“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.”
Once, a long time ago, Ruth made a promise to herself never to be bored. There was no situation, she had reasoned, that wasn’t useful in some way to a truly great actress. There would always be an accent to perfect, a character trait to absorb; some aspect of being in the world it was her duty to notice, appreciate, and learn how to embody.
The bride, Jessie, is as beautiful and poised as her mother. Her groom is sweet, a little geekish. Monied, if Ruth’s any judge, wearing his fancy suit without any sign of discomfort. College sweethearts, bright and ambitious. Boring. She casts around the room looking for a better subject. A sea of bland, happy faces. Aunts and cousins and school friends. Dull.
Sam’s knee is bouncing up and down with increasing urgency as the ceremony progresses to the vows. Of all the guests in the room he is the poor fit; pickled onion in the fruit salad, despite his efforts at normalcy. She touches her knee lightly against his vibrating leg, stilling the movement.
“You okay?” she whispers.
“Yeah,” he lies. Perhaps it’s the reminder of his own failed nuptials. Perhaps he feels their fundamental out-of-placeness here as clearly as she does. In any case, he manages to hold himself still for the remainder of the ceremony. He disappears to buy more cigarettes as they are seated for dinner, leaving her to make small talk with some empty chairs and a pair of rather doddery old ladies they have been grouped with.
“Are you one of Jessie’s college friends?” asks great-aunt Gertrude.
“No, I’m here with Sam. A friend of Chrissy’s.”
“Oh, Sam!” cackled Gertrude. “Good. I’m glad he’s come. He makes me laugh.”
“What was that?” This from Ethel, her apparent partner in crime.
“She’s one of Sam’s fly-by-night’s,” continues Gertrude. “I was saying he’s always funny.”
“We’re not actually—” Ruth tries, but the old ladies are working up steam.
“Sam’s here, is he? You know, I thought that was Ron at the front, but Sam would be about the same age now, wouldn’t he?”
“Well, no,” reasons Gertrude. “I mean, if Ron was alive he’d be seventy-four. And Sam must be fifty now, at least. So he’s older than Ron was when he went.”
“Who’s Ron?” tries Ruth.
“Ron Sylvia. Chrissy’s dad,” snaps Ethel. “Do keep up.”
“Sorry. Ron Sylvia is… Chrissy’s dad?”
“Yes. And Sam’s, of course. Didn’t he tell you?”
“Erm, no,” Ruth manages.
“Oh. Well, it was quite the scandal. But these are modern times now. So they tell me.”
She is still blinking in shock as Sam returns, greeting the old ladies warmly, before noticing her astonished face. “What did I miss?”
“Oh, we were talking about Ron,” says Ethel, without guile. “You’re looking ever so like him, these days.”
“Fuck,” he mutters. “I mean, leave some skeletons in my closet, huh?”
“What happened to the other one anyway?” continues Ethel.
“Oh, you mean my ex-wife?” clarifies Sam, pouring the best part of half a bottle of wine into his glass, and then doing the same for Ruth. “She left me. It was very traumatic.”
“I always said she was too good for you.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He takes a big gulp of wine. “Turns out she agreed.”
It is later. Ethel and Gertrude have been led away by kind people, leaving them alone at their table. Sam is finishing a cigarette, a faraway look in his eye she’s coming to recognise. He stubs it out.
“I think I’m going to—”
Her fingers catch his sleeve as he moves to leave. “Stay,” she suggests softly. “Talk.”
“Why do you care?” he snarls, snatching his arm away. “You want me to—?”
“Because it’s what we’ll end up doing anyway, just in three days’ time. And you have a production meeting on Monday with Glen. We need you there, all of you, not just whatever braincells aren’t floating in a bottle of Scotch.”
He hovers on the edge, like an angry cat, hackles still raised. “Fuck,” he says, and she knows she’s won. He sits back down, lights up another cigarette and squints at her. “What’s there to say?”
“Well…” She considers the options. “…I guess the beatdown biddies make a lot more sense now.”
There is a long moment, slightly undercut by the hapless DJ starting the evening’s entertainment on the dancefloor. His moustache twitches at last. “Yeah, might have been working out some issues there.”
