THE PRICE OF INSOMNIA
I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to take my agents hostage.
After all, my chronic insomnia began with their e-mail two weeks earlier: “We think you should find new representation because the timing’s not good now.”
What did that mean, The timing’s not good now?
I was a screenwriting client at the Nevison Agency, one of the mid-level literary and talent agencies in Beverly Hills. It was a prestigious company with thirty or so agents. I’d been repped at two of the largest agencies in town and preferred the extra attention of my two Nevison agents, David, the senior agent, and Jason, the junior one. At least until now.
Their bewildering e-mail brush-off came right after Nevison had sent out a script I’d written called Jane Blonde. Everyone was certain it would sell. It didn’t. My agents said they would get the script to bankable actresses. They didn’t.
The right actress could change a pass at the studio into a greenlight. It’s a common thing to package a project and attach actresses or directors who could get the movie made. When I asked David about who’d received Jane Blonde, he changed the subject.
Jane Blonde was supposed to be my ticket to the A-List. It was high concept, funny and featured the main female character, a 20-something super spy babe, kicking butt but never missing her spa day. Maybe it didn’t sell immediately because the budget was too big. Maybe it was because it needed a huge actress to open the movie. Maybe it was because the day it went out to production companies, Mercury was in retrograde.
When my agents avoided discussing the script, I knew this meant that Jane Blonde had been overtaken by the hot project of the moment and run off the movie fast- track into the canyon of would-have-been blockbusters. I knew that even though my agents had peed their pants the first time I pitched the story to them, the script now had been erased from the big-commission-coming-soon databases in their tiny brains.
That wasn’t the only thing.
Just before the Jane Blonde script went out on wide release to production companies and then to the studios, I’d had a meeting with a film producer at Fox Studios who was considering me for a writing assignment. The meeting went well and it looked like I would get the job.
I needed that job.
I asked David and Jason to send one of my scripts to the producer as a writing sample. But the dirty bastards pitched their hot new writing team of Matson & Abner instead, and they got my assignment.
I was mad as hell and I wasn’t going to take this abuse anymore. One thing I’d caught onto early in life: Never, ever be a victim.
I was the child of a single mother who’d left her alcoholic husband when he started smashing her face on Saturday nights. Later I discovered to my great relief, that her ex-husband had not been my biological father. I could have used these excuses and other things to become a weak woman with needles and bottles for friends, but ever since I can remember this voice has been inside me, whispering directions to the Land of Oz. I could see the Yellow Brick Road clearly, and I was determined to skip through any haunted forest wearing those ruby slippers on my way to enlightenment. Be damned, the flying monkeys.
I couldn’t let my agents treat me this way. I had to stand up and roar. I had to look them in the eyes and make them tell me the truth. I could handle the truth even if it killed me.
David and Jason probably never expected to hear from me again. After all, I was only an insignificant worker bee in the busy hive of Hollywood and I didn’t even live in the hive anymore. I was powerless and persecuted. Right? Wrong.
I had to think outside the circle of confusion. I had to change the timing, right some wrongs and break the rules.
During the eight, long torturous years I’d lived in Los Angeles, which I affectionately call “Hell-A,” I longed for an official guide to help unravel the mysteries of show biz. Something like Hollywood for Dummies, where I could have read all the rules I had to learn the painful way.
Little did I know, I was writing the book by stumbling from one embarrassing incident to another. It was the book of unspoken rules of the film business and of living in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles County.
Hell-A Rule #1: In Hollywood, there are no rules and they’re strictly enforced.
It’s a conundrum. There was rarely a clear-cut answer to anything in Hollywood, but I had to know why my agents were dumping me and why my screenwriting career was being swept away in a rip current of indifference.
So I bumbled through sleep deprivation fog to book the next flight from Jacksonville, to Las Vegas, threw a couple of things in my Mission: Impossible 2 backpack, and laid an incoherent note on the nightstand for my boyfriend, Christopher: I’ve gone to Hollywood to fix things. Love, Liz.
I stood there in the darkness a moment. Eerie silvery moonlight filtered through the sheer drapes on the windows and illuminated Christopher’s still face. I watched him sleep. He was a gentleman, even while unconscious. He never snored. Well, he slobbered a bit, but nothing as undignified as snoring. Bless his heart.
