Chapter One: Golden Tigers
My sash read, “Golden Tiger.” I might have been amused in less terrifying circumstances.
I stood frozen with Pierre, my fourteen-year-old schnauzer, in the doorway of the Century City Ballroom in Los Angeles, frightened of falling off my heels. Wait staff glided through the room, and a thousand separate conversations clashed with cutlery for the air space. I tugged the gold-colored splash of cloth across my chest with damp palms and slouched deeper into the form-fitting emerald dress purchased for the evening but found little shelter there. It was a strapless bit of fabric altogether too low in some places and too high in others to provide refuge.
“Billie, I can’t . . . c’mon, I can’t wear this thing.” I leaned over and hissed into her ear, not wanting to offend any of the organizers. “It’s ridiculous.”
“Look here, missy.” Billie—she reminded me of an older Betty Boop—reached up to smooth my hair and straighten the sash. Her dark eyes glistened more than earlier, and her energy was cranked up to manic. I wondered if she’d been waiting for me at the hotel bar longer than was strictly necessary. “What the hell’s wrong with you? You are Chel Shepherd, creator of what’s about to be the biggest character franchise since God was a baby, when I have my way. Here now. Stand up straight.”
“YOU are the creator of the franchise, and I look like a freak when I wear heels . . .”
“Yeah, well if you’d stand up straight and stop acting like a freak, you’d look like a goddamn movie star. You’re exotic, sweet pea. People get plastic surgery to get cheekbones like yours and end up looking like weird cat people.”
Billie was a relentless bullshit artist, and the exotic bit pissed me off.
I had once seen a smeared, sepia-toned photo of Inuit children plucked from the Arctic and thrust into the Great Exhibition at the World’s Fair, hoodless and dark-skinned in a sea of white faces, and I felt a sudden rare kinship with those exotic little cousins. At home on the island, everyone knew me, and I rarely considered how I might look to other people. But here, thrust into a crowd of American glitterati, I felt myself as other: Canadian, indigenous, nonsensically tall, a shabby imposter, a scribbler of cartoons. I was suddenly self-conscious of my mother’s features—high cheekbones and wide mouth—only loosely assembled with Pops’s green eyes and overly serious expression. I was neither one thing or another, like odds and ends from a discount store. And at five-foot-ten in bare feet, I was a tree in heels. My hair had been cropped short for the trip and still alarmed me. On the advice of Lucy Edenshaw, Huna Island’s only hairdresser (and full-time alpaca farmer) bangs I’d hidden behind for most of my twenty-eight years were now gone, along with the thick black braid, replaced by a short cut that Lucy claimed would frame my face better. Lucy liked it, but I felt like Mowgli the wolf boy in drag.
“Now here . . .” Billie leaned down and picked up Pierre, putting him in my arms, his faux-emerald-studded collar also chosen by Billie to match my dress. “Pierre needs you to be strong. This is how we pay for his kibble.”
“How much kibble are you getting out of this, I wonder?”
“Not nearly as much as I deserve, pain-in-the-ass disaster like you. Anyone else would be over the moon, and you’re acting like it’s goddamn Guantanamo.” Billie smiled and waved at an acquaintance.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
“Why did I say yes to this? I can’t even breathe right. How am I supposed to have a conversation with a table full of strangers?” I had known I was attending a fundraising dinner for the LA County library system—an utterly random scheme that Billie had concocted, threatening to quit if I didn’t give in. What I had only just learned, however, was that people had paid thousands of dollars for a place at the table with a published author. The place was packed with celebrities, literary and otherwise, and a few half-assed cartoons about my dog could never warrant the gold sash. I wondered what actual writer had been taken ill for them to pull me in at the last minute. The hum of the room cut into my vision like white splinters rather than as a sound in my ears, and a full-fledged panic attack never strayed too far behind those first white flashes. Once before, I’d even lost consciousness. My breathing sped up. “What if I pass out or something?”
