Schooled

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Chapter 23

Saturday evening was the fall fashion show. We’d attended the year before and it was all drama and glamour. On top of the student showcase, real working designers presented. Besides being in New York, it was the closest I felt to actually tasting what we were going to achieve.

Ava and I drove the clothes over early afternoon to scope out the competition and the venue. Emily and Jane, Ava’s two other models, were coming later. The music hall was downtown, the opposite side of campus from our house. Another perk of going early: we found parking spots behind the hall. From the filling lot, it looked like others had had the same idea.

The plan for the evening was simple. The student showcase went first, followed by the pros. Everyone participating in the student shows got to watch the later shows for free from the upper level.

I was reminded what a great venue it was as Ava and I walked in the front doors. The building was actually a converted brewery, and the foyer had exposed brick walls though the main concert area had been redone to improve acoustics. The main foyer could hold five hundred comfortably, and metal stairs led up either side to the second floor which allowed access to the balcony level, a catwalk that ran around the top of the space.

The foyer was already set up for the after-party, and as parties went, it would be a doozy. Trim young men and women wearing headsets were setting up pyramids of champagne glasses, touching up luxe decorations, and testing sound systems. A few seemed to be discussing a two-story wall on which a twenty-foot Fashion Falls logo was projected. A girl who looked stylish enough to be a designer herself was setting up gold gift bags to which sponsors had contributed some pretty great swag.

Tearing ourselves away from the decorations and swag bags, we made our way backstage. It was already getting busy with helpers milling about. We didn’t see any other students, and the crew setting up looked professional.

Ava grabbed my hand and squeezed. I could tell the nerves were setting in. I squeezed back and readjusted the garment bag I held by a few fingers over my back.

“Remember when we came to watch this last year? I can’t believe we’re actually doing this,” she exclaimed. “I mean, it’s just the student showcase and not the real thing, but still …”

“Ava, it’s huge,” I said firmly. “Don’t put yourself down. This matters. For both of us.”

I found us a spot in one corner where we could drop our things and a garment rack to hang the clothes. Ava brought a bag full of miscellaneous supplies, and Em, Jane, and I were each to bring our own shoes. I pulled over two chairs that had been sitting, unoccupied and unguarded, in front of lighted mirrors.

“What if everyone hates them?”

“They will love your designs. I love them. Emily and Jane love them. Your teachers love them, your friends in your program love them. I want to wear them all the time.”

“Really?”

“Yes. You’re going to be the next Jaime White. Just wait.”

Ava took a deep breath. “Thanks, Lex. I love you.”

“You too, A. You know you can do this. Now let’s see if we can steal a couple of those swag bags.”

An hour later, backstage was starting to fill. The other designers for the student showcase had arrived, and Emily texted to say she’d picked up Jane and would be there soon.

We’d been told there would be a team on hand to do makeup and hair. I figured I’d get it done with now so I didn’t have to line up later. So, I took a seat in one of the five chairs in front of lighted mirrors.

“Are you excited?” My stylist, who introduced herself as Leslie, was cute and perky. “You’re in the student showcase, right?”

“Yeah, my business partner won one of the spots.”

“You have the most unbelievable hair, and bone structure,” Leslie commented as she set my hair in big rollers. “Have you worked?”

I knew she meant worked in modeling and tried not to laugh. “Um, no. A few student gigs is probably as good as it gets for me.” I smiled. “Plus I think I’d need to grow another foot taller to even be considered.”

Leslie’s eyes narrowed, making her resemble a perplexed pixie. “I’m serious. You should talk to Blake Evans. You’re totally his type.” My eyebrows show up. Blake wasn’t nationally known like Jaime White was, but he was a pretty big deal in SoCal. “I’ll introduce you later if you want.”

“Uh, sure,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say. “Thanks.”

By the time she and the makeup artist were done with me, even I had to admit I was looking pretty glam. My hair was pinned up in a combination of curls and piecy braids around the crown of my head. My eyes were done in a smoky shadow, my lips left nude with a sheer gloss.

Ava agreed. “It’s very ‘urban mermaid on coke,’” she decided. It was good to see the excitement was starting to outweigh the nerves. “I love it!”

I said hi to Emily, who was in the next chair over, and Jane, who took my spot when I was done. Ava and I went to find a place to peek out through the curtains.

The venue was setup with a long catwalk and chairs along both sides to seat a few hundred. An upper level had standing room for another few hundred, and I could see college-aged students lined up along the railing. The room was charged, and I glanced up to see the clock tell me what I already knew: we were near starting.

Someone grabbed my arm and pulled me backstage. It was a tall guy wearing black and a mic. “Five minutes to the start of the student showcase,” he told me and Ava.

Ava was practically hyperventilating once again as she fussed with our hems and straps. Looking in the mirror, I swatted her hand away. “A, they’re perfect.”

“But the stitching! Lex, look at this!” I pushed her hands away to peer at the spot to which she’d pointed. Like everything else, it was clean and consistent.

