The whole thing, Ryan later reflected, was his own fault.He never should have agreed to do a talk show on Valentine’s Day.It wasn’t even that he’d agreed to do any talk show on Valentine’s Day. Oh no, he’d agreed to go on The Selena Show. Hosted by none other than Selena Munez, who had known Ryan since his days on Riverside High. Selena, who was perky and sharp and loved to ask Ryan about his dating life, whether there was a holiday around to justify that discussion or not. So it only stood to reason that on Valentine’s Day, she’d be merciless. The appearance started out fine. There was the prep with a producer, where he and Ryan discussed a list of topics—interesting or otherwise—Selena wanted to ask him about. Things like his work on the brand-new drama P.S. 148. Or the irony that he’d made his television debut as a high school student, and now he was playing a high school teacher (because no other talk show host was bringing up that little tidbit over and over and over again). His dog, Alby, who Selena thought was utterly adorable (her words, not Ryan’s).Yes, things were going perfectly well. And then Ryan’s dating life came up.
“You’re still not seeing anyone, right?” the producer asked. His name was Bert, and Ryan had worked with him before. Liked him. So he tried to keep the annoyance out of his voice as he said, “Nope. Still single.”
“She’s gonna want to ask you about that. Seeing as how it’s Valentine’s Day and all.”
Ryan sighed. “Do we have to? It’s going to turn into a thing. You know, poor Ryan, single again, audience makes that noise like they feel sorry for me . . .”
Bert laughed. “Sorry, man. If you’re really opposed, I can ask her to leave the topic out. But it is V-Day and all. The audience is going to expect it.”
“Fine. Just ask her not to make too big of a deal out of it. Okay?”
“Yeah. I’ll, uh, do my best.” Bert coughed, and Ryan was already certain he was screwed.
* * *
His concerns were validated less than two hours later.
The interview segment began the way it always did on Selena’s show: some song that was dancy and poppy played to start off his segment, and Ryan ran onto the set with a smile plastered across his face. To a certain extent, he liked Selena. Back when he was young and new to television and terrified of the spotlight, her show had been one of the first he’d done—alongside Mike Mathers, who had played his father on Riverside High—and Selena had gone easy on the terrified and shaking kid sitting in the chair across from her. Since then, Ryan had been on the show several times to promote other roles he’d done after Riverside, and Selena had stayed one of Ryan’s favorite talk show hosts. Favorite in the sense that when asked to do her show, Ryan didn’t have an urge to gouge his eyes out with dull forks.
Because now, almost twelve years after his television debut, Ryan Alback was no longer young and new to Hollywood. But he still struggled with how much the world demanded personally of someone who just happened to love acting and find success in that field.
“Ryan! It’s so wonderful to have you here again.” Selena took the flowers he’d brought for her, because this was Valentine’s Day and he’d been raised to do gentlemanly things like that, and kissed his cheek. “I always love when you visit. So! Congratulations on the new show. Is it exciting to be on television again?”
Once upon a time, back when he’d done this show for the first time, Ryan was sure his appearance had been cringeworthy. He remembered feeling so stiff with discomfort that he’d barely moved the entire interview, and most of his answers must have sounded pre-scripted, because most of them were. Now he could at least relax enough to give real answers to questions like that and sound like the authentic Ryan Alback. Or at least most of the authentic Ryan Alback.
“It is, it is.” Ryan nodded. “Being part of The Losing Pieces franchise was fantastic. Such a pleasure.” His reference to the young adult book series turned movie trilogy he’d landed a lead role in was met by cheers from the audience. “It was nice to be on a set where other people were playing the teenagers,” he joked amicably. If only people knew he was only half-kidding when he said that. Playing a sixteen-year-old when you were actually in your twenties got old. Fast.
“I can only imagine!” Selena smiled widely at him. “And now you’re a teacher in your new series. How is it being back on TV sets that look like high school hallways again?”
“I’m enjoying it,” Ryan said, nodding along and repeating one of the many answers he’d given to this question in recent weeks. “It’s like coming home, actually. Riverside High was such a wonderful place to begin my career; we had such a great cast and crew. It’s nice to feel like I’ve headed back into a similar world, but this time as an adult.” The audience chuckled again, and Ryan shot them what he hoped was a genuine smile.
“So, tell us about the new series. It’s quite different from Riverside.”
Ryan launched into his only-slightly-rehearsed speech about the differences in the two shows—how P.S. 148 was much more about the darker sides of public education and what teachers went through on a daily basis trying to support their students, while Riverside’s teen soap opera had focused more on the students and their own struggles—but his mind was on something else entirely: whether or not he could make it through the rest of the segment without being asked about his Valentine’s Day plans.
