Primal Music: part 11.

She knew she should have been grateful to have Gordon home with her for a few weeks, but Lizzie was struggling. The worst part of her day was slipping out from beneath the covers in order to get ready for work. Her feet were quiet on the carpet, but as soon as she turned on the bathroom light, she had to hold her breath to see if the glow stirred him. Once she passed that stage uninterrupted, she could turn on the shower and take her time, knowing that he’d inevitably be roused by the insistent rumble of the water.

The guilt was heavy in her chest when she brushed the tangles from her hair. She’d dyed in blonde a few weeks ago, just something to do for herself, and his response wasn’t a compliment but instead a question. Why? Why didn’t you tell me you did that while I was gone? She’d wanted to argue, to insist that his opinion wouldn’t change the fact that she wanted a change, but instead she just accepted how things were. Of course she should keep him updated. She was his only anchor to a world that continued to measure time in days and weeks rather than tours and albums.

“You should just come back to bed.” He’d managed to get the bathroom door open without her hearing, and she jumped at the sound of his voice. He looked rougher than usual after a night out to celebrate being home. There were bags under his eyes, and his stubble looked sloppy rather than deliberately carefree as usual. Still, there was a part of her heart that ached to do exactly what he said, to give him everything she could in order to make him happy.

“You know I have work.” The same job she’d gotten when she’d moved to New York, no less. She’d moved up from customer service to a junior manager, which meant that she was trapped between the scrutiny of her supervisors and the overworked, underpaid masses that made up much of the workforce. It was thankless most days, but she felt proud to be able to hold down a job in the same place for a few years. “I wish you’d just respect that,” she added before he could insist that they had enough money, so she didn’t have to work at a job that she didn’t even really like.

He held up both hands in surrender but didn’t back away from the doorway. “I just don’t get why you do it to yourself if you don’t love the job.”

She uncapped her lipstick, Burgundy Shine according to the sticker, but just stared at the tube. They’d had this conversation so many times already, but the lessons never seemed to stick with him. When they’d been poor, when they’d struggled, hadn’t he been grateful that she had this job? A change of luck didn’t mean that it was right to look down on the very job that had let him go off and chase his dreams. “I just don’t have a passion that’s driving me to do something specific with my life.” It was the easiest way to get out of the conversation, and she hoped that applying her makeup would indicate to him that she intended to get out that door, the same as she always did. “If I wake up and think I really have to be a dancer or an author or an astronaut, then I’ll figure out a way to do it. I just don’t have a calling.”

“It makes me sad when you talk like that,” he mumbled.

“Well, when you picked up a bartender, you weren’t exactly chasing the next Nobel Prize winner.” She closed her eyes and reminded herself that he’d never had to tough it out in office jobs. He didn’t understand that this was the reality of life for so many people. She had to be patient with him because bands and bars were all he knew.

Turning to face him, she did see that pain in his eyes. No doubt he was feeling sorry for himself. He was terribly good at that. Still, she put a palm to his cheek and told herself to pick her battles more wisely. “I’m still young,” she reminded him, though he wasn’t old himself. “I just haven’t figured out what I want to be when I grow up.”

The words seemed to calm him, and she let out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “You know if you wanted to take the time…” he ventured.

“To test things out or just think about it, we’d be comfortable. I do know that. And thank you.” She patted his chest to slip past him, then dropped her lipstick into her handbag. She’d shortened her morning routine considerably since he’d gotten back from touring just to avoid conversations like this.

“Look, I might not be here when you get home. I have to go to a band meeting this afternoon. It’s kind of an emergency.”

Band matters had become the biggest part of their lives as of late. She couldn’t begrudge him the success, and she knew better than most just how hard he’d worked to make sure that the band would take off. They had a couple of hits under their belts, a record that was selling well, tours that were getting venues upgraded. She cut out every article, every interview she could find with care when he was away, but even when they were at home, the shadow of the band was hanging over them. “Well, I hope it’s a good emergency, like figuring out where you’re going to put all your platinum records,” she said dryly.

“No, not like that.” He tugged at his earlobe, the way he always did when he was nervous and didn’t want to tell her something. “Actually, it’s something I wanted to let you in on.”

“Me? But I’m not even in the band. I really need to get moving, and you wouldn’t dump me in a meeting with someone else.” She glanced at the clock. Twenty minutes before she had to be out the door.

“Look, I know things have been…tense lately.” He shot her a glance that was filled with guilt, though she didn’t know if him kicking himself was really what either of them needed to feel better. “Things just haven’t really been great on the road. Professionally, yeah, it’s a fucking dream come true. But we’re not getting along, not the way we should.”

This was the first she’d heard of any troubles within the band. As far as she knew, they were all the best of friends out there on the road together. Frustrated as she was to have this dropped on her at the last minute, she took his hand and guided him back to sit on the bed. “What you’re doing now, it’s stressful and different from the way things used to be. Of course it’s going to be hard to adjust, but you just have to keep at it.”

He sat heavily and shook his head. She could hear how his breath became labored, struggling beneath his broad chest. “It’s Keith. He’s just tearing everything apart, like nothing’s good enough. I think we all want to keep this going as long as possible, but he doesn’t want to work with any of us on anything. He’s moody all the time and critical about everything. We can’t write new music because he doesn’t want to go the same direction as everyone else, and we’re just going in circles. And then there’s the dope. He’s less of an asshole on it than off, if you can believe that, but it’s getting out of control. So we have to do something about it. We’ve tried talking to him, but it’s no use. Something has to give.”

“You’re not going to fire him, are you?”

“We don’t really have a choice at this point. We said we’d give it this album, and we have. Things have gone amazingly well, and I don’t want to be a dickhead sounding ungrateful for what’s happened over the past two years. But it’s the only way. He won’t go to rehab and said he’d go to the press if we tried to make him. It’s a complete fucking mess.”

A chill passed through her as she watched her boyfriend fidget under her gaze, pulling on his t-shirt and rubbing the sleep definitively from his eyes. This was a side to him that she’d never seen before. He took on the weight of the guilt, that was his forte, but there was also something downright calculated to the choice that he had made with his bandmates. Kicking Keith out of the band would do more than just put him out of a job. It was the exiling of a friend, the death of a chosen brotherhood. What else was there beyond music for a musician, especially one so deeply entrenched in the game? And if someone in the band was expendable, what did that mean for everyone else?

“What’s he going to do now?” she asked quietly.  In her mind, she was grateful for never accepting his offer to take her on the road. Emotions and priorities could shift so quickly.

Gordon shrugged, and she could tell that he was trying to pack his emotions back under the surface. He’d kept this quiet for so long that it only seemed right to carry on the tradition. “Well, he’s always going on about what his degree would do out in the real world. I guess it’s his chance.”

“But what if he doesn’t want to do that?”

For just a second, his eyes narrowed, but it was enough. The blue of his irises had never looked colder, and she found herself growing defensive before he could even say a word. “Simon, Damon, and I all talked about it. For a long time, over the past couple of years really. This is the only thing we can do. What Keith does is up to him. Maybe he’ll come up with a new band. I hope he gets himself cleaned up, but at this point, I honestly don’t know. But we can’t be in the same group anymore.”

“What if he’s not the problem though? I mean, if there’s a reason he’s using like he is.”

The question made him laugh dryly. “What, like what if we fire the wrong person, and the shit stirrer is still hanging around causing trouble and getting others hooked on drugs to cope?”

When he phrased it like that, she couldn’t hold back the flush from her cheeks as she felt condescended. “It’s possible there could be something else going on.”

He took in a sharp breath, but when he looked at her pained expression, he let it go.  “I guess it could happen. But this is right. This is just…Fuck, I don’t know. I want to say just business, but that’s horrible, isn’t it?”

Yes, she thought, of course it is. You know it is. But she couldn’t break his heart like that, not when he was already beating himself up. He didn’t need her to throw her insults on top of his load. So she smoothed her hand over his and kissed his shoulder, hoping it would seem supportive enough. “Well, love, I hope it doesn’t hurt too much.”

