From The View Was Exhausting
As Win dressed for the party that evening, she watched Whitman Tagore appear in the mirror: the heavy dark hair, the high cheekbones, a winding silhouette and huntress shoulders. She practiced playing herself as a role, keeping her real self hidden. She practiced her smile. “Don’t look so pleased with yourself,” Marie said, and so she switched to the wide-eyed, agog expression of posh London girls that she and Shift used to laugh at. She was Whitman Tagore, who wanted nothing more than to go to a party with a spoiled It boy. While she slipped into her heels and pulled on a cape of pale silk, Marie briefed her as though she were a soldier about to go into the field.
“There’s a line of press as you walk into the building. They will be hard on you. Maybe the other guests, too. Milanowski won’t pull anything at his dad’s own party, but he won’t defend you, either, if things get tough. It’s okay. Just keep calm, and keep smiling. Stick to our narrative.”
Win met Leo for the first time in the back of a black sedan. There was less fanfare than she had been expecting, no elaborate greeting, no stilted introduction from Marie or one of Leo’s entourage. As she slipped into the car, he said, “Just ask the band to start later.”
He waved at her and mouthed, On the phone, as if Win couldn’t see the cell phone tucked under his ear. Leo Milanowski had a strong, handsome face, a sharp jawline dappled with stubble that seemed designed to frame his mouth, and disarmingly long eyelashes. He wore what Win guessed was a very expensive suit with negligent ease, and he looked bored and a little sleepy, like a commuter on the tube, as though he hadn’t noticed the lush leather interior of his surroundings or the actress sitting beside him.
“No, I won’t be there for long,” Leo said, running his fingers idly through the hair that curled over his forehead. “Just need to shake some hands.” He laughed at something the other person said.
He stayed on the phone for the whole drive, leaving Win to watch Manhattan slide past them in silence, unsure if she was annoyed or grateful for the peace. She resisted checking her phone too often; recently it had only brought her bad news. She stared out the window and tried to relax.
When they stepped out onto the street, there was a storm of camera flashes. At the sight of Win and Leo, the thicket of paparazzi surged forward, the assembled line of security barely holding them back. They were all calling her name.
Leo leaned in so his mouth was almost touching her ear. “Hi,” he said, “hand on your back, or arm in arm?”
“I’m a hand on the back guy, personally, but it’s your call.”
They were talking out of the sides of their mouths, with security waiting around them. Win remembered Marie’s comment this afternoon. She needed to appear vulnerable, pitiable. The weaker one.
“Why don’t you come closer?” she said.
Leo gave her a quick, assessing look, then put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her against his side. She turned her face toward his chest. He was very warm, this close, and when he ran his fingers gently through the hair falling over the nape of her neck, she didn’t have to fake the shiver.
They walked into the party like that, arms around each other and turned away from the flash of cameras. When she peeked up at him, Leo’s face was quiet and calm, almost possessive. He was a good actor, too, she realized.
In the lobby he uncurled his arm from her shoulder.
“No offense,” he said, “but if I was you, I probably would’ve stayed at home.”
Win smoothed down her dress and patted her hair to make sure it was still in place.
“Unfortunately, staying at home was not an option.”
“Tell me about it,” Leo said.
They sized each other up, an odd moment of stillness in the middle of the party. It wasn’t the usual up-and-down look Win was used to from potential love interests; it was more calculating than that, more thoughtful. Win wondered what the possibility was of Leo selling his Whitman Tagore story to the press. She wasn’t sure what Leo was thinking.
The walls of the lobby were decked out in graffiti paint (the graffiti artists, Leo told Win later, had been flown in from Paris and Rio de Janeiro, and their designs had been vetted by a team of six executives before they were allowed to start painting). Below the chandeliers, whose bulbs flickered to create a seedy, urban effect, guests mingled and waiters toting trays of champagne circulated among the crowd. The golden reception desk had been dented and artfully tarnished to give the illusion of decay.
