I stripped down for a shower, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I was naked, sure, but without that diamond in my navel, I had a worried pang. I couldn’t let Jonathan see me without it. I’d have to explain or lie, and I wasn’t ready to do either.
I took my shower, dressed, and made up in nudes and neutrals in twenty-four minutes, then texted Jonathan.
—Thanks for everything—
The answer shot back in seconds.
—My pleasure. In a meeting. See you there—
There? He was coming? I didn’t know why I hadn’t expected that. He’d come to me in minutes when I needed him; he wouldn’t sit out my best friend’s wake. I kicked off the sensible shoes I’d chosen and slipped into the red-soled pumps from the Eclipse show.
Carlos’s envelope lay on my bed. I cracked it open and slid out a single sheet of paper. The heading was for Westonwood Acres, an exclusive retreat that was actually a mental institution. The paper was an admission form, and I froze when I saw the name of the admitted.
Jonathan S Drazen III
His age was right next to the date, so I didn’t have to calculate that he had been sixteen. Everything else was blacked out with thick lines.
That was what Gabby had to tell me. I shoved the paper back in the envelope and stuffed it in my drawer with shaking hands.
Darren shuffled up the hill on time. He glanced at me as he passed into the house. I didn’t know what he thought of the house’s transformation, but I didn’t care, and I was ready to defend Jonathan again.
People came, east-side hipsters, west-side musicians, and a few teachers from Colburn who would express sympathy for the vaporized talent. They were all going to want to talk to me. I knew about seventy percent of them by name at least, but the thought of talking to all of them and explaining my “laryngitis” was going to make it ten times the drag it had to be.
I put on my customer-service face. I cleared my throat, which hurt, and smiled at the first person who entered the gate. I nodded, said “laryngitis” while brushing my fingers across my throat, and moved on. After the first few people, it got easier. I just didn’t think about anything at all except making the person I was speaking to comfortable. The outward focus helped.
As with the past days of constant calls and texts, I was surprised at how nice people were. They wanted to help, mostly. I left Darren to the inside of the house, and I stayed on the porch, shaking hands and kissing cheeks, smiling as if I were taking drink orders. I stopped seeing faces. I loved them all, en masse, without discernment. I was struck by an unexpected, sudden feeling of well-being. By the time Kevin rested his hand on my shoulder, I was at the maximum dose of endorphins.
I threw my arms around him and whispered, “Thanks for coming.”
“I’m so sorry, Monica. I know what she meant to you.” His hands rubbed my back, and I thought nothing of it.
I spoke softly in his ear. “The thing. The piece. I’m in. Just give me time.”
He squeezed me harder. I remembered how he did that in the past, tensing his biceps until I thought my ribs would crack.
He let go, but we still stood close, and he spoke softly so no one else would hear. “I pitched it to the Modern of British Columbia in Vancouver. For Christmas. They had an unexpected opening. Can we make it?” He pulled back and looked into my eyes, keeping his hand on my neck, a touch too familiar, too intimate, but I didn’t pull away.
“Let’s talk about it,” I whispered.
“Once you can talk,” Kevin said, smiling.
His scent alerted me to his presence. The new one. Sawdust and leather with light harmonies of an ass-bruising all-night f**k. I turned and found Jonathan behind me in a black suit built for him, a grey shirt, and a black tie. The dark colors brought out his sleek ginger hair and jade eyes.
He held out his hand to Kevin. “Good to see you again,” he said, voice tense and overly polite. His eyes were hard stones, and he smiled in a way that could be mistaken for baring his teeth. I’d never seen that look on his face before, and I didn’t like it. Not one little bit.
I remembered the piece of paper in the manila envelope. Could I be seeing a symptom of whatever it was that had sent him to a mental hospital? Fuck, I knew I couldn’t ask him about it, and now I’d always wonder.
“Of course,” Kevin replied. Then he looked at me and did something that he had no right to do. He touched my arm and said, “I’ll call you about the piece,” before walking into the house.
Jesus f**king Christ was I really being subjected to a male pissing match at Gabby’s wake? Really? I missed the luxury of celibacy for a moment, then looked at Jonathan, whose face had softened. “What the hell was that?” I asked.
“Forget it. How has it been so far?”
“I have my game face on.” I pulled away and showed him my stage smile.
“Gorgeous. Debbie said there’s no casket?”
I shook my head and did everything to make my look tell him I thought the very idea was absurd.
“As a good lapsed Catholic,” he said, “I feel the need for an open casket somewhere.”
“Not me, and I’m lapsed, too.”
He put his arm around me. “My mother is going to love you.”
I swallowed hard through a ravaged throat. I had no idea how his parents fit in with me being his submissive whore f**ktoy, or if that meant I was to be kept as far away from his family as possible. It was too much to absorb under the circumstances.
I looked away from him. My eyes found Darren and Adam, who were speaking softly in a corner. Darren looked up, and our eyes met. He came over, and I hoped Jonathan wasn’t about to have another pissing match.
As if he thought Darren was no threat at all, while Kevin somehow was, Jonathan excused himself to the interior of the house.
“I’m not sorry,” Darren said.
I shrugged. Neither was I.
“Adam’s going to pick up your thing. Whatever it was.”
“Okay.” I wanted to ask how long it would take because I didn’t want Jonathan to see me without it and end up giving Darren the same ice-cold stare he’d just given Kevin.
I looked at Darren’s face. I’d slapped it just two hours ago, and it seemed healed. Gabby’d had bruises on her left cheek when I went to visit her in the hospital, and my hand hadn’t fared much better for the nine and a half minutes I’d hit her, because I thought it kept her alive. Maybe it had. I’d never found out because she was in her hospital bed with apologies, and I’d done everything I could to distract her. Everything. There was nothing more I could have done.