.... Continued from this month's Chapter Magazine
“Don’t worry. I’ll do the same and then some,” Dimitri said.
Noel crawled his fingers up my neck and behind my ear.
“Stop.” I held my cards close to my chest. “You just want to see my cards,” I signed.
“No,” he signed.
I had a jack of hearts, a queen of spades, a ten of diamonds, a seven of hearts, and an eight of clubs. What the heck did that mean? I wondered. I tapped Mama, pulling her away from an intense round of knitting. She was fast with the needle.
“What should I do?” I showed her my cards.
She lifted up the ten, seven, and eight. “Trade these in,” she said.
I put those on the tray. Dimitri dealt me three more cards. I reached for them, and then he put his hand out on top of them. “Getting help from Mom is not fair,” he signed.
“This is my first time playing,” I signed.
“Oh, Dimitri, I’ll only help her the first two rounds to get her started,” Mama signed. “That’s fair. She’s never played before.”
He let my cards free. Noel put two cards in the pile and Dimitri dealt him two more. Then Dimitri traded in two cards and dealt himself two more. I received a jack of spades, a queen of hearts, and an ace of diamonds. I showed Mama.
“These two are a pair, and these two are a pair,” she signed to me. She put each jack with each queen.
“Want to raise the ante to two weeks of chores?” Dimitri asked and signed.
“No,” I signed.
“No,” Noel agreed.
“Well, if I raise the ante and you both say no, then you fold,” Dimitri said.
“Dimitri, be nice,” Mama said. “Keep it at one week for now, and let everyone get comfortable and relax. We’re on break.”
“Whatever, this is boring,” Dimitri said. “Show your cards.”
Noel put his down. He had three fives, an ace of hearts, and a two of diamonds. I put mine down. Then Dimitri slowly revealed his cards, putting them on the tray with the edge closest to him down first. He had all clubs: two, three, four, five, six.
“Who wins?” I asked Mama.
“I believe Dimitri does. See, you have two pairs, Noel has three of a kind, and Dimitri has a straight flush,” Mama said and signed.
“Looks like we’ll be cleaning Dimitri’s room this week,” Noel said and signed.
“Leave a mint on my pillow, bro,” Dimitri laughed.
“If I win next round, we can call it a wash. Then we each clean our own room,” Noel signed.
“Let me see that happen first. You look a little too happy for a loser,” Dimitri said.
The memory faded as we pulled up to our tall steel gates engraved with the letter “M” for “Mercedes.” Grandpapa had already arrived, and he ran up to the car. Dimitri jumped out and gave him a head nod. “What up?”
“Niño. How are you, Dimitri?” Grandpapa held his arms out wide.
Dimitri walked right past him.
“Where have you been?” Grandpapa asked Dimitri.
“In school,” Dimitri said.
It was only a matter of time before Grandpapa would get around to giving me the third degree about why I hadn’t seen him and Nana for two years. I hadn’t even joined them in SH last summer, and I couldn’t really verbalize my hiatus.
“I made the dean’s list this semester,” Dimitri turned and said.
“That’s my boy!” Grandpapa gave Dimitri a high five. Then Grandpapa set his eyes upon me, his only granddaughter. “Ay, how is my beautiful granddaughter?” he asked and signed.
Grandpapa didn’t really know sign language that well, but he always tried. He was the sweetest grandpapa ever.
I signed back, “Grandpapa!” Then I threw my arms around him and squeezed as tight as I could. “I missed you and Nana. Como es Nana?”
Talking to Grandpapa was funny. He was from Ecuador, and Nana grew up a Southern Baptist, born in the pre-civil rights era. She knew a lot about the world. She was Daddy’s mother, but she and Mama were the best of friends.
I had to string together practically the only Spanish words I had learned last semester. I didn’t even know if I was pronouncing them correctly.
“Why haven’t I seen you since two years?” Grandpapa pointed at me.
“I know…I’ve been working. Trabajo,” I said.
“Trabajo? Tu? No, no. You no need job,” he said.
“I do need to work, Grandpapa. Houses in the Hamptons cost big bucks. I have to pay,” I laughed.
“You silly girl,” Grandpapa signed.
Dimitri joined us as we walked toward the house.
“Why don’t you tell him about your modeling?” he asked.
“Modeling? You smart girl. Too smart for model?” Grandpapa shook his head in disapproval.
I was surprised Nana hadn’t told him. I had sent her a special frame with my first five covers and some of my best ad spreads from US and French magazines. Lisa had it made for me. I couldn’t look at it all the time; I’d only wonder if it was me. The only me I wanted to look at every day was the girl I saw in the mirror. Only, sometimes, the mirror confused me.
Dimitri brushed past me. He slammed his duffel bag into my shoulder. I nearly fell over. He had a way of blindsiding me.
“Are you okay?” Grandpapa caught me. “Dimitri!” Grandpapa shook his finger to say, No, no.
Dimitri smiled. “Sorry.”
“Grandpapa, Dimitri needs a place to stay. Can he live with you and Nana? He can’t get housing at school.”
“Ay!” Grandpapa grabbed Dimitri and hugged him. “Of course, my grandson, come live with me. What I do in that big Manhattan apartment full of windows and empty extra rooms, just me and Estelle? You come stay. We have a big room for you. I put a nice speaker in there. A man at the Best Buy show me how to put it to the computer to play songs on YouTube. ” Grandpapa followed Dimitri upstairs. “Maybe you move in August?”
I smiled at Dimitri. It was nearly impossible to tell Grandpapa no.
Mama had redecorated the house the year before the accident. The paint on the walls reminded me of the ocean. Soft blue green was the color of the living room and the hallways, and a touch of sun-kissed yellow covered the bathroom walls. Mama and Daddy used to take us to the shore at sunset when we were kids. Back then, Dimitri and I would play together. We’d make sandcastles and play tag. My room was cotton-candy pink. I used to love cotton-candy pink until I discovered that clothes came in a whole palette of fun colors, including dozens of shades of pink.
