INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
Fans of Lynn Coady’s “Someone is Recording,” one of our most read short stories of 2018, already know what they can expect from Coady’s writing: it will be bracing, humorous, and at least a little bit twisted. “The Drain,” a workplace comedy about the tension between art and commerce and between gender and authority, does not disappoint.
The story takes place in a writer’s room held hostage by the creator, Liz. The writers—which include Liz’s protegé (our narrator) and not one but two Bruces—are tasked with killing off Marietta, a secondary character despised by her audience for not-quite articulated reasons. Despite the writers’ best efforts—deepening her backstory, giving her a motorcycle, restyling her wardrobe and her hair—Marietta remains unlikeable.
I don’t choose “unlikeable” for lack of a better word. “Unlikeable” is exactly the right word, with all of the attendant implications. High on caffeine, insomnia, and mounting pressure from the network, the narrator imagines a conversation between Liz and the audience. “Why do you hate her?” Liz asks, from inside the narrator’s head. “We liked what you did,” they reply. “We enjoyed it for a while. But we owe you nothing. Don’t start acting like we owe you something. We will hate you for it. We will punish you for it.”
Embedded in this response is the original sin of unlikeability: wanting to be liked in the first place.
Marietta won’t die because, contrary to literally everyone else, Liz does like Marietta, loves her even. Liz wants Marietta’s death to be somber and momentous, but no death the writers come up with pays sufficient respect to Marietta’s life. Being the ride or die for a fictional character isn’t Liz’s only problem. She has other issues to contend with, some of which can be described by words that belong in the same file as unlikeable—she’s difficult, she’s overwhelmed, she’s aging—along with other issues which I won’t spoil. Suffice to say that cumulatively, they threaten to make her irrelevant.
At some point during the Marietta stalemate, the narrator asks, “How do you kill a character who is a joke, without making her death feel like the biggest joke of all?” Whether or not Marietta dies, whether or not the show gets canceled, Liz’s career in television has been a success. But in the end that almost doesn’t matter. For certain people—for women, often—a graceful exit is not allowed.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading
All You Have To Do Is Kill Her Off
By Lynn Coady
She wasn’t worth killing, that was the problem. Because Marietta was not liked. Fans joked online about wanting to shoot themselves, or someone else, the moment she entered a scene. It wasn’t the actor’s fault. Well, it was, kind of. But it was Annie’s fault in conjunction with everyone else—the show, the collective Us. In some mysterious whim of TV alchemy, Annie’s energy ended up not gibing with ours. She’d been great on her last series—a supporting role on a show about nurses. She’d been an audience favorite, was cute yet tough yet vulnerable—everything you’d want in a TV nurse. I hadn’t watched it, but the clips had been good. And she auditioned well and did a sizzling chemistry read with both our male and female leads—which was important because Marietta was going to be our show’s first bisexual about which the network was, initially, very excited indeed. But both the chemistry and the excitement sputtered when she came up opposite the show itself. The suffocating Us-ness of it all. Annie had arrived beaming and freckled, with buckets of charisma, and somehow our show had tipped those buckets over, dribbling all that charm away.
We tried changing her hair. Switched her styling from buttoned-up/sexy to masculine/sleek to (and this was pure desperation) flouncy/bohemian. God help us, we gave her a motorcycle. Then we decided we’d been focusing too much on her appearance. We had drunk the network Kool-Aid, we scolded ourselves. We had to get back to what made the show great—the writing! Depth of character, that was the ticket. What Marietta needed was a meaty backstory. And so we spent a full week in fevered discussion of her tragic early life—her abusive mother, her subsequent drug use, her beloved high school bestie, carried away by opioid addiction. We rolled this out in a Very Special B Story. Which the audience hated. The next week, we tried changing her hair again. The failure was relentless. With every episode, every Marietta scene, the audience cringed, and—worse. They laughed. They didn’t even know why they were laughing, they confided to one another in their social feeds and forums, festooning their posts with tearful, hee-hawing emojis. She was just so bad. No one could explain it. They didn’t want to explain it. It was a mysterious, ineffable phenomenon that at this point they almost enjoyed.
It was my job to get all this across to Liz (who barely used the internet, who dismissed any conversation taking place on social media as “not real,” who still referred to Google as “The Google”) in my helpful, non-confrontational, just-asking kind of way. And to do it without using words like “cringe,” or “laugh,” or “hate her.” But how do you kill a character who is a joke, without making her death feel like the biggest joke of all? I also took care not to say “joke.” But lately it was the word that rang in my ears each weekday morning ever since we started breaking Episode Nine.
Because the thing was, Liz was under it. We were all under it. We were a month away from prep and Marietta Dies, Finally (as I called it in my head) was the penultimate episode and we didn’t even have an outline yet—just a few scattered beats on a terrifyingly white whiteboard. Liz wanted to give her a big send off, to devote the entire episode to Marietta. Marietta, she’d announced, would be the A story.
