Primal Music: part 1.

In July, I wrote a “novel.” I use quotation marks because it’s a) a rough draft and b) just shy of 53,000 words. That makes it roughly the length of The Great Gatsby without the classiness or literary ingenuity. I’m going through my second draft right now, so I’ll be posting a few chapters at a time here. It’s better than copying and pasting 106 pages from Word.

“Primal Music” (for want of a better name) is about a struggling musician and a girl. I’ll leave you to it.

“The gig was shit.”

“They’re all shit.”

Gordon couldn’t cover his ears to block out the conversation, so he settled for shutting his eyes and turning inward instead. There was no point in voicing his opinion about their road to the big time, not when he’d been with this band since his first day of college. At 18, it had seemed noble to be constantly broke and sleeping on couches in order to bring music and a message to the masses. At 25, he just wanted to have enough money to get drunk enough to ignore how miserable the very act of playing music in front of an audience made him. Mostly due to the lack of an audience, naturally.

Most nights of the week, Smile of Winter managed to bring their brand of lo-fi indie rock to the unsuspecting drinkers at dive bars within a reasonable driving distance. “Shows” usually meant that they played while patrons did their best to talk over the music or, during the louder parts of the set, walked out in order to find a more peaceful way to spend the evening. A good night meant that ten people managed to stay on their stools long enough for the band to tear down their equipment and retreat. More often than not, silence was their only companion. That and alcohol.

“I don’t know why we keep doing this to ourselves. I mean, it’s embarrassing to pretend that we’re having a good time while we’re getting ignored. We’d look like morons if anyone actually happened to be paying attention.” Keith, bass, 25. He’d started the band with Gordon after a late night of exchanging cassettes and necking a bottle of vodka too cheap to even come with an authentic-sounding Russian name. At one point, he had had a promising academic career in economics ahead of him. Gordon thought the degree just made him more prone to nagging the others about money.

“It’s the songs.” Simon, 27, drums. The scant few years of seniority he held over his bandmates meant that he was also more practical, having made the transition from his mid to late twenties with all the obligations that entailed. A red cocktail stir straw lay mangled between his teeth, the victim of his latest attempt to quit smoking. The irritation he felt was great for pounding the skins—not that anybody had taken the time to listen and notice. “If we just did more covers, I think we could hook more people. They would listen and then get into it, and then we slip in our own stuff. They have to know that we can play.”

It was becoming clear to Gordon that this was going to lead to another fight. Trying to break into the music industry was fun when they could damn the man and feel validated by the fact that none of their college buddies had landed their ideal jobs yet either. But only so many checks and concerned letters could be received from their parents before they had to wonder what they were putting on hold for this insane dream. Couldn’t it be just as satisfying to earn a decent wage, have a family and play a few tiny gigs on occasion just for the laugh? (Simon’s suggestion.) Or did they just not have the talent to ever get any real joy out of being on a stage? (Keith’s concern.) The suggestion to break up or at least put the band on hiatus came up about as frequently as any of them brushed their teeth.

“We’re not going back to covers.” As the lead singer and songwriter, Gordon felt that he held more than the average interest in the band’s direction. These songs were his bedroom secrets, his darkest dreams, and to abandon them for some audience-friendly Depeche Mode regurgitation made him feel ill. There definitely wasn’t enough alcohol in his system yet, he decided. “If you want to play covers, go on some reality show and try to win a record deal. I guarantee you it’ll be even more embarrassing. We’re doing this the honest way. We’re going to make it. We just have to build enough buzz to get the scouts out looking for us.”

His grey-blue eyes searched his friends’ faces for any inspiration he might have stirred up within them. But Gordon was oblivious to what others saw when they looked at him: a tall, rake-thin scarecrow of a man, with clothes too baggy and dark curls at the awkward stage of growing out from his last haircut. He didn’t have conventional good looks or any kind of style or charm that could make him into a transcendent frontman. Instead he just looked like an overgrown boy, complete with all of the youthful stubbornness to round out that image. What he saw as passion within himself was interpreted by most others as just being delusion.

Keith and Simon exchanged glances, then shrugged. “Maybe we could open with a cover?” Simon offered.

