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Beauty and the City Chapter Magazine Issue #2 Continued


 Continued for Issue #2

I really had no idea what to think. I wasn’t giving up college; I was gung-ho about NYU. Mom went there. Daddy was a Dartmouth guy. Mama had dated another Dartmouth guy before Daddy. At first, she didn’t even like my dad. She happened to be visiting my grandmother the week she met my father. My grandmother told me she had to convince my mother not to be so narrow-minded. She coaxed her into answering his calls. And now look how he remembers Mama. He doesn’t!

"We have a new PR unit, and we want to focus on you. They are launching social campaigns for our top clients."

“As long as it doesn’t involve me blogging. I don’t want to write about what I’m doing every day.”

“They will take care of everything.”

“Dessert is served at the window seat,” Cook announced. “Lemon meringue tarts with handmade strawberry ice cream. A pomegranate, blackberry, banana smoothie at your request.” Cook smiled at Lisa.

“This is the best smoothie, sweetheart. A must try!” Lisa smiled.

How are things going? Merek texted.

I hadn’t gotten back to him since he’d asked me to dinner.

Well, I’m still awake. Seriously—kind of fun, I texted.

The window seat had a view of Lisa’s huge beautiful backyard and the new garden she’d been working on.

Milan, where are you? I want to come get you and take you for burgers at this cool place near my house? Merek texted.

Frenchy and I had checked his Snapchat page last night. The video he took of me at the party was on there.

Not today. Rain check. Monday or Tuesday, I texted.

“Stewart will be here any minute,” Lisa said.

Busy girl. I hope you can find time to see poor Merek.

You can always play that video of me if you miss me, I texted.

I have.

Uhh!

Are you mad? he texted.

Can you take it off your Snap?

How did you see?

U don't remember accepting me? I replied.

Uhh!

Embarrassed?

Not really. Just making fun of you. Let me take you for burgers tomorrow night.

Why at night? I texted.

Stars.

Lisa took a bite of my pie.

“Hey!” I said.

“You didn’t look like you were eating it.”

Had she totes finished her own piece already? I remembered my mother once telling me that nice girls never inquired about what others had eaten. Something about the smell of that pie reminded me of Noel. He loved pie. The first summer he came with us to SH, we swam every day, and Noel was a really good swimmer. Then we'd get a slice of pie at the club after, whatever they had on special. His favorite was sweet potato. Mama would pick us up afterward.

One day he said to me, “I wish my mom could be here with us, that we could all be here together doing things, like how we do things with your mom. That would be like heaven.”

I held his hand and then put my head on his shoulder. I wished that his mother were there, too. Now I knew too well how he felt.

He was so funny. He had these all-American swimming trunks. They had red, white, and blue stripes on the sides.

“Where did you get those swim trunks?” I signed.

I was still signing back then. It wasn’t until he went to boarding school that I decided to reinvent myself. I told Daddy I needed to start speech therapy again, and he never asked questions. He just told me to get his assistant to schedule it. I trained in reading lips, and practice made perfect. The early days were rough, especially in class. I figured out ways to borrow notes and try harder. I missed signing with Noel though.

“They were on a major, major sale at an outlet,” Noel had signed. “The greatest part is that my trunks are green. One hundred percent bamboo.”

“Whoa,” I signed.

“Forget my trunks. Let’s practice your backstroke some more. I’ll spot you.”

“I don’t…I can’t.” I was so nervous I couldn’t even think straight. “No deep end.”

“Stop it, Milan,” he signed.

“I can’t go past five feet.”

“No, just relax. I’ll be with you the whole time. Come on, just turn onto your back and move your arms like I showed you,” he signed.

Every day he made me practice my backstroke. Now it was my favorite way to swim freestyle.

The memory was so sweet; it took me away for a few moments. Lisa’s house really was killing me with boredom. I smiled, realizing I had totally zoned out thinking about Noel. I started reading Lisa’s lips again to catch up on what she was saying.

“I bought Stewart season tickets to the Knicks for his birthday. You kids should go to a game,” Lisa said.

Back to reality, I had to remind myself.

“Maybe.”

Yikes! Lunch was amazing, but if Lisa was trying to set me up with her son, I would have to kindly decline. I was beginning to question love. What was love made of? Was it possible for me to love again if I was already in love? Was I in love with Noel still? Wherever I looked in South Hampton, something reminded me of him.

SOS, I texted Sierra.

I was on my last bite of the most decadent Southern-style lemon-meringue pie, second only to my grandmother’s. If the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, Mama’s mom could definitely show me how to win Noel.

“Oh, I have to show you my new office space,” Lisa said.

Anything other than Stewart was a topic of interest—although he could’ve been nice, like a nice guy to be friends with. I followed Lisa upstairs. The glass panes that lined the stairway made me feel like I was in a modern museum. We swung a right at the top of the stairs. The walls were painted a cool blue, and hanging on them were pictures of flowers, most in color but one in black and white. The prettiest framed work was a montage of outdoor scenes: trees, flowers blossoming, petals falling, and the sun shining through green grasslands.