Bad idea, I thought at once. Leaving audience antipathy aside, Marietta was the supporting-est of supporting characters, she’d only just been introduced midway through last season, she wasn’t worthy. “Great idea,” I said. The other people in the room gulped their agreement.
Liz looked around at us—her beloved, supportive team. Besides me there was Ellen, Riva, and two men in their twenties, one black and straight and one white and gay, both named Bruce. Bruces aside, we were a roomful of crones compared to most, because that’s how Liz liked it. Every time I looked at the Bruces I remembered she once told me that a woman-led writers room can only tolerate two men at a time, and those two men must always be young, timid, junior to all the women, and ideally neither straight nor white, otherwise they take over. You couldn’t mess with that balance, she said.
She knew this from dire experience. On her last show, she’d installed her usual two, one of whom she had assumed was gay but who it turned out was not. Then she made the mistake of allowing a third into the room—an intern who was also straight—and one morning she arrived to find all three with their feet up on the table, firing a mini basketball into a toy net they’d secured above the whiteboard. And the Act Three she’d spent the previous day breaking was erased and replaced by, as one of them described it, “something a little more spicy.”
And, the hitherto-timid young man who made this announcement? Liz told me that as he spoke, he’d been sitting there idly combing his beard with a plastic fork.
But our current, timid Bruces mostly stayed in line, as was their job. As was all of our jobs in this business—be there for the showrunner. Support the showrunner. Help make the showrunner’s occasionally dubious, defective vision somehow take flight. I knew this better than anyone, having worked with Liz the longest without getting fired even once. (Liz was notorious for firing you on Friday then calling you up Monday morning to ask where the hell you were.) In short, I was considered the Liz-whisperer, so the room took its cue from me in that moment—nodding and gulping in agreement after I told Liz what a great idea it was to devote an entire episode to one of the most reviled characters on the network.
“But,” I continued, nodding vigorously to convey to Liz how much I agreed with her, “it occurs to me the last time we gave over an episode to Marietta it didn’t go over so well.”
“That was a B story,” said Liz. “And this is different. This is her farewell.”
“Right, yes,” I said, nodding harder.
“It’s just that I feel like Marietta never got her due, not really,” explained Liz.
“No, no, she hasn’t really,” I murmured, we all murmured.
“If it was up to me,” Liz went on, “I’d give her another season, really dig into that backstory, give her a brand new arc—like maybe the abusive mother shows up.”
We all nodded some more because Liz had been saying this ever since the Very Special B Story, after which the network had made it clear that a Season Three order of our female-forward spy-fi kick-ass odyssey was heavily contingent on whether or not we persisted in trying to jam this repellent character down the throats of our devoted yet increasingly exasperated viewers.
“She has so much potential that hasn’t even been realized,” insisted Liz. “We haven’t even begun to explore the possibilities. So that’s why having to do this makes me so sad.”
I looked up at Liz, grimacing. I didn’t want her to be sad. I’d been working for her for so long, was so psychologically and financially dependant on her good will and approval, that I couldn’t tell the difference between Liz’s happiness and my own anymore. If giving an entire episode over to Marietta was what it would take to dispose of her—if that’s how we make Liz feel less sad and our show less canceled—we would all just have to get on board. And I would have to get the room on board, convince them that together we could make Marietta Dies, Praise Jesus and Pass the Biscuits an episode of television worthy of the splendid, nuanced, endlessly fascinating character Liz seemed to be carrying around in her head. This was the job.
But that was when I noticed Liz had sprung a leak.
I glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed. Everyone had noticed. I could tell, because they were all studiously looking away. Riva was staring into her laptop as if at some urgent anti-virus notification. The Bruces had both picked up their phones. And Ellen was looking at me, eyebrows up.
“Liz,” I said. She turned to me and widened her eyes—her go-to “I welcome your input” expression. I pointed at my neck. Then I pointed at her neck. Her neck was actually spurting, which alarmed me, slightly.
I’d seen people leak, but never spurt. My mom had issues with leaking all her life—especially during menopause, as with a lot of women. But my mom would merely teem for the most part, or sometimes drip discreetly when she’d been standing at the stove awhile, not even knowing she was doing it half the time, gradually soaking her clothes, leaving damp spots on the floor here and there. It was hard to say where the leaks were coming from at any given time because she’d only feel the moisture after it pooled, and cooled. With Mom it seemed to come from mostly her lower back and upper arms—never her buttocks, which of course is always the fear when it comes to leaks. In her later years she lived in dread of leaving a puddle on the seat of someone’s chair, having them think the worst.
Liz brought her hand up to her neck, and it got spurted on. “Oh, wow,” said Liz, looking at her hand. She wiped it on her jeans and stood up. I reached for a bunch of napkins left over from lunch but Riva was ahead of me—she had lurched for the box of Kleenex in the middle of the table and now she offered a handful to Liz.
“Thanks,” said Liz. “Sorry about this, guys.” The Bruces had put away their phones and now just sat with eyes downcast, either being squeamish or respectful. I’ve noticed that on the rare conspicuous occasions that men leak, they’ll laugh and josh each other, like when one of them gets a bad haircut. But when women do it, men become sombre and awkward.
