The film crew flew in from New York, and the agency people flew in from L.A.; direct flights to Wichita, it turns out, do not exist from either city. Now the agency people are hanging out at the bar of their mid-level chain hotel (or this is where they were when Ben last saw them) while the film crew, accompanied by Melissa Simon, scouts locations for tomorrow’s shoot.
They met Melissa at her apartment, which was an unremarkable one-bedroom — junky furniture, Indian tapestry bedspread — with many of what she confirmed were her own photos pinned to the walls. The four-person crew and Melissa then got in the rental van and, with Ben driving and Melissa in the second row, they passed the bagel place where she said she often works on her laptop during the afternoons. Melissa was enthusiastic about the idea of filming there, to the extent that Ben wondered if friends of hers own the place, and Ben was tasked with conveying that it wasn’t quite the right setting. For the last hour, Melissa has been leading them around the campus of the University of Wichita, where, through the office of public affairs, they’ve already obtained permission to film. It’s an overcast afternoon in late March, and the students are on spring break.
On the second floor of a large brick building, she opens a heavy door to reveal a computer lab with dim lighting and beige curtains pulled over the windows. One lone student sits in front of a monitor, earbuds in, simultaneously editing photos on a desktop computer and watching The Royal Tenenbaums on a laptop computer; onscreen, Gwyneth Paltrow smokes while wearing heavy eyeliner and a fur coat. “This is where I spent most of my time as an undergrad,” Melissa says. “Thrilling, right?”
In addition to Ben, who is the producer, the crew is comprised of Justin, the director; Matthias, the DP; and Ryan, the gaffer. It’s unclear to Ben if Melissa knows that Justin is kind of famous; he’s made two widely praised feature-length documentaries, the first about a youth orchestra in Afghanistan and the second about fracking in a small town in Virginia. If Melissa had upon shaking hands with Justin proclaimed herself a fan, it would have mildly disgusted him and, Ben is sure, he’d have retracted. But if over the next 24 hours it becomes apparent that she really has no idea who he is, Justin will eventually become petulant toward her, offended by her lack of deference. As with nipping in the bud the notion of filming at the bagel place, it is Ben’s responsibility to discreetly convey to Melissa Justin’s renown.
Melissa is walking in front of them, and whenever she glances back, Ben is struck by the prettiness of her face; whenever she turns away, he is struck by the fact that she’s a lot fatter than she appeared either during the Skype calls that occurred a few weeks ago among her, him, Justin, and the agency people, or in the photos of her he’s seen. She has a trim torso and disproportionately big hips, ass, and thighs. And not disproportionately big in a Kim Kardashian sexy way — big in a precursor-of-frumpy-mom way, precursor of his own mother, though Melissa is 24. Ben’s assessment is unconnected to any attraction or lack thereof to Melissa — he’s gay — and tied strictly to aesthetic implications; Matthias will need to shoot her from the waist up. Or, given the ever-increasing fatness of Americans, and given that Melissa is the project’s only Midwesterner and least famous participant, maybe they should take her fatness and, so to speak, run with it? This is a question for Nancy, the agency’s broadcast producer, and Ben guesses she’ll come down on the side of fat concealment. Nancy, who is 50, tends to be overtly sexist in a way most men in 2014 no longer are.
They are walking by a storage room, with a kind of concession-stand opening and shelves of photo equipment visible behind locked windows, when Justin says, “Matthias, what if we shoot her in there, with all the gear behind her? Would you be able to get enough distance to pull focus?”
“You want to shoot me in the cage?” Melissa giggles. “With, like, literally not one speck of natural light?”
“It’ll look cool,” Justin says. “Trust me.” He says, “Hey, what’s up?” to the broad-shouldered, big-bellied, black-T-shirted man with a salt-and-pepper ponytail sitting at the window, who has glanced up only fleetingly from the screen of his phone. Now, the man regards them quizzically; he is perched on a stool beneath fluorescent lights, and in back of him, the equipment is stacked floor to ceiling: tripods, digital and film cameras, lenses, lighting kits.