“Jesus, cut the histrionics, Chel!” Billie snagged a glass from the tray of a passing waiter and, with her free hand, pulled a pill out of her purse and handed it to me. “This will fix everything.”
“What is it?”
“I stole them from my son.” Billie giggled. “He doesn’t even know I know he has them.”
“What’s it do?” I didn’t drink, and hadn’t done any drugs since college, but just now, the first few white bolts striking behind my vision, I considered it.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, grow a pair, Chel. I’ve had one, and I’m fine. Better than fine, actually.”
I suppressed an impulse to shake her, reminding myself—for the tenth time that day—that I’d still be stocking shelves at the island grocery without her help. I looked back down at the stupid sash. Golden Tiger. It was only one pill, after all, not a life sentence at the Betty Ford Clinic. Anything would be better than having a panic attack at a table full of strangers. Breathe in. Breathe out.
I swallowed the pill and chased it with the mystery liquid in the glass. More fumes than liquid, it burned the back of my throat, and I coughed some of it back up, earning the side-eye from a passing couple.
Billie reached up and clutched my shoulders. “Look, darling girl. You’ve got this. You are great. You look great, and you’re gonna do great.” I shrugged out of her grip, and Billie flagged down a nearby waiter. “Excuse me. Can you please escort Ms. Shepherd and Pierre to their table?”
The man—only a few years younger than I was—glanced at me, then down at his shoes, his cheeks coloring.
“Yes, ma’am. I’d be honored.”
“I’ll be in the back if you need me, Chel.” She grabbed another glass from a passing tray and sauntered away, waving without looking back. “But you won’t need me.”
“This way, Ms. Shepherd.” The waiter touched his hand to my elbow then paused. “Um. Is that really the real Pierre?”
I smiled at him—shyness in others was always comforting—and held Pierre out for a scratch behind the ears. “This is him. A little stiff in the legs these days, but still going strong.”
“Hiya, fella.” The waiter smoothed the gray dog’s fur across his back. “Oh, wow. My girlfriend’s gonna flip. She bought your book for our little guy at home. He’s only a year, but he loves it. Bonjour, Pierre.” He leaned in to shake the dog’s paw. “That part with the elephants is great. I laugh every time I see that page.”
“Thank you. I’m glad to know it made someone happy.”
“Don’t most schnauzer’s have their tails cut off?”
I covered Pierre’s ears with one hand. “Shhh. He doesn’t know about that.”
The ballroom was furnished as a dining room, round cloth-covered tables and their occupants jammed everywhere. Each table bristled with silver and empty dinner plates—an odd-numbered chair in each table taken by individuals wearing a gold sash like mine. The waiter threaded us through the tightly-packed room with some difficulty, and I had time to overhear the occasional remarks.
“Dunno . . . Shepherd, or Stetford, or something like that . . . It’s on the program.” An alarm bell rang in my head. What did he mean by on the program? I turned back to find Billie—What has she done?—but she had been swallowed by the crowd at the bar.
“. . . pretty much a recluse. Stephen told me. Lives on some godforsaken island in Canada.”
“Hey, that’s Pierre!”
That guy with the beard must have started the party early. He rose and lurched in my direction, but a woman—his wife, I guessed—grabbed his forearm and redirected him to his own table.
“. . . and here we are, Ms. Shepherd.” The waiter stopped abruptly and held a seat for me, then pulled out the one on my right. “And for you, Monsieur Pierre.” I set the old dog onto the cushions and pulled his seat as close to mine as possible, as much for my own comfort as to keep him from falling. Pierre, though generally mellow in his old age, seemed excited by all the commotion. He sat up tall on the cushions, flopped his tail a few times, and gazed expectantly at the rest of the table. To my left sat an older couple with identical cotton hair, impeccably dressed, who smiled at me with their eyes, not just their mouths, and I returned the smile, relieved to find the welcome there.
The man looked like a twin to Morgan Freeman. “Our celebrity has arrived!” he said. “Bonjour, Pierre!”
“Ah, Bonjour, Monsieur.” I said, put oddly at ease by someone who greeted my dog first. “And Pierre says hello as well.”
