“The set” is one of those show biz terms that always makes me think of dancing girls in the forties doing the cancan on a stage at the MGM studio, or maybe a street in the Old West, the saloon and general store and jail all false fronts with nothing but fields behind. The set of Biological Clock, however, was whatever bar, bowling alley, or bistro Bing Wooster and the producers could persuade to let us film in. It wasn’t filming but taping, as Joey pointed out, but Bing, who had filmmaking aspirations, had us all using movie lingo.
It was going on nine P.M. The set du jour was a restaurant called Pine on Beverly Boulevard, on a site that had seen a lot of restaurants come and go over the years. The fact that Pine was the kind that let a show like B.C. shoot there did not bode well for its longevity.
“Keep it moving, folks,” Bing Wooster said to the onlookers gathered with us on the sidewalk in front of Pine. “Come on, it’s L.A. You never saw a film shoot before? Never saw a gorgeous six-foot blonde? Go watch her on TV. Eleven P.M. weeknights, ZPX.”
I stopped scanning the crowd for teenage German girls and tried to look unconcerned, as if Bing’s speech had nothing to do with me, as if the sidewalk were full of six-foot blondes wearing too much makeup. Bing was our big kahuna. Joey had explained that most shows have producers and directors and cameramen, but Biological Clock, being low budget, had Bing. Bing made creative decisions, operated the camera, and generally played God, six nights a week. Bing had an assistant, Paul, who did everything else: lighting, heavy lifting, crowd dispersal, and sending out for pizza. There was also Isaac, the sound guy, but he was so quiet that, despite his being the size of a grizzly bear, we tended to forget he was there. At the moment, Paul was changing tape, which was why Bing and I were stuck on the sidewalk, waiting to videotape me walking into Pine.
“Bing?” I said. “When did you last see Annika?”
Bing frowned at a figure halfway down the street, a bulked-up guy with a goatee. “Who? Annika? Saturday, maybe. I don’t know. Paul, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”
Paul nodded, his baseball cap bent over the Betacam, a twenty-five-pound video camera the size of a small dog, something I was trying to make friends with.
I tried again. “Because Joey says-”
“Oh, well, if Joey says, let’s all pause to listen to Joey, our instant producer… ” Animosity curdled his voice. Since Joey’s husband was the new investor in Bad Seed Productions, Bing was convinced that Joey was there to spy on and eventually wrest power from him. “What does our esteemed Mrs. Rafferty-Horowitz say?”
“That Annika talked to you about buying a gun,” I said.
Bing stared at me for a moment, then glanced at the goateed guy down the street. “What am I, the NRA? Paul, thirty seconds to reload that camera or you’re fired.”
“I can’t be fired, I’m not paid enough.”
I said, “Because she’s disappeared, Bing. Annika. Have you noticed?”
Bing looked at me again. “What do you mean, disappeared?”
“I mean that nobody’s been able to reach her for-well, I don’t know how long, exactly, but at least twenty-four hours. Which is scary. It’s not like her.”
Bing’s eyes grew wide, stricken. “She’s not here? I have a call in to the German guys tonight, I need her to translate.”
Paul’s baseball cap tilted up, revealing an acne-scarred face. “She hasn’t been around all weekend.”
“Christ. And you didn’t think to tell me?”
“She’s not on the call sheet,” Paul said.
“She’s not on the payroll, idiot, but we have a deal-she talks to Munich for me every time we-. Christ, get that camera loaded, then see if Sharon’s still in the office, tell her to find someone who speaks German. What time’s it in Munich?”
“Nine hours ahead,” Paul said.
“Tell Sharon she’s got till midnight.” Bing ran both hands through his preternaturally thick black hair and groaned.
Paul’s eyes met mine, mirroring my concern, then went back to his camera.
Fredreeq approached with a handful of makeup tools, from which she selected a lip pencil. “Don’t think about this now,” she said. “I’ve got so much base on you, if you frown, you’ll crack. Open your mouth and hold still. I think Mac’s drying out your lips, I’m gonna try Clinique. You’re not licking them, are you? Don’t answer. Hold still.”
Fredreeq was not a professional makeup artist, but she’d worked as a facialist for years and was grabbing this chance to break into show business. She’d hung out on the set during my first episodes, wormed her way into Bing’s affections, bad-mouthed Venus, the original hair-and-makeup person, saying she made everyone look like drag queens, then offered her own services at bargain-basement prices. Bing gave her Mondays and Thursdays on a trial basis. Mondays and Thursdays were my work nights, so Fredreeq got to work on me and all three men, but not the other two women contestants. Venus, not happy about having her hours cut by a third, was now committed to one of “her” girls getting the audience vote, and had declared all-out war. Fredreeq was therefore heavily invested in me winning the B.C. contest. I myself wouldn’t have cared, if not for the health-care plan.
