Excerpt

Pretty as a Picture

Elizabeth Little

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Pretty as a Picture, by Elizabeth Little. When Marissa Dahl, a film editor, travels to a remote Island to work with a famous director on a movie about a real-life, long-ago murder that happened there, she anticipates spending her time alone, putting the project together. She doesn’t anticipate the mysterious happenings on set, or the disappearances, and she does’t intend to be the one trying to solve them all.

He’s big is what I’m saying.

“Let’s roll,” he said when he saw me, and that was it for conversation, which was fine by me.

At first.

But about ninety minutes in, my nerves took over. I wondered, is Isaiah not a casual talker? Or can he tell that I’m not a casual talker? Or maybe he was just waiting for me to say something first, and now he thinks I think I’m too good to casual‑talk to him, and yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking, there she goes again, that Marissa, always making mountains out of molehills. But, see, once the mountain’s there, I can’t simply undo it. Either I have to give it the respect a mountain deserves or wait eight to ten years for it to shrink back down to size.

And anyway, what was I supposed to do? Say hi? Ask him how his day was going? After almost two hours? No can do. He’d know I was only talking to him because I’d realized I was being weird. At least this way I have some plausible deniability on my side.

It wasn’t until I could no longer trust that I wouldn’t start saying this to him directly that I pulled out my phone and waved it in his direction.

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“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I have to make a quick call.”

Then I smiled what I hoped was the smile of someone who really doesn’t think they’re any better than anyone at all, and I dialed the only person other than my mother who always answers my calls.

“Where are you shooting?” Amy asks.

“A sixteen-page nondisclosure,” I remind her.

I guess this is still funny, because she laughs again. “Ballpark, then.”

I turn to the window and squint into the distance. There isn’t much to see. A little grass, a few trees, a gas station every ten minutes or so. Nothing with a recognizable name. Still, I can make an educated guess: It’s a quarter past seven, so it’s been about two and a half hours since we left the Philadelphia metro area. And we’re traveling at exactly 55 miles per hour, heading south, which means—

“I think I’m in Delaware?” There’s a pause.

“Well—at least you’ll be spending most of your time in a windowless room.”

“It’s only six weeks,” I say. “We’ll be done by Labor Day.”

“Did they tell you that before or after you signed the contract?”

“Before. But Nell—”

“And Tony’s last film took how long to finish?”

I make a face. “That was a three‑hour Balkan war drama.”

“How do you know this one isn’t?”

“I don’t think you can shoot Dover for the Dardanelles.”

“You sure about that?”

I don’t need Amy to reiterate the concerns that have been running through my mind since I boarded the plane early this morning, so I try to find a way to wave her off.

“It’s a good gig,” I say. “Of course it is.”

A seemingly straightforward answer, but I’ve wrecked my ship on these particular shoals before. So I play her words back a few times, running them through my very precisely calibrated Marissa You Might Be Missing Something detector.

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Did she say, “Of course it is.”

Or maybe, “Of course it is!”

Or, God help me, “Of course it is.”

Is she being sarcastic? Patronizing? Does she not want me to take this job? Is she mad about something else? All of the above?

Nothing throws me for a loop quite like a simple sentence followed by a pregnant pause.

On the other end of the line, Amy is packing her books. I can make out the hollow slide and scrape as Amy folds a cardboard f lap into place. The rippled croak of tape pulling away from the roll. A rhythmless thump . . . thump thump . . . thump . . . thump.

I pick at the stitching of the car’s leather upholstery. I really should have shown her how to pack them properly (line the box with crushed paper; sort the books by size; stack them spine to spine), but I can’t say anything. Not now. Not after the text messages her boy‑ friend’s been sending me. Because I refuse to give Josh the satisfaction of knowing that he’s right, that I am holding Amy back, that I am selfish, that I am—in this one tiny but frankly pretty benign way— trying to keep them apart, and yes, it’s true, I do think he’s an only slightly better than average director of photography.

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Maybe that’s what she’s angry about. Maybe Josh finally told Amy what she should’ve realized years ago: that I’m a pretty terrible person to be friends with.

I draw my lower lip between my teeth and bite down until I taste blood.

I met Josh at a Wong Kar‑Wai retrospective—at a screening of In the Mood for Love—and at the time I thought it was one heck of a meet‑ cute. Just imagine: finding the love of your life at the most romantic movie ever made—even though, okay, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung don’t actually get together in the end, but that makes it even more romantic, right? Regardless, taste that good goes a long way.

It wasn’t until much later that I discovered he wasn’t a real fan at all; he was probably only there to pick up women. But I didn’t know that then. I just knew a man with eyelashes so long they cast shadows on his cheeks was smiling at me like I was a girl who knew what she was about.

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It did occur to me that if you viewed it from a certain angle, our conversation looked an awful lot like a general meeting: a mostly uninspired interaction between very loosely affiliated people that ultimately comes to nothing. I talked about what I was working on, he talked about what he was working on; I talked about my favorite movies, he talked about his favorite movies. But Amy always said generals were just first dates with an only slightly smaller chance of getting laid, so I thought: Maybe.

For someone like me, maybe’s more than enough to build on.

A week later, I saw him at Happy Together. He was scanning the crowd, and his eyes stopped when they landed on me, and I thought: Maybe.

At 2046, we sat together, his forearm whispering against mine, and I thought: Maybe.

And when he even showed up to My Blueberry Nights, I thought:

Okay, more than maybe.

I was the one who introduced him to Amy, and isn’t that a way‑homer. But I was reckless with something warm and unfamiliar, so I invited him to Amy’s birthday party, a party I wouldn’t have even gone to except it happened to be at our apartment. It didn’t occur to me to label him anything other than “a friend.” Before I knew it, they were on the other side of the room, sitting on the blue velveteen couch she’d scavenged off a side street in West Hollywood, their heads bent together.

