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.”
“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.