Friday, January 31, 2014


Les ChrysanthèmesPaul Emile Berthon, 1899

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hail Satan! Rites of Integration and the Dangers of Conformity in "Rosemary’s Baby"

An attractive newlywed couple enters a dusty, cavernous apartment, his baby blue suit and her lily white jumper casting light into the dark space. 

Dressed like two kids playing grownups, their fresh-faced, milk-fed, all-American youth and vitality, optimism and enthusiasm suggest new life, new blood, something that has not dwelled in this space for quite some time. It is such a perfect apartment, never mind that it is most certainly outside their means. What an ideal place to start a family; the ultimate realization of the American Dream. Delicate pink cursive script drifts across the screen as a gentle lullaby caresses familiar depictions of domestic bliss in a consumer culture.

At first glance, this cinematic film has all the makings of the typical Hollywood melodrama; the formulaic genre conventions awaiting the spectator like the dramatic climax before the commercial break on their daytime soaps. With such a standard introduction, one would never guess that the film’s final scene would depict a demonic recreation of the Nativity attended by a coven of grotesque octogenarians fervently praising Satan as a knife-wielding young mother gasps in horror at unseen evil lying in a black manger.

Douglas Sirk this was not. This was something different. This was horrifying.

This was Rosemary’s Baby.

The 1968 release of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby forever changed the landscape of American horror films through its effective domestication of terror. While Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is credited with initiating the era of modern horror at the beginning of the decade, Rosemary’s Baby was unique in its ability to disguise horror as melodrama, giving it the unique ability to bring horror into the ultimate safe haven, the home. Through the modern horror film, we recognize “the monster’s world as our own, and the monster as an inherent part of it” (Wells 48). Such techniques are evident in Rosemary’s Baby: unrecognizable terror lurking in the modern world.

Scholarship on Rosemary’s Baby primarily focuses on feminist, psychoanalytical, and horror genre readings of the film text, as well as explorations into the director’s dark, personal stamp on the film text. In my paper, I will examine an area that has yet to be explored: the film’s appropriation of the rites of integration, a genre convention of melodrama, to tell a modern horror story and warn against the dangers of conformity.

This outcry—albeit a hyperbolic and supernaturally embroidered one—serves as an integral reflection of the cultural and societal changes occurring in Sixties America at the time the film was made. Although made in 1968, the story takes place in the mid-1960s, a time in America before “The Sixties” truly began, an America with one foot in Camelot and the other in The Haight. Such a shift is mirrored in Hollywood genre conventions. 

While Rosemary’s Baby was revolutionary for its time, a key element to its originality and effectiveness lies in its use of genre conventions previously associated with melodrama. The film adopts these conventions as a means of lulling its audience into a false sense of security and effectively setting the stage for a brand of horror that is at once otherworldly and quotidian. Drawing upon the audience’s associations with the genre while appropriating its formal elements, Rosemary’s Baby impregnates the horror genre with a new version of terror made all the more real by its familiar appearance as the heightened emotional narratives of melodrama. 

Eschewing conventions of the typical Hollywood horror film, Rosemary’s Baby appropriates the rites of integration commonly associated with the genre of melodrama. In doing so, it locates the true source of horror as the way in which conformity and the desire to assimilate ultimately lead to the degradation of its protagonists. Thus, the film reads as a warning against the dangers of conformity, precisely at a time in American culture when traditional values were in flux.

The primary structuring device of the narrative of Rosemary’s Baby is the use of the rites of integration. This device is most commonly found in the genres of melodrama, screwball comedy, and the musical and concerns the efforts of outsiders to assimilate into an established order or community. Narratives that employ the rites of integration commonly feature a female protagonist (or a couple), who’s attempt to integrate into an ideologically stable community results in an internalization of the conflict and the ultimate embrace of the dominant community, an event that is seen as positive. Thematic elements include community cooperation, the submersion of personal identity for the sake of integration, and the notion of integration as domestication (Shatz 34-35).

Rosemary’s Baby is further aligned with melodrama, as opposed to screwball comedy or the musical, through the characters and plot of the story itself, which concerns a young married couple, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, who move into a new “adult” apartment in New York City and their attempts to start a family. These circumstances lead the couple to attempt both integration into the community of the apartment building and what they perceive as the expectations of prosperous, mature adulthood in the mid-1960s America. The presence of a female protagonist and the narrative focus on her desire for domestication and motherhood, bring Rosemary’s Baby squarely into the realm of melodrama. What is significant both for the film and the genre of horror itself, are the ways in which Polanski perverts the usage of the rights of integration not for melodramatic effect, but for the sake of horrifying his audience. Thus, rather than using integration to ultimately restore social order, Rosemary’s Baby employs this device to create a claustrophobic story set in the everyday world, in which integration becomes the protagonist’s downfall, not salvation. In its appropriation of this structuring device, Rosemary’s Baby both presents and contorts the well established signifiers of melodrama to is own horrific ends.

Polanski is credited for taking the film’s narrative in the direction of misleading the audience into false security by presenting familiar and comfortable genre conventions, before subverting them. In fact, it was this element of melodrama that initially interested Polanski in the project and went on to inform his stylistic execution of the narrative. When approached to direct the film, Polanski confessed that the story’s beginning resembled “a kind of ridiculous Doris Day comedy,” or a soap opera (Ciment 31). 
Upholding this tone until the point of visceral horror was crucial to Polanksi’s slow burn technique. 

“The difference is that in Rosemary’s Baby these characters themselves embody the horror of the situation, and it is precisely because of this that we had to disguise them as ordinary characters” (Delahaye 13). The everyday nature of the characters and settings are exactly what makes the horror both readily identifiable and terrifyingly real. “Everything begins on a very ordinary pedestrian day-to-day level. Their strangeness comes through bit by bit” (Ciment 31). The realization of the effectiveness of pedestrian-clad horror led to the strategy of disguising what ultimately becomes a horrific exploration of the dangers of conformity and the subtle yet steady ways in which it can erode identity and agency as a typical melodrama centered around the emotional conflicts involved in a young couple’s desire to officially enter into adulthood and fulfill the perceived social expectations of success and the nuclear family. 

The casting of Mia Farrow as a revisionist’s final girl was a stealth strategy to imprint melodrama conventions onto a horror text, fresh off the popular success of her role in TV’s Peyton Place, “network television’s first serialized prime time drama” and the “60’s version of the melodrama co-opted by commercial television” (Schatz 224). As Rosemary, she serves as a familiar face and a comfortable genre ambassador that lulls the unsuspecting spectator into biting the melodramatic bait at the beginning of the story, thus blurring genre conventions and escorting the audience into the world of horror. As critics of the time described her parallel embodiment of the melodramatic victim and horror heroine, she is “the main asset of the film; she is sympathetically attractive and so innocent and vulnerable one wants to protect her” (Chappetta 37). Thus, the spectator aligns himself with Rosemary, experiencing her emotions and supporting her efforts to conform, rebel, and ultimately reform the ever-changing world around her. 

Central to the rites of integration is the presence of a couple as the protagonists of the narrative. Films employing the rites of integration also typically follow the arrival and integration of the couple to their new community. Rosemary’s Baby not only appropriates the rites of integration by taking a couple as their protagonists but perverts them by showing them as being too young for their desire to integrate and be “adult.” This sets up a fundamental and uneasy disconnect between appearances and actions that will play out through the course of the film. Here, Guy and Rosemary serve as the two protagonists, newlyweds eager to conform not only to their new communal environment (the apartment building) but also to the standards of proper adulthood in society. Like the childish lullaby sung throughout the opening credits, Rosemary and Guy’s eagerness to “grow up” is reminiscent of another popular childhood rhyme: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes (Rosemary) with a baby carriage.”

Though they are a young couple with hardly a stable income between them, Rosemary and Guy take an apartment that is too expensive for them because it projects a certain level of stability and maturity they feel is necessary for them to integrate successfully into the adult world. From the beginning, they look out of place, like two kids playing grown ups, yet nevertheless giddy with all the joy of mid-decade consumerism. Upon moving into the Bramford, they immediately inject the space with a youthful energy. Whereas the previous tenant’s decorating taste favored that of a gothic apothecary, Rosemary and Guy decorate their new home in fresh and sunny shades of yellow and blue, often in gingham and ruffles—as if playing house— all offset by the baptismally repainted white walls. The renovated apartment ultimately resembles a baby’s nursery, or the inside of an egg waiting to be fertilized, an appropriate setting for the incubation of conformity that awaits them on the other side of the shell.

The rites of integration traditionally center on outsiders, who must struggle to fit in, moving into an ideologically stable community. In melodrama, this is most often represented by a small town community that is set in its ways and has a strong sense of communal identity, shared values, and traditions. Rosemary’s new role as homemaker constricts her world to that of the apartment building. Because this is where she spends nearly all of her time, the community of the apartment building quickly replaces the community at large. The Bramford represents an old, well-established community, with firmly entrenched ideology, traditions and social hierarchy. Again, the horror of Rosemary’s Baby lies in the disparity between appearances and reality.

