“Then what? What was it?” I hear the desperation in my own voice now.
“It was lots of things. Like how you couldn’t be yourself around me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You stopped talking to me.”
“That’s absurd, Mia. I talked to you all the time!”
“You talked to me, but you didn’t. I could see you having these two-sided conversations. The things you wanted to say to me. And the words that actually came out.”
I think of all the dual conversations I have. With everyone. Is that when it started? “Well, you weren’t exactly easy to talk to,” I shoot back. “Anything I said was the wrong thing.”
She looks at me with a sad smile. “I know. It wasn’t just you. It was you plus me. It was us.”
I just shake my head. “It’s not true.”
“Yes it is. But don’t feel bad. Everyone walked on eggshells around me. But with you, it was painful that you couldn’t be real with me. I mean, you barely even touched me.”
As if to reinforce the point, she places two fingers on the inside of my wrist. Were smoke to rise and the imprints of her two fingers branded onto me, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. I have to pull away just to steady myself.
“You were healing,” is my pathetic reply. “And if I recall, when we did try, you freaked.”
“Once,” she says. “Once.”
“All I wanted was for you to be okay. All I wanted was to help you. I would’ve done anything.”
She drops her chin to her chest. “Yes, I know. You wanted to rescue me.”
“Damn, Mia. You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
She looks up at me. The sympathy is still in her eyes, but there’s something else now, too: a fierceness; it slices up my anger and reconstitutes it as dread.
“You were so busy trying to be my savior that you left me all alone,” she says. “I know you were trying to help, but it just felt, at the time, like you were pushing me away, keeping things from me for my own good and making me more of a victim. Ernesto says that people’s good intentions can wind up putting us in boxes as confining as coffins.”
“Ernesto? What the hell does he know about it?”
Mia traces the gap between the wooden boardwalk planks with her toe. “A lot, actually. His parents were killed when he was eight. He was raised by his grandparents.”
I know what I’m supposed to feel is sympathy. But the rage just washes over me. “What, is there some club?” I ask, my voice starting to crack. “A grief club that I can’t join?”
I expect her to tell me no. Or that I’m a member. After all, I lost them, too. Except even back then, it had been different, like there’d been a barrier. That’s the thing you never expect about grieving, what a competition it is. Because no matter how important they’d been to me, no matter how sorry people told me they were, Denny and Kat and Teddy weren’t my family, and suddenly that distinction had mattered.
Apparently, it still does. Because Mia stops and considers my question. “Maybe not a grief club. But a guilt club. From being left behind.”
Oh, don’t talk to me about guilt! My blood runs thick with it. On the bridge, now I feel tears coming. The only way to keep them at bay is to find the anger that’s sustained me and push back with it. “But you could’ve at least told me,” I say, my voice rising to a shout. “Instead of dropping me like a one-night stand, you could’ve had the decency to break up with me instead of leaving me wondering for three years. . . .”
“I didn’t plan it,” she says, her own pitch rising. “I didn’t get on that plane thinking we’d split up. You were everything to me. Even as it was happening, I didn’t believe it was happening. But it was. Just being here, being away, it was all so much easier in a way I didn’t anticipate. In a way I didn’t think my life could be anymore. It was a huge relief.”
I think of all the girls whose backs I couldn’t wait to see in retreat. How once their sound and smell and voices were gone, I felt my whole body exhale. A lot of the time Bryn falls into this category. That’s how my absence felt to Mia?
“I planned to tell you,” she continues, the words coming out in a breathless jumble now, “but at first I was so confused. I didn’t even know what was happening, only that I was feeling better without you and how could I explain that to you? And then time went by, you didn’t call me, when you didn’t pursue it, I just figured that you, you of all people, you understood. I knew I was being a chickenshit. But I thought . . .” Mia stumbles for a second then regains her composure. “I thought I was allowed that. And that you understood it. I mean you seemed to. You wrote: ‘She says I have to pick: Choose you, or choose me. She’s the last one standing.’ I don’t know. When I heard ‘Roulette’ I just thought you did understand. That you were angry, but you knew. I had to choose me.”
“That’s your excuse for dropping me without a word? There’s cowardly, Mia. And then there’s cruel! Is that who you’ve become?”
“Maybe it was who I needed to be for a while,” she cries. “And I’m sorry. I know I should’ve contacted you. Should’ve explained. But you weren’t all that accessible.”
“Oh, bullshit, Mia. I’m inaccessible to most people. But you? Two phone calls and you could’ve tracked me down.”
“It didn’t feel that way,” she said. “You were this . . .” she trails off, miming an explosion, the same as Vanessa LeGrande had done earlier in the day. “Phenomenon. Not a person anymore.”
“That’s such a load of crap and you should know it. And besides, that was more than a year after you left. A year. A year in which I was curled up into a ball of misery at my parents’ house, Mia. Or did you forget that phone number, too?”
“No.” Mia’s voice is flat. “But I couldn’t call you at first.”
“Why?” I yell. “Why not?”
