Kendall is sitting on my bed playing with my laptop. I’m hovering in front of my closet, looking for my favorite Montclair State University sweatshirt. “I hate your hair,” I call to her over my shoulder. “Sorry, I couldn’t keep that in any longer.” I did notice right away that the reddish-purple tint of her new hair color made her blue eyes pop. Nonetheless, I don’t like it. I mean, what natural blonde ever wants to go auburn? Women drop hundreds of dollars at hair salons trying to attain the golden perfection she was born with. It’s ludicrous.
“It’s for my next role.” She laughs. “You could at least pretend to like it.”
“No, I can’t. And you shouldn’t either. Lawrence made you do it. I know you didn’t want to.”
“Of course I didn’t want to. You should have been there when he came to me with the idea. He was all like, ‘You absolutely have to do this. Don’t worry, it’ll be great.’ God, he sounded just like my mother. It took everything I had not to punch him in the throat.”
I chuckle at that. There’s a lot to be said about Kendall Bettencourt. She’s one of those people who were put on this earth so that the average human can give the word ‘beauty’ a definition. Between having the body of a Victoria’s Secret model and a face that should be immortalized in a Da Vinci painting, she never stood a chance at living her life in the shadows. It didn’t really come as much of a surprise that this girl—whose genetic makeup is, by no fault of her own, startlingly akin to that of a Greek goddess—would become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after up-and-comers. But my favorite thing about her is not her physical beauty or even the fact that she has genuine talent. It’s that she doesn’t take shit from anyone, including her legendary publicist, Lawrence Mackin.
“How did the Today Show go yesterday?” I wonder. “I didn’t catch it.”
“I didn’t even want to do it. I honestly felt like saying, ‘Well, Matt, I don’t think anyone should bother wasting their money on In Heaven’s Arms. It’s a total gagfest.’” She sticks her finger in her mouth and makes this half-retching, half-gurgling sound. “‘It’s all Ghost Girl meets Living Boy. Ghost Girl falls in love with Living Boy, Ghost Girl tries to figure out how she can be with Living Boy without inhabiting a rotting corpse, which is sure to be a major turn-off to Living Boy. Blah BlahBlah.’”
I take a seat next to her on the bed. “Funny. If it’s so horrible, what the hell possessed you to star in it?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess I figured I couldn’t sit around waiting for an awesome script to come my way. By the time someone writes a strong, intelligent, independent, twenty something female lead, I’d be too damn old to play her. Besides, everyone and their mother read the book it’s based on. James thought it would really put me on the map. I know he’s one of the best agents around, but I still can’t believe he was right! It was such a piece of crap book, you can imagine how much shittier the movie adaptation is.”
“So, we won’t be going to see it tonight then?”
“Not unless you want me to upchuck violently in a public place. That would be a perfect headline for The Inquirer! ‘Movie Star Visits Home Town, Vomits All Over Friends and Former Classmates.’”
I’m laughing so hard now, I’m afraid I might pee myself. Oh man, I’ve missed her so much. “We don’t have to go to the movies, but we should do something fun. Otherwise, I’m just going to sit here obsessing over the sixty-four bars I have to write by Tuesday for my Piano Theory class.”
“I don’t care what we do. You know I’m leaving for a shoot next week. I have no idea when I’ll be able to make it home again. The only reason I came home this weekend is because I was afraid I was forgetting what my best friend looks like.”
I cannot argue that. The last time I saw her was around the Fourth of July. A few years ago it would have been unthinkable to go three months without seeing each other.
“Let’s go to the Grind House,” she says. “For some reason I’ve been craving their terrible coffee.”
“Sure, as long as you make sure to put those hideous things on your face.” I point to the metal-framed sunglasses sitting atop her head. “Otherwise, it’ll be a mob scene. Everyone will be tripping all over themselves to meet you es, Rae,".”
“Yeah right,” she says. “Everyone around here knows me, Payton. It’s not like I’m Angelina Jolie or someone cool like that.” She throws me the keys to the sleek, silver Beamer she rented. “You’re driving. I can’t stand the potholes around here.”
