“American Idiot” — Green Day
“Don’t kill me.”
Nine hundred feet up in the November wind, it’s hard to enunciate properly, especially with the barrel of a Glock nine-millimeter jammed in your mouth. They don’t tell you these things on the Travel Channel.
Gobi takes the automatic out from between my lips. Her eyes sparkle and shine. I think about what she told me back in Venice, what she said at the hotel that night. That all seems like a long time ago now.
She smiles, blood and lipstick smeared over her face. Down below, blue lights on the Champ de Mars flash off the steel framework of the Eiffel Tower, warping in the rain. Over her shoulder I can see the gendarmes on the other side of the observation platform with automatic weapons, yelling at us in the language of love. I remember just enough from two years in Mrs. Garvey’s French class to decipher “police” and “surrender.”
“As tave myliu,” Gobi says. With her free hand, she reaches out and brushes the wet hair out of my eyes. Her fingers are ice cold. “Your hair is getting shaggy, mielasis.” Then she points the pistol back at my head.
“Just tell me what you’ve done with my family.” I’m begging now, and I don’t care how it sounds. “Just tell me where they are.”
“I am so sorry, Perry.” An almost inaudible click as she switches off the safety. “Au revoir.”
Chapter 1: “All These Things That I’ve
— The Killers
“Miss me?” she asked.
I leaned forward to kiss the ice cream from her upper lip — maple fudge ripple, arguably the best flavor in the known universe. We were standing barefoot next to the picnic tables by the Twin Star on Route 26, watching the gray waves of October rolling up and crashing on the shore.
Me and Paula.
It was fall, the best time of the year for this battered stretch of shoreline that Connecticut shares with the sea. All around us, the rest of the beach was deserted, a long, unhurried curve of sand, eel grass and wooden fence slats bullied and pushed over sideways by decades of rough Atlantic weather. During the summer this place was mobbed with families and kids, teenagers, bikers, couples — my parents had even come up here on a date once, according to family lore. Now it all felt pleasantly haunted, the parking lot almost empty, the restrooms already locked up for the season, leaving the two of us and the guy behind the ice cream counter just itching to put up his handwritten see you next summer! sign in the window.
High above us, seagulls squeaked and wheeled in the gunmetal sky, sounding lost and far away.
Paula hugged herself and shivered. “It’s chilly.”
“Here.” I took off my Columbia sweatshirt and wrapped it around her shoulders. “Better?”
“Always the gentleman.” She smiled and looked down at the beach, her cell phone still clutched in her hand from the call that she’d just finished. “So, do you want to hear the big news?”
“I thought you’d never tell me.”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“I just got off the phone with Armitage . . . and he wants to book Inchworm . . .” — she paused, making me wait an extra splitsecond — “ . . . for the whole tour.”
“Twelve cities in eighteen days.”
“No way.” I laughed, and she grabbed me, and I hugged her, lifting her up off her feet and spinning her around. “Paula, that’s unbelievable.”
“I know!” Her smile had blossomed into a full-out grin, and I looked at all eleven of the sun freckles across the bridge of her nose.
I’d counted them when we were waiting in line for one of the rides at Six Flags last month.
“How did that happen?”
“I told you the new songs were great, Perry. Armitage heard your demo and flipped.” Now she was clutching my hands, bouncing up and down on her tiptoes with excitement. Her toenails were painted a very dark shade of plum, almost black, and they looked great against the sand, ten little black keys, like the kind you use to play ragtime. “He’s booking you guys on a twelve-city tour, starting in London on the twenty-ninth, then Venice, Paris, Madrid . . .”
Paula got out her phone, clicking up the screen. “I’ve got all the dates here.”
“This is amazing,” I said. “I can’t wait to see Europe with you.”
She sighed softly, and her shoulders sagged a little. “I wish.”
“Wait — you’re not coming?”
“Armitage needs me here in New York. And I’ve got to be back in the studio at the beginning of December. Moby’s recording a new album in L.A., and . . .” She saw my expression. “Hey, maybe I can sneak out to Paris for a weekend.”
“I’d like that.”
“Perry, this is a huge step for you guys. If this works out . . .”
I smiled. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“I’m serious,” I said. “You made this happen.”
“Well, that’s sweet of you to say.” Her blue eyes sparkled, appearing and disappearing as her hair blew in front of her face. She’d spent most of the summer in L.A. and somehow held on to her tan into the fall, so that her blond hair looked even blonder by comparison.
“But we all know who really deserves the credit.”
“You wrote all of those new songs, Perry.”
“Norrie and I wrote them together.”
“Then you and Norrie are the next Lennon and McCartney,” she said. “And now the entire European Union is going to find that out for themselves.”
“This is amazing.”
