Hanging with Sting circa 2005 at the Hiro Ballroom
“Congratulations. You’re one of our winners,” the young woman coolly announced in a call that I had almost ignored from the comfort of my couch cocoon. “We’ll be in touch with details before the red carpet premiere in New York City,” she said, “but that’s all we know right now.”
Well, that’s plenty, I thought as I hung up the phone and fell on my knees. With my forehead pressed to the vinyl floor, I sobbed hard, tears dredged from a dark well of disbelief, and gratitude.
That was 2005 when I was cruising toward a writing career crisis and praying nightly for a meaningful break, or even a sign that signaled me to stay on this creative, but often soul-crushing path.
And there it was—if not a break, at least a crack—especially significant when, with the beaten-down brain of a tired mother, I couldn’t even remember what exactly I had written to win that contest. I only knew that four months earlier I happened upon a stray copy of Glamour Magazine in the children’s section of our suburban Boston library. As the cover model lured me into those glossy pages, my six-year-old son was approaching with yet another armload of picture books about pirates and hamsters.
“Read to your sister for a while, honey,” I told him as I plunked down in an overstuffed chair and began flipping through the magazine, thinking I might find a lipstick that would add some pop to my forty-year-old pout, or, really, anything to make me a better, thinner, happier person. No such products appeared, but I did jot down a link for something that showcased a different kind of wonderful: the Reel Moments Essay Contest in which five winners would have their “real” stories about a life-changing moment turned into short films with “top Hollywood talent.”
That night I poured myself a glass of Chardonnay and typed the stranger-than-fiction tale about meeting my husband, Mark, directly into the online form. After hitting Submit, I forgot about the whole thing, until that phone call.
Then, for the six months following that conversation, I only thought about the whole thing, imagining the possibilities for how a Hollywood film would change my suburban life in which I regularly published articles and essays, but for ages had craved something more substantial—a movie deal. So here, at last, was that chance I thought, especially significant when a few years earlier a reputable Hollywood agency had signed me for a script I’d written, but nothing real—or reel—had materialized. After that rejection, I planned to fully savor this longed-for chance to hang with Hollywood players. I didn’t think it could get more perfect, and then one night a friend called to say she had just seen a segment about my film on Access Hollywood. It turned out that Sting’s wife, Trudie Styler, would be directing, and Kerry Washington, pre-Scandal success at the time, had the starring role
“Are you serious,” my husband said when I darted into the family room to tell him. “So Kerry Washington will have played Ray Charles’s wife, Idi Amin’s wife, and mine?”
On December 7, 2005 Mark and I were flown to New York City for three days of pampering and publicity, starting with an appearance on The Today Show. The night before, hyped on adrenaline, I tried without success to relax in our room at the Hudson, a boutique hotel with a bathroom so small that one had to sit sidesaddle on the toilet. Still, I felt like a star as I stared from the plush bed out the window at Manhattan, a place that always struck me as utterly terrifying with so many confident city-dwellers living large in their Central Park suites or SoHo lofts. I’d worked as an editor in Manhattan in my first years out of college but, with my paltry publishing salary, could only envy that tier of well-heeled New Yorkers that hailed cabs to Broadway shows or darted to the Village for dinner with their famous friends. But now, for three days, I was going to be one of them.
“Just a few more rounds,” I begged Mark who’d been quizzing me into those late hours, posing variations of questions Ann Curry might ask the next day on The Today Show. As a writer and teacher, I could confidently address a room of three-dozen or so people, but not, I feared, three million on live television. Hence, the practice—question after question—until Mark plied me with a Tylenol PM just so he could get some sleep.
My strategy mostly worked. Except for the first disorienting question, not too threw much threw me off the next day, not chipper Katie Couric introducing herself in the NBC Green Room beforehand, not Al Roker prepping for his next spot, or Matt Lauer dashing past on a back stairwell as I was being led to the set.
For my segment, I mostly answered Ann Curry’s questions with those well-rehearsed sound bites while Trudie Styler reached over and rubbed my back, as you can see here.