To my right a black-haired woman—pearls, electric-blue sheath dress, early thirties—reached out to Pierre’s ears with a perfectly manicured hand. Remembering my own nails—purple thumbnail from a hammer incident while fixing the roof—I folded my hands in my lap. The woman might have been a flamenco dancer, with perfect bearing, red lipstick, and a Roman nose in profile, but when she turned, her face revealed a puckered scar that ran from ear to lip along her right cheek, causing her mouth to turn up slightly on that side. She caught the trajectory of my gaze and winked, then reached for her wine glass with liquid grace. I looked away, embarrassed and confused. On the woman’s other side an equally handsome man focused his attention on flagging down a waiter. These two, only a bit older than me, were so highly polished and glittering that the brightness of them threatened to cut something. I was a mis-matched peasant by comparison, but I took a deep breath and plunged into the task at hand. I smiled in a way I hoped was humble rather than vastly uncomfortable. Unbidden, a recent memory of Pops flashed through my mind: relieving himself off the boat deck in the rain as he was bastardizing Neitzche: when you piss into the abyss, the abyss pisses on you! What would any of these shining people think if they knew the grubby conditions of my life?
“Hi, there,” I said to everyone. “I’m Michelle Shepherd. It’s good of you all to come out and help raise so much money for such a good cause. My, uh, my little friend here is . . .”
“Well, that’s Pierre, bien sûr!” The woman on my left laughed and patted my hand. I didn’t know if it was her genuine warmth or whether Billie’s pill had begun taking effect, but my body relaxed a bit, and it seemed as if the air had had stopped pressing in on my ears quite the way it had been. I stroked Pierre’s soft fur and glanced at the woman’s name tag. “It’s nice to meet you, uh . . . Mrs. Leavitt.”
“Oh, call me Mary, please. And it’s a pleasure to meet you! This is my husband, Henry—quite the Pierre fan as well.”
His chuckle was a deep bass. “The times I’ve read that book to the grandkids, you just can’t imagine. And Mary tells me the committee is keeping an eye on you. Well-deserved!”
“Thank you.” I winced inwardly but kept a smile plastered to my face for Henry. I never knew what to do with compliments, so I let them bounce off like hail on a tin roof. I rummaged my mind for the next thing to say that might keep the conversation going.
“I read somewhere that Pierre started out as a political cartoon,” said Henry, bless him. “During your college days.”
“For the student paper. The whole thing was meant to be a critique of neocolonial impulses in Western culture, but, apparently my cartoons are better suited to—”
“Ah, I see it now,” said the woman to my right, the flamenco dancer. Her voice carried an accent that I couldn’t place. “The Legión Francés, and then, later . . . the, what do you call it . . . the raccoon hat.”
“Most people don’t get that,” I said. A small spark of delight at someone having noticed. “But, in all fairness, most of my readers are six years old.” I extended my hand. “Hi. Sorry, I can’t read your tag. I’m Michelle.”
She smiled and took my hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Michelle . . . I am Celeste. And this is Paulo.” Her eyes were a warm liquid brown, struck through with bits of gold, and with a softness to them that contrasted with the angles of her face. “I only just saw your book tonight, to confess, when Mary showed me. But I think you are wrong. Your book works because there is as much for adults as for the children.”
Mary Leavitt patted a copy of Bonjour Pierre that had been set as centerpiece at our table. “I so agree, Celeste! And don’t think you’ll get away without signing our copy, Michelle.”
I reached for my water glass, again bewildered by compliments, and at that moment, a strange sensation unfurled in my chest and drifted out into my limbs: anxiety was melting away, and I was left with a dizzying boneless sensation, of being an empty balloon or a kite without string, or skin wrapped around nothing at all. That pill. I set the water glass down and watched my hand hover next to the wine glass. I didn’t, generally, but why not? It’s not as if I’d ever had a problem with it, not like Pops. I lifted the glass and took a sip, curious. The red velvet liquid of it trickled down the back of my throat and joined the warming pool spreading out from my chest. Gorgeous.
