It's easier to list the things you do talk about.
"Look, just let me fix it, okay?" and even though you said it quietly, hissed it, he's awake when you put the phone on the nightstand and turn toward him. You look more upset than you'd hoped, maybe, because he sits up and you can see the question taking shape in his eyes. Quickly, before that shape becomes more familiar, you say, "My mother."
He doesn't lie back down. "Everything okay?" he says, and his hand moves closer to yours. He doesn't touch you, though.
"Yeah. Yeah." He waits out your smile. "It's just - there's this thing, with the restaurant. A bunch of business things. It's stupid - I just wish she could just give in, once in a while."
"Moms," he says. He doesn't smile. "You don't have to tell me about moms."
"She's not - I mean, she's only looking out for me. She just... she worries, that people will try to. Take advantage, I guess."
"You don't have to tell me about moms." You feel a little guilty until he looks down at your hands on the sheets and says, "It was... for me, at least, it got easier. If maybe there's something you could give her. Except not give her, like ask her. If she could take care of something for you, really help you out? And she's in charge of that, and the rest you just kind of, move out of her way a little. So she can concentrate on the big important thing that she's in charge of." He looks up and now he smiles. "If it could be something you didn't care about? That's the best thing."
You laugh a little and his smile spreads across his face. It's like sunshine. His hand slides across the sheets and covers yours.
Nick's hands look clumsy. Clumsier. They're big, but a little smaller than you're used to. His fingers are a little stubbier.
They look clumsier, but they aren't. Not at all. The opposite, really, so quick and deft you gasp in surprise, the first time he's in your bed, the second time you're with him. He looks up at you with his hair in his eyes and smiles.
"What?" he says, and you have to catch your breath before you can answer him. He smiles wider.
"I never knew," you say. "I never knew, I never knew you were..." He's making you gasp again, and you're glad. The reason you never knew is that you never looked at him.
"I never was," he says later, much later, when you're draped limp as a rag doll across his chest. He has one hand on your hip. It's big, but a little smaller than you're used to. You let your forehead roll against his and try to make your lips shape the question. "I never was like this. Before."
He doesn't mean before you.
"Honey," he says, and there's something in his voice you've never ever heard there. "Honey," he says again, and you freeze just inside the open balcony door. He can't see you. He's not looking.
"No, no, just listen," and his fingers twist in his hair and pull. You can hear the white strain when he speaks. "Please," he says, and "Listen, no, listen," and finally, words measured out carefully like medicine, sweetened only by the softness of his voice, "You got to take care of you."
He listens for a while and then says, "Okay, okay," and "Right, but you just make sure." He can't help smiling at the end when he says, "Love you more."
He hangs up the phone and says softly to the ocean, "You got to take care of you."
You walk up next to him and say, "How's Aaron?"
He lets go of his hair and says, "He's fine." Then he looks down at you and says, "It's just - it's hard. I wanna - I don't want him to do stuff, stuff that's kind of, you know, but there's pressure and he... He's all, well, you did it and you're okay, and I'm like, maybe you wanna aim a little higher than that, you know?"
You nod and look out at the ocean. "You know," he says, and his hand slides down the railing of the balcony and covers yours.
"It's just - I gotta balance, you know. Let him know I'm fucked up enough that maybe he shouldn't do the same things, but not so fucked up that he shouldn't be listening to me at all."
"You're not so fucked up," you say, but his mouth swallows everything after so.
Nick is fucked up the first time. Drunk off his ass and it's a party, so it's okay, and you've seen him fucked up worse before. You're kind of fucked up too. That's why you do it.
At least, that's why you do it in the back room three hours after Lance and JC and anyone else who'd tell have already left.
Nick is fucked up, drunk and laughing a drunk laugh, a little bit too loud and a little bit too stupid and you're not even sure he recognizes you. A big hand closes over your shoulder and he lurches against you and you push him back against the wall before he can fall on top of you. He smiles a big crooked smile. "Brit!" he says, a little bit loud and a little bit stupid, and you reach up and yank his head down and kiss him before he can yell anything else.
He's there, that's why you do it. He's there and he's hot and he seems to like you, and right now that makes him a member of a pretty exclusive club. You're not even a member.
