I take a seat, mostly flop, onto the trusty, old couch backstage at the Troubadour. I’m a little tired, a lot disappointed, and still a little sweaty. It’s gross, but the best that I could do was a whore bath: a few paper towels and the grungy sink of any public restroom. A few swipes of deodorant, some body spray, and a fresh tank-top followed, so it’s under control, but I still feel kind of sticky.
I get that sweating is necessary, but does it have to be so disgusting?
I glance around to be sure that no one’s watching when I lift my arm to check. As far as I’m concerned, I, Ashley Davies, do not sweat. And as if to prove this point, there are no stains or foul odors that I can find, so I’m mollified, though a shower is in order once we get home. That won’t be for several hours yet, and I’ll probably be a mess again before we leave, but I will fight it until the bitter end.
We just finished opening for Manchester Orchestra. Well, we opened for the opener band who is currently kicking off to open for the real opener band who will be opening for Manchester. There’s a lot of opening going on, but this is a first in a long line of shows that Cyn has signed us up for, and I have to say, it’s a hell of a way to start. I love Manchester and I plan to be in that mosh-pit when they take the stage in about three hours.
Thrashing around will be good therapy to bleed off some of my upset. Our show sucked. The band’s chemistry has been thrown off by Jac and Jon’s never-ending battle of wills. They still haven’t made peace and neither will talk about it. Everyone’s tried to draw them out, but it’s no use. Jon still says nothing’s wrong and Jac is still tight as a clam.
Whatever it is, they’re ignoring it, which makes it difficult to rehearse or find the energy while playing. No one missed a note or a beat during the show, and the crowd was pretty thin so little damage was done, but everything about it was markedly lack luster.
Music is all about emotions, and when those are off, everyone can feel it. It’s the equivalent of Celine Dione head banging during one of her performances. So take that in reverse, and you have my problem. They were like automatons, standing stiffly in place instead of thrashing around.
People are only now starting to trickle in, and I suppose I’m not so worried about what people think anyway. I’m not looking for fame or fortune; fame sounds intrusive and I already have a fortune, but this is the one thing that’s kept me alive, kept me going through everything that’s happened: the feeling that I get when I play and sing.
And I’m not ready to give that up, to let it slip through my fingers. I want to feel the energy of a crowd, and the bigger the crowd the more intense that feeling is. It’s one of the few things in my life that I got to keep when I lit that proverbial match, and I refuse to lose it now, especially when we’ve worked so hard to score these gigs at one of the most famous venues in Los Angeles. The fact is that they have to figure their shit out before Cyn puts us in a prime slot, if we can even get one now.
Ethan was so angry that he followed me right into the ladies room after the show. He couldn’t wait to rip my ass open and then tell me to fix it. So I nodded and tuned him out while I took care of the sweat until he was forcibly removed from the premises by a very happy, bald, and beefy bouncer whom I’ve come to understand is called Tiny.
I almost envied him to manhandle Ethan that way, but I know that I shouldn’t. Ultimately, Ethan’s just doing what I pay him to do, and he does a good job, but it’s annoying. It’s not my job to fix Jac and Jon, and even if it were, I’m not really sure how. Although, I do have a few ideas on how to stick it to them for the trip, ruining this show, and sending Ethan breathing down my neck.
Spencer sits, well flops, down on the couch next to me and starts to put her camera away. God, she got the concert on film…
“I saw that,” she says, zipping up the bag.
I glance over at her confused. “Saw what?”
I’m going to have to destroy that memory card…
“Your underarm troubles.”
Of course she saw and of course she knows my aversion to sweat. She also knows that I do, in fact, sweat. This will not do. I glare at her before deciding that retribution is in order, and lift my arm in preparation to shove it in her face. She shrieks and fights me off but I know that she got a good whiff before I back off of her victoriously.
She’s curled up as far away from me as she can get on the beat-up three-seater, making her displeasure at my actions known with a sour expression. But she’s only cross because she didn’t want an armpit in her face. Which, I mean, no one likes that. But unlike me, she has no such aversion to sweat. In fact, she once told me that she found it kind of hot when I got sweaty, especially while playing guitar.
I still don’t know how I feel about that…
“That’s repugnant,” she says.
I pick at my fingernails. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You just stuck your sweaty armpit in my face…”
I glance over at her. “I stuck my armpit in your face, but I don’t sweat.”
I barely have time to brace before she thwacks me with one of the throw pillows, and it’s so hard that it dazes me for a moment.
“Hey,” I say, tugging the pillow from her hands.
She resettles herself happily.
“That was uncalled for.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she mocks. I glare at her. She’s not allowed to do that to me, but damn if she didn’t anyway. “But you do smell good.”
I nod, deciding to let it go. “Damn right.”
Take that, sweat, you fucking bastard…
“So,” she says. “You about ready to go?”
I’m not sure I heard her right. “Why would we leave without seeing Manchester?”
“I’ve never heard them. Are they good?”
The world tunnels in around her like one of those creepy horror movie scenes, and I gasp. She might as well have just told me that she sees dead people.
She just shrugs and a part of my very soul dies. God, do the lesser beings have to be so ignorant? This is… a travesty.
Getting to my feet, I hold my hands out to her expectantly, and while hesitant, she takes them and I pull her up. I grab her seriously heavy camera bag as well as my backpack, and start to pull her to the backdoor. Lecturing her on the amazingly talented song-writing that is Manchester just wouldn’t be enough. So, instead, I opt for the incredible sound system in my Humvee with a fully loaded iPod and gale force air conditioner.
Today is a record breaking ninety-six degrees for February, and it’s the hottest point of the day: sunset. So it’s an immense relief when I’m done stowing our items and that initial cold blast of air hits me squarely in the face. Normally I like the heat, but not when I have to jump around for an hour on a sticky stage in a semi-full room of equally sweaty people.
Even Spencer lets out a groan and slouches in the leather seat. And it only gets better when Manchester starts to strangle out of the speakers, so I turn it up and let the cool air and gain wash over us.
