Chapter 6: Can A Man and Woman Ever Be Just Friends
Disclaimer: Just thought I’d publish another chapter to distract people from the awful vitriol against Jen and the disaster that was the Golden Globes. Keep in mind that a lot of the content is inspired by several events, real life individuals. Don’t forget that this is pure fiction.
“Jen… Jen, wake up. Jen..”
I twist and turn beneath the cocoon of warm cotton sheets, feebly swatting away the hand that woke me. Groaning unhappily, I pull the covers over my head, screwing my eyes shut. Then, I hear soft, almost muted laughter.
“… What?” I croak, my voice muffled.
“It’s four am, Jen.” Josh replied, still chuckling. “You gotta get up. You’re supposed to be on set at five. Come on, get your ass up.”
More laughter. “Aw come on. You’ll be late if you don’t get up.”
“.. Whatever.” I make no effort to stifle the yawn escaping my lips.
“Okay, how’s this?” Josh tried to infuse seriousness in his tone; an attempt that failed miserably, instead all I could hear was poorly concealed amusement. “We will grab some food on the way.”
“Does it look like there’s anything open at this hour?”
“McDonald’s definitely is.” He answered with conviction. “Are you gonna stay in bed and completely dismiss hash browns which I’m fairly certain are being cooked at this very moment? Picture it. Crispy, golden brown. Maybe just a little ketchup on the side..”
I throw off the sheets, yawning as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. Slowly but surely, his beaming face came into focus; his hazel eyes fixed on mine, brimming with mischief. I pull myself upright as golden light filled the room.
He was dressed casually in a black sweater emblazoned with the bright green logo of his organisation, Straight But Not Narrow. It looked as if he’d showered and shaved; there wasn’t a single hair on his face, aside from his brows. His arms were folded across his chest.
Grumbling, I slid out of bed. “You sure know how to paint a picture with your words.” I mutter, unable to keep the smile from spreading across my face. I swipe my phone from the nightstand. 3:45am. “Dear god, it’s not even four yet.”
“They make the hash browns early. It tastes a lot better fresh.” He said without missing a beat.
“Damnit. Touché.” I stumble sleepily towards the bathroom, eyes still half closed. I gaze over my shoulder. “Thanks for waking me up.”
“You’re welcome, Jen.” Josh smiled indulgently. “Go on, get ready. I’ll be out here when you’re done.”
“Really? You’re staying?” I croak with one hand on the doorknob, unable to disguise the hopefulness in my voice. “You don’t have to do that.”
“No, I want to. I mean, it’s the least I can do after you listened to me ramble on last night. So don’t sweat it, okay? I’ll be here.”
Clinging to this promise, I race through my morning routine. I shower quickly, feeling a rush of gratitude to my slow-growing pixie haircut; I needn’t have spent the usual long amount of time massaging shampoo into every lock, since at this stage there wasn’t much to begin with. After donning an old grey sweatshirt, I left the bathroom, feeling somewhat refreshed despite only four hours’ sleep.
In the bedroom, which was still brightly lit, I re-pack my bag, making sure I had what I needed for the day’s work. Fully charged phone, wallet, keys, iPad. When I finish, I hoist the bag onto my back and leave; casting one last glance at the room, making sure I wouldn’t be leaving it in such appalling conditions.
As I made way towards the main foyer, a loud voice broke through the tranquil silence. It was a voice that trembled with barely suppressed rage. It was Josh. I pictured him pacing rapidly, wrestling with his fury.
I linger quietly in the hallway between the living area and the kitchen, hoping to catch snippets of conversation. Sure enough, he was still on the phone. It left me with no doubt as to who the caller on the other end was.
“… Listen, Claudia, I’m really not in the mood for this. Call me another time when I’m not seriously considering throwing my phone across the room.”
I shuffle forward quietly so that my ear was pressed against the wall.
“‘Explain?!’” Josh repeated indignantly. “I don’t know but you can try. You know, you can try and explain what happened between you and the director. Don’t give me the 'we’re just friends bullshit’, okay? I know what I saw.”
Hidden behind the wall, I close my eyes, suppressing the urge to approach him and fold him into my arms. I wasn’t supposed to be eavesdropping in the first place. He wasn’t yet aware of my presence; he probably thought I was still in the bathroom, with the shower turned on so loud, it drowned his conversation.
So absorbed was I in my reverie that I almost missed the next few snippets of heated conversation. I leaned in closer, pressing my ear against the cool wall. Josh was quiet, obviously listening to her response on the other end. Claudia, it seemed, hadn’t taken well to his statement, alternating between her native Spanish and English; enough so he could understand her.