“Did you make this collage?” I asked.

“Yes! I get this wildlife magazine, and riddled with or—should I say—embedded in the pictures of wildlife are these wonderful photosynthetic creatures.” Lisa’s eyes lit up.

“What type of plant is this one?” I pointed out a flower floating on top of a body of water, with what looked like tentacles reaching out into the water.

“This one is called bladderworts. Then, of course, this is a Venus flytrap. This one is also a carnivorous plant; it’s called a sundew.” Lisa was like a different person as she talked about the collage. “You see the tree here? There are forests of these in Canada that are mined daily for the purpose of creating toilet paper. This mining releases a lot of carbon dioxide into the air because the forests are replete with it. If we use green toilet paper, we can help reduce the demand for the type of toilet paper that these trees are destroyed to make.”

“I try to be green. I recycle, and I’m the one who makes sure our housekeeper buys organic foods, green cleansers, and items made from recycled paper. Too bad we can’t compost in the city.”

“I compost at the townhouse. It was Stewart’s idea. He came home for spring break last year and had this idea of composting in the garden in the backyard. I said, ‘You know what? Why not?’”

Where are you now? Sierra texted.

I sent her the address.

Will GPS and get on it.

I was always scared my friends would call with some emergency and I would have to explain why I never answer the phone or want to FaceTime. I hated delays sometimes. It was not as easy to read lips over video. The drama I came with constantly reminded me of how much harder I had to work than everyone else at being normal. Yet I couldn’t have it any other way. I was neck-deep in this secret, now, and there was no going back.

“The office is down at the end here.” Lisa slowly opened the door.

My eyes sought retreat. The light from the windows was so bright.

“The light!” I said.

It was simply stunning. The whole room was surrounded by floor-to-ceiling walls of glass.

"I want to come work here."

“Anytime, Cookie. Our spiritual guru suggested the windows so I could be reminded of the joy that surrounds me at all times. I think spirituality is inspirational. God is all around us.”

“I believe in God. I grew up Christian. But I haven’t been back to church.”

I’m fifteen minutes away according to GPS. This place is far out in the sticks, M! Sierra texted.

I didn’t reply.

“Oh.” Lisa whisked out of the room and down the hall. I followed her. She turned to me and smiled. “Love, Stewart is home.”

I glanced at my watch.

She grabbed me by the shoulder. “I have dinner in forty-five minutes. I need to get dressed.”

“My dad asked me out to dinner,” I said.

“You guys don’t get out much.”

“No.” I followed her into her bedroom. It was all white with a red accent wall. Something told me to turn around. A very tall guy stood at the door, six feet seven, at least. He was cute in an offbeat boy-band type of way. He had on a suit vest, a white tee, jeans, and Converse shoes.

“Mom,” he said.

“Hi, Stew. This is Milan.”

“Cool. I know the face,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” I smiled. “Lisa, my friend, is going to pick me up in ten,” I said to Lisa.

“Oh, I can drop you wherever you need to go,” Stewart said.

“Thanks. I have a ride, though.”

“I was telling Milan you guys can go to a Knicks game sometime,” Lisa said.

“Sometime,” I hugged Lisa. “I should wait on the porch.”

“Oh, no, sweetie. Stewart can show you his new roaming-rover gadget. It’s like a baby tank with a camera for spying. Guy stuff.”

Odd.

Lisa gave me a kiss. I went downstairs with Stewart right behind me.

“Could you bring the rover outside?” I asked.

“Sure! Wait up.” He touched my arm.

Approximate Arrival Time? I texted Sierra.

0:02:15. Roger that!

Over and out! I laughed.

“What’s funny?” Stewart asked.

“Nothing.”

“I’ll get the door.” He touched my back as I walked outside. This guy sure was a toucher.

Sierra raced up in the Prius, looking like trouble. She finally hit the brakes so close to the porch, I jumped a little. Another tube-top dress. This was the theme of summer. I guess I didn’t get the memo. Me in my flowery sundress and flip-flops.

“So, uh, maybe sometime we could catch a game. Or…even, um, a bite,” Stewart said.

I glanced to see if Sierra was going to get out. Just my luck. She was playing around with her radio.

“Maybe. Your mom has my number. Text me sometime.” I waved bye.

He blushed. I made a mad dash for the Prius, tripping on the last step of the porch. My skirt rode up, and I pulled it down, playing things off.

“Graceful as a ballerina,” Sierra said as I plopped into the car.

“Gosh. Just burn out.” I said.

She jammed the gas like a race-car driver seeing the starter flag wave at NASCAR. I held on for dear life.

“What are you doing that for?” Sierra said.

“In case my seatbelt bails.”

“You are on a streak with the cuties,” she said.

“Stewart is nice. But I have a full plate right now.”

“Wish I had a full plate. It would be a first.”

“Don’t be too impressed. At midnight I turn back into a geek. Far better to be smart than pretty,” I said.

“Only someone blessed with your face could say that seriously.”

“You are gorgeous! What are you talking about?” I said.

“I just want to fall in love and live happily ever after.”

