Authors: Kate Stayman-London
Bea insisted she wasn’t nervous to see Ray, but the deep breaths she kept taking (air hissing in through her teeth, then pushed back out past lips pursed in a Lamaze-shaped “ooh”) as she sat in traffic on the 10 told another story. She reassured herself that she was a different person now than the girl who spent all those years obsessed with him, the shy Hollywood agency assistant in love with the most handsome guy in her mailroom class.
How unbearably cliché,
Bea thought of her younger self as she pulled off the highway and into the winding, moneyed streets of Westwood, where quaint Tudor houses that looked airlifted from a Grimm story lined every block. She’d rather have stayed in her hodgepodge neighborhood on the east side of Los Angeles, but her favorite wine shop was here, nearly an hour away in traffic. For her one night with Ray (pretend though she might that it was no big deal), she knew she had to make the trek.
Les Caves was easy to miss with its unobtrusive sign and rough-hewn wooden door, and still easier to ignore when one peered inside briefly to see scattered tables laden with disorganized clusters of bottles. But Bea loved it here—loved speaking her broken French with the shopkeepers, loved delighting in the quirky wines they put aside for her, mouth-searingly dry Meuniers and sharply honeyed Savennières.
!” Paul, who owned the shop with his wife, was pudgy and ebullient. Bea often joked that Paul had turned her into an insufferable wine snob, but he always laughed heartily and corrected her that she should be proud to be a connoisseur.
,” Bea said with a grin.
Et qu’est-ce que tu désires aujourd’hui?
” he asked. “Perhaps something very light, dry fruit and mineral? It is so hot!”
,” Bea agreed—L.A. was experiencing its annual July heat wave, the few days a year when even the desert nights barely dipped below 90, rendering the entire city unlivable. It had been like this, too, the night Ray kissed her. That one perfect, terrible night five years ago, when he was stumbling drunk on the sidewalk in front of Chateau Marmont, his breath stale with cigarettes and whiskey, tears streaming down his face as he told Bea his mom was sick again, maybe terminally this time. He put his arms around Bea’s neck and whispered, “I can’t do this without you.” She replied, “You don’t have to,” not understanding whether he meant as friends or something more.
After all the countless nights of drinking together, sharing hushed secrets and whispered observations, feeling so starved to be physically close to him, clamping down nausea as she watched him flirt and kiss and leave whatever bar they were in with yet another gorgeous aspiring actress/model/singer, finally,
he was looking right at Bea.
It was too hot, and everything was damp, and she knew it was wrong when he leaned in to kiss her—he was too upset, too drunk, too distracted. But she didn’t care, because she had wanted this so much for so long, and she felt like she had somehow managed to wrench her life onto the right track by sheer force of will.
After the kiss, she expected him to say something profound—or something earnest, at the very least—but he just mumbled that he needed to call a car, he had an early flight.
“Oh,” Bea had stammered. “Sure. Of course.”
He flew home to Minnesota the next morning. He was only supposed to be gone for a few days, or maybe a few weeks, but he never came back, except to pack up his things and drive east. He spent the next few months at home with his family, watching his mother die; then he moved to Virginia for law school; after that, it was off to a fancy firm job in New York, where he met his girlfriend, Sarah; he followed her to Atlanta when she won a coveted promotion; that was where they got engaged.
And somehow, Bea still couldn’t believe any of it, as if the last eight years of her life had existed in some kind of stasis. Three years of knowing Ray, dreaming of Ray, yearning for Ray, believing with all her heart that he must feel the same. One night of blissful, agonizing confirmation. Five years of wondering whether any of it had been real.
She’d dated other men in the intervening time, of course, but she never found that same spark—no one so movie-star handsome, so quietly funny, so utterly captivating. Of all the app dates and setups, no one else had that thick, dark hair and those smoldering Brando eyes; no one else could run a finger along her arm and make her entire body feel weak.
And anyway, Bea’s primary focus was on other aspects of her life—career, friends, travel, family—she didn’t mind waiting to find another love as passionate and exciting as what she’d felt for Ray. She was sure one would come eventually. And in the meantime … well, in the meantime … was it really so bad to live in her memories? Her fantasies?
