A sneak-peak at my next project…
September 23, 1998
I walk alone. But soon, they’ll be watching.
Waves of tension conjure a battle between resistance and surrender I try to hide behind the thinning veil of my privacy. I squeeze my fists to release the strain, inhaling the humid air of tropical spring that slows down my movements. I gaze up. Hand-woven silk drapes billow in the night breeze from high trellises that jut out from Palace towers, their bottoms skirting the marble tiles overlaying narrow pathways that weave across the surrounding gardens. Tall windows with pointed crests lure curious eyes to peek inside. Lush vegetation climbs over arching walls, torches burn, and flames flicker. The building’s stucco walls form a backdrop to overlapping shadows that tremble in the light cast by orange flames.
The candle lit garden path upon which I walk leads towards the interior of the grand edifice that I’ve been told was erected solely for the purpose of the experience that commences tonight. Only few more steps stand between me and the inner walls of the Palace. This environment looks like the creation of a master craftsman with an extraordinary sense of skill and esthetic. It is a created reality, teetering on the edge of fantasy.
My breathing grows shallow from apprehension as I don’t know what I will see once I enter through the opening that beckons with warm light. I shake my palms and scan for the lenses that soon will spy my every move. Another step and my arrival might be registered. Can cameras steal souls? Silly thoughts, I chide myself. Superstitions, nothing else.
I hear the beat of a drum. Startled, I turn to each side, feeling the swinging weight of my earrings but see nothing but plants and flames. The thumping vibrates my ears and my body covers in a thin film of sweat. It is my heartbeat I hear. I inhale more air to fight the dizziness that eclipses my eyes and weakens my legs. I sense that once I see them beyond the archway, something will happen, something irreversible.
Fear enters me and I freeze in place. Everything stops and I get an urge to run. It’s only nerves, I tell myself but my body refuses to listen. “C’mon, you can do this,” I say to myself and crushing through a wall of resistance, cross the threshold.
WELCOME TO THE PLEASURE DOME
“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
A MOMENT FOR CHANGE
Three months earlier.
Flying first-class from San Jose to a producer meeting in Los Angeles arranged just yesterday, I’m riding the interchanging waves of anxiety and exhilaration that flutter in my chest.
Will they like me? Will I be good enough?
Not wanting to give into the pull of emotional distress, I try to distract myself by looking out the window at the wispy clouds drifting across the cobalt Neverland like ethereal canoes transporting spirits into another world. I feel like one of those imaginary spirits, with each passing mile leaving behind my washed out past and drawing closer to my fluorescent future, still too nebulous to have a shape. Beneath the belly of the plane sprawl round hills that look like they are made of velvet. The summer hasn’t yet officially started, but the dry heat already managed to steal away the short-lived emerald green of the Spanish grass and replace it with a more enduring yellow and brown. My name is Anna Natalia Krol and I’m on my way to audition for a production so unprecedented, I’ve been told it will shake the foundations of show business. A mere year ago, I could’ve only dreamt of such an opportunity.
As a child I’d have these transcendental dreams of “otherness,” bursts of inspiration that would leave me drunk with possibility. As an adolescent, I found a way to reconcile the concrete with the ethereal by exploring anything that was difficult and unpopular, such as myths. My search led me to Plato and Solon’s retelling of the tale of Atlantis I wanted to believe was a real place that existed in pre-history. But as exciting and different those stories were, they were not enough. I wanted to live inside one of them, become a heroine inside a real adventure. I wanted to embark on a journey, unearth lost parts of myself, and unite the split between the archetypal and contemporary, a legacy of the blessed and the damned. I was born and raised in Poland shortly after the fall of communism. If what my granddad used to say is true—that grit alone is our best teacher and true bringer of wisdom—then after years of incessant struggle, I should be prepared to handle what life has in store for me.
Glancing across the aisle I see and old man hunched over a wide spread of the Wall Street Journal, and I wonder. Maybe it is wishful thinking on my part, a desire to believe that all the toil and suffering I had endured thus far would account for something? Maybe it is nothing more than a fantasy to think that the moment of reward finally arrived? But what if it is precisely that? What if it is my break and I’ve earned my belief that through struggle I had been groomed to take on the world?
I turn my head back towards the window. Exactly. Why not think that. I look at the drifting clouds and smile faintly, but my lips can’t stop quivering.
