“I’m really sorry,” I said, but the tiny voice saying the words didn’t sound like my own. I felt scared, disoriented, as my heart rate picked up in my chest.
“You already said that,” Able said, and as he spoke he watched me closely, learning more about my malleability, my eagerness to please with every move I made. “I just wonder if Lorna, or Ted, would like to do the stunt instead. Lorna has been particularly impressive in her scenes. She’s grown up a lot in the past few months.”
“If Lorna does it . . . will she get my part?” I asked, unsure of how to verbalize what I really meant. My stomach grumbled loudly with hunger at that moment, and I felt betrayed by my body for showing weakness.
“I really can’t promise you anything right now,” Able said. “A film set is like an ecosystem, Grace, and if you refuse to play your part in it, you’re putting everyone at risk.”
“Nathan said I wouldn’t have to do any heights,” I said, and my voice was raw with the burden of letting him down. “When we signed. He said you would use a stunt double for that.”
“I don’t care about Nathan,” Able said, irritated at the mention of my agent’s name. “I care about what’s best for my movie.”
“Can I just call my mom quickly?” I asked desperately. By this point my family had already moved into the house in Anaheim, but my mom was staying with me in a hotel room in LA for the duration of the shoot. At first, she had seemed to enjoy coming to set even more than I did, but once I was allocated a studio teacher to advocate for me on set, Able told my mom that her presence wasn’t necessary anymore. I figured it was just all part of the agreement we’d made with him, the clear separation between work and home, only by the time I was dropped back to the hotel room each night, I was so exhausted I could barely string a sentence together. My mom’s questions had long since stopped and the first signs of resentment were already showing, but I still matched the rhythm of my breathing to hers when we went to sleep at night, the air conditioner humming gently in the background.
“You can call your mom whenever you want,” Able said, impossible to read. “But I don’t see how that will change anything. She’s already aware of this.”
“You spoke to her?” I asked, wondering if I’d somehow misunderstood the situation and the disdain I always secretly felt he reserved for her. Maybe she had always been welcome on set by Able: perhaps it was me who had never wanted her there.
“I spoke to her this morning. She promised me you’d be able to deliver on this.”
“Is she going to come here?” I asked. My mom knew how terrified I was of heights. She’d had to carry me down from the diving board at our local swimming pool countless times when I was younger. The memory of her warm skin, sweet with sun lotion, made my eyes prick with tears.
“Grace, you know you told me it was too much of a distraction when she visits. I’m trying to understand you right now, but you’re not making sense. I’ve noticed you’ve been doing this more and more lately—distorting reality so that it fits in with a narrative you’ve created in your mind.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, panicked.
“I mean that it’s something we have to watch out for.”
I nodded, and my grip on reality loosened with every word he spoke.
“Look, I don’t care about your mom, I don’t care about Nathan, and I don’t care about Lorna,” Able said then, his face softening slightly. “I care about you. Do you think I’d ever let anybody hurt you?”
I shook my head, still fighting back tears.
“Because what I’m hearing when you say you don’t want to do it is that you don’t trust me. Do you remember what I told you? That other people are going to try to get involved and get between us, but it doesn’t matter as long as we understand each other?”
I nodded but my legs still felt weak with fear of letting him down.
“I know you better than anyone in the world,” Able said. “Do you trust me?”
When I looked up and saw that he was almost smiling at me, my heart rate started to slow slightly. I nodded again.
“So will you try again for me?”
“I can try again,” I said, and when he broke into his perfect, famous grin, I felt so incredibly relieved to have made him happy that I figured it may even be worth going up there again.
Despite my trust in Able, my studio teacher, Carrie, still found me crying a little in my trailer at the end of lunch break, as I was putting my padding back on. I liked Carrie a lot. Her job was to make sure I didn’t fall behind with my education, but also to act as my representative and guardian on set. She had a voice like calamine lotion, and when we met she told me that her allegiance was to me, and that she would be my voice on set whenever I needed her. Carrie was the first person in my life who ever admitted to me that things were different for women, particularly in Hollywood, and she was also the first person to ever call me smart. She made me promise I would get my California Certificate of Proficiency, because the industry was particularly rough for the women who men figured they could walk all over. Even after she was long gone, I tried to see my three hours of lessons a day as something more than just an irritating distraction between scenes, despite Able making it clear that they broke my focus and set us back hours each time. After a while he just made fewer allowances for them so that the teacher would have to scramble to make up the required three hours a day in small pockets of ten or twenty minutes between takes.
When Carrie asked why I was crying, I told her. As the words flew out of my mouth before I could censor them, I watched her cheeks turn a marbled pink on my behalf. After I had finished, she walked up to the trailer Able used as an office, and opened the door without knocking. I hid in the classroom tent, but an assistant soon found me and led me up to Able’s trailer, a place that had always been my safe haven up until that point.
Carrie was standing just inside the door with her arms folded across her chest. She had taken off her glasses, and her mouth was set in a grim line. It looked like she’d been crying. Able was sitting by his desk, leaning back in his chair with one leg resting across the other. He eyed me with interest as I approached.
I looked between the two of them and then down at the steel-toed combat boots my character always wore. I already felt disoriented.
“Carrie told me that you’ve been crying. Is this true?”
He sounded benign enough, but I could hear the real question he was asking: Don’t you trust me?
“You can tell me what happened. Were you still worried about the stunt?”
I raised my eyes from the floor to look at this person who had changed my life overnight. I thought of what would happen if I got fired from the film—my visa would be voided and my family would be unceremoniously shuttled back to London, my life returning to the bleak monochrome it had been for as long as I could remember. I would have to go back to my old school where nobody was talking to me, and not only would I have let everyone on set down, but it would also mean no more special attention from my parents, no more running around a studio back lot in somebody else’s clothes, no more room service waffles with thick syrup and strawberries at midnight, and no more Able. I could barely remember what my world had been like before him, before this movie. I felt strong because Able had told me I was strong, impressive because he had treated me that way since the day I met him. Every single move I had made since then was because he told me to, and I felt frozen with fear at the prospect of it all ending here. Maybe Able was right when he said he knew me better than anyone else—he had always known just how much I wanted it all.
I bit my lip and stared down at the floor. “It’s not true.”
Able nodded once.
“Are you saying that Carrie is lying?”
I turned to Carrie, and in her bald, stricken face I saw a version of myself that I didn’t want to acknowledge existed. I could smell her weakness, and it made me resentful.
“She’s lying,” I mumbled, without looking at either of them.
“Say it properly, Grace,” he said, and I stood up a little straighter.
“Carrie is lying.”
It’s been hard to forget the way Carrie looked at me after I said that, like she just felt sorry for me. Able let her go on the spot, and she would be the last studio teacher I ever got close to. Over the years to come, Able would repeat the same move with various on-set teachers and guardians and, eventually, with my own parents. The only difference was that the pity on Carrie’s face would soon be replaced with a look of betrayal as people became more convinced of my complicity. Eventually it would just become easier not to get close to anyone.