Something else I learned during that time? Love. Corny, right? I don’t care. Reid found me during one of my performances and never missed one after that. He followed me to every one of my gigs for weeks before having the courage to ask me out. When we were official, he continued to support me. He was my biggest fan.
“Darlene, can you keep it down? I’m trying to work!”
Was being the operative word.
Placing my guitar down on my chair, I stand and lean my head against the cold window. Watching the world pass by on the street below, I’m jealous of them all. Each has a destination in mind, somewhere they need to be. Some dawdling with friends or loved ones, others rushing to meet appointments, dates, not watching the time tick by agonizingly slowly, like me.
Frustrated, I head to the kitchen, intent on grabbing myself a bag of chips. Yes, it’s one of those times. I wince a little at the cold floor beneath my bare feet and practically dance toward the cupboard in search of food. With snacks and a drink in hand I turn to see Reid watching me with amusement flickering behind his black framed glasses.
With his mug in hand he walks toward the coffee machine. “You look cute barefoot in the kitchen.” He tosses the words out casually, oblivious to the worry they ignite in me.
“Well, don’t go getting any ideas about...”
“Why not?” he interrupts, confidently.
I turn to look at him. His back is to me as he feeds his caffeine addiction. “What do you mean?”
Finally turning to face me, he at least has the courtesy to look a little sheepish. “I’ve been thinking, you’re not working. I mean, we can afford for you to be not working. Now’s a great time to think about starting a family.”
Heat cloaks me as I move my hands up to lift the hair from my neck. I can’t swallow for the anxiety lodged in my throat. “Too soon, Reid, way too soon.”
“Seven years is too soon? Really? Darlene, think about it. You’re not working. You have all the time in the world to raise our child.”
“A child isn’t a means to fill my time, Reid. I can’t believe you’re even suggesting this now.”
Reid has made no secret of his desire to want a family. It’s endearing that he thinks so much about it really. I have no doubts that he wants to rectify his own poor childhood and the childhood that he believes I shouldn’t have had by fathering children and raising them right, or spoiling them. And that’s a dream that I share, I mean, we’ve all but named our children. But now couldn’t be a worse time. We’re not the same insanely in love couple that we were when we started those dreams.
Reid’s shoulders deflate. “A child might...fix us.” This is the first real acknowledgment Reid has given me to show me that he is as aware of our marriage’s decline as I am.
“Baby, you really want to be one of those couples?”
Shrugging away my answer, along with the conversation, he turns to leave the kitchen. “It was just a suggestion,” he mumbles. I watch his back as he rakes his hand through his hair and enters his office. He’ll be hiding out in his cave for a long while now.
Sitting on the sofa with a bowl of chips between my legs and a can of soda beside me, I flick through a million channels on the TV and find absolutely nothing to incite interest in me. I turn it off, shove another round of food into my mouth and find my eyes drawn to the huge piece of framed art that hangs above the television. It’s an artist’s impression of a dying sunset, reds and orange bleeding together in front of an indigo sky. It’s a hint to mine and Reid’s relationship. Not in the metaphorical sense, although one does wonder, but because sunsets are so heavily tied to our happy memories.
Our very first date was spent with a thoughtful picnic and champagne while we watched the sun set on our singledom. It kind of set a precedent. So much of our relationship took place with the beach as our backdrop and the sunset became as much a part of our happiness as our kisses. We found ourselves seeking out the sunset, making a point of watching it, even scheduling our wedding around it.
How telling is it that we haven’t watched a single sunset in Chicago?
I’m left bloated and unsatisfied by my afternoon binge and feeling more resentful than ever. Screw this. After wrapping up to defend against the cold once more, I hoist my guitar onto my back and shout to Reid that I’m going out.
I don’t wait for a reply.
Two minutes down the road from us is Printers Row Park. It’s not really a park as such, but it does boast an impressive fountain at its center. Concrete benches border the ground and so I take a seat with a hot drink. I never used to drink this much coffee, but I suppose I never needed it to stay warm before.
