He didn’t stumble or say “I’m sorry.” He just walked up and stopped a few feet away from me, his brow lowering with a frown of recognition, and then did something so perfect it makes me ache to this day. Decisively, step by step, he closed the gap and just put his arms around me. Tucked my cheek into his chest and wound one arm around my waist, the other around my shoulders, rested his head on my hair, and held me. I would give anything to go back to that moment in the auditorium, with its cracked wood seats and its shabby, threadbare carpet, its smell of lemony bleach.
To feel again how Sam filled all my senses. My ear against the wool of his suit, his arms wrapped around me like a cocoon of understanding. His aftershave, the rasp of his cheek against my ear. Sam created a world for me in that one moment, a safe world where I could cry. A world where I fell in love. What I didn’t know then was that two weeks later at the qualifiers, I would dismantle that world, atom by atom, molecule by molecule, completely unaware that I was doing it at the time.
It should have made me feel like a creepy stalker, taking pleasure as I did when I listened to the music and I watched his movement. Just as being behind that drum set was where Sam seemed to make some sort of sense, my place was here watching him as I tried to make sense of my own rhythms, my own beats, and my own choices.
“What the hell kind of state doesn’t have Happy Hour?” Darla asked, incredulous.
She was at every practice and every gig now that she was living here, somewhere in Cambridge with an aunt who ran a dating service where Darla had a job. It must be a day job, because she had plenty of time to act like a band manager and mother hen. You wouldn’t know that she had her own apartment, either; she’d been spending so much time at Trevor and Joe’s that they’d bought her a toothbrush. Not that I could say anything—I was crashing on their couch for free.
“In Ohio most bars have Happy Hour all week long. You walk in and they’ve got free food—you know, wings and mozzarella sticks and all kinds of things that you can munch on,” she said. “And then discounts on drinks. Dollar drafts, buy one drink, get one free, or buy one drink, get one half off—you name it. All the major cities in Ohio have it, but here....” She rolled her eyes and threw up her hands. “Nothin’. And why do the bars close at one o’clock?”
Trevor shrugged. “Beats me. I know alcohol can’t be served after two.”
“Yeah!” Darla interjected. “So why one o’clock? What’s up with being so uptight? Is it the Catholicism in this state, or what? What the hell does the Pope have against a mozzarella stick or a basket of wings? ”
“Darla,” Trevor said, pulling her in, their hips touching, his hands all over her ample ass. “You go march right over to the bar owner and give him a piece of your mind. Change the world. Free the mozzarella sticks.”
“The poor schmuck who owns this place doesn’t control any of that. It’s the voters,” she insisted.
“Run for governor. Vote for Darla!” Trevor shouted.
“Why would I do that?” she asked. “It’s so much easier to just sit here and bitch about it.”
Joe walked up in the middle of our laughter looking green and sick. I started to take off and give them a minute for what I knew was about to happen, but Liam marched over and interrupted before Joe had a chance to speak. Joe looked relieved.
Liam was taller than any of us; he towered over Trevor, and that wasn’t an easy accomplishment. When we were younger, he’d looked like a wiry praying mantis, always too tall for the society he was in. Since senior year of high school, though, he’d taken to lifting weights and had filled out a lot. Liam’s confidence reflected the change; he’d begun to manifest a certain personal authority. He interrupted Joe without apology, confidently certain that what he had to say was the most important.
I wanted to be that way. It wasn’t easy after my parents spent most of my childhood and teen years reminding me to project happiness at all times, as a sign of confidence, of assurance, and of contentment—none of which I really felt. While that developed, I was cocooned behind my drum kit and managed the truth by omission.
Drumbeats and measures and music are always honest, laid out plainly, page after page after page. The beats, the microbeats, the macrobeats, all of it are a kind of language that tells you—note after note, tap after tap—exactly what you need to do to get to the end of the song. How I interpret the emotional landscape within those beats, though—that’s entirely up to me. I can go heavy and deep, or shallow and wild. If only life were that simple and uncomplicated.
I studied Trevor, Joe, and Darla. I saw a complication of their choosing. No piece of music, no set of lyrics or measures or notes laid out in a blueprint, could capture what they had improvised. And they’d done it in three-three time.
I preferred two-two.
“They’re great, aren’t they?” A voluptuous, blonde woman with eyes the color of the ocean and curly, frizzy hair sat down next to me. Her personality took up two thirds of the table.
And she looked way too familiar.
She was wearing some sort of a cotton shirt underneath a flannel, like 1991 called and asked her to audition for a part in a Pearl Jam video. As I scooched over to make room for her, I peeked under the table—yep, I was right. Chuck Taylors. She didn’t exactly fit in with the college crowd on the Fenway. Then again, I looked around at the way everyone else was dressed and styled in this dive bar, and realized that I didn’t exactly fit it, either. I was wearing a cami with one of those ragged-edged jackets that you could get at J. Jill…except I got mine at the Salvation Army for $3.99.
