The Los Angeles apartment was tropical, with grapefruits hanging heavy off the trees that lined our street and fat lemons that spilled into the gutter, sometimes hitting car hoods in the night on their way down and making the alarms go off. From our unit we had a clean view of the San Gabriels. There was a koi pond out front—with no koi, but still. I was excited to be in a new city, so different from New York. Here there was sprawl and open space and the buildings were mostly low and long. I glimpsed the courtyard of the elementary school next door, the kids shuffling from class to class in the open air and sunshine, and I said, “How can they concentrate? How do they get their homework finished?” My then-boyfriend (now husband) answered, “Look at all these palm trees!”
I got a job down the street selling yoga pants to rich, tan women who wore little makeup and had wrists full of jewelry. In the dressing room these women told me conspiratorially that yoga had helped their bowels or their sex lives or sometimes both. When the store was full our managers encouraged us to perform handstands (this was supposed to be a spontaneous expression of joy). “If you’re ringing up purchases,” my manager said, “remember to say Namaste.” We were supposed to develop our five, ten, and fifteen-year goals and display these on a community board for customers to see. My goal sheet was an empty page on the pin board. “Envision your future self,” my manager said. “Are you selling her short? Are you letting her down?” I envisioned my future self laughing at my handstands and overpriced spandex uniform. She was wise, mature, in control—she wouldn’t do handstands for anybody. “Do not say hi when a customer walks in,” my manager warned. “Instead, ask how they like to sweat.” I would stand at the store’s entrance and, with an apologetic expression, say, “Welcome! How do you like to sweat?” My boyfriend told me to look for a new job. He recognized my unhappiness. He saw how, walking home from work, I would eye the neighborhood palm trees, always waiting for one to fall, to pin me beneath its bulk. “You’re a California Girl now,” he said. “Don’t despair.” We both agreed that California Girls persevered. If a California Girl didn’t like the direction her life was headed in, she changed routes. She got a haircut and new shoes and tried again. Who could be unhappy in all this sunshine?
On my goal sheet there was a skinny column labeled Life Skills—I filled this out one night at the dinner table. I was friendly, a good salesperson. I had no criminal record. I understood computers. People trusted me. Women who hardly knew me told me their secrets, told me about their insane mothers or jealous husbands, their silicone implants. I could memorize long lines of text instantaneously, but I was not an aspiring actress who might have to skip out for auditions. What’s that add up to I wondered? My boyfriend dug up promising job leads. The owner of 1-2-3 Act, a children’s acting studio, had posted a craigslist ad for a nighttime administrative assistant. If selected for the position, I would be responsible for prepping the studio in the afternoon before school let out and the kids arrived. 1-2-3 Act offered classes until ten at night and I would need to stay until eleven counting the day’s earnings, crosschecking receipts, and cleaning up after the kids. The job included no benefits. The schedule meant I’d have my mornings to myself to write. Must be a self-starter!, the ad warned. I sent my résumé.
Cars were a problem for me. I had learned to drive in Los Angeles and was still terrified of its highways. I would not take them anywhere. My greatest fear was to find myself accidentally, irrevocably speeding down one. “Then you would just exit,” my boyfriend said. “Then you’d just get right off.” He made me elaborate maps outlining alternative roadways. In his neat handwriting he would warn me when to start preparing for a left turn (Expect turn in three blocks! Be looking to change lane!). By the highway, 1-2-3 Act was a mere fifteen minutes from my apartment. Using the route highlighted on my alternative map, the trip would take one hour. My boyfriend agreed to drive me to the interview. “But you can’t drive an hour every day,” he said. “If you get the job you’ll have to learn.” While he drove, I reviewed the facts I knew. The acting studio had been founded in 1995. It accepted students aged four to twenty-one. June, the owner, offered private advising for a considerable fee. In a photograph on her website’s main page she wore a red blazer and platinum bob. At 1-2-3 you are family! the caption read. She was pretty. Her bio said that she had been a model.
The studio was located northeast of LA, in a mountainous suburb right below the Angeles National Forest. Hippies had lived there in the ‘70s but now the neighborhood was mostly made up of Koreans. The foothill businesses included convenience stores, a market that advertised “exotic legally harvested meat,” a row of banks, and some barren strip malls—1-2-3 Act was located in one of these. The studio had large front windows with gauzy red curtains and a narrow lobby lined with metal folding chairs. Student headshots were tacked to a pin board on the wall. Their faces were mature, composed. They looked like CEOs, not children. Their freckles seemed placed for maximum cuteness.
