What’s real? Darla used to ask me. How do you know what’s real? I never understood the question. But then I didn’t have platinum hair and cheekbones that could cut glass, and no one ever offered to buy me a Rolls if I spent one night naked in his bed. Darla was a brilliant neon sign flashing pure escape. You almost didn’t notice that those lovely green eyes didn’t blaze like the rest of her. She was both main attraction and sad observer at the carnival. Something had damaged her at a very young age. We never talked much about it, but we recognized this in each other from the start. Isn’t that what friendship is?
The week she disappeared was as extreme as she was. Triple-digit heat in late August and wavy layers of smog suffocating the city. By ten in the morning, it was brutal everywhere, and on the sidewalks in front of the homeless shelter, with the sun bouncing off the film crew trailers and the odor of unwashed bodies and general decay, it was a very special episode of hell. Beneath an archway, a tall man with a filthy blanket draped over his head rolled his eyes heavenward like a biblical prophet. Or a Star Trek castaway waiting to be beamed up.
In one of those trailers, where air conditioning brought the temperature down to the high nineties, I was being stuffed into a fitted leather jacket two sizes too small. Perspiration had already ruined my makeup and the dark circles under my eyes were starting to show through.
Heat keeping you up, hon? the makeup girl had asked. I’d nodded. Half the truth.
Mykel Z, the costume designer, was trying to zip me into the jacket, but his fingers were sweating and frustrating his attempts. “If you’d get yourself boobs, Nikki,” he said, “we wouldn’t have to squeeze you into size zero to work up a little cleavage.”
“Bigger boobs for you, smaller nose for my agent. Average it out and I’m perfect.”
“Almost. Legs from here to eternity, long dark hair to die for. But the nose is a bit roller derby, darling. Did you break it?”
“When I was a kid.”
“I’ll give you the name of a marvelous doctor, a genius with noses. And his lifts for my older ladies … I swear the seams don’t even show.”
“I’m not sure I want to wake up one morning and see someone else in the mirror.”
“An idealist. Good luck, honey.”
I was used to this. At my first Hollywood party, a guy asked me what I did. When I told him, he looked bewildered. Then he brightened. “Oh,” he said, “I guess you could play a real person.”
Outside, a prop guy was spraying a couple of shopping carts to dull down their newness, and a wardrobe assistant walked a few extras onto the set.
“No, no, no!” Mykel cried, running out the door, letting in a flush of hot air.
“Layers! They need layers!” With a broad motion of his arm, he pointed to some people in the little park on the corner. “Use your eyes! The homeless totally invented layering!”
I took advantage of the break, managed to find my phone in the junk shop that is my shoulder bag, and called Darla’s cell again. It flipped straight over to her voice mail. Like it had for three days, since this shoot had begun. No point leaving another message.
Mykel flew back into the trailer, stared at me for a few seconds, blinked like he was fighting back tears, and began to tackle the zipper again. It moved up an inch, then caught on the leather.
He dropped his arms, his lips trembled, then he opened the trailer door again and stuck his head out.
“Benito!” he hollered, with an edge of real panic in his voice.
When Benito, his “shlepper,” did not appear, Mykel flopped down on a chair and blotted his face with a tissue.
“Where the hell has he gone?”
“You sent him for a Frappucino,” I said.
“Ten minutes ago!”
“It’s hard to find a decent barista on Skid Row, Mykel.”
“Maybe that’s why these people look so depressed.”
“You know what,” I said, “let’s forget the jacket for a while. They’re nowhere near ready to shoot. I’m gonna grab some water from the fridge. Want a bottle?”
“Thank you, sweetie.” Mykel placed the jacket back on its hanger with all the tenderness due a garment that cost more than I was being paid for a week’s work.
Beneath my tank top, a trickle of sweat from my bra reminded me I was still padded with chicken cutlets—the silicone inserts the director wanted for every female in the cast over the age of twelve—and when I removed them, I felt almost human again.
Outside, an assistant was trying to wrangle the extras—a task that had turned chaotic, since real street people kept slipping past security to get to the bagel table. But even from this distance, it was easy to tell them apart. You only had to look at their faces. On some, the flesh itself was infused with misery, the eyes dazed with hopelessness. The rest, in the same soiled layers, were radiant and eager to be noticed.
I’d had a taste of both, but a year on the streets at fifteen had been enough. I got a false ID, found jobs, and managed to take care of myself. But there was something restless in me and I never stayed in one place too long. Somehow, more than a decade slipped by. And what had seemed like freedom began to close in on me.
Then I wound up in L.A. and started picking up rent money working as an extra. A crime show was shooting a Manhattan street scene in downtown Los Angeles, and I got pulled out of the crowd because of my “New York face” for a line they had added: Ain’t seen her in a long time, mistah. That amazing stroke of luck—and the three-thousand dollar initiation fee I was still paying off—got me my union card.
Now I had pictures and an agent and classes, and that was what really hooked me. Acting may be make believe, but class was where the truth beneath the face you showed the world was not only welcome but demanded.
Only that wasn’t exactly what working as an actor was like.
This job was for a midseason pilot called Street, a “fish out of water” comedy about three girls from Beverly Hills who start a gourmet soup kitchen for the homeless. “Clueless meets Pursuit of Happyness” is how my agent described it. My role—two days’ work that could “go to semi-recurring”—was as a homeless person who gets a makeover.
A wave of hot air blew into the trailer, followed by the production assistant, who looked at me and let out a shriek.
“Mykel! Why isn’t she in costume? They’re ready for her.”
And they were.
Four hours later.
By the time they released me it was past ten, and as the crew struck the lights and equipment, the homeless began crawling into makeshift tents of newspapers and old blankets and cartons, or gathering in doorways, palming small packets that would get them through the night.