“I know.” She frowned a little, seeing the hint of apprehension in my eyes. “What?”
“Nothing — it’s just great news.”
“Stormaire . . .”
I smiled. “I just wish you could go with me, that’s all.”
“You’re adorable.” She kissed me again, and the kiss lingered this time, her mouth warm and soft against mine, her hair tickling my ears.
She stood there looking at me. We’d been dating for less than three months, but I’d told her everything, and she could read me like a book.
“Europe’s a big continent, Perry.”
“You don’t even know if she’s there.”
“It’s not like you’re going to run into her.”
“I never said — ”
“You didn’t have to.”
“I wasn’t even thinking it.”
“There’s a reason why I’m not sending you guys to Lithuania,” Paula said, and squeezed my hand. “Come on. I’m cold. Let’s walk.”
Paula and I had met back in the beginning of August, at a party in Park Slope, not long after I’d seen Gobi for the last time on the steps at Columbia. It turned out that I didn’t really know a lot of people at the party, one of those friend-of-a-friend-who-wasn’t-really-afriend type of things. Someone kept playing old Elton John tracks on the iPod docking station, and I was in the process of saying my goodbyes when a voice I’d never heard before said, “Hey.”
That was how she’d started out, as a voice over my shoulder, sounding raspy and unfamiliar and amused. “You’re that guy,” the voice said.
I turned around to look at her, my brain immediately struggling to crunch the numbers. Laid out on the chalkboard, it would’ve gone something like this:
(blond hair) + (blue eyes) x (killer body) = don’t even try
Chapter 2: “Ever Fallen in Love”
Yet here was this woman, a little older than I was and a whole lot hotter, not only looking at me but actually seeming interested.
“I saw your picture in the Post,” she said. “You’re Perry Stormaire, right?”
“You’re the guy whose house got blown up.”
“That was insane.”
“Yes,” I said, because I never know what to say in these situations.
She was referring to what happened on the night of my senior prom, three months before, when the Lithuanian foreign exchange that had been living in our house — a girl named Gobija Zaksauskas — turned out to be an assassin with a hit list of names. With
Gobi’s gun to my head, we’d spent the night careening around New York City in my father’s Jaguar while she killed her targets one by one, ending with my house getting blown up. Describing the night as “insane” could arguably be considered an insult to the mentally ill.
“Your family was all right?”
“And they never found that woman’s body?”
“Destroyed in the fire,” I said. “That’s what they think, anyway.”
“Wow.” We stood there for a moment, and she seemed to realize that she hadn’t introduced herself. “I’m Paula Daniels.”
She held out her hand, and I shook it in that smiling, somewhat awkward way that people shake hands when they’re flirting, and it occurred to me that that’s what we were doing. When a couple of people stepped past us on their way through the door, Paula edged a little closer, her bare shoulder brushing against my arm, and the
party noise seemed to fade way down in the mix so it was as if just the two of us were standing there talking to each other. Something happened right then. It was that weightless moment when you stop worrying about riding the bike and just starting riding it.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” she said.
“Was it all true?”
“Are you kidding?” I said. “I couldn’t have made that stuff up.”
“I had a feeling.” A tiny smile touched the corner of her lips and echoed in her eyes with a shimmer that I could almost hear, like the soft chime of an incoming text message. “I pride myself on my ability to separate truth and bullshit.”
“That’s a rare talent,” I said.
“Not as marketable as it used to be.”
“Maybe you should be a detective.”
She laughed an easy, natural laugh. “I bet you get asked that a lot.”
“You know — fact or fiction.”
“Actually, no,” I said. “It’s weird, but most people don’t really seem to care.”
And it was true. They had read about what happened with me and Gobi on prom night in New York in the newspapers and seen it on TV, posted about it on their blogs, forwarded it and “liked” it on Facebook and tweeted about it to their friends. As far as the American public was concerned, what happened to us that night was the truth, yet another improbable chunk of “reality” gone viral in a post-MTV world, and everybody had just kind of accepted it and moved on.
“So you’re not a detective,” I said.
“What do you do besides read the Post and go to parties in Brooklyn?”
She smiled, cocked an eyebrow. “There’s more to life?”
“Depends who you ask, I guess.”
“Fair enough. The truth is, I work in the music industry.”
I felt my heart do a little stumble-step in my chest, because this conversation really did seem to be entering the department of Too Good to Be True. “Really.”
“You know,” I said, “that’s funny, because I sort of play in a band.”
“Inchworm.” Paula nodded. “I remember from the story.”
“Yeah.” I was starting to think I could really fall in love with this girl. “Well, ah, anyway . . . we all decided to take a year off before college, just to see if we can make something happen. If not . . .” I shrugged.
“If you don’t try, you’ll always wonder.”
I nodded. “Exactly.”
