It's a jungle out there in Los Angeles, that is, where the tangle of freeways and ingrained insincerity can make a girl feel very alone, no matter how fabulous the weather or how cute the clothes at the South Coast Plaza mall. With very different styles and attitudes, Marcella, Olivia, and Alexis are trying to crack the code in L.A, trying to snare love and success. But first they have to come togetherto make their marks and plan the fun they're going to have along the way.
Marcella is a hot, sharp young television actress who's barely able to enjoy the life she's bought for herself and certainly isn't enjoying her body, which is never quite perfect enough. Olivia, whose life revolves around her toddler son, Jack, is tethered to her suburban mommy track so tightly she can almost forget the horrible thing that happened to her family when she was a child herself. Alexis is a musicians' manager with a smart mouth, an ample body, and loads of style but barely enough self-esteem to fill a Prada card case. And the boys in their lives? Marcella's had about enough of them throwing themselves at her; Olivia's boy is her son; and Alexis is still searching, not for a boy this time, but for a man.
Playing with Boys is a savvy novel with charm, style, and heart to spare.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Playing with Boys
Charm is a product of the unexpected.
There were times that made me s'dang proud to be a Mexican I wept 'til my mascara meltedsay, when Vincente Fernandez sang "Cielito Lindo" for the Republican National Convention in 2000. But darlin', this wasn't one of those times.
I stood alone in a black-tie crowd, at a private outdoor cocktail party, on a terrace of L.A.'s Getty Museum, faking interest in a cube of raw tuna on a silver tray. It was like a wobbly, wet, red diceor was it die? Correction: Was it dead? I jabbed it with my designer toothpick, just to be sure.
"It's only Jell-O, sugar," I whispered as I closed my eyes and shoved it into my mouth. But it was nothing like Jell-O, unless they'd come out with a "slippery acrid" flavor I hadn't seen yet. What I needed was a steak, well-done. Fat chance.
Suddenly, the chatting dimmed and all eyes turned toward a doorway as I held my breath and prayed for patience.
One by one, the members of Los Chimpances del Nortethe norteño band I had stumbled, dear God please tell me how, into managingstrutted single-file onto the terrace in perfectly matching toucan-vomit-meets-cowboy outfits.
I'd asked them to wear Armani. Black Armani. As usual, they'd ignored me. I instinctively fingered the little pink pearls around my neck, and smoothed my hands along the sides of the size 14 Ann Taylor cocktail dress I liked to think of as my "little black," but which was, by L.A. standards, more like a massive, flapping black.
A woman behind me gasped. "What are they wearing?" A man comforted herby saying, "I believe they're going for post-modern kitsch." No, I wanted to say. They think they look good, and there is a large percentage of an entire nationmy ancestral nation of originthat agrees. I was not among that percentage, but then, I was raised in Texas, not Mexico.
Lime-green fringed blazers aren't for everyone. Neither are banana-yellow Wrangler pants worn tight as skin on a sausage. White ten-gallon Stetsons look good enough on Toby Keith. But twelve of 'em, all in a row, stuffed over waxy Mexican mullets in the middle of a modern museum? Lordy. And who knew twenty-four maroon snakeskin boots could look quite that bad, all lined up together like the keys of Satan's own little player piano?
We were here this evening, enjoying the gardens of this curvy modernist masterpiece of a museum perched in the gently smoggy hills of Los Angeles, for an exclusive private party. A celebration. What were we celebrating? This: the fact that Los Chimpances del Norte (the Chimpanzees of the North) had just donated $5 million to UCLA's Center for Chicano Studies, for the study of previously neglected U.S.-Mexico border music of the oom-pah type they themselves had inflicted upon the public for the past twenty years.
I was a Dallas girl, born and raised, armed with an arsenal of acronymsBA and MBA from SMU, darlin'but I was trying to become a California girl, with mixed results. I came to Hell-eh because I thought it was shameful that in a city where the top three FM radio stations now played Mexican music, the big PR companies were oblivious to the talent and riches in Spanish-speaking America. I was the first to offer artists like the Chimps American-style publicity, complete with professional press releases, follow-up calls, lunchesas opposed to Mexican-style publicity, which usually meant buying reporters off with things like cocaine, or island vacations.
My clients at Tower Entertainment, the Whittier-based firm I worked for, had been on The Tonight Show, 60 Minutes, and in the New York Times, which impressed me but rarely impressed my clients. As I often had to tell reporters, America was changing, fast. Tortillas now outsold bagels. Famously, Americans now ate more salsa than ketchup. Wal-Mart carried plantains, yuca, and Goya products. Kraft in the U.S. had come out with something they called "mayonesa," a Mexican mayonnaise with lime. Why? Not because they were nice. Because they had to. The top FM stations in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago now broadcast in Spanish, and the U.S. had become the world's fourth-largest Spanish-speaking country. I was one of those lucky people who had long existed in a United States that spoke Spanish and English with matching facility. I swung with ease betweenthe cheesy comedy of Sábado Gigante and the cheesy comedy of WB sitcoms. Some academic types, like my professors at Southern Methodist University, called people like me bicultural. But with Latinos poised to make up one in four Americans in the blink of a big brown eye, I preferred to call it American.
Of course, most people at this party didn't care about any of that. They cared that there was a "Latin" band that lived in Los Angeles with this kind of moneya band they'd never heard of until the L.A. Times ran a story on the donation. Everyone knew the statistics about the growing Hispanic population, and for money reasons wanted to connect with us. So they came. But they had no idea what they were getting into with my boys. Mine? Well. I called the Chimps mine, but really I was theirs: their manager, their agent, their publicist, their whipping girl.
