Dinner with Sean Penn by Amber Burke
So, at about six on Thursday, Chad Paisley calls and asks how I am, as if he cares, then says he’s coming over for dinner. This is a little bit presumptuous and definitely out-of-the-blue but completely in line with his personality. I say, “Come on over,” and if I sound a little eager, it’s just because I have reached a certain level of boredom in my four days off from school. Mom and I don’t communicate well in general, and my little brother RJ is too young to be considered a human being.
Then Chad says, “And…” like he’s waiting for a drum roll or something.
“And what?” I ask because I’m a pushover.
“I’m bringing Sean Penn.”
I wish rolling my eyes made an audible noise. “Also, bring some orange soda please. We’re out and I don’t want to walk to Vons.”
“THE Sean Penn,” Chad says, like I didn’t hear.
Seriously, if namedropping were nailbiting Chad Paisley’s fingers would always be bleeding. I know how to deal with Chad, though. What I do is, when he starts namedropping, I just act like I don’t know who any of those people are, which drives him nuts. So I say, “Great, I love 30 Rock.” That’s a show that Sean Penn is not on, in case you don’t know, but Alec Baldwin actually, who looks like Sean Penn’s not-so-chiseled cousin.
Chad is starting to say, “No, Missy—” but I hang up superfast.
I don’t change out of my PJ bottoms or put a tablecloth on the table for Chad and Sean Penn, or tell Mom to cook anything different than usual. Or even tell her Sean Penn is coming, actually. Because, who knows if he is? About fifty percent of the time–more, probably–Chad Paisley’s all talk.
Chad is one of those L.A. guys who prefers to think of himself as the nexus of the universe and expert on everything. Oh, you like that band? He knows the lead singer, or at least the drummer, and then he’s got an anecdote about how he helped the drummer out and how now the drummer owes him bigtime. He’s seventeen, one exact year older than me, but he still thinks of himself as a real wheeler-dealer or whatever. His contacts list is miles long and his headset is on the verge of growing into his skin, like how fat people get stuck to their couches? For instance, at my grandma’s funeral on Sunday, his phone rang, and once he even answered it. He said he’d call back, but still. There’s a lot to ignore if you’re going to be friends with Chad Paisley.
And honestly, if I just met him now, we probably wouldn’t be friends, just so you know. Because it bothers me when people try to impress their own importance upon you. But Chad and I have history. I’ve known him since second grade. That was way before his mom married this guy Allen who owns multiple houses and a luxury rehab place. His parents have pool parties at their villa in Malibu almost every weekend, when they’re not busy traveling the world. They leave Chad on his own for weeks at a time and come back with tans from Cabo or garden statuary from Rome or babies from China.
Chad’s parents want him to go to some froufrou high school, but I’m positive he still goes to North Hollywood High because he’s got clout there. He really does. I mean, the idiots at school swarm around me, just because I’m his best friend, so they can ask me Chad-related questions. They come over to whatever table I’m sitting at, and ask about some party. “You don’t want to go,” is what I say to Vicky and Nicole and girls like that. Having been to a lot of parties with Chad, I can tell you that going to parties with him is a mistake, unless you want to watch him debase himself. Chad lights up like he has a cord that plugs right into the sockets of famous people. He’ll be standing next to you one second, then he’ll leave right in the middle of your sentence, so he can go glue himself to some minor celebrity, who he may or may not know from his dad’s rehab place. He will look around, like, “Get a load of who I’m talking to with such natural ease.” He’ll try to get his picture taken. He’ll laugh more than he ever does when he’s just talking just to you. Me, I ignore famous people, just to even things out. Tell me so-and-so’s right over there, waiting in line for a hot dog, and I won’t even turn my head.
Mom is making spaghetti with red sauce and I’m making my special salad when I hear a bunch of honking, which is something Chad does when he’s arriving at his destination, like he’s heading up a parade. I walk over to the living room window and push the yellow curtains over an inch so I can see Chad pulling into our driveway. Chad has this conspicuous car that looks like a boat and is painted baby blue. I happen to know that it’s a 1971 Buick Riviera because he’s told me so about a hundred times. At school, he parks it where everyone can see him take off in the middle of the day, hoping to kill people with suspense about where he’s going and how he got a dispensation to leave in the middle of History. And they do care! It’s messed up. I bet he has not been awash in inquiries regarding my recent absences.