“You should slip me your demo.”
“Absolutely. I work for this European promoter, George Armitage— ”
“Wait a second,” I said. “The George Armitage?”
“Are you kidding? Armitage is, like, the hottest promoter in the world right now. Ever since the Enigma festival in the U.K. last summer, plus he owns his own airline . . . You actually work for that guy?”
Paula smiled. “Well, I’m sort of the liaison between him and the labels. Technically I’m on Armitage’s payroll, but I spend about half my time in L.A., working with new bands in the studio. It’s kind of a position that I created for myself.”
“That sounds amazing.”
“I grew up in Laurel Canyon.” Paula reached up, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “My father was an A&R guy back in the day, worked with all the legends — Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, the Eagles.
Madonna and Sean Penn practically got a divorce in our pool.
It’s in my blood.”
And that was how it started. People talk about fate and luck and blind chance, and even now I’m not sure where I stand on those issues, but I will say this: In the weeks and months that Paula and I got more serious, I found her to be exactly as confident, ambitious, imaginative, and funny as she was that first night, and as I got to know her better, I sort of ran out of adjectives. She was that mixed mouthful of flavors, the kind of person that would walk through a farmer’s market and in the middle of a conversation about Soviet cinema in the 1940s, pick up two bananas and pretend they were her eyebrows.
And she was unfathomably beautiful, totally out of my league.
The kind of girl you write songs about. She was twenty-two years old, and I was eighteen.
Then again, historically, I tend to prefer older women.
But hows the sex????
I looked at my iPhone, knowing the message was from Norrie before I even got a look at the screen. He was the only one that texted me on a regular basis, even though we saw each other practically every day at practice. Everybody else — including Sasha, our lead singer, and Caleb, our guitarist — just called.
It’s awesome, I typed.
A long pause, and then:
yr still not getting any, r u?
“Who are you texting?” Paula asked from the driver’s seat.
“Is There Something I
— Duran Duran
I switched off the phone and stuffed it in my pocket. “Norrie.”
“Did you tell him yet?”
“I told him there’s a band meeting at my house in an hour. I want it to be a surprise. Unless Linus already talked to them.”
Linus Feldman was our manager, a five-foot-two, hundred-and-eight-pound Jewish tsunami who’d blown in sometime last summer from the wilds of Staten Island. He was old-school management, a scarred veteran of a dozen legendary management teams from back in the go-go eighties, when rock-and-roll was minting millionaires on what seemed like a weekly basis. From the moment he’d come out of semi-retirement to represent Inchworm, he’d been waiting for someone to try to take advantage of us so he could rip their head off. So far, to his great disappointment, we’d been treated with an unprecedented level of fairness and respect.
“I’m not sure how crazy Linus is about the idea.”
“A European tour? How could he not be thrilled?”
“He’s got his own ideas about the band,” Paula said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
She signaled left and turned from the beach road onto the twolane highway and I watched the ocean receding in my side-view mirror, each of us lost in our own thoughts.
I checked my phone to see if I might have missed any more texts, but the last one was from Norrie, accusing me of not yet having sex with Paula. Unfortunately, he was right. Paula and I had spent hours on the couch, kissing until our lips were numb and tingling, and we’d done plenty of other stuff, basically everything you can do — but the Deed itself remained undone.
It definitely wasn’t Paula’s fault. She’d made it pretty clear that she was ready whenever I was, which I guess made me one of the worst deal-closers of all time. Throughout junior high and high school, all I’d thought about was the day I’d finally get rid of the
virginity problem. Now here was Paula with her knockout face and smoking body — an experienced woman, no less — patiently waiting to teach me so that I wouldn’t knee-and-elbow my way through the chicken dance of sexual initiation the way my parents’ generation had, decoding the lyrics of bad eighties hair-metal power ballads as our Kama Sutra. Exactly what did you say to a girl after she shook you all night long? And was pouring some sugar on someone as sticky as it sounded?
We were an enlightened generation. Chow had lost his cherry to his girlfriend back in his sophomore year of high school, Sasha and Caleb had never had any problems scoring (“Dude,” Sasha once said, with absolute sincerity, “why do you think we even play in a band?”), and even Norrie sounded like he was at it pretty routinely with his current girlfriend. Here I was, paralyzed at the starting line, waiting. For what? True love? A sign from God? A long weekend in Paris?
Therapy was what I needed, and a lot of it. Meanwhile, I wondered if there was a Virgins Anonymous program in some church basement somewhere, or at least a cult in southern Connecticut in need of one to sacrifice.
Throughout it all, Paula remained super cool about the whole thing. She always said she’d wait until I was ready. But how long before her anticipation turned to exasperation?
Meanwhile, I tried not to think about it.
It was a great plan, and sometimes it almost worked.