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Wilde Like Me by Louise Pentland (26)

AS SOON AS WE open the door to Sarabeth’s on Park Avenue, I can feel my dopamine levels rising. This place is the best. The smell, the gentle colour schemes of creams and golds, the happiness of all the people inside. In the distance I can hear music playing, and instantly I realise it’s mine and Simon’s song. I haven’t heard this in years, and wish I wasn’t hearing it now. I’m already anxious enough worrying about what just happened with Langston and what Natalie will think if I get fired. This place was just calming me down, and now a song is set to push me back over the edge. It’s funny how you can feel so completely over someone but then something hits one of your senses and you are utterly triggered. Hearing our song instantly takes me back to happy times when I felt secure and safe, and all of a sudden I remember I’m far from home and feel quite on edge. Determined not to let a song ruin my day, I focus on the food to come. The smell of French toast is in the air, and nothing can be that bad when brunch is on offer.

‘You OK there, Twitchy?’ Piper asks, noticing my obvious discomfort.

‘Ha. Yeah, I was just thinking about Simon, actually,’ I muse back.

‘Ew! Why?’ Piper asks in surprise.

‘This music reminded me of him,’ I say, in more of a sigh to myself than a response.

‘Do you still miss him?’ She places a hand on my arm. She’s so sweet.

‘No, I just have him in my memories. He was such a huge chapter of my life, I can’t not think about him sometimes. I loved him. He was my everything, really,’ I say, scuffing at the lobby floor with my foot, allowing myself a second of extra time to gather my thoughts. ‘I thought we’d spend the rest of our lives together, grow old and die together and then poof! It’s over. It’s actually amazing how hard you can fall for someone and then, years later, how little they mean to you.’ I look up at Piper, who is listening intently. I’m surprised at my own outpouring. I’ve been so used to just existing at home that coming here, to the busiest city in the world, is allowing my brain to be quiet and actually think for a second about what it’s been through. It feels good, so I let it carry on. ‘I mean, not little, he’s Lyla’s dad, but that magic is gone. That connection. I didn’t think it would be possible to have something so special and then for it to be nothing. It’s just a sad concept. I don’t miss him so much as I miss what I thought I was going to have.’

Wow, that got deep quickly. I breathe out a sigh so big the woman in front of me turns round in shock. She quickly turns back when she sees me tearily blinking back at her. I didn’t even realise I thought that. Sarabeth’s is clearly a trigger point for more than just brunchy goodness.

‘I know, yeah.’ Except I don’t think she does know. ‘Let’s just get some carbs and eat our feelings instead.’

‘Good plan!’ Eating my feelings isn’t something I’m new to, so I gladly end the chat, hold back the waterworks and walk over to the maître d’. I’ve been longing for a Sarabeth’s for days, and I’m not going to let my brain spoil it for me. Shut up brain, it’s tummy’s turn today!

We’re led to a table and I almost physically swoon. God, that would be embarrassing: ‘Oh, so how did you cut your head open, miss?’ ‘I physically swooned at the sight of a table filled with breakfast foods and fell and smacked my head on a hotplate.’ ‘Don’t worry, miss, we see it all the time.’

Nested in the corner by the back wall and window at a table laden with well-polished silverware, we take our seats and open the heavy menus. Everything looks like heaven.

Leaning towards the berry bowl and then almond-crusted French toast, I close my menu with a satisfied thud and look up at Miss Dovington Junior. Of course, she looks relaxed and glowing. I can imagine her in the gallery, walking around looking effortlessly stylish and giving her opinions and instructions for how and where everything should go. She’s so comfortable in her skin, you can’t help but respect her.

Silver leather pointy-toe flats with a delicate buckled-up ankle strap, another pair-of-straws skinny jeans but this time in a very soft washed-out blue, slimline silver belt and a crisp white shirt tucked into her jeans with three buttons undone at the top, she looks simultaneously effortless and absolutely amazing. She’s thrown her hair up in the type of topknot she’ll claim only took three seconds but if I were to do it, it’d take forty minutes, and slicked on some popping-pink lipstick and a couple of layers of mascara. I think if Piper punched three holes into an empty cat litter bag and wore that she’d still look better than me. A bit like Natalie, really. I must attract amazing women. That’s actually quite a nice thought …

I’ve gone for a more casual look, as always, but not for lack of trying. ‘Boyfriend’ jeans (such a cruel name for jeans – they’re not my boyfriend, I don’t have a sodding boyfriend, and even if Theo took the coveted title, I’m not sure my thighs would crush into a pair of his anyway), a slouchy black H&M cotton tee and once-white Converse that I bought because Lyla had a pair and I wanted us to match. My hair is also up, but in an it-really-needs-a-wash ponytail. Thankfully I took the time to fully cleanse and moisturise last night, so my skin is glowy and my make-up looks chic. Gotta use the skills you have, eh?