Liz excused herself to go to the bathroom. After a respectful few moments I went to check on her. She was standing in front of a mirror, holding a towel-wad against the leak.
“There she is,” I said. “The human sprinkler.” This was a lame joke, but jokes—lame or otherwise—were part of my job. When I was hired, the producers spoke privately to me in my capacity as Liz-whisperer. They took me to lunch, so I knew whatever they were about to say was something I could not dismiss. We love Liz, they kept saying over and over again. But she can get bogged down. Things can get heavy very quickly with Liz. She cares about her characters so much! And that’s why her shows are such hits! But sometimes, as you know, she goes dark. Of course we want that Liz sensibility, that aesthetic—that’s what we love about Liz! But at the same time—
Light, not dark, I interrupted, nodding. Light, not heavy. Bright, light. I am the light-bringer. Got it. Everyone smiled. They were so happy not to have to say anything else that might be construed as critical of Liz.
“This is just what I need,” said Liz, looking into the mirror and meeting the reflection of my eyes. “Three weeks to prep and I start dribbling everywhere.”
I threw my hands into the air, as if in celebration. “Womanhood!”
“I don’t have time,” said Liz.
“Has it been happening a lot?”
“Started on the weekend. Almost short-circuited my computer.”
“Maybe you should try one of those spas,” I suggested. Although I knew the spas were bullshit. They gave you treatments that were supposed to promote leaking—exudation, as the spas called it—so that you could get it over with if you had a big meeting or a hot date coming up and wanted to avoid any awkward puddles.
All sorts of physical and psychological benefits supposedly followed—your skin cleared up, your chakras aligned and so forth. But I’d read an article in The New York Times months ago debunking exudation therapy and I was pretty sure Liz had read the same one. The article said there was no scientific evidence whatsoever that exudation therapy actually gave rise to exudation. Leaking is neither healthy nor unhealthy, the article scoffed. It’s just one of those pointless, annoying things our bodies do, like foot cramps or sneezing five times in a row for no good reason.
“The spas are bullshit,” said Liz.
“I know,” I admitted.
We stood there for a while staring into the mirror at the reflection of Liz’s soaked wad of paper towel being held against the reflection of Liz’s neck.
“Why is it always just one thing after another?” said Liz.
We went in circles, in the room, for days. Our other scripts were more or less ready, but Episode Nine was getting nowhere. I kept thinking that if it had been up to me, I would have written Marietta into gentle oblivion right around the time we gave her the motorcycle. The motorcycle was the perfect opportunity. Such thoughts were mutinous, considering Liz was my captain, so I tamped them down. My job, after all, was to help facilitate her vision. While bringing light. The problem was, Liz’s vision was divorced from reality—the reality of the girl-power fantasy that was our show. The reality of that fantasy, whether Liz could see it or not, was that Marietta did not fit and the audience needed her to die. They did not want a big send off. They did not want long, poignant scenes showcasing Annie’s Shakespeare-trained talent for reciting massive blocks of dialogue. They did not want lingering close ups on her pale, suffering, face. They wanted her to stop showing up.
But Liz, her ears being permanently shut to the clamour of social media, could not hear this. So she’d come to work and plunk her coffee on the table and say things like: “Last night I was thinking that Marietta might actually be one of the most complex characters I’ve ever created. I was looking over my notes. I filled notebooks on that girl! More than I filled for Tamlyn, even!” Tamlyn being our beloved, mysterious spy-ninja female lead.
“It could be that’s the problem?” suggested Riva, whose thing in the room was to make all her statements sound like questions.
“What’s the problem?” said Liz, turning to her. Riva didn’t understand that there were ways of expressing such thoughts without using a word like “problem.”
“Could it be we’ve overthought Marietta?” queried Riva. “Somewhat? I mean given her secondary status? On the show?”
“I honestly don’t know how you can overthink character,” said Liz.
“Right,” said Riva, nodding. “But—?”
I would’ve kicked Riva under the table if my legs had reached that far. Riva’s uptalk had turned Liz frosty. What saved Riva in that moment was Wanda, popping her distracted, bird-like head in through a crack in the door. “Liz? Got a sec?” She’d been doing this with more and more frequency lately, popping in, blinking rapidly, the tendons in her neck straining, both wanting and not wanting to speak to Liz about the latest network concern or looming production disaster.
The sound of Wanda’s voice, however, was anything but bird-like. Even after she and Liz stepped out into the hallway, closing the door behind them, we could hear her rasping indistinctly through the walls. Her voice had a grinding, aggressive quality that seemed to achieve a higher register, I’d noticed, with every passing week. Lately the sound of it made my eyes water, as if Wanda’s head in the doorway brought with it a waft of pepper spray.
I took advantage of the Liz-free moment to glower around at everyone. “Guys,” I said, “this is happening. We’re not going to talk her out of it at this point.”
Riva went limp and turned into the person she became when Liz wasn’t in the room. “Fucking fuck,” she said.
