“Oh wow. Binoculars. For bird-w . . . watching?” The poor guy is physically shaking. He’s already recognized me. I keep having to remind myself that I’m back in LA, where everyone is raised on a diet of Access Hollywood and E!, and Oscar nominations are discussed over a bowl of Cheerios in the morning.
I try to seem humble and grateful while Ethan leads me down the correct aisle and waits in front of the binoculars for my response.
“Dolphin watching, whale watching. I suppose maybe some birds.”
Ethan nods and passes me a box from the shelf. While I’m looking at it, he puts one hand inside his pocket, his eyes scanning to check if anyone is watching us, and then he pulls out his phone. After a moment I shrug, understanding that he wants a photo with me. Ethan adjusts the angle of his hand so that we’re both in the frame, and just as I’m attempting to assemble my features into something vaguely acceptable, he takes the photo. A flash goes off from the front, startling me. He puts his phone back into his pocket and takes the binoculars from me.
“I actually also need to get a phone, can you help me with that too?” I ask, thinking of Laurel.
Ethan leads me to a different section of the painfully bright store. I request the most basic model, and as he talks me through the setup process, I can see that he is trying to hide that he has an erection underneath his regulation chinos. I feel a vague mixture of disgust and embarrassment for him, and I hope that he isn’t going to remember my new phone number and stalk me.
“I can ring you up right here, you don’t have to get in line or anything.” He picks up a tablet and presses a few things on it. I hand over my credit card.
“Hey, can you . . . can you say the line?” Ethan asks while we’re waiting for the payment to go through, and I know instantly what he means. He’s talking about my final line in Lights of Berlin, the one strangers demand I send in a voice note to their cousin in Atlanta, or on FaceTime to their dad in Hungary. The one that made audiences burst into spontaneous rounds of applause in movie theaters all around the world as tears dried on their cheeks. The one that never fails to remind me of how much I owe the world, instead of the other way around.
A man in a bright yellow hoodie hovers close to us now, too, waiting.
“I am so sorry, but I’m not actually allowed to,” I say. “You know . . . for contractual reasons.”
Ethan nods and blinks a lot. The hoodie guy moves on.
“Can I . . . ask where you went then? When you were hiding out?” Ethan squeaks, like we’re on a true crime show and I’m a missing child off a 1980s milk carton.
“It was an illusion. Grace Turner never really existed,” I say, but I can tell that he is confused, unsatisfied with my response.
“I went home. To see my parents. They’re getting older,” I say, aware as I do that I’m offering up too much information to the kid with the boner in Best Buy. Am I lonely? Maybe I should call Laurel.
“Thank you for your help, Ethan,” I say once the payment has gone through, and I hope I’m saying it in a way that comes across as sincere and not like I can’t wait to get out of the store and be by myself again. I leave the store with my baseball cap back on and my head lowered, wondering about the kind of person who worries more about hurting the feelings of the guy in Best Buy than their own husband’s.
* * *
? ? ?
As I enter in the security code, I hear a telephone ring from somewhere inside my new house. Once I’m inside, I locate a white landline plugged in to the wall behind the sofa. I pick the phone up tentatively because I didn’t know landlines still existed, let alone that I had one.
“Grace, what are you doing?” It’s Laurel. Of course she managed to get my number before I even knew I had a phone. She sounds exasperated with me already.
“I just walked through the door. I’ve been shopping,” I offer proudly, because it sounds like something normal people do. I balance the landline between my shoulder and ear while I try to turn on my new phone. I’ve already forgotten everything Ethan told me.
“No, I know that. You’re all over everything looking batshit crazy in Best Buy, allegedly talking to some kid about your decrepit parents. You know your mom is just going to love that, by the way.”
“Grace. This shit is instant, you have to remember. You don’t talk to people you don’t know, and you always look at the very least mentally sound, because they’ll try to catch you off guard. If you need something, just call me and I’ll get it for you next time. I told you we needed a plan. For fuck’s sake, Grace. Binoculars? They’re saying you lost your mind and went bird-watching in the Amazon for the past year.”
