For the first time in weeks, Deborah has her whole entourage with her. Marcus and Damien and Ava and all the noise and energy they bring. And for the first time in her career, she finds their presence unbearable.
The first few weekends on tour, she’d missed having Marcus there to whisk her away at the end of the night, missed hearing a mile-a-minute barrage of updates from Damien as she settled into the back of the car. But somewhere along the way, Deborah finds, she’s gotten used to it just being her and Ava. Not that Ava’s quiet. She’s a nervous rambler at the best of times and a self-righteous millennial—definitely not Gen-Z, Deborah had checked, not that one less generational divide between them makes a difference, not that she has any reason to care—with a rant on anything and everything at the tip of her tongue at worst. Even still, somehow, inexplicably, Ava’s grown on her. Like fungus, she’d tell Ava, but it feels suspiciously like something else she’d rather not name.
Speaking of, there’s suddenly an oversized hand landing on her thigh to get her attention—and a completely unsubtle look from Marcus at that.
“Holy fuck, no way is this an Airbnb.”
Marcus doesn’t deign to look up from his iPad. Just says, “It is.”
“Nah, dude, I’ve looked for Airbnbs in Philly. Everything was some half-sized studio you’d be sharing with a guy named Vinny. This has to be from, like, Airbnb, one-percenter edition.”
“It’s called booking in advance. Without the price filter set at $90 per night or lower.”
Deborah sighs. She can already feel a headache coming on, and there will be none of Ava’s endless supply of edibles and late-night Law & Order marathons with Marcus around and weeks’ worth of administrative work to be dealt with. With a deep breath, she tries to let their bickering wash over her as they head into the rowhouse Marcus has booked for the week.
By the time they’re through the front door, Marcus is already giving her the full rundown of their schedule for the week. “Tomorrow we’ve got the interview with Sofia from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s culture section, followed by back-to-back meetings about new possible product lines. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday I’ve got you booked at the QVC Studio.”
“Wait, have you been flying cross-country to sell your marble bathroom counters for years?” Ava interrupts. “D, I’m all about the PJ, but we’ve gotta talk about your carbon footprint.”
“You think I’d fly across the country to some Pennsylvania suburb every week?” (Deborah would and did for a while there. There’s nothing like losing every cent you have to guarantee you’ll never say no to a golden opportunity. But Ava doesn’t need to know everything.)
“We fly to California for taping—something you’d know if you paid attention during meetings,” Marcus says, eyes flicking down at the phone permanently attached to Ava’s hand. He turns his attention back to Deborah. “They’re obviously excited about all the opportunities having you in the Studio will entail. We have a sit-down dinner with Nancy—you remember Nancy, right?”
“And a few of her team members on Thursday. It’ll be an opportunity to pitch new product lines, smooth over any lingering hurt feelings after the shapewear incident.”
Deborah gives him a nod, tries to seem enthusiastic about work that’s always been steady but has never given her the same high that being on stage does.
“Shows Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Helium, then we’re wheels up Monday morning. You’re sure you’re okay driving down to DC? I can always push back check-out and get the jet back to you.”
“We’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, you’re leaving her in good hands.”
Deborah glances over at Ava and bites back an E.T. joke. She thinks, from the way Ava wiggles her fingers and raises her eyebrows at Deborah, that she heard it anyway.
Ignoring Ava entirely, Marcus reaches out to take the notes Deborah’s been making on the copy of the schedule he handed her in the car. “I’ll go get these changes into the calendar and let you get settled in. Just because we’re all on West Coast time doesn’t mean you are. Here, I can show you the rooms.”
“Thank you, Marcus.” She reaches out and squeezes his arm. “I knew you’d keep things running back home.”
His smile eases into something genuine at that, and in an instant, Deborah flashes back to their early years of working together, the rush at feeling something almost like security. At least until Ava yells from the bottom of the stairs: “You coming, or do I get first dibs on the rooms?”
Marcus stands with a huff, then, and Deborah adds forcing those two to work out their shit to her mental to do list. There’s only so much she can handle, and, as Ava might say, their little feud is harshing her vibe. Deborah follows behind them, watching as they bicker over who’ll carry her bags up to her room.
“You’re there,” Marcus grunts at Ava, pointing at what Deborah assumes is the smallest room, before directing Deborah across the hall to her own. “Do you need anything else?”