“Well,” Selena said, shaking her head in amazement as Ryan finished up his spiel. “I absolutely love the show, and you’re fantastic in it. As always.” He smiled and nodded again as the crowd gave their obligatory cheer. “And oh my goodness!” She gestured at the flowers, smiling widely. “I haven’t even thanked you for these yet. What a lovely gift!”
Here it goes, he thought.
“Do you have plans for this Valentine’s Day?”
Ryan pursed his lips. “I’m, ah, single. Pretty recently out of a relationship.” Actually, that was a bit of an exaggeration. It had been over six months, and that “relationship” had been more like on-again, off-again sex with a lawyer his agent had set him up with. But maybe Selena would take pity, go easy on him, if she thought he was still in mourning. “So no. No plans.”
The audience gave a collective Awww.
Selena laughed. “I have to ask: how can you, of all people, possibly be single?”
Ryan opened his mouth to make the usual quip about “just not finding the one” yet . . . and then decided to take a slightly more honest approach. “Well, Selena, now you sound like my agent. This is basically every conversation we have these days. She’s convinced I’m going to die alone.”
“She’s right to worry! Someone as charming and lovely as you should never have to be by themselves.” A wave of loud clapping swept through the soundstage.
This whole scene was starting to get much too personal, and Ryan decided it was time to deflect with some humor. “Oh, I’m far from perfect. I never remember to put my socks in the hamper.” Chuckles and laughter replaced the clapping, and Ryan mentally crossed his fingers that the line would put an end to this conversation.
Selena shook her head. “Sock problem and all, it’s crazy to me that you’re not snatched up—shouldn’t your phone be ringing off the hook?”
Really, that depended on how you looked at it. Ryan got plenty of phone calls from people interested in spending time with him.
That didn’t mean he wanted to spend time with any of them.
“And you’re, well, not bad looking.” Selena winked, and the audience roared with laughter.
“Thanks for noticing, I guess,” Ryan said, anxious to play off that comment.
“And you’ve been out since—what, the third season of Riverside? So the gay men of America have had plenty of time to stake their claims!”
Ryan smiled wanly. “Yeah, I thought doing that early would’ve helped. Guess not.” His jaw clenched as he remembered those painful months on Riverside surrounding his decision to come out. Now, more than eight years later, it was easy to talk about that choice as though it were something small and incidental. At the time it had been the most gut-wrenching thing he’d ever done, either in his life or his career. His agent and almost everyone who worked on Riverside had been incredibly supportive, but Ryan hadn’t been sure the public would be. Or that his admission wouldn’t drag him further into the media spotlight, which he already strongly disliked. But the world had surprised him: outside of some angry mail and a few fans who claimed to have boycotted his work, Ryan’s career and overall happiness had only been boosted by his decision.
The most painful part about coming out hadn’t been any of that. Nope. That prize went, unequivocally, to Connor.
And Ryan didn’t want to think about him just then. Or ever.
“I work pretty long hours,” he reminded Selena. “That doesn’t help.”
“Oh, goodness, yes,” Selena said, nodding emphatically. “Long hours like yours—no wonder your agent’s worried! Well, audience,” Selena said, turning toward them, “how many of you would happily be Ryan’s valentine this year? Or have a male friend who’d take that challenge on?” The largely female audience erupted into cheers, jumping up and down and clapping, and Ryan made an awkward gesture with his hands that hopefully said, Thank you, I’m so grateful, and not I’m finding this all incredibly awkward.
Selena gently patted Ryan’s knee. “We’re only kidding, of course. We’ll let your agent do the pressuring when it comes to your dating life.”
He gulped heavily, hoped no one noticed, and said the funniest thing he could think of: “I’m sure she appreciates the support.”
Of course there’d been a massacre on Valentine’s Day. The holiday was as sadistic as they came.
* * *
Within a few days, Ryan had all but forgotten about his Valentine’s Day encounter with Selena. On the set of P.S. 148 they were shooting some of the last episodes of the season, which meant heavy plotlines with complex dialogue and lots of scenes for him. So the incident was not even at the forefront of his mind when his agent called him on a Saturday morning.
He was enjoying some of his very rare time off in Riverside Park. For Ryan, one of the greatest perks of filming a TV show in New York City was spending so much time getting to know the place. He’d grown up in Colorado and gone to college in California, so he’d never spent much time in New York before landing the P.S. 148 gig. He’d rented a place in Morningside Heights, right by the Columbia University campus, and Riverside Park was becoming one of his favorite places. Great running trails, interesting people watching, good pick-up basketball games. Alby liked it there too.
And he’d keep to himself how much he liked this place for as long as he could. Otherwise the jokes about someone who’d built their career on a show called Riverside High (which had been set in California, thank you very much) hanging out in a place called Riverside Park would likely never stop.