“Clarence, I don’t know if you remember me,” Melissa says. “I graduated in 2012? Melissa Simon?” She gestures to the crew. “These guys are here from New York City filming a documentary that I’m part of, and they want to maybe interview me here.”
Clarence’s quizzical expression does not change.
“Ben Schneider.” Ben slides a business card through the open window. “Producer. Would that be cool if we film in there? We have permission from the public affairs office.”
“This is the equipment cage,” Clarence says.
“No, exactly,” Ben says. “And since Melissa is a photographer, it’s like, hey, the subject in her natural habitat.”
“We’ll totally respect the gear,” Justin adds. “Put everything back the way we found it.”
Clarence seems, if anything, more confused. He says, “You’re shooting something for the public affairs office?”
“No, we have permission from the public affairs office,” Ben says. “We’re making a documentary about American creativity.”
Clarence then calls the public affairs office for confirmation before grudgingly allowing them to invade his domain. When the five of them have followed Justin through the door next to the concession window, Ben sees that the interior of the space is probably ten by eight feet, almost more of a closet than a room. It is, of course, better if the scope of what they’re doing — taking over the room for the rest of today and all of tomorrow — dawns on Clarence slowly. But often such people are easily pacified; when Clarence gets hungry, Ben thinks, they can buy him a 12-inch sub or whatever it is a portly Wichita Cerberus likes to eat.
The first thing that takes a long time is getting room tone, for which Justin wants to turn off the heat for the entire building (it isn’t going to happen but nevertheless requires another call to the public affairs office on Ben’s part, in the infinitesimal hope that his contact there will call maintenance), then Justin wants to turn off the fluorescent lights, then he wants to unplug a mini-fridge. If they can’t get the heat turned off by morning, Ben assures Justin, undoubtedly they can get egg crate foam tonight at Walmart or Home Depot. Meanwhile, Ryan is doing a lighting check, setting up an LED that Matthias says should be bounced.
Melissa stands by the door, her arms folded, watching them intently. “What will you be shooting with?” she asks.
No one responds, then Ben says, “We use a digital cinema camera called a RED Dragon.”
“A Scarlet or a Raven?” Melissa asks.
Justin gives a little snort and says, “Well, la di da.”
Melissa seems not to take offense. “I primarily shoot stills,” she says cheerfully, “but I’ve played around with video.”
Ben says, “It’s a Raven.”
As Justin and Ryan discuss whether they’ll need fill light, Melissa says, “Ben, where are you from?” If she doesn’t know that Justin is famous, she does, apparently, recognize that Ben is not — that despite his producer title, he is her low-level point person. Outside her apartment, just before she climbed into the van, she made a wide-eyed, pleased expression and murmured to him, confidingly, “This is crazy!” Or maybe it’s that she can tell he’s gay and therefore she’s more comfortable interacting with him than with his slouchily handsome, heterosexually aloof colleagues.
In the equipment room, Ben says, “I’ve lived in New York for 15 years.”
“Really?” Melissa says. “You’re so young-looking. How old are you?”
“Oh, so you’re counting when you were in college? Did you go to college in New York?”
“Yes,” he says. “I went to NYU.”
“Did you start college when you were 17?”
Frequently, on the job, Ben thinks, If I were easily annoyed, I’d probably be annoyed right now. Aloud, calmly, he says, “No, I started college when I was 18. So you’re right, I should have said I’ve lived in New York for 14 years, not 15.”
“Where did you grow up?”
“Delaware. A suburb of Wilmington.” After a pause, he adds, “Are you from Kansas?”
She shakes her head. “Sioux City, Iowa. I’ve been trying to think of what to tell you guys to do while you’re here.” Again, she giggles. “I think maybe Wichita is a better place to live than to visit. But it is a great place to be an artist.” There’s a confidence with which she says this that Ben finds what — ridiculous? Enviable? He has for four years been working on a documentary of his own, about a blind Cuban septuagenarian in the Bronx, he’s even received funding from Sundance, but would he ever casually refer to himself as an artist?
He says to Melissa, “We’re here for the shoot — for you. No worries about tourist attractions.”
