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The Starter Wife: A Novelby Gigi Levangie Grazer
Cellulite massage is not for the faint of heart. Which is what Gracie Pollock was thinking as her thighs were pounded by the grunting Russian woman who left her bruised, swollen, and otherwise disfigured every other Monday at three o'clock for the last five years. Gracie's calendar was filled with benign-sounding yet brutal "treatments": Tuesdays were hair (blow-dry, cut, and highlights, if needed), Wednesdays were waxing or plucking, Thursdays belonged to dermabrasion or acid peels or any variety of activities involving needles and the hope of Insta-Youth, Fridays were off days, save for the second blow-dry of the week, when Gracie would compare her week of treatments to her friends' week of treatments over lunch at The Ivy.
You want irony? For the privilege of emerging from a session with Svetlana looking like she'd been locked in a freak dance with Mike Tyson, Gracie would write a check out to "Cash" for $250 and hand it over with shaking hands.
Svetlana left the room, leaving behind an imprint of garlic cloves and generations of suffering on the air. There were countless other Wives Of to punish, those who bought into the myth of defeating the onslaught of age with a pair of hardened Russian fists. Gracie groaned and leaned up from the damp, tacky massage table (a nice way of putting the modern equivalent of the rack) and onto her elbows. She willed her eyes open, her lids feeling like the only part of her body that had escaped Soviet vengeance. She slowly twisted her head to the side to assess the damage in the veined, mirrored tile lining the walls. Mirrored tile, Gracie thought, all the rage when Sylvester, the lisping Supreme Ruler of Disco, was at the top of the charts. "For a tax-free two-fifty a pop," Gracie muttered, "Svetlana the Terrible could swing a subscription to Elle Decor."
But the veined tile with the mirrored surface served its purpose. Here's the scoop. Gracie Pollock looked ridiculously good in that her polished exterior straddled the territories claimed by both adjectives, ridiculous and good. Each time Gracie peered at her reflection, she was startled, as though she had run into a formerly plain-wrapped high school friend who had transformed herself into a middle-aged version of Jessica Simpson. What are the odds of looking better at forty than at sixteen? Gracie thought to herself. About the same as crapping a gleaming pile of Krugerrands.
Let's start with the hair. Said hair being the color of that expensive European butter no one can pronounce. Domestic butter, according to Gracie's colorist, not being, well, buttery enough. And this hair was thick. Thick, as though somewhere in the Hamptons, Christie Brinkley had awakened looking like Michael Chiklis with hips. Gracie's original mousy brown, tongue-in-light-socket chicken wire had been colored and wrestled and yanked and stretched and stretched again into submission by a fine-boned man of unknown sexual and other identity named Yuko, then brightened with highlights every three weeks and lengthened with extensions, rewoven every twelve weeks. Her forehead was as unlined as the hood of a new Porsche, due to the same poison found in warped green bean cans she was warned about as a child. Her lips were soft and full. Thank you, the pitiless Collagen God. The teeth? Straight and white. The teeth were hers. The teeth, she'd grown herself.
I did grow those teeth myself, right? Gracie thought.
Yes, Gracie reassured herself as she bared her teeth like a rich blond rottweiler into the veined mirror. Those are my teeth.
She growled at her reflection.
Let's move on. The breasts were a perfect full B cup. Gracie had given birth and breast-fed — and yet her nipples pointed due north. Nature? Or the magic hands of Dr. Barbara Hayden? You decide.
The tummy, save for the bumpy scar which Gracie had not yet "done" above her pubic bone, was hard and as hard earned as the diamond on her left hand. The arms, brown and muscular and hairless as newborn Chihuahuas. The legs, Gracie's bête noir throughout her teenage years, were as sleek and taut as the skin on an apple.
Just looking at them made her weary.
Maintenance was a Mother Fucker.
Gracie stuck her tongue out at her reflection. The blond, green-eyed, perky-breasted woman rudely assessing her was not related to the soft-fleshed, brown-eyed girl she'd been more or less satisfied with for thirty years.
This Gracie, by all accounts, appeared perfect. Media friendly. Easy on the eyes and hard on the 401(k).