My favorite room in the house, though, was the crisp white kitchen. I snuck past the living room, purposefully avoiding Nana. I remember the first time I had met Grandmother, Mama’s mother. Grandmother, Nana, and Mama all sat around the glass-top island and told stories about when Mama and Daddy were little. I was eight. It was one of the best moments ever. When I walked into the kitchen, it brought back memories of Mama’s peach cobbler. It was Grandmother’s recipe. She wrote it down for me that day. I still had it tucked away in my box of memories of my mother. I had hoped to one day make it for Noel.
I opened the refrigerator. Edna, our housekeeper, had come out a day ahead of us to get set up. Maybe we could go to town and do some grocery shopping. I wanted to learn some new recipes.
The country was the only place Mama cooked. I wanted to know how to cook…something, anything…a piece of meat or tofu at least. Got the idea for tofu from another model I had met at a shoot last fall. He asked me if I liked tofu. When I said I’d never had it, he asked if he could take me to this vegetarian place downtown. Had he not looked like he was over twenty-one, I might have considered it.
Dimitri shoved me out of the way so he could stand in front of the refrigerator. “Yo, you know if the housekeeper made any lemonade before she left?” he asked.
It grated my last nerve when he called Edna “the housekeeper,” and he knew it. I wouldn’t let him pull me into his game this time. “Left? Where did she go?” I asked.
“She didn’t tell you? She’s gone for two days to visit her friends somewhere in Nassau County.”
Gone? I’d have to go back on Wednesday for Thursday’s shoot. Maybe we could cook on Tuesday.
“Does today count in the two days?”
“How the hell should I know?”
"Well, good luck with the lemonade!”
I pulled some fudge cookies out of the cabinet. Dimitri, having found the lemonade, passed by me, grabbed two cups from the cabinet in front of me, and filled one up. I guess Grandpapa had put him to work.
“Did Dad tell you that Noel graduated last week?” Dimitri said.
I dropped the carton of cookies I was cradling right onto the floor.
Dimitri shot me a look. “I like those. Pick those up.”
Had he just said what I thought he said? I had dreamed…No, I knew I shouldn’t go back to those dreams. My breathing became more and more erratic. Would he be coming home? Why didn’t we go to Noel’s graduation? He should be coming home!
“How do you know this?”
I wanted to grab Dimitri by the collar and pull his face close to mine to inspect his eyes. Would they betray him if he was lying? Something feverish was coming over me.
“Well?” I insisted.
“What’s the deal? Don’t tell me…you still have a thing for Mr. Rogers.”
Thing? I was growing impatient with his insolence.
“How do you know this? Or are you lying?” I said.
“Nah, this is not important enough to lie about. I saw the invitation lying in Dad’s office. It came in the mail like a month ago. Then…” He stopped and took several gulps of lemonade.
Was he doing this to me on purpose, making me wait? He then proceeded to fill his cup again until there was no more hand-squeezed lemonade left for anyone else. My leg involuntarily began to twitch.
“Just before I left, I saw one of Dad’s assistants shredding it.”
I put my hand to my chest. “Why?”
“What?” Dimitri laughed.
I felt so disconnected. What was I supposed to do now? What could I do? The tears were back; they never stayed away for long. They swelled in my eyes, weighing down my lower lids. A knot twisted in my heart. Why hadn’t I gotten it yet? Daddy would always hurt me just as he would always hate Noel. The air seemed so shallow. I could do nothing. The pain of losing Noel would be permanent. I was out of my league.
“I hate you!” I told Dimitri.
For once in all the years since the accident, he had no smart reply, no snide remark, no nasty retort. I had never said such a thing to him. I walked away slowly. My world so silent for the first time in a long time, I felt only the echoes of pain in my heart.
I caught a glimpse of Nana napping as I walked toward my room, thinking about Noel. The familiar vibration from my phone broke my focus. It was Sierra.
The Saloon @ 2. Pick you up in half.
I looked at my watch; thirty minutes until Sierra would be here. I had to clean my face before anyone could see me.
I had tucked my hopes of loving Noel again deep inside. But those hopes were the reason I woke each morning. Realizing my dream had been so close but was now so far was excruciating. How could my frail frame hold so much pain without collapsing? Behind the guise of a smile and the enchantment of a girl’s eyes was growing the deepest sorrow I had ever known. Had a final death come to our love? Was I the only one who still thought of us and how we used to be long ago?
Losing Mama was horrific. But if I had lost her forever yet knew she was still alive somewhere, I would try. I would try every day to find her.
I watched Dimitri make a wide U-turn on Main Street. He parked the Ferrari right in front of the Saloon and gave a head nod to a few seniors standing outside. Moments after I went inside, he walked through the wooden Western-style shutter doors. Each side of the room was labeled: east and west. Dimitri walked to the east side. I was still upset with him about our conversation earlier.
I stood at the bar, watching baristas blend iced lattes into sweet milkshakes. I loved the modern atmosphere, everything in chrome to match the huge blending station. The grinding buzz of ten blenders filled the space, and the rich smoky aroma from the espresso machines hovered around me, casting its invigorating spell. If we lived in the Hamptons, this would be my regular after-school spot.
I didn’t order a drink; instead, I took a peaceful moment to myself and finished my bottle of water, wondering if a cute guy might offer to buy me something. Sierra was at a table in the corner with Frenchy. I smiled to say hi to a girl from my AP Chemistry class. I was in no hurry to push my way through the crowd and join my friends at the table.
The Saloon was a chill hangout. The stainless-steel bar glistened, and strobe lights crowded the ceiling. On the east side of the room, a flat-screen played hip-hop and R & B videos, while on the west side, a flat-screen played pop and rock. A special electric blue-tinted the windows; you could see out, but it was hard to see in.
Dimitri settled into a corner booth with a few of his old high school acquaintances. Something told me he wasn’t too thrilled about being a freshman in college. He refused to get housing near the school, so I ran into him often with his high school friends at the house and occasionally in the neighborhood.
Cara—a mystery to me, at best—had just sauntered through the shutter doors. She gave Sierra and Frenchy a head nod. Bold island colors were back this season, and, apparently, so was the head nod. She walked over to the bar with a slight twitch in her hips. The guys surely liked to watch her hips move, and I noticed a few eyeing her as she passed.
