I WAITED FOR NOAH TO LIGHT A CIGARETTE ONCE he started to drive. Instead, he handed me a plastic cup filled with iced coffee.
“Thanks,” I said a little surprised. It looked like it had just the right amount of milk. I took a sip. And sugar. “So how long of a drive is it? To get wherever?”
Noah lifted his own cup and extracted the straw from it with his mouth. The muscles in his jaw worked as he chewed. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. “We’re stopping to see a friend, first,” he said.
A friend. It didn’t sound ominous, and truly, I tried not to be paranoid. But a part of me wondered if I was being set up for something. Something bigger than what Anna had planned. I swallowed hard.
Noah clicked on his iPod with one hand while he kept the other on the wheel.
“Hallelujah,” I said, smiling.
“The song. I love this cover.”
“Really?” Noah looked obnoxiously surprised. “Doesn’t seem like your thing.”
“Oh? What’s my thing?”
“I had you pegged for a closeted pop fan.”
“If I must.”
The song ended and something classical came on. I reached for the iPod. “May I?” Noah shook his head in exaggerated disappointment, but waved me on anyway. “Calm yourself. I wasn’t going to change it, I just wanted to see.” I scrolled through his music; Noah had excellent but consistent taste. I was much more diverse. I smiled with satisfaction.
Noah arched an eyebrow. “What are you smirking about, over there?”
“I’m more well-rounded than you.”
“Not possible. You’re American,” he said. “And if it is true, it’s only because you like crap.”
“How is it that you have friends, Noah?”
“I ask myself that daily.” He chomped down on the plastic straw.
“Seriously. Inquiring minds want to know.”
Noah’s brow creased, but he stared straight ahead. “I guess I don’t.”
“Could have fooled me.”
“That wouldn’t be difficult.”
That stung. “Go to hell,” I said quietly.
“Already there,” Noah said calmly, pulling out the straw from his mouth and chucking it on the floor.
“So why are you doing this?” I asked, careful to keep my voice even, but an unpleasant image of myself at a prom night soiree covered in pig’s blood crept into my mind.
“I want to show you something.”
I turned away and looked out the window. I never knew which Noah to expect from day to day. Or hell, minute to minute.
Tangled overpasses wove around and above us, the hulking concrete monstrosities the only scenery on this part of I-95. We were heading south, and Noah and I didn’t speak most of the way.
At some point, the urban landscape gave way to ocean on both sides of the highway. It narrowed from four lanes to two and a steep, high bridge loomed in front of us.
Very steep. Very high.
We climbed behind the swarm of brake lights that crawled up the overpass in front of us. My throat closed. I gripped the center console with my bandaged hand, the pain screaming under my skin as I tried not to look straight ahead or to either side, where the turquoise water and the Miami skyline receded into smallness.
Noah placed his hand on mine. Just slightly. Barely touching.
But I felt it.
I tilted my head to look at his face, and he half-smiled while staring straight ahead. It was contagious. I smiled back. In response, Noah laced his fingers in between my bandaged ones, still resting on the plastic. I was too preoccupied by his hand on mine to feel any pain.
“Are you afraid of anything?” I asked.
His smile evaporated. He nodded his head once.
“Well?” I prodded. “I showed you mine …”
“I’m afraid of forgeries.”
I turned away. He couldn’t even reciprocate. Neither of us spoke for about a minute. But then.
“I’m afraid of being fake. Empty,” Noah said tonelessly. He released my fingers and the palm of his hand rested on the back of mine for a moment. My entire hand would fit almost completely into his. I flipped mine over and laced our fingers together before I realized what I was doing.
Then I realized what I was doing. My heart skipped a beat. I watched Noah’s face for something. A sign, maybe. I honestly didn’t quite know what.
But there was nothing there. His expresion was smooth, his forehead uncreased. Blank. And our fingers were still entwined. I didn’t know if mine were holding his in place by force and if his were just resting or—
“There’s nothing I want. There’s nothing I can’t do. I don’t care about anything. No matter what, I’m an impostor. An actor in my own life.”
His sudden candor floored me. I had no idea what to say, so I said nothing.
He extracted his hand from mine and pointed to an enormous gold dome across the water. “That’s the Miami Seaquarium.”
Noah’s free hand searched in his pocket. He tapped out a cigarette and lit it, exhaling the smoke through his nose. “We ought to go.”
He wanted to take me back home. And to my surprise, I didn’t want that. “Noah, I—”
“To the Seaquarium. They have a killer whale there.”
“Her name’s Lolita.”
And let the awkward silence ensue. We turned off the highway, in an opposite direction from the Seaquarium, and the street curved into a busy neighborhood filled with peach, yellow, orange, and pink stucco boxes—houses—with bars on the windows. Everything was in Spanish; every sign, every storefront. But even as I looked, I felt Noah sitting next to me, inches away, waiting for me to say something. So I did.
“So, uh, have you seen—Lolita?” I asked. I wanted to punch myself in the face.
“Then how’d you hear about her?”
He ran his fingers through his hair and a few strands fell into his eyes, catching the mid-morning sunlight. “My mother’s somewhat of an animal rights activist.”
“Right, the vet thing.”
“No, from before that. She became a vet because of the animal business. And it’s more than that, anyway.”
I knit my eyebrows together. “I don’t think it’s possible to be any more vague.”
“Well, I don’t know how to describe it, honestly.”
“Like animal rescue and stuff?” I wondered if Noah’s mother had pulled any dog theft capers like mine with Mabel.
“Kind of, but not what you’re thinking.”
Ha. “So, what then?”
“Ever hear of the Animal Liberation Front?”
“Aren’t they the ones that let all of those lab monkeys out of their cages and they spread this virus that turns people into zombies …?”
“I think that’s a movie.”
“But that’s the general idea.”
I conjured an image of Dr. Shaw in a ski mask freeing lab animals. “I like your mom.”
Noah smiled slightly. “Her primate freedom fighting days ended after she married my father. The in-laws didn’t approve,” he said with mock solemnity. “But she still gives money to those groups. When we moved here, she was all riled up about Lolita and she had a few fundraisers to try and raise enough money to get a bigger tank.”
“What happened?” I asked, as Noah took a long drag on his cigarette.
“The bastards kept raising their price with no guarantee that they’d actually build the thing,” Noah said, exhaling the smoke through his nose. “Anyway, because of my dad, she just gives money now, I think. I’ve seen the return envelopes in the outgoing mail.”
Noah took a sharp right, and I reflexively glanced out the window. I hadn’t been paying attention to the scenery—I was sitting inches away from Noah, after all—but now noticed that somewhere along the way, North Cuba had transformed into East Hampton. Sunlight filtered through the leaves of the enormous trees that lined both sides of the street, dappling our faces and hands through the glass of the windshield and sunroof. The houses here were experiments in excess; each one was more ostentatious and absurd than the next, and there was no uniform look to them whatsoever. The only thing the modern, glass house on one side of the street had in common with its opposite, a stately Victorian, was the scale. They were palaces.
“Noah?” I asked slowly.
“Where are we going?”
“I’m not telling you.”
“And who is this friend?”
“I’m not telling you.”
Then, after a beat, “Don’t worry, you’ll like her.”
I looked down at the shredded knees of my jeans and my worn sneakers. “I feel ridiculously underdressed for a Sunday brunch scenario. Just saying.”
“She won’t care,” he said as he ran his fingers through his hair. “And you’re perfect.”