12:02, the oven clock read.
I cracked and dropped an egg into the pan. “Should I wake him?”
“It’s up to you,” Carl answered then took a swig of orange juice. His fingers lingered on the glass. “Ah, to be 18 again.”
My voice lifted above the popping grease. “Not sure I’d want to be.” I slid more bacon onto the skillet. “So, what’s the latest with Maya and her job? Still thinking of moving to Waco?”
“We’re discussing it. On the one hand, I’d be closer to home. Would be a slower pace of life.” Carl ran his fingers through his beard, still reddish-brown. He’d always aged well. “Not sure what I’d do, though. Everything I know is here.”
“And the teaching idea? Going back for your Masters?”
Before he could answer, the door to my out-of-town roommate’s bedroom opened. Jordan stepped into the hallway. Hair mussed. Sweat shorts. Baggy t-shirt—a Texas street fair. “Sorry. I overslept.”
Carl and I shared a look. To be 18 again.
I made the introductions: Carl, Jordan. Jordan, Carl.
“Oh, yeah,” Jordan said. “You’re a screenwriter, right?”
“I understand you want to become one, too.”
“Hopefully. That’s what I’m out here for.”
I let them get acquainted and returned to the kitchen. Peppered the eggs, adding my special touch—cayenne pepper. Put bread in the toaster.
“What are you planning to do while you’re here?” Carl asked.
Jordan set his iPhone on the table. “I met this woman last summer and did an internship for her. She’s a writer-director and just finished her first feature. She told me to call her if I’m ever in L.A. again. I’m hoping she’ll read my script.”
“What’s the script about?” Carl asked.
Jordan sat up his chair. “It opens with three men in a cell. They wake up and have no memory of who they are or how they got there. Then … ”
He went on to describe the story (a dystopian one, reminded me of The Maze Runner and 900 others like it) in the most specific of detail. Carl cut him off. “I don’t need a scene by scene. All I want is the logline.”
“That’s my problem,” Jordan said. “I can’t narrow it down to one sentence. There’s so much complexity with the story.”
“This is your first script, right?”
“Yeah. Crossing my fingers someone will like it and I can stay.”
Carl, the urban saint, didn’t tell Jordan what we knew, that one’s first work is usually worthy of only the garbage can. He nodded and smiled, offered the occasional “Um-huh.”
I set their plates in front of them, put the butter on the table, and did a cursory scrub of the skillet. Washing dishes is therapy for me. I go into a deep place at the sink. I squeezed the sponge, soap oozing from the softer side.
Six years ago, I’d quit music and acting to write my first book. I thought I was writing the next Harry Potter. 12-year-old boy. Wizards. Dragons. Was genius, I was sure. Now, I probably couldn’t read the first pages without hurling it across the room—or hitting the delete button. It’s taken years to figure out how to write fiction, and I’m still not sure of anything.
“You just graduated, right,” Carl asked Jordan. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks. It wasn’t a big deal, though. I didn’t enjoy high school.”
“Going to college in the fall?”
“Depends on if things work out here. If I can get somebody to read my script.”
Carl pushed up his glasses. “What college would you attend?”
“North Texas University. It’s a fallback. I didn’t get into my top choices.”
“What were they?”
“USC. Yale. Brown. My SATs were good enough. I aced the Critical Reading and Writing sections. But my GPA was low. They thought the difference between the two showed I was lazy.”
“Were you lazy?”
“Oh, for sure. Real lazy.” Jordan bit his toast and washed it down with the juice. “But enough about me. I want to hear about you. What are you doing out here?”
I returned to the dishes in the sink, felt the water growing hot on my fingers. I’d known Carl for 14 years. During that time, he’d worked as a script coordinator for two long-running TV shows. The jobs were steady but he didn’t have time to write his own scripts, which had always been his goal. He’d been bypassed for writing staff promotions.
A year ago, he’d done what I had, quit a steady job to write full-time. He’d been living off savings and his wife’s part-time salary, that of a research assistant.
Carl and I shared a common stress, that of not having income, of making that monthly trip to the ATM to transfer money from savings into checking, seeing the transaction slip slide from the plastic currency god. That dread in the stomach. How low is it now? His stress was doubled by the added responsibility of supporting a wife, and what he hoped would soon be a family. They’d been trying to get pregnant.
I joined them at the table, as Carl told a story I hadn’t heard. “Before I left the show,” he said, “they hired a new script coordinator to replace me. I trained him for three weeks. He was new to L.A., fifteen years younger than me.” Carl snapped a piece of bacon, examined it, put it between his cheeks—a true dramatist. “Only two weeks after I left, they asked him to write an episode. Then they promoted him to writer.”
He tugged lightly on his t-shirt sleeve. “I’m happy for him, of course. He’s a great guy and a great writer. But I also think, ‘That could have been me.’”
I sat in the empty seat, my insides were buzzing. “You need to know what you’re getting into,” I told Jordan. “Writing isn’t a normal job. There’s no formula to success. So much is based on what seems like luck.”
I searched his expression. Was he tuning out or paying attention? “I always thought I would get both,” I said. “The writing career and the normal life. Wife, two kids, house. It’s cost me more than I imagined. Relationships … money … years.
“But I’m driven to write, to create. I can’t not do it. I worked corporate day jobs for 13 years. I’d sit in meetings and write songs in my head, or come up with story ideas.”
Carl dropped his napkin wad on the plate. “We’re not trying to discourage you. I admire anyone who moves here to pursue a passion. But it wouldn’t be fair to paint an all-rosy picture to you.”
Jordan nodded. I couldn’t tell if it was a courtesy nod or the words had stuck. He was 18, after all. No one could tell him he wasn’t going to be a famous.
No one could tell me. I moved to Seattle at 23 to be a rock star. I had never sung before. Could hardly play a guitar. But that didn’t matter. I was still going to be the next Bono. Even had the vinyl pants to prove it. Perhaps creative types need that ego, bordering on arrogance. We’d never take the risk otherwise.
Carl stood to leave, needing to work that afternoon. He slipped on his worn-out Converse, shook Jordan’s hand, and wished him the best. I walked him to his car.
“He’ll be fine either way,” Carl said. “He’s smart. Outgoing. … young. He can move here after college if he’s still writing.”
I hugged him and said to give Maya my best. Once he’d driven away, I stood in front of the apartment complex, my home for the past two years. The door buzzer that sometimes worked. The mint plants by the stairs. The Open House sign on the sidewalk. A long way from Tennessee. How did I end up here?
Returning to my unit, I considered Carl leaving Los Angeles. I hoped he stayed. God, I hoped he stayed.
Many come to L.A. Many leave. Few of the good ones stay.