The telephone rang.
If it's good news, there's going to be a lot of people on the call, Dave had told me. Bad news, it'll just be one person from the studio, the executive in charge of the project. I lifted the phone to my ear, feeling like the air had gained weight and my arm was moving through something with the consistency of tar.
My heartbeat hammered in my ears. My jeans and T‑shirt felt too small, the sunshine in my bedroom stabbed at my eyes, and the atmosphere felt thin, as if I was working harder than I normally did to pull oxygen into my lungs. Please, God, I thought — me, the girl who hadn't been in a synagogue since my grandma and I had left Massachusetts, who'd barely remembered to fast last Yom Kippur. But still. I was a woman who'd lost her parents, who'd survived a dozen surgeries and emerged with metal implants in my jaw, the right side of my face sunken and scarred, and an eye that drooped. In my twenty-eight years, I hadn't gotten much. I deserved this.
"Hold for Lisa Stark, please!" came Lisa's assistant's singsong.
My breath rushed out of me. Lisa was my executive at the studio. If she was the only one on the call, then this was the end of the road: the pass, the thanks-but-no-thanks. The no. I pushed my hair — lank, brown, unwashed for the last three days — behind my ears and sat on my bed. I would keep my dignity intact. I would not cry until the call was over.
I had told myself to expect bad news; told myself, a thousand times, that the numbers were not in my favor. Each year, the network ordered hundreds of potential new programs, giving writers the thumbs-up and the money to go off and write a pilot script. Of those hundreds of scripts, anywhere from two to three dozen would actually be filmed, and of those, only a handful — maybe four, maybe six, maybe as many as ten — would get ordered to series. My sitcom, The Next Best Thing, loosely based on my own life with my grandmother, had made the first cut three months ago. I'd quit my job as an assistant at Two Daves Productions in order to work full-time on the script, progressing through the steps from a single-sentence pitch — a college graduate who's been laid off and her grandmother who's been dumped move to an upscale assisted-living facility in Miami, where the girl tries to make it as a chef and the grandmother tries to live without a boyfriend — to a paragraph-long pilot summary, then a beat sheet detailing each scene, then a twelve-page outline, and, finally, a forty-page script.
For months I'd been writing, holed up in my bedroom, or carrying my computer to a neighborhood coffee shop, where I was surrounded by my more attractive peers, the ones who carried on long, loud telephone conversations in which they used the words my agent as often as possible, and did everything but prop tip cups and writer at work signs in front of their laptops.
I wrote draft after draft, turning each one over to the studio that had funded my efforts and to the network that would, I hoped, eventually air them. I considered each round of notes; I cut and edited, rewrote and rewrote again. I pored over books for expectant parents to give my characters just the right names, and spent days in the kitchens of local restaurants so I could nail the details of my heroine's job.
Two weeks ago I'd delivered the absolutely, positively final final draft. I'd brushed my lips against every single one of the pages, kissing each one lightly before I slid the script into the hole-puncher, then slipped the brass brads through the holes and pushed them shut. To celebrate, I'd taken Grandma out to lunch at the Ivy, at her insistence. My grandmother, a petite and stylish woman of a certain age, was a great fan of the tabloids. Any restaurant where the paparazzi were a regular presence on the sidewalk was a place she wanted to be.
When we walked up to the stand, the maître d' looked at me — in a plain black cotton shift dress and five-year-old zippered leather boots, with my laptop tucked under my arm — and gave a small but discernible shrug. My grandmother stepped toward him, smiling. If I dressed to maximize comfort and minimize attention, in shades of black and gray and blue, with a single necklace and sensible shoes, my grandmother had style enough for the both of us. That day she wore a black-and-white linen dress with a black patent-leather belt and black canvas espadrilles with bows that tied at her ankles. Her necklace was made of vintage Bakelite beads in poppy red, and she had a matching red patent-leather clutch in her hand and a red silk flower tucked behind one ear.
"How are you today?" she asked.
"Fine." The host's eyes lingered on her face as he tried to figure out if she was someone he should know, a screen star of yesteryear or one of the Real Housewives' mothers. "This is my granddaughter," said Grandma, and gave me a brisk poke in the small of my back. I stumbled obediently toward the podium with a can-you-believe-her look on my face, wishing I'd worn a necklace or a flower, or had thought to carry a pretty purse, or to have purchased one in the first place. "Ruthie is a writer." The man behind the podium could barely suppress his wince. Writer, of course, was not the magic word that would cause him to usher us to the finest table in the restaurant and send over a bottle of free Champagne. Maybe writing for TV was a big deal elsewhere in America. In Hollywood, it meant less than nothing.
Television writers were as common as cat dirt, and anyone with a working laptop and a version of Final Draft on her hard drive could claim to be one. You could almost see the word nobodies in a balloon floating above the man's neatly barbered head as he led us to a table so far in the back it was practically in the kitchen.
"Ladies," he said.
Grandma paused and rested her hand on the man's forearm. She tilted her face up toward his, batted her eyelashes, and gave him her gentle smile. "Would it be possible for us to have a booth? Or a table with a little more light?" Even at her age — seventy-six, although she'd have shot me if I'd said it out loud — her skin was still smooth, her eyes still bright, face vivid with rouge and lipstick, eyeliner and curling false lashes. Her waist was still slim, and her teeth were all her own. "We're celebrating."
He smiled back — it is, I have learned over the years, almost impossible to resist my grandma's smile — and led us to a booth halfway between the open front porch lined with white umbrellas, where the stars would pose and preen for the cameras, and the dim back room, where the nobodies were sequestered. We shared pasta and a chopped salad, had a glass of wine apiece, and split tiramisu for dessert. As we ate, Grandma told me stories from the set of OR, the medical drama where she'd been working as an extra that week. "The kids they bring in," she complained, running the edge of her spoon along the ridge of whipped cream that topped the tiramisu. "They're out partying all night, so by the time they get in their gurneys, they're exhausted. One of the ADs has to run around set five minutes before every take just making sure they're not sleeping."
"Tough gig," I said. Grandma herself was spending eight hours a day sitting in the fake OR's fake waiting room. Every day, from ten in the morning until six o'clock at night, with union-mandated breaks for lunch and snacks, she'd get paid to do what she might have done for free on a normal day — sit in an uncomfortable plastic chair with a tote bag of knitting in her lap, looking somewhere between bored and worried as she waited for her name to be called.
"You have to respect them," she said, nibbling at the strawberry that sat on the side of the dessert plate. "Finding a way to get paid for sleeping. That's initiative."
"Nice work if you can get it," I said, and flagged down our waiter, and paid the bill. Then Grandma had gone back to the Radford lot in the Valley, a neighborhood ten miles away from and ten degrees hotter than Hollywood, where a number of television shows and movies were shot, and I drove back to Hancock Park, a pretty neighborhood with spacious sidewalks and green lawns, to our apartment in a Spanish-style building called the Moroccan, to wait.
From The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner. Copyright 2012 by Jennifer Weiner. Excerpted by permission of Atria Books.