(I originally wrote this romantic comedy for a short fiction anthology featuring Latino writers. My story was rejected and I polished it over the years. The editor actually liked the story, but passed on it. During the time I wrote this story, I was a member of the Latino writers troupe, Los Nortenos in Seattle).
Actresses make me nervous. I never know when they’re just putting on an act. Take for instance, the mad crush I had on Carmen Miranda during my boyhood. Then in my early twenties, I fantasized about Salma Hayek and Jennifer Lopez, but when I experienced an affair with a Chicana actress named Maria Lopez, I finally choked on a dose of reality.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the type of man who hangs posters of actresses on my bedroom walls. I’d rather experience the real thing as opposed to one-dimensional women staring into space. However, even the real woman, Maria stared past me and treated me like a pawn on her rise to stardom.
I met her at a party that took place in a friend’s Madison Park apartment. She had just turned twenty-three and celebrated the misfortune of her aging face. She tried to fast forward her career as she kept her ears open for any Hollywood connections, not that she would find many in Seattle.
Ears to the wall, she overheard a conversation that I had with my friend Ricardo in which I mentioned a bartender, Josh Mulligan who I met on at trip to Los Angeles. I made the mistake of referring to Josh as my friend and I added to the injury by mentioning that Josh served drinks to Robert De Niro. Maria’s ears went a-buzz after she heard De Niro’s name mentioned so she flew across the room like a duck with a mission and joined our conversation.
“You know someone who knows Robert De Niro? Could you introduce me to your friend?” She stammered, “Forgive me for not introducing myself. I’m Maria Lopez– actress.”
I handed her my business card in an offhanded manner. Maria talked in a rapid bilingual fashion and I was unable to get a word in edgewise to explain my true connection to the bartender that I met briefly on a trip to Hollywood with my parents.
Brimming over with excitement she acted like she had just discovered gold so I decided not to disappoint her by confessing the truth. She was my type and a slight chance existed that I would see Josh Mulligan again. I wanted to help Maria to achieve her dreams and by the look in her eyes, I sensed that she believed that she could manifest anything.
And as my luck would have it, she insisted on going back to my place. I threw caution to the wind even though we had just met. I barely made it through the door to my studio apartment when she began removing her clothing–slithering in the middle of the room she performed the dance of veils like an Arabian princess. Losing my breath in anticipation, I watched her slowly remove her clothing layer by layer–a scarf, a sweater and then a bra that sailed across the room. When she finished her exotic performance we made love on the tattered couch, if you could call it that.
She confessed, “I’d like to get the Hollywood couch routine out of the way.”
I didn’t understand why Maria uttered those words. Then later she confused me further when she confided that she could never move to Hollywood because she feared that she would end up acting in porno films. Performing her audition on a producer’s couch didn’t interest her either.
“Sure, the money’s good, but I’m a Catholic girl and Mama would kill me.”
“Why did you have sex with me?”
She pouted, “You must think that I’m easy, but I’m not. I got so excited when you mentioned your connection to Robert De Niro.” She added, “Besides, I had too many tequilas and lime juice makes me horny.”
“So, you have no interest in me.”
She ran her fingers through my hair and gazed into my eyes. “Let’s start over. Hi, my name is Maria Lopez and I’m thrilled to meet you.”
She extended her soft hand out to me so I held it tenderly. I leaned forward and found her slippery mouth and I sucked in her sweet lime breath.
A week passed by and Maria didn’t phone me. I chalked her up as a one-night stand and I tried to forget her. However, I couldn’t stop fantasizing about her perfectly round breasts and I couldn’t stop dreaming about her velvety brown eyes. I wanted to hear her breathy Chicana accent.
She sneaked out the next morning like a phantom. I probably just dreamt her up anyway. Why would an attractive actress like Maria have sex with me? However, just when I gave up hope, a frantic Maria phoned me.
“Paulo, I need your help! My landlady has just handed me an eviction notice because I’m three months behind on my rent. Can I move in with you?”