My family was not graced with the resources that make a household thrive, a sad fact that incited much violence in my home. My parents’ marriage was doomed from the start with my dad’s frequent bouts of infidelity and mom’s depressive tendencies. Since mom didn’t work, we relied on father’s rare acts of generosity to survive, not a safe bet. He was a jealous man, a violent man. When I was little, he almost drowned my mother in a bathtub for talking to a man for too long after a church service we scarcely attended. The man was my physical education teacher, and he was questioning my mom about my absenteeism, which she explained to him were due to my frequent asthma attacks. On that cold winter night, the two of us managed to escape dad’s abuse through a window in my bedroom only to return to hell because we had nowhere else to go. Mom’s mother wouldn’t accept her acting like a victim, thus living in fear while pretending things were fine became our daily reality.
My parents’ relationship left an imprint in the form of a belief that soon became my burden. I was sure that all men were inherently out to control women and thus needed matching strength to be kept at bay. It took me years to break through the wall of caution I’ve erected between me and the opposite sex. With time I learned behaviors that would hide my inner trepidation and make me seem more approachable. One trick was to be the first one to speak and keep a confident smile peeled on my face. But under the mask of cheer and poise was a bruised girl hungry for love and attention. Little did I know how my life that was about to unfold would test not only my beliefs and challenge my attitude but also stimulate my suppressed desire to succumb to the very control I grew to resent.
Early on, I realized that if I wanted a different life, education would be my way out. I hoped that memorizing dates, names and formulas would open secret doorways beyond which spread new paths I could take. Earning straight A’s eight years in a row earned me a reputation of a precocious, knowledge–hungry student deserving of a chance. So when the opportunity to study abroad came and I passed the qualification tests with high marks, my mother’s parents scraped the necessary funds to buy the adventure I had dreamed up. I left home three months later to live on another continent ten thousand miles away. California became my new home.
But shortly after it had barely begun, that extraordinary year was quickly coming to an end. I talked to people, made calls and conducted research to find out what I needed to do in order to prolong my stay. In short, without papers or money to go to college I was doomed to return to Poland where nothing more than the dismal life of marrying and reproducing awaited me, and all this before I even took a juicy bite out of my new American life. I kept asking for help, but I was soon running out of ideas and friends. And money. I graduated Santa Cruz High but decided not to board the plane that would take me home. Acting on blind faith, I signed up for college. The administrator filed for adjustment of status on my behalf, and allowed me to choose my first semester of classes on the promise that I’d deliver the payment shortly. Holding a red pen to the class catalogue, I circled drama and swimming. Both terrified me and I made it my goal to conquer each in one sweep.
Gradually, the calls with my mom became less frequent. I knew she couldn’t help me anymore, and I could feel her slip into the oblivion of regret. First she lost my father and now she lost me too. I wanted to save her from her dismal atmospheres, but I knew that unless I plucked her away from that gray reality and showed her the colors of the world, my dream to help mom find joy again would remain a bold hallucination. To help her, I’d need to help myself first by finding a degree of stability and success in the foreign lands.
I stretch out in the luxurious seat of the airliner. Besides me, there are only four people in the cabin: that older gentleman reading a paper, a young woman with her nose in a novel and two small children who look like twins snuggling under a blanket next to her. Her oversized diamond ring sparkles in sunlight. I wonder if one day I could be like her, flying to see my husband with our children in tow. Sensing my glare no doubt, the gentleman slowly turns his face towards me. When our eyes meet, I muster a smile, but his face remains stern, gaze burrowing beneath my skin. As my self-consciousness mounts, he raises the paper and hides behind it. I notice a thick golden ring on his pinkie finger with a white stone and a prominent red cross outlined in black.
“More champagne?” asks the beautiful flight attendant with a smile straight from a toothpaste commercial. I look up at her and sigh, catching myself thinking what it would feel like to kiss her full plum lips.
“Yes, why not,” I reply and present my empty glass to her, which she fills with utmost graciousness. The fizzy drink shimmers on my tongue. I recline back into the leather seat that hugs me from behind, my gaze returning to the wispy clouds.
