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.”
ROWS OF PALM TREES SPRUNG UP FROM THE sides of the narrow street, and the ocean peeked out from the spaces in between homes. When we drove to the end of the cul-de-sac, an enormous automated iron gate opened for us. A camera was perched at the entrance. The day was getting weirder.
“So … what does this friend do, exactly?”
“You could call her a lady of leisure.”
“Makes sense. You probably don’t have to work if you can afford to live here.”
“No, probably not.”
We passed an enormous, garish fountain in the center of the property; a muscled, barely clothed Greek man clasping the waist of a girl who reached into the sky. Her arms transformed into branches and spouted pale, golden water in the sunlight. Noah pulled all the way up to the front entrance, where a man in a suit was waiting.
“Good morning, Mr. Shaw,” the man said, as he nodded to Noah, and then moved toward the passenger side door to open it for me.
“Morning, Albert. I got it.”
Noah exited the car and opened the door for me. I narrowed my eyes at him, but he avoided my stare.
“You must be here often,” I said cautiously.
Albert opened the front door for us and Noah breezed right in.
As extravagant as the landscaping, fountain, driveway, and gate were, nothing, nothing could have prepared me for the mansion’s interior. On either side of us, arches and columns towered into a double balcony. My Chucks squeaked on the flawless patterned marble floor, and there was another Greek-inspired fountain in the center of the inner courtyard, with three women carrying watering jugs. The sheer enormousness of the place was staggering.
“No one can possibly live here,” I said to myself.
Noah heard me. “Why’s that?”
“Because this is not a house. This is like … a set. For some mafia movie. Or a tacky wedding venue. Or … Annie.”
Noah tilted his head. “A scathing, yet accurate analysis. Alas, I am afraid people do actually live here.”
He sauntered carelessly to the end of the courtyard and turned left. I followed him, wide-eyed and wondrous, into an equally expansive hallway. I didn’t notice the small, black streak of fur hurtling in my direction until she was only a few feet away. Noah whisked the dog into the air just as it charged me.