1.1 Afternoon. Erik and Annie in a rental car.
As they leave the interstate for the main highway, Annie can’t get over the fields of tall grass. She’s never been to California and never expected to see anything so natural and untamed just south of L.A. It almost reminds her of Kansas, she says, except the fields are more like a swollen prairie, undulating as she and Erik drive towards Laguna Canyon.
The fields fan out before them like an amphitheater, the road an aisle up the middle, leading into a canyon and then through to Laguna Beach where Erik’s cousin Walter has a house and a guestroom waiting for them. Everything is five minutes from the house, Walter has said, the beach, shops, restaurants—plenty for Annie to do while Erik is at his conference. And though Erik hasn’t been to the conference in three years, missing even the one in Hawaii, this year it’s just a few miles from where Walter now lives. Erik will be the first in the family to see how things are really going out on the coast, the first to know if the phone calls and emails are true, that Walter, finally, is as happy as he says he is.
Five minutes down the road, the birch trees sprinkled about the fields begin grouping, inching closer to the road and clustering alongside it until the view of the hills is obstructed. A street sign suggests headlights, day or night, and the swelling hills draw closer to the road, rising until they’ve turned into canyon walls and the light grows shady, despite it being mid-afternoon. It stays this way for twenty minutes until with a sudden flourish the canyon walls open like curtains, giving way to red-tiled roofs, stucco walls, and the Pacific Ocean, shining and stirring like an audience on opening night.
It reminds Annie of Greece, though she’s never been, and she ticks off the names of bistros, clothiers, and galleries as they drive along the coast highway. Erik takes it all in at glances, doing his best to show Annie he’s listening and not the least bit distracted.
1.2 The same afternoon. Erik and Annie arrive at Walter’s house.
Walter’s house sits at the end of a block on a hill, a wood-sided cottage blending in with the thick brush and trees framing it, slipping into the hillside like the last piece of a puzzle. None of the houses in the neighborhood appear lavish or overdone, yet they’re all manicured, tidy, perhaps too perfect.
Annie can’t wait to meet Walter. She’s heard so much about him from Erik, how proud everyone in the family is of his career and independence—things they never expected of the boy who was forever in Erik’s shadow. They still worry for him though, being so far away, having no family around and closing in on forty and still no one special in his life.
Annie is up the walkway and almost to the door before Erik’s pulled the luggage from the trunk. A man with thick black hair and a suit tailored to fit the body of an athlete opens the front door and Annie stops just short of handshake distance.
“You must be Annie,” the man says with a hint of an accent, maybe Central or South American. “And Erik?” his voice carries over to the car without a yell.
Erik comes up the walkway, a suitcase in each hand, a smaller bag over his shoulder.
“I’m Junot,” he says, slipping Annie’s little bag from her with the deftness of a pick-pocket. “Wedge had to get over to the theater for an emergency.”
Junot motions them into the house like an usher, relieving Erik of a suitcase as he passes.
“Walter had an emergency?” Erik says.
Junot closes the front door behind them, rolling his eyes as if they are all in on the same joke. “Somebody broke a lamp on set, so he’s out scouring antique stores for the perfect replacement. Who’s going to notice one little lamp, right?” He glides across the living room tiles, leaving the bags by the hallway and leading Annie and Erik into the kitchen and breakfast nook. He hands Annie a key and a scrap of paper. “This is the spare and Wedge’s cell number. I’m sorry I can’t stay for a bit, but I need to get back to work.”
Annie is all smiles. “Are you in the play?”
Junot shakes his head, “No, not much of a call for brown boys in Tea & Sympathy.” He pulls on his suit jacket with both hands, pressing it to dry-cleaned perfection. “But Night of the Iguana is up next, and I’m perfect for that.”
“Exciting,” Annie says.
Erik takes the cell number from Annie. “So where do you work?”
“One of the galleries down the hill. Just part-time.”
Erik nods to Junot’s suit. “Armani?”
“No wonder actors starve.”
“They would at these galleries,” Junot says. “Too many weekenders window-shopping.” He glances at his watch before stepping over to Annie and taking her hand. “If I am from Guatemala, no matter what I say about art, it is nothing. But,” his voice rises into an Italian accent, “I say the same things with this Italian accent, and maybe you buy, eh? I throw in words like Renaissance, fresco, and,” he enunciates each word with his free hand, “the brush strokes of an angel’s wings. Si signorina, suddenly you are excited about my expertise, yes?” He lightly kisses Annie’s hand and lets it drop. “Italiano is the language of art.”
Annie laughs and claps her hands together.