I caught myself watching people at times. I was beginning to think that how people moved, rather than what they said, revealed who they really were. It was hard to believe what people said. My father used to say a lot of things that didn’t mean anything: he loved Dimitri and me, he would spend more time with us, he would work less. I doubted he even remembered all those lies he had told us over the years. Perhaps Dimitri was right; maybe I shouldn’t hold onto so many memories.
Part of why Sierra and Frenchy were my 24/7 was because they were the only ones I could trust. Cara? Hmm. I didn’t have an instinct on her yet. That channel was blocked. And her walk was questionable.
Cara approached the twins, the star tattoo on her back peeking through her shirt.
“Where’s Milan?” Cara asked the twins.
That was the thing about reading lips. I could kind of figure out what people were saying from a distance.
“Somewhere around here. What, you don’t want to hang out with us?” Sierra asked.
Frenchy rolled her eyes at Cara and looked toward Dimitri. “Want to locate Milan? Why don’t you start with her brother over there?”
Clearly, they were annoyed with Cara. They wouldn’t sic Dimitri on her unless they wanted to best her. Cara looked at Dimitri, and her eyes lit up. Hopefully, she wasn’t falling for the earring and the smile. I thought about saving her the embarrassment of trying to talk with my brother, whose ego was the size of the whole bar, but my gut told me not to.
“Brother. Try him, I might,” Cara said.
“I thought you were the girl who had the deal on everything,” Sierra said.
“I thought you were the girl who had every boy wrapped around her finger. I guess we are both surprised. ” Cara said.
“I choose my boys very carefully. Not every boy, just the one I want for the moment. You’ll like Dimitri—he’s really friendly,” Frenchy said.
“Wow! I wouldn’t have gone with that exact adjective,” Sierra said, nudging Frenchy.
I walked slowly through the crowd. Feeling a tug on my arm, I turned around. A boy, maybe five feet ten, grabbed my wrist. He had light-brown eyes, long curly hair, and a nice smile. He was cute—just a little young.
“Can I buy you a coffee or something?” he said. “You’re probably healthy. Too beautiful to be a coffee-head. I mean…if you like coffee. Uh…it doesn’t mean you’re a coffee-head.” We both laughed.
In my mind, there was him and there was Noel.
“I’m Andrew. What’s your name?”
“I’m Milan. Is this your first weekend out to the Hamptons?”
“Oh. I’ve been here since last week. It wasn’t as packed then. You know.”
“Thanks for asking…about the coffee. I just have to get over to my girls. Maybe I’ll see you around, Andrew.”
“Oh. Uh…okay, cool! Nice to meet you, Milan.” He shook my hand.
I could feel eyes watching me as I made my way to the table. I smiled at a few of the staring faces. This was nothing new. After my fifth cover and the Undercover Starlet campaign, anonymity ceased to exist.
Cara fake-smiled at me. If there was one thing I had learned, it was the difference between a real and a fake smile. Cara’s face was beautiful, but I was focused on her unpleasant and competitive vibe.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey, Milan,” Sierra said.
“M!” Frenchy said.
I double-kissed Frenchy and then Sierra and, lastly, Cara.
“Hello, darling. You look quite cute today,” Cara said.
All I had on was a basic white tank top, a deep-blue denim miniskirt, and yellow leather kitten heels. Our styles were different. Cara had on a teal tube top with matching teal jewelry and skintight skinny jeans. She was wearing five-inch yellow platform heels. The twins, Yin and Yang, were dressed in similar outfits, surprisingly. This hadn’t happened since the second semester of junior year. Sierra was dressed in a white tube-top dress and flip-flops. She’d brushed smoky shadow across her eyelids, which made her blue eyes pop. Frenchy had on a soft-pink crushed-cotton tube dress with baby-blue piping along the bottom and five-inch pink stilettos. She had on light-pink shadow that made her blue eyes stand out. We’d all studied Making Faces, Kevyn Aucoin’s makeup book, harder than we’d studied for chemistry.
“So what’s up?” I asked.
“Nada!” Sierra said.
“I like that. Head start on Spanish 2 next semester. We need it!” I laughed.
“We were just about to work the room and meet a couple of hotties. Do come with,” Cara said.
“I didn’t say I was going,” Sierra said.
“Come on.” Cara said, tugging on Frenchy’s arm, and the four of us started across the room.
“So my dad’s assistant got over forty celebrities confirmed for tonight’s party,” Cara said. “The DJ is so hot. He did MDNA’s last tour!”
How much bragging could we take? This was a bit much even for us.
“Excuse me.” Frenchy disappeared in the crowd.
“She found some poor college boy, no doubt,” Sierra said. “She could find the brokest college rat even in this room.”
“Oh, stop it. That is not nice,” I said.
“Hopefully, she has a way to get home in the morning,” Sierra said. “We’re supposed to be sharing a car since hers is messed up. My grandfather promised to let her drive his old Camry, but she thinks I should drive that since I got my license after her. My car works fine.”
Yikes! I didn’t want to talk about Frenchy. This was bad business. Sierra was supposed to be the angelic sister, and Frenchy was the storm.
“See any cute guys yet?” I asked.
“All well below my standards. Plenty for Frenchy though,” Sierra said.
I felt a light touch on my shoulder. It kind of tickled. I turned around and was met with friendly dark eyes. He was about six feet two with broad athletic shoulders and a cute crooked smile. His T-shirt and cargo shorts were lacrosse-boyish. He reminded me of a comic-book character, kind of like Jughead with more of a sun-kissed complexion.
Had I eaten one too many five-cent bubble gums wrapped in Archie Comics? I guess this made me Veronica—I laughed at the thought.
“I’m Merek,” he said.
I looked back for Sierra, but she had vanished into the crowd. Cara had made a beeline for Dimitri. Odd, yet interesting. What did she want with him? What did she want with us for that matter? Maybe just to be friends. Was I that rusty at making new friends?
“You seem to know many people from my school,” he said.
“Is that so?”
“Maybe I should know you. You go there?”
“Yeah. What year are you?”
“I’ll be a senior next year,” he said.
“Where did you go before?”
“Beverly Hills High.”
“A West Coaster! That’s where the wicked tan comes from. Beach bum.”
He had fine features. His petite nose looked drawn on, adding to my comic-book theory. He had big, manly hands. I noticed because he kept fumbling with them.
