ROUGHLY speaking, Mark Lawler knew that his fans could be divided into two camps: those who hated his wife and those who loved her. Those who hated her were jealous she was the one married to him (instead of them), blamed her for the times he hadn’t been cast in movies (because she was holding him back), and, most importantly, detested her for being a beard (since they thought he was sleeping with Zach Pericles). Funnily enough, they didn’t blame him for having a beard, for not being loud and proud about his supposed relationship with his hunky co-star; no, it was exclusively Alex’s fault. Those who loved Alex lived vicariously through her, sympathized with the trials and tribulations of constantly being under the spotlight, and passionately argued to the gay conspiracy theorists that Mark Lawler and Alex Edwards made an awesome Hollywood couple.
Alex’s attitude toward Mark’s fans varied. Sometimes she hated them, and sometimes she loved them. When she hated them, she tried to talk Mark out of making appearances and complained about getting dressed for the red carpet. She would frequently google him and then read aloud the ridiculous things she found—everything from the rumor that when he and Alex got married, he was already married to some woman in Virginia (where he’d never even been) to the more popular dissections of his interactions with Zach that had led to the gay conspiracy theory. When she loved the fans, she favored them with pictures of him and stories he’d asked her not to share, and she talked freely to tabloid reporters and fan blogs about their personal lives.
If Mark were famous like Brad Pitt or George Clooney, it wouldn’t have mattered. He could have told his fans to fuck off with their gay conspiracy theories and told Alex to shut down her social media accounts. He could have declined invitations to parties sponsored by alcohol brands and magazines. But before Nothing Ventured, where he met Zach Pericles, he was a minor actor who had garnered a small following, thanks to recurring roles on a few popular shows and a supporting role in an independent film that went big time. He still had to audition and work to keep his face and name in the game—as his agent was constantly reminding him.
He could have quit, if he really wanted to. After landing a part as a series regular on Nothing Ventured, a corporate drama about a family of venture capitalists, he had saved enough money to live comfortably, at least until he found something else to do, and it wasn’t like Mark ever wanted to rank right under Bill Gates on the Fortune billionaire list. It was just that he really did love acting, even if he wasn’t always sure about all the other stuff that accompanied it. His job was 90 percent bullshit, 10 percent actual acting in front of a camera—if he was lucky. But that 10 percent of the time was worth it, and Mark wasn’t ready to give that up.
That was the reason why Mark’s feelings toward Alex were also divided into two camps. If it were just them, no Hollywood, it might have worked, but Hollywood could never be cast aside. It was always there, like a third presence in their relationship. They were always worried about how they looked when they left the house and what they said in interviews. It was making Alex question her future as an actor. And it was making Mark question his future as her husband.
THE script for the third season finale arrived by messenger on a late Tuesday when Mark had the day off. The messenger had to wait at the gate for him to run down the driveway, since no one actually worked at the gatehouse. It had been enough of a compromise to buy property with a wall and a gate. Mark hated how it isolated them from the rest of the world, but after a few curious fans had gone seeking out their old place and posted the address and pictures online, Alex had insisted. Besides, it wasn’t as if their neighbors didn’t all live behind walls too.
It was a great inconvenience in moments like this, though. Mark could have asked the housekeeper or the gardener to get the package from the messenger, but that wasn’t their job. He jogged down the long stone driveway and greeted the guy from behind the iron bars of the gate.
“Sorry about the wait,” he apologized.
The messenger was half-in, half-out of his car. He gaped. “You’re Mark Lawler.”
“I hope so, or you’re not very good at making deliveries.”
The messenger continued to stare. “Usually these just go to agents or offices.”
Mark was becoming quite accustomed to dealing with starstruck fans. He reached through the bars to pull the script gently out of the guy’s hands. “Yeah, thanks for coming all the way here. Do you need me to sign something?”
Mark grinned. “I meant like a delivery record, but you can have an autograph if you want.”
The guy fumbled around inside his car for a scrap of paper. “Um, can you write it to Katie? That’s my sister. She loves your show.”
“Sure.” He pressed the paper against the stone column lining the gate and scribbled out Hi Katie! Thanks for watching, Mark Lawler in the messy, loopy handwriting he had developed as a result of signing so many autographs. Then he foisted the slip back through the bars. “Thanks again, man.” He waved and jogged back up the drive.
