When the strings on my guitar vibrated and notes rose from my lungs, I felt the good and the bad, the hope and the devastation. I felt it all.
Sometimes in the morning, I am petrified, and can’t move
Awake but cannot open my eyes.
I sang about the weight of expectation and toxic relationships and lost innocence. I sang about the way depression can curl over your head like a wave, pulling you under so far that you don’t know which way is up and where to go to breathe.
The song unspooled something inside of me and deflated all the pressures of the day. This was what my parents didn’t get. They wanted me to give this up, get a job, and a steady paycheck. Mom said she’d never be able to really relax until her baby girl was all taken care of, which to her meant a husband and a job and a bun in the oven. But then it would be me who was never relaxed.
They wanted me to be the perfect daughter Alex was supposed to have been. But I wasn’t Alex. I’d tried to be that for them . . . tried to fill the void she left behind. I spent four years of high school playing the good girl, the popular girl, but it was never real. I always screwed something up, and then they would look at me like I hadn’t just disappointed them, I’d somehow disgraced Alex too by failing to live up to her memory.
Just living with them had been like suffocating, like all the air had been sucked from the house leaving only grief behind.
I got so twisted and wound up and smothered by life.
Music unraveled me.
It kept me sane then, and it keeps me sane now.
After that song we moved on to one by the Smiths, another by Laura Marling, and one by Metric. We covered everything from Radiohead to the Beatles, and then moved on to our original songs. Some were Spencer’s, but most were mine. The songs were all different, but they were all honest. When we finished the first run-through, we took a quick break. I headed to the bathroom because I needed a second.
I always needed a second to get the last of the emotion out, to bring the walls back up. Spencer got it. We’d known each other long enough that he gave me the space, but Mace was still learning. He followed me into the bathroom and pressed me up against the sink, his chest against my back.
His lips found my neck, and he moaned. He rocked his hips into me.
“God, you’re so hot when you sing. Let’s end practice early and go back to your place. Then I can make you sing on your bed, on the table, against the wall.”
All my emotions were still too close to the surface. The weight of him against my back felt crushing, and his hands on my wrists were like shackles. I met my own gaze in the mirror, and my eyes were wide and panicked. More than that, they were vulnerable . . . breakable. They were everything I never wanted to be. I squeezed my eyes shut and something in me snapped. I pushed my elbow into his middle, turned, and shoved him backward. He wasn’t expecting it, and he stumbled back and slammed into one of the stall doors. The noise echoed through the bathroom, and Mace yelled, “What the fuck, Max?”
I stood there blinking, my mouth hanging open. I knew I should be sorry, but I wasn’t. I was breathing and in control and that was what mattered. Mace stood and brushed off his pants. His mouth was a thin blade, and his eyes were bullets. “Well?” he yelled, and I battled off a flinch.
I couldn’t talk about it, couldn’t explain why. Damn, if he knew me even half as well as Spence, he would know to stay the hell away. My breath still came strong, like I was catching up. I said, “You can’t come over. My parents are still in town.” I didn’t say that technically they were at a hotel. I just needed space for the night.
“So you fucking push me? What’s your deal today?”
The same deal as every day. Singing just opens me up, and I can’t hide it as well.
“Mace, I’m sorry.” Sorry that I was so fucked-up I couldn’t have a simple conversation. “I just . . . I need a couple minutes to myself. Do you mind?”
He shook his head, bewildered, and said, “Sure, take the whole damn day. I’m out.”
The door to the bathroom slammed, and the sound echoed off the tile walls. I closed my eyes, and worked to close myself off, too. I should have been upset, but mostly I was relieved. I’d call and apologize to him later. We’d be fine.
And I’d tell him the set list for the gig, since it looked like we’d be deciding that without him. I splashed some water on my face and pressed the heels of my palms into my eyes until the black behind my eyes was as black as it would go.
Then I went back outside.
Spencer had already packed up our things and returned them to the storage closet that Sam let us use. I didn’t have to say anything. Spencer had probably heard it all. Sound carried in this place. It was why I’d begged Sam to let us use it in the mornings before the bar opened. Great acoustics. Good for music, not so good for arguments.
“You okay?” Spencer asked.
I rolled my eyes and said, “What do you think?”
“I think you’re fine.”
“And you’d be right.”
Boys were boys. I had enough other things tying me into knots without worrying every single time Mace blew a gasket.
Spencer said, “Because you’ve got balls of steel.”
I hated when people said that, like it assumed strength and being a male were synonymous. There was strength in being a woman. “Spence, I don’t have balls. Good thing, too, because they’d look terrible in the lingerie I’m wearing.”
Spence adjusted his bow tie and put on a goofy smile. He said, “Lingerie, huh? Poor Mace is going to be sad he stormed out.” He sidled closer and placed his hands on my hips. He wasn’t hitting on me, not with that Zoolander-style Blue Steel face. We weren’t like that anymore. Spence might be the only guy I’d ever slept with and managed to maintain a friendship with afterward. As such, we were a little more touchy-feely than most friends.
