I want to laugh trying to imagine what he’s describing. My eyes are squeezed shut, my palm to my forehead when I let out a tight “We can try.”
His answering silence tells me that this isn’t quite enough of an assurance. I hear a door open and close, and then the background noise disappears. “Listen, I realize this has been a frustrating gig for you,” Ted says.
“And for Carey.”
He ignores this. “I also realize you were hired to do more of the actual engineering on projects, and I am in a position to make you lead engineer and get you an executive producing credit on season two.”
A car blasts past me, startling me from my momentary stupor. He’s got my attention.
“We’d just need to make sure we get to season two,” he says when I’ve been quiet a beat too long.
“I understand what’s at stake here,” I tell him.
He waits for me to say more.
I want to tell him about Carey, about how she’s been creating designs for Melissa for years, about how she’s the real mastermind behind all of this, and in truth if Carey and I were given freedom to run with the platform, we could do what the Tripps have been letting the world think they’re doing for the last decade. They could continue to be the face—but we could do what we both love to do: the work behind the scenes.
“Carey and I will do everything in our power to get them to show some more tender moments at these events,” I tell him. “But I want the engineering role and producer promise in writing.”
He goes quiet, and then my phone buzzes against my ear. I peek at it and see a text message has arrived from Ted, with a photo attached.
“I just wrote it down on a napkin, okay?” he says. “ ‘James to be hired as lead engineer and EP on season two.’ ”
Even if he’s being cheeky, relief flushes heat through my veins, making me bold: “I also think if we can get more recognition for Carey—”
“Carey?” he repeats. “The one with the hands?”
The roaring in my ears feels like a semitruck passing too close.
The one with the hands.
The heat of confidence dissipates immediately, and I stumble past words for a few shocked seconds. “She has a movement disorder, yeah, but she’s brilliant. She’s actually the one—”
“We can look into getting her a producer credit, too.” He pauses, then adds thoughtfully, “Actually, it would look great for the crew lineup to have her listed as a producer. Being inclusive, and whatnot. Makes the whole operation look like a solid family business—she’s been Melly’s secretary for years.”
His words feel like a punch to my chest. “Right, but she’s more than Melly’s—”
“Look, James, I’ve got to get into a meeting, but are we good? I can trust you to handle this?”
His question hangs in the silence that follows. It sounds easy, but I know better. And it feels shitty to be getting this opportunity when Carey has taken more flak and sacrificed more than anyone. A producer credit isn’t enough—she deserves a lead designer credit.
But I can’t negotiate from the bottom, and maybe if I get some leverage, I can use it to pull Carey up with me. I don’t know what to say, other than “Yes. You can trust me.”
He disconnects the call and I weave a little on my feet as my own words to Carey come echoing back to me: 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.
It’s still not clear whether it’s the best thing for her, except now, staying with the Tripps is very clearly the best thing for me.
When Joe ushers us out of the hotel later that morning, we’re shocked to see that the bus has been rewrapped overnight. In addition to the Tripps’ ginormous faces and book cover stretched along the sides, it now includes promo for the new show, too. Nothing like a forty-five-foot visual reminder that you’re trapped inside a giant PR machine that surges full steam ahead, whether you’re ready for it or not.
It also says a lot about the Tripps that a guy who regularly deals with entitled, difficult people for a living doesn’t seem to be weathering this tour well. In the days since meeting the Tripps, Joe looks like he’s aged five years. His swoopy hair has deflated; his eyes are dim and glazed over with a constant air of panic. Even his muscles seem sad.
With a clipboard in one hand and a bottle of Kaopectate in the other, he says, “I wanted to go over the schedule for the next couple of days.” Joe checks his watch with a frown. He frowns a lot lately. “We’re stopping in Sacramento to sign stock at four different stores. We’ll have to be pretty quick at each stop because we need to make it to Medford tonight. The event tomorrow is in Portland, at Powell’s. It’s a ticketed event and we’ve sold out both the signing and the Q-and-A … which is good.” He wipes his forehead. “But both today at the stores and tomorrow at the event there will be a lot of eyes, so …” He lets the sentence hang to see if anyone will complete it for him. When there are no takers, he adds, “Let’s try to put on a good show.”