Mia faces me now. The wind is whipping her hair this way and that so she looks like some kind of mystical sorceress, beautiful, powerful, and scary at the same time. She shakes her head and starts to turn away.
Oh, no! We’ve come this far over the bridge. She can blow the damn thing up if she wants to. But not without telling me everything. I grab her, turn her to face me. “Why not? Tell me. You owe me this!”
She looks at me, square in the eye. Taking aim. And then she pulls the trigger. “Because I hated you.”
The wind, the noise, it all just goes quiet for a second, and I’m left with a dull ringing in my ear, like after a show, like after a heart monitor goes to flatline.
“Hated me? Why?”
“You made me stay.” She says it quietly, and it almost gets lost in the wind and the traffic and I’m not sure I heard her. But then she repeats it louder this time. “You made me stay!”
And there it is. A hollow blown through my heart, confirming what some part of me has always known.
The electricity in the air has changed; it’s like you can smell the ions dancing. “I still wake up every single morning and for a second I forget that I don’t have my family anymore,” she tells me. “And then I remember. Do you know what that’s like? Over and over again. It would’ve been so much easier . . .” And suddenly her calm facade cracks and she begins to cry.
“Please,” I hold up my hands. “Please don’t . . .”
“No, you’re right. You have to let me say this, Adam! You have to hear it. It would’ve been easier to die. It’s not that I want to be dead now. I don’t. I have a lot in my life that I get satisfaction from, that I love. But some days, especially in the beginning, it was so hard. And I couldn’t help but think that it would’ve been so much simpler to go with the rest of them. But you—you asked me to stay. You begged me to stay. You stood over me and you made a promise to me, as sacred as any vow. And I can understand why you’re angry, but you can’t blame me. You can’t hate me for taking your word.”
Mia’s sobbing now. I’m wracked with shame because I brought her to this.
And suddenly, I get it. I understand why she summoned me to her at the theater, why she came after me once I left her dressing room. This is what the farewell tour is really all about—Mia completing the severance she began three years ago.
Letting go. Everyone talks about it like it’s the easiest thing. Unfurl your fingers one by one until your hand is open. But my hand has been clenched into a fist for three years now; it’s frozen shut. All of me is frozen shut. And about to shut down completely.
I stare down at the water. A minute ago it was calm and glassy but now it’s like the river is opening up, churning, a violent whirlpool. It’s that vortex, threatening to swallow me whole. I’m going to drown in it, with nobody, nobody in the murk with me.
I’ve blamed her for all of this, for leaving, for ruining me. And maybe that was the seed of it, but from that one little seed grew this tumor of a flowering plant. And I’m the one who nurtures it. I water it. I care for it. I nibble from its poison berries. I let it wrap around my neck, choking the air right out of me. I’ve done that. All by myself. All to myself.
I look at the river. It’s like the waves are fifty feet high, snapping at me now, trying to pull me over the bridge into the waters below.
“I can’t do this anymore!” I yell as the carnivorous waves come for me.
Again, I scream, “I can’t do this anymore!” I’m yelling to the waves and to Liz and Fitzy and Mike and Aldous, to our record executives and to Bryn and Vanessa and the paparazzi and the girls in the U Mich sweatshirts and the scenesters on the subway and everyone who wants a piece of me when there aren’t enough pieces to go around. But mostly I’m yelling it to myself.
“I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!” I scream louder than I’ve ever screamed in my life, so loud my breath is knocking down trees in Manhattan, I’m sure of it. And as I battle with invisible waves and imaginary vortexes and demons that are all too real and of my own making, I actually feel something in my chest open, a feeling so intense it’s like my heart’s about to burst. And I just let it. I just let it out.
When I look up, the river is a river again. And my hands, which had been gripping the railing of the bridge so tight that my knuckles had gone white, have loosened.
Mia is walking away, walking toward the other end of the bridge. Without me.
I get it now.
I have to make good on my promise. To let her go. To really let her go. To let us both go.
I started playing in my first band, Infinity 89, when I was fourteen years old. Our first show was at a house party near the college campus. All three of us in the band—me on guitar, my friend Nate on bass, and his older brother Jonah on drums—sucked. None of us had been playing for long, and after the gig we found out that Jonah had bribed the host of the party to let us play. It’s a little-known fact that Adam Wilde’s first foray into playing rock music in front of an audience might never have happened had Jonah Hamilton not pitched in for a keg.
The keg turned out to be the best thing about that show. We were so nervous that we turned the amps up too loud, creating a frenzy of feedback that made the neighbors complain, and then we overcompensated by playing so low that we couldn’t hear one another’s instruments.
What I could hear in the pauses between songs was the sound of the party: the din of beer bottles clinking, of mindless chatter, of people laughing, and, I swear, in the back room of the house, people watching American Idol. The point is, I could hear all this because our band was so crappy that no one bothered to acknowledge that we were playing. We weren’t worth cheering. We were too bad to even boo. We were simply ignored. When we finished playing, the party carried on as if we’d never gone on.