Then she looked down at her hands. Good Lord, not the hands, Gracie thought. The dead giveaway. The Dorian Gray painting in the attic. The skin on her hands was changing. Freckles that had once been a badge of youth and vigor were now a sign of encroaching age — the inevitable, inexorable spiraling into the Martha Raye Terra In-firma.
Gracie hadn't told anyone, not even her close friends, but in the last two years, she had failed the pinch test. Failing the pinch test is something best kept close to the bustier — if Gracie pinched the back of her hand (which she did several times an hour), the skin no longer snapped back. It slid back.
And those freckles. What could blast them out? Gracie hovered over her hands with a critical eye. What could possibly eliminate the speckled insurgents? Laser, acid peel, that pricey SPF 1,000 Greek sunscreen, bleaching creams, fotofacial, collagen, harvested fat cell shots. She had tried everything. And still the pinch test failed. Still the freckles persisted.
Gracie tucked her hands away, hiding them like a dreaded family secret. She sighed. And then she thought about her elbows. Gravity is a bitch, she thought.
"Do not" — she wagged her finger at her reflection — "appraise the elbows!"
Gracie felt her body was a time bomb, just waiting to jump back into its normal state, should the narrowest opportunity appear. She lived in a world where people fought their natural condition on a daily basis — every day in L.A. was Halloween. Those weren't masks she'd see in the women's dressing area at Saks or in the salon chairs at Cristophe or suspended over glass noodles at Mr. Chow — those were faces. Gracie feared she'd wake up one day and the skin around her face would be pulled into a bow in the back of her head.
Gracie was on the precipice. Was she going to be the recently Asian Joan Rivers, or what once was Brigitte Bardot? She'd have to make a choice.
One pull of the pin, Gracie knew as she peered over her shoulder at her proto-human reflection, and the whole thing would blow.
The trouble started with the earring. This wasn't just any earring — like that silver Celtic cross Gracie had lost in a public toilet at Santa Monica Beach because she was so freaked out by the thought of homeless people wandering in while she peed in a doorless stall. This wasn't one of the pair of pink diamond and platinum three-carat studs Gracie and every other stuck-in-a-loveless-marriage-but-with-a-generous-allowance Wife Of had her eye on at the Loree Rodkin case at Neiman Marcus, aka Needless Markup, just waiting for her husband to slip up for an excuse to buy. No, this wasn't just any earring. This was a delicate gold-wire hoop suddenly attached to her husband's heretofore unadorned, exhibiting middle-aged tendencies (more hair, additional length) right earlobe.
File Gracie Pollock's story under "hindsight is twenty-twenty," with the understanding that her sight was definitely up her hind end at the time. But how was Gracie to know that the demise of her nine-year, ten-month, three-day, eighteen-hour marriage could have been foretold mere weeks ago by a tiny piece of metal in a middle-aged man's ear?
"Yo, ho, ho, a pirate's life for me," sang Gracie, wife of Kenny Pollock, president of Durango Studios, as her ever-tardy husband loped over to their usual corner table at Ivy at the Shore, their (and every other Power Lister's) watering hole of choice. Kenny was twenty minutes late, as always. Somewhere between "punctual" and "rude" there was "Kenny time": twenty minutes late. Not ten minutes, not fifteen minutes. Twenty. Sometimes Gracie wondered if he waited out in the car until half past nineteen minutes — his lateness was as precise as the creases ironed into his jeans. (How precise were those creases, you ask? So precise that Kenny measured the creases himself, with a carpenter's measuring tape. If the crease was off center, bodily threats would be faxed to the dry cleaner.)
"Investors meeting at the studio," Kenny said, kissing Gracie's upturned cheek, ignoring her rendition of the Disney classic with a shrug of his long-ago-college-football-player shoulders. Gracie noted that he did not issue an apology for his tardiness — another in a long line of power moves. She knew the drill: "Sorry" is for people who have to care. "Sorry" is for people who may need a job someday. "Sorry" is for Pussies. Kenny greeted their dinner guests. "Or were we their guests?" Gracie asked herself. "One forgets." The dinner had been set in November of the previous year. Most of their dinners were set months in advance — Gracie and Kenny could barely get through the first week of January without knowing exactly how their year would lay out. They knew exactly who they would have drinks at the Four Seasons bar with on March twelfth, who they'd be entertaining at home with a chef's barbecue on May seventh, whose summer vacation home in the Hamptons or Martha's Vineyard or Point Dume they'd find themselves watching fireworks from on July fourth, whose winter vacation home in Aspen, Telluride, or Sun Valley they'd find themselves skiing out of come Thanksgiving Day weekend.
