Page 53

I get dressed slowly for my dinner with Dylan, putting on a baby-blue vintage silk shirt with a ruffled neck, a pair of black leather pants and tiny gold hoop earrings. My hair is creamy and smooth, tucked behind my perfect ears. I put on a slick of lip gloss before I leave, and, of course, it’s the only makeup I need. I’ve always looked like someone I’m not, and tonight it’s truer than ever. It’s at its most obvious when I smile, two rows of perfect white teeth promising good, wholesome things I will never be able to fulfill.

Dylan sends a car to pick me up at eight thirty, and I slide in, nodding at the driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror. I stare out of the tinted window as the city slides away from me, until we arrive on a side street somewhere south of Venice. The car turns up an alley, and we pass the exits of an Ethiopian restaurant and a BDSM store. We pull up behind a third establishment, which has bags of trash covering the parking spaces and red lightbulbs around the back door.

I climb out of the car and push open the heavy wooden door. It is a Mexican restaurant, dimly lit other than multicolored lights strung across the ceiling, and candles scattered across empty tables. Dylan is sitting in a booth in the otherwise empty restaurant, music playing softly through the speakers. He stands up and gives me a kiss on the cheek when I reach the table. He’s wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, and he’s happy to see me.

I slip into the booth opposite him.

“What’s that smell?” I ask, because he smells different.

“I don’t know. The woman in the store told me it would make me irresistible to all men.” He grins at me, his eyes warm and easy.

“I prefer your normal smell,” I say. Dylan is still smiling but I’m annoyed at myself for being prickly already. I feel hot and guilty after my fight with Esme, but I try to soften the angles of my face, removing the sharp edges from my voice.

“So what’s been happening? What have you done today?” he asks, and then he stops himself. “Actually I already know. Paparazzi are all over you at the moment, huh?”

I shrug. “It’s not so bad.”

Dylan studies me for a second before looking down at the menu. “Did they follow you here?”

“I don’t think so . . .” I lie, not telling him that I already texted Mario the address and that he is waiting to capture a photo of Dylan and me leaving the restaurant together as soon as I send the go-ahead. I realize now that it was a mistake.

“So what is this place? It’s cute,” I say, staring up at the fresco painted on the ceiling. It’s a Day of the Dead scene showing skeletons wearing mariachi costumes and vivid red and purple dresses, painted in thick acrylic.

Dylan looks at me strangely and then he shrugs.

“Just a restaurant I like,” he says.

The server places a plastic bowl of tortilla chips and salsa on the table. I ask for some guacamole as I pull out my phone, scanning the new messages and emails. One from John telling me he is looking forward to our next meeting, and one from Nathan. I put the phone facedown on the red-and-white tablecloth next to my water glass. After a couple of moments, I flip it back again so that I can check the screen subtly from now on, instead of making a big deal out of it.

“Are you okay?” Dylan asks. I turn my phone facedown again.

“Yeah, why?”

“I don’t know, you seem a little different.” Dylan chooses his words carefully.

“I feel good,” I say, stretching my legs out under the table and flashing him a big smile, the kind I use to shut people up, forgetting that he knows all my sleights of hand. I take a deep breath and start over because even I can’t tell when I’m lying anymore.

“I’m about to be offered a part in this movie, but I can’t work out if it’s going to be awful or not . . .” I say, searching for something honest that isn’t too revealing.

“Want to talk it through?” Dylan says. “I don’t know about the movie, but I know you pretty well.”

“Mmm, yeah, maybe,” I say, checking my phone quickly again. A message from Laurel asking if I was doing okay. “Did you know Laurel is a lesbian?”

Dylan laughs. “Of course—I’ve met Lana. We both have.”

“Was I a worse friend or wife?” I ask, just before I realize I’m talking about myself again.

“How are you anyway? How’s the single life treating you?” I ask, shooting for funny but landing somewhere between awkward and belligerent. Dylan grimaces.

“Sorry. How are the surfers?”

“They’re all right,” he says, having a sip of water and still watching me carefully. “The story isn’t doing what I want it to do, but I know I just have to roll with it.”

“That’s how it works, right?” I ask. Dylan’s hair is still wet from a shower. Some of it is falling in his eyes, and I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on anything other than how good he looks. I imagine pushing him into the bedroom and fucking like we used to, always like it was going to be the last time. Despite everything, I always enjoyed sex with Dylan more than I ever deserved to. “I thought that was the point of working with real people.”

“No, it is. The story is never what you think it is. I’m just hoping I’ll be able to see it soon,” he says, shrugging. “It’s been a long shoot.”

“The story is never what you think it is,” I repeat. “I like that.”

I have another sip of water, sort of wishing I could have a tequila soda to relax a little instead. Maybe it was being around Dylan that made me drink more. He listens too closely, expects too much. It’s unnerving when you’re not used to it.

“I’ve been working on this . . . project with Esme, but I think she feels like I’ve let her down. Maybe I just need to tell her that we were chasing the wrong ending all along.”

“I’m sure she can’t be mad at you for long,” Dylan says. “That’s cool, by the way.”

“What is?”

“That you’re helping her out like that.”

“Oh. I think it might be the other way around,” I say, digging a tortilla chip into the guacamole. “It’s hard to tell sometimes.”

I wipe my salty fingers on the tablecloth, and when I look up, Dylan is watching me like he used to, as if I’m some rare, beautiful thing, which instantly makes me want to do something to ruin it.

“You seem different too,” I say after a moment.

“Different how?” Dylan asks warily after a pause.

“I don’t know. Like less innocent or something. I mean you came to my house minutes after your girlfriend broke up with you.”

Dylan swallows a tortilla chip and doesn’t say anything for a moment. A mariachi version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is playing softly through the speakers.

“We came here the night we got engaged,” he says eventually. “We literally sat right here.”

I look around again, but nothing about this restaurant is even remotely familiar to me. The server hangs back by the entrance to the kitchen, looking about as pained as I feel. I try to remember the day we got engaged. Dylan woke me up with blueberry pancakes and his grandmother’s wedding ring, and while I was still crying, he showed me his ring finger with my name already tattooed around it in black, scratchy ink. The tattoo was raw, and I cried because that was exactly how I felt when I saw it, so in awe that this person wanted to share his life with me. It was one of those rare spring days when I thought everything would be okay, but I still supplemented the glasses of champagne with secret bumps of coke whenever Dylan left the room. After that, I remember the beach at sunset, and maybe a flat tire. Was there a dinner too?

“I’m sorry. I really don’t remember it.” The expression on his face is making my chest hurt, so I don’t want to look at him anymore. “I think this was a bad idea.”

“Luckily, I already ordered everything we ordered that night, and it’s only going to get more and more fucking awkward as the night goes on. What did you call it? A clusterfuck of misery?” Dylan asks, running his hand through his hair. “I mean, you did warn me.”

“What did we order?”

“It’s okay, we don’t have to do this for my benefit.”

“Remind me of what we ordered.”

“All right,” he says slowly. “We drank jalape?o margaritas, but I got mine with vodka instead of tequila because you put me off tequila for life the night we met. You couldn’t choose between burritos and enchiladas so you got them both, and they made a heart out of sour cream on top, and for some reason you loved that. For dessert we had the Mexican wedding cookies with coconut and chocolate ice cream because we were celebrating. So what, were you high or just drunk that night?”

“Don’t be mean, it doesn’t suit you,” I say as the server places a pitcher of margaritas in front of us, with jalape?os swimming in it. I might have remembered the margaritas if Dylan had mentioned them earlier.

I take a sip, and when I realize it doesn’t have any alcohol in it, I feel instantly, uncomfortably disappointed.