Okay, so Valentine’s Day is over. So I thought it would be safe now to release a short story of mine that I wrote a few years ago that happens to be about Valentine’s Day and also happens to be very bitter (though not specifically bitter *about* Valentine’s Day). It’s bitter about Hollywood.
I don’t normally write stories from real life, it’s just not my style. However, this story comes largely from experiences I had while working in Los Angeles. And that’s all I will say about that. Any similarities to real people/events are, er, coincidental =D
So here it is…
* St Clare’s Valentine *
Seven hours down, four to go. Four to go. Four hours, seven minutes … seven minutes … six minutes …
The little black numbers got blurrier the longer Charlie stared at them. He stared into a computer screen all day, slowly growing blind. 3:24. Twenty-four minutes meant almost half an hour. Which meant almost past the halfway point to 4:00. But of course, he wasn’t past the halfway point yet, he hadn’t even reached it yet. It was only 3:25. The fucking twenties were so deceptive.
During his seven hours of work, he had answered a few phone calls and copied a script. That was all.
Seven hours of nothing.
He should be grateful, right? He had a job most people would give a rib for. He worked on a TV show. He hoped to be a screenwriter, eventually. He expected that to require about eight more years of jobs like this, jobs that were hard to get because everyone else wanted them. Sure, it was hard now, but one day he’d rake in the dough, he’d see his name in big lights … or at least in the credits of a blockbuster film.
The days here varied extremely. About seventy percent of the time, he sat at his desk and did nothing. The rest of the time, he drove around the congested city of Los Angeles picking up food and groceries. He hated doing that. So he should be glad it was a slow day.
For some reason, he couldn’t stop thinking about his dog. His dog was a white mutt named Spirit. Charlie picked her up from the humane society just a few days before he landed this job. It was a foolish thing to do–getting a dog before he had a job–but he just wanted one so badly. Spirit was the only thing that kept Charlie sane, made him look forward to going home. But she was also the reason it was so hard to stay at work. Because of Charlie’s horrible hours, Spirit had to stay at home all day, sleeping, holding her bladder until Charlie got home and could take her outside. Was that really so much better than the humane society? Charlie hoped so, but sometimes he wasn’t so sure. The humane society had a little yard. Charlie could only walk her down a street of dead lawns and dirty cement.
He wanted to see Spirit. He wanted to have the energy to play with her, to take her outside, let her free, and watch her run around. Instead, he was stuck here. Doing nothing.
“Would you shut the hell up?”
The request came from his co-worker, Travis, who sat at a little desk across from Charlie. Charlie realized he was tapping his pen on the desk and making a lot of noise. “Oh, sorry.”
Travis rolled his eyes and went back to work. Work for Travis meant either trying to date girls online or write movie reviews. As if either of the two pastimes would get him anywhere.
Both Charlie and Travis turned to look at the speaker, then jumped to attention. Charlie’s heart thundered in his chest. At the doorway to their office stood the showrunner, Kane Gibsy. As far as Charlie and Travis were concerned, Kane was just a step down from God. He had complete control of the show, even if some of the executive producers tried to say otherwise. He usually stayed in his office so he could write scripts or review dailies without disturbance. His assistant did everything else for him: reminded him when he had meetings, called his inferiors, carried his orders down to the writers, editors, and producers. Why was Kane standing here, in person, in the production assistants’ office? Had they done something wrong? Were they getting fired?
No. The assistant would have fired them.
Kane liked to carry around a really big stick. It was probably some sort of weapon, Charlie didn’t know. Kane was a karate master of some type. He could probably kill everyone in the office with a flick of his finger, and he liked to remind them by carrying around the big stick and spinning it. “Today’s fucking Valentine’s Day, isn’t it?”
Charlie’s eyes shot back to his computer. His trembling hand grabbed the mouse and dragged it over the clock so the date showed–
“Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day,” said Travis. No, no, no! Travis got to it first! He had a smirk on his face, the bastard.
“Fuck!” cried Kane. He slammed the stick against the door frame, making both the assistants jump in their chairs. “Jane didn’t remind me!” Jane was Kane’s assistant. Man would she be in trouble.