“Well, not a true, as you call it, West Coast boy. My father is a diplomat. I’ve lived in a few places. For now, we call New York home,” he said.
“Now that I’ve met you, I will thank my father. New York is a great choice.”
I was oddly drawn to him. He was cute, but it wasn’t that; it was something I couldn’t quite define. I just knew I kind of liked him.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked.
“Chai tea latte is my drink.”
He stood there for a moment, thinking.
“Uh. I got it,” he said.
I noticed his muscular legs as he walked away. What was I doing? He turned and walked back toward me. I bit my lip a little. It’d been two years since I let a guy buy me anything. And for good reason, I had to remind myself.
“You came here with three other girls, right? Do they want something?”
“No, thanks. I don’t even see all of them at the moment. That was sweet, though.”
“Okay. Chai tea latte. I’m all over it.” He touched my elbow before he turned back for the bar.
I didn’t want to stare at Cara and Dimitri, but I couldn’t help it. I walked through the crowd, seeking an inconspicuous spot, but I couldn’t find a good one. I couldn’t see her lips moving, so I moved behind two girls, trying to get a better line of sight. Jackpot!
Cara’s hand was on Dimitri’s lap under the table. Was she doing…what was she doing? She swung her legs over his lap.
“My throat is so dry,” she said, playfully resting her head on his shoulder. “Berry lemonade on the rocks.”
Tai Simmons, one of Dimitri’s ex-girlfriends, was walking toward his table. I didn’t know much about their relationship, but Dimitri was always a kinder version of himself around her. And she broke up with him; that couldn’t be good for his ego. Of course, almost anything less than worship was bad for Dimitri’s ego.
Tai moved like Catwoman, every movement slow, fluid, and filled with intrigue. Her skin was so clear. Even I had to conceal a blemish now and again. She walked with a confident, poised strut and always wore heels. When she’d come over to our house and take off her shoes, she’d walk around on her tiptoes. To know her was an experience.
I was beginning to think Dimitri attracted these types of girls. I mean, I’d only known Cara for a week, yet clearly, she was bold, perhaps even alarming. I wasn’t nearly as alarmed by the Ambulette that nearly ran me over last week because I didn’t see it coming. It was funny: I had thought to myself—just my luck, traffic has slacked up just for me. Combine that with texting while jaywalking and—boom! You get me running for cover as the Ambulette hurls down the street. But, in my defense, the light was red.
“Hey, boys,” Tai said.
Dimitri bolted out of the booth and scooped Tai up in his arms, hugging her so tight her face turned red. “What are you up to?” he said.
Tai raised an eyebrow as she glared at Cara and then Dimitri. He totally ignored it. Cara sized up Tai, looking her over maybe a gazillion times while Dimitri talked to her. I didn’t catch what Tai said, but Dimitri said, “I’ll be there.”
Tai wrapped her arms around Dimitri. “And leave the underclassman trash at home!”
Ouch! I did catch that.
Dimitri nodded. Tai waved to Cara and then turned on her heels and glided away.
Cara was having a hissy fit, huffing, and puffing. Dimitri slid back into the booth, and Cara climbed over him, brushing up against him as she forced her way out of the booth. He looked shocked.
“Eight o’clock at my house, if you want it,” she said.
I looked away. Had I just seen something I shouldn’t have? I could swear she said, “if you want it.” Hmmm. Maybe she said, “if you want to”? There was no way to be sure.
I wasn’t an expert in guys. Frenchy knew a lot more about guys than I did; heck, even Sierra probably knew more than I did.
“Milan, this is yours,” Merek said as he approached.
I reached for my drink, my heart fluttering when his hand grazed mine.
“Thank you.” I took a sip. “Sweet!”
“Not as sweet as your smile,” he said.
I hadn’t blushed in a long time. It was nice. For two moments, I had forgotten about Noel. I was in an alternate universe.
I noticed Cara talking to Frenchy at a table full of college boys on the east side of the room. Frenchy was going through a phase, the sloppy ’90s-grunge-boy phase. I just wondered why anyone would want to look so dirty and disheveled. They chose the coolest spot in the place, though—I had to give them props for that. They were nestled under a huge fifty- or sixty-bulb chandelier dazzled with yellow crystals. The chairs, sleek and mod with super-fun yellow pincushions, were straight out of a music video. Actually, I hadn’t even noticed that little room before. This was only my second year at the Saloon, my first year meeting a guy here.
My gut said I’d probably see Dimitri if I went to Cara’s party. How fortunate I was to have a full day of Dimitri.
“Would you like to taste mine?” Merek asked.
“Sure.” I smiled.
He passed me his oversize mug.
“Should I guess?”
“Smell,” he said.
“An acute sense of smell,” he said.
I turned his mug around to the other side, opposite from where he had taken a sip. Judging by the steam, it was piping hot. I took a slow, cautious sip. “Pumpkin and toffee?” I asked and took a second sip. “Marvelous! Was that off the menu?”
“No need for a menu. I create flavors at home for fun. My sisters love espresso, so our mother taught us how to make it sweet,” he said.
“I can make you one sometime,” he said.
“Absolutely! I’m going to this party tonight at Cara’s house. Do you know her?”
Maybe he could tell me something more about her than I knew—which was nothing.
“No, but I would like to take you if that would be okay,” he said.
“Yeah!” It just came out. I mean, was this okay? Why had I just agreed to go to the party with this guy?
“What’s your number?” he asked.
My old bestie from junior high, Winter, was always so cool and put-together around guys. She had a mystery about her, and she never said too much of anything. I wished I could be like that, but I was always confused about how I should be. Being myself would be a good start, but was that the right thing?
“646-222-6666,” I said.
“I’ll text you my number. Save me.”
“I’ll be sure to throw you a life raft,” I said.
I was tempted to put him in my phone as Jughead. “How do you spell your name?”
Milan and Merek—it went pretty well together. Unlike with Noel, I would never be able to tell Merek my secret about being deaf. There was something about the way he looked at me. He thought I was perfect.
“Is it Milan, like the city in Italy?” he asked.
“How perfect we met. Milan is one of my favorite cities in Europe,” he said.