“Me too! Except I was in love once.”

I looked back at Lisa’s cottage as it shrunk against the purple sky.

“Sierra, can you do me a favor?” I asked.

“What’s on your mind?”

“Can you call this place up for me to find out if they have contact information for a friend of mine?” The word “friend” just slipped out. No point in being coy now.

“When?” she asked.

“Tomorrow.”

“Who’s the friend?” she pressed.

“This guy.”

Her eyebrows rose. “Old beau?”

I paused for a moment. I didn’t really want to keep things from her. “Not any regular beau,” I said.

“First love?” She was a good guesser.

I flashed a smile. “Something like that.”

“You have the info on you now?”

“No. I’ll send it in the morning.”

“Righteous!” She giggled. “My dad taught me how to skip search on LexisNexis when I was seven. If there’s intel, I can find it!”

 

Four dark roads, two stoplights, and a stop sign later, we pulled up to my house. It was all lit up at night. The air jets in the front ponds were on. I had barely noticed the landscaping Grandpapa had done yesterday until my eyes fell upon the beautiful white tulips and lavender lilies. How pleasant, I thought. We pulled up to the first garage.

“Check this out!” Sierra said.

Cara and Dimitri were rolling around in the grass under a tree at the side of the house.

“Move up a little,” I said.

“No, no. I know what to do.” Sierra revved the engine. “Purr, baby, purr!”

Dimitri and Cara stopped rolling around and looked toward the driveway. I could tell Dimitri was a little embarrassed. Cara, on the other hand…

“Oh, my God! Is she smiling?” I said.

“Like, Isn’t this a little sudden?” Sierra said.

“She’s strange. Why would anyone want to date Dimitri?”

“He’s fly, but he is really mean. Either way, she’s all in your family now. Ew! We don’t know her like that!” Sierra said.

It was seven-thirty. I needed to get inside before dinner with my grandparents.

“She was just asking about your brother at the Saloon on Friday. Now she’s hooking up with him. Wow!”

“I will text you in the morning.” I hugged Sierra.

Forget Dimitri! I needed to find Noel.

 

The next morning, I woke up bright and early. I had done the deed, and Noel’s phone number was on its way. I looked at my cell anxiously in two-minute increments, awaiting some news. It was the first Monday in a long time I wasn’t at work or at school.

I went into the bathroom, splashed cold water on my face, and glanced at myself in the mirror. I felt a sadness in my heart and didn't know why. I studied my eyes. Would he even recognize me? Would he remember the deaf supermodel, the one who was now harboring the secret about who she really was? I knew that if he found out, he would have a few thoughts about it. I felt the shame of my secret coursing through my veins, and things were snowballing each day I continued to pretend. But I would never give it up. I liked the way people saw me. I’d done it: I’d changed myself. Why did that have to be so wrong? Love was supposed to be unconditional. Would he love me the same?

 

Chapter 6

Last Night of Summer

 

 

It was a quiet Saturday morning, and I was playing Candylane on my phone in bed. My grandparents had gone back to the city on Thursday night to get ready for friends from California that would be visiting them for the weekend. Daddy had taken his annoying girlfriend back home to Park Avenue. Due to my modeling schedule and school starting soon, this was my last weekend in the Hamptons for the summer.

GM, Merek texted.

What are you up to?

Watching an old Fast and Furious movie with my brother. Dinner tonight?

Yeah.

Le Marsille in town.

That place is fancy.

Up until now, we had only eaten at pizza shops, Greek, brunch at my house mostly.

Celebrate our last night together.

Forever? I messaged.

No, I will be in NYC nxt wk, Wednesday. But I still have to unpack a bunch of things in my room. I have to get a uniform. Ton of stuff b4 school. I will come for you though. Maybe knock on your window or something.

Found yourself a new SNACC huh? We live in the penthouse, slow down.

Just made the reservation. Pick you up at 7.

Bet! What might we do after dinner?

Why?

So I can pick out an outfit.

Beach? Or Saloon?

K.

He sent me a kissing-face Bitmoji. It was kind of cute, although he was the only guy I knew who used Bitmoji.

I rushed to my window and pulled back the curtains. I needed the sun all over me to wake me up. I had a romantic date with my boyfriend—I still couldn’t believe I was calling Merek my boyfriend. I hurried over to my closet.

Merek booked us at the French spot in town, I texted Sierra. SOS, need outfit help asap. Can you come over? Can we get blowdries at the blow bar by your house?

Uhhhhh, my dad has us on lock-down for a family day, complete with lunch at the club and dinner that requires a cocktail dress! He’s lost his mind.

So you have to spend all day with your parents?

And Frenchy! He’s all about us getting closer. Knowing when he goes back to work next week working 80 to 90 hours a week we won’t see him again until Labor Day!

That bites!

FaceTime me your outfits.

Maybe.

I went into the bathroom and washed my face. I looked at myself curiously, wondering if I should text Cara. I mean, outside of stalking my brother who was not her boyfriend, she couldn’t be that bad. I could get the scoop on her style if she came over and helped me picked outfits.