“You need something for the lady?” suggested Charlie, giving a manly grin like he understood Kane’s dilemma and was on the same page.
“Yeah. Um …” Kane ran his muscular hand through his hair, the hoary kind of hair that was fashionable and intimidating on a Hollywood executive. “Um … how about a flower? A fucking flower.”
“What kind?” Charlie already had a pen and notepad in hand, ready to write down his instructions down to the number of leaves.
“What do you think?” said Kane.
Charlie wasn’t sure if that was some sort of reproach, or if he genuinely wanted Charlie’s opinion.
“White orchid,” said Travis. “It’s exotic. It’s romantic. It’s expensive.”
“See,” said Kane, shaking his stick toward Charlie’s coworker, “he gets it.”
Charlie thought fast. “Where would you like me to pick it up?” He could see the disappointment in Travis’s eyes. Score! He had the job now.
“The most expensive place,” said Kane. He pulled out his wallet, drew a credit card, and flicked it onto Charlie’s desk.
“The Perfect Petal on La Brea,” offered Travis.
“Sure,” said Kane. He turned the stick on Charlie, leaning close as if to stab out Charlie’s eye. “You’re a writer, right?”
The question was music to Charlie’s ears. “Yes, sir!”
“Then write her a fucking good letter.”
“Sure,” said Charlie, waiting to gulp until Kane leaned back and walked out.
Both the assistants blew a sigh of relief.
“Well then,” said Charlie, “I’m off.”
Bitterness dripped into Travis’s voice. “Shouldn’t you call first? It’s Valentine’s Day. They’ll be packed.”
“And what, have them prepare the flower for me? Calling will only waste more time.” Feeling proud of himself, Charlie grabbed his jacket, his keys, his badge that let him swipe in and out of the studio, and he was off.
Stuck in the heat and pollution of Los Angeles traffic, Charlie wished he hadn’t been so quick to take the errand. Too late now.
Sweat poured down his face and onto the collar of his shirt. The weather outside wasn’t bad, but Charlie didn’t have air conditioning in his car, and no matter how far he rolled down the windows, the inner heat kept rising. He hated rolling down his windows, anyway. At almost every stop light he’d see homeless people on the street and pray they wouldn’t walk up and harass him. He also knew that the term “fresh air” didn’t exist in LA. The more air he breathed outside, the more pollution he let into his lungs.
When he first moved to LA five years ago, he didn’t notice the pollution so much. He figured he’d be sensitive to the air at first, then get used to it. The opposite phenomenon occurred instead. The longer he lived here, the more he smelled the stink in the air. Maybe the pollution accumulated in his lungs, and eventually stacked all the way up to his nostrils, which was why he now smelled it all the time.
God. He hated this city.
His heart thundered in his chest and new beads of sweat dripped from his brow. “The address,” he gasped aloud. He’d been so quick to rush out of the office, he forgot to check the directions to Kane’s house.
No problem, right? Charlie typed up so many address forms he should know it by heart. 730 … Oceanic … no, 731 … damn!
A minor problem. He could call and ask, of course, but that would be admitting his mistake. First he had to get the flower. Then he would drive to the approximate area, and he would figure it out. He would figure it out!
It took him half an hour to drive the five miles to La Brea. It took him another fifteen to park. He circled the block twice, which meant breaking the law twice, because one intersection didn’t allow left turns. Then he saw a spot.
No! Yellow paint!
Too late. He had his blinkers on and the car was in reverse. The cars behind him honked as he parallel parked into the yellow spot.
He crawled over the passenger seat to get onto the pavement. He locked the car up and stood a moment, tapping his foot on the dirty cement. He didn’t see any cops or meter maids. Maybe he’d be okay.
Once he made up his mind to take the risk, he rushed into the Perfect Petal. His momentum came to an abrupt halt as he ran smack into a wall of people. The store was packed. Naturally. It was one of the most prestigious flower stores in Hollywood, and today was Valentine’s Day.
