Lena sat on the pale cream carpet, her back against the edge of the bed, her features bathed in the traces of a setting sun. The conversation with Jack had unsettled her. You’re never going to find someone to love, he’d said, as if things were so simple. As if she could go up to someone and say, “Hey, want to go on a date sometime?” and live happily ever after.
If only she could love Jack.
If only she weren’t in the public eye.
She sighed and let her head fall back against the mattress. The painting she’d purchased earlier sat beside her, staring back at her expectantly whenever she glanced in its direction. She still didn’t know why she hadn’t packed it along with everything else, or why she kept staring at it.
It wasn’t like her to be drawn to art, never having been one to spend time at galleries or museums. But there was something about the picture, about the loneliness it radiated, that called to Lena in a way she couldn’t explain. It made her feel less alone, sitting there in the silent room, watching as another pointless day faded into memory.
“I love you,” he said, turning to look at her from his place on the bed.
But Kara kept her gaze on the computer monitor, her Shakespeare paper a blank canvas on the screen. Do you? she wanted to ask, because she’d heard him, and because despite herself, she really wanted to know. “I love you, too,” she answered when the time for truth had passed and all that remained was the sense of expectation.
“Do you want to do something later?”
“I’m trying to write a paper,” she answered, looking at him, daring him to start a fight.
“I’m not sure there will be an ‘after’ this. I think it’s going to take all night.”
“How long can that possibly take?”
“Yeah, well I’m not good at papers,” she replied, an edge in her voice. “We’re not all geniuses in this room, remember?”
Mike sighed in thinly veiled exasperation. “Okay, look, I’ll just shut up and leave you to your homework.” He rolled off the bed and stood by the side of it for a moment, gazing down at Kara thoughtfully. “Dinner tomorrow?”
“Can’t, family stuff.”
“What family stuff?”
“Alex wants to talk to us about something.”
“I can safely say that I have no idea.”
Kara bit her lip and looked up at him. “I’m sorry, I’d invite you—
“No, it’s okay. I guess I’m just not as part of the family as I thought.”
“Sorry,” he said. “If it’s a family thing, then it’s a family thing.”
Kara bit her lip, opting to leave out the fact that Lucy had been asked to come along. “It’s more of an Alex thing.”
“And she hates me, right?”
Kara frowned up at her boyfriend. “She doesn’t hate you. She just doesn’t know you very well.”
“Yeah, well she doesn’t seem particularly keen on remedying that situation.”
Mike looked visibly upset, and Kara didn’t know what to say to make him feel better. It was true that her sister hadn’t taken to Mike; unlike the rest of her family, who practically worshipped him. She simply had no explanation as to why. “It’s just one evening. I’ll go, hear what Alex has to say, and then maybe we can get together when I get back.”
Mike nodded after a moment of reflection. “I’ll just wait for you here. Lucy’s off tomorrow, right?”
Crap. Kara looked away, focused her gaze on the computer monitor and the awaiting paper, which seemed, at that moment, the lesser of all evils. “Um, actually, she’s coming with me.”
Mike’s silence unsettled her, and Kara forced herself to look at him. “Why?” he asked.
“Alex wants her there.”
Mike nodded. “I see.”
“They’ve known each other forever, Mike. It makes sense—”
“Save it, Kara. Just ... call me whenever.” The slamming door punctuated his statement.
“Great,” Kara muttered, shifting to adjust the weight of the laptop on her lap. “Just great.”
The hotel restaurant was as upscale as it was noisy. The mutter of conversation threatened to drown even the distinct sounds of clattering silverware, as the VIPs in the room chattered on in dull, monotonous voices. Lena stifled a yawn, and stirred her drink. “This place is lame.”
“I know,” Jack agreed, drawing his glass of beer toward his lips and taking a sip.
“Oh I don’t know,” Sam piped in, “I kind of like it.”
“That’s because you’re lame,” Jack replied, and Lena laughed softly. “We should’ve gone somewhere else for dinner. It’s our last night in New York.”
“Until next time,” Lena answered. “Provided you’re still unemployed and bored.”
Jack frowned and leaned his elbows on the table. “I’m not unemployed. I’m between projects.”
“Well, if you need a quick paycheck, I’m sure I can find you something,” Lena replied.
“No, thank you.” Jack reached for his beer again. “I want nothing to do with your seedy Hollywood money.”
