When Dylan comes back from work, Wren and I are sitting next to each other on the sofa, sharing a bottle of red wine and watching Scarface. Wren knows all the words and has been murmuring along with Al Pacino the whole way through. Dylan stands in the doorway with his hands by his sides, looking between the two of us.
“Grace? Can I speak with you in the kitchen?”
Wren’s eyes remain fixed on the TV. I wonder if she really doesn’t realize how weird this is or if she’s trying to show Dylan how cool she can be with the situation. Either way, I figure she doesn’t know what it is to hurt or be hurt yet.
Dylan leans on the island, shaking his head slowly.
“So you’re drinking again.”
“Well, I was until you came back,” I say, rolling my eyes, but he doesn’t smile and I instantly regret it.
“Half a glass of red wine, Dylan. It’s not a big deal.”
“Addiction isn’t something you can dip in and out of. It’s all a big deal. Wren shouldn’t have been drinking in front of you.”
I forgot he’d started going to the Nar-Anon family meetings before I left. Being back here, I can remember what it felt like to have the weight of his expectation crushing me every day. There are an infinite number of things that are better than knowing exactly when you’re falling short of someone’s expectations and still being unable to stop it. Toward the end I think I did it on purpose, just so we’d both have a reason to feel as bad as we did.
“Can I tell you a secret?” I climb onto one of the breakfast stools and rest my chin in my hand. My blood is already warm from the wine, and I don’t want to admit it but I already feel calmer, steadier. I study Dylan’s face, taking advantage of the fact that he can’t seem to look directly at me. He nods, his face tight as he stares down at his hands.
“I don’t know if I was ever addicted to any of it. It just seemed easier to say than admitting that I actually liked forgetting who I was for a few hours.”
“That’s still destructive,” he counters. “Using it to forget who you are.”
“I don’t know, it’s actually been one of the higher functioning relationships in my life,” I say, immediately regretting my choice of words.
“Grace,” he says, and suddenly my chest hurts.
“Fine,” I say, pushing the glass toward him. I make a mental note to hide the bottle of Percocet somewhere other than just under my pillow. Dylan was there when I was first prescribed the pills following a subtle tweak to my nose (a finessing more than anything), but he never knew how many times I’d topped up my prescription since then.
“Don’t just do it for me though,” he says, visibly relieved. Laurel used to call him Dylan the Saint, and he’s still the only person I know who never even has to try to do the right thing, it just comes naturally to him. I look over his head, at the fridge where five colorful stick drawings of Wren are pinned up with magnets. Dylan is pretending he’s already built the big, perfect family just like the one he left behind.
“Would you mind not saying anything to Wren?” I ask.
“Whatever you want, Grace,” he says, but I can see that there are a million things he wants to be saying instead of that. Eventually, he finds one of them. “Did you come back to make it official?”
Dylan looks me straight in the eye for the first time since I’ve been back, and I feel a familiar kick low in my belly.
“I don’t know,” I say again. “If you need to for Wren, then we can start—”
“Don’t put this all on me,” he interrupts, shaking his head. I know there’s nothing I can say that will fix anything. People only want to hear the truth if it also happens to be what they want to hear. There is no way of telling him that he never stood a chance with me.
“Can you just explain one thing to me? Because of all the things that went wrong, there is this one thing in particular that stands out for me—” He breaks off, and this time his hurt is drawn so acutely onto his face that I’m the one to turn away. He takes a deep breath and stares up at the industrial chandelier we chose together. “You never called. Not even once.”
“I thought it would make it worse,” I say, while he stands opposite me, looking as if I have come back solely to set his life on fire all over again.
“Are you happy, Dylan?”
“What’s that got to do with anything? Fuck.”
It’s the last thing that the Dylan I knew would have said, and we are both quiet for a moment.
“It was nothing to do with you. Why I left.” I know instantly that it was the wrong thing to say. Dylan takes a small step back as if I’ve punched him.
“Well that’s just fucking great.”
His dark hair is sticking out where he’s been running his hands through it, and he looks at me differently, as if he’s seeing me for the first time. My heart twists in my chest, and I know that he’s finally going to ask me why I left, and if he does, I know that I have to find the words to tell him.
He takes a deep breath and speaks slowly, saying instead, “You took your wedding ring off.”
I look down at my bare hands, and I know I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am. We were always living different versions of the same story.
“Where did it go? I would have taken it back. You knew it was my grandma’s.”
Where did it go?
It was my first night back in Anaheim. I was fragile, sober for the first time in months, and I felt as if I was absorbing everything around me, but instead of weighing me down, I was lighter than ever before, as if I might float away and nobody would know how to look for me. I went to bed early and I reached for the locket that Dylan had given me just after we met, but it wasn’t there. I tore through my suitcase, and when I still couldn’t find it, I hid beneath the covers of my childhood bed, my body racked with grief for the death of everything I had tried so hard to be. The next morning I woke early and gave the rest of my jewelry to the first woman I saw on the street, a cleaner for one of our neighbors. It was raining as I handed it over and I told her to give it to her kids, or grandkids, whoever she wanted. A few months later I watched as a bored cashier at CVS bagged my tampons while wearing my old wedding ring.
I look at Dylan and understand that what I say next is important. I’m about to tell him the truth, when Wren starts singing along with a commercial in the next room. Dylan is waiting, staring down at the floor with his jaw clenched, and I think about the infinite number of things I could say to let myself off the hook, the whole while knowing I would only end up hurting him again, and again and again, until neither of us recognized ourselves anymore.
I take a deep breath. “I sold it.”
Dylan breathes out heavily, and he can barely bring himself to look at me. We always did have our biggest fights in the kitchen. We were two kids pretending to be adults in an $8 million house with nothing of our own.
A story about Dylan, or maybe just a sentence. Dylan looks like Johnny Depp in Cry Baby but he says okeydokey and does a dance to make me laugh when he’s brushing his teeth. No . . . another one. When I first met him, Dylan had a framed print of David Hockney’s Pearblossom Hwy. hanging on his bedroom wall. He’d had it for years and never once noticed the trash lining the side of the road. I felt bad after I pointed it out because before me he’d only ever seen the endless blue sky and the open road leading to anywhere you wanted to go. Cut Dylan open and he will most likely bleed America and maybe some puppies.
* * *
? ? ?
Dylan and I circle each other warily in the house, but somehow I settle into a routine that, if not thrilling, is gently gratifying in its mundanity. I spend most of my time wandering the serene Venice canals. The houses lining the water defy all rules of architecture: a pink Tuscan villa with purple Tudor turrets stands next to a midcentury craftsman bungalow with a photovoltaic canopy on the roof. It’s the same way all over LA, as if to belabor the point that you get to choose who you want to be in this beautiful baby country. One morning, I watch a couple row a boat from the dock outside their house to their friends’ house, waving a bottle of champagne wrapped in pages from an issue of the Hollywood Reporter.
A lone paparazzo half-heartedly waits outside the glass house, but I escape through the back on foot, trailing down to the beach and then cutting back up to Abbot Kinney Boulevard or Rose Avenue. The residents of Venice have always been respectful of my privacy, but I still look at the tarmac, the sky, anywhere but the faces of the people I pass. At night we eat at home, ramen that Wren makes with thick shitake mushrooms floating on the oily surface. Wren never eats much of hers, tipping her slimy noodles down the sink once we’re finished, while I pretend not to notice.