“He’s smart. He’ll be okay.” Even as Gordon spoke, it was evident that he was trying to convince himself that the path was still the only way out. “We’ve been putting it off, but today’s the day.”

Lizzie nodded. She didn’t have to be convinced. He’d gotten it off his chest, and now he just had to see it through. And she had to carry on with her own life by getting to work and hoping she wouldn’t clock in too late. Five or ten minutes late, she could just blame on rush hour. “You have to do what you have to do, Gordon. I understand that. He probably won’t, but you have to let him hurt. It won’t be easy for him either. Try not to beat yourself up too much in the meantime. I’m sure he’ll do a brilliant job of that for you.”

“Deservedly.”

“See? You’re doing it already.” She stood and grabbed her purse to sling over her chest. Her shoes were in the hall, along with her keys. Yes, she could probably make it on time. “You know I believe in you and think you’ll do the right thing. I hate seeing you that down. You just have to face it and see what happens next rather than imagining what’s going to happen and freaking out about that. Promise me?”

“I promise.” He did his best to give her a smile, and it made her feel a little better about the start to their morning. At least he hadn’t asked her to stay and cuddle him until he felt like less of an asshole. “Have a good day at work, okay?”

“I’ll do my best. By the way, after work, you can pick me up some chocolates. It’s Valentine’s Day.” And with that, she was out the door.

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Primal Music: part ten.

Simon’s knock at the hotel door was chipper, and he held a couple of Styrofoam coffee cups in Gordon’s face, presumably to make it that much more difficult to be smacked by his friend for such an early intrusion. “That’s very generous of you,” the singer grumbled as he set the drinks down by the door.

“Your treat. They came from your hotel lobby, so I don’t really know what the quality is like. I was actually hoping we could have a little talk.”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“One where you wear a shirt and we go somewhere private.”

Gordon leaned back to check on Lizzie. The blankets fortunately covered her lithe frame, and she had drawn Gordon’s pillow over her face the moment he had left the bed. She could easily spend the next hour arguing that she had paid for the room and fully intended to get her money’s worth of sleep. “Liz, Simon and I are going to go get some breakfast. Do you want anything?”

Habitually she skipped the meal, and she responded with little more than a grunt. He took that as permission to go and located his t-shirt, then his jeans. The first two socks he found went on his feet, and then he slid into his battered sneakers without paying any attention to the laces. All told, he took three minutes to get ready, and it showed in how rumpled and bedheaded he was. To some, he may have been unpresentable, but his appearance hardly registered to Simon.

The promise of breakfast was enough to get the taller man’s stomach rumbling, and he had hardly stepped out of the hotel door before he was craning his neck to look for a place to eat. A diner with a neon light in the shape of a mug called to him, and he set off in that direction without consulting with his bandmate. As professional musicians on an amateur budget, they knew to make the best of every cheap, greasy dive they could find. Besides, he didn’t know where their other two companions were, and if they had to speak in private, then hiding out in a restaurant could only provide a good alibi.

“What’s up?” Gordon asked as he stepped through the door. The scent of burnt coffee and hot grease only made him more eager to find a table for a sit down, but Simon marched up to the stools that were at the counter. Their visit would be brief.

“We really need to talk about the band.”

“The Band. I think my favorite tune of theirs currently is ‘The Weight.’ What about you?”

“Don’t be such a smartass.” Simon was forever the voice of reason within the group, but that wasn’t always a comfortable title when he had to deal with realists and idealists who were just as stubborn as one another. “I got some news this morning.”

“Well, lay it on me.” Probably something about bounced checks, another lost manager who threatened legal action for payment or a venue that regretted to inform them that their show had been ousted by a regular client’s birthday party.  Very little about their lack of progress could surprise him, whereas the specials for a restaurant he’d never been to had the potential to impress. The menu was stained by oil, which meant that the food was likely filling, good for mopping up hangovers or preventing them. That was something he could get behind.

“Did you even hear me?” Simon asked, a rare sharpness entering his tone. He knew Gordon and had put up with him at his worst, but sometimes his big brother patience could be eroded.

“No, I was too busy looking at the food. And coffee. More coffee and some toast would be heaven right now.”

“Fuck your coffee, and fuck your toast. Would you pay attention to me?” As a drummer, Simon had broad arms, and it took no effort at all for him to snatch the menu from Gordon’s grasp and then pin it to the counter beneath his brawny hands. “I said, we’re fucking charting.”

“Fuck your sense of humor. Right now is too early to crush the dreams of little boys.”

“I’m dead serious. Would I joke about this kind of thing?” He would. He had done so a couple of weeks ago, when they’d finally had a touch of airplay and thought they would be an overnight success after years of turmoil. It had been false faith more than a cruel taunt, but he had later played his statements off as dark humor.

“What chart then? When did this happen?”

“West Coast radio. It’s coming back east too. We’re getting more plays with a radio edit the label sent out.” Certain that he had the other man’s attention, Simon slid Gordon’s menu back to him. “The album’s starting to move. A thousand maybe last week, but it’s picking up. People have apparently been calling in to request us. By name.”

“Fuck off.” Maybe it wasn’t the most eloquent response to ever come from a songwriter, but Gordon didn’t know how to process the news. They’d had a miserable show the night before, he was on the borderline of being hungover, he was on poor terms with his bassist, and things were happening. What things? Far off things, things that were words and numbers and concepts. He really didn’t know how to process them. One second he was resentful that it had taken so long and they had so far to go to even justify staying in the game, and the next he was laughing hysterically because he had only ever wanted to have other people listen to him and get from his music what he did from so many albums.

“And our show tomorrow’s sold out.”

“…you’re kidding.”

“I mean, it’s a hundred tickets or something like that, less the guest list. But when have we sold out of anything in the history of ever?”

“Never without our mums and dads going out to try to give us a boost.”

“Exactly. So people are hearing us, and they’re curious enough to throw out a couple of bucks.”

“So we have to make sure that we don’t sound like complete shit then.”

“Essentially.”

Gordon took in a deep breath. Drinking helped him to relax enough to perform in front of an audience, especially when crushing defeat was often such a likely result of the effort, but there were consequences. He became erratic, angry, prone to forgetting the words and failing to care about that. Making it through their brief sets was often an accomplishment when there were so many ways to destroy equipment, argue with the unwilling audience or just make a hasty escape. “I could maybe play this one sober. Mostly sober.”

“Good.” Simon was satisfied enough that when he spotted a waitress, he requested two cups of coffee, toast, sausage, scrambled eggs, and home fries. The generous spread of food meant that he was in a decent mood. “So that’s the first thing we had to cover.”

“Just the first? Christ. I hope the second involves buying cake and shoving it in each other’s faces”

Simon gave him a long, stern look that was interrupted by the arrival of their fresh coffee. Fortunately they had to pause to turn the dark liquid beige with milk and sugar. “We’re just on the right path and have to play it cool. You know how Keith would want us to handle this.”

Gordon pulled a face in distaste and tried to cover it with a sip from his mug. The java was too hot and burnt his tongue, but he felt it was appropriate karma. “I’m sure he’s formulating the perfect game plan to capitalize on this opportunity as we speak.”

“He’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about now.”

It was difficult to resist rolling his eyes, but he kept the gesture to a minimum. “Let me guess. You agree that I’m spending too much time with Lizzie, so I need to apologize to him and then reassess my priorities.”

“No. No, not at all.” This was normally the point when Simon would laugh and chide Gordon on his stubborn nature, but instead he was gloomy, subdued. “There’s been a lot of strife internally lately. I’m not saying that’s your fault. Sometimes it is, but we’re really losing focus. That’s fine when we’re just fucking up in front of ten people who won’t remember our name anyway. But this is a huge opportunity. Things could just fizzle out, or they could put us on a good level. I’m not saying rich, but we wouldn’t have to get day jobs. That’s enough for me. Or it could just blow up and be fucking huge. We don’t know yet.”

“But.”

