AFTER THE ACCIDENT, I’d barely cried in the hospital, still convinced it was all some horrible dream. It was some other girl, not me, who’d crossed University and Lincoln on a bike the week before high school graduation. Someone else was hit by a truck that didn’t stop at the red light. A different Mia shattered her pelvis and broke her leg so thoroughly a bone extended from the skin of her thigh.
I’d been numb and in shock the first few days; the pain was dulled by a steady drip of medication. But even through the haze, I was certain it was all a mistake. I was a ballerina. I’d just been accepted to Joffrey Ballet School. Even when the room filled with my mother’s sobs and the doctor was describing the extent of my injuries, I didn’t cry—because it wasn’t about me. He was wrong, my chart had been switched, he was talking about some other person. My fracture was minimal. Maybe my knee was sprained. Someone smarter would come in any minute and explain it all. They had to.
But they didn’t, and the morning I was discharged and faced with the reality of life without dancing . . . there wasn’t enough morphine in the world to insulate me from the truth. My left leg was ruined—and with it, the future I’d worked toward my entire life. The stutter I’d struggled with for most of my childhood had returned, and my father—who spent more time researching the odds of my dancing career being lucrative than he did attending my recitals—was home, pretending not to be inwardly celebrating.
For six months I barely spoke. I did what I had to: I carried on. I healed on the outside while Lola and Harlow watched over me, never treating me like I was held together with a fake smile and staples.
Ansel leads me to the same corner I took him to last night. It’s decidedly less dark this morning, less private, but I barely notice with my eyes boring into the envelope he’s placed in my hand. He has no idea the significance of this, that the last time I wrote myself a letter was the day I decided to start talking again, the day I told myself it was okay to mourn the things I’d lost but it was time to move on. I sat down, wrote all the things I was afraid to say out loud, and slowly began to accept my new life. Instead of moving to Chicago like I’d always planned, I enrolled at UC San Diego and finally did something my father deemed worthy: graduating with honors and applying to the most prestigious business schools in the country. In the end I had my pick of programs. I’ve always wondered if subconsciously I was trying to get as far away as I could, from both him and the accident.
The envelope is wrinkled and worn, creased where it’s been folded and probably pulled in and out of his pocket over and over, and reminds me so much of the letter I’ve read and reread over the years that I have a flash of déjà vu. Something’s been spilled on one corner, there’s a red smudge of my lipstick on the opposite side, but the flap is still perfectly sealed, the edges not pulling away even a little bit. He didn’t try to open it, though judging by his anxious expression he’s most definitely considered it.
“You said to give that to you today,” he says quietly. “I didn’t read it.”
The envelope is thick in my hand, heavy, and stuffed with what feels like a hundred pages. But when I tear it open and look, I realize it’s because my handwriting is so huge and slanted and drunk, I could only fit maybe twenty words on each narrow page of hotel stationery. I’d spilled something on it, and a few of the pages are torn slightly as if I could barely fold them correctly before giving up and shoving them in a messy pile inside.
Ansel watches me as I sort them and begin to read. I can practically feel his curiosity where his eyes are fixed on my face.
Dear Mia self.Miaself.Myself it starts. I bite back a grin. I remember tiny ticks of this moment, sitting on the toilet lid and struggling to focus on the pen and paper.
You’re sitting on the toilet writing a letter to yourself to read later because you’re drunk enough to know you’ll forget a lot tomorrow but not so drunk that you can’t write. But I know you because you’re me and we both know that you’re a terrible drinker and forget everything that happens when you’ve had gin. So let me tell you:
you kissed him
he tasted like lemon and scotch
you put his hand in your underwear and then
you talked for hours. yes, you talked. i talked. we talked. we told him everything about the accident and our leg your leg my leg.
this is confusing.
I’d forgotten this. I look up at Ansel, a prickling blush rising beneath the skin of my cheeks. I can feel my lips flush, too, and he notices, his eyes smoothing over them.
“I was so drunk when I wrote this,” I whisper.
