When we got to the door, I paid the cover and slipped happily into the darkened bar. I found us a table, and then escaped to get us both drinks. As I was leaving, Cammie was looking worriedly at her barstool like it was going to give her Ebola. They had a great selection of local beers. I got Yards ale. Cammie wanted a cosmo. The bartender looked at me like I was crazy. This wasn’t really a cosmo kind of place, but he went off to make it anyway. While I waited for our drinks, I pulled out my phone and texted Max.
Here. Have a great show!
I didn’t expect a reply, since she was going on soon, but I got one almost immediately.
Thanks. You should come backstage afterward.
Huh. We hadn’t talked once since her original text, so I had assumed she’d only invited me to be nice . . . or to make more money, but she seemed to genuinely want to see me again. I’d thought of all these strategies for talking to her again, and it looked like I wasn’t even going to have to use them. That made it ten times harder to accept the drinks from the bartender and return to Cammie, who giggled when I sat down with what would probably prove to be the worst cosmo in history.
To her credit, she winced when she took a drink but didn’t complain. I kept flicking my eyes back to the stage, waiting for the concert to start. I managed to keep up a halfhearted conversation with Cammie about her plans to study abroad.
“I just can’t make up my mind where I want to study though. Australia would be amazing. Or London. But I think Paris is my favorite right now. Then again, it changes once a week.”
“I have a friend who is backpacking overseas right now. I lose track of where she is, but last I heard she was somewhere in Germany. She’s pretty much been all over the place, taking trains and staying in hostels.”
“Hostels? Seriously? What if she gets chopped up into pieces or something like that movie?”
I smiled. “I don’t think they’re actually like that.”
“Still,” she said, flipping her hair, “I don’t think I could ever stay there.”
It was official. I had given up hope of excavating a normal person underneath all the spoiled. The evening wasn’t a complete bust though, because at that moment a shrill whine came over the speakers, and I saw Max fiddling with her microphone up on stage.
She was wearing the same flower in her hair as the day I met her. Surrounding the white petals were riotous red curls that were even more out of control than I remember. Almost as if she was trying to make up for the day she’d spent tamed down for her parents. She wore these short leopard print shorts over black, sheer stockings with red heels that made her legs look incredible. She had on a white, ripped tee that hung off her shoulders, showing the angles and architecture of her body. She looked effortlessly cool.
Her pale skin practically glowed under the lights, and her white shirt was just transparent enough that I could see the outline of her black bra beneath. I liked it until I remembered everyone could see that same black bra. She slipped the guitar strap over her head and looked more at home than she ever had in her apartment.
She stepped up to the mic, her red lips brushing against it as she said, “Hello, I’m Max and this is Under the Bell Jar.”
I wanted to cheer, but I restrained myself to clapping like the rest of the crowd. “This first song is called ‘Better,’ and it’s the song that gave us our name.”
She stood back from the mic as she started to play, and for the first time, I noticed the other people around her. On bass was a guy who was the oddest mix of punk and nerd that I’d ever seen. He had on a sweater vest and a bow tie with metal spikes. He wore glasses that didn’t look like they were just for show, but his hair hung long and grunge-band shaggy. At the back, between him and Max, was her boyfriend from the coffee shop. Mace. He played the drums, his eyes were fixed on Max the entire time.
I couldn’t blame him.
I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take my eyes off of her either. She smiled as she played the opening progression, and I could see the moment when the rest of the world ceased to exist for her. Then she sang, and the rest of the world disappeared for me, too.
“I pick a smile and paint it on
Smooth the cracks, right the wrongs
Try to push some life into my eyes
I’ve lost my soul under all the lies.”
Her voice was low and raspy but had this sweet tone that was at odds with the rest of her. The music picked up slightly and the drums got louder.
“It’s better this way,
Better that no one sees
It’s better this way
Better when I’m not me
“I’ll be better
Her eyes were closed, her rose petal lips right up against the mic. As she repeated the word, she wavered between desperation and anger and shame. It was one word, but I could feel her emotions so clearly, as if she poured them directly into me.
“I’m drowning under the weight of these
Can’t tell apart all the different me’s
The bell jar drops, the air gets thin
Nothing gets out, but nothing gets in
“It’s better this way
Untouched under glass
It’s better, I say
This way I’ll last.”
The song slowed, and her voice went into her higher register. It was heartbreaking and honest, and I understood her better in that moment than ever before.
Get past the pressure
I’m my own oppressor
“No one does it better.”
She smiled grimly, and I swear she held the whole audience in the palm of her hands. Everyone was leaning forward, me included. She strummed a few more notes, humming slightly, and the music faded out to just the beat of the drums and bass as she chanted a few more times.
If this was what drugs were like, I understood how people got addicted. No matter how many times I did this, it never got any less exhilarating. The nerves and the fear and the hope and the hurt and the healing—my soul was a galaxy all its own when I was onstage.