The Bramford is much different than a normal apartment building, which ultimately has its own rules of conduct as laid down by the management. Its residents, management and staff belong to a coven of witches, which functions as a cooperative in which all members contribute to the continuation of the community. Guy and Rosemary, of course, do not know this. In essence, Rosemary’s Baby has replaced the small town community with that of a New York City apartment building, which in and of itself is a residential community, self contained and separate from the “outside world.” What is most notable is the perversion of the notion of “community” from one that upholds and furthers the values of society at large to one that is incredibly subversive to mainstream cultural values.

Another key perversion of the rites of integration comes in the ways in which Guy and Rosemary separately pursue integration into the Bramford and also the idea of successful and mature “adulthood.” Genres that employ the rites of integration typically highlight personality traits or quirks of the protagonists that serve to hinder their quick and easy assimilation to the community at large, and thus provide the dramatic tension necessary for a compelling narrative. While traditional melodramas place emphasis on the male’s desire for the productive (success at work) and the female’s desire for the reproductive (family), these desires become adulterated in Rosemary’s Baby (Hayward 238).

Indeed, this is evident in their differing backgrounds and personalities. Guy hails from Baltimore and aspires to live the sadomasochistic life of a New York thespian, though to his dismay he is better known for his portrayal of “Mr. Yahama” in trite television commercials advertising dirt bikes. Rosemary is “a country girl at heart,” comes from Omaha, and appears to have no deeper interest in life than achieving the elite status of Suzy Homemaker. Both relative newcomers to the city, wide-eyed yet determined to conform, it is clear that Guy is eager to take a bite out of the Big Apple, whereas Rosemary is more interested in baking a pie out of it.

Initially, this aspect of the rites of integration is played out in its conventional form, with Guy focused on his career as a struggling actor and Rosemary fully absorbed in her best impression of the domestic goddess, reveling in her nesting process as she works diligently to convert their apartment into a true “home,” one worthy of an adult life and comparable to the magazine pictures on which it was modeled. Guy’s preoccupation with a successful career means that Rosemary’s time is spent almost entirely alone within their new apartment, homemaking. She does the interior decorating, doing her best to fashion the apartment to be a pleasant space, one modeled after pictures she has seen in magazines (one of their chairs and the set up of their kitchen is taken from a magazine). Rosemary revels in her nesting process: from rearranging furniture to hanging curtains, to revamping the closet that was once blocked off when they moved in. In each of these cases, Rosemary enthusiastically showcases them to Guy when he comes home from work everyday, thus proving her success in supervising home and hearth while Guy ventures into the outside world as the aspiring breadwinner. 

Rosemary is an active participant in the isolated crafting of her domestic goddess persona. Much of her time is spent alone in the apartment, and very rarely does she venture out into the world. While isolation of the female is a conventional theme of the melodrama genre, it is usually presented as a state of being that is thrust upon the female, one that she must accept and find some way to cope with. Rosemary’s isolation, on the other hand, is self-imposed. Unlike the stereotypical incarnation of the melodrama housewife—apron-clad, bobby pinned and brooding— Rosemary romps around the apartment like a little girl “playing house,” her hair in pigtails and her lanky, coltish frame clad in colorful, baby doll jumpers. Rosemary is eager to adopt this role and approaches it with enthusiasm. She chooses to be a wife and homemaker. Pregnancy and family to Rosemary are the trappings of a proper adult life, a complete life like the pictures in popular women’s magazines. In this way, the typical isolation of the female in melodrama has been altered, or updated, as it is now the choice of the female, and not merely a situation she must deal with. Because her domestication comes out of her own agency, Rosemary stands apart from traditional female protagonists of melodramas whose agency is frustrated or suppressed. 

Due to the disparity of their traditional roles, it is Rosemary who makes the initial attempts at integration into the community of the Bramford. Guy initially resists getting involved with the Castavets, the tacky elderly couple who live next door and function as the leaders of the coven and apartment community. He is hesitant to get involved with an elderly couple because he feels they will “never get rid of them.” Rosemary, however, insists that they accept the Castavets’ invitation to dinner. For her, it is the polite and “adult” thing to do. It is only after he is seduced by Roman Castavet's promises of fame and fortune that Guy takes to the idea of joining their coven. Rosemary wishes to integrate because for her, the social grace of being a good neighbor is part of her dream of being a mature wife and mother.

It is here that Rosemary’s Baby takes an important detour from the normal melodramatic narrative. Whereas normally it is the wife who desires the acceptance of the social community, especially when it is she who must interact with them on a daily basis, here it is the husband who pushes for integration. This becomes evident when Guy, immediately upon arriving home from their initial polite dinner, breaks plans with their friends to spend the following evening chatting with Roman Castavet. Rosemary’s initial desire to fit in with their elderly neighbors was motivated more out of social grace than a personal connection. Indeed, she later feels that they are “pushy” and nosey, often insinuating themselves into the lives and situations of others. 

It is Guy’s desire for fame and success that causes him to officially join the community. They offer him a skyrocketing career in exchange for he and Rosemary’s first born child, who is destined to be the only human son of Satan. Again, it is the disparity between appearance and reality that produce the horror that is so effectively realized in Rosemary’s Baby. The horror of Rosemary’s Baby “stems from the invasion and violation, real or imaginary, of private space and the imposition from outside of an alien idea of a character’s identity that, in one way or another, comes to dominate their actions and perceptions” (Le Cain 122). What began as a polite dinner will ultimately lead to the destruction of Rosemary’s domestic dreams.

As the story progresses, the disparity between the desires of Rosemary and Guy widen, providing the bulk of the film’s narrative development. Guy soon becomes increasingly busy with the promised acting work, while Rosemary now pregnant with the Devil’s baby, spends nearly all of her time in the apartment, under the ever-encroaching supervision of the Castavets and the other elderly Bramford coven members. It is important to note here an accompanying trend that parallels the integration of both Guy and Rosemary. The more closely that Guy begins to identify with the community of the coven, the more elderly he begins to appear. Likewise, the increasing discomfort at the level of involvement of the coven members on Rosemary’s life causes her to act out in youthful protest.  One day, after a venture into the outside world, Rosemary returns with her hair chopped into a modern, pixie coiffure.

“It’s Vidal Sassoon,” she gushes, much to Guy’s objection. “It’s very in.”

This aesthetic rebellion allows Rosemary to also assert control over her body’s appearance in the face of a ravaging, satanic pregnancy (orchestrated by the coven unbeknownst to her) while also aligning her with her own generation and culture. Through similar acts, she attempts to alter her incubated torture by ridding herself of negatives and embracing positives from the outside world. She refrains from drinking Minnie’s suspicious prenatal health vitamin smoothies, and pours them down the drain. She trades the foul smelling “good luck” amulet given to her by the coven for Detchema, a popular, powdery, floral perfume associated with the innocence and ladylikeness of the ‘50s and ‘60s. She invites her paternal, educated friend Hutch over for tea, causing a stir among the Bramford dwellers, and actually has the audacity to make a lunch date with him downtown the following day.

In a grander act of rebellion, Rosemary’s begins bringing the outside world inside in greater volume. After spending New Year’s Eve in the cadaverous company of the Castavets and other Bramford residents, she organizes a party to which only their old, (i.e. “younger”) friends are invited. She stipulates that none of their neighbors or elderly friends is welcome. “It’s a very special party,” she adds bitterly. “You have to be under sixty to get in.” The party serves as the first and last time that the spectator gains insight into Rosemary and Guy’s former lives as members of the hip New York arts scene, before their conformity to life in the Bramford. The party scene is heady with psychedelic music, as good friends and colorful well wishers flood the normally vacant space. Rosemary, although weak and frail, at last resembles a member of her generation and age group. No longer disguised as a child bride or little girl playing dress up, her bohemian frock and genuine smile project the image of a healthy young mother, as if she is rejuvenated by contact with the youthful energy of her friends from the outside world. Guy, by contrast, appears out of place. For an aspiring New York actor, he acts stiff and awkward, dressed in a stuffy turtleneck and blazer, nervously eyeing the crowd like a square chaperone.

Rosemary’s rebellion reaches new heights, however, when she turns to her girlfriends for help rather than Guy or the coven. She sees her girlfriends as a kindred support group to whom she can reveal inner pain and sorrow. By its nature, this moment also serves as the most melodramatic scene in the film. When she reveals that the pain has lasted for months, her friends are appalled. Guy attempts to enter the room, but her friend quickly locks him out, claiming this meeting is “for girl’s only.” It is the sole moment in the film where Rosemary receives honest concern and support infused with a modern voice. They discuss health care, abortion rights, and encourage Rosemary to assert herself in her personal well-being. All the while, Guy lingers outside the door. The kitchen serves an ironic location for this rebellion, having traditionally served in melodramas as the chauvinistically-desired location reserved for all women. To Guy and the coven, however, Rosemary behaves like a disgruntled child, one who has turned to her friends for support instead of her paternal figures and the established elders in the community.