He only nods at me, and then nods at the paper, as if he doesn’t want me to be interrupted, even by myself.
you told him you hate speaking but love moving
you told him everything about dancing before the accident and not dancing after
you told him about how it felt to be trapped under the hot engine
you told him about two years of physical therapy, and trying to dance “just for fun” after
you told him about luke and how he said it felt like the old Mia died under the truck
you told him about dad and how you’re sure he’s going to change Broc and Jeff from sweet kids into dickheads
you told him how much you dread the fall and moving to boston
you actually said “i want to love all of my life as much as i love this night” and he didn’t laugh at how stupid you sounded
and here’s the weirdest part
are you ready
I close my eyes, weaving a little. I’m not ready. Because this memory is sliding back into my thoughts, the victory, the urgency, the relief. I’m not ready to remember how safe he made me feel, and how easy he was. I’m not ready to realize that he’s witnessed something no one in my life has ever seen before. I suck air into my lungs and look back down at the letter.
you didn’t stutter. you BABBLED.
I meet Ansel’s eyes when I read this, as if seeking confirmation, but he doesn’t know what the letter says. His eyes go wide as he searches my expression, barely holding back from speaking. Does he remember everything I said?
so that’s why you proposed and he said yes really fast with this drunk smile like it was the best idea he’d ever heard because of course we should get married! now you’re headed there but i wanted to write this first because you might not remember why, and that’s why. don’t be a jerk. he might just be the nicest person you’ve ever known.
ps. you haven’t had sex with him yet. but you want to. A lot. Please have sex with him.
pps. you just asked him if you guys were going to and he said “we’ll see.” :/
I fold the papers up as neatly as I can and push them back inside the envelope with shaking hands. My heart feels like it’s doubled in size, maybe conjoined to another, a new one that prefers the staccato of panic. The doubled beats bounce and reverberate in my chest.
“So?” he asks. “You know I’m dying of curiosity.”
“I wrote it before we . . .” I hold up my left hand, displaying the simple gold band. “The last time I wrote myself a letter . . .” I start, but he’s already nodding. I feel like I’m spinning beneath the weight of this.
“And I proposed to you?” I suppose what actually surprises me is that there was a proposal at all. It wasn’t just drunk stumbling. I remember his teasing the night before that I should go with him to France, but this took discussion, and planning. Getting a car, giving directions. It required us to sign papers, and pay, and select rings, then repeat vows coherently enough to convince someone we weren’t drunk off our asses. I’m actually a little impressed by that last part.
He nods again, smiling.
“And you said yes?”
Tilting his head slightly, his lips pout the words, “Of course I did.”
“But you weren’t even sure if you wanted to have sex with me?”
He’s already shaking his head. “Be serious. I wanted to have sex with you the first time I saw you, two nights ago. But last night, we were really drunk. I didn’t . . .” He looks away, down the hall. “You left to write yourself a letter because you were worried you would forget why you proposed. And you did forget.” His brows rise, as he waits for me to acknowledge he’s made a decent point. I nod. “But we got back to the hotel, and you were so beautiful, and you . . .” He exhales a shaky breath. It’s so jagged, I imagine I can see the slivers of it fall from his mouth. “You wanted it.” He leans closer, kisses me slowly. “I wanted it.”
I shift on my feet, wishing I knew how to pull my eyes from his face.
“We did have sex, Mia. We had sex for hours and it was the best, most intense sex of my life. And see? There are still details you don’t remember.”
I might not remember every touch, but my body certainly does. I can feel his fingertips tattooed all over my skin. They’re in the bruises I can see and they’re invisible, too: the echo of his fingers in my mouth, dragging along my legs, pumping inside me.
But as intoxicating as the memories are, none of this is what I really want to talk about. I want to know what he remembers from before the wedding, before the sex, when I dropped my life in his lap. Having sex with a virtual stranger is weird for me, but it’s not unheard of. What’s monumental is for me to have opened up so much. I never even talked to Luke about some of these things.
“Apparently I said a lot to you yesterday,” I say, before sucking on my bottom lip and working it with my teeth. It still feels bruised and I get tiny, teasing flashes of his teeth and tongue and fingers pinching my mouth.
