Arts & Culture » Fiction

Something Shiny



So get this: they're going to make a movie of my life.

I could kind of care less about the movie, but I figure this is probably my only chance to win an Oscar, which I've dreamed about since I was in seventh grade.

Really, I just want to wear the jewels and maybe a simple tiara and have the chance to say "It's Prada." Actually, it would be fine just to be nominated, even if I was in one of those categories that doesn't get televised that they show all at once in a big hurry in the kind of slow two hours in the middle of the show. I don't really have any desire to be famous. I'd just like to have something shiny with my name on it to leave behind. Anyway, I hadn't ever given a lot of thought to exactly how to do that, not being an actress or a director or anything related to that at all, but then all these crappy things happened and I wrote a book about it (a memoir they call it, even though I'm in my 30s and it seems a bit premature) and made sure to work it out in the fine print that I'd be able to write the screenplay as well. I realize it's a long shot.

So yesterday I get this message on my machine saying, "Hi, this is Apple Fowler and you may have already heard I'm going to be playing the part of Wendy in the film version of No but Wait, It Gets Worse..., and I was hoping I could talk to you about it," and so on. Very bizarre to hear someone refer to you as a "part" like you're fictional or not whole. To be honest, Apple Fowler is a good enough actress but she's kind of young to be playing me even where the book starts. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Anyway, I call her back and she's really nice, much nicer than you'd expect a movie star to be, and asks if she can come over for coffee. So we make plans and she comes over and asks me a lot of questions and looks around my apartment like it's this curiosity, like it's somehow different than any other average person's apartment, which I suppose maybe she hasn't had access to as the child of a famous director. It seems like she's never seen a houseplant or a refrigerator magnet or, um, a dog. Still, she's easy to talk to and seems genuinely interested in getting to know me and says that she loved the book and can't even begin to imagine how I made it through everything, and I'm sure she can't, given that she seems a little weirded out by my average person's apartment, which isn't on the long list of things I personally consider myself to have made it through. Anyway, she eventually asks if she can stay for a week or so, to really "become" the character, and she offers to pay me rent, which isn't an issue since my book's been on the best-seller list for eight weeks and I've got plenty of room, plus, I mean, who wouldn't want to be friends with Apple Fowler? Maybe she knows George Clooney's E-mail address. I agree with the condition that the bathroom is mine first and the phone is off-limits, which isn't a problem for her since she's got a cell phone, and also because she says she really wants to "experience" my life and intends to use the phone for emergencies only. She says she'll be as quiet as a mouse.

Which she is, and she sticks by her thing not to even use her own phone, but right away I realize that it's not an awful lot of fun being watched, which I suppose is what my readers are doing in a certain way, except they're not in my house. The first day or two she just takes a lot of notes. It's immediately bizarre to me to see someone writing something down when you're in the middle of doing something absolutely mundane, something that as a writer you hadn't previously considered worth writing down like hand-washing a sweater, which of course is not something Apple has ever witnessed, which perhaps would seem even more unusual to a non-chore-oriented person when followed by utilizing a tweezer to pry out the sink stopper, which broke ages ago, one of those numerous daily adjustments I stopped thinking about as anything that even needs a repair, like the way I play my answering machine messages back on my stereo because the machine records messages but won't play them back, or the way I serve Leo (my pug) his Alpo out of my Chrysler Building mug on the sofa every night because he won't eat until I'm eating and he won't even eat on the floor by the table because it's too far from me, which I personally think is really considerate on his part, and therefore I do not mind fixing him his dinner in my Chrysler Building mug seeing as how he's so obviously trying to keep me company, all of which Apple scribbles down as somehow being crucial and noteworthy.