It’s a pretty quiet Sunday, thankfully, so I sit cross-legged and position Cash on my lap, strumming once to test him while I think of what to play. I never really plan it out. Sometimes the moment just calls for a certain song, and I play what I feel.
Music can be powerful; it can be the catalyst for a change, a revelation, perhaps to heal or encourage. It’s expressive and interpretive. Half of the fun of performing is deciding what to play, what the room wants or needs. Maybe even what I need. Music is my therapy after all, the one constant in my life.
I don’t intend on singing out here. I’m not looking to perform or win attention. I just want to play without annoying anyone. I Am A Pilgrim comes naturally to mind and my fingers comply. I think it’s a variant of the different versions. While it’s not very well known, it’s one of my daddy’s favorite songs. I could never work out if it were the melody he liked or the lyrics. I’m singing them in my head, rocking to the soothing country chords.
I’m about to close my eyes and completely shut myself off to the world when I catch someone watching me.
A guy. A really beautiful guy.
He’s pretty far away so I’m only presuming that his beauty withholds up close. He’s wearing a cap that sits low over his forehead but it doesn’t detract from his dark, dangerous eyes. I’m captivated. I think he is too. Sporting a leather jacket, he stands proud and sucks on a cigarette. He turns to leave but not before smiling and nodding in my direction. I smile back. I don’t know why.
The door slams shut and I race to meet her. To confront her or hug her, I don’t know. I’m relieved but annoyed, and the latter emotion doubles when she swans in acting all aloof, as if I haven’t been going out of my mind. “Finally!” I bellow, raising my arms dramatically at Darlene as she shrugs off her thick coat.
“I was worried! You didn’t tell me where you were going and you haven’t been answering your damn phone.”
“Yes I did, baby, I shouted to tell you I was going out. And my phone is charging.” I soften a little at her endearment. I don’t know why, it doesn’t mean anything to her to speak them. They’re out of habit, not love, the after effects of living in the south.
“You didn’t take your phone with you?” I grind through a clenched jaw.
“No, it was dead.”
I close my eyes, forcing back the irritation that’s burning its way through my restraint. “Please, please take your phone with you next time and at least have the decency to come and inform me properly.”
“Why? To ask for your permission?” Here we go. Darlene has never had to answer to anybody. It’s both refreshing to have someone so independent and infuriating. Right now, it’s infuriating.
“No, out of courtesy.”
“Courtesy?” She rolls her eyes as she moves past me to her chair. “You’re my husband, not my parent, and I’m a big girl. I can handle a walk all by myself.”
“Fine, I won’t care where you go or what you do from now on then,” I say, not meaning a single word of it.
“Perfect.” The sarcasm drips from her words like acid as she sits back and adopts her famed impassive mask. I hate it. I wish she’d push me, scream at me, anything to show that I still get to her somehow, even if it is in a negative way.
I give up.
Grabbing my jacket, I turn to leave, picking up my keys, wallet and phone. I turn to Darlene to see her staring out of the window. “I’m going to meet James to talk about this author. What time will you be back from that bar?”
“Late,” I sigh, adopting the same forced nonchalance as her. “Well, break a leg.” I storm to our car in the private parking lot of our building, slamming the door with more force than necessary.
That woman is so damn exasperating!
We’re in a city that she barely knows and she doesn’t even think to take her fucking phone! Gripping the steering wheel until my knuckles turn white, I work hard to control my breathing. I can’t. I’m so fucking angry! No, I’m not angry, I’m frustrated. Frustrated because I want to protect her and she won’t let me anymore. I can’t even protect her tonight at this stupid open mic night. Lord knows I’ve tried to get out of this dinner but it’s already been delayed for weeks. We’ve been desperate to claim this author and it’s all riding on tonight. I can only hope that James is as clued up as normal because I couldn’t get a damn thing done with everything going on at home.
She’s going to some random bar to sing in front of a rowdy crowd and I can’t be there to stop anything from happening. I’ve always been there. I’ve been to every one of her gigs, even before we were a couple, and I’ve stopped endless passes being made and many overzealous fans. It’s killing me not being there tonight and she doesn’t even seem to care. She is so closed off that she didn’t even hesitate when I said I couldn’t come, like it didn’t even cross her mind that I would.