Perhaps strangle isn’t a word that would inspire people to listen, but it’s on point. The lead singer sounds like he’s choked-up or maybe just drunk. He slurs, but it’s just… amazing, awesome… amasome? It just works with their sound. I couldn’t imagine it being any other way. It’s kind of like Bob Dylan. The man sounds like he’s talking out of his nose, but he’s still the Godfather of spoken word and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
She listens and I watch her listen, feeling slightly smug as she clearly enjoys it, though I can tell that she’s not in love. Music doesn’t affect her the way that it does me, and in the same way, movies don’t affect me as much. Still, she’s enjoying it as much as she is prone to do, at least until it switches to the next song, which happens to be one of the saddest songs ever written.
By the name, I Can Feel a Hot One, it’s an easy song to dismiss or believe that it’s yet another sex song. I mean, every band has one. Even I wrote one recently. We’ve only practiced it a couple of times, but it’s one of those upbeat songs that makes everyone want to bounce around and, of course, get laid.
What can I say? I’ve been feeling… amorous lately. And I know that it’s all due to Spencer. No, I don’t mean that seeing her in short skirts and skin-tight tank tops has had a sexual influence on me, though it has, but that’s not the point.
At first, having her back in my life made things so much worse because of how jilted and awkward everything felt. And of course, there was Carmen. But for the last couple of weeks, since the trip where I finally laid my love for her to rest, things have been looking up.
I’m not stupid. I know that there are no take-backs or mulligans when it comes to matters of the heart. I know that I’ll always love Spencer, that a part of me will always solidly belong to her. But I’ve been trying to push past that, or maybe through it. I’m no longer seeking anything more than what’s right in front of me, and what’s in front of me is my best friend, the person who knows me best in this world.
I think she feels it too, this shift in our dynamic, and I think that it’s helped her get through some of her own pain. She can actually go days without crying or disappearing into that headspace that makes her dark and moody.
It still happens, but not nearly as often, and when it does, we sort of have and unspoken agreement to stop what we’re doing and move away from those pitfalls. As a result, she and I are getting back to that basic space, the almost plutonic plane of just being happy and comfortable around each other.
When we got home, we somehow settled into a routine, as if it had always been that way. I had been nervous and apprehensive about how it would play out, but it wasn’t what I expected at all. It was so much better, though almost mundane really. We spend our time talking about everything and nothing, but nothing too heavy because we’re avoiding pitfalls. Sometimes we watch movies or play with the dogs or even plan upcoming trips, like Mardi Gras, which is next on the list.
Of course we still do things without each other. I still play music and she’s really sunk into her own passions, her camera once again firmly attached to her hand. Only this camera is far more advanced than the one of yester years. It sits on her shoulder now and it’s worth a down payment on a house; it also weighs about fifty pounds. But no matter what we’re doing, she’s cataloging it, even grocery shopping, which I do now to both mine and Kyla’s great amazement.
As it turns out, I find anything fun if I’m doing it with Spencer.
By all accounts, it’s good at home, really good. The house feels full; my life feels full. I even have a fur baby, something I never really thought I’d like to have. He may not be mine on paper, but Jetsam likes me best. Spencer is fairly upset with me about that. I didn’t even have to ply him with yummy things either. He simply chose me as his human.
She says that I spoil him, but that’s not true. I’m not sure why really, but he follows me everywhere. He is, in fact, one of the few people that I allow into my music room, and when I leave him, I feel like an asshole because he gets so pathetic: all big, droopy eyes and short but heartfelt whines. But I always come back and he always lets me know that he forgives me.
I’m trying to teach him how to high-five, and he’s getting there slowly but surely. It feels like a necessity at this point. He really likes Sheezus, but she doesn’t like him so much. So when he romps with her and sends her terrified up Kyla’s leg, I want to give him a high-five because, well, I like irritating Kyla. He and I are alone in this merriment, but that’s okay. Two against the world is just fine by me.
The situation seems to be working for all of us. I can tell that Spencer’s feeling better, and I know that I am, despite the fact that Kyla and I still aren’t speaking to each other. And yes, it bothers me, but I’m not going to rock the boat. I’m starting to feel things, good things, like a desire to move forward and of course, amorous comes to mind yet again.
But things have been going well and I don’t want that to change. I intrinsically know that talking to her is only going to start a fight. We’re on different sides of this equation, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that there is no middle ground. There are certain things that she’s going to push, and no matter what it is, I’m going to push back. But until there’s a reason for us to clash, there’s no point in talking or dwelling on it, and there hasn’t been a reason to clash.
And that’s why I’m a little frustrated that this song has to play now. It’s killing the vibe. I mean, the whole album is upbeat and fun for the most part, except for this one fucking song. And sure, they have other slow songs, incredible songs, but this album was supposed to be safe. I guess I just forgot, though I don’t know how I did. This one song has the power to leave a hole in my chest every time.
I move to change it, but Spencer stops me, and with a sigh, I settle in for my fate. And it’s just in time for the most damaging lyrics too: “So I prayed for what I thought were angels, ended up being ambulances. And the Lord showed me dreams of my daughter, she was crying inside your stomach. And I felt love again.”
For such a specific scenario, most anyone can relate in some way because tragedy is tragedy. Being alive means dealing with loss. And while I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child, I do know what it’s like to lose the one person who matters most.
It’s songs like this that make me doubt that anything’s really any better or even just different. Because part of me innately knows that if it were, the loss wouldn’t be so easily drudged up or pang so deeply. But I can’t go there. I want to be happy. I want to be okay. I want all of those things and more for Spencer, and there’s no reason to do this, especially not now. So, I turn the car and player off, and this time Spencer lets me.
The utter quiet that follows isn’t the kind that’s stifling so much as heavy, but I’m not going to sit under it, and I’m not going to leave her alone under it either. It’s our agreement. I get out and go around to her side to open her door.
“Come on,” I say. “Now that you’ve been properly educated, it’s time to fuck around until you are fully inducted. Then you take your exam.”
