The Melting Memoir
Life in Los Angeles as a no-name actress
By Laura Lee Bahr
Reading time 32 Minutes
Chapter One: Twins
Chapter One: Twins
That’s not me.
Then. Wait, is this a window or a mirror?
I was twenty-two, tripping on mushrooms, gripping a sink in a dark bathroom. And there she was, in front of me.
Her hair was white blonde, styled to the point of being solid. Her eyebrows were tweezed out and then painted on, liquid eyeliner, the shine of lipstick on her lips – but I couldn’t tell what color.
I wore no make-up and my hair fell long, uncolored and unkempt. I touched my hair, I touched my face, but she didn’t move, she just stared.
So I reached out to her and she reached out to me, and we pressed out our hands to each other.
I pressed too hard or she did, and the glass cracked.
I felt the broken mirror, but also, I felt her flesh. Cut, sliced, palm to palm, we wrapped hands around each other.
Then we whispered to each other, a back and forth song. Light and sweet, both our voices shadow cotton candy dissolving into the other with the wet of our lips, the heat of our breath:
I don’t know you.
Is this a mirror or a window?
When are you?
It’s always now. I don’t look like this.
I am not real.
Me either. I mean, I am not real yet. I don’t feel real. Like if I don’t make it – I won’t ever actually be a person. Can you tell me the future?
Poor thing. Poor, lost thing.
You are so pretty. I want to be you.
I loved her voice. I loved her face. I loved her body, which I could feel myself moving into like warm water as blood dripped down our clasped hands. Blood twins.
But then the pain caught up with me – I was real all right. I was a real person who OH MY GOD that hurt like a motherfucker!
The pain killed the vision of her.
Then it was just me with my hand outstretched in the dark staring at a broken mirror, blood pouring down my arm and I was screaming bloody murder.
It didn’t ruin the party. It threatened to, but I took it all in stride as my husband shook his head with the bemused expression of the parent looking at their kid who dropped their cone again.
I didn’t have health insurance, and we didn’t call an ambulance or anything adult like that. Instead we watched the skin float up from the cut when we put it under water, and saw how it wasn’t that deep. We put a whole tube of Neosporin on it and wrapped it in gauze and laughed because though the Three Graces had surely visited me at my birth, Elegance had to rush off while Mirth had stayed too late. So I laughed and laughed at my klutzy self and said I had tripped. “That’s where I tripped into a mirror when I was tripping,” I started saying about that night, my logline for the scar.
I didn’t talk about the woman in the mirror who I assumed was Marilyn Monroe. I didn’t even mention it to my husband. It floated like a dream at the edge of waking. The scar on my right hand was a reminder, a promise. I could hold up my hand to see the gash of where I had cracked space and time and count my fingers on it.
Five years later I saw her again. And then I knew she wasn’t Marilyn, because she was mine – like my own face. And she sang a song for me, just me, with my own breath.
That song was my salvation.
Let he who has ears listen.
Chapter Two: Love and Marriage
Chapter Two: Love and Marriage
We’d moved here with nothing. Just those dumb dreams everyone has, and those might be worse than nothing.
I’d had one of those world-stands-still moments when I first met him, the man I would marry.
I wrote in my journal that night only four words: I am in love.
We were in college together. I was an actress. Actually, the chair of the department told me that it was diminutive to say “actress.” Professionals called themselves “actors,” regardless of gender. So, I was an actor.
Cliff was a director. I left college early to follow him to Hollywood.
We had a small apartment that had been built in the 1950s. We didn’t have a bed. We slept on the floor, curled into each other.
A week after we arrived, he gave me an engagement ring: he won it playing skee-ball. It had cost fifty tickets. It was a promise that as soon as we had enough money, we’d get married. We signed up for an experiment to test condoms to buy our first bed. It only paid $250 so we really only got a mattress with that, and a story that we loved to share. We were the type of couple that other people talked about, because we were the type of couple that talked a lot about ourselves. We thought we were brilliant. We thought we were hilarious.
But secretly, I knew I was shit.
My whole life I had suspected that I was no one, but people kept telling me otherwise. At last, I was in a place where everyone confirmed what I had feared was the truth.
Cliff was in film school, and I had a job answering phones. Every day I walked to work and I told myself a story, like a litany to get me through the day, how I was suddenly discovered, how suddenly I was seen, and the dream came true – that I would never not work as an actress, I mean an actor, again.
I was hungry and I never felt I would get enough of what I was hungry for – scripts, rehearsals, the sense of love-making on a soul level when I poured myself into a character and they transformed me with the alchemy that you can only know when you give yourself utterly to a role. Pure love.
