“Really? You don’t have to stay and mourn your best-kiss loss?”
She looked me squarely in the eye, like she got the joke I was making and was in on it, too. Which I appreciated. “I prefer to celebrate or commiserate my kissing in private.”
The only plan I had was to return to my hotel in the limo we had waiting. So instead I went with Bryn. She gave her driver the night off and grabbed the keys to her hulking SUV and drove us down the hill from Universal City toward the coast.
We cruised along the Pacific Coast Highway to a beach north of the city called Point Dume. We stopped on the way for a bottle of wine and some takeout sushi. By the time we reached the beach, a fog had descended over the inky water.
“June gloom,” Bryn said, shivering in her short little green-and-black off-the-shoulder dress. “Never fails to freeze me.”
“Don’t you have a sweater or something?” I asked.
“It didn’t complete the look.”
“Here.” I handed her my jacket.
She raised her eyebrows in surprise. “A gentleman.”
We sat on the beach, sharing the wine straight out of the bottle. She told me about the film she’d recently wrapped and the one she was leaving to start shooting the following month. And she was trying to decide between one of two scripts to produce for the company she was starting.
“So you’re a fundamentally lazy person?” I asked.
She laughed. “I grew up in this armpit town in Arizona, where all my life my mom told me how pretty I was, how I should be a model, an actress. She never even let me play outside in the sun—in Arizona!—because she didn’t want me to mess up my skin. It was like all I had going for me was a pretty face.” She turned to stare at me, and I could see the intelligence in her eyes, which were set, admittedly, in a very pretty face. “But fine, whatever, my face was the ticket out of there. But now Hollywood’s the same way. Everyone has me pegged as an ingenue, another pretty face. But I know better. So if I want to prove I have a brain, if I want to play in the sunshine, so to speak, it’s up to me to find the project that breaks me out. I feel like I’ll be better positioned to do that if I’m a producer, too. It’s all about control, really. I want to control everything, I guess.”
“Yeah, but some things you can’t control, no matter how hard you try.”
Bryn stared out at the dark horizon, dug her bare toes into the cool sand. “I know,” she said quietly. She turned to me. “I’m really sorry about your girlfriend. Mia, right?”
I coughed on the wine. That wasn’t a name I was expecting to hear right now.
“I’m sorry. It’s just when I asked Brooke about you, she told me how you two met. She wasn’t gossiping or anything. But she was there, at the hospital, so she knew.”
My heart thundered in my chest. I just nodded.
“My dad left when I was seven. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Bryn continued. “So I can’t imagine losing someone like that.”
I nodded again, swigged at the wine. “I’m sorry,” I managed to say.
She nodded slightly in acknowledgment. “But at least they all died together. I mean that’s got to be a blessing in a way. I know I wouldn’t have wanted to wake up if the rest of my family had died.”
The wine came sputtering out of my mouth, through my nose. It took me a few moments to regain my breath and my power of speech. When I did, I told Bryn that Mia wasn’t dead. She’d survived the crash, had made a full recovery.
Bryn looked genuinely horrified, so much so that I felt sorry for her instead of for myself. “Lord, Adam. I’m so mortified. I just sort of assumed. Brooke said she’d never heard boo about Mia again and I would’ve come to the same conclusion. Shooting Star kind of disappears and then Collateral Damage, I mean, the lyrics are just so full of pain and anger and betrayal at being left behind. . . .”
“Yep,” I said.
Then Bryn looked at me, the green of her eyes reflecting in the moonlight. And I could tell that she understood it all, without my having to say a word. Not having to explain, that felt like the biggest relief. “Oh, Adam. That’s even worse in a way, isn’t it?”
When Bryn said that, uttered out loud the thing that to my never-ending shame I sometimes felt, I’d fallen in love with her a little bit. And I’d thought that was enough. That this implicit understanding and those first stirrings would bloom until my feelings for Bryn were as consuming as my love for Mia had once been.
I went back to Bryn’s house that night. And all that spring I visited her on set up in Vancouver, then in Chicago, then in Budapest. Anything to get out of Oregon, away from the awkwardness that had formed like a thick pane of aquarium glass between me and the rest of the band. When she returned to L.A. that summer, she suggested I move into her Hollywood Hills house. “There’s a guesthouse out back that I never use that we could turn into your studio.”
The idea of getting out of Oregon, away from the rest of the band, from all that history, a fresh start, a house full of windows and light, a future with Bryn—it had felt so right at the time.
So that’s how I became one half of a celebrity couple. Now I get my picture snapped with Bryn as we do stuff as mundane as grab a coffee from Starbucks or take a walk through Runyon Canyon.
I should be happy. I should be grateful. But the problem is, I never can get away from feeling that my fame isn’t about me; it’s about them. Collateral Damage was written with Mia’s blood on my hands, and that was the record that launched me. And when I became really famous, it was for being with Bryn, so it had less to do with the music I was making than the girl I was with.
And the girl. She’s great. Any guy would kill to be with her, would be proud to knock her up.
