The American Woman
R J Gould
Imagine a café that’s a couple of minutes from your London home, a delightful walk through tree-lined avenues with Victorian houses of such elegance that you can’t help stopping and looking even if you’ve stopped to look a thousand times before.
You arrive at the café for morning coffee, the aroma and the hiss of the milk steamer grabbing you on stepping inside. It’s crowded – couples chatting, families with children sharing pastries to die for, singletons scanning their phones or reading a newspaper, student types with laptops and headphones.
You’re back again that evening, tempted by the literature event when locals read extracts from their novels and poems – it’s the sort of neighbourhood where every customer seems to be an author or a poet. At night the cafe has turned into a hub for the affluent middle aged. A welcoming soft light is bouncing off the pastel walls, plunging the scarlet coloured alcoves into shadow. The place is buzzing, alcohol is flowing, and the shoving to reach the counter is as polite as can be.
Bridget, the owner of Dream Café, is serving drinks together with Kelly, her deputy manager. Kelly lives round the corner from me. Whenever we cross paths she seems in a hurry, walking her dog or jogging, but she always manages a wave, a smile and a “Hi, Jennifer.”
I’m alone at the café, of course, and I’m uncomfortable. I hate Gareth for that.
I was born in Idaho, on a potato and sugar beet farm a couple of miles out from a small town with a single main street that was even named Main Street. Running along it was a modest supermarket, a hardware store, and a bar that played Country & Western and blues. Nellie’s Ice Cream and Soda Parlor was there too, open right through the year, even in midwinter when temperatures plummeted to minus fifteen. This was an indication of how desperate teenagers in the town and its surrounds were to find anywhere to go and anything to do. Later on when I was living in England, someone handed me a copy of Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent. That first line – “I come from Des Moines. Someone had to” – cracked me up. It could easily have applied to the place I grew up in and was lucky enough to escape from.
I guess we were a typical small-time farming family, Dad hard working, up at the crack of dawn and not back in until dusk; Mom the housewife, an apple pie maker and regular churchgoer; and my brother Daniel Junior, two years older than me. His childhood obsession was watching old westerns with the cowboys always beating the Indians, and sci-fi when the humans always got the better of the aliens. Later on he was outdoors whenever possible, helping Dad on the farm. He seemed comfortable with his destiny – to be a farmer in Idaho.
What about me? Maybe I fitted in to start off with. I’d be in the kitchen with Mom, happily stirring the mix for the apple pies. I remember being proud beyond belief the first time I was entrusted with a knife to slice the apples into small cubes. And nothing made me happier than sitting high up on the tractor with Dad when it was harvest time.
It’s odd what you dredge up when thinking back to your childhood: in truth I reckon there weren’t that many apple pies being made. But I was expected to help with the kitchen chores and I definitely did like the tractor rides.
I was a keen reader, exploring novels about American life in places that always seemed more exciting than Idaho. I discovering what girls got up to in Sweet Valley High. Judy Blume’s books set in California and New York made the sad nearby town seem like it was stuck in a time warp.
For a while I held onto the belief that American life was wonderful and could never be beaten, even if the characters in the books I was reading had loads of obstacles to figure out. Then one year, it must have been when I was around sixteen, my best friend Rebecca’s sister, Clara, started college. Returning for vacations she would lend us books that weren’t easily found in the town library, books from way back like On the Road and Catcher in the Rye which got me thinking that maybe life wasn’t quite as comfortable for everybody as I had been led to believe.
‘Best keep it secret I’m lending you this one,’ Clara told us one time.
‘Why?’ Rebecca asked.
The House on Mango Street had come our way. The Handmaid’s Tale followed. They were dynamite.
Although nothing in particular triggered the thought, I knew that I had to get away from Idaho if I wanted to discover the real world. Rebecca and I would talk late into the night about an escape but deep down I knew she wouldn’t do it. She had too many, “But what abouts.”
‘The only what about that matters is what about me,’ I told her one stifling summer’s evening when we were sitting together out on the porch.
Our pledge to lifelong friendship (we’d even cut our wrists and placed them against each other to seal the bond) turned out not to be the case after I said that. I suppose Rebecca saw me as a threat to how in her mind everything had to be. I was dropped in favour of girls who weren’t the questioning types.