“My exam,” she asks, knowing full well that I’m fighting the downward spiral, and she’s just as grateful for it.
I nod as seriously as I can. “Yes, you will finish out the lesson with an internship in the mosh-pit – with yours truly – and then, on the way home, you will be quizzed.”
She smiles slyly and shuts the door. “And what type of exam are talking here, oral, clinical, what?”
I lock the car with the keyfob and look at her aghast. “Why, Spencer Carlin, did you just proposition your teacher?”
“Well, I want to get the best grade possible.”
“I cannot be bought,” I raise my chin.
She chuckles, and the sound is one of knowing a secret. “Whatever. We both know that a good stroke is a sure-fire way to win you over.”
The way she said that – playful but laced with venom – makes me wonder what this secret is, or what she thinks it is.
“I’ll have you know that I take music very seriously.”
And I do. It’s pretty much my life.
“Okay, so throw the book at me, Professor. Or is it the album cover in this scenario?”
I grin, not only because I love her wit, but because I adore how spirited she can be, especially when she’s more confident. If nothing else is really certain, I’m looking at proof that she’s becoming more and more like the person that I knew, only maybe better with age and experience. I like her bold.
“Album cover will suffice.” I glance down at her mini-skirt and heels. “Although, I don’t know if you’ll survive the internship with your modesty intact. Not that there’s much to begin with.”
Mosh-pits are not for the faint of heart, and when she’s wearing next to nothing, all curves and exposed skin, I’m certain that someone will take advantage. It’s the mob mentality. Besides, when you leave pretty things out in the open, someone’s going to want to touch them. That’s just human nature.
She stops and looks down before giving me a coy smile. “Why? I’m practically dual-wielding daggers on the end of my feet. I’m sure I can hold them off.”
She’s not kidding. Those heels are easily six inches.
She looks at my skin-tight tank, skinny hip-huggers, and artfully unlaced combat boots. “You’re definitely more prepared for war, though.”
“I don’t know. You might just bring a stop to the war altogether by driving everyone to distraction.”
And it’s true. Despite her inability to withstand a mosh-pit, everything about what she’s wearing screams, “DANGER,” of the best kind. It’s a little out of character for her. She always used to dress right on that fine line between girl-next-door and slutty, but this is several feet over that line into whore country.
She grins, but keeps her eyes ahead as she reaches for the door handle. “I don’t know. You do a pretty good job of that yourself.”
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that we’re flirting. But surely it’s harmless, right? I mean, we always flirted, didn’t we? I think about that and I’m not so sure. We spent most of our relationship hiding our feelings. I glance at her again and determine that it doesn’t much matter. Things are changing; we’re changing. And it’s been so long since I’ve flirted that it just feels good.
Why not go with it?
Because I’m not sure how to feel about it, not with her anyway. I only know that it’s not super safe territory, and nothing less than that is part of the arrangement. So, a change of direction is in order. And I think I’m ready to make good on my silent threats to Jac and Jon. Besides, it will make Ethan proud. But then fuck him.
“So,” I say. “Ready to fuck around?”
Okay, so that wasn’t my smoothest transition into safe waters, and she grins at me. Is that predatory? I think that it is.
“Uh, um, I mean, are you ready to give tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum a good rousing?”
Okay, so that was no better. I sort of suck at this right now. I sort of suck at this with her. I’ve never failed at speech so much in my life.
But she’s gracious, giving me a curious look without rubbing my nose in my verbal transgressions.
“Jac and Jon,” I clarify.
“Ah,” she says, and while her grin doesn’t fade, I’m happy to accept the bone that she’s throwing me by staying quiet. “You upset about the trip or for messing up the gig?”
“Both,” I say before her words really register. “Wait, you noticed?”
She raises a shoulder in a half-shrug. “There was definitely something… off.”
And I groan. If Spencer noticed then that means that other people noticed. She doesn’t know music like I do or like another musically inclined person would. Not to be harsh, but she’s pretty ignorant in the ways of rock and roll. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Ethan noticed, and I’m certain that Cyn did as well. I was just hoping that it wasn’t so obvious.
So I’m most definitely ready to stick it to Jac and Jon when Spencer opens the door and we step back inside. The backstage area is much more crowded and the whole venue seems to have exploded with noise. The second band has taken to the stage and even they seem louder.
“So what were you thinking,” Spencer shouts at me.
I try to reply but it’s just too loud in here and people keep busily shuffling around us, so I find a dark corner and pull her close to whisper. “Okay, so, first, we’ll snag Jon’s guitar out of her car, clip all the strings, and put it in Jac’s trunk. And then we’ll put something super sticky on Jac’s keys, maybe some-”
Spencer leans back in the cramped space and I rethink this whole dark corner thing. I was trying to get out of the personal realm, but she’s so close now that we’re sharing the same air. She doesn’t seem to notice and I can’t find the will to mind, even as she cuts me off.
“Wait, what? Why would you want to do that?”
What the fuck were we talking about?
“I mean, pranks are… okay, I guess, if you’re twelve. But it seems a little pointless to just further upset them with each other.”
What is she talking about? They’re being asshats. I want to be one back. Yes, it’s immature, but what part of this doesn’t make sense?
“You know what’s going on, right,” she asks.
I frown. I thought they were being weird as like, a lifestyle choice. But somehow, I don’t think that’s what she’s alluding to.
“What do you mean?”
Spencer rolls her eyes. “You seriously haven’t noticed that those two have it bad for each other?”
“What? That’s crazy…”
She adopts a bored tone. “You didn’t notice at New Year that they found carbon copies of each other? Seriously?”
My frown almost hurts at this point, but if I think about it, yeah, I’d noticed that. But that doesn’t mean that they’re in love. I snort. That’s just absurd.
Spencer’s chuckle is a little condescending as she dips her head forward. And I have to gulp, though I’m not sure why.
“Kyla said that she heard them arguing from her room the night before Jon was found sleeping on the couch. She doesn’t know everything that happened because it was a quick fight and she’d been asleep, but Jon said something about a kiss and how it freaked her out. She told Jac that she doesn’t feel that way about her, and even if she did, she doesn’t want a girlfriend. Jac was crushed. She spent the rest of the night crying.”
