“Come on up, Able,” I say, and after a moment’s pause, he climbs the rest of the stairs, his face ashen.
My hands are shaking so I slip them out of view, behind the podium.
“So I think this is the part where I introduce Able, and thank him for his unending commitment to giving independent films a platform, for his tireless contribution to our industry as a whole and, most of all, for everything he’s done for me. This is definitely what I’m supposed to do,” I say, my voice shaking. I clear my throat, and the audience is so quiet I wonder if they can hear my heart beating through the microphone.
“I have spent years trying to work out what I could have done differently, or maybe what my parents could have done differently. I should have told someone after the first time he made me touch him, or when he told me I was mentally unstable for the hundredth time. Maybe I shouldn’t have waited until every part of my life was already destroyed before I tried to kill myself. Maybe I shouldn’t have worked so hard to become, as I was told just this morning, such an unreliable witness. But it was never really up to me, was it?” I say, and then I pause because, look, there is the queen of Hollywood, watching me with growing interest, her hands still folded on the table in front of her. She’s nearly eighty now, and sitting at a table that is further away from the stage than she used to sit, but in Hollywood, not so much a town as a social construct, she still reigns. At the next table over is the actor who just got caught sleeping with a sex worker in Canada, and he doesn’t know what to do with himself in his reluctance to look anywhere near me. And there is John Hamilton, watching me with an expression of vague horror. He knows I’m about to fuck everything up, but it doesn’t really matter, as there are a hundred other girls like me who will get their breasts out in his film, and they’re probably younger and thinner than me anyway. He’s already eyeing up the nineteen-year-old actress at the table next to him, the one who wore the latex catsuit in his last movie and who, despite still sort of thinking about how she said the wrong designer’s name on the red carpet, already understands implicitly what I’m about to say. They all do. Whether they have guessed the truth about my story or not, they have all known stories like mine. And with that, I’m finally ready for this to end. I’m ready for this to be out in the world, blazing and soaring its way across news sites and text messages and conversations in bars, gyms, restaurants and offices all over the country. I’m ready for it to be anywhere other than just within me.
“So, actually, I am here to thank you, Able, in a way.” I turn to look at him, for just a moment, and I can see that he would kill me right now if he could. I take a deep breath.
“Thank you, for making me aware that there are an infinite amount of ways to get hurt, every day of my life, even when you are nowhere near me.”
The room is more than silent—it is frozen in time. I am suspended above them, my words floating and falling around us all like blossoms, settling into the darkest, loneliest crevices of Hollywood.
“Because knowing what I know, and still getting up every single day, despite it? That makes me stronger, and braver, and better than you. So, Able, you don’t get to have ruined me. Not even one tiny part of me.”
Able is looking away from me, into the wings behind me, and that’s when I see Emilia standing there. She turns and walks away from both of us. The audience is silent because, like the good, docile actors they are, they are waiting for someone to tell them what to do, some director or publicist to tell them whose side they are on. Then the queen of Hollywood starts to clap, slowly at first, but it rings out like thunder in the silent auditorium. A few others join in, but I’m already walking off the stage and straight out of the back of the building, past the photographers who don’t know what’s happened, past the crowds of fans waiting to catch a glimpse of their favorite actor, and past the black town cars and SUVs that are lining Highland, waiting to take the stars inside back to their real lives. I walk past them all, limping alone down the eerily quiet stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, the hem of my dress dragging over the names of everyone who came before me, encased in stars for eternity.
One Year Later
I hold my twenty-fourth birthday dinner at Musso and Frank, right where Hollywood’s heart would be if it had one. Photographers are still waiting outside, but I’m a different kind of celebrity now, and we all know that I’m not theirs in the same way anymore. I smile at them as I pass with Esme, and I remember what it was like at my first public appearance, where so many strangers were calling my name that it turned into a sound I didn’t recognize anymore. Maybe that’s how I forgot who I was.
At first it feels strange to watch my friends and family interact with each other, but when I notice my mom and Laurel sparring happily in the corner, or Esme quizzing Dylan about licensing music for the movie she has now nearly finished, I feel a flicker of hope that overpowers my need for control. At one point I try to stand up to thank everyone for coming, but my voice becomes thick and my eyes fill with tears, and I have to sit right back down again. Laurel and my mother spare me any further embarrassment by pretending not to notice, but Esme quietly takes my hand in hers, and my dad smiles at me from the other end of the table. Dylan signals for Lana to bring my birthday cake out then, a towering rainbow sponge cake with a large 24 on it, and I hide my face while everyone sings “Happy Birthday” to me. As I close my eyes to blow out the candles, I think about second chances, how maybe I am one of the lucky ones after all. Then, just when I think it’s time to leave, Esme stands up and taps her spoon against her glass.
“To my big sister,” she starts, grinning at me and holding her glass out. “The most infuriating, bravest and probably the best person I know. Happy birthday, you cretin-buster.”
I raise my glass until it meets hers.
* * *
? ? ?
Dylan is driving me home, and we’re listening to our favorite The Cure song, the one that we nearly danced to at our wedding before someone told us it was about death not life. He’s sneaking glances at me to check that I’m okay, which is something people around me have been doing a lot since the IFAs.
I watch as the city that gave me everything and took it all away from me slips past in the window. I’m slowly taking some parts of my life back, not in the same way I was before, but steadily, carefully, in a way I sometimes think might just last.
“When I was blowing out my candles earlier, do you know what I was thinking?” I say to Dylan, and I’ve been trying to work out how to word it without worrying him or seeming like I’m being dramatic, but now I just think fuck it because it’s the truth, and for some bizarre reason, he seems to want to know this kind of thing about me.
“What?” Dylan asks, and he slows down a little because we’re nearly at my new house, a few miles up the coast from Coyote Sumac.
“So we’re there, with all my favorite people in the world, and I know that I’m feeling something that’s like . . . the most obvious, uncomplicated happiness that I can remember experiencing. I’m trying to just soak it up, and be present, but then I start thinking, isn’t it fucked that you will never know if you’re actually living the happiest moment of your life until you’ve lived them all? Isn’t that some sort of massive flaw in the human experience?”
Dylan is shaking his head and laughing at me, about to say something, but I hold up my hand to stop him.
“But, then I thought about it some more, and maybe there are some things you just don’t need to know. Maybe it’s all right that there’s always the potential to outdo your best. Plus, there is no way you’ll actually be trying to work that shit out when you’re dying.”
“You thought all of this while you were blowing out your candles.”
“Yep,” I say, shrugging. “I’m quite the existential multitasker.”
“So what was your takeaway?” Dylan asks, pulling to a stop outside my house even though I can tell he wishes we weren’t here yet.
“Takeaway was, maybe it’s okay not to be okay all of the time,” I say, smiling slightly because even though it sounds like a bland inspirational quote from a coffee mug, I still think I mean it. “Maybe it’s okay not to be perfect, or the best, or even special for a while.”