As is consistent with the rites of integration, this conflict between the husband and wife’s feelings about the process of integration is driven inward, quite literally in this instance. Soon after becoming pregnant and following a strict regimen of health shakes prescribed by the coven- affiliated Dr. Sapirstein and administered by the coven’s queen, Minnie Castavet, Rosemary begins experiencing a sharp pain in her abdomen. Here the typical excess of feelings exhibited in melodrama due to the internalization of the conflict are literally represented in the excess of horror, the demon seed growing within the body of Rosemary. The typical effect of this internalization of conflict which is singular to the rites of integration here serves its traditional function of pushing the film towards its ultimate resolution, that of acceptance and full integration into the community. In keeping with Rosemary’s Baby’s perversion of these structuring devices, it does not follow a normal or expected path.

After finally bridging the divide between appearances and reality, and armed with the realization that she is being manipulated by the coven for their sadistic ends, Rosemary attempts a complete break with the community. She gathers her things and flees the Bramford, in a last ditch effort to escape the coven’s control and deliver her baby in the safety of the outside world, with a non-coven doctor. It is too late for Rosemary, however. The coven’s control is too powerful for her to overcome. They learn about her attempt to leave the group and forcibly bring her back to the Bramford. Here they assume complete control, drugging her and inducing the delivery of their long awaited Adrian, the human son of the devil. The birth of Adrian completely aligns Guy with the coven and further erodes his allegiance to his wife. He goes so far as to cover up the actions of the coven, telling Rosemary that the baby was lost and that they can always have more in the future.

Rosemary, no longer clouded by her dreams of domestic bliss, the pursuit of which have gone horribly wrong, is now concerned only with finding out the truth and freeing herself from the control of the coven. After hearing a baby crying through her wall shared with the Castavets’ apartment, Rosemary arms herself with a kitchen knife in a final attempt to learn the truth. Since she has already bridged the gap between appearance and reality, a façade that the coven still attempts to uphold, Rosemary is no longer concerned with social graces or the melodramatic navigation of the social hierarchy of the Bramford’s sadistic community. She emerges into the Castavets’ apartment in the midst of the anti-Nativity scene that will bring the film to its climax and complete Rosemary and Guy’s integration and acceptance into the community.

Narratives that utilize the rites of integration are concerned with the disruption and restoration of order. The arrival of the protagonists into the new community is seen as a disruption of the previously established order, and the only way for this to be resolved is the ultimate integration of the couple into the community. This act involves the surrender of the outsider’s own identities and values to that of the group. Although Guy has already experienced this surrender, Rosemary has resisted, and thus the order has yet to be restored. The irony upon which Rosemary’s Baby builds its horror is the fact that here the order that must be restored and maintained is that of a sadistic cult. Unlike Guy, Rosemary’s final integration into the community is realized not through surrender, but through compromise. Upon uncovering the horrific result of coven’s plot, the Antichrist to which she gave birth, Rosemary is left without recourse. Her dreams of becoming an adult and starting her own picture perfect nuclear family have been destroyed.

Nevertheless, the appeal of motherhood and that inherent link between mother and child prove too strong for Rosemary to resist. Roman Castavet proposes the compromise that allows Rosemary to be a mother without having to officially join the coven.

“Be a mother to your baby, Rosemary,” he gently rumbles. “You don’t have to join if you don’t want to. Just be a mother to him.”

Rosemary relents, thus restoring order to the community of the coven. The desire for motherhood that initially drove Rosemary to live in the Bramford has now been realized, though not at all in the way that Rosemary, or the audience, could have ever anticipated.

The terrifying tone of Rosemary’s Baby that is fully realized in this final scene stands as a strong warning against the dangers of conformity. It is precisely in the twisting of the rites of integration that this danger is brought to grotesque life. Rosemary and Guy are forever tainted and destroyed as a result of their involvement with the sadistic community of the Bramford. For Rosemary, her efforts to conform lead to the loss of agency and empowering freedom of thought in the community.

Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the film is the fact that this loss of control over her own life comes as complete surprise and not out of her own desires or intentions. Indeed, it is her skepticism that keeps her from becoming a full member of the destructive and spiritually vampiric coven. The instances in which Rosemary is armed with independent or “outside” thought are her greatest moments of agency and control of her own life. In fact, it is only the information about the coven provided to her by her close friend Hutch that allows her to see the reality of her situation and avoid complete submission to the cult. 

The control exercised by the coven is nothing but harmful to Rosemary. This is most clearly evidenced physically by the pain she feels throughout the first half of her pregnancy. The pain is most acute when Rosemary is out of touch with the outside world and confined solely to the apartment building, under the care of the coven. Indeed, one could centralize her pain and oppression within the apartment itself, “...the horror of Rosemary’s apartment is that it denies her problems and forces her to internalize her sense of disturbance. To the last it is a conspicuously bright, clean space, the blandly cheerful vision of a glossy magazine distressingly unmarked by the obscene happenings it is witness to...the constrictive façade of normalcy behind which possibly as great a cataclysm as the end of the world is coming into being...ultimately becomes...a distortion of reality” (Le Cain 122).

The idea of the empowerment of the outside world and information is clearly articulated when Rosemary’s obstetrician (and secret coven member), Dr. Sapirstein, seeks to exert full control over her and her pregnancy. He warns Rosemary not to read books or speak to her friends. The coven can only exert full control over Rosemary when she is kept away from the outside world. This is clearly an appeal on the part of the film for the importance of independent thought and trusting one’s instincts. It is only when Rosemary acts on her instincts, armed with knowledge, that she is free from control.

Likewise, Guy morphs into the personification of what happens when one completely surrenders their agency and identity to group mentality. The most obvious representation of this in the fact that he volunteers his wife to serve as the womb for the Antichrist, justifying this sacrifice with the promise that it’s “only the first one they want.” This is a surrender of identity, as a child carries on their father’s name and, by implication, their identity. The impact of Guy’s integration can be seen in many other aspects of his life. Most important among these is the erosion of his identity, particularly as a member of his youthful generation and social network. Guy’s pact with the coven and his subsequent efforts to fulfill his role within the satanic community completely overtake his life and prior identity before moving into the Bramford. This is clearly evidenced in Guy’s discomfort during the aforementioned party scene. Guy no longer identifies himself with his age group, leading to a comment offered in cocktail gossip imbued with double entendre when asking about Donald Baumgart, the actor that Guy replaced after he went blind in a coven orchestrated effort to further his acting career. The question,

“Hey, whatever happened to the other guy” is easily misread as a more direct question, “Hey, whatever happened to the other Guy?”

Guy’s conformity to the coven also changes the way he acts towards Rosemary as her husband, a social role that shapes his identity. During their first night as tenants in their new and unfurnished apartment, Guy and Rosemary spontaneously make love on the floor. There is a spirit of youthful abandon to their lovemaking that clearly identifies them as carefree kids, yet it is infused with a sad poignancy, as if it is a farewell performance, a last hurrah before they leave the youthful incarnations of themselves behind. Later in the film, on the night of Adrian’s conception, Guy and Rosemary participate in a series of highly orchestrated and clichéd acts of ceremonial romance: cocktails by the fire, the donning of formal attire, and a candlelit dinner set to sultry jazz on the turntable. “Baby Night,” despite its earnest programming, plays out more like a mid-century whisky ad.

There is an inherently depressing quality to the couple’s reliance on cultural clichés and the abandonment of their youthful abandon. For Rosemary, this event is part of her fantasy of how “mature” adults act. For Guy, this is a natural step in his progression into old age, as brought on by his alliance with the geriatric coven. There is a parasitic nature to the dynamic between the young couple and the coven. Indeed, there could be said to exist a “mutual vampirism” between Guy and the other tenants of the Bramford (Orr 5-6). He needs them to further his career, and they need his influence over Rosemary to deliver the mortal incarnation of Satan, thus ensuring the continuity of the community and its beliefs.

The warnings that Rosemary's Baby gives to the viewer came at a particularly appropriate time in America’s history. The film, released in 1968, is conspicuously set in the mid-1960s (the birth, conveniently, takes place in June, 1966 or 6/66). The arrival of the Antichrist occurs during the time period in which the optimism and progressive ideals still lingering from the Kennedy presidency had not yet morphed into social upheaval and civil chaos of “the Sixties.” It was a time period in which the values of the “Establishment” were coming under fire, as is evidenced in the Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation, and Anti-War movements, to name a few. Moreover, the warnings against conformity in the film apply equally to both dominant American culture and the subversive elements that operate beneath its surface. 

The coven represents a radical group that works against the cultural norm, a parasite that executes Rosemary and Guy’s degradation. Their initial impulse to attempt assimilation to traditional American culture leads them on a path to misery. What is clearly advocated by the film is the importance of free and independent thought, no matter how strange it may seem. Rosemary is only able to free herself of the coven when she independently comes to the realization of the truth, even though it is deemed “crazy” by normal society. Thus, it is the relinquishing of this freedom of thought, either to a traditional set of values or their antithesis (which, in truth, is just as dogmatic) that proves harmful.

It is in the conclusion of Rosemary’s Baby that one is able to read a hopeful message, one of the conquering of conformity by independent thinking. “Rosemary reclaims and accepts her monstrous child, rather than leaving it to the mercy of Satanists. Knowing her selflessness and gentle nature, one believes that she will be able to overcome her son’s devilish paternity, bringing him up to be a decent man” (Mazierska 122).

