While You Were Pretending
Updated: Mar 29
Content And Cover Photo: © Rosalie Thorne
Editor – Kathryn Maurer
While You Were Pretending
By Rosalie Thorne
This is my love letter to all of those involved in creating one of my favorite films
While You Were Sleeping. Inspired by the 1995 classic, written by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric Lebow, directed by Jon Turteltaub, starring Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman, this story is a sort of sequel. Hope you enjoy it!
“When you fall in love, it’s temporary madness.”
- Louis de Bernieres
Okay, there are three things I remember about my childhood, I just don’t remember it being so important.
First, I would be with my parents, and my mom would get this far-off look and say: “Life doesn’t always turn out as you planned.” (I wished I realized she was talking about my life.)
But that wouldn’t stop the three of us from going on adventures. We’d pack up the van or buy train tickets, only a handful of times did we fly. All the while, my parents would tell me of all the great and exotic places they’d been over the years, instilling upon me a deep-seated wanderlust.
Some of my favorite memories, though, were when I had one-on-one time with my mom and she would tell me love stories of her and my father. The hopeless romantic in me would ask: “When did you really, truly know you were in love?” And she would answer, “When he gave me the world.” (At first just a Snowglobe, then their honeymoon gave her the first stamp in her passport.)
The last piece of the puzzle was my best friend, Peyton. Only a couple houses down in our Chicago suburb, we’d been best friends our whole lives. Practically siblings, I really have two sets of parents. Any memory worth keeping had her as my partner in crime.
Well… the first time I saw Her, she didn’t exactly give me the world. It was actually a Christmas cookie, even if it was two weeks until December 25th. I instantly looked forward to the rest of winter break. She had come into town to see her family, (Peyton and her mother), and every time I got to see her was just perfect. It wasn’t exactly a fairytale meeting, but this is how things didn’t go as planned.
“I love how this is supposed to be a family affair and we always get stuck decorating the whole tree by ourselves,” Peyton laughs.
On a tiny, wooden stepladder, I’m curled around her family’s tree, trying to finish stringing the last of the lights. “It’s a bit of tradition now, don’t you think?”
Knees sinking into the ancient carpet, she peels the plastic lid off a tub of random ornaments, and she shrugs, “I just thought this year might be different.”
After plugging in the last strand, I look at her before climbing down. “Why? Because we’re in college now?”
Though she wouldn’t admit it, she’s looking for a very particular ornament to put on the tree first, believing it would bring luck. Opening the second bin, she still can’t find it. “Well, yeah! We went off the college this year and we’re back for the holidays. Surely that would mean our time home is more valuable.”
I tousle her dirty blonde hair before sitting on the brand-new sofa. Missing the squish of the old one, it takes me a moment to get comfortable. “You’d hate if your family was up your ass, twenty-four-seven.”
But she laughs, her shoulders easing. “You’re not wrong.”
Sunshine is still streaming through the bay windows, even though we’re getting into the afternoon; a lucky day of blue skies and slightly warmer weather. The weeks’ worth of snow is mostly melted, but it’s still cold enough to enjoy a fire. It seems like we might have a white Christmas this year, after all.
“Still want to order Mister Wong’s?” I ask after looking at my watch.
Peyton still hasn’t found the ornament. “Uh, yeah, sure.”
Slowly scrolling through my contacts, I figure we’re going to order our usual. “Why don’t you pick a different ornament?”
Suddenly there’s a small gasp and I look down at her. She holds shattered pieces of ceramic in her palm, “Fuck.”
Examining the tragedy, I can tell it’s not super-glue-able. “Damn….”
In typical Peyton fashion, where showing emotions is a crime, she simply shakes her head. “Guess we’ll have to pick a new ornament after all,” but the way she says it sounds like it’s a curse on both our houses.
Misses Pullman, who I will never call Midge no matter how much she asks, leans against the counter while picking at leftover chow mein. Even though over the years, her blonde hair has turned white, her smile wrinkles have deepened, her clothes have filled out a little more, she is still the same second-mom she’s always been. Treating me like the son she’s never had, Peyton and I can tell she still hopes we’ll get together.
“One of these days you’ll be getting your own place and you’ll have to decorate it all on your own.”