“How fucking adorable are they?” said June, emerging from her office. She was older than her website photo suggested. She looked around sixty. Gray hairs streaked her blonde bob and she wore a smear of red lipstick that made her at once striking and intimidating. And she was tall. She loomed in her floral caftan and black leggings. “I don’t have one ugly duck here.”
“I can see,” I said. “Very adorable.”
“You must be Kathleen.”
“Good Christ look at that dress. Alyssa? Come in here and look at Kathleen’s dress.”
A young woman stepped out behind June. She wore a black miniskirt and stilettos. Her brown hair was parted down the middle in a neat, clean line. I was conscious of my frizzy curls and sundress that seemed dowdy now, a mistake. The dress was a thrift store find that revealed just a bit of my mid-calf and no cleavage and seemed appropriate for working around kid actors.
“You look like my mother in that dress. I swear it. You’re straight out of 1950 in that dress. Is it vintage?” said June.
“Good Christ if my mother were here. But we wouldn’t want that. Trust me on that, Katie.”
June pulled a metal folding chair up beside me. Alyssa remained standing with a clipboard in her hand. I understood that she would be the silent observer. She would take notes. I tried to look confident, at ease. I straightened myself against the metal folding chair.
“Tell me a bit about you,” said June. “Where are you from?”
“Is that near Maine?”
“It’s on the East Coast. It’s—you might be thinking of Vermont.”
Alyssa nodded. “Virginia is in the South, June.” She looked down at me—I was smoothing my dress—and winked.
“The South? Where’s your accent?”
“Not everyone has them,” I said. “In the northern part of the state we don’t have them.”
“Thank God for that,” said June. “Do you consider yourself easy to work with?”
“I am,” I said. “I do.”
“Because there is nothing I hate more than a litigator. I’ve had girls here sue me, Kate. I don’t want that. Nothing disturbs me more than a drama queen. This is a no drama work environment. Alyssa?”
Alyssa looked up from her clipboard. “Right,” she said. “Absolutely.”
“Numero uno is that you have to be literate. You’d be amazed how many people are illiterate. I hate to do this, but I have to. I have to ask you to give me a writing sample,” she said. She leaned forward in her chair. Our knees touched.
Alyssa pulled a piece of paper from her clipboard.
“Take ten minutes to fill this out,” said June.
The form asked: There are many acting studios in Los Angeles, so why should I send my child to 1-2-3 Act? What does your studio offer my child that I cannot get anywhere else?
I responded: At 1-2-3 Act your child will not only receive expert training from our dedicated faculty, but he/she will also build his/her confidence and self-esteem. Our small classroom environment allows each child to get the individualized training he/she deserves. Succeeding in the entertainment industry requires excellent public speaking, self-presentation, and communication skills, but these skills are equally valuable in the “real” world. At 1-2-3 we understand that we are preparing your child for more than a career in acting—we’re preparing your child to become an adult. Join our 1-2-3 family and experience our unique approach firsthand!
June read over the form with a red marker in hand. She looked up from the paper and said, “I could kiss you, Kathy. Do you know that?”
“That means you’ve got the job,” said Alyssa. “Welcome.”
Ms. June had a bad back. When she arrived at the studio each afternoon I had to take her car keys and unload her black sedan, carrying in her water bottles, lunch box, and hand weights (so that she could tone her biceps while listening to student monologues). Her car was often filled with empty diet soda bottles and gas receipts. She told me not to look too closely, that she was a real slob.
The studio, like June’s car, was an organizational nightmare. The cost of a class package at 1-2-3 could vary depending on a client’s age, sex, gender, and the length of time the client in question had attended 1-2-3. June wrote me instructions on post-it notes and left these stuck to my desk: Ortiz owes me one hundred! Offer Daniel’s mom a ten-percent discount! Make sure you knock fifty dollars off Storm’s bill (the crazy bitch). Parents never seemed to mind this absence of an official, consistent tuition cost. Those few who complained were told to head to Burbank, Studio City—to other, inferior studios that might take their kids. June did not have time for dissenters or charity cases. She wanted the ones who would pay on time, who would sign up for multiple class packages, enroll younger siblings and nieces and nephews. Not all prospective clients were equal. June told me who was worthy of our pursuit. One afternoon a woman called wanting to enroll her son Darius in acting classes. Darius had starred in his middle school’s production of Oklahoma!. He had just moved to Burbank all the way from Tennessee, eager to train with June, to make a name for himself. He was an honor student and sang in his church choir. Could we take him?