“Edgy,” Win said, surveying it.
“Thaaaat’s Daddy,” Leo said.
People had already begun to notice them. Back then, Leo’s fame far dwarfed Win’s, so he was getting most of the curious looks and hopeful waves, but there was a ripple running through the crowd, too, a snarky, sideways lowering of voices and narrowing of eyes, and Win knew that was just for her.
“You could pretend to faint,” Leo said, keeping his voice low so only she could hear him. “That would get us both out of it.”
“No,” Win said. “I’m fine. I am having a good time.”
The corner of Leo’s mouth twitched, but he didn’t argue. He offered his hand and Win took it, linking their fingers together. She leaned against Leo’s side, like she was overwhelmed and needed him to protect her. It felt strange to be acting in real life; Win kept wanting to apologize to him. But Leo only looked entertained.
“Let’s go get some drinks,” he said.
They stuck together. Leo declared himself “unmoved” by the rest of the guests, and Win was tense the entire time, focused on her resolve to be as Whitman Tagore as possible: open, harmless, calm. After a week inside the media firestorm, she was constantly expecting attack, and it was only Leo’s hand on the small of her back that kept her from her instinct to cut and run. Leo seemed to notice. When a probing New York columnist was getting a little too familiar for comfort, he leaned into her ear and said, “Honey, can I steal you for a moment?”
Win couldn’t thank him properly, with so many people around, but she could return the favor when she saw him cornered by a grabby trustee. She caught his arm with affected urgency. “Darling, your father needs you.”
They ran into Bernard Milanowski in the smoking lounge. Bernard had the same discerning stare as Leo, the same demanding jut of his chin, except Bernard expected obedience, not attention. He gave Win one abrupt, comprehensive look, and nodded at Leo. Win tensed and straightened without thinking. A second later, she realized Leo had, too. He let Win respond monosyllabically to Bernard’s prosaic questions about how they found the party while he stared distantly over his father’s head.
Win knew Bernard had only invited her as bait for the press. She got the impression he found her presence to be a distasteful necessity, like having to tip a maître d’ to get the best table. After he excused himself, Win and Leo let out twin sighs of relief.
“I’m not a cliché, by the way,” Leo said, as they escaped to the balcony. “I don’t hate my dad. I just don’t care for him.”
“You’re very complex,” Win agreed. She turned as something caught her eye. There was a waiter a few feet away with an empty tray tucked under his arm. He was leaning against the railing with one hand hanging carelessly at his side, his phone angled toward them as if by accident. Win couldn’t tell if he was taking photos or filming. She nudged Leo very gently, nodding in the waiter’s direction. Leo kept his face casual as he glanced over his shoulder.
“He could probably get fired for that,” she said.
“Well,” Leo said, turning back to her, “let’s make it worth his while.” Win’s breath caught as Leo waited just long enough to give her the chance to tell him no, and then he pressed forward against her in a sudden, lilting kiss. His mouth was warm. She could feel his chest against hers, the press of muscle on silk. Win brought a hand up to cup his cheek, which was cleared of stubble but still faintly rough, and she felt his grip tighten on her waist. People would be looking.
Leo broke off, and she let her hand slide down to his neck.
“Too much?” he murmured.
She almost laughed; it was almost funny. She’d popped one foot up when he kissed her, not on purpose but instinctively, and she brought it down now. She could imagine the director in the corner, shouting, Cut!
“We got it,” Win said.
Leo eyed her, making some judgment that she couldn’t track or decipher.
“Whitman Tagore,” he said. “Would you like to share a joint?”
Even six months later, by then a diligent pupil in what Leo called Marie’s House of Shame, Win couldn’t believe she’d risked it. She didn’t know Leo then, and if he’d wanted he could have destroyed her with one well-timed photograph catching her in the act. Win knew better than to put her faith in handsome strangers. But that night she looked up into Leo’s secretive, smiling face and realized that an evening that should have been an ordeal was turning out to be the most fun she’d had in weeks.