The pair they were eating dinner with tonight was a married couple — the man, a slithery, amphibious, soon-to-be-unemployed network chief (everyone except for him, from the valet parkers to the Sumner Redstones, seemed to know this) and the wife, a former stripper and back-page material Playboy Bunny trying to hide her past, along with her overenthusiastic breasts, under a serious blue, aching business suit. Last Gracie checked, Jil Sander did not design in spandex. Gracie had spent the last eighteen minutes listening to the man brag about his new electric car (to augment his fleet of Escalades and his habitual use of private jets), his Tuesday-night lineup, his resting heart rate, the view from their newly remodeled Beverly Park home across from Sly, and the number of Ivy League slots taken up by his children's private school each year. His pace was breathless, skipping from self-adoring subject to self-aggrandizing subject, leaving poor Gracie to wonder what they would have left to talk about over the ubiquitous grilled vegetable salad dinner. And then Gracie remembered that Kenny was no slouch in the bragging game. Her work was done. She could retire to the master bedroom in her head.
Gracie sat back and smiled, sipping her "rocks, salt, and quick, please" Patron Margarita. Gracie felt brave asking for salt, her guests and Gracie knowing full well that she was flirting carelessly with water retention. At her age, two weeks shy of forty-one, Gracie reckoned, retention of any kind — mental or physical — was welcome. She threw caution to the Santa Anas and indulged in her sodium-laced, liquid escape hatch, as Kenny launched into a soliloquy on the state of the three movies his studio was currently shooting. He'd just flown back from the set of the new $150 million Civil War epic (a paean to American history filmed, ironically, in Romania). Kenny was claiming to have come up with the story for it himself one day on the stationary bike, which he rode every other morning, alternating with the dreaded treadmill, at six-fifteen for not one minute over twenty-two. He'd read in Men's Health (the only periodical he read religiously) that maximum aerobic benefits start to trail off after twenty-two minutes, and he was not one to waste time — his time, specifically.
Gracie wondered what the well-respected screenwriter (oxymoron?) of the epic would think of the yarn Kenny was spinning — it felt as though he was trying out an Oscar speech. But Gracie was too grateful for her husband's appearance to quibble. It saved her from probing haplessly for common ground with the ex-stripper, whose breasts were threatening a mutiny: Gracie was deathly afraid a button would pop and ruin the results of her LASIK surgery. Kenny had urged Gracie to correct her nearsightedness; the glasses he'd once loved on her made her look "like she read too much." As Kenny talked about the details of the Civil War that were previously unbeknownst to him and no one else on the planet ("Did you know brother fought against brother?") and the network executive chewed the ice from his gimlet (sexual frustration? Even with the boobage his prosti-wife was sporting?) and patiently waited his turn to talk about last week's rare-as-a-spotted-owl ratings win, Gracie slipped into a self-imposed waking coma.
Occasionally, during business dinners, cocktail parties, premieres, test screenings, and endless christenings and bar mitzvahs, Gracie would disengage herself from the physical world and picture her body floating above the shiny, glazed surface, gazing down upon her fellow inmates who looked like so many sheep in a Technicolor field. Gracie had learned years ago that all that was required of her as a Hollywood wife was to nod and smile and ask empty, flat questions and make meaningless declarations, and she had mastered those skills, which was harder than one might think.
Try it. Think of 101 Ways to Say Hello and Inquire about The Children. Or, more rash, Inquire about The Movie. To do this, you must remember who made what film. And then you must remember what movies to bring up, what movies never to mention. Otherwise, you could have a conversation that goes something like this:
Gracie, to a famous director: "Hi, Fred. Wow, I saw your movie The Toad in Spring last week. It was wonderful."
Fred, wielding a sneer, "I fucking hated that movie."
