I tried one. And I did thank him. They were savory with just a hint of sweet, and the garlic-burn of the sauce made my tongue sing.
“God, these are good,” Noah said. “I could snort them.”
The waiter returned and loaded our table with food. I couldn’t identify anything except for the rice and beans; the oddest looking were plates of glistening fried dough balls of some sort, and a dish of some white fleshy vegetable smothered in sauce and onions. I pointed to it.
“Yuca,” Noah said.
I pointed to the dough balls.
I pointed to a low bowl filled with what purported to be stew, but then Noah said, “Are you going to point, or are you going to eat?”
“I just like to know what I’m putting in my mouth before I swallow.”
Noah arched an eyebrow, and I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.
Shockingly, he let it slide. Instead, he explained what everything was as he held the dishes out for me to take from. When I was full to bursting, the waiter arrived with the check, setting it down in front of Noah. In an echo of his earlier gesture with Alain’s number, I slid the check my way as I dug in my pocket for cash.
A look of horror dawned on Noah’s face. “What are you doing?”
“I am paying for my lunch.”
“I don’t understand,” Noah said.
“Food costs money.”
“Brilliant. But that still doesn’t explain why you think you’re paying for it.”
“Because I can pay for my own food.”
“It was ten dollars.”
“And, wouldn’t you know, I have ten dollars.”
“And I have an American Express Black Card.”
“You have a little something right here, by the way,” he said, pointing to the side of his scruffy jaw.
Oh, how horrible. “Where? Here?” I grabbed a napkin from the dispenser on the table and rubbed at the location where the offending food bit seemed to be lurking. Noah shook his head, and I rubbed again.
“Still there,” he said. “May I?” Noah indicated the napkin dispenser and leaned over the table at eye level, ready to wipe my face like a food-spattered toddler. Misery. I squinted my eyes shut out of shame and waited for the feel of the paper napkin on my skin.
I felt his fingertips on my cheek instead. I stopped breathing, and opened my eyes, then shook my head. How embarrassing.
“Thanks,” I said quietly. “I’m completely uncivilized.”
“Then I suppose I’m going to have to civilize you,” Noah said, and I noticed then that the check had disappeared.
One look at Noah told me he’d taken it. Very slick.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I was warned about you, you know.”
And with that half-smile that wrecked me, Noah said, “But you’re here anyway.”
A HALF-HOUR LATER, NOAH DROVE UP TO the front entrance of the Miami Beach Convention Center and parked next to the curb. On top of the words NO PARKING emblazoned on the asphalt. I gave him a skeptical look.
“A perk of being Baby Warbucks,” he said.
Noah withdrew the keys from his pocket and walked over to the door like he owned the building. Hell, he probably did. It was pitch-black inside, and Noah felt for the lights and flipped them on.
The art took my breath away.
It was everywhere. Every surface was covered; the floors themselves were pieces, geographic patterns painted beneath our feet. There were installations everywhere. Sculpture, photography, prints; anything and everything.
“Oh my God.”
I smacked his arm. “Noah, what is this?”
“An exhibition funded by some group my mother’s on the board of,” he said. “Two thousand artists are being shown, I think.”
“Where is everyone?”
“The show doesn’t open for five days. It’s just us.”
I was speechless. I turned to Noah and stared at him, mouth agape. He looked deliriously pleased with himself.
“Another perk,” he said, and grinned.
We walked the labyrinth of exhibits, weaving our way through the industrial space. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. Some of the rooms were art; walls twisted with metalwork, or entirely crocheted in a walk-in tapestry.
I wandered over to a sculpture installation, a forest of tall, abstract pieces that surrounded me. They looked like trees or people, depending on the angle, copper and nickel mingling together, towering over my head. I was amazed at the scale of it, the amount of effort it must have taken the artist to create something like this. And Noah brought me here, knowing I would love it, arranging the whole day for me. I wanted to run over and give him the hug of his life.
“Noah?” My voice bounced off the walls in a hollow echo. He didn’t answer.
I turned around. He wasn’t there. The giddiness I’d felt slipped away, replaced by a low buzzing of fear. I walked to the far wall looking for a way out and registered the soreness of my calves and thighs for the first time. I must have been walking for a while. The vastness of the space swallowed my footsteps. The wall was a dead end.
I needed to go back the way I came, and tried to remember which way that was. As I passed the trees—or were they people?—I felt their faceless, misshapen trunks twist in my direction, following me. I stared straight ahead, even while their limbs reached out to grab me. Because they weren’t reaching. They weren’t moving. It wasn’t real. I was just scared and it wasn’t real and maybe I would start taking the pills when I got home later.
If I got home later.
I escaped the metal forest unscathed, of course, but then found myself surrounded by enormous photographs of houses and buildings in various stages of decay. The images stretched from floor to ceiling, making it seem like I was walking on a real sidewalk beside them. Ivy crept over brick walls, and trees bent and leaned into the structures, sometimes swallowing them whole. The grass might have edged on to the concrete floor of the Convention Center, too. And there were people in the pictures. Three people with backpacks, scaling a fence at the border of one of the properties. Rachel. Claire. Jude.
I blinked. No, not them. No one. There were no people in the picture at all.
The air pressed in on me and I quickened my pace, my head pounding, my feet sore, and rushed through the photographs, detouring at a sharp corner to try and find the exit. But when I turned, I faced another photograph.
Thousands of pounds of brick and concrete rubble were strewn along the wooded grounds. It was a picture of destruction, as if a tornado had hit a building and all that was left was a pile of rubble and the vague sense that there were people beneath it. It was reverent—each ray of sunlight that filtered through the trees cast a perfect, distorted shadow on the snow-covered ground.