“Don’t bother,” June said, when I gave her the message. “With a name like that, you just know his mother’s checks will bounce.” Her voice was matter-of-fact. I did not call back Darius’s mom. I handed out receipts and counted the day’s earnings, pausing only once to think of Darius in a darkened Burbank apartment running through vocal scales and his mother beside a phone, waiting.
Alyssa was responsible for reeling in new clients and for making sure that parents signed up for new headshots, for more “advanced” master classes, or for private tutoring with June. I told myself I was less sleazy because I was not part of this side of the business, the side that encouraged 1-2-3’s mostly blue-collar families to throw half a grand at headshots and training—training that consisted of their kids reciting commercial transcripts while June worked her biceps and told them to stand straighter, to speak more clearly. “Annunciate,” she would say. “How will the audience know what you’re selling if they can’t hear you?” If a kid was too reliant on his script, too unwilling to improvise, she’d take it from him. “The answer’s not on any sheet of paper,” she’d warn. “It’s not gonna come to you if you stare at your shoelaces, either!”
At the end of a class session June’s arms would be glistening, fearsome things. She’d send me to the Burger King down the street for ice—her biceps were that sore—and the kids would stop at my desk to push mac and cheese, pizza, yogurt, etc., whatever it was they’d peddled for June during that evening’s class. “Extreme Jell-O Gel Sticks,” they’d cry. “It’s jiggley Jell-O fun in a tube! The extreme fruity flavor just might make your head spin! Extreme Jell-O Gel Sticks. They’re extreme!” I wanted to tell them reeling off old commercials was not acting. Here was no art. This was commerce, pure and simple and they were only learning that if they were eager enough, deluded enough, someone would gladly take their money. I felt sorry for these kids, and applauded for them, and hoped their mothers and fathers would wise up.
Other times I thought their parents deserved to be hoodwinked—they were so eager to throw their children into the Hollywood scene, to turn them into smooth-talking adults in miniature. Once a student, Lucas, confided in me. He would visit with me before class, telling me about his younger brother, his dog, his teachers at school—but this particular night he was quiet. He removed his glasses and began cleaning them on his shirtfront, a gesture that made him look older, world-weary and not like a little boy.
“You want gum?” I asked. “It’s strawberry flavored.”
Gum, stickers, colored paperclips—I gave these out in abundance. I was well liked by the students.
Lucas shook his head. “I don’t,” he said. “I don’t want anything.”
He wiped at his eyes. He was crying, I realized. But he wasn’t making any sound. Even his crying was mature, reserved.
“Here,” I said, handing him a tissue. “Tell me.”
“My mom says we’re going to lose our house.”
I was not prepared for such a revelation—I had been expecting detention, bullies, an evil stepmother— and Lucas, sensing this, turned away. “How’s that?” I asked. “I want to hear.”
What had happened was this: his jobs had slowed considerably. He was no longer getting callbacks. His mother had put a lot of work into his career, he explained. Work that could have been spent paying off the mortgage and he, Lucas, had to help now, had to come through.
“I’m trying hard,” he said, sniffling.
I waved Alyssa over, expecting her to offer sympathy, to assure Lucas that the fate of his family did not rest on his ability to land commercial roles.
“Let me see your headshots,” she said.
She examined these carefully, holding them aloft and toward the light. She looked like a surgeon scanning x-ray film. “These are out of date. They don’t look like you. And your glasses give off the wrong vibe.”
Lucas was grateful. Headshots! Contacts! Salvation. Alyssa offered to talk with his mom after class. Together they scheduled a three hundred dollar photo session.
Later I asked Alyssa, “Does he need that? New headshots?”
She shrugged. “Need is subjective.”
June, running a vacuum at the far end of the studio, turned. “Rent’s not subjective,” she said. “You both need that. Or am I wrong?”
I didn’t protest. I apologized constantly. If I committed an offense in the office—pulling the studio door instead of pushing it, tripping over an extension chord, misspelling a student’s name, not sitting straight enough, talking too quietly into the phone, coughing too loudly—June would say, “Don’t mind her! She just fell off a West Virginia turnip truck.” I did not remind June that I was from Virginia or tell her about black lung or coalmining. I was impressed that she knew about the existence of another state in the union. I said, I am sorry. I’m a klutz, an idiot. Alyssa told me the turnip truck thing was fucked up. Alyssa was twenty-three. She had bit parts on soap operas. She had screenshots from a crime drama in which she starred as the dead body tacked above her computer. She wanted me to know that her father was a geologist and that the blue mineral on her desk that she used as a paperweight, called Kyanite, came from my home state.