If Jason only knew what he had done…
Jason Garrett was a total knockout and endowed with the two character traits that I vehemently craved to possess: animated carelessness and radical confidence. I met him during my first semester in college. We ended up in an acting class together, which was a total disaster because I found his presence incredibly intimidating. Like a giant star that catches entire planets in its orbit, people gravitated to Jason wherever he went. I had a crush on him from the start, something I thought only happened to high schoolers, not serious college students like me living on the edge of survival. Jason was a fair skinned young man with tiny freckles scattered around his nose, messy chestnut hair and deep, dark eyes, which seemed to smile even when his mouth wasn’t. When after our mid semester performance, the teacher took a group photo of us, I was over the moon having finally the ability to freely feast my eyes upon him. I watched him with undivided attention each week before, during and after class while sitting on a fountain hedge pretending to write in my journal, taking a front row seat in the auditorium when he performed, and following him to the parking lot after class. And while he drove off in his black Mustang scarcely aware of my existence, I waited for the bus sometimes for over an hour dreaming of the day he’d notice me.
But as weeks passed by, the semester ended and my hope dwindled. Spring came and my encounters with Jason were reduced to an accidental passing on campus. Still, each time I’d see him from afar, my pulse would quicken. Jason had that bad boy quality that was as hard to nail down as it was to resist. And as much as I tried to present myself as a free spirit, by attending as many college parties as I could in hopes to meet him outside, the truth was that I was a totally inexperienced hopeless romantic. But as much as Jason intrigued me, I eventually had to make peace with the fact that I’d ever get involved with this specimen who had his eyes everywhere but on me, and was constantly surrounded by a profusion of pretty blondes.
Until the unexpected day arrived and one evening after my English class Jason approached me casually to invite me to a full moon party at his mother’s beach house. I looked at him trying to still my trembling legs and hoping not to drop the load of books I held in my arms onto his toes. Two days later he opened the door for me, his joyous smile doubling the size of my thumping heart. “You came!” he laughed as if it was more of a miracle than his invitation had been to me, and pulled me inside and into his kitchen. There, his best buddy Eric was pouring a round of tequila shots. Jason handed one to me, took another, and clinked his glass against mine. “Na zdrowie!” I said, we drank up, I was in, and the party on. Holding my hand, he made his rounds introducing me to the circle of his closest friends—an eclectic bunch of the young, rich and beautiful, each of whom was either a model, a musician, or an actor—before pulling me into a game of couple’s pool. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Everyone was getting drunk and jolly except for one guest, a fleshy bald guy in his mid-forties who seemed to have crashed the wrong party. Wearing a shiny gray suit that looked like the scales of a silver fish and a pair of dark framed rectangular glasses, he sat in the corner of the living room, his hand clutching a glass and flashing a large pinkie ring. He followed me with his gaze while bobbing his head to the beat. I looked up at him as I was about to shoot a billiard ball. I hovered for a few long seconds, my hands shaking and legs trembling. He winked at me, and I sank two balls, one of which belonged to the opposing team.
I looked up again and the mystery man wiggled his two fingers gesturing for me to come closer. As the other team chalked their cue tips and Jason went to the kitchen to get a drink, I walked over into his corner. But before I was able to introduce myself, he snatched my hand and with one swift motion pulled me onto his lap.
“Excuse me! This is not how you treat a lady,” I lashed out, standing right up and pulling down my skirt. He apologized for his impetuous act and still smiling pulled up a chair inviting me to sit across from him.
“Please,” he motioned. Madonna’s newest megahit Frozen bellowed from the speakers.
“How do you know my name?” I asked taking a seat and crossing my legs.
“Jason told me.” The corners of my lips rose slightly. “You’re the foreign student from his theater class. I saw you in his class photograph. It’s on his mom’s fridge,” he pointed his finger towards the kitchen.
“What did he say about me?” I asked, biting my lower lip.
“Just your name. And that you are not from here,” the man shrugged. “But I could tell that from the photo. It was I who asked him to invite you to this party.”
My smile vanished, replaced by disappointment. “And who are you?”
“A family friend,” he said, leaned forward slightly and added, “You’re very photogenic and quite enchanting, Miss Anna.”
I cast my eyes over my shoulder and across the swelling crowd of Jason’s friends, looking for him but I couldn’t see him.