Melissa gestures toward the other members of the crew, who are still conferring about the LED. “Do all of them live in New York?”
“Yes,” Ben says.
“And do you usually work together?” Melissa asks. “I’m guessing you’re freelance?”
Freelance isn’t the right term for someone of Justin’s stature — he has his own production company — so, on the off chance he’s listening, Ben says, “I’m freelance, but I work with these guys a lot. Just for this documentary, we’ve shot the footage for six of the subjects. You’re our sixth.”
“Who’s left?” Melissa asks.
A kind of bonding often arises on sets from not trying hard to get to know one another, not being overtly jovial and inquisitive. The subtext is, we’re all busy, we’re getting this done as efficiently as possible, but of course even so, during the hours together that aren’t really all that efficient, a camaraderie organically asserts itself. Melissa’s forced small talk, however — again, it’s good Ben isn’t easily annoyed.
He says, “You’re our last subject. A film crew on the West Coast has shot the other four.”
“Have you worked with Parkington before?”
“Not personally,” Ben says. “No.”
The reason they are here, the reason Ben is standing in Wichita, Kansas, talking to Melissa Simon, is toothpaste. Parkington is a multinational maker of personal care products that hired Kitley & Weiss — it’s the K&W folks who are now drinking at the hotel — to create an internet campaign around a brand of toothpaste that has existed for 72 years. The campaign will feature artists — yes, in fairness to Melissa, artists — in various mediums, and Justin et al are the ones making the documentary, or six-tenths of it, that will show the artists in their daily lives and highlight their individual talents.
Ironically, it’s Justin who would be a more fitting, less surprising subject of the documentary than Melissa. The other artists are an opera singer who’s the only living opera singer most Americans have heard of; a best-selling author of legal thrillers; an 11-year-old who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar; a maker of patchwork quilts that depict slave narratives; a former Poet Laureate; a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet; a Broadway actress; and a husband-and-wife folk duo who, between them, play 11 instruments. And then there’s Melissa — chubby 24-year-old Midwestern Melissa. She’s a photographer, which is to say that two years ago she graduated from the University of Wichita with degrees in both early childhood education and art with a photo media concentration. She currently spends mornings as a preschool teacher, but since graduating, has, rather improbably, made not one but two photo series that went viral.
The first, titled “Slideshow,” featured the children — one child per photo — at the preschool where she works coming down a slide, smiling joyously. The series appeared on an obscure parenting website, then got reproduced in about a million other places. Melissa is white, and all the children in the photos are black; as they drove from the Wichita airport to the hotel, Matthias, who himself is black, remarked that Melissa must have taken the picture of every black kid in Wichita, which prompted Ben to look online at the city’s racial demographics (as of 2011, 72 percent white).
Melissa’s second series, which she’d been working on prior to the posting of “Slideshow,” was titled “Body/Hair.” For a year, each time she performed any act of depilation, she documented it: tweezing her eyebrows while peering in her bathroom mirror; shaving her legs while perched on the side of the tub, her toes near the drain, partially obscured by soap suds, the blades of a candy-colored razor set against her calf; and yes, trimming her pubic hair (light brown, suitably uncomfortable to behold). In Ben’s opinion, the photos were neither artful nor sexy — and he doubts a straight man would beg to differ — but worst of all, they’d been poorly color-corrected. Of course, only an idiot thinks viral popularity is indicative of quality, and the series was a hit particularly among women; apparently it was the wife of the Parkington CEO who suggested Melissa for inclusion in the toothpaste campaign.
“Do you travel internationally for jobs?” Melissa is asking now. “Or do you stay in the U.S.?”
Before Ben can answer, Justin says to him, “Can you check what time sunrise is? I wonder if we should get B-roll of her walking around campus with the sun coming up, even before we shoot in here.”
Simultaneously, Ben says, “Actually, the call time tomorrow is 12:30,” and Melissa says, “I work in the morning.”
