Being a Casino Girl is nothing like being a Bond Girl, but it’s all right. I’ll take it.
The set is supposed to be in San Francisco Chinatown somewhere. I’ve never been to California before, so maybe it looks like it’s supposed to. All I know is that New York Chinatown looks nothing like the room I’m standing in. The dress they have me in is supposed to be qipao but the collar’s too tight and low cut with some kind of black crushed velvet. Not my mother’s qipao, that’s all I’ll say. It’d be all right if it wasn’t mid-July. We’re not supposed to look hot, the director says. Not that kind of hot.
I get it. You lean on the table, flash a little safe boob, and give the viewers a little titillation. It’s par for the course. It’s a big plot scene, too; the hero is waiting just over there, smoking his cigarette even though the room is closed and there are no open doors or windows. He’s one of those familiar faces I recognize but can’t quite place. Not close enough to superstardom yet, but fighting for it. One of the other CGs–I think she was #3 or #4–said she saw him doing a line in the bathroom with one of his security guards. You’ve got to be going somewhere to roll with that amount of blow. That’s what she said, the other CG girl. Her eyes were a little glazed over, like maybe she had wanted some of that coke too. Or maybe she just wanted him. I don’t know. I can’t read those kinds of people.
I get to play his dealer.
They hired me, I think, because they didn’t need to teach me how to shuffle and deal the cards. You grow up with parents that run a semi-pro gambling house out of their tenement apartment, you get to learn how to shuffle cards pretty well. Shoot pool with the boys, that kind of thing. They used to try to rope me into going to the pool halls with them, the Chen-on-Bowery boys, and I always said no because I had better things to do. Dreams to chase. Everything always winds up the way it’s planned, almost always with egg on your face.
I shuffle the cards the way that they like. It’s showy, not like how anyone would actually want you to shuffle the cards in a gambling hall. In the movies, they always want to see your fingers moving like the way piano players stroke the keys. Too quick to see, the cards falling into some kind of line, quick, quick, quick. In the halls, you try to play it that way and someone will think you’re cheating. That’s an easy way to get a broken jaw and a bloody nose. When you’re really in a gambling hall, the key is not to be noticed. Movie set’s not too different from a casino, all things considered, except, on the set, you want to be the one who’s getting attention. So I do it the wrong way, flashy as a showgirl, and even the AD looks impressed when he isn’t looking miserable. I smile at him. Can’t go wrong throwing a smile. It’s how you hook the fish.
So the scene we’re shooting is straight blockbuster cotton candy. The hero’s sitting and playing cards with one of the Chinese Triads. Don’t ask me how you get a table in one of those places; this guy apparently has the secret. He outwits the lieutenant of the Triad at the poker table, cheats them out of a lot of money. That’s when my big moment comes. I stand up in the qipao that isn’t a qipao, lean my cutlet-assisted pushed-up boobs against the table as I reach for something under the table, and bam!–he’s supposed to catch my throwing stars before they hit him right in the eye.
I don’t really throw them, of course. The stunt workers have that all choreographed and figured out. I think they’re filming that separately anyway.
“Aren’t throwing stars, like, a Japanese thing, anyway?” Paul says from the next table. He and the extras have been playing blackjack on the sly while they’re waiting for things to go. Always making the best of a bad situation, that’s Paul.
I turn to look at him. His finger keeps pulling at the stiff collar of his shirt like it’s going to suddenly bring him more air in the stuffy room.
Paul and I get along okay, but I think that he thinks we’re better friends than we are. Even if we weren’t, everyone else seems to think so since we’re the two Asian players in the scene today. Paul even has some lines, but they’re all in Cantonese. He likes to laugh with me about it over the crafts table. “I don’t even speak Canto!” he says. It’s true. I tried to teach him the words but they always leave his mouth sounding mangled. Not like my accent is any better, but at least I know how the words are supposed to sound. He asks me to help him, and so I do. That’s the way these things are supposed to go: brother helping brother, slowly making our way into visibility.
Together, we are going to be the greatest Casino Girl and Waiter that has ever chewed the scenery in an action film. One day, maybe we’ll get our own franchise. Some kind of weird action-romance-drama. Casino Girl and the Waiter. Writes itself, don’t you think? I think it’s all bullshit, the franchises and these plots and everything else, but I’ve got a pretty enough face for it.
