What would have happened if I hadn’t gotten sick? What follows are some sketches of what might have been had the cavernous angioma in my brain stem never bled. We’ll begin here, at the movie premiere:
The theater is outdoors, spotlights roaming the palm trees. Louise is tall with long, blond hair and big eyes. Claude wears gel in his hair and leaves his shirt mostly unbuttoned. People look at them. They like to be photographed together. Their refrigerator is covered with pictures that fall down every time someone walks by.
The movie ends and as they walk up the aisle Louise sees Evan, a reporter. A few weeks back they worked together, following Britney Spears for Us magazine.
“We need you to go to Brad and Jen’s house tomorrow,” he says. “Look up the driveway, feel free to go up a ways and see if you can spot Jen’s car. Rumor is she’s left.”
“Um, sure,” Louise says, flattered.
“If you need anything else,” Claude says.
“We’re fine,” Evan says and gets on his phone.
Claude and Louise head home, make a frozen pizza; she talks about the Brad and Jen scorcher — the movie-star couple’s breakup, and Pitt’s supposed affair with actress vixen Angelina Jolie. It has the nation riveted, she tells Claude.
“Imagine Brad Pitt having an affair,” she says, sopping the grease of her pizza slice with a napkin. “What a dog!” She is very serious.
The next morning I drive up highway 101 and find Brad and Jen’s beach house, but don’t dare head down the drive. I put my car in park on the side of the road and watch to see if the security guard in his little booth falls asleep like they do in the movies. Nope. I call Evan and tell him what’s up.
“Stay put,” he says. “Take note of any car that enters or leaves today.” It’s only 10:00 a.m.
As assignments pile up over the next few weeks, I realize that paparazzi do a lot of waiting. A lot. Sure, there are moments of excitement, like when I tail Evan through downtown Santa Barbara, who in turn is following Britney in her white Mercedes. She stops at a Starbucks. The two of us park illegally and watch as Britney and a friend get giant Frapuccinos. I take note that her hair seems to be falling out in patches, which makes it in the Hot Tips on Starz section of that week’s edition. But mostly, I spend my days waiting in hotel lobbies or expensive coffee shops. I paint my experiences bright and sexy when I relay them to Claude each night. I find myself telling him what I wish I’d done, say, borrowed lip balm from Lindsay Lohan in the bathroom, when all I’d really done was see the back of her head in line at a charity auction. Maybe I do this because things are going to get more exciting soon, I can tell.
The first time Tom sees Louise after her move to California is at their grandmother’s funeral that summer. Has it been six months already? Louise is wearing all black — heels, pants, and sleeveless dress shirt, and has Claude by her side. They are both hunched over their phones.
Tom walks over and says hello, and before he knows it Louise is telling him how horrible the grocery stores in Kansas are. “No rice milk?” she says. “Really?” Later, when they are drinking beer by the buffet table, he talks with Louise and Claude about the future. It seems they want to have kids someday. “But we would never raise them in the United States,” Claude says. “I just can’t see how that would work. Americans are pretty awful.”
“Totally,” Louise says, and drains her glass. “Europe all the way.”
Now that Louise is getting more and more work as a freelancer for Us she decides to quit her full-time position at the newspaper in Ventura. Claude is both irritated and excited about this. He is irritated because Louise will be able to sleep in, have some free days during the week to work on her tan, and she will probably have to work most weekends whether she is spying on celebs at spas or hiding in bathrooms at clubs in L.A., which means less time with him
But Claude is excited to go with Louise to lots of these things, and to maybe get a little extra work himself. Not that he needs any, he has plenty of it at his newspaper job as it is, but he is always thinking of what’s next. After all, he was the one who introduced Louise to the West Coast editor of Us. He should benefit, too.
Claude is thinking this as he waits in line for his to-go order at the sushi place close to his office. He takes his paper sack full of Hamachi rolls and walks down to Butterfly Beach to meet Louise, who is driving up to Santa Ynez Valley after this quick lunch to cover the Michael Jackson scene at his ranch. Fans from across the world are camping along the road to his estate to show support for the star as he battles against money woes and child abuse accusations. Louise has been told to get some crazy quotes and see if she can find people who are crying for a photo. He sees Louise, ankle-deep in the ocean, talking to a familiar face. It’s his boss’s son, his best friend, Lyle.
Claude drops the paper sack of sushi on the sand, slips off his loafers, and jogs to join Louise and Lyle in the water. Events happen in predictable ways. There will be many months of fighting, make-up talks, and muttered comments before Louise and Claude end it. They are not right for each other, but that has nothing to do with how painful it will be for them to break apart. For today, though, he puts a roll in Louise’s mouth and she squeezes his hand.
As Janet proofreads the obituaries section at work, she thinks about the phone conversation she had with Louise the night before. Janet had been working out on the elliptical machine in her basement and watching an old movie on mute, holding the phone to her ear. Louise, in California, said she was out on her balcony, and Janet could tell Louise was smoking, though she didn’t ask. Louise was still wearing her bathing suit from an after-dinner swim, she had said.
“So, how’s Claude?” Janet said.
“Oh, he’s fine. At least I hear he’s fine,” Louise said. Janet heard a big exhale. “He’s sleeping at his office these days.”
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry,” Janet said. “You guys will work it out.”
“Yeah,” Louise said. “Well, if not, it’s not the hugest deal in the world. There are others, Mom. Always others. Like this one guy, a waiter at my favorite Italian place downtown…” and her daughter went on, but Janet couldn’t listen.
The way she said it had given Janet chills, and Janet had been surprised at herself. She had always encouraged her kids never to settle for anyone, get attached too early, to play the field, but for some reason thinking of Louise being so nonchalant about leaving Claude, so confident of finding someone lickety split, made Janet sad.
She gets up from her desk and goes to the staff bathroom, washes her face in the old, yellow sink. The ceiling light is a bulb on a cord. She looks in the mirror, she doesn’t have many wrinkles, she is lucky that way. She has good hair, long and wavy. Brown, though. Not blond like her daughter’s. She thinks about Louise, living in California now and who knows where after she’s sick of it. New York? San Francisco? Not Kansas, that’s for sure. Janet can’t remember how many times she has heard Louise say that, loudly.
She decides to walk home for lunch and rushes out of the limestone newspaper building and heads down the street. Most of the small houses are shut-up and quiet while the sun beats down at this time of day. Empty metal swing sets creak in the wind. Janet sometimes wonders how she ended up living in the same small town where she grew up. She had been a waitress in Amsterdam after college, she had been in love with a Dutchman. They had planned to move to New York and live in a co-op and open a kindergarten, or maybe it was a theater company. Anyway, it hadn’t happened, of course. Janet’s work visa ran out and she came back to the U.S., started shaving her legs again and met Warner. True, that ended in divorce, but now she is happy. She loves her job and has many good friends here in Kansas, but she can’t help but wonder what her life would be like somewhere else. Janet loves to look at the “Home and Away” section in the New York Times, to click through airy lofts and beach houses.
Sitting at her kitchen counter with a lunch of pickles and almonds, Janet checks her email and sees Louise has written her.
“Claude came back this morning, everything is fine,” she wrote. “Don’t worry about me so much, Mom. I know what I’m doing. I think you just forget sometimes what it’s like to be this age. You should come out and visit us sometime. We can go to a spa and eat sushi. You can live a little. Xo”
Janet doesn’t write back. She closes her laptop and finishes her lunch.