Chapter Twenty-Three

“No, that’s not going to happen right now. I love you. Goodbye,” Lia Chang mumbled into her phone.

She shook her head. “No, Monroe. Not at Planetary Pictures. Goodbye. I love you…Because. I told you. Goodbye.” She hung up.

Monroe was Lia Chang’s boyfriend. At least that’s how she viewed their relationship. She didn’t envision spending the rest of her life with him, but she also liked the convenience of having a man that (she assumed) was all hers. They kept separate places, but she thought they were “together,” and she talked about Monroe as though they would eventually own a house and have babies.

Monroe thought that they were way more than casual lovers, more than friends, somewhat more than good friends, and somewhat less than a couple. But he loved Lia about as much as she loved him, which was enough to feel sporadically pleased, if not content.

Monroe was supposed to be a screenwriter, and he did do that every now and then, when he had a minute. But mostly Monroe was a marijuana grower, a full-time indoor farmer ensconced in an old air-conditioner factory near the L.A. River, an enormous garage filled with baby plants yearning for their irradiating mommy, the 1000-watt sunlamp.

Monroe called Lia at her office two or three times a day, usually stoned, usually to talk to his “Asian whore.”

Lia didn’t mind the calls, or the appellation. She liked that Monroe thought she was an Asian whore, even though she wore smart pantsuits, had two administrative assistants, and oversaw a division that did more than $700 million in business annually.

“That’s me!” she replied when, in the midst of dirty talk, he asked her once if she had grown up on the streets of Shanghai, sucking off American businessmen to get by, like a proper Chinese slut. “A girl does what she has to do,” Lia would reply, playing along.

She was OK with the games. What she was not OK with was the weird and impractical instructions Monroe would relay over the phone, as though he didn’t comprehend that she worked in an office, like most people.

“Put your pants down around your ankles and hold the phone next to your cunt.”

“Monroe, my door is open and my assistant is right outside.”

“So?”

This morning he had asked her to send him a love note written with her pussy juice – on Planetary Pictures letterhead. “You can fax it to me,” he had said.

This was not a good day for Monroe’s stoner imperatives. Lia Chang’s phone and email had been blazing since she arrived, a little after 9AM, directly from morning Pilates & Alexander Technique. Everyone, even the Bulgarians and the Finns, wanted to inquire about rights, about licensing, about how they could get involved with Planetary and its controversial (and therefore much discussed) slate of Christmas movies.

It was February, but the schedule for the rest of the year had already been leaked, intentionally, mostly to intimidate competitors away from prized dates.

This time her instincts, it seemed, had been prophetic. Lia was the one who called the outcome in advance.

It was she, a “numbers” expert seldom involved (or interested) in creative decisions, who unexpectedly spoke up at the weekly Brain Trust conference, where each of the Planetary division heads briefed her colleagues on the latest news in respective fiefdoms.

Most of the Veeps weighed their words carefully, frightened of saying something that would displease their boss, Jeffery Skullit, who, in turn, lived in fear of his bosses, the Board of Directors of a Japanese multi-national conglomerate, which owned Planetary.

Most of the Veeps spoke only to subtly confirm and reiterate something Skullit had said previously. Their expensive educations and wardrobes and grooming couldn’t protect them from the chief indignity of their work: serving as the richly compensated claque for a man, Skullit, whose aptitude and intelligence they privately doubted. The weekly meetings were a fine venue to reaffirm loyalty and usefulness, not discomfit others. Everyone in the conference room knew that his job wasn’t going to last forever, that getting fired and re-hired and fired and re-hired was the way things were done in the movie business, where failing upward was a necessity, since everyone was a failure at consistently picking winners.

When Lia Chang rose to speak at that meeting, she thought she recognized something like terror flashing across the face of her friend, David, a flamboyantly gay marketing genius who could sell the most cynical, regurgitated garbage to a movie-going public eager and willing to be conned. Vanity Fair had profiled him; he often gave interviews to E! and was invited to all of Elton John’s fundraisers.

When David saw Lia rise to speak, he actually covered his mouth, as though stifling a scream. But Lia wasn’t worried. She had truth on her side.

It was she who convinced her peers (and, more important, Jeff Skullit) that the proposed feature called The Way, about real women discovering their true selves, was going to make Planetary “a boatload of money,” as she put it.

Ted Denenberg’s people had brought it to Skullit. Word around town was that the Media was “excited” about the prospects. The Way was now. It had buzz. Stars were supposedly attached, including the girl from the new Fox hit, the blond. Ang Lee was interested in directing – although there was a rumor that the producers might go with a new guy, an actor-turned-director  named Fish, an unproved commodity who, according to the whispers, came attached to the project. (This could always be fixed.)