One of my teachers from high school once said, “Laura doesn’t become her character, her character becomes her.”
When I didn’t have that, I just had the idea of me and my husband-to-be. Being married meant someone loved you that much, and that meant you were someone.
But we didn’t have the money to get married. And, as his mother kept repeating, we were really too young. There was no rush, and so we stopped talking about it.
The skee-ball ring had rusted and broken within the first month.
I started writing movies, imagining myself as all the characters. One of the short films I wrote was about an aspiring actress who, in trying to win the role of UltraGirl from a supervillain producer, discovers she actually is UltraGirl.
It won a coveted selection for production at Cliff’s school. He would get to direct it, and I would star in it. It was the most exciting moment of my life thus far in Los Angeles.
But of course, there was still the matter of buckets of thousands of dollars to be raised.
That’s why we got married, in the end, we said. Because we could ask for money for the movie as our wedding present.
It was my idea.
The open marriage: that was Tanya’s idea.
We both admired Tanya. She was our neighbor. She lived in this enviable place across the courtyard. She had these giant picture glass windows where you could see in. There were always gorgeous women there, her revolving line of friends and lovers. Sometimes you could see them undressing. (Cliff spent many an hour glued to the window.)
Tanya was beautiful and successful. She owned her own bar! And, this was the best – she let us drink there for free. Her bar was probably the coolest place I ever went in Los Angeles. It had these red velvet curtains, this patterned Victorian-style wallpaper, a piano player, sexy waitresses, dancers, and she made a special “grog” that made you forget who you were.
She made me feel special in a way Cliff never had. She bought me really expensive, fashionable clothes, and she told me time and time again how pretty I was, how talented I was. Anytime I was in a show, she was there opening night, bringing me flowers. She was there other nights, too, watching from a dark corner of the theatre. She had cat eyes – eyes watching for the slow pounce. I loved that way she looked at me. I love cats.
“Anytime you want to come and work for me,” she said. And I would always laugh. I couldn’t see myself wearing those skimpy outfits and serving leering men drinks. Men always frightened me, except for Cliff. He was the only one who I felt safe with.
Cliff was a little scared of Tanya, but he tried not to show it. The two of them would talk about everything – a back and forth of philosophy and culture, and all of the ways that society tried to control people, with these outdated ideas about men and women and their roles. Tanya had open relationships, it just made more sense.
Tanya didn’t come to the wedding, but she gave me my wedding dress – a vintage off-white silk with gently crushed sleeves and the most delicate of designs. It had belonged, once, to a girl she had known, she said. She knew it would fit me like a glove.
It was so soft it felt like slipping into water.
I didn’t ask her about the girl she had known. I didn’t mind that this had been hers, I was just happy because whoever she was, it was mine, now.
Chapter Three: Jesus and The Whip
Chapter Three: Jesus and The Whip
The mission at Chimayo, New Mexico had the most bloody Jesus on a cross that I had even seen.
The walls were covered with testimonials from people from around the world who had been healed by the sacred dirt.
I had lately taken to wearing crosses, collecting what I called “Dream Boat” Jesus pictures, and candles.
When I was at Chimayo, I kneeled near the sacred dirt and prayed for my movie, Jesus Freak.
Someone touched my head softly, like an angel, and I knew my prayers would be answered.
We were living a completely different life than I ever envisioned for myself, but holy shit it was some fun.
We had lots of friends that would just come over, whenever. It was like an open door policy. Every random night there was a group melting into the couch in small puffs of smoke. Music was always playing, bottles of beer and weird ashtrays we collected waxing and waning like the moon.
An anonymous sign taped to the front gate of our apartment building:
DEAR ASSHOLES IN # 7, YOU KEPT THE WHOLE NEIGHBORHOOD UP UNTIL 4 AM AGAIN.
We were those assholes.
And I fell in love with someone who wasn’t my husband, and he broke my heart I guess, or maybe it was the person I fell in love with next. I don’t know. It was broken, anyway, but by that time I wasn’t sure where along the way it had broken. We were travelling the open road, and if you have something fragile, you’d better pack it for the bumps. I didn’t pack it well, because I hadn’t realized that it was that fragile.
But you can still live with your heart in pieces like that, I found out.
In fact, most people do.
So I turned to Jesus, who had his heart broken by everyone he’d ever loved and humanity itself all through-out time, and still it shone out from his body, bleeding and encased in gold.
“Love still,” he said to me. “Keep loving – even though it bleeds.”
I didn’t know if I could anymore, but I wrote this movie about him and me.
