“Geez, I can almost feel sorry for her,” Lyle mutters once we make it safely outside. “Her whole fucking life is falling apart.”
“At least she has her husband,” I say lamely, pulling the phone out of my purse. “God, I would give anything for a cigarette.” Lyle silently pulls a pack out of his shirt pocket and hands it over. I look at him in surprise.
“Paris’s.” That’s all he says, but it’s enough to crack his façade. The tears start flowing again. I allow him to cry as I open the pack of cigarettes—American Spirits—which, thankfully, carries a lighter as well. I pull out one and light it up gratefully, allowing the nicotine to enter my system. I flick on Paris’s cell and stare at the number. Lyle is still crying.
“Lyle, listen to me,” I say softly. While I am sympathetic to his pain, I can’t have him falling apart on me. “You want to find out who did this, right?” Lyle nods his head, gulping back his sobs. “Then help me. Do you recognize this number?” With those well-chosen words, Lyle sucks it up and stares at the phone’s display. He shakes his head before holding out his hand. I’m puzzled until I realize what he wants. I light up a cigarette and hand it to him. He falls upon it as a starving hyena would a carcass. “I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I don’t. Quit years ago. Only once in a while.” A social smoker like me. I puff on my cigarette before dialing the number on the screen.
“Hello?” A delightfully husky voice answers.
“Um, hi.” I am at a loss, feeling like a telemarketer making a cold call. “Ma’am, you don’t know me, but—”
“Are you going to sell me something?”
“You from a charity?”
“I just wanted to get that out of the way. Proceed.” She laughs exuberantly, her personality practically spilling through the phone lines.
“Um, do you know someone named Paris Frantz?” I’ve sucked down half my cigarette without even tasting it.
“Is this a joke?” A wary note has crept into the woman’s voice, and I regret that I’m the one who caused it. “How did you get this number? It’s unlisted. I’m going to call the police this very—”
“Ma’am, please, no,” I say, hurrying to get to my point. “Paris is my best friend. He’s been, uh, in an accident, and I’m trying to locate people who might have spoken to him yesterday.” That sounds innocuous and contains enough truth to be plausible.
“Paris in an accident! Is he hurt?” She sounds frantic now as she demands the details.
“Ma’am, I don’t even know your name. Please, I’d rather not talk about this over the phone. This would be much easier to do in person.” Lyle makes a face at me for uttering such a corny line, but what am I supposed to say?
“Do you live in San Francisco?” She asks, suddenly businesslike. “Where are you right now? I can have a driver come pick you up. Or, you’re probably at the hospital! I can meet you there.”
“Uh, ma’am, I don’t think that’s a good idea if you’re who I think you might be.” I can’t afford to tiptoe around the issue, not when Paris’s life hangs in the balance. “His mother is in town, you see.”
“He told you, did he?” She exhales loudly, sounding deflated.
“Just that his birthmother called him.”
She wants to meet right away. She lives in Marin, but prefers to come into the city. When she finds out that I’m in the Mission District, she’s delighted. Even though she’s in Marin now, the Mission is her old stamping grounds. She sounds cheerful for the first time since the beginning of the call. We arrange to meet at Luna Park in an hour. I’m not hungry, but I’m eager to meet Paris’s birthmother. I ask her for her name and how I will recognize her. She doesn’t answer; I think she’s hasn’t heard me and am preparing to repeat the question when she asks if Paris hadn’t told me who she is. Hurt tinges her words. I hasten to reassure her that he wanted to wow me by telling me in person, but wasn’t able before his accident.
“Oh, I see,” she says, her voice lighter again. “Then I’d prefer to tell you in person, to honor Paris’s wish. So how will we know each other?” I look down at what I’m wearing. Not exactly appropriate for Luna Park, but I don’t have the energy to run home and change.
“I’m wearing a blue sweatshirt that says ‘Every day is A Brighter Day,’ and jeans,” I say, blushing at the corniness of the sweatshirt. I fought hard not to have such an asinine inscription, but was outvoted. “It’s the name of the agency where I work. A Brighter Day, I mean.” I sound like an idiot.
