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Contemporary Fiction

Someone once told me that stars are only visible in the darkness, but that doesn’t mean they disappear during the daytime. I’ve thought about that cliché of a quote ever since and found that the same applies to people. Some are stars all around, brightly shining upon everyone who comes close. Some are even so bright they blind you with their presence, forcing you to squint not to hurt your eyes. Others are only visible in the right lighting.  

My mom is in the first category. You see, Elinor Mayer was an actress back in the 80s. Her parents pushed her into acting at an early age, and she was born a star. My mother was a natural beauty, golden locks and big brown eyes. By the time she was nine, she had already made a name for herself within the commercial branch. Mostly because her parents signed her up for every job available, she didn’t whine, and took directions well, which was unusual for kids her age. This eventually became her opening into the film industry. Soon she was given a small side role as the neighbor's daughter in a sitcom that had premiered the previous year. It ran for a whole 6 seasons until it came to an end in 1983, but I’m getting ahead of myself.   

While juggling school and shooting, my mother woke up at 7 am every morning for school and came home at 9 pm after the last scene was shot. She was on set for more hours than every other kid, making her a favorite among the staff. Of course, child actors had a certain number of hours they were legally allowed to work, but those rules were swept under the carpet. She had always been told to never make a fuss, stay easy to work with, and do what she was told by the director. This meant standing upright for hours on end, shooting the same scene until her legs were sore, getting two meals per day, and practicing lines until the words blurred together.

Every time my mother retold the story of her rise to fame, she dramatically explained how tough and hard-working she was at such an early age, how she was meant to be a movie star because no other kids had the energy to keep up, no one was as devoted as her. She often complained that the child actors these days had it “too easy”. There were times when she hadn’t gotten food for hours. When she didn’t get any rest, and when they kept her over schedule every other day. In her mind, that was the price to pay to be noticed as an actress, which she proudly told everyone who would listen. When I explained that I didn't think child actors were supposed to go thru all that, she just scoffed. The same answer always resurfaced, “that’s just the industry, pressure creates diamonds”  

When my mom turned 13, she left the show. A small film studio named Starlette studios had contacted her, and they were searching for someone to play the adoring, witty, naive side character in an upcoming movie. Her big eyes and blonde hair were perfect. Their colleague had seen her sitcom and wanted her to come in for an audition in L.A. This could be her first big role, and she wouldn’t miss the opportunity. The day after the audition, my mother got a call from the casting director, the part was hers. Elinor Mayer was written off for the last season of the show, and the Mayer family moved to L.A., leaving Chicago behind. Since then, my mother had only one way to go, up.   

In the following years, her stardom exploded. The movie had been a hit at the box office. Her charming portrayal of the character had instantly become a fan favorite, overshadowing the protagonist. Her teenage years were almost exclusively spent in front of the camera. Keeping up in school quickly dropped in priority as she became more recognized. In 1984 she dropped out of high school to wholeheartedly pursue acting. Two years later, she was at 18 years old listed as number four of upcoming actresses in Hollywood by Starlette Magazine, which by this time, had grown to be one of the biggest sources of Hollywood gossip in the country. Little did she know, her downfall was just around the corner.

The next year, she felt on top of the world. She hadn’t given up on the strategy that got her there. She kept doing what was expected of her. When she was asked to lose weight, her diet consisted of cereal and juice. When another producer wanted her to gain the weight back, she stuffed herself until they were satisfied. She had been a blonde, brunette, and ginger.  She even colored her hair dark red once to suit the director's narrative of a troubled teen addict. They wanted a customizable doll, and she gave them exactly what they asked for. If her coworkers flirted with her, she flirted back. If they wanted more, she gave them more. Eventually, too much more.   

On the 8th of September 1985, my mother found out she was pregnant. My father, and her producer at the time, Scott Gavin, demanded an abortion. He argued that the baby would not only ruin her own career, but his. Scott promised he could keep it all secret from the press, and she could “go away” from the public for a while, claiming personal reasons. I knew my mother was tempted. My whole life she’d made me feel like I ruined her, as well as her desirability. No one wanted to cast someone with a crying baby demanding all the attention. My mother never told me she regretted her decision to keep me, but I know it was less of a decision and more of an “an abortion isn’t possible at this state of the pregnancy” situation. Suddenly her life of stardom had been stolen from her, and I was the thief.   

I was raised as an only child, and my mother cared for me as well as she could. Her pregnancy was seen as a scandal, and Scott bought the magazine's silence on who was the baby daddy. He left us as soon as the news came out, and not without suspicion. No one said it out loud, but everyone knew who the father was. It was a hot topic for about a month, but as any man in Hollywood, he was quickly redeemed. The same couldn’t be said about my mother. She was a woman and therefore held no value unless her sexuality couldn’t be exploited.

Many days I was left alone in our apartment, the voices on the radio being my only companions. My mother desperately wanted to get back to her old life, but as the years went by, I noticed she was getting fewer job offers, and I knew it was my fault. Apparently, a mother of a 4-year-old wasn’t a “good fit” for any role. She wasn’t available to keep up with the same schedule as before, and her sexual appeal couldn’t save her. During my adolescence, I recall a few men that roamed the apartment at times, but none ever stayed for long. In some situations, she brought me to set to keep her life afloat. I often cried and touched things that I wasn’t allowed to touch. Eventually, the casting crew demanded that the “bring your kid to work days” were over, which also applied to her reputation of being consensual and easy.  

