Her voice jolts me back to reality. Back to the reality of the past three years. There are so many things that demand to be said. Where did you go? Do you ever think about me? You’ve ruined me. Are you okay? But of course, I can’t say any of that.
I start to feel my heart pound and a ringing in my ears, and I’m about to lose it. But strangely, just when the panic starts to peak, some survival instinct kicks in, the one that allows me to step onto a stage in front of thousands of strangers. A calm steals over me as I retreat from myself, pushing me into the background and letting that other person take over. “In the flesh,” I respond in kind. Like it’s the most normal thing in the world for me to be at her concert and for her to have beckoned me into her sanctum. “Good concert,” I add because it seems like the thing to say. It also happens to be true.
“Thank you,” she says. Then she cringes. “I just, I can’t believe you’re here.”
I think of the three-year restraining order she basically took out on me, which I violated tonight. But you called me down, I want to say. “Yeah. I guess they’ll let any old riffraff in Carnegie Hall,” I joke. In my nervousness, though, the quip comes out surly.
She smooths her hands on the fabric of her skirt. She’s already changed out of her formal black gown into a long, flowy skirt and a sleeveless shirt. She shakes her head, tilts her face toward mine, all conspiratorial. “Not really. No punks allowed. Didn’t you see the warning on the marquee? I’m surprised you didn’t get arrested just for setting foot in the lobby.”
I know she’s trying to return my bad joke with one of her own and part of me is thankful for that, and thankful to see a glimmer of her old sense of humor. But another part, the churlish part, wants to remind her of all of the chamber music concerts, string quartets, and recitals I once sat through. Because of her. With her. “How’d you know I was here?” I ask.
“Are you kidding? Adam Wilde in Zankel Hall. At the intermission, the entire backstage crew was buzzing about it. Apparently, a lot of Shooting Star fans work at Carnegie Hall.”
“I thought I was being incognito,” I say. To her feet. The only way to survive this conversation is to have it with Mia’s sandals. Her toenails are painted pale pink.
“You? Impossible,” she replies. “So, how are you?”
How am I? Are you for real? I force my eyes upward and look at Mia for the first time. She’s still beautiful. Not in an obvious Vanessa LeGrande or Bryn Shraeder kind of way. In a quiet way that’s always been devastating to me. Her hair, long and dark, is down now, swimming damply against her bare shoulders, which are still milky white and covered with the constellation of freckles that I used to kiss. The scar on her left shoulder, the one that used to be an angry red welt, is silvery pink now. Almost like the latest rage in tattoo accessories. Almost pretty.
Mia’s eyes reach out to meet mine, and for a second I fear that my facade will fall apart. I look away.
“Oh, you know? Good. Busy,” I answer.
“Right. Of course. Busy. Are you on tour?”
“Yep. Off to London tomorrow.”
“Oh. I’m off to Japan tomorrow.”
Opposite directions, I think and am surprised when Mia actually says it out loud. “Opposite directions.” The words just hang out there, ominous. Suddenly, I feel the vortex begin to churn again. It’s going to swallow us both if I don’t get away. “Well, I should probably go.” I hear the calm person impersonating Adam Wilde say from what sounds like several feet away.
I think I see something darken her expression, but I can’t really tell because every part of my body is undulating, and I swear I might just come inside-out right here. But as I’m losing it, that other Adam is still functioning. He’s reaching out his hand toward Mia even though the thought of me giving Mia Hall a business handshake is maybe one of the saddest things I’ve ever imagined.
Mia looks down at my outstretched hand, opens her mouth to say something, and then just sighs. Her face hardens into a mask as she reaches out her own hand to take mine.
The tremor in my hand has become so normal, so nonstop, that it’s generally imperceptible to me. But as soon as my fingers close around Mia’s, the thing I notice is that it stops and suddenly it goes quiet, like when the squall of feedback is suddenly cut when someone switches off an amp. And I could linger here forever.
Except this is a handshake, nothing more. And in a few seconds my hand is at my side and it’s like I’ve transferred a little of my crazy to Mia because it looks like her own hand is trembling. But I can’t be sure because I’m drifting away on a fast current.
And the next thing I know, I hear the door to her dressing room click behind me, leaving me out here on the rapids and Mia back there on the shore.
I know it’s really cheesy—crass even—to compare my being dumped to the accident that killed Mia’s family, but I can’t help it. Because for me, at any rate, the aftermath felt exactly the same. For the first few weeks, I’d wake up in a fog of disbelief. That didn’t really happen, did it? Oh, f**k, it did. Then I’d be doubled over. Fist to the gut. It took a few weeks for it all to sink in. But unlike with the accident—when I had to be there, be present, help, be the person to lean on—after she left, I was all alone. There was nobody to step up to the plate for. So I just let everything fall away and then everything just stopped.
I moved home, back to my parents’ place. Just grabbed a pile of stuff from my room at the House of Rock and left. Left everything. School. The band. My life. A sudden and wordless departure. I balled up in my boy bed. I was worried that everyone would bang down the door and force me to explain myself. But that’s the thing with death. The whisper of its descent travels fast and wide, and people must’ve known I’d become a corpse because nobody even came to view the body. Well, except relentless Liz, who stopped by once a week to drop off a CD mix of whatever new music she was loving, which she cheerfully stacked on top of the untouched CD she’d left the week before.
