Wednesday, January 29, 2014

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.

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