Anyway, I see two sunglassed heads in the car that’s now parked in the driveway. The doors swing open, and sure enough, Chad struts out of one and Sean Penn struts out of the other, like they practice opening doors and prancing out of motor vehicles at the same time. Chad is carrying a six-pack of orange soda and Sean Penn has a paper bag. They both are wearing white t-shirts and blue jeans and sneakers, like most the guys I know, but that is definitely Sean Penn. That’s his slicked-back dark hair, his pressed-down nose, his shoulder-twisting way of walking. I’ve seen that guy in a lot of movies.
The doorbell rings and rings again, and RJ comes out from the kitchen to answer it. He wears a cowboy hat all the time, including now, and he’s going through this a phase where he thinks answering doors and phones is the best thing ever. But I say, “Go help Mom, RJ. Go, I got it.”
RJ, who is a pouter, stomps his way back to the kitchen.
I stand there for a minute at least, right at the door, not opening it. Just because Chad is in some big rush that doesn’t mean I have to be in some big rush. You’ve got to figure, if you’re excited about Sean Penn or whoever coming to dinner, racing to the door and so on, that will just be throwing a log in the fire of Chad Paisley’s self-importance, and that is not what you want to do, trust me. The trick is to act casual, like Sean Penn probably would have come over to your house for dinner anyway, sooner or later.
Chad rings again.
“Would you get it already, Missy?” My mom says from the kitchen. So I do.
Chad steps in first, wearing the sunglasses that I helped him pick out at the Sunglass Hut last summer. He put them on in the store and said, “You don’t think I look like an idiot? Like I’m trying to be cool?” and I said, “You look like you just happen to be cool.” And so he got them.
Anyway, Chad hands me the orange sodas, the kind I like, in glass bottles, then says, “Look who’s here!” with his arms outstretched, and when he says that, it’s not possible to tell if he is talking about himself or about me or Sean Penn. Only after making a presentation of himself does he take off his sunglasses. Chad always does that, wears his sunglasses for a moment inside, so he can remove them in this big ta-da moment, like it’s the unveiling of a great painting or something. When all there is to see behind them is a stocky kid with kind of bushy hair and bushy eyebrows and beady eyes and a wolfish mouth.
“You didn’t have to dress up,” Chad says like a smart ass.
“Be nice. These are my good PJ’s,” I say.
Chad does the introductions. “Sean, this is Missy, my best friend since second grade. And Missy, this is a great new friend of mine, I’d walk across burning coals for this guy, you gotta see him trim a sail, Sean Penn.”
Please. I guess I’m supposed to infer that Chad sails with Sean Penn now? I imagine a rickety boat, like the one Sean Penn used to rescue people from their roofs after Hurricane Katrina, Chad clinging to this boat for dear life, Chad trying to claw his way onboard. That probably isn’t what happened in reality, though. In reality they probably leaned back in one of Allen’s yachts wearing striped turtlenecks and fishermen’s caps. Maybe they smoked cigars.
I look at Sean Penn, whose own sunglasses are already hinged into his shirt collar, and I want to say something smartass to let him know that the whole world isn’t going to suck up to him like Chad does, but all I can come up with is, “Howdy.”
Sean Penn says it’s nice to meet me, and when he shakes my hand, and his hand is warm and not sweaty at all. He hands me a brown paper bag with a carton of organic ice cream in it. I thank him nicely, even though pistachio is not in my top ten.
“What did I tell you, doesn’t she look like Kristen Stewart?” Chad is asking Sean Penn about me, like they were talking it over before they showed up.
Sean Penn has a still way of standing, and a long way of looking at me. His eyes, I think, look sad and droopy, like an old sea turtle’s. I start to get fidgety. I am not a big eye contact person. I see it as invasive.
Sean Penn says yeah, sure I do, but without a lot of enthusiasm, I have to say. Which is fine because Chad’s the one who cares about stuff like that, not me.
I ask them to take off their shoes because Mom is not a big fan of vacuuming. Sean Penn sits all the way down on the floor in the entryway to take his sneakers off. He unties the laces and set his shoes neatly beside the doormat, instead of just kicking them off like Chad does. Then he uses his hands to help push himself up, and I think to myself, Sean Penn isn’t very graceful. He’s just an ordinary ungraceful person, is what I think right then.
We all walk into the living room and I watch Sean Penn take in the place. His eyes trail over the furniture, none of which would fetch anything on Antiques Roadshow.