“Who? I thought they said my parents were old,” I say, slightly distracted because Laurel is being so helpful that I’m now wondering whether she’s been on my payroll the entire time I was away. I can’t remember what we agreed when we met, but life coaching sounds expensive and I don’t know when I’ll work again.
“They don’t care about anything, Grace. They’ll say whatever they want. Some kid who served you in Best Buy said you seemed disoriented. What a fucking word.”
“The guy in Best Buy? Ethan? He could barely speak. I felt bad for him.”
“Don’t ever feel bad for them. Rule number one. Kids are different these days, okay? They’re not how we were when we were younger.”
I’m about ten years younger than Laurel, but I don’t think that now is the time to mention it. In fact, there’s never a good time to mention it. Once a kid in Starbucks asked if she was my stepmom and she nearly spat at him.
“I’m sure I used to talk to people. Didn’t I? This has never happened before.”
Laurel is silent for a couple of seconds.
“You disrupted the balance, Grace. You left, and by leaving you showed weakness. It’s open season.”
“Is that why you’re shouting at me now too?”
“Maybe,” she says softly.
Under Laurel’s advice, I lay low in Coyote Sumac for the next couple of days, away from the press that she tells me are now circling the glass house like locusts. I order pizza delivery in the evening, thick, chewy dough covered with melted cheese and garlicky meat, and I eat the leftovers for lunch the next day. The only person who sees me is the delivery guy, and I make sure to answer the door in a baseball cap and sunglasses, even at night. He probably assumes I’m recovering from some invasive cosmetic surgery procedure, and he politely averts his eyes when I hand him the cash.
Filling my time is problematic. I find it hard to concentrate on the TV for too long, and the inane reality shows that I could probably just about tolerate remind me too much of my mom for me to watch. I spend the majority of my time sitting in the lawn chair on my porch instead, breathing in the salty Malibu air and watching the peach house through my binoculars. Because of how the property is angled in relation to mine, I can see the roof terrace and the dark blue pool at the back of their house clearly, and each day at noon I watch Able’s wife, Emilia, swim lengths for half an hour, emerging at twelve thirty p.m. with her blond hair slick and glittering in the December sun. In a strange way her routine has become comforting to me, as if it is also my own.
I am sitting like that one day, squinting up at the house, when the phone starts to ring inside my rental. I assume it’s Laurel, and I’m irritated that I have to lower the binoculars because it’s the exact time of day that Emilia likes to go for her swim, but I walk through the screen door anyway.
“I sent a nude,” the voice on the other end of the line says.
“That’s why I got suspended.”
“Oh Jesus,” I say. “How did you get this number?”
“Oh great,” I reply. “I guess I’m the only one who doesn’t have it.”
“Look, my friend has a therapy session in Brentwood at three today. Can I hang out at yours while she’s there?” Esme asks impatiently.
I pause, looking down at the binoculars in my hand. I rarely see Emilia after her swim anyway.
* * *
? ? ?
An hour later, a red car roars down the dirt track to Coyote Sumac, and I know instantly that it’s Esme and her friend because they’re driving in the way only privileged teenagers from the suburbs can: carelessly, unflinching in their belief that they’re invincible. I watch from the porch as the G-Wagon pulls to a sharp stop outside my house. The car engine cuts out, and along with it the music, a thin voice warbling shrilly over a synthesized beat.
I almost don’t recognize Esme when she climbs out of the car. She’s finally out of her school uniform, wearing a cropped striped T-shirt and ripped black jeans. Her black hair cloaks her shoulders, and the heavy powder on her face is a couple of shades too pale even for her. Her brown eyes are rimmed with black liquid eyeliner that has left a mini inkblot test on each of her eyelids, and the overall effect of all that effort is that she seems younger than she is, more vulnerable. I want to reach out and brush some of it off, but even I know that this would be a bad way to kick off our sister playdate.