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She’s born in a bright white hospital room to the smell of antiseptic and the lingering odor of cigarettes, and is snuck out through the window two hours later because nobody can pay the hospital’s bills. She’s brought home to a run-down old ranch house in some nameless town in Northern California to the smell of cheap whiskey and despair and put to sleep on a beaten old mattress next to her mother. As dawn breaks her mother clutches her child close to her chest and looks out the dirty windows at the destitute and abandoned vineyard that stretches on to the rim of the horizon, so broken that it’s almost beautiful, and closes her eyes. And even as a single bitter tear slips down the curve of her cheek she holds her child close and whispers, “I will always love you.”
Only the mother never realizes that her child is still too young to know that she was lying.
She turns seven and the only present she gets is an empty house and broken beer bottles, littering the carpet with thousands of tiny, glittering glass shards (she pretends that these are stars that she can wish upon come nighttime). Her father’s shouting and her mother’s screams still echo in her ears, and she can only sit in her room with her back against the wall and wait until they come back home. As she waits she sings quietly, and as she sings she draws pictures on the wall with a broken purple crayon, pictures of a happy family, like the kinds she’d seen on TV, and she sits back and surveys her pictures and promises herself that one day she will have it, even if it all has to be pretend.
Her mother dies of lung cancer the day before she turns fourteen and she spends her birthday being the only one to attend the funeral. The minister is there to read a eulogy and bless the coffin but she’s the only one there to listen, and she wears a black dress and a black scarf and her mother’s black silk handkerchief, only she doesn’t cry because she can’t bear to stain the soft, smooth fabric with the runoff of her mascara.
She’s sixteen and she doesn’t have much, only school and her job at the movie theater. Her dad has stopped caring (did he ever start?) and he spends all of his time at bars and casinos now (did he ever not?). When (if) he gets lucky, she can afford groceries for dinner for the night; if (when) he lucks out, she goes to sleep hungry. The cycle never ends and she begs him to stop, get a job, put down the dice and the glass and save himself; but he only grins crookedly at her and whispers in her ear, “Well, darling, I’m a bit dizzy right now, you know? But I promise, as soon as the world stops spinning so god damn much, I’ll get back on my feet, okay?”
And she doesn’t have the heart to tell him that the world never stops spinning, that it stands still for nobody.
The day she turns eighteen is the day she walks out and never looks back. She packs her things and heads for college on the outskirts of Los Angeles and moves into a tiny little dorm room that smells like fresh paint and daisies and is all hers. Hollywood is only fifteen minutes away and she can’t help but think she’s finally free.
That day she hears an ad on the radio inviting young actors to come audition for a part in a new movie and she can’t help herself. Three weeks later she dresses nice and grabs her script and goes and auditions, and she lands a minor part. It’s barely anything at all but she’s so exhilarated that she’s in that she can hardly breathe.
She meets a boy.
His name is Ian and he’s sweet and funny and beautiful and everything she’d ever dreamt of in a guy, and then some. He’s an actor, too, and he’s filming in the studio next door; only he’s the lead, she hears, the star of the entire movie. The director is famous and so is the producer and soon, they say, he will be, too.
They bump into each other on her sixth day of filming and it’s like oh, wow, rainbows and daisies and butterflies all up in the air. They get to talking and he asks her out to coffee and of course she accepts, and soon they’re talking about books and horses over steaming frappuchinos while a heavy gray rain falls outside the café, tucking the moment in.
He has a girlfriend and oh shit does she feel like a fool.
Her name is Rose and god, how perfect is that? On weekend mornings she sees them walking together down the boulevard, hand in hand, and they’re so beautiful together that it’s almost sickening. The first time she sees them they see her, too, and he grins at her like she’s something special and waves her over. “Hey,” he says. “El, I’d like you to meet my girl, Rose. Rosie, this is El from Studio 11.”
The girlfriend gives her a smile like she’s some sort of filthy street scum and she can’t stand it but she doesn’t say a thing; all she does is smile back and tell them how lovely they look together. Then she turns around and walks away, and it takes everything she has but she doesn’t dare look back.
This time, she’s just the other girl.
His movie hits theaters and oh, man, everyone loves it and soon he’s a big star, grinning for the cameras with his red Rose on his arm. Her movie goes straight to DVD and no one buys in anyways and she just turns away and whispers, “Next time.”