Becoming a Wife Of required almost as much training as first violin in the London Symphony Orchestra. Gracie often thought there should be a Juilliard for power-wives-in-training. Examples of the classes might be: "Your Interior Decorator and You," "Getting to Table One," or, a favorite elective, "Embracing Your Inner Self, and Then Stomping It to Death." Gracie was currently enrolled in "Botox or Brow Lift: Stay 29 Forever or Be Replaced by Your Nanny!"
Gracie remembered that when she first started dating Kenny, it had taken months to train herself not to hurl a sarcastic comment when one of about 200 million "Executive VPs" shook her hand while looking over her shoulder for a more important person to greet (and there was always someone more important than The Girlfriend). It had taken weeks to recover from having to reintroduce herself to a satellite player fifteen times in the same year. Finally Gracie had mastered introducing herself by name to anyone she ran into, even people who were friends. You never knew who would draw a blank at the appearance of your nonfamous face.
In the beginning, Gracie had considered herself one of the lucky ones, and not for the reasons one would think — sure, there was the money. But Hollywood was not unlike Major League Baseball: the players had a short shelf life; once a studio executive started striking out on a regular basis, they were relegated to the Minors. They elected (were fired) to move on to their own production shingles, often housed in off-the-beaten-track office buildings above Sofa-U-Love or Jacopo's pizza shop. In the milliseconds between the words "You're" and "out!" uttered merrily by a superior, they went from buyers to sellers, and for the most part never made another movie in their lives. The local college extension courses were full of former executives teaching "Screenwriting 101" and "An Insider's Guide to Hollywood II" (with prerequisite).
But even if one were a success in Hollywood, try keeping up with the Joneses (there are no Joneses in Hollywood) when the Joneses are chauffeured in their Maybachs to the Polo Lounge for breakfast. Try keeping up with the Joneses when a beach house in the Malibu Colony costs $80,000 to rent in July (which is when everyone who is anyone is there). Try keeping up with the Joneses when the Joneses haven't set foot in LAX in a decade, because they've got their G-5 gassed up and awaiting flight plans at the Avjet terminal in industrial Burbank.
There was not enough money in the world for people in Hollywood; someone always had more.
And they were building their mega-mansion right next door to yours.
Gracie had been able, at least for their dating years, to hang on to her own identity, separate from Kenny's. It was rare for a Hollywood girlfriend or wife to have a job — rarer still to have a career. Kenny seemed to love that she'd had both. For a time, he'd brag to his coworkers, stating that he was planning on retiring on Gracie's income — that maybe she'd be the one to ask for a pre-nup. She didn't. Kenny did.
Through a lot of luck and a little hard work along with what Gracie claimed was a modicum of talent, she had become a semipopular children's book author. Right after college, she'd written and illustrated books like Question Boy and Curiosity and Question Boy, the sequel, based on an autistic boy she'd befriended at a bus stop. All of six or seven, he questioned her about the nature of the "square-not-round" buttons on her coat, why her hair was curly and his was straight, and why her left front tooth was slightly crooked and a bit yellow. His mother shushed him, but Gracie realized that here was a boy for whom every moment at a bus stop was discovery, every bus ride an adventure. She was fascinated. She'd started the book literally out of nowhere, with no background in illustration or writing, the minute she stepped into her apartment. The first words she'd written down, without taking off that square-not-round-buttoned coat, were:
Do you like buttons? I like buttons. Mommy says buttons attach our warm coats to our bodies. Do belly buttons hold our bodies together? What if we unbuttoned our belly buttons? Would we explode? What if...?
Gracie created a series based on little people who were left a half-step behind on the evolutionary scale (they were light green and covered in a soft, downy fur and survived, like frogs, both in water and on land) called The Frugs. She considered herself a writer more than an artist: her drawings were simple, childlike; her colors bold and rudimentary. She drew and painted quickly before she lost interest, like the pint-size audience she was striving to reach. And then she would settle into the words.
Gracie made enough money at her career to support herself — the only goal she'd set. She could afford a car, gas, insurance, an unfurnished one-bedroom apartment in the Fairfax district, enough dinners out at cheap, exotic, out-of-the-way places to encourage a weight issue. She made more than a schoolteacher and less than an accountant; she was satisfied.