Junot takes a quick, polite bow as he backs out of the kitchen. “We’ve got dinner reservations at eight. Dress to impress.”
Erik is tightlipped until the swish of the front door announces Junot’s exit. “That was quite a performance.”
“The accent was perfect,” Annie says, a smile still upon her face. “He’s wonderful.”
1.3 Late afternoon. Erik and Annie on a couch in Walter’s living room.
Erik has told Annie what it was like for Walter growing up. They were in the same year at St. Benedict’s in Kansas City, but while Erik was Mr. Everything—good grades, varsity football and baseball, constant stream of girlfriends despite the fact it was an all-boys school—Walter was, at best, Mr. Everything’s quiet cousin, at worst, Mr. Everything’s balding cousin.
“There,” Erik shows Annie in a family photo in the living room.
“My gosh,” Annie says. “He looks like he could be your older brother.”
“Yeah, he put on some weight junior year when I got him to go out for football and it never went away. But then I could get him to more parties and things since he was on the team.”
“You really looked out for him, didn’t you?” Annie squeezes Erik’s arm and leans into his shoulder, even bigger and stronger now than when he was leading his high school team to a league title and run to the quarterfinals in the state playoffs. “I can’t believe he didn’t follow you to Mizzou.”
Walter, it turned out, didn’t go anywhere at first. With Erik at the University of Missouri—first to study journalism, then English, then Business when he realized he’d need a job after graduation—Walter spent a year at a community college. And when Erik came home that first winter break with stories about football games and his fraternity, girls from St. Louis, classrooms the size of theaters, Walter said only that a classmate had talked him into auditioning for a play about some aging athlete who doesn’t really know who he is.
“He gets the lead in this community college production of The Man from Clare,” Erik tells Annie, more details than she’s heard before, “and suddenly he’s excited about something. He transfers to Notre Dame, goes into debt big time, and never gets another lead.”
“Oh no,” she says.
“Yeah,” Erik says, “but he made a few friends and went off to Chicago with one after graduation.” She knows this part, how Erik was working his first advertising agency job in Kansas City while Walter was squeaking out a living with supporting roles and set design. She doesn’t know Erik sent checks to help Walter get by, but now she understands why Walter is the absent cousin, the only member of the family she hasn’t met in the ten months and three major holidays she’s dated Erik. He’s not the workaholic with the great set design job that the family brags about.
“Why didn’t you tell me Walter’s gay?” Annie says.
Erik sighs. “I don’t know. I guess because I’m the only one in my family who admits it.”
“They don’t know?”
“I don’t know what they know. They’ve been saying for years that he’s put his career first, and now they’re saying it’s that he’s renting a room to this struggling actor who can show him around until he meets someone special.”
“But Junot is the someone special, isn’t he?”
“I think so,” Erik says.
“I can see why.” Annie rises from the couch.
“You don’t think he’s a little young for a man closing in on forty?”
She walks around the backside of the couch and buries her fingers is Erik’s hair, still thick, yet to produce a single gray. “Do you think I’m a little young for a forty year-old man?”
“Thirty-nine,” Erik says and nothing more. He wants to say it’s different because he doesn’t look forty, that despite the reports of Walter’s newfound dieting, and exercising, there’s only so much you can do in a year or so. But he edits all of that out, doesn’t even consider bringing up the newest material working its ways into the drama, that Junot is awfully young, awfully good looking, and awfully confident to be with someone like Walter.
Annie kisses Erik soft on the forehead. “I’m going to unpack.”
“Okay,” he says. “I should get some work done for the conference.”
Erik begins scribbling some lines for the “Love and the Landscape” workshop he’ll be attending in the morning. He’d left advertising after a few years and started writing greeting cards. No more stiff-faced, local actor saying, Buy this. Call now. Come on down. Now it was meaningful moments: a couple on a beach, palm trees and crystal blue water in the background. “Your love warms my days…” [Open to the same beach, sunset, the couple wrapped in a blanket and sitting by a fire] “And makes my nights hot.”
At thirty-five, as Walter moved to California where the money was better and his set designs would see an even larger audience, Erik made an even bigger switch, to Hallmark. Just after making senior writer, he met Annie, a friend of a friend who said she was nice, fun, cute, and loyal to the company who hired her right out of college. It sounded like she’d just been waiting for him to find her.
A jiggling of keys in the door announces Walter’s entrance. Annie comes down the hallway quickly and meets him on the entryway tiles. But this isn’t the Walter she’s seen in photos. He’s wearing a leather satchel over one shoulder and his shirt isn’t girdling a belly, just a subtle curve. There’s even less hair than she expected because it’s shaved short and tight with a smart goatee pulling her gaze downward, making her notice for the first time that Walter has the same, cool blue eyes as Erik.
