A clashing blend of relief and unease bubbles through me: it’s Carey.
I lift the phone to my ear, turning my back to the wind. “Hey.”
“Where are you?” she asks.
For a breath, I want to laugh. Now she’s asking where I am? I look up, searching for a landmark or street sign. “Kearny Street?”
“I don’t know why I asked,” she says, laughing. “I have no idea where that is.”
A small ache presses into my chest as I register the dichotomy of this immediate, easy conversation and the complexity of our present relationship. “I don’t really, either,” I admit. “I’m just following Google Maps to get to a Walgreens.”
“Melly honey-do-listed you?” she asks, teasing.
For a moment, all I can hear is the wind whipping through my phone. I pull my hand away, peeking at the screen to make sure I haven’t lost her call.
Finally, she says, “James. I’m sorry I left.”
“It’s okay,” I tell her. And it is. As much as I’d like to do it again, one and done is more straightforward.
“Melly came in.”
It takes me a beat to register her meaning. “Came in … to my room? This morning?”
“She had a key. I guess she thought it was Rusty’s room.”
I think back to check-in. Rusty’s name was on one room, mine was on the other, but I didn’t think it mattered who ended up where; I handed him one and took the second. But it did matter, because of course Melissa asked Joe for a copy of what was supposed to be Rusty’s key.
I groan. “That was my fault.”
Carey laughs. “Yeah, I’m gloating a little that you weren’t the perfect assistant for once.”
So she didn’t just bolt. I’m surprised by the power of my relief. I’d so quickly convinced myself that it was fine, that I didn’t need to pursue this, and then one word from her about it not being what I thought—she didn’t panic and flee—and I’m practically melting into the sidewalk. Maybe we can figure it out after all.
“Was she mad?” I ask, wincing.
Carey barks out an incredulous laugh. “What do you think?”
“I think she flipped out. Where are you right now?”
“I’m back in my room. Once I convinced her that I wasn’t lying there naked in Rusty’s bed—oh my God, what a horrible sentence—she calmed down. The fact that he wasn’t still in bed snoring next to me and that there was a tidy row of your work clothes in the closet helped. I should say she calmed down a little.”
I think she’s going to tell me what Melissa said once she knew Carey had been with me, not Rusty, but the line goes silent again.
Finally, I have to ask. “What did she think about … us?”
I hear her shift somehow and can imagine her sitting on her left hand, trying to get it to relax. “She wasn’t crazy about it.”
“I’m sure she wasn’t.” I hate having this conversation like this, through the phone, where I’m standing in the middle of a windy sidewalk and she’s alone in her hotel room, recovering after another tirade from Melissa. I want to be sitting next to her, talking. Even if we didn’t touch, I could read her face.
But maybe I don’t need more cues. Right now the silence feels pretty definitive.
Her words barely make it through the line: “I had a really nice time, though, James. I mean it. It was the best sex I’ve ever had. God, that sounds stupid.”
“It doesn’t sound stupid. I was thinking the same thing this morning.”
She doesn’t say anything else.
“So,” I say quietly, getting it. “That’s it?”
“I think so.”
One perfect night, and with a nearly silent exhale, we’re done.
She clears her throat. “But, it’s just the reality. Things are nuts right now, and—”
“You don’t have to explain it to me, Carey.” I turn and lean into the side of a building. “You know I understand the situation.”
“I know you do.”
The ease with which we’ve both let this go ignites something in me, just a spark, but it’s big enough to trip the rest of the realization. Carey is so good at taking care of everyone else, but she is beyond shitty at taking care of herself. I know there’s a stronger backbone in there—she showed it to me yesterday. I’m not willing to let her bury it just to avoid conflict.
“Actually, wait.” I turn against the wind. “No, I don’t.”
I can practically hear the way this takes her aback. “What?”
“I don’t understand. We don’t have to pursue this between us if it doesn’t feel right to you, but Melissa’s opinion, stress levels, or demands shouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
“James.” She says this single syllable as if she’s exhausted—which I’m sure she is. But the fire has been lit, and I think it needs to be lit in her, too.
