She cleared her throat, and I realized I’d been standing there staring at her, imagining her naked for who knows how long.
I coughed. “Well, I should probably go.”
Go beat my head against a wall. Go jump in front of a moving car. Go get a life. Any of the above was appropriate.
“Right,” she said. “Um, thank you . . . again for all of this.”
I shook my head and smiled. “It was nothing. I’ll see you around, Angry Girl.”
I opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. She said, “Good night Cade.”
I only let myself look back for a second, and then I said, “Good night.” I walked down the flight of stairs and out into the street. Chinatown was fairly busy, since the restaurants were all still open on Thanksgiving. I took one last look at the door to Max’s building, and then promised to forget it.
I refused to let myself want what I couldn’t have. I wouldn’t go through that all again. I said, “Good-bye, Max,” and set off for the nearest subway stop.
I was too lazy on Friday to get out of bed. I lay there until far too late in the afternoon to not be pathetic. Eager to accomplish at least something during my day, I dialed my grandmother’s phone number.
I’d lied to Bliss about her being ill because I knew Bliss wouldn’t question it. Grams had gotten sick around the beginning of our senior year—pneumonia—and it had scared the shit out of me. She was all I had, and I’d thought I was going to lose her. I was twenty-one, and my entire life had revolved around partying like most kids in college. But that’s not how I wanted our final months in college together to be. That was around the time when I made myself start getting serious about the future. That was around the time I started having feelings for Bliss, too.
It took her to the fourth or fifth ring to answer, probably because it took her that long to get to the phone. She was old . . . and as she liked to say “slow as molasses.”
She answered, “You got me.”
I’d never heard anyone else answer the phone like her.
“Oh, Cade! It’s so good to hear from you. We all missed you terribly yesterday.”
I closed my eyes, surprisingly affected by the sound of her voice. It must have been the discussion of my parents yesterday and all that time with the Millers. Family was fresh on my mind.
“I missed you, too, Grams.”
“How was Thanksgiving with Bliss, dearie?”
I hadn’t told Grams about any of the stuff that had happened with Bliss. I’d told her I was having Thanksgiving there because I couldn’t afford to come home, and I didn’t want her insisting on paying for the trip. Her retirement check barely covered all her bills, and she’d done enough for me. I hated lying to her, but it was a necessary evil.
“Oh, you know Bliss and me, things are always interesting.”
I heard her raspy laugh on the other end. “Oh, I bet.”
Grams had met Bliss during the second show of our senior year. We went out to dinner after the play, and on the way out of the restaurant, Bliss had walked into a glass door. Grams told me afterward that she knew I loved Bliss because I didn’t laugh at what she called “the funniest damn thing I’ve ever seen.”
God, I missed her. And Bliss. I missed a lot of things.
“So everyone made it yesterday?”
“Oh, yes, yes. The little ones asked after you.”
Every other holiday, some aunts and uncles and cousins joined us. It didn’t make for a very big family gathering, but I suppose I had more than a lot of people do.
“I wish I could have been there. I can’t wait for Christmas.”
I wasn’t sure yet exactly how I was going to afford to go home for Christmas, but I would. If I had to take out more loans on top of my school ones, I would. It wasn’t like I wouldn’t be paying those back for a century anyway.
Someone knocked at the door, and I said, “Hey, Grams, someone is at the door. Can I call you back later? I want to hear all about how yesterday went with the family.”
“Of course, honey. Tell Bliss I said hi.”
I swallowed and said, “Uh-huh. Love you. Bye.”
A second round of knocks came as she said good-bye and hung up the phone.
Through the door, a voice called, “Hermano! You in there?”
“Just a sec, Milo!”
I rolled off my bed and pulled a T-shirt over my head. I padded barefoot toward the door of my studio apartment, and undid the dead bolt.
I yawned and pulled the door wide.
I was in pajama pants, and Milo looked like he’d raided Urban Outfitters. He said, “Whoa. Either you had a really late night or are currently having a really early one.”
Before I could invite him in, he’d already passed by me and plopped down on the futon in my living room.
I laughed and closed my door.
“This isn’t still about that Bliss girl, is it?”
It felt good to be able to say, “No, it’s not about Bliss.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve already gotten your heart broken by some other chica. I only left you alone for a day.”
“No, no broken heart. Just an unavailable girl.”
Milo stretched his legs out in front of him and nodded. “Ah, you know the cure for that don’t you?”
“An available girl.” Laughing, I made my way to the fridge and held up a beer in offering. Milo nodded, and I grabbed one for each of us. He said, “I’m serious. I happen to have it on good authority that you picked up a phone number the other night. Forget the unavailable girl . . . both of them . . . and call the blonde from the other night.”
That wasn’t a bad idea.