I’m not exactly sure how the financing for this project came together, but it came like loaves and fishes.
About thirty of us from L.A. journeyed down to Portales, New Mexico. A man named Mr. Goodrich donated a defunct Juvenile Reintegration center he owned on S. Ave D in exchange for us fixing up some of the floors. Stock options at the tech company where I was answering phones suddenly were worth a bunch of money, and I cashed them in. Crashing actions of serendipity resulted in the making of this movie suddenly the thing to do among a group of young filmmaking friends and we descended upon the town of twelve thousand like a carnival.
People donated things all over town, from locations to services – they’d never seen a real live movie crew. They loved it. The cops would come by and close down traffic for us, just because they wanted to help. It wasn’t like there was really traffic.
At one point in the shooting, a full-size mirror that was not secure started to crash down on me.
It was the point in the movie where my character had decided to kill herself, and I was so in the moment that I somehow confused the screams of the crew to No! Stop!
The boom operator, one of my lovers, with his bright blue hair and ability to do things like balance a shopping cart on his chin (clown), leapt across the room and caught it in one hand. I don’t think that even he dropped the boom.
Shaking, later, in my room, trying to sleep, my left hand traced the scar on my right.
Like a fever dream, I remembered her in the mirror, wondering if I had been seeing myself, after all, in a parallel reality. And I wondered if that mirror had broken over my head, what she would have been trying to say.
After principal photography was done, we left town, and crawled through post-production. We hadn’t thought about financing for that.
We had started to lose touch with Tanya. After we had come back from the wedding, she had already moved to a bigger place in the Valley – an actual house. And it wasn’t the same after that.
I remember when we came back from the six week shoot for Jesus Freak, and she had called both of us to come over. Usually, she called when Cliff was out.
She said she wanted to show us something. Something she did for extra money. Something she thought might inspire us.
She invited us to watch through a two-way mirror.
We never saw the man’s face. We only heard him whimper there at the end, really. And the sound of the clock ticking, like a metronome or a time bomb.
He could have been anyone. He could have been no one.
It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
I remember, after, my face flushed and how I told her, well, gushed really, at how fierce she was. What a performance of power. I was so proud of her!
But Cliff could scarcely say anything. He waited until we were alone. Then he told me we needed to break ties with her completely. He said he didn’t want me to see her anymore.
I said all the defenses for her, shocked that he was so disturbed. The man liked it! He had paid her to do it! Some people like that sort of thing, and who were we – with our open marriage – to judge?
He’d forgotten the open marriage was her idea, he remembered it as his, and I didn’t correct him. But he said he thought maybe he was wrong after all with that idea. It was causing lots of problems between us.
He hadn’t been much for telling me what to do, but here he demanded it. He never wanted me to see her again.
“She is dangerous,” he said.
Jesus Freak premiered at the L.A. Film Festival, and at last I felt like I was beginning my real life. We could spend time at a filmmakers’ lounge and drink anything mixed with fancy vodka or a certain type of beer for free (they were sponsors of the fest). We were the people that they were writing articles about. Variety! Backstage! L.A. Weekly! They all had write-ups about our “little” movie.
I remember waiting in line to walk down the red carpet at the premiere of the opening night film of the festival (not our little movie, that would be in a smaller theater tucked down the multiplex on a Tuesday night).
Ahead of us was Faye Dunaway and behind us was William H. Macy. Oh my God. This was it! The Red Fucking Carpet. All the cameras were popping. But when we stepped on the carpet all the lights stopped around us. The photographers all put their cameras down and waited. Faye was causing a traffic jam up front, and Bill Macy had all the guys at the end popping for him, but we were stuck in the middle and creating a dead zone.
Staring out at the photographers from the red carpet, seeing them not looking at us, not caring at all, I knew that after all this I was still no one, not even by proxy as stuck between two somebodies. And worst of all, we couldn’t escape. There was nothing to do but wait, like the photographers were waiting, for this waste of time and space to end.
One nice guy, seeing the devastated look on my face, lifted a camera. I smiled as big as I could. One click, one pop of lights. I think I even said ‘thank you.” He put his camera back down.
And then we waited some more. Finally, Faye was done and we could get off the red carpet. Shame was hot on my face and I let go of my husband’s hand to run and hide in the dark of the giant theatre where we could watch a real movie, made with real money and real stars.
Chapter Four: the little Death
Chapter Four: the little Death
The shit is about to go down.
A man will be beat to death with a brass Santa by the end of it, but nobody knows that yet, where they are.
