I have made a career out of dying. I'm a criminal again but maybe I'm smarter than all that, it's just I'm desperate. Maybe I've got a degree. Maybe I cook for all my cartel bros. Maybe I do something that will make me worth a damn. Because it's getting harder to play this out in my head and not have it show up on screen. I can build a character from the shoes up but it doesn't mean anything if I'm going to die. Right now I'm trying very hard not to pick at the bullet hole in my forehead.
I'm the only brown guy in the cast. People have already made taco jokes. But whatever. Grandpa died in some sun-blasted sugar cane field and here I am smoking a terrible cigarette on my lunch break, talking to Lita on the phone about the stutter I added to my lines because my character is so paper thin.
"Vincente," she says. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," I say. "How's Felipe?"
"Needy," Lita says. She never spares my feelings about how much she hates my guinea pig. She's allergic to the hay. I nabbed Felipe from a house party close to UCLA from a guy who complained their guinea pig sneezed when they smoked weed. I left at 3AM with a conspicuous bulge in my hoodie and no more aspiring actor friends.
"Does that one guy still pick his nose between takes?" Lita asks.
"Oh yeah. Still mines pretty hard," I say.
"We're better than that," Lita says."We only got yelled at for burping between takes."
That one gets an honest laugh from me and I feel less inclined to rip this itchy bullet hole out of my head. We met on the set of an indie film a few years ago. Lita was one half of a lesbian couple who spent the movie trying to kill me, a hipster musician who lived in their duplex. She was the only Latinx actor I'd worked with since moving to LA, and asked to be my roommate the day I decided I was done with this actor business and was going back to Toledo, destined to work retail with a theater degree. After Lita moved in, I had an actor partner to go on auditions with and laugh at racist casting calls with. We made a great team. So I stayed.
She likes to hear about the expensive cookies I ate for breakfast, what it feels like to have pants tailored to exactly fit my ass. Having clothes that fit me is an unexpected perk. I've also had six solid weeks of craft services, which means six solid weeks of good food stolen way in Tupperware containers I hide in my hotel room.
I'm in two scenes today and one more tomorrow and that's it. My salary might be enough to make rent for the next three months with some left over to fix my car. The bullet hole itches at my hairline again. The PA shows up at the corner of the building and waves at me.
"I gotta go," I say.
Lita sighs. "Okay. Try to have fun, Vincente, yeah?"
I hang up and grind my cigarette out under my shoe.
* * *
When I was kid, I loved James Bond. He was only out for himself, no roots to drag him down and back home. He winked at girls, killed tarantulas, and dodged poison darts with equal amounts of accuracy and confidence.
I got the part, even with my agent pestering me to change my name. I tested well, even though my agent forgot I'm Puerto Rican and introduced me as Mexican to the casting director. I was called in twice for an audition, even when all of this seemed to tank my chances before they saw what I could do. Turns out, the producers liked my intensity and after a whirlwind of confidentiality agreements, contracts, and a month of stage combat lessons, here I am stumbling across a set in the bowels of a Big Name Studio.
I swipe the air with a shiny knife, my gold jewelry swinging with every stab. I say my lines, spit them out, and now syrup blood is stuck in my teeth. There is a thick steel railing to my left; I'm going to be thrown against it in a few seconds. Huge fans roar out of frame to give our hair that perfect wind-swept look, and a swath of blue screen hangs behind us to later become an aqueduct and a sunset.
When I saw Goldeneye I recognized Puerto Rico even though Bond, M, and everyone else tried to tell me it was Cuba. I recognized the Arecibo observatory, even though it was supposed to be a Soviet satellite dish. It's so strange to have so many people tell me the island is something else, something unknowable enough that Bond could drop a villain deep into the pit of Arecibo and nobody would think twice. It makes me wonder what the blue screen will change for us here. Maybe I'll look taller.
The fans are loud as hell. Bond says his line but I can barely hear it. He grabs me and throws me back. I crack my head on the metal railing, harder than I'm supposed to. Hard enough I see stars. I struggle to stand back up, swaying on my feet, and run at him again until the world tilts violently and my knees give out.
"Hey, he's hurt!”
That's the Bond Girl's voice. I can see her out the corner of my eye, a blur of white. She reminds me of a bird, even though that's cliché but maybe that's what they were going for. I realize I'm on my back, still clenching the knife, and the world is spinning.
"He hit his head!"
The Bond Girl hovers at the edge of my vision, worried as the on-set medic rushes toward me. I refuse to throw up in front of such a beautiful woman. So I puke over the side of the non-existent aqueduct, and ruin five-hundred dollars' worth of blue screen.