“Nice digs,” he says, which he probably thinks he has to say. He walks around, with his hands in his pockets, like he’s looking for more, another room or wing or something. Suddenly, I’m aware of how small our place is. And boxy, with low ceilings. It’s the kind of house that makes you think people were shorter in 1960 when grandma bought it. I’m even aware of how the place is put together—the fake wood floors, the olive-colored carpeting, the papered walls, the big tiles and the little tiles. The white siding outside. For some reason, the whole house seems very flimsy to me at this moment, like a big hand could sweep it away.
“Have a seat,” Chad says, because sometimes he gets confused and thinks he’s the host of every party.
Chad sits in the recliner and Sean Penn sits on the flower-patterned sofa, right in my grandma’s spot actually, and gives the pillow next to him a pat-pat. It’s funny because my grandma embroidered that pillow, and he went right for it. He automatically wanted to touch it. I’ve read that actors are extra-sensitive human beings, and I wonder for just a split second if he feels anything else without knowing it.
“Howdy,” RJ says, trotting out of the kitchen.
“Hi there, Randall James,” Chad says, in an obnoxious overly jolly voice. RJ gives Chad a look, then goes up to Sean Penn.
“I’m a RJ,” RJ says to Sean Penn, with dignity. “This is my horse.”
“Wow,” Sean Penn says, taking the plastic horse that RJ has extended to him, legs up. “That is one fine steed.”
I go into the kitchen to drop off the soda and ice cream and let my mom know who’s here, and of course she says in her most annoyed voice, “You could have given me a little more notice,” which I admit I could have, but not that much more.
“Please don’t ooh and aah,” I say preemptively, because if you know her you know she is an ooh-er and aah-er.
But Mom is already scurrying out of the kitchen, and I scurry out after her. When she comes into the living room, Sean Penn stands up.
I imagine what it’s like to see my mom for the first time. She’s a large woman wearing a purple jogging suit, even though she very clearly isn’t a jogger. Because of her round head and her short crispy hair, her face looks like a big egg in small nest.
“This is my mom,” I say, because my mom isn’t saying anything.
“A real pleasure,” Sean Penn says, shaking her hand, and at the same time leaning forward into something like a bow. At least he’s got manners.
I position myself right at Sean Penn’s side to keep an eye on my mom, and good thing I do because she is really emotional even at the best of times, and the look she gives Sean Penn while she says hello is like he is her long-lost son coming back from war. She just has me, and RJ who is five and not at war, but I can imagine. Then she spreads her arms open, and she looks for a second like she’s going to cry or lunge in for a bear hug, and somebody needs to stop that from happening. So with some urgency I open my eyes wide and spike my eyebrows up and tuck in my chin, which is how I indicate to Mom, be normal. She catches me looking at her like that, and so she just clasps her hands, and does this awkward curtsy thing, then goes back into the kitchen with RJ.
Mom sets the table with placemats and cloth napkins instead of paper towels and puts a box of pink wine out. Chad gets up and says, “Gladys”– he always calls parents by their first names–and picks the wine up from the table and takes it back into the kitchen. For a second, it’s just me and Sean Penn.
Sean Penn sits on the edge of the couch, leaning forward. He isn’t big but he’s wiry-tough, you can tell by how his t-shirt pulls across his arms and chest. His hands hang interlaced between his legs. He’s looking at the decorations that we mostly just ignore, prints of girls looking up at butterflies, dry-looking wreaths. There are also a ton of blue and white porcelain miniatures everywhere on the shelves: little windmills, and little shoes, and little houses. Don’t ask me about the miniatures; they were Grandma’s thing.
“Is that Delft blue?” Sean Penn asks about the miniatures.
“I’m not sure,” I say. How would I know? Grandma and I didn’t talk that much or anything. It’s hard to talk to someone who’s always crawling around picking fluff off the carpeting, or ironing clothes that don’t really need to be ironed, that kind of thing. She even ironed my jeans and my underwear.
“Good stuff, Delft Blue,” Sean Penn says.
“My grandma’s,” I say.
“I’m sorry. Chad told me about her passing.”
“It’s not your fault,” I say. I don’t say, “It’s okay, she was old. I didn’t even cry at her funeral,” because if I had to guess, I’d guess Sean Penn is a crier.
“I’m sure it’s been a rough time for all of you,” Sean Penn says.
In a flash, I realize it’s possible that Chad manipulated Sean Penn into thinking that he’s coming over here for our benefit, like some hospital clown. I want to make it clear to Sean Penn that we don’t need him to cheer us up or anything.