The rooftop was not quite finished, Astroturf half rolled down, wheelbarrows and tools still kicking around. Leo and Win slipped out of view of the open door and over to the edge. There was no sound or sign of the party. Leo’s weed was strong but friendly, relaxing Win’s shoulders further.
“How many of these do you go to?” Win asked, and Leo considered, taking another hit.
“One or two a year. My siblings and I trade them off,” he said. “We used to go together but one time my brother brought this really shitty acid, and me and my sister nearly drowned in the champagne fountain. Gum freaked out and tried to do CPR on a statue. Dad said we were a bad influence on each other, so now it’s one kid per launch.”
Win wheezed with laughter, tucking her nose against Leo’s shoulder. She always got touchy when she was high, but he didn’t seem to mind, slouching obligingly so she had better access.
“Then for a while I brought my own dates,” Leo continued. “But when I was eighteen I was seeing this German pop star—”
“I had a German boyfriend when I was seventeen,” Win said, remembering him fondly.
“Germans go hard.”
“Germans go hard,” Leo agreed. “And we, uh, we snuck off to have sex in the lift and we hit the emergency stop so no one would know, but we didn’t notice when they fixed it and the doors opened in the middle of the party…Dad was not happy. So now I don’t usually get to pick my own dates.”
“How have I not seen photos of this?”
“Oh, Dad has five different law firms on retainer for shit like this. There was my sister’s motorbike period, and the time I got uppers mixed up with poppers, and another time at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner where they decided for some reason it would be a good idea to have a separate party for anyone underage. Politicians’ kids are fucking crazy, there were these two senators’ daughters passing me between them—”
“Oh, it’s been a hard life,” Win said, but she couldn’t stop laughing. They exchanged quick, pleased glances, testing each other out, liking what they found.
“Well, you’ve had a normal childhood,” he said. “I don’t know many people like that. It’s mysterious.”
“Very mysterious,” Win agreed, and told him about the raves she and Shift used to go to and the window in her family home she used to climb back through until her mum wearily told her that she might as well just use the front door. Leo had lived in London on and off for years, but he didn’t know the curry houses in Aldgate where Win and her father used to go after school, or the house parties in Brixton out of whose windows Win had thrown up only a few years earlier. Hilariously, he thought he might have seen Shift play one of her early Dalston nightclub residencies, two years ago now: “That’s my best friend!” Win said, pounding on his shoulder in glee.
“Maybe we were both there,” Leo said, and gallantly offered her the last hit.
They swanned back to the party, Win’s hand clasped lightly in Leo’s, ducking around models and moguls. People were still staring at them, but now the whole thing felt ridiculous, Upper East Side snobs slumming it in Brooklyn, pretending to rough it while they sneered at the disgraced Whitman Tagore. It made her laugh, and Leo laughed, too, without asking what the joke was. Win felt high and satisfied, as though she could reach through the mess and noise to create the party she wanted, all the danger of the evening made impotent like a defanged snake.
The next morning, it was the sheer volume of photographs that shocked her the most. They had been immortalized in film at every moment of the party: Win and Leo catching eyes over another guest’s shoulder. Win and Leo dissolving into laughter at some forever-private joke. Leo tucking his chin over Win’s shoulder as he excused her from a discussion with one of the Horizons investors. Win and Leo sequestered away in secretive corners, looking as if they were whispering things too intimate to repeat. And of course, the kiss. His hands in her hair, the kick up of her heel as she leaned into him. Afterward she had bitten her lip and smiled, and their waiter had caught that, too.
Win went through the fourth, seventh, tenth gossip article about them. They looked unbelievable together. She thought suddenly that it was downright selfish of Leo not to be a real actor. Directors dreamed of this kind of chemistry. She only stopped clicking when her phone rang.