“I know that she pays you well,” I say. “I know that you’re critical for the designs and worry you won’t be able to replicate that somewhere else. I know that you have a long history with them, and I even know that health insurance is a really important consideration for you. But Melissa is—and I’m just being honest here—she is abusive.”
“You said yourself that you can’t even be honest with your own therapist. What would she tell you if you could?” I pause. “You know she would say the same thing.”
When she doesn’t respond to this, I press on. “You can find another job,” I say. “One that doesn’t demand you have absolutely no life. One that gives you credit for your work, and pays you well, and has health insurance.”
She still doesn’t say anything, but I know she’s listening, so I continue. “What does your life look like five years from now? Even if it’s not me, do you have someone? Where are you living? You’re making good money, Carey, and you don’t even have an apartment to yourself, let alone own your own home—why would you? You’d never be there.”
“This is shitty, James! I’m only twenty-six! I’m still figuring things out.”
“I’m not trying to be shitty!” I turn in a circle, growing frustrated. “But how long can you use your age as a buffer against making a grown-up decision? I care about you. Not just because we had sex, but because I like you, and we’re in this fucked-up situation together. A lot of people are making a shit-ton of money from the Tripps, but this situation isn’t the best thing for any of us.”
She exhales slowly, but doesn’t say anything.
“Carey. Say something.”
“I do want my own house, okay? I want a house with land where I can have a dog and chickens and go for walks outside and get lost like I used to. And I want to actually be there, to have time to make it my own and not somebody else’s.”
I stop pacing, surprised by this kind of honesty. “These are all good things to want.”
We sit in silence for five, ten seconds. “Carey?”
Another moment of silence passes through the line. The wind picks up; a horn honks somewhere in the distance.
“And I do want a relationship.”
I don’t know what to say to this. The moment feels too delicate for me to try to make a pitch for this, for us.
“But it’s good for you if they stay together,” she says, finally, and I want to hit myself now for not trying to sway her to give me a chance. “You need this job.” She doesn’t say it with an edge or bitterness; she’s just using my résumé woes to argue her case for the status quo.
“Even if that’s true, is it worth both of us being miserable? I’m not sure. I want you to have those things, Carey, and I think we’re both resourceful enough to find something else. For you, something that gives you credit for all of your work. For me, something that helps me build my résumé back up.”
Before she has a chance to respond to this, my phone vibrates against my ear. I pull it back to see the name on the screen.
My pulse is a stampede. “Carey, Ted is calling me.”
The producer for Home Sweet Home. Why on earth is he calling me?
“Yeah. I should probably take this?” Did we fuck something up? Have Melissa and Rusty run naked and screaming into the street while Carey and I were negotiating our personal shit on the phone? “I’ll meet you back at the hotel in a bit.”
We disconnect, and I switch over to Ted’s call. My voice sounds high and tight. “Ted. Hi.”
“James. How are things going?” He must be in a crowded room because a few nearby voices come through nearly as clearly as his.
I go for vague, but honest: “About as well as could be expected.”
Ted lets out a quiet laugh that I barely catch over the hum of background noise. “The response to the announcement was astounding.” He pauses, lowering his voice. “I really need to make sure we stay on track here, James.”
Pacing, I hold back the words I really want to let out—Sounds like a conversation you should be having with Melissa and Rusty—and give him a noncommittal hum instead. He barrels on, “There’s some buzz that things aren’t great between the Tripps—a Blind Gossip post, a handful of vague tweets from bigger names—and so I think this tour needs to be more of a lovefest than it’s been so far.”
I … don’t even know how to respond to that. Is this guy for real? Keeping them from tearing into each other in public is challenge enough, and now he wants us to encourage them to canoodle?
“Let’s get a few moments of them being tender,” he continues, “maybe holding hands, or embracing where they think no one can see them.”