“We’re all fine, really. We do a good job of taking care of ourselves. ” It occurs to me that I should have maybe put on jeans and brushed my hair. “I’m just taking some time off,” I add.
There are family photos on the side table next to Sean Penn–my grandma in one of her dress-up hats, my brother lying on the floor with his big head, a school picture of me from four years ago. That you?” Sean Penn asks, picking a picture up. It’s in one of those frames with metal daisies around it, and I can see the pointy petals indenting the skin of his fingers and palms.
“Unfortunately,” I say.
I watch him look at the picture with a lurching feeling in my belly. He has some notable people in his memory, you know. Presidents, probably, and directors, and models. Madonna. And, at night when he is falling asleep, when his subconscious roulettes through all the faces he’s seen in his life, from now on there’s a chance it might land on me like I am now. Or it might land on me when I was twelve with braces and glasses and a perm.
I want to change the subject. “You’re not in Indonesia?” I ask Sean Penn, which is dumb, because of course he’s not, he’s on our couch, but right now there are a lot of disasters happening in Indonesia. If you pay attention, bodies are drifting out to sea.
“I’m taking some time off, too,” Sean Penn says.
I would ask why, but Chad is walking back in, and I don’t want to seem too interested. Chad passes out orange sodas on ice and plops into the armchair. “Sean’s going to see how the world does without him for a while, “ Chad says.
“Better, probably,” Sean Penn says, and kind of chuffs this laugh out.
My heart kind of melts, just a little, toward Sean Penn a little, because of how he says that, like he doesn’t think he’s worth that much.
When my Mom calls “Soup’s on!” we all head into the dining room. Sean Penn takes a seat, not at the head of the table either. When we’re in place—Chad, right at the head of the table, where no one ever sits except him, Sean Penn and me on one side, my mom and RJ on the other–and spaghetti and red sauce is on everyone’s plates, and everyone has their own bowl of my special salad, Chad says, “See, what did I tell you! Comfort food, you know, and salt-of-the-earth people.” There is definitely something about Chad that makes you want to punch him.
Then Chad holds up his orange soda and indicates the empty chair—at the other end of the table—where grandma used to sit. “This dinner is in honor of Bertie, who we all know held this family together. She was a lady who was right about a lot of things. For instance, she liked to tell me I was handsome.” Around Sean Penn Chad is just made of charm.
“I believe what she actually said was, ‘you’re as handsome as a young Donny Osmond,’” I say. My Mom chuckles because she knows I’m right, and Chad laughs too, even though he doesn’t usually appreciate it when I bring up Donny Osmond, not since we Googled him to find out who he was and saw his hair.
Sean Penn doesn’t seem to be paying attention, though; he looks a little shell-shocked. Like he’s just realized he’s not sure what he’s doing in some clapboard North Hollywood house having spaghetti with red sauce. Chad leans over and says under his breath that I shouldn’t take it personally: “He’s going through a thing right now. He could use our support.“
Well, my mom, who is pretty great at paying exactly no attention to what I say, starts oohing and aahing. I give up and let her, since she’s been in the dumps lately. If she wants to tell him he’s got talent, okay. I’m sure that’s just what Sean Penn has been waiting for: validation from my mom.
“You must have met some amazing people in your line of work,” my mom says. But Sean Penn doesn’t seem to want to talk about himself, or the people he knows. So my mom starts talking about herself and the people she knows. She gets really quite gossipy about a certain dentist. She’s an oral hygienist who’ll tell you straight up that she doesn’t like teeth. I think, Sean Penn is not going to care about your boring job, but he seems really interested. She gets quite personal about herself and even tells him about her thyroid. Then I wonder for a second if my mother is flirting! I’m kind of appalled because I’m pretty sure she is. She’s deferring to him quite a bit, saying, “But you know that, Sean,” etcetera, and she’s doing this beaming thing that’s annoyingly girlish. I don’t know why I don’t want my mother to beam, but I don’t.
I think, it would be a great time to break into the conversation with a question that shows my knowledge of cinematic history, then I remember I don’t know any cinematic history. All of a sudden, I wish I’d watched Sean Penn on The Actor’s Studio or at least IMDB’d him before he came over. I want to have something good to ask him, the way if you were on bowling team in gym class with a really attractive guy named Antonio, just a hypothetical, you might wish you’d been worked on your Spanish homework with a little more diligence. But if I ask Sean Penn anything, Chad will think I really care. And I don’t want him to think that, because I don’t care. Why would I care? I just want my mom to lay off for two seconds.