Erik is up off the couch, “There he is,” and in two strides hits his mark, a hug for Walter.
They step back from each other, smiles all around, and Walter says, “Sorry I wasn’t here.”
“Not a problem.” Erik steps back and turns. “Walter, this is Annie.”
Walter folds his arms as though she’s walked in for an audition. “You are more gorgeous than Erik said.”
Annie puts her hand out for a shake but Walter steps past the formality for a big hug and she squeezes in like they’re old friends. “It’s so nice to meet you, Wedge.”
Walter releases her, mouth opening then drawing up into a smile.
“Yeah,” Erik says. “What’s with that?”
Walter leads them to the couch. “Just a nickname.”
“Since I started working down here.” He sets his satchel down on a chair and leans on the arm.
“I thought you were the set designer.”
“I am. But it’s a small company, so when a production is short on people I’m man number three or store clerk. Whatever they need. Now they say I’m like that guy who showed up in the early Star Wars movies; the pilot who never gets more than a line or two.”
“Oh, I think I remember that guy,” Annie says.
“Wedge,” Erik says. “His name is Wedge.”
Walter smiles. “Junot’s the one who started calling me that. Now everyone does.”
“That’s wonderful,” Annie says.
“I don’t know, Erik says. “You’re still Walter to me.”
1.4 Early evening, Walter and Erik, showered and changed, sitting at the kitchen table and sharing a bottle of wine. Annie is down the hall in the shower.
Walter’s house could be a set design. Every room has a theme and no detail has gone unnoticed. Pillows look tossed yet somehow arranged. They pick up colors in the throw rugs and the curtains like they were bought in several different places, years apart, yet have always gone together. Light switches capture the era of the furniture in the rest of the room. Even the towels he gives Annie for her shower are selected based on the bathroom she’ll be using.
Erik expected this of Walter’s home, not of Walter himself. For more than a decade in Chicago, Walter never dressed like a thespian, or an artiste, or even a gay set designer, just a set designer—jeans, white sneakers and a gray T-shirt, all suitable for tearing down worlds and creating new ones. Now he’s wardrobed in cargo pants, urban assault boots and a ribbed henley, all looking too nice for work yet somehow perfect for it. Casual yet sharp (it could go either way), and Erik cannot stop staring. “Look at you,” he says and sips his wine. “You’re totally West Coast now.”
“Look at you,” Walter says. “You still look twenty-five.”
“So does Junot.”
Walter brings the wine glass to his mouth for a beat, mock embarrassment. “He’s isn’t much past that.”
“And that’s working out?”
Walter extends his arms, ta-daaaa. “Do I look happy?”
“You look like somebody else is dressing you.”
Erik smiles and shakes his head. “I didn’t ask for the details.”
They sit quietly, more sips of wine, then Erik says, “How long did you two go out before moving in together?”
“In theater time, we dated from dress rehearsals through the run of the show, an eternity.”
“Is that when he asked?” Erik says, “When the show was almost over?”
“I asked him,” Walter says, “the night of the wrap party.”
“You asked him,” Erik confirms and Walter nods. “So what was that in real time?”
Walter hides his smile again with the wine glass. “About six weeks. The show was a bomb.”
“Jeez, Walter. Don’t you think that’s too fast?”
Walter glances toward the hall. “How long have you been dating Annie?”
“I don’t know, almost a year.”
“And she’s what, twenty-eight?”
“Twenty-nine,” Erik says. “But we’re not living together.”
“Exactly. What are you waiting for? And don’t you dare bring the Pope into this unless you’re going to tell me she’s a virgin too.”
Erik listens for any sound, making sure Annie isn’t going to surprise them. “It’s not that. I’m still learning who she is. Honestly, how well do—”
Walter holds his hand up like a crossing guard, then points to the front door. An instant later keys jiggle and Junot steps through the entryway.
Walter whispers, “I know the sound of his shoes on the steps.” He bites his bottom lip, more mock embarrassment, and puts an end to the potential scene Erik is scripting.
Junot walks into the kitchen, a kiss for Walter, and gets a wine glass out for himself. Erik pours and Junot takes a sip without sitting.
“How was the gallery?” Walter says.
“Typical,” Junot says. “I just need to go scrape some of the bullshit off me and I’ll be ready to go. Two minutes.”