“Oh, you work there? I’m on the board,” she says pleasantly. “What do you do?”
“I’m the administrative assistant,” I admit, my face tingeing red. I’m not embarrassed, exactly, but it’s not something I crow about. “Oh, my name’s Rayne, by the way, and I’m Asian.” I pause before adding, “I’m five-two. Uh, I have short hair.” In some places, it would be enough to mention that I’m Asian, but not in San Francisco.
“I think I’ll be able to spot you much more easily than vice-versa,” she laughs. “I’m a tall middle-aged woman with frizzy blond hair and wide hips. That matches half the population!” I join in her laughter, relieved to let go for a minute.
“I’m going to meet her at Luna Park in an hour,” I say excitedly to Lyle who is hanging on every word. “Wanna come?”
“That would be so cool!” Lyle’s eyes light up, but then dull. “I should probably stay here.”
“Lyle, that’s ridiculous. It’s only for an hour or so. You need to get away.” I am firm in my conviction. Ideally, Lyle would go home and take a nap, but that isn’t going to happen.
“Well, ok.” Lyle crushes out his cigarette and tosses it in the garbage. I follow suit. We hurry inside to inform my mother and Mrs. Jenson that we will be gone for a short while. I am dreading what Mrs. Jenson will say, but to my surprise, she takes it calmly. I nod gratefully to my mother before Lyle and I head out. Lyle drives as he is a better driver than rider. We are early, of course, so we walk to Dog Eared Books, a used bookstore down Valencia. We browse for a bit.
“I don’t care what you say! The new book by Ursula Meadows is bound to be awesome!” The soft butch blond who works behind the counter is arguing hotly with the Anthony Michael Hall look-alike. The blond has fake nails painted red that flash ominously as she talks. “She really captures the heart of San Francisco, you know?”
“Oh, come on, P. J.,” Anthony says contemptuously, sneering down his aquiline nose at her. “She’s got quite the little scam running. Lukewarm romantic fantasies wrapped up in ‘historical’ verbiage.” I can practically see him making the quotes in the air though he doesn’t lift a finger. “Just because she sets her books in the early 1900s doesn’t mean she’s relevant.”
“But her literary allusions are so incisive,” P. J. protests, narrowing her brilliant green eyes. “Face it, Francis. You just have a bug up your ass because she turned you down when you hit on her!” I muffle a laugh as Francis’s face suffuses red. Score one for P. J. I rummage my memory for a Ursula Meadows. Details float into my mind. Best-seller. New York Times review. Danielle Steele with a modicum of actual talent. Married to her third husband, mother of three—two by the first husband, one by the second. The kids at private school. The eldest daughter did a stint of community service for vandalism or something like that. The girl was fifteen at the time. Moving to San Francisco approximately the same time. I remember reading Ursula’s breakout book, And San Francisco Wept, two years ago and thoroughly enjoying it. P.J. and Francis are now talking about Michelle Tea, one of my favorite local authors.
“We better go,” Lyle says, breaking into my contemplation. With a last glance at P. J. who is too involved in her conversation with Francis to notice, I follow him out the door. My cell rings as we walk towards Luna Park.
“Vashti!” I say with pleasure after glancing at the number.
“I am not liking cell phones for this very reason,” she says without preamble. “You are knowing who I am before I even speak.” She pauses before adding, “How is Paris?” My mood crashes as I think about my best friend lying motionless beneath a hospital sheet.
“He’s out of surgery,” I say in a flat voice. “But he hasn’t woken up yet.” I struggle to keep myself under control, if only for the sake of Lyle who is watching me as I talk to Vashti. “Oh, Vash, if you could have seen him!” I burst out, heedless of Lyle. “He was so still! What if he doesn’t wake up?” The blood drains from Lyle’s face, though I’m sure he’s thought of that as well. He grips my arm tightly.