He devoured the script, eager to see how the writers had resolved the narrative arc. This season was the first that his character and Zach’s had worked closely together. It was the result of all the buzz their chemistry had generated. A new plotline reimagined Mark’s character from the loyal son of the patriarch-CEO to a kind of Oedipus who, together with Zach the outsider, schemed to take over the family business. It had been fun playing a good guy gone bad, and it had given him and Zach more time on the set together. But they didn’t know yet if they were going to be successful at taking down Mark’s fictional father.
He got to the final page and couldn’t wait to talk about it. He pulled his cell phone off its charger in the office and called Zach.
“Did you read it?”
“Haven’t had a chance yet. You?”
“I just finished.” Mark was practically bursting. “Hostile takeover, man. We end in the boardroom, telling the staff we’re the new bosses.”
“Oh, that’s gonna be awesome!” Zach agreed. “Wait, what about Julie?”
Julie Rivers played Hannah, Mark’s sister and Zach’s unsuspecting love interest. Zach had once told him that he’d asked the producers if they could abandon that storyline, but apparently the show needed more sexual spice.
Mark hated to deliver the bad news. “You seduce her the night before.”
“Seriously? Those vultures will do anything to get my shirt off!”
“You have a nice chest.” Mark’s chest was actually better, but it was important to stroke Zach’s ego in times of crisis.
“It’s bullshit. I should get extra pay every time I have to do a love scene. I’m going to have David put it in my contract for next season. I fucking hate love scenes.”
“Yeah, I know,” Mark soothed. As much as people liked watching simulated sex on television, it was a bitch to film. Awkward for pretty much everyone involved, with more mechanical choreography than passion. Mark was lucky that his role as the youngest son hadn’t included any love scenes yet, but he had done his share of taking it off for the camera in previous roles—where he’d been cast almost exclusively as a love interest. And before he started landing parts, he’d worked as a model and done things that would have made his mother blush if she’d ever seen the pictures.
“You know what they ought to do?” Zach continued. “If they really want to show Colby using Hannah, they should have them go at it right on the conference table in the boardroom.”
Mark wrinkled his nose. He had a lot of scenes at that table, and he didn’t particularly like the idea of Zach having even fake sex there. “Gross. I still think your character has a gay name.”
“Means something about darkness,” Zach reminded him. They’d had this conversation a number of times. “I still think we’re one love scene away from being a soap opera.”
“If we were a soap opera, we’d have ten times as many episodes a year.”
“Awesome, then I could demand ten times the pay.”
“You already make more than me,” Mark reminded them both. It was a sore point, something he wished he’d never found out. He still hadn’t told Alex.
“Yeah, listen, that one PA with the tats is looking at me.”
“Summoning you back?”
“Guess so. I’ll call you later after I read it?”
After they hung up, Mark felt some of his initial excitement dulled. He felt bad for not realizing that Zach wouldn’t have been as excited about the script. Still, the big scene with the two of them finally taking over the company—that was dream material. No doubt the fourth season premiere would have them being stripped of power, but for the entire summer their fans would be talking about how awesome they were. They’d probably even be the focus of the blurb in the 2010 fall preview issue of TV Guide.
Later, when Alex got home, she asked if he’d gotten the script. He told her about Zach and Julie’s love scene, and she made a face of disgust. “Nobody wants to see that storyline continue,” she insisted. When he told her about Colby and Christian’s big takeover, Alex’s only response was to ask if he’d negotiated a raise in case they were renewed.
HAVING somehow managed to garner enough of the target demographic to be considered worthy in the fierce television market, the show was indeed renewed for a fourth season. The upfronts were still a month away, but the cast were already being solicited by the press to generate buzz for the third season finale.
One website, Television Utopia, was on set as they finished filming. Everyone had been called in, even Julie and Roger Stanton, their TV father, whose scenes had already been completed. A half hour was built into the production schedule for a big group interview, and the bloggers were slated for fifteen minutes with each cast member throughout the day. Mark was to talk to one Miss Lissa Parker at one fifteen.
