On Sundays in the early 90s, before Pulp Fiction was filmed there, you could find me and my mother at Dinah’s on S. Sepulveda. It was a time when L.A. was having something of a downturn, attraction-wise to other people. Or maybe it only feels that way now, when the flocks that come in carloads and planeloads from the other corner of the U.S. seem to iterate Robert Downey Jr.’s statement in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, “God, it’s like somebody took America by the East Coast, and shook it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on.” Except it isn’t just “damaged goods” girls now–it’s boys, transes and everyone in between, too. But in those simpler days, which were objectively more complicated, I felt a greater tension going to Dinah’s than I do now. Filled with mostly black families and working class types, we stood out as two seemingly delicate white lilies. That my mother’s name was Lily didn’t exactly help. Conversely, she had named me something that was, in her mind, “edgier”: Ethel. It was atrocious, and there was nothing I could even do to turn it into a viable diminutive, though there was a brief period in high school when I tried to get my few friends to call me “El.” They said they’d sooner call me “Eth,” one friend adding, “Jesus Ethel, you’re not an Australian supermodel. I’m not gonna fuckin’ call you ‘El.’ Just be grateful your mom at least made the attempt to name you after a famous person.”
The famous person in question was Vivian Vance, better known as Ethel Mertz from I Love Lucy. Mom had always felt she was mercilessly underrated as the very foundation that allowed Lucy to find her own strength to scheme all the time, to feel comfortable doing so with a sounding board like Ethel during a period when finding a fellow female to openly commiserate with about being subjugated was practically unheard of. I supposed I could see her point, but, for the most part, I found Ethel to be literal and figurative dead weight to Lucy and the limits she could have further pushed were it not for Ethel’s lack of courageousness. In this way, I felt almost hurt that my mother would name me for her, as though prophesying that I would be just such a callow sort of person. A sidekick to someone more brazen at best. I brought this up to her often during our Sunday brunches at Dinah’s, and her response was consistently the same: a warm smile and the assurance, “I promise you that one day you will appreciate the name I gave you, and that you’ll do something to make it even more famous than Vivian Vance did.”
“Is that really much of a challenge?” I retorted.
Taking a sip from her coffee mug, she replied seriously, “Well, yeah. It’s difficult for your generation to fathom, but she was technically the second most famous woman in America for about a decade. Pair that with the fact that it’s harder than ever to get famous in this town without compromising your integrity, and yeah, Ethel, I would have to say it’s going to be quite a challenge.”
She had such a seamless way of undoing what I thought was ironclad sarcasm with her own more sincere version of it. “Well, I don’t want to be famous, so it doesn’t matter.”
Lily laughed. Not the sort of laugh that comes across as mean, but more the type that connotes incredulity. “It can’t be helped, that desire, hon. Not in this town.”
“Since when did you start talking like a bad agent?”
“I guess I’ve lived here too long. It’s osmosis.”
It was true, by now, Lily had lived in L.A. for more than half of her life. She moved out here when she was eighteen to try to become an actress, was too naive to understand that a screenwriter has absolutely zero clout in making that happen and ended up conceiving me with a failed one named Daryl Bandran. When she met him at a sorry excuse for a party in North Hollywood (which should have been her first clue that he was a nobody), he had talked a big game about being a TV writer. She didn’t think to ask him what those TV writing credentials might have included before going to bed with him that night (in her tiny apartment, not his, mind you). Turned out he had written some shitty episodes for the last season of Bewitched in 1972. On the plus side, Lily had never watched it. She was more of an I Dream of Jeannie sort of girl. She learned a valuable lesson that night (and the following morning): 1) never believe an L.A.-based guy when he says he’ll pull out and 2) never believe that a writer can help to advance your career. Her comeuppance for the mistake, of course, was me. And though she could’ve aborted me, she decided instead to take it as a sign that maybe she wasn’t the one meant for bigger things in Los Angeles. It was supposed to be me instead. She was but my conduit. Thus, I knew for me to tell her point blank I didn’t want fame was the ultimate insult apart from saying she looked like Farrah Fawcett.
“Everyone wants to be famous, Ethel. After a while in this place, it’s almost stranger not to want to be.”
“Well…I don’t. In fact, I want to move away from here, to some remote place where I’ll be anonymous and invisible.”
“Beauty and talent like yours was meant to shine, why do you want to say shit like that to me?”