Opening another can of Coke, Peyton shoots me a look, “Shouldn’t be too bad, we’re practically pros.”
I chuckle and crack open a fortune cookie. “Between here and my house, we’ve got ten years' worth of experience.”
Peyton slips into the chair across from me, “At least.”
Neither of us looks up when her step-brother asks, “Can I finished the Chinese food?”
Knowing well enough by now I’ve already wrapped my leftovers and have them sitting in front of me on the table. Peyton, knowing better than to argue with her mom around, replies, “All yours.”
Varsity football captain, Joey is a huge dude, hence all the eating. And he is one of the negatives of coming home for Christmas. We joke that he’s going to do something stupid on his eighteenth birthday and spend the rest of adulthood on probation, but that reality of that isn’t actually that funny. I try to be the voice of reason, having no siblings of my own, but Peyton doesn’t care.
Coming around to the table with whatever scraps he could get, he does an up-nod to me, “Hey, Luke.”
“Didn’t realize you’d be coming home with Pey.”
“Same school, same winter break, was easy enough to catch the same train.”
Mouth full, he speaks anyway, “How is it? Are college girls really that awesome? I can’t wait until next year.”
I purposefully get preoccupied with memes, “Wouldn’t know, haven’t dated anyone.”
He snorts and shakes his head. “Tragic.”
But then I can’t stop myself, “My education is more important, Joey. I kept straight A’s this semester, that’s a four-point-oh. If I had gotten one B that would have dropped my GPA down and would have taken two semesters of straight A’s to get back. There are significantly more important things to worry about than parties and girls and whatever else stupid shit you’re so fascinated by.”
I lift from my chair and give an apologetic look to Misses Pullman. Peyton stands with me, both physically and metaphorically, “He’s right, Joey; you need to get your priorities straight.” She kisses her mom on the cheek, “I’ll be back in a few hours.”
Standing in line at the AMC concessions, we still have plenty of time before we need to be in our assigned seats for the six o’clock showing of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker. A tradition shared between Peyton and me, we’ve gotten to the opening day of all the Star Wars films since The Phantom Menace, from getting out of school on Friday to midnight showings, and now Thursday showings. It’s hard to believe this could be it for a long while.
“There’s still baby Yoda,” she comments, meaning The Mandalorian on Disney Plus.
“True, but,” I gesture around us, “next time we’ll be doing this is twenty-twenty-two with the next Fantastic Beasts.”
We finally get up to the counter, ordering our medium sodas, cheese sticks and chicken fingers, and sweets. As we carefully maneuver through the crowd and get down the stairs, “It’s just another childhood experience that’s getting harder and harder to make happen.”
She laughs and bumps my hip, “You’re so nostalgic, huh?”
Being born at the beginning of Gen Z, I feel closer to being a Millennial. Technically a nineties kid, I wish I’d been born just a few years earlier. The rapid change of technology in my developmental years leaves me yearning for simplicity and structure. Like most people my age – give or take a few years – there’s something utterly appealing about the years before The Age Of Information. A time without hand-held computers, a time without constant distractions, a time before social media… the world wasn’t so big and the world wasn’t so complicated.
“I’m a little bit hipster, you know that.”
She bursts laughing, “Ohh, I know. Believe me, I know. You have this whole literature-loving, soft boy, plant-dad thing going on, with a car that has roll-up windows yet an aux cord, and a massive CD collection for your Walkman.”
I hold the theater door open with my foot, “You love it.”
Though she shakes her head, she’s smiling. “Of course, I do.”
Dead center in the theater, we find our seats aligned under the projector. Our conversation quickly goes away from my aesthetic and into the leaked plot we’d read for the movie. I fully believe Disney did that on purpose, trying to gauge the public’s reaction, but Peyton doesn’t seem to think so. She totally thinks what we’re going to watch will be a surprise, while I’m having doubts.
Just before the movie’s about to start, the theater lights dimming, she leans into me, “Oh, by the way, Jackie’s coming for Christmas.”
Leaning back against the back cushion, I fold my arms tight across my chest. After two-plus hours of being in the dark, the too-bright Steak ‘N’ Shake is making me squint. “Why the Hell is she coming home this year?”
