Seven years, two jobs and three apartments ago, I was at a weekend brunch/schmoozefest when I heard that Sabrina, the girl who worked across the hall from me at the studio, had landed a coveted creative executive gig with one of the producers on the lot. The news instantly threw me into a tizzy. I'd heard about the job myself, and under Charlie's sage advice, decided not to go for it for sort of the same reasons you don't play A-T offsuit from under the gun in the first hour of a tournament. Jumping ship from the studio to take on a better title and slightly more money at a small company with a deal expiring in a year and no "go" movies in the pipeline would be a premature move with an easily dominated hand. There was a huge chance that I could take that job and find myself unemployed in less than a year, with an executive stripe on my sleeve and a stack of business cards, but hardly the experience I needed to move on to a better gig at a bigger company.
"You're 23 years old for Christ's sake. This is not a race!" Charlie would remind me nearly every day.
I knew Charlie was right, but still I returned home from that brunch steaming like I'd been knocked out on the bubble with pocket aces, one singular thought streaming through my mind like a ticker-tape in Times Square.
"Why her and not me?"
Even though common sense told me that it wasn't a race... well, yeah... it still was for me. Be the first, be the youngest, be the best had been instilled in me since kindergarten. I still wasn't too many years removed from being a high school overachiever. I wanted those blurbs in the alumnae magazines of my snooty high school and overpriced college.
Sabrina and I had started at the studio during the same month, worked 80-hour weeks for executives at the same rank, and had been at the whole Hollywood thing for less than 18 months. I knew I took home more reading than she did, wrote better notes than she did, and inspired more confidence in my work from the senior-level executives than she did. Even Charlie thought she was completely mediocre at her job. And yet there she was, with newly minted business cards and buckslips in her purse, buzzing around the patio of whatever trendy Sunset Strip eatery we were in, fielding congratulations and hugs from all our peers. Goddammit I wanted that kind of attention.
I called Charlie from the car on my way home and he was completely dumbfounded at the news, but he could tell I was down about the whole thing so he started making jokes about what a cuntrag her new boss was and about how she had no power on the lot and how Sabrina would probably get locked away in a windowless closet, forced to do notes on the 21st draft of that mind-numbingly boring pirate movie they'd been trying to push into production for the last decade. That's my Charlie. Always there with a snide comment to give me a boost.
But it didn't help. Not in the least.
I arrived home and immediately closed all the blinds in my living room, shutting out the sparkling light of a March afternoon in West Hollywood. I turned on Radiohead's Kid A and started smoking a bowl. Midway through my second bongload, my smoke detector went off, it's wails piercing through the dark den of twentysomething self-loathing I'd created. The battery had been running out for days, causing it to beep for a few seconds here or there-- I'd just been too lazy to change it. So I got up off the couch and tapped at it with a broom handle and it stopped. But no sooner had I sat back down when it went off again. Sigh... broom handle...OK...
"I'm not here... this isn't happening" wailed Thom Yorke from the speakers of the Sony boom box I'd received as a Christmas gift from CAA.
But it went off again. And tapping it or nudging it couldn't get it to stop. I slammed the broom down on the floor in anguish, only to pick it up again and start swinging it at the smoke detector. It smashed into pieces, shards of plastic falling around me. What cords and wires were left of it hung from the ceiling like an open wound.
"That there... it's not me..."
Instead of just calmly pulling out the AA battery, I'd just smashed the thing to bits for absolutely no reason. I felt almost outside of myself when I did it, the rage was that consuming. And, over some D-Girl getting a promotion? Was I really that concerned with what everyone thought of me? That I'd somehow be less of a person because I wasn't the first in my "class" to become an executive? Was my identity really that tied to my career?
I went to a therapist a couple of days later. But it really was Charlie who was instrumental in helping me get over the "alumnae magazine curse." And he was right about there being a one-year expiration date on Sabrina's new D-gig, though she landed on her feet at a different studio. By that time I was getting my own executive stripe at the Big Man's. And, unsurprisingly, when I'd lose that job three years later, she was one of those people I'd never hear from again now that I was out of the game and of no use to her.
This morning I happened on a copy of one of those Hollywood trade magazines that does those "35 under 35" lists. And there was Sabrina. VP of some company with a billion-dollar financing deal talking about her goals and inspirations and what she liked to do for fun on the weekends.
I remember growing up as a girl who wanted nothing more than to be on one of those lists. To be recognized for something extraordinary at a young age. To be someone who didn't need those other trappings of life-- relationships, hobbies, a life outside one's career. Career and life were one for me. In this business, there was no separation. Work never stopped when I came home at night. Work never stopped on the weekend. And everyone I associated with was in the industry, so even when I wasn't working, I was talking about work, thinking about work, networking, creating political capital and planning long-term chess moves like I was possessed by Karl Rove. Even Charlie started calling me "Karl" for a while. Paying one's dues in Hollywood is such arduous work and personal sacrifice that at times, I'd fall asleep at night picturing the day I'd land on one of those lists. And then maybe it would all be worth it.
This morning, when I saw Sabrina's name on that list, I smiled. And really felt nothing. Except perhaps a tinge of nostalgia for that driven little ball of ambition I was at 23 and how utterly psychotic she would be reading this news. Sabrina looked good. She'd cut her hair. I wondered if she was happy. She probably was if she'd stuck with the D-game for this long.
All that mattered to me in that moment was that I was happy. That I wouldn't trade the last two years for the world. That I'd taken those first scary steps outside of Hollywood, a world I thought I wanted to dominate, and to my surprise found great friendships, great love, and the sort of happiness I never thought I needed, let alone deserved. And that was far better than getting on any list no one will remember in a week and a half.
The credit roll on a movie screen and in a deck of cards-- two places where it is so easy to expect fulfillment and yet, yield so little.