For the greater part of his twenties and half of his thirties, Peter Layton's longest- standing relationship was with a young male polar bear named Pooka. Pooka was not a real polar bear but an animated one, and though Peter's life was inextricably linked with Pooka's, Peter and Pooka never actually met. Theirs was an intimate relationship consummated in postproduction by a team of highly skilled computer animators. Peter worked with a script in front of a "green screen" while a director and skeleton crew guided Peter from gaffer- taped mark to mark on the concrete sound stage in Queens, New York. But to all the children of the world the places that Peter and Pooka visited were legion.
Of course, when Peter first arrived in New York City upon graduating from Yale Drama, the last thing he had on his mind was children's television. His turn as Trigorin in The Seagull had been hailed as "superlative" (according to the college newspaper), matched only by his interpretation of Richard Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, in which local reviewers found in Peter that intangible fusion of intensity and irresistible insouciance — in short, the elusive charisma that is the golden ticket for any young actor. He moved into a Williamsburg loft with a couple of his former classmates and gave himself a year to concentrate on his indisputably promising acting career before even considering a day job.
At first, everything seemed to go as planned. He landed a respectable off- off Broadway job within a month of living in New York. It was an original play written by a young playwright (and former Yalie), produced by a theater company comprised of moonlighting Hollywood actors with serious theater pretensions. The play was middling at best, but Peter was extremely well received and clearly shone above the other considerably more experienced thespians. Though the play was not financially lucrative, it managed to secure him representation with a small boutique agency specializing in theater, andNew York magazine chose his picture to front a featured article showcasing young talent.
And then nothing.
He got plenty of auditions and a respectable amount of callbacks, but the feedback was always frustratingly difficult to decipher. "Too intense." "Uncommitted." "Distracted." "Too good- looking." "Not good- looking enough." Among the most maddening was when a ginger- haired, pockmarked casting director, pressed by Peter's agent as to why he hadn't called his client back for a bit part in an independent movie, confided, "He just didn't sparkle."
The agent passed this on to Peter as an accusation.
"What am I? Fucking Christmas- tree tinsel?" Peter vented to his roommate Ben as they walked to the L train. Ben worked at a juice bar in the East Village and commuted daily.
Ben shrugged. "I'm a Jew. We don't know from tinsel."
"I was good. I know I was. The way the writer looked at me when I was shaking their hands — "
"You shake their hands?" Ben asked.
"Yeah," Peter said. "Of course I do. Don't you?"
Ben shook his head. "No."
"Wait! What, you just leave?" Peter wasn't through venting, but he was intrigued. "You just wave or something?"
"I don't want them to think I'm kissing their ass," Ben said.
"Even though I would gladly kiss their ass if it would get me in someone's movie. I'd put my tongue right in there — "
"All right, all right." Peter laughed. "I don't think that's Kosher."
"I would kiss the ass of a pig on the Sabbath if it would get me hired," Ben went on. Commiserating about auditions and rejections was one of the best things about being friends with someone who struggled with the same ridiculous career. Peter was alternately amused and relieved whenever Ben would rant about losing out on a part. And while it shamed Peter to admit it, he was occasionally consoled by the fact that Ben had experienced even less success upon leaving Yale than Peter had. Over the years, Ben had booked fewe rthan a handful of parts in tiny productions, and the week before, Peter had come across an application for the LSAT on the kitchen counter while pickingup his mail. Before too long, Peter figured, his friend and confidant would formally abandon his stalled acting career and head back to school to learn the family profession.
When they arrived at the dingy staircase that led down into the subway station, Peter stopped and began rummaging through his backpack.
"You go on," he told Ben. "I got a meeting here."
"No shit?" Ben turned around. "And here I was feeling sorry for you."
Peter retrieved a Chinese- food menu with an address scrawled across it. "You can still feel sorry for me. It's for a children's television show."
Ben laughed. "You're about as kid- friendly as an unsupervised wading pool."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence" Peter said, and headed west. He turned and yelled, "Yo! Bring home some wheatgrass!"
Ben waved his hand over his shoulder as he descended underground.
That night, Peter's agent left a message on his answering machine. He was being called back.
A week later, he was hired.
The flight to Los Angeles was packed and seemed more full of babies and children than usual. Peter wore his sunglasses and Yankees cap and made sure to speak as little as possible so as to attract the least amount of attention. It was over two years since he had left Peter &Pooka in disgrace, though according to the press release, Peter had left after fifteen years to "pursue other ventures." The network vehemently denied that there were drugs involved so as not to sully the magnificently successful brand that was Peter &Pooka, and except for the New York Post staff photographer who had snapped Peter leaving Beth Israel Hospital — where he had been treated for "exhaustion" — and printed it with the crushingly emasculating headline "Is peter pooped?" his reputation as the squeaky- clean companion of Pooka remained intact.