Peyton points an onion ring at me, “Not ‘home’. She made that choice to live with Dad when she was ten, that’s her home. I have no fucking idea why she wants to visit Mom this Christmas.”
I scratch at my brow, “I can’t even remember the last time she visited your mom at all. What… the Thanksgiving she was in eighth grade?”
She nods, “Yeah, because that next year she was a Freshman; high school was the final straw on the camel’s back….”
“Then why now?”
She digs a huge spoonful of shake. Taking her time with the whipped cream and cherry, she leans then back against the booth. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I wish I could say I don’t care, either, but you know how she makes me feel.”
Which is true. The word inadequate summing it all up. When her parents divorced, everything had gotten turned upside down. Not to say they had been rich, but they had been very comfortable for many years, and then Mister Gallagher left Midge for another woman, choosing another family over his own.
Jackie, who now very purposefully goes by her full name Jaqueline, followed her dad. In doing so, they avoided all the struggling and hardships Midge and Peyton had to go through. On top of that, any time Jackie had come to see her mom or messaged Peyton or posts anything on social media, it just oozes a better-than-thou attitude. Like she didn’t want to be associated with her original family, leaning into the life and style of her step-mom. Her hair always done just so, fake nails, perfect makeup, buying clothing from stores where a pair of jeans are roughly seventy dollars and a sweater is almost a hundred… she lacks authenticity, she lacks a personality.
I lean forward on the table, lowering my voice to comfort her, “Com’on Peyton, don’t let her get to you. You’re doing amazing! Your family is awesome, you’re kicking ass in school, and you’ve got me!”
She empties her Coca-Cola glass then gives me a hard nod. “That’s actually something I wanted to talk to you about?”
I cock a brow, “What?”
She taps her thumb on the table, then her fingers flex my direction. “You – me having you. I’m wondering if you’ll be my boyfriend while she’s here.” After she sees my change of expression, she throws her hands up and laughs “Fake boyfriend! Fake boyfriend until she leaves.”
My brows come together and my mouth opens. Unsure what to say, I close it. I tilt my head, looking around the busy restaurant, not sure what to make of such an odd request. How could that possibly help?
“She doesn’t have a boyfriend right now,” she tries to explain. “I guess she and her high school sweetheart finally broke up before the start of class this year. She says she’s loving single life on Facebook and Instagram, but she also posts on her Tumblr how hard it’s been and how much happier she is in a relationship.
“Now that I can prove my grades are comparable to hers and she’ll be able to see how great Mom and Eric are doing, I don’t know… it just seemed like the last perfect step to put her in her place.”
I look into her brown eyes, usually so soft and warm like hot cocoa. She can tell me every which way how this whole situation with her dad and Jackie messes her up, but I’ll never truly understand.
Jackie had proven she didn’t want to be a part of this family, my extended family. What harm could it do, anyway? “Okay… sure, I guess? As long as we don’t go overboard, it should be fine?”
She recognizes my hesitance, “I already talked it over with my mom. She didn’t exactly like it, but she says if that would make me feel better, so be it. So, my family will play along.”
I nod, already unable to believe I’m agreeing to this. “Right… and it’s just for Christmas.”
“Maybe New Year’s.”
“Maybe New Year’s.”
Flames crackling in the fireplace, heat still on throughout the house, I actually have to open the living room windows. Mom laughs a little, pushing up the thick sleeves over her oversized sweater. “It is a bit toasty, huh?”
Dad walks in with one of his hand-crafted favorites, a wood tray, holding a pitcher of lemonade and extra glasses. “This should help.”
She kisses him on the cheek, then goes back to fanning out the silver tinsel in her hand. “How was the Pullman’s this afternoon? Is Peyton happy to be home?”
I reach into her hand for a few strands of silver, “Not as happy as I am.”
Which is true. We are one of those still-together parents and only-child families where we’re like The Three Musketeers, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. As much as I love school, and getting a scholarship to a university was phenomenal, I’m a little bummed I didn’t get to do the first two years at the local community college. And as much as I can’t wait to travel the world, I understand the value and sanctity of home.
Mom gives me a look from under her wispy black bangs. Having been an only child herself, having been family-less until she met Dad, she totally understands how powerful the sense of belonging can be. She used to tell me she fell in love with Dad’s family just as much as him.
