Monday, June 23rd, 2008
The follow is an excerpt from Pretty is What Changes: Impossible Choices, the Breast Cancer Gene, and How I Defied My Destiny by Jessica Queller. Read Rebecca Paoletti’s interview with Queller.
“I’d fallen down the rabbit hole and decks of cards were talking. As if the logic and rules of my universe had suddenly changed. And in fact, they had.”
Glorious California light poured through the sunroof as I made the left turn, pulled up to the gate, smiled, and flashed my badge. Joe the security guard winked and bellowed, “Morning, Jess.” The gate rose, and off I drove, the whole of the Warner Brothers lot spread before me. This routine never failed to give me a thrill.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me I looked like Natalie Wood. At first I didn’t know who she was, so my mom rented Rebel Without a Cause and Westside Story on Betamax and brought them home. Natalie Wood was so pretty – did my mother really think I looked like her? I watched the films over and over, straining to see a resemblance. My mother fixed this mythical and misguided ideal in my head: I was supposed to look like a starlet. I’d put on a white nightgown and sing “Tonight” into the mirror, assessing myself critically. Even at ten, I knew I fell short of Natalie Wood’s beauty, but I certainly wasn’t going to point this out to my mother.
My mother’s projections were informed by the fact that she did look like a movie star. As a child, I’d curl up on the bathroom floor every morning and watch as she got ready for work. My mother would sit at her mirrored vanity table, carefully applying false eyelashes (a glamorous look from the 1960s that she continued well into the 1970s). She’d tell me how important it was for a woman to have a career, but, she added, a woman also had to be beautiful. “All girls are pretty when they’re young,” she’d say. “Once they grow up it’s another story. Luckily you and your sister have my genes.”
Now, more than twenty years later, I was working on the Warner Brothers lot where my beloved Natalie Wood had filmed Rebel Without a Cause. I acted blasé in front of my peers, but privately I found this astounding.
Though I’d wound up in Hollywood, I didn’t work on the side of the camera my mother had destined for me – I was a writer on the hit television series The Gilmore Girls. It took me a couple of decades to shed the notion that I was expected to measure up to movie stars. I’d finally achieved the balance and perspective to feel whole just as I was. But I’d never lose the capacity to be dazzled by Hollywood legends.
I drove past the steel suspension bridge, a perfect facsimile of an El train platform, where the doctors of ER bundled up against imagined Chicago cold, past the façade of a speakeasy covered in fake snow, and then I hit the jackpot: George Clooney and Don Cheadleplaying a game of one-on-one at a net-less hoop.
I made a right onto a street with a sign that read Welcome to Warner Village. Neat rows of clapboard houses with emerald lawns and big shady trees lined each side of the street. To all appearances, it was a suburban neighborhood in New England. In reality, the exterior of the houses were used as a location for filming, while the interiors were divided into writers’ offices. The Gilmore Girls occupied two houses in the center of the lane.
I swung into my parking space and spotted some writers from another show indulging in the fantasy of our neighborhood by playing stickball up the street. As I cut the engine, my friend and fellow Gilmore Girls writer, Rebecca, sped into the parking space in front of mine. We stumbled out of our cars like upscale bag ladies – teetering on high heels, wearing dramatic sun hats and shades, weighted down with bags of scripts, notebooks, laptops. We saw our own crazy image reflected in the other and broke into laughter. Individually, we were able to maintain the semblance of being adult professionals; together, we regressed into a pair of mischievous twelve-year-olds playing dress-up.
Rebecca was twenty-nine, tall and striking with long, pale blond hair; she had the carriage and confidence of a young Kate Hepburn and a Harvard pedigree to back it up. I was thirty-four, brunette, more of the girl next door. There was no need to appear jaded to Rebecca. Our chemistry allowed us to be our most vulnerable, true selves. We also shared clothes and lipsticks and finished each other’s sentences. Though we mocked ourselves for our excesses, we usually had far too much fun together to care.
“Did you get my message?” she asked.
“I’ve been trying to call you from the road…”
“I’ve been trying to call you from the road…”
“What did you say?” I asked.
“That I’m late and I need you to cover for me.”
“You’re not late,” I said, glancing at the time on my cell phone. “It’s 9:30.”
“I am late and so are you – we’re gathering this morning at –”
“Nine! With Lorelai pitches. I forgot.”
“I made up some pitches on the freeway while spilling my coffee and nearly crashing into one of those little VW bugs with the stupid bud vase.”
“Was there a bud in it?”
