The room around us is buzzing with life and yet it’s the silence at our table that is deafening. We sit here as perfect strangers while the restaurant is teaming with spellbound couples. The delectable food and sweet surroundings do nothing to warm the chill that resonates between us, me and my date, Reid. There is no chemistry. Sure, he’s good looking, definitely good looking, but there’s only so much admiring I can do before it becomes awkward, right? Wrong. There’s not even enough of a connection between us for it to be awkward. He’s barely looked at me all night, let alone smiled or dared to indulge me in conversation.
“A rose for the lovely lady?” an aging man with a soft, French accent asks. He’s carrying a basket of individually wrapped flowers and watching Reid for a response. With a subtle shake of Reid’s head the man is excused and walks away apologetically.
Surprised by his lack of romance, and annoyed, I down the last of my wine. I can’t bear to eat anymore but my plate is practically full, so using my fork I slide the food from side to side in a bid to look interested.
The quiet between us is broken by the sound of his phone ringing from his pocket for the fourth time in the last hour. “I’m sorry, I should take this,” he says, at least having the decency to look embarrassed. I nod politely while biting my tongue. Literally. It doesn’t hurt. It’s numb from all the wine I’ve drank. Yet, even through a drunken haze I can see how pitiful this evening is.
As I watch Reid walk off to take his call I wonder why he even asked me to come tonight. I could have felt this shitty at home, but at least I’d have felt shitty in the comfort of my pajamas. I’ve made such an effort; lacy underwear, killer heels and a little black dress so unlike me. The natural curl of my long dark hair has been accentuated and my overly large blue eyes have a smoky silhouette. Why? To please a man that has turned up straight from work, briefcase and glasses included.
Filling our glasses with even more wine, I concede that there’s still time to turn this date around. It could go one of two ways; either I finish up early and admit defeat or I persevere and salvage the date, maybe even getting lucky. I guess I owe it to myself to try, I mean, it has been a really long time.
On his return I adopt my sweetest smile and he returns it, even if he does look a little bewildered. “Work,” he says by way of explanation.
“I gathered,” I reply, working harder than I should to hide my bitterness.
“So,” he begins, slipping his legs under the table and picking up his knife and fork again. “How’s the food?” He’s looking at my full yet muddled plate.
“Nice, I’m just not very hungry.”
“But the wine’s good?” he asks, looking pointedly at the empty bottle beside us.
Meow, Mr. Daley.
“The wine is excellent and very much appreciated.”
“Good.” He smiles a Hollywood smile. Hollywood, as in big and fake. He gets stuck into his food and I resume pretending to eat mine.
While he finishes I take a moment to appreciate the room around us. It really is enchanting. White drapes hang low from the ceiling, matching the crisp, linen table cloths and floral arrangements before us. Classical music hums softly in the background, synchronizing perfectly with the dim light of the candles to ‘romancify’ the restaurant. Couples around us are taking advantage of the sweet decor and atmosphere, besotted with each other, kissing and holding hands. I almost feel embarrassed to be this far detached from Reid. Why did he have to bring me here of all places?
We’re forty floors up and the amazing view has been a good distraction from the difficulty of the date. I can see the South Loop of Chicago spread out before me, grand but contained within the iron-framed window. It looks like a piece of contemporary art.
“Good, huh?” Reid mumbles, his leaf green eyes following my own. I hum in agreement. “Maybe we should take a trip to Willis Tower sometime. The view there’s meant to be pretty amazing.”
Another date? Because this one is going so well.
After several moments of unease Reid puts his cutlery down. “Are you finished?” he asks. I nod, declining dessert or coffee, so he requests the check to pay. We stand to leave and he politely offers me his arm, which I dutifully accept. “Happy anniversary, Darlene,” he says, kissing me lightly on the cheek. “Here’s to the next five years...”
Vast, industrial buildings tower over us as we walk home through Printers Row, their abundance of windows like a mosaic against the brickwork. We can see our apartment in the distance but we’re slow to get there, trudging past the quaint cafés and bookshops that line the street. We’ve lived here for five months and only now am I beginning to feel settled. It’s nothing to do with Chicago; it’s everything to do with me. It’s so far removed from all that I’m used to. It’s cold for a start, and when you’ve spent the last few years being bathed in the opulent sun of LA it comes as a surprise to have to wear two, sometimes three pairs of woolly socks at this time of year.