Paul yawns, and the AD and the director are screaming at each other.
“Are we ready to go or not?” says the hero. He’s slouching into those tight Calvin Klein jeans, and you can just tell that he thinks he’s the hottest thing on this side of the country. His eyes are bloodshot and completely red, and Paul and I take turns mouthing the drugs that we think he’s on. I think CG #3 wants to sleep with him and try to ride that news all the way into being a romantic-comedy sidekick gig. She likes that kind of thing. It’s predictable, she says.
“Hold on, Jimmy,” the AD says. “All right? We’re just trying to figure out the camera setup and then we can go.”
I hold onto the ninja star underneath the table, push my finger against its sharp point. Somewhere my parents think that I’m in college, building a future for myself. Every couple of months, I try to make myself feel bad about how much I lie to them, but it doesn’t ever seem to take. That’s the problem with having gamblers for parents: you get used to them lying to you so you feel all right doing it back. At least I’m not like George, my older brother. He’s done nothing but gamble nowadays. He’s not very good at winning, which is the only thing that would make it okay.
“All right!” calls the director. “All right, all right!”
I figure we’re about to go. I stand up, and the dress sighs against my chest with a rustle. The hero sees it. Looks me right in the tit, then up to my eyes. He mouths something, and I can’t read the words.
“Maybe later,” I say. You can’t look these kinds of gift horses in the mouth.
I don’t like to think of myself as the kind of girl who fucks to get herself up in the world, but I know that’s how it looks. The hero comes and writes down a time on a slip of paper and presses it into my hand with the greasy kind of smile that I know he thinks I should find charming or something, but I just find it sleazy. It’s that all-American football-player corn-fed slow crooked smile that they all think is cute, but it just makes them look like old men leering out from their car windows. But I smile. I let him think it’s cute.
Paul frowns, thumbing over another card onto their blackjack game. Someone’s just busted, and the card is folded back into the deck so that they don’t fuck with the continuity of the scene. It’s an important thing: continuity. For all that they worry about it in the movies, you’d think that life would have it in double when it doesn’t. But I’m not the one who’s making these kinds of decisions, and this is a nothing action movie that’s only going to get bad reviews anyway.
Paul wants to be an artist. He’s got this whole list of directors and actors he wants to work with, takes classes at the university when he has time in things like Physicality and Cinema Verite. Me, I don’t think half so much about these kinds of things. I’m young enough, I’m pretty when I smile, and I want to get paid. I’m not about to start doing porn, but that’s the line that I draw. I want to make movies. Everyone says that, and I know it, but the truth is still the truth. Continuity, you see what I mean?
“You really going to meet him later?” Paul says, and I shrug, trying to look casual.
“Why not?” I say.
“He’s just using you. He’s not going to hook you up with anything.”
I shrug. “I don’t know,” I said. “He might.”
Paul rolls his eyes, and I know that he’s thinking about integrity again like the rich little shit he is. His parents are doctors, and he always thinks about things like that. Big capital-letter words like Integrity that stand for something, that mean something about the kind of person you are. I know what kind of person I am, and I’m willing to take a chance. But maybe that’s me. I’ve got gamblers for parents and I just don’t have anything to lose anymore, so what does it matter?
The other CG girl looks at me, her eyes narrowed in jealousy. She murmurs something that I don’t catch, and then smiles at me, all coy and vicious. I want to tell her something like I’m sorry, it’ll be you next time, but that sounds ridiculous and cold, even to me. Wait for the next heroic white dick to come along, and you can ride that all the way to LA after me. See? Ridiculous.
The hero’s built like this: dark thick hair that has a natural tangled look to it, bright blue eyes, so skinny you can see the bone of his shoulders, slight beard, taller than average but less than six feet. You can already tell how they’re going to try to sell him. He’s the intellectual poet, the sensitive action hero who’s interested in hearing what you have to say before he takes charge and leads command, grabbing you and making out with you as the cameras zoom in for close-up. He won’t objectify you, Leading Lady, and he’ll fight everyone else who does, except for the camera. The camera’s not doing much anyway. All it does is report. You know, things like “Leading Lady looks Hot with Shirt Off”, news at eleven, all that kind of stuff.
