Bliss took an uneven breath, and pressed her lips together in a way that I knew meant she was trying not to cry. I took a page out of Max’s book and slowly inhaled and exhaled.
“Well, we should go clear our stuff from the stage,” Max said. “Cade, babe, do you think you could help? Our drummer had to leave.”
I blinked and looked away from Bliss. “Sure. Sure, I can do that.”
I looked at Garrick, then Bliss, and said, “It was good to see you both. Congratulations again.” I shook Garrick’s hand, and this time I gave Bliss a real hug. She pressed her cheek into my chest, and her arms squeezed tight around my middle. She mumbled something that sounded like “Burning out,” and then released me. She was blinking rapidly, but I could still see the tears gathering around the corners of her eyes.
I felt surprisingly numb, like a wound that had been cauterized. Maybe it would hurt more later. Or maybe I was just learning that even the good things from our pasts still only belonged in the past.
Spencer walked the two of them out, and I was left alone with Max. I took a deep breath and sunk back onto the couch.
Max stood above me and said, “I don’t even know what the hell just happened, and I’m depressed.”
I laughed, which all things considered was far better than the variety of reactions I could have had. “It was depressing, wasn’t it?”
“You okay, Golden Boy?”
I lifted my chin to look at her, and took the hand that was dangling by her side. I pressed a quick kiss to the back of it, and then let it fall back to her side. “Thank you for that. You didn’t have to. And yes, I’m okay. Moving forward, right?”
“That is the goal, boyfriend.”
“We’re getting pretty good at pretending. Maybe you should be an actor, too.”
She laughed. “Not in a million years. I don’t like acknowledging my own emotions. Why would I want to pretend to have more just for a lousy paycheck?”
“You don’t seem to have any problem expressing emotions when you sing. You’re pretty damn great at it, actually.”
She looked away, uncomfortable, and said, “To each his own, I guess.”
Time for a subject change. I stood, and tried to stretch some of that heavy, melancholy feeling out of my limbs. “Let’s go pack up your stuff, Angry Girl.”
“Oh, you don’t have to help. I was just giving you an excuse . . .”
“Don’t be stupid. You know I’m going to help you.”
“Yeah, I do.”
I followed the sway of her hips across the room. She stopped when she got to the closed door, and turned around.
“I need to ask you something else. Do you want to grab a drink with me after we’re done here?”
“A drink sounds like the best idea you’ve ever had.” I smiled. “Though that isn’t saying much, considering the kind of ideas I’ve seen from you.”
I expected her to laugh. She didn’t.
She just smiled and said, “Yeah . . . right.”
I convinced Cade that we should head back to Center City to get our drink, so we’d be closer to where both of us lived before the subways closed.
He said, “Fine by me. I was going to insist on walking you home anyway.”
I laughed. “Of course you were, Golden Boy.”
This also gave me the entire walk to the subway station and the ride to convince him to keep pretending to be my boyfriend.
He said, “So, I’m guessing you don’t want to talk about your fight with Mace?”
I raised an eyebrow at him but didn’t comment.
“I’m guessing you don’t want to talk about that girl getting engaged?”
He sighed. “I guess that leaves your music. How long have you been playing?”
I buttoned my coat all the way up to help block out some of the cold. “Since I was thirteen. Around the time that my sister died.”
It shocked me how easily that kind of thing fit into normal conversation with him. With anyone else it never would have come close to leaving my mouth.
“And when did you know that it was what you wanted to do for your career?”
I smiled, remembering. “The first time I was able to play a song all the way through from memory. That was the first time singing really transported me to a different place, you know? It was the best five minutes of my life. I forgot where I was, who I was, and I existed only in the music.”
“I get that. I feel the same when I’m onstage. I get to step out of my skin and be someone else for a while. I get to live someone else’s problems, which usually get resolved in a much quicker and easier fashion than my own.”
I’d never even had a friend that I could talk to like this. I’d lived so long as an island that I’d forgotten what it felt like to have this kind of connection.
“You ever get tired of being yourself, Golden Boy?”
“Sometimes, yeah. What about you?”
He was so honest. He made me want to be, too.
“All the time.”
The silence between us was frail, but easy, as we walked the neighborhood streets that led to our subway stop. I surveyed the buildings around us, the uneven sidewalks, the lit up windows for apartments on the second and third floors. I’d walked these streets more times than I could remember, but I’d never really looked around me.
Life was funny like that.
I asked, “Do you think everyone feels that way? Or is there something wrong with us?”
He thought for a long moment, his boots scuffing against the sidewalk as he walked. “I think everyone does. Even happy people. They may not admit it to anyone, but I think they feel it. I think they close their eyes, or go for a run, or take a long shower, so that they can forget just for a second who they are and what they have to do day in and day out. Living is hard. And every day our feet get heavier and we pick up more baggage. So, we stop and take a breath, close our eyes, reset our minds. It’s natural. As long as you open your eyes and keep going.”