Chicago wasn’t my city of choice, I admit, but it’s growing on me, thankfully. I didn’t really have a choice in the matter when my husband got offered the job of a lifetime after slugging it out as an editor’s assistant for years. Finally offered a promotion, he took it, despite it meaning me having to give up my job, my friends, and move seventeen hundred miles to be with him. I was more than happy to do so at the time, but I guess it’s pretty obvious that I am now a little resentful. My bitterness no doubt coils from the fact that I’ve been unable to find work here. I’m a music teacher, I was a music teacher, but having left so close to the start of the school year it’ll be a long while before the new semester starts and I have a chance of finding a new teaching position.
“What time is your interview on Monday?” Reid asks, surprising me by both his remembering and his sudden hand around mine.
“Are you nervous?”
“Don’t be, you’ll be great.” He smiles encouragingly, but I attain no warmth from it.
“Even if I get the job it won’t start ‘til September. That’s seven months away. What am I supposed to do until then?” I ask, genuinely hoping for a good answer.
“Whatever you’ve been doing until now, I guess.”
I scoff. “So nothing.”
“I don’t know, Darlene. Maybe get another job to tide you over. It doesn’t have to be in teaching.”
“Like waitressing or something?” I bite, unable to stem the whining in my tone. “Baby, I’ve been there, I’ve done that. I don’t want to be a twenty-six year old waitress.”
“Fine.” Reid shrugs, concluding the end of that short-lived discussion.
Slowing down to allow for the damn heels that are now pinching my feet, I absent-mindedly study the windows of the businesses as we saunter past. Coming up to The Nest, a popular bar currently blasting out some Crowded House, I eye up the collage of leaflets that layer a notice board hung outside. I’m drawn to the slip of black paper screaming out from the vibrant colors that surround it.
Open Mic Night - Every Sunday - 8 ‘til late
Free Admission - All Expressions Welcome
Releasing Reid’s hand, I step closer, peering around the notice board to study the bar. I’ve only ever heard The Nest, not seen, having had no social life the last few months. I guess for a social life you need friends within the same vicinity as yourself, or at the very least, a partner who isn’t completely consumed with work.
The bar is crammed, so crammed that it is likely to be running against health and safety laws. I can’t see much further than the entrance but the crowd is spirited and animated as the track changes to Aerosmith’s Walk This Way. I almost do. Instead, I opt to simply admire their lively attitude to this great opening guitar riff.
“What is it?” Reid asks, seemingly bored behind me.
“They’ve an open mic night here tomorrow.”
Several seconds pass. “Are you thinking of going?”
“Yeah, why not? I’m not exactly juggling social engagements.” Tearing myself away from the energy of the bar, I look to Reid who watches me with confusion. “What?”
“I didn’t think you wanted to perform anymore.”
“I didn’t, but it might be nice just one more time.”
He puckers his mouth into an intrigued pout and offers his hand again. “Okay.”
“You’ll come with?”
“Darlene, I can’t. James has arranged dinner with an author.”
“On a Sunday?” I don’t know why I’m so appalled. Apparently there’s no such thing as a weekend off when you’re the newbie at a publishing firm.
“I’m sorry. You’ll be amazing though.” He takes my reluctant hand and brings it to his lips. I savor the warmth of his kiss, knowing how long I may have to wait until the next. I smile in return, regrettably realizing that it’s my first genuine smile all evening.
Flicking on the light switch to our recently acquired and decorated apartment, I notice how the smell of paint still hangs in the air from yesterday. I blanch as I scoot past Darlene to hang up my jacket. Darlene absentmindedly hands me hers, out of habit I think, and so I hang that up too.
“Maybe you should have aired it out some more,” I suggest as she fans the stink away from her face. She nods lightly before taking a seat in her favorite chair, one of the only pieces of furniture we bought with us from LA. She’s about to go all quiet on me again, I can tell. The silence has been killing me tonight, heck, it’s been killing me slowly for a long while. I’d rather her shout at me than ignore me.
Now, there’s an idea.
“I mean, the windows didn’t really even need painting, did they? You shouldn’t have bothered.”
She shoots me a look of pure contempt before shaking her head and lowering her gaze to unfasten her shoes. “What else is there to do?” she mumbles to herself. She doesn’t think I can hear her but I have fine hearing, extremely attuned to Darlene’s mumbling having become accustomed to it over the seven years I’ve known her. She will always favor muttering something under her breath to screaming or shouting in my face, even on the occasions that I’ve deserved it.
“Sorry?” I ask, knowing damn well that she won’t repeat it.