“No more questioning it. We just need to be fully on board at this point.”
“But if we’re going to make it work,” said Ellen slowly.
“—We need to talk about why Marietta sucks so much!” finished Riva. Ellen was the most reflective person in the room, and it could be frustrating, because people like Riva were always jumping into her reflective gaps and cutting her off.
“Well let’s do that when Liz is out of the room, if we feel we the need to do that,” I said. “Because right now it’s just getting on her tits.”
“She hired us to be straight with her,” said Ellen. Every once in awhile Ellen would bowl me over with a statement like this—a statement that would make you think she’d just wandered into the studio with a sprig of hay between her teeth as opposed to a decade’s worth of TV experience under her belt.
“It doesn’t matter why Marietta sucks,” I said, pretending Ellen hadn’t spoken. “And Liz doesn’t need to hear that from us. She’s been hearing it all year from the entire world.”
“She hasn’t been hearing it, that’s the problem,” muttered one of the Bruces. I didn’t bother looking over to see which one.
“The problem is,” said Riva, “she hears it second hand, from the execs. They think they’re bolstering their case by talking about the backlash online, but as soon as she hears the word Twitter, she dismisses it. They might as well be telling her the criticism’s coming from Narnia.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I repeated. “Did you guys not see Wanda? She’s a human forehead vein right now—because we’re running out of time. I know Liz, guys—she’s not going to come around on this. We need to just forget about the Marietta that sucks. And believe in the awesome Marietta Liz believes in.”
“I guess it’s like faith,” considered Ellen. “Religious fai—.”
“More like believing in fairies,” said Riva. “So Marietta’s basically Tinkerbell. Asshole Tinkerbell.” One of the Bruces snorted at this and Riva looked gratified.
Then Liz returned, looking beleaguered, as she often did post-Wanda. She dropped into her chair like a sack of rocks.
“Long story short,” she said, “we need to figure out Nine today. No more fucking around. Let’s go.”
We began, but got side tracked when Liz started talking about the network’s notes and how they could be “invasive” like weeds in a garden, or fungus. Then someone made a joke about slime molds, but a Bruce took exception to that, claiming slime molds did not actually qualify as fungi. It had something to do with the way slime molds took in nourishment, apparently. Then Riva had to look this up to confirm if it was true (it was). Then the other Bruce pulled up some online clips for us to watch. They were fascinating and repulsive—time lapse videos of a seething, toxic mucus expanding in all directions, taking over the landscape, eating everything in its path.
“Well—let’s take lunch,” said Liz. “We’ll nail it down this afternoon.”
The whiteboard glared. I went outside and bought a green smoothie because solid food wasn’t doing me any favors these days. Plus, my metabolism was operating at the speed of a particularly indolent slime mold as the result of sitting motionless in a room for seven hours every day. I speed-walked around the block, sucking up my smoothie, the color and consistency of which also reminded me of the slime molds. I couldn’t taste it. I meditated on Marietta. I needed to get on the same page as Liz. As Liz-whisperer, I had always prided myself on being able to anticipate my boss’s creative flights of fancy before they could even take wing, but this Marietta thing had completely blindsided me. It made me anxious, off my game. I love Marietta, I tried telling myself. Slime mold, my self replied. Listen, I said. Just try and feel this, ok? I love her. I love Marietta so much.
I hated her, however. Why did I hate her? Why did anyone hate her, was the question. She was good. She wasn’t TV-generic. You couldn’t call her bland—Annie had a lopsided and bashful smile that recalled a young Renée Zellweger.
I mentally addressed the viewing audience—Why do you hate her?
Because you want me to love her, the viewing audience replied. You want it so badly. You think you can throw anything at me and because it’s you, I’ll get on board. My internal viewing audience seemed to be addressing Liz, so I replied as Liz.
That’s not going to stop, said Liz. I’ve always done that and it’s always been fine.
Things change, said the viewing audience. You’ve changed. And you don’t even know it.
But I thought we were on the same side, fretted Liz. We always got along so well.
We liked what you did. We enjoyed it for a while. But we owe you nothing. Don’t start acting like we owe you something. We will hate you for it. We will punish you for it.
Shaken, I ducked into a Starbucks and ordered a grande cold brew to take back to work. I figured more caffeine couldn’t hurt, even though this thing had been happening to me at night where, as soon as I tried to sleep, my heart would start thrashing around in my chest as if in a panic to be released.
The following Monday Liz was an hour late, because, she confided to me in the ladies’ room, she was streaming water from between her breasts all morning. She had come out of the shower with water rolling off her and, she said, it just kept rolling. After checking the stalls to make sure we were alone, Liz lifted her shirt to show me how she had stuffed a maxi-pad down the middle of her bra to soak up the leak. She seemed pretty proud of this ingenuity. As I watched, she yanked the wet maxi-pad—an old-school, industrial-strength cotton slab—out of her bra and replaced it with dry one from her purse. Then she wrung the used one out into the sink to show me how full of liquid it had been.
“Kee-rist,” I said.
“Just call me Yellowstone,” said Liz.