Except even at the start, when we were in that can’t-get-enough-of-you phase, there was like some invisible wall between us. At first I tried to take it down, but it took so much effort to even make cracks. And then I got tired of trying. Then I justified it. This was just how adult relationships were, how love felt once you had a few battle scars.
Maybe that’s why I can’t let myself enjoy what we have. Why, in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, I go outside to listen to the lapping of the pool filter and obsess about the shit about Bryn that drives me crazy. Even as I’m doing it, I’m aware that it’s minor league—the way she sleeps with a BlackBerry next to her pillow, the way she works out hours a day and catalogs every little thing she eats, the way she refuses to deviate from a plan or a schedule. And I know that there’s plenty of great stuff to balance out the bad. She’s generous as an oil baron and loyal as a pit bull.
I know I’m not easy to live with. Bryn tells me I’m withdrawn, evasive, cold. She accuses me—depending on her mood—of being jealous of her career, of being with her by accident, of cheating on her. It’s not true. I haven’t touched a groupie since we’ve been together; I haven’t wanted to.
I always tell her that part of the problem is that we’re hardly ever in the same place. If I’m not recording or touring, then Bryn’s on location or off on one of her endless press junkets. What I don’t tell her is that I can’t imagine us being together more of the time. Because it’s not like when we’re in the same room everything’s so great.
Sometimes, after Bryn’s had a couple of glasses of wine, she’ll claim that Mia’s what’s between us. “Why don’t you just go back to your ghost?” she’ll say. “I’m tired of competing with her.”
“Nobody can compete with you,” I tell her, kissing her on the forehead. And I’m not lying. Nobody can compete with Bryn. And then I tell her it’s not Mia; it’s not any girl. Bryn and I live in a bubble, a spotlight, a pressure cooker. It would be hard on any couple.
But I think we both know I’m lying. And the truth is, there isn’t any avoiding Mia’s ghost. Bryn and I wouldn’t even be together if it weren’t for her. In that twisted, incestuous way of fate, Mia’s a part of our history, and we’re among the shards of her legacy.
The clothes are packed off to Goodwill
I said my good-byes up on that hill
The house is empty, the furniture sold
Soon your smells will decay to mold
Don’t know why I bother calling, ain’t nobody answering
Don’t know why I bother singing, ain’t nobody listening
COLLATERAL DAMAGE, TRACK 10
Ever hear the one about that dog that spent its life chasing cars and finally caught one—and had no idea what to do with it?
I’m that dog.
Because here I am, alone with Mia Hall, something I’ve fantasized about now for more than three years, and it’s like, now what?
We’re at the diner that was apparently her destination, some random place way over on the west side of town. “It has a parking lot,” Mia tells me when we arrive.
“Uh-huh,” is all I can think to answer.
“I’d never seen a Manhattan restaurant with a parking lot before, which is why I first stopped in. Then I noticed that all the cabbies ate here and cabbies are usually excellent judges of good food, but then I wasn’t sure because there is a parking lot, and free parking is a hotter commodity than good, cheap food.”
Mia’s babbling now. And I’m thinking: Are we really talking about parking? When neither of us, as far as I can tell, owns a car here. I’m hit again by how I don’t know anything about her anymore, not the smallest detail.
The host takes us to a booth and Mia suddenly grimaces. “I shouldn’t have brought you here. You probably never eat in places like this anymore.”
She’s right, actually, not because I prefer darkened, overpriced, exclusive eateries but because those are the ones I get taken to and those are the ones I generally get left alone in. But this place is full of old grizzled New Yorkers and cabbies, no one who’d recognize me. “No, this place is good,” I say.
We sit down in a booth by the window, next to the vaunted parking lot. Two seconds later, a short, squat hairy guy is upon us. “Maestro,” he calls to Mia. “Long time no see.”
Stavros plops down our menus and turns to me. He raises a bushy eyebrow. “So, you finally bring your boyfriend for us to meet!”
Mia goes scarlet and, even though there’s something insulting in her being so embarrassed by being tagged as my girlfriend, there’s something comforting in seeing her blush. This uncomfortable girl is more like the person I knew, the kind who would never have hushed conversations on cell phones.
“He’s an old friend,” Mia says.
Old friend? Is that a demotion or a promotion?
“Old friend, huh? You never come in here with anyone before. Pretty, talented girl like you. Euphemia!” he bellows. “Come out here. The maestro has a fellow!”
Mia’s face has practically turned purple. When she looks up, she mouths: “The wife.”
Out of the kitchen trundles the female equivalent of Stavros, a short, square-shaped woman with a face full of makeup, half of which seems to have melted onto her jowly neck. She wipes her hands on her greasy white apron and smiles at Mia, showing off a gold tooth. “I knew it!” she exclaims. “I knew you had a boyfriend you were hiding. Pretty girl like you. Now I see why you don’t want to date my Georgie.”
Mia purses her lips and raises her eyebrow at me; she gives Euphemia a faux-guilty smile. Caught me.
“Now, come on, leave them be,” Stavros interjects, swatting Euphemia on the hip and edging in front of her. “Maestro, you want your usual?”
“And your boyfriend?”