He doesn’t say anything, but his eyes move over my face as if he’s waiting for me to reach some understanding he reached hours ago.
“I told you about Luke? And my family?”
“And I told you about my leg?”
“I saw your leg,” he reminds me quietly.
Of course he did. He would have seen the scar extending from hip to knee and the tiny ant trail of staple marks along the long, silvery gash.
“Is that what has you shaking?” he asks. “That I saw your naked leg? That I touched it?”
He knows it isn’t. The smile pulling at his mouth tells me he knows my secret, and he’s gloating. He remembers everything, including his unique achievement: a babbling Mia.
“It was probably the gin,” I say.
“I think it was me.”
“I was really drunk. I think I just forgot to be nervous.”
His lips are so close I can feel their shadow on my jaw. “It was me, Cerise. You still haven’t stuttered this morning.”
I press back into the wall, needing space. It isn’t just that I’m surprised to find I’m so fluent with him. It’s the intoxicating weight of his attention, the need I have to feel his hands and mouth on me. It’s the headache that lingers and the reality that I’m married. No matter what happens, I have to deal with this and all I want is to climb back into bed.
“I feel weird that I told you everything and I don’t know anything about you.”
“We have plenty of time,” he says, tongue slipping out to wet his lips. “Till death do us part, in fact.”
He must be kidding. I laugh, relieved that finally we can be playful. “I can’t stay married to you, Ansel.”
“But in fact,” he whispers, “you can.” His mouth presses carefully to the corner of mine, tongue peeking out to taste my lip.
My heart seizes and I freeze. “What?”
“‘I want to love all of my life as much as I love this night,’” he quotes.
My heart dips and spills into my stomach.
“I realize how this sounds,” he says immediately, “and I’m not insane. But you made me swear I wouldn’t let you freak out.” He shakes his head slowly. “And, because I promised, I can’t give you an annulment. At least not until you start school in the fall. I promised, Mia.”
I pull back and meet his eyes just before he leans back in, opening his mouth to mine. I sense that I should be more wary of this entire situation but his effect on me hasn’t diminished even with the hangover and the alarming reality of what we’ve done.
He sucks at my lips, pulling them in turn into his mouth before he gives me his tongue, tasting of orange juice and water and grapes. His hands brace on my hips, and he bends lower, kissing me deeper, teasing me with a rumbling moan. “Let’s go back upstairs,” he says. “Let me feel you again.”
“Mia!” Harlow’s voice cuts down the hall through the stale smell of cigarettes. “Holy shit, we’ve been looking for you all morning! I was starting to worry you might be in a gutter or something.”
Lorelei and Harlow jog down the hall and Harlow stops in front of us, bending to brace her hands on her knees. “Okay, no running.” She groans. “I think I’m going to barf.”
We all wait, anxiously scanning the vicinity for a bucket, or a towel, or maybe just a quick exit. Finally, she stands, shaking her head. “False alarm.”
Reality descends in a curtain of silence as both Lola and Harlow study us with uncertainty.
“You okay, Mia?” Lola asks.
Ansel’s touch and his suggestion we should remain married, my headache, and my rebelling stomach all conspire to make me want to slide down onto the floor and curl up in a tiny ball of freak-out. I don’t even care how gross the carpet is. “Nothing a little death won’t solve.”
“Can we steal her for a few?” Harlow asks Ansel, and her tone surprises me. Harlow doesn’t ask before she takes, ever.
He nods, but before I can move away he runs his hand down my arm and touches the ring on my finger. He doesn’t say a word; it’s just that tiny touch that asks me not to leave this city without talking to him.
Lola guides me down the hall to the lobby, where there’s a cluster of enormous chairs in a quiet corner. We each collapse into the plush suede, lost in our own miserable hangovers for several long beats.
“So,” I say.
“So,” they reply in unison.
“What the hell happened last night?” I ask. “How did no one say, ‘Wow, we probably shouldn’t all get married’?”