But I knew him well. I knew his silence, the kind of silence that suggested anger brewing beneath the surface, meant that he was reaching his wits end. He was a reasonable person, but not that reasonable.
“It still doesn’t explain why you did what you did. And I’m not buying the method actor crap. Look, I don’t wanna be an asshole but I take time out of my life so I can fly across the world to see you. I do everything I can so I can spend even just a few hours with you. I watch your plays, I support your work. It doesn’t seem like you’re meeting the other end of the bargain.”
“Look, I’m an actor too. I understand the whole spending time with your co-stars and crew thing. What I don’t get is cheating on your boyfriend. Yes, I’d call it cheating. It doesn’t matter if it’s a kiss or a one night stand or a flirty text. It’s still cheating.”
I close my eyes. The hurt was clear in every syllable. It sent pain searing through me.
“Look, Claudia, it’s not just the kiss. It’s how you act when I’m there. I know I sound like a whiney baby but you barely pay attention. You leave me hanging, most of the time. When you do notice me, you parade me around to all your friends. Like I was some shiny new watch. They take pictures, which I’m fine with. But then the pictures end up all over the Internet. Fucking Entertainment Tonight has them!” Josh said indignantly.
“Yeah, I’m a private person. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me wanting to keep my personal life from being public record. It’s not just for me. It’s to protect you. Don’t you get it? They’re gonna come after you. Oh.” He replied, his tone cool. “The Spanish media doesn’t? How do you know?”
“Maybe your mom had something to do with it. I don’t know, she’s pretty chummy with the media over there, it’s a possibility. Am I making it up? Yes. No. I don’t know what the hell is going on. All I’m gonna say now is you gotta figure out some stuff. Call me when you figure out where you stand in the relationship. Well, if I can even call it that.” Josh said icily. A soft thud followed, as though he’d thrown the phone onto the couch in frustration.
I stand there, in my hiding place, for a moment; deciding whether or not I should pretend I didn’t hear a thing. Aside from my family, he knew me better than anyone else. He’d know if I was lying.
Sighing, I move forward, into the light of the foyer; in plain sight, just a few feet away from where he sat on the couch. He was hunched over, his head buried in his hands. I leave my purse on the kitchen counter and tentatively approach.
He didn’t move when I laid a gentle hand on his back. Nor did he respond when I hesitantly clear my throat. Finally, after what seemed like the longest time, he looked up. He wasn’t crying but his eyes were glistening with unshed tears. He was hurting, far worse than he’d let on.
“You heard all that, didn’t you?” He asked, his voice low.
“Well, if it makes you feel better, I promise to forget.” I answer jokingly, watching the corners of his mouth twitch. I move my hand to his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. “You okay?”
“No. This isn’t supposed to be that big of a deal. Like, so what if she kissed someone else? It’s not like they slept together. I don’t know why I’m feeling like this. I feel so stupid.”
“First of all.” I begin fiercely. “Don’t make excuses for her behaviour. Okay, cheating is cheating. Whether it’s a kiss or a one night stand or an affair, still cheating like you said. Second of all, it’s fine that you feel this way, you’ve been hurt by somebody who means so much to you. Don’t give me the bullshit, Josh. She cheated and if I were you I wouldn’t let that pass so easily.”
The words were accompanied by an instant wave of regret. I chew my lips for a brief second before bursting into a rushed apology. “Wait, that didn’t come out right. I’m sorry.” I reply softly. “What I mean is, this sort of thing isn’t something you let go like that.” I snap my fingers.
“Please don’t be sorry.” He took my other hand in his. I ignore the uneven throbbing of my heart. “You’re one of my best friends. I need all the advice I can get. Even if it’s something I don’t feel like hearing.”
“Is it true what you said about her mom? How her mom is friends with the paparazzi and they’re over Claudia’s place all the time, at least when you’re there?”
Josh sighed heavily. “I don’t know. It’s what I notice every time I’m there. Her family’s involved in the Spanish film industry, I wouldn’t be surprised if Claudia’s mom was. Me? I’m the only 'high profile’ person in my family, no one else works in the industry. Thank god.”
“Laura has a Twitter account. She told me about all these fans who posted pictures of you out on the street in Madrid. She said you didn’t look so good.” I murmur quietly. I didn’t need to elaborate; Josh had integrated himself well among my circle of friends and they loved him as much as I did.
“Well, she got it right.” He said. “Some were fans, others were extras I think? Extras from Claudia’s TV shows, her plays. I’m a nice person and all but there’s a limit. God, that makes me sound like an ass.”
