In truth, our phone call earlier shook something loose inside me. I’ve never thought of Melly as abusive before. Temperamental, yeah. Manipulative, sure. But abusive? What would Debbie say if I was honest with her about what really goes on? Have I held back from describing everything accurately not because of the NDA but because I’ve always known, deep down, that what James said is true?
He asked where I see myself in the future. If it were up to Melly, I’d be working with her for at least another ten years. Keeping her calendar organized. My stomach clenches with dread. I don’t want that. Working for Comb+Honey solves one problem but creates another: I have the resources to pay for anything I need—including whatever treatments I might need in the future—but the constant stress of dealing with the show and the Tripps is making my symptoms worse. If I’m struggling to hold a pencil now, what will it be like in five years, let alone ten?
Unfocused but staring into the open refrigerator, I imagine telling Melly that I’m quitting, damn the fallout. It would be unpleasant, but it wouldn’t last forever, and then I would be free to think, for the first time in my life, about what I’d really like to do. I’d be broke and it’d be hard, but I might have James. I might have time to get myself a house and a dog and a few hobbies. I might actually have a life.
Just knowing that the possibility is there is like that first gulp of air after kicking toward the surface. Somehow, the elephant doesn’t seem so huge.
James tries to talk to me a number of times once we get to Sacramento, but it’s just too chaotic. We are off the bus, into one store, signing stock in a flurry, then getting back on the bus to weave through downtown Sacramento to the next store. It doesn’t actually seem to be the best plan, because obviously we are not at all inconspicuous inside Melly’s and Rusty’s heads on wheels, and by the time we pull up at a Barnes & Noble, a few cars have trailed us on the journey, with fans getting out and asking for pictures.
Joe paces in the background, fighting what seems to be a strong urge to check his watch every minute that Melly does what Melly does best: chatting with people and smiling for photos. I’m grateful that Rusty put on a nice shirt, and I realize with a mixture of fondness and surprise that it must’ve occurred to James to remind his boss that he might be in front of a lot of fans asking him to pose for selfies.
James sidles up to me, and my pulse jumps. I like the smell of his laundry detergent on him. I remember how it lingered on his skin even when his clothes were on the floor.
“I need to talk to you,” he says.
I look up, grateful for the distraction of fans so he and I can share one quiet minute. “Me too,” I tell him. “I made a decision about something …”
He frowns a little and then his expression clears, like he thinks he knows what I’m going to say. “Yeah?” His voice has dropped a few decibels and the volume turns it a little scratchy. “Then you go first.”
“I’m going to quit,” I say. His face doesn’t do what I expected it to; he doesn’t immediately smile. “I’m going to tell Melly tonight. I’ll give her until they wrap up the tour in Boise.”
James frowns. “Are you sure the timing is good?”
“What you said. On the phone?” I wait until he nods, barely. “You’re right about all of it. I realized today I don’t talk about it with Debbie—my therapist—because I know what she’ll say. Working here isn’t good for my hands. It’s not good for my mental health. I can find something else.”
He shifts on his feet, looking back over his shoulder at Melly and Rusty. “Melissa will be a mess without you.”
“I know, but this is insane, right?” I search his eyes for the conviction I heard in his voice earlier. “Like you said, what does my life look like in five years?”
James squints past me, into the distance. Something about his demeanor makes my stomach do a weird flip. I expected a grin, maybe a quick, covert hug. Hell, I’d take a thumbs up at this point. I didn’t expect him to look so … conflicted.
“I thought you’d be a bit more supportive and a bit less … I don’t know. Concerned.”
“No,” he says quickly, “I’m just thinking.” He meets my eyes again, and his are so deep and emotive, I want to pull him into the light and study them more carefully, the way he studied me last night. I feel like that connection has been severed, and I don’t know if it’s the fact that we aren’t alone, or if it’s something else.
“I know what I said,” he continues, “and I do think you should leave. But we both made a commitment to get them through this, and it won’t look good for either of our résumés if they fall apart on this tour. If they become a scandal, it’ll just be another Rooney, Lipton, and Squire for me, and an unending stretch of being an assistant to a scandal for you.”
My gut turns sour. I can see his point, and hate that my decisions seem to simultaneously be too late and too impulsive. “I don’t know how to do this,” I admit, my voice thin. “When does it end?”