At nine forty-five the lighting technicians were working on the Petersen living room while the cast gathered in their director’s chairs. Lissa Parker and her colleague, a man Mark didn’t know, began with the same dull questions that all interviewers used: what could fans expect from the finale, were they excited about the renewal, what could they tease about the fourth season, how did they like working together after three years, and so on. Roger talked about his supporting role in an action picture that was shooting over the hiatus, and Julie bragged about her upcoming wedding. The fans, Lissa and her associate assured them, were eager to hear about Julie’s fiancé, the ceremony, and plans for the honeymoon. Mark tuned out; he’d heard more than enough on the subject since Cal had proposed. He caught Zach looking equally bored, and they shared a smile.
Whether the interviewers caught it, Mark didn’t know. But after Julie stopped gushing, Lissa asked how things were going between him and Zach.
Mark’s publicist, Olivia, had schooled him tirelessly on “the plan.” Basically, it meant careful presentation of his friendship with Zach in order to climb the ladder of fame, to show just enough affection to tease speculation without avowing homosexuality and ostracizing Nothing Ventured’s older, more conservative audience. Even without Olivia’s guidance and her carefully constructed plan, he would have learned how not to engage with certain kinds of questions after three years. He didn’t make the same mistake Alex sometimes did, when she walked right into traps that fed into the gay conspiracy theory.
“Things between me and Zach are the same as they are between us and the rest of the cast,” he said smoothly, offering what he hoped was a disarming smile. “We’re all still pretty close. That hasn’t changed, even as the show’s gotten more popular.”
Lissa, who’d interviewed him multiple times over the years, smiled back and turned her attention to Zach. “What about over the hiatus? Any plans to see your cast mates?”
“You know,” Roger interrupted, “we see each other fifteen hours a day when we’re shooting. Over the break we’re all eager to spend time with our families and other friends. It’s not that we don’t love each other, but we don’t get a lot of chances to spend time with other people during the shooting season. I can’t speak for Zach, but I’ll be happy if I don’t see any of these guys’ ugly mugs for two months.”
The rest of them smiled and nodded at Roger’s answer. As the oldest cast member and the one who played their father, he was their de facto leader, and they deferred to his experience. Roger had neatly diverted attention from the Mark-Zach epic bromance and also offered an honest glimpse into their lives behind the scenes. Nobody on the Internet needed to know that they had all been invited to his Memorial Day barbecue or that Mark and Zach were starting a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class together in June.
“The friendships among the cast are pretty well known,” said the man, whose name Mark still didn’t know. “How does that affect your working environment? I understand Colby and Christian started scheming against the family because the writers were so thrilled with Mark and Zach’s chemistry.”
Julie laid a hand on Mark’s forearm and leaned forward in her chair. “The rest of us are always rolling our eyes and going, ‘Oh, Zach and Mark are at it again.’ It’s like they have a secret code sometimes.”
Mark wanted to kill her, but Zach swiftly intervened. “Yeah, we’re buddies. I guess the writers have picked up on that with the takeover plot this season. Should be something exciting coming from all that in the finale.”
Lissa Parker ran with that teaser and asked what else they could reveal. No one brought up Mark and Zach’s relationship again the rest of the day.
MARK first met Alex at a party sponsored by a brand of vodka nobody ever drank. Sometimes, when he thought about how fateful it had been that he’d gone to that party when he’d seriously considered ditching, he regretted that he couldn’t even remember the label. Then he’d remember that he preferred gin and she preferred tequila, and that the vodka was probably terrible, so it didn’t really matter if he remembered which brand it was. At least he remembered enough of the party.
Alex had just done a guest spot on a sitcom, and one of the guys on the show had invited her as his date. They’d only been out once before, but they looked good together. Although Taylor Bryant was now a big shot (and Mark’s archrival, though Taylor didn’t know that), at the time he was a total B-lister. Showing up to a party with a beautiful woman on his arm was a good way of guaranteeing a little more attention from the press.
Mark had gone to the party without a date, though he’d shared a cab with two other guys he knew from his less glamorous modeling days. One of them, Enrique, was still modeling and spent most of the night bitching about how difficult it was for Latinos to break into the film industry. Although Mark was sympathetic, he was pretty sure the real problem wasn’t racism but Enrique’s sometimes unintelligible accent. Their other buddy, Stefan, wasn’t quite as tactful and asked point-blank why Enrique couldn’t just go to work on a telenovela. Enrique ditched them after that.