After the watching and the note taking, she starts trying to imitate me, my gestures, facial expressions, my voice. I think she's sort of got it, but what do I know? It's not like I ever studied myself. But you think you know how you seem to people, and you really don't. I think of myself as unremarkable in a lot of ways; I don't have a New York accent or anything and I don't think I have any overly weird habits like not letting my food touch on the plate or being especially neat or sloppy although I am sometimes afflicted by a tiny bit of obsessive compulsive disorder when it comes to locking my door. I usually have to unlock it and lock it again to make sure it's locked, and I tend to check it a bunch of times before I go to bed, too, which obsession has not gone past Apple, but so anyway she manages to find interest in the way I shuffle my slippered feet and in my fairly rigid schedule of having frozen doughnut holes and one percent milk in bed when Seinfeld comes on at 7:30 (Leo joins at the foot of the bed with a Milk-Bone), which I notice because she shuffles her slippered feet over to my bed with her own doughnut holes and milk (and Milk-Bone) before I have a chance to get there first. I do end up letting her chip in when she asks to use my shampoo and conditioner and pretty much all of my products. It may be equally as fascinating to me that she thinks using my shampoo has some relevance to the Wendy experience as it probably is to her that I use generic shampoo. Anyway, she goes as far as getting her hair cut like mine (by my haircutter) even though her hair is poker straight and mine takes 45 minutes to blow out and still needs to be slept on for a night if I don't want to look like an extra on Dynasty. She wants to know where I got my purple camouflage pants and all my little beaded cardigans (which I'm sort of known for) and has never heard of eBay, so I sit her down at the computer and take some time to explain to her how the Internet works, and when we finally get onto eBay, although she's completely willing to overbid for any item by a ridiculous amount, she doesn't want to wait for the auctions to end, so we venture out to get her some, which I wouldn't have minded so much if she weren't a size two. Those sweaters tend to be on the small side (I don't know if women were smaller in the 50s or what) and she ends up with a spectacular midnight blue one I could never have gotten one arm into, but I try to keep my resentment to myself; she was just born that way.

Naturally, I don't ever drive around New York City, but Apple has a car and knows from the book that I lived in LA for a while (after a fight with my then boyfriend I got on a plane in an alcoholic blackout and even though I sobered up about a week later I wasn't in any big rush to get back to New York) and that driving was this huge deal (and I'm not even going to discuss the whole matter of buying a used car in LA, which is a trauma I just don't even have the time to get into), suddenly having to drive everywhere, driving a mile even just to get milk (and then it's some giant Ralph's where the milk is of course in the back and you have to walk three city blocks through the store to get it so that the total milk-errand time is never less than 45 minutes), but also having to drive 37.4 miles to and from work every day, not to mention the many thousands of dollars spent on repairs totaling more than the actual cost of my car. I lived in LA for four years and can say without hesitation that I never got comfortable driving. So Apple asks me to take her for a ride in her Expedition, which to me is the equivalent of driving the M104, and we go on a short rectangular route (all right turns) up Riverside Drive to 107th Street, back down West End Avenue, and home, which is going to have to be enough for her to observe my driving weirdness, which apparently it is, because she finds it noteworthy that I keep both hands on the wheel at all times (at ten and two, isn't that the law?) and can only change radio stations at a red light and cannot do anything like change a tape or drink something ("Even with a cup holder and a straw?" she asks) and of course would never even consider trying to use a cell phone. She also makes note of my Tourette's-like swearing at any car that comes within three feet of the perimeter of the car, which is of course pretty much constantly, and I tell her that that trait was genetically passed on to me by my mother, who makes creative use of the word "cock" in any number of unpleasant driving scenarios. Apple then makes the same loop and has to correct herself a few times when she's inclined to zap a Ricky Martin song while in motion, but she quickly gets the cursing down and by the time we get back has incorporated other small gestures like the way I shake my watch down toward my wrist when it gets too tight and the way I wear my sunglasses on top of my head to keep the hair out of my face but then squint the whole time, and I begin to feel a little uncomfortable, wishing I were some perfectly generic, gestureless individual.

Which I am apparently not, according to my friend Sue, who calls later that day when I'm out picking up a quart of milk and is still on the phone with Apple when I walk in. Apple looks a little guilty and apologizes to me for picking up the phone by "force of habit" and tells Sue to hold on and passes the phone to me, but when I say hello, she says, "I think we have a bad connection. I have to go anyway, I'll call you tomorrow," even though I can hear her perfectly fine. Apple seems pleased with how easily she was able to convince Sue that she was me, but I've been mistaken for other people on the phone plenty of times and I try not to make much of it this time.