“Easy.” I answer reassuringly. “You’re not an ass, you’re being normal. I’d be so annoyed at this point, if I were in your position.”
“It isn’t just the director. There’s also her costar on the Spanish telenovela, I forgot what it’s called. I’m not sure if the costar thing is true but I’m not ruling it out either. She’s a very, you know, flirtatious person; it’s why I was attracted to her in the first place.” He frowned, his face telegraphing a mix of confusion and dismay.
“Hey, don’t beat yourself up. We can’t help who we fall for.” I place my free hand on top of his. “None of this is your fault. You’ve got every right to be angry, I know I would be. But please don’t pull yourself down.”
“Yeah I guess.” Josh took a deep breath and got to his feet, pulling a beanie over his head. He glanced at his phone. “I’m tired of talking about me and my shit. We gotta go, otherwise you’ll be super late.”
“Are you sure?” I gaze up at him uncertainly, not moving from my spot on the couch.
“Uh huh, I need some distraction right now. It’s too early in the morning to actually deal with stuff.”
I remain motionless for a second more, gauging his reaction. He seemed adamant, focused on putting the matter aside and moving forward. Shrugging, I retrieve my purse from the kitchen counter.
“Okay then, Hutch, let’s hit the road.”
Half an hour later, we pulled out of the empty car park in McDonald’s, just a stone’s throw away from our hotel. We were sitting happily in the back seat of the SUV, cradling the packaged meals in our laps. The whole process was quicker than usual, all because of the early hour and a lanky, sleep-deprived teenage employee. It cheered us up a great deal.
Faint plumes of steam were rising from the brown paper bags, clouding the vehicle’s windows from the inside. Not that there was anything to see this time of day. Most of the gorgeous Georgian trees, hills and lakes were still coated in cloaks of filmy white mist. Even the moon itself was still visible; shining brightly against the dark sky.
At the moment, none of this mattered. I turned my attention instead to the paper bag sitting on my lap, warming my thighs. I pried it open, inhaling the mouthwatering aroma and reach for the hash brown. Without further ado, I shove it in my mouth, chewing greedily.
“Aaah, this is good.”
“It really is, huh?” Josh replied thickly, his mouth full of hash browns. He was much happier than when we’d left the hotel, much more like himself. Well, only McDonald’s could create such a dramatic turnaround. “I mean, it’s totally unhealthy, we’ll probably get bad cholesterol or whatever but you know, it’s worth it.”
“Quit raining on my McDonald’s parade.” I whine, clumsily spreading maple syrup on my pancakes. “But yeah I agree. This is totally unhealthy. How are you doing, Gil? Have you eaten yet?”
Gilbert met my gaze in the rear view mirror, his eyes crinkling around the edges. During these early morning call times, I could never quite escape the guilt I felt at having him chauffeur me to the set. So, in gratitude, I normally compensated by providing breakfast. Usually in large quantities.
“I’ll eat later. Thank you, Miss Jennifer.”
I quickly check my phone. We still had a good hour and a half before I needed to be in the costume department on set. The journey there was only thirty minutes; fifteen given the absence of traffic.
Brushing my fingers lightly against the fogged glass, I peered out the window. The sky was slowly beginning to lighten; turning from midnight blue to a clear cerulean. Somewhere on the horizon, the sun was preparing to rise. Judging by the flecks of gold light that flitted across the sky, daylight was almost upon us.
There was certainly time for a pit stop. A place that would definitely raise our spirits, Josh’s in particular. I place the half eaten pancake in the paper bag, shuffling forward so my fingers rested briefly on the sleeve of Gilbert’s jacket.
“Hey, Gil. How far away are we from Peachtree Hills Park?”
“Only ten minutes, Miss. Would you like to stop there briefly?”
Josh glanced up curiously; his bacon McMuffin burger just touching his lips. “What’s going on, Jen? Are we taking a detour? You’re gonna be late.”
“No I won’t.” I smile indulgently at him. “It’s only for a little bit anyway. Trust me, you won’t regret it.”
'Park’ was probably a loose term for a place like Peachtree Hills. It resembled more of a valley due to its large size; with groves of trees, wildflowers and even an enormous lake in the middle. At the moment, the park was deserted, silent except for the whisper of wind gliding through the trees.
The SUV was one of the only two vehicles parked in the lot. We were allowed entry by the sleep-deprived looking ranger, who warned us about the brown paper bags we carried. I marched forward with Josh and Gil beside me, walking until I found the path marked by two cedar trees.
