An excerpt from Katie Heaney and Arianna Rebolini’s new novel.
I pulled some glasses down from the cabinet, plopped some ice in, and filled them up, hoping tap would be fine. The table — a narrow rectangle with six chairs around it — was already set for a three-course feast, with stacks of two plates in decreasing size and one tiny bowl. Everything was jet black, with the occasional gold filigree, and the napkin rings were in the shape of little birds — the perfect junction of morbid and twee.
I set the salmon down in the center of the table, and placed our glasses across from each other. I turned around, ready to loudly clear my throat, but was distracted by the view. Archie was hunched over the serving bowl, stray strands of hair having fallen free from his bun and against his face. His sleeves were rolled up near his shoulders, and I felt like I was getting a glimpse of what domestic life with Archie Fox would be like.
How am I here right now?
Suddenly he raised his arms in triumph, knocking me back into reality. He looked at me with pure joy in his eyes. “It’s done.”
I applauded slowly as he walked over, and he bowed, presenting what he called Cajun rice and beans. It looked spectacular, all deep reds and rich browns. He ignored my place setting, and instead pulled out the chair at the head of the table, gestured for me to sit, and then took the seat next to me. I couldn’t help but notice how close our hands were.
“You never answered my question,” he said, offering up the rice and beans.
“Which question?” I asked, dropping a hefty scoop onto my plate.
“How’d I do today?”
“You were great,” I said. And then, in my best British drawl, “Every lady in my life is special.”
“That’s me, then?”
“Look, I clammed up.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “It went over fine.” I was relieved at the diversion in subject, as I hadn’t yet figured out how I’d get around revealing my actual feelings about his new song. I decided to focus on the interview portion and hope the rest would go unnoticed. “Just as we planned; you hardly gave me any heart attacks.”
I dropped a piece of salmon on my plate and passed the platter to him.
“Right, but that’s the boring bit. What’d you think of the set?”
I felt my heart start to race, pounding in my chest the way it did whenever I was presented with an opportunity to lie and was seriously considering taking it.
“You sounded great,” I said, and that much, at least, was true. “The acoustics there are just fantastic. And the crowd was so into it, you really had them.”
“Good… that’s good to hear,” Archie drawled. He waited, clearly expecting more.
“I thought ‘Kiss Me, Kill Me’ sounded nice slowed down, which honestly surprised me,” I said. “I almost never like stripped-down pop. It always ends up so twee.”
Archie laughed. “Do go on, please.”
Calmed by his good-natured smile and emboldened by the wine, I did.
“I think you should consider ‘Find You’ for the encore on your next tour. Every woman in the audience was like, losing her mind when the beat drops. Or, when the beat would drop with the band there. And even without them, it’s just such a powerhouse song.”
“Noted,” said Archie. “And thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I blushed. “I had a really nice time.” And I had. Watching him play in person, up close, interacting with the audience and so clearly passionate about his music — and thoughtful, too, more than I ever would have suspected from someone I’d previously dismissed as manufactured, cookie-cutter, and worst of all, high on his star power and deeply uninterested in the music itself — that afternoon, I had turned into a genuine fan.
“OK, but what about ‘Highest Low?’”
I tried my hardest not to wince. “Is that the name? Of the new song you played?”
Archie nodded, his eyes bright and eager. He loved that song, I realized.
“It was … different,” I started. Archie tilted his head, a little like a dog whose owner was talking to him as though he were a person.
“Different good, or … ?”
“Different, ah… different.”
Archie lifted his hands and pressed them into a fist he held in front of his mouth. And he waited.
“I …” I stopped, sighed, played with the rim of my wine glass. “I didn’t love it.”
Archie dropped his hands — not lightly — on the table, and leaned back in his chair.
Moving farther away from me. “Okayyyy,” he said slowly. “Was it just — what about it didn’t you like? Because normally it’d have a backing band, obviously, and with this one that might make more of a difference — ”
“It wouldn’t,” I said. Then I clapped my hand over my mouth. Archie laughed — a single “ha!” — and ran his hand through his hair, shaking his head.
“Right,” he said.
“I’m sorry, that was — ”
“No, I mean, you’re allowed your opinion — ”
“I … know…”
“It’s just a bit of a surprise, that’s all,” said Archie. “Raya loves that song.”
I don’t see how that’s possible, I thought. But what I said was: “Oh, well then. See? Ignore me. I’m just PR.”
“No, see, now I have to know why you didn’t like it,” said Archie. He was attempting to smile but his tone was clear: He was annoyed as hell. And that — the thin-skinned-ness of it, the inability to take (mild!) criticism, so typically male, the childishness of pointing out that Raya loved it — made me annoyed. And, unfortunately for me, when I get annoyed, I get even more honest. (Well, honest or ruthless, depending who you asked.)
“I thought it was kind of derivative.”
“Well, how much Whitesnake were you listening to when you wrote it?”
Archie rolled his eyes, shook his head. But he didn’t say anything.
“OK, doesn’t matter. My point is, it sounded like … I guess, to me, it sounded like the first song a pop star makes when he’s trying to make it clear he no longer wants to be seen as a pop star.”
“Meaning, it sounded a little … empty. There was so much less heart in that song than the others. And the lyrics are kind of basic. And the melody doesn’t do your voice justice at all.” Archie huffed in apparent disbelief, and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Anything else? My guitar playing was shit? My jokes were bad?”
“The guitar sounded fine,” I said. He nodded. “Well, that’s something.”