Where they are, they are just in a bar watching a pretty lady sing.
She is singing a Christmas carol, the slow and sacred one, with the line about how at last “the soul felt its worth.”
The character I am playing, she sees a new life for herself in this moment. She can be someone – someone else. Someone who can love again.
We talked about the little Death like our child, my husband and I. We decided to start calling our collaborations our “babies”. This would be my favorite of them all. A black and white homage to the noir classics I loved.
It is lost, now. You can’t find it anywhere but as a random stub on IMDB. It doesn’t help that it has the name of about six other movies.
After the premiere of the little Death in Atlanta and all the fests and the awards, Cliff put the movie itself in a box. He took a hammer to the wall, making a gaping hole, and stuck the box in. Then he spackled over it, and repainted it. He was always handy like that.
I’m not sure where in our old apartment it is. One would have to beat on a lot of wall space to find it.
I think this was his way at getting back at me for leaving him for Tanya.
Certainly, when he moved away and left all my things and relics from our marriage out on the sidewalk, with the sign “Free,” that was a statement. Free, I guess, like we both finally were of each other.
We had needed Tanya, and that was the truth. We had needed her bar, and when push came to shove, he cared more about getting the location than how he’d thought she was dangerous. He told me to ask her, though it had been at least two years since we had spoken.
When I called Tanya, she was cold. I almost thought she would hang up on me. Then she suggested we get a drink and discuss it.
We sat across from each other at a place that wasn’t hers. Her bar was doing so well, she said, and told me how much it would cost her to close it for a day to let us use the space. It was too much.
She asked how my career was going since Jesus Freak. I told her frankly that I had thought I would be getting more work than I was, and that I was still frustrated and sad.
She told me I should have taken her up on the offer to come and work for her. She listed the names of important men who came to her bar, now. She told me about other actresses who had worked for her who were names I was hearing about.
But she wanted to hear about what the project was, what we were doing.
I told her about my movie: “A man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit – murdering his upstairs neighbor. The victim told the accused man that she had an identical twin, and he is trying to find her – if she even exists – to clear his name. He thinks he finds her performing in a burlesque house singing and dancing bawdy Christmas carols. It’s Christmas, you see – ”
She cut me off. “Just let me read it,” she said. “Cliff’s the one who knows how to pitch your ideas.”
The way she said his name I could tell she hated him. For the first time, I liked that she hated him.
She wanted me to talk about my role. I was playing twins. “One is very sweet, a country mouse,” I said, “who bakes cookies and seems a little too eager and excited, who comes off too strong. She seems like she may have a screw or two loose so when she mentions that she has a twin, the guy isn’t even sure he believes her.”
But it was the other one she really wanted to talk about. The singer/burlesque dancer. She wanted to know, in particular, what I would look like. She had a very specific idea and vision for me. Of course, her ideas felt perfect and right. She always knew what looked best on me. And I told her that’s exactly what I would do, and if she wanted to help make sure I looked just right, how much I would love that.
We sat there, then, this kind of buzzing between us. And then I just had to talk about love.
I told her there was a moment where the black and white movie changes to color – like Wings of Desire, or The Wizard of Oz – but just for the short time while I would sing.
“Something magical happens when you sing?” she asked, arching her eyebrow.
“Not magical,” I said, “but emotional. The color communicates how it feels when you allow yourself to love again.”
“Over and over,” she said. “The same haunting tune.”
I was not sure what she meant. Was that a song I knew?
“Sing it for me,” she said. “The song that changes black and white to color.”
I didn’t want to just sing there, at that bar filled with hipsters having their expensive cocktails.
“Everyone hates non-famous actors just out in the wild,” I told her. “Everyone resents a performance they didn’t pay for.”
She pulled my chair over to her with the strength of a linebacker. The chair made a loud squeal on the floor. I was next to her, close enough to smell the mix of cigarettes and sharp floral scent she wore.
“Sing it,” she said. “In my ear.”
I sang the song.
When I was done, she told me she would let us use the bar. She wouldn’t close down for the day, but just let the people know that filming was going on. We’d have extras, then, too. She would pay for a round of drinks so they would shut up when we needed to do a take.
I was so grateful. I knew how powerful she had become, and that she still, after all this time, believed in me, meant a lot. I told her so.
“Of course,” she said. “I will always believe in you. I remember how you looked, when you sat on Cliff’s lap in my bar and sang that song. You could ask me for anything, you know.”
“I don’t remember that,” I said. “When was that?”
“It’s always now,” she said. And then she waved her hand in the air like it was nothing, and to forget it.
