“Hey? Excuse me? Can you take it?”
Esme pauses, and I flinch when I see the expression on her face before she walks back to take the phone from his hand. For just a moment, my sister looks at me as if I orchestrated the entire exchange on purpose, just to show her how much better I am than her. The guy stands next to me, grinning cluelessly as Esme takes a couple of shots. After it’s done, she wordlessly holds the photo up for me to check, and, when I shrug, she hands the phone back to him.
“Lights of Berlin,” I say over my shoulder as I’m getting in the car. The kid squints at me.
“Lights of Berlin. That’s what the hooker movie was called.”
* * *
? ? ?
It seems that neither of us is in the mood for conversation during the drive back to Coyote Sumac, and when I pull up outside the house, we both stay in our seats, staring out the windshield for a minute.
“Do you want to talk about the suspension?” I ask reluctantly.
“No,” Esme says, unbuckling her seat belt. “Can we just watch TV or something?”
I nod, relieved. Once we’re inside, we both sit down carefully on the sofa, and I turn on an episode of Friends for her. Friends reruns were the only thing guaranteed to be on in whatever country I was filming in, but Esme doesn’t appear to have seen it before. She watches quietly, her eyes tracking the characters and then occasionally flicking back to me.
“This show is entirely problematic,” she says, once the episode is over. “But I think I don’t care.”
I’m not sure what to say in response, so I just settle into the sofa for the next episode.
When Blake pulls up outside, beeping obnoxiously four times, I feel guilty about how relieved I am. Esme bends down and pats me gently on the shoulder like a family dog.
“See you next week.”
* * *
? ? ?
I wash the sticky ice cream off my hands at the kitchen sink, picturing my sister begging our parents to give her permission to come to LA for the afternoon with Blake. It would have taken a lot of convincing, given her suspension from school and their implicit mistrust of Los Angeles. When I was Esme’s age, I was living in a soulless hotel in West Hollywood between shoots, and strange men used to follow me up from the pool bar to my room, banging on the door and shouting until I was forced to call my manager from the bathroom to deal with them. The only other people I had contact with back then were either on commission or outright paid to be there, and I spoke to my parents maybe once, twice a month, until the conversation eventually dried up like the Los Angeles River. Like I said, I think I could feel jealous of my sister if I tried.
I turn off the tap and look out the window. The Pacific is glowing fire red in the afternoon sun. I slip out the front door and down the porch steps, drifting toward the water. When the sand becomes damp, I kick off my shoes and then wade into the cold water. There is something calming about the inevitability of it once I’m in, the water icy and my jeans weighing heavy on my hips. I hold my breath as I fully submerge myself, and then I just float on my back for a few minutes.
A small, curling wave approaches. I stand up in front of it, waist-deep with my arms stretched out beside me, my body covered in goose bumps. The water crashes against me, and a piece of seaweed hooks around my jeans. I think about what my sister might want from me, knowing that I will never be able to give it to her. My inability to deliver when it really matters has been my one constant in life.
Another wave starts to gather, this one bigger. It hits me at chest level, salty water splashing up and stinging my eyes. Soon it feels like I am summoning the waves, stoking them until they come faster and crack even harder against me so that I have to bend my knees to remain upright before they snap back into the sea.
For a moment, everything is calm and I face the horizon. I watch a monster wave gathering power until it looms five feet above me, hissing. I hold my breath as the wave crashes over me, and then I am plunged into darkness. Now I am just one other small thing among a million other things, spinning and twisting underneath the water’s surface. The water isn’t so blue under here; it’s blacker and murkier and I’m drifting and my lungs are bursting and it’s simultaneously the most alive and the closest to darkness that I’ve ever been.
When the second installment of the assassin trilogy wrapped, I was offered the lead role in a teen horror movie. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, the second shoot had been harder on me than the first, culminating in a monthlong stint in Beirut where I had to endure even longer periods of coolness from Able, periods that often spiraled into meanness at a dizzying speed. On top of the generally disorienting effects of my being sixteen, alone and far from home, Able had made it so I couldn’t even trust my own thoughts most of the time. I had learned to be quiet and still around him so as not to set him off, and by the end of the shoot I found I could read his moods better than I could read my own. Afterward, he had taken more convincing than before that I remembered how lucky I was, and he acted like the stuff we did in his trailer was just the price I had to pay for the power I had unfairly exerted over him throughout the shoot. I felt sick, guilty and exhausted most of the time, and I arrived back in California with what felt like gaping black holes in my psyche. I knew I couldn’t face my parents in that state, and when I lied and told them I needed to stay in LA for work, they didn’t put up a fight.
The horror movie wasn’t part of the plan we’d laid out at that first dinner, but I was desperate to fill each second of my time in between shoots, and my agent, Nathan, admitted that Able couldn’t do anything about it as long as I was available for the third assassin movie. Even then, even when I was still pretending everything was fine, I knew myself well enough to understand that I had to keep on running. I told myself that I was in control: I was taking the role as a sort of insurance policy, because even I was capable of losing Able’s goodwill, but I think I was showing off to him, too, trying to prove all over again how talented I was, how lucky he was to have found me. Maybe Able was right and he really did know me better than I knew myself. Maybe I was deeply fucked up in some irreparable way nobody else but him could see. All I knew for certain was that everything was always part of the same twisted game and I could never keep up with the rules.
In the end, I did the movie without Able against the advice of Nathan, my manager, Kit, and my publicist, Nan. They weren’t happy about it, but I was their star client by that point, and they couldn’t refuse me. I waited months for Able to tear into me about it, but he never commented on my decision in person. I told myself I was strong enough to handle the silent treatment, but I already felt guilty about wanting too much and seeming ungrateful. As always when I was apart from him, I also felt complicated ripples of shame whenever I thought about the things we’d done.
The actor I was playing opposite in the horror movie, Elon Puth, had come up through kids’ TV, shooting five seasons of his own show, Elon’s World, before calling it a day to take on more challenging roles. I thought we’d have a lot in common, having both started out as young teenagers, but Elon was unpleasant when we met, his eyes scanning my face once before turning away dismissively. He had pale, dry lips and a chin that had the tendency to melt into his neck when he wasn’t in front of the camera, and we barely spoke outside of our scenes. I kept expecting the director, Mandy, to pull us aside and confront us over our lack of chemistry, but she never did, and she didn’t even seem to notice that we played our characters with a sort of hollowness, just daring each other to feel anything. I could tell from the moment I met Mandy that she wasn’t an auteur like Able, and that this was just a job for her, like it was for the people who graded the film or controlled the lights. The movie wasn’t ever a part of her, like it was for Able. I looked down on her from the start because of this, even though I hated myself for it.