New Fiction By Rebecca Makkai: "It's Alright, It's Alright, It's Alright"
In this story for our Almost Famous series, a virtually unknown actress becomes a tabloid fixture in less than 24 hours.
The day she turned 34, Catherine received, through her agent, a typewritten letter from Rudy Upchurch, who’d seen her onstage in Travesties. “You might be familiar with my movies,” it began, an understatement for the ages. No need to audition; he simply wanted her in London for filming. Catherine had been hired on sight before — when a director wanted wavy red hair, she was a shoo-in — but that was in her teenage days of soap opera bits. She’d long ago given up hope of being discovered. Had she ever wanted that? Not really. Anonymity, the perpetual mask, was part of acting’s appeal.
“This is how he works,” her agent said.
“Like it’s 1942?”
“Genius is eccentric.”
It was a major role in an ensemble cast, one of two women opposite Jake Ballard (Jake Ballard!) who, despite the action hero roles flung his way, apparently recognized the cultural capital he’d gain by working with Upchurch.
She asked her husband, Luiz, if he thought she should accept. “What,” he said, “you’re asking my permission?”
She shook her head. Maybe she’d been asking her own.
By September she was settling into a furnished flat in Russell Square. Rudy Upchurch didn’t plan to rehearse — he’d do it only if Catherine insisted — so she spent the week before filming doing press and wondering who she thought she was.
The woman from TimeOut London asked only about Jake Ballard: Had she met him? Had she seen him in Identity Flash? Would they have love scenes?
Catherine finally said, “Is this article about me, or him?”
“Oh.” She wasn’t offended—who would read an article about a thirty-four-year-old stage actress?—but had nothing to say. “Why don’t you quote me saying Jake is handsome and talented, but he’s got nothing on my husband.”
The woman nodded and wrote. She’d never use it.
Catherine wandered the city the rest of the day. She wound up at Harrods, staring at a cheese case.
That night she put on a mud mask and called Luiz, then texted people to confirm her time on set tomorrow. She ran another internet search on her co-star. She hadn’t finished typing “Jake” when Google suggested “Ballard.” She’d done plays with famous actors before, but never one whose private life was tabloid fodder, one whose intimate photos she’d been unable, as a member of the supermarket-going public, to avoid. Last month he’d apparently been in Cabo with his girlfriend, the paparazzi staked out on neighboring balconies. Alongside photos of Jake and his girlfriend were shots of Jake and another woman — same beach, Jake in the same trunks. After Rachel Went to Bed! the headlines shrieked. Look What Jake Brought in His Carry-On! How profoundly stupid, to forget he was never alone. Unless, of course, this was exactly what he’d wanted.
The next morning, it poured. They were shooting an isolated scene, so the weather didn’t matter except to the freezing actors.
After makeup she met Jake (shorter than you’d think) and the crew. She memorized no one’s name.
Rudy Upchurch put his hands on her shoulders and told her she looked great. He said, “I’ll check later if you have questions.”
She’d read up on how he worked, and this was typical: infuriatingly vague except when he was infuriatingly precise.
Catherine walked under the awnings. Jake Ballard (Teeth! Eyes! Hair!) walked the other direction. They met in front of the florist. He asked if she’d made it home from the party. Yes, or she wouldn’t be standing here with him. Did she know she looked like Claudette Colbert, only with red hair? Claudette Colbert with her head on fire. But no, he didn’t mean it like— did she want to get coffee? They shot it again and again. Someone convinced Upchurch to give the actors umbrellas, and the lights had to be changed. Despite the rain, crowds had formed at both ends of the blockaded street. People held their phones up to capture a few pixels of Jake Ballard.
That night, Catherine spiked a fever. She curled under three blankets, teeth chattering, the room wobbling on its axis.
In the morning she loaded up on Tylenol and watched slow British game shows. She wasn’t needed on set till noon. She closed her eyes and thought about doing her Christmas shopping in London. A British-themed Christmas. Shortbread and tea. She tried to remember what she’d given Luiz every Christmas since they met. The first year, it was an old-fashioned red alarm clock. A joke, because he always overslept, but also symbolic: She wanted to spend more time with him. Really, she’d already known she’d marry him. Something about his gently massive hands, the low certainty of his voice, gave him the gravity of a planet, and she knew she could spend her life venturing out to the chaos of auditions and rejections, then happily orbiting back. That January, he flew her to Brazil to meet his mother.