Her look was so agonized I thought I’d need to take matters into my own hands.

I grabbed her and pulled her back toward the hair and makeup area. Sat her down in one of the chairs facing the lit mirrors and stepped in front of her.

“You are the most talented designer I know. In a year everyone is going to be wearing your clothes. In five minutes, you’re about to blow five hundred people’s minds. All the hard work is done. So just calm. The fuck. Down.”

Her eyes were wide but at least she was breathing. “Thanks, Lex. I needed that.”

“I thought so.”

“Now I need to fix your hair.”

“Alright.” I knew she was just fussing, that my hair was still perfect. After we walked back toward the curtain where Jane and Emily were already waiting, I let her “fix” it.

The announcer’s voice sounded in the background. A woman was introducing the student showcase, the sound distorted from being on the other side of the curtains. But I could see her and the runway on a closed-circuit camera mounted by the curtain backstage.

I turned around to look in the mirror one last time to ensure nothing was out of place. I was falling in love with this green dress. The nude heels made my legs look a million miles long. My face still looked like mine, but elevated—the slate shadow made my eyes pop and the pale gloss added to the ethereal look.

The music started and the first designer’s models were lined up. They looked very space-age. By contrast, Ava’s designs were a mix of whimsical with urban chic. The lines were clean and edgy, but pretty details and fabrics made the pieces feminine.

We were the second designer. I could hear the crowd applaud for the first, then suddenly it was our turn. My stomach knotted a bit but with excitement, not anxiety.

Emily was to walk first, then Jane. I watched them on the backstage monitor. Emily had actually modeled in high school, so rocked it out. Emily’s long, thick blond hair was pinned up into a high ponytail with braids like mine peeking out of it. The silver skirt and gray tank were gorgeous and wearable at the same time. That was Ava’s magic—her designs had a youthfulness to them without feeling immature or frivolous. Most people who saw her designs thought she was much older, because she had the discipline to get things just right and not overdo it.

Em strode down the runway, which was done in smoky taupes and reds to look like fall leaves. She hit a couple poses that looked natural rather than forced at the end, sticking a hand in the otherwise-invisible pocket of her short skirt before pivoting and walking back. Every step she took looked like she owned the place. Glancing over at Ava’s face, excited and nervous, I could tell she thought the same.

Jane did an amazing job for her first time. While she didn’t have Emily’s confidence, her walk was consistent and her look was so exotic people might not have noticed. Ava nudged me toward the curtain and I pulled my eyes away from the monitor. “Get ready!” she said.

I could feel myself getting into it. It was hard not to get caught up in the feeling of it all. Stepping through the curtain I saw all the people. Just walk. And I did, my green dress swinging lightly with my steps.

It was a total rush, knowing hundreds of eyes were on me. With the bright lights, I couldn’t make out a single person but didn’t care. I felt like a rock star. I wanted to pinch myself—say are we doing this? Will this really be our life?

I re-entered the backstage area and high-fived Ava. Her eyes were lit up. A moment later she looked startled, and someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and a guy about my height with my heels on, with spiky platinum hair, electric-green eyes, and several piercings down his ear, was standing there.

“Walk for me,” Blake Evans said.

“Um, excuse me?”

“Leslie sent me over. I have a line set to go in an hour. Walk for me.”

“Tonight? Can we talk in a few minutes? I just have to finish this thing.”

“Sure, as long as you say yes.”

My head was swimming. It was super flattering and I didn’t think Ava would mind if I did another lap of the runway.

“Then yes!”

After all the models had walked, the student designers stepped out on the stage with their models in tow. The emcee walked out with a mic.

“Tonight we have a special honor to give out. The judges’ choice and people’s choice awards.” The first went to a guy named Archie who Ava knew but didn’t hang with. His clothes were definitely more out there than ours. “The people’s choice will be announced later once we’ve had a chance to tally the votes in the boxes.” The emcee gestured to them.

“Now everyone give a big hand for our young designers, and welcome our LA showcase!” Ava, Jane, Emily, and I hugged and went backstage to change.

Blake was doing a work collection. He put me in a swingy gray jacket and slouchy black pants, with high over-the-knee black boots. They changed the hair slightly, leaving the braids but converting it into a high pony. The makeup got stripped and redone in smoky earth tones. I got to keep the glossy lip. I loved it all. The clothes were a completely different style than Ava’s, but they were stunning and feminine.

After my second walk of the night I carefully stepped out of Blake’s designs and replaced them with a gold shift dress that might’ve been glam but felt mundane after the amazing pieces I’d already worn that night. Blake had grabbed me, kissed my cheek, and pressed a card into my hand.

Still floating, I made my way up to the top deck to look for Ava. Instead I ran smack into Jake.

He looked down at me, his face so familiar though I’d barely set eyes on him in six months. It struck me that he wasn’t as tall as Dylan. “I didn’t expect to see you here,” I said.