I kept the glass in my left hand and glanced at Celeste’s companion, but his attention remained focused on finding a waiter. I sipped more wine, then asked, “What do you do, Celeste?”
She tilted her head slightly, looked at me with a mix of amusement and assessment. “I direct theater and teach at university. My husband, he is an actor . . . so of course he is useless.” She turned to him and grabbed his arm. “Paulo, don’t be so rude, gordo. Introduce yourself.”
“Ah, perdoname . . .” His eyes shifted to my face and focused, as if he hadn’t actually seen me before. Then he smiled broadly. His teeth were, perhaps, the whitest I had ever seen, contrasting against his skin and the manicured stubble of sculpted cheeks. “Encantado!” He partially stood and reached his hand out to take my own. “Fantastic to meet you!” His entire success in life would be built on that smile, I supposed, and the enthusiasm with which he delivered fantastic to meet you, and there was no question that “gordo” was a private joke; he was—objectively—flawless.
A waiter passed, and Paulo snapped his fingers, “Hey, excuse, please . . . could we get . . .” he made a circle at the table with his fingers and raised his eyebrows in a question. “Yes? OK, could we get another round of the same for everyone? Gracias.” He turned his attention back to me. “Ya, ah . . .” he searched my chest for a name tag that wasn’t there.
“Michelle . . .,” Celeste coached, shaking her head.
“Si. So, Michelle . . .” Paulo grinned at me until his dimples showed then pointed his chin at the golden sash. “How is it to be a Golden Tiger?’”
“Oh, God. I’m mortified, to be honest.” Mary’s eyebrows shot up, and I remembered being told that I would be seated with a member of the library board. Whatever Billie had given me seemed to have thrown open the control gates between thoughts and lips. I blew my bangs off my forehead, realized I no longer had bangs, and scrambled to clarify. “Well, it’s just . . . Pierre should be wearing the sash, don’t you think? I’m more of a kitten than a tiger, really.” Everyone laughed at the shabby joke, for which I was grateful. “In fact,” I leaned forward and whispered, “you should probably ask for your money back. See that guy over there?” I gestured with my head to a heavy-set bearded man in a gold sash like mine. “That is Gunther Karlsson, I’m pretty sure. I mean, Gunther Dead-of-the-Night Karlsson! Now, that guy deserves a gold sash. That guy would eat someone like me for breakfast.” Karlsson’s book had famously taken a decade to write and had been short-listed for the Booker Prize.
Paulo leaned forward and whispered as well. “Ah . . . but would you let him?”
“Paulo! Por Dios!” Celeste slapped his arm then addressed the Leavitts across the table. “I apologize for my husband. This baby has missed his afternoon nap.”
“I was only suggesting that Karlsson is not the right type for our literary kitten.” He looked at me from under raised brows. Again with the dimples. “I am right, yes?”
I was thrown off by this sudden change in the conversation. Thrown as well by the curious lassitude that seemed to have taken over my muscles and mind. I knew I ought to be anxious about something but couldn’t seem to remember what that was. My lips felt loose and rubbery. I pulled Pierre into my lap and shook my head.
“Hah! I knew it!” Paulo flashed a smile, teeth white as icebergs, leaving me grasping mentally for something I had missed. He smirked at his wife.
Celeste’s hand was warm on my forearm as she leaned across Pierre’s abandoned seat. “Don’t let him bother you, Michelle. He toys with people as his hobby. He is a very bad man.” She said this last bit in a teasing tone, but the briefest flicker of some other emotion belied the joke. Then, kindly, she redirected the discussion. “So, Henry, Mary. Tell me more about these grandchildren of yours. How old are they?”
I let the conversation and clatter of the room fade out for a moment and tried to gather myself. I took several large gulps of the wine.
“. . . and our Little Henry is the oldest. He’s ten. That boy is such an artist. I wish you could see his drawings, Michelle. You’d be impressed . . .”
