Chapter Thirty-One

Author's Notes: I am not one to apologize, but I am truly sorry for this. I am also truly grateful for your readership. This has been a difficult piece to wrestle with; I was glad to have company. I will still be working on it over the summer. Who knows what will happen to the piece by then. April 22, 2008.

Chapter Thirty-Two

Rain took off her helmet, clomping into the house. "We're home!"

Nora skidded into the kitchen, meeting up with her.

Brian came in with a few groceries, huffing. "It's hot out there."

"How was it?" Nora asked impatiently.

"He can't even hold a doll without fretting," Rain said indifferently, heading into the hallway.

Nora sputtered. "Really?"

Brian smiled, dropping off the groceries by the breakfast table. He flexed his hands. "Pretending to be a father isn't easy."

"I suppose it isn't," Nora said, sitting down.

"There were a lot of single expectant mothers there. I felt… out of place. Rain had to fend off a pretty bitter one." Brian sat down in a chair adjacent to her. "I still don't know about any this."

"Even if you're not going to be using it any time soon, it'll still be a good skill to have around." She looked at the table top. "It gives you a healthy, I'm-really-responsible glow."

"I guess it does. Even when she hasn't replied, I still feel… sort of—excited."

Nora nodded. She had been thinking about Louisa's non-replying self for weeks now. What kind of girl does that? Why would Brian even subject himself to this? She wasn't incriminating Brian for acting foolishly, but she couldn't help but feel indignant on his behalf.

"Well," he said, standing up again, swiping at his hairline with his forearm. "I have to put these away."

Nora smiled at the table top.

"Sears said he would fund it!" Rain yelled from her room.

"What?" Brian yelled, his head ducked in the fridge.

Rain came out. "He likes the script. He's writing up a check tomorrow—he's still thinking about how much he should waste on us."

Brian stood up and hit his head. "Oh—fuck."

The two girls stared.

He pulled out of the fridge and rubbed his head. "That's great news. Did you check minutes four and twenty-seven?"

"Still too choppy," Rain said, waving him off. She headed back into her room.

"Choppy," Brian parroted thoughtfully, and went back to placing groceries in the fridge.

Nora had sat there that whole time, resisting the urge to tell him how bad her date had gone last night, and experienced a strange sense of euphoria keeping it to herself. After she had snapped out of her strange daydream, she stood up, smiling. "I'll help you with those."

-

Brian and Rain stood in the back, giving the audience a once-over. The viewing of their film, up for a few nominations already for the campus film festival, was next on the reel, and the audience had already died down to a hush.

Brian took her hand and held it tight. Even though Rain wasn't the hand-holding type, he knew he couldn't do it without her. "I need a smoke."

"You've gone two weeks without it, suck it up," she said.

He smiled. "It makes me edgy."

"You need a backbone anyway. It doesn't hurt to have a little attitude."

"Do you think they'll like it?"

"It doesn't matter if they do."

Brian looked at her. "I almost forgot."

She slowly turned to look at him; she squeezed his hand, and for the first time since they had met, she gave him a very soft, lady-like smile. "Are you satisfied with it?"

"Of course not. But I like it anyway."

Then they both turned and watched the opening credits. Laughter was already rolling through the audience, which was a good sign.

Carmichael had almost protested against the small specks of humor peppered throughout the film, but Rain had ripped the phone out of Brian's hand and whispered threats into the receiver. It was a good judgment call on her part. A script without a little humor, or even some charming irony, was just as bad as Life without any.

The music was festive, but still personal and captivating. It was something soulful that only Chris and Eileen could produce. Brian resisted the temptation to close his eyes and listen to it. There had been those late nights, while he was looping through two-, three-minute scenes over and over again for sound checks and continuity that he had closed his eyes to listen to the music. They seemed to intuitively understand scenes even without his direction.

Maybe there was a certain level of trust involved that made them such an unstoppable team; it was this kind of trust that left their music unguarded and relatable, simple, but still water-marked. It was Love music.

He looked over at Rain, watching the screen with her self-satisfied smirk. He had resisted the temptation on several occasions, of course, with no prompt from her. Maybe he was emerging from a thick fog, and the caul that had been over his eyes was slowly shredding away. His heart was beating with excitement. A little bit of Carmichael's desires and a little bit of his own were in the film—two unavoidable taints on the piece, no doubt, but maybe without it… maybe without the blind and blatant desire shining through, the truth wouldn't be as clear.

"Alright, here comes the corny exchange," Rain whispered. "It's so unnatural. I still wish you would take it out."

"I like it," Brian said with a carefree smile. "Sometimes you have to let a little of it in."

-

Carmichael got off the phone and retreated to the master bedroom, hopping onto the bed. Their new place was small, but it was the best he could manage with his and Jennifer's income combined.

"What did Brian say this time?"

"They won best film, best screen play. Two others, but I couldn't hear what he was saying. I think he was drunk."

