People always asked Dana what the set of Lost City was like. She never told stories, but she had a mental script of what she’d say if she did. If you want to know what the set of Lost City was like, she’d could have said, know this: there’s a take of the famous deli scene in which the producer, Doug Reimer, his mind in a state of civil war between cocaine and alcohol, wandered in front of the camera naked from the waist down. There were lots of crazy stories. People said hookers swarmed the set knowing they could trade favors for background or extra work. They said it was the biggest migration from sex work to SAG membership in film history. They explained the weird sound modulation in certain scenes with tales of boom operators being fellated or cunnilingled while tape was running. Bobby had a cocaine buffet next to the cold cuts, of course, and Dom Perignon decanted into plastic pitchers and flower vases. Each of Bobby’s sets was said to match the tenor of the film he was directing. Walk Through Harlem was lean and mean just like its antisocial protagonist. His later movies were elegant, bombastic, as was the catering for them. But perhaps that’s all better explained by the pressures of budget, Walk having been made by a nobody who it then perched on brink of great fame. Lost City, then, was frenetic either because that was the script and the energy radiating off the actors, or because now there was money and no one had yet learned how to hogtie it.
Most of the legends about the Lost City set required the kind of credulity usually only found in teenage boys. But in regards to the story about Doug Reimer, there was video evidence, and Bobby would trot it out whenever the crowd count at his house dropped below twenty and he wanted to engineer an atmosphere of intimacy. That was his flaw: not being content with being applauded in the auditoriums, needing instead to be loved by anyone in his parlor. Roberto Cazadores on credits and statues. Bobby to anyone who’d ever removed their shoes in his foyer. Reimer’s face wasn’t in the shot, but you could tell it was him, Bobby liked to say, from the way the thumbish little dick barely emerged from a sprout of tan pubes that looked just like the hairdo of Bob Ross. Reimer categorically denied it was him, but also lectured anyone who came into his office about how easy it was for an ungroomed situation to make even a big dick look small. He did everything short of issuing an official press release saying so. “If you can’t tell by the pubes,” Bobby would say, “take a look at the shirt. There are pictures of him on set in that shirt.” And if there was anyone in the crowd still doubtful, he’d pull a magnifying glass from his junk drawer and put it over an exposed shirtsleeve. The cufflinks were engraved DR. Then he’d put the magnifying glass over the dick and say, “Look, now it’s normal size.”
Dana had seen the routine more than anyone. Whenever someone asked how they met Bobby started sounding the opening notes. She’d been on set a few times a week for soundtrack consulting, and she’d had whole conversations with him without him noticing her. He hadn’t checked into her face, but she’d seen how he checked into the music, his pupils wandering left as he imagined the scene the track might overlay. She’d been right next to Bobby when Reimer made his accidental debut.
“Jesus,” Bobby muttered, “It’s like somebody’s big toe.”
He craned his neck to see who was laughing next to him and saw Dana. If he’d looked at her before without really registering her, now he focused in on her face with too much intensity. It produced the same effect as the tightening of an aperture, blurring the depth of field behind him. She couldn’t keep up the laughter then, not under that kind of scrutiny.
“That’s a great fucking laugh.”
She’d been told that before. Men had called it a throaty laugh, a husky laugh, a sexy laugh, but as many had said it crossed some line, that it was a man’s laugh. They meant that she laughed with a man’s confidence. They meant her laugh had a power to wound them. She could see him. He was looking at her now and trying to figure out if she was beautiful. Her eyes were big like an ingenue’s but heavy-lidded like Proust’s. Her mouth was wide, her lips full, giving her a smile that looked superimposed. She walked that line too: half beautiful, half buggy. And here was Bobby Cazadores trying to decide whether he wanted to fuck her, which meant that he did. Men always wanted fuck a woman if they couldn’t decide whether she was beautiful or ugly. They had to know that they could.
Bobby smile wasn’t small either, and he lit it at her.
“Can you scream?”
“I’m not easy to creep out, so bravo.”
“Give it a shot.”
“Should I have a set rate for this?”