Nick is bigger, and it's not that he's that much taller or even heavier. It's not his dick, either, to your everlasting regret, not so much because you're into that as because you love the idea of being able to yell that into the phone. It doesn't matter, though, because it's not like you couldn't just lie about it.
It doesn't matter, though, because it's not like your calls are getting taken.
Nick just feels bigger to you, though, rougher, a big awkward boy with his hands clapped over your cheeks, forcing a few strands of your hair into your mouth along with his dick. He babbles when he comes, short round sounds that don't sound like English, but you doubt he speaks any other language. He sinks down to the floor when you push back from him, down on the floor with his legs spread out in front of him and a big stupid smile on his face.
"Brit," he says, "oh, Brit," and even drunk as he is he's still got what you think of as a TV voice, stripped of anything you could call an accent. There's nothing in his voice but the words, simple and easy and sweet.
You wipe your hand across your mouth and walk out of the room.
Nick isn't fucked up the second time. He's sorry, he says that a lot, and looks up at you and twists his hands in his lap. "I'm sorry - it couldn't have been much fun for you," he says, and his hair is in his eyes and he's still there and he's still hot and he still seems to like you.
The second time you're pretty sure he's only doing it because he's sorry. You don't mind. He's still big, bigger, although he's not rough and he's not awkward and he doesn't even seem much like a boy. You're not sure why you ever thought he was, except that maybe you wanted him to be. He's not any more, though. Maybe you don't want him to be.
"This time," he says, "this time, we got to take care of you," and you come three times before he even slides into you, gentle and graceful and you want him to be.
Nick isn't fucked up the third time, either, or the fourth or the fifth or any time after that.
"Why?" you ask him and he smiles at you, one hand spread out across your stomach.
"I like it," he says. "Don't you?"
"Yes," you say, and he puts his head back down again.
"I did that one! They thought I'd like it, cause you can eat a bunch of meat, but it's crazy because you can't eat fruit or bread or anything!"
"I did too! It's good - I lost all the weight real fast, but it's like, how many meals in a row can you just eat bacon?"
"I know. I got so sick of it - Kevin told them I was gonna convert to Muslim if they didn't let me just stop."
"What else did you do?"
"Oh, God, a bunch of stuff. But none of it ever worked."
"Cause I'd cheat." He smiles easily and that lets you smile, too. "See, all the guys would - see, I'd feel all bad when management would talk to me, and I'd promise, and then when the guys got mad at them they'd say, 'Nick wants to do it,' and then they couldn't say anything, and I felt like a baby saying I didn't mean it. But all the guys knew, so they used to sneak me stuff, like Brian one time got his mom to FedEx us fried chicken across thirteen states, and after a while people just got tired of bugging me about it and I didn't have to. I don't have to worry about it anymore."
"Well," you say, "it's not like you were ever fat, anyway."
He smiles even wider and knocks his knuckles lightly against your forehead. "Hello," he says in a high funny voice, "hello, it's pot. Can kettle come out to play?"
His fingers slip down your face and brush against your laugh.
Nick lies on the bed and watches you put on your makeup. He's naked, he's usually naked when you're together, he doesn't usually put on clothes unless he has to go out. You have your clothes on. You have to go out.
You never go out together.
You sit at your vanity and do a quick touch-up. You're just going to meet some friends but you know your picture will get taken and you can imagine the headlines if you look like hell. "You don't have to do that," he says. "You look good."
"I look better with this."
"You don't need it."
"It's fun." He looks at you skeptically and you beckon him. "C'mere and I'll show you."
"I've worn makeup, Britney," he says but he gets up off the bed. He sits next to you on the bench. You can see his tan lines, hip and thigh. You press your hand lightly to the pale warm skin below his waist and there must be a little lipstick or something on your fingers, because you leave a small purple fingerprint there.
"What?" he says, and brushes a hand across his hip, smearing the mark you left. Under the bright light above the vanity, you can see where he's breaking out a little at the edge of his jaw. There's a small patch of rough skin below his right temple. His lips are chapped.
"Here," and you hold his face still. You spread your fingers out over his skin, smooth over his cheekbone, sharp with stubble under the heel of your hand. He opens his eyes wide. His mouth falls open. You've done this before. You don't think he has.