“Have you talked to a doctor?”
“When would I do that? Anyway—it’s a natural process right? You always hear it ramps up around menopause.”
“How’ve you been feeling?” I laughed as I asked this because of course Liz had to be feeling like me, like the rest of us—desperate, frantic, under the gun.
“I feel fine,” said Liz. “Really good, actually. I’m really happy with the work we’re doing on Marietta.”
I laughed again, figuring this could only be irony.
“It’s so satisfying,” said Liz, patting her fresh maxi-pad and pulling her down her shirt. “To be giving all this time to her—to be really digging in on her character and what she means to the show. You know, as pissed off as everyone is about it, I’m feeling very clear that it’s the right thing to do.”
I followed Liz back to the room in silence because what was there to say after I’m feeling very clear that it’s the right thing to do?
In the room, Liz explained that Wanda was shrieking at us all the time because she, Wanda, had lost sight of “what the show is” and “how the show works.” “This work we’re doing,” said Liz, “is fundamental. When you’ve got a TV show up and running and you’re into the third season, people tend to forget about the deep, foundational work that’s so essential. We can’t scrimp on this work, guys—we can’t just blow through it because it’s hard, because everyone’s behind schedule and the network hates us and Wanda hates us and the director hates us and the crew hates us. Everyone out there? They exist to serve us. Our vision. They think the kindest thing we can do for them right now is to hurry up—no. The kindest thing we can do—the only thing we can do, as storytellers, is to honor the truth of the story and go where that takes us.”
There was nothing to say to that either.
“So,” said Liz, leaning back in her chair. “Does the Syndicate murder Marietta because she’s been one of them this whole time and is about to blow the whistle? Or is it simply a matter of throwing herself in front of Tamlyn when the gun goes off kind of thing? One gives us a juicy reveal, but I like the potential emotional fallout of the latter. I feel like it’s important her death feel like a sacrifice—a completely selfless moment.”
So, this was easy. We just had to pick one. I suggested the room take a vote and we move forward on whatever option carried. But Liz looked over at me as if I had placed a finger over one nostril and exhaled the contents of my nose across the table.
“Slow down,” said Liz. “We shouldn’t rush this. I wanna pin down this idea of sacrifice first.”
And that’s how we spent the entire morning, pinning down Liz’s idea of sacrifice. I could see, by the movement of Ellen’s shoulders, that she was taking long, deliberate breaths throughout the entire conversation. Whereas Riva looked ready to shatter her computer over someone’s head.
The week went on like that. We would pitch ideas and Liz would tell us to slow down. Slow down. And consider every possible implication. One after the other. By Thursday we had still accomplished next to nothing and I could feel my stomach lining disintegrating within me. The problem wasn’t that we couldn’t decide about Marietta. We were so ready to decide. We yearned to decide. The problem was that Liz wouldn’t let us.
Over lunch on Friday, as I was rounding the block sipping another slime mold special, I received a call from Mackie. She and a couple other execs would love it, she said, if I would meet them for breakfast bright and early Monday morning—before work.
“We love Liz,” said Mackie.
“I know,” I enthused, “I love Liz too.” This exchange of pro-Liz enthusiasm was, I observed, turning into a kind of ritualized greeting between myself and the execs whenever we met, like Japanese business types bowing excessively and exchanging cards.
“She’s the best,” said Mackie.
“Totally,” I said. “I always feel so lucky to be working with her.”
“And we feel so lucky too,” said Mackie.
“Oh my god, so lucky,” chimed someone else further down the table, whose name I hadn’t caught.
“She’s an extraordinary talent,” said Armelle, and I stiffened a bit, because I wasn’t used to being in Armelle’s presence. I hadn’t known or expected Armelle would be at this meeting. Armelle attended almost no meetings as far as I could tell. Armelle’s thing was that sometimes she would have dinner one-on-one with Liz. They would go somewhere with white tablecloths and have long, warm, sisterly conversations and drink a great deal of wine. They would talk about their husbands (or, dog in the case of Liz, who adopted a bullmastiff named Roger not long after her divorce). Then move on to their kids, the schools they’d applied to, the pros and cons of each. Hug and kiss goodbye. And then, presumably, Armelle would tell Mackie and the rest of her colleagues the best way to do their jobs vis-à-vis Liz and Liz would come to work and tell us all about how supportive and on our side the network was. That was always the relationship as I had understood it.
But now Armelle asked me, “How do you think Liz is doing?”
“Well, she’s leaking quite a bit,” I said. Armelle blinked at this a great many times but her face didn’t change.
This was pure panic on my part. This was me desperate to get across the trouble we were in without betraying or undermining Liz’s leadership. So instead I had betrayed her confidence. I was flailing, stuck there like a pinned butterfly under Armelle’s gaze. I had always been the Liz-whisperer. I was the go-between, the interpreter, the unruffler of feathers on both sides. I got Liz—that was my value, to both her and the execs. But I did not get this. I did not get Marietta. And so, what was my role here? What exactly was the point of me?