“You hit it right out of the park,” Mark cheered as I stepped off the sound stage into his arms, and two days of sickening worry drained away. Once outside in Rockefeller Center, Mark and I tumbled into our chauffeured car that whisked us to our next hotel, the UN Millennium, where I raided the gift basket for chocolate (I hadn’t eaten for days), then danced around our three-room, eight-hundred-dollar corner suite above the East River singing, “I love New York!”
And I did. For all the times I’d visited Manhattan, wishing I was enough of a writer to either be asked for an autograph, or at least have an editor wine and dine me at Le Cirque as we signed contracts, I’d only ever been an ordinary tourist, staying in cut-rate hotels, or—in my single days—surfing on couches. And here I was in a flower-filled suite with comped tickets to The Color Purple and a driver named James on call.
“And the best is yet to come,” Mark said, meaning the premiere, still a day away.
“Right?” I said, flopping on the bed and reaching under the gazillion thread-count sheets for my swarthy, dark-eyed psychologist husband, who, unlike me, didn’t crave the spotlight, but was happy to share some of mine. “And I can’t wait to meet Sting,” I cooed.
“And don’t forget,” I reminded him, as I had been for weeks, “I want of picture with Sting and Trudie on the red carpet. That’s your one job at the premiere. Got it?”
“Of course,” Mark promised and wrapped me in his arms.
“Oh, and something else,” I said, cautiously, my voice trying to find that edge of kidding, and not. “Sting and Trudie have a reputation for being sort of open in their marriage. You know, all that tantric stuff. Well, if there’s a chance, and I’m not saying there will be, but if there is, then I think we at least have to consider a little swapping, or whatever they call it. You saw her rubbing my back on The Today Show.”
My husband, who sort of resembles a young Warren Beatty, pulled away to study me. “Are you kidding?” he asked. “A film gets made about our love story, and you want to celebrate by having a fling with another guy?”
“God no, Sweetie!” I said, cozying up again. “Not a fling, one night maybe. And Sting is not another guy. He’s Sting. Frickin’ Sting!”
“No!” Mark said again, this time flipping over. “And it worries me that you’re not even joking.
I looked from the bed through two walls of windows onto the shimmery skyscrapers, pulsing with the energy I craved, so beyond my perfunctory world of half-caf and playdates. I remembered my first trip to the city with three high school friends to see Frank Langella in Dracula on Broadway, and how we’d eaten lunch beforehand at Sardi’s, paying the exorbitant check with crumpled one-dollar bills earned in endless hours of babysitting. We scraped change for the tip from our cheap vinyl purses, worrying that we had left too little, because we had.
I’ll be back someday, I told myself, when the prices don’t feel prohibitive, and I spend the night in a penthouse suite. I grew up in a factory town where we didn’t eat out as a family, or do anything more fabulous than vacation for three days at the Americana Holiday hotel on Cape Cod, with two pools and an orange shag carpet that reeked of disinfectant. All my life I wondered about this. This. What celebrity tasted like. “Of course, I’m joking,” I said to Mark. But, honestly, I’m not sure that I was. While I had never considered cheating on my husband, if Sting proposed that we go to his loft for champagne and yoga poses, I’d have a hell of a time resisting the pull of his star.
The following morning, the five contest winners met for makeovers at Bergdorf Goodman and a shopping spree in Bebe, a clothing store that catered to women who dressed like slutty French Barbie dolls.
“I’m forty-one years old with two kids,” I told the size 2, twenty-something salesclerk as I squeezed my mom butt into a pair of skinny black tuxedo pants. The waist barely cleared my pubic bone, but by repositioning my stomach flab with one hand, I could button the front with the other.
“I can’t wear crazy heels,” I warned. But that didn’t stop the young woman from forcing my feet—wicked stepsister style—into a pair of teetering open-toe black sandals.
“You can put up with anything for one night,” she insisted, hanging huge rhinestone hoops in my ears, like she was trimming the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. “It’s just what you do.”
As Mark and I waited for James to pick us up in front of our hotel that evening, people stared. “Should we know her?” one woman whispered to her date as they hurried past. With my smoky eyes and furry bomber jacket, I looked—and felt—utterly, wonderfully unlike myself.