It was unseasonably warm for early March, so Ryan was relaxing on a bench after a long run, watching a group of kids fall down frequently while they tried to teach each other to skateboard. Alby, his golden retriever mutt, was running back and forth between Ryan and the ball Ryan was tossing for him. Ryan had rescued Alby from a shelter in LA a few years ago, and the dog stuck like glue to Ryan whenever they were together, avoiding every other human being on the planet as much as possible. Ryan shook his head as a jogger tripped and landed a whole five feet away from Alby, who quickly dodged away as though she’d come at him with a brick. The girl got up and ran on, and Ryan called for his dog.
“Are you going to be afraid of people your whole life?” He clucked soothingly as he petted Alby’s head. “Some kind of guard dog.” Alby nuzzled into Ryan’s leg, apparently content to be a one-human dog. Ryan threw the tennis ball for him again just in time for his phone to ring.
“Hi, sweetie!” Ryan couldn’t help but smile at the greeting. Betsy had been with him since he was nineteen, and in their entire tenure as an agent-and-actor team, he was fairly certain she’d never once used his actual name when she was talking to him.
“It’s great to hear from you. What’s up?”
“Things are well here. How’s shooting going? California misses you, baby! You’re coming back after the season wraps, yes?”
Ryan glanced around at the trees, brown and empty from the winter they’d endured, and thought about how much he liked seasons. “Probably. I don’t know. New York’s kind of cool.”
“You’re still doing that indie film during hiatus, right? Please don’t back out on us for that one, sweetie. It’s got Oscar nomination written all over it.”
“Of course I’m not backing out. I can’t wait for that part. I’d been hoping you’d get me into that since I saw the script. Plus, it’s not like I’m the lead. It’s just a few weeks in May, right?”
“You got it. Should give you a good chunk of time off to relax and recharge.”
“And we’ve already been renewed for next season, right?” P.S. 148 had surprised virtually its entire cast and crew with its success. Everyone at the network had been rather skeptical about another teacher drama seeing any real ratings—especially one as dark as P.S. was turning out to be. But somehow the show was consistently doing well, and there had even been talk of some award nominations coming.
“Sure have, darling!”
“Sooo . . . why are you calling?”
“Love, I have a proposition for you . . . one that’s going to do fantastic things for your career!”
Ryan was instantly wary. Those words had not always ended well for him. “Thanks to you, Betsy, my career’s doing fine.”
“Of course it is, sweetie! This would only push it to the next level.”
Ryan’s wariness heightened slightly.
“Remember when you appeared on The Selena Show not too long ago?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Her producer called me. Selena’s had the most wonderful idea: she wants to find you a boyfriend!”
A kid of about eight attempted to do some kind of kick on his skateboard and ended up in a sobbing heap on the pavement. His mother rushed over.
“Excuse me?” said Ryan.
“Here’s what they’re thinking. They’ll hold a contest: Dating Ryan Alback. Guys will write in explaining why they, above all others, should have the chance to date you. Selena chooses someone and sets you up on weekend-long date with him. A sort of getaway, if you will. The show will pay for everything!”
“And tape every single second we’re together,” Ryan noted drily. “Ab. So. Lute. Ly. Not.” He couldn’t believe Betsy was even pitching this to him. She, of all people, knew how very much he valued his privacy and hated being in the spotlight. How could she even think that he’d consider this?
“No, sweetie, of course not! Selena’s people know you would never go for that. No cameras for the actual getaway date. It’ll be just the two of you. No producers in sight.”
“Yeah? So what’s in it for them, then?” Ryan didn’t even try to keep the confusion out of his voice.
“I know; I thought it was strange at first. But they’re going to use the whole stunt as a chance to build publicity for the show. Lots of people love you, babe. You’re quite the hero for coming out when you did, and Selena and her producers want to play that up and boost their gay viewership. Your part in the whole thing can be relatively small. They’ll interview you once to launch the contest, and then again after the weekend is over. If things do go well, you can bring the date with you on the show, but you don’t have to if the weekend doesn’t pan out. Then you thank Selena for the time and opportunity and—”
“And they ask when I’ll do it all over again. Or when my new boyfriend and I will be back. Hell no.” Ryan wished Betsy could see how emphatically he was shaking his head.
“Babe, look. I know you’ve never been big on the publicity part of this job. Believe me—I get it. But you know what else I know? You are practically a recluse. You barely leave your house, and your only company most of the time is that dog of yours. It’s not natural! You need companionship!”
“This again? Betsy, why are you always on me about my dating life? My own mother doesn’t nag me as much as you.”
“Because I care about your happiness, silly!”
“And my image,” Ryan said drily. “And you want me to be seen more often, preferably with a hot guy on my arm.”
“Listen, love, don’t get pissy with me because I know what’s best for your career. You do need to be seen out and about more; the rags would die for a little Ryan-Alback-dating action.”