The man tapped my knee with his hand and I turned towards him. “Please forgive my promptness but before you decide to walk away in search of this party’s boisterous host, I’d like you to consider something,” he said and took a sip of his clear drink. “I’m here on a talent search. I’m putting together a cast for a very special project. And when I saw your picture, I knew I had found the person I’ve been searching for,” he reached inside his sport coat. “This isn’t the time nor place to get into the details, but if you could perhaps call me, I’d love to revisit this lovely moment and continue our conversation,” he handed me a white business card with his name and number inscribed in silver lettering. “You would be generously rewarded.”
“Stefan Cunnings,” I read his name.
“It is my pleasure, Miss Anna,” he bowed his head slightly.
“Can I steal you for a second?” Jason screamed into my ear, unleashing a rain of sparks along my spine and a ring in my ear.
I slipped Stefan’s card into my bra and smiled at Jason. “Of course.”
“I want to show you something,” Jason said and once more pulled me by the hand, away from the crowd while I digested Stefan’s words. Was it really because of him that I was invited to this party? Jason led me through a long hallway toward a door at its farthest end. He let me in, closed the door, and twisted the key. A faint bedside light was on. The party noises were distant and muffled.
Turned on my heels towards Jason, I fell straight into his arms. “I want to kiss you,” he said in a breathy tone.
I moved move head to the side and asked. “Why did you invite me here?”
“Why?” he raised his brows, surprised by my question, his grip loosening. “Because I like you, that’s why. I always liked you,” he neared his face to mine again.
“Is that so?” I asked, lightly pushing him away.
Jason laughed. “What do you think? You’re totally hot. Look at you! And that accent. Mmm baby, I like it when you talk to me,” he said, trying to imitate it.
I laughed and spun around. “Who’s room is this?” Animal print covered the bed, floor, and the walls. The place seemed cluttered and tawdry in a baroque sort of way but I kept my opinions to myself.
“Mom’s. She’s crazy,” He smiled and turned towards the French balcony door. “She and my sister are obsessed with Africa,” Jason yanked the doors open and motioned for me to come. Cool air entered the room.
“I didn’t know you had a sister. Is she here?”
“She’s a half sister, technically. And no, she’s not here and thank God for that,” he called from the outside.
“Why is that?” I asked rubbing my bare arms.
“Bad temper. Come on, Anna, come see the moon. It’s glorious, reflecting in the water.”
I walked towards a wall with a big painting that did not quite fit the theme of the room. It was a modified version of the classic Botticelli piece of Aphrodite’s birth out of the sea. The water was red instead of blue, a sea of blood, I thought to myself, and the goddess was a dark haired beauty rather than fair, with prominent features, large red lips and wearing provocative lingerie. Jason’s mom had quite the taste.
“Oh there she is,” Jason’s voice startled me, as he reached his arms to hug me from behind. “My dear sister, in all her glory.”
“This is your sister?” I asked. “But she doesn’t look at all like you.”
“Who cares about my sister. Come on, we have better things to do,” Jason said.
“Is you mom dark?” I insisted.
“No, she’s quite pale. I look like her a lot. Come.”
“Where is she now?”
“Don’t remember. Louisiana, LA or London. Something that starts with L,” Jason said and nudged my hand.
“Maybe Lemuria?” I smiled at him.
“No definitely not that. More like Atlantis,” he said, and pulled me outside. Cool air rolled over my skin, covering my body with goose bumps, not only from the night chill. There was something eerie in that painting. And I was surprised that Jason knew about the lost continents. I looked at the full silver moon, floating above the ocean skyline and sighed.
Jason got behind me and rubbed my arms. “Just imagine we are in the desert and it is hot.”
“But the desert gets freezing at night,” I said.
“Then imagine it’s day,” Jason said and twirled me around. He placed one of his hands on the small of my back and drew me closer to him. My hands ventured to his shoulders, fingers interlacing behind his neck. His other hand reached under my loose hair and he pulled lightly. “Can you do that, Anna? Can you imagine it is actually very hot in here?” His voice incited a succession of earthquakes and explosions that shook my body from the inside. I tilted my head back and his breath warmed the skin of my neck like a tropical breeze. And when his lips finally met mine in a deep, wet kiss, the outside world and any trace of lingering cold have vanished.
