By Jonathan Tropper
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Jonathan Tropper
All rights reserved.
Jack was a movie star, which meant he was granted some latitude in the outrageous behavior department. Nevertheless, when he showed up sweaty and stoned to Lindsey's thirtieth birthday party, punched the overly solicitous maitre d' in the nose, and vomited into the potted gladioluses lining Torre's knee-high windowsills before passing out into a chair at our table, no one was amused. Not Lindsey, who said, "Screw this," and walked over to the bar for another shot of vodka. Not Chuck, who tossed the ice from his drink and mine into his napkin and, cursing Jack under his breath, ran into the kitchen to tend to the maitre d'. Not Alison, who jumped out of her seat and anxiously began trying to revive Jack by gently slapping his face and applying a wet cloth to his forehead, urgently saying over and over again, "Oh my god, Jack, wake up." And not I, who, lacking any other positive course of action, got up from the table and walked through the disapproving hush of well-dressed diners to join Lindsey at the bar.
Well, to tell the truth, I was somewhat amused. How often, after all, did you see that sort of thing in real life.
"You okay, Lindsey?" I asked, as she threw her head back and killed the vodka shot. Somewhere in the background, what sounded like Yanni or some other music on sedatives was being faintly piped into invisible speakers.
"Comparatively speaking, I would say I'm doing great," she said, casting her eyes in the direction of Jack and Alison. "What a shithead."
"Two more," I called to the bartender, who managed to stop ogling Lindsey from under his eyebrows long enough to comply.
"You think anyone recognizes him?" I said, looking out across the restaurant.
"Here's to you, birthday girl." We clinked glasses and downed the shots.
"I think they'd be making a bigger deal if they knew who he was," Lindsey observed. "It's not every day you get to watch a bona fide movie star destroy his life."
"He's lucky he hasn't been arrested."
"The night's young."
"I hope the maitre d' is okay," I said, grimacing as I recalled the lurching punch, the snapping sound Jack's fist and the maitre d's face had produced in their collision. Jack's punches usually had the benefit of accompanying THX sound effects. In real life the sound was startling in its lack of resonance, but somehow more imbued with violence because of it.
"Do you think it would be possible," Lindsey said to the bartender, "for you to stop staring at my breasts for a little while?"
The bartender, a fortyish guy with a goiter and a handlebar mustache, gasped and quickly moved further down the bar. He pulled out a dish rag and began meticulously scrubbing an invisible dirt spot. "You sure you're okay?" I asked.
"He wasn't even being subtle about it," she said, annoyed.
"So it wasn't the staring, but the sloppy execution that bugged you.
"Shut up, Ben."
At that point, Chuck returned from the kitchen, his forehead dappled in sweat beneath his receding hairline. "Sweet Jesus, it's hot in there." He ordered a club soda on ice, which is what he always drank when he was operating the following morning. The bartender served him without making eye contact, and then quickly retreated to the other end of the bar.
"How's the maitre d'?" I asked.
"He'll live. He's got a contusion on the bridge of his nose and it'll hurt him to sneeze for a few days. I told him I'll phone in a prescription for him. How's Hollywood doing?"
We all looked over to the table, where Alison had finally revived Jack, and was force-feeding him a glass of water, most of which was ending up in dark, damp spots on his brown shirt. The restaurant's dim lighting lent a jaundiced pallor to his already ashen complexion, making him appear gaunt and sickly. "He's looked better," I said truthfully.
"Dude, I've seen homeless junkies that looked better," Chuck snorted.
"Spare us the lurid details of your social life."
"Eat me," Chuck said with a smirk. Chuck had somehow missed the stage where we all outgrew salutations like 'dude' and 'eat me,' and he clung to those anachronisms tenaciously, as if they might somehow slow down the balding process.
"There's a shot for the tabloids." Lindsey interrupted us, turning back to the bar, the track lighting picking out her blond highlights in a glimmering halo as her head moved.
"I think we'd better get him out of here," I said. "If someone recognizes him, we'll be watching this on Entertainment Tonight."
"It would serve him right," Lindsey said as we got up from the bar.
"What's the point of being a famous movie star if no one recognizes you?" Chuck grumbled.
"Look at him," I said. "I barely recognize him myself."
It was true. Jack's usually bright blond hair was in a matted, greasy mess above his Gucci shades, and he wore four or five days' growth of a beard. It was hard to believe that this was the same man whose face (and body, always the body) had been on every major magazine cover at one time or another over the last few years, the same guy who reduced tabloid journalists to trite adjectives like "heartthrob" and "hunk." But his grungy appearance that night would have done nothing to change that perception. Jack often went out looking like he hadn't showered in a week. It was a Hollywood thing. All the stars were doing it lately, if the candid shots in Entertainment Weekly and Movieline were any indication. It was their way of saying, "Even when I look like shit I'm beautiful." Which, in Jack's case, was undeniably true. His essence shone through the layers of grime — the perfect green eyes, the exquisitely carved cheekbones, the casual, unconscious grace with which he threw his lean body around. On your best day, you'd be lucky to look like Jack with smallpox.