Though I couldn’t hear him, his mannerisms and the gentle grin across his face told me he was speaking sweetly. He seemed like the kind of guy who would send a girl letters in curly cursive just because.
A girl walked through the Saloon doors. Her style was sort of plain, but her long, erect back and the way she moved with calm determination through the crowd made you look. Her large-framed black Urkel-like glasses skewed things a bit. They were probably Haan, but still not cute. I watched keenly as she approached Sierra.
“So check you later?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m going to meet my boys. I’ll hit you up around seven,” he said.
“Worship you.” He smiled. Yikes. “You know you are the kind of girl who should be worshipped.”
“We’ll see about that,” I said.
He slowly backed away. I turned around while he was still watching. Mystery—I had to remind myself.
As if in a cloud of mist, the Frenchy and Sierra seemed to instantly reappear.
“What are you shaking your head about?” Sierra asked.
“Nothing.” Had I been shaking my head?
“With that new ad in Times Square, Milan, everyone in this room probably knows your name,” Frenchy said, eyeing Merek as he walked away. “You are now officially a supermodel.”
“Probably not,” I said, wishing she’d stop looking at Merek that way.
“C’mon, Milan. Stop being so modest,” Sierra pressed.
“Oh, gosh!” I said as Frenchy jerked me by the shoulder and spun me around to face her.
“Who was the sexy foreign exchange?” Frenchy asked. “I caught an eyeful of you and him swapping digits.”
“Merek. What now? Live video feed for Tracebook?” I said.
“I would never,” Frenchy said.
“Oh, stop being so boy obsessed, French,” Sierra said.
Frenchy winced. Sierra brushed her hair off her shoulder. I smirked. Never a dull moment.
“So what is the deal with you and the SFX, aka sexy foreign exchange, M?” Sierra asked.
“He asked to take me to Cara’s party,” I said.
“Let him.” Frenchy laughed. “I ship you and him. You two look cute together.”
Sierra looked appalled. “Ew, you’re going to that party?”
“Why not?” Frenchy said.
“Are you, Sierra?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Sierra sighed, “I guess.”
I wasn’t as enthusiastic about it as Sierra was.
Catch Cara mackin’ on your brother? Sierra texted.
A little painful to watch, I texted.
Even more painful when she finds out he’s a total jerk who would never ditch Tai for her.
Had she noticed the showdown as well? My vote was on Tai, though it would’ve been good for Dimitri if he ended up alone!
Cara was busy talking to a sophomore by the door, a girl dressed equally as scandalous. I guess they understood each other. From one size-medium-squeezed-into-an-extra-small to another. The sophomore’s gray jersey-knit dress was so tight you could see her hot-pink bra through the top. She even had on hot-pink earrings to match. She had smoky eyes, peach blush, nude lips, and a fresh flat-iron. Her long caramel-brown locks—possibly extensions—graced her waist. She laughed on command at Cara’s every word. Maybe Cara was that funny. It was possible that Caramel Locks over there knew Cara’s deal. Maybe I could bump into her at the party. Or was that too obvious? Definitely not as obvious as Cara’s interest in Dimitri.
Dimitri got up from his table. I looked back at Cara. Her eyes followed him.
I glanced back up just in time to see the end of Frenchy’s question.
“—riding at three?” she asked.
“Obviously,” Sierra said.
My stock is plummeting off the charts. Before you know it, we’ll be in the negative on cool points. We need some new blood in our crew. And I need a summer boy Frenchy texted me.
No worries. I got you, I texted.
Frenchy laughed. Wow. Am I at the point of an SOS? she texted.
New blood? Jury still out on that one. I liked to play along with Frenchy’s dramatizations.
Check Melissa, nine o’clock, Frenchy texted.
Be easy, I texted. You said we needed new blood.
Whatever. Shut up!
We both laughed. Melissa and Frenchy were age-old frenemies. Melissa wasn’t A-list, but she was holding down a secure spot on top of the B-list. She was into some obscure things, like the Students Against Social Media club. Seriously? Messaging was my life! What motivated that club choice? What an obvious travesty of magnificent proportions since it warranted an after-school commitment. Whatever happened to good ole animal rights or feeding the hungry?
Melissa had come a long way—she used to be in the marching band in freshman year. Her instrument? Cymbals. She did a self-makeover, much like my reinvention, so I had to respect the come-up. Sometimes she wore her hair in this curly mop-top. That was cool. Frenchy was the grudge holder. Melissa stole her first boyfriend in the ninth grade. Oddly enough, Melissa was always trying to socialize with us.
Is she texting you? Sierra texted.
Oh, gosh. Sierra was so sensitive. She always acted like I liked Frenchy more than I liked her. I wondered if the constant competition had something to do with being a twin.
Excited about going horseback riding, the twins and I walked out of the Saloon. I was actually terrified of riding—but in a good way. It was challenging, but it was one activity where I wasn’t handicapped. I gave the horse commands, but the rest was all about reacting to the feeling as I rode.
“Hey, Frenchy,” Melissa said, rushing to catch up to us. “Um, we’re doing a pool thing at my house tomorrow. Maybe you and Sierra want to come?”
This was not good. Melissa was nice, but Frenchy always held a grudge.
“You know I sleep better knowing you are dead to me.” Frenchy walked right past Melissa to the valet booth.
“Sorry. She has no manners,” Sierra said as she followed behind Frenchy with the valet ticket in hand.
I just smiled at Melissa. I didn’t really know her.
“Is that Cara sprawled all over your brother’s Ferrari?” Melissa said.
I turned at breakneck speed, probably attracting more attention than I wanted.
“Definitely a scene,” I said.
Mama’s Ferrari? I was flaming mad when I saw Cara lying on the front of the Ferrari with Dimitri standing there like an idiot making googly eyes at her. She sat up and wrapped her legs around him. After sliding a piece of paper in his pocket, she swung her legs off him, hopped off the car, and walked away, sliding her fingers along the side of the car as she went.
She turned back to him and said, “Will you give me a ride in your Batmobile later?”
Sierra grabbed me by the arm, breaking my focus. “Come on!”
I looked back. Dimitri was in the Ferrari pulling away as Cara ducked into the back of a Rolls-Royce.
