“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”
“Football is a game of errors. The team that makes the fewest errors in a game usually wins.”
If we watched a tape of what took place back then, if I gave my interpretation in retrospect through a play-by-play analysis—yes—I see it now—a guest appearance with football commentators sporting names like Chuck and Dick reviewing someone—me—dropping the ball, I’d sit up straight for the camera, clear my throat, and speak up—audible even if I didn’t have the microphone pinned to the lining of my C-cup-filled button-up blouse:
“It’s my youth. It’s my idealism. It’s my mouth. It’s my lady parts, which undeniably make me the minority in the room. I should’ve known my place.”
* * *
Innocent words are laced together into promises. About being a good intern. So good I might be worthy. Maybe you’ll get a full time job here. Maybe it’ll lead to something good. Maybe if you work hard enough people will notice. People will notice. People will notice. We can’t officially promise anything, you know how it is, but bust your ass and people will notice.
I am ripe for the unpaid picking.
My contacts are minimal and no one lands a job in the film industry without an important relation or knowing someone—the elusive someone we’re all supposed to meet in order to find our way up the ladder—a few golden keys hidden in the lost city of angels, maybe in an alley, maybe in a desert, maybe in an aloe-filled canyon.
My gender suspends me in water, trying to reach toward my goals but having to paddle harder, in competition with the men running free beside me. And they whistle at me along the way: Hey baby, can I have your number? Hey baby, you wanna get together? Maybe I’ll help you out of that water. Maybe I won’t let you drown. Maybe.
My chronic illness is invisible, stealing away pieces of me in secret, leaving behind shame to fill the empty parts. Some days I wonder: Does walking down the street leave me vulnerable to wind gusts?—light in body, heavy only in shame—my Styrofoam-cup-self rolling along the gutter, falling into the sewer by the woosh of a metro bus. So I build armor daily. I tell myself: One day I’ll make my family proud.
I accept their offer, an unpaid internship as assistant to the Director of Acquisitions, without a paycheck, because there are a hundred others willing to take my place in a heartbeat, because I think this is what it means to suck it up and work hard, this is what mailroom boys did in the nineteen-thirties: got shit low-pay or no-pay job and climbed the ladder.
But this isn’t the thirties. And I haven’t yet realized the key element in that methodology is boys—of which I am not.
But it’s all worth it. Totally worth it. The seed planted in childhood—the hundreds of hours watching classic films—develops into a full-fledged desire to be a part of the art form. I recite names like prayer: Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Rear Window, Desk Set, To Catch a Thief, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future . . . I wake at 6:30 a.m. to make the hour-and-a half drive down Laurel Canyon boulevard, down La Cienega, over Venice boulevard cranking my radio. Films are born in my mind—I see stories developing, cameras zooming in, dialogue said on the page. There’s so much I could create that the desire itself is intoxicating—that dream-state of creation down the canyon boulevard is soulful, self-perpetuating—filling me whole for a brief moment.
And pay? What’s pay? I delay graduating from college so I can still take out student loans. I borrow money from my parents and buy stock in Guilt like I know my company, Shame, is going to make a killing this year. I expect a future trade-off to starvation. I just have to work hard. I just have to show that I’m good enough.
There is a dance my employers and I play, back and forth, a guessing game, guessing how much I’ll take before I break, guessing when the moment will be right, to ask if I’m good enough—No—I don’t dare ask—I just do. I do good. And I watch their faces, their hand gestures, the tone of their words, the meaning between their words, how long they talk to me, if they talk to me, and I wait, I wait—hoping, praying, demanding of Life: I don’t want a man. I don’t want a baby. I want this career. I. Want. This. I say it aloud to make it so.
I’m a willing slave, because I see myself as a liability, as less than, as a young woman with a hidden chronic illness. I know a steroid and a beta-blocker are barely keeping my body going. I know just two months earlier I blacked out in my apartment bathroom. I’m not proud of who I am. Just the chance to work at a studio makes me feel lucky. Months go by as I tread water, dutiful by the copying machine, placing brass brads in two of the three holes for scripts. I sit at my desk, scheduling the Director of Acquisitions for movie screenings and meetings at SXSW, the Cannes Film Festival, and Comic-Con. I read scripts, write coverage, answer phones, attend project meetings, asking, “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
* * *
Chuck, my fellow commentator, pauses the video feed, and says, “You were makin’ some good plays there. You were bustin’ your ass. Tell me, did doin’ all this change anything?”
“I grew confident, Chuck. Even though I still had those pangs of less than going on, I started to feel like I was the shit. People took notice that I was the intern that got things done.”
“Let’s see what happens,” Dick says.
