"Thanks for meeting with me, Bill. I appreciate that you haven't completely lost faith in me yet," Deborah said, laughing through two exposed rows of gleaming teeth.
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Deb," Bill replied with an inscrutable expression.
The waiter approached, all sun-bleached white. "Hello."
Ignoring that he clearly had more to say, Deb jumped in. "Coffee."
"Iced tea. Lots of lemon," Bill said. He tightened one cheek into a half-smile. "Hot as hell. Out here."
The waiter smiled brightly into Bill's eyes. "Yes, Sir," he lisped. He was an effeminately gay man, a fact Bill recognized immediately. This was his strongest fan base.
"We'll let you know about lunch in a bit," Deb said. "We've got a lot of discussing to do!" She said this with a crescendo of pitch.
The waiter nodded and trotted off, still smirking. "Star-struck," Deb said to Bill, leaning over the table, eyes wide.
Bill nodded, losing his smile. "So why should I be so excited?"
Deb put up one finger as she reached down and pulled a manila folder from her bag. Bill frowned at the cellulite on her exposed thigh through the glass table. Deb didn't have that when he hired her. Still damn nice legs, though.
She handed the folder to Bill. "It's terrific. Everybody I've spoken with thinks so. Nobody's done this. Untouched territory, and you're its Christopher Columbus."
"It looks like a horror movie," Bill said, flipping through the contents of the folder.
"This is no Elm Street, Bill. You've got the wrong idea."
"My sitcoms are in syndication, Deb. And you hand me a horror flick."
Deb smirked knowingly. "Read the abstract."
Bill's eyes perused the information before him lazily as the waiter delivered the drinks. Deb alternately watched Bill and her dwindling coffee as she sipped it. She watched his bottom lip curl up like it always did when he was concentrating. By the time it was empty he was finished.
"I'm afraid I don't follow."
"I know it's a bit confusing, but follow me here," Deb said, putting her cup down. "You've played yourself before, you know."
"Is that what this is?"
"Kind of. But it's a new twist. The director – see there, his name is Kay Knight – calls it an 'existential thriller'. Is this getting you on track?"
"So that's why I'm afraid I'm going to disappear?"
"Well yeah, basically."
"It sounds like stuff that's been done before," Bill said, "and badly. I've seen bombs like this, and with much younger actors. Besides, I don't even know if I have the star power to –"
"It has nothing to do with star power. It's a stepping stone. This is the film that's going to really get you someplace, and that's because it's genius. Everybody's going to be talking about it. It'll be like that Matrix movie."
"I don't have to learn martial arts, do I?"
Deb peeled her lips back and laughed again. "Don't be ridiculous." The waiter came back and filled Bill's glass and Deborah's cup. "Thank you," she said, and the waiter scampered off.
Bill's mind clouded. "You were saying about the Matrix?"
"Revolutionary stuff, right? Philosophical. People like to think. This'll get people thinking, keep 'em guessing. Because it's so self-conscious, so real. Reality is doubting reality."
"So I'm playing myself and doubting that I'm real, right?"
"Better." Deb raised an eyebrow. "Read it again. See, you're not just playing yourself, you're playing yourself playing yourself. You're in the movie as yourself, and in the movie, you're hired to play yourself in a movie. Let's call these Movie A and Movie B –"
Bill laughed. "That's what I thought it said. It seemed so silly, I thought I was reading it wrong."
"Oh, no," Deb said, looking very serious. "In Movie A you are a struggling actor who's career is a bust, who's done nothing but sitcoms and guest spots on HBO miniseries, but a director comes along –"
"Yeah, Kay, it looks like. He's playing himself, too?"
"Yes, in Movie A."
"So Movie A is my life, basically. It's like a documentary on my life."
"It's very probing," Deb said, and sat back in her chair. She regarded Bill with furrowed brows of concern. "I didn't even think, but . . . are you going to be okay with this?"
Bill put up his hands. "Hey, it's not like I've signed anything yet."
Deb bit her cheek, tossed her head in thought. "True," she said, and chuckled once. "You know, in Movie A you have already."
Bill leaned forward and put his chin in his hand.