I slid out of his reach. “He wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near it today anyway, and neither will you.”
He crossed a hand over his heart, and looked pained.
“You’re cruel. Vagina-of-steel.”
I laughed so hard I had to steady myself on the table next to me.
“That’s even worse. Let’s just say my private parts are made of the usual private part bits. In fact, let’s just never talk about my bits, okay Spence?”
He smirked. “Fine, but I make no promises when I’m drunk.”
I sighed and started gathering my things. “Deal. You coming in tonight?”
“I think so. I’ve got a new song I’m working on. So I might come in and grab food and work on it, maybe run it by you on your break.”
“You want to hear what I have so far? It’s a work in progress, but it goes ‘Your boyfriend’s a dick, a prick, take your pick. But you should take his drumstick and—’ ”
“—Point proven, Spence.”
He fit a fedora over his head. “I’ll believe that when you do something about it. See you tonight.”
I said, “I’ll save you your usual table,” but he was already out the door and on his way.
I used the spare key Sam gave me to lock up, and put Mace out of my mind. I had just enough time to make some ramen and catch a nap before coming back for work tonight. I pulled the hood of my jacket up over my head, and it helped to block some of the wind from my face and ears. I set off walking toward my apartment, quietly singing one of the songs by the Smiths from our set.
There is a better world
Well, there must be . . .
Milo’s apartment was the quintessential bachelor pad, complete with two weeks’ worth of takeout scattered all over the counters. He shoved aside an empty box from a Chinese restaurant and said, “You overthink things, hermano. So, I’m going to help you out.” Milo opened his freezer and slammed a bottle of tequila on the counter space he’d just “cleaned.”
I was beginning to get a clearer picture of how this night was going to go.
“You’re going to help me stop thinking completely?”
He unscrewed the cap and said, “Exactly.”
I picked up the bottle, and the glass was freezing against my fingertips.
“You could have at least gotten decent tequila. What is this? There’s a freaking pony on the bottle.”
He snatched the bottle out of my hand and said, “I’ll buy more expensive tequila when you get over this Bliss girl.”
I never should have mentioned her name to him. He had this tendency to drop her name into casual conversation as a way to numb me to it. So far, it was a bit like becoming numb to shock treatments. It got more bearable, but I wasn’t going to line up and ask for more anytime soon.
He pulled a few shot glasses out of a cabinet, and I said, “So this is therapy, Milo-style?”
“Yep. If you’re not wasted, it’s not working.”
He filled two shot glasses, and slid one over to me. The other he held back for himself. I gestured to his glass and said, “What are you drinking to get over?”
“You’re not getting it, hermano. We drink so that we don’t have to talk.” I nodded and took my filled shot glass. I started to lift it to my lips, and he stopped me. “These aren’t ordinary shots.”
“Oh, are they magic shots? If I pour one out on the busted concrete outside will a beanstalk grow?”
“Oh, they’re magic, all right,” Milo said. “They’re supposed to make you grow a pair.”
In true Milo-fashion, he laughed at his joke before I could, and did a celebratory dance. I shook my head and said blandly, “You’re hilarious.”
“I know, I know. But seriously, these shots are special.”
I eyed the tequila that I was sure to regret in the morning and said, “Especially bad.”
He picked up his shot and said, “Each one you take is a commitment. If you break that commitment, the gods of alcohol will punish you with a hangover so bad you’ll think Satan himself took a dump on you.”
“And if I don’t take them?”
“You can spend the night being a depressed white boy while I go get laid. Your choice.”
It was pretty depressing when you put it that way. I sighed and gestured for him to continue.
“Cade Winston, by drinking this shot, you hereby swear to get a girl’s phone number tonight. If you fail, may the alcohol gods curse you with the lowest alcohol tolerance known to man—so low that an anorexic baby could drink you under the table.”
I laughed, but picked up my shot. “I don’t think anorexic babies are a thing.”
“How do you know? I’m sure they don’t like being called chubby and having their fat pinched more than anyone else does.”
I took the shot just to get him to shut up. It tasted like rubber mixed with lighter fluid mixed with death. When my throat no longer felt like the burning inferno of hell itself I said, “Okay. A number. I can do that.”
He smiled and poured the second shot.
I eyed him. “If you say my punishment for this one is herpes, I’m out.”
He handed me the glass, laughing. “Relax, Winston. I’ll leave that between you and your giving tree.”
And now I could never read that book to my kids at the after-school program again.
“You should never have children,” I said.
“What makes you think there aren’t a few little Milos running around out there already?”
“Because Armageddon hasn’t happened yet.”
Milo punched me in the shoulder, spilling half the shot. He topped off the glass and said, “Cade Winston, by drinking this shot, you hereby swear to do something out of character tonight. Should you fail, you’ll be cursed to a lifetime filled with premature ejaculation.”
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