The moment we walk into the coffee shop I become aware of just how off-putting small town New Jersey can be for a famous person, or an “almost famous person” as Kendall would say. People don’t recognize her at first; she was still sporting her natural locks in In Heaven’s Arms, as well as on her most recent press tour. She’s still blonde on all the magazine covers. But it’s easy to make out that the world around us is about to lose its collective mind. It starts with stares—everyone squinting hard in our direction. We’re in line waiting to order by the time the real craziness kicks in. The atmosphere intensifies as the noise level recedes, until finally, the whole place goes dead silent. Then, with all the grace and subtlety of a falling H-bomb, the menacing buzz ofwhispering beings: “Is that Kendall Bettencourt?” “I think so. OMG!”
The barista knows exactly who Kendall is. He can hardly contain his drool as she begins her order. “Hi. Can I have a tall hazelnut latte, please?” She looks over her shoulder at me and raises her left eyebrow. I’m standing stiff and straight at my fully awkward height of 5’9,” somewhat in awe of how she’s managing to function normally in this preposterously abnormal situation. The attention that is on her right now is overwhelming. I mean, I get it. Her biggest movie ever just opened. She has more money than the Catholic Church, and she’s gorgeous, but really? I want to scream at everyone within earshot, “I’ve been hypnotized by her much longer than you have! You all need to get over it already!”
It doesn’t seem to faze her much, though. Maybe she’s just gotten so used to being gawked at that she legitimately doesn’t care.
She shoots me a grin. My rigid muscles instantly relax. “The usual for you, Pay?”
“And a tall coffee, light and sweet,” she continues to the barista. When she’s finished, she turns back to me and whispers, “Ignore it. That’s the approach I’m taking.”
What a radical strategy! “Okay.”
“Your coffee, darling,” She hands me a piping hot cup and then takes off toward the large wall of windows. People continue to gape at her as she passes like she’s a unicorn or some kind of exotic animal. She is stopped twice—first by two preteen girls who ask for her autograph, and again by a musclebound, gym-rat-looking guy who uses his iPhone to snap off a few pictures of himself with his arm slung round her shoulders.
Once everyone gets over the titillation of her presence, we find a sunlight-drenched table in the corner where we can sit facing one another. She looks at me for what feels like forever before speaking. “I can’t believe your hair got so long.” She puts her cup down, reaches across to me, and winds a few brown strands between her fingers. “You should get bangs. Not those full in the front kind, but the asymmetrical side-cut kind. You’d look bangin’,” she chortles. “Get it, banging?”
“You’re such a dork,” I say through my own giggle.
“You know, I meet new people every day, and they all have these great expectations of me.” Her voice quickly goes from funny to serious. A hint of melancholy flashes in her eyes. “I’m supposed to be the cool new superstar, or the latest silver screen vixen. No one sees me as the dork who makes lame puns.”
“But you are adork who makes lame puns. You’re just cooler and sexier than the rest of us. It’s pretty awesome. You’re like a chameleon.”
“A chameleon?” She cocks her head. “Yeah, I like that. Thank you.”
“Don’t embrace it too much. You forget that chameleons are slimy reptiles.”
“Wait a second. Did you just call me a slimy reptile? Nice, Payton. You’re a master at backhanded compliments and completely ruining the moment.”
I take a sip of my steaming coffee and examine her carefully. Her tone was both convincingly stern and mildly pained, but the look of anger on her face is so feigned that she isn’t fooling anyone, certainly not me. “Yes, I’m particularly skilled at ruining moments. And you should consider taking acting lessons. Your ‘rage face’ is overly emotive.”
“Shut up,” she croaks. “Damn it. I can’t pull anything over on you, can I?”
“Nope.” I shake my head, reminding her that I know her all too well.
“While we’re on the subject of ruined moments, I’d like to ruin your day by making you take me to the city.”
“No! You know I hate Manhattan! It’s loud and dirty and too big for its own good.”
“Please? It’s barely half an hour away, and I’ll drive. I know how much you despise New York motorists.”
I look at her skeptically. She reciprocates with a semi-adorable pout.
“I want to go to The Met. And afterward, I’ll let you take me to lunch. I won’t even try to pay.”
“Wow!” I can feel myself smirking. “What a gift! Thank you so much.”
“Whatever! You always complain that I never let you pay.” She playfully slaps my arm. “Come on, look at my sad puppy face! You can’t resist it! I am being so cute right now!”
“Okay, yes! We can go, as long as you stop with the face. I can’t take it.”
“Sweet!” She holds out her hand. “Car keys, please.”