Five million bucks was the sort of gift American schools traditionally got from benefactors whose non-Spanish last names were read in soothing monotones at the end of programming on NPR and PBS. And a private Getty shindig was the sort of shiny event people attended in cocktail dresses and bow ties.
In other words, there was something horrifying to my sorority-girl brain (Sigma Lambda Gamma, y'all) about the Chimps showing up in neon cowboy gear like rowdy goat-humping bumpkins from Chihuahua. I knew, of course, that the Chimps had made their millions (yes, millions) playing "workingman's" music in rodeo arenas from Zacatecas to Whittier, and that they, bless their hearts, did not forget this, though they had amassed enough of a fortune to forget whatever they pleased. Maybe the goofy getups were a statement to the effect. Either that, or they just had no clue.
So, while I was proud of my guys for being able to give away enough money to attract the movers and shakers of this achy-quakey townand, I should add, support me and my potentially unhealthy handbag habitI was also a well-bred woman of twenty-nine, whose lovely, Avon-selling momma had worked herself near to death to give me the kind of life she'd never had. The kind of life where I made good money, where I was never assumed to be stupid for lack of credentials, where I knew what side of the table-setting the bread plate went on; like Momma woulda been if her parents, my dear but insanely backward Granny and Grampy Lopez, hadn't been the kind of old-world first-generation Mexicanos who said things like "Only easy women go to college," and "Don't talk so much or act too smart cuz no man's never gonna go fer no woman like that." Sigh.
It had been my idea to give "chimp change," as I called the hefty donation,to UCLA. I suggested the academic gift as a way to raise the group's visibility among mainstream Americans, and in the process raise the profile of all successful Mexicans and Meximericans here, which, in the end, might improve my life, too. And, who knew, maybe if L.A. powerbrokers started to see that we Messicans had moneyreal moneyand not just, I dunno, pruning shears and toilet brushes, they might start to produce movies where The Mexican was a person and not a gun, and Hidalgo was a human instead of a stinkin' (but determined) horse. It was a long shot, but so was everything worth doing, in my humble opinion, and in Hollywood, there was plenty that needed doin', Amen.
"Orale, Alexis!" shouted Filoberto, the bandleader, spying me. His lips pulled back to reveal a checkerboard of yellow and gold teeth, one or two outlined with what looked like brown eyeliner. He slowly lifted one hand, then flicked it toward the floor, in one fast snap, as if a roach had landed there and he wanted it off. This was Filoberto's "mero mero" mime-speak for "I'm here and I'm manly, ahua, Amen."
I hurried to greet my band.
"Filoberto," I said, kissing him on the cheek as was our custom. He smelled unwashed. "Hi, honey."
I leaned close to his ear and whispered, "Didn't you want to wear the Armani suits?"
"Pues, no," Filoberto replied. Both his hands dove to his crotch area, and I cringed. I didn't want to look, but I did. He gripped and shook his enormous belt buckle up and down, and a few of the Chimps followed suit, in a strange approximation of a circle jerk. I was relieved. I'd feared Filoberto was going to whip "it" out, as he'd done backstage last month when I suggested he be nicer to a reporter. "Who's the man here?" he'd asked as "it" peered out like a deflated one-eyed slug.
In general, belt buckles are a good idea. They keep your pants up, hold the belt on. They're useful. But when they are the size of a salad plate and encrusted with red, green, and white gemstones sparkling in the shape of a Mexican flag, there's something unforgivably, I dunno, Liberace about them. Particularly when they cut deep into the flesh of a beer belly. I looked down the lineup of Chimps. They all had them.
"Why?" I whispered to Filoberto.
Filoberto stared hard into my eyes. "Look," he said, in the perfect English he often pretended he didn't speak. The Chimps were from Sacramento, California, but pretended to be from Sinaloa. "Mexicans gave us the money that we gave tothe school. We owe our careers to Mexicans. We are Mexicans. And we're not going to dress like gringos just to make your little ooh-ooh friends here comfortable."
Ooh-ooh? Nice to see Filoberto not only speaking English, but enhancing it as well.
"I didn't ask you to dress like a 'gringo,'" I said, cringing at the racial slur. My stepdaddy was a "gringo" and the nicest man in the world. "I asked you to wear Armani."
"And I should ask you to suck it," he whispered in my ear. "Because this is my band and we do what I want. Got it?"
"Okay," I said, forcing a smile once more. "I understand. It's your choice and I respect that. I hope I didn't offend you. Good luck tonight." I started to walk away. Whenever anger bubbled up, that was the best policy. Back away, calm down, then talk.
"It's not us that need to change," called Filoberto, pointing to the crowd. "It's them."
Blah, blah, blah. Filoberto still thought we were fighting the Alamo.
"You're right," I lied. "I'm proud of you. Knock 'em dead, sweetie."
Many of the elites assembled here did not seem to know quite how to regard the Chimps, and seemed to be searching for the right facial expression. Condescending benevolence did not work. But neither did obsequious curiosity. Mostly, those unfamiliar with the border gangsta-polka worldfolks who had, I think, come expecting a salsa bandstared at the Chimps in disbelief. Heck, I stared at them in disbelief. But why not have the Chimps at the Getty? After all, the Chimps lived in the U.S., paid taxes in the U.S., and made as much money off their music as many major U.S. pop stars, even if Rolling Stone, Spin, and every pop music writer in the land ignored them with almost vicious regularity.