The only sounds were the ceiling fan humming overhead and the frogs croaking in the tidal ditch behind the house. I glanced up at a photograph he’d taken in Cannes hanging above the bed, with other arty photos he’d taken on his world travels. That photo always brought me a sense of calm with its stone streets and flowers spilling over ancient walls.
Leaning close to kiss him goodbye, I stopped. If he woke he’d talk me out of my extravagant impulse to storm Beverly Hills, guns blazing. After all, he was the voice of reason in my life. My voice was always that of insanity. That’s why I fit so well in Hollywood.
As I backed away from the bed, I had a mournful feeling I may never see Christopher sleeping again.
But if anyone could understand my state of emergency, it was Chris. We met the day I got my first big studio check. It was love at first sight, or something like it. Although it almost was the night we never met.
CUT TO THE PAST:
Our mutual friend, Kira, who thought we were perfect for each other because we were both tall writers, tried to get Christopher and me together on several occasions. Three to be exact. Each time something went askew.
The first was a screening of a Russian film at MGM where Christopher was a no-show. Kira was from Moscow, spoke in a lovely Russian accent and got invited to every movie from her homeland to screen in LA. I hooked up with a cute guy from Georgia —the Georgia in the south of Russia, not the south of America. But when I learned he had a wife and seven children in the Ukraine, we quickly unhooked.
The second time Christopher and I almost met, Kira and I were at the Academy to see the foreign directors talk about their Oscar-nominated films. I had Christopher’s ticket and was supposed to meet him in front of the theatre where about 300 people without tickets were lining up, all to see the rage of Hollywood that year: Roberto Benigni. I never saw him, Christopher that is. Roberto was charming. Kira later told me Christopher had been waiting in the line of the ticketless masses. Duh.
So by the third appointed time of our meeting, I was over him.
When Kira called to ask why I wasn’t at the Women in Film mixer at The Stinking Rose Garlic Cafe, I told her I had an important deadline involving Oreo cookies. Kira said Christopher was at the mixer at that very moment, and she would never speak to me again if I didn’t get my skinny butt down there.
I begrudgingly threw on my leopard-print skirt and black stretchy top and squeezed into my strappy high heels that boosted my normal five-foot-ten-inch height to over six feet. When I finished smearing makeup on, a portentous wave of emotion washed over me. I had an odd feeling life was about to change.
Checking my love-at-first-sight potential at the full-length mirror in my bedroom, I adjusted my skirt that was on crooked. At that moment I was glad I exercised on my stair-stepper every morning to the live car chase on TV. I was trim with just enough hips and ample rear end to strut. I turned sideways and stood up straight, sucking in what little gut I had. I ran a hand over my tummy to smooth out the fabric in my skirt. Not bad.
By coincidence I had just gone to Westside Pavilion to have my hair styled the day before, so the blond highlights on my ash brown hair looked punky and spiked up in a chaotic halo around my face.
Thank God I’d just gotten over my semi-annual bout with hateful zits, and my foundation concealed the aftermath. The overall package was almost glamorous in a tomboyish way.
My Norfolk terrier, Aggie, was barking and throwing her squeaky ball to me enticing me to play. She did this when she saw signs that I was getting ready to leave. She was irresistible with her short legs, pigeon-toed front paws, a little docked tail and blondish red coloring. She looked more like a stuffed animal than a real dog and got a lot of attention from strangers on the sidewalks of Beverly Hills.
I gave Aggie a goodbye bone, jumped in my old Saab and roared down Wilshire to meet my destiny.
There was a total traffic jam on La Cienega, and the Stinking Rose parking lot was full and closed. My car was running on empty. I crashed one of the restaurant lots across the street and headed to the mixer.
Kira was at the front door waiting. “You will love him!” she said in her cute Russian accent.
We made our way through shoulder-to-shoulder slut-babes who were all in search of a star on Hollywood Boulevard. They were all dressed the same.
Hell-A Rule #2: Always wear black or white. You can also get away with funereal colors that appear black, like navy or dark burgundy. No happy colors like red, yellow or bright blue. And never, ever wear pastels. If you look like an Easter egg, you’ll end up with egg on your face.