Later at the Union Square Theater, I clutched Mark’s arm as we posed on the red carpet.
Mark and I having a Reel Moment
Then a few photos with Kerry Washington, who was so clearly type-cast when she got the role of me.
Kerry and me
Then Mark arm-wrestled with it’s-too-hot-to-breathe-around-him 90s super model Tyson Beckford who played my ex-boyfriend—a blonde, blue-eyed Scandinavian.
My husband crushes Tyson Beckford in an armwrestling upset.
After taking this photo of Anna Chlumsky of soon-to-be Veep fame, she showed me the hole in the bottom of her cowboy boots (times were clearly tough between big-paying projects).
Then Debi Mazar, who had a small role, came up to chat in her raspy, mob-wife voice, looking super pregnant in a leopard print dress that fit like skin. There were a ton of fun photos, and then, at last, the photo op I’d been anticipating.
It started with Trudie sidling up to me and, in a disorienting few seconds, introducing her husband. That would be Sting. In the next instant, the three of us were strolling together down the red carpet, stopping as the paparazzi shouted out to the rock ‘n’ roll deity—a man whose music I’d been loving since I was thirteen. Sting! Yo Sting! There I was walking the red carpet with one of the brightest stars on the planet and his goddess wife who had directed my movie; and there was Mark, a few feet away, clutching our little point-and-shoot camera. I smiled at him, thinking he would snap the picture, but then Trudie started yoo-hooing to him in her glam British accent. “Mahk. Mahk. Mahk! Come be in the photo with us.
No Mahk, I was thinking. Don’t come be in the photo. Take the photo like you promised me, then come be in the next photo.
“Mahk!” Trudie continued, trying to be lovely and inclusive of my husband who she had met the morning before on the set of the Today Show. “Oh Mahk!”
Instead of snapping the photo, Mahk, suddenly star-struck, glanced around for someone who would take the camera and get a picture of him.
The flashes kept blasting. Sting and Trudie, who could probably manage to stay elegantly posed while perched on a toilet, kept smiling. I, with my eyes shooting daggers into my husband, tried willing him to snap the picture by thinking, Take the fucking photo you fucking idiot or I’m going to fuck Sting into next week!
But the moment vanished. Trudie and Sting continued down the carpet to air kiss Donna Karan. And Mahk never got the picture. As some Glamour handler shuffled me off the carpet, Mark emerged from the crowd, grinning, not realizing what he had done—or rather hadn’t—until we were ushered into the theater. Only then, when tucked into our fifth row VIP seats, did I turn to him and say it. “You didn’t take the picture.
Mark clasped his hand to his mouth. “Oh my God! I’m so sorry.”
“Me, too,” I snipped.
He begged my forgiveness and suggested asking Sting and Trudie if they would pose again after the screening.
“Are you kidding?” I said, my eyes narrowed.
“I feel terrible. I really want to make it up to you—”
“Why didn’t you just take the goddamn photo?” But I knew why, of course. In that moment he was as star stung as I was, his usual balanced outlook blinded by Sting’s halo.
Mark apologized again and sheepishly set his hand on my thigh. I was wearing those ridiculously low cut pants, and if you lifted my sequined Bebe tank top, you would have seen my belly pouting over the waistband. I let Mark’s hand linger there—unclasped—as we watched the short films, with mine, called Wait, screening last. It dramatized our love story: how Mark and I had dated in college, until he broke my heart because of impending distance. He would spend his twenties getting his doctorate, while I moved abroad to teach. Although we lost touch, we never let go of the hope of each other. Then ten years later, (spoiler alert), something a little magical happened.
Sting and Chris Botti’s heartbreaking duet “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” played as the credits rolled, with our family photos creating a pictorial tableau of, truly, the best years of my life.
Not glamorous. Not lived in a penthouse suite. Just real and joyful and hard and good.
As I watched, I took a deep breath and sunk my shoulder against the wool of Mark’s new spiffy blazer. I rubbed my palm on his knuckles and notched my fingers into his. “I don’t want to look back on this night and remember a fight,” I whispered.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I really am.”
