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The Brie was heaving, the wind was howling, and the doorbell kept ringing. It was the second Saturday in January, and Eliza and Declan Gallahue were hosting one of their small but chic cocktail parties at their small but chic house on Via de la Paz. The party was entering its second hour. Most of the guests had already arrived and had a drink in hand and a canape in mouth. The room glowed with the warmth of the twenty–five–watt bulbs that Eliza had painstakingly put in every lamp in her living room, having extracted the usual seventy–five–watt bulbs that she favored, tucking them into a drawer for the night on the advice of her favorite decorator friend who said that it was the best way to create a festive atmosphere. Besides, didn’t everyone look so much better in the dimmer glow? It seemed to do the trick. People were relaxed, the chatter had reached a comfortable din, and most guests were already on their second drink.
Eliza tried to suppress the anxiety she’d been feeling since even before taking on the job of hostess. If only she could relax and have a good time, especially since the party was going well. But somehow she was still too edgy to enjoy her success. She tried to talk herself into it. The house looked good—she had asked her housekeeper to come early that morning to attend to all the miscellaneous upkeep, like shining the silver picture frames and ironing the monogrammed linen cocktail napkins that had seemed like such an irrelevant wedding gift but actually came in handy. In a last–minute pre–party frenzy, Eliza had run around pulling errant feathers out of deflating pillows, realigning the George Smith armchairs so that they were perfectly symmetrical, picking drooping leaves off potted plants and rearranging the small collection of Halcyon Days enamel boxes that she kept on a side table. Minor details, but now no one would say the house was anything other than immaculate. When she was nervous, no one cleaned up like Eliza Gallahue.
Eliza also knew that she looked good: after a stressful morning she had cleared her afternoon and gotten a blowout for her shoulder–length hair at Frederic Fekkai, then splurged for a session with the makeup artist. (That was one thing Eliza could never master: makeup application. Her husband always teased her about it, and begged her to get a lesson; she was so inept with an eyeliner brush that it was almost comical. Her mother had told her at quite an early age that she was hopeless with small mechanical skills, so Eliza figured there was no point in trying to get better.) And the sessions with the trainer had paid off: finally Eliza had the post–baby body that she had dreamed of. It was the first time in about four years that Eliza felt like she had returned to her old teenage self, and it had been the most grueling work of her life. She had cut the carbs, forgone desserts, put in four hours a week on the treadmill, and done more downward facing dogs than she ever thought possible. But the results were in, and now there were no inches of flab to be pinched around her waist, a major achievement. In celebration, Eliza was wearing the slinky black cocktail dress with a slit on the side that she had been saving since Michael Kors’s 50–percent–off sale, and the new Jimmy Choos that were her Christmas present to herself. Eliza usually kept things very simple and very California with her wardrobe—Gap khakis, cute skirts, and oxfords, but every now and then she would splurge and take things in a higher direction.
She looked across the room. Declan, her dark–haired, green–eyed husband, who hadn’t seemed to age in the ten years that she’d known him, was chatting amiably with Ron Freedman and Stan Smith, who were both looking very aware of the fact that they were about a foot shorter than he. Declan was a towering six–four. Eliza was pleased, though, because she had wanted Declan to get to know Stan. His wife, Pam, was on the board of Brightwood School, and besides being nice might actually be of use one day. Eliza found it scary to think that everything came down to networking, even where your kids were concerned. Getting them into the right schools, let alone getting yourself into the right clubs, etc., was daunting. But it was a simple fact of life.
Eliza had hired a bartender and enlisted their housekeeper, Juana, to pass hors d’oeuvres for the night, but she’d still rushed around refilling drinks, tactfully placed coasters under perspiring tumblers, and made sure there was enough cocktail sauce to accompany the shrimp. Frank Sinatra (Declan’s favorite) was playing softly on the stereo system. The Gallahues’ adorable toddlers, three–year–old Donovan and one–year–old Bridget, made the sweetest cameo appearance in their footed pajamas to wish the guests hello and good night. On the surface, it seemed like yet another successful cocktail party in the Pacific Palisades. On the surface.