I wanted this to be the perfect summer date. I felt a slight tug on my heart. Could anything be really perfect without Noel?

Cara, you down to help me pick out an outfit for my date with Merek tonight.

As long as it’s not a maxi dress. I hate anything below the knee.

Come over in about an hour?

Done.

And, like that, I had switched friends for a day. Cara was now officially—for the moment anyway—on my the squad list.

I went back to my closet and rifled through my dresses. It was a little lonely at the house. Edna had gone out, like she did every Saturday morning, to the farmers’ market. The morning air was crisp, and we were just three blocks from the beach. I had an idea.

Can you come over at 12 instead? I texted Cara.

I didn’t wait for a reply. I put on my favorite yellow bikini and sheer pink cover-up and grabbed my new Henri Bendel beach bag. I packed a little cash, a bottle of water, my beach towel, my sun hat, and some sunblock. My destination? Our cabana at the beach club.

The sun warmed my face the whole way down to the beach. I rubbed sunblock into my face, arms, and neck while I walked. I was going to miss lying on the beach the most. And if this was going to be the perfect summer night, it would have to start out with a quick swim at the beach.

Most of the houses were fenced along the main road. There was one sprawling estate that had a stable in the back and a stretch of the beach behind it. Some people were having a late breakfast on the porch, facing the beach. I wanted to be at that house. I had beach envy. Our house was surrounded by forest, which when I was little was fun to play in. Now I mostly just looked at it from our back porch.

I approached a gated area with a guard. I showed my club ID card, and the guard called down to the desk to have fresh towels and water brought to the cabana.

“Enjoy your day,” the guard said.

“Thanks.”

I swiftly headed to our cabana while checking my phone. It was still early.

I settled into the cabana, and as I took my sunglasses off to pull my hair up, a short woman walked over to me.

“Are you a model?” she asked. She was younger than Lisa but not young enough to be a college student.

“Yes.”

“You are on the cover of Beauty and the City Magazine this month. You are so pretty. Those eyes. Oh my. I have to tell her you're a member of the club."

“That is so sweet.”

“I won’t disturb you. I just had to ask.”

“No worries. This is my last weekend here before heading back to the city."

“This is our first year at the club. I love it. They have a lot of celebrities, like yourself. We’re heading back to New York as well but not until after Labor Day.”

“Super. Enjoy.” I smiled

“Bye,” the lady said, leaving my cabana.

The rest of my morning was pretty quiet with the exception of one text from Merek about thirty minutes before I left the beach.

My mission tonight is to make my princess blush.

I pondered what that could mean. A kiss? Something more? I had heart flutters just holding hands sometimes. How did he plan to make me blush? I was curious about all possibilities. I knew it could only happen if I gave myself permission to forget Noel for a day.

 

I arrived home at noon sharp. Cara was there, perched on my brother’s lap on the front porch. You’d think she was trying to make him blush the way she hovered at his neck reading his phone while he searched on it. She kissed his ear and licked his earlobe. Gross. The way she behaved around my brother was a bit desperate, yet he seemed totally cool with it. He kissed her, and it was clear they’d been doing more than just kissing. My bets were they were on sleepover status already.

“Hi, Milan!” Cara ran up to me, smiling from ear to ear. She gave me a big bear hug. After salivating all over my brother! I was weirded out.

“Thanks for coming, Cara. I hate to break you two up, but I’m going to take a quick shower and then we can troll my closet.”

“I’ll be right here.” Cara sat back down on my brother’s lap in her yellow eyelet dress that barely covered her butt when she sat down.

I tried not to roll my eyes as I walked into the house.

 

I dressed in a white Undercover Starlet shirt-dress after my shower.

Come up to my room, I texted Cara.

I brushed my hands along all the dresses in my closet. Then I looked at myself in the mirror on the back of the door. I wondered what would become of me tonight. I laughed at the idea of being a princess for one night. When was the last time I had been on a romantic date? And I liked how Merek made me feel; I was important to him. Sometimes it felt like I didn’t matter to Noel; otherwise, he would have come home. I knew Merek cared about me, and I liked how it felt when he touched me.

Cara burst through the door. “I like to pick the accessories first. They help me pick the outfit.”

“But you don’t have any accessories on?”

“Today? I’m here to chill with you. But for something fancy…when I want people to see me and ask, Who’s that?

“Sounds a little like walking a runway. I wear the clothes; I do not style the outfits. That is an art.”

I opened my travel Coach jewelry boxes. I had one for earrings, one for necklaces, one for rings, and one for bracelets.

“Oh! Cute! Those baby butterflies printed on the leather…you are pretty right down to the accessories. Okay, these two necklaces and the yellow flower ring. What is that ring? Betsey Johnson? Are people still wearing that?"

“I guess. I don’t even know where I bought it. Does it matter? It’s cute.”

“True. Girls like us only wear top brands. I hate cheap shit.”

“I’m not a brand snob. Those accessories go with two dresses. This navy-blue shirt-dress trimmed in white or the silky flapper-style sleeveless.”

