About That Kiss will be out on 27 July 2021.
Here’s a preview. Enjoy!
About That Kiss
© Harper Bliss
“Tell me again why I’m doing this, darling?” I ask Brandon.
He flicks his long hair behind his shoulder and looks me straight in the eye. “You’re doing it for me, Faye.”
Why this man isn’t an A-list actor yet, I have no idea. He delivers the line with the authenticity of the best in the business.
“That’s right. It’s all for you.” I paint on a smile, which flees my face as the car comes to an abrupt halt.
Brandon waves it off with a flick of his wrist. “Los Angeles traffic.”
My phone buzzes in my pocket. It must be Leslie. She promised she’d call me on the way to the table read. I wonder which of her two top clients she called first—me or Ida Burton?
“Hi, Faye, you’re going to kill it in the read-through. I know it.”
“I just got off the phone with Ida.” That answers my question then. “She’s looking forward to it a lot.”
“Is she?” Even if she wasn’t, she wouldn’t have told the agent we share. She’s probably as nervous as I am. Three Best Actor Oscars on my mantel don’t make any difference to my trepidation on the way to the very first table read, especially for a movie like this one. It doesn’t help that my co-star, Ida Burton, has four golden statuettes to her name.
“Of course, she is. Everyone’s excited about this. The whole of Hollywood is buzzing.”
“Christ, Leslie. What did you have for breakfast this morning?”
“My usual three espressos,” she says with a level tone.
“Okay.” I could barely stomach the nut-and-berry mix Brandon prepares for me every morning. “Good to know.”
“Call me if you need anything,” Leslie says. “I’m always here for you.”
Because there isn’t that much else to say, we end the conversation. I glance at Brandon for comfort. He isn’t just my personal assistant, but also one of the most entertaining people I know, which says a lot when you work in Hollywood. He’s very good at giving pep talks when I need them, but he also, instinctively, knows when it’s best to shut up.
He leans toward me and puts his hand on my knee. “Playing gay is all the rage these days. And the script is hilarious. For once, it’s not one of those bleak movies where the lesbians stomp through their lives looking like they’re never getting any.” He sends me a smile. “Hollywood has finally realized that lesbians can have a sense of humor too.” He follows up with a chuckle.
“It’s not playing a lesbian that’s got me so wound up. It’s playing one opposite Ida Burton.” In the first half of the movie, my character, Mindy, is straight as an arrow.
“Ida Burton hasn’t been in a hit movie in over a decade. If anything, she should be worried about starring in a movie with you.” He shrugs. “She’s practically B-list now.” He brings a hand in front of his mouth, as though suddenly realizing his utter sacrilege.
“We both know Ida Burton will never come close to being B-list, no matter how little her movies gross.”
“You never know,” Brandon says. “This town can be cruel.”
The car comes to a complete stop. We’ve arrived at the hotel where the A New Day table read is taking place. The driver opens the door for us. I take a deep breath and get out. A member of the production staff is waiting for me. I follow her inside, Brandon hot on my heels.
The first person I recognize is Charlie, who’s basically to blame for all of this. Not only did she co-write the script, but me being her wife’s maid of honor at their wedding last year would have made me look like a stone-cold hypocrite if I’d refused to take this part because it’s a lesbian movie.
Charlie’s basically jumping out of her skin with excitement. She hugs me tightly and the nervous tension shimmers in her muscles.
“You look like a million bucks, Faye,” she says.
Before I can thank her, the energy in the room changes. That can only mean one thing. The great Ida Burton has arrived. I turn around and am met with her famously blinding smile. Even I, not exactly a B-lister myself, am momentarily dazed by it. What is it with this woman and her smile?
Admittedly, in one of my lesser moments, I once tried to emulate it in front of the mirror, but a smile of such radiance and assurance is not something that can be taught, nor practiced. Ida Burton was born with it and she’s made a damn good career out of it. Add to that a luxurious mass of copper-colored curly hair, brown Bambi eyes, and a voice to melt the sturdiest of glaciers, and you have the marvelous Ida Burton. It’s hard not to feel as though I’m standing in her shadow.
