“Will you ride it then?”
“Daisy,” I interject. Stop, I mouth. She pushes Ryke too far, and he’s not one to back down from these kinds of conversations.
Daisy’s smile fades. “Sorry…I was just messing around.” She flips her phone in her hand. “I’m going to go…mingle.”
Now I feel bad.
“No,” I tell her sharply. “You’re staying.”
“No, it’s cool. I need to go talk to Mom anyway.” She avoids Ryke who stares down at her with a strong gaze—filled with this unadulterated concern. It’s strange for such a hard-lined guy to have such potent empathy for others. But I’ve seen it come out on more than one occasion.
Connor speaks into the receiver of his phone. “Greg, you see this photographer nearing me?”
So he called my father.
Connor continues, “He has a picture of your daughter’s ass. I’m going to take the camera if you don’t send someone to do it.”
I hear my father say, “Which daughter? And I have someone on the way. Thank you.”
My father lets out a large sigh. “That one’s going to kill me.”
Connor’s lips slowly upturn, and his eyes glimmer with this unbridled longing. It’s powerful but barely visible. Fleeting. Like an eclipse of the sun.
He truly wants children.
He wants the challenges that each one brings.
He smiles as though he can’t wait for that day where he has to deal with the hard parental choices, the dilemmas, the chaotic situations he must calm.
He does want it all.
But I’m afraid I may not be able to give it to him.
[ 18 ]
The screening party has been going relatively fine until I watched Samantha Calloway fawn over every bullshit line that came out of Scott’s mouth. He complimented her brown hair three f**king times, and Rose’s mother was close to melting at his feet. At least her father is on my side.
He texted me: I don’t like him. – Greg
To the point, a heart with good intentions. No bullshitting around. That’s Greg Calloway. His wife isn’t as benevolent, intelligent or non-judgmental. She has a WASP elitist mentality that would make my mother internally roll her eyes.
It’s mostly Rose’s parents that have my stomach in knots. Because even though I’ve appeared only twice in the show, edited to look disinterested in my own girlfriend, it’s their opinions that matter to me, not the public, not strangers—just people that I need to impress. Because one f**king day, I plan to marry that girl, and I want them to realize that I’m the best man for Rose. And that no one else can come even marginally close.
Rose’s anxiety is sedated with five glasses of champagne, and she relaxes into my chest while I hold her around the waist. Since the aired footage has been mostly about the “love triangle” for the past fifteen minutes, Lily bottles her emotions and finally emerges from Lo’s shirt, her cheeks tear-streaked and pink. I have a feeling Lo will be carrying her out of the venue. Most likely in a front piggy-back.
We’re nearing the last five minutes. I think they’ll end with a Lo and Lily clip, but as soon as Scott Van Wright’s face fills every big screen with the caption—Heartthrob. Rose’s ex-boyfriend—I realize they’re going to continue to capitalize on the love triangle.
So here we go, Scott. What do you have left for me?
“I think about her all the time,” he says with an insincere, wistful smile. “She’s a firestorm that I won’t ever smother. I’m the one who inflames her, who riles her to a new, confounding degree. She’s my perfect match.”
My face falls. And I unwillingly let everyone see my shock. I can’t hold it in this time.
Because those last lines are mine. I said them in an interview.
And he stole them from me.
“I hate him,” Rose says under her breath, her eyes narrowed. She can’t see my reaction since she stands in front of my body while I hold her from behind.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“He plagiarized you.”
I let out a breath. “Comment peux-tu le dire?” How can you tell?
“Who riles her to a new, confounding degree?” she repeats. “Only you would say that…and maybe me.”
I kiss her cheek and wrap my arms tighter around her waist. She eases back into me. He can’t come between us.
“I’m still in love with her,” Scott says. “And I can’t help what I feel, but it’s there. I love Rose the way she deserves to be loved. I just…” He shakes his head like he’s filled with worry. “I just don’t see Connor being the best thing for her. He’s too self-absorbed to care for that girl the way I do. And I hope, over the course of living with her again, she’ll realize that we’re meant to be.”
“Murder is still illegal in Pennsylvania, right?” Rose asks.
“And the United States, and the world,” I tell her.
And then the screen fills with me.
Back in the study room where I sit on a desk chair:
“What do you think of Scott?” Savannah asks.
I stay complacent. “I find him comparable to a little teenager jimmying the lock of my house.” I stare right at Scott in the room, who’s off screen, hovering over Savannah’s shoulder as she films me. I add, “He’s nothing more than a petty thief, trying to take what’s mine. Is that honest enough for you?”
“And what about Rose?”
“What about Rose?” This is where I said what Scott just did. I called her my perfect match, but it’s edited out completely.
“Do you love her?” Savannah asks.
The abrupt cut makes me look more callous than I am. More inhuman and unfeeling than I ever want to be. I stare off for a long time as I gauge my answer, picking my words carefully. To tell the truth. Or to lie.
“Love is irrelative to some.”
Most people let me stop there. They never make me elaborate.
But Savannah says, “And is it to you?”
I have a couple fingers to my jaw, and I smile, something that looks empty and soulless on screen. “Yes,” I say. “Love holds no meaning in my life.”
The show fades to black with that last line. In the full-length interview, I added, “But Rose is at the epicenter of my world, whether I allow myself to love her or not.”
It was all cut.
And as the large crowd claps and talks amongst themselves about the show, Lo and Ryke turn on me with dark scowls. Rose grabs another champagne glass off a tray and leans back into my chest, unaffected by my words like them.
