Excerpt

Chapter 1

When he took me in his arms, almost literally sweeping me off my feet, I could smell the Bay Rum on his cheeks. It was a scent that took me back a few years…back to the days when we were in college together and the sweetly pungent fragrance would be connected forever in my mind with no other man but him, although it never went any further at the time than a sophomore’s secret crush on a senior. I used to get a giddy rush of anticipation and undergo a flurry of hormonal over-activity when the aroma of Jon’s aftershave would float through the corridors, announcing his imminent presence, invading my nostrils with pure, unadulterated lust.

These days we were no longer students, but pros at this kind of thing. Torn between exploring the look in his deep brown eyes (to see if he was as into this as I was), and succumbing to total fantasy, I chose to close my eyes and inhale the Bay Rum. I was immediately transported to a sun drenched beach on Jon’s native Caribbean island, where breezes wafted through coconut palms and an afternoon’s biggest decision was whether to order a planter’s punch or a mai-tai.

In all the time I’d known him, and certainly on every occasion when our paths had crossed since graduation, including the star-studded funeral of Nick Katzanides, the guiding light of our alma mater’s theater department, I’d wondered what it would be like to kiss Jon; how it would feel to dance a salsa with our tongues; his strong, permanently tanned arms enfolding my body, holding me until I could feel our hearts bongo to the same rhythmic beat.

The reality was even more glorious than I had imagined. And believe it or not, it was all in a day’s “work.” Show business is an iffy career path at best, but boy-oh-boy, there are days like today that make all the years of struggle and tenacity worthwhile-when that trajectory can rocket you all the way to heaven.

“Okay, you two, you can stop now.” The director’s voice, evincing a slight impatience, intruded on my idyll. Jon and I broke our embrace. I gazed up at him. Already wearing three-inch stilettos, I’d been standing on my tiptoes to get the full benefit of kissing this six-foot-four demigod. “Jesus, that was amazing,” I murmured to him, deliciously dazed. The kiss was the kind that could make a normally sane woman lose her mind.

“Just trying to help you get the part, Alice,” Jon murmured in my ear. He gave it an improvisational nibble and I nearly melted onto the floor of the rehearsal studio. “It’s the least I can do for an old C.U. classmate.”

“An old C.U. classmate who doesn’t have an agent,” I whispered. “I only got this audition because I wrote a note to the casting director telling him we were old pals.” Jon had come a long way since our days as theater students together. While I was one of thousands of young actresses with talent and training trying to make it in New York, competing for only a handful of roles compared to the number of parts written for men, Jon was blessed with being tall, dark, hunky, and gifted. He had also developed a reputation for being a genuinely nice guy in a cutthroat business. His star ascended quickly when, just a few years out of college, he was plucked from relative obscurity by a megawatt movie star producing her first film. She took one look at Jon’s screen test and essentially told the casting director to wash him, strip him, and bring him to her tent.

From then to now, he’d become a household name in Hollywood and was making a rare return to the New York stage. I was among the dozens of women called in to audition for the supporting role of his wacky girlfriend. And it was true that the only reason I got a special appointment and the opportunity to read with the star himself, was because we were old buds. Part of Jon’s charm was that he didn’t forget where he came from or whom he’d encountered or worked with along the way, even if their careers weren’t at the same level as his.

“Good reading, Alice,” the director said. He and the casting director had barricaded themselves behind a long folding table littered with stacks of actors’ photos and résumés, donut crumbs, crumpled napkins, paper coffee cups, and a large bottle of Tums. “Strong work on the scene, and…obviously you two have some chemistry going there.”

I felt the heat spreading into my hairline. “Well, we’ve known each other since…” I realized I didn’t want to give away my age.

“It’s easy to work with Alice,” Jon said graciously, preserving what was left of my professional dignity.

The director nodded noncommittally. “We’ll just take the script from you—”

Oh, right, there’s a script. This is real life, not my bluest dreams. I retrieved the loose pages from the floor, where I had let them slip from my hand during the make-out session with Jon.

“—and we’ll be in touch,” the director continued. “If you don’t hear from us by the end of the week, it means we decided to go another way with the role.” He wasn’t making any effort to move, so I approached the folding table and shook his hand.