Covering each other in fierce kisses, we blindly walked back inside and landed on the tiger print bed, Jason’s body writhing over mine, pinning me down. His lips were soon on my shoulders and aiming lower, his impatient hands tearing off my dress. By the time we were rolling in the black sheets, Jason was shirtless and all I had left on was my underwear. Giddy from fever and alcohol, I couldn’t believe how quickly everything was happening and how much I had allowed Jason to do. His tongue circling my belly button, I froze and opened my eyes. This was not how I imagined my romantic evening with the man of my dreams: rushed, haphazard, and shrouded in a drunken haze. It was getting out of control. I looked at my reflection in the mirror mounted on the ceiling and reached my hands towards Jason’s head to stop him from proceeding any farther. I wanted my first time to be special because I knew I’d remember it forever.
At once, everything including the pervasive safari motifs felt dull and wrong. My hasty reasoning succeeded in subduing my carnal desire, enough to get a hold of myself, though my body ached by the pain of dissatisfaction. Jason’s sister stared at me from the painting, her lopsided grin mocking us both. I wiggled myself away, breaking two nails in the process and quickly put my dress back on.
“What are you doing?” Jason gasped from the bed, his body tangled in his mother’s sheets, hands reaching.
I stepped between half of his clothes strewn about on the zebra rug. “I’m sorry, I just can’t do it this way.”
“What way? Everything is perfectly perfect! Come back to me, Anna,” he called, but I left the room before he convinced me to change my mind.
As I suspected before falling asleep in my own cold bed that night, he and I barely talked after the incident. Seeing him in passing made me feel uncomfortable, especially when he’d look away or pretend not to see me. Maybe he thought we’d done it after all? He was drunk. Maybe he forgot I left before anything happened? I wondered, but dared not to confront him for fear of being ridiculed or ignored. My infatuation was starting to diminish anyway, and soon time would mend my wounded heart.
By the time summer rolled in, the wound had become a scar, and I had more immediate challenges to manage. Once my first year in college came to an end, it was time to reassess my life abroad. I had three months to make enough money to pay for the upcoming semester. But after running the numbers, my calculations showed that even if I took up all the work on my list of under-the-table options, I could not make enough to cover my tuition. Working as a nanny was draining and paid little, and hostess jobs at wharf restaurants packed with sweaty tourists inspired thoughts of escapism and self-annihilation. And the next morning, I had no fire left in me to get up and do it all over again. Furthermore, the risk of being caught and deported always loomed over my head. I didn’t want to go back. There was nothing to go back to.
One early summer day as I sitting on my bed and digging through my purse in search for a calling card, I stumbled across a mangled piece of paper smudged with a chocolate brown lipstick that had opened in my bag. Stefan Cummings’ business card. A painful cramp pinched my stomach at the recollection of the night of shattered dreams. But there was also a dim ray of hope. A possibility. The man mentioned something about talent search and some project he wanted to talk to me about. An opportunity. Exactly what I needed. The ten digits of his number jumped under my gaze. Just this morning my roommate told me I’d need to move out in two months. My future looked dismal. I had nothing lined up. By calling mom, I hoped she could offer some comfort and consolation though I suspected that likely I would end up consoling her. I was at a crossroads. It was a perfect moment for change. I reached for my cell. After three long rings, he answered.
“This is Anna, Jason’s friend,” I swallowed. “Do you remember me?”
“Anna?” he scanned his memory archives. “Yes, of course. Hello, angel,” His voice regained the same fervor be bestowed upon me the night of our meeting. He told me that I couldn’t have called at a better time.
Encouraged, my dam broke and in one breath I spelled out my entire situation, not omitting the fact that I still owed tuition money at my college. Thankfully, I stopped myself before bursting into tears and took a deep inhale instead. “So, if your offer still stands, I’d like to learn more about your project.”
“Oh sweetheart, I understand how you must feel. So very sorry to hear things have been this tough for you. And yes, my offer still stands. In fact, your call is the best birthday present I’ve gotten so far.”
“Happy birthday, Stefan!” I said squeezing the phone with one hand and my fist with the other.
“Thank you darling. Really. And thank you for calling me. Tell you what. I happen to be in town and could meet you for a drink if you are free this evening,” he said and I agreed. He added that if after we found we had a mutual interest in collaborating, I might find myself living a new life before the new semester commenced. That is if I would still be interested in college. “You might as well take a break. Everyone needs that from time to time.”