I watched him as he spoke. His eyes scanned the sky, and his breath puffed out as smoke in the cold air. He believed what he was saying. And that made it a little easier for me to believe it, too.
I should have asked him then, but he’d just given me this precious, perfect thought, and I wanted to hold on to it for as long as I could before I had to ruin it. We stayed silent for the one more block it took to reach the subway stop.
We waited about ten minutes for our train, still not saying a word. We sat together on a bench, sharing the silence, and it didn’t feel awkward or unnatural. I didn’t want to run or fill up the void or do anything other than what I was doing.
It was . . . nice.
When the train pulled in, we took two of the seats beside each other, and it felt so routine, like we’d been doing this for ages.
I said, “I have something to ask you, but I really don’t want to.”
He turned slightly, and his knees touched mine. “That sounds interesting.”
“It’s insane, actually.”
He waited, and I tried to just spit it out, but really there was no good way to say it, so instead I buried my face in my hands. I groaned and said, “Money is stupid. It ruins everything.”
He hummed. “Tell me about it. I made a promise that I would be home for Christmas, but I get paid so little for my work-study job that I’ll be lucky to afford ramen in January if I do.”
I sat up but kept my eyes on my hands as I asked, “What if I could help you get home for Christmas?”
“I’m sorry, but I just don’t think your boss would be okay with me taking over your dancing shifts at Trestle.”
I laughed so hard that everyone else in the train car turned and looked at us.
“God, I would pay to see that.”
He nudged my shoulder with his. “Hey, I’m a good dancer.”
“How much have you had to drink tonight?”
“Do I need to take you dancing to prove how awesome I am?”
I was tempted to say yes, to take him to the the Garage or some other place, and just lose myself in alcohol and the moving bodies. But I had to stay focused. For so many reasons.
“I’m taking a rain check on that offer, Golden Boy. But . . . I was serious about Christmas. My parents really want you to visit for the holidays, enough that they volunteered to pay for all your flights and stuff.”
He kept smiling, even as his head tilted to the side and his brows furrowed. “I thought we were going to be broken up by then?”
“We were . . . but hell, I’m just going to say this. My parents were coming to Philly to tell me it was time to stop singing, to move on and get a real job. They’ve been helping me with money stuff so that I had time to write and sing, but they were going to stop . . . until they met you. Apparently my dating you is enough to make them believe I’m not a total screwup, and they’re willing to keep helping me out for a little while longer. But if I have to tell them we broke up, they’re going to cut me off, and with the cost of living here and my debt, it will be almost impossible for me to keep going with the band. So, like a complete coward, I’m asking you to pretend to date me to keep my parents happy.”
“Max . . .” His body shifted away from mine slightly. I turned to face him.
“I know it’s crazy, but I promise it will just be a few days, just an appearance, and then you can leave and go home for the holidays with your family. You said you needed money for your flight . . . my parents will pay for it.”
His eyes searched mine. “I couldn’t let your parents do that, Max.”
I grabbed one of his hands and held it between both of mine. “It’s nothing to them, Cade. I promise. You should see the ridiculous things they spend their money on. I’d much rather they spend money on you.”
He placed his other hand on top of mine, and stared at me. “Max, I want to help you, but you have to know how bad of an idea this is. You can’t keep pretending for your parents. You’ll only resent it. And you know that. The first song you played tonight . . . that was yours, wasn’t it? Didn’t you learn anything from writing it?”
I felt sliced open, like he’d dissected my mind and my heart and laid it out for everyone to poke and prod. I’d written that song right before I dropped out of college, and he was right.
I hadn’t changed at all.
I thought by leaving college I was putting all of that pretending behind me. I thought I had ripped out the roots of that old life and started fresh. Pretending for holidays and other meetings had seemed so insignificant, but it wasn’t.
I’d grown right back into that same person.
And I hated that he could see that.
I ripped my hands out of his and stood, even though the train was still moving. “I didn’t ask for a therapy session. I’m sorry I can’t be perfect like you. Just forget about it.”
We pulled into the station, and I walked to the other end of the car while I waited for the train to come to a complete stop. I heard him call my name as I stepped out onto the platform, but I didn’t look back. He caught up to me on the stairs, but I kept going, taking the steps as fast as I could without falling.
“Max . . . wait.”
When I surfaced into the night air, his hand caught my elbow and turned me to him.
“Let me go, Cade.”
“What do you mean, no?”
He caught my other arm, and pulled me right up against him.
“I mean that we’re not going to have a fight over this.”
I said, “You don’t get to just decide what we fight about.”
“I’ll do it, Max.”