“They were so horrible.”
“Eh. They’re just honest. I mean, Ethel’s ninety-five. I imagine by that point most people have just stopped giving a fuck.”
“They were mean. You can be truthful without being hurtful.” She considers this. “Well, I can. You, maybe not so much… Actually, it’s all starting to make much more sense now—”
“Shut up,” he chuckles.
The babble of the guests fills their silence. She watches Chrissy, grace and poise personified, across the other side of the room. "Why’d you come, if they’re like that?”
He shrugs. “I like to torture myself, I guess.” She raises a sceptical eyebrow. “Okay, okay Doctor Freud. Just occasionally it’s nice to be around people who aren’t kissing my ass because they want a bigger part or-or… I dunno. Some piece of my soul to gouge out and take away with them when they leave.” He sighs, eyes glazing as he contemplates somewhere, some-when else.
“But they make you feel bad.”
“Yeah, well, who doesn’t?”
Me, she doesn’t say.
“Sorry,” he adds, after a while.
He shrugs again, gestures to the room. “This isn’t really a fun day out for you.”
She makes a so-so movement with her head. “It’s… probably better than a day at the motel trying to avoid Debbie.”
“Yeah, I forget you’re social kryptonite. Why is that?”
“If I knew…”
“Yeah. Yeah, I get that.” He blows out his cheeks. “Is it too early to call it quits and go home?”
“Yes. We’ll look like a dine and dash. C’mon. Let’s go wind up more socialites.”
He finishes his wine. “Yeah,” he says. “Okay.”
Ruth is waiting patiently at the bar. If there’s a metaphor for her life this is probably it; smiling politely as people push past to take her place.
Someone taps her on the shoulder. Tall, dark haired and handsome, at least in the dim disco lighting. “Hey,” she says, “do you need to come past?”
“No,” he smiles, “I was going to ask if I could buy you a drink?”
“Oh.” She almost swallows her tongue. “Sure, thank you.”
“My name’s Tom,” he says. “I’ve heard a few variants for you this evening. Is it Carolyn, Elieen, Nancy, Norma or Ruth?”
She puts her hand on her hip, staring up at him. “Which one do you think?”
He smiles. “My money’s on Ruth.”
“Good guess,” she smiles back. “Uh, I’ll just have a beer, thanks.”
He joins her at a bar table a few minutes later, beers in hand – it must be his height, she thinks – she had been queueing for the best part of fifteen minutes. “Thanks,” she says again.
“You’re welcome.” He takes a swig, looking out across the dancefloor. “So, you’re here with Sam?”
“Yeah,” she says, and rolls the dice, “you know, as friends. We-we work together.”
“I’m one of Jessie’s friends, from Vermont.” He indicates the bride with this thumb, currently engaged in laughing conversation with Chrissy and Sam. “You’re an actress, right?”
“That’s right.” God, she’s rusty at this. “How about you? What is it that you… do?”
“I’m in sales. That’s kinda like acting in a way, right? You play a part.”
“Oh, yeah. Sure,” she lies. “What do you sell?”
He winces. “Consumer electronics? Honestly, it’s really not that interesting. I want to be a writer. I did a lot of writing in college but… well, you know how it is. It doesn’t pay the bills.”
“Oh, really? What did you write about?” she asks dutifully.
As Tom launches into his plot precis, she catches Sam’s eye over his shoulder. He looks Tom up and down for a moment, before giving her a theatrically large wink. Reassured, she tunes back into his less than succinct summary.
They are dancing on the periphery of a large group of Tom’s friends. He has taken her hand, jerking her arm periodically, vaguely in time to the music. This seems to be about as far as he is willing to take things. Should she move in closer? Maybe try to kiss him? Or just talk to him some more? Anything would seem preferable to the supreme awkwardness of this entanglement, like a scene from her nightmare of junior high.
Someone taps her on the shoulder; she turns and finds no one. Spins back, and there is Sam, grinning. “Mind if I take a turn?” he says.
Tom does mind, but is far too polite to say so. “S-sure,” he stutters.
“I was actually asking Ruth.”
