She continues to clean maniacally until she’s emptied the napkin dispenser and used up every dry paper product in the vicinity. She balls up the soiled napkins and I think she’s about to go at the tabletop with her bare arm, and I’m watching the whole thing, slightly perplexed. Until Mia runs out of gas. She stops, hangs her head. Then she looks up at me with those eyes of hers. “I’m sorry.”
I know the cool thing to do is say it’s okay, it’s no big deal, I didn’t even get beer on me. But all of a sudden I’m not sure we’re talking about beer, and if we’re not talking about beer, if Mia’s issuing some stealth apology . . .
What are you sorry about, Mia?
Even if I could bring myself to ask that—which I can’t—she’s jumping out of the booth and running toward the bathroom to clean the beer off herself like she’s Lady Macbeth.
She’s gone for a while, and as I wait the ambiguity she left in the booth curdles its way into the deepest part of me. Because I’ve imagined a lot of scenarios over the last three years. Most of them versions of this all being some kind of Huge Mistake, a giant misunderstanding. And a lot of my fantasies involve the ways in which Mia grovels for my forgiveness. Apologizes for returning my love with the cruelty of her silence. For acting as though two years of life—those two years of our lives—amount to nothing.
But I always stop short of the fantasy of her apologizing for leaving. Because even though she might not know it, she just did what I told her she could do.
There were signs. Probably more of them than I ever caught, even after the fact. But I missed them all. Maybe because I wasn’t looking for them. I was too busy checking over my shoulder at the fire I’d just come through to pay much attention to the thousand-foot cliff looming in front of me.
When Mia had decided to go to Juilliard that fall, and when by late that spring it became clear that she’d be able to, I’d said I’d go with her to New York. She’d just given me this look, no way. “That was never on the table before,” she said, “so why should it be now?”
Because before you were a whole person but now you don’t have a spleen. Or parents. Because New York might swallow you alive, I’d thought. I didn’t say anything.
“It’s time for both of us to get back to our lives,” she continued. I’d only been at the university part-time before but had just stopped going after the accident and now had a term’s worth of incompletes. Mia hadn’t been back to school, either. She’d missed too much of it, and now she worked with a tutor to finish up her senior year classes so she could graduate and go to Juilliard on time. It was more going through the motions. Her teachers would pass her even if she never turned in another assignment.
“And what about the band?” she asked. “I know they’re all waiting on you.” Also true. Just before the accident, we’d recorded a self-titled record on Smiling Simon, a Seattle-based independent label. The album had come out at the beginning of the summer, and even though we hadn’t toured to support it, the CD had been selling up a storm, getting tons of play on college radio stations. As a result, Shooting Star now had major labels circling, all interested in signing a band that existed only in theory. “Your poor guitar is practically dying of neglect,” she said with a sad smile. It hadn’t been out of its case since our aborted opening act for Bikini.
So, I agreed to the long-distance thing. In part because there was no arguing with Mia. In part because I really didn’t want to quit Shooting Star. But also, I was kind of cocky about the distance. I mean, before I’d been worried about what the continental divide would do to us. But now? What the hell could twenty-five hundred miles do to us now? And besides, Kim had accepted a spot at NYU, a few miles downtown from Juilliard. She’d keep an eye on Mia.
Except, then Kim made a last-minute change and switched to Brandeis in Boston. I was furious about this. After the accident, we frequently had little chats about Mia’s progress and passed along pertinent info to her grandparents. We kept our talks secret, knowing Mia would’ve killed us had she thought we were conspiring. But Kim and I, we were like co-captains of Team Mia. If I couldn’t move to New York with Mia, I felt Kim had a responsibility to stay near her.
I stewed about this for a while until one hot July night about a month before she and Mia were due to leave. Kim had come over to Mia’s grandparents house to watch DVDs with us. Mia had gone to bed early so it was just the two of us finishing some pretentious foreign movie. Kim kept trying to talk to me about Mia, how well she was doing, and was jabbering over the film like a noisy parrot. I finally told her to shut up. Her eyes narrowed and she started gathering her stuff. “I know what you’re upset about and it’s not this lame movie, so why don’t you just yell at me about it already and get it over with,” she said. Then she’d burst out crying. I’d never seen Kim cry, full-on like this, not even at the memorial service, so I’d immediately felt like crap and apologized and sort of awkwardly hugged her.
After she’d finished sniveling, she’d dried her eyes and explained how Mia had made her choose Brandeis. “I mean, it’s where I really want to go. After so long in Goyoregon, I really wanted to be at a Jewish school, but NYU was fine, and New York is plenty Jewish. But, she was fierce on this. She said she didn’t want ‘any more babysitting.’ Those were her exact words. She swore that if I went to NYU, she’d know it was because we’d hatched a plan to keep an eye on her. She said she’d cut ties with me. I told her I didn’t believe her, but she had a look in her eye I’d never seen. She was serious. So I did it. Do you know how many strings I had to pull to get my spot back this late in the game? Plus, I lost my tuition deposit at NYU. But whatever, it made Mia happy and not a lot does these days.” Kim smiled ruefully. “So I’m not sure why it’s making me feel so miserable. Guilt, I guess. Religious hazard.” Then she’d started crying again.