"The writers had to make a few changes, you know, just to make things a little more exciting."
"So what, you want me to pretend I've already signed on to this thing for the sake of authenticity?"
Deb shook her head. "No, no of course not. I guess it's not exactly a straight documentary. They did make a few changes."
"You're not married, for one."
"Gee, that seems fairly major. I suppose I have no children then, either?"
Bill laughed again and dropped his face into his palm. "What else?" he asked through his hand.
"They want you with dark hair, with a mustache. Nothing else major, that I can recall at the moment."
Bill reached up and touched his graying blond coiffure. "Doable. So how do I get involved with terrorism?"
"Okay, now we're getting into Movie B. See, in the movie in the movie, which you think is a comedy by the way, you agree to blow up a major U.S. landmark – they're thinking the Space Needle – to save your family, which has been kidnapped by the real terrorists."
"So in Movie B I've got a family, I guess."
"Yeah, but you're divorced and the kids are with their mother. At first you're trying to get them back, but throughout the course of the film, Movie B, another love interest comes along."
Bill looked over his info again. "Okay, I see. But we don't get that far –"
"No, because you start getting the movies mixed up. Your agent tricks you into thinking you're on set for Movie B when there's no set at all, you're really still in Movie A."
Deborah opened her mouth and peered at Bill. "No, in the movie. Nobody's asking you to blow up the Space Needle, Bill."
Bill playfully stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth. "Yeah, but you're my agent. How can I trust you if you're the one who leads me astray?"
Deborah touched her chest. "I'm not playing your agent. They've got some young, pretty up-and-comer for that role."
"Ah," Bill said, raising his eyebrows with interest.
"Oh, how you flatter me," Deborah replied, rolling her eyes.
"Okay, so the lines get blurred between reality and fiction. I can't tell the movies apart anymore."
"You can't tell real life from the movie," Deborah corrected.
"Well, Movie A from Movie B," Bill replied.
"But you're character doesn't recognize Movie A as a movie, Bill," Deborah chuckled. "C'mon, get into this."
"Okay, so how does Movie A-slash-'real life' start?"
"Actually, when you hire Deborah."
"So she's got your name?"
Deborah nodded and sipped her coffee. "Oh yeah, real authentic."
"And people are going to appreciate that?"
"Well, don't you think they ought to? I mean geez, this is your life we're talking about. Don't you think you're life is interesting?"
"But it's not my life. I'm not married."
"No, you're not," Deborah said, and looked off suddenly. "In the movie, you mean."
Bill nodded, thumbing the finger he'd forgotten to put his ring on that morning. "But I get it," he said. "A caricature. You're right, I've played myself before." Bill clucked his tongue in thought. "How'd you come up with this, Deb? What happened to all those Hallmark romances you used to pitch me?"
"Eh," Deborah replied with a flick of her wrist. "You were done with that route. I suppose I am, too."
"Come now, Deb. What happened to that old romantic spirit? Did you wake up one morning to find the little girl inside of you died?"
"Hm." Deborah smiled weakly. She bit her tongue. "Actually . . . " she began, and frowned.
Bill laughed. "What?"
"Oh lord, nothing."
Bill shook his head. "Unh-unh. We've known each other too long."
"Oh, what's with that face? Eh?"
"You can be such a little boy sometimes." She sighed. She played with her coffee cup. "I don't know. It's just that . . . well, you may have hit the nail on the head with that one. You won't believe this, but I've almost thought about it in those same words."
"Well, I never would have said it out loud to anybody, but since you said it already, hell... yes, I believe the little girl inside me has died."
Bill smiled. "Really?"
"We're here to talk about you, not-"
"Not anymore. Topic changed." Bill leaned forward playfully. He was more animated now than at any point since sitting down.
She averted his eyes, sipped her coffee. She shook her head slowly. "I'm forty-seven."
Bill shrugged. "I'm ancient."
"You have a wife and kids. I have a dog."
"And he's adorable."
"He'll be dead by Christmas."
Deborah nodded. "I feel like I'll be dead by Christmas."
"Oh, stop it."