She asked if he could at least pretend to stab her. He grabbed a nearby microphone and went through the old Pyscho routine. When Dana let loose her scream it paused the set. PAs stopped walking with half a heel on the ground. Crew members at the sandwich table let their mouths hang open, showing wads of roast beef. Doug Reimer, still half-naked in the deli set, looked at her with eyes that seemed like they might never blink again. Screams were common enough on set from actresses in scene, from drug freakouts, from crewgirls getting goosed, from young actors when assistants spilled drinks on their costumes. Usually no one even seemed to notice. Bobby laughed.
“That’s a great fucking scream. You an actress?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Well, you’ve got a role in this film now. When Sancho Panza here sobers up I’m gonna give him a task that makes his head turn red like Donald Duck’s.” The actress who’d been cast in the role of Anna was a huge disappointment. The key pivot in the script was when Anna laughed at the male lead’s stammer and he returned in the night to brutally rape her. But the actress was playing it too demure: the laugh a little tinkle, the screams merely loud sobs. “You can laugh, you can scream, you got the part.”
So she found herself across from Lee Canesa, who’d been nominated for a leading man Oscar for Walk Through Harlem. They told her where to stand and how to hold her wine glass. Bobby told her how to lean forward, offering the camera an alluring glimpse of cleavage. He said he’d wave his hand when he wanted her to laugh. Lee was absent while they did all this prep, sequestering himself from the plain details of moviemaking to preserve his concentration. He marched onto the set, standing opposite Dana and behind an antique chair, resting his hands on its polished knobs, and Bobby immediately called action.
It was a funny story, Lee said, his attention not on Dana but on the classically beautiful blonde to her right. He radiated bound energy. He was volatile, overwound. It was a very, very funny story, if you believed it. And he went on to start a story about leave in Vietnam and his platoon going to visit a cathouse. The more he told, the more intense he became and the more bemused his audience’s faces. As he approached the climax of the story, a sadistic smile creeping onto the left side of his face, he hit the stammer: “And the Vietnamese gggg–the Vietnamese ggi. Ggggg–the gggiii–”
Dana wasn’t watching Bobby. She feared that if she looked in his direction she’d look right into the camera, but she supposed this was the moment, and she began to laugh. It started with her dry, throaty laugh, and as Lee bore into her with violent eyes it turned into a near cackle. It was almost a real laugh. It didn’t feel like pretending. Lee slammed his fist on table, quieting everyone, which wasn’t in the script, and stormed out of the scene. After a moment of stunned silence, Dana began to laugh again, and this time it was fully real. It began stifled, resisted, then returned to the wild pitch that had banished Lee from the room, and she looked around from face to face of the other actors as if wondering why they didn’t see the humor.
Bobby called cut and began a slow clap with his hands over his head. The other principals looked at Bobby and then at each other. The hot blonde gave her a little golf clap and a smile that, from a professional actress, should have been a lot more convincing. Dana thought about retreating to the little dressing room they’d given her, but she reminded herself that she didn’t care about acting. The record label she repped didn’t even know she’d signed on for the role, and truth be told music held a lot more magic for her than film. She went to the sandwich table instead, piling together a big stacker and wolfing it down in big bites. Then she made a second that was almost as big and ate it a little slower. So maybe she did care.
As fast as she thought she’d eaten the sandwiches, by the time she looked up the set was on break, meaning almost everyone had snuck off to the bars. Some lowly clerks swept up lettuce off the floor. One or two diligent PAs sat at tables making notes or calls. Bobby’s assistant was waiting patiently a few feet from her side, cradling an empty clipboard in the crook of his elbow like a tour guide.
“So,” she said, brushing croissant crumbs off her cheeks. “Am I fired?”
“Are you kidding? He wants to take you to dinner.”
ON THEIR DATE, BOBBY WOR CHUNKY glasses that he didn’t wear on set. Glasses that would later become his trademark. His tooth-stuffed grin flicked on and off his face. His broad cheeks already looked tired from the effort. It was sweet and unexpected how much he wanted to impress her. Whereas she felt completely at ease, here across the table from the famous, or almost famous, man.
“That smile is trying to sell me a used car.”
“You don’t want me to smile?” He made a comic frown.
“I want you to take direction. Smile like a non-psycho.”