But she was also a vessel of that most common of human afflictions, loneliness. Gracie didn't work in an office where she could commiserate about the horrible boss over one-hour lunches at the Olive Garden; she didn't have a dog — wasn't allowed one in her apartment. She would write, take a walk, go get a cup of coffee, come back, write, go get some lunch...return. Gracie would walk into her apartment and say "I'm home" as a joke, but also as a prayer; maybe, if she said those words often enough, someone someday would answer.
Yes, Gracie had friends, writer friends — or the occasional oddball who had a trust fund that was barely enough to pay rent on a studio apartment. But the majority of her friends worked two or three jobs, keeping themselves solvent until the big payday when their scripts would be optioned, that network pilot would be picked up, or they packed it in and went back to graduate work — or to marrying the high school sweetheart they left behind somewhere in the middle of the country.
Gracie could go days without saying more than "I'll have the chicken soup, please," to one of the gruff elderly waitresses at Canter's. She was an only child; her gentle, beloved father had died suddenly of a heart attack when Gracie was in her senior year at college, living off-campus. Her mother, the youngest of four girls, had never lived alone and was not prepared to do so now, in her fifties. She had moved shortly thereafter to Seattle, where her favorite older sister lived, away from the smog and the freeways and the memories and the crime. But also away from her daughter. They rarely talked. Gracie thought of herself, when dreariness and self-pity consumed her thoughts (she allowed herself this luxury about once a week), as the world's oldest living orphan.
When Kenny appeared in Gracie's life, with his grand plans, his sheer velocity, she was swept up like a tumbleweed in a desert windstorm. Gracie went quietly, as resistant as melted butter, a shining example of Stockholm syndrome. "Tell me where to go," her brain whispered as she looked at Kenny speaking with conviction, with energy, with life, on any given subject, any at all. "I'll go," her eyes revealed.
On her first date with Kenny, he'd picked her up at her apartment, knocking on her door like machine-gun fire. He was five minutes early and her dating clock was five minutes late — she'd taken a full hour to get dressed. Not counting the make-out session with the lanky college student from Germany who lived across the street, this was her first date in six months.
Gracie had quickly tugged Kenny in, away from the prying eyes of her widowed neighbor, and he'd waited in what she called her living room — a plaster square replete with a two-seater couch, a small TV on a stand, and a coffee table.
She heard him poking around the kitchen as she slipped on her heels, cognizant of the scuffs that pinned her as a girl on the rise or slipping badly. She came out to find Kenny looking into her minirefrigerator and shaking his head.
"How long has it been since you've had a good meal?" he'd asked. She looked at him, her mouth open. Gracie had almost burst into tears, for it was a question a mother would ask. A question no one had asked her in a long, long time.
Kenny had taken her to legendary Spago, where he was greeted by "Wolfie" and where they had eaten foie gras four ways and crab cakes and some kind of architecturally challenging beet salad and drank a bottle (two bottles?) of Cabernet and platefuls of desserts, and when she spied the bill, before Kenny flipped his American Express (business) card onto it, she was shocked to see the price of the meal.
She had eaten two months' rent. And had been completely seduced. She felt like Pretty Woman; but instead of the hottest hooker on the planet, Gracie was an attractive, if a bit mousy, scribe.
Once they were married, having her own identity set her apart from her peers, her fellow wives. Sure, there were a few wives who had outside interests — baby photography, a clothes boutique — and they talked about their interests at length in various fashion magazines, where they would be photographed in the glamorous setting of the studio they rarely used, the eponymous boutique they seldom frequented. Their jobs were more like very expensive, well-publicized hobbies.
Gracie surmised that Hollywood Wives had the highest unemployment rate in the country.
Let it be said that Gracie hadn't written anything in a while. "A while" translated into half a decade, give or take a year. She hadn't been seized with an idea that demands you run to your computer before it recedes into the fabric of what Hollywood people loved to call their "crazy busy" lives. She hadn't met the boy at the bus stop, so to speak. Gracie had sat in front of her computer many days, jabbing at keys, willing an idea to fall out of the sky and drizzle out through her fingertips.
At first, Gracie figured it must be the demands of having a baby. She and Kenny had a baby girl almost four years ago, after years of trying. Of course a baby is a distraction. Of course a baby makes life more full, and of course a mother has less time to write than a nonparent.