“Ugh,” Harlow says. “I knew we should have been classier.”
“I’m going to blame the seven hundred shots we had,” Lola says.
“I’m going to blame Finn’s impressive cock.” Harlow takes a sip from a bottle of water as Lola and I groan. “No, I’m serious,” Harlow says. “And son is into some stuff, let me tell you. He’s a bossy little shit.”
“Annulment,” Lola reminds her. “You can still bang him when you’re single.”
Harlow rubs her face. “Right.”
“What happened with Ansel?” Lola asks.
“Apparently a lot.” Instinctively, I rub my finger over my bottom lip. “I’m not sure we actually slept. I’m disappointed I don’t remember it all, but I’m pretty sure we did everything.”
“Anal?” Harlow asks in a reverent whisper.
“No! God. Put ten dollars in the Whore Jar,” I tell her. “You’re such a troll.”
“I bet the French guy could get it,” Harlow says. “You look like you were pounded.”
Memories rise like smoke in front of me, just tiny wisps in the air.
His shoulders moving over me, fists curled around the pillowcase beside my head.
The sharp snap of his teeth when I licked across the head of his cock.
My hand splayed across the giant mirror, feeling the heat of his breath on the back of my neck just before he pushed inside.
His voice whispering, Laisse-toi aller, pour moi. Come for me.
I press the heel of my hands to my eyes, trying to pull myself back into the present. “What happened with you and Oliver?” I ask Lola, redirecting.
She shrugs. “Honestly, by the time we were leaving the chapel, we both started to sober up. Harlow was in their suite making all kinds of noises. You and Ansel were in ours.”
“Erp, sorry,” I mumble.
“We just walked around the Strip the entire night, talking.”
“Really?” Harlow asks, surprised. “But he’s so hot. And he has that whole Aussie thing going on. I’d love to hear him say, ‘Lick my cock.’”
“Five more in the Whore Jar,” Lola says.
“How did you understand a word he said?” I ask, laughing.
“Yeah, he got worse when he was hammered,” she admits, and then leans her head back against her enormous chair. “He’s pretty great. It’s weird, you guys. Did you know he’s opening a comic book store? Out of the three of us, I’m the one who should be hitting that with the fist of God. I mean, he’s hot and tall and ridiculously derpy, which you know is totally my kryptonite. But we were already coordinating the annulment while we waited for the limo to pick us up after the ceremony.”
This all feels a little surreal. I was expecting a weekend of sunbathing, drinks, dancing, and best friend bonding. I was not expecting to have the best sex of my life and wake up married. I twist the ring on my finger and then look around, realizing I’m the only one actually wearing one.
Harlow notices it, too. “We’re meeting the guys at one to head to the chapel for the annulments.” Her voice has weight, bite, as if she already knows my situation has the added layer of feelings in the mix.
“Okay,” I say.
I catch Lola watching me. “That doesn’t sound like ‘okay,’” she says.
“What was Ansel saying to you in the hall?” Harlow asks. Her judgment is like another person sitting in the circle of chairs with us, glaring darkly at me with arms crossed over its chest. “He kissed you. He’s not supposed to kiss you today. We’re all supposed to be mildly horrified and then start constructing the funny details about that-one-time-we-all-got-married-in-Vegas that we’ll share for the next thirty years. There’s no sweetness or kissing, Mia. Only hangovers and regret.”
“Um . . . ?” I say, scratching my temple. I know Harlow will put her foot down at the mention of feelings in a situation like this, but I have them. I like him.
I also like the way he looks at me, and having my mouth full of his. I want to remember how he sounds when he’s fucking me hard, and whether he swears in French or English when he comes. I want to sit on the couches in the bar again and let him talk this time.
In a weird way, I think if we hadn’t gotten married last night, we’d have a better chance of being able to explore this, just a little.
“Jesus, Mia,” Harlow says under her breath. “I love you, but you’re killing me here.”
