“So, I need a favour.”
It must be a big one. His ashtray is filled with butts already, and it’s barely ten. “What’s in it for me?” she asks. Wise to his ways, these days.
He looks up from the storyboarding panels he is prodding listlessly around his desk, and frowns. “My undying friendship,” he deadpans, “which is a pretty rare coin around here, let me tell you.”
She folds her arms. “Rare generally implies valuable.”
“Or fleeting.” He can see he isn’t going to win with threats, so leans forward conspiratorially instead. “Ok, ok. I’ll let you pitch two scenarios from the Wilder Binder of Wrestling Nerdery.”
She rolls her eyes. “Come up with a better name for my scrapbook.” Considering her position, she goes for broke. “Three scenarios. And one of them has to be a double-pager.”
“Well, that was too easy.”
“Way too easy.” Another cigarette sparks; he is still working his way up to actually asking her whatever’s so damn important. She raises an impatient eyebrow and he finally cuts to the chase. “I need a date. For a wedding.”
She blinks, nonplussed. “What, you want me to find…?”
“No. Jesus. I’m not that much of a charity case. Am I?”
“Paranoid much?” she snaps, covering her own confusion. “You want me…” And now the penny drops. “… as an actress?”
“Yes. Yes. In a purely professional capacity.”
She opens and closes her mouth a few times. “What could possibly be professional about you taking a fake date to a wedding? No, no. Don’t answer that.” She considers the problem further, frowning. “Wouldn’t Debbie or-or Rhonda be better for this, anyway?”
Now it is his turn to goggle. “Debbie’s way too high profile,” he says, which stings a bit, she can’t lie. “And Rhonda is subtle as a fucking brick. I’m coming to you for discretion. And, you know,” he shrugs, “because I thought you might like a day off from being team pariah.”
She hesitates, still very unsure. “When are we talking?”
“This weekend. In the Valley.”
Damn. It would be interesting, after all. And what else is she going to fill the time between filming and rehearsal with, other the Not Speaking to Debbie? She narrows her eyes. “Who was your back up after me?”
“No one. Epic car wreck.” A lie, but at least he cares enough to bother.
“Fine,” she says, with the biggest sigh she can muster. “On one more condition. Tell no one.”
He rolls his eyes. “Like I was going to advertise this. Don’t dress like a fancy Mormon.”
“You have a different character in mind?”
“Average human woman? I appreciate it may be a stretch.” He is prodding at his storyboards again, thinking he’s won their war of words.
“What, that one would consider dating you?”
She beats a hasty retreat before he can think of another comeback.
In the Before—and that’s really how she’s started to think of it now; it deserves the capital letter—she would have been getting ready with Debbie. Borrowing make-up, maybe even a dress. Strategizing, laughing at how pathetic this really is.
Now the dress is a bronze shift borrowed from Jenny. Her palette of eyeshadow is cadged from Dawn, normally used to transform her face into Zoya’s. The room is quiet. Sheila is off on the hunt. Even the TV refuses to collude, providing nothing more than hissing static as background noise.
At least this way is efficient. She gives her costume a quick appraisal in the bathroom mirror. She looks fine, good even. Just not very like herself. Whoever that is. Sometimes, these days, she isn’t sure.
Outside the morning is warm with a faint smell of oranges in the breeze. She settles down outside the motel reception; doesn’t have to wait long before he pulls up.
“Hey,” he says, as she takes the passenger seat. “Good job on the whole normal human thing.”
“Same to you,” she shoots back. He’s even attempted a shave. The effect is frankly disconcerting.
“You still, uh… you still okay to do this?”
She thinks about it. “Yeah,” she says, “I’m okay.”
“Good. That’s good. I mean, I won’t be a dick about it—”
“Who is this wedding even for, anyway? Why is it so important you don’t come alone?”
He rubs his chin, seeming surprised himself at the absence of usual bristling stubble. “Chrissy,” he eventually volunteers.
“Chrissy the ex? Chrissy the relative? Chrissy the… network executive? Help me out here.”
“Not an ex,” he says, too quickly. “She was just a-a friend…”
Ah. A shade softer now, she presses on. “Chrissy the one that got away?”
“Yeah. Yeah, something like that. Happy now?”