Annie steps into the kitchen wearing a cocktail dress Erik has never seen. It’s clingy and sparkling and Junot sweeps his hand up and down in the air, “I see what’s going on here.” He hands Annie the wine glass and steps around her. “Those breasts may distract boys, but I’ve got a double-breasted suit that commands attention,” he says, dramatically throwing his head to where Walter and Erik stand, “from men.”
Annie folds her arms, steps back, happy to play along. “Maybe you should go put that on.”
“P-lease,” Junot says and walks over to Walter. “It already worked once. I don’t want to blind the poor man.” He kisses Walter on top of the head, steps over to Annie and kisses her on the cheek, then claps his hands together in quick succession, “Two minutes everyone.”
1.5 Night. An upscale restaurant on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Erik and Annie on one side of a table, Junot and Walter on the other.
Because Junot knows the maitre de, they’re seated by an enormous window, the lights of the bending coastline in one corner and the darkness of the Pacific filling the rest of the picture.
“He knows everybody in town,” Walter brags as the waiter delivers calamari, complements of the chef, whom Junot also knows.
Junot spoons some calamari onto Walter’s plate. “So, this couple was in the gallery today and when they heard me talking in my accent they came right over to say hello. In Italian!”
Annie gasps, louder than she means to, and covers her mouth.
“I know,” Junot says. He places his elbows on the table and his chin on his hands. “I told them in a low voice that my boss would only let me speak English at work. ‘Si,’ they understood. ‘Yes. Sorry.’ Then they started asking me, in English, where was I from, the south? Maybe Sicily?”
“Oh my gosh,” Annie says. “Did you get caught?”
Junot wags a finger at Annie. “Oh no. I told them my mother was Italian but my father was Spanish and that’s why my accent is so bastardized.”
Erik leans back from his plate. “They believed that?”
“Not only did they believe it, they said, ‘Yes, there’s a hint of Catalan in your speech.’”
Annie laughs in a burst and Walter smiles, first to Junot, then to Erik. “He’s got a story like this almost every day.”
“I’ll bet,” Erik says.
Walter leans into Junot’s ear and suddenly Junot makes a show of lifting his elbows from the table. “I’m a mess without this man,” he says, letting one hand fall to his lap, the other to Walter’s.
“You guys are sweet,” Annie says a places a hand on Erik’s lap.
“Oh, honey,” Junot says. “Don’t let the sugar fool you. There’s plenty of spice here.”
Annie and Junot laugh together and Walter smiles. Erik sips his wine.
Dinner goes well, a chorus of delightful, uneventful moments, and the two couples walk to a pub. Along the way, Walter points out the natural foods store where they go for groceries and the trail along the cliffs he discovered when Junot got him to exchange cigarettes for stress-relieving walks. The walks turned into jogs and Walter jokes that he’s now more addicted to endorphins than he ever was to nicotine.
They squeeze into the crowded pub but there’s a reserved table free for people who know the doorman and some of the servers; people like Junot. Annie and Junot order cocktails. Walter orders a low-carb beer and has Erik take a sip, to prove it really does have flavor, though Erik still opts for a local microbrew.
A band steps onto a tiny stage in the corner and they look like nothing Erik and Annie have ever seen: a sun-glassed drummer in a bowling shirt; an upright bass player with a white dinner jacket; a lead guitarist, the only girl, in a miniskirt and basketball jersey; and a lead singer wearing suede shoes and silk pajamas.
“Ohhhhh,” Junot says, “The Busstop Hurricanes. I know these guys.”
“Of course you do,” Erik says.
Junot tells Erik and Annie they’re a punk, funk, rock-a-billy, lounge act. “The love child of Julio Iglesias and Johnny Rotten.” Somehow the look, and then the sound, all blend together. All work. Junot grabs Annie’s hand and turns to Erik. “We must dance.”
Walter stands up.
Erik does not. “I’ll keep our table,” he says.
“No,” Annie says. “Come dance.”
Erik forces a smile. “Someone needs to watch the drinks. You go. It’s okay.”
And so Junot, Annie, and Walter dance for several songs while Erik sits, watching Junot sneak kisses to Walter, and when Annie catches Junot in the act, he sneaks one to her cheek, then pretends to gag. The three of them dance and laugh and check in after nearly every song to sip their drinks and offer to switch with Erik. He turns them down each time.
Not until many drinks later, midway through the band’s last set, are they out the door and heading back up the hill, the music fading behind them as they walk, the light falling in shades to the pleasant darkness of residential streets.
