He hesitated at this, and I wondered if he knew things I didn’t. It was entirely possible.
“I’ve seen some headlines,” I told him, “and it’s impossible to miss his face on the magazines at Lark’s—sorry, our drugstore—but even though I know Mom’s version of things, is it weird that I haven’t ever gone online and read the articles written about my parents?”
He glanced up. “Not really, I guess.”
“I mean, I’m so obsessed with Hollywood but can’t even be bothered to read about my own family.” I paused, tearing up my blade of grass. “How accurate are the stories out there? I wouldn’t even know. Like, I can’t know how he looked at her or what things were like between them when it was still good. I won’t ever know what kinds of things he did that made her laugh, but I don’t even know what people say about the whole thing.” I gave him a winning smile, but inside, I was a yarn ball of nerves. “I sort of want you to tell me.”
Sam’s mossy-green eyes went wide. “Wait, really?”
When I nodded, he leaned in, intense now. “I mean, I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t read up on this on Yahoo for hours last night.”
A giggle burst free. “I’m sure you did.”
“Seems the story goes,” Sam started, clearing his throat and coming back with a deeper voice, like an announcer, “Ian Butler and Emmeline Houriet met when they were young. Emmeline was insanely hot—which I’m sure you’ve heard from all your dude friends—Ian was Mister Charisma, and they fell in love and moved to LA, where his career took off. Hers . . . not so much. He was crazy about her. According to a profile in Vanity Fair back in the day,” he said with a self-deprecating little wink, making me laugh, “anyone who saw them together could tell.”
Sobering, I looked down, trying to not seem too affected by this—the suggestion that it hadn’t always been misery for my parents.
“He started on a soap, but then he got a supporting role beside Val Kilmer, and his next one was a leading role. He wins an Emmy, a Golden Globe shortly after, and around that time your mom had you.”
I nodded. “1987.”
“Then your dad had the first affair—or the first one the press knew about.”
“Biyu Chen,” he agreed. “You were . . . two?” he asks, seeking confirmation.
“Yeah,” I said, knowing this part, too.
“Your mom stayed with him. More big roles. More awards. Apparently everyone thought Ian was sleeping around pretty much constantly after Biyu. But the affair that caused all the problems was Lena Still.”
Without realizing it, my fingers had curled into fists. I remembered when a Lena Still movie was playing at the Rio Theater. She was cast as a warrior in a dystopian future, the sort of Chosen One trope. I never saw it, of course, but it felt like I did because of how much everyone at school talked about it. I couldn’t say to anyone except Charlie that I hated going to Halloween parties with my peers dressed as ten different homemade versions of Lena Still.
“So, in 1994, Lena was only twenty, and she slept with your dad.” I bit back the reflex to remind Sam that Dad was only in his early thirties—he was being gross but not that gross—but I didn’t understand where the defensiveness came from and certainly didn’t want to give it room to breathe.
“She got pregnant,” Sam said, “and the press found out about it.” He paused, pressing a hand to his chest, and giving me a playfully earnest aside: “Many believe that she tipped off the press.”
Many, meaning almost everyone.
“But then they got in that car accident,” he said, “after the wrap party for their movie, and she lost the baby, and everyone felt so bad for Lena, not Emmeline.”
Those headlines I’d seen. It was impossible to miss them, even when I was eight. I wondered how many times a day those supermarket tabloid headlines flashed through Mom’s thoughts, unwelcome and obtrusive. Bright yellow words:
LENA STILL’S LOVE CHILD LOST. DEVASTATED, IAN BUTLER BACKS OUT OF BOND ROLE.
Little mention of a wife or a child at home—and Mom said the ones that did mention it made her sound like an unreasonable clinger, a crazy woman.
“And so much speculation about your mom.”
“You really did spend some time on Yahoo today, didn’t you?”
He gave a sheepish little smile before lying back in the grass again. “Even I remember seeing it. I was eleven. Your face was everywhere for a few months—those enormous eyes. Where did you go? Did she kidnap you? Were you being kept from Ian? Had you gone into witness protection? All that stuff.”
Really, the truth as Mom laid it out was much more banal: cheating husband, toxic culture, mother takes the child and leaves LA to go live in a nowhere, Podunk town. It just happened that my father was one of the most beloved actors in the world, and it’s hard for the public to realize that the actor and the man aren’t always the same person. People couldn’t believe that he’d done something terrible to her, and the noxious Hollywood environment nearly broke my mother.
But again, what was the real story? In a weird way, it felt like we were talking about someone else’s life.
“I mean, I was a kid during all of this, right?” I said. “In a tiny private school with other actors’ kids, and we’re all insulated from this stuff. Basically, Mom came to get me during school one day. She had the car packed full of suitcases, and the dog. We drove for hours—it felt like forever, but seriously, it was like six hours.”