I couldn’t say, She’s making bad decisions, or, She’s holding everything up with a kind of insane obsession with a minor character, or, Everyone in the room is starting to feel like a hostage. I couldn’t say, Help, oh please help! So I told them about the leaks.
“Leaking,” repeated Mackie. “You mean exudation?”
“Ugh, I hate that word, but yes.”
“Apparently it ramps up during menopause for some women,” reflected Armelle.
“Right,” I said. “Well—it’s just—giving her some trouble these days.”
I couldn’t look up from my plate. I’d blathered Liz’s business and now I had all the executives thinking about her body, her exudations, as if this was the problem, as if it could have anything to do with her talent, or ability to pull off another season of the wildly successful show that had made the careers of everyone at this table. I felt sick with the shame of disloyalty.
“Stress can be a factor, too,” said Mackie.
“I don’t think that’s true,” I said. “I think the Times debunked that last year.” I wasn’t sure it had, but I just wanted to shut this entire avenue of conversation down. “Look, look, look,” I said. “It’s not even an issue. I shouldn’t have mentioned it. It’s just one more thing she has to deal with lately.”
Armelle cocked her head. “Do you feel Liz might be overwhelmed?”
“She’s just extremely focused,” I said, “on getting the final two episodes right.”
“But if she’s being distracted by all this leaking—”
“She’s not,” I insisted loudly. “She’s totally rolling with it. She’s improvising. She’s sticking maxi-pads down her bra. It’s amazing.”
The table went silent.
“You know Liz,” I said, my voice becoming even louder in an effort to dispel the image I’d just planted in the minds of the execs, not to mention the busboy who was currently pouring our water. “She’s an innovator! She thrives on stress! She gets shit done no matter what!”
“We would like to know,” said Armelle, “if there’s something we can be doing on our end. To help things along.”
“Production should’ve had those scripts weeks ago,” said Mackie.
“I’m very curious to see them myself,” murmured Armelle.
Ridiculous, unhelpful directives rose up in my mind. Pray for her, I wanted to say. Light a candle. Sacrifice a goat.
Armelle took an unhurried sip of coffee. “What do you feel the hold up is exactly? Is there some kind of roadblock? I’ve asked Liz if she’d like to bounce any ideas off me, but she’s keeping mum.”
Armelle shouldn’t have told me that last part, because I had been all set, eager even, to answer her question. Killing Marietta. The hold up is killing Marietta. Armelle was Liz’s bestie, after all—or so I thought. If anyone could nudge Liz around this mental roadblock—the thing that was preventing her, preventing all of us, from imagining an honorable death for Marietta—it was Armelle. But if Liz had “kept mum,” if Armelle had been nosing around previous to this, making her delicate inquiries, and getting nothing, getting shut down, getting stonewalled to the point where Armelle had to resort to a breakfast with me, then it was clear Armelle’s opinion on the Marietta question was not remotely something Liz was interested in. Tears of frustration blurred my eyes. It would’ve been so good to unburden myself to Armelle, and Mackie, and whoever the hell these other blinking, smiling people I was having breakfast with were. But I couldn’t without betraying Liz more than I already had.
I felt handcuffed. I couldn’t tell them about Liz’s Marietta hang-up because I didn’t understand it. And because I didn’t understand it, I could not explain it. And if I could not explain it, telling the execs about it would make Liz seem irrational. And if I, Liz’s lieutenant going back a decade, were to make my captain sound irrational, well then, questions would arise, wouldn’t they? Questions and insinuations—of the cold-blooded, show-business variety, when everybody turns their minds from the glorious nobility of the story-telling impulse to exactly how much money is at stake. There’d be no need to say an ugly thing like “washed up,” but key people would wonder innocently to each other if Liz hadn’t been doing this job a little too long.
So I blinked the tears back into my head and repeated to Armelle, “She just really wants to get those episodes right.”
Armelle sighed. “Look at the time,” she said after a moment—but she was looking at me. Not her watch, or her phone. Look at this pile of garbage sitting in a chair like a person, she might as well have said. Beside her, Mackie dutifully waved her tanned, toned arms at our server, bracelets a-jangle, a human alarm bell.
Liz showed up wearing thin running gloves with bulges in the palms where she had stuffed them full of tissues.
“It’s like stigmata this morning,” she told me as we stood at the coffee machine. “Spurting palms.”
“Pretty soon we’ll just wrap you in gauze head to toe, like a mummy,” I said. “And you can just… seep into your gauze all day long and not have to worry about it.”
“That sounds cozy,” said Liz. “I think I’d be okay with that.”
It struck me I’d be okay with that too. To be swaddled, secure. Free to seep.
I contemplated her as we settled around the table, opening our computers, silencing our phones. Her face was poreless and glowing, which made me reconsider all the claims I’d dismissed about exudation being good for the skin. The glow of her face complemented her expression, which was serene. She looked faintly holy, like a lady saint in a renaissance painting.