He smells like cigarettes and Jack when I get to his trailer, and I wonder just how early he starts to pregame. You got to worry about the ones who start showing those superstar tantrums before they’ve even made it. Those are the ones who end up on the covers of tabloids, having fallen from grace in five years or less. Fast track, fast fall, that sort of thing. He mostly just looks tired, burned out from everything he’s touched in the last few days.
“You clean?” I say.
He smiles again, leaning back against the wall of his trailer. “Listen, baby,” he says, “Why don’t we go in here where we can just talk? Just talk.”
I almost want to tell him not to bother with the act, but it’s cute. Some actors like to do it because they get a thrill out of being the kinds of people they’d never be in real life. Paul’s that sort of actor. Like you look at him and you think accountant. Some people act because they like to think they’re good at lying. That’s the Hero. And some people act because they are good at lying, and they’ll never be good at anything else as much as they’re good at lying. That’s me. There you have it.
His trailer is dirty, clothes and shoes and cigarette butts and roaches everywhere. CD cases just sit on tables, still dusted with powder.
“You clean?” I say. “Have a condom?”
“Just relax,” he says. “Tell me about yourself.”
I wrinkle my eyebrows as I look at him. “What is this, a job interview?” I say.
“Don’t you want it to be?” he says. “Every girl who comes in here wants to be somebody, so tell me what you want to be. What I can do for you.”
I’m not sure he can do anything for me, if I’m being honest. He isn’t exactly in the place where he can start calling agents and pulling strings; he’s just higher up the ladder. So I look at him and I say, “I want to make it, like everyone else you probably bring in here.”
His laugh is quiet. “Where’d they get you?”
“Came in off the street,” I say. “Like everyone else. I just don’t like to lie about it.”
“Everyone in LA likes to lie about it,” he says. “That’s what we get off on. Lying about it.”
I try to reach for him, for the waistband of his jeans, but he’s a little too far for me to grab onto anything.
“Why are you so nervous?” he says. “To tell me anything about yourself?”
“What can you do for me,” I say. “Really?”
“I’ll give my agent your headshot,” he says.
“That’s charitable of you,” I say.
“What more do you want?”
“Make a call,” I say. “That’s all.”
“Sure,” he says, coming closer. “I’ll make a call.”
He’s close enough to touch now, so I pull at his pants, and he doesn’t need me to say anything else. He fucks me from behind right in front of the vanity mirror in his trailer. It’s because he likes to see himself, one of those assholes who studies their own face in the mirror as they’re pumping in and out of you, waiting for you to come like one of those girls in porn. I can’t help myself: I throw my head back, make it look convincing. His hand winds in my hair and pulls, and I groan, leaning forward to let him push even deeper.
I watch his face, too. There, in the mirror, the makeup still thick on his cheeks.
His hips pick up speed, slamming hard against my own faster and faster until all that I can hear is the slap of flesh. I curl my hands against the vanity, look at my own face in the mirror, the pink in the cheeks, the way my teeth bite down into my lip, and I start to punctuate my breathing with those soft gasps. It’s like the way you hear a train coming, all slow steps at first until it’s suddenly passing you and everything is drowning in its wave of sound. I pant, I throw my head back, I grunt like a pig trapped in a pen.
He pulls at my hair again, rougher this time, and I can feel some of the hair being pulled out.
I arch my back, my hips pressing back against his.
“Fuck!” he says, as his hands dig into my body. “Fucking take it! Take it!”
I flip my hair as I look up into the mirror at his body, curled around mine. The top of his head is already beginning to show thinning, and he’ll be bald in a couple of years if he doesn’t get it corrected. In my eyes, I see nothing but perfect stillness and calm. When I smile, my whole face colors and flushes with ease and joy.
He pats my shoulder once as he pulls out, slipping the condom off to knot it and toss it somewhere behind him. I make a face, readjusting my underwear, pushing down the skirt of my dress. “You do this a lot?” he says.
I shrug. “Not that much,” I say. “Only when I think it’s really worth it.”
“Yeah?” he says, grinning. “And was I worth it?”
“The call,” I say. “The call will be worth it.”
“Okay,” he says, and he’s rummaging through drawers for something.
Paul’s waiting there outside the trailer when I come out like some kind of overprotective brother or jealous boyfriend. Except he doesn’t look overprotective or jealous. He just looks sad, like one of his toys got stolen by a boy next door and he’ll never get it back the same ever again. I’m not a toy, and I wasn’t stolen. I try to let him know this without saying anything, but he still looks disappointed.