After saying a few quick hellos, she walks straight toward me.
“Faye. Hiiii!” Ida sounds as though seeing me is the highlight of her year.
“Ida.” We exchange two featherlight cheek kisses. “I’ve been looking forward to this.” It’s not a lie. I have. Maybe not the feeling of having to play second fiddle to Ida, but working on this hot-as-hell movie.
“So have I.” She flashes me that smile again. How can her skin look so impossibly smooth? We’re about the same age, but Ida makes me feel like I’m at least ten years her senior.
“Ladies.” Tamara, the director, has joined us. “It’s so good to see you again. I’m raring to go. You have no idea.” She points at two chairs next to each other. “Those are your seats. We’ll start in fifteen minutes. Refreshments are over there.” She nods in the direction of the buffet. “I’m here if you have any questions.” She takes a step back. “I’ll let you acclimatize first.”
Behind me, Brandon is whispering with Ida’s assistant, Mark, whom he has told me all about because they had a thing once. Brandon likes to keep me apprised of his love life. Maybe he thinks it somehow makes up for the lack of romance I have in my own life.
For the past twenty years, I’ve always been the biggest star in the room at a table read, and it has fallen upon me to put my co-stars at ease. Today, I’m not sure this task is up to me.
“I’m a little nervous.” Ida surprises me. “I think this could be a great movie, but… well, I’ve seen things go horribly wrong before, no matter how promising the screenplay.”
She’s wearing a beige top that accentuates the fiery color of her hair. Even though she’s dressed quite casually in slacks and said top, a glow seems to emanate from her. An effortless star quality.
“This seems like the kind of project the studio would want to keep a tight grip on.”
“We can only do what’s required of us,” Ida says.
“Play gay,” I lamely joke.
Ida shuffles her weight around. “Correct.” She pins her gaze on me. “I was really thrilled to hear you were on board. Even though it really shouldn’t be, it’s still a risk to play a part like this. Especially for someone like you.”
“Not just me.” I emit a nervous chuckle. “For you as well, no doubt.”
“For both of us then,” she confirms and quirks up the corner of her mouth. “We should have dinner. Discuss our characters and their emotional arcs.”
“Uh, yeah. Sure. We should.”
“I’ll have my guy call your guy.” She eyes our PAs. “I assume you know they have history?”
I nod. “In the greatest detail.” My smile, though wide and generous, feels lacking compared to hers.
“Oh, God. Does he tell you everything as well? Mark does too. The latest is that he’s ready to settle down. Maybe he and his new man will start a family and he won’t have time to be my assistant anymore.”
The things we worry about, I think, although I recognize her attachment to her assistant. I’ve worked with Brandon for almost ten years, which is a lifetime in assistant years. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if he left, even though I would be the first to urge him to try for greater things than being at my beck and call.
“His life—” I say.
“I really—” she starts at the same time.
“You go first.” Despite all the glamour that surrounds her, Ida is refreshingly down-to-earth.
“I really enjoyed your performance in Day Break,” she says. “I see another Oscar in your future.”
I wave her off because that’s what you’re meant to do, even though ever since that movie premiered, all I’ve heard is chatter about winning an Oscar for it. If I could get an actual man called Oscar for it, that would be a million times better than another statue in my living room. A statue doesn’t give me affection, nor does it reply when I address it.
“What was it like working with Silke Meisner?”
“Amazing.” That’s Hollywood-speak for grueling but just rewarding enough in the end. I’m sure Ida has been through the same and if there’s one person in this room who will catch my drift, it’s her.
She nods thoughtfully. “Tell me all about it when you come to dinner.”
She cocks her head. “Things are going to get quite intimate between us on set.” Her voice does a funny thing.
“Just a bit of mild kissing.” I try to sound casual. Apart from a girl I pecked on the lips decades ago, I have zero experience kissing women, although I can’t imagine it being much different from kissing a male co-star. But the first woman I’m ever going to kiss properly, albeit for the sake of make-believe, is Ida Burton.