Anyway, it turns out that Sean Penn really likes my salad, which has a lot of raisins, and after a while he’s shooting the shit with everybody. Even his hair kind of loosens up–a Superman curl loops over his forehead. Then Sean Penn is slapping Chad on the back and saying, “Early, early in my career I had a manager just like this guy.” Meaning Chad. Chad suppresses elation, but not very well; it irks me how special he thinks he is.
“What, a total poser?” I say. It really works best to give Chad a hard time about stuff.
Sean Penn laughs, and Chad tries to, but he’s ready to growl at me, you can tell.
Sean Penn cleans his plate, then he asks where the bathroom is, and my mom says to use the one through the kitchen. I kind of want to warn him that it’s got pink tiles and hummingbird wallpaper and the toilet is really low, and none of those were my decisions, but I don’t.
My mom calls after him, “You have to pull the string to turn on the light.”
That embarrasses me, because at Chad’s stepfather’s houses the lights turn on wherever you walk. I can’t even imagine Sean Penn’s house. All the lights are probably always on, solar-powered and just waiting for you.
“Isn’t he great?” Chad says. It reminds me of that one time we both did ecstasy in his mom’s basement, and he kept saying, “Do you feel it? Do you feel it?” Like he invented ecstasy or something.
“Oh, yes,” my mom says.
“He’s okay, “ I say.
“I thought you said you loved this guy,” Chad says.
“Did I?” It’s possible that I said something to that effect when we were watching I Am Sam, where Sean Penn played the mentally challenged dad who worked at Starbucks. Or maybe after Mystic River, where he took the law into his own hands and avenged his daughter’s death. All I had to do was look at him making some face in those movies and I’d start to cry. But none of that means I’m desperate to hang out with him.
“Of course she loves him, he’s the greatest living actor,” my mom says.
“One of them, “ I say.
Anyway, Sean Penn comes back as I’m taking some plates into the kitchen, and I hope Sean Penn doesn’t think I am doing that just because he’s there, you know, trying to show off and be good-daughtery. I always clear. When I walk back into the dining room, my mom has started up again. Because by now she’s talked about practically everything else, she’s telling Sean Penn about how my grandma died. Mom is saying, “Those last couple of days were so hard for me. Missy wouldn’t go into her room, so I took care of everything by myself–’”
I grab the remaining plates, except for RJ’s– he’s a slow eater–and get out of there. I love how my mom makes everything about her. My mom didn’t have the bedroom right next to Grandma’s room. She’s not the one who heard Grandma’s raggedy breathing through the walls. Sometimes I could snap.
When I go back into the dining room, Sean Penn is pacing around the table, doing impressions, which is funny because other people usually try to do impressions of Sean Penn, which he’s got to know about, right? And here he is, doing impressions. Most of them are political in nature. I hope it doesn’t hurt Sean Penn’s feelings that I keep forgetting to laugh. He’s a nice guy, and some of his impressions really are good.
Sean Penn does an Obama that is spot-on, then goes back to being Sean Penn for a minute. He sits down and takes a drink of his soda.
My mom says, “That was great, Sean. Is there anything you can’t do?”
RJ blurts, “Can you do a cowboy?”
“I think he’s done doing impressions, RJ,” I say. “Finish your noodles.”
But Sean Penn springs up. “I’ve always wanted to play a cowboy!” He draws invisible guns from invisible holsters and fires them around the room, making suction-pop noises with his mouth. RJ laughs, then Sean Penn says, “I don’t think it’s nice, you laughin.’” Sean Penn looks so serious that RJ laughs more.
“Their dad was in the rodeo,” my mom stage whispers to Sean Penn. Why not let it all hang out on the line? Honestly.
“Who wants ice cream?” I say, standing up.
Chad comes into the kitchen, right behind me, and hoists himself up so he’s sitting on the counter. He kicks his feet back and forth. “So, you wanna go to a party at the Car Bar later?”
“Is Sean Penn going?” I ask.
“Yep. I’m keeping an eye on him tonight. Making sure he doesn’t overdo things,” Chad says. “You should come. I know the DJ.”
It takes me about half a second to imagine how the night would go. Chad and Sean Penn in the frontseat, having a conversation I can hardly hear, while I get carsick in the back. All of us at some club, girls clustering around Sean Penn as he signs autographs. Chad would probably autographs too, he does that sometimes, and hands them over, saying, “You’ll want this someday.” There are times when I feel like I could deal with that, but tonight I’m not in the mood.