As we approached the table, Alison looked away, but not before I saw that there were tears in her eyes. I nudged Lindsey. "Take her outside."
After the women left, Chuck and I took seats on either side of Jack, who was now sitting up, looking bleary-eyed but only slightly befuddled. "Do you think we can get out of here without any further incident?" I asked him.
"Sorry, guys," Jack said with a sheepish, million-dollar smile. Then, concerned, "Did I hit someone?"
"You whacked the maitre d'," I said.
"What was he doing?"
"Shit." He examined his knuckles with contempt, as if they had acted independently of him. "I knew I was too wrecked to come, but I really wanted to make it to Lindsey's party."
"Mission accomplished, dude," Chuck said.
"Fuck, my head hurts," Jack said, leaning back and rubbing his temples.
Chuck suddenly leaned forward and squeezed Jack's nose between his thumb and forefinger. Jack bolted upright in pain and swatted away Chuck's hand. "Asshole!"
"I thought that might hurt," Chuck said, with a modicum of satisfaction.
"Cocaine?" I asked.
"Definitely, man," Chuck said. "Leaves the nasal passages very raw."
"Could be," Chuck answered. "But his behavior is much more consistent with a cocaine habit."
"Shit, Jack," I said, instantly depressed. "Coke?"
He was spared the necessity of a reply because at that moment the manager arrived, accompanied by two burly kitchen workers, to kick us out of the restaurant.
That was when we first thought Jack might be in serious trouble.
Of course, it wasn't the first time it had crossed our minds that Jack might be something other than drug free, but how do you distinguish a genuine addiction from standard celebrity behavior? What major Hollywood star didn't trash the occasional Plaza suite, or get snapped by the paparazzi outside the Viper Room looking dazed and unkempt? If the warning flag went up every time a movie star cut a little too loose they'd have to install revolving doors at the Betty Ford Clinic. Still, in retrospect, Jack had seemed somewhat withdrawn over the last few months, hurried and antsy on the phone, speaking the way you do when you've got a long distance call on the other line or you'd just stepped out of the shower when the phone rang. He was distracted and tense, not at all like the Jack we knew. But an asking price of twelve million per film is bound to come with some pressure. The tabloid vultures had been circling for months now, searching (read: yearning) for any sign of a meltdown, but as Jack's friends we felt duty-bound to ignore the reports. No one wants to believe they need the mass media to stay in touch with a friend.
The irony was that Jack had never been interested in acting. For him, stardom came with the same serendipitous ease that everything else did. In college he would wander aimlessly into a party on his way home from a late evening jog, unshaven, his hair plastered to his scalp with sweat, visible pit stains on his ratty NYU sweatshirt, and he'd leave an hour later with any one of the multitude of girls who practically climbed over each other to make themselves available to him. He didn't plan it; he never planned anything. Things just happened for Jack. If he ever thought about it, he would have assumed that it was the same for everyone. But he never thought about it. You wanted to resent him, or even hate him a little, but how could you begrudge someone his innate gifts when he wasn't even aware of them? He lived in complete oblivion to his own charms, which, of course, made him all the more charming.
In our senior year Jack took a part-time job waiting tables in the Violet Cafe. His financial aid agreement stipulated that he work twenty hours a week. One day he served a frappacchino to some guy who was on the fast track at one of the major studios. The guy knew someone who knew someone, and within a few weeks he'd arranged a screen test. It was almost inevitable. Right after Thanksgiving Jack got a S.A.G. card and a walk-on part in a Harrison Ford thriller. Some on-site rewrites gave him three additional lines and a twelve-second gunfight sequence in which he blew away a Chinese body-builder before getting shot himself. It took three weeks in LA for Jack to shoot his scenes, and he came back disappointed that he didn't get to meet Harrison Ford. "He wasn't even there," Jack said bitterly. "He's already working on another movie."
A casting agent working on a modestly budgeted action movie for Miramax called Blue Angel saw the Ford movie when it came out a few months later and liked the way Jack held a fake gun. Jack was cast in the lead role for Blue Angel for which he was paid scale, and he flew out to Hollywood to begin preproduction. Blue Angel was the sleeper hit of the year and the trades anointed Jack Hollywood's next great action star. None of us was greatly surprised when he didn't come home to graduate.
