“I know they’re just pictures,” she continues, “but some days they really help me get up in the morning. Well, them, and coffee.”
Ahh, the coffee. I go to the kitchen and open the cabinets where I know the cups will be, though I’m a little startled to find that even these are the same collection of 1950s and 60s ceramic mugs that I’ve used so many times before; amazed that she’s hauled them from dorm to dorm, from apartment to apartment. I look around for my favorite mug, the one with the dancing coffeepots on it, and am so damn happy to find it’s still here. It’s almost like having my picture on the wall, too. A little piece of me still exists, even if the larger part of me can’t.
I pour myself a cup, then pour Mia’s, adding a dash of half-and-half, like she takes it.
“I like the pictures,” I say. “Keeps things interesting.”
Mia nods, blows ripples into her coffee.
“And I miss them, too,” I say. “Every day.”
She looks surprised at that. Not that I miss them, but, I guess by my admitting it, finally. She nods solemnly. “I know,” she says.
She walks around the room, running her fingers lightly along the picture frames. “I’m running out of space,” she says. “I had to put up a bunch of Kim’s recent shots in the bathroom. Have you talked to her lately?”
She must know what I did to Kim. “No.”
“Really? Then you don’t know about the scandale?”
I shake my head.
“She dropped out of college last year. When the war flared up in Afghanistan, Kim decided, screw it, I want to be a photographer and the best education is in the field. So she just took her cameras and off she went. She started selling all these shots to the AP and the New York Times. She cruises around in one of those burkas and hides all her photographic equipment underneath the robes and then whips them off to get her shot.”
“I’ll bet Mrs. Schein loves that.” Kim’s mom was notoriously overprotective. The last I’d heard of her, she was having a freak-out that Kim was going to school across the country, which, Kim had said, was precisely the point.
Mia laughs. “At first, Kim told her family she was just taking a semester off, but now she’s getting really successful so she’s officially dropped out, and Mrs. Schein has officially had a nervous breakdown. And then there’s the fact that Kim’s a nice Jewish girl in a very Muslim country.” Mia blows on her coffee and sips. “But, on the other hand, now Kim gets her stuff in the New York Times, and she just got a feature assignment for National Geographic, so it gives Mrs. Schein some bragging ammo.”
“Hard for a mother to resist,” I say.
“She’s a big Shooting Star fan, you know?”
“Mrs. Schein? I always had her pegged as more hip-hop.”
Mia grins. “No. She’s into death metal. Hard core. Kim. She saw you guys play in Bangkok. Said it poured rain and you played right through it.”
“She was at that show? I wish she would’ve come backstage, said hi,” I say, even though I know why she wouldn’t have. Still, she came to the show. She must have forgiven me a little bit.
“I told her the same thing. But she had to leave right away. She was supposed to be in Bangkok for some R & R, but that rain you were playing in was actually a cyclone somewhere else and she had to run off and cover it. She’s a very badass shutterbabe these days.”
I think of Kim chasing Taliban insurgents and ducking flying trees. It’s surprisingly easy to imagine. “It’s funny,” I begin.
“What is?” Mia asks.
“Kim being a war photographer. All Danger Girl.”
“Yeah, it’s a laugh riot.”
“That’s not how I meant. It’s just: Kim. You. Me. We all came from this nowhere town in Oregon, and look at us. All three of us have gone to, well, extremes. You gotta admit, it’s kind of weird.”
“It’s not weird at all,” Mia says, shaking out a bowl of cornflakes. “We were all forged in the crucible. Now come on, have some cereal.”
I’m not hungry. I’m not even sure I can eat a single cornflake, but I sit down because my place at the Hall family table has just been restored.
Time has a weight to it, and right now I can feel it heavy over me. It’s almost three o’clock. Another day is half over and tonight I leave for the tour. I hear the clicking of the antique clock on Mia’s wall. I let the minutes go by longer than I should before I finally speak.
“We both have our flights. I should probably get moving,” I say. My voice sounds faraway but I feel weirdly calm. “Are there taxis around here?”
“No, we get back and forth to Manhattan by river raft,” she jokes. “You can call a car,” she adds after a moment.
I stand up, make my way toward the kitchen counter where Mia’s phone sits. “What’s the number?” I ask.
“Seven-one-eight,” Mia begins. Then she interrupts herself. “Wait.”
At first I think she has to pause to recall the number, but I see her eyes, at once unsure and imploring.
“There’s one last thing,” she continues, her voice hesitant. “Something I have that really belongs to you.”
“My Wipers T-shirt?”
She shakes her head. “That’s long gone, I’m afraid. Come on. It’s upstairs.”
I follow her up the creaking steps. At the top of the narrow landing to my right I can see her bedroom with its slanted ceilings. To my left is a closed door. Mia opens it, revealing a small studio. In the corner is a cabinet with a keypad. Mia punches in a code and the door opens.
When I see what she pulls out of the cabinet, at first I’m like, Oh, right, my guitar. Because here in Mia’s little house in Brooklyn is my old electric guitar, my Les Paul Junior. The guitar I bought at a pawnshop with my pizza-delivery earnings when I was a teenager. It’s the guitar I used to record all of our stuff leading up to, and including, Collateral Damage. It’s the guitar I auctioned off for charity and have regretted doing so ever since.
