----------------------------------------------- */ ----------------------------------------------- */ ----------------------------------------------- */ ----------------------------------------------- */ ----------------------------------------------- */ ----------------------------------------------- */ The Fabulous Adventures of Astera: Writer/Actress for Hire: The First Chapter

The Fabulous Adventures of Astera: Writer/Actress for Hire

Meet Astera (aka: me), a star in her own mind. Our plucky little heroine has embarked on not one but two difficult, low-paying career paths: writing and acting. Witness the menial jobs! The unreasonable demands! The quirky friends and family! And the glimmer of success just ahead! Through it all, Astera maintains her core beliefs: 1) She is destined to be fabulous 2) Everything is more fun with a cocktail.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The First Chapter

I think I have done more writing in this month than I have done in the past year combined. I finally finished the giant freelance project, and I am still pounding the keyboard for NaNoWriMo. It got rough there for a while...at one point, I was more than 8,000 words behind, and I never thought I would make it to 50,000 words. But now I have caught back up. I've written close to 43,000 words, so I'm on track to make it to 50,000 by Thursday. I have to say, though, that this story has not gone at all like I planned. It's taken some weird soap opera tangent where my main character gets involved with the completely wrong guy. She was supposed to meet the right guy a while ago, but he just now showed up on the scene. And the big plot twist hasn't even happened yet, so although I will make it to 50,000 words and earn my NaNoWriMo certificate of completion, the story won't be anywhere near finished. That's okay, though. Even though most of what I have written is crap, at least I now know I have it in me to write this novel.

Here's the first chapter, in very raw form:

I was late. Late, late, late. Again. I had been reprimanded, of course, but Pour La Cuisine, the high-end gourmet cookware store where I worked, was chronically short-staffed, so my manager couldn’t really justify firing me. Most of the employees were struggling actors/models/whatevers, so they tended to bail out if there was the least chance of an audition or a celebrity party they could wangle their way into in hopes of being discovered. Los Angeles—the land of flakes and nuts.

I say this with derision, but I really am no different. If my agent called and told me that a casting director wanted to meet with me, I’d be off like a shot, too. Unfortunately for me, this scenario is unlikely to play out, namely because I have no agent. Yet. Of course, “no agent…yet,” is how I’ve been spinning it for the past eight months.

But back to the situation at hand. If Casey, my boss, had been paying closer attention to my lateness, she might have noticed a pattern. I was usually only really late late on Saturdays and Sundays. Okay, in general, I tend to run five minutes behind schedule, but really, who doesn’t? Saturdays and Sundays were a different story, though. That’s when leaving my apartment to go to work seemed like an especially ill-advised plan. And if it weren’t for my extreme need for the paycheck, I probably would have called in “sick” more often. But as it was, I managed to force myself into my car and on to work. It just took some lengthy pep talks, which is why, instead of the usual five minutes, I was more like 15 or 20 minutes late for my weekend shifts. I blamed my lateness on traffic, which, in Los Angeles, was a safe excuse no matter what day of the week or time of day. But what was really making me late was dread.

Ever since Matt and I broke up six months ago, I hated coming into the store on weekends. Why? Because I knew that he was dating someone else. He told me that when he broke up with me. “Elena, I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s been fun, but we both know I could never be serious about you. I’ve met someone else. Someone more appropriate for me.” God. As if being dumped wasn’t humiliating enough, I had to hear about how I wasn’t appropriate for him? According to my sources, he was pretty serious about this new girl, so I figured it would only be a matter of time before they were engaged. That was Matt’s other thing. He felt like he was getting too old to play the field and that it would be better for his image if he found a wife and settled down. But of course, not with me. That wouldn’t be appropriate.

Anyway, Pour La Cuisine is like, the place for young affluent couples to register for wedding gifts, and I just knew that one of these weekends, I’d see him come in with his new fiancée, and I’d probably have to be the one to help them pick out china patterns and esoteric kitchen implements.