The Met is much larger than I remember. It’s teeming with tourists, which turns out to work in our favor. We walk the halls of the museum in silent anonymity, drifting through a sea of strangers. Not once does anyone stop to ask Kendall for a picture or autograph. I can tell she is relieved. Truthfully, I am too.
We reach the photography section and stop to sit on the floor. And that’s when my senses are tossed into cataclysmic upheaval. Mounted on the wall in front of us is a print called “Lesbian Couple at the Monocle.” Instantaneously, I’m anxious. It’s like a sign from the universe telling me that I need to gather my guts, forget the past, and finally stop being afraid.
I’ve never said it out loud to anyone. I’m not sure I should start now. Will saying it give it some kind of molecular structure that permanently and visibly imprints itself on me? I doubt it. But saying it means that there is a very real chance I might lose friends and alienate people. Worst of all, I have no idea how Kendall is going to handle it. It’s not exactly a topic we’ve discussed much or, like, at all. Will she still see me the same way she did this morning, last week, last year? At least if I tell her here, in public, she won’t make a scene. She is notoriously too good an actor for that. Hell, that’s what she gets paid to do.
I’m about to drop the bomb when Kendall’s eyes wander up to the photo. “Lesbian Couple at The Monocle. What?” She stands up to get a closer look. “That’s weird. I thought it was a picture of a man and a woman. Look at it.” She bends down, offers her hand to help me to my feet. For an instant I think about refusing it for fear that my palms are sweaty. I decide I’m being ridiculous, but wipe my hands on my jeans just in case.
I clear my throat before speaking and immediately notice how annoyingly hollow and gruff that sounds. “I would think it was a man and a woman too, at first glance.”
“It’s interesting how old this picture is and how much society has changed since it was taken.”
“What?” I’m so close to full-blown panic, I’m willing to bet it’s written all over my face. “What do you mean?”
“Like, back in the day,” she starts lightly. “I mean, she is clearly a woman,” she points at the print, “but sheis dressed like a man. I suppose there had to be that, I don’t know that… dynamic back then. If it were a picture of two girls…” She’s getting flustered, blushing a bit, but she presses on. “Okay, say it were a picture of me and you. That caption, ‘Lesbian Couple at the Monocle,’ would have sent people’s heads spinning more than I’m sure it already did. Do you see what I’m saying? It’s like there had to be one feminine woman and one more masculine woman for it to have been understood that they were a couple.”
“Oh.” I want to say ‘what?’ again, but know I shouldn’t. “You’re talking about stereotypes?”
“Yes! That’s it! Like today, just because a woman has short hair or wears racer back tanks doesn’t mean she’s a lesbian.”
“And on the flipside, just because a woman has long hair or wears skirts doesn’t mean she’s straight,” I add.
“Right! Those notions don’t apply to the world anymore is what I was trying to say.”
“I get it. You can’t go by what a person looks like.”
Then it hits me. This is it. It’s now or never, put up or shut up. I’ve gotta go for it. “So, if I were to tell you that I’m gay, it wouldn’t be all that surprising—purely based on the fact that I have a feminine appearance.”
“No, not based on your appearance. Based on the fact that I know you, maybe…”
I’m staring at her now. Blatantly staring. Was that too indirect? Should I be more forward?
“Wait,” she says, her eyes narrowing in on me. “Are you trying to tell me that you…”
I motion yes with my head. “I’m gay, Kendall.”
And then there is silence—a very deep, impenetrable stillness. I want to curl into the fetal position and die right here in the middle of this world class museum.
“Um, how about we do that lunch thing I’m letting you pay for? I need a beverage,” Shesays finally.
It’s not at all what I was expecting to hear. “Sure.”
We walk down to the Rock ‘n Roll Deli, neither of us uttering a word to the other. When we arrive, I order her favorite, tuna salad on a whole wheat wrap, and my tried-and-true staple, grilled cheese and tomato on rye, while she finds a booth in the back.
I haul ass over to her with our food atop a bright red, plastic tray. She snatches her wrap from the tray, but doesn’t eat it right away. Instead, she is hell-bent on gawping at me for I don’t know how long. I can’t tell what she’s thinking, but it’s as if she is somewhere between eyeing up a piece of meat and staring down a rabid dog. “So, you’re like, gaygay?” she asks after taking a few bites of her wrap.
“Uh,” I pause to think over her question. “Is there some kind of non-gay gay?”
She laughs—the kind of good, hearty laugh that always gets me laughing, too.