Justin gives her a look that’s almost flirtatious. “You can’t get the day off?” Justin’s attractiveness is of the stubbly, swollen-lipped, dark-haired bed-head variety, and he is, for the first time in Melissa’s presence, deploying it.
Which makes it slightly surprising when Melissa firmly says, “Unfortunately, no.” Could she also be queer?
“What’s your job?” Justin asks. “Want Ben to call your boss?”
“Justin,” Ben says. “We can make her schedule work.” As it happens, the real celebrities were more flexible with their time — the opera singer gave them two 18-hour days, one at the opera house and one at her apartment, and she cooked seafood curry for the entire crew. To Melissa, Ben says, “You have no hard out tomorrow night, correct?”
“Yes,” Melissa says. “Correct.” She looks at Justin. “I teach preschool.”
“Oh, yeah,” Justin says. “Your Mary Poppins gig. How could I forget?” Switching to his warmest voice yet, he says, “All righty. This is how we’ll do it.” Because conceding doesn’t come easily to him, good-naturedly conceding Justin, as opposed to peevishly conceding Justin, is the most charming Justin of all. “We’ll meet here at 12:30. I mean, come earlier if you can. That would be awesome. But starting at 12:30 at the latest, we’ll shoot for a couple hours in here. I’ll be off-camera asking you questions. It’ll be a zoo with all the K&W people, but just treat them like static. Ben will be the one running interference, and all you need to do is focus on my questions and be yourself. After the interview, we’ll get some B-roll of you walking around campus, driving your car, all that good stuff. Then we’ll stop back at your apartment to get you brushing your teeth, although we’ll also do that in one of the bathrooms here, to keep our options open. Oh, and Ben talked to you about bringing some prints from your two series, right? We want to get close-ups of the photos with your hands.”
“That sounds fine,” Melissa says. “But the brushing my teeth part — you’re kidding, right?”
Ben and Justin make eye contact. She wants to know if Justin is kidding? Is she kidding?
With deliberate calmness, Ben says, “All the artists have done it for the documentary.”
Melissa looks amused, but incredulously so. “You’re telling me that you filmed Beatrice Chisolm brushing her teeth? And Jack and Lulu?”
Again, Ben and Justin make eye contact; Matthias and Ryan, who were previously talking, also have gone silent and are observing the exchange, and even Clarence seems to be listening.
“Yes,” Ben says. “We did.”
“Dude, it’s in the contract,” Justin says. “Did you read the contract?”
Still seeming unpleasantly amused, Melissa says, “After I brush my teeth, do I turn to the camera and say, ‘Wow! White Sparkle toothpaste sure is effective!’?”
Her sarcasm and its abruptness are both unsettling. Although Ben met her in person just over an hour ago, he’s been talking to her one-on-one and during group Skype calls with the agency for six weeks. The initial Skyping was her unacknowledged audition, a means of determining how attractive and charismatic she was. Sufficiently attractive and sufficiently charismatic were the answers, at least when she was seated at a desk that obscured the lower half of her body. But during none of the exchanges did Ben see evidence of this abrasive streak.
“Seriously,” Justin says. “Did you read the contract? It’s all laid out.”
“Yeah,” Melissa says. “I read it. But it’s like 16 pages. And the language in it — I’m not a lawyer.”
“Well, it’s all in there, my friend,” Justin says.
“You know what?” Melissa says. “I finally understand.” She looks between Ben and Justin. “This is a commercial. I should have realized it. None of you have ever used the word commercial with me. You keep using the word documentary, you keep saying it’s a documentary about creativity being underwritten by Parkington. And I’m so dumb I’ve believed you.” She’s gazing only at Justin as she says, “I didn’t think you’d direct a commercial.”
So she does know who Justin is. But it would seem that she doesn’t know that Justin has directed commercials, for, among other products, athletic shoes, luxury cars, and a telecommunications conglomerate. It was five years ago, on a car commercial shoot, that Ben and Justin met.
Melissa glances among them. “Do you guys know how much I’m being paid for this?”
No one responds.
“Five-hundred dollars,” she says. “You’re paying me $500 to make a commercial for a huge corporation.”
“What do you think union scale is?” Justin says.
