“I trust you.”
Able pulled into the driveway of my hotel. He turned the engine off and turned to look at me.
“Now, how about I walk you up to your room, and I wax lyrical about jazz music until you fall asleep and forget this night ever happened. Does that sound good to you?”
I nodded, and as we got out of the car, I felt myself relax into his presence once again, and the decision to do so felt soothing, familiar—as if someone had finally thrown a heavy blanket over a frenzied birdcage.
* * *
? ? ?
Able settled in the armchair next to my bed in the hotel room. He picked up a magazine from the floor and flicked through it while I locked myself in the bathroom to change into my pajamas. Once I’d brushed my teeth, I climbed under the cool covers of the giant bed. It felt strange having him there next to me, but, as promised, he played me music from his phone, and, as I lay with my eyes closed, listening to him talk softly about Miles Davis and John Coltrane, I felt lucky to have someone looking out for me again. And this was always how it worked with us—for every time Able took something irreplaceable from me, there was an equal and opposing moment where it felt like he helped me to become more myself. There was never one without the other.
Able’s voice rose and fell like a wave that night, and a warm sense of contentment spread through me as I slipped over the line between reality and dreams.
The sound of screaming water fills my ears, and my shoulder scrapes against something sharp on the bottom of the ocean. I twist, and when I see the sun above the surface of the water, I think that maybe I will stay here forever, until something inside me snaps, like it did that night in the bathroom. I kick my way to the surface, my lungs burning as a surge of adrenaline spreads through me. When I surface I spit out some salt water and let out a shuddering breath, my vision distorted by the brightness of the real world.
I emerge twenty feet further away from the shore than when I started, and the water is as placid as a lake again. I rub my eyes. Someone is shouting my name. I squint at the shore, and somehow both Esme and Blake are standing there, waving their arms frantically. I wave back and, for some reason, I feel borderline euphoric to see my sister again, as if I can make everything up to her right now. I start to swim toward them, and as each measure of oxygen expands in my lungs, I feel lucky for the reminder of how vulnerable we are to depend on anything so much at all.
When I climb out of the water, my clothes are heavy, my jeans sagging on my hips. I wring the hem of my T-shirt out onto the sand as I approach the girls.
“What the actual fuck?” Esme asks, and now that I’m closer I can see that I’ve misunderstood, that her cheeks are wet with tears.
I pause, unsure of how to respond. I look at Blake but she averts her eyes, embarrassed for me.
“I felt like swimming,” I say in the end, because I figure they don’t necessarily need unlimited access to my psyche at this point.
“Fully clothed,” Esme says searingly. “You are so weird. What is wrong with you? I thought you’d killed yourself.”
I try to put my hand on her shoulder but she ducks away.
“I’m sorry. Look, I’m trying, Esme. You guys had left . . .”
“Esme still had your phone,” Blake says. My sister still won’t meet my eyes.
“Do you want to come in for some tea?” I ask.
Esme pauses, communicating something to Blake with her eyes that I can’t read. I pick up my shoes from the sand, and after a moment the girls follow me to my front porch. I try to act like I always go swimming fully clothed even though my shoulder is stinging from where I scraped it and spots of blood are soaking through the thin fabric of my T-shirt.
I leave Blake and Esme in the living room while I peel off my wet clothes in the bedroom, swapping them for a pair of yoga pants and Dylan’s Ohio State sweatshirt I snuck into my packing. When I come back into the living room they are both sitting up straight on the sofa. I switch on the kettle and turn back to them.
Esme hands me my phone silently. She’s already set the background to a photo of the ocean view from Coyote Sumac.
“Thanks. Can I do anything in return?” I remember the expression of horror on the face of the girl working in the drugstore when I tried to pay her, and manage not to reach for my purse to pay my sister. My transcendental near-drowning experience is already wearing off, and I’m starting to wish I hadn’t invited them back into my house, particularly as Esme is still ignoring me and I’m having trouble looking at her, too, her cheeks streaked ash gray from her tears.
The kettle emits a shrill whistle and I take it off the hob, the handle searing the palm of my hand in the process. I ball it into a fist and open a cupboard. Empty. I open another one and then remember that I didn’t bring any cups over from Dylan’s. I don’t even have any tea.
“I don’t have any cups. I’m so sorry.” I stand in the middle of the kitchen, looking around. I hold my scalded hand out as an offering.
“It’s fine, we don’t drink tea,” Blake says, smiling politely.
The girls show no signs of leaving, even though the silence has stretched well into the uncomfortable zone. I feel exposed, unsure of what to do. What do teenagers talk about? Other than Dylan, and that awful night with Elon and Alaia, I’ve rarely hung out with anyone my own age since I was in England. I wonder how long they’ll expect me to grind out polite conversation before letting me off the hook. My limbs feel heavy, as if they are filled with wet sand, and I want to get back into bed.
“Can I do anything else for you?” I ask. Esme is staring up at the ceiling with her arms folded across her chest. I look at Blake for help, and she shrugs.
“What’s it like being famous?” Blake asks, and even though I’m grateful to her for filling the silence, I’m not sure how to answer the question. Should I tell them about the time I had to be dragged out of someone’s pool because I’d blacked out while swimming naked with a famous pop star and two men that weren’t my husband? Or the morning after, when I went for a painful breakfast with a journalist from LA Weekly who described me as having a “childlike innocence, betrayed only by her trembling hands, the keynote topic in countless studio boardroom meetings across the city, no doubt.” It was the closest anyone came to referencing the industry-wide open secret of my drug use, and my manager nearly killed me. I spent the following week holed up alone in a bungalow at Chateau Marmont, bingeing on coke and reruns of I Love Lucy and ignoring everyone’s calls.
I have a feeling nothing I say is going to impress my sister. The few times I’ve seen her in the years since I moved out, she’s never expressed any interest in my job, other than once asking me if it was true that Sean Connery had a job polishing coffins before he started acting. I found out afterward that it was, but I think I forgot to tell her.
“It has its good points and bad, like anything,” I say, cringing at the mundanity of my answer. Esme snorts, which I guess is something.
“It’s not real,” I say quietly, after another moment. “None if it means anything at all.”
The girls are silent, and they don’t know what to say because they’re still kids, but Esme is at least looking at me now.
“Did you know that Sean Connery worked as a coffin polisher before he started acting?” I ask, trying to lighten the leaden atmosphere I have single-handedly created.
“Do you ever speak to Dylan?” Blake asks, leaning forward and twisting her earring.
I stand up quickly. “Okay, girls, thanks for fixing my phone, but I have some stuff I need to get on with now.”
“What kind of stuff?” Esme finally speaks, squinting at me warily. “Drowning-yourself stuff?”
“Grown-up stuff. I need to meditate,” I say. Esme nods, seemingly satisfied for the moment.
“My mom does cryotherapy for her depression,” Blake tells me helpfully on their way out.
I watch the girls get into the red car, then I remember Laurel at the last minute and shout after them. “Don’t tell anyone about the Crocs!”
I push my silk eye mask up and hold the vibrating phone close to my face so that I can read it through the blur of another heavy night’s sleep. The eye mask has been doing its job too well recently, and I’m finding it nearly impossible to get out of bed before midday. When I do wake up, my brain feels furry and strange, as if I’m wading through a swimming pool of thick clay just to form a sentence.
I hold the phone up to my ear as the air-conditioning unit in the bedroom blasts warm, damp air over me.