It’s sitting in its old case, with my old Fugazi and K Records stickers, with the stickers from Mia’s dad’s old band, even. Everything is the same, the strap, the dent from when I’d dropped it off a stage. Even the dust smells familiar.
And I’m just taking it all in, so it’s a few seconds before it really hits me. This is my guitar. Mia has my guitar. Mia is the one who bought my guitar for some exorbitant sum, which means that Mia knew it was up for auction. I look around the room. Among the sheet music and cello paraphernalia is a pile of magazines, my face peeking out from the covers. And then I remember something back on the bridge, Mia justifying why she left me by reciting the lyrics to “Roulette.”
And suddenly, it’s like I’ve been wearing earplugs all night and they’ve fallen out, and everything that was muffled is now clear. But also so loud and jarring.
Mia has my guitar. It’s such a straightforward thing and yet I don’t know that I would’ve been more surprised had Teddy popped out of the closet. I feel faint. I sit down. Mia stands right in front of me, holding my guitar by the neck, offering it back to me.
“You?” is all I can manage to choke out.
“Always me,” she replies softly, bashfully. “Who else?”
My brain has vacated my body. My speech is reduced to the barest of basics. “But . . . why?”
“Somebody had to save it from the Hard Rock Café,” Mia says with a laugh. But I can hear the potholes in her voice, too.
“But . . .” I grasp for the words like a drowning man reaching for floating debris,“ . . . you said you hated me?”
Mia lets out a long, deep sigh. “I know. I needed someone to hate, and you’re the one I love the most, so it fell to you.”
She’s holding out the guitar, nudging it toward me. She wants me to take it, but I couldn’t lift a cotton ball right now.
She keeps staring, keeps offering.
“But what about Ernesto?”
A look of puzzlement flits across her face, followed by amusement. “He’s my mentor, Adam. My friend. He’s married.” She looks down for a beat. When her gaze returns, her amusement has hardened into defensiveness. “Besides, why should you care?”
Go back to your ghost, I hear Bryn telling me. But she has it wrong. Bryn is the one who’s been living with the ghost—the specter of a man who never stopped loving someone else.
“There never would’ve been a Bryn if you hadn’t decided you needed to hate me,” I reply.
Mia takes this one square on the chin. “I don’t hate you. I don’t think I ever really did. It was just anger. And once I faced it head-on, once I understood it, it dissipated.” She looks down, takes a deep breath, and exhales a tornado. “I know I owe you some kind of an apology; I’ve been trying to get it out all night but it’s like those words—apology, sorry—are too measly for what you deserve.” She shakes her head. “I know what I did to you was so wrong, but at the time it also felt so necessary to my survival. I don’t know if those two things can both be true but that’s how it was. If it’s any comfort, after a while, when it didn’t feel necessary anymore, when it felt hugely wrong, all I was left with was the magnitude of my mistake, of my missing you. And I had to watch you from this distance, watch you achieve your dreams, live what seemed like this perfect life.”
“It’s not perfect,” I say.
“I get that now, but how was I supposed to know? You were so very, very far from me. And I’d accepted that. Accepted that as my punishment for what I’d done. And then . . .” she trails off.
She takes a gulp of air and grimaces. “And then Adam Wilde shows up at Carnegie Hall on the biggest night of my career, and it felt like more than a coincidence. It felt like a gift. From them. For my first recital ever, they gave me a cello. And for this one, they gave me you.”
Every hair on my body stands on end, my whole body alert with a chill.
She hastily wipes tears from her eyes with the back of her hand and takes a deep breath. “Here, are you going to take this thing or what? I haven’t tuned it for a while.”
I used to have dreams like this. Mia back from the not-dead, in front of me, alive to me. But it got so even in the dreams I knew they were unreal and could anticipate the blare of my alarm, so I’m kind of listening now, waiting for the alarm to go off. But it doesn’t. And when I close my fingers around the guitar, the wood and strings are solid and root me to the earth. They wake me up. And she’s still here.
And she’s looking at me, at my guitar, and at her cello and at the clock on the windowsill. And I see what she wants, and it’s the same thing I’ve wanted for years now but I can’t believe that after all this time, and now that we’re out of time, she’s asking for it. But still, I give a little nod. She plugs in the guitar, tosses me the cord, and turns on the amp.
“Can you give me an A?” I ask. Mia plucks her cello’s A string. I tune from that and then I strum an A-minor, and as the chord bounces off the walls, I feel that dash of electricity shimmy up my spine in a way it hasn’t done for a long, long time.
I look at Mia. She’s sitting across from me, her cello between her legs. Her eyes are closed and I can tell she’s doing that thing, listening for something in the silence. Then all at once, Mia seems to have heard what she needs to hear. Her eyes are open and on me again, like they never left. She picks up her bow, gestures toward my guitar with a slight tilt of her head. “Are you ready?” she asks.
There are so many things I’d like to tell her, top among them is that I’ve always been ready. But instead, I turn up the amp, fish a pick out of my pocket, and just say yes.
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