1.6 Late night. Walter, Junot, Erik, and Annie in the living room of Walter’s house.
Moments after the front door shuts, Annie announces she’s still on Kansas City time and needs to get to bed. Walter kisses her cheek, then says something about needing to be up early for Saturday morning children’s theater. Junot kisses him lightly on the lips, says he’s staying up a little longer and makes his way into the living room as Walter heads down the hallway. Erik follows Junot.
Junot flips on the television. “I can’t possibly sleep until I know if the Dodgers beat the Giants.”
“That’s a great rivalry,” Erik says.
Junot sits down on the couch, pats the cushion next to him. “Seat for one. No waiting.”
Soon the house is quiet. The lights in the master and guest bedrooms are off and in the glow of sports highlights, Junot tells Erik, “In high school theater, I used to recite the Dodgers’ stats to calm down right before going on stage. And during baseball season, I’d stand in the batter’s box running my lines to stay calm at the plate.”
“Did it work?” Erik says.
“Nobody calls you a theater fag when you’re hitting three-fifty.”
Erik acts interested in everything Junot has to say. “What else?” he says as Junot talks about high school dances, dropping out of college when he got a part in a small play in Burbank and, eventually, finding his way to the Laguna Playhouse where he met Walter. It all sounds perfect, not a missed line anywhere, and they say their goodnights after the Dodger/Giant highlights—Junot grinning with the evidence of a convincing win, Erik wondering what exactly Junot wants from Walter and how long before there’s the drama of him leaving for someone younger, wealthier, or more powerful.
Erik slips into bed next to Annie. She wakes and begins rubbing his back. “You didn’t introduce me as your girlfriend,” she says in the dark.
“Yeah I did.”
“No, you didn’t. Just, ‘This is Annie.’”
Erik can’t remember. “Well, either way Walter knows exactly who you are.”
She drapes an arm over him and squeezes. “I know. I just wish you’d be better about things like that.”
2.1 The next day, late afternoon. Erik in the rental car.
The conference had gone much better than expected—compliments from two different reps on the line of irreverent Graduation Cards Erik wrote for and managed. He felt so pleased that when he received another compliment on the new line of Stirring Blank Cards, an idea he had to fight so hard for at first, he smiled and agreed, Yes, they are brilliant in their simplicity.
Erik felt rejuvenated; greeting cards really mattered. People would be astounded if they had any idea how many cards the industry sells in a year, and Erik honestly liked working for Hallmark, despite how big and impersonal other writers and representatives at the conference tried to portray it. He could write cards for all occasions. All it took that first year with the company was getting past the fact that he was expressing feelings for a person he didn’t know, from a person that wasn’t him. Then, it was just a matter of whether he wanted to be witty or warm.
As Erik exits the freeway, afternoon is bowing to evening and he turns on the headlights long before reaching the sign that suggests it. The canyon is brilliant light and color at the top but alternating shadow and blinding sunset down on the road. At first, he thinks it’s the drive that’s making him anxious. Then he catches himself thinking about the return to Walter’s house, to putting up with Junot’s act and finding a way to make him bare his soul. It will wound Walter, Erik knows that, but aren’t such dramas necessary to avoid tragedies?
He slips on his sunglasses, part of the conference gift pack, and drives a little faster than he thinks is safe.
2.2 Early evening. Junot and Walter on the couch in the living room, looking at a photo album. Annie lying on the floor, looking at a different photo album.
Erik comes through the front door to photo albums and half empty martini glasses in everyone’s hands. Walter and Junot say hello, in unison, and Annie gets to her knees to show Erik a photo of himself from high school football—tight pants and arms flexed as he grips a ball. “These pictures are wonderful, sweetie. Why don’t you have things like this?”
Erik sets his conference tote bag down on the coffee table. “I do.”
“You’ve never shown them to me.”
Junot holds up the album Walter’s been guiding him through. “Here’s your reason.”
It’s a cast party at Notre Dame, one Erik had been in town for when Walter was a senior. It was the year a freshman from who-knows-where, Jefferson James Riley, got every single lead. And there’s Erik, sitting on the arm of a couch, talking to the young Mr. Riley with his golden brown hair in perfect, tight curls and his slender body accented, oddly yet favorably, by strong, sinewy shoulders that can be seen because of the hip-for-that-year tank-top and jeans combination.
“Oh, young Mr. Riley,” Walter says. “He didn’t have a girlfriend or a boyfriend all year. Nobody could figure it out, and everyone was afraid to try. Except Erik.”
“All I did was sit down next to him and try to get the answer everyone wanted.” Erik takes the album from Junot. “Walter had a huge crush on him.”
Annie moves closer to study the photo: Erik sitting at an angle on the arm of the couch, a slightly blurred Jefferson James Riley completely turned and facing Erik, and their faces close.
