I didn’t mean to tell him about Austin. But it flew out of my mouth before I could catch it, and now it’s out there, irretrievable, and he has this look on his face. I toss back the last few drops of my third drink. Of all the ways I’ve pictured this night, we were never eating Indian food. I didn’t picture us eating food at all, actually. People don’t eat food on that kind of night—the kind I pictured—the kind where you can’t wait to hear the next thing the other person is about to say because every word sets off a little flash bulb moment of connection. On that kind of night you whiten your teeth, buy lingerie, swallow laxatives, and shave your whole body. Think about what to say and how to be. How to be present without exploding into a million pieces, how to be mysterious but also warm. How to want him but not too much, never revealing that you’ve lived thirty years believing you will someday embody the cinematic version of yourself that has been contained inside your head all this time. If I could be all of the right things, if we could have the kind of night I wanted us to have, there could be hope. But now we are eating Indian food and I’ve told him about Austin, and I am beginning to feel that hopeless feeling you get when you know that someone you want to know will never know you.
I met him in the lobby of a New York hotel on a Friday when he mistook me for someone else. It was the pasted-up kind of hotel, with expensive curtains and art that hid rotting, cum-stained walls. The voices that echoed through the vaulted lobby and across lavender velvet couches had the buoyancy of the temporarily free.
“Stella, can you grab me a bottle of water?” a man said, poking me in the back.
I turned around and looked at him, not noticing who he was, only that he was beautiful.
“Oh,” he stepped backwards, “you’re not Stella.”
“Sorry,” I said, a little embarrassed for him, although he didn’t seem embarrassed.
He shrugged in a way that I recognized, but it took me a few seconds to place him. Celebrity. Not super famous. He was in that movie from a few years ago, a fairly big hit. There had been that Vanity Fair article that lauded him as a promising up-and-comer, then his next movie was panned and the third one was so obscure that only critics liked it, and that was all I knew. I stared a little, with that unsettling adrenaline jolt you get when you recognize someone you’ve never met. He was exactly my type, cute and nerdy and serious. At least, his movie character was. He looked different now, his hair shaggier and his face a little more rugged, less boyish, and rough with 2-day stubble.
He ran his fingers through his hair, noticing me recognize him. “Well if you see a blonde woman wearing the exact same shirt as you walking around, send her my way, would you?”
“Sure,” I said, wishing I had something better to say. He walked off and disappeared.
The next morning I saw him again, in a pharmacy down the street. I’d just returned from goodbye breakfast with the friend I’d been visiting, and stopped to buy a magazine to read on the flight home. The actor stood in front of a rack of eye drops in skinny jeans and a wrinkled t-shirt. This time I had enough advance notice to be impaired with awe—in fact, I’d just been telling my friend about him at breakfast—and my gut began to do its work, filling with unruly little birds that pecked and fluttered, climbed into my thickening throat and dove at my feet. From this angle he looked so much like his cute, nerdy, serious movie character that I had to look away. I knew in my head that the character wasn’t him, that he wasn’t the character. But I didn’t quite believe it. I cleared my throat and he looked up.
“Oh,” he said, “hey, Not Stella.” He had the kind of penetrating gaze that made you feel like he saw everything inside you all at once.
“Hi,” I said, not looking away.
He ran his hands through his hair and tucked it behind his ears, then leaned toward me good-humoredly. “So, tell me, did you wear the same shirt as my assistant on purpose yesterday?”
My face began to warm. Did he think I was a stalker? “No,” I said, “I didn’t even know who you were.” Then he nodded slowly and I realized he was kidding and I was supposed to be playing along, stupid.
“Honesty,” he said. “I like it.”
“I mean, I know now,” I said.
He picked a bottle of eye drops from the shelf. “Do you live in New York?” he asked.
“No, just visiting.”
“Me too,” he said. “What’re you in here for?”
“I came to see one of my friends from college.”
“I meant the store. Did you come in here to get something?”
“Oh.” I glanced at the shelf. “I was going to grab a magazine.”
Now that he was here, there was a lot riding on my choice. Maybe he would remember what magazine I bought, the way I would always remember that he’d been looking at eye drops. Maybe he would only remember the magazine and not remember me at all, as in “oh yeah, that girl in New York who bought the —- magazine.”