Matt and I only dated for three months (ninety-eight days, if you want to be precise about it), and we weren’t serious, although I would have liked us to be. I kept biding my time, like an idiot, waiting for him to commit. Because when we were dating, he had absolutely no qualms about playing the field. It wasn’t until he met this new girl that he decided it was time to settle down. So really, it was humiliation upon humiliation. At first, I could tell people that yes, we were dating, and yes, I wanted to be exclusive, but he just wasn’t ready and I didn’t want to push him. I figured he’d come around eventually. And then, just when I was starting to think it was time to cut my losses and find someone new, he broke up with me before I could have the satisfaction of dumping him. On top of that, he was immediately ready to commit to this apparently fantastic new woman. Yeah…my life’s like that lately.

You might wonder why I am still so hung up on this guy. Am I a glutton for punishment? No. (Well, maybe.) It’s because Matt had all the qualities I looked for in a man. He was, of course, extremely good-looking. I’m not trying to be shallow or anything. It’s just that if you spend much time in the entertainment industry, pretty much everyone you meet is hot. Even the gaffers and the makeup girls are great-looking. Perhaps they all harbor secret fantasies about being in front of the camera instead of behind it.

Okay, so, good looks. Check. Great smile. Check. Intelligence. Check. Kind, caring individual. Check. Granted, his kindness and caring was more directed at himself than at me, but at least I knew those qualities were there. Fun personality…well, that was the sticking point. I am not the most carefree person on earth, but I like to laugh and have a good time. Matt, on the other hand, took a much dimmer view of what he termed “lowbrow foolishness.” Basically, that meant that he hated pop culture. So we couldn’t go see movies that grossed more than $20 million, we couldn’t go to concerts by any band with a current hit single, and we couldn’t even go to the Getty Museum because it didn’t contain “serious” art. Instead, we went to art-house movies, usually ones with subtitles, painfully bad one-woman shows, and art gallery installations by the likes of Matthew Barney.

This attitude struck me as odd, considering Matt is an entertainment lawyer. Yep, he represented his A-list clients on their licensing and publicity deals, and he combed through their contracts, keeping a gimlet eye out for any additional ways to make money. Well, mostly his clients were B- and C-list, but still, same thing. These people were the essence of the pop culture that he thought was so lowbrow. But as he explained it to me once, “Elena, it’s not my job to stroke my clients’ egos. Their agents and managers are plenty capable of that. My job is to make sure that their contracts are in order and they’re getting the best licensing deals they can. I don’t have to rush out to see their new movie to do that.”

Anyway, the point is, I really liked Matt, his odd tastes in pop culture aside, but for him, I was simply a diversion. “I don’t date talent,” he always said. But I was an exception, because my acting career was pretty much stuck in neutral. I hardly ever even went on auditions, which is something I’m trying desperately to change. It worked for him, though, because he could pretend that I was just some wacky girl with three part-time jobs, not a wannabe actress. And he liked having a certain amount of power over me. He liked being able to take me to places like Dolce and Privilege, because my meager income (from three jobs, no less!) can barely buy me a mojito or pomegranate martini. At least, not on a regular basis. I’ll say this for Matt…as much as he disdains pop culture, he sure likes all the perks that go along with being associated with it. So, that was the extent of our relationship. He viewed me as an amusing plaything, and I thought of him as a potential boyfriend. So yeah, I’m hurt. I mean, really…not appropriate for him? Like he’s some scion of an important family and I’m the scullery maid? As if! I have degrees from two prestigious schools. I’m just not using them in any meaningful way right now. My father gives me enough criticism about that, so I really don’t need it from Matt, too. Clearly, however, that is no longer an issue.

Sugar nipples! Now I’m nearly half an hour late for my shift. That’s later than usual, even, because this time, there actually was traffic. Stupid never-ending construction project on Santa Monica Boulevard. Anyone who says you can get anywhere in L.A. in half an hour is just wrong. Even the secret side-street shortcuts don’t work anymore.
My best hope now is to leave my bag in my car, put on my name tag and my apron, and just go in with my cell phone, so it will seem like I got here earlier but just had to duck out to take a call. From my non-existent agent, maybe.

Of course, it doesn’t work. Casey is right there at the employee entrance, waiting for me. “Elena! So nice of you to join us today. I hope this job isn’t interfering with your busy acting schedule.”
Ouch. Low blow. Here’s what I didn’t know when I decided to break into acting—never tell anyone you’re trying to break into acting. That’s what about 99.9 percent of the people who come here are trying to do, and so the people who actually live here and aren’t in the industry are sick of it. They’ve heard the same old story five million times, and they know that the chances of anyone they meet actually becoming successful, or even earning more than $500 a year from acting, are pretty much infinitesimal.