He pushed through the crowd, ignoring their groans and curses, and made his way through the rows of flowers. Fortunately for him, the orchards were easy to find. Tall, elegant, beautiful, white–expensive. From here on out it should be easy. Pick the most expensive flower, get in line, think of a letter to write while standing in line, write it, check out, leave. Bam. Done.
One little hiccup. There were two kinds of white orchards: cut, and potted. God, which one did Kane want him to buy? Cut was the traditional gift, right? But this wasn’t a bouquet. It was a single flower.
Potted, then. Besides, potted was more expensive.
He made his pick. He stood in line. He racked his mind for an appropriate letter. After all, he was a writer, wasn’t he? “Dear …” Oh God, he didn’t even know her name! “To the love of my life, May this flower remind you of my love for you, always growing. Yours, Kane.” Too cheesy? He couldn’t picture Kane saying those words. But he couldn’t picture Kane saying “I love you” either, and surely he occasionally said that. It would have to do.
He had to wait fifteen minutes for his turn. Once there, his palms got sweaty and his heart thundered. This happened every time he had to use someone else’s credit card, and this time it was Kane’s. He always worried that A, he’d be arrested for a false signature, or B, he’d lose the credit card. He’d lost his own credit card once. Who could say it wouldn’t happen again?
Fortunately, the cashier was in such a hurry to work through the line, she didn’t ask for an ID and didn’t give him hell about his signature. Charlie orated the letter he came up with and she attached it to the pot. He took his receipt of $115 and carefully placed it, and the credit card, into his wallet.
So far so good.
When Charlie returned to his car, he had a neon parking ticket under the wiper blades. He let out the inevitable exclamation “Shit!” and threw the ticket into his car. Under normal conditions he was such a responsible, careful person. But he couldn’t afford to be in this job. Fortunately, the show or studio would pay his ticket for him. He hated the situation all the same.
The drive to Santa Monica went smoothly except for the five minutes or so on the highway. He had the plant situated carefully behind the passenger seat while both front windows were down and the sunroof rolled back. He didn’t realize what a problem this was until traffic forced him to slow down and he glanced back at it. The orchid’s delicate little petals fluttered in the wind and looked ready to rip straight off the stem. Panting and cursing, he rolled all the windows back up. In a matter of seconds he felt fresh sweat pouring down his brow, but at least the plant was safe.
Charlie almost had victory in his grasp. He parked on Oceanic Ave. All he had to do was figure out which house belonged to Kane Gibsy, deliver the flower, and his mission would be accomplished.
He tried 731 first, if only because it was on the same side he parked his car. Beautiful red bricks made up the walls, satin spar framed the door and windows, and flowers of every sort blossomed everywhere. He opened the gate to step onto the cobblestone path to the doorway, and the flowery foliage practically formed walls on either side of him. Hell, would this woman notice another flower in her garden?
Only a few feet remained between him and the doorway when it swung open of its own accord. Behind the door stood a woman Charlie’s height, maybe a dozen years his senior, her build muscular but elegant, her face square and pronounced with the most intense green eyes he had ever seen. Thick, black hair spilled over her shoulders in voluptuous curls, but something about it didn’t seem to match her skin and eyes. It was beautiful, but it was fake. Dyed. He couldn’t help but notice her chest was small enough to be real, however. It’s the sort of thing one develops a second sense for in Hollywood. She wore sweats and a baggy white T-shirt like she hadn’t left the house all day.
“What do you want?” She had a sharp Irish accent. Intimidating, but gorgeous.
“Are you Mrs. Gibsy?”
“Uh, yes, but are you Kane Gibsy’s wife?”
She sighed. “Yes, I’m Hannah Gibsy. Who wants to know?”
Charlie blew out a sigh of relief. “I work for Kane. I have a delivery for you. Just hold on a second, I’ll go get it–”
Something in her voice made him stop and turn back around. “Is that okay?”
She sighed, her wave of anger fading. “Sure, fine. Let’s see what he got me this year.”
Charlie forced a smile and jogged back to his car. He couldn’t explain why, but something about this situation was … wrong. Tension stiffened all his muscles and clenched his throat, as if he could hear a bomb ticking, ready to go off.