“No, thanks,” I say, taking bowls out of the cupboard.
“What’s your excuse now, Missy?” Then, like sometimes happens with Chad, you’re in the middle of a normal conversation and it devolves into some sort of pep talk. “Your grandma would want you to go out and live your life. You have to put yourself out there, so the world can see who you are and what you’ve got to offer,” Chad decides to tell me, because he’s the expert on everything, as I mentioned. Then he adds, as I’m getting the ice cream from the freezer, “You miss opportunities. You hold yourself back.”
I shut the freezer door and turn around to face him. Chad has exactly no idea how I feel about anything. I tell him how it is, which is the main thing I’ve been holding back, if you ask me: “You just want to go places with your celebrity friend so people will bow down in awe of you,” I say. “Your parents never make you feel valuable, so you’ve got to go out and prove that you are valuable all the time. It’s exhausting.”
“I brought you Sean Penn,” Chad says in small voice that I’m not used to.
“Right. So now I’m supposed to say, ‘Oh, Chad, Thank you, I can’t believe it. You’re so amazing. I owe you bigtime.’ Please. Everything you do is for yourself, not for anybody else.”
Chad and I look right at each other. In that moment, I could take it back. I could even laugh, because there’s something funny about us making such serious faces at each other, but I don’t laugh. Instead I say, “Take these.”
I go back to the table with napkins and spoons and Sean Penn’s pistachio ice cream and Chad somewhere behind me, carrying the bowls.
I scoop ice cream for everyone, except for RJ, who has to finish his dinner before he gets dessert, then pass the bowls around the table. My mom says pistachio is her favorite even though I’ve never seen her eat it in her life. The ice cream is on the crunchy side, and it almost tastes good for you, like real pistachios. At first I don’t like it, but after a while I like it quite a bit. I try to avoid looking at Chad, whose tragic James Dean eyebrows make me feel a little sick at the bottom of my stomach. I’m a hundred percent sure he would leave if Sean Penn wasn’t having such a good time.
Then my phone rings—I left it in my room–and RJ says, “I’ll get it,” even though Mom tells him not to. He runs up the stairs and I hear him say, ”Howdy.” He hollers, “It’s Antonio.”
My mom hollers right back, “She’s finishing dinner. She’ll call him later.”
RJ comes down a few steps and leans over to see if I am in agreement with Mom on this, and I am, so I say, “I’ll call him back.” Antonio may be unnervingly handsome, but talking to him on the phone is labor-intensive.
“He calls you?” Chad asks, choking on ice cream.
“Sometimes,” I say. RJ relays the message and sits back down. Antonio was probably just calling me about homework advice, because I radiate a responsibility and scholarly interest that is not always reflected in my grades. But for whatever reason I don’t say that to Chad and Sean Penn. Right then I want to have a legion of admirers.
“No wonder you didn’t want to go anywhere,” Chad says.
Sean Penn winks at me, maybe about Chad, who is kind of changing color and sniffing. I wink back. I am a good winker. I can wink fast, this eye, then that eye. And I see Sean Penn slightly to the right, then slightly to the left, like I am cutting from camera to camera.
RJ says, to no one in particular, “I’m going to be a cowboy.”
“Everyone knows, RJ,” I say.
It’s like Sean Penn can just tell this is a topic I don’t want to dwell on.
“How ’bout you, Missy? You got a plan in this life?” he asks, looking at me with expectation. I feel like we’ve been playing spin the bottle, and now the bottle’s pointing at me. My mind goes bright blank.“There’s gotta be something you care about,” he encourages.
I like history, and English, but those are boring. I try to think of something that gives a sense of my true complexity. Then I get an idea, and for a hot second, I talk about how we’ve been bowling in gym class. I talk about how I’m discovering that I’m not half-bad at it. I think it might be my sport, actually.
Chad is skimming his text messages while I talk, to show me that I am not that interesting. My Mom is looking at Sean Penn with her whole body tilting toward him, and RJ is doing this disgusting thing he does, slurping up his remaining noodles with his lips to his plate, trying not to use his hands or his fork. But Sean Penn is giving me a good long look, with his chin thrown a little bit up, and his head cocked to the left. I feel really stupid, like what I am saying shrinks and fizzles to nothing. My voice even sounds small, like my ears need to pop.
