(photo by autumn_leaf on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/_autumn_leaf/)
Drew’s life has become hyperbolic and the fact that it all seems somewhat implausible nags her—at a red light, or when the music pauses between songs, in the stillness of dawn before her apartment building shudders back to life, standing at the Lilien’s picture window overlooking the vast expanse, or in the middle of a sentence when she realizes she is using entirely too many exclamation points, especially on the phone with her father—and something deep inside her feels the looming peak and slump. But now, at this moment, everything is so easy, so exciting. When you’re wearing fabulous shoes and the right lipstick, flying down the Santa Monica Freeway in a power-everything, air-conditioned series seven BMW with the AC on full blast and one hand tickling the breeze, past the billboard advertising breast augmentation and you gaze up and think, why not? Why the hell shouldn’t I just buy myself a new pair? Breasts: symbols of desire and fulfillment, badges of femininity, connotations of denotation, signifiers of signifieds. You deserve it! Big, heavy, bossy boobs that bust through buttons to stare them all right in the eye and shout, look at me when I’m talking to you! Breasts that stand up for what they want. Because we all know reality is overrated and you think, Hell, yes! and you press down on the accelerator and throw back your head and laugh with delight and astonishment, laugh at yourself and with yourself at the same time in a crazy maniacal cackle like Emperor Ming the Merciless or Dr. Jeckyl or Thelma and Louise all rolled into one glorious package.
Drew Andrew is Mae Beacon’s autobiographer. It doesn’t make any sense and might even seem slightly shady to those who cling to an outdated definition of the term “autobiography,” but who cares? What her present situation lacks in realism, it makes up for in countless other ways. She will be paid a dollar a word for the approximately 70,000 word document she produces, with a $30,000 advance and a $20,000 bonus upon completion. It doesn’t matter if the word is “pet” or “pulchritudinous” or “poo poo,” she will be paid the same. Actually, wouldn’t she get $2 for “poo poo” since it counts as two? Plus, she’ll accompany Mae to parties and public events and be introduced to all the biggest people in the business. She had to sign a nondisclosure contract so she can’t tell anyone she’s Mae’s ghostwriter but Mae promises they’ll be able to guess.
At first she had balked. After all, what does she know about biography? She’s good at navigating a library, interpreting detail, and structuring essays, but has had little success with the short story and one stab at a screenplay hardly qualifies or characterizes her as the person to write the autobiography of a star (however ideologically absurd that might be).
Then again, how could she love and emulate southern writers when she’s never been to the south? How can she teach a class on screenwriting when she’s only written one adaptation? As Wayne said, she’d be a ninny not to do it.
When he said that, Drew reminded him about Gregory, her boyfriend in college, the physics major who wore black leather boots, coats from the army-navy store and pants with plackets in front. She had loved everything about him; his cold blue eyes and his passion for German engineering, the way he pursed his lips when he disagreed , how he would never introduce her as his girlfriend because he didn’t want to “limit her identity,” and even his predilection for sex in the shower, from behind, armed with a fresh bar of Ivory Spring soap. She wrote him love poems and starched his epaulets and one day, while she was watering the plants outside his window, she discovered his well-formed backside doing its daily calisthenics between someone else’s legs.
It took months for Wayne to prop her back up after that one and he had made her promise never again to act like such a cliché female, so predictable and pathetic. Now, she wanted Wayne to answer this question: isn’t writing someone else’s story without credit a comparable degradation? Aren’t you flirting with complete self-effacement either way? Isn’t ghostwriting tantamount to suicide? But Wayne had just laughed. The difference, of course, is that this time she would be paid and besides, Drew never wanted to be famous, right? She wants to be respected and recognized as a writer but more than that it’s the act of writing that matters to her; her name is superfluous, so here’s an opportunity to write, get paid, make something out of nothing, meet all the big names at the same time, and do a favor for a friend. Mae said that only a real friend would be able to write the book the way it should be written. Isn’t Drew a real friend?
Wayne always knows the right thing to say.
Plus, Mae’s house is just up the hill from the Liliens’, who called to say they would be extending their stay in New York and could she continue watering the plants? So for the first time in her life, not only does Drew have easy access to a washer and dryer, an icemaker, a TV with every channel, and a computer with high speed cable, she can even walk to work. That is, if she sleeps at the Lilien’s, an idea that was not really touched on during their phone conversation but she tells herself that she’s doing her part to conserve. After all, it would be a waste not to sleep at the Lilien’s whose lights go on automatically at 7:00 pm and snap off at 11:00 and whose thermostat holds a steady 67 degrees and besides, someone needs to be there to pick up the mail and make sure the neighbor’s cat isn’t stalking the koi in the pond. She doesn’t sleep in their bed, though—some things are sacred. She uses one of the guestrooms.
Like a real professional person, she has developed a routine. She wakes up when the sunlight hits her pillow, fixes an espresso in the fancy Italian machine and drinks it out by the pond where birds bicker loudly in the fig tree and the day is already warm. After her bath, she puts on her robe and sits down in the fancy ergonomic chair in the office.