Just then Eliza spotted Justin Coleman molesting the Brie platter. He’d arrived in one of his moods, still in a striped Armani suit and Gucci tie that was his uniform at work, and Eliza could tell that he and Victoria had been fighting on their way over. It didn’t take too keen an observer to notice, since they usually fought, but this particular fight had Eliza worried. There was just too much at stake for all of them. When Eliza had opened the door, Justin had pecked her on the cheek and immediately scanned the room to see if anyone he deemed important and ass–kiss–worthy was there, and when he didn’t find anyone his face fell in disappointment and he beelined for the couch, where he plopped himself in the middle of Eliza’s recently fluffed Fortuny silk pillows and began to scarf down the cheese platter. Eliza couldn’t help but be repulsed watching his small white hands work furiously to extricate the creamy center of the Brie without getting any mold. She hated the assholes who did that. Just suck it up—is some mold going to kill you? she thought. After every scoop, which he scraped onto a Carr’s cracker and popped into his mouth, he returned to the Brie and dug deeper and deeper into the center, causing it to heave as if on life support, until the outer white shell finally drooped in exhaustion and the entire cheese collapsed. The once tastefully arranged platter now looked like the remnants of a pie–eating contest. Brie always was messy, Eliza thought with a sigh. Why did it remain in the cocktail party canon?
“As you can imagine, he didn’t want to come,” Victoria had said tautly. Although she was stunningly beautiful, with stick–straight long blond hair, piercing blue eyes, and a figure to kill for, Victoria had been increasingly irritated and stressed of late, which did little to enhance her looks.
“I’m frankly surprised he showed,” said Eliza. “I’m surprised that any of us showed the way things are going.”
Victoria and Eliza exchanged knowing looks. But before they could continue, Pam Smith, the whippet–thin neighborhood activist, came over and interrupted.
“Eliza, the house is adorable! You have such great style,” she said genuinely. Eliza flushed with pride. Then Pam turned and looked at Victoria. “And how are you? I haven’t seen you or Justin in the longest time.”
“I know, it’s been a while,” said Victoria tersely, taking a glass of champagne from the passing bartender. Her gold bangles clanked down her arm one by one when she took the glass, and then clanked back up when she took a sip.
“Oh, well, I know you’re busy, with your two adorable boys,” said Pam, surprised at how cold Victoria was being. Eliza immediately felt embarrassed and jumped in.
“Justin’s just been working day and night lately, and Vic as usual has been running around doing everything from chairing the St. Peter’s benefit to kicking butt on the tennis team, so I think they’re both exhausted,” Eliza said, trying to deflate the tension.
“Yes. My husband is really busy these days, being every coked–out wannabe actor’s lackey,” said Victoria, grimacing before she motioned toward Justin. “Which is why he’s sitting over there refusing to talk to anyone. His ball and chain summoned him to dinner at Koi tonight, and when I told him he couldn’t go he pouted all the way.”
She was referring to Tad Baxter, one of the “It” actors of the moment and Justin’s biggest client. Justin was just supposed to be his agent, but he was more like valet, pimp, drug dealer, and whipping boy. It drove Victoria crazy that her husband had to take so much abuse from a guy who had been working the drive–through at Taco Bell less than two years ago.
“Oh, I see,” said Pam, not seeing at all and not sure what to say. Although she lived in Los Angeles, she remained untouched by anything to do with Hollywood. Any of the depraved trappings and idle gossip of the entertainment world were of no interest to her, and she always seemed surprised when people brought them up.
“Sorry,” said Victoria, finally turning her attention to Pam and realizing that she was speaking cryptically and being rude. “It just gets really hard when you work with celebrities. They think they own you.”
“I can imagine.” Pam nodded.
“So Pam, please tell us about what’s going on in the world of illegal aliens,” said Eliza, desperate to change the topic. “I mean, that came out wrong, but tell us what’s going on with your work. Victoria, Pam is on the board of Human Rights Watch and very active in trying to prevent the wrongful imprisonment of underage Latin Americans.”
“Fascinating,” said Victoria flatly.
“It is, but also so tragic…” began Pam, and then proceeded to launch into the ins and outs of all the incredibly generous and philanthropic ways she was assisting the cause. Eliza and Victoria were both totally distracted and put themselves on autopilot, “Mmm–hmming” at appropriate moments, nodding sadly when Pam’s voice got tight with emotion, and gasping at dramatic pauses.