With relief I saw three representatives from UCLA emerge from inside the museum and walk toward us in three-piece suits. At least they got it. The cute one, Samuel Reyes, managed to be cute even though he was balding. He smiled at me and my pulse quickened.
As the university people got closer, I stepped forward, past Filoberto, to be the first one to greet them. I heard Filoberto sigh behind me, dismayed yet again that I believed I could, you know, wear pants.
"Samuel," I said with a huge smile. I gripped his hand and shook it with authority. He held it longer than he needed to and searched my eyes.
"They look great," he said. "They're courageous."
"Yes, they are. This is a wonderful event. You've done such a good job."
Samuel nodded. He agreed he was great. A proper Texan man would have returned the compliment. But, Toto, we weren't in Texas anymore.
As the university people mingled with the Chimps and prepared to present the award, I strolled off to schmooze. After harvesting a few business cards for later useyes, I hoped to one day escape the Chimp worldI stood back to observe the Chimps. I soon wished I hadn't.
First, a well-known Pacific Palisades socialite and her husband timidly approached Filoberto to introduce themselves. Filoberto made eye contact only with the man, though the woman was the one speaking to him.
"So nice to meet you," she said. "Congratulations."
Filoberto addressed her large, buoyant breasts, a perfect pair of surgically constructed half-grapefruits like so many in Southern California. "So nice to meet you," he leered. Then, to her husband, he added, "Congratulations," with a suggestive chortle.
The couple quickly hurried off to inspect a sculpture.
As I headed back toward Filoberto to give him a quickie etiquette lesson, a tall, gorgeous waitress sashayed past the line of Chimps with her tray of shrimp. Filoberto slapped her ass. He needed a lot more than etiquette. And I needed a new job.
The tuna cubes floated past once more, and though I was hungry, I couldn't do it. I couldn't. Once was enough. See, at the center of my fat-saturated heart, I was a steak-and-potatoes girl who didn't like exercise unless it involved a man in my bed. I was Christian, and unapologetically Republican, as my momma and daddy raised me. You can imagine how far this got me in Hell-eh, where it seemed to me everyone wanted to spend their free time doing yoga, volunteering for liberal causes, or lecturing the rest of us to join them. Oh, and I had a flat chesta crime in Southern California.
Anyhoo. Schmoozing. I walked with confidence to a small cluster of beautiful people and planted myself among them.
"Hello," I said, sticking out my hand to the friendliest-looking person. "I'm Alexis Lopez, manager for the group we're honoring tonight. Thanks for coming!"
The assembled screenwriters, actors, and lone MTV animator shook hands with me. I stood with my toes turned out ninety degrees, in ballet's third position, because to point them directly toward the subject of your current conversation meant you had committed to them, and nothing was more fatal in room-working than committing to a single person or group.
I had friends. Granted, they were mostly in Dallas, but still. I didn't come to cocktail receptions to make friends. I came to make contacts. I took everyone's card, even the animator.
After listening to them complain and gossip for three minutes, I pretended to see someone I knew. Time to move on.
"Guys, really great to meet you." I opened my business card holder and dealt like I worked a Vegas craps table. "Thanks again."
I strolled away with the uneasy sense I was being followed.
"Those idiots yours?"
The female voice was dusky, and close to my ear, and I felt the red tones of her wine breath, laced with dark, musky perfume, on the back of my neck. I knew that voice. I had perfect voice recognition.
I turned toward the voice and saw the tall, slender cocktail waitress Filoberto had smacked. Dressed in a well-fitting white blouse (okay, truth be told, it strained at the bosom as if she carried water balloons in her bra) and black slacks, she had lustrous long hair, brown with gold and honey highlights, wavy and down to the middle of her back. Beautiful gold earrings I recognized as $550 Paloma Picasso designs (I also had perfect price recognition) flashed on her lobes, and I felt ashamed for wondering how a cocktail waitress might afford something like that. She was almost six feet tall, but must have weighed about 130 pounds. I had perfect weight recognition, too. Her electric blue eyes danced with amusement and what appeared to be controlled rage. The golden brown skin reddened on the cheeks as she prepared to speak. I recognized her from somewhere. She was the kind of woman you couldn't take your eyes off of, even if you wanted to because she reminded you of how you'd never be that thin or gorgeous without surgical and divine intervention.
"You mean the boys in the band?" I asked her.
I glanced at Filoberto. He had hoisted his barrel-body onto the small stage and planted his feet apart, like an easel. It was the stance he took when he was about to sing. It wasn't time to sing, but Filoberto did not care. Without a microphone, he began to belt out a few bars of his favorite ditty, "El Rey," by José Alfredo Jimenez.
"Yo se bien que estoy afuera," he began. I did a quick check of the faces in the room and realized that, to them, Filoberto was quaint, a glorified restaurant mariachi, while, to him, he was the King of Mexico.
"They're mine," I sighed, thinking, For better or worse and mostly worse.
"Okay, then." Her woodsy voice was as familiar as her face. She scowled and placed a firm hand on my shoulder. "Tell the fat one to keep his fucking hands to himself unless he wants to swallow his tiny balls. Whole."
Filoberto sang on: "Con dinero y sin dinero, hago siempre lo que yo quiero ..."
"I'm sorry," I said to the cocktail waitress. "He's a bit ..." I searched for the right word and smiled so strenuously, and with such artifice, that my face cramped. It was just like Momma used to say, you did things for work that you'd never do in real life. "He's a bit old-fashioned."