I couldn’t figure it out. Was Liz being a trooper? Putting on a brave face for us, her team, but secretly miserable? Was just she bravely sucking it up every day—the intolerable professional stress in combination with the sodden inconvenience of her body—then going home and sobbing into the neck of Roger the bull mastiff for the rest of the night? As a tiny lake took shape around her? I didn’t think so. I knew I would be, but Liz seemed fine. Which was craziest of all, in its way. She was practically melting in front of us but she sat at the head of the table shoving tissues into her gloves with nonchalance.
The word cozy came back to me as I watched her tucking tissues away.
“I think the best thing we can do today,” said Liz. “Is talk about what Marietta’s death is going to mean to the rest of the ensemble individually. Let’s go through them one by one. We need to think about how they’ll be situated with respect to—”
“WE NEED TO KILL HER,” said a loud male voice I’d never heard before.
It was the white Bruce, speaking above a mutter for the first time any of us had ever heard. Liz raised her eyebrows at him. All of us did. Except for the other Bruce, who looked away as if to distance himself, even though they sat, as usual, side by side.
“We are killing her,” said Liz, not in the frosty tone I was expecting. She spoke to the Bruce almost soothingly, as if to a spikey-furred cat. “This is the process we’re engaged in, Bruce. At this very moment. We’re killing her as we speak. It may not feel like it, because we’re being mindful. And loving. But killing Marietta is very much what we are doing.”
I could see Riva vibrating in her chair and I knew the Bruce’s outburst had emboldened her.
“But Liz, we need to figure out the basic beats. How she dies. What actually happens in the episode. We only have a couple days left.” I was astounded. Riva wasn’t even using uptalk. On the opposite side of the table, Ellen started nodding. Uh-oh, I thought.
“Guys,” said Liz. “I know the process is arduous. But this is a woman’s life. Okay? This is someone’s daughter. Someone’s sister. Someone’s mother. A fully realized… human… child of this earth. Seen, felt, and beloved by the people she’s encountered along the way.”
“Wait,” I said. “Marietta has a kid?”
Liz nodded and stuffed some more tissue into one of her gloves. “It occurred to me last week. When she was seventeen. She had to give him up for adoption. She’s never gotten over it. Her mother told her she—”
“IT DOESN’T MATTER,” said the insurgent Bruce in his new voice. “IT DOESN’T FUCKING MATTER THAT SHE HAD A BABY.”
Liz blinked at Bruce for what felt like a good half hour. But she wasn’t angry. She looked stymied, and sad. Let down. If Liz ever looked at me like that, I felt I would’ve hurled myself out the nearest window. But all the Bruce did was look down at his keyboard.
Ellen leaned forward, “I think what Bruce means to say is that the time for delving into character is past. What we need to do now—” here Ellen made the fatal mistake of slowing down to consider her words, so Riva jumped in.
“—What we need to do now is break the episodes. We just gotta break ‘em, Liz. Now. We don’t have any time left.”
“We still have the weekend.” Liz turned to me. “How long will you need to write Episode Nine?”
I’d been avoiding thinking about the fact that whenever—if ever—we finished breaking the Marietta episode, I was the one appointed to go off and actually write it. Me, with my non-functioning digestive system, my recent flirtation with cardiac dysrhythmia and my three hours (on a good night) of sleep. I closed my eyes as if to think, saw a creeping river of bright, pulsating slime-green mold, felt like vomiting, and opened them again.
“However long you want to give me,” I told her. “You need it in two days? I can do it in two days.”
“YOU ARE JUST ENABLING HER,” said white Bruce. “THAT IS ALL YOU DO IN THIS ROOM.”
“AND YOU NEED TO SHUT UP, WHITE BRUCE,” I said. At which point both Bruces reared back in their chairs.
“I apologize,” I said in my normal voice. I realized I was standing, so sat back down. “I apologize to both of you for that.” But really I was apologizing to the Bruce who was black and I tried to make sure with my eyes that he knew it. But that Bruce wasn’t meeting my eyes.
“Guys,” said Liz again, in a voice so calm it was madness. “I’m begging you to have faith in this process.”
With that, white Bruce got up and left. After he shut the door we all sat there.
“Well I guess we know where that Bruce stands,” said Liz.
Then the other Bruce got up and left too.
“We’ve lost both Bruces,” I announced in a daze. “We’re Bruce-less!” Somehow I was still trying to make jokes and bring light, as I had been hired to do. I kept thinking, as I had been so uselessly all along, I just have to do my job. I am here to do a job and I just have to do my job.
That’s when Riva, chin wobbling, got up and left too.
Liz leaned forward in her chair and extended a hand each toward Ellen and I. We were seated directly across from one other—me to Liz’s right and Ellen to her left. I took Liz’s hand immediately. After a moment, Ellen did too. Liz squeezed. Ellen and I looked at each other.
The gloves were soaked completely through.
At some point, Liz said fuck it and went online and ordered multiple plush terry-cloth robes that she could change in and out of throughout the day. This struck me as ingenious—much better than my mummy-wrapped gauze idea. The robes even had hoods for when she was spurting from her cranium—on those occasions, Liz would take a belt from one of the surplus robes and wrap it around her head, sheik-like, to keep the hood secure against it. She had all sorts of little strategies now.