“I’m lucky to be included, right? Because I’m the one nobody’s ever heard of? But throughout this whole process, ever since you first contacted me, Ben, and during the Skype calls — there was something weird about how you all acted, and only now do I realize what it was. The weirdness isn’t that you were trying to get me to be in a commercial for toothpaste. The weirdness is that you were trying to get me to be in a commercial while pretending you weren’t.”
“Melissa,” Ben says. “You’re an incredibly talented photographer, and this campaign will get your name and your work in front of a global audience. If you feel like you’re not being fairly compensated, I can follow up with K&W and ask for more. We aren’t the ones who decided on your payment. But we definitely want you to feel good about this experience. This really is meant to be a fun, cool project celebrating artists and creativity.”
Melissa laughs an ugly laugh. The question now isn’t whether her previous giggly question-asking was fake but what percent fake it was. Oddly, knowing that not only is the chipper demeanor not the totality of her personality, but that she employs it strategically, just as she photographs her own body strategically — it makes Ben respect and even like her more.
Slowly, she says, “I don’t think I want to do this. I don’t want to be in your—” She makes air quotes, “‘documentary.’”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Justin says.
“Hey,” Ben says to Justin. “Why don’t Melissa and I go get coffee and you guys can keep scouting?” He turns to Melissa. “Want to get coffee?”
They go to the student center, a six-minute walk. As soon as they’ve parted ways with the rest of the crew, she reverts to being nice again, not acerbic. She orders green tea, and he orders a decaf espresso, and after they sit, she says, “I did read the contract. I really did. I think I even remember the sentence now. Was it something about agreeing to cooperate with reasonable promotion of the Parkington brand? Because I thought that meant I couldn’t be in the documentary and then, like, slander something Parkington makes. Like I couldn’t tweet that their laundry detergent sucks.”
“I didn’t write your contract,” Ben says. “Here’s what I care about. What can I do to make you feel comfortable with the shoot tomorrow?”
She is quiet, seeming to ponder the question. At last, she says, “If you’d said, ‘We’re making a commercial for toothpaste and we want you to be in it,’ I’d probably have said yes. That’s the irony. It’s not like I think I’m too good to sell out. But you tricked me.”
“I get where you’re coming from,” Ben says. “But I wonder if this is partly an issue of semantics. There just aren’t such clear demarcations anymore between commercial and documentary content, especially online”
She raises her eyebrows. “Really? That’s really what you believe?”
“Like I said, I get where you’re coming from. I don’t want you to think I don’t.”
“Or if this actually was a documentary and you were paying me nothing — that would have been fine, too. I never thought people got paid to be in documentaries anyway.”
She’s right — they usually don’t — but he doesn’t affirm her statement.
“Honestly, when ‘Slideshow’ went viral,” she says, “I felt uncomfortable. Should I have paid the kids whose pictures I took? But also, I didn’t make any money. The original website that ran the photos didn’t pay me, and then literally hundreds of other publications just helped themselves. I didn’t know that was legal. In the end, I was paid a grand total of 50 Euros from some random Dutch magazine , which came out to I think 66 American dollars.”
“That’s a huge bummer,” he says. “Photo copyright these days is like the Wild West. Almost no one understands the work by people like you that goes into the images.”
“I told myself, Melissa, just enjoy this success and attention that’s probably once in a lifetime. Then, a few months later, my shaving pictures got even more attention. And I felt weird about those, too. As a feminist, for one thing, and also I was like, has the entire world really just seen my pubes? Who will ever date me now?” When Ben laughs, she says, “I’m not joking. I know there’s this idea, with social media and everything, that we all want as much attention as possible, all the time, but one of the things about my early success that’s been eye-opening is that I’ve gotten so much attention and it doesn’t feel that great. It feels strange. That’s helped me realize that my goal isn’t to find the biggest audience. It’s to be able to keep taking pictures and to find an audience who really appreciates what I do.”
My early success. An audience who really appreciates what I do. Her confidence! It’s so bizarrely pure, so uncompetitive. Should Ben move to Wichita?