“But.” Simon rubbed the bridge of his nose and let himself lean more heavily against the counter. “The group of us, we’re not really working the way we should do. I don’t think that if we’re going to go on a proper tour, we’re going to make it without killing each other or ourselves.”

“What are we supposed to do about that then? Group therapy?” Yes, four men found it difficult to get along when they were in close contact with one another nearly every minute of every day. Gordon didn’t find that very unusual and didn’t know how to address the issue short of spending even more time together trying to just hug it out. Not exactly tempting.

“It’s Keith.” Simon’s words seemed to surprise even him, and he grimaced at the Formica as he spoke. “I know he’s been in this with you since day one. This is his baby as much as it is yours. But he’s just bringing everyone down all the time. I’m not sure his heart’s really in this, not to be in the backseat.”

“He’s not really in the backseat…”

“Don’t pull the humble brag shit on me, Gord. You’re the one writing the lyrics. What we do around that has to match up to what you’re trying to say. Like it or not, people are going to care about what you think or say or write more than the rest of us. Girls want to sleep with the singer and make him write songs about them. They don’t really care if the bassist writes an incredible riff that reminds him of her curves or some bullshit. This was his idea as well as yours, but he knows that from here on out, you’re going to get more of the credit. It’s fucking eating him alive.”

Of course they all had their inaccurate fantasies of what it meant to be in a band, but Gordon had never stopped to consider how they would impact one another. The attention from girls, well, that was flattering, but he had never topped to think about interviews or press attention on one member rather than all of them. It wasn’t like it much mattered. Until, of course, it did.

Gordon tried to connect the dots on the counter in front of him using his finger. “Do you want me to try to talk to him then?” The rage that he’d felt earlier had dissipated into a sort of pity. There was precious little about Gordon’s life to envy, so the thought that one of his old friends could look upon him with that resentment chilled him to the bone.

Simon shook his head. When their food arrived, he busied himself rolling sausage from one end of his plate to the other. “I’m not sure this is something that will go away,” he admitted. “It’s not just that need for recognition. He’s kind of…disillusioned, I guess. When you started the band, you were just students. You were ambitious. Now you’ve gotten to know each other more. He sees you as a liability and thinks there are better frontmen out there.”

The allegation stung, even secondhand. He thought that he was doing the best he could to make the music that he was passionate about while still remaining as sane as possible. Having others see past his performance of keeping it together just made him feel all the more frail. Still, he saw Simon’s point. Such distrust would tear a band apart. “So what do we do?” he asked, his mouth feeling dry no matter how much tea he poured down his throat.

“Well, we’re in the middle of a tour. We can’t go shaking things up at the moment, and we’re all under a lot of stress. Maybe things will get better in a few weeks.”

“And if they don’t?”

Simon finally stabbed his toast into the beans, smashing some of them against the bread. “You know exactly what I’m saying here.”

“We have to sack him. Can bands our size sack people?”

“I don’t think it matters if you change your lineup every week when you have as many listeners as we do,” the drummer pointed out.

The possibility of firing Keith gave Gordon a thrill that immediately kicked his guilt complex into high gear. If only they were rid of the bassist, no one would be left making cruel jabs at Lizzie. Most of the cutting remarks would be gone, and they could focus on making better music rather than obsessing over past mistakes. He had shared the dream with Gordon years ago, but it was clear that their fantasies no longer overlapped the way they once had.

Gordon took a deep breath and found himself nodding. It would be difficult, but there were plenty of people out there who could play bass as well as Keith or even better than him. They needed the freedom to allow themselves to be a better group. And really, they would only resort to that action if Keith gave them no other choice. They were powerless. He controlled his own fate.

“What do we do in the meantime then?” he found himself asking. It seemed deplorable, plotting against someone he’d soon share a van with, but then his thoughts went back to Lizzie. To imply that she was a slut was unforgivable. A grown man ought to know better.

Simon shrugged and did his best to try to eat. If they had to pay for the food they’d ordered, there was no point in letting it go to waste just because they couldn’t stomach their own conversation. “Do your best to get along with him. It couldn’t hurt to apologize to him for last night. You’re proud, but so is he.”

“And what do I say? Sorry I don’t have the same opinion of my girlfriend that you do? Sorry I fell in love with someone you don’t approve of?”

The drummer’s eyebrows arched up a bit at the mention of love, but he didn’t ask about it. There were only so many big life discussions that could be handled before ten in the morning. “I think just calling yourself a prick and saying sorry will suffice.”

The frank language had him laughing before he even felt his muscles relax. There was much to be excited about, he had to remember that, and if they had to take drastic measures within the band, well, that wouldn’t come for months yet. Just knowing that Simon had noticed the tension and was on his side made things easier. “I guess I can do that, but if he’s a dick to Lizzie again, it’s going to be him or me. I hope you know that.”

The drummer’s face was pale, but he nodded. “I figured it would be that way, or else I wouldn’t be having this discussion with you.”

“So, out of curiosity, why go with me rather than back him?”

“Well, you have to be a madman to want to be in the limelight the way he seems to want to be. Plus you’re not the first dude in a band to have a girlfriend. She hasn’t tried to design a new logo or make us buy designer wardrobes. She’s harmless. She makes you happy. Not a lot does. I don’t see the point in keeping you miserable. Even if it kind of makes you write better songs.”

Love songs had never been his forte, and the reminder had him jabbing his elbow at his bandmate. He felt grateful that at least one of them seemed to understand him. “Just for that, I’m going to write a love song about you, and it’s going to go top ten. No, top five. You won’t be able to escape the fucker.”

“I welcome you to fucking try it,” Simon quipped as he signaled for the check.

Primal Music: part nine.

A knot grew in his throat as he thought about how cruelly Keith had spoken of her. More than likely it was just the alcohol and a bit of bitterness cropping up because the band were on the verge of having to take drastic measures to avoid being dropped from their new label. Still, drunk words, sober thoughts. He had no idea if Keith generally resented Lizzie that much, but he didn’t want to have to talk to him the next day. He sure as hell wasn’t going to apologize for standing up for the one thing that made him happy in the worst moments.

Her hip jarred against his as he nearly failed to stop at an intersection. “You’re in your head again.”

“Sorry.” He bowed enough to press his hips against the back of her hand, hoping the move was as chivalrous as it seemed. “Let’s just get inside. We can talk. But right now all you need to know is that I don’t want anything else tonight but to be able to go to bed with you knowing that you know that I love you.”

“I’m a lucky girl.” She picked up the pace when the light changed, as though she had to get them to the squat lodgings before he changed his mind and took back the words.

There were few cars parked outside the Travelodge, which probably hadn’t been repainted since sometime in the late 1960s. It was the sort of place that appealed to single people who would rather pay cash when viewing porn and young couples who thought that slumming it was entertaining for some inexplicable reason. The office was the only red door at the hotel, the others a drab brown that gave way to an ill-advised mint green in patches.

As soon as they stepped inside, Gordon could see what kind of a place this was. Most of the keys were missing, even if there were few vehicles outside. A sign at the front desk was generous enough to offer an hourly rate as well as a nightly, with a humble request that such fees be paid up front without the possibility of a refund. The woman behind the front desk was engrossed in a novel with a shirtless man bravely embracing a slender damsel on the front cover. The clerk seemed more interested in blowing bubbles with her chewing gum rather than checking in the guests, but Gordon really didn’t have the patience to stand in this lobby and let the grime sink in. Better to clear his throat and get on her bad side, he decided.

The woman barely lifted her eyes from the page to the couple. “The hour or the night?” she intoned.

“The night,” Lizzie answered. She snapped her handbag open and counted out the bills carefully, something that made the other woman raise her eyebrows. Clearly she was coming up with inventive theories about the power balance between the two of them. Gordon couldn’t help but think that their lack of luggage didn’t help their case.

Their key was hooked to a comical chain with a plastic red heart, and Gordon couldn’t help but twirl it around his finger as they made their way to lucky 23. “I think I’ve changed my mind. I just want to disinfect everything and sleep in the bathtub.”