“So was that the real Connor Cobalt?” Lo asks, his arm around Lily who stares at me with the same furrowed brows. She glances at her sister with more concern. They’re on Rose’s side. As they should be.
“I spoke honestly,” I say. “And that wasn’t the first time I’ve done so.”
“So you’ve never loved anyone?” Lo asks. “Not another girlfriend, not your mom, your dad or a friend?”
He wants to know if I think of him more than just a contact like Patrick Nubell. Am I using Loren Hale for his father’s company, the multi-billion dollar baby product franchise? At first, yes. Now, no.
He’s my real friend. Maybe my first one ever.
But have I loved him the way a friend loves another friend? I don’t think I’m wired that way.
“No,” I say. “I’ve never loved anyone, Lo. I’m sorry.”
Rose points to Lo, her champagne glass pinched between her fingers. “Let it go, Loren. I have.”
“Why,” Lo asks, “because you’re both cold androids?”
Rose shoots him a look that would be harsher if she didn’t drink so much tonight. I need to get her to bed before she passes out. “It’s just how he is. If you even understood half of Connor Cobalt’s beliefs, your head would spin.”
“Rose,” I say, worried she’s going to fracture my relationship with Loren. While he doesn’t know me like she does, I’ve never lied to him. I just haven’t shown him all of me. And that shouldn’t be a bad thing. Some people are naturally private. I am.
She tries to defend me, stepping towards Lo and skillfully staying upright. I hold her by the waist to steady her movements. “No, Connor has done nothing wrong.”
“He doesn’t love you,” Lo sneers. “He’s been with you for over a year, Rose.”
“Lo,” Lily warns.
“No,” Lo says, “she needs to f**king hear this.” He points accusingly at me. “What the hell kind of guy stays with a girl for that amount of time without anything in return? If he’s doesn’t love you, then he’s just waiting to f**k you.”
He pokes at the most vulnerable part of my relationship with Rose. “She doesn’t need your protection,” I say to Lo, trying to keep my voice even-tempered, but Rose wavers uneasily in my arms. “She knows who I am.”
“So you’re okay with that then?” Lo asks her. “He’s going to f**k you, and then he’s going to be out of here. Does that make you feel good, Rose? You’ve waited twenty-three goddamn years to lose it, and you’re going to give it to a guy who can’t even f**king admit that he loves you.”
“I’m not going to admit something that I don’t feel,” I tell him. He opens his mouth, but I cut him off, “Would you like me to sit you down and fill your head with numbers and facts and relativities? You can’t stomach what I have to say because you won’t understand it, and I know that hurts you. But there’s nothing I can do to change the way things are. I am a product of a mother as brick-walled as me, and trust me when I say that you won’t ever see more than I give you. In order to be my friend, that has to be enough, Lo.”
He lets this sink in and then he says, “And what about you, Rose, is that enough for you?”
Lily reaches out and touches her hand.
Rose nods stiffly, and she holds Lily’s hand tighter. “I’m going to go to the bathroom. You guys can meet us at the car.” Lily supports her sister with an arm around her waist as they head through the dispersing crowds.
I watch her, making sure she safely leaves, and then I glance back at Lo. The look he gives me—it asphyxiates me for more than a few seconds.
He stares at me like he yanked off my superhero cape and grounded me to the mortal world.
“I just want you to know,” Lo says, “that I lost some respect for you tonight. And you’re not going to get it back so f**king easily.”
Ryke says nothing. He just wears a haunted, dark expression.
“Sure,” I say. “I understand.”
Lo rubs his lips; his jaw clenches, and he nods to Ryke. They head out to the car without me.
I stay still and try to gather my feelings that tangle in a muted mass.
What kind of person needs a therapist to tell them how they feel?
Am I not as smart as I believe or am I just human?
[ 19 ]
I can’t come. I’m so, so, so sorry! Just make sure no lilies, okay? And remember that I like your taste better than mom’s. THANK YOU! – Lily
I receive the text as soon as I arrive at the florist to pick out arrangements for the wedding.
Four months and two days – Mom
It’s like the countdown to the Apocalypse.
I text my sister back, telling her it’s fine. At least she didn’t make up a stupid excuse this time. Her “stomachaches” for the past month have been more about her fear to come face to face with our judgmental mother.
Lily went from being ignored by our mom to being told to close her legs. To wear a lighter pink lip gloss (on the rare day she does wear makeup). To comb her hair so it doesn’t look tangled in a post-sex haze.
She ridicules. And we both know it’s not out of love, but her obligation to protect the reputation of the family.
I look around the flower shop quickly. Brett follows me today with his steadicam, nimbly keeping out of customers’ way as he films me. I arrived twenty minutes early so I could pick out what I liked and so my mother would have a harder time bulldozing my opinion.
First, I choose pink and cream roses for the centerpieces. I wait impatiently while the florist demonstrates an arrangement. She has tinsel sticking out from flowers. “Simpler,” I urge. “Just the flowers. We’ll put them in one long row down the table. No separate vases, so it will look like one extended centerpiece.” I look around and spot the table of white roses. “These for the bouquet. And we can wrap the stems in pearls.” I’m not sure if Lily will approve, but at this point it’s clear she doesn’t care.
The only request for the past two months has been no lilies. Otherwise, I’m walking around blind.
While I wait for my mother, I click onto Twitter and type in #PoPhilly. A list of tweets pops up.