Sarah Pezzat has degrees in English, History, and Counseling and uses them every day, both as a writer and a college advisor. This year, she has read her fiction at the Edgar Allen Poe museum, and at RVA LitCrawl, in Richmond, Virginia.
Excerpt from Film Legend
I stand in a brand-new restaurant, not even opened yet, watching Penny shake her head in disgust. The place is really nice, fashionable, with white tablecloths and bentwood armchairs dappled in sunlight from big skylights shaded by blonde wood lattice work and hanging ferns.
“This sucks,” Penny says. “This is all wrong.”
Miranda shrugs and elbows her boyfriend, who gives her a cigarette. Penny met Miranda at a party for some producer’s kid that her parents made her go to, and now she wants to put her in our movie. It’s supposed to be about a high-school dropout waitress living in poverty with her mother. The poverty they are living in is, of course, my apartment. Miranda is fifteen and lives in Santa Monica. She’s obviously rich, but wears second-hand clothes and tons of eye makeup. Her stepfather owns this restaurant. And her boyfriend has a car. It’s all pretty convenient.
Penny heads for the kitchen and we follow her. “Is there a way this can be dirtier?” The big ranges, metal counters and tile floors are spotless. She keeps moving out the back, smiling with satisfaction at the battered stacks of glass bins, dumpsters and cigarette butts sprinkled around the grimy asphalt.
“Perfect. We’ll reset that chunk of dialogue from the kitchen out here. Shoot some interiors in that shitty 24-hour diner by Cass’s place before they get busy.”
“We’d have to get there before dawn,” I say. “It won’t look right.”
“We’re doing it in summer. The sun will be up earlier.”
“But I’ll be in Buffalo in summer.”
Penny closes her eyes, then covers them with her hand. “Ughhh, shit. I forgot about that. Can you get out of it?”
“What’s in Buffalo, Cass?” Miranda says. “Is it your dad?” She stares at me with deep understanding. Her eyes have a pound of eyeliner drawn on. “My dad is in New York. I mean, Manhattan, with my, I guess stepmom? They met on one of his films.” I nod. “Did your dad remarry?”
“Just wait. He’ll find some twenty-year-old and have another set of kids with her…”
Penny says, “Her family’s not like that. They’re not…” Miranda shrugs again, looking sad. Penny says, “Never mind. Cass. You didn’t even like it there over Christmas, right?”
Miranda smokes and keeps staring at me. The truth is, I didn’t. I miss my dad like crazy, but I dread going back. I don’t want to talk about all that in front of Miranda and her boyfriend, so I say, “My mom already bought my tickets.”
Penny says, “Oh, that’s no problem. We can change the dates. You know. Re-book the flights.”
“What? You know how to do that?”
“No,” Penny shrugs. “But idiots do it every day, so I’m sure I can figure it out.”
So, just because I was afraid of getting sentimental in front of some sleazy girl I don’t even like, I have to spend the next ten days racing my mom to the mailbox so as to intercept the new boarding passes Penny re-booked with her dad’s credit card. I open the envelope with shaking hands, placing the new tickets in the old envelope and tearing the old ones into tiny bits and burying them under some coffee grounds in the kitchen trash. I’m going to get caught. What if my mom doesn’t believe it was a mistake? What if Penny’s dad looks at his bill? Penny swears he’ll never notice. “The housekeeper handles all that.” But did I commit a crime? Am I an accessory? They don’t cover this stuff on Kojak.
I look around the kitchen for a snack, but the only food in the house is bread and carrot sticks. I take the carrot sticks into the living room and turn on the TV.
At dad’s, over Christmas, we ate take-out every day. He’s basically living my dream of eating restaurant food and never doing chores, but I couldn’t enjoy it. The house wasn’t very clean. His office phone barely rang, and when I asked him about it, he said, “It’s the holidays,” but he said it kind of fast, so I wasn’t sure I should believe him. Every night, I lay awake in my old bed and fantasized about fixing everything: cleaning the bathrooms and the kitchen, dusting the blinds and vacuuming, taking a roast chicken out of the oven (somehow). But I didn’t lift a finger. I didn’t do anything.
I fall asleep and dream about the worst fight my parents ever had.
Two years ago, the lake dumped six feet of snow on us. I already was home when it started, sick with strep throat, lying under a blanket watching school closings run across the bottom of the TV screen under The Today Show. But the dream skips ahead, and it’s two days later, when the power is out. And the heat. My throat is so bad it’s making my ears ring, but I still can hear the house creak under the weight of the snow. It’s drifted almost up to the bedroom windows. The battery powered radio is on and my dad is breaking up my dresser with a hammer and a crowbar, throwing it in the fireplace piece by piece and yelling at my mother about responsibility. She’s screaming, “Why did you bring me to this place? Why? Why?”
My mom doesn’t check the tickets until I’m actually packing my bags the day after final exams.
“Cass?” She’s tapping the tickets on the door frame as I take jeans and shirts out of my drawers. “I don’t know what happened, the dates on these tickets. They’re for July. I called the airline, but Sweetie...I can’t afford to book a replacement that leaves tomorrow. Maybe a couple of weeks, but...shit, I’m so sorry.”
I drop the clothes. Even though I’m the one who did this, I can’t believe it.
She comes over and gives me a hug. “I’m sorry, Cass. It was just a mistake.”
I want to tell her I know, but I just start crying. She sits with me on my bed and keeps her arm around me for a long time. She says, “I have to call him. It’s past eleven in New York. I have to call him.”
Still crying, I move my clothes back to my dresser, my stomach turning as I listen to her on the phone with my dad.