Jake Ballard looked liked a mannequin, so completely devoid of sex that she imagined his crotch to be a smooth plastic bump.
She finally dressed, shakily, and met her cab. She sat at a restaurant table with Jake Ballard, sipping wine. They talked about her fear of flying. Upchurch looked frustrated. “Eyes wide,” he said before the third take. “It was funny with your eyes wide.” Someone refilled her wine glass with grape juice and they did the whole thing again.
She found Jake Ballard exceptionally unattractive. Luiz had said he wouldn’t be jealous because he knew how Catherine felt about blonde men. It was true: Jake Ballard looked like a mannequin, so completely devoid of sex that she imagined his crotch to be a smooth plastic bump. He was nice enough, but she suspected the millions of women who mooned over him also had cheesy taste in music, favored chain restaurants, took magazine quizzes. That Rudy Upchurch had cast him baffled her — he’d always preferred leading men with crooked noses, obvious layers of self-loathing — but then this was a pretty-boy role, a spoiled guy.
“Cat,” Upchurch said, although she’d never gone by Cat. “You know, feel free to go off-script. The words are just ideas.”
“You want me to…oh. Really?”
“Sure. But, you know — I saw the dailies. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
As he walked away, she glanced, panicked, at Jake. “I don’t know,” he whispered.
Upchurch had a record of firing actors in the first days. He wouldn’t audition you, wouldn’t rehearse you, wouldn’t even necessarily meet you — he’d just see how you did. And if he didn’t like it, he’d start again from scratch.
Jake Ballard rolled his eyes as someone readjusted their food. He mouthed: “Here till midnight.” She shrugged. “Worth it,” she mouthed back.
When they finished shooting (at just 9, to her delight), Jake invited everyone back to his hotel pool. Upchurch wasn’t going, but the other actors were, and some of the crew. Catherine agreed, only afterward remembering she was sick, functioning merely because she’d taken more Tylenol than the bottle advised. But she’d promised herself to be social, and she dreaded lying in bed alone before she was ready to sleep.
She swung by Russell Square for her bathing suit and called Luiz, who was leaving work himself. By the time she got to the hotel (a jungle of palms in the lobby) Jake Ballard and 50 guests already filled the top-floor pool, which the staff had cordoned off for the night. Catherine sat on the edge in her red one-piece. She made small talk with anyone who happened to swim up.
Luiz would have insisted she go home, go to bed. He’d have let her lean on his arm all the way to the elevator.
Jake Ballard propelled himself out of the water and onto the lip of the pool. “You’re an enigma,” he said. His wrists were slender in a way his muscles didn’t compensate for.
She said, “I’m under the weather.”
“You need to use a Neti Pot. You seriously, you just boil this water, and you literally pour it up your nose, and it comes out the other side. You feel like your brain’s washed clean.” He talked about why he never got flu shots, why he didn’t eat corn. He put a wet hand on her shoulder. “You’re a really fascinating person,” he said.
She laughed as he submerged himself, surrounded by young women who had nothing to do with the production, women pulled to the party by subterranean magnets. She did like Jake’s image of a brain rinsed of grime. She needed that on set.
She felt herself falling toward the water. No, it was just her head falling through space, everything going black and sparkly around her. She wanted to lie down, but down was water. Her stomach wasn’t good. Someone was waking her up. Someone said, “Hey, are you okay?” They ought to let her sleep.
She was back in her clothes, in a cab next to a blonde woman she didn’t know, but this woman had been talking for so long that she ought to know her name. “It’s Sarah, right?”
Catherine hadn’t seen her on set, but here she was in the cab, and she was nice and she was worried. “No,” she said. “Marybeth.”
This Marybeth person got her into bed with a lot of pillows, got her a glass of water with a straw.
Catherine said, “I can’t be sick. I can’t.”