Two hours later, I was sampling the exotic world of sushi for the first time. Besides being overwhelmed by the dishes’ names and gushing over their artful appearance, I embarrassed myself gulping down a dollop of wasabi, thinking it was avocado. Deathly afraid at nearly suffocating, I struggled to keep composure as I coughed into my napkin, profusion of tears wetting my face. Nearby diners cast their concerned or amused glances at me. Stefan reached behind to offer a few solid pats on the back, and slowly I calmed down, the burning in the back of my throat abating.
“You would be perfect for this, I just know it,” he said. “If you just keep doing things like this, everyone will love you. You’re a natural.”
“You mean naïve, “ I said, my voice breaking. “Are you asking me to purposely make a fool out of myself?”
“No, I’m completely serious. We should have you reenact this scene once we get rolling,” he said grabbing a napkin off the empty neighboring table, and catching his fork midair before it tumbled to the floor. “But it would not be the same as the first time, would it?”
I smiled. “And you said there really wouldn’t be any acting in it. Did I hear you right?”
Stefan nodded and poured us sake into tiny ceramic cups. Besides letting me know that the project would include a group of almost a hundred participants and miles of film, he said that he couldn’t divulge more until I signed a confidentiality agreement and met the producers.
“I can also assure you that if we end up moving forward, this project will give you what you need—money, freedom and likely a green card,” he smiled, but my face remained solemn. “What is it angel? Not good enough?”
“No. Just the opposite. It all sounds so good. Too good. I’m just afraid of being used by something I don’t understand.”
“It’s natural to feel this way, Anna. It can be overwhelming. As for being used, allow me to share my philosophy with you,” Stefan leaned in and lowered his voice. “We all use each other. It’s what makes things happen in this world, what makes it turn. I do something for you, you pay me, I use the money to buy things, and then use the things I buy, the shopkeeper then uses that money to buy more things. On and on it goes in circles, you see. We all use each other, we have to. Circles within circles,” he said spiraling his pointer finger. “Like gears in a clock.”
Stefan’s explanation put me at ease. I ate up his words and the California rolls that followed. The food kept on coming, and we drank to Stefan’s good health and our mutual collaboration. In between sips and bites, Stefan grew even more cordial and began telling me about his world travels and the show’s producers, whom I’d have to meet next.
Their names were Sam and Marco and they were best friends since childhood. Their families immigrated to Germany from Turkey when the boys were little. Freshly after high school, their common affinity for the glitzy world of entertainment led them overseas, first to New York, then to Los Angeles. After twenty years of successfully launching shows on both coasts, the prolific entrepreneurs decided it was time to invest in an idea the two friends had been toying with since their youth in Stuttgart’s industrial quarter—importing the dramas of the real life onto the screen. The idea came to them when armed with binoculars, the boys would enter people’s private homes and apartments through their wide open windows. The friends concluded that what happened in between enclosed walls was far more intriguing than the placated version of television programming, stripped of the rawness that accompanies spontaneous human contact.
Having achieved a solid reputation in the media market and aggregated a vast network of contacts, with a bank account teeming with cash to boot, they decided it was time to take the leap. With most of the groundwork laid and logistics arranged, the canvas was prepared for the painting. And I, as Stefan announced to me days before my southbound flight, was to become the central figure in their masterpiece. “They’ve been looking for the star of their show and sent me off to find her. After today, I believe I had found her,” Stefan’s eyes were keen and serious. “You have a huge potential Anna, I hope you realize it.”
I blushed. “Thank you. Funny, I always thought that I would end up a history scholar locked up in an office stuffed with dusty manuscripts, never in front of a camera.”
“You like history, eh?”
“I adore it. The older the better. I also love mythology.”
“Let me tell you something, sweetheart. So do the producers.”
Stefan lowered his voice again. “I’m not supposed to share this with anyone, but the show is loaded with mythological themes and I don’t just mean dress up balls and masquerades. Everything’s been thought through, down the number of participants.”
“How many of them?” I whispered.
Stefan popped another sushi roll into his mouth and licked his fingers. “Eighty-eight. But please, do not tell anyone.”
I swore to him I wouldn’t. Especially because the number didn’t mean anything to me. I also still couldn’t understand what Stefan found so special about me to think of raising my status to that of a star. “There are so many girls out there that are so much prettier, so much more popular and surely more talented than I am. Why me?”
Stefan wiped his mouth with the edge of a napkin. “You are like a seed about to burst,” he pointed his finger at me. “And I want us to capture that blossoming.”