“A plastic rose.” Rebecca started walking and I fell in beside her. “If you’re going to buy a car with a built-in bud vase you should at least make the effort to stick a live piece of greenery in it. This is California – pull something off a tree.”
“Look,” I said, pointing to our boss’ parking space, “Amy’s car’s not here yet.”
“Oh, good,” she sighed. “I need to call the dog-walker to take Nina to the vet.”
“What’s wrong with Nina?”
“She ate a box of doughnuts.”
“What’s the plan for tonight?”
“8:30 reservation at the Edendale.”
A softball rolled by our feet and one of the writers trotted over to retrieve it. He was a Harvard guy who’d been on the Lampoon with Rebecca. As they chatted, I walked up the porch steps and headed to my office.
The writers’ PA, a boy of about twenty, greeted me with a bright hello and eagerly imparted the day’s news: our boss was running late and we wouldn’t be gathering in the writers’ room until ten. I thanked him for the update. He smiled shyly and I caught a sudden glimpse of myself through his eyes. To this kid who was paid next to nothing to answer the phones and make the coffee runs – all for the chance to be in the proximity of those who were creating television – my life probably looked charmed. Of course it had only been a few years since I was scrambling to pay my rent and chasing a literary agent to his tennis lesson, imploring him to read my work. Now I breezed in every morning, a young woman with a high-powered, high-paying job writing for a popular TV show. But I was far more battle-worn than I appeared; I had recently experienced profound loss, and the interior of my life was not anywhere as neat as the façade. That said, there was no denying that I had been showered with great good fortune.
I tossed my bags on the sofa in my office, dropped into the desk chair and checked my email while going over a “to do” list scrawled on a lined yellow notepad. Send rent check, buy shower gift for CM, call medical lab. I wrote a check to my landlady while dialing the number for the lab.
“Is this Mary?” I asked.
“Yes it is.”
“My name is Jessica Queller, I spoke to you yesterday. I’m trying to reach Dr. Williams.”
“I took a blood test at your lab two months ago and I’ve been trying to obtain the results.”
“What did you say your name was?”
“Jessica Queller. Q-u-e-l-l-e-r.”
“Did you say you’ve called previously for the results?”
“Yes, Mary. I called yesterday, I called last week, I called the week before that.”
“I found your file. That particular test is sent out to be performed by a different lab, miss. I’m afraid I don’t know whether we’ve received the results yet.”
“When I spoke to you yesterday, Mary, you said you were holding the envelope with my results in your hand. And you said that only the doctor was permitted to open it.”
“I see. Would you hold please?”
I cradled the receiver as cheesy music played through the phone. I hadn’t bothered to meet the doctor when I went in for the test — a lab technician had taken my blood – so my name wouldn’t hold any meaning for him. Still, I found it rude that he wasn’t taking my calls. As one elevator song seeped into the next, I etched the yellow notepad with black ink, my frustration growing. Just as I was about to hang up and dial again, a man, his voice gruff and harried, came on the line.
“Who is this?”
“Jessica Queller. Are you Dr. Williams?”
“I’ve been trying to get you on the phone for weeks to obtain the results of a BRCA test I took in July.”
“Who are you? Why did you take this test?”
I did not hide my irritation.
“My mother had breast cancer and died of ovarian cancer eleven months ago. My cousin, Dr. Alan Heilpern – your colleague — scheduled the appointment for me. I gave blood at your lab. I’ve left messages at your office repeatedly without the courtesy of a return phone call, and I can’t understand why I’ve been unable to obtain the results.”
“You tested positive for the BRCA-1 mutation,” he said.
I tried to comprehend this statement. My immediate reaction was that the word “positive” sounded like a good thing, something positive. It took a few moments for my brain to process the fact that testing positive for a genetic mutation could not mean anything good.
“Positive is bad, right?”
“Statistically, you have up to an eighty-five or ninety-percent chance of getting breast cancer.”
I sat in shocked silence. It was as if this doctor was speaking in Swahili and expecting me to understand him. As if I’d fallen down the rabbit hole and decks of cards were talking. As if the logic and rules of my universe had suddenly changed. And in fact, they had.
The doctor’s voice barked in my ear, “It’s a very good thing you took this test.”
Though I was reeling and couldn’t grasp the meaning of the doctor’s words, I knew instinctually that something momentous had occurred. I knew that his statement held some truth that would reveal itself in the months to come. And I knew on a gut level that this truth would change the course of my life.
Excerpted with permission from Pretty is What Changes: Impossible Choices, the Breast Cancer Gene, and How I Defied My Destiny (Spiegel & Grau).