“I like the white silky one. And take the necklace with the dangling tassel and the pink crystal.”

“Done. Now, I get to pick shoes. With a white dress, the sky is the limit." I said.

“No, are you going with a clutch or a satchel? Or a backpack?"

“Shoes first. It's my date. I want the gold ankle-strap heel. I am going to get a Pedi change, before dinner, to pink. A backpack is out of the question—that is not for a sophisticated dinner. I have a pink wristlet with tiny white butterflies."

“That would be fabulous in another time zone, not New York.”

“You doubt the match?”

“What gave you that impression? Not feeling the butterflies with the gold shoes. Do a clutch,” Cara said.

There was part of me that was averse to being bossed around by a flamboyant.

“Fine, I have a khaki envelop clutch that will do.”

“Uhhh, good. How tricky are you with picking things out?”

“Okay?” I didn’t know why she was calling me tricky but I also didn’t care to ask.

“Let’s order lunch,” I said.

“Maybe I can cook something.”

“Like what?”

“Frozen pizza? Salad?”

“I am ordering a salad from the Saloon and a latte. You can make whatever for yourself and Dimitri.” I walked out of my room.

Who offers to cook at someone's house? Did she think she was running things? There was something undercover bossy about her.

Cara followed me downstairs.

I picked up my iPad from the front table and went into the kitchen, Cara still following.

“There is some homemade lemonade in the fridge. And I think Edna brought some fruit from the farmers’ market.”

“That lemonade your housekeeper makes is something good. I should have the recipe analyzed and sell the formula.”

“Why?”

“I am enterprising kind of a girl”

“Are you?”

“Just kidding, Milan!”

“Did you change your mind about ordering lunch?”

“Sure did. Just order me what you’re having.”

“Even my latte?”

“I can drink just about anything. You think Frenchy is really hooking up with that guy she met?”

“Why would she lie?”

“Why doesn’t Sierra have a boyfriend?”

“Most people don’t want just any boyfriend. It has to be a guy she likes.”

“I kind of respect that.”

“Do you? And why do you like my brother?”

“He is so hot I can barely breathe around him. Plus I like older boys, and he’s smart. Why are you always so negative about Dimitri?”

“Only because he is so rude to me all the time. He would prefer it if my existence was relegated to an island without him. So I try my best to stay away from him. He is a love 'em and leave 'em type—FYI."

“Guys never leave me. I have had four serious boyfriends, and I have left all of them.”

“Guys from our school?”

“Two from freshman year, one from the club, and then one I met on holiday last Christmas.”

“Why the breakups?”

“Some guys get boring after a while. My last boyfriend was in the jerk zone. I caught him texting some girl from his school. I snatched the phone and saw she was sending him pictures of herself everywhere—eating, at barre class, at movies. So I texted her from his phone and told her to come over to his house. Then I left."

“Maybe they were best friends.”

“She was trying to take my spot. So I gave it to her.”

“Just like that?” I asked.

“ He was cute. But all he wanted to do was study on the weekend. I made sure to spike his soda with Benadryl so when she did come over, he’d be asleep, or at least his lower parts would be. Not a clean break. I mean, I certainly miss the rash his suction-cup kissing gave me around my lips.”

“Ouch! Merek’s kisses are soft. He has some friends who are girls. Who knows. I can’t wait for tonight.”

“Lunch! I’ll get the door,” Cara said.

I hadn’t even heard the bell ring.

 

I met Merek for dinner at seven. Dinner was good, but I guess it wasn’t filling Merek up. All through dinner, he stared at me with hunger in his eyes. He complimented me on my dress like three times, and when he reached out at took my hand, his eyes seemed to be undressing me.

In the car, Merek put his hand on my leg and leaned in to kiss me before we even left the parking lot. I wondered what came next.

“My parents are gone for the weekend. Do you want to come over?”

There it was! My mouth dropped. I wasn’t shocked at the question; I was shocked that I wanted to say yes. Good girls were supposed to say no. We had only been dating for a little over two months. I just couldn’t make things that easy. I didn’t want to end up like one of Cara’s horror dating stories.

“Let’s just go to the beach.”

Merek drove so fast I got a little nervous and held on tight to the car door. He spun into the beach parking lot and turned the car off. He opened the moonroof, and the moonlight glistened across his shiny hair. He had on one of my favorite shirts, a white polo tee lined in navy blue, and navy-blue shorts.

He leaned in closer to me, and I leaned back slightly. He leaned further in and waited, his eyes begging. Then I started kissing him and couldn’t stop. I had already decided to let his hands go where they may, and they did. He was pushing all the right buttons.

We never made it onto the beach. We spent over an hour fogging up the car windows, and then we watched the stars while we held hands. Merek explored parts of me no one, not even my doctor, had ever seen. I felt a little exposed yet oddly close to him. He made me want to try things I had never tried before.

 

I got back from my date around midnight, and I got a message from Frenchy.

Can I come over?

Now? I asked.

R u home?

Yes. I thought you were on punishment or something?

No. I want to go to this bonfire thing this guy invited me to.

Are you sneaking out?