Spencer’s cheek lightly brushes mine as she pulls back and I find that this corner is unreasonably warm. I may be sweating again. I fight the urge to check.
“I thought you knew, but then you would have if you’d finally talk to your sister,” she admonishes.
Well, holy shit. There are several things that I choose to ignore about what she just said, including but not limited to how tight the skin of my cheek feels, the uncomfortable warmth, and the comment about talking to Kyla. Now, to find the wherewithal to address the items that I’m willing consider: what are we, Fleetwood Mac? Bandmates hooking up is the kiss of death. And, you know, poor Jac…
“So why would you want to add fuel to the fire,” she asks.
“Well, I just thought they were being stubborn. I didn’t realize that they were… you know. I just wanted to make them miserable for it because they’re messing up the band.”
She chuckles. “You can be so clueless sometimes.”
“Thanks,” I say dryly.
“It’s okay,” she reassures sweetly. “I find it endearing.”
I just shake my head, which was a bad idea because our forehead’s touch. I quickly right myself and look for casual ground in what appears to be a sinking island.
“Well, what else can I do? If they keep this up, Cyn’s not going to give us a prime slot and Ethan’s going to have an aneurism.”
Which might just make it worth it, in all honesty…
Spencer’s eyes gleam. “You’ve come to the right place. If there’s one thing I know, it’s terminal bachelorettes with a fear of commitment.”
“Hey,” I say offended. “I was fully committed to you.”
“Who says I was talking about you?”
“Well, who else?”
“Me,” she says, and that doesn’t make any sense to me either.
I know that she was committed to me and then the Sea- I mean, Carmen. I’m trying to get better about that. But still, even she knows that she’s the commitment type.
“Spencer, you’re not a player…”
“No, I’m not, but I refused to allow myself to love someone even when I already did. It’s the same thing, just a different way of doing it.”
I still don’t get it and she rolls her eyes yet again before explaining.
“Remember when I said that I was cruel to Carmen?”
I nod, hating myself for making her go into Carmen territory. It is most definitely not safe.
“Well, after everything she’d done to get me to stop keeping her at a distance, I tried to break it off, over and over again, only one time she didn’t fight me. It was a week later that I saw her with another girl and, well, I’d never felt more jealous in my life.”
She smiles and it seems almost wistful. “That prompted us to get back together. I finally realized that I did love her, despite all of my effort not to, and I couldn’t stand the idea of her being with anyone else. Of course,” she laughs. “That just scared the hell out of me and I tried to break it off yet again when I took the job with Universal. So yes, I’m a commitment type person, and I committed myself to her, but getting to that point where I was willing was next to impossible. I was bound and determined to never love anyone ever again.”
She gets sad, and of course, so do I, but with a deep breath she manages to stay on topic, and this time I’m thankful. “And that’s what Jon needs, to see Jac with someone else, to feel jealous, to have a wake-up call.”
I stare at her dumbly for a moment, trying to determine how she could possibly arrange that because there’s no way that Jac would go for some random chick if she’s as hurt as bad as Spencer says she is. And even if she were willing, said random chick doesn’t deserve to be used.
But then Spencer keeps grinning at me like the Cheshire cat, and I see this for what it is. I see Spencer for what she is. She’s the random chick who’s totally okay with being used. But there’s another problem.
“Spencer, there’s no way. They all think that we’re like… fated. They’ll never buy it.”
She shrugs. “That doesn’t mean that I can’t flirt with Jac and draw Jon out. Jac won’t think anything serious of it for that very reason.”
“But Jon will think the same thing for that very reason,” I counter.
She shakes her head. “No, trust me. The green-eyed monster is stronger than reason.”
I’m still not sold.
“Look,” she says. “It would be different if we were trying to use some poor, unsuspecting girl, but I’m none of those things. This way, no one gets hurt any more than they already are, and things will be settled once and for all. I’m certain that Jon loves Jac too. I was just like her, only less…”
She bobs her head as if considering her next words and I’m reminded of her father. It’s kind of cute.
“Of a slut,” I finish for her.
We both chuckle. “I was going to say promiscuous, but slut works too.”
“Spence, what if Jon just gets angry at you and this whole thing blows up in our faces?”
“It’s going to blow one way or the other. This just gets it over with. Besides, they kind of deserve a little meddling after what they pulled on the trip. They were messing with me too.”
I can’t help but grin at that. They do have it coming…
“Okay,” I say. “If there’s anything you know how to do, it’s be a tease.”
Her mouth drops open and she pokes me in the ribs.
“Thanks a lot,” she says, as I grip her hands to hold them at bay.
“Don’t worry,” I repeat her words from earlier just as sweetly. “I find it endearing.”
She just smiles at that, and we find ourselves quietly absorbing a good moment together. It’s been happening more often lately because of our unspoken agreement to keep each other out of deep water. And it feels amazing, but if we linger too long, things will get weird, and that’s another violation. It doesn’t always work, but we’re on a streak today, and I don’t want to lose it.
I pull her from the corner to look for our group. It takes a few minutes but we finally find Jac, Kyla, and Kate standing near the side-stage watching the band. Jon is chatting up a girl at the stage entrance right next to them.
“Now’s as good a time as any,” I say, giving her a little shove when the space presents itself, and she glares at me over her shoulder before facing forward, smoothing her hands down over her skirt, flipping her hair, and putting a decidedly sexy sway in her hips.
My mouth goes a little dry but I like seeing Spencer this way, and I definitely like the fact that my friends aren’t going to know what’s hit them. I know I sure as fuck don’t. I find a piece of wall to latch onto as I watch, wishing that I had something very, very cold to drink.
I half expected Spencer to lay it on thick, to touch Jac suggestively and lean in close to really make things clear, but she’s better than that, more subtle, and definitely more deadly. She has to lean into Jac because of the noise, but she mostly just starts talking to Jac, and whatever she’s saying is making Jac smile and laugh. It’s an especially loud one of these laughs that gets Jon’s attention.
