Of course, that didn't mean I didn't think about what I'd done with Sean the entire two-hour shuttle van ride from Mankato to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and then a goodly part of the four-hour flight from the Twin Cities to Burbank, California. Fortunately, my father, brother, and sister were sitting in the row behind me, row 12, while I had secured the window seat on the left side of row 11. My father was doing hard-copy revisions of his latest novel, Gemma was rewatching Jersey Shore on her iPod, and Chad was sleeping.
As for row 11, unfortunately, the middle and aisle seats were occupied by a pair of adult twin ladies in wide matching poodle-themed skirts. Members of the Poodle Club of America, en route to a poodle convention in Los Angeles, they were traveling with matching champagne toy poodles named Fred and Ginger. Ginger sported a rhinestone collar and her nails were painted silver. Fred had a black tuxedo collar. Their little poodle carriers were a joke.
Some people say that evangelical Christians can get too enthusiastic in their efforts to bring church to the unchurched. I am here to say that they have nothing on the poodle ladies in their efforts to convert me to the pulpit of poodles.
Pretending to sleep was my best option, but then I really did doze off, with thoughts of Sean and what we'd done the night before dancing in my head. Not good. Sugarplums should dance in your head, not the loss of your virginity on the floor at a party and not being too pleased with yourself for having done it.
My mom had come to Los Angeles a week ahead of the rest of us to start at the church; Dad had stayed behind in Mankato so that we kids could finish our finals. The church had put her back in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, since our new home was being repainted and re-everything else, but that day it would be ready and we'd all move in. I was half convinced that the moment my mom saw us, she'd know I'd had sex. Sometimes she's spooky like that. If she asked me, I'd be dead, because I found it impossible to lie to her. On the other hand, even if she didn't ask and I didn't tell, it would still be the building of a false impression.
I could imagine her writing a sermon about that.
What woke me up was a poke in my ribs through the space that separated me from one of the poodle ladies. It was Gemma, lifting folds of poodle skirt to find me.
"We're landing!" she shrieked with excitement.
I rubbed my sleepy eyes and then gazed out the window. Thanks to Google Earth, I had an idea of what Los Angeles looks like from five thousand feet, but a computer screen can't give you the scale. It's huge. A hundreds-of-square-miles sprawl of buildings, houses, and freeways, stretching from the San Bernardino Mountains to the ocean. I got a bird's-eye view of the two big freeways, the 101 and the 405, which I would come to know and loathe well. It was just a little after noon--we'd dropped two time zones on the flight--but both freeways were stop and go. Mostly stop.
"Isn't this exciting?" Gemma squealed. "California. Thank you, Mom. Thank you!"
Fifteen minutes later, we were on the ground. I retrieved my guitar from the overhead compartment--it's a beauty, an acoustic Takamine that was an operative result of several hundred hours of babysitting--and slung a small backpack over my other shoulder, and after heartfelt hugs from the poodle ladies, I was good to go. Since it had been eighty degrees in the Twin Cities when we'd taken off, and it was the same temperature here in Burbank, I was traveling comfortably in a battered pair of no-name jeans, a Mankato State University T-shirt, and flip-flops.
The Burbank airport is mercifully small. We'd heard nightmare stories about the big Los Angeles airport, LAX. My dad made a bathroom pit stop and said he wanted to call my mom, so my brother, my sister, and I beat him to baggage claim. It wasn't hard to find the guy from the church who was picking us up. First, he had a hand-lettered sign: WELCOME TO L.A. SHELTON FAMILY. Second, he was the best-looking guy in a room crowded with good-looking people. Easily six foot two, with close-cropped and well-gelled dark hair, he had a cleft chin, broad cheekbones, and blue eyes the color of a clear May sky. He was dressed in hip-casual jeans, a white T-shirt, and a black silk sport coat.
"Whoa!" Gemma whispered. "He's hot!" She did the hair-flip thing she does whenever she approaches a cute boy. This guy, however, was not a cute boy. He had to be in his early twenties, at least. I knew the age difference wouldn't bother Gemma a bit.
I waved to the fine guy and he strode over to us with a hand outstretched. "Shelton family! Welcome to Los Angeles. I'm Xan, the church van driver."
"I'm Gemma," my sister purred through her frosty pink lip gloss. "It's fantastic to meet you." She held her hand out to him. He took it to shake but she just held on.
Ever so subtly, I kicked her in the shin. She dropped his hand. "I'm Nat." I shook his hand. "And this is our brother, Chad."
"It's great to finally meet you guys," Xan said. "Your mom can't wait to see you." He looked around. "Where's your dad?"
"Pit stop," I explained. "He drank a little too much on the plane. Coffee, that is. Because he doesn't drink much. Alcohol."
I winced, because I knew I sounded like an idiot. I'd always prided myself on not being intimidated by good-looking guys. It wasn't like their looks were something they had earned; they were merely the luck of the genetic lottery. Back in Mankato, Sean was considered a fine guy. But that was Mankato-hot, as opposed to L.A. hot. I looked around baggage claim. There were easily a half dozen guys who would zip past Sean on the Heatometer.
"Oh my gosh!" Gemma gasped, staring past me at something.
"Holy shlitz!" Chad added. That was his latest attempt to cuss without actually cussing.
I turned to see the object of their attention. It was Katherine Heigl herself, in black skinny jeans and a couple of layered tank tops, with big sunglasses perched high on her head.
One look at her in person made me realize that the comparison once made between us was almost ridiculously misguided. She was thin. Demoralizingly thin, because I had thought she was one of the few hot young actresses in Hollywood who didn't look like she was a size nothing. But she couldn't have been more than a size four. I felt positively porky. I remembered something I'd read about the camera putting twenty pounds on a person. I felt like Katherine Heigl had just put twenty pounds on me.
Chad's eyes followed longingly as a uniformed flunky arrived to whisk her away. Just then, Dad stepped into the baggage claim area. He broke into a big smile when he saw us with Xan, then trotted over and introduced himself with his usual warmth.
From the Trade Paperback edition.