“Okay if I go in?”
She stepped inside, and I followed, hitting another light switch, which brightened the booth and another row of bulbs overhead. I watched as she crossed over to the couch, where she picked up the guitar, admiring it.
“Les Paul Standard,” she said, clearly impressed. “Wow.”
I’d felt a little weird for this entire tour. It wasn’t until this moment, though, as she examined one of Peyton’s many expensive guitars, that I experienced something close to actual shame.
“What are you guys doing in here?”
I jumped, startled; I hadn’t heard Ames come in. “Uh, nothing. Just showing Layla around.”
He glanced at her, there on the couch, then stepped inside, brushing past me. “You like guitars?”
“Yeah,” she replied, not looking at him.
Ames crossed over to the couch, which was small, squeezing in next to her. “Here,” he said, reaching over her shoulders to take both her hands. “I’ll show you some chords.”
“I’m okay,” she replied. By her voice, it was more like Back off.
Ames heard it, too, and did just that. Regrouping, he walked over to the opposite wall, where another guitar sat in a stand, and picked it up. Layla continued to ignore him, strumming, while he picked out a few chords, his brow furrowed.
“Needs tuning,” he said after a moment. “But it’ll do for a quick lesson. Now, look. I’ll show you the basic chords. This is an F . . .”
I watched as he demonstrated. Layla did not. When he noticed this, he moved on to actually playing, beginning a crude rendition of “Stairway to Heaven,” one of the first songs Peyton had learned in rehab. And then, when I didn’t think it could get any more awkward, he began to sing. His voice was thin and reedy, his eyes shut soulfully, as he teetered over the words of the first two lines. Sadly, we had to watch.
It was just so awful, and I hadn’t thought anything could be worse than the dinner. I had the worst urge to just laugh out loud, but I knew I couldn’t, so I bit my lip. Then Layla also began to play. First quietly, but as she kept on, it grew louder, her fingers moving faster. I didn’t realize what was happening until she was suddenly playing right along with him. But she wasn’t just picking it out, like he’d been; clearly, she knew what she was doing. Ames realized as soon as I did and abruptly fell silent. Only then did she begin to sing.
I remembered Layla telling me earlier that day, offhand, that Rosie was the one with the voice. If that was the case, she had to be at opera-like level, because Layla’s singing was gorgeous. Suddenly the room was filled with the sound of her voice, melodic and pure, while her fingers moved so quickly over the guitar strings, they were blurring. I was pretty sure my mouth was hanging open. I know Ames’s was. When she finished, it was like the air sucked right out from all around us. Silence.
“Wow,” I finally managed. “That was amazing.”
“You are pretty good,” Ames added.
“It’s ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Everyone can play that.” Layla put the guitar back where she’d found it, then looked at me. “Ready for pizza? I am.”
We ended the night as Ames had planned, watching movies. He made his “famous” popcorn, drenched in melted butter, before settling smack in the middle of the couch facing the TV, so whoever else sat there had no choice but to be next to him. Layla chose the floor, then patted the carpet beside her. As I sat, Ames cut his eyes at me. He wasn’t even trying not to look annoyed anymore.
The movies were romantic comedies, and Layla, the connoisseur, had already seen them both. She said we should go with the one that was funnier, rather than the one with the dreamy cover image of a couple in midkiss. Forgoing the popcorn, Layla opened her purse and pulled out a fistful of YumYum lollipops, then offered them to me. There was a root beer right in the middle, which I was sure was no accident. When she extended them to Ames, he shook his head.
“Don’t like hard candy,” he told her. “And all those flavors are always too sour anyway.”
This Layla didn’t even honor with a reply, instead just ripping a pink one open and sticking it in her mouth. I reached for some popcorn, starting to feel kind of bad for him. It was so buttery, it felt wet in my hand. I left it on my napkin.
About halfway into the movie, there was a burst of music, and Ames pulled out his phone, glancing at it. “It’s your mom,” he said to me, then answered, putting on the speakerphone. “Julie, hey. How’s the vacation?”
Layla was still sucking on her lollipop, her eyes on the TV, as my mom said the trip had been good, the flights easy, and they’d just had a great dinner. If Ames was going to tell her I’d invited someone she didn’t know to spend the night, he was taking his time.
“Is Sydney there?” she asked finally.
“Sure,” he replied. Then he handed the phone to me.
“Hi, Mom,” I said. I wished I could take her off speaker, but it felt weird doing it on someone else’s phone. Of course he wanted to hear everything that was said.
“Hi, honey!” My mom actually sounded happy, and for a moment I felt bad for not wanting her to go on the trip. “How are you doing? Having fun with Ames and Marla?”
“Marla’s actually sick. Same bug as Jenn,” I said. Ames was watching me still, eating a handful of popcorn.
“Poor thing! That’s really going around.” A pause. “Everything else okay, though? You had dinner?”