I froze in terror, but I found myself invited Maria to share my tiny apartment. After quick deliberation in which I wrestled with the fear that Maria could have been a con artist, I reached the conclusion that she was in fact the angel of my destiny. She didn’t mind the cramped quarters that we shared. She talked non-stop about how she always wanted to live on Capitol Hill, near Broadway. She didn’t miss her spacious Lake City apartment that she felt forced to give up and she adjusted quite well to her new surroundings.
“Actresses should live near Broadway, not just because of the famous Broadway in New York, but because this is action central. I can flourish as an actress living among these colorful types,” Maria rambled on.
I moved twenty boxes and her old futon into the apartment. I told her that she would have to rent a storage space for her belongings but she refuse to part with anything except her moldy futon. Hanging her dreaded posters of Hollywood actresses on the walls, Maria transformed my studio into something resembling an agent’s office. Relishing the effect, she gave a metaphysical explanation.
I sauntered into the kitchen where I prepared two burritos for dinner. I lit candles and played my favorite bossa nova CD. Maria spoke of Dolores Del Rio.
I inquired, “Who is Dolores Del Rio?”
She gawked at me in mock horror. “You don’t know who Dolores is? She’s a famous Mexican actress who acted in Hollywood films in the 1940s. She starred in Journey to Fear in 1942 and The Fugitive in 1947. I can’t believe you never heard of her.”
“I saw The Fugitive with Harrison Ford, but I’m not familiar with Dolores.”
Maria swallowed a large chunk of her burrito. “We’ll have to rent her films. She was so glamorous and despite the fact that she was Mexican, Anglos in Hollywood still respected her.”
I rose from the table then put in Nick Cave’s The Good Son into the CD player. I continued the conversation as good, old, Nick crooned in the background.
“Have you heard of Carmen Miranda? I had the biggest crush on her when I was…”
Maria cut me off, “You can’t compare Carmen to Dolores. Dolores didn’t dance around with a fruit basket on her head!”
I argued, “I’m not comparing them. Carmen had a lot more talent than she was given credit. She recorded music and it was the Hollywood directors who made her wear the fruit basket on her head because that was their cliché interpretation of Brazilian women at the time!”
Maria glared at me and she licked the food off of her fingers. She glided over to the couch as I pushed my plate away from me. “I still can’t believe that you can use Carmen and Dolores’ names in the same sentence.”
“Look,” I explained, “Hollywood used Carmen’s heritage against her. What makes you think that Hollywood won’t do the same thing to you?”
Maria crawled onto the couch and sobbed—always the drama queen. “I may never get to Hollywood. And even if I do, they already have their token Mexican actresses and they already have one Lopez!”
I rushed over to the couch to console her. “You can always change your name. Everyone does in Hollywood.”
Maria sulked, “Mama would be furious if I changed my name unless it was the name of my husband.” She smiled slyly.
I balked at the “M” word. I had just met Maria and I had no intention of marrying anyone before I turned thirty. Knowing Maria, she wouldn’t be happy unless she had children to blame the demise of her career. That kind of woman loved the idea of having sacrificed something important for love.
Two months passed by when Maria and I kicked our way through the February snow. She bought a pair of boots that shredded the heels of her feet and so I carried her as I climbed up Pine Street. We arrived outside of the studio where she was rehearsing for a play that would appear at the Fringe Festival. She exuded nervous energy and like the rest of her cast, was counting down the days until the performance.
“I’m nervous. What if I forget my lines or start laughing in the middle of a scene?”
My arms seared with pain as I carried her up two flights of creaky wooden stairs. I smelt a mixture of stale cigarettes and mildew so I felt nauseated. I dropped Maria off at the entrance and peered in at the actors who were performing yoga stretches and vocalization exercises on the cold cement floor.
“Why don’t you stay and watch me rehearse,” Maria begged.
“No, I’d like to go home and take care of a few things.”
“What things? Come on, stay and support me.”
I excused myself. “I can’t. I have to make some phone calls.”
Maria pouted, “Yeah, when are you going to call the bartender?”
She kissed me passionately so I dipped her. Her fellow actors applauded, she took a bow and I slipped out the door without making a confession about the bartender.