It took a further two years and more before I would escape. By then, I admit that I was making it difficult for my parents to restrain me. And as for my brother, he was accusing me of being possessed by the devil. The devil in question, though an absurd belief, was acting. I’d developed a passionate, some might say obsessive, interest in movies.
I signed up for the school drama group and was told that I had some ability to act. I discovered that I could sing well and even give dancing a go. Lead roles in the school productions of Fame and Cats followed and I worked real hard to make them a success.
“Our very own star” ran the headline in the local paper.
“Jennifer has a dazzling career ahead of her” my drama teacher claimed in his interview for the article.
This was before internet went big and I was getting my information about the world of movies in magazines. While friends spent their pocket money on make-up I was using mine to get the glitzy Hollywood weeklies, Variety, Total Film and Movieline being my regulars. And boy, was the lifestyle that was shown attractive.
I left in spirit way ahead of my actual move from home. There was no more helping Mom in the kitchen, no more duties on the farm. All I could think about was the glamour and pull of Hollywood.
I remember dressing up vintage style to playact star roles in movies that would one day be made just for me.
‘I ain’t going out to get covered in mud,’ I would tell Daniel, rigged up in his sensible boots, jeans and plaid shirts, when we’d been asked to pick vegetables from the garden. ‘You do it.’
It didn’t take much to get him into a rage. ‘You are the most ungrateful, lazy person, you know that?’
‘Yeah, I know. And you’re wonderful.’
Daniel didn’t take well to sarcasm. On the day when he completely lost it and gave me a hard slap, I knew that it was time to leave.
Telling my parents I was off to LA to become a star wouldn’t have come as a surprise. We were sat at the breakfast table when I announced it. They stayed silent. Resigned.
It was left to my brother to voice his disgust. ‘You’re a disgrace, Jennifer. I hope everything goes wrong. I hope you die.’
‘Don’t you be saying that about your sister, Daniel,’ my Dad shouted. ‘Apologise.’
But Daniel was on his way out, door slamming, and I never got round to thanking Dad for standing up for me despite me being such a disappointment to him.
I was eighteen going on nineteen when I packed my bags, gave Mom and Dad a peck on the cheek, ignored my brother, and headed west on a Greyhound bus. I had just enough money put aside to pay for the journey, with a bit left over to carry me through until I got my first part in a movie. Looking back, I wish I’d had the maturity to at least try to explain why I was leaving.
How many naïve girls still in their teens have turned up in Hollywood over the years chasing stardom? Thousands? Tens of thousands? And little me was one of them, a blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl with pale skin and a wide face who thought she only need appear at an audition to be discovered. I stepped off that Greyhound bus, found a place to stay advertised on a noticeboard at the station, slept a night, put on my best clothes, did my hair, made up with thick lines of mascara and scarlet lipstick, and headed off to the studios.
I didn’t get past security; I was told it all had to be done through agents.
A miserable three and more weeks followed in an attempt to be signed on. Little chance of course, what with East Coast girls in competition, girls who had been to drama school since the age of three and already had a bio as long as my arm, who could probably play three musical instruments, and maybe were fluent in several languages. Mind you, I was soon to find out that it was tough for them too, unless they were prepared to do anything that the fat (they all seemed to be fat) middle-aged producers, directors and cast recruiters wanted. And by anything, I mean anything.
The agent who agreed to take me on, from a tiny outfit with no clout, made it clear that giving favours was a requirement for success. I was expected to start with him and to my shame, I complied. It didn’t take long for me to realise that the “giving favours” in question was nothing more than a tempting carrot dangled before being pulled away. I wasn’t going to play that game. I was not going to have sex with the last person in the world I’d choose to have sex with, in the hope of landing a role as an extra in a B-movie or a daytime TV sitcom.
What was there left for me to do though? Go home?
After a couple of drinks that Friday evening, being alone at Dream Café wasn’t turning out to be so bad. I guess it doesn’t matter whether you’re by yourself or with a group of friends when all eyes are on the performers. However, during the interval with the lights on, I was scanning the crowd to see if anyone else was on their own – and it didn’t look like it. I felt as awkward as hell, wondering why I was there rather than tucked up in my flat with the TV on and a few beers by my side. Singleton socialising was not something I enjoyed; it takes a lot of courage. Mind you, it would take a lot of stupidity to get into a relationship just because I didn’t want to be alone.
I’m a stranger, an outsider, I was thinking as I queued at the counter. I have no connection with the district, the city, the country, the people.