“Tough decision, huh?” the actor said, passing back by again as he pocketed his purchase.
My flock of gut-birds took flight. I walked away without buying anything.
He waited for me and held the door, which struck me as astoundingly thoughtful. It was something his movie character would have done. Now I was in the movie, rendered dumb and silent by the eddy of pleasure and disbelief in my good fortune, lamentation it would soon be over, and fear of fucking it up. I followed him down the heavy-aired, toasted-nut-scented sidewalk.
“Sorry,” I said. “For not recognizing you at first.”
He moved closer to me, as if to hear me better. He had a way of making his body seem simultaneously open and off-limits, obtainable right up to the boundary where customary friendliness ended. You knew not to push beyond the boundary, but he was still so utterly likeable. He seemed like a person who would never lie to you.
“Actually, I like flying under the radar,” he said. “I don’t have to go around in disguise like some of these guys. When you get that big, people don’t even care who you are, the illusion is all they see.”
I wondered if he thought I was one of those people, the kind who saw only the illusion, and I rooted through my mental arsenal for the tools to look beyond the movie character and see the actor underneath. There were some obvious differences between them. The character had been unconcerned about his appearance. The actor fussed with his hair a lot. The character had been nerdy and serious. The actor was a little bit serious, but he also radiated sex and mischief in a way the character never did. But what did any of that mean? They were all just impressions. Messages passing across the synapses of my solitary brain. We lived in our own deep darknesses, unobserved except for the occasional scrap that rose to the surface. We would be to one another whatever we each believed the other to be.
“I’d like to keep talking, but I have to get going,” he said, tilting his bare wrist as if there was a watch there. “Press junket in half an hour. But I don’t have anything going on tonight. Want to keep me company?”
The question startled me and I almost asked why—what was it about this brief and mediocre encounter that made you want to go out with me?—but said “okay” instead. I would have to change my flight and book my hotel room for an extra night.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll meet you at seven in the lobby.”
“Great,” I said. “See you later.” I felt a tentative beam of joy.
When we met again I was scrubbed clean. The night could go anywhere, I could be anyone. We landed at a rag-and-bone West Village bar, full of threadbare couches and drippy candelabras. I sat on an ottoman that was missing a leg and threatened to throw me sideways every time I shifted my weight.
“Do you drink much?” the actor asked.
“Not usually,” I said, pulling the maraschino cherry out of my glass and eating it.
“I do. Two or three beers every night.”
I looked at him, unsure what my reaction should be. My mind kept flickering back and forth between the movie and the person in front of me. The actor, the character, the actor.
He tilted his bottle back and took a big swig. “Last week I put two cases of beer bottles in the recycling and wondered if I’ve got a problem.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, at least it wasn’t vodka.”
“Hmm,” he said, tucking a lock of hair behind his left ear.
He told me about the screenplay he was working on, about his hatred of phones and how he didn’t socialize much because he was so focused on his work. I floated vicariously somewhere outside of myself, trying to make the conversation more profound than it was. He asked difficult questions but seemed to want simple answers, studying my replies as if I was an explicably complex character he might inhabit later. How do you see yourself? What are your parents like? What do you want to do with your life? When my answers were long-winded, I could sense him disengaging, and as the evening went on he developed the look of someone who has seen and done everything and for whom the world holds no more real mystery, as if he knew what was going to happen between us and was already bored with it. He wasn’t arrogant or impolite. Just perplexingly and unattainably distant. More than once I thought I sensed a scrap of tenderness in his gaze, but it never surfaced.
The actor got hungry, so we left the bar and walked until we saw a restaurant that wasn’t packed. Billows of eggplant curry smell rolled out the front door, and I knew my new clothes were going to stink for days. We were seated next to a blank white wall in the back, at a two-top with a fake plastic succulent terrarium inside a small glass teapot. Someone took our drink order. Round three for both of us.
“One of my friends admitted to me recently that he’s always assumed I slept with his wife,” the actor said.
Maybe this was our way out of the deep darkness, the unabashed sharing of secrets. “Did you?” I said. “Sleep with his wife?”
