"You are better than perfect," he says to me, glancing down at last. "Thanks. But I feel... off," I admit. I did not want to come tonight, that much is clear to us both, but it would have offended Noah's parents for me to beg off at such a late hour.
"That headache again?"
I nod, though it's not just the headache. Over the past few days, there's been a new alienation of my body, a sense of clumsiness, nausea. I think it's because I've been working too hard, leaning over my sketches deep into the night to meet all the many deadlines that wedge into the tiny boxes of my calendar, like rainbow Lincoln Logs, carefully color coded to announce urgency.
Or perhaps it's this very party, the stress of which has infiltrated our normally calm household. I think about how once, when I was young, another kid had spun me around the merry-go-round so hard and viciously that when I got off, I felt my brain would never settle back into my skull the same way.
Noah asks, "Can you make it for just a little bit? Then I'll call you a cab?" As I look at his concerned face, with its even planes, sand-colored hair, and deep blue eyes, I try not to be offended that he doesn't offer to go with me. After all, it's his night.
He kisses me, lightly. "You don't look ill, though."
"I'm wearing your favorite dress."
He runs his hand over my hip, across the ocean-blue silk of my one- shouldered gown, modest yet bold. My hair is twisted into a complicated hairdo I saw online, and it doesn't suit me at all. But Noah tells me it's elegant. Usually, my hair drapes to my waist, swishing a trail in our house.
Tonight, I'm feeling detached from myself. There is a low, pressing
discomfort in my stomach I can't shake, even with the antacid I popped on the way here. Nerves. Just before I left, I had retched in our toilet, but my stomach is empty. My appetite has fled.
I can't help feeling that there's something a little dreamlike about this night. But it's the kind of dream that feels just left of normal, the sort that discombobulates more than a nightmare.
Stop it,' I think. 'This is perfect. Noah is perfect.
Inside, we run into Mitchell first, who gives me an assessing look, measuring me as always against his wife, Tina, who is tall and lovely and dull. She's adjusting the straps of her fire-engine-red gown. It lines up beautifully on her, but she seems uncomfortable in it. The candlelight on the tables around us sparkles, reflecting all the jewels and gold in the room. Someone in the distance laughs, a tinkling Champagne laugh that pulls everyone's eyes to her. It's such a wildly fabulous bunch of people.
"You're gorgeous, honey," Tina says, wrapping her arm around my waist.
"You too," I tell her, feeling my body instinctively draw away from hers.
"How's the drawing going?" Mitchell asks me.
He's fascinated by my illustrating career, having always wanted to be an artist himself, though I often get the impression he's laughing at me for having done something adults are categorically not supposed to do. I haven't a clue what he does for a living.
He continues, "Is it casseroles with faces this time? Dogs wearing snowsuits?"
Editorial assignments aren't always groundbreaking, but they pay well. Currently, I'm working on a spread about a French fragrance house run by a woman in her seventies. It's a late-in-life career pivot for her. I'm supposed to convey dignity and glamour.
At Mitchell's words, there's something stuck between my chest and my throat. A tiny ball of anger.
"I'm considering a new illustration. Maybe a party full of people who are too self-satisfied to relate to anyone outside of their silver-spoon circle?" I answer sweetly, causing Noah to raise his eyebrows in alarm.
"How about that," Mitchell says, his eyes glazed.
"And the girls?" I ask, chastened by his unwillingness to engage. I know it's low of me to trade barbs with him.
Mitchell pulls out his cell phone to show me a video of twins Shiloh and MacKenzie at their last recital, in sequined purple gowns with outrageously big hair bows that peek out from behind their buns like cat ears. They're on a big, spotlighted stage with a dozen other girls, sashaying to "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." At the end of the routine, they jut their hips out, such an adult gesture for such tiny bodies. I don't have to pretend to be delighted. Children are not abundant in my life, but I've always liked the thought of them— anthropologically, as a species with its own customs and rituals. Nothing more ritualistic than six-year-olds cartwheeling across a stage in smudge-proof makeup while their parents wring their hands nervously, calculating all the steps toward international stardom.
I hold the phone to Noah so he can see, but his eyes are elsewhere, scanning the servers to make sure their bow ties are just the right shade of blue, looking to confirm there is no cilantro on the canapés, because Brandon absolutely hates cilantro.
"Sweet kids," Noah says absently.
Mitchell grins. "Always too busy, our man Noah. It's okay. You're excused from perfunctory gushing. Just wait until you have your own—you'll be as boring as the rest of us."
Noah's face freezes into a grin. He reaches for a glass of Champagne. I feel something brushing against my mind at Mitchell's words, like a hot breath, and it's so close I can almost grasp it, but then Noah sweeps me away and I forget again.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Faking Christmas by Kerry Winfrey.