But today wasn’t a memory or a fantasy: Ray was on a plane right now, probably somewhere over the Midwest, hurtling toward Los Angeles, where he was spending one night in Bea’s guest room before catching a train to San Diego the next morning for some kind of anniversary weekend for his fiancée’s parents. Bea and Ray hadn’t seen each other for more than a year, not since a stilted meet-up in a crowded bar (with Sarah in tow, no less) during one of Bea’s whirlwind trips for New York Fashion Week. It had been loud, Bea had been exhausted, Ray had been sour. But tonight could be different—just the two of them, no noise. A chance to rekindle the connection Bea so desperately missed.
“No.” Bea shook her head when Paul produced one of her typical bottles, a crisp twelve-dollar white. “For tonight, I need something special.”
Three hours later, Bea paced the wide, uneven floorboards of her bungalow in Elysian Heights, a rickety little rental perched precariously on a hillside overlooking Elysian Park. The place was filled with creaks and cracks where faucets were rusty and doors weren’t cut quite long enough, but Bea loved it all the more for that; she vastly preferred a homey, colorful aesthetic to anything too modern or tidy—which, to her eye, lacked character.
Now, though, with Ray in a cab just minutes away, she began to see her home through his eyes: not artful but ragged, not welcoming but pitiful. She smoothed down the full skirt of her black corseted sundress (affectionately nicknamed her “slutty goth milkmaid ensemble” because of the off-the-shoulder neckline that showed off her cleavage in Oktoberfest proportion) and wondered if he’d see her the same way.
“This is idiotic,” Bea muttered, stopping in front of her hall mirror to tousle her meticulously mussed waves one more time, her hair nearly as dark as the perfectly smudged kohl eyeliner that rendered her bright blue eyes electric. She sucked in a breath: He was just her friend, just Ray, just visiting. Him coming here didn’t mean anything—just as their kiss, their whole history, all of it, probably never had. It was all in her head, as usual.
Except the second she opened the door and he threw his arms around her, she knew that she was wrong.
“Bea.” He exhaled, dropping his bag on the floor with a thwack so he could fully encircle her with both arms, hugging her tightly against him.
“Hiya, stranger.” Bea beamed up at him, and God he looked the same, straight nose and soft lips and those eyes that drank in every inch of her, his hungry gaze that always made her face flush with heat.
“I missed you.” He gave her a little squeeze, leaning down to kiss her temple gently.
“I’ve been here this whole time,” she retorted, surprising herself with the edge in her voice.
“You’re right.” He took her hand. “I’m an asshole. I should visit more.”
“Well, you’re here now,” Bea said quietly.
“And you’re … happy about that?” He met her eye, not letting her duck the subtext.
“Come on, Ray,” she demurred. “You know I am.”
“So?” He moved his body against hers, giving her a little nudge. “What does a guy have to do to get the ten-cent tour around here?”
“Oh my God, you’ve never been here before. How strange is that?”
“Unbelievably strange.” He grinned. “Stranger than long-form improv in the basement of that chicken place on Sunset.”
“They should have called it longest-night-of-our-lives-form improv,” Bea joked, and Ray laughed appreciatively. “Anyway, this is the living room. Do you like it?”
Ray wandered through the cozy room, perusing the treasures from all Bea’s travels that crowded every available surface—a carved wooden elephant from Siem Reap, a hand-glazed vase from New Orleans, her laminated LACMA membership card. Ray picked up a glass figurine she’d found in Paris, turning it over in his hands.
“You bought this in college, right—at that flea market you loved? You used to keep it on your desk at the agency.”
“Good memory,” Bea said, her voice suddenly mottled with emotion.
“This place is great.” Ray shook his head. “You should see our nightmare condo in Atlanta—everything shiny and new like a perfect little HGTV prison. Kind of a great metaphor when you think about it.”
Bea wasn’t sure what to say to that—or if she was meant to say anything.
“Um, do you want something to drink?” she ventured. “I have some rosé chilling.”
“Sounds amazing.” Ray let his fingers brush against hers, and Bea realized that
was the idiocy—the idea that she had ever been remotely over him.