I startle when Melly leans in, whispering, “Tomorrow we can get ready together.” She smiles, and in the stark daylight, I see how much she’s aged from the past several months; tiny lines fan from the corners of her eyes, and her mouth has taken on a mild tilt. Instead of softening her appearance overall the way time generously managed for my mother and grandmother, it makes Melly seem slightly unhinged. “We’ll get someone to come to my suite and get blowouts before the signing. That way you can relax.”
Relax. Did everyone get that? Melly gives my hand a little squeeze as if to emphasize that this is about me, not her. The me who has never had a blowout before in her life and who never gets downtime to relax.
We both know she’s pointing out how good she is to me. It’s her way of keeping me close, but also clearly keeping me away from James.
The elephant in the room doesn’t care that we’re back in the tight quarters of the bus: the short drive to Sacramento is as awkward as you might expect after having sex with one person and being found naked in bed by another. James clearly wants to talk and is quietly waiting for his chance. Melly is watching him watch me, but also watching to see what I’ll do if he dares to try. Rusty is in the back avoiding his own elephant, and once we’re on the road, Joe locks himself in the bathroom, wanting to avoid us all.
The sprawling landscape of the East Bay is a blur on the other side of the windows while I stare down at my small leather notebook. Work is usually my escape, and any one of a number of upcoming projects could easily occupy my time, but the weight of James’s and Melly’s attention is like a physical presence in the air, pressing down. It makes me anxious, and my fingers soon become stiff and uncooperative.
When my pencil falls to the floor, both Melly and James practically nosedive to the carpet to retrieve it. Melly is closer and reaches it first, setting it on the table with a victorious little smirk.
“Thanks, guys.” I give them each a You’ve just gone overboard look. I’m sure I’ve never seen Melly rush to pick up anything in her life—even if she’s the one who dropped it.
“So, James.” Melly settles back in her seat. “You’ve been with us for how long now?”
James looks up, surprised at being addressed directly. “Just over two months.”
I blink across at her, wondering what she’s up to. I’ve never seen her engage James in conversation before. Someone is just full of surprises today. “Remind me what you did before?”
“I was a structural engineering consultant.”
She taps her lips with a graceful finger. “I forget—where did you work?”
A muscle in James’s jaw clenches, and color slowly blooms along the tops of his cheekbones as we both realize what she’s doing. “Rooney, Lipton, and Squire.”
“Ohh,” she says, like it’s just now come back to her. “Right, right. That was the place with all the embezzlement. They were inflating the books and taking money from employee pensions, right?”
He answers with a clipped “Yes.”
She whistles. “I sure hope you didn’t lose everything.”
My stomach drops. I can tell from his expression that he did.
I catch our driver Gary’s eyes in one of the oversize mirrors, and we both wince. I can never tell how much he hears, but the tension is so heavy and the conversation so razor sharp, he’d have to have cotton in his ears to miss the feel of it.
“Aren’t they still investigating that?” Melly’s saccharine voice is wrapped in a brittle veneer of indifference. “Maybe you’ll get some of your retirement money back.”
“Melly.” I very rarely admonish her, but I’m already tired of whatever this is.
“He’s one of my employees and I’m just concerned about him.” With a breezy wave, she goes back to her magazine. “I sure hope he isn’t in a sticky situation.”
Closing his laptop, James stands, meeting my eyes across the bus. “I appreciate your concern.”
When he disappears to the back of the bus, I walk to the kitchenette and open the fridge, needing a little distance. The close proximity is starting to make me feel panicky and oddly dissociated from my body, like we’ve all been put here for something else entirely, and none of this is real. In some ways, that might even be a nice outcome: Ted and Robyn step out at some point, smiling broadly, admitting they’re not a producer and a publicist but instead are really collaborators on a psychological study on the effect of forced proximity while attempting a task with absolutely no chance of success.
As I survey Melly’s pressed juices and gluten-free, dairy-free, taste-free snacks, my mind drifts back to James. I can still feel what we did last night in the tenderness of my joints, the ache that lingers from the delicious frenzy of our first time. Every move I make today requires the use of some sore or exhausted limb, and the sensations become these mocking little reminders about what life could be like if I decided to be brave.