“We’re like celebrities. Everyone on the block is watching us,” Sierra said.
“Yeah, right!” I said.
“Please, you know you love it!” Sierra said.
We were certainly A-list, but not by my design. It just happened that we were friends with all the A-list people in our class. I garnered enough stares in public, but I’d like to think the people at school were used to seeing me.
The twins’ parents had bought them both black BMWs for their sixteenth birthday, but the valet delivered a blue Prius.
“Mine’s in the shop,” Frenchy said, obviously noticing my confusion.
Sierra walked up to the Prius.
“Is your car in the shop, too? I thought you said it worked fine,” I asked.
“No, I decided to trade mine in,” Sierra said.
We piled in the Prius, and Sierra pulled away. I had rushed to get the front seat, as usual, so I could turn to watch Frenchy’s and Sierra’s lips as they spoke. Reading lips when you only had a side view of the person was possible but more difficult.
“Can you believe that? Trading a BMW for a Smart car? Just dumb!” Frenchy laughed.
Sierra rolled her eyes. “Stop throwing shade.”
I needed to change the subject quickly. “I’m peddling fragrance now. The billboard and train ads could be game-changers or flops, and I feel a bit crazed about it. You know I like modeling. I want to do more bigger brands. The Undercover Starlet fragrance is totally me though—”
“Milan, enough shop talk.” Sierra sighed. “You’re riding, right? Don’t leave me alone with Frenchy.”
I caught a glimpse of Frenchy in my sun-visor mirror. She was busy texting.
“By the way, Cara’s going to meet us in half,” Frenchy said. “So, Sierra, figure out your attitude.”
“I don’t know why you think Cara’s so cool. She almost had her tongue down Dimitri’s throat. That doesn’t tell you something?” Sierra said.
“You’re just mad because you used to have a crush on him!” she said.
“I did not!”
“When we first met him, you said he had finesse. Then you said he could be your one true pairing.” Frenchy said.
“I did not!”
Frenchy sat back. “Well, I could never make up something so cheesy! I don't walk around looking for OTP.”
Sierra’s face turned beet red. “I hope she’s”—she nodded toward me—“giving you a ride home!”
“I’ll sleep in the house with you,” Frenchy said, raising her eyebrow.
Sierra looked at me. “You’re taking this all too well, Milan.”
“I’m well-adjusted,” I said.
Sierra and I looked at each other and laughed.
Frenchy ignored us and wisely changed the subject. “Last time, Milan, you almost got thrown from the horse, headfirst!” she said.
“That wasn’t funny!” I said, remembering the incident. “And it wasn’t last time. That was like three months ago. Get your facts straight!” I crossed my fingers as I continued. “And it really wasn’t that bad.”
It was pretty alarming. The horse they gave me was some young stallion. As soon as I got on him, he took off, and I could barely control him. I was so nervous, and the trainer said the horse knows when you are nervous. As long as I was in control of myself, I could control the horse. But who was going to control Frenchy?
What’s a Girl to Do?
Merek was on his way, and I didn’t want him to ring the bell. Avoiding Grandpapa and Nana, who were upstairs watching television, seemed to be the path of least resistance, so I scurried out of the house as quickly as I could in three-inch sandalwood-trimmed platform sandals. Dimitri had already left. Hopefully, he was on his way to Tai’s instead of Cara’s. If not, this would be the first time he arrived at any function before I did.
One sandal in front of the other, I made my way up the slate driveway. I had wiped some excess orange blush onto my hand during my mad rush to get ready, and it was beautiful the way the sun glistened across its golden hues. I admired its simplicity.
Seven o’clock and the sun was still out; that was the mark of summer. I walked past the iron gates, strolled along the side of the road, and nestled in a patch of neatly trimmed green hedges.
I closed my eyes for a moment. The sun’s rays showered my face with warmth. I was excited, but confusion set in as my thoughts turned to Noel and the last day I’d seen him. I’d been holding on to his words for so long.
We were in his dorm room. He sat on his bed, and I sat at his computer desk in front of the window. The sun’s rays showered over me that day as well while we talked about our dreams. Back then, I wanted to become an archaeologist or a cardiologist. I don’t know what had gotten into me—a little too much Jurassic Park or Grey’s Anatomy.
“I don’t know when I can come back to see you,” I had signed.
“Why did you take your dad’s car? If he finds out, it could be months,” Noel signed.
I didn’t realize then that months would turn into years. I had climbed onto the bed and into his arms. We kissed. I could remember the way he smelled so distinctly. It wasn’t a cologne or a soap; it was just him.
“I love you forever,” he signed.
I opened my eyes. And like that, he was gone.
Merek had pulled up. He looked at me curiously, and I had to admit I was certainly curious about him. My heart belonged to Noel, though the news of him graduating and not coming back to New York had me questioning my steadfast loyalty. Merek got out of his gray two-door hatchback and opened my passenger door. His car was kind of Noel-esque, or at least it reminded me of Noel. It was the hatchback thing; there was a Volvo hatchback he used to like.
“Hi, princess. Tell me, what are you doing?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Here’s the address.” I handed him a pink Post-it.
“I watched you,” he said.
“Why? What did you see?”
“You, standing with your eyes closed, sunbathing. And why?…Because you look radiant.”
I was a little embarrassed.
“I like that smile,” he said.
“What if I said I like your smile?” Ugh! I always did that when boys gave me compliments! Echoed the same compliment right back. Geez.
His bright smile widened even more, and like that, the past melted away like butterscotch candy. All gone, not a trace, not even the wrapper.
With my heels on, I was just slightly taller than Merek. I stood up straight and took a deep breath. He slowly took hold of my hand, and as if by instinct, I pulled my hand away—I only held hands with one guy. Seems it didn’t take long for the past to catch back up. I caught my reflection in a glass door at Cara’s house and, right then, realized I was in over my head.
The tan house was stunning, built with an abundance of light birchwood and sleek steel. There were floor-to-ceiling windows all around the first floor. The DJ was on the patio, a few yards from the Olympic-size pool, where a crowd was already in full party mode. Our house was much more country, no pool. We did have a huge lot with half of it forested, so it was great for escaping into nature. Cara’s house was modern with less of a nature vibe.