Ryan struggled not to roll his eyes. Alby nuzzled into his thigh.
“And I do want you to be happy; I promise you that. I know you. You don’t like getting into relationships with people in the industry; you don’t like the publicity. But you also work long hours and you keep to yourself when you’re not working, so when are you ever going to meet anyone outside of the industry? This is basic math, hon. So why not let Selena find a nice nonindustry man for you to go out with?”
“So we can break up once he realizes what my work schedule is like? Sounds great, Betsy. And I did meet someone outside of the industry, remember? Dave? You introduced us.”
“Love, Dave was barely out of the industry. He’s a lawyer who works in media contracts, for goodness’ sake. And the two of you barely dated.”
“We did so date.”
“A series of one-night stands is not dating.”
Ryan threw the ball for Alby. A particularly large group of men and women came jogging down the path in front of them, and Alby quickly ducked behind Ryan’s legs again.
“Now here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go back to your cold, empty apartment and remember that every single gay or bi male in this country who has the opportunity to date you would jump at the chance. I want you to remember that I am approximately five minutes away from signing you up for an online dating service. I want you to remember that Selena is not going to do anything to make you woefully uncomfortable. She loves you.”
“Right,” Ryan spat. “Loves me enough to completely exploit my dating life to boost her ratings.”
“Exploit is a harsh word. Yes, her show will benefit from this. And so will you. And I’m guessing someone else will as well.”
He didn’t answer.
“Honey,” Betsy said after a few beats. “I need you to hear me when I say this: not everyone in this world is Connor.”
Ryan stood quickly, and Alby gave a sharp bark. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t swear at me. You know exactly what I mean.”
Ryan’s heartrate began to increase. Betsy never brought up Connor to him. No one did. “Please don’t say his name to me.”
“All of us have been not saying his name for so many years that I’m sometimes surprised we even remember it. And I don’t blame you for not wanting to hear it, not one bit. But someday you’re going to have to trust someone again. Someday you’re going to need to have faith that not everyone is like Connor.”
Ryan took some steadying breaths while Alby circled his legs, whimpering. It was amazing how fast he figured out when Ryan was upset.
“Betsy,” Ryan finally told her in a strangled voice, “I know that. I do. I just . . . I like my privacy, okay? You know that. And this stunt seems like it will give me the opposite of privacy.”
“I understand that. But stunts like this build sweethearts in the eyes of the public. You, my darling, could be America’s next sweetheart.”
“I don’t want to be America’s next sweetheart,” Ryan replied grouchily. “I want to be an actor. And I’m already doing that.”
“You’re not getting any younger. And sweethearts have jobs even when they’re wrinkly. Ask John Cusack.”
“I don’t think he’d appreciate that remark.”
“Sure he would. Because he appreciates that he’s still incredibly employable at his slightly-advanced-for-Hollywood age. And also . . .”
“What?” Ryan asked, warily.
“I already told the show you’d do it.”
“What?!” Alby whimpered again and anxiously did more laps around Ryan’s feet.
“It’s a great career move for you. I know you hate the spotlight, but P.S. 148 is the first project you’ve headlined as an adult. What Selena’s offering you is amazing! No cameras on the date, no clear interruption of your privacy. Just some interviews and a whole lot of publicity. It’s the perfect opportunity!”
Ryan took a great, gaping breath. “You had no right to tell them yes without asking me,” he said as Alby took yet another turn around his legs.
“Oh really?” Betsy sounded almost bemused by that remark. “Who landed you a job when no one else in Hollywood would touch you? Who’s gotten you every job you truly wanted in the past few years, despite your reclusive behavior and your insistence on avoiding media at all costs? Sweetie, I have never had anything but the best intentions for you, and you know that. I signed you up for this because I know what’s best for your career.”
Ryan sank back down onto the park bench and threw the ball for Alby, who immediately forgot his concern and went after it.
“Look, I knew you’d be unhappy about this. But think about it, okay? Consider not backing out. It could be an amazing opportunity for you. Call me!”
Betsy hung up before Ryan could remind her that he couldn’t back out of something he hadn’t signed up for.
A girl of thirteen or so landed some kind of impressive trick on her skateboard that involved going backward and jumping in the air. Ryan nodded appreciatively.
Two men came up the pathway in front of Ryan, talking and laughing together. Their hands were entwined, and one of them was pointing to something in the distance across the Hudson River.
Then came a man and woman pushing a baby stroller and gesturing wildly at one another while they talked.
And then two teenagers, who were attempting to walk and make out at the same time . . . with an almost sixty percent success rate.
Ryan looked down at Alby, who had returned the ball to Ryan’s feet and was staring at him, tongue hanging out, while he panted happily.
“I never should have gone on that show on Valentine’s Day,” he said to the dog.
Alby wagged his tail.