He laughed and it was more natural. Then the waiter arrived and he tried to order for the both of them. Spaghetti with clams cosentino for the lady. A ribeye for him and with clams cosentino on the side. Did she like steak? “No clams,” she told the waiter.
“Tell her,” Bobby said. “They’re the best.”
“I don’t even like clams.”
“Who does?” Bobby said. “But these are great.”
“The confit, please,” she told the waiter. “And if you bring me a clam I’ll kick out your kneecaps.”
The waiter left and Bobby slouched in his chair, sulking. He said she could try one of his when the food came, and if she liked it he’d order another for her to take home. She pinned her eyes to her fork, knowing an eye roll would be too much for him.
“The whole insecurity-bravado thing is tired, Bobby. Just relax.”
He slouched lower, sulking harder. She took pity.
“So what’s your real last name?”
“What do you mean.”
“Come on. Cazadores? The Hunter. The exact name every man would choose?”
He smiled sheepishly.
“Not even my agent knows.”
“Ah, so you’ll make me feel special if you tell me.”
He leaned across the table and whispered it to her.
“That’s a perfectly fine name.”
“Perfectly fine for a grocery clerk.”
“You think you’re too good to be a grocery clerk?”
“All grocery clerks think they’re too good to be grocery clerks.”
“My dad was a grocery clerk for thirty years.”
She laughed at his oh-shit face.
“I’m just fucking with you. My dad was a studio musician.”
Finally, he gave her a smile that was in the middle.
After sex that night, she curled against him and asked how much he thought she could sell her story for: a night with the next top director. It depended on fluctuations in market, he said, and it was a tough market to speculate. Hold onto a vintage bottle of wine, maybe the price skyrockets, maybe it goes to vinegar. Oh, she said, this vintage was sure to increase in value. It was all anyone in town could talk about. She didn’t understand, he said. Being almost famous was the peak. Almost famous was more famous than famous-famous. There was still an impossibility of expectation. Trajectories had been sketched and all that was left were limits.
“Are you talking about me? Almost famous for laughing Lee Canesa offstage?”
“Lee was impressed. He usually hates actresses. Actors too, but actresses even more. Can’t live up to the scene, he says. But I heard him telling some people about your scene. Said your laugh made his character feel real anger. Said his character almost really wanted to–”
“God, don’t say it.”
She laughed and he did too, and then he went pensive. It was the first she noticed this trait, the way a minor happiness tended to roll downhill into some kind of worry or sadness. “When you tell people about tonight, feel free to exaggerate things a little. To, you know, round up.” She took his face in her hands, a cheesy movie gesture, which is what she sensed he wanted.
“I don’t sell stories. I don’t even tell stories.”
Which held true. People always wanted to pump her for Doug Reimer stories, for stories about Bobby and Lee and the sets of all those movies and the parties, but she never dined out on them. They were things whose value disappeared when shared. They were the closest thing in Hollywood to chastity. Less a wine in her cellar than a fire in her hearth. It was Bobby who loved to pass it all around–not their personal business, but everyone else’s. She and Lee were the only ones spared from his gossip, and Doug Reimer was skewered as much as possible. She knew the cues.
Now when someone asked how they met, she’d short circuit the routine by saying he’d never been able to resist her after he’d filmed her rape scene. This made him red in face, humiliated and angry. He shouted very seriously that it wasn’t a funny joke and it wasn’t true and he didn’t appreciate it. She’d laugh loudly enough for everyone to know that it was only a joke, and he’d calm down and be at her hip again within ten minutes. She liked this routine better. She loved how easily it flustered him. They were married and in love; she was allowed to enjoy pissing him off now and then. Besides, it was still nicer than pointing out that the difference between Bobby’s dick and Doug’s could be found in the catalogue of minor differences.
In truth, he’d been very gentle about the rape scene. He spent the week before it was scheduled to film explaining how emotionally damaging it could be. No one would blame her for backing out, he said. All her predecessor’s fury at being dismissed would dissolve if they called her back. Or rather, her agent would convert the fury into a sizeable bonus. And during the filming, he asked her after every take if she needed a break until Lee yelled at him to stop it before his character crumbled to shit. She assured him she was fine. She laughed and joked when the camera wasn’t rolling.