Thus, armed with independent thought, Rosemary stands the chance of undoing the harmful conformist dogma of the coven and raising Adrian to be an independent voice, instead of a tool of the community. In its appropriation of the rites of integration central to the genre of melodrama, Rosemary’s Baby presents a horrifying vision of the dangers of conformity and the absence of the independent thinking. It is a horror film begot by melodrama that— despite its sinister and terrifying nature—“has its father’s eyes.”
                                                                  Works Cited 

Chappetta, Robert. “Rosemary’s Baby.” Film Quarterly, 22.3 (1969) 35-38.

Ciment, Michel, Michel Perez, and Roger Tailleur. ”Interview with Roman Polanski.” 
Positif. (1969). Rpt. in Roman Polanski: Interviews. Ed. Paul Cronin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. 31-46. 

Delahave, Michel, and Jean Narboni. “Interview with Roman Polanski.” Cahiers du Cinema
(1969). Rpt. in Roman Polanski: Interviews. Ed. Paul Cronin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. 13-30. 

Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2006. 

Le Cain, Maximillian. “Into the Mouth of Madness: The Tenant.” The Cinema of Roman 
Polanski: Dark Spaces of the World. Edited by: John Orr and Elzbieta Ostrowska. London: Wallflower Press, 2006. 121-132. 

Mazierska, Ewa. Roman Polanski: The Cinema of a Cultural Traveller. London: I.B. Tauris 
& Co., 2007. 122. 

Orr, John. “Polanski: The Art of Perceiving.” The Cinema of Roman Polanski: Dark Spaces 
of the World. Edited by: John Orr and Elzbieta Ostrowska. London: Wallflower Press, 2006. 4-21. 

Rosemary’s Baby. Dir. Roman Polanski. Perf. Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, 
and Sidney Backmer. Paramount, 1968. 

Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System
Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1981. 

Wells, Paul. The Horror Genre: From Beezlebub to Blair Witch. London: 
Wallflower, 2000.

The Real Reason

I knew they were talking shit about me the second I stepped onto the upstairs landing. 

I could smell it wafting down the hall in the form of Kate’s booming, nasally voice. The gray, wine-freckled carpet snagged on the heels of my black party shoes, as if trying to keep me away.

“Yeah, and did you see her face when I mentioned going to the premiere with Colin?” she scoffed. “She looked totes pissed!”

“Whatevz,” Erin replied in her signature blasé tone. “It's 2004, right? She so needs to get over it.”

Their fizzy, intoxicated banter came to an abrupt halt as I rounded the corner. In this moment, it was as if time stopped, and suddenly our entire history flashed before my eyes. That, and the dismal regret that I had actually come back, willingly, to Cascade Apartments.

Cascade Apartments was like a glorified youth hostel built out of flesh-colored stucco with a bad case of acne. The ledges of the building were covered in a fine layer of black smog soot. “L.A. snow,” the landlord joked. Inside, it was like a roving settlement of kids trying to play grown up. Three bedroom apartments housing modern day squatters armed with credit cards, each furnished with a potpourri of ratty Craigslist purchases and any and everything that screamed IKEA. So many inhabitants shopped at IKEA to the point where some friends had matching living rooms. Scandinavian-built conformity sold in a gigantic yellow and navy blue box. Thank god it was just over the bridge in Burbank.

To make matters worse, Cascade Apartments was located in NoHo, which made it a Russian nesting doll of Fake. The very name, NoHo, short for North Hollywood, initially conjures the artsy quirkiness associated with New York City’s SoHo. This meandering area of town is separated from Hollywood proper by the 101 freeway and spills down into the dreaded Valley-Valley. But because of its connotations to the real Hollywood, it conveyed this false sense of “being there.” When people dream of going out to L.A. and making it, this is probably not what they have in mind, but this is where most of them end up. Or places like this, anyway.

Cascade Apartments sat like a four story eye sore sat at the end of a dimly lit side street off the main drag of NoHo. Everything was itchy and poorly maintained, and from the ruckuses of neighbors at all hours of the night, it clearly operated like a glorified dorm. You had to be let in by someone you knew there, then led through a labyrinth of hallways all covered in psychedelic carpet, as if it was the drug to disillusion you before you entered your disappointing apartment, which really felt more like the dorm rooms in movies and on television that are always too spacious to be realistic. Their apartments, sadly, were not made to accommodate an invisible camera crew, but rather the extreme amounts of hash pipe dreams that the collective tenants generated on a daily basis. 

Watching the sunlight pass across the vertical blinds, another day without productivity. Another day as a victim of the “Hollywood machine,” and yet they never even left their apartment. They spoke of Hollywood as if they weren’t already there, as if they were still back East, daydreaming about their future as a famous face in Tinsel Town. I was glad I did not live there. 

Kate, Erin, and Colin did not fit this description of typical Cascade Apartment residents in this sense, for they went out constantly. Only the world they entered was not the everyday struggle to survive in the entertainment business, but rather a fantasy world of their own creation, one based in reality but not within their realistic means. They were a trio of writer/actors, the flakiest of all showbiz hyphenates, and were less interested in exercising their thespian muscles or risking carpel-tunnel than they were in “playing Hollywood.” 

 As a mutual friend of the trio, I would innocently inquire as to when they found time to actually work. They explained that that was the whole point of their open schedule. It left room for call backs, they explained, and if you didn’t get one, well,

“Everything happens for a reason, right?”

This, I discovered, was the mantra of the new young Hollywood. They had no real plans, sources of income per se, just the occasional audition and the much appreciated check from Daddy. Theirs was an imaginary, fabulosity affectation that they had come West already having embraced, yet not rightfully earned. Their lives were an endless string of brunches in WeHo, shopping at Fred Segal, lunches at the Ivy, and standing in line all night at the velvet roped clubs on the Sunset Strip. This was why they were there. What did it matter if they shared a shoebox bedroom in an asbestos-filled pseudo dorm lurking on the edge of anything real or relevant? Who had to know? 

It took a certain type of person to live in that environment. I wouldn’t have stood it for a week. What’s more is I couldn’t believe that Colin could. We had become friends when we were 17 while we were both attending the North Carolina School of the Arts Summer Session, where we studied filmmaking and the performing arts. We had hit it off right away, and had maintained a close friendship ever since, visiting once or twice a year and talking on the phone often. His chubby exterior, and ability to handle both comedy and drama, led him to Hollywood to become the next Phillip Seymour Hoffman (“but gay”), or at least that’s what he liked to tell people. He could be shockingly abrasive but also warm and cuddly.

Kate, by contrast, was a walking artificial sweetener. She was so aggressively friendly from the get-go that she nearly gave you a tooth ache yet she always left behind a strange, unsettling after taste. Physically, she was an Amazonian but without the sex appeal. While toned, she gave off a vibe more of like a professional lady rugby player rather than a girly, boarding school brat. She was like a gentle giant that wasn’t so gentle, the kind depicted in Warner Brothers cartoons who love on their pets so aggressively that they kill them.

Erin, by contrast, was scrappy and reptilian. She was short, blonde, rail thin and wiry, with a quick wit and a sharp tongue, only she lacked the charm such gifts could have aided in her success as an actress. Her roots as a Southern military brat had given her the gift for gab, but somehow the necessary sweetness needed to tolerate her sass had evaded her.

Together, Kate and Erin worked like a cumbersome, nouveau riche bathroom faucet: sterling silver but with plastic handles; one running hot, the other cold. Kate would be so insistently warm that you wouldn’t realize until you were completely scalded that you’d been burned; Erin, on the other hand, ran so cold that she numbed you into not realizing how frigid the situation had become. The combination of these girls did not make for lukewarm friendship, but rather generated a feeling of trying to get the temperature right, bouncing from one to another, trying to avoid the other’s uncomfortable effect.

It was “love at first snark,” as they liked to say, the day they met in their dorm suite winter semester of sophomore year. Kate came from money. Erin did not. Kate had a big mouth but no backbone. Erin had the backbone and the mouth of a stegosaurus, but lacked the gentility and funding that so often smoothes over such social inadequacies in polite society. It was clear they needed each other. Unfortunately, for everyone else, their combination was a toxic one, and the hybrid they generated was like a flaky, warped, pop culture stitched Bride of Frankenstein. They brought out the worst out in each other. Erin made Kate feel popular and naughty, while Erin found the perfect victim to latch onto and play alpha female over, all to the sound of pulsating gangsta rap, bubblegum pop music, and nasally gossip.

When talking about them with other people, one always spoke of them as a duo. It was always “Kate and Erin this, Kate and Erin that.” One on one, they were tolerable, but together they were a nightmare. They operated on this codependent immature level that was cute for only so long. They were the reigning queens of Cascade Apartments, and liked to play games.

I knew Colin the best, and I put up with Kate and Erin’s presence in order to spend time with my old friend. Yet every time it felt like a mistake. 

* * * * * * * * * * *

I stood on the landing, pondering my next move. This wasn’t the first time I had been placed in this sort of scenario in Cascade Apartments. Uncomfortable situations occurred there more often than traffic was backed up on the 405 freeway. At this moment, traffic congestion seemed more appealing than dealing with middle school girl bullshit at the age of 25. Thankfully, I’d been raised by a mother who had taught me to stick up for myself and to recognize wolves in sheep-skin Uggs.