I ignore her pressure to reply aloud. I have no idea how Lola will react to my indecision. She’s far more live-and-let-live than Harlow is and falls somewhere on the spectrum between Harlow and me in terms of comfort with casual sex. Because of this, and because none of us has ever had a spontaneous wedding to a man from another country—this really has to be funny someday—Lola is likely to be more measured in her responses, so I direct my answer to her.
“He says we could . . . stay married.” There. That seems a decent way to try it on.
Silence reverberates back to me.
“I knew it,” Harlow whispers.
Lola remains noticeably quiet.
“I wrote myself a letter before we did it,” I explain, wanting to tread carefully. Of anyone in the world, these two women want only what is good for me. But I don’t know whether it will hurt their feelings to learn how oddly safe I feel with Ansel.
“And?” Harlow prompts. “Mia, this is huge. You couldn’t have told us this first?”
“I know, I know,” I say, sinking back into my chair. “And I guess I told him, like, my entire life story.” They both know the significance of this and so they don’t comment, just wait for me to finish. “And I talked for what must have been hours. I didn’t stutter, I didn’t filter.”
“You did talk for a really long time.” Lola looks impressed.
Harlow’s eyes narrow. “You’re not seriously considering staying married,” she says, “to a stranger you met last night in Vegas and who lives over five thousand miles away.”
“Well, how can it not sound shady when you say it like that?”
“How would you like me to say it, Mia?” she shouts. “Have you completely lost your mind?”
Have I? Yes, absolutely. “I think I just need more time,” I tell her instead.
Harlow stands abruptly, looking around as if there is someone else in the lobby who can help convince her best friend that she’s lost the plot. Across from me, Lola simply studies my face, eyes narrowed. “Are you sure about this?” she asks.
I cough out a laugh. “I’m not sure about any of it.”
“But you know you don’t want to annul it right now?”
“He says he won’t annul it today anyway, that he promised me he wouldn’t.”
Her eyebrows disappear beneath her bangs and she leans back into her chair, surprised. “He promised you?”
“That’s what he said. He said I made him swear.”
“This is the most ridicul—” Harlow starts, but Lola interrupts her.
“Well, the guy just won some points with me, then.” She blinks away, and reaches to put a calming hand on Harlow’s forearm. “Let’s go, sweets. Mia, we’ll be back in a little bit to pack up and head home, okay?”
“Are you kidding me? We—” Harlow starts, but Lola levels her with a look. “Fine.”
In the distance and through a set of glass doors, I see Oliver and Finn, waiting for them near the taxi stand. Ansel is nowhere in sight.
“Okay, good luck getting unmarried,” I say with a little smile.
“You’re lucky I love you,” Harlow calls over her shoulder, chestnut hair flying around her as Lola drags her away. “Otherwise I would murder you.”
THE LOBBY SEEMS too quiet in their wake, and I look around, wondering if Ansel is watching from some dark corner, seeing that I haven’t gone along. But he isn’t in the lobby. I have no idea where he is. He’s the only reason I stayed back. Even if I had his number, I don’t have my phone. Even if I had my phone, I have no idea where I left my charger. Drunk me definitely needs to keep better track of things.
So I do the only thing I can think of: I head upstairs to the hotel room, to shower again and pack, to try to make some sense out of this mess.
One step inside and flashes of the night before seem to invade the room. I close my eyes to dig deeper, hungry for more details.
His hands on my ass, my breasts, my hips. The thick drag of him along my inner thigh. His mouth fastened to my neck, sucking a bruise into the skin.
My thoughts are interrupted by a quiet knock on the door.
Of course it’s him, looking freshly showered and just as conflicted as I feel. He moves past me, into the room, and sits at the edge of the bed.
He rests his elbows on his knees and looks up at me through hair that has fallen into his eyes. Even partly filtered, they’re so expressive I feel gooseflesh break out along my arms.
Without preamble or warm-up, he says, “I think you should come to France for the summer.”
There are a thousand things I can say to address the absurdity of what he’s offering. For one, I don’t know him. Also, I don’t speak French. Tickets are ungodly expensive, and where would I live? What would I do all summer living with a stranger in France?
“I’m moving to Boston in a few weeks.”
