Six months and I didn’t know a thing about it. “What are you studying?”
“I’m studying how genes linked to asthma are clinically and genetically associated with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.” She smiles. “I’m working on my master’s in public health.”
Both Dad and I are silent for a few beats. Whereas I’m speechless because a master’s in public health is a delightful shift from the usual model/actress/Influencer, Dad is clearly silent from pride, like he has some important role in his girlfriend’s big brain.
But really, way to hit on a student, Dad.
It’s possible my judgment isn’t as subtle as I think, because he shifts forward, effectively moving between us. “How do you think things are going?” he asks. I’m sure it’s unrelated to any of my interpersonal drama, but I’m pretty sure Dad’s eyes just went Sam’s way for a brief glance. It makes me wonder what my father’s reaction to the whole story would be. Would he be protective of me? Or disgusted that I let someone get so close to ruining us both? “You feeling good about it, cupcake?”
“Yeah. Absolutely.” I take a sip of my sparkling water, drowning the rising voice in me that absolutely detests the nickname cupcake. I don’t remember him ever calling me that when I was actually a little girl.
“The sets couldn’t be more beautiful,” I say. “The crew and the cast are amazing. It took me a minute to get into Ellen’s character, but I’ve got her figured out now.”
God, I sound so stilted.
“Good, good.” Crickets chirp in a bush behind him as he slowly rocks his chair in the soft dirt. He nods slowly, in that patriarchal way he does sometimes. When I was little, showing off my latest tap dance routine, Dad would sit in the living room chair, watching me and nodding with that same benevolent calm. It used to be a sweet memory, but I’ve seen him act this way so many times since, I realize it’s less about enjoying someone else performing and more about making sure they know they’re being watched by an expert.
I search the faces around us—purposely avoiding Sam’s—hoping to find Charlie or Devon for some kind of escape. Gwen is talking to the line producer. Nick is standing back a ways, having an animated conversation with the actor who plays the younger version of his character. Most people are laughing or shoveling food off paper plates, a few are staring down at their phones, after all this time still clinging to the hope they’ll find a spot with a signal.
“You know what you’re doing.” Dad reaches to gently pat my leg, and if a leg pat can be condescending, this one is. “It’s just . . .”
I bite back a sigh. Even Marissa seems to know where this is going, because she’s grown engrossed in finding something—anything, from the looks of it—at the bottom of her purse before finally excusing herself to grab it in the cabin. Deserter.
“The words on the page are just the beginning,” he explains with patronizing calm. “It’s up to you to figure out the rest. That’s your job, Tate: Show the audience all the little pieces that make up Ellen. Show us who she is with an expression, a laugh, the smallest gesture.”
I nod, biting my tongue. It’s a good piece of advice . . . for someone just starting out. Does he not realize I’ve done seven films already?
“I’ll remember that. Thanks.”
“You know I’m just looking out for you.” He rocks in steady silence. “I wonder if it would help to have you talk to the screenwriter.”
My eyes fly to his. “The screenwriter?”
He shrugs and thankfully seems oblivious. “Ask a few questions,” he says. “Get some insight into the character. Might help to see where Ellen is coming from.”
I press my lips together to keep from saying exactly what I’m thinking. If I did, I think my voice would come out like a dragon roar. You mean the guy who took my virginity and sold me out all those years ago? The reason we’re even acquaintances now; the guy who made you look like a deadbeat? That guy? I’ve read and reread Milkweed a dozen times by now. I know my lines and feel like I already know Ellen. I was ready. I was prepared. It was seeing Sam that threw me early on, but I’ve recovered. Dad wants the upper hand; he won’t let that early slipup go.
But of course I can’t say any of that, not here.
Almost on cue, my salvation comes in the form of Charlie. Not surprisingly, and despite all of his “stories,” Dad has never really warmed up to her. The Perfect Dad routine doesn’t work on Charlie, and he knows it. Which is why he stands when he sees her walking toward us and immediately offers her his seat.
“I need to head to bed anyway,” he says, and leans forward to press a kiss to my forehead. “Good night, kiddo. Don’t stay up too late. Big day tomorrow.”
We smile as we watch him disappear from the light of the fire, and Charlie slumps down into his seat. “Is it me or did he just treat you like a seven-year-old before the first day of school? Aren’t we a few weeks into this shoot already?”
“It’s his thing.”
“I saw that you actually got to talk to the girlfriend.”
“I did. I like this one. She seems smart.”
She meets my gaze over the top of her beer bottle, surprised because we both know, for my dad—a dude who habitually and without any awareness walks at least two paces in front of any woman he’s with—being with a smart, self-actualized woman is a big deal. “That’s new.”