I mutilated the top of a pancake as I put it onto my fork for consumption. “What talent, Ma? Huh? What beauty? I’m just an average girl who happens to have been cursed with being born in L.A. It doesn’t mean I’m going to ‘hit the big-time,’ or even the small-time, for that matter.” At this point, I was raising my voice, causing the other families in the restaurant to smirk at me and my white teen girl issues. I was sixteen, to be exact. My mother should have been thankful I even still wanted to go out with her in public. And yet she continued to carry on with this ridiculous business about becoming famous that had always upset me. It was almost like she was trying to push me away. I told her as much when she pulled an issue of Backstage out of her purse, slid it over to me on the table and motioned with a flourish to several ads circled in red pen. Something about it looked like blood, as though she was creating a blatant metaphor for what you had to put in of yourself to get a signing opportunity with the devil. I stared blankly at her as I errantly poured more syrup onto the top of the pancake stack, drenching it in my absent-minded irritation.
“These are auditions that you could get, Ethel. They’re perfect for you.”
“How so? What’s ‘perfect’ about them considering I don’t want to pursue this career track?”
She put her head in her hand. “I’m trying to help you. I want you to have a better life than I did.”
“Bullshit. You just want to live out your own unfulfilled dreams through me. And I’m not fucking doing it.” With that, I slammed my utensils down and left the restaurant in an unfathomable fury. I took the bus to a friend’s in Santa Monica. Her name was Sadie, and unlike my living situation, hers was impossibly cush, with a two-story house on Hill Street and parents as they should be: perpetually absent. And as she served me a joint while we watched House of Style, I complained to her of my mother’s behavior, of her frivolous dream.
After I explained the backstory to why she truly wanted fame for me, Sadie exhaled a plume of smoke, mesmerically staring at it for a few moments before she remarked, “Goddamn. That’s more pressure than my parents wanting me to become an entertainment lawyer instead of doing family law like they did.”
It was in Sadie’s nature to make everything about her, but in this case, I was actually relieved. I think all I wanted was to express my frustrations so as to let them out in some way, to be free of them. And since Mother apparently wanted me to be an actress without also wanting to pay for the according therapy that would need to go with it, Sadie was what I would have to settle for. At least while I briefly obliged my mother’s fantasies so as to get her off my back. We did, however, cease going to Dinah’s after that Sunday of my outburst. It was as though it had never been a tradition at all that following weekend when, instead, she drove me to an elocution class in preparation for a part that I was inevitably not going to get.
Lily spent what must have been at least half of her salary (she worked at Hertz before O.J. went and sullied it by association) for the purposes of “grooming” me, whether in appearance or performance capabilities. If I hadn’t landed at least one national commercial to give her a small return on her investment, she might have killed us both. I was at the end of seventeen when it happened. It was a safe sex campaign that forced me to not only say the lines, “My boyfriend gave me AIDS. And I was just worried about getting pregnant,” but also have them scrawled across my image for print ads across the country. It would be dredged up again and again in internet searches, TV specials recapping the 90s and odious lists or, ugh, “listicles” for Buzzfeed type websites. In short, the one gig I had landed to appease my mother would turn out to haunt me for the rest of my existence, to prove that I had been right all along in my intuition: inconspicuousness was better. Especially when you had my sort of fame–that of the Andy Warhol-predicted fifteen minutes variety. But the fifteen minutes kept happening over and over again, in new and horrific ways as each decade passed and a new technological medium to display it on arose. My mother never said she was proud of me, or that she was happy I had done the commercial, not even when it first happened and we couldn’t have possibly predicted the ramifications. Not even on her deathbed, when it would have been her absolute last chance to say something–anything–about how she either knew she was wrong to have pushed me toward fame, or how she stood by her conviction to the end. Instead, it was an uneventful expiry, one she would argue, that matched her life.
Increasingly, as I advance toward the same old age as my mother was when she died–seventy-seven–I know that I am fulfilling, at last, my lifelong dream of becoming invisible. Whenever I am standing or sitting somewhere in public, all at once, a horde–usually of endlessly vexing teenaged youths–will surround me. Bum rush my area as though I’m not there, yet surround me frenziedly like sperm trying to fertilize an egg. They shout at one another as a means for having a “normal conversation,” polluting my ears, and inch just within the last vestige of what is called “appropriate boundaries” for personal space as their crowd edges ever closer toward me as though to keep me constantly wondering if they really do see me or not. My mother, on the other hand… I know she sees me. She’s looking directly at me and saying, “You’re exactly what I didn’t want you to be: me.”