“Oh, good, then I guess you’re paying for dinner.” Lena picked up the menu. “Mmm, good thing I’m starved.”
Jack smiled. “I’m here merely as a favor to you, Smarty Pants, and you know it.”
“And I appreciate it.” Lena turned serious for a moment. “I don’t know what I’d do without you sometimes.”
“Oh, gag,” Sam said. “It’s no wonder people keep asking me when you two are tying the knot. You’re nauseating.”
“I love you so much Jack.”
“And I love you, Lena. My heart beats–“
“I beg you to stop. For the sake of my appetite.”
Lena smiled to herself. “So, Jack, are you going to call her?”
“And the cryptic use of pronouns was lost on him,” Jack said, by way of an answer.
Sam leaned forward. “Call who?”
“Jack got a girl’s number today,” Lena revealed. She so enjoyed watching Jack squirm. “He seems to have a thing for brunette.”
Jack’s eyes widened in horror, and he glanced nervously at Sam, who tucked a strand of brown hair behind her ear.
I’m so going to pay for that, Lena mused, but she didn’t care. It was entirely too entertaining. “So,” she said, casually, “are you going to call her?”
“I wasn’t planning to,” he said, while his eyes tossed daggers in her direction.
Lena shook her head. “I’ll never understand you. Why bother getting her number if you have no intention of calling it?”
“What’s the point of calling her when I’m leaving tomorrow?”
“To say, ‘Hey, I’m just calling so you don’t think I’m an asshole.’”
“Oh yeah, that’s charming.” Jack shook his head.
Lena shrugged. “I’m just saying if it were me, I’d want you to call. Sam, wouldn’t you want him to call?”
“See, she’d want you to call.”
Jack rolled his eyes and reached into his back pocket. A second later, he produced the card with the number in question. He placed it in front of Lena. “If you care so much, you call her.”
“Now that I’d like to see,” Sam stated.
Lena glanced at the card, then up at Jack and Sam. They were both watching her expectantly.
After a moment of consideration, she reached for her cell phone.
“... and then he slammed the door,” Kara concluded. She licked the ice cream off the spoon and shook her head. “He’s so infuriating sometimes.”
Lucy nodded, reaching across the table to dip her own spoon into the tub of Cherry Garcia. “Well, I, for one, am glad he’s not going with us tomorrow. There’s only so much of Mike I can take before wanting to poke my eyes out with a rusty fork.”
“That paints a lovely image, thanks.”
“Speaking of painting--”
“No, I didn’t,” Kara answered before the full question was finished. “I haven’t painted a thing in two weeks.”
“I maintain it’s sexual frustration.”
“So, how’s the paper coming? Did you finish?”
“I’m sitting here eating ice cream and whining about my boyfriend. Of course I haven’t finished. I got as far as--” The telephone interrupted the rest of her statement. “Ugh, I’ll get it. I’m sure it’s Mike, calling to yell some more.” She reached for the receiver, while simultaneously licking ice cream from the side of her mouth and standing. If she was going to get into another fight, she needed space to move around. “If you’re calling to continue the fight, Mike, don’t bother,” she began, and Lucy instantly gave her the thumbs up.
“And before you say anything,” she continued, spurred on by Lucy’s support, “I think it’s really shitty of you to get mad at me because my sister chose not to include you in her personal affairs. Sometimes, you really are a spoiled little brat, you know? And I’m getting tired of being your little lapdog. I’m sorry, if Alex isn’t as in love with you as the rest of my family is, but I can’t do anything about it. And if you think I’m just going to sit here and feel guilty because my family doesn’t include you in every little event, then you’re sadly mistaken. So, the next words out of your mouth better be, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Silence greeted her, save for a lot of background noise.
“Mike?” Kara pressed.
“Uh, I’m sorry,” said the female voice. “Wrong number.”
Kara lowered the receiver from her ear and closed her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Lucy asked. “Kara?”
“It, uh, wasn’t Mike,” she answered after a second.
Lucy dissolved into uncontrollable laughter.
Lena placed the cell phone back on the table and regarded her companions. “Sorry, Jack, looks like she’s already cheating on you.”
“But you didn’t say anything,” Sam stated.
“Believe me, I didn’t have to.” Lena smiled. “Think she was expecting someone else. A male someone.”
Jack crossed his arms. “Guess she moves on fast. And here I thought I was the player.”
“All the world’s a stage...” Lena replied.