Just a few weeks earlier, on an unseasonably drippy night, I had begrudgingly accepted an invitation to hang out at their apartment. I hadn’t seen Colin in weeks, and even though I didn’t like Kate and Erin, I knew that they had become friends and I optimistically hoped that they would be more genuine on their own turf and not the phony, wannabe celebutantes I had met over expensive cocktails in the past. An embarrassing eagerness for already established history and friendship, a bond. They wanted that, but their living spaces reflected the opposite mentality, as if that was impermanent. The rate at which they were insinuating themselves into being better friends with Colin than I was came off as more than obvious. His other older friends expressed a mutual distaste for Kate and Erin’s aggressive pursuit of Colin. Somehow they had latched onto his indie-hipster-pseudo-Hollywood-insider projections. Now, wherever you found Colin, you found those girls. Kate was worse than Erin. The fact that she referred to him as her “soul mate” seemed excessive, and we were certain it was just a phase, that it would get old, and that he would eventually tire of her sycophantic pursuits. What I didn’t realize was that Colin, always an addictive personality, had found a new habit that he could not kick.

That night when I arrived at Cascade Apartments, I was immediately escorted to the soggy balcony on the second floor of their apartment, where everyone squeezed together on ratty brown couches covered with floral sheets and thermal blankets. The sliding glass door remained ajar as people passed back and forth, ashing their Marlboro Reds into a sticky coffee cup and spilling their drinks onto the smeared glass top table. Everyone talked over one another, doing impressions, putting on voices, giving big smooch kisses to each other, singing at the top of their lungs to the Top 40 music piping in from the boom box that teetered at the edge of Erin’s clothes-strewn bed. It was a nest of egos. The second Colin stole the limelight, Erin would aggressively try to reclaim it, and Kate just laughed and robotically told everyone how fabulous and amazing they were.

I tried to contribute, and kept my spirits up relishing the fact that I had most of Colin's attention. I tried to speak their language, get into character, as it were, but I knew that this manic threesome had its own rules, and everyone but Colin acted like I should be lucky to be there. Colin ignored their cattiness. He went on and on about how awesome I was, how close we were, revealed how he’d had a crush on me before he had come out, and how he was so glad we were friends. Then he’d follow it with a big smooch on the cheek, a squeeze, and then asked for someone to get him a beer. At one point, the topic of conversation became about sexuality, and we teased Colin about this close relationship with his friend Andy. Both men were gay and out, we joked at how they should get together, because they already fought like a couple. Not to be outdone, Kate revealed her flair for making out with girlfriends to impress boys.

“I mean, I’m not gay or anything,” she insisted, “But I know what gets guys off.” 

 Suddenly, in front of everyone, Kate leaned over me, placing her hands beside the sides of my face, her arm separating Colin and me like a goose pimpled barrier. I took notice that her hot purple tank top was slightly gaping. 

In an obnoxious, naughty voice, she asked,

“Duncan, are you a lesbian?”

I clearly saw this for what it was. Kate was trying to play alpha female over me because Erin had left the room. Looking her straight in the eye and not missing a beat, I grabbed her right breast, gave it a hearty squeeze, and said very matter of factly,

“Why, whatever do you mean?”

This retaliation against her bitchiness caught Kate off guard and she recoiled, embarrassed to face Colin’s fits of laughter. I sat back, proud that I had not let this immature game play itself out. From that moment on, the only thing Kate kissed was my ass.

While I left that social experience triumphant, it did discourage me from going back to Cascade Apartments voluntarily. And yet there I was, this time waiting for the demonic duo to get ready for a party, thanks to Colin having invited them along during my drive over.
* * * * * * * * * * * 

“Y’all ready to go?” I asked, doing my best oblivious impression. “Paul said to show up earlier than later because of the parking sitch at his house.”

I held my composure as their inebriation caused them to not so subtly pinch each other behind the back and try not to laugh. They thought I hadn’t heard them.

“Where’s Colin?” I continued.

Kate took a swig from her "boarding school forty," a two liter bottle of Diet 7Up mixed with cheap vodka.

“He’s in the downstairs bathroom,” she replied. “Let’s go bang on the door and piss his fat ass off!”

I followed Kate downstairs and decided not to partake in her drunken lavatory harassment. By the time Colin started banging back and laughing, I noticed that Erin was still upstairs. 

Without thinking, I turned on my heel and went back upstairs to their bedroom.

Their bedroom was like a shoe box reserved for letters you wrote in middle school, decorated with pink and purple glitter pens and stickers and promises to be "BFF 4 EVER" but which also contained a heinous bitchiness that only cliquish, middle school girls can generate. It did not look like an adult’s room at all: two twin beds covered in colorful trendy clothing, water-stained US Weekly and People magazines, crunched plastic Forever 21 bags, stale cardboard cups from Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, empty bottles of pills, sticky wine glasses with cocktail straws still stuck to the rim. On the walls hung posters of movies they wished they’d starred in (Amelie, Lost in Translation, Mean Girls), while collages of college friends adorned their headboards, everyone posing with their cheeks touching, trying to offer up their best impression of “sisterhood.” It was as if they stayed eternally thirteen years old in this room. I entered the bedroom and saw Erin standing at her desk, her back to me, mindlessly humming a Kelly Clarkson song. I itched to leave but held my ground. 

“Hey Erin,” I said.

“Yeah, what up?” she flippantly replied, rummaging through her messy desk.

I approached her calmly. 

”I just want you to know that I heard you and Kate talking about me when we walked in,” I said. 

Erin turned around, her stringy hair falling front of her smudged, blood shot eyes. She looked at me with an almost amusingly defiant flippancy.

“Look," I added. "I don’t want there to be any issues between us. You know, we have mutual friends, and I’d like very much to have everything out in the open. You mentioned something about Colin, and I want to make it clear that I don’t fight over guys, much less gay guys, and I seriously have no issues with you or Kate. I’d like us to be friends.”

My mature confrontation had clearly caught Erin off-guard. She stood there, mouth agape, unable to escape. She then busied herself packing her shoulder bag and avoiding eye contact with me.

“I don’t know dude,” she sighed, “It’s just that you always act like you have some beef with me.”

“Beef?” I asked.

“Yeah, beef," she replied, her cinnamon gum smacking in agreement. “Issues. A problem. With me.”

I rolled my eyes. 

“Erin,” I said, “I haven’t known you long enough to develop any particular feelings towards you, other than that I know you’re hard to get to know, and we honestly don’t know each other well enough yet to be friends or enemies. But I’d like to try.”

“Cool, so would I,” she replied, almost sincerely.

I made sure my tone was authoritative but honest.

“Seriously, Erin,” I said. “If I’ve reacted towards you in any negative way in the past, it was probably in response to some way you were acting towards me.”

“That’s probably true,” she concurred.

She turned towards me, and for an instant I saw the real Erin. Her slit, reptilian eyes, I now discovered, were actually a deep baby blue, and in the right light, she could almost pass for human.

“Cool, okay,” she continued. “Then why don’t we just start over, here and now. Clean slate.”

“Sounds good to me,” I replied.

We shook on it in somewhat awkwardly and descended the stairs to the ground floor where Kate and Colin were waiting for us. As we filed out of the apartment, Erin pulled Kate back inside and closed the door. Behind it, I could hear their muffled giggles and whispers. Erin was filling Kate in on the recent impromptu peace talks that had occurred upstairs.

I had agreed to drive separately, and Colin wanted to ride with me. Fine by me, I could tell him all about my talk with Erin, while she and Kate got all of their pent up Duncan gossip out of their system. It would probably take at least twenty minutes to find Paul’s house, located deep within the Valley. When I filled Colin in, he sighed in exasperation, as if I were delivering a custom-made buzz kill.

“I just don’t want any drama,” he insisted.

“Neither do I,” I replied. “Which is why I decided to nip it in the bud and be the adult in the situation.”

A silence passed between us as the neon skyline of NoHo spilled over the windshield like an imitation Pollock. That was the thing about NoHo, it was always imitating, pretending, just like everyone that lived there.

“Kate’s sweet,” Colin added, “But Erin can be a bit much.”

He absent-mindedly wrote his name on the misty passenger side window.

“Besides,” he added, “I only put up with her to be around Kate.”

“Honestly, I prefer Erin,” I confessed. “At least she’s real.”

“Yeah,” he snorted, “Real effing crazy, you mean.”

“That may be true,” I said. “But somehow I knew she’d be real with me, if pressed.”

Colin rested his vodka-soaked, tobogganed head on my shoulder.

“I just want us all to be friends,” he languidly whined as he drew a heart around his own name. Our cars followed one another deeper into the labyrinth of cookie cutter Valley subdivisions.

And that was the last we spoke of it.

I took this as a good sign. 

* * * * * * * * * * *

About a month later, I received an email from Colin. In his email, he declared that his New Year’s resolution was to not to surround himself with negative influences… 

…like me.

I realized then that Colin did not like me in his current life, that he preferred me to be a pleasant ghost from his past, one whose genuineness and sincerity he could reflect upon in a frame by his bed. But as for seeing me regularly, or for mixing with what he clearly considered to be his new lifestyle, I was uninvited. 