“You’re acting like the tub probably hasn’t been defiled,” she remarked as she unlocked the front door. So she had picked up on the vibe too. At least she hadn’t abandoned him there to be left with the serial cheaters and the johns of local prostitutes.

“True.” When she turned on the light, he let out a sigh of relief. The room didn’t necessarily look clean, not when the bulb needed a bit of a scrub itself, but the accommodations were rather spartan. A bed with a heavy comforter was neatly made in the middle of the room; actually, it took up most of the room. A small television was mounted on the wall, and beneath it was a desk scattered with local information that was probably rarely used and vastly outdated beyond the pizza delivery menu. The artwork looked cheap and was more than likely screwed to the wall. Still, it was a place to sleep that offered legroom and a bit of privacy, which meant that it was the most luxurious lodging in North America.

When he flung himself on the bed, he realized that he had overestimated the room a little too quickly. The mattress was abused to the point of offering little support, and a spring had found its way along a couple vertebrae. “God. My fucking luck,” he groaned.

When he turned his head, he could see Lizzie chewing her lower lip. “I don’t want to be annoying, but you did say that we’d talk here, and something was bugging you more when we left.” As though to reassure him that she wasn’t just assuming she was the cause of their tension, she sat down on the edge of the bed (slowly, learning from his mistakes) and took his hand in hers.

He studied the ghoulish pattern on the blankets, but he knew he couldn’t keep her in suspense forever. She’d paid for this room, after all, expecting nothing in return but a bit of honesty. That was hardly something worth keeping from her, even if it did hurt to hear.

“I just had a brief…spat with Keith before we left,” he told her. Surely the hesitation would say as much as his unwillingness to look her in the eye.

“Keith.” She wrinkled up her nose in distaste and worked on kicking off her high heels. She hissed as her toes cramped, working her feet against the carpet in spite of what might have lingered there from previous tenants. “He’s never been much of a fan of me, obviously. If I remember correctly, he was pretty keen on convincing me that you weren’t worth my time before we fucked the first time.”

“He’s just…complicated.” Keith had been his first friend at college, someone who loved music just as much and who introduced him to some of his favorite bands. To Gordon, he’d been like an old friend from the start, someone who shared the same homesickness while looking forward to a future of slumming it for the sake of being in a band.

But they also had very different backgrounds. For Gordon, going to school meant cutting off the handouts from his parents. He wanted to make something of himself, something big, and that meant hard work. He couldn’t stand the people who became rock stars because their parents had paid for recording studios and lessons and particularly persuasive agents. Nobody really wanted to live the starving part of the starving artist lifestyle, but it was just one of those necessary evils as long as it took to get noticed.

Keith, on the other hand, had gone to university to get an education. He studied. He knew what he was doing. He showed up to class when it pleased him but always kept on top of every subject. Being awarded a degree in economics meant that he would always have some sort of purpose, always a job to go back to. On those long, cold drives back to their apartments, he didn’t let any of them forget what sort of salary he could be earning if he just applied himself. To him, a band succeeding didn’t come down to the number of shows they played or even the amount of talent they possessed. It was business, plain and simple. Girlfriends, especially girlfriends tied to one place, were not good business. Especially girlfriends who uprooted themselves in order to involve themselves with the tempest.

“Well, does he think I’m a slut or something?” The less Gordon thought about his bandmate without speaking up, the more she was clearly offended. Only the worst couldn’t be said, and she knew that she had slept with Gordon when he was a stranger. But things had been different then. Somehow.

“No, no, it’s not that he thinks that.” There was no way that he’d be able to just lounge on his back and ignore the situation. He hauled himself into a sitting position, resting his elbows on his knees. He had to look at her, sort this out somehow before the tensions tore everything apart and left him alone. “He just thinks that right now, we have to keep our heads in the game all the time. The only prize is making sure that the album does well. And the album is selling absolutely horribly right now. If something doesn’t happen, we’re going to have to go off and get day jobs, start our own label in order to release anything. Local gigs during the week, maybe going further when we have the time. It becomes a hobby.”

“And is that such a bad thing?” Her voice was quiet, her eyes heavy with guilt. She knew his answer before she’d even asked, and he knew that there was no sense in lying to her.

“Of course it’s bad. This is all we’ve ever wanted. This is what I want. But he—” Gordon gestured to the window, off toward the now distant bar. “—he thinks that it’s all about having a game plan. Like if you just follow a list and tick off everything that you’ve accomplished, you manage to get to the top and make those millions.”

“And what do you think, Gordon?”

“I don’t know what to think. I’m not paid to think. I’m hardly paid at all. I just think that we have a manager for that kind of thing. So we just keep on putting out what we have in our hearts, try to avoid smashing guitars and costing too much money, stay honest and melodic and hope that people relate to that. I don’t know how to make people listen to songs. I just know how to write them. Supposedly.” He looked over at her and saw how small she looked, and he had to remind himself that she was still only a teenager. He couldn’t imagine being thrown into a world like this at her age, especially with so little choice in the matter. “He’s just not happy that you’re here. He thinks I’m distracted, but I’m not.”

“Are you sure? Because it seemed to take a lot for you to say that you loved me.”

“That’s different.”

“Is it though?” She stood and went to the mirror in the room, rubbing at her eye makeup again. Most of it was gone, but she licked her finger to get rid of the few remaining smudges. “All I ever want is honesty, but you’re wrapped up in your head all the time. I care about you so much, and I can’t even tell what you’re thinking.”

“I just want so many things, and I’m a fucking failure at all of them. I can’t be with you all the time because I’m working on this, and best case scenario, this takes off and I’m seeing the world. And then what do you do?”

“I wait for you because I love you.”

He couldn’t begin to imagine what it would be like to make that kind of sacrifice for another person. But she meant it. He could see as much with the way she looked at him so firmly, like he was an absolute fool not to understand what went through her mind. “You make it sound so easy,” he said softly, uncertain what he could have done to make her so committed to him.

“Maybe it won’t be. Maybe it’ll be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t know yet. I can’t predict the future or reassure you that everything will be okay forever and ever. But I know how I feel about you, and you just have to trust me on that one.”

She may have only been a teenager, but for years she had played the part of a parent to her siblings as they got themselves mixed up with the local brand of trouble. What she wanted wasn’t the most luxurious life or even the most well-traveled. She just wanted happiness and peace, two things she could not believe were as fleeting as they seemed to be.

He had no arguments that could stand up against the resolve of her voice. His only choice was to shed his clothing and relax in the bed beside her, vowing to make sure he could make her feel as cherished as she was.

Primal Music: part eight.

For a moment, she just focused on breathing, her lungs working overtime to compensate for the tears that had so quickly become overwhelming to her. She reached out to find a place to set her drink, but the only flat surface that was cleaner than the floor was the relatively narrow lip of the sink. Instead she let both hands curl around the stem of the glass as she squinted at him in the dim light. “What did you say?”

“I said that I love you. Okay?” The fact that she thought he was breaking up with her had him feeling even more sour. How could she think that he was the type of guy who would abandon her as soon as things began to look like they were getting better?

“You’re serious?”

“Of course I’m fucking serious. I didn’t want to tell you in some pisshole in the middle of nowhere, but I haven’t got a choice now, have I? Not exactly romantic.”

The shock on her features had given way to those brows knitting up again, and this time the tears flowed freely without the inconvenience of sobbing. She handed him her drink as she scrambled for a bit of toilet paper to wipe her eyes. “Oh my God,” she moaned, looking down into the makeup-stained wad of paper. “I can’t believe I said that to you. I was so afraid. I’m always so afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” To him, it was a total mystery how she could think that he’d do better.

“We don’t exactly have a lot in common. What if you just wanted someone who’s your age, who’s been to college, who can play guitar and sing and write her own music or music with you, who actually cares about Radiohead and Dinosaur Jr. and Pearl Jam and all those other awful bands that you ramble on about for days on end?”