“Oh hey neighbor!” Ava calls out, sweeping into the room before Deborah can answer him. “Sick room. Aw man, and you’ve even got your own private bathroom? Score.” Ava bounces down on the bed, sprawls across it like she’s gotten so very used to doing these past few weeks. “Wanna workshop any new bits before bed?”
Marcus gives Deborah a pointed look. “I suppose I’ll leave you to it. Unless you needed adult supervision?”
“We’re fine, Marcus.” Deborah folds her arm and meets his glare, holding it until he backs down. Didn’t earn her reputation as a power top for nothing, dammit.
Once Marcus has headed to his own room, Ava blinks up at Deborah. “You actually wanna workshop anything? Cause SVU starts in five minutes on USA, and I’m game if you are.”
It’s dangerous to play this game with Marcus down the hall. Dangerous to play it at all. And, besides, the tour’s almost over. It’s time to start shifting things back to normal again, no matter how little the old normal seems to fit her tastes these days. Deborah forces a yawn. “Think I’ll call it an early night.”
“Oh.” Something like disappointment flashes in Ava’s eyes. “Right, yeah, of course.” She pushes herself up from the bed, shoots Deborah double finger guns, and slouches her way back across the hall.
Deborah closes the door, gets herself ready for bed, and tries not to think about why the room feels so fucking empty.
The best thing about having Marcus around is how quickly the days fly by in a blur of scheduled meetings and to do items. He’s ready to go at 8 on the dot each morning, coffee in one hand and an iPad in the other. There’s no lounging in bed clicking through random channels for reruns, no begging Deborah to indulge in room service and try the cinnamon buns because “the concierge swears they’re amazing,” no running back up the elevator the second they hit the parking garage because a diva cup has been forgotten and “my app says any day now, D, I can’t be unprepared!”
Deborah spends her days filming in the QVC Studio with Marcus nodding from the wings and Ava making obscene gestures at her from the audience. She nearly laughs on live television multiple times.
She and Marcus listen to pitches for new product lines, and she asks him for his thoughts, takes notes on what he says, and watches as some of the hurt from the shapewear incident seems to fade away with every thoughtful question she asks of him.
After their dinner with Nancy and her team, Deborah asks Marcus to stay—“Just one more drink.” Once they have new drinks in front of them—stronger than the wine from dinner—she turns her gaze on him. “You’re good at this. You know you are. But don’t make me your whole life.”
“You heard me. That water cop of yours, hmm, how’s he?”
“Uh, Wilson’s fine.”
“He is! He went on what I’m sure was a lovely trip to go bouldering and wear hideous toe shoes and get away from it all.”
“And you were…?”
“Making sure you had something to come back to in case…”
“Deborah, don’t make me say it.”
“You’ve never hesitated before.”
“In case this all fell through. Are you happy now? She convinced you to go for this…this brand new thing that had you bombing—your word, not mine—for the first time in decades. Then she stabbed you in the back the first chance she got.”
Deborah takes a long sip of her drink. Pauses. Considers her words. “And what do you see now?”
His brow furrows. “What do you mean?”
“You’re here. Surely you’ve been watching my late night appearances, listening to my podcast interviews, following all the coverage about me—don’t deny it, you’ve got a Google notification set up for every variation of my name. So tell me: what do you see?”
He sighs. “People like the new act, I see that. But it was a risk, there was always a risk that it would fail.”
“Yeah, and the Palmetto was a sure thing until it wasn’t.”
“I know you could have. Would have. But now you don’t have to trade favors and make secret deals to get me the smaller room and preserve my pride.” He winces. “She’s not the only one that’s gone behind my back.”
“It’s different, Deborah.”
“It is.” She looks up, waits until he’s holding her gaze. “But listen to me when I tell you never again. Don’t you ever try to fucking coddle me and offer me up like some consolation prize—a little extra income for Marty while you all cart me off to the basement stage just to make me feel like less of a washed up old hack.”
“That’s not what I did. I saved—”
“You saved us a guaranteed income. A slot to keep me busy Friday and Saturday nights.”
He sits back, squares his shoulders. “And? You were willing to blackmail the club owner, Deborah. I was keeping you from doing something you’d regret even more. The kind of stunt that gets you banned from Vegas clubs altogether.”