Lia smiled professionally. “Good morning. How are you? Look, my sense is that International is going to go crazy for this. They’re not allowed to import pornography in a lot of those markets. But if it’s packaged as an art film…” She raised her thin black eyebrows and shrugged.

“Smarter people than I will decide if this project has artistic merit. But, I’d just like to say that based on what I know about this film, and what I know about ‘The Way’ in general – well, you’ve got my vote. And I know that doesn’t really mean anything. I’m not the one guaranteeing the bonds. Hah! But I guess what I’m saying is, OK, right, you’ve got my support on this one, and in the areas I do know something about, you know, the licensing…This is going to be a winner.” She shrugged again and sat down quickly.

Lia’s palms felt moist. Her breathing was shallow.

David looked at her wide-eyed from across the table. Are you kidding me? You go, girl!

            No one else had said anything.

Later that afternoon, after lunch, when most of the company’s business got done, Lia polled her fellow executives. “Don’t you agree that, what I was saying, that ‘The Way’ is going to be a winner?”

No one had a strong opinion. If they did, they weren’t willing to express it.

The hemming and hawing and rhetorical throat-clearing was maddening to her. Everything was conditional. Everything was provisional. She could be right. She might have a point. But no one was sure.

“Of course you’re not sure,” she chided David, the only one of her group to whom Lia could speak bluntly. “Nobody knows the secret formula. Obviously. But I’m just saying: It looks, if you look at it from a certain perspective, it looks like a winner. A big winner. No?”

“Oh, I know,” David said, mollifying her. “I’m just not sure about the treatment.”

“The current one?”

“The one that’s been circulating. Yes. Is that the current one?”

“The one I gave you to read.”

David sniffed. “That one. Yes.”

“You read it?”

“Yes. Of course. I told you I would. I did. Swear.”

“And you don’t think it’s great?”

“Lia, no, I think it could be great. It might be a, you know, a huge…it could be. But – and I’m just being realistic here – it could be, um, a challenge. It’s a challenging project, for reasons that, you know, I know you understand. How am I going to sell this? Tell people to buy a ticket because, you never know, you might see your mom?”

“David, it’s brilliant. It’s a visionary –”

“Yes. But so what? Let everyone else read it. Or the coverage, at least. Let Jeff, you know, take a position.”

Lia didn’t mask her disgust. “Uuuch. You are such a fag.”

“Shut up, dyke.”

“You wish.”

“Whatever.”

She had gotten the project green-lighted. It wasn’t a battle. Skullit understood the licensing potential. One of his mistresses was an acolyte and talked incessantly about Doug and Lenny. And David, who probably had more influence than anyone, finally gave The Way his blessing.

Lia had helped shaped the branding, the positioning. (“It’s not a movie about sex. It’s a movie about life, which, let’s face it, includes sex.”) She had made “sacrifices” for the team, although she would have slept with Lenny Wizenberg whether or not a movie was involved. (“He’s a star, and you’re a star-fucker!” David teased her.) This was her baby.

And now it was happening. Everything she predicted would happen was happening. International was going nuts for The Way, in advance, with nothing but a synopsis, a list of Names attached (including the hoped-for Fox actress), and a stupendously provocative poster involving a partially clothed woman, a collar, and a leash.

Her phone rang again. Monroe.

Lia knew avoiding him was no use. If she didn’t pick up, he’d just call back, incessantly. “Yes?” she answered, allowing her exasperation to show.

“Baby, it’s me,” he said. “Monroe.”

“Yes, I know. What’s up?”

“Are you mad at me?” She could hear a bong bubbling.

“No, baby, I’m just super, super busy.” She laughed nervously, as though her busyness were funny.

“Well, then it can wait until tonight. I want you to come over, and I’ll tell you what I was calling about – if that’s, you know. Is that cool?”

“Yes.” She paused. “Tonight?”

Monroe didn’t say anything. Her question, he knew, would lead to nothing good.

“Well, I was sort of planning…um, OK. Sure. Sure. I’ll see you tonight, baby. OK?”

“Cool.”

“And you can tell me everything. I gotta go.” Lia laughed again, nervously.

“OK. See ya,” Monroe said, subdued.

“Love you. Bye.” She hung up.

Monroe told himself to make a mental note to ask her what she was ‘sort of planning,’ if not coming to his place, smoking a bowl, and getting naked. But by the time Lia arrived, six hours later, he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to ask about.

 

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