As soon as we entered the door, smiles were on. Since the moment I’d pulled my hand away, Merek kept looking at me. I was actually looking forward to the distraction of the party. It was too soon, and I couldn’t move any faster with him. I just hoped he wasn’t going to pin me up against the wall about it.
I spotted Sierra. She had on a fabulous skintight lavender BCBG dress we’d bought two weeks prior. Frenchy was with Cara, talking to a young pop singer near the dining room, where caterers worked feverishly, keeping the food stocked, and serving areas clean. Cara looked cute in an indie-pop kind of way. She had on a long black pencil skirt, high stilettos, and a low-cut sleeveless pink top. Cara gave one of the waiters a dirty look when she noticed the bruschetta was low. Frenchy was awkwardly posed as she stood there, laughing at Cara’s every word. Frenchy donned an all-white, sleeveless single-shoulder-strap minidress.
One thing I never had to do was entertain a full party. Daddy never had parties since Mama’s death, not even a work event. On the night of Mama’s death, they were leaving Daddy’s company’s Christmas party. She turned as she was walking to the limo to call for him to come to her, and a cab hit her.
I took a deep breath, blinking back tears. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t think of that anymore. I had imagined it in my head one hundred different ways, and in all of my scenarios, she could’ve moved out of the way. I was getting a little headache.
Sierra rushed over to us. “Hey!” she said, giving me two air kisses.
“This is Merek,” I said.
“Of course, we have been blessed with such a transfer,” Sierra said.
“Merek, Sierra,” I said.
“She’d never have the guts to say it, but I will. You gave her a toothache,” Sierra said.
“Next thing, I will have caused a heart attack, too,” Merek said, looking nervous.
“What?” Sierra asked.
“She thinks I’m sweet on you,” I explained, laughing.
“That’s funny?” Merek asked. His face grew serious.
I was quiet. Sometimes the best answer was silence.
He raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t get like that. What makes you think it was a joke?” I brushed my finger along his arm. “I’ll be right back.”
I pulled Sierra by the arm, and we fought the crowd like a boat fights the rising current. I didn’t know why, but I needed a break from Merek. . Was he supposed to be my future while all I wanted to be was stuck in the past? The thought of Noel being the past still left me feeling hollow. Was Merek enough? Could he ever be enough to fill the space I had reserved for Noel?
He’s even more delicious in better lighting, Cara texted.
Oh, great! Now it was official. Merek and I were on her radar. Where was my brother to keep her occupied?
I had no idea where Sierra and I were headed, but I ended up at the lavish food table. At the huge hibachi bar, I helped myself to some tempura veggies and shrimp. The dessert table was decked out with like fifteen different cakes. The blacked-out double-chocolate had my name on it. And, of course, I helped myself to the truffle table. Two chocolate-covered strawberries and a piece of almond bark somehow made it onto my plate. This was the best! Sierra stood at the back of the dining room, looking out at the beach. Whatever. I was hungry. I walked over with a mouthful of fish.
“How are you going to play Dance Mania with a full stomach?” she asked. “We should eat after we play. They are playing my favorite song ‘It’s Not Okay.’ You know—‘It’s just not, it’s just not okay. It’s not okay for you to break my heart. It’s not okay to treat love like you can stop then start.’”
“I really like the lyrics, but I’m not playing,” I said.
“Come on, Milan. You never do anything at parties.”
“No. I can’t count how many times I’ve just pretended I wanted to dance because you dragged me onto the dance floor,” I said.
I noticed Dimitri on the far south end of the house, just past the kitchen. What was he doing way back there when Cara was by the door? He glanced at his watch and then dialed his phone. I had a suspicion—calling Tai I’d bet.
“Did you notice Dimitri’s here?” I said.
“Yes. Cara’s magic is working.” Sierra put air quotes around the word “magic.” “Be careful what you wish for.”
Cara waved hello to some girl and then rolled her eyes. She pulled Frenchy to the side and proceeded to tell her something. No doubt it was about that girl—a little tacky.
Cara then headed toward us.
“Oh, joy!” Sierra said, not meaning it, as Cara approached.
Didn’t matter to me. I still had half a plate left, and I wasn’t slowing down for anyone.
“Hey, girls. What up?” Cara double-kissed us.
“Hey, the food’s great!” I said.
“Well, it’s all right,” Sierra said.
I gave Sierra a look that said, What’s the deal? She shrugged.
“So you girlies going to the father-daughter brunch tomorrow?”
“No, Frenchy and I are going shopping with our mom.”
“Too bad. I’m going. My dad gets his act together once in a while for a public appearance with me,” Cara said.
“I’m going,” I said. Had I teleported out of my body? What was I thinking? I hadn’t even seen Daddy all week.
“Good. May the best dress win!” Cara said.
“Win?” Sierra asked.
“Yeah, I don’t know. There is some sort of father-daughter winner. The grand prize is a thousand dollars at Hermès,” Cara said.
“Wow, that’s another handbag. Milan’s already got all the new ones for fall,” Sierra said.
“I’d hate to beat you, Milan,” Cara said.
“You won’t, so don’t feel bad,” I said.
My phone vibrated. Why do you even care about that stupid brunch? Sierra texted.
Maybe if we win, we can get rid of her, I texted. I was a little annoyed at Cara, too. But why?
You must not have caught Dimitri checking her out. My guess is that we’re never getting rid of her, Sierra texted.
As if summoned right out of Sierra’s text, Dimitri jumped in, grabbing Cara by the arm.
“What’s good?” he asked Cara.
Sierra gave me a weird stare.
“I’m good,” Cara said, giggling.
“So you really want to hang out with my sister right now?” he asked, flashing those perfect porcelain veneers.
“Don’t be jealous.” She kissed him.
“Merek!” I blurted out to Sierra. “Let’s go back to Merek.” I practically sprinted across the room—well, as fast as I could in my three-inch sandalwood-trimmed platform sandals—losing Sierra in the process.
On my way to Merek, I caught a glimpse of a surprisingly familiar face. I froze, staring in shock, ashamed at the spectacle.