“Fredreeq,” I said, when my lips were my own again. “Annika hasn’t been around the set. That’s very weird. She considers this her second job, because Munich’s planning a German version of the show and Bing promised to recommend her as a coproducer when she goes home. It’s called Biologische Uhr, she talks about it all the time. Paul says-”
“I don’t care what Paul says.” Fredreeq waved a rabbit-hair makeup brush in my face. “I don’t know where this girl is and you don’t either. But we know where she isn’t, which is inside that restaurant, hiding in a basket of chicken fingers. So you put her out of your mind and get some heat going between you and Carlito. I know it’s not easy, with that piece of hair he’s got sticking up in front like a unicorn, but there’s a lot at stake here.”
Fredreeq’s worries were twofold: me winning the Biological Clock contest and the show finishing out the season. Our ratings were paltry, even for ZPX, where a 1.4 household rating was a big deal. We struggled for the million or so viewers reported to be watching us, and listened to rumors that ZPX planned to replace us with Nearly Nude News.
Twenty minutes later, I sat alongside Carlito Gibbons in a Naugahyde booth, watching him pick at his cowlick, as Paul-the-assistant placed a bottle of sake between us, the label prominently displayed. Takei Sake was the show’s sponsor, and all six contestants drank sake, or tap water in sake cups, in every episode. Finally, Bing mounted the Betacam on his shoulder, hung over an adjoining booth like a toddler on an airplane, and started shooting.
Carlito, the youngest of the show’s contestants, was handsome in a class-president way. He came to life when he’d had some sake or when the camera was on him, speaking without hesitation on any topic, a talent that fascinated me. “I’m a paralegal,” he said, responding to the evening’s Biographical Question. “People don’t know the difference between a paralegal and a legal secretary. I’m more than a glorified file clerk. I draft the bones of the complaint, the lion’s share, only a few critical details of which are filled in by the attorney.”
“Hey, what’s the difference between an attorney and a lawyer?” I asked. Bing had given me strict orders not to let Carlito go more than three sentences without interrupting him.
Carlito brightened. “Good question. I like to say, Every law school graduate is an attorney, but it takes an outstanding attorney to be a lawyer. People don’t realize-”
“Cut!” Bing said. “Fine. Carlito, ask Wollie what she does for a living. Wollie, don’t mumble. Sparkle. Be sexy. Head up. And don’t look at the camera.”
I nodded, feeling awkward, and tried to smile at Carlito. “Well, Carlito, I design greeting cards. I have my own line, the Good Golly Miss Wollies-they’re alternative greetings, not the standard Happy Birthday to a Wonderful Nephew genre. Not that there’s anything wrong with those. Nephews need birthday cards. I just don’t do them. To supplement my income I’m painting a mural of frogs in the kitchen of a house in Sherman Oaks. Oh, and I’m working on getting a bachelor’s degree in graphic arts. I’m finding math a little challenging.”
Carlito had stopped listening and was checking out the menu.
“Cut,” Bing said. “Okay, I’ve got some usable stuff. Let’s bring in the doctor.”
Following the Biographical Question, each Biological Clock episode featured an expert in the parenting field who raised hot-button issues that helped the viewing audience assess our parenting potential. The show wasn’t big with the eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old demographic, but it had once won its time slot with whatever twenty-five- to forty-nine-year-old women were awake at that hour, which Bing liked to point out, in case this was as compelling to anyone else as it was to him.
Paul escorted to our table a fiftyish man in a good suit, who smiled broadly and shook hands all around. “Daniel Exeter. Hi. Sorry I’m late, I had an ectopic pregnancy to deal with.”
“Where’s your lab coat?” Bing asked. “Paul, didn’t you tell him to bring a lab coat?”
Daniel Exeter looked taken aback. “It’s in the car, but as I told Paul, it’s not something I wear outside the clinic and-”
“It’s all about visuals, Dan. Raises your IQ thirty points and establishes credibility, which is what TV is all about. Get it for him, Paul.”
The doctor fished a valet-parking stub out of his pocket. “Porsche Carrera.”
Paul took off at a trot. Bing eased himself out of the booth and said, “Right in here, Dan, opposite our stars. What are you drinking? Sake?”
“It’s Daniel, actually. A glass of white wine will be fine.”
“Too gay; let’s go with Scotch rocks. And forget first names. To us, you’re ‘Doctor.’ ”
Bing got us situated. Paul came back with Dr. Exeter’s lab coat, its Westside Fertility logo visible on the breast pocket. Joey, helping out, adjusted a light on a tripod and nodded to Fredreeq, standing by with a compact of pressed powder. As a former actress, Joey always knew what was going on ten minutes before Fredreeq and I did. Isaac, his ears covered with headphones, moved in with his boom, a large, fur-covered microphone on a broomstick.