He ended his message by reducing our friendship to "pen-pal status," referring to me as "just some friend from camp."

I deleted the email, stood up, and stepped away from the computer. I walked across the creaky wooden slats beneath my Melrose Flea Market rug, and stopped by the window of my apartment. My home, situated on the sixth floor of a 1920’s art deco-inspired building, was one that did not exist in any official Los Angeles neighborhood or lifestyle. It was one that I had worked hard to obtain, and had most certainly earned. 

I gazed out the window and without batting an eye, gave the cliched, celebutante peace sign in the direction of NoHo, which lurked just over the distant hills. Somewhere down there, my former friend of eight years was probably basking his own version of hobo chic self righteous personal destruction, flanked by two young, misguided women drunk on pop culture stereotypes. Hopefully someday, they would wise up to his performance. I kept my peace sign sharp, then slowly lowered my pointer finger, let the middle finger remain, and pointed it firmly toward the dimming valley.

Oh well, I thought. Everything happens for a reason, right?

Behind the Silver Tray: A Catering Grunt’s Thoughts and Observations

Jayla’s birthday party was announced as a low key family affair, provided that definition of family included 20 to 30 of her parents’ closest friends, business associates, and neighbors. 

The party would take place on a sunny Saturday afternoon at 1pm sharp on the front lawn of her family’s recently completed Spanish-style luxury home in the hillside cul-de-sac of Puerca Ridge, Malibu, just ten minutes up the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica. It was to be a fully catered pool party, one offering a “gourmet picnic”-themed menu, complete with multiple stations peppered around the grounds. A certified life guard from Zuma Beach would be there, red suit and all, along with a balloon virtuoso from Universal CityWalk, whose talent for crafting non-violent animals and non-phallic swords was reputedly second to none. If that wasn’t impressive enough, any and all necessary nannies, niñas, and au pairs were also welcome. The DJ, who would spin sugary pop music from the balcony of the third floor playroom, promised to give the party a real oomph. It was to be an unforgettable birthday, a fête fit for a princess.

But Jayla would not remember her birthday party, nor would she remember the menu, the presents, or even the politically correct balloon animals. For Jayla was only two years old, and the party was not for her.

It was for Mommy.

* * * * * * * * * * *

“So get this,” Chef JoAnna began. 

It was early Saturday morning, and we were standing outside her flesh-colored stucco duplex in Santa Monica, both already sweating through our black pants and white shirts as we loaded her gray Honda Element—with the green “Chef JoAnna Catering” logo emblazoned on the side—with crates of various catering supplies. JoAnna’s personal system of meticulously organized stacks of utensils, bowls, spices, food stuffs, and aprons balanced in the back of her truck in Jenga-like anticipation. I loved working with her, and my six months of part time service had evolved into a comfortable and informal rapport.

“Our client for the day is some sort of porn star,” she concluded.

“Come again?” I asked, nearly dropping a stack of chaffing dishes.

“That’s what I gather,” she explained. “I met with her earlier this week. We were going over the menu and somehow it came up. We were talking about working mothers and whatnot. Anyway, she definitely looks the part. Hot with two T’s.”

JoAnna slammed the back door to the truck and brushed a loose strand of curly black hair from her eyes.

“I gather she only does the mild stuff, though,” she added.

“You mean like Skinemax?” I asked, using the popular slang for the erotic, late night programming on the cable channel Cinemax.

“Exactly,” she confirmed. “She’s pretty open about it. Guess she doesn’t see it as anything to be ashamed of.”

“That’s admirable,” I mused, yet almost instantly, visions of the pool party scene from the film Boogie Nights disco danced through my head, the image of a rainbow-hued, half naked, drug-fueled aqua-fantasy set to the sounds of Eric Burdon and War’s “Spill the Wine.” What was I getting myself into?

“I thought you said this was a kid’s party.” I reminded her.

“Oh, it is. It’s for her kid,” she noted. “A bunch of other kids should be there, too, and parents, so it should be a pretty tame event.”

I groaned slightly at the idea of upholding order and professionalism amidst a pack of privileged, screaming toddlers.

“I almost wish it would be scandalous, though,” she added mischievously.

“Is she married?” I blurted out, my east coast southern background somehow providing whatever judgment that I thought the situation required.

“Oh yeah,” she confirmed. “I almost forgot. He was there, too. Kind of a scary dude. Didn’t say much, but the way he looked at you….he’s the type of guy that, as we used to say back in Chicago, seemed ‘made.’ Like, it’s definitely his house, if you know what I mean.”

“Sounds like a charmer,” I scoffed.

“Yeah, I almost felt nervous asking them to leave room in the fridge for my extra supplies. But Athena, she’s a pussycat.”

JoAnna made a campy growling sound and pretended to claw at me seductively with an oversized oven mitt.

“Well this is certainly one way to spend a Saturday,” I observed.

JoAnna and I hopped into the front of her truck, cranked the AC, and sipped our venti lattes from Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.

Despite my feigned shock and apprehension, a gig was a gig. I’d certainly worked stranger events. There was the funeral wake in West Covina, where the casket sat a mere ten feet from the buffet. There was the renewal of vows ceremony at a Reseda mansion decorated with coke mirrors and attended by the best and the worst of daytime television’s C-list thespians. Then, of course, there was the health food demonstration at the L.A. Civic Center’s annual culinary convention, where I donned an electronic ear and mouth piece like a cheesy infomercial hostess and passed out vegan cocktail weenies to the masses. Compared to those gigs, catering a porn star hosted episode of “Romper Room” seemed to come with the territory. If I had learned anything from my days of catering in La La Land, it was that the voyeuristic anonymity of a catering staff position was almost always an entertaining experience.

“That’s what I love about you, D,” JoAnna gushed. “You’re always such a good sport.”

She rustled my hair a little too roughly, as if I were the little sister she’d never had (or particularly wanted).

With that, we headed north towards Malibu.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

Athena introduced herself through the intercom box at the back gate at the top of the recently paved driveway. 

“Thanks for getting here so early,” she offered. “I just want to make sure everything’s perfect and that nothing falls behind schedule.”

“That’s our specialty,” JoAnna assured her. 

Ever the control freak, JoAnna was not one for criticism about her work ethic. While friendly and bubbly off the clock, on the job she was all business. “Can we come in and start unloading?” 

“Sure,” Athena said through the scribbled sound waves. “But come in through the garage. I don’t want any tire tracks from your cart thingy on the new stepping stones.” 

JoAnna and I agreed. Athena buzzed us in as the looming cast iron gate slowly opened and allowed us to pass. 

“Did you bring your S &M kit?” I joked as JoAnna rounded the circular driveway.

“Yeah, my locking ball gag and nipple clamps are in back, next to my garlic press,” she said. 

“Let me see your O face, D,” she teased. 

“Nasty,” I hissed in feigned innocence.

The garage was already open and waiting for us. JoAnna backed her car into it and turned off the engine. I suddenly found myself curious as to what a porn star’s house would look like. 
It looked normal on the outside, but what if the inside was like some seedy scene out of a “Red Shoe Diaries” episode, or a sleazy Prince video? Would it smell like sex? Porn stars didn’t ‘work from home,’ did they? As my imagination wandered into several uncomfortable directions, the door opened. 

There, in the air conditioned, sunlit doorway stood Athena.

Athena was certainly ‘hot with two T’s,’ and definitely sexy. 
At first glance she could pass for 25, but upon closer inspection, she was probably ten years older than that. It was obvious that she had once been naturally beautiful, but she was, at present, encased in a perpetually (and almost depressingly) manufactured veneer of “hot chick.” 

The added decorations and artificial enhancements somehow simultaneously validated and distorted what should have been common observation. Her long, voluminous hair was dyed a spicy shade of auburn that matched the high, parenthetical eyebrows that hovered above her alluring, aquamarine eyes, which were strategically lined in come-hither kohl. Her nose, which may or may not have been worked on, sat perfectly symmetrical on her face, save for a small pearl stud in the left nostril, giving her an air of unavoidably exotic cupidity. Her lips, which had most definitely enjoyed a shot or four of collagen, glistened plump and pink beneath a layer of icy, designer lip gloss. A fresh dose of Mystic Tan obscured her natural coat of freckles, and a very well-financed pair of breast implants heaved beneath her white cotton tube top. 

“Hello girls,” she purred. “Come on in, let me show you around.” 

Her turquoise gypsy skirt sashayed nervously across the marble floors like the petticoat of a fallen belle attending a society ball.

A clunky, silver charm bracelet jingle-jangled off her wrist as her long, French manicured nails pointed to the various rooms that would be off limits to outsiders during the party. 

“Including catering staff,” she noted. 

Her voice had a slight scratchiness to it, a voice that had probably spent too many nights shouting over music in cocktail lounges, quickly aged by smoking, perhaps a habit taken up at a young age to seem older, a voice battered by a lot of late night arguments beneath neon signs. Her feet—small, bare, and perfectly pedicured—pitter-pattered along the marble floors. 

“Since you’ll be rushing around making sure everything’s perfect,” she said, “you’re allowed to keep your shoes on. Besides, those tile steps down to the front lawn get awfully hot in the afternoon.”

