Table of Contents
ALSO BY ELIZABETH BRUNDAGE
The Doctor’s Wife
Somebody Else’s Daughter
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. • Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in 2010 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Elizabeth Brundage, 2010
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
A stranger like you : a novel / Elizabeth Brundage. p. cm.
eISBN : 978-1-101-19033-3
1. Women executives—Fiction. 2. Motion picture industry—Fiction. 3. Screenwriters—Fiction. 4. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
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How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. . . .
You can never go home again.
A Death in the Family
For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.
—ALBERT CAMUS ,
GREED LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; BETRAYAL LEADS TO SEPARATION; LUST LEADS TO OBSESSION; ADULTERY LEADS TO DIVORCE; POVERTY LEADS TO ISOLATION; TRICKERY LEADS TO DECEPTION; DECEPTION LEADS TO CHAOS; LOVE LEADS TO HAPPINESS; AVARICE LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; COMPASSION LEADS TO RESOLUTION; WAR LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; OBSESSION LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; INTELLIGENCE LEADS TO REVELATION; EDUCATION LEADS TO PROSPERITY; EDUCATION LEADS TO ENLIGHTENMENT; KNOWLEDGE LEADS TO PROSPERITY; INDULGENCE LEADS TO DECADENCE; DECADENCE LEADS TO RUIN; GREED LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; BETRAYAL LEADS TO SEPARATION; LUST LEADS TO OBSESSION; ADULTERY LEADS TO DIVORCE; POVERTY LEADS TO ISOLATION; TRICKERY LEADS TO DECEPTION; DECEPTION LEADS TO CHAOS; LOVE LEADS TO HAPPINESS; AVARICE LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; COMPASSION LEADS TO RESOLUTION; WAR LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; OBSESSION LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; INTELLIGENCE LEADS TO REVELATION; EDUCATION LEADS TO PROSPERITY; EDUCATION LEADS TO ENLIGHTENMENT; KNOWLEDGE LEADS TO PROSPERITY; INDULGENCE LEADS TO DECADENCE; DECADENCE LEADS TO RUIN; GREED LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; BETRAYAL LEADS TO SEPARATION; LUST LEADS TO OBSESSION; ADULTERY LEADS TO DIVORCE; POVERTY LEADS TO ISOLATION; TRICKERY LEADS TO DECEPTION; DECEPTION LEADS TO CHAOS; LOVE LEADS TO HAPPINESS; AVARICE LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; COMPASSION LEADS TO RESOLUTION; WAR LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; OBSESSION LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; INTELLIGENCE LEADS TO REVELATION; EDUCATION LEADS TO PROSPERITY; EDUCATION LEADS TO ENLIGHTENMENT; KNOWLEDGE LEADS TO PROSPERITY; INDULGENCE LEADS TO DECADENCE; DECADENCE LEADS TO RUIN; GREED LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; BETRAYAL LEADS TO SEPARATION; LUST LEADS TO OBSESSION; ADULTERY LEADS TO DIVORCE; POVERTY LEADS TO ISOLATION; TRICKERY LEADS TO DECEPTION; DECEPTION LEADS TO CHAOS; LOVE LEADS TO HAPPINESS; AVARICE LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; COMPASSION LEADS TO RESOLUTION; WAR LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; OBSESSION LEADS TO DESTRUCTION; INTELLIGENCE LEADS TO REVELATION; EDUCATION LEADS TO PROSPERITY; EDUCATION LEADS TO ENLIGHTENMENT; KNOWLEDGE LEADS TO PROSPERITY; INDULGENCE LEADS TO DECADENCE; DECADENCE LEADS TO RUIN
LOS ANGELES, 2005
He had been watching her for days. Methodically, he’d researched her background on the Internet. She’d been raised in New Jersey and had gone to Yale—according to
she was on
the fast track
and Harold Unger, her boss at Gladiator Films, was paying her six figures for it.
Surprisingly, Hedda Chase was not attractive. A photograph revealed the calamity of her looks, a gangly, unsmiling woman in somber clothing, with a bent nose that should have been fixed and a distracting little mole on her cheek that beckoned a dermatologist. It was a face you might have seen in a history book, chronicling some anonymous woman’s plight in the Dust Bowl, and Hugh could only assume that, in a town like Hollywood, where most of the women insisted on being perfect, her indifference to her appearance was deliberate and may have accounted for the attitude she exuded, a kind of forlorn complacency. She lived in a bungalow in Los Feliz, on Lomita Avenue. It was a one-story Spanish-style cottage, circa 1920s, hidden behind tall hedges, with a single garage in the rear. A small toolshed supplied an ideal hiding place, and it was from inside its sweltering quarters that he’d witnessed her for the first time. At half past six on a Wednesday evening in late spring a vintage blue BMW pulled into the driveway and parked in the garage, its flanks buffed to a shine. Chase emerged from the dark garage into the golden haze of sunset, pulling her sunglasses onto her head. She was talking to someone on a cell phone, a stack of scripts under her arm. Just the sight of her made him sweat. In truth, Hugh was accustomed to feeling inferior around certain women, his wife being one of the few exceptions—it was something he’d been working on with his therapist. Even his boss at Equitable Life, a consummate barracuda, liked to remind him of his pitiable status on the corporate food chain. As Chase passed the shed, he caught a whiff of her perfume, a jackhammer jasmine, and felt the prickly little hairs on his neck go stiff. She paused in the driveway, listening with contempt to whoever was on the other end of the conversation. She was dressed in a droopy ensemble, a scarf tied around her head in a failed attempt at bohemian flair. It was no outfit for a studio executive, he thought. A plane flew overhead, roaring over the orange rooftops. She shut the phone irritably and went up the steps of the small porch, unlocked the door and disappeared inside. A light came on in the foyer and then another in what he predicted was her bedroom.