Piper is finished with her menu and leaning across the table looking at me with mischief in her eyes.

‘Go on then, it wasn’t just admiring his art, was it?’ I say with a faux sigh, because actually I love hearing about her exploits and adventures.

‘Nooo,’ she says, as if she’s revealing the most tantalising piece of information you’ve ever heard. ‘Ooohhh nooo … oooo he’s incredible!’

‘You say they’re all incredible while you’re with them, though.’

‘I’m not with him with him, I’m just seeing him,’ she retorts nonchalantly.

‘What’s the difference?’ I ask.

‘Well, I just go over and see him or hang out with him, but he’s not my boyfriend. I’m not bothered about that bit.’

‘Isn’t that the best bit?’ I’m amazed people feel this way. All I want in the world is the holding-hands-and-sharing-our-problems part. Sure, I want the fizz and thrill of the chase and the early days hot-sex-before-work, but mostly I just want that connection you don’t find in a friends-with-benefits kind of set-up.

‘What? Having to listen to their problems or hold hands at their boring work events or provide soup and tissues when they’re full of snot? No, thank you! I just want to go over, have some company, hang out, go for drinks, maybe explore the city a bit and leave it at that. Simple, easy, exciting.’

‘Wow. I wish I could see it like that.’ It’d certainly make life with Theo feel a lot better. Maybe this is actually how Theo thinks?

‘You can,’ Piper says, sitting back, picking up her fork and putting her fingers on the prongs, gently musing her idea over. ‘You just have to cut your heart off from your brain a bit. Maybe it’d do you good to put yourself out there a little more.’

I blush slightly, thinking about how much I put myself out there the other night, but I don’t think she’s noticed.

Best change the subject. ‘So, Callum’s just sex and fun, is he?’

‘Yes. Oh my God, Robin, he’s incredible. We went back to the studio, he took five seconds to show me a canvas and before I knew it we were all over each other. It was so raw and animalistic! I could barely even think it was so hot. He’s ripped. And tall and strong and absolutely massive. I mean his dick is absolutely huge, and as he thrust into me he did this thing with his fingers that—’

‘Yep! Yes! OK! Thank you, Piper! I’ve known you since you were five, remember. Weird, weird, weird!’ When did my best friend’s little sister become this sexual minx-like creature? I’m sure we were playing with Barbie and Ken about four nanoseconds ago. Now she looks like the Barbie and there are a lot of Kens playing with her. Ew, ew, ew.

‘Shut up!’ laughs Piper. ‘We’re all adults now! I’m sure you’ve had loads of hot sex in your life!’

Uh-oh, I can feel all the blood rushing to my cheeks again. I’ve not had lots of hot sex in my life but I’ve had pretty explosive sex this week. Every time I think of it my body tingles.

‘Are you blushing?’ Piper says, putting both hands flat on the table, clearly thrilled with her observation and what it might mean.

‘Me? No, I don’t think so. It’s so warm in here, isn’t it? Shall we order?’ I say, reaching for the menu, trying to busy myself enough to distract her.

As if all the gods are smiling down on me, the waitress arrives to take our orders and I do go for the berry bowl, the almond-crusted French toast plus a hot chocolate. You’re only in New York once, right? Piper orders fruit and granola and a green tea, and I realise she doesn’t share my philosophy about eating everything in sight in this city.

Thinking we can move on, I start up the conversation again.

‘So, Lacey called me the other day and said she feels like it might be a good month,’ I offer, to fully swing the conversation round. ‘The conception app thing says all the signs are good. And her nipples hurt, apparently. Maybe she’s right! Maybe there’ll be a new baby next year!’

‘Lacey always thinks it’s a good month, bless her. I try not to talk about all of that with her too much; I don’t think I’m much help with ovulation chat, and I’m ever fearful that I’ll upset her more. I just want to cheer her up and make her smile. Sex chat, that’s where I am. So, tell me, Miss Wilde, what’s going on?’ Piper says, leaning forward, eager to work out what, indeed, is going on.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I say, trying to look as innocent and confused as possible.

‘Yes you do, you’re bright red and being skittish. I’ve known you forever, remember. Something’s up. You did something with Mr Marry, didn’t you?’

She’s literally a psychic now, is she?

‘OK, yes, I did.’