“Is there someone you want me to call?”
“Go in my phone and text Luiz. Tell him I’m sick.”
A long pause.
“I don’t see a Louise in here.”
“Just— no, never mind.”
And then it was 3 in the morning, and she was thrashing in her covers, internal thermostat gone haywire. She never dreamed properly with a fever. Over and over, Rudy Upchurch put her in a black wig, made her change her name to Cat London. Luiz was here, but she couldn’t find him. She kicked her blankets as if they were responsible. Then she dreamed it all again.
In the morning she was stable on her feet, though she didn’t want to eat. The world felt perforated. At 8:15, someone knocked. “Cat? You okay?” It took her a moment to recognize Jake Ballard. He looked her up and down, put a hand on her forehead. “We were all freaked out!” he said. “I’m driving you, okay?”
Jake draped his arm around her and propelled her down the sidewalk like he was leading a ballroom dance.
Jake had not just a car but a driver, too, and she was glad he didn’t expect her to talk. She listened to some story about Sting teaching yoga. The driver let them off two blocks from the set — another street scene today — and they walked together. Jake draped his arm around her and propelled her down the sidewalk like he was leading a ballroom dance. They rounded the corner to the trailers and ran straight into the pack of phone-waving girls. She’d have hung back, found someone with a clipboard, eased herself on set—but Jake just charged forward, past the police and the crowd, and since Catherine was under his arm she ran with him, legitimized by his obvious right to be there. She was the tail of his comet.
The makeup geniuses covered her pallor, and a wardrobe guy gave her a tiny energy drink that made her heart race. They shot the scene where Jake followed Catherine into the gallery. He’d already made his fatal mistake, hiring the beautiful assistant who would ruin his life, and he brought a harried edge to his role today. Catherine was impressed despite herself. And relieved: If Jake had been no good, Upchurch was likely to fire them both and start over with another matching couple, a woman two inches shorter than the new leading man.
She finished early. Jake had more scenes with the gallery owner, and one where he’d lug a painting down the street.
Catherine spent the afternoon in Russell Square Gardens, her legs stretched on a bench in the sun. She read awhile, then checked her phone and saw strange numbers on the screen: 20 texts, 11 voicemails. The first text was from her agent: Catherine????
She couldn’t manage to read things in the right order, and her brain was still foggy, but she pieced it together: There were photos all over the internet of Catherine walking down a London street tucked neatly under Jake Ballard’s arm. Here were the photos, in her email inbox: In one, they were clearly running; in another, he appeared to kiss her forehead, although she knew that hadn’t happened. Her green coat, jeans, brown boots: the same clothes she wore right now. Bizarre, how the cameras hadn’t caught the set, crowds, grip trucks, police. Only the side of a restaurant, as if Catherine and Jake had just emerged from a romantic brunch.
One of the voicemails was Luiz: I know better than to worry. But will you call me? Ok, yes, call me.
Another, from her friend Renee: Maybe you’re brilliant. Maybe this is, like, the way you get famous. Tell me you planned it.
A message from the TimeOut reporter, asking if they could continue their interview.
One from her agent, an hour after the first text: You realize it’ll get worse, right? Because, you know, the actual British paper tabloids. First thing tomorrow. They’re going to say ‘canoodle.’
Catherine was so far out to sea that she almost deleted one unrelated message partway through, until she caught the edge of the words: …in regards to unusual charges to your card ending in the digits 4928 in the amount of $4,312.
It had to be connected to the photos. Someone who wanted access. She’d heard people did this — pretended to be the theft recovery team, so you’d let your guard down and give them your information. Only in this case the details they wanted were probably less about her PIN and more about Jake Ballard’s penis.
She opened her wallet to be sure. There was her gym pass — why had she brought it to London? — and her Equity card. But her bankcard was gone, and every single credit card. Her driver’s license.
She thought first of the wardrobe crew, and then she remembered Marybeth. Marybeth, who’d dug in Catherine’s purse to find her phone.