Their plan was to head to a rooftop party at her friends’ loft downtown, but Ray wanted to shower first. So after their glass of wine, Bea waited on the couch, listening to the water run and dragging her mind forcibly away from visions of Ray’s naked body wrapped in one of the fluffy white towels she’d laid out for him. A shiver went up her spine—or maybe it was just the air conditioning kicking into overdrive.
“I feel like a whole new human,” he remarked as he breezed into the living room.
It was unfair—unholy, even—how good he looked in an easy pair of khaki shorts and a soft white linen button-down. Black hair, damp skin, like James fucking Bond climbing down from a yacht and wading ashore.
“Plane grime,” Bea forced out, her voice an octave higher than normal. “The worst!”
“You sure you want to go to this party?” He plopped down on the couch beside her, his arm casually leaning against hers—they were a little too still, like they’d both noticed the contact but had no idea what to do about it.
“Oh, um,” Bea stumbled, “did you not want to go out?”
Ray shrugged. “I dunno. We could just hang here. If you wanted.”
Was he suggesting—what? Nothing? Anything?
She had to get out of this house. Being here with him was making her paranoid, so desperate for his attention that she was reading imagined prurience into every harmless sentence.
“My friends are expecting us.” She hopped off the couch and grabbed her phone to call a car. “It’ll be fun, I promise.”
“If you can brave the heat, I guess I can too,” Ray groused good-naturedly.
Bea nearly exhaled audibly. He just wanted to avoid the heat! He didn’t want—
She made herself finish the thought.
He didn’t want me.
Well, good. He was engaged to another woman. Nothing could happen, even if he did want her. Which he didn’t, so. That was that.
Bea hit the button to confirm her cab. Their driver would arrive in seven minutes.
The party was just a touch on the wrong side of fun—everyone a little too drunk, a little too hot, quippy comments that otherwise would have made for light banter landing somewhere closer to ornery, tempers running thick and foul, the heat hanging darkly even after the sun went down.
tall drink of water?” Bea’s friend Mark asked with a leer.
“He’s Ray, and he’s straight,” Bea snapped.
“But not narrow.” Ray winked, flirting—as he always did, with everyone, making every person he ever talked to feel special, when the truth was that no one ever was.
“Excuse me, I need another drink.” Bea rolled her eyes and flounced off to refill her glass of punch. Why had she wanted to come to this party? Why had she wanted to see Ray in the first place? After so many years of missing him so much, she thought seeing him would feel good, but it was awful. Just an acutely painful reminder of how much she still wanted him, and how completely he would never, ever be hers.
“Hey, are you okay?” Ray came up behind her, a hand at her waist. She jumped away, the contact too close, too intimate.
“Don’t do that,” she chided.
But he reached for her again. “Tell me what’s bothering you.”
Above them, the first firework exploded—flashes of green and gold, and appreciative gasps all around them as everyone looked skyward. But not Ray. His eyes were trained on Bea.
“Nothing’s wrong,” she insisted. “I’m fine.”
“Don’t lie to me,” he said firmly, but there was a note of desperation there. “I know you’re not fine. Bea, I’m not either.”
Cracks and booms echoed around them, red and blue and silver, as he circled her wrists with his fingers.
She shook her head. “Ray, what are you doing?”
He pulled her closer. “You know what I’m doing.”
His fingers were grazing up her forearms, her biceps, her shoulders, his hands were in her hair. She heard him ask “Is this okay?” and it wasn’t, it fucking wasn’t, he knew it wasn’t, but she felt her head nodding as if a puppeteer were bobbing it with unseen string, and then he was kissing her. It was so intense, his body pressed against hers, his hands pulling her face closer and closer, his teeth nipping at her lips, and she couldn’t breathe, and she didn’t care, and when he said, “Can we go home now?” she nodded again. This time, with agency. With intent.
The car ride was unbearable, his hands on her thighs, standstill traffic on the 101. When they finally got to her house, she thought they wouldn’t even make it to the bed; he threw her against the wall so hard and ripped the damn dress off her. No one had ever wanted her that much. She was so confused, even as it was happening—had he always wanted this? Why hadn’t it happened sooner, when they lived in the same place, when he was single, all those years that she was so in love?