“I know,” I said, trying hard to shake off the last shreds of my disappointment. “I get it. Who doesn’t want to be in a photo with Sting?”
Later, at the start of the after party in the Hiro Ballroom in Chelsea, I caught sight of Sting sitting alone, almost relaxing into the moment before the crowd arrived to bestow on him an unceasing stream of attention, requiring that he dispense his energy with extreme caution, preserving what he could of his privacy, as everyone in his sightline craved some piece of his fame. He had a cool, self-protective way, but also an aura that pulsed with layers of wealth, celebrity, and, of course, mad talent.
Though I don’t know how, I mustered the confidence to walk over and sit right down next to him.
“Hello there,” he said.
“Hi.” I felt dry-mouthed and foolish, but kept talking. “I loved your song at the end.”
He nodded. “Yeah, thanks. It worked well with the theme of the film, didn’t it?
Mark who had been at the bar getting us feminine-looking red cocktails, sauntered over. He set down the drinks and extended his hand. They introduced themselves, and I almost laughed when Sting said, “I’m Sting.” I mean, how does he do that with a straight face? Then, in an empty second, Mark—slightly awkward beneath an otherwise confident tone—asked Sting, “Is it okay if I take a photo of the two of you?”
If Sting had hesitated for a moment, I would have had to kill Mark, maybe even on the spot, just to show Sting that it was my jerky husband’s idea and nothing I had put him up to. It would have been messy, but I honestly would have done it, bludgeoned the father of my children with his own point-and-shoot.
But Sting said, “Sure,” and slid closer. Then, with the smooth practice of someone who did this multiple times a day, he tipped his famous blonde head toward mine.
Mark snapped the photo, and then, thank God, knew enough to coolly return the camera to his jacket pocket, as if we didn’t even care about that dumb old picture anyway. Later as walked away from our fifteen minutes with fame, I slipped the camera out of Mark’s pocket and clicked onto the shot. My bare arm brushed against Sting’s. We were bathed in a red glow the color of a bordello.
“ROXanne!” Mark sang out. “You don’t have to put on the red light.“
I could not stop gazing at us, studying the intimate tilt of our heads, our shy smiles, Sting’s weird talisman necklace, and lovely pursed lips that I would never kiss.
“How’s that?” Mark said.
“I guess it’s okay.”
We danced together that night until my four-inch Bebe heels tortured my feet into blistering pain. So, with the party still raging, I called James and asked him to “please pull the car around.” It was a line I’d been waiting my whole life to say.
Before we left, I thought I should say goodbye to Trudie and spotted her chatting with Diane Krueger in the VIP section at the back of the room.
“Celebrities and VIPs only,” the bouncer said when I tried to get past.
“But I wrote one of the films,” I told him. “I am a VIP.”
He raised an eyebrow like, good try, sweetheart, but no.
Finally, after much pleading and the promise that I’d only be a quick minute, he grudgingly lifted the velvet rope.
I hurried up to Trudie and told her thank you for making such a beautiful film. “Thank you, Sandra,” she said, hugging me, “for telling your romantic story.” And, though I hoped for more, that was it.
I wanted her to say, Look me up when you’re in New York again, or, If you ever get to Tuscany, you must come stay at our villa. Sting and I insisit!
But she didn’t. She just said good-bye, because as soon as that night was over, and my make-up and heels and trimmings were gone, I turned back into a writer-mom from the suburbs that had written an essay about love.
“I’m so hungry,” Mark said as we flopped against each other in the back seat and asked James to take us to any halfway-decent Chinese restaurant. He sped us uptown to a hole-in-the-wall near Times Square. Mark ran in, while I rubbed my crying red feet.
Back in our hotel room, we sat on the bed in plush white bathrobes eating lo mein from take-out containers and clicking through the photos, reviewing every detail of that surreal night surrounded by stars. When we woke up the next morning, New York City was snowing, those huge white flakes that, through our walls of windows, looked like a shaken snow globe from a cheap souvenir shop.
Mark and I threw on some warm clothes and comfortable boots and walked hand-in-hand across town to a diner that we’d heard was good. We ate our eggs and called our kids. Nobody looked at us. It was perfect.