She and Mae speak on the phone every night while Mae is in Louisiana. The first two things Drew asked Mae were, one, why the secrecy? And two, how am I supposed to write about you when I don’t even know your real name? Mae said something about privacy and left it at that so on the side, Drew did a search of newspaper announcements and change-of-name records for all US counties, without luck. Mae usually says she was born in Arizona, at home with a midwife, on July 4, 1984, but when maturity is fashionable it might be 1979 and there are no fruitful records of birth for the name “Beacon” in any state for either decade. If Mae changed her name as a child, it would have been easier, especially if it followed a divorce from a father whom the court viewed as a threat, but Drew doesn’t know Mae’s mother’s maiden name, either, or at least the name Mae gave her didn’t show up in any records, so Drew finally gave up and resolved not to wonder how Mae hid from people all those years or what she was hiding or why someone from her past hasn’t stepped forward to identify her or how anyone could sever herself so utterly from the past. Trust is the first step toward friendship, right?
It isn’t too much of a stretch for Drew to accept Mae as she is—after all, Drew’s own mother performed a similar stunt, in reverse: Drew’s mother walked off into nothing one day, while Mae’s life began at an audition. To Drew, both instances felt metaphorically sound, so in the introduction of her autobiography, Mae/Drew alludes to the idea of knowledge as power and mentions the Native American concept that if someone knows your real name then they can control you. She also includes the quote from that physicist who said you can learn the name of a bird in every language, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the bird. If you want to know the bird, look at it and see what it’s doing—that’s what really matters.
While Mae is on location in Louisiana, Drew is supposed to gather and read everything that has ever been written about the starlet and watch all her movies. It’s like getting paid to loiter; she could even work sprawled out in the bed, but it feels more fitting to sit at the solid oak desk. She ends each day with the phone call to Mae and they spend hours discussing all the things girlfriends talk about while Drew takes careful notes in her notebook. Drew asked about the men Mae has dated and which ones she just pretended to like for the publicity; if Mae’s really a hermaphrodite or if she was born without internal reproductive organs like they say; if it’s true she likes to be choked, prayed to, showered with gifts, spanked, ignored, psychoanalyzed, spraypainted, tickled with feathers or covered with small mammals during sex; if she was a Ukranian orphan/purchased from a band of gypsies/found wandering, lost and alone in the central highlands of Iceland, as the tabloids claim; if she’d had five or ten or fifteen or fifty different “corrective procedures” and if she really had her lowest ribs sawed off to achieve that waspy waist. Mae answered every question but wouldn’t talk about for whom she voted in the last election, her views on abortion, or anything “personal.” That’s where Mae draws the line.
On hot pink post-it notes stuck to the office window, Drew is beginning to flesh out the supine form of the chapters she’ll write. Mae’s childhood is pinched off at 17 by the sudden loss of her mother, who was hit by a car, and Mae’s acting career blooms in tribute.
Mae says she doesn’t like talking about her mother because it makes her sad and she doesn’t like to cry in front of strangers.
Drew says, “You don’t cry unless it’s in the script, right?”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
“You mean you don’t waste your tears, you save them for when you really need them.”
“So in a way, your acting is enriched by your control over the events in your past and those reporters who insist on all the facts are really threatening your ability to continue acting. By asking so many questions, they miss the whole point.”
“So you can’t tell me or anyone your real name because that would diminish you present tense and detract from the construct you’ve created. It would erase—or or kill, snuff out—Mae Beacon, the actress. Your life, your entire existence is focused on the line between fantasy and reality.”
“Exactly! You really have a way with words, Drew.”
It turns out Drew was born to ghostwrite. It’s just like writing a screenplay, only more real. When talking about the project, Drew has started using the word “realer” even though it’s not a real word: “Realer” just makes sense. She says ghostwriting is more like editing than writing; she takes bits that already exist from interviews, conversations, anecdotes, memories, pictures, and journal entries, fluffs them up a bit, dips it all in a vat of cleverness and weaves it together into a smart shape like a basket, or maybe a hammock—she says she’s building the backstory for her character to lounge on. She is in the unique position of being paid to invent a real person and she imagines herself like Dr. Frankenstein in the laboratory, selecting the choicest parts, snipping and cutting, stitching it all together with a fine silk thread, zapping it with thunderbolts of light. One beautiful, pale hand unfolds: “It’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive it’s aliveit’salive!”
And for the first time in Drew’s life, everything is fresh. Her clothes are clean and smell like she’s been to the spa. The BMW’s buttery upholstery is cash-scented; a sexy vibration travels up her leg from the accelerator pedal. In the BMW, Drew never forgets to put on lipstick.
For the first time in Drew’s life, she moves barefoot and alone through vast expanses of uncluttered space. From the big picture windows in the Lilien’s living room she has a wide-angle view of a world that includes the whole blue sky, sparkling homes, emerald green trees and the line of palms that overlook Mae’s swimming pool.