“But if I was with a girl who already listened to those bands, I wouldn’t get to have the fun of subjecting her to my record collection for the first time. I know you don’t like the same things I do, but when I hit that one song out of fifty that makes you dance with me, that’s the greatest feeling in the world. I like that you’re young enough to have all of these romantic views of the world and ambition and how far I can go. I don’t care if you didn’t go to school. I don’t care if you ever touch a guitar yourself. I didn’t decide that I was going to fall in love with you or even anyone like you. I just spent time with you.

“And when I spent time with you, I noticed all these little things that meant so much to me. Like the way you try to make tea the way I do because it means so much to me. How you steal my t-shirts. How you straighten up the apartment. The way you try to cover up your freckles with your makeup but never manage to, not really, not when I’m up close. How you cry a few times a week over the smallest things. How big your heart is. You’re such a beautiful person, Lizzie, and I don’t know why you decided to gamble your heart on a guy who just wanted a night with a gorgeous girl because he needed an ego boost. I don’t deserve you loving me in return to supporting me when my life is so ridiculous, but I just think I’m stupidly lucky you’re here.”

She listened to his speech with the paper pressed beneath one eye, then the other. The red light made her emotions seem all the more negative, but once he stopped speaking, she managed to take a deep breath. And then she hit him on the shoulder.

“You fucking asshole. Why did you drag that out?” She sniffled to push her tears back, then leaned up as far as she could in order to kiss her on the cheek. “You are so ridiculous. Of course I love you. Why would I move in with you and look after your band if I didn’t?”

He really didn’t have an answer for her, not when his shoulder was sore from how she’d hit him. He laughed quietly because he didn’t know how else to react to her violent outburst. There were so many emotions sparking inside and out, and all he could think was that they were in the least romantic situation he could ever remember in his life. “Can we continue this conversation outside so I can at least have witnesses after you hit me again?” he suggested.

Her own laugh was faintly hysterical, caught between disbelief and embarrassment. “I’m not going to hit you again. I didn’t really meant to then. I was just—I was surprised,” she decided. She did at least wipe her face again and then unlock the door, leading the way out. Thankfully no eyes were set on them when they emerged together. They were rumpled, sure, but they hadn’t been gone enough long enough to raise suspicion.

“So you’re okay with it?” he said.

“You just told me that you loved me. I think it’s something that most girls want to hear when they’ve thrown their entire lives upside down for a boy.” She blinked up into the light, and for a second he worried that she’d start to sob again. She regained her composure and took her martini from him so she could toss back the alcohol. “You’ve just been so distracted lately, the music and everything. I’ve tried not to worry you with what I’m thinking about the two of us because I didn’t want to add more stress. But I wondered where we were going. We never talked about it. I want to be special to you though, of course I do. I don’t want to just bide your time while you’re home. I want to be yours. I want you to be mine. Even if you give nearly everything to the people who listen to you, I want to be the one who gets the rest. Always.”

“Always?”

“Well, as long as you’ll have me.” Her cheeks were burning, her makeup long since muddled by her tears. He could tell just by looking at her that she longed for the bed they shared rather than the public eye. “Look, I know money’s tight and all, but we can probably find a hotel nearby.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s a good idea.” His emotions had been rattled all over the place, and as much as his pride disliked her treating him to something so pricey, he couldn’t imagine just sitting down for another drink and more banter. “I’ll just go tell the guys. I think there’s someplace just a couple of blocks away. They can get the name, maybe stay there or at least know where to find me in the morning.”

He hated leaving her there with her empty glass and those red eyes, but he didn’t know what else he could do. In his experience, it was incredibly easy for him to get dumped due to his neglect, his distraction, his drive to focus on just about anything else but the flame that grew between him and that other person. He’d never really had to break up with someone. He didn’t even know how he could project the possibility, but he was angry with himself for not making his love clearer to Lizzie every day that they could be together.

“Lizzie’s not feeling well, so we’re going to call it a night. There’s a crap motel a couple of streets over, so I figure we’ll just walk there and spend the night.” He spoke quickly at his band’s table, skipping over the greetings to blurt out his excuses.

Keith was busy twisting the stem of a cherry with his tongue, trying and failing miserably to create a knot within his mouth. “Can someone qualify as a Yoko Ono figure if we don’t actually sell any records?” he wondered out loud. Whiskey had given his cheeks a warm glow, and he was clearly in a mood to give someone hell.

“Look, I’m just telling you where we’re going,” Gordon said, keeping his voice as even as possible when he was already to the end of his patience. He was hardly sure about the state of his relationship, and he didn’t need his tenuous band to splinter apart in the same evening. It happened a few times a week regardless.

“Well, are we invited?”

“If you pay for your own room, yeah, sure, you can crash wherever you want. But the gig’s over, and we’re not writing or rehearsing or driving to the next show, so I’m going to go off and do my own thing if that’s okay with you.”

Simon ran a hand through his thick, dark hair and set his eyes on Gordon. Though the singer clearly hadn’t meant to create a fight, his approach had . “I think we might try to find a room there too, but in case we crash somewhere else, we’ll just call you in the morning.”

“Oh, will we?” Keith asked. “Are we going to cut our evening short so we can afford one bed between the three of us while he goes off and fucks his girl in a suite?”

“Don’t you even—”

“Oh, fuck you. You’ve already made up your mind. Go with her. You want the band to be a big success, great. But every time things don’t work out, you turn to her for support. I just think it’s kind of sick, that’s all. What are you going to do if we do actually start to succeed? What are you going to do with her? She’ll be around all the time because you can’t let her go, or maybe you will just give up on her because you won’t need her anymore. Those are your options. Have fun figuring it out.”

If he had been the sort to swing a fist, Gordon knew his knuckles would have connected with that smirk, but instead he turned on his heel and decided to internalize. It was his coping treatment of choice. Lizzie wasn’t at the bar, so he slammed his way through the door and saw her leaning against the outer wall, a cigarette between her full lips. Under normal circumstances, he might’ve nagged her for the nasty habit, but he just approached her and said, “Give it here.”

There was something in the depth of his tone that told her not to trifle around with a protest. She expected him to immediately crush the smoke underfoot, but instead he let it rest between his lips so he could take a deep drag. For all the joints he’d had, he’d only tried a couple of cigarettes and a truly dreadful cigar when a friend had become a father for the first time. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting this time around, but the smoke hardly felt warm within his lungs. It went in, at least he was pretty sure it did, and then his throat tingled a bit as it exited. That was all. There was no chemical rush from the nicotine, at least not the sort that would even register on his radar after years of indie experimentation. It was almost disappointing. Still, he handed it back to her and then gestured to the road. “Shall we go then?”

“You’re upset. Is it me?” She wasn’t trying to just assume that she was always the problem, but she’d had enough time away from him to begin to process how embarrassing her outburst had been, even alone with him.

He gave her a soft smile and hooked his elbow in hers. Their heights were so ill-matched that walking with one another sometimes made it difficult to make eye contact and be sincere, but he did his best for her. “It’s my own issue, I promise. We can talk about it when we get to the hotel. Or we can just have a really hot bath and then go to bed.”

“You’re assuming the bathtub and the bed are both presentable.”

“You should be applauding me for being optimistic for once in my goddamn life.”

The words made her laugh, and she rested her tiny palm against his forearm. “I worry about you, Gordy,” she said quietly in the night as they made their way from the pooled glow of one streetlight to the next. “You put so much pressure on yourself to be the one who makes or breaks anything. Sometimes you just don’t see how you have to let other people control things too. You’re not alone in anything you do, but you beat yourself up the most. You have to let off that steam. It scares me when I don’t know what you’re thinking. I assume the worst.”

Primal Music: part seven.

One week after the album was released, they should have been celebrating sales figures. Instead they were in a terrible bar somewhere in the industrial bleakness of Ohio, helping themselves to shots because it was too dismal to race back to the van to begin the trip home. There had been no phone calls, no congratulatory statements on the radio. It was just business as usual, on the edge of defeat with even more money at stake.