I was determined to hate Christopher, have one drink, then return to my comfy couch with Oreos on the side.
But I didn’t have a chance. There was Christopher, all 6’5” of him, towering over everyone in the room. And in a room of 500 beautiful, silicon-injected wannabe actresses, who was he talking to? The only short, bald man within a 10-mile radius.
Christopher’s gravitational pull was impossible to resist.
I extended my hand. “Liz Bradbury,” I shouted, hoping he could hear me over the cacophony of lies being told in the room.
Christopher’s voice was low and Cary Grant-ish with a distinct New Zealand accent. He spoke his name, and although I barely heard it, I knew it already from gossiping with Kira about him. Was he dating anyone in LA? Was he connected to a girlfriend back home in Auckland? Was he secretly gay, and would break my heart in six months?
He had wavy brown hair, a handsome European face, and a warm smile. I chose to overlook the fact that his parents should have insisted on braces during his rebellious teenage years, leaving a confusion of teeth in plain view. That could be fixed.
His eyes were baby blue and told much about him. He was almost shy, but never looked away. His gaze brought a calmness to me. A comfortable levitation of my heart suspended in breathless anticipation of what was to come.
As the freelance Hollywood correspondent for the New Zealand Herald, Christopher interviewed movie stars and directors to write feature articles about new movies being released. It was a glamorous job, although it didn’t pay much. One of the first things Christopher said to me was that he wasn’t a wealthy man. That was a brilliant way to ferret out the gold diggers and clarify motivations.
After hanging out at the Stinking Rose for enough time to go deaf, Kira invited us to a Russian restaurant where she was hosting a birthday party for her niece. During our dinner, Christopher asked if I liked Lyle Lovett. Even though I only knew one thing about him — he was the music geek married to Julia Roberts at the time — I said, “I love Lyle Lovett.”
Christopher invited me to go with him to a Lovett concert that was five months in the future. I was dumbfounded. I’d never had a man I’d known for less than three hours suggest that we plan a date 150 days in advance. He must have really, really liked me.
Within a week, the “M” word came up, and I don’t mean murder.
It started out as just a joke on my part that turned into a giddy conversation. On our second date, Christopher asked me to come to his apartment in West Hollywood for dinner. This was even before I had cooked for him, which was a first for this chick.
Christopher’s apartment was small and on the third floor of an old apartment complex just south of Sunset Boulevard. The window air conditioner roared in a high- pitched hum, but couldn’t keep up with the unusually hot weather. I dabbed at the sweat dripping down my neck and hoped Christopher wouldn’t notice.
Dinner was a cool salad with a chilled New Zealand sauvignon blanc.
Over dessert, he poured his heart out to me about his past romantic history. It was a touching tale of one man’s quest for true love that had ended in a ten-year relationship with a Kiwi woman who he said refused to marry him or even acknowledge they were domestic partners to her friends. He said she was a feminist. I said she was an idiot.
Even the woman’s brother was in a long-term relationship with the mother of his children, yet no wedding in sight. That’s how the topic of marriage bubbled to the top of our innocent little chat.
“So do New Zealanders not believe in marriage?” I asked Christopher, wiping perspiration off a brow, hoping it wouldn’t smudge my eyebrow pencil.
“Sure we do. Would you like to?” Christopher said as he took a bite of his store-bought chocolate torte.
Was he asking me to marry him? Or was this a hypothetical question? I didn’t know, so I said, “Marriage is a good thing with the right person.”
“Am I the right person?”
Without thinking, without analyzing or giving myself time to freak out, I said, “Yes.”
There was no hesitation, no fear, no doubt.
Six months later, we met 50 jubilant friends and family members in Florida at a restored southern estate house for our wedding.
Christopher’s mum and sister came from New Zealand for the big event and my family fortunately welcomed them with open hearts.
Things could have gone differently. The first thing my mother asked about Christopher when I called her from LA was, “Is he white?”
My mother had never heard of New Zealand, and it sounded an awful lot like one of the other “New’s.” She didn’t know where New Guinea or New Delhi was, but she had seen pictures of their residents on CNN, and they didn’t look like us.