I have to make this right somehow. Maybe I can get away early tonight and catch the tail end of her performance. Doubtful. But perhaps she’ll sing for me when I get back. It’s been far too long since I’ve heard her sweet voice and knowing how her performing for me would normally end up with us in bed it’s got to be worth a shot. That’s if she’s even talking to me. I’m not too sure after how we just left things. Shit. Why do I let my annoyance show so dramatically? I know she just shuts down so why do I continue to push her into a corner?
I need to fix this.
The heels of my boots pound rhythmically in unison with my nervous heart as I walk toward The Nest. I can hear the sizzling bass of an upbeat song enticing me nearer and so I quicken my pace. It’s been so long since I’ve been out to experience live music and it’s only just dawning on me how much I’ve missed it.
As I reach the doors I am already smiling. I walk in to the voice of Janis Joplin and take a moment to absorb the room around me. It’s big, much bigger than it looks from outside because it stretches a long way down from the door. At the very end is a small stage, currently empty but no doubt waiting for its first participant. To the right is a lengthy bar, which is exactly where I head.
The whole place is slick with polished wood and glossy black surfaces. It oozes retro style with mirrored walls and low hanging light fittings. It is like nothing I have ever personally encountered before and yet I feel completely at ease here. The reason for that immediate comfort is that this place is clearly all about the music. Iconic images of famous bands and singers are plastered on the walls, eclectically ranging from Elvis to Maroon 5, from Sinatra to Led Zeplin, from Smokey Robinson to Michael Jackson. To the side of the bar sits an ancient jukebox but in every corner of the room hangs expensive, contemporary speakers; the reason behind the bass thumping invitingly outside.
Behind the bar is a collection of photographs. They’re all taken within this room, many aimed at the stage. I’m studying it profusely when I’m interrupted.
“Hey, looky here, it’s Pilgrim.”
“Excuse me?” I reply, looking immediately into the dark features of the guy in front of me and working hard not to drool. He’s absolutely breathtaking.
“I called you Pilgrim, because you were playing Soul Stirrers in the park, right?”
He looks different, though. He’s not wearing a hat for a start, allowing me to see the black cropped hair previously hidden beneath it. I was right nonetheless, his beauty does withhold up close. Dark eyes engage me from the offset and a strong jaw, perfectly smooth, begs to be stroked. His rich, mocha skin is flawless but for a faint dusting of freckles that sit atop his nose and sharp cheekbones. Totally endearing.
“No, I think you’ll find I was actually playing Johnny Cash in the park.”
“Oh, I see.” He smiles wickedly, permitting me a glimpse of his perfect teeth. “You’re country.”
“Yes...no...well, not anymore,” I stutter like an incompetent idiot.
“You certainly sound country.”
I can’t deny that. I have an undeniably southern twang to my accent, but for some reason it’s more prominent here. “I was country, but now I’m seeing how city feels.”
Squinting his eyes at me thoughtfully, he leans in. I inwardly wither under his appraisal. “You can be whatever you want in here, Pilgrim,” he whispers. An effortless smile breaks out across my face, and upon seeing it his own smile broadens. “Can I get you a drink?”
“Yeah, Corona please. Oh, and a glass of water.”
He turns away to collect my drinks from a low fridge, flashing his denim covered ass in my direction. It’s perfect, just like the rest of his body. He’s long and athletic, with a wide chest and strong arms. He’s the embodiment of a Jackie Collins dream.
Oh my God, Darlene, snap out of it.
“I’m assuming from the guitar that you’re performing tonight?”
“You’re sharp,” I respond sarcastically, but with humor, as I take the drinks and reach for my purse.
He shakes his head before I get chance to hand him the money. I cock my own head in confusion. “Performers drink free,” he explains. I don’t believe him, but I also don’t want to argue with him. I need all the friends I can get.
“Let me get your name down,” he says, reaching for a clipboard and pen. “There’s quite a few playing tonight, but no newbies, except for you.”
I smile. I think he’s trying to make me feel nervous but it doesn’t work. I don’t feel the nerves until I’m up on the stage, and even then, I welcome them.