It wasn’t working. It just wasn’t working and it had to.
When it finally came to the moment to sing the song it was four a.m. and everyone on-set was knocking their lid with a boiling stress threatening to blow. That made it so much harder for me to get that note in the perfect way it needed to be.
Over and over again we did it. Cliff was so tired, and he and Tanya had had words more than once during the course of shooting. Careless mistakes were happening and he wasn’t caring.
I couldn’t get the feeling. And I couldn’t fake it. I couldn’t get the note to ring the way it just had to, to change the world from black and white to color. I couldn’t feel the worth of my soul.
But Cliff said we had it and it was done.
“Please,” I said. “Let me do it over again.”
He said no.
I wanted to watch the playback, and he told me it wasn’t necessary, but I insisted and then Tanya did. He deferred to her like a little bitch.
So I walked over and looked at the monitor and watched.
I didn’t look like I had remembered. Because I was someone else. Someone else singing a dirge for a marriage she didn’t know was dying.
Again, I watched.
And then again.
Over and over and over.
It wasn’t me. And isn’t that what I had wanted, all along?
I hold her heart like a bouquet that I might toss behind my back if the right man comes along. I’m not in love with Tanya, but there is something delicious and naughty in knowing that you are loved by someone whose love you can’t return but who can do something for you that you really want. I didn’t know that before. And I know now what I was missing: for so long, I wanted to be someone, but I realize now that someone meant someone else.
The burn of the dye on my scalp and the smell, the little plucks to remove my eyebrows, the diet pills.
“You don’t just want one person to fall in love with you, you want everyone to fall in love with you,” Tanya says.
The red lips, the corset, the heels, the white dress that blows up to show my underwear and then I turn around to the people who are watching and I tell them who I am.
“Mindy Monroe,” I say in my baby voice. And I sing many songs, like:
“I want to be loved by you, by you and nobody else but you.”
Tanya tells me how to talk, how to walk, how to dress. And how to undress. When to catch an eye and look down. When to breathe with a soft sigh and when to do a hiccup-like giggle. When to look like I don’t know what I know. And when to look like I do.
I can’t love them, but I need to look like I can.
She cries in the night, sometimes. When I wake her she calls me by my stage name, which is fine. I always like to be called by my character name. It makes me feel like it’s working, that I am becoming the person I am supposed to be.
“Mindy,” she will say, wiping her eyes, “when are we?”
I call her “silly” then, in the baby voice she likes, and hold her. The truth is, I don’t remember. I don’t think it matters. “It’s always now,” I tell her. And I hold her.
But I still dream of Cliff. Not the way he was, but the way I thought he was. I dream of what it would be like to be loved, like I thought he could love me, before I knew that it was impossible.
No one knows how to love a person like that.
No one can love you enough to save you.
Well, they say Jesus can.
Tanya knocks on the door. She doesn’t enter. She just opens the door enough to whisper a good luck to me for the performance this evening.
She tells me a name of someone who is in the audience. She doesn’t want me to be nervous, but she wants me to know.
“Tonight all your dreams could come true.”
She closes the door.
I stare at myself in the mirror. I stare so hard and long my eyes blur. A stringy-haired child-woman with wide wide eyes reaches for me.
I reach back.
She is singing something sad about needing me to make her real.
Poor thing. Poor, lost thing.
And then she starts to scream. And then no one is there.
There is a crack in the glass in a web near my hand, but I am not bleeding.
Whatever her pain, it isn’t mine anymore.
I stare at myself, my white hair like a halo, my face a shadow.
Tonight, all my dreams could come true.
I just don’t quite remember what my dreams are, or what it means for them to come true.
The sound of the scream was a note, and it hangs in the corner of the room like a ghost.
I match the memory of the note with my voice. It rings through my bones, my guts, my mind. Vibrating everything dead in me into life.
It becomes a part of a song that I can’t help but keep singing. My heart hurts and my soul feels so heavy, but it’s my pain and to feel it makes me real. And I keep singing.
Black and white bloom into colors, and I know it is as true my next breath: I will love again.
Laura Lee Bahr is the screenwriter for the multi-award winning feature films Jesus Freak and the little Death. She is the author of the novels Haunt (winner of the Wonderland Book Award, Best Novel) and Long-Form Religious Porn, and the short-story collection Angel Meat (winner of the Wonderland Book Award, Best Collection). Laura's debut feature as writer/director, Boned, won “Best Micro-Budget Feature” at the Toronto Independent Film Festival and is currently distributed through Gravitas (available everywhere). She was the Spring 2018 writer-in-residence at the Kerouac house.