I’ve been away for one night, and in that time, my street has turned into a movie set.
Easing my car to a stop behind an orange-and-white-striped barricade, I gape at the crowds, white tents, and trailers filling the intersection in front of my apartment. A metal fence surrounds the area like a crime scene.
My gut twists and I tighten my grip on the steering wheel. On any other day, this would be exciting, but all I want right now are my bathtub, bed, and painkillers. Today is supposed to be a blissful day off before I have to start my master’s thesis research, not a daring crusade to get to my front door.
A crane lifts a camera high into the air, where ropes and wires crisscross above the set. Is that a zip-line leading into my favorite pizza place? What kind of over-the-top action flick is this?
My third-floor balcony is visible from here, with its two wooden patio chairs and the wilted hydrangeas that Abby and I never remember to water. In the window beside it, my dark bedroom curtains are shut, as always.
Staying home to spy on the set would have been more fun than that stupid-ass camping trip, but here I am, sweaty and hungover.
Scowling, I back up my rusty, old SUV and circle the block, searching for a way into the parkade.
In the rearview, my reflection is waxy and pale, and my short, sandy hair is so greasy that it’s a shade darker, like I’ve just come out of the shower. Self-loathing has sucked the confidence from my posture.
Yeah, I was an idiot, but in my defense, Julia was flirting with me and totally into it.
“ʻOoh, Rachel, let’s get naked in the lake together,ʼ” I say to the windshield, mimicking her sultry tone.
It’s hard to believe that the unspoken thing between us is over—late-night study sessions, hanging out after class, inside jokes, our shared suffering as we both go after master’s degrees in medical physics. She’d quickly become a good friend, and after she found out I’m a lesbian, she started asking questions about my love life and wanting to hang out more—like she was curious. Like maybe she thought she wasn’t straight and wanted to explore some things.
Months of anticipation, over in one night, leaving me hollow.
This camping trip was supposed to be a big end-of-term celebration for our department. For Julia and me, it was a culmination, an excuse to get drunk and spend a couple of nights together.
The tension between us was ready to snap, and it did—so hard that it gave me whiplash.
I rub my temple, weaving through the streets and trying to get to my parkade. The movie set takes up way more space than it has any right to, forcing me to make a wide perimeter. As soon as I figure out how to get to my apartment, I’m filling the bathtub and dropping in a glittery bath bomb. Since I left yesterday morning, I’ve swum in a lake, gotten sweaty, been briefly rained on, and walked through a lot of spiderwebs, so I need a good scrub. My skin is so sticky that my shirt is plastered to my back.
After circling for ten minutes, I resign myself to parking three blocks away. I drag my camping gear down the road—the bag of damp clothes, the cooler of food I never ate, and a mostly deflated moose floatie. The early summer heat wave adds more sweat to what’s already dried to my skin. I’d better not run into any neighbors in the elevator, or they’ll be in for a treat when they get a whiff of me.
I swipe my fob to get inside, and before I open the door, laughter erupts behind me.
I whirl around, ready to tell off whoever is laughing at me for dragging camping gear down the street, but the sound is coming from the movie set.
A metal fence separates me from the set—they have to keep us peasants out, obviously—and white tents block most of my view beyond it. Between two tents is a gap that tunnels my vision to a point.
My heart does a wild, out-of-control flip, knocking me off balance so that I have to grab the door handle to stay standing.
Cate Whitney is on the other side of the fence, talking to a tattooed guy with a boom mic.
I forget how to breathe.
In her early forties and well-established on the A-list, she carries herself with easy confidence. She’s rocking a badass black and brown steampunk outfit, including a corset, thigh-high fishnet stockings, a frilly skirt that exposes her thighs in front and hangs calf-length in the back, and a top hat with goggles resting on the brim. Her shoulder-length blond hair is in soft curls, and her white skin has a warm glow, like she’s been in the tropics. She’s wearing her signature mischievous smirk, her makeup drawing attention to her sharp cheekbones and ice-blue eyes.
How is it possible for anyone to be so attractive? I guess that’s why she ended up in Hollywood. She’s the type of woman who can rock a tux better than any man and a Valentino dress better than a runway model.
Seeing her in person sparks memories of pivotal moments in my life, making my chest flutter.
When I saw her kiss a woman in a 2000s historical drama, that was the moment I knew. Though the movie was fiction and the actors were straight, their love felt so real, sending butterflies through me. I wanted what those women had—their passion for each other, the connection that reached beyond friendship, the purity of their love.
I asked out my crush after seeing it, and she said yes.
On our fourth date, we watched that same movie together, and I made out with a girl for the first time.
So I’m not being dramatic when I say that Cate Whitney changed my life.
Now, standing with the poise of a goddess, that woman is ten feet away. She’s deep in conversation with the guy with the boom mic, but that doesn’t stop her from looking past him and meeting my eye.
Why? Why does she have to see me when I look like I climbed out of a dumpster?
Reflexively, I offer an awkward half-smile, which she returns.
My insides flip. This is either the greatest thing ever to happen to me or the worst, depending on whether she can smell me from this distance.
Regaining feeling in my legs, I whip open the door of my building and hurtle myself inside, then grab my camping gear and drag it in after me. The moose floatie smacks the door frame on the way in.
Cate freaking Whitney is feet away from me, filming a movie.
I hyperventilate my way up to my apartment and unlock the door with trembling hands. The familiar smell of home hits my nose—sweet-orange essential oil diffusing on the kitchen island, woven with layers of shampoo, burnt toast, and cheap coffee. Abby must be up.