Through the twists and turns of the spacious first floor hallway, I spotted a pair of shiny, imposing loafers loafing beside the door to a mahogany-lined study. Further down the hall, I caught sight of a pair of baby sandals–pink lion heads on plastic flip flops–chucked by the door to the bathroom. As we reached the kitchen, I noticed that Athena’s silver boho sandals—probably a not-so-impulsive impulse buy at Fred Segal—waited for her on the patio.

To my mixed delight and disappointment, the house was not a throwback to the seedy silk-draped, fog machine-choked dirty movies that I’d snuck peeks at on late night television as a kid. Rather, it was more like a corner of a suburban furniture store featuring a matching set labeled “The Romantic Sophisticate.” From the leather couches, to the pre-aged wooden armoires, to the white carpet, the entire home screamed nouveau riche. It was certainly a clean and well furnished home, but I instantly got the impression that this was a militant coaster household (hence the bare feet rule). Nevertheless, with an ideal location and apparently comfortable economic level, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed for Athena and her family. I wondered if they knew how cheap everything really looked. Somehow, I was not surprised to spot a white, life sized, stuffed animal tiger sitting on the floor beside the entertainment center. All this money and no taste, I thought, silently clucking my tongue.

Through the living room we arrived at the kitchen, the showpiece of the house. The kitchen was twice the size of the living room, and featured an enormous center island big enough to park a car on. The cabinets were all finished in sleek wood paneling, and boasted every posh, state of the art electronic appliance on the market, including a built-in espresso machine. The window over the porcelain Kohler sink looked out onto the front yard, where a narrow, rectangular swimming pool glittered in the morning sunlight. Further on sat the cliff’s fenced off edge overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where grey-green waves crashed against the rocky shore below.

What a place to do dishes, I thought.

JoAnna and I began unloading crates from the hand truck onto the recently mopped floor and the expansive countertops, the ones that, as Athena was quick to point out, were recently remodeled. Curious, I watched Athena as she reached into the refrigerator and retrieved an icy, purple Vitamin Water. Eyes flashing, hair swinging, jewelry jingling, skirt swishing, she was like a modern day Barefoot Contessa, only she lacked the natural charisma and beauty of a Technicolor-hued Ava Gardner. Instead, she was just Athena: soft core porn star, trophy wife of a macho, silent man to be feared, and an aspiring “hip Westside mommy.” But unlike the first two identities, the third could not be bought; it had to be earned. This party was her debut. And for little Jayla, of course.

“So where’s the birthday girl?” JoAnna asked as she switched on both ovens to preheat the first batches of hors d’oeuvres. 

“Outside running around with her nanny and my mother,” Athena said nonchalantly. 

I noticed that her tone changed slightly when she said “mother.” It came out of her mouth with a shove, like an annoyed thirteen year old girl.

“She just got in from Idaho this morning,” she added.

Outside, a car drove up and shut off its engine.

“Armando’s back!” Athena announced, her enthusiasm suddenly refueled. 

She licked her lips, smoothed the front of her tube top, and disappeared down the hall. I turned to JoAnna to comment on our recent introductions. JoAnna, however, was busy basking in her good fortune of securing a gig in the Ritz Carlton of kitchens. 

“I’m in Chef Heaven right now, D,” she gushed. “Funny how the clients who hate to cook the most always have the nicest kitchens.” 

I smiled and peered out the kitchen window to the front lawn, where we would soon be setting up our stations. There I spotted two grown women and a cherubic little girl with a head of curly brown locks, big shiny eyes and a sweet, baby toothed smile. I watched as she innocently dawdled between the women across the neatly clipped lawn, a pacifier dangling from a clip on her tiny pink sundress. 

With outstretched arms, she ran towards an earthy, plainly dressed, middle aged woman with a long black hair. As she squatted to receive the child, I noticed her hair was marked by a prominent white streak. A thick ponytail cascaded like a poorly conditioned two lane backdrop down her back. Something about her looked out of place in this setting, as if she were a strange, foreign visitor among the natives.

That has to be Athena’s mother, I thought. After all, the other woman is 4’9”, appears to be Central American, and is wearing an apron.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

The party started, as planned, at 1pm sharp. 

By this point, JoAnna and I had set up the various stations around the grounds. The poolside area provided a built-in grille and fire pit, where I cooked and served kosher hotdogs, angus beef hamburgers, and homemade veggie burger patties on freshly baked buns amidst an array of gourmet picnic condiments—spicy brown mustard, gorgonzola cheese, fresh pesto, avocado purée, organic ketchup—all served in tiny crystal bowls. I was impressed by how many small children at the party possessed such sophisticated palates.

When lunch was over, children of all shapes, sizes, and trendy shades of white and brown scampered around the pool area as a blonde, Helen of Troy-by-way-of-Pamela Anderson lifeguard stalked the side of the pool, wielding a flotation device and fingering a whistle. The DJ spun a girly mix of current pop music and a variety of dance hits from the ‘80s and ‘90s. I wondered if Jayla knew who Britney Spears was, much less who The Go-Go’s were.

Another station was set up inside the pool house, a converted basement room in which the décor could only be described as “Little Mermaid acid trip.” It was painted in an array of eye bruising shades of blue, turquoise, and coral, and the walls and ceiling were draped in grotesque, nautically themed wonders of the Seven Seas, from Neptunes and octopi to sea horses and snow crabs. In the corner, on a small table decorated with strands of fake pearls, I filled two enormous, Venus de Milo-worthy shells with colorful Terra chips and all-natural cheese doodles. I lined up perfectly symmetrical rows of plastic cups filled with hibiscus juice cocktail and arranged a pyramid of organic apple juice boxes beside them.

In between working various stations at the party, I finally caught sight of Armando. We met as I was dashing for the umpteenth time up the steps from the patio area to the kitchen. In my haste, I almost dropped my silver tray, and he reached out to prevent it from tumbling down the tile steps. I thanked him profusely, but he never responded. Instead he gave me a serious nod and descended the steps, adjusting his diamond pinky ring. To my delight, he looked just as formidable as JoAnna had suggested, yet something about him was also strangely captivating. Physically, he was short, dark, and strangely primal, perhaps of some exotic Middle Eastern or Latin descent. He also looked to be a good ten to fifteen years older than Athena. Perhaps that’s why she kept referring to him as “Papa.” From what I could gather amidst my running around, Papa was uneasy about having so many people over for an afternoon pool party. His brow sat perpetually furrowed like that of a matador as he surveyed the festive scene taking place on his plush, manicured lawn.

I wondered if he was uncomfortable with such displays of relaxed revelry. Maybe he had work he thought he should be doing, or a certain level of privacy to keep. If he was “made,” as JoAnna had suggested, maybe such social situations made him uncomfortable because he couldn’t be in control, even in the daylight, and in his own home. Throughout the afternoon, I watched him stalk across the yard, clutching a glass of hibiscus juice that he never sipped. He seemed territorial about his domain, shook hands and engaged in conversation with the other Papas, but all the while his face looked like someone who was only half listening, as if he were keeping watch for an enemy who might trespass the fortress gates. 

He spoke only of business and the remodeling on his new home, conducted small, impromptu tours with the other Papas around the foundation of the house, pointed out the superior quality of the construction crew, their view of the Pacific Ocean, and passed business cards around now and again, all the while watching Athena out of the corner of his eye with a certain air of mistrust, which was interrupted only when he stopped to check the time on his king-sized, silver Rolex. 

The only times his features softened were in the presence of Jayla. I watched as she wrapped her tiny arms around her father’s leg and squeezed it like a teddy bear. He gently patted her on the head, picked her up, and kissed her on the cheek. He then asked her to give him a kiss, and she responded with the toddler’s version of a kiss, which was achieved by placing a gaping, slightly drooling mouth against his cheek and giggling. After this sweet exchange, he passed Jayla off to her nanny and resumed his pensive, smoldering stance on the hillside.

Athena, on the other hand, was in constant motion, delighting in her role as the serene hostess and social coordinator extraordinaire. Huddled near the gifts table with the other Westside mommies—a gaggle of soccer moms, retired MAW’s (model-actress-whatever’s), and wanna-be heiresses— they raved and gushed over each others’ new state of the art strollers, environmentally-trendy “green” diaper bags, and form fitting yoga suits. Subsequently, a solid 45 minutes was devoted to them incessantly complimenting one another on their impeccably toned figures (and the supped up trainers and sessions at Equinox Gym that helped achieve them). However, none of the other mommies looked like they could be Skinemax starlets. I wondered how many of them knew about her profession. I wondered if their husbands knew.

In a corner of the yard, I watched as the City Walk balloon virtuoso contorted a long, purple balloon into a crown and placed it on Jayla’s head. She clapped in excitement as other children waited in line for their own balloon versions of crowns, swords, and fetching toy dogs. A photographer from the local social register took pictures. Athena knelt in the grass and quickly posed with Jayla for the camera. Athena’s smile was sultry, her eyes smoldering, but her cleavage contained. I could practically hear the husky photographer salivating.

