“I heard you and Mom the night before you left,” she says, her voice soft. “You know you never say his name, Grace.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, and as Esme’s face crumples, I understand that I’m letting her down, and that I have a chance to fix something in her that is already broken in me. My heart climbs into my throat at the thought that I might actually be about to say the words out loud for the first time. I know that I’ll never be able to explain it all to Esme, but I take a deep breath anyway, trying to harness the quiet fury or the fear or anything else he left in place of everything he took from me.
“I was hurt, in a different way from how those kids are hurting you, but, in another way, it was also the same. He took all of my power away from me, and then he left me alone to deal with it. To deal with the shame.”
Esme is watching me carefully.
“Is that why you’re so weird?”
“Thanks, Esme,” I say, but my words are already twitching with relief because I’ve almost said the truth out loud and nobody told me I had to take it back
“Are you angry at him?” she asks.
“Sometimes,” I lie, thinking about the constant low-level dark thrashing in my mind, and how occasionally the anger bursts through to the surface and I have to do whatever I can to make it go away again, and how I have no idea what my life would actually be like if it weren’t there, had never been there, taking and taking, draining and draining.
“It sounds like you might need the camera more than I do,” she says, studying me.
“It’s more complicated than that,” I say after a moment. “I’ve been asked to present him with an award.”
“The one Mom was baiting you about?” Esme narrows her eyes.
“Exactly. Lifetime achievement at the IFAs.”
“So you don’t need the camera because you’ll already have an audience, and an entire fucking TV crew,” Esme says slowly.
And of course I can imagine it, have been imagining little else since Emilia suggested that I present the award. I’m standing onstage while the audience applauds my return on its feet. The glitter on my gown dances under the stage lights as I talk into the microphone, shakily at first, growing in confidence until my voice is loud and forceful. When I’ve finished, the audience is standing again, applauding my bravery. Able is frozen in his seat, every ounce of power drained from his body. I try not to think about Silver and Ophelia at home with their babysitter, Emilia’s pale face as she watches me from her seat next to Able, the inevitable mauling my family and I would receive from the media in the aftermath.
Esme picks up a lobster claw and she seems lighter, as if she’s been reassured at last that order will be restored. Underneath all her teenage cynicism, I can tell that she still believes in the good guys and the bad guys, in retribution and happy endings, and I envy her for it. I already sort of wish I hadn’t told her about it, because I know that in doing so, I’ve finally made myself accountable to someone. Maybe I figured I would lose my nerve if I didn’t, or maybe I just wanted to make her smile at me like she is now, her eyes bright and wicked. I ignore the tiny bit of white flesh that lands on my arm as Esme cracks her lobster claw.
“Maybe their turn for winning is over, Grace. Maybe it’s our turn now.”
I try to hold on to Esme’s words as I stand on the doorstep of the peach house the next morning, waiting to meet Emilia for a coffee. After a minute, Emilia flings open the door and stands in the doorway with one hand on her hip and the other holding a bowl of sliced apples. She looks flustered, but she breaks into a wide, grateful smile when she sees that it’s me. I try not to feel guilty as she throws her arms around my neck like a little kid. She smells of peanut butter mixed with her peppery Le Labo perfume.
“I am so beyond pleased that you’re here. You wouldn’t believe the morning I’ve had already,” she says into my hair as she hugs me. “The nanny, Marla, broke her leg last night, and we’ve all descended into absolute chaos as a result. It’s also the worst possible timing with this trip to Salt Lake in a couple days.”
“You’re going this week?” I ask, pausing in the doorway as Emilia nods.
“Yes, I’m sure I told you. For Able’s screening? At least I’ve somehow convinced my husband to fly home with me afterward,” Emilia says, rolling her eyes. “Do you mind doing coffee here instead?”
I nod woodenly in response and turn around to close the door so that she can’t see my face. I tell myself that I always knew Able would be coming home at some point, and that at least this way I can arm myself with the knowledge and keep one step ahead of him.
The twins are sitting at the kitchen table, chattering like excited monkeys with cheeks red from exertion and sticky hair stuck to their foreheads. I sneak glances at them when they’re not looking, relieved to find they look more like their mother than Able.
“Will you two just stop screaming for a second? Come and sit with us.”
“I’m sorry to hear about Marla,” I say as I take a seat at the table.
“So was I. She’ll be out for weeks,” Emilia says brightly, smearing the apple slices with thick peanut butter. Her hair is damp and pulled into a messy bun at the nape of her neck, and she looks different without her glossy shield of hair, as if she’s been exposed in some important way without realizing it.
“Girls, do you remember Grace?” she asks, and they both look up at me. Silver lets out a grunt and Ophelia waves before they lose interest again. Emilia seems to have given them each an early Christmas present to distract them—two new baby-pink Polaroid cameras.
Emilia turns to stare at the shiny, industrial-looking coffee machine and then shrugs, stumped.
“I’m really sorry about this,” she says.
“I already had a coffee, it’s okay,” I say, but I don’t know if she hears me.
“Do you know how much sugar peanut butter has in it?” Silver asks, glancing up from her camera long enough to squint at her mom. I try not to recognize any of Able’s mannerisms in the nine-year-old.
“It’s the kind without the sugar.” Emilia rolls her eyes at me and ruffles Silver’s hair.
“And the kind without the palm oil? Because you know that they have to destroy the rain forests to—”
“I know, Silver. It’s also the kind without the palm oil. And I’m really still so pleased that Marla teaches you about this sort of thing,” Emilia says smoothly, miming shooting herself in the mouth behind Silver’s head.
“Can I take a picture of you?” Ophelia asks me quietly while they’re talking, and I nod. I stick my tongue out just as she presses the button, and she giggles, a low gurgling sound that makes me smile. When the Polaroid comes out, she grabs it and waves it in the air.
Emilia already looks exhausted, but she tries to make conversation anyway, rambling about a movie the girls’ school had tried to ban after they’d already seen it. Watching her struggle to maintain control of everything, I feel a jolt of sympathy, but then her phone rings a few minutes later and I see a photo of Able appear on the screen, dimples flashing as he leans against a palm tree. My whole body tenses, but Emilia doesn’t seem to notice, apologizing as she glides past me to answer the call in the living room.
While Emilia is out of the room, I try not to think about the voice on the other end of the line, so I pick up the Polaroid Ophelia took of me from the table instead. In the picture I look carefree and easy, and I wonder if this is what Emilia sees when she looks at me. I have no idea how I fit into her narrative, whether she really does see me as an extension of herself or whether she still just pities me for being so alone.
When Emilia comes back into the kitchen, she looks unsettled, those red blotches that very pale people get climbing her neck.
“What’s wrong?” I ask her, and she looks at me, taking a moment to focus.
“Oh, nothing really. Able just reminded me that our financial adviser is coming over this afternoon, but I have to take the girls to school for their final holiday pageant rehearsal. I also have this deadline that I’ve been putting off.” Emilia breaks off and smiles at me. “You know, it’s fine. Millions of people do this every day. I’ll figure it out. I just need a moment to catch my breath.”
I stand up and walk around to her, putting my hand on her shoulder. I can feel the damp heat of her sweat through her thin cotton top, and I feel a snap of guilt for what I’m about to do to the only person who has actually wanted to be around me since I’ve been back in Los Angeles.
“Why don’t I drop the girls off at school?” I ask slowly. “I have something I need to do at home, then I can come pick them right up.”
Emilia looks up at me for a moment, and the expression on her face is pure and grateful. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“Of course not.”