Like I said, I didn’t know this, so when I made the decision to follow my dream, I was happy to tell people that I was breaking into the industry. And now, when they ask me how it’s going, I’m forced to admit that nothing has really changed since I started. The ones who have become my friends try to keep my spirits up. The ones who dislike me, like Casey, always make reference to my “acting career,” in an exceedingly snide tone of voice.

I gave Casey my standard reply. “Things are great, thanks for asking. Sorry I’m late…traffic.”

“Yeah, well, get inside,” she said. “We’ve got plenty of Y.A.S.’s in there ready to buy, buy, buy. Or make that, have someone else buy for them.”

I forced a smile. Y.A.S. was Casey’s acronym for young, affluent suckers. She didn’t believe in the institution of marriage, so she always treated the starry-eyed couples who browsed our store with a certain amount of condescension. I hadn’t yet worked out if she was against marriage because no one ever asked her, or if she was against marriage because she was a lesbian. Her sexuality is a little…ambiguous.

Casey couldn’t treat the Y.A.S.’s with too much derision, though, because our stores were ranked by sales, and managers got bonuses based on how well their stores performed. Thus, we, the sales associates, were always subject to pep talks about how to get registrants to upgrade to the top-of-the-line cookware and kitchen gadgets. This month, corporate was pushing hard-anodized cookware with carbon-fiber handles. I know it sounds kind of stupid, but for some reason, guys will buy carbon-fiber anything. And their fiancées, who know that really, they’re the ones who hold all the power when it comes to registering for wedding gifts, are pleased to let their men make at least one token selection for the list.

Oh, the joy of helping happy couples register for gifts for their impending nuptials, when my love life is nothing more than a series of bad dates. Really bad dates. Last night, I had a date with a guy who seemed very sweet when we first met, but last night, he showed up to the restaurant where we’d agreed to meet half-an-hour late and already drunk. I’d wondered why he didn’t want to get together until 9:00, which is late by L.A. standards…most people are getting up for 5:00 a.m. call times, or like to pretend that they are. Over the course of the evening, it came out that I was his second date of the night. Now, I’m all for maximizing your dating opportunities, but that was taking it a little too far.

Still, no time for self-pity. Usually if I’m just ten or fifteen minutes late, I can slide by on my timesheet, but because I’m a half-hour late today, money is definitely getting deducted from my paycheck. Money I can ill afford to lose. At least Pour La Cuisine pays better than most retail stores. I get $14 an hour, plus occasional bonuses if I sell enough of the item of the month or whatever.

As I walk into the store, I see it’s the typical busy Saturday morning. One thing that always draws the newly-engaged in is our practice of offering a complimentary Mimosa or Bellini to our registrants. The girls all go for that. The guys, on the other hand, opt for Bloody Marys. And I’ve seen more than one guy in here who would prefer to take a straight shot of whiskey, if we offered it. But the sparkling wine in the Mimosas and Bellinis puts the girls in a giddy, celebratory mood, and the vodka in the Bloody Marys takes the edge off for the guys, making them more amenable to whatever their fiancées want to register for. And that makes it a lot easier on the staff.

Time to get started. I walk up to one couple who has already drained their glasses. “Hi, I’m Elena,” I say. “What can I help you with today?”

As usual, it’s the woman who takes the lead. “I’m Amy, and this is my fiancé Chip,” she says. “We’re just got engaged, we’re getting married next June, and I just want to make sure everything’s perfect!”

Uh-oh. Bridezilla in the making. You see, it’s only April now. Anyone who registers for gifts more than nine months prior to the wedding is usually just trouble. I mean, come on! Aren’t you supposed to spend the first few months of your engagement in a blissed-out daze, just happy you found someone to spend the rest of your life with? No, not Amy. She wants to get right to the gifts.

“Well,” I say, “Have you considered our new line of hard-anodized cookware with carbon-fiber handles? It’s the best!” At the mention of carbon-fiber, Chip’s eyes light up, but Amy’s lips purse in disapproval. So it was going to be like that. This was the type of woman who dragged her fiancé along to register for gifts with her on the pretense of wanting his input. But all she really wanted was a yes-man who would beam delightedly at her superior taste in housewares.