Hot stale air still hung over the city as I walked to my car, an ancient MGB that looked right at home here in its own version of layers—black over Haight-Ashbury psychedelic over the original British racing green. The standard joke about MGs is that you share custody with your mechanic, but someone had replaced the temperamental English parts with American ones, and it actually started up every time I turned the
With the top down, the hot Santa Anas were better than no breeze at all as I passed the rolling lawns and swaying palms of MacArthur Park, moonlight dusting the lake and the silhouetted figures of dealers and users.
A half hour later, I turned onto La Cienega and headed north past the cool stone facades of restaurant row, past Beverly Center whose colored lights bounced off gleaming Mercedes, Lexus SUVs, and the occasional virtuous Prius, past the mansard-roofed Sofitel, past the crowds milling outside a few nightspots.
My little cottage still held all the heat of the day. I stripped down to panties, then finished off a pint of Chunky Monkey—ate it from the carton in a current of cold air from the open fridge door—and dragged myself into the bedroom.
I used up all the cool spots on the sheet in about five minutes and picked up a mystery from the night table. But no matter how hunky the hero, an old paperback cannot fill the other side of the bed, and I started to think about the man who’d occupied that space until a couple of weeks ago. Dan Ackerman. A good, solid guy, and I left him … why? Maybe because he was a good, solid guy.
The only other person in my life who mattered was Darla, and she hadn’t returned my calls, which really wasn’t like her at all. Even when she was on location, she’d phone and talk about anything—what they had for lunch, how filthy the honey wagons got—just to keep from feeling lonely.
I wondered if she was mad at me, if maybe I shouldn’t have been so blunt about her ex-boyfriend Jimmy. It was past midnight and too late to call. But I sent a quick text, then found myself listening in the silence for the phone to chime with her answer.
I turned on the TV. Fourteen dead in the Middle East and four dead in a murder in the Hollywood Hills. But no worries. Just wait for election day. Mike Ryle, TV Land western star/turned senate candidate, was saying, “Let’s return to the America I grew up in.” He sounded so earnest, you could almost forget that he’d grown up in the America of Vietnam and segregation and backstreet abortions.
When the infomercials started, I flicked the TV off and watched the minutes and the hours on the clock change. As the city was waking up, I fell asleep.
Cool air drifted through the window and I opened my eyes to a crisp, clear morning that made the heat wave seem like a fevered dream.
I showered, had a cup of coffee with cream and plenty of honey, put on yoga pants and the disintegrating Misfits T-shirt I’d owned since I was twelve, and went out for a run.
It felt good to use my body again. I took the steep hill on La Cienega at a decent clip and when I hit the Strip, the uneasy undertow from yesterday caught up with me.
I pulled out my cell and was about to dial Darla again, when it rang.
“Nikki? Thank god you’re up.”
“Yes. You’ve got to come over here.”
“What is it?”
“I just called the police, but I—”
“The police! What’s going on?”
“I can’t wait for them. I have an audition!”
“Sari, what happened?”
“Darla’s apartment. It’s just awful. Someone must have broken in and—”
“I don’t know. Please come.”
I took Holloway back down, running all the way, trying to convince myself Sari was overreacting. She was always in a panic about something. The three of us led precarious lives, but she didn’t have Darla’s ambition or my need for freedom, and after her divorce she spent the better part of a year barely able to get out of bed.
Sari had been married to a lawyer who got the house, the pool, and the pool boy. Now, she had somewhat put herself back together and was trying her hand at acting. But what she really longed for was another man to take care of her. She spent most of her nights at private clubs, dancing with old guys in young clothes or nursing drinks at the bar, waiting for her future to show up.
Darla and Sari both lived in one of those apartment houses built for glamour in the fifties, with birds of paradise, browned at the edges, surviving among the wild aloe and yucca. Darla’s living room blinds were closed, but water from the air conditioner dripped into a spreading stain.
Sari came running toward me as soon as I walked through the glass doors.
“Omigod, Nikki!” She gripped my hand and led me up the hallway to Darla’s door. “I was on my way out and needed to ask her something. The door was open a crack so I knocked to see if she was home and then it opened a little wider and … look!”
Darla’s living room had been assaulted. The sofa—cushions, back, arms—had been slashed open. The floors and tables were covered with down as if some giant bird had been slaughtered. Everything in the room had been destroyed. Every picture had been pulled from the walls, every vase and every lamp lay shattered on the floor.
“I kept calling her name,” Sari said, “but she didn’t answer.”
“You didn’t go in?”
“No.” She looked pale and terrified under her makeup.
“Do you want to come in with me?”
She shook her head, looking, with her soft round face and pale curls, like a little girl.
I was no less frightened than Sari, but who knew how long the police would take to get here?
Inside the apartment, there wasn’t a sound, except for the hum of the air conditioner. I glanced down the hallway that led to the bedroom. The photos that had lined its walls lay all over the floor. I made my way between the broken frames, steeling myself for what I might find.
Through the open door, I could see the explosion of clothing. Her closet, her dressing table, the night tables had been emptied. Hangers and drawers had been flung at odd angles everywhere. The mattress had been ripped open and pulled half off the brass bed.
Then, praying I would not uncover what I most dreaded finding, I began pulling aside piles and piles of clothes. To my enormous relief, she wasn’t there.
“Nikki,” Sari called from the doorway, stretching my name into three syllables, each with its own need: I’m scared. Is Darla in there? I have to leave soon.
I started back toward the living room, then froze.
I saw a thin streak of watery red trickling out onto the floor. I froze, and had to force myself closer to the archway that opened onto the kitchen.