Hollywood's coming today.
I'm not going to lose my house.
Those two thoughts surface in the same moment as the sun starts to brighten my room. I've been paid for my screenplay, and the bonus money for letting them film here will hit my bank account at noon. Good-bye unpaid real estate taxes. Good-bye credit card debt. And to think, Ben's saying good-bye to me has made it all possible. I don't know how this day could get any better. I hop out of bed, grab my heaviest morning sweater, and head downstairs. I pour my coffee and go out to the porch to watch the sunrise.
Whoever buys this house from me, I always think, will tear it down. It's over a hundred years old; everything's broken. There's a certain point in January when the wind blows right into the kitchen and we have to duct-tape a fleece blanket over the doorframe. The floorboards droop; there are only two bathrooms and they're both upstairs. Each bedroom has a closet designed to house six outfits, preferably for very small people. Ben had a list of house complaints he used to like to run through daily, and I could never shake the feeling that he was really complaining about me.
This house is a disaster, sure. But I fell in love with it when I first looked down the long windy path of the driveway. The magnolia trees that line either side touch in the middle, so that now, in April, you drive through a tunnel of pink flowers. When you emerge onto the main road it feels like you've been transported from one world to another, like a bride leaving the church. It feels like a treat going out for milk, and it feels like a treat coming home.
The house was built by a British doctor named George Faircloth who lived in Manhattan and came upstate to Laurel Ridge in the summer, which explains the complete lack of winterization. It was built to be enjoyed on a seventy-eight-degree day and primarily from the outside. I imagine his landscaping this property like a maestro, arranging the magnolias and the forsythia beneath them to announce the beginning of spring. After a long gray winter, these first pink and yellow blooms shout, "Something's happening!" By May they'll have gone green with the rest of the yard, a quiet before the peonies and hydrangea bloom.
I knew I'd do anything to live here when I saw the tea house in the back. It's a one-room structure the doctor had commissioned to honor the ritual of formal tea. Where the main house is flimsy white clapboard with peeling black shutters, the tea house is made of gray stone with a slate roof. It has a small working fireplace and oak-paneled walls. It's as if Dr. Faircloth reached over the pond and plucked it out of the English countryside. I distinctly remember hearing Ben use the word "shed" when we walked into it, and I ignored him the way you do when you're trying to stay married.
The first morning we woke up here, I got up at first light because we didn't have any curtains yet. I took my coffee to the front porch, and the sunrise was the surprise of my life. I'd never seen the house at six a.m. I didn't even know we were facing east. It was like a gift with purchase, a reward for loving this broken place.
I stand on the porch now, taking it in before the movie crew arrives. Pink ribbons, then orange creep up behind the wide-armed oak tree at the end of my lawn. The sun rises behind it differently every day. Some days it's a solid bar of sherbet that rolls up like movie credits and fills the sky. Some days the light dapples through the leaves in a muted gray. The oak won't have leaves for a few weeks, just tiny yellow and white blooms pollinating one another and promising a lawn full of acorns. My lawn is its best self in April, particularly in the morning when it's dew-kissed and catching the light. I don't know the science behind all of it, but I know the rhythm of this property like I know my own body. The sun will rise here every single day.***
By the time I've gotten my kids up and fed and off to school, I've changed my clothes six times. I stand in front of the mirror in the same jeans and T-shirt I started with, and realize the problem is my hair. The frizz isn't as bad as it's going to be in August, but it's still pretty intense. People in Hollywood have tamed hair, or if it's wild, it's been professionally disorganized. I dunk my head in my bathroom sink and then get to work blowing out my hair piece by piece, something I don't think I've done since my wedding day in my childhood bathroom with my bridesmaids crammed in behind me.
When my hair is straight, it's still only nine a.m. They're supposed to be here at ten, and I know that if I spend any more time in front of a mirror, I am going to overthink myself into a panic. I decide I look perfectly fine for a thirty-nine-year-old mother of two. And it's not like I'm auditioning for this movie; I wrote it. I decide to go into town and do some non-urgent errands. Maybe I'll get home after they've arrived so I can show up in an oh-hey-I-lost-track-of-time kind of way. I'll walk into the Hollywood version of my real-life drama in full swing, like it's some kind of sick surprise party.
I kill as much time as I can by dropping a pair of boots at the shoe repair and browsing the discount rack at the bookstore. I stop by the hardware store to chat with Mr. Mapleton about his hip surgery and to pick up the stack of crossword puzzles he saves me from his paper each week. By ten o'clock, I run out of things to do, so I know it's time to go home and see exactly what a movie crew looks like and what the consequences will be to my lawn.