You’ll have to, too. Your curfew is 11 right?

My dad is away, and so are my grandparents. Ha. No curfew.

Be there in 15.

I ran up to my room and changed out of my romantic frocks and into a Hello Kitty tee and jeans. I put on a pair or sneaker-type flip-flops that I wouldn’t worry so much about ruining in the woods. My hair was already starting to curl up my neck, so I pulled it into a high ponytail. I ran downstairs. Dimitri and Cara were passed out on the couch in the family room, holding each other, while the TV blared Real Housewives. I didn’t know what that girl had on my brother, but I would never imagine him watching Bravo.

I had five minutes, so I checked my make-up and only needed to refresh my eyeliner. I grabbed a jacket and waited outside.

Ready, I texted.

No answer from Frenchy. Finally, she pulled up in a red Tesla.

“Who’s car is this?”

“My mom’s. She let me drive it this week.”

“How did you sneak out with her car?”

“I pulled out really slowly.”

“What about Sierra?”

“That bitch! The reason ‘family day’ happened is because she told my father I was out past one with a boy I didn’t know.”

“No. She wouldn’t out you.”

“She did, and this is like the third time.”

“Why.”

“Who knows why Miss Perfect likes to stab me in the back. She was angry because I called her a useless virgin in front of a couple of people at the Saloon on Thursday.”

“That is way harsh!”

“It’s the truth.”

“No, she’s not useless.”

“She is vindictive. Look at her comeback on me. Now we are both grounded all weekend. I was so stressed out I threw up twice after dinner. I was almost angry about that, but then I realized it was helping me get rid of calories.”

“You can’t be serious. That is gross, and you weigh like one hundred twenty pounds max! You need all the calories you can get.”

“Yeah, says the picture-perfect model who eats anything she wants and doesn’t get so much as a zit.”

“Not true. I am a concealer master. How did you sneak out?”

“I had to wait until Sierra was asleep before I could leave.”

“I am not getting in between the two of you. Let’s just focus on the party. Who’s house?”

“The guy I met the first weekend we came out here. Remember, he was dressed like a bad ’90s version of 90210— plaid shirt, acid-wash jeans. Well, seems bad dressing makes for good kissing. We made out practically all that weekend, and then I never heard from him again. So yesterday he started texting me, begging me to hit up his party tonight. I asked a few other people from school, and they said they were going. It started at eleven. He lives on the other side, near Cara’s house, maybe a block or two away.”

It was so hard reading her lips while she was driving, and I knew I was missing bits and pieces. I would have rather been home in my bed.

“I feel a little weird going to someone’s house I don’t even know,” I said.

“No, he’s cool.”

 

I turned on the location on my phone just in case. One day during junior year, we had a self-defense course instead of a normal gym class. They told us never to go to anyone's home we did not know and that if we were in any suspicious circumstance to turn on our phone location and have 911 predialed.

“Then why did he flake out on you? Why haven’t you heard from him for two months?”

“Boys.”

I had pretty low expectations for this bonfire. I went ahead and predialed 911…just in case anyone there was a killer.

“Can you tell me again why your idea of a fun party is at a fire in some boy’s backyard, a boy we don’t really know, and probably with people we don’t really know?”

“Don’t have a hissy fit, Milan! I told you I asked around and a few people from school will be there.”

“I am sending this address to my grandparents just in case I don’t come back home.”

We pulled up to a yellow cottage-style beach house. The houses on this side were all rentals, and they were so close to each other you could probably watch your neighbor breathe through the window. The good news was there were like 40 cars parked on the lawn, and the house was right on the beach. We walked along the side of the house toward the back. It was odd how Frenchy seemed to know where she was going. Had she been here before? She always quiet about her hookups.

 

Outback, a huge fire lit up the night. Kids were drinking straight from a keg and passing around what looked like weed. A couple of boys were sitting on the back patio smoking something from a hooka. I steered clear of all those things. The smoke alone would dry my eyes and skin out. I had three shoots next week and a commercial. The last thing I needed was to look twenty-five because some idiot boy wanted to get high and blow smoke in my face!

“I am so not into this drug scene. Why are we here?”

“Chill, it’s just pot. I won’t do it either.”

“Do you realize our clothes are going to smell like weed?"

“Calm down. Go sit by the fire. They have s’mores,” Frenchy said.

I gave her a dirty look, wondering if she was only going to go home and vomit up the s’mores since late-night calories packed on the pounds and since she was apparently pretending to be stressed to hide her food issues. I grabbed a couple of marshmallows and took a seat in one of the Adirondack chairs out on the sand. It was a little chilly, so I decided to sit as close as I could to the fire. Frenchy had found her guy, and they were headed my way.

“Rich, this is my bestie, Milan.”

“You look familiar.”

“Hello? She is a supermodel.”

Rich’s bloodshot eyes changed. Suddenly, he was looking at me like I was his dessert. Frenchy brushed her hair off her shoulder, right into his face. She slipped off her tank top, revealing a strapless swimsuit top.

“Are you getting wet or what?” she asked Rich.

