ever forget how far you’ve come.
This was Catalina Rosa Rivera’s mantra, one she whispered to herself for the hundredth time as she made her way through the behind-the-scenes maze on the set of her television show. The stomp of her faux-lizard heels echoed against the walls of particle board surrounding her, an embrace of corners and wiring. Catalina’s pace was more brisk and the grip on her blue-card notes tighter today. She was ready. At least she looked ready, war paint and all. Just an hour earlier the show’s makeup artist, sensing bad juju, gave her extra body armor with a full strip of fake lashes, crimson lips, and hair sprayed into architecture.
Turning the bend into the hot spotlight on her desk, Cat, as she was known to her national viewing audience, ran fingers across her teeth to remove any stray lipstick. As she came into view of the show’s staff and her guests, she instinctively replaced her clomping elephant gait with a more appropriate, professional stride.
The one-hour show was mapped out, no big changes in format or topic. But the tension on set was viscous. Usually self-assured, Cat’s hands began to tremble in a combination of anxiety and relief. As her wide, dark eyes shifted from commanding her hands to be still to looking up at her set with the broad-smiling mask of a professional national television host, she was now 100 percent sure that the end of her time as the captain of this TV news ship was on the horizon. Despite solid ratings, the signs were stark—the shakiness of the economy, the migration of eyeballs from TV to the Web, the loss of nearly half the usual advertising revenue. All business reasons, money reasons. And she had heard and seen the buzz around the halls and blogs, the mass layoffs and cancellations at other networks.
It’s just a matter of time. And it’s not my fault . . . Right?
Painfully, the strongest confirmation of her cancellation instincts was personal. The once-enthusiastic head of her department had stopped returning her calls, or picking them up at all. And just two days ago, she had received the most passive-aggressive form of communication of all, a sin of omission. Cat was left off the invitation to a regular staff meeting, changed from its usual time without her knowledge. She was
in her staff meetings. She was not only the host of the show, but the co-creator. Nail in coffin.
Stab me in the front, people. I can take it. I prefer it.
“Hey, baaaybays!” She greeted her set crew as if all were well.
These were guys you’d see at the local pub, biker tees, baseball caps, and, for the most part, warm smiles. Only one didn’t smile. The steady-cam guy. A burly, military-cut, late-thirties, bearded blond, he erased his grin in response to Cat’s. All had been well with the whole on-set team of sound and camera crew, and there was a solid teasing camaraderie among a bunch of fairly macho males and Cat’s big-sister persona. That was until the new steady-cam guy arrived. At first, he folded in nicely. Then he made an amateur mistake—he took Cat’s kindness and joviality during commercial breaks for weakness. He began to talk over her and disregard her need for quiet when time got tight—this was a live show, where one second could mean the camera catching an errant gesture or expression that could mar a career. Or, she’d just be thrown off and mess up. Cat may not have been the boss behind the scenes, but damn well she was the boss on the set. It was her face, her name, her career on the line. She needed some deference, some respect. After gently asking the new guy to cool it a few times on set, and receiving no compliance in return, Cat had turned to his boss, her director. Since he spoke to the yapper, all Cat got from behind the steady-cam that trailed her every move was a steely glare.
“Hey, girl . . . Sup,” the rest of the crew replied with a bit less enthusiasm these days.
Hip-hop thumped through the speakers at Cat’s request. It helped her gear up just before going live. Out of respect for her usually non-urban guests, it was usually the clean, radio version, but sometimes words leaked through that jarred James Taylor–trained ears.
“I’m young, bitches . . .” Jay-Z’s voice threw out over the speakers.
“Ayyy yay yay, guys! Shhhhhhh . . .” Cat’s blue-manicured hand gestured her sound team to turn the music down as she shimmied onto her stool, skirt tight, bottom round. She aligned her Spanxed navel up to the ragged snip of black duct tape stuck to the glass desk’s edge, marking her spot. The rap faded quickly.
“We’re gonna scare our guests . . .” She threw a diplomatic, soothing smile toward her anxious desk companions, her head swinging back to the script notes set down swiftly in front of her by an intern seconds before. “Thanks, hon—can you snag me an extra water, too, please? I’m parched.” Cat could usually make it through a show on one network-logoed mug of water, but tonight her mouth was as dry as a bag of saltines.