Day three she asks me a lot of questions about when it was that I started drinking and why, since the book starts right after I got out of rehab, and some of this is covered in the book, but when I started drinking, it was just this complete sense of rightness with the world. Maybe some people feel that way naturally, maybe some other people talk with Jesus, I don't know. How I've stayed sober is as much a mystery to me as to anyone. I had just celebrated 90 days of sobriety when my boyfriend broke up with me and at that point I still wanted to drink pretty much every day. But I had already enrolled in grad school for a doctorate in philosophy (also during a blackout, although it turned out to be a better idea than most of the ones I came up with while unconscious), which gave me something more constructive to do than sit around and contemplate the leak in my ceiling. (Which, trust me, is not a metaphor, neither the leak nor its subsequent contemplation.) I didn't have a job at the time and the thought of getting one was kind of horrifying. Apple asks a lot of questions I'm not sure I really have answers for. It's not as though I'm some Olympic triumph-over-tragedy story with violin music playing in the background as I discuss the nature of my faith in God and explain that I believe there was some mystical reason I survived being hit by a car going 45 miles an hour on Wilshire Boulevard (I was walking; I'm sure I crossed against the light, and I'm sure the driver who hit me was not at fault in any way) with nothing worse than a scraped knee, this after landing in front of a Starbucks that was a good half-block from the site of impact. It wasn't until after I ordered a double espresso that I happened to notice the totaled Lexus in the middle of the street; some people in the Starbucks were asking me if I was OK, which I thought was odd, since there was a totaled Lexus in the street that might have someone dead in it (it didn't, the driver had only minor injuries) and they told me that the totaled Lexus had just hit me, to which I think I said something like "Really," because of course I had no memory of anything before the double espresso. Anyway the point is that while it was undoubtedly the first time I noticed that fairly bad things happened when I drank, I didn't quit drinking because I suddenly thought I was called to go on some drunk-walking lecture circuit, or because some clouds parted and Hello Kitty told me to carry a message of love and tolerance and rebirth or because some other upper-level spiritual message came to me which I can't really even make up an imaginary example of, that's how ridiculous I think that is. I'm pretty much of the I Have No Fucking Idea school of why the hell this has all gone down. Whether God hates me or loves me or is involved in other things entirely, I have no idea. I've run into more than a few people on the book tour who've had similar and worse experiences than mine who tell me the particular ways they've stayed sober which usually involve a very particular God idea I either can't comprehend or don't want to comprehend, like God speaking to them through their dog or whatever (I'm not even kidding and although I have a close personal relationship with Leo I am 100 percent certain that he is just a dog and not a deity of any kind) and I always nod politely but the truth is I'm looking into their black eyes and thinking nobody's home. I'm sure that a lot of people just get to a point where they realize they don't have answers for certain things and so they just tell themselves these little lies so that they can make sense of some senseless things whereas personally I'm not so inclined to be 100 percent certain that there's even a sun in the sky (which is not unrelated to the whole philosophy-study thing), but what I do know is I wasn't built with that switch otherwise I might have skipped the booze. There's not a second of my day that goes by that I can avoid the awareness that I'm different, and the best I can do now is try to blend in and hope no one notices.

Anyway so Apple asks a few questions about my love life and looks like she's about to cry when I tell her I felt at my absolute loneliest when I was in love the one time (not the same pre-rehab ex; in hindsight I don't know how to describe that other than a hostage situation) and I guess I don't do a very good job of explaining, since she does seem to understand that we were right for each other but not the part about why I broke it off. Maybe I'm not so sure myself. I know I lose Apple somewhere in the middle of this story, but anyway, she listens to all this and looks at me empathetically but in that way that you know she has no resources to draw upon for this "part" and, look, I don't wish these resources on anyone.