I’d always hated that couch.

I could see pretty quickly where things were headed, and I thought I was more or less resigned to it. But then I went into the kitchen for a Coke, and Josh was there, mixing drinks. And when he turned around, smiling, a red plastic cup in each hand, I thought, wildly, What if I just haven’t been clear about this? What if he just doesn’t know? So I plucked up my courage and leaned forward and pressed my mouth against his. His lips were warm and dry, and he was still smiling when I pulled away, but before I could say anything, Amy was poking her head through the door, asking where her drink was.

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The next night, I went to see Chungking Express. Josh wasn’t there.

And I thought: Maybe not.

Why haven’t I told Amy? A few reasons. First, I was embarrassed. I’m still embarrassed.

Second, I owe her. She’s put up with me for years, and if she’d known I had a crush on him, she never would have gone out with him, no matter how she felt. And look! I was right! He is the one for her. They’re moving in together. He’s happy, she’s happy, they’re happy.

Third—

(I’m not proud of this one.)

I like having Josh around. Any affection that might have sprung up between us went rotten as soon as we realized we were competing for Amy’s attention, but then the strangest thing: hating Josh was even better than liking him. He made me so mad I forgot to overthink things. For the first time in my life, I found myself able to bat back a text with something that looked like spirit, no matter that he was usually asking me to give him and Amy some fucking space already, Jesus. So what if his responses dripped with disdain? At least they were prompt. At least they weren’t indifferent. I was so accustomed to nothing, I was ravenous for absolutely anything.

I knew that, even then. I just couldn’t stop myself.

It’s possible to be so lonely you’ll latch on to the littlest thing, and yes, maybe that’s sad, maybe that’s pathetic and desperate, but isn’t that better than forgetting how to latch on to anything at all?

It’s possible to be so lonely you’ll latch on to the littlest thing, and yes, maybe that’s sad, maybe that’s pathetic and desperate, but isn’t that better than forgetting how to latch on to anything at all?

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That’s not a rhetorical question. I really wish I knew the answer. By the time I figured out what I was secretly hoping for—when I looked back at my browser history and realized I’d been reading exclusively enemies‑to‑lovers fanfic for months—it was too late to do the sensible, mature thing and tell Amy the truth. I announced instead that I’d finally saved up enough for a down payment on a place of my own, and I floated the idea that it might be time for her to consider moving in with Josh.

I’m so lucky I got out of there before she guessed what was going on.

But maybe that luck’s run out. Maybe she finally heard something in my voice that gave it away, that unlocked it all, the corkboard in The Usual Suspects, the perm in Legally Blonde, the inconsequential every‑ day object that proves to be the key to the whole goddamn mystery— No. This isn’t a movie. Amy’s a grown‑up who goes to therapy twice a week. She talks about her feelings all the time, and she loves me, she says so, she squeezes my shoulders until I say I believe it. She would tell me herself if something is wrong. She promised she would tell me herself if something is wrong.

Plus, she laughed at my joke. She must be upset about the job.

“Is there something you want to tell me?” I venture, hesitantly.

She doesn’t answer immediately. I put my hand over my left ear and press the phone hard against my right. It’s nearly impossible to figure out what Amy’s feeling just by looking at her. She has a face like a cat’s: You can tell if she’s sleepy or surprised, but that’s about it. The language of her features is limited.

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When we first met in film school, when I couldn’t tell if she wanted a friend or just someone to help with her thesis project, I tried to gauge her mood using everything I’d taught myself about facial features, about body language, seeking out clues in the angle of her elbows, the slope of her smile, the cardinal orientation of her feet.

“Is there something on me?” is a question she asked a lot back then.

After several months of trial and error—mostly error—I finally realized Amy’s secrets are in her sounds.

When she’s anxious, her jaw clicks.

When she’s excited, her voice dips, counterintuitively, into a low rasp of a register.

When she’s annoyed, her breath hisses through her teeth.

When she needs to tell you something, something sad, some‑ thing bad, when she can’t fully commit to the direction she wants the words to go, you can hear a soft flutter: the back of her tongue flapping against her epiglottis.

When she’s absolutely outraged—well, then she’ll stop breathing entirely.

Which is a real problem, because that’s a hard thing to listen for. Right now I can’t hear her at all. Just the hum of the engine and the whir of the fan and the slight crackle that’s been on every call since I dropped my phone in a snowbank in Park City. This might be it. She might be as angry at me as she was at that manager who told his teenage clients he needed to supervise wardrobe fittings, and she’s going to banish me from her orbit as fast as she did him, and— Her exhalation is rough and open‑throated, from deep in her chest, and when I register the sound, I let out a great, gasping breath of my own. Thank God: This is the sound Amy makes when she’s angry for somebody.

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“I’m worried Nell’s not telling you everything,” she says. “Why would she? She’s my agent.”

A pause. “Just—it’s a lot, what you’re walking into. That’s all. It’s been a long time since you’ve done a feature with anyone but me, and big changes are, well—”

I finish the thought so she won’t have to. “Aren’t really my thing.” Another pause. My fingers tighten around the phone.

“Well,” she says brightly, “No point second‑guessing now. You’ll just have to call when you get in, let me know how it’s going.”

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“Of course—”

“Promise?”

Yes.”

“Even if you get your hands on dailies?”

I know better than to agree to that. “I’m hanging up now.” “Knock ’em dead, babe.”

“Gosh, I hope not.”

A last pop of static and she’s gone.

__________________________________

From PRETTY AS A PICTURE by Elizabeth Little, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth Little.

 




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