I knew it was over when the woman in the cream silk pantsuit that cost more than I usually made in a month swirled her wineglass full of designer water and looked over it at me with a forced pout on her Botox-stiff face.
“Layla, dear, we’ve had a good run, haven’t we? But let’s face it. You’re not 20 anymore.” She was firing me, even though, indirectly, I paid her salary.
I cringed. For someone who relied on their looks to get roles, those words were the kiss of death. “But I work hard to maintain my appearance, and everyone tells me I look younger than I am.”
I sounded pathetic and desperate, but it was true. I spent hours in the gym every week, literally sweating my butt off. I drank enough water to challenge the limits on the water conservation laws, ate kale and quinoa, avoided the sun like it was blasting nuclear rays, and spent an outrageous percentage of my barely-livable income on expensive anti-wrinkle creams made from miracle ingredients like sheep placentas and snail mucus.
My soon to be ex-agent waved her wrinkled hands, the only part of her that hinted at her real age. I surreptitiously checked my own hands to see if they showed any signs of aging and made a mental note to start slathering my face cream on them, as well.
“Oh, of course, you’re still beautiful. But your look isn’t unique enough to attract attention, and roles for women your age usually go to more… recognizable actors.”
I allowed myself a rare, forehead-wrinkling scowl and clenched the bottle of Evian she’d given me the way I wanted to clench her neck. She was the one who was supposed to make me recognizable. I’d been working with her for twelve years, and she’d made promise after promise about my next big break, but so far, none of them had come to fruition.
And now she was dumping me because I wasn’t a fresh-faced ingénue anymore, and apparently I wasn’t interesting enough to attract attention. She might have thought I was interesting if I went psycho and hurled my water bottle at her, but knowing her, she’d leak that story to the tabloids and claim she was only trying to get me more publicity.
I stared off at the wall of silver-framed, black and white headshots of famous actors she represented. I vividly remembered the first time I came there and saw those. The stars swirled before my eyes, making me dizzy with excitement that a well-known Hollywood agent wanted to represent me. I imagined my own face in the lineup, but even though Sandra had been representing me for years, my picture had never hung there.
Maybe the problem was her all along. Maybe I’d trusted my career to the wrong agent. Sure, she represented some of the most popular names in the industry, but all that meant was that she didn’t have time to worry about finding jobs for me because she was too busy managing them. Maybe I needed to find an agent who made me the priority.
I stood up in the middle of her commiseration speech, plastered on a confident smile, and tossed the long, caramel-highlighted, mahogany hair that had been my signature look since high school. I briefly contemplated buzzing it all off, à la Britney Spears, so I would be more “interesting.”
“Don’t worry about it, Sandra. I’ve been thinking about finding a new agent, anyway. One who has more connections. Thanks for everything.”
She stood up, too, looking a little shocked by my blasé attitude. I grabbed her forearms and gave her air kisses then stalked out of her office like it wasn’t the end of the most important relationship I’d had for the last decade.
I spent the next two months pounding the pavement, going to open auditions and searching for a new agent to represent me, but they all said the same thing as Sandra. I wasn’t young enough, interesting enough, special enough. I couldn’t find one agent willing to represent me.
Meanwhile, no money was coming in. I hadn’t paid my rent in months, but I couldn’t give up. This was my career, my life! Acting was the only thing I was any good at. My looks were the only thing I’d ever had going for me. But so far, they hadn’t gotten me nearly as far as I’d hoped they would.
The head cheerleader, the homecoming queen, the most popular girl at Sweet Bay High — I’d left home at 18, and I just knew I was destined for greatness. I was going to be the next Scarlett Johansson. But instead, I was a D-list nobody who was still taking uncredited roles at age 30.
When I stomped up the stairs to my apartment that fateful day, a red sign taped to my door sent a rush of heat to my head that made me feel feverish. I pressed my clammy hands to my warm cheeks. Red was my favorite color. It was great for lipstick and nail polish and sexy cocktail dresses. It was not so great for notices taped to apartment doors.
I yanked the slip of paper off my door, and my last bit of hope fluttered to the ground with it as it fell from my shaking hands. It landed face up, the bold, black words across the top mocking me.
So that was it. After twelve years of trying to make it in Hollywood, I had officially failed. Twelve years of desperately auditioning for any part available, waiting hopefully for callbacks, wasting my time filming bit parts for pilots that never saw air time, and getting excited about roles in commercials for products I couldn’t afford to buy. But most of all, rejections. Enough of them to fill a portfolio, although that’s the opposite of how it’s supposed to work.
I wiped my feet on the notice and stomped into my apartment, slamming the door behind me. My scarred-top table wobbled as I plopped my boho bag onto it, and my couch sagged like my spirits as I dropped down onto the lumpy cushions. Hot tears dripped down my flushed cheeks. I kicked off my heels, pulled my feet up onto the couch, and buried my face in my knees.