“No, I guess I shouldn’t have.” She smiles sweetly. I only wish it were real.
Even if I was only trying to goad her into a much needed argument, I was right. Nothing needs doing anymore. She’s spent the entirety of her time here decorating a home that didn’t really need decorating. She has stripped everything and painted everything, trawled the city far and wide finding furniture to fill the moderate space, and she has called upon her many talents to both find and supply artwork to adorn the bare walls. Overall the effect is one that I am amazed with. The open-plan living space, comprising of a seating area, a dining area and a kitchen, all follows the same earthy color scheme. The walls are a calming oatmeal color while the furnishings are tinted with mint greens and weak browns. Darlene’s chair sits snugly in the far corner with her guitar on one side and the sizeable window that overlooks the street on the other.
Thinking I was being kind, I recently told her that she should look into decorating as a career. I mean, she really has done a fantastic job here. She ignored me for days after that little slip. Apparently I had “belittled her passion for teaching.” There was me thinking I was helping her expand her options. I have since given up trying to help. But, it seems like a new career is an even better idea now. With the apartment completely finished she is bored out of her mind. I come home to find crazy dishes cooked for our evening meal, something she’s spent hours concocting, or she has written a song that she never intends to sing for me. Just last week I found her alphabetizing my extensive book collection. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that they were already alphabetized by author, not title. That would have been worth at least a week in silence.
After tossing my briefcase gently onto the sofa I remove my glasses and tie, then open a few buttons of my shirt. I walk around and sit facing Darlene. She’s relaxed into her plush chair as if it is warm hug, her head back and her eyes closed. Her shoes are off and her bare legs are folded neatly beneath her. Clutching a huge gold cushion to her chest as if it were her childhood teddy, she looks so unbelievably cute, and yet so heartbreakingly lost. She hasn’t been herself for so long, and in turn, neither have I. My anchor is lost and I am finding myself adrift.
I knew it would be difficult here and we were both aware that the chances of her finding a job immediately were slim, but I don’t think either of us was prepared for how much the move would affect us as a couple, especially when it started so well. We were excited to be on this adventure together and the city pulled us in with its energy and noise. Darlene was keen to explore while I worked, and the days seemed to skip by happily. Then, as my workload increased and my hours spent at home dwindled, so did our fire. Now, instead of fighting for our relationship it feels like we are simply accepting its decline.
“Shall we go to bed?” I ask, hoping that my intentions are clear without being pushy. It’s been a really long time. Long for anyone, but especially for us, considering our previously amorous relationship.
“I’m not tired,” she says, her voice sleepy and her eyes closed.
“I didn’t mean to sl...” I exhale heavily, rubbing my lips and chin to hide my bite. “Right, you look about ready to perform the fuckin’ Cancan.”
“Nothing,” I sigh. “I’m going to bed.” I push myself from the couch and head for the bedroom. See, I can mumble too.
“Hey, wake up, Darl.”
My eyes squeeze shut in a moment of stubbornness before opening to the sight of Reid. He’s perched on the coffee table in front of me holding a cup of potent goodness.
“It’s late?” I ask, rubbing my eyes to fight the sting as the bright light from the near window threatens to blind me.
“Almost ten. We slept in.” He stretches out his arm to hand me the coffee, but when I move to get up from my chair a sharp pain shoots through my neck and shoulder.
“Goddamnit!” I clutch my neck as I rock quickly, back and forth, trying to acclimatize to the pain. Reid has put down the coffee and is kneeling at my side.
“What is it?” he asks, looking genuinely concerned.
“I must have slept funny.” Cringing, I try to stretch out the muscles in my neck, rolling it from one side to the other. Reid sighs heavily before getting up to walk to the kitchen. He no longer looks concerned. I’d go as far as saying he looks annoyed. Why, because I didn’t come to bed?
“Ya’ know, honey, I didn’t mean to sleep out here,” I explain, but he just shrugs as he searches through the drawers. “It must’ve been the wine. I’m not used to it.” I should have insisted on a damn beer.
“Sure,” he says, unconvinced as he walks back to me. He hands me some pills and my coffee. “Maybe you should go for a soak in the bath or something. Unless you feel up for a run with me?” He looks less than hopeful. Reid has been trying to get me to run with him for years. I know I should but I can find a million excuses why I shouldn’t.
“Nah,” I reply, pointing to reason one million and one; my neck.
He nods. “I’ll get us some breakfast.”
“Okay.” I smile, apologetically.