She erupts into a chuckle. “Good to know you’re cool with that.”
“I wouldn’t be doing this movie if I weren’t.” And I would be a flaming homophobe, my friend Ava told me in no uncertain terms.
“Ladies,” the director approaches us again. “Ready when you are.”
Does anyone notice how I’m dying on the inside? How I’m regretting taking this part? How my dubious ulterior motive is already catching up with me big time?
Faye Fleming sits beside me in all her girl-next-door glory, although she’s hardly a girl anymore. Still, as she has aged, she’s managed to maintain the image of the all-American, wholesome, funny-but-serious-when-needed girl/woman. I guess of all the people gathered here, she and I might become the closest. How long will it take her to figure out my secret?
“Ida,” Tamara says, “would you like to give us your thoughts on your character? Or do you want to launch straight into the read?”
Ah, my character. An out-and-proud lesbian. If only I could express my true feelings about Veronica to the room.
“Sure.” I’ve prepared for this. I know exactly what to say so as not to cast any suspicion on myself. “I see Veronica as a successful but, ultimately, lonely woman who is starved of love.” At times, while I was reading the script, I wondered if the writers had been able to glimpse right into the center of my own lonesome heart. “Her brother’s fourth wedding sparks this unbridled rage in her, as though all the love in her family, and the world even, is reserved for him, just because he’s straight.” I pause. “She’s so consumed by anger and jealousy that she doesn’t even notice that her own chance at love is staring her right in the face. She needs to get over that, and some other things, of course. Crack a few jokes along the way.” I insert a chuckle. My inadequate synopsis does not do justice to the script, which is, apart from being a lesbian romantic comedy, also a sharply funny critique on the institution of marriage.
“Charlie? Liz?” Tamara says. “Does that sound about right to you?”
“Perfect,” a blond woman with huge round eyes says. The one sitting next to her, who was all over the news five years ago when she started an affair with Ava Castaneda, nods and sends me a nervous smile. I should be the one smiling timidly at her. For all my money, she has something I’ve never been able to afford.
“Great,” Tamara says. “We’ll come back to this later, if needed. Faye, shall we move on to your character?”
“My character doesn’t have a clue,” Faye says, eliciting her first and surely not her last round of easy laughs. Why Faye is playing the more uptight character in this movie, I have no idea. That’s why it’s called acting, I suppose.
* * *
The read-through of the first act is easy enough. Faye and I play off each other with a comfort I’ve rarely experienced this quickly, as if we’ve starred together countless times before.
During the break before we run through the second act, Tamara walks up to me.
“The chemistry between you and Faye is off the charts already,” she says, “and we haven’t even gotten to the good bits yet.”
There’s a moment in the second act that I’ve been dreading. My character, Veronica, needs to look Faye’s character in the eye and realize something significant that alters the course of events. It’s not something I would usually have an issue with conveying, nor is it required that I display all of that complex emotion at a table read, but still. It all hits a little too close to home. Today, I’ll be able to muddle through, but I don’t know how I’m going to approach it at rehearsals. But that’s exactly what rehearsals are for, I comfort myself. To figure out that kind of stuff.
“Thanks.” I take the opportunity to get a good look at Tamara. No doubt she’s one of the hottest directors I’ve worked with, what with ninety percent of the ones I’ve previously collaborated with having been male. But it’s not because the bar is low that Tamara isn’t, objectively speaking, highly attractive. On top of that, just like my character, she’s out and proud like nobody’s business. These days, that can get you a top job behind the camera in Hollywood. How things have changed.
Someone calls for her and as she walks away, I make a mental note to ask Mark whether Tamara’s love life is happier than my character’s—or mine.
When I sit next to Faye again, with her long dark hair and pale complexion, her eyes as blue as the midday sky outside, I try to center myself and remember the reasons why I said yes to this project.
There are many and I list them in my head. This movie is being touted as next summer’s big blockbuster and I haven’t been part of one of those in a long time. My name next to Faye Fleming’s should add up to more than the sum of its parts. Maybe, by playing an out character, I can finally force myself out of the closet. Maybe I won’t even have to. Maybe the buzz surrounding the movie will create some sort of magic momentum that will naturally propel me out and make it so that it has always just been plain obvious.