“So, what’s your name? Or should I just write ‘Pilgrim.’” He’s biting his bottom lip over another smile. It’s clear he’s enjoying the teasing. Or is he flirting? I can’t tell. It’s been a while since I’ve been on the receiving end of such games.
“Darlene.” I hold out a hand and he takes it, his huge hand engulfing mine and weakening me instantaneously.
“Dar-leeen,” I sound out, exaggeratingly.
“I prefer Darling.”
Okay, he’s definitely flirting. I need to nip this in the bud. He’s still holding my hand so I pull away with a jolt. I’ve seen him clock my wedding ring, so what gives?
“Do you? That’s a real shame.”
He chuckles at my attempt to be standoffish. “I’m Blue.”
“As in the color?” I ask, somewhat amused.
“As in the color, as in the music, as in the movies, as in sad, as in those big ass eyes you’re sporting, or as in the name. Blue.”
I can’t help but smile. What an odd name. But then its quirkiness seems rather fitting for him. He naturally stands out from the crowd, more so than anyone I have ever known.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Blue.”
“Not yet it isn’t,” he mumbles.
“Take a seat. The shows about to start.”
I do as I’m told, for a change, blame it on confusion. After pushing through the growing crowd I manage to find a tall barstool propped up against the wall. I take a seat, happily watching the music lovers as they become excitable. Blue is walking to the stage, slapping backs and rubbing heads as he moves through the obviously adoring people.
Is he the manager here? The owner? Everyone seems to know him and he certainly has that commanding presence about him.
Climbing up onto the stage he moves a few things around, allowing me further chance to study him. And from a distance this time. He won’t see me ogling him so casually, as if I haven’t got a husband or a conscience. Answering my devilish prayers he removes his shirt, revealing a black, skin-tight vest underneath, along with incredibly defined muscles. He’s a God. My private assessment only goes unnoticed for so long because as Blue takes the microphone in his hand he shoots a look straight at me. I hope I’m not drooling. He smiles and I return it, then he turns to address the heavy crowd between us.
“Ladies and gentlemen, guys and girls, welcome to open mic night at your favorite, most welcoming, most talented and most downright happening bar in town! I’m going to kick off this evening with a little favorite of mine, and I do believe, a favorite of yours. Sing if you know it.”
I seriously hope that he isn’t going to sit at the upright piano behind him. I’m already struggling with these indecent thoughts without adding talent to the equation.
Instead he slips off stage and comes back with a guitar in his hand.
What I can only describe as his fans start whooping and clapping as the dazzling chords of Sweet Home Chicago play out, courtesy of his talented fingers. His voice is as equally bluesy as the chords as he sings passionately to this lively song. He’s playful and responsive with the crowd and it’s a dream to watch. My face hurts from the smile stretched across it and I find myself dancing a little in my seat. He catches my eye several times and tosses me confident smiles.
He knows he’s good.
How could he not?
He’s a complete showman.
At the bridge, he cuts the strumming and wills the crowd to join in. They do. I do. I’m caught up in the show, the experience, feeling myself falling in love with this place and how it makes me feel.
I’m home again.
As the song continues so does his hips, swaying in perfect harmony to the sultry rhythm of the blues. I can’t tear my eyes away. I know I should, but I feel invisible, hidden by the swell of the mob. It can’t hurt to look. I mean, I know it would never go any further than looking, so I can secretly appreciate, right?
The song grinds to a halt and the room goes wild, me included. What a performance! He takes a playful bow before hopping off the stage. Struggling through the crowd, addressing the same people he did on the way there, he detours to me. I sit up suddenly in my seat, weirdly feeling like a crazed fan after the way I just behaved and how he managed to extract said behavior from me.
“You liked?” he says, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand and leaning in a little too close to be considered merely friendly.
“I could tell.” Cocky bastard. “I can’t wait much longer to watch you. You’re on soon.”