Jon came over and gave me a soft peck on the cheek. “Great to run into you again, Alice,” he said, affectionately placing his warm hand on the small of my back. “If I don’t see you, good luck with your career.”

“I really appreciate what you did for me this afternoon. It was very sweet.” I was trying to express my enormous gratitude with grace; that is, without bursting into tears or jumping Jon’s bones (again) for joy.

“Well, I know you received good training,” Jon teased, referring to the theater program we both matriculated from, “and back then you were a damn fine little actress.”

“So you figured I wouldn’t embarrass either of us,” I joked. I smiled at him; we were close enough for me to take one last inhalation of Bay Rum. One for the road. “Thanks again.”

I was feeling so warm and fuzzy that I actually walked down the four flights of stairs instead of taking the lazy way out and waiting for the elevator. Back on the street and into the sunlight, I looked at my watch.

Shit, shit, shit. I’d promised my uncle I’d be back at work over an hour ago. The audition had taken longer than I’d anticipated. They ran behind schedule, which is par for the course in these situations, but then they really gave me the best chance to prove myself instead of rushing me in and out the door?which is also customary, especially when one of the decision makers is being done a favor by everyone else in the room.

I fished through my purse for my cell phone and dialed the office.

“Law offices of Balzer and Price, how may I direct your call?”

“Hey, Louise, it’s me,” I said to the receptionist. “Is my uncle around?”

“Yes…but I don’t think you want to talk to him. He’s got a waiting room full of clients and he’s screaming bloody murder that you aren’t back yet. One of them actually turned up the volume on his Walkman so he wouldn’t have to hear your uncle cursing your absence. And you know how Hilda hates hip-hop. She’s ready to slit her wrists, I think.”

So much for basking in the afterglow of a magical audition and a hopeful job prospect with a man I’d been dreaming about for years. “Tell my uncle to cool his jets. I’ll be back as soon as I can. I’m at the mercy of the subway system.”

As an actress in New York, I’m at the mercy of a lot of things, actually. In addition to the previously mentioned low ratio of women’s roles to the high number of actresses beating the bushes for them, even when directors aren’t passing you over in favor of casting their wives or girlfriends (or both), we’re victims of the vagaries of a highly personal, subjective selection process. From the outside, I’m sure we seem nuts not to throw in the towel at some point. I look at it this way: I can’t imagine not giving what I most love to do my very best shot. And I’ve inherited a certain philosophy from my grandmother, the wisest woman I’ve ever known. Nothing is worth doing unless you’re willing to give it a hundred and ten percent, time after time. Come to think of it, I’m the same way when it comes to men. I live in hope because the alternative is unimaginable.

One reason I hate to leave the office during the day—even though I’m entitled to a lunch hour, and it’s rare that I have a midday audition—is because I’m terrified that all hell will break loose while I’m gone. My fears were inevitably confirmed. I returned to a secretary’s nightmare.

I had reminded my “Uncle Earwax” (real name Erwin Balzer—known to his colleagues as “Balz”), oh, about five times that Eusebia Melba and her entire family were coming in to the office. About three years ago, half of them had piled into a taxicab that subsequently got into a collision with another cab, which contained-coincidentally-the other half of the Melba family. Consequently, we had eight injured Melbas, seven cases of whiplash, six cracked ribs, five fractured wrists, four chipped teeth, three broken noses, and two uninsured taxis. And a partridge in a pear tree.

I’d been working on the case for months. Untangling the details so the legal pleadings could be drafted was a job and a half. Sorting out the many Melbas’ multiple injuries was an ordeal in and of itself. Factor in the language barrier between us and it was enough to give anyone a permanent migraine.

Uncle Earwax was livid. And loud. “What are you trying to do to me, here, Alice?” he yelled at me. “We’ve got too much to get done today for you to run out to an audition,” he insisted, mouth full, sauerkraut dripping like snot-colored seaweed down his chin. He was shoveling in a late lunch. “The Melbas have been waiting for over an hour for you. Every one of them—even the baby—has an appointment scheduled for tomorrow with the defendants’ desginated orthopedist. You’re the one who’s been keeping track of their injuries, so you need to fill out their physical exam sheets and xerox whatever medical reports we’ve got in their file so they can bring them to the doctor. The photocopier is jammed, by the way. Some moron must have tried to use it without taking the staples out of a document or something. No one else in the office seems to know how to fix the machine, so maybe you should do that first.”

