Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

“What we want to see on the page is a strong woman.”

“A strong female lead, exactly. You need to write your female characters as strong women.”

Isabelle nods on the other line, even though her producers can’t see her. Cradling her cell against her shoulder, she wipes green vomit from the toilet bowl. Her back is killing her as she rises — too many nights rocking her baby to sleep or squeezing next to her toddler on the twin bed — repeating back to the two male voices on the other end. She imagines they’re staring through windows with breathtaking views of the sparkling Pacific Ocean. “Okay, got it. A strong female lead.”

In one swift motion she throws the vomit-soaked wipe into the diaper pail, then rips the heavy garbage bag from the container, lugging it over her shoulder. “And what exactly do you mean by ‘strong woman’?” she asks, opening the back door to throw the garbage bag onto the snow-covered deck. She’ll carry it to the alley garbage can later.

One answers, “A strong woman. A woman who is ambitious and driven, incredibly confident and alluring.”

“And sexy, of course,” says the other producer, lustfully.

When she hears whimpering coming from upstairs, Isabelle winces. She races up the stairs on her tip-toes, hoping not to wake the baby as she passes her room, headed toward her three-year-old sister’s room, who’s sick with the flu. “Sure, I understand. Are you thinking she’s corporate?” Isabelle clicks “mute” on her cell phone as she attends to her weepy, pale daughter, the garbage bin next to her bed already filled with more vomit.

The producers respond.

“Oh, most definitely. Rising to the top — if not the top of her game.”

“Yeah, the type of woman who wears pencil skirts and pumps. She’s beautiful but her eyes are intimidating — she’ll steal that client right from under you. Ruthless. Masculine.”

“But hot.”

As the producers continue to describe their idea of a strong woman, Isabelle sees a text come through her phone. It’s from her brother: “Mom asked me to take her to her chemo appointments, but I’ve got a job to go to every day, Isa. Can’t you take her?” Isabelle cringes. Her brother has never respected her full time free-lance job, which she somehow juggles with two kids at home. Not to mention, she’s been taking her mother to her chemo appointments every week for the past year, ever since she was pregnant with her second.

“We want our female leads to encapsulate that hash tag — what is it Robert?”

“Hashtag boss bitch,” Robert answers Rupert.

Quickly unmuting, Isabelle responds, “Girl boss?”

Robert disagrees. “I like boss bitch better.”

“Me too. I’m also thinking she’s not interested in kids. Or a husband. She doesn’t need anyone. Doesn’t depend on anyone,” Rupert adds. “None of this gender role garbage.”

Isabelle kisses her daughter’s forehead, watching as she closes her eyes and drifts off to sleep. Silently swiping the garbage full of puke, Isabelle leaves the room. “Okay, but you want her to fall in love with the male lead, right?”

“Of course,” says Rupert.

“But they’re competing for the same role. And man, is she catty. But he likes that. She’s just as power-hungry as he is,” says Robert.

As she dashes down the stairs, she passes the front room, sees FedEx pull up to the house. Don’t ring the doorbell! She hurries to the door, catches him just before his finger touches the button that will disrupt her only chance to take phone calls. He hands her a package. “It’s heavy,” he tells her, but she snatches it with one hand.

“Thanks,” she mouths, grabbing the rest of the mail in the mailbox. One piece of mail is from World Vision, thanking her for her generous donation to children in impoverished countries.

“Yeah, of course, she’ll figure out that money isn’t everything,” Rupert says, and Robert quickly adds, “Even though it is,” and they laugh together.

“She wants love too.” Rupert says. “She’ll just have to learn to take a backseat to get it.”

Robert agrees. “Exactly. So, to sum up, an ambitious, career-driven bitch who, wearing heels, can outrun a dinosaur.” Rupert laughs at that one as Isabelle drops the package on the dining room table and carries the garbage to the bathroom, rinsing the vomit in the sink.

After a pause, Robert asks, “What do you think, Isabelle? How do you define a strong woman?”

Isabelle thinks for a moment, then takes a long look in the mirror. “How do I define a strong woman?” she repeats, a slight smile on her face as she takes in all that she is — dark circles under her eyes, grey streaks through her hair, a muffin top, a spit-up stained sweater. “A woman who doesn’t let herself be defined by anyone at all.”

After that, Rupert and Robert are speechless for a moment. Finally, one of them says, “Great. Why don’t you get us that page-one rewrite by the end of the week.”

“No problem,” Isabelle says, hanging up. Just then, the baby cries, and she’s off to the races again.

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