I grew up colorblind, or maybe it was just that I was a rebel since birth. I liked to think of myself as a Southern Belle with a Rebel yell.
If my family didn’t associate with a certain person because their skin wasn’t exactly our color or their accent wasn’t sufficiently Dixieland, I made a point of bringing that person home for dinner. I made the argument that we were all God’s people and besides, what color is a soul? That shut them up.
I would’ve fallen in love with Christopher, even if his skin had been polka-dotted. We were the perfect match, and on that hot fall day in Florida we were going to make it legal.
As Christopher and I greeted friends in the Victorian Room overlooking a little duck pond in the mansion gardens where we were to wed, I fought to keep my equilibrium and stay upright. No, I had not been sampling the bubbly. My brain was drunk with joy.
After everyone was seated in the garden, I stood with my uncle alone in the Victorian Room, gazing out the French doors that opened down the aisle leading to the man who was to be my husband.
I could see Christopher there with the minister. He was standing in the sunshine, an aura circling his head like a special effect on a Syfy Channel movie. His black suit looked tailormade for him, his white shirt starched and crisp, with the champagne-colored paisley tie he chose making him look like a distinguished hippie.
Someone swung the French doors open as the wedding march began. There was no orchestra, or even a string quartet, but my mom’s boom box blasted the music every southern woman longed to hear.
Christopher turned to see me in my champagne-colored dress from M. Cole at Century City Mall in LA. The bodice was lacy and form-fitting. The skirt was made of shiny silk and was cut higher in the front and longer in the back, creating the impression of a short train. I wore a pink pearl necklace and matching earrings I’d found on sale at Neiman-Marcus.
My hairdresser had created a special design with highlights for the occasion, and I felt like an Academy Award nominee right after the presenter called her name.
My uncle escorted me down the brick pathway to where Christopher waited. Every cell in my body was dancing down that aisle with me. Just as my uncle released my arm and I reached for Christopher’s hand, a deafening explosion rocked the wedding party.
Everyone ducked for cover away from the thundering sound. When I looked back at the mansion, flames were shooting out of a hole torn in the roof just past the Victorian Room.
Friends and family leapt from their seats and surged past the duck pond onto the oak-covered grounds away from the house. Staff members and kitchen employees poured out of the Victorian Room door, down the aisle, almost trampling Christopher, the minister and me.
Panic and chaos overtook the day, turning my fairytale wedding into the Nightmare on Oak Street. Shortly the place was swarming with sweaty firemen and noisy fire trucks. No one was hurt but the mansion burned to the ground and our nuptials were postponed.
Christopher’s mum and sister returned to New Zealand, the mansion declared that the gas explosion in the kitchen was an act of God and refused to refund our $10,000. We sued them, but the former owners fled to Canada to start a chain of southern-fried gator tail fast food restaurants.
We had to save up for a second attempt at tying the knot. So a year went by before we set another wedding date. This time my mom helped us plan everything, since we by then lived in Florida about an hour away from her. We chose a place on the St. Johns River in the middle of downtown Jacksonville for the ceremony and after-party. I had to crash diet to fit into my M. Cole wedding dress. All the details were arranged, guests invited and original wedding rings retrieved from the safe deposit box.
Christopher’s mum and sister flew in from New Zealand again, hoping for the best.
Our two families went out with Christopher and me for a joyous, champagne brunch the day before the wedding. Then Christopher went off to play rugby with his mates. I usually went to his matches, but that day I had too many bridely things to do.
I was with all the ladies for a last-minute shopping trip when I got a cell call. It was one of Christopher’s teammates, saying Christopher had been injured and that I needed to come to Beaches Hospital.
As Christopher’s sister drove us all to the hospital, my imagination ran circles around my rational self. What if Christopher were paralyzed and I would have to take care of an invalid the rest of his life? What if he were on life-support when I got there?
Then my mind reeled back in the opposite direction. It was probably only a broken finger. Or a flesh wound. Why didn’t I ask his friend who called what had happened? I just freaked, in turn freaking out all those around me. The entire hysterical party headed for the hospital.