“Did he promise you anything?” Paul says.
I shrugged. “No,” I say. “He just said he’d make a call for me. Give his agent my headshot.”
“You really think that he’s going to do it?” Paul says. “Think of how many other girls he’s told this kind of thing to.”
“I’m barely above an extra in this,” I say. “I need all the help that I can get.”
He looks at me, that plaintive puppy-dog look that tells me he’s never done anything crazier than return a book late to the library. He’s too good for this kind of thing, Paul. Maybe he’ll figure that out someday.
“What were you doing, standing out here anyway?”
He lifts his hand, and it’s then that I see the cigarette. I reach my hand out, and he just hands it over without a fight. It tastes all right, some cheap brand that you buy because you can’t afford anything else, but it satisfies. Everything tends to get like that at one point or another. Not good enough, but it’ll do.
“You enjoy yourself?” he says.
I shrug. “It’s a job, Paul,” I say. “Don’t you get tired of trying to mangle your way through Canto in every job you get?”
He gives a bitter little laugh. “I’m finally learning some Chinese,” he says. “Maybe it’ll make my mom happy.”
At this, we both laugh and it is cold and sour. There is no making anyone happy anymore. We smoke the cigarette down to the filter, throw it on the ground and let it burn itself out.
We finish the scene later that night. It’s a simple enough ending. After he catches the throwing star, there’s an extended fight sequence and Paul and I and the other girls run around, yelling and screaming like our asses are going to get caught in the crossfire.
That’s when it happens. The Hero reaches for my hand, pulls me away from Paul and towards him. My leg slips against the slit in the dress, and you can see all the way up nearly to my hip. Still PG-13, but risky, risky. The Hero smiles at me, and the noise of fake gunfire is going off all around us. Behind me, Paul is screaming nonsensical sentences in transliterated Chinese.
“Come on!” the Hero shouts. “Let’s get out of here.”
He pulls me behind him.
I run after him, my stiletto heels not really liking my attempts at sprinting in them, and he mounts his motorcycle, just like it says he’s supposed to. He pulls at my hand and I get on the back of the bike, right behind him. I try to look indignant at him, my eyes studiously avoiding directly looking at the camera, shouting as much Cantonese as I can summon to memory at the moment.
The motorcycle revs, the track underneath it pulling us along and out of frame.
“What the fuck was that?” explodes the director.
The Hero shrugs, dismounting and walking back towards the game tables. “It’ll test well, trust me,” he says. “She’s hot, and we look good together.”
I shrug. That’s not how things work here, and I figure they’ll probably end up cutting it before it ever makes it to screen anyway. But at least it was something.
The AD snorts, wiping at his eyes, exhausted. “Let’s just keep going before we lose the light.”
Turns out they don’t cut the scene at all. They keep me around for a couple more, even throw me three or four little lines until they introduce the main love interest. I’m just supposed to be the placeholder, the girl that dies to give him something to fight for.
On screen, he and I smile at each other and we talk and flirt. My English breaks over him in stilted phrases, and he smiles like he sees the sun in my face. He isn’t as bad an actor as I thought when I met him, I’ll give him that, too.
And when I die on screen, the throwing stars stuck in the middle of my abdomen, the knife still gripped in my hand, squibs bleeding through my dress, I can’t help but study everything that I choose to do. The way my hands move, the angles of my body. He holds me as he cries, saying things you can’t really understand because of the way that he cries. It’s loud and thick, suffocating with congestion, but I lay there, pretty and still as a painted river, smiling at him.
He buries his head against my chest as I die.
Paul even watches it with me months later, there on the tiny screen of my computer. He squints, tilting his head, trying to make out how I look.
“I think it’s all right,” I say. “Something for the reel.”
“Yeah?” he says. “Did you get any calls?”
I point to the stack of papers on the vanity.
“Best friend,” I say.
“Which one?” he says.
I turn to look at him, catching the reflection of my profile in the computer screen. “Jeanette.”
“Wow,” he says. “Look at you.”
“Yeah,” I say, dabbing some make-up on the bridge of my nose. “I’m a real girl.”
Karen Chau is a writer, editor, and news junkie based out of New York City. She has previously published pieces in racialicious, the tempest, and SunStruck Magazine, and edited for phati’tude literary magazine and 2Leaf Press. Usually found @thekarenchau on twitter.