The night of Maria’s Seattle debut arrived. I sneaked into the makeshift theater in the Broadway Market and I sat in a plastic chair in the back row. I looked foolish reclining in the back row since the play attracted a small almost non-existent audience. A middle age man dressed in black plopped down in the chair beside me. He confided that his son starred in the play.
I bragged, “My girlfriend plays the housewife. Her name is Maria Lopez.”
He furled his brow, “Any relation to Jennifer Lopez?”
I guffawed, “No, but she wishes.”
The lights dimmed and butterflies climbed up to my throat. Fearing that Maria would flub up her lines, I prayed that she wouldn’t sabotage her debut performance. Maria crept out onto the half-lit stage. I trembled for her as she kissed her costar passionately and sailed through her two or three lines. Before I knew it, the play had ended and Maria pulled off the performance of her short life. In fact, one critic crowed that she was the best part of a badly written and poorly directed play. Even Dolores had to start somewhere
Maria was amped from her performance so we made sweaty love that night. She kept muttering something about an independent filmmaker named Denny who wanted her to star in his upcoming film, Intoxicated in Seattle. I didn’t want her to star in Denny’s film, but Maria ignored my protests.
“Paolo, indies films are huge at the moment. Just think, Denny’s film could get accepted at Sundance and I could meet tons of celebrities.”
I doubted that the situation would lead to Sundance, but I compromised and met with Denny and Maria to discuss the project. I planned on blowing his cover, especially if he was a porn filmmaker disguising himself as an independent filmmaker.
We met Denny at the Grand Illusion Café. A couple of latte-drinking bohemian filmmakers lounged on a couch discussing a French New Wave film that they just viewed and a pair of actresses played cards in the corner. We pulled up chairs at Denny’s cluttered table.
“So Denny, I asked, “Do you have any Hollywood connections?”
His jaw dropped then after a long pause he shouted, “I detest Hollywood!”
Maria gaped, “Why do you hate Hollywood?”
“Because,” he paused to gulp his latte, “Hollywood producers favor box office returns over artistic merit. Even indies filmmakers are expected to have a well-known actor in their film if they are to get distribution or backing.” He sneered, “You can’t get your film into Sundance unless Cameron Diaz stars in it!”
Leaning back in my chair, I assessed the situation. I knew my motives didn’t have Maria’s best interests at heart, but I felt animosity towards the pompous filmmaker. So I grilled him, “Why do you want Maria to star in your film?”
“She’s so incredibly beautiful to look at.”
Maria glowed. Turning towards me, she reprimanded me, “Look, I don’t care what you think of the film. I’m doing it!”
I argued, “But you heard what he said about the film not standing a chance at appearing at Sundance. Why waste your time?”
She countered, “I could use the on-camera experience and the debut will look good on my resume. Plus you can send a video to your bartender friend so he can pass it on to De Niro.”
I looked away from Maria and stared at the dirty coffee cups and plates that cluttered the table. I wish that I could connect to Josh since that would have been better alternative than her starring in Denny’s film.
Shooting for the film was delayed since the indies filmmaker’s backer pulled out at the last minute. Denny and Maria hit the Seattle International Film Festival hoping to meet an independent film producer, but most of them smelled Denny’s desperation and politely snubbed him. They found Maria charming though and wished her luck with her creative endeavors, but they had nothing to offer her at the time.
My relationship with Maria suffered from strain since she spent most of her time with her director. I prepared a romantic dinner complete with her favorite flowers, lilies and her favorite dish, salmon with linguini as a last ditch effort to save our relationship. My efforts were lost on her since she could only focus on how they would finance her film debut. I lit candles then slipped as Astrud Gilberto CD into the player. I pulled up a chair. I devoured the salmon as a favorite samba reverberated through the apartment. I wanted to wake Maria from her trance so I could clear my conscious.
“What are you thinking about?”
She glanced at me, “How we will come up with the money for the film.”
“Why don’t you just pull out of the film? Why are you and the other actors so whipped by Denny?”
Flames reflected in Maria’s eyes and resembling a demon she glared at me. “We’re not whipped!”