Dinner arrived with fresh drinks for everyone. I sensed someone behind my chair and turned to see a waiter balancing a small plate on his fingertips.
“And something for Monsieur?” he asked.
My table companions looked up and laughed, and people from other tables seemed to pause in their conversation as well. Pierre whined in my lap. “Well, I guess I don’t have a choice, do I?” When I set Pierre’s wriggling body back on the cushions, he plunged his face into the plate of chopped steak as clapping erupted from a nearby table with cries of “Bon Appétit, Pierre!” I held on to the little dog for fear he’d fall off the cushions in his excitement, and I patted his back, noticing how soft he was. Like a bunny. Like a dust bunny. I wondered if dust bunnies could hop.
“I recognize this scene! It’s just like Pierre’s visit to La Patisserie!” Henry Leavitt rose from his chair, phone in hand. “I’ve just got to get a shot of this for the kids. Do you mind, Michelle?”
“. . . Not at all . . .” Talking had become strangely difficult. Act very, very normal, I commanded myself.
Henry gestured for me to get in the picture and snapped a few shots before suddenly seeming a bit shy. “Uh, Paulo, Celeste, d’you mind if I get you in the picture too?”
Celeste’s laugh was a thousand wind chimes, and the scraping of the chairs seemed to tickle my kneecaps. “Of course not, Henry! We are thrilled to pose with these celebrities. Gordo, come.” This last was directed at Paulo, whose head she tugged into the picture frame. She wrapped her left arm around Pierre’s cushions and held my arm in a way that would have seemed overly familiar, but I decided I didn’t mind. In fact, as I reflected on it, I couldn’t remember the sensation of minding anything, as strange as Billie’s pill was making me feel. The people at this table—all of the people in the room, really—felt like friends. I made a mental note to remember to always feel this wonderful, like I had molten gold or maybe chocolate running through the arteries from my heart. Now that I had the trick of it, I thought, I’d know how to do it again.
Only without the pills. Definitely without the pills.
I watched Mary’s lips asking me a question. Fizzing bubbles percolated in my toes. The Leavitt’s were like grandparents might be, if I had any. Maybe they’d be willing, if I asked them? Breathe in. Try to cut your chicken. Wait. Just . . . just breathe out.
I am on drugs, I thought, trying to keep attentive eye contact with Mary. I am talking with a sweet grandmother who loves my books, and I am ON DRUGS.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
“Your illustrations are just wonderful,” said Mary.
“Thank you,” I managed.
“And where did you study?”
“UBC, in Vancouver. Art. I meant to be a painter.”
Celeste gave a little start and opened her mouth to say something, but Paulo cut her off. “So you paint too! What kind of work do you do?”
“Paulo and I both love art,” said Celeste.
“Tell us about your work. Perhaps we will add you to the collection, yes?” Paulo’s attention focused like a laser.
“Well, you know, dancing about architecture . . .” I took another gulp of the wine. So good! Why had I denied myself all these years? “Umm . . . what do I paint? I’m working on . . . well, I’m struggling with . . . abstracts inspired by poetry, and I can’t seem to—”
“What a wonderful project,” said Celeste. “I would love to see some of these.”
“Ya!” Paulo snorted. “Por supuesto.”
A knife blade of irritation flashed in Celeste’s gaze then disappeared.
I would have talked about the paintings some more, but just then the sienna flecks in Celeste’s eyes seemed to be swirling independent of her face. And why did the right side of my body feel as if it were in a hot tub? Breathe in. Paulo had perfect teeth, like shiny squares of peppermint gum. Breathe out.
Suddenly, a microphone buzzed over the sound system. Thank God.
“Hello, everyone.” Tap tap on the microphone. “We hope you are all enjoying your dinner. And the conversation. We are going to get started in about five minutes with the main part of the program. So, it’s a good time to order another round of drinks.”