Eliza’s mind was on other things, unfortunate things that had more of a pressing impact on her life. The fact was, everything was getting out of control and she didn’t know how she could possibly fix it. Victoria in particular was becoming a loose cannon. Eliza had always counted on her to be the composed one, the friend who would never lose her cool and never cause a scene. Appearances were so important to Victoria, and she was so righteous in her decisions that she never wanted anyone to get a glimmer that there was anything else bubbling beneath the surface. But the past few months had changed everything. Victoria was getting reckless and volatile. And Justin, who was always a jerk in every aspect of his life—from his designer suits and slicked–back hair, to the silly Porsche that he drove and insisted on calling “Porsh–a”—was prepared for battle. Nowadays, they had become messy fighters, meaning that they didn’t care who knew they were fighting or what about.
“The wind is going craaaazy out there,” said Brad Adams, who had just been let in the front door by Juana and made his way over to greet his hostess. A high school football star whose brawny good looks had once made him quite a catch, Brad had now slipped into middle age—well, almost—and although he still had a mischievous glimmer in his sparkling blue eyes, there was little else about him that was remarkable. His once chiseled brow had begun to slide and now his eyes peered out from doughy rolls; his receding dusty blond hair also contributed to his everyman appearance. But Brad didn’t seem to care—he still had that preppy insouciance and frat-boy demeanor that made people forget that he was pretty ordinary. Eliza was both shocked and relieved that he had come and immediately looked around the room to see if Brad’s wife, Leelee, had noticed his entrance. Of course she had; she had been staring at the door longingly all night. Leelee, who had nearly bitten her cuticles down to the quick while waiting to find out if her husband would show, looked both exalted and afraid on other side of the room.
“I know, the Santa Anas are having a field day out there,” said Eliza, returning the casual peck on the cheek that he had greeted her with. As Brad made his way, kissing hellos to Victoria and Pam, Eliza shot Leelee a wide–eyed look of surprise and confusion.
“Global warming. It’s all our fault,” Pam was saying sadly as she nervously played with the wooden prayer beads around her neck, and shook her head. She seemed genuinely troubled by the state of the world, and her hazel eyes began to mist. Finally she snapped out of it. “Which reminds me, I see John York over there and I have to go talk to him about Ocean Watch—we need him to donate a round at Riviera for the silent auction,” said Pam, excusing herself.
Victoria and Eliza both looked at each other curiously and then turned to Brad.
“So how are things, Brad?” asked Victoria, trying to be casual but sounding more like a psychiatrist talking to a patient who had just attempted suicide. Eliza shot her a look of daggers, but Victoria pretended not to notice.
“Things are great, Victoria,” said Brad, smiling at Victoria’s seriousness. “Although I was trapped in a conference room in Irvine all day with no service on my cell phone. The guy at my lunch yesterday spilled white wine all over it and now it’s totally trashed.”
Eliza and Victoria looked at each other in shock. So that’s why he’s been MIA, they both thought.
“That is such a bummer!” said Eliza, with a little too much enthusiasm.
“That’s awful!” said Victoria, with buoyancy in her voice.
Brad gave them both a strange look. “So, have you seen my wife?”
“She’s over there,” said Eliza, pointing to Leelee, who was making fake conversation with the bartender. “She'll be glad to see you.”
“Thanks,” said Brad, who then walked over to Leelee, his wife of ten years. Brad and Leelee could pass for brother and sister. They were both semi–stout and blond, with pleasant rosy faces that had been more striking in their youth, giving them the appearance of former prom king and queen of a large suburban high school.
Eliza and Victoria both waited a beat to make sure he was out of earshot before shaking their heads.“God, Leelee’s going to be so relieved. All that freaking for nothing,” said Eliza.
“Do you really think he’s clueless? Maybe he’s faking,” suggested Victoria.
“Unless he’s an Academy Award–winning actor, he has no idea,” said Eliza with certainty.
They both turned to watch their friend greet her husband. Across the Provence–inspired blue living room, they saw Leelee tentatively greeting her husband, Brad presumably explaining why he hadn’t returned her calls, and Leelee realizing that her life was not over.