I had tried a million things in an attempt to piece my life back together after Alexandria’s death, to make the world feel right-side-up again. Music was the only thing that worked.
When the last notes of “Better” were over, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would do whatever it took to keep this. Maybe it made me weak. It definitely made me selfish and a liar, but if there was any way I could convince Cade to continue the charade just long enough so that my parents didn’t cut me off completely, I would do it.
I found him in the crowd after our third or fourth song. I swear I’d scanned the entire bar for him twice already, and I was beginning to think he’d left. Then I saw him at a table in the middle of the room with the same blonde he’d talked to at Trestle. It was completely irrational, but I felt a spike of irritation that he’d brought her. It was soothed by the fact that every time I glanced at him, he never took his eyes off of me.
We started one of our Rilo Kiley covers, and I couldn’t keep myself from making eye contact with him.
“And it’s bad news, baby I’m bad news
I’m just bad news, bad news, bad news.”
He raised an eyebrow at me, and I nearly laughed into the microphone.
The song fit us, and I’d been thinking of him when I picked it for the set list. It was all about the ways a relationship could go wrong when one of the people in it was like me. Toxic.
A walking corpse . . . that’s how the song put it. That was me, but despite how often I told myself that seeing Cade was a bad idea, I was too selfish to stop myself.
I tried to communicate those thoughts as I sang, tried to warn him as best as I could.
I should not have noticed the way his eyes followed my movements or the way his posture straightened every time I looked at him. I should not have cared. I should not have looked into his dark eyes. I really should not have licked my lips between lines, because I could see from here his chest rise and fall. I wanted to feel bad about encouraging whatever this was between us, but I didn’t.
“Bad news, bad news . . .”
The song ended, and I looked at Spence to make sure he was ready for our next song, one of ours. He gave me a look, and his eyes shot out toward the audience. I didn’t have to look to know he was glancing at Cade.
I didn’t have to guess what his mental lecture was either. I was completely qualified to give one to myself. Beyond all the normal levels of stupidity that this thing qualified as, it was the highest rung of stupid to allow it to distract me during a set, especially if I only had a few more months to do something significant with my career before my parents cut me off. I needed every song to be as awesome as it could possibly be. I couldn’t afford to mess up one verse, one line, even one note.
I kept my eyes off Cade through the rest of the set. I worked the stage, flirting with Mace and Spencer. I leaned down to touch a few guys in the audience, flirting with them, too. Funny how onstage, the more broken and messed up you are, the more entertaining people find you. The audience’s favorites were the songs I’d written in my darkest, angriest moments. Air that kind of aggression anywhere else but onstage, and people would stare or talk or lock you up.
When we sang our last song, one of Spencer’s originals, the applause was loud enough to drown out even my thoughts for a few moments.
I breathed in their excitement. This was living. I might be a walking corpse everywhere else, but not up here.
The spotlight operator swept his light across the stage while each of us waved. When the light came back to me, blinding, the beauty of the moment disappeared, and I lost my breath.
The flash of headlights.
Crunch of metal.
Then spinning, spinning, spinning.
Out of control and unending.
I stood there frozen until Mace hooked his arm around my neck. Sweat coated his skin and mine, too. He pulled me off the stage, and I waited until we were backstage and out of the view of the crowd before I shrugged him off.
I grumbled, “Bathroom,” hoping that this time he would take the hint. This time I made sure to go into a stall, so that he couldn’t follow me. I kicked the door closed behind me, and resisted the urge to light up. I wanted this place to invite us back, which meant I shouldn’t go smoking up their bathroom, even if it would make me feel better.
So, I pretended.
I imagined the flick of the flame, the smell of the smoke, and the filter against my lips. I inhaled slowly, remembered the relaxation it normally brought me, and then exhaled. I concentrated on pushing out the memories with it.
Spencer had told me once, on one of Alexandria’s birthdays actually when I was a complete wreck, that we should live like we smoke—inhale the present and exhale the past. Something about it had stuck with me. I only smoked on rare occasions these days, but I lit up an imaginary cigarette almost every day. I didn’t need the nicotine, just the motion, the breathing.
My phone buzzed in my back pocket.
Great show, Angry Girl. You still want me to come back?
Maybe it made me a bad person, asking him to do me this favor despite all the confusing feelings between us, but it didn’t change anything. I still needed him, and if he was willing to let me use him, I would.
Yeah, Golden Boy. Whenever you’d like.
When I exited the bathroom, Mace was waiting. Spencer had disappeared somewhere, so it was just the two of us.
“Are you done being a diva?”
I rolled my eyes. “Needing a few seconds alone after a set does not make me a diva, Mace.”
“Then what about the fact that you spent all week blowing me off?”