I winced at the idea of getting in the water at this time of night…or anytime with Rich.

“Nice to meet you, Rich,” I said as he staggered off behind Frenchy, following her down to the beach. He didn’t respond.

They began play-fighting in the water. Why had I agreed to come with her? Frenchy always ditched me at parties.

I curled into my chair, leaned back, and caught an eyeful of stars. I was getting tired, so I closed my eyes. I had almost drifted off but was quickly startled by the rattling of my chair. My eyes shot open.

“Don’t act like you can’t hear me, Milan. What’s up with you?”

“No, sorry, I just…I’m just…it’s been a long day. I’m tired. What we’re you saying?” Whew! Good save, Milan.

Frenchy sat down next to me, soaking wet from head to toe.

“I said I am so cold…I have the shivers. But the water’s warm.”

“Why don’t you go back in?”

“Come with me.”

“I’ll get my feet wet.”

“Rich is going to get a bunch of towels.”

“What is his deal? Does he just hook up with a bunch of girls?"

“He is definitely a player.”

Rich came back all right, with a cigarette in his mouth, the towels in one hand, and a beer in the other.

“Towels, ladies.”

I grabbed a towel. He flashed me a creepy smile. There was no other way to explain it. It could’ve been because a cigarette was hanging out the corner of his mouth, or it could have been the nasty look in his eye. I grabbed Frenchy by the hand and ran off to the water.

“You didn’t sleep with him did you?” I asked her.

“I don’t sleep with any guys. What’s the point in sleeping?”

“You know what I meant.”

“No.”

Frenchy kicked big splashes of water at my legs. I dropped my last two marshmallows. As they started to float away, I chased after them. Then Frenchy began to chase me. It was all sort of silly. We played in the water for a bit and then ran back for the warmth of our towels and the fire.

“I have something for you.” Rich offered Frenchy a s’more.

I left them alone and went to gather some more marshmallows. Frenchy had me wondering about our friendship. It wasn’t that I didn’t know her, although she always seemed to keep certain things close to the vest. That day at the club…she seemed to still have a thing for her ex. But things between her and Rich seemed quite comfortable for them not to have talked for two months.

I walked back toward my seat by the bonfire but stopped when I saw Rich and Frenchy in a full-on make-out session. Yeah, things were too comfortable between them. I wandered back up to the patio and people-watched instead, quickly realizing this party was oddly lacking in the girls department. Besides Frenchy and me, I counted only three other girls here. And they were huddled together and appeared to be going through each other's IG. I guess at least I wasn't sitting in my house thinking about Noel.

 

About an hour later we were finally on our way home.

“It was fun, right?” Frenchy asked.

There I was, yet again, forced to try to read her lips as she was driving. She must have been really tired because she was hovered over the wheel, holding onto it for dear life.

“Truth?”

“ You figure it out.”

“In that case, I figure the beach was more exciting than the people. If that is what I have to look forward to for college, I might stay home. The love scene by the bonfire was entertaining though.”

“Don’t be so childish, Milan! You’re starting to remind me of Sierra. She would rather watch television than go out after curfew!”

“That party wasn’t curfew-breaking worthy. The problem is college boys are into themselves. They think beer and pot make a party. They don’t even bother really inviting people out or having snacks or things to do.”

“Boys don’t know how to throw parties. Another reason they need us.”

“And what would you truly do with a boy who needed you?”

“You never know,” she said.

“What if we need boys more than they need us?”

“I don’t need Rich. He did say he is going to come by tomorrow. I’ll be at the beach club in the late afternoon. Hopefully without Sierra, that backstabber!”

I hated how Frenchy changed subjects she was uncomfortable with.

“I hope you two make up in the morning,” I said.

“She hasn’t crossed you yet, but when she does…You will understand how pointless it is to try and forgive her. As she pretends to be Miss Perfect. Come meet us.”

“Uhhh, maybe. I may just go into town and look around. There is a pair of shoes I want to get before I leave for the city.”

“No matter. Just figure it out and text me if you can make it.”

“So what about if he’s your boyfriend. Would you feel like you needed him then?”

Frenchy sighed. “Maybe if I loved him it would be worth it. To be a boy’s girl in that case I guess is okay. And if you love him and he loves you, marry him.”

“Yeah, maybe.” I smiled.

 

 

Chapter 7

The Hotel

 

 

We had been home from SH for about a week. Something serious was upon me. Things between Merek and I were moving quickly since that make-out session in his car. I told him I wanted it to be special. He said, "I have an idea, princess." And, like that, today was the day.

I looked at myself in the mirror—this was me. I was a little excited. I was sure I didn’t love him yet. That was dangerous territory. Too complicated for today. There was something rapturous about the way he called me “princess,” but I would never tell anyone that.

Sierra still hadn’t found any information on Noel. No word, no sign, just absence! This wasn’t making my heart grow any fonder.

Are you ready? Merek texted.

I’ll be down in a minute. I ran out of the bathroom.

I’m in the elevator, he texted.