The two were hugged up tighter than cheese and bread on a grilled-cheese melt. She was a young Cindy Crawford type—tall, skinny, tossed-about dark hair, dark eyes, a beauty mark above her lip, and a sun-kissed complexion. He was my father! The father I hadn’t seen laugh since my mother died. The grin from ear to ear alone had me stunned. I just stood there, waiting for him to see me, watching him betray us. My heart was thudding so hard I could feel pulsations through my whole body. When he saw me, my tears escaped. I continued through the crowd, wiping my eyes as I fled.
“We have to go.” I grabbed Merek from behind.
“Why?” He looked hurt.
I gave my plate of food to the passing waiter.
Merek took out his phone and pointed it in my face. “Smile.”
I covered my face with my hands. “No pictures.”
“Why?” he said as I peeked through my fingers. “I love pictures. It’s my thing: pictures, vids, anything I can post for my friends.” He put his head near mine and held the phone up to video us. “This is my beautiful friend Milan. Milan, say hi.”
As the camera turned on, so did my personality. “Hi, je m'appelle Milan—”
He looked at me seriously. “Where did you learn French?”
“I didn’t. I just learned how to say my name from a stewardess at the airport in France. It’s the only thing I know.”
“Can we talk about the toothache I gave you?” he asked.
“No,” I laughed.
He looked at the camera. “We are at a party in South Hampton, having fun. As you can hear, the music is excellent. Wish you were here,” he said.
“Me, too. Bye.” I pulled Merek’s arm down. “No more video.”
“It’s okay. I have lived in many places. I put these on my page as an update—where I am, what I’m doing, who I’ve met. You are big news. Dance with me one time. Then we can leave,” he said.
He took hold of my hand and led me to the dance floor. I glanced over at the scene of the crime; Daddy was gone. I wanted to unsee what I’d seen, to erase the memory. Pretending I hadn’t seen it was probably going to be the best I could hope for.
Merek started bouncing around and rocking back and forth. I moved my feet from side to side. “Come on!” he said and spun me around.
I shook my head a little and threw my hands up. I had no idea what I was doing, but I pretended I did. I found my own rhythm by feeling the base in the music as it reverberated against the floor. It helped me to move my body to the beat.
He smiled, which reassured me that I didn’t look like an idiot. He took my hands and moved my arms back and forth. I counted in my head: one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four…trying to hold onto the rhythm. He let go of my hands, jumped all around, and then stood there stomping his foot. This boy was wild. So I did what he was doing—I started stomping my foot.
“Yeah!” he said.
I laughed. He gave me a head nod, and I gave him one back.
He pointed behind me. I turned around, and Lisa was standing there.
“Hey.” Hmm. This was a first. I didn’t like “chipmunk” at all.
“You look beautiful,” she said.
“Thank you. Who did you come here with?” I asked.
“My friend Bill. He’s over there by the piano, yapping it up,” Lisa said.
“You’re coming to the house for lunch on Sunday, right? So you can meet Stew?” she said.
“Yes. What time? And just don’t bring up the conversation from earlier,” I said.
“Three…ish. Just text, sweetie. I won’t talk about office stuff.”
“Okay.” I gave Lisa a hug and kiss. “Oh, this is Merek, my friend. Merek, this is Lisa.”
“Nice to meet you,” Merek said and shook Lisa’s hand.
“Handsome aren’t you? Where are you from?” she asked.
“All over. I’ve lived in more than twenty cities.”
“Wow! Are your parents in the military?”
“No, my father is a diplomat,” he said.
“Interesting. Do you model?”
“No. I have a band,” he replied.
“We have a talent division.” Lisa gave Merek her card.
I was on a date—not at a business meeting.
“Maybe we’ll call you,” he said.
“Maybe I’ll answer.” Lisa grinned and turned her attention back to me. “I’ll see you on Sunday,” she said as she parted through the crowd and back off the dance floor.
I grabbed Merek by the hand and marched to the door. “Let’s get out of here,” I said.
Merek pulled to the side of the road in the area where he’d picked me up. He didn’t say much, but I knew what was coming. What was a girl to do…pretend she didn’t know she was about to get kissed? He leaned over the armrest. I turned away.
He turned my face to his. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I usually don’t kiss on the first date.” I didn’t actually have any established rules yet, so I borrowed one of Sierra’s.
“Well, I do hope we get a second date. I’m working on the worship-you part of things.” He plugged in his iPod. “Do you want to hear my music.”
I put my hand on his. “Only if you write the lyrics for me first.”
“Like on text,” he said.
“No, I just want to see them in your handwriting so I can understand what your music means.”
He pressed a button, opening the sunroof. “Sometimes I like to be real quiet and look at the stars. I don’t see much of them at our new apartment in the city. Out here, they are all around.” He smiled.
We admired the stars in silence for a bit. Did he think I was weird for not wanting to hear his music? Had I insulted him?
“Do you think it’s weird that I want to see your lyrics first?” I asked.
“No. You want to know about me, so I have to show you. I want to write you a song, but it’s not easy for me. Sometimes it comes quickly; sometimes the lyrics are in my head for weeks. I cowrite with my brother, and he’s real smart and creative. He’s just…real, you know.”
“You’re like the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper…you and your brother, huh?” I asked.
“In some ways, yes. I think I am more like my father than he is.”
“I’m nothing like my father. I think—I hope—I’m like my mom. I like the Big Dipper and Little Dipper because those are the first star constellations my mom showed me…She died a few years ago.”
“I’m sorry, Milan.” He kissed my hand. “You are brave.”
“I don’t think I’m brave at all.”
“If my mom died, I would not leave the house. You look so happy.”
“Because of you and the stars,” I said.
He smiled. “Have you ever seen a shooting star?”
“Yeah, I think I saw one once.”
I wondered if maybe this was where I was supposed to be, with Merek. Sometimes it seemed like I was struggling against a riptide, fighting an already lost battle for Noel. If he felt just 10 percent of how I felt, wouldn’t he have come home? I turned to Merek, and tossing Sierra’s rule out the window, I kissed him. Right there under the Big Dipper, I kissed him.
I wished my life had a CliffsNotes version, like “Here’s what this part means” and “Here’s what she’s going to do in this part.” One thing, at least, was clear:
Merek was here; Noel hadn’t come home yet.