“Don’t you say that!” He shouts, shaking my arm. “He’s got to wake up, do you understand me?”
“Lyle, I’m trying to talk on the phone,” I hiss, attempting to break free. Lyle is strong, though, and he holds on.
“I’m sorry, Rayne,” Vashti says softly. “Is there anything I can be doing for you?”
“If you say he won’t wake up, you may curse him,” Lyle continues, though in a calmer voice. I hate talking to two people at one time, so I motion for Lyle to zip it.
“Not right now, Vash. I just—he’s my boy, do you understand? I have to be there for him.”
“You’ve given up on him!” Lyle says, still clutching my arm. I finally shake free and rapidly walk away from him.
“I understand. You are needing to be with him. You will be calling me when you are able?” Vashti asks, her voice breaking a bit on the last word.
“Of course! I’ll call you tomorrow, ok? Oh, and tell the girls for me, will you?” We say our good-byes and I hang up. As soon as I click off, I turn to Lyle.
“Lyle, you have to pull yourself together. Paris needs for you to be strong right now. I know you’re feeling shitty—I am, too, but you can’t afford to fall apart. Got it?” I stare at him, waiting until he nods before starting to walk again. We are silent until we reach Luna Park.
“I’ll be good,” Lyle says in a voice so low, I can barely hear him. Taking a deep breath, I open the door. The hostess bounces over to greet us. She has her lush, red hair pulled up in a high ponytail, and her perky boobs are spilling out her tight, white t-shirt. She has shiny cat-green eyes and a wide smile. As she nears us, I stifle a groan. It’s Jade, a woman who, unbeknownst to us at the time, Paris and I simultaneously dated. She knew that we were best friends and set to come between us. Paris and I have no qualms about sharing, but not at the same time. Our rule is that there must be a three-month window between the time one of us is through with someone and the other of us begins. Jade wreaked havoc on our rule as well as our friendship for one intense month.
“Oh my god! Rayne, is that you?” Jade reaches over and envelops me in a mammoth hug. I stiffen at the contact. I may be a Californian raised by hippie parents, but there is still a vestige of Taiwanese ancestry in me in that I don’t like to be touched in social situations. “I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age,” Jade drawls, clapping her hands together. “And who is this tall drink of water?” Jade is from Texas, and living in San Francisco for five years has done little to soften her accent.
“I’m Lyle,” Lyle says automatically, holding out his hand.
“I’m Jackie,” Jade giggles, her hand lingering in Lyle’s. She actually bats her eyelashes at him before turning to me. “How is the scrumptious Paris doing? Still breaking hearts?” She says to Lyle before I have a chance to respond. “Have you met her best friend? I was liken to die when I went out with him. Unfortunately, he got bored with little old me.” There is a flash of malice on her face which she doesn’t bother hiding. “You did, too, didn’t you Rayne? Y’all dumped me the same day, as I remember.” Her giggle isn’t quite so carefree this time.
“Jade, we’re meeting someone for a late lunch,” I say, cutting into her gibes. What she neglected to mention was that she stalked both me and Paris for an additional fun-filled month after we dumped her—which we did because we discovered she was dating us both under different names—confronting us in public. I call her Jade because that was her name when she dated me. Paris knew her as Jenny. Apparently, she is now Jackie.
“Really?” She opens her eyes wide and leans forward so Lyle gets an eyeful of cleavage. Fortunately for him, he plays for the other team, or he’d be bamboozled by the waft of pheromones she’s sending his way. “Who might the party be?” She is using her snooty tone which means I’ve pissed her off.
“Don’t know her name,” I shrug, fighting the urge to slap her silly. “Woman in her mid-forties. That’s all I know.”
“Oh yes. The one looking for the Asian.” Jade wrinkles her bobbed nose as if she’s smelled something rancid. “She didn’t say anything about a hunk being with you.” She smiles at Lyle, ‘accidentally’ brushing her breast against his arm. He politely draws back and gives her wide berth. She sashays us over to a corner table where there is a single woman sitting.