“Oh? Oh yeah,” she manages, taking his hand. “Sure.”
They revolve away from the group, Sam’s surprisingly light on his feet. “Having fun?” he quips.
“Maybe.” She glances back at the disconsolate Tom, alone on the edge of the dancefloor. “You have a problem with me having… fun?”
He rolls his eyes. “Relax. I’m doing you a favour.”
“Yeah. C’mon, junior high over there was having a hard enough time holding hands. Now I’ve added an element of alpha male competition, he’ll up his game. Trust me.” He spins her out and round, rock and roll style. She wonders where he learnt to do that, then realises he’s old enough to have done it for real the first time around.
“That’s… kind of disgusting.”
“Men kind of are. Right?”
She laughs in spite of herself. “You seem happier, anyway.”
“Yeah. Thanks for that.”
“I’m sorry… did you just…thank me?”
“Yeah, yeah, make the most of it. I’m glad you convinced me to stay. It was nice catching up with Jessie. She’s a good kid. And it was fun… you know...” He waves a hand expansively.
“Yeah, I know.”
And it was fun, she realises, messing around with Sam. Normally at these events she feels peripheral at best, except for that terrible time where she tried to smash apart her wallflower narrative and destroyed her closest friendship instead. Making up stories with him, making him laugh; she feels at home in her own skin for the first time in a long while.
The song changes, from Ah Ha’s latest offering to something slow and mellow; she thinks it might be Nights in White Satin. She should let go of his hand and go back to Tom, if she’s being polite. Instead she waits for his fingers to unknit from hers. And waits. Their slow path around the dancefloor has taken them out of sight of the Vermont crew. Other couples fill the gap, including the bride and groom. She isn’t sure if it’s her traitorous feet or the pressure of his arm around her waist, but they seem to have moved closer together.
And this is a bad idea. Part of her brain is screaming at her, about just how stupid this is. But it feels treacherously good, the warmth of his body against hers, the way her head fits comfortably on his shoulder as they sway. Round and round they go. Just what I’m going through, the singer croons, they can’t understand. She’s been here before, felt the rightness of the story in that singular moment; two lost souls finding one another adrift on the current. She knows the feeling doesn’t last until morning.
He draws back slightly, squinting down his nose at her, as the music crescendos. Like he’s trying to figure out quite what is happening here too. “We should—?” he suggests, angling his head towards the door.
“Yep,” she agrees, dropping his hand like it’s suddenly become radioactive.
They don’t speak, stalking in silence through the dim corridors of the hotel to the parking lot. The cool evening air is blessed relief from the fevered heat of whatever the hell was happening on the dancefloor. She draws in a deep, grateful lungful, aware that she is shaking slightly. Post-adrenalin, she tells herself; the relief of a potential disaster averted.
He unlocks the car door for her and she scoots inside, avoiding his eyes as he settles into the driver’s seat; looking out of the window at the massed ranks of saloons instead.
“Yeah,” she says, smiling back at him. “I’m fine.”
And she means it, she really is fine. Fine to start the engine and drive back to the Dusty Spur and consign this moment of madness to history. Fine with having grown enough to take the sensible option, the realistic path. At the end of the day he’s a misanthrope, self-destructive enough to take her down with him, and technically her boss. The long drive home is the safer road, the best decision.
She is fine with all of this, so why she is suddenly kissing him like he is water and she is dying of thirst, she really has no idea.
He tastes, predictably, of cigarettes and alcohol. She doesn’t care. He takes her face in his hands, fingers curling in her hair, thumb tracing the line of her jaw. Holding on to her as if he too feels like flotsam on the tide of life, grasping a lifeline. Which is ridiculous, a dwindling part of her insists. This is animal lust, nothing more. Haven’t you learned anything? says the Debbie in her head. People want things and they go for them.
And she wants this. His mouth pressed hard against hers and greedy hands pulling her close; the sudden pang of aching need between her legs gives her away. She wants him, God knows why, but she does—
He breaks the kiss on that moment of realisation. For a beat, she thinks he’s going to call time. Instead he just looks at her, sensible enough to keep his mouth shut, raising his eyebrows in question. She nods. He mirrors the movement, then reaches across to plug in her seat-belt. She steals another lingering kiss.