Stefan saw a few people he knew—Mark didn’t know how he knew them—and eventually ditched Mark too.
There was too much pressure at those kinds of parties. In theory you were supposed to have fun, but in reality you were constantly worried about how you looked and who you were being seen with. Somebody probably had some coke or oxy, and somebody would know the number to an upscale, discreet escort service, but Mark couldn’t gear himself up for any of that. The paparazzi had been lining the red carpet when he’d entered, and they usually waited around to follow people home too. Although his fame would probably have risen with a scandal, he was too early in his career to know how to deal with all the attention. He had nightmares in which his aunt Sharon read about his escapades in a tabloid in the supermarket checkout line and told his mom. Los Angeles was a different world than Minneapolis.
He spent an awkward half hour hovering near a wall. He was drinking one of the vodka brand’s signature cocktails as slowly as possible and watching the couples gyrate on the dance floor. They were young, sexy, vibrant, and seemingly unworried about anything other than the pleasure of the moment. Mark was just grateful to have been invited to a party where the alcohol was free and where he might have a chance at networking if he didn’t get stupidly drunk; he was still struggling to get auditions and make his rent on time.
Alex caught his attention as soon as she walked up to the bar. She wasn’t wearing the same uniform of tiny dress and stilettos that the other girls were. She was in a pair of tight black capris and flat slippers. Her sparkly tank top left little to the imagination, but her hair hung down around her shoulders, masking how revealing the back of the shirt was. She had thick black eyeliner smeared around her eyelids and mauve lipstick. She was deeply tanned, and her straight, thick brown hair showed just a hint of red.
“I don’t even know why I came,” she said as she waited for the bartender to mix her drink. “I hate these parties.”
Mark glanced around for a minute to see if she was talking to somebody else. “Me too.”
She sized him up. Mark wasn’t sure his hair would pass muster, since it had been pretty windy on the walk in. At least he could be reassured that the two hundred dollars he’d spent on clothes had paid off—especially since it was his last little bit of money.
She apparently deemed him worthy because she stuck out her hand. “I’m Alex.”
“Mark,” he said, shaking it. “Did you come here alone?”
Her eyes narrowed again, and Mark felt a stab of embarrassment at his lousy follow-up. “No. I came with Taylor Bryant.”
Mark whistled. “Wow, he’s hot.”
He didn’t know what the hell was wrong with him. Usually he didn’t have much trouble making polite small talk at parties, but that night it was as if he was playing a geeky virgin on his first date.
“I guess,” Alex said. She glanced at the dance floor, where Taylor was dry-humping some blonde. “If that’s your type….”
“It’s not yours?”
Alex turned back to him. “Not really. Yours?”
“Not really.” Alex offered him a sincere smile, and Mark couldn’t resist smiling back. “So what is your type?”
“I like them a little awkward,” she said. “Uncomfortable in the new clothes they obviously just spent their last dollar on.”
“How did you…?”
Alex grinned wider. “Do you want to dance?”
They danced for a while and talked over the music, but ultimately Alex went home with the asshole who’d brought her. Mark had immediately liked her, and he was disappointed that even though she knew Taylor Bryant was a superficial man-whore, she still left with him. That was probably what prevented him from falling in love at first sight: the realization that Alex, as much as she said she hated it, played along with the Hollywood rules.
Mark thought about her for a few weeks afterward, until his agent phoned and told him he had an audition for a pilot. Then all he thought about was the new show and the awesome guy he’d met during the screen test. Zach Pericles was made to be on camera. He had an ease with delivery that Mark envied, and he carried himself with total confidence. His face was carved by an artist’s hand: the Roman nose and tiny indent in his chin made him masculine, but his wide hazel eyes and plush pink lips softened the look. Mark wondered if he’d modeled before he’d gotten his break, and Zach readily confirmed he had.
“It’s awesome not to have to stand around mugging in my underwear anymore,” Zach said. “Oh, wait….” He laughed. “Seriously, you’re going to love doing television.”
“I’ve done some before,” Mark felt the need to tell him.