“Bobby,” she said. “It’s not real.”
Not that there wasn’t a certain discomfort in Lee charging on scene at her like a PCP freak, or that it didn’t hurt when he grabbed her hair and rubbed her face on the carpet. Not that she liked his big intense face breathing and sweating on her from inches away. But it did help bring out the real screams, ones louder and purer than at her impromptu audition. And damn did it feel good when, on three different takes, she got to smash him in the head with a stereo speaker. It made for a long day, establishing her initial measured resistance, then her crazed, panicked fight, then her besieged turn inward, all with back-and-forths to makeup to cover bruises and scrapes she and Lee had given each other, and breaks to replace prop speakers and lamps. They had to call in a carpenter to fix a bed frame that was not supposed to be broken. When Bobby finally called the day, Lee gave her a look of disgust and stormed off the set as usual. As usual, when young crew members passed along his praise, she didn’t know how much they were just being kind.
When the film wrapped, Lee came to see her. He was kind and apologetic. He said he usually talked with people before shooting began. He’d done so with the actress Dana replaced. He could get intense when he was staying in character but he had to keep those walls up. Having a friendly chat with a character he was going to assault was just too much.
“Holy fuck,” Dana said, laughing. “I thought you hated me.”
“No, you seemed very nice. Bobby certainly likes you.”
“People told me you’d had a thing with the lady before me.”
“Well, people say all sorts of shit.”
“Or I thought it was my acting.”
“No, you were fantastic. You got me angry as I needed to be. Really impressive stuff.”
She mostly believed this was him being gracious, but when the reviews started coming in she combed through all the reviews for mentions of herself. Her name never appeared without the word Newcomer before it, and some reviewers called her performance simplistic or rote, some said raw and unrestrained, some said overwrought. But they all talked about the transformation Lee’s character effected before and after his scenes with her. They all believed it viscerally, which meant she had made it believable.
SHE READ THE REVIEWS OF ALL HER ROLES. They took more note of her after Bobby gave her a bigger role in his next film. They took even more note after everyone in town had come to their wedding and drank their champagne. That 80s wedding dress, big shoulder bows and lace. It made the gossip pages, which she didn’t give a fuck about but read anyway. But even before the wedding it was clear she had a career in acting. She told the record label to take her off the payroll but they insisted on keeping her on it and filled up her mailbox with CDs anytime Bobby was in pre-production.
She thought of those years as her real-estate years. Even before their engagement, she’d started pouring her paychecks, both from the movies and the record labels, into the mortgage on her little bungalow. Bobby asked her to move in after three months, and she had, but she’d kept the bungalow as a rental and poured the rental income into the principal too. It was paid off in three years, and she used it as collateral to buy a three-bedroom that had come on the market down the street. She was happy living with Bobby, but who knew what would happen in Hollywood? He might turn out to have a coven of models on the side. He might have some kind of irremediable dildo addiction.
“She’s got a real-estate habit,” Bobby would say at dinner parties they hosted, the way rich assholes said their wives had horse habits.
“Real estate is a better investment than the stock market, Bobby,” Lee chimed in one night. “Look at the historical trends. There’s nothing more reliable.”
“Investments. Who needs them? Just keep making money.”
“Jeremy invests your money same as mine.”
“You’re fighting a losing battle,” Dana said with a laugh. “Just let him say the dumb thing he wants to say.”
“Thank you, Dana,” Bobby said. His smile on and off like a lightbulb. She’d embarrassed him. “She has a real estate habit. It’s better than any of my habits.” He raised his wine glass. The guests raised theirs, waiting for a more interesting line of conversation.
He fucked her especially passionately that night, holding her wrist against the headboard and her ankle against his neck, turning his head to bite the back of her calf. He said he wanted to fuck her in every room of the house. He said he wanted her to feel him inside her for days. He said other things that only failed to be gross while their hormones were up. He flipped her over and took her from behind, holding her hair in his fist. He told her he wished there were duplicates of her. He told her he wished there were duplicates of himself.
“Sorry if I got a little weird,” he said ten minutes later.
They smiled at each other. His genuine smile lived mostly in his eyes.
“I really do want to fuck you in every room of the house.”