Gordon wasn’t taking the lack of news well. He had put his heart into the recording process and had convinced a number of people to believe in him, his band included, and it hadn’t paid off. That was the kind of guilt he carried on a daily basis, as they continued to play in front of ten apathetic people who might have heard one of their songs on one radio show. But how could he begin to voice that lack of confidence to the people who were relying on him? Better to just drink and try to forget. Live in the moment. Stop worrying about the bank balance or the pressure to achieve that would inevitably come from the label.

Lizzie teetered on her high heels and slid back onto the stool next to Gordon. “You know, I can always drive the van if Simon wants to have a drink,” she offered.

“I didn’t know you drove.”

“You didn’t ask.” She reached over to his nearly empty glass to snatch a piece of ice so she could chew on it. She’d taken a few smoking breaks already, but she refused to let him keep her company outside because she worried about the quality of his voice when he was doing gigs every night. Even if nobody was listening, it wouldn’t do to go mute. “Besides, it’s been a while, and most of my driving was when I wasn’t supposed to be, but I’m really good at driving drunk people. It’s one of my top ten skills that don’t involve sex.”

What he wanted was another drink to numb his awareness that he didn’t deserve such a vivacious girl, but he was learning to curb impulses like that. “Do you keep top ten lists of every category in your life then?” he asked instead, attempting to distract himself with conversation.

She gave him a wink and then smiled. “Of course I do. I just wonder if your top ten list about me and my own match up.”

“Maybe.” He took a deep breath and then brought his glass to his lips. What little whiskey that remained had been watered down by the melting ice, leaving behind just a bit of a chill with none of the burn that he’d been seeking. It didn’t help to steel his nerves. “Look, Lizzie, there’s something that I wanted to talk to you about.”

She gave him a cursory glance, but it was enough for him to see the avoidance in her eyes. He knew that she’d been happy carving out her new home. He’d been working hard on his music, and she was proud of the determination he’d showed in getting the band signed to a major label and then putting out a record that he felt was far more mature than anything else that they’d done. She’d cleaned up the apartment, made it look like adults lived there rather than students, and she felt comfortable inviting over friends without embarrassment. But as a couple, they didn’t always talk about where things were leading and what it would mean if he ever got to tour further south or west. A handful of people at a time, the demand just never seemed to be on the horizon.

“Let me just get a drink first, okay?” she said, not really giving him room to protest. He could only assume that the offer to drive the van was off the table. He hated the pinched look on her pretty face, the way she immediately jumped to a terrible conclusion due to the way he’d phrased things. He probably deserved it and had to accept that rather than get worked up. So he just nodded and gestured to the bathroom, excusing himself so he’d not have to hear how strong an order she conjured up in her worry. Maybe it wasn’t the best way to respond to her, but he couldn’t begrudge her.

There was nobody else in the restroom, probably due in no small part to the fact that it smelled awful and had a dim red light that made the whole room disorienting. With either hand, he gripped the sides of the sink and tried to focus on his reflection in the mirror. The man who stared back out at him was getting a bit shaggy, needed to shave and definitely had dark rings under his eyes. He needed a good week in to rest up and get himself cleaned up.

What woman in her right mind would find him attractive? When he looked at himself, he just saw the prominent brow, the long nose slightly crooked, the thick lips and narrow eyes. His hair was a little goofy, and he didn’t know the first thing about being stylish. And then there was his negativity, his tendency to beat the hell out of himself before anyone else could inflict the damage. To him, it was the perfect form of protection, but he knew that others had to find it absolutely annoying. Lizzie was no great fan of that behavior, and maybe when she knew enough people in New York, when she smiled at some man who could offer her everything she wanted and who could pull his own weight without going off on ineffective tours, she’d come to her senses and leave him.

It used to be that when the fear took him over, he’d turn to something small to take away the stress. A pill, maybe, or a small bump or a toke. She’d told him that he didn’t need those things though, and hard as it was for him, he’d tried to put away those childish releases before they could eat away his life. More than anything, he just wanted to be able to forget that part of his brain that made him overthink and doubt himself. It didn’t help that the universe happened to agree with that side of his personality.

“I thought I’d find you in here.”

Her voice made his fingers slip from the cheap porcelain as he turned to face her. He nearly lost his balance, his heart racing at the surprise of seeing her in the narrow room. A martini glass was poised with attitude in her right hand, her left arm crossed over her chest. “Brings back memories, doesn’t it? I think you followed me into a bathroom once, and it was pretty shocking where things went from there. So. You said that you had something that you wanted to talk to me about. This is probably the best place to have a private conversation, right?”

She had a way of surprising him more every day. Even when he thought that he knew her, she pulled out this boldness that he wouldn’t expect, a strength of character that reminded him that she really could be fine without him. He had to work on being a better person if he ever expected her to feel the way he did about her. “Okay. Well. Yeah, I guess this will work. I didn’t mean to make it this big of a thing, honestly.” He looked to the door and wondered if they ought to lock it just to make sure they weren’t interrupted. As though she had read his mind, she twisted the bolt into place. “Do you want to have a seat then?” he asked dryly, knowing that the toilet wasn’t a place anyone would want to spend much time.

She rolled her eyes and took a healthy draw from her drink. “Just get on with it, Gordon.”

So much pressure had been built up. She was waiting for him to tell her something, and it was really so simple. He almost felt ashamed to get her so worked up, but he had to look her in the eye. That much was important. “Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about us lately. You and me, where we’re going and all that. And what I thought was—”

He was interrupted by a sob that came up from deep within her, like the pain had been ripped directly from her center. He stared as the tears came from her, darkened by the trail of her mascara. “I knew it!” she howled.

“Knew what?”

“Bringing me here, to the middle of fucking nowhere. I knew you were just going to decide I’m not worth it.”

“What?”

“Look at me. I’m just this ridiculous girl. I just came to you on a whim, and you were nice to take me in, but then we got so serious, and you were trying to make it with your band and not start a relationship with someone. Now you might go somewhere, really take off, and I’m just the dead weight at home. And there are prettier girls, sexier girls. Tall, skinny girls! I saw a tall, skinny girl tonight!”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I just didn’t expect it to end like this, you know? I thought we had a good thing, but I always wondered what you were thinking with those songs and all.”

“I’m not fucking breaking up with you! I’m trying to tell you that I love you!”

Primal Music: part six.

“Guess what.” Lizzie slammed the front door behind her and sprawled herself across Gordon’s lap. He’d been warring with words in his mind, which really meant that he was sipping on a beer and considering the possibility of playing a video game. Of course he couldn’t humor those impulses when she was putting him on the spot like that, so he just had to narrow his eyes at her like he had any clue what she was going on about.

“You’ve finally decided to get breast implants?”

She swatted his chest but didn’t abandon his lap, so he knew that she had to be excited if she avoided taking offense. “I got a job today,” she revealed, too excited to endure the path his train of thought would take. “No more working in the bar when it’s convenient.”

There was a sinking feeling in his chest before he could muster up the excitement to match her own. To him, a job meant being stuck in one place, wedded to one employer and that superior’s drive rather than his own. It seemed like slow, voluntary suicide to him, but he knew that not everyone had goals like his own. For Lizzie, it was the opportunity to make more money and maybe make her way up the corporate ladder. She’d done poorly in school, so there were fewer chances for her out there than most. “I start on Monday,” she added when he was still quiet.

“That’s brilliant,” he told her, hoping that he sounded convincing. In his ideal world, she would follow him from town to town, cheering him on from the crowd every day. To make their relationship work, she’d upended her life to crash in his apartment, and he hadn’t managed to secure steady employment in the meantime. One of them had to bring in enough money for the rent, and she had taken on that burden without a single complaint. “What will you be doing while I’m caught up missing you?”

She rolled her eyes but was more than used to his melodrama by this point. “I’ll just be doing office assistant work. Answering phones, sorting mail, running errands. It’ll be nice though. If I do that well, maybe I’ll get appointed to a better position. Even if I don’t, it’s experience so I can always move on to a better job. I’m not qualified at all for this, but I think the guy who interviewed me really liked me. Or at least he liked my tits enough to think they’re needed around the office.”