It wasn’t a compromise that Gordon was willing to make. He had countless idols that he knew had stuck to their vision early on. Of course it took years to make any sort of impact, but that was just the way. He believed in these legends, but it was difficult to explain that to someone who was already 27, the mythical age of legendary rock stars’ untimely demise. Rather than go through the motions again, he decided to break his silence with the sound of his chair scraping across the wooden floor. “I’m going to get another round in before last call.” He didn’t bother to ask them if they were drinking. As far as their musicianship was concerned, consuming alcohol was just about the only thing that they managed to do on a professional level.

Most of the pub had long since been abandoned. Judging by the few remaining patrons whose age had bent them like parentheses over their drinks, this was a scene for regulars more than the random person who wandered in off the street looking for a party. The pretty girl behind the bar was propped up on a stool, her heels resting on another. Before he could even speak, she waved a nail file to cut him off. “Table service only.”

“Excuse me?”

She turned dark, tired eyes to him. “You’re at a table. If you want more drinks, you have to get them at the table. And you’re not going to get more at the table, because you missed the final call.”

With the way his night had gone, he wasn’t surprised, just disappointed. There was no reason to hurry back to his band’s table empty handed, and if the three of them were going to have to square away the bill soon, then keeping his distance could be beneficial to him. He was tall enough that he didn’t even have to push himself up to find a stool. “You could’ve told a guy. I mean, it is called ‘last call‘ for a reason.”

Her eyebrows shot up at having been talked back to. The trouble with regulars was that they already knew all the rules and behaved themselves accordingly. Fresh blood at least made for a bit of social interaction, even if it did just mean putting some moody drunk back in his place. “I’m sorry. Did you want me to interrupt your thrilling conversation about whether your gig or whatever was spectacularly bad tonight or if they’re just all that pathetic? Or would you have preferred if I’d just stood next to you all and waited for you to get the bickering out of your system before I offered up a round on the house?”

Awe at this woman’s attitude kept him from shooting back some snarky remark off the top of his head, which meant that he was all too aware of a couple locals chuckling at his fate. Maybe they knew her better and understood what her attitude was normally like, or maybe they just liked to see her take a man to task. Blood bloomed angrily across his cheeks. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he told the bar rather than look her in the eye again.

There was something about his deference that intrigued her. It was somewhere between pathetic and resigned, though she couldn’t peg if he was too deeply hurt to fight her or too polite to carry on an argument with a lady. It was almost a shame. She had hoped he’d at least be interesting for more than two minutes. Sighing, she fluttered her heavily coated lashes in his direction. “What, so things didn’t go down so well at Madison Square Garden for you? Join the club.”

For a second, he just held his breath as frustration flashed red within him. He could storm off, go back to the van and wait there until his bandmates realized he was gone. What would it accomplish though? He would have demonstrated to everyone that his ego was wounded, but that wouldn’t make them care. Wallowing was for private. In the meantime, he could only give a quiet laugh. “Oh, I see the reviews are already out then. You must’ve heard about my wardrobe malfunction then.”

The girl tilted her head a bit. Maybe he wasn’t a lost cause after all. At any rate, it would only be another half an hour before she had to lock up, so there was no harm in indulging in a bit of conversation. Or at least pushing this guy to pay up and go. “No, I didn’t really pay that much attention when I heard that the gig was shit. Why don’t you tell me all about it then?”

“Oh, you know how it goes. You put on a busty little number but don’t think about the effects of gravity.”

“No, I can’t say that I’ve been there. Close, but not quite.” She offered him a tight-lipped smile but at least swung her feet down to the ground. “Did you have to pay a fine for that public exposure?”

“As a matter of fact, I did. That’s why the others are so cross with me. How are we supposed to afford getting drunk if I’m blowing the band budget by getting my tits out everywhere I go?”

“Then I guess you wouldn’t have been able to afford one last round anyway, so the heavens are shining down upon you with good fortune now.”

“Hey now. I didn’t say that.” She was still behind the bar, and there were plenty of bottles that were within reach. He was breaking through, wasn’t he? Why not push his luck? He leaned in and tried to keep his voice as low as the crackle of the jukebox would allow. “I think I have the coin for just a couple of shots though. Won’t take but a second to knock them back. How about it?”

A laugh broke through her composure. He could just make out a snaggle tooth that disturbed what could otherwise be described as classic good looks. Somehow it made her human, more practical in his eyes. Her chestnut hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, and her dress was snug enough to show that though she was petite, she definitely had enviable curves. She remained quiet a moment, then bent down enough to catch his eye as he tried to check out the rest of her. “And which of your pretty lady friends back there did you intend to get the other drink?”

