Kim looked nervous. But she also looked concerned. It was an expression I recognized well. The one that said I was the patient now. In the distant night I heard a siren. Reflexively, I scratched my head.
“Do you still see her?” I asked.
“What?” Kim’s voice chirped in surprise.
I stared at her. And slowly repeated the question. “Do you still see Mia?”
“Y—Yes,” Kim stumbled. “I mean, not a lot. We’re both busy with school, and New York and Boston are four hours apart. But yes. Of course.”
Of course. It was the certainty that did it. That made something murderous rise up in me. I was glad there was nothing heavy within reaching distance.
“Does she know you’re here?”
“No. I came as your friend.”
“As my friend?”
Kim blanched from the sarcasm in my voice, but that girl was always tougher than she seemed. She didn’t back down or leave. “Yes,” she whispered.
“Tell me, then, friend. Did Mia, your friend, your BFF, did she tell you why she dumped me? Without a word? Did she happen to mention that to you at all? Or didn’t I come up?”
“Adam, please . . .” Kim’s voice was an entreaty.
“No, please, Kim. Please, because I haven’t got a clue.”
Kim took a deep breath and then straightened her posture. I could practically see the resolve stiffening up her spine, vertebra by vertebra, the lines of loyalty being drawn. “I didn’t come here to talk about Mia. I came here to see you, and I don’t think I should discuss Mia with you or vice versa.”
She’d adopted the tone of a social worker, an impartial third party, and I wanted to smack her for it. For all of it. Instead, I just exploded. “Then what the f**k are you doing here? What good are you then? Who are you to me? Without her, who are you? You’re nothing! A nobody!”
Kim stumbled back, but when she looked up, instead of looking angry, she looked at me full of tenderness. It made me want to throttle her even more. “Adam—” she began.
“Get the hell out of here,” I growled. “I don’t want to see you again!”
The thing with Kim was, you didn’t have to tell her twice. She left without another word.
That night, instead of sleeping, instead of reading, I paced my room for four hours. As I walked back and forth, pushing permanent indentations into the tread of my parents’ cheap shag carpeting, I felt something febrile growing inside of me. It felt alive and inevitable, the way a puke with a nasty hangover sometimes is. I felt it itching its way through my body, begging for release, until it finally came tearing out of me with such force that first I punched my wall, and then, when that didn’t hurt enough, my window. The shards of glass sliced into my knuckles with a satisfying ache followed by the cold blast of a February night. The shock seemed to wake something slumbering deep within me.
Because that was the night I picked up my guitar for the first time in a year.
And that was the night I started writing songs again.
Within two weeks, I’d written more than ten new songs. Within a month, Shooting Star was back together and playing them. Within two months, we’d signed with a major label. Within four months, we were recording Collateral Damage, comprised of fifteen of the songs I’d written from the chasm of my childhood bedroom. Within a year, Collateral Damage was on the Billboard charts and Shooting Star was on the cover of national magazines.
It’s occurred to me since that I owe Kim either an apology or a thank-you. Maybe both. But by the time I came to this realization, it seemed like things were too far gone to do anything about it. And, the truth is, I still don’t know what I’d say to her.
I’ll be your mess, you be mine
That was the deal that we had signed
I bought a hazmat suit to clean up your waste
Gas masks, gloves, to keep us safe
But now I’m alone in an empty room
Staring down immaculate doom
COLLATERAL DAMAGE, TRACK 2
When I get onto the street, my hands are quaking and my insides feel like they’re staging a coup. I reach for my pills, but the bottle is empty. Fuck! Aldous must’ve fed me the last one in the cab. Do I have more at the hotel? I’ve got to get some before tomorrow’s flight. I grab for my phone and remember that I left it back at the hotel in some boneheaded attempt to disconnect.
People are swarming around and their gazes are lingering a little too long on me. I can’t deal with being recognized right now. I can’t deal with anything. I don’t want this. I don’t want any of this.
I just want out. Out of my existence. I find myself wishing that a lot lately. Not be dead. Or kill myself. Or any of that kind of stupid shit. It’s more that I can’t help thinking that if I’d never been born in the first place, I wouldn’t be facing those sixty-seven nights, I wouldn’t be right here, right now, having just endured that conversation with her. It’s your own fault for coming tonight, I tell myself. You should’ve left well enough alone.
I light a cigarette and hope that will steady me enough to walk back to the hotel where I’ll call Aldous and get everything straightened out and maybe even sleep a few hours and get this disastrous day behind me once and for all.
“You should quit.”
Her voice jars me. But it also somehow calms me. I look up. There’s Mia, face flushed, but also, oddly, smiling. She’s breathing hard, like she’s been running. Maybe she gets chased by fans, too. I imagine that old couple in the tux and pearls tottering after her.
I don’t even have time to feel embarrassed because Mia is here again, standing in front of me like when we still shared the same space and time and bumping into each other, though always a happy coincidence, was nothing unusual, not the slightest bit extraordinary. For a second I think of that line in Casablanca when Bogart says: Of all the gin joints in the world, she has to walk into mine. But then I remind myself that I walked into her gin joint.