I've misjudged, and they're late, so I'm back on the front porch watching their arrival. I grip the railing as the eighteen-wheelers barrel down my dirt driveway, dislodging the lowest magnolia blossoms and darkening the sky with startled birds. For a second, my whole property looks like a Hitchcock movie.
I never saw this coming. I'm as surprised as anybody that The Tea House
is being made into a real movie. The last movie I wrote was called Kisses for Christmas
, an eighty-minute TV movie with well-timed breaks in the action to make room for the forty minutes of commercials. The one before that was Hometown Hearts
, which is pretty much the same story, but it takes place in the fall. My superpower is methodically placing a man and woman in the same shiny town, populated by unusually happy people with maddeningly small problems. They bristle at first and then fall in love. It's all smiles until one of them leaves, but then comes back immediately after the commercial break. Every. Single. Time. The Tea House
is a departure from the formula and is definitely the best thing I've ever written. The first thing my agent, Jackie, said when she'd finished reading it was, "Are you okay?" I laughed because, sure, it did seem like I'd gone dark. The story runs deeper, with heavy doses of torture and introspection, and for sure the guy doesn't come back at the end. In the months after Ben left, I sold two fun, light scripts to The Romance Channel, but then this darker thing sort of spilled out of me. I'd tried to keep my personal life to myself after Ben left, but I guess some stories just want to be told.
"I mean this is great," she started. "But this is like a big film, not for The Romance Channel. If it's okay with you, I'm going to pitch this to major studios."
"That's going to be a major waste of your time," I said, pulling crabgrass in my front yard. "No one wants to watch two hours of angst and abandonment. I swear I tried to perk it up at the end, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't stomach him walking back through the door."
"Nora. It hasn't even been a year."
"I know. So I need to get back to what I do best. Do whatever you want with this thing; I think maybe I just needed to get it off my chest. Everything okay with your mom?"
"She's fine. Give me a couple of weeks on this. This script is a game changer."
As the first truck stops in front of my house, nine of its eighteen wheels on my grass, I realize that the game has indeed changed. I hold on to the porch railing for support as two more trucks start unloading cameras, lighting, furniture, people.
A pink-haired young woman with a clipboard and a smile approaches me. "Hey, you must be Nora. Don't freak out. Cuz I'd be totally freaking out. I'm Weezie, Leo's assistant."
"Hi. Not freaking out. I can replant the grass." I reach out to shake her free hand.
Another woman, closer to my age in a black jumpsuit, approaches. "I'm Meredith Cohen, executive producer."
"Nora Hamilton, homeowner," I manage, still hanging
on to the porch railing. "And writer," I add, because I'm awkward.
"Listen," Meredith says. "We're a lot. Hell, just Leo's a lot these days. We're going to make a lot of noise and a big mess, and then we'll clean it all up and be out of your hair in two days. Three, tops."
"That's fine; it's what I expected. I've never seen a movie shoot before, kind of exciting." A red pickup truck pulls completely onto the grass, towing a silver Airstream trailer. "What's that?"
Weezie turns and laughs. "Oh, here he is. Of course, that's Leo. We're all staying at the Breezeport Hilton; he doesn't stay at Hiltons." She rolls her eyes and smiles again, like it's mildly annoying but also adorable that this guy is wrecking my lawn.
"Leo Vance is going to sleep in that thing? In my front yard?"
"It can't be avoided. He's quirky. But he's got a bathroom in there and we have a honeywagon coming for everyone else. So don't worry about your house."
The Airstream door opens and out steps a forty-year-old, shoeless superstar. His jeans hang too low and his gray
T-shirt is torn in two places. His hair needs a trim, and he's way too handsome to play Ben. But then again, Naomi Sanchez is playing me. He squints up at the sky as he gets his bearings, as if he's emerging from the dark after twenty-four hours. It's eleven a.m. and we're only a ninety-minute drive from New York City.
Leo Vance is the highest-paid leading man in Hollywood. I know this because I've been googling him for three days. He has homes in Manhattan, Bel Air, and Cap d'Antibes. He owns a share of an NBA franchise. No kids, never married. A Libra. He's originally from New Jersey and has a brother.