She considered walking home, but didn’t want to waste time. She stayed in the park, calling the bank, making lists of what had been in her wallet. She was on hold when she thought to check for her passport, which had remained in her purse pocket since the airport. Gone. When the helpful Indian woman came back on the line, Catherine started sobbing.
Two hours of phone calls later, the sun had set. She hadn’t eaten all day, and although her credit was halfway to being restored, she had no cash—that had vanished too—and no way to pay for food. There was none back in the flat, really. She found airline cookies in her purse. The passport was the worst part. Why steal a passport? The Indian woman had given her advice — she’d written it down — on the police, the embassy, the time it would take.
Hadn’t Marybeth talked about Jake as if she knew him fairly well? Someone must know how to track her down.
Jake would be done filming, and instead of heading to the embassy Catherine walked 12 blocks to his hotel. She brushed past the mob of female loiterers and into the lobby. The P button in the elevator didn’t work without a key card. She went to the desk and said, “Would you call the penthouse for me?”
The man didn’t bother suppressing his laugh.
Catherine scanned the lobby: dozens of people biding their time around the fountain, waiting for Jake.
She yanked out her phone — 13 new texts — and brought up one of the emailed photos, one where she appeared to nuzzle Jake’s clavicle. She said, “This is me. Right? Me and Jake Ballard, this morning. I just have to ask him something.”
The man leaned over the counter for a better look, but even as he did it he said, “I’m terribly sorry.”
“Cat!” A voice beside her. She turned, saw a flash. A short man was inches from her, his camera between their faces.
“No,” she said, as he took another photo, and another. She put her hand on the lens. Several people had sprung from their perches and moved toward her. She looked at the desk clerk, who only raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me,” she said. She struggled toward the door. They kept stepping in front, and she realized she had to walk straight ahead, play chicken. When the girls outside saw her emerge, they began following, too. She couldn’t imagine they knew who she was, but it didn’t matter: She was someone, and someone was better than the absence of Jake Ballard. Instead of leading a parade down the street, she dodged back through the hotel doors and sprinted across the lobby to the bathrooms.
She entered a stall, and when she heard voices — just a few, giggling by the sinks — she hoisted herself onto the tank and rested her feet on the toilet seat.
She listened to one strange, cold message from Luiz (Your refusal to call back is alarming) and turned off her phone. Had she really not called him yet? It would be work now, apologizing, explaining.
A girl’s whisper: “I don’t think she’s even in here.”
Another: “Was she the one in Resplendence?”
“Fuck, Margot texted. Jake’s in Soho.”
“Fuck.” The sound of the door.
She didn’t want to move. When was the last time she’d sat on a toilet tank? High school, probably. Some slight in the cafeteria, a tearful run to the girls’ room. Why was it so instinctual, to hide in a bathroom? When really, in a bathroom, you were trapped.
It hit her that she could never disappear again. Not really. It wasn’t that she would become a household name — she was ancient for an ingénue, and a Rudy Upchurch film was just as likely to flop as to enter the canon. But she’d be findable forever. Good god, she already was. Her photo in the Times when they reviewed Travesties; those yogurt commercials where she was perpetually 26, cleaning a spoon with her tongue. And now it would be worse. There was no such thing as hiding.
The thought propelled her out the door to the lobby, which was mostly deserted. There were still guards, some clusters of girls. Word of Soho must have spread. Someone said, “Isn’t that— wait!” But they didn’t follow.
She called Luiz as she walked. He swore at her in Portuguese, and when he was done she put the phone back to her ear and told him about her wallet, her passport, being sick, how the photos happened.
“I’ll fly there tonight,” he said.
She said, “No, the movie people will take care of it. I want to know you’re in New York. I want to know New York still exists.”
“Okay,” he said. “It’s alright. Catherine. It’s alright.”
An amazing thing, a miracle: the voice of her husband, 3,000 miles away. After millions of years, humans could do this! Why did she not cry with joy every time she made a call?
She didn’t realize till blocks later that she’d taken a wrong turn. She brought up the map on her phone — she still had a little battery power left — and located herself. A tiny, anonymous white arrow on Holborn. See? She couldn’t disappear. There she was.