But he’s already shaking his head. “You don’t need to move until the beginning of August.”
I feel my brows inch up. Apparently I told him every single detail of my life. I’m not sure whether I should feel impressed that he remembers it all, or guilty that I made him sit through so much. I tilt my head, waiting. Most girls would say something here. A gorgeous man is offering something pretty amazing, and I’m just waiting to see what else he wants to say.
Licking his lips, he seems comfortable with the knowledge that he hasn’t given me something I need to respond to yet. “Just hear me out. You could stay at my flat. I have a good job, I can afford to feed and shelter you for a summer. I work really long hours, it’s true. But you could just . . .” He looks away, down at the floor. “You could enjoy the city. Paris is the most beautiful city, Cerise. There are endless things to do. You’ve had a really hard few years and maybe would be happy just having a mellow summer in France.” Looking back up at me, he adds quietly, “With me.”
I move over to the bed and sit down, leaving plenty of distance between us. Housekeeping has already changed the linens, straightened the chaos we created; it makes it easier to pretend last night was someone else’s life.
“We don’t really know each other, it’s true,” he concedes. “But I see your indecision about Boston. You’ll move there to get away from your dad. You’ll move there to keep marching forward. Maybe you need to just hit pause, and breathe. Have you done that even once in the four years since your accident?”
I want him to keep speaking because I’ve decided that even if I don’t know him well enough to be in love with him, I love his voice. I love the rich mahogany timbre, the curling vowels and seductive consonants. His voice dances. Nothing could ever sound rough or sharp in that voice.
But as soon as I have the thought, I know it’s wrong. I remember how he sounded when he was perfectly demanding last night:
Put your hands on the wall.
I can’t wait much longer for you to get there, Cerise.
Show me how much you love to feel me on your tongue.
I don’t have an answer for his offer, so I don’t give one. I only crawl up to the pillow and lie on my back, exhausted. He joins me, lying shoulder to shoulder until I curl into him, sliding my hands up his chest and into his hair. The shape of him triggers a muscle memory: how far I have to reach to wrap my arms around him, how he feels against my palms. I press my nose into the rope of muscle between his neck and shoulder, breathe in the clean smell of him: hotel soap and the hint of ocean that pushes through.
Ansel rolls to face me, kissing my neck, my jaw, my lips just once but he lingers, eyes open. His hands slide down my back, over the curve of my ass to my thigh and lower, to the back of my knee, where he pulls it over his hip, fitting me to him. Between my legs, I can feel how much I want him. I can feel him, too, lengthening and pressing. But instead of taking it anywhere, we fall asleep.
When I wake up, there’s a piece of paper on the empty pillow. He’s left his number and his promise to be there the moment I need him, but he’s gone.
I WONDER HOW many thousands of drives from Vegas to California have been like this: hot wind whipping through a beater car, hungover women, regret hanging in the air like a single flat chord played the entire drive.
“I need something greasy to eat,” Harlow groans, and Lola pulls off the freeway and into a Denny’s parking lot.
Over grilled cheese and fries, Harlow says, “I don’t get why you didn’t just start the annulment process while we were there.” She pokes a fry into ketchup and then drops it on her plate, looking queasy. “Now you’re going to have to go back there, or go through this complicated process out of state. Tell me every detail so I can stop wanting to slap you.”
Objectively Ansel is amazing, and the sex was clearly ridiculous, but she knows I’m not such a swooner that good sex is enough for me to make such a rash decision. So it comes down to the letter, really. I never kept a diary. I barely write letters to Harlow when she’s overseas visiting her father on set. But I read that other, post-accident letter so many times the paper became as delicate as a dried petal, the ink nearly invisible. Letter writing for me is seen as this weird, sacred occurrence, and even though I’m not sure it’s the right idea, I’m giving it the weight I think I intended when I wrote it.
“What are you going to do?” Lola asks when I’ve finished telling them every sordid little detail I can remember about the night.
I shrug. “Spend from now until September trying to understand why I wanted to marry this person. Then probably get an annulment.”