And speaking of strategies, that’s what we were supposedly doing—strategizing. For the first month of our unemployment, I’d show up at Liz’s a couple of afternoons a week and Liz would lounge, be-robed, on her ottoman, as we discussed how to get her show back. There was no real point to this exercise, but it made us both feel better—we were used to seeing each other every day, after all, talking things over, solving problems. We defaulted to the process we knew best, the process that had always worked for us in the past, even though it did nothing anymore but give us comfort.
Liz would gaze out the window at her boat launch—feet up, robe on, looking like a woman in a day-spa ad except for the occasional trickles of water meandering from various parts of her body. Over the first week, she spent much of our time together just marveling at Armelle’s betrayal. “I mean, I should have expected it,” said Liz. “I’ve been in this business long enough. But honestly, I thought it would be different with us. I thought that now that we were finally running things, we’d do it right. That’s what we always talked about, Armelle and I, in the early days. We’d banish the cynicism, the knives in the back. The bottom-line mentality. We’d support one another. We’d give each other the space to… self-express.” Liz flicked a hand at the phrase “self-express” and a couple of tiny droplets flew from her fingers and landed on my glasses. I realized that by “us” Liz wasn’t just talking about herself and Armelle. She meant us—our entire side of the human equation. It seemed naïve but at the same time, didn’t we all nurture that hope back when it seemed so impossible? The impossibility of it made it safe for us to dream crazily like that—to be innocent in our imaginings, open-hearted, bursting with moronic faith in one another.
Liz had at some point forgotten to close that door in her heart, it struck me. She’d been closing it throughout her career, every time it blew open, like any smart, professional woman would. But then one day along came Marietta. And Marietta, for no reason in particular that I had been able to discern, was where Liz finally drew the line.
When I finally did ask about Marietta point blank, Liz’s response didn’t offer much illumination. “It just felt like time,” she shrugged, dabbing at her face with the sleeve of her robe. “After all the years I spent doing this job. It just felt like time for me to—” And here she interrupted herself with a sigh. “Stand firm.”
Eventually we abandoned the pretense of strategizing and just drank and lounged like ladies of leisure. For me, those were glorious, peaceful afternoons, not to mention a wonderful way to be unemployed—imbibing good wine in the splendidly appointed home of a wet, well-to-do woman. Liz would stroke Roger’s massive, snoring head, and we’d sip and gripe, gazing out over the lake. When the weather got warmer, Liz told me to bring a bathing suit and we could swim. We both knew there was nothing to be done, not really. The final episodes were in production, and who knew what they entailed, what kind of ignominious end had been devised for Marietta—certainly no one was telling Liz, or me. Ellen would sometimes text me minor updates with the eye-rolling emoji, but I never shared them with Liz. They mostly had to do with Riva and how much she sucked as a leader. Riva had been given the helm, something Ellen would not soon forget. It should have been Ellen, but Ellen’s slow way of talking had made everyone nervous, made her seem (as Mackie had explained apologetically) “too thinky”—eye-roll emoji—which was not “what is needed right now.”
Liz told me her final meeting with Armelle was not like any of their previous meetings. It did not take place at a restaurant, or at a catered soirée, but in Armelle’s actual office—for it turned out Armelle had an office. It was a beautiful office, of course, with an expansive sitting area, fresh flowers on every surface, practically. And there was coffee and dainty, expensive pastries served. But the point is, it was undeniably a meeting. In an office. An affront that Liz had trouble getting over to this day.
Liz had walked in wearing a billowing smock that concealed a thick towel she had tucked around her middle that morning. At a one point in the conversation, the point at which she’d decided she had had enough, Liz reached up under that smock, yanked out the towel like a magician revealing a bouquet, and slapped it, sopping, onto the coffee table, displacing the dainty arrangements of pastries Armelle’s assistant had laid out.
I made her describe that splattering moment to me over and over. I marveled and cackled every time. “Did you have a feeling,” I asked her, “like, this is the end? This is the end, so fuck it, I’m going out with a bang?”
She looked at me, surprised. “Not at all! I just thought: this is my moment! Finally, they’ll hear me! Finally I’ll make my feelings known! And once it’s out in the open—it’ll be great! We can all move forward together!”
This struck me as tragic. I stopped cackling and Liz looked up at me—saw it on my face.
“No, no, no,” she said. “I wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t wrong.”
She leaned forward and held my gaze. Something big was coming now—a big reveal, we would’ve called it back in the writers’ room. Her face was like a gleeful child’s.
“Marietta is still dying,” she told me. “I haven’t stopped. I’ve been working on her this whole time.”
And then Liz laughed, as happy as I’d ever seen her. A large droplet that had formed on her chin shimmered from the laughter and plopped down onto Roger’s closed eyelid. The dog raised his head, snuffling but otherwise was too content in Liz’s lap to budge. After a moment, he noticed a rivulet streaming down his mistress’s forearm and lapped it up with total reverence.