Fat chance of that.
I make quick work of having to look Faye in the eye—just a swift glance will have to do. Today isn’t about looks and gestures and emotions. It’s about making sure the words sound right as they come out of our mouths.
I already know Faye is an accomplished actor, but even more than that, she’s a calming presence by my side. She comes across as self-confident and easy-going and I have no way of knowing whether she’s acting or not, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. The overall vibe is that she will be easy to work with. No diva allures whatsoever. It must be the girl-next-door thing. Maybe she’s made it part of her real-life persona as well as her image. Imagine if Faye Fleming had to bust out of the closet. The thought appears to be too much for my brain.
“Sparks are flying,” Tamara says after we’ve finished. “Can’t wait for the actual shoot.”
* * *
“How was it?” Derek, my best friend and ex-husband asks when I call him on the way home.
“Good.” I sink into the leather car seat. “Although I forgot how utterly exhausting table reads are.”
“You go through the emotions of the entire movie in one day,” he says. “It’s to be expected.”
I asked Derek to read the script before I said yes to the movie.
“How was Faye Fleming?” he asks.
“Lovely, also as to be expected.” So far, I can’t say a bad word about my co-star. She was gracious and wonderful to be around all day long, even during the final exhausting hours. “I’ll have her over for dinner soon, so we can get to know each other better before we start rehearsals.”
“Before you kiss her, you mean,” my ex-husband says.
Derek is one of the only people on this planet who knows my secret. As I was once the only person who knew his.
“I’m just teasing, although you could have worse prospects.” He’s not one to let things go easily.
“The director’s quite hot, actually.” Derek’s the only person I can talk to about these things.
“Tell me more.” Although Derek and I were never in love, we have a deep fondness for one another and I know that what he wants for me more than anything else is to find true love the way he has with his boyfriend, Ben.
“I haven’t done my research yet and, well, you know…”
“I know this movie has the potential to change your life. What’s this director’s name again? I’ll do a quick search for you.”
“Tamara Williams, but no need. I’m perfectly capable of googling the details of her personal life myself.”
“But it’s more fun when I do it.” There’s a short pause, before Derek speaks again. “It says here she’s married. Sorry, sweetie.”
“Oh well, perhaps it’s for the best.”
“I see that differently, but we all need the time we need…”
We say our goodbyes and as my car glides up Mulholland, I vividly remember the statement I put out after Derek came out of the closet.
I wish Derek all the luck and love in the world. We had a wonderful marriage and we remain the best of friends. I know this new path he has chosen in life will make him very happy.
I got a lot of flak at the time for using the phrase ‘the new path he has chosen in life’, as though I meant to say that him being gay was a choice. If only it were—then I wouldn’t have had to hide in the corner of a stifling closet for the better part of my life.
What I meant was that he had chosen to end our marriage and no longer pretend he was straight. And no longer care about the repercussions on his career. The hoops I had to jump through to explain that. Yes, my choice of words was poor, and no, I did not mean all the things that the wave of social media outrage claimed I did.
Perhaps I should have taken the opportunity to come out there and then, but I didn’t. Because, unlike Derek, I do care about the effect it would have on my career—at least I used to. Seeing Derek blossom into the proud and confident man he is today with Ben by his side has made me aware of the possible error of my ways. How could it not while I’m the one who remains single in my golden cage of a Hollywood Hills mansion?
When this car drops me off, no one will be waiting for me. Mark has gone home for the day. In my absence, my house will have been scrubbed clean and my lawn will have been cut and my pool will have been cleaned, and for what?
That’s why I’ve chosen to do this movie. That’s why I’ve chosen to play an out character, hoping that it will become one of those cases of life imitating art.
This is Hollywood and far stranger things have happened.
<<End of preview>>
About That Kiss will be available on Tuesday 27 July 2021 from all retailers. (The audio, narrated by Abby Craden, will follow later this year.)