“I wasn’t trying to—”
“I know. I know. Sorry. Anyway, it’s her daughter’s wedding. And I’ve known her a long time.” He screws up his face. “Well, I’ve knew who she was a long time ago. We done?”
She nods, knowing his defensiveness will pass like a summer storm. “Shall we?”
He turns the ignition in reply.
There must be two hundred guests in the ballroom, dressed like frosted peacocks. Sam’s need for a companion makes considerably more sense in this sea of smiling, beautiful people. Oddly he seems more comfortable now, Bellini in hand. “Okay,” he says, “if I rub my nose like this it means I don’t know them.”
“Mm, subtle. I like it.” She drains her own glass for some liquid confidence. “You have to go along with whatever I do though. Right?”
He shrugs, takes another sip. “Right.”
She turns, opening their table to the throng. Smiles. The first fish takes the bait straight away; a middle-aged couple. Sam rubs his nose.
“Good afternoon,” says Ruth, in a cut-glass British accent. “Um, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced?”
“Oh, you’re English!” says the woman. “How charming! I’m Wendy and this is my husband Robert.”
“Very nice to meet you,” says Sam, sticking with his usual drawl. “My name’s Sam and this is my friend…”
“Eileen,” picks up Ruth, “Eileen Dover.” She ignores a slight choking noise from Sam, hiding his snort of laugher with a large gulp of cocktail.
“What are you doing over here, Eileen?”
“Oh, I’ve been in LA for a few years now. I teach yoga.”
“Yes, several classes a week. I’ve so many clients over here it really is quite a stretch…”
“Is that so?”
“I try to be flexible to accommodate, of course. Sam, darling, are you ok?”
“Fine, fine,” he wheezes, having breathed Bellini. They exchange further pleasantries, until the lightly confused Wendy and Robert excuse themselves to talk to other guests.
“Okay,” he says, still struggling to hide his grin. “That was pretty funny.”
“You’re good at that English accent.”
The corner of her mouth twitches, a shy little half-smile. “Thanks.”
Next comes an older gentleman, for whom she plays the part of Texan belle Caroline. Sam then introduces her to a second couple as Norma-Jean, and actually has to duck away for a moment during her impression of Marilyn, to regain some composure. She drains her glass of cocktail and realises she’s actually enjoying herself, for the first time in weeks outside of the wrestling ring.
A handsome woman, almost a foot taller than she is, takes Sam’s absence as cue to approach. Ruth has her suspicions about her identity. “Hi,” she says, in her own voice, “I’m Ruth.”
“Chrissy,” confirms the woman. “Nice to meet you.”
She kisses Ruth, once on each cheek, Chanel perfume filling her nostrils. The woman is immaculate in navy blue, dark ringlets of hair cascading down her back. She radiates an aura of calm competence and effortless style. Something like the polar opposite of Sam, in other words, piquing Ruth’s interest. They might as well be from different planets, and she’s itching to know the circumstances of first contact.
“Thank you for inviting me to be part of today,” she smiles. “Sam said you’ve been friends for a long time?”
“We grew up together. How do you know Sam?”
She can’t help but admire the way Chrissy has flipped the interrogation. “We work together,” she replies carefully, “developing a new show for TV.”
There is something flinty in her eyes, for all her careful words. “You’re an actress?”
Ruth can see little point in denying it. “Yes—”
“And a writer,” says Sam, returning from what smells like a cigarette break. “All her own jokes.” He receives his own kisses warmly. “You look wonderful. As always.”
“Wish I could say the same,” Chrissy returns, still steely. Sam shrugs, faux apologetic, and the façade breaks. “Ah, I’m just kidding—”
“No, you’re not. I’m not ageing well, I’m coming to accept it.”
“You look fine, Sam. Very smart. Do I have Ruth to thank for that?
He shakes his head, and she is aware of words unspoken under the surface. “No, I actually dressed myself today. I manage that sometimes.”
Chrissie laughs; like everything else about her the sound is refined. Some of the tension seems to drain out of the conversation. “Well, make sure you get a seat near the front. Jessie will want to see you.”
Ruth waits until Chrissy has walked a long way out of earshot before daring to open her mouth. “She doesn’t like actresses?”
Sam rolls his eyes. “She doesn’t like me sleeping with them.”
“What, she wants you to be respectable?”
He gives her a hard look. “No, she wants me to be happy.”