But deep down, Gracie knew her dry spell, the endless desert of her unproductive days, had a different genesis. It wasn't pregnancy brain, it wasn't postpartum, and it wasn't her beautiful Jaden.
(Okay, the name. Time to come clean. Jaden was named after Jada Pinkett and Will Smith's child. Kenny, at the time, was casting a Vietnam War movie that needed a young, black, powerful lead. Will didn't wind up taking the role, of course, and Gracie in the meantime had a child whose name was looted from movie-star offspring.)
Gracie's well of ideas had run dry. Gracie's talent, her personality, her gumption, even her anger, were fading. She felt like a pencil drawing that was being slowly, methodically erased. The demands of a life filled with petty concerns — Why are the tennis court lights on at eight A.M.? The air-conditioning went above 72 degrees in the guesthouse sitting room! We need new flower arrangements twice a week. Why won't the remote (that cost as much as a new Toyota) turn off the Flat Screen TV in the bar? What is the proper ratio of studio to talent for a dinner party? The orchids in the foyer are dying. Should we serve lamb or salmon at our third dinner party this month? I want a phone on the left side of the master toilet. Who has (imaginary) food allergies? The pool is overflowing. Who doesn't eat meat? That painting doesn't work with the new couch. Who doesn't eat bread? I need another iPod (preprogrammed with Julia Roberts's favorites). The gardener cut the grass too low. The made-in-Tibet screening-room curtains won't open — had devoured not only Gracie's creativity but, more important, her spirit.
Gracie's comatose state was starting to lift as she looked up at the ex-stripper, whose full figure and full attention were on Kenny as she bobbled her head like the dog figurines Gracie would see in the back of the rusty Toyotas owned by the Latina nannies in her neighborhood.
The Stepford wives had nothing on the Wives Of, Gracie thought ruefully. Amateurs.
Onion rings that everyone agreed to order but no one would eat, thanks to Zone oppression, arrived at the table. Kenny stood to greet someone famous whom Gracie didn't recognize — Gracie could tell this person was famous because Kenny had forgotten to introduce his wife. He wasn't trying to be rude. Kenny had Celebrity Alzheimer's: His brain went on the blink when approached by a celebrated face. Kenny was blinded by fame, fascinated by those on the lit side of the camera. He would often forget that his civilian wife, who would never be found in the pages of People's 50 Most Beautiful! edition, was standing right next to him.
Gracie stared at this girl, a petite, anemic, pretty blonde like so many petite, anemic, pretty blondes on screen, and made a game out of trying to place her. She considered celebrity naming a sort of virtual crossword puzzle: Is she on a sitcom? In a movie? Action movie? Romantic comedy? Is she British? One of the hundreds of Australians? (Does anyone in that country not act?) Does she sing? Under thirty? Over thirty? Dating a tennis star? Dating Ben Affleck? Just broken up with Ben Affleck? Pregnant with Ben Affleck's twins?
After she'd turned forty, Gracie realized that she was recognizing fewer and fewer "recognizable faces." Gracie had no interest in a network called the WB — Gracie wasn't even sure what WB stood for — and they had no interest in her. FOX left her cold, except for that show with Keifer Sutherland, whom Gracie still expected to look like the Lost Boy she lusted after when she was young, not the grizzled Manly Man (whom she still lusted after) he'd become. NBC and ABC were passable. CBS? Gracie didn't know what that was, but apparently she would in her retirement years. And Gracie didn't understand — was it her, or were there just so many more "famous" people than there were fifteen years ago?
And was Gracie the only one who wasn't famous?
Gracie was midway through dinner by the time she was up to her third witty remark — she had finally met her self-imposed quota. Maybe Gracie would go beyond the expected and dole out four, although she usually kept herself to three per dinner, so as to not appear as detached as she felt. During their years of courtship and marriage, Kenny and Gracie had attended hundreds of affairs and endured endless hours of small talk. So much small talk that Gracie had developed a foolproof method for dealing with it. She'd even broken down the elements of these nights into categories of engagement:
1. You Had Me at "I Made the Cover of Variety": Always greet with a warm smile (bonded is good, veneers are better), a litany of your recent successes (ignore flops and wayward children), a full-body-slam hug, and finally a kiss — a double kiss if in vogue. As in dancing, let the man lead.