Dating was the solution to my Bliss (and now Max) problem.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” I told him.
I picked up my phone to find her number, and he said, “Whoa! Whoa! Don’t do it now, hermano. You’ve got to give it a few days. You know the rules.”
I rolled my eyes. Right . . . Milo had rules for just about everything—drinking and dating being the two most prominent.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll call her tomorrow.”
He made a face and said, “Eh, better make it the day after. That girl was all over you at the bar. We don’t want to encourage too much clinginess. The day after tomorrow will be much better.”
So Sunday afternoon, with Milo obnoxiously watching from my sofa, I called Cammie. I pulled out my cell, found her in my address book, and hit send quickly, before I could change my mind.
She answered on the second ring.
“Cammie?” I asked.
I said, “This is Cade.” Then I couldn’t remember if I’d actually told her my name at the bar, so I added, “We met at Trestle a few nights ago.”
“Oh.” I could hear the smile in her voice. “Hi, Cade.”
Milo whispered, “Set the date up for this weekend. Give her plenty of time to get nervous about it.”
I rolled my eyes, but asked, “What are your plans this Friday night, Cammie? And whatever it is, can I steal you away from it?”
“Steal me? I think I’d go quite willingly.”
Now I just needed to figure out where we would go. And how to get her there. If I were still back in Texas I would have picked her up, but I didn’t have a car, and it seemed odd to pick someone up for the subway.
“Excellent,” I said. “It’s a date. I’ll call you back in a few days to let you know what we’re doing.”
My phone rang so early the day after Thanksgiving that it should have been labeled cruel and unusual punishment. I reached out toward my nightstand, knocking off who knew what until my fingers finally closed around my phone.
“What?” I grumbled.
“Good morning, sweetie.”
Ugh . . . it was way too early for this.
“Your father and I are at the airport. Our flight has been delayed.”
Oh no. If she said that they were going to stay even longer, I would go crazy. I had to get back to the band and back to work, and I had reached my crazy quota for the week.
“I’m sorry, Mom. There’s no chance they’ll cancel it, is there?”
“Oh, no, honey. Just something about the pilot’s plane being late the night before, so they’re required to give him so much rest. We’ll be back in Oklahoma by this evening.” Thank God. “But your father and I were talking, and we just wanted to tell you again how much we liked Cade.”
I was pretty sure that was already abundantly clear, thanks.
“You know, we’ve been worried about you. Your father and I had a lot of difficulty with your decision to drop out of college.” A lot was an understatement. I wouldn’t be surprised if they discussed having me committed as mentally unstable. “But we came around.” After a year of fighting, yeah. “We’ve been helping you pay your rent so you can afford to spend time doing your little music thing.” God, I was going to break out in hives if she called my career and lifelong dream a “little music thing” one more time. “It’s just . . . you’ve been here so long, and your father and I were starting to feel that perhaps it was time to face the facts and grow up.”
No. Please no. I was so close. I could feel it. The gig next weekend at The Fire was going to be huge for us. We were even doing a live recording of the set.
It wasn’t like they didn’t have plenty of money. They both had high-paying jobs, and the insurance money from Alex’s death had made our already wealthy household even wealthier. They gave me five hundred bucks a month to help pay my student loans from those pointless two years at UPenn that they’d been the ones to insist upon. You’d think when they were the ones pushing me to go to college, that they would have at least paid for it. But since they hadn’t helped Michael, they didn’t help me. Some bullshit about making my own way. Too bad it had only ever been their way.
Five hundred to them was nothing, and to me it was the difference between doing what I loved and dreaming about doing what I love. I just needed a little more time.
“What does that mean?” I asked. “You’re going to stop helping me?”
“Eventually, yes.” Shit. I was going to have to double my shifts at the Trestle. Between that and my job at the tattoo parlor, I would have zero time for singing, much less writing my own stuff. “We were going to talk to you about it while we were here, but then we met Cade.”
“What does Cade have to do with it?”
“Well . . . you’re obviously getting your life together. You’re dating a nice, respectable boy and finally starting to take things seriously. Your father and I are so glad you’ve left behind the negative influences you were spending time with before. So, since you’re obviously trying, we’re going to give you a few more months.”
“A few?” I asked.
“Well, we’re going to play things by ear. But as long as you keep taking your life seriously, you don’t need to worry about it.”
AKA . . . as long as I kept dating Cade.
I wanted to scream.
At the world.
At myself. For being too damn cowardly to tell her exactly what I was thinking. I should have told her the truth about Cade. I should have told her that she was full of shit. I had been taking my life seriously.
I had been taking my life seriously when I left college. Just because I was not taking a familiar road or doing something that made sense to her didn’t mean I was naive or ignorant.
It meant I didn’t want to be a mindless office worker who daydreamed about what life could have been if things had been different.
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