“Emily told me about it. I wanted to support you guys.” He leaned over to give me an awkward hug. It was actually kind of sweet. I made a mental note to murder Em.

“We did pretty good, huh?” Now that the hurt had gone away, talking to him again was easier.

“You did amazing. Both of you.”

I smiled and looked around.

“Listen, Lex. I didn’t have a chance to say it before, and I totally understand why you didn’t respond to my texts. But I’m sorry about the way things ended. And I was hoping we could be friends. Would that be too weird?”

I sucked in a big breath and thought about it. I was surprised the animosity I’d been harboring for so many months had mostly evaporated. We’d probably never be close, but I didn’t want to avoid him anymore. “Sure, Jake. Friends.”

His face split into a smile. “Great. So … can we grab coffee or something sometime?”

I glanced over his shoulder and saw Ava and Dylan talking. I hadn’t known whether he’d come. Ava was animated, probably recounting her victory. His gaze found mine, locked, before dragging back to her.

“Yeah, OK,” I said absently, my attention far past him.

When Dylan saw Jake talking to me he hugged Ava quickly and let her go off the other way while he made a beeline for us. My eyes begged him to remember our rules. He pulled up between me and Jake, even though I wanted him closer.

“Déjà vu.” He said, looking between us.

“Jake and I were just talking. Thanks for coming, Jake. It was good to see you.” And this time, it was. My smile was genuine as he turned and walked away.

Dylan turned to me without saying anything for a moment. The wheels were turning. “Should I be worried?” he asked finally.

“He was just being nice. I think he feels badly about how he left things.” I still was a bit uncomfortable with Dylan since our fight about Travesty two days ago. We hadn’t broken up, but we hadn’t cleared the air either. I wasn’t sure I could be with him if he didn’t believe in me. Even Jake, who had zero stake in this, was doing a better job of feigning support at the moment.

“And what about how we left things?”

I sighed and looked around, unsure of what to say. Dylan saved me.

“OK, let me start. I need to say two things. First, you were unbelievable.” His eyes warmed, and I knew he didn’t just mean the dress and the hair and the makeup.

“Thank you.”

“And second …” he trailed off for a moment before starting again. “I didn’t come here to fight. I wanted to see you. But can I ask you something and not have you take it the wrong way?” I looked at him warily. Waited.

“Why does this matter so much to you?” He gestured around us. “Why do you want to make this your life? It doesn’t strike me as you. It’s just a bunch of pretty clothes on pretty girls. It’s not real. You’re so much more than this.”

I tried to quell the rising emotion and instead channel it into an explanation. He did mean well. “It matters because me and Ava, together, we’re creating something beautiful for people. Something they can wear on the first day of school, or on a date with their boyfriend, or out with friends. Something to live their lives in, work in, play in. And no matter where they go, they’re going to feel special. They deserve to.” I could tell Dylan was trying to understand. “I may not be the artistic genius Ava is, but it means something to me. It’s a feeling that we can share with girls everywhere.”

I could sense it might be hard to grasp. He looked at me with those intense brown eyes.

“But fashion doesn’t seem like a real industry.”

“It’s a pretty real industry. Just because we don’t build things out of concrete doesn’t mean it isn’t.” I pulled the card from my clutch. “This guy just offered me five thousand dollars to model for him.” Dylan’s brows furrowed. “And before you say anything, he’s legit.” I smiled.

Dylan’s eyes widened a little. “I guess so. What did you say?”

“It was tempting, but I said I was pretty busy getting Ava’s and my line up and running. I asked if I could look him up to get some feedback, and that maybe I would take him up on his offer once we get Travesty rolling.”

Dylan was mulling this over, and it looked like he gave in. I didn’t know whether we were on the same page, but something shifted. His face, looking more tanned than usual in the darkness, softened into a smile that was just for me. Dylan glanced around casually before leaning over so his mouth brushed my ear, just once. The way he did it wouldn’t have appeared suspicious even had anyone seen. I could feel his dark hair graze my cheek. “You look like a fantasy tonight,” he murmured. I shivered and he pulled back to look into my eyes. “Can I take you home?”

I wanted to. So badly. “I’d like that. But tonight’s about me and Ava.”

His face fell a little. “Are we OK?”

“We’re good.” I reached out and took his hand in the darkness. Gave it a squeeze.

He nodded like he understood, or at least was trying to. “OK, well you guys have a good night. Don’t get into too much trouble.” Dylan receded to the background.

An hour later they announced that Ava had won the people’s choice award. She and I were jumping up and down because we were so excited. Turned out the award also came with a one-thousand-dollar prize, which Ava and I split, both of us deciding to put the money toward our trip to New York this winter.

I texted Dylan to tell him.

Congrats. And so it begins …

I smiled.

Goodnight Dylan

I’m glad you came

Goodnight Lex. I’m glad I came too

The rest of the night was a blur, but a happy one. We drank way too much champagne and fell into bed in the early hours of the morning.

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