I led them along the curved path, past flowerbeds dripping with morning dew. It was still dark although I knew that sunrise wasn’t far off. Undaunted, I kept moving, listening to the heavy footfalls of Josh’s boots behind me. It was only when Gil handed me a picnic mat that I stopped.
We were standing in a clearing, among a grove of tall oak trees. Beneath our feet was an enormous patch of damp grass. I spread the mat and sat down, patting the space beside me. After a slight pause, Josh obeyed, taking his place by my side.
“So.” He began softly. “Are you gonna tell me why we’re here?”
“In a second. Trust me, this is isn’t something you see every day.” I answer, my voice barely above a whisper. I didn’t need to look around to know that Gilbert had retreated; enough to give us some privacy, some time alone.
“God, it’s wet.”
“Shhh.” I raise a finger to my lips. I cast a quick glance at my phone. 5:55am. If I was right, the sun should rise in under five minutes.
And just like clockwork, golden light seeped through the treetops, bathing the flowerbeds in pools of warmth. The leafy canopies above burst into a magnificent kaleidoscope of colour; turning from emerald green to fiery amber, scarlet, lavender and pink. It was truly a sight to behold.
I didn’t need to turn my head to see just how amazed Josh was. He gasped, his eyes wide as he gazed around the beautiful foliage. The groves of trees were hovering between winter and spring; some even had branches still caked with snow.
Others were already starting to bloom in the morning sun. No longer bare but sprouting tiny clusters of snowdrop, lavender and blossom. Growing up in Kentucky, I’d spent most of my time outdoors, climbing trees or swimming in creeks. The woodlands in Peachtree Hills seemed like precious reminders of my hometown.
We sat there, beneath the canopy, for several minutes, eating quietly. When it was time, I clear my throat, ending the silence. At the sound of my voice, Josh turned, his warm hazel eyes meeting mine.
“So? What do you think?” I ask.
“It’s beautiful out here, Jen.” He replied; for some odd reason, his words made me blush a deep scarlet. “How’d you find this place?”
“Uh well, I’ve been coming here a lot over the past few weeks. Especially when I’ve got early morning call times on set, I just take a little detour so I can have peace and quiet before things get busy, you know.”
“This is your place then?” He smiled.
“Not really.” I shrug. “It can be yours too. I come here when I need to think or just wanna be alone. Well not totally alone since Gil’s still around, looking after me. But you get the idea.”
“It’s oddly familiar though. Like I’ve seen this somewhere before.” Josh said in a hushed, awed tone.
“Yeah.” I nod in agreement. “It reminds me a lot of home. I don’t know about you but where I grew up, there were heaps of trees. All I ever did was climb them or dangle from the branches. This kinda reminds me of that. Look.” I point at a nearby clump of white flowers bathed in the morning light. “I saw a lot of that when I was a kid.”
“Snowdrop.” Josh added, grinning. I felt my face break into an answering smile. He was a fellow Kentuckian; of course he’d know his flowers. “My grandma loves them.”
“But it still doesn’t answer my earlier question.” He murmured gently. “Why’d you bring me here?”
“Well, I thought it’d take your mind off things. You know, between you and Claudia. It won’t fix them but it’ll help you make a decision. Clear your head.” I answer earnestly. “Hopefully a taste of home will help you feel good again. Trust me, it’s a lot better than holing up in your room.”
“There’s no place like Kentucky.”
“No there isn’t.” I shake my head; the number of frequent visits to Peachtree did nothing to diminish the amazement I still felt whenever I witnessed the sunrise. “But yeah, I’m serious, Josh. If you wanna talk some place or just chill, this is the perfect setting. You can always come alone, of course.”
“Why would I do that?” Josh chuckled, beaming at me. “I wouldn’t come here without the person who introduced me to it. Thanks, Jen. You’ve definitely cheered me up a lot.”
That slightly crooked smile, my favourite kind, was enough to lift my own spirits. He no longer seemed troubled or morose. Instead, he looked content, at peace with the world. My heart throbbed a strange, uneven rhythm as I took in his familiar smile.
“Look.” He said, breaking through my reverie. “How about we make this OUR place? Somewhere we can chill if we get tired of the bars or the clubs?”
“Our place.” I repeat the words slowly, tasting them and relishing the way they sounded. “You got it. From now on, this will be our place.”
“Pinky swear?” He extended his little finger, eyeing me expectantly.
I sniggered at the hopefulness in his eyes. “What are we? Twelve?”
“Yes Jen, we’re twelve. Now do it.”
“Alright.” I pretend to sigh in resignation but extend it all the same. We linked our fingers together. “Pinky swear.”