She chuckled. I pulled her closer to me, wanting to eradicate any distance between our bodies. I pushed her hair off her neck and nuzzled my face there. “Now you owe me an embarrassing story from your childhood,” I murmured into her ear.
“All my embarrassing stories are still happening,” she replied.
“There must be one I don’t know.”
She was silent for a while. Then she said: “Butterflies.”
“I was terrified of butterflies.”
“What is it with you and nature?”
She shook with silent laughter. “I know,” she said. “And can there be a less-threatening creature than a butterfly? They only live, like, two weeks. But I used to freak any time I saw one. My parents did everything they could to desensitize me: bought me books on butterflies, clothes with butterflies, put up butterfly posters in my room. But nothing worked.”
“Were you like attacked by a gang of monarchs?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Gran had this theory behind my phobia. She said it was because one day I was going to have to go through a metamorphosis like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly and that scared me, so butterflies scared me.”
“That sounds like your gran. How’d you get over your fear?”
“I don’t know. I just decided not to be scared of them anymore and then one day I wasn’t.”
“Fake it till you make it.”
“Something like that.”
“You could try that with camping.”
“Do I have to?”
“Nah, but I’m glad you came.”
She’d turned to face me. It was almost pitch-black in the tent but I could see her dark eyes shining. “Me too. But do we have to go to sleep? Can we just stay like this for a while?”
“All night long if you want. We’ll tell our secrets to the dark.”
“So let’s hear another one of your irrational fears.”
Mia grasped me by the arms and pulled herself in to my chest, like she was burrowing her body into mine. “I’m scared of losing you,” she said in the faintest of voices.
I pushed her away so I could see her face and kissed the top of her forehead. “I said ‘irrational’ fears. Because that’s not gonna happen.”
“It still scares me,” she murmured. But then she went on to list other random things that freaked her out and I did the same, and we kept whispering to each other, telling stories from our childhoods, deep, deep into the night until finally Mia forgot to be scared and fell asleep.
The weather turned cool a few weeks later, and that winter was when Mia had her accident. So that actually turned out to be the last time I went camping. But even if it weren’t, I still think it would be the best trip of my life. Whenever I remember it, I just picture our tent, a little ship glowing in the night, the sounds of Mia’s and my whispers escaping like musical notes, floating out on a moonlit sea.
You crossed the water, left me ashore
It killed me enough, but you wanted more
You blew up the bridge, a mad terrorist
Waved from your side, threw me a kiss
I started to follow but realized too late
There was nothing but air underneath my feet
COLLATERAL DAMAGE, TRACK 4
Fingers of light are starting to pry open the night sky. Soon the sun will rise and a new day will inarguably begin. A day in which I’m leaving for London. And Mia for Tokyo. I feel the countdown of the clock ticking like a time bomb.
We’re on the Brooklyn Bridge now, and though Mia hasn’t said so specifically, I feel like this must be the last stop. I mean, we’re leaving Manhattan—and not a round-trip like our cruise out to Staten Island and back was. And also, Mia has decided, I guess, that since she’s pulled some confessionals, it’s my turn. About halfway across the bridge, she stops suddenly and turns to me.
“So what’s up with you and the band?” she asks.
There’s a warm wind blowing, but I suddenly feel cold. “What do you mean, ‘what’s up?’”
Mia shrugs. “Something’s up. I can tell. You’ve hardly talked about them all night. You guys used to be inseparable, and now you don’t even live in the same state. And why didn’t you go to London together?”
“I told you, logistics.”
“What was so important that they couldn’t have waited one night for you?”
“I had to, to do some stuff. Go into the studio and lay down a few guitar tracks.”
Mia eyes me skeptically. “But you’re on tour for a new album. Why are you even recording?”
“A promo version of one of our singles. More of this,” I say, frowning as I rub my fingers together in a money-money motion.
“But wouldn’t you be recording together?”
I shake my head. “It doesn’t really work like that anymore. And besides, I had to do an interview with Shuffle.”
“An interview? Not with the band? Just with you? That’s what I don’t get.”
I think back to the day before. To Vanessa LeGrande. And out of the blue, I’m recalling the lyrics to “Bridge,” and wondering if maybe discussing this with Mia Hall above the dark waters of the East River isn’t such a hot idea. At least it isn’t Friday the thirteenth anymore.
“Yeah. That’s kinda how it works these days, too,” I say.
“Why do they only want just you? What do they want to know about?”
I really don’t want to talk about this. But Mia’s like a bloodhound, tracking a scent, and I know her well enough to know that I can either throw her a piece of bloody meat, or let her sniff her way to the real pile of stinking corpses. I go for the diversion.
“Actually, that part’s kinda interesting. The reporter, she asked about you.”
“What?” Mia swivels around to face me.