There are no parents more obsessed with getting their kids into Harvard than the Hollywood parent, though few had gone there themselves, and if they had, had probably been fired from their jobs by now. Here's a tip: Moving to Hollywood? Keep your Ivy League degree to yourself.
Religion? Seldom brought up unless someone was trying to get his child into a private school with a religious affiliation. For example, a person could say, "I'm trying to get into Wilshire Boulevard, but I have to join the Temple." Or, "I need to be a parishioner for two years before I get into St. Stephen's."
Kenny and Gracie had scrambled onto the guest list of every party for those between the ages of twenty-five and seventy-five. For the last few years, they had attended, without fail, four events or dinners a week.
Gracie calculated as the network executive jumped into the conversation guns blazing — four times fifty-two weeks equals two hundred and eight, multiplied by ten equals two thousand and eighty outings, not including this one.
As the network executive labored through his dubiously masculine account of a recent white-water rafting trip, Gracie experienced Past Life Regression.
Kenny wasn't always so very Kenny. Gracie was clearheaded enough to remember when Kenny would groan about having to go out all the time, even if Gracie never quite believed that he resented the demands on his time. Gracie never really bought that he hated talking marketing with David Geffen or Barry Diller. Did Gracie wonder that he was miserable being away from her on her thirtieth birthday because he had to catch a private jet with Spielberg to see a screening in San Diego? No. Did Gracie think for a moment that he hated going back to work an hour after their daughter was born because Billy Bob Thornton was fighting with the director on his Western? Not a chance.
Kenny was a low-man-on-the-totem-pole development executive when Gracie met him. He had phoned her out of the blue. "Kenny Pollock here," he'd said, "Pollock like the fish." "Not the artist?" Gracie had asked. She'd recently been to a LACMA exhibition of the artist's most famous works. She'd stood for hours, staring at...what? Drops, lines, webs, colors, streams...And yet, she stood. Mesmerized. She'd gone back twice. The greatest emotional involvement she'd had in years — and it was with a painting.
"Artist?" Kenny had cracked. "Don't tell anyone in Hollywood I've got an artist's name, they'll run me out of town." He talked her up for half an hour about optioning her first children's book for no money for a never-to-be-made movie. Gracie was charmed by the way his voice cracked while toiling under the tenor of false bravado. Gracie had no idea what he looked like; she imagined he was small boned and fidgety and dark — just her type. He invited her for sushi in a place called Brentwood. Gracie had never had sushi and had rarely ventured west of La Cienega. When Gracie met him for this sushi lunch, she walked right past him toward another man sitting at the bar. Kenny tapped her on the shoulder, and Gracie turned around, stunned to see a tall galoot with football-player shoulders and a child's grin, and more stunned when he bear-hugged her and planted a big kiss on her cheek. Gracie wasn't yet accustomed to the typical Hollywood greeting; she generally consigned her kisses and hugs to family members and lovers. Gracie soon learned she was a prude, that in Hollywood a kiss carries as little weight as a blow job from a call girl. Gracie learned to hand out kisses to mâitre d's and studio chiefs as easily as she'd kiss her own mother. Except that she had never kissed her own mother on the lips.
Kenny wasn't her type. Period. Not least because he was the King of Exclamation. No person or activity was too prosaic to elude the Kenny Howl of Enthusiasm. Then there were his looks. Gracie didn't like handsome, didn't trust handsome, was never even a fan of handsome movie stars. Why would Gracie drool over Brad Pitt when Gracie would rather look like Brad Pitt? Kenny was too tall, too good-looking, and, she learned as their lunch wore on, too ambitious. Gracie had heard of five-year plans, even ten-year plans — but he had twenty-, thirty-, forty-year plans. Kenny knew what studio he wanted to run, he knew the types of movies he wanted to make, he knew who he wanted his lieutenants to be. Kenny knew what he wanted in a wife and he knew how many children he wanted (two: one boy, one girl) and where he wanted them to go to school (preschool, elementary school, high school, college — graduate school!). He knew what street he wanted to live on ("Rockingham — the best views in Los Angeles"); he knew what car he'd be driving in five years (Mercedes 600SL). The man knew where he'd end up after Alzheimer's hit him in his old age (the Motion Picture Home).