“I think we have.”
“I want to fuck you in every room of all your houses.”
He’d been thinking about the joke since before they’d gotten started. He’d maybe been thinking about it since dinner. So was the passion an act? That was a bit obvious for Bobby. His psychology worked in ways he didn’t understand. Besides, he was a terrible actor. She’d seen him try to give his actors line readings. She’d seen their faces in response.
“Sorry,” she said. “I have renters.”
“You know, I only think about you when I fantasize. In my younger relationships I’d fantasize about everybody I knew. Sometimes women I just saw on the street. Even in the beginning of our relationship, if I’m being honest. But now it’s just you, every time. It doesn’t get me off otherwise.”
“What a weird and kind of sweet confession.”
“It’s what I’ve got to work with.”
He curled against her and she put her arm around him.
“You think we’ll last forever, Bobby?”
“I think we’ll die eventually.”
His films were already preserved in special archives. Pictures of him making those movies were already in books housed in the Library of Congress. He might not die so easily. There might be a place in there for her as well, there in his movies, there in his books. Oh, you didn’t see me there? she thought. Did you check the appendix?
WHILE HE LOOKED BETTER than ever when he was awake, his almost black hair flecked with silver, his more mature face less goofy behind those thick glasses, those who called Bobby a genius might find it harder to do so if they ever saw him napping: slouched back on the couch, his face slack as a deflating air mattress, his mouth melting like a Dali clock. Nights like that were more common now, with guests gone or maneuvered out to the pool, and Lee and Dana and Bobby chatting until Bobby passed out at some pathetic hour like 8 p.m.
By the time West of Gomorrah had come out, and Freight, and House of Mirrors, it wasn’t 1980 anymore. It was even worse. They’d given Lost City the Oscars Walk Through Harlem should have gotten, including one to Lee. Then having felt they made up for their error, the Academy decided they’d been charitable and snubbed Bobby’s next three films. They were better, more adult, but he already had an audience looking for boyish energy. Bobby had been right: almost famous was the peak. And Lee? He was paid more now but praised far less. He was pulled again and again into roles that were bad duplicates of ones he’d played before. Critics said his career now consisted of doing bad impressions of his younger self, and they were partly right. They were both called geniuses, but with a retrospective tone that suggested their era was already written into the history books.
Her own acting had become a specific tool, like a hammer or a jigsaw, that directors could use for a specific purpose. She could have done more, she knew, if they’d let her. She’d kept it a secret that she thought she her talent was equal to Bobby’s and to Lee’s. She didn’t know if she’d call it genius, but she’d seen what they did closer than anyone, and it was no subtler, no more sophisticated, than her own work. In truth, acting wasn’t that hard. Forget all that method crap. Just give it an unreserved hundred percent and don’t overthink it. But you could sell that for two thousand dollars at a weekend seminar.
The three of them had all settled into grooves on which one could comfortably coast downhill. Bobby was sleeping right next to her when she brought it up to Lee.
“How many more years do you think we’ve got?”
“Everyone gets a little resurgence. They need to forget about you before they can remember you.”
“No, Bobby and me.”
Lee raised his eyebrows, then motioned with his head to the dining room table, where they’d be out of earshot. Going was unnecessary, as Bobby faked sleep often enough that Dana knew all the indicators, but she followed him anyway and sat down across from him.
“You guys having trouble?”
“No, we just—it just feels like there’s an expiration date. Like something’s starting to smell.”
“If you can describe your marriage as something that’s starting to smell, I’d call that trouble.”
“It doesn’t smell.”
“You said it, not me.”
“Don’t tease me.” But it was better than what she’d expected: scolding, chiding. Disappointment. “Nothing’s wrong. We fight less and less all the time. We’ve been happy. It’s just this weird feeling, like if this was a movie, you’d sense where it was going. That that’s the arc.”
“It’s that Hollywood thing. We’re spoiled people. All the joy, the excitement, the surprise. We’ve been allowed to expect that it would continue.”
“Fuckin’ A, man.”
“Fuckin’ A.” He got up and grabbed two Post-It notes from the desk under the phone. “You write down a number of years and I will too.” They used their hands to cover what they wrote, then traded the notes. Lee wore some genuine shock when he read hers. He’d written eleven. She’d written three.