Dad hands mom a glass of lemonade, then asks, “What’s going on with Peyton? Is Joey causing problems?”
I chuckle, “Always. But, actually… it’s Jackie.”
Mom hovers by the tree with a pallet of ornaments, “What does Jacqueline have to do with anything?”
Sitting on the bench in front of the bay window, I hold my sweating glass in my lap. “She’s coming to town, apparently.”
My parents look between themselves. Dad, like always, chooses not to comment in a gossiping manner. Mom, on the other hand, is slow and thoughtful before responding, “And how is Peyton feeling about this?”
“Not great. Sometimes it seems like all the work she’s done, all that time spent in therapy, hasn’t done shit.”
Mom sighs, “Well… all we can do is try and support her.”
I turn to look into the dark street, watching the falling snow glide through the air. “I know, I am.” Mary jumps into my lap and loudly purrs as soon as I start petting through her long fur. “It just seems like Peyton is going to use me as a buffer while Jackie’s around.”
“I know she’s your best friend,” Dad comments softly while decorating the higher parts of the tree. “But you can say ‘no’ to her.”
Mom reaches into the bin on the coffee table, pulling out the stain-glass star. “Holidays can be stressful… just make sure you’re not being too selfless.”
But then subject is dropped quickly. Continuing tradition, the three of us gather around the finished Christmas tree. Dad has turned off all the lights and Mom holds the tree light’s switch in her hand. There’s a “one, two, three” and our tree is lit! The soft yellow glow filling the room, bringing a calmness and serenity.
This time of year – this tradition is probably where my love of string lights comes from. When I couldn’t sleep, I would stealthily make my way downstairs to find the tree still lit. Sitting in the armchair, in the comforting glow, I would find that my busy mind would actually quiet. Whether it’s the ones strung around my room or the Edison Bulb in my glass lamp, I much rather live in the dim, golden illumination. It’s easier on my eyes, it’s easier on my mind, it resonates the winter vibe of pure hearts and quiet nights. Something seemingly so insignificant has become a fundamental part of who I am.
“Dad put her up in a hotel, can you believe it? She’s not even staying here for Christmas! What, the pull-out couch in the den isn’t good enough?” Peyton is already steaming with everything to do with Jackie and she isn’t even here yet. “And it’s that fancy place down on Seventh. The pictures from her Instagram looks like she’s got a fucking suite. King bed, marble bathroom, her fancy fucking dresses hanging in the closet.” She gestures, twitching her wrist. “Whatever, it’s like her life has to be Insta-worthy or she’ll lose her mind.”
Having been listening to this rant all afternoon, I let out a Geralt Of Rivia type grunt.
Swaying back and forth on her computer chair, I just watch her aggressively make her bed. “So… why are you so worried about deep-cleaning your room, now, all of a sudden?”
She doesn’t look at me, fluffing her pillows instead. “I always do a Marie Kondo thing before the new year.”
I eye her bedroom carefully, even the pale grey walls looked scrubbed. The black bookcases and cubed shelves are thoroughly dusted and the rose and thorn tapestry that reads ‘I Can’t Be Good All The Time’ above her bed looks freshly laundered (as does her navy bedding). Her ebony wood side tables look waxed; and instead of being covered with junk, are organized in a minimal fashion with candles, fake succulents, her lamp on one, and her catch-all dish on the other. The matching ebony dressers don’t have peeked open drawers with wads of fabrics on the carpet, and I had to help Peyton do the ‘spark joy’ test with every single item of thrifted and hand-made clothing she has.
“Usually after Christmas, usually on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day,” driving my point.
She takes her Juul off the charger and hits it. Finally stopping with all the flighty movement, she sits on the edge of her bed. “So, I’m doing a little bit early, no big deal.”
“You’ve also changed your outfit three times already.”
She tugs at the hem of her black turtleneck, looking down at her dark skinny jeans. Her fingers then brush over the pendent of the silver necklace her dad had given her, (the same time he’d given Jackie an identical one in gold). “It’s a girl thing.”
This is not an untrue stereotype, but very unlike Peyton. Peyton was always able to make her second-hand clothes look like million bucks and carried herself with such confidence, no one questioned it. This is the first time in a long time I’ve seen her so nervous, and the first time that it’s not boy-related.