Zach raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Anything regular?” Mark shook his head. “Well, this will be my first time as a regular too. We can figure it out together.”
“Assuming we get the parts,” Mark added.
Zach just winked at him.
They got the parts. Mark hadn’t understood at that point in his career that a reading with some unknown producer as a scene partner meant they were considering him, but a screen test with Zach meant he was as good as hired. He hadn’t understood the pull Zach had. Zach was the first person cast for the show, long before Mark’s audition, and when Zach told the series creator, Andres Quinteros, and the executive producer, C.J. Markinson, that he liked Mark for the role of Christian Petersen, they listened. Mark found this out one night during the first half of season one, when he and Zach were sitting on the hood of Zach’s Range Rover and looking up at the stars.
Of course, their friendship hadn’t immediately been the stuff of the movies.
As they shot the pilot, he and Zach got to know each other better. They celebrated the conclusion of filming with too many drinks at a bar Mark wouldn’t have dared set foot in before landing the gig. He tried not to cringe as he laid his credit card down on the silver tray that housed his bill. Just because he’d shot a pilot didn’t mean the show was going to get picked up or that he’d continue to have work, but for one moment he could pretend he didn’t have money problems.
Zach grinned at him. “You’re adorable!” he yelled over the house music. He plucked up Mark’s credit card and put his own down. “Pay it forward.”
Mark was grateful at the prospect of getting his fifteen dollar gin and tonics for free, but his mother hadn’t raised a mooch. “What?”
“When you’re in my shoes, you’ll take pity on some poor newcomer who doesn’t have any money yet. You pay it forward.”
Mark’s heart thumped in his ears, but it wasn’t because of the thumping bass line. He’d thought he and Zach had really hit it off. He’d had fun all night. And Zach was just pitying him, doing charity work because fortune had been on his side.
Mark nodded, but he didn’t trust his own acting abilities enough to try to speak.
Out on the street, they exchanged phone numbers and promised to keep in touch, but Mark didn’t expect anything to come of it.
He was surprised when he got a text only a week later. Zach was finishing work on a hospital drama, and while they waited to hear if Nothing Ventured was getting picked up, Zach would entertain him with messages like Help! I’m having a heart attack. While looking beautiful. Zach invited Mark to dinner on his dime and to his house in Brentwood to play video games. Sometimes Zach would score free tickets to the Lakers and bring Mark along. Eventually it sunk in that Mark wasn’t a charity case, that the friendship between him and Zach was real.
When the network ordered a full season of Nothing Ventured, Mark was thrilled at the opportunity, the steady income, and the chance to spend more time with his new best friend. He and Zach didn’t often have matching shooting schedules—in the first season storyline their characters didn’t know each other well—but they both loitered on set a little more than was necessary, and they could often be found in the other’s trailer during breaks. Mark liked that Zach had a Wii, and Zach said he liked how Mark’s space felt homey and real.
Through all the turmoil of getting cast and starting shooting, Mark had completely forgotten about the feisty brunette who’d hit on him at the vodka party. Nine months after that party, when Nothing Ventured was halfway through filming the season, Alex Edwards turned up on the roster of weekly guest stars. The minute she arrived at the studio, she marched right up to Mark like they were old friends and demanded to know why he’d never called her. Mark was embarrassed, thinking about how she’d left with Taylor Bryant after flirting with him all night. He had grown up a lot since then—Zach had taught him how things worked in Hollywood—but he hadn’t really believed Alex wanted to hear from him. And he’d been too busy making new friends and starting a new show.
He told her the truth. “I kind of forgot about you.”
Rather than being hurt or upset, Alex was amused. “You forgot me? You forgot me?”
“Sorry?” he offered.
Alex smirked. “Guess I’ll have to make this meeting a little more memorable.”
Mark was trying to think of his own sexy and witty comeback when Zach slid up beside them. He introduced himself to Alex and asked her a few polite questions, and then diverted Mark’s attention to set politics, leaving her out of the conversation. In hindsight, Mark would realize that moment had set the tone for the awkward triangle he, Zach, and Alex now found themselves in.