When we got to Christopher’s side, he was drifting in and out of consciousness. He had a concussion from a rugby tackle gone wrong. He stayed in that semiconscious state for two days. I never left his room. Christopher’s family was there from the beginning of visiting hours until the end. Our mums brought me meals from the hospital cafeteria to keep me going. The third day, Christopher snapped out of it, got out of bed and said it was time to go home.
We missed the wedding again. Christopher said it was a sign, that fate was trying to tell us something. Maybe it was unlucky for us to marry.
He insisted he loved me and definitely wanted to get married if only destiny would cooperate. I assured him we would when the time was right.
The last four years have mostly been marital bliss, sans the marriage. We’ve lived together as passionate lovers and equal partners in life, and I know Christopher is the perfect man for me. One who lets me think I’m the one who’s running the show. Well, sometimes he lets me think that and sometimes I really am. Like when I left the note and flew to Vegas.
BACK TO THE PRESENT:
No, my agents who I had come to hate so dearly weren’t in Sin City. But Al, a longtime friend, lived there. He was a former employee of a certain department of our government that did nasty things while no one was looking. He had a private store of weapons he used for current mercenary enterprises and I had a feeling I might need a few of them.
I had called him from the Vegas airport, and luckily he was home. Al was a man who took surprises as everyday occurrences. It was like he had been expecting me and said he’d pick me up at the airport. No problem.
The drive to Al’s house was always entertaining. There was the view of Vegas’ garish casinos from the expressway and, of course, there were Al’s wild stories. I never figured out if he was a compulsive liar or one of the most interesting men in my life. He’d said he’d flown for Air America and still hauled cargo for some secret organization. I wasn’t sure if it was an official/unofficial black ops unit or some soldier-of-misfortune outfit.
When we got to his house, he had to unlock four locks to get in the front door. The place smelled of gun oil and stale cigarettes.
“You’ve taken up smoking, Al?” I asked.
“No. Just some of the guys over last night,” Al swept papers from a kitchen counter into a stained canvas bag. The stains looked like dried blood.
“No. We’re working on a thing.”
I picked up a map of a foreign country that had fallen to the floor. Before I could identify the location, Al confiscated the map.
When he said he had a “thing,” Al’s friends knew the questions and answers stopped there.
Al sat down on an overstuffed recliner and said, “I’ll be gone two weeks. You can use the house.”
“Thanks, but I’m headed to LA right now, and I was hoping you could hook me up with something for self defense.”
Al smiled, got up out of the recliner and headed upstairs. I followed.
On the second floor, Al unlocked four more locks on a door and swung it open. He turned on an overhead light revealing stained green carpeting. I swear the stains looked like dried blood. There were wall-to-wall bookcases, but in Al’s library, there were no books, only guns.
After giving me a tour of his private gun store, Al queried me on my operation. He heard my sketchy plan about taking my agents hostage, as if friends stopped by on a daily basis to pick up weapons for crime sprees. He nodded.
“You know that’s illegal, right?”
I gave him a look.
“You’ll need a better plan, but here are a few things that will help the execution.”
“Execution? You don’t think I…oh, you mean execution of a better plan. Cool.”
He grinned and loaded me down with armaments.
Al encouraged me to try a little target practice with the big guns, but I was in a bit of a hurry. I had shot all manner of exotic guns for fun with him on a range when he lived in Florida. Besides, paintball with my redneck friends on the Fields of Honor, our game grounds back home, provided plenty of additional training. I wasn’t planning on shooting anyone with a real gun in real life. I just wanted to scare them into action.
I rented a subcompact and picked up a nice selection of C-4 plastique, grenades, flame throwers, a few pistols, ammo and a Ruger MP-9. Al said the MP-9 was designed by Uzi Gal, the guy who thought up the Uzi submachine gun. Like the Uzi, the MP-9 fired 600 rounds per minute. Or was it 600 rounds per second? Its magazine held enough 9mm bullets to get the attention of even the most jaded Hollywood player.
Only thing was, the weight of all those arms in the trunk created sparks from the back bumper dragging the asphalt, making me look suspiciously like a drug runner on a budget. So I traded the teeny, tiny car for a Dodge Ram truck and took off for Beverly Hills.
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