YOUNG MR. RILEY. (Friendly.) So who do you know here?
ERIK. My cousin, Walter. Do you know him?
YOUNG MR. RILEY. Everyone knows Barbara.
YOUNG MR. RILEY. I guess he played a couple of old women last year, the nurse in Romeo & Juliette and something else. People started calling him Barbara, I think for Barbara Walters.
ERIK. Right. (Pauses.) So what’s your story?
YOUNG MR. RILEY. (Uncomfortably.) Me? I don’t have a story.
ERIK. No one special?
YOUNG MR. RILEY. You mean a girlfriend?
ERIK. (Slides down onto the couch.) I mean someone special.
YOUNG MR. RILEY. I’m not gay, if that’s what you’re thinking.
ERIK. (Parental.) Look, it doesn’t matter either way. But you don’t need to lie.
YOUNG MR. RILEY. (Unconvincing.) I’m not lying.
ERIK. Well, I’m not leaving your side tonight until we get to the truth.
Junot stands to make Erik a drink. “I thought you were the straight cousin.”
Walter slides across the couch, closer to the photo album. “If this picture had been a fraction of a second later you’d see Erik shoving poor, young Mr. Riley on to the floor.”
“You attacked him?” Annie says
“I didn’t attack him,” Erik says. “I overreacted a little, but the guy wouldn’t even let me apologize. He was up and out the door before I could do anything.”
Annie touches Erik’s arm. “How come you never told me about this?”
Erik shuts the album and hands it to Walter. “What’s to tell? I was trying to help out Walter.”
“You know,” Walter says, “he dropped out of school after that.”
Junot returns and hands a martini to Erik. “You’re a heartbreaker.”
“That’s not my fault,” Erik says. “I was just trying to get him to be honest with himself. I didn’t think he’d try to kiss me. He should have known I was straight.”
Junot smiles. “Maybe it wasn’t obvious.”
Erik stands and picks up his tote bag. “Well, if he’d been honest with himself right away he’d have known people a little better.” The room stays quiet and Erik steps to the hallway. “I’ve got some notes to make before dinner,” he says, then exits.
2.3 Night. A restaurant on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Erik and Annie on one side of a table, Junot and Walter on the other.
An encore of sorts: dinner in a nice restaurant, Mexican this time, overlooking the Pacific. Again, Junot knows the maitre de and they are seated by a window with a view of the ocean, dark except for a smattering of lights reflecting off the water, small craft and sailboats anchored offshore.
Annie is not speaking to Erik beyond asking for the salsa or more chips. Erik finds this ridiculous, but he’s in no mood to address a subplot when this is their last night in town. Tomorrow is a half day at the conference, then right to the airport. Any frank talk he will have with Walter must be tonight.
Junot, unable to stand the quiet, launches into a soliloquy about waiters: how they’re forever waiting for the thing they really want, waiting for you to finish so they can get to the party, to their lovers, to bed for their callback the next day. “But most of all,” he says, grabbing Walter’s hand while looking at Annie, “they’re just thinking about that big tip poking around in your pocket.”
Annie almost laughs and Junot lets his smile linger until she smiles back and begins to allow herself some fun.
The two couples stroll along a path on the cliffs after dinner. Junot keeps pulling Walter ahead, Annie and Erik coming around the corner a moment later to catch them mid-kiss or post caress, then Junot and Walter laughing and pulling further ahead.
At the gazebo where Annie and Erik expect to catch up with Junot and Walter, they find only a trailhead leading down the cliffs to the beach. Annie leans over the railing, looking out at the water. She points to some concentrated groups of lights shimmering miles offshore to the north. “Are those yachts?”
Erik joins her at the railing. “They’re oil rigs.”
“Oh,” she says and falls silent for a moment. “Wedge and Junot look really happy.”
“Yeah, that’s quite a performance Junot’s putting on.”
Annie turns to him. “What does that mean?”
“It means you’d have to be blind not to see what’s going on here.”
“That they’re in love?”
Erik turns to Annie, excited to confide in her, maybe get her help. “It’s a sham. Look at Junot, pulling Walter around like we’re high school kids on some double-date. He’s just earning his keep.”
Annie folds her arms. “So what’s it mean when you and I walk along a path overlooking the ocean, all the stars are out, and the waves are drowning out the sound of the cars back up on the road, and we’ve been alone for ten minutes and you haven’t tried to kiss me?”
“You’ve been mad at me,” Erik says. “I didn’t think you wanted me to kiss you.”
“How do you know? You haven’t tried.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I’ve been distracted by this whole thing with my cousin.”