You look over his shoulder and see him again, reflection of a reflection in the mirror. You trace a thick black curl of eyeliner down his right cheek and he watches himself in the mirror without blinking. "Here," and you push a small circle of eye shadow toward him and let him go. His eyes don't even flicker toward you. He picks up the brush, absurdly tiny in his hand, then lets it drop. He dips two fingers into the shadow and drags them over his mouth. His smile slices through a streak of violet.
Nick works slowly but without hesitation. You know that he knows, of course, almost as well as you do, all the tricks - how to make his skin glow subtly, how to redden his lips almost naturally. He seems to have forgotten those lessons. He handles the familiar tools as if he's never seen them before, rubbing eye shadow over his jawline, edging his lips with blush. He ruins two hundred dollars' worth of lipstick, gouging pieces out of the sleek curves and mixing them in his palm. You don't say a word as he stains the skin below one cheekbone the color of blood.
You slide to the floor as he starts to paint his face in precise, intricate swirls of gold and green and blue. Finally he stops and stares at his reflection. You stare up at him. His face shimmers and he starts to smile. He stops when the thick coat of makeup threatens to crack at the corner of his mouth. He lifts his fingers and smoothes the colors back into place. He leans a little closer to his reflection. Then he sits back again and smiles, widely, thin lines radiating out over his face like ripples in a pond. He looks like nothing you've ever seen.
You don't go out after all.
In the morning when you wake up he's gone. You sit up and see a note tucked into the corner of the vanity but you don't read it. Instead you look at yourself in the mirror. There's a smear of green and gold over your cheek. The same colors streak across the pillow next to you in deep vivid curls, like the scales of some strange animal.
"Can you fly out to meet me here?"
"Italian or Chinese? I got menus for both."
"Room 621. It's not under my name, though."
"What name is it under?"
"Um. Happy. Ralph Happy."
"You expect me to ask for Mr. Happy?"
His laugh is warm as summertime.
"I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but even if you're high, Scooby-Doo sucks."
"Did I leave a gold earring at your place?"
"Can you maybe -" he says, and then, "No. No, come on in."
Brian is sitting on the bed. He stands up when he sees you but he doesn't say anything. You can tell he's seen yesterday's Post by the way he doesn't smile at you.
"I can leave you guys alone for a while," you say, but Brian shakes his head.
"No," Brian says, "I have a plane to catch." Brian doesn't look at you when he says it. He puts his hands over Nick's face, palms spread against Nick's cheeks, and says, "You know, you know we just want you to be happy."
"I am happy."
"As long as you are," Brian says, but his voice is high and a little doubtful. He doesn't let go of Nick.
"You better get going. You'll never forgive me if you're not there when that baby gets here." Nick's smile fades when Brian doesn't match it.
"No, I wanted to come. I'd never forgive myself if I didn't ... just think about what I said, okay?"
"I know, but you just make sure, okay?" Brian tips Nick's head down and raps his knuckles lightly against Nick's forehead. "You got to take care of you."
"I know," Nick says, and the smile is there again, smaller but still strong. This time Brian smiles too.
"We just worry," Brian says. "Try and remember, okay?"
"Love you," Nick says.
"Love you more," Brian says, and picks up his bag. "Good night, Britney," he says on his way out the door. He still doesn't look at you.
"Sorry," you say when the door shuts behind Brian. "I didn't know he was -"
"He just flew in last night. He had to go right back but he wanted... he wanted to see me."
"Sorry," you say, "I guess that wasn't -"
"No," he says. He sighs and looks down at you. "It's just - they worry. He worries. I wasn't - for a while, I wasn't, and they aren't really sure yet that I'm... They worry."
"Sorry," you say, "he must have seen -"
"Yeah," he says. "It's okay. He just..." He looks down and smiles, that small strong smile. He's not smiling at you. "He loves me."
Nick never goes out with you, so he's not there when you run into Joey. Flash bulbs flare as Joey smiles at you. You smile back at him and put your hand on his arm. "How's Bri?" you say.
"Bitch," Joey says softly, still smiling. He puts his arm around you and turns you toward the cameras. "I always thought Carter was dumb, but not this dumb." He digs his fingers into your shoulder and for a second you think he might hurt you, Joey who danced with you and got drunk with you and threatened to beat up people who made you cry.