My parents seemed baffled by my return. But then, bafflement was pretty typical where I was concerned. My dad had been a logger, and then when that industry went belly-up he’d gotten a job on the line at an electronics plant. My mom worked for the university catering department. They were one another’s second marriages, their first marital forays both disastrous and childless and never discussed; I only found out about them from an aunt and uncle when I was ten. They had me when they were older, and I’d apparently come as a surprise. And my mom liked to say that everything that I’d done—from my mere existence to becoming a musician, to falling in love with a girl like Mia, to going to college, to having the band become so popular, to dropping out of college, to dropping out of the band—was a surprise, too. They accepted my return home with no questions. Mom brought me little trays of food and coffee to my room, like I was a prisoner.
For three months, I lay in my childhood bed, wishing myself as comatose as Mia had been. That had to be easier than this. My sense of shame finally roused me. I was nineteen years old, a college dropout, living in my parents’ house, unemployed, a layabout, a cliché. My parents had been cool about the whole thing, but the reek of my pathetic was starting to make me sick. Finally, right after the New Year, I asked my father if there were any jobs at the plant.
“You sure this is what you want?” he’d asked me. It wasn’t what I wanted. But I couldn’t have what I wanted. I’d just shrugged. I’d heard him and my mom arguing about it, her trying to get him to talk me out of it. “Don’t you want more than that for him?” I heard her shout-whisper from downstairs. “Don’t you want him back in school at the very least?”
“It’s not about what I want,” he’d answered.
So he asked around human resources, got me an interview, and a week later, I began work in the dataentry department. From six thirty in the morning to three thirty in the afternoon, I would sit in a windowless room, plugging in numbers that had no meaning to me.
On my first day of work, my mother got up early to make me a huge breakfast I couldn’t eat and a pot of coffee that wasn’t nearly strong enough. She stood over me in her ratty pink bathrobe, a worried expression on her face. When I got up to leave, she shook her head at me.
“What?” I asked.
“You working at the plant,” she said, staring at me solemnly. “This doesn’t surprise me. This is what I would’ve expected from a son of mine.” I couldn’t tell if the bitterness in her voice was meant for her or me.
The job sucked, but whatever. It was brainless. I came home and slept all afternoon and then woke up and read and dozed from ten o’clock at night until five in the morning, when it was time to get up for work. The schedule was out of sync with the living world, which was fine by me
A few weeks earlier, around Christmas, I’d still held a candle of hope. Christmas was when Mia had initially planned to come home. The ticket she’d bought for New York was a round-trip, and the return date was December nineteenth. Though I knew it was foolish, I somehow thought she’d come see me, she’d offer some explanation—or, better yet, a massive apology. Or we’d find that this had all been some huge and horrible misunderstanding. She’d been emailing me daily but they hadn’t gotten through, and she’d show up at my door, livid about my not having returned her emails, the way she used to get pissed off at me for silly things, like how nice I was, or was not, to her friends.
But December came and went, a monotony of gray, of muted Christmas carols coming from downstairs. I stayed in bed.
It wasn’t until February that I got a visitor home from a back East college.
“Adam, Adam, you have a guest,” my mom said, gently rapping at my door. It was around dinnertime and I was sacked out, the middle of the night to me. In my haze, I thought it was Mia. I bolted upright but saw from my mother’s pained expression that she knew she was delivering disappointing news. “It’s Kim!” she said with forced joviality.
Kim? I hadn’t heard from Mia’s best friend since August, not since she’d taken off for school in Boston. And all at once, it hit me that her silence was as much a betrayal as Mia’s. Kim and I had never been buddies when Mia and I were together. At least not before the accident. But after, we’d been soldered somehow. I hadn’t realized that Mia and Kim were a package deal, one with the other. Lose one, lose the other. But then, how else would it be?
But now, here was Kim. Had Mia sent her as some sort of an emissary? Kim was smiling awkwardly, hugging herself against the damp night. “Hey,” she said. “You’re hard to find.”
“I’m where I’ve always been,” I said, kicking off the covers. Kim, seeing my boxers, turned away until I’d pulled on a pair of jeans. I reached for a pack of cigarettes. I’d started smoking a few weeks before. Everyone at the plant seemed to. It was the only reason to take a break. Kim’s eyes widened in surprise, like I’d just pulled out a Glock. I put the cigarettes back down without lighting up.
“I thought you’d be at the House of Rock, so I went there. I saw Liz and Sarah. They fed me dinner. It was nice to see them.” She stopped and appraised my room. The rumpled, sour blankets, the closed shades. “Did I wake you?”
“I’m on a weird schedule.”
“Yeah. Your mom told me. Data entry?” She didn’t bother to try to mask her surprise.
I was in no mood for small talk or condescension. “So, what’s up, Kim?”
She shrugged. “Nothing. I’m in town for break. We all went to Jersey to see my grandparents for Hanukkah, so this is the first time I’ve been back and I wanted to stop and say hi.”