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.”
“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.