Gordon tried not to let his jealous side flare up, but the idea of someone else getting to see her during the hours that he was isolated for her made him grit his teeth a little. “Well, if he starts to get too awful, just remember that you can file a sexual harassment lawsuit against him, and then we’ll never have to work again. No pressure.”

She giggled and pressed her palms against his cheeks, smashing his face up in a rather unattractive manner. “At least tell me that you’re proud of me.”

“I’m incredibly proud of you.” His features softened as he realized how important this was for her. When she’d moved to Brooklyn, he had been the only person she had in her corner. Her family had been enraged by the spontaneous decision to move in with her new boyfriend, and he had been so stunned by his ability to call her his own that he hadn’t protested taking the relationship to the next level. She’d taken initiative since arriving, putting her bartending experience to good use, but she’d kept an eye out for something with better hours and pay. “I’d be more proud if you found a way to make money by just having sex with me though,” he informed her.

“I think for that, I’d have to charge you for sex, and if the money’s just coming out of my own pocket, it’s not accomplishing anything,” she told him before she pecked him on the tip of his nose. “Now you get to fuck a secretary. Think of all the fantasies you get to live out.”

“And all the fantasies your boss will get to live out.”

“Not until Monday.” She eased herself off his lap with feline agility and tried not to grin too widely. “I think we should do some celebrating though. What do you think?”

“I think I want to know what you’re thinking about in terms of celebration.”

She gave him a tiny smirk and then pulled off her dress in response. Underneath, she had worn a bra and pair of panties that matched, black and lace-trimmed with golden polka dots trying to capture additional attention. “So, you want to go shopping?” he asked, doing his best to look perplexed.

She pressed her full lips together firmly and scowled, but it didn’t last long. She understood him and his need to push her to her emotional limits, and unlike most women, she seemed to relish in it. She didn’t acknowledge his question, instead stepping forward to grab the hem of his shirt and coax it up over his head. The t-shirt caught on his chin, his nose, but he didn’t dare complain lest she give up and retreat to put on her clothes. He could never predict how she’d react, and he loved that challenging part of her. He just needed to know when exactly to engage it.

“Are you proud of me?” When she posed the question, this time she seemed much more vulnerable. There wasn’t room for teasing when their clothes were coming off. They’d only been in something resembling a proper relationship for a few months, fucking for far longer than that, and sometimes it felt more natural for them to come together than it did to have a conversation. They had to push themselves to balance the physical with the emotional.

But sometimes there were no words for what they wanted or needed from one another. “You’re a better person than I am, Lizzie,” he whispered as he stood to kiss her. Her body pressed against him with a desperate hunger, a need for approval. They meant more to each other than ever before, and even as she made new connections in New York, he was forever her anchor to the city.

There was a certain sadness that always manifested itself within her when he insulted himself. She thought he was a beautiful person and had always seen his potential, but actually getting him to understand that was difficult. She saw the possibilities for his future, but he was forever aware of the shortcomings of his past. She didn’t know every dark corner, all of the things that had gone wrong and had become patterns in his life. “I’m not better,” she murmured against his mouth. “We just make each other better.”

A protest climbed up to his lips immediately, but she placed her hands on his shoulders, an unspoken plea for him to bend down to reach her level. Already they had built their own vocabulary with touches rather than words, their bodies coming to understand one another even as they still learned one another’s personalities. Since she’d moved in, they’d occupied a sort of fantasy world where he got to come home to a woman he could see himself loving. They weren’t ruled by bosses but could just lounge about and be creative.

But the bills wouldn’t pay for themselves, and it hadn’t taken long for them to get to this point. She would be the responsible one for his sake, and he had to remind himself that she wasn’t pulling away from him by getting a job. Instead it was an investment of faith in him. She would buckle down and find a way to take care of the logistics so he could focus on his album’s approaching release, the make or break moment for the band.

She found his hands and guided them to the clasp of her bra. He could feel the heat of her body beneath his fingertips, pulling him back to the present. He couldn’t worry like he always used to. It was easy to focus on the negativity in his life when he was alone, but day in and day out, he woke up to her. To push her away when she was actually excited to support him would be foolish, and he understood that. “Lizzie.”

“Don’t.” She pushed the straps off her arms and took a step forward. “You don’t have to say anything else.”

So he didn’t.

Primal Music: part five.

She started to move to the door, but his long arms were there to meet her waist and pull her back down on his lap. They both went tumbling back, with his head cracking against the wall. She laughed, but there was just quiet afterwards. “Jesus Christ, are you trying to kill me?” he asked, rubbing the back of his skull.

The way he seemed to be pitying himself reminded her of the first time they’d met, and she couldn’t help but crack up. “I wouldn’t feel any guilt about sleeping with him if you were dead. I’d need the comfort. He’d be providing a service.”

“A service all right. A funeral service.” There was enough humor in his voice that she could tell he wasn’t upset, so she stayed on his lap and let her fingers comb through his thick curls.

“Do you want me to go get you something for your head? As an apology?”

“When you could go creep off into that fucker’s room? Not on your life.” He let his chin rest against her for a moment in silence, then kissed the spot where her collarbone looped back to meet her shoulder. “I do owe you a lot though, you know.”

“Shut up. You do not.”

“No, I do. You kind of knocked some sense into me a few months ago. All that shit about my pride and not taking a helping hand when people are offering it, that sort of thing, it really stung. I mean, if I’d heard it from a friend or someone in my family, I probably would have gotten really pissed off. But you were beautiful, and I wanted to be with you, and to think that I wasn’t good enough and that I was entirely capable of changing just scared the bejesus out of me.”

She wanted to see him then, to study his gaze and to see if she could spot the sincerity in his expression, so she did her best to shift around in his lap. His sleepy eyes watched her patiently, and when she’d perched herself, those strong palms were there on her hips to hold her in place. “I thought you were terrified that I was so young. I just wanted to get the last word in somehow, to show you that I was a lot smarter than you thought. I was preachy.”

“Well, sometimes I need someone to tell me that I’m wrong. The thing about being a frontman is that you have a bit of a control complex. Hell, we don’t even get ten people to come and pay to see us live, and I still have that going on in my idiot head.”

“You will though. And soon. Then the opinions of uppity girls really won’t make a difference.”

“Maybe they will. Maybe I’ll find myself fond of uppity girls.”

She shoved on his shoulder, but he was so much larger than her that he didn’t even budge. “You don’t have to lead us on, you know. I know how this is. We just have a bit of fun when we see each other. We still don’t really know each other.”

“You came an awfully long way for a boy you didn’t know.”

“Well, he was a man, and I was tired of boys,” she told him with a shrug.

He wrinkled up his nose in distaste at her logic, but she knew she couldn’t really iron out the semantics with him. No matter how they evaluated what they were and where they were going, it was still down to the physical. With a bit of banter, of course. “Well, if you’re going to be hungover and I have to be awake at this god awful hour of the day, we could at least do a bit of getting to know one another, girl to man or whatever. You did travel all the way to the city that never sleeps, so you should be a bit of it. If you’re hungry, we’ll go have a bit of the local fare and see how you do with handling a Noo Yawk accent.”

What he described sounded suspiciously like a date, but when the entirety of their romance would play out over a weekend, it seemed too good to be true. She shut her eyes and scolded herself to enjoy it. If she could be special to someone for just forty-eight hours, then it would be worth the hours she’d put in at the bar, enduring the leers and the occasional cheeky pinch. “I hope to demonstrate to you that I am more than capable of understanding accents. You’ll see. And you’re buying, if you can afford it.”

They didn’t have much money between them, but they found a way to make it work. Walking around was always free, and shop windows provided a glimpse at local fare without the price tag. Her high heels, which had seemed so brilliant at the time, meant that her steps were far slower and shorter than his. He didn’t seem to notice, enthusiastically telling her about his favorite haunts. There was a sandwich shop that he swore had the greatest mustard in the world, a music store that had the best vinyl at the worst possible prices, a butcher’s place where the employees looked like they might take a cleaver to anyone who wandered by. It wasn’t the traditional look at the city, the landmarks forever in the distance, and she definitely wouldn’t have many stories that she thought would entertain her friends or family. To her, it was the best way to experience the city.