I dump my camping gear and rush through the kitchen and living room toward the balcony. The apartment is as I left it, cluttered and full of low-maintenance plants. My laptop, heap of textbooks, and blanket nest are untouched on my side of the couch. Trinkets from travels, books, and pictures of friends and family take up every surface. It’s disorganized—Abby prefers the term eclectic—but it’s home.
I slide open the patio door and burst through to spy on the movie set.
The view is awe-inspiring. They’ve built a clockwork storefront over my favorite coffee shop. White tents and trailers, the back of wooden structures, and a lot of expensive film equipment clutter the intersection.
From the depths of the apartment, footsteps pad closer, and Abby says, “You smell like worn-off deodorant and sunscreen. I thought you weren’t coming home until tomorrow.”
“Cate Whitney is down there,” I whisper-shout, scanning the dozens of people milling about the set.
“Fuck off!” Abby screams, rushing beside me to peer over the balcony.
I clap a hand over her mouth. “Shh!”
Abby pries my hand off. “You saw her?”
“Right as I was coming inside.” I wrack my brain for the last headline I saw about Cate Whitney. “She must be filming Clockwork Curie.”
There she is. She’s with a group of people behind the cameras, pointing at a monitor and nodding. She’s easy to spot because of the outfit but also because of that abnormally attractive Hollywood look. What is with that?
“Clockwork what?” Abby says.
“It’s a steampunk movie about Marie Curie,” I whisper. “The scientist. We were talking about it in class not long ago.”
As if a high-budget movie about science hero Marie Curie isn’t awesome enough, they had to go and cast Cate Whitney as the lead. Excuse me while I cry feminist tears.
“Abby, she was, like, ten feet away from me,” I say, making sure she understands the situation.
I peel my gaze away from the set. Abby is wearing a smart navy blazer and no pants. Her thick, dark hair is styled to emphasize its natural waves, she’s wearing makeup, and her oversized glasses are unusually free of smudges.
“What’s up with you?” I ask.
“Virtual job interview.”
“Enough about me. Are you going to try and meet Cate?”
My heart jumps at the question like I’ve just been dive-bombed by an angry crow. “What? No. She’s working.”
“Girl, you’ve been obsessed with her since before you knew you were a lesbian. Remember the magazine pictures taped to your high school locker?”
“Shh!” I say, dragging Abby inside. I slam the patio door and round on her. “I can’t just walk up to her!”
“Sure you can. Rachel, this is the universe bringing you an opportunity,” she says, picking lint off her blazer. “Seize it.”
I rub my tired eyes. Cate Whitney really is a queer icon. Between her film roles, her wardrobe, and being an outspoken ally, I’m positive that if someone were to poll all of the lesbians and ask them to rank their top celebrity crushes, she would win the popular vote.
I guess I could try to say hi to my hero. The prospect sends a nervous thrill through my chest. “What would I even say?”
Abby opens the bamboo privacy screen we use as a backdrop during video calls, which conveniently masks the surrounding disaster. “I don’t know. Big fan of your work?”
“Ugh, that’s so normal.”
“If you want her to remember you for something abnormal, fine, but I think you’re better off sticking with something average here.”
“Fair enough.” I hesitate, heart thumping. Then I shake my head firmly. “No, I can’t. It’s too awkward.”
“You have to!”
Carefully, she places her laptop in front of the dirty dishes and unfolded laundry on the kitchen table.
“You just want me out of the apartment during your interview,” I say.
“Well, yes, but I also want you to seize the day. Do it. I’m not letting you back in until you say at least one word to her.”
“Excuse me?” I say, laughing.
“You heard me, Rachel Henrietta Janssen,” she says severely. “I’m shoving you out the door and bolting it until you succeed.”
“What if I’m not allowed on se—”
“I double dare you,” she says in a girly tone reminiscent of our high school slumber parties.
“Oh, shut it.”
She makes chicken noises and I throw a tissue box at her. It bounces off her chest.
“Did Amelia Earhart let people stop her from achieving her goals?” she asks, waving her arms.
“Amelia Earhart died while achieving her goal, Abby.”
“Beside the point. You’ll thank me later.”
I chew my lip. As uncomfortable as it would be to approach a celebrity, I would live my life in deep regret if I didn’t do it. Cate Whitney is more than a celebrity crush. She’s a legend, an icon who helped me discover my sexuality and come out.
“It’s not like you’re the only one. I saw a couple of girls leaning over the fence to get pics with the actors last night,” Abby says, a wry smile on her lips, like she knows I’m at my tipping point.
I can’t help it—my face breaks into a grin. “Dare accepted. I’ll ask her to sign the back of my phone.”
I grab a permanent marker from the jar on the counter.
“An autograph? What kind of person in this day and age—” Abby stops, probably remembering that the alternative is to ask for a selfie, and I hate having my picture taken. “I guess having Cate Whitney’s signature on the back of your phone would be cool.”
“Hell yeah, it would. Do I have time to shower before your interview?”
“Yes!” Abby squeals in excitement. She opens her laptop and settles into a chair, checking the position of the privacy screen. “You’ve got twenty-four minutes to get out of here. Why are you back early, anyway? How was camping?”
“Good luck with your interview,” I shout, racing to the bathroom.
My attempt to dodge her question doesn’t work, and she chases after me.
“How was camping, Rachel?”
Ugh, she’s too perceptive.
Before I can shut the door, she wedges her hand between it and the frame.
“What happened with Julia, Rachel?”