“My high score was one-twenty,” I think I say.
Chad looks up from his texting, and grins a little bit, probably in satisfaction that I am turning into a blathering idiot. Probably savoring it. Then his phone rings. He says to everybody except me, “I gotta take this,” like it’s the President or maybe God calling. He goes over by the front door, and puts on his shoes, then goes outside.
“It’s great that you have something that makes you feel alive, Missy,” Sean Penn says.
And now I really feel like an idiot because Sean Penn probably rescues people from burning buildings when he wants to feel alive.
Sean Penn’s eyes are glinting now; they look lit from behind. That’s why he’s famous, I think. He carries around his own special lighting.
RJ at this point has finally finished his dinner. He’s spaghetti-smeared and trotting his plastic horse around his plate. He is seriously like one of those squirrels that don’t even know they’re in White House trees.
It’s getting dark. Through the windows, I can see Chad walking back and forth through the windows, gesturing a lot. If you ask me, he’s pretending to be on the phone.
“What’s his problem?” my Mom asks.
I explain about the party I didn’t want to go to. My mom tucks her lips together. RJ is busy with his ice cream, so it gets really quiet.
“Did you want to join us, Gladys?” Sean Penn asks. He doesn’t miss a thing.
“Will there be dancing?” My mom asks.
“Sure,” Sean Penn says.
“You don’t want to go, Missy?” my mom asks me.
“No way. I’m over that,” I say.
“Then you don’t mind watching RJ? If you do, I can get Mrs. Gibbons…”
“It’s fine,” I say. I admit the fact that Sean Penn is present keeps some of the attitude out of my voice.
“I’ll just get the rest of these dishes, then I’ll pull myself together.”
“Let me clean up. I insist,” Sean Penn says.
“Well, thank you, Sean. “ My mom never argues with people who insist. “Come on RJ. We’ll get you cleaned up.”
RJ furrows his brow, and lets himself be led away from the table. As they go up the stairs, he says tiredly, “I want to go to the party.”
“It’ll probably a while,” I say to Sean Penn. When my mom gets ready, she gets ready.
“I got time, “ Sean Penn says.
Sean Penn does the dishes. He doesn’t even let me help; he says I did enough because I made the salad.
I head into the living room, turn on the TV, and flip through channels. After he wipes off the dining room table, Sean Penn come over and sits with me on the sofa. He asks me to go back to PBS; they’ve got an Antiques Roadshow marathon on.
“Do you ever watch that show?” Sean Penn asks.
“Not if I can help it,” I say. My grandma watched it all the time, though. She used to try to get me to watch it with her, even though it’s clearly a show for old people.
“You should give it a chance,” Sean Penn says. I don’t put up a fight, since he’s a guest, and he seems really interested. I get into Antiques Roadshow, a little bit, watching it with Sean Penn. I have to say, it’s a decent show. You can learn a lot from it. And if you are not particularly interested in Civil War desks or hood ornaments or whatever you can always plot the kind of makeover you would give their owners. I’m no fashionista, but I have a clue.
Sean Penn tries to guess the value of everything. Sometimes he says, “I knew it,” and sometimes he says, “Get outta town,” or “Coulda fooled me,” and sometimes he just whistles, like there’s nothing else in the world he’d rather be doing.
Another episode starts up, and an old lady comes on, and she’s brought in a whole bunch of glass miniatures, ducks or geese or something, I can’t tell. They have wings. I watch the lady on TV and think how if I squint I might be watching my grandmother. Heaven for my grandmother would be being on Antiques Roadshow with all her miniatures, and being told they’re worth a lot.
I start to get sad. It gets to the point where I’m almost crying, because I keep thinking of my grandmother, at this particular moment in time. I’m trying really hard to breathe normally, and not cry, because I’m a sixteen-year-old girl and not a baby, but it’s like I can only think about sad things. I suddenly miss having my jeans and underwear ironed stiff. This is an example I guess of not knowing how you feel about someone. Then they leave or die, and you know.
I don’t want Sean Penn to be next to me at this particular moment, seeing me like this. But Sean Penn doesn’t ask any questions, he just looks at me and gives my knee a quick pat-pat, like he’s trying to say he understands. I feel like I could bawl, or even scream, and that would be okay with him. I wish my grandma could have met him.
Chad comes into the living room. I scoot away from Sean Penn.
“Had to take care of a few things,” Chad says. Then he slouches down on the recliner. I notice he keeps his shoes on. He throws his keys up in the air, and catches them, and throws them, and catches them. At least ten times, which is really distracting, and then I say, “Could you stop that?”