The waitress laughed at me as if I had told her a transparent lie, tossed her glorious mane, and it struck me that in this party full of beautiful people, she, with her large chest and flat belly (I, for the record, was the precise, schlumpy reverse of that) was probably the most beautiful.
"He's a bit of an asshole," she corrected me. "And if you don't take care of the problem, I'll take care of it myself." She held up a fist before smacking it into the palm of her other hand. "Black belt in karate, girl."
Something about the way she grinned was incredibly familiar.
"Have we met before?" I asked her.
Her large eyes narrowed as she inspected me, a manicured finger to her full, pouty lips, and finally she shook her head. "Did you go to Cate?" she asked.
"The Cate School, in Santa Barbara. But if you have to ask, the answer's no." She looked me up and down. "Nope," she said. "We've never met."
"Then I apologize," I said, aware of my thin lips and double chin. It looked like the waitress had porcelain caps on her teeth; at a thousand bucks a tooth, I wondered, again, how it was possible. I remembered the first time I went to get a manicure in Los Angeles, when the Vietnamese nail lady told me in shock that I was "pretty, but natural pretty, chubby pretty," as if this were rare. In L.A., even the help had invested in cosmetic surgery. "I just really thought I knew you from somewhere."
Her posture softened and she lowered her voice the way a friend might, if she were going to say something not exactly appropriate for the setting, something conspiratorial and delicious the way my girlfriends back in Dallas used to do. How I missed my girls! "Do you ever watch novelas?" she asked.
A novela was a Spanish-language soap opera, a dramatic miniseries that played every night of the week on Univision or Telemundo for a season, and if your family was from West Dallas, like mine was, there was little chance you'd escaped them growing up, especially if you had a grandmother like Granny Lopez, who lived for the melodrama and happy endings.
"That's it!" I exclaimed. "You played that illiterate peasant girl who fell in love with Fernando Colunga on Sus Raices!"
Sus Raices, or "Her Roots," had been the only novela I'd watched as an addictionwith my sorority sisters, religiouslyand this comely cocktail waitress had been not only beautiful, but a very competent actress we'd envied and admired. I'd even bought a copy of that Spanish-language gossip rag, TV y Novelas, when she was on the cover, and remembered having been surprised to learn the actress with the perfect Spanish was actually half-Dominican and half-French, born and raised in Santa Barbara, California. From a rich family. That explained the teeth, earrings, and, quite possibly, the boobs. But why was she working here?
I grabbed her arm and heard my voice rise up in excitement. "Oh my gosh! You're Marcella Gauthier Bosch!" I remembered her name, even though it had been almost ten years since the show aired. That probably made her somewhere around thirty now. I remembered reading something, too, about how she had hoped to give up Spanish-language TV for mainstream Hollywood. She'd quit novelas around the same time as Salma Hayek, but apparently had not fared as well.
"Weren't you going to do some English work?" I felt awkwardly starstruck, and a little embarrassed and confused that this woman was serving cocktails. It wasn't right. She nodded, confirming the fact that she was the actress I had in mind.
She said, "Uh-huh. But I refuse to play a maid with an accent, or a crack whore, so I guess you could say I'm taking my time finding the perfect role."
She glanced worriedly over her shoulder at a tall, stern man in black pants and a white shirt who stood behind the bar tapping his watch in her direction. He looked like Moby.
"Yeah, okay, you relentless, meaningless sphincter," she said under her breath. Then, to me she added, "Please ask that fat piece of corrido chimpanzee shit to leave me alone, okay? Or I'll get him. Wax on, wax off." Her hands spun in front of her face and she let out a low crazy karate wail that made me think of Angelina Jolie. She actually rather resembled Angelina. Her, and Carmen Electra.
"Wait!" I cried as she kickboxed away, far too graceful and angry for her job. I didn't say it, but I thought, What on earth are you doing serving cocktails?
I wondered, with no small amount of self-interest, if she had good representation. I noticed that more than one of the elites, the men in particular, stared at her. It was a huge accomplishment to turn heads in Los Angeles, a city withperhaps more good-looking people per capita than any other in the world. I knew L.A. was brutal, but the apparent fall of Marcella Gauthier Bosch made me want to cry.
At the stage end of the terrace, a microphone screeched feedback as the top brass from UCLA prepared to hand the Chimps some sort of plaque and answer questions from the press. The band was supposed to be up there, next to the university people in a photo-friendly chorus line, but they were scattered around the terrace, doing other things, like throwing pennies into a fountain that was actually a sculpture you weren't supposed to touch. I intercepted Filoberto as he began to move toward Marcella Gauthier Bosch again, licking his lips.
"Don't touch the help, and don't talk to them," I told him. "You need to get over to the podium and talk about how exciting all this is for you. How honored you are. The importance of education for your people, etcetera. Remember what we talked about?"
"Don't tell me what to do," he countered with beer breath. "You do your job, I do mine." His eyes did not move from Marcella's lovely body as she waltzed here and there with the tray, a mixture of hope and fury in her eyes. I truly hated women with flat bellies and big chichis. I did. I hoped Jesus would forgive me. Envy was such an ugly thing.
"Please," I said. "It's not a strip club. It's a museum. Act like a gentleman for Pete's sake. Everyone's here. The Times, The New Yorker. Everyone."