Across the room, hundreds of plates shifted while diners searched for donation envelopes. The announcer droned on—something about generous giving—and I used the pause in the conversation to attempt to corral the carnival in my head. Henry Leavitt approached my chair to have his photo taken with Pierre, and I leaned in to snuggle my head into his chest. No, don’t do that. I had the strangest feeling that I might be in love with him, with everyone. Holy shit, I am high. Stoned out of my gourd at the Golden Tiger Awards. Whatthehell. Gourd. Now that is a funny word. Nothing rhymes with gourd.
Word? No, that’s slant rhyme.
If I can just manage to sit up and stare straight ahead for the rest of the program, and mostly keep my mouth shut, surely no one will notice. I’ll sober up by the time we get to the meet-and-greet, right?
Moored! Moored kind of rhymes.
So many words would work, if I concentrate.
“Michelle, are you feeling OK?”
Celeste’s hand rested on my arm again, and a swarm of golden butterflies fluttered up the inside of my forearm under the skin. I stared at my arm, wondering if all those wings might lift it into the air.
I looked at my dinner companions. The Leavitts huddled over their donation envelope. Paulo grinned to himself and texted on his phone, and Pierre had curled up and was licking his mustache for any dinner remnants. Celeste’s eyes were warm and genuinely concerned. She seemed safe. I gestured for her to move closer.
With our foreheads nearly touching over Pierre’s chair, I whispered, “No. NOT OK. She gave me a pill. Don’t know what it was. I feel very, very weird.”
Celeste’s shoulder was very inviting, and my head was a sack full of boulders. Maybe if I just rested for a moment . . . “I am so, so tired.” A few of her curls tickled my nose. “You smell good.”
I felt, rather than heard, Celeste’s chuckle. She propped me upright in the chair, then glanced around the table. No one seemed to notice us. “OK, Michelle. Let me do the things. Only . . . don’t talk. And tell the Leavitts you have a headache. I am very good with the chitchat.”
“But I don’t have a headache. I can’t lie. I can’t. I’m a terrible liar. Everyone says so.”
“Well, OK. Don’t lie. But better, maybe, if you are quiet. Maybe . . . why not go to the bathroom and I will make the apology?”
“Great idea! You are a lifesaver . . .” I scooted the chair back but couldn’t remember what to do next. “Ummm? My legs are all . . . all . . . ” I couldn’t think of the words. “I can’t stand up.”
The voice in the microphone, which had been droning on unnoticed for some time made an abrupt appearance on the stage of my consciousness. “At this time, it gives me immeasurable pleasure to announce the winner of this year’s Golden Tiger Award in the children’s category . . .”
This got my attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen . . . Bonjour, Pierre!”
“. . . Pierre has charmed us all. This little dog, seemingly so humble and unassuming, so full of joie de vivre, as he himself would say, has managed to enrapture a generation of children AND their parents. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Ladies and gentlemen, it is a fantastic honor to introduce to you . . . Monsieur Pierre and his young creator, Mademoiselle Chel Shepherd!”
Oh! No no no no no! Had Billie known about this? Is this why she had insisted? The applause exploded in my ears like mortar concussions. I knew distantly that I was supposed to stand up, walk graciously to the stage, and accept the award. But that wasn’t going to happen. I looked up at the Leavitts, oddly small, as if at the top of a mineshaft, on their feet, clapping and beaming at me. Celeste and Paulo, too, stood and applauded, but Celeste had turned away, whispering something into Paulo’s ear. The two moved swiftly then, one on either side of my chair. Celeste took Pierre while Paulo’s voice rumbled in my ear.
“Vamos, rock star. We’ve got this.” Then, with his hand firmly under my left elbow, I found myself standing and moving toward the stage without any effort on my part. On my right, Celeste had hooked her free arm through mine and smiled brightly at the audience as we passed. If possible, the applause grew louder. Then we were up the stairs, across the stage, behind the podium. I blinked out at hundreds of upturned faces, like multicolored gummy bears in a bag, all those round faces. If they really were gummy bears, I could pop each one in my mouth; the thought made my heart oddly warm and gooey. Celeste on one side, and Paulo on the other, stood close enough that I could not sway as much as I felt I might like to. Paulo adjusted the microphone and bent it close to my lips.
