"Wow," I said to Owen as their voices faded. "This is quite a production."
"Tell me about it," he said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "And mark my words: it will end in tears. It always does. These girls have no concept of thinking toward the middle."
"Thinking toward what?"
"The middle," he repeated as I sat down next to him. "It's an Anger Management term. It means not only thinking in extremes. You know, either I get what I want or I don't. Either I'm right or I'm wrong."
"Either I'm Fantasy Engagement or I'm Nighttime Formal," I added.
"Right. It's dangerous to think like that, because nothing is totally cut-and-dry," he said. "Unless, apparently, you're thirteen."
"Miss Fantasy Engagement does seem like a bit of a diva."
"Elinor?" He let out a breath. "She's a piece of work."
"She seems to like you quite a bit."
"Stop it," he said, shooting me a dark look. "That's I-Lang. Big-time."
"You know that whole model-photographer-hookup thing," I said, bumping him with my knee. "It's practically required."
"Why are you here, again?"
"I just came by to drop this off." I held up his jacket. "I forgot to give it back to you this morning."
"Oh," he said. "Thanks. But you could have waited until Tuesday, if you wanted."
"I would have," I told him, reaching into the pocket and pulling out the iPod, "except for this."
His eyes widened. "Oh, man," he said, taking it from me. "That I would have missed."
"I figured you probably were already."
"Not yet," he said. "But I was about to start planning next week's show, so pretty soon, I would have. Thanks."
There was a burst of noise from downstairs, what sounded like someone either cheering or wailing. "See?" Owen said, pointing at the open door. "Tears. Guaranteed. No middle."
"Maybe we should just hide out here," I said. "Might be safer."
"I don't know," he said, glancing around at the walls. "Looking at all these pictures gives me the creeps."
"At least you're not in them," I told him.
"You? There are ones of you here?"
I pointed at the pictures from the commercial, and he got up, walking over to look closer. "It's nothing special," I said. "Really."
He studied the pictures long enough that I began to regret pointing them out. "It's strange," he said finally.
"Gee," I said. "Thanks a lot."
"No, I mean, you don't look like you, or something." He paused, leaning in a little closer. "Yeah. I mean, you look familiar, but not like the same person at all."
I sat there for a second, a little weirded out, because actually this was how I felt, too, when I looked at the older ads I'd done, especially the Kopf's commercial. That girl was different from who I was now, more whole and unbroken and okay than the one I saw in the mirror these days. I'd just thought I was the only one who noticed.
"No offense," Owen said.
I shook my head. "It's fine."
"I mean, it's a nice picture." He peered at it again. "I just think you look better now."
At first, I thought maybe I'd heard him wrong. "Now?" I said.
"Yeah." He glanced up at me. "What did you think I meant?"
"I don't…" I began, then stopped. "Never mind."
"You think I'd tell you that you looked better here?"
"Well," I said, "you are honest."
"I'm not a jerk, though," he replied. "You look good. You just don't look like you. You look… different."
"Different bad," I said.
"Super vague," I pointed out. "Placeholder. Double placeholder."
"You're right," he said. "What I mean is, looking at this, I think, Huh, that's not Annabel. That doesn't look like her at all."
"What do I look like?"
"Like this," he said, nodding at me. "My point is, I don't know you as someone who gets their picture taken in a cheer-leading outfit. Or even as a model, period. That's not you to me."
I wanted to ask him to explain further, to say what I was to him, exactly. But then I realized maybe he just had. I already knew he thought of me as honest, direct, even funny—all things I had never thought about myself. Who knew what else I could be, what kind of potential there was in the differences between that girl and the one he saw now. So many possibilities.
"Owen!" Mallory yelled up the stairs. "We're ready for you now!"
Owen rolled his eyes. Then he walked over, holding out his hand to help me to my feet. "Okay," he said. "Come on."
Looking up at him, I realized that this, too, was part of my real back-to-school days: Along with Sophie and Will and everything horrible, there was Owen, reaching out a hand to me. And now, as I reached up, closing my fingers over his, I was grateful more than ever for something, finally, to hold on to.
Owen was right about the tears. Within an hour, we had a meltdown.
"It's not fair!" said the dark-haired girl, whose name I now knew was Angela, her voice wavering.
"You look good," Mallory told her, adjusting her boa. "What's the problem?"
I knew. In fact, it was pretty obvious. While Mallory and the others were alternating between Evening Elegant and Nighttime Formal (or, depending on how you looked at it, Fantasy Engagement), Angela had been continually assigned Workplace Classy, which was clearly the least favorite of the chosen looks. Now, she looked down at her plain black skirt, black blouse, and flats. "I want to do Evening Elegant," she protested. "When is it my turn?"
"Owen!" Elinor, the blonde, called out, tugging a tube top down over her stomach. "Are you ready for me?"
"No," Owen muttered as she moved in toward him, tossing her hair and putting a hand on her hip. "Not even close."
The shoot was quite a production. Not only had the girls pushed back the furniture in the living room and draped a white sheet over the mantel for a backdrop, there was also a dressing and makeup area (the powder room) and background music (mostly Jenny Reef, Bitsy Bonds, and Z104; Owen's offer to put together a mix was roundly rejected).
"It will be your turn," Mallory, who was now in a gold bathing-suit top and sarong, the boa over her shoulders, told Angela. "But Workplace Classy is very important. Someone has to do it."