College suddenly begins to seem so unimportant now and all she wants is more roles, bigger movies, come on baby I need my name on the walk of fame. Her manager does his best and she puts everything she has into the scripts and soon she’s in. She lands a role in a TV series but the show gets canceled after the first nine episodes. She does a commercial and then another one, and then a second small movie but that one goes straight to DVD too and she’s about to give up when her manager calls and says, “You’ve got to audition for this role.” So she goes and she auditions and oh, god, she’s gets it, the lead in a big movie and this is it, this is her break, she’s going to be more than just the other girl this time.
Eleven months later the movie is done and she buys an expensive silver dress and flies to New York City for the big premiere and oh jeez, it’s a hit. Everybody loves it and everybody loves her and she grins and knows she’s in.
She’s sitting in her new apartment and she’s still got her dress and heels on when the doorbell rings. It’s Ian and he’s come to congratulate her, and this time there’s no red Rose on his arm; so she grins and gives him a hug and lets him in. For that one night they are like soul mates, talking and laughing over coffee and old vinyl records and all she can think about is that it’s just like a movie.
But the next day he goes back to his pretty little red Rose and she’s just the other girl again.
She calls her manager and tells him to get her another movie, and quickly, quickly. He complies and sends her eight big thick scripts and tells her to pick one and to take her time with it, but one is about young love and another is about unlikely love and two are about family, and so she auditions for four movies and ends up getting three of them. There are so many lines to be memorized that it makes her head spin until she can’t see anymore, but it’s okay because she finally has the life she’s always wanted, she finally has a family to belong to—two, in fact—and somebody to love her, even if it is all just pretend.
She gets a call and her dad is dead and she doesn’t know what to think except that he had liked white roses and that really, it’s all just pretend.
She’s desperate, so she knocks on Ian’s apartment door at quarter to nine and he finds her standing there with her clothes a mess and her hair all tangled and her lipstick faded and dried tears tracking dusty black mascara marks down her face. He sits her down, cleans the makeup from her face, and makes her a cup of hot tea; then he takes her by the shoulders and looks her in the eye and says, “El, you’ve got to stop. You need to breathe. I’m worried about you.”
And she looks at him and his worried face and dark eyes and she can’t help herself; so she leans in and she kisses him, full on the mouth.
He kisses her back right away and for a moment all she can feel is his warm, warm mouth on hers and oh god, it just feels like bliss and not much else. But then he opens his eyes and pulls away, abruptly, and she looks over her shoulder and sees a little gilded picture frame containing a picture of the pretty red Rose, smiling, propped up on the coffee table.
Ian looks away and his shoulders are tense. “Get out,” he says, quietly, his voice low and quite steady and almost even calm. “Please.”
She gets to her feet and she looks away too, closing her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispers, and then she turns and walks out the door.
It’s all too much and she needs to get out. She climbs into her car and for a moment she doesn’t know what to do, what to think, how to breathe; but she manages to get the car started and she knows how to drive away and not look back because she’s done it before, so she goes and she leaves and she keeps on leaving, and soon she’s reached the highway and night is falling. She closes her eyes and she can barely breathe all she wants to do is to just forget it all—Ian’s dark, warm eyes, perfect families and perfect love and the bright gleaming Hollywood sign, pretty little Rose and her pretty red lips, sparkly silver dresses and too-high heels and mascara tracks and printed lines and red carpets, cigarettes and cheap whiskey and her mother’s black silk handkerchief and white roses and the view outside her bedroom window, so broken it was almost, almost beautiful.
She opens her eyes and the traffic light is flashing red—Stop!—and a big delivery truck is coming around the corner and he can’t see her but she can see him, and she ought to be stopping now, she ought to be breathing now but she doesn’t care, she just presses her foot against the gas pedal, closes her eyes, thinks of vineyards and perfect little dorm rooms that smell of paint and daisies, and hopes the end comes quickly.
She’s too young to die but she does it anyways.
Ian comes to her funeral and he doesn’t bring the pretty red Rose. Her manager comes too, and so do a hundred unfamiliar faces because really, she had nobody else. The minister reads a eulogy and everybody cries; and the next day she is featured in the newspaper on the second page, below the fold: Elizabeth Hope Hughes, reads the heading. 21, Actress.
She was never really all that good at pretend.