It was almost dark. Through the small window of the shed he could see the last of the sun sinking into the brown horizon. The air began to cool. A car pulled into the adjacent garage and a moment later a man emerged, Chase’s neighbor, and disappeared inside the house next door. The air smelled good, someone grilling a steak. Hugh slid out of the shed and walked down the concrete driveway. A shoulder-high cement wall ran along the edge of the property, over which Hugh could see the neighboring yards, the lights just coming on in windows, a trio of children being called indoors for supper. It seemed like Hedda Chase lived a nearly ideal life, he thought idly, one that he would intentionally disrupt, just as she had disrupted his.
He grabbed a metal green chair, the sort of chair his grandmother would put out on her porch in summertime, and brought it around to the side of the house where the lights from the kitchen window streamed out onto the driveway. He climbed up onto it, wobbly as a surfer, and looked inside. There she stood at the sink—they were facing each other, the thin glass of the window between them—opening a jar of herring. Gingerly, as if involved in a scientific experiment, she forked the fish onto a cracker, hors d’oeuvres style, and ate it then took a glass from the cupboard and filled it with vodka. Sipping her drink, she turned on the radio. The phone rang and she answered it, frowning. He heard her say: “No,
I’ve told you before, I can’t
Another plane flew overhead, so low he could nearly make out its passengers. It was exceptionally loud. Peering up through the leafy branches of an avocado tree he concluded that Chase’s home was under the flight path of LAX. Under the circumstances, he couldn’t help appreciating the irony of the situation.
A car pulled up out front and a moment later a man entered the house and came into the kitchen. They kissed unhurriedly. The man was tall, with hunched shoulders and an oppressed demeanor. He wore a long leather coat with bulging pockets and carried two camera bags, which he gently set down onto the floor. He removed a disc from his pocket and slid it into her DVD player. Images filled the flat-screen TV on the wall. They stood there looking at it. The film appeared to be a documentary. Street people milled about a parking lot. A bearded man in a woman’s pink raincoat was pulling an empty refrigerator box, straining with the effort. Closeups on his unruly beard, his vigorous squint.
Hedda handed the man a drink and Hugh heard her say, “You’re brilliant, Tom. Congratulations.” They toasted each other and drank their drinks and within seconds they were kissing again, stumbling out of the room in the direction of her bedroom. Hugh stepped down from the chair—he wasn’t a pervert. He’d parked his car down the block, a rented Taurus. It sat waiting for him in the darkness. He walked along the crooked sidewalk. The air carried fragments of deciduous noise. In the car, he sat in the silence. Thoughts of his wife, Marion, floated through his head. An hour or so passed. And then he saw them coming out of the house.
The man drove an old Ford Bronco. It was mustard-colored, in perfect condition, the sort of jeep you could drive in the desert. Everyone drove a splendid car in Los Angeles. People were on the move, going places. They had interesting lives, they’d been lucky. He thought of Marion, driving around in her new Subaru with her little bag of wool beside her on the seat, the woolly shape like a beloved pet.
Hugh decided to follow them. The Bronco was dirty, mud-splattered, covered with bumper stickers about kite surfing. Hugh didn’t know anything about kite surfing, but it conjured in his mind images of men in wetsuits on the beach. They stopped at a light. Two cars behind, he watched their heads moving through the windshield of the convertible in between. A car pulled up in the lane beside him, full of rowdy Mexican girls wearing masks of Marilyn Monroe. The masks were strange, they frightened him, and he was relieved when the light changed and the cars began to move. The Bronco turned up Laurel Canyon and wound up to a plateau. The street was lined with Spanish-style houses with orange roofs. They pulled over on a high ridge overlooking the lights of the city. Parked cars lined the curb below a party in one of the houses. The house seemed to be embedded in rock, spilling over with purple flowers, bougainvillea they called it. The Bronco slid into a tight spot and the couple got out and climbed the long narrow walkway up to the brightly lit house. People roamed in and out. Some were carrying drinks or bottles of beer. Hugh found a spot down the street and got out and walked to the party smoking a cigarette. There didn’t seem to be any point in rushing or feeling nervous. He felt a pang of longing for his wife. He couldn’t remember the last time they’d gone out together. On weekends, they mostly stayed at home. She’d sit at the kitchen table playing solitaire while he practiced piano. Playing the piano was the single thing he did particularly well and it pleased Marion to hear it, but he thought of his ability as a skill more than a talent, the result of years of diligent practice. The piano in their living room had been his mother’s and whenever he played it he imagined her sitting there beside him on the bench, nodding her head thoughtfully the way she’d done when he was a boy, the cross she wore around her neck swinging gently as she moved.