She practically begs me to come along to my regular AA meeting, which I explain is not open to nonalcoholics, and try to emphasize the word "anonymous" in some way that will make her grasp its meaning. I give her a schedule of some meetings that are also open to nonalcoholics, but she shows up at my meeting a few minutes after it starts, and raises her hand and says, "Hi, I'm Wendy and I'm an alcoholic," and proceeds to share about how much gratitude she has for her sobriety and how her life is very small (oh really?) and that in spite of the difficulties that "most of you" know about, the promises of AA have really come true for her and that she has found an inner peace, and for the first time feels fully present in her life one day at a time. Like I'd ever say anything so cheesy. And then, as if it isn't enough that she's stolen my name and my difficulties, some of my friends go up to her after the meeting and tell her how great she looks, that she seems really well rested and more open or something and they ask her to go to coffee at Utopia as though she's me, as though I weren't actually there in plain sight, as though someone who weighs easily 40 pounds less than I do and who has an obvious nose job and a tattoo around her wrist and is a movie star is the same person they've known for nine years. I finally walk over to the group and I go, "Um, hello? Did we have a vote that it's OK to drop acid in Alcoholics Anonymous today? Because you seem not to be able to tell the difference between me and Apple Fowler." And my friend Josh goes, "Did you hear something just now?" and my friend Sue goes, "Something kind of mumbly," and my friend Missy goes, "A little bit like the grown-ups on Charlie Brown," and Josh goes, "Wohwohwohwoh wooooh," and everyone laughs like nothing unusual is going on. Then Sue looks right at me and puts on some lipstick as though she's confused me with a compact and I rush to the ladies' room to see that I look the same as always but as I'm walking away I notice in the reflection that the shape of me matches the ancient wallpaper that's peeling off the walls and so I move to a section of the wall that's painted that kind of icky pea green and I see the shape of me is now pea green and when a woman comes out of the stall I touch her arm and say to her, "Excuse me," and I'm about to ask if I look all right to her but she sort of looks past me and brushes her arm like she has an itch and then walks away. My friends are already gone when I go back to the meeting room and I notice that I'd been standing in front of a shiny new filing cabinet when Sue was putting on her lipstick but I still feel sure it wasn't the cabinet she was using as a mirror.

Of course, as I walk away I plan to tell Apple I know I said she could stay longer but I really need my privacy now and that she needs to leave, but when I get home her stuff is already gone, which is a great relief to me since I'm not very good at confronting people. There's a giant houseplant and a note that says "Thanks so much for sharing yourself with me." I do freak out for about five minutes because Leo doesn't come running to the door to greet me, during which time I become certain Apple's taken him too, but I finally find him sleeping next to my bed. I have eight messages on my machine, which is highly unusual, and I take the tape out and play them back on the stereo and there are messages from Sue and Missy and Josh saying how happy they are to see me doing so well now and there are a few more from some other friends of mine who seem to think I've talked to them recently which I haven't and worst of all, messages from my sister and my ex, both saying how great it was to see me and how much lighter I seem (I think they mean this metaphorically) and my ex has that phone voice I haven't heard since a few months before we broke up, that sex voice. Leo refuses dinner on the sofa and when he finally eats, it's not very much, and it's on the floor, like normal dogs, and he continues to act generally mopey for a while.

And then don't you know the next day in the supermarket I get to the checkout line and there's a picture of Apple holding hands with my ex-boyfriend under a headline reading "Apple Fowler's New Mystery Man" and if that isn't bad enough the checker thinks I'm a shelf of Wrigley's spearmint gum and I have to go home and order all my groceries all over again from the Internet, which is obviously, at this point, the least of my problems.

I continue to go to my AA meeting for a while but people mistake me for a broken chair or an exhaust vent and every time I try to share all they hear is a muffled noise and they just ask everyone else to speak a little louder. For a few months I try to phone my friends, but it's the same thing every time, "Hello, hello?" and they hang up. My E-mails all come back to me although for some reason the landlord and the utilities still like my money and most Internet businesses seem to have no problem accepting my credit cards, which I guess isn't so surprising, and so I order everything that way.

It was sort of disorienting at first, to put it mildly, living this way. Leo finally came around after he realized Apple wasn't coming back, but I'd be lying if I said we were as close as we once were. I go out to the park sometimes, or to the museums, since you can obviously get in free when you pass for a Picasso, but I was starting to feel like I was in a bad horror movie and I did think about messing with people's heads or robbing banks or something but it's not really in me and I never did get interested in taking advantage of my, well, I don't even know what I am now. I'm not invisible. I'm sort of just hidden. Like a chameleon, but without the taste for insects. So finally I just gave up hoping I'd be seen and decided to stay in most of the time. Which, to be honest, is not a dramatic change in lifestyle.

So Apple makes the movie and it gets rave reviews, movie of the year and all that, and she's on the cover of every magazine and gets nominated for best actress but I am of course overlooked for the screenwriting credit or any kind of credit. It seems all but forgotten that this movie is about a real person's life, but apparently Apple Fowler is better at being me than me because not only does she show up on the red carpet wearing a tiara and my Prada dress, she actually wins the Oscar, wins the Oscar for being me and she bursts into tears and thanks her higher power and her agent and my sister and her "fiance" my ex-boyfriend who is naturally also weeping in the audience, and she's America's sweetheart and she's Apple Fowler again and there is something shiny with my name on it but there's still no me.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jorge Colombo.

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