“Marie,” Win said. “I need to talk to—”
“I have him on the other line,” Marie said. “Did you see the Post? I’m sending you a link to the front page right now.”
Under an overly excited headline, the main shot was of Win and Leo waiting for their car. There had been a brief shower of rainfall, and security was too preoccupied with the photographers to bring them an umbrella. Instead Win held her silk cape up for both of them and they huddled under it together, Leo’s hand wrapped around her waist, his eyes sparkling between camera flashes. The caption below the photo read:
Whitman Tagore and Leo Milanowski leaving the party. Exactly how long the dream romance has been going on is unclear, but by the look of these pics, these two know each other…shall we say…intimately. Looks like the witch has jumped off her broom and into bed.
Below the article, comments were reeling in on an endless feed.
omg whitman tagore and leo milanowski!! im SO WEIRDLY into this!
ugh that dress is giving me LIFE
how long has this been going on??
is she trolling us?
sucks to be josip lol
couple of the year tbh
“This is a big deal,” Marie said. “If we play it right, it could totally eclipse the voicemail. It could do more than that—it will make people love you. All we need to do is give them more.”
Win laughed. She hadn’t thought it would be this easy. Just find another boy and make him like you, and the world will follow suit.
“Hey,” Leo said once Marie had patched him through. “Your assistant is pretty intense.”
“She’s not my assistant.”
Leo made a disinterested noise; he was harder to read over the phone, when Win couldn’t follow his body language and his cue. “What can I do for you, Whitman Tagore?”
She tried to sound nervous, in case that might appeal to him. “I’m just— I wanted to say thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Although, you should probably say what you’re thanking me for—was it thank you for the Post or thank you for BuzzFeed?”
“You’ve seen the pictures,” Win said.
“They were hard to miss.”
“Well—thank you. For all of it. I had a really good time with you.”
There was a pause. Even without him in the room, she could feel his amusement. He was enjoying holding back, waiting to see what she was going to say next.
“Leo.” She made her voice breathy, like she was pent up with excitement rather than determination. “I don’t know what it is about you. I’d really like to see you again.”
He laughed. “Is that your best line? Did your assistant write it for you?”
“She isn’t my assistant,” Win repeated, irritated.
“Try again,” Leo said. “I want a better story.”
“Okay, I don’t know what it is about us. But people like it. I think we have…”
“Chemistry?” Leo suggested.
“I was going to say stage presence.”
He laughed again. “So what are you asking me for?”
Win paused. When she first started acting, it was because she was good at it, because it was where she felt best in the world, inhabiting a character and making them real. Her father had loved that about her. He’d told her that she had a gift and that she shouldn’t squander it. She was sure that this—investing in herself as a brand, making people care about her personal life and not her work—was not what he’d meant.
But it was becoming clear that her work wasn’t enough. And if she didn’t want to squander her gift, if she wanted to stay true to her ambition and her father’s belief in her, she would have to make sure that she got the opportunities she needed. To do that, she had to be liked. With Leo, she would be loved.
Win took a steadying breath. “I want us to pretend to date. I want to be seen with you, and I want us to look good.”
Leo was silent for a moment. If he was impressed with her honesty, he didn’t admit it. Eventually he asked, “And what’s in it for me?”
“You seem bored,” she said. She thought of Leo’s lazy gaze drifting around the party, the way his focus had narrowed in on her. Leo seemed to like playing games. Maybe he would accept her as a teammate. “I thought you could do with a project.”
Leo laughed again, short and delighted this time, like she’d caught him off guard. “I’m flying back to London next week for my friend’s gallery opening. You can have me for eight days. How’s that?”
“I think that will work,” Win said. She sank back into her chair. She was smiling. “As long as you put on a good show.”
“If you show me a good time,” Leo said, so that Win could hear him grinning over the phone, “the rest of the world will have a good time, too. I promise.”
Annoyingly, he was right.
Excerpted from The View was Exhausting by Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta. Copyright © 2021 by Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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