“Well guess who’s in high demand now?”
“You,” he sighs. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t all come crashing back down around you with one stupid move again.”
She sucks a breath of air in through her teeth. “You gonna put that one out on the table, too? If you’re trying to tell me what to do, don’t pussyfoot around it.”
He folds his hands in front of him. “Fine. You mixed business and pleasure with Marty. Tell me how well that one turned out.”
“She doesn’t own the club or pay my salary.”
“No, you pay hers.”
It’s the same thing she’s been telling herself for weeks, but somehow it still feels like a punch to the gut to hear it said aloud. “Well then it’s a good thing we’re not fucking, now isn’t it?”
“You say that, but I see the way she looks at you.”
Deborah can’t bite back the snort of laughter at that. “So now she’s me in this mixed metaphor? Tell me, which one of us is Mrs. Robinson? Am I the young ingenue?”
“She’s trouble, and she has been from the start.”
“She’s an asshole and the best thing to happen to this team in years.”
“She cost you millions in legal fees.”
“And kickstarted a career reboot that’s got Netflix knocking down my door for a special. Tell me, how much does that pay?”
“I didn’t say it didn’t work out in the end.”
“Good.” Deborah downs the last of her drink and pushes the glass away from her. “Now work your shit out with her. I don’t care if you never have a friendship tour, but I can’t have you bitching at each other like the rejects from Drag Race.”
On Saturday, with Ava and Damien out on some kind of social media errand that Deborah’s perfectly happy never to know anything about, Deborah finds herself poised in the doorway to Ava’s room.
If she were Ava, where in the fuck would she have put that battered moleskin notebook?
This is what she gets for not bothering to get up and out of bed in New York to get her own trusted notebook, for letting herself be cajoled into just using Ava’s to jot down some brilliant wording for a rework of the bit about DJ’s adult piano lessons that she just can’t get right from memory alone.
The bedside table, the most logical place for a notebook, is, of course, completely empty. As are all the drawers. Why would she have expected Ava to have unpacked, really?
With a sigh, she hoists Ava’s tattered duffel bag up onto the bed and mentally prepares herself for what she might find.
Well, in retrospect, she thought she’d prepared herself.
She had been prepared for dirty laundry, for matcha powder spilling out of some little baggie or another, hell, even for a vibrator or two.
She is not prepared for a framed photo of herself, carefully wrapped in three layers of hoodies as if it’s the most precious thing in the whole bag. It takes a second before she realizes it’s not another print from her basement archives. No, it’s her, just months into her comedy career, on stage for the first time at that sleazy Sacramento club—same photo that’s been hanging on that asshole’s wall for decades.
She is equally unprepared to deal with Marcus when he calls up looking for her.
Barely thinking, Deborah grabs the photo and hurries back to her own room, before taking several deep breaths, putting on the old mask, and heading down to Marcus. Apparently he’s managed to push through some deal, and if she can just make it down to QVC again, he can guarantee her an extra 5% this quarter. It’s just as well; she still doesn’t have that damn notebook.
If she’s phoning it in at QVC, either no one notices or no one dares to say a word. They sell out anyway, and it’s enough to content everyone involved.
That evening, Deborah gets ready for the first of the night’s two shows in a haze. Finds herself up on stage before she even knows it.
Philly fans are a different breed. They give her louder laughs than almost anywhere, but they’re just as quick to catch the moment she slips, the second she’s not right there in it with them. But she’s got some line about something called “Gritty” up her sleeve that Ava had assured her would “fucking kill,” and it’s enough to win them back, to give her a few seconds to get her bearings and saunter her way across the stage, wrapping the crowd right back around her finger.
By the time Deborah gets back to the Airbnb that night, she’s exhausted. So really, it should come as no surprise that Ava shows up in her room the second she’s slipped out of her heels, demanding to know what was going on during the first set. Because that’s what she does. She watches and notices and calls Deborah on her shit, no matter how bad of an idea it is.
“I’m fine,” Deborah sighs.
“No, something’s wrong. Is it the order? Do you wanna go back to what we were working with in Jersey? I thought you liked this in Brooklyn, but we can—”
“The order’s fine.” Ava already has another question on the tip of her tongue, and Deborah knows exactly how this will go. A whole evening of Ava’s guessing until Deborah relents and gives her something. “Why do you have this?” Deborah asks, gesturing at the photo she’d brought back to her room earlier that day.