“Well, I was thinking that if you were going to bend the rules for me and all, I might as well make it worth your while.”

“Oh, is that right? I didn’t know we had a gentleman in our presence. We would have cleaned the place up more.” She began to reach for a couple of clean shot glasses, then paused. “Though if you were a gentleman, you’d at least ask me what my name is before you tried to get me drunk enough to like you.”

“I don’t think my wallet’s fat enough to get you drunk, so one drink isn’t going to hurt you all that much.” Still, he grinned and stuck his hand across the bar. She was tiny enough that he could engulf her hand in his as they shook. “Forgive my terrible manners. My name is Gordon. And you would be?”

“Lizzie,” she answered. “That’s with an ‘ie,’ not a ‘y.’ You’ll be able to remember because it’ll be at the bottom of your bill.”

“Oh, how convenient. Lizzie with an ‘ie,’ would you be willing to have a drink with Gordon with a G?”

She crinkled up her nose, and for a second, he thought she might send him away. Instead she grabbed a shot glass in either hand and set them next to each other on the bar. “It’ll have to be tequila then. If I’m only getting one drink, that’s my choice.”

“Well, then I hope you don’t mind the cheap stuff.”

“That’s usually the way to end the night. If you’ve been drinking all night and won’t notice how it tastes,” she told him. Turning her back on him, she ran her finger lightly over the colorful labels of the pub’s modest collection. It mostly catered to the old men who enjoyed their evenings with a beer or two, not the cocktail and hard liquor crowd. Finally she picked a bottle of cut glass and amber liquid. “Do you like what you see?”

“Lady’s choice. I’m not big on tequilas, but I’m sure it’ll be fine if you think it’s good.”

“No, my ass. You were staring.”

He flushed, and her laugh rang out again. There certainly were worse ways to spend the last hour of her shift. At least she wasn’t doing the mental math to figure out if he was old enough to be her father or her grandfather, her usual game when it came to patrons. “There’s a mirror behind the bottles. I could see your reflection. Next time, you ought to slouch down a bit. You’re awfully tall.” He did shift down against his stool a bit, which made her smirk. “But there’s no reason to feel ashamed of it. I’ve often been told that my ass is better than my bartending.”

He pressed his lips together as though he might be able to summon up some charming conversation if he just bought enough time. She was the one staring now though, all expectation as she uncapped the bottle. “I’m sure whoever said that is overlooking a number of your other great qualities,” he offered up weakly.

“Yeah, such as?” she asked, lifting an eyebrow.

“Your ability to emasculate a man in a single breath.”

She inhaled sharply but still managed a laugh in the end. She poured the tequila steadily between the shot glasses, ignoring the way a bit sloshed out onto the bar. “Well, bottom’s up, Gordon with a G. Are you going to come up with a toast and stun me with your insightful way with words?”

The way she looked at him, with curiosity rather than reproach, made his throat feel tight. Hadn’t he been looking for that same sort of attention earlier in the night as he sang all the words he could never say to former lovers’ faces? He was so used to being rejected as a musician that having anyone at all focus on his words made him question his confidence. It was easy enough to be an overlooked genius: if nobody heard your songs, then nobody knew if they were brilliant or terrible. But a beautiful, playful woman actually wanting to hear what he had to say? It was a recipe for failure, a second insult that he really didn’t think he could shoulder.

But she was still waiting, tequila dripping onto her fingers as she held her shot, so he knew that he had to say something. He cleared his throat and commanded his cheeks not to turn pink under her attention. “I don’t suppose ‘1, 2, 3, 4, oi, oi, oi, oi’ is going to cut it, is it?” he asked in order to buy some time.

“1, 2, 3, 4, oi, oi, oi, oi!” she repeated, tapping her small glass against his before she shot back the tequila. Her face screwed up from the burn of the liquor, and she looked around before she found the small compartment where garnishes were stored. She plucked out a lime and bit down on it, relief immediately relaxing her features. She didn’t seem to notice that he hadn’t taken his shot yet, so he pounded it back before she could say anything. Maybe he had missed his opportunity to win someone over, or maybe he had just protected himself. He couldn’t make sense of the loss he felt, but he wasn’t sure she would want to hear it anyway.