Filoberto, high on the fact that he was being celebrated as rich and powerful by a bunch of "gringos," seemed to feel invincible and shrugged out of my grip, moving forward on his mission to find and fondle Marcella.
"Trust me," I said, pulling on his lime-green fringe, "there will be plenty of other women in your life."
"Me vale madre," he said, steamrolling on. "Quiero esa buenota." Polite translation: I could give a rat's behind.
I thought, frantic.
"She's pregnant," I lied, in loudly whispered Spanish. His expression changed instantly, to fear. I put a kind hand on his forearm, like an older sister offering a kind-hearted suggestion. "I know her, and ..." I thought hard. "And I think she's sick, amorcito, that's why she's so skinny. You deserve better. I'm just looking out for you."
Filoberto made a disgusted face that I thought went nicely with the ensuing crotch-scratch and loud exclamation of "nimodo," and stopped following Marcella.
Yes, ma'am, there were times that I was proud to represent this bandbut thiswas not one of them. I didn't know whether to be proud of myself for smoothing the situation, or ashamed to my bones for lying. But Los Angeles was nothing if not a lie factory, and the longer I lived here, the more lyinglike asthma and Starbucksbecame essential.
I dragged Filoberto by the hand to the podium, and released him to the care of sexy Samuel. The professor stood with a tiny, pretty woman, no more than five feet tall, with fierce black eyes and shiny dark shoulder-length hair streaked with a few strands of white and cut carelessly and stylelessly, as if she might have done it herself with sewing scissors while absently listening to NPR.
"Alexis," said Samuel, "I'd like you to meet my wife, Olivia."
Dangit. He was married? I'd been hoping he wasn't, and was a little surprised, given the shameless way the boy had flirted with me, that he was married. Or at least I thought he'd been flirting. But that was the problem with me. I misread men all the time. I thought they wanted me when all they wanted was a sandwich. And I had, more than once, ignored a wonderful guy who loved me because I did not believe in my ample gut that a guy like that could in fact love a woman with an ample gut. All the good men in this town were either married, or gay, which is why I was stuck dating a loser of a newspaper writer named Daniel, who was supposed to be here with me but who'd had a last-minute assignment covering a rap-world shooting. I shouldn't have been relieved Daniel was elsewhere, not to mention an elsewhere involving violence, but I was. He was almost forty, and wore his baggy jeans so low you could see his Fubu underwear; worse, he thought that was cool. I used to think he'd improve with time, but recently it was looking like that wasn't going to happen.
Olivia held her hand out to shake mine and I was impressed by her strength. For a petite, slouching wisp of a woman, she was powerful. Even the tendons in her forearms looked toned, as if she never ate fat and ran marathons for fun, like Gandhi. Samuel took Filoberto to one side and began prepping him for the press conference, and I was left with his wife.
She hunched and cowered as if she were afraid of something. Me? Was she actually afraid of me? How silly. She clutched her sweating wineglass with two hands, and sipped cautiously, her eyes closed to slits, observing everything around us with what I took to be judgmental amusement sprinkled with paranoia.
She wore a simple, linty black jersey dress with a too-long skirt; it would have been just right for a Mormon schoolteacher, and looked like it might have seen better years. Her jewelry was a stained-looking sterling silver in need of a polish.Her navy blue pumps were worn out and dusty, and did not match her dress; she stood awkwardly in them, as if she were more accustomed to boots, or running shoes. Or no shoes at all. She wore no hose, and the tops of her feet had a couple of ugly black hairs sprouting on them. What, she hadn't heard of hot wax? Nair? A razor? Something. Her purse was the kind my granny used, from a Wal-Mart or a Target, sort of a mesh material with nylon underneath it. Pinned to the strap were about a dozen buttons with left-leaning political slogans in Spanish and English, the usual sort of United Farm Workers/Frida Kahlo kind of nonsense I'd seen so much of since moving here, and a particularly disturbing pin that looked like a Bush/Cheney bumper sticker but in the place of "Cheney" was the word "Chupa," Spanish for "sucks." The nerve.
Still, Olivia radiated intelligence and the intangible quality of grace, almost as a defense mechanism, in inverse proportion, it seemed, to her shabby wardrobe. She had to have been aware of the many gorgeous gowns in the room, and the fact that she wasn't in one. In spite of her politics, and likely because of my generous reserves of pity, I liked something about her. My momma always accused me of "collecting strays," meaning that of all my Latina sorority sisters I was the most likely to befriend the homeless and drug-addicted people we met during service projects, the one most likely to hang out with needy folks, the one most likely to want to adopt a foster child in the event that I failed to produce a child of my ownwhich, considering the odds lately, was more than likely. This little Olivia person seemed a little needy, and I wanted to ease her suffering somehow.
"So, you're married to Samuel?" I asked. It was an idiotic question, but I didn't know what else to say to her. We certainly couldn't talk about fashion. I stopped myself from the thought because it was so not nice and I had been raised to be nice.
Leave judgments to God, I said, but it wasn't always easy.
"He's really nice," I said of Samuel. "He's been a great help to me." I also imagined he'd be good in bed, but didn't raise the subject.
"For ten years now," she said with a smile sadder than I thought should accompany such wonderful news. Her English was tinged with a slight Spanish accent. She sighed. "We've been together a long time."
"Are you in academia, too?" I asked, assuming, given the collection of horrible pins and the shoes, that the answer would be yes.
She shook her head and sucked at the wine with a loud slurp, shrinking even further into the thin shell of her shoulders.