“Feel it,” she said, tossing it at me. “It’s got healing properties. It’ll align your chakras.”
June was a mean girl. She told me this while I put together donation class packages for local private school fundraising galas. These donations were not charitable—hence the exclusive targeting of private school fundraisers—but meant to drag in more business. We wanted parents in the door, parents who’d buy more classes, who’d turn a free donated session into a four hundred dollar profit.
“I was very popular and very mean,” said June, as she sprayed her desk with Lysol. “In high school all the boys wanted to date me. Or they settled for my identical twin.”
Her twin, she explained, had tried to get her to pose for one of Playboy’s twin-centric spreads, but June was too prudish. So prudish that she wouldn’t have sex without showering first.
I didn’t want to think about June having sex or showering, so instead I thought about June as a mean girl. I pictured her with hair set in neat braids, wearing a Peter Pan collar and plaid jumper, her shoes polished to a high shine. I realized, with horror, that I was not thinking about June, but the mean girl of my youth: Jenny Roach. Jenny Roach spilled water down my blouse on purpose. Jenny Roach refused to call me by my name and instead referred to me as Jewfro or Helmet Head depending on her mood. She asked me if I had considered cosmetic removal of my freckles and then, as quickly as she’d turned on me, she’d shine a light my way, would compliment my dress or my good grades or laugh at a joke I’d told. She was, in those moments, almost like a friend. I never asked why she’d treated me so terribly, how come she’d singled me out—I was afraid to ask, afraid she might give me an answer I might recognize as the truth.
I wanted June to like me, too. “She’s racist,” my boyfriend said. “She’s cruel.” I knew it and Alyssa knew it. Together, after close, we discussed the various ways we would like to stick it to June. We fantasized about running off with the cash box (there was no security system at 1-2-3, no camera) or recording her hateful diatribes and playing them on loop in the lobby. I wondered if, somewhere out there, compromising photos of June and her twin sister circulated. We could get our hands on those, Junebe. But we did not, and we locked the money in the safe every night. We did not even tell the studio parents that in the office she routinely peppered conversation with words like “retard” and “fag.” Neither of us left. When June showed up for work we talked with her about our weekends and love lives and she said, “My girls. Let’s make some money tonight!” And we did.
When I was not making money for June, I practiced driving. My boyfriend taught me how to parallel park on the narrow streets of Silver Lake, took me on the freeways. But I was spineless. I couldn’t drive. Merging seemed impossible. We’d approach an on-ramp and I’d hyperventilate. My car was not a car but a steel death cage.
“Check your blind spot,” he said.
“There’s nothing there.”
I could not see the cars hurtling toward me. Their headlights were a blur, a bright streak in the Los Angeles night. I thought about my future self pushing through traffic, how I couldn’t see her, either.
“Now? Can I speed up?”
“Now someone’s coming.”
“Do I go?”
“You’re going forty miles per hour,” he said. “Speed up.”
I merged and an Escalade honked at me. I told him to fuck off. I made obscene gestures.
“You were in the wrong,” said my boyfriend.
And I knew I had been— I was wrong for driving and for assisting, wrong for California entirely. Behind the wheel all my fears and inadequacies crystallized. I was twenty-three and could not even merge on a highway. That rush of cars, of people, and my small place in this mix was too much for me. I wanted out.
“Pull off,” he said. “This isn’t safe.”
We exited and recouped strength at an all night diner. The interior walls were orange, the countertops green. It looked like the seventies. A starburst clock on the wall read eleven p.m. The diners were all old men and I watched them and guessed who’d been a director, an actor, a producer. It was a game I played while stalled in traffic, too.
“Get your breath,” said my boyfriend. “Relax.”
A man in a corner booth looked over at me. He squeezed a lemon in his glass and grinned.
“I refuse to get behind the wheel again,” I said. “I won’t.”
“Don’t be silly, Kat. Don’t get worked up.”
I needed to get worked up, wanted to make noise. I threw my keys across the table and a waitress at the bar glanced my way. I ordered pie a la mode.
The trouble came when June asked me to start selling class packages. She told me to try it out, take baby steps. She pointed out Mr. Ortiz, who had brought his son Diego in for a free first class. “Guatemalan,” said June, breathless. “Immigrants. Try and get a feel for how much he can afford. If you have to offer him a scholarship, do it.” The “scholarship” was a last resort only to be used on the most reluctant or cash-strapped parents. June’s reasoning was as follows: if you single out a child as being particularly talented, his parents will have a harder time refusing the sale.