He hesitates before leaning down and kissing me chastely on the forehead, stroking my sore neck with his adept fingers. This kind of sweet act is a rarity, well, since we’ve been in Chicago at least, so I savor it. “Bath, yes?” he instructs and I nod. He walks away smiling. I only wish it were real.
The water scorches my pale skin as I lie in the roll-top bath. I watch as my once sun-kissed skin darkens under the heat. Poking at my thigh, I watch it flash white when I remove my finger before turning hot pink once more.
Baths are meant to be relaxing, right? I’m meant to treasure the peace and relish the fact that I have the time to unwind. That may have been true once upon a time, but the novelty has long worn off. I now have enough time in the day to take a hundred baths. What I really look forward to is a time when I have to wake up early and rush through a five minute shower so that I’m not late for work.
Lowering myself further into the bath so that my stiff neck is submerged completely, I recall Reid’s reaction to my pain. He still cares. There’s no doubt about that. I just wish we were back within a time where he was able to show it, or tell me. I know I’m not the easiest person to live with at the moment, but neither is he. He’s barely here and when he is he’s either still working or he’s too tired to do anything. Yes, anything.
Yet, he proposed to resolve that last night, I think, and I still turned him down. Stupid. No, no, not stupid. It wouldn’t have been the same. It felt forced and expected because it was our anniversary. Nothing is stopping him making a move any other day of the week, and yet he hasn’t. God, I hope he does soon, and I hope it feels natural and like nothing has changed. I need to feel our connection again. I need to know that I am sticking this out for a reason.
I miss his hands on me, his magic hands. I miss being under his spell; a slave to his touch. He used to command my body with a simple knowing glance. His expression would flicker with mischief, now it hints at tiredness. He’s still attractive, lord, he’s attractive. He wears his good looks like someone who doesn’t know how handsome he is. But don’t be fooled, he knows it, choosing to accessorize his appeal with facial hair that is more than stubble but not quite a beard, and sometimes, retro glasses that hint at coolness while making his eyes pop, pop, pop. The facial hair came with Chicago and I’m still on the fence about it.
Wayward hair of a sandy blonde shade sweeps seductively over those green eyes, which, with or without the glasses, command attention. His features are symmetrically perfect, model perfect, but his smile is occasionally lopsided. Those wicked, lopsided smiles are my favorite.
Without consciously guiding them there, my hands have found their way to my breasts. I imagine my hands to be Reid’s, despite their size and softness. Cupping each of them as they become heavy with longing, I roll my head back and close my eyes, succumbing to my body’s aching need. My nipples peak under my light touch as I circle them leisurely, the water lapping around them only adding to the increasing pleasure.
Picturing Reid hovering over me, flashing me that teasing, unbalanced smile, I allow my hand to drift down until I hit the spot. The tips of my fingers work with the warm ripples of water to draw me deeper into the fantasy. Reid is all around me, his skin warm against mine, his weight comforting me as the aching need builds. I’m breathing heavily, unable to curtail the moan that falls from my parted lips. My back is arching out of the water as I’m drawn closer to the brink of my control. I’m so, so close.
I flop back into the water, cowering like a frustrated fool as Reid knocks gently on the locked door.
“Just a minute!” I call, working hard to disguise my obvious disarray as the bath water splashes around me.
“Okay...I got bagels.”
The fresh bagels and coffee are beginning to cool as I wait for Darlene to join me, and yet I’ve suddenly lost my appetite. I can’t believe what I just heard. In all of our time together I never suspected that she did...that…to herself. There wasn’t any need to, I mean, I hope there wasn’t. Shit. I don’t know how to respond to this. Do I even respond? I feigned ignorance before and she seemed to believe me.
If I could only hide this fucking boner.
“All okay?” Darlene asks, her voice timid as she hesitates to sit with me at the table.
“Yeah, of course.” I nod.
“You have a nice run?”
“Sure, you have a nice bath?” I blink back the images that rage through my mind. “I mean, how’s your neck?” Rolling it from side to side, she tests it out. Her bathrobe is gaping, hinting at her amazing rack, and all I can do is imagine her writhing around in that damn bath.
“A lot better, actually.”
We begin our breakfast in silence. I don’t know if she’s aware that I know what she was doing. If she does then she is keeping up the same pretence that I am. Good. We don’t need to have that conversation. However, she’s obviously in need. I just assumed that she was so riled up with looking for a job and wallowing in her boredom that she didn’t feel the urge anymore. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I don’t affect her like I used to.