I went over to the copier while trying to get a word in edgewise, but there was no way to interrupt Uncle Earwax’s tirade. “We’ve got the Morro motion papers to finish, you’ve got to do a letter to that schmuck Winkler to get his ass down here to sign his deposition transcript, and you’ve got to do whatever it takes to get the Cienega case onto the trial calendar. That idiot calls me every day to find out why it’s taken eight years to get her slip and fall case into court. If she’d bothered to cooperate with the investigation back in 1998—”

I removed an unbent paper clip from the guts of the photocopier and got it humming like new again. There was a crash from the corner office. The one with the picture windows that looks out onto the busy intersection of Broadway and Canal Street.

“No, no, no, no, NO!” A second earsplitting crash. Milton Price, Uncle Earwax’s law partner bounded into the reception area wreathed in a cloud of cigar smoke, his face the color of a ripe beefsteak tomato. His secretary, Hilda, scurried back to her chair and donned her headphones, pretending to become reabsorbed in his dictation.

The sixty-seven-year-old lawyer began to bounce like a jack-in-the box, causing a clump of ash to fall into one of the open files that was sitting on the floor by Hilda’s desk. Mr. Price removed his Romeo y Julietta just long enough to berate his employee. “Hilda, how many times do I have to tell you—?”

Saved by Alexander Graham Bell. The phone rang with all the aggressiveness of a force of nature.

Come mierda,” Hilda cursed under her breath and pursed her lips in the direction of her boss.

Between the cigar smoke and the mutual animosity in the air, I had just developed a raging headache, magnified tenfold by the constant cacophony. And this was just an average day at the office for me. Try telling the old man there was a law against smoking in the suite he and my uncle paid five grand a month to maintain.

“Balzer and Price law office, how may I direct your call?” Louise asked mildly, seemingly oblivious to the din. “Mr. Jones? And how do you spell that…? And you’re calling for who…?”

“Can’t anyone do anything right around here?!” Mr. Price demanded rhetorically. “It’s for me,” he snapped, pointing a stubby finger at the telephone receiver. “I’ve been waiting for his call. Put it through to my office.” He waddled back into his own room, muttering invectives directed at his support staff.

I peered through the receptionist’s window at the eight members of the Melba family. Carmen, the oldest daughter balanced a picnic hamper on her lap. Carlos and Luis had a two-handled cooler between them.

Momentito,” Hilda said, peering out of the sliding glass partition that separated the reception area from the secretarial stations.

It was a lot longer than a momentito before I finished typing up all the information sheets on the individual Melbas’ injuries. I buzzed my uncle. “I’m done. We can bring the clients into your office whenever you’re ready.”

“Tell them I’ll be right with them,” responded the disembodied voice of Uncle Earwax.

“Tell them he’ll be right with them,” I echoed to Hilda, who conveyed the information in both English and Spanish.

I walked into my uncle’s office with the fistful of physical exam sheets. “Shit!” I practically tripped over a giant Redweld containing all the Alvin Oliver hospital records. “Might as well use this file for a doorstop,” I quipped, “since you’ll never win the case.” I surveyed my uncle’s desktop, thinking a twister left less damage in its wake, then started shuffling the piles of random papers into semi-orderly stacks, so as to create some vacant space on the opposite side of the desk. “Do you want the entire family in here,” I asked, “or do you just want to explain everything to Mrs. Melba?”

“They seem to regard this visit as a festive occasion,” he replied, not answering my question. “What’s that I smell? I’m starving.”

“You just had two hot dogs and a pastrami sandwich from Katz’s.” I sniffed the air. “I think it’s fried chicken. With a side of potato salad.”

“Before you bring the clients in…” Uncle Earwax pulled a manila folder from the bottom of one of the piles lying by his left hand. “You screwed up the Kaplan summons and complaint.” He shoved the papers at me.

Taking the legal pleadings, I frowned and bit my lip. “What did I do?”

