Mia actually cringes, and the silence at the table lengthens like dead air you still sometimes hear on college radio stations. “I’ll have a burger, fries, and a beer,” I say finally.
“Marvelous,” Stavros says, clapping his hands together like I’ve just given him the cure for cancer. “Cheeseburger Deluxe. Side of onion rings. Your young man is too skinny. Just like you.”
“You’ll never have healthy kids if you don’t put some meat on your bones,” Euphemia adds.
Mia cradles her head in her hands, as though she’s literally trying to disappear into her own body. After they leave, she peeks up. “God, that was, just, awkward. Clearly, they didn’t recognize you.”
“But they knew who you were. Wouldn’t have pegged them as classical music buffs.” Then I look down at my jeans, my black T-shirt, my beat-up sneaks. Once upon a time I’d been a classical music fan, too, so there’s no telling.
Mia laughs. “Oh, they’re not. Euphemia knows me from playing in the subway.”
“You busked in the subway? Times that tough?” And then I realize what I just said and want to hit rewind. You don’t ask someone like Mia if times are tough, even though I knew, financially, they weren’t. Denny had taken out a supplemental life insurance policy in addition to the one he had through the teachers’ union and that had left Mia pretty comfortable, although no one knew about the second policy right away. It was one of the reasons that, after the accident, a bunch of the musicians in town had played a series of benefit concerts and raised close to five thousand dollars for Mia’s Juilliard fund. The outpouring had moved her grandparents—and me, too—but it had infuriated Mia. She’d refused to take the donation, calling it blood money, and when her grandfather had suggested that accepting other people’s generosity was itself an act of generosity that might help people in the community feel better, she’d scoffed that it wasn’t her job to make other people feel better.
But Mia just smiles. “It was a blast. And surprisingly lucrative. Euphemia saw me and when I came here to eat, she remembered me from the Columbus Circle station. She proudly informed me that she’d put a whole dollar into my case.”
Mia’s phone rings. We both stop to listen to the tinny melody. Beethoven plays on and on.
“Are you going to get that?” I ask.
She shakes her head, looking vaguely guilty.
No sooner does the ringing stop then it pipes up again.
“You’re popular tonight.”
“Not so much popular as in trouble. I was supposed to be at this dinner after the concert. Lots of bigwigs. Agents. Donors. I’m pretty sure that’s either a Juilliard professor, someone from Young Concert Artists, or my management calling to yell at me.”
“Or Ernesto?” I say as lightly as humanly possible. Because Stavros and Euphemia may have been on to something about Mia having some fancy-pants boyfriend—one that she doesn’t drag into Greek diners. He just isn’t me.
Mia looks uncomfortable again. “Could be.”
“If you have people to talk to, or, you know, business to attend to, don’t let me stand in your way.”
“No. I should just turn this off.” She reaches into her bag and powers down the phone.
Stavros comes by with an iced coffee for Mia and a Budweiser for me and leaves another awkward pause in his wake.
“So,” I begin.
“So,” Mia repeats.
“So, you have a usual at this place. This like your regular spot?”
“I come for the spanakopita and nagging. It’s close to campus, so I used to come here a lot.”
Used to? For like the twentieth time tonight, I do the math. It’s been three years since Mia left for Juilliard. That would make her a senior this fall. But she’s playing Carnegie Hall? She has management? I’m suddenly wishing I’d paid more attention to that article.
“Why not anymore?” My frustration echoes through the din.
Mia’s face prickles up to attention, and a little caterpillar of anxiety bunches up above the bridge of her nose. “What?” she says quickly.
“Aren’t you still in school?”
“Oh, that,” she says, relief unfurling her brow. “I should’ve explained it before. I graduated in the spring. Juilliard has a three-year-degree option for . . .”
“Virtuosos.” I mean it as a compliment, but my annoyance at not having the baseball card on Mia Hall—the stats, highlights, career bests—turns it bitter.
“Gifted students,” Mia corrects, almost apologetically. “I graduated early so I can start touring sooner. Now, actually. It all starts now.”
We sit there in an awkward silence until Stavros arrives with the food. I didn’t think I was hungry when we ordered, but as soon as I smell the burger, my stomach starts rumbling. I realize all I’ve eaten today is a couple of hot dogs. Stavros lays down a bunch of plates in front of Mia, a salad, a spinach pie, French fries, rice pudding.
“That’s your regular?” I ask.
“I told you. I haven’t eaten in two days. And you know how I much I can put away. Or knew, I mean . . .”
“You need anything, Maestro, you just holler.”
After he leaves, we both kill a few minutes drowning our fries and the conversation in ketchup.
“So . . .” I begin.
“So . . .” she repeats. Then: “How’s everyone. The rest of the band?”
“Where are they tonight?”
“London. Or on their way.”
Mia cocks her head to the side. “I thought you said you were going tomorrow.”
“Yeah, well, I had to tie up some loose ends. Logistics and all that. So I’m here an extra day.”
“Well that’s lucky.”
“I mean . . . fortunate, because otherwise we wouldn’t have bumped into each other.”