Eventually, I moved inside to help JoAnna get the birthday cake ready: an enormous, sugary purple dinosaur with vanilla cake innards just waiting to be dissected with a sterling silver serving knife. After the cake cutting ceremony, I watched in intrigued amusement as Athena absent-mindedly licked purple icing from her fingers. I noticed Armando watching her closely as she did this with a mixture of lustful longing and brimming embarrassment. It was clear that at times Athena was perfectly locked into a sophisticated performance, while at other moments she was hopelessly oblivious.

The main thing I noticed during the party from my perch behind the meaty, charcoal-streaked smoke of the grille was that for the entire duration of the party, Athena was avoiding her mother. In between breaks of socializing, Athena seemed uncomfortable with her presence. Every time her mother approached her and some of her friends, or tried to hold her grandchild, Athena stepped in and diverted her. I found it deeply embarrassing, and wondered if Athena—or anyone else—realized what she was doing. She acted like a mortified teenager whose mother was chaperoning a school dance or had crashed a slumber party and started a game of Truth or Dare.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

Later in the day, I retreated to the kitchen, where I stood at the center island furiously chopping fruit with a Ginzu knife in an effort to refill the watermelon fruit basket on the lower level before JoAnna asked me to do it. Such was the silent understanding between chef and server in making a catering gig run smoothly: do things without being told, and all will work out peachy. 

I had just sliced into a ripe and juicy mango when a hearty voice boomed behind me.

“Need any help in here?” it asked rhetorically. 

I turned to see Athena’s mother standing in the sliding glass doorway off the patio, a cacophony of squealing children, splashing pool water, peppy pop music, and an underlying murmuring of parental gossip pulsating behind her. Her smile was wide but care worn, yet there some something definitely rough and tumble about her. I could tell her question was more like a decision. 

“Oh that’s sweet,” I politely offered, “but I’m fine. Can I get you something, ma’am?” 

Athena’s mother remained in the doorway, as if she had not heard me. 

“Yeah, an ashtray that isn’t a fake antique, if you got one,” she said with a good-natured chuckle. 

She eyed the stack of Solo cups on our metal hand cart. I followed suit and passed her one. 

“Thanks,” she said as she accepted it and lit up a Malboro Red. “Athena sent me up here to, uh, help you ladies out,” she explained. “But it’s really just an excuse to keep me from smoking around the kids.” 

I noticed that her voice had a slight John Wayne cadence to it. 

“And what Athena wants, as you can probably tell, she gets.”

Athena’s mother’s frankness and openness about her daughter caught me somewhat off guard. I nervously laughed. 

“If you want my opinion, though,” she continued, “she’s just trying to hide me from her fancy friends.” 

Her honesty was unexpected, to be sure, yet refreshing. I stopped chopping fruit and looked her over. She was a large, hearty woman, probably in her late fifties, who on this occasion was dressed in a khaki work shirt, overalls, and boots. A ragged rancher’s hat and a pair of sunglasses dangled from her neck. I suddenly understood why Athena might be embarrassed by her mother. Here she was, trying to orchestrate a social situation the caliber of an In Style magazine photo shoot, and here was her mother, looking better suited for roping mustangs, plowing fields, or chopping wood. 

“Well can I get you something, ma’am?” I repeated.

“Please don't call me ma’am,” she insisted. “I’m Terry. It’s nice to meet you.” 

I smiled. 

“Okay Terry,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you, too. Could I get you anything else?” 

My politeness was slowly being consumed by my building stress level and the thought of unreplenished trays on the lower patio. 

“Yeah, a cuppa coffee would be great,” she said. 

She pointed her cigarette at the built-in espresso machine. 

“I tried working that obnoxious contraption earlier,” she snorted. “Burnt my finger on the little pipe thingy. I told Athena the cappuccino machine at the gas station’s easier to work than that mess. Isn’t there a regular ole coffee pot in this place?” 

I scanned the kitchen and spotted our coffee urn sitting in the bottom of the hand cart. 

“Sure, I can do that for you,” I assured her. 

“Stay a while,” she insisted. “Take a load off and keep an old gal company for a few minutes. Trust me, those kids down there are well fed and fine as wine. Can’t say the same for the adults, though.”

Terry was invigorating; real. 
Amidst the superficiality so rampant amongst Southern California’s new elite, her attitude was a breath of fresh air (albeit laced with cigarette smoke). 

She was like a walking folk hero, a tomboyish Jack tale in the flesh. Add to that her booming voice and earthy demeanor, and she struck me as a Paula Bunyon type. We made small talk as she sipped her coffee and released a satisfied sigh in experiencing such a simple sensory pleasure. I imagined what her life might be like back in Idaho, far away from the overdeveloped cliffs of Malibu. I envisioned her drinking coffee on the porch of a modest house, perhaps at the edge of a potato field, beneath a squat brown mountain in the distance that hovered like a titanic mud pie. 

Finishing her coffee, Terry surveyed the palatial kitchen. 

“Yep,” she said, with a slight cowgirl smirk. “Even though she’s a pain in the ass, my Athena is still one lucky gal. Just look at all she’s made for herself down here. I’m so proud of her. She was always ambitious.” 

Terry’s conviction was palpable, but there was a certain suppressed sadness in her voice. She pensively tapped her thick, meaty fingers on the remodeled countertop. 

“I don’t get down here much myself,” she offered. 

I got the feeling that this was probably one of the few times that Athena had let her mother visit her in her new life and on her turf. I wondered if she knew about her daughter’s profession. I wondered if she knew her daughter at all. I wondered.

Suddenly, JoAnna burst through the open patio door. 

“D, where are you?” she screeched. “We need those trays replenished stat!” 

I hopped to it, fueled by an eagerness not to disappoint her. I knew that her harshness wasn’t intentional. She admitted to being a bossy monster during gigs. 

Later on, once the storm had cleared, we would clean up, pack up, and everything would be back to normal. Back in Santa Monica, we’d watch the sunset together, and Chef JoAnna would morph back into funny, loud, lightweight drinker JoAnna. We’d split a Zima on her deck (even though Zimas are so ‘90s), and laugh about the day’s adventures. But in that moment, I was forced to face Bitchy, Chef of all Chefs JoAnna. 

“Right away, Chef,” I replied, acknowledging her title and authority over me. 

JoAnna spotted Terry leaning against the kitchen island. Terry nodded to her, but it was clear by her confused facial expression that JoAnna’s tension and stress level were as foreign and ridiculous to her as complicated espresso machines, Pilates, and vegan cookouts. JoAnna gave her a polite nod, her white, ribbed chef’s hap tipping slightly to the side.

“Ma’am,” she said. 

Terry’s face registered her distaste for the matronly salutation. Upon hearing this, I smiled behind my silver tray as I descended the patio steps.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

That evening, after the other hired hands had left the party and only a few mommies and Papas remained, JoAnna and I swiftly cleaned up the stations, loaded the truck, and wrapped up the leftovers for the family ahead of schedule. 

As the last guest said goodbye, Athena pulled us aside. She grabbed our hands, her long nails digging into our dishpan skin ever so slightly. Her face was a mix of Miss America sincerity and reality show genuineness. 

“I just want to thank you both so much for making my little girl’s birthday such an amazing event,” she oozed. “Seriously, you girls are fantastic. You have no idea what it means to me. Being a good mom is just so…” 

I smiled, nodded, and struggled to keep my eyes from unintentionally drifting downward, as the track lighting over the kitchen island had caused Athena’s areolas to shine through her white cotton tube top. 

In the adjacent living room, Jayla lay across her nanny’s lap fast asleep, her tiny chest rising and falling softly, her pacifier plugged in for the evening.

Terry stood on the edge of the balcony looking towards the ocean, her arms crossed, surveying the purple mountain’s majesty of the nearby hillsides that spilled into the mouth of the Pacific. 

“It was our pleasure, ma’am,” I said, almost without thinking. 

And at that moment, I noticed that Athena and Terry exchanged a look of mutual disdain for the term, although I could tell that neither of them expected the other to respond. 

“I’m not there yet, sugar,” Athena assured me with a wink, and for a moment she eyed her mother on the patio. 

As we turned to leave, Athena planted an unexpected but good natured kiss on JoAnna’s cheek, a little too close to her mouth for her liking. JoAnna smiled politely and reminded Athena in her most professional voice that payments were to be received within 24 hours of the event via check or credit card.

As we exited the garage, we walked passed Armando, who stood beside the back of his silver Mercedes with a couple of the other Papas, peering into the open trunk. Rounding the side of the luxury sedan, I watched as he gestured towards a choice selection of men’s suits neatly folded behind plastic, as if he were a sleazy salesman in an old noir film.

As JoAnna’s gray Honda Element descended the hill from Puerca Ridge and turned left on the Pacific Coast Highway, I looked back up to the towering, terracotta roofed house on the cliff overlooking the Ocean. From this view, it looked glamorous, ritzy, luxurious—a Barbie dream house, as envisioned by a little girl from Idaho. As we drove away, however, the house and the day’s events grew smaller and less important. After all, it was just another notch in our voyeuristic catering bedpost.

Later that night, I thought about Googling Athena’s name. I wanted to see just how accomplished she was a Skinemax starlet, to perhaps get a nosy idea of how her early ambitions to be an actress had led her from a rural potato town to a gaudy, teetering hilltop summit in Malibu.

Instead, I called my mother.