FIVE. And that five made it twelve years in all. They knew people who’d gone through three marriages in that time. Maybe it would have felt like less of a failure if her parents hadn’t been divorced, if she hadn’t been so eager not to repeat their mistakes. Her parents’ marriage had suffered under a lack of resources. How could she have known her own would suffer from too many? Maybe it would have felt like less of a failure if she hadn’t seen it so far off, creeping like a glacier.
Of all her properties, she moved back into the bungalow she’d lived in before Bobby. What did she need beyond a one bedroom? Built-in bookshelves, a sitting porch with bistro set. Updates to the bathroom and kitchen before she moved in. Cozy life. All dangers came from wanting more. She’d never told Bobby, she’d never even told Lee, her secret: that she’d always planned, if they divorced, on taking nothing from him. When Lee visited, it was clear he took a little too much pleasure in the humility of her place, weighing it equally against all the time he spends in mansions, thinking it made him grounded. She helped him sell the story to himself, making him meatloaf, making him chicken ala king, from her mother’s recipe folder.
“I’m an A-List landlord,” she told him. “Sometimes it takes a while to find your true vocation.”
“Many never do,” Lee said. “I’ve always wondered if I should have been a maid.”
“I can really see you as a postman.”
“I’ve never played one.”
“It would cut too close.”
He was joking but she was fairly sure she was not. Every spring she did the exterior paint on one of her houses, did it on her own with rollers and overalls. Not for the first few years, of course. It had taken three before the press stopped bugging her and Bobby for the details of their marriage and their split. But after a few years she was no longer enough of a Star to be Just Like Us! She hired a landscaping crew to put in and tend flower boxes. She bought nice front doors. She’d raised the equity of the whole block. She could snake a toilet and little gave her more pleasure.
She told Lee her line about the Stars Just Like Us. If they ever saw him driving his Camry, she said, they’d be all over him. “Tell me the truth,” she asked, “did you buy that car just for when you came to my place?”
“I drive it any place I need camouflage.”
Ouch, she thought. He didn’t even notice.
Bobby had never been by her place. Not inside, at least. She was fairly sure she’d seen his Audi creep by on occasion. He called, though. He called neurotically. Had she heard this new band? What did she think of Sean Penn these days? Was Kiel Grant the next Lee? Don’t tell Lee I asked. And always when he when casting, did she want a role? He worked hard not to seem perfunctory. She wanted different kinds of roles these days, she said. Translation: I don’t want to see you. How much easier would it have been if he had simply switched to models? Not that she was jealous; she’d left him. But it would have been flattering to think that after her he’d given up on any pleasures higher than the carnal. Instead he had his non-marriage to his literary critic, a woman older than he was, grayer than he was, more interesting than he was. She had even thicker glasses and a seemingly infinite variety of scarves. More interesting than Dana was? And wasn’t this the worst thing about aging, the way every sentence seems to end with a question mark?
There was Bobby’s voice again, buzzing through the old hard plastic of her landline phone:
“I want you for this role,” he said. “I’m not offering it to you, I’m begging you to take it.”
“I’m a landlord.”
“Nice try, Clark Kent.”
Oh, that felt good. It felt damn good.
“I’m happy, Bobby,” she said. “Don’t fuck it up.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
Here it came: did it ever feel bad, drinking your morning tea looking off the porch at a row of dingy trash cans? Boringly lamenting to yourself about how you couldn’t paint your neighbors’ houses? Walking around the three and a half small rooms of what most people would call a starter home? Battling ants, moths, roaches and calling it a noble struggle? Remembering a little too frequently that last line of Candide: “All that is very well…but let us cultivate our garden”? The floor squeaks here, but not there. Did it ever feel bad, throwing out the entertainment section before sitting down with the newspaper?
Of course not, she thought, and please don’t ask again.
Ethan Chatagnier is the author of Warnings from the Future, a story collection forthcoming from Acre Books in September 2018. His short fiction has won a Pushcart Prize and has appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, Glimmer Train, New England Review, the Cincinnati Review, and other journals. He lives with his family in Fresno, California.