I've seen every one of Leo's movies, which isn't really a credit to him. I've seen a lot of movies. He's a good actor, and he's most famous for his smoldering stare. I have to say, it's a little over the top. In his first film, Sycamore Nights
, he gave his co-star Aileen Bennett a series of white-hot smolders that got him named Sexiest Man Alive that year. I guess it became his signature move, so he kept it up film after film, even when it was entirely unnecessary. Like in Battle for the Home Front, he's telling his newly pregnant wife that he has to go away to war, and he's smoldering. Or in Class Action
, he's giving a commencement speech at a military academy and smoldering all over everyone's parents and grandparents. And don't get me started on African Rose
. A refugee center with a wild malaria outbreak is no place to smolder. Leo Vance seems prone to the inappropriate oozing of sex appeal.
When the smolder is turned off, he has an impressive range of smiles that are unique to each film. They range from timid to maniacal, and I've always admired the way he can keep each one consistent throughout an entire film. I'm curious to see what smile he'll invent for The Tea House
. What smile would he imagine Ben having? I can't even remember the last time I saw Ben smile.
Leo Vance is walking toward my porch, and I brace myself for an introduction. Perfection on the screen, scruffy in real life. He is going to be transformed into a man with a lot of issues who ends up walking away from the woman he built a life with. Leave it to Ben to be maddening enough to make me finally write something worthwhile. I smile at the irony of Ben actually helping out after all.
Leo brushes past me on the porch like I'm not there, then stops and takes a step back. "You're missing a dimple," he says.
"The other one's inside," I say.
He nods and walks into my house like he owns the place. Not much of a meet cute.***
Meeting the director, Martin Cox, is as intimidating as I anticipated. Weezie's gone in after Leo, so he finds Meredith and me on the porch. "You must be Nora." He's not tall but he's big, and I can't decide if he's physically big or if it's his presence that takes up a lot of space.
I shake his hand and try not to say anything else. If I start talking, I'll tell him what I thought of the final scene in Alabaster
and why I think he was robbed of an Oscar. I'll tell him that the lighting alone in The Woman Beneath
was sublime. Mainly to avoid using the word "sublime," I keep my mouth shut.
"So, can we see it?" he asks. I lead Meredith and Martin behind my house to where the tea house sits at the entrance to the woods. There is no path to it, just lawn, so that a consequence of visiting the tea house is almost always wet shoes. I'd left the big oak door open, as is my habit, because with the door open, you can see straight through the steel windows on the back wall into the mouth of the forest. It gives me the feeling of endless possibility.
The tea house is a sacred space to me. The space in which I have been able to preserve myself by writing. And, unlike the main house, it is airtight against the elements. I imagine the Faircloths approaching the tea house as I do, anticipating a fire in the fireplace and a table lain with tea and treats. I imagine lovers meeting here for hushed conversation and first kisses. Ben had always wanted to use it for storage.
It may have come down to that, for all I know. My belief that the last thing the world needs is more storage, versus Ben’s belief that he needed a third motorcycle. Among the many consolations around his leaving are that he took most of his stuff with him, and he didn’t ask for the kids.
The tea house plays prominently in the breakup of our marriage, which is what earned it the title role. Ben resented the time I spent out there; he resented the work I did. He resented the fact that I’d been paying our bills for the past 10 years. Which made two of us, actually. The more competent I became at taking care of our family, the more he despised me. The more he despised me, the harder I worked to make things right. Me, writing in the tea house, was a mirror he didn’t want to look into. That’s how it goes in the movie. In real life, I don’t know, maybe he left because he just wanted more storage. Ben wanted more of just about everything.
Now, as we approach, I hear Martin catch his breath. "It’s otherworldly," he says. “The photo doesn’t do it justice.”
I smile and keep walking. "Well, it’s certainly from another time. This is where I write."
It’s warm for April, and the slate roof glistens in the sun from last night’s rain. Two giant hydrangea bushes flank the door. They’re getting their first leaves now, hopeful celery colored things, but soon they’ll be bursting with cerulean blue blooms the size of my head. “If you could have waited until July, you would have seen these in bloom,” I say to no one, because Martin has already walked inside.
"This is absolutely perfect," he says, running his hands over the paneled walls. He pulls out a walkie talkie, "I’m back in the tea house. Bring the linens for the daybed, I’m going to need 3 o’clock sunshine coming through the back window. And a mop. Make sure Leo and Naomi are in make-up."
Weezie gives me a little wink, presumably to make me feel better about the mop comment. I give her a shrug, what do I care? "Okay so I’ll get out of your way, let me know if you need anything."
Copyright © 2022 by Annabel Monaghan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.