“If I’d known limes were an option, I would have suggested body shots,” he told her instead, wondering just how false the confidence sounded in the sentence.

“Well, a bit of salt and a spot on my wrist would have been extra,” she told him as she dropped her peel into her empty glass. She stacked the shots and then set them in the sink beneath the bar. “There, happy? You got your drink after last call. Just what you were looking for.” Her palms rested on the bar, and she leaned forward in anticipation of his response.

“If I say yes, does that mean that I have to pay up and leave you alone?”

“If you say yes, I’m going to take it to mean my pour’s better than my ass.” She held his eye a moment more, then sighed and found a rag to wash away the spilled drops of tequila. “Besides, that one’s on the house. Consider it me pouring one out for the bad night you had.”

The reminder sent him back to hours before, when he’d simply dropped his guitar to end the set. He’d left that bar to sit in the van and fume while the others cleared away equipment as the hecklers continued to boo. Of the six people who had actually bothered to stay in their seats, two had made it their personal mission to make Smile of Winter give up before the first song ended. They’d lasted three and a half before Gordon’s indignation had gotten to be too much to tolerate. He’d thought about swinging his Fender, lashing out at the assholes or the drum kit or maybe just the solid, dependable floor, but he knew better. Broken guitars were only rock ’n’ roll if you’d officially made it in the industry. Before that, they were just hundreds or thousands of dollars of splintered wood and bent metal. So he had to carry that anger inside of him, a bomb ready to go off the moment his ego was so much as scraped.

Which it very much had been the moment he heard pity in her voice. Maybe she just wanted to help, but he couldn’t help feeling fucking inferior to have some stranger think that he needed a handout. “You really don’t have to do that. I said that I wanted to buy you a drink. It’s not the same this way.”

She bristled and shrugged. “Fine. Consider it a buyback then since you and your friends certainly put enough away to earn one.”

“Look, you’re a beautiful girl—woman—and generous to offer. But if I’m going to pretend that I’ve impressed you at all, rather than being some charity case you’ve taken mercy on, you’re going to have to let me pay for it.”

“Fine.” This time when she said the word, he knew she meant it. She threw her rag down on the bar and turned the sink’s water on full blast to begin washing the few glasses she had left to clean. “Why don’t you go back to your friends and keep feeling sorry for yourself? You’ll have your bill in a bit. And for the record? I wasn’t impressed either way.”

Her aggression startled him enough to draw him to his feet. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d received such a harsh look from a woman, let alone a woman that he had called beautiful. He could scramble for mental excuses—hormones, a recent breakup, mixed signals—but had no idea what could have turned her off so quickly. Surely it wasn’t something he’d done. “I’m sorry, I—”

“Would you just fucking go already? Thanks for the offer of the drink. You can pay for yours, and I can pay for mine. I get it. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. Here’s a little tip though for you. You’re never going to get anywhere unless you get your head out of your ass and learn how to accept a bit of help. It’s not always pity. Sometimes people just want to be nice.”

Before he could gather his thoughts enough to feel indignant over one stupid drink, she turned off the sink and ducked beneath the small barrier between the bar and the rest of the pub. She raced past him toward the restrooms, where she promptly disappeared. His jaw remained dropped, working at the air like he might be able to form some words if he just waited long enough. He heard a cough, knew that it hadn’t come from his own throat and realized just how many eyes were trained upon him. He understood that he hadn’t given any of the regulars reason to look upon him with any degree of sympathy. He thought about just emptying his already light pockets and then making his escape to the parking lot, but he didn’t like leaving things unresolved. Even if he couldn’t understand Lizzie’s behavior, how she could be so hot and then cold with him, her words had gotten under his skin more than he wanted to admit. If he was so skilled in alienating strangers, then it was precious little wonder that he found himself stuck with his dreams no closer to fruition.

Which was how he found himself being slapped in the face for entering a women’s restroom for the first time in his life.

It wasn’t that he intended to intrude so much as the door wasn’t locked, so he took the risk. He strode right on in past the plastic sign depicting a girl in a dress, ignoring the fact that someone might be in one of the stalls. The lighting inside was dim, the walls coated in permanent marker graffiti and stickers from all the bands that would never make it past the local level. For a moment, he held his breath with fear that she was tucked up on one of the toilets in the stalls, hiding away and forcing him to push in door after door until he found her. Then he noticed the small figure stooped over the sink, shoulders shaking as she struggled to remain quiet. He felt intrusive for witnessing her pain, even more so than he had when he’d swung the door open in the first place. There were no words that would immediately erase the pain and embarrassment of their confrontation. The best he could offer was to loudly clear his throat so she would know she wasn’t alone.