Deborah doesn’t need to explain herself to her employees. She finds herself doing it anyway. “I was looking for your notebook. Needed the phrasing we’d nailed down for—”
“DJ’s Jurassic Park thing, yeah. It’s, uh, in my other bag.”
“I was gonna give it to you after your last show on tour. Celebrate how far you’ve come.” Ava shrugs. “Guess we’re close enough now if you wanna hang onto it.”
“When did you even get back down to Sacramento?”
Deborah can feel her brow furrow and tries to remind herself to relax it. She can’t afford more wrinkles.
“I took it the first time.”
“Dead or not, that asshole didn’t deserve to have you hanging on his wall.”
It’s a cheap framed photo stolen to spite a shitty man already rotting six feet under, and somehow it’s the most thoughtful thing anyone’s done for her in a long, long time.
“Hey.” Ava’s in front of Deborah in an instant, a surprisingly gentle, giant thumb swiping across her cheekbone. “Don’t cry. You’ll get wrinkles, and then we’ll have to see Perla again.”
Deborah lets out a bark of laughter. “Fuck off. You can’t steal my own lines.”
Ava shrugs. “I write plenty of ’em. I should get to use the best ones when the moment’s right.”
Ava’s still standing there, her fingertips still grazing along Deborah’s skin. The door is ajar, and Marcus is a single wall away, and this is still such a bad idea. But when Ava leans in, Deborah can’t help but meet her halfway. It’s like the easy back-and-forth of conversation with Ava. And Deborah’s never let a punchline go when Ava’s offering her the perfect opening.
Ava presses forward, then, her lips growing more insistent as one of her hands drops down to palm at Deborah’s hip.
There’s something utterly intoxicating about kissing Ava. Deborah isn’t sure if it’s the absolute certainty that they shouldn’t be doing this or the way that Ava holds her so close, like there’s nowhere she’d rather be, but it’s a heady feeling that has her raking her nails through Ava’s hair and parting her lips for Ava’s tongue.
“Fuck,” Ava groans, and Deborah bites at Ava’s lower lip to quiet her, drawing an even louder noise from her instead.
Then Ava’s mouth is moving down to Deborah’s jaw, kissing all the way across it, slow and thorough, like the door’s not open and they have all the time in the world. She noses Deborah’s earring out of the way and sucks at the sensitive skin there, and this time it’s her own lip Deborah’s biting to keep from whimpering aloud.
“Can I?” Ava gasps against the skin of Deborah’s neck, her fingers toying with the zipper of Deborah’s dress but not tugging it down—not yet.
Deborah forces herself to swallow, take a step away from Ava, let the mask that used to come so naturally slip back into place. “Why don’t you take tomorrow off?”
Ava tilts her head to the side. A furrow appears between her eyebrows, even as a half smile tugs at the corners of her mouth. “Cause you’re planning to wear me out tonight?”
Deborah would laugh if she couldn’t hear the waver beneath the easy words. “Go…work whatever this is out of your system. With someone appropriate. Go find Gritty or whatever.”
“Jesus, Deborah, I’m not gonna fuck the city’s beloved shitshow of a mascot.”
“Well, you told me you fucked Postmates once.” Deborah shrugs with affected nonchalance.
“My Postmate! I fucked my Postmate, not a whole fucking corporate entity. Just a dude who got harder over my Vitamix than all of this,” Ava says, gesturing vaguely at her chest. Before Deborah can make a joke she’s fairly certain wouldn’t land quite so well as it would have five minutes ago, Ava ducks her head and takes a step back. “I guess I’ll go.” She looks up at Deborah through those long lashes. “Unless…”
“You should go.”
“Right. Yeah, of course.”
Ava closes the door behind her, and Deborah waits until she’s heard the thud of Ava’s shoes hitting the ground—presumably being kicked off from her bed—before turning on her heels and heading mechanically towards the en suite to take off the stage makeup and wipe away the smeared lipstick she’s sure is now all over her jaw and throat.
She glances up at herself in the mirror and ignores whatever regret she sees flashing in her eyes. There’s no place for it—not here, not ever.