“Can I ask you a question?” she says. “How much is Justin getting paid for this?”
“I truly don’t know. But he’s not a good frame of comparison because he’s directing six of the shoots for the documentary.”
“But, like, what’s the range? If you had to guess?”
“If you’re asking if it’s more than $500, sure.” If he had to guess, a $100,000. He considers saying $10,000, but what if even that sounds high to her?” It’s just really hard to know,” he says. “Plus, he has an agent.”
“I’m sure you won’t tell me,” she says, “but how much are you getting paid?”
“If this is about the money, I’m confident we can get you more. The exposure, though — you can’t put a price on that.”
“At the rate I’m going, I’ll be 45 when I pay off my student loans,” she says. “Literally. I calculated. And I wish I could get an MFA in photo, but then what? I’ll be dead without paying off my loans.”
“I have student loans,” he says. “I know. It sucks.” The truth is that most people in the documentary field don’t. They don’t seem so different from you, with their shitty apartments and their roommates and their artsy hustling, then it turns out their parents have a summer house on Martha’s Vineyard (Justin), or the way they met their agent is that he was their Harvard roommate’s uncle (Matthias).
Melissa says, “It’s just, what you keep saying about payment and exposure — why do I have to decide between them?”
“No, right. You shouldn’t. You don’t.” He is not entirely sure why, in this moment, he says, “For what it’s worth, I’m working on a documentary, too. I’m directing one. I get the whole blood, sweat, and tears thing.”
“What’s yours about?”
“A Cuban guy in his 70s. He left when Castro came to power, went back to fight in the Bay of Pigs, was sent to a Cuban prison for six months after the U.S. threw all those guys under the bus, went blind due to being tortured, then he was released back to the U.S. in ’62. He ends up working as a cab dispatcher, getting married, and having five sons.”
“I’m just scared he’ll die before I can finish. I need to buckle down.” Quickly, Ben adds, “Not to sound like an asshole. Obviously, it would be sad for his family if he died. And for him. Not just for me.”
She smiles. “I knew what you meant. What’s his name?”
“Diego Ruiz.” Ben pauses. “A lot of the time, I’m like, why the fuck am I doing this? Making a documentary is expensive, it’s a pain in the ass, I’m calling in favors from my friends. But Diego is amazing. He wears dark glasses, he has this huge belly, and he’s hilarious. He’s been through some of the worst things that can happen to a person, and he’s warm and funny and loves his family. And for some reason he’s trusting me to help tell his story. I know it sounds corny, but it’s a privilege.”
Divulging all this — it really wasn’t calculated on Ben’s part. It was true. Is this why it works? She says, “Yeah, exactly. You know in the story of ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ how the miller’s daughter spins straw into gold? That’s what I feel like making art is.” Then she says, “If you can try to get me more money, I’d really appreciate it. But whatever. I’ll be there tomorrow at 12:30.”
That night, when Ben and Ryan return to the hotel from buying egg crate foam at Walmart, a massive amount of barbecue, procured by a K&W assistant, has been laid out buffet-style in the part of the lobby where the continental breakfast will be served tomorrow morning: pulled pork, ribs, brisket, as well as coleslaw, fries, and mac and cheese. Even though the hotel’s modest-sized bar is right there, the crew and the eight agency people keep drinking in the lobby after dinner, while the mac and cheese congeals and the meat grows old. The girl behind the front desk, who looks like an undergrad, does nothing to indicate they should go elsewhere.
On the plane ride out, Ben decided he’d have no more than two beers tonight, but Justin is drinking a lot, so pretty soon Ben has had four. Although Justin is married to a dark-haired, incredibly beautiful woman from Venezuela, a model, three times on location when Justin and Ben were both very drunk, Ben gave Justin blow jobs; the third time, Justin also gave Ben a blow job. Ben is happy to get drunk if he and Justin are going to hook up, but he doesn’t want to not hook up and be hungover tomorrow.
He has just opened his fifth beer when Nancy, the broadcast producer, perches on the arm of the couch where he’s sitting, sets a hand on his shoulder and says, “I hear our ingénue got stage fright today.”