ALEX didn’t want to come to the season three wrap party because, she explained, she didn’t have any dresses that hadn’t already been photographed. Mark suggested she just buy a new one, but Alex turned her nose up at the idea. She didn’t like high heels and dresses as much as a Hollywood actress was supposed to; she really preferred to be in flats and jeans. And she didn’t like the Nothing Ventured cast and crew all that much, either. She’d been to a few of their parties, and she could turn on her charm just fine. But given the choice, she would prefer to stay home. Mark wasn’t too disappointed, since it meant that he and Zach could goof around. There was a lot they couldn’t get away with when Alex was around.
The first half of the party was an emotional high, if a predictable one. Mark hugged his cast mates, the crew, C.J., and Andres, who congratulated him on a top-notch finale performance. There was a cake with the show’s title card. Roger Stanton made the first cut, and then his wife Annie went to town slicing and dishing out, like it was a party in her living room instead of an upscale bistro on Melrose.
The second half of the party was a blur, thanks to a proliferation of free champagne and a nostril full of crystal Zach had given him. There was a band, Mark remembered, and he was pretty sure that at some point he and Zach had sung with them. His suspicion was confirmed the following day when Alex showed him a video someone had posted on YouTube. The caption read, OMG I love these guys but they suck LOL. It was a grainy, shaky cell phone video that began right as he and Zach belted an off-key chorus of “St. Elmo’s Fire” and finished with the obnoxiously unequalized sound of the room cheering and catcalling.
WHEN Alex said he didn’t have to come with her to her friend’s wedding in Scottsdale, Mark knew right away how he was supposed to respond. A good husband would say he’d come with her, since he had wrapped season three and had officially started his summer break. But Mark didn’t want to be good, so he called Zach to tell him he had the weekend free. Zach cheered into the phone and then suggested a trip to Carmel, where neither of them had been. Mark immediately agreed. They decided that, although Zach’s Range Rover was more spacious, Mark’s Audi TTS Roadster would be more fun for the drive.
The car had been Mark’s first extravagant purchase after he’d arrived in LA. He’d gotten paid what he thought was a ridiculous amount of money for a fashion photo shoot that involved him semi-nude and wet. After the humiliation of having to look at other beautiful bodies semi-nude and wet for two days without getting aroused, he felt he deserved to spend the money on something ridiculous. At the time he was driving the same Toyota Camry he’d had in Minneapolis. It wasn’t very attractive, and it wasn’t very reliable anymore. His justification for the purchase was somewhat circular logic: he needed a better car to get to jobs so he could make money, so he’d have to spend money to get the car. After a couple of days of researching online, goaded by Stefan’s decadent taste, Mark had bought the Roadster. It was a testament to his practicality that he was still driving it five years later.
For some reason he didn’t tell Alex he’d made plans with Zach. As soon as she climbed into the black Town Car that came to take her to the airport, Mark started packing his own bag. Twenty minutes later, he was on his way to pick up Zach.
The first leg of the drive, where the 101 and Highway 1 were joined, they listened to “Ventura Highway” on repeat, until that lost its charm. Then Zach switched to their favorite rock playlist, comprised of songs they’d both grown up listening to in the car with their dads, and they argued over the lyrics to songs they’d heard a million times.
“There’s no way he’s saying that.”
“Dude, I’m telling you, he’s saying, ‘I feel like I come on you.’” Zach turned the volume up and sang along to demonstrate.
“You sound nothing like Steven Tyler.”
“You’re just jealous.”
“He’s totally saying ‘come unglued,’ you idiot.”
Zach scoffed. “Because that makes sense.”
Mark looked at Zach’s profile and grinned easily. It was already starting out to be a good weekend. He let the free wind blow through his hair, as America had suggested, while Aerosmith continued to sing whatever it was they were singing.
“This drive is awesome,” Zach said, stretching his arm out the open window. “Let’s just keep going. All the way to Canada. We can get gay-married and spend the rest of our lives skiing.”
“Sorry, dude, I’m already married.”
“Only because she asked you first.”
Mark kissed his fingertips and touched them to Zach’s cheek. He was the one who had proposed to Alex, and Zach knew that. But Zach always teased that Mark had only ended up married to Alex because she was more aggressive than Zach. Mark found that funny, since Zach was one of the most aggressive people he’d ever met. If Zach wanted something, he got it. Always.