* * *
Here’s the scene: We’re sitting around an oblong table, almost too long to still be considered round whatsoever, and I’m at a prime seat, I’m the second person away from the President of this production company within a major motion picture studio, and to my right, scrunched closely to me mind you, is my immediate boss, Director of Acquisitions, scrunched closely because there’s so many of us at this oblong table we barely fit, and yet, despite how many of us are there I am one of two women (maybe three if the other intern was there that day, I can’t remember—no, if I look back I can’t see that third gal among all the starched collars, among all male heads—salt and pepper, some balding, some combed over, some still young enough to evoke an on-purpose disheveled look, some keeping in tune with a crew cut, though it’s always hard to find the time to get a haircut in this industry).
There’s never time. Every project overlaps another project, overlaps an email, a telephone call, a meeting. Fluorescent light seals us in this tomb of work ethic. (What I would’ve done to have a window.) The oblong table spreads herself across the room, between us. It doesn’t matter if she’s red wood enamel or black or metallic—she’s glorious in size but not quite real.
An assistant to one of the producers sweats across the narrow end of the table from me. He’s a Nice Guy whose parents and sister visited once from the Midwest or some place nice, some place untainted by Hollywood, and I thought to myself: What I would do to have a family that perfect. What a lucky guy. He deserves that kind of luck. God Bless him. At the oblong table Nice Guy’s boss says they have a script to pitch, and Nice Guy painstakingly finds the words for the president of the company, for this room full of people, for the oblong table. He’s so quiet at first that it takes him awhile to find his voice, but then his words pick up speed and size. He starts to smile a little—falters his delivery a little—smiles some more—falters again—sweats some more. A story idea I don’t find too promising surfaces.
In this line of work promising means many things: marketability—is there the demographic willing to pay to see this? Is there a big name we can cast as the lead? Does the story feel fresh or like a tired cliché? Is the plot too convoluted or does it make sense? On so many fronts my brain makes snap judgments—a sort of robotic marketability microchip implanted in my brain many eons ago when I first moved to Hollywood activates—and at the end of this embedded mechanism’s data processing slips out the whisper under my breath, “Well, that sounds stupid.”
. . . only it’s not a whisper.
It’s a mistake I can’t undo, it’s a tango with my career I can’t undance, and what I would give to go back five minutes earlier. Nothing I’ve done good in the past five months matters now. None of it.
* * *
“Ohhhh!” Dick and Chuck yell in unison, wincing at the screen. Chuck pauses the video feed.
Dick says, “I gotta tell you—I really felt that one, Chuck.”
They turn to me and Chuck says, “Wow, that’s what I would call a game changer. You really blew it there with that fumble, didn’t you? Not to jump the gun, but can you talk to us a little bit about the long-term impact of that?”
“In the film industry, you’re only as good as you are today, right now. In that moment all my inadequacies became real. Before then they’d just been a fear. Afterward, I was convinced I really wasn’t worth much.”
* * *
Then—in an industry that never has enough time—there’s suddenly enough time at the oblong table to make what I said into a thing. My whispered, not-so-whispered, statement is a thing—a living breathing entity of mistake that we all must discuss right then and there as embarrassing as if I just got my period. My words are contorted before me, mangled in each man’s hands. The thighs of my words are clawed at, rubbed up and down hard—until they mean something different entirely. Opinions radiate from the oblong table as I think of new ways in which I hate myself. The president leans in, intrigued by the disaster unfolding, and asks me to clarify what I mean. I mumble out something, fixated on my heart pounding in my chest, and the president’s ice blue eyes watch, waiting for me to either deliver or continue crucifying myself. I want to yell out, “I never meant for this to become a thing!”
“You haven’t even read the script,” says Nice Guy’s producer, hissing like swear words.
Only one person stands up for me—the other girl at the table—and she says, “Wait, Gen wasn’t saying the script itself was stupid. She was saying if that’s what you’re saying the idea is in your pitch, then it doesn’t sound so great. And that’s Gen’s opinion based on what was said.” But her words are drowned out . . .
Meanwhile, Nice Guy scoots further down in his seat, while his producer boss argues across the table for the project. Consequence swirls in my brain like wreckage in a storm, sucking downward in a whirlpool among uprooted houses, fences, street lamps, stop signs, this oblong table before us. Was that Nice Guy’s first story pitch? Oh God, maybe it was. My off-the-cuff remark has ruined his moment, his time to prove himself, his right to shine briefly for the first time—I’m such an ass. My negligence for subtlety, for humanity, has turned his first-time experience from a glorious weekend with a lover to cherry-popping a zitty chick in the back of a rusty pick-up truck. And there’s nothing to pull me or Nice Guy up from this wreckage, because the men at the oblong table already covered everything else on the to-do list for this meeting. So for a moment we drown in the awkward silence after the eruption, after the storm.