"Dumb as he is," Joey says, "he'll still be too smart for your shit." He steers you away from the photographers and snatches his arm away from you. You look up at him, biting your lip, blinking hard. He smiles down at you.
"Cry me a river," Joey says.
Nick never goes out with you, so he's not there when you run into Chris and JC. You're leaning against the back wall of a club, smoking, rubbing your hands together in the cold. It's just started to snow and you've got your head tilted back to watch it, white flakes swirling around you just like you've seen in the movies.
A hand plucks the cigarette from your lips and a familiar voice says, "Ah ah ah. You're going to ruin your voice." Then Chris thrusts the cigarette roughly back between your lips, Chris who taught you how to blow smoke rings and how to play poker and once helped you steal three hotel floors' worth of do not disturb signs. "Oh wait. I forgot who I was talking to. Smoke away."
"Chris -" you say. He leans against JC's shoulder. JC crosses his arms and looks down at the ground.
"Seen you in the funny pages, Ms. Spears," Chris says. "I just got one question, though. I mean, what the fuck can the two of you possibly have to talk about?" He smiles at you, and you know he'd hurt you if he could. He can. "I mean, aside from the obvious?"
"Chris," JC says, JC who helped you with your algebra homework and let you dye his hair with Kool-Aid and wore the friendship bracelet you made him on MMC until it fell apart. "Chris, come on." You look at him gratefully and he smiles at you. "Do you really think he talks to her?"
Chris laughs and slings an arm around JC's neck and lets JC guide him back into the club. You stand out in the cold and smoke.
Nick never goes out with you, so he's back in the hotel room when you get there. You think he'll be asleep, but he's standing naked in front of the window watching the snow. "Isn't it great?" he says when you edge up next to him. "It's like being inside a snow globe." His skin is warm when you lean against him. His arm wraps easily around your waist.
You stand next to him and watch the snow fall.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
He laughs and rolls onto his back. The sun's in his eyes and he squints at you. "I am grown," he says.
"You're not playing right," you say. You've got his guitar in your lap and you're trying to play Yesterday. You learned it a while ago but you're having trouble remembering it. You can see him wince a little when you hit a really wrong chord but he doesn't say anything about it.
"Okay," he says. "This." He puts his hand up to his forehead and shades his eyes. You can see his smile. "This is what I wanna do when I grow up. How about you?"
"I want," you say. "I want to be happy," and there's a catch in your voice you didn't mean to put there.
"B," he says, and you put the guitar down and crawl over to him. You put your head on his chest and he runs his hand up under your hair and cups the base of your neck.
"Are you happy?" you say. There are a million things you and he never talk about and this is second on the list.
"I am," he says. You tilt your head back, still cradled by his fingers, and you can see his smile. It's the second sweetest thing you've ever seen in your life.
"You're happy," and your hand's on his stomach and it's like you can feel his smile on his skin, all over him. He's happy.
"You're happy with me," and it's not even a question when you say it, not even a question until you see the surprise in his eyes.
He wasn't smiling at you.
"B," he says, and there are a million things you and he never talk about, so many it's easier to list the things you do talk about, and right now you can't think of one.
"B," he says. You try to move away but his hand's still tangled in your hair and he's not letting go. "I'm happy now," he says. His other hand is covering your own, keeping it on his stomach. You can still feel his smile all over him. "Right now," he says, "I'm happy."
"I'm not," you say, and there's no surprise in his eyes. His smile's gone.
"I know," you say, the words falling over each other, "I know, it takes time, it's hard, and I just have to remember that everybody's fucked up, everybody feels alone, it's hard for everybody. I know, I know," and you smile up at him, press your smile into his skin like it's catching, like you can make him smile again.
"I don't know," he says quietly. "I don't. I don't think everybody's fucked up, and I don't think everybody's alone. And I don't think - it's not hard, for some people." He looks down at you. "For some people, it's not."
"Was it for you?" you say. He looks down at you. There are a million things you and he never talk about, but for the first time you wonder if his list is the same as yours.
"Yes," he says, and you smile at him, suddenly. You can't help it. You couldn't explain why if you had to, but then his smile breaks through, suddenly, as if he can't help it, and you know you won't have to.
He presses his smile against the top of your head and you can feel it against your hair. "I'm happy," he says, low, and you can feel it more than you can hear it. You know it's true.
You hope it's catching.