I wish this was tequila
. She smacked her lips quietly thinking of the sour, strong, mind-numbing taste she’d rather have in her mouth.
The show’s guests shifted; Cat watched them out of the corner of her eye. For every show she noted like an interrogator which one seemed eager or excited, which was potentially hostile, and which was just shitting his pants because it was his first time on live television. She knew their bios, but they were all newbies to her set. Bringing in fresh talent after so long seemed also ominous, rather than bringing in her regular superstars or potential new hosts. Maybe they were trying to kill some ratings so they could blame Cat for the show’s demise. Or, maybe they just didn’t give a crap anymore and they were saving their energy for what’s next.
I’ll go with option two
Cat winked at her floor crew, ignoring the steady cam. She then turned to her three suited, very pale, and very male guests sitting to her left. Knowing that jittery guests don’t make the best guests, Cat considered it her job as host of this fiesta of folly to put everyone at ease.
“Sorry about the music, guys. Gotta go with the PG version, right?”
“Yeah, I’m more of a James Taylor kind of guy myself,” said the rosacea-faced fund manager directly to her right, as he tightened his tie.
Cat narrowed her eyes and took a moment to discern if he was being antagonistic and condescending or was simply an uncomfortable Boomer.
“I think I’ve heard of him,” she responded, within her sweet grin a teenager’s eye roll at a dorky father.
The men and crew smiled while Mr. Red Face blushed further, charmed. Cat was charismatic and beautiful, powerful weapons in her day-to-day battles, particularly in the finance industry she covered, where an attractive woman’s presence had the power to throw men off their game. Her black hair glistened in the robust lights, its glossiness brushing her shoulders and her skin just bronze enough to make clear her non-Anglo-Saxon heritage. As news television dictated, she was “dressed as a crayon,” encased in a cerulean blue dress assigned with the job of making her “pop” on screen, while also making her gender clear.
Now, it was time to make some TV.
In rare form, Cat barreled through the first half of the show. Not one to reveal what was behind her eyes, her anger at all that was going unspoken between her higher-ups and their host had a way of focusing Cat, giving her a buzz—it was fuel. Anger and self-righteousness had always been something for her to run on. The pattern was set when her drunk, absentee father left her and her mother broke and on their own when she was six. She’d show him. She’d show them. Cat knew her bosses were watching—thousands were watching. She channeled ire into spunk.
“I’m sorry, what?” Cat asked sharply during a commercial break.
She was speaking into the air, not to her guests. Cat received feedback from the control room directly into her ear, plus notes on upcoming segments. Her producers and director watched her through the cameras facing her, as the audience did, but from the control room on another floor. In many ways, hosting a show was like driving a fast, expensive car. There were pricy parts and pieces, and all had to work smoothly. But in the end, the host worked the clutch, gearing up, gearing down.
Cat worked hard to focus, to package up the ugly feelings caught in her throat, to not let them see. As no one on the set with her, including her guests, could hear what she was hearing in her earpiece when the control room was speaking to her, it appeared to newbies as if she was just lost in thought, silent during the break. So, she was often interrupted.
“Cat, so, are you really Spanish?” It was the Red Boomer again, directly to Cat’s left, whispering to her. She drew a deep breath and straightened her back as she remembered that this one had flown himself in his own plane from Salt Lake City to be on the show.
Mr. Carbon Footprint, James Taylor–listening, old man . . . I’ll give you a Utah pass on this one.
Without moving her eyes from her script, Cat responded coolly, albeit politely. “‘Spanish?’ Do you mean, am I Hispanic?” She offered up a side-eye.
He nodded. “Yeah.”
She nodded back, now looking at him head-on. “Yes, Bob. I’m Hispanic. Not Spanish.”
Even though she answered his question, his expression became confused.
“Wow. You’re so smart!”
I can’t even . . .
Cat’s executive producer came into her ear and teased her about the ad-libbed outro to the last segment, a ditty she made up about the LIBOR, the most boring yet important interest rate in town.
She busted his chops back through her mic, then ran through some time cues with him. “Yup . . . okay . . . sure.” She was grateful he was such a good guy.