Mia covers the final few feet between us slowly, like I’m a cagey cat that needs to be brought in. She eyes the cigarette in my hand. “Since when do you smoke?” she asks. And it’s like the years between us are gone, and Mia has forgotten that she no longer has the right to get on my case.
Even if in this instance it’s deserved. Once upon a time, I’d been adamantly straightedge where nicotine was concerned. “I know. It’s a cliché,” I admit.
She eyes me, the cigarette. “Can I have one?”
“You?” When Mia was like six or something, she’d read some kid’s book about a girl who got her dad to quit smoking and then she’d decided to lobby her mom, an on-again-off-again-smoker, to quit. It had taken Mia months to prevail upon Kat, but prevail she did. By the time I met them, Kat didn’t smoke at all. Mia’s dad, Denny, puffed on a pipe, but that seemed mostly for show. “You smoke now?” I ask her.
“No,” Mia replies. “But I just had a really intense experience and I’m told cigarettes calm your nerves.”
The intensity of a concert—it sometimes left me pent up and edgy. “I feel that way after shows sometimes,” I say, nodding.
I shake out a cigarette for her; her hand is still trembling, so I keep missing the tip of the cigarette with my lighter. For a second I imagine grabbing her wrist to hold her steady. But I don’t. I just chase the cigarette until the flame flashes across her eyes and lights the tip. She inhales and exhales, coughs a little. “I’m not talking about the concert, Adam,” she says before taking another labored drag. “I’m talking about you.”
Little pinpricks fire-cracker up and down my body. Just calm down, I tell myself. You just make her nervous, showing up all out of the blue like that. Still, I’m flattered that I matter—even if it’s just enough to scare her.
We smoke in silence for a while. And then I hear something gurgle. Mia shakes her head in dismay and looks down at her stomach. “Remember how I used to get before concerts?”
Back in the day, Mia would get too nervous to eat before shows, so afterward she was usually ravenous. Back then, we’d go eat Mexican food at our favorite joint or hit a diner out on the highway for French fries with gravy and pie—Mia’s dream meal. “How long since your last meal ?” I ask.
Mia peers at me again and stubs out her half-smoked cigarette. She shakes her head. “Zankel Hall? I haven’t eaten for days. My stomach was rumbling all through the performance. I was sure even people in the balcony seats could hear it.”
“Nope. Just the cello.”
“That’s a relief. I think.”
We stand there in silence for a second. Her stomach gurgles again. “Fries and pie still the optimal meal?” I ask. I picture her in a booth back in our place in Oregon, waving her fork around, as she critiqued her own performance.
“Not pie. Not in New York. The diner pies are such disappointments. The fruit’s almost always canned. And marionberry does not exist here. How is it possible that a fruit simply ceases to exist from one coast to another?”
How is it possible that a boyfriend ceases to exist from one day to another? “Couldn’t tell you.”
“But the French fries are good.” She gives me a hopeful half smile.
“I like French fries,” I say. I like French fries? I sound like a slow child in a made-for-TV movie.
Her eyes flutter up to meet mine. “Are you hungry?” she asks.
Am I ever.
I follow her across Fifty-seventh Street and then down Ninth Avenue. She walks quickly—without even a faint hint of the limp she had when she left—and purposefully, like New Yorkers do, pointing out landmarks here and there like a professional tour guide. It occurs to me I don’t even know if she still lives here or if tonight was just a tour date.
You could just ask her, I tell myself. It’s a normal enough question.
Yeah, but it’s so normal that it’s weird that I have to ask.
Well you’ve got to say something to her.
But just as I’m getting up the nerve, Beethoven’s Ninth starts chiming from her bag. Mia stops her NYC monologue, reaches in for her cell phone, looks at the screen, and winces.
She shakes her head and gives a look so pained it has to be practiced. “No. But I have to take this.”
She flips open the phone. “Hello. I know. Please calm down. I know. Look, can you just hold on one second?” She turns to me, her voice all smooth and professional now. “I know this is unbearably rude, but can you just give me five minutes?”
I get it. She just played a big show. She’s got people calling. But even so, and in spite of the mask of apology she’s wearing, I feel like a groupie being asked to wait in the back of the bus until the rock star’s ready. But like the groupies always do, I acquiesce. The rock star is Mia. What else am I gonna do?
“Thank you,” she says.
I let Mia walk a few paces ahead of me, to give her some privacy, but I still catch snippets of her end of the conversation. I know it was important to you. To us. I promise I’ll make it up to everyone. She doesn’t mention me once. In fact she seems to have forgotten about me back here entirely.
Which would be okay except that she’s also oblivious to the commotion that my presence is creating along Ninth Avenue, which is full of bars and people loitering and smoking in front of them. People who double take as they recognize me, and yank out their cell phones and digital cameras to snap pictures.
I vaguely wonder if any of the shots will make it onto Gabber or one of the tabloids. It would be a dream for Vanessa LeGrande. And a nightmare with Bryn. Bryn is jealous enough of Mia as it is, even though she’s never met her; she only knows about her. Even though she knows I haven’t seen Mia in years, Bryn still complains: “It’s hard competing with a ghost.” As if Bryn Shraeder has to compete with anyone.