The gasp she emitted was even louder, and he could see her scrub frantically at her face before she turned to him. He could barely make out her features, but with the way she trembled, it was obvious to him that she had been crying. She ran a finger beneath each eye once more, and then her right hand drew back to gain momentum before it connected with his left cheek.

Never in his life had he physically fought with a woman, not even his little sister, and his hands came up to protectively shield the spot that she’d hit. “What the fuck was that for?” he asked, instantly on the defensive.

The anger still hadn’t left her eyes as she jabbed the middle of his chest. “You! What right do you think you have to come in here? Do you think that I want to hear whatever lame apology you have to offer behind closed doors? It doesn’t matter. I gave you a way out, so why don’t you fucking take it and get out of here? You’re not from around here. We never have to see each other again, so you don’t have to be embarrassed. But thanks to your little show out there? I’m going to be getting shit for weeks from those idiots who want to know why I’m not giving them free drinks.” There was a tiredness in her voice that told him she endured far worse regularly. With the spunkiness she had shown earlier, he had just assumed that Lizzie was in control of her clientele. Standing face to face with her, feeling the sting of her palm, he understood just how much a petite girl like her must have struggled just to handle those late shifts alone. He couldn’t even justify covering his cheek anymore because he felt he deserved it. More than what she’d given him, really.

“Look. I don’t have any right to be in here at all,” he told her, letting his hands hang loosely by his side, palms up in contrition. His words were all he had left to give her, as poorly chosen as they had been all evening. “All you know about me is I’m called Gordon and I’m in a band. I’m not from around here. I live in New York. I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania, where people cared more about steel than they did about getting an education, and the minute I got into college in New York, I took off and never looked back. I wouldn’t even take my parents’ money. I started this band my first day there, and I knew that music was all I ever wanted to do. We were signed by a label before we even graduated. No time for a proper job when you’re trying to record, tour and promote without a bit of help.

“We put out a couple of albums and got dropped, simple as that. The indie label suddenly wants all the money they fronted us plus expenses since they flushed everything down the toilet to support us. We haven’t got the money. They were the ones who were supposed to make us big, you know? So we’re here now, still trying to believe in ourselves because we’re the only ones who do. I do shifts in bars when I’m home because it’s just about the only thing I’m qualified to do. The others take odd jobs. They’re thinking of calling it quits. I just don’t know how to be anything us but this. And I don’t know what that means really, a musician or a total fuck up. I probably drink too much, yeah, but that’s because I don’t want to think about the fact that maybe everyone’s right, maybe I do just suck. I can’t get by without this band. I barely do as it is, but it’s hard to be proud when you have so much to be ashamed of, so you just have to put on the mask and hope it doesn’t slip. Until someone calls you out on it, and you realize that it’s fucking arrogant to weigh on the people you love the most knowingly while resenting anyone else because there’s even a chance they might just be feeling sorry for you.”

She remained quiet as he gave his speech, her full lips pressed together as she watched him. Her eyebrows knitted together a couple of times as he seemed to abruptly switch gears, as though she tried to connect the pieces but just couldn’t manage without a bit of help. Finally, when she was certain that he had reached the end of his tirade, she shook her head in confusion. “And why exactly are you telling me all this?”

“Because you don’t know me. And I don’t know you. But now you know all that, so you at least have a good reason why you wouldn’t want to accept a drink from a guy like me.”

She sighed and barely contained the urge to roll her eyes. He could see the frustration play across her features, and it gave the darker side of him a flutter of satisfaction, the self-fulfilling prophecy spreading its wings within him. “You really think too much about yourself,” she said at last, causing a small smile to pull at the corners of his mouth.

“Well, I’m a frontman. It’s my job.”

“It’s not a job if you don’t get paid for it,” she countered quickly. Her eyes traced over his body, and for a moment, he wondered if this was what it had been like for her to catch his reflection checking her out. But there was no hunger in her eyes, only curiosity. “Where are you staying tonight?”

“What?”

“Where are you sleeping? You said you’re far from home. Do you have a hotel room or something?”