But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and instead of sticking around to see what it’s all about or reading more into it, Jon snakes her arm over the flavor-of-the-day’s shoulders and together they stalk off to the bathroom. I know all too well what’s going to happen in there, and after a few minutes deliberation, I grab Kate and tug her after me.
She stumbles, but rights herself before faceplanting.
“What the hell, Ash?”
“Just follow my lead, okay,” I say to her over my shoulder unwilling to slow down, at least until I notice Spencer giving us a curious look. I just smile at her in silent communion, and she must get it because she winks her approval.
Kate frowns, but she’s my best friend for a reason.
“Okay…,” she drawls.
I pull us both through the bathroom door and try to locate our targets, which isn’t hard. They weren’t being very quiet until they heard the door open, grunts and moans turning into giggles and sushing sounds.
I pull Kate up to the sinks and take a deep breath, trying to find some hurt to layer into my voice, which also isn’t hard. I have a deep well from which to draw.
“Did you see that,” I ask Kate. “Spencer and Jac?”
Kate’s confused as fuck as she says, “I guess?”
I nod at her slowly and she corrects herself. “I mean, yeah…”
“You don’t think that they’re like, interested in each other, do you?”
The noise from the stall gets even softer and I hear a breathless, “Why are you stopping?”
That seems to drive Jon onward by the heavy breathing that follows. Kate makes a disgusted face but she soldiers on.
“Well, I uh…”
I sigh loudly. “I guess, I mean, Spencer and I are over,” at which Kate snorts but I give her a scathing look that shuts her up. “But it’d just be weird if they hooked up, wouldn’t it?”
And with this Kate finally starts to catch on, though I can see that she’s still confused as to why we’re doing this.
“If they like each other, would that upset you,” she asks me.
“I’m not sure. I mean, I want them both to be happy. I guess if they find that with each other, I can’t really be mad.”
I turn on the faucet and splash at the water, just to make it sound like we have an actual purpose in here, but then a random girl comes out of the back stall and pauses as she watches me, so I turn it off.
“Well,” Kate says. “I’m not supposed to say anything, but Jac told me that she really likes Spencer. She says that she feels like they could have fun, like she understands what Spencer’s going through. But she feels bad because of your history, and the stuff that happened on the trip. If you say anything, she’ll kill me, but I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“When did she tell you this,” I ask, grabbing some towels, way too many in all actuality.
Random girl looks at me again so I step away from the sink so that she cautiously step forward to wash her hands.
“Like, a week ago.”
“Spencer’s been talking about dating again,” I respond solemnly. “We really are over, you know?”
Kate shakes her head and I really want to slug her in the arm, but then, as if by some miracle, Spencer pokes her head in the bathroom and asks, “Have you guys seen Jac?”
“No,” we chorus.
“Oh, I thought she came in here. Okay, well tell her I’m looking for her?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Yeah,” Kate says at the same time.
“Oh, nevermind,” Spencer says brightly. “I found her.” Before the door can even shut, we hear Spencer say, “Hey, you!”
After a moment of nothing but silence, the footsteps of a retreating random girl who probably thinks I’m mentally handicapped, and the rustle of fumbled fabric from a stall, a few other noisy girls come traipsing in.
“I guess that clears that up,” I say to Kate as the girls start to take over the sinks and mirrors.
“You gonna be okay, Ash,” she asks as we make our way to the door.
“Yeah, so long as they’re happy,” I say, tossing my wad of towels in the trash as we leave.
We find a spot that gives us a mostly unobstructed view of the bathroom and the side-stage. Jac is still in the same place that she was standing before we left when Spencer sidles up next to her, and I get the sneaking suspicion that Spencer knew where she was the whole time.
The woman’s a minx, I tell you.
It’s not long before the bimbo comes striding out of the bathroom, a frustrated expression on her face, but when Jon appears a split second later, she heads straight for me and Kate. We nearly tumble into each other as we try to act casual, but really, we just give ourselves away, not that Jon notices. She’s too busy trying to get a good view of Jac and Spencer behind us, her head cocked as if trying to puzzle things out.
For a moment, I want to laugh. She looks like Jetsam when I hit a sour note, but that levity dies when Jon up and leaves through the backdoor. Kate and I watch from the doorway as she jogs across the parking lot, gets into her car, and tears away in a screech of tires and angry music.
“What did we just do,” Kate shouts to me over the cacophony.
I look over at her. “We started a fire!”
“Why? Spencer and Jac aren’t interested in each other like that!”
I shut the door and lean in so that we can talk at a more normal volume. “I know, but Jon has her head up her ass and Spencer thinks that this will get her to realize it.”
Kate laughs almost hysterically and I stare at her nonplussed.
She chucks me on the shoulder. “That’s just too funny!”
She puts her arm around my shoulders and gives me a gentle squeeze, leaning in close to say, “Yeah.”
“Because Jon’s not the only one.”
And with that, she saunters back over to the remainder our group and I sigh. Fate has never been on mine and Spencer’s side. Why are we the only ones who can see that what’s in the past has to stay there?
As if she knows that I’m thinking about her, Spencer turns and asks a question with her eyes. I just give her a shrug, and hope that she’s right about all of this. I really want my band and my friends back, even if they have to get all Fleetwood Mac to get there.
I find my view of Spencer obstructed by some very nice cleavage and track my eyes up to see a girl smiling at me. I feel like I’ve seen her before, but I can’t place where, and I know that we’ve never met, but then maybe that would explain why she seems a little shy.
“Hi,” she says loudly. “I’ve seen you guys play before, but I never got the chance to tell you how good you are!”
I can’t help but smile at that. We are pretty awesome, even when we’re not, because, well, I’m me.
“Thanks,” I say just as loudly, and she extends her hand.
I take her hand. “Ashley.”