‘I knew it!’ Piper is euphoric, for fuck’s sake. ‘Sooo, how was it? Where was it? Was he good? Are you in love? Are you going to marry him and have all his babies?’ she says, overenthusiastically clapping her hands together and smiling wide.

‘For someone who just had to explain the difference between seeing and going out with, you’re awfully quick to jump the gun,’ I laugh as the food arrives. I feel like a king looking at all this glorious breakfast food. Why isn’t this more of a thing in England? Why have I spent 99 per cent of my life settling for non-brand cocoa pops? I’m clearly not living.

I go to pick up my fork, but Piper’s huge eyes are piercing into me in a way that suggests she’s not going to let me eat in peace until I spill.

‘OK, Mr Marry is Edward. He works in creative design, is British and has lived out here a while but flits back and forth.’

‘Oooh, a local boy!’ Piper says, doing a little clap. She’s so into this.

‘I suppose so, yeah. So, we had a few drinks, quite a lot of drinks, actually, talked for a while and then the bar was closing. I didn’t have my bearings and you’d abandoned me and so, well, we went to his,’ I say, nodding and picking up my cutlery to eat. Even though I’m full of glee at having something exciting to talk about for once, I’m holding it in in an ‘oh, I’m so casual, I always have hot sex with hot guys in New York City, don’t mind me, la la la’ kind of way. God, I love this place. I’m exciting in this place. I have actual exciting things to be coy about!

‘So it’s my fault then, is it?’ Piper smiles as she eats a tiny spoonful of crunchy little brown flakes and yoghurt.

‘Ha! Yes! Completely! His flat is tiny and there was nowhere really to sit and the drinks were really quite strong and Piper, I just thought, “Fuck it, I’ve been so good for so long, always trying to do the right thing, I’m just going to let it happen”, and it did. He poured wine, we kissed, we did it.’

‘“Did it”,’ Piper repeats. ‘We’re not in sixth form any more, Robin, you can say “sex”, you know.’

‘OK, we had sex,’ I say, letting myself just say it with ease. ‘Sex!’ I add, once more with confident liberation.

‘Was it good sex?’ she asks, smiling, amused at my new-found brazenness.

‘I think so.’ I do think so. I don’t have a lot to compare it to – there’s only been Simon and Theo – but whenever I think about it, I feel good; sexy.

‘You think so?’ she says, looking at me over her cup.

‘It was good, really good, actually. It was different, though. It’s only ever been Simon or Theo, and then all of a sudden, with no warning at all, it’s a new man and there are new things to deal with,’ I say, hoping she’ll pick up on my tone.

‘By “new things”, do you mean his dick?’

‘Shhh, yes, Piper, yes, his … dick.’ I’m blushing so hard at this point, I think people are looking. She’s so far ahead of me in the confidence stakes, casually dropping the D-word over brunch.

‘He was lovely; everything was lovely. He spent a lot of time on me, and I felt really good.’ I hope this satisfies her. Thinking about it, Edward’s the first man who really has spent that time on me. I smile at how much of a nice guy he is. There should be more Edwards in the world.

‘But his dick, though.’ Piper interrupts my thoughts matter-of-factly as she spoons more gluten-free nothingness into her mouth.

‘You’re not going to let it lie, are you?’ I say, half-exasperated but half-amused at her boldness. I give in. ‘He had a great dick! Very straight, very … thick.’ I end up giggling. This time last week I was doing the school run, frazzled and tired, and now I’m in New York talking dicks over toast.

‘You need to get a grip!’ says Piper, alarmed at how inexperienced I am at this kind of chat.

‘I already did!’ I quip back, and we burst into full-on laughter.

We eat our way through our orders and chat a bit more about Callum. Piper clearly has no issues telling me every detail, every moan, every movement. I hear so much I almost feel as if I’ve had sex with the oh-so-marvellous Callum myself.

‘So, how do you feel now you’ve had your first official one-night stand?’

I sit back, partly to take stock and partly because I’ve eaten so much it’s hard to breathe, and think for a moment. I’d always thought that if I had a one-night stand I’d feel dirty and used. Mum used to refer to her friend’s daughter Amy as a ‘cheap tart’ because she used to ‘sleep around’, and I think that sort of stuck with me. ‘Nobody wants to marry a tart who gives it away on the first night,’ Mum would say.

The thing is, last night I didn’t care about that. I didn’t want to marry Edward. I wasn’t anticipating a relationship, or anything further than what was being offered in the moment. I felt free and liberated to just make choices on the spot without thinking about the future. Without thinking about the consequences. Without thinking about Lyla.