We were quiet for a moment, and the magnitude of the critiques I’d just rambled off settled into the space between us. And though I was still a bit angry and hurt — at what, exactly, I was too drunk to articulate — there was also a small knot of guilt gaining weight in my chest.
“And you were funny and charming,” I said. “As usual.”
“I know you think I ought to feel complimented right now,” said Archie. “But I don’t.”
“I wasn’t trying to insult you,” I said. “You have such great stage presence that — ”
“ — Oh, don’t patronize me,” Archie groaned. “You wouldn’t know — you just… Ugh. Never mind.”
Whether it was justified or not, whether it was only a way to stifle my regret or not, I felt a welcome resurgence of anger just then. “Look, you asked me what I thought,” I said. “Did you want my opinion, or did you just want me to fawn? Because if it’s the latter, maybe you can wink or something when you ask me what I think, and that way I’ll know I should just blow smoke up your ass.”
I glared at Archie and he glared back at me, and I became aware, all at once, that under the table, our knees were touching. Just slightly — nothing more than could have been explained away as the unintentional byproduct of relatively close quarters — but unmistakably nonetheless.
I looked away and lifted my wine glass. Then, thinking better of it, I set it down, and took a big gulp of water instead.
“You’re right,” he said. I raised my eyes to meet his, hoping the next thing out of his mouth would be “I’m sorry,” or “I do want to know what you think” or “I had a feeling it wasn’t my best work.” Instead, what he said was, “I should have known better than to ask you.”
My face burned. “Ah,” I said. I folded up the napkin in my lap and placed it gently on the table. “Well, I apologize for answering. It’s not my place.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he said. But when I looked at him, I couldn’t tell if Archie meant what he said, and suddenly I was too confused and too tired to be there even five minutes longer. I stood up from my chair, and slipped my phone from the back pocket of my jeans. It was 8:22. I had until 9:00 before I needed to leave to make my train, but Archie didn’t have to know that.
“What time is your train again?” “9:15,” I said. The truth was 9:45.
“Ah,” he said. I watched his face soften; he opened his mouth to speak then closed it. And then he said, “Shame you can’t stay.”
Unless I was very much mistaken, Archie Fox blushed a little just then.
“Raya’s show later, I mean,” he added. “Should be great.”
“I’m sure,” I said. I got up from my chair and took both our plates to the sink. I went to wash them but Archie said, “Leave them. I love washing up.”
I was too annoyed and uneasy to find this cute. I stood there for a moment behind the sink, awkwardly looking around for something else I might clean up or move around or busy myself with so I wasn’t just standing there, wanting both to stay and to leave as fast as I possibly could. But then Archie got up from the table and carried our wine glasses to the sink, and then we were both just standing there. And before I knew what was happening, or how he’d gotten so close to me without me realizing, Archie’s hand was in my hair. I inhaled sharply, and he leaned in a bit closer. I felt myself close my eyes, seemingly without any direction whatsoever from my brain, and then I heard him say, “I think… you have a piece of rice in your hair.”
I flung my hands to my face, muttering “Oh my god” and swatting his hand away, all in an attempt to distract him from the fact that I’d closed my eyes. He laughed, but not unkindly, and instead of letting himself be pushed away, he grabbed hold of my right wrist in the same hand that I’d thought was caressing me but was actually scavenging for food.
“Stop,” he said. “Let me.” I froze. Still holding my wrist in his left hand, his right reached over and pulled gently at a strand of hair. Embarrassingly, he held out his palm so that I could see the single, horrible piece of Cajun rice in its center. No, embarrassing was the wrong descriptor. I was livid.
“Thank you so much,” I said.
“Hey!” he said, still laughing, still standing so close. I was no longer into the dimples. I hated them now. “Come now, Rose.”
“I’ve gotta go,” I told him. “I’m going to miss my train.” “Big Pete will drive you to the station.”
“No, thank you,” I said. “I’ll get a cab.” “I insist,” said Archie.
“You can’t have everything just how you want it.” At that, Archie stopped smiling, and I felt that knot of regret — about what I’d just said, about what I’d said earlier, about signing up for this whole thing in the first place. I felt like I should tell him I was sorry, but I wasn’t sure what I’d be saying it for, nor did I want to admit to having done anything that required an apology. Archie stepped back and leaned against the counter behind him.
“Right you are,” he said. He paused, watching me again. I said nothing.“Well, Rose,” he continued. “It was my pleasure. Phenomenal salmon, truly.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Thanks for dinner. And wine.”
“Like I said, my pleasure.” He was looking at me so intently I had to look away, so I adjusted my bag on my shoulder and once again took out my phone. 8:31.
“I should — ” I gestured vaguely at the door behind me. Archie nodded. “I’ll, uh, email you soon. About next steps,” I said, walking backwards down the hallway.
Archie gave me two thumbs up (ugh), and said, “Sounds like a plan, Ms. Reed.”
With that I gave a dumb little wave, turned my back on him, and walked out the door.
Excerpted from the book PUBLIC RELATIONS by Katie Heaney and Arianna Rebolini. Copyright © 2017 by Katie Heaney and Arianna Rebolini. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
Public Relations is out May 9. Order your copy here.
Katie Heaney is the author of NEVER HAVE I EVER and DEAR EMMA. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, BuzzFeed, New York magazine online, Racked, The Hairpin, and The Awl, among others. She lives in Brooklyn. Visit her website atwww.katieheaney.com or on Twitter at @KTHeaney.
Arianna Rebolini is a writer and editor whose work can be seen at The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Racked, The Fader, The Hairpin, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and two perfect rescue cats. Find her at www.ariannarebolini.com.