What was I going to do? I had no skills and no experience other than acting. I’d been supplementing my income by waitressing, but I couldn’t survive on that alone. Not in Hollywood, anyway. Maybe I could move somewhere more affordable.
But my heart pinched at the thought of leaving tinseltown. It was my home. I loved everything about it — Venice Beach, the boutiques on Rodeo, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I used to walk up and down the Walk of Fame, imagining that the next star would have my name on it. But as much as I wanted Hollywood, it didn’t want me.
My thoughts turned to my hometown. I hadn’t been there in so long, it didn’t feel like home anymore, but I had a lot of great memories of Sweet Bay. There, I was a star, at least in high school, anyway. It sure would be nice to rekindle that feeling. Plus, I missed my family. I hadn’t seen them in a long time. Maybe I should go back home.
Feeling nostalgic, I hauled myself up off the couch and went to my bedroom, looking for my senior yearbook. I found it buried in a box of mementos on the shelf in my closet, under a pile of sweatshirts I’d collected from old boyfriends. I hadn’t had any better luck finding the perfect guy than I had finding my breakout role. All the guys in Hollywood were self-obsessed jerks.
I headed back to the couch with my yearbook and a pint of ice cream leftover from my last bad breakup. If I couldn’t hack it as an actress, there was no reason to deny myself. I flipped through the pages as I shoved spoonfuls of Chunky Monkey into my mouth, wondering what had become of all my classmates. Were any of them successful? Were any of them happy?
My eyes landed on a picture of Calvin Montgomery, and I shook my head in disbelief. I’d forgotten all about him. There was one classmate who’d found success beyond belief. I was pretty sure he’d had a crush on me in high school, but so did half the guys in school. But all I did was make fun of him. I was downright cruel, actually. I felt kind of bad about that now. But who would’ve ever guessed that he’d become a billionaire business magnate? He was a lot different than his idiot brothers, but he was still a Montgomery.
I sighed, feeling even more like a failure. Calvin had been a nerdy loser from a poor, redneck family with a bad reputation, but he’d made himself into a rich, famous, business tycoon. I’d had the most promising start to life, and I’d ended up as a total failure. How could I have screwed things up so badly?
As much as I wanted to be an actress, being a failing one was no fun at all. Mostly, it was long hours, low pay, and very little to show for it. To be honest, the last time I’d been truly happy was when I was back in Sweet Bay. I had been desperate to get out of the little town and see the world when I was younger, but now all I wanted to do was go back home.
On a whim, I did a web search for job openings in Sweet Bay. If I could get a good job, maybe I could earn enough to pay my rent for a few more months while I tried to find a new agent. The Sweet Bay Employment Agency popped up as the first result, so I clicked on it. I didn’t expect much; Sweet Bay was a charming little jewel, but it had never had much to offer in the way of careers. I did a double take when dozens of openings filled the screen, everything from waitstaff to activities director. How were there so many available positions?
When I’d left, jobs were as hard to come by in Sweet Bay as designer clothes. Had the town changed that much? A heavy lump hardened in the pit of my stomach. What if the town I remembered was nothing but a memory? Had it grown from a sleepy, little village to a bustling city? But then I noticed that every single job was offered by the same employer — the Sweet Bay Resort and Spa.
I navigated to their website and stared at the gorgeous pictures of the luxury resort. The place was something I’d expect to see in LA, not Sweet Bay. I was surprised the council had allowed it. I could just imagine the reaction the town was having. The people of Sweet Bay wanted to keep its treasures a secret, not exploit them. But then, I suppose money talks, and whoever was building the resort obviously had enough of it to motivate the town to do what they wanted.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about Sweet Bay turning into a tourist destination, but regardless, it was good news for me. Getting a job would be easy. It looked like I would have my pick.
Buoyed by the thrill of going home, I jumped up, stuck the half-eaten ice cream back in the freezer, and unearthed my old suitcase out of the back of my closet. I tossed in all my favorite clothes, but then I looked at the pile of fancy things and pulled them all back out again. Those might be perfect for Hollywood, but they wouldn’t go over so well in Sweet Bay. I traded all the sparkly tops and leather mini skirts for jeans and polos, then swapped the heels and wedges for loafers and flip flops.
I threw in a pretty, floral dress and a pale pink suit that would work for church, a garden party, or a luncheon with Mom’s bridge club, all of which sounded like a throwback to the fifties but were still likely to occur during my time in Sweet Bay. That was part of what made the little town so charming.
I packed everything I could into my car, filling every inch of the old sedan, leaving mostly just furniture behind and the posters on the walls of the celebrities I admired. I loaded my suitcase in the trunk of my car then went back to lock up my apartment. I had 30 days before I had to be out, so that gave me time to earn some money and get back before they tossed the rest of my things. I took one last look at my little piece of Hollywood then locked the door and got in my car, hoping Sweet Bay would help get me back on my feet.