"I used to be a technical writer for a medical journal, but I quit my job when we had our son. Jack. He's two." She finally looked me in the eye and smiled at the thought of her child. That's why I liked her, I thought. She was a good mother. "I don't believe in nannies or day care."
I liked that, too. I would never hire a nanny. Never. Well, maybe if I had to.
She sneaked a look at my left hand, and asked the question the very bareness of my ring finger made glaringly clear.
"Are you married?"
"No," I said, and saved her the thoughts that followed. I'm heading on thirty and still can't find a man who can stand me. I'll never have children unless it is through surgical intervention. I am thinking the best remedy for all of this is to adopt three hundred cats, one for each pound I plan to weigh soon because I can't seem to stop spooning cookie ice cream into my gaping maw thanks to my increasingly realistic fear of being single forever, Amen.
"Lucky you," she joked. I did not see the humor of it. What was wrong with being married?
"Do you like staying home?" I asked her.
"It's great," she said with a tinge of counterfeit happiness. "Really. I love it. I love my son." It sounded like she was trying to convince herself, and me.
"So, you manage the band?"
"They're great. They really connect with the people." She looked like she actually liked the Chimps, or admired them, or felt pride in them. "How do you like your job?"
It was the first time I could remember in Los Angeles that a person had asked me a question this direct, simple, and personal. I answered honestly, telling her of my dream to have my own talent agency someday and be done with the Chimps.
"Wow." Her eyes lit up with surprise. "I guess we all have dreams."
The men were taking their places at the microphone, and we had begun to hold our conversation in whispers.
"I want to write a movie." Her eyes focused on her hairy feet and she blushed.
"That's great." I tried to be enthusiastic.
Everyone I met in L.A., from bartenders to cosmetics salesgirls, said they were screenwriters or actors, it seemed, but this Olivia person didn't seem to have anyego involved in the statement at all. In fact, she seemed oddly humiliated by it. I took this to mean she had something to say, and guessed that with her tendency to shrink away and watch everything around her (which also, frankly, could be considered antisocial) and her prior employment as a technical writer (whatever that meant) she might make a halfway decent screenwriter. Or at least as good as half of the wannabes in this town.
"Well, actually, I wrote it already," she apologized. "I just don't know what to do with it."
Samuel, her husband, was tall and cocky. He took his place at the microphone on the stage, tapped it once or twice, cleared his throat with deliberation, and began his very flattering and informative introduction of the band.
"I'd love to read your movie," I blurted to Olivia, wondering, as I said it, if I had made a mistake. Sometimes the charitable impulse was too great in me.
Olivia stared hard into my eyes. I didn't know why I'd said that I wanted to read something I didn't know anything about, other than the fact that it made me feel like I might actually be capable of starting my own firm someday if I were able to say things like that and make someone flinchy feel like I was that important.
Olivia whispered, "Would you? It might suck. I need an honest opinion. Samuel says it's good, but he's my husband." She glared at him. "And men lie."
I smiled as politely as I could, to try to let her know I thought it was time for us to keep quiet and listen to the speakers. I also didn't know her well enough to start talking about how she mistrusted her husband and men in general, and was not comfortable with her apparent and unearned comfort with me. She got the message instantlyshe was nothing if not a sensitive womanand moved a few feet away from me with some sort of mumbled apology. I hoped I hadn't offended her, and fished a business card out of my bag.
"Call me," I mouthed. "Send me a copy of your movie. We'll talk."
She nodded, sullen, and slouched away.
Once the press conference ended, with rousing applause and polite smiles all around, Filoberto swaggered off to the drink table once more, one hand inexplicably stashed in the waistband of his pants as if he were posing as a body double for Napoleon. Olivia slinked off on her husband's arm, with a wincing sort of half-smile in my direction, and I stood, alone, surrounded by a murmuring crowd of elite Anglo-linos.
I assessed the room, wondering who to introduce myself to next. There was so much power here, I could hardly stand it. Finally, I spotted a couple whose pictures were familiar to me from gossip magazines. The man, Darren Wells, was a big-time TV drama producer who had made his fortune with a show about anxiety-ridden non-Hispanic white kids in Beverly Hills, starring his very own son. Short, with a dyed brown comb-over and trendy, artsy eyeglasses, he wore a fake tan under his black sweater and sipped wine with studied indifference. His equally bronzed wife was a walking tribute to Botox, Chanel, and starvation, dripping with waist chains.
"Hi there," I said with a big cheesy smile. I stuck my hand into the space between me and Mr. Wells. "My name is Alexis Lopez, and I'm the manager and publicist for the band being honored here tonight. Thanks s'much for coming out."
Mr. Wells took my hand in his and I was impressed by its softness and heat. My own hands were like ice. His face opened in a warm smile, which I didn't expect, and both he and his wife acted more than pleased to meet me.
"This is such a treat," said Darren Wells. "I've been looking to get something with a Latin flavor going, and some people I know thought I might make some contacts here."
My smile went from forced to fabulous. "What sort of Latin thing?" I asked.
"Oh, a show. I do TV shows. Name's Darren Wells."
"I know your name, Mr. Wells," I said, with a wink. "And I know you make TV shows. Everyone in the world knows that! And no one does them better. I think you are a genius and when I saw you here, I just thought, omigosh, I can't not meet that man. We're honored you came. Truly."
He smiled modestly and brushed off my shameless gushing, but seemed to like the compliments. I continued: "No, really, sir. You are. I mean, I just love everything you've ever done." I listed the shows I knew of his, and the names of the actors and writers that I could remember. First rule of good public relations: Flatter. Second rule: Know who you're talking to and what they've done. He and his wife seemed impressed, and she put a hand on my arm.