“You think I did this on purpose? … Oh, that’s rich … You’re unbelievable … Don’t you dare blame me for her grades, you spineless…” I crush my pillow over my head.
Eventually, my mom comes in with the phone and I sit down with it, the cord stretched out under the door. I sit on the carpet and say, “Hey, Dad, I’m sorry…”
“Oh, Sweetie… Don’t be sorry.” He sighs. “I’m sorry it’s not in the budget to switch your ticket around.” Tears run down my face, but I try to keep it quiet. I think about how worried I was I would get caught. But making my parents fight, forcing them to admit they’re poor and ashamed of it, is so much worse.
“It’s okay,” I say, surrounded by my scattered bags and clothes, picturing him in his dirty house with his take-out containers. I feel like I have no home. Not in New York or California.
Penny sets down a bag of junk food and a Cutty Sark bottle from her house that we’re planning to fill with tea. My mom doesn’t drink and only buys health food, so we brought this stuff in to create an impression of poverty and trashiness in my apartment, but instead of working on her mise-en-scene or whatever, she slouches into the couch in front of Card Sharks with Miranda and her boyfriend. Tim goes to my mom’s loaded bookshelves to study the titles.
I say, “Shouldn’t we unpack this stuff?”
Penny shrugs. “Yeah, I guess.” We’ve already done some filming at Miranda’s stepdad’s restaurant, which was the part Penny was most excited about. I should have known she would get lazy once that was over.
“Well, let’s go then.” I take Tim into the kitchen where we dirty some glasses and plates and scatter them around the counters, but Penny stays on the couch.
“Can you help me with these lights?” I say.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure I even want to do something this...structured.”
“What do you mean?” She’s abandoned every project we’ve done, but because she used such drastic measures to keep me here, I didn’t worry until now that she would ditch this one too.
“Like, part of me wants to just hang out where there are people and see what happens, you know? Faces is at the Rialto.”
Miranda touches her heart. “I love Cassavetes.” I’ve never even heard of him. I can’t believe this skank knows more about film than I do.
I say, “But we have to work on this.”
Penny says, “This story feels kind of stale to me, now. I want to do something unpredictable.” I’m so worried she’s about to completely ditch this project.
Miranda’s boyfriend says, “I can get us into a CalArts party.”
“Oh, my God. Yes,” Penny says.
“No!” I cry.
I’m used to being afraid of her—she’s so smart, she’s not afraid of pissing people off, and she’s my only friend. But I cross my arms and say, “You made me give up a month with my dad for this movie. We’re making it.”
Tim says, “I agree,” and moves a step closer to me.
Penny looks surprised, then rolls her eyes. “Okay, whatever…”
I don’t know if she’s mad or doesn’t care or what, but she drops out of the conversation completely. There’s no one to tell us what to do. I take a breath and look around. I feel kind of shaky from confronting her like that. I can’t let this movie go. Without it, I’m going to spend the summer alone in this apartment, thinking about what I let Penny do to me and my father. I say, “Let’s set up the argument in the kitchen.” I get Penny in a bathrobe and some cold cream, playing the mom. She sits with Miranda at the kitchen table. Tim holds a cookie sheet to angle some light into Miranda’s face. Without all the eyeliner, she looks pretty. We shoot the argument, but without Penny to boss me, I feel lost. I feel like everyone’s gone limp and I’m dragging them along, trying different angles and moving the furniture around, not really knowing what I’m doing, just that it isn’t right. Penny doesn’t offer any suggestions. I think for a while.
“What if we got you on your own, without Penny in the shot?” Miranda nods. “You’ll seem more alone. Wait.” I have an idea. “Let’s put Penny in the living room and you guys can talk from separate rooms, so you can’t see each other…”
Penny nods. “I kinda like that.” We go in the living room and I think about where to put the camera. Now that I have some idea about what I want to do, this problem seems interesting instead of confusing. Plus, something I didn’t expect is that, once I point the camera at them, they all just do whatever I say.
“Miranda. Next time sound less angry...Next time roll your eyes so we can see you’re mad but your mom can’t tell...Next time wad up this napkin and clench it in your fist...Wait. Can you ride a bike?”
“Huh? I mean, yeah, but why?”
In our script, Miranda scolds her unemployed mom into looking for a job, then goes to work all day, gets mugged on the way back, and returns home to find that her mom has done nothing; her purse and earrings still are on the table where Miranda left them, and her mom still is watching TV. It’s kind of a bummer, but I’m so excited I’m practically dancing in place. “If you ride my bike to work, then you can get a flat tire, too. Then, pushing it home, you’ll look completely different. Defeated. Way easier of a target.”
Tim says, “That’s a good idea.” And Miranda actually smiles.
By the next week, when we’re shooting her alongside my bike, looking tired in her rumpled uniform, I’m completely elated. I’ve forgotten about my parents. I can’t wipe the smile off my face. I have more ideas than I know what to do with. Kevin, my nerdy downstairs neighbor, is playing the mugger.
“He’s just a kid like you, right?” I say. “What if you fight back?”
“Okay, but I don’t know how to fight?”
Kevin coaches Miranda for a while because he gets into a lot of fights with his brother. She screws up and actually hits him a few times. He takes it well (she’s pretty). We work on it from various angles. They would never even talk if it weren’t for this, but they get close, sharing cigarettes and complaining as Penny and I argue about how to set up the shot. Even though we’re arguing, this is the most fun I’ve ever had with her.
“This is so corny,” Penny says, smiling at me and shaking her head as Miranda wipes her eyes and picks up her bike, staring after Kevin as he runs away. But when Miranda gets home, it’s a completely different feeling. Her mom’s not perfect, but she’s there. They have each other.