“Short and sweet,” he whispered in my ear, then flashed his teeth at the crowd.
I surveyed the audience with one sweep of my head, and the room quieted.
“Uh . . . hello.” Polite silence punctuated with shuffling sounds. “And Pierre says . . . bonjour . . . to you all as well.” I had never heard my own voice amplified before. So hollow, it sounded. I looked to Paulo and then to Celeste. “Apparently, I need bookends.” A wave of chuckles passed through the audience. I was struck again by the elegance of Celeste’s profile, in contrast to the scar that stitched her cheek. “You’re both very pretty.” The statement echoed off the back wall. Jesus. I had said that out loud, and someone in the back whistled. “These people are kind enough to help me up on the stage. As it turns out, I don’t get out much, and . . . wine”—I watched the people closest to the stage laugh again, then sit back and sip their drinks, settling in—“Uh . . . lesson learned.” More laughter. “Well, enough about me. I know you’re here to sssee Pierre—who is not at all like me, but a . . .” Pierre stopped licking Celeste’s chin long enough to burp steak breath into the microphone. I cleared my throat. “ . . . a man of culture. But he doesn’t speak English, eh? So it’s down to me.”
I felt Celeste and Paulo’s warmth radiating toward me, and the generosity of the audience urging me on. I could finish this. I could. Even if that woman in the front wore a dress that danced in yellow and purple paisley swirls independent of her body. Even if my arms were dissolving and becoming Celeste and Paulo’s arms too. Or if Pierre’s panting seemed loud as jet engines . . .
Celeste pinched me, discreetly, on the back of my arm.
“When Pierre came to me as a wiggling puppy, fourteen years ago, I never could have imagined all this. Pierre wants you to know how honored he is.” I paused for a breath, distracted only momentarily by the stage lights. “Thank you all so very much. Really. Thank you.” I took a deep breath, having gained the confidence to follow this little speech wherever it might lead. But Paulo jabbed me in the ribs with his elbow. “Uh . . . that’s about it. Thanks.”
I glanced at Celeste and Paulo, who bowed their heads to the crowd then backed me from the podium and whisked me across the stage. The audience was clapping; maybe they were high too? My head rolled on to Paulo’s shoulder. “Ohmygodwedidit! Thank you sooooo much.”
He cleared his throat and laughed. “De nada, rock star. Here we go.” He poured me back into my chair while Celeste moved the cushions from Pierre’s seat and took his place at my side. Pierre tilted his head at me from the comfort of Celeste’s lap, and she kept her grip firm, yet out of sight, on my upper arm. The Leavitts beamed at me, unaware of the clowns and calliope music inside my head. Celeste and Paulo seemed to have turned the charm up yet another notch, engaging the other couple in skillful conversation by asking them questions about themselves—something I myself had failed to do all evening. I leaned forward a bit, thinking to ask Mary about her shoes, which were obviously melting into the floor, but Celeste squeezed harder on my arm and laughed loudly at a joke of Dr. Leavitt’s. I felt content, then, to sit back with my face held in a cheek-aching grin and let the conversation flow around me. I reached for my wine glass one more time and watched as Celeste pretended it was her own, taking a swallow then setting it down, just slightly out of my reach. Strangers approached the table from time to time, offering congratulations, and I dealt with them in the same manner: smile, keen focus on eye contact, thank them, and call them by the name on their name tags.
“Make it simple.” Celeste whispered this in my ear like a mantra.
I was vaguely aware that the program continued, that there was some kind of music and a dance floor, that a dish of crème brulé sat untouched before me, then was removed. Celeste helped me find the ladies room at one point, but then disappeared. There was a fuss about Pierre lifting his leg on a chair, and I grabbed another glass (or maybe two) of wine, and Paulo asked me to dance, and then we were laughing and stumbling through the shrubbery by the hotel swimming pool, calling to Pierre, and there was some sloppy fumbling at the elevators, and the rest of the evening blinked out of existence like the blaze of a meteor skimming the night sky.