The scandal surrounding Peter's departure was quickly and willfully forgotten by the program's loyal following, a forgiving group of fans primarily under the age of five. Their mothers forgave Peter, too, and perhaps were even titillated by his transgression. For years these same mothers watched Peter frolic in foreign countries, nibbling food they would never try, learning about exotic cultures they would never visit, and they were charmed by the seeming guilelessness and enthusiasm that Peter projected. Just when their lives had begun to be weighed down by the exhausting pressures of motherhood, and as their husbands retreated into earning for a family that they would rarely see, Peter offered them a fantasy. He was as much of a companion to the mothers as to their preschool- aged children. He embodied a collective emotional fantasy — a lovable manchild who, unlike their husbands, never got angry, never withdrew or neglected them. He was always there to distract and charm, clearly intelligent and reassuringly familiar. But he wasn't real. Until that picture surfaced in the Post, Peter was indistinguishable from his funny, sunny counterpart, and then overnight he became a real man who had become intimately reacquainted with his shadow. The network fired him, but the mothers secretly loved him for it.
Squeezing past the legs of a businessman on the aisle and an acne- afflicted teenager with headphones in the center seat, Peter sat by the window and stared out at the rain- soaked tarmac. It had been raining for days in New York, and he felt a twinge of hope as he visualized the mild weather in California. He was planning to stay with his twin sister, Lindsay, who had moved to Los Angeles years ago and had since found considerable success as a landscape artist for the affluent beach set. Lindsay had little formal training, but she had the gift of an intuitive eye inherited from their mother — a seemingly effortless way of creating an atmosphere of style and ease. Lindsay showed her clients a lifestyle as much as where to plant the perennials.
She had been dogging her brother for weeks to visit, knowing how difficult life had become for him in New York. And although Peter had no want of money after fifteen years on the television show and could easily have paid for a hotel, his sister insisted that he stay with her. So he took her up on her offer, comforted by the thought of spending time with the one person to whom he felt he never had to explain anything.
"Excuse me? Sir? Mr. Layton?"
Peter turned to see a flight attendant kneeling in the aisle next to the businessman. She was a trim woman with bright pink lipstick and streaked blond hair pulled back in a severe twist.
"Would you mind coming with me?" When she smiled,
Peter noticed a smear of pink lipstick smudged against her white teeth.
Peter was startled. "Is there something wrong?"
His two flying companions looked at him with vague interest. The teenager took the headphones out of his ears and squinted at him.
"Dude, I know you," he said.
The flight attendant stood up and smoothed out her skirt. "I can carry your bag if it's in the overhead."
"No," Peter said. "I have my bag here." He grabbed the magazines that he had stashed in the seat pocket and squeezed his way back out, apologizing as he tripped over the businessman's legs.
"You're that polar- bear guy!" the teenager said. A few heads turned in his direction. "Trippy," he heard the boy say as he hurried down the aisle after the flight attendant.
There was a group of four other flight attendants waiting for him in the galley closest to the front, and they squealed when Peter entered, concerned and confused.
"I'm Marcie," the first attendant said. "We have an extra seat for you in first class, but we didn't want to say anything in front of the other passengers."
"Oh," Peter said. "That's nice." He smiled at the grinning women.
One of the flight attendants, who stood at least two inches taller than him in flat shoes, grasped his hand. "But it's on condition that you sign this for my son." She giggled and thrust out a ticket printout and a green Sharpie, wrapping Peter's fingers around it. "He loves you. Loves you. He sleeps with Pooka and dressed like you for Halloween two years in a row. I'm not kidding!"
Peter obediently began to sign his name on the ticket. Another of the women, short and stout with a frizzy mop of hair dyed a burgundy color that never would have occurred in nature, took a steady stream of pictures with her cell phone.
"He looked so cute in his striped purple turtleneck," the flight- attendant mother for whom Peter was signing the ticket told her coworkers.
Peter handed the ticket back and looked to the other women. A brunette with eyes that seemed far too large for her face handed him a ticket of her own.
"Can you make it out to Sailor? She's my niece."
"Sailor? That's an interesting name," Peter said. He was overtired from not having slept the night before and for a moment could not remember how to spell "Sailor."
"I know, it had to grow on me," the woman confessed. "Her daddy is a Marine."
"I didn't know that," Marcie said. "That's just precious!"
An Asian man poked his head in the galley and asked for a glass of water by motioning with his hands, pantomiming taking a drink. The burgundy- haired flight attendant who clearly had seniority shooed him away with her hands. "You need to take your seat now."
The man pointed to his seat, where his wife sat with a baby in her lap. He made the motion again for water.
"Sir, you really need to take your seat. Now," the woman said. She put her hand on his back and another on his shoulder and pushed him in the direction of his seat. "Go. Move. Sit."
The man walked back to his seat and sat down.
"Sorry about that," she said to Peter, laughing. "Some people just can't follow rules."
Peter looked at the man, who was being questioned by his wife in Korean. As the husband unleashed his frustration on his wife, their baby began to wail. The passengers nearby rolled their eyes and covered their ears.
"I think the water was for the baby," Peter said.
"They always say that," the woman told him.
The captain came on the loudspeaker, announcing in a friendly Texan drawl the plane's position in line for takeoff. Peter felt a surge of relief knowing that soon he would be released from the women's clutches. He posed for a picture with each flight attendant individually, then for a group picture snapped on self- timer with a point- and- shoot camera precariously perched on top of the galley cart. At their urging he acted out the show's stock phrase — "Pep up, Pooka! Peter's here!" — and then was shown by Marcie to first class, collapsing into his seat, hot and flushed, his hair sticking in ribbons to the perspiration on his forehead.
He felt as though he had never before paid so much for a ticket in his life.
Excerpted from When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald. Copyright 2012 by Molly Ringwald. Ecerpted by permission of HarperCollins.