I didn’t want Dimitri to know I was going off for a secret rendezvous to a part of town where no one would notice Merek and me. I put on my most discreet baseball cap, biggest black sunglasses, nude lipstick, and a tennis jacket zipped up to my collar. I took a big handbag and filled it with my cosmetics, some pretty undies, and my first lingerie one-piece.

Don’t ring the doorbell, I texted.

I just did, he texted.

A jolt of blood rushed through my heart. Daddy wasn't home yet. On Fridays, he usually worked late at his office or went out. It was impossible not to think of how different things would be if—no thoughts of Mama, I reminded myself.

I rushed to the door, walking so fast the wind was in my hair. Dimitri was following me.

“Get off my case,” I said to him.

I opened the front door. Merek kissed me while Dimitri lingered right behind me.

“Excuse me?” Merek suddenly asked Dimitri.

Merek stared Dimitri down, and I had no idea what had triggered his reaction. Dimitri brushed past us and rang for the elevator. When it arrived, he got on the elevator ahead of me, and Merek rolled his eyes, clearly disgusted with Dimitri. I began to step into the elevator, but Merek jumped in front of me.

“We’ll get the next one,” he said.

I grabbed hold of the back of his shirt and had to suppress a grin. He was pretty cute when he was being chivalrous.

“You let him call you a witch? I wanted to say something to him. I wanted to punch him, but he’s your brother. He does not know how to treat a lady,” he said.

I hadn’t seen Dimitri call me a witch. Tears filled my eyes. There had been so many times my back was turned; had he been saying things like that all along? Merek put his arm around me. He held me all the way to the cab.

I shook off the Dimitri drama and asked the driver to drive by the Park. Merek held my hand the whole way. I told him to surprise me, and I kissed him on the cheek. Midway, once we passed 34th Street, he put his hands over my eyes. I hoped he wasn’t talking—what would he do if he found out I was broken?

Every second was too long, and a lifetime seemed to pass. We finally stopped, and he held my hand and led me out of the car. I kept my eyes closed, but he put his hand back over them anyway. His warm breath was at my ear, so I knew he was saying something. I filled in the words with my imagination—don’t peek, move forward, wait—and I hoped that was enough. His arm moved around my waist, gently nudging me forward. We stopped, waited, and then walked some more. One door, I guessed. A few moments later, he took his hand down. Open your eyes, I imagined he’d said, so I did. My shoulders dropped. I felt like I had just gotten off a roller coaster, not my favorite ride at the amusement park. I turned all the way around. When I saw the Park on my left, I realized where we were.

“The W Hotel. Union Square!” I said.

“Yes.” He smiled. Then he twirled me around and around.

I went to the bathroom and changed my clothes as he lay patiently on the bed. I slipped on three-inch black stilettos and let my hair down. I took a deep breath, steadying myself. I can do this. When I came out of the bathroom, his mouth dropped. This was nothing like wearing lingerie for a camera; it was ten times scarier.

“You are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. It is ridiculous how hot you are. You know I want a picture,” he said.

“No pics.”

I smiled but covered my face. I couldn’t look at him. I was scared—mostly because of the infamous pain my friends had told me about. But there was hope. He got off the bed, put his arms around me, and kissed me. Once I closed my eyes, I forgot about being afraid.

Later, Merek went out to pick up dinner for us. I sat in the hotel room alone, wondering why he insisted we not order room service. Was he afraid to be seen with me? Maybe it wasn’t so odd.

He came back quickly with wings, fries, and froYo. We ate and watched television in silence. I didn’t know what to say. I felt strange. He had been so close to me, and no boy had ever seen me naked. And although I now had my clothes on, I still felt naked. He put his arms around me after dinner, and I started to feel that although things were different, I was going to be the same. I didn’t want to change. We slept like that, entangled in each other. It was sweet to feel his heartbeat next to mine.

There were times when it was just Merek and me. No phones, no people, no world. When it was like that, I felt like we were sharing a storybook romance. But that seemed like it rarely happened.

 

When I woke up, the sun was shining on my face. In the light of the day, something felt a little wrong. It was as sweet as I had imagined it, yet more awkward than I thought it would be. Merek's touch was always sweet though. I liked him; I just didn't know how to love him.

When did “like” become “love”? In my heart, I knew I wanted my first time to be with Noel. I swore I would see him again, but it seemed ridiculous to think of him every moment of every day. I didn’t care what he would think about this.

Merek, I found out, had done something I didn’t agree with—he had an aversion to booking reservations. He rolled me over to face him.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

He looked just as scared as I felt yesterday. I shook my head.

“Are you upset with me?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

But I should have been. What the heck was with him? He had me freaked out for a minute. It wasn’t until late last night that he confessed he had not reserved the room. When he told me that we just walked in, I almost walked out on him. But I let it go.

“Let’s order breakfast,” he said.

“Everything is fixed now?” I said.

“I did it,” he said.

It was sudden and swift. I couldn't be mad at him for long. Feelings were such a strange thing, and I was in great suspense. Had they suddenly changed? I didn't think I could be sure about them. Deep in my heart, I knew that sometimes I was good at pretending.