I once asked Jack what he'd been planning to do before he was discovered. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"You were majoring in sociology, which is pretty much the equivalent of majoring in unemployment," I said. "What did you plan on doing after college?"
He frowned at me, clearly perplexed by the question. "I don't know," he said, running his fingers through his perfect hair. "I would have thought of something."
"Don't you ever worry about the future?" I asked.
Jack shrugged. "This is the future," he said.
When we left the restaurant Jack, one of People magazine's Fifty Most Beautiful People of 1999, puked all over himself, so Alison got him into his limo to take him back to his hotel, insisting, as he climbed in on all fours, that we didn't have to come along. Lindsey, Chuck, and I went to Moe's, a bar Chuck knew on the Upper East Side, one of those places that carefully spreads sawdust across the floor every night so as to seem like a genuine dive. For a surgeon, Chuck certainly got out a lot. He seemed to know the majority of the women in the place, and got a kiss hello from the bartender, who looked like a supermodel fallen on harder times. Jack may have been the movie star, but Chuck's life was a movie. Or at least a beer commercial.
While Chuck hit on some barely legal girls at the bar, Lindsey and I took a table in the back and ordered some kamikazes and a pitcher of Sam Adams to chase. "How's Alison?" I asked. I had to shout above the jukebox, which was playing one of those annoyingly catchy novelty songs that have slowly been replacing real music on the radio. The fact that I occasionally discovered myself humming along only intensified my dislike for the music.
"Still loves him, for all the good that does either one of them," she said, pouring beer into the plastic cups. "She thinks he's reaching the breaking point."
"What do you think?"
"I don't know. That was a pretty ugly display, even by movie star standards."
I nodded in agreement. "He's seriously messed up."
We drank in silence for a minute. "How's Sarah?" she asked.
"Are you inquiring into her health?"
"Forget it. I'm sorry."
I looked over to the bar, where Chuck was laughing it up with a brunette in a sleeveless blouse so tight I could make out the outline of her navel from where I was sitting. The light was causing a gleam on Chuck's head just above the point where his hairline continued to defy the daily assaults of Rogaine. He was in a desperate race with his hair, determined to bed as many women as possible before it disappeared altogether.
A few weeks earlier Chuck and I had gone down to Atlantic City for the weekend and I'd come into our room at the Trump Casino Hotel to find him standing in front of the bathroom mirror in a towel, using an eyedropper to apply Rogaine across his scalp. It was like inadvertently stumbling upon a deeply private ritual, like that scene in The Empire Strikes Back when the officer walks in on Darth Vader with his mask off. Chuck's hair, still wet from the shower, was standing up in jagged spikes, his pink scalp visible through the pithy strands like exposed tissue. He turned to me with an embarrassed grin, the eyedropper still poised over his head like a conductor's baton and said, "What have I got to lose?"
"It must be nice," Lindsey said, indicating Chuck. "He's able to find someone to hit on everywhere he goes."
"To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail," I said. Her eyes smiled at me from over the rim of her beer glass.
"What do you think he's after?" she asked me, putting down the glass. I shot her a look. "Other than the obvious," she said, correcting herself. "I mean, why do you think he's so determined to sleep around so much? In college, okay. It's an acceptable rite of passage, but at thirty it's a tad ..."
"More like pathetic," she said.
"I don't know," I said wearily. I took a sip of beer and held it in my mouth, letting the microscopic air bubbles tickle my tongue as they popped. "Maybe Chuck just hasn't found the right person."
"How would he know? He's gone before the sheets dry. He's got more of a Peter Pan complex than you do. His actually includes flying out the window before daybreak."
I laughed. "First of all, shut up," I said. "Second of all, I think it's more of a James Bond complex. He's not doing it to keep feeling young. I think he does it to feel like a real man."
Unlike Lindsey and Alison, who only met him in college, I knew that it hadn't always been this way for Chuck, which was probably why I cut him more slack than they did. We'd grown up together, gone through elementary school and high school together, where things had been anything but easy for him. From early childhood through our junior year of high school, Chuck was easily the most overweight kid in the class. Not grotesquely fat, but comically plump in a way that always made him look somewhat unkempt. He wasn't singled out for persecution the way it happens in those John Hughes movies, but he still suffered, especially when it came to girls. His wit made him popular with them to a point, but when it came to pushing for a girlfriend, he got the "just friends" speech every time. In high school he finally experienced some growth spurts, which, combined with some brutally disciplined dieting, brought his weight down into the normal range. But by then it was too late. He'd been a blimp for the first two years of high school, and that's how he was universally perceived for the last two. At sixteen, perception is nine-tenths of the law. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Plan B by Jonathan Tropper. Copyright © 2000 Jonathan Tropper. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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