After Diego finished his complimentary class I invited Mr. Ortiz to watch a video recording of Diego’s performance.
“He’s talented,” I said. “A natural. I don’t say that about every kid who comes in the door, either.”
“You think he could be a good actor?” said Mr. Ortiz.
I thought of the kids shouting Jell-O slogans at me, selling me pizza and whiteout and Miracle Whip. At 1-2-3 we did not talk about character or motivation, or any of things Alyssa mentioned when discussing her own auditions. We did not talk about acting.
“He shows promise,” I answered.
Mr. Ortiz nodded. He said he would have to think it over.
“He shows so much promise that our owner would like to offer him a special scholarship. Eight classes for three hundred dollars.”
“How much is it normally?’
Mr. Ortiz agreed. He handed me a check and the words “MD, Internal Medicine” were written beneath his name in curling script.
“Wow, “ I said. “It must be hard coming here to practice medicine.”
“I was born here,” said Mr. Ortiz. “I went to UCLA.”
At close Alyssa warned me not to let June find out about Mr. Ortiz. But when June scanned the receipts at the end of the night she found out. She was furious that the Guatemalan man was not a longsuffering immigrant but a successful internist with a private practice in Glendale.
“You didn’t screen him,” she said. “You just pulled out the scholarship first thing, willy-nilly.”
I apologized. I promised to land more clients, to make up for the money I’d cost her.
“You’re on thin ice,” she said. “Because of that damn internist.”
I didn’t grovel or point out that profiling was a troublesome business practice. Instead, I called my mother. She has worked for the federal government for over thirty years and is an expert in difficult personalities, in bureaucratic lunacy.
“You have to lie down before someone can walk over you,” she said. “That’s the truth.”
“Am I lying down? Am I spineless?”
There was a long pause. I could hear my dad offering his counsel in the background.
“Dad says tell her to go fuck herself. I agree.”
The next afternoon Alyssa was very grave. She leaned against my desk and said, “June won’t drop the Ortiz thing. She’s letting you go.” Her mouth was set in a sultry pout. She brushed the hair from her face. “I really liked you,” she said. “It’s too bad.”
“I should tell her to go fuck herself.”
Alyssa agreed. She said that I should also confront June about her racism, her bullying, her refusal to heat the studio when the sun went down and the mountain chill set in.
“I will,” I promised, suddenly feeling a swell of love for Alyssa. “I won’t let this stand.”
When June arrived I carried her hand weights from the car and arranged her purse on the desk.
“We need to talk before the kids get here,” she said, peering at me over a pair of sunglasses that made her look more like a mantis and less like June.
She led me into one of the 1-2-3 classrooms. Floor to ceiling mirrors lined the walls. I watched myself sitting beside June. Be strong, I thought. You’ve got to lie down before someone can walk over you.
“It’s not working out between us,” said June. “You’re sweet. You’re very sweet. But you’re a little slow on the uptake.”
I nodded, staring at her red mouth working.
“I’d really love it if you could stay another two weeks. Just till I get a replacement.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’d be glad to. I understand.” And I watched myself in the mirror, smoothing my dress. I watched myself and waited for something to happen, for the girl in the mirror to scream, throw a chair, pull June’s blonde bob.
“You’re such a sport.”
A sport. A Jewfro. A Helmet Head. I saw Jenny Roach sitting beside me, her serious, pinched face and French braids. But all I could do was nod and say thank you, thank you for everything.
While the kids warmed up I told Alyssa what happened—I had failed her, hadn’t even mentioned the heating problem. She was sympathetic.
“You know,” she said. “You’re the one that’s supposed to give two weeks notice. Not June.”
For three months I’d driven home via alternate, elaborate routes through neighborhoods with exotic names and stucco houses and high chain-link fences. I’d done anything to avoid California State Route 2, but tonight I took the highway. And it was not because I was triumphant or victorious—no, I felt petrified as ever. This was punishment. This was payback for Dr. Ortiz and his discounted rate. This was the thing I most feared, most hated—to be speeding irrevocably down a California freeway, to enter that great stream of human motion, to have so little control. But the 2, I discovered, was one of the less frequented California interstates and tonight it was deserted. I was suspicious and then grateful. I slowed to fifty. I rolled my windows down and the night air whipped my hair, my blouse. The shadows of the Verdugo Mountains rose up around me and the white lights of the city, from this distance, looked almost inviting, almost beautiful. An ambulance passed, its sirens wailing and as it sped on I thought, in spite of my lingering sense of impending doom, of a great smashup waiting to happen around the next curve, I am driving. This is driving.