‘Same again?’ Kelly was asking. She was the only person anything like an acquaintance, based on her friendly greetings as she was speeding past me in the street. We’d had a couple of brief chats when I was ordering drinks from her in the café.
‘No. You know what, I’m going to have a whiskey. That one,’ I said pointing to the bottle of Jack Daniels. At least, thousands of miles away from my homeland, I could capture a taste of the States.
She poured me a glass, precisely using a measure, which made me think back to LA where barmen just poured out from the bottle until the customer said “Stop.” I took a sip, the unaccustomed heat burning the back of my throat.
A man was standing by my side. I’d seen him out and about with his wife, a baby and a dog.
‘Andrew, this is Jennifer,’ Kelly said. ‘She’s just moved here.’
The man smiled before turning back to Kelly, holding up his card ready to pay contactless and pick up his tray of drinks. Kelly placed a firm hand onto the tray and I figured out the hint she was giving him.
So did he. ‘We’re sitting over there. Why not join us?’
My smile was in appreciation of the invitation, but it was also because of the way the English say things, turning “Come join us” into the cryptic “Why not join us?” as if the offer and decision were mine alone.
I hesitated. ‘I wouldn’t want to impose.’
‘Not at all. It would be a pleasure.’
‘And I’ll be with you as soon as Rachel turns up for her shift,’ Kelly said as she slid the tray of drinks across to Andrew.
I followed Andrew to his table and was introduced to Emma, his wife, Darren who was Kelly’s husband, and Julien and Cecelia who described themselves as the in-between neighbours.
‘See you later,’ Andrew said and walked off from the group, leaving me confused until Emma explained that he was one of the performers.
‘A published poet,’ Darren added.
He was soon up on stage and I shared the crowd’s enjoyment of the funny and thoughtful poems he read out. We cheered when Andrew returned, me joining in and for the first time wondering whether living in Muswell Hill might be alright after all.
It had taken three months.
No way was I going back home to Idaho, but without money and having put any attempt to find work in the movie industry on hold (forever?), I needed a job fast. Los Angeles is full of young women dreaming of being discovered, or more likely, aware that was never going to happen but unwilling to move on, especially if moving on meant returning home. I had joined their ranks and was about to find out that competition for waitressing jobs was almost as tough as it had been to get a film role.
It didn’t take long to discover that some of the men running eateries were as single-minded as the Hollywood set – they expected favours in exchange for employment. Here were my two options, either a lousy existence living in a rundown shared condo but at least with a job, or destitution. Having opted for a roof over my head, with shame I admit that every so often I was enduring sex with impoverished restaurant owners having turned down wealthy men in the showbiz world. Some would call that stupid. It was never forced though; I chose who and sometimes it turned out to be an enjoyable if short-term fling.
There was a gang of us girls in a similar situation. We got to know the better places to work and those to avoid and we shared the information. Who were the biggest bastards, the violent ones? Which men stank of fat and grease? Where could you get the best tips? Which places were the safest to walk home from late at night?
The years passed. I’d like to say they flew by with me getting the most out of living in such an exciting city. Sadly, the opposite was true. Time dragged on as I moved aimlessly between one post and the next. I was in between jobs as they say when a waitressing position came up at Giulio’s Diner and I grabbed it. I had to thank my friend Kimberly for that. Having finally decided to pack in LA and return home, she let me know that she was about to hand in her notice. She said she’d put in a good word for me and I was queueing at the door as Joe was unlocking his place the next morning. There was no Giulio, there never had been, and there was no Italian connection. Joe simply thought it was a good name to attract diners. The only concessions to the Italian link were Spaghetti Bolognese on the menu and an espresso machine that kept breaking down. Apart from that it was an all-American diner with burgers, hot dogs, pepperoni on rye sandwiches, salmon and Phili bagels. And apple pie – not a touch on Mom’s though. Kimberly had told me that Joe was a good man and she was right. He had a wife and new baby and stayed loyal to his family.
I hugged Kimberly when I saw her off at the bus station a few days later and we both cried. “What am I going to make of my life?” she asked me, not expecting an answer because she knew I wouldn’t have one. She said she’d write but we never did keep in touch until much later.
Ahead of my first shift at Giulio’s, Kimberley’s rhetorical question, “What am I going to make of my life?” hit home. I was in my late twenties, close to ten years on from arriving in LA with such high hopes. Giulio’s would be my twelfth dead-end job waitressing.