He carefully picked up the orchid and made his way back to the wild Gibsy garden. He had trouble holding the pot in one hand while he unlatched the gate with the other, but Hannah didn’t help him. She just watched him, unmoving, as if the same tension seized her own muscles. As he approached, he did his best to keep a smile on his face, but the smile got heavier with every step he took. He stopped just a foot away from her, holding the orchid between them, clearing his throat and saying, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
She hardly wore an expression, but such a fire burned in her eyes he wondered why the orchid didn’t wither into dust.
“Set it down,” she said. When he hesitated, she raised her voice. “Set it down!”
He put the plant down on the ground.
“Haaaaiiii-YAH!” Hannah lifted her foot, swung it an arch above the plant, and sent her heel crashing into the side of the pot. Charlie yelped aloud, his mouth hanging open and every drop of blood draining from his skin. In his head he thought, “There just went my job.”
“What … what … what the hell was that?” he finally gasped.
She was out of breath, a rosy hue flushing both her cheeks. But her eyes sparkled as she returned her gaze to his. “Fifteen fucking years of fucking flowers.”
“Every birthday. Every anniversary. Every Valentine’s Day. Every fucking chance, he gives me flowers.” She swept her arm around her body in an elegant indication of her garden. “Do you think I bought any of these on my own? Do you?”
“Um … no?”
“That’s right. No. Do you want to know the truth? Do you?”
No, he didn’t. But he said “Yes.”
“I hate flowers. I hate watching them die. The first time he bought me flowers, I thought it was sweet. I pretended to like them. I put them in a garden and I took care of them because I didn’t want to watch them wither away. He thought I loved them. So the next time, he bought me more. And the next, and the next, and the next.”
As much as Charlie feared her wrath, he wanted his job even more, so he stayed on Kane’s side. “You probably should have told him, you know. That you … that you didn’t like flowers.”
“Tell him my ass. Do you know what I used to do for a living? I was a stuntwoman, in films. That’s how we met. We melted all over each other, we married. Then one day, I broke my leg. Kane sold a script. He said I didn’t need to do stunts anymore, we had plenty of money, why risk myself, right? Right?”
Charlie shrugged helplessly.
“Wrong.” Tears fragmented the green of her bright eyes. Her nose crinkled and she put a hand over her trembling mouth. “God. You have to get back on the horse once you fall off, you know? I waited too long. I got soft. I got scared. Now all I do is stay at home and tend fucking flowers that I fucking HATE!”
She walked up to the orchid, still sprawled across the cobblestones in one piece. She lifted her foot directly above the ovule …
Too late. Her foot smashed down into the heart of the blossom, first flattening it, then grinding it into pieces. She continued to smash and grind as she talked. “You drive back to Kane,” she grunted. “You tell him that’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m sick of fame and fortune. I’m sick of flowers. I’m sick of how he has made us both forget who I really am. You tell him that. Because I won’t be here anymore when he gets home.”
She stopped stomping. She turned around. She went limp, like the fight had gone out of her, like she had nothing else left. She began to ascend her porch steps.
Charlie felt light-headed. Adrenaline burned in his stomach. His own hands curled into fists and forced the muscles of his forearms to bulge. It couldn’t end this way. It just couldn’t. Because this would be the end. If Kane didn’t kill him on sight, he would fire him, then see to it that Charlie never got a job in Hollywood again. That’s how it worked. That’s what would happen. And none of it would be his fault, but that didn’t matter. He would just be one of the losers, one of the guys who “didn’t make it.”
“STOP!” he cried.
She was already reaching for the doorknob. But she stopped.
“Listen,” he gasped. “This is … this is my fault. This isn’t Kane’s.” He had to lie. He had to lie to stay alive.
Inch by inch, she turned her head, looked at him again. “How is this your fault?”
“Kane, uh … Kane left me a note, on my desk, telling me what to get you for Valentine’s Day. I was in such a hurry to leave the office, I forgot to bring the note with me. Then I … I called the other production assistant. He told me what was really on the note, but I didn’t believe him. It sounded … it sounded like a silly gift. The other production assistant, see, he wants to see me fail so if either of us ever gets promoted, it will be him and not me. See what I mean?”
