In 2000, I move from New York City to Hollywood to seek my fortune as a screenwriter.
Shortly after arriving in town, a successful guy/girl writing team takes me to lunch at Nate & Al’s in Beverly Hills. (They’re writing partners and they’re engaged. But then they cancel their romance and yet remain writing partners. Recently they adapted a snarky dating book you once heard of into a big ensemble romantic comedy you’ve already forgotten.)
Over turkey burgers and garlic dill pickles, I tell them about the hopes and dreams I’ve packed into my bag of tricks for the move west.
“You have to figure it’s going to take six years,” says the guy, predicting the time span from turnip truck to career.
Six years? Um, ew. I dicked around Park Slope for a decade, working up the gumption to own my ambition, get a drivers license, meet my husband, and leave New York City. Now I really don’t have that kind of time.
Eight years, half-a-dozen spec TV episodes, a gig as a researcher for LAW&ORDER, a humiliating go-nowhere feature rewrite, two failed pilots and a giant pile of spectacular near misses later, I land on the CBS cop drama COLD CASE as a staff writer.
My first week on the show, I’m thrumming with somebody-pinch-me anxiety. It’s a staff of grown-ups, a curt professional culture, with nary a Nerf hoop or a bong to be seen, like you hear about on comedies. I’m the freshman on the varsity team in a daunting game of catch-up.
(I don’t know yet that I belong on a meat-and-potatoes cop show like a fart in church.)
I’m also getting calls from my father’s wife. The third one, whom I call Nancy.
My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago, and he’s been dying for awhile. I’ve been to Connecticut to see him, and I’ve called him on the phone. These dramatic scenes are for another episode.
Nancy wants to know if I’m going to make it to the funeral, which she is necessarily planning. Henry is in hospice care, declining swiftly. Speaking very gently, she also tells me that Henry has not named me in his estate. By which she means two things. I will not be inheriting objects or cash from my father (he didn’t pay for shit when he was fit as a flea so it’s not a shocker), but also, he has not acknowledged me as next of kin. But friends of Henry’s from all over are going to come to the funeral, and she thinks they will be so interested to meet me and hear what it’s like to write for television. Nancy hopes I can be there.
I puzzle over my responsibilities and desires, summoning my inner ethicist. Asking my showrunners for time off in my first few weeks of the job it’s taken me eight years to get? Circulating among my father’s buddies from Columbia? “So…do you see lots of celebrities out there in show business?” Doing posthumous PR for a guy who whited-me out of the record books? What kind of degenerate misses her father’s funeral? Around and around I go.
I get a voicemail from Nancy. “I have some very sad news to report,” she says.
I explain my decision to Nancy as best as I can. The woman just lost her husband. I don’t want to make it worse. And yet.
I’m not going to the funeral.
“Your father loved you,” she says with a sigh. “He just had a funny way of showing it.” Wow. I’ve never heard this expression used as anything other than a punchline.
About two weeks later, the showrunner’s office is crammed with the COLD CASE writing staff. We stare at a wall-sized dry-erase board, on which each character’s arc for the upcoming season is being plotted. At the center of the discussion is the lead character Lilly Rush, the Philadelphia homicide detective portrayed skillfully by Kathryn Morris.
This season, turns out, Lilly Rush will reunite with her estranged father, Paul Cooper, who left her as a child to be raised by her alcoholic mother in a gritty neighborhood. Rush has decided to track him down, but she’s ambivalent. It’s one step forward and two steps back for Rush and Cooper. But by the end of the season, they will have arrived someplace. Not someplace treacly or resolved, but someplace.
I look around the room at the team of people I have just met. I want to be good at my job. Am I going to turn my honors English seminar into a tacky slumber-party confessional?
Fuck yeah. I spill the Henry Ebel story. For a rousing conclusion, I tell the one about ordering the same thing at the diner on the day of our 19-year reunion (see the post entitled I’ll Have What He’s Having for this riveting tale). I feel kind of dirty afterwards. It’s a writerly version of flashing my tits.
“Where is your Dad now?” somebody asks me gently.
“He died two weeks ago,” I reply.
Looks glance around the small room. What kind of degenerate misses her father’s funeral? “Why didn’t you say something?” somebody asks me.
“Oh, yeah, well,” I explain.
Months later, I am sitting on a Chinese restaurant set on the Warner Bros lot, huddled in a fake booth with the director, Marcos Siega, Kathryn, and Raymond Barry, who plays Paul Cooper, Rush’s father. It’s a chilly, rainy night, exactly the weather that would drive one into a Chinese restaurant in real life.
We are rehearsing the scene in which Rush and Cooper meet for their first meal in many years, and wind up ordering the same thing.
Kathryn and Ray aren’t in costume yet. Bundled in parkas from wardrobe and cupping hot drinks from craft services, they look more like a real estranged father and daughter ordering the same thing than they will after hair and makeup.
In 1938, my grandmother, Anna Ebel, says goodbye to her parents and brother in Berlin. She never sees them again.
In 1938, my grandfather looks at a receding European coastline the color of porcelain, and never sees it again.
In 1975, my father drifts away and I (almost) never see him again.
When you possess genealogical records that trace your family’s presence in Berlin back to 1866, the image of a long rope, stretching through time, comes to mind. And here come the Nazis with a big pair of stainless shears. Snip!
All those frayed ends shooting out.
And the ways in which I have severed this story from myself, so that I am hanging by a thread. Warily considering the file, bulging with evidence, that contains the cold case of my life.
On a dark and stormy night in a fake Chinese restaurant, I lean in close to hear the lines that Kathryn and Ray quietly deliver to one another as the set bustles around behind us. I’ve never been in such close proximity to the process of acting before.
You’d think a meat-and-potatoes cop show wouldn’t have an unbearably intimate bone in its body.
But my throat constricts with emotion.
This is as close as I’ve ever come to art imitating life.