“Umm, I need to work a little this afternoon. I’m not very familiar with the author we’re meeting, so I should probably study up.” I take her hand, skimming her knuckles with my thumb, asking for her attention. “But, I can spare an hour or so if you wanted to do…something?”
She cocks her head at me, frowning enough to hint at the soft V that forms between her brows when she’s confused or pissed. I love that little V. It’s difficult to concentrate on her moodiness when it appears.
Her doubt bothers me. Does she not think I want to spend time with her? “Yeah, of course. Anything in particular you want to do?” I ask. Hoping. Hoping. Hoping.
She pouts thoughtfully. “I was thinking maybe I should get my guitar restrung for tonight. It hasn’t been done since we moved here.” I know the feeling. “You could come with? I’m not sure we’ll find anywhere on a Sunday though.”
I sigh, quietly. “Let’s go see.” She beams a smile so bright at me that I can’t help return it.
It takes us a while to get ready to leave. I needed a shower after my run and Darlene...hell, I don’t know what took Darlene so long. Maybe the endless layers she seems to be wearing. She really doesn’t like the cold.
“Ready?” I ask, taking her guitar and hitching it onto my back before opening the door to hurry things along. I really don’t have a couple of hours to spare. I’d spare them for sex, but I couldn’t exactly back down after already offering my time.
“Yup,” she replies, popping the P as she fastens her coat all the way to her chin. She has a scarf wrapped round her neck countless times and her mass of curls are tamed beneath a knitted beanie. Every inch of her skin and every curve of her body is concealed, but after what I heard from her today, I still want her. Badly.
She’s about to walk past me through the doorway when I stop her. I don’t even think about it when my fingers loop around to cradle her face. I lower my head and wait, wait for resistance, but she’s frozen. I can feel her breath against my mouth, inviting me, pleading with me to connect. I do, softly. Too soft. She responds out of politeness but she doesn’t offer her own fervor. We disconnect awkwardly and so I offer a weak smile.
“Let’s go fix your guitar.”
Cash has been restrung and sounds like an angel as we reacquaint in preparation for tonight. I haven’t played much of late. I don’t know why. It’s not like I haven’t had the time. Maybe, it’s something to do with Chicago feeling so alien. I was born and raised in the southern heat. Nowhere in particular. I was constantly on the road with my parent’s band, but we never seemed to make it very far north. I don’t think my mama liked the cold either.
It was my daddy who taught me how to play guitar. It was inevitable, really. I was surrounded by musicians, living my nomadic life with them on a rusty, old tour bus, and very occasionally, a cheap motel. I think if I hadn’t have picked up a guitar and learned it, loved it, I would have been labeled as backwards. I was home-schooled to assure that I wasn’t though. By a wannabe teacher, but Ms. Katy did well enough.
When it was felt that I was good enough I took to performing with them, and I’ve never looked back. It came as easily as walking. I loved the attention of being center stage, the eyes of the crowd warming me like the Texan sun. The music coursed through my veins and the energy of the room fuelled my talent.
I became a solid feature of my parents band, country, if you haven’t already guessed, and it stayed that way for years. I imagined it being my entire life, and so did everybody else. On my sixteenth birthday my daddy gave me his most prized possession. His guitar, Cash. Yes, Johnny Cash. Named after my daddy’s idol, the man he sang like, looked like, and to a certain extent, behaved like. Two weeks later he passed away. A million bar fights, booze every single night, a constant cigarette in his mouth, and he dies crossing the road.
My mama and I fled to California to live with my aunt and that’s where we stayed, working hard to adapt to our suddenly stationary lives. School was tough, kids can be mean toward difference, but some kids are more accepting. Just happens to be the wrong kind of kids. I’d never really been disciplined so I fit right in. My life was spent watching the actions of sinners and I soon chose for myself what I could and couldn’t do. This lack of discipline, of boundaries, followed me through high school and eventually college.
I had a badass blast.
I’m a good girl now.
My mama had no reason to stay once I was living my own life and soon reformed the band to tour again. I think she’s somewhere in Louisiana right now, but I haven’t heard from her for a long while. We’ve never been particularly close. Not like daddy and me.
The last time I performed was while I was in college. I gigged regularly at the many student bars in LA, helping to boost my waitressing money that supported me while I studied. It was a learning experience in every sense of the term. I learned life, people, and music. Country was something that was bred into me; it came easily because it was all around me. Music outside of that was alien. I worked hard to familiarize myself with popular music; rock, indie, pop, and eventually they became just as much of my set as country was.