“She’s just coming over for dinner, it’s not a big deal.”
She stands up, eyes searching for something new to clean or rearrange. “Mom’s freaking out about that, too. She’s getting all the stuff to make fresh Caesar salad, spaghetti from scratch, picked up name-brand Texas Toast, and even got an apple pie from the bakery. I didn’t even get such a homecoming.”
I stand and bring my hands to her biceps. Getting her to look me in the eye, I coach her into breathing with me. Then, I softly explain, “That’s because you don’t need all that crap. You love your family for who they are, you love spending time with your mom – that’s enough for you. You could live off chow mein and pizza and be the happiest person alive.
“Sure, Jackie is your sister by blood, but she hasn’t been around in five years. She isn’t really a part of this family, really she’s a stranger. And you don’t care about stranger’s opinions, remember?”
She takes another deep breath with me then nods, “You’re right… you’re right.”
“Hey, Misses P!” I kiss her cheek. “Smells wonderful in here.”
“Oh, Luke! Thank you so much, dear. I’ve made sure to make lots so you can take some home to your folks.”
“That would be much appreciated, thanks.” I slip into a chair by the kitchen table, “Dad also said he should have that you-know-what done before Christmas and Mom wanted me to ask if there’s anything she needs to bring to the Christmas Eve party?”
After sliding the cookie sheet of Texas Toast in the oven, she straightens and looks over the counter to me. “Well, maybe some drinks? Peyton said she’s going to bake again this year, and Joey and Eric decided on ordering pizzas.”
Peyton had slid into the chair across from me and was now painting her nails matte emerald. “Pizza? For a Christmas party? What about for Christmas?”
Checking on the meatballs finishing in the sauce, Misses Pullman rolls her eyes. “We’re still having ham and all the fixin’s for Christmas dinner, don’t worry.”
“I just didn’t want anything to change ‘cause….”
Misses Pullman shoots her mom look at her daughter, “‘Cause what?”
I look at Peyton and pray she doesn’t start something when Jackie is supposed to be here in ten minutes. She notices my gaze, “‘Cause I went to college. I love our traditions, that’s all.”
Her mom is a smart woman, though, and asks “Peyton, would you please go set the table? Six total tonight.”
I get up to assist but then Misses Pullman catches my eye, “Actually, Luke, would you mind running home and grabbing your mom’s salad bowl?”
“Sure thing! I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Coming through the back door into the kitchen, I slip my boots quickly off before giving the bowl to Misses Pullman. From the look of it, she’s already moved the toast to the dining table, and she already has all the other table settings on the counter for everyone to serve themselves. Now that she can quickly toss the salad, we’re just about ready for dinner.
I hear laughter and music coming from the living room but ask “Do you need any help?”
She waves me away, “Go have fun! It’ll be another ten minutes or so.”
Turning the corner into the entryway, I run into someone. Taking a step back, I comment, “Shit, I’m sorry.”
I see a mass of honey hair falling forward and delicate hands collecting a cookie tin off the floor. When she stands up, Jackie smiles, “Oh, gosh, it’s okay.” She holds the Christmas cookies in the air between us. “Want one?”
After I take one, her grey-blue eyes look up at me with a softness, a sincerity in her expression that I don’t recognize. “How’ve you been, Luke?”
“Well, thanks, and yourself?”
She slides on the wood floor with her socks, moving out of the walkway. “Well enough, I –”
But then Peyton pokes her head in, “Luke! Hey you, took you long enough.” She stands by me, wrapping her arm around my waist, “Let’s go grab our seats, yeah?”
But my eyes haven’t left Jackie’s face. Her clear, pale skin; her natural lips a soft pink; the way the thin gold chain of her necklace falls on her collar bones, and the pearl sits just above the center of her bosom. The light pink sweater she’s wearing hugs her perfectly and brings out the natural rosy-ness of her cheeks. And when she walks by us into the kitchen, I catch the wonderful floral, sweet, and slightly musky scent of her perfume.
This is not the same girl from when I was in seventh grade. This doesn’t even seem like the same girl Peyton and I have blindly hated for years.
Everyone with warm apple pie and melting vanilla ice cream, we chat across the dining room tab