“It’s under control,” Ben says.
Nancy smiles tightly, though it’s difficult to discern if the tightness is due to her mood or the work she’s had done. “Keep it that way,” she says.
But he’s already received the text from Melissa; he received it at 8:56 p.m. and he just didn’t know it for a half hour because he didn’t feel his phone vibrate. The text says: “Ben I thought about it and I changed my mind again. I don’t want to appear in the documentary/commercial/whatever. This is definite. Sorry for any confusion.”
By this point, a garrulous medical device sales rep named Randy, in town from San Antonio, Texas, has joined the gathering in the lobby, and everyone is tipsy enough to be tickled rather than annoyed. Ben walks outside to the parking lot to call Melissa. He must stand several feet from the entrance to avoid setting off the automatic doors.
“What’s going on?” he says when she answers. “I got your text.”
“I just feel too weird about everything,” she says. “I know I wouldn’t be able to relax during the shoot tomorrow and give you the footage you need.”
“Let us worry about that. I appreciate your consideration, but that’s our job.”
“I’m not doing it,” she says. “I don’t want to waste more of your time.” Her voice is neither tentative, as it initially was in their encounters, nor caustic, as it was later. She does in fact sound resolute, but more soberly so than angrily.
He says, “What can I do to change your mind?”
After a beat, she says, “When we were having coffee, you were convincing. You seemed like a sincerely nice person, not a condescending New Yorker who thinks it’s hilarious he’s in Kansas, and maybe you really are nice. But after I got home today, I was thinking about your documentary about the Cuban guy. You know the difference between a documentary and a commercial. And you’re the person who first got in touch with me — you’re the one who said from the start it was a documentary. I don’t know what instructions you got from the Kitley & Weiss people, but you could have told me the truth.”
“It feels like we’re going in circles here,” he says. “How can we move forward? We want to do right by you, Melissa.”
“See, I think you might actually believe what you’re saying. I think maybe you’re so used to working in this fake way that you don’t even recognize it. But I know you won’t care if I come off looking good or bad tomorrow. All you care about is getting me to do whatever you’ve already decided I should do on-camera.”
“I can give you my word we have no interest in making you look bad.”
“Your word?” She chortles.
“What if we don’t film you brushing your teeth?” he says. “We just do the interview?”
It immediately occurs to him that this isn’t his bargaining chip to offer, so he’s a bit relieved when she says, “No.”
“Well, if it makes any difference,” he says, “I talked to the agency folks, and they can raise your fee to $2,500.” He hasn’t talked to anyone yet — he’s been too preoccupied with Justin and blow jobs — but he’s confident he can get this amount. Possibly he could get her more, but if he gets her too much, it will emphasize how they lowballed her at first. He says, “I don’t know what you pay on your student loans, but for me, that’s about eight months’ worth.”
She’s quiet again, and he can tell that it does make a difference. But it makes a difference in the sense that it’s harder to turn down the additional money, not that it changes her mind. She says, “No. And I have to get up early for work, so please don’t call or text me again.”
Of course Nancy insists on calling her. First, Nancy freaks out in the lobby — she says, “It’s a fucking hostage situation, and she’s the hostage and the terrorist” — then she goes outside with Ben to call Melissa from Ben’s phone. It’s almost 10 o’clock and maybe 40 degrees, and they’re not wearing coats. At Nancy’s instruction, Ben puts Melissa on speaker, though it’s Nancy who’s doing most of the talking.
“This isn’t coastal elites trying to deceive you,” Nancy says. “This is the career opportunity of a fucking lifetime dropping in your lap. Besides which, how could we have tricked you about the nature of what we’re doing when you had umpteen conference calls with one of the most famous ad agencies in the world?”
Melissa says nothing.
“Honey, do you know where I grew up?” Nancy asks. “I’m from Wentzville, Missouri. I’m practically your next door neighbor. And you know what? I may have lived in L.A. for 30 years, but I’m still Jenny from the block.” Ben winces; he hopes Melissa is too young to get the reference.