“Yeah, they’re really good,” I said, reflexively polite. She kind of looked like a lot of the women out in Northampton. Was I being hit on? She slammed a beer bottle down on the table from a microbrewery nearby. Good taste in beer, I thought. I took a sip of my Amaretto Sour. It was getting close to the bottom and this was the point where I cut myself off.
“You seem like you know them. Hi, I’m Darla,” she said, holding out her hand.
I shook it. “Amy,” I said..
She wiped her hand on her hip. Or was it her ass? It was kind of hard to tell, as her curves blended together like mine, but a little bigger and shaped in a different way. “How long have you been following them?” she asked, leaning with her elbows on the table, shooting an adoring look at the stage.
“I—” I started slowly, choosing my words carefully.
She peered at me with narrowed eyes, an intelligence washing over her face, making me realize that I’d underestimated her. “Hold on. I know you. Where have we met?”
My mind searched through the database of faces I knew. This one was recent. Why couldn’t I remember?
“I know!” she shouted. And then, in an electronic, robotic voice, she said, “I wish it were my mouth. My pussy and clit need to be touched. Please move three licks to the right.” Snicker.
Oh, shit. She was the blonde from the subway this morning. A red cloud of shame plumed on my face and I felt my heart slam against my ribs.
“You remember the words?”
“And something about a little red nub, ecstasy, and—”
A group of guys behind us went silent and leaned toward us, clearly eavesdropping.
“It’s not my fault my eReader malfunctioned.”
“Hey,” she said, putting her palms up. “What you do with electronic devices in the privacy of your own mind is your business.”
“You make me sound like a perv!” Even a chance at watching Sam wasn’t worth this.
She lowered her voice and shot the guys behind us an eyeroll. “I never said that. You said that. I actually want to know the name of that book. Sounds right up my alley. Better than the cheesy historical romances my mom reads.”
“How on earth did you get from being on that subway car to being here?” I asked, a prickly heat rising inside me.
“It’s pretty random, isn’t it?”
I groaned. She frowned, then realized why and laughed.
She took a swig of her beer and then looked back as the band reassembled, getting ready for the next set, as relaxed as I was tense. “I’ve only been following them for about a year,” she said, quietly. The sudden shift in conversation was abrupt, but I’d take it. Just get the focus off me.
Oh, if only you knew, I thought. “Are you a fan?” I asked.
“I’m...” She paused, and got a funny look on her face, like there was a correct way to answer that question, and it was on the tip of her tongue, but she wasn’t sure whether to choose a lesser option. “Yeah.” Darla nodded. “I’m a fan.”
What had she decided NOT to say? I wondered. Whatever it was, I wanted to hear it. That was probably more interesting than the banal, politely expected response. Darla didn’t strike me as the conventional type, so maybe there was something about me that made her say that.
“What’s your favorite song?” she asked me.
“I Wasted…” I began, and she squealed along, “…My Only Answered Prayer!” we said in unison, and then laughed.
She kind of did that backhanded, playful smack thing that a good friend does. It reminded me of Erin, my best friend. You can still call someone your best friend even if they live 3,000 miles away, right? Because Erin had just left for orientation for a PhD program at Berkeley. Not Berklee College of Music here in Boston. No, the other Berkeley. UC Berkeley. She was going into History, Women’s History, no less, and had gotten in with full funding. For the next two weeks she was at some archive in the middle of Canada doing research.
I was getting my master’s in Library Science here in Boston at a college known all too well for that. Library Science was safe, contained, simple, orderly—everything I wanted since I’d realized it was everything that Sam wasn’t. Everything that Darla clearly wasn’t.
She stood, shoved two fingers into her mouth and whistled the kind of wolf whistle that had eluded me my entire life.
“How do you do that?” I asked.
I motioned at my mouth. “That whole...thing...you did. You know.” I moved my hand around, trying to come up with the idea.
She mimicked me, joking. “You mean give a blowjob?”
“No! I don’t mean that,” I said, my cheeks burning.
“Then what the heck is this?” She waved her hands around wildly.
“This,” I said, waving mine around, “is two Amaretto Sours in me in an hour.”
An arched eyebrow answered me. “Maybe you need three.”
I laughed, my eyes taking in Sam as he walked across the stage, the way his legs ate the floor. I was talking to her, but my attention was elsewhere.
She picked up on it, fast. “Which one’s your favorite?” she said.
Her tone remained super chummy and chipper, but there was a look in her eyes that told me there was a right answer to her question— and a very wrong one. I went for safe because I always go for safe, right? That’s what I do. That’s why I was sitting here in the back of a dark bar, staring at Sam, talking to a complete stranger about someone I didn’t have the guts to walk up to and say ‘hi.’