But it was midnight, and she didn’t think her legs could carry her home. She found a Pizza Express and sat in the corner with her head on the table.
Her mouth tasted rotten, and she imagined her makeup was melting Dali-style down her face.
At 4 a.m., a teenager with a mop tapped her shoulder. “Sorry,” he said.
Her mouth tasted rotten, and she imagined her makeup was melting Dali-style down her face. She was due on set at 6. She walked, half-conscious, toward Russell Square.
A block from her flat, she stopped where a homeless man slumped against a newspaper box, a cup on his blanket. His eyes were blue and wet, his ear bandaged. She was normally too scared to approach men like this, but something — her fatigue, her stupor — made her step toward him. She wanted to ask how he’d gotten to this blanket. She wanted to know if there were people who’d startle at finding him here, so familiar to them but so changed.
He was staring, and she couldn’t ask those things, and so she said, instead, “Are you hungry?”
The man made a plosive sound with his lips.
“Okay,” she said. She walked into the off-license. A row of gray sandwiches in plastic: cheese, egg mayo, turkey. The racks were filled already with the day’s tabloids, and Catherine steeled herself. Yes, oh god. Not in the Sun but in the Mirror, the camera zoomed so far that its very framing suggested intimacy. Her eyes closed, his open. JAKE COZIES TO CO-STAR. And below: This one’s married!
Catherine brought the paper to the nose-ringed girl at the counter. She said, “This is me. I’m having a horrible day. Will you give me a sandwich?”
“Same clothes. Look.”
The girl scanned Catherine. “That’s not you.”
“I’m out of money, but if you give me a sandwich you can take my picture.”
The girl looked left and right as if her manager might appear, in on the joke.
“Come on,” Catherine said. “No harm.”
“Will you hold the paper? Like, by your face?”
She did, then picked out a turkey sandwich and headed back to the street. The man didn’t look surprised. Maybe this happened all day. Twelve sandwiches a morning, from strangers who saw him as part of their own existential crises. People who’d just realized that there wasn’t much difference between vanishing forever and living in full view of the world, a street-corner fixture. That visibility was a surprisingly efficient way to disappear.
He opened the sandwich and looked at her. “You plan to watch?”
“I’m sorry. What can I— what else do you need?”
It was sickening, how relieved she felt.
Here was her building. She’d have just enough time to shower. But her key. Where the hell was her key? Maybe she’d left it on the counter when Jake came. Maybe she’d never locked up.
A man let her into the lobby, but no, her own door was dead-bolted. She banged and shouted. She ran back down. The guy at the desk wasn’t one she’d seen before. She explained that she lived in 356, that she’d been robbed, that someone might still be in there now, cleaning her out. He said, “Can I see some ID?”
She spent a moment looking at her own hands, her fingernails. The same ones she’d woken up with. She was almost sure of it. She turned and used her phone’s last 2% to call the set. Yes, they’d send a car. Of course they’d send a car.
That day they filmed the scene where Jake saw her from across the street—that hair, he could pick her out from space—and told her she’d saved him. He gave the line differently each take, but Catherine was still too terrified to break script. Each time, she touched his cheek and said, “I never meant to.” By this point, they’d been revolving through each other’s lives for years. His was a face she was supposed to have memorized. She felt it was almost true, she’d seen Jake Ballard’s photograph forever, but it was different in person. Well, that’s what acting was for. She stared at him till she believed he was woven thickly into her consciousness, that when she was with him she became the sum of their interactions. Jake Ballard was her soul. Jake Ballard was her universe.
Between takes, she scanned the crowd. The cameras, the sound guys, Upchurch, the assistants; behind them, the grip trucks and ladders and barricades; behind them, the police; behind them, the hungry mob, phones raised high.
She wondered if she’d spot Marybeth, returning to see Jake. She wondered if Luiz might appear, coming after all to London to claim her, to keep her from floating away.
But she’d never seen these faces before. Strangers, all of them.
Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and the new collection Music for Wartime, six stories from which have appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. The recipient of a 2014 NEA Fellowship, Makkai has taught at the Tin House Writers' Conference and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently on the faculty of the MFA programs at Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University.