, now he’s stealing my assistant! I could kill him!

            “So, you’re leaving me, too?”

            “Well, I am leaving, but I’ve called a temp agency, and you’ll have a new assistant in the morning.”

            “A temp? Jennifer, a temp cannot do this job.”

            “I was a temp when I first came here.”

            “Yeah, six months ago, and you’re just now up to speed,” I huff. “This is the worst timing. How am I supposed to train someone new right before we go into production?”

            “I’m sure your new assistant will be great. I’ll leave a ton of instructions for her.”

            “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” I whine.

            “I’m not doing it to you, Lauren. I’m just, you know, following my dreams.

           Oh, Jesus! Does she think that if I had followed my dreams this is where I’d be? VP of long-form at a cable network no one gives a shit about?

            “Look, don’t worry. I’ll always be right upstairs if you need me.”

           Well, at least that’s more than Alan offered when he packed up and moved into our Malibu home six months ago.

           My stomach lets out a hellacious groan, and with only one day left to torture Jennifer, I decide to shift it into high gear.

            “Fine. First duty of the day is to find me a reduced-fat lemon blueberry muffin. Go to every Starbucks within a five-mile radius if you have to, but get me that damn muffin. And I want it before my meeting with the Executive Team.”

           This is particularly petty of me because there are sure to be loads of refreshments there, and possibly even a reduced-fat lemon blueberry muffin. And the meeting starts at ten o’clock on the dot. In twenty-three minutes.

            “I’m on it!” she cheers as she bolts for the door.

            “And don’t send an intern! They’ll screw it up,” I yell after her, thoroughly enjoying the cheap thrill of oppressing one of Hollywood’s erstwhile young wannabes while I still can. 

 

***

 

            Just as I expected, the Executive Team Meeting (every Monday morning all the higher ups gather to boast over their projects and report on ratings coups) is stocked with every flavor muffin Starbucks carries, as well as a wide assortment of equally ass-expanding goodies. For some reason, we can’t seem to accomplish anything around here if there isn’t a buffet involved.

            I was terrified that someone in the meeting would mention my outburst in Alan’s office, but of course they haven’t said anything—to my face. Some of the women stare pitifully at me, while many of the men try very hard not to even look at me. I spend most of the meeting stuffing food into my mouth every other second so as not to have to speak, but when it comes time for me to gloat about the success of my film, Forever Starts Here, I have no trouble talking with my mouth full.

             “Preliminary Nielsen’s reports show that Forever Starts Here came in number three among women aged eighteen to forty-nine and number one among women aged eighteen to twenty-four. Ad sales during this film were our highest ever,” I laude. “There isn’t a feminine product or diet soft drink that didn’t advertise on our network during the show.”

             “In short, we made bank,” Alan interjects, sending the rest of the team into a fit of fake laughter. He is always doing that to me. I’d be in the middle of a speech and Alan would decide to chime in with his own brand of humorless wit, effectively shutting me up for the rest of the event (even at our own wedding).  

             “As I was saying,” I screech all too shrilly, bringing the room to a dead silence, “Saturday was one of our best nights financially, but also critically. Forever Starts Here received stellar reviews and there is a lot of Emmy buzz for both the lead actor and actress, as well as the overall picture.”

             “You should just title your next film, For Your Consideration,” Alan mocks. Laughter once again fills the room, and I shove an entire strawberry in my mouth.

             “I think we can all agree that Lauren’s film definitely helped put us over the top during sweeps week,” Rebecca Walters, the grande dame and president of Timeless Television offers when the chuckles finally cease. “I think you’ll be seeing bigger production budgets for next year’s films, Lauren.”

            That shut everyone the hell up. My love life might be a fucking mess, but at least I am still the “golden girl” in Rebecca’s wise and perhaps slightly compassionate eyes.

            As the meeting concludes, I feel reassured. That is, until Rebecca pulls me aside as everyone pours out of the conference room.

             “Lauren, I hope that your personal problems won’t interfere with your professional duties here.”

             “Of course not,” I bleat. “I’m totally committed to my work.”

            Rebecca’s bright, blue eyes stare hard into mine, and I feel my knees begin to tremble. She places a bejeweled, veined hand on my shoulder, “I’d hate to see a young woman with such talent allow her career to falter because of a man.”

            I open my mouth to speak, but before I can get anything out, she turns on her heels and heads back to her office, her pale blue Chanel suit disappearing down the hallway while my spine slowaly crumbles.