* * *
I'm thinking of my grandfather's young, tired face. A face that reminds me of my own. I wish this wasn't my first trip out of the States, I wish I was taller, stronger, and more handsome. I feel like a kid because my legs don’t reach the end of this king size bed. Success feels wrong.
I am exhausted. My head hurts. I'm on a day of rest and then it's back to more fighting, plus some scenes where I interrogate Felix Leiter. I have to film my coke snorting scene, too. But hey maybe the bed will swallow me whole and I won’t have to deal with any of this bullshit.
"Here's a good one!" Lita's voice crackles from my phone. I have her on speaker so it feels like she's in the room with me. " 'CARLOS, Latin Male, twenties, a drug dealer with a big family, police informant. Driven by honor, loyalty.' Oof. Honor and loyalty. That's new."
She snickers. The room is dark. I've shut out the emerging sunlight. I called her because I couldn't sleep. No traffic noise, no sirens, no nothing here in this castle of a hotel.
"You think honor and loyalty are included in the salary?" I ask.
"Betcha they ain't," Lita says. She clears her throat before reading the next casting call. "Oh shit this one is crazy: 'Telemundo Casting! We need hip hop dancers, sexy models, Hispanic men, twenties. One-thousand dollars a day!' "
"A grand a day? What the hell are you doing for that kind of cash?"
"I think I qualify as a sexy model," Lita says. "I'm gonna put this one in the 'maybe' column."
I hear her typing on her laptop. I remember that Excel sheet. My name is on there, too. When I got the Bond film, she typed my character's name in all caps: IGNACIO VALDEZ.
"Oh my god this one is literally just a Spanish-language KFC commercial. How could I fuck that one up?"
She cackles. I want to laugh, I really do. She's being a good sport about calling her when I know it's almost two in the morning in LA. I run my hands down my face.
"Lita," I say. "I can't do this."
“Yes you can--"
“You should see the people here, Lita. They’re all beautiful. They smell great all the time. They have perfect teeth. They’re just all so—“
“Vincente!” Lita’s voice is very loud in my ears. So loud I can’t think anymore. It’s like she stopped time and space for me, just for a moment. All I can feel is my heartbeat and the heavy coil of anxiety in my gut. I open my mouth to say something but she speaks first.
“Don’t apologize. Don’t you dare. You deserve to be there.”
I wipe my eye with the heel of my hand. “This feels like a mistake."
“You’re the only Boricua I know who isn’t in severe denial about his feelings. Why aren’t you bragging about how much fun you’re having, huh?”
“...because I'm not having fun," I tell her.
“Well fake it, then. You’re an actor, Vincente. Fake it.”
Long after we hang up, before I fall asleep, I think about my grandfather again. I can see him in my mind, tired and strong. I think about him and what he would say to me.
Is there anything he could say to me? My hands aren’t as rough as his, aren’t nearly as scarred, but they’ve worked hard. They’ve hauled books, dirty laundry, and cleaned dishes, scrubbed up guinea pig shit. They’ve written essays in three hours, braided hair and tied costume strings during intermissions, dug to the bottom of fast food bags for extra fries. They’ve signed my name away to this production, gotten me this far.
Maybe that’s enough.
* * *
The fake syrup blood in my hair oozes down my neck, cold and wet. Like the orange nail polish Lita once smoothed over my toe nails. Sometimes she tests new colors on me. Weeks before we shot this damn scene I was back home, eating cheetos with my foot on Lita's thigh, transfixed by Goldfinger playing on the television. The shooting schedule was tacked to my fridge with a pink letter 'V.' Lita bought two packs of alphabet magnets once she found out I didn't have any magnets, period. She had a parking ticket jammed under a blue 'L.'
A rubber knife slices past my ear. The one with the scar my sister gave me tearing off my baseball helmet in eighth grade. A bit "chewed on" as my grandmother used to say. But I'm not Vincente right now I'm the Bad Guy Ignacio Valdez, the young cartel kid who's not so different from Scarface, Escobar, El Chapo, Carlito, all of those guys. Doesn't matter if they're real or imagined, I am just like them: I snort coke and sell it to cute teenage girls. I shove it deep into the tire wells of cars crossing the border. Which border? All of them. Sometimes I impersonate cops. Sometimes I shoot people in the desert. I'm what the writer/director will say is topical in all of his interviews. Topical. Like this shit hasn't been happing to guys like me for years.