The pastries settled in the front window of a bakery caught her eye, reminding her that they still hadn’t had the breakfast that he’d promised. Stopping for a quick bite would give her feet time to recover, and maybe she could talk him into visiting a shoe store. Her musing only captured her for a minute, but once she turned back to the street, she didn’t see Gordon.

She took a deep breath and reminded herself to remain calm. He was a tall enough guy that he was easily spotted, but it wasn’t as though they had spent much time together. She just might not be able to pick the back of his head out of a sea of people, particularly with the way he’d been slouching in order to be more accessible to her. He’d surely remember the way he came and double back around for her.

She looked every stranger in the eye, frantic, searching, hoping, but she didn’t receive a hint of recognition in return. Standing still made her feel anxious. With her eyes trained on the stores, she hadn’t thought to memorize their way from the apartment She had trusted him implicitly and had known that she would return home with him. And she still hadn’t managed to get a phone number off him.

Then a palm slid against hers, and she flinched away instinctively. But there he was, giving her that puzzlingly disarming smile of his. “Well, I didn’t realize that I was that awful to claim in public.”

Relief flooded through her system, but she automatically slapped a palm against his chest for teasing her. “You left me behind!” she cried, though she was at least aware enough to keep her voice down enough so as to not embarrass him.

“I took a turn and thought you were right behind me. I was babbling on about the time I fell out of a tree in Central Park and nearly broke my arm, and when I looked back, I was just getting a really strange look from a Labrador retriever. I didn’t know if you’d walked on or not, but no harm, no foul.” He gave a shrug and just pulled on her hand again to guide her down the street where he’d been leading her.

She felt silly then to have worried about being left behind. Of course he wouldn’t do that to her, but at the same time, he didn’t really owe her anything. Taking her by the hand was really above and beyond what was required of him, unless of course he wanted to. Or he could just not want me to wander off again. Stop overthinking!

“Everything all right up there?” he asked, tapping on her forehead lightly. “You had a weird look on your face. Not an entirely pleasant one.”

“I was just…thinking,” she said, hating the way it sounded when she said it out loud. She wasn’t supposed to be evaluating everything, just having fun. Mulling over his words, she looked for any way to divert the attention away from herself. “Why did you climb a tree in Central Park? Are you even allowed?”

“Well, I was kind of drunk, and a tree was there. When do you get to climb trees in New York? I ended up grabbing a dead branch and fell, but I was afraid that I’d get arrested for something if I called an ambulance. I did snap my nose, but not much that can be done for that. I looked crazy, getting on the train when covered in blood.”

The story was something so vulnerable, so personal that she had to stop and look at him. Was there a slight crookedness to his nose that she hadn’t noticed before? Maybe there really was weariness behind those eyes, a sort of exhaustion she hadn’t experienced in her own life yet. “Well, I guess I can’t worry about you since it was in the past and your arms seem to be functioning fine, so I’ll just say that I hope you beat some sense into that skull of yours.”

“I don’t know. It’s pretty thick.” He glanced between her and the road ahead, then shook his head as though to chase away a thought. “My stomach’s going to eat itself alive if I don’t get something to eat soon, and I’m pretty sure I’m five cups of coffee behind schedule. Do you want to endure a crowded, loud, greasy but cheap breakfast?”

“I think so. Though if you actually splurged to feed me, that would mean that you wouldn’t have the cash to get me drunk later. So we could enjoy one another’s company before I decide to take a nap in your lap.”

“I’m going to need you to sign some sort of contract to that effect, just in case. Burn me once and all that jazz, you know?”

“If you don’t trust me, I’m sure Damon might. He doesn’t know all the sordid history you and I have. Well, maybe just the first part. The impressive part. Does he know?” Suddenly she was curious what he’d told other people, if she was considered a girl he’d been fond of or just an opportunity on what had otherwise been a fucking awful night.

“Well, it’s been hectic getting him into the band and all, but we’ve gotten a lot closer. I knew he was talented, but I didn’t know him really well as a person, you know what I mean? So now he’s a really good friend. And yeah, we share stories. Believe it or not, it’s not every day that I fuck a teenager under her father’s roof. That was memorable, to say the least.”

She didn’t know if she should consider herself proud to have been more than just a notch in the bedpost or mortified about the circumstances. She decided instead to just be thankful to be remembered, to be part of his past and particularly part of his present. “Let it not be said I don’t know how to make an entrance.”

“Considering how wasted you were last night? My dear, if I had a drink in my hand right now, I would use it to toast you.”

She paused long enough to grab either side of her top and extend it while she bent into a curtsy. He applauded her form and even went so far as to stick two fingers between his lips, making his wolf whistle unnecessarily loud.  Together they seemed to need to command that extra bit of attention, but at the same time, they only cared about one another’s reaction. She learned not to let her cheeks flush, not when she could extend the dare a bit further with some flourished bows.

It was while she was taking another elaborate dip in front of a brick wall that an elderly woman approached Gordon. Though her hair was dyed an unnatural, Vivienne Westwood shade of orange, her features belied the decades that she owned. Her accent was thick, her voice stammered, and she whispered something into Gordon’s ear as a veined hand scraped and squeezed his arm. He seemed to blush a little, then retreated to Lizzie.

“Have you got a camera on you?”

Of course, since it had been her first trip to New York, she had packed one just in case things didn’t work out the way she’d planned. No use in wasting the weekend. “Yes. Why?”

“Just give it here. I’ll explain to you in a minute.”

She was beginning to learn just how much he embraced an act first, think later mentality, and so she didn’t even bother to heave a sigh when he took the gadget from her and then handed it to the old woman. Her first thought was that it was ridiculous of him to give her things away like that, to some stranger who might drop it or, worse yet, steal it. He didn’t seem worried in the least though. On the contrary, he sprinted back over to her and put his arm around her shoulders, drawing her to his chest.

“What in the hell are you doing?” she asked in a stage whisper so only he could hear.

“What does it look like? We are posing for a picture.”

Before she could protest, she could see the woman trying to focus the camera on them and knew that it wasn’t the time to assert herself. Instead she looked into the lens and gave her best smile, letting herself really feel it. She was happy, wasn’t she? She was somewhere new, feeling something exciting and different with a man who found her fascinating. In a few days, this could all be in her past. She intended to have fun with it and knew then, holding onto him and capturing someone else’s attention, that this was their time.

After the woman took a couple of shots, she handed the camera back to Gordon and whispered something in his ear before she headed off. The entire exchange had been a mystery to Lizzie, but she at least had the sense to wait for the woman to get a couple of blocks away before she asked, “What was that about?”

“Oh, that,” he said, shrugging as though she was asking about something that had happened years in the past rather than right in front of them. “When you were bowing, she thought that I was taking your picture. She asked if I wanted to get in the shot with you. I guess I could have just fessed up to the fact that I didn’t have a camera, but it seemed like a rather good idea.”

Her eyes searched his face quickly. If he was leading her on, there wasn’t any sort of tick or smirk that would indicate as much. It made her exhale a breath she didn’t remember holding. “Why, because it means we’ll have to talk again so you can get the pictures from me?”

“Something like that,” he agreed. He held out the camera so she could slip it back in her handbag, and when she got herself situated again, he linked his elbow to hers so he could lead them. “Now, I think we were talking about going somewhere for nourishment, so we should do that before I blow away.”

“Wait,” she said, but they were already moving. As his feet led, she knew she would inevitably follow, but there were so many questions on her mind that she knew would never really be solved unless he decided to show her his cards.

“I’m waiting in a mental sense. The stomach waits for no one. What’s up?” he asked as his eyes scanned over the front doors of stores, cafes, bodegas. Finally he spotted what seemed to be a modest restaurant and trotted up so he could hold the door open for her.

“When she left, she said something else to you. You had a funny look on your face about it. What was it?”

“Nothing but a bit of truth. She told me that I needed to mind that I treated you properly.”