Bing had Carlito ask the doctor which was better, sex or artificial insemination.
“Is anything better than sex?” Dr. Exeter asked. “Sorry, little joke. For the average couple trying to conceive, sex works just fine. However”-here he glanced at me-“when a woman enters the winter of her reproductive life, that fact becomes a fertility issue.”
“Go ahead, Dan, ask her how old she is,” Bing said. “No, don’t look at me-never look at the camera. Look at Wollie. The girl.”
Dr. Exeter turned back to me. “How old are you, Wollie?”
“No, don’t tell him, Wollie,” Bing said. “Say something coy.”
Behind him, Joey rolled her eyes. I said, “Actually, I don’t mind telling-”
“Wollie! Just say, ‘I’d rather not say.’ ”
“I-I’d rather not say,” I said, hating myself for not being able to come up with something snappier. Also for setting feminism back a few years.
“All right,” Dr. Exeter said, “let’s assume you’re a senior citizen, in ovarian terms. Late thirties, early forties.” He leaned back and took a sip of his Scotch, then made a face. “Adoption, surrogacy, donor eggs, surrogacy and donor eggs, these are all options for late-in-life mothers. Trying to do it yourself at that point is a long, heartbreaking proposition. A thirty-five-year-old woman is fifty percent less likely than a twenty-year-old to conceive unassisted. A forty-year-old has a one in fifteen chance each month. At forty-five, you’re like a vegan trying to contract mad cow disease.”
“But what about-” I said.
“Yes, we all know exceptions-the Irish Catholic neighbor who keeps churning them out, the grandmother who gets knocked up-but those are anomalies. And the movie stars you hear about? Probably not using their own eggs, not if they’re over forty, but who’s going to cop to that in Hollywood?” He picked up a breadstick and began to butter it. The butter was ice-cold and uncooperative. “Nature didn’t intend for you to need bifocals to see the baby you’re breast-feeding. Fortunately for you, God created fertility doctors.” He took a bite of the breadstick, producing an audible crunch. Isaac moved the boom in close, to pick up the sound. The doctor pointed the breadstick’s jagged end at Carlito. “You have it relatively easy. Given a normal rate of motility-”
“What’s motility?” Carlito asked.
“How many sperm are swimming. Assuming yours are plentiful, with sufficient forward progression, go easy on the marijuana, keep your underwear loose, and you can do this when you’re as old as Larry King.”
The thought of Carlito’s swimming sperm made me think not of sex but of tadpoles, and I wondered, not for the first time, if I was cut out for this work. Even though no B.C. participants would be required to actually procreate, the audience would expect to see us kiss. I prayed that my warm feelings for my fellow contestants would heat up.
Dr. Exeter finished off the breadstick. “So what was the question? Oh, yes, sex. Go at it like rabbits, and don’t waste any time. Every menstrual cycle counts.”
“What about freezing her eggs right now?” Fredreeq asked. “In case Prince Charming is running late?”
The entire room, it seemed, turned to look at her, sitting in the booth behind us.
“Cut! Hey, Miss Dumb,” Bing yelled. “You are the makeup artist. You do not speak.”
“Yeah, sorry, forgot,” Fredreeq said.
“Good question, though,” the doctor said, turning back to the camera. “You can freeze anything, but what survives the thaw? Sperm. Also embryos-fertilized eggs, that’s egg plus sperm-which requires both Prince and Princess Charming. Eggs alone? Not so great. The technology’s improving, but even when it happens, the time for freezing is in your prime. Early twenties, in a perfect world. In your case, uh, Willie, I’m afraid that boat has sailed.”
“Great, beautiful,” Bing said. “Let’s move in on our dream couple. Dr. Dan, do that whole speech again, so we can get Wollie and Carlito’s reaction to it.”
My reaction was simple. How many menstrual cycles had I squandered on my former fianc'e? Five. Not that I blamed Doc for moving to Taiwan, but the devotion that made him a good father to his child meant he’d never father mine. He couldn’t abandon Ruby to her wacky mother, and by the time he was free to divorce and remarry, my eggs would be in a retirement home.
“I need a bathroom break before my close-up,” Carlito said.
This was a chance for the rest of us to take five. Out came cell phones as people took care of whatever business needed taking care of at 10:57 P.M., mostly checking in with significant others. As I had no significant other, I kicked off my shoes and took a walk around the restaurant. The other diners were gone, and the waiters sat at a table near the kitchen, counting tips and eating a meal of their own by candlelight, roast chicken with all the fixings. Their camaraderie was evident.