He walks away, leaving me unusually anxious. How can anyone possibly follow that? Luckily I’m not the first one to attempt it. A timid guy with shoulder length hair is called to the stage by Blue behind the bar, and he sits at the piano. Everyone is watching but nobody seems overly keen to listen. He begins a song I’ve never heard, his fingers moving softly over the keys as his voice whispers into the microphone. He’s great, but too quiet for this crowd, who fall silent in response. They obviously appreciate good music though because he still gets a polite applause, but I can’t help imagine that he wants more. I know I would.
When Blue calls my name to the stage, I shake off the surprise and quickly make my way, feigning confidence until I can feel it. The previously quiet crowd chatters noisily while they inspect me, a newbie, but I don’t acknowledge them until I’m sitting on my stool with Cash on my lap. I strum once, letting the strings wailing silence the room. When I have their attention I feel a mammoth flurry of nerves in my gut. I breathe deep, forcing them out, before I introduce myself.
“Hi, girls and boys, my name’s Darlene. I’m going to sing a little something and hope y’all enjoy it.”
What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes has been loved by myself for many years and it always seems to be a crowd pleaser. It’s both soft and loud, both easy and poignant, and at this moment in my life, it’s perfectly fitting.
With a final flutter of butterflies I begin, singing gently about how stagnant I feel, lost here, but still hoping. I tell about my despair and how I’m coping...or not coping. But I can forget that despair while sitting here. The comfort I feel in performing comes instantly. The spotlight on my face is soothing, and the gentle hum of the audience an invitation.
The chorus comes and so does the echo of the crowd singing every word with me. It’s energizing. I feel a line of excitement course through me as every previously quiet hair on my body stands up and reminds me it’s there. God, I’ve missed this. I risk a glance toward the bar only to find, not only Blue watching me, but the other two bar staff. They aren’t serving because everyone is watching me, singing with me, enjoying me.
I pick up the intensity as the song fills my mind, tuning out the crowd as I feel myself in the music. At this point in my life I feel like I could have been the inspiration for this piece. Instead of succumbing to the upset that brings me I push the emotion into my set and with the returning chorus I give it my all.
Another round of ricocheted voices appear and I embrace them, I encourage them. As the passion of the song increases so does my volume and intensity. I play around with the arrangement and draw out the high notes, making it more my own. I’m totally feeling it and totally being reminded of why I love to perform, to be center of attention, especially when I am now so overlooked in my everyday life.
The second that the last note plays out the room erupts. I’m both embarrassed and ecstatic at the response. Encores are called for but I couldn’t. I saw the list of people wanting to play tonight. Instead, I wave gratefully and make my way to the edge of the stage on jelly legs and with a thumping heart. Blue is waiting for me, taking Cash before helping me down from the stage. He pushes us through the congratulatory crowd and guides me to the bar. I smile and shake hands with random drinkers, feeling unusually shy in their praise.
When we reach the bar I am handed another Corona. I sit next to Blue on neighboring stools, still waiting for him to say something, anything. The silence is awkward, and the incessant smiling is distracting.
He really does have perfect teeth.
I stare at him, pointedly, before resorting to poking him in the shoulder to force a response. He laughs and runs his hands down his face as if in disbelief. “I-I didn’t expect that. I knew you’d be good, but, God, you’re good. I just thought you’d be this timid little whisper of a singer and you’re, shit, y-you’re so good.” He’s stuttering, a complete contradiction to his previously cool self. It’s quite sweet. He’s not totally superior.
“Thanks. I really enjoyed that,” I gush, still a little lightheaded from the adrenaline.
“So did every single person in here.” He gestures around the room with his beer. “Now, drink up, I have a proposition for you.”
Yet again, I wake from another lonely night’s sleep. This king-size bed was not made for one person to enjoy alone, and enjoy it I have not. Its vast size only reminds me of the woman who usually shares it with me, spread out so much that her side would merge with mine. For two nights running I have missed waking up with her legs entwined with my own, her hands seeking me out across the broad mattress, her head falling on my pillow rather than hers. Regardless of whatever is happening with us through the day, Darlene naturally gravitates to me during the night, allowing me a brief reprieve from our decaying relationship. That is, except when she sleeps in that damn chair.