“No, I would never do something like that.”
I took another drink and felt the buzz getting stronger. Three cocktails on an empty stomach.
“Would you?” he asked.
“Sleep with my friend’s wife?” I joked.
“Or, you know, husband.”
I thought of Austin for the first time in years. “I slept with my best friend’s fiancé. Does that count?”
“Really?” the actor said.
He doesn’t look particularly shocked or disappointed. His look is the look of someone who believes he has figured you out, and I know that this will be the scrap that defines who I am to him. I wonder what to say, how to explain. That night in college a group of us had gone out together, all of us friends since grade school. We were celebrating. Anna had been dating Parker for five years and they’d finally gotten engaged. None of us liked Parker; we all knew he cheated on Anna, but whenever we’d tried to tell her she didn’t want to hear it, so we eventually stopped bringing it up. That night, though, I hardly noticed either of them, because there was Austin. Austin was a year younger than the rest of us and I’d always seen him around, but I’d never talked to him before. He’d always been one of those guys on the periphery: attractive in a friend-of-your-younger-brother’s sort of way. By virtue of being the only two single people in the group that night we were sort of thrust together, and after a while he developed the kind of shimmer that amplifies the people you like. At a local dive bar, all sticky tables and neon beer signs, we played darts and talked and drank. Parker came over at random intervals and interrupted us, or put his arms around both of us and pushed us together to try and make us kiss. We never did kiss, though. We talked and laughed and drowned our excitement in tequila. So much tequila that the late night hours turned to blackness. I remember stopping on the way back to the apartment to sit on a bench. Almost walking in front of a car. Austin holding my hand. Climbing a set of stairs. Drinking a glass of water. Eventually I woke up in a room that was blackout dark, and someone was kissing me. I was on my back on a hard surface I assumed was the floor, and I could hear other people in the room snoring. My head pounded and my stomach churned and I was desperately thirsty, but Austin was kissing me. Good, fun, perfect Austin. This had to be the beginning of something. I kissed him back. He reached up my skirt and unzipped his pants and then he was inside me, and I felt everything at once. The heat and the pressure. The transgression of doing it in a room full of our sleeping friends, slow and quiet and intense as death. I tried not to breathe. He kissed me as I came, and I thought “this is the real thing.”
Then his lips next to my ear whispered “promise you won’t tell Anna.”
I whispered back, “okay, why?”
He snickered quietly. “Maybe because we’re engaged?”
But that story is too long and serious and complicated to tell someone on a first date. How I felt violated that night, even though I’d liked it, wanted it, been almost in love. How it felt to hug Anna goodbye with her fiancé’s semen oozing into my underwear. How I couldn’t look at Austin without feeling a loss that made me want to cry. How I never talked to any of them again and Parker and Anna got married 6 months later. How when I think of Parker and Austin, I sometimes conflate the two, as if they’re two sides of the same person. These are not tidy confessions. If I told the actor everything right now I would be someone who is damaged, in need of sympathy, unable to move on. My only hope is to push it all back down into the deep darkness, forgo elaborating on my earlier statement and just be an amoral slut.
“You know,” I say, forcing a no-big-deal shrug.
The actor changes the subject.
On the way back to the hotel we walk in our separate trajectories, hands in pockets. I want to believe that anything can still happen as New York’s wide, abundant streets seem to narrow in perspective. We pass under thick scaffolding hung with wires, by couples and homeless people and businesspeople, beautiful people and ugly people, conventional people and eccentric people, all similarly contained. I think of the alternative realities this night could have been, in which only the best scraps of me rose to the surface, and watch those realities die with every step.
“Has anyone ever told you that you have a sad resting face?” the actor says, not quite looking at me.
“No,” I reply, blinking back tears.
Maybe he can tell I’m disappointed, because he starts explaining how he doesn’t really get excited about anything anymore. How nothing is ever as good as you think it’s going to be. I take my hand out of my pocket, reach for his arm and say “it was so lovely though.”
Brittany Terwilliger grew up in the Midwest and graduated from Indiana University. Her debut novel, The Insatiables, will be released in August 2018 from Amberjack Publishing. Find her online at www.BrittanyTerwilliger.com.