Melancholy engulfed me. I wanted to mother a child almost more than I could say. If I won the B.C. audience vote, one prize would be six months of fertility services at Dr. Exeter’s clinic, either with my fellow winning contestant or with a man of my choice. I was keeping an open mind about the contestants, but the man of my choice was in Taiwan and although he’d come back one day, he wasn’t coming back to me, not for six years. I looked at my watch. How long before another man would look sexy to me, not merely appealing? What was the statute of limitations on true love? Longer than the working life of my ovaries?
A greeting card began to take shape in my head, featuring hens. It would be a combination birthday and condolence, something along the lines of “Happy 40th, Sorry About Those Eggs.”
A voice whispered in my ear, startling me. It was Paul, the production assistant.
“Wollie,” he said. “I’ve been, like, flipped out all weekend. About Annika. Something’s not right. She wouldn’t just not show, because every Monday she’s at the production office like an hour before call. Saturdays too. And Sundays, she always wants to watch editing, or just hang.” He looked miserable, his face tense with anxiety. Poor guy. For someone like Paul, Annika would’ve been an angel of mercy, a girl that pretty wanting to “just hang.” She’d probably adopted him as she’d adopted me, not caring that to American girls her age, he was a geek. Annika was an egalitarian. Plants, children, homeless pets, math-challenged adults-there seemed no end to the things she cared about.
“When did you last see her?” I asked.
“Friday. But we talked on Saturday. I called to see if she wanted to come on a location scout Sunday. She said she couldn’t get the car, but it sounded not right to me.”
“Not right how?”
“Just… you know when someone’s, like, blowing you off? Like that. Only she wasn’t ever like that.”
“Did she ask you about a gun?”
Paul took off his baseball cap and scratched his unwashed-looking hair. “She asked if I had one, and I was like, Get real, why would you even want one, and she said, Tell you later. Then she asked Bing, and Joey, and Joey was saying about the waiting periods, and Annika was like, You’re kidding, so Joey said, Talk to Henry. Henry was the contestant that night, him and Kimberly, the miniature-golf-date episode. And Henry says, Find a gun show, you can buy one on the spot, and everyone’s like, No way, you can do that? And Annika says, Okay, Paul, if I find a gun show and give you money, can you buy me one? And I go, Not this weekend, I got the location scout, and she seemed kind of bummed by that and said she’d get back to me.”
“Why would she need you to buy the gun for her?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Maybe you have to be twenty-one or a U.S. citizen or something.”
Maybe. But why would a math-whiz au pair who phoned home every Sunday want a gun? I started feeling sick again. “Have you called her today?”
He nodded. “Today, yesterday, but I just get her machine. I don’t have the number for the people she lives with.”
“Paul! Are we lined up with Munich yet?” Bing’s voice boomed from across the restaurant. “And hey, bartender! You get ZPX? I got an episode airing.”
The bartender aimed a remote at the TV screen suspended above the bar, catching our opening sequence. A ticking clock grew bigger and bigger, then metamorphosed into an hourglass, which in turn became a test tube and, finally, a baby. Disco music pulsed in the background. The faces of the six contestants came into focus, each with a big question mark like a halo suspended overhead. The girls were first: coquettish Kimberly, with perfectly ironed straight black hair. Savannah, the dazzling redhead. And me.
I looked away. If there’s anything worse than hearing my voice on tape, it’s seeing myself on television. The opening sequence was bad, the actual episodes worse. Towering over my dates even when seated, breasts too big, hair too wispy, weird facial expressions that reminded me of my mother-it was more torturous than a bad photograph. Carlito, coming from the bathroom, was drawn to the small screen like a cat to canned tuna. Fredreeq, too, although her VCR would be recording the episode, came to watch. They stood together in perfect harmony for once, like the theme music, joined in mutual adoration of their work.
I thought of Annika, who never tired of watching the show, her show as much as anyone’s, even though she never turned up onscreen, in the credits, or on the payroll. She was so often on the set, Biological Clock’s biggest fan. I could picture her here, one eye on the television as she called Munich for Bing and negotiated on his behalf in German.
It was on the set that I’d last seen her. Four nights ago, at a bad Chinese restaurant in North Hollywood. Long past midnight Bing had yelled, “That’s a wrap!” and Annika had followed me to the bathroom.
“I have a problem, Wollie,” she’d said. “I am in some trouble and I do not know who to tell who will not think badly of me. Could we talk for ten minutes? No more.”
I’d said yes, of course, knowing it would be far more than ten minutes, knowing Annika and I had never talked on any subject for less than an hour. But then Paul needed me to sign for a paycheck and Fredreeq needed to pull off the false eyelashes she’d been trying out on me, and Bing needed to discuss with us the bags under my eyes, and by the time I was alone and ready to go, Annika wasn’t around. I didn’t really look for her. I didn’t check the bathroom. I didn’t ask if anyone noticed where she’d gone. I was tired. I went home.
I hadn’t seen her since.
She was my friend, and I hadn’t even given her ten minutes.