After the dinner, which thankfully was a complete success, I rushed back to make my absence at the open mic night up to her, well that and our little spat before I left. I found a garage selling reasonably nice flowers and drove home quickly.
Thinking that we could put the night behind us, I opened the door to find that Darlene already had. She was flat out asleep in that damn chair. I contemplated waking her up, but for what? So she could find another reason to be pissed at me? No, I’d accept this defeat and try again tomorrow. Covering her with a thick blanket and kissing her head, I said goodnight. Making my way to bed after placing the flowers in a vase, I wondered if her sleeping out there was a conscious decision or whether she had been merely overtired after an eventful night, perhaps after having too much to drink. For once, I hoped it was the latter. The thought of her purposely avoiding our marital bed hurts.
Glancing at the clock, I reluctantly recognize that I’m running late. Shit. Getting up, I race to the bathroom, only to find the door shut and the sound of the shower running. Double shit. Not so long ago I’d have merely jumped in with her, but I’m not sure how well received that would be anymore. I hesitate with my hand on the door handle before finding my balls and opening it. I immediately look toward the shower door only to find Darlene already stepping out. She doesn’t quite scream at my presence but the look on her face and the speed that she reaches for a towel tells me that a shared shower would have been out of the question.
“Sorry,” I offer in response to her embarrassment. “I’m late for work, I-I thought I could...” Sighing disappointedly, I don’t continue.
“Oh, okay. I’ll leave you to it.” She takes another towel for her hair and walks past me. “Breakfast?”
“Please, something quick.”
She nods before leaving and closing the door. At its click I quickly kick off my pajama pants and hop into the shower. I welcome the cold spray of water as I work hard to shake the image of a naked and wet Darlene from my head. I really haven’t got time for this. But, fuck, she looked amazing. Beads of water ran over her slender curves, highlighting her flawlessness. Her lengthy hair clung to her ample chest, almost hiding her sweet, pink nipples, but not quite. I’m trying not to think about the brief glimpse of perfection, but it’s just no good. I’ve been hard since I first opened the door and now I’m throbbing with denied need.
Fuck, we’ll have to make this quick.
My hand falls straight to my rock-hard length and immediately gets to work on finding the release I need, the antidote to my built up frustration, my boost to get me through what promises to be a long day. As the water heats up, so do I. Needing it fast, I quicken the pace of each stroke, gripping harder until I find the perfect pressure. The image of Darlene stepping out of this very shower accompanies my arousal, but this time, she doesn’t blanch in shock. Instead, she takes my hand and guides me back in with her. She presses her generous chest against me before sliding down to her knees. Looking up at me with those oversized blues and grinning her devilish smile, she takes me in her mouth.
God, I’m close.
She sucks so hard, so fast, pumping her hand in time with her talented mouth. I’m close, so fucking close. When she bears her teeth in a salacious act I come undone and she happily takes my release on her tongue.
I open my eyes, allowing myself a minute to come down from an unsatisfying high and immediately regret the fact that I’m alone in this shower. Rapidly washing away the shame of what I have just done, I put it down to a weak moment. Not that there is anything wrong with jacking off. It’s just, well, I can’t even remember the last time I’ve needed to. Things really are bad.
After drying and dressing quickly I make my way to the kitchen to find coffee and toast waiting for me. Darlene is flicking through her phone, but I can barely make eye contact with her after what I just pictured her doing.
“Morning,” I reply, taking a deep sip of my scolding hot coffee. “Thanks for this.”
“No problem. You bought flowers?” she asks, pointing to the bouquet next to us. She’s re-organized them, removing the paper and cutting them down to size so that they fit the vase perfectly. Do they pull girls aside at school and show them how to do that?
“For last night.”
“The gig?” she assumes, her eyes lighting up a little with her words.
“Umm, yeah,” I lie. I don’t really want to apologize now, knowing that it will only remind her of our dispute when she seems to have forgotten it so easily. “How did it go?”
“Amazingly. I actually have some exciting news.” She really is radiant with excitement. I raise my eyebrows, encouraging her to speak when my mouthful of toast can’t. “The owner of the bar has asked me to perform there,” she says through a bright smile.