In the second hour of their drive, they stopped to get gas. While Mark was at the pump, Zach went into the convenience store. He came back with two slushies, one red and one green. “Which one, man?” he asked, waving the giant cups around.
Mark frowned. “That’s entirely sugar, probably high-fructose corn syrup.”
Zach rolled his eyes. “We’re going to get plenty of exercise this weekend, dude. It’s one slushie. I’m not telling you we’re gorging on five bags of chips each.”
“You’re the one who warned me about my diet,” Mark reminded him as he hung up the pump. It was true—Mark had started watching what he ate as soon as he got his first modeling gig, but Zach had been the one to advocate eliminating certain foods in addition to counting calories. Obsession with food was one of the few things Zach and Alex had in common.
“Dude, we’re on vacation!” Zach wheedled. “Drink a slushie. For me? Please?” He held up one of the cups next to his head and pouted his lower lip out.
Mark rolled his eyes and grabbed the cup. He took a sip through the straw, eyeing Zach pointedly as he did. It was the green one, and it tasted like fake apple. “Dude, that’s disgusting.” He sucked again. “But strangely addicting.”
Zach grinned. “Mine’s cherry. Want to switch?”
“Halfway through. Your turn to drive.”
Zach caught the car keys with one hand and got behind the wheel. He adjusted the mirrors, took another sip of his slushie, and started the car. They headed back toward the highway and rode in silence, just enjoying the scenic view. Mark couldn’t believe he’d been in LA for six years and had never made the drive up the coast. On one side were the browns and grays and greens of mountains and rocks, and on the other the blue of the Pacific met the blue of the sky, both stretching on forever. It made Mark feel small and insignificant compared to the vastness of the world, but with the top of the car down and Zach at his side, he also felt free.
“Hey,” Zach said after awhile, “you want to go to the Hearst Castle?”
“You mean like Citizen Kane?”
“Yeah, you ever been?”
“Zach, I’ve never been anywhere outside LA.”
“How long have you lived in California?”
“How long has Alex?”
Mark knew where Zach was going with this line of thought, but he offered, “Ten,” anyway.
“Worthless,” he muttered.
“Don’t talk about her like that,” Mark warned.
“She doesn’t let you do anything. Doesn’t take you anywhere.”
“I mean it, Zach.”
“Fine, fine. So, San Simeon?”
Mark nodded, eager to think about anything other than why he was making a trip up the most beautiful highway in the world with Zach instead of his wife. Zach wasn’t totally right; he and Alex traveled a lot. They just always traveled to the same kind of places—specifically, tropical beaches—and none of their vacations ever involved awesome drives with slushies and mistaken song lyrics.
Mark put the Rolling Stones on the iPod, and they debated how dirty “Let It Bleed” was really supposed to be.
“Well, now I’m horny,” Zach announced.
“You can come all over me,” Mark said, echoing Mick Jagger.
“No,” Mark laughed. He was used to Zach’s extroverted approach to sexuality. “Tonight we can check out the bar scene after we get settled at the hotel. I’ll be your wingman.”
“But I’m horny now.”
“You should have taken care of it at the gas station.”
“That’s disgusting,” Zach spat. “I’m not going to jerk off in a dirty gas station bathroom.”
“You’re not jerking off at San Simeon, dude. That’s just wrong. And you’re not jerking off in my car.”
“Don’t have to jerk off if someone else does it for me.”
“I’m not giving you road head.”
“Aw, Boy Scout, are you chicken?” Zach challenged.
“What? No! I’m just—we’re going seventy miles an hour. I’m not taking off my seatbelt and making you close your eyes and lose control.”
“What makes you think I’d lose control?”
The joke was going a little too far. “Do you—are you seriously asking—”
“No! God, no.”
“Yeah,” Mark agreed, shifting uncomfortably in the passenger seat. “Seriously.”
Zach laughed, but it fell flat. “God, fucking perv. You thought I was serious, didn’t you?”
“Whatever, Rainbow Brigade.”
The tension never fully dissipated. The weekend was enjoyable, but they didn’t have that awesome rapport Mark had come to rely on. They were overly polite and afraid to touch each other, where it had always been comfortable to grope and hug before. When Mark dropped Zach off at his house on Sunday night, he felt a sense of relief.