She smiles and there’s a moment where neither of us really know what to say, but I can tell that she’s not quite ready to walk away. In fact, all of the signs are there, from the way that her smile is a little too bright to the attractive blush coloring her collarbones to the way that she slowly releases my hand. She’s most definitely interested, with just the right amount of confidence and bashfulness, and I find it to be oddly cute.
Am I interested?
I’ve already decided that she’s cute, but then she’s also kind of beautiful. She epitomizes the quintessential punk rocker, but it feels natural on her and not so forced. Her hair is long and straight but cut into choppy layers, and I like the way that it falls around her face where it’s been clipped up.
I decide that I also like that it’s black. It doesn’t look dyed like so many of the girls in the scene. In fact, I can tell that it’s natural. It compliments her olive-toned skin and almond-shaped eyes far too well to be a farce.
I’ve always been a sucker for blue eyes, but hers are so dark that they’re nearly black and I can see the intelligence sparking to life behind them. She’s petite, slightly smaller than me, but not by much. We’re just about eye-to-eye, and I like the way that she’s ripped up her La Dispute shirt to show off the smooth skin of her slender shoulders and figure. Her large, dangly earrings and deeply hanging necklace help to soften her appearance and make her style all her own, though decidedly feminine.
“So, do you guys have an album or ep?”
I only barely hear what she’s saying as the last opener takes to the stage and the now full crowd cheers. I gesture to the backdoor with my head and she happily agrees to follow. It’s much calmer out here when the door shuts, despite the roadies grunting as they move hundreds of pounds of gear. Also, it’s much cooler now that the sun’s gone down.
I pull one of the cards from my back pocket and give it to her. “That’s our website. You can download our ep there.”
“Thanks,” she says, tucking the card in her pocket. “Why don’t you guys have a merch table inside?”
I shrug. I’d considered it and Ethan had pushed for it, but the demand just wasn’t there.
“We’re just a local band still. We need more exposure.”
She smiles at that. “You do know that the Troubadour has launched thousands of incredible music careers?” I’m a little affronted; of course I know that. “And,” she continues. “Even if you’re opening, there’s a reason Cyn put you on the roster.”
“You know Cyn,” I ask.
“Cyn’s my boss,” she says.
Ah, so that’s why I recognize her. “Let me guess, you work merch?”
There’s a twinkle in those eyes now and I involuntarily find it sexy.
“How’d you guess?”
“I’m just good like that.”
“I bet you are.”
Or at least that’s what I thought I heard, but it was too low to be sure and she’s already moved on.
“How about you let me help get you set up? I know all of the best places to get shirts, buttons, stickers, posters, and CDs printed at wholesale cost. I also know a graphic designer that works for iTunes. She can help set you up on their store and design something for you. That is, if you think your band’s ready for what’s going to happen here soon.”
“What’s going to happen here soon?”
“People are noticing, Ashley. I’ve had several ask for merch since the last time you played. It’s only a matter of time before your headlining, that is if you guys can find your energy again.”
I groan and she chuckles. Did everyone notice? At least now I know that Spencer’s plan wasn’t just out of spite.
“It’s okay,” she says. “You guys were still really good, really solid, but I’ve seen you before, and I know it could be better.”
I want to be angry with her. I mean, who is she to tell me how it’s done? But then she’s a professional. This is her life too, and by the way that she spoke about helping set us up, I can tell that she’s just as passionate. It’s kind of nice to meet someone who shares this interest on the same level, even when she knows that tonight wasn’t our best performance.
I guess I can’t really fault her. It’s true, and I’m just as critical of other bands, because I know what it means to perform.
“Okay,” I say, deciding that it can’t hurt. Even if we sell nothing, I can splurge. “How do we do this?”
She grins and I can tell that she’s excited, and if I’m honest, I am too.
She retrieves a sharpie from her pocket, but she actually takes my hand and writes her personal number on my palm before closing my fingers around it. Normally, I wouldn’t let this happen, especially not with permanent marker, but with her, I don’t know…
I just don’t stop it.
Either way, I can’t help but be a little skeptical as to her motivations for helping, especially with the way that she’s touching me.
“Text me at that number and we’ll set up a time to meet and talk.”
“Why are you helping me,” I ask.
“Because you’re talented and it’s my job.” Some of her shyness is back, but damn if she doesn’t push right through it. “You’re also sexy as hell and I’d like to get to know you. Don’t worry though, whether you’re interested in the fun stuff or not, the offer still stands. I’m not so desperate that I’ll use my connections to keep someone’s interest.”
And just like that she goes to the door, turning to say, “Call me,” before disappearing inside.
This night is just full of surprises. I look down at my palm. I’ve been propositioned a hundred times or more at shows, but I’ve never been so… caught off guard. Of course, those other offers were never more than a quick lay. This girl wants to actually talk. I’m not sure what to make of it but I can’t help but smile as I walk back inside.
I’m not going to read anything into it. She was pretty straight forward, which I liked, so I’m just going to take it at face value. I like face value, so far at least. I find Spencer alone on the couch, plucking imaginary lint from her skirt.
I sit and bump her on the shoulder. “Hey.”
She gives me a sad smile. “Hey.”
I lean in close to her. “Where is everyone?”
“Oh, um, Kate took Jac somewhere.”
“Did something happen?”
“Huh?” She looks up at me and frowns before shaking her head. “Oh, I’m not sure. She got a text and it upset her.”
I grin. “It’s probably Jon,” but then Spencer should be happy about this. Why isn’t she happy about this? “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I think I’m just tired.”
I feel a frown of my own coming on. “Do you want to leave?”
“No,” she says. “I don’t want you to miss Manchester.”
I really don’t want to miss them either, but… “Hey, it’s okay. If you need to go home and just relax, I can catch them next time.”
That draws a sigh from her. “That’s sweet of you, but it’ll be okay.”
And she gives me that look that says that she doesn’t want to talk about it, but I still feel the need to ask, “You’re sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
I don’t believe that, but what can I do, throw her over my shoulder, drag her home, and ply her with liquor? A large portion of the noise dies away and I look up to see the roadies start to flood the stage. Erin walks by and waves at me and I return the gesture. I can’t help but smile, feeling a little flustered and a little excited, though I’m not sure why.