"Are you from the South?" she asked. "You speak beautifully. So articulate. Isn't she articulate, honey?" He nodded.
"I'm Texan," I bragged.
"How charming," smiled Mr. Wells. They both looked surprised that someone who looked like methat is, someone with dark skin and hairmight be Texan. It happened all the time out here. Hollywood thought Latinos only existed in EastL.A. I let it slip because, honestly, it didn't bother me. Well, maybe it bothered me a little that people might be surprised I was "articulate" or Texan. But I loved being an ambassador for my state.
After a bit more small talk, he told me that he was putting together a Baywatch clone beach-bunny lifeguard show, and that he was hoping to cast a Latina in the lead female role to reflect, as he called it, "the real L.A." Loved that.
"The only problem with this damn town is that everywhere I go they say, 'Darren, there aren't any gorgeous Hispanics. Look at that George Lopez.' That's what they say. They always talk about George."
I gasped. "They don't honestly say that, do they?" Privately, I had to admit, I had thought once or twice that there were better-looking men in the world than sweet, funny George Lopez, but I didn't see how Hollywood could assume that he was the physical prototype for all of us. That was like saying all non-Hispanic whites looked like Rodney Dangerfield or David Spade.
"They do say it. All the time."
"What about J.Lo?" I asked.
"Well, that's just it. They think it stops and ends with her, and, you know, she isn't the cuddliest woman to work with and nobody's breaking down doors to ink a deal with her since Gigli."
"I hear she's vulgar," said the wife.
"Anyway, I can't get an agency in town to send me anyone worth looking at. I'm close to giving up and casting another Barbie doll, but I don't want to. That's what the networks want, but I think it's rotten and stupid. Unimaginative sons of bitches."
"We go to Los Cabos all the time," said the wife. "And there are so many lovely women down in Mexico."
I listed the names of some well-known Latina actresses who happened to be gorgeous, and Mr. Wells shook his head. "Too famous, all of 'em," he said. "I want hungry. Someone new to put out there the way we did for the kids on Beverly Hills High Life. I don't want the show to be about the star. I want people to believe these actors are the characters because it's the first time they're seeing them."
It was a genuine Alexis lightbulb-moment after that, and if I'd been a cartoon characterwhich sometimes I rather thought I was in this townI might have sprouted a bubble with a sixty-watter going "Bing!" above my head.
"Are you a religious man, sir?" I asked. The couple stared at me in horror. I had forgotten you didn't ask that sort of question in Los Angeles. You got the same reaction you might if you asked someone if they liked porn. "I mean, spiritual," Isaid, using the word that, to me, meant the Bible, and which, in L.A., meant hemp T-shirts and vegetarianism.
"Well, sure." He looked worried about where this might be heading.
"So am I," I said. "That's why I think we met tonight. There's someone here I think you need to meet. The perfect actress for your show."
I looked around the room for Marcella, the cocktail waitress, but didn't see her. I asked Mr. Wells if he would mind waiting right where he was for a few moments while I found someone, and he agreed. I raced around the gallery, but could not find her.
"Excuse me," I said to the Moby man, who I assumed was her boss. "Could you tell me where I might find Marcella, the real pretty waitress?"
He snorted. "Hell if I know."
"Bitch quit ten minutes ago."
"Quit? Where'd she go?"
"I don't know and I don't care."
"Do you know how I can reach her?"
"Why would you want to?" he asked. "She's a psycho."
"I'm an old friend and I want to catch up," I lied. Again with the lying. It was getting too easy.
The man fished beneath a box of cash for a tattered piece of paper with a list of phone numbers on it. He pointed hers out to me. I took my Palm Pilot out of my white-fringed Tod's handbag and tapped the number in.
I returned to Mr. Wells and explained the situation to him, embellishing it a little by saying I had just signed her as a client. He said he remembered having seen her, and was not surprised she'd been a star before.
"A hot girl," he said.
"She's fabulous," I said as I handed him a business card. "The new Salma. And as you can see, she needs the work. I can send you tapes of her work, if you'd like, and I can arrange a meeting."
He looked doubtful, but his wife seemed confident. It reminded me of the saying that behind every great man is a great woman. So totally true. "Why not, honey?" she asked. "It might not work out, but it might be the smartest move you ever made. It's why you came here, right?"
"Yes, but a waitress?"
"She's a star in Spanish," I assured him.
"Jennifer Aniston was a waitress, honey," said the wife. "And Brad used to deliver refrigerators."
"But we need her in English," he objected.
"She's from Santa Barbara, sir, fully bilingual, no accent either way. She went to Cate."
"Really?" he asked. "We have a niece at Cate."
I had never heard of Cate before tonight, but I did know the power of prep school name-dropping.
Mr. Wells took my card and put it in his pocket with a shrug that made me think of Woody Allen. "We'll see," he said. "Thanks for the lead. I'll call you, Alexis."
I wandered through the room, gathering business cards for a few more minutes, and finally checked in with Filoberto, still holding court by the drink table. I asked if he was okay, and when he said he was fine, I asked to be excused.
It had been a long day, and I had a longhaired Chihuahua named Juanga, after Juan Gabriel, my favorite singer of all time, and a pint of Chunky Monkey waiting for me at home in my Newport Beach condo. Juanga the dog was a girl, but so might as well have been Juanga the man, in his shiny patent leathers and capes.