I spend about two hours with Amy and Chip, and they register for almost all of the most expensive items in the store, at her behest, of course. Seriously, they must have some pretty wealthy friends if they really expect to get a full set of formal china that clocks in at $325 a place setting.

The rest of the day is a blur of answering questions, calling around to find back-ordered items, and just general scut work. Later in the afternoon, though, as the crowd thins out, I spot my favorite type of customer. The cute unaccompanied male! He’s got that glazed look that signifies he has absolutely no idea what he’s doing here. When men walk into the store, smell the franigipani/amber musk aromatherapy candles, and see the discreet overhead spotlights shimmering off the platinum and gold accents on the fine china, it’s like their brains just shut off. They go into a stupor. A stupor that can’t be lifted without the deft assistance of a female. That’s why the cute unaccompanied male is so rare in our store.

I sidle up to him. “Hi! Can I help you find something?”

He seems a bit startled. “Um…yeah, maybe. I mean, I hope so. I have this wedding to go to, and I got this list of stuff they want. But I don’t know what would be good.”

“Hmmm. Well, do you have a price range in mind?” I ask.

“Well, I don’t know. What do people usually spend for weddings?”

“That all depends,” I answer. “What’s your relationship to the couple? If it’s a family member, you need to ante up. If you’re in the wedding party, you also have to spend a bit more. If it’s a college buddy, fifty to seventy-five bucks should suffice. And if it’s one of your girlfriend’s friends, you really should just let her take care of it.”

“Oh, okay. Well, I don’t have a girlfriend, so she can’t help me out. It’s my best friend from childhood who’s getting married, and I’m in the wedding party, but I’m not the best man or anything. His fiancée has a brother, and so she thought that her brother should be the best man, even though I’ve known this guy for way, way longer.”

“I see. Not that you’re bitter or anything, right?”
“Oh, no, it’s not that,” the guy says. He’s looking cuter by the minute. I mean, really. A guy who actually gets worked up over his buddy’s wedding? “I’m not bitter. It’s just that the best man is responsible for the bachelor party, and I wanted to make it really special for him, but instead, his fiancée’s brother will be there, keeping tabs on him.”

“Oh, I see. So you’re afraid you won’t get to see enough strippers?”

This brings out a laugh. “No, no,” the guy says. “Lately, we’ve really been drinking a lot of wine, and so I wanted to take him up for a weekend in wine country, like in that movie Sideways, you know? And maybe there would be one stripper.” (He actually blushes when he says this!) “But now we’re probably going to end up just having dinner somewhere, and we’ll try and get him drunk and then we’ll end up making fools of ourselves out at Spearmint Rhino or something.”

“Gotcha,” I smile. “Your plan sounds much more classy. If he really likes wine, why not get him a set of Reidel glasses? The stemless ones are really popular right now. Here, I’ll show you.”

“Oh, these are great,” he says. “You rock…Elena K.” Clearly, he’s been eyeing my nametag.

“What’s the K. stand for, anyway?”

“It’s my last name.”

“Yeah? Your last name is K?”

“No,” I giggle. “My last name is too long to fit on the nametag. It’s Karassoulis.”

“That’s a mouthful,” he says. “I guess I better stick with Elena K.”

“Fine. And you are…?”

“David,” he says. “David S.”

“Well, nice to meet you, David S. I hope your friend likes his present.”

“Yeah, me too.” He turns to leave. Too bad. That little flirtation was a nice pick-me-up after a long, hectic day at work. Then he turns back. “So, um, I know this is a little weird, but I don’t have a date to this wedding, and I don’t want to go by myself, and you seem to know a lot about weddings, so I was wondering…do you want to go with me?”

I take stock. Good-looking, single, self-deprecating guy who doesn’t disdain pop culture? Sounds good to me. “Sure,” I say. “When is it?”

“In two weeks,” he says. “Next weekend’s the bachelor party. So, I’ll call you. And we’ll go.”

“Okay,” I say, scrawling my number on the back of his receipt. “Talk to you later.”

So there you have it. All in all, not a terrible day. The dreaded Matt and fiancée sighting has not yet occurred, and I have a date! Granted, it’s to go to a wedding for people I don’t even know, but the guy seems promising and hey, anytime there’s potential for an open bar, the date can’t be too bad. Right?


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