James seems to have a physical response to the desperation in my voice because something in his demeanor shifts, like it hurts him to ask this of me. “Just wait until the second season is a go, okay? Just a few more weeks, at most.”
I think ahead to what we have left: a drive to Oregon tonight and then finishing the trip to Portland tomorrow, where we have a big event. From Portland to Seattle for another event and a stretch of interviews, then Boise before heading back to Jackson. From there, the Tripps are supposed to gear up for a tour of the East Coast. If all goes well, I definitely won’t be around for that.
I look to where Melly fawns over a woman’s pink coat, and I know she’ll climb back on the bus and immediately comment about how ugly it was, and how could someone wear something like that in public? James wants me to hang in there for another couple of weeks—and I know he has my best interests in mind because he’s good like that—but I don’t even want to be around them for another hour.
But then Joe comes over, hands me his phone, and grimaces.
Looks like someone from the hotel caught a picture of Melly and Rusty fighting as they got into the elevator alone last night. Melly’s pointed index finger is spearing Rusty in the chest. Her face is so twisted in anger that she looks like she’s spitting. The photo on Twitter has only been up for an hour and already has over four thousand likes.
When we arrive in Portland the next afternoon, there are already photographers camped outside the hotel. Because Melissa is still banned from Twitter, she gets excited when she sees them. Carey doesn’t have the heart to tell her they’re here because they’re hoping to catch the couple fighting.
But, for once, I do.
“Before we get off the bus,” I begin, and Melissa halts, turning to look at me with overt irritation, “you should know that someone caught you fighting in the hotel lobby.”
“We weren’t,” Melissa says immediately, and looks to her husband for backup. His indifferent shrug doesn’t really help her case.
I turn my phone to face her. “I don’t think the photos are doctored, Melissa.”
Joe shrinks to the back, as if he needs to tidy up, even though all Rusty does back there is sit and watch television. In my peripheral vision, I can see Carey staring at me, surprised.
“So here’s how it’s going to go,” I continue. “You’re going to get off this bus and show the world you’re in love.” I lift my hands, relaxed, like this is the easiest ask they’ve ever received. “Every married couple fights. Not a big deal. If you didn’t fight, it’d mean there’s nothing there worth fighting for, right?”
I wonder whether Rusty has even read their book, because clearly only Melissa and Carey recognize the quote. Carey smothers a smile. Melissa’s eyes narrow.
“Tonight,” I say, “you’re going to have dinner in the hotel restaurant and you’re going to be delighted with each other’s company. Sound good?”
Melissa takes a deep, slow breath. I don’t have to guess that she’s slaughtering me in her head; it’s written all over her face. “Sounds good.”
Voices filter from the other side of Carey’s door, and I double-check the number before reaching up to knock. She calls out to me from inside and then the door opens to reveal a smiling and recently showered Carey. My heart gives my sternum a small punch.
“Come in.” She’s already on her way back inside.
“I wanted to talk to you abou—”
“I’m just talking to Kurt. Can you shut the door behind you?”
Kurt? Her brother?
The door sweeps closed and I take in the space: her suitcase seems to have exploded on her bed. A wet towel has been tossed onto the sofa near the window. I stop when I see her sitting at the desk, laptop open and projecting a smiling man on the screen.
They look so much alike, even though her hair is long and sandy-brown and his looks dark and curly.
“I can come back …” After all, this is her older brother and I’m in her hotel room … while she’s presumably naked under that robe.
“No, no. We’re just wrapping this up.” She turns the screen toward me. “Kurt, this is James, the engineer. James, my brother, Kurt.”
We share an awkward wave, and then I turn my attention back to her. “Seriously, it’s not important—”
She’s already shushing me and pointing to the bed. “Go sit. I’ll just be a minute.” Carey tosses a magazine in my direction before turning back to the screen. No doubt I relish diving into the latest issue of Taste of Home as much as the next guy, but eavesdropping on Carey’s conversation with her brother is hard to resist.
“Okay, so you were updating me on Mom,” Carey prompts him.
Kurt pushes a hand through his dusty hair—as in, dust actually clouds around him—and then tugs a faded baseball cap on. The tips of his ears are sunburned, and so is the tip of his nose. He looks tired, the sort of bone-deep tired of a man who spends his day working in the hot sun. I wonder if, like their father had been, Kurt is in construction.