“What thing?” Annie reaches for his hands, pulling them from his sides to hers. “There’s no thing.”
“Annie?” He pulls one hand free and pushes it out toward the beach below. “It’s right in front of us. Are you blind?”
“Are you?” she says.
Erik says nothing for a beat, then two.
“Erik,” she says, her voice deeper and consoling, her body now pressing into his. “Why did you bring me here?”
Annie’s eyes find Erik’s and he can feel the spotlight, can feel that blowing his line here will ruin everything. “I trust you more than anyone in the world,” he says and her eyes swallow this in, gently, urge him on. “I brought you here because you’re the only person in the world who could help me with this.”
Annie’s lips, slightly parted for the Yes or the kiss she was anticipating, purse. “With what?”
“What do you think we should do?” Erik says. “I don’t want Walter to get hurt.”
She lets her hand drop from Erik’s. “The first time you take me to see the ocean and it’s to break up your cousin’s relationship? That’s what this is?”
“No,” he says and searches to get her hands back. “I wanted it to be fun too—”
“Fun?” she says and steps away. “You’re the only one managing not to have fun.”
“Well, this kind of stuff isn’t supposed to be fun.”
“No,” Annie says and starts down the path to the beach. “I guess it’s not.”
Walter and Junot are wading through the water, pant legs rolled up, their shoes on a rock. The beach doesn’t offer much choice, only a few feet of rocks and sand from the cliff to the sea. Annie gives in immediately, Walter and Junot welcoming her to the water with smiles and little splashes.
“Come on, Erik!” Walter shouts, one arm around Junot, the other around Annie.
Erik steps atop a rock. “I’ll watch the shoes.”
“Let them float away,” Junot shouts. “We’ll go shopping on the walk home!”
Erik shakes his head in the dark. “I’ll be lifeguard, then.”
“He’s not coming,” Annie says. A swell swallows up her leg, higher than she expected and she screams, a happy surprise that makes Walter and Junot laugh.
Erik remains onshore, watching the three of them threaten to push or splash each other, though each confrontation ends in a short chase and a bear hug.
With wet legs and spotted shirts, they go to jazz night at the Laguna Hotel. Erik works his way through several pints of beer listening as Junot fills Annie’s ear with stories of semi-famous actors she never knew were gay. Later, as Walter and Annie dance, Junot launches into another soliloquy, this one about Walter’s work ethic. “Was he like this in high school?” Junot says and touches Erik’s shoulder. “I want to know everything.”
Erik obliges, hoping the facts of a self-conscious, overweight teen will make Walter less attractive. “Oh, he must have been so sweet and sad,” Junot says. “I don’t know if I could have made it if my parents denied what I am.” Junot looks out to the dance floor, Walter stepping into the lights on cue. “He inspires me.”
2.4 Late night. Walter, Junot, Erik, and Annie arrive in the living room of Walter’s house.
Annie has not spoken to Erik for nearly an hour and even now her general announcement about going to bed is directed to Walter and Junot.
“It’s our last night,” Erik says. “Don’t you want to stay up a little longer?”
“You’re on your own, sport. I’m done.”
Walter says he’ll make a big, farm breakfast tomorrow before they hit the road, but with egg whites and bran muffins.
Junot hugs Annie goodnight, whispering loudly, “Egg whites and bran. That’s so gay.”
“Hey,” Walter says as he steps over and steals Annie for his goodnight hug. “You’re the one who started me on that.”
“I know,” Junot says. “I’m so gay.”
Walter smiles, says goodnight to Erik and follows Annie down the hall.
Junot flips on the television to a football game. “Look at this, Erik. This game is going on right now.”
Erik glances at his watch. “But it’s after midnight.”
“Not in Hawaii,” Junot says. “And you just got to love the name of that team.”
Erik searches his memory for a moment, Junot nodding the whole time until Erik remembers, “The Rainbow Warriors?”
They watch the last quarter of the game drinking tequila sunrises, their conversation limited to the action on the field. As the game ends, Erik makes one last drink and Junot, politely, says “Okay, but we’ll be sorry in the morning.”
They watch a highlight show of all the day’s games, talking about teams and rankings, Junot doing imitations of his favorite announcers. They look at other photo albums so Erik can share more of Walter’s awkward high school and college moments and have pictures to prove it, the junior prom date Erik arranged for him because the girl was a field hockey player and needed a cover story too; the Halloween party where Walter dressed in lederhosen; and the last time Walter came home for Christmas, his last year in Chicago when he was a hot set designer whose best friends were props and pizza.