I look at her. Is she serious? Ten minutes ago she looked like she was about to have a coronary at the mere possibility of being my girlfriend, and now she’s saying it’s lucky I stalked her tonight. Or is this merely the polite small talk portion of the evening?
“And how’s Liz? Is she still with Sarah?”
Oh, it is the small talk interlude. “Oh yeah, going strong. They want to get married and have this big debate about whether to do it in a legal state like Iowa or wait for Oregon to legalize. All that trouble to tie the knot.” I shake my head in disbelief.
“What, you don’t want to get married?” she asks, a hint of challenge in her voice.
It’s actually kind of hard to return her stare, but I force myself. “Never,” I say.
“Oh,” she says, sounding almost relieved.
Don’t panic, Mia. I wasn’t gonna propose.
“And you? Still in Oregon?” she asks.
“Nope. I’m in L.A. now.”
“Another rain refugee flees south.”
“Yeah, something like that.” No need to tell her how the novelty of being able to eat dinner outside in February wore off quickly, and how now the lack of seasons seems fundamentally wrong. I’m like the opposite of those people who need to sit under sunlamps in the gloom of winter. In the middle of L.A.’s sunny non-winter, I need to sit in a dark closet to feel right. “I moved my parents down, too. The heat’s better for my dad’s arthritis.”
“Yeah, Gramps’s arthritis is pretty bad, too. In his hip.”
Arthritis? Could this be any more like a Christmascard update: And Billy finished swimming lessons, and Todd knocked up his girlfriend, and Aunt Louise had her bunions removed.
“Oh, that sucks,” I say.
“You know how he is. He’s all stoic about it. In fact, he and Gran are gearing up to do a lot of traveling to visit me on the road, got themselves new passports. Gran even found a horticulture student to look after her orchids when she’s away.”
“So how are your gran’s orchids?” I ask. Excellent. We’ve moved on to flowers now.
“Still winning prizes, so I guess they must be doing well.” Mia looks down. “I haven’t seen her greenhouse in a while. I haven’t been back there since I came out here.”
I’m both surprised by this—and not. It’s like I knew it already, even though I thought that once I skipped town, Mia might return. Once again, I’ve overestimated my importance.
“You should look them up sometime,” she says. “They’d be so happy to hear from you, to hear about how well you’re doing.”
“How well I’m doing?”
When I look up at her, she’s peering at me from under a waterfall of hair, shaking her head in wonder. “Yeah, Adam, how amazing you’re doing. I mean, you did it. You’re a rock star!”
Rock star. The words are so full of smoke and mirrors that it’s impossible to find a real person behind them. But I am a rock star. I have the bank account of a rock star and the platinum records of a rock star and the girlfriend of a rock star. But I f**king hate that term, and hearing Mia pin it on me ups the level of my loathing to a new stratosphere.
“Do you have any pictures of the rest of the band?” she asks. “On your phone or something?”
“Yeah, pictures. I have a ton on my phone, but it’s back at the hotel.” Total bullshit but she’ll never know. And if it’s pictures she wants, I can just get her a copy of Spin at a corner newsstand.
“I have some pictures. Mine are actual paper pictures because my phone is so ancient. I think I have some of Gran and Gramps, and oh, a great one of Henry and Willow. They brought their kids to visit me at the Marlboro Festival last summer,” she tells me. “Beatrix, or Trixie as they call her, remember their little girl? She’s five now. And they had another baby, a little boy, Theo, named for Teddy.”
At the mention of Teddy’s name, my gut seizes up. In the calculus of feelings, you never really know how one person’s absence will affect you more than another’s. I loved Mia’s parents, but I could somehow accept their deaths. They’d gone too soon, but in the right order—parent before child—though, not, I supposed, from the perspective of Mia’s grandparents. But somehow I still can’t wrap my head around Teddy staying eight years old forever. Every year I get older, I think about how old Teddy would be, too. He’d be almost twelve now, and I see him in the face of every zitty adolescent boy who comes to our shows or begs an autograph.
I never told Mia about how much losing Teddy gutted me back when we were together, so there’s no way I’m gonna tell her now. I’ve lost my right to discuss such things. I’ve relinquished—or been relieved of—my seat at the Hall family table.
“I took the picture last summer, so it’s a little old, but you get the idea of how everyone looks.”
“Oh, that’s okay.”
But Mia’s already rooting through her bag. “Henry still looks the same, like an overgrown kid. Where is my wallet?” She heaves the bag onto the table.
“I don’t want to see your pictures!” My voice is as sharp as ice cracking, as loud as a parent’s reprimand.
Mia stops her digging. “Oh. Okay.” She looks chastened, slapped down. She zips her bag and slides it back into the booth, and in the process, knocks over my bottle of beer. She starts frantically grabbing at napkins from the dispenser to sop up the brew, like there’s battery acid leaking over the table. “Damn!” she says.
“It’s no big deal.”
“It is. I’ve made a huge mess,” Mia says breathlessly.
“You got most of it. Just call your buddy over and he’ll get the rest.”