“Hey, guys?” She decided to take advantage of her guests yabbering among themselves to talk directly to her control room team and riff off the un-PC item they’d just heard. “Um, so, is Rich really a Canadian?” Cat envisioned the room chuckling. “Rich, seriously. I mean, I heard the rumors, but I had no idea!” She gestured to the plug in her ear. “Like, there’s a Canadian in my ear . . . and he’s so smart!”
Rich opened her ear feed so she could hear the laughter wrapped in relief from behind the scenes in the control room. This “Are you Spanish/Hispanic?” comment was the second one that week alone, and it made everyone uncomfortable. Cat was proudly her brown self and for the most part, her staff was young and savvy and her Canadian head was, well, Canadian. He knew what was up. Her first year they made it a mock drinking game. Every time a guest (usually male, usually white, over forty) asked her to confirm or not “what” she was, Cat would look into camera one, her main communiqué to her team in the control room, point, and say, “Drink!” The guest doing the asking had no idea why she was responding that way. Unfortunately, it happened so often, the joke got old, so Cat found new ways to play off of it. To remove the sting.
Twelve minutes and twenty-one seconds later, the show was done. Cat shimmied off her stool, attempting to keep her mummy-band dress in one piece. Curvy girls and high stools: a challenge.
“Bye, guys. Thanks for coming. You were great.” The host gave an adept smile to each guest, made solid eye contact, and shook their hands with an authoritative grip, even one for Mr. Utah. Cat thought each time she encountered someone like him, maybe she’d opened some minds today, solved some problems. Maybe.
“Hey, Cat . . .” Rich, her head producer, was back in her earpiece.
Cat sighed. “Whassup?”
A female sound engineer worked to unhook Cat’s mic from inside her dress without flashing anyone, turning her into a brief contortionist.
Rich’s pause in response lasted a beat too long. “You . . . uh, you gotta head up to Heather’s office. Now.”
“Oh, hi. Hi. Come in, come in. Sit down.” Heather Kraven, the head of the division, Cat’s top boss who didn’t answer her calls anymore, was in hyper mode, squawking like a caged macaw. Her boho blouse sleeves fluttered with her arms like wilted, feeble wings. Cat noted the usual presence of a pink Pepto bottle on her desk. Heather had built a hit show for the network five years earlier and had tried and failed ever since to recreate that same magic. She took out all her impotence on the staff, particularly the on-air talent.
“Hi.” Cat seated herself, keeping Heather in the corner of her eye as the producer passed behind her to close the door. Cat imagined she caught a whiff of sulfur and sickness behind the musk oil.
“Well, so . . .” Heather sat hunched forward across her desktop, clasping her aged hands punctuated with short, unpolished, chewed nails. She forced a Cheshire smile but offered no eye contact, her skin lacking maintenance and revealing too many late nights, long days, and bad food choices. “We really wanted to tell you before it hit the
in the morning . . .”
New York Post
?” Cat tendered a false grin, her eyes thinned in suspicion.
“Well . . .”
In Heather’s two-second pause, Cat quickly summed up her hunches:
She’s already leaked whatever she’s about to tell me to the
. Jesus Christ.
Cat sucked her teeth, raised her brows.
“Yah?” she prompted.
Heather, a normally intense, in-your-face boss, couldn’t meet her eyes. “We’ve had to cancel the show.” She put her thumb to her mouth, taking her nail between her front teeth, making a sucking sound as she then pulled it away.
“Really?” Cat continued to grin, this time bizarrely, honestly. A bubbly feeling brewed inside of her; she felt her forehead relaxing for the first time in, well, a long time. It was a sensation Cat would have to work out, because it was surprising her.
She locked her eyes on Heather, moving away from the pleasant feelings inside, toward sealing the deal of the business. “But wait, didn’t you say just a couple of months ago that I saved your contract—your job?” Heather pursed her lips like a politician—
I can neither confirm nor deny . . .
Cat continued. “You were thanking me for that. And we beat Joe’s show twice a week.” A blowhard who resembled a hobbit, Joe was the “star” Heather took credit for having created years earlier. He’d taken a hit in the ratings lately—but then again, everyone had, as TV continued to bleed revenue like a lanced sow. “So how’s this happening?” Cat asked.