When one of the television highlights shows a kid from Texas A&M blowing out his knee, Erik rolls up his pant leg to show Junot several scars across his kneecap. “This is what I got for walking onto the football team at Mizzou.” He kneads the skin back and forth. “Total reconstruction.”
“Ouch,” Junot says and turns his attention back to the television.
Erik lifts his hand away, offering the knee. “You can feel the pins.”
Junot looks over to Erik. “That’s okay. It weirds me out.”
“It’s worth it,” Erik says, taking Junot’s hand and pulling it over, squeezing his fingers to a point and pressing down. “Feel that?”
“Yes,” Junot says.
ERIK. There’s another. (He lifts JUNOT’S hand and places it on his thigh.) Torn quad.
JUNOT. (Pulls his hand away.) Okay. I get the idea.
ERIK. Do you?
JUNOT. (Looks back toward the dark hallway.) Yes.
ERIK. (Lets his hand fall to JUNOT’S thigh.) So, what do you think?
JUNOT. (Brushes ERIK’S hand away. Stands up.) I think we’re pretty drunk. I’m going to bed.
ERIK. It’s okay.
JUNOT. (Tosses the remote control to Erik.) I don’t know exactly what you’re thinking, but I’m not going to let you cause a scene.
ERIK. (Whispers.) I’m not trying to cause a scene.
“Fine,” Junot says. “Whatever you’re doing, just stop it.”
ERIK. (Stands and draws close to JUNOT). You misunderstood. I’m not gay.
“I know that,” Junot says, not caring to whisper. “You’re jealous.”
Erik’s face drops. “I’m jealous? Jealous of what?”
“Of Wedge. Erik forces a mock laugh, but Junot won’t hear it. “Just because you can’t figure out how to be happy doesn’t mean you should ruin it for him.”
“I’m not trying to ruin anything,” Erik says, “except your plans.”
Junot says, “Because Wedge loves you so much, I’ll try not to let him find out about this.” He leaves the living room and disappears into the darkness of the hallway.
Erik’s knees soften until he’s on the couch. For the first time all evening, he feels drunk, but even with his eyes closed the room will not spin. This memory will still be with him in the morning, he realizes that immediately. He already knows it will play over and over in his mind for a long time, and he’ll never get it to come out right.
3.1 The following morning. Walter and Junot in the living room, reading the newspaper and sipping coffee.
Erik, disheveled, walks into the living room. Junot does not look up from the paper as Walter stands and offers him some coffee.
“Thanks,” Erik says and sits in a chair across the room from Junot.
“Annie left,” Walter says as he steps into the room with a cup. He had seen her make the escape: she offered no details, only that she was taking the car and Erik would have to get a cab. Walter hugged her goodbye and though he would not tell Erik, he knew it was a real and lasting goodbye.
Erik takes the cup from Walter and sips. “Yeah, I figured as much when I woke up and her bags weren’t in the room.”
Walter sits back down on the couch next to Junot. “You’ll work it out,” he says and tosses the sports page to Erik. “She’s a great girl.”
Erik nods and leans back in the chair without picking up the paper. He knows the scores and highlights, knows nothing from last night to now has changed.
Junot has a shift at the gallery, but when Walter offers to drive Erik to the airport he decides to go along for the ride and be a little late. “So you’ll have company on the way back.”
“See why I love him?” Walter says.
“Yeah,” Erik says. “I do.”
They drive through the canyon in silence, Junot watching Erik through the makeup mirror, Erik with eyes closed, knowing by time and the feel of the road when he can open his eyes to the rolling hills and freeway beyond, the canyon behind them.
At the airport, Junot hugs Erik perfunctorily, proclaiming how great it was to meet him, how eager he is to see him again soon, then slides out of the embrace and takes Erik’s bags to the curb quickly, returning in a beat.
“You’ll catch her,” Walter says. “She’s probably sitting by the gate with a story about not getting the early flight even though she tried.”
“Probably,” Erik says, but he knows better. “You should come home for the holidays this year.” He looks at Junot. “Both of you.”
Walter shakes Erik’s hand for one last goodbye. “Maybe.”
“Screw the critics, Wedge. You know when you’re right.”
Wedge opens his eyes wide and Erik nods. It’s all Erik has to offer, though he feels certain he means it.
Sitting in first-class, filled with emotion he cannot begin to completely understand, Erik pulls out his pad, thinking maybe he can capture some of this and use it later. But the words do not come. Even after the first-class curtains are closed and the plane has risen through the clouds, nothing comes. Erik taps his pen on the pad, a blank slate before him, and he starts trying to believe that’s what is best.