“What I mean is that you’re gay, as in, exclusively. Not like bisexual?”
“Yes, exclusively. I’m an exclusive lesbian. Though, syntactically, that would indicate that I’m difficult to get into or something, like one of your hot LA nightclubs.”
“It’s impressive that you’re able to maintain your hilariousness even when talking about serious, life-altering things.”
“Well, it’s not like some crazy Body Snatcher thing happened, but yeah, it is pretty life-altering.”
“How long have you known?”
“For a long time, but I didn’t start to think of it as a fact until I was sixteen.”
At that, I see her expression change. She’s offended, or hurt, or something. Maybe a little bit of both. “Seriously, Payton? You’ve known for ‘a fact’ for nearly three years,and you’re only telling me now? Jesus, are you that scared of me?”
“No, not at all!” I shake my head fervently. Terrific, I have to tell her the story. This is one memory I was hoping to never relive. It might be old news, but it sucked enough to damage me irreparably. Every time I think about it, I start trembling like a dead leaf in the wind. “Do you remember Amanda Garrison? She was a year ahead of us in school.”
“Amanda Garrison.” She taps the table top as though trying to place a face to the name. “Yeah, I remember her. She was the captain of the soccer team the year before you were, right?”
“Uh huh. What about her?”
Here we go. “I kind of had a thing with her. It wasn’t, like, love at first sight or anything. I just knew that I liked her and that she liked me, too. We started talking a lot after practice, went out on a couple of dates. Eventually her parents found out about it; I’m still not sure how. They went through her text messages or something. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. The point is, her mom totally flipped out. She dragged Amanda to my house and demanded to talk to my mom. Mom wasn’t home—thank God—but when I told Mrs. Garrison that, she started screaming at me. She kept telling me that her daughter wasn’t gay, and I had better stay away from her. She forbid Amanda from seeing me; she even went as far as making her quit the team. From that day on, Amanda wouldn’t even look at me. It was so brutal.
After that, the thought of coming out to anyone was paralyzing. I pretty much dined on an unhealthy diet of self-loathing and terror. It took me a long time to get comfortable in my own skin—I’m still working on it. But at this point, I’m just too exhausted from keeping it a secret to even bother trying anymore.”
Her revolted expression speaks volumes. It’s enough for me to know what she’s going to do next. She reaches across the booth and takes my hand in her own. “Wow, Payton. That’s monumentally messed up. I’m sorry that happened to you. Some people are just so closed-minded.”
“Some people are, and that’s also part of the reason I’ve been hesitant to tell you. You’re a celebrity now. Your face is already plastered all over the tabloids, and you’re just doing normal teenage crap. What if it got out that some girl you’re always flying cross-country to visit is a big old homo? I’m sure that would start some delightful rumors. Rumors create rifts between people. So you see, I wasn’t scared of you. I was scared I might lose you.”
“The tabloids are going to write what they’re going to write regardless of what the truth is, Payton. I can’t let it bother me. Plus, hello? I live in Hollywood. It would be insane to think that I don’t have any gay friends! And lose me? That will never happen. I’m like a bad case of herpes—just ‘cuz you can’t see me doesn’t mean I’m not there.”
“Herpes! Eww,” I roll my eyes. “That is a horrible analogy.”
“Yeah, but it’s kind of funny and also very true.”
“Are we cool?” She drags out the “cool,” leans back in her seat, and crosses her arms. “Yeah, dude, everything’s cool. Everything’s smooth.” She’s making fun of me, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
“Sweet, dude. Finish your wrap.”
She brings the last bite to her lips and abruptly stops. “Hold the phone. If you’re into girls, what the hell was with you and Scott Strafford the end of junior year?”
“Let’s chalk it up to a last ditch effort at heterosexuality.”
She stuffs the bread into her mouth. “Yeah, you should’ve picked someone else. If I had to choose between that asshole and lesbianism, I’d go gay all the way. Seriously, I considered asking your mom to have you committed. Only a mental patient could’ve fallen for that jerk.”
“I’m going to write The Inquirer and let them know that one of Hollywood’s It Girls talks with her mouth full.”
“See food.” She sticks out her tuna-covered tongue. “It’s all the rage.”
“Charming,” I lark. “No wonder all the guys find you irresistible.”
“Harhar,” she says and grabs the tray from the table. “Let’s get out of here.”
Discover Kendall and Payton’s full story in
The Gravity Between Us
October 17, 2013