I instantly feel a pang of guilt for actually relishing the thought of not having to think of her. Does that make me a bad mother? No, surely not. This won’t touch her. She’ll never know her mother went to a bar that served drinks full of sweets, drank too many and then went home with a man she didn’t know. Talk about not remembering Stranger Danger! Jeez.

Despite all of that echoing of mum’s dated sentiments, and my own motherly guilt whirring around in my head, I don’t feel it. I don’t feel cheap or bad or dirty. I went out and did something I wanted. I felt sexy. The way Edward touched me made me feel so wanted. It was urgent and fierce and passionate, compared to Theo’s sometimes lacklustre approach. Did the world shake for me when we finished? Maybe, yes, a little bit. Am I expecting him to contact me again? No, not really. Am I overly concerned about either of these things? No! Not really! The last thought makes me smile. How refreshing to feel so free. Not torturing myself with ‘what ifs’ and ‘was I good enoughs’, and just being happy about what happened. I went out, had fun in a bar, had decent (three positions and a bit of oral isn’t to be sniffed at, is it?) sex with a decent man, and that’s that. Move on. There’s more of New York to see. And do, apparently.

‘Piper, I feel great. I can do whatever the fuck I want,’ I announce triumphantly.

‘And what about Theo?’

‘What about him? I’m not his girlfriend!’

With that, Piper enthusiastically throws both hands in the air and proclaims, ‘Champagne! More champagne!’

‘What? It’s ten thirty in the morning!’ But that doesn’t stop us. We spend the rest of the day hopping from one ‘this is my favourite little spot’ to another – drinking and eating whatever we fancy off the menu on account of my new-found sexual liberation, and because Piper tells everyone who’ll listen, ‘It’s about bloody time!’

ON MONDAY THERE’S A weird calm on set. The actors seem more relaxed, and Marnie in particular has such a light way about her, she almost seems like a different woman.

Natalie has recovered, and we set out our things in silence, quietly noting the difference in atmosphere but not yet asking why. Sarah bursts through the doorway, ecstatic.

‘Have you heard?’ she says, bounding over to us and clipping on her brush belt all in one movement.

‘Heard what?’ Natalie replies calmly, but I can tell she’s intrigued too.

‘He’s gone! Got fired last night! Langston’s off the movie and a new female director is being brought in today!’

‘Good grief! What on earth happened?’ Natalie says, slightly shocked.

‘I dunno, but whatever it was, I’m glad. There were so many rumours flying around about the way he treats women. I’m glad he’s finally had to face the music. He was a grade-A jerk.’

I’m about to change the subject and try to carry on with the day as normal when one of the film executives we met on set the first day comes in. He gives me a knowing glance, and I instinctively look at my shoes as if I’m a five-year-old about to be told off.

Instead of scolding me, he asks for a word with Natalie, who puts down her palette and walks away with him, not even looking at me as she leaves. In the pit of my stomach I can feel a giant knot forming. What have I done?

‘CHEERS!’ NATALIE AND I both say, a bit too heartily since we’re on our fourth drink of the night now.

‘Robin, I’ve got to say it, you’ve astounded me. I always knew there was a spark in you, but this – well, this is something more. Recording that prick on your phone and sending it to the execs took such courage. I don’t know what inspired it, but I’m proud of you,’ she says with real sincerity.

‘I didn’t really think about it that much. I just knew there needed to be a result. I thought about Lyla, and how I’d protect her from anything, and it all just kicked into gear. After I sent the email I realised I needed Marnie’s support – she’s agreed now to back it up with a written statement but to be honest, I just went for it. I didn’t have a chance to think about how it would affect my job or the agency or—’

‘You’re being utterly ridiculous! You’ve done wonders for the agency! We’ve been booked for the entire five-film movie franchise, thanks to our “ outstanding code of ethics and moral integrity”, Robin! You did that! I was trapped in a hotel room with my head over the loo feeling absolutely rotten, and there you were, sealing the biggest deal we’ve ever had! I’m amazed! Thrilled! More drinks, I think!’ she says, downing the one we’ve only just toasted ourselves with. She’s really going for it. I’ve been out for drinks with Natalie before, and she can definitely handle herself, but this added enthusiasm for drinking seems a little bit out of character, actually.

‘Wow. I didn’t think it would go that far. I just wanted to stop him hurting Marnie and the others,’ I say, taking another sip of my still quite fresh cocktail.

‘You did a good thing. I’m proud of you.’

With that praise from the woman I’ve admired for years, I say cheers again, down my drink and spend the night on a happy cloud of boosted ego and liquor.