He practically wheel-spins out of the parking lot, which explains the seat belt, still saying nothing as he speeds towards— she realises she doesn’t even know where they’re going. The hum of the engine, the roar of blood in her ears, are the only soundtrack. His fingers find hers, white-knuckled on the edge of her seat.
They pull up outside a block of small apartments, not far from the gym. Still in silence, as if words will break the spell, she follows him inside. His place. It’s pretty much what she expects, the detritus of a much larger house crammed into smaller rooms, dusty posters that still need hanging and over-sized furniture. The whole space has messy divorce written all over it. She wonders if he knows, if he cares.
He flicks on a radio and she starts at the sound, wondering why at first. But he’s a storyteller at heart, just as she is, he knows it’s what they need. In my life there’s been heartache and pain, declares a singer, as he takes her by the hand and pulls her close to sway. I don’t know if I can take it again. She’s kissing him by the chorus, and quite suddenly everything is about the too-many layers of clothes between them; the urgency of their removal between living room and bedroom.
It’s only when she takes off his glasses that she feels he is truly naked, the shape of his face alien without those aviators. She traces the bridge of his nose, the little bump at the top that’s always hidden by the frames, as he trails kisses from jaw to hip. She’s used to bumbling, fumbling, grateful partners if she’s honest, and Sam is none of these things. He watches for the subtle cues, the hitch in her breath as his palm strokes down her ribs, the unconscious press of her body when his lips brush her earlobe. Works his way up to the big guns, her breasts in his hands, his mouth. Teasing and testing until she locks her legs around him, demanding now.
His thumb still brushes against her as pushes inside; for a man with such confidence in his cock he’s not afraid to add more. Gentle at first. Reads the grind of her hips as command to thrust harder, faster, until the bed springs are complaining loudly and quite suddenly she comes with such ferocity she sees stars.
He finishes a few strokes behind, collapsing bonelessly against her, gasping and slick with sweat from the effort. About now she normally starts to feel the regret, but it seems slow to arrive today. She lies still, enjoying the peculiar sensation of another heartbeat ticking rapidly against her ribs. “Fuck,” he says, eventually, raising his head from her shoulder.
She isn’t sure of the protocol here; if it’s get dressed and go or cuddle time. He’s quite literally dicking around with the condom, and she could start finding her clothes without it being too awkward. He catches sight of her panicky expression.
“You wanna go?” There’s a lot loaded into those three words, a calculated insouciance undercut by the tension in his jawline.
“Only if you want—”
“It’s fine. You can stay. A cab would take ages now anyway.” Almost always his kindness is weighted with throwaway cruelty. She thinks she understand why now, the spikey armour he feels compelled to wear at all times. Just getting his self-defence in first.
He smokes a cigarette as she settles back and stretches out under the covers. “You are uncharacteristically quiet,” he says after a while, “and it’s making me nervous.”
“I dunno.” He gives her a sideways look, hint of a smile in his eyes. “Knowing you, you’ve probably got notes.” His hand slides across the covers to find hers, playing with her fingers.
“Mmm, it was a solid performance. Reminiscent of Burt Reynolds…”
“Sh-shut up,” he chuckles.
“Some issues with pacing in the second act,” she continues, over his increasing laughter, “the car chase scene was perhaps unnecessary…But it built to a, hmm, a satisfactory climax that leaves an audience wanting more.”
It takes him a moment to get control of himself. Sex hasn’t fucked it up, thank God, the teasing need to make each other laugh. “More, huh?” he eventually manages.
“Oh, you took away that part?”
“Yeah,” he says, kissing the end of her nose, “I did.” Another kiss, finding her mouth this time. “That’s what I’ve always liked about you.”
“My keen critical eye?”
“Aha. No. Your boundless optimism.”
“I told you before,” she says, rolling on top of him. “I love a Hail Mary.”
Songs from this fic include:
Take on Me - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djV11Xbc914
Nights in White Satin - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9muzyOd4Lh8
I Want To Know What Love Is - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=raNGeq3_DtM