Kenny, who had barely made a dent into his thirtieth year, knew he'd be cremated and where his ashes would be scattered (in the Pacific, off the Baja Peninsula).
On the surface, nothing about "The Kenny Package" would seem to appeal to a person like Gracie. She had never shared a tuna roll with anyone who seemed untouched by the Human Condition. He had emerged from his first thirty years unscathed. Of course Kenny had been a college athlete; of course he had been treasurer of his fraternity (better access to beer funds than the president); of course he had grown up in the suburbs in a two-parent household with a younger sister and a dog named Rusty.
And of course he drove a BMW, in the L.A.-biquitous black. He took one sidelong look at her Toyota Cressida, as though afraid of infection by the working class, and told her she'd have to sell it and buy something more hip. Gracie told him the only thing more hip she could afford would be a skateboard.
That afternoon he sent her a brand-new skateboard with hot pink wheels. She'd hugged the gift card to her chest. She could still remember the words scribbled onto the tiny card: "To Gracie, who deserves better wheels. Love, Kenny 'The Artist' Pollock."
Gracie had been Kenny-fected.
So despite her qualms, Gracie dated Kenny anyway and got attached to his goofy charm anyway and slept with him on the third date anyway — after all, they'd already had their first kiss at the sushi bar. Maybe she was a sellout. Maybe Gracie should have stuck out her existence on the wrong side of town, driving the wrong car and wearing the wrong clothes. ("It's a good thing you're so cute," Kenny told her the first morning after they'd slept together as Gracie was getting dressed in her baggy corduroys and long-sleeved T-shirt, "because your clothes suck.") But Kenny represented what Gracie felt was missing in her life — stability. He could take charge, he knew where he was going; Gracie had no idea where her life was headed. There was no five-year plan; there wasn't even a three-week plan. Gracie, who always prided herself on her independence, who had never depended on anyone, much less a man, secretly longed to be taken care of.
With Kenny, Gracie would emerge from the shell of the studious UCLA student who watched from the bus stop as sorority girls whizzed by her in their convertible Cabriolets; with Kenny, she would no longer have her nose pressed up against the plate-glass Prada window. (Except that as she got older, she no longer "understood" Prada; what could those odd shoes and unflattering dresses mean?)
In fact, sometimes Gracie wondered if the main reason she married Kenny was to seek vengeance upon Cabriolet-driving, MasterCard-hoarding sorority girls. Not that that was a terrible reason to get married. In Los Angeles, it could be the raison d'Être; anyone would understand. In India and Pakistan, they had arranged marriages; in Los Angeles, marriages were arranged by the color of your American Express card.
Back to Kenny's business dinner: Emerging from her Past Life Regression, Gracie sipped her margarita and leaned back, sucking in her lower stomach as she always did when she heard her Pilates instructor's voice egging her on in her mind — "strengthen the core, and the rest follows."
Thank God, Gracie thought. Thank God I'm married. I don't have to worry about a little extra tummy.
"Where are you going this Christmas?" the ex-stripper asked, jamming an ice pick through the fragile surface of Gracie's reverie.
It was March.
Gracie smiled. The margarita was working its magic.
Gracie had turned left from Sunset onto Rockingham when her cell phone rang, the recorded voice of her daughter repeating itself: Mommy, your cell phone is ringing. Mommy, your cell phone is ringing.
The caller ID flashed Kenny's car phone number.
"Hello?" Gracie said. "Hello?" she repeated. She cursed; the reception in Brentwood was always bad.
"Kenny?" All Gracie heard was the maddening staccato hiccups of a broken phone connection.
"Kenny? I'm losing you," Gracie said. She wondered why he didn't wait to talk to her until they were both home. She hung up and tossed the phone in the passenger seat. And then she worried: What if he'd been in an accident?
She was pulling into her driveway when the phone rang again. Three bars showed up on the cell phone. The reception would be clear.
"Kenny?" Gracie asked. "Is everything all right?"
"I said" — Kenny's voice was finally clear — "I want a divorce."
The execution of their marriage was performed via Cingular Wireless.
Copyright © 2005 by Last Punch Productions, Inc.
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