It must be the merch…
And it’s then that I see Carmen and my smile fades. She’s got an arm propped on the speaker tower by the stage as she leans into a girl. They’re talking, but it’s clear that they’re together by the way that they touch one another. And it all clicks into place, from the reason for Spencer’s upset to the way that Carmen’s attempting to use jealously. Why else would she put herself right in Spencer’s line-of-site?
“You seem to be having a good night, though,” Spencer says, taking my hand and running a thumb over my wrist.
“Oh… yeah,” I say. “I made a good contact tonight, I think.”
I kind of want to kill Carm- I mean, that fucking Seawitch, just now, but Spencer releases my hand and all of my attention is on her, studying her, trying to determine how bad the damage is. It’s pretty bad I think, and I know that this particular bought of sadness isn’t going to be as easily shaken as the others. That’s okay though; we had a good run today, and I’d be just as upset. I can’t blame her.
The last band has finished clearing the stage and I know that Manchester’s up next, so it seems pointless to leave now. However, we have an agreement, and I’ll keep trying until it becomes futile or I get slapped, whichever comes first. Besides, maybe we can shake the Seawitch up a little, give her a taste of her own medicine. So, I take Spencer’s hand, pull us both to our feet, and make a beeline for the bar.
“Ash, I don’t want to drink,” she says as we squeeze into a tiny opening on the bar.
“Shush,” I say. “It’s one shot. I never get loaded when I play a show, especially when I’m driving.” I turn to the bar and get the tender’s attention. It takes some time because the place is packed at this point,
“Two red-headed sluts,” I call out.
Spencer snorts at the name and I grin over at her. We both watch the bartender shake up the shots and pour them into the small tumblers that she’s already placed on the bar. I pull a twenty from my pocket and place it next to the shots before passing one to Spencer.
She sniffs it apprehensively. “What is this? It smells… spicy.”
“This is my favorite shot here, and it does have a little bite, but it’s sweet.” I raise my glass to her. “To friendship,” I say good-naturedly.
She hoists hers as well, though she says nothing and knocks the shot back before setting the glass on the counter.
“I’ll take the rest of that,” she shouts at the bartender, pointing to the shaker.
The bartender had moved on to the next customer, but Spencer’s demand was so loud and attention drawing that she doesn’t really have any other choice but to oblige.
I decide that I don’t like this. “Easy, Spence. They taste good but they’re strong.”
“Shush,” she says. “It’s only two shots and I’m not driving.”
I can’t really argue with that, especially given the circumstances, and she decides to actually toast this time, but the way that she says it is not nearly as good-natured.
“To black-headed sluts…”
For a second I think that she’s referring to the girl with Carmen, but she was blonde. Maybe she’s referring to Carmen herself? But Carmen’s hair, while really dark, is brown.
“It’s a red-headed slut, Spence,” I chuckle out, hoping to lighten the mood.
“Is that so,” she says in a bored tone.
She mumbles something else but I can’t quite make it out over the noise. I sigh and gulp down my own shot. It’s delicious. This is why I love them. We set the empty tumblers on the counter where my change is and I push it back towards the tender before taking spencer’s hand and pulling her to the outskirts of the mosh-pit. My only hope at this point is to distract her with too much fun.
Normally, I’d find my way to the front, right by the stage, but I don’t want to scare her or get her close to Carmen. The way that she’s acting, she might strangle the unsuspecting blonde. No, she’s squirrely enough and she’s a virgin. We’ll take this nice and easy. Well, as nice and easy as a mosh-pit can be.
We stay towards the back where the bodies aren’t nearly as packed in while some random punk music plays over the speakers. One of the roadies is doing the sound check on the drums, and that’s how I know that they’re almost done.
I’m right, of course, because not a few minutes later, the roady gives a thumbs up to the sound guy in the sky and flees the stage. The lights dim and the already electrified energy bouncing around the room becomes elastic when the band enters, immediately starting with their national hit song. I smile over at Spencer with anticipation.
I love this feeling, like something is sparking over my skin. I feel light-headed, a little high, a little warm, but supremely excited. She’s still off, a little sad, and maybe a little tipsy, but that’s okay. We’ll get through it. I’ll pull her through it. This song has a slow start but it’s going to explode and, despite her other misgivings, I know that she feels it building too.
I lean in close to her ear as the band gets ready to break into the fun part. “You ready?”
She manages to say, “Yes.”
I beam from the inside out because she’s trying. And just like that the music detonates through the crowd and I start to bounce and jump around, taking Spencer hands so that she has to do it with me. After her initial surprise, and then reluctance, she seems to really get into it.
After a while it seems like the more that we move, the less that all of the outside influences can stick to us. It feels like we’re shedding the world so that we can find possibility in it again. I always wondered what it would be like to just go to a concert with her or come home to her, maybe have a dog with her or even go grocery shopping with her.
And maybe not literally every one of those things crossed my mind with that level of specificity, but they all encompass the bigger picture – the hope that I would have a future with her. And while I’ve only just recently gotten a taste, it’s everything that I thought that it would be, especially in this moment, even if it’s not exactly the way that I had wanted it.
These silly things that had been stolen had meant the world to me; they do mean the world to me. And no matter how common occurrence they may be to most, I don’t ever want to take them for granted. I want to be aware of every second, feel every second.
And I do.
Oh, how I do.
I feel full to bursting, so I burst, and she’s there with me, my kite string keeping me tethered to a beautiful but simple life. I’m not sure how long we’ve been dancing at this point, but it’s several songs later when the band starts to play an old song called Girl With Broken Wings.
We’re both breathless and flushed and a little sore from bumping into the other pit-hoppers, but we’re having a good time. I know that the show is coming to end because this is a slow song, something to calm the crowd, and it’s working. But I’m just not ready. I want it to feel like this always, like we were never broken, but always free and always whole.