“She was interviewing me and asked about you. About us. About high school.” The look of shock on Mia’s face, I savor it. I think about what she said earlier, about her life in Oregon being a lifetime ago. Well, maybe not such a lifetime ago! “That’s the first time that’s happened. Kinda strange coincidence, all things considered.”
“I don’t believe in coincidences anymore.”
“I didn’t tell her anything, but she’d gotten a hold of the old Cougar yearbook. The one with our picture—Groovy and the Geek.”
Mia shakes her head. “Yeah, I so loved that nick-name.”
“Don’t worry. I didn’t say anything. And for good measure, I smashed her recorder. Destroyed all evidence.”
“Not all the evidence.” She stares at me. “The Cougar lives on. I’m sure Kim will be delighted to know her early work may turn up in a national magazine.” She shakes her head and chuckles. “Once Kim gets you in her shutter, you’re stuck forever. So it was pointless to destroy that reporter’s recorder.”
“I know. I just sort of lost it. She was this very provocative person, and she was trying to get a rise out of me with all these insults-disguised-as-compliments.”
Mia nods knowingly. “I get that, too. It’s the worst! ‘I was fascinated by the Shostakovich you played tonight. So much more subdued than the Bach,’ she says in a snooty voice. ‘Translation: The Shostakovich sucked.’”
I can’t imagine the Shostakovich ever sucking, but I won’t deny us this common ground.
“So what did she want to know about me?”
“She had plans to do this big exposé, I guess, on what makes Shooting Star tick. And she went digging around our hometown and talked to people we went to high school with. And they told her about us . . . about the . . . about what we were. And about you and what happened . . .” I trail off. I look down at the river, at a passing barge, which, judging by its smell, is carrying garbage.
“And what really happened?” Mia asks.
I’m not sure if this is a rhetorical question, so I force my own voice into a jokey drawl. “Yeah, that’s what I’m still trying to figure out.”
It occurs to me that this is maybe the most honest thing I’ve said all night, but the way I’ve said it transforms it into a lie.
“You know, my manager warned me that the accident might get a lot of attention as my profile went up, but I didn’t think that the connection to you would be an issue. I mean, I did in the beginning. I sort of waited for someone to look me up—ghosts of girlfriends past—but I guess I wasn’t interesting enough compared to your other, um, attachments.”
She thinks that’s why none of the hacks have pestered her, because she’s not as interesting as Bryn, who I guess she does know about. If only she knew how the band’s inner circle has bent over backward to keep her name out of things, to not touch the bruise that blooms at the mere mention of her. That right at this very moment there are riders in interview contracts that dictate whole swaths of forbidden conversational topics that, though they don’t name her specifically, are all about obliterating her from the record. Protecting her. And me.
“I guess high school really is ancient history,” she concludes.
Ancient history? Have you really relegated us to the trash heap of the Dumb High-School Romance? And if that’s the case, why the hell can’t I do the same?
“Yeah, well you plus me, we’re like MTV plus Lifetime,” I say, with as much jauntiness as I can muster. “In other words, shark bait.”
She sighs. “Oh, well. I suppose even sharks have to eat.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s just, I don’t particularly want my family history dragged through the public eye, but if that’s the price to be paid for doing what you love, I guess I’ll pay it.”
And we’re back to this. The notion that music can make it all worthwhile—I’d like to believe. I just don’t. I’m not even sure that I ever did. It isn’t the music that makes me want to wake up every day and take another breath. I turn away from her toward the dark water below.
“What if it’s not what you love?” I mumble, but my voice gets lost in the wind and the traffic. But at least I’ve said it out loud. I’ve done that much.
I need a cigarette. I lean against the railing and look uptown toward a trio of bridges. Mia comes to stand beside me as I’m fumbling to get my lighter to work.
“You should quit,” she says, touching me gently on the shoulder.
For a second, I think she means the band. That she heard what I said before and is telling me to quit Shooting Star, leave the whole music industry. I keep waiting for someone to advise me to quit the music business, but no one ever does. Then I remember how earlier tonight, she told me the same thing, right before she bummed a cigarette. “It’s not so easy,” I say.
“Bullshit,” Mia says with a self-righteousness that instantly recalls her mother, Kat, who wore her certitude like a beat-up leather jacket and who had a mouth on her that could make a roadie blush. “Quitting’s not hard. Deciding to quit is hard. Once you make that mental leap, the rest is easy.”
“Really? Was that how you quit me?”
And just like that, without thinking, without saying it in my head first, without arguing with myself for days, it’s out there.
“So,” she says, as if speaking to an audience under the bridge. “He finally says it.”
“Was I not supposed to? Am I just supposed to let this whole night go without talking about what you did?”
“No,” she says softly.
“So why? Why did you go? Was it because of the voices?”
She shakes her head. “It wasn’t the voices.”