The question made him laugh slightly, self-defeat lurking beneath the surface again. “We have a van. It’ll get us somewhere we can stop. Or Simon can just drink enough coffee to get us back home, I guess. I don’t drive, so it’s really not up to me.”

“You’re just going to sleep in a car?”

“A van.” He could hear the edge entering his voice as he became defensive, and he closed his eyes so he could try to turn some calm inward. She wasn’t judging him, not really. If he felt like he had to justify spending the night strapped into a smelly secondhand van with only snares for pillows, then that came from his own annoyance with the conditions of his life. There was nothing she could do that would make that journey more uncomfortable, and it wasn’t as though he would see her again to have her think any less of him.

She bit her lower lip, a mannerism that made him desperately want to place his thumb against that pout to make her skin slip free from her teeth. He wanted to know the warmth of her mouth and the passion that would come from kissing a woman he couldn’t even begin to understand. Maybe it was the alcohol beginning to affect him at last, maybe it was the situation, maybe it was his brain just desperately trying to rewrite reality to keep him from losing absolutely everything. As it stood, he barely heard her when she told him to just stay where he was.

“What, you mean in the ladies’ room?” he asked in disbelief.

“There are no women left out there anyway. Just give me ten minutes.” And then, to soften the blow just a little, she leaned up on the tips of her toes to peck his cheek. It wasn’t the full-on embrace that he’d let run through his imagination, but she was soft, a bit chilly, and carrying the unexpected faint scent of cigarettes. For as much as he’d confessed to her, he understood that he really didn’t know this girl at all.

He considered ducking into one of the stalls in case anyone got any ideas about coming after him, but such paranoia was wasted on him. “Egotistical prick,” he told himself, remembering her words. He really did have a way of building such myths up inside his head in order to make it seem like the world was unjustly against him. He hadn’t accomplished enough to be the hero of his own story, so he had to settle for being the victim.

He let himself think back to their kiss, if he could claim any ownership of it at all. Why had she kissed him like that? Was it a ploy to draw him in only so she could embarrass him? Or did she just not see him in any sort of sexual light? Maybe she just wanted to do whatever was necessary to get him out of her pub and back out into the night with the least amount of fuss. Winning him over. Yes, it was possible. How many minutes left? No watch, no clock. His friends would know something was up. They probably were already ready to abandon him with the way he’d behaved. Or maybe he just thought he deserved it, and he acted out more to try to show everyone else that it was the truth. But there was a little powder in his pocket. More than enough to chase away the dark thoughts for a while. Not matter what twist the night took, having a drastic realignment of his attitude certainly couldn’t hurt.

Of course he’d hardly had time to press the bag back into his pocket when the door to the restroom opened, only a bottle of liquor waving where a person should have entered. His eyes had adjusted enough for him to see that it was a full bottle of tequila, unopened and a little dusty. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said to the sombrero-clad figure on the label, “but this is the little girls’ room.”

They hadn’t even known each other an hour, and already he could recognize her laugh. She pushed the door open further to reveal the vacated pub as though it were some sort of a gift to him. “Come on, I’m not going to let you sleep in the van. If you were still in the parking lot when the owner got in tomorrow, I’m sure you’d be arrested. This isn’t the safest area to hang around, and your friends are in no state to be driving. This,” she said, waving the bottle before she dropped it in her oversized bag, “is between you and me though.”

“Is it okay? You taking that?”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it. It’s not exactly a big tequila crowd around here. Besides, you’d probably do me a favor getting me fired from a place like this.” That old heaviness entered her voice again, and he wondered how much loneliness she held inside, chained to this sort of meager existence. Then she plastered a smile on her face again, and he noticed how prominent her dimples were. How it had escaped his attention before, he had no idea. “Anyway, there’s room for them to sleep in the living room. They just have to behave themselves because I don’t live alone.”

There were so many gulfs of implication in her statement that he didn’t even know where to begin. As he fumbled, she set about turning off the overhead lights and fishing keys out of her purse. “Does that mean I have to behave?” he asked as she pushed him toward the front door in the dark. Even if this was his first time in the bar, she had been working here long enough that she could serve every table with her eyes closed.

“You’ve already insulted my pride, stalked me, and intruded where you don’t belong. I think it’s too late to ask you to behave.” The artificial orange glow of the city night pierced through the dust on a nearby window, affording her enough light to lean up and brush a thumb against his left nostril. “But you don’t need that to be interesting.”