“Whether you want to stay in Wichita or move to New York, L.A., or for that matter Kansas City, being part of a project of this prestige is your calling card,” Nancy continues. “I’m telling you, woman to woman, Midwesterner to Midwesterner, that there’s absolutely no question this exposure is in your best interest.”
The silence from Melissa lasts long enough that Ben wonders if she ended the call. Then, quietly, she says, “I don’t want exposure.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Nancy says. “Do you know how many people came here for tomorrow’s shoot? Thirteen. Thirteen! Do you know how much it costs to fly out that many people, for the hotel, the equipment, the man hours? And because you have cold feet, because you’re too precious to be filmed sticking a goddamn toothbrush in your mouth, you think we’re flushing $60,000 in expenses down the toilet? That’s not how it works, sweetheart. You signed a contract. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
“No, actually—” Melissa’s voice grows marginally louder. “I never signed the contract. I wasn’t playing hardball. I was planning to ask you about this, Ben, because there’s a line where I’m supposed to sign it and right under, there’s a line where my agent is supposed to sign, but I don’t have an agent, so I wasn’t sure what to do. And I may not be a lawyer, but I know enough to know that if I didn’t sign the contract—” She doesn’t say the rest.
In the dark hotel parking lot, Nancy glares at Ben. Yes, this is his fuck-up. But, in his defense, getting the contract was on his to-do list for tomorrow; subjects often don’t sign until the day of, and sometimes until weeks after.
“You know what you are?” Nancy says, and it’s not clear if she’s speaking to Melissa, Ben, or both of them. “You’re an entitled little millennial piece of shit.”
The toothpaste campaign is an enormous, unequivocal success. Relatively few people see the full documentary, but the 90-second montage of the artists brushing their teeth, which never airs on television, is viewed 52 million times on Youtube. Why is it so enjoyable to watch somewhat famous people brush their teeth? Ben spends a fair amount of time pondering this question (he himself watches the montage repeatedly even after his involvement with Parkington is complete) and concludes that it’s because teeth-brushing is universal. It’s personal but not excessively so — the participants seem like good sports rather than exhibitionists — and it’s real. Using White Sparkle is of course beside the point; everyone in the video does actually brush their teeth. Even people who hire others to do mundane tasks for them, even the opera singer — such people still brush their own teeth.
That night in Wichita, after he and Nancy reentered the hotel lobby and broke the news about Melissa’s change of heart, everyone disbanded quickly, with varying levels of irritation and outright rage. But it wasn’t as if any of them personally lost money. Parkington was paying K&W, and K&W was paying the crew, and they didn’t end up replacing Melissa. They just included nine subjects in the documentary instead of ten.
The two calls to Melissa from the parking lot had so thoroughly soured the night — the whole trip — that the question of whether Ben and Justin would hook up was rendered moot. But then, because Ben gave up on willing it to happen, it did happen after all. As they were riding up in the elevator, Justin conveyed a kind of unspoken sleepy-eyed receptivity that coexisted with, or ran beneath, his overtly expressed contempt for Melissa. But after Ben gave him a blow job, Justin didn’t reciprocate, which wouldn’t have felt as bad if he’d never done it before; it would have felt like standard issue quasi-straight guy bullshit instead of a regression of intimacy.
Ben occasionally Googles Melissa Simon. He half-expects to hear from or about her, at the least in the form of another viral slideshow, but a few years pass without this happening. Based on what he can infer from LinkedIn, she does go to grad school but not for photography — she gets a master’s degree in, of all things, business administration. And on Instagram, she seems to be dating, then married to, a tubby, smiley guy named Mikey.
Ben makes a trailer of his existing footage of Diego Ruiz to secure more funding. But after three years, when he hears from the eldest Ruiz son that their father died a month before, Ben has shot 150 additional hours of footage and watched zero of them. Oddly, upon learning of Diego’s death, Ben feels the temptation to relay the news to Melissa. He doesn’t, though, because there’s no good reason why he would.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest book is the short-story collection You Think It, I’ll Say It, out in paperback on March 5.