“Sure you are,” I quipped, “it’s as if you are in a cult and he’s the leader. You’re all devotees of the Jim Jones of the film world.”
Maria stabbed her salmon with her fork then she asked, “Can we talk about something else?”
I look down at my worn out Docs. “The thing is…”
The phone rang just as I was about to confess my true connection to the bartender. Maria scurried to the phone. Moments later, she jumped up and down after a couple of minutes of listening to the caller. She shouted, “Denny found a backer and we start shooting on Tuesday!”
Maria’s excitement led us once again to a sexual escapade on the old couch. This time we knocked a couple of springs loose. I thought to myself how nice it would be if Maria got paid for her work because we could use a new couch.
I barely saw Maria for the next three months and I heard a rumor about an affair she was having with her costar Robert. However, from what I knew about independent films and their grueling schedules, I didn’t think she would have possessed the energy to pursue an affair, not even a quickie behind the set. Besides, even if she did have the energy, her twisted Catholic guilt would’ve ended it, so I thought.
When the shooting of the film ended, I promised myself I would tell Maria the truth about my Hollywood connection. I figured she’d feel elated about her movie and wouldn’t take my news too hard. So I met up with the cast and crew at their wrap party, held at Denny’s new loft. Maria got drunk and spread the word that I had a connection to Robert De Niro. Maria’s costar Robert staggered over to me from across the room.
He slurred, “I heard that you know De Niro.”
Maria sashayed over to us and joined the conversation, “I hope you don’t mind, but I told Robert about Josh.”
A loud blast of music pierced the air and grabbed Maria’s attention. We gathered around the large screen to view the film’s outtakes. Footage of Maria kissing Robert filled the screen. They kissed passionately in a phone booth with sheets of rain pounding them. Normally, I would have felt pangs of jealousy watching Maria kiss another man, but I experienced only sympathy for Robert who resembled a troll and for Maria who looked like an adorable, but hardly an erotic marsupial. Maria screamed as she saw her disfigured face fill up the screen.
I suppressed my laughter and consoled her. “It’s okay. It reminds me of a Fellini film.”
She sobbed, “Who is Fellini?”
I looked over at Robert who glowed with pride. A couple of twenty-something blonde women dressed in retro-seventies clothing clung to the actor. He didn’t care how he appeared on celluloid. Maria, on the other hand, stormed out of the room. I grabbed our jackets and pursued her. I yelled to her to wait up. She stopped and she wiped her face on my sleeve. I put my arm around her back and feigned sympathy, though secretly I wanted to see the film fail.
She sobbed, “I can’t show De Niro that awful film! What was Denny thinking?”
I interjected, “He told you that he despised Hollywood so what did you expect? I mean, he wasn’t going to shoot you in the best light because he didn’t see you as the Dolores Del Rio type.”
She rested her head on my shoulder as we traveled up Pine Street. “At least De Niro will never see the film, but could you still contact Josh for me?”
I stopped walking then staring into Maria’s teary eyes. I confessed, “I have something to tell you. I only met Josh once and I doubt he’d remember me. I’ve been trying to tell you, but I kept getting distracted and…”
Maria shape shifted into a demon. “What! You lied to me? You never had a connection to De Niro? So then, why have I been wasting my time with you?”
She rushed up the hill leaving me crushed, emotions mangled. She yelled over her shoulder, “It’s over between us! I can’t live with a fraud!”
She slept at Robert’s house that night. The next day the new couple came to pick up her belongings while I was at work and I never saw her again, not even in a movie. I heard later that she married Robert and that they moved to Hollywood. Good riddance I thought. I swore that I would never get involved with an actress again.
Yet, I still dream about Carmen. She always wears a basket of fruit on her head when we dine out at chic restaurants and she kicks off a musical routine at the slightest provocation. Fortunately, she never mentions my connection to Robert De Niro. That’s why I love her.
By Patricia Herlevi, All Rights Reserved
Check out my YouTube channel, Patricia Herlevi, to listen to my short fiction podcasts. I also include my photography in the videos so I give you both a feast for the ears and the eyes.