The rush from the high hadn’t been enough to keep him from feeling embarrassed by being caught out. “I didn’t think I—“

“Quit overthinking everything, okay? Sometimes a girl needs something different in her life. Sometimes she doesn’t want to go home alone.”

He could have asked her then if she’d take just anyone, but he tried to focus on the drug working its way through his system, calling his attention to his body rather than his thoughts. He grabbed her free hand and pulled her back to him, ready to get the kiss right this time. It wasn’t perfect, not in the dark when his nose struck hers and she was a full foot shorter than he was. But it was honest, it was needy, and it was unapologetic. There could be no mistake held in any of that. Her hand slid over his chest, balling his t-shirt against his skin before she gave him a gentle shove. “Your bandmates are waiting outside. You’ve been rude enough to them tonight.”

True to form, the two were passing a cigarette back and forth when the couple emerged, Lizzie with a hoodie zipped tightly over her chest and Gordon with an undiplomatic smile on his face. “All right then. What’s the story, morning glory?” Keith asked as he gestured between them with the cigarette.

Thankfully Lizzie’s experience in the pub meant that she didn’t shy away from answering any question put to her in a quick and efficient manner. “The two of you get to fight over who gets the sofa and who sleeps on the floor. My apartment building’s just a couple of blocks away, so you can leave the van and just come back for it in the morning. I can’t guarantee that you’ll be comfortable, actually it’s a pile of shit really, but at least you won’t be cramped up in a van and can enjoy your buzz without worrying that you’re going to hit someone while driving.”

“Yeah? Where’s he sleeping then?”

“The master bath,” Gordon answered. He could feel the blood spread out from his heart, igniting his fingers and mind and nerve endings with purpose. In a way, it reminded him of the way he felt before he stepped out on the stage, living in the moment and refusing to acknowledge the fact that his confidence would soon flee. He tucked his arm over Lizzie’s shoulders and let himself get caught up in the strange momentum of the night, their desire not to be alone trumping what may have been common sense.

“Come on, your bath awaits.” Though her legs weren’t as long as Gordon’s, hampered no doubt by the tightness of her red jeans, she pulled him ahead of his friends so she could lead the way. “For the record,” she hissed over at him, “if that creepy one so much as goes through my cabinets to sniff my shampoo, I will kill him.”

He looked back at his bandmates trying to consume as much nicotine as possible during their walk and tried to contain his laughter. The last thing he needed was for one of them to butt into the conversation and test her threat. “What, Keith? He’s harmless.”

“He’s been making eyes at me all night. You were too wrapped up in your self-pitying shell to notice.”

“Then why not pick him up rather than me?”

Her dark eyes narrowed at him, but the annoyance didn’t seem to reach her mouth. “I really don’t know what it is about you. Just don’t make me regret it.”

She grew quiet as they walked up the sidewalk to her squat building. The exterior was a flat off-white, no flags or welcome mats out to make the place seem a bit more personal. Some of the screens in the windows had pieces of tape holding them together, with not so much as a single planter trying to foster some sign of life. She seemed timid as she pulled out her keys, but Gordon squeezed her free hand. His own apartment back home wasn’t any better, with a stove that didn’t work and heat that was invariably absent. Maybe she had been so offended by his pride about buying his own drinks because she knew plenty about what it was like to have to accept a helping hand.

Her home was on the ground floor, and she gestured for them to remain quiet when they stepped inside. She didn’t bother turning on a light, just waved her hand at the sofa and chair that were in the living room. “I’ll go get blankets for the two of you. If you need to use the bathroom, it’s straight through the kitchen on your left. Just try not to knock everything over.”

She’d hardly made it to the stairs before Simon and Keith had flopped on the couch. The idea of driving hours to make it home made just sitting up to sleep seem tempting. “How the hell did you snag a girl like that?” Keith asked, pursing his lips to whistle before he thought better of it. There was still the threat of getting downgraded to the van, and he wasn’t about to put his partial night’s rest in jeopardy.

Even Simon nodded sagely rather than come to Gordon’s defense. “She isn’t like your usual,” he admitted, a bit more tactical with his words. “Not that you have a usual, but still. I thought she was going to spit in your face and kick us all out. What changed?”