"That's nice," Jennifer said, and reached out in front of her, groping the bed.

Carmichael held her hand and placed her glasses in them.

"Thank you." She put them on.

He went back to reading. "No problem." Then, as an afterthought: "Still no sign of Louisa."

"She'll come back. Brian is a nice boy."

Carmichael said nothing. He thought again about returning as well. Even though he had forfeited his scholarship, he still planned on going back, when Jennifer was back on her feet again. He'd written enough screenplays, but maybe the message wasn't coming through clearly enough. And with Nora's insecurity, he was sure she had probably latched herself onto some other mother fucker.

But that was fine. He liked to fight.

"What are you reading?"

"Anna Karenina," Carmichael said. He sipped on his water.

"Again?"

"Yes," he said.

"Alright then," Jennifer sighed, flipping through her magazine.

-

Nora plopped in the sand beside Brian, taking off her sunshades. She hugged her knees, looking out at the sea.

"Boring, isn't it?" she yelled over the seagulls.

"Of course not," he smiled.

They sat in silence for a long time. They had started their day early, unsure of where they would go. They agreed that wherever they'd be, they'd want to have a good time. They had blown some of their money on an expensive Italian restaurant, went shopping together for hats and shoes and shirts, walked about aimlessly, and finally landed in Santa Barbara for their last lazy Sunday afternoon before the new Fall semester.

They had sat at a bus stop and smiled at cars, dogs, and passerbys. Talking had been at a comfortable minimum, and, once or twice, Brian had smiled at her so warmly, she forgot where she was.

Nora had gone weeks in an almost dormant state, growing to really love herself. She had been thoughtful, thorough, disciplined, and reserved. And even when Carmichael had forfeited his scholarship, she still took thorough notes for him, had dragged herself through the Spring semester, no matter how tedious or banal it got, went to every single class, aced almost all of her finals. And no matter how stressful the nights got, where Brian grew despondent and edgy (he had lasted the whole summer without a single cigarette), she did her best to prod him awake to stay on top of his deadlines. The men in her life no longer caused her pain; it was possibly her greatest joy to learn how to (in Rain's words) "suck it up."

And every time she saw Brian sitting alone on the porch, she felt real pain for him. He had been trying so hard, saving up his money, working with trainees, going to parenting classes, finishing up film after film, researching, studying, preparing for an internship. He was trying so hard, but even when she felt real pain for him, she could not feel angry for him anymore. He himself wasn't angry; he was still full of joy, stress, excitement, thoughts, things to do. Despite the moments of sadness, she was sure he, too, was very happy to live for himself and was learning to really love himself.

It seemed that the awkwardness of living with strangers without having first learned to love herself was like being in a room full of funhouse mirrors. She finally realized, after all this time, that without being able to see herself as clearly as a picture frame, things were always a little terrifying and confusing. One couldn't help but close one's eyes, she reminded herself, yes, even after the fact. Fear was a constant. But these days and the ones before it and the ones after it remain dreadfully clear, these days wait as beautifully and brightly as the sea and sky horizon to be looked at, in all their boring clarity, their solidness, their vapidity. Then, a house full of strangers becomes a crystal full of shining faces, each a telling and deeply personal truth, each refracting a pure and perfect light as good as the next.

Just a few days ago, she had wondered to herself how many more strangers she'd meet and rub hearts with, how many more strangers that would show her more about herself. The thought itself brought quick, sharp, bright bursts in her chest, and she had walked that day with an excited euphoria. Today, she was peaceful, almost resigned to the unknown.

A mother with two young children ran past, each holding a plastic pale and plastic shovel, trotting down toward the beach, becoming little wiggling silhouettes in the distance. Their laughter and the waves and the terrible, grating sound of seagulls sounded almost like the non-sounding sound of rushing thoughts. Soon, Nora had nothing in her head but smiles and the beach.

"I love you, Nora," Brian said, staring at the waves. He squinted as the wind blew his hair back.

She smiled slowly at him, knowing that he didn't mean it in the way she might have once wanted him to mean it, and yet, it was still so wonderful for her. She tucked her hair behind her ear and scooted through the sand closer to him until their knees touched.

"I love you, Brian," she said, biting back happy tears. She didn't want to frighten him; she also didn't want to frighten herself.

It might never mean the same thing, to anyone. Not films, not music, not photos, not plays, not books, not words, nor Love.

"It's nice, isn't it?" Brian mused after he had watched the sea gulls circling overhead dive into the sea.

"It is," Nora said, deep down from the bottom of her heart. She leaned her head against his shoulder, smiling as the sun shone brilliantly and directly into her eyes. It was dipping low into the horizon now, along with all the color and sound around her. She was sure that all meanings converged at one point and became the axis on which all hopes turned.

If this weren't the case, she was sure that it would be impossible to live with strangers at all.

End.