The drive to Orange County was not shortbut worth it because O.C. was the only place in Southern California where I didn't feel like I had to apologize for being a card-carrying member of the G.O.P. ; I almost fit in there. Even though I loved speeding around in my pretty little cream-colored Cadillac, I dreaded the hour-plus I had yet to spend on the freeways of Southern California tonight. Thank goodness for CDs; a rockin' eighties compilation would be my company tonight.
"Go," huffed Filoberto, as if he not only did not need me anymore, but had never needed me and would never need me again. I smiled in spite of him.
"You did a wonderful job tonight, darlin'," I said. "I'm s'proud of you! Everyone is. Thanks for all your hard work and generosity."
Filoberto chugged his beer and observed me from the corner of his eye. Then, to my surprise, he belched softly and pulled me into a fatherly hug.
"Come here," he said. "I know I'm hard on you. Maybe, you know, maybe you were right. About the suit. But I think I look good."
Then, as quickly as he had gotten mushy, he hardened up again, pushing me off as if I'd been the one who embraced him. I stood, staring, a sap, with tears bubbling up in my eyes.
It was the girly girl in me; I cried for near 'bout everything. Babies born, planes that landed on time, douche commercials, the satisfying ding of the bell on my clothes dryer. Everything.
But if it was something that reminded me I hadn't known my (Mexican) biological father until I was eighteen, forget it. I wept like Tammy Faye in a Barbara Walters interview.
I had been eighteen when Momma and Daddy finally told me the truth: The male provider of my spectacular DNA had been none other than Pedro Negrete, the famous Mexican film and mariachi star. He was, and continued to be, Mexico's most beloved and heavily mustachioed middle-aged romantic singer, as popular in grainy movies aired late at night on the Telemundo network as he was in recordings; a long, roguish slash of a man with exceptionally tight pants sewn down the side with shiny things resembling quarters, and short embroidered jackets that just brushed the top of his widening, pork-loving arse. He kept ranches in Mexico, and in McAllen, Texas, filled with fancy white horses that pranced like big show-poodles during his concerts, which were generally held in rodeo arenas. Pedro sang on horseback whenever possible, and women of advancing years and descending breasts threw increasingly wide, pork-loving panties into the hoof-beaten dust. At first I thought they were joking when Momma and Daddy told me, but I soon realized it was the truth.
I think Momma was temporarily insane when she had her one-night stand with Pedro in 1974. But in West Dallas, Pedro Negrete was like Elvis or the Beatles. So when my Aunt Dolores took Momma to one of Pedro's concerts to celebrate her graduating from SMU (she was the first in the family to go to college, against her parents' wishes), Pedro picked Momma out of the audience because he thought she was so pretty with that reddened bouffant hair helmet and the turquoise minidress with white Laugh In boots. I've seen pictures; she was twinkly, and cute as pie. People think only rock stars cull chicks from the audience, but ranchera stars do it, too, apparently.
Even though Momma's Methodist now, like Daddy, she was raised Catholic. Terminating me was never an optionthank you, Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, Mel Gibson, et al. She lived with my grandparents when I was born; they insisted the "situation" (aka me) was exactly what you could expect when you sent a female to college. Dolores defiantly went on to graduate from SMU, too, and her decision to kiss the (upper and lower) lips of women only entirely solidified my grandparents' view of college as Satan's Sinful School for Girls. Momma waited until I was two years old to get a job with an oil company as a secretary; that's where she met Daddy, then a member of the junior sales force. Daddy, as in the man who raised me.
"Filoberto," I stopped, words stuck and wrong in my mouth. I wanted to saysomething, but I realized it wasn't Filoberto I wanted to say it to. It was all scrambled up in my head sometimesmen, who they were and what they meant to me, what I wanted from them and why.
"You still here, woman?" He wiped a tear from my cheek with his calloused thumb and smiled. "Go on home, gueda."
PLAYING WITH BOYS. Copyright © 2004 by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Reading Group Guide
1. Do you think the relationships forged between friends or the characters' family bonds are stronger in this book? Explain how the characters' ties to others affects their behavior.
2. Body image and looks are very important to Marcella and other characters in this book. Discuss how those perceptions change the characters' view of themselves and also whether you think the male characters in the book share those perceptions.
3. Alexis is not a typical heroine-she's Republican and Christian, among other things. Do you think those anomalies make her more or less likable as a character?
4. Playing with Boys begins with a satirical portrait of a typical Los Angeles party. In what other scenes did you feel Valdes-Rodriguez sharpened her satirist's pen effectively?
5. Musicians play big roles in Playing with Boys. Compare and contrast the styles and fans of Los Chimpances del Norte, Pedro Negrete, and Goyo. Do you think one of them is more successful than the others at being a musical ambassador for their home country?
6. Valdes-Rodriguez makes it clear how much Olivia's childhood has affected her actions and mind as an adult. Which of the other main female characters has brought her childhood into her adulthood?
7. How important is work to the self-regard of Olivia, Marcella, and Alexis? Explain why each character approaches work as she does.
8. Did you feel the city of Los Angeles was a character in this novel? How might the story have differed if it were set in New York City or Chicago?
9. What do you think happens to Caridad after the action in the book is over?
10. If you have read this author's previous novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club,do you think Alexis, Marcella, and Olivia are as likely to remain friends as the six characters (Lauren, Sara, Elizabeth, Usnavys, Rebecca, and Amber) in that novel? Why or why not?