“Your body might have been in your chair, but your head was at one of your tryouts or something. You didn’t pay attention.” He nattered on about which county the lawsuit should have been brought in. “Now you’ve got to fix it. And you fucked me up this afternoon, too—either you’re an actress or you work for me. Who overpays you to work in this office?” he challenged. Fifteen bucks an hour to endure this because it’s a family business, I was thinking. “So your head can be in the clouds half the time!” He sighed audibly. “The things I do for your mother.”

Some favor, I thought.

“Fix the Kaplan papers. And send in the Melbas.”

“Yes,” I said meekly, feeling my blood pressure rise by the second. I dropped the Kaplan documents on my desk, then ushered in Eusebia Melba, along with Carmen, Luis, Carlos, Orlando, and Mariella, who packed away the last of the potato salad before smoothing out her skirt and joining her mother. Mrs. Melba’s youngest daughter, Cookie, remained with her infant son Enrique, breast-feeding him in the reception area.

Uncle Erwin cleaned something out of his ear with his right forefinger, then began to explain to the family, loudly, as though Mrs. M. were deaf-and in halting English, as though it were his own second language-the significance of today’s visit. Mrs. M.’s English was pretty good, though not stellar. I discreetly whispered a few words in my uncle’s ear.

He activated the intercom. “Hilda!” he yelled. “Can you get in here for a few minutes?”

So much for subtlety, I thought. And why bother with such formalities as the intercom button? As Hilda translated Uncle Erwin’s sentences, I handed each of the Melbas their physical exam sheets to review. Mrs. M. followed every word of type with her index finger, moving it along the text as if it had been written in braille. At one point she frowned and looked up at Hilda. “Que?”

 

Hilda followed the client’s gaze back to the page. “Yo no se,” she said, sensing a storm in the offing. From her point of view she was being paid to put up with Mr.Price‘s shit, not Mr. Balzer‘s.

Mrs. Melba reached across the desk and handed the paper to my uncle. She pointed to the place where I’d listed her injuries. Uncle Erwin feigned shock and total ignorance. “Alice, what’s this?” He showed me the document.

Oops. I’d mistakenly given her a broken wrist and apparently had attributed her broken ribs to another member of her family. I gathered up the physical exam sheets and quickly scanned the rest of them for additional errors. I’d gleaned the information from the legal pleadings Uncle Earwax had dictated—although, knowing his scant attention to detail, I should have double-checked and looked at the individual medical reports on my own. I usually do.

I looked at my uncle. “I took this from your dictation,” I said, showing him the sheaf of papers. “You must have told me that—”

“What?!” Uncle Erwin thundered. “Alice, how the hell could you be so stupid?!Estupida!!” he added for emphasis, waving his arms and wildly gesturing in my direction, in case the clients hadn’t comprehended him. “You went to the best schools, you’ve been working for me for two years already, and still you make stupid mistakes like it’s your first day on the job. Louise could do your job better than you do it and she can’t even manage to take a simple phone message.”

I stood, shaking, in my uncle’s office, feeling hot tears begin to well up. Carmen Melba fished in her red leather purse for a tissue and handed it to me. This wasn’t the first occasion when I’d been torn between sticking up for myself and protecting my uncle?not just because he’s my mother’s brother, but because he’s the attorney his clients trust and respect.

You don’t have to take this, you know

 

But he’s my uncle. He’s family.

He’s abusive. Just because you’re related to him, it doesn’t give him the right to treat you this way.

 

But—

I know you’ll try to make a million excuses for him because you love him… “he’s stressed, he’s having a bad day, suffering from heartburn…” Alice, wake up! And look to yourself, for once.

 

Uncle Erwin tossed the physical exam sheets at me. “Take these inside, correct them, and reprint them,” he commanded. He shrugged at Mrs. Melba and threw up his hands and as if to wash them of my sins. “Estupida,” he repeated, jerking his head in my direction.

I give myself good advice from time to time, but I very seldom follow it. Now, I felt I had no choice. Uncle Earwax had pushed me one step too far. My face flushed, my cheeks wet with tears, my heart pounding, I leaned down to whisper something to my uncle. Something I’d been wanting to say to him for a long time.

Fuck you,” I hissed in the quietest, most controlled tone I could manage.

Then I grabbed my coat and purse and walked out the door.