I almost want to be angry with Manchester for doing a sad song because Spencer’s coming down, but I can’t. I can’t find anything that’s not good at this very moment even as she wears all of those reasons so blatantly. And I realize that for all that was stolen, some things weren’t. I had the first kiss. I had Christmases and birthdays and summers. I had prom.
And this, right now, is what it felt like at prom – the last time that everything felt right and good. I got to dance with her, fast and fun, and slow and close. It may be stupid, but I feel greedy. I want more than she’s already given me. But then when I see Carmen dancing far too close to us to be coincidence, I decide that there are some not-so-selfish reasons. So right here in the mosh-pit, I take Spencer’s waist and pull her closer.
She’s a little surprised, a little unsure as she glances over my shoulder, but she links her arms around my neck loosely and we start to move in slow circles as the crowd shifts around us. She tightens the embrace and I rest my cheek to her ear, my eyes closing as her breaths skitter along the skin of my neck.
Despite what I know is happening around me, I feel eighteen again. It’s hard to believe that it was only four years ago. It seems like lifetimes and eras have come and gone. And maybe they have. The earth has rotated one-thousand and sixty-one times since everything fell apart. Four stars have been born and four others have died, but we still see their light from the tiny spec that is our planet.
And that’s how I feel right now, like death can’t dim anything. Like there’s a legacy, a lasting purpose to all of this, like I can see the light even after the source has already expired. I know that I’ve died in so many ways, even as I’ve been reborn in all of the same ways. And I can’t help but determine that this, right here, right now, is just one of the reasons why. I have a reason to keep beaming, to keep breathing.
The song starts to get more desperate and her hold gets tighter, almost painfully so. And when she starts to shake, I know that she’s crying, so I pull her impossibly closer and keep us swaying, holding her together the best way that I know how even as I feel like someone crouched over a shattered crystal with nothing but a stick of super glue.
I’m not sure what else to do, except maybe hit the Seawitch again, but I can’t seem to feel it. I’d want Spencer back too, and I’d play dirty to get her. I sigh into her hair. It’s been an extraordinary day in the most ordinary of ways. This was bound to happen eventually, but I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. That borders on being a miracle in and of itself. It feels good to be the one to hold her through it for once. It feels good to be the strong one, the dependable one.
“I’m sorry,” she chokes out.
“You have no reason to be sorry,” I whisper.
We circle for a few more minutes before I get the nerve to ask, “Do you want to talk about it,” in a nearby ear.
She leans back and seems to consider saying something. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I see it poised on the tip of her very tongue, but then she shakes her head. And while I wish that she could get it out, it’s okay. I know enough.
A few long moments pass before the band bids the crowd goodnight; the overhead lights come on, and we pull apart, the world collapsing in and reminding us that it never really went away. It was a dream, but a sweet one while it lasted, and I just can’t find it within myself to be bitter.
With a deep breath, I take her hand and lead her to the bathroom to help clean her up by running some cold water on a paper towel and gently swiping at her cheeks.
“I must look like a wreck,” she says pathetically.
I just smile at her. “Nah, you’re kinda beautiful.”
She shakes her head and takes my hand to still it, holding it close to her face and just looking into my eyes. And I feel like she’s trying to tell me something without actually saying the words, and I don’t know what it is, but I know for sure that there’s love somewhere in there.
And I love her too, all of her – broken but beautiful, bold but tragic. It’s intense, that weird place that we avoid, but I stay still in it. She’s been through a lot in the last hour. But then the number on my arm catches her attention and the spell is broken. She takes the towel from my hand and releases me before turning to fix herself in the mirror, almost as if she needs to hide from me.
And maybe she does. Maybe there are some things that we don’t know and can’t know about each other, especially when it comes to her feelings for Carmen. That’s okay. I’m satisfied with what I know because she’s let me see more than anyone else.
So I lean against the stall behind me to watch her. I love watching her. I’ve done this a million times before for a million different reasons, but it feels the same, just a little sadder, a little older, a little more lost even as we’re both a little more found.
And it especially feels nostalgic when her eyes meet mine in the mirror. There it is again, that something that she’s not saying, that something that she needs to say. But then instead of words, it comes out as tears. I pull a few more towels from the dispenser and put my hand on her back to let her know that she’s not alone.
She turns and hugs me and I just hold on tight. And then, like a sadistic stalker, Carmen bursts into the bathroom, having way too much fun as she loudly laughs with her date. And it’s gross. Not because she wants Spencer back. If I understand nothing else about her, I get that. But she’s using that poor girl, and it’s just, well, wrong.
But she catches me holding Spencer, and her face falls a little.
Spencer tenses because she knows, but when I see the pain lance through Carmen, I feel slightly better. This is hurting her too. She says nothing, choosing instead to put on a plastic smile and brush past us with her date. Once they disappear into a stall, I lead Spencer out to the car. All I know to do is get her home, and away from this nightmare.
Once she’s settled in the passenger seat, I pull my cell from my pocket and text Kate that we’re leaving. It’s not long before the windows are down and we find ourselves in congested traffic. I don’t put any music on. Somehow, everything feels too fragile for noise. And the quiet is kind of nice when mixed with the breeze coming through the windows. It helps to clear some of the thickness in the air as we creep towards the interstate.
A few miles of open road pass before Spencer finally says, “I felt good to dance with you like that.”
I glance over to find her looking out of the window before training my eyes back on the road. That was an unexpected observation given everything else that just happened. And if she really feels that way, I can’t help but feel bad for using it to make Carmen jealous. I mean, it wasn’t for me, but Spencer didn’t ask me to do that.
Mostly, I just wanted to dance with her. Maybe… “I shouldn’t have done that.”
“No,” she says forcefully, and this time I can tell that she’s looking at me though I don’t take my eyes off of the road. “I’m really glad you did. It was just… it meant a lot to me, Ash.”
Either way, “It meant a lot to me too.”
Another minute passes before I feel her hand snake over to mine and twine our fingers on my leg, and neither of us let go for the rest of the ride home, even as no more words are forthcoming.