Chad stops it, sits up straight, and says to Sean Penn, “You ready to go?”
“We’re just waiting for Gladys,” Sean Penn says.
“For Gladys?” Chad squeaks. I almost laugh. This is not going to be Chad Paisley’s night.
“Ready!” my mom says, coming down. She is draped in a swishy purple pantsuit, with her hair sprayed out from her head. She’s wearing beads, like the ones they’ve got on Mardi Gras floats, and huge fake diamond earrings.
“You look great,” Sean Penn says, standing up. He sounds like he means it, but let’s keep in mind he’s the greatest living actor.
My Mom shrugs, but you can tell her day is made. She says, “I can pull it together. I went to a rodeo dance or two in my time.”
It occurs to me that if my mom went somewhere by herself, or even with me or Chad, people might look at her outfit, and think she’s a crazy person. But she’s going somewhere with Sean Penn, and so everybody at this party is going to think she’s somebody interesting and bold and important, like maybe his psychic. With Sean Penn there next to her, her fake diamonds even look real.
Sean Penn lowers himself to the floor to put on his shoes. While he’s tying his laces, he asks me, “You sure you don’t want to come with us?”
I stick to my guns and say, “S’okay. I have some things to do.”
“Yeah, I bet you’re busy,” Chad says, and the way he says it makes it sound like he’s still talking about Antonio. He pulls his shoes on, and holds the screen door open for my mom.
“Bye Missy, I love you,” my mom says to me. I’m pretty sure she says that because Sean Penn is watching.
“I love you too,” I say, because Sean Penn is watching.
Chad and my mom walk out, and Sean Penn rises to his feet in front of the door. A light goes on inside Chad’s car. I see Chad offering my mom gum. “He’s a good guy, Chad Paisley,” Sean Penn says, turning to me. “Real thoughtful. He was right: tonight was just what I needed.” Sean Penn takes a big breath in, like the air in our house is fresh mountain air. “You know, I was helping out after that earthquake?”
“I know. I saw the pictures.” He hoisted walls up and asked people if they could move their legs.
“When I was leaving, the people on the island threw rocks at my helicopter.” Sean Penn shudders a little, as if he can feel rocks hitting him now.
“They just wanted you to stay,” I say. I’m sure of it. I understand why Chad Paisley wants to be near him, standing under his rain of sparks.
“They said– not just the press, everybody–that I did more harm then good.”
“No way,” I say. “You’re a big help. Anyone can see that.”
“Everything I do is as much for me as it is for anybody, and that’s the truth. Sometimes a guy just wants to feel valuable.”
Chad flashes his brights.
“I guess that’s my cue.” Sean Penn turns back to me. “Goodbye, Missy.” Sean Penn puts his hands on my shoulders, and now I know what it is like to be knighted. I tingle all the way to my hands and my feet.
“It’s been real,” I say, blinking against the glare. I can see the streak of Sean Penn on my closed eyelids. When I open my eyes, he’s gone. I step outside onto the brambly grass and watch Chad’s babyblue car drive away into the darkness without me in it.
I check on RJ. He is already asleep in his bed in a sea of blue carpeting, as if nothing happened. I shower and scrub myself so hard with my loofah that my butt turns red, and I wash my face in small circles, like they do in commercials. I pat myself dry before I put on my pajamas, when really I’m usually just in some kind of hurry and put on the pajamas when I’m half-wet, and they stick. I brush and floss.
I look at myself in the mirror and I look like I got new eyes. They are shiny and light, the way eyes get after crying. I don’t put my clothes in the hamper. I want to save them. I drape them over a chair.
I lie down in my bed. The house makes a ticking sound like a clock. After a while of being wide-awake, I go down to the living room. In the dark that is not that dark because of the streetlights, but orange and coppery, I sit where Sean Penn was just sitting, on the couch. Cars pass, and their headlights pull shadows across the living room, but they don’t stop. I realize I am half-waiting for Chad’s car. More than half. I am more than half-waiting for Chad to pull up and honk and honk and flash his brights and wave me over. And I would come this time, I would. Everyone would look out their windows and see me climbing into the light.
Amber Burke is from North Dakota. She graduated from Yale and worked as an actress before attending the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, where she currently teaches creative writing and yoga. She will receive her MFA in Fiction in May 2012.
sheer brilliance. Impeccable writing.