Bite and Smile

Back in 1990, after I’d had a baby and before I’d given up illusions of being an actress, I accepted my then-neighbor’s offer of commercial representation. This, despite her saying she couldn’t see me selling anything except “maybe spaghetti sauce.” No agent I ever went to could figure out what to do with me; three had glanced at my headshot and said, “Debra Winger type,” perhaps because I, too, did not appear to brush my hair.

Before this agent would send me out on auditions, she wanted me to take a four-week commercial acting class. The cost was $200, which, with a new baby, I did not have. Did I really need to take the class? Her answer indirectly said, if you don’t, I won’t send you out.

“I’ll give you the money,” my dad said. “But what exactly are you going to learn?”

I didn’t know, and still did not know when I showed up at a blocks-long apartment complex on a treeless section of Riverside Drive in Sherman Oaks, a stretch notable for its stucco structures painted the color of oranges, Pepto-Bismol and sand. At the elevator I ran into three other students, each of us carrying headshots and resumes, just in case.

“Let yourselves in!” someone shouted, as we reached the appointed apartment.

Our teacher, whom I will call Dolores, was in a vinyl lounger set in front of a TV tuned to a home shopping channel. She might have been around forty, with pea-size eyes and a pancake of curly hair that sat on her head like a toupee on a beach ball. The beach ball reference is unkind but literal, as Dolores weighed at least five hundred pounds, weight that spread and slumped toward the floor. She looked like a gigantic chocolate chip, one that was slightly melting.

“Ooowf,” she said, as she rolled out of the chair, which was lined with a towel to catch her sweat, and lumbered a few feet to crank up the air conditioner. She must have anticipated her students’ astonishment, as she clapped her hands to snap us to attention.

“Okay,” she said, and made for the dining table, where she reached for a plate of sandwiches. Her fingers looked like nubs poking from catcher’s mitts of flesh, and on each finger were at least two big jeweled rings, biting into her skin in way that looked painful if not potentially gangrenous.

She turned to us. Her face was immense, a bloated drooping mask of tragedy.

“Bite, and smile!” she said, making a corner of a chicken sandwich appear to disappear between her parted lips while not, apparently, consuming it. “Actors don’t eat on camera, it would take too much time,” she continued, and had us each take half a sandwich from the plate. “Plus the camera doesn’t want to see all the chewed up food in your mouth.”

For ten minutes, we practiced biting and smiling.

“Break time,” Dolores said, and went back to her chair. She told us she was hooked on QVC. “Sometimes I stay up all night and buy jewelry,” she said, and laughed to herself as she stared at the television for twenty minutes. There were then ten more minutes of biting and smiling, and class was over.

“What did you think?” a girl asked as we stood by the elevator. I told her I thought it was bizarre, maybe some kind of sucker’s set-up.

“Yeah,” she said, her eyes traveling past the window, its sill frozen in wavelets of stucco. “But are you going to go back?”

I did go back, partly because my dad had given me the money, mostly because I felt like a fool; there had to be something more here, didn’t there?

That second week, Dolores gave up the pretense of teaching and seemed content for the two of us who’d returned, and in truth mostly me, to ask her about her life. Sitting in the chair, running a kitchen towel between the folds of her neck, she stared at the television and said that no, she didn’t act anymore, she only taught, six classes a week; this was enough to support her. She was not married, no kids; she had two cats; they never went outside. She didn’t leave the house much, either. As for the bite-and-smile food, she didn’t eat it after we left; she preferred sweets.

I did not go back for the third or fourth class; I couldn’t take it. When I made a sideways mention to my agent about Dolores’s, um, limitations, she cleared her throat and insisted Dolores was “one of the best in the business.” I sensed there was some gentlemen’s agreement between the two women, who knew the genesis, but said nothing.

I don’t know whether it’s heartrending or heartbreaking to imagine Dolores as a dish in the 1960s; a young Joan Collins-type of some minor success, then less, then a lot less, until she became another ball in the city’s maze, centrifugal force carrying her around this turn, gravity dropping her there, until she came to rest somewhere near the bottom. And who’s to tell her she’s wrong to stay? She’s in showbiz, isn’t she? And she is, I’m sure, or the next incarnation of her is, still there in a sweltering apartment in the Valley, sitting in front of her television, ready to show the next generation of me how it might all go down.

Cross-posted on Medium.com