"I get more prune-like every day. All the more accelerated by spinning my wheels for wannabes with a fraction of your talent."
"We're way beyond flattery, Deb."
"I'm not flattering. You're the only client I actually enjoy having lunch with."
Bill sat back in his chair with the specter of a smirk on his face. He watched her fall momentarily into his seasoned eyes.
"Okay," Bill grunted, piercing the silence. "So how do I blow up the Space Needle?"
Deborah blinked herself back into business mode. "With a very large and elaborate bomb. Kay says he's got something really sexy in mind."
"You tell me something like this in the movie, don't you?"
"There's something like it in the script, yeah."
"Do you tell me who the love interest for Movie B is in Movie A?"
Deborah smiled. "It's your agent."
"My Movie B agent? The young, sexy one?"
Deborah rolled her eyes again. "Yeah. You see why they wanted you divorced."
"Who? The real Kay's people or the Movie A Kay's people?"
"Oh, you're just being an idiot now."
"No, no, there's a vital difference," Bill said, with raised eyebrow. "See, real Kay had to pitch it to you, Deb, and you had to bring it lunch. Movie A Deb pitches a Movie B Deb love interest, but all that's written. So what's happened here? Did art imitate you or the other way around?"
Deb was silent for a moment as she stared at Bill's shoulder. Then she smiled in her trademark way, both rows of teeth. "Yes, you are ancient. You're an insinuating old fart."
Bill leaned forward again. "Just what am I insinuating?"
"I'm not a school girl, Bill. It's quite obvious."
"That I have some sort of hidden crush on you."
"Crush is hardly the word, I think. Sounds so juvenile . . ."
"Something more romantic, I should think. Perhaps-"
"Getting hungry?" The waiter had returned.
"Oh, uh . . ." Bill fumbled for the menu. He barely looked at it as he bobbed his head non-committally. "BLT."
"For the lady?"
"Caesar salad," she said quickly, and flicked him her closed menu.
"Very good," he replied, and walked off.
"Deb," Bill said softly as his eyes danced.
She raised her eyebrows at him defensively.
"What if I were to blow up the Space Needle?"
Deborah frowned. "Huh?"
"Oh, maybe that's too much . . ." Bill said, and began to stroke his chin. "I suppose someone else could do it. Why couldn't someone else be playing me playing myself?"
"Bill, what the hell-"
"Let's call this Movie C, Deb," Bill said, smiling brightly. "Huh? A whole new take on the project. Kay'll love it. A movie within a movie outside the movie."
Deborah laughed awkwardly. "You've gone senile."
"I've gone brilliant. Deb, let's make a pact. If the Space Needle blows up, we'll make it part of our own little movie. If that happened – don't look at me like that, listen – if the Needle goes, so do we."
Deborah opened her mouth, but managed only to stutter. He had never made her speechless before.
"We'll run off together," Bill said, and put his hands on the table, inches from Deborah's. "You and me, Deb."
Deborah choked on her words. "What are you saying? Are you . . . you're married. You have children."
"Deb, the Space Needle has been obliterated. Doesn't that mean anything to you? Doesn't that shake up your reality?"
Deborah closed her mouth, too stunned to speak.
Just then the waiter returned hurriedly. "Um, um . . ." he sputtered.
Bill and Deborah looked up at him.
"I don't know when your food will be up," he said in a daze. "Everybody was in back watching the news. Did – did you hear?"
Bill and Deborah both shook their heads.
"Somebody – somebody just blew up the Sears Tower!"
Bill and Deborah looked at each other, stunned, mouths agape.
"I can't believe it . . ." the waiter said. "I – oh, shit. Oh, shit, my cousin lives in Chicago. I gotta go," he said, and darted back inside.
Bill and Deborah sat in a silence that would have lasted for minutes, probably hours, but both their cell phones began to ring and vibrate. They looked down, then back up at one another in unison.
"Um . . ." Deborah began, but was again speechless.
Bill took in a breath to speak, then let it out.
"Um . . . I'll call you next week. Bill."
Bill nodded. "Deb."
The pair left the table, opened their cell phones, and walked in opposite directions.