* * *
Grandpa really died in a sugar cane field. Where he lived in Santa Isabel, the cane came up to the edge of his property. He had a heart attack while cutting some of the stray stalks not too far from his back porch.. I visited that house only once, long before I’d move to LA to live on grocery store sushi and stove top mac n cheese. My sisters and I watched tarantulas shuffling around the dirt roads and didn’t dare climb any trees.
I’ve only met him once and yet Grandpa's presence clings to me. Sometimes I imagine it attached to my wrist with an invisible thread. He was the first person to tell me about that thread, and it’s all I remember of him. All of us--family, island, blood--are connected. It's why we have so many names when we are born, to remember who we are still tied to and how we are tied to others. I didn’t understand what he meant until later, after I'd tried so many times to cut the thread without even realizing it.
I remember how it felt to see Rita Moreno dance for the first time, how I saw her and felt the same tiny, invisible thread connecting us. A faint imprint of the island. I saw myself reflected in someone else. I had never felt that before. I knew one day I wanted to embody that moment for someone, too.
* * *
The sun is in my eyes after Bond lands a good one on my chin. I swipe with the knife again and I realize, miserably, that I could have been Felix Leiter. I could be the pretty boy sidekick. I could be the one in the control tower right now, radioing the CIA for a missile strike. I could refer to them as La Cía and say some clever shit about Puerto Rico to diversify my role. I could eat tostones in a police cruiser or something and my grandma could've cried but here I am, two more stage combat maneuvers away from getting shot by the Bond Girl.
I spent so much time talking about this moment with Lita. All those times we sweated out heat waves with a broken air conditioner, watched fires curling up the hills, or huddled around her laptop sorting through casting calls. A Big Studio Film is supposed to make all the difference. She wants to see my handsome face up there, on screen. I still think about how she said that, even now, as I'm thrown back to the dirt and a nice leather shoe stomps toward my chest. I grab that shoe and twist it so Bond teeters on his heels and I can get up again.
You never know who will watch me and fall in love. You never know will see me and recognize themselves. Me, Hispanic Extra. Me, Doomed Hipster Musician. Me, Quirky Thief Who Dies In Act Two. Me, The Dude Who Almost Killed James Bond.
My shoulders tingle like they do right before I have a panic attack. I'm going to die very soon. The squibs are hidden under my shirt, one on my chest, one on my back. I can see the Bond Girl waiting to run into frame, ready to grab a fake Beretta from the prop master. Even the fake ones have the little red dot on the side to let you know the safety is off. Red is dead.
I spin around, stunt knife clenched so hard in my hand my wrist hurts. I spit again as Bond circles. Stage fighting does feel like a dance. I think of Rita Moreno's purple dress. I don't want to die. I don't want this guy to kill me. James Bond Will Return. He's been around for so long and he's always a different man. But I know that's not really true. My cards are stacked. His aren't. They never were.
I am: Puerto Rican, Bad Guy.
He is: British, Good Guy.
I don't even say my line, I run at him. The first squib goes off and it's loud. It hurts. Smoke stings my eyes but I lunge down at him, oozing cold blood, gritting my teeth, driving that rubber knife at him as hard as I can and there's real fear in his eyes.
I can’t see what he looks like anymore. When I grab at his throat, he’s all of those men I’ve seen before, all six of those white dudes, the ones who hate the Beatles and slap women around. Lita gets annoyed that I’m always caught on the Beatles thing but it made me understand Bond is an old man, a man who will keep killing and fucking because it is a formula no amount of money or writing will change, and here I am not changing it, either.
I see myself like it’s on screen, like the knife is real, like the blood in my teeth is my own and I see the Bond Girl race toward me, gun drawn. She looks scared. She’s afraid of me. Whether it’s real or imagined, she’s afraid of me. And suddenly I know this is all I’m going to do, this is all anyone will see in me. I am going to play this role over and over again, teetering between Henchman, Scarface, and Corrupt Cop. No one will see the invisible thread, the imprint that someone else might feel through me on a screen. This is not who I am. Suddenly I want to tell the Girl everything I know, everything Lita taught me, everything I want for myself and my sisters and the people I haven't even met but the last squib goes off, and I’m the one who’s dead.
Elena M. Aponte admires the brutal honesty of children, punk rockers, and B-movies, and is convinced her Puerto Rican and Irish heritage is responsible for her love of all things witty and gritty. Her creative work has previously appeared in Cheap Pop and Matchbook Lit and is forthcoming from The Jellyfish Review. Her non-fiction has appeared on Anime Feminist and Women Write About Comics. She hails from Toledo, Ohio.