Pretty loud sign. I guess I had my fingers in my ears.
But the end, when it finally came, was quiet.
Mia went to New York. I moved back to the House of Rock. I went back to school. The world didn’t end. For the first couple of weeks, Mia and I sent each other these epic emails. Hers were all about New York, her classes, music, school. Mine were all about our record-label meetings. Liz had scheduled a bunch of gigs for us around Thanksgiving—and we had some serious practicing to do before then, given that I hadn’t picked up a guitar in months—but, at Mike’s insistence, we were seeing to business first. We were traveling to Seattle and L.A. and meeting label execs. Some A&R guys from New York were coming out to Oregon to see us. I told Mia about the promises they made, how each of them said they’d hone our sound and launch us to superstardom. All of us in the band tried to keep it in check, but it was hard not to inhale their stardust.
Mia and I also had a phone call check-in every night before she went to bed. She was usually pretty wiped so the conversations were short; a chance to hear one another’s voice, to say I love you in real time.
One night about three weeks into the semester, I was a little late calling because we were meeting one of the A&R reps for dinner at Le Pigeon in Portland and everything ran a little late. When my call went to voice mail, I figured she’d already gone to sleep.
But the next day, there was no email from her. “Sorry I was late. U pissed @ me?” I texted her.
“No,” she texted right back. And I was relieved.
But that night, I called on time, and that call went right to voice mail. And the next day, the email from Mia was a terse two sentences, something about orchestra getting very intense. So I justified it. Things were starting to heat up. She was at Juilliard, after all. Her cello didn’t have WiFi. And this was Mia, the girl known to practice eight hours a day.
But then I started calling at different times, waking up early so I could get her before classes, calling during her dinnertime. And my calls kept going to voice mail, never getting returned. She didn’t return my texts either. I was still getting emails, but not every day, and even though my emails were full of increasingly desperate questions—“Why aren’t you picking up your cell?” “Did you lose it? Are you okay?”—her responses glossed right over everything. She just claimed to be busy.
I decided to go visit her grandparents. I’d pretty much lived with them for five months while Mia was recovering and had promised to visit frequently but I’d reneged on that. I found it hard to be in that drafty old house with its photo gallery of ghosts—a wedding portrait of Denny and Kat, a gut-wrenching shot of twelve-year-old Mia reading to Teddy on her lap—without Mia beside me. But with Mia’s contact dwindling, I needed answers.
The first time I went that fall, Mia’s grandmother talked my ear off about the state of her garden and then went out to her greenhouse, leaving me to sit in the kitchen with her grandfather. He brewed us a strong pot of coffee. We didn’t say much, so all you could hear was the crackling of the woodstove. He just looked at me in that quiet sad way that made me inexplicably want to kneel at the foot of his chair and put my head in his lap.
I went back a couple more times, even after Mia had cut off contact with me completely, and it was always like that. I felt kind of bad pretending that I was there on social calls when really I was hoping for some news, some explanation. No, what I was really hoping for was not to be the odd man out. I wanted them to say: “Mia has stopped calling us. Has she been in touch with you?” But, of course, that never happened because that never would happen.
The thing was, I didn’t need any confirmation from Mia’s grandparents. I knew from that second night when my call went to voice mail, that it was the end of the line for me.
Because hadn’t I told her? Hadn’t I stood over her body and promised her that I’d do anything if she stayed, even if it meant letting her go? The fact that she’d been in a coma when I’d said this, hadn’t woken up for another three days, that neither of us had ever mentioned what I’d said—that seemed almost irrelevant. I’d brought this on myself.
The thing I can’t wrap my head around is how she did it. I’ve never dumped a girl with such brutality. Even back when I did the groupie thing, I’d always escort the girl du jour out of my hotel room or limo or whatever, give her a chaste kiss on the cheek and a “Thanks, that was a lot of fun,” or something with a similar note of finality in it. And that was a groupie. Mia and I had been together for more than two years, and yes, it was a high-school romance, but it was still the kind of romance where I thought we were trying to find a way to make it forever, the kind that, had we met five years later and had she not been some cello prodigy and had I not been in a band on the rise—or had our lives not been ripped apart by all this—I was pretty sure it would’ve been.
I’ve come to realize there’s a world of difference between knowing something happened, even knowing why it happened, and believing it. Because when she cut off contact, yeah, I knew what had happened. But it took me a long, long time to believe it.
Some days, I still don’t quite believe it.
Barrel of the gun, rounds one two three
She says I have to pick: choose you, or choose me
Metal to the temple, the explosion is deafening
Lick the blood that covers me
She’s the last one standing
COLLATERAL DAMAGE, TRACK 11
After we leave the diner, I start to feel nervous. Because we bumped into each other. We did the polite thing and stuck around to catch up, so what’s left except our good-byes? But I’m not ready for that. I’m pretty sure there’s not going to be another postscript with Mia, and I’m gonna have to live on the fumes of tonight for the rest of my life, so I’d like a little more to show for it than parking lots and arthritis and aborted apologies.