“I guess she just saw my potential rather than the hurt on the surface,” he replied, feeling that he had phrased it rather well.

“Bullshit,” Keith refuted, bringing his ego down a notch. “What did you promise her? Did you feed her some lines about how big your cock is and offer to show it to her?”

“He didn’t, but he’s a tall guy with big hands, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.” She’d crept down the stairs again so quietly that he hadn’t heard her, but the bassist was drunk enough that no color came to his cheeks at having been overheard.

“You know, I’ve got a lot of stories about this guy. Some of the stuff would absolutely shock you. He’s not a gentleman like yours truly,” Keith said as he hooked his elbow over the back of the couch. All that his offer got him was a knitted afghan thrown in his face.

“You know, I’ve had enough of so-called gentlemen for a while. I think I’ll take my chances with this one. I’ve already seen him act like a bit of an asshole, and I still find him tolerable. You, however…” Rather than go into details, she gave him a condescending smile and then held out her hand to the singer. “Sleep well, kids. If you have any trouble, don’t bug the adults, just fucking deal with it.”

At the risk of being kicked out, Simon let out a low whistle. “Maybe I do get it,” he said, letting his elbow find Keith’s ribs just in case the bassist started to protest too much. Even if they were all single guys, they were friends and bandmates first.

Gordon bit his lip as he followed Lizzie up the stairs. She zigzagged across the boards, avoiding all of the cracks that she knew would make the old wood groan in protest. He tried to mimic her moves and felt like the world’s most awkward ballerina. Her grip didn’t loosen on his hand though, and he focused on that feeling, that promise that only asked him to be patient enough to make it upstairs. “God, you’re good at this,” he whispered, trying not to drop back from having balanced on the tips of his toes. “It’s like you’re some teenager who sneaks out a lot and has learned not to get caught anymore.”

She shot him a wicked smile over her shoulder. “You have no idea.”

She stopped abruptly at the top of the stairs, and he didn’t have time to do the same before he bumped into her. It was the first time his body had pressed completely against hers, and he felt her heat even through her clothing. She looked up at him and blushed softly, the confidence that she had displayed just a moment before giving way to a certain shyness. “I’d turn on the lights, but my—”

His finger pressed lightly against her lips to quiet her. If she was nervous about her roommates catching them because her light was on, he could only imagine what their carrying voices might do. “You don’t have to do that. There are other ways to see.”

Her bedroom was small, the bed narrow. When she slipped out of her heels, she was so much shorter than him that he bit his lip to keep from laughing at how strange he felt. He had to sit down himself, yanking off his battered Converse and dropping them on the carpet. She removed the bottle of tequila from her purse and then frowned. “I should have grabbed salt and some limes. We could have done body shots the proper way.”

“We could just do them improperly,” he suggested.

As his eyes adjusted, he could see the way she angled her eyebrows upward. “And what exactly did you have in mind?” she asked. No doubt to encourage him, she uncapped the bottle of liquor and held it out to him.

He no longer needed the liquid courage in order to feel comfortable around her. This was a strange dance they were trying out with one another, but he couldn’t remember the last time that he had let go like this. He took a healthy swig from the bottle and cringed at the taste before he guided his mouth to her throat. Only the faintest trace of salt lingered there from work, walking, nerves. He couldn’t be sure, but he also thought he felt her pulse leap when he was there. “I don’t think that’s really wrong at all,” she told him, her head remaining tilted to the side as though she expected him to return for another kiss.

When he didn’t make a move, she took her own gulp of the tequila, then another. “Catching up,” she croaked before her teeth snagged his earlobe. It was an unconventional interpretation of body shots, but he couldn’t complain, not when she angled herself onto his lap and tipped the bottle to his lips. She helped herself to more, then kissed him aggressively, her hands pressing against his cheeks.

There were so many questions he had about her and what it was that she wanted from him, but he was silenced by the primal craving that she had stirred within him. His hands fumbled with pulling her top over her head, but when she guided him back to the clasp of her bra, he found steadiness in looking into her eyes, seeing the trust that she possessed. She crawled off him to unfasten her jeans but guided him up so she could yank away his t-shirt, unfasten his belt, push at his jeans.

She stretched out on her back and hooked a finger to invite him over her. The bed was too short for his form, and she laughed sweetly at his trouble. “You poor thing,” she purred up to him. “The world is really against you tonight.”

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