It was then decided, I would make up for the scandal I had caused. I was destined to be an actress I was told, I “had it in my blood”. She saw me as an extension of herself, a second chance. When the Oscars nominees were shown each year, she got this expression on her face. As if she lived in a delusion, and the life shown on screen was her real life. Those nights I would silently cry in my bedroom, thinking about what a horrible person I was for taking something so precious away from her reach. I imagined that she saw all those people who made something of themselves, and then there was her, stuck with a daughter who couldn’t perform a line if her life depended on it. She has wasted hours trying to get some convincing emotion out of me. For her, acting came so easily. The sentences escaped her mouth like honey, smooth and lean. I choked on every word, they came out uncertain and quiet. Every month she would bring me a new script she picked up, telling me this was the role I was meant to play, this one I would get.  

“Say it again, don’t just convince me”, she would say, “Convince yourself.”   

“I feel alive”, I responded. The words tangled in my mouth.   

“Honey, stop mumbling, the casting director won't hear what you’re saying, it’s supposed to be funny, comedic, sarcastic, it’s a joke”

She sighed, defeated. Once again, I had failed her. I asked if I should try again with a bigger smile, but she just shook her head and said we were done for today.   

As the years passed, my mother realized I wasn’t the little actress she thought she had raised. By the time I turned 12, she finally accepted that my passion didn’t lie in acting. When someone pointed a camera at me, I shrunk. I wanted to feel invisible, a grain of sand at the beach. My voice never grabbed attention, and I didn’t want it to. This realization of hers brought resentment. I wasn’t the blinding star she had expected, and she hated me for it. In my adolescence, I had never watched a movie with my mom, where sighing and disappointed mumbling about how that could have been you on screen didn’t suck all the air out of the room. The passive aggression and bitterness weren't only towards me, but towards anyone who tried to make it in the entertainment industry. All these lousy actors these days, she complained drunk, We would have nailed that role Nathalie, if only you had some of my talent, we would be stars.  

The time of hiding how much of a disappointment I had become, was far behind us, and with alcohol involved, everything was out in the open. My mother treated everything Hollywood-related as traitorous. As if the industry had betrayed us both and we were in agreement that we held a grudge. As she stomped on the world, I stomped with her. If I wasn’t on her side, I was against her, and suddenly I would be the one being stomped at. So, we complained together, I indulged in the fantasy, thinking every actor who ever appeared on screen had stabbed us in the back. No matter how much I pretended to be utterly heartbroken for my mother's sake, I couldn’t help to feel like a fraud. I felt as if I was wearing a shell, and the real me was suffocating underneath it. My whole childhood I had been bent and formed to resemble someone else, to fill the shoes of my mom's dreams. As I grew up, I decided I wanted my own shoes, in my own size.   

In the spring of 2003, I announced that I was moving out. The journalism program I had applied for last term had given me a spot at Brown, and I was starting in September. My mother was devastated, going on about how I abandoned her all alone, with no one in the world to care for her. She played the role of the victim so well; apologizing had become a standard expectation of my behavior. When she was unable to pass on her dream of acting to me, I was the one comforting her. First, she cried about how horrible of a mother she was for pushing me too hard. Then she cried about how it all would have worked out if it wasn’t for my lack of talent. If I didn’t take a step back every time she pushed me forward, she wouldn’t have had to drag me toward the finishing line. Therefore, no matter how we examined the situation, the fault of our failed futures always fell on my shoulders. Once again, she lived in a fantasy world where the only one affected was her. What she didn’t understand, was that we were competing in different races, and my goal wasn’t in her direction.  For once in my life, I was doing something for myself.

As I left the airport that day and hugged my sobbing mother goodbye. I felt guilty, but free. I was slowly untangling myself from the web my mother wrapped me in. I was my own, I was me, I had my own dreams and passions which my mother wouldn’t be able to deny anymore. At that moment, I burn more brightly than ever. 

Today I’ve finished college and work as a freelance journalist. It took many years of therapy, but my mother eventually let her grudge go. I still have a hard time separating the neglectful woman I grew up with, and the woman she is today. Every interaction is a struggle, but I try to let her into my life again. The doors that had been closed for so long, are finally opening. The life my mother wanted had left her behind, and there was nothing she could do about it. Her longing for the camera has fainted, it only reminds her of bad memories. In hindsight, she realized that the life she was living all those years ago, had made her bitter and resentful. When digging up her past, she understood how exploited she had been. How she dragged me down the same path. How they had taken advantage of her youth, naiveness, and desperation, and would do the same to me in a heartbeat. Elinor Mayer realized that blaming others for your mistakes is cruel. She learned to make the best of the situation and improve until the next came along. However, her passion for acting never changed. She still wants to be the center of attention, all eyes on her. But instead of burning both herself and me up with her brightness, she now lights a torch to pass on to the next generation of actors. Her drama classes have been getting good reviews lately, and who knows, perhaps there is a starlet among them who one day will blind us all.

I don't take up much space, I say sorry when others bump into me, and I’m too scared to tell anyone when my name is spelled wrong. But that doesn’t make me a disappointment. My mind is still scarred from years of neglect and expectations. I'm still trying to crack the shell that’s been thickening over the years, but it gets easier. When I’m standing on the balcony of my apartment, looking up at the stars. That quote comes back to me. I review my life and my accomplishments with my own eyes rather than someone else's, and in the darkest of nights, I find light. I am that light, even if it’s not visible when the sun rises, I know I'm still glowing. I breathe in the cold autumn air and damn, I feel alive.   

March 28, 2023 15:10

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