She hesitated a long time, but finally said, “Sure … yeah, I know how it is.”
“Exactly. So I thought he was lying. I thought he wanted me to screw up and get you a stupid gift. But after hearing what you said … I think I’m the one who got it wrong. What I thought seemed stupid was actually a sign that Kane understands you. Let me fix this. Let me go get what Kane really wanted you to have. Don’t let my mistake be the last straw of your relationship. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I should have talked to Jane, I should have confirmed the contents of the note myself. You’ll see. Let me fix this.”
She stared at him, skeptical, but desperate. She wanted to believe him. She wanted to believe in Kane.
“Fine,” she said finally. “Fine. I’ll wait an hour. But if you’re telling the truth … you’re a horrible PA.”
Charlie laughed sheepishly and shrugged. Whatever worked. Whatever let him keep his job.
He would fix this. He would make it right. He had to.
He had to get her the perfect gift.
On this errand, the errand that would decide whether he ever had an errand again, he remained cool and collected. He felt like he had a rock in his gut, but his hands didn’t tremble, his feet didn’t trip. He knew what he had to do, even if he couldn’t rationalize it, even if it sounded stupid.
He found it in a store less crowded. He found it on sale, cheap, unwanted by most. He bought it anyway.
He paid for it with his own card.
And he wrote her a long, long letter.
I watched one of your old movies yesterday. I remembered how things used to be, how you used to be. I remembered the life and excitement I’d see in your eyes after a dangerous shoot. I realized I hadn’t seen the same light in your eyes for a long, long time.
I’m not telling you to pick up your old career. I still want you to be safe. What I am saying is that I never should have told you to stop. It should have been your decision then, and it should be your decision now. I want you to find that excitement again.
Love shouldn’t require as much care as you’ve had to provide. It should be strong enough to stand on its own, to exist for its own sake. It should only need nourishment every once and awhile. That’s why this year, I’m giving you something different.
Tell me when you’ve made up your mind.
The gift was a cactus. Charlie left it on the porch of the Gibsy house with the note firmly attached. Along with the note supposedly from Kane, Charlie scribbled another one of his own.
This is what Kane really wanted to give you, he wrote. Don’t let my mistake be the end. Give it another chance.
He got in his car and drove back to the studio.
When he returned, Jane berated him for being gone so long. Charlie didn’t say much. He sat in his chair, resigned to whatever fate would bring him, and he said, “Tell Kane they were out of orchids.”
“Out of orchids?” Jane was particularly upset because Kane had already reprimanded her for not writing
“Valentine’s Day” on his white board. She looked down at the receipt Charlie had given her along with Kane’s credit card. Lady Luck had been kind enough to omit the specification of “orchid” on the receipt. Instead, it read “Miscellaneous.” “Then what the hell did you spend a hundred and fifteen dollars on?”
Jane’s face turned beet red. “A cactus?! You idiot, how am I supposed to tell him you bought his wife a fucking–”
“Tell Kane whatever you want,” Charlie sighed. “Tell him I had to buy something else. However …” His eyes met Jane’s, so confident, so unwavering, that she waited to hear what he had to say. “However, I wrote a very, very good letter.”
Jane just stared at him a moment, perplexed. She mumbled, “Well if there’s heat for this, you’re getting it, not me. You need to learn to communicate, to use your cell phone. To tell me when there’s a problem, so we can work it out together … fuck, I’ve had a really bad day.”
She wandered back out. Charlie leaned back in his chair and sighed.
Kane never visited the production assistants’ office again. He never thanked Charlie for the really good letter.
But one day, they passed each other in the hallway, and Kane did a double-take. He stopped for a moment, staring at Charlie, squinting.
“Hm,” he said, and then walked off.
Charlie knew then he had saved Kane’s marriage. He had saved Kane’s marriage, but he wouldn’t get a promotion for it. He wouldn’t even get a “thank you.”
That’s what it means to be a production assistant. You do what you have to do, period. You pay your dues. You climb the thorny, neverending ladder.
It might not be a good job. But it’s the stuff of screenplays, that’s for sure.