I rush out of the room, hoping if I’m fast enough I can leave my mistake behind me, hoping I can hide again in my cubicle. But Nice Guy’s producer calls out my name in the hallway, rushing up behind me. I stop, take a deep breath, and turn around. He pulls me aside—only we’re in plain view—as everyone passes by, he scolds me like I’m a little girl, like I crossed the street without looking both ways. Until then I’ve never realized how much taller he is than me. No one saves me. Even my own boss I’ve supported without pay for the last five months sells me down the river, walking by like a stranger. My face burns red, my stomach churns, my eyes well up with tears, my heart-rate skyrocketing faster and faster and faster. I feel the producer’s anger in waves, rolling off his tongue, about how I need to watch out what I say because unfortunately the president listens to us stupid intern fools, about how I’m lucky to work here—oh how lucky I am—but it would only take one word to change that in a heartbeat, in fact if I was his intern I’d already be fired. My back is up against the wall, and it feels like he’s just holding back from hitting me.
I take it like a man.
I turn the other cheek to his shout-whisper through clenched teeth—delivering words as punches—I feel the heat of his end-of-the-day coffee breath in my left ear, on my left cheek,my back against the wall. He demands an apology.
I nod, apologize, don’t talk back, don’t argue, and while I’m taking it, his words blur together. If I were younger—if I were a teenager—I’d stand up for myself. I’d talk back. But now I’m older and that’s not wise.
* * *
“Man, I got swept away in that play there. I gotta tell you, Chuck, I didn’t see all that comin’—at least not that bad,” Dick says, hitting the pause button.
“Didn’t it look like he might’ve grabbed her arm there for a second? I could’ve sworn I saw a foul.”
“Well, he certainly blocked her pass. Had her right to the wall,” Dick says as they both turn to me.
“But I left myself wide-open for that,” I say. “That producer was right, you know. I totally messed with his career—and his assistant’s career for that matter—back in the project meeting. And who the Hell was I anyway?”
“Sometimes when you’re in the midst of a game—well, Jesus—it happens so fast for an inexperienced player,” Chuck says with a laugh. “I know I screwed up a bunch of times back in the early days. It’s all about how you recover.”
“But maybe that’s the worst mistake of all,” I say. “‘Til this day I’m not sure I made the right decision to take it like a man—or what I thought at the time constituted as taking it like a man. I wish to God I stood up for myself or something. I think if I had to do it over again, I’d pull away—I’d jump away from the wall, and tell him, ‘You’re obviously very upset and it’s been a long week. Let’s talk about this later.’ Then walk away no matter what. I could’ve talked with him about it after he cooled off.”
“Hindsight is always twenty-twenty,” Chuck says.
* * *
To admit a mistake takes memory, acknowledgement, and self-evaluation. Usually, I can’t look back just once. I look back when I can’t sleep, because of something totally unrelated. I look back when I’m bored, I look back from a situational trigger: put me in a boardroom with middle-aged, balding men again at an oblong table, and my heart rate will probably go up.
Alexander Pope said, “To err is human. To forgive is divine.”
But will I—can I ever forgive myself for my mistakes?
Our human inclination allows mistakes to fester. Perhaps I should only speak for myself, but I know I’ve heard others—friends, family, even strangers—voicing regret. We beat ourselves up over and over again, replaying the mistakes like looped video feed, torturing ourselves over what we did wrong, asking ourselves where it all went wrong, surmising what we’d do differently if given a second chance.
Reviewed mistakes cause self-affliction. Perhaps I deserve watching the video feed loop. Then again, healing takes place too. To tell the world my mistake is absolutely freeing, relieving. Sometimes the more I retell a mistake, the further I move away from it—as if words were mileage.
Other times, I dwell on the revision process itself, playing out my second chance. I think if I can imprint the rewrite hard enough, maybe I can actually change what happened. Hell, maybe in another universe I’m just about to walk into that room—somewhere I’m sitting down to that oblong table—maybe I can get to that version of myself and not let her make the same mistake.
But maybe I’m glad I opened my big, fat mouth at the oblong table. What I regret is not standing up for myself when the producer cornered me, and I regret not talking to him later on. Instead, I tried to regain my status by lying low, hoping all might return to normalcy. Instead, I stopped being invited to every Friday project meeting held from then on, or conveniently, everyone snuck away without saying, “Hey Gen, the meeting is happening now.” People avoided me like the plague. Another producer coined the phrase, “Don’t pull a Genevieve.”
For the longest time I couldn’t even repeat that.
Don’t pull a Genevieve.
But I’m telling you now.
* * *
I look over at Chuck and Dick, who sit plump in their suits, happy with themselves they reviewed and dissected a bad play. They’re waiting for the interview to wrap up, Hallmark card style, Olympic games style, with words of wisdom and triumph expected out of my red pout. Something starts bubbling up, from some place deep inside me—as only a murmur at first.
“I’m sorry, we couldn’t hear you,” Chuck says.
The murmur grows louder